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Thaumaturgy With Anon [6/?]

By HK-FortySeven
Created: 2nd November 2020 02:23:57 PM

  1. @@@@@@@@
  2. @ Thaumaturgy with Anon, Pt. 6
  3. @ Originally posted to Pastebin on Jul 19, 2018
  4. @@@@@@@@
  5. @ Are you a travelling newcomer to this part of the story, friend?
  6. @ If so, you should probably read the last part, first.
  7. @@@@@@@@
  8.  
  9. >Ugh, your head...
  10. >Everything feels all floaty, and smokey.
  11. >God, what did you drink, last night?
  12. >You make to open your eyes, but find that they're already open, and that yes, indeed, this almost black, smokey void you're floating around in is, in fact, what you're seeing.
  13. >Ohh-kay, that's not what you'd call a good sign.
  14. >Can you still move?
  15. >Wait.
  16. >Are you moving?
  17. >You try moving your limbs, finding that they are responding, and with the wind resistance that you'd expect, yet despite moving your head, the view you're faced with never changes.
  18. >Weird.
  19. >Wait, hold up.
  20. >Did the void always look this gray?
  21. >Or--
  22. >Oh, no, the void is definitely getting lighter and lighter, as time goes on.
  23. >Not too sure if that's a good, or a bad thing.
  24. >Well, maybe you can actually see yourself move, for a change.
  25. >Right.
  26. >Uh.
  27. >Or, moving your limbs could have gotten a metric ton harder, that works, too.
  28. >O-okay, that's starting to get a little bit scary.
  29. >The void gets brighter and brighter, the smoke within it also brightening with it, but staying a few shades darker than the void itself.
  30. >By this point, moving has become damn near impossible.
  31. >The void becomes bright to an almost painful point.
  32. >Yeah, let's just close the eyes, and--
  33. >You can't close your eyes.
  34. >Oh God, not what you needed, right now!
  35. >The light becomes unbearably bright, but with no means to block it out, all you can do is suffer through it.
  36. >And suffer, you...
  37. >Do?
  38. >Wait, hold on, this is getting better, now?
  39. >What gives?
  40. >("That will be all for today, human.")
  41. >Huh?
  42. >A voice, off in the distance?
  43. >It sounded like it was underwater, but was still somehow clear enough to make out.
  44.  
  45. >The white void's light-gray fog begins to twist and bend into shapes, the effect almost looking like an Etch-a-Sketch.
  46. >The muffled sounds of metal jingling, and something being dragged along stone, were beginning to make themselves known, too.
  47. >And why did it feel a little tough to breathe, all of a sudden?
  48. >The area fills out more and more, becoming progressively more detailed.
  49. >Now it was starting to resemble one of those speed paintings, more than an Etch-a-Sketch.
  50. >The sounds get louder, and you start to feel sore and tired, as the landscape becomes an arrangement of jail cells.
  51. >God, why is it so hard to breathe?!
  52. >You reach up to your neck and feel around, only to find nothing there.
  53. >Wait.
  54. >You reached up?
  55. >As in, without problems?
  56. >With that revelation, you look down at your body.
  57. >Your body...
  58. >Why the hell are you naked?
  59. >Oh yeah, and why do you look all blurry, with your skin colour seeming to waft off of you, like a green mist?
  60. >Weird, but somehow, it doesn't feel unnatural.
  61. >There's also nothing here, indicating that you were being hurt or choked in any way.
  62. >The realization alone seems to make those feelings fade away into nothing.
  63. >("We'll be getting an early cycle in tomorrow, special for you. Don't get too good of a sleep now, you hear?")
  64. >That voice...!
  65. >It's that fucking ape thing, that Maar asshole!
  66. >Head shooting back up, it doesn't take long to find it's source.
  67. >The familiar orange mon'keigh, in the same smokey, blurred style you're in, a stick-collar clamped around...
  68. >Wait.
  69. >A green-skinned, bald human, wearing just rags around his waist, thin from malnourishment, and covered in old cuts, markings, and welts.
  70. >It's you!
  71.  
  72. >The mon'keigh shoves 'you' into a cell, forcing 'you' to the ground with the stick-collar, before unlatching it, pulling back, and shutting the door behind him.
  73. >The actions stung you for a second, almost like what happened to 'you' happened to, well, you, but knowing it wasn't really you banished the feelings, as soon as they came.
  74. >Okay, what the fuck?
  75. >You've had these kinds of dreams before, sure, but never in some weird, third person view like this!
  76. >The central focus, that being 'you', and everything around 'you', is being filled out rapidly in almost photorealistic detail, though still with that weird, blurry, colour-bleeding mist effect going on.
  77. >Everything else outside of that remained gray and hazy, some parts being more defined, and others just fading into nothing.
  78. >Almost like a fog of war, actually.
  79. >Wait, as in, you remember these parts, but aren't paying attention to them, in this moment?
  80. >Okay, maybe that's it!
  81. >All right, all right, you don't know how the fuck this is all happening, but you're not losing this chance to find out more about this monkey-man torturing business!
  82. >("Worm!" bellows Maar, off to his side. "What, exactly, is taking you so long?!")
  83. >("A-apologies, my Lord," called a snivelling-sounding voice from that direction. "We were only able to successfully acclimatize one more human.")
  84. >("Only one?! I sincerely hope I am not hearing that correctly, worm!")
  85. >("I-it is the truth, my Lord.")
  86. >("Bah! I thought these 'dread void creatures' were hardier than this! At least tell me this survivor was a choice pick!")
  87. >("I-I am afraid not, my Lord. It was a random sample.")
  88.  
  89. >Maar growls in anger, baring his teeth, with his upper arms clenching their fists and shaking, while his lower arms were folded across his chest.
  90. >("I hope this 'random sample' at least shows some promise! Show him to me!")
  91. >("Of course. Get the human moving, now!")
  92. >A KRACK of a birch rod is heard, followed by a pained, kind of English-sounding groan.
  93. >Something 'meaty' is heard dropping to the floor, and judging from where Maar was looking, it was at his feet, just outside of 'your' current view.
  94. >You try to manoeuvre around to see who it is, phasing through the prison walls like a ghost, but unfortunately, it's only 'your' sight that counts, here.
  95. >Maar stares down with disdain at whoever you assume the mystery human is.
  96. >("Hmph. That's all?")
  97. >("Y-yes, my Lord. W-we haven't had the need to properly break this one, before now.")
  98. >("Well, we're left with no other option, now are we?" Maar snorts, looking back up to the out-of-view mon'keigh. "Lock him up here. We'll schedule him in with the promising one.")
  99. >("Yes, Lord Maar.")
  100. >Maar storms off, while the other mon'keigh comes into view.
  101. >The things 'you' are seeing begin to flicker and fade, as if 'you' are losing consciousness.
  102. >Dragged behind this other ape, is--
  103. >What.
  104. >No.
  105. >No fucking way.
  106. >A red-skinned, bald human, with a heavy build, despite the obvious malnourishment.
  107. >A heavy build and skin colour you know all too well.
  108. >Him!
  109. >The 'view' begins to destabilize and collapse around you.
  110. >No, wait a minute!
  111. >You need a better look at this!
  112. >At him!
  113. >Even despite getting right into 'his' face, he blurs and fades away too quickly to get much more.
  114. >No, God damn it, why now?!
  115. >Everything splinters back into fog around you, and the void rapidly plunges back into darkness.
  116. <...
  117.  
  118. "No!"
  119. >You bolt upright, sweating, panting, and more than a little angry.
  120. >Why does the ground feel so dirty?
  121. >Wait, no, fuck the ground!
  122. >Your dream!
  123. >Nito!
  124. >Incog-fucking-nito, he was there!
  125. >Even as small a sneak peek as that was, there's no room for error!
  126. >He was right there, being chained up and tortured, same as you!
  127. >God, why'd it just have to be a sneak peek, though?!
  128. >Why couldn't in-that-moment you have stayed awake a little longer?!
  129. >God...!
  130. "Damn it!"
  131. >Your fist comes down on the ground next to you, hitting something rather dry and dirty.
  132. >Fuck!
  133. >Fucking shit fuck!
  134. >Actual, useful information from one of these nightmares, and it ends up being a colossal tease!
  135. >Motherfucker!
  136. >You brush your sheets off of you, in preparation to stand up.
  137. >Or at least, you would have, if your hand ever met sheets to brush off.
  138. >Puzzled, you look down, and...
  139. >Wait.
  140. >Why are you just wearing your tighty whities?
  141. >Weren't you supposed to be suited up in armour?
  142. >And...
  143. >In your car?
  144. >With...
  145. >Razor.
  146. >Exact.
  147. >That alchemist!
  148. >You stand upright in an instant, all thoughts of your dream shoved away.
  149. >Where are you?
  150. >The room you're in, as it turns out, doesn't seem to be a room, at all.
  151. >It's a sphere of dirt, the only things standing out being a little orange candle, a clay dish with grass in it, and a pair of clay pipes in the top, where you can feel air gently rushing through.
  152. >What the hell is this?
  153. >Some kind of ghetto jail cell?
  154. >Couldn't be a coffin, otherwise they'd have nixed all the accessories!
  155. >And you know jail cells all too well, now, after those fucking nightmares!
  156.  
  157. "Hello?"
  158. >Talking in a weird, enclosed space like this was definitely weird to hear, on top of getting no response.
  159. "Hey, anyone listening?"
  160. >Who would've put you in this, anyways?
  161. >Those zebras?
  162. >Wait, yeah, they were the ones who knocked your ass out, with some kind of freaky potion bomb!
  163. >And after you saved them from those evil zebras, no less!
  164. >What the fuck is their problem?
  165. >And more importantly, where the fuck are your friends, and what are they doing with them?!
  166. "Anyone?"
  167. >You try talking up into the pipes.
  168. "Hello?"
  169. >Nothing but a lot of echo.
  170. >Okay, new idea.
  171. >Flattening yourself against the walls, you start knocking on them, turning slowly as you go, hoping to hear something hollow, and not just solid dirt.
  172. "Oh for fuck's sake, can somebody answer me?"
  173. >Halfway around the room, no hollow knocks so far.
  174. "Ore wa ochinchin ga daisuki dayo?"
  175. >A similarly non-existent response.
  176. >Well, it was worth a shot.
  177. "Come on, someone's gotta be listening here!"
  178. >You complete your circuit, and sadly, find no hollow spaces.
  179. >Maybe if you try lower and higher?
  180. >Well why not, you've got nothing to lose!
  181. >You get halfway through knocking again, when you feel the ground around you shaking.
  182. "Uhh, hello?"
  183. >The rumbling becomes audible, and soon, you see the wall in front of you split apart, and crumble into a pile of sand and silt.
  184. "Fucking hell!"
  185. >It was a bit more sudden than you were expecting, nevermind that you weren't expecting it at all!
  186. >The silhouette of a pony can be seen in the dust cloud, but as it steps into the hollow mound, it turns out to be a zebra mare, instead.
  187.  
  188. >Judging from the packs she's wearing, she looks like an alchemist, though without the mask of that other one you saw before.
  189. >You almost wish she had one on, though, given the dirty look she's firing your way!
  190. >She yells something at you in her language, which your less-than-desirable phonetic knowledge translates as 'quiet', and 'come'.
  191. "Uhh, what?"
  192. >SMACK
  193. "Aah, fuck!"
  194. >God damn it, that back-hoof to the gut hurt more than you expected!
  195. >Okay, she's not kidding about the 'quiet' part, Jesus!
  196. >She repeats herself, but you also manage to make out 'decide'.
  197. >When nothing happens, she snorts, and shakes her head in the universal sign language of 'come with me'.
  198. >Yeah, okay, whatever she says!
  199. >Tentatively, you follow the mare out through the hole, which looks to be scalloped out from almost two yards of solid earth.
  200. >Jesus, they buried you in this?!
  201. >Soon, you break out into a hallway, with--
  202. >SCHWING
  203. >A pair of bills bar the way, the blades clashing right in front of your face, the weapons themselves belonging to a pair of zebra stallions, in some kind of decorated fabric armour.
  204. >They look about as happy to see you as the damn alchemist does.
  205. >That is to say, they look about ready to kill you.
  206. >The alchemist barks something about 'stop' and 'follow', the pair withdrawing their blades, and falling in next to you, as she leads you further and further towards God only knows where.
  207. >Wherever this was, the place was built out of a lot of sandstone, laid out in huge bricks, making up the walls, floor, and ceiling, at least for this hallway.
  208. >Torches were hung on the walls, burning more orange than you expected them to be.
  209.  
  210. >The hallway goes on for longer than you expected, leading towards a staircase that leads up into a wide, open courtyard of some kind, sandstone walls surrounding the very spacious area.
  211. >Zebras of all kinds could be seen populating the place, ranging from what you assume are regular people, to kitted-out soldiers.
  212. >Everything they were doing reminded you of a bazaar: there was a lot of merchants, a lot of chatting, and even some troops practicing, all in pockets scattered around the place.
  213. >You'd be more intrigued, if you weren't getting led around at billpoint.
  214. >And if said courtyard populace weren't taking notice of you, shushing themselves, and staring your way, an act that was proving to be more than a little infectious.
  215. >The looks on their faces run across a pretty narrow range: some were curious, but they were mostly either afraid, or furious.
  216. >Yeah, you should probably keep your head down, here.
  217. >Where are you getting led to, anyways?
  218. >Your answer comes pretty quickly, the crowds in the way of your destination splitting apart all by themselves, without a single order being given to do so.
  219. >Said destination was far less impressive, and a whole lot more foreboding.
  220. >Some kind of raised wooden stage, surrounded by armed zebras, and standing on top of the stage was that same burly zebra stallion you saw, right before getting knocked out.
  221. >Oh, that's great.
  222. >They're gonna stick you up on that stage, and make a big show out of killing or punishing you, aren't they?
  223. >Of course, now you start getting all self-conscious, about being in nothing but your undies.
  224.  
  225. >Okay, just stay calm.
  226. >There's gotta be a way out of this somehow, right?
  227. >Just keep looking for some kind of opening, to...
  228. >Actually, no, let's not try and fight like this, very bad idea.
  229. >Last thing you need is one of these guys going 'I'm gonna stab him'.
  230. >Shit, this would be so much easier, if one of these guys could actually speak English!
  231. >Wait, that one alchemist, she spoke English!
  232. >Oh God, please say that gal is here, somewhere!
  233. >As you're led closer towards the stage, and by extension, towards the scowling mug of that scarred-up stallion with the big-ass battleaxe, you notice a distinct lack of masked alchemists.
  234. >Shit.
  235. >The crowd is starting to gather around by this point, as you're led up onto the stage.
  236. >Ohh boy, you didn't see that big pit in the middle, before now!
  237. >Shit, shit, shit, they're gonna throw you down there, aren't they?!
  238. >Calm beginning to crack, should probably do something, now!
  239. >The big stallion starts speaking, and it takes you a moment to realize he's speaking to you.
  240. >His spiel is definitely on the accusatory side, with such key phrases as 'destroy', 'monster', 'death', 'slaughter', and other words that make him even angrier, but that you don't understand.
  241. >Wait, so he's accusing you of being some kind of killer, a monster?
  242. >Where the hell would they get that idea, from?
  243. >You saved this fucker's ass, back there!
  244. >Unless, maybe...
  245. >Oh.
  246. >Oh, dear God in heaven, they don't think you're fucking Nito, do they?!
  247. >All right, that would explain a lot!
  248. >God, there's gotta be some way to convince him that you're not--
  249. >His hoof stomps down on the boards with a loud THUNK, and he sits there, waiting for something.
  250. >Uh, waiting for what, though?
  251.  
  252. >Wait, is he waiting for you?
  253. >You just offer the big guy a confused look and a tilt of the head, in what you hope is the universal sign language of 'what in the fuck did you just say?'.
  254. >At first, the guy gets confused, but very quickly shifts gears into anger, yelling something at the alchemist who was leading you around.
  255. >Said alchemist proceeds to turn around, and--
  256. >SMACK
  257. "Agh, fucker! Stop hitting me!"
  258. >She doesn't respond, but the big guy sure does, yelling at you to 'plead', or something.
  259. "Listen, okay? I'm not the guy you're after here, all right?"
  260. >He goes back to scowling, obviously not understanding a word you're saying.
  261. "Oh, for the love of God," you grumble, pimching the bridge of your nose.
  262. >Deep breath, Anon, deep breath.
  263. >Gonna have to try and spell it out.
  264. "Anonymous," you say, slowly and carefully, pointing to yourself. "An-on-y-mous."
  265. >You give a thumbs-up, and a big smile.
  266. "Friend. Here to help you!"
  267. >You point to him.
  268. "Who are you?" you ask, pointing back at yourself. "I am Anonymous."
  269. >You alternate between pointing back at him, and yourself, hoping to get the point across.
  270. "Yes, I'm Anonymous. Anonymous, and you are...?"
  271. >Okay, no, he seems to be losing his patience with you.
  272. "Okay, okay, we'll skip the names. Uhh..."
  273. >Shit, how do you universal sign language 'not your enemy'?
  274. >Maybe a little hands up will do the trick?
  275. "Not here to fight you! Here to help you!"
  276. >You're pretty sure his eyes narrowing there, was him snapping.
  277. >He barks out an order to 'throw', and the second that happens, your two weapon-slinging escorts start shoving you towards the pit.
  278. >Shit, shit, shit, you blew it!
  279. "H-hey, wait a minute! You got the wrong guy here! You want the asshole in the red, not the green!"
  280.  
  281. >Your protests and begging, if they were being understood, were definitely going unheeded.
  282. "Wait a minute, will you?! Can we at least try and talk this over?"
  283. >They've shoved you to the lip of the pit.
  284. "For fuck's sake, I'm trying to--"
  285. >That's all you get out, before they rear back and buck you right off of the edge, into the pit.
  286. "Shiiiit--!"
  287. >thump
  288. >Oww, ohh... kay?
  289. >That was a shorter drop than you expected?
  290. >Pulling your head up, you also notice it's a much sandier drop than you expected.
  291. >Huh, maybe this won't be so bad?
  292. >Wait, there's the alchemist, pouring out a potion onto the sand.
  293. >The second it makes contact with the ground, it gets absorbed rapidly, and the entire pit of sand begins sinking downwards.
  294. >You just had to ask, didn't you?!
  295. >The creepy ghetto elevator ride down continues on for a good six or seven yards, and it was at that point that something distinctly not sandy was seen, 'rising' out of the middle of the pit.
  296. >That something looked like some kind of big, stone pony.
  297. >The sand finishes sinking, the ground replaced with a smooth sandstone floor, with some grates pockmarked here and there, for the sand to suck down into.
  298. >The alchemist yells something, and the stone pony 'starts', sand filtering out of it's joints.
  299. >Wait a second.
  300. >They're not fucking serious, are they?
  301. >The stone pony's eyes begin to glow, yellow magic coursing down along it's surface, forming the appearance of stripes.
  302. >The entire thing begins to animate, slowly dropping into a fighting stance, as it's 'eyes' lock on to you.
  303. >It's a golem.
  304. "Oh, fuck me."
  305.  
  306. @@@@@@@@
  307.  
  308. >The big stone zebra rears up, in an attempt to kick at you with it's forelegs.
  309. >You run out of the way, the slow speed of it's attack letting you avoid it with relative ease.
  310. >Still, the loud CLUNKS that come off of the impacts, suggest that this fucking thing is more than capable of turning you into ketchup, if you let it hit you.
  311. >Fuck your life, what are you supposed to do about this?!
  312. >Fighting damn near naked against a huge stone golem, how the hell is that fair?!
  313. >Said golem turns in place with that same slow gait, and repeats trying to kick at you, again.
  314. >Just like before, you move out of it's way.
  315. >Up above, you can hear some chuckling from that big asshole of a zebra who ordered you thrown down here, but you don't dare take your eyes off of the golem.
  316. >Speaking of golems, what the hell's the deal with this one?
  317. >The little work you did with golems involved a fair bit of glyphwork and metal rings, to get everything working!
  318. >And yet this big piece of shit is trucking along, made of nothing but solid stone and glowing markings, with not a single exposed symbol or metal part in sight!
  319. >It makes another pass, kicking at you in the exact same way, and you avoid it in turn.
  320. >Is it going to keep doing this, over and over again?
  321. >God, you hope so!
  322. >Your golems left a lot to be desired in the brains department, and you sure hope it's the same here!
  323. >You move around some more, trying to stay at it's side at all times.
  324. >Okay okay, it's turning itself constantly!
  325. >Thank God, these ones look to be as dumb as you thought!
  326. >The big zebra chooses that moment to yell something else, frustration pretty evident in his voice.
  327.  
  328. >That's when the golem switches things up.
  329. >The glowing 'stripes' get brighter, and it's turning speed increases.
  330. >Should've known this wouldn't be as easy as circle strafing it!
  331. >It's pace of turning increases to the point where keeping your distance is no longer an option, if you want to avoid another stomping.
  332. >No choice but to close in, then.
  333. >You do just that, the golem kept at a healthy yard-and-a-half distance from you.
  334. >The zebra up above is not happy about this at all, if his renewed yelling is any indication.
  335. >The golem's markings glow even brighter, it's speed increasing even more.
  336. >Okay, so he's gonna keep amping it up, good to know.
  337. >Weird, though.
  338. >How come he didn't just turn it to the highest speed, first?
  339. >Wait, shit, it's turning faster, right!
  340. >You get up to just under a yard, and--
  341. >fzzzzzwt
  342. >The markings on the golem closest to you take on a greenish hue, and begin to spark with lightning in that same colour.
  343. >You don't notice it quickly enough to keep yourself from taking another step closer, and that's when the sparks turn into full-on arcing.
  344. >The green lightning rakes along the ground, the walls, and along you.
  345. >It leaves scorch marks along the surfaces it hits, along with the smell of burnt cake, strangely enough.
  346. >But against you, the lightning doesn't do much else, other than tingle you.
  347. >Thank God for the magic resist, seriously!
  348. >But oh boy, the guy up above just sounds livid, at this stage.
  349. >You've already picked up the pace, in preparation for his next bout of yelling.
  350.  
  351. >It gets much faster now, the markings brightening to almost lightbulb levels of brightness, and the green lightning picking up some serious extra oomph, leaving gouges along the ground, and beginning to sting you.
  352. >It's speed and fluid movement almost made it feel like a real horse, doing it's best to try and face you.
  353. >But that's when you notice the cracks, beginning to form along the joints.
  354. >Wait a minute, were some of those cracks glowing?
  355. >Oh shit, is that why they didn't ramp it to max, right away?
  356. >Because it's unstable?
  357. >All right, you think you've got a plan!
  358. >Just outlast it, until it rips itself apart!
  359. >You can already feel the exertion taking it's toll, but you should be plenty good enough to wait this thing out--
  360. >SCHLICK
  361. "Aaagh!"
  362. >Your shoulder!
  363. >The sudden, stabbing pain trips you up, and the shock of it all prevents you from saving yourself.
  364. >The sound of wood clattering to the ground follows your own fall, the rough, sandy stone causing it's fair share of scrapes to your knees and hands.
  365. >What the fuck happened?!
  366. >No, wait, the golem!
  367. >You can hear it rearing up, your only cue to move out of the way.
  368. >You try to bolt forward, but unfortunately, you're just not fast enough.
  369. >SLAM
  370. >Solid stone slams you in the gut, launching you almost to the other end of the room.
  371. >You roll to a stop near the end of the wall, coughing and heaving, stars beginning to dance across your vision.
  372. >Loud, stone steps quickly bring you back to attention, and you look up at the quickly approaching source.
  373. >The golem rears up for another kick, forcing you to roll out of the way.
  374.  
  375. >With a much louder set of CLUNKS, it's hooves barely avoid hitting you, kicking up debris as they come down.
  376. >It turns quickly to face your new direction, and repeats the same motion.
  377. >With no time to stand back up and make a proper recovery, all you can do is force yourself to keep rolling, just barely avoiding it's strikes.
  378. >Pain shoots through your shoulder with each roll, and you notice a little patch of blood in your wake, every time it presses onto the ground.
  379. >It's only when you roll over some kind of pole, that you realize what happened.
  380. >It's not a pole, it's a slightly bloody bill.
  381. >The fucker threw it down at you!
  382. >Wait, shit, the golem!
  383. >CLUN-CLUNK
  384. >Jesus, that was a close one!
  385. >Fuck, you can't keep doing this!
  386. >Come on, think!
  387. >CLUN-CLUNK
  388. >There's gotta be some way you can move out of it's range!
  389. >But where else can you get away from it?!
  390. >CLUN-CLUNK
  391. >God, you're glad it's rearing up is so wide open, and so telegraphed!
  392. >ding
  393. >Wait.
  394. >That's it!
  395. >Oh God, Anon, even for you, this is a stupid idea!
  396. >CLUN-CLUNK
  397. >No choice, you're dead if you keep this up, anyways!
  398. >CLUN-CLUNK
  399. >The moment it pulls it's hooves back, is when you make your move.
  400. >Pushing yourself up, you shift yourself around, so that your next roll will be directly towards the golem.
  401. >The instant it starts rearing up, is when you make your move.
  402. >You put everything behind this roll, going as fast as you can.
  403. >CLUN-CLUNK
  404. >fzzzzzwt
  405. >The hooves barely miss hitting you, the green lightning sparking back to life, as your roll beneath it's body ends with you hitting it's back legs.
  406.  
  407. >Hoooly shit, you actually pulled this off?!
  408. >You can hear the zebra's shouting from up high, and you're almost tempted to laugh right back.
  409. >No, no time for laughing!
  410. >First things first!
  411. >The golem might not look confused, but it sure acts like it, the thing turning in place in erratic patterns, trying to face towards you.
  412. >Guess whoever made this thing, didn't consider someone might get under it!
  413. >Definitely no complaints about it's concept of 'facing towards you', here!
  414. >Wait, what's that?
  415. >It's a little tough to make out, given the volume of stinging green lightning trying to kill you, but that's definitely some kind of crystal oval!
  416. >It's a marbled mix of green and blue, blended together like no crystal you've ever seen, and glowing faintly.
  417. >Okay, golem, seriously, quit moving around so much!
  418. >It's hard enough to make out where it...
  419. >Is?
  420. >Uh, what?
  421. >Oh, come the fuck on.
  422. >They shoved this crystal right under it's back legs, where it's dick would be?
  423. >Who the fuck designed this thing, Precise?
  424. >Actually, wait, don't answer that.
  425. >You try to grab onto it, but the thing is too smooth to get a good grip, and now that you've gotten closer, you can see it's too deeply embedded to just pull out, anyways.
  426. >'Pull out', oh God.
  427. >No, pay attention, you fucking idiot!
  428. >How are you supposed to destroy this thing--
  429. >You cry out a bit as the lightning dances along your shoulder wound, forcing you to reach back and clasp a hand around it.
  430. >That's when the golem decides to go through a different set of motions, raising it's back legs, as if to buck.
  431. >Fuck, must've gone too far 'behind' it!
  432.  
  433. >It completes it's bucking motion against the wall, which damn near shatters into pieces from the impact.
  434. >Back legs stronger than front, okay!
  435. >You'd gotten back under the center of it in that time, and it continues to spin around erratically.
  436. >SCHWUNK
  437. >Another bill is seen spearing down into the ground from the side, more angry yelling heard from above, and from many different sources.
  438. >Guess they're gonna finish the fight themselves, pretty soon!
  439. >The lightning catches your wound again, and you reflexively grab it.
  440. >Your hand comes back bloody, and you linger on the sight for a few moments.
  441. >To think, blood used to freak you out so much.
  442. >Guess that one fight with Chrysalis really set you straight, huh?
  443. >ding
  444. >The fight with Chrysalis.
  445. >Your blood!
  446. >Holy shit, you know what to do, now!
  447. >Wincing, you pull that hand back and start kneading the wound, trying to get it as bloody as you can.
  448. >Now, where's it's--
  449. >Crystal dick orb, there it is!
  450. >You shuffle over as fast as you can, and apply your bloody hand straight to the smooth surface.
  451. >You know, never thought you'd live to see the day, where giving a golem a bloody handjob would be the key to victory, much less you being the guy to do it.
  452. >But when the sugary sweet sound of crystal fracturing is heard under your bloody touch, you quickly decide that a little dignity for your life is, in fact, a good trade.
  453. >More, it needs more!
  454. >Reaching back and getting a fresh coat on your hand, you smear it over as much of the surface as you can.
  455. >It fractures more violently after the second coating, a glowing, viscous liquid leaking down from it.
  456. >Wait.
  457. >You know that liquid!
  458. >It's a different colour, but that's definitely animus!
  459.  
  460. >The discovery doesn't last long, however, as the crystal damn near splits in two, the golem lumbering above you twitching violently in response.
  461. >Animus leaks freely from the fractured crystal, and the glowing stripe patterns begin flickering, the green lightning cutting off almost immediately.
  462. >More concerning, however, is the golem itself.
  463. >For lack of a better term, it appears to be having a seizure, it's limbs flying out in random patterns, as it tries to--
  464. >Oh fuck, it's tipping over!
  465. >Get out of here, quick!
  466. >You drop back down and roll out from underneath it, with only a second to spare before it's belly crashes against the ground.
  467. >Getting back to your knees, you take stock of the golem, it's 'death' throes about as random as they are satisfying.
  468. >It's limbs thrash out more and more violently, it's head even turning 180 degrees at one point, the cracks along it's joints having long since given way to a faintly glowing gem core, underneath.
  469. >Jesus Christ, how did you survive that?
  470. >The yelling from above draws you from the sight, however, and for the first time, you look up.
  471. >That fucking zebra is up above, red in the face from all the furious yelling.
  472. >Yeah, right back at you, asshole.
  473. >His soldier friends are flanking him, bills in hooves, and in various states of shock.
  474. >The head honcho grabs one of those bills, and throws it down towards you.
  475. >The distance gives you plenty of time to avoid it, and it spears into the ground next to you.
  476. >You snag it for yourself.
  477. >Better than nothing, you guess!
  478. >Oh, fucking hell, that alchemist from before is there now, too!
  479.  
  480. >She throws down another potion, not at you, but towards one of the spots of grating.
  481. >Moments after it breaks open, and leaks whatever was inside down through the cracks, sand begins spilling out of it, and all the other grates.
  482. >They're bringing you back up, huh?
  483. >Shit, the golem was one thing, but those guys?
  484. >You wouldn't call that good odds!
  485. >The sand begins to push you upwards, somehow buoyant enough to keep you from just staying sunken into it, as you rise with it.
  486. >But it keeps your feet buried, the softness of the sand being the only thing keeping it from inhibiting your movements more than you would expect it to.
  487. >A good thing, too, seeing how these guys have started throwing their bills your way!
  488. >The sharp weapons hit the sand without much sound, as you weave around, avoiding them as best as you can.
  489. >Much more difficult to avoid, however, is that fucking alchemist and her potions.
  490. >She starts throwing down the same kind of corrosive acid potions that evil alchemist was, and they came fast enough to require you to roll out of their way, easier said than done on this fucking sand.
  491. >But as your ascent brings you halfway up, and they run out of bills to throw at you, the big zebra yells something in a far more worried tone of voice, prompting the now wide-eyed alchemist to throw a different coloured potion down at you.
  492. >This one explodes into a big cloud of gray mist, blanketing everything in a dense, slightly shimmering fog.
  493. >It smells and tastes like salted peanuts, and you can see the shimmering clumping up into the shapes of ponies, or zebras, all around you.
  494. >But that's all they are: shimmering shapes.
  495.  
  496. >When they try unsuccessfully to lunge at you, dispersing into mist, your best guess is that they tried to juke you with some kind of hallucinating potion.
  497. >Why this particular bit of alchemy isn't working well on you, you have no idea, but you're not about to start questioning it.
  498. >The shouting from on high quiets down, and though you can't see them, you can hear the hope in their voices.
  499. >Wait, shit, they must be expecting you to be juked out!
  500. >Okay, fake it, fake it!
  501. >You make pained groans, easily assisted by your injured, still bleeding left shoulder, and swing the bill around for good measure.
  502. >They sound so relieved, up there.
  503. >Oh, how you yearn to prove them wrong.
  504. >At least, that one asshole, anyways.
  505. >The sand stops rising, but the fog still hangs around, evaporating steadily off of the pool of cloudy gray liquid the potion left behind.
  506. >A pool that's beginning to dry up a lot, but still gives a whole ton of coverage.
  507. >Taking advantage, you continue your act towards one of the walls, clanging the bill against the wall a few times, throwing it up on top of the platform, and then jumping up to grab said platform's lip, to pull yourself up.
  508. >Putting that much strain on your shoulder was a special kind of painful, upgrading your groans to yells, even after you'd scaled the obstacle.
  509. >No time to nurse it, though: you've got to be ready for anything!
  510. >Snagging the bill again, you take stock of your surroundings.
  511. >The fog cover was ridiculous, spreading out even across this stretch of the pit's lip.
  512. >On the plus side, it made the guards fuck off.
  513. >On the minus side, you can't see them anymore.
  514. >But you can, however, hear them.
  515.  
  516. >Well, you can hear a couple of mares fighting with one another, interspersed with the yells of that one fucking zebra.
  517. >One of the mares was familiar enough, being the alchemist who led you out here.
  518. >The other, though, you didn't recognize, yet it seemed familiar in it's own right.
  519. >Circling the pit, you follow the sounds, staying in the fog cover as much as you can.
  520. >Their talking is fast-paced, even for this language, though it seems the new mare's saying something about stopping what they're doing, about there being a 'mistake'.
  521. >Whoever this gal is, you love her already.
  522. >Too bad the other two are managing to shout her down.
  523. >Some part of you wishes that you could pick up on the choice pejoratives they were slinging her way, outside of 'exile'.
  524. >No time to catch up on the local insults, though, as the fog is beginning to dissipate.
  525. >You make your way closer towards the source, the fog thinning out rapidly at both your approach, and from it's regular dissipation.
  526. >It let you see exactly where this new group was, and who was in it.
  527. >The alchemist and that big zebra, both shouting down a cowed, recoiling alchemist, wearing a big wooden mask.
  528. >Wait.
  529. >That's the alchemist who knocked your ass out!
  530. >She's sticking up for you, of all people?!
  531. >No, wait, fog's thinning quick, no time to ponder!
  532. >You've got to make the most of this element of surprise!
  533. >And you know just how to do that.
  534. >The group is close enough for you to run forward a few paces, and get that bill in striking range of the big guy, who is very distracted with being angry at the masked mare.
  535. >And that's exactly what you do.
  536.  
  537. >Wordlessly, you leap out from the cloud and bring the bill to bear, thrusting it forward towards his neck.
  538. >By the time he notices your approach, and tenses up to move somewhere, the bill whizzes by his neck and turns to the side, the blade pressed up against his throat.
  539. >A disbelieving cry escapes said throat, his eyes full of that same disbelief.
  540. >Both alchemists recoil at the move, and the not-masked one backs up even more, when you close the distance towards your new captive.
  541. >But your main focus remains the big zebra.
  542. "Now," you huff, fixing him the best glare you've got. "Let's try that again, huh?"
  543. >He doesn't dare move, but that doesn't stop him from growling at you, his eyes narrowed.
  544. "Yeah, screw you, too."
  545. >All around, you can hear the zebra soldiers surrounding you, their weapons brought to bear.
  546. >But as long as you've got this guy, they're not gonna try anything.
  547. >At least, you really hope they don't.
  548. >That masked alchemist begins yelling to the others in a more desperate tone, almost begging them to stop.
  549. >You don't think it's gonna be too--
  550. >"Please, my friend, put your weapon away! There need not be more bloodshed, today!"
  551. >Whoa, hold on, what?
  552. "You can understand me?"
  553. >"Yes!"
  554. "Well, finally some good news."
  555. >"Now please let him go, I'm begging you! I do not wish to see--"
  556. "Not happening."
  557. >"But--"
  558. "Not until everyone here stops trying to kill me, first."
  559. >"I am trying, my friend, but they do not take heed! They will not--"
  560. "Then there's nothing else to discuss, until they do."
  561. >The masked zebra sounds about ready to cry, and goes back to begging the others to stand down.
  562.  
  563. >A loud, booming voice from a fair distance away stops all speaking dead, and everyone's head turns towards it, with the exception of your own.
  564. >Well, at first, until you catch the crowds in that direction parting like the Red Sea, out of the corner of your eyes.
  565. >You risk a glance, and are met with the sight of another large zebra, this time in a far flashier, gold-banded metal armour, surrounded on all sides by voulge-carrying armoured guards, all with closed helmets on.
  566. >Complete silence reigns as he approaches, and not even you want to break it.
  567. >But you do take your eyes away to refocus on your captive, only looking back up when his hoofsteps are heard on the stage, his guards hanging back.
  568. >He issues a command with a smooth, imposing voice, and in an instant, the guards threatening you pull their weapons away.
  569. >Your captive begins yelling at him, demanding to know what he's doing, sounding more than a little afraid.
  570. >The armoured zebra simply walks closer and closer, until he's in the big guy's face, not concerned in the slightest about your blade to his neck.
  571. >Then, in one fluid motion, he sweeps the blade aside, and lands a loud, monster headbutt against the big guy, causing him to cry out and fall back.
  572. >The guards almost swarm back in, but another command from the armoured one wards them off.
  573. >All he has to do is glare down at the big guy, who retreats as quickly as he can, equal parts confused, ashamed, and frightened.
  574. >As for you, well, you don't really know what to do, at this stage.
  575. >Well, you do clench up, when you see this guy look over at you.
  576. >"Stranger, words cannot fully express the extent to which I must apologize to you."
  577.  
  578. >Holy shit, what?
  579. >This guys can speak English, too?
  580. >And he doesn't want you dead?
  581. >Your initial relief, however, fades back into caution, and your grip around the bill tightens back up, your eyes narrowed towards this guy.
  582. "Sorry's not gonna cover it."
  583. >"And I have no intention of simply leaving my apologies as words, stranger. But in order to make good on such a promise, I must insist that you do away with that weapon."
  584. >His eyes go towards the blade of the bill you're holding.
  585. "I'm a little jumpy right now. Forgive me if I don't see eye-to-eye with you on that."
  586. >"It's a simple show of reciprocity, stranger. I am not armed, and I wish us to be on a level field, in that regard."
  587. >His winning little smile isn't as effective as you think he's hoping it is.
  588. "Think I'll keep it for the moment."
  589. >"Well, that is unfortunate. But, I suppose it's understandable."
  590. "You think?"
  591. >"It's not as if I have much to fear, anyways. Not when you're holding that weapon the wrong way around."
  592. "That's right--"
  593. >Wait, what?
  594. >You're not holding it--
  595. >THWACK
  596. "Aah!"
  597. >In one lightning fast move, the zebra bats the bill out of your hands with enough force to send it flying away a few yards.
  598. >Once the initial shock wears off, you brace yourself for whatever else this fucking guy might send your way.
  599. >Only, he just stands there, with a mischievous grin on his face.
  600. >"Don't feel too bad. Everyzebra's fallen for that one, at least once."
  601. >He extends a hoof out, his smile returning to genuine.
  602. >"Well, now that the scales are evened, why don't we start with introducing ourselves? I am Heerser, leader of the Wyse Kunstenaars, and steward of the lost and fractured tribes. Who might you be, stranger?"
  603.  
  604. @@@@@@@@
  605.  
  606. >Wait, this motherfucker is their leader?
  607. >You...
  608. >Uh, well...
  609. >Gypping you with the oldest trick in the book aside, you can't say you expected their leader to look and act like this.
  610. >"Is there a problem, stranger?" the still-smiling zebra asks.
  611. "I, uh," you start, needing a moment to compose yourself. "Sorry, I just wasn't expecting the guy I was looking for to be quite like, uh, you?"
  612. >"Haahahahah! Oh, stranger, I can't say I expected one of your kind to come here, either! And just to speak with me!"
  613. "Wait, how'd you know I wanted to talk?"
  614. >"Why, you just told me, of course."
  615. >You open your mouth to speak, but the words die in your throat.
  616. >Cheeky little son of a bitch.
  617. >Meanwhile, this Heerser guy yuks it up for a few more seconds.
  618. >"Ohh, but who's the one who came here, willing to brave our harsh homelands, just to speak with me?"
  619. >He's kept his hoof extended this whole time, still expecting that handshake.
  620. >You know what, you're not gonna lie, this cheeky bastard's starting to grow on you, already.
  621. "Name's Anonymous," you begin, grabbing the outstretched hoof with your left hand.
  622. >"My, what a curious name. A pleasure, all the same!"
  623. >He shakes the hand quite vigorously, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of reminding you about the nasty shoulder wound on this arm, causing you to cry out a little.
  624. >"Oh dear, my apologies," he says, stopping his shaking and taking on a worried look. "Come, follow me, Outlandish Anonymous. I will see to it that you are healed, cleaned, and clothed properly!"
  625. >Man, the four-star hotel treatment, already?
  626. >That's a rather quick 180 into trust, isn't it?
  627.  
  628. >Wait.
  629. >Healed!
  630. "Wait, my friends! Are they all right?"
  631. >"Friends?" he asks, tilting his head slightly. "You brought companions with you, here?"
  632. "Hell yes, I did!" you exclaim, the mirth you were building up vanishing completely. "Are they all right?!"
  633. >"I didn't realize you had brought allies, Outlandish Anonymous. Truthfully, I only learned you were here, less than an hour ago."
  634. >He says something in his language to that masked alchemist, something about your friends.
  635. >They exchange a few words, Heerser's look getting a few shades graver, before he turns back to you.
  636. >"Your pony companions are doing well, Outlandish Anonymous. They were struck with a spirit suppression brew, a nasty bit of blood alchemy, but they were reached well within time, before it could cause any permanent damage to them."
  637. >You release the breath you hadn't realized you were holding.
  638. >Thank God, they're all right!
  639. >"I can see that those Equestrians are close friends of yours. I will see to it that you can see them, as soon as possible. Now, let's get out of here, and head someplace more hospitable, shall we?"
  640. "Please," you exhale.
  641. >Neither one of you is particularly chatty, as you follow the guy back to wherever it is he's going, his cadre of guards boxing the two of you in as you go, that masked alchemist following a few paces behind.
  642. >Your destination is through a well guarded passageway out of this courtyard, and into a smaller courtyard, containing a fairly modest collection of sandstone structures and fancy tents.
  643. >Huh, those structures, they look like they've got a few modern touches to their designs, like the windows, doors, and two stories.
  644. >Reminds you of that dig site a little, way back when.
  645.  
  646. >Your final destination is a large-ish sandstone building, with a passing resemblance to some kind of government building, or manor, banners of different kinds draped down over it's outside walls.
  647. >"Just in here, Outlandish Anonymous."
  648. >The interior is definitely more spartan than Equestrian fare, to say nothing of the totally different decor.
  649. >He leads you towards a small guest room, with little more than a small bedroll, a mirror, some drawers, a tiny desk, and a small bathtub carved into the floor, with a watering can and potion bottles set aside next to it.
  650. >"I will see to finding your companions. I shall not be long, this I promise you."
  651. "Thanks."
  652. >"You have absolutely no need to thank me for this simple act of restitution. When you are presentable, there will be an alchemist waiting outside, to treat your injuries."
  653. >You just nod a little in response, which he returns in kind, before shutting the door behind you, leaving you all alone in here.
  654. >Okay, well, first things first.
  655. >The bath is already full of water, though it's cool and a little calcified, with no way to drain or add more.
  656. >Hmm, maybe those potions will help?
  657. >You pick one up, and yeah, that reads in zebra-language as 'cleansing concoction, do not drink'.
  658. >You pour it in, and the dark green liquid spreads through the water quickly, lingering for a few moments before the water turns clear and clean, with steam wafting off of it.
  659. >Not a moment is wasted stepping in, and cleaning all the sand, dirt, and blood off of you, making liberal use of that watering can to shower off what the fairly shallow tub can't soak off.
  660.  
  661. >Ahh, much better.
  662. >Stepping out, you head over to the drawers, finding nothing but some rough, basic towels inside, along with a big linen sheet of some description.
  663. >After drying off, and pressing that sheet into use as a crude covering, you rap on the door a couple of times.
  664. "Anyone out there?"
  665. >"Y-yes, my friend, I am waiting just here, outside," comes that masked zebra's rhyme. "Am I able to enter, are you clean and dried?"
  666. "Yeah, you're good. Come in."
  667. >She does just that, stepping inside with a slightly nervous gait, before quickly shutting the door behind her.
  668. >"I-I am so pleased to see you have survived, all the strife we put you through, when you arrived!"
  669. "Would you believe me if I said I've had worse?"
  670. >"I do not doubt the truth of your claim, but please, let me heal where you were maimed!"
  671. "Sure, sure. Need me to...?"
  672. >"Just sit at the bedding and stay there unmoving, and I shall have your condition quickly improving!"
  673. >Man, this gal and her rhymes.
  674. >Still, you do as she says, sitting cross-legged and letting the cloth fall down, exposing your back to her.
  675. >She wastes no time, starting with some prodding at the injury, before rustling around in her pack for something.
  676. >"This wound is not serious, though it's placement is not ideal. Now please remain still, for my mixture stings as it heals."
  677. >You feel something cool and slightly slimy spread across the cut, and true to her word, it starts stinging like a real bitch soon after it's applied.
  678. >Through all that, however, you can also distinctly feel the cut knitting itself back together, definitely one of the weirder sensations you've experienced.
  679.  
  680. >"There, I am finished; it took only a minute."
  681. "You weren't kidding about the sting, but man, whatever you used really worked."
  682. >She'd cleaned off the remaining gunk, letting you feel where the cut was.
  683. >Outside of what feels like some light scarring, it's almost like you'd never been hurt, and some movement of your left arm really hammers that theory home.
  684. "Thanks."
  685. >"It's the least I can do, my good friend. Now, I should leave you to your own ends."
  686. >You can hear her trotting away.
  687. "Hold on a second."
  688. >And just like that, she stops in her tracks.
  689. >You throw the cloth back over yourself, and stand back up, facing towards the mystery zebra.
  690. "Do you know me, from somewhere?"
  691. >"Wh-whatever do you mean, my good friend?" she stammers. "I have not seen you, before these events!"
  692. "So, I'm a 'good friend' who you've never seen before today, huh?"
  693. >Whoop, she's just realized her mistake.
  694. >"N-no, you are mistaken, I do not know what you mean! I have not seen a human before, much less in green!"
  695. "I don't remember mentioning I was a human."
  696. >"But--"
  697. "And your boss didn't know what I was, either. So how'd you figure that out?"
  698. >The mask was doing a fine job of hiding any nervous expression she might have, but her shaking limbs gave it away, all the same.
  699. >"I-I was never a good liar, worse so with friends," she says, withers slumping. "But I can say nothing, even to make amends."
  700. "Huh?"
  701. >That one didn't make a lot of sense.
  702. >"Please, understand, I am not being spurious. Do not pursue this, even though you are curious."
  703. "Hold on, what--?"
  704.  
  705. >KNOCK-KNOCK KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK
  706. >"Are you presentable, Outlandish Anonymous?" calls Heerser from behind the door.
  707. >Well shit, guess you'll have to ask about this later.
  708. "Yeah, I'm all good."
  709. >The door flies open, the smiling face of that leader zebra coming through.
  710. >"I take it that the accommodations were adequate?"
  711. "Yeah."
  712. >"Excellent, excellent! Now, I've arranged for you to see your companions, and I have to admit, I'm rather anxious to meet them, myself!"
  713. "You mean, you haven't seen them, already?"
  714. >"Of course not. Like I said, I only just learned of your existence a mere hour ago, and it was only minutes ago that I heard of your companions! Oh, do tell me, is it true that you count a thestral among your companions?"
  715. "Uhh, yeah?"
  716. >"Brilliant, brilliant! Ohh, I can barely contain myself! Let's not waste time, shall we?"
  717. "Hold it," you exclaim, folding your arms. "First, I want to know why your guys decided to jump me."
  718. >And just like that, his big smile ratchets down about two or three sizes.
  719. >"Ahh, yes, that," he all but mutters. "Well, there's no mystery to it, I'm afraid: they'd confused you for that damnable Destroyer."
  720. "How the hell do you mix the two of us up?!"
  721. >"That, sadly, was an oversight in my orders. See, I was about as surprised as they, to hear that there were more than one of your kind here!"
  722. "What, and me saving that one asshole's life--"
  723. >"Watch your language, please."
  724. >Oh, fuck right off.
  725. "Fine," you groan. "You'd think that me saving that one guy's life would've been enough to convince him I wasn't evil incarnate."
  726.  
  727. >"Saved his life, you say?"
  728. >He says something along the lines of 'is this true?' to that masked zebra, who nods in response.
  729. >"Maybe we should clear this story up a bit, Outlandish Anonymous. Could you explain what happened, when you found my warriors?"
  730. >Man, he really wasn't kidding, about only just finding out about all this.
  731. >Nodding, you explain what went down: driving towards the group, finding that huge evil zebra group coming for them, and then blasting away at the whole evil group, culminating in that alchemist showdown, and you getting knocked out.
  732. >You were half expecting him to ask questions about your ride, your weapons, and more, but he just kept listening, and asking you to continue, even when you stopped to let him ask questions.
  733. >"Let me see if I have this correct, Outlandish Anonymous. You mean to tell me that you completely devastated that entire Plaag warband, alchemists and all, by yourself?"
  734. "I know it sounds pretty hard to believe."
  735. >"After witnessing what that wretched Destroyer can do for myself, I'm willing to believe quite a bit. But you were still apprehended, after that display?"
  736. "You don't sound too happy about that."
  737. >"I'm not happy about that, at all."
  738. >For the first time, he frowns.
  739. >"Oh, Vegter, you've much more than a headbutt in store for you," he mutters to himself.
  740. >He talks to the masked mare again, their exchange sounding like a confirmation of what you'd just explained.
  741. >She mentions something about 'powerless', and 'exile', causing Heerser's frown to deepen, his look becoming much sadder.
  742. >It doesn't last for long, however, before he looks back over to you, somewhat forcing his smile back on.
  743.  
  744. >"Well, I can assure you, that I will deal with those who wrongly indicted you. Now, how about those companions of yours?"
  745. "Just one more thing. Why are you just up and trusting me, all of a sudden?"
  746. >"Oh, I could tell you were trustworthy, the second I saw you. It's that spark, you see. I can see it in your eyes."
  747. "Wait, that's it? You just look me in the eyes, and boom, I'm trustworthy?"
  748. >"Well, you are in my home, completely at my mercy. Should I discover that your real intentions are less than pure, well, you've got nothing but that cloth on you, and I can do far worse unarmed, than just batting away your weapons."
  749. >Oh, now he gets that mischievous look.
  750. "Nice," you deadpan.
  751. >"Speaking of intentions, what is it, exactly, that you came to our lands for? Nothing would come here, armed to the teeth, just to have a chat with me, after all."
  752. "Well, I'm not very sure my intentions count as 'pure', strictly speaking."
  753. >"Is that right? Well, if you've no qualms about attacking those from Bloedige Plaag, they can't be all that bad."
  754. "Guess you'll find out. See, I came here to cave Incognito's skull in, and I'm hoping you're gonna help me do it."
  755. >"Incognito?" he asks, tilting his head.
  756. "Wait, you don't know his name?"
  757. >"Whose name? Wait...! Ohh, you mean the red-skinned one!"
  758. "How do you miss something like that?"
  759. >"When my alchemists don't call him the Destroyer, his lackeys only refer to him as 'Lord Matthias'. Rather pretentious, if I do say so myself."
  760. "Understatement of the fucking millennium."
  761. >"Please, watch your language! So, the fiend's name is Incognito, hm? Well, I think I will continue calling him the Destroyer, if it's all the same to you."
  762. "Doesn't matter to me."
  763.  
  764. >"Well, I can't say I approve of how, ah, visceral your intentions are, but it would indeed appear that we share a common foe. I take it that the Destroyer has left a rather... lasting impression on you?"
  765. "That's putting it mildly," you grumble.
  766. >"No need to explain, Outlandish Anonymous. Now, let's meet these companions of yours, shall we?"
  767. >He's really excited to meet them, isn't he?
  768. "Sure. I just needed to know where we stand, first."
  769. >"Fair enough. Come, I'm sure you're eager to meet them, too!"
  770. >Goddamn right, you are.
  771. >You nod, and follow the guy's lead, with that masked zebra following a little ways behind you.
  772. >He leads you out of the building, and back into that huge, wide-open courtyard, where his guards fall in around you all again, as he continues towards wherever the merry fuck he's decided to take you.
  773. >The gawkers in the crowds, of which there are many, still look frightened by your presence, but they ease up a whole lot, once their gaze drifts from your tall ass, over to Heerser.
  774. >Man, they must really trust this guy, huh?
  775. >Guess you're lucky he decided to just up and believe you, then!
  776. >If only getting here could have gone that smoothly!
  777. >"So tell me, Outlandish Anonymous. I've never seen a race of your like before, and believe me, I've seen and studied a fair number of races, the world over."
  778. "Sounds like you did a lot of travelling, huh?"
  779. >"Oh, yes! Some of the best years of my life were spent, just adventuring around the world! I can safely say, however, that upright apes wielding great magical power is definitely a new one, for me!"
  780. >Hmm...
  781. >Should you tell him about the whole 'alien' thing, or would that be a little too much, too fast?
  782.  
  783. >"So, what are your kind called? Where do they hail from? Oh, tell me whatever you can!"
  784. >Yeah, he's entirely too eager for the whole alien reveal.
  785. >Best to deflect it, you think.
  786. "We're called humans, and uh, to say we're from a place far, far away would be a pretty massive understatement."
  787. >"Far away, you say? Oh, do tell! Are you from beyond the seas, beyond the continent?"
  788. "Yeah," you reply, figuring that's close enough to the truth. "Yeah, I am."
  789. >"Fascinating, fascinating! Small wonder I've never heard of your kind, before now! Tell me, what are you doing out here, so far from home?"
  790. >Shit, gotta think of something.
  791. "Same as you, travelling," you adlib. "Just getting away from everything, you know?"
  792. >"All too well. And how do you like this slice of the world, so far?"
  793. "Can't say I've been outside of Equestria that much, so I can't say too much about the continent as a whole. Still, I'd call it 'overwhelmingly positive'. Until, you know, he showed up."
  794. >"Ah, yes, I'd imagine that would put a significant damper on things. Tell me, do you know that fiend, from your homeland?"
  795. >Possibly.
  796. >And that's more than a little disturbing to contemplate.
  797. "No, but he made damn sure to ruin everything, all the same."
  798. >"I see. Tell me, these companions of yours, are they members of Equestria's military?"
  799. "They are, why?"
  800. >"Oh, it's just so very rare, to see them working that freely with one who isn't a pony."
  801. >Wait, what?
  802. "What are you talking about?"
  803. >"Oh, you must know by now. They're-- Oh, wait a moment, we're here. We'll speak more on this later."
  804. >He's brought you up to a bunch of guarded tents, labelled with 'healing' in zebra-language.
  805.  
  806. >He says a few things to the guards, and they point him towards one tent, more guarded than the rest.
  807. >A fair number of the guards peel away, and he opens the tent flap, to walk insi--
  808. >"Sweet elder's nethers," he exclaims, as giddy as can be, "You did bring a thestral with you!"
  809. >"Yeah, I don't want anything to do with your elder's nethers," replies a very familiar voice, from inside the tent.
  810. >That response, outside of lightening your spirits, has Heerser laughing like a maniac.
  811. >You enter the tent yourself, soon afterwards, and what you see is both heartening, and anger-inducing.
  812. >Razor and Exact were there in these cots, looking as healthy as can be, but they were both tied down onto the beds with rope, Exact's horn bearing an iron ring, and Razor's wings tied to his back.
  813. >"A-Anon?" Razor exclaims. "Holy shit, you're, uh... naked?"
  814. >Heerser's laughter stops dead at the word 'shit'.
  815. "And you're looking kinda tied up at the moment."
  816. >"You think?! The buck's going on here? I thought we were supposed to be helping these colts!"
  817. "There was a bit of a misunderstanding. I'll let him explain," you finish, pointing towards Heerser.
  818. >"Well," Heerser huffs, clearly not happy about the expletives, "Yes, my soldiers had mistaken your human friend here, for the human responsible for terrorizing our lands. Please accept my apologies, for all the trouble that's come from this error."
  819. >He starts untying Razor while he goes on, and gets him free enough for Razor to finish the job himself, before moving on to Exact.
  820. >"How the buck do you mix the two up?!" Razor yells.
  821. >"Please, please, watch your language!"
  822. >You give Razor the look of 'just roll with it', while you help him get out of the rest of the ropes.
  823.  
  824. >All Heerser had to do was pull that ring off of Exact, and he took care of the rest with his magic, with his usual precision and speed.
  825. >"So," Razor starts, "I'm guessing you're the colt calling the shots around here?"
  826. >"Very observant! Yes, I am the leader of the Wyse Kunstenaars, and steward of the lost and fractured tribes. But you may call me Heerser."
  827. >"Lieutenant Razor Wind, Night Guard."
  828. >"The Night Guard? I thought they kept to the Smokey Mountains, protecting the thestrals living within Baile Sgàileil?"
  829. >"Not since Princess Luna returned."
  830. >"Ahh, I see!"
  831. >"Geez, didn't figure you'd know that much about thestrals."
  832. >"Oh, it's hard to forget them! They were so hospitable, so understanding, when I last journeyed there!"
  833. >"Right, well, I'm here to do my job, first and foremost."
  834. >"Ah, a stallion of business, then? I understand," he finishes, before spinning to face Exact. "And you, who might you be?"
  835. >"I am choosing to invoke ongeïdentifiseerde," Exact replies, his look a little more pointed than normal.
  836. >Heerser's expression drops to a frown, his brow knitted.
  837. >"Oh, I see. So you're with her, are you?"
  838. >Exact stays silent.
  839. >"Fine. But I'll be keeping an eye on you, 'kennis verwoester'."
  840. >Uh-oh, that was definitely 'knowledge destroyer' in zebra-language.
  841. >He knows about Invictus, then?
  842. >"I certainly hope you know what you're doing with him, Outlandish Anonymous."
  843. "He's my friend. I trust him completely."
  844. >"Fine."
  845. >Once again, he flips back to a big, beaming smile.
  846. >"Well, I still have yet to properly apologize, so what say we start it off with a nice, traditional welcoming celebration?"
  847. "Wait, a celebration? Now?"
  848. >"Why, yes! There's no better way to clear your name to my people! And besides, I want to hear more of your people, and homeland!"
  849. >Oh, boy.
  850. <...
  851.  
  852. @@@@@@@@
  853.  
  854. "Veldheer, what are you really looking for, out here?"
  855. >"What do you mean, my dear? I simply came here to aid you, nothing more."
  856. >To his credit, he doesn't crack under your long, flat stare, but there's no mistaking what you're sensing.
  857. "Something's bothering you."
  858. >"Of course something's bothering me, Athalia! My alche--!"
  859. >He almost chokes, from how quickly he corrects himself.
  860. >"Duplicitous Zamara's little search out here, for all I know, is a massive waste of time, yet both you and that human seem convinced otherwise!"
  861. "I'd have thought so too, if I hadn't heard those damn ghosts tell her to keep looking."
  862. >"You cannot trust them--!"
  863. "And I don't," you shoot back. "But I do trust him."
  864. >You turn your entire body to face him, the wind of the speeding chariot sweeping your mane off to the side, almost succeeding in uncurling the ends.
  865. >From what you're sensing, the sight is pleasing to him, a bloom of eros springing forth from his emotional cocktail.
  866. >Ugh.
  867. "And don't think I haven't noticed that you're avoiding my question," you continue, your head leaning forward towards his, as if to give your unamused glare more power. "What are you looking for, out here?"
  868. >As unpalatable as that particular love might be to you, the eros he feels was doing wonders in cracking his composure.
