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[RGRE] Rockets and Friendship

By Spooples
Created: 16th July 2021 09:31:33 PM
27th June 2022 04:41:54 AM

  1. >Be Furtive Wind.
  2. >Yep, /the/ Furtive Wind. Feel free to take a sec to pat yourself on the withers. The only thestral in Equestria with the teats and the sneaks to slip into captain Midnight Blossom’s personal grotto and snag that secret copy of Playfilly under her bed. The thestral whose luscious locks have virtually thrown many a Daydweller stallion into your bed.
  3. >/Yes, your dreams count! You're a thestral and all your dreams are lucid, so they count!/
  4. >But please! Hold your applause. Because right now you're working.
  5. >Refugees from Fillydelphia have been pouring in during the last week. Stories from the traumatized ponies range from “powerful wizard from another dimension pledges to tear Equestria asunder,” to “local colt discovers mare-level magic; whimsy up to dangerous levels.”
  6. >>"This is suspected to be related to the dimensional tempus-intervellum cascade detected three days ago over the Foal Mountains. The Elements of Harmony have already been dispatched. Furtive Wind, you are to be under the command of Midnight Blossom. You will keep tabs on the Elements, even though it’s completely unnecessary and they’re guaranteed to deus ex machina the problem away with their oh-so earned friendship magic, blah blah blah, I’m autistic but everypony’s too scared to tell me, my sister got all the flank genes."
  7. >At least, you’re pretty sure that’s how the debrief went. You started to zone out once the Elements were mentioned. The problems pretty much solve themselves when those mares are involved. But hey, at least you get to travel through the Equestrian wilderness in their stead!
  8. >Here’s hoping you can get some Daydweller steed to travel through your wilderness.
  9. >/Baddaboom!/
  10. >You so don’t sound like a virgin in your head.
  11. >You mentally sishoof yourself as you hop over a stone, quiet as a cave mouse. The sunlight peering through the odd gap in the green overhang never catches sight of you as you effortlessly make your way through the forest. With the rest of your team sleeping back at camp, it’s easy for you to remain of the shadows.
  12. >That ominous sound that woke you and your broodsisters is in for a serious surprise!
  13. >So what if Midnight said we should keep together and alternate watch until nightfall? Preemptively taking out whatever made that noise is just as good as keeping watch!
  14. >The best defense, good offense, something-something.
  15. /Thud!/
  16. >You freeze mid-step as your ears swivel to the direction of the sound.
  17. >That was close. About twenty cubits away. One o’clock.
  18. >Weaving through the forest to stick to the dark shadows, you slowly make your way to the source of the sound. Your tail flicks with anticipation and you find your teeth chittering excitedly.
  19. >You’re the sneakiest thestral on this side of the Bay. Nopony gets the drop on you. You're the one who gets the drop on Nopony!
  20. >You’re gonna be the best watcher Blossom’s ever worked with! Then maybe she won’t be too mad at you when you go hit on some Baltimarean colts.
  21. >/After/ the mission, of course!
  22. >She can be a bit of a joyless cuntwagon, aspiring to be part of Luna’s personal guard and all. Goddess, you remember her reaction to when you were just trying to lighten the mood a few hours back, when the Foal Mountains first came into view in the horizon; all ominous and magicky.
  23. >>/"Lips shut and eyes forward, Private."/
  24. >You wouldn’t hold it below her to get angry with a mare trying to score after a tough day’s work. Goddess, what's her problem with you anyways? You know how to follow orders!
  25. >…Shut up.
  26. >With a soundless hop over a hock-height stone and a slither into a hefty bush, your destination lies just ahead. Like your proud ancestors hunting the mighty moose-mice, you slowly peek through the bush to see--
  27. >/Zigga what?/
  28. >The swirling cloud of dark magic above the Foal Mountains is clearly visible now, through the large, circular clearing in the forest's overhang. The undergrowth below is also cleared away, leaving a smooth patch of grass and dirt to be soaked by the bright sunlight. What’s taken you so aback, however, is the fact that there’s a stallion in the clearing.
  29. >He’s turned away from you, standing tall and proud. His red coat gleams beautifully, and his earthy-brown mane seems to embrace the rays of sunlight in a fiery display. His tail—
  30. >/DAYUMMMMM DAUGHTER, look at those BUNS!/
  31. >The noble thoughts that reside in your head – ones like “Is this colt the source of the disturbances?” and “What’s he doing in the forest? Where are his mares?” – are replaced with… less noble thoughts.
  32. >Thoughts like, “I wonder how he’d look like in my bed, covered in sweat and all other manners of bodily fluids,” and, "Relax that Y-7 gland and lemme see the goods, colt."
  33. >You’re out of the bush and in the sunlight before you know it.
  34. >You feel that familiar tingling sensation in your chest whenever you're around stallions. Especially Daydwellers. The exotic type. But you're not going to stutter this time, no siree. You've got the upper hoof. You're a /Night Guard/ now for Goddess' sake!
  35. >/...So, Wind. How’re you gonna do this?/
  36. >He still hasn’t noticed you. He’s also standing stock still. The poor dear must be deathly afraid, out here alone in these woods.
  37. >/That’s it!/
  38. >Give him a minor spook and come off as the suave, protective, adventurer type. You've seen it hundreds of times in…
  39. >…fiction.
  40. >The ol’ tap-them-on-the-rump-and-say-something-nonchalant-but-flirty. Never fails. In your dreams.
  41. >Literally.
  42. >The only question is, what should you say to him?
  43. >Colts are into that Stallionism stuff nowadays, aren’t they?
  44. >Normally you’d gag at the prospect of kissing up to a colt, but after Quickthistle got some stallion to try some very… primal things with her after a day of treating him with (gag) respect, you’re curious to see what the fuss is about.
  45. >…He still hasn’t noticed you.
  46. >/Alright Wind, get ready to respect the guano out of this stallion./
  47. >Heart pounding and giving your best rendition of a confident smirk, you raise your hoof and…
  48. /Tap tap./
  49. “Hey there, hot stuff," you coo with a well-practiced flick of your mane. "You look scared stiff. Need a burly Night Guard to protect yo--?”
  50. /Thump./
  51. >The cardboard cutout of a stallion’s backside flops to the ground, leaving you alone in the daylight.
  52. >/…Wha—/
  53. >”HUTAAAAAAAAAH!”
  54. >Before you could even think the words “I do not consent,” a weight suddenly crashes down onto your back.
  55. >You immediately start thrashing, bearing your fangs, and letting out a few totally marely squeaks. Red hooves – the same color as the cardboard cutout – cut in and out of your vision as you flail.
  56. >”I’VE GOT YOU NOW, YOU BAGUETTE-DEEPTHROATING SISSY!” a stallion’s gravelly voice booms in your ear as the weight struggles with you.
  57. “I DON’T REGULARLY DEEPTHROAT BAGUETTES! THAT WAS ONE TIME AS A FILLY!”
  58. >You snag something fleshy with the tooth of your wing before the stallion on top of you grunts, relenting enough for you to plant two back hooves underneath his barrel. Without thinking, you buck, sending the stallion careening into a tree.
  59. >/THUD!/
  60. >The stallion slumps to the ground on his back, unmoving.
  61. >As your nerves realize it wasn’t a rabid chimera on your back, rather a stallion, guilt floods your system.
  62. >With a quick flap of your wings, you’re by the limp stallion’s side.
  63. >Oh geez, you snagged him on his cheek. That’s gonna leave a scar.
  64. “Are you okay, mist--?” you begin, but are immediately cut off by the chimera-like scream of the stallion,
  65. >"SURPRISE ATTACK- OOMPH!”
  66. >The stallion below you lunges for you. He would’ve gotten you, too, if he hadn’t suddenly turned into a flailing blur of hooves and fur.
  67. >”WORK, DAMNIT!” the stallion yells to nopony in particular. “DAMN, FRILLY HORSIE HOOVES! WHY DO YOU REFUSE TO WORK?! PROBABLY COMMUNISTS! DAMN YOU, COMMUNIST HOOOOOVES!!”
  68. >The stallion struggles some more before eventually giving out, letting out a “harumph” as he lies on his back, eyes still glaring at you. All you can do is blink owlishly back at his indignant expression.
  69. >”Medic!” he abruptly shouts, giving another half-hearted flail.
  70. >No response, obviously. Your brain is too busy buffering to even attempt to comprehend the last few seconds of insanity.
  71. >”/…MEDIIIC!!/”
  72. >Once again, no response.
  73. >The stallion’s eyes suddenly widen, before what you guess is realization sets in.
  74. >”Oh, right…” he mutters to himself.
  75. >Whether it’s the sight of an emotionally distressed stallion, or a byproduct of your brain not working correctly, you slowly reach a hoof to the stallion.
  76. >Instead of taking it, he--
  77. >/...Zigga./
  78. >He SNARLS at you. Not a growl or a whimper, but a full-fledged, predatorial SNARL.
  79. >You’re surprised to see a set of canines among his flat teeth. Very exotic indeed.
  80. >He mutters something about “Operation: Surprise Attack” before slowly, carefully getting onto his hooves.
  81. >You don’t have time to recover from the fact that this colt just shrugged off something that would put most mares in a coma before he’s suddenly in your face.
  82. >The stallion’s icy blue eye -- the only thing in your vision right now -- is studying you. It doesn’t feel the same way as most stallions’ eyes do; it’s exact, sharp, and interrogating. It flicks this way and that, drinking in every detail of your face. The way he glares at you makes you feel a tingling sensation unlike any other tingling sensation a stallion’s gaze has tingled you.
  83. >/…Alright, Wind. Say it./
  84. >/You’ve been practicing this in a mirror—erm. SAVING this for a while now./
  85. >/Four words. Just say them./
  86. >/”Like what you see?”/
  87. >/It’s the perfect opportunity./
  88. >/IT’S THE PERFECT OPPORTUNITY DON’T LET IT SLIP STOP ACTING AUTISTIC HE’S OPENING HIS MOUTH SLOWLY—/
  89. >”What does the baguette feel when you cut it?” the stallion grits between his teeth.
  90. >/…What./
  91. >/Not "What?" Just "What." Not even a question at this point.
  92. >Through mareculean effort, you finally will yourself to take a step back. The stallion immediately follows you, his scrutinizing eye unmoving in your vision. ”What does the baguette /feel/,” he repeats with a tone that suggests you really, /really/ want to give him an answer. “…when you /cut it//?”
  93. “…I…" you stammer before a gulp sends you into agonizing silence. "...Don’t know?”
  94. >”…It feels pain." As if a switch had been flicked, the stallion suddenly rears back and lets loose a goodhearted cackle. "/PAIN!/ Haha! That's French for bread! It's a pun! Funny, isn’t it?! Worth a good laugh, wouldn’t you say?!”
  95. “I… don’t know.”
  96. >”LAUGH, YOU BAT-CANOODLING MUTT!!”
  97. >You eke out a forced chuckle that grates against your throat like sandpaper. This seems to give the stallion something to think about as he eases off, taking a step back. He stands tall above you, eyes narrowed but no longer aggressive.
  98. >/…Wait, when did you start sitting down?/
  99. >”Distinct lack of snorting and hon hon hon-ing,” the stallion mutters to himself, eyes still laser-focused on you, stuck in a paranoid dance. “Doesn’t smell of cigarettes and debauchery…”
  100. >/…He smelled you? Oh Luna, when was the last time you took a shower?/
  101. >”ANSWER ME /THIS/, MAGGOT!” the stallion bellows, immediately grabbing your full attention. As he speaks, he trots left and right, as if on patrol. “Let’s say a group of unruly, melanin-enriched gentlemen affiliated with a certain religion of peace wants to come into your home and bend your daughter over without her consent. Do you let them in with your blessing and a kiss on their feet, or—”
  102. >Quick as a whip and twice as snappy, he’s in your face once again.
  103. >”—/DO YOU PUT A STOP TO IT/?!”
  104. >/WHO IS THIS GROUP OF UNRULY, MELON-ENRICHED GENTLECOLTS AND HOW CAN YOU GET THEM TO BEND YOU OVER?!/
  105. "I-I-I’d put a stop to it!” you screech out instead.
  106. >As if a switch has been flicked, all suspicion and hostility leave the stallion.
  107. >All suspicion and hostility leave the stallion like air from a balloon. He gives a good-natured chuckle before rearing his hoof behind your back and--
  108. >[i]WHAM![/i]
  109. >Oh Luna, can he slap a mare on the back.
  110. >[i]Owie.[/i]
  111. >”Sorry for the scare, son!” the stallion says. Your ears have to swivel backwards to hear him from your stunned state. “Just making sure you weren’t French!”
  112. >/Wait, what's that, ears? He's walking past you?/
  113. >/…The buck’s a French?/
  114. >/Focus, Furtive Wind! This isn’t how a Night Guard is supposed to act!/
  115. >You shake your head and open your mouth to interject, but the stallion’s voice commands the stage.
  116. >”I’ve just been on the hunt for a certain Frenchie who loves the sight of a healthy back! You haven’t seen any Frenchies who love the sight of healthy backs, have you?”
  117. >/Heh. Damn straight his back is healthy--/
  118. >/BUCKING FOCUS./
  119. “...N-no,” you say meekly. You immediately put a stop to that stutter, clearing your throat. “Wait. Hey! Why’re you alone here, sir? And what’s a Frenchie?”
  120. >The stallion’s ear flicks, but he makes no other acknowledgement of you. Instead, he shakily leans down and picks up the cardboard cutout, staring down at it with vitriol—
  121. >He’s gonna start yelling again, isn’t he?
  122. >”YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO ATTRACT DIRTY FRENCHMEN!” the stallion yells, shaking it like an interrogation victim. “NOT CUTE BAT-PONY-LADIES! A FAMILY OF /BOXES/ WERE KILLED TO MAKE YOU! NOW THEY WILL BE AVENGED!”
  123. >/…He thinks you’re cute?/
  124. >KER-/BLAMO!/
  125. >In front of you now is just the stallion, standing on his back hooves, a brown mist of splinters and dust surrounding his head.
  126. >…He just headbutted a cardboard cutout into oblivion.
  127. >”Amen,” he nods to himself before elegantly and fluently dropping to all fours.
  128. >Just kidding.
  129. >He tries to drop to all fours, but instead flops onto the ground like a ragdoll. There’s a subtle bounce to his muscular frame that you can’t help but notice.
  130. >”Damnit!” he barks in frustration.
  131. >/…Alright, Wind, NOW’s your chance./
  132. >You approach the grumbling stallion and offer him a hoof. The stallion stares at it for slightly too long to not be called awkward before slapping his own hoof onto it. You help the stallion up – or, more accurately, heave him up using every muscle you can recruit at once – and he beams at you.
  133. >”Thanks for the assist, Bat-Lady-Horse!” he says cheerfully.
  134. “Um,” you start as you keep the instinctual urge to puff out your above average tuft, yes it’s above average, shut up Quickthistle. “My name is Furtive Wind. And I’m actually a thestral. But don’t worry! Lots of Daydwellers don’t know what we’re called. And it’s my pleasure, m’lord.”
  135. >And for a solid five seconds, your face is frozen in that stupid, friendly expression as you registered what just happened.
  136. >You just said m’lord out loud.
  137. >No need to make any witty remark or joke about that in your thoughts.
  138. >/You/ are the joke.
  139. >”Well, it’s been eventful, miss Passing Wind!” the stallion exclaims, “But now I gotta go make another cardboard cutout of my butt! That French bastard won’t know what hit him!”
  140. >Alright, no more games. He’s making his exit. Time to buck up, Furtive.
  141. >Buck up in the good way, not in the bad way—
  142. >/Shut up, brain. Start talking, mouth./
  143. “Wait a minute, sir," you susurrate, soundlessly swooping to the stallion's side. "Are you alone in these woods?”
  144. >The stallion turns toward you, tilting his head in adorable colty confusion.
  145. >”Of course not!” he exclaims as if it’s the most obvious thing in Equus. “My roommate’s here with me!”
  146. “Really?” you press, taking a step forward. “Where is she?”
  147. >”Him, actually! And there he is, up there in the spooky, magicky mountain!”
  148. >/...WHAT!/
  149. >/Exclamation point this time! IN ALL-CAPS!/
  150. >The stallion starts waving frantically at something you wish with every bone in your body isn’t what you think it is. But slowly, delicately, regretfully, you turn towards the Foal Mountains, still surrounded by ominous, dark magic; and realize your fear.
  151. >”HI, MERASMUS!” the stallion calls, although his voice is muffled under the thunderous sound of your heartbeat in your brain. “I SAW YOU FALLING THROUGH THAT PORTAL YOU MADE, SO I JUMPED IN TO KEEP YOU COMPANY! ISN'T THAT GREAT?!"
  152. >You’re not sure if it’s just your imagination, but the magical viscera around the mountain seems to cringe away at the stallion’s whimsy.
  153. >The stallion grins at you. ”He’s been really grumpy lately," he muses, "But I’m sure he’ll forgive me for the racoon-yogurt-teleporter incident soon enough. He’s a swell roommate! Whelp, toodles!”
  154. >The stallion once again makes a move to leave, but you reach forward and lay a hoof on his withers. His unbelievably muscular withers.
  155. "Wait, sir," you begin as the stallion turns back to you. “What's your name? And how long have you been in this forest? You know, it’s dangerous here.”
  156. >The stallion rolls his eyes upward as he mouths what you assume are numbers. After calculating, he finally says, ”Three days now! And my friends call me--”
  157. >You don't catch that last part. You're too busy recovering from the sudden pathological whiplash you've just experienced.
  158. >/Three days./
  159. >That’s enough time in isolation to make any stallion go crazy! No wonder he's acting so weird.
  160. >You need to get this stallion back to camp. Midnight would know how to get him situated.
  161. “Listen,” you say, unable to decide between sweetness or urgency. “I’m part of the Night Guard. Why don’t you follow me back to my team, and we’ll get you taken care of?”
  162. >”You’re part of a Guard?” the stallion says as he once again tilts his head. “A soldier, you mean?”
  163. >You nod, but that familiar tinge of smugness you feel whenever a colt gawks at your guardhood is muted by your concern.
  164. >The stallion's shoulders seem to deflate as he gives you a gentle smile. ”What’s your rank, son?” he asks.
  165. >The reverence from the stallion makes you take a step back. His blue eyes are calmer now, filled with a respect you never wouldn't expected from this whimsical colt.
  166. >/Does he have experience as a Guard?/
  167. >/Was he a Solar Guard?/
  168. >/...Ah. It’s starting to fall into place now./
  169. >/An ex-Solar Guard, suffering from PTSD, running away into the woods to escape from it all./
  170. You feel a swell of determination as you look this poor stallion in the eyes. ”I’m a Private right now,” you confirm.
  171. >He gives a slight smile, so different from his usually manic nature. That's a smile you could get used to. ”Oh-/ho/!" he exclaims with a heavy chuckle. "Those were the days! I remember when I was a Private. Well actually I don’t because I just skipped straight to the fun part, but I can still remember it if I try hard enough! I have a vivid imagination.”
  172. >/Oh Luna, it’s worse than you thought./
  173. >/Something horrifying must have happened while he was a Private. No. During his first mission! The reality of war, sweeping away his naïve, yet commendable ideals of making the world a better place.../
  174. >/He was so young... So innocent.../
  175. >/You want to hug him, but... perhaps the simple joy of a warm embrace from another pony has been tainted. Now he can only feel the way his dying comrade's body slowly lost her heat in his arms./
  176. You give the lost, in denial stallion your warmest smile as the sting of tears touch your eyes.
  177. “Hey” you coo, trying your best to hide your fangs from the diurnal colt. “It’s alright, mister… stallion. You don’t have to hide anything from me. I’m here to help.” You chuckle goodheartedly, and supposedly in a comforting manner. “I’m actually supposed to be on watch right now, so you can just follow me back to camp…”
  178. >It doesn't sound so noble when you say it like that, but--
  179. >”/YOU IRRESPONSIBLE, INSUBORDINATE BASTARD!/" the stallion's voice reverberates directly into your skull.
  180. >/Fwomp!/
  181. >You're on your ass, staring at the stallion as he's suddenly in your face once again with, "THAT WAS NOWHERE NEAR PROTOCOL! YOU DO NOT APPROACH AN UNKNOWN FROM BEHIND AND TAP THEIR SHOULDER LIKE SOME SHY SCHOOLGIRL! WHAT IF THEY WERE ARMED?! WHAT IF THEY WERE AN ENEMY?! AND HOW /DARE/ YOU LEAVE YOUR TEAM VULNERABLE WHILE YOU GO OFF AND PLAY THE HERO?!”
  182. “…A-bah-buh-duh /huh?/" your dumb ass stammers.
  183. >”STAND up straight!" the stallion commands. "PUFF your chest out like you’re PROUD to be an American!”
  184. >As if on cue, an eagle calls out in the distance. You're pretty sure eagles aren't native to this part of Equestria.
  185. >/No, wait, focus! Stallion or not, you can't let somepony talk to you like this!/
  186. >/Somepony that isn't Midnight Blossom, you mean!/
  187. "Now just wait a minute!” you start, but like a match being consumed by a roaring forest fire, the stallion’s voice overtakes your own.
  188. >”THAT WAS AN ORDER, PRIVATE! GET INTO PROPER FORM NOW, BEFORE I KICK YOUR TEETH SO FAR DOWN YOUR THROAT YOU’LL BE ABLE TO /LITERALLY/ EAT YOUR OWN SHIT!”
  189. >You stand up straight, puff your chest out, and are proud to be an American.
  190. >”Nevermind, scratch that!" he spits, "Just for your lack of etiquette, get down and start your disciplinary pushups!”
  191. >You give a silent prayer to Her Lunar Majesty as you get into position and start counting reps. Midnight always said you'd regret skimping out on physical training.
  192. >Meanwhile, the stallion hasn't stopped talking, and you haven't stopped paying attention like a good little recruit. ”NOW HERE IS WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN! YOU’RE GOING TO MARCH YOUR BAT-LADY-HORSE KIESTER UP TO YOUR HIGHER IN COMMAND AND EXPLAIN THAT YOU BROKE RANK AND APPROACHED AN UNKNOWN WITH RECKLESS ABANDON! THEN YOU WILL /BEG/ FOR FORGIVENESS, AND /OFFER/ TO CLEAN THE TOILETS AT BASE FOR THE NEXT MONTH! AND I’LL BE WATCHING YOU THE ENTIRE DAMN TIME! AND THEN YOU WILL STAND STILL WHILE I BRUSH AND BRAID YOUR HAIR, BECAUSE YOU ARE ONE OF THE MOST ADORABLE THINGS I’VE EVER SEEN, AND SEEING YOU GET HURT IN ANY WAY WOULD EMOTIONALLY DEVESATE ME! If you so much as have the slightest iota of a THOUGHT to lie about the affront to the God of War you’ve committed on this day, SOLDIER, I SWEAR TO THAT GOD I WILL STRANGLE YOU WITH YOUR OWN, FRILLY TRAINING BRA! DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?!”
  193. >/Knees heavy./
  194. >/Arms weak./
  195. >/Dad's spa-killme./
  196. >/You can't breathe./
  197. >/AYO ZIGGA YOU CAN’T BREATHE!/
  198. “ha... ha... Sir... yes sir!” you finally gasp out before dropping down for another rep.
  199. >The stallion gives a confused haw as his voice once again assaults you, ”LAST TIME I CHECKED I WASN’T A DEAF GRANDMOTHER, SO YOU MUST NOT BE TALKING LOUD ENOUGH! NOW ANSWER ME AGAIN, EARMUFFS! DO! I! MAKE! MY! SELF! CLEAR!”
  200. “I can… barely… breathe!”
  201. >”YOU CAN BREATHE AFTER YOU’VE ASSURED ME I’VE MADE MYSELF CLEAR!”
  202. >Why
  203. >Did
  204. >You
  205. >Skimp
  206. >Out
  207. >On
  208. >Physical
  209. >Training
  210. “Y--…" you hack up, quickly snapping your mouth shut so you don't vomit. "Y-you don’t know… how hard this is… colt…”
  211. >”NONSENSE, PRIVATE! I GOT BORED SINCE YOU WERE TAKING SO LONG, SO I’VE BEEN DOING PUSHUPS AS WELL! I’M ON MY HUNDREDTH ONE RIGHT NOW!”
  212. >You look up, blinking through the sweat and—oh.
  213. >/Oh./
  214. >/Oh, that's not fair./
  215. >/That has to be a hate crime, because that's just not bucking fair./
  216. >”ONE MORE TIME, PRIVATE!" the stallion roars, "DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?!”
  217. >Calling back upon your proud ancestors, you muster the will to take a deep breath and bellow out:
  218. “SIR YES SIR!”
  219. >The stallion lets out a proud cackle, throwing his weight from his forelegs onto all four. ”Outstanding, Private!" he says. "That's enough!"
  220. >You collapse onto the grass below.
  221. >/Our Mother, who art in Hasbro, copyrighted by thy name.../
  222. >"/NOW!/" the stallion yells, and that one word is enough to make your blood freeze. "Do as you’re ordered, Private, and don’t you ever THINK about pulling this crap again! FALL IN!"
  223. >And with that, the stallion turns around and starts marching.
  224. >Heaving like an obese unicorn who only does horn day, you shakily get to your hooves and fall in behind him.
  225. >You don’t have the heart to tell him he’s going in the opposite direction.
  226. >…Then again, you’re also face to face with his ass.
  227. >…
  228. >/Well, time to follow the captain's advice./
  229. >/Lips shut and eyes forward./
  230.  
  231.  
  232. >Be Midnight Blossom, Lunar Captain of the 31st Interdiurnal Night Guard Division.
  233. >…
  234. >That’s all for introductions. You’re not one to go off on a tangent in your own head.
  235. >You’re currently camped in the Hollow Shades, roughly 15 klicks north of your current objective.
  236. >The swirling viscera of the chaotic magic above the Foal Mountains is… concerning. Ominous even, some mares would say. But it serves as nice stimulation to occasionally look at through the canopy of trees, keeping your eyelids from drifting shut.
  237. >No hostiles to report. Just the odd cricket here or there chirping, and the gentle trickling of the nearby stream.
  238. >It’s peaceful, you guess. Objectively so.
  239. >You wouldn’t know, though. The many emotions boiling in your blood can be described by many words. Peaceful not among them.
  240. >You are going to kill Furtive Wind.
  241. >It’s not that she almost immediately abandoned her post while the rest of her team was vulnerable. It’s not that she made you pick up the slack and stand watch for four hours in the exhausting afternoon sun.
  242. >Tartarus, it’s not even that she planted that erotic magazine in your grotto only to immediately steal it back and start those rumors.
  243. >Which you were not mad about.
  244. >At all.
  245. >It’s because she made you feel an emotion you absolutely hated.
  246. >You tilt your head upwards and gaze into the purple, star-studded sky. An hour more, and it’ll be time to leave. And she still isn’t back.
  247. >Going off to look for Wind isn’t an option; at least, sending a chunk of your team big enough to make an effective search party isn’t an option. You need every mare you can get for this mission, and with how meticulously you and your team had moved behind the Elements, you can’t risk any setbacks. Just one more flight, and you’d be at the Foal Mountains just before the Elements were scheduled to arrive.
  248. >You personally aren’t sure why you’re supposed to remain hidden from the Elements. The more numbers they had on their side, the more likely they were to achieve their goal, you figure. Still, like every time before, Princess Luna had been adamant that you support from out of sight.
  249. >That’s enough for you.
  250. >...Would you have to mount a search party /after/ the mission? That would be a nightmare. The mares tend to get insubordinate after missions, wanting to go off into the nearest town to blow off some steam. One guess as to what that implies.
  251. >”I’M A PRETTY PONY, SHORT AND STOUT!”
  252. >”I’m a pretty… pony… short and… stout…”
  253. >Your ears twitch as a pair of distant voices echo through the forest. A hopeful smile twitches at the corners of your lips, but you stop that dead in its tracks.
  254. >”YOU INSULT MY HAT AND YOU’LL HEAR ME SHOUT!”
  255. >”You insult… hah… shout…”
  256. >One of them is definitely Furtive Wind, but who’s the other?
  257. >”HERE IS MY MUZZLE, HERE IS MY SNOUT!”
  258. >”Muzzle… hah… hah… snout…”
  259. >…Oh, great.
  260. >A stallion.
  261. >”IF YOU BOOP ME ON THE SNOOT THEN I WILL POUT!”
  262. >”…buck me up the ponut with a cactus…”
  263. >And from the sound of things, he’s a particularly vexing one.
  264. >Yes, vexing. Whimsical is a word lovestruck schoolfillies and virtue signaling cowards use.
  265. >You remain silent as the sound of panting, chanting, and foliage parting draw closer. Eventually, two ponies emerge from the green-golden haze of the forest.
  266. >One of them is the mare of the hour herself, drenched in sweat and plant life unlucky enough to be stuck to her coat. The other, you don’t recognize.
  267. >As the two draw near enough to see you, you don’t make a move, regarding them with a cold gaze. Furtive Wind locks eyes with you and immediately freezes.
  268. >You can’t help but smirk. You love it when they know they bucked up. Makes that slow, guilty walk to you all the more—
  269. >”waaaahhh-YAAAAAAAGHHHH!”
  270. >The bastard child of an injured animal’s screech and an orgasmic moan escapes Furtive Wind’s mouth as she leaps forward and grovels at your hooves.
