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Heart of War- Act XVII

By ThingPaste
Created: 2024-02-28 03:20:47
Expiry: Never

  1. >…
  2. >With a large portion of your forearm pink and bloodied, you slam your dagger down into the bench next to you.
  3. >There’s only one strip of the ‘wood’ on the top of your wrist.
  4. >It’s right where the cut was.
  5. >Alright.
  6. >You grasp at the bit with your fingers and start to pull.
  7. >The last bits of the ‘scab’ are torn off of your flesh as you bite harder on the leather strip between your teeth.
  8. >You’ve already had to readjust it once- you had bitten straight through it.
  9. >As you pull, the scab comes off your wrist.
  10. >But it’s still being held in place.
  11. >As you look at it you can see three or four… tendrils going into the open cut.
  12. >Tendrils being the best word to describe it- they look like black roots.
  13. >They probably are…
  14. >You affirm your grasp on the wood connected to the roots, and pull.
  15. >It feels like your veins are on fire as you pull.
  16. >But you don’t get a quick pull, only a slow drag.
  17. >The best way to describe the feeling, is as if your wrist were being stretched out for a yard or so.
  18. >Because the wooden scab is free of your arm.
  19. >But the roots are still being pulled out of your wound.
  20. >The same tendrils that you think were the ones you could see on the bottom of the arm.
  21. >You pull the strings out for a foot.
  22. >The tips are starting to become a light brown, but they’re still coming.
  23. >Tossing the wooden bit you’ve been using as a handle, you grasp at the roots closer to the wound.
  24. >As you continue pulling, the pain remains constant, but you’re able to pull quicker.
  25. >It goes on for another foot or two before the ends are free of the wound.
  26. >You toss the entire thing off the side of the boat as you look at your arm.
  27. >The hand is (visibly) fine.
  28. >But the arm…
  29.  
  30. >On the top of it, the entire half on the side of the wrist is gone.
  31. >Bare flesh and muscle is the only thing you can see.
  32. >Towards the wrist itself, it looks similarly on the sides.
  33. >If it had managed to fully encircle your arm, you probably would have had to cut into major veins and arteries…
  34. >So here you are.
  35. >With a partially flayed arm, and having ripped the rotting roots out of your veins…
  36. >You have something for the occasion.
  37. >With your good arm, you reach open and open your backpack.
  38. >There it is.
  39. >Three-Leg’s flask.
  40. >You hope his moonshine is clean…
  41. >Due to the… skinning… your left hand is pretty numb.
  42. >So you place the flask between your knees to hold it as you unscrew the top.
  43. >First, you take a swing.
  44. >Make that two.
  45. >No, three.
  46. >Four.
  47. >Five should be good.
  48. >You then pull the metal spout away from your lips.
  49. >Then pour a bit onto the flayed flesh.
  50. “GAH, DAMN… FUCK!”
  51. >That’s a waste of ‘shine is what it is!
  52. “HARVEY! You better be able to deal with the rest on your own!”
  53. >No answer.
  54. “You hear me!”
  55. >The silence is probably for the best.
  56. >You’ll have an answer soon enough.
  57. >There’s always the dismemberment if the arm can’t be saved, eh?
  58. >At this point you’d prefer just cutting in off.
  59. >Before the drink kicks in, you cap the flask.
  60. >Then reach back into your pack.
  61. >Bandages.
  62. >Need to cover the arm.
  63. >It’ll need replacing soon, but that won’t be an issue.
  64.  
  65. >Pulling the bandage tight, you tie it off.
  66. >The only boon you have in this situation, is that the you’re getting used to the pain.
  67. >Maybe Harv sent out some painkiller chemical in your head, or maybe it’s just the time.
  68. >You’ve had a lot of injuries in your time here.
  69. >Enough to make the time you broke your leg as a kid feel like a splinter.
  70. >You’ve been cut by swords, slashed by axes, bitten by creatures, shot with arrows, impaled with horns…
  71. >But the only thing that comes close to relating is the small bit of dragon fire you got on your chest.
  72. >Even the first time you felt manticore venom through your veins doesn’t really compare.
  73. >When those… roots… came tearing out of your veins, it wasn’t simply a burning feeling like with the venom.
  74. >It was like tearing the muscles straight off of your bone.
  75. >It scraped and tore against places you never knew could feel pain.
  76. >And your arm…
  77. >You had to tear a quarter of it off.
  78. >It might be numb now, but you don’t expect to get full functionality back.
  79. >The bandages will have to stay on it for years.
  80. >Maybe even the rest of your life…
  81. >Before this day, you may have viewed this place as not all it’s been cracked up to be.
  82. >However, you know realize that the shit over here is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
  83. >There might be some areas that are ‘easier’ to traverse.
  84. >But the rest of it feels straight out of a horror novel or movie from back home.
  85. >Right now, the only thing you can do is wait.
  86. >And hope that Harvey and your natural bodily functions can deal with what’s left of the rot.
  87. >So you slip yourself off of the bench, and try to find a more comfortable position to lay/curl up in.
  88. “Harv, don’t answer to this… I may have though you weren’t that useful at some point. But right now, I need you buddy… give ‘em hell.”
  89.  
  90. >…
  91. >Entering the meeting room, you sit down and take a sip of the tea waiting for you.
  92. >”Bad news this morning.”
  93. >Lancer groggily mentions as he nurses a cup of coffee.
  94. “Tartarus?”
  95. >”Worse. I was woken up three separate times in the night. Each time, the runners said that a group of Maretonians had been arrested for starting bar fights.”
  96. >They haven’t been here more than a day…
  97. “How many behind bars?”
  98. >”Twenty-eight.”
  99. >Great.
  100. “General Wave?”
  101. >”Yes your highness?”
  102. >He says without looking up from the file he’s reading.
  103. “I’d like you to speak to the Duke. If he can’t keep his men under control, he can get out.”
  104. >”Do you want me to use those words?”
  105. “Explicitly.”
  106. >You can see a slight quizzical look go over his face.
  107. “General?”
  108. >”One moment.”
  109. >He flips a page and reads a bit further.
  110. >”We need to stop.”
  111. “Stop what?”
  112. >”Cloudsdale. I’ve got a preliminary report on the animal’s biology from the bodies we recovered. The exposed areas next to their shoulders are gills.”
  113. >They’re aquatic…
  114. >You slump back into your chair a bit.
  115. “Of course they are…”
  116. >Never a break…
  117. >What now?
  118. >March into Tartarus?
  119. >Even if you could get an army past Cerberus, you have no idea where the creatures are coming from.
  120. >You’d have to map all of it.
  121. >That would end up bankrupting the nation, losing thousands of soldiers and scouts to attrition, thousands more to any other creature that lives down there, and tens of thousands when you find their hives or spawning pits.
  122. >No…
  123. >This has got to be a fight won on land.
  124. >Have to grind down their numbers the old fashioned way.
  125. >You only hope they don’t breed quickly.
  126.  
  127. >A knock is heard on the door, and Lancer calls out to it:
  128. >”Enter.”
  129. >Captain Crop comes into the room.
  130. “Wait, don’t tell me. You have news.”
  131. >”Umm, yes your highness.”
  132. “Go on.”
  133. >”There’s another diplomatic… entourage that wants into the palace.”
  134. “More Maretonians?”
  135. >”Minotaurs. A dozen or so.”
  136. >Finally some good news.
  137. >Did you really just think that?
  138. >Strange times…
  139. “Let them in as is, I’ll meet them in the throne room.”
  140. >…
  141. >As you take your seat in the throne, you hear Lancer comment:
  142. >”Two days in a row now. How’s coming in tomorrow, the yaks?”
  143. “Don’t give them ideas.”
  144. >He chuckles once at the statement.
  145. >Then your focus goes to the double doors.
  146. >Rather than let guards open the doors, the minotaur threw them open himself.
  147. >As the rest of his group enters behind him, the leader looks at the architecture and stained glass as he walks closer to the throne.
  148. >Then he looks over to you about half way down the hall.
  149. >Bluish-grey hair on his body, while his… mane?
  150. >What is the hair on top of their heads called?
  151. >Either way, it’s a shiny black that goes down his back.
  152. >Across his shoulders lay a grizzly’s pelt, the head of the creature over his left shoulder.
  153. >On his bare chest, you see deep scars, spaced about as far as the Tartarus animals claws were.
  154. >He out stretches his arms, and you see that the bottom finger on his left hand and a small chunk of the palm have been lost.
  155. >”Princess! I’ve heard that you dealt with the Crystal Empire decisively.”
  156.  
  157. >Is that?
  158. >”It is good to see you again. Ambassador Blunt Force at your service.”
  159. >He nods his head.
  160. “Didn’t you die?”
  161. >”The patrols missed me, I only crawled back to the camps two days after the battle.”
  162. >He holds up his two-fingered hand.
  163. >”They got the drop on my men, and I’ve taken my hits.”
  164. “So they sent you here.”
  165. >”Honestly…”
  166. >He leans in a bit.
  167. >”I don’t think the Triarchs like me.”
  168. “Well lucky me.”
  169. >”Shame about The Sundering though… I was looking forward to dragon hunts.”
  170. >He then gets down to business.
  171. >”Anyway, I am here to better coordinate our people’s efforts. I have a dozen aides and guards that will need accommodation, and a decent working space for my own uses.”
  172. “Captain Crop, you’ve been dealing with Palace affairs, correct?”
  173. >”Yes your highness.”
  174. “See to the Ambassador’s needs, they are our honored guests, so see that their requests are met. Requests within reason, of course.”
  175. >Blunt Force then speaks again.
  176. >”Also, we’ve been packed into a train for the past two days, and have been on the road before that… which way to the kitchens?”
  177. “Captain… you heard him.”
  178. >Oh Crop’s going to hate you for this.
  179. >The Ambassador then speaks one more time:
  180. >”Thank you Princess. We’ll speak once I’ve had time to set up, until then I won’t take any more of your time.”
  181. >He nods again before turning to leave the throne room.
  182. >And Crop jogs to follow.
  183.  
  184. >…
  185. >”Anon.”
  186. >The voice wakes you up as you shoot up to a sitting position.
  187. >You wince at the pain from your arm.
  188. >What is it?
  189. >Noon?
  190. >You’re going down the river, the forest around you having returned to normal.
  191. >Working yourself back up onto the bench, you see Harvey sitting opposite you.
  192. >His eyes are barely open, and he’s got visible bags under them.
  193. “You look bad.”
  194. >”You look worse.”
  195. >You glance at the bandages around your arm.
  196. >They’re stained with dark blood.
  197. >And your hand is still pretty numb.
  198. “You deal with it?”
  199. >”Killed off the last cells about an hour ago.”
  200. “What even was it?”
  201. >”Parasite, infection, cancer, rot, it doesn’t really matter.”
  202. >You reach over to the bandage and start to remove it.
  203. >It hurts to pull at the cloth, but you’ve acclimated to the pain.
  204. “You sure you got it all?”
  205. >Much of the flesh is darkened, showing visible signs of infection.
  206. >”It’s infected, but not with the… tree. Nothing worse than you’ve had before from wounds, and I’ll help clean it up… eventually.”
  207. “Eventually?”
  208. >”You don’t know how hard it was to fight the infection without killing you.”
  209. “What about the skin?”
  210. >”I can help a bit, but there’s only so much I can do. You’ll eventually get full functionality, but you’ll never get much sense of touch from the areas again. The knife did too much damage to the nerves. It’ll always be blotted and disfigured, but hey- that’s what sleeves are for.”
  211. “You can stop my heart, but you can’t grow a bit of skin back…”
  212. >”Oh, I can get back into full condition… after four or five years or so. But, then I’d have to stop working on your knees.”
  213. “You just had to wait till I was forty-five to send me out here and clean up your mess.”
  214. >”It’s not my fault that you let yourself go.”
  215. “Yeah, yeah, go take your nap.”
  216. >You reach over to the bandage roll.
  217.  
  218. >…
  219. >As the boat continues down the river on autopilot, you sit and think.
  220. >You’re alive.
  221. >A bit battered, but alive.
  222. >But you’re out here in the thick of it.
  223. >You’re a somber place in your head.
  224. >The same place you were at in the winter mountains of Yakyakistan.
  225. >The depths of the Everfree.
  226. >The deepest bowels of some changeling hive.
  227. >The searing deserts of Saddle Arabia.
  228. >Every hell you’ve been through…
  229. >While in that moment, before nostalgia and romanticism can set in.
  230. >You endure, endure, and endure.
  231. >Then when it’s over…
  232. >You wait for the next one.
  233. >Just what, five months ago, you were waiting.
  234. >When the call came, aside from your coma and fight with the parasite, you never really had to endure much.
  235. >It was rather easy actually.
  236. >Compared to the past that is.
  237. >You never hit that point…
  238. >But here…
  239. >You’re at that point.
  240. >If things keep up like this, you might actually break a sweat or two before it’s over.
  241. >Heh.
  242. >You sigh as you slouch down a bit.
  243. >Really it’s amazing that after all these years you never lost any limbs.
  244. >Or at least a few fingers.
  245. >Only a week or so here, and you’ve already had to mutilate yourself.
  246. >If you’re lucky, there’s only a few more months left.
  247. >And summer is almost over, and soon enough you’ll have winter to deal with.
  248. >But then… you’re stuck here.
  249.  
  250. >You take a look down to the footlocker by your feet.
  251. >Flipping it open, you see the usual.
  252. >Reaching down to the cigar box, you-
  253. >What’s that?
  254. >You lean forward to look at the corner closest to your right.
  255. >That’s another cassette tape.
  256. >You reach to pick it up.
  257. >The others are named, but this one doesn’t have any markings.
  258. >Hmm.
  259. >You reach back to the speaker and eject the tape currently in it.
  260. >Setting it back into the footlocker, you place the unmarked cassette in.
  261. >Then…
  262. >Your eyes move up.
  263. >There’s a snake.
  264. >Rearing out of the water, it’s eyes staring into yours.
  265. >And…
  266. >Why isn’t the boat moving?
  267. >The motor is still running…
  268. >You reach your good arm over to the kukri you left in the side of the boat.
  269. >Pulling the blade from the wood, you’re just able to hack at the snake’s neck as it lunges out towards you.
  270. >The head falls into the boat as the body squirms and falls into the water.
  271. >As it does, you see another snake burst up from the water.
  272. >Make that two.