  869. >Pfft, flipping your mane to get extra attention, is that it?
  870. >"One of my mightiest warbands failed to return, today," he sighs, finally acquiescing.
  871. "Mighty, how?"
  872. >"Eight alchemists accompany the massive band of warriors, Athalia. Eight! And these warriors number within a hundred! I sent them to destroy the Kunstenaar's witless little star warrior, Reckless Vegter, a task they should have completed with ease!"
  873.  
  874. "A hundred warriors?"
  875. >"Yes! I know that fool only travels with a singular alchemist, and no more than three dozen warriors! They should have had no issue destroying him, and yet--"
  876. "They haven't come back."
  877. >That is strange, and knowing what you do about Veldheer's warriors and alchemists, it's more than a little concerning.
  878. >"Do you see now?" he sighs, clearly quite exasperated.
  879. "You should've told me about this, beforehoof. Where were they supposed to kill him?"
  880. >"Athalia? You mean to--?"
  881. "I do. Now, where?"
  882. >You stop him before he can begin telling you the directions, pressing a hoof against his muzzle, while you levitate a map and some charcoal out for him.
  883. >One thing you learned very quickly about him: he was definitely a warrior, and not a navigator, with some of the worst verbal directions you've ever been given.
  884. >As for Veldheer, he frowns at the display, but ultimately does take the charcoal in his teeth, and marks down where you need to go.
  885. >Hmm, that's not that far from here.
  886. >You should be able to divert, easily enough.
  887. >You clear your throat a little bit, turning back towards the front of the chariot.
  888. `Change direction`, you order. `East-north-east, four miles.`
  889. >The changelings flying the chariot obey instantly, and given their speed, you'd place your arrival time at somewhere around five or six minutes.
  890. >They must sense your own unease, if they're speeding up this much.
  891. >You'll have to reward them, later.
  892. >"I didn't expect you to just change direction on a whim, Athalia. I believe it is my turn, to ask what is bothering you."
  893. "Since when could you crack wise?"
  894. >"Since you began avoiding my question."
  895.  
  896. >There's no suppressing the snort that leaves you, but whatever small kernel of mirth brought it about, quickly fades to worry.
  897. "I've got a really bad feeling about this, Veldheer."
  898. >"As do I. Whatever power that buffoon must have acquired, has--"
  899. "I don't think he has some new power."
  900. >"No? Then what else could explain the absence of my warband?"
  901. "Something else. Something else must have gotten to them."
  902. >If they were all dead, you know very few things with the kind of power to take them all out, like that.
  903. >But one particular thing sticks in your mind, the most.
  904. >Him.
  905. >"You're nervous, my dear." Veldheer says, his concern for you felt far more strongly, once his hoof found it's way to your withers.
  906. >You close your eyes, for the long, somewhat calming sigh you make.
  907. "If something else did get them, I... I just hope I'm wrong about what it could be."
  908. >"What could possibly be that powerfu--"
  909. >He stops, realizing who it is you mean.
  910. >"You mean the other human."
  911. >He definitely felt you tense up.
  912. >You try to summon forth your anger towards him, to banish the looming fears, but find that Veldheer's presence and concerns are making that very difficult.
  913. >He wants to say something, but can't quite seem to find the words, instead settling on lightly rubbing your withers.
  914. >It doesn't do very much, but it's something.
  915. >"What will you do, should he be the culprit, my dear?"
  916. >A few moments of silence pass, before you answer.
  917. "I don't know."
  918. >"You don't know? I thought you craved vengeance against him, for all he has done?"
  919. "He destroyed the other hive, the entire old base, all by himself!" you exclaim, brushing him off and turning to face him. "What am I supposed to do, against something like that?!"
  920.  
  921. >"Calm yourself, Athalia."
  922. >His hoof brushes against your neck this time, gliding through the strands of mane in it's way.
  923. >"If he is indeed the cause of my warband's destruction, he will not have lingered. The 'virtuous' never do."
  924. "Then where would he have gone next, huh? What if he knows where we are?!"
  925. >"Then our combined might will see him destroyed."
  926. "But--"
  927. >He cuts you off with a hoof cupped beneath your muzzle.
  928. >"He is powerful, certainly, but he is not invincible. Your Incognito failed to slay him, for he fought alone. United, however? He stands no chance."
  929. >Then, he smiles, though his shift in emotions make his intentions to 'calm you down' very apparent.
  930. >And very vexing.
  931. >"So cease your worries, liefling. If he is here, I look forward to the battle, with you by my side."
  932. >You have to stop yourself from rolling your eyes, at how he's bringing his face closer to yours.
  933. "Do you always make being killed in a fight sound like a good thing?"
  934. >"There's no better way to die, my dear."
  935. >His utter lack of subtlety made it easy to predict when he'd lunge forward.
  936. >Scrunching, you bring your hoof into the path of his muzzle, too quick for him to change course.
  937. >He looks rather surprised, to be kissing the frog of your hoof.
  938. "And I can think of far worse ways to die," you deadpan, fixing him a glare.
  939. >"Well," he chortles, recovering fairly quickly from that blunder, "I suppose there is one better way..."
  940. "Ugh," you groan, rolling your eyes. "Listen, Veldheer, It's not happening."
  941. >"Not yet," he smirks.
  942. >Snorting, you turn back towards the front of the chariot.
  943. >"Feeling better, my dear?"
  944. "No."
  945. >Yes.
  946. >"My, you're usually more convincing than that, Athalia."
  947. >Uh-uh.
  948. >You're not even dignifying that with a response.
  949.  
  950. >The flight continues in silence, though you do have to brush Veldheer's hoof off more than once, the nervy little bucker being slow to take the hint.
  951. >Whatever.
  952. >You should be close enough now.
  953. >Igniting your horn, you begin scanning around for--
  954. >Wh-whoa...!
  955. >What's...?!
  956. >"Athalia, what's wrong?"
  957. `Down there,` you order the changelings. `Down there!`
  958. >They catch your meaning immediately, and alter their course.
  959. >"What is it? Did you find something?"
  960. "Yes! I-it's...!"
  961. >That isn't possible!
  962. >There's no mistaking the impossibly neutral impressions that magic leaves behind, but...
  963. >The intensity of them, that's not--!
  964. >"Great elder's blood," Veldheer whispers, transfixed in shock at something down below.
  965. >Shock and fear of your own follow suit, upon seeing what he sees, what you sense.
  966. >The bodies of zebras, unmistakably Veldheer's, most of them badly burned.
  967. >Two enormous craters, where most of them were littered around.
  968. >Two huge burn marks, with branching scorch marks in the shape of lightning radiating outwards.
  969. >Veldheer doesn't wait for the chariot to land, jumping out as soon as it was close enough.
  970. >You fly down soon afterwards, speechless at what you're witnessing.
  971. >There's no way.
  972. >He's not that powerful.
  973. >He can't be!
  974. >He never did anything like this, even when you escaped with Incognito!
  975. >And yet, there's no mistaking the almost suffocating magical impressions left here.
  976. >They couldn't be from anyone but Anonymous!
  977. >("You and your friends are fucking DEAD!")
  978. >You start to shiver, as the memories--
  979. >Something lands on your withers.
  980. "Aah!"
  981. >You spin around, expecting the worst, only to find Veldheer with a grave look on his face.
  982. >"Was this his doing?"
  983. >You nod.
  984. >"I see now, why you fear him so. Let us return, immediately."
  985. >Arguing is the furthest thing from your mind, right now.
  986. <...
  987.  
  988. "So when do you plan on giving my stuff back, pal?"
  989. >"I'm afraid that some of the broken tribe leaders have taken a keen interest in what you've brought with you. The alchemists, in particular, kept saying something about them being artefacts of something called the 'Towenaar', in our tongue."
  990. "That didn't really answer my question."
  991. >"Ah, yes, I suppose you wouldn't know about that. I'm afraid that I don't hold absolute power here, Outlandish Anonymous. The other tribe leaders, and the alchemists, are the ones who hold most of your items."
  992. >Oh, that's just fucking brilliant.
  993. >"Fortunately, you should have an easy time of it. The alchemists all have an understanding between them, you see. Complete cooperation, across the tribes. And since they've taken such a keen interest in you, well..."
  994. "Huh."
  995. >Wonder if a few choice reveals about humans will work with them?
  996. >"Already thinking of what to do, are we?"
  997. "Well, I'm not gonna leave all my shit with th--"
  998. >"Ahem."
  999. >Motherfucker.
  1000. "I'm not gonna leave all my stuff with them. Kinda need it, you know?"
  1001. >"Quite. I'll speak to them tomorrow, and see about securing their release to you. You, meanwhile, will do your best to convince the alchemists to vouch for this release."
  1002. "Mind telling me why it has to be this way? Doesn't sound like the best idea, letting them all do their thing."
  1003. >"Trust is a scarce, yet incalculably valuable commodity here in Zebrica, Outlandish Anonymous. This was the only way to have us come together, for the sake of survival."
  1004. "Fantastic," you deadpan.
  1005. >"I don't expect you to agree, only that you understand. Now, the day grows late, and you have been through much. You should--"
  1006. "Yeah, I get the idea. Same room as before?"
  1007. >"Yes."
  1008. >Well, that's definitely soured the mood.
  1009. >And after that nice festival, too...
  1010. <...
  1011.  
  1012. >>Lashes made against your chest with the birch rods.
  1013. >>Cages, occasionally with another human inside.
  1014. >>The ape monsters, carrying out their torture with unrestrained glee.
  1015. >>Maar.
  1016. "Aagh!"
  1017. >You shoot up, clutching your chest.
  1018. >Jesus Christ, you hate these fucking dreams!
  1019. >But...
  1020. >Wait a minute.
  1021. >This wasn't like the last one.
  1022. >You'd gone back to feeling everything first-hand, without any of the freedom from before.
  1023. >And Incognito wasn't there.
  1024. >What the hell, then?
  1025. >Why'd yesterday's dream end up the way it did?
  1026. >Because God damn, you wouldn't mind them so much, if you could just experience them all like that--
  1027. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  1028. >"E-excuse me, my friend, forgive the intrusion," calls that masked zebra from behind the door. "Did you scream just now, or was that mere delusion?"
  1029. "Fine," you call back. "I'm fine."
  1030. >Groaning, you sit up out of the bedroll.
  1031. >Biggest they had, and it was still cramped.
  1032. >Still, better than the bare floor, you guess.
  1033. >Grabbing your trusty linen cloth, you drape it over yourself, and open the door leading out.
  1034. >"Ah, there you are, you're quite an early riser!" calls that nice masked zebra. "Th-though you could certainly use a new set of attire..."
  1035. "Yeah, probably. But first things first. My friends?"
  1036. >"Y-yes, of course, your friends are safe, and still resting. But they cannot join you, lest the alchemists start protesting."
  1037. "Seriously? How the fuck does anything ever get done around here?"
  1038. >Oops, did you say that out loud?
  1039. >You fully expect to have to do some major, big-time backpedalling, but instead, the masked mare just chuckles to herself.
  1040.  
  1041. >"Oh, I quite agree, it is terribly inefficient. Sadly, we've no choice: our foes are too proficient."
  1042. "Uhh, yeah. Right."
  1043. >How you dodged that bullet, you have no idea.
  1044. >"Now, we should go, without further delay. I am to lead you towards their enclave's gateway."
  1045. "All right, go ahead."
  1046. >Luckily, your destination isn't very far away: she just leads you out of the building, and towards another, smaller building in this same little courtyard.
  1047. >Only this one has a staircase leading down, with another much younger alchemist waiting at the top of said stairwell, looking positively excited to see you.
  1048. >Excitement that sours a fair bit, when she sees your masked friend, and even moreso when they start exchanging words in their language.
  1049. >Okay, what the hell is everyone's problem with this gal?
  1050. >She's got to be one of the nicest zebras you've met here, so far!
  1051. >"I cannot join you down there, so I must leave you for a while; the alchemist's enclave is forbidden to exiles."
  1052. >Huh?
  1053. >Exiles?
  1054. >"Simply follow this alchemist, the one who is quite young, and she'll bring you to her elders, who can understand your tongue."
  1055. "You seriously can't come with?"
  1056. >Her head lowers, and her withers slump.
  1057. >"I already asked you to leave this issue unpressed. Please follow her down, and be sure to leave them impressed."
  1058. >Oh, for fuck's sake.
  1059. "Fine," you sigh. "Guess I'll see you in a bit, then?"
  1060. >Well, at least her nod was a fair bit more energetic.
  1061. >You turn back to this young alchemist, who beams at you, and gestures for you to follow, which you do.
  1062. >What the fuck's going on, here?
  1063. >She's an exile of some kind, is that why everyone's willing to shit on her?
  1064.  
  1065. >Weird, though.
  1066. >Something about being an 'exile' sounded rather familiar to you.
  1067. >A familiarity you'll have to ponder later, because you've just been led into a big, well lit underground chamber, lined with doors all along the walls.
  1068. >And whoooo boy, is it packed full of alchemists, and from the looks of things, these alchemists look to be an all-mares kind of bunch.
  1069. >And said mares have just dropped everything they were doing, and start crowding around you, many of the younger ones excited beyond measure, and the older ones regarding you with a cool curiosity.
  1070. >Either way, shit's a little too crowded for your liking.
  1071. "Uhh, hey listen, I get that I'm the most interesting man in the world, and all that, but--"
  1072. >An older voice from somewhere in the crowd yells something, and instantly, all the alchemists peel back and give you a decent berth, the younger ones in particular looking like they were just caught with their hands in a cookie jar.
  1073. >They also clear a path towards the source of the voice: an older zebra mare, with a strange scar in the shape of some kind of glyph carved onto her forehead, and more distinctly, a metallic foreleg, joined damn near at the wither to her body, the mating point of both metal and flesh scarred and slightly deformed.
  1074. >Whoever this gal is, she approaches at a slow pace, her metal foreleg making a distinctive dull 'clunk' whenever it connects to the ground.
  1075. >"I swear, some of these mares act like little fillies, fawning over their first loves. So, you must be the human, Outlandish Anonymous?"
  1076. "Uhh, yeah?"
  1077.  
  1078. >The zebra comes closer, scrutinizing you.
  1079. >"Curious."
  1080. >She speaks smoothly, and has that distinctive, kindly grandma voice, with a bit of an unidentifiable foreign tint to the accent.
  1081. >Very pleasing to listen to.
  1082. >She also begins circling around you, her eyes never breaking contact with you.
  1083. >"Very curious."
  1084. "What are you doing?"
  1085. >"It seems Heerser made a significant understatement with your title. I believe 'Otherwordly Anonymous' may have been more appropriate."
  1086. >You freeze.
  1087. "How the hell did you--?!"
  1088. >"Nothing worldly has iron blood, not without terrible drawbacks. Though if you meant to keep that a secret, I understand completely. Such strangeness is best taken in smaller doses, wouldn't you agree?"
  1089. "I guess...?"
  1090. >So much for your tactical reveals!
  1091. >"But look at me, studying our new acquaintance without even introducing myself."
  1092. >She comes back around in front of you, her metal foreleg creaking a little as she gives you a little bow.
  1093. >"Zaalma is what I am called, Otherworldly Anonymous. If you care for titles, that would be Scrupulous Zaalma."
  1094. "Nice to meet you, Zaalma. I, uh, hope you don't mind if I don't care for the titles..."
  1095. >"Oh, not at all. Only outsiders and enemies are referred to by titles."
  1096. "Huh, all right."
  1097. >"But I can tell you are not here to learn of our people's ways. You are here for a very different, very specific reason."
  1098. "Right, that. I'm told you're the gals to talk to, if I wanted all my stuff back?"
  1099. >"Yes, your items. Curious things, I have to admit. Towenaar artefacts of their like are exceedingly rare, and I have never heard of anyzebra wielding them with success, outside of what has been alleged about you."
  1100.  
  1101. "Towenaar?"
  1102. >"That is our name for them. Legends tell of the Towenaar being a righteous coalition of beings, wielding tools of magic in place of natural talent, who are said to have helped greatly in uplifting our people, thus giving birth to our ancient empire."
  1103. >Wait a minute, she doesn't mean the Faber Mystico, does she?
  1104. >"Does that sound familiar to you?"
  1105. "It does, now. But can you get those 'tools' back, for me?"
  1106. >"We have only a few items, most of which were unknown even to us. The rest, we can help you in procuring from the rest of the broken tribe leaders, but first, I must ask you one question."
  1107. "A question? Sure, I suppose."
  1108. >"What do you intend to use the Towenaar's tools for?"
  1109. >Huh?
  1110. "Don't you already know?"
  1111. >Her brow furrows.
  1112. >"Please answer the question," she asks again, in a sharper tone.
  1113. >Okay, she only deals in straight answers, apparently.
  1114. "I'm here to stop Incognito, and I need my 'tools' to do it."
  1115. >"And who is this 'Incognito' you speak of?"
  1116. "Oh right, I forgot you call him the 'Destroyer'."
  1117. >But why call him that, though?
  1118. >Is there some significance to that name, that you're missing?
  1119. >"Bold. Very bold. You must know, however, that such an undertaking will be a challenge unlike any other."
  1120. "I know. But I don't have a lot of choice."
  1121. >"As one who has witnessed that daemon's relentless slaughter for myself, I have doubts about your likelihood of success."
  1122. "Trust me, he's not as tough as he looks."
  1123. >Especially if he hasn't upgraded his gear, since last time.
  1124. >"And how would you know that, Otherworldly Anonymous? Have you faced him, before?"
  1125. "You're goddamn right I have. Nearly won, too."
  1126. >From the way she's knitting her brow, you're pretty sure that she doesn't believe you.
  1127.  
  1128. >"Are you even slightly aware of the devastation that daemon can cause, with but a single swipe of his wicked instrument?"
  1129. "Yeah, huge waves of evil red magic that kills everything it touches. He rips out their souls, he cuts them to shreds, and he gloats about it to everyone who listens. I know."
  1130. >"Hm. Perhaps you have met him, after all. Now, have you met the allies that he keeps?"
  1131. "A couple of them."
  1132. >"Then you know of the Bloedige Plaag's leader, Vicious Veldheer?"
  1133. >Uhh...
  1134. "No?"
  1135. >"Hmph. And what of his alchemists? Do you know what they are capable of?"
  1136. "Sorry, is this--"
  1137. >"Shameful."
  1138. >What?
  1139. >"You wield the Towenaar's tools, yet possess none of their wisdom. And you think you can defeat the Destroyer, and his allies?"
  1140. >Excuse you?
  1141. >Where the shit is this hostility coming from?
  1142. "I told you, I almost beat him!"
  1143. >"And you failed. I can see now, why that was so. Equestrian arrogance permeates your every word."
  1144. "Hey, what the hell are you--"
  1145. >"You were overconfident. Assured of your victory. And at the very last moment, it was stolen from you."
  1146. >Whatever intrigue she had on her expression was now long gone, a harsh, judgmental stare replacing it.
  1147. >"I can see your exhaustion, your exasperation, taking it's toll upon you. You try so hard to carry this conflict by yourself, to shield others from it's effects, just as the Solar Keeper does. You will find no victory if you continue down this path, only loss."
  1148. "The fuck is your problem, lady?" you almost yell. "And what the hell does any of that have to do with my stuff?!"
  1149. >"Ah, yes, your items. Your weapons. I cannot help but wonder, why your companions do not wield weapons as mighty as your own."
  1150.  
  1151. "You mind telling me where this third degree is coming from?"
  1152. >"Do you trust your friends?"
  1153. "What the hell kind of question is that? Of course I do!"
  1154. >"You are a liar."
  1155. >This may be the quickest you've gone from liking someone, to wanting to deck them.
  1156. "Lady, I trust my friends completely!"
  1157. >"Do you trust them enough, to let them wield the power that you command with those tools?"
  1158. >You make to answer with a 'yes', but the words stick in your throat, never leaving your mouth.
  1159. >"No, of course you don't. Only you are worthy enough to command that kind of might, aren't you? Only you know how to wield it best?"
  1160. >That stare of hers never changed, but it sure got a whole lot more uncomfortable.
  1161. "Lady, that shit is dangerous! Who knows what could--"
  1162. >"Who knows, indeed? But I suppose it never crossed your mind, that such danger is insignificant compared to the danger posed by the Destroyer?"
  1163. "It's not that simple! I can't just hand them a staff, and tell them to blow shit up! If I could kit them out, I would!"
  1164. >"You never tried to do anything of the sort. Do not lie to me like that, again."
  1165. >Who the fuck does she think she is?!
  1166. "You don't understand," you exclaim, the words coming out less confident than you imagined they would.
  1167. >"I understand perfectly," she replies coolly, without skipping a beat. "Like the Solar Keeper, you trust none but yourself with such power, believing yourself to be it's only worthy wielder."
  1168. "Listen--"
  1169. >"Tell me, Otherworldly Anonymous, just what are they going to do, should you fail in battle? Against the power arrayed against them, what chance do they have, without tools like yours?"
  1170. "I--"
  1171. >"Your lack of trust in them will be their doom."
  1172. >Zaalma looks over to her sides, observing the zebras around her with kindly eyes, before fixing you with that judging glare of hers, again.
  1173.  
  1174. >"Trust is the most valuable thing we have, Otherworldly Anonymous. From the lowliest tribesmare to the tribe leader himself, there is trust between all of us. We do not take it's violation lightly, and I will not have our trust abused, taken advantage of, by a distrustful outsider such as yourself."
  1175. >Excuse the fuck outta her, what?!
  1176. "I've had just about enough of your shit, lady!" you yell, getting into her face. "You sit the fuck down and listen to me, you hear?!"
  1177. >Neither your yelling, nor your aggressive motions, faze her in the slightest.
  1178. >In fact, she doesn't say anything, only regarding you with a disinterested look.
  1179. >"Well?" she finally asks, after many moments of silence. "Say what you are going to say."
  1180. >O-okay, that took more wind out of your sails than you thought it would...
  1181. "I-I do trust them, all right? I wouldn't be keeping them safe, if I didn't!"
  1182. >"You shelter them, keep them weak."
  1183. "Bullshit, I do!"
  1184. >"And you have the temerity to make them fight for you, when they are so underprepared?"
  1185. >This fucking--!
  1186. >"You shame the Towenaar's legacy of uplifting others with your actions, Otherworldly Anonymous. Until I know you can be trusted, I will not support your attempts to reclaim their artefacts."
  1187. "You fucking WHAT?!"
  1188. >Is she for fucking real, right now?!
  1189. "Lady, that asshole and his buddies are gonna kill you, without my help!"
  1190. >"You have not listened to a word I've said. This discussion is over."
  1191. "No, it--"
  1192. >"Return when you finally understand my words."
  1193. >She turns and leaves, disappearing into the quickly vacating crowd of alchemists, who take all their things with them.
  1194. "Hey, get back here! Hey!"
  1195. >None of them do, and soon you're left all alone, all doors closed save for the way back out.
  1196. "Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints," you cry out, "You cannot be fucking serious!"
  1197. <...
  1198.  
  1199. @@@@@@@@
  1200.  
  1201. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  1202. "My Lord! Are you in there?"
  1203. >Shuffling is heard within Incognito's office, followed shortly by the sound of footsteps coming closer.
  1204. >"Yes, Athalia, I am here. Is there something you wanted to discuss?"
  1205. "Yes! It's urgent!"
  1206. >The door swings open, revealing the tall red man himself, dressed in his black lecturing attire.
  1207. >"Urgent? What could--"
  1208. >Veldheer barges past you, almost rearing up into Incognito's face.
  1209. >"Human! What else are you hiding about our enemies?!"
  1210. >"I'm sorry?" replies Incognito, raising an eyebrow. "I have hidden nothing."
  1211. >"Hidden nothing, you say? Then what, precisely, explains the destruction of one of my best warbands, by those you proclaim to be so weak?!"
  1212. >"Veldheer, calm yourself. I don't understand what you are suggesting."
  1213. >Before he can launch off into another fit of yelling, you push past him and shove your foreleg across his chest, pushing him back slightly.
  1214. "We found one of his warbands destroyed. It had about a hundred warriors, and eight alchemists."
  1215. >Understanding lights in Incognito's eyes, followed by his expression becoming serious.
  1216. >"Let us discuss this inside."
  1217. >Veldheer shoves past you again, eliciting another eye roll as you follow him inside, closing the door behind you.
  1218. >Incognito chooses not to sit at his desk this time, instead leaning back against it.
  1219. >"Tell me what you know."
  1220. "The warband wasn't destroyed in a big skirmish," you start, trying your best to mask how uneasy the retelling was making you feel. "It was destroyed with magic. Four huge magical attacks, that tore the entire force apart."
  1221. >Y-you can't even imagine the power that went into those spells!
  1222.  
  1223. >"It was not a battle, human!" Veldheer exclaims, still agitated. "It was a slaughter! They had been robbed of a good death!"
  1224. >"What on Earth were you two doing, observing such a fight?!"
  1225. "We weren't observing it happen, we were seeing the aftermath. Their fight happened yesterday."
  1226. >"Oh, thank goodness," Incognito sighs. "Do you have any idea what could have caused such destruction?"
  1227. >Your mask was cracking.
  1228. "Y-yes..."
  1229. >"What? What's wrong, Athalia?"
  1230. "I-it was--"
  1231. >"The quarry you failed to put down, human!" Veldheer almost screams. "The one you call Anonymous!"
  1232. >Your own sinking feeling began to intensify, when you saw the shocked look on his face.
  1233. >"That isn't possible," he all but whispers.
  1234. >"I know what I saw! An entire force of my best, annihilated with four strikes! Four! What else about this enemy are you concealing from us, human? How long did you plan on sending us to our doom?!"
  1235. >He doesn't answer back, but his expression is all the answer you need.
  1236. >He didn't know.
  1237. >He looks to you for confirmation, but you can tell that your own expression also gave him all the answers he needed.
  1238. >"Good God," he mutters to himself. "Barely a month has passed, and he gained that much power?"
  1239. >His gaze drifts over to a small table, which holds his catalyst.
  1240. >"Answer me, human!"
  1241. >His left hand balls up while his gaze lingers, and it takes him a moment to look back towards Veldheer, pushing himself away from the desk as he does so.
  1242. >"I had never planned on sending any of you to your doom, Veldheer. My intentions were always to reclaim what the Equestrians had stolen: your past, your legacies."
  1243.  
  1244. >"I cared nothing for your ridiculous delusions of 'liberation' then, and I care even less for them now!"
  1245. >"Your tribe members think otherwise."
  1246. >"They can think what they will! Now stop avoiding my questions!"
  1247. >Incognito glares for a few moments, before shaking his head slightly.
  1248. >"Anonymous's sudden rise to such power is as much a surprise to me, as it is to you. I told you as much, when I had returned from freeing Athalia."
  1249. >"And I seem to recall failing to believe that you could not notice him--"
  1250. >"That matters little, now. What matters is that he has turned his impressive new might against us, against his own interests."
  1251. >"Against his own interests? Bah, how can one so knowledgeable, know so little?"
  1252. >"Excuse me?"
  1253. >"You gave him the perfect incentive, the perfect interest in your destruction: vengeance! And now that you have tied us all into your mad scheme for power, and failed to simply kill him when you had the chance, we are all going to pay for it!"
  1254. >"Are you afraid of him, Veldheer?"
  1255. >"I fear no enemy, human! I fear only an instantaneous, dishonourable death!"
  1256. >"Your suicidal desires are duly noted. Regardless, there is little more to say on this matter, Veldheer. Anonymous is here in Zebrica, and he possesses great power. More than likely, he is hunting us, hunting me. The only recourse left to us, is to accelerate my plans, and to take whatever measures are necessary to delay him, possibly even slay him."
  1257. >"I very much doubt the efficacy of your little master plan, human! It does not help that I still do not know what that plan entails!"
  1258. >"What it entails is very simple, Veldheer. The destruction of Equestria, and installing a new order to replace it."
  1259.  
  1260. >Veldheer's fury begins to mix with disgust, at the mention of his plans.
  1261. >"The particulars of my plan are irrelevant to this discussion," Incognito continues. "Of far more importance, is putting a stop to Anonymous. And there, we still retain an advantage."
  1262. >"Do we, now?! More boasts from a scheming, frightened coward, I say!"
  1263. >"Applying strategy may do you some good, Veldheer. Think about this for a second. Anonymous is in service to Equestria, to Celestia. They spend almost every waking moment spreading their false notions of 'friendship', a notion that all zebrakind has proven most resilient against. Through Anonymous, however, they have a new vector through which to spread this falsehood."
  1264. >He leans in closer towards Veldheer, as if to drive a point home.
  1265. >"Celestia hates dark magic of all kinds, including the blood alchemy of your own people. And as we have taken most of Zebrica for ourselves, and broken many of the larger tribes, that leaves her with only one tribe to try and subvert."
  1266. >The Kunstenaars!
  1267. >Veldheer takes a few moments to make the connection himself, his thinking clouded by his ever-present rage up until that point.
  1268. >"That's correct, Veldheer. Anonymous is not stupid, he must know that he cannot defeat us by himself. So in order to better assault us, he must gain the trust of the Kunstenaars, and have them do his bidding, Equestria's bidding. Should his tendrils reach deeply enough, he will most likely have them fight side-by-side with those reprehensible ponies."
  1269. >Ponies and zebras fighting together...!
  1270. >Th-that's one match-up you don't want to see!
  1271. >"The only option we have, is to squash their scheme before it can be made manifest. We must redouble our attack upon the Kunstenaars, destroy them before they can become another net gain for Equestria."
  1272.  
  1273. >"Destroy the Kunstenaars?" Veldheer asks, a joyless laugh leaving his throat. "All that posturing, for something so simple?"
  1274. >"If it's so simple, Veldheer, why haven't you done it already?"
  1275. >You almost recoil from the burst of rage that shoots through him.
  1276. >"The Kunstenaars are a worthy adversary, human! They deserve a good, honourable death--"
  1277. >"You would have us all wait to die at their hooves, for honour?!" Incognito yells back, surprising even Veldheer. "To hell with your honour, and to hell with your puerile notions of a fair battle!"
  1278. >"Why, you...!" Veldheer starts, before returning fire: "If the notion of a true battle disgusts you so, why have you not ended the Kunstenaars already, then?!"
  1279. >Incognito pauses for a few moments, before responding.
  1280. >"A true clash between warriors is something we both desire, Veldheer." he quietly replies. "But clinging to that desire will be the death of us, as it was almost the death of me."
  1281. >"What?"
  1282. >"Anonymous is as sneaky as he is cunning, Veldheer. He may lend himself to mercy, to 'kindness', but he is absolutely not an honourable combatant. He will use whatever underhanded tricks he can to triumph. Tricks he used to great effect, during my battle with him."
  1283. "And with me," you add in a distant tone.
  1284. >Incognito doesn't look to you, but Veldheer does.
  1285. >"What do you mean, my dear?"
  1286. >Incognito's raised eyebrow at Veldheer's use of 'my dear' doesn't escape your notice.
  1287. "He was on the verge of death, my horn buried in his chest. But he escaped his death, by dragging it out just long enough for his allies to free his friends, and turn them on me."
  1288. >Anger begins welling within you.
  1289. "He uses his words like a weapon, insulting you at every turn, throwing you off balance, making you waste time. And believe me, he knows how to get under your hide."
  1290.  
  1291. >You fix Veldheer a glare of your own, making him take a few steps back.
  1292. "Don't you dare make the mistake of thinking he'll fight fair, Veldheer. I made that mistake, and it got me weeks of suffering, of torture, in return."
  1293. >"And it nearly cost me my own life, had Athalia not intervened," adds Incognito. "I will not underestimate him again, nor will I afford him another chance to play foul."
  1294. >You never thought Veldheer, of all zebras, would be so hung up on the idea of honourable combat.
  1295. >But his hesitance, his unease, might as well be screaming at you, given it's intensity.
  1296. >"You didn't answer my question, human," Veldheer finally says, some of his unease working it's way into his voice. "Why not end the Kunstenaars before this point?"
  1297. >"I did not think I needed to. I thought we had more time than this. Evidently, I was mistaken. A mistake I do not intend to leave uncorrected."
  1298. >He strides over to his catalyst, placing it back onto his hand, and quickly weaving a spell in it's palm.
  1299. >"My preparations for the next stage of my plan are almost complete. Return here at midnight tonight, both of you, and I will show you precisely how I intend to level the playing field with Anonymous, with the Kunstenaars, with Equestria."
  1300. >H-his plans?
  1301. >"This had better be of greater stock than those creatures of yours, human."
  1302. >"Far, far greater. Of that, you can be assured. I've spent too many months planning for this, for it to be anything less."
  1303. >G-greater than those Homunculi?!
  1304. >"Very well, human," Veldheer says after a few moments, the beginnings of exhaustion creeping into his tone. "At this juncture, you've left me with little choice."
  1305. >"Understand this, Veldheer. I will do everything in my power to ensure victory, but I will expect nothing less than the greatest effort, from all who follow us both."
  1306.  
  1307. >"You will get nothing from me, human," Veldheer says, turning to look your way again. "But you will receive the full measure of my support, Athalia."
  1308. >You offer him a small nod in response.
  1309. >"Will that be all, human?"
  1310. >"For the moment. Remember, be here by midnight, both of you."
  1311. >"Very well. Athalia, shall we take our leave?"
  1312. >"You may, Veldheer, but I wish to discuss things further with Athalia."
  1313. >Veldheer grumbles under his breath, but ultimately agrees.
  1314. >"Fine."
  1315. "I won't be long."
  1316. >"You know where to find me."
  1317. >He trots out of the office, leaving you and Incognito alone.
  1318. >"Athalia," Incognito starts, "There is more to your understanding with Veldheer than his distaste of me, isn't there?"
  1319. "There is."
  1320. >"How long has he made advances on--"
  1321. "My L-- Incognito, please. I know what I'm doing with him, and to be honest, I don't see why my particular... 'method' of keeping him loyal is any of your business."
  1322. >"Had I realized it was of such an... amorous nature, I would very well have left it at that. Due privacy aside, this is, after all, what your people specialize in. However, if he has done harm to you--"
  1323. "He hasn't, and he'd never try. Otherwise, he'd be dead before he hit the floor."
  1324. >"Given your gains in power, I do not doubt it. All I ask is that you be careful."
  1325. "I know."
  1326. >"Still, I must thank you for keeping him in the fold. My work, and especially this next step of my plan, is inextricably bound to his tribe's alchemists."
  1327. "You mean, Zamara?"
  1328. >"Yes."
  1329. "Don't tell me that she'll be there, too?"
  1330. >"She must be. But I assure you, she is on her last strike. Once this stage of my plan is complete, her necessity will diminish significantly, and she would do well to remain in my graces."
  1331.  
  1332. >At least he knows what to do with her, but still, leaving her alive like that just doesn't sit well with you.
  1333. >"I will need you there too, Athalia. Since Zamara's trustworthiness has been tainted, I will need another trusted aide to replace her role. And with the power you now command, and your control growing greater and greater, the choice is obvious."
  1334. >Wh-what?!
  1335. >No way, he's going to let you in on his plans?!
  1336. "I-I'd love to help!" you blurt, without time to hide how eager you must sound.
  1337. >"It's not as glamorous as it appears, Athalia. Still, your eagerness will be a definite boon."
  1338. >You almost start dancing in place, right up until you see the conflicted look of deep thought on his face.
  1339. "I-Incognito? What is it?"
  1340. >He removes his catalyst, allowing you to see both of his hands balling up, his head beginning to lower.
  1341. "Wh-what's wrong?"
  1342. >"I..."
  1343. >When he next looks at you after a few moments of silent pondering, his eyes hold a strange, implacable hurt quality to them.
  1344. >"I have lent my trust to very few, Athalia. Chrysalis, Veldheer, and Zamara alike have received it, yet all three of them have seen fit to betray it. I need to know if I can fully trust you, keep confidence with you."
  1345. >Wh-what...?!
  1346. "O-of cours--!"
  1347. >"No."
  1348. >He kneels down in front of you, placing both hands on your withers.
  1349. >"Do not answer me now, Athalia, not with such little notice. Give me your answer before midnight strikes, before you witness my plans bearing fruit."
  1350. >Wh-where is this coming from, all of a sudden?
  1351. "Okay," you half-whisper.
  1352. >His gaze lingers for a few moments, before he pulls away, walking back over to his desk.
  1353. >"Forgive me, I know this must seem strange. For the moment, I must ask you to leave me be."
  1354.  
  1355. >It is strange, but you do heed his request, moving for the door.
  1356. "I'll see you tonight," you say, opening the door.
  1357. >He doesn't respond, and a few drawn-out moments pass before you finally leave, shutting the door behind you.
  1358. >Not a single fight today, and already you feel exhausted by all this!
  1359. >That entire exchange, and knowing that Anonymous was here?
  1360. >Incognito's plans intrigue you, sure, but against that kind of power?!
  1361. >What's--
  1362. "Agh!"
  1363. >A twinge of pain shoots through your head, stopping you in your tracks.
  1364. >A second wave follows it, an all too familiar voice speaking through it.
  1365. >>`We need to talk.`
  1366. >And just as soon as it comes, it leaves.
  1367. >Oh, great, the damned voices are creeping back in!
  1368. >At least they weren't nearly as bad, this time!
  1369. >Ugh, you need to get your mind off of all this, at least for a little while!
  1370. >Leaving the temple, you see the sun at it's midday position.
  1371. >Casting your senses out, you sense Veldheer's presence in a resting state, over at his elite warrior's encampment.
  1372. >He's taking a nap, is he?
  1373. >You know, that's not a bad idea...
  1374. >Okay, fine, you could use it right about now!
  1375. >Your senses pick up the others, including Ajay in the middle of target practice, deep in the gryphon camp.
  1376. >You really need to convince Veldheer to let him into the temple.
  1377. >He's been missing too much important information, being left out like that!
  1378. >But for the moment...
  1379. >The lings outside the hive greet you with their usual reverence as you approach, and quickly return to expanding the structure, as you ordered.
  1380. >Once inside, you decide against the resting pods, choosing instead to lie down on top of a fairly large pedestal, vaguely in the shape of a throne.
  1381. >A quick alarm spell later, and it doesn't take long for sleep to find you.
  1382. <...
  1383.  
  1384. >(Chrysalis's horn gives off it's signature green glow, as she casts the peculiar spell, a ring of green flames springing up around her, the ground within the circle turning into a black void of some kind.)
  1385. >Wait, Chrysalis?
  1386. >And who's that changeling, she's talking to?
  1387. >("Watch closely, my daughter.")
  1388. ("But mom, that looks really dangerous!")
  1389. >E-everything's so foggy...
  1390. >("This magic will save your life one day. Are you watching?"
  1391. ("Y-yes, mom...")
  1392. >("Excellent.")
  1393. >(Chrysalis begins sinking into the void beneath her hooves.)
  1394. >(Wait, she's sinking?!)
  1395. ("Ohmygosh, mom! What's happening?!")
  1396. >Wait, that voice!
  1397. >I-is that yours?!
  1398. >(Another ring of green fire erupts right beside you, the same void reforming in the middle.)
  1399. >(When Chrysalis finishes sinking into the first circle, it closes behind her, and she begins to rise out of the new one!)
  1400. >("Were you watching, my dear?")
  1401. ("Wh-what was that?!")
  1402. >("My secret teleportation spell, my daughter. Passed down from queen to queen. Now, were you watching?")
  1403. >That spell, it seems so... simple.
  1404. ("Y-yes!")
  1405. >("Good. Once you've grown up some more, you'll pick it up right away, I'm sure of it.")
  1406. >The magic poured into it, so familiar...
  1407. >It almost feels like you could do it yourself, just from that one showing...
  1408. >("Now, come along. I'm sure you could use a little malted--")
  1409. >RRRIIIIP
  1410. >The foggy scene before you rips itself apart, soon followed by smokey purple tentacles poking up through the rips, and shredding the rest of the scene into glittering ribbons.
  1411. >The sight causes you to recoil and take a few steps back, and you just as quickly realize that you can actually move, now!
  1412.  
  1413. >"Bug! There you are!"
  1414. >Your stomach sinks.
  1415. >Oh, no.
  1416. >No, no, no, of all the damned ghosts that could have interrupted you...!
  1417. >Landing from somewhere above in the void, is that damn unicorn stallion!
  1418. >"Whoo, you got a whole lot more adapted to our power, since last time! Perfect!"
  1419. "Oh sweet merciful Foremothers," you grumble. "Not again! What do you want, now?!"
  1420. >"Hey, cool your tail! This one comes all the way out here to help, and we get lip in return?"
  1421. "I don't need your 'help'!"
  1422. >"Oh, really? Well, the way we see it, you don't have a lot of choice in the matter. Though if it makes you feel better, we won't call it a 'blessing' this time, like that insufferable mon'keigh does!"
  1423. >Wait, 'mon'keigh'?
  1424. >Does he mean that four-armed ghost?
  1425. >Wait, no, nevermind that!
  1426. "I'm not interested. Get out."
  1427. >"You think because you're nicely adapted, that we can't still punish you? Better think again, princess!"
  1428. >His malevolent smirk washed off his face, when you began igniting your horn with the beginnings of Incognito's banishment spell, the first thing he taught you to use in your dreams, should the ghosts show back up.
  1429. "I won't ask you again."
  1430. >His gaze lingers on your horn for a few moments, before he begins...
  1431. >Wait, is he chuckling?
  1432. >What does he think is so funny?!
  1433. >"Ohh, that spell! We remember that one! So good to see it being used, again!"
  1434. >Huh?
  1435. >"Well done, bug. You and the Destroyer are just full of surprises, aren't you?"
  1436. "Weren't you listening to me? I said, get out!"
  1437. >"The Failure's got you scared, doesn't he?"
  1438. >Wait, who?
  1439. >"We saw it through a couple of those alchemists. That green menace, tearing those zebras to shreds, like it was nothing."
  1440. >Green mena--?
  1441. >Wait.
  1442. >H-he doesn't mean...?!
  1443.  
  1444. >"Well, 'tearing' is a bit inaccurate. More like 'incinerating, exploding, and electrocuting', in that approximate order. You ought to be real glad you weren't there for that fight, bug, otherwise you'd be speaking to us with your mortal coil in a body cast!"
  1445. >The void around you melts into some kind of cave, littered with glowing mushrooms.
  1446. >"Look, point is, we're trying to help you get stronger, to mash that bucking botch job into a bloody paste! If you don't want to get your skull caved in by that alien tailhole, we suggest you put the banishment spell away, and start listening!"
  1447. >From behind the ghost, the outline of a human could be seen approaching.
  1448. >The flickering, misty image of Anonymous, himself.
  1449. "I told you, I don't want your help! Your help--"
  1450. >"Used to give you the mother of all headaches, and a bad case of the throw-me-ups, we know!"
  1451. "Used to?!"
  1452. >"That's what we just said, shell-for-brains! Used to! In case your dumb flank hasn't noticed, you haven't been hurling black since you were sprung from that crystal cave jail cell!"
  1453. "I--!"
  1454. >Wait.
  1455. >You haven't?
  1456. >"And we're sure you haven't noticed that your headaches are almost gone too, huh? Or that this whole vision isn't putting pressure on your little mind?"
  1457. >Blinking, you rack your surprisingly clear mind for memories of what he's talking about.
  1458. >He's right.
  1459. >You haven't been vomiting black since then, nor have your headaches ever gotten worse than that time you remade the cleansing pool!
  1460. >"Well, look who's finally put the pieces together! Anything else you want me to hoof-hold you through, your majesty? Maybe we oughta teach you a little bit about stress management, first! Ooh, maybe you should see if that big zebra coltfriend you've picked up has the goods to match the bragging--"
  1461. "Will you shut up?!"
  1462.  
  1463. >"Oh, right. Forgot that you princess changelings, or Shattered, or whatever the buck you're called this hour, can't stomach lust. Though something as wound-up as you sure could use a good dicking, you prudish bitch."
  1464. >Your teeth begin grinding.
  1465. >"You know, you oughta see some of those darkling mares, when they get their hooves on one of those succubus spell tomes. You know, the ones those sirens wrote up? We don't know what this one likes more, their first rodeo, the daddy issues, or that one spell where they suck somepony's soul right outta their coc--"
  1466. "Shut up!" you scream, reigniting your horn with that spell.
  1467. >"Alright, buck! Seriously though, stay pure until marriage. For us?"
  1468. >You come very close to casting the spell, right then and there.
  1469. >"All right, sheesh. No need to get your teats in a twist. Actually, do bugs even have teats?"
  1470. "We're not bugs!"
  1471. >"And we're not a colossal tailhole! Oh, wait..."
  1472. >That does it!
  1473. >You unleash the spell, and a wave of your own eggplant-purple magic fires outwards, bathing the whole void in the colour for a few moments.
  1474. >The ghost vanishes in a pillar of smokey purple magic, once again.
  1475. >Oh, finally!
  1476. >Now perhaps you can get back to that one dream--
  1477. >"This one made that spell, you know. Back when we were still mortal."
  1478. >You freeze, and whirl around in place, greeted with the sight of that same ghost, wearing a smarmy grin.
  1479. >"Really helped keep the other Councilors off our back, just like you're doing now. Of course, this one still knows all the weaknesses. Very nice try, though. Definitely would've chased the mon'keigh off."
  1480. "Oh, Foremothers have mercy, just leave me alone!"
  1481. >"Not yet, bug. We said we'd get you stronger to help you face the Failure, and that's what we're going to do."
  1482.  
  1483. "'Failure'?! You call destroying my last hive, and killing all those zebras, a 'failure'?!"
  1484. >"Yeah, he's not named for his incompetence, we'll tell you that much. Tends to happen when cocksure schemers don't read the prophecy magic manual. Amazing monkey wrench, in more ways than one, but an absolute failure at being the Corruptor. Well, technically--"
  1485. "Wh-what are you even talking about?!"
  1486. >"Oh, sorry. This one bucking hates prophecy horseshit. Moving right along..."
  1487. >The void melts into a forest clearing.
  1488. >"You've got real potential, kid. No horseshit. There's not a doubt in our mind that you could match the Failure's destructive power, blow for blow."
  1489. "And kill myself doing it!"
  1490. >"Yeah, if you were literally anydarkling else. But eating fifteen whole pony souls, and coming out of it with just the beginner's intro to our presence? Amazing shit."
  1491. "I didn't know what I was doing!"
  1492. >"But you do now, right? We're not kidding, when we say that tapping into their essence, their souls, is the ticket to some serious power."
  1493. "But--!"
  1494. >"Just watch, will you?"
  1495. >A screaming orb of white light fizzles into existence next to the ghost, who channels some kind of dark spell into it, twisting it into some kind of spell, it's pain amplifying to extents you didn't think were possible.
  1496. >Then, the pain stops, and a huge black fire orb, easily the size of your whole body, expands out from the soul orb, and is flung off towards the tree line.
  1497. >KA-BLAM
  1498. "Whoa!"
  1499. >The explosion is massive, with chunks of wood, foliage, and black flame scattered everywhere.
  1500. >When it clears, you...
  1501. >Y-you...!
  1502. >Th-the tree line, it...
  1503. >Holy buck, look at the size of that crater!
  1504. >"And that, kiddo, was with only one soul."
  1505. "Ghost," you finally say, getting into his face. "You're going to show me how you did that, right now."
  1506. >"About time."
  1507. <...
  1508.  
  1509. @@@@@@@@
  1510.  
  1511. >"I expected quite a few things to happen, when you went to speak with Zaalma and the alchemists. Having her flatly reject your request that quickly, however? I'll admit, I hadn't expected that outcome."
  1512. "It's fucking bullshit, is what it is!"
  1513. >"Please, watch your--"
  1514. "Oh, piss off! My shit's being held hostage, shit that can end this whole goddamn war in just a few hits, and you're going on about my damn language?!"
  1515. >When Heerser doesn't respond for a few long moments, you finally turn away from the little table, to look at him.
  1516. >His expression is not happy, to say the least, but perhaps more impressive is how restrained he looks, despite the obvious anger.
  1517. >"I have offered you nothing but help since you came here," he intones. "You will find it very unwise to make an enemy of me."
  1518. >You don't know if it was his tone, or the implications of what he's saying that gives you pause, but man, seeing his expression now...
  1519. "Sorry. I just..."
  1520. >"I understand your frustrations. I had something similar happen to me, during my travels to the minotaur lands. Took me quite a while to get on their good side."
  1521. "I don't have time to get on her good side!"
  1522. >"I'm afraid you'll have to make time."
  1523. "But I--"
  1524. >"If you wish to regain your weapons, and gain our aid, you have little choice in the matter, Outlandish Anonymous."
  1525. "Oh, for the love of God!"
  1526. >"I'll admit, I'm not sure what caused Zaalma to reject you quite that quickly. Usually, her and I have a good sense for others, and it's quite rare for us to view somezebra in such different lights. I'll have to question her about it, later tonight."
  1527.  
  1528. "Are you sure you can't just pull some strings, or something?"
  1529. >"'Pulling strings' is such a terrible term to use, Outlandish Anonymous. Those I share power with are not my puppets, they are my companions in this time of dire need."
  1530. >Oh great, this again.
  1531. >"As I've said, I don't expect you to agree, only to understand. One way or another, we will triumph over the Destroyer, the Bloedige Plaag, and those monsters at their beck and call. But we will do so on our terms, not another's."
  1532. >As he finishes that sentence, his eyes light up, as if he's just realized something.
  1533. >"Aaah... I see. I think I understand why Zaalma was so quick to reject you."
  1534. "You what?"
  1535. >"Well, I don't want to be too presumptuous. I'll have to wait for my talk with her, to see if my theory holds any water."
  1536. >The fuck is he going on about, now?
  1537. >"In the meantime, I do have something approaching good news to share with you. Two of your items are in my possession, both of which the alchemists were deathly afraid of touching, but the warriors seemed to have no trouble with."
  1538. >Just two?
  1539. >"I'm willing to give them to you, on one condition."
  1540. >Just for once, you'd like something here to come without strings attached!
  1541. "What's that?"
  1542. >"That you and your companions join me tomorrow, as guests of my warband."
  1543. "Wait, you want us to fight with you?"
  1544. >"Of course. Whatever the others may think, I will not keep a capable warrior like you caged in this place, not when you're so eager to help."
  1545. "Yeah, but I'd be better at it with all my stuff!"
  1546. >"Repeating your desires over and over will not bring them to you any faster. Now, do you wish to join me, or not?"
  1547.  
  1548. >God damn it, this fucking blows!
  1549. >You weren't exactly going into this journey thinking it'd go over easy, sure, but this is worse than you were expecting!
  1550. >How are you supposed to throw down with fucking warrior-acrobat zebras without your magic?!
  1551. >"I can see you are concerned about something."
  1552. "You know that not all of my stuff was made to kill things, right? I have this set of awesome armour, that--"
  1553. >"Ah, yes, yes, protection. That, I intend on rectifying, come tomorrow. I cannot bring you your existing armour, but our alchemists will create something for you, all the same."
  1554. >That doesn't fill you with a lot of confidence.
  1555. >"I have no intention of throwing you to the wolves, Outlandish Anonymous. Quite the contrary: I intend on equipping you as well as any of my warriors. And you will have the advantage of having at least two of your items. That is, of course, if you're still interested?"
  1556. >He says that as if you have any other choice.
  1557. >Stay here, do nothing, and get no closer to your stuff, or hope that heading out with him's going to get these fuckers to start trusting you.
  1558. "Yeah," you sigh. "I'm in."
  1559. >"Very good, very good! Oh, just so you know, Vegter will be coming along, too."
  1560. "Uh, who?"
  1561. >"The impulsive warrior who thought it best to throw you into that pit."
  1562. "Oh, now you tell me?"
  1563. >"He was quite taken aback when you destroyed the ancient golem, you know. He'd never admit it, but he's rather scared of you. Most of his warband members are."
  1564. >He shoots you a disapproving frown, when he sees you smirk at his words.
  1565. >"He is a very capable, very influential warrior, Outlandish Anonymous. If you want to regain your things faster, gaining his trust would be a net gain to that end."
  1566. >Yeah, you'll just befriend the guy who tried to kill you.
  1567. >That's totally going to happen.
  1568.  
  1569. >For whatever reason, Heerser's frown deepens.
  1570. "What?"
  1571. >"Your reactions do not fill me with confidence."
  1572. "Am I supposed to react some other way?"
  1573. >"Clearly, your talk with Zaalma has affected you more deeply than I thought. Perhaps tomorrow's journey will work out some of that frustration."
  1574. >Even you're not exactly sure what you just grumbled under your breath, only that it was frustrated and so very done with this.
  1575. >"Since I don't suspect this conversation will go anywhere else, I will leave you for tonight. Your companions reside in the rooms near your own, and you are free to speak to them as you see fit."
  1576. >Well, that's something, you guess.
  1577. >He says something to his guards, about 'leading' you away, probably to said room.
  1578. >"I haven't informed them of tomorrow's events yet, so I suggest you let them know, yourself."
  1579. "All right, then."
  1580. >With that line of conversation well and truly done, he waves his guards off, who lead you back through the zebra crowds in the big courtyard, towards the passage to the smaller one.
  1581. >You can't help but take stock of the reactions of the passerby zebras: some of them still very much dislike you, some flash you a little smile, but most just seem to avoid looking at you entirely.
  1582. >Great, it's like your first months in Ponyville all over again, except without the benefit of the Elements vouching for you.
  1583. >Your friends vouching for you.
  1584. >Wait, where'd that come from?
  1585. >Don't call them just the 'Elements', you fucking sociopath, they're your friends!
  1586. >Oh, wait a minute, you're here already.
  1587. >You're not sure if the armoured-up guards understand you, but you thank them anyways, and head inside the building.
  1588. >As you head down the hall towards your room, you can overhear talking from some very familiar voices.
  1589.  
  1590. >"Listen, uh, whoever you are," says Razor in a sort-of placating tone, "Not that I don't appreciate you helping get us outta this whole bind, but I'd also appreciate it if you weren't going at my buddy's throat, there."
  1591. >"Under no circumstance will I let go of my anger," rhymes that masked alchemist, "Against this fell agent who meddles, destroys, and tampers!"
  1592. >"There is no convincing this one that I am not a threat, lieutenant," says Exact is his usual monotone. "She is evidently well versed in my order's activities here."
  1593. >"And I will never think different of one in your order's employ, an order that comes to our land to overreach, pillage, and destroy!"
  1594. >"Our mission is very clear: the destruction of all knowledge of dark magic, or anything similarly infectious to Equestria. But my repetition of this will not change your mind."
  1595. >"You claim to know more, know better? You have no right! And with hubris fuelled so by the bringer of daylight!"
  1596. >"This conversation serves no purpose, outside of a simple ventilation of your grievances."
  1597. >Yeah, that's about enough eavesdropping for you.
  1598. >You step out into view of everyone proper, noting that the masked mare was right in Exact's perfect poker face, with Razor off to the side, looking a little uncomfortable with the exchange.
  1599. >Well, that is until he takes note of you.
  1600. >"Anon, you're back? Bucking finally!"
  1601. >Mercifully, the other two break their staring contest and turn to face you.
  1602. >Exact nods your way, the ghost of a smile crossing his blank expression.
  1603. >Yeah, he's super happy to see you.
  1604. >"Ah, my good friend, you've returned to us quite late!" the mare rhymes, concern beginning to leak into her next verse: "Did... your dealings with the others meet a bad fate?"
  1605. "That's putting it mildly," you grumble.
  1606.  
  1607. >"Uh-oh," Razor pipes up, "What the buck happened, Anon?"
  1608. "Fuckers wouldn't give me my weapons back. Or any of my shit, for that matter."
  1609. >"Wait, they what?! Seriously?"
  1610. "Seriously."
  1611. >"I was hoping that would not be the case," Exact adds.
  1612. >"Wait, you knew this would happen?"
  1613. >"There was a 61.4% probability of it occurring, owing to Anon's outlandish nature being of interest to the Wyse Kunstenaars, and Zebrican tribal culture being heavily based in mutual trust and camaraderie. I did not think to account for it on our journey, as this capture scenario only had a 19.8% probability of occurring."
  1614. >Great, you rolled the shit end of the odds.
  1615. >Murphy, you're everything that mankind aspires to be, you fucking cocklord.
  1616. >"So what, we're just gonna be cooped up in here until that red motherbucker kills us all?"
  1617. "Like hell, we are. Unfortunately, it looks like it's gonna be a slow grind to that point."
  1618. >"Uhh, what do you mean?"
  1619. "I might have agreed to have us all tag along with that Heerser guy's warband."
  1620. >"Oh, okay-- Wait, what?! Us and what bucking weapons?!"
  1621. "Well, he said the alchemists would kit me up, somehow. Don't know what's on the table for you guys, though."
  1622. >"What the buck is with you, and your suicidal plans?"
  1623. >"It is our only option at this juncture. Anon, they must have told you by now of the importance of trust in their society."
  1624. "More than a little bit."
  1625. >"I can see you are not enthused by the prospect, but you must bear with them, and earn their trust. The fastest ways to do this are two-fold: doing battle alongside the warrior sects, and sharing knowledge with the alchemist sects."
  1626. >"This line of discussion, I must declaim!" exclaims the alchemist. "Speaking of us, as if obstacles in a game!"
  1627.  
  1628. >"Uhh, Anon?" Razor pipes up. "Maybe we should talk this over somewhere more private? These two are gonna be at each other all night, otherwise."
  1629. >As much as you want the alchemist's input, he's got a point: she's got one hell of a hate-boner for Exact and Invictus, though you can't really say you blame her on the Invictus part, all things considered.
  1630. >Though up and leaving her won't fly, either...
  1631. >Okay, new plan.
  1632. "You two go on ahead, I wanna ask this gal a few questions, first."
  1633. >"Wait really? Uhh, all right. Just don't take too long, you hear?"
  1634. "I won't."
  1635. >Both him and Exact shuffle off into a nearby room, and boy does this mare sound relieved to see Exact out of sight, when the door shuts behind them.
  1636. >"My good friend Anonymous, be wary around the unicorn. His order deserves nothing but the greatest of scorn!"
  1637. "Look, I know about his order, but that doesn't change that he's my friend. Could you maybe lighten up around him, a bit?"
  1638. >"Around ones of his like, I will not drop my guard. I will not let him leave my tribe broken and marred!"
  1639. "He won't."
  1640. >"But he--"
  1641. "Trust me."
  1642. >"You would so readily trust one of his like, when his order has wronged you, slight after slight?"
  1643. "I know we didn't start off great, but--"
  1644. >Wait.
  1645. >Wait just a second here.
  1646. "What do you mean, 'how they wronged me'? Do you know something?"
  1647. >Yeah, she just tensed right up.
  1648. >"Oh damn it all, I've said too much. Please, do not think of it--"
  1649. "Uh-uh, not so fast." you interject, the anger from today returning. "How do you know me?"
  1650. >"Please, I have told you that I can say nothing," she quickly retorts, clearly upset. "Just know that I--"
  1651. "You know what," you snap, "I just came back from getting a huge earful about trust from your leader and his buddies. If you're one of my friends, like you say you are, where's the damn trust, there?"
  1652.  
  1653. >She gives a hurt gasp and backpedals, once the words leave your mouth.
  1654. >But as you come down from your anger, you...
  1655. >Oh, God.
  1656. >Did you really just say that to her?
  1657. "Uh, wait, th-that came out wrong."
  1658. >"P-pitting my tribe's trust against yours, th-that was very cruel," the zebra sniffles. "What a difference in character, from that crass, yet endearing jewel..."
  1659. "Hey, w-wait a minute, I-I didn't mean--"
  1660. >"E-excuse me, I need some time to be alone," she continues, walking back down the hallway with her head hung low. "C-clearly I am not needed, as you have shown..."
  1661. "Wait, I'm--!"
  1662. >She breaks into a run, leaving with surprising speed.
  1663. "Sorry..."
  1664. >She's gone.
  1665. >All because of you.