  271. >”I’M SO~O~O~ORRYY FOR ABANDONING MY POST!” she wails between looking up at you and kissing your hooves. “I’LL CLEAN THE TOILETS FOR THE NEXT MONTH! MOON ABOVE, I’LL CLEAN THEM FOR THE NEXT YEAR! JUST PLEASE, NO MORE DISCIPLINARY PHYSICAL TRAINI~I~I~ING!”
  272. >Your attempt to save a small smidge of the mare’s dignity by moving your hooves away from her smooching lips is only met with Furtive collapsing into the fetal position.
  273. >”Oh, sayyy can you seeee,” you hear her whisper to herself. “By the dawn’s early light…”
  274. >You tentatively reach a hoof out to the shaking mare’s head. However, since her mane is drenched with sweat, dirt, and sap, you opt to just paw the air above her mane.
  275. “…There there, Private Furtive Wind.”
  276. >”THAT’S your name, Private?!” the stallion commands, earning a flinch and a frantic nod from Furtive. “My God! I thought I just misheard you the first time, and I was too embarrassed to ask for clarification! My apologies, Farting Wind!”
  277. >Furtive Wind makes a sound that you guess a pony could make… if you really stretched the imagination.
  278. >”Alright, back to business!" the stallion exclaims, puffing his chest out and stamping a hoof in the dirt. "ATTENNNNNN-/TION!/”
  279. >A few surprised squeaks and some annoyed chittering from behind tells you the rest of your team has just woken up. Furtive Wind, meanwhile, lets out a choked sob before shakily getting up on her hooves and into proper form.
  280. >…Did Furtive Wind just follow an order? The first time?
  281. >”MA’AM," the stallion shoots off without taking a breath, "PRIVATE FARTING WIND HAS SOMETHING SHE’D LIKE TO DISCLOSE CONCERNING HER DISAPPEARANCE FROM HER POST! ALTHOUGH, BEFORE SHE STARTS, I BELIEVE IT IS WORTH NOTING THAT HER DISCIPLINARY PUSHUPS AND IMMEDIATE SUPERSET WITH A TEN-MILE HIKE, FOR WHICH THE NEED OF REST PUNISHABLE WITH FIFTY BURPEES, HAVE ALREADY BEEN COMPLETED! HER MANE IS LUSTROUS WITH SWEAT AND FRAGANT WITH THE SWEET STENCH OF HARD WORK AND DEDICATION! I ALSO REQUEST THAT SOMEBODY TEACH ME HOW TO DELICATELY AND ADEPTLY BRAID A PRETTY PONY’S MANE WITH HOOVES! MA’AM!”
  282. >The stallion salutes you, Furtive Wind immediately following suit with a thousand-yard stare that would give most veterans a run for their bits.
  283. >As Furtive Wind explains herself and the situation, you eye the red stallion beside her.
  284. >He certainly talks like a soldier.
  285. >You didn’t know affirmative action held such a grip on the Solar Guard they’d put stallions in field roles.
  286. >Oh well. Night Guards: 1. Solar Guards: 0.
  287. >As the minutes tick by and you’re enlightened by Furtive Wind’s exploits, the stallion beside her doesn’t move an inch. You’d be impressed by his dedication if you weren’t too busy being suspicious of everything else.
  288. >”…And that’s when he told me ‘no man left behind!’ and picked me up, and I thought he’d keep hiking with me on his back, but he /instead started doing weighted pushups and/—"
  289. “Thank you,” you interrupt her, holding the stallion’s neutral gaze. “That’ll be all. You are excused… Farting Wind.”
  290. >The traumatized mare lets out a high pitched “g’uh!” before scrambling into camp, probably dead set on catching whatever morsel of sleep she can pry before nightfall.
  291. >”She’s a good kid!” the stallion chuckles deeply before walking past you into camp.
  292. >Or, attempting to walk past you into camp. You put a hoof up against his chest and stop his advance, earning a tilted head from the stallion.
  293. “Name, rank, and intention?” you say coldly, keeping the stallion at bay.
  294. >The stallion taps his chin thoughtfully before he suddenly brightens up. Daydwellers really were too expressive for their own good. Well, makes catching them in a lie all the easier.
  295. >”Soldier, soldier, and I want to say hi to my roommate!” he shoots off, pointing towards the Foal Mountains.
  296. You blink, your hoof retracting from his chest. “What," you say, more like a reflex than a legitimate question.
  297. >”Why hell-/o/, handsome!” a voice coos from behind, and you have to resist the urge to roll your eyes.
  298. >”Handsome?” the stallion ponders, before his eyes widen. “Handsome! PRETTY BOY! /SPY!/ WHERE IS HE?!”
  299. >The stallion whips his head this way and that before it snaps toward the approaching mare. As sickeningly smooth as a snake, Specialist Quickthistle saunters in from your peripheral. Your fur feels cold as she slides in from beside you.
  300. >Oh look. She’s already done her makeup. You’d be surprised if she doesn’t sleep in it just for an occasion such as this.
  301. >”Aww, he’s playing the oblivious role!” Quickthistle susurrates as she circles the stallion like the vulture she is. “It looks like Furtive Wind finally contributed something of value to the team. I, for one, would be /happy/ to help this poor stallion. How about you, Midnight Blossom?”
  302. >You really… /really/ don’t need this right now.
  303. “Quickthistle,” you say hard enough to make her stop her gait. She peers at you with those annoying, flirty azure eyes. “Stallion or not, he’s an Unknown. And we have a strict schedule to keep with to stay ahead of the Elements. We can’t waste our time babysitting.”
  304. >”But isn’t protecting civilians part of being a Guard?” she asks.
  305. >You narrow your eyes. If she’s referring to what you think she’s referring to…
  306. >A hoof on your withers makes your wings give an instinctual flap.
  307. >”Quickthistle,” another voice cuts in from behind. “Take the colt into camp. There’s still an hour left until nightfall. We’ll decide what to do with him until then.”
  308. >”Oh, but don’t I need my /captain’s/ permission?” Quickthistle sneers, giving you a face that you wouldn’t mind one bit punching the moonlight out of.
  309. “Take the damn colt into camp,” you mutter.
  310. >Quickthistle gives a squee that grates on your ears before escorting the stallion into camp. ”Come with me, handsome. It's okay now. Let this brave group of mares take care of you.”
  311. >”Wait,” the stallion suddenly mutters. “Were you referring to me this whole time?”
  312. >You could practically hear the lecherous smile spreading across Quickthistle’s face--
  313. >“I AM /NOT/ HANDSOME!" the stallion roars, making every thestral in the camp jump. "NOR AM I A CIVILIAN! I AM BATTLE-HARDENED! SCARRED! BURLY! RRRREADY AND WILLING TO THROW DOWN! DO YOU TAKE ME FOR SOME PRETTY BOY-FRENCHIE-BASTARD?! DO YOU TAKE ME AS SOME PRISSY, /DOMESTICATED/ LITTLE PONY?! A FOAL THAT COWERS AWAY FROM THE HUNTER?! NO! I STARE THE HUNTER DIRECTLY IN THE EYES AND /DARE/ HIM TO PULL THE TRIGGER! I ENGAGE IN HONORABLE /BATTLE/ WITH MY PREPUBESCENT GIRL OWNER! BY GOD, LADY, IF THE NEXT WORDS THAT COME OUT OF YOUR MOUTH ARE ANYTHING BESIDES, ‘MY SINCEREST APOLOGIES, SIR! WOULD YOU ACCEPT A HOOFSHINING AS ADEQUATE COMPENSATION FOR THIS GRAVE, GRAVE GRIEVANCE?’ YOU AND I ARE GOING TO HAVE A /HELL/ OF A PROBLEM!”
  314. >If anypony else wasn’t awake in the camp, they sure as the Moon above are now.
  315. >The sight of Quickthistle on her rump, eyes as wide as saucers, definitely woke you up.
  316. >The stallion gives a gruff huff before marching past the dazed mare, into the camp.
  317. >”You know you should’ve immediately let him in," the mare at your side says.
  318. You give her a glare. “I repeat,” you enunciate to Silhouette like an older thestral teaching a pup to avoid biting her lips while speaking Ponish. “Unknown. Strict schedule. And how are we even supposed to help him, Sillow? The nearest town is Baltimare, and the influx of Baltimarean refugees back at Canterlot doesn’t scream ‘safe place.’”
  319. >”…Well, he’s still a stallion” she concedes. “We should at least try to help him.”
  320. >A spike of anger stabs at your chest.
  321. “Buck off,” you grunt, brushing the mare off as you trot into camp. “You’ll be on watch for the rest of dusk. I’m going to go handle this colt.”
  322. >”You can’t get this mad every time!” Sillow calls from behind.
  323. >You half expect her to finish that sentence with "or you'll never get a stallion," but by the grace of the Moon, she grants you mercy.
  324. >You ignore Silhouette as you trot into camp. The rest of the mares are now awake, inspecting the newcomer a little too closely and giving you questioning glances. Everypony except Furtive Wind, of course. She’s fast asleep, upside down from her branch of choice.
  325. >”Hello, everyone!” the stallion grabs everypony’s attention with a big smile and a wave. “Apparently I’m here to be rescued by you!”
  326. “That has yet to be decided,” you warn as you approach the stallion.
  327. >”Oh, thank God!” he chuckles. “I’m not very good at playing the rescuee! Hell, I’m not even good at playing the rescuer! I’m usually the one people are getting rescued /from!/”
  328. >One by one, each pair of eyes shift from the stallion to you, with various levels of incredulousness. You see Quickthistle in the crowd… barely. She’s currently hiding behind Serendipity.
  329. >Speaking of Serendipity:
  330. >”…A-are we going to be… /escorting/ this stallion, Captain?” she squeaks, and you grimace at the hopeful tone of her voice. “Aren’t we supposed to get to the Foal Mountains before midnight?”
  331. >Serendipity glances back towards the mountains in the distance, looming over the camp like a silent predator.
  332. >You narrow your eyes as you think. Now’s the time to come to a decision, Midnigh—
  333. >”Ohhhh, /THOSE/ are the Foal Mountains!” the stallion exclaims. “I was headed there anyways to pay my good ol’ roommate a visit!”
  334. “Your… roommate?”
  335. >”Yep! Ol’ Merasmus! He’s an evil wizard whose diabolical machinations threaten all who he deems worthy of the eternal embrace of death! Isn’t that neat?”
  336. >You narrow your eyes. That same, stupid grin on the stallion’s face is looking more and more punchable by the second.
  337. "You have a vivid imagination, I'll give you that," you murmur.
  338. >“Imagination?" the stallion asks innocently. "I assure you my roommate is as real as those pointy fangs sticking out of your mouth, Captain Mid-height Bosom!"
  339. >This earns a few giggles from your team. You quickly silence that with a glare.
  340. “Midnight…” you enunciate, leaning so close your muzzles are almost touching. “…Blossom. And you?”
  341. >”I already told you!” he exclaims. “Soldier!”
  342. >This is bucking infuriating.
  343. >You don’t have time for this.
  344. >Everypony here might go out of their way to /make/ time for a stallion like this, but not you.
  345. “Okay, /Soldier,/” you spit. “…What’s your rank?”
  346. >”Also Soldier!” is his chipper response, and you have to physically restrain yourself from rearing back and punching this colt right on his Luna-damn, colt cheek. The rising laughter from your team certainly isn’t helping. ”You see, after I applied at the recruiting station, they told me I was MENTALLY UNFIT TO HOLD A RIFLE! CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?! They didn’t even run any tests! Said they didn’t need to; their brief ‘encounter’ with me was enough to decide on the spot! Well, how the Hell was I supposed to know that maggot behind the counter with a German accent wasn’t a Nazi scumbag?! And what the Hell’s an inter-national diplomat, for that matter?! Anywho, you know what I did? I bought a plane ticket to Germany with all of my life savings, and a life threat to the conductor, and starting killing those sons-a-bitches on my own time! I DID IT SO WELL AND FOR SO LONG, I WAS STILL KILLING GERMANS FIVE YEARS AFTER THE WAR! I DON’T SPEAK GERMAN SO I NEVER GOT THE MEMO! And by God, if that doesn’t earn me the rank of Soldier, I don’t know what does! Gee, miss Bosom, you’re really red in the face! Are you alright?”
  347. >Your team – your team of traitors -- are a mess of laughing, whooping thestrals.
  348. “…Calm down, Midnight,” you breathe out, closing your eyes. “We are on a mission... We are going to beat the Elements of Harmony to the Foal Mountains… before they arrive and the conflict starts—"
  349. >“CONFLICT?!" the stallion shrieks like a stallion because he's an annoying bucking stallion. "There’s CONFLICT going on here?! And you’re headed straight for it?! WELL WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SO?! THAT SOLVES BOTH OF OUR PROBLEMS! I’ll just accompany you mares while we make the hike to the Foal Mountains, and I can help out with Merasmus!”
  350. “NO. IT WON’T BE A HIKE. WE WILL FLY. AND YOU WOULD SLOW US DOWN.”
  351. >”Aw, come on! You frilly mares could /USE/ somebody with some war-time experience!”
  352. >Time slows. You start seeing red. Your eye starts twitching.
  353. >Disrespecting the Night Guard.
  354. >Not disclosing his identity.
  355. >Making light of a magical disaster that has left thousands homeless.
  356. >/Stolen Valor./
  357. >And every Luna-damn mare in your team is laughing.
  358. >They’re laughing. He’s disrespecting everything you’ve worked for and they’re laughing.
  359. >Everypony’s laughing… but you.
  360. >This is all too familiar.
  361. >You slam your hoof into the ground, showering the stallion’s chest with dirt. You bare your fangs and spread your wings, your hackles raised and eyes slitted.
  362. “/Nnuelg’un’,/” you declare.
  363. >The transformation from jovial laughter to silence takes a few seconds longer than would be considered respectful. Definitely longer than the last time you challenged somepony to a duel.
  364. >You aren’t surprised. Thestrals are so… gentrified nowadays. Maybe these mares were so gentrified they didn’t even know their mother tongue. Maybe they didn’t even recognize the significance of the /Nnuelg’un’./
  365. >Doesn’t matter. This is between you and him.
  366. “/Ite ngung Nnuelg’un’,/” you finish the formal challenge.
  367. >Your jaw muscles catch a momentary break from the constant shifting and angling to avoid stabbing your mouth with your fangs. You’ve always preferred Thestralian to Ponish because of this, and you would gladly speak your mother tongue for the rest of your life if you could.
  368. >But now it’s time to switch back so this cretin can understand.
  369. ”I challenge you to /Nnuelg’un’,/” you announce, raising your voice so everypony understands you, /crystal. Clear./ “An amagical duel, until one of us is rendered unfit or unwilling to continue.”
  370. >”Captain, you lecherous /mare!/” Quickthistle cheers from somewhere out of your focus. “I always knew you were the type to wrestle a stallion to the ground!”
  371. >Ah, there it is.
  372. >It took them a while to bring it up.
  373. >It all comes back to bucking stallions.
  374. >Stallions. Whom your life was supposed to revolve around. Your only aspiration as a mare, you’ve been told since birth.
  375. >Never told directly, of course. Ponies are too cowardly for that. They prefer to say it indirectly:
  376. >“Wow, you’re really strong, Midnight! But stallions don’t like bulky mares, you know.”
  377. >“Why’re you aiming so high in the ranks, Blossom? You make enough already to support a stallion!”
  378. >“I’m sorry I couldn’t make the funeral, Blossom. His family needed comforting. I mean, could you imagine losing a son?”
  379. >“Hey, it’s alright, Blossom. We all feel down sometimes. But don’t let any of those stallions at the academy see you crying!”
  380. >You hated it.
  381. >By Luna, you hated it.
  382. >You want nothing to do with stallions anymore. One had been enough.
  383. >You don’t have to justify anything.
  384. >You’re going to knock this Daydweller, sun-bucking /redback’s/ teeth out of his skull.
  385. “If I win,” you continue lowly, drinking in the stallion’s suddenly wide-eyed reaction. He talks big game, but he’s probably never even chipped a hoof. You wouldn’t be surprised if that scar on his cheek were cosmetic. “You turn tail and find your way to the nearest town on your own.--”
  386. >You give the few mares who voice their objections a glare, shutting them up, before continuing.
  387. >/Yeah, he talks big game, but you figure all it'd take for him to crumble is to witness real soldiers working./
  388. “—If you win, you can accompany us on our mission. Do you—”
  389. >”YES!”
  390. >…What?
  391. >”YES! YES! A MILLION TIMES, YES!” the stallion screeches and bounces up and down like he’d just been proposed to. “I’VE BEEN /ITCHING/ FOR A GOOD FIGHT! This new body is DISGUSTING! Not a battle scar in SIGHT!” The stallion catches a glimpse of himself through the stream, and zips over the surface of the water, glaring down at his reflection. “Spotless! Well-kept! Absolutely disgraceful-- Hey, look! A scar!”
  392. >The stallion… is laughing.
  393. >Manically so.
  394. >He turns back to you—no, wait, somepony behind you.
  395. >”THANKS FOR THE SCAR ON MY CHEEK, PRIVATE FARTING WIND!”
  396. >If Furtive Wind could see the many death glares being sent her way right now, she’d probably melt into the floor.
  397. >Luckily for her, she’s out like a light, snoring raucously and giggling in her sleep.
  398. >You turn back to the stallion, who—
  399. >/Oooooooh, you don’t like the way he’s looking at you./
  400. “…T-tradition states that the challengee is the one who picks the time and place,” you say, cursing yourself for the stutter. “I’d prefer to get this over with as soon as—”
  401. >”RIGHT HERE IN THREE SECONDS THREE-TWO-ONE GO!”
  402. >He’s on top of you.
  403. >He’s not rearing back to charge, he’s not galloping towards you, he’s just… immediately on top of your barrel, your back is pressed against the dirt, and you feel woefully dizzy.
  404. >…and now he looks unsure of what to do.
  405. >”HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO GRAB YOU WITH THESE DAMN, COMMIE HOOOOOOOOOVES?!” he screams at the sky.
  406. >You quickly recover from the stallion’s speed and use your gaskin to knee the colt’s backside. He loses his balance and topples over you, shooting out his front hooves for support.
  407. >Your own front hooves immediately snake around his right elbow and you jerk it to the ground.
  408. >/These mares around you have spent their entire lives idolizing stallions./
  409. >He grunts as you wrap your back hooves around his back, rocking to the side to topple him into an immediate submission.
  410. >/They’ve spent most of their years learning how to woo stallions, how to care for stallions, how to defend stallions’ honor./
  411. >The stallion is steadfast however, and he gives out a war cry as he, using nothing but his lower body strength, picks up you and slams you into the dirt. You lose your grip on his arm.
  412. >/Quickthistle was probably the worst of them. She wore her unbearable, flirtatious ways on her sleeve like a Luna-damn medal./
  413. >The stallion beats his chest like an ape before tackling you in a mass of uncoordinated hooves and fur. His mass and power is enough to get you back on the ground, but you use his momentum against him, rolling with it until you lay on top of him.
  414. >/But not you. You’re sick of it. You’ve been sick of it for a long time./
  415. >You immediately get to work, pushing the side of your head into his own as you lay punch after punch into his gut. He tries to throw a jab to your face, but the awkward angle has left him sans momentum.
  416. >/You’ve been sick of it ever since you were left alone in that Luna-damn grotto, freshly bereaved. While everypony else was out comforting the stallion’s family, you were left to fester in your own bitterness and grief./
  417. >A powerful knee to your side knocks the wind out of you before the stallion grabs you by the mane and throws you over his head. You crash into the dirt before immediately crouching back up in a combat stance.
  418. >/You put everything on the line to protect him, but in the end it didn’t matter. You failed to protect your stallion. Your herd had failed. You were no longer an alpha./
  419. >The stallion once again barrels into you, but he’s become predictable. You dodge out of the way, using the tooth of your wing to snag him by the ear. But instead of immediately relenting, the stallion instead pulls through, your tooth tearing through his ear like a knife through butter.
  420. >/You were no longer a mare./
  421. >He doesn’t even let out a grunt of pain as he whips around, staring you down. Crimson liquid oozes from his destroyed ear, leaving a few rivers of blood to trail down the side of his face. You merely regard this with a begrudging respect to his pain tolerance.
  422. >/In all your years, Luna had been the only mare to show an ounce of compassion for your situation. Having felt your pain through dreams, and having lived through the Olde Times as well, when stallions were as plentiful and hardy as mares. She understood./
  423. >The stallion charges.
  424. >/You were going to beat this stallion. You were going to whip these pathetic mares into shape. You were going to work your way up the lunar ladder, and you were going to reward Luna for her compassion with the best personal guard she’s ever worked with!/
  425. >You charge as well.
  426.  
  427. ~~~
  428.  
  429. >You lost.
  430. >It’s hard to think of anything else.
  431. >You lost, and now you’ve got some stallion you don’t even know the name of following you into a potentially life-threatening situation, involving the six most important ponies in Equestria, surrounded by thirsty bat mares.
  432. >…Well, he wasn’t helpless, you’ll admit.
  433. >Stallion can fight.
  434. >Or, rather, can run in screaming and flailing his limbs, occasionally getting the odd, powerful punch in. He’s unpredictable that way.
  435. >So, he… /can’t/ fight, and that’s how he… /can/ fight.
  436. >It’s confusing when you put it that way.
  437. >You don’t know if you even want to try to rationalize how you lost. Would it be more embarrassing that you lost to a stallion who couldn’t fight, or that a stallion could fight better than you at all?
  438. >…Look at you, going off on a tangent in your own head.
  439. >You let out a snort, sending a cloud of warm vapor into the crisp night air. The sounds of the rest of your team shuffling into their armor, the natural symphony of nightlife, and a pair of hoofsteps approaching you from behind are the only sounds—
  440. >Buck.
  441. >”That was a wonderful fight, young lady!" a masculine, gravely voice rumbles. "Why, I haven’t had a challenge like that since I was a scrawny little kid, beating up on the neighborhood raccoon alphas! I refuse to elaborate. Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have any hedge clippers around here, would you? I’m putting the finishing touches on Furtive Wind’s mane! And don’t you worry, the other girls helped me out as well, and I've been told by them it’s a cultural haircut! She’s gonna be so excited when she wakes up!”
  442. >You resist the urge to gag, and turn away sullenly.
  443. >Why, out of all your team, did it have to be this. Bucking. Stallion.
  444. >Oh great, you’re already thinking of him as a member of the team.
  445. >…He can’t even fly. You’re all probably going to be late to the rendezvous. What the buck were you thinking?
  446. >”…My old man always said you never truly know someone until you fight them!”
  447. “Oh, really?” you feign interest. “Then who am I, oh Socially Fluent One?”
  448. >”Thank you! That’s the first time I’ve ever been called that!” ‘Soldier’ laughs.
  449. >…Yeah, no. You’re not calling him Soldier. That’s not his name.
  450. >”…Well, you’re a mare with something to prove!” the stallion finishes.
  451. You scoff. “Pretty pathetic, huh? Trying to prove myself by beating a colt.”
  452. >Silence pervades the conversation, THANK LUNA, and you go back to what you were doing.
  453. >Staring into the dark forest, festering in your own dark thoughts.
  454. >“I know—” the stallion beside you starts, but suddenly grows silent. “…knew a kid who fought just like you. He was a little guy, but he didn’t let that stop him from making a difference on the battlefield. It’s a quaint fighting style. Respectable. Like one of those main characters from those Japanese cartoons! Agh, what did Scout call it… Anime..? No, wrong one. Hontai? Hentoi?”
  455. “Can you just do me a bucking solid and tell me your Luna-damned name, /AT LEAST?/” you snap, whipping your head to stare at the stallion at your side.
  456. >The stallion’s eyes are… calmer than you’ve ever seen them.
  457. >”Sorry, ma’am,” he says with a reservedness you’d never expect from him. “I’ve been called ‘Soldier’ for so long I can’t even remember my real name! Tell ya what. If calling me by an occupation isn’t your style, you can just call me Jane Doe!”
  458. >Jane Doe…
  459. >You back off from the stallion, scanning his face for any signs of dishonesty. Daydwellers are always easy to read.
  460. >…No nervously looking away. No uneasy smile. No sudden sweat.
  461. >Either he’s telling the truth, or he’s secretly part-thestral.
  462. >Goddess, thestrals were good at lying.
  463. >Too good.
  464. >You sigh, shaking your head. This mission is going to be a disaster, you just know it. You’re going to be late, dragging this colt through the forest. Tartarus, if you’re /really/ unlucky the Elements will catch your team watching...
  465. >…That’s going to happen, isn’t it?
  466. >Regardless, this is your new set of circumstances, Midnight Blossom.
  467. >You don’t trust this Jane Doe. Not one bit.
  468. >But… he doesn’t seem like a bad stallion. A reckless, socially retarded, and /vexing/ stallion, but not a bad stallion.
  469. "…Doesn't that hurt?" you find yourself asking absentmindedly, gesturing to the lack of a top half of Jane’s right ear.
  470. >"Son, after enduring all kinds of horrible fates including but not limited to: burning to death, being decapitated, falling into an endless abyss, getting stabbed in the back, et cetera, you develop one /Hell/ of a pain resistance!"
  471. >…
  472. >You’ll ask him about that later.
  473. “…Well then,” you sigh, gazing towards the Foal Mountains. “Welcome to the team, Janefilly Doe.”
  474. >”HEY! Mispronouncing people’s names is very rude!”
  475. >You can’t help but look at this stallion, who you once despised with every bone in your body, and feel – maybe for the first time in a long time – genuine amusement.
  476. >Not the bitter, snide amusement you’re so used to.
  477. >But something kinder.
  478. >It’s not enough for a wholehearted laugh, of course. You’re still a Lunar Captain, and you still have to maintain your dignity.
  479. >But… a little snicker won’t hurt.
  480. >You turn back to the forest, mentally preparing for the trek ahead with renewed determination.
  481. >It won’t be easy, but you’re sure--
  482. >”WHO THE /BUCK/ SEWED A PINEAPPLE IN MY MANE?! /eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE/!!!”
  483.  
  484.  
  485. >You're pink.
  486. >You like parties.
  487. >You're a pony.
  488. >You're the most splenderrific pink party pony on this side of the Bay!
  489. >That's right, you're Ponka Pie!
  490. >And today, you're--
  491. >Hold on.
  492. >You're Panko Pa!
  493. >...You'rrrrrrrrrre Pankie Poe!
  494. >...Ponk!
  495. >PLOPPA POO!
  496. >PAINIS CUPCAKE!
  497. >ARGH!
  498. >IT'S DOING THAT THING AGAIN!
  499. >You turn towards one of your five bestest friends in Equestria.
  500. >The rapturous, resplendent, <insert R-word here> Rarity!
  501. >Who is currently covered in sweat and hasn’t stopped complaining about it for the last ten minutes!
  502. >You must test this phenomenon!
  503. "Hey, Rarity!" you say with the biggest grin you can muster.
  504. >"--and no matter /how/ much I asked Celestia she /still/ wouldn't just teleport us /closer/-- Oh. Yes, darling?"
  505. ".../Say my name./"
  506. >Rarity's face relaxes its metaphorical sphincter, going from grumpiness to bewilderment. "Um... Pinkie Pie?"
  507. ".../You're gosh darn right!/"
  508. >The spell is broken!
  509. >You cheer before grabbing Rarity into a suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuper tight and tooooooooooooooooootally platonic hug!
  510. >”Darling, please!” she screeches frantically. “I’m covered in sweat!”
  511. >You don’t care, because you’re Pinkie Pie!
  512. >And today, you and your five bestest friends have been sent to the Foal Mountains to take care of a magical disturbance that threatens the very fabric of your reality!
  513. >So, an average Thursday!
  514. >The hike up to the top of the mountains was super spooky, what with all the whirly, dark, magicky stuff swirling around you and the girls, but you all mared through.
  515. >Even if it took some longer than others. Well, nothing a little friendly motivation couldn’t fix!
  516. >Finally, you and Rarara turn a stony corner to reveal the rest of your friends, standing at the mouth of what looks like a cave. Fumes of dark magic bellow out from the cave ceiling like smoke from a chimney.
  517. >This is gonna be so much fun!
  518. >”Finally!” Rainbow Dash cheers before zipping over to the two of you. Bizarrely, this doesn’t draw the attention of the rest of your friends. “Pinkie and the /stallion/ are here! What took you guys so long?!”
  519. “Hey!” you say with a stomp of your hoof. “Rarity is not a stallion! At least physically!”
  520. >Rarity gives an indignant harumph, shooting her chin upwards. She’s lucky she doesn’t splash Dash with all that sweat on her face!
  521. >”Whatever,” Dash continues, looking back and forth between you and the cave entrance. “Speaking of stallion, you gotta check this out. Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
  522. >Not waiting for permission, Dash gets behind Rarity and starts pushing her backside towards the rest of the group.
  523. >”Wh—why, the /indecency!/” Rarity yelps as she tries to find purchase in the rocky ground. You merely giggle and bound after your two friends. “Unhoof me! I can walk just fine, Rainbow Dash!”
  524. >”Obviously not," Dashie giggles, "What with how long it took you to—”
  525. >”UNHOOF ME I SAY! THIS IS INCREDIBLY UNCOUTH! —What was that?”
  526. >As Rarity’s last bit of fight leaves her, your ears also perk from what you just heard. Judging by the mixed reactions of your friends, they also heard it.