  273. >No, three.
  274. >You hack one off from the neck, and lodge the blade into the open jaw of the next that lunges at you.
  275. >From behind, another snake lunges out and bites your right forearm, forcing you to drop your weapon into the boat.
  276. >You reach to grab it’s neck with your left hand, causing great pain in your arm.
  277.  
  278. “AHHHHH!”
  279. >Crying out in pain from your partially flayed left arm, you still work to crush the snake.
  280. >It bites harder, so you squeeze harder.
  281. >And as you squeeze harder, it bites harder.
  282. >You let go of the snake, and reach down with your hand to grab the knife in your left boot.
  283. >As you grasp it, pain shoots through the arm.
  284. >But you endure it, and bring the knife into its throat.
  285. >As the jaw opens from your arm and pulls back into the water, you drop the knife into the boat.
  286. >Damn that hurts.
  287. >As you grasp at the bandages with your right hand, you feel another snake go under your right shoulder.
  288. >It wraps around over your left shoulder and pulls you back.
  289. >You draw breath and close your eyes.
  290. >Then hit the water.
  291. >When you’re submerged into the river, you open your eyes.
  292. >What the hell is that?
  293. >The snake…
  294. >It’s not a snake…
  295. >Kind of.
  296. >You’re being pulled towards an open circular maw- filled with multiple layers of teeth curved inward.
  297. >The ‘snakes’ are… tentacles.
  298. >But your right arm is still free…
  299. >You reach over the ‘snake’ to grab your sword.
  300. >And as you are pulled closer to the mouth of the beast, you jab it down- feeling resistance as you hit flesh.
  301. >Come on, didn’t you just go through this with the giant squid?
  302. >Your hand is just inside of the mouth of the creature, so you twist the sword as best you can.
  303. >The creature doesn’t respond…
  304. >In fact, you see the snake/tentacles going limp in the water.
  305. >Pulling the blade from the maw, you reach your legs to contact the body of the beast and kick off.
  306. >The ‘snake’ around your body easily is set aside, and you breech the water.
  307. >Gasping for breath, you see that you’re still next to the boat.
  308. >And the motor stopped.
  309.  
  310. >You toss your sword onto the boat, to allow your good arm to be free.
  311. >There’s no choice but to grab onto the side of the boat with your left hand, but the adrenaline helps you get through the pain.
  312. >You then grab the side with your other hand, and kick your right leg out to get over the side.
  313. >Hopefully this doesn’t capsize it.
  314. >Pulling with your leg and good arm, you pull yourself back onto the boat.
  315. >You roll over onto the benches and your ass falls between them onto the footlocker.
  316. >Laying in the boat, sopping wet, you just sit there a moment…
  317. >The engine isn’t running.
  318. >Harvey must have put in an off switch if you’re not in it.
  319. >Working your way to sit on the bench, you reach over and pull the string.
  320. >When the motor roars to life, the propeller continues taking you down river.
  321. >Out of the frying pan…
  322. >Well, you start to collect your weapons and put them back into their sheathes.
  323. >Then, you lean back and hit play.
  324. >What does this tape have to…
  325. >You can only sit in silence at what starts.
  326.  
  327. >God damnit Harvey…
  328. >You wait a minute, listening to the chords.
  329. >As you sit on the boat, and then bring your good hand up to swipe away some of the water dripping from your beard.
  330. >Looking at your right arm, you see that the sleeve is pretty battered.
  331. >’I was soaring ever higher, but I flew too high.’
  332. >Maybe…
  333. >Maybe.
  334. >You reach down into the foot locker and procure a cigar.
  335. >The pain in your left arm isn’t really getting to you, so as you cut the tip with a (wet) knife, you place the cigar into your lips.
  336. >Then reach for the lighter.
  337. >You puff at it until you get a clean burn.
  338. >Then take a proper drag.
  339. >’Surely Heaven waits for you.’
  340. >You doubt it.
  341. >Sitting with the cigar in your mouth, you let the boat take you down river.
  342. >Your right arm is starting to tense up.
  343. >Figures the snake/octopus would be venomous.
  344. >Why wouldn’t it?
  345. >The song ends.
  346. >And no matter how much it hit you…
  347. >(Why is this even on the same track)
  348. >It doesn’t compare to the next one.
  349.  
  350. >You’re here…
  351. >Alone.
  352. >You wouldn’t even have had to order it…
  353. >If you just asked, thousands- no- tens of thousands- hundreds maybe- would have followed you wherever you asked them to.
  354. >The winter mountains in the north, the deserts of the south, the wilderness of the East…
  355. >Even through Tartarus itself.
  356. >Lancer, Wave, Briarheart, Offense.
  357. >If you hadn’t been adamant, they’d be right here with you.
  358. >Even the crew of the ship…
  359. >If you had asked, they might have left the Avalon docked in that ruined city and marched with you.
  360. >But no…
  361. >This is why you’re here, alone.
  362. >No one else is going to suffer this place.
  363. >Not while you live.
  364. >This is your cross to bear.
  365. >You were brought here by accident.
  366. >A negligent accident, but an accident nonetheless.
  367. >You don’t belong here, but there’s one other thing that doesn’t belong here.
  368. >And it’s attacked your daughter- maybe not your daughter by blood, but still your family.
  369. >No amount of pain, no amount of mutilation, and no amount of struggle will keep you from killing it.
  370. >And no animal, no curse, no rot, no parasite will keep you from reaching it.
  371. >As the song reaches its end, you hit pause and switch the tape.
  372. >You’ll save the rest of it…
  373. >Placing CCR back in and hitting play, you then reach into the footlocker.
  374. >Retrieving the bayonet, you affix it to the M16.
  375. >Then you hold onto the rifle as you chamber a round and continue speeding down the river.
  376.  
  377. >…
  378. >”Now.”
  379. >You exit the palace and begin to walk the walls with your new minotaur Ambassador.
  380. >”My people are strong.”
  381. >He pauses to take a bite.
  382. >He brought a pie from the kitchen.
  383. >Cherry, you think.
  384. >And he didn’t just bring the slice.
  385. >He precut it and brought the entire tin.
  386. >”Could use a bit more salt. Just a bit.”
  387. >Yeah, he’s the decadent one.
  388. “You were saying.”
  389. >”Mmm, yes. My people are strong, our farms are bountiful, and our smiths are among the best in the world.”
  390. “But.”
  391. >”But… we don’t have magical factories that work dozens of times faster than our smiths.”
  392. “You need weapons.”
  393. >”No, we have plenty of weapons. Enough to equip every bull, cow, and calf five times over. We need armor. Due to our… preferences, we favor battle without it. For war, many of our clan leaders and their retinues have proper armor, but we simply can’t afford to equip the masses.”
  394. “It would take time to convert factories, and we’d need measurements.”
  395. >”I can see to the latter.”
  396. “Well, we certainly could stand to lose a few armor producers. We have so much pony gear in the armories, that it shouldn’t be a problem.”
  397. >”Then, logistics become the issue.”
  398. “That depends on the location of the factories.”
  399. >”Exactly, I’d recommend Manehattan. No need to further crowd your rails, and my people can deal with the shipments, even provide raw materials should you require it.”
  400. “You should reach out the mayor then.”
  401. >”I will. Provided, you approve in principle.”
  402. “Go right ahead, see what you can do on its own. If there are any bumps, I see if I can smooth them over.”
  403. >”Look at them.”
  404. >You noticed that he’s stopped to look down into the city.
  405.  
  406. >A restaurant, several outdoor tables.
  407. >Pretty busy too.
  408. “Are you still hungry?”
  409. >”It’s disgusting. Look at them all witting there, stuffing their faces, a smile from ear to ear. Like nothing is happening. Like they’re safe.”
  410. “As opposed to you, standing there, stuffing your face.”
  411. >”I do it with a scowl… or at least a neutral expression.”
  412. “I don’t know, I see a bit of a smirk.”
  413. >”The difference is that I’m doing something, they’re just sitting. Doing nothing…”
  414. “And you know that?”
  415. >”Nothing.”
  416. “That couple, it might be their last meal before he goes off to sign up. That older mare with the kids could be watching them for parents on duty. That waiter, could be minding the home as his brothers fight. After all, what’s the point of winning a war, if you go to a home that somepony else owns now?”
  417. >”Pie?”
  418. “I’ll pass.”
  419. >A new voice then speaks from the wall.
  420. >”Your highness… and this must be the new minotaur diplomat.”
  421. >And the day wasn’t actually that bad…
  422. >You turn to face the Maretonian Duke.
  423. “Are you watching me?”
  424. >”You have a hard face to miss.”
  425. “Even so, you must have sprinted here…”
  426. >”No issue.”
  427. >He procures a red rose and offers it to you.
  428. >”A rose… for a rose.”
  429. “Roses have thorns.”
  430. >”And isn’t that why we love them?”
  431. >”Who is this clown?”
  432. >Blunt Force says… bluntly.
  433. >”A suitor, Ambassador.”
  434. >The minotaur then glances to you.
  435. >”Can I throw him off the wall?”
  436. >That’s tempting…
  437. >Really tempting.
  438.  
  439. >”I’d like to see you try.”
  440. >The duke steps towards the challenger.
  441. >”Is that an offer to try?”
  442. >And Blunt steps to tower over him.
  443. >”Should it be?”
  444. >Time to stop this.
  445. “Alright boys, simmer down.”
  446. >Their heads turn to you, and you can’t help but find the picture amusing.
  447. >A minotaur holding a pie, and a pony holding a rose trying to intimidate each other.
  448. >Blunt Force laughs a bit as he turns to walk off, taking another bite of his pie.
  449. >But the Duke doesn’t let it go.
  450. >”Thank you, your highness. A shame for the Ambassador to lose another finger or two.”
  451. >Yeah, he’s not letting that go.
  452. >He walks over to the battlement to set down his pie.
  453. >Then turns to face the Duke.
  454. >Who drops the rose.
  455. >”And who exactly are you?”
  456. >” Duke Astéri of Maretonia. I think my father killed two dozen… no three dozen of your people in wars.”
  457. >”Is that the best you have? My father did so and so!”
  458. >”At the end of my training, I set up a tournament. Of a hundred of the best warriors in my nation, I ended on top.”
  459. >”A tournament? How many casualties.”
  460. >”A dozen or so broken bones, two deaths.”
  461. >”Two deaths! Are all of your best warriors just statues pointed angrily at each other?”
  462. >Well this is a diplomatic incident…
  463. >But honestly- entertaining.
  464.  
  465. >”Some peoples are civil enough not to kill opponents when testing strength.”
  466. >The Ambassador pauses a moment, and the Duke gets in a jab:
  467. >”Yes, I know. Words are hard. Especially when you only value muscle.”
  468. >”Oh no, I was just wondering. There’s a fountain in the courtyard a few blocks away. I think I could hit it with your body.”
  469. >”If you tried, you wouldn’t have a hand to grasp me.”
  470. >”Don’t worry, I could just as easily kick you into it.”
  471. >”So you don’t deny I’d take your hand?”
  472. >You then speak to the minotaur.
  473. “He’s right, you know. He is a suitor, and I can see the tension in the air. You two ahead and find a bed.”
  474. >”HAHAHAHA!”
  475. >The minotaur laughs loudly before continuing.
  476. >”At least he doesn’t back down. Many of your people are either too stupid or too smart to stand their ground.”
  477. >”Your Highness, I would like a word if we could end this… spectacle.”
  478. “Was there anything else you needed Ambassador.”
  479. >Please say yes.
  480. >”No, that’s about it for now.”
  481. >Of course.
  482.  
  483. >Blunt Force then goes to collect his pie before returning down the wall.
  484. >Leaving you alone with…
  485. >”Forgive me, I have found that if you do not act firmly to them, they will not respect you until you do. Better to leave a good first impression, no?”
  486. “You certainly have a point there.”
  487. >”Now, I am sure you know about the… altercations some of my men have gotten into.”
  488. “Not even a full day here, and your people are starting fights.”
  489. >”To be fair, all of the witnesses say that locals started one of them.”
  490. “Still, is that any way for guests to act?”
  491. >”Not at all. Which is why I’ve compensated the establishments with enough gold to cover damages thrice over.”
  492. “Generous… if this pace keeps up you’ll be bankrupt within a month.”
  493. >”So I will be here for more than a month now?”
  494. >Clever…
  495. >”Still, rest assure that this was an isolated incident. I let my ponies act more lax then they should have, it is a long road, and I figured they could use the relaxation. Had I known violence would have broken out, I would not have allowed it.”
  496. “An empty promise until results are seen.”
  497. >”And you will see them… or rather you won’t see them.”
  498. “Might I be completely blunt for a moment?”
  499. >”You are the Princess, that is all the permission you need.”
  500. “You’re acting rather warm to disinterest.”
  501. >”Because only warmth can melt the cold.”
  502. >More quick words.
  503. >”Great riches and a large army also help.”
  504. “Why don’t you go make sure your men don’t start any more fights?”
  505. >He bows.
  506. >”I think you’re warming up.”
  507. “And what tells you that?”
  508. >”You didn’t tell me to ‘get out’ this time.”
  509. “Get out.”
  510. >He smirks before turning.
  511. >Smug bastard.
  512.  
  513. >…
  514. >Another day or two had passed, and your right arm has healed from the snakebite.
  515. >It itches like mad, but it’s healed.
  516. >Your other arm isn’t so lucky.
  517. >When the snake/octopus thing dragged you into the water, it just let more bacteria and the like to get at the wound.
  518. >It’s hard to move that hand.
  519. >You can clench a fist and wiggle your fingers, but it’s numb.
  520. >Like you’ve been laying on it, and now it’s constantly asleep.
  521. >Also the blood and puss has made you have to apply fresh bandages two or three times a day.
  522. >You’ll run out if it continues like that for long.
  523. >So as you continue down the river, not stopping to make camp at night, you just keep on moving.
  524. >Harvey has been pretty quiet…
  525. >But so has everything else.
  526. >There haven’t been any incidents since your plunge into the river.
  527. >But you see something new.
  528. >Reaching back to slow down the throttle, you speak to Harvey.
  529. >Because you’ve reached a fork in the river.
  530. “Harv. Which way?”
  531. >”Autopilot.”
  532. “Which. Way.”
  533. >With a sigh, his body materializes and looks at the river.
  534. >”Left.”
  535. >And just as soon as he popped in, he popped out.