  1666. >You fucking idiot.
  1667. >You absolute fucking retard.
  1668. >One of the only zebras helping you here, and you just chased her off, acting like a colossal douche!
  1669. >God...
  1670. "Damn it!"
  1671. >No, no you know what, you can fix this!
  1672. >Just find her tomorrow, find some way to make it up to her!
  1673. >Th-there's gotta be some way, right?
  1674. >Your jumbled thoughts are broken by the sound of a door opening behind you.
  1675. >"Anon? The buck's going on, out there?"
  1676. >Fuck, right, Razor and Exact.
  1677. "I..."
  1678. >Screwed up.
  1679. >"Hey, where's that zebra gone?"
  1680. >You don't have the nerve to answer that question, much less face him.
  1681. >"Anon? What happened?"
  1682. >Your silence gives way to an annoyed groan from Razor.
  1683. >"You went and made things worse for us, didn't you?"
  1684. >Not much you can say to that, is there?
  1685. >"Oh, sweet tapdancing Epona above, Anon! I thought we went over this 'doing everything yourself' shit, already!"
  1686. "I-I need a minute," you finally choke out, beelining for your room.
  1687. >"Hey, don't you bucking run away from--"
  1688. >The door closing behind you cuts his line off.
  1689. >Oh, for the love of God, what else can go wrong, today?!
  1690. <...
  1691.  
  1692. >WHRRRRRRRR
  1693. "Aah!"
  1694. >Your eyes shoot open, and you jump backwards, almost falling off the back of this platform you were on.
  1695. >Wait, that noise!
  1696. >Oh damn it, that's right, you set that alarm spell!
  1697. >A quick flash of your horn dispels and silences it, and you take a moment to rub your eyes, and get your bearings.
  1698. >Okay.
  1699. >The hive's all around you, that's good.
  1700. >And you're on top of this incomplete throne-pedestal thing.
  1701. >Right, just where you were, before taking that nap!
  1702. >Okay, you're fine!
  1703. >Everything's fine!
  1704. >You just need a minute.
  1705. >Oh, sweet Foremothers above, that was not a good sleep.
  1706. >But then, how could it be, given all you were shown by that damn ghost?
  1707. >It almost doesn't seem believable, that you can do that kind of damage with a spell like that, but given what you saw of that battle's aftermath?
  1708. >You have to find a way to try it, at least!
  1709. >The only thing you'd need is--
  1710. >Wait, the battle!
  1711. >Incognito!
  1712. >That's right, he's planning to show you something!
  1713. >You leap down and head towards the exit, and...
  1714. >Wait.
  1715. >There was something else in that dream too, wasn't there, back before that damn ghost invaded it?
  1716. >A spell, that...?
  1717. >Yeah.
  1718. >Yeah, that weird teleport spell!
  1719. >Coming to you with almost disturbing, practiced ease, you cast the spell for the first time, a ring of your own dark purple magic igniting around you as flames.
  1720. >You picture the place where Incognito stores the Homunculi, and you begin to 'sink' down into the magical ring of fire.
  1721. >Everything fades to a murky darkness as your head passes the threshold, but that doesn't last long, as your head is the first thing to rise back up, greeting you with the sight of the storage area, slowly coming into view from behind the ring of fire here.
  1722. >The ring dissipates, and you're left standing alone in this place.
  1723.  
  1724. >That was so strange, teleporting like that!
  1725. >Strange in the best possible way, like you were rediscovering an old hobby!
  1726. >It didn't take you that much power, either: all it took you was extra time!
  1727. >Wait, right, it does more than just work well as a teleport, too!
  1728. >It's stealthy, undetectable by magic sensing spells, and barriers can't stop it!
  1729. >H-how do you know all of that?
  1730. >No, whatever, who cares?
  1731. >It's amazing, is what it is!
  1732. >And Foremothers above, you're going to make use of it!
  1733. >Foremothers, huh?
  1734. >There's something so fitting about that choice of words...
  1735. >No, wait, nevermind, Incognito, right!
  1736. >You trot over towards the general direction of one of the exits, heading towards where he said he'd be, but as you reach the hallway opening, you stop, remembering something else.
  1737. >You remember what he asked you, before he let you go.
  1738. >You resume your course at a slightly slower pace.
  1739. >Why'd he ask you to think it over?
  1740. >Does he really think you'd give him any other answer?
  1741. >Would you have given him any other answer?
  1742. >Of course not!
  1743. >You trust Incognito completely, even with your life!
  1744. >He'd never do anything to hurt you, never on purpose!
  1745. >And he'd certainly never betray you, not like...
  1746. >Oh.
  1747. >Oh, Foremothers above, now you understand what he meant.
  1748. >Now you knew why he looked so hurt, back then.
  1749. >He needs more assurances than just your word.
  1750. >With all the betrayals he's had to suffer through before this point, no wonder he's so wary.
  1751. >He wants to trust you, but...
  1752. >Should he?
  1753. >As you mull the question over, your pace slows to a stop, your previous confidence in your answer evaporating away.
  1754.  
  1755. >You've never been very useful to him.
  1756. >You failed him so many times, already.
  1757. >You're the reason why he almost died back at Canterlot, coming there to free you.
  1758. >He shouldn't have a reason to keep trusting you.
  1759. >S-so why does he want to?
  1760. >Why does he keep forgiving you, keep giving you these chances?
  1761. >What does he see, that you don't?
  1762. >You rack your mind for answers, but fail to find anything that satisfies you.
  1763. >Damn it.
  1764. >Damn it, damn it!
  1765. >Why is he so damn forgiving with you?
  1766. >You know he was never this forgiving with all the others he trusted!
  1767. >The others...
  1768. >Wh-why did they betray him?
  1769. >They had no reason to do it, at least nothing good!
  1770. >What the buck was Veldheer thinking, abandoning him for you?
  1771. >Ugh, he wasn't, was he?
  1772. >As if his lust for fighting and glory wasn't enough, now he decides chasing your tail was a better goal than helping Incognito, helping his people?
  1773. >So he's an idiot, okay, that at least makes sense, even if he is a useful idiot!
  1774. >Zamara makes sense, too: she went behind his back, hid things from him she shouldn't have!
  1775. >You don't care if the damn ghosts told her to hide them, there's no excuse for that!
  1776. >That just leaves Chrysalis.
  1777. >Why did she betray him?
  1778. >You haven't given it much thought, sure, but even now, her motive still escapes you!
  1779. >She left him to attack Ponyville on her own, taking half of the hive with her, and failed miserably at it.
  1780. >Agh, why?!
  1781. >Her being jealous or spiteful towards him still doesn't make sense, but nothing else comes to mind!
  1782. >And then there's you!
  1783. >Why did she hide who you were, make you forget who you were?!
  1784. >Her love for you in those occasional dreams felt so real, so genuine!
  1785. >Why, then?!
  1786. >What possible motive, what agenda did she have for any of this?!
  1787.  
  1788. >Racking your mind for answers wasn't getting you anywhere, no matter how many minutes you took to think of one.
  1789. >Damn it!
  1790. >You start to deflate, and honestly consider giving up.
  1791. >You're not going to figure out what her agenda was, are you?
  1792. >And he's not going to trust you with his plans--
  1793. >ding
  1794. >Agendas.
  1795. >That's it!
  1796. >They all had their own agendas!
  1797. >Veldheer serves himself, Zamara serves those damn ghosts, and Chrysalis served Foremothers-knows-what!
  1798. >None of them served him, or his plans!
  1799. >They used him to get ahead!
  1800. >But you?
  1801. >You don't.
  1802. >And you never will.
  1803. >A small smile crosses your face, and your walking resumes, your previous confidence in your answer slowly seeping back in.
  1804. >That's right.
  1805. >That's what he wanted to know, if you'd betray him like they did.
  1806. >No.
  1807. >Never.
  1808. >He's been nothing but good to you, even through all the hardships.
  1809. >He'd never betray you, never manipulate you, like all those others tried to do with him.
  1810. >And you'd never do the same to him, ever.
  1811. >Now you understand why he asked that question.
  1812. >He wants to see how genuine you are for himself.
  1813. >And you have every intention of showing him you are.
  1814. >You round one last corner, finding your destination in a set of stone doors.
  1815. >With your strength, they're pushed aside with ease, and inside is none other than Incognito, wearing his preaching clothes and his catalyst, closely observing that same magic circle from days ago.
  1816. >His eyes shoot up to meet your own, and the smile that crosses his face serves to grow your own.
  1817. >"Punctual as always, Athalia. It is good to see you, again."
  1818. "Thank you."
  1819. >You shut the doors behind you, before continuing:
  1820. "I'm ready to answer you, Incognito."
  1821. >His eyes briefly widen, and he walks over towards you, pulling the catalyst off of his hand.
  1822. >"And I am ready to hear it, Athalia."
  1823.  
  1824. >He kneels in front of you, getting at eye level.
  1825. >Taking a small breath, you finally give him your answer.
  1826. "Incognito Matthias," you begin, placing a hoof on his shoulder. "I promise that whatever happens, you can always trust me, just like I can always trust in you."
  1827. >For the briefest of moments, the pained look in his eyes from before flashes back through them, before being quickly replaced with a satisfied, happy look, matching the rest of his expression.
  1828. >"Thank you, Athalia. It means a great deal to me, to hear you say that."
  1829. >He trusts you.
  1830. >He trusts you!
  1831. >Unable to help yourself, you throw your forelegs around his neck, pulling him in close.
  1832. >He trusts you!
  1833. >Slowly, after a few moments, his arms come up from behind just like before, only this time he lightly touches them to your back, as if trying to return the embrace.
  1834. >He trusts you!
  1835. >Words cannot describe how happy you are, right now!
  1836. >He trusts you!
  1837. >He finally ends the moment, his hands reaching up and pulling you away by the withers, but you don't care.
  1838. >"Come, Athalia," he says, as proud as he's ever sounded. "The others will be here soon, and I promise you, this next stage of my plans will bring us that much closer to ending this conflict, once and for all."
  1839. "I can't wait!"
  1840. >"Nor can I."
  1841. >Rising to his feet, he turns back towards that circle, sliding his hand back into the catalyst.
  1842. >The circle looks the same as it did before, but the orb in the middle certainly doesn't.
  1843. >Where there was once a head-sized orb of smoking magical energy, now there was a large sphere of red magic, about the size of a boulder, a storm of red and black magic swirling violently from within.
  1844. >What unnerved you the most wasn't the sight of the unstable looking sphere, but the complete silence that came from it.
  1845.  
  1846. >You jump a little when you hear the doors open behind you, and turning to see who it is, gets you--
  1847. >Her.
  1848. >Zamara!
  1849. >But, wait a minute.
  1850. >Why is she wearing a weird, wooden mask?
  1851. >"You've come," Incognito comments in a slightly angry tone. "You know what to do next, so I suggest you make haste."
  1852. >Not a single word leaves her mouth, the fear coming off of her answering your question about her silence.
  1853. >After what he did, you'd be terrified, too.
  1854. >Only she deserved everything she got.
  1855. >No.
  1856. >She deserved worse.
  1857. >You don't even need to look at the door again; that signature cocktail of emotions couldn't belong to anyone but Veldheer.
  1858. >Right on cue, his love for you swells, but just as quickly sours into anger, when he notices Zamara.
  1859. >"You brought her here, human?"
  1860. >"For the moment."
  1861. >"Well, it's your plan on the line, not mine."
  1862. >You hadn't noticed your teeth clenching so much, until your jaw clamps down enough for you to feel it.
  1863. >"So, let us see what this vaunted plan of yours has to offer, human."
  1864. >"I will need only another minute, before the demonstration."
  1865. >His incredulity spikes, but fades back into his care for you, as you sense him moving into place beside you.
  1866. >You, however, aren't taking your eyes of Zamara for any reason.
  1867. >"You are wise to keep your eye on her, my dear," Veldheer whispers. "Are you able to sense when she is being deceit--"
  1868. "Yes."
  1869. >"Ah. Good."
  1870. >Zamara pours out some more potions onto the floor, where they seep into the symbols on the floor, just like before.
  1871. >"Good, we are ready," booms Incognito. "I am glad you could join me, Veldheer."
  1872. >"This had better be worth it, human."
  1873. >"As I said, I've spent months planning this. I will not settle for anything less than excellence."
  1874.  
  1875. >You can sense Zamara's hesitance about something.
  1876. >"Now, what do you know of your people's legends, Veldheer--?"
  1877. "Wait."
  1878. >"Is something the matter, Athalia?"
  1879. "What are you so worried about, Zamara?"
  1880. >She flinches at your words, something she's never done before.
  1881. >"Is there something I should know, Zamara?"
  1882. >"M-my Lord," she begins, "Wh-where are your sacrifices?"
  1883. >Wait, sacrifices?
  1884. >"Ahh, yes, my sacrifice. I have taken care of that, long ago."
  1885. >"S-sacrifice? Only one?"
  1886. >"I did not misspeak, Zamara."
  1887. >"B-but you cannot create the Klip with but one--"
  1888. >"My sacrifice is more than sufficient for this task, and you will see the truth of that for yourself soon enough. Now, be silent."
  1889. >To your surprise, she does stay silent, though her unease speaks volumes.
  1890. >"As I was saying, what do you know of your people's legends, Veldheer?"
  1891. >"More than you, human!"
  1892. >"Undoubtedly. Now, there is one legend in particular, among your alchemists, that drew my eye the most."
  1893. >"Among my alchemists? Just what could--"
  1894. >A realization dawns upon him, and just like that, his incredulity shoots to new heights, punctuated by the joyless laugh that escapes his throat.
  1895. >"I always knew you were cracked, human, but I did not think you were mad enough to attempt creating something of that nature!"
  1896. >"You might be surprised, with just how attainable it is."
  1897. >"Great elder's blood, I thought Duplicitious Zamara's mentions of 'klip' was simply an allusion! You mean to tell me that you've been trying to create the Klip, this entire time?!"
  1898. >"Correct."
  1899. >"You're both cracked, then! Bah, I knew I should not have wasted my time in coming here!"
  1900. >"You don't think I am capable of creating it?"
  1901. >"Thousands have died, attempting to create it over my tribe's history! None have succeeded!"
  1902. >"Of course they couldn't. They did not know the procedure to forge it."
  1903.  
  1904. >"And you are just arrogant enough to think you have the secret to it's creation, I imagine!"
  1905. >"Arrogant? Veldheer, the formula of your 'Klip' was the closely guarded secret of your ancient ancestor, Zabraxas. She kept the secret of it's creation here, never allowing it into the hooves of her underlings."
  1906. >"His underlings, human! You will not sully the name of my great ancestor with your lies!"
  1907. >"Ahh, how the spoken word devolves the truth so..."
  1908. >"Enough! If you intend to die, to forfeit your soul in forging the impossible, then that alone will be reason enough to watch you."
  1909. >For some reason, Incognito's smile becomes wry at the mention of his soul.
  1910. >Sh-shouldn't he be worried about that...?!
  1911. >"Then you know one truth about the legend."
  1912. >"And you said you only had one sacrifice! Hah, I'd like to see this 'sacrifice' of yours, human!"
  1913. >"Oh, Veldheer," he intones, excitement dripping from his voice. "I thought you would never ask."
  1914. >With a wide, almost savage smile, his catalyst ignites, and part of the floor behind him opens up.
  1915. >Levitating out of it is a huge red crystal, plastered in glyphs and--
  1916. >Wait.
  1917. >Th-that's the--!
  1918. >"You may not believe it, but this one is responsible for Zebrica's unstable terrain. Fitting, how this is his penance."
  1919. >The stone he kept Discord's soul in!
  1920. >Without a word, he throws the crystal into the magic sphere.
  1921. >Muted screams can be heard amidst the red, crackling lightning that cloaks the violent, unstable orb, which quickly begins to crystallize over.
  1922. >"Your people call this the 'Klip', but on my world, we had another name for this object."
  1923. >The final result, a huge, spiky chaotic lump of crystal, absolutely thrumming with power, crashes to the ground.
  1924. >His smile savage and gleeful, he runs the catalyst along it's surface, red lightning arcing from it's surface.
  1925. >"The Philosopher's Stone."
  1926. <...
  1927.  
  1928. @@@@@@@@
  1929.  
  1930. >>THUMP
  1931. >>The orange ape-monster boots you in the chest, the impact both knocking the air out of your lungs and sending you flying backwards, the chains binding your arms arresting your movement before you can hit the wall behind you.
  1932. >>Coughing, trying to regain your breath, you hang limply in place, your knees just barely able to touch the floor, suspended as you are from the ceiling.
  1933. >>"We've been at this for months, human," the pissed-off monkey thing huffs at you, a little winded from his kicking. "Just give it up, already!"
  1934. >>THUMP
  1935. >>You don't even cry out at this stage: you're too exhausted, too focused on breathing.
  1936. >>"Nothing in this world is coming to save you, you must realize that by now!"
  1937. >>THUMP
  1938. >>This guy's lost more than his patience by this stage: he's started losing his nerve, too.
  1939. >>You'd smile, if you were physically capable of it.
  1940. >>THUMP
  1941. >>"I can make this all stop, if you just give in!"
  1942. >>Never going to happen.
  1943. >>THUMP
  1944. >>THUMP
  1945. >>You'd braced for another kick, but instead, he grabs hold of your head, forcing you to look at his snarling, furious face.
  1946. >>"Do you want me to bring the potions into this, human? Is that what you want me to do?"
  1947. >>He can hide it all he wants, but there's no mistaking the nervous glint in his eyes.
  1948. >>He's running out of time.
  1949. >>Who knows for what, who cares for what.
  1950. >>"Have it your way," he bellows, "If you won't relent in body, you intolerable little thing, then you will in mind!"
  1951. >>Perhaps if you were more energized, the noise that left your throat might constitute a triumphant chuckle.
  1952. >>But your interrogator gets the intended meaning loud and clear.
  1953. >>Loosing a yell of pure anger, he pulls back to sock you in the gut.
  1954. >>THUMP
  1955.  
  1956. "Aagh!"
  1957. >The pain in your stomach was muted, more than you were expecting, but it makes you jump upright all the same.
  1958. >As your senses come back, the ache in both your gut and chest fade away into nothing, the chest pain leaving in particular allowing you to take a deep breath without issue.
  1959. >Fucking hell, these dreams.
  1960. >Is it bad that you're starting to get used to them?
  1961. >KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
  1962. >"Well, sounds like you're up," calls Razor from behind the door. "Took you long enough."
  1963. >The fuck does he sound annoyed with you for?
  1964. >Why would--
  1965. >Oh.
  1966. >Right.
  1967. >You know, going back to the nightmares is starting to sound like a good alternative to facing everyone, right now.
  1968. >Fuck your life, man.
  1969. >You manage to get up without groaning, throw your big cloth covering over yourself, and head out the door, where both Razor and Exact were waiting.
  1970. >Neither one looked particularly pleased.
  1971. >Well, hopefully they won't bring up--
  1972. >"So, we gonna talk about what just happened yesterday?"
  1973. >You had to ask.
  1974. >When a few beats pass without a response, Exact preempts Razor with his own words:
  1975. >"Anon, your impulsive behaviour, unless curtailed, will cause a significant increase in the difficulty of both securing an alliance with the Wyse Kunstenaars, and retrieving your magical equipment. If left unchecked, your clash of attitudes with the tribe is projected to cause a 188.9% increase in the time taken to achieve our goals, and a 81.1% probability of the achievement yielding sub-optimal results."
  1976. >"In other words, your screw-ups are costing us a whole lot more than just time."
  1977. >Geez, does he ever look pissed.
  1978.  
  1979. >"Well?" Razor exclaims, after a few more moments of silence pass. "You going to say something, or what?"
  1980. "The fuck do you want me to say?"
  1981. >That came out snappier than you expected it to.
  1982. >"I want you to say quite a lot of things, but what I need is at least some kind of bucking acknowledgement!"
  1983. "What's there to acknowledge? You think I don't know how bad I've been screwing things up?"
  1984. >"Well, if you know how bad you've been screwing up, then it ought to be real easy to stop screwing up, right?"
  1985. "Listen, you have no idea what--"
  1986. >"Uh-uh, no, you listen!" he all but yells, almost right in your face. "Exact here knows a whole lot about these zebras, a damn sight more than me, and we've been going over everything he knows since you decided to buck off last night."
  1987. "So wha--"
  1988. >"Zip! He knows how they think, what they do, how to get on their good side, and what really pisses them off. Long story short, they're never going to budge, if you keep doing what you've been doing so far."
  1989. "Oh, really? And you know what I've been doing so far, huh?"
  1990. >"Trying to play the bucking hero, on top of being a belligerent little shit. Again."
  1991. >That was definitely an eye twitch you felt.
  1992. >"The off-hooved, impulsive nature of your responses to him encapsulates the issue at hoof very well. Your usual methodologies for currying favour with others are at present not only wholly ineffective, but actively detrimental."
  1993. >"They're way tighter on respecting the higher-ups than in Equestria. They only want straight answers: no banter, no jokes, no horseshitting around at all. You're so bucking lucky that this Heerser colt is as friendly as he is, otherwise you'd have been dead the second that festival thing ended."
  1994. "You're shitting me."
  1995. >"Oh sweet Nightmother's teats, are you even listening to me?!"
  1996.  
  1997. >"I realize that your learning proclivities lean heavily towards discovering errors for yourself, but we do not have that luxury here. Our mission does not take place in an environment that allows for such a process to take place."
  1998. >"And your gut instinct's been off the bucking mark, the whole time we've been here."
  1999. >You can't believe the shit you're hearing.
  2000. >These assholes have been keeping your shit locked away because of their fuck-up, and now it's your fault?!
  2001. >"Got something clever to say, tailhole? Go on, say it."
  2002. "What the fuck is your problem? They took our shit, they locked us up, they almost killed me, and I'm getting the third degree for it?!"
  2003. >"Oh sweet Goddess have mercy on my soul, you really haven't been listening to me. Exact, tell me you can get through to him."
  2004. >"Our goal has always been to enlist their help against Incognito. Their actions towards us have not been amicable, of course, but they have been extending significant offers to address this. It is your own refusal of their olive branches, your vengeful responses to their offers, that draw the lieutenant's ire."
  2005. "But--"
  2006. >"Uh-uh," Razor interjects. "No. No 'buts'. These guys aren't our enemies, Anon! So quit treating them like they are, and stop trying to get even with them all the bucking time!"
  2007. >How can someone as agreeable as Razor be this fucking dense?
  2008. >They're wrong, both of them!
  2009. >This shit isn't your fucking fault!
  2010. >They--
  2011. >"Ah, I see you're all awake," calls Heerser's voice from behind.
  2012. >You turn in place towards his voice, seeing the still-armoured zebra closing the distance towards your group, that little smile of his present and accounted for.
  2013. >"Well, you two look about ready to smash something," he comments, eyes flicking between you and Razor. "Let's see if we can't put that frustration to better use, shall we?"
  2014.  
  2015. >Razor snorts, while you grumble something angry under your breath.
  2016. >"Thank you for this opportunity, Clement Heerser," Exact offers.
  2017. >"It's Travelled Heerser, agent of Celestia," he half-fires back, before reining himself in. "But anyways, let's not waste any more time, shall we?"
  2018. >Fucking agreed.
  2019. >He leads the way out of this building, but instead of hitting the big courtyard, he continues on towards the tent complex in this little courtyard.
  2020. >And judging from the huge amount of zebra warriors you're seeing in and around these tents, this sure looks like their port of call around these parts.
  2021. >As you follow Heerser, many of them jump at the sight of you, and almost make to throw down with you right then and there, but Heerser's mere presence was one hell of a deterrent.
  2022. >After a much longer stretch of walking past tents than you expected, you come up to one very big tent, which he wastes no time in ushering your group into.
  2023. >Inside lies a surprisingly kitted-out area, with some small bookshelves lining parts of the tent walls, but the most prominent feature had to be the decently sized, lantern-strung gazebo in the middle, covering up a big, old-fashioned war room table, full of maps with tiny figures on them, and complete with daggers stabbed into the table.
  2024. >"I know it's not as impressive as your fancy Equestrian war rooms, but this gets the job done very well. Very private, too."
  2025. >Heerser looks back at the three of you, all lined up next to one another by now.
  2026. >"Uncouth Razor Wind, and agent of Celestia, I am pleased to say that your items were not scrutinized nearly as much as Outlandish Anonymous's items. As such, I was easily able to retrieve them for you."
  2027. >Well, that's good news, at least!
  2028.  
  2029. >He says something to some nearby guards in the tent, who form up next to him.
  2030. >"They are waiting for you in a specially reserved tent I have prepared for you two. These two shall take you there now."
  2031. "Wait, you're sending them off by themselves?"
  2032. >Razor grunted for a brief moment, and it was not a happy noise.
  2033. >"I am. I wanted the privacy of this tent, so we could have a chance to talk, Outlandish Anonymous."
  2034. >Oh, God.
  2035. >"Wait, wait, wait a minute," Razor interjects, very unhappy. "I'm not just gonna leave him here to--"
  2036. >"You're angry with him, aren't you?"
  2037. >You froze up in time with him.
  2038. >"You two need the distance, if only for a few brief moments."
  2039. >That sounded an awful lot like an excuse, to you.
  2040. >"Now, we don't have long before we set out, so I would ask that you equip yourselves as quickly as possible. Please follow these two, Equestrians."
  2041. >He tells the guards something about leading them around, and while Exact falls into formation with them quickly, Razor is much more hesitant.
  2042. >He does eventually go along, but he looks back at you the whole time.
  2043. >He's concerned, sure, but he still looks angry with you, too.
  2044. >The second he leaves the tent, Heerser yells to the other guards in here to leave, which they do very quickly.
  2045. >Now it's just you and him.
  2046. >"Now then, Outlandish Anonymous, please join me at the table."
  2047. >Not like you have much choice.
  2048. >"Well, perhaps I should be calling you 'Otherworldly' Anonymous, hm?" he intones, traces of annoyance in his voice.
  2049. >Oh yeah, right, he talked with that fucking Zaalma bitch from yesterday.
  2050. >"Your thestral companion is right to be angry with you. Were I in his place, I would have exercised significantly less restraint."
  2051.  
  2052. "Oh God, please don't start with--"
  2053. >SLAM
  2054. "Whoaly--!"
  2055. >Jumping badly at the sudden noise, you quickly look up to see Heerser slamming the table, wearing some kind of thick, black horseshoe on the hoof that did the slamming.
  2056. >His expression now lacked the usual happiness it had before, instead changing to a slightly scary, completely serious, soul-rending glare.
  2057. >"You've been lying to me."
  2058. >Make that very scary.
  2059. >"I offered you honesty, transparency, and hospitality, and you have repaid me by injecting fear into my warriors, drawing the ire of my close friend and advisor, and offering grave insults towards the one who saved your life."
  2060. >He scowls pretty hard for a brief moment at that last mention, but quickly reins it back into the regular frown.
  2061. >"I pride myself on having such a good sense for others. It has been quite a number of years, since my sense for another has been this markedly wrong."
  2062. >He begins to slowly walk around the table towards you, that one horseshoe making a pronounced 'clack' whenever that leg hit the ground.
  2063. >"What else have you been lying to me about, Otherworldly Anonymous?"
  2064. "I-I--"
  2065. >"At this stage, I am more willing to trust your companion from Sol Invictus, than I am you. At least his underhooved intentions are well understood."
  2066. >This can't be real.
  2067. >This just keeps getting worse and worse!
  2068. >"Why, precisely, should I trust you?"
  2069. >There's that word again.
  2070. >Him, that old bag, even Exact all told you that it was super valuable to them.
  2071. >You spend several moments trawling your brain for an answer to his question, your results coming up more empty than you would have liked.
  2072. >The few reasons with potential, like your intention to stop Incognito, face a similar problem: you can't think of how to back those reasons up.
  2073.  
  2074. >You're just fucked, aren't you?
  2075. >Okay, sure, you hid stuff from them, but who the fuck wouldn't hide shit like the iron blood, or your E.T. status?
  2076. >Not like it matters, now.
  2077. >After moments of pulling up nothing but blanks and dead ends, you deflate.
  2078. >Doesn't matter who's to blame now, does it?
  2079. >Either way, you're fucked.
  2080. >Might as well be up-front about it.
  2081. "You can't."
  2082. >You don't even look at him when you deliver that line.
  2083. >But as the moments drag on, and the silence becomes deafening, you lose what little resolve to avoid looking you have left, and do exactly that.
  2084. >To your surprise, he looks less angry than before.
  2085. >"That's correct. I can't."
  2086. >He circles back around to his side of the table, but never breaks eye contact with you.
  2087. >More moments of silence pass, before he speaks again:
  2088. >"As your companions have said, that is a privilege you must earn. And I will not permit you to retrieve your items, until you do."
  2089. >Just dig another foot down the hole, why don't you?
  2090. >"Tell me, Otherworldly Anonymous. Is there anyzebra here in my tribe that you trust?"
  2091. "No."
  2092. >"No? You seem awfully trusting of me at the moment, don't you?"
  2093. "Not trusting, just... well, appreciative. You and that masked mare."
  2094. >"Her?" he asks, caught between surprise and anger. "You speak of her so fondly, after you insulted her like that?"
  2095. "I didn't mean to--!"
  2096. >No, no.
  2097. >Reel it in, Anon, for fuck's sake.
  2098. "God, I really screwed up with her, didn't I?"
  2099. >"I think you already know the answer to that."
  2100. >Stupid question.
  2101. "Do you know where she is?"
  2102. >"And what is it to you?"
  2103. "Please, I... I need to make this up to her, somehow."
  2104. >His gaze becomes more scrutinizing than angry.
  2105. >"Do you even realize what it is you said to her?"
  2106. "I, uh... no?"
  2107. >That glare of his really makes you shrink back.
  2108.  
  2109. >"You asked her to flirt with betrayal, putting our trust in her at odds with her inexplicable trust of you. A grave insult all unto itself, but worse still, is that she paid the highest price for a similar betrayal in the past: a conflict of trust."
  2110. >Mentioning that conflict causes his frown to deepen and his eyes to wander, and not out of anger.
  2111. >"You asked her to repeat that which created her present circumstances. That which subjects her to the ire of all those in our tribe."
  2112. >It's at that point, that the scope of how badly you'd fucked up with her starts to dawn on you.
  2113. >"You presume to 'make this up' to her, Otherworldly Anonymous?" he all but growls.
  2114. >She kept calling you her friend, and you just...
  2115. >Oh, God have mercy on your soul.
  2116. "I have to try. I owe her at least that much."
  2117. >That sounded so hollow, despite your best efforts.
  2118. >More moments of silence pass, as he thinks over what you've said.
  2119. >"Perhaps if you do well today, I may consider letting you see her again. Assuming she still wants to see you, of course."
  2120. "Thank you."
  2121. >God, you hope you can fix things with her.
  2122. >"Now, enough about her," he says, trying to reel back his anger.
  2123. >He takes a deep breath to cool off, before moving on.
  2124. >"You claim to trust nozebra here, yet you seem awfully trusting of me, so far."
  2125. "I guess so. I mean, why wouldn't I be? You've been a good host, right?"
  2126. >"A good host that you've lied to about who you are and what you want."
  2127. "Look, I'm sorry, okay?"
  2128. >"And what of these items of yours? They are incredibly powerful, according to you and Zaalma. Why should I trust you to handle them?"
  2129. "Oh, no, don't you dare start this with me!"
  2130. >Ah, there's your voice.
  2131. >"Then perhaps I should trust them to your companions, instead? They seem to approach this situation much more sensibly than you."
  2132. "It's not that simple! Nobody but me can use that stuff!"
  2133. >"Oh? Power akin to an alicorn, yet you claim only you can--"
  2134.  
  2135. >He cuts himself off, like something just dawned on him.
  2136. >"Aahhh, I see what Zaalma meant, now. You want to trust them with such power, but believe yourself to be it's only worthy wielder."
  2137. "Oh for-- No, it's not like that!"
  2138. >"I'm sorry, but I simply cannot interpret your hesitance as anything else."
  2139. "Just because it sounds similar, doesn't mean it's the same thing!"
  2140. >"I'm afraid I don't see any functional difference. Could you elaborate?"
  2141. "Oh, for-- Okay, listen, the shit I make literally cannot work with anyone but me, is technically illegal, and you already know the damage it can do! Hell, the book I get this all from is magically made to not give you the big toys right away, to keep people from abusing them!"
  2142. >That last part intrigues Heerser, who quirks an eyebrow.
  2143. >"The Towenaar's manuscripts? They withhold their information?"
  2144. "Yes!"
  2145. >"I didn't think they mistrusted the reader that much."
  2146. "You say that like they can control who reads their stuff!"
  2147. >And then there's the Pandora's box angle!
  2148. >How can you even--
  2149. >Wait, that's it!
  2150. "Listen, you told me that you don't expect me to agree, just understand, right? Listen, back where I come from, where..."
  2151. >Shoulders slumped, fists balled.
  2152. "Where the other guy comes from, we have tools and weapons that you can't even imagine."
  2153. >"Weapons I cannot imagine, you say? I've witnessed the Destroyer vanquish huge swaths of my warriors, dozens at a time, with single sweeps of his weapon. I'm having difficulty imagining much worse than that."
  2154. "Imagine a weapon no bigger than this book," you start, pointing to a fairly normal one on the table. "That I can hold in just one hand. Imagine this tiny weapon having the power to kill someone from a distance in only a few hits."
  2155. >It's hard not to think of your long lost Beretta.
  2156. >"And we can match such a feat with thrown potions. What is your point?"
  2157. "So you can make thousands of potions in just a day?"
  2158.  
  2159. >There's the disbelief you were looking for.
  2160. >"Excuse me?"
  2161. "Back home, we don't fight with close-up weapons, like everyone here does. These tiny weapons, 'guns', are all we fight with. And that's just one variety: we have guns that are as big and as heavy as you, and can kill someone from a mile away."
  2162. >"That is madness."
  2163. "You're absolutely right, it is. There are millions of them all throughout the world, with thousands made daily in huge factories, and every military's got them in spades. Hell, I wasn't even in the military, and I had a gun!"
  2164. >"You... possess such a thing?"
  2165. "No, I couldn't bring it here. Anyways, look, my point is that even though I trust my friends here, I'd never want them to know how to make and use shit like that. Once it's out there, you can't take it back out, and God only knows what people would do, with weapons that powerful popping out of nowhere."
  2166. >Now you're starting to feel bad for even considering making a shotgun.
  2167. >"Intriguing. I can see why you chose that as an allegory, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  2168. >Yes, you've got it!
  2169. >"But as harrowing as that story is, I'm afraid it does not align to your present situation."
  2170. >Oh come on, what?!
  2171. "And why is that?"
  2172. >"You've already put the Towenaar's tools 'out there'. And like you said, you cannot take them back out."
  2173. >Whatever response you had dies in your throat.
  2174. >"But what, precisely, is preventing you from guiding their usage? You must have serious pull in Equestria, if you can frolic so freely with the likes of Sol Invictus."
  2175. >He walks back around the table towards you, only this time his look is more conciliatory.
  2176. >"Surely you must understand that suppressing and destroying all knowledge of it will never be as effective as simply embracing it, guiding it towards good uses? After all, the Solar Keeper failed to erase your copy of the Towenaar's manuscripts, didn't she?"
  2177.  
  2178. >He faces you properly, most of his anger gone by this point.
  2179. >"It's not as if their tools have their roots in blood, pain, and sacrifice, like with those vile blood alchemists. If they did, I would have never entertained this conversation in the first place. Nor are their tools made for the singular purpose of war, as it is with these 'guns' you speak of."
  2180. >No response from you, just reminiscence.
  2181. >The time you had to convince Twilight that your thaumic stuff wasn't evil.
  2182. >How you really had to convince Celestia that it wasn't evil, even though she kinda already knew.
  2183. >"I understand now, Otherworldly Anonymous. And it seems you're beginning to understand, too."
  2184. >You were even letting Luna and Twilight tinker with thaumic stuff for themselves.
  2185. >"Zaalma attributed your withholding of knowledge and power to selfish, malevolent motives. But I can see now, that this was incorrect."
  2186. >Yes, he gets it!
  2187. >"I realize you meant well, keeping what you know a secret. Good intentions, unfortunately, do not preclude us from making bad decisions."
  2188. "You really think they could handle it?"
  2189. >"Only you can answer that."
  2190. >Could they?
  2191. >You mean, Sunburst, Twilight and Luna seem to handle it fine.
  2192. >Razor, Exact, Crescent, maybe they could, too.
  2193. >Making them able to use it properly is a whole other challenge, but maybe if it was just your circle to start off with...?
  2194. >Fucking hell, was this guy right, the whole time?
  2195. "Maybe..."
  2196. >"Maybe what?"
  2197. "Maybe you're right. Maybe my friends can handle it."
  2198. >"Well, I'm certain they could," he replies, slight disappointment in his voice. "They look to have good heads on their withers."
  2199. "Yeah, they sure do, huh?"
  2200. >Unlike you, it looks like.
  2201. >He walks back around to his side of the table again.
  2202. >"Well, you've shown me one thing quite clearly, Otherworldly Anonymous. You can indeed be made trustworthy, given time to discuss things."
  2203.  
  2204. "Wait wait, you're trusting me, now?"
  2205. >"No. But at the very least, I know it is within your reach."
  2206. >The hole you're in feels like it got just a little shallower.
  2207. >"You still have quite a ways to go, though."
  2208. >Figures.
  2209. >Whatever, it's progress, and you're not about to complain!
  2210. >Huh, maybe you could...?
  2211. >Oh fuck it, he probably knows half the story already.
  2212. "I guess while we're on the subject, I should tell you a thing or two about the guy we're up against."
  2213. >"The Destroyer, you mean?"
  2214. "Yeah. It has to do with him being from the same world as me."
  2215. >"Well, any information about him would aid us greatly."
  2216. >Praying that he doesn't react too badly, you tell him about some of the spells he's used, and then move on to telling him about humans having the iron blood, and of course, how they seem to be lacking in the soul department.
  2217. >It's that last revelation that really shocks him, though you can't say you expected much different.
  2218. >"It makes sense, now!"
  2219. "What? What makes sense?"
  2220. >"The black magic he wields, there's no possible way he could drink enough spirit shields to offset the corruption!"
  2221. "Wait, 'spirit shields'?"
  2222. >"Yes, blood alchemy made to ward off the corruption of dark magic and blood alchemy."
  2223. "That exists?!"
  2224. >"It does, though I shudder to think of how they create it. Regardless, if he truly is without a soul, then he would have no limit on his dark powers!"
  2225. "Yeah, I saw that first-hand."
  2226. >"Otherworldly Anonymous, do you truly not have a soul of your own?"
  2227. "As far as the magicians are concerned, no. On the plus side, I don't seem to need it. The dark magic immunity helps, too."
  2228. >"It would shield you from most blood alchemy, wouldn't it? Their spirit suppression brews would be useless, to name but one example..."
  2229. "You're taking this better than my friends did."
  2230. >"We are allies, not friends. If it's an advantage not begotten of the darkness, I will take it."
  2231.  
  2232. >One more time, he circles around the table, until he's in front of you.
  2233. >"Our time grows short, so I must end things here. I am, however, glad you took the time to speak plainly with me, Otherworldly Anonymous, no matter how long it took to get to that point."
  2234. "I, uh, I'm sorry, by the way."
  2235. >"Oh? What for?"
  2236. "For being a complete pain in the ass, so far."
  2237. >Razor was right, all along.
  2238. >Jesus, what would you do without the little guy?
  2239. >"I ask only that you not make a habit of it."
  2240. "I'll try."
  2241. >"Very good. Now..."
  2242. >He calls his guards back in, before motioning you to follow him.
  2243. >"I promised you equipment, did I not?"
  2244. "I can still complain about it not being my old stuff, right?"
  2245. >"For all the good it will do," he shoots back, a small shit-eating grin on his face.
  2246. >Oh right, this asshole cracks wise.
  2247. >You exit out of the big tent, and follow him down towards whichever tent he's leading you to next.
  2248. >"Here, we do not rely on equipment to carry us, but our skills, and our alchemy. Me and the alchemists will be more than happy to show you."
  2249. >Alchemy?
  2250. "You guys use potions?"
  2251. >"All the time. It is our greatest asset, after all."
  2252. "You know, I'm so glad that potions can work on me."
  2253. >"I'll admit, that defies what I expected of an ironblood."
  2254. "Yeah, I know. Still don't know why that is."
  2255. >"I take it you've had experience with alchemy before this, then?"
  2256. "Just what little the Canterlot doctors know about it. Still, that little bit saved my life more than once."
  2257. >"Oh, our works are far beyond that of those Equestrian facsimiles. I think you will be quite pleased with what you find."
  2258. >You'd be lying, if you weren't a little excited.
  2259. >It's not your wands, bow, and armour, sure, but upgraded potions sounds interesting in it's own right.
  2260. >Maybe you won't be as hopelessly screwed as you thought?
  2261.  
  2262. >The two of you come up to a fairly big tent, and you find Razor and Exact sitting inside.
  2263. >Exact, as you sort of expected, stood by himself off to the side, though with all his armour on.
  2264. >Razor, on the other hand...
  2265. >"Anon," he grumbles.
  2266. >He's still angry with you.
  2267. >Don't know why he's got this little zebra filly on his back, but that's not what you're interested in right now.
  2268. >"So, you finally decided to show up, huh--"
  2269. "I'm sorry."
  2270. >"Of course you'd-- Wait, what?"
  2271. "You were right, both of you. I've really been screwing things up lately, and, well, I'll try to curb it from here on out."
  2272. >He just stands there, giving you a look that just screams 'I don't believe you'.
  2273. >"Who are you, and what did you do to Anonymous?"
  2274. "We're adding his biological and technological distinctiveness to our own."
  2275. >He rolls his eyes and wrinkles his snout, but he's clearly still mad at you.
  2276. >"You'll have to do better than that, to-- Aah!"
  2277. >That inexplicable zebra filly just batted at one of his ears, getting a good jump out of him.
  2278. >"Hey, watch the ears!"
  2279. >One of the cutest little laughs you've ever heard comes out of that filly, and Razor's remaining anger stands no chance against it.
  2280. >"Oh, for-- You're so lucky that she's here, right now."
  2281. "And who's 'she', anyways? Making new friends here already?"
  2282. >"The filly's name is unknown to me," Exact explains, "But she is apparently the daughter of one of the alchemists who came here to help equip us. For reasons I cannot explain, the lieutenant and her seem to be, for lack of a better term, bonding."
  2283. >"Hey, this lil' zeeb's got some guts, crawling around on a dangerous Night Guard like me!"
  2284. "Aww, what's this? Mr. 'dangerous Night Guard's got a soft spot for cute little fillies?"
  2285. >"Hey, you shut your mouth, tailhole!"
  2286. >It's hard to take him seriously, when she's flapping his wings around like that.
  2287.  
  2288. >"Goodness gracious, would you watch your language?!" Heerser interjects. "And around a filly, no less!"
  2289. "Remind me to never introduce him to the Crusaders."
  2290. >The tent flap can be heard opening behind you, and a whole bunch of alchemists come streaming in, regarding you mostly with interest, though some are pretty wary.
  2291. >That's Heerser's cue to speak up again.
  2292. >"Ah, here they are. Just follow their lead and let them do their work, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  2293. "Uh, right."
  2294. >You get backed up into the middle of the tent, and the zebras start bringing in a whole bunch of cloth on this little cart: the same kind of cloth you saw the other warriors wearing.
  2295. >They pull off your trusty covering, and they jump right into, weirdly enough, taking cloth pieces and stitching them into place, over your body.
  2296. >Geez, you're glad Rarity's not here to see this, because it looks about as ghetto as it feels.
  2297. >Don't know why they decided to wrap your dome in some of the stuff, either.
  2298. >They hoof over a mirror, letting you fully appreciate the sight of actual clothes, actual protection, though obviously not as good or stylish as your old set.
  2299. >The little turban they put together really puts that extra 'kang' touch on it, a touch that goes well with your beard starting to sprout, if you do say so yourself.
  2300. >"It doesn't look like much, but the fabrics are alchemically treated, and quite protective."
  2301. "I'll take your word for it."
  2302. >"Now, I also promised two of your items."
  2303. >Heerser steps out and brings in a case, and the alchemists really keep their distance from it.
  2304. >He sets it down and opens it up, and right away you can see your steel warhammer, and--
  2305. "Holy shit!"
  2306. >Instantly, you swipe the other item, as if shielding everyone from it.
  2307. >"What's the matter, Otherworldly Anonymous?"
  2308. "Jesus, you could've warned me about what you were bringing!"
  2309. >"Why? What is that?"
  2310. >Oh, just your portable electromagnet, is all!
  2311.  
  2312. @@@@@@@@
  2313.  
  2314. >"Yeah, I'd like an answer to that too, Anon!" Razor hollers from the side. "What is that?"
  2315. "It's, uh..."
  2316. >Ah shit, maybe you should have mentioned that you brought this, before.
  2317. "A magnet?"
  2318. >Exact's eyes widen ever so slightly, perfectly mirroring Razor's gasp, backpedal, and shielding of the little filly still on his back.
  2319. >"A magnet?" comes Heerser's innocuous question. "I've never heard of such a thing before."
  2320. >"Good bucking Goddess in Elysium, Anon! When did you plan on telling us you brought one of those?!"
  2321. "Would you believe it slipped my mind?"
  2322. >"Oh, it slipped your mind that you happened to bring the unstoppable killing device?!"
  2323. >"Excuse me? 'Unstoppable killing device'?"
  2324. >"An exaggeration," Exact throws in.
  2325. >"Exaggeration, my flank!"
  2326. "Jesus, you guys, settle down!"
  2327. >Well, now Razor's tucked away with the alchemists, who have all backed up even further.
  2328. >"I have seen your magnetic devices beforehoof, but this one is unfamiliar, with the appearance of recent construction."
  2329. >"Wait just a moment," Heerser interjects, "Why is that... block of metal with a bit attached so dangerous? Is it some kind of weapon?"
  2330. >"Of a sort."
  2331. >"If you act so calmly around it, agent of Celestia, then I presume it is not evil in nature?"
  2332. >"It is a device made to recreate a naturally occurring force from mister Anonymous's homeworld."
  2333. >"A... force?"
  2334. "Basically, it rips every bit of magic out of whatever's caught in it."
  2335. >"Rips it out...?!"
  2336. "That's right. This thing'll kill everything that isn't a human in only a minute or two. Hence the mini heart attack."
  2337. >Distress now obvious in his eyes, he starts speaking to the alchemists, something about 'warning', and 'touching'.
  2338. >Exact's not one to leave this subject hanging, however:
  2339. >"I agree with the lieutenant's statement, Anon: you should have disclosed that you brought such a device with you."
  2340.  
  2341. "Sorry."
  2342. >"I will need to know if it will be safe to carry that device with you, if it will cause any sudden cases of collateral damage."
  2343. "It won't. Trust me, I'd never have brought this thing, if it wasn't gonna be safe to sling around."
  2344. >"Explain how you made it safe."
  2345. >Exhaling a little, you give him the short version.
  2346. >You'd found out in your magnetic experiments, that hand-crank generators were a pretty solid way of putting out a decent magnetic field in a portable way, since a big pack of batteries was too heavy, and would drain too quickly.
  2347. >But carrying around permanent magnets to make the damn thing work was a total non-starter, since even the really weak ones you had could cause some serious discomfort for non-Earthlings.
  2348. >Luckily, you figured out a solution: use electromagnets for the generator instead, so you could de-power the whole setup at will.
  2349. >A little switch on the bottom of the thing connects the sealed-up vinegar battery to the generator's 'magnets', which would make turning the crank on the side generate electricity, dumped right into the big coil wrapped around an iron rod.
  2350. >It was a pretty slick system, however ghetto it might be by Earth standards: with enough elbow grease, you could easily outpace that old vinegar-cell thing that saved your life, way back when that fucking Athalia first attacked.
  2351. >And here it was: a fairly heavy, somewhat large, and vaguely ergonomic hand-crank generator, plated up in iron to keep it safe from magic.
  2352. >Changing the batteries was gonna be a pain in the ass, though...
  2353. >"You are quite correct, Otherworldly Anonymous. I should have told you of what I was bringing."
  2354. >Oh right, Heerser was listening in, too.
  2355. "I really hope they didn't touch this too much."
  2356. >"None of the alchemists touched anything that had iron in it's construction."
  2357.  
  2358. "Thank God for that. Hey, wait a minute, then how'd they get my armour off?"
  2359. >"That was left to the warriors, who are far less restrained around the metal, perhaps less than they should be. They were also responsible for dragging that bizarre carriage of yours back here."
  2360. >Wait, your car?!
  2361. "You have that here, too?!"
  2362. >"The broken tribe leaders are quite enamoured with it. Perhaps you can tell me more of it, while we patrol the deserts?"
  2363. >Oh, for--
  2364. >No, okay, all right, you'll wait.
  2365. >At least you know your ride's still in one piece!
  2366. >"I'll have to ask you to set that 'magnet' of yours back into that case, for the time being."
  2367. "But--"
  2368. >"The alchemists will not work around iron, I'm afraid. I will see to it that nothing touches it, I assure you."
  2369. "Fine," you sigh.
  2370. >Gingerly, you set it back into the case, which Heerser closes back up and carts off, ordering some guards outside to watch it closely.
  2371. >Just like that, the alchemists swarmed back in, though Razor still kept his distance.
  2372. >Seriously, what's with the filly on his back?
  2373. >"Now you shall be given your complement of potions, Otherworldly Anonymous. Your companions will receive some, too."
  2374. >The group of mares tie another bit of that weird fabric around your waist, only this time it's got a couple of pouches and some metal hook things attached to it, looking like a cross between a sash and a utility belt.
  2375. >Exact is just handed a loop of that same stuff, the alchemists looking pretty wary of him.
  2376. >Still, he floats it over and ties it up himself.
  2377. >Razor, on the other hand, sits down while that weird filly of his slowly and messily ties it around him herself, the alchemists giggling a little as the little gal goes about it.
  2378. >"You're lucky you're so damn cute," he mutters to himself.
  2379.  
  2380. >Heerser clears his throat, bringing all attention back to him.
  2381. >"We are all given ten potions: one of Soldier's Drive, two of Gentle Mending, three of Stryd-kuur, two of Cat's Eye, and two of Cat's Slumber."
  2382. >A round-bodied potion bottle is handed to you, and right away you notice the glass is very dark, almost totally opaque.
  2383. >"We drink one of Soldier's Drive before we depart: that one is an extra for the morning, should we rest out in the desert for the night. Alertness, energy, and a resistance against the elements, all for a whole day."
  2384. >So, like super-coffee?
  2385. >All right, that's cool, you guess.
  2386. >No sooner do you stow it away, than two thin vials, the glass still just as dark, are handed to you.
  2387. >"Should you suffer injuries after a battle takes place, Gentle Mending will see it restored. It acts slowly, so as to not obscure your senses with unnecessary pain."
  2388. >Okay, getting cooler.
  2389. >The alchemists point out where to stow those two, and when you do, they hand you another three bottles, a little rounded at the bottom this time.
  2390. >"For wounds sustained in the midst of battle, however? To heal those, you will need Stryd-kuur. Be warned, it will cause you a great deal of pain, and does not work instantaneously. Do not rely on them."
  2391. >Sounds like the doc's little healing potion, that you used back during your throw-down with Incognito.
  2392. >Man, that thing hurt...
  2393. >Stowing them away, you're given another two, this time in clear vials, and glowing with a faint teal light.
  2394. >"If we must stay the night in the deserts, Cat's Eye will allow you to see in the dark."
  2395. >Oh, neat!
  2396. >Once those are packed away, the last two are handed over: lightly glowing navy-blue liquid in clear, round-bodied bottles.
  2397. >"Cat's Slumber will ensure you can sleep well through the night, yet be easily awakened and ready to act at a moment's notice."
  2398.  
  2399. "Well, this is already way better than what the castle docs made."
  2400. >"I did tell you that our alchemy is vastly superior to that of Equestria, did I not?"
  2401. "Fair enough, I guess."
  2402. >That last pair is stored away as well.
  2403. >Don't know how well these will stay put, with them dangling off these little metal hanger things.
  2404. >You knew they were made for the more digitally challenged to quickly whip them out, but still...
  2405. >"I'm unsure as to how effective they will be with you, but unfortunately, we don't have the time to test each one of them on you today."
  2406. >He pokes his head out of the tent, frowns a little, and looks back to all of you.
  2407. >"On the subject of time, we'll have to cover your weaponry on the go, I'm afraid. The warriors grow quite restless."
  2408. >Of course they do.
  2409. >Hell, you'll probably just get one of those bills from before.
  2410. >Wouldn't be the worst thing, but at least you'll have the war hammer as backup.
  2411. >Heerser motions you out of the tent, and your group of three follows him, the path going back the way you came into this big tent complex.
  2412. >The zebras he sent to guard your stuff were a fair distance ahead, carrying that case.
  2413. >The 'why' of that was answered pretty quick, when you realized some of those alchemists were still trotting alongside you and the others.
  2414. >Some high-pitched, very girly groans of displeasure were heard, as one of the zebras lifts that filly off Razor's back by the scruff of her neck.
  2415. >"Aww, sorry, little gal. Duty calls."
  2416. >She flashes Razor the biggest puppy-dog eyes you've seen to date, quickly breaking Razor's drive to press on.
  2417. >He stops to nuzzle the little gal, and he gets another flick of the ears as repayment.
  2418. >"Aah, watch it!"
  2419. >She giggles, some definite mischief written on her face.
  2420. >Oh, she knew.
  2421. >"Hah hah, very funny."
  2422.  
  2423. >The zebra lifting her up sets the filly down, and herds her in the opposite direction.
  2424. >"See you later, lil' one!" he calls back while waving at her, something the filly does right back.
  2425. >Seriously, what the hell's with him, and that filly?
  2426. >In any case, he catches back up to the group, looking like the flyest motherfucker around.
  2427. >"I knew little Zala would take quite a liking to you, Uncouth Razor Wind."
  2428. >"'Zala'? That's her name?"
  2429. >"Oh, yes."
  2430. >"Oh Goddess, that's adorable."
  2431. >"Yes, she has that effect on others. Quite the little adventurer. Her mother is quite the mare, keeping up with her antics as well as she does."
  2432. "Is nobody gonna tell me the story here?"
  2433. >"Pffft, there's nothing to tell! The cute lil' bundle started climbing all over me, couldn't get enough!"
  2434. >"And you appeared to handle it quite well. I suspect most of that interest is from the reverence of bats, common with our alchemists."
  2435. "Wait, they worship them?"
  2436. >"Oh, nothing like that. They're simply a very useful, very versatile creature, a common familiar for the alchemists who work during the night."
  2437. "Right..."
  2438. >"Of course, I'm certain that the natural sociability of thestrals plays a role, too. Ahh, how I yearn to visit their home, again..."
  2439. >"'Natural sociability', really?"
  2440. >"Am I wrong?"
  2441. >"Geez, you're starting to sound like my sister."
  2442. >Heerser offers a hearty little chuckle in response, to which Razor just rolls his eyes at.
  2443. >After that though, he flipped right back to business.
  2444. >"Now, your weapon and primary defence will be waiting for us with the main group, Otherworldly Anonymous. Your companions, too, will receive their defences there."
  2445. "Uhh, 'defences'?"
  2446. >"All will be made clear, when we arrive."
  2447. >Uh-huh.
  2448.  
  2449. >The trek takes you out of this little courtyard, back through the big one.
  2450. >Immediately, you notice the looks the passerby zebras are giving you have improved, with nowhere near as many just looking away, pretending you aren't there.
  2451. >That being said, the frowners of the bunch found themselves upgraded to scowlers.
  2452. >Not that you had to suffer through them for very long, given that this area you just entered was civvy-free, thanks to this semicircle of guards keeping them away.
  2453. >They just so happened to be guarding a big gatehouse, and a group of warriors were milling around outside of it, looking mighty restless.
  2454. >Heerser's presence immediately improved their mood, though they looked pretty intrigued with you, too.
  2455. >A few orders barked into the crowd of zebras later, and Heerser had two things to give to you: a bill, and some kind of thick metal disc with straps on the back.
  2456. >Okay, the bill you pretty much expected, but what the hell's the other thing?
  2457. >"Your weapon, and your defence."
  2458. "Uhh, 'defence'?"
  2459. >All he does is smirk, and yells 'defend' in zebra-language back to the others.
  2460. >Their forelegs, all with that same disc strapped to them come up, and--
  2461. >SCH-CLANK
  2462. >Whoa, what the fuck?!
  2463. >Those discs, they just transformed into fucking shields!
  2464. >SCH-CLANK
  2465. >A lot of the warriors were chuckling at what must be the dumbest look on your face, right now.
  2466. >"Yes, your defence. A contrivance of our alchemists, the ones responsible for tending to the Ancients."
  2467. >Ancients?
  2468. >Wait no, fuck the Ancients, transforming shields!
  2469. >As if sensing your newfound eagerness, he hands you the shield-thing first, which gets strapped on super quick.
  2470. >Okay, so, do you just think of shields, and it--?
  2471. >SCH-CLANK
  2472. >Ooooh, baby...!
  2473. >That's fucking awesome!
  2474. >SCH-CLANK
  2475. >SCH-CLANK
  2476. >SCH-CLANK
  2477. >Oh man, you could watch this thing work forever!
  2478.  
  2479. >More chuckling is heard from the zebras, but you're far past caring at this stage.
  2480. >Some symbols on the shield catch your eye, once the initial hype wave starts to taper off.
  2481. >Looking closer, you see...
  2482. >Wait.
  2483. >You don't recognize the cursive, almost Arabic-looking magic symbols etched onto it, but you definitely recognize the telltale signs of animus used to etch them on in the first place!
  2484. >And what's with their arrangement?
  2485. >That double-spiral of symbols, radiating out from the middle, looked an awful lot like the glyph arrangement used to animate a golem's limb!
  2486. >Wait, maybe if you--
  2487. >SCH-CLANK
  2488. >SCH-CLANK
  2489. >Yeah, holy shit, the symbols even ignite in the same way: one 'spiral' for forward, the other for reverse!
  2490. >"Is something the matter, Otherworldly Anonymous?"
  2491. "These symbols look very similar to something I've used before."
  2492. >"Do they? Well, perhaps you can discuss that further with the alchemists, then."
  2493. "Right, right."
  2494. >SCH-CLANK
  2495. >Back into the closed position the shield goes.
  2496. >Yeah, that's way too much of a resemblance to be a coincidence.
  2497. >Definitely asking around about this.
  2498. >You receive the bill soon after, and, well, it's just a regular ol' bill, razor sharp and with plenty of reach.
  2499. >SCH-CLANK
  2500. >Well, Razor's already having fun with his one.
  2501. >"Anon, please tell me we can keep these."
  2502. "I don't know, can we?"
  2503. >"That will depend on you," Heerser offers.
  2504. >Of course.
  2505. >Well, a worthy goal, if any have existed.
  2506. >Another zebra offers Razor a bill of his own, but all he does is flash his glaive in response, and the guy instead offers it to Exact, who also rejects it.
  2507. >Now that you think about it, when was the last time you saw Exact using an actual weapon?
  2508. >Shit, you really don't remember.
  2509. >Well, in any case--
  2510.  
  2511. >Some very familiar shouting comes from behind, and everyone turns to it.
  2512. >If only it could have been a good familiar sight: instead, you were met with the sight of that asshole zebra who threw you down that pit.
  2513. >Vegter, was it?
  2514. >Even the name sounds douchey.
  2515. >He trots over to your group with that same asshole alchemist from the pit fiasco with a tiny cart in tow, along with a contingent of his own zebra warriors, too.
  2516. >Every one of them looked very unhappy to see you, especially Vegter.
  2517. >Yeah, up yours too, buddy.