  527. >”…Was that what Ah’ think it was?”
  528. >”This doesn’t make any logical sense! Why would a /stallion/ be in here? It’s way too dangerous! …Not to be sexist, or anything.”
  529. >”…He… was laughing?”
  530. >”Oh, that /poor dear!/” Rarity exclaims as she joins the group, courtesy of Rainbow Dash’s posterior-pushing. “He must be terrified! Why, if he’s so frazzled he’s laughing, he might be experiencing a panic attack! We must go in post-haste!”
  531. >”Now hold on a second!” Rainbow Dash chides. “You all heard how… /evil/ his laugh sounded, right?”
  532. >As your friends devolve into the all-too-familiar game of Let’s Guilt Trip Rainbow Dash for Not Being a White Knightess, which you would /totally/ be paying attention to right now, you hear the voice of another stallion! And this one is right behind you!
  533. >"What's the matter, ladies? The targets are right up ahead!"
  534. >"SHHHZIPIT!"
  535. >Your ears swivel to the direction of the voice and lead your eyes toooooooo....
  536. >That inexplicably shaking bush over there!
  537. >guessitwasjustthewind.wav
  538. >That, or the voices in your head your therapist told you were a side effect of schizophrenia. Whatever that is.
  539. >You giggle to yourself as you repeat that ridiculously silly word, turning back to your friends--
  540. >"What do you mean we're not going to attack?! I thought they were our targets!"
  541. >"THEYARENOT-- Just keep your voice down! Let me explain..."
  542. >HmmmmmmmmmmmmmMMMMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmm...
  543. >Your eyes narrow at the bush, which /juuuuust/ so happens to be shaking more intensely when you hear those voices.
  544. >Something seems...
  545. >...rather...
  546. >…
  547. >...sussy.
  548. >"A /TAILING/ MISSION?! ABSOLUTELY NOT! NEGATORY! I RE-/FUSEi/i]!"
  549. >Suddenly, the bush SPROUTS TWO RED LEGS AND IS WALKINGRIGHTTOWARDSYOU--
  550. >"Greetings, targets!" the bush exclaims. "We have come to--!”
  551. >zzZZ-WHAM!
  552. >A rainbow blur CRASHES right into that sucker!
  553. >Your cerulean friend and the sappy fiend tumble a good dozen cubits before skidding to a halt near the cliff's precipice, and--
  554. >HOLD YOUR ANCESTORS!
  555. >That's not a talking bush!
  556. >That's a stallion!
  557. >Who’s unconscious!
  558. >And being straddled by Rainbow Dash!
  559. >Rainbow Dash seems to make the realization just as you do, and you can see the tips of her ears reddening from all the way back here.
  560. >"Rainbow Dash!" Rarity is the first of your friends to recover from the initial shock. "Get off that poor colt right this insta--"
  561. >"SURPRISE ATTACK!" the stallion suddenly shouts, leaping up and wrapping his hooves around Dash's neck.
  562. >She lets out a sound that at first you swore was a squeaky toy caught in her throat as the stallion quickly turns the tables.
  563. >As in, turns the pegasus, upside down, her neck underneath him—
  564. >ASL;DKFJASKFJSADF HE’S SO BUCKING /CUTE!/ HE’S A CUTIE PATOOTIE! HE’S A HUNKA-HUNKABOLAGNALOO! A BIG OL’ TONHUNKGEREKOOGER!
  565. >"HAHA!" the stallion cries, pumping a hoof to the sky, sending delicious ripples throughout his muscular frame. "OPERATION: SURPRISE ATTACK! NEVER FAILS! NOT A WORD, FURTIVE WIND!"
  566. >A squeak draws your attention to where the bush once was, and you're surprised to see a gaggle of bat ponies!
  567. >No, gaggle wasn't the right word.
  568. >Herd? Flock? Colony?
  569. >Faggot?
  570. >A bunch!
  571. >Yeah, there’s a bunch of bat ponies all huddled together! Awww, how cute, with how they looked so exasperated, and that little squeak from the small one, and how that big one with the dark purple armor looks like she wants to rip out a puppy’s throat…
  572. >Oh, wow. That’s one angry bat. You hope Rainbow Dash didn’t hurt the poor colt.
  573. >”Wh—/who are you?!/” Twilight yelps as she immediately ignites her horn, engaging a luminescence spell which engulfs the entire precipice. The bats immediately recoil from the light, although the big one in front only squints slightly.
  574. >The Elements quickly spin towards the bat ponies, crouched defensively, hackles raised.
  575. >…Oh, right!
  576. >You were an Element too!
  577. >You also turn towards the bat ponies and /try/ to raise your hackles, but it’s harder than it looks.
  578. “Grrrrrrr,” you opt to growl instead, even if your intimidating façade falters every time you sneak a peak towards that hunka-hunka on top of your friend.
  579. >”We are here to stealthily watch and support you from the shadows!” the stallion proclaims proudly, still on top of Rainbow Dash, with a firm hold on her neck, whose face seems to be turning purple. “And you ladies must be the Helements of Armory!”
  580. >”Elements of Harmony,” AJ corrects absentmindedly. ”And that’s very nice, Sugarcube, but we’re talking to the mares. Go back to whatever you were doin’ before—”
  581. >”OH MY SWEET CELESTIA, WHO WAS THE BARBARIAN WHO SEWED A PINEAPPLE IN YOUR MANE?!”
  582. “YOU’RE REALLY ATTRACTIVE!” you also shout while Rarity’s shrill shriek provides a suitable cover.
  583. >”My ears!” Fluttershy squeaks.
  584. >C’mon, Flutters, you gotta get your head in the game if you wanna contend in these impromptu shouting matches!
  585. >”Do not pity me,” the smaller bat pony with the—oh, yep, that pineapple’s really in there—says neutrally. “I am already dead inside.”
  586. >The biggest bat pony with the armor cups her face with her front hooves before dragging them down, letting out an exhausted sigh.
  587. >Hey, your friends do that all the time when they’re around you!
  588. >”…Okay,” the bat eventually gets out. The luminescence spell glitters in her slitted, yellow eyes as she studies each of you in turn. “…Elements of Harmony, my name is Midnight Blossom. I’m the Lunar Captain of the 31st Interdiurnal Night Guard Division. This is my team. Vice-captain Silhouette, rear captain Moonlight Ambrosia, specialist Quickthistle, fangbearers Cerus Thorn and Serendipity, and private Furtive Wind. We’ve been sent by the Princess to support you and the Elements during—"
  589. >”P-Princess Celestia sent you?!” Twilight almost shouts, earning a raised eyebrow from Midnight and an uneasy glance from her friends. “…W-we don’t need your help! I’m fine with my six friends! And tell Celestia—err, /politely inform/ the Princess that the Elements of Harmony are entirely competent on their own! We are a serious and accomplished task force! --”
  590. >Midnight gives your group of goofy goobers a gardant gaze.
  591. >“-- There’s no reason to send reinforcements! Because reinforcements mean that something is going wrong, but if reinforcements are here without anything going wrong yet, thatjustmeansshe/expects/somethingtogowrongandifshe’sworriedthen/I’m/worried, and—"
  592. >”Princess Luna sent me, actually,” Midnight says, shutting Twilight up. You don’t miss the gleam of her fangs underneath that subtle smirk.
  593. >”…Oh!” Twilight says, her purple face gaining a shade of pink before she turns to the pony beside her. “…There’s such a thing as the Night Guard?”
  594. >Rarity is the pony beside her, and she’s too busy mourning the death of a fellow mare’s mane to notice Twilight’s question.
  595. >”Alright,” Applejack gains the attention of the bat ponies. She’s no longer on edge, but isn’t making any moves toward the mares. “Part of the Night Guard Ah’ can accept, but there’s still a lotta questions before you can jus’ up an’ join us on a dangerous mission. Like why in Celestia’s name do y’all have a /stallion/ followin’ you? And what in tarnation happened to his ear?!”
  596. >Yay, an excuse to cop a peak at your new reason for having lady bits!
  597. >AJ points a hoof at the stallion, still on top of Rainbow Dash, and /wow/ she’s really pale right now--
  598. >Oh, better put a stop to that.
  599. “Hey, mister!” you call out, and you can feel yourself smiling even wider when the stallion turns to lock eyes with you. “Could you stop strangling Rainbow Dash to death please? We sorta, kinda need her for the Elements of Harmony!”
  600. >”Oh!” the stallion cutely exclaims, hopping off of your friend. “My apologies, Rainbow Crash!”
  601. >O
  602. >O
  603. >F
  604. >As the flashbacks start playing in Dash’s eyes, the stallion trots back to his team of bats, undeterred by the glass-shattering glare Midnight shoots him.
  605. >”He is…” Midnight says almost painfully. “…Going to be joining us for this mission.”
  606. ”/WHAT?!/” all of you almost explode, before Midnight quickly follows up with:
  607. >”As a joint supervisor from the Solar Guard. His name is Jane Doe, a specialist from the Internocturnal Solar Guard Division. He won’t be causing any… /more/ trouble.”
  608. >Hmmmmmm…
  609. >Well, it certainly doesn’t look like she’s lying!
  610. >Plus he’s super buff and he took Rainbow Dash down like it was nothing…
  611. >Plus he’s also super cute andholyCelestiacanyoujustshoveyourfaceinmytuftrightnowplease--
  612. >”She’s lyin’,” Applejack says.
  613. >Aww!
  614. >Midnight Blossom narrows her eyes at the Element of Honesty, opening her mouth to say something else.
  615. >You never hear what she has to say, because that’s the moment Rarity utters probably the single worst thing she could’ve possibly uttered at this very moment.
  616. >”/La pauvre…/”
  617. >With speed that would make Rainbow Dash rainbow splash in her panties, Jane… /noclips/ across the stony floor to come face-to-face with Rarity.
  618. >Then, he leans forward.
  619. >Rarity, unsure of what to do, leans back.
  620. >Jane leans even more forward.
  621. >Rarity leans even further back, until—
  622. >Plop!
  623. >--Rarity is on her haunches, muzzle-to-muzzle with the most distruting-looking stallion you’ve ever seen.
  624. >”…Boy do I have a joke I wanna tell you,” Jane says slowly.
  625. >Joke?!
  626. >YOU LOVE JOKES!
  627. >YOU TWO WERE PRACTICALLY /MADE/ FOR EACH OTHER!
  628. >Before you can make your move though, Applejack gently pushes past you and lays a hoof on Jane’s shoulder.
  629. >“Sugarcube,” AJ says kindly, but with an authority you would never want to contest. “Take a deep breath… Now be honest with me. Are these mares here—"
  630. >”I’M GONNA BE /DAMN/ HONEST WITH YOU, TEXAS!”
  631. >OWOWOOWOW!!
  632. >Owie, your ears…
  633. >Poor Applejack…
  634. >”NOW I DON’T KNOW WHY EXACTLY YOU /BUTTERMUFFINS/ ARE TREATING MY TEAM LIKE COMMON LADIES OF THE NIGHT, BUT LET ME TELL YOU THAT I DO /NOT/ LIKE TO BE KEPT WAITING TO GET TO THE ACTION! WHY, IF I DIDN’T KNOW ANY BETTER I’D THINK YOU GIRLS WERE SCARED!”
  635. >Where is all this inner turmoil coming from?!
  636. >And why is it so sexy?!
  637. >”Hey, buddy!” Rainbow Dash cuts in, swooping between Jane and Applejack. Hey, she’s back from her PTSD attack! “We’re not scared! We’ve faced down threats like this a million times before!”
  638. >”R-Rainbow Dash, control yourself!” Rarity gets out, scrambling backwards before staggering onto her hooves. “He’s a stallion, for Celestia’s sake!”
  639. >”He sure doesn’t act like one!”
  640. >”ALRIGHT, CRANBERRY SPLASH!” Jane’s crosshairs shift from Applejack to Rainbow Dash. “IF YOU’RE NOT SCARED, THEN WHY ARE YOU STALLING?!”
  641. >”W-we ain’t stallin’, mister!” AJ stammers as she gets back onto her hooves, Rainbow Dash now under the effects of Jane’s stare. “We’re just makin’ sure these here mares are trustworthy!”
  642. >”I CAN ASSURE YOU MAGGOTS THAT /THESE HAIRE MAIRES/ ARE DAMN TRUSTWORTHY! AND EVERY SECOND YOU SPEND ARGUING WITH THE PONIES ON YOUR OWN BLASTED SIDE, WE ARE OUT /HERE/, AND NOT IN /THERE/! WHY, YOUR PRECIOUS PRINCESS ARREST-TIA WOULD BE /ASHAMED/i] TO SEE YOU ALL OUT HERE, BICKERING LIKE NEW RECRUITS! YOU CALL YOURSELVES NATIONAL HEROES?!”
  643. >”W-we’ve never called ourselves national heroes!”
  644. >”WELL YOU SHOULD, BECAUSE IF WHAT HALF OF WHAT THE BAT PONIES TOLD ME ABOUT YOU IS TRUE, THEN I DARE SAY THE TITLE ‘NATIONAL HERO’ ISN’T NEARLY ENOUGH OF THE PRAISE YOU PONIES DESERVE!”
  645. >”…thanks?”
  646. >”SINGLE FILE NOW! AND PUFF YOUR GODDAMN CHESTS OUT!”
  647. >Even if Applejack hated taking orders from a stallion, and Rainbow Dash hated taking orders from a stallion out of the bedroom, your friends hurriedly get to work.
  648. >You’re just happy to be included!
  649. >”I SAID SINGLE FILE! HORIZONTALLY, NOT VERTICALLY! YOU, STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT THE SWEAT IN YOUR MANE! YOU CALL THAT PUFFING YOUR CHEST OUT, /LESBIAN HAIR?!/”
  650. >”My tuft is adequate, not small!”
  651. >”ENOUGH TALK! Girls, listen up and listen good, because this is gonna be the /last/ thing you’re all going to hear that won’t be echoing off those cave walls! Whatever stink pile you’re originally from, today you are all AMERICANS!”
  652. >With a glow of Twilight’s horn and a magical /pop!/, a notebook and a pen are floating beside her. “Excuse me, sir!” she chitters excitedly. “What’s an A-mare-ican, if you don’t mind me—"
  653. >”A-MARE-ICAN?!” Soldier explodes, suddenly millimeters from Twilight’s face, no matter how quickly she recedes. “HOW /DARE/ YOU MISPRONOUNCE THE NAME OF THE GREATEST PEOPLE FROM THE GREATEST CIVILIZATION EVER CONCEIVED BY THE GREATEST MAN ALIVE: GEORGE WASHINGTON?! WHERE ELSE CAN YOU BRING A SMALL ARSENEL'S WORTH OF FIREARMS INTO A WALMART AND COMPLAIN TO THE MANAGER WHEN SOME LIBERAL SISSY STARTS TELLING YOU TO ‘THINK OF THE CHILDREN’ AND ‘THERE'S NO WAY A HOTCHKISS M1929 AA MACHINE CAN FIT THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR,’ AND BE CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED?! WATCH, I'LL SHOW YOU AFTER THE MISSION! WHERE IS THE NEAREST WALMART?!"
  654. >”Soldier, we’re in Equestria,” Midnight undercuts from the sidelines.
  655. >Solly looks like he’s going to explode in Midnight’s face for a few seconds, before…
  656. >”…Damnit! All this time I thought I was just in some backwater town in Texas! And as we all know, only two things come from Texas, and we all look like steers to me! Well, /most/ of us!”
  657. >A suspicious glare is sent Rainbow Dash’s way.
  658. >”No,” Dash recites monotonously, “I’m not gay, I'm too busy to look for a stallion, don't set me up with your ex's son, Mom.”
  659. >With an affirmative nod, Jane stomps one side of his hooves on the ground before using them as a pivot, turning about face towards the cave entrance.
  660. >He wobbles slightly, but you’re too busy admiring his… um… courage to notice.
  661. >”Alllll-/right/, national heroes, and their /admirable protectors!/ Today we march into that cave and have a good ol’ heart to heart with my roommate! FALL IN!”
  662. >As Jane starts marching into the cave entrance, the Elements of Harmony following close behind, you hear a bat pony whisper something to her team.
  663. >”Okay, it /is/ kinda funny when it’s not you he’s yelling at.”
  664.  
  665. ~~~
  666.  
  667. >It’s been a while since you’ve entered the cave, and you are not having a good time.
  668. >For one, the dark magic clouds the entire corridor, making vision virtually impossible without Twilight’s luminescence spell lighting the way.
  669. >For another, it reeks. The cave doesn’t hold the same pleasant, moist scents your thestral nose is so used to in antrum firma.
  670. >Almost as much as the shame of relying on a Daydweller for vision, the thick stench of something… smokey fills your nostrils.
  671. >And lastly, that maniacal laughter that keeps coming from deeper within is starting to get on your nerves. Like a Luna-damn pendulum, it echoes through your bones once again, right on schedule.
  672. >Already on your nerves, however, reside the Elements of Harmony themselves.
  673. >They haven’t stopped talking… No. /Gossiping/ like a group of colts since they’ve entered the cave.
  674. >When it’s not, “My Celestia, look at these hieroglyphs! They mean…” it’s “Pinkie, you’re being awfully quiet. What’s wrong?” or “Something doesn’t feel right, girls…”
  675. >Exposition, character foreshadowing, useless, foreboding nonsense…
  676. >That autistic unicorn one is the worst, though.
  677. >…The /purple/ autistic unicorn.
  678. >The next time you hear her give another motivational speech to her friends before you all turn a corner you just might have a conniption.
  679. >And the next time you hear the phrase “Alright, girls!” you’re probably gonna slap the mare who said it.
  680. >Mare in the Moon, can these fillies take anything seriously?
  681. >Then again, you’re not one to talk.
  682. >Oh, you’re Quickthistle by the way. Interdiurnal Night Guard Specialist.
  683. >Wooer of stallions. Older sister of Serendipity. Annoyer of that failed alpha you begrudgingly call your captain.
  684. >And, currently, eavesdropper of Daydweller conversations.
  685. >Don’t get yourself wrong, everything these mares say is a complete bore, but Jane had recently volunteered to scout ahead in the fork in the road just ahead. Twilight, being the white knightess she is, insisted on coming with him, but what do you know, the stallion won the argument. She still gave him a luminescence ball for him to carry though, so good on her.
  686. >But, when stallions aren’t within earshot…
  687. >”Alright, so are we gonna talk about the beefy, male elephant in the room or not?”
  688. >”R-Rainbow Dash! Here?! Now?!”
  689. >”Well, why not? Jane’s out of our manes for the first time since we’ve met him, and we might not get another chance to talk about this until after the mission. And then, who /knows/ when we’ll see him again? If we ever do!”
  690. >”Aren’t ya forgettin’ somethin’, Dash?”
  691. >”What d’ya mean?!”
  692. >”We’ve got an audience.”
  693. >The Elements of Harmony give your team a pathetic excuse of a subtle glance, since six wide pairs of eyes suddenly turning towards you and turning away in a dark cave is pretty hard to miss.
  694. >Do they operate on cartoon social cues or something?
  695. >Satisfied with your team’s seeming disinterest, they turn back inwards.
  696. >…Now, to be fair to the mares, you and your team are indeed out of earshot.
  697. >/Daydweller/ earshot.
  698. “You see that, Serene?” you idly ask, giving your sister a nudge. She responds with a start, turning towards you with wide eyes. “Rule twelve-point-five of wooing stallions: never gossip when there are other mares around.”
  699. >Serendipity regards you for a moment too long before turning towards the Elements.
  700. >”Duly noted,” she finally says.
  701. >…Huh. That was weird.
  702. >Your ears swivel back to the Elements, and their conversation once again fills them.
  703. >”…So? What d’ya think?”
  704. >”Why, Rainbow Dash! I never figured you’d go for a stallion like that!”
  705. >”Wait, what?!”
  706. >”Oh! Oh, I… I didn’t know you were interested in him, Dashie! D-don’t worry, I won’t get in your way!”
  707. >”Ugh! You guys got it all wrong! Just… Pinks, why don’t you go over to those bat ponies and, uh… Tell ‘em that joke you told us that one time!”
  708. >”Okay!”
  709. >Oh, Luna.
  710. >The most annoying pink party pony bounces toward your flock of thestrals, and you resist the urge to gag.
  711. >”Hi, everypony!” she chirps. “Or should I say, every/batty/! Wowzie bo-/zowzie/, you’re all so serious-looking! Well, I got just the remedy! What do you call a zebra on the moo- OH WOW, THAT PINEAPPLE’S REALLY IN THERE! YOU MUST BE REALLY EMBARRASSED ABOUT THAT! Lemme see! Lemme see lemme see /lemme see!/ Ohhhhh, this is /so conspicuous and undoubtedly draws the attention of everypony around you!/”
  712. >Thanking Faust above that you didn’t have to engage in conversation with this creature, you eagerly turn your attention back to the Elements’ gossip.
  713. >…
  714. >…You eagerly. Turn your attention. Back to the Elements’ gossip.
  715. >This cave must be getting to you.
  716. >”Alright, so how’re we doing this?”
  717. >”How’re we doing what, exactly?”
  718. >”Hooking Pinkie up with Jane! Don’t tell me you didn’t see her ogling him like a three-cubit tall chocolate-layered cake!”
  719. >”…She was rather enraptured by him. And I must say, nopony we’ve met before has matched Pinkie’s… /intensity./ But we don’t know a thing about the stallion! Why, he could be a deviant for all we know!”
  720. >”Pffft! He’s a /stallion!/ He’s not some rabid animal!”
  721. >”Sure handled you like a rabi—”
  722. >”SHUT UP.”
  723. >”…Ah’ dunno, whenever Dash makes schemes that have anything to do with relationships, they always tend to fall through.”
  724. >”Hey! I don’t scheme!”
  725. >”Ah’ jus’ don’t want Pinkie to get her heart broken. /Or/ get into a disingenuous relationship her friends set up behind her back. Matters of the heart need t’ be natural.”
  726. >”Well, that’s just the thing! It won’t be disingenuous—wow, AJ, I’m surprised you pronounced that word right the first time.”
  727. >”Get hilted.”
  728. >”L-language, please!” the quiet one squeaks.
  729. >The whole group turns towards her like she just materialized at their side. ”…I keep forgetting you’re here, Shy," Dash says with a nervous giggle. "You need to work on that. And it won’t be disingenuous, AJ! This’ll work, just you watch. All we have to do… is have Pinkie impress him with her mareliness.”
  730. >”An’ how d’ya reckon that’s happening?”
  731. >”Well, first we’ll start with ‘accidentally’ misfiring the Elements of Harmony, giving the baddie the idea that they’re broken—”
  732. >”Pinkie, come back! We need ya!”
  733. >”Allllll-righty!” Pinkie cheers before turning back to a barely conscious Furtive Wind. “/Get me in contact with your manestylist!/”
  734. >”Wha—/hey!/” Dash exclaims. “I wasn’t done scheming!”
  735. >”You’re gonna get somepony hurt,” AJ chides, leaving no room for argument with Pinkie’s approach. “We’re blasting the villain with the Elements the moment we can.”
  736. >As Pinkie Pie rejoins the group, Rainbow Dash harumphs and mutters, “You’re no fun…”
  737. >You once again nudge your sister, who responds with an annoyed grunt—
  738. >Wait a minute.
  739. >You turn, and dear Luna above what did you do to deserve this, it’s Midnight Blossom next to you. Serendipity must’ve gotten up and left without a word.
  740. >That is… very much out of character for her.
  741. >Ugh.
  742. >…Well, it’s probably more useful to your captain than your sister, anyways.
  743. ”…You heard that too, right, Cap’?”
  744. >”Their personal relationship with Jane isn’t important to the mission,” she responds curtly.
  745. Sheesh, leave it to a failed alpha to not get the importance of a relationship. “Seems pretty important if a member of our team has interpersonal ties with our marks,” you retort.
  746. >”Soldier is only part of our team until this mission is over,” Midnight responds, although you see a crack in her stony expression in the form of a downward glance. “That’s his reward for the /Nnuelg’un’./”
  747. ”And after that?”
  748. >”None of our business. He’s a grown stallion. He can make his own decisions.”
  749. ”C’mon Midnight, we found him alone in the woods. Aren’t you just a tiny bit concerned—”
  750. >”I hope you’re not implying that /you/ are concerned about his well-being, Quickthistle.”
  751. >Her tone is so sharp you might have flinched if you were a more naïve filly. Her piercing glare, however, finishes the job.
  752. >“Past the point at which he’d be unfit for a quick rut, I mean.”
  753. >You send your captain a glare to match and open your mouth to retort before another maniacal laugh cuts you off.
  754. >You swear to Luna, you’re going to kick that psycho’s teeth in, panic-stricken stallion or not—
  755. ~~/FOOLISH CREATURES OF EQUUS… YOUR PETTY SQUABBLING, YOU MAY RUE…/~~
  756. >Without warning, a chilling voice penetrates your mind like a vampony’s fang. You yelp as your vision swims and staying upright becomes an impossible task. Various other yells and screams fill your ears, and you’re unsure if they come from your team or the monstrosity residing in your mind.
  757. ~~/…FOR YOUR FORKED, STATIONARY LOCATION…HAS FINALLY BEEN CONSTRUED!/~~
  758. >The walls of the cave begin to constrict and contract as if alive. Like helpless prey, the cave around you starts to swallow, pushing you deeper into its gullet…
  759. >No. You’re walking forward.
  760. >And you can’t stop it.
  761. ~~/BEHOLD, AS THE VERY REALITY YOU CHERISH IS IMPINGED…/~~
  762. >It’s impossible to know where you’re going now. The luminescence spell is nowhere near you. The dark magic infects all of your senses. Sight. Smell. Hearing.
  763. >All things you’ve prided yourself on in contrast with your diurnal counterparts, stripped away and defiled by that dark magic.
  764. >But none of this is nearly as terrible as a stray thought.
  765. ”…S-Serendipity?” you call out in the darkness, your voice barely audible in your own ears. “Where are you?”
  766. ~~/FOR IT WILL PERSIST TO OCCUR, AT YOUR VERY TARGET’S WHIM!/~~
  767. “Serene?!” you call out, louder. Your throat is as dry as a Saddle Arabian desert. The bitter stench of dark magic and smoke invades every orifice. Your ears are useless, barely even registering your own voice. Still, you call out. “SERENE, WHERE ARE YOU?! LUNA-DAMNIT! SERENE!!”
  768. You bare your fangs and raise your hackles. ”CUT THE MIND GAMES, YOU COWARD!” you shriek, your voice echoing off of the walls—
  769. >Wait.
  770. >The dark magic is gone.
  771. >The dizziness is gone.
  772. >Your senses are back to normal… But where are you?
  773. >You find yourself in what would look like the well-used room of an ancient, magically consumed sorceress, if that sorceress had replaced all the mare-made cobblestone with more its more natural state.
  774. >You’re still in the cave; you know that. But the way this cavern gives way to a large, almost colosseum-like dome…
  775. >The many green, fluctuating portals littering the ground and walls and washing the cavern in a haunting light…
  776. >The bubbling cauldron in the center of the room, dark magic bellowing out of its opening…
  777. >It enraptures you, for a moment.
  778. >For a moment.
  779. “Serene?!” you shout, frantically searching around yourself.
  780. >Fortunately, you don’t have to search very long. Your team is lying around you, also groaning as they recover from the mindbuck they just experienced. You’d be confused as to why Soldier is also here with your team, but you’re quickly preoccupied.
  781. >Once you locate her, you’re immediately by your sister’s side, helping her up. Serendipity blinks owlishly as you do this, studying you. Something is definitely wrong with her, but you don’t have time to ask her.
  782. ~~/YOU ARE CORRECT, LITTLE PONY. NAUGHT WOULD BE AS UNFAIR TO FIGHT A FOE UNCLEAR…/~~
  783. >The bubbling from the cauldron increases in intensity.
  784. >You, and the rest of your team, take an unsteady step back.
  785. >Midnight Blossom stays put however, glaring at the cauldron as a sickly green goo suddenly erupts from it, dark magic gushing from the spectacle, filling the ceiling of the room. As the fountain of goo climaxes and sunders down the cauldron’s edges, the shape of a cloaked figure emerges from the goo. As it lifts its head slowly, the voice comes again, louder than ever.
  786. ~~/SO COWER IN EARNEST, MORTALS!/~~
  787. >The figure slowly levitates from the cauldron, the hood on its head sliding back to reveal the head of a black stallion.
  788. >A black, /hornless/ stallion.
  789. ~~/FOR MERRRRASMUS IS HERE! AHAHAHAHAHA!/~~
  790. >The stallion throws his head back and cackles manically, his blistering laughter filling the cavern like a noxious gas--
  791. >"Hello, Merasmus!"
  792. ~~/Oh, hello Soldier. AHAHAHAHAHAHA--!~~/
  793. >Suddenly, Merasmus stops laughing.
  794. >In fact, Merasmus stops... doing pretty much everything.
  795. >For a long time he floats there, mid-pose, dark magic still pooling around him, until he finally peaks down at your little group.
  796. >Denial.
  797. >Anger.
  798. >Bargaining.
  799. >Depression.
  800. >Acceptance.
  801. >In the span of five seconds, you can accurately make out all five stages of grief as they flash across the wizard's face. All of this, while he stares at Soldier, currently waving at him with a Cheshire grin.