  536. >Alright.
  537. >You let the motor go to see where it takes you.
  538. >Left…
  539. >The tributary is only about half as wide as the main river you were just on.
  540. >And the foliage on the banks is much thicker.
  541. >A proper forest, if it were further south it’d look like a jungle.
  542. >Now where will this take you…
  543.  
  544. >…
  545. >”And… look, find a way. I don’t care how it happens.”
  546. >Lancer sends off some officers that needed approval for supplies for training camps.
  547. >As they leave the meeting room, Crop comes in.
  548. >”General. I have those reports you wanted.”
  549. >”… Thank you Captain.”
  550. >Wave then slides over a decent sized stack of folders and papers.
  551. >”These need your review and approval.”
  552. >With that, Lancer brings up a hoof to rub his forehead.
  553. >Then the door is unceremoniously opened up as one Blunt Force’s aides enters the room and walks over to Lancer.
  554. >”Your signature.”
  555. >The minotaur offers a clipboard.
  556. >That would be a transfer of gunpowder.
  557. >They don’t have any real surplus, so you’re sending a couple shipments to keep them well stocked.
  558. >As Lancer grabs a quill and signs, the minotaur then takes his leave.
  559. >You then speak to him:
  560. “General Lancer.”
  561. >”WHAT!”
  562. >He immediately catches himself.
  563. >”I’m sorry your highness. It’s just been a really busy week…”
  564. “Are you alright?”
  565. >”I’ll be fine.”
  566. >Wave then gets a few words in.
  567. >”I’ve only ever believed one person that when they say ‘I’ll be alright’ they’ll actually be alright… and it isn’t you.”
  568. >”Are you trying to be funny again Wave?”
  569. “General Lancer, just take a day or two off. Go home.”
  570. >”Brairheart is off with the griffons still, Offense is down with the dogs. That’d only leave Wave here.”
  571. “Do you not have the utmost confidence in his abilities?”
  572. >”That’s not what I-“
  573. “That’s an order. Get some rest.”
  574.  
  575. >…
  576. >You flip through some of the files that Lancer had.
  577. >This is…
  578. >At a look, you’d guess that he’s been picking up the majority of military and administrative matters.
  579. >He’s doing the work of at least two dozen ponies.
  580. >”Three dozen. Minimum.”
  581. >Wave seems to read your thoughts.
  582. “Look, we’re the only one’s here… that’s creepy.”
  583. >”It’s written all over your face: ‘How could he have dealt with all this on his own?’”
  584. >Wave then continues:
  585. >”From a pragmatic standpoint, it might be best if you just send the military related papers and files over my way.”
  586. “Again, you read my mind.”
  587. >You set a few files aside and slide them towards the general.
  588. >”The only reason there’s an issue is because Brairheart is absent. Usually we’d be able deal with the majority of the bureaucracy…”
  589. “So now that it’s only the two of us, are Lancer and Offense THAT bad at administrative affairs?”
  590. >”Worse than you would have thought.”
  591. “Really?”
  592. >”Well, Lancer isn’t that bad. But he has a tendency to put things off. And when things get put off, they pile up.”
  593. “And how bad is it… really?”
  594. >”Honestly, I wouldn’t let both Brairheart and myself be absent simultaneously… Some ponies are more acclimated to paperwork than others…”
  595. “I’ll take your word for it… from what I’ve seen, the aristocracy has been much more insistent than Lancer let on.”
  596. >”That only started after your first public speech after awaking from the parasite’s influence.”
  597. “I wasn’t aware that my awakening caused so many problems in the Palace.”
  598. >”Before you awoke, it was smooth sailing for the junta.”
  599. “Never lose your sense of humor, Wave… never.”
  600. >”I have a sense of humor?”
  601. >Oh he knows…
  602. “Good man.”
  603.  
  604. >”You’ve even picked up his inflections.”
  605. “What?”
  606. >”Anon… to be honest, it is clear who you took influence from. Of course you have your own style, but from my perspective, it’s rather obvious that the major influence has been him.”
  607. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
  608. >”Simply an observation.”
  609. “And I’ll take THAT as a compliment.”
  610. >”As you will.”
  611. >Heh.
  612. “That’s what I like about you, Wave.”
  613. >”Hmm?”
  614. “The brutal and uncensored honestly… the nobility could learn a few things from you.”
  615. >”Thank you… your Highness.”
  616. “Oh don’t bother.”
  617. >”Hmm?”
  618. “The ‘your Highness’ I don’t care about it… at least behind closed doors.”
  619. >”Of course.”
  620. “So… in your brutal honesty, I’d like your opinion on the Maretonians.”
  621. >”The Duke is an opportunist.”
  622. “I gathered as much.”
  623. >”A hundred thousand men, and a large budget are hard to turn down.”
  624. “Yeah…”
  625. >”But. We’ve faced far worse before and come out on top.”
  626. “Yeah…”
  627. >”If I may seek your own honestly for a moment?”
  628. “Of course.”
  629. >”The question isn’t really what he can do for you. The real issue is what you want.”
  630. “Yeah.”
  631. >”Of course, ideally you’d find a position where you’d get his men and gold without having to marry the duke. Obviously he knows that you’d have to marry him to get the full benefits, but you just need to find the proper… loophole.”
  632. >A loophole.
  633. >You need to keep the Duke loyal, while keeping his men dedicated to the cause.
  634. >Or you need a way to make the Duke’s loyalty a moot point.
  635. >Now how could you do that…
  636.  
  637. >…
  638. >You’ve had to swing at a couple alligators as you continue down the estuary.
  639. >Or are they crocodiles?
  640. >You can never remember the difference.
  641. >Either way, after a few hacks or shots towards them, they went back below water and decided you’re not worth the effort.
  642. >So you’ve been letting the boat go as it will.
  643. >The river winds a fair bit.
  644. >On the banks, you see more rocky terrain rather than a eased in shore.
  645. >But there hasn’t been anything that dangerous since the snake-octopus thing.
  646. >And that worries you…
  647. >As you continue down the-
  648. >SON OF A BITCH!
  649. >A tendril, tentacle- something wraps tightly under your shoulders and yanks you off of the boat.
  650. >You’re being pulled through the air, dragged over the water, and then over the land by a…
  651. >You look to see what’s around your torso.
  652. >It’s a root.
  653. >A God damned root.
  654. >And you thought you had your fill of killer trees…
  655. >You look to the direction it’s pulling you.
  656. >Towards an old oak.
  657. >Centuries old.
  658. >The trunk is at least ten feet wide.
  659. >As you draw closer, you see the trunk split as it opens up.
  660. >A great maw of wooden ‘teeth’ and the interior is made of bits that look almost fleshy in texture.
  661. >But it made one BIG mistake.
  662. >It left your arms free.
  663. >You reach behind your shoulder and remove your machete.
  664. >It takes few hacks, but you manage to cut the root.
  665. >As your blade goes through the wood, you notice a bit of blood come from your strikes.
  666. >This place…
  667.  
  668. >When you do sever the tendril, you’re sent rolling over the ground.
  669. >You lose grip of the machete, but control the momentum and spring to your feet.
  670. >You’re maybe twenty feet from the open jaw of the old ‘tree’.
  671. >As you stand tall in front of it, you see the jaw close.
  672. >Now it looks like a normal, if old, tree.
  673. >But that only lasts a second.
  674. >The bark and wood that was once part of the open maw, falls off of the tree.
  675. >Leaving a large pile of wood in front of an exposed mouth- as the fleshy bits look the same as they were.
  676. >It’s as if the jaws just fell onto the ground- teeth and all.
  677. >That’s…
  678. >Okay.
  679. >You watch as the wood begins to take shape.
  680. >The bark and hardwood takes from…
  681. >A very familiar form.
  682. >It’s almost like a mirror.
  683. >If the image was fully wooden.
  684. >In front of you, is a bipedal figure, looking to be your size.
  685. >Has hands, feet, even a face.
  686. >The face looks like it was carved into it, but it has ‘eyes’ a ‘nose’ and even ‘ears’.
  687. >And in its right hand, you see it’s holding a three or four foot long wooden blade.
  688. >Looks sharp…
  689. >You reach down to your swords pommel, and draw the steel.
  690. >Moving your arm wide, you let the blade rest pointing down to your right side.
  691. “Alright then.”
  692. >Harvey may be busy dealing with your wounds, but he apparently isn’t too busy to stop the ambient music.
  693. >The wooden man approaches, stopping at a few paces.
  694. >He spins his sword around in his hand, cocking his head as he examines you.
  695. “Never seen anything like me before, eh?”
  696. >He charges- you reach your sword up to deflect a lunge as the wooden man charges.
  697. >You knock his blade to the side and sidestep.
  698. >The charge soon ends and he turns, swinging at you.
  699. >You catch the sword with your own and send it down to your right.
  700. >Swinging your steel towards it’s torso, it pulls it’s blade up to catch yours.
  701. >You pull back and try to slash in to its gut.
  702.  
  703. >He jumps back, narrowly avoiding your strike.
  704. >He swings down as he closes the gap, and you catch the blade as it comes down towards you.
  705. >Unable to hold it back, you have to grasp your sword with both hands as it inches closer towards your face.
  706. >You end up having to duck under the onslaught, having to retreat e few steps to your left.
  707. >As you do, you see that ‘he’ reaches down towards his leg with his left hand.
  708. >The bark from his thigh then comes off of the thigh as it forms a dagger.
  709. >It charges forward, leading with the sword.
  710. >You manage to deflect that strike, and then parry the dagger.
  711. >After a slight reset, you have to jump back to avoid a jab from the knife as you then meet the sword with your own.
  712. >It gives no rest, as you block another swing from the sword while pivoting on your left heel to avoid the next jab from the dagger.
  713. >As you pivot, you use the momentum and bring your sword into its back.
  714. >A strike that would kill or cripple a flesh and blood opponent.
  715. >But it just looks into your eyes.
  716. >With its light brown oaken eyes…
  717. >As it brings it’s sword into your back.
  718. >The blow is stopped by your armor.
  719. >And you smirk.
  720. “Steel beats oak, sorry.”
  721. >You let your own sword stay lodged in its back.
  722. >Instead, you step away, and then kick your right leg back.
  723. >Grasping the throwing knife you keep in your boot, you draw it and look to the tree.
  724. >The undefended tree.
  725. >That spot right at your eye level looks important.
  726. >You reach back and throw the knife.
  727. >The blade soars through the air, lodging itself in what looks to be a wooden heart.
  728. >As it does, the wooden man falls to the ground.
  729. >And it falls apart, into the mass of wood that it stated as.
  730. >Now you just need to collect your gear.
  731. >And…
  732. “Cut the music.”
  733. >It ends.
  734. >He had to loop it…
  735. >… And now you’ll have to swim back to the boat.
  736. >Just great.
  737. >At least the engine cuts out automatically…
  738.  
  739. >…
  740. >You’ve been working on Lancer’s backlogged paperwork for…
  741. >Well look at that.
  742. >You’ve been here since noon.
  743. >It’s ten.
  744. >The door opens as General Wave enters.
  745. “General.”
  746. >He pauses for a moment, probably wondering if he should make a comment about the time of night.
  747. >”I’ve just got back from the city. Word is that Duke Astéri has been spending the day making ‘generous’ donations to the reconstruction effort, and to the families who lost people in the blast.”
  748. “Of course he is.”
  749. >”I don’t think I need to say it, but it’s obvious he’s trying to play public opinion.”
  750. “I know.”
  751. >”How do you want to proceeded with him?”
  752. “Leave him be for now, I want to see where he takes it.”
  753. >”Very well.”
  754. “While you’re here. We were able to stop the Cloudsdale flooding plan, right?”
  755. >”Yes. We caught it early enough.”
  756. “They had to have gills…”
  757. >You glance back at the clock.
  758. “Well, I think I’ll turn in.”
  759. >You push your chair back and stand.
  760. >And hear your stomach growl.
  761. >Kitchen first.
  762. >…
  763. >You pass through the darkened hallways, and find a light on in the kitchen.
  764. >One of the refrigerators is open, and a minotaur is standing in front of it.
  765. >The Ambassador.
  766. >He’s got a pile of sweets in his arm, and he reaches into the freezer to pull out a tub of ice cream that he puts on top.
  767. >And by tub, you mean two gallon large vat.
  768. >He must notice the hoofsteps, because he turns to glance at you.
  769. >”Your Highness. I’d bow, but I doubt the cleaning staff would like the resulting mess.”
  770. >You get a better look at the stack of food in his arm.
  771. >Half a cake.
  772. >Two pie tins.
  773. >A platter of muffins.
  774. >And the ice cream.
  775. >Somepony has quite the sweet tooth.
  776. >You levitate a pair of muffins off of the platter.
  777. >Getting back basic telekinesis has been marvelous.
  778. “As you were.”
  779. >Ooh, blueberry.
  780.  
  781. >…
  782. >Another day, another pile of paperwork.
  783. >As you sip your tea, you start to… try to make a dent.
  784. >Lancer at least tries to deal with his stuff…
  785. >Offense has a habit of sliding his work into the other leader’s piles.
  786. >Even though Wave and Brairheart are rather organized and meticulous, it’s still only two bureaucrats doing the work of the entire nation.
  787. >Celestia had what?
  788. >Three or four dozen pencil pushers?
  789. >Thankfully, the door soon opens and Crop enters.
  790. “Yes?”
  791. >Anything to get away from ‘sewage backlog in Las Pegasus’.
  792. >Anything.
  793. >”A letter for you, your highness.”
  794. >You grab the coiled scroll with your magic and bring it over.
  795. >Fancy seal.
  796. >You break it and start reading aloud.
  797. “Dear estimed… groveling… you are cordially invited to… blah blah blah… annual salon at the estate of who cares… one of the premier social gatherings in Equestria, blah, blah. EVERYPONY will be there, and your presence, more groveling, please come and be my guest so I can show off to the other members of high society.”
  798. >Wave then casually mentions:
  799. >”I don’t think it actually says that…”
  800.  
  801. >Oh it’s one of THOSE things…
  802. >You’d have to waste hours getting a dress, and having your mane done.
  803. >Only to waste the evening on pleasantries without any actual work being done.
  804. >That’s always how they go.
  805. >Nopony ever talks about things that matter.
  806. >Like the sewage backlog in Las Pegasus…
  807. >They just go on and on about:
  808. >’Oh, did you see what so and so was wearing? So last season.’