  2518. >He growls in your general direction, but changes pretty quick to storming over to Heerser, yelling something about 'creatures'.
  2519. >You can already tell you're going to have a fantastic working relationship with this asshole.
  2520. >Heerser doesn't respond at all to him, just letting his glare do the talking.
  2521. >As it turns out, his glare is quite the communicator, since he's backed down in fairly short order.
  2522. >The two groups merge together, and both Vegter and that alchemist stick by Heerser's side, looking at you like you're liable to stab him at any given moment.
  2523. >"Everyzebra's here. Let us not waste any further time."
  2524. >He orders the alchemist to do something, and that something turns out to be opening up the cart, and handing out a whole bunch of those super-coffee potions from inside of it.
  2525. >She's doing her damndest to leave you for last, but that plan fails in a pretty scowl-inducing manner for her, when Razor just hands his potion over to you, in plain sight of her.
  2526. >Okay, that was worth it.
  2527. >Bracing yourself, you yank out the cork and start downing the liquid inside.
  2528. >Uh...
  2529. >Well, it's about as thick as you'd expected, but it doesn't taste like molten ass: instead, it's kind of like pure hazelnut in drinking form.
  2530.  
  2531. >Immediately after finishing, you notice a difference: the air feels somewhat cooler, and you swear you're able to make out more details on that Vegter asshole's glyphed-up battleaxe.
  2532. >The strong caffeine-esque kick was very noticeable, too.
  2533. >Fortunately, Heerser was there to take your attention off of Vegter.
  2534. >"I take it that the potion worked?"
  2535. "Sure feels like it, to me!"
  2536. >"Wonderful, wonderful! I was afraid it's effects would be diminished in some capacity!"
  2537. "No, we're good."
  2538. >"In that case, let us make haste!"
  2539. >He calls out to the gatehouse, and the gates start to raise, right on cue.
  2540. >While it raises up, those zebras watching over your items come forward and set it down for you, the skeezed-out look on that bitch alchemist's face definitely not escaping your notice.
  2541. >Okay, now, how to store these things?
  2542. >One metal hoop on this sash thing of yours was just big enough to slide the war hammer into, and you slot it into it's proper place right away.
  2543. >The magnet, on the other hand, was gonna be trickier, given it's weight.
  2544. >Hmm, maybe if you...?
  2545. "They got any more of that fabric stuff, back there?"
  2546. >"Hmm? Oh, yes, I did not consider how you would store that device. Here, this should help."
  2547. >Heerser tugs off an extra strip of that fabric from a nearby warrior, and asks the alchemist to give him something, which turns out to be a fairly big pouch, big enough for the magnet.
  2548. >"These ought to help."
  2549. "Thanks."
  2550. >You make yourself a crude little messenger bag with the items, slotting the magnet into the bag, then tying it up with the cloth, hanging it over your shoulder, behind your back.
  2551. >Not optimal, since you'd have to untie it to get to the magnet, but it'll work.
  2552. >Oh, perfect timing, the gate's opened up now.
  2553.  
  2554. >Right away, everyone heads out of the gate, and for the first time, you can truly take stock of just where you are.
  2555. >Behind you was the big, partially sandstone castle, a rather spartan thing with little to no towers and very bare walls, not even sporting battlements.
  2556. >It really was just an enclosed courtyard with a gate.
  2557. >Heading down the sloped path from said gate, however, met you with a rather confusing sight.
  2558. >The terrain surrounding the castle was mostly desert, sure, but it also had inexplicable patches of forests, and even a big stretch of grassland surrounding a little oasis, which was tilled up and being farmed by a bunch of zebras.
  2559. >The weirdness only intensified, when your path took you into one of those weird forest patches: the humidity instantly changed the second you stepped into it's borders, becoming more like what you'd find back in Equestria, before reverting to the aridity of the desert the second you stepped back out.
  2560. >Okay, you knew the terrain would be possessed, but that was a level of fucked even you couldn't quite see coming.
  2561. >And from the sound of things, Razor was totally on the same page there.
  2562. >"They weren't kidding about how bucked up the land would be."
  2563. "I feel you."
  2564. >"Guess it makes sense now, how these guys are surviving as well as they are in the middle of the desert, but still!"
  2565. >"I do not know what caused Zebrica's terrain to become this unstable," Exact adds, "But the end result speaks for itself. Exercise caution around patches of misplaced terrain, as they are common places for ambushes, particularly in the patches with thick foliage."
  2566. "Right."
  2567. >Fortunately, wherever you were going had nothing but desert in front of you, so hey, there's that.
  2568. >"Can I just mention really quick how much I love that potion thing they had us pop?"
  2569. "It's pretty slick, I'll say."
  2570.  
  2571. >"No no no, you don't understand. I'm not melting! The mountain was great, but this place was living Tartarus by comparison!"
  2572. "Prefer the cold, do we?"
  2573. >"Uhh, yeah?"
  2574. "Hey, I didn't know that."
  2575. >"Well it's true, and boy, do I love this!"
  2576. >"I suggest you make liberal usage of the benefits to focus the Soldier's Drive potion grants you, and stay on watch for any enemy forces."
  2577. >Always business with him, huh?
  2578. >The trek continues on, and on, and on, stretching into the later hours of the day.
  2579. >Honestly, this much desert trekking would have worried you normally, but something in the potion outside of the climate control was making it a far quicker, less boring prospect than you expected.
  2580. >Must be the newfound awareness of all the scattered desert features, passing you by.
  2581. >"You've been quiet back there," Heerser calls back. "I assume all is well?"
  2582. "Pretty much, yeah."
  2583. >Huh, thought he would've been talking to you a lot more during this little expedition.
  2584. >Though his looks towards that Vegter asshole might have something to do with that.
  2585. >"Good, good. We are fortunate to not have encountered anything so far. We will be reaching the nearby town of Grens within the hour, where we will take refuge for the night. From there, we will continue our patrol for a while in the morning, return to the town, and make our way back to the fortress city, Vesting."
  2586. "Oh, that's what it was called?"
  2587. >"Yes, were you not aware?"
  2588. "Never came up."
  2589. >"Did it not? Well, that is it's name."
  2590. "Good stuff."
  2591. >Said within-the-hour passes by fairly quickly as well, and soon enough, you find yourself coming up to a mixture of tents and crude sandstone buildings, built around a tiny oasis patch, bordered by some grasslands.
  2592. >Well hey, at least the fucked-up terrain is somewhat useful, huh?
  2593. >Most of the group is very relieved to see the place, and their pace picks up once it's in sight.
  2594.  
  2595. >The town's residents start hollering to each other, pointing towards your incoming group.
  2596. >Boy, they look happy to see all of you.
  2597. >The intrigue gets ever stronger, once they catch sight of you: pretty much all of them start crowding around you for a few moments, just admiring the fact that you even exist.
  2598. >Well, maybe 'admire' is the wrong word, perhaps 'fond rubbernecking' is a more accurate term.
  2599. >Not that you mind, at least they don't hate you.
  2600. >Water and food are divvied up, and the group makes camp around the oasis, with marks and leftover equipment around it indicating this was a pretty common occurrence.
  2601. >Funny, you thought the town would have built up around it, first.
  2602. >Oh well, maybe you'll get the reason for that later.
  2603. >Maybe, maybe not.
  2604. >Back on the subject of the camp, you thought it was weird how the warriors didn't have much of anything on them that they could use to make camp with, but apparently this was their solution: the village zebras were supplying the bed rolls, lights, and even the occasional tent right there, without any prompting.
  2605. >Seems so weird, to not be prepared to camp out anywhere you need to.
  2606. >More things to ask about, you suppose.
  2607. >One of the tents they bring out is meant for you, you're told, and hey, you're definitely not complaining.
  2608. >Razor and Exact decide to join you in the fairly spacious tent for the night, not that you really expected them to do much different.
  2609. >"Well, I for one am pleasantly surprised by how this went, today."
  2610. "Yeah, you and me both."
  2611. >Really thought you'd fucked it, with Heerser's talk this morning.
  2612. >Speaking of, he popped in for a moment to tell you to chug your cat-napping potions, which you all do without further prompting.
  2613. >Whoa, that's weird...
  2614. >Like you're tired, but alert, too?
  2615. >Well, the others are already curling up to sleep.
  2616. >Guess you should join them, huh?
  2617. >Hmm...
  2618. >Maybe this situation won't suck as badly as you expected it to?
  2619. <...
  2620.  
  2621. @@@@@@@@
  2622.  
  2623. >Your eyes open to the sight of a light green, slightly effervescent liquid blurring everything.
  2624. >With a thought, the translucent barrier above you splits open, allowing more light to filter down on you while the fluid drains away into the ground beneath you.
  2625. >You let it finish draining by itself before sitting up, and expelling the remaining fluid in your lungs with practiced ease.
  2626. >Ah, the hive.
  2627. >You can feel all the other lings buzzing with excitement, and faintly sense excitement from distant sources all around you.
  2628. >You'd better get cleaned off soon.
  2629. >Foremothers above, you'd never dream of missing what Incognito's planned for today!
  2630. >With the almost radiant excitement around you quickly proving infectious, you head down to the cleansing chambers to wash off the resting pod's residual slime, taking your time to enjoy the oh-so-rejuvenating waters.
  2631. >Oh, what a day it was, yesterday!
  2632. >That thing Incognito made, that 'Philosopher's Stone'?
  2633. >Nothing could top how pleased he looked when he decided to fully trust you, but the genuine excitement he showed after making that thing was a very close second!
  2634. >A-and after seeing what it was able to to?
  2635. >He has every reason to be excited!
  2636. >You knew he captured that damn Discord for a reason, you knew it!
  2637. >Ohh goodness, you can't sit still!
  2638. >You bound out of the refreshing liquid, give yourself a small shake, and start trotting out of the hive.
  2639. >The things he made for today's service with your help, it just...!
  2640. >It's just so insane to think that something that powerful could actually exist!
  2641. >Much less that he actually let you help him!
  2642. >Actually let you use it!
  2643. >Ohh, and he promised to tell you the story about it, after the service was over!
  2644. >So many things to get excited about!
  2645.  
  2646. >Finally, after so long sitting around here, he'll make some serious progress!
  2647. >You'll make some serious progress!
  2648. >You clear the hive's threshold, and trot your way over towards the temple grounds, right where he said he'd need you.
  2649. >Progress against these other damn zebras, standing in his way, in your way!
  2650. >Progress against all of ponykind!
  2651. >Progress against that damnable Celestia!
  2652. >Progress against...
  2653. >Him.
  2654. >The excited smile on your face soon finds itself morphed to something far more bestial.
  2655. >Something far more pleasing.
  2656. >Something far more...
  2657. >Right.
  2658. >How could you not smile as devilishly as Incognito does, when you think about the progress you two will make against Anonymous?
  2659. >Anonymous...
  2660. >Oh, how you so dearly want to see the look on his face, when he sees the full power arrayed against him now.
  2661. >How you crave the sight of seeing all that vast, destructive power of his amounting to nothing.
  2662. >And how you so wish the dream blocker you put into that resting pod's fluid last night would've let you dream about his final moments.
  2663. >How should he die, you wonder?
  2664. >Should you burn a hole through his body, in spite of all that iron blood?
  2665. >Maybe you should plunge your horn through his heart, something you should have done last time?
  2666. >Or maybe...
  2667. >His soul.
  2668. >Ohh, yes!
  2669. >You should take his soul!
  2670. >That's an even better idea!
  2671. >By the time you realize the dark chuckle you're hearing is coming from you, you're riding too high on the mental image to care in any capacity.
  2672. >That's right.
  2673. >You know how to do it.
  2674. >You might not have been conscious the first time you did, but you know the spell.
  2675. >Once he's broken and beaten at your hooves, thanks to the Stone's power, you'll dig the hooks of the spell into him.
  2676. >Even his iron blood won't save him from what you'll do to him.
  2677.  
  2678. >You'll make sure to cast the spell slowly and steadily, taking your time to dig every little hook into the core of his being.
  2679. >You'll even drop the parts of the spell that keep the hooking process painless, special for him.
  2680. >Then, you'll begin the pull.
  2681. >Slowly.
  2682. >Very, very slowly.
  2683. >Every second will be pure, unending agony for him.
  2684. >Every minute will be like an eternity of torment.
  2685. >And you'll make sure to let him keep hold of his spirit, right at the point of no return, for as long as you have the magic to hold it there.
  2686. >He'll scream, he'll cry, he'll beg.
  2687. >Scream about how much it hurts him.
  2688. >Cry to whatever gods he has, including his little princess marefriends, to make it stop.
  2689. >Beg for you to kill him.
  2690. >"Oh, there you are, Athalia!"
  2691. >Oh, and when that time comes, you'll release him from his life, all right.
  2692. >But his torment will just be beginning.
  2693. >"Athalia?"
  2694. >You'll never use his soul for any simple spell, any simple enchantment.
  2695. >Oh no, something that precious deserves to live on.
  2696. >"A-Athalia? Why are you laughing?"
  2697. >Mmm, what should you do with it?
  2698. >Keep it in a container of some kind, as a trophy?
  2699. >Ooh, maybe you'll make a special commemorative piece for it to suffer inside of!
  2700. >"Athalia, are you listening?"
  2701. >A picture, maybe?
  2702. >Pfft, no, not some stupid little picture.
  2703. >A painting of all his failures, all of the precious 'friends' he's failed, suffering and dead around him!
  2704. >"O-okay, now you're starting to scare me."
  2705. >It'll be the centrepiece of your new hive!
  2706. >No, the centrepiece of the old Badlands hive, after you tear those disgusting traitors apart!
  2707. >After you tear Thorax apart!
  2708.  
  2709. >No, even better!
  2710. >Maybe you'll find where he was keeping Pharynx, and you'll both tear him--
  2711. >(`You were someling special before. You were unique, interesting.`)
  2712. >Tear him...
  2713. >(`I would've gladly given my life for you.`)
  2714. >Wait...
  2715. >"Athalia, are you okay?"
  2716. >(`Now look at you. Pathetic. Worthless.`)
  2717. >You remember Pharynx's low, threatening tone, his protective demeanour.
  2718. >That traitor ling, he sounded just like...!
  2719. >(`You turned your back on your family, for a vicious, hateful wretch.`)
  2720. >Pharynx.
  2721. >(`You can't even remember what your own name is.`)
  2722. >The smile on your face is gone.
  2723. >"Athalia, for Godric's sake, please answer me!"
  2724. >Pharynx was the traitor who spoke to you, then...!
  2725. >(`But you know what's even worse?`)
  2726. >He betrayed you.
  2727. >The best ling you can remember from the fragments in your mind, and...
  2728. >(`You don't even want to remember.`)
  2729. >He betrayed you.
  2730. >"Athalia, please!"
  2731. >He betrayed you.
  2732. >"Athalia!"
  2733. >The world around you shakes violently, the thoughts in your mind vanishing as everything reflexively snaps back into focus.
  2734. "What...?!"
  2735. >Immediately, you whirl around, swiping away the talons on your withers.
  2736. >Talons that belong to a certain gryphon standing right next to you, concern and a not insignificant undercurrent of fear in his emotions.
  2737. "Ajay?"
  2738. >"Are you listening, now?!"
  2739. "I..."
  2740. >Betrayed...
  2741. >No, not now.
  2742. >Shaking your head, you focus on him properly.
  2743. "Yes."
  2744. >"What was all that about, Athalia?"
  2745. "What are you talking about?"
  2746. >"What do you mean, what am I talking about? You were just walking around the temple, laughing to yourself!"
  2747. >Wait, what?
  2748. "You're kidding, right?"
  2749. >"Athalia, do I look like I'm kidding? I know you can sense emotions; does it feel like I'm kidding?!"
  2750. >Whoa, he's really worried...!
  2751.  
  2752. "I... was?"
  2753. >"Yes! You mean you didn't know?"
  2754. "That's..."
  2755. >Walking around the temple, laughing to yourself?
  2756. "For how long?"
  2757. >"For the last two, maybe three minutes! I caught you in the middle of making a lap around the temple, and kept following you around, calling to you!"
  2758. >Three minutes?
  2759. "That's crazy."
  2760. >Unbelievable, even.
  2761. >"'Insane' is a better word for it!"
  2762. >He's serious.
  2763. >"And you looked about ready to kill something at the end, there!"
  2764. >No sooner do those words leave his mouth, than he plants his claws on your withers again, looking you straight in the eyes.
  2765. >"Athalia, what's happening to you?"
  2766. >Now his concern's morphed to a much more familiar form.
  2767. >A much more vexing form.
  2768. "All right, so I got a little lost in thought there. Why wouldn't I? We've got huge plans to--"
  2769. >"Don't you dare blow me off, Athalia! Not again, not now!"
  2770. "Ajay," you intone, "I'm fine."
  2771. >"No, you're not fine! Not even close!"
  2772. "Don't start this again--"
  2773. >Agh, dammit, why'd he have to shake you again?!
  2774. >"Ever since you went on that first mission of ours out here, the one after you recovered from Canterlot, you've been... different!"
  2775. "Of course I'd be different, Ajay! You'd be too, after they spent weeks torturing you in a little cell!"
  2776. >"So you decided to compensate by torturing everyone who stands in your way, is that it?"
  2777. "Okay, what are you even talking about?"
  2778. >"Do you even remember what you did to that zebra chief?!"
  2779. "Yes, I killed him. It was kind of the whole point of the mission!"
  2780. >"There's doing the job clean, and then there's torturing the poor bastard to death!"
  2781. "'Poor'? You'd better not be sympathizing with those--"
  2782. >"You know that's not what I mean! Why in the eighteen hells did you make him suffer like that?!"
  2783. >He deserved it.
  2784. "He deserved it."
  2785.  
  2786. >He draws back for a brief moment, taken a bit aback by the words.
  2787. >"Athalia," he quietly starts, "You've always done your missions clean. Quick and stealthy, on top of that. I still remember when you foalnapped that yellow pegasus from Canterlot, right under their noses."
  2788. >He leans in closer, regaining some volume.
  2789. >"Even the jobs you couldn't do, you still tried to do them stealthily, cleanly! But now, you..."
  2790. >Something tells you he's been keeping this under pressure for a while.
  2791. >"Every target we've had to kill, you've made them suffer. That first zebra was one thing, but every time I've seen you work, you never end it quickly! I've never seen you kill a target in less than three blows, even when you were just standing there in front of them!"
  2792. "What are you trying to say?"
  2793. >"I'm saying that...!"
  2794. >He hesitates for a moment, a twinge of fear shooting through him.
  2795. "What? You're saying what?"
  2796. >"I-I'm saying that... it's almost as if you enjoy it."
  2797. >What?
  2798. >Oh, what kind of stupid worry is that?
  2799. "They're keeping us from destroying Equestria. Why wouldn't I enjoy it?"
  2800. >From how he's flinched, that wasn't the answer he was expecting to hear.
  2801. >"Wh-what?"
  2802. "Oh, don't give me that! You're telling me you don't enjoy stopping our enemies?"
  2803. >"Of course I enjoy stopping our enemies! That's not what I'm--!"
  2804. "Then what are you talking about, Ajay?!"
  2805. >"About how you've been doing it, damn it!"
  2806. "Oh, give me a break! My targets die in the end, what difference does it make?"
  2807. >"Because we're--"
  2808. >He hesitates again.
  2809. "Because we're what?"
  2810. >His absent response aggravates you further.
  2811. "Because we're what?!"
  2812. >"Because we're not monsters, Athalia!" he all but screams into your face.
  2813. >When the initial shock of his volume passes, it's the meaning of his words that really have you reeling.
  2814. >Monsters?
  2815.  
  2816. >"I am not some blood-caked savage! I don't take pleasure in slaying my enemies, like that damned Veldheer and his sick band of vultures do!"
  2817. >He's well and truly angered by now, and nothing was going to stop his tirade.
  2818. >"I kill only in the name of furthering the cause, to see the Equestrians pay for what they've done to my people! To see them pay for what they stole from us!"
  2819. >Monsters, he said.
  2820. >"I pledged my blade in service to Lord Matthias, to see this done! I want them to pay, Athalia, believe me, I do! But this?"
  2821. >You're faintly aware of him taking a breath.
  2822. >Is that what he thinks?
  2823. >"At my village, my master taught me that, 'If we allow our passions to turn to bloodlust, then we will become as vile as the Equestrians'. The Equestrians, Athalia! Those unassuming little monsters!"
  2824. >Monster.
  2825. >"It was them who stole everything from us, who dared proclaim a slum like Gryphonstone to be our opulent, free capital! They're the ones who tormented you! I will not reduce myself to their level, Athalia! I will not!"
  2826. >No.
  2827. >You must have misunderstood him.
  2828. "What did you call me?"
  2829. >It came out quieter than you expected.
  2830. >"Have you been listen--?!"
  2831. >Choking back his words, he breathes deeply again, his eyes and emotions full of sorrow.
  2832. >"Athalia, please. You're better than this. Don't--"
  2833. "Answer me!"
  2834. >This time, it's him that reels from the volume of your outburst, taking several steps back.
  2835. >He doesn't answer you with words, but his own sadness, his simmering anger, and faint disgust, are all the answer you need.
  2836. "That's what you think of me, isn't it?"
  2837. >"No, don't you dare twist my words like that, Athalia!"
  2838. "What's there to twist, Ajay?! You think I'm a... a monster?!"
  2839. >"Well maybe if you didn't act like one, I wouldn't--!"
  2840.  
  2841. >His abrupt, choked-back gasp preludes your own gasp, your own steps away from him.
  2842. >You didn't misunderstand him.
  2843. >He does think that about you.
  2844. >"W-wait, Athalia, I-I didn't--"
  2845. >With a FWOOSH, the black and dark purple flame ring of your special teleport spell comes to life around you, surprising him further.
  2846. "I see."
  2847. >Your lip begins trembling.
  2848. >"Athalia, please, I didn't--!"
  2849. "I have somewhere to be."
  2850. >You begin sinking into the black portal, distantly hoping the sensation would distract from the stinging in your eyes.
  2851. >It doesn't.
  2852. >"Wait, come back!"
  2853. >You don't answer.
  2854. >"Athalia--!"
  2855. >His voice cuts off the instant you cross the threshold.
  2856. >Soon, you emerge into the chamber where Incognito kept the Philosopher's Stone.
  2857. >He thinks you're a monster.
  2858. >The stinging becomes more pronounced, a cold grasp around your heart making itself known.
  2859. >He thinks you're a...
  2860. >A...
  2861. >"Athalia? When did you arrive?"
  2862. >Incognito's voice is such a welcome thing to hear, the distant sound alone offering a small degree of comfort.
  2863. >There he was, knelt over the huge, crackling, pulsating crystal, in his armour and with his catalyst in hand.
  2864. >He quickly stands up and walks over to you.
  2865. >"Well, it matters not. I am glad you are..."
  2866. >His smile dampens when he gets close enough to you.
  2867. >"Athalia? You look so upset, what's wrong?"
  2868. >Seeing it dampen only worsens what you're feeling.
  2869. >Removing the catalyst, he kneels in front of you, his hands planted on your withers.
  2870. >"What's the matter? Tell me."
  2871. >The closest you come to crying is the small sniffle you offer in response, before your shaky words:
  2872. "A-am I a..."
  2873. >Damn it, tell him!
  2874. >"I'm sorry? Are you a... what?"
  2875. >You can't look at him for this, your head dipping low, and your voice becoming a whisper.
  2876. "Am I a... monster?"
  2877.  
  2878. >The motion of his arms recoiling ever so slightly tells you he's surprised by your words.
  2879. >"A monster? Athalia, wherever did you get that impression?"
  2880. "I..."
  2881. >No.
  2882. >Y-you're not a monster.
  2883. >A-are you?
  2884. >"Athalia, look at me."
  2885. >No reluctance in the world can make you resist that soft-spoken command, and you do just that, a kindly look greeting you for your trouble.
  2886. >"Who told you such a thing?"
  2887. >You can't bring yourself to say who.
  2888. >"Nevermind," he concedes, "Who it was is not important. But they questioned your methods, did they not?"
  2889. >A nod.
  2890. >"Athalia, tell me honestly. Am I a monster?"
  2891. >What?!
  2892. "N-no! Absolutely not!"
  2893. >"But I command dark magic with this tool of mine, do I not? Do I not also delight in seeing the Equestrians crushed before me?"
  2894. "B-b-but that doesn't mean that--! I-I mean, you...!"
  2895. >"Yes?"
  2896. "You know better than that, my L-- Incognito!"
  2897. >"Do I?"
  2898. "You're not a monster! You just... do what's right, what's necessary! How does that make you a monster?"
  2899. >"And do you do what's right, what's necessary?"
  2900. "I..."
  2901. >Do you?
  2902. >Well...
  2903. >You've done so much for him, since returning.
  2904. >Wiping out the smaller tribes.
  2905. >Building the hive up.
  2906. >Destroying that one big zebra tribe, and killing it's leader.
  2907. "I-I mean, I... suppose so?"
  2908. >He just gives you that smile of his: that confident, reassuring smile you can't help but be set at ease with.
  2909. >"I know you do, Athalia. Do not concern yourself with the judgments of others."
  2910. "But...!"
  2911. >"We are at war, Athalia. A war that will cost us a great deal, before it is done. Tell me, do you know how wars are won?"
  2912. "B-by being better than the other side?"
  2913. >"Close, but no. Wars are won by those willing to do anything to ensure victory. Do you remember when you and Veldheer told me of the damage Anonymous wrought, here in Zebrica?"
  2914. >The thought of Anonymous alone turns most of your sadness into simmering anger.
  2915. "Yes."
  2916.  
  2917. >"I told him that clinging to honourable combat would be the death of us, yes? That concept applies just as much to this entire conflict. Such... romanticism about our methods, on what ends we use towards our goal is a burden, more than it is an aid."
  2918. "I... I thought so, too..."
  2919. >"And you are not wrong. We do what we must, to achieve our victory. The idealists on our own side may be repulsed by it, and our foes may brand us as monsters, but in the end, it is our triumph that will be of far greater import than such words."
  2920. >He rises to his feet, his smile having never moved.
  2921. >"'For no weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.'"
  2922. >And just like that, your lingering sadness vanishes.
  2923. >"Do not hate the romanticists for clinging to such principles, Athalia. It is a virtue in and of itself, to hold such convictions. But you should also recognize such convictions for what they are: a luxury. One we do not have at this juncture."
  2924. "I... I understand. Thank you."
  2925. >You're not a monster.
  2926. >You're not a monster!
  2927. >Not you, and certainly not him!
  2928. >Damn it, how could you have been so stupid?
  2929. >You were doing the right thing all along, of course you weren't a monster!
  2930. >And those bastards in your way, they all got what they deserved!
  2931. >You get it, now!
  2932. >"Now, let us return to our work. I've yet to finish showing you how to use the Stone for yourself, after all."
  2933. >H-he's letting you help, again!
  2934. >Yes, yes, yes!
  2935. >Without skipping a beat, you get right to work.
  2936. >He teaches you the rest of the spells needed to properly use the stone, and has you finish the last batch of weapons, to prove your mastery of them.
  2937.  
  2938. >To be honest, even knowing Discord's soul powered this thing, you had some doubts about what it could do at first.
  2939. >It wasn't until you spent all of yesterday with him, listening to his plans, observing his experiments with the Stone, and offering praise and suggestions in very lopsided quantities, that you fully grasped what a monumental leap this was!
  2940. >The Philosopher's Stone, as it turned out, was the ultimate creation of these blood alchemist zebras, able to convert nearly any substance into another with pure dark magic alone, fuelled by a trapped soul.
  2941. >Normally, they needed tens, or even hundreds of sacrifices to function, but Discord's soul was capable of standing in for thousands of sacrifices, and it's chaotic qualities made it even better at it's job, if what he's saying was true!
  2942. >Oh, who are you kidding, of course it's true!
  2943. >He's never lied to you before!
  2944. >The weapons and armour he made, and that you finished, were gifts for everyone during the big speech he was going to give: his announcement of the next big attack.
  2945. >But what he was the most proud of, was the improved Homunculi.
  2946. >He spent so long creating one single specimen, covered in armour and with the ability to use some magic for itself.
  2947. >With the Stone at his disposal, he recreated this one Homunculus, over and over again, until he had what must have been a hundred of them, ready to go!
  2948. >His reason for not going higher was that he simply didn't have the souls to spare for them, but you could care less!
  2949. >Even ten of them would destroy whatever was in their way!
  2950. >Hah, and to think, these things used to scare you!
  2951. >But now, now you understand, now you truly appreciate their power and utility.
  2952. >Especially their usefulness against that damned Anonymous.
  2953. >This was how you knew.
  2954. >How you knew he wouldn't stand a chance against you, this time.
  2955.  
  2956. >"It is time, Athalia. Let us hurry to the top of the ziggurat."
  2957. "Of course."
  2958. >This was it.
  2959. >You can barely contain your shaking, as the two of you head out, pallets of these transmuted gifts levitating along behind you two.
  2960. >Soon, those other zebras would be gone.
  2961. >Soon, Equestria would be destroyed.
  2962. >Soon, you'll have your revenge on Anonymous.
  2963. >Oh, how you'll have your revenge on him...
  2964. >Before you know it, you reach the balcony with Incognito, and see the crowds of zebras, gryphons, and changelings down below.
  2965. >You're surprised Veldheer was down there, and not up here.
  2966. >Well, good.
  2967. >You don't need him ruining this moment.
  2968. >"My children," Incognito booms, beginning his speech with his usual gusto. "You entrusted me with your lives, your desires to see the vile Equestrians and their tyrant leader destroyed, made to pay for their sins against all our races!
  2969. >"It has been my perpetual honour to be the keeper of this trust, of these desires. I know it has not been an easy journey, my children, but at long last, after months of planning, your patience will be vindicated!"
  2970. >With a wave of his catalyst, Incognito levitates the new equipment down from the balcony, slowly towards the crowd.
  2971. >The excitement from the crowd was almost palpable, nevermind your own!
  2972. >"For we now have the means by which to assault the pertinacious Wyse Kunstenaars!"
  2973. >Many participants don't wait for the items to land, snatching them out of the air as they approach.
  2974. >You don't think it's possible to smile any wider than you are right now!
  2975. >"These instruments shall be the spark, my children! A spark that will bathe the Kunstenaars in the flames of our victory! And from their defeat, our fire shall become a great conflagration! A conflagration that shall consume the Solar Tyrant herself, and all those who serve her!"
  2976.  
  2977. >You have to settle for dancing in place, while the crowd cheers wildly.
  2978. >"Train yourself with these new tools well today, my children! For tomorrow, when the sun sits at it's apex in the sky, do we march upon the foolish Wyse Kunstenaars, to consume them in the flames of our vengeance, the kindling so thoughtfully provided by their unbridled arrogance!"
  2979. >Incognito's sword is unsheathed, and he points it out in front of him.
  2980. >"'Hallelujah! Salvation and glory, honour and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just! For he has judged the great whore who corrupted the very earth with her immorality, and has avenged the blood of his servants at her hand!'"
  2981. >The sword is then pointed towards the sky.
  2982. >"'Once more, they cried out: Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever!'"
  2983. >When the crowd lets loose a cry of 'Hallelujah', all restraint leaves you at that moment, and you join in the chorus.
  2984. >"Hallelujah!"
  2985. "Hallelujah!"
  2986. >"Hallelujah!"
  2987. "Hallelujah!"
  2988. >He allows the crowd to go wild for a few moments longer, before sheathing the sword.
  2989. >"Make the most of this new day, my children! Now go, and may God bless us all!"
  2990. >With one final cheer from the crowd, he turns around, walking back into the temple.
  2991. "That was amazing! How do you do it, Incognito?!"
  2992. >"Our cause is just, Athalia. And the just shall always have the courage of their convictions."
  2993. >Smiling, he waits for you to follow him back inside, where he then drops to his knee again, to look you in the eyes.
  2994. >"You had best spend this day wisely as well, Athalia. The Stone is free for you to use. Create what you need, and train well for tomorrow."
  2995. >You throw your forelegs around him.
  2996. "I won't let you down!"
  2997. >"I know you won't, Athalia."
  2998. <...
  2999.  
  3000. @@@@@@@@
  3001.  
  3002. >"We'll be heading back once we circle around this forested patch. I did promise this would be a short route, did I not?"
  3003. >He's not wrong, you'll give Heerser that.
  3004. >Probably helps that he woke everyone up at o'dark thirty for this stretch of patrolling.
  3005. >Still, you got to try out the night-vision potion.
  3006. >Shit was pretty cool, though 'seeing in the dark' was a stretch: it just made very dim light much brighter, meaning the moonlight wound up looking like a nice, sunny day, weird blue tint notwithstanding.
  3007. >Luckily, it didn't 'enhance' the morning sunlight, so there's that.
  3008. >Anyways, the entire group starts looping around the forest patch, a few zebras stepping inside and ruffling through it, just to make sure it was empty.
  3009. >Heerser stops on the other side for a few moments to survey the area a bit more, and you notice Exact lighting up his horn, too.
  3010. >"Hm, a morning clear of enemy patrols."
  3011. "That's good, right?"
  3012. >"I'm not so certain of that."
  3013. >How does 'no enemies' wind up being a bad thing?
  3014. >"Regardless, our route is finished for today. We shall return to Grens for a brief moment, and if all goes well, we should be back at Vesting by the late afternoon."
  3015. >Hell, you'll take it.
  3016. >Just means you'll get another shot at making the alchemists happy--
  3017. >"Wait."
  3018. >All English-speaking eyes turn to Exact.
  3019. >"What is the matter, agent of Celestia?"
  3020. >"There is a small, quickly moving dark magic presence nearby. It is somewhere above us."
  3021. >"Excuse me, above us?"
  3022. >"Anon, are there any visual aberrations in the sky above us?"
  3023. "Let me see."
  3024. >Your eyes go skyward, and already you notice this super-coffee potion is making looking straight up a way easier prospect.
  3025. >"Why ask him to look upwards?"
  3026. >"His nature makes it possible for him to see through magical illusions."
  3027. >"Does it? Well, the curiosities never end with him, do they?"
  3028.  
  3029. "Hold up."
  3030. >There's something flying around up there.
  3031. >You don't think you would have caught it without this heightened-awareness shit, but there was definitely a carriage-sized shimmer moving around.
  3032. >The damn thing was moving fast, and kept close to the sun from this angle, making it very tricky to make out.
  3033. >Especially with you having to cover said sun with a couple of fingers, to keep your eyes safe.
  3034. >But why do that, if...?
  3035. >Wait.
  3036. "Heerser, how often do you take this route?"
  3037. >"This route? Quite often, why?"
  3038. "I think they've gotten wise to your schedule," you say, pointing towards the sun. "There's something invisible hanging out up there."
  3039. >Right away, Exact changes his spell, creating a cone of very faint magic aimed right at the sun.
  3040. >"There is? What kind of object?"
  3041. "A big one. Like, carriage big."
  3042. >"Anonymous is correct," Exact interjects, "There are rapid air disturbances approximately three hundred and eighty-five yards away, congruous with the profile of a flying carriage or chariot."
  3043. >"Excuse me? How on Equus did you determine that, agent of Celestia?"
  3044. >"Yeah, I'm with him," adds Razor, "When the buck could you do that?"
  3045. "Me three."
  3046. >"Using air currents is not a reliable method for detection," Exact explains. "It requires little to no wind to be accurate, as it is here, requires time to make an accurate observation, and operates only in a narrow area."
  3047. >That's still a little more insane than you were expecting.
  3048. >"The line of Anonymous's questioning suggests that they have foreknowledge of your patrol routes, and their positioning relative to the sun here indicates an 86.7% likelihood of this being the case."
  3049. >"I will... take your word for it, agent of Celestia. Regardless, we have no means to dispatch this silent observer."
  3050. >"There is one means available to us. Lieutenant, may I have your avelyn?"
  3051. >Razor gives him a funny look, but does hand over his triple-shot crossbow.
  3052.  
  3053. >"Uhh, buddy, you're not actually about to try doing what I think you're going to try and do, are you?"
  3054. >He doesn't respond to Razor's very fair and reasonable question, instead floating the crossbow in front of him, staring down it's sights towards the general direction of the sun.
  3055. >A slightly awkward, long pause follows as he just keeps adjusting his aim by small degrees, totally focused in on the task.
  3056. >After a few moments, more magic threads down from his horn, the loaded bolts being wrapped in some very bright tendrils of light.
  3057. >No sooner than they finish getting wrapped up...
  3058. >CHK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK
  3059. >Off they go, in a big arc.
  3060. >All eyes are on the bolts, sailing through the sky.
  3061. >Okay, yeah, the firing group is totally fanning out, there's no way he'd actually hit them.
  3062. >So why'd--
  3063. >The bolts in the air begin glowing once they get close to the shimmering, and the very instant they're on the same plane as them, they detonate into bright flashes of light.
  3064. >The shimmering moves around erratically, veering out of the sun's general radius before spiralling to the ground, where it makes a very visible crash landing, skidding along the sand.
  3065. "What."
  3066. >Excuse the fuck outta you, what?
  3067. >Did he just fucking flash-bang them, from all the way over here?
  3068. >"That is madness," Heerser concurs.
  3069. >"No bucking way did you just do that," Razor double concurs.
  3070. "I'd say 'please nerf', but, uh... Jesus Christ, man!"
  3071. >Wordlessly, he hands the crossbow back to Exact, and pulls out one of those slow-healing potions from his pack, shutting his now very teary eyes and drinking it.
  3072. "Uh, what are you doing?"
  3073. >"Looking directly into the sun caused significant eye damage. I will not be able to see for a minimum of seven minutes.
  3074. "Wait a minute, you went blind doing that?!"
  3075. >"Yes."
  3076. >Heerser shakes his surprise off first, and orders a few guards to watch him.
  3077.  
  3078. >"That was careless, yet effective."
  3079. >"I only needed my eyes to orient my field of vision and detection spell relative to the sun, and to gauge the projectile accuracy of the avelyn. The potion of Gentle Mending can easily offset the optical damage. I do not act carelessly, nor without reason."
  3080. >"Apparently so. Well, in any case, it seems we will have a battle on our hooves, after all."
  3081. >He barks some orders out to the zebras, and they start fanning out towards the crash site, which had since de-cloaked to reveal a standard Incognito-issue chariot.
  3082. >"Come, let us end this quickly! Try to leave any alchemists or leaders alive, if possible!"
  3083. >Can't say you can guarantee that, but hell, you'll try.
  3084. >With Exact hanging back with a half-dozen zebras watching him, the whole group makes it's way to the crash site.
  3085. >Already, as you get closer, you notice the occupants of the chariot fanning out towards you, which looks to be made up of mostly gryphons and changelings, the former armed with crossbows.
  3086. >Now you're starting to feel real vulnerable, without your armour's deflector shield.
  3087. >A feeling that only gets worse, once they start showering your whole group with bolts.
  3088. >Some of the zebras block the shots with those shields of theirs, but they also handily tank whatever shots do land, without even skipping a beat.
  3089. >Jesus, even the good ones are tough!
  3090. >Uhh, shit, that sounded really bad--
  3091. >WHOOSH
  3092. >Holy shit, okay, almost got nailed by a bolt!
  3093. >Pay attention, retard!
  3094. >The bill is whipped out and ready to go, and you give the shield a quick test to make sure it's still working, which it passes.
  3095. >Some of the changelings take flight and begin pelting the group with magic bolts of their own, and a few gryphons swap their crossbows for longswords, and dive towards the group.
  3096.  
  3097. >Right away, Razor takes flight, brandishing his glaive and beelining towards the approaching gryphons.
  3098. >No time to watch their aerial tango, however, since the group of bugs up ahead are really laying into everyone with their magic shots.
  3099. >The group slows down, bringing their shields up front and center to deflect the shots, which look to be doing more damage than the actual crossbow bolts.
  3100. >You, however, have no such weakness.
  3101. >Right as you break past the lines towards the group of bugs, however, a zebra speeds right past you.
  3102. >A certain asshole zebra with a big, glyphed-up battleaxe, which is currently being hefted back for an overhead hit.
  3103. >A brief moment passes before Vegter jumps into the air towards the bug group, his axe coming down in a wide arc, and the glyphs on it becoming very electrified.
  3104. >SCWTHUNK-FZZZZT
  3105. >His axe comes down in the middle of the group, a big nova of yellow lightning spreading out from the point of impact, electrocuting and summarily dropping the whole group.
  3106. >Heerser shouts something less than favourable towards him from behind, but he just looks back with a triumphant, oh-so-smug smirk.
  3107. >Only it's aimed straight at you.
  3108. >Oh, so this is what he's playing at, is it?
  3109. >Why, you ought to--
  3110. >No, no, don't fucking bother, Anon.
  3111. >This clown-ass motherfucker's not worth the effort--
  3112. >A zebra leaps out of the chariot, ready to throw something.
  3113. >An alchemist!
  3114. >Whatever words of zebra-speak gloating that come out of Vegter's pie hole is the last thing on your mind, and you speed towards him with the shield-thing extended.
  3115. >The potion leaves the zebra's hoof just as you pass by him.
  3116. >You get a couple of feet ahead of him, before the potion shatters against your shield.
  3117. >CRACK-THWOOSH
  3118.  
  3119. >Another cloud of that crimson gas shit billows out of it, and you get caught square in the middle of it.
  3120. >The gas smells and tastes like shellfish, with a strange, very unpleasant undertone of what you swear is a mixture of licorice and cough syrup.
  3121. >It makes you cough, sure, but it doesn't stop your forward rush, and you clear the cloud in no time at all.
  3122. >You feel really dirty, like you just sat next to a gang of chain-smokers at a bus stop for ten or so minutes, but other than that, you haven't been slowed down at all.
  3123. >So those 'spirit suppressing' potions really don't do anything against you!
  3124. >Hah, guess being ginger-kin isn't so bad, after all!
  3125. >Seeing you totally unfazed by her potion injects a good deal of fear into the evil alchemist, who decides to try throwing another red bottle of the same kind towards you.
  3126. >CRACK-THWOOSH
  3127. >It works about as effectively as it did the first time.
  3128. >Eyes bulged in disbelief and terror, the alchemist leaps back to get away from you.
  3129. >Funny, she doesn't look nearly as skilled, or confident, as the first evil alchemist you tangoed with.
  3130. >Not that you particularly care.
  3131. >Choosing to do the sensible thing and circle around the chariot, you're met with the alchemist charging at you, one of those gryphon's longswords in her mouth.
  3132. >Hope to God your training is still good, after all this time!
  3133. >Whatever she tries to open up with is cut short with a swipe of the bill, it's reach easily enough to deter this unarmoured opponent.
  3134. >It doesn't hit, sure, but it does force her to jump back again.
  3135. >Keep on the offensive!
  3136. >You keep moving forward towards her, slashing and swiping at her whenever she tries to move forward, attack, or pull something out of her pouches.
  3137. >She was too mobile for the attacks to hit, but at the same time, she wasn't able to do much to you, either!
  3138.  
  3139. >Okay, you think you can outlast her like this!
  3140. >Just keep going, don't take your eye off her, and for the love of God, don't ever let her bring out a potion--
  3141. >SCWTHUNK
  3142. "Jesus!"
  3143. >Out of nowhere, the zebra was cleaved in half down the midsection by that same electro-battleaxe, thrown straight at her from somewhere off to the side and subsequently sticking into the ground, it's target barely seeming to slow it's trajectory down.
  3144. >She died before even hitting the floor.
  3145. >Vegter's smug laughter from off to the side replaced the shock with a good deal of annoyance.
  3146. >He's fucking showing off, in the middle of a fight?
  3147. >Agh, no, nevermind him!
  3148. >Are there any more alchemists hiding out?
  3149. >Turning away, you move towards the downed chariot, vaulting over the edge and stepping into the very damaged flying vehicle.
  3150. >Nobody was in it, but something faintly glowing despite being covered in a thick cloth was visible inside.
  3151. >Question for later, what about the gryphons?
  3152. >Your eyes shoot skyward towards the air combat, and...
  3153. >Uh...
  3154. >Holy shit...!
  3155. >You looked up just in time to see Razor straight-up shield-bash one of the gryphons in the face, a loud, distinctly bony 'CRACK' ringing out in time with the blood spray as it plummets to the ground, out of the game.
  3156. >His immediate follow-up came as an overhead glaive strike, aimed at the poor bastard flying behind the one Razor had just taken out.
  3157. >He tries to bring his sword up to defend, and to his credit, he does manage to get the block right.
  3158. >Too bad the glaive is made of way more solid stuff than the sword: it cleaves right through the sword and buries itself in the poor bastard's face.
  3159. >He, unlike his buddy with the shield treatment, was dead before he hit the ground, with Razor yanking the weapon free of his quarry before said ground could be hit.
  3160. >He swoops around for more targets, but that looked like it was the last one.
  3161.  
  3162. >Jesus, you didn't realize he could fight like that in the air!
  3163. >Could he always do that?
  3164. >Because you sure as shit don't remember him doing anything like that before!
  3165. >Actually, now that you're thinking about it, when did you last see him really fight with anything other than a crossbow?
  3166. >He lands in front of the big group of friendly zebras, almost all of which are looking mighty impressed with him.
  3167. >Your sentiment exactly.
  3168. >Unfortunately, Vegter's smug-ass chuckling could be heard close by, and you turn towards it's source, finding the zeeb himself leaning against his battleaxe, which itself was propped up against the side of this chariot.
  3169. >His words roughly translate to him 'not being impressed' with your skills.
  3170. >Yeah, real tough words from the guy who needed a magic weapon to kill as much as he did.
  3171. >He won't be laughing so much, when you've got your own weapons back.
  3172. >"Reckless move, throwing yourself against those potions."
  3173. >Oh, there's Heerser and a few others, coming up to the chariot.
  3174. "Yeah, I'm known for that."
  3175. >"Not the best attitude to take. But if nothing else, that does prove that their foul, yet common brew has no effect upon you."
  3176. "Besides needing to take a shower."
  3177. >"Besides that, yes. Is there anything of value in that chariot?"
  3178. "Might be. They've got something glowy and covered up in a cloth here."
  3179. >"I see. Are you willing to investigate further?"
  3180. "Don't even have to ask. Though it might be smart for you all to back up a little."
  3181. >Nodding his agreement, he has all parties back up and away from you, something Vegter is very reluctant to do.
  3182. >Razor hovers overhead a good distance, ready to spring down should anything bad happen to you.
  3183. >Okay, let's see what we've got.
  3184. >You slip the cloth off of the orb, revealing a rough crystal ball, anchored to the chariot with a bunch of big, jagged crystals, and covered in glowing red runework.
  3185.  
  3186. >On the top is a solid red symbol in the shape of a horseshoe.
  3187. >Well, if fucking Nito had this for his troops, you don't think this should be too bad...
  3188. >You press down on the symbol, and immediately, a red aura of magic radiates ourward, stopping at the chariot's edges and covering the whole area they're touching in a ton of shimmering.
  3189. >"Whoa," calls Razor, "Where the buck did he go?"
  3190. >"I believe he has found the chariot's means of staying invisible," comes Heerser's reply.
  3191. >Wait, so you're invisible right now?
  3192. >You pull your hand off the symbol, and the red aura sucks itself back in, taking the shimmering with it.
  3193. "Damn, this would've been nice to have in my car."
  3194. >"Yeah, no shit! You and the whole bucking chariot just vanished!"
  3195. >"Is is really too much to ask for you to watch your language?"
  3196. "Probably. Have you ever seen this on the chariots you've taken down?"
  3197. >"I haven't. Is there a way to retrieve this odd device?"
  3198. "You want to lug it back?"
  3199. >"If it means discovering how his vile magic works, and devising a counter to it? Yes."
  3200. "Well, when you put it like that..."
  3201. >You look around at the connecting 'base' a little closer.
  3202. >The wood around the crystal base is really splintered and torn up, like it was just shoved into place and 'grown' up out of it.
  3203. >Maybe if you...?
  3204. >Grasping the orb, you give it an experimental tug.
  3205. >With a little twisting to convince it, the whole thing pops right out of it's hiding spot.
  3206. >This thing is super fucking heavy though, so you let your shoulder handle the brunt of it from here.
  3207. >Man, this cloth stuff really is tough: you barely notice the jaggies sticking into your shoulder!
  3208. "Yeah, I'd say we can lug it back."
  3209. >"That is good to hear."
  3210. >Shrugging with your free shoulder, you press your hand on the activator again, just to see what happens.
  3211. >Everything gets cloaked in the shimmers again, and moving around takes the radius with you.
  3212.  
  3213. >"Huh, the chariot didn't disappear this time," Razor observes.
  3214. "Really?"
  3215. >"Yeah."
  3216. "Huh."
  3217. >You turn the thing off, then try sticking it into the ground and turning it back on.
  3218. >"Whoahkay, now all the bucking sand just disappeared!"
  3219. "Interesting."
  3220. >So whatever this base is touching gets cloaked, too?
  3221. >Very interesting.
  3222. >Obviously it works on iron, if it's cloaking you without trouble.
  3223. >Definitely gonna see about de-eviling this bit of magic.
  3224. >"I'm not certain how that object will affect my warriors," Heerser says after you de-cloak.
  3225. "Yeah, you'd have to ask Ex-- uh, my Invictus friend about that."
  3226. >"Would you mind--"
  3227. "Carrying it around? Yeah, I should be good for now."
  3228. >"I appreciate it. Now, let us depart."
  3229. >Fucking oath.
  3230. >Jumping down from the chariot, you follow everyone's lead, Razor being the only one to stick close by while the others give you a little bit of a berth.
  3231. >Probably for the best.
  3232. >"So," he starts, "Didn't know the good sergeant could do that."
  3233. "Yeah, me neither."
  3234. >"Honestly, I didn't believe Light when she told me he'd aced Quickshot's tests, first try. Sure do, now!"
  3235. "You know I have no idea what that means, right?"
  3236. >"It's a shooting test, and a damn tough one at that. Acing it first try means you're either cheating, or a bucking savant."
  3237. "Oh, okay. I'm going with 'savant'."
  3238. >"Yeah, no kidding!"
  3239. "Fucking great fighting up there, by the way. No idea you could do that."
  3240. >"Range first, close combat second. That's what we're taught."
  3241. "Yeah, fair enough. Still!"
  3242. >"Well, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were impressed."
  3243. "Very."
  3244. >Yeah, you know what, he's earned that smug smile of satisfaction.
  3245.  
  3246. >The group comes up to Exact, who wastes no time in heading over towards you and scrutinizing your evil magic booty.
  3247. >His eyes were a tiny bit glassy, but that didn't seem to affect his examination very much.
  3248. >"That runic construct is very well designed. It is very unusual for such constructs to be made specifically to avoid poisoning the magical systems of others around it."
  3249. "So it's safe to lug around?"
  3250. >"Yes, though I would still suggest destroying it as a precaution."
  3251. "I hear you, but that's not on the table right now."
  3252. >"I understand. If you insist on carrying it, however, I would like to examine it further."
  3253. "Knock yourself out."
  3254. >Heerser, upon hearing that it's safe to handle, offers to let some of his warrior guys carry it for you, but you turn him down.
  3255. >But he did insist on rigging up a sled for it once you got back to the town, and on that you can't disagree.
  3256. >Shit's heavy.
  3257. >With your crew of three plodding along behind the zebras, you spend the next few moments just listening to their chatter from up ahead.
  3258. >A few of the braver ones peel down to offer some praise and the occasional hoofshake, which only Exact refuses to reciprocate.
  3259. >More interesting, is Heerser's brief argument with Vegter, something about what he did to the alchemist.
  3260. >Sounds like he wasn't very happy about him killing her right off the bat.
  3261. >Yeah, he did say to try and keep them alive, didn't he?
  3262. >Vegter, on his part, just shrugs off the complaints, saying something along the lines of 'saving you', with plenty of allusions towards you somehow being the weak party that needed saving.
  3263. >Only about half of the zebras in the company shared that sentiment.
  3264. >Well, that's something, at least.
  3265.  
  3266. >Man, you can't wait to get your shit back.
  3267. >You could've nuked that whole group of chariot-dwelling fuckers with your super-staff!
  3268. >Man, you hope you can get that squared away soon.
  3269. >Who knows, maybe lugging this thing back will help you in that quest?
  3270. >And for that matter, you still need to ask about how they came up with this deploying shield stuff!
  3271. >There's no fucking way that it just so happens to resemble golem limb movement arrays.
  3272. >Though, now that you're thinking about it, that old bag did say something about the Faber Mystico 'uplifting' her people, didn't she?
  3273. >That can't be a coincidence.
  3274. >Well, questions for later, you suppose.
  3275. >The town comes up, and the zebras stop for a five minute break.
  3276. >Heerser, meanwhile, gets the others to rig up a sled for your plunder.
  3277. >When everyone's good and ready, he helps out with dragging it along, much to Vegter's disbelief.
  3278. >"To think they were observing us, all this time. For how long, I wonder?"
  3279. "Couldn't tell you, man."
  3280. >"This does not bode well. I only wonder what else could they have been observing with such impunity?"
  3281. "Well, I'll keep an eye out."
  3282. >"Please, do not hesitate to point out any more aberrations of it's ilk, Otherworldly--"
  3283. >"Wait!"
  3284. >Exact's call stops you and Razor, with Heerser issuing a native-language 'stop' in response.
  3285. >"There are very powerful dark magic presences approaching."
  3286. >Oh God have mercy, what now?!
  3287. >Exact's horn ignites, and his gaze turns back to the town, thankfully still in easy walking distance.
  3288. >"There are... seventeen signatures. Two of them are alchemists. The remainder match that of--"
  3289. >graaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh
  3290. >Wait, what the fuck was--
  3291. >graaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh
  3292. >No.
  3293. >No fucking way.
  3294. >Oh, Jesus jumping Christ, you'd recognize that screeching anywhere!
  3295. >"The abominations...!"
  3296. >Yeah, that's putting it mildly, Heerser!
  3297. >It's those fucking rune monsters!
  3298.  
  3299. @@@@@@@@
  3300.  
  3301. >The first thing Heerser does is call out to the others, ordering them to head back to the village.
  3302. >He drops the sled to join them, and you follow right behind him, with Razor falling in by your side.
  3303. >"Why did it have to be more of those bucking things?!"
  3304. "You read my mind!"
  3305. >"And what did he say, that there were fifteen?!"
  3306. "Jesus, how are we supposed to--"
  3307. >Wait.
  3308. "Where is he?"
  3309. >Razor quickly notices Exact's absence, and turns his head to look for him.
  3310. >"Yeah, where-- Oh, there he is!"
  3311. >Right on cue, Exact catches up, falling in by your other side.
  3312. >"I apologize. I allotted more time to finish studying the runework, and I discovered a small tracking array on the construct."
  3313. "What, they knew we took it?"
  3314. >"If the chariot was in a preset location relative to the sun and that patrol path, and equipped with such a sophisticated stealth construct, then there is a 91.1% likelihood of that being the case. Moreover, there is a 77.7% probability that the runic creatures are pursuing the construct."
  3315. >"Oh, that's just great! What are we supposed to do, politely return it to them and hope they don't murder us all?"
  3316. >"Neither Incognito or the Bloedige Plaag have a history of showing clemency--"
  3317. >"I was being sarcastic!"
  3318. >The town is reached in short order, and already you see the houses being evacuated by the warriors, both them and the rescuees looking plenty afraid.
  3319. >Yeah, they've got every fucking reason to be afraid!
  3320. >Now where are these fucking monsters?
  3321. >Last time this happened, their fucking death-screeches and their actual arrival were about a minute off!
  3322. >Heerser's over at the other end of the village border, barking out orders towards his subordinates, with an unnerved Vegter sticking close by.
  3323. >Once his eyes land on you three however, he rushes right up to you.
  3324.  
  3325. >"We need to leave here, now!"
  3326. "We're not going to stop them--?"
  3327. >"There is no time to argue! Quickly, now!"
  3328. >Jesus, he looks so worried!
  3329. >He bolts past you three, shouting at the other zebras to hurry up, something they're only glad to try and do.
  3330. >And off in the distance, beyond the village border where Heerser just was, was a quickly approaching dust cloud.
  3331. >Oh, fuck...!
  3332. >"We should move," snaps Razor. "Like, now!"
  3333. >"They will close the distance in approximately thirty-two seconds."
  3334. >Okay, maybe he should tell you the odds more often: shit's one hell of a motivator!
  3335. >Whirling in your shitheel, you bolt off after Heerser's group, who you didn't even realize had gotten one hell of a lead over you all.
  3336. >God, your pace is so fucking slow compared to the quadruped crowd!
  3337. >Why couldn't you have gotten your boots back, at the very least?!
  3338. >Complain later, run now!
  3339. >You pass by the spot where you'd left the evil stealth thing, only to notice that it's missing, and that there's a drag mark going from it, off in the direction of the group.
  3340. >Figures they wouldn't leave that thing behind!
  3341. >But hold on...!
  3342. "Didn't you say they were tracking that thing?!"
  3343. >"It is a highly likely possibility," Exact says back, somehow keeping his tone even despite all the exertion.
  3344. >"Shouldn't we be ditching that bucking thing, then?!"
  3345. >"There is no guarantee that abandoning the construct will cause the runic creatures to cease their pursuit!"
  3346. >"It's better than just doing nothing but run! Hang on a minute!"
  3347. >Razor takes flight and speeds on ahead towards Heerser, who starts yelling at him about the plan to ditch the thing.
  3348. >Heerser takes that moment to slow his pace until he comes up next to you, Vegter peeling back with him.
  3349.  
  3350. >"We cannot leave that foul device behind! Not when it possesses that much potential value to us!"
  3351. "Are you serious?!"
  3352. >"Deadly serious! If this kind of force was sent to pursue it, it must be of significant value to the Destroyer and his cause!"
  3353. >You risk a glance back, and unsurprisingly, the fucking rune monsters are still getting closer.
  3354. "Dude, they're fucking gaining on us! If you don't drop that shit, they'll kill us!"
  3355. >"They will attempt to kill us regardless! Those monsters will never stop their rampage until all of their opponents are dead!"
  3356. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me!"
  3357. >"As long as the townszebras escape and the artefact is secured with them, my warriors will sacrifice anything to slow their advance!"
  3358. >God damn it, no!
  3359. >You can't just let them throw their lives away against those things!
  3360. "There's gotta be something we can do to fight them off!"
  3361. >"No, we cannot! Even two would be too powerful for our forces to face!"
  3362. >Aaaaagh!
  3363. >"Boy, doesn't this take you back to Ponyville, huh Anon?"
  3364. >Yeah, you fucking said it, Razor!
  3365. >Only this time, you'll never make it to your lab by the skin of your teeth!
  3366. >You'll never just barely make it to the magnet, and--
  3367. >ding
  3368. >The magnet.
  3369. >Holy fucking shit, the magnet!
  3370. >"Anon, I hope that was a good gasp."
  3371. >Wordlessly, you unsling the pouch holding your portable magnet, and start unwrapping it.
  3372. >Razor replies to the display with a gasp of his own.
  3373. >"Anon, no."
  3374. "Like you said, just like back at Ponyville!"
  3375. >"Anon, no! This is not the same! Don't you dare--"
  3376. >"Your 'magnet', Otherworldly Anonymous? Can that stop them?"
  3377. "Yes it can, and I've done it before to these exact same monsters!"
  3378. >"Truly? Perhaps there is a chance--"
  3379. >"Uh-uh, don't even think about this heroics shit again--!"
  3380.  
  3381. >"The runic creatures will be upon us in one minute and forty-three seconds," Exact chimes in. "The city will not be reached at this current speed for another eleven minutes and eleven seconds. Anon's magnetic device has the highest likelihood of stopping them with a minimal casualty rate."
  3382. >"But we can't just--!"
  3383. >"I do not like the prospect, either. But as it stands, it is the only feasible option."
  3384. >"Motherbucker...!"
  3385. >graaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh
  3386. >The yell from behind, much louder now, settles the decision for you.