  802. >Finally, Merasmus turns to Midnight Blossom.
  803. ~~/Merasmus will pay whatever taxes the IRS demands as long as he never sees this cretin's face again./~~
  804. >You share an incredulous look with the rest of your team, minus Midnight Blossom. She’s currently staring at Meramus, one owlishly long blink her only reaction.
  805. >”…Okay," she says neutrally.
  806. >”Aw, don’t be like that, Merasmus!” Solly chides, approaching the magically enshrouded, all-powerful wizard without a care in the world. “C’mon! Ask how your roomie’s day went! I sure am curious how yours went!”
  807. >Merasmus doesn’t react to Soldier as the exuberant pony approaches him, instead keeping steady eye contact with Midnight.
  808. >”…The IRS demands you stop with your diabolical machinations,” Midnight Blossom says coolly. “…And relinquish your magic, before facing justice.”
  809. >At this, a wicked grin crawls across Merasmus’ face.
  810. ~~/Oh… You're one of those /heroes/, here to stop my diabolical machinations?/~~
  811. >Merasmus puts a hoof on his chin as he floats over to your group.
  812. >Unfortunately, this puts him at the same level as Soldier, who immediately starts jumping in front of his face. ”Meraaaaaasmuuuuus! Are you ignoring me?!”
  813. >Besides a twitch of an eye, Merasmus shows no acknowledgement of Soldier.
  814. >The latter huffs as the wizard merely phases through him, prompting your team to take another step back as he approaches.
  815. >Midnight, however, remains steadfast.
  816. ~~/Hmmm.../~~ Merasmus goads, his sickly green eyes never leaving Midnight’s. ~~/Stopping my diabolical machinations… On one hand, it would relieve my schedule from the hourly soul-stealing of the heroes who invade my lair…--/~~
  817. >It could’ve been your imagination, but you swear you see Merasmus’ eyes briefly glow with menacing intent.
  818. ~~/--But on the other…/~~
  819. >”Merasmus! I think this priceless-looking, antique lamp might be enchanted to make you unable to see me! I’ll save you, roomie!”
  820. >Crash!
  821. ~~/Deal,/~~ Merasmus suddenly quips, reaching a hoof towards Midnight Blossom.
  822. >If Midnight were about to take up Merasmus on his deal, you’d never know. Because suddenly the room, and everything and everypony within it, is engulfed in a tsunami of rainbow light.
  823. >You immediately hiss and cover your eyes as the deafening sound of sunlight and friendship boom from all angles. For the second time too many, your senses are once again stripped from you in the raucous chaos.
  824. >As suddenly as it started, the room is finally silent, apart from that Luna-damn ringing.
  825. >You creak open your eyes to see that the rest of your team isn’t doing much better. Furtive Wind is currently holding her ears as she tries desperately not to cry out from the pain. Silhouette is immediately helping the rest of team recover. Midnight Blossom is hunched over on the ground as she stares daggers at something behind you. Serendipity—
  826. >…is just fine, actually. In fact, she’s giving each of you a perplexed look.
  827. >What?
  828. >”Uh, Twilight?!” comes a voice that is very quickly earning its spot on the list of the most grating noises you’ve ever heard. Your head snaps back to glare at the six most overrated national heroes in Equestria.
  829. >”Th-this usually works!” Twilight panics, staring up at the Element of Harmony on her head. “Oh my Celestia, this usually works…”
  830. ~~/…Merasmus is confused,/~~ Merasmus eventually says. ~~/Any of this making sense to you, secret partner in crime?/~~
  831. >You turn back to Merasmus, who is giving Serendipity a questioning look.
  832. >Serendipity, meanwhile, is giving Merasmus a look which suggests he just slapped a cigarette out of her mouth and told her, “Just gave you an extra month of life. That’ll be ten bits.”
  833. >…Now that you think about it, it /does/ smell like somepony’s smoking.
  834. >”…/Merde/,” Serendipity says in a voice that isn’t hers.
  835. >Suddenly, your sister lurches towards you and wraps her hooves around your neck. You start to yelp, but it quickly turns into a desperate gag for breath. Serendipity turns you toward the shocked faces of your team as she drags you away from the group, her arm wrapped tightly around your--
  836. >Wait.
  837. >The forearm that’s making it incredibly hard to breath isn’t the shade of dark pink your sister adorns. It’s a navy blue, and the stench of smoke is now invading your nose until there’s nothing else you can smell.
  838. >As your team makes a move for you, you suddenly feel something sharp press against your throat. This stops your team’s advance.
  839. >You are a Night Guard specialist.
  840. >You’ve been trained in Artis K’ugnae on a professional level.
  841. >Your senses are more attuned and sharper than any Daydweller could ever dream of.
  842. >But the way this pony is holding you upright puts you in a position you’ve never been trained in before, and the knife at your throat keeps you at bay.
  843. >You feel so useless right now.
  844. >The Elements of Harmony stare at you, wide-eyed, before Rarity speaks up.
  845. >”Oh, my goodness! You must be the stallion who we heard laughing! It’s okay, darling! There’s no need to panic!”
  846. >…
  847. >Sun-bucking…
  848. >WHITE-KNIGHTESSING…
  849. >/DAYDWELLER REDBACKS!!/
  850. “HE’S HOLDING A LUNA-DAMN KNIFE TO MY THROAT YOU MORONS!” you shout.
  851. >Or, you wish desperately you could shout.
  852. >It’s hard to even breath right now.
  853. >”HEY!” Soldier yells, pointing an accusatory hoof at whoever has a hold on your neck. “LET THAT BAT-HORSE-LADY GO, YOU--…”
  854. >You can hear the stallion behind you let out a low chuckle.
  855. >”YOU--…” Solly tries again, before his face slowly morphs into a grimace. “…WHOEVER YOU ARE!!”
  856. >The low chuckle beside you abruptly ends.
  857. >”You don’t recognize me?” the stallion asks, his husky voice thick with a Prench accent. “…You seriously don’t recognize me?”
  858. >”I RECOGNIZE YOU AS SOMEONE WHO’S GONNA GET HIS TEETH KICKED IN IF HE HURTS FASTWEED!”
  859. >The stallion lets out a throaty groan. “…You couldn’t stop ranting about me in the woods when you met that thestral over ther— why is there a pineapple in her mane?”
  860. >Squeak!
  861. >”SO YOU’RE A LYIN’ JOKESTER WHO’S GONNA GET HIS TEETH KICKED IN IF HE HURTS FASTWEED! I know who you’re talking about, and that French son of a bitch wouldn’t be seen by his loving grandmother if he wasn’t wearing that ski mask and three-thousand dollar suit he’s so proud of!”
  862. >”It. Ripped,” the stallion snarls each word through his teeth. “…During the transformation.”
  863. >”Excuses, excuses! I thought a gentleman spared no expense for fashion!”
  864. >You can /hear/ the stallion beside you rolling his eyes.
  865. >You narrow yours in turn.
  866. “Where’s Serendipity?” you growl, even as the acrid smell of your own blood fills your nostrils. “Where’s my Luna-damn sister?”
  867. >”She is unharmed,” the stranger assures you, frustrated. “Now keep your muzzle shut. This won’t take long…”
  868. >With a resigned groan, the stallion…
  869. >…snorts.
  870. >Like, really obnoxiously and exaggeratedly.
  871. >…The buck--
  872. >“LOOK OUT, FASTWEED! IT’S SPY!”
  873. >”…Whatever,” Spy sighs. “Oh, I appreciate the psychological damage, by the way. Any reason you’re so silent now, wizard?”
  874. ~~/Merasmus doesn’t get to watch his Latin American soap operas here, so he’ll take any interpersonal drama he can get. BUT ENOUGH ABOUT MERASMUS’ PREFERRED FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT! MERASMUS SEES NOW THE PURPOSE OF THESE PONIES’ VISIT! THEY WISH TO STOP HIS DIABOLICAL MACHINATIONS./~~
  875. >”WAIT A MINUTE!" Soldier explodes, "MERASMUS! WHAT’RE YOU DOING TEAMING UP WITH SPY?!”
  876. ~~/Don't talk to him.../~~ you hear Merasmus mutter to himself as he subtly turns away from Soldier. ~~/You'll only encourage him…/~~
  877. >”Wait /another/ minute!” you hear Twilight gasp. “Y-… you’re /BOTH/ STALLIONS?!”
  878. >”Yes, thank God,” Spy sighs.
  879. ~~/MERASMUS IS INDEED MALE! NOW COWER, FOOLS! AS I--/~~
  880. >”Oh, my goodness!” Twilight says as she trots into the large cavern, followed closely by the Elements of Simpery. “I’m so sorry, this must be a terrible misunderstanding! You see, we heard reports that there was a crazy wizard here, but--… Oh, this isn’t for your dainty stallion mind. Just come with us, and we’ll talk to the Princess about getting you some much-needed therapy!”
  881. ~~/…OKAY WOW, MERASMUS IS ACTUALLY VERY OFFENDED BY YOUR WORDS, MORTAL./~~
  882. >As the Elements of Harmony make a complete joke out of Equestrian diplomacy, your focus returns to Spy.
  883. “…What do you mean Serendipity is unharmed?” you sneer. “She’s a Night Guard. A fangbearer at that. She could snap your redback spine in half if she wanted to.”
  884. >”Actually, I didn’t have much trouble with her,” Spy says, only slightly interested in what you had to say.
  885. “…The buck does that mean?”
  886. >”MERASMUS!" Soldier, in the meanwhile, screams, "ANSWER MY QUESTION! WHY ARE YOU WORKING WITH SPY?! IS HE TEACHING YOU THAT TERRIBLE, FRENCH-VOODOO MAGIC THEY CALL THEIR WRITTEN LANGUAGE?!”
  887. ~~/Ignore him, Merasmus... Remember your blood pressure.../~~
  888. >”She asked me to choke her,” Spy remarks matter-of-factly.
  889. >…
  890. >Yeah, there is that.
  891. >Luna almighty, you need to snag a stallion and get Serene into your herd, and fast. She’s bucking hopeless.
  892. >”Oh, that cloak you’re garnishing is simply dreadful!" Rarity stammers. "However long have you been down here, dear? I solemnly promise to put this traumatic experience at the back of your mind, and bring out the handsome stallion underneath all of those rags!”
  893. ~~/ENOUGH BABBLE, FOOLS! YOUR IGNORANT BIASES HAVE COST YOU THIS MATCH…/~~
  894. >Before Merasmus can continue, he's interrupted by Soldier. ”You gotta stop with the rhyming, Merasmus! It creeps other people out! See, /this/ is why I’m your only friend!”
  895. ~~/Pleasestoptalkingpleasestoptalkingpleasestoptalking.../~~
  896. >”Aww, you’re just a big ol’ softie, aren’t you Roomie? I know you care! Remember that time I broke my elbow fixing your cauldron, and you used all that mana to fi—”
  897. >Before Soldier can finish that word, there is a bright green flash and the sound of what could only be described as a child’s death rattle fills the room. Merasmus immediately reappears in front of Soldier, the green ambient magic around his figure roaring in a silent inferno.
  898. ~~/YOU WERE THE ONE WHO BROKE THE CAULDRON IN THE FIRST PLACE! YOU, AND YOUR MANY, MANY PET RACCOONS I HAD NO SAY IN KEEPING WITHIN MY QUARTERS! AND YOU DIDN’T JUST BREAK YOUR ELBOW, YOUR ENTIRE BODY HAD BEEN DISMANTLED ON AN ATOMIC LEVEL BY THE DARK MAGIC FROM WITHIN! IF I HADN’T PULLED YOU FROM YOUR MISERABLE, DIM-WITTED FATE, YOUR ESSENCE WOULD HAVE CONTAMINATED THE FINAL POTION! AND IF I HADN’T /FIXED YOUR BLASTED ELBOW, THE MEDICAL BILL WOULD HAVE GUTTED ME!/~~
  899. >"Would have gutted US, you mean!"
  900. ~~/"WHEN, IN ALL OF THE CURSED, WRETCHED WEEKS WE HAVE SPENT TOGETHER, HAVE YOU /EVER/ MADE ANY KIND OF FINANCIAL INVESTMENT INTO OUR HOME?!/~~
  901. >"I pay with friendship! In full! Every day we spend together!"
  902. >Merasmus is stock still for a solid ten seconds before Soldier turns towards you and your team, a big ol’ grin on his face.
  903. >"See? I told you we get along like two peas in a pot!"
  904. ~~/NOOOOOOOO!/~~
  905. >The animalistic yowl which jets from Merasmus’ throat shakes the very foundation of the cave.
  906. ~~/NO! NO, NO, NO! SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP, YOU BABBLING, JINGOISTIC, UN-/BEARABLE/ IDIOT! CAN YOU LAST ONE DAY WITHOUT DESTROYING AN ANCIENT ARTIFACT OF MASS MAGICAL DESTRUCTION?! AN HOUR WITHOUT SCREAMING PARAGRAPHS OF UNINTELLIGABLE NONSENSE?! A MINUTE WITHOUT MAKING EVERYBODY AROUND YOU MISERABLE?! OH, YOU STUPID, STUPID MORTAL! I DON'T WANT TO SPEND ANOTHER OVER-PATRIOTIC SECOND WITH YOU! NOT ANOTHER SECOND, I SAY! DON’T YOU GET IT, SOLDIER?! I CREATED THIS PORTAL TO ESCAPE FROM YOU! FOR GOD'S SAKE, LEAVE ME AND MY EVILDOINGS ALONE! I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN! WHEREVER YOUR TEAM IS, I BET MY /CENTURIES/ OF MAGICAL KNOWLEDGE THAT THEY ARE THANKING THE STARS ABOVE THAT THEY ARE FINALLY RID OF YOUR INSUFFERABLE BABBLING! MERASMUS IS WILLING TO BET HALF OF HIS EVIL THOMES THAT THEY WAKE UP EVERY DAY AND SAY TO THEMSELVES, /'OH WOW, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL AND PEACEFUL DAY WITHOUT THAT /SOLDIER/ FOOL! MY TINITUS IS FINALLY STARTING TO HEAL NOW THAT /SOLDIER/ IS GONE!' HEED MY WORDS, JANE DOE! NOBODY WANTS, WANTED, OR WILL WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH YOU! AND YOU KNOW WHAT? I'M GONNA SAY IT! /I DON'T CARE THAT YOU BROKE YOUR ELBOOOOOOOOOOW!/~~
  907. >Merasmus shakes with a barely contained fury as his fuming eyes stare at Soldier like two burning coals.
  908. >As the last of Merasmus’ rant’s echoes die out, the cavern falls into silence. All anypony can do is simply stare between Merasmus and Soldier. You can even feel the pressure on your neck momentarily subside as Spy gawks.
  909. >The absence of an immediate retort from Soldier makes you do a mental double take.
  910. >You turn towards Jane, and...
  911. >...he's silent.
  912. >For a long while Soldier doesn't respond, staring at Merasmus' shaking, enraged, /honest/ face.
  913. >With a frown so subtle a Daydweller wouldn't be able to see it, Soldier eventually just lowers his head.
  914. >”…Jane?”
  915. >You’re surprised to hear Midnight Blossom’s voice be the first to break the silence.
  916. >You peel your eyes from the scene of statues before you to look at your captain, currently beside Soldier, wings lowered, head bowed in a sympathetic gesture.
  917. >The look on her face pierces your hear—
  918. ~~/SURPRISE ATTACK!/~~
  919. >Suddenly, a stream of dark green magic is sent careening from Merasmus’ outstretched hoof. None of you have time to react as it slams into Soldier, sending him flying into a green portal in the wall behind him.
  920. >With a splash from the green goo and a magical hiss, Soldier is gone.
  921. >”JANE!” Midnight screams, but it is overlapped by the booming hysterics of Merasmus.
  922. >”/Putain d’imbécile,/” you hear Spy mutter from behind.
  923. >Without any other option, the Elements of Harmony crouch into a battle stance. Your team is quick to follow, the sharp sound of five trained thestrals hissing only accentuating the howling wizard.
  924. >As his dark magic gathers behind Merasmus’ floating figure, the wizard’s cackling subsides as he gives each pony in the room a glowing glare.
  925. ~~/COWER, FOOLS! FOR MERRRRRASMUS… IS HERE!!/~~
  926.  
  927.  
  928. >Hey, it’s you again.
  929. >Furtive Wind.
  930. >THE Furtive Wind.
  931. >Only mare with the teats and the sneaks...
  932. >...whatever.
  933. >Lotta traumatic stuff’s happened since the last time you’ve been you, but right now you’re not focused on how your scalp feels like it’s one hefty gust of wind away from being ripped off your skull.
  934. >You’re focused on the scene before you: a mad sorcerer leering between your team and the Elements of Harmony. The pitch-black clouds of dark magic surrounding him like a shadow, and the green, steaming goo oozing from all crevices of the cavern. The always-stoic Midnight Blossom, still reeling in shock from Soldier’s fate.
  935. >You can’t say you’re handling it any better.
  936. >”S-stay there, Elements of Harmony!” Midnight Blossom shouts towards the six Daydwellers. “We’ll handle this!”
  937. ~~//ELEMENTS OF HARMONY?//~~ Merasmus booms, smiling a wicked smile. ~~/WELL, THAT MONIKER SOUNDS IMPORTANT! MERASMUS WILL DESTROY THEM FIRST!/~~
  938. >”Get ready!” Midnight shouts, but her voice is consumed by the dark wizard’s cry:
  939. ~~/PETRAMUS DELEOUM!/~~
  940. >Before you can even flare your wings, the ground beneath you turns to loose rubble. You yell out in panic as gravity swiftly claims your body, and before you know it, you and your team are in freefall. You flap your wings desperately, trying to find any kind of aerial purchase—
  941. >/CRACK!/
  942. >As quick as lightning, a blistering pain shoots down from where the rock had nailed you on the head, to your brain, and then to your spine.
  943. >The last thing you hear before succumbing to the blackness invading your senses is Spy’s irate yelling:
  944. >”I WAS STANDING RIGHT NEXT TO THEM, /ESPÈCE DE CRÉTIN/ !”
  945.  
  946. ~~~
  947.  
  948. >You’re Applejack now, and you’ve just lost your backup.
  949. >Celestia above, this mission is more of a mess than a family reunion with the Strawberry step-cousins!
  950. >The Elements of Harmony didn’t work! You and the girls had quickly learned your lesson after the last few world-ending encounters, and just blasted Merasmus with the Elements the moment you got the chance, but they did nothing!
  951. >And the most humiliating part? Now that you know Merasmus is a stallion…
  952. >…Well, you just don’t know if you can resort to physical violence against a stallion! You were raised to be a proper gentlemare!
  953. >Working with Big Mac has taught you all too well that, no matter how much a stallion hides it, there’s /always/ a sensitive, gentle soul underneath a colt’s exterior. No matter how distant or cold he may seem.
  954. >But does that apply to villains?!
  955. >TO EVIL, INTERDIMENSIONAL WIZARD VILLAINS?!
  956. >/WHAT’RE YOU SUPPOSED TO DO?!/
  957. >The bat ponies' surprised squeaking grow more and more silent as they fall deeper into the new hole in the floor.
  958. >Merasmus gives a satisfied cackle at his quick work before turning to you and your friends.
  959. ~~/NOW THAT THEY'RE DEEP DOWN IN THE RUBBLE, MERASMUS SHOULD HAVE NO TROUBLE.../~~
  960. >…He’s a stallion, AJ.
  961. >Even if that predatory smile contorts his features into something ugly, even if he can’t keep his living space clean for the life of him, even if he’s a freakishly powerful threat, he’s a stallion!
  962. >”…A-alright, girls!” Twilight pipes up. You flinch as the proximity of her words remind you this isn't some nightmare. It’s real. You’re here. You very well might die. “If we stick together, I’m sure we can—”
  963. ~~/ABRA CA-INSTAKILL!/~~
  964. >Before any of you can react, a light brighter than Celestia’s sun above engulfs you and your friends.
  965. >You expect to feel a ferocious heat rip you apart from the inside out, but… you feel nothing.
  966. >Are you already dead? Was it that quick?
  967. >But as quickly as those thoughts enter your mind, the light recedes.
  968. >You peak open your eyes, and see…
  969. >…nothing’s changed.
  970. ~~/BLASTED, WRETCHED /AMBIENT MAGIC!//~~ Merasmus bellows with a slap to his forehead. ~~/EARTH NEVER HAD THIS PROBLEM! ARGH! MAGIC WAS SO MUCH /SIMPLER/ BACK THERE!/~~
  971. >”…Wait a minute,” you hear Twilight mutter under her breath as she studies the wizard.
  972. ~~/WHATEVER! IT LOOKS LIKE MERASMUS WILL HAVE TO GET HIS HOOVES DIRTY… BY WIDDLING EACH OF YOU PATHETIC MORTALS DOWN WITH MAGIC AT A DISTANCE! AHAHAHAHA—/~~
  973. >Ker-POW!
  974. >With an explosion of confetti and a blast of gunpowder, Merasmus is suddenly launched across the room and sent crashing into the stony wall of the cavern.
  975. >The smoke from Pinkie’s party cannon just barely matches the smoke coming from her ears and nostrils.
  976. ~~/OH! YOU CHEEKY… FOOL!/~~ Merasmus shouts as he struggles to escape from the interdimensional evil wizard-shaped hole in the wall. ~~/HOW DID YOU EVEN GET IN RANGE THAT QUICKLY?!/~~
  977. >With a red glint briefly flashing through Pinkie Pie’s eyes, she sneers, “Cartoon physics… /bitch./”
  978. ~~/…MERASMUS MIGHT NEED A NEW CHANGE OF PANTALOONS./~~
  979. >”GO PINKIE!”
  980. >Like a deer in the city lights, you swivel your head to Rainbow Dash. She gives Pinkie a cheer and a loop-de-loop in the air, before hurriedly turning back to you and your friends.
  981. >”If we can’t use the Elements to harm Merasmus, we can just do it the old fashioned way!” she cajoles.
  982. >”B-but he’s a stallion!” Twilight, Rarity, and Fluttershy all whimper in tandem.
  983. >You’re less than a cubit from joining them before you have to virtually slam your ears against your skull.
  984. >Because, without warning, the cave is suddenly filled with a vile, eldritch caterwaul. Like a stiff porcupine, every follicle on your pelt is standing straight up. Dark energy pours from the cauldron like a broken fountain, snaking through the air and into Merasmus.
  985. >Then, comes the laughter.
  986. >Fluttershy whimpers and leans against you. You’re too numb to comfort her.
  987. >As the spectral smoke continues to fill Merasmus, it seems to reinvigorate the wizard. Materializing from seemingly nothing, a jagged bison’s skull settles atop Merasmus’ head. A ghastly book larger than yourself now rests in his front hooves. His cloak also grows, lengthening until it touches down onto the floor. Whisps of dark magic trail behind him as he drifts slowly out of his impromptu sarcophagus.
  988. >Merasmus lifts his head, and stares each of you dead in the eyes. For the first time in your life, you feel a primal, overpowering urge to flee.
  989. ~~/YES…/~~ Merasmus purrs in a way that makes your skin crawl.. ~~/YES… THESE PANTALOONS WILL DO JUST FINE./~~
  990.  
  991. ~~~
  992.  
  993. >Rubble.
  994. >That's the only thing you feel right now.
  995. >The sharp, stony daggers of rubble invading every pore of your body. The coagulated stench of rubble filling your nostrils, leaving no room for anything else. The distant sound of rubble shifting filling your ears.
  996. >And then, without warning, the pain comes.
  997. >You cry out as you heave upwards, sending a spray of pebbles and stones outwards from your geological coffin.
  998. >Big mistake.
  999. >Immediately you start coughing what feels like pure, vaporized stone from your lungs.
  1000. >The sound of rubble shifting stops as your hacking fills the cavern.
  1001. >Every desperate breath you take seems to only exacerbate the problem, and you resort to cupping your muzzle with your hooves.
  1002. >Slowly, your coughing subsides. As you finally reach the point of gulping in deep breaths of relatively clean air, you attempt to scan your surroundings.
  1003. >Besides the mound of rubble you're half buried in, an oppressive gray smoke is the only thing you can see.
  1004. >Thestral or not, you're starting to really hate caves.
  1005. >As your eyes start to sting from the dust in the air, you close them, and instead send out a series of Hhisus K'aecus.
  1006. >At the echo of your ultrasound, you’re able to paint a picture of your surroundings in your mind.
  1007. >You're in a small grotto. There isn't a smooth spot on the ground that isn’t covered with jagged rocks, pebbles, or rubble. The pairs of tufted ears poking out of the mounds of stony viscera and the shifting piles of rubble tell you your team is still around. There is a large hole in the ceiling, and you can faintly make out the sounds of battle raging at the distant top.
  1008. >At first slowly, other series of Hhisus K'aecus fill the room in a symphony of various pitches and strengths.
  1009. >And then, somepony speaks.
  1010. >"Anypony wounded?" Midnight Blossom asks as you hear your captain sift through the rubble into the center of the grotto.
  1011. >You scrunch your muzzle in confusion.
  1012. >Her gait is uneven. Gone is her usual, straightforward way of trotting, replaced with what sounds like a wounded animal floundering through quicksand.
  1013. >"I can't move my right hoof," you hear a voice reply from somewhere to your left. It takes you a second to realize it's Furtive Wind. "...And it looks like the pineapple in my mane will no longer be a problem."
  1014. >...You're glad you're not yet able to see the travesty on top of Furtive Wind's head.
  1015. >"M-my wing is broken...!" Quickthistle whimpers, and the panic in her voice pierces your heart, despite yourself. “Luna above, my wing’s broken…”
  1016. >When nopony else makes a move to speak, you ask, "What about you, Midnight?"
  1017. >"Doesn't matter," she responds curtly. Midnight's limping through the rubble continues as she approaches where you heard Quickthistle's voice. "Specialist Quickthistle, start dressing the wounded. We're headed back up there ASAP."
  1018. >"Give me a second!" Quickthistle yelps as you hear more rubble shifting. "I-it's really in there! WAIT--!"
  1019. >By the time you realize what's going on, it's too late. The grotto is filled with the pained squeal of Quickthistle as Midnight starts to pull her from rubble, mangling her broken wing further.
  1020. "Midnight, stop!" you yell as you scramble the rest of the way out of the rubble. With a quick flap of your wings, you're by where you heard Midnight's voice, putting a hoof on a pair of warm withers.
  1021. >"She has a job to do, Sillow," Midnight says with a glare you didn't need eyesight to know is being shot your way. "We all have a job to do, and every second we spend down here is a second the Elements are without their backup against that /psycho./"
  1022. >Midnight’s voice almost breaks as she mentions Merasmus. It’s so subtle most thestrals wouldn’t be able to make it out, but you know Midnight enough to hear it loud and clear.
  1023. "Everypony here knows that,” you offer. “But we can't help the Elements in this shape. /You/ can't help the Elements in this shape."
  1024. >"The buck are you talking about?"
  1025. "There's something wrong with your leg, isn't there, Midnight Blossom?"
  1026. >At Midnight Blossom's silence, you slowly open your eyes. The dust has cleared significantly, leaving your captain clear in the open. A thick, red stream of blood flows down the left side of her face, cutting through the gray dust covering her head-to-hoof. Her right wing hangs limply at her side, the occasional twitch the only sign that it’s an organic limb, not a fleshy, lifeless drape.
  1027. >Midnight is glaring at you, obviously. But the subtle twitching of her cheeks, and the way her eyelids are fighting to stay wide, betray her stony exterior.
  1028. >It's the same expression she has every time you ask her about Cloud Kicker.
  1029. >"...Get your bearings, specialist Quickthistle," Midnight finally spits as she limps away. "Then do your Luna-damn job."
  1030. >It isn't until Midnight is busy pulling the rest of the team out of the rubble that Quickthistle speaks.
  1031. >"…I-It's broken."
  1032. You give her awkwardly angled wing a quick once-over. You don't need to be a doctor to see what she means. "Yeah, I can see that."
  1033. >"No, Midnight's leg," Quickthistle susurrates, her voice a pained whisper.
  1034. >Your blood runs cold as you stare at Quickthistle.
  1035. >"Her back left leg is broken at the gaskin... I can hear it in the bone whenever she puts weight on it."
  1036. >You can only blink as you turn from Quickthistle back to Midnight.
  1037. >It's then that you notice the scratches on the far side of the cave, whence you first heard Midnight's voice. She was trying to [i]claw [/i]her way back up there before you woke up.
  1038. >"...Even though she's a complete bitch, I'll still have to put her in a splint,” Quickthistle spits.
  1039. "Yeah," you mutter. "That's what I'm worried about." You see Quickthistle tilting her head before you turn away and spot the next groaning pile of rubble. "I don't mean to tell you how to do your job, but you might want to treat Midnight last."
  1040. Between Midnight Blossom, yourself, and any other able-bodied pony you help, the rest of your team is soon out of the rubble and being treated for their wounds. The sounds of battle above seem to invigorate each of your teammates to spring back into action, but you all know you won't be nearly at full strength when you eventually rejoin the battle. Even if Quickthistle is working as efficiently as she can.
  1041. >Nopony is making eye contact with Midnight Blossom as she limps back and forth impatiently, left wing giving the odd flutter of annoyance.
  1042. >/Alright.../
  1043. >Three of your team will not be joining you for the rest of the mission.