  809. >’You know on my estate, I would never serve such cheap hors d’oeuvres.’
  810. >’Their pool doesn’t even have a diving board…’
  811. >There’s a difference between pleasantries and an entire evening dedicated to sycophancy.
  812. >You look back to the invitation.
  813. >A week away…
  814. >It’s expected of you…
  815. >And skipping a big event would run contrary to normalizing the government…
  816. >You sigh.
  817. “I’ll have to go to it…”
  818. >You look to Crop.
  819. “Go tell whoever’s hosting it that I’ll attempt to be there, but if pressing matters come up, I’ll be needed to deal with that situation.”
  820. >You levitate the invitation over to him, and once he grabs it, he takes his leave.
  821. >When the door closes, you speak plainly.
  822. “I really hope a ‘situation’ arises… Like this sewage problem in Las Pegasus… that’s something the Princess would need to deal with personally, right?”
  823. >Wave just looks at you, a neutral expression on his face.
  824. >Had to be left with the one member of high command that doesn’t have a sense of humor…
  825.  
  826. >…
  827. >You continue down the river.
  828. >Harv’s still been quiet…
  829. >Over the noise of the engine, you hear a roar in the air.
  830. >Deep, with a fair amount of growling reverb.
  831. >A bear maybe.
  832. >Hell, at this point you’ll take anything as long as it’s not another killer tree.
  833. >You’d be fine going through your entire life without ever having a literal tree attack you.
  834. >Now it’s happened twice within a week.
  835. >How is this your life…
  836. >You reach to grab the bandages on your arm.
  837. >As pain shoots through your skinned areas you tighten the grip.
  838. >While you grasp it, you flex your left hand.
  839. >It’s been completely numb for a while.
  840. >No pain is even registering on the hand itself.
  841. >You can’t even feel cold steel or the wetness of the water.
  842. >That’s… bad?
  843. >”Stop that.”
  844. >Harv’s disembodied voice barks at you.
  845. “Would it kill you to update me now and then?”
  846. >”Yes.”
  847. “Very funny.”
  848. >You rest your good hand over on the side of the boat.
  849. “So how much longer do I have in this thing?”
  850. >”A while.”
  851. “I thought you left the penchant for being cryptic in your body.”
  852. >”Oh come off it.”
  853. “Harvey, I’m in the ass end of nowhere, where everything is trying to kill me. My knees are giving out, and I had to cut off half of the skin on my arm… And I’m only right here, because however many centuries ago, you decided to play inter-dimensional golf and let some evil entity seep out through the hole.”
  854. >Harvey appears opposite you.
  855. >And he sighs.
  856. >”Alright, you want the truth?”
  857. >He better not quote what you think he’s about to.
  858. “What?”
  859. >”I may have been downplaying exactly how much I can… help.”
  860. “How so?”
  861. >He snaps his fingers.
  862. >Nothing happens…
  863. “Very funny Harv.”
  864. >”Wait for it.”
  865. “Wait for-“
  866.  
  867. >Your arm.
  868. >It feels… fine.
  869. >You reach over and grab the bandages.
  870. >”It’s still just as injured, but I can completely erase the pain and numbness.”
  871. >Something else feels… off.
  872. “What else did you do?”
  873. >”Well, you won’t need to sleep for a month or so. You’ll be able to fully exert yourself for around four times longer than normally. That doesn’t mean you’re stronger, just more endurance. I can heighten all of your senses by five times. And if you’re lucky I might be able to double your reaction time.”
  874. “You pumped me full of amphetamines, didn’t you?”
  875. >”No adverse effects… other than a moderately increased metabolism and appetite, and you might be really tired when I get out of your head.”
  876. “And what makes you bring this up now?”
  877. >”Well, I think you’ve gotten a taste of what’s over here… And you had… reservations about my ‘help’ before.”
  878. >You glance over to the riverbank.
  879. >And sigh.
  880. “Yeah, alright.”
  881. >”Alright?”
  882. “Go ahead, keep it up.”
  883. >”Just like that? You were pretty… final about it.”
  884. “Harv, I’m old… and I’m tired… and honestly, I just don’t care about it anymore. If you think you can help, then just do it.”
  885.  
  886. >…
  887. >You walk with Wave out to the Palace gardens.
  888. >In the distance, a great hulk of an airship is hovering in the air.
  889. >A small chariot is heading your way.
  890. “So, think they saw reason?”
  891. >”Either that, or Griffonstone is a pile of rubble.”
  892. >Well, only one way to find out.
  893. >…
  894. >As Brairheart’s chariot lands in a clearing, he looks over to you.
  895. >While he steps off, he speaks:
  896. >”Where are the others?”
  897. “Offense is dealing with a… canine situation, and I insisted that Lancer take a couple days off.”
  898. >Wave then speaks to the Admiral:
  899. >”What of the griffons?”
  900. >”Suffice it to say, I don’t think there will be any conflict in the foreseeable future.”
  901. “Excellent.”
  902. >”Did I miss much else, your highness?”
  903. “Oh you have no idea…”
  904. >You walk with the Admiral as you bring him up to speed on what he’s missed.
  905. >The Maretonians.
  906. >The minotaur ambassador.
  907. >That the Cloudsdale plan won’t work against the creatures.
  908. >And the ‘salon’ that you’ve been invited to.
  909.  
  910. >…
  911. >You grab onto the final rocky outcropping and pull yourself atop the cliff.
  912. >Then turn to watch the horizon.
  913. >You must be a hundred feet up.
  914. >You’re above even the highest evergreens and oaks that pepper the landscape.
  915. >It would have been easier to fly up…
  916. >But when you saw the rock face…
  917. >You just needed to climb it.
  918. >Pausing for a moment, you catch your breath as you watch a hawk fly over the forest below.
  919. >It’s beautiful.
  920. >the bird, the view, the fresh air.
  921. >Everything.
  922. >You just left everything behind.
  923. >The Crystal Empire is days away.
  924. >You’re not even sure the exact direction you took to get here…
  925. >And you didn’t take even a single scrap of food with you.
  926. >Mainly you’ve had to forage berries.
  927. >And even that is so strange…
  928. >You know which ones are edible and which ones are poisonous.
  929. >Somehow…
  930. >The crystal, most likely.
  931. >You turn around as you hear chirping birds sing out behind you.
  932. >At the top of the cliff, the woods continue.
  933. >You watch a few sparrows fly through the branches.
  934. >Squirrels climb tree trunks.
  935. >You even see a rabbit spring along between the bushes.
  936. >In the distance you can hear running water.
  937. >You’re here, alone.
  938. >In serenity.
  939.  
  940. >Even though your hooves are coated in dirt, you don’t seem to mind.
  941. >You stumble forward a bit as you feel lightheaded.
  942. >Why are you even out here?
  943. >In the mountains…
  944. >You go to sit against a rock, so that you can watch over the terrain blow.
  945. >From up on this cliff, you can see no signs of civilization.
  946. >You’re even far enough away that the Crystal Empire’s Spire isn’t peaking over the horizon.
  947. >Where are you?
  948. >South of the city.
  949. >You think.
  950. >Winter…
  951. >You doubt that you’ll ever be able to set hoof in the Crystal Empire again.
  952. >Could you even bring yourself to do it?
  953. >You look for the hawk as it screeches out.
  954. >Getting a glimpse of it, you watch its wings.
  955. >You wonder what it’s like to soar like that…
  956. >Sure, you can fly.
  957. >But what must it be like to be able to stay airborne for so long, only being held up by the wind.
  958. >To be able to take in everything without constantly flapping.
  959. >It must be so peaceful…
  960. >…
  961. >”It seems like things could be much worse.”
  962. >Brairheart says as you enter the meeting room with him and Wave.
  963. “Yeah, well you’re not the one who has to personally deal with suitors and salons.”
  964. >”Oh, has he really!”
  965. >Brairheart says as he approaches the several stacks of papers and files that litter the table.
  966. >”Next time I see Offense…”
  967. “Well, until then I think you have administration to see to.”
  968.  
  969. >…
  970. “Harv!”
  971. >Smartass little…
  972. >”Hmm?”
  973. “Why do my knees still ache? Seems rather simple compared to the arm.”
  974. >”Because your subconscious needs the reminder not to stress it in ways that would cause more permanent damage.”
  975. “But my subconscious doesn’t need it for the arm…”
  976. >”Oh, it’s not your dominant arm. You’d be fine without it.”
  977. “Did I mention that I hate you?”
  978. >”Look. Walking, and running, and jumping operate on a much more instinctual level than, say, swinging a sword. Because of how little focus your legs receive, there’s an actual risk to dulling the pain and stress. Your arm though? The threat of greater injury is much more moderate.”
  979. “Moderate.”
  980. >Interesting choice of word…
  981. “What the hell is that?”
  982. >Further down river, there’s a small island.
  983. >Barren other than some grass and a large oak tree reaching up into the sky.
  984. >The water goes around it.
  985. >The right side is clear.
  986. >But on the left, there’s a large black object hanging over the water.
  987. >As you draw closer, you see.
  988. >Nope.
  989. >You didn’t sign up for this.
  990. >That ‘object’ is the body of a massive spider.
  991. >A tarantula really.
  992. >The body itself is as long as you are tall.
  993. >It’s sitting on a great web that runs from the oak on the island to the nearest tree on the bank.
  994. >The threads of the web look as thick as rope.
  995.  
  996. >You reach back and turn the motor to aim you down the clear side of the river.
  997. >Then you lean forward to grab your four bore.
  998. >You take hold of it with your right hand and cock back the hammer on both barrels as you reach back to steer the boat with your left hand.
  999. >Just stay there…
  1000. >Don’t make a move...
  1001. >Black Widows the size of terriers are one thing.
  1002. >But as you draw closer you can distinctly see each eye of the arachnid on its hairy exoskeleton.
  1003. >Stay right there…
  1004. >You pass by the oak, and see the thickness of the tarantula.
  1005. >It’s like a small hatchback car, with twelve foot long tree trunks of legs.
  1006. >But it remains hanging as you pass wide around its web.
  1007. >As you continue down the river, you turn to look at it as you move.
  1008. >Yeah, no.
  1009. >You shoulder the weapon and place your left hand to tightly grasp the grip.
  1010. >The force hits your shoulder like a mule’s kick, but you see the creatures carapace shatter as sickly green puss and innards explode out.
  1011. >Then you turn back to face forward.
  1012. >You did not sign up for this…
  1013.  
  1014. >…
  1015. >You move through the forest, finding the running water that you heard earlier.
  1016. >A small stream cuts through the woods, shallow, but the waters are perfectly clear.
  1017. >You reach your neck down to drink from it before you wipe your dirty hooves clean.
  1018. >Looking into your reflection, you see just how tired you look.
  1019. >Your eyes are shadowed, and there are visible bags under them.
  1020. >Which is odd, because you don’t feel particularly tired.
  1021. >In fact, you’re rather well rested.
  1022. >Your mane is pretty unkempt though.
  1023. >Running your damp hoof through your mane, you try and settle it.
  1024. >Good enough.
  1025. >Beyond your face, you can see some small fish swim through the water.
  1026. >Around you, there’s a bit of a clearing.
  1027. >The wildlife must keep the grass in check, because it’s pretty low.
  1028. >You see three wild berry bushes closer to the trees.
  1029. >This would be a good place for a home.
  1030. >Quiet, out of the way, calm.
  1031. >The most dangerous thing you’ve seen is the hawk from earlier.
  1032. >A perfect place to raise a family…
  1033. >That’s passed now…
  1034. >That’s passed…
  1035. >You look down to the fish.
  1036. >Then look upstream.
  1037. >You wonder where the water’s flowing from.
  1038. >Walking on the calm banks, you move along the stream.
  1039.  
  1040. >…
  1041. >While leaning on the balcony of your room, you let out a low groan.
  1042. >You have to get a dress…
  1043. >Can’t you just wear your armor?
  1044. >Actually that’s-
  1045. >No, you can’t wear armor…
  1046. >Why not just go without a dress.
  1047. >If anypony asks, you can say that it’s because real fashion doesn’t need clothes or jewelry or-
  1048. >Yeah, the sycophants will take a lot of whatever you say as ‘the’ most popular trend, but you don’t think they’d go that far.
  1049. >They like their silk and gems too much.
  1050. >You giggle to yourself.
  1051. >You’re ruling all of Equestria, and there’s currently an apocalypse in progress, and you’re worrying about what to wear to a social event.
  1052. >It’s official.
  1053. >You’re a Princess.
  1054.  
  1055. >You never wanted to be a Princess anyway.
  1056. >You wanted to be a…
  1057. >You’re not sure actually.
  1058. >Sure your decent, maybe even good, at listening to the people and solving problems, but you never really liked it.
  1059. >You liked the results, helping people, but a lot of the time it felt like you weren’t really doing anything important.
  1060. >Whatever you did was treating a symptom, not the real issue.
  1061. >And you never had fun.
  1062. >What was fun?
  1063. >Fighting White Rage in single combat.
  1064. >Leading the charge against the Royalist ambush.
  1065. >Directing troops over Baltimare.
  1066. >It’s funny though.
  1067. >In each of those moments, ‘fun’ was one of the last feelings you’d attribute to the encounters.
  1068. >Releasing a hefty yawn, you decide it’s time for bed.
  1069. >You need a new mattress though.
  1070. >The one you have is far too soft.
  1071. >It’s almost like the time on the march has had you preferring firm resting places.
  1072. >Tomorrow though, you pause the thought to sigh, you have to get a dress.
  1073.  
  1074. >…
  1075. >With the cool night’s breeze in your mane, you continue onwards.
  1076. >Fireflies glow by the dozen among the brush.
  1077. >You can occasionally hear an owl hoot in the night.
  1078. >And the ambient sound of the stream flowing is a comfortable ambience.
  1079. >Crickets chirp.
  1080. >The stars are bright.
  1081. >No matter how beautiful the day is, the only way to describe the night is awe-inspiring.
  1082. >But…
  1083. >You’re still walking amongst the hills and mountains.
  1084. >Despite the evening spectacle, you’re not stopping.
  1085. >At the oasis, you would sit in a single position through the entire night.
  1086. >Just watching nature.
  1087. >Where are you even going?
  1088. >Upstream, wherever that is.
  1089. >Why don’t you sit down a moment to rest?