  3387. "I'm doing it!"
  3388. >"We will be at the ready to assist you, Otherworldly Anonymous!"
  3389. "No, you need to stay far away from--!"
  3390. >"I know! I was referring to the alchemists!"
  3391. >Shit, that's right, there were two of them somewhere!
  3392. >"Do not dawdle! Dispatch them quickly, now!"
  3393. "Yes, sir!"
  3394. >Your run slows to a walk, then finally to a full stop, the others continuing to speed ahead at Exact's word, with Razor looking super torn up about leaving you like that.
  3395. >Sorry, buddy.
  3396. >But at least this time, he won't take the brunt of the magnetism.
  3397. >Spinning around, you bring the magnet out, and face the monsters head-on.
  3398. >Just like Exact said, fifteen of the fucking things were coming up in the distance, sand kicked up in huge, dusty clouds as they sprint towards your general direction.
  3399. >Fucking Christ, they're still as jerky as you remember!
  3400. >Whatever doubts were swelling at this idea were quickly squashed into a corner, once you flipped the switch on the magnet.
  3401. >Instantly, the weak field it generates causes magic to 'contrail' off of your clothes, and especially off of the transforming shield thing.
  3402. >You can do this.
  3403. >You've got this shit.
  3404. >Through your huffing, you take a deep breath, and call out to the monsters.
  3405.  
  3406. "Hey! Where are you all going in such a hurry?!"
  3407. >Their fucked-up rune 'eyes' lock onto you.
  3408. >That got their attention!
  3409. "Party's over here!" you bellow, gesturing at them to come hither. "You guys must be so tired, after all that running!"
  3410. >Kind of like how you are?
  3411. >Well, if all goes well, you shouldn't need to do any more running!
  3412. >The monsters stop running in your general direction, and start running straight towards you, the swords in their arms ripping out of their palms.
  3413. "Yeah, that's right," you mutter, "Come on, come and get it."
  3414. >Your grip on the magnet's crank becomes extremely tight.
  3415. >Gotta time it right, so there's no chance for them to escape.
  3416. "C'mon, c'mon, come to daddy."
  3417. >Was that yelling you heard from behind you?
  3418. >No, focus up!
  3419. >Gotta be inside three yards for this to work!
  3420. >You swear, there's drool flying out of their sharp-toothed maws as they come up to you.
  3421. "Yeah, let's go. Let's fucking go!"
  3422. >Six yards.
  3423. >Five yards.
  3424. >Four!
  3425. >And three!
  3426. >Now!
  3427. >You let the crank rip, the effect being as instantaneous and as visceral as you remember.
  3428. >Every rune monster was slammed with the force of an oil tanker, some falling over on their backs, and others collapsing to their knees, screaming exactly like they did before.
  3429. >Something big and metal falls to your side from behind.
  3430. >Their violent, often bone-breaking thrashing is accompanied by the runes on their body changing from a crimson red glow to a bright, almost flashing white, red lightning arcing just as violently off of the runework and being carried away, almost like contrails, in the magnetic 'wind'.
  3431. >With how many of them there are, the blades in their arms cut and slash at each other during their convulsions, on top of burying themselves into their owners bodies and heads, where their tar-black blood begins spilling freely from the wounds.
  3432.  
  3433. >And finally, there was the sign you were looking for.
  3434. >Their screaming is muffled by something forcing it's way out of their mouths, bulging through their throats on the way.
  3435. >Big, bright white orbs unhinge their jaws on their way out of their bodies, dangling by a few strands of white magic for only a few brief moments before the strands melt under the magnetism, and the orbs detonate in a puff of orange-flecked smoke, the resulting smoke quickly buffeted away in the same magnetic 'wind'.
  3436. >And the instant that happens, the creatures drop like puppets with their strings cut, the runes quickly dimming into simple black markings.
  3437. >Three drop.
  3438. >Don't you dare stop, Anon.
  3439. >Seven gone.
  3440. >Not until the screaming and thrashing stop.
  3441. >Twelve.
  3442. >Fourteen.
  3443. >The last one follows suit moments after.
  3444. >But the screaming hasn't stopped.
  3445. >Keep going.
  3446. >Don't you fucking dare stop, not until--!
  3447. "Whaah, shit!"
  3448. >Your foot bumps against something heavy and sharp, causing you to jump and almost drop the magnet.
  3449. >It's an axe...?
  3450. >Some kind of big battleaxe, with dull, unpowered magic glyphs on it--
  3451. >Wait, what?!
  3452. >That's--!
  3453. >The deep-voiced screaming nearby dies down into protracted groans of pain, and your head spins right around to it's source.
  3454. >Lying behind you, crumpled in a heap with blood pouring out of his mouth and nose, is a barely conscious Vegter.
  3455. "What the fuck are--?!"
  3456. >Oh, no.
  3457. >No, God damn it, where did he come from?!
  3458. >The switch on the magnet is flipped, depowering it completely as you rush down to his side, on your knees.
  3459. "You fucking idiot!"
  3460. >How is he even still awake?!
  3461. "What part of 'stay away from my fucking magnets' did you not understand?!"
  3462. >Potions!
  3463. >Get him one of those healing potions!
  3464.  
  3465. >Your free hand whips back to grab one of the insta-healing ones, and you yank the cork out with your teeth, wasting no time in bringing it to Vegter's mouth.
  3466. >God, this fucking glory whore!
  3467. >He couldn't just stay back and let you handle this, could he?!
  3468. >No, he had to--!
  3469. >Oh, no, no!
  3470. >This wasn't supposed to happen, not again!
  3471. >Wait.
  3472. >The potion you poured out isn't glowing.
  3473. >They're supposed to be glowing!
  3474. >Oh, no, don't fucking say that the potions got de-powered, too?!
  3475. >Fuck, fuck, fuck!
  3476. "Hey!" you call out in the direction of the very far away others, "I need some help here! Quick!"
  3477. >Vegter groans and shifts beneath you.
  3478. "Uh-uh, no way! You stay the fuck put, you absolute--!"
  3479. >His hoof still managed to shake your arm with a surprising amount of force, even in his state.
  3480. "Damn it, listen to--"
  3481. >He muttered something too slurred to make out.
  3482. "For fuck's sake, stop moving!"
  3483. >He repeats himself more clearly this time, his shaking of your arm intensifying a bit.
  3484. >"A-agter jou..."
  3485. >Wait.
  3486. >'Behind you'?
  3487. >Your head turns around, and you immediately see what he's talking about.
  3488. >And just as immediately wish that you weren't seeing it.
  3489. >Two evil alchemists, brandishing some pretty big bardiches, beelining straight for you.
  3490. >If 'murder' were a facial expression, those two were the fucking reference material for it.
  3491. >One of them jumps for an overhead strike, and in response, you bring your magnet to bear, ready to--
  3492. >Wait, no!
  3493. >Vegter's right here!
  3494. >Almost too late to course-correct, you move your arm to deploy the shield, in an attempt to block it.
  3495. >Good plan, except for the tiny little problem of the shield not deploying.
  3496. >There's no time to stop the incoming strike.
  3497. >SCHW-SCHLICK
  3498. "Ghaaaah!"
  3499. >The blade is only partly stopped by the solid metal of the shield, the remainder burying itself deep into your forearm.
  3500.  
  3501. >The magnet drops to the ground out of shock, and with surprising force, the zebra pulls her weapon free from your arm.
  3502. >The bill, grab your bill!
  3503. >Your right hand flies back to grab the weapon, and you bring it to--
  3504. >SCHW-THUNK
  3505. >You cry out as the handle of your weapon is split clean in two by another swipe of a bardiche, belonging to the second alchemist.
  3506. >When the fuck did she...?!
  3507. >They both lunge for you.
  3508. >Move, move it!
  3509. >You very narrowly jump back out of their simultaneous stabbing motion, and you throw the broken handle of your bill towards them as they go, where it harmlessly bounces off one of them.
  3510. >Said hand flies to your belt, and whips out the war hammer.
  3511. >Shit, this isn't good!
  3512. >These look like the same kind of pro alchemists you first fought when coming here!
  3513. >Only you've got just the war hammer to fight them off--
  3514. >Shit, another lunge!
  3515. >Only one of them makes a stab at you, grazing your side.
  3516. >The other one comes down for another overhead hit, which you're forced to duck out of the way of.
  3517. >Unfortunately, the other one banked on exactly that happening, and swept her bardiche towards you while you were diving, right into the path of your torso.
  3518. >This time, it's not a graze.
  3519. >SCHLICK
  3520. >You don't get the chance to cry out, the faceful of the sandy ground muffling your voice.
  3521. >Your vision returns very forcefully as a kick to your side flips you over onto your back.
  3522. >The first thing you see is one of the alchemists, going for another overhead hit.
  3523. >Your attempt to move the war hammer to block is inhibited by the second alchemist pinning said arm.
  3524. >Your blood runs cold.
  3525. >You can't block that hit.
  3526. >Oh, God...!
  3527. >This can't--!
  3528. >WHOOSH-THUNK
  3529. >A gray blur swoops in from off to the side, tackling the would-be executioner out of your field of view.
  3530.  
  3531. >Not even a moment later, several bolts of carrot-orange magic fly towards the second alchemist pinning your arm, driving her back and allowing you to stand back up as fast as you possibly can.
  3532. >Gritting through the pain in your arm and side, you bring the hammer up, ready to fight.
  3533. >The alchemist who was pinning your arm tries to throw a potion, but a perfectly aimed magic bolt hits her hoof in just the right spot to make her drop it.
  3534. >That's an opening you're more than happy to take!
  3535. >You make a lunge of your own, but unfortunately, she's still too agile for you, and your body got in the way of Exact's magic bolt barrage, allowing her to jump high into the air, out of your reach.
  3536. >What you weren't quite expecting was for a chain to come flying out from behind, and leash around her barrel.
  3537. >The alchemist's eyes bulge in alarm, but that's all she gets the chance to do.
  3538. >With a grunt from behind, the chain is pulled hard, and the alchemist is whipped back towards the chain's origin.
  3539. >Tracking her flight path, it becomes clear who the origin is.
  3540. >There was Heerser, a chain coming out from under his foreleg's armour plating, and in the middle of yanking her back towards him.
  3541. >She lands in a heap in front of him, the chain unhooking and retracting into his armour, and another one lashing out from the other leg.
  3542. >Only this time, the chain is fizzling with pale green lightning, and has a small knife, almost like a cross between a kris and a kunai, attached to the end.
  3543. >She recovers enough to jump out of it's way, but his other leg looses one of those same bladed chains, also electrified, straight towards her again.
  3544. >Two more knife-chains fire out from his forelegs when that one fails to hit, and while they also miss, the alchemist is panicking badly by this point.
  3545. >Another set of two join the chorus, and it's at that moment that Heerser starts moving his forelegs.
  3546.  
  3547. >Heerser rears up, and the chains lash out in a big cross slash, one that the alchemist has no chance in hell of dodging.
  3548. >The blades rake along her front, leaving several deep gashes and drawing a cry out of her.
  3549. >She tries to bring her bardiche up to defend, but the chains on one side wrap around it, and with a flick of his foreleg, it's whipped off to the side.
  3550. >Coming back down on that foreleg, the other leg whips the chains around, and he starts spinning them above his head very quickly, where they rake along her front, leaving gash after gash in their wake.
  3551. >Then, all at once, the spinning chains are pulled back and retracted, and the other set of three are whipped straight at her, where they stab her through the chest.
  3552. >She doesn't have time to cry out, as she gets yanked towards Heerser once again, who rears his head back.
  3553. >The instant she's brought close enough, he brings his forehead squarely down on hers with a damn near thunderous CRACK.
  3554. >She drops like a rock, and that last set of chains retracts into his armour.
  3555. >Uh...
  3556. >How did...?
  3557. >Why'd...?
  3558. >U-uh...
  3559. >D-does 'Jesus Christ' really encapsulate the full scope of your absolute dumbfoundment at this point?
  3560. >How the fuck--
  3561. >"Otherworldly Anonymous!" he calls out, running over to you. "Are you well?"
  3562. "I-I--"
  3563. >CLANG
  3564. >Both of you turn your heads toward that sound, and find Razor and the other alchemist taking swipes at one another, the former still flying.
  3565. >Shit, they're still--!
  3566. >Orange magic bolts rain down on the alchemist from behind, hitting her in just the spots that cause her to lose balance.
  3567. >That's all the window Razor needs, and with a cry, he swoops down and clotheslines the zebra with the pole of his glaive, knocking her onto her back.
  3568. >Immediately after hitting the dirt, Razor's left wing flares out, and he spins around, flicking it towards the alchemist.
  3569. >A hail of about half a dozen knives fly out, and hit the zebra.
  3570.  
  3571. >Brilliant blue lightning erupts from the knives, electrocuting her.
  3572. >They only lasted a few seconds, but that was all he needed: she flops limply to the ground, finally down for the count.
  3573. >"Motherbucker, these fillies are tough!" he breathes, totally bushed from all the fighting.
  3574. >He finds some more energy once his eyes land on you, though.
  3575. >"Anon! Holy buck, you all right?!"
  3576. "I-I think so! Fuck me, that was a close one!"
  3577. >Whatever he had to say next was cut off by Heerser rushing past you, heading towards--
  3578. >Vegter!
  3579. >"Reckless fool! What have you done?!"
  3580. >You make to go after him, but the pain of the battle picks that moment to catch up to you, now that the adrenaline's up and gone.
  3581. >You don't make it far before your knee hits the sand.
  3582. >"Anon," calls Razor, "Hang in there!"
  3583. >He comes in quickly to help you up, and you swipe one of his healing potions for yourself.
  3584. >You down it just as you hear Vegter crying out in pain, and soon, you start to feel--
  3585. "Aaaaaagh!"
  3586. >Pain!
  3587. >Fuck fuck fuck, Jesus fucking Christ shitfuck!
  3588. >Stabbing pain, worse than the doctor's potion, rips through your body, especially at your injuries.
  3589. >"Hang in there, buddy!"
  3590. >Unlike the doctor's potion, however, it fades away much sooner, and a damn sight quicker.
  3591. >Still, you're left panting and sweating, hanging onto his side for precious stability.
  3592. >"Come," Heerser calls, an unconscious Vegter slumped over his back, "Let us return back to Vesting!"
  3593. "Is he all right?!"
  3594. >"I do not know for certain, and I do not intend to wait for his condition to worsen! Agent of Celestia, his weapon!"
  3595. >Exact floats over his unpowered battleaxe, stowing it on his back.
  3596. >Razor helps you back to your feet, something that takes a few attempts.
  3597. >But once you're up, you snag your magnet, luckily still in one piece, then you're right on Heerser's tail.
  3598. >Fucking Vegter...!
  3599. >That fucking dumbass better pull through this!
  3600. >He has to!
  3601.  
  3602. @@@@@@@@
  3603.  
  3604. >The run back to the city took a little over ten minutes, just like Exact predicted, and a party of friendly alchemists were waiting at the gates to help all of you.
  3605. >Right away, they take Vegter off of Heerser's back, load him onto a cloth-bedded cart, and wheel him off as quick as they could, one alchemist standing over top and examining him the entire time they were in motion.
  3606. >From what little you could make out of Heerser's conversation, it sounded like they needed to check on the guy a bit more, just to make sure nothing permanent happened.
  3607. >God, you hope nothing permanent happened.
  3608. >He's an idiot, sure, and if today and yesterday were any indication, he was a colossal douche to boot.
  3609. >But still, you'd never want to see the guy dead!
  3610. >And certainly not at your hands...
  3611. >"It will be some time before we will learn the true extent of the damage that Vegter sustained," says Heerser. "Is there anything you can tell me about the effects of being exposed to that 'magnet', and what cures there are to them?"
  3612. >"Magnetic fields remove any and all magic from their area of effect, causing significant damage to anything living in the process. You should prioritize reinfusing the magic he lost, and then attempt to use your curatives."
  3613. >Exact to the rescue, as always.
  3614. >He relays the info in his language to an attending alchemist, who rushes off after the cart after getting the memo.
  3615. >"Otherworldly Anonymous, I must apologize for his reckless actions--"
  3616. "Don't. You didn't do anything."
  3617. >"Even so, I should have done more to restrain him."
  3618. "If it makes you feel better, I'll smack him upside the head once he's back among the living."
  3619. >You almost don't catch the tiny roll of his eyes.
  3620. >With the rest of Heerser's forces and civvies long since inside the fort, that just leaves the four of you to step on in yourselves.
  3621. >And right away, there's a bunch more alchemists waiting, loaded up with potions and other medical-looking stuff.
  3622.  
  3623. >"Now, I believe you have yet to experience our warrior's welcome?"
  3624. "Uh, 'warrior's welcome'?"
  3625. >"That would be a 'no', then. Well, just follow their lead. I'm sure you will be quite pleased."
  3626. >Not too sure about that, if you're being honest.
  3627. >But hey, he hasn't steered you wrong yet, even after you kept fucking things up.
  3628. >So for the moment, you decide to follow the lead of the alchemists, who take you back over to the tiny courtyard, straight to the warrior tent complex.
  3629. >Only this time, they're taking you somewhere with a bunch of steam wafting up, something you definitely didn't see before here.
  3630. >You don't have long to wait, before the steam's source is revealed to be what looks like a hot spring, with a bunch of zebras, most of which were in your group, swimming around and taking a load off.
  3631. "Wait, wait, wait. This is the 'welcome'?"
  3632. >"One heck of a welcome you've got, if that's true," Razor agrees.
  3633. >"Oh, not quite. They're partaking in the warrior's respite. The warrior's welcome is for esteemed warriors and guests."
  3634. >The hell is that, some kind of VIP treatment?
  3635. >Well, they're taking you over to a roomy tent of some kind, so might as well see what it's all about.
  3636. >Right away, you see another spring inside the tent, with a bunch more mares of the non-alchemist variety inside.
  3637. >They all look super excited to see the lot of you, though you could tell that some were a little wary of you in particular.
  3638. >Still gotta work on that, you suppose.
  3639. >"Come, remove your items and attire. Allow them to tend to your needs."
  3640. >Exact complies right away, but you and Razor shoot each other skeptical looks.
  3641. >"I-is he serious?"
  3642. >"Quite serious, Uncouth Razor Wind! You fought well, and deserve a reprieve for it!"
  3643. >"I mean, sure, but it's just a bit more than I really saw coming, you know?"
  3644.  
  3645. >"I suggest taking his offer," Exact throws in, pulling his helmet off last. "Zebrakind considers this an honour for the warriors after a hard-fought battle, and an honour for the servants to help return said warriors to optimal fighting condition. Rejecting this would not be wise."
  3646. >Oh, cultural insensitivity charges, eh?
  3647. >"All right, all right, I get the picture. Hey, you cool with this, Anon?"
  3648. "Guess we'll find out, huh?"
  3649. >Razor drops his weapons and starts undoing his armour, and Heerser's got a few alchemists helping him out of his heavy suit of armour.
  3650. >And Jesus, there's a lot of chains hidden under that suit.
  3651. >Well, might as well join the party, huh?
  3652. >First things first, you stow the hammer and magnet far off in the corner, which really takes the edge off of the nearby alchemists.
  3653. >Honestly, you don't really know how to get out of this cloth stuff, but almost as if sensing your unease, the alchemists jump in and help you out, commenting a fair bit about your potions and cloth 'losing their power'.
  3654. >So, note to self: magnets completely nuke alchemy.
  3655. >Can't say you expected any different, but still, good to know.
  3656. >Exact had since stepped down into the waters, where a few of the mares were already at work cleaning him up with buckets of soapy water and sponges.
  3657. >Razor was treated to much the same thing, the moment he stepped in himself.
  3658. >Geez, there's VIP treatment, and then there's this!
  3659. >You have to stop the alchemists from pulling off the trusty tighty whities, but soon enough, you're the next to step on in.
  3660. >Oh man, this is some nice water...
  3661. >Your own group of cleaners swoop on in, and--
  3662. >Whoooooah, what's with the soap?!
  3663. >Every glide of the sponge feels like a massage, with pleasant tingling left in it's wake.
  3664. >Ohh man, holy shit...!
  3665. >Y-yeah, that's definitely VIP material right there!
  3666. >The attending mares giggle a little at your pleased little groans.
  3667. >Victory is theirs today.
  3668.  
  3669. >"There, see?" calls Heerser from his spot in the spring while he gets lathered up himself. "I did say you would be quite pleased, did I not?"
  3670. "N-no complaints, man..."
  3671. >Razor doesn't even respond, instead groaning an 'uh-huh' from his spot, his head back, eyes shut, and tongue lolling a little, something that really amuses his own attendants.
  3672. >Heh, to say nothing of yourself.
  3673. >An alchemist runs into the tent and over to Heerser, whispering something into his ear that makes him perk up even more.
  3674. >"Good news already, my friends! It seems that Vegter will be recovering soon, perhaps in the next few hours!"
  3675. "Wait, what?! Already?"
  3676. >"Indeed! The suggestion to replenish his strength was a sound one, from what I'm told. A few hours of rest after his treatments should be all he needs!"
  3677. "The fuck is that guy made out of?"
  3678. >"Yeah, really! And here I was, needing a few days in the ICU after a brush with the magnet!" Razor half-complains.
  3679. >"Oh? You've felt his weapon's power before?"
  3680. >"Not my proudest moment."
  3681. >"Well, that certainly explains your aversion to it. Quite understandable."
  3682. >All semblance of complaint from Razor went up in smoke as the mares continued their work.
  3683. >By this point, they've jumped in the water with you all, going to work on the lower regions.
  3684. >Well, as much as they can with the ever-trusty tighty whities keeping guard, anyways.
  3685. >Weirdly enough, once the two zebras attending to you were done with their clean-up, they sidled up next to you, their giggling getting a few degrees--
  3686. >"Travelled Heerser, the others are unlikely to accept the offer to preserve their 'nalatenskap'," Exact says, lightly pushing his own two attendants away.
  3687. >"That is something they can decide for themselves, agent of Celestia."
  3688. >"Wait, hold on, 'nah-laten-who?'" Razor so tastefully asks.
  3689. >"The mares wish to know if you will mate with them," Exact replies.
  3690. >"Oh, okay."
  3691.  
  3692. >A beat passes before both you and Razor jump at what he just said.
  3693. >"Wait, what?!"
  3694. "Wait, what?!"
  3695. >"A warrior's welcome is given only to honoured guests and powerful tribal warriors, both to recover their strength quickly and to ensure they can continue their lineage, as warriors with such high levels of skill and power often attain both at the expense of pursuing mates of their own."
  3696. >"Well said, agent of Celestia," comes Heerser's commentary. "Though it's easy to forget that Equestrians are far more... romantic about matters of mates and their legacies."
  3697. >Yeah, maybe you'll just... push these two ladies away a smidge.
  3698. >There you go.
  3699. >They groan their disapproval, but don't push the issue further than that, instead just hopping out of the water, same with Razor's attendants.
  3700. >"Then again, I suppose I am, too..."
  3701. >"Uh, thanks, but no thanks. My sister would kill me for even thinking about it."
  3702. "I don't even wanna know what those two would do to me."
  3703. >"You mean, what they'll do to what's left of you, when I'm through with you?"
  3704. "Sure, that works too."
  3705. >"Pardon me, but did you say 'two', Otherworldly Anonymous?" Heerser asks. "You have two mates of your own?"
  3706. "No!"
  3707. >Whoa there, little forceful.
  3708. "No, no, no! It's not like that!"
  3709. >"But you are courting two mares, no?"
  3710. "More like they're courting me!"
  3711. >"Hah! How fortunate you are, to be so desired by others! Oh, how it reminds me of my own mate!"
  3712. "I really hope there's no TMI to that story."
  3713. >"Not at all! Others may share the sordid details of their mates, but I certainly do not!"
  3714. "Yeah, except this is one messy story I'm not ready to share."
  3715. >"Oh come now, you have two mares willing to love and care for you, perhaps even bear your foa--"
  3716. "Stop! Just stop!"
  3717. >"Yeah," concurs Razor, "Just stop right there."
  3718. >A bro among bros, truly.
  3719. >This is one train of thought you really didn't want to have brought up again, not now.
  3720.  
  3721. >"Well, I did not take you for one who kept such affairs private, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  3722. "Look, it's kinda complicated, all right?"
  3723. >"I often find matters of the heart to be far simpler than they are made out to be."
  3724. "I'm not telling you the story, all right?"
  3725. >"If that is your wish," Heerser sighs, slightly dejected.
  3726. >A few moments of soaking in silence pass before those same mares come back again, only this time with food.
  3727. >Flatbreads, flowers, and peeled cacti dominate the list, but the presence of actual meat in the form of lizard legs and tails was a bit of a surprise, given that it was on everyone else's menu too, not just yours.
  3728. >Not that bad overall, the cacti in particular being much better than you expected.
  3729. >Heerser in particular really puts the stuff away, and doesn't linger for long after he's done, climbing his way out of the water.
  3730. >Yeah, probably not a bad idea.
  3731. >The second you rise and step out, more zebras are on you, drying you off with some rough linen 'towels'.
  3732. >Whatever, that's fine, you were too busy appreciating just how good a job that massage-soap stuff did.
  3733. >Definitely gonna need to find more of that.
  3734. >"Aw, what, leaving already?" Razor complains, still in the middle of gnawing on a lizard tail.
  3735. "Nothing's keeping you from staying. Uh, he can stay longer, right?"
  3736. >"Of course," Heerser replies. "But where were you planning on going?"
  3737. "Checking up on our recovering 'friend'."
  3738. >He hums, then talks to one of his attending alchemists about something while they wrap him up in more of that cloth stuff, along with a whole bunch of chains around his forelegs and withers.
  3739. >"He is in the care of the alchemists. They'd be quite happy to bring you to him."
  3740. "Thanks."
  3741. >"I'm surprised. I thought you cared little for him?"
  3742. "Not enough that I'd want him dead."
  3743. >Even if you're not exactly bringing flowers.
  3744.  
  3745. >Still, your words do manage to bring a smile to Heerser's face.
  3746. >"If he will be in the company of alchemists, it would be wise for me to remain behind," Exact adds, lifting himself out of the pool next.
  3747. >Yeah, you figured that would have to happen.
  3748. >More alchemists funnel into the tent, this time to re-clothe you, shooing away the ever-so-slightly touchy mares.
  3749. >Or maybe you're just imagining that they were touchy?
  3750. >Hey, they wanted to sleep with you, you're allowed to be paranoid!
  3751. >The alchemists, by contrast, are all business, quickly and efficiently piecing that cloth armour back onto you.
  3752. >Even the turban.
  3753. >So wrong, yet so right.
  3754. >No sooner is that put back on, than a giggling young voice is heard filtering into the tent, belonging to none other than that filly Razor took a liking to, a little basket of something on her back.
  3755. >She looks up at you with big, wonder-filled eyes.
  3756. >O-okay, he's right, that's absolutely adorable.
  3757. >Unfortunately, kneeling down and extending a hand for the customary itchies spooks her a bit, prompting her to run off towards Razor for protection.
  3758. "Well damn, that's usually a winner."
  3759. >"Not this time, tailho-- h-hohooo...!"
  3760. >Razor's clever little retort was immediately replaced with wide-eyed, drooling hunger at whatever the filly had in the basket.
  3761. >With a big, beaming smile, said filly pulls out and offers him one of the items inside: a mango.
  3762. >Razor doesn't waste any time, biting into the fruit and pulling it out of her grasp, then sitting down to half-eat, half-suck on it, all of which the filly found very amusing.
  3763. >"There is ah Gohddess," he whimpers in a full-blown Scottish accent, a single tear streaking down his cheek, "And she'sh sent me ahn angel..."
  3764. >Now you and that mystery filly were on the same page of amusement, chuckling and all.
  3765. >"Well," Heerser comments in a similarly bemused tone, "I believe he will be quite occupied for the moment, don't you?"
  3766. "You think?"
  3767.  
  3768. >Man, it's too bad you're fighting a war right now, otherwise you'd have gotten a camera made for moments like this a long time ago.
  3769. >"Why don't we leave them to their own devices, Otherworldly Anonymous?"
  3770. >Glancing to the side shows a fully rearmoured Heerser, ready to go.
  3771. "You're coming?"
  3772. >"Naturally. I too wish to see how Vegter is faring."
  3773. "Works for me," you reply, turning to Razor with a smug little grin. "Guess you're not coming, buddy?"
  3774. >Replies were far out of the bat-horse's reach: he was too busy lying down, munching on a third mango while the filly giggled away on his back, tousling his mane.
  3775. "Didn't think so. You'll keep him company, right sarge?"
  3776. >"Of course," Exact replies.
  3777. "Sweet. Let's go, then."
  3778. >You and Heerser go on your way soon after, as much as it pains you to break away from the highly entertaining sight.
  3779. >"Ah, mangoes. If there ever was a weakness among thestrals, that would be it."
  3780. "News to me."
  3781. >"Really? I imagined that would be common knowledge to you."
  3782. "Me and the memos have a lot of schedule conflicts."
  3783. >"You certainly have a strange array of sayings."
  3784. "Yeah, I get that a lot."
  3785. >"For good reason."
  3786. >A few more moments of silence pass, as you two walk out of the small courtyard back into the big one.
  3787. "So, uh, that was one crazy weapon you used back there."
  3788. >"Ah yes, the Vergeldingskettings. A weapon your foes cannot anticipate is an effective one, indeed."
  3789. "I'll say. I was wondering why you weren't carrying something around."
  3790. >"As dangerous as it is hidden, Otherworldly Anonymous," he proclaims quite proudly, his tone turning wistful after a beat of silence: "Of course, she was always better with them than I was."
  3791. "Uh, 'she'?"
  3792. >The dots connect right after the words leave your mouth, and you quickly wish you hadn't asked.
  3793. >"My mate. She was a true terror in battle with the chained blades, though she was never one to conceal her weaponry."
  3794. >Oh Jesus, why'd you have to ask?
  3795.  
  3796. >You should stop him right now, Anon.
  3797. >"I truly did not deserve a mare as good as her, yet I couldn't imagine life without ever meeting her. You're much the same, aren't you?"
  3798. "W-wait, what?"
  3799. >"Your mates, of course."
  3800. "Dude, I told you, they're not my 'mates'!"
  3801. >"Still, you can scarcely imagine life without them, can you not?"
  3802. >Oh, screw this guy.
  3803. "No, I... I sure can't."
  3804. >Double screw him for being right.
  3805. >"It is a strange thing, no? To go from feeling so mighty on your own, to needing their presence to complete you? Yet you'd never want it any other way."
  3806. >Don't know if you'd go quite that far, but...
  3807. >Great, now you're really starting to miss them.
  3808. >"Well, you're certainly on your way to gaining our trust, Otherworldly Anonymous. Should you succeed, you could always bring them here for a brief visit."
  3809. "Y-yeah, uh... that's not gonna work out too well."
  3810. >"What makes you believe that? I'd be more than willing to welcome them."
  3811. "You sure about that?"
  3812. >"What are you implying? Is there something wrong with them?"
  3813. "No, nothing like that. They're just, well, uh..."
  3814. >"Yes? I don't understand the issue. One as renowned as you, a warrior blessed by Equestria's princesses, should not be so reluctant about this. Unless..."
  3815. >He stops in his tracks for a moment.
  3816. >"Oh, my. Unless... your mates themselves are Equestria's princesses."
  3817. >Your turn to stop in your tracks.
  3818. >"That it, isn't it?"
  3819. >Don't answer that.
  3820. >"I... I see. My, that is... an unexpected twist, indeed."
  3821. >You and your big mouth.
  3822. >"Although, they could still visit. It would just have to be a more private stay."
  3823. "Wait, what? I thought you didn't like the princesses?"
  3824. >"I do not like Celestia. Unless of course she is one of your two mates?"
  3825. "Wh-- No!"
  3826. >"Then your mates have done me and my tribe no wrong."
  3827. "For God's sake, they're not my--!"
  3828. >"Aren't they? I truly do not understand your hesitance, Otherworldly Anonymous. I thought you would be all too happy to talk about this, about them?"
  3829.  
  3830. "Listen, I don't want to talk about it, so could you please just drop it? Please?"
  3831. >A beat of silence passes before he answers you.
  3832. >"As you wish. I did not mean to cause you such discomfort. Please accept my apologies."
  3833. "Fine. Just... it's complicated, all right?"
  3834. >God, you really didn't need to be reminded of the clusterfuck between you three.
  3835. >"I never did tell you of my own mate back during the welcome, did I?"
  3836. >Oh, God damn it.
  3837. >Somehow you knew he'd find a way to sneak his love life into this.
  3838. >"Meeting her was quite a stroke of luck, you know. Imagine, two zebra vagrants of such high status, meeting one another in their travels around the world!"
  3839. "Hey, wait a sec. Why are you--"
  3840. >"Telling you this? Well, I owe you that much for prying into your own affairs, don't I?"
  3841. "No, I mean, I thought this was a sore spot for you?"
  3842. >"Because she is no longer with me?"
  3843. "I-- uh, well..."
  3844. >"My story is common knowledge here, Otherworldly Anonymous, and I have nothing but good memories of her. I do not mind sharing the tale once more."
  3845. "You're gonna tell me this story no matter what I say, aren't you?"
  3846. >"You're learning!"
  3847. "Fine," you sigh.
  3848. >At least he's not talking about your love life, you guess.
  3849. >His wistful smile returns.
  3850. >"Her name was Zecala. I first--"
  3851. "Wait, what? 'Zecala'?"
  3852. >"Do you recognize her name?"
  3853. "I, uh... no. It just sounded like another name I'd heard, is all."
  3854. >He quirks an eyebrow, but doesn't press further.
  3855. >"Yes, well, I first met her in the minotaur lands, where she sold potions to the highest bidders. I could scarcely believe there was an alchemist there, using her skills for profit, and not for her tribe! I'm quite glad I kept those thoughts to myself at the time, since her reasons were quite shocking.
  3856. >"She was the head alchemist of a small tribe, destroyed in an attack by the Bloedige Plaag. She escaped with her life, and fled our lands to avoid their pursuit. From there, she travelled the world, selling potions to survive.
  3857.  
  3858. >"She was quite... forthcoming with me about all that, on our first meeting. I couldn't help but be forthcoming with her in return. She, fleeing Zebrica to survive. Me, fleeing my responsibilities."
  3859. "Wait, what? You ran away?"
  3860. >"Oh, yes! A stupid decision in retrospect, but one I wouldn't change for the world!"
  3861. "But what did you run from?"
  3862. >"Leading the Wyse Kunstenaars, of course! I was quite the free spirit in my youth, and ruling the tribe in my father's stead was about as appealing as losing teeth! He still drew breath at the time, so my youthful conscience was rather unburdened when I ran away to travel the world!"
  3863. "Okay, that's... kinda messed up, not gonna lie."
  3864. >"You think so? Then your moral compass is certainly in better shape than mine was at the time! It wasn't until I heard Zecala's tale, that I, a rather brash sellsword, began having doubts about my choice to flee.
  3865. >"Still, she never looked down on me for my decision, even though she had every right to. From then, we decided to travel together, her alchemy and my skill with a spear proving quite formidable against those who stood in our path. Well, that's the reason we told ourselves, anyways.
  3866. >"In truth, we were quite taken with one another. Love at first sight, you might even say. Only a week of travelling in her company passed, before we ceased entertaining the notion of going our separate ways.
  3867. >"Things continued to build until finally, after a month together, I finally worked up the nerve to confess how I felt to her. I was over the moon when she told me she felt the same about me!
  3868. >"Oh, we spent many months travelling the world after that moment. Scraping by, battling foes, taking on quests, and of course, doting over one another as young lovers do.
  3869. >"But eventually, those doubts I felt over abandoning my tribe grew to the point where I, upon Zecala's advice, decided to return to my people. Though she didn't want to join me at first, fearing the Bloedige Plaag still pursued her.
  3870.  
  3871. >"Of course, I wasn't about to leave my newfound lover all alone, and it took much convincing, many promises to keep her safe, before she agreed to return by my side.
  3872. >"We came back to my tribe in disarray, my father having passed away a year prior, with Zaalma being forced to lead in his stead.
  3873. >"It took a great deal of time, pain, and apologies before I was able to assume the mantle of the tribal leader, a story all unto itself. But Zecala was there with me, helping me however she could.
  3874. >"To be honest, I never would have made it this far without her help. And mere days after I assumed command of the tribe, Zecala was inducted as a full tribe member by way of blood oath, for all she had done to help all of us, not just I."
  3875. "You can do that?"
  3876. >"Of course. She was dispossessed, not exiled, so it was completely possible. Such an oath is very rare, and only given to those who fully gain the trust of all those within the tribe. That should tell you much about the strife she endured to earn it."
  3877. >Yeah, no kidding...
  3878. >"Of course, once she was inducted, I wasted no time in having her become my mate, something she was only happy to agree to."
  3879. >Man, he looks so happy, talking about that...
  3880. "Wait, you asked her?"
  3881. >"Yes, why wouldn't I?"
  3882. "But weren't you two kind of, you know, already together--?"
  3883. >"Aaaah, I see what you mean! Oh, no no no, we were very deeply in love, certainly, but we never... consummated that love before her induction."
  3884. "Wha...?"
  3885. >"Taking a mate from another tribe is an offence punishable by exile, you see. It was always something we were both wary of, even during our travels."
  3886. "Wait, that's something you can get kicked out for?"
  3887. >"Oh, yes. It is one of the ancient laws of zebrakind, one that all tribes have seen fit to follow, even the worst among the Bloedige Plaag."
  3888. "What, they keeping the gene pool pure, or something?"
  3889. >"You're quite right. It is a means to maintain purity of bloodline, a very high virtue among our kind.
  3890.  
  3891. >"Although it never ceases to amuse me, how the law only forbids such mixtures of blood between zebra tribes, and not other races."
  3892. "Uhh, what? You mean, you could...?"
  3893. >"Take a mare from another species as a mate? Absolutely. If she were Equestrian, she could even bear foals for me!"
  3894. "I'm sensing a huge 'but' here."
  3895. >"Very astute of you. While it is not illegal by ancient law to breed in such a manner, it is very much seen as a worse fouling of one's bloodline than taking an outsider tribesmare as a mate."
  3896. >You know, somehow you're having a tough time believing that zebras wouldn't be big fans of race mixing.
  3897. >"No such offspring have ever been admitted into their tribes of origin, except by the mandates of the tribal leader or head alchemist, who, by these same ancient laws, have any foals of theirs automatically become tribe members by pure happenstance of parentage.
  3898. >"Of course, these attempts never ended well with their fellow tribeszebras. No ancient law can overrule betraying your tribe's trust and purity."
  3899. "You make it sound like that happens a lot."
  3900. >"Only among the tribes of the desperate or insane. But there has, in fact, been one precedent for a foreign mate being accepted wholly into a tribe's ranks and lineage."
  3901. "Oh yeah?"
  3902. >"Allegedly, the Getroue Voogde, one of our late allies, were said to have joined in blood with an outcast hippogriff knight many generations ago."
  3903. "Hippogriff? That's a new one."
  3904. >"I don't know much about them either, but the legend did say they were fully capable of interbreeding with zebras. To what degree this story is true, I do not know, and with the tribe's destruction, I fear we will never know."
  3905. "But it can happen?"
  3906. >"It would be quite an arduous undertaking. I imagine you would have to be a perfect exemplar of your race, fully reflecting the values of the tribe you wished to join with, as the bare minimum to avoid having such a mixture of blood outright rejected."
  3907. "Geez, talk about a high standard."
  3908.  
  3909. >"Indeed! Not even Bloedige Plaag would entertain the notion, I'm sure! Could you imagine the kind of monster you'd have to be, to make such a union appealing to the likes of them?"
  3910. "Don't give them any ideas."
  3911. >Heerser snorts, before moving on.
  3912. >"Yes, well, I am forever thankful for the existence of a much simpler way for me and Zecala to legitimize our union. We wasted no time in the first few springs, and sure enough, well..."
  3913. >His happy smile reaches all new heights.
  3914. >"She gave me two beautiful fillies, every bit as strong and intelligent as their mother. There simply aren't words in your language that can describe the happiness we both felt, Otherworldly Anonymous. It is simply something you must experience to understand..."
  3915. >His pace slows a bit while he's lost in his memories, and you don't have the heart to make him speed back up.
  3916. >"It's funny. Everyzebra was shocked that we stopped at two, and that we didn't try for a colt."
  3917. >He looks over at you after a few moments of not responding.
  3918. >"You're not the least bit curious to know why?"
  3919. "Plenty. Just didn't wanna ruin your moment."
  3920. >As weird as these guys are, talking about this shit like it's the weather, it's weirdly interesting at the same time.
  3921. >Jesus, remind yourself to keep Rarity as far the fuck away from here as you can.
  3922. >"Why, how thoughtful of you," he says in a much smugger tone. "Small wonder how you attracted two beautiful mares."
  3923. >Oh, for fuck--!
  3924. >Uh-uh, don't take the bait.
  3925. >Wiseass piece of shit.
  3926. >"Well, there's no mystery to it. While most leaders sire as many foals as they can, I can safely tell you that being one of fourteen siblings does not leave you much room to properly raise them."
  3927. "Fourteen?!"
  3928. >"And that's a conservative number by tribal standards! Other tribe leaders take multiple mates, and some of the less moral ones even have carte blanche to mate with whoever they desire, no declarations required! They can sire hundreds of foals that way!"
  3929.  
  3930. "Jesus, how do you even keep track of that?"
  3931. >"You don't. And that's one of the many problems with that approach, devaluing the role your successors play. But even when your successors number in the dozens, it's impossible to raise them properly, not with the duties both you and your mate must attend to here.
  3932. >"Fortunately, our travels made Zecala and I wise to the merits of a good upbringing. We stopped at two because we simply had no more time to devote to any more than that."
  3933. >There comes the happy smile again.
  3934. >"I'm glad it turned out that way. Our daughters were, and still are, highly dangerous warriors, and their skill with alchemy is almost without equal."
  3935. "No shit? So--"
  3936. >"Ahem."
  3937. >Fucker.
  3938. "So, uh, how come I haven't seen them around?"
  3939. >It's at that point that his smile really strains, and you're back to wishing you'd never asked.
  3940. >"They may have received their mother's strength and intellect, but they also received my rebellious streak."
  3941. "What, they ran?"
  3942. >No, stop asking, you fucking asshole!
  3943. >"The oldest, for the same reasons I did. I'm sure she'll return one of these years, perhaps even with somezebra she wants to induct into the tribe."
  3944. >His smile fully vanishes, replaced with a pained frown.
  3945. >"I do not wish to speak of the youngest."
  3946. >Oh great, you just had to keep pressing for details, didn't you?
  3947. "Shit, I-I'm sorry."
  3948. >"The only thing you should apologize for is your atrocious language, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  3949. >That flip back to a wise-ass smile was definitely forced, but you quickly decide against pressing further.
  3950. >"So, I presume you and your mates will take care to properly raise your foals?"
  3951. >Never ceases to amaze you how easy it is to choke on air.
  3952. >"Mm, have you wondered how many they could bear for you?"
  3953. >The intrusive thoughts were an extra touch you could do without.
  3954. "God damn it, seriously?!"
  3955. >"Oh, I am sorry," he says, chortling a little, "I simply could not let that one slip by."
  3956.  
  3957. >Well, at least his smile is real now, so there's that!
  3958. >Still...
  3959. >Yeah, guess you did kinda deserve that one, huh?
  3960. >"Now, I believe we have a reckless zebra warrior to check up on, don't we?"
  3961. >Well yeah, but--
  3962. >Oh shit, you're here already?
  3963. >There was another one of those underground passage places, guarded by alchemists and with signs nearby reading 'place of healing'.
  3964. >The guards give neither one of you trouble as you head down the steps.
  3965. >The halls look just like the one where your 'jail' was, only it has actual openings all along the walls leading to small rooms with cots, with a whole lot more zebras than you expected to see splayed out on them, in various states of injury.
  3966. >The worst case had to be one poor guy missing two legs.
  3967. >Alchemists and regular mares alike ran up and down the halls regularly, tending to the guys in the rooms.
  3968. >Soon enough, you're led into a guarded room.
  3969. >And there was Vegter, sitting up on his cot and trying to act all tough, despite the obvious pain written all over his face.
  3970. >His eyes light up upon seeing both of you, his tough guy act picking up extra steam.
  3971. >He starts by exchanging words with Heerser, something along the lines of 'no daddy, I can take it, I'm a big boy now'.
  3972. >Well, that's what you'd like to believe, anyways.
  3973. "Shouldn't he be, you know, resting?"
  3974. >"You're more than welcome to make him."
  3975. "Oh, okay. So, uh, he can't understand me at all, right?"
  3976. >"Quite right. Did you want to tell him something?"
  3977. "I wanna hear what he has to say first."
  3978. >You pull up a seat next to Vegter's bed, and get onto eye level with the guy.
  3979. >Heerser does some translation of your desire to know more, and Vegter goes through a few different phases while ranting at you.
  3980. >One phase uppity, one phase angry, one phase semi-tsundere, and one phase begrudgingly thankful, in that order.
  3981. >"Hmm... If I didn't know any better, I'd think he was--"
  3982. >Oh wait, he's back to ranting.
  3983.  
  3984. >"He says that he wants you to repay him for losing the use of his battle axe."
  3985. "You can tell him that's his fault for being a fucking retard."
  3986. >"Good grief, I am not translating that profanity!"
  3987. "Then don't."
  3988. >Because you'll fill in the blanks for him.
  3989. >`Otherworldly Anonymous ... says ... your fault ... for foolishness.`
  3990. >Vegter snorts at the last line, the perfect segue.
  3991. >In what you're sure is the worst butchering of zebra-language to ever grace their ears, you drop your correction:
  3992. `He means ... you are an idiot ... and a giraffe buggerer.`
  3993. >Well, that was the closest you could get to 'motherfucker', without making it a grave insult to be settled with ritual combat.
  3994. >Both parties recoiled at your choice of words, Heerser especially.
  3995. >"By the spirits, such foul language!"
  3996. "Yes, yes it is."
  3997. >"You mean, you understood us the whole time--?!"
  3998. >Vegter's sudden, howling laughter cut off his line.
  3999. >Oh, so this is what you've gotta do, huh?
  4000. >Fine by you.
  4001. >`Y-you ... funny ... huge stones!`
  4002. "Oh, you think so, do you?"
  4003. >Good, he's confused, and Heerser's still all kerfluffled over there.
  4004. "Hey, tell him that this is for throwing me down that pit."
  4005. >After a few splutters, he does translate for you, and you just give Vegter a big, Very Nice™ smile while the words come out of his mouth.
  4006. >With the intended meaning now conveyed, you perform another action you're sure you'll regret later.
  4007. >CRACK
  4008. >Summoning your inner krogan, your forehead crashes squarely against his, causing him to cry out in pain, and forcing you to bite back a cry of your own.
  4009. >Yep, that's probably gonna give you a monster headache.
  4010. >Still totally worth it.
  4011. >After his initial reply of pained groans, he starts laughing again, starting off slower this time around.
  4012. >"I... believe he is beginning to like you, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  4013. >Well, hey, progress and vengeance!
  4014. >Finally, some good news--
  4015. >"What are you doing to him?!"
  4016. >Oh fuck your life, it's Zaalma.
  4017.  
  4018. @@@@@@@@
  4019.  
  4020. >"He is still recovering from his brush with death," Zaalma growls, storming into the room. "Have you no regard for the fool's well-being?!"
  4021. >"You know as much as I do that there's no stopping said fool from trying to rise again."
  4022. >"You made no attempt to stop him. Do not--"
  4023. >"Zaalma," Heerser intones as if he's dealt with this shit all his life, "You know that is not my way."
  4024. >Geez, is there any place you can take cover from these two?
  4025. >Zaalma clicks her tongue in annoyance, then moves over to Vegter's bedside, all but threatening to shove you out of the way.
  4026. >Good thing you moved first, huh?
  4027. >Vegter begins complaining again, but Zaalma's stone-faced smacks upside the head, along with her examination of that same head by way of grabbing hold of his chin and jerking his head around quickly shuts the zebra up, igniting some kind of fear in the big idiot's eyes.
  4028. >Jesus, this lady doesn't fuck around, does she?
  4029. >"Your weapon caused this harm to befall him," Zaalma half-accuses you. "Why?"
  4030. >"The fault was mine--"
  4031. >"I did not ask you, Heerser."
  4032. >Whoakay, she really doesn't fuck around.
  4033. >Welp, looks like he wasn't gonna be much help here, but hell if you're letting her accuse you of trying to murder this asshole!
  4034. "He was supposed to stay behind. You know, out of it's range?"
  4035. >"And yet here he lies."
  4036. "Not my fault he's an idiot who doesn't listen to basic warnings."
  4037. >"But it is your fault for failing to convey the danger that weapon posed."
  4038. "Excuse me?"
  4039. >"You do not speak our tongue, and you hid the weapon's damaging potential from us," she glowers your way. "What did you expect him to do, when faced with an opportunity to seize glory, ignorant of the dangers?"
  4040. "Oh, hell no. You are not pinning this on--!"
  4041. >"Won't I? I expected you to have a minimum understanding of how our great warriors would operate."
  4042. >Mission control, we're experiencing a snap here, please advise.
  4043. >This is Houston, commence operation stroke out, over.
  4044.  
  4045. "And I expected these 'great warriors' to be smart enough to figure the danger out for themselves!"
  4046. >Even though Vegter doesn't know what you're saying, he's recoiled with that 'he's in big trouble with mommy' expression, while Heerser's just covering his face with a hoof, the absolute picture of 'not this shit again'.
  4047. >"I believe my hearing must be failing me. Did you just insult our warriors?"
  4048. "I insulted a warrior."
  4049. >"You said quite clearly that you expected our 'great warriors' to possess intelligence."
  4050. >She picked the wrong pissed-off monkey to try and pull a 'gotcha' on.
  4051. "So, he'a a great warrior?"
  4052. >"Of course he is."
  4053. "Well, that 'great warrior' just ran headlong into a wall of rune monsters that his leader specifically told him to run from. Can't say that fills me with much confidence for the rest!"
  4054. >When she falls silent with nothing but a glare, you start to wonder if maybe you went a little overboard with that one line.
  4055. >Maintaining her silence, she sits back onto the ground, brings her metal foreleg up, and--
  4056. >Whoa there, what?!
  4057. >Okay, didn't expect it to transform into a fucking potion brewing station!
  4058. >Without ever breaking eye contact, she uses her other hoof to quickly mix up some kind of potion into a small vial, which she then proceeds to throw at Vegter with an order to drink it the very instant she's finished, her porta-brewing station transforming back into a foreleg while he chokes the thing down.
  4059. >"Do you understand us now?"
  4060. >Wait, what the hell is--?
  4061. >"Yes."
  4062. >What.
  4063. >That voice definitely belonged to Vegter, only it was some very strained English coming out of his trap this time, the voice semi-robotic and superimposed over his zebra-language, almost like a bad dub.
  4064. >His coughing after that one word made it clear that speaking that way was about as pleasant as it sounded.
  4065. >Oh, for fuck's sake.
  4066. >How long could she do this, again?
  4067. >And you're the guy hiding shit?!
  4068.  
  4069. >"Perhaps you'd like to repeat what you just told me, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  4070. >Oh, you get what she's trying to do now.
  4071. "Oh, I'll do one better."
  4072. >He's had this coming since the moment you got here, so what better time than now?
  4073. "You listening, cockbreath?" you leer at the zebra in question.
  4074. >He nods, though his recoiling at your choice expletive was answer enough.
  4075. "Good. I was just telling your friend here about how much of a colossal dumbfuck you've been."
  4076. >Oh nice, he's getting pissed off, a nice reflection of your own feelings of anger.
  4077. "See, I'm told you're a 'great warrior', right? Well if that's true, care to explain why you decided to disobey your leader at least twice today, and almost get yourself killed on the last 'fuck you' to him and his orders?"
  4078. >Funny, he's not getting as pissed as you thought he would.
  4079. "Actually, you've got quite a track record for doing dumb shit, don't you?"
  4080. >You on the other hand, are on the fucking warpath.
  4081. "Remember that time you decided to thank me for saving your dumb ass from that huge force of evil zebras by taking me prisoner? Gee, that takes me back! Never knew 'great warriors' had such a tough time telling the difference between the green humans and the red ones!
  4082. "And what else? What else? Oh yeah, and remember that time you threw me into that pit with the big golem, and fucked up my shoulder with that bill? That was a great time! Worth at least a couple more headbutts, don't you think?"
  4083. >Huh, from this angle, that almost looks like shame on his face.
  4084. "You know, I can't belp but wonder, mister 'great warrior'. Are all your 'great' buddies this fucking dense, or is it just--"
  4085. >The instant you drag the others into the mix, is the instant his very angry face comes soaring towards your own.
  4086. >CRACK
  4087. >Even as injured as he is, he still hits with enough force to send you to the floor, leaving you crying out on both impacts, with everything left a spinning mess for a few moments.
  4088.  
  4089. >But you do catch the sound of hooves stomping down around you, and once your vision clears, you see the big guy himself, staring down at you with some serious anger.
  4090. >"Take. Back!" he strains out, his lip movements totally not matching the words. "My. Fault! Not. Theirs!"
  4091. >He doesn't stop you from rubbing your very sore forehead, a groan escaping your throat.
  4092. >That's probably a concussion, right there.
  4093. >Starting to think you might've deserved that one, too.
  4094. "Y-your fault, huh?"
  4095. >"They. Not. Stupid! They. Strong! They. Smart! Not. Like. Me!"
  4096. >Whoa whoa, what?
  4097. >"Made. Mistake. Thought. You. Weak. Coward."
  4098. >You weren't seeing things before.
  4099. >He actually was ashamed back there.
  4100. "What?"
  4101. >"First. Meeting. You. Destroy. Enemy. With. Magic. Magic. For. Cowards. Thought. You. Coward."
  4102. "I... huh? Magic's for cowards?"
  4103. >"Yes! Escape. Fight! Especially. Ponies! Not. Like. Alchemist! They. Fight!"
  4104. >Uhh...
  4105. >Guess that makes sense, if you're a warrior type?
  4106. >"Didn't. Know. Destroyer. Was. Red. Didn't. Fight. Destroyer. Thought. You. Destroyer. Thought. You. Coward. Too! Capture. You. Wanted. You. Executed."
  4107. "By... the pit?"
  4108. >"Yes. Ancient. But. You. Lived."
  4109. >How has this guy not gone hoarse by now?
  4110. >"Leader. Stopped. Me. Shamed. Me. Trusted. You. But. Not. Me. Didn't. Trust. You. Thought. You. Sneaky. Coward. Thought. You. Tricked. Him. Wanted. To. Expose. You. Protect. Tribe. Protect. Warriors. Protect. Leader.
  4111. >"You. Terrible. Warrior. Didn't. Hit. Anything. Bad. Without. Magic."
  4112. "Gee, thanks."
  4113. >"When. Abominations. Come? Thought. You. Joining. Them! Not. Killing. Them! And. Didn't. Believe. Your. Weapon. Could. Kill. Like. That! Was. Wrong.
  4114. >"But. You. Didn't. Run. You. Stayed. Wouldn't. Hurt. Me. With. Weapon. Tried. To. Fight. Them. You. Failed. Still. Weak. But. Showed. You. Weren't. Coward. Weren't. Tricking."
  4115. "I, uh..."
  4116. >Shit, where do you start?
  4117.  
  4118. "Uh, how'd you figure that all out?"
  4119. >"Seen. Enemy. Alchemists. Pretend. Fight. Traitors. Before. Always. Hold. Back. But. They. Didn't. Hold. Back. For. You. They. Hated. You. Wanted. You. Dead."
  4120. >He can tell that?
  4121. >Well, you guess that works...?
  4122. >"Know. I'm. Stupid. Know. I'm. Just. Good. Warrior. But. Others. Smarter! Not. Their. Fault! You. Take. Back!"
  4123. >Well.
  4124. >It's official, you're an asshole.
  4125. >You can safely write that probable concussion off as a well-deserved rebuke for your wanton douchebaggery.
  4126. >After hearing all that?
  4127. >Well, you'd be lying if you weren't still pissed off, but man, way to guilt-trip a brother.
  4128. "I, uh, I'm sorry. Didn't mean to drag your friends into this, that was really... well, yeah. I'll take that back."
  4129. >Yep, headache's starting to come up.
  4130. >Definitely a concussion.
  4131. >"You. Not. Stupid. But. You. Definitely. Bastard! Funny. Bastard. But. Still. Bastard!"
  4132. "Not even gonna argue."
  4133. >"How. Do. Ponies. Handle. You?"
  4134. "Sometimes I wonder about that, myself."
  4135. >He laughs again, mercifully without that horrible sounding dub effect.
  4136. >A few chuckles of your own come out, muted as they are by the headache that's really starting to make a name for itself.
  4137. >"You. Always. Such. A. Bastard?" he dub-speaks, backing up enough to let you sit upright, cradling your forehead.
  4138. "I try not to be. It's just, well, these last few days have been absolutely shit. You'd know."
  4139. >Doesn't help that there's a certain bitch of an alchemist who really brings it out of you.
  4140. >"Hah! You. Need. Drink!"
  4141. "Drink? Please tell me that means liquor."
  4142. >"What. Else?" the big guy smirks through all the pain he's in. "Maybe. A. Warm. Mare?"
  4143. "I'll pass on the latter, thanks. But some booze sounds like a real godsend right about now."
  4144. >"Hah! More. Mares. For. Me. Then! When. I. Healthy? I. Find. You. We. Drink. Tonight!"
  4145. >Good to see that even in zebra-land, a stiff drink is still the universal problem solver.
  4146.  
  4147. "Sounds like a plan."
  4148. >Your attempt at getting back up is thwarted by a wave of pain radiating from your head.
  4149. "Agh! R-right after I get some ice on this..."
  4150. >"Hah! You. Need. Potion!"
  4151. >"I believe this ought to do," Heerser chimes in, tossing you one of his potions.
  4152. >You're entirely unsuccessful in catching the thrown slow-healing potion, but thankfully the bottle doesn't break, allowing you to scoop it up and down it quickly.
  4153. >Ohh man, that's already starting to soothe the ache...
  4154. >With that now a more distant concern, your eyes settle on the two zebras not hovering above you: a smirking Heerser, and a dumbfounded Zaalma.
  4155. >Magic aspirin and catharsis?
  4156. >Hell yes, says you.
  4157. >Heerser asks Vegter something in his language, something about if he's fine with you.
  4158. >His reply is also in zebra-language, but retains that strained dub effect:
  4159. >"Otherworldly. Anonymous. Strange! Fight. Like. Unicorn! But. Heart. Of. Warrior! Starting. To. Like. Him!"
  4160. >How the fuck did that get communicated from his rather simple zebra-language acknowledgement?
  4161. >Jesus Christ, you need to learn more of this language, because that was a shit-ton of cues you just missed.
  4162. >"Still. Think. He. Needs. A. Warm. Mare! Needs. To. Relax! Drink. Only. Does. So. Much!"
  4163. >That, on the other hand, translated perfectly through zebra-language, as much as you wish it didn't.
  4164. >"I think Vegter has a point there, Otherworldly Anonymous," Heerser smirks your way. "We should--"
  4165. "Drop this subject right fucking now."
  4166. >Yeah, laugh it up, asshole.
  4167. >"Sure. There. Are. Plenty. Willing. To. Please. You!"
  4168. "Uh-uh, don't you start this shit too, asshole."
  4169. >"Hah! What. Are. You. Scared. Of?"
  4170. >Heerser says something to him along the lines of you already being taken, tactically leaving out the part about who your suitors are.
  4171. >"Ahh! Understand. Now! Why. Not. Bring. Your. Mates. Then?"
  4172. "I swear to Christ, I am about three seconds away from going postal on your asses."
  4173.  