  1044. >Quickthistle's broken wing ensures her no way out of this grotto for the time being, and even if somepony were to carry her back up to battle, she'd be at a severe disadvantage. You don't intend on losing anypony tonight.
  1045. >Furtive Wind's broken hoof is a similar situation. But instead of grounded, she'd be stuck in the air. All it would take would be a hard stumble onto the ground to incapacitate her long enough to be an easy target.
  1046. >...Plus seeing the state of her mane might make Rarity up and faint out of shock.
  1047. >And lastly, Midnight Blossom, even if she doesn't want to hear it.
  1048. >Okay, so that just leaves you with yourself, Moonlight Ambrosia, Cerus Thorn, and Moonlight Ambrosia.
  1049. >Guess it's time to step up to bat, Vice-Captain.
  1050. >Hehe--
  1051. >/Wait./
  1052. >You do a double take. Sure enough, there's Moonlight Ambrosia, shaking the rest of the dust off her pelt in a spray of gray mist.
  1053. >Right next to her?
  1054. >Moonlight Ambrosia, using her fangs to preen some excess dust from her wingpit.
  1055. >As the two Moonlight Ambrosias finish their hygienic minutiae, the rest of the team slowly start to notice the doppelgangers and mirror your flabbergasted expression. The last two ponies to notice it are the Moonlight Ambrosias themselves, who react as reasonably as you could expect.
  1056. >They stare at each other.
  1057. >"/SPY!/" Furtive Wind shouts, pointing a hoof between the two of them. "/I'M NOT SURE WHICH ONE YET, BUT SPY!!/"
  1058. >Immediately, each Moonlight Ambrosia leaps away from their identical counterpart and lower into a defensive crouch, hackles raised, fangs bared.
  1059. >/...Yeah, you're not doing this./
  1060. "Rear captain Moonlight Ambrosia," you command, gaining the attention of each of the mares. You might not know a thing about Spy, or Soldier, or Merasmus, or frankly any of the voodoo-nonsense that's been going on in the last few hours, but you do know a thing about earth pony biology. "...Take flight."
  1061. >"Yes, ma'am!" Moonlight Ambrosia says with a salute and a flap of her wings.
  1062. >You smirk and set your sights on the imposter Moonlight. Freaky, magicky disguise-abilities or not, no earth pony can--
  1063. >Where'd he go?
  1064. >/"EEEEEEEEE!”/
  1065. >You start, turning back towards Moonlight Ambrosia to see two Moonlight Ambrosias in a rolling ball of fangs, squeaking, and hissing.
  1066. >The team is immediately on top of them, and as quickly as it started, the tussle is over. Unfortunately, it isn't quick enough.
  1067. >"My wing!" Moonlight Ambrosia shouts. "H-he cut through my wing!"
  1068. >"You bastard!" the other Moonlight Ambrosia squeals as she tries desperately to take to the air. It only earns her a pained gasp as blood trickles down from the deep gash in her wing.
  1069. >The deep gash, identical to the other Moonlight's wing.
  1070. >/…Clever boy./
  1071. >Midnight Blossom joins you at your side, and you turn to see her stoic face studying the two thestrals. "Does anypony know Moonlight Ambrosia personally?" she asks.
  1072. >/That's it!/
  1073. >Ask them something only the real Moonlight Ambrosia will know!
  1074. >...
  1075. >...Nopony is responding.
  1076. >"The debrief was the first place I’ve ever seen her,” Cerus Thorn says, prompting the rest of your team to murmur their agreement.
  1077. >Truth be told, you didn't even know her name until she was introduced to the Elements. She kinda seemed like “side character material” to you so you never got to know her.
  1078. >Well, buck. Now you feel like an ass.
  1079. >This might be harder than you thou—
  1080. >”Hold on a second!”
  1081. >Furtive Wind limps forward. She tries her best to look tough, but that’s not exactly easy. You know, broken hoof.
  1082. >…And a mane that would make most balding elders blush from second-hoof embarrassment.
  1083. >Furtive Wind stands between the two Moonlight Ambrosias, giving each one a long, hard look.
  1084. >”…Alright, maggots!” she pipes up. “What does the baguette feel when you cut it?”
  1085. >/…Luna above./
  1086. >”This is ridiculous,” Quickthistle mutters, and you can’t help but sigh in agreement.
  1087. >You can only hope Midnight Blossom doesn’t eviscerate Furtive Wind /too/ bad once this is all over.
  1088. >Either undeterred or oblivious to the rest of the team’s glares, Furtive Wind leans in, and…
  1089. >”…It feels… /pain./”
  1090. >…
  1091. >…
  1092. >…
  1093. >…snort hon hon
  1094. >”GET ‘IM!”
  1095. >/Well, Luna above!/
  1096. >As you and every other thestral in the cavern tackle the imposter, Spy’s howl of despair reigns over the yelling, hissing, and growling:
  1097. >”/GOD DAMNIT, SOLDIER!/”
  1098.  
  1099. ~~~
  1100.  
  1101. >YOU’RE RAINBOW DASH
  1102. >THAT’S ALL THE TIME YOU HAVE FOR INTRODUCTIONS KTHXBAI
  1103. >zzZZAP!
  1104. >WOAH!
  1105. >You zip to the side just in time to avoid another green fireball from the wizard.
  1106. >So what if Twilight would have a conniption if you call them green fireballs? You don’t speak magic mumbo-jumbo!
  1107. >And you’re glad you don’t, because Faust above, this guy’s speaking another language entirely! How does he even do that with his tongue?!
  1108. ~~/HURLUS BOMBINUS!/~~
  1109. ~~/MORTIS LONGDISTIMUS!/~~
  1110. ~~/STAFUS ATTACKUM!/~~
  1111. >”ALLAHU ACKBAR!”
  1112. >Wait, that last one was actually Pinkie!
  1113. >Speaking of Pinkie, she just landed another hit on Merasmus!
  1114. >You’d cheer for her if you weren’t so frustrated that she was literally the ONLY one who’s gotten any good hits on him so far!
  1115. ~~/AGH! WELL PLAYED… /FOOL!//~~ Merasmus bellows.
  1116. >But, just like all the times before, the victory is short-lived. With another shout of the arcane tongue, Merasmus lifts the mighty book in his hooves and launches a volley of six fireballs into the air.
  1117. >The fireballs immediately curve towards their targets, and no matter how you twist or turn, your designated death ball careens into you.
  1118. >Just kidding, it careens into the purple sphere of defensive magic that suddenly appeared around you.
  1119. “THANKS, TWI!” you shout as the sphere disintegrates.
  1120. >As Twilight disengages the defensive spell from the rest of the Elements, she shouts to Applejack, “GIMME SOMETHING ABOUT THE PROCULETUM SPELLS FROM EARTH!”
  1121. >Applejack is a frantic orange blur by the bookshelves as you swoop close to the ground. ”PRO-CO-LETUM SPELLS?! THE HAY ARE THOSE?!”
  1122. >”Err—JUST THROW ME EVERYTHING THAT LOOKS OMINOUS AND MACABRE!”
  1123. >”NOW YER’ JUST SAYIN’ FANCY WORDS TO SOUND SMART! DAGNABIT, RARITY, WOULD YOU STOP SCREAMIN’ FOR TEN SECONDS?!”
  1124. >Just as AJ says this, a white unicorn streaks past her, screaming at the top of her lungs, /still/ being chased by the ethereal skeletons Merasmus summoned five minutes ago.
  1125. >”Alright, Twi!” Applejack shouts as she grabs an armful of books from the many shelves. “Ah’m a’ pilin’!”
  1126. ~~/AH! FOOL! CAREFUL WITH THOSE PRICELESS THOMES! MERASMUS STOLE MANY SOULS FOR THOSE!/~~
  1127. >The moment Merasmus is stationary, winding up a dangerous-looking spell, Fluttershy makes her move. She swoops in and engages The Stare, right in front of Merasmus’ face. You take the opportunity to quickly zip by the pile of books AJ made and send them off towards Twilight.
  1128. “Why do you even need all these?!” you shout the moment you’re by Twilight’s side, the books at her hooves.
  1129. >”I think I might be able to find out his weakness!” Twilight responds as she quickly gets to work, her eyes glowing with an magicky white light as she hastily flips through each of the books. “There’s a good chance it’s in these thomes… The magical structure of his spells are different from ours, and we know his body has no ambient magic, but gosh darnit, that makes no sense! Nothing in Equus can survive without ambient magic!”
  1130. >…Y-you knew all that.
  1131. >”I’m on the verge of a plan, I just know it! I just need to know more! For now, just keep him—”
  1132. >A terrified but oddly quiet scream interrupts Twilight as a smoking, yellow blur shoots just above both of your heads. Fluttershy tumbles to a stop a ways away, broken and bruised.
  1133. >”Keep him distracted!” Twilight shouts as she drops her current book and gallops toward Fluttershy, her horn glowing with warm healing magic.
  1134. ~~/PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION IS NOT ALLOWED IN MERASMUS’ PERSONAL CHAMBERS! ONLY WHEN IT IS DONE BY MERASMUS HIMSELF IS IT ALLOWED! OH MY GOD, PINK MORTAL, IF YOU’RE DOING WHAT MERASMUS THINKS/~~
  1135. >/BOOM!/
  1136. >Another explosive piñata detonates right in Merasmus’ face!
  1137. >”SUCK MY DICK, MOTHERBUCKER!” Pinkie Pie wails as she beats her chest like an ape. “/SUCK IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!/”
  1138. ~~/AGH! OH, YOU REALLY NEED TO PUT A /LEASH/ ON THIS CREATURE!/~~
  1139. A fiery blush engulfs your features, and as you dodge another fireball, you scream at the top of your lungs, ”FOR THE LAST TIME, I AM NOT! GAY!”
  1140. ~~/…What? Oh, ew! EW! WHAT IS WITH YOU PONIES?!/~~
  1141. >/ZAP!/
  1142. >A lightning spell just misses you!
  1143. >Even though you’d never admit it, it’s impossible to ignore.
  1144. >You’re terrified.
  1145. >Applejack is terrified.
  1146. >Twilight, Fluttershy, and Rarity are all terrified!
  1147. >Especially Rarity!
  1148. >”WILL SOMEPONY PLEASE TOSS A CARTON OF MILK AWAY FROM ME OR SOMETHING?! GET THESE SKELETONS OFF OF MEEEEEEEEEEEE!!”
  1149. >Why, out of all of you, is Pinkie Pie the only one who can land a hit on this guy?!
  1150. >Isn’t she scared too?!
  1151.  
  1152.  
  1153. >Be Pinkie Pie.
  1154. >RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR! RIP AND TEAR!
  1155.  
  1156.  
  1157. >Back to Rainbow Dash.
  1158. >…Yeah, you guess Pinks is taking Jane’s fate a little more personally.
  1159. Ker-POW!
  1160. ~~/OW! /ENOUGH!/ MERASMUS DIDN’T WANT TO HAVE TO DO THIS, BUT YOU LEAVE HIM NO CHOICE! I CURSE YOU ALL… /CERUS MINISCUS!//~~
  1161. >A giggle that’s too evil to come from Pinkie comes from Pinkie. “CURSE ME ALL YOU WANT, WIZARD! IT WON’t keep you from _the bloody fate that awaits!_”
  1162. >As Pinkie continues talking, you notice that her voice has gotten… significantly higher in pitch.
  1163. “what’s the matter, pinks?!” you call out before it hits you like a freight train.
  1164. >Your voice is also tiny.
  1165. >…
  1166. >…Your /head/ is tiny!
  1167. >Everypony in the room’s heads are tiny!
  1168. “oh, what the buck!” you shout angrily at Merasmus.
  1169. >And that’s when Pinkie Pie starts to laugh.
  1170. >She tries to conceal it at first. You can see it in her eyes. She tries /so hard/ to keep on the move, to reload her party canon, to pull out more deadly weapons from her mane or tail, but--
  1171. >Twilight Sparkle’s squeaky toy voice chirrups another command to Applejack.
  1172. >Rarity’s chipmunk squeal persists throughout the cavern as she continues to be useless.
  1173. >Pinkie Pie’s own laughter becomes her own enemy as it raises higher and higher in pitch.
  1174. >And, she’s gone.
  1175. >”G-G-GUYS! AHAHHAHAHAHA!” Pinkie gets out before collapsing into a manic ball of laughter. “/GUYS, YOU GOTTA—AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! S-S-S-TOP –SNRKSNRKSNRK! TALKINGGGGGGG! AHAHAHAHA! I C-C-CAN’T—GKHGKHGKH-- I’M GONANA PEEEE!!/”
  1176. >HORSEFEATHERS!
  1177. ~~/merasmus… totally planned that!/~~ Merasmus bellows in the cutest widdle wizard voice you did ever heard. ~~/...it was /not/ a side effect from this damn ambient magic! merasmus is just that much of a genuis!/~~
  1178. >You swoop in and grab Pinkie just before a green fireball crashes into where she was moments before. She’s too busy gasping desperately for breath between her spasms of laughter to acknowledge it.
  1179. ~~/ahahahaha! fools! cower before your better! cower before marasmus, the greatest wizard of both earth /and/ equus! ahahahahahaha!!! /hahahahahahahahahaha!!/ --oh wow, this voice got annoying real quick./~~
  1180.  
  1181.  
  1182. >Vous êtes l’espion
  1183. >Et cette semaine passée—
  1184. >Oh, right.
  1185. >You’re Spy.
  1186. >And this past week, you thought you had seen it all.
  1187. >Disappearances. Kill squads. Sleepless days making sure Jeremy was safe.
  1188. >And that was just Earth.
  1189. >Turns out, there was a whole other world of things to see.
  1190. >Exhibit A:
  1191. >Your limbs are tied up in the same fashion of a calf in an American rodeo as you lay on the cold and sharp stone floor. Two bizarrely proportioned thestrals are having a heated argument in front of you as they pace angrily, wings flaring and hackles raised. There is another, smaller one in the corner, her front right hoof wrapped in a field splint. Furtive Wind, was it?
  1192. >…Now, you might not know much about pony anatomy in this world, but one thing you’ve heard much about is something called a “Y-7 gland.” The psychothaumaturgical connection in a pony’s mind which allows them to control if and when their genitalia are visible.
  1193. >You are forever grateful that that exists. Because whenever Furtive Wind thinks you’re not looking, her entire head swoops in your direction as she stares at your exposed backside.
  1194. >If there’s one type of woman you’re uninterested in, it’s the type that makes it too easy.
  1195. >…and the talking bat-horse type as well.
  1196. >”You’re insane, Midnight!” one of the thestrals – Quickthistle – shouts at the other.
  1197. >”I’m the only sane one here, you cock-crazed pup,” Midnight growls, still pacing back and forth while stealing glances at the hole in the ceiling.
  1198. >”Right, which is why I had to hold you back while those two flew up to the Elements.”
  1199. >”Two thestrals won’t make a difference. I need to get up there. We all need to—”
  1200. >”YOUR LEG IS BROKEN! YOUR WING IS SPRAINED! Neither Moonlight nor I can fly, Furtive Wind has a broken hoof, and Serendipity is Luna-knows-where!”
  1201. “I left her unconscious body at the cave entrance,” you interject.
  1202. >”SHUT UP!” Quickthistle screams. She pounces at you, landing mere inches away as she hisses in your face.
  1203. >You try not to react, but as if it’s in your body’s nature, you can feel your pupils shrink slightly.
  1204. >At Midnight’s quiet scoff, Quickthistle whips back around. ”Oh, shut up! Cerus and Sillow are the only two with more than a Daydwellers’ chance on the Moon to help the Elements, and you know it!”
  1205. >”Injured or not,” Midnight growls. “Failure is not an option. If Luna won’t allow it, neither will I.”
  1206. >”Holy Moon above, are you seriously still stuck on that personal guard pipe dream?”
  1207. >You’re surprised to see it possible, but Midnight’s glare deepens. “Do ambitious mares intimidate you, Quickthistle?”
  1208. >”What the buck are you saying?!”
  1209. >”I know it might seem improbable to you at first, but if you really try, I’m sure you can wrap your thick head around it when I say: a mare can aspire for something that isn’t a stallion .”
  1210. >”Ohhh, you pretentious /CUNT!/ Of COURSE you’d make this about stallions, you failed alpha!”
  1211. >Midnight’s pupils contract to thin slits as she stares at her subordinate. ”This has nothing to do with Cloud Skipper.”
  1212. >There’s a pregnant pause before the grotto is filled with Quickthistle’s sardonic laughter. You can’t help but tilt your head. Christ, this pony body is too expressive for its own good.
  1213. >“…You know what?” Quickthistle sneers in a way that makes your face want to cringe as she approaches Midnight. “I think I finally get it. After all this time, I think I finally get it. I think it /does/ have to do with Cloud Skipper. I think you just might be the most colt-crazed out of all of us! I can’t believe it took another stallion of yours to get hurt for me to realize it, but--!”
  1214. >It isn’t the blinding swipe from Midnight that makes your blood churn, but the ear-piercing yowl of pain from Quickthistle as her broken wing is swatted. Like a struck puppy, she quickly scurries away from her captain as she shields her wing.
  1215. >”/CAPTAIN!/” Moonlight yelps as she is immediately between the two thestrals, Furtive Wind right beside her.
  1216. >To her credit, Midnight Blossom has the face you’ve had the most trouble reading since you’ve gotten here. Ponies are hopelessly expressive. Thestrals less-so, and Midnight is probably the best of them. Still, you don’t need a decade’s experience of studying facial expressions to see that she immediately regretted that.
  1217. >All Midnight can do is merely stare between Quickthistle and her two subordinates before she finally speaks.
  1218. >”…I didn’t care about him,” Midnight says to herself, so weak your ears strain to hear her. “…I don’t…”
  1219. >You recognize the tone in her voice. The others might not, but it’s a tone you’ve started to notice your team speaking in rather often after Soldier’s disappearance.
  1220. >It’s a tone in which you’ve noticed yourself speaking.
  1221. “I may have a plan, if you’ll hear me out,” you cut through the silence.
  1222. >Immediately, Quickthistle answers with a swift, “Shut him up.”
  1223. >Most of the mares’ eyes are on you now, ranging from bitter distrust to cautious curiosity. Midnight Blossom remains slouched over, turned away from her team.
  1224. “I didn’t realize you were the ones giving orders here, specialist Quickthistle,” you say, earning a glare from the thestral.
  1225. >”He’s just trying to smoothtalk his way out,” Quickthistle hisses. “Don’t fall for his colty whimsy.”
  1226. “If I was trying to smoothtalk my way out, I wouldn’t be talking to all of you at once. I’d be talking to Furtive Wind, who hasn’t stopped sneaking peaks at my backside since this conversation started.”
  1227. >Squeak!
  1228. “And colty whimsy? I’m willing to put down three thousand dollars that I’m the most levelheaded one in this cave.”
  1229. >”Oh, yeah, working for Merasmus is a such a levelheaded move.”
  1230. “I am not working /for/ that wizard, /chauve-souris,/” you spit, the thought making your skin crawl. “He and I had an agreement. An agreement which expired the moment he hurt Soldier.”
  1231. >The glint of two pale yellow orbs turning your way tells you now have Midnight Blossom’s attention.
  1232. >"I can’t believe we’re even listening to this guy!” Furtive Wind exclaims to her cohorts. “He’s not on our side! He’s just--… a good liar is all! He’s still working for that wizard, I know it! He grounded Moonlight, for Moon’s sake!”
  1233. "While disguised as her, I studied her body's wings. I was careful to not sever any obvious tendons or important-looking veins. I'm sure she'll heal in time, or even quicker, with some of that handy magic you ponies seem have in excess."
  1234. >"Thestrals don't have nearly as much access to magic, /redback./”
  1235. >Well, that word didn’t sound nice.
  1236. >”And how could you have been careful while you were thrashing and flailing around like a scared pup?" Quickthistle sneers.
  1237. "A mere performance,” you sigh. “I know how to handle a knife, /chérie./"
  1238. >"/Cherry?/ What, was that flattery? You're not my type, colt."
  1239. "It’s a common nickname, you ugly horse. Don't let it get to your head.”
  1240. >Quickthistle gives you a look as if you’d just insulted her entire reason for living.
  1241. >”If you’re not working for Merasmus, then what are your true intentions?”
  1242. >You turn your head to see that Midnight is approaching you. Quickthistle sees her at the same time you do, flinching and taking a big step away from her captain.
  1243. “Now?” you say as Midnight’s hooves stop right in front of your face. “Now I only wish to return home. I’ve failed my original mission.”
  1244. >A gray hoof reaches out and grabs you on the shoulder (you’ve stopped wondering about the logistics of that days ago), lifting you up into a sitting position. You grunt as you’re settled on your haunches, Midnight’s pale yellow eyes now dangerously close to your own.
  1245. >”What do you mean you’ve ‘failed?’”
  1246. You look at Midnight Blossom in the eyes, and without a hint of dishonesty, reply, "I was here to bring Soldier back home. Working with Merasmus was… an inextricable situation. And, like every time Soldier is involved, things went downhill quickly."
  1247. >"You knew Soldier personally?"
  1248. >You take a deep breath. This is going to take a while.
  1249. >But before you can even decide where to begin, each of the thestrals’ ears swivel towards the hole in the ceiling. Your weaker ears pick up on the sound echoing down the hole later than theirs do: a pair of wings fluttering down the hole to your positions.
  1250. >Almost comically, Cerus Thorn’s upside-down head peaks out from the hole, her braided mane hanging like a second tail. The fanged grin on her face almost lights up the entire grotto.
  1251. >”Captain!” she chirps. Midnight’s eyes don’t leave your own, although a flick of her ear shows her acknowledgement. “You won’t believe what’s going on up there!”
  1252. >As Cerus Thorn spends the next five minutes explaining, thinking her explanation wasn’t doing it justice, and re-explaining the events that transpired above, slowly, each of the thestrals’ faces mirror Cerus’. All except Midnight Blossom are now smiling giddily at the news, and the grotto almost vibrates with their newfound determination.
  1253. >Although you hide it better than they do, you can’t fight the rising warmth in your own chest.
  1254. “Captain Midnight Blossom,” you speak up. “If you’ll hear me out, I definitely have a plan.”
  1255. >Midnight Blossom nods, and as you explain, you can almost feel the atmosphere in the grotto change. Even if they don’t say it, you can see it in their eyes; slowly, you win each of the thestrals over. Furtive Wind is the first, then Moonlight, and finally, begrudgingly, Quickthistle recognizes your genius.
  1256. >As you finish your explanation though, Midnight Blossom’s expression still hasn’t changed.
  1257. >Her eyes quickly scan over your face one last time – a habit you recognize as her studying you for trustworthiness – before she finally speaks.
  1258. >"...Alright,” she whispers with a nod. Midnight then nods to Moonlight Ambrosia, who approaches and hands her your butterfly knife. Midnight Blossom leans over you as she begins to cut your bonds. “But first, let’s make one thing clear. The moment we get the chance, you are trotting up to the Element of Honesty and you will explain everything to me. Soldier, Merasmus, yourself… everything. If she says you're lying, I don't care if you're a colt, you will pay. Until then, you're not leaving my sight."
  1259. >You can’t hide the faint lilt of disappointment in your voice as Midnight stashes your knife in her wingpit.
  1260. “Understood.”
  1261.  
  1262. Earlier…
  1263.  
  1264. >you’rerainbowdasdgh;dkjsgskadjfgh
  1265. >/Zzap!/
  1266. >No time for introductions
  1267. >No breath for introductions
  1268. >Holy Celestia Pinkie needs to lose weight
  1269. >”hahahahaha! i-i-it’s not f-fat! snrksnrksnrk, it’s muscle you twink! ahahahahaha!”
  1270. >With how hard she’s laughing right now she’s gonna come out of this with some wicked abs
  1271. >Wait. Pinkie just read your mind
  1272. >Whatever
  1273. >You can’t breathe
  1274. >Your thoughts are jumbled
  1275. >Your not putting periods at the end of your sentences
  1276. >You used the wrong your
  1277. >Twilight, in case you can read minds as well, don’t kill me please
  1278. >All you can do is hack and wheeze as you slowly drag an incapacitated Pinkie Pie through the air, saving your energy for the occasional burst of speed needed to dodge a fireball from Merasmus.
  1279. >”uhhh, pass me something about ambientium spells, AJ!” Twilight’s squeaky voice calls out, sending Pinkie into another fit of giggles.
  1280. >”t-there’s nothing left!” a chipmunk—no wait, that’s Applejack-- yells back.
  1281. >Sure enough, all the bookshelves of the cavern are empty, their contents in several messy piles around the cavern.
  1282. >You know Twilight would’ve preferred to keep all the books in a neat pile, but after your team’s only source of actual damage was reduced to a snorting, laughing mass of pink, Twilight had to make do with dropping the books wherever she could to avoid Merasmus’ magic.
  1283. >”that can’t be right! come on, there has to be something else! i’m so—/woah!/”
  1284. >/ZAP!/
  1285. >Another green bolt of lightning striking Twilight’s previous spot. Another white flash of light as she reappears across the room.
  1286. ~~/SO CLOSE!/~~
  1287. >Twilight staggers as she drops to her haunches, panting hard. You can’t say you’re doing any better.
  1288. >Speaking of…
  1289. >Hey, brain?
  1290. >Yes, wings?
  1291. >We’re done.
  1292. >…Huh?
  1293. >We are done-zo.
  1294. >W-wait! You gals can’t be done-zo!
  1295. >Yyyyyeah, we’re thinking we’re done-zo.
  1296. >NO! YOU CAN’T GIVE UP NOW! PINKIE’S COUNTING ON YOU! THEY’RE ALL COUNTING ON YOU! WE’RE THE ELEMENT OF LOYALTY FOR PETE’S SAKE! WHAT ABOUT ALL THAT SPEED TRAINING YOU’VE BEEN DOING, HUH?! DOESN’T THAT COUNT FOR SOMETHING?!
  1297. >lol should’ve done endurance training, low-e dyel tuftlet, ngmi, don’t hit your head too hard
  1298. >/THUNK!/
  1299. >You let out a cross between a groan of pain from the impact of the stone ground and a moan of ecstasy from the feeling returning to your wings.
  1300. >Your mind screams to grab Pinkie and continue flying, but your body is in too much of a haze to cooperate.
  1301. >An ugly, cruel laughter fills the cave, but you barely register it. Somewhere far from here, you can hear the rest of your friends screaming for you. Your vision fills with a green light.
  1302. “S-sorry… Panko,” you gurgle out, holding your friend close—
  1303. >YEE-OUCH!
  1304. >ALRIGHT, SO YOU KNOW THAT CLICHÉ WHERE THE HERO’S ABOUT TO DIE BEFORE SOMEPONY SWOOPS IN AND CARRIES THEM OFF TO SAFETY?!
  1305. >DID’JA KNOW THAT THE WHIPLASH OF THAT HURTS LIKE A DRY DICK UP THE ASS?!
  1306. >’CUZ IT DOES!
  1307. “OW! YOU BUCKING CU—” you start at the black hooves wrapped around your barrel, before the urge to vomit pushes up from your throat.
  1308. >You’re too busy trying not to upchuck to lay into her as the bat pony sets you down next to Twilight.
  1309. >”Twilight Sparkle,” you hear her say to your friend as you shiver on the ground. “I’m vice-captain Silhouette, and this is fangbearer Cerus Thor—oh my Luna, your head is tiny.”
  1310. >As the second bat pony is introduced, a hyperventilating mass of pink party pony is set down next to you.
  1311. >”yes, i know!" Twilight begins to panic. "it makes no sense! organic-space manipulation spells work by condensing the ambient magic particles—”
  1312. >And, that’s the point when you tuned out.
  1313. >To be fair, most of the other ponies tuned out at that time as well as another green fireball is sent your way. After a nauseating haze of more secondhoof whiplash, blinding white teleportation lights, and the green shock of Merasmus’ spell making your vision swim, you’re in a new location.
  1314. >It’s a miracle last night’s dinner is staying put.
  1315. >”Twilight Sparkle,” Silhouette continues as if the world around her wasn’t swimming. “The, uh… big, bad wizard?”
  1316. >”r-right!” Twilight squeaks as she stares at the chaos in front of her. “i-i can handle this! --the elements can handle this, i mean! but—oh, celestia, what are we supposed to do?!”
  1317. >Using probably the last of your strength for the evening, you wobblily get to your hooves, rear your hoof back, and give Twilight Sparkle the hardest spank she’s probably ever received in her entire life.
  1318. “OH, FOR THE LOVE OF FAUST, HE’S A BUCKING VILLAIN! ALL OF YOU, JUST /BEAT THE FEATHERS OUT OF HIM ALREADY!!!/”
  1319. >Twilight lets out an adorable “Eep!” (double the adorableness, giving the raised pitch), and her horn immediately charges with powerful offensive magic. Before Merasmus can even react, a blast of raw, pitch-white magic streaks out from Twilight’s horn and slams into him. Merasmus is, once again, sent flying into the stony wall of the cavern.
  1320. >At his magical grip’s loosening, you feel the bizarre lengthening and widening of your head returning to its original size.
  1321. ~~/OW! OHH, THAT... ACTUALLY REALLY HURT!/~~
  1322. >"I'm so sorry!” Twilight squeaks as, with another white flash of light, she’s near the foot of the second Merasmus-shaped crater in the cavern walls. “I didn't mean to hurt you, I'm just trying to stop your evil machinations!"