  1090. >Finding a small area where the grass isn’t too high, you sit down to face the stream.
  1091. >The water’s moving a bit faster.
  1092. >Probably because there’s an ever so slight incline.
  1093. >As you watch the fireflies dance in the moonlight, you-
  1094. >You adjust your position, shifting your weight over to your right side.
  1095. >Then back to the left.
  1096. >You’re not sitting on anything.
  1097. >Just a soft patch of ground.
  1098. >Why can’t you get comfortable…
  1099. >Your eyes are drawn to the distant mountaintops lit by the stars.
  1100. >You feel drawn to them.
  1101. >And you don’t know why.
  1102. >Rising from the ground, you continue to walk along the stream.
  1103. >The mountains are calling and you must go.
  1104.  
  1105. >…
  1106. >You take the final sip of your tea after finishing signing off on a few military logistics papers.
  1107. “Admiral?”
  1108. >”Yes, your highness?”
  1109. >He’s sitting next to a stack of papers at least two feet tall.
  1110. >After signing a paper, he levitates it to the top of the pile.
  1111. “That’s what you finished today?”
  1112. >”Did a bit of work last night, but yes.”
  1113. >Wave might be a machine, but Brairheart is a savant.
  1114. “I’m impressed.”
  1115. >”It’s nothing I haven’t been doing for years.”
  1116. >Wave then chimes in:
  1117. >”Actually, I thought you made rather poor time.”
  1118. >The Admiral sighs before responding:
  1119. >”Thank you, Red. You wanted something Princess?”
  1120. “If you two think you can handle things, I’ve got some things to sort out.”
  1121. >”Do as you will. Since the meeting at Fort Expanse, we’re all here to serve at your word.”
  1122. >The summit he’s referring seems like it’s a lifetime away.
  1123. “Thank you.”
  1124. >…
  1125. >After a quick stop by your room to grab a simple cloak, you headed to the gardens.
  1126. >It took a few minutes to find a nice isolated area where no soldiers are posted.
  1127. >But you found it.
  1128. >Approaching the nearest railing looking over the cliff, you look over your shoulders to see if anypony is watching.
  1129. >Pulling the cloak around your shoulder, you toss it to lay under your torso.
  1130. >Then you jump over the guard rail, and let your wings do the work.
  1131. >You fly downwards at first, getting close to the ground.
  1132. >Then begin to fly low over the treetops.
  1133.  
  1134. >…
  1135. >After a hearty fly over, you set down well out of sight and pull the cloak back over your body.
  1136. >No wings here, just a unicorn walking through town.
  1137. >Nopony could possibly see through your cunning disguise.
  1138. >As you walk down the road into town, you’re met with a few wooden houses.
  1139. >A couple are even in the process of being built.
  1140. >In the furthest memories you have of this place, you remember it being much smaller.
  1141. >Not a huge population increase, but a noticeable one.
  1142. >You dropped by on the march in the early days of the war, but even then you don’t remember any houses being built on the outskirts.
  1143. >You stop in the road to look at the skyline.
  1144. >Everything is so quaint and welcoming.
  1145. >Nice, well decorated wooden homes and shops.
  1146. >And even with the additions, nothing seems that crowded.
  1147. >The only thing that sticks out is the castle.
  1148. >It’s a big stone/crystalline tumor sticking out way above everything else.
  1149. >Funny, this is the first time you really thought it was out of place.
  1150. >Must be all of the nostalgia from the times you spent there as a foal.
  1151. >What really annoys you is that it isn’t really a castle…
  1152. >In no way it could repel an attacker.
  1153. >Zero fortification.
  1154. >There are no proper battlement, even on the towers.
  1155. >Even the balconies don’t have crenellations and merlons, let alone machicolations!
  1156. >The main door is just a door.
  1157. >Break it in, and you have free access to the rest of the building.
  1158. >It’s not even a fortress or keep.
  1159. >It’s just a big tall palace.
  1160. >Thanks Uncle…
  1161.  
  1162. >…
  1163. >Continuing down the roads, you walk by the various townsfolk.
  1164. >Nopony seems to notice that you’re the Princess.
  1165. >Just a traveller walking down the main road.
  1166. >Nothing to see here.
  1167. >Or they’re just being polite…
  1168. >Walking past the various stalls and shops selling wares you-
  1169. >You take a wide step over to your right to duck behind the nearest corner of a building.
  1170. >Pinkie Pie just bounced across one of the cross roads up ahead.
  1171. >Yes, bounced.
  1172. >Gotta stay incognito.
  1173. >”Hiyah there Flurry!”
  1174. >You jump as Pinkie yells into your ear.
  1175. >She’s pressed against the building just like you were.
  1176. >But she was going away from you…
  1177. >Wha- how?
  1178. >”Oh my gosh, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!”
  1179. >She pulls you into a tight hug.
  1180. >Very tight.
  1181. >”I haven’t seen you since you came into town to lookthroughTwilight’slibraryacouplemonthsago!”
  1182. “P…i…n…k…i…e…”
  1183. >”And then you were one official business so I couldn’t throw you a welcome back home party!”
  1184. “I…”
  1185. >”Well, a welcome back home AWAY from home party.”
  1186. “C…a…n…t…”
  1187. >”Because techhhhhnically your home is the Crystal Empire, but Ponyville will always be-“
  1188. “B…r…e…a…t…h…”
  1189. >She immediately releases you.
  1190. >As you gasp for breath, she continues.
  1191. >”Well why didn’t you just saaay so? Now that you’re here though, I can throw THE BIGGEST PARTY that-“
  1192. “Pinkie!”
  1193. >”Yeeees?”
  1194. >Her eyes sparkle in the sunlight.
  1195. >How can you put this lightly…
  1196. “I’m really sorry, but I’m here on official Princess duties and have to be back in Canterlot tonight.”
  1197. >”Of course I know that! Why else would you be wearing a cloak to hide your wings if you weren’t trying to be sneakily!”
  1198.  
  1199. “But… you know that I can’t stay for a party…”
  1200. >”Yup, but this way you’ll have to agree to come back for THE BIGGEST PARTY Ponyville has ever seen as soon as your Princessial duties let up a bit.”
  1201. >Clever…
  1202. “You’ll want a Pinkie promise, won’t you?”
  1203. >”Nope!”
  1204. “Nope?”
  1205. >Her eyes narrow and she takes a completely serious tone.
  1206. >”Because the second that you get a few days off, you won’t be able to resist.”
  1207. >Then she’s back to her normal(?) self.
  1208. >”Have fun with your mission!”
  1209. >She then bounces off down the street.
  1210. >That was…
  1211. >How can you weaponize that pony?
  1212. >…
  1213. >Continuing on your path, you enter the building.
  1214. >As the door rings a bell resting in its way, you hear a voice call out:
  1215. >”Just one moment please!”
  1216. “Take all the time you need.”
  1217. >You then hear the sounds of many objects crashing to the ground.
  1218. >And a head then peeks into the entrance room.
  1219. >A tape ruler resting around her pure white neck.
  1220. >”Princess Flurry!”
  1221. >Rarity exclaims, equally surprised as joyful.
  1222. >She quickly trots over to greet you.
  1223. >Her mane is…
  1224. >She has a grey streak in her curls.
  1225. >Something she lacked the last time you saw her.
  1226. “Your! I’m sorry, I shouldn’t gawk.”
  1227. >”Oh no my dear, please.”
  1228. >She pauses to curtsy when she reaches you.
  1229. >”A single streak of grey is in style this season. And quite honestly, I hope that trend continues for many more.”
  1230. >You laugh a bit at the sentiment.
  1231. >She reciprocates.
  1232. >You then reach forward to place a hoof around her neck and have a light hug.
  1233. >When it ends, she speaks to you:
  1234.  
  1235. >”Please tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
  1236. “Well, I know that recently you’ve been taking a bit of an off year to spend more time at home. What with all of the businesses and brands you own. But I was hoping you could find it in your schedule to do a bit of a favor for me.”
  1237. >”You needn’t even ask.”
  1238. “Really?”
  1239. >”Of course.”
  1240. “I need a dress, and I’d really hate to bother you on your vacation…”
  1241. >”I may be relaxing a bit this summer, but by no means does that imply that I’m not staying busy. And even if I were fully on artistic leave, you are one of the few ponies I would break that leave for. But, first things first! What is the occasion?”
  1242. “Well there’s this upcoming salon, and I-“
  1243. >”Amethyst Shower’s annual salon?”
  1244. “Yes, I think that was the name.”
  1245. >”Say no more! For the past decade, her events have been next only to the Grand Galloping Gala in terms of prestige. It would be my honor.”
  1246. “It really isn’t a burden? It’s just under a week away.”
  1247. >Rarity places her hooves on your shoulders.
  1248. >”Even if I wouldn’t be working for a friend, then how could I pass up the chance to see my work displayed on royalty firsthoof.”
  1249. “You’ll be there?”
  1250. >”It wounds me that you would even imply that I would miss such an occasion.”
  1251. >She says with a smirk.
  1252. “Well, you’re the expert. Lead the way.”
  1253.  
  1254. >…
  1255. “So…”
  1256. >You keep your wings outstretched as Rarity measures them.
  1257. “Have anything in mind?”
  1258. >”Please your highness. I’ve had hundreds of ideas since the very moment I first laid eyes upon you.”
  1259. “Great… just, nothing too extravagant or flowy. The last thing I need is to trip over my dress in front of everypony.”
  1260. >”Don’t you worry.”
  1261. >She then starts measuring your back legs.
  1262. >”You’ve grown quite a bit since I’ve last been able to get your measurements.”
  1263. “I hope you’re not calling me fat.”
  1264. >”Not at all. You have amazing definition.”
  1265. “Thank you. I try to keep relatively active.”
  1266. >”Oh have you now?”
  1267. “Well honestly I’ve been on the road a lot recently.”
  1268. >”Of course… all of this conflict has certainly been taking its toll.”
  1269. “Yeah…”
  1270. >”Oh… If only Twilight were…”
  1271. >She pauses.
  1272. “You okay?”
  1273. >”One moment…”
  1274. >You were almost lucky in a way.
  1275. >When Twilight left, you were still young and couldn’t properly comprehend it.
  1276. >But Rarity and the others had known her for years before you were even born.
  1277. “Are you okay?”
  1278. >”Of course dear…”
  1279. >You then feel the measuring tape go around your neck.
  1280. >”May I ask a question?”
  1281. “You just did.”
  1282. >”Twilight used to tell us about the stories she told you. Grand tales of our adventures and friendship missions from her map, do you remember any of them?”
  1283. “A few, but only vaguely. I’m sorry, but I was really young.”
  1284. >”I completely understand. But I don’t think you ever learned that…”
  1285. “Learned what?”
  1286. >”Well…”
  1287. “Rarity, please. I know that we didn’t see each other nearly as much after Aunt Twilight… left. But I still view you and the others like family.”
  1288. >”That means a great deal. Once Twilight went after looking for your father, after a few months the map just… stopped working. It never signaled out any friendship problems. Some of the others were hopefull, but…”
  1289.  
  1290. “But Twilight came back.”
  1291. >”And once the girls and I heard that rumor, we were overjoyed… but she never came to see any of us. Did she… say anything about us? I know we’ve asked you that before, but if you’ve been able to remember anything…”
  1292. “I’m sorry, but the only thing I can remember her actually saying was that she had to go back.”
  1293. >”Well, I had to ask.”
  1294. “Again, sorry.”
  1295. >”Oh, it’s not your fault at all.”
  1296. “That must mean a lot more to you though… I was only a foal when I had Aunt Twiley around.”
  1297. >”Oh she loved you more than anything… well, you and books. It’s hard to really compare the two.”
  1298. >You each giggle at the jest.
  1299. >”Although, and I don’t mean to impose, but I’m sure the others would love to see you if you have a moment.”
  1300. “I actually ran into Pinkie earlier.”
  1301. >”And?”
  1302. “She was… Pinkie.”
  1303. >”That she is.”
  1304. “What time is it?”
  1305. >”Just past four, I think.”
  1306. “Not too late.”
  1307. >”I know Rainbow is off with the Wonderbolts, but the others would surely appreciate it.”
  1308. “Well I suppose it depends on how much longer you need.”
  1309. >”Oh I finished a minute ago.”
  1310. “You only took measurements.”
  1311. >”I have just the dress in mind for the event. If you’d trust my judgment, of course.”
  1312. “Do you even have to ask?”
  1313. >”Then I’ll get to work, and bring the finished product to the Palace on the date of the salon.”
  1314. “I’ll see you then.”
  1315. >You turn to face Rarity, who is already examining two rolls of cloth that look utterly identical to your eye.
  1316. >She sets them down.
  1317. >As you reach forward for a hug, she speaks while you embrace.
  1318. >”And please your highness. No matter where I am, my door is always open to you.”
  1319. “Thank you.”
  1320.  
  1321. >…
  1322. >Walking down the path, you take in the afternoon breeze.
  1323. >As the wind blows, it rustles the branches in the many trees that line the path out of the town proper.
  1324. >Passing round a bend, your next stop comes into view.
  1325. >A quaint little cottage perched on a tiny hill next to a stream.
  1326. >Bushes have been planted over the roof to provide homes for animals, and several bird houses are perched both on the house itself and the surrounding trees.
  1327. >Dozens of birds are chirping, and bunnies hop around the land.
  1328. >You walk over a small bridge to cross the stream and begin to climb the slight hill up to the round door.
  1329. >When you reach it, you give a gentle pair of knocks.
  1330. >No response.
  1331. >You knock louder…
  1332. >And you wait a moment.
  1333. >Nothing.
  1334. “Fluttershy?”
  1335. >You call out.
  1336. >”Yes?”
  1337. >A calm voice says from behind you.
  1338. >She’s just coming over the bridge now, a saddle bag over her torso.
  1339. >She must have been just behind you.
  1340. >You notice that her long pink mane seems to be a bit lighter than you remember.
  1341. >”Oh, Princess Flurry.”
  1342. >She quickens her pace to approach.
  1343. >”I’m so sorry, we’ve just finished expanding the sanctuary, and it takes quite a bit of time to get all of the new animals comfortable.”
  1344. “I’m just happy I caught you.”
  1345. >You reach over to give her a gentle hug.
  1346. >After you pull back, you speak to Fluttershy.
  1347. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how busy you were.”