  4174. >Okay, you don't care if you deserve the chorus of chuckles at your expense, it's still--
  4175. >"My senses must be failing me!" interjects a certain crotchety alchemist. "Mere days have passed, and you two are allowing this... this outsider to frolic about so freely?!"
  4176. >"It is as Vegter said, Zaalma. He has the heart of a warrior, not an enchanter. A naive warrior, to be certain, but a warrior nonetheless."
  4177. "Hey, the fuck you calling 'naive'?"
  4178. >"You, of course. Though I'd also add 'vulgar' to that list!"
  4179. >"I cannot believe you are so willing to trust him!"
  4180. >"I never said I trusted him. I'm simply enamoured by his character."
  4181. >"Enough! It is clear that something is amiss here, and I shall determine what that is! Otherworldly Anonymous, you will come with me!"
  4182. >Oh for fuck's sake, really?
  4183. >"Seems that your conversation isn't quite finished," Heerser intones your way.
  4184. >God damn it all.
  4185. >Well, you're pretty sure if her glare isn't laser-beaming holes through you already, she could probably brew a potion to make it do just that.
  4186. >Better not tempt her, and just get this over with.
  4187. >"Don't. Die. Otherworldly. Anonymous! Still. Have. To. Drink. Later!"
  4188. >It'll be one well-earned round of drinks, that's for sure.
  4189. >You have to admit though, after that little heart-to-heart with Vegter, you're definitely feeling way better about all this.
  4190. >Helped take some of the edge off, as you follow this mare deep into the halls of this medical area.
  4191. >Eventually, she leads you into a room plastered in magic circles, with those same Arabic-esque glyphs that you don't recognize.
  4192. >The door slams shut, and her death glare resumes in full.
  4193. >"You will tell me what vile magic you are using."
  4194. "Wha...?"
  4195. >"Do not play the fool! I know you are influencing them!"
  4196. "Jesus lady, I'm not doing anything to them! I'm lucky to even be alive right now!"
  4197. >During your delivery, she re-engaged her brew-stand arm, and started making something else.
  4198.  
  4199. >"Do you expect me to believe that, Otherworldly Anonymous? That it was 'luck'?"
  4200. "Oh for God's sake, what are you even talking about?"
  4201. >"Avoiding death during Vegter's first encounter was 'lucky'. Avoiding death at the hooves of the Ancient was 'lucky'. Avoiding death at the hooves of the abominations and their puppeteers was 'lucky'."
  4202. >Whatever golden, glowing potion she was making was poured out into a larger flask.
  4203. >"Being spared death by Heerser was 'lucky'. Convincing him to grant you another chance after you insulted his--"
  4204. >Her breath hitches slightly.
  4205. >"After my counsel to disavow you was 'lucky'. Befriending Vegter just then was 'lucky'."
  4206. >Her arm closes back up, and she's left with a golden elixir of some kind, shimmering brightly with magic.
  4207. >"Perhaps if you were to have accomplished all of that in the span of months, we would not be speaking of this. But in mere days? A perfect string of coincidences that just so happen to have a favourable outcome for you? No, there is no 'luck' involved there.
  4208. >"Neither is there any 'luck' involved in your deep entrenchment within the kingdom of Equestria! Equestria, who so readily rejects outsiders, whose leadership actively destroys knowledge of our ancestors, of the Towenaar? You expect me to attribute such a feat to mere 'luck'?
  4209. >"I do not know by what means you have become such a powerful cypher, corrupting and dominating the wills of others. But your deceptions will not avail you here. Nor will they prevent me from discovering the truth about your hideous powers!"
  4210. >Corrupting...?
  4211. >Zaalma splashes most of the golden potion's contents against the walls, where the liquid clings to the surface for a brief moment before snaking it's way towards the magic circles, pooling like mercury as it goes.
  4212. >It soaks into and fills out the carvings, causing the symbols to light up with a bright golden colour.
  4213.  
  4214. >As the circles activate, Zaalma drinks the last little bit left in the flask, shutting her eyes with a wince a few moments after the fact.
  4215. >When they shoot back open, however, they've taken on a light golden glow, and her staring begins anew.
  4216. >There's something about her gaze that's giving you the shivers, and you can't help but take a small step back in spite of yourself.
  4217. >"I knew it."
  4218. "What? What is it?"
  4219. >Wait what the fuck, what did that come out all nervous for?
  4220. >And what's with this damn itch on your face?
  4221. >"A meddler in league with a meddler, herself a close ally of the greatest meddlers the world has seen. Tell me, what deal did you make with them, to be granted their power over others?"
  4222. "I don't know what you're talking about!"
  4223. >For the briefest of moments, confusion lights up on her expression before settling back into that accusatory stare.
  4224. >"You are a liar. The reindeer would never festoon their power upon you, not without your knowledge and consent."
  4225. >The reindeer--?
  4226. >Oh.
  4227. >Oh, God.
  4228. >She means...!
  4229. >"Do you think feigning surprise will lessen this cross-examination?"
  4230. "I-it's true, then?"
  4231. >"What is true?"
  4232. "There... th-there is some kinda prophecy bullshit going on here? With me?"
  4233. >Those words really set her off.
  4234. >"The nerve of you! Pretending to have no knowledge of such a terrible spell weaved upon you!"
  4235. "But I--"
  4236. >"How did the Solar Keeper coerce them into it?"
  4237. "She..."
  4238. >Oh God, oh God.
  4239. >You've actually been...?
  4240. "She threatened me, too."
  4241. >"Excuse me?"
  4242. "Said there was prophecy shit going on with me. Something about upending her rule. Something about me... corrupting others."
  4243. >That picture you took from the temple.
  4244. >A-are you just... following a script?
  4245. >"Destroying her rule? Corrupting others? What madness are you dredging up, now? You do not really believe such foolishness will shield you from my scrutiny--?"
  4246. "How much?"
  4247. >If she can literally see it, you need to know.
  4248. "How much am I messing with people?"
  4249.  
  4250. >This entire potion-fuelled dressing-down had already made you jumpier and itchier than usual, but it also really brought out the desperation in your last line, without ever meaning to bring it out.
  4251. >At this stage, however, you were well past caring.
  4252. >You need to know, right now.
  4253. >"A liar and a schemer to the end, are you? How many times must I tell you to cast aside these falsehoods?!"
  4254. >You don't respond, instead just looking at her.
  4255. >You don't remember dropping to your knees.
  4256. >As Zaalma continues to scrutinize you, her scowl begins to crack, slowly fading into disbelief, before being tinged with a realization.
  4257. >"You aren't lying."
  4258. "Please, just tell me."
  4259. >"That's not possible."
  4260. "Please."
  4261. >"Those meddlers and their code, they would never think to break it."
  4262. "She told me the same thing. Celestia, I mean."
  4263. >"Did she? And yet, that same princess lets you frolic about with one of her agents so freely?"
  4264. "Listen, I know it--"
  4265. >"Enough. Just... enough. Never in my life have I encountered such a bumbling mass of contradictions!"
  4266. "Look, listen to me, please. I-I know how crazy it all sounds, but I'm telling you, I don't know anything about any magic being used on me for prophecy shit. She even told me it should be impossible, said things didn't match up, but that the hallmarks were there all the same."
  4267. >"I care nothing for the web of delusions and lies you weave. You bear a mark of prophecy, and thus pose an indeterminable threat to us. That is enough for me to distrust you."
  4268. "At least tell me how bad it is!"
  4269. >The glow in her eyes fades.
  4270. >"Not as significant as I expected."
  4271. "What's that supposed to--?!"
  4272. >"Your words are not enough. They will never be enough."
  4273. >She turns around towards the door, the magic circles fading as she goes.
  4274. >"Only blood and sacrifice will show me how dedicated you are to earning our trust."
  4275. "But--"
  4276. >"This discussion is over."
  4277. >And with that, she's gone.
  4278. >Leaving you alone with your messy thoughts and feelings.
  4279. <...
  4280.  
  4281. @@@@@@@@
  4282.  
  4283. >Oh gosh.
  4284. >Oh gosh.
  4285. >Oh gosh.
  4286. >You shouldn't be doing this.
  4287. >Oh gosh.
  4288. >You know you shouldn't be doing this.
  4289. >You're nowhere near qualified to be doing this.
  4290. >But who were you to just refuse an order from both princesses?
  4291. >Nopony, that's who!
  4292. >A-and so here you sit, a thin sheet of iron plate laid out in front of you, staring at the bizarre spell that princess Twilight and princess Luna were casting at each other.
  4293. >Goodness, it looks like nothing you'd ever seen before!
  4294. >Not Equestrian magic, not thaumaturgy, nothing!
  4295. >Just a stream of pure, concentrated power between both of their horns, their eyes shut tightly as they weave it!
  4296. >A-and since when could they use thaumaturgical foci without anti-magic abstraction layers?
  4297. >Those wand-bracelet devices of theirs, with the strange foci you'd never seen before?
  4298. >How'd they even make that work?!
  4299. >A-and why'd they ask you to watch over them, giving you this sheet of iron 'should anything go wrong'?
  4300. >What the hay do they mean, 'should anything go wrong'?!
  4301. >I-is this dangerous?!
  4302. >Oh gosh, it has to be!
  4303. >Oh, no no no, where's Anon when you need him?!
  4304. >Your heart darned near sinks into your stomach when the beams between their horns intensifies slightly, sparks flying from their horns and grimaces crossing their faces.
  4305. >G-good thing the spell stopped soon after, and they both opened their eyes!
  4306. >"D-did you see that, Luna?!"
  4307. >"I... I believe so! S-some kind of... barrier?"
  4308. >"Not just a barrier! It was like a really, really thick wall of glass, just blocking off that whole section of memory!"
  4309. >"W-was that what it looked like?"
  4310. >"Yes. Th-the timeframe of these holes in your memories, d-do they match?"
  4311. >"I... I think they might, Twilight. F-forgive me, it's still so... hazy."
  4312. >Twilight swoops in to embrace Luna, who is only happy to return it.
  4313. >"We're so close, I can feel it! B-but I don't know how we're going to push past that block!"
  4314.  
  4315. >"I-I do not wish to push past it now, at this juncture. N-not without him there, with us..."
  4316. >Their forelegs tighten up, and they lightly nuzzle each other.
  4317. >"Ohmygosh, I hope he's doing okay..."
  4318. >"I have absolute confidence in his abilities."
  4319. >"I-I know that, b-but still! I-I'm just..."
  4320. >"Twilight, please don't worry yourself."
  4321. >"I can't help it! I-I can't stop thinking about... a-about all the times he's..."
  4322. >Their words trail off, leaving them doing nothing but hugging and nuzzling.
  4323. >Wh-when did these two get so... close?
  4324. >Y-you mean, you knew they were good friends and all, but this didn't strike you as just platonic in nature--
  4325. >"Sir Sunburst?"
  4326. "Yes!"
  4327. >N-no, don't yelp!
  4328. "I-I mean, y-yes, p-princess Luna?"
  4329. >"Thank you for maintaining your vigil over our spell."
  4330. >"W-we should be okay now, Sunburst. Thanks for keeping watch."
  4331. "W-wait! Y-you weren't doing anything d-dangerous, w-were you--?"
  4332. >"Of course not!"
  4333. >"No!
  4334. >That synchronized response doesn't fill you with confidence...
  4335. >"Everything's fine!"
  4336. >"All was under control!"
  4337. >Really, really doesn't fill you with confidence...
  4338. "O-okay..."
  4339. >Not that you could contradict your princesses, anyways...
  4340. >"We apologize for taking some of your time, sir Sunburst."
  4341. >"We're fine now, though. Thanks again."
  4342. >All you can really manage is a weak 'uh-huh', and their insistence on getting you out of the door only spurs you on quicker.
  4343. >The moment the door to Twilight's bedroom closes, is the moment the massive breath you'd been holding comes rushing out.
  4344. >Oh gosh oh gosh, that was nerve-wracking!
  4345. >A-at least they let you use her slipgates, letting you return to Canterlot, where--
  4346. >"Cripes, what took yew so buckin' long, mate?"
  4347. >C-Crescent sure is a sight for sore eyes right about now...
  4348. "N-not allowed to talk about it."
  4349. >"Psh, 'course. Well, come on! We've still got work tah dew!"
  4350. >C-can't argue with that...
  4351. >Oh gosh, you hope nothing else happens...
  4352. <...
  4353.  
  4354. >You're shaking.
  4355. >Foremothers above, you're shaking.
  4356. >Most of the lings in your hive share your excitement, only they're far less subtle about it, their wings buzzing freely.
  4357. >Only a wide grin gives away your true feelings towards today's events.
  4358. >You're so close.
  4359. >So close to finally bringing an end to this.
  4360. >So close to being done with Zebrica.
  4361. >So close to killing...
  4362. >Him.
  4363. >All this preparation, all this waiting.
  4364. >It's all about to pay off.
  4365. >The tribes you've destroyed, the trust you've earned with Incognito, even the new weapons and armour you'd fashioned for all of your lings yesterday from that incredible Philosopher's Stone of his...
  4366. >And of course, his new Homunculi.
  4367. >You wonder why he's even bothering to rally most everyone into an army at this point!
  4368. >Those things, those amazing, beautiful weapons of sheer destruction...!
  4369. >Even twenty of them could take care of things, you're certain of it!
  4370. >And he's bringing a hundred!
  4371. >Oh, yes...
  4372. >There's not a doubt in your mind.
  4373. >You're going to win this.
  4374. >And before the day is over, you're going to kill Anonymous.
  4375. >A slow, painful death will be his just reward, his soul the ultimate payment for all the pain he's caused you, caused Incognito.
  4376. >Ohh, what should you say to him before he dies?!
  4377. >Maybe--
  4378. >"Well, it seems I was wrong."
  4379. >Your attention snaps away from your thoughts, directed towards--
  4380. >Veldheer.
  4381. >Only he'd be bold enough to just walk into your hive like this.
  4382. >"There is one good thing to come of this entire charade."
  4383. >The ghost of a smile he had grew to a full one, as he quickly scoops one of your hooves up with his own.
  4384. >"You really are at your most beautiful with that smile on your face, Athalia."
  4385. >You want to frown, but only manage to reduce your own grin to a very small smile of your own.
  4386. "What are you doing here?"
  4387. >"I wished to speak to you again, liefling."
  4388. >It's at that moment that you sense his emotions in full, and your smile drops completely.
  4389.  
  4390. >He's far from excited or happy.
  4391. >In fact, he's uneasy, worried, uncomfortable!
  4392. >"Privately."
  4393. >Oh great, this again.
  4394. >Suppressing the urge to sigh, you shake his hoof off and motion for him to follow.
  4395. >Well, he was supposed to follow behind you, but seemed more content with following beside, instead.
  4396. >His feelings haven't changed, at least.
  4397. >The moment you find an empty chamber and close it behind you, however...
  4398. >"There are no listeners?"
  4399. "Of course not."
  4400. >His trepidation comes to the forefront, enough that it could be heard in his sigh.
  4401. >"This attack is a terrible idea."
  4402. >How does he still manage to surprise you, after all this time?
  4403. "What did you just say?"
  4404. >"Exactly that, my dear. I've a terrible feeling about this entire battle."
  4405. "What are you talking about? Have you even seen what we're bringing?"
  4406. >"You know I place no stock in his creations. Especially not creations that have seen no testing."
  4407. "Wh--"
  4408. >"And that have failed you in the past before, if I recall your stories correctly."
  4409. "Is that what this is all about?"
  4410. >"Of course not. With a company of those things at his beck and call, they're sure to achieve some success."
  4411. "Then what?"
  4412. >There's a brief pause before he turns to face you, taking your hoof back into his own again.
  4413. >"It is the involvement of this Anonymous that has me concerned."
  4414. >Wh-what?
  4415. "You're serious?"
  4416. >"Deadly serious."
  4417. "What happened to wanting to fight him yourself?"
  4418. >"In a direct battle? That hasn't changed, Athalia. But you should know better than I that he does not battle directly."
  4419. "Veldheer, we're so much more powerful than him now!"
  4420. >"Do you truly believe that?"
  4421. "Yes! What did you think the Homunculi were there for, the zebras? They're there to stop him!"
  4422. >"I do not believe it will be as simple as pitting a powerful force against him. Underhooved mavericks of his ilk will never make matters that simple."
  4423. "You weren't there! You didn't see him fight off the Homunculi before!"
  4424.  
  4425. >"Two."
  4426. "What?"
  4427. >"I remember that tale of yours well. He battled two."
  4428. "Yes, so what?"
  4429. >"Athalia, you brought five with you. What happened to the other three?"
  4430. "I--"
  4431. >Wait.
  4432. "He destroyed them, of course! I don't know how, but--"
  4433. >"And that is precisely the problem, Athalia."
  4434. "What are you--?!"
  4435. >"Athalia, please. You are as beautiful as you are intelligent. Think. You told me he could only face against those two with the aid of a foreign military, an Equestrian princess, and her consort. Even then, it was a struggle.
  4436. >"Yet when you sent three of them to slay Anonymous, he had nothing but a small force of guards protecting him. Highly trained and well equipped guards, certainly, but no substitute for an Equestrian princess with many soldiers.
  4437. >"So the question remains: how did he slay those three creatures, and why did he not use that same means in his battle with the other two, with you?"
  4438. >As much as you want to just backhoof him for even suggesting there's a problem, he's...
  4439. >That...
  4440. >That is a good question.
  4441. >How did he do that...?
  4442. >"Do you see now, Athalia?"
  4443. "I..."
  4444. >"I admit that I am impressed by your human's acquisition of the legendary Klip. But even so, that does not change that what we face is the worst kind of opponent we could ever hope to see: a maverick."
  4445. "You think he's going to win?"
  4446. >"That remains to be seen. But he will make things difficult for us, and it will most certainly be in a manner that none of us will expect, much less be able to counter."
  4447. "Then why are you coming, if you're so worried about us losing?"
  4448. >"Athalia..."
  4449. >He plants a kiss on your hoof.
  4450. >"You already know why."
  4451. >Your eyes roll in time with you shaking his hoof away.
  4452. "I don't care what dirty tricks he'll pull when we get there. I'm going to kill him."
  4453. >"That line of thinking is precisely what he will prey upon--"
  4454. >Whatever he had to say next was cut off by your scowling face swooping in until your snouts were almost touching.
  4455.  
  4456. "He's going to die, do you understand? He won't live past today."
  4457. >He looks into your eyes, understanding beginning to develop in his look.
  4458. "I don't know how he killed those three Homunculi, and to be honest, I don't care. He's already escaped death once, I won't let him escape it again!"
  4459. >"Athalia."
  4460. "And mark my words, I'll make him suffer before I finally kill him! They'll write stories about what I'll--!"
  4461. >His hoof cups your cheek.
  4462. >"You're trembling."
  4463. >Th-this bucking...!
  4464. >You pull back away from him, the scowl never leaving your face.
  4465. "So what if I am?!"
  4466. >"Your hatred for him is... vast. More than I thought it would be."
  4467. "Agh, what do you know?!"
  4468. >"Hatred can be a powerful weapon against your foes, Athalia, one I have used many times. You've every right to hate him, but believe me when I say that you do not want it to rule you."
  4469. "Don't tell me what I should feel."
  4470. >"I did nothing of the sort. I merely cautioned restraint."
  4471. >He walks back in front of you, placing a hoof on your withers as he looks you in the eyes.
  4472. >"There is nothing I can say to dissuade you, then?"
  4473. "Nothing."
  4474. >"I see."
  4475. >Something in his love just changed.
  4476. >Something... pleasant?
  4477. >"You know I will happily fight by your side today. But know this: if you are in danger, I will not hesitate to remove you from the fight."
  4478. >You snort.
  4479. "What, you're just gonna drag me out?"
  4480. >"If I must."
  4481. >He's serious.
  4482. >"That maverick has slain and destroyed much, but he will not claim your life. Even if it earns me your ire, I will not permit you to die. Not while I still draw breath."
  4483. >Wow, that was almost like a declaration.
  4484. >He just looks at you for a few more moments before pulling back.
  4485. >"Please be careful today, my dear. Don't allow your hatred to overrule your thinking."
  4486. >And without being prompted, he leaves.
  4487. >Tch.
  4488. >What a waste of time.
  4489. >You'd best get back to preparing your lings.
  4490. >You only have a few hours before leaving, after all...
  4491. <...
  4492.  
  4493. "Mmmmrgh..."
  4494. >That zombie groan of pain was about the closest you could get to the English language right about now, the all-too-familiar throes of a monster hangover wrapping your poor gray matter with all the unrelenting tightness of a neurotic girlfriend's embrace.
  4495. >In other words, you feel naught but pain.
  4496. >Well, maybe you can still hear things around you just fine, but hell if you're opening your eyes and seeing anything bright at this point.
  4497. >Fuck that noise with a two-by-four of chainsaws.
  4498. >Still though, what's with all this groaning all around you?
  4499. >Fuck your life, what did you do last night?
  4500. >And for that matter, what did you even drink?
  4501. >You don't remember a hangover feeling quite like this one, and you've gotten bent on just about everything under the sun.
  4502. >Some zebra drink of pure bullfuckery, maybe?
  4503. >Okay, wait, maybe you should think a bit more about what just--
  4504. >Aaaagh, ow ow ow!
  4505. >N-nevermind, think later, suffer now.
  4506. >And suffer you do for what feels like an eternity, doing little more but groan and grasp your head, until you hear some hooves clippity-clopping their way over to you.
  4507. >"I never thought you would excel in this regard," a familiar voice almost sing-songs your way. "So I was wrong to doubt the word of your bodyguard..."
  4508. >You respond with the most elegant of groans, their dulcet tones telling a great tale of parties and liquor that even you don't know the details of.
  4509. >"Be still, my good friend, I brought with me the cure; to relieve you of the pain from your night as a boor."
  4510. >Please be some hair of the dog.
  4511. >You could really go for some hair of the dog right about now.
  4512. >Ohh baby, a bottle up to the lips!
  4513. >Dog, you're gonna need all the hair you can--
  4514. >Aww, man, it's just a potion.
  4515. >Weird, have you had a potion like this before?
  4516. >Because you swear, you had one that...
  4517. >That...
  4518. >Whoa.
  4519. >Pain, where are you going?
  4520. >You didn't mean it!
  4521. >Actually, you kinda did, but he doesn't need to know that.
  4522.  
  4523. >Your feelings of naught but pain quickly melts into feelings of naught but relief.
  4524. >No seriously, it literally feels like the pain is melting out of your brain and body.
  4525. >You really hope that's not a euphemism for pissing yourself.
  4526. >That would really suck to do in front of all these zeeb warriors.
  4527. >Wait.
  4528. >Zeeb warriors...?
  4529. >Holy shit, that's right!
  4530. >You went to drink with them last night!
  4531. >God, how many bottles of their--
  4532. >Wait, wait, wait!
  4533. >Your saviour just now, she's--!
  4534. >With all the motivation in the world flooding back into you, you crack open your eyes, scanning around for one masked zebra.
  4535. >There she is!
  4536. >Oh Christ, she's halfway to the door!
  4537. "W-wait..."
  4538. >Jesus, that's too quiet!
  4539. "Wait...!"
  4540. >Oh thank God, she heard that one!
  4541. >She stops in place, but doesn't look back at you.
  4542. "I-I'm sorry..."
  4543. >Voice, please come back quicker.
  4544. "Sorry about... what I said before..."
  4545. >She's not even reacting.
  4546. "I didn't... didn't..."
  4547. >Say something more than that, you idiot.
  4548. >For fuck's sake, come on!
  4549. >You can't--
  4550. >`I know.`
  4551. >You barely heard her say that.
  4552. >But that's all she does, leaving you somehow more uncertain as she resumes her course out of the room.
  4553. >Soon enough, you're all alone.
  4554. >Alone with your still-conflicted thoughts.
  4555. >And, well, the empty bottles, discarded food, and the writhing bodies of a bunch of other blacked-out zebras.
  4556. >Funny, shouldn't there be...?
  4557. >Wait, yeah, there he is!
  4558. >Vegter was draped over one of the tables, out like a light, hugging a bunch of bottles as if they were a teddy bear.
  4559. >Your focus soon shifts to the sound of feminine giggling, belonging to the swarm of mares that flooded in through that door, cuddling up to the stallions and feeding them potions.
  4560. >Something for the hangover maybe, same as you?
  4561. >Geez, no wonder they didn't hold back when they threw that victory party last night.
  4562. >And speak of the devil, one Vegter rouses from his slumber with a groan, a pair of mares at his side doing their potion-feeding duty.
  4563.  
  4564. >Yep, that's definitely hangover remedy.
  4565. >No way in hell he'd be cracking his eyes open that soon without one.
  4566. >Especially not after what he just drank last night.
  4567. >The first thing he does after his eyes open is grin like a hyena at the two giggling gals in front of him, then--
  4568. >Oh for fuck's sake, really?
  4569. >Does he have to start making out with one of them, right in front of you?
  4570. >Wow, holy shit, they're really going at it.
  4571. >He even went for an ear bite.
  4572. >Huh.
  4573. >Can't say you thought of that--
  4574. >Aaaaand he just shoved her to the ground onto her back, looking about ready to plow her right then and there.
  4575. >Yeah, no thank you.
  4576. >You could do without that particular variety of brain damage today.
  4577. >It's a bit of a challenge rising to your feet, but you manage.
  4578. "Could you fucking not, buddy?"
  4579. >Wait, when were you on 'buddy' terms with him?
  4580. >Oh yeah, when you were--
  4581. >`Otherworldly Anonymous!` he calls up to you. `Friend!`
  4582. >Aaaaand since when could you understand zeeb talk this well...?
  4583. >Wait...
  4584. >Wait yeah, there was that massive epiphany you had, while you were in the middle of trying to learn how to sing with the others!
  4585. >He looks back down to his red-faced, lip-biting partner, and quietly says something in a husky baritone right into her ear, before giving it one last bite.
  4586. >Your best guess is 'my place later tonight'.
  4587. >Actually, once she's up, her and a good chunk of the zeeb ladies are giving this dude some serious bedroom eyes.
  4588. >`Thought you died! You drink so much! Hah, would be good death with some mares!`
  4589. >Funny, he doesn't look very pissed about getting cockblocked like that.
  4590. >Could be his status of 'lord of pussy', if the looks he's getting from the mares are any indicator, or maybe he's just a strict adherent of 'bros before hoes'.
  4591. "Yeah, well I--"
  4592. >Wait, right, he doesn't understand English.
  4593. >Okay then.
  4594. >Clear the throat a little, and...
  4595. `Answer. Still. No.`
  4596. >Great, now you're the one reduced to caveman sentences.
  4597. >How the mighty have fallen.
  4598.  
  4599. >`Hahahah! Suit yourself! Still, you lucky! Claiming royalty as mates? Bigger stones than I thought!`
  4600. >Oh Jesus fucking Christ, that's right, you did tell him that during a drinking game, didn't you?
  4601. >Yeah, the one where you'd share your partners if you could each down a whole bottle of their strongest shit?
  4602. >Wasn't this guy at, what, two hundred-ish mares and a dozen-ish alchemists?
  4603. >His estimate, not yours.
  4604. >Really hoped he'd forget your answer when he passed out on the table afterwards, but it was not to be.
  4605. >Just full of horrible ideas, aren't you?
  4606. >`Look like you need them! Still look wound up! A good rutting would--`
  4607. `Stop. Now.`
  4608. >`Hahahah! Come on then! We eat!`
  4609. >Now that sounds like a lovely change of pace from--
  4610. >Oh God almighty, you just realized what all the other mares here were up to.
  4611. >Nope, you'll not be party to this wanton Slaanesh worship today, thank you very much.
  4612. `Lead. On.`
  4613. >He turns away to suck face with that one mare from before, complete with a smack on the rear.
  4614. >Only then does he turn back and motion for you to follow.
  4615. >Yeah, you know what, he can be the alpha chad of zeebland all he wants.
  4616. >On his own fucking time, without you around.
  4617. >Mercifully, he doesn't make a single pass at anyone else when he leaves the party room, all praises to Jesus Christ your lord and saviour for that.
  4618. >`Really though. How you survive that much drink?`
  4619. `Years. Of. Practice.`
  4620. >`Hahahah! Shows! No way you evil! Drink too much for evil!`
  4621. >This guy is just simplicity incarnate, isn't he?
  4622. `Why. Is. That?`
  4623. >`Evil too uptight to drink! Only want to kill things! Never relax! And how you supposed to find mares without drink?`
  4624. >Don't argue, Anon.
  4625. >Just don't argue.
  4626. >No, he's not growing on you at all, nosiree.
  4627. >fortunately, you arrive at their huge-ass eating hall in no time at all.
  4628. >Would've passed for a proper mead hall straight out of fucking Asgard, were it not for the architecture made up of sandstone, bricks, and dead-looking wood supports.
  4629.  
  4630. >The feasting clientele might have something to do with that, too.
  4631. >Man, not many of them are giving you the stink eye this time around.
  4632. >"Ahh, there you are, Otherworldly Anonymous!"
  4633. >Oh thank God for Heerser being here.
  4634. >"You had me worried there for a moment."
  4635. "What? How come?"
  4636. >"Oh, come now. There are only two reasons somezebra would drink that much: as part of a bet, or to forget something."
  4637. >Forget something?
  4638. >But...
  4639. >Oh.
  4640. >Oh, great.
  4641. >Yep, he's not wrong.
  4642. >You just remembered what it was you were trying to purge from your head the day before.
  4643. >Great, fucking fantastic.
  4644. >"And I believe I have a good idea of what that something is."
  4645. "She told you?"
  4646. >"Of course. We share everything."
  4647. "I... I don't--"
  4648. >"You've nothing to be ashamed of. This... prophetic turn of events does not sound like it was intentional on your part."
  4649. >Please don't talk about prophecies, not now.
  4650. >"That being said, I would like to hear all that you know about it."
  4651. "Do I have to?"
  4652. >"At this juncture, yes. I too am concerned about the implications this has for my tribe, just as Zaalma is."
  4653. >You know what, that two-by-four of chainsaws is sounding so appealing right now.
  4654. >`Wait. What happening?` Vegter pipes up. `Why you two so serious now?`
  4655. >`Very important events, Vegter. Too important to delay.`
  4656. >`At least let him eat! Neither of us fed yet!`
  4657. >`Then you can join us at my table.`
  4658. >`Your table again? Yes!`
  4659. >Someone just please pull the fucking plug.
  4660. >Sadly, deliverance doesn't come in the time it takes your group to sit at a small, private table, pre-loaded with all kinds of zebraland delights.
  4661. >Delights you waste no time in powering through, same as Vegter.
  4662. >Really wish he'd chew with his mouth closed, though...
  4663. >"I can see that this is weighing heavily upon you, Otherworldly Anonymous. Regardless, I must insist that you tell me everything you know."
  4664. >At least the food was some comfort.
  4665. >No substitute for those two back home, though...
  4666. >God, you wish they were here.
  4667.  
  4668. @@@@@@@@
  4669.  
  4670. >A little bit of binge eating and some deep breathing later, and you start telling Heerser what you know.
  4671. >The plan laid out on that tablet, about the destructive and corrupting force pitted against Celestia and ponykind.
  4672. >Even how Celestia interrogated you about this exact same subject, including her uncertainty about it being true.
  4673. >You thought that would be it, but to your surprise, Heerser was really curious about a lot of the other details, and began asking you about where you found this plan, among some smaller asides.
  4674. >That was much easier to fess up: when you told him about the underground temple, he asked even more, and you barely hesitated in answering that it's probably where you were brought into Equestria.
  4675. >Then the subject of the nightmares came up, another surprisingly easy confession.
  4676. >The tortures were heavily skimmed over, but you did bring up the certainty of Incognito being with you, too.
  4677. >You really don't know what it is, but Heerser just seems so... approachable.
  4678. >Like you could tell him just about anything.
  4679. >You don't really have a good way to describe the feeling, but if you had to try, it'd be like some kind of...
  4680. >Trust?
  4681. >Trust.
  4682. >Hmm.
  4683. >Yeah, that'll do.
  4684. >Of course, Vegter got really antsy about hearing a big story he couldn't understand, but Heerser was quick to feed him a heavily abridged, partly fictional version about you fighting out of the clutches of a great evil, losing your memory, and about Incognito being your evil twin.
  4685. >You don't know whether you want to sock him in the jaw or high-five him for that last bit of fiction.
  4686. >It sure worked to keep Vegter's questions to a minimum though, which was definitely a big help.
  4687. >Once everything was laid out, he took a second to lay back a bit, humming to himself while lost in his thoughts.
  4688. >Some serving mares came by, one of which was that chick Vegter tried to bone.
  4689. >He 'excused himself' for a moment with her, leaving you two alone.
  4690.  
  4691. >"Well," Heerser starts. "That's... quite a tale, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  4692. "Yeah."
  4693. >"I cannot say I expected your otherworldly nature to have been rooted in that much suffering. I'm sorry."
  4694. "Don't be."
  4695. >"In any case, I can certainly understand Celestia's trepidation over keeping you around. That puts the presence of that Invictus agent in a whole new light."
  4696. "I know it's his job to watch me, but he's still my friend."
  4697. >"Oh, I believe you. As for myself, I can scarcely believe I am agreeing with Celestia of all ponies on this many points."
  4698. >The forced yet still mirthful little chuckle he gives really sells his disbelief.
  4699. >"That includes her uncertainty about this apparent prophecy of yours being what you claim it to be."
  4700. "W-wait, seriously? So there isn't a--"
  4701. >"Oh, there's definitely one in effect upon you. If Zaalma says there is one in effect, there is one in effect."
  4702. >And there goes your hopes for this being one big exercise in leg pulling.
  4703. >Boy, your words to Celestia when she first brought this up...
  4704. >Th-they sure sound hollow now, d-don't they?
  4705. >"However, after hearing the details about this prophecy, or at the very least, it's plans? It is also an absolute certainty that what you have described does not match events as they have unfolded."
  4706. "Dude, I'm getting you guys on my side here! How's that not a match for--?!"
  4707. >"It's not your role in this dark plan that I am thinking of, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  4708. "Huh?"
  4709. >"No, what caught my attention was the role that the Destroyer has. That title of his certainly has more significance now, hmm? Perhaps we should properly name him as... Cataclysmal Incognito?"
  4710. "Cataclysmal...? Uhh, wait, no! What do you mean, his role?"
  4711. >"Oh, that was the first thing I noticed when you explained the situation, truth be told. To be specific, how his role in this plan of your captors doesn't match with his actions."
  4712. "You're... gonna have to explain that one."
  4713.  
  4714. >"Yes, I suppose with all that's happened, you haven't had the time to fully consider this. No better time than now, I say!"
  4715. "Y-yeah, if you say so. So, what's the deal? Isn't he doing his Destroyer-y thing like in the plan?"
  4716. >"At first glance, yes. However, I must ask."
  4717. "What?"
  4718. >"Does he perform this destruction alone?"
  4719. "Uhh, yeah? He's--"
  4720. >"If that's true, and he's meant to play this role alone, what on Equus is he doing with an army of all the various races?"
  4721. >Wh--?!
  4722. >Holy shit...!
  4723. >"In fact, if I'm not mistaken, Otherworldly Anonymous, that is supposed to be your role in this plan, is it not? Mustering an army of all the different races?"
  4724. "But... aren't I?"
  4725. >"If you are, you're doing a terrible job, if I'm being completely honest."
  4726. >That's one insult you're more than happy to receive.
  4727. >"Think about it. While it's true that he can never enlist ponykind's aid, not with the vitriol he's roused up against them, he has three of the four races you've described as part of this army on his side: changelings, gryphons, and the zebras of the Bloedige Plaag. He's not only doing your job, he's doing it better than you are!
  4728. >"In my mind, if you were a 'Corruptor', to juxtapose with the title of Destroyer, you would be some kind of silver-tongued, machinating trickster, with terrible plots to control your armies always on your mind. Say, for example, creating some kind of cult to rally under?"
  4729. >A cult.
  4730. >Oh God.
  4731. >No, literally, oh God!
  4732. >Down here, they'd think the Jesus shit would be...!
  4733. >"But as it stands now, and forgive my bluntness, you're a rather insensitive braggart, with both delusions of invincibility and all the tact of an angry maulwurf."
  4734. >O-ouch...
  4735. >"And who greatly overestimates his own skill and cunning."
  4736. >Geez, even if it's blunt, he doesn't have to fucking golf swing it!
  4737. >"Not precisely what I would call 'Corruptor' material."
  4738. >Guess it still hits the nail on the head, but...
  4739. >Man, did he have to be so right...?
  4740.  
  4741. >"That being said, his goal does appear to be Celestia's destruction, though I have some doubts about his commitment to that goal."
  4742. "Why's that?"
  4743. >"A hunch, though nothing concrete, and certainly nothing relevant to this discussion. However, I must ask again."
  4744. "Y-yeah?"
  4745. >"Do you work to destroy Celestia?"
  4746. "What? Hell no! I'm trying to keep her and my friends safe, for God's sake!"
  4747. >"Exactly."
  4748. >It just clicked for you what he's getting at.
  4749. >"And besides, aren't you all but betrothed to her sister and protégé?"
  4750. >You didn't need to be eating anything to choke on that particular line.
  4751. >"Perhaps if you were some vile, backstabbing snake, as would befit a Corruptor, you would be courting them to get closer to her, to embed a knife firmly into her back. Moulding such proud, beautiful creatures into wanton whores, for your--"
  4752. >SMASH
  4753. "The fuck did you just say?!"
  4754. >"Oh, struck a nerve, did I?"
  4755. >SMASH
  4756. "Say that again, I dare you. I double-dare you, motherfucker!"
  4757. >You'll knock that shit-eating grin off his fucking face to go with it!
  4758. >"Say what, Otherworldly Anonymous? That you are in fact using them to stab Celestia in--"
  4759. >SMASH
  4760. "No! That is not what I'm doing with them, you fuck!"
  4761. >SMASH
  4762. "Never!"
  4763. >Your fists hurt from the pounding, and you're in no state to give a shit.
  4764. >He says nothing else, just meeting your glare with a calm look of his own.
  4765. >Who knows how much of that goes by before he clears his throat.
  4766. >"Forgive me. It was wrong of me to disrespect your mates like that."
  4767. "They're not--"
  4768. >"But you've made one thing certain in your display of emotion. One thing that was made very clear in your bid to rescue Vegter, too."
  4769. "What?"
  4770. >"You just don't have the capacity to betray and discard others like that. Not to the level that would be demanded of such a powerful, influential Corruptor."
  4771. >He talked all that shit, just to prove a point?!
  4772. >"It is customary to allow a free strike against one who disrespects another's mate, if you feel so inclined."
  4773.  
  4774. >Did he just give you the green light to punch his lights out?
  4775. >He totally did, didn't he?
  4776. >You...
  4777. >Fffffffuck...!
  4778. >SMASH
  4779. >No, the table gets it instead.
  4780. >Fuck the table.
  4781. >"That's quite a restrained response, all things considered."
  4782. "Next time, you won't--"
  4783. >"I know. I won't do it again."
  4784. "You better not."
  4785. >Okay fists, you can unclench now.
  4786. >No?
  4787. >Fine, stay that way.
  4788. >"Getting back on topic, I can say with absolute certainty that whatever prophecy is currently in effect with you is not at all this 'corrupting' role you have described to me."
  4789. "But it could still be...!"
  4790. >"Possibly, but tell me: what do you believe is more likely? That these dark forces are such devious schemers that they would plan around your apparent failures to fulfill this role of yours, transmuting it into a success? Or that it simply is not as you have described it?"
  4791. >W-well, if you're being honest...
  4792. >No, you can't say that would be true.
  4793. >Maar and his gaggle of assholes were vicious bastards, sure, but they sure didn't act like 4D chessmasters.
  4794. >Guess Occam came through for you again, huh?
  4795. "Okay, I see what you mean. But..."
  4796. >"Yes?"
  4797. "Then what the hell am I being strung along to do?"
  4798. >"That, I'm afraid, I have as little knowledge on as you do. I suspect however, that the key to discovering the truth behind what it is will come from these nightmares of yours."
  4799. >God damn it.
  4800. >"One of your mates is the princess of the night, is she not? Has she not been able to aid you in this regard?"
  4801. "N-no. She--"
  4802. >Wait.
  4803. >Wait just a second here.
  4804. "I never told you who those two were."
  4805. >"Oh, you hardly needed to. You told me it wasn't Celestia, and the princess of love doesn't strike me as the polyandrous type."
  4806. >Well, look at fucking Sherlock here.
  4807. >"Still, has she been able to help?"
  4808. "No. Her spells don't work on me. They said that..."
  4809. >Wait, that's right!
  4810. "They said they'd need something alchemical to pull off that dream sharing shit!"
  4811.  
  4812. >"Can you really not watch your language during your epiphanies?"
  4813. >No you can't, fuck off.
  4814. >"Still, an alchemic solution to such an issue? Well, if you're at this point, I presume the Equestrian facsimile of alchemy hasn't been able to achieve such a result."
  4815. "Not really."
  4816. >"You're certainly in the right place to receive such a solution, Otherworldly Anonymous. Of course, the alchemists are in no state to entertain such a request, given how little they trust you."
  4817. >Yeah, you'd guessed as much.
  4818. >"If you earn their trust, I'm certain they'd be happy to help you. Still..."
  4819. >He leans forward, very intrigued.
  4820. >"You said 'they' needed something to share in your dreams? Not her?"
  4821. "Yeah...?"
  4822. >Heerser just smiles wider: a big, warm, knowing smile, with nary a shit-eating trace to be found.
  4823. >"They would share in your pain, in your very past, in such an intimate manner? I don't think you fully appreciate just how fortunate you are to have those two in your life."
  4824. >Urge to binge eat rising.
  4825. >"And a stallion as private as you, so willing to let them in?"
  4826. >Yeah, now acting on that urge.
  4827. >"It's so rare to see that kind of love in this place. Seeing it in you is... refreshing."
  4828. >Faster.
  4829. >The limitations of your stomach mean nothing.
  4830. >"Deny it if you wish, Otherworldly Anonymous, but I can see your want for their presence, clear as day."
  4831. >Screw this guy, honestly.
  4832. >Double screw him for being right.
  4833. "I keep telling you I don't want to talk about this."
  4834. >"And I remain confused at your reluctance to speak of your connection to them."
  4835. "I'm not gonna say it again."
  4836. >"Very well," he sighs. "Goodness knows you've enough to think about at this moment."
  4837. >No fucking kidding.
  4838. >Fucking prophecies.
  4839. >Still...
  4840. "Did she, uh, know how much of an... effect I'm having?"
  4841. >"Who?"
  4842. "Y'know, Zaalma?"
  4843. >He definitely noticed your difficulty in getting her name out with a straight face.
  4844. >"She only mentioned there was one in effect, not the scope of it's power."
  4845.  
  4846. "W-well, uh, could you, y'know, find out?"
  4847. >"Why not ask her yourself?"
  4848. "No," you snap.
  4849. >The guy just sighs and rubs his temple, in a classic display of 'not this shit again'.
  4850. >"You can't expect to earn her trust if you ignore all contact with her."
  4851. "I can't really do much to earn it when she's biting my head off at every turn."
  4852. >His frown is one of disappointment.
  4853. "Besides, I distinctly remember her telling me that 'only blood and sacrifice' will prove shit to her."
  4854. >A frown that quickly changes to surprise.
  4855. >"She said that? To you?"
  4856. "Right after she scoped me out for this prophecy shit. I even asked her how bad I was messing with people, and she just told me 'not as much as I expected', like that's supposed to be a fucking answer!"
  4857. >Yep, the fists are back to clenched.
  4858. >He, meanwhile, maintains the look of surprise, before it tapers off to a small, sad frown.
  4859. >"So that's how it is, then?"
  4860. "What?"
  4861. >"I... will inquire about that for you at a later time, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  4862. >Wait, what?
  4863. "No, hold on, what happened to--?"
  4864. >"She is one of my closest friends. I won't speak of her when she is not present."
  4865. >Oh for fuck's sake.
  4866. >How are those two friends, anyways?
  4867. >"All I can ask is for you to try and bear with her."
  4868. >Add that to the list of things that's not happening.
  4869. >"In any case, it would seem that your entanglement with fate hasn't been the detriment it has been made out to be. I appreciate your honesty in divulging the details on it, though."
  4870. "Y-yeah. I..."
  4871. >"It must be hard, no?"
  4872. "What do you mean?"
  4873. >"You're quite a free spirit, a veritable maverick. To learn that something has been guiding your actions must be..."
  4874. >He didn't need to finish that sentence.
  4875. >"I'm certain you will discover the truth in time. You and your--"
  4876. >`Otherworldly Anonymous!`
  4877. >Oh hello, that's definitely Vegter from off to the side.
  4878. >And sure enough, there he is with a slightly dopey quality to his smirk in your direction.
  4879. >Three guesses as to why that might be.
  4880.  
  4881. >`Heerser! You done making him sad?`
  4882. >`That depends a good deal on what it is you want from him.`
  4883. >`Got a deal for him! Something to cheer him up!`
  4884. >`Oh? What might that be?`
  4885. >`Otherworldly Anonymous! You broke my axe!`
  4886. >Oh fuck, here we go.
  4887. >`We even now, yes?`
  4888. >"He's asking if you two are--"
  4889. `Guess. So?`
  4890. >`Hahahah! More than guess! Know for sure!`
  4891. >"Otherworldly Anonymous? Since when could you speak our language?"
  4892. "Since last night."
  4893. >"Dare I ask how that came to pass?"
  4894. "No offense, but I needed to be a lot more drunk to figure out the finer points of it."
  4895. >If his booming laughter was anything to go by, you'd say that he's taken no offense.
  4896. >"Hah! You certainly speak it like a drunken zebra would!"
  4897. "Yeah, yeah, flow's all off. I know."
  4898. >"It's a start, for certain! Definitely an improvement over the obvious parroting from before!"
  4899. "Gee, thanks."
  4900. >`Heerser! Stop leaving me out!`
  4901. >`Oh, I am sorry about that, Vegter.`
  4902. >`Why not teach me to speak funny pony language?`
  4903. >`Well, you'd need to be a lot more sober to figure out the finer points of it.`
  4904. >Okay, that's funny for all parties.
  4905. >Already, you can feel some of the edge being taken off.
  4906. >`Anyways! Otherworldly Anonymous! Deal for you!`
  4907. `I'm. Listening.`
  4908. >`You fix my axe? I give you thing of yours!`
  4909. >A thing of yours...?
  4910. >`Vegter, are you sure you're allowed to do that?`
  4911. >`Hahahah! Very sure! So how about it?`
  4912. `What. Thing?`
  4913. >`Weird stick thing!`
  4914. >One of your staves!
  4915. `Thick. Or. Thin?`
  4916. >`Thin!`
  4917. >Shortstaff, then!
  4918. >Any staff's an improvement in your book!
  4919. `Only. If. I. Get. Gem. Thing. For. It!`
  4920. >`Gem thing? Why you need one?`
  4921. `Useless. Without. One.`
  4922. >`Only saw weird white pearl gem. That good?`
  4923. >Riafalt!
  4924. `Perfect!`
  4925. >`Hahahah! You better fix it good!`
  4926. >Oh, you'll find a way.
  4927. >You've gone entirely too long without a staff.
  4928. >`Heerser! Taking him to old alchemy shack!`
  4929. >`That's quite all right. I'll let his friends know.`
  4930. >`No more waiting! Come on then!`
  4931.  
  4932. >This time, his rush to get his shit back is very much mutual.
  4933. >"I hope you know what you're doing, Otherworldly Anonymous!"
  4934. "Not even a little bit, but I've got a hunch or two."
  4935. >"Then I hope your hunches are correct. We'll speak again later."
  4936. "All right!"
  4937. >The last thing you hear out of Heerser is a couple of mirthful chuckles, before you're led quickly out of this big relaxation area, into the big courtyard, and making trails for the smaller one.
  4938. >Already, you can see the zebra passers-by lighting up upon seeing you, with very few shooting you the stink eye.
  4939. >`They starting to like you!`
  4940. `I. Can. Tell.`
  4941. >`Hahahah! More fights for you then! Make them like you even more!`
  4942. `Guessed. So.`
  4943. >Right now though, you've got one question to ask while you follow his lead.
  4944. `You. Have. My. Staff? How?`
  4945. >`Staff? Called a staff?`
  4946. `Yeah.`
  4947. >`Hahahah! Nice name! Funny gem have name too?`
  4948. `Ree-ah-fahlt.`
  4949. >Yeah, that was about as elegantly pronounceable in zebra-talk as English words are in Japanese.
  4950. >`Reeahfahlt? Weird name. What it mean? What it do?`
  4951. `Show. You. Later. But. How. You. Get. Them?`
  4952. >`Hahahah! Was there when your things were taken! Given to tribe members to hold on to!`
  4953. `At. Random?`
  4954. >`Yes! Keep you from raiding storeroom! And getting everything back easy!`
  4955. >Clever little bitches.
  4956. >`That mare back there? Gave staff to her! And gave funny gem to her sister!`
  4957. `Really?`
  4958. >`Hahahah! Convinced her to give it back!`
  4959. >He didn't really need to wiggle his eyebrows at 'convinced' for you to get his meaning.
  4960. >`Had to promise her foal!`
  4961. >Aaaaaand you officially no longer want to talk about this.
  4962. `Get--`
  4963. >`You make extra work for me now! Have to convince her sister now! Promise her foal too!`
  4964. `Get. The. Point!`
  4965. >`Hahahah! What you so afraid of? Everyzebra wins!`
  4966. `Enough. About. This.`
  4967. >`You should understand! Have your own mates!`
  4968. `Enough!`
  4969. >`Hahahah! You strange!`
  4970. >He stops for a moment, something crossing his mind.
  4971.  
  4972. >`Wait. Why you not talk about mates so much? You stallion buggerer?`
  4973. >Oh, hell no.
  4974. >Your turn to stop in your tracks.
  4975. `Say. That. Again.`
  4976. >This scarred-up, mohawk-rocking, alpha Chad motherfucker did not just call you a fucking faggot.
  4977. >`Hahahah! That why you travel with bat and unicorn? And not your mates?`
  4978. `I. Will. Cut. You.`
  4979. >Yeah, laugh it up, asshole.
  4980. >`Hahahah! Just kidding! You not stupid enough to cheat on royalty!`
  4981. >Not even gonna turn the volume down in the crowds, is he?
  4982. >And right as you pass through the uncrowded archway into the small courtyard, no less.
  4983. >Great, that rumour's not gonna spread like wildfire, nosiree.
  4984. >`Although.` he murmurs, stopping for a moment with nobody around, `Was sure exile would tempt you!`
  4985. `What? Exile?`
  4986. >`Yes! Masked mare? Exiles wear masks!`
  4987. `Got. That. Part.`
  4988. >`Knew her before exile! Excellent fighter! Excellent alchemist! Very attractive! No stallion could keep their eyes off her! Perfect future mate! Remember fighting others over her! Good times!`
  4989. `You. Know. Her?`
  4990. >`Yes.`
  4991. >Never thought you'd see him look sad about something.
  4992. >`Shame what happened to her. But not allowed to go easy on her. She understands. Still not happy about yelling at her.`
  4993. `Wait. Wait. Who. Is. She?`
  4994. >`Not allowed to tell you. Nozebra allowed to tell you. Not even she allowed to tell you. Not while here in our land. Not even allowed to tell you what happened!`
  4995. >Of fucking course it's not gonna be that easy.
  4996. >`But will tell you this. Unfair what happened. Did not deserve exile. But why you asking about her?`
  4997. `She. Says. She. Knows. Me.`
  4998. >`Really?`
  4999. `Calls. Me. Friend.`
  5000. >`Interesting! That why she helped you then! You know who she is?`
  5001. `Don't. Know. Really. Ashamed. Of. That.`
  5002. >She's supposed to be a friend, and yet you can't for the life of you dredge the name up.
  5003. >Ashamed's putting it mildly, as if driving her away wasn't bad enough.
  5004. >`Hmm. I think about that. Maybe find way.`
  5005. `Find. Way?`
  5006.  
  5007. >`No more about exile! Depressing! Need your mood for fixing! Need my mood for rutting!`
  5008. >Okay, you don't need to hear any more about that.
  5009. >Mercifully, he doesn't continue the convo along those lines, but that smirk of his tells you that he really, really wants to.
  5010. >Still...
  5011. >Just another thing to add to the pile of curiosities.
  5012. >But as long as you're gonna keep drawing a total blank on the name, all you can do is file it away and hope it'll come to you later.
  5013. >Right now, you've got this asshole's axe to fix.
  5014. >And he leads you to, uh...
  5015. >Well, that is definitely an old shack.
  5016. >Seriously, it's made out of mostly sticks and tree bark, held together with cordage of some variety.
  5017. >None of which seemed particularly structurally sound.
  5018. >But hey, at least it doesn't look like it'd hurt much if it collapsed, so there's that.
  5019. >Waiting inside was a small altar with his axe and a few small bags full of something, and standing beside it was that one mare he tried to bone.
  5020. >Well, maybe not 'tried' anymore.
  5021. >You'll just avert your eyes at their little lip-locking session, shall you?
  5022. >And just pretend you didn't hear all their dirty talk, for good measure.
  5023. >Extra mercifully, he leads her outside of the shed when he starts asking about her sister.
  5024. >Soon enough, you're alone.
  5025. >Okay, thank God.
  5026. >Now, this axe.
  5027. >Looking it over, it looked like...
  5028. >Huh.
  5029. >Those etch marks are deeper than you'd like, and the symbols are very much foreign, but that's definitely got the hallmarks of animus enchantment.
  5030. >Next up is the pouches, opened in short order to reveal...
  5031. >Well.
  5032. >Just like in that crystal-dick golem you bled on to win.
  5033. >The colour was different, but that is unmistakably animus.
  5034. >The other bags held bottle corks with big needles stuck in them.
  5035. >Very crude compared to your etching focus, but with the symbols practically pre-drawn for you?
  5036. >Yeah.
  5037. >You can do this.
  5038. >Man, it's good to be back to work like this.
  5039. >This is shaping up to be a good day, already.
  5040. <...
  5041.  
  5042. @@@@@@@@
  5043.  
  5044. >"You aren't going to bring any kind of armour, my dear?"
  5045. "I don't need it."
  5046. >"I fear you may come to regret those words."
  5047. >All Veldheer gets is a scowl levelled his way, his own small frown made all the more infuriating with that near-patronizing emotional blend of his.
  5048. >"Caution is always a wise investment to make, Athalia."
  5049. "I told you, I don't need it."
  5050. >Tch, you don't need this.
  5051. >Your carapace by itself is more protective than that heavy, faintly magical suit of both bones and splint mail he's wearing.
  5052. >Figures he wouldn't bother cleaning the long-dried blood off of it, either.
  5053. >Still, he did seem to move well enough in it even with that heavy greatsword of his resting on his back.
  5054. >Then again, that was probably thanks to his strength more than anything else.
  5055. >No, enough about him.
  5056. >He's soured your mood enough today.
  5057. >Your course towards the temple continues, where you enter without issue and make your way towards where Incognito said to meet.
  5058. >Veldheer followed along, as much as you wished he wouldn't.
  5059. >If he weren't needed to keep his damn tribe in line, you'd--
  5060. >"You have not found the Void Lord's cache yet?" Incognito says, barely audible from this hallway.
  5061. >"How could I, my Lord?" came the response of a certain alchemist.
  5062. >Speaking of zebras you didn't want to see...!
  5063. >"Your best agents have scoured the deserts for days now. Agents you assured me could obtain this cache in a far shorter span of time than this."
  5064. >"And I do not know why! As long as I am confined here, I cannot find the source of their delays!"
  5065. >"You are not leaving this temple."
  5066. >"But I--!"
  5067. >"This is not up for debate. Train them to discover the signs of deception, as you should have before."
  5068. >"And leave them at the mercy of the Ideal Masters? That burden is--"
  5069. >"To be shared amongst them. I tire of these delays."
  5070. >"You cannot--!"
  5071. >"If you do not, I shall. And my methods will involve no training."
  5072. >Sensing Zamara's fear, her defeat, will never not make you smile.
  5073.  
  5074. >You round the last corner, finally getting a look at Incognito.
  5075. >The still-masked Zamara bowed her head before him in a clear gesture of defeat, but that wasn't what caught your eye.
  5076. >No, it was what Incognito had on his person.
  5077. >His catalyst looked different now: gone was the spartan yet intimidating gauntlet of lustrous, red-flecked gray metal, with dark green, symbol-covered blades making up the fingers.
  5078. >Instead what met you was a decidedly more intimidating gauntlet, spikes of that same green metal jutting from a crimson-gold gauntlet, pieces of that Philosopher's Stone in the places where all the odd gems were on the old gauntlet, save for the large red gem in the center.
  5079. >At first you thought the blades were made of some new metal, but a few more moments of inspection gave them away as the same green blades from before, nearly all of their surface covered by those glowing red runes.
  5080. >There was something else hanging off of his belt behind him, but you couldn't make it out from here.
  5081. >"A-as you wish, my Lord." Zamara says, her bow becoming proper for a few moments before she trots away.
  5082. >Thank the Foremothers for that.
  5083. >Incognito turns to you, the smile he wears upon seeing you immediately brightening your mood.
  5084. >"It is good to see you, Athalia. Are you ready?"
  5085. "Ready? I wouldn't miss this for the world!"
  5086. >"I fear none of us will be ready," Veldheer says from behind.
  5087. >Incognito's ghost of a frown only soured your mood even quicker.
  5088. >"I am surprised, Veldheer. After all that we have accomplished, you still doubt us? Even at this juncture?"
  5089. >"Against a foe such as him? I am left with nothing but doubt. Doubt over his response, and doubt over your strategy."
  5090. >"I admit that the battle with Anonymous shall be difficult. But the Kunstenaars will be no match for us."
  5091. >"Perhaps. But tell me, what will you do should he prove undefeatable here? Retreat?"
  5092. >He's just asking for you to smack him upside the head, isn't he?
  5093.  
  5094. >There's no way he would actually consider retreating from an attack as big as this!
  5095. >"If need be."
  5096. >Wait, what?!
  5097. >"A sound option. Terribly unwise, but sound."
  5098. >"I suppose you believe my followers will be disheartened by such a move?" Incognito says, folding his arms.
  5099. >"Disheartened? Oh, that is such a mild term for it."
  5100. >"You may believe what you will, irrespective of how false it may be."
  5101. >"There is no belief involved, human. Should you retreat, you can count on losing what little influence you hold with my warriors and alchemists. And while gryphons may be cowards, striking from the skies as they do, you will find their pride to be a greater part of their character than their faith in you."
  5102. >"And yet you will join me in spite of these doubts. One has to wonder who the greater fool is."
  5103. >"I am not joining you, human."
  5104. >Veldheer's eyes settle on you for a few moments, missing your own glare boring into him.
  5105. >"In any case," Incognito says, reining in his frown, "Our assault will proceed as planned. I trust your forces are ready?"
  5106. >"My warriors are always ready. As are my alchemists."
  5107. >It takes you a moment to realize he was also speaking to you.
  5108. "We're also ready."
  5109. >And well equipped, thanks to your efforts.
  5110. >All of them were clad in the tough chitin armour normally made for your royal guards, replicated with ease thanks to the Philosopher's Stone, along with the same chitinous spears.
  5111. >"And with the gryphons ready, that leaves only one last element."
  5112. >With a flourish of his catalyst, a small spell ignites from the blades, and you can sense some familiar yet different presences making themselves known from underneath you.
  5113. >You'll never get used to the constant pain these Homunculi are in.
  5114. >Though their pain is usually singular, not this strange compound of multiple pains...
  5115. >Very soon after being summoned, the creatures climb out of a pit in the ground, arranging themselves in a formation before Incognito.
  5116.  
  5117. >Despite their speed, there was still a hundred of the things to account for, and it took a while for them all to come out into the open.