  1323. ~~/HUZZAH!/~~
  1324. >/ZAP!/
  1325. >”YEE-OUCH!”
  1326. >Twilight yelps as she’s sent airborne from the direct hit of the green fireball. With a painful tumble across the stone floor, your smoking friend’s body slips and falls into the hole.
  1327. >”Guano!” Cerus shouts as she’s immediately in pursuit, disappearing down the hole in less than a second.
  1328. >For an agonizingly long moment, as he dislodges himself from the stone wall, Merasmus looks just as unbelieving as you are.
  1329. >But then, he starts smiling.
  1330. >An evil, conniving, manipulative smile. A smile that only a stallion could execute so flawlessly.
  1331. >”/Take this, ya darn sideshow freak!/” AJ yells out from somewhere out of your vision.
  1332. “W-wait!” you call out, but it’s too late.
  1333. >Applejack is already speeding towards Merasmus, and with a mighty leap and a twist in midair, she lands a solid buck to his cheek.
  1334. >You’d be impressed, and maybe even a bit competitive, if you weren’t busy being mortified.
  1335. ~~/OHHH, MY FACE! YOU’VE HURT MERASMUS’ SENSITIVE STALLION FACE! RIGHT ON HIS EMACULATELY-EXFOLIATED CHEEK AS WELL! OOOOOHHHH, THE PAAAAAAIIIN!/~~
  1336. >”O-oh, my Celestia!” Applejack shouts as she freezes on the stop. “Ah’ knew it, Ah’ shouldn’t ‘av-- M-my honest apologies! Oh, consarnit, Ah’ll never hit a colt again, Ah’ swear it! Lemme make it up to—"
  1337. ~~/ALAKAZAM!/~~
  1338. >/ZAP!/
  1339. >“GAH!”
  1340. >Next up is Rarity, as she overpowers your pathetic objection with, ”Forgive me, darling, but I can’t let you keep hurting my friends!”
  1341. >/Zap!/
  1342. ~~/OHHH, YOU’VE LAID YOUR AGONIZING COMBAT MAGIC ON A STALLION! MY COLTY PAIN TOLERANCE CAN’T HANDLE IT! AND MY MAGNIFICIENT ATTIRE I’VE SPENT WEEKS ON! HOW COULD I EVER RECOVER FROM THIS?!/~~
  1343. >”My /GOODNESS/, I-I can’t apologize enough! I don’t know what came over--!”
  1344. ~~/EMOTIONAL MANIPULATION ATTACK!/~~
  1345. >/ZAP!/
  1346. >”Wa-ha-haaaow!”
  1347. >…
  1348. >...
  1349. >/ZAP!/
  1350. >”Eep!”
  1351. ~~/THE YELLOW ONE HAS SOME SERIOUS SELF-ESTEEM ISSUES. TOO BAD SHE WILL BE TOO /DEAD/ TO WORK ON THEM!/~~
  1352. >Merasmus cackles as he swaggers to the center of the cavern, turning to each of his victims. All you can do is desperately try to fill your lungs with air as Pinkie shakes with uncontrollable laughter and Silhouette crouches in front of you, hackles raised. Not even Cerus Thorn emerging from the hole in the ground, a barely conscious Twilight Sparkle in her front hooves, can draw your attention from the crowing wizard.
  1353. ~~/FOOLS … /FOOOOOOOLS!/ MERASMUS IS A MINORITY HERE! HARASSMENT LAWS CATER TO ME! THE COSMIC POWERS OF VICTIMHOOD HAVE GRANTED MERASMUS IMMUNITY! I AM INVINCIBLLLLLE! HAAAAAAA-HAHAHHAHAAHA!/~~
  1354. >"UNFORTUNATELY FOR YOU, MAGGOT, HARASSING MINORITIES IS A CLASSIC /AMERICAN/ PASTIME!!"
  1355. ~~/…Okay, I'm sure that was just meant to be a cute little tie-in to what I said, but sometimes the things you say really concern me, Soldier./~~
  1356. >…
  1357. ~~//…SOLDIER?!//~~
  1358. >You’re surprised nopony breaks their neck with how quickly each and every head in the cavern snaps to the pony on top of a tall stone overlooking the room.
  1359. >Sure enough, with a scowl that would make the face of any mare, stallion, or mentally ill dyke pale in paralyzing fear, is Soldier.
  1360. >…A fully /CLOTHED/ SOLDIER?!
  1361. >Yep, standing on his rear hooves as he holds what looks like a hoofheld canon and dawning a slightly-too-large helmet, Soldier is wearing a war-torn, red… /bulging/ military uniform on his upper body, and a pair of rugged, dark brown… /SKIN TIGHT/ trousers on his lower half.
  1362. >unf.overusedjoke
  1363. >It’s then you notice that the unabating laughter of Pinkie Pie has indeed abated.
  1364. >You turn to your friend to see tears rolling down her beet-red cheeks, a wide smile on her face.
  1365. >”…I am so happy right now,” Pinkie Pie whispers.
  1366. ~~/…Ahhh! Soldier! My dear… dear... fully-armed best friend!/~~
  1367. >The only response from Soldier is a deeper scowl. Even though you can’t see his eyes from underneath that oversized helmet, you can practically feel his glare in your bones.
  1368. ~~/...How is your elbow, by the way? I'm... ever so concerned by that.~~/
  1369. >Once again, silence pervades the cavern.
  1370. ~~/...Okay, seriously, how did you get back here? You were supposed to be sent to Hell for all of Eternity!/~~
  1371. >"Hell?!” Soldier guffaws, confidently resting his left hoof on his hip and sexily puffing out his chest and holy Celestia your wings have never gone from on the verge of death to standing at astute attention so quickly. “I wouldn’t say Hell /literally,/ but you were damn close! You sent me to cp_Gorge, you scum-sucking FRUIT BASKET!"
  1372. ~~/THAT STILL DOESN’T EXPLAIN HOW YOU GOT BACK HERE, YOU INSUFFERABLE MORTAL!/~~
  1373. >"You forgot to close the portal! I just walked back in!"
  1374. >The resounding /CLOP!/ of Merasmus' facehoof echoes throughout all of Equus.
  1375. >”Wait a minute…” Twilight mutters to herself. As her second wind slowly enters her system, Twilight staggers to her charred hooves before shouting, “Soldier! Do you hate this ‘see-pee Gorge,’ whatever that place is?”
  1376. >”Absolutely!” Soldier shouts.
  1377. >”Would you consider it your own, personal ‘Hell?’”
  1378. ~~/…Wait, what are you doing, purple mortal?/~~
  1379. >”You’d have to be INSANE to not consider that impossible maze of a ghost town Hell on Earth!”
  1380. >”THAT’S IT!”
  1381. >With a speed to rival a Sonic Rainboom, every head swivels to an exuberant Twilight Sparkle.
  1382. >”IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW!” she shrieks, and oh no, you know what’s coming. “MERASMUS’ LACK OF AMBIENT MAGIC, THE PORTAL TO ‘HELL,’ WHICH I CAN REASONABLY ASSUME IS HIS VERSION OF TARTARUS, MERASMUS’ DIRECT-OFFENSIVE MAGIC NOT WORKING PROPERLY, HIM HAVING TO RESORT TO INDIRECT SPELLS! IT ALL MAKES SENSE! IN TOTAL, THERE ARE TEN TYPES OF MAGIC IN EQUUS! HARMONY, CHAOS, AMBIENT, ORGANIC—”
  1383. >Aaaaaaand you’re out.
  1384. >Well, at least this time your consciousness isn’t fully out of the immediate vicinity. You’re still staring at the way Soldier’s leg muscles twitch and striate through his pants.
  1385. >”…MERASMUS’ MAGICAL SIGNATURE ISN’T MUCH DIFFERENT FROM SOLDIER’S! THAT, COUPLED WITH EVERYTHING SOLDIER’S TOLD US, SUGGESTS THAT THEY’RE FROM A DIFFERENT DIMENSION ENTIRELY! ONE WITHOUT AMBIENT MAGIC! BUT IF THAT’S TRUE, THEN HOW ARE THEY RIGHT HERE IN FRONT OF US, INSTEAD OF EXPLODING IN—”
  1386. >…Wow, that stalagmite sure is far away…
  1387. >…Heh. Phallic object funny.
  1388. >”…SO, IN CONCLUSION, MERASMUS DOES NOT HAVE AMBIENT MAGIC BECAUSE, UNLIKE SOLDIER, WHO EXPERIENCED A HARMONIC TRANSFORMATION; MERASMUS IS A BEING OF PURE EARTHLY MAGIC! SO HE IS NOT A THAUMATURGICALLY INDEPENDENT ORGANISM, AND NOT CAPABLE OF RETAINING HIS FORM INDEPENDENT OF MAGICAL ASSISTANCE! THERE IS SOMETHING THAT’S KEEPING HIS FORM INTACT! A MAGICAL RELIC HE BROUGHT WITH HIM FROM EARTH!”
  1389. >Thanks to your years of working with Twilight, you’ve successfully honed your skills of tuning into what she’s saying just before you miss the important bit.
  1390. >And thank Celestia you did, because now you feel like you can fly a marathon.
  1391. >dont even think about it tuftlet
  1392. >Figure of speech.
  1393. >”THAT’S HOW WE DEFEAT HIM, GIRLS!” Twilight cheers, prompting a similar reaction from the rest of the Elements.
  1394. ~~/…Eheheh…! FOOL! THAT’S JUST WHAT… MERASMUS WANTS YOU TO THINK!/~~
  1395. >Merasmus' attempt at manipulation comes off more as a plea, what with the nervous smile on his face and the few beads of sweat trailing down his forehead.
  1396. >It disappears, suddenly, as the wizard is hit with a wave of indignation.
  1397. ~~/MERASMUS HAS CENTURIES OF MAGICAL KNOWLEDGE! HE WAS BORN IN THE 17TH CENTURY DURING TIMES AT WHICH HIS KIND WAS OSTROCIZED AND HUNTED! IF IT WASN’T FOR MY CUNNING INTELLECT AND THOSE SCAPEGOATS IN THE FORM OF SALEM GIRLS, MERASMUS WOULD'VE BEEN DONE IN LONG AGO! WHAT RIGHT DO YOU HAVE, LITTLE PONY, TO CHALLENGE MY MAGICAL SUPERIORITY?!/~~
  1398. >"Immortal, evil wizard or not," Twilight says with an inward nod and a grin. "You're still just a colt!"
  1399. ~~/...YOU HAVE A SERIOUS BIAS PROBLEM, LITTLE MISS! BUT IT IS A BIAS PROBLEM YOU WILL TAKE TO YOUR GRAVE! SPILL MERASMUS' SECRETS, TINY MORTALS! IT DOESN’T MATTER! YOU ARE ALREADY BEATEN! WHY, YOU CAN BARELY STAND!/~~
  1400. >”Then let’s change that, shall we? Heads up, Rainbow Crash!” Soldier shouts from above.
  1401. >…Oh Celestia, the elementary school flashbacks, they’re’a comin’--
  1402. >/KER-RASH!/
  1403. >Something tall, metal, and rectangular lands in front of you with a thunderous boom.
  1404. >As the dust clears, and your ovaries return to their natural position from your throat, you see what looks like…
  1405. >…some kind of locker?
  1406. ~~/...Please don't tell me that's--/~~
  1407. >"PRIVATE CRASH!" Soldier screams. "GRAB ANYONE WHO LOOKS LIKE HELL AND GET THEM TO THE RESUPPLY LOCKER!"
  1408. >Within seconds, all Tartarus breaks loose.
  1409. >Merasmus is instantly back in battle mode as he charges a dark green spell at the metal box, but he doesn't get to unleash it.
  1410. >/BOOM!/
  1411. >"HUTAAAAAH!"
  1412. >With an explosion and a scream to match, Soldier launches himself at Merasmus.
  1413. >As the cave devolves into enraged wailing from Merasmus, explosions and spells being casted by both sides, the sounds of a shovel whacking against flesh (???), and a lightshow which would make the firework specialists at the Summer Sun Celebration blush with both envy and arousal, you grab Pinkie and drag both of you towards the locker.
  1414. >Even if it hurts like all Tartarus, you use the last of your strength to throw open the metal doors...
  1415. >And the pain stops.
  1416.  
  1417. ~~~
  1418.  
  1419. >At the ripe age of seven, you shot your first gun that knocked you flat on your butt and rendered you deaf for the next three weeks.
  1420. >Your favorite World War is the second one! That one had more automatic gunfire!
  1421. >You strike fear into the hearts of psychologists, deep-seated confusion into the hearts of your last four therapists, and bullets into the hearts of Germans! Even if you weren't legally allowed to!
  1422. >THOSE RECRUITMENT PANSIES WOULDN'T KNOW A TRUE AMERICAN PATRIOT IF HE BARGED INTO THEIR HOME WITHOUT A WARRANT, RELOADED AND POLISHED ALL THEIR GUNS, AND HUNG A NATIONAL FLAG ON EVERY BARREN WALL!
  1423. >That's right, you sissy, gentrified, back-hunched-over-no-seriously-correct-your-posture-young-man maggot!
  1424. >You're Soldier!
  1425. >And right now, you're beating the wizardy, magicky, ever-loving TAR out of Merasmus!
  1426. >EVEN THINKING HIS NAME RILES YOU UP!
  1427. >THE STING OF BETRAYAL STILL BURNS YOUR EYES!
  1428. >YOU AREN’T CRYING!
  1429. >You meet Merasmus at eye level at the apex of your rocket jump, greeting him with a WALLOP of a shovel to the face!
  1430. ~~/AGH! MY ELDRITCH, ALL-POWERFUL EYE!/~~
  1431. >You're suddenly suspended in the air as Merasmus grabs you with his magic, aiming a powerful-looking--
  1432. >/Ker-POW!/
  1433. ~~//ARGH!/ MY OTHER ELDRITCH, ALL-POWERFUL EYE!/~~
  1434. >You grunt as a pink blur tackles you out of the air.
  1435. >You would've tumbled to a painful stop, too, if that pink blur wasn't hanging onto you so tightly!
  1436. >As she releases you after an admittingly too-long-for-comfort time, you're back on your four hooves!
  1437. "You're doing a damn fine job, Private Ponk!" you laugh with a clap on her back.
  1438. >She responds the same way she always does when you talk to her: drooling as she stares at you, eyes half-lidded.
  1439. >Silly magical horses!
  1440. >"AJ!" you hear Twig-light Spergle yell out. "DID YOU CHECK THAT CORNER?!"
  1441. >An ear-shattering clack reverberates in the cavern.
  1442. >"THIS ONE AIN'T HOLLOW EITHER!" AJ yells back.
  1443. >"KEEP LOOKING! THERE'S GOTTA BE A SECRET ROOM SOMEWHERE AROUND HERE!"
  1444. "Alright, Pinks!" you call out as you head back into the fray. "Let's buy your friends some time and give this wizard and his stupid, pointy hat an all-American ass-whoopin'!"
  1445. >You bite down on your rocket launcher’s grip before dashing towards Merasmus.
  1446. >/ZAP! ZAP! ZAP!/
  1447. >You dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge each thunderbolt Merasmus sends your way as you rush forward.
  1448. >Before you can get in range though, Merasmus’ hooves glow with a bright white light.
  1449. >/BZZZ-ZAP!/
  1450. >Before the light is thrown at you, you quickly roll to a stop before aiming the rocket at your hooves and firing.
  1451. >Your hooves burn with righteous, American flames as you’re propelled into the air. Righteous and American as it is, though, you can feel the familiar ache of your legs not being able to take much more.
  1452. ~~/HAS YOUR TIME IN EQUUS RUSTED YOUR SKILLS, SOLDIER? YOU’RE NOWHERE NEAR--/~~
  1453. >You drown out your former friend as you unlatch the shovel from your waist just before a force from behind launches you towards Merasmus. You barely catch the surprised look on his face before you slam your shovel into it.
  1454. “WELL DONE, CERUS!” you shout as you roll onto the ground and into a gallop towards the resupply locker.
  1455. >As you near the resupply locker, you catch a glimpse of Cerus Thorn as she gives you a quick salute before flying back into battle.
  1456. >Silhouette is a black blur in the cavern as she darts this way and that, assisting the Elements however she can.
  1457. >You also catch a glimpse of another bat pony, who swoops in and saves Fluttershy from a particularly nasty magical blast—
  1458. >Hold on.
  1459. >…Now, you’d planned on searching for the rest of your team after Merasmus was dealt with, with there only being /two/ bats assisting you.
  1460. >Two…
  1461. >…/Two/…
  1462. >Two is less than three!
  1463. >Where the Hell did that other one come from?! God, you hope Spy didn’t somehow gain magical flying abilities once he came here.
  1464. >Spy…
  1465. >Just thinking about his name makes your blood boil.
  1466. >Why, the next time you see that frog-flatulating bastard you’ll make sure he pays double for putting a knife to your teammates throat!
  1467. >As you reach the resupply locker, you notice two other ponies near it. There’s that navy-blue stallion from earlier, and it looks like he’s dragging an unconscious Rarity towards the locker!
  1468. >You give them both a brief nod as you slam a hoof to the resupply locker.
  1469. >Immediately you can feel your body become rejuvenated—
  1470. >...
  1471. >…Wait a rocket-hot minute.
  1472. >You slowly turn towards the navy stallion.
  1473. >So slowly, in fact, that you swear you hear the grinding rumble of a heavy stone being dragged across the ground as you do.
  1474. >…
  1475. >"…Alright, Soldier,” he s--
  1476. Soldier_cloakedspy03.wav
  1477. "GOTCHA, YOU CROUTON-MUNCHING /MAGUETTE!/"
  1478. >Immediately you're on top of nothing, pummeling the air, throttling a nonexistent neck--
  1479. >HANG ON!
  1480. >You're not on top of Spy, pummeling his stupid, handsome face, throttling his weak smoker’s neck!
  1481. >You're being held back!
  1482. >Someone's stopping you from behind!
  1483. >"Jane!"
  1484. >...Wait a minute! You recognize that deep, trying-too-hard-to-be-stoic voice from anywhere!
  1485. "Captain Midnight Blossom!” you grin. “Permission to rip this Frenchie's ass inside out?"
  1486. >"Permission denied, Jane!"
  1487. "WHAT?! WHY, IN ALL MY YEARS IN THE MILITARY NOBODY HAS EVER DENIED ME THE CHANCE TO RIP A FRENCHIE’S ASS INSIDE OUT! WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?!”
  1488. >"Spy's on our side, Jane!" Furtive Wind cries as she—
  1489. “OOMPH!”
  1490. >--careens her muzzle right into your chest, pulling you into a tight hug. "I-it's thanks to him we're back on our hooves! He helped us all by keeping us invisible until we could touch that weird, metal box that instantly heals you! He's a genius! Also, this drool on your shirt was here when I got here!”
  1491. >You grumble.
  1492. >That is pretty smart...
  1493. >…And pretty helpful…
  1494. >…
  1495. >…For a Frenchie.
  1496. >…
  1497. /SWOOSH!/
  1498. >Rainbow Dash flies by as she carries a bloodied and bruised Applejack to the resupply locker. Within the span of a second, Applejack is back to full health.
  1499. >”Heyguysbyeguys!” Dash shouts as she carries Applejack back into battle, no doubt aimed squarely at Merasmus’ face.
  1500. >…
  1501. >…
  1502. >...Neither Midnight nor Furtive are making any moves to let you go.
  1503. >No time for distractions, Soldier! There will be time for adorable pony hugs later! This is serious business!
  1504. "Hmm..." you growl, gently pushing the two bat ponies aside as you approach /Spy./ "...I've heard of double-crossing French cowards, but never triple-crossing French cowards! Are you /really/ Spy? What does the baguette feel--"
  1505. >"Furtive Wind already did that," Midnight Blossom pipes up from behind, and you immediately stop moving. "It's really him."
  1506. You slowly turn back to the two bat ponies. "Private Furtive Wind told the baguette joke?"
  1507. >At the ponies' nod, you feel your chest swell with the warm feeling of pride. You smile warmly as you lay your hoof on Furtive's shoulder, who seems awfully red in the face for some reason.
  1508. "Furtive Wind... (sniff)... You are a true American."
  1509. >"...Th-thanks, daddy."
  1510. >"Alright," Spy says, and you're instantly glaring at him. "...So, back to the subject at hand.”
  1511. >Spy turns to Midnight as he plops an unconscious Rarity on the ground like a ragdoll. ”I'm not sure protecting Rarity from Furtive Wind's manestyle will be a problem anymore."
  1512. "What?!” you explode, offended. “Why would someone need protection from the magnificent piece of modern art on top of Furtive Wind's head—oh, that’s her mane?"
  1513. <Indignant Furtive Wind noises>
  1514. >"She already fainted," Spy sighs.
  1515. >"/How?!/" Midnight snarls, her fangs glinting between her lips.
  1516. >"Well, she was having trouble avoiding Merasmus' attacks, so I went in to provide assistance. She swooned and fainted the moment she saw my face."
  1517. >"...Bucking Daydweller thirst," Midnight sighs.
  1518. Ker-POW!
  1519. >At the boom of Pinkie’s party canon, each of you turn back to the carnage.
  1520. >…Hey, it looks just like your workplace!
  1521. >That is NOT a good thing!
  1522. >”Time to get back out there,” Midnight commands as she glances at you and Furtive Wind.
  1523. >You and Furtive both give a salute before the two thestrals take off.
  1524. >You’re about to leave as well, until you feel A FRENCHMAN’S HOOF ONYOURBACK--
  1525. ”HUTTAH!”
  1526. >Your punch doesn’t connect!
  1527. >”Well, that was predictable,” Spy says.
  1528. >You snort a horsey snort.
  1529. >"There's one more thing, Soldier,” Spy says… earnestly? You slowly raise an eyebrow at the adverb Spy just talked in. “I agreed to help you all with Merasmus, but once he's defeated, I'm headed back to Earth. “
  1530. >You regard Spy suspiciously as his blue eyes narrow at Merasmus.
  1531. >”…Soldier, we really need you back there."
  1532.  
  1533.  
  1534. >”I HAVE AN IDEA, GIRLS!”
  1535. >Through the sizzling whistle of the green spell as you maneuver around it, your thestral hearing can just make out the Element of Magic’s call. And through the resounding explosion it makes as it blasts the wall behind you, you hear Applejack’s response:
  1536. >”WELL, YA’ BETTER HURRY, TWI!”
  1537. >Already knowing where this conversation is headed, you quickly change your trajectory so you’re aimed towards Twilight.
  1538. ~~/OR, BETTER YET, YELL IT OUT LOUD SO WE CAN ALL HEAR IT, AND BY NO MEANS TRY TO THWART IT!/~~
  1539. >”Well, if a colt says so—hey!”
  1540. >Sure as the moon rising, Twilight is distracted by Merasmus’ comment enough to lose focus on the nasty-looking environmental spell charging beneath her.
  1541. >You swoop in and nab Twilight from her ill-fated perch. It feels like a ram just headbutted your chest, and the way she’s squealing and thrashing certainly isn’t helping.
  1542. >”B-B-BAD TOUCH!” Twilight shrieks. “BAD TOUCH, MIDNIGHT! AUTISM ACTING UP! BAD TOUCH!”
  1543. >You gnash your teeth as you dive once again into the playground of spells whipping this way and that, fiery explosions showering the cavern, and the constant whirring of the resupply locker being used by a cyan blur and her wounded cargo.
  1544. >”PUT ME DOOOOOOOWN!” Twilight wails as she—
  1545. “OOF!”
  1546. >Hoof right to the cheek.
  1547. >You wrap your hooves around Twilight tightly as you start falling to the ground.
  1548. >Before you can crash in a furry heap however, you feel another warm body streak into you.
  1549. >”GOTCHA, MID-HEIGHT BOSOM!” a guttural voice yells as two arms cradle you tightly. You squeak out in discomfort at Jane's proximity as you all tumble to the ground.
  1550. The moment you’re still, you’re worming your way out of Soldier’s grasp. You get to your hooves quickly, seeing that you’ve landed at your mark: the resupply locker. ”Good catch,” you say simply.
  1551. >”O-oh!” you hear Twilight stammer as she gets to her hooves, and gives you a—
  1552. >…This little zigger.
  1553. >“Thanks for your help, Jane! Next time you’re in trouble, I’ll be there!”
  1554. >She’s smirking at you, like you were two schoolfillies fighting over a colt.
  1555. >Well, whatever. You’re not going to indulge her with a reaction.
  1556. >”Just doing what’s necessary!” Jane proclaims, before a suddenly serious expression morphs his face. “Now, Twilight, I want you to know that what I’m about to say will be the very first time these three words have been spoken by me, in this order, for as long as my sharp American mind can remember. And there is a very real chance it may also be the last. Are you ready?”
  1557. >It grates you more than it probably should, the way the chaos around you all seems to fade into the background for Twilight as her eyes widen. The faintest trace of a blush warming her cheeks, Twilight meekly squeaks, ”…Y-yes.”
  1558. >”…What’s the plan?”
  1559. >At Twilight's deer-in-headlights reaction, you have to clamp a hoof over your muzzle before the chuckle escapes your throat.
  1560. >”Oh!” she peeps. “U-um… Right. Well, the plan is—”
  1561. ~~/LOUDER, PURPLE MORTAL!/~~
  1562. >”Just stand back!” Twilight decides on instead.
  1563. >Twilight steadies herself before her horn is swathed in violet magic. As she clenches her eyes in concentration, the resupply locker is enveloped in her spell. You can’t help but watch in begrudging curiosity as the powerful magic slowly lifts the heavy chunk of metal from its indentation in the stone.
  1564. >”I’m going to attempt a resilio-replicatus spell on your weird, magic locker!” Twilight whispers with a glance to Merasmus.
  1565. >Merasmus is too busy summoning another wave of skeletons to harass Rarity to notice.
  1566. >“It’ll shrink and replicate it into seven, hoof-held lockers each of us could use without the need to come back here every time we’re hurt!”
  1567. You rip your attention from the vibrating locker to glare at Twilight. “Seven?” you demand.
  1568. >”Oh, right! Thirteen, I mean!”
  1569. >You would’ve pressed it further, if the resupply locker hadn’t started shaking so intensely a high-pitched whine permeates off of it. Jane tilts his head at the display, his face scrunched in confusion.
  1570. “Is it supposed to be doing that?” you ask, just before--
  1571. >/BOOM!/
  1572. >Without a second to react, a hot force sends you flying from the resupply locker. With a quick flap of your wings and a brace of your legs, you skid to a halt on all fours. It takes a moment for the ringing in your ears to subside, but when they do, you hear Twilight say something you really wish was an auditory illusion.
  1573. >”…Oops?”
  1574. >But as you look back to where the resupply locker used to be, your hopes are squashed.
  1575. >In place of the resupply locker is now the site of a recent magical explosion, burnt and twisted pieces of the locker strewn about.
  1576. >”…I guess it’d make sense that wouldn’t have ambient magic either…” Twilight mumbles dejectedly.
  1577. ~~/THE PURPLE FOOL HAS UNINTENTIONALLY AIDED MERASMUS! NOW YOU PONIES ARE HOPELESS! AHAHAHAHA—PINK MORTAL, I SWEAR TO GOD--/~~
  1578. >Ker-POW!
  1579. >For a brief moment you feel the overwhelming urge to walk up to Twilight and pull her inside out from her tailhole, but before you can make any move, a white blur streaks past you.
  1580. >”…aaaaaaAAAAAAAAA—TWILIGHTDARLINGWEREALLYNEEDYOURHELPOUTHERE!! AAAAAAAAaaaaaaahhhh…”
  1581. >You leap towards Twilight to avoid the stampede of recently reanimated skeletons as they zoom after Rarity.
  1582. >”D-d-don’t worry!” Twilight says, but the anxious titter in her voice is unmistakable. As her horn once again glows, the nervous sweat dripping from her forehead fills your nostrils. “I can fix this!”
  1583. >Before she can make much more of a fool of herself, you reach your hoof above your head and give her horn a firm smack. She squeals, rearing back from the impact with a, ”YEE-OUCH!”
  1584. “Twilight," you start, glancing towards the battle. "You’ve done enough. Help your frien—"
  1585. >”WHY WOULD YOU HIT A UNICORN’S HORN?!” Twilight practically screams in your face.
  1586. >You’re taken aback to see a few tears lining the unicorn’s eyes. You curse yourself under your breath -- you forgot all about unicorn horns' sensitivity.
  1587. “…Okay,” you concede, taking a step forward, “That probably hurt more than I meant—"
  1588. >”How could a thestral understand how that feels?!" Twilight snaps, backing away from you.
  1589. >The first warning is the aerial hiss of another spell being launched towards you and Twilight. The green glow illuminating the side of Twilight’s face is the second. Not waiting for permission, you dive forward and tackle Twilight just as the blistering heat from the fireball misses the both of you.
  1590. >Before you land though, a white flash blinds you as Twilight’s weight disappears. You yelp out as you try to shoot out your hooves for a swift landing, but with your eyesight hindered, you tumble to a clumsy stop.
  1591. >”I’ll go help my friends, Midnight Blossom!” you hear Twilight say from somewhere you can’t see. “So go help your own! For the last time, we don’t need your help!”
  1592. >Another pop of a teleportation spell from where Twilight once was, and you’re alone, surrounded by the chaos of battle and magic.