  1348. >”You’re one to talk, being a Princess and all.”
  1349.  
  1350. >Her saddle bag looks pretty packed.
  1351. “Do you need a hoof with that?”
  1352. >”Oh no, these are all for Angel.”
  1353. “The rabbit?”
  1354. >”Bunny.”
  1355. >You remember now.
  1356. >Wait, it’s still alive?
  1357. >“He needs specially grown baby carrots. His little teeth have had trouble getting through normal ones for a few years now. “
  1358. >She moves forward to open the door, revealing her entrance room.
  1359. >She then moves over to the corner immediately to the right.
  1360. >”Oh, he’s not in his bed. Angel, where are you Angel?”
  1361. >She then looks over to you.
  1362. >”Please make yourself at home while I look for him.”
  1363. >She goes off to the left to look through the house, and you eye the couch.
  1364. >Trotting over to it, you catch movement to the right.
  1365. >In the next room over, a pure white rabbit…
  1366. >Well, more of a very light smoky grey instead of white.
  1367. >Is coming from the kitchen, on a tiny walker.
  1368. >It even has little wheels on the back legs.
  1369. >Between its teeth, you see a full sized carrot sticking out.
  1370. “Fluttershy, I found him!”
  1371. >A moment later, she flies over into the room and approaches him.
  1372. >She immediately leans down to the rabbit.
  1373. >”Angel, what have I told you about those.”
  1374. >She takes the carrot away from him, and he does NOT look happy.
  1375. >But she replaces it with a softer looking baby carrot, and the bunny continues walking over to its bed in the corner.
  1376. >Fluttershy then turns to you.
  1377. >”I’m sorry about that.”
  1378. “Oh it’s no problem.”
  1379. >”Would you like some tea?”
  1380. “You’re not too busy? I wouldn’t want to keep you from any work.”
  1381. >”Other than giving the animals out back their evening meal in a couple hours, that will be it for the day. And honestly, I could use the break.”
  1382. “Well then tea sounds lovely.”
  1383.  
  1384. >…
  1385. >You and Fluttershy giggle at the latest situation one of her animals got in.
  1386. >Turns out one of the birds insists on living in a burrow for some reason.
  1387. >”Umm… Princess?”
  1388. “Just Flurry, please.”
  1389. >”Right, Flurry. I was wondering…”
  1390. “Go ahead?”
  1391. >”Well, I was just wondering, it’s been months since Discord last dropped by for tea. It’s not like him to miss two weeks in a row, but now it’s been a long while. Do you know if he’s okay.”
  1392. >Last you heard from Lancer, they gave Starlight an amplification crystal and she turned him to dust.
  1393. >Which seems a final end even for Discord.
  1394. >As you look into her eyes, you just can’t bring yourself to tell her though…
  1395. “I’m not sure, I haven’t seen him for some time either.”
  1396. >That’s true.
  1397. >”Oh… well if you see him, could you tell him that I’m still setting everything up at our usual times?”
  1398. “Next time I see him.”
  1399. >”Thank you.”
  1400. >…
  1401. “HARVEY!”
  1402. >”Yeah Boss?”
  1403. >He says in a horrible Italian accent.
  1404. >You’re standing next to the a dock in whatever city you’re in.
  1405. >You just tossed a weighted duffel bag filled with the remains of, what you assume to be, a snitch.
  1406. “You’ve been watching The Sopranos again, haven’t you?”
  1407. >”No, Goodfellas. Although I should give that another binge.”
  1408. “Yeah, I’m done here.”
  1409. >”But-“
  1410. “Done!”
  1411. >-
  1412. >And you’re back on the river.
  1413. >…
  1414. “Bye Fluttershy, I hope the rest of the animals get settled in okay.”
  1415. >”Goodbye Flurry. Come back anytime you want.”
  1416. >Alright, next stop.
  1417.  
  1418. >…
  1419. >You walk along the outskirt roads on the opposite side of town, among acres of apple orchards.
  1420. >And then-
  1421. >You have to jump out of the way as a pair of foals run across the road and into the orchard on the opposite side.
  1422. >Then, you hear a commanding voice yell out:
  1423. >”BIG MAC! Your twins just about ran over our guest! Go talk to them.”
  1424. >”Eeyup.”
  1425. >As the matriarch trots out of the orchard, she stops dead in her tracks when she sees you.
  1426. >”What in the- well coat my mane and call me a caramel apple. Princess Flurry!”
  1427. >She seems to be aging well.
  1428. >A couple wrinkles around the eyes, but that’s it.
  1429. >She rushes over and grabs at your hoof to shake it.
  1430. >”Thanks to you, this is the first season in ages that we’ll get to keep both halves of the harvest!”
  1431. >Then she realizes that you’re THE Princess now, and not just A Princess.
  1432. >She steps back and removes her hat.
  1433. >You notice a few patches on the brim.
  1434. >”I’m sorry your highness, it’s just that-“
  1435. “A-da-da, cut that out. I’m still Flurry.”
  1436. >She grins widely as you hug.
  1437. “It’s great to see you again.”
  1438. >”Likewise.”
  1439. >You nod over in the direction that the foals ran off in.
  1440. “Sounds like you have a full plate.”
  1441. >”Yeah, Apple Juice and Sugar Apple have been quite the hoofful for their parents. And everypony else on the farm. They’re in that phase, I reckon.”
  1442. “I’m sure it’ll pass.”
  1443. >”Only question is how quick.”
  1444. >You giggle at the statement.
  1445. >”Well shucks, Prin- Flurry. We were just about to head back and start supper. Should I get another chair out for ya? We’ve got a few guests comin in already, but I’m sure we could scoot another seat in.”
  1446. “Wait, how late is it?”
  1447.  
  1448. >Applejack takes a look at the sun for a moment.
  1449. >”I’d reckon it’s just shy of seven.”
  1450. “Is it that late already!”
  1451. >”Oh don’t worry, we’ve got a guest room ready to go if ya haven’t got a place to rest tonight.”
  1452. “It’s not that, it’s just that…”
  1453. >You sigh.
  1454. “Well, no use lying. I didn’t exactly tell the ponies back in the Canterlot that I’d be leaving the city.”
  1455. >”And why would you do somethin like that?”
  1456. “Because I didn’t want any royal fanfare or fuss. Ponyville was like a second home to me, and I didn’t want to be followed around by a dozen guards.”
  1457. >”Well, I can respect that, but-“
  1458. >A voice from behind you then grabs your attention (that’s happening a lot today).
  1459. >”Your Highness?”
  1460. >Sounds like…
  1461. >You turn to see Lancer walking down the path to the farm.
  1462. >He’s joined by a mare and two kids.
  1463. >The older filly then runs up to Applejack and starts pleading.
  1464. >”Applejack, where’s Little Mac? I didn’t get to see him today because Principal Cheerilee wanted me to help tutor some younger foals during recess.”
  1465. >She’s got a pale blue mane with a long flowing pitch black mane.
  1466. >She actually looks a lot like Lancer, but without the greying hair.
  1467. >Other than being a pegasus, that is.
  1468. >”My nephew is over cleaning up the barn. Make sure he cleans up before supper.”
  1469. >As the foal runs off down the path, the rest of (what you assume to be) Lancer’s family joins you and Applejack.
  1470. >The General is the first to speak.
  1471. >”Is there a problem in the Capitol, Ma’am?”
  1472. “No, I was dealing with some business in town, then decided to look up some old friends.”
  1473. >He glances around.
  1474. >”Where’s your escort?”
  1475. “Well I…”
  1476. >Applejack then glances at you.
  1477. >Yeah, tell the truth.
  1478. >You get it.
  1479. “I didn’t tell the others I was headed here.”
  1480. >”And wh-“
  1481. “So this must be your wife and son!”
  1482. >You look to the female pegasus.
  1483.  
  1484. >She’s got a light gold coat, with a bushy light crimson mane.
  1485. >Their son looks to take after her, other than being an earth pony like Lancer.
  1486. >He’s tucked himself behind his mother’s front leg.
  1487. >The mare notices the child grasping at her leg.
  1488. >”Oh don’t mind Valiant. He’s always been a little shy around new ponies. And Strawberry Vine hasn’t seen her best friend in a day, or in child terms- forever. Right, Applejack?”
  1489. >You detect a small amount of smugness in that last question.
  1490. >Applejack responds in a slightly reserved manner.
  1491. >”Yeah, Strawberry.”
  1492. >Almost sounds like she said it between clenched teeth.
  1493. >You then respond to the mare:
  1494. “Oh that’s quite alright.”
  1495. >Lancer’s wife bows her head.
  1496. >”I’m Strawberry Sunrise. It’s a pleasure to meet you, your highness.”
  1497. >You offer a hoof to shake, and she takes it.
  1498. “The pleasure is mine. It’s good to finally meet Lancer’s family.”
  1499. >Lancer himself takes that as a cue to get back into the conversation:
  1500. >”Speaking of which, if you’re here, that only leaves Wave-“
  1501. “Right, you didn’t hear yet. The Admiral returned yesterday, you’ll be happy to know that he’s lightened the load considerably.”
  1502. >”That’s good to hear, but-“
  1503. “Yes, I was just heading back now.”
  1504. >You turn to look at Applejack.
  1505. “I’m sorry. I’d love to stay for supper, but duty calls. Also I think I’d be a bit of a fifth wheel tonight… or fifteenth to be more accurate.”
  1506. >”I understand. But you’re welcome here anytime. In fact, I just got word that next season’s Apple Family Reunion will be here at Sweet Apple Acres. I’d be honored to have you as a guest, cause as far as I’m concerned you’re an honorary Apple.”
  1507. >You reach in to hug Applejack goodbye.
  1508. “Thank you, that means a lot.”
  1509. >”Aww, it’s nothin.”
  1510. “Well, I’ll let you go enjoy supper.”
  1511. >As you turn to leave, you look at Lancer on your way out.
  1512. “Small world.”
  1513. >”Apparently.”
  1514.  
  1515. >…
  1516. >Well that was…
  1517. >Awkward.
  1518. >Really you should have expected it.
  1519. >Ponyville is still a pretty small town.
  1520. >It should be expected that you would run into Lancer and his family.
  1521. >Even if you hadn’t, the news would have probably reached him before he came back to Canterlot.
  1522. >And then, even if he didn’t hear of your escapades in the town, he surely wouldn’t have missed the reports of you going AWOL for a day.
  1523. >And this is the second time you’ve left the generals behind while you do your own thing…
  1524. >On one hoof, you’re the Princess.
  1525. >Not them.
  1526. >If you decide to head out on your own, that’s your prerogative.
  1527. >But on the other, High Command is Uncle Anon’s most trusted officers and friends.
  1528. >You should probably tell them where you’re going at the very least.
  1529. >Even if you make it a standing order not to be followed by any personal guards.
  1530. >Really though.
  1531. >Lancer’s daughter and Applejack’s nephew.
  1532. >His daughter is only, what?
  1533. >Nine, ten?
  1534. >If you didn’t know better, they’re either destined to be lifelong friends, or… more than that.
  1535. >Good for them.
  1536. >You guess.
  1537. >Honestly, you don’t know enough about either kid to make that call.
  1538. >Then Lancer’s wife and Applejack.
  1539. >There has to be some sort of previous tension there.
  1540. >At face value, it has to do with the names and cutie marks.
  1541. >Apples, Strawberries.
  1542. >But really, it has to be something deeper than that.
  1543. >Sunrise seemed so smug when she spoke to Applejack.
  1544. >You actually remember an old story Anon used to tell you about.
  1545. >What did he call it?
  1546. >Juliet and Romeo, you think.
  1547. >Two families brought together by love.
  1548. >Though it didn’t end well… to say the least.
  1549. >Hopefully it is more civil than that.
  1550.  
  1551.  
  1552. >…
  1553. >Landing onto your balcony, after a fly from Ponyville (which to be honest left you completely winded), you take a moment to relax.
  1554. >You managed to get here before sundown.
  1555. >Hopefully, just in time to reach the evening meeting.
  1556. >Opening the door to your room, you trot over to the door that leads into the main building.
  1557. >And as you open it…
  1558. >Just great.
  1559. >”Your highness…”
  1560. >General Wave is waiting just outside for you.
  1561. “General. Fancy meeting you here…”
  1562. >He doesn’t waste any time.
  1563. >”Where were you?”
  1564. >You sigh.
  1565. >Might as well take Applejack’s advice.
  1566. “I went to Ponyville. To see some old friends.”
  1567. >”Why?”
  1568. >Wave asks in his usual cold demeanor.
  1569. “… at first, it was to simply get a dress from an old friend. After that, I thought it was necessary to see the others. The ponies who were always there while I grew up… my family in a way.”
  1570. >Wave looks at you.
  1571. >And you’re unable to gauge his thoughts.
  1572. >Then he breaks the momentary silence, which feels like an eternity.
  1573. >”Hmm… very well. While you’ve been gone, there have been several minor matters that require your signature. Nothing serious though.”
  1574. “Wait… you’re just going to let that be…”
  1575. >”Ma’am. When we met in Expanse, we all accepted you as ruler. No matter your methods. We accepted you, a pony who we never met, as out Princess. Why? Because Anonymous raised you. And we all trust him with more than our lives. To be quite honest, there aren’t many ideals that I would follow, and only one person. Anon is that one person, and if he holds and ideal, I’ll willingly die for it. No matter what happens, you are the heir of his ideals. No matter what happens, we will all follow you to the death… At the very least, I will.”
  1576. “That’s…”
  1577. >Honestly, the most you’ve ever heard him speak in a single go.
  1578. “Thank you General. The only thing I hope is that I live up to your expectations.”
  1579. >”Then lead the way, I believe you have a dozen or so papers to sign off on.”
  1580.  
  1581. >…
  1582. >The first raindrops hit your head.
  1583. >Clouds rolled in quick.
  1584. >But there’s nothing that can be done about it.
  1585. >Could pull over and make camp.
  1586. >The forest has given way to a ravine.
  1587. >There’s a hundred feet or so on each bank before the cliff starts- big cliffs too, maybe three hundred feet high.
  1588. >Some trees here and there, but there might be a cave you could duck into.
  1589. >Huh, some of the few trees there are have been uprooted.
  1590. >Almost like someone just came and knocked them over.
  1591. >Although given your luck, any cave will probably be occupied.
  1592. >And what’s a bit of water going to do to you?