  5118. >Plenty of time to look them over once again.
  5119. >They were the same Homunculi at their core, with the same horrifying faces, fear-inducing presence, jerky motions and signature blades, but now they had armour covering their torsos, made from the same metal his old catalyst body was made from.
  5120. >More striking was the slightly curved smooth horn jutting from their foreheads, runes covering the protrusions and the area around them, the red symbols intermingling with the ones making up their 'eye'.
  5121. >Stronger, tougher, and capable of using magic, though you don't know which spells they had access to.
  5122. >Did it really matter, though?
  5123. >These things are so powerful, that you doubt they'd ever need the horns!
  5124. >Still, what was with the compound pain you felt from them?
  5125. >That wasn't there on the ones Incognito showed you!
  5126. >Wait...
  5127. >Wait!
  5128. >You know what it is!
  5129. >He's got more than one soul inside of these ones!
  5130. >Two-- no, three!
  5131. >Three souls per Homunculus?!
  5132. >Oh Foremothers above, with that kind of power, they'd be truly unstoppable!
  5133. >There's no way.
  5134. >There's no way that bucking Anonymous can win against this!
  5135. >And there's no way you're backing off from this assault either!
  5136. >He won't live past today!
  5137. >He and his friends will die, and his soul will be yours!
  5138. >"Good," Incognito says, more to himself than to either of you. "They are also ready."
  5139. >"Your plan relies too heavily upon these creatures, human."
  5140. >"We will see, Veldheer. Now, let us not waste time."
  5141. >With another flourish, Incognito sends the creatures running off down the hallways.
  5142. >"Our march begins within the hour," he booms. "And we will meet our foes in battle as the sun kisses the horizon, the skies as red as their blood. Ready your forces for our departure."
  5143. "Of course."
  5144. >This is it, Athalia.
  5145. >There'll be no mistakes this time!
  5146. >He dies today!
  5147. <...
  5148.  
  5149. >"Hey Anon! You in here?"
  5150. "Razor?"
  5151. >The shack door opens as you turn towards it, and sure enough, there he is.
  5152. >Plus that one filly on his back.
  5153. >Seriously, what the hell's with those two?
  5154. >"Heard you've been keeping busy!"
  5155. "You could say that," you say, a rather proud smile on your face. "What about you?"
  5156. >"Keeping the good sergeant company. Well, right up until he wanted to study that freaky invisibility thing we jacked from that carriage."
  5157. "He's still at it?"
  5158. >"Said something about finding the mana-static-whatchamacallit harmonica, uh..."
  5159. "Manastatic displacement harmonics?"
  5160. >"Uh, sure. Whatever the buck that means."
  5161. "I've got a hunch or two."
  5162. >Both of which involve seeing through the invisibility.
  5163. >Not much else you can think of, especially when they involve the displacement.
  5164. >Oh, it's good to be talking magic again.
  5165. >"Anyways, what's that you're working on?"
  5166. "Oh, this?"
  5167. >You smile what you're sure is a big mad scientist smile, and briiiing...!
  5168. >Jesus Christ this thing is fucking heavy holy shit.
  5169. >Shoulder it aaaand there we go.
  5170. >How does that guy even swing this?
  5171. >"Hey, isn't that...?"
  5172. "Vegter's axe? Yeah."
  5173. >"You fixed it for him?"
  5174. "Not fixed. Improved."
  5175. >So you may have gone a little overboard, adding in the ability to shoot lightning bolts.
  5176. >But after so long without doing some thaumaturgy, and figuring out that these funny zebra activation glyphs were capable of triggering thaumic glyphs?
  5177. >Hell yes you were going to take advantage of that.
  5178. >But more importantly, you were going to find out if your theory on these glyphs working together was true.
  5179. >"Well, it sure looks more... wordy?"
  5180. "Wanna see?"
  5181. >"Is it gonna be flashy?"
  5182. "I have spells that aren't flashy?"
  5183. >"Okay, fair enough. Let's see it then."
  5184. >No further convincing was needed.
  5185. >Stepping outside with your new adoptive baby, you set your sights on a training dummy, one of only a few left among the ranks of ash piles that were once dummies.
  5186. >Yeah, you had way too much fun with this.
  5187.  
  5188. >Whatever activation glyphs these zebras used also worked with your intentions to use the magic, and the axe sparks to life, yellow lightning arcing off of the head.
  5189. >A few slow, borderline painful swings discharge a good deal of lightning into the dummy, causing it to jolt around and begin smouldering at the points of impact.
  5190. >Now, the overhead swing?
  5191. >SCWTHUNK-FZZZZT
  5192. >Big yellow nova of lightning, reducing the dummy to splinters and lighting them on fire for good measure.
  5193. >Now, that was what it was doing before.
  5194. >But now?
  5195. >The colour of the lightning changes to a more familiar light blue, as the thaumic array comes to life for the shoehorned-in 'long-charge' attack.
  5196. >Sights set on another dummy, you point the axe in it's direction, like it was a staff.
  5197. >CRACK
  5198. >An all-too-familiar bolt of blue magic lightning strikes the dummy, pulverizing it into splinters long before it hit the ground.
  5199. >Thaumic lightning definitely had more oomph, but didn't light fires and have the same area of effect that this stock yellow lightning had.
  5200. >Still, it's a damn good sight to--
  5201. >`What was that?!`
  5202. >Ah, there's the axe's owner.
  5203. >Your big grin still in place, you turn to see none other than Vegter, bumping past Razor with a stupefied look on his face.
  5204. >`Did it just shoot lightning?!`
  5205. `Yes. It. Did.`
  5206. >`That... amazing! Let me try!`
  5207. >Oh, you're only happy to let him try.
  5208. >He swipes the axe from your hands the second you offer it, immediately making some fast swings to test it out.
  5209. >SCWTHUNK-FZZZZT
  5210. >Overhead included.
  5211. >Seriously, how much does this guy lift?
  5212. >`Lightning stronger than before! Amazing! Now how do you shoot with it?!`
  5213. >Like a kid at Christmas, isn't he?
  5214. `Point. And. Charge.`
  5215. >Oh, please let this work.
  5216. >If this works, you'll have solved one of the biggest holdups with your thaumic stuff.
  5217. >CRACK
  5218. >A bolt of thaumic lightning fires out, though the shot is wide thanks to Vegter's poor aim and minor jumpscare.
  5219. >Not that you're in any state to care.
  5220.  
  5221. >It worked.
  5222. >It worked!
  5223. >Holy shit, that actually worked!
  5224. >`Hahahah! Otherworldly Anonymous! This is amazing! How did you do this?!`
  5225. `Got. Carried. Away.`
  5226. >Why yes, this is the proudest and most accomplished you've felt since coming here.
  5227. >`Have to show alchemists this later! Amazing! Owe you more than just that 'staff'!`
  5228. >Your staff!
  5229. >His big happy grin becomes just that much more smug as he sets the axe down, and tosses you the all too familiar item laid across his back.
  5230. >You catch it without issue.
  5231. >Oh, staff glorious staff.
  5232. >How you missed this so much.
  5233. >`Got funny gem for it too!`
  5234. >He tosses said 'gem' your way, again caught with little issue.
  5235. >Now it's your turn to look like Christmas is upon you.
  5236. >Your shortstaff and Riafalt focus, back where they belonged!
  5237. >Sure, a far cry from the armour, wand, super-staff, foci, car, and other shit, but hell if you're complaining about getting the most important spells in your arsenal back!
  5238. >Well, save for Bluebaide, but that's gonna have to come later.
  5239. >`You look happy!`
  5240. `I. Am. Happy!`
  5241. >`Hahahah! Better axe was worth having to promise foals! Have to try this for real later!`
  5242. >Yeah, you're sure he'll get his chance.
  5243. >But regaining Riafalt aside, you are so very happy your theory was just proven correct.
  5244. >Using that weird zebra activation matrix let magical creatures use thaumic magic!
  5245. >"Wait a minute here," Razor says from the sidelines, "Did you work on that thing just to get that staff back?"
  5246. "Uh, yeah? No way I'm passing that up."
  5247. >Ooh, idea!
  5248. `Can. He. Try?`
  5249. >He follows your pointer finger aimed squarely at Razor.
  5250. >`Hahahah! Only for a moment!`
  5251. >"Uhh, what's going on?"
  5252. "I want you to try this thing out, buddy."
  5253. >"Wait, seriously? That thing's way too heavy for me!"
  5254. "I'm not asking you to curl with it. I just need to see if the magic works!"
  5255. >"Uhh, okay?"
  5256. >Setting the filly down, he trots over and grabs the axe.
  5257.  
  5258. >That's about all he can manage, the axe flopping to the ground and barely moving despite his best efforts and the little cheerleader behind him.
  5259. >Can't really blame the guy.
  5260. >Doesn't stop Vegter from laughing, but one glare from that filly shut him up real fast.
  5261. >"Yeah, uh, this isn't working."
  5262. "That's fine. I just need you to turn the magic on."
  5263. >"Well that's not a terrible idea at all."
  5264. "Won't be the last."
  5265. >"Yeah, yeah, I get it."
  5266. >Seeing the axe light up with yellow lightning was a thing of marvel.
  5267. >Seeing it fire a lightning bolt along the ground and carve out a little gorge?
  5268. >Pure joy.
  5269. "Yes!"
  5270. >"I hope what you're cheering about isn't gonna kill me."
  5271. "Not even close! You know what you just did there, buddy?"
  5272. >"Used their freaky magic?"
  5273. "Used my freaky magic."
  5274. >Oh, seeing his face light up like that was joy all unto itself.
  5275. >"Wait a minute. You mean, that bolt was the same as...?!"
  5276. "Eyup."
  5277. >"I thought you said we can't use your magic!"
  5278. "You can't. But if I cheat a little and use the zebra's magic as the trigger, well..."
  5279. >"Anon, how the buck do you think of shit like this?"
  5280. "No idea. But once I figure out how their magic works, I'll be cranking out some best friend issue magic gear. That's a God damn guarantee."
  5281. >The fact that thaumic glyphs even worked at all with these zebra glyphs was an unexpected surprise in and of itself.
  5282. >That never happens between glyph systems, unless they're directly related.
  5283. >Which means that whoever dreamt up these zebra glyphs must have taken a lot of cues from the thaumaturges.
  5284. >"Assuming you'll get them to teach you how it works."
  5285. "True, but I think I've got a solid shot now."
  5286. >You turn to Vegter, who's still doting over his new and improved weapon.
  5287. `Question.`
  5288. >`Yes?`
  5289. `Think. Axe. Improves. Chances. With. Alchemists?`
  5290. >`Hahahah! Not think! Know! This amazing! Supposed to be one of their best sigil jobs! You improve on that!`
  5291. >Sigils...?
  5292. >`Definitely telling alchemist marefriend about this! Maybe get you--`
  5293.  
  5294. >All parties fall silent at the loud and adorable squeal that just came off of Razor's little partner.
  5295. >`Y-y-you can really speak Zebrikaans?!` the filly's voice squeaks your way.
  5296. >Holy shit that is reaching cutie mark crusader levels of adorable staring, grin included.
  5297. `A. Little.`
  5298. >Wait, 'Zebrikaans'?
  5299. >`H-hello mister Otherworldly Anonymous! Can you please tell me what Mr. Bat's name is? Pleeeease?`
  5300. >Pfffffft.
  5301. >Yeah, no way are you holding that laugh in, and neither is Vegter.
  5302. >"Hey, what's so funny?"
  5303. "Oh nothing, 'Mr. Bat'."
  5304. >Yeah, you'll let him figure out whether or not to be offended or flattered.
  5305. `They. Didn't. Tell. You?`
  5306. >`No,` she huffs, `They never tell me what outsider's names are!`
  5307. `You. Knew. Mine.`
  5308. >`You're famous!`
  5309. >Don't really have a zebra-language version of 'touche' to fire back with.
  5310. >Uh, 'Zebrikaans', you guess.
  5311. >Man, that's gonna take some getting used to.
  5312. `Fair.`
  5313. >`M-mister, are you okay?`
  5314. `Great! Why?`
  5315. >`Your Zebrikaans is really bad. Were you drinking?`
  5316. >Aaaaaand there goes your pride for the day.
  5317. `It. Not. That. Bad!`
  5318. >`I-it's really bad...`
  5319. >Why are you still here?
  5320. >Just to suffer?
  5321. >`Hahahah! I know!`
  5322. >`Worse than uncle Vegter's...`
  5323. >`Hey!`
  5324. >Okay, she made a comeback.
  5325. >Wait, uncle?
  5326. >`W-will you tell me Mr. Bat's name if I show you how to speak better?`
  5327. >Oh hell, that would be handy.
  5328. >How much time do you have...?
  5329. >Well, the sun's starting to drop down from it's high point, so you've got some hours to burn.
  5330. `Deal.`
  5331. >`Yesyesyesyesyes!`
  5332. >She totally didn't have to start dancing on Razor's back, but hell if you're gonna stop her.
  5333. >And you certainly weren't gonna stop her from directing Razor towards your kinda-apartment building, like a proper horseback rider.
  5334. >You and Vegter in pursuit, of course.
  5335. >You may have dropped your staff a couple of times on the way.
  5336. >Yeah, you might have forgotten about having no not-magnetic attachment points on this get-up of yours.
  5337. >Well, all the more reason to get your stuff back.
  5338.  
  5339. >You get settled in at this place's foyer, and she starts breaking down for you how to speak zebra-langu-- uh, Zebrikaans.
  5340. >Honestly, you can't say you were expecting much at first, but she turned out to be a real natural at teaching, even staying patient despite your multiple dozen fuck-ups.
  5341. >Yeah, if this other asshole's her uncle, she'd need the patience of a saint.
  5342. >Well, okay, maybe the cute factor had a hand in it too.
  5343. >`See? It flows easily once you figure it out!`
  5344. `I think I get it. Thanks!`
  5345. >Okay, it's still kinda rough, and she knows it.
  5346. >But hell, that's pretty good for...
  5347. `What time is it?`
  5348. >`Almost sunset! Almost time for bed...`
  5349. >D'aww.
  5350. >So it took you a few hours to level your speaking up to this point.
  5351. >Hell, considering you just figured out how to speak at all after getting loaded last night, that's a goddamn miracle.
  5352. `Thanks. But. I promised you his name. Right?`
  5353. >Definitely still rough.
  5354. >`Yes! What's Mr. Bat's real name?!`
  5355. `Uncouth Razor Wind.`
  5356. >`Eeeeeeeeeeethankyouthankyouthankyou!`
  5357. >jesus christ your poor heart please stop this instant
  5358. `My best friend in the world. Be nice to him!`
  5359. >`OkaymisterOtherworldlyAnonymousthankyousomucheeeeeeeeee!`
  5360. >And she's walking in circles on his back.
  5361. >Razor looks like he's in the midst of a cuteness overload himself.
  5362. >`Okay little one!` Vegter chimes in, looking plenty happy himself. `Enough for today!`
  5363. >`Awwwwww, but uncle Vegter! I wanna talk to mister Otherworldly Anonymous some more!`
  5364. >`Hahahah! Me too! But your mother will be mad if you not in bed soon!`
  5365. >`Sorry! But you know how she gets!`
  5366. >`Okay, uncle Vegter.`
  5367. >God damn it, even the pouting is cute.
  5368. >"Let me guess, she's leaving for the night?"
  5369. "You guessed it."
  5370. >Hugging Razor's neck a little on the way down, she climbs off of him and starts walking.
  5371. `Wait.`
  5372. >`Y-yes?`
  5373. `What is your name?`
  5374. >You swear, you've heard it before...
  5375. >`My name? Zala!`
  5376. >Aha, that's right!
  5377. `Nice meeting you Zala! Good night for now!`
  5378.  
  5379. >Well, at least she smiled a bit wider before she walked on out of the building.
  5380. >"So, uh, you gonna tell me why she wanted to show you how to talk?"
  5381. "Oh, she just wanted to know your name."
  5382. >"Huh? Wait, that's it?"
  5383. "That's it."
  5384. >"Well what the hay's that all about?"
  5385. "They wouldn't tell her. Don't ask me why."
  5386. >"Well it sounds like she knew yours!"
  5387. "Yeah, I'm famous here. Her words."
  5388. >"Uh... okay, fair enough. But still!"
  5389. >Oh wait, Vegter's clearing his throat.
  5390. >`Otherworldly Anonymous! You free tonight?`
  5391. `I guess. Why?`
  5392. >`Hahahah! Why else? More drinking!`
  5393. `More?`
  5394. >`Always drink before patrols tomorrow! Good luck!`
  5395. >Well Jesus, that's a lot of drinking.
  5396. >This guy was putting drinks away almost as well as you were!
  5397. >Almost.
  5398. >Nobody out-drinks Anon.
  5399. `Two things first. Can Razor come?`
  5400. >`The bat? Hahahah! Of course! Surprised he was not there yesterday!`
  5401. >All right, time to play translator.
  5402. "He wants to go drinking, and he's cool with you coming. You down?"
  5403. >"At least tell me they've got good shit."
  5404. "You ever had spicy booze before?"
  5405. >"That sounds pretty bucking horrible."
  5406. "It's way better than it sounds."
  5407. >"What do they have for hangovers?"
  5408. "Same potion Luna got me for my birthday."
  5409. >"Alright, fine. But not until you tell the good sergeant first."
  5410. >Funny he should say that.
  5411. `He will come. Though he might not like the stuff we had!`
  5412. >`Hahahah! Nozebra likes that stuff! Thought me and Heerser were the only ones who did!`
  5413. `But first. Need to tell my other friend. You know where he is?`
  5414. >`The unicorn? Probably with alchemists. Looking at funny invisible gemstone we took.`
  5415. >Oh yeah, Razor did say something about that.
  5416. `Could you tell me where that is?`
  5417. >`Hahahah! Will show you! Maybe get unicorn to drink as well!`
  5418. >Yeah, that's never happening.
  5419. >But hey, you'll take the guided tour!
  5420. `Sounds good. Lead on!`
  5421. >And lead on he does.
  5422. >The sunset's just starting.
  5423. >Ooh man, that red sky is really pretty.
  5424. <...
  5425.  
  5426. @@@@@@@@
  5427.  
  5428. >"I am told that the sunset in our lands is quite striking, compared to the rest of the world."
  5429. >"That it is," Incognito agrees.
  5430. >Ugh, you don't care.
  5431. >You're so close, now.
  5432. >So close to finally bringing this to an end!
  5433. >So close you can almost taste it!
  5434. >"I believe it is also seen as a portent of future bloodshed?"
  5435. >"It is. You don't need me to tell you what today's means."
  5436. >Yes, yes, you get it: a lot of zebras are going to die, whatever!
  5437. >The only blood you care about shedding tonight is Anonymous's!
  5438. >And his soul...
  5439. >Oh, you can't forget about that.
  5440. >You even brought a vessel for it.
  5441. >Funny, really.
  5442. >Gems are the best vessels, since they can hold someone's soul with minimal transfer losses, or so the damn ghosts said.
  5443. >Apparently those losses make the soul suffer horrible pain, sometimes worse than the actual separation spell itself.
  5444. >A waste of potential energy, you were told.
  5445. >Assuming, of course, that you intended to use it to power a spell.
  5446. >But this lovely little picture frame is about as far from an ideal vessel as you can get.
  5447. >You even removed the glass, just so that it wouldn't have anything close to crystalline.
  5448. >Wouldn't want the process to be any less painful, now would you?
  5449. >Oh, but it'll be his face that will be the best part of this.
  5450. >The frame was empty save for the canvas you slipped into it.
  5451. >An emptiness that you were soon to rectify, once he was yours.
  5452. >"Is something the matter, Athalia?" Incognito remarks.
  5453. >Anonymous's face would adorn it.
  5454. >Every single moment of the torment you would visit upon him during the spell.
  5455. >Every contortion of the muscle, every pore in the skin, every unspoken plea in his little bastard eyes.
  5456. >"Athalia?"
  5457. >"My dear?"
  5458. >You'd capture every single detail into memory, in absolute perfect clarity.
  5459. >Looking for the perfect marriage of features that would paint the most striking, beautiful picture of the absolute agony he would be in.
  5460. >And then, you'd do just that.
  5461. >Paint it.
  5462.  
  5463. >"Athalia, I asked you a--"
  5464. >"No, wait a moment, human."
  5465. >It's really a shame you couldn't bring a full roll of canvas with you, to get the full painting you wanted to make.
  5466. >But that's fine.
  5467. >You always intended to paint with precision, anyways.
  5468. >It would just take more time to make it exactly as you wanted.
  5469. >Funny, thinking about it now, it's almost better this way.
  5470. >"What are you thinking, Veldheer?"
  5471. >"I wish to see how far she will take this."
  5472. >Yes, only you would get to personally experience that unrivalled agony of his, put on permanent display like that.
  5473. >But then, so would his precious friends.
  5474. >Dark, malevolent laughter makes itself known to your ears.
  5475. >Strangely familiar laughter.
  5476. >Familiar...
  5477. >Yes, his friends will be quite familiar with their precious Anonymous.
  5478. >You can almost picture the looks on their faces when you bring them into your new hive.
  5479. >Beaten and broken, but not killed, not just yet.
  5480. >You can almost taste how their pain, horror, and heartbreak will feel once you show them his fate.
  5481. >How each emotion will be brought out as you describe what you did.
  5482. >"Veldheer--!"
  5483. >"Silence! I must see the depths to which this goes."
  5484. >Describing the process of ripping his soul out.
  5485. >The material choice for the vessel made specifically to bring him pain.
  5486. >The special gem-infused paints you used to bring his visage to life, each stroke feeling like a manticore's claw to the soul trapped within.
  5487. >Yes...
  5488. >You'll break his followers just as much as you'll break the man himself.
  5489. >Oh, how much could you break those wretched pony princesses using the picture?
  5490. >That Celestia, monster that she is, would probably enjoy it.
  5491. >Cadance's reaction would be like icing on the cake after she pays for her own crimes against your changelings.
  5492. >But it was Luna and Twilight Sparkle that you were really looking forward to.
  5493.  
  5494. >You still remember the love that came off of the latter, back when you attacked Ponyville.
  5495. >You still remember their deep-seated concern for him, how they both begged you to spare his life.
  5496. >Oh, how good it'll feel to see them break, at seeing the object of their affection reduced to a literal object.
  5497. >An object who's existence is to serve as nothing but a monument to his--
  5498. >Ugh, who's the mare that's laughing this loud?
  5499. >It's ruining your concentration!
  5500. >And of course they have to stop, just as you start paying attention to it!
  5501. >"Had your fill, Athalia?"
  5502. >Veldheer.
  5503. >Of course he's the first thing you notice, standing in front of you like that.
  5504. >And...
  5505. >Well, that's strange.
  5506. >What's with that emotional cocktail of intrigue and concern he has?
  5507. "What are you looking at?"
  5508. >"Your lust for revenge. Or at least, a small portion of it."
  5509. "Uh-huh, sure."
  5510. >Like he wasn't just eyeing you up like he always has.
  5511. >Only...
  5512. >"I would advise against imagining the fruits of your victory. Attaining it in the first place would be more... prudent."
  5513. >Nevermind, he's just being his usual annoying self.
  5514. >"Trust me, that path leads to naught but disappointment."
  5515. "Whatever. Are we still waiting for--"
  5516. >"Athalia."
  5517. >Incognito's voice was far more successful in grabbing your attention.
  5518. >You don't know what to make of the flat, faintly worried expression he wears as he looks at you.
  5519. >"What on Earth was that all about?"
  5520. "What was what about?"
  5521. >"You know full well what I mean. I've never heard such laughter from you before."
  5522. "Laughter? I wasn't laughing."
  5523. >"I'm sorry?"
  5524. "In fact, I'd say I'm pretty far from wanting to laugh. Not when he's still out there somewhere."
  5525. >Soon.
  5526. >As soon as whoever he sent off in that special stealth chariot returns, the attack will start.
  5527. >It has to.
  5528. >"This is not the time for jokes, Athalia."
  5529. "Jokes? Why would I ever want to joke, especially at a time like this?"
  5530. >What's with that concerned look of his?
  5531. >It's starting to make you uneasy.
  5532.  
  5533. "Anyways, what's taking that chariot so long?"
  5534. >Incognito regards you with that concerned look for a few moments longer before his face returns to something resembling neutrality, his gaze returning to the red-lit desert expanse in front of him.
  5535. >"They are performing reconnaissance."
  5536. "What for? We've got the power to destroy both Anonymous and his precious zebras without any trouble."
  5537. >"Charging headlong into their fortress is a foolish move to make, no matter the difference in power."
  5538. "But we're--"
  5539. >"There will not be a repeat performance of the incident at Canterlot."
  5540. "We didn't have an army for Canterlot!"
  5541. >"Athalia," he says in a stern tone, "This is not open for debate."
  5542. >Seriously?!
  5543. >There's not even a comparison to be made between the two!
  5544. >Forget the army, you've got a hundred Homunculi at your back for this!
  5545. >"For once, my dear, I'm in favour of leaving this matter undebated," Veldheer adds.
  5546. >And now he's agreeing with him?
  5547. >What the hay's going on with this--
  5548. >Wait.
  5549. >Off in the distance, you can sense the presence of...
  5550. >Yes, that's the chariot!
  5551. >Oh thank goodness, now this damn attack can go forward!
  5552. >The unconcealed chariot descends in front of your group of three, and the first one to come out is...
  5553. >Ajay.
  5554. >Of course.
  5555. >No, don't focus on him, or his stupid feelings of worry.
  5556. >It's not worth it.
  5557. >"My Lord, we found the overseer like you asked of us, but..."
  5558. >"Yes?"
  5559. >"It was destroyed. Everyone riding in it was killed."
  5560. >Oh you've got to be kidding.
  5561. >"And what of the stealth construct?"
  5562. >"Gone, my Lord. The tracks were blown over by the time we got there."
  5563. >Incognito pinches the bridge of his nose for a moment, before his catalyst lights up briefly.
  5564. >Another one of those stealth chariots flies down from behind moments later, your eyes following it's initial flight.
  5565. >But your gaze doesn't follow it after it flies overhead.
  5566. >No, instead you looked on at the small temporary encampment, housing everyone part of the army.
  5567.  
  5568. >Mostly changelings and zebras, with gryphons making up a much smaller portion of the attacking force.
  5569. >Arguably the best armed of the force though.
  5570. >But it was everyone's emotions, the cacophony of tension, excitement and vengeful anger that stuck out to you the most.
  5571. >You can't rightly blame them.
  5572. >Soon.
  5573. >Soon, they'll get their chance.
  5574. >Soon, you'll get your chance.
  5575. >"Ajay, your overseer will take the lead and guide mine towards the site of the battle. Athalia."
  5576. >It takes a moment for you to break away from the army and look back to Incognito, who's already on board that other chariot.
  5577. "Yes?"
  5578. >"I will need you to come with me. Your senses will be invaluable in solving this mystery."
  5579. >Solving mysteries?
  5580. >Ugh, forget about the mysteries, just--!
  5581. >Oh, fine.
  5582. >If he needs you, who are you to say no?
  5583. "All right."
  5584. >You join him aboard the chariot, and Veldheer steps on right behind you without ever being prompted.
  5585. >Just don't look at him.
  5586. >Ajay takes that moment to look over at you, and your eyes meet for a brief moment.
  5587. >Instantly he looks away, fear, shame, and regret colouring his feelings.
  5588. >Hmph.
  5589. >Nevermind, looking at Veldheer just became a lot more appealing.
  5590. >As you turn away and seat yourself, the chariot takes flight, and that strange stealth construct comes to life, bathing everything around it in a brief red wave of energy before settling into a constant, unnerving aura of magic.
  5591. >Seriously, it was like slime gained the ability to crawl, and decided to do just that all over your horn.
  5592. >Still, if it kept you all out of sight...
  5593. >"Strange," Veldheer says, seating himself opposite to you. "The gryphon is normally quite fond of you."
  5594. >Don't answer him.
  5595. >"In fact, you were asking quite often to allow him entry into the temple. Have things deteriorated between--?"
  5596. "I don't want to talk about anything but the attack. Understand?"
  5597. >That came out a lot more hostile than you intended it to, with even Incognito turning to you for a moment.
  5598.  
  5599. >"A quarrel of sorts, then?" Veldheer continues, unfazed by the display. "Very well."
  5600. >It's so damn infuriating how cool he can stay around you.
  5601. >Whatever, just look to the front, see where you're going.
  5602. >A few minutes pass before the chariots set down around the site of a battle: a destroyed chariot with bodies littered around, already half covered by the sand.
  5603. >Incognito climbs out right away, catalyst alight with scanning spells.
  5604. >You don't know why he's even bothering with this.
  5605. >"Ajay, what of the recovery force?"
  5606. >"No sign of them, my Lord. They weren't at their designated post."
  5607. >"Then they must have given chase. Athalia, I require your aid."
  5608. >That's your cue to fly out of the chariot, over to him.
  5609. "What do you need?"
  5610. >"I need you to find where this chariot's construct has gone. Your senses are far better suited to this task than even my best spellcraft."
  5611. >O-okay, even if this all seems useless, it's so nice to be valued...!
  5612. >No, focus.
  5613. >Tracking, then?
  5614. >That shouldn't be hard.
  5615. >Okay, tracing the construct itself isn't going to work, since it's made to erase it's own trail as it goes by, just like the other two here.
  5616. >But tracing whoever fought here?
  5617. >That's far easier.
  5618. >Horn alight with magic, you set to finding out who these attackers were.
  5619. >Hmm...
  5620. >You're getting impressions of zebras, along with traces of that bizarre, pseudo-emotionless magic their occasional magic items use.
  5621. >Wait a second...
  5622. >Another impression's here, but...
  5623. >It's a pony's?
  5624. >A pegasus, you think?
  5625. >No, that's not quite right...
  5626. >Well, whatever it's race, it was definitely a pony's impression!
  5627. >Okay, so all you have to do is follow the presences...
  5628. >They came here, the presences of the chariot's crew fanned out, they fought, and then the attackers left the same way they came.
  5629. >That way being...
  5630. >Over there!
  5631.  
  5632. "Those trees over there," you say, pointing in their direction. "They went that way."
  5633. >"Can you track where they went from there?"
  5634. "One moment."
  5635. >Increasing the spell's power, your senses narrow down towards those trees.
  5636. >There's a more pronounced magical presence there, and it belongs to a unicorn, no doubt about it.
  5637. >Tracking a unicorn is so easy: their impressions practically leak out of their horns into the surrounding area!
  5638. >Still, was there anything else?
  5639. >No, doesn't feel like it.
  5640. >Okay, so there were two ponies in the group.
  5641. >Casting your senses out further, you trace the unicorn's path out, and find that it's a straight shot in one direction.
  5642. >Wonderful, that means you can get this over with quicker.
  5643. >And get right back to the damn assault already.
  5644. "They went straight that way once they stopped at those trees," you say, again pointing in the right direction.
  5645. >"Is there anything you can tell me about these attackers?"
  5646. "Well, there were two ponies with them."
  5647. >"Ponies?"
  5648. "Yeah. A unicorn and something else. I couldn't really tell."
  5649. >"An alicorn?"
  5650. "No, if it were an alicorn, I would've known long before needing to scan around. This feels more like a pegasus, but... not."
  5651. >"Hmm, a thestral, perhaps?"
  5652. "Thestral? Wait, yeah! That was it!"
  5653. >You'd forgotten what thestral impressions feel like!
  5654. >Then again, you only really saw thestrals twice.
  5655. >That one in Ponyville, and the force of them with Luna during your rescue.
  5656. >"What is a thestral of all things doing out in the desert...?"
  5657. >"You ask the wrong question, human," Veldheer says, walking up beside you. "What are ponies doing with them at all?"
  5658. >"Clearly, the talons of Anonymous are sunk in deeper than I thought."
  5659. >"If it weren't for the Kunstenaars being our foes, I would take grave offence at your low opinion of them."
  5660. >"I'm sorry?"
  5661.  
  5662. >"The Kunstenaars distrust ponykind as much as my own tribe does. The reasons may differ, but the result is the same. No human, no matter how powerful or persuasive, could convince Travelled Heerser, let alone Tutelary Zaalma, to just let Equestrians run freely within their lands."
  5663. >"Then what are you suggesting?"
  5664. >"I think it more likely that they were made to fight for them, to prove themselves as a non threat. No doubt a move to court valuable trust with them."
  5665. "You mean, they're prisoners?"
  5666. >"Not at all. They only battle with the willing," he says, his smirk growing very, very wide. "Though I imagine it must have been quite a shock to that human, having all that power of his count for nothing in his quest to gain their favour."
  5667. >"Speaking of Anonymous, was he here?"
  5668. "No. If he were, I'd have sensed his weapons a long time ago."
  5669. >"I see. We will continue our pursuit. Athalia, I must ask you to guide the chariot's direction for us."
  5670. "All right."
  5671. >It's not all right.
  5672. >Still, he's the one asking you, so...
  5673. >You'll just have to trust him on this one, even if you think this is a huge waste of time.
  5674. >Once everyone climbs back on board, you lead the chariot in the right direction, Ajay's chariot following behind this time.
  5675. >Good, you don't need him ruining your concentration.
  5676. >No, focus.
  5677. >Focus on getting this over with as soon as possible.
  5678. >Maintaining your tracking magic, you keep tabs on the unicorn's trail as you go, until finally you notice the trail stopping for a moment at something in the distance.
  5679. >It looked like a small zebra town, set up around an oasis.
  5680. >"Grens," Veldheer mutters, surprised at what he's seeing.
  5681. >"I'm sorry, 'Grens'?"
  5682. >Wait, what's this other impression...?
  5683. >"The name of this village. It is a staging area for the Kunstenaars. Sparsely populated, but visited often by patrols coming to and from Vesting."
  5684. >Fifteen of them?
  5685. >No, seventeen, but those two are alchemists, not... these.
  5686.  
  5687. >"Then for what reason does it lie abandoned before us?"
  5688. >"I do not know, but now I find myself as curious as you are, human. Travelled Heerser would never abandon such a critical area, not without a fight."
  5689. >Wait!
  5690. >You know what these are...!
  5691. "Homunculi! They came through here!"
  5692. >"They did?" Incognito asks.
  5693. "Yes, and two alchemists! They... trailed behind the Homunculi a good distance, but they were definitely following!"
  5694. >"The recovery force," he mutters. "Athalia, follow their trail. Now."
  5695. "What for? They don't stand a chance against fifteen--"
  5696. >"Do as I say," he barks.
  5697. >Wh-where'd that urgent tone come from?
  5698. >Did something happen?
  5699. >Better start tracking, anyways.
  5700. >Soon enough, the chariots are on the trail again.
  5701. >What, he doesn't really think something happened to them, does he?
  5702. >Fifteen Homunculi, and not even the new ones, facing off against just a pack of zebras and two ponies?
  5703. >No way they'd lose to--
  5704. >Huh?
  5705. >W-wait, what the...?
  5706. "Stop. Stop!"
  5707. >The chariot comes to a swift stop in the air, letting you focus on...
  5708. >What the buck was this...?
  5709. >"What is it?"
  5710. >The trail, it's...
  5711. "Gone."
  5712. >"I'm sorry?"
  5713. "The trail, i-it's just up and gone!"
  5714. >No, not just the trail.
  5715. >All of the magic in a large area, it was almost totally gone!
  5716. >That can't be right.
  5717. >"Gone? What do you mean, gone?"
  5718. "The trail was just erased! And the magic up ahead, i-it feels like it's all gone too!"
  5719. >No, hold on.
  5720. >The alchemists, their trail continues on.
  5721. >B-but inside that area, their trail feels so damn powerful, compared to...
  5722. >Wait!
  5723. >The ponies, a zebra, and some zebra magic, you can feel their impressions inside the area!
  5724. >What's going on...?!
  5725. >"Bring us in closer," Incognito says to the chariot's flyers.
  5726. >That magical dead zone comes closer and closer, until you can see...
  5727. >See...
  5728. >S-see...
  5729. >Wh-what...?
  5730. >"Bring us down, now!"
  5731. >Sweet, merciful Foremothers...!
  5732. >A-are those the Homunculi?!
  5733.  
  5734. >The chariots sets down close by, and while Incognito and Veldheer are quick to jump out of the chariot, you remain stuck in place, gaping at the sight before you.
  5735. >All fifteen of them.
  5736. >All fifteen of them are lying dead.
  5737. >They're dead.
  5738. >They're...
  5739. >No.
  5740. >No way, that can't be right.
  5741. >"What in God's name is this...?!"
  5742. >Incognito's voice draws your eyes, and you see him kneeling over one of their bodies, catalyst alight with scanning spells and shock of his own written all over his face.
  5743. >Veldheer, meanwhile, had gone from them to the bodies of his alchemists in very short order, anger welling up within him mere moments after examining them.
  5744. >"I warned you about this, human!"
  5745. >Incognito doesn't respond.
  5746. >"I warned you not to rely on these damn creatures of yours! Once again, I have lost some of my best alchemists in vain to your fool schemes!"
  5747. >"This is not possible."
  5748. >"Not possible, is it? Then what do I see before me?!"
  5749. >Incognito regained his composure quickly, but that expression he wore...
  5750. >That deep concern, that disbelief...
  5751. >"These Homunculi, they died by a means impossible."
  5752. >"Raaagh, what fiction have you conjured as an excuse this time?!"
  5753. >"Athalia, can you sense their magic?"
  5754. >Th-their magic?
  5755. >Almost in a daze, you light your sensory magic up again, and...
  5756. >Wait.
  5757. >Their magic.
  5758. >It's...
  5759. "That's impossible."
  5760. >"Then you sense it?"
  5761. "Y-yes...!"
  5762. >"Sense what?" Veldheer asks, still seething.
  5763. "Their magic is gone."
  5764. >"Of course their magic is gone! Must I explain what happens upon death to you now?!"
  5765. "No, you don't understand. This isn't..."
  5766. >Shaking your head, you climb out of the chariot yourself, walking over to one of the bodies.
  5767. >I-it looked like it ripped itself apart...!
  5768. >No, focus!
  5769. >Scanning the body, you...
  5770. >No, you weren't sensing that wrong!
  5771. >It didn't return to a natural level, and even if it did, it died too recently for it all to just bleed out this quickly!
  5772. >It was forced out somehow, along with all the magic around here!
  5773.  
  5774. "That's impossible."
  5775. >"You're absolutely right," Incognito adds. "It is impossible."
  5776. >"What? What is so damned impossible?"
  5777. >"Their magic has been ripped out from their bodies."
  5778. "Not just their bodies. This whole area, all the magic is almost totally gone!"
  5779. >Incognito's dumbfounded look matched your feelings perfectly.
  5780. >His expression hardens, and he moves towards the landed chariots.
  5781. >"Athalia, what is so damned concerning about that?" Veldheer asks, walking over to you. "Clearly, they found a countermeasure to the creatures--"
  5782. "No, you don't get it! Magic's not supposed to be ripped out of... anything like this!"
  5783. >"Why not? A spell or a potion could--"
  5784. "No it couldn't! Don't you know anything about how magic works?!"
  5785. >"Evidently not."
  5786. "Veldheer, even if there were a spell to just rip magic out like that, it'd just replace their magic with it's own! And even then, you'd be better off just using normal attack spells! You can't just... get rid of magic like this, it's impossible!"
  5787. >"What do you mean?"
  5788. "Tearing magic out like this would kill anything, Veldheer! Not just these things! But again, it's not possible to do that! See, even the alchemists over there were--!"
  5789. >Huh?
  5790. >Wait, the alchemists...
  5791. >They haven't lost any magic?
  5792. >At least, not more than they naturally would?
  5793. >"I'm sensing a problem in your explanation."
  5794. >You rush over to their bodies, and find wounds consistent with a hard-fought battle, with plenty of deep cuts, bruises and wounding.
  5795. >But not a single sign of such rapid magic loss.
  5796. "What the...?"
  5797. >"Is there a problem with their deaths?"
  5798. "N-no. Actually, they died normally. They didn't lose any magic."
  5799. >"No?"
  5800. >You can feel Veldheer coming to a realization of some kind.
  5801. >"Athalia, were there any other combatants in this area?"
  5802. "Y-yeah, there was. Those ponies and a zebra."
  5803. >"You're sure?"
  5804. "Yeah, I felt it from back in the air," you say, lighting your horn with the spell again. "In fact--"
  5805. >Wait!
  5806.  
  5807. "No, there were two zebras here!"
  5808. >"Two?"
  5809. "Yeah, but... the other one barely has any presence, I didn't notice it until just now."
  5810. >And it just stayed in one place, too!
  5811. >With all the magic around you nearly gone, the impressions left behind were unnervingly clear, painting a picture of trails detailing a battle between the alchemists and the team of two ponies and that zebra.
  5812. >The impressions of the alchemists were strange, though.
  5813. >They seemed to be fighting against nothing for a few moments instead of that weakened zebra, only fighting the other side when they were forced into doing so.
  5814. >A-and what's with the impressions that one zebra's weapons left behind...?
  5815. >"Is there more to this battle, Athalia?"
  5816. "Well, the alchemists struggled a little against something, before they were killed by the others."
  5817. >"So they at least died as warriors," he sighs, visibly relieved. "But what did they struggle against before then?"
  5818. "That's the strange thing. They were struggling with something that didn't exist."
  5819. >"You mean that weakened zebra?"
  5820. "No, it was there, but they weren't going after it. They literally fought something that didn't exist."
  5821. >Veldheer is lost in thought for a few moments, allowing you to turn around and see Incognito, handing some kind of crystal to Ajay in the background.
  5822. >Ugh.
  5823. >"Could it be...?" Veldheer exclaims, disbelief of his own colouring whatever revelation he just had.
  5824. "What?"
  5825. >"Athalia, your Incognito, can you sense him?"
  5826. "It's hard not to. That catalyst is hard to miss."
  5827. >"His what?"
  5828. "Are you serious?"
  5829. >"Can you or can you not sense him, Athalia?"
  5830. "Yeah, of course I can! I just said his catalyst is hard to miss!"
  5831. >"Wait. You don't mean that infernal gauntlet he wears, do you?"
  5832. "Yes, I mean that! Don't tell me you didn't know what it was called!"
  5833. >"So it's not him you sense, but his weapon?"
  5834. "What are you getting at, Veldheer?"
  5835.  
  5836. >Something big just clicked in his head, his eyes going wide.
  5837. >Funny, you didn't think there was anything in there to click.
  5838. >"Athalia," calls Incognito from behind. "I have an important task for you."
  5839. >Whatever, he can have his little ideas.
  5840. >You turn towards him, his expression serious.
  5841. >"I need you to take an overseer chariot and perform reconnaissance over the enemy's stronghold."
  5842. "I... what?"
  5843. >Recon?
  5844. >He's not serious, is he?
  5845. >"It is of paramount importance that I determine what caused the death of these Homunculi here."
  5846. "Wait, what about the attack? You said sunset, and it's almost the dead of night now!"
  5847. >"My plans have been altered. This is of a higher priority."
  5848. "A-are you serious? We can end this whole thing once and for all!"
  5849. >"No. After witnessing what happened here, I am prepared to halt the assault."
  5850. >Your mouth opens, but words fail to escape.
  5851. >Halt the assault...?
  5852. >"I will not press forward until I know for certain what--"
  5853. "WHAT?!"
  5854. >Both him and Veldheer recoiled.
  5855. "No! No, no, no no no! You can't halt the assault!"
  5856. >"Athalia--"
  5857. "I've waited for this for so long!"
  5858. >"Listen to--"
  5859. "Do you have any idea how much I've had to go through, how much I've suffered at that horrible bastard's hands?!"
  5860. >When did you get so close to him?
  5861. "Do you know how long I've dreamed of seeing him dead? No way, no way am I just letting this chance to finally kill him--"
  5862. >The frosty, magicless grip of his free hand clasping around your withers brought your words to a halt.
  5863. >"You will calm yourself this instant, Athalia," he intones, a stern glare levelled your way. "And you will not use that tone with me."
  5864. >Y-your tone?
  5865. >Wait.
  5866. >D-did you just...?
  5867. >O-oh Foremothers, you lost your temper.
  5868. >With him!
  5869. "I-I-I'm sorry...! I-I didn't--!"
  5870. >"Listen to me," he says, his look softening. "I know you have longed to see him dead, as I have. But you of all people should know how dangerous that man is. I forbade you from battling him for just that reason."
  5871.  
  5872. "But--!"
  5873. >"Today may or may not be the day he falls to us. But I will not have you throw your life away on a mere chance, on a gamble for victory. You're too important to me for that."
  5874. >He thinks you're important.
  5875. "But everyone we've got--"
  5876. >"Will be meaningless in the face of whatever caused the devastation here. That is why I need you to perform this task for me, to ensure they can have meaning. To ensure they can battle today, as was promised."
  5877. >Again, words fail you.
  5878. >"Are you listening now?"
  5879. >A few short nods.
  5880. >"Good. I need you to take an overseer chariot to their city, and use the full measure of your sensory powers to find whatever it was that caused these Homunculi to die in this manner."
  5881. >His face comes ever closer to your own, his eyes looking directly into your own.
  5882. >"Now listen carefully. While you are there, do not under any circumstances attempt to battle with the enemy forces. Even if there is an opportunity to neutralize whatever caused this, or even to neutralize Anonymous himself, you will not take it."
  5883. >D-don't take it?
  5884. >"If you are detected, you will flee and return to the army at once. Do you understand?"
  5885. >You nod, but...
  5886. >Really?
  5887. >"Now, when you discover what caused their deaths, you will also endeavour to return to the army as soon as possible. There, we can discuss the best plan of action to take."
  5888. "But if it's right there--!"
  5889. >"Absolutely not. I told you, I will not jeopardize your life on a mere chance. Do you understand?"
  5890. "I..."
  5891. >That's crazy!
  5892. >You're a changeling, damn it!
  5893. >You live on seizing opportunities!
  5894. "I understand."
  5895. >That had to be one of the more painful concessions you've made.
  5896. >He regards you for a few moments, before drawing his hand back and standing upright.
  5897. >"Good. Remember, I too have invested much in tonight's success. I do not exaggerate when I say tonight hinges on your actions."
  5898. >Restraining your sigh was a very hard thing to do.
  5899.  
  5900. >"I will prepare for your return to the army, and ensure that they will be at their best once the battle starts."
  5901. "You're not coming?"
  5902. >"I cannot. It would take too long to mask the presence of my catalyst, and the army will no doubt be growing restless without me to direct it."
  5903. >S-still...!
  5904. >"Do your best Athalia, but stay safe."
  5905. "I... O-okay."
  5906. >His eyes briefly flick to Veldheer before he nods, and heads back to his chariot.
  5907. >"That," Veldheer finally says, "Was downright insulting."
  5908. "What?"
  5909. >"The way he speaks to you! As if you were a mere foal!"
  5910. >Now it's your turn to glare.
  5911. >"It's always infuriated me the most about him, speaking to my own tribeszebras like that, but seeing it levelled at you is just--"
  5912. "Yeah, I get it. You hate him and everything he does. Like you haven't made that clear already."
  5913. >He doesn't respond.
  5914. "Look, let's just get this over with, all right?"
  5915. >"Of course."
  5916. >Well, you don't know why he started smiling a bit after looking off towards where the city was supposed to be, but whatever.
  5917. >It's only when you start heading to the remaining chariot that you realize it was Ajay's, with him still aboard.
  5918. >Still avoiding your gaze.
  5919. >Great, as if tonight wasn't bad enough.
  5920. >Whatever, just ignore him.
  5921. >Boarding without another word, you wait for Veldheer to vault onboard before it takes flight, soaring into the sky and regaining it's unnerving invisibility.
  5922. >So, tonight hinges on your actions, huh?
  5923. >That's fine with you.
  5924. >Your actions will all be about one thing, and one thing only.
  5925. >Anonymous's death.
  5926. >You don't care what Incognito said about your value to him.
  5927. >Anonymous is the one who ripped your value to him away, time and time again.
  5928. >He's going to die.
  5929. >One way or another.
  5930. >Even if you can't strike from the air, even if the army refuses to attack.
  5931. >Anonymous will die tonight.
  5932. >No matter what it takes.
  5933. <...
  5934.  
  5935. @@@@@@@@
  5936.  
  5937. >`You cannot be serious!` Vegter oh-so-toughly says to that one alchemist mare blocking the way. `His friend is in there!`
  5938. >`None may disturb Heerser while he speaks to that... outsider.`
  5939. >Yeesh, they still don't care for the guy, huh?
  5940. >`But--`
  5941. >`I will not skirt my duties,` she continues, before adopting a sideways smirk. `Not even for one as handsome as you.`
  5942. >Well, guess there's a limit to the dude's Chad powers after all.
  5943. >Maybe you'll have better luck?
  5944. `You sure we cannot get in? Poor guy probably misses me!`
  5945. >Well you definitely have surprise on your side, if her look was anything to go by.
  5946. >`N-no,` she says after recomposing herself. `I am under strict orders to--`
  5947. >`Great ancestors,` calls an all-too-familiar voice from behind the guard. `Do my ears deceive me?`
  5948. >The guard immediately shuffles out of the way, looks back down the passageway, and throws up what you assume is the zeeb version of a salute, her left hoof hitting her chest and remaining there.
  5949. >And who else would she be saluting than her leader figure, Mr. Heerser?
  5950. "'None may disturb you'? What, you two working on nukes in there or something?"
  5951. >"I'm sorry, 'nukes'?"
  5952. "Ehh, y'know what, forget I said anything. How've you been, man?"
  5953. >"Oh, quite productive! Our forces are on heightened alert after the little debacle in Grens, and it spooked the alchemists enough to have them deploy the Ancients!"
  5954. "Uhh, 'Ancients'?"
  5955. >"Do you recall that golem you fought upon first coming here?"
  5956. "Yeah-- Wait, you've got more of those things?!"
  5957. >"Oh, that one you fought was dilapidated, only suited to executions by that point. We keep a small force of much stronger ones here."
  5958. "Oh Jesus."
  5959. >"Did you ever wonder why our tribe established the fortress of Vesting as our home, instead of remaining the same wandering nomads as our neighbour tribes? That is the work of the Ancients. The masterpieces of our ancestral alchemists, made to protect their kin long after their own demise."
  5960. >Uh, wow.
  5961.  
  5962. >"Every bit as dangerous as you would expect, of course. But I find the deterrence they offer to be of greater long term value."
  5963. "Guess nobody wants to attack the guys with the giant golems, huh?"
  5964. >"Indeed! Sadly, they aren't terribly agile. Otherwise, we'd be bringing them with us into battle all the time, rather than relegating them to guardians!"
  5965. >More like they'd rip themselves apart if they tried to go faster, if that last one was anything to go by.
  5966. >Still, holy shit!
  5967. >"I cannot say for sure how they will stack up to the Destroyer's abominations, but I pray we don't need to find out."
  5968. "No kidding."
  5969. >"Ahh, but enough about our standing forces! You must be here to see your companion, yes?"
  5970. "Sure am."
  5971. >"Well by all means, come in! I'll let him explain his progress!"
  5972. >Well, that went well.
  5973. >Your little group files into this well-guarded building, with Heerser following along beside you.
  5974. >`So,` he smiles your way, `I take it that little Zala was an excellent teacher?`
  5975. "How the hell--?"
  5976. >`Ah-ah-ah, no Equestrian.`
  5977. >This fucking guy.
  5978. `How did you know?`
  5979. >`Why, you just told me.`
  5980. >Oh, this fucking guy.
  5981. >`But in all seriousness, that little one has such a distinct way of speaking. You picked some of those habits of hers right up, even if your grasp is still somewhat rough around the edges.`
  5982. `She is a good teacher.`
  5983. >`That she is! In fact, wasn't that one of her aspirations in life, Vegter?`
  5984. >`Hahahah! That right! She wants to teach the foals!`
  5985. >`A noble goal if there ever was one. Of course,` he continues, shooting Vegter a mischievous smile of his own, `She's had an awful lot of practice in that regard, hasn't she?`
  5986. >`Hahahah! Yes, she does-- Hey! Wait!`
  5987. >Pfffffft.
  5988. >Nope, no holding in that laughter.
  5989. >`Agh! Hate you two!`
  5990. >`Just having a little fun, Vegter. You know I mean nothing by it.`
  5991. >`What about Otherworldly Anonymous?!`
  5992. `Sorry not sorry.`
  5993.  
  5994. >`Am going to enjoy drinking you under the table tonight!`
  5995. `You are welcome to try,` you shoot back with a smirk of your own.
  5996. >`Goodness,` Heerser continues, `I hope this isn't bringing up any bad habits, Otherworldly Anonymous.`
  5997. `Only the best habits.`
  5998. >`Oh?`
  5999. `Nobody out-drinks Anon.`
  6000. >`Is that right?` he says, his smirk now pointed your way. `I daresay I find that boast a little lacking in substance.`
  6001. `A princess could not drink more than me.`
  6002. >`Well, seeing how I've never seen a princess drink at all, I'm afraid your boast remains lacking.`
  6003. `Are you trying to get in on this?`
  6004. >`Oh, it's been so long since I've had anyzebra challenge me to a drinking game. Anyhuman, however? That may just be a once in a lifetime experience.`
  6005. >Man, Vegter's just hanging back with the kind of look that screams 'mom get the camera'.
  6006. >`Otherworldly Anonymous? Y-you want to challenge him?` the zeeb in question asks.
  6007. `Was not going to. But a great idea!`
  6008. >"Oh for the love of Epona, could you tailholes not leave me out like this?"
  6009. >Oh whoops, you kinda forgot Razor was there for a moment.
  6010. "Sorry, bud."
  6011. >"He was simply challenging me to a drinking game," Heerser reiterates, never losing that smirk. "Though we never did discuss the terms of your surrender."
  6012. "Right back at you."
  6013. >"Incidentally, watch your language, Uncouth Razor Wind."
  6014. >"Whatever. If you're planning on drinking him under the table, you're gonna have a huge fight on your hooves."
  6015. "Don't spoil the surprise for him."
  6016. >"Pffft, fine."
  6017. >"Perhaps we can discuss the terms of your surrender after you speak to your friend? Here he is, right now."
  6018. >Oh shit, when did you get to this big open room?
  6019. >Sitting in the middle was that weird-ass invisibility crystal and none other than Exact, his eyes and magic glued to it.
  6020. >The alchemists hanging around in the room were keeping their distance, though whether that was because of the crystal or Exact was still an open question.
  6021.  
  6022. "Hey there, buddy! What's happening?"
  6023. >"Good evening, Anon," he says without looking your way. "You appear to be in high spirits."
  6024. "You could say that. How're you making out there?"
  6025. >"I am nearing completion of my work in identifying the unique arcane properties utilized by this construct."
  6026. "That right? How's the asshole pulling it off?"
  6027. >"Oh for Elysium's sake, mind your language!"
  6028. >"This is a very strange construct, insofar as dark magic is concerned. The marriage of blood magic, soulbending and runesmithing is standard for Incognito's modus operandi, but it is very unusual for dark magic constructs of any kind to actively suppress corrupting the mana systems of those within it's influence."
  6029. "Yeah, you mentioned that back out there. I was more taking about the invisibility part of it, though."
  6030. >"It utilizes a trapped soul in combination with complex auspex rune arrays and contact sensory arrays to create a real-time visualization of the area under the construct's effect. Once it has mapped out the objects it must conceal, it creates a high-complexity real-time illusion projected upon the outer surface of the spherical area of effect, which--"
  6031. "Tells people what they should see, instead of what they do see?"
  6032. >"Yes. However, some questions remain about it's ability to detect and thusly conceal iron."
  6033. "I was wondering about that myself. Sounds like something I could reuse down the line."
  6034. >"It does have a significant array of applications that would be of aid to you."
  6035. "Anything I can lend a hand with?"
  6036. >"The offer is appreciated, but you are unlikely to be of assistance without your thaumaturgical magic detection lenses."
  6037. >Figured as much, but it was worth a shot.
  6038.  
  6039. "Well, I'm guessing if you're looking at the manastatic displacement harmonics, you must be focused more on defeating the concealment than figuring out it's exact function, right?"
  6040. >"Correct. Once the illusory refraction characteristics have been calculated correctly, it is simple enough to relate them to the coefficients of dark magic to simplify detection of the--"
  6041. >"Yes, well, as you can see, he's made quite a significant amount of progress," Heerser interrupts, showing the classic signs of info overload.
  6042. >"Yeah, as much as I'd love to sit around and hear you two jabber in magicese," Razor adds with a smirk of his own. "I'd actually like to get some drinks in me tonight, Anon."
  6043. "R-right, sorry. Got--"
  6044. >"Carried away, I know."
  6045. >"Your joint presence here indicates a 74.5% likelihood of a question for me," Exact says.
  6046. "Sounds about right. Vegter here wants to know if you want to have a drink with us."
  6047. >Rejection in 3, 2, 1...
  6048. >"Inform him that I must decline."
  6049. >Right on cue.
  6050. `Sorry,` you call back to the zeeb in question, `He is not interested.`
  6051. >`You cannot be serious!`
  6052. `He is not a good drinking partner anyways. For the best.`
  6053. >`Bah! More like he works too hard! Not even any alchemists helping him!`
  6054. >Not exactly his fault.
  6055. `He is doing good work. I say let him keep going.`
  6056. >`Fine! Not happy though.`
  6057. `Look at it this way. One less person to watch you lose to me.`
  6058. >Oh yes, that fired-up look complete with snout wrinkling is what you live for.
  6059. >Sorry pal, but the ruling on this case is absolute, and the precedent concrete.
  6060. >Nobody out-drinks Anon.
  6061. >`Hahahah! You talk big for a magicless unicorn foal! Will enjoy watching you get smashed!`
  6062. >`Oh, please,` Heerser says. `We both know that spectacle will be mine to witness, and nozebra else's.`
  6063. `Nozebra? This human is about to school you!`
  6064. >`I'm sure you'll try. No matter how many disappointments I encounter in your quote-unquote lesson.`
  6065. >Ooh, he's good.
  6066.  
  6067. >`On an unrelated note,` he starts, peering around at your back, `What is that strange rod in your possession?`
  6068. `This? My magic staff. One of them.`
  6069. >`One of your items, then? I certainly hope it's not dangerous.`
  6070. `Only if you are evil. Literally only hurts evil.`
  6071. >`Is that so? May I see it?`
  6072. >Ehh, what the hell, you'll show him the staff proper.
  6073. >He looks it over with a definite fascination, paying extra attention in particular to the Riafalt focus slapped on top of it.
  6074. >`Pardon me, but--`
  6075. >"Anon, seriously, I'm not digging getting left out here!"
  6076. "He's just interested in the staff, is all. Nothing you haven't already seen in action."
  6077. >"Actually," Heerser says, switching back to English for Razor's sake, "You would be better served speaking of this in your tongue. What, precisely, does that weapon do?"
  6078. "Technically, it's only part weapon."
  6079. >"Uh-oh," comes Razor's eyeroll, "Here we go again."
  6080. >Yes, here we go again indeed.
  6081. >Only you're happy to explain how this system works to this guy, seeing how he's never actually seen your stuff in action.
  6082. >So that's what you go over: how staves and wands work, how they work with foci, and a brief rundown of most of the foci you had with you before Vegter captured you.
  6083. >Yes, you did emphasize that part in Zebrikaans, special for him.
  6084. >Yes, he did look ashamed of himself.
  6085. >Just as nature intended.
  6086. >"What an interesting system. A base that can become anything from a tool to a weapon, with a simple change."
  6087. "Yeah, it's always been pretty rad."
  6088. >"Although, I believe I'm starting to see the coincidences you witnessed beforehoof in that shield we provided you," Heerser finally replies.
  6089. "What? You mean, how the symbols seemed similar?"
  6090.  
  6091. >"I wouldn't know about that, as I do not create the weapons, only use them. But I noticed immediately the similarity in how it's energy feels compared to my own weapons."