  1593. "Bucking redbacks!" you can't help but spit under your breath, frantically trying to blink away the whiteness.
  1594. >Hhisus K’aecus.
  1595. >You need to rely on your ultrasound.
  1596. >But as soon as you open your mouth, Merasmus’ voice booms in your ears, leaving the Hhisus K’aecus jumbled and caught up within the avalanche of sound.
  1597. ~~/YOU ARE, ALL OF YOU, WITHOUT YOUR PRECIOUS RESUPPLY LOCKER! YOU CANNOT HOPE TO--/~~
  1598. Ker-POW!
  1599. >Pinkie Pie’s cannon invades your ears, leaving no room for anything else.
  1600. ~~/GAH!! OHHH, YOU INFURIATING, SUGAR-CRAZED, /PINK/ LUNATIC!/~~
  1601. >Amidst the tsunami of sound, you can faintly make out that Pinkie’s frantic hoofsteps stop. ”Hey!” she shouts. “There’s nothing wrong with being a sugar-crazed pink luna--!”
  1602. >/Zzap!/
  1603. >And for a split second, the entire cave is silent, save for one sound that makes your blood run cold.
  1604. >The sound of a body hitting the floor.
  1605. >The defensive magic of Twilight, the bucking of hooves on stone from Applejack, the zipping through the air of Rainbow, the quiet whoosh of Fluttershy, and the screaming of Rarity are replaced with two words from each of the mares:
  1606. >”/PINKIE PIE/!”
  1607. >”/MERAAAASMUUUUUS/!” another, gruffer, more masculine voice screams.
  1608. >From the trajectory of the voice and his hoofsteps, you can tell that Soldier is charging at Merasmus…
  1609. >…ON HIS HOOVES?!
  1610. >/BOOM!/
  1611. >Another explosion, and the sound of Soldier’s hoofsteps are immediately replaces with the whoosh of—
  1612. “OOMPH!”
  1613. >--Soldier’s warm, smoldering body before he crashes into you.
  1614. >Merasmus’ cackling fills the cave like a volatile fume.
  1615. ~~/AHAHAHAHAHA! FOOLS! ALL OF YOU, FOOOOOOLS! /THIS/ IS WHY MERASMUS DOES NOT HAVE CONNECTIONS WITH MORTALS! THIS, AND HIS PET GOLDEN DOODLE SIR BIGGLESWORTH PASSING FROM OLD AGE, LEAVING MERASMUS EMOTIONALLY STUNTED!/~~
  1616. >You never would’ve thought it before, but you’re starting to miss the hectic storm of sounds of the battle. Anything to replace the heavy panting of the Elements, the unnerving stillness of Pinkie Pie, and the raspy breath of Soldier on top of you.
  1617. >You grunt as you sit up, hoisting Soldier gently off you and onto the ground.
  1618. ~~/WHAT?! NO, ‘YOU POOR COLT?’ NO, ‘I’M SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS?!’ HAVE YOU /FINALLY/ REALIZED THE DANGER YOU ARE IN?! THE FULL MIGHT OF MERASMUS THE WIZARD, WHOSE PLANS WITHIN YOU TOIL?!/~~
  1619. >As you try desperately to blink away the whiteness, a single, pathetic voice chimes up from the Elements.
  1620. >”…Y-you’re still a colt…”
  1621. ~~/REALLY? A STUTTER AND A ONE-LINER? IS THAT ALL YOU CAN MUSTER, RAINBOW /PAWN?//~~
  1622. >Faintly, you start to make out the general shapes of the cavern and the ponies within. You can see the blurry, red visage of Soldier laying just in front of you, his metal weapon laying a few cubits away.
  1623. ~~/YOUR FRIEND LAYS ON THE VERGE OF DEATH… SO TAKE IN YOUR MISTAKES’ BREADTH…/~~
  1624. >Your team is scattered around the cave, wheezing and panting no less than the Elements themselves. The Elements of Harmony themselves are strewn about the cavern. When once their separation served a tactical purpose in battle, now it feels more segregated and rueful.
  1625. ~~/FOR NOW YOU WILL FEEL THE FULL WRATH… OF THE /BOMBINOMICON!/~~
  1626. >Soldier reacts first, jolting awake and scrambling to his hooves.
  1627. >Merasmus cackles as he hoists the monstrous thome in his hooves above his head.
  1628. >/Grrrrrowlllllll…../
  1629. >A foreboding hum permeates the cave as the book glows a blood red.
  1630. >”EVERYPONY, BRACE YOURSELVES!” Twilight yells from the opposite end of the cave, her horn glowing as each of the ponies in the room are surrounded by violet spheres...
  1631. >…Leaving the thestrals defenseless.
  1632. >Before you have a chance to even think of a proper reaction, Soldier is suddenly in your face, the only thing separating your muzzles the violet barrier of Twilight’s shield.
  1633. >”Captain Midnight Blossom, no time for confused stuttering or questions! Get your team to safety five minutes ago!”
  1634. >You don’t even have time to blink before Soldier slams his forehead against your own, staring icy blue daggers into your eyes.
  1635. >/”THAT IS AN ORDER, CAPTAIN!”/
  1636. >And before you can respond, Soldier whips around, snatches his weapon from the ground, and is galloping towards Merasmus.
  1637. ~~/AHAHAHAHAHAHA! PRAY, LITTLE PONIES! PRAY TO WHATEVER LITTLE PONY GODS YOU WORSHIP! YOUR TIME HAS COME!/~~
  1638. >Without much else choice, you scream in a pitch so high it can only reach your thestralian sisters’ ears.
  1639. /“ANGTRUN’ RECEK’TUN’!”/
  1640. >Retreat.
  1641. >Even if it was in your mother tongue, the word still feels foreign to your mouth.
  1642. ~~/THIS IS… TAKING LONGER THAN MERASMUS EXPECTED!/~~
  1643. >The world turns into a blur as you zip across the cavern to the hole the Elements entered from. The sounds from behind tell you each of your team are following.
  1644. BOOM!
  1645. >You chance a peak over your shoulder just in time to see Soldier flying through the air, headed straight for the book—
  1646. >What the buck is he doing?!
  1647. ~~/SOLDIER, /NO/!/~~
  1648. >Before your world turns into a jumbled mass of sound, light, and pain, one image sticks in your mind:
  1649. >Soldier’s violet shield glowing a fractured white as whatever volleys out of the Bombinomicon hits it in full force.
  1650.  
  1651. ~~~
  1652.  
  1653. >Be Blank Canvas.
  1654. >And if anything, these past few months have taught you two things: expect the unexpected, and the systolic range of a mare’s blood pressure isn’t supposed to be in the quadruple digits.
  1655. >Unexpected event 1: Turns out that you did actually win one of the dozens of open-audition photography contests you entered last month, but due to a certain gray mailmare, you found out too late to actually follow up on it.
  1656. >Unexpected event 2: You were offered the job you rightfully earned, but you needed to take another photo that would wow the executives enough to forgive you for the late response.
  1657. >Unexpected event 3: A magical phenomenon happening just over the Foal Mountains, with suspected ties to the tempus-intervellum cascade that happened three days prior. How you were virtually the only unicorn in town who knew about that, you blame on the small town’s bumpkin education.
  1658. >And one long trek hauling your supplies and red room cart later, you think it’s safe to say it isn’t what you expected.
  1659. >…You expected something bigger.
  1660. >The upside-down rendition of the Foal Mountains shines lifelessly back at your glaring eyes, unmoving like the last two hours you’ve been staring at it through your camera, praying something interesting would happen.
  1661. >You’re not one of those frilly, colty photographers who snap pictures of flowers all day and still manage to get hired.
  1662. >You’ve been all around the world.
  1663. >You’ve seen things that would make most mares faint and most stallions spontaneously combust.
  1664. >Tartarus, you make a living by /capturing/ these things on film!
  1665. >The Elements of Harmony charging in to battle the next world-ending villain of the year, that time Celestia’s sun and Luna’s moon accidentally bumped into each other in the sky, a stallion politely refusing an extra pair of horseshoes by his date.
  1666. >You’ve seen it all.
  1667. >So a whirling disk of dark magic floating above some big rocks?
  1668. >You can only pray the ponies you’re trying to please are earth ponies.
  1669. >…You need another coffee.
  1670. >Hey, twelve cups within the past hour is lower than your average!
  1671. >You can shut your overworked, coffee-less muzzle, Redheart!
  1672. >You grumble as you duck down and out of the dark cloth.
  1673. “I need this shot…”
  1674. >Now those are four words you are /very/ accustomed to muttering under your breath.
  1675. >Fwoosh…
  1676. >Your hooves stop dead in their tracks.
  1677. >Did the wind just change?
  1678. >That’s always a good sign!
  1679. >You feel your cheeks hurt with how hard you’re grinning as you turn back around—
  1680. >kkK/KRACK/!
  1681. >--and swiftly fall back onto your haunches.
  1682. >For a long while you can only stare at the Foal Mountains.
  1683. >Or rather, what remains of them.
  1684. >A miasmic pillar of orange fire and black smoke rises from where the tallest peak of the Foal Mountains was, just moments prior. Smoldering chunks of the mountain, some as big as twenty thousand cups of coffee, still fall from where they were launched. And lastly, in stark contrast to the bleak mushroom cloud, a rainbow-colored glow of what had to be the strongest defensive magic you’ve ever seen illuminates the cusp of the destruction from the explosion in a beautiful lightshow.
  1685. >…Yes.
  1686. >Yes, everything is there.
  1687. >The looming eminence of destruction, its explosive repercussions desecrating the natural forces around. And yet, you can’t help but feel a pang of happiness. Because no matter how desolate it seems, the destruction’s bleak color palette pales in comparison to the rainbow glow holding it back.
  1688. >…
  1689. >A small part of you wants to be looking at all this through your lens and snapping that award-winning picture right now.
  1690. >But for some reason, the thought of having a camera lens separate you from this moment seems wrong.
  1691. >…
  1692. >Meh, you can just take some pictures of flowers later.
  1693.  
  1694. ~~~
  1695.  
  1696. >It feels like every follicle on your body is on the verge of bursting into flame.
  1697. >The acrid stench of smoke and fire singes your nostrils, every breath sending sharp pain throughout your system. Your surroundings are black. Not the calming darkness of a cave, but something more artificial and overbearing. Like a magical blindfold, enchanted to suck all the light out of your vision.
  1698. >Despite all of this, you take a deep, sharp breath. With another series of Hhisus K'aecus, your surroundings once again become clear. Whatever was left of Merasmus’ room now lays in charred remains, strewn about over the wide expanse of rocks, fire, and smoke.
  1699. >Still no sign of the Elements of Harmony, or Jane.
  1700. >Jane.
  1701. >More than the burning heat, more than the acrid stench, and more than the suffocating blackness, it hurts to even think of that name.
  1702. >The worst part is, you know exactly why.
  1703. >You’re worried about a stallion.
  1704. >You're letting it happen again.
  1705. >”Captain.”
  1706. >Your ears swivel to the direction of a thestralian voice, somewhere off in the distance.
  1707. “Go on,” you whisper back to Furtive Wind.
  1708. >”I think I can see the Elements.”
  1709. “I’ve been sending out Hhisus K’aecus for the last thirty bucking minutes. If they were here I would’ve detected them by now.”
  1710. >Furtive Wind hesitates, once again leaving you in the black, acrid darkness. You immediately regret your tone.
  1711. >Thankfully though, it isn’t long until Furtive Wind responds.
  1712. >”Don’t look for their /outlines’/ echo. Look for their /magical spheres’/ echo. They’re still intact.”
  1713. “Where are they?”
  1714. >”Roughly where they were before we left. They haven’t moved.”
  1715. >That’s not reassuring. Still, you turn towards where your sense of direction dictates and let out another K’aecus. Sure enough, six artificially round spheres echo back at you among the jagged debris.
  1716. >Six. Not seven.
  1717. You curse yourself inwardly. You’re worrying about him again. You need to cut this off before it interferes with the mission. “Furtive Wind, send word out to the rest: find Jane, then regroup at the Elements.”
  1718. >”Even the ones who went back for Serendipity?”
  1719. “Yes. Now go.”
  1720. >The whistle of Furtive Wind flying back to the cave entrance cuts through the silence before it once again swallows up any confidence you had. The gulp you take as you start your trek towards the six spheres seems to echo off the rocks and debris like a cannonshot.
  1721. >It shouldn’t be this quiet.
  1722. >Rainbow Dash should be chittering excitedly. Twilight should be droning on about something to do with magic or science. Jane should be—
  1723. >You can’t help it. You let out another quick K’aecus before launching off the ground, zipping towards the Elements. You don’t care if it feels like your eyes are melting out of your skull.
  1724. >You need to find the Elements. You need to keep working. Keep distracting yourself.
  1725. >You can't worry about him. You'll just get hurt again.
  1726. >After what should’ve felt like an eternity, but unfortunately lasted far too shortly, a technicolor light shines against your closed eyelids. Another Hhisus K’aecus confirms it.
  1727. >The Elements of Harmony’s defensive spheres, still intact among all this rubble, just in front of you.
  1728. >Dead silent.
  1729. “Elements of Harmony?” you inquire as you slowly separate your eyelids. “Can anypony hear me—”
  1730. >You lose your voice as you blink at what’s in front of you.
  1731. >The good news? The six defensive spheres strewn around you are still intact, and the inhabitants within also seem unharmed.
  1732. >The bad news? They’re panicking.
  1733. >Rainbow Dash and Applejack are trying their best to escape the magical spheres, bucking, punching, and headbutting the magical barrier between them and the outside world. Fluttershy and Rarity are staring at you with wide eyes as their mouths shout silent pleas toward you. Twilight Sparkle seems to be the worst off, her horn glowing a dangerous white hue as she tries again and again to disengage the defensive spell.
  1734. >Among the Elements of Harmony, Pinkie Pie is the stillest. Although, one look at her charred, panting body tells you it isn’t because she’s keeping calm.
  1735. ~~/ALTHOUGH IT IS TRUE /HOW/ OUR MAGIC WORKS IS QUITE DIFFERENT--/~~
  1736. >You react immediately, whipping towards Merasmus’ voice, but you don’t get a chance to attack.
  1737. >The smoke isn’t just clogging your throat now. It’s sucking the air out of it.
  1738. ~~/--THE GENERAL /MATTER /OF OUR MAGIC IS NOT SO. MERASMUS SUPPOSES HE SHOULD THANK OUR PURPLE FRIEND FOR THIS LITTLE REVELATION./~~
  1739. >You try to gulp in the scarce oxygen around you, but all you can do is hack and wheeze as your throat burns with pain.
  1740. >Your legs give out from underneath and you slump to the ground.
  1741. ~~/OH, MERASMUS DOESN’T EXPECT A MAGICLESS SPECIES SUCH AS YOUR OWN TO UNDERSTAND THE INNERWORKINGS OF MAGICAL MANIPULATION, BUT HE SUPPOSES YOU’RE DUE AN EXPLANATION BEFORE YOU EXPIRE./~~
  1742. >Your blurring vision barely makes out a green flash. Your mind stutters before remembering only Merasmus fits the shape of that black blob as it floats towards you.
  1743. ~~/YOU SEE, MORTAL, IT IS TRUE EARTHLY MAGIC THEORY AND EQUESTRIAN MAGIC THEORY ARE NIGH INCOMPATIBLE. BUT THE /PARTICLES /OF MAGIC ARE QUITE THE SAME. WITH HOW VIOLENTLY SOLDIER’S SPHERE REACTED TO THE BOMBINOMICON, THERE ARE VERY FEW OTHER POSSIBILITIES TO CONSIDER. SO, BY KEEPING THIS IN MIND, THE WISE, YET EVER-LEARNING MERASMUS IS STILL CAPABLE OF A GREAT MANY MISDEEDS! TURNING THE SELECTIVELY MALLEABLE PARTICLES OF A DEFENSIVE SPHERE INTO AN IMPENETRABLE COCOON, FOR EXAMPLE. OR /REMOVING THE OXYGEN MOLECULES FROM AROUND ONE’S FACE.//~~
  1744. >As the blackness seeps into the corners of your vision, your mind can only think of one thing.
  1745. >The white face of a stallion, those golden locks you keep telling him to put in a bun obscuring one eye.
  1746. ~~/…AGH! MERASMUS NEEDS TO STOP MONOLOGUING WHEN HE’S ON THE VERGE OF VICTORY. SORRY, BAD HABIT! EHEHEH… ANYWAYS, NOW TO KILL YOU./~~
  1747. >Your hearing is the last sense to go. If it wasn’t, then you would’ve never heard the distinct /shinkt/! of a knife being drawn.
  1748. ~~//AAAUUGHH!//~~
  1749. >Merasmus wails as the knife is plunged into flesh.
  1750. >Immediately you gulp in precious air. Even if the smoke stings your throat, you welcome it like a parched pony drinking from sewage.
  1751. ~~/OHH, CURSE YOU, YOU FRILLY, FRENCH, DRAMATIC TIMING ENTHUSIAST!/~~
  1752. >Spy?! Didn’t you take his knife from him?!
  1753. >Whatever. No time to think about that.
  1754. >You scrabble to your hooves as quick as you can, but it isn’t quick enough to stop the flash of green from Merasmus’ hoof, sending a ball of fire careening into Spy. You aim at Merasmus’ face and take to the air, but it isn’t quick enough to stop the wizard from once again reigniting the spell on the Elements’ defensive spheres.
  1755. >You are, however, quick enough to land a solid punch to Merasmus’ cheek before he can cast anything on you.
  1756. /Clop…/
  1757. >You immediately latch onto the taller stallion and land punch after buck after bite, and the two of you are rolling on the ground in moments.
  1758. ~~/HEY! YOU WOULDN’T HIT A /STALLION /WOULD Y—OW! AN EGALITARIAN?! NO BITE! NO BITE, BAT PONY—AHA! AHAHA! OH, THAT TICKLES—YEE-OUCH! OW, OW OW! WHAT ARE YOU, PART-VAMPIRE?!/~~
  1759. >You pay the racist comment no mind as you keep laying into the wizard. Even if you can only see the voracious blackness. Even if you can only smell smoke, fire, and blood.
  1760. >Even if you know it’s useless.
  1761. /Clop… Clop…/
  1762. ~~/H-HURT MERASMUS ALL YOU WANT, MORTAL! YOU ARE FORGETTING THAT—OUCH! MERASMUS CAN ONLY BE DEFEATED IF YOU FIND—NOT THE CROTCH! DON’T BE UNCIVILIZED, NOW! OHH, YOU INSOLENT, IDIOTIC… /SYNONYMFORFOOL!!//~~
  1763. >Suddenly, an unseen force pulls you off Merasmus. You barely have time to react before the gravity around you shifts, slamming you down onto the hot, charred stones beneath. You yelp as something searing and sharp digs into your belly.
  1764. ~~/YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT BLOSSOM!/~~ Merasmus shouts in victory. ~~/NO MATTER HOW HARD YOU PUSH, HOW MANY FRIENDS YOU LOSE, YOU HAVEN’T FOUND MERASMUS’ WEAKNESS! AHAHAHAHAHAHA--!/~~
  1765. /Clop… Clop… Clop…/
  1766. ~~/OH, FOR GOD’S SAKE, WHOEVER IS CLOPPING WOULD YOU SAVE IT FOR YOUR OWN TIME?!/~~
  1767. >Merasmus’ head whips to the direction of the sound in anger, but when his eyes land on the source, his jaw drops in amazement. When you turn your head to the same direction, you have to physically restrain yourself from doing the same.
  1768. >Because there, standing on two legs as he limps into view, is Soldier.
  1769. >You can barely recognize the stallion.
  1770. >Not just because of the uncountable trails of crimson blood oozing from his forehead down to his hind legs. Or the torn and charred remains of his uniform, or the destroyed hunk of twisted metal you can barely make out as his rocket launcher, which slowly slides out of his clenched right hoof as he approaches.
  1771. >It’s because of the look in his eyes. The burning bitterness, and the unbearable pain.
  1772. >Like that of a Night Guard fangbearer, who had just been told her husband had died while she was overseas.
  1773. ~~/…Soldier...!/~~ Merasmus chuckles nervously, snapping you out of your stupor. ~~/…So glad that explosion didn’t kill you, and instead just sent you… into the secret vault…/~~
  1774. >It is then you notice the object in Soldier’s left hoof. It’s a picture frame, that you can be sure of, but the photograph within catches you off guard. Two… /creatures /are depicted in the picture. Hairless, bipedal, and ape-like. One is wearing what you recognize as Soldier’s uniform. It’s waving to the photographer with one appendage, a big grin on its face, as the other appendage wraps around the second creature in a one-sided hug. The second creature wears Merasmus’ robes and skull-hat, and it seems to be annoyed by the first creature. It pulls away from the hug in frozen annoyance and aims an eldritch-looking staff at the photographer.
  1775. ~~/…Merasmus sees you’ve retrieved him his… favorite photograph!/~~ Merasmus mulls the word “favorite” in his mouth like a rotten piece of mango. ~~/He appreciates it, although it’s unnecessary. With you alive, there is no reason for Merasmus to drag his hoof longingly across its surface!/~~
  1776. >Soldier’s bloody scowl deepens dangerously as he holds the picture out in front him before dropping it onto the stone floor with a resounding /clack!/ Merasmus can only stare between Soldier and the photograph as the stallion lifts a hind hoof over it, balancing on one leg impressively.
  1777. ~~/…Is this because I hurt your feelings earlier?/~~ Merasmus finally says lamely.
  1778. >”My /FEELINGS?!/” Soldier booms, and for a moment you swear you can see his irises glow a blood red.
  1779. >”This isn’t about you hurting my /FEELINGS/, maggot! This is about you hurting…
  1780. >”MY…
  1781. >”/TEAM!/”
  1782. >Soldier’s hoof slams down onto the photograph, shattering even the frame against the stone floor. Green magic howls as if in pain as it shoots out from the photograph. Merasmus’ body shakes violently before following suit.
  1783. ~~/NO!/~~ he wails as he points a hoof towards Soldier, but he isn’t quick enough. Green magic erupts from Merasmus’ outstretched arm like an explosion, and the skeletal remains of the arm droops to his side uselessly.
  1784. >You feel the weight of Merasmus’ magic lift off your body, and with the sound of six magical barriers being shattered like glass, you know the Elements have also been freed. Soldier, as if reinvigorated with new life, gallops towards the charred body of Spy.
  1785. ~~//NOOOOOOOOOOO!//~~
  1786. >”FOLLOW THE ELEMENTS!” Soldier shouts at you.
  1787. >You freeze up.
  1788. >You can hear the Elements of Harmony galloping away from the site in one ear.
  1789. >The mission.
  1790. >/Your /mission.
  1791. >But in the other, you can hear Jane.
  1792. >How he grunts painfully under the weight of Spy, no matter how light he is. The subtle drops of Jane’s blood as it drips from his mouth. His gruff, persistent snarl as he mutters, “Dyin’s the coward’s way out, Frenchie.”
  1793. ~~/I DIE…./~~ Merasmus wails as his body is engulfed from the inside out by a sickly green glow. ~~/I DIIIIIIIIIIIE!/~~
  1794. >The violet glow of Twilight’s luminescence spell cuts through the black smoke, leading the way. As the green glow of Merasmus nightmarishly illuminates your surroundings, you make your choice, and start galloping.
  1795. ~~/I CURSE THIS LAND FOR A HUNDRED YEARS! –NO! A /THOUSAND/! THAT’S A RUNNING THEME FOR THE VILLAINS HERE, ISN’T IT?! A THOUSAND YEAR—/OHHHHH, I DIIIIIIE!//~~
  1796. >The visceral wails of Merasmus echo throughout all of the Foal Mountains before an ear-splitting explosion wipes any traces of the wizard from the face of Equus.
  1797. >~~//SOLDIER! YOU WERE THE WOOOOOOORST ROOOOOOOMMAAAAAAATE!//~~/
  1798. KER-BOOOOOOOOOM!
  1799.  
  1800.  
  1801. >…
  1802. >…
  1803. >”Rainbow Dash, ya haven’t stopped wriggling yer’ eyebrows at us for the last twenty minutes. Are you going to tell us what’s on yer’ mind or what?!”
  1804. >Your ears flatten at the grating sound of the Element of Honesty’s voice.
  1805. >”Oh, /come on!/ Do you gals /seriously/ not get it?!”
  1806. >Ah, can’t forget her closet dyke friend, now can we?
  1807. >You stifle a snarl as you keep your eyes on the dirt path below.
  1808. >”Pinks! Back me up here! You get what I mean don’t you? You’re picking up what I’m putting down?!”
  1809. >Bastards.
  1810. >All of them, redback bastards. May the blinding sun stain their backs the deepest shade of red until the end of their lives.
  1811. >”Hehe… Sorry, Dashie, but I’m really out of it right now…”
  1812. >The Elements of Harmony are bastards.
  1813. >Each of them.
  1814. >Underneath their grand talk about friendship and their fancy necklaces and tiaras are six bastards who would leave three ponies for dead.
  1815. >Yes, you’re talking about yourself, Soldier, and Spy.
  1816. >Because OF COURSE you went after Soldier, and OF COURSE you flew until you tore a wing.
  1817. >…
  1818. >”U-um, Pinkie Pie, I think what Rainbow Dash is trying to say—”
  1819. >”Why, Pinkie Pie, darling, there’s no need to act so coy! We’re speaking of Jane!”
  1820. >”…Ohhhhh…. hehehe…”
  1821. >…The buck do you mean of course?
  1822. >The Elements were your mission, weren’t they?
  1823. >Slowly, the anger starts to fade into numbness.
  1824. >Your hoofsteps slow.
  1825. >Yes, the Elements were your mission.
  1826. >But you went after Jane.
  1827. >”Alright, Ponka, here’s the deal,” Dash says in a whisper, though still just as loud as her normal voice in your ears. “You trot on over to Jane and give ‘im a slap on the ass, and these twenty bits are yours.”
  1828. >”AHAHAHAHAHA!” Pinkie bursts out laughing, her voice still loopy from the pain spell Twilight gave her out of one of the few shreds of kindness in her black heart.
  1829. >Twilight…
  1830. >Luna, the /moment/ you see that mare again you’re breaking every bone in her nose…
  1831. >…
  1832. >…No, still not feeling it.
  1833. >The anger’s gone.
  1834. >You just feel empty now.
  1835. >”Dashiiiiieeee~ You know I’m an old-fashioned filly! I’ll only slap him on the rump if he asks nicely!”
  1836. >”Alright, then don’t slap him on the ass, just trot back there and ask if he needs any help!”
  1837. >”I can barely walk myself, Dashiiiieeee…”
  1838. >”C’mon, Pinks, you just gotta -----------------”
  1839. >”…Dashie, that was so stupid I made the author go back and delete it.”
  1840. >Your hoofsteps eventually crawl to a stop, and you’re standing still in the cool dawn breeze.
  1841. >The Elements continue down the dirt path, soon followed by the rest of your team as they swerve past you so as not to collide.
  1842. >None of them make any move to stop next to you.
  1843. >You don’t blame them.
  1844. >Not with the way you reacted to them once you crawled out of that cave.
  1845. >”Dash, jus’ give it a rest, would ya? Pinkie’s obviously not in the mood.”
  1846. >” DO YOU GALS NOT GET HOW SERIOUS THIS IS?! We finally found a stallion who’s a good match for Pinkie! When will she /ever/ get another shot at this?!”
  1847. >”…N-not gonna lie, that kind of hurt my feelings, Dashie… (sniff)”
  1848. >As the sole conversation between the fifteen ponies in the Foal Forest devolves into angry arguments and hasty apologies, the last set of hoofsteps of the group approaches from behind.
  1849. >It’s uneven, accompanied by the faint drips of blood, so you know exactly who it is.
  1850. >Still, you can’t even muster up the energy to tell Soldier off before he stops beside you.
  1851. >You don’t make any moves to speak.
  1852. >Neither does he.
  1853. >How much time passes with just the two of you sitting on the dirt path leading to the Canterlot-bound carriage, you don’t know.
  1854. >It’s long enough that the hoofsteps and voices of the group fades to nothingness even in your ears.
  1855. >Suddenly, Soldier’s voice seems to cut through the silence like a hot knife.
  1856. >”Gee, if only there was somepony here who could help carry Spy the rest of the wa--!”
  1857. >”YES!” Rarity nearly screams as she emerges from a nearby bush you hadn’t noticed before. “I WILL TAKE THE UNCONSCIOUS PIECE OF HANDSOME HORSECOCK—Erm, my apologies. I will assist the gentlecolt.”
  1858. >With a purple glow, Spy is gently levitated off Soldier’s withers and into the air above the white unicorn.
  1859. >Rarity hums a happy tune as she bounds after the rest of the group, a sway in her hips and a bounce to her step.
  1860. >You don’t react.
  1861. >"Permission to confide, ma'am?" Soldier pipes up.
  1862. >Like a creaking door, your head slowly turns towards the stallion by your side.
  1863. >His bloodshot eyes stay glued ahead, and there is a subtle sway to his normally steadfast stance.
  1864. "Permission granted,” you hear yourself say.
  1865. >Soldier, to your surprise, gives a hint of a grateful smile before his lips tug back into a neutral line.
  1866. >"...Ma'am, I've been fighting wars as long as I can remember.”