  1593. >You reach down and close the lid to the footlocker.
  1594. >No sense letting it just get wet.
  1595. “Hey Harv, the speaker isn’t going to short out, is it?”
  1596. >”It’s magic, not electric. Who do you take me for?”
  1597. “No need to get-“
  1598. >You pause as a loud roar echoes through the canyon.
  1599. “Aww shit.”
  1600. >”What?”
  1601. “That’s one I don’t recognize.”
  1602. >The next noise you hear, you almost mistake for thunder.
  1603. >But no, that was definitely a thud against the ground.
  1604. >From behind you.
  1605. >Great, another cliché.
  1606. >If you just don’t look…
  1607.  
  1608. >You shift your body and look at the southern bank of the river.
  1609. >Bipedal, hooved feet, scraggily brown hair that covers most of the body.
  1610. >Torso is humanoid, bulky arms that end in hands that have three fingers and a thumb, all having sizable claws at the ends.
  1611. >Bushy beard and hair on its head, very unkempt.
  1612. >A pair of spiraling horns that twist off and are just as large as the head.
  1613. >The mouth is jutting out a bit, and the jaw has two large fangs that point up.
  1614. >And one big yellow eye, with a black pupil that shaped like a minus sign.
  1615. >That’s a Cyclops.
  1616. >You’d guess.
  1617. >Oh and, it’s only fifty-odd damn feet tall.
  1618. >And charging your way.
  1619. “Harv, you said these things weren’t intelligent, right?”
  1620. >”Most of them.”
  1621. >Without looking away from the beast, you reach back and grab the rifle.
  1622. “Whatever happened to them being extinct? I distinctly remembering you saying something about them being too inbred to have lived into the modern day…”
  1623. >You pull back the charging handle and chamber a round.
  1624. >”I said probably! I probably said probably…”
  1625. >Shouldering the weapon, you take aim for the center of mass.
  1626. >Firing off a round, the Cyclops doesn’t seem fazed.
  1627. >Alright, time for the giggle switch.
  1628. >You flip the rifle over into full auto, and proceed to mag dump.
  1629. >Some of the shots must hit a weaker area, because it holds its arm out in front of its face to block incoming fire.
  1630. >Non–intelligent your ass.
  1631. “Hey Harv? You pack any high explosives, cause King Kong over there’s about a minute away, and I don’t see any biplanes coming to the rescue.”
  1632. >”Well you could overload the engine. But it would be… big.”
  1633. “How big?”
  1634. >”Enough to completely level Ponyville.”
  1635. “Thanks. Any bright ideas?”
  1636.  
  1637. >”Hit the top of the motor three times in succession.”
  1638. “What does that do?”
  1639. >”Turbo.”
  1640. >You reach out your fist and bash the engine.
  1641. >After the third strike hits, it gets much louder.
  1642. >And the boat shoots forward, picking up ten or so miles per hour.
  1643. >When you start to gain distance from the Cyclops, it starts running faster.
  1644. >You’ve bought another thirty seconds or so.
  1645. >Turning around, you flip the footlocker open to get a fresh magazine.
  1646. >And you see…
  1647. >Kong.
  1648. >You reach back and let off the gas- err, sunshine and rainbows or whatever powers the engine.
  1649. >”Anon, what are you doing?”
  1650. “Something I saw in a movie.”
  1651. >You reach to grab the flare gun that’s resting in the corner of the footlocker.
  1652. >Flipping open the breech, you take one of the flares and load it up.
  1653. >You then turn to face the Cyclops once again.
  1654. >And take aim.
  1655. >Right for its eye.
  1656. >Wait for it
  1657. >Just a bit closer.
  1658. >And you fire, the area immediately being lit up with the bright red light as the flare soars through the sky.
  1659. >Right up until it hits its mark.
  1660. >And dinks off of the eye, not even prompting a single reaction from the beast.
  1661. “Shit.”
  1662.  
  1663. >You reach and increase the throttle on the boat, but it’s almost on you.
  1664. >One last hope.
  1665. >If it fails, you’re beaching the boat, drawing your sword, and starting the dance with the giant.
  1666. >You grab your four bore, and cock the left barrel.
  1667. >Taking aim, you like up the bead sight to the creature’s right knee.
  1668. >You fire, getting kicked with recoil.
  1669. >The Cyclops is still on you.
  1670. >Either you missed due to the movement of the target and general inaccuracy at range of the gun, or it just didn’t have any effect.
  1671. >You hope it’s not that last one.
  1672. >You cock the remaining barrel and line up a second shot.
  1673. >Inhaling slowly through your nose, you try to relax.
  1674. >Time seems to stop almost, and you can see a drop of rain suspended in the air before you as it inches towards the ground.
  1675. >You focus back on the target, slightly nudge your aim to the left, as you’re currently just off the center of the kneecap.
  1676. >And fire.
  1677. >As you do, you see lightning crawl over the sky in an intricate web.
  1678. >Time then resumes.
  1679. >The Cyclops falls forward when it next puts pressure on the leg, prompting it to tumble into the rocky terrain it was running across.
  1680. >It roars in pain or anger, as a low rumbling thunder echoes through the canyon.
  1681. >And you exhale through your mouth.
  1682. >It’s not dead, but it certainly won’t be chasing you any further.
  1683. “Was that you Harv?”
  1684. >”Indeed it was.”
  1685. “Harvey, you lied to me.”
  1686. >”What?”
  1687. “I think that qualifies as superpowers.”
  1688.  
  1689. >…
  1690. >It’s been days in this wilderness.
  1691. >The stream has grown to a tiny river, coming from the mountains.
  1692. >It bounces down across the rocks on a small incline.
  1693. >The incline continues for a long way, thousands of feet.
  1694. >As you climb the rocks next to the flowing water, you pause to catch your breath.
  1695. >Been going for a while.
  1696. >You could fly up.
  1697. >But there’s something intangible seeping through your soul.
  1698. >Out here, you have to do things the hard way.
  1699. >You need to.
  1700. >Glancing at the next boulder standing in your way, you reach your hooves out as you start to scale it.
  1701. >This reminds you of the time your father took you camping.
  1702. >Everything had to be done by hoof.
  1703. >He took you and some of your old friends out in the woods for a weekend.
  1704. >No flight, no magic.
  1705. >Just honest work.
  1706. >After a full day of hiking at military pace, he decided that the next clearing would be a good place to camp.
  1707. >While he went out to forage for food, he left you and your friends to set up the tents.
  1708. >And being the kids you were, you immediately used your wings to hold up the canvas as one of your unicorn buddies used magic to hammer in the posts.
  1709. >When your dad got back, he was ecstatic at the work you did.
  1710. >He said that he was never as proud of you as in that moment- seeing you work diligently to actually achieve something tangible.
  1711. >You didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth.
  1712. >Quick and easy fixes happened all the time on that trip when he wasn’t looking.
  1713. >When you got home after the weekend, he went off to war.
  1714. >And never came back.
  1715. >The last moments you ever had with your father were based on lies.
  1716. >Maybe that’s why you’re pushing yourself so hard.
  1717. >Maybe that’s why you often forget that you have wings…
  1718.  
  1719. >…
  1720. “Alright ponies, where are we?”
  1721. >You ask as you enter the meeting room after a good night of sleep.
  1722. >After having your absurdly soft mattress replaced with the firmest bed you could find, you’ve been sleeping much better.
  1723. >Wave replies:
  1724. >”Our minotaur… friend reported that there’s been a minor incursion in one of their smaller towns. Currently unsure if another pit has appeared, or if it was just some stragglers from the original. I’ve dispatched three pegasi squadrons to help them scout the wilderness.”
  1725. “Good thinking. I want to know the second any more intel comes in.”
  1726. >”Of course. Further, we’ve gotten some more information out of the Royal Academy. We sent several of the creatures’ bodies there for study.”
  1727. “What did they find?”
  1728. >”The leading theory is that the gills on their shoulders serve a dual purpose. In addition to being fully functional, they seem to have heavy response to even the slightest magical force.”
  1729. “Unicorns were able to stun them if they hit the gills with arcane bolts.”
  1730. >”The professors seem to believe that they can use the organs to sense radiant magical forces.”
  1731. “To what extent?”
  1732. >”The report says that it is possible, though rather unlikely, that they can sense the background magic within every living organism.”
  1733. “A useful tool in a low light environment like Tartarus.”
  1734. >”Another, more fringe, theory is that they use the organs to communicate with one another.”
  1735. “They didn’t see them in the field. When we took the first pit, the entire horde shifted focus to recapture it. If they can communicate magically, that would explain the shift in tactics.”
  1736. >”A fair assessment.”
  1737.  
  1738. “Did the reports mention anything about how the pits themselves were formed. If the noise was anything to go off of, it’s almost like they were blasted through the rock.”
  1739. >”No ideas about that yet.”
  1740. “Well it still helps us a bit…”
  1741. >If they use magic to communicate…
  1742. “What about magic dampening fields?”
  1743. >”Hmm?”
  1744. “Like in the cells- using magic to cancel out other magic. If they relay tactics to each other via magic, then we might be able to use that against them. Blocking out communications and the like.”
  1745. >”An interesting idea. I’ll relay it to the research team, although theory will only get us so far.”
  1746. “We’d have to test it against living subjects.”
  1747. >”Indeed.”
  1748. “It’s something to keep in mind at least. Anything else?”
  1749. >”Not from me.”
  1750. “Admiral?”
  1751. >He sings off on a paper.
  1752. >”Well, to shift topics, it seems that Duke Astéri has been busy these past couple days. He’s been seen making very public appearances to homeless shelters and orphanages. The majority of his focus has been caring about those who have lost from the wars. Down on their luck veterans and war orphans specifically. Personally it seems rather obvious that he’s playing opinion in the capitol.”
  1753. “A reasonable assessment.”
  1754. >”And…”
  1755. >He filters through a few papers.
  1756. >”He’s asked if you’ll be present at Amethyst Shower’s Salon, specifically if he might escort you to the event.”
  1757. “Of course he has.”
  1758. >”Shall I respond?”
  1759. “Tell him… I have an entrance of my own prepared.”
  1760. >”Care to elaborate?”
  1761. “Those exact words.”
  1762. >”Very well.”
  1763.  
  1764. >…
  1765. >You tipped the motor out of the water, and braced yourself as the boat goes down a small section of rapids.
  1766. >The boat lurches as it scrapes by some rocks on the way down.
  1767. >As you settle out, you start scanning for any hull breeches.
  1768. >No water is flowing in, and you’re still upright.
  1769. >That’s something.
  1770. >The little fall you just passed seems to indicate the end of the ravine.
  1771. >Hopefully it’s back to smooth sailing.
  1772. >The forest seems much denser now.
  1773. >You can see hundreds of willows reaching over the water.
  1774. >Well, let’s see where it goes.
  1775. >…
  1776. >You finally pull yourself over the last rock.
  1777. >That was quite the climb.
  1778. >Finding yourself on a small ridge overlooking the forest below, further ahead you see more trees.
  1779. >Tall evergreens that dot the landscape, reaching up towards the sky.
  1780. >The scent of pine is thick in the air.
  1781. >You quite like the aroma actually.
  1782. >Pausing to glance back at the rocky hill you just scaled, you watch the horizon for a moment.
  1783. >The afternoon sun is beating down hard against the mountains below.
  1784. >You don’t mind the heat though, not after the desert.
  1785. >And the wind appears to be picking up down there, the plethora of trees are all swaying.
  1786. >It reminds you of the dunes.
  1787. >When a gust of wind would blow a wave of sand over the ground, making the entire dune look like it was shimmering.
  1788. >Turing away from one forest, you look to the one in front of you.
  1789. >Pinecones and dead needles litter the ground.
  1790. >As you walk through the trunks, you look at the branches overhead.
  1791. >Watching how light filters through all of the tiny cracks among the branches and needle leaves.
  1792.  
  1793. >…
  1794. >You reach put to knock on the door.
  1795. >Ambassador Blunt Force’s voice then yells from behind to:
  1796. >”Enter!”
  1797. >You glance at the minotaur guards and attendants outside as you enter into the small study that he’s taken over to use as an office.
  1798. >Just next to the door, his bear pelt cloak rests on a coat rack that stands adjacent to the entrance.
  1799. >The wall to your right is lined with bookshelves, some of the shelves closer to the desk have been emptied of books and now house liquor bottles and a few glasses.
  1800. >On the leftmost wall, there’s a large political map of Equestria and the known world.
  1801. >The wall opposite the door has a large window that overlooks the valley below Canterlot.
  1802. >The minotaur is currently sitting at his desk, hunched over a few papers that he’s reading intently.
  1803. “I heard there’s been an attack.”
  1804. >He glances up from the papers.
  1805. >”Princess, I didn’t realize it was you.”
  1806. “What happened?”
  1807. >”It seems that three of the demons attacked a small village. They killed eight civilians and a warrior before being put down.”
  1808. “I’m sorry. Is there anything we can do to help?”
  1809. >”We’ve already discussed everything we need… the only thing now is time. Time enough to mobilize against hell, if such a thing is possible.”
  1810. “We’ve already beat them twice.”
  1811. >”Have we?”
  1812. “I don’t follow.”
  1813. >”Have you ever lived in a home infected by mice? They skitter around and steal your food in the night. And every single time you see one of them, you can crush it beneath your hoof, but it doesn’t matter. There’s another back in the next to replace it. You have to find where they live, and exterminate them. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with them as long as you live.”
  1814. “Why didn’t you just get a cat?”
  1815. >He wearily laughs at the statement.
  1816. >”Right now, we’d need quite the cat.”
  1817.  
  1818. >…
  1819. >You’ve been up through the night.
  1820. >Gonna take a while to get used to not getting tired.
  1821. >But as first light peeks over the horizon, you get a better look at what’s ahead.
  1822. >You reach back to slow the boat down.
  1823. >This river seems to feed into a swamp.
  1824. >As you look to the various islands and reeds that are in front of you, you see that in some places water stagnates, and in others there seems to be a flow.
  1825. “Harv?”
  1826. >”Yes?”
  1827. >He appears in front of you, slightly cutting off your view of the bog.
  1828. “This the right way?”
  1829. >Without looking back, he responds:
  1830. >”Yes it is.”
  1831. “Where do I go? I’m assuming the swamp continues on for some time.”
  1832. >”Autopilot.”