  6092. "Well, I wouldn't know about that either. But I can tell you that the two systems seem to work together well enough."
  6093. >"Oh? Why do you say that?"
  6094. `Vegter! Tell him what I did to your axe!`
  6095. >`Hahahah! He made it better! Much better!`
  6096. >`Better how, precisely?`
  6097. >`Not just stronger with better sigils! Now it also shoots funny blue lightning!`
  6098. >`I'm sorry, it does what?`
  6099. `One of my lightning spells. Tried to make it work on the axe. Pleasantly surprised when it did!`
  6100. >`Vegter, may I see it?`
  6101. >He's only too proud to put it on display.
  6102. >Jesus, even Heerser's lifting that thing like it's nothing!
  6103. >Are these two just freaks of nature, or are all these zeeb warriors this fucking buff?
  6104. >"My word, that is peculiar," he mutters, eyes fixed on your glyphwork. "I thought you said your particular magic was unusable by those with magic?"
  6105. "You're right, it can't be. But somehow it can be activated with zebra glyphs, and normally, that would be impossible."
  6106. >"Impossible? Forgive me, but magic is not my strong suit."
  6107. "It's a long, complicated story. Short answer is that they can only do that without a hitch if the systems are closely related."
  6108. >"Related? As in, descended?"
  6109. "Yeah."
  6110. >A few moments of thought pass on his part before he hoofs the axe back to Vegter.
  6111. >"I'm sure you've already come to the conclusion that this makes sense, given our ancient history with the Towenaar."
  6112. "Mmhmm."
  6113. >It can't be anything but that, can it?
  6114. >"Perhaps these similarities would be better explored by one more knowledgeable on the subject. Would you object to discussing this in more detail to an alchemist?"
  6115. "Not at all. I'd like to know more about how they're related, too."
  6116. >"I'll see about arranging that for after we return from the next patrol."
  6117. >A nod from you.
  6118.  
  6119. >Jeez though, how did that whole thing play out anyways?
  6120. >You mean, your first thought was that the Faber Mystico came along, gave them some thaumic knowledge somehow, and then it just evolved into it's own thing?
  6121. >Or did they steal the magic and change it up from there?
  6122. >How did they even make it work for folks with magic in them?
  6123. >Was it just for these Kunstenaar guys, or for some other tribes as well?
  6124. >Is this related to the crazy alchemy shit you've seen in action?
  6125. >Fuck if you know, man.
  6126. >Whatever the case, they're questions for another time.
  6127. >Still, Heerser's right about the practical uses for this.
  6128. >You hadn't really considered it before now, but these zeebs have some real dangerous magic weapons, easily as strong as what you would've been making a few months back.
  6129. >Your friends, on the other hand, don't have anything close to that kind of power.
  6130. >Razor has, what, electric throwing knives, a crossbow, and a regular glaive?
  6131. >Exact has nothing but his horn!
  6132. >Just thinking back to what happened in Ponyville with those Homunculi, too...
  6133. >And how much smoother would that raid on Nito's lair have gone if they had kit like yours, kit that just let you mow down hordes of bugs and gryphons like it was nothing?
  6134. >Jesus, man.
  6135. >Were they really that unprepared for this?
  6136. >You and the zeebs have the kit, but them...
  6137. >Oh, boy.
  6138. >Oh fucking hell.
  6139. >A cold feeling starts to grow in your stomach and across your skin.
  6140. >You've got to get this trust shit sorted out right fucking away.
  6141. >They're damn near naked compared to what even these two zeebs are bringing to the table.
  6142. >Oh God almighty, Razor was right again.
  6143. >You pissed around too much here, wasting time that you could've spent getting into their good graces, solving this mystery earlier, and getting them ready for--!
  6144.  
  6145. >"Are you all right, Otherworldly Anonymous?"
  6146. "Wha? O-oh, yeah, fine. Why?"
  6147. >"You seemed rather... distraught for a few moments."
  6148. "Just, uh, considering these applications of yours."
  6149. >"You can consider them during tomorrow's patrol. For the moment, file those thoughts away, lest you forget them tonight."
  6150. >Heh, r-right, he's on for drinking.
  6151. >God, you're such a fucking idiot.
  6152. >No, no no no, calm, get it together.
  6153. >Okay, maybe he's right.
  6154. >Things haven't gone too badly so far, right?
  6155. >You've still got some time to sort this all out.
  6156. >Yeah, maybe show that one alchemist bitch who's trustwo--
  6157. >"Pardon me," Exact pipes up, "But I believe I have just made progress towards detecting these stealth constructs."
  6158. "Already? Damn, forgot how fast you go."
  6159. >"It's only been a day, and you've already figured it out?" Heerser adds.
  6160. "Yeah, he's pretty nuts."
  6161. >"E-evidently. I'd have thought it impossible to comprehend this thing that quickly."
  6162. >"It was a significant time investment," Exact says, simple as can be.
  6163. "Heh, right. So, need any testing aids?"
  6164. >"Your presence here stands to benefit my analysis, Anon. Would you please activate the construct?"
  6165. "Sure," you say, strolling on over while he backs away a bit. "Let me guess, figuring out the iron interaction next?"
  6166. >"I will attempt to."
  6167. "Sounds like a plan."
  6168. >Over you go to the hoof-print pad, and sure enough, a press of your hand puts everything under that red invisibility wave, shimmering aplenty all around you.
  6169. >Meanwhile, Exact takes up position with the others, his horn glowing.
  6170. >"Minor attenuation issues. Detection should be of a greater effective range than this."
  6171. "No worries, take your time."
  6172. >"I have made the necessary corrections. It should now be possible for me to detect this construct within a radius of approximately 130 yards, with a variance of approximately 15 yards."
  6173.  
  6174. "Hey, I'll take it. What about the iron thing?"
  6175. >"I suspect it was engineered specifically to detect magical obstructions of it's kind, and dynamically apply more illusory overlays to--"
  6176. >His eyes bulge for a moment.
  6177. "What? What's up?"
  6178. >"My spell is detecting the presence of a second construct."
  6179. >And just like that, your stomach drops along with the mood.
  6180. >"A second one?" Heerser asks. "You are certain?"
  6181. >"It just entered the detection radii a moment ago."
  6182. >"Oh, you're bucking joking," Razor so beautifully summarizes for you.
  6183. >"Save your foul language for after we deal with it," Heerser damn near barks, his tone now very serious. "Is there any way to ascertain it's intentions here, agent of Celestia?"
  6184. >"There is not. I only detect it's presence, nothing more."
  6185. >"Then I must ask you to track it further, to discover the intentions of it's occupants."
  6186. >Heerser takes that moment to bark some orders to some nearby alchemists to keep Exact guarded, who semi-reluctantly obey.
  6187. >"It seems our little game will have to wait for another day, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  6188. >For fuck's sake, man.
  6189. >Heerser asks for something called an 'echo gem', and he's handed a pair of opaque blue gemstones by another nearby alchemist, one of which is handed to Exact while he keeps the other.
  6190. >"Keep me informed. Now go!"
  6191. >He nods and runs off, his escort following suit.
  6192.  
  6193. >`What is happening?` Vegter throws in, visibly tense. `An attack?`
  6194. >`Possibly. The agent of Celestia sensed another invisible chariot flying over Vesting. He pursues it as we speak.`
  6195. >`Another?!`
  6196. >`We do not know if they are here to attack, or here to observe. Summon your warriors, but do so discreetly, and keep them at the ready to intervene. Do you understand?`
  6197. >`Yes!` he chest-salutes. `Otherworldly Anonymous. Be careful!`
  6198. `Right.`
  6199. >And off he goes, too.
  6200. >"Now," he continues, "Your equipment was stored with Uncouth Razor Wind's items, Otherworldly Anonymous. Can you lead him to it?"
  6201. >"That won't be an issue. You off to raise the alarm?"
  6202. >"Indeed. It will not take long. Remain there with him until I find you again, unless circumstances demand otherwise."
  6203. >"You got it. C'mon, Anon!"
  6204. "R-right."
  6205. >Jesus Christ, man.
  6206. >Your mind's telling you it's just a scout.
  6207. >But your gut's telling you it's something much, much worse.
  6208. >Please, for the love of God, let it be wrong this time.
  6209. <...
  6210.  
  6211. >He's here somewhere.
  6212. >He has to be.
  6213. >Anonymous should stick out like a sore nose here!
  6214. >Keep looking.
  6215. >Just keep looking.
  6216. >You'll find him.
  6217. >You have to!
  6218. >"So, that gem is a means to summon reinforcements, then?" Veldheer asks of a still conflicted and now rather agitated Ajay.
  6219. >"I told you, it's for emergencies only!"
  6220. >"Yes, and I suspect there will indeed be an emergency upon us soon."
  6221. >"What, you mean you're looking for a fight, is that it?"
  6222. >"I would be lying if I said the prospect was not appealing. But I suspect we will have little choice in the matter."
  6223. >Argh, are they still talking?!
  6224. >"We're perfectly concealed up here! There's no reason to think that--"
  6225. >"Are we? I think the occupants of that destroyed chariot would beg to disagree."
  6226. >"You don't trust our Lord, is that it?"
  6227. >"Of course not. Not him, not his monstrosities, and certainly not this contrivance of his made to mask our presence."
  6228. "Shut up! Both of you!"
  6229. >You sense Ajay recoiling, but Veldheer as per usual does no such thing.
  6230. "The only thing you should be doing is looking for this damn weapon, got it?!"
  6231. >"Oh, I very much doubt you will find that mysterious weapon, liefling. But on the other hoof, I'm certain you will find it's wielder in no time at all."
  6232. "It's wielder? Is that some kind of a joke?"
  6233. >"I'm quite serious."
  6234. >A brief snarl leaves your throat before you turn towards Veldheer, your snout barely an inch from his infuriating little smug face.
  6235. "I've had just about enough of you today! I've had enough of these bucking delays! Get back to searching for this weapon before I throw you out of this chariot!"
  6236. >He doesn't even blink.
  6237. >"My dear, you really should stick to threats you can make good on."
  6238. >He doesn't even stop smiling.
  6239. >You, meanwhile, narrow your eyes, your face inching closer as if to give your glare more power.
  6240. "You think--?!"
  6241.  
  6242. >The instant your nose touches his snout is when you feel his hoof cupping your jaw, the only warning you have before his face closes the distance.
  6243. >Whatever threat was about to explode from your throat was muffled by something pressed against your lips.
  6244. >That instant when you realized what was happening was the very same instant you were assaulted by the raw emotions within him, carried over in near perfect purity over the kiss.
  6245. >Bemusement, concern, satisfaction, worry, all clashing with one another.
  6246. >A massive, simmering lust for violence.
  6247. >Eros love dominated, with ludus taking a close second.
  6248. >But mixed in there was the unmistakable, mouthwatering taste of what could only be one thing.
  6249. >Storge.
  6250. >Eclipsed by the others, but still there all the same.
  6251. >You'd been so long without it, and no zebra you've fed upon had it.
  6252. >You'd almost forgotten what it tastes like...
  6253. >And...
  6254. >Veldheer had...?
  6255. >Veldheer.
  6256. >Veldheer!
  6257. >That little bastard!
  6258. >Just as red begins to seep into your vision, his lips separate from yours and his hoof pushes you away, the sudden loss of the connection causing you to stumble for another moment before you fall back, unable to balance yourself in time.
  6259. >"There," he says, giving his lips a small lick as if to taste what was left over, "Are you calm now?"
  6260. >How the--?!
  6261. >Isn't he--?
  6262. >But--!
  6263. >Words fail you, and all you can do is lie there on your back, slack-jawed at the sheer audacity on display here.
  6264. >"My, that was more successful than I expected."
  6265. >He did it again.
  6266. >Just when you thought he'd hit the limit as to how infuriating, how nervy he could be...!
  6267. >You should kill him.
  6268. >Just kill him now.
  6269. >Make an example out of him.
  6270. >Just look at him!
  6271. >Him and his stupid...!
  6272. >Just...
  6273. >Gaaaaaah!
  6274.  
  6275. >Slowly, you pull yourself back upright, levelling another glare in his direction.
  6276. >"Perhaps now you are willing to listen, liefling?"
  6277. >Don't.
  6278. >Answer him.
  6279. "I hate you so much."
  6280. >Damn it.
  6281. >"How peculiar," he shoots back with that same grin. "I've never known hatred to produce such pleasing smiles."
  6282. >His head must be on backwards if he thinks this is making you smile!
  6283. >It made you smile, didn't it?
  6284. >"Mmm, I'll have to remember that for a later time."
  6285. >If it did, it's back to a scowl now.
  6286. "Go to Tartarus."
  6287. >"Perhaps another time."
  6288. >Buck him and everything he stands for.
  6289. >"Really though, you should be smiling far more this night."
  6290. "What, you need something else to eye up?"
  6291. >"Oh, your form never ceases to please, but your smile is a much rarer delight. It's especially beautiful when you're poised to kill."
  6292. >What you wouldn't give to shut him up right now.
  6293. >"And with your quarry in such a vulnerable state? Why, I'm shocked you're not grinning from ear to ear!"
  6294. "What?"
  6295. >"Athalia, come now. Surely you must have noticed it when you sensed the battle with those creatures?"
  6296. "Noticed what, our side losing? This attack being called off?"
  6297. >"Ahh, so hatred still clouds your thoughts? Perhaps I should clear your mind once again--"
  6298. "Try it and you'll be fighting with four broken legs."
  6299. >What will it take to make him stop smirking so damn much?!
  6300. >"Think, Athalia. You said you sensed the alchemists battle against something that did not exist."
  6301. "So I sensed it wrong, so what?"
  6302. >"Don't be so quick to doubt your senses. I believe I know exactly what they were battling against there."
  6303. "Stop dancing around this and tell me who it is already!"
  6304. >"None other than your mortal enemy, of course."
  6305. >Mortal ene--?
  6306. >Wait.
  6307. >Anonymous?
  6308.  
  6309. "That's the dumbest thing I've heard today."
  6310. >"And that changes the truth of the matter?"
  6311. "Veldheer, if he were there, I'd have sensed his magic from far--"
  6312. >"'His' magic? But I thought humans possessed no magic?"
  6313. "Well yeah, but--"
  6314. >"So if he has no magic with which to leave a trail you can sense, then you must agree that he would be this nonexistent warrior."
  6315. "No I don't agree! Because that doesn't make any sense!"
  6316. >"Why not? If he has no magic, then this weapon would pose no threat to him, no?"
  6317. "Forget about the stupid impossible weapon! Why the buck would he just give up his magic weapons like that? Did you just forget about what it did to those warriors of yours?!"
  6318. >"I haven't forgotten. But tell me, why do you think he would not forfeit his weapons?"
  6319. "Oh gee, I don't know! Maybe because they make him unstoppable? Maybe to get in this stupid tribe's good graces?"
  6320. >"We just spoke of this mere minutes ago, my dear. All the power in the world will not make the Kunstenaars trust him. If that were true, then this Celestia would have them dancing to her tune generations ago."
  6321. "Nevermind, that's the dumbest thing I've heard all day! You're actually suggesting that he gave up his things, just to get them to trust him?"
  6322. >"Yes."
  6323. >Aaagh, this bucking idiot!
  6324. >That's impossible!
  6325. >That's...
  6326. >His face was completely straight.
  6327. >His emotions were the picture of sincerity.
  6328. >He...
  6329. >He's serious?
  6330. >He's serious.
  6331. "You're serious?"
  6332. >"Deadly serious."
  6333. "B-but that's--"
  6334. >"Call our customs what you will, but it is the truth. If your precious human came to us with displays of power, we would have slaughtered him where he stood. Instead, he gave me the head of one of my traitorous castaway brood, and a stolen relic of our ancestral past, proving his commitment to bloodshed. That was how he first earned our trust."
  6335.  
  6336. "S-so... what do they want?"
  6337. >"The Kunstenaars? Plenty of things. Exchanges of knowledge. Displays of love. Bonds forged in battle. Whatever will feed into their foolish ideas of nobility and enlightenment. But no tribe, no matter how cowardly, will submit to mere displays of power. They would sooner choose death."
  6338. >What's this feeling in your stomach?
  6339. >N-no, wait!
  6340. "But what about that weapon? Th-that thing that killed those Homunculi?"
  6341. >"What about it?"
  6342. "What do you mean, what about it? Did you see what it did?!"
  6343. >"To the creatures, yes. Curiously however, he did not turn it against the alchemists."
  6344. "He--"
  6345. >He didn't.
  6346. "But why?"
  6347. >"It brings a gruesome death to all with magic, yes? Do you think he would want that for his compatriots?"
  6348. >His friends.
  6349. >Anonymous's stupid bucking friends.
  6350. >He...
  6351. >That's right.
  6352. >The alchemists entered at the same time his allies did.
  6353. >Meaning he couldn't have...
  6354. >Heh.
  6355. >Heheheh...
  6356. >"Ahh, there it is," he grins once again. "That beautiful, murderous smile of yours."
  6357. >Oh, that's what this feeling is.
  6358. >Butterflies.
  6359. >"W-we are not going to fight them right now!" comes Ajay's nervous exclamation.
  6360. >Wait a minute.
  6361. >Is that... envy you sense in his emotions now?
  6362. >"I told you already that there may be little choice in the matter, gryphon. That possibility has now become a certainty."
  6363. >"No it has not! We're still undetected up here!"
  6364. >"Are we? You may find that unicorn on the ground thinks quite differently."
  6365. >Huh?
  6366. >Unicorn?
  6367. >Following Veldheer's eyes, you peer down from the chariot to--
  6368. >There is!
  6369. >When did he see--?!
  6370. >Gaaah, he's right, he is following the chariot!
  6371. >And...
  6372. >Wait.
  6373. >That unicorn's intent, have you...?
  6374. >No.
  6375. >No way.
  6376. >That's not the same...?!
  6377. >It is!
  6378. >That's the same unicorn!
  6379. >The same one from Canterlot that kept you from beating that damn princess Luna!
  6380.  
  6381. >I-is this some kind of sign?
  6382. >Are you really about to get revenge on so much more than Anonymous tonight?
  6383. >"Th-that's not possible!" Ajay nearly squawks, nervousness almost dripping from his tone.
  6384. >"I warned you not to place stock in your foolish human's creations."
  6385. >That unicorn is talking into some kind of gemstone.
  6386. >The magic is strange, but still feels like a communication construct of some kind.
  6387. >So, he's reporting your movements, huh?
  6388. >To who, you wonder?
  6389. >No longer focused on finding this mystery weapon, you trace the magic of the gem to a part of the fort in the distance, giving you a target to cast your senses over proper.
  6390. >You can sense zebras of all kinds on alert, and following some of the presences along the walls paints a pretty clear picture.
  6391. "The whole fort knows we're here."
  6392. >"Of course they do," Veldheer adds. "Travelled Heerser takes security incredibly seriously."
  6393. >"You're telling us this now?!"
  6394. >"Yes, now that it involves Athalia."
  6395. >"Unbelievable!"
  6396. >"Such complaining befits a newborn filly more than it does a warrior. But then, the Kunstenaars have their own cowardly options, too."
  6397. >Wh-whoa!
  6398. >Where'd these presences suddenly come from?!
  6399. >"Wh-what are you--?!"
  6400. >"Silence. Do you hear that?"
  6401. >N-nevermind the sounds, what's with these powerful, quasi-emotionless presences?!
  6402. >"Ahh, speak of the daemon, and it shall manifest," Veldheer says, caught between excitement and annoyance. "Their vaunted Ancients are being brought to bear."
  6403. >Looking down at the closest presence, you see a huge stone golem of some description rising out from what used to be a modestly sized tent, easily towering over the attending zebras by a good four or five heads!
  6404.  
  6405. >"Oh good Godric," Ajay squawks, "Get us out of here, now!"
  6406. >"I told you already, gryphon. Combat is now unavoidable."
  6407. >It's head turns up towards the chariot, and it's mouth opens.
  6408. >It's charging some kind of magic bolt!
  6409. >So this is it, then?
  6410. >"Athalia, I must ask something of you."
  6411. >You barely notice yourself shaking.
  6412. "What?"
  6413. >He looks and feels about as excited as you do.
  6414. >"Do to the Equestrians and your Anonymous what you will, but leave Travelled Heerser and Reckless Vegter for me."
  6415. "Who?"
  6416. >"Oh, you'll know them when you see them."
  6417. >While Veldheer pulls out a potion of some kind and quickly drinks it's contents, the golem's mouth looses a yellow ball of lightning with a loud CRACK.
  6418. >Powerful, but nothing you can't shield against.
  6419. >And as the ball detonates against your quickly erected shield, all semblance of restraint you had leaves with it.
  6420. >Wings buzzing to life, you leap out of the chariot.
  6421. >"Athalia! No!"
  6422. >"Summon your reinforcements, gryphon. Perhaps they will be of more aid than you are."
  6423. >Ajay doesn't get a chance to squeeze in a rebuttal before Veldheer jumps out of the chariot himself, magic from that potion taking root within his legs.
  6424. >He freefalls directly towards one of those golems and pulls free his massive sword, already crackling with dark magic.
  6425.  
  6426. >The golem isn't even close to getting another lightning ball charged in time, and he crashes sword-first into it's head, the force of his blow cleaving it's entire front side in two, the dust cloud made upon his somewhat pained landing accentuated by a shockwave of dark purple magic radiating out from the point of impact.
  6427. >It collapses to the ground, it's presence fizzling out moments after the shockwave.
  6428. >That's as good a place to land as any.
  6429. >Diving down yourself, you arrive to the sight of Veldheer slaughtering the nearby zebras, both with the now freely levitating greatsword and with his own hooves, with wicked serrated blades extending out from the armour on his forelegs with every blow he lands.
  6430. >Already, you can sense more zebras converging here.
  6431. >Veldheer says nothing, only offering you a small glance full of murderous glee before turning back to his wanton slaughter.
  6432. >It's finally going to happen.
  6433. >You'll finally get to kill Anonymous today.
  6434. >Finally, you can take his head back to Incognito, just like when you first set out to kill him.
  6435. >But this time, there won't be any mistakes.
  6436. >This time, he won't get to use his dirty tricks.
  6437. >This time, he's yours.
  6438. >But you don't mind starting with that unicorn.
  6439. >One of those golems comes into view from a fair ways away.
  6440. >The laughter you hear as you bolt towards it is without a doubt your own.
  6441. <...
  6442.  
  6443. @@@@@@@@
  6444.  
  6445. >"All set, Anon?"
  6446. "Y-yeah, ready as I'll be."
  6447. >The alchemist on site puts the last finishing touches on your get-up, retightening and rejigging the cloth and setting both you and Razor up with a fresh load of potions.
  6448. >The super-coffee potion is down the hatch first, and you use that time to head over to the other side of the small room, where your iron gear was still sitting.
  6449. >Magnet and war hammer, check.
  6450. >Both are slung away in short order, and you quickly double check to see if your staff is secure on your back.
  6451. >So far so good!
  6452. >Next on the list is to grab a bill, and you should be--
  6453. >Wait wait hold on, what's that mixed in with them?
  6454. >Is that your axe?
  6455. >It is!
  6456. >You'd recognize that decoration anywhere!
  6457. >Wait, but should you...?
  6458. >`You are not good with our weapons,` the alchemist answers without ever being asked. `Take that one.`
  6459. >O-okay, if she says so!
  6460. >Grabbed and stowed without further prompting.
  6461. >Geez, you hope they keep this whole giving your shit back train going!
  6462. >`Now wait for Heerser to return.`
  6463. `Right.`
  6464. >God, that's gonna be the worst fucking part!
  6465. >Please for the love of God let this just be some random scout!
  6466. >If fucking Nito shows up right now...
  6467. >No, no no no, stop that shit right now, Anon.
  6468. >He's not gonna come here.
  6469. >Those alchemists managed to bag you, and you were packing stronger shit than he was!
  6470. >That and these zeebs have those golem things!
  6471. >No way he'd risk it!
  6472. >Still, though...
  6473. >If he did show up, you'd be straight fucked.
  6474. >The magnet wouldn't stop him at all.
  6475. >Hell, it'd hurt you more than him, since it'd de-power these potions!
  6476. >Potions you've got no choice but to bank on right now, given your lack of shit!
  6477. >No, for fuck's sake Anon, stop it!
  6478. >He's not coming here, stop obsessing over it!
  6479.  
  6480. >"You all right, buddy?"
  6481. "Fine."
  6482. >"You don't look fine."
  6483. "Yeah, I guess I'm not."
  6484. >"C'mon, talk to me. You worried about Exact?"
  6485. "Not just that. It's just, what if he shows up?"
  6486. >"Who, Incognito?"
  6487. "Yeah. I mean, if he comes here, we're fucking screwed."
  6488. >"I don't think he'd risk it, not with these alchemists hanging around. One potion and bam, he's bucked."
  6489. "I know, but... Fuck me, I'm not ready for this shit, man."
  6490. >"Honestly, you oughta be more worried about his toadies."
  6491. "What, the alchemists?"
  6492. >"Kinda, but the guys here can match 'em with their own. I'm more thinking about their own 'heroes', if you wanna call them that."
  6493. "You mean their own super zeebs?"
  6494. >"Wouldn't be a stretch, would it? Wouldn't have to be zebras, either. Could be that bucking bug, for all we know."
  6495. >Athalia?
  6496. >Oh geez, you didn't even think of her.
  6497. "Well at least I've got solutions for her!" you say, patting the magnet and staff.
  6498. >"And if you lose 'em, you're screwed. Hay, she'd probably do worse to you than he would, if I'm being honest."
  6499. "What do you mean?"
  6500. >"Anon, before she left to rescue that red cocksucker, she was fighting princess Luna."
  6501. "You mentioned."
  6502. >"Yeah, but I didn't mention the shit she said at the time. She..."
  6503. >He shakes his head for a moment.
  6504. >"Anon, she said she was gonna kill you, right to her face. Nothing about rescuing her boss, just killing you."
  6505. "She did?"
  6506. >"Yeah. Scary part was that she actually kept pace with the princess. The princess is one heck of a fighter, best I've ever seen, but that bucking bug was relentless, on top of slinging all that dark magic. I wouldn't want to fight her, that's for damn sure."
  6507. >Wait wait, that bug actually kept up with Luna?
  6508. >Did she mention that before?
  6509.  
  6510. >"That Incognito shithead, I'm sure he just sees you as a big buckoff obstacle, even after everything you did. Doesn't strike me as the type to hold a grudge. But that bug?"
  6511. >He shakes his head a little.
  6512. >"She just screamed 'crazy' to me, man. You could see it in her eyes. And after that monster beatdown you gave her, the jail time, and after you thrashed her boss? If anything, she'd be the one out for blood, not him."
  6513. >No, you know exactly what he's talking about.
  6514. >Right after she shanked you in that crater, you saw that crazy look.
  6515. >A slight twinge shoots through that particular scar.
  6516. >And that wasn't even the first time she tried to kill you, either.
  6517. >Okay, this is starting to scare you more and more.
  6518. >"And then there's that alchemist that tagged along with her. Buck me, she was even more dangerous."
  6519. "She's the one that did the ice thing, wasn't she?"
  6520. >"The same. And we don't even know who else he's got to throw at us."
  6521. "Dude, you're supposed to be calming me down here!"
  6522. >"Well, you're not thinking of that red tailhole now, are you?"
  6523. "I--"
  6524. >A door opens, and who else steps through than Mr. Heerser himself, kitted out in full armour with a full rack of potions, all ready for war?
  6525. >Though that glyphed, barbed trident was a new addition.
  6526. >"Are the two of you ready?" he asks, serious as can be.
  6527. >"Yep."
  6528. "Best I can be. Uh, please tell me it's just a scout."
  6529. >"I wish I could, Otherworldly Anonymous. The situation has worsened considerably."
  6530. >Welp, there goes your stomach, dropped to the floor.
  6531.  
  6532. >"According to your friend, the chariot attempted an escape after it discovered it was being followed. The Ancients awakened in time to attempt to bring it down, but their great attack was... blocked."
  6533. >Blocked?
  6534. "As in... a magic shield?"
  6535. >"Yes."
  6536. "Please, please don't tell me it's him."
  6537. >"According to your friend, it was not."
  6538. >Oh thank fucking God.
  6539. >"I don't imagine a human being is capable of leaping from the chariot, colliding with an Ancient, destroying it in a single strike, and then getting up to slaughter all that is around him."
  6540. >Nevermind, relief over!
  6541. "Oh God, who the hell would that be?!"
  6542. >"I do not know, though I have a suspicion that, like your own, I dearly hope is not correct."
  6543. >Couldn't be Nito, but still!
  6544. >That little blue gem of his pulses, and he immediately reaches for it, bringing it to his ear.
  6545. >"Yes? What? Are you sure? I see. Keep your distance and report any further oddities. Do not battle them directly. We will be there momentarily."
  6546. >So it does work like a magic walkie-talkie, huh?
  6547. >"The chariot emitted some kind of magical signal as it made it's escape."
  6548. "A signal? What for?"
  6549. >"Backup, if I had to guess," Razor adds.
  6550. >"That would make the most sense. We will deal with that as necessary. For now, we must go."
  6551. >"Lead the way."
  6552. >And out of this place your group rushes, into the now barely reddened black night, with torches, the moon, and big lit  beacons along the walls being your only real light sources now.
  6553. >Jeeeeez, man!
  6554. >Who the fuck takes out one of those golems in one fucking hit?
  6555. >If you weren't nervous before, you sure as shit were now!
  6556.  
  6557. >`Heerser!` a familiar voice calls off to the side.
  6558. >Vegter falls into formation from the side, loaded up with his own armour and potions, his axe stowed across his back.
  6559. >`Is everything ready?` Heerser calls to him.
  6560. >`Yes! Warriors already getting everyzebra out of the area!`
  6561. >`Good.`
  6562. >Plumes of smoke can be seen in the distance, right where you were headed.
  6563. >Dark purple flashes can occasionally be seen illuminating the smoke.
  6564. >Dark purple...?
  6565. >`This will be a taxing battle, Vegter. Bring nothing but your best for this--`
  6566. >That communicator gem pulses again, and Heerser answers it immediately.
  6567. >"Yes?"
  6568. >Heerser comes to a dead stop, and when you all stop in place to see what's up, his eyes are wide.
  6569. >"What...?! You cannot mean--!"
  6570. >graaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh
  6571. >If your gut hadn't sunk enough, your blood just chilled to try and match it.
  6572. >No way.
  6573. >Not now.
  6574. >Not fucking now!
  6575. >Jesus, you already came off of--!
  6576. >"Blessed ancestors, twenty of them?!"
  6577. >Twenty?!
  6578. >Jesus fucking Christ, he sent twenty of those fucking monsters?!
  6579. >"I see. Make your escape and reconvene with us at the wall!"
  6580. >He stows the gem away and takes a small breath to recompose himself.
  6581. >"Tell me I didn't hear that wrong," Razor says.
  6582. >"You did not. He senses twenty of the fell monsters, approaching the eastern wall."
  6583. "Jesus, that was the backup they called, wasn't it?!"
  6584. >"What, is he sending a bucking army next?!"
  6585. >"Compose yourselves! Otherworldly Anonymous, is your weapon ready?"
  6586. >Knew it would come down to this.
  6587. "Yeah, but my potions will--."
  6588. >"I will ensure you are re-equipped with the utmost haste."
  6589. >He turns to Vegter.
  6590. >`We are moving to defend the eastern wall. Twenty abominations approach it.`
  6591. >`Twenty?! What about the--?!`
  6592. >`We will confront them only after the creatures are dealt with. I will not lose countless innocents to those monstrosities.`
  6593. >Vegter grits his teeth, growling his displeasure.
  6594.  
  6595. >The group changes course towards the wall, towards the ungodly chorus of screeches from those monsters.
  6596. >"Hang tight a moment, I'm gonna scope them out from the air!"
  6597. >And with that, Razor takes off into the air, still keeping pace with the boots on the ground.
  6598. `What is the plan?`
  6599. >`The Ancients will already be convening to the wall as we speak,` Heerser starts. `They will do what they can, but our ultimate goal will be to have your weapon slay as many of them as possible.`
  6600. >`But what about the zebras there? And the Ancients?`
  6601. >`Ancients are replaceable, lives are not. Otherworldly Anonymous, do your best to--`
  6602. `Kill nobody. I know.`
  6603. >FZZWT
  6604. >"Whoa, shit!"
  6605. >Your eyes dart upwards to a very startled Razor diving his way towards your group, dodging a volley of red magic bolts.
  6606. >"Whoakay, they're not the same monsters as before, guys!" he huffs, setting down and resuming his run.
  6607. "What do you mean?"
  6608. >"There's twenty of them all right, but they've got bucking upgrades!"
  6609. "Fuck me, really?!"
  6610. >"They're covered in armour and they've got bucking horns now! That volley I just dodged was their hoofwork!"
  6611. >As if the situation couldn't get any fucking worse!
  6612. >"They should fall to Otherworldly Anonymous's weapon as readily as the others!"
  6613. >Thanks for the vote of confidence, buddy.
  6614. >Oh Jesus why?
  6615. >You can already hear the monsters ripping into the sandstone of the walls as you approach, the tents that were here before now abandoned and trampled.
  6616. >Heavy stone steps draw your attention back to the wall, and what meets you is...
  6617. >Well, it's some good news at least!
  6618. >Those were definitely the same kind of zebra-shaped golems you saw before, only they were bigger, better looking, and absolutely covered in glowing zebra glyphs.
  6619. >And there looked to be about eleven of them on the scene here!
  6620.  
  6621. >Zebra warriors and alchemists start crowding around them, but Heerser calls out to them all:
  6622. >`Back away from the wall, all of you! Let the Ancients handle this!`
  6623. >They obey in an instant, clearing away.
  6624. >"Otherworldly Anonymous, get in close to the Ancients. The very instant those monsters cannot be held by the Ancients any longer, loose your weapon's might against them."
  6625. "You're sure about this, man?"
  6626. >"You are the only one equipped to slay beings of this calibre. Even one getting through would spell certain doom for us all!"
  6627. >Y-yeah, no pressure!
  6628. >No, man the fuck up, Anon!
  6629. >You did this before, you can do it again!
  6630. "All right," you breathe. "Start praying."
  6631. >With that, you march towards the giant golems by your lonesome, the sound of stone ripping apart and monsters screeching only getting worse.
  6632. >Okay, unsling the magnet and power it on up!
  6633. >Preferably without your hands shaking!
  6634. >You can do this, come on!
  6635. >The instant the wall beings cracking on this side, the golems drop into combat stances and their mouths open, their glyphs alight with that green lightning all the while.
  6636. >The crack doesn't take long to graduate to a full on breach.
  6637. >The rune monsters trample over themselves to get inside, allowing you a full view of just what you were dealing with.
  6638. >Somehow, it was worse than what Razor had described.
  6639. >They were covered from neck to hoof in some kind of metal armour, etched with the same runes that the monsters themselves were.
  6640. >Said runes were glowing about as brightly as the ones on the golems, but weren't arcing with lightning like their non-evil counterparts were.
  6641. >And to top it off, they're sporting foot long unicorn horns, all of which were arcing quite violently with red lightning, almost like the energy was begging to be released against something.
  6642. >Their runic 'eyes' lock to their golem enemies, and they launch themselves at them with that same ungodly screeching, the golems rearing up as if to kick at them.
  6643.  
  6644. >In that moment, all hell breaks loose before your eyes.
  6645. >The monsters slash at their enemies faster and even twitchier than the older versions, their attacks shaving enough debris off the surprisingly sturdy stone of their enemies to kick up clouds of dust.
  6646. >All the while, their horns fire very unstable red magic bolts in rapid succession, some of which detonate in midair before they even reach their targets.
  6647. >The ones that do hit wind up getting ablated somewhat by the green lightning visibly softening the bolts up before they land, but they still carve out anywhere from fist-sized holes to head-sized craters.
  6648. >That same green lightning rakes violently across the monsters themselves, doing little to the armour they wear, but absolutely cooking the exposed arms and heads of the monsters.
  6649. >Their arms are sizzled down to the bone, outpacing their regeneration.
  6650. >Yet they keep hacking away, even as some of their arms snap right off from the constant attacking.
  6651. >They don't even stop to let their arms regenerate when it happens: they just keep using it in a vain effort to club the solid stone of their enemies, caking the surface with black blood.
  6652. >As for their heads, the few that get too close don't have the chance to get cooked to the bone, as the green lightning reacts with their still-crackling horns, causing some kind of reaction that ends in their horns exploding, taking half their head with it in a shower of black blood and God only knows what else was in there.
  6653. >And it doesn't even slow them down: some of them continue gurgling instead of screeching, and whatever remained attached arced violently with red magic as it tried to regenerate, creating a similar effect that the green lightning was having, only against the golems.
  6654. >Nothing slowed them down.
  6655.  
  6656. >The golems, heavy as they no doubt were, kept their surprisingly fluid movements steady under the onslaught they endured, booting the monsters several yards away with the kind of big, meaty CRUNCH that you can only describe as the sound of every bone in their body breaking at once.
  6657. >The few that manage to stomp on the monsters come down with such ground-breaking force that they wind up pulverizing the monsters into two halves, if not outright crumpling them like a tin can if they landed the hit head first.
  6658. >Just like the monsters, nothing slowed them down.
  6659. >But unlike the monsters, they couldn't regenerate.
  6660. >The monsters that were booted away convulsed violently to the tune of bones snapping and popping, and the ones that crumpled regenerated back to normal, their bodies just growing around the crumpled remains of their armour like a tree growing branches through a fence.
  6661. >The golems were outmatched and outnumbered.
  6662. >One by one, the golems began to fall, the onslaught eventually reaching their gemstone and animus cores, where the latter spilled out like glowing blood.
  6663. >The monsters didn't stop there, ripping into the fallen golems for several moments like a ravenous horde of zombies, with rocks, gem chunks, and animus flying out.
  6664. >Once they came up to down the other golems, they were absolutely drenched in the glowing green liquid, like the aftermath of some kind of nightmarish paintball match from hell.
  6665. >It's only when they get to the last two golems that you notice just how badly you're shaking.
  6666. >And it's in that same moment that the runic 'eye' of one of the golems locks onto you.
  6667. >Each and every monster freezes for a moment as their 'eyes' all shift to look at you, one after the other.
  6668. >Instantly, they abandon the barely standing golems and tear after you.
  6669.  
  6670. >Move.
  6671. >They start firing magic bolts your way.
  6672. >Do something!
  6673. >Even with the bolts contrailing through the small magnetic field, the bolts still tear your clothes to pieces, but only feel like BBs impacting against your skin.
  6674. >The shock alone is enough to jolt you into action.
  6675. >You swear you can hear your own yelling join their chorus of screeching and gurgling as you start cranking the magnet with all of your might.
  6676. >Just like before, the effect is instantaneous.
  6677. >Every magic bolt en route to you spontaneously combusts and is carried away in the 'wind', and each monster drops to the ground, screaming uncontrollably and slashing at themselves and one another, black blood spilling everywhere.
  6678. >Keep cranking.
  6679. >Their screams cut off, their throats bulge, and their jaws unhinge.
  6680. >Keep cranking!
  6681. >The souls pop right out of them like before, the strings connecting to it dissolving before the white orb itself is reduced to magical 'smoke'.
  6682. >But unlike the last ones, they all had a second soul pop out, the runes dimming and their thrashing slowing right after the first one popped out.
  6683. >Keep cranking!
  6684. >A third one followed suit, and the instant that one popped out, they collapsed like a puppet with it's strings cut, the runes going totally dead.
  6685. >Keep fucking cranking!
  6686. >"Holy mother of Epona..."
  6687. >All that remained was a pile of steaming mangled bodies.
  6688. >Keep cranking!
  6689. >"Anon?"
  6690. >You're fucking dead if you stop!
  6691. >"Anon? Anon! Anon, they're dead!"
  6692. >Keep cranking.
  6693. >"Anon, listen to me! You got 'em, it's over!"
  6694. >Keep cranking.
  6695. >"Damn it! Hoof me that rock!"
  6696. >Something hits your back, causing you to jump and nearly drop the magnet.
  6697.  
  6698. >A rock is heard clattering to the ground, causing you to spin in place to find it's source so you can fucking magnet the shit out of--
  6699. >It's Razor and Heerser.
  6700. >Both far away, both squinting with discomfort, and both unmistakably worried about you.
  6701. >It took you a moment to realize you were still cranking the magnet.
  6702. >It took another moment after you'd stopped and unpowered it to realize your hands were shaking and your breathing was heavy.
  6703. >Holy shit.
  6704. >The magnet clatters to the ground, along with you falling flat on your ass.
  6705. >Holy shit.
  6706. >Holy mother of God.
  6707. >Jesus of fucking Nazareth.
  6708. >"Anon!"
  6709. >Holy fucking shit.
  6710. >"C'mon, man, don't make me smack some sense into you again! On your feet!"
  6711. >Jesus fucking Christ.
  6712. >Oh dear God.
  6713. >"Sorry about this, buddy..."
  6714. >Oh fuck--
  6715. >SMACK
  6716. "Gaaah fuck!"
  6717. >"Anon, look at me!"
  6718. >The sudden shaking of your shoulders quickly distracted you from the pain in your cheek.
  6719. >It was Razor shaking you.
  6720. >"Look at me, man! It's over! You got 'em!"
  6721. >You... got 'em?
  6722. "I-I got 'em?"
  6723. >"Yeah, buddy! You bucking got 'em!"
  6724. >You got 'em.
  6725. "I got 'em."
  6726. >"You sure did!"
  6727. "I got 'em--"
  6728. >"No, come on buddy, save the crazy talk for your lab!"
  6729. >The lab...?
  6730. >Oh right, the lab.
  6731. >Ooh, Jesus, i-is your head supposed to ache like this?
  6732. >A-and when did your hands get all shaky?
  6733. >"C'mon, Anon, on your feet!"
  6734. >You almost fucking died again.
  6735. >"Here, lean on me!"
  6736. >Leaning on his is harder than it should be, and try as you might, you fail to stand up and fall to the ground with a painful THUMP, your legs too shaky to keep standing.
  6737. >Though you do notice Heerser coming up next to Razor.
  6738. >"His shaking seems unnatural," Heerser notes. "Did he take a potion before we left?"
  6739. >"Yeah, same one we took before leaving last time, why?"
  6740. >"Hmm. I wonder..."
  6741.  
  6742. >Fucking hell, you almost died again.
  6743. >`Alchemists, bring me a purging brew!`
  6744. >"Anon, c'mon. We're not outta the woods yet, stay together!"
  6745. >You almost died and you can't even stand up right now.
  6746. >"Here, drink this," Heerser says, a vial of something held in his outstretched hoof.
  6747. >Snatching it, you down it right away.
  6748. >W-wait a minute, is this a...?
  6749. >Yeah, it is!
  6750. >Why'd he...?
  6751. >Huh?
  6752. >Your shaking is going away?
  6753. >"Anon?" Razor calls, visibly worried. "You all right?"
  6754. >The fuck...?
  6755. "I... y-yeah, I-I think so."
  6756. >Once more you try and stand up, and are met with far more success.
  6757. >"What'd he give you?"
  6758. "A hangover potion."
  6759. >"Not quite," Heerser says. "It was a purging brew."
  6760. "Purging brew? The hell is--"
  6761. >Ohh fuck you feel sick.
  6762. >"Uhh, please tell me it's not the purge I'm thinking of."
  6763. >A wave of nausea hits you like a train, causing you to double over.
  6764. >"I'm afraid so, Uncouth Razor Wind. You may wish to keep your distance."
  6765. >Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck--
  6766. >Landing on your hands and knees, you retch for a few moments before your stomach finally decides to empty itself all over the floor.
  6767. >Some of it streams out of your nose as it comes up, only what comes up doesn't taste like vomit, nor does it burn like it.
  6768. >It's not until you finally finish throwing up that you can finally take stock of why that was.
  6769. >Whatever this liquidy, dark brown, slightly iridescent shit was, it sure as shit wasn't vomit.
  6770. "Th-the fuck...?"
  6771. >"My thoughts exactly! What's this all about?!"
  6772. >"We can discuss that later. Can you stand, Otherworldly Anonymous?"
  6773. "I..."
  6774. >Yeah, you sure can.
  6775. >Not a trace of the shakes to be found, and your head feels clear.
  6776. >As you reach your full height, your eyes settle over the absolute carnage wrought by the monsters, and their bodies.
  6777.  
  6778. >Jeeeeeesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, man...!
  6779. >"You look much better, Otherworldly Anonymous. Come, we can't rest on our laurels here."
  6780. >Can't rest on...?
  6781. >Oh fuck, that's right, these guys were the fucking backup!
  6782. >Yeah, you're back among the living now!
  6783. "Right. Let's get a move on."
  6784. >"Good answer. Vegter went ahead to rendezvous with--"
  6785. >"Wait, wait. Anon, what's that?"
  6786. "Huh?" you say, looking to where he was pointing.
  6787. >Yeah, he's pointing to where your axe was--
  6788. >Wait wait what the fuck?
  6789. >What happened to your fucking axe?!
  6790. >There's a puddle of molten metal on a stick where your axe used to be!
  6791. "The fuck, man?!"
  6792. >"Wasn't that your axe?"
  6793. "Yeah, what the hell--"
  6794. >The magnet.
  6795. "The magnet."
  6796. >"The magne--? Ohh, you're joking. Seriously?"
  6797. "What else could it be?"
  6798. >"Great, now it melts bucking adamantium, too? That would've been nice to know beforehoof!"
  6799. >No fucking kidding!
  6800. >"Please, language! I will find a replacement weapon for you while you are reequipped, Otherworldly Anonymous, but we must make haste."
  6801. >Well that's just great.
  6802. >You throw the now useless axe to the ground.
  6803. >Aw man, Crucible's gonna be fucking pissed.
  6804. >A few orders from Heerser later, and alchemists swarm in to take care of you, glimmers in their eyes and smiles on their faces in spite of everything.
  6805. >Once your war hammer is set down, they jump right into action, working with quick, practiced ease to replace everything you had on you.
  6806. >Wow, those bolts totally fucked up your clothes.
  6807. >In moments, your attire and potions are replaced, and they even set your staff back into place.
  6808. >Heerser, meanwhile, gives you a bill as a replacement weapon.
  6809. >Once that's stowed, and the war hammer and magnet are grabbed, you're ready to rock.
  6810.  
  6811. >"Vegter went ahead with his warriors to ensure the civilians are safe, and your friend has been sent to aid him. The two of them will reconnect with us soon, but in the meantime, we must make haste towards our attackers."
  6812. "And pray they don't send more of these damn things out way?"
  6813. >"Yes. Quickly, now! Every moment we waste means more lives are lost!"
  6814. >Doesn't need to tell you twice.
  6815. >You and Razor bolt off with him towards the plumes of smoke in the distance.
  6816. >Wait, you're not super-coffee'd up!
  6817. >Into your belt you reach to grab your--
  6818. >"Don't use that potion, Otherworldly Anonymous."
  6819. "What? Why not?"
  6820. >"I suspect that magnet of yours caused it to react quite poorly with your system. It is why I had to give you the purging brew."
  6821. "The hell? That doesn't make sense!"
  6822. >"I do not know the reasons behind why it happened. We can find somezebra more qualified to find the cause later. For now, you'll have to trust me."
  6823. >Fucking God damn it.
  6824. >Back into the belt it goes.
  6825. >That crystal walkie-talkie of his pulses again, and he answers as quick as ever.
  6826. >"Yes? Good, you found Vegter. Is the evacuation proceeding as planned? Good, good. Wait, who else joined you?"
  6827. >He almost stops in his tracks again with a little gasp.
  6828. >"Th-the exile? She is there?"
  6829. >Whoa, he looks really worried all of a sudden.
  6830. >"I-I see. Make haste with the evacuations, and reconnect with us as soon as you can!"
  6831. >His brow furrows, but the worry remains.
  6832. >"What? There are two attackers, you're certain?"
  6833. >Two of them are doing all of that?!
  6834. >"Damn. Do you know where they are? Yes? I see. And the other?"
  6835. >He's back to looking worried?
  6836. >"The other has been... following you?"
  6837. "What?"
  6838. >"Then do not let this other one catch up to--"
  6839.  
  6840. >Even from here, you could hear the sound of an explosion through the gem, and an explosion of dark purple magic rung out in the distance a split second later.
  6841. >A chill settles in your gut.
  6842. >"Hello? What happened?! The other assailant?! Damn it, hold on! We'll be right there!"
  6843. >He puts the gem away, and boy does he look even more fired up now.
  6844. "Are they okay--?"
  6845. >"We have to move, now!"
  6846. >Try as you might, you can't keep pace with Heerser, the big guy picking up some serious speed out of nowhere, moving like the fires of hell were on his ass.
  6847. "Hey, what the hell?"
  6848. >"Heerser, slow down!"
  6849. >He doesn't answer, and soon speeds out of earshot.
  6850. >"Buck, what's his deal?"
  6851. "No idea, man! Just keep going!"
  6852. >Without the potion, you're starting to get a bit winded from all this running.
  6853. >You're almost tempted to take another despite the advice, but the sight of one of those golems in front of you, complete with a small group of warriors, quickly pushes that thought out of your mind.
  6854. >Boy, you're glad these are on your side now!
  6855. >No, no time for that, you've gotta help Exact and the others--
  6856. >SMASH
  6857. >A glowing dark purple object smashes into the side of the golem's head, knocking it off balance and causing it to teeter and lose it's balance.
  6858. >Both you and Razor hit the brakes right as this happens, the warriors crying out and screaming about something incoming.
  6859. >That something rushes towards the warriors, too fast to make out.
  6860. >The speeding thing collides with the warriors head-on, two of them crying out in pain as it makes contact.
  6861. >Contact that doesn't last long as those two zebras are sent flying, their blood trailing behind them as they go.
  6862. >The grey-red blur leaps up towards the still falling golem, biting the object buried in it's head.
  6863. >That brief moment of stillness is enough to make it out as a zebra stallion.
  6864.  
  6865. >Kicking off of the golem's head and unfazed by the green lightning, it drops back towards the still scattering warriors, coming down with a dark purple glow.
  6866. >SCHWUNK-VRUUMMM
  6867. >A shockwave of dark purple magic radiates out from the point of impact, the warriors crying out in pain as the wave burns them far more than it does send them flying.
  6868. >The golem crashes to the ground a split second after the shockwave.
  6869. >Instantly, you get the bill ready, Razor heard readying up himself.
  6870. >Pulling the object out of the ground with disturbing ease, the zebra jumps a short distance back towards the golem, the object arcing overhead and glowing with that dark purple magic again.
  6871. >SCHWUNK-VRUUMMM
  6872. >A big energy blade fires out of the thing, ripping the golem's rocky belly open and spilling animus everywhere.
  6873. >Right away, you reach back and grab your staff with your left hand.
  6874. >Shortly after that display of power, the object slowly floats out of his mouth and stows itself across his back, revealing it to be some kind of giant curved sword, with dark purple glyphs of some kind etched onto it.
  6875. >One of the warriors, singed but still moving from the first shockwave, charges at the sword-slinging zebra.
  6876. >In one fluid motion, the zebra spins in place, punching the warrior in the chest with a loud, sickening CRACK, followed by the sound of a sword cutting into something with a wet SCHLICK.
  6877. >The warrior only gets to gasp before the hoof that punched him pulls to the side, a spray of blood following the hoof's motion.
  6878. >The reason why becomes immediately obvious.
  6879. >There was a wide serrated blade sticking out by nearly a foot from the zebra's hoof, strapped to his leg.
  6880. >That same blade came right back down, nearly bisecting the warrior from the sheer force of the impact it made, splattering it's wielder with the poor bastard's blood.
  6881.  
  6882. >Now you had a full view of who the guy was.
  6883. >Whoever the fuck this was, he was clad in some kind of armour made of both splint mail and pony or zebra bones, stained with blood both new and very, very old.
  6884. >His darkly smiling face chose that moment to aim itself your way.
  6885. >In that instant, his gleeful expression morphed to surprise as his eyes locked with your own.
  6886. >And scant seconds pass before his eyes damn near twinkle with delight, his open-mouthed surprise morphing to an excited smile.
  6887. >His pace is slow and deliberate as he walks towards the two of you.
  6888. >A warrior was splayed out across the ground in his path, groaning in pain.
  6889. >The zebra's expression doesn't change a bit as he steps on top of the downed warrior, bones heard cracking along with the poor bastard's cries.
  6890. >You train Riafalt on him, ready to blast his ass at the first sudden movement.
  6891. >Finally, he stops after about four yards, choosing to regard the pair of you in silence with a genuinely curious expression.
  6892. >Jesus, who the fuck is this guy?
  6893. >Even without the display of murder mere moments before, this guy just screamed 'serial killer'.
  6894. >It wasn't the left ear with a small chunk taken out, almost like it was bitten.
  6895. >It wasn't the mop of tangled, unstyled hair.
  6896. >It wasn't the scars along his neck, over his lip, and across his right eyebrow.
  6897. >No, it was the fucking look in his eyes.
  6898. >Then, as if he wasn't convinced he sold it hard enough, he starts to laugh.
  6899. >It began as a deep, hearty chuckle, in a smoother voice than you ever expected to hear come out of someone like this, but it soon grew into a full-on belly laugh, complete with his head thrown back.
  6900. >Neither you nor Razor says a thing, watching for any sudden moves.
  6901.  
  6902. >"It's not often I find myself impressed at first sight, human!"
  6903. >And he speaks English, too?!
  6904. >He smiles your way, genuine as can be.
  6905. >"I expected you to carry the look of a cowardly magician, or worse, the look of a filthy schemer, as with the other human! But you? No, you've the look of a warrior about you, human! An honest-to-ancestors warrior!"
  6906. >Another laugh comes tumbling out of him.
  6907. >"You cannot understand how relieving that is to see with my own eyes, human."
  6908. >His gaze points over towards Razor.
  6909. >"And you must be one of those 'thestrals'. I never would have imagined that an Equestrian, of all creatures, could have such a pleasing appearance."
  6910. >None of you say a word, just watching for sudden movements.
  6911. >"Hah! Put the weapons away, both of you. If I wanted to do battle with you, I would have done so already. No, I wanted this chance to speak to you, human."
  6912. >Wait, what?
  6913. >Is this guy seriously just going to talk?
  6914. >Yeah, that's not happening.
  6915. "That's nice, but I have some friends to save. So I'm gonna have to ask you to fuck right off."
  6916. >He only looks happier to hear you speak.
  6917. >"And a spine to match the bravery!"
  6918. "Plenty more where that came from. Now get out of my way."
  6919. >"No."
  6920. >Well, that was to the point, wasn't it?
  6921. >"We will not have a second chance to talk, human. Death comes on swift hooves for you this day, and I won't squander this chance to learn more about the one who caused that insufferable schemer so much trouble."
  6922. "And what if I don't want to talk?"
  6923. >"Then your companion will be the first to die," he says with a small smile, as casually as a talk about the weather.
  6924. >Razor growls slightly in response, and your own grip on your weapons tightens.
  6925.  
  6926. >Fuck, you're struggling to think of options right now.
  6927. >This guy just took out a fucking golem by himself, so he'd have to be the asshole who Heerser said took that first one out!
  6928. >Your weapons aren't good enough for this, and you don't know how well Riafalt is going to do against him.
  6929. >And with Razor around, that rules the magnet out!
  6930. >Fuck, fuck, fuck...!
  6931. >"Ahh, thinking of how best to attack, are we?"
  6932. >Hrk!
  6933. >"I'll spare you the effort, human. Neither you or this compatriot of yours stand a chance against me, and you both know that as well as I do."
  6934. >Come on, think of something!
  6935. "Then what's stopping you, huh?"
  6936. >Try as you might, you couldn't keep some of that nervousness out of your voice.
  6937. >Something about this guy was seriously giving you the creeps, and it wasn't because of the murdering!
  6938. >"Nervous, are we?"
  6939. >Agh!
  6940. >Nevermind, you found the reason right there!
  6941. >"Perfectly natural, human. But you needn't worry. So long as you entertain my desire to talk, neither you or your companion shall come to harm. On this, you have my word as a warrior."
  6942. >"Anon," Razor intones, sounding faintly nervous himself, "I think he's serious."
  6943. >The zebra looks slightly annoyed at Razor's interruption, but he quickly perks back up after looking his way for a few moments.
  6944. >"You're quite observant for an Equestrian."
  6945. >"It's my job."
  6946. >"And you too have the look of... Wait. No, not of a warrior, but a soldier. You're too stoic, too controlled to be a true warrior."
  6947. >Razor doesn't respond, but the zebra seems happy with that all the same, looking back to you.
  6948. >"You keep good company, human. Far better than the other one, for certain."
  6949. "I get the feeling you're not a big fan of the guy."
  6950. >"Oh, that's putting it mildly, human."
  6951. "Then what the hell are you doing out here if you hate him so much?"
  6952.  
  6953. >"I'd be happy to tell you, but only after you put your weapons away."
  6954. "This again? Not happening, pal."
  6955. >"Hah! You've made slow progress earning the trust of the Kunstenaars, haven't you?"
  6956. >The fuck...?!
  6957. >How is this guy reading you so well?!
  6958. >"It's a simple show of reciprocity, human. I have set aside my arms to speak freely. Now it is your turn."
  6959. >Oh God, doesn't that sound familiar?
  6960. >Whatever, you're not stupid enough to fall for--
  6961. >Wait, what the fuck's Razor doing, putting his weapon away?!
  6962. "Dude, what are you--?!"
  6963. >"Do what he says, Anon."
  6964. "But--"
  6965. >"Trust me."
  6966. >Razor's look is pointed, though not without it's own share of reluctant acceptance.
  6967. >Fucking God damn it.
  6968. >Slowly, with your eyes trained on the zebra the whole time, you sling the staff and bill across your back.
  6969. >"Thank you, human," he smiles, genuine as can be. "What is your name?"
  6970. "What do you care?"
  6971. >"Our opposition to one another is no reason to dispense with honour, human."
  6972. >Honour, really?
  6973. >Uhh...
  6974. >Wait, he's serious, isn't he?
  6975. >This psycho is actually being courteous?
  6976. >Shit.
  6977. >No options right now either way.
  6978. >Just roll with it for now.
  6979. "Anonymous."
  6980. >"Thank you," he smiles.
  6981. >Okay, he has no fucking right being this genuine.
  6982. >It might be more unnerving than the fucking murder spree he was just on.
  6983. >"I am the leader of the Bloedige Plaag, Insurgent Anonymous. My name is Veldheer."
  6984.  
  6985. @@@@@@@@
  6986.  
  6987. <...
  6988. >FZZWT-BANG
  6989. >The magic bolt detonates in mid-air, blocked by that annoying unicorn's tiny little precision shields again.
  6990. "You can't keep this up forever," you chortle, not even trying to hide the glee in your voice. "Make this easy on yourselves and just tell me what I want to know."
  6991. >Neither the unicorn nor his quartet of dirty, injured alchemists respond.
  6992. >FZZWT-BANG
  6993. >It's so funny, seeing him struggle to deflect shots that cost so little for you to fire.
  6994. >He's definitely got his reaction times and that unnatural precision on his side, but his actual magic capacity is low.
  6995. >His alchemists have to keep feeding him potions to keep his magical reserves topped up, and he's pushing his limits even there.
  6996. >But you?
  6997. >Ohh, with so much love stored away, you could do this for days, maybe even a week.
  6998. >FZZWT-BANG
  6999. >A luxury they don't have.
  7000. >FZZWT-BANG
  7001. >His powers weaken from the feedback, and he somehow avoids wincing.
  7002. >That's so cute.
  7003. >FZZWT-BANG
  7004. "So you'd prefer it if I ripped the answer out of you?"
  7005. >FZZWT-BANG
  7006. "Works for me," you grin.
  7007. >A trio of presences make themselves known to