  1867. >You blink.
  1868. >“And if there wasn't a war going on at any time, I'd start one for the Hell of it! Familial war, romantic war, international war, it didn’t matter to me. I love War, the honor, the simplicity, the respect! For some it might be terrifying, but for me it's exhilarating! Does that make me a freak, ma'am?"
  1869. >The only sign that Soldier’s question was directed at you was that you’re the only pony in his vicinity.
  1870. >Otherwise, he may as well have been talking to himself, as he stares into the distance.
  1871. "It's not normal,” you shrug. “But then again, nopony is, I think. I think being fearless is a good thing."
  1872. >What are you doing, Midnight?
  1873. >"...Well, I'm not fearless,” he chuckles a sad chuckle. "I'm terrified of peace! Of other people, who aren't holding a rifle by my side or pointing one at me! God sure does have a wicked sense of humor, huh?”
  1874. >Another chuckle, this time quieter.
  1875. >Soldier stays silent for a while, as if unsure of what to say next, before he slowly turns toward you.
  1876. >What you see in those eyes, you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
  1877. >”The truth is I'm not good with this mushy, interpersonal stuff, so... listen. I know I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed. I know I have a hard time figuring out how I’m making other people feel around me. Hell, all this time I thought Merasmus and I were pals!”
  1878. >You can see the pain in them as Soldier wills his eyes to not break contact with your own. “I really did… So, if I'm ever making things hard for you or any of your team, or annoying you, or making you want to become an evil wizard with plans to tear the world asunder, I want you to tell me."
  1879. >…Stop this, Midnight.
  1880. >”I don’t want this friendship to end up like—”
  1881. “We’re not friends, Jane.”
  1882. >The words sting as they leave your mouth, much more than the smoky remains of Merasmus’ grotto.
  1883. >After a brief second of shock, your words seems to have a similar effect on Soldier as the stallion physically recoils from you.
  1884. “I appreciate all your help, Jane. Really, I do. And you’ve got heart. I’m sure the Solar Guard would really benefit from having a stallion like you, but…”
  1885. >You can’t look into Soldier’s blue eyes anymore.
  1886. >Cloud Skipper’s eyes were blue as well.
  1887. “You’re here because of the Nnuelg’un’,” you say neutrally, numbly getting to your hooves. “And only the Nnuelg’un’. So after we reach Canterlot, and you and Spy explain yourselves before the Princesses and Elements… we’re strangers.”
  1888. >It’s done.
  1889. >The rest of the trot down the dirt path continues in silence, the only sounds Soldier’s hoofsteps behind yours, and the chirruping morning wildlife.
  1890. >Even a half-committal “Understood” from the militaristic stallion would’ve made you feel less like guano, but Soldier doesn’t make a sound during the rest of the trip.
  1891. >…
  1892. >…That didn’t fix anything.
  1893. >The more you trot in silence, and the more the of the Canterlot carriage you can see in the distance, surrounded by the rest of your group waiting for you; the more the anger in your chest blossoms.
  1894. >Twilight Sparkle.
  1895. >The mare who never wanted your help, and never once relented enough to make it easy.
  1896. >Who, despite all the accolades Celestia showered her with, was as useless in battle as a pup fresh off the teat.
  1897. >The mare who destroyed the resupply locker, and who left with her friends when there were three other ponies who needed help.
  1898. >The mare who was responsible for Jane’s current state.
  1899. >…
  1900. >And, as suddenly, as it comes back, the anger is gone.
  1901. >Just the crushing emptiness remains.
  1902. >”There you two are!” Twilight Sparkle pipes up.
  1903. “…Stop talking, Twilight,” you whisper so quietly only you can hear it.
  1904. >Of course, it does nothing to dissuade the unicorn as she trots up to you.
  1905. >You crane your sore neck upward to look neutrally at Twilight as she approaches.
  1906. >Behind her, two pegasus stallions from the Solar Guard stand by patiently beside the carriage, no matter how much Applejack and Rainbow Dash flirt with them.
  1907. >”What took you so long?!” Twilight continues as she trots to a stop in front of you, blocking your path. “I told Princess Celestia all I could via a sermonem-longius spell, and she assured me her finest medical staff are waiting on standby for our arrival!”
  1908. >Jane gives a nod of acknowledgement as he passes you and Twilight, headed for the carriage.
  1909. >You make a move to follow him but are stopped by a certain purple unicorn.
  1910. >A purple unicorn that makes getting on your nerves look like child’s play.
  1911. >”Princess Celestia also told me that Luna wants to have a word with you and your team,” Twilight says in a tone so sickeningly apologetic and sweet it makes you want to puke.
  1912. >You also can’t help but notice she left out Princess Luna’s hard-fought and earned title.
  1913. “Noted,” you grumble with another step towards the carriage.
  1914. >This time, Twilight stops you with a hoof to your tuft.
  1915. >It takes every ounce of restraint in your body to not break it right then and there.
  1916. >”Oh!” she says. “And, um… if it isn’t too… /private/, what were you and Jane talking about back there?”
  1917. >Bucking.
  1918. >WHAT?!
  1919. >”It’s nothing to do with the mission, it’s just…" Twilight stammers, sitting on her haunches to tap her front hooves together. "Well, um... /what is it called…/ uh, a little mare-to-mare talk! I was thinking about it, and... well I know I could've done things a lot better back there. Everything just happened so fast, and I'm glad you and your team are okay! So, I want us to part on good terms, so I, um... /Oh, I read about this, how does it go again...?/”
  1920. >She's either making fun of you or the pupil of Princess Celestia is a stammering marecel.
  1921. You clench your jaw, chewing each word as they slide between your teeth. “What. Are you. Talking about.”
  1922. >Twilight reacts with a flinch and an innocent smile. ”Oh, there’s no need to be angry! W-we can just skip to the mare-to-mare talk, okay? Y-you see, the gals and I have been talking, and… well, actually, we haven't, but I was wondering by myself because I'm the de facto leader and all..." Twilight leans forward, weighing nothing on her hooves as if weighing two heavy objects, and holy Luna you've never wanted to buck an autistic mare in the face more than right now. "I wanted to... ask Jane if he… would want to start a herd with us? And I’m just making sure with you, because I wouldn’t-want-you-to-get-the-wrong-idea-or-think-that-we-were-trying-to-steal-your-stallion-away andwe’realreadytryingtosetJaneupwithPinkiesoIthoughtit’djustbemoreconvenientif/wewereallaherdtogetherandwithyouandhimbeingsocloseandallIthoughtit'dbebettertojustaskyouandhopefullywecouldbefriendsinthefuture/-- This is how social situations work, right?”
  1923. >/kkKRACK!/
  1924. >You hoof slams into Twilight’s muzzle with a satisfying crunch.
  1925. >Her head swivels left and right for a moment before her eyes roll and she falls to the ground in an unconscious heap.
  1926. >You barely have time to savor the sight of her blood leaking out of her broken muzzle before the Solar Guards tackle you to the ground.
  1927. “/SHUT THE BUCK UP!/” you scream at Twilight’s unconscious body over the sounds of the rest of the Elements of Harmony’s surprised shrieks and the aching pain of the armlock you’re put in. “/SHUT THE BUCK UP, SHUT THE BUCK UP!/ I’M SICK OF IT! I’M SICK OF YOU BUCKING COWARD, REDBACK, DAYDWELLER /HORSES!/”
  1928. >”Did you just hit Twi?!” you hear Rainbow Dash shout as her cyan hooves are in front of you in an instant.
  1929. >”Step back, Ma’am,” the deep, /sickeningly/ smooth voice of the Solar Guard says from above. “We’ve got her under control.”
  1930. >”/UNDER CONTROL?!/”
  1931. >Ah, there’s that gruff, jingoistic voice you were waiting for.
  1932. >”Why, I turn away for ten seconds and the most stoic member of my team suddenly has a cops’ knee in her back like some ‘innocent jogger!’ What the Hell’s the meaning of this?!”
  1933. >”Captain Midnight Blossom is under arrest for assaulting an Element of Harmony.”
  1934. >”So she’s going to jail?!”
  1935. >”Yes, sir.”
  1936. >”For hitting an Elements of Harmony?!”
  1937. >”…Yes, sir.”
  1938. >Soldier blinks at the Solar Guard on top of you before his eyes shift down to your own.
  1939. >Shame burns at your cheeks, but the position the Guards have you in doesn’t let you look away.
  1940. >Soldier’s eyes narrow in a contemplative expression before he looks around frantically.
  1941. >Finally, his gaze settles on Rainbow Dash, standing right beside him.
  1942. >It takes her a moment for her mind to compute that Soldier is looking at her hungrily, but when it finally does compute, she takes her shot.
  1943. >”Heh… Like what you s—”
  1944. /CLOCK!/
  1945. >Rainbow Dash goes down in an unconscious heap of cyan and rainbow.
  1946. >”Yaaaay!” Soldier cheers just before he’s tackled to the ground by a Guard. ”We are going to be together /forever!/”
  1947.  
  1948. ~~~
  1949.  
  1950. >For the longest time, the only sound in the dank dungeon is the steady dripping of the puddle in the corner increasing in size.
  1951. >The stench of old shit and unkept mold no longer makes you scrunch every time you take a breath, but it does little to acquiesce the equally moist and stuffy air.
  1952. >You keep your eyes glued to the cobblestone ground below your stone bed, refusing to even acknowledge the other pony in the cell.
  1953. >“You’re not making this any easier on yourself, /Captain./”
  1954. >Even if you don’t see it, you can hear the way the Solar Guard’s lips curl into a sneer as she says “captain.”
  1955. >In one ear, out the other. Just like all the other times.
  1956. >“A member of the Night Guard strikes an Element of Harmony during a mission in which her express instructions are to /protect/ them… and she refuses to disclose why. You know, it won’t just be you who takes the fall for this. The entire reputation of the Night Guard will also suffer.”
  1957. >You’re disgusted that you don’t feel even the slightest pang of regret at that.
  1958. >Still, you keep your attention on the gray floor below, wondering just when this good-cop-bad-cop spiel will switch back to the nicer counterpart.
  1959. >What was her name again? Cookie Crumble?
  1960. >You like Cookie Crumble.
  1961. >“…Oh, you think I’m the /bad/ cop, is that it?”
  1962. >You let out a sardonic snigger before looking up at the Solar Guard…
  1963. >…and it’s then that you realize you don’t know why you did it.
  1964. >“Celestia bless your poor lawyer,” she mutters under her breath as she clops down from the metal chair.
  1965. >With a yellow glow, the chair follows the Guard as she approaches the open door to the cell.
  1966. >Before leaving, the Guard places the chair in the corner of the cell.
  1967. >”Leave them,” the Guard says as she trots down the corridor perpendicular to your cell, quickly followed by two other sets of hooves as the Guards leave with her.
  1968. >You ears perk as you hear a heavy metal door creak open somewhere down the hall.
  1969. >And then, another voice speaks up.
  1970. >”Is she well?”
  1971. >Your blood stops pumping when you hear that voice.
  1972. >”As well as expected, Your Majesty,” the Guard says. “She refuses to eat or sleep, but—”
  1973. >”Thank you, little one. That will be all.”
  1974. >Your heart can’t decide to be as still as a cave mouse or to beat as quick as lighting as the dark blue alicorn emerges from the grimy depths of the jail, into your own cell.
  1975. >Each of her hoofsteps on the cold cobblestone send a delicate, yet firm, clack echoing through your head.
  1976. >The eternal abyss of the night sky, both beautiful and frightening, shines through her mane like an ethereal mist.
  1977. >And then, the one thing only a pony with the honor of being in her presence could notice: the sweet smell of rain and petrichor radiating off her.
  1978. “Princess Luna…”
  1979. >Your voice breaks.
  1980. >Your voice never breaks!
  1981. >W-why did it have to break /now/?!
  1982. >But you can’t help it.
  1983. >All you can do is hope the thunderous and rapid beating of your heart doesn’t annoy Her Lunar Majesty.
  1984. >…
  1985. >…She still hasn’t said anything.
  1986. >You would never hold it against Princess Luna to not say anything to a lowly thestral like yourself, but a small part of you is a little annoyed that the last words spoken before this impromptu silence were violated by a schoolfilly voice break.
  1987. >…Oh.
  1988. >That was it, wasn’t it?
  1989. >She’s disappointed that a Night Guard Captain couldn’t keep her composure enough to--
  1990. >“How are you feeling, Midnight Blossom?”
  1991. >…
  1992. >…Of course she wouldn’t be disappointed about something as trivial as that.
  1993. >The depth of Luna’s mercy and patience put the deepest oceans on Equus to shame.
  1994. “Good, now that you are here, Broodmother.”
  1995. >You chance a small smile at Princess Luna, raising your bowed head to meet her eyes—
  1996. >She’s not smiling back.
  1997. >…
  1998. >…She’s frowning.
  1999. >“I’m told you struck the Element of Magic.”
  2000. >You flinch, even if Princess Luna’s tone is patient and inquiring.
  2001. >Hot shame floods your face and bosom.
  2002. >You stare at the ground, ears drooping like dead leaves.
  2003. “Yes. I got too emotional.”
  2004. >“You?” Princess Luna questions in earnest. “Emotional?”
  2005. >You don’t know whether to be flattered that Princess Luna would know you that well, or to be all the more mortified that she does.
  2006. “It wasn’t befitting of a Night Guard Captain,” you finally opt to say.
  2007. >Luna’s cyan eyes pierce into every follicle on your body as she studies you.
  2008. >“It’s befitting enough of a mare protecting her stallion’s honor.”
  2009. >The hot shame is gone.
  2010. >Now you just feel cold.
  2011. “Jane is not my stallion.”
  2012. >Luna blinks at your sharp tone of voice.
  2013. >…
  2014. >…Y-you didn’t mean to…
  2015. “…I-I apologize,” you nearly whisper. Princess Luna merely continues to transfix you with her gaze. “What happened to Jane, if I may ask? He also struck an Element of Harmony.”
  2016. >“He was released after the full report was given to the Guard.”
  2017. >Of course.
  2018. >Stallions don’t go to jail.
  2019. >“…You are right about striking Twilight Sparkle not befitting the status of Night Guard Captain,” Luna resumes, and your attention immediately snaps back to her. “But tell me, do you think your actions during the rest of the mission were any better?”
  2020. >…Here it comes, Midnight.
  2021. “No. I’ll take full responsibility for that fiasco of a mission. The Elements are aware now of our helping them. I accept whatever punishment you deem fit.”
  2022. >“Is that all you believe went wrong, Captain Midnight Blossom?”
  2023. >You open your mouth to respond, before slowly closing it. For the life of you, you can’t find the words you think would appease her.
  2024. With the uncertainty of a pup stepping on thin ice, all you can mutter is, “…Yes.”
  2025. >“Really?”
  2026. >And with just one word, you make yourself find the words to appease her.
  2027. “Besides Jane interfering, I followed Night Guard code to the best of my ability for every situation I found myself in.”
  2028. >Luna lets out a forlorn sigh before her horn glows.
  2029. >The dirty, scuffed, /unworthy/ chair in the corner of the room is enveloped in a cyan glow before floating over to the both of you.
  2030. “P-Princess, you don’t have to stoop—"
  2031. >”Hush.”
  2032. >You immediately comply, bowing your head.
  2033. >Still, the sound of the chair squeaking under Princess Luna’s weight sends waves of anger through your system.
  2034. >You’ll hunt down the carpenter who made that chair and make her /pay/ for even /insinuating/ Her Lunar Majesty is overweight.
  2035. >“You know how… Well, Celestia is a certain way with her student, Midnight,” Princess Luna starts. “You’re lucky you aren’t in the deepest pits of the Canterlot dungeons. It took a lot of convincing from me and a certain other pony to have you placed here.”
  2036. “I’m sorry, Princess. And I thank you. Whoever from my team helped you convince Celestia, I am in their debt.”
  2037. >“Nopony from your team stepped forward to defend you, Midnight.”
  2038. >Your eye twitches.
  2039. >”…At least at first. It was Jane who stepped forward and defended you, despite the Guard trying their utmost to keep him back.”
  2040. >Your surprise is only doubled when you hear Luna’s giggle filling the room.
  2041. > “He reminds me of the stallions I knew a millennia ago.”
  2042. >There’s that cold feeling again.
  2043. >Here she is.
  2044. >Princess Luna. Her Lunar Majesty. The Broodmother.
  2045. >Fawning over some colt.
  2046. >It doesn’t befit her.
  2047. >Not one bit.
  2048. >“But that is besides the point. No, Midnight Blossom, your actions during the mission were not befitting of a Night Guard Captain. Refusing Silhouette’s comradery at every chance—”
  2049. >Wait.
  2050. >”—How you handled your team while you were all trapped in that grotto—”
  2051. >Wait, wait, wait. This was never brought up by any of the interrogators.
  2052. >”—and refusing Jane’s friendship.”
  2053. >WHAT THE BUCK?!
  2054. “Have you been spending too much time with your sister?” you growl. “Those are hardly on the same level as striking an Elem--”
  2055. >You immediately stop talking once you regain control of your mouth.
  2056. >Your blood runs cold as you force your head downward, away from Luna’s gaze.
  2057. >However, even as you stare at the cobblestone ground below, you can practically feel the icy glare Luna sends your way.
  2058. >”Elaborate.”
  2059. >This isn’t the Luna you knew.
  2060. >This isn’t the Princess who visited you in your dreams.
  2061. >Who comforted you.
  2062. >Who was a stalwart imitation of traditional Thestralian virtues.
  2063. >This is somepony else.
  2064. >You lift your head up to meet Luna’s glare with your own.
  2065. “I may know Silhouette personally, but when in the context of a high stakes mission such as that, our relationship is irrelevant. Besides, she never—”
  2066. >Another exasperated sigh, strong enough to derail your train of thought.
  2067. >Your eye twitches with annoyance.
  2068. >You did everything right, didn’t you?
  2069. >Despite all the guano that was thrown your way, you did the best you could, didn’t you?
  2070. “I kept calm and commanded to the best of my ability despite my injuries in that cave.”
  2071. >“Is jerking a pony with a broken wing from a mound of stones your idea of keeping calm?”
  2072. >WHY IS SHE DOING THIS?!
  2073. Voice slurred through your gritted teeth, you respond, “My wing was also broken, and I wasn’t crying like a spoiled pup.”
  2074. >“No, but you did hit her like one.”
  2075. “I’m not a failed alpha!”
  2076. >…
  2077. >You didn’t mean to say that.
  2078. >Why did you say that?
  2079. >Luna is giving you a look that boils your blood.
  2080. >Sympathy.
  2081. “A-and what the buck do you mean refusing Jane’s friendship?” you stammer. “He was an Unknown to begin with! He was only there because he won the Nnuelg’un!”
  2082. >“Jane didn’t hesitate to risk his life—”
  2083. “AND THE MARES OF THE GROUP DIDN’T RISK THEIRS?!”
  2084. >“DO NOT RAISE YOUR VOICE AT ME, /PUP!/”
  2085. >Luna just used the Royal Canterlot Voice.
  2086. >On you.
  2087. >You hate this.
  2088. >You hate every second of this.
  2089. >This isn’t the Luna you envisioned.
  2090. >You did everything right.
  2091. >Why…
  2092. >WHY?!
  2093. >“If this is how you treat every subordinate assigned to you, Midnight Blossom, maybe you shouldn’t have any to begin with.”
  2094. “FINE, THEN!” you explode. “STRIP ME OF MY RANK! THROW ME INTO THE DUNGEONS! LEAVE ME FOR THE TIMBERWOLVES!”
  2095. >Luna doesn’t yell at you for raising your voice.
  2096. >She doesn’t strike you or send in the guards to discipline you.
  2097. >She doesn’t even send you to the Moon in exile.
  2098. >All of these, you would’ve preferred over what Luna actually does.
  2099. >“All this time dreaming of becoming my personal Guard, and you’re willing to give it up just like that?”
  2100. >…
  2101. >The rage… changes.
  2102. >The frustration, the anger, the bitterness…
  2103. >They change.
  2104. >They’re not gone completely.
  2105. >The burning sensation doesn’t evaporate. It moves from your chest to your throat.
  2106. >Your eyes sting with tears, and all you can feel is a crushing sorrow.
  2107. >…No. That’s not the right word. It isn't sorrow.
  2108. >Don’t cry.
  2109. >Don’t cry, Midnight Blossom.
  2110. >Don’t let it creep into you again. Don’t feel it.
  2111. >What can you do to distract yourself?
  2112. >…
  2113. >…Nothing.
  2114. >You can do nothing.
  2115. >You’re useless, Midnight Blossom.
  2116. >Useless now, just like you were back then—
  2117. >Don’t cry.
  2118. >You clench your eyes shut, turning away from Luna.
  2119. >Don’t cry, Midnight Blossom.
  2120. >You’re a mare.
  2121. >You’re a Night Guard Captain.
  2122. >You’re going to become Luna’s personal guar—
  2123. >No, you aren't.
  2124. >Not anymore.
  2125. >And it’s all your fault.
  2126. >…
  2127. >You’re so useless.
  2128. >You jolt as something warm envelopes you.
  2129. >Your eyes snap open, but all you can see are the navy blue feathers of Princess Luna’s mighty, ethereal wings as they wrap around your pathetic body.
  2130. >You can feel Luna’s steady heartbeat against the back of your head as she murmurs a question that breaks something inside you.
  2131. >“When was the last time you cried, little pup?”
  2132. >As the first tears of many streak down your cheeks, you respond.
  2133. “When I wasn’t there to protect my husband.”
  2134. >Your last attempts at staying strong are pathetic.
  2135. >You sniffle as you stubbornly try to wipe the tears from your cheeks with your forelegs, but warm, gentle hooves stop them.
  2136. >The world blurs as Princess Luna’s hooves pull you into a tighter embrace.
  2137. >All you can feel now is Luna as she holds you tightly, a gentle hoof brushing through your mane.
  2138. >Before long, sobs rack through your entire body as you cry into Princess Luna’s chest.
  2139. >You can’t help it.
  2140. >The moment you close your eyes, you’re in another time.
  2141. >Multiple times, all at once.
  2142. >The time you first laid eyes on that impossibly cute pegasus in the Solar Guard, who wouldn’t give any of the other mares the time of day.
  2143. >The time you completely bucked up during your flirting while sparring with him, yet he just laughed and called you adorable.
  2144. >The time he caused every head in the restaurant to swivel towards your table as he laughed at the very thought of having children.
  2145. >The first time you held him in your arms during one of his panic attacks because you were stupid enough to put candles around the bed, forgetting all about his fear of fire.
  2146. >The time you practically persuaded him under duress to start a herd because of the paralyzing fear of leaving him alone while serving as a fangbearer.
  2147. >The time he pulled you into a crushing embrace before your departure, and how hot your face became when the rest of your team hooted and hollered.
  2148. >The last time you saw his face.
  2149. >On the cover of a cold newspaper, delivered just hours before you were supposed to be formally informed.
  2150. >”Stallion Gives Life to Save Foals from Inferno.”
  2151. >The first time your herdsisters said you weren’t there for him.
  2152. >The first time you were called a failed alpha.
  2153. >The last time you saw your herdsisters’ faces before you left them without even a goodbye.
  2154. >“Your grief is consuming you, Midnight Blossom.”
  2155. >You can’t respond through the convulsive sobs. You can only feel the pain of your past failures crush you as you blubber into the Princess of the Night.
  2156. >”I know, little pup. You try to toughen through it at first, as that is what’s expected of a mare."
  2157. >You open your mouth to try and speak – to at least /try/ to be worthy of being in this merciful, compassionate goddess’ embrace – but nothing escapes your mouth.
  2158. >Nothing but a wordless wail of grief, shame, and pain.
  2159. >“But eventually, it will catch up to you, turning you into something unrecognizable.”
  2160. >You lose track of time.
  2161. >Eventually, through the pain, you finally lose yourself to the simple warmth of being in another’s embrace.
  2162. >Your choked sobs soon subside, replaced with the occasional sniffle and a low purr you didn’t even know you were capable of.
  2163. >Princess Luna is ever patient, never once pushing you away or grimacing at the tears and snot soaking her chest tuft.
  2164. >All you can manage is a simple question.
  2165. “…How will I ever be able to repay your kindness, Broodmother?”
  2166. >Princess Luna peers down at you and tilts her head in a beautiful display of relatability.
  2167. “Am I out of the Night Guard?”
  2168. >Luna’s face gently changes into a solemn, motherly smile.
  2169. >”I tried to do more.”
  2170. “You’ve done more than enough, Your Majesty!”
  2171. >Your voice breaks with emotion, even if all your tears have been shed.
  2172. >Instead of responding, Luna simply runs her hoof through your mane once again.
  2173. >How she ever decided you were worthy of this kindness, you’ll never know.
  2174. >”But with your help, Midnight Blossom, perhaps you can start to repay my kindness.”
  2175. “Of course!” you puff your tuft out like a recruit, eager to please. “Anything.”
  2176. >”Your trial is coming up shortly, wherein your official punishment will be decided. Your rank within the Night Guard is forfeit, that much is certain. But with your cooperation, little pup, I’m certain I, along with your lawyer, will be able to persuade Tia to punish you more leniently. Do you have any concerns with this?”
  2177. >Your head feels like it’s spinning before two questions become clear in the chaos.
  2178. >You gently lean away from Luna.
  2179. >She gets the signal immediately, unfurling her picturesque wings to let you settle back onto your bed.
  2180. “Two, Broodmother,” you say with a respectful bow. “Firstly, what punishment do you have in mind?”
  2181. >There is a brief pause, and for a heart-stopping moment you wonder if this was just a cruel dream your sleep-deprived mind concocted for you.
  2182. >But it is cut short by a giggle from Luna.
  2183. >”My apologies, little pup. I was just thinking that you may be right. I have been spending much time with my sister.”
  2184. >You peer up at the Princess of the Night, breathless.
  2185. >“…If you want to return my kindness, Midnight Blossom, then I must ask of you something not much different from what Princess Celestia once asked of Twilight Sparkle, years ago. I will ask Tia to relocate you to Ponyville. My sister is a… how do you say?” A cheeky side-long glance at you, once again so surreal in its simple relatability. “…/Sucker/ for lessons in apologies and forgiveness. So, I have no doubt she’ll agree in this arrangement. But that is not my only reason. “
  2186. >Princess Luna turns her full body towards you, and you suddenly feel very tiny.
  2187. >”Midnight Blossom… I urge you to confront your grief.”
  2188. >Your breath catches in your throat.
  2189. >Your eyes sting, but no tears fall.
  2190. >Your head falls downward like a stone as you once again stare at the floor, but a navy blue hoof reaches into your vision and cups your chin.
  2191. >As Luna tilts your eyes back to her face, she continues, “If you want to repay my kindness, do not ignore your festering feelings any longer. Do not bury your pain. And by every crevice on the Moon, do /not. Blame. Yourself./”
  2192. >You can barely begin to register Luna’s kind smile as she bends down to your eye level.
  2193. >”You will not be alone in this endeavor. I swear it on the night sky.”
  2194. All you can manage is a faint, “Okay…”
  2195. >Luna gives a determined nod before standing back to her full height.
  2196. >Your eyes stay glued on where hers once were.
  2197. >”And your second question, Midnight Blossom?”
  2198. >You flinch out of your stupor.
  2199. “O-oh, right. Well, it’s not really that important, it’s just… who is my lawyer, exactly?”
  2200. >Luna opens her mouth to respond before the ungodly sound of heavy metal twisting from blunt force permeates through the dungeon.
  2201. >”WHERE THE HELL IS SHE?!" a guttural, unmistakable voice screams at the end of the dungeon. "WHERE HAVE YOU PRETTY PINK PONY /NAZI BASTARDS/ BEEN KEEPING MY SUPERIOR OFFICER?! I WAS TOLD WE’D BE SHARING A GODDAMN /CELL!/ AND THERE’S NOTHING LIKE A GOOD OL’ FASHIONED JAIL CELL FOR THE BEAUTIFUL BLOSSOM OF FRIENDSHIP TO UNFURL FROM WITHIN!”
  2202. >All you can do is stare, slack-jawed at Luna as the sound of what had to be at least three Royal Guards struggled in vain to keep one set of stalwart hooves as they made their way to your cell.
  2203. >Luna’s only reaction is a faint twitch of her lips as they threaten to draw her mouth into a shit-eating grin.
  2204. >The panicked pleas for the stallion to stop and the hard stomping of the stallion’s hooves near your jail cell until Soldier rounds the corner.
  2205. >Three Royal Guards straining to keep a hold on his body,
  2206. >wearing a three-piece suit already tearing at the seams to keep his monstrous physique within,
  2207. >and adorning a grin that puts Celestia’s sun to shame.
  2208. >”Hello, Midnight Blossom!” he chirps, waving a hoof frantically to you. “Didn’t I tell you? I’m a licensed, experienced, and /damn/ awesome lawyer! Jane Doe, attorney at law, at your service! /OORAH!/”
  2209. >You can’t help it.
  2210. >For the first time in years, you burst out laughing.
  2211. >Luna soon joins in, lifting a hoof to her lips to try in vain to keep her giggles in check.
  2212. >Soldier also howls with laughter, although you’re not sure he even knows why.
  2213. >This was going to be a trial for the history books.

[RGRE] Preunification Anon

by Spooples

[RGRE] Rockets and Friendship

by Spooples