  1833. “Right… the propeller won’t get caught on any vegetation, right?”
  1834. >”Should be able to cut through any plants… animals though, that’s another story.”
  1835. “Great…”
  1836. >…
  1837. >Back into semi-automatic fire, you let off a handful of shots at an alligator that’s getting too close to the boat.
  1838. >As you fire, dozens of bats start flying away from their perches in trees.
  1839. >Speaking of the trees…
  1840. >It should be about noon, but you can’t really tell.
  1841. >You know it’s day, because it’s relatively bright.
  1842. >But the trees that stick out of the islands and through the water itself are massive.
  1843. >They reach up about a hundred feet or so, providing you with a canopy that cuts off your view of the sky.
  1844.  
  1845. >Though that’s good.
  1846. >Based on how far the trees are placed from one another, no large flying animals can navigate the forest.
  1847. >And no large creatures from above would be able to break through the canopy and still be able to fly.
  1848. >The tree trunks would also make it hard for land based animals to move around as well.
  1849. >Finally, the water seems shallow enough, so there shouldn’t be that many massive aquatic creatures.
  1850. >With these factors combined, it makes your job much easier.
  1851. >You’d rather shoot at an alligator to nudge it away rather than face off against a dragon or another Cyclops.
  1852. >No massive creatures, but there might be some large ones like the tarantula.
  1853. >But that’s where superior firepower comes into play.
  1854. >What you are at risk from is swarming creatures.
  1855. >If a thousand mosquitoes come to suck your blood, you can swat and swat all day long, but it’s going to end badly.
  1856. >And in a swamp there might actually be thousands of swarming mosquitoes…
  1857. >Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
  1858. >Though at this point, you’re well past the fire…
  1859.  
  1860. >…
  1861. >You.
  1862. >Had.
  1863. >You swing your machete out at the nearest target.
  1864. >Mention.
  1865. >God.
  1866. >With your free arm, you backhand into the group, hitting one of the insects.
  1867. >Damned.
  1868. >Swarms!
  1869. >In what can only be described as random flailing, you lash out against the swarm of mosquitos that are currently surrounding you.
  1870. >They’re as big as damned house cats.
  1871. >Dozens of them, just flying around your-
  1872. >You swing your machete by your left shoulder as a mosquito lodges itself on your arm.
  1873. >Just why?
  1874. >You hold you left hand up to catch a charging bug, and it lands against your palm.
  1875. >It’s sucker is sticking between your fingers and reaching towards your face.
  1876. >And it’s only a few inches away from your eye.
  1877. >Keeping it at arm’s length, you squeeze down on its exoskeleton, crushing it’s head and neck.
  1878. >As you throw the carcass into the water, you swing at the swarm with your machete.
  1879. >And all of this is happening as you’re just sitting in your boat…
  1880. >Out of the corner of your eye, you see a large fish jump out from the water and snatch at one of the mosquitos.
  1881. >You then get a better view as another jumps to snag a bug.
  1882. >Was that a catfish?
  1883. >You give a left hook to punch away another insect, as another fish jumps from the water for a meal.
  1884. >Thank you circle of life.
  1885. >Another one leaps from the water to grab a mosquito.
  1886. >And a different catfish leaps into your boat, right by your feet.
  1887. >The bastard must be four feet long!
  1888. >It flops around for a moment before you kick it back into the water.
  1889. >You can’t help but start laughing as you see a swarm of giant mosquitos get plucked from the air by a swarm of equally as large catfish.
  1890. >What the hell is this place?
  1891.  
  1892. >…
  1893. >As the last of the ponies you were meeting with today leaves the throne room, you look over to Crop to confirm.
  1894. “That was the last one, right?”
  1895. >”Yes your highness.”
  1896. >Good, you’ve grown tired of sitting in the throne.
  1897. >As you prepare to rise, a voice calls over from the entrance to the hall:
  1898. >”My beauty!”
  1899. >With a sigh, you settle back into the chair.
  1900. >The Duke…
  1901. >And did he really just call you that?
  1902. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe you had an appointment. You are?”
  1903. >”You wound me your majesty.”
  1904. >And you have half a mind to do more than wound him if he calls you ‘his beauty’ again.
  1905. “You’ve been making quite the name for yourself around town.”
  1906. >As he approaches, he feigns ignorance.
  1907. >”Had I? I have been too focused on the downtrodden to worry about rumors and hearsay.”
  1908. “Of course you were.”
  1909. >How did he even get in here?
  1910. >”But to more pressing matters. I have received word from your Admiral. About the salon.”
  1911. “Was he not clear enough?”
  1912. >”Oh no, he was quite explicit.”
  1913. “Yet here you are.”
  1914.  
  1915. >”I merely wish to express my delight that you will be present at the salon. I am very much looking forward to your entrance, and your company during the evening. I was afraid for a moment that you would be absent from the event due to the dire circumstances we find ourselves in.”
  1916. >That’s…
  1917. >He just wanted to see if you’d be there…
  1918. >Clever.
  1919. “Well, with so many ponies there, you might not get much time.”
  1920. >None, hopefully.
  1921. >”Yes, it is rather busy. But I am honored by the mere presence of your grace.”
  1922. “Wouldn’t that honor go to Amethyst Shower? After all, it is her Salon.”
  1923. >”Well, my younger brother Efedrikós is betrothed to Lady Shower’s only child, so really it is a matter of familial honor. Personally I am looking forward to finally meeting my soon to be family in person.”
  1924. >Hmm…
  1925. >”And to add another to my family, if she would agree to it.”
  1926. >Playing his hand early…
  1927. >In front of everypony in high society.
  1928. “Sounds like you’re planning a very eventful night.”
  1929. >”All of my nights are eventful, your highness.”
  1930. >He then bows his head before turning to take his leave.”
  1931. >You wait for him to leave the throne room before speaking to Crop.
  1932. “Captain?”
  1933. >”Yes Princess?”
  1934. “Inform Brairheart and Wave that if any pressing matters arise, I’ll be in the archive. I have some reading to do.”
  1935.  
  1936. >…
  1937. >You were up till three last night.
  1938. >But you found what you need.
  1939. >As you rub your eye clear from the sand that’s in the corner of it, you enter the meeting room.
  1940. >Wave speaks as you enter.
  1941. >”Long night?”
  1942. “Very.”
  1943. >”And will you tell us what it was that you found so intriguing about the royal archives?”
  1944. “Well that would ruin the surprise.”
  1945. >You then hear Brairheart mumble to himself.
  1946. “What was that Admiral?”
  1947. >”Nothing.”
  1948. “Admiral…”
  1949. >Wave then fills you in.
  1950. >”I believe he said something along the lines of you inheriting Anon’s worst traits. In this case I would assume it was keeping us in the dark when it comes to certain plans.”
  1951. >How did he even catch that?
  1952. “Well don’t worry Admiral, it’s about a more personal… thorn in my side, not an issue of national security.”
  1953. >”Of course.”
  1954. “So, anything for me this morning?”
  1955. >”Not from me.”
  1956. >Wave then adds:
  1957. >”Nor from me.”
  1958. “Great, then if you’ll excuse me, I have to choose my plus one for tomorrow’s salon.”
  1959. >…
  1960. >Entering Blunt Force’s office, you get straight to business as he takes a bite of cake.
  1961. “Ambassador, I have a job for you.”
  1962.  
  1963. >…
  1964. >Well this is it.
  1965. >The day of the ball.
  1966. >You have one chance to get out of it.
  1967. >Fully rested, you enter the meeting room.
  1968. “Alright ponies, hit me with the bad news. Come on! Please tell me there’s been an attack. Maybe another Yak invasion? Massive sewage backup?”
  1969. >Wave and Brairheart look at each other and shrug.
  1970. >The Admiral then filters through a few papers.
  1971. >”Uhh… one of the kitchen sinks has a small leak.”
  1972. >That could use some royal oversight… right?
  1973. >You let out a long groan.
  1974. “The one time I want things to hit the fan…”
  1975. >”So sorry that Equestria isn’t currently in crisis.”
  1976. “Well… sometime today, a designer named Rarity will be arriving at the palace, she’s an old friend so just send her along to my room. Until then, I need to do my hair… or something.”
  1977. >…
  1978. >After staring into a mirror looking at your mane for a few hours, you hear a knock on the door.
  1979. “Come in.”
  1980. >That should be-
  1981. >General Lancer enters.
  1982. “General… I wasn’t expecting you.”
  1983. >”Shall we drop the pretenses?”
  1984. “I’d prefer to.”
  1985.  
  1986. >”What were you thinking just leaving the palace like that!”
  1987. “Yes, because Ponyville is just SWARMING with ponies who want me dead.”
  1988. >”There have been multiple attempts on your life this year, and that’s setting aside open battles.”
  1989. “Did you always speak to Anon when he put himself in harm’s way?”
  1990. >”With all due respec-“
  1991. “With all due respect GENERAL. I never wanted the throne, any throne! If I’m going to be THE Princess, then I’ll rule and act as I see fit. If I say I don’t need any guards, then I don’t need any guards. You’ve said that this isn’t a junta, so prove it.”
  1992. >You let the statement rest in the air for a moment before continuing.
  1993. “I knew what I signed up for, and you knew what you signed on for. If you have a problem being subordinate to somepony other than Anonymous, then I suggest you take up that retirement you’ve always seemed so keen on. Because I have far too much to worry about to waste time arguing with my commanders about my personal conduct!”
  1994. >You think you see the slightest grin form in the corner of Lancer’s mouth.
  1995. >Too harsh?
  1996. “I’m sorry, this business with the Maretonians and the salon has left me on edge.”
  1997. >”I’ve served under Anon for the better part of my life… almost as long as you’ve been alive. Up until this point, I’ve served you out of respect for him. You were the closest thing to a child that my greatest friend… my brother… ever had. But not any longer.”
  1998. >Is he actually…
  1999.  
  2000. >General Lancer kneels to the ground.
  2001. >”I swear my service now, because I believe that you are the only other who could lead us through this.. apocalypse.”
  2002. “Get up.”
  2003. >You say sharply.
  2004. >As he stands, you follow up:
  2005. “So what, all of the conflict was just some… test?”
  2006. >”Anon isn’t the only one who can be clever.”
  2007. >Evidently…
  2008. >Well this is awkward.
  2009. >You had actually thought he didn’t like you.
  2010. “So… how was the family?”
  2011. >”Good. Although my daughter is in a ‘born in the wrong generation’ phase. She kept going on about a spectacle or other. Razzle or something.”
  2012. “Well that sounds fun… And I’m serious- if you ever get that formal again, I’ll fire you on the spot.”
  2013. >”I’ll avoid it then.”
  2014. >Lancer then walks over to the door.
  2015. >”Also, I believe you were waiting for somepony.”
  2016. >He opens the door, and you see Rarity standing outside.
  2017. >She then levitates four large suitcases into the room.
  2018. >”Oh and thank you so much for assisting with my luggage, General.”
  2019. >”Don’t mention it Ma’am.”
  2020. “Rarity, I see you’ve packed light.”
  2021. >”Just the essentials dear.”
  2022.  
  2023. >The essentials…
  2024. >She unlatches one, and works her magic to levitate the contents out.
  2025. >Several reams of cloth… at least a dozen.
  2026. >There are two cyan ones that look pretty much identical.
  2027. >Why?
  2028. >Lancer then speaks.
  2029. >”Well, I’ll leave you two to it.”
  2030. >And before the sentence is even half over, he’s already out the door.
  2031. >Rarity is still unpacking.
  2032. >A full sized sewing machine.
  2033. >An equally large box full of sewing equipment.
  2034. “You did… you know, make the dress. Right?”
  2035. >”Of course, but if even a single stich tore in transit, I’ll have to fix it. Everything must be perfect. This is your first outing as THE princess.”
  2036. “I’ve had speeches and meetings already…”
  2037. >”Yes you’ve been seen, but there is a massive difference between being seen and being seen.”
  2038. “What?”
  2039.  
  2040. >”Salons, galas, balls. When the evening starts, the magic begins. The mystique of the event permeates through the halls, and for every single pony it passes through, the intensity grows. And it effects everypony in a unique way, but no night is special- no two galas or balls ever strike an individual in exactly the same way. For some, it sparks creativity in the deepest reaches of their mind- inspiring the next great artistic or musical masterpiece. With others they find themselves feeling in an indescribable way- at the drop of a hat, they could fall madly in love or find it within themselves to forgive even the bitterest of rivalries. You see, with the most influential and brightest cultural figures present, and all of them bringing their best, pushing themselves beyond. The intricacy and sheer amount of collective effort make it so that even the dullest of nights will evolve into a shining testament to Equestira for all the world to see.”
  2041. >Well that was quite the…
  2042. >Yeah.
  2043. “But why did you bring so many supplies? Don’t you own two shops in Canterlot?”
  2044. >”Three actually, but I don’t want to risk your dress being seen before the grand entrance.”
  2045. “Right, and about my dress.”
  2046. >”It’s right in here.”
  2047. >She walks over to your bed and levitates a suitcase onto it.
  2048. >You head over to see the reveal.
  2049. >After the lid opens, you see several strands of hair from her mane stick up.
  2050. >You then look to see her thousand yard stare.
  2051. >She’s dead silent.
  2052. “Rarity… it’s empty.”
  2053. >In a very weak and high pitched voice, she squeaks:
  2054. >”I know.”
  2055.  
  2056. >…
  2057. >Rarity continues tearing through the suitcases and their contents.
  2058. >And as she does, she’s tearing up.
  2059. >Heh.
  2060. >Tearing, tearing.
  2061. >Should write that one down.
  2062. >Rarity continues rambling to herself.
  2063. >You can’t make it all out.
  2064. >”By far the single biggest blunder of my… I’ll be ruined… And after so long.”
  2065. “Rarity!”
  2066. >”Wha-at?”
  2067. >She breaks out into an almost full sob.
  2068. “It’ll be okay. It’s just a dress. You have how many dozen types within the city?”
  2069. >”It’s not about the dress.”
  2070. >And then the rambling takes an entirely new direction.
  2071. >”Although it was a perfect symbiosis of your parent’s wedding attire. Combining the steadfast military order of Shining Armor’s formal uniform with the graceful elegance of your mother’s dress. And I found the most delicate silk that exactly matched your eyes for some of the trim!”
  2072. “Rarity!”
  2073. >”It’s not the dress. It’s that this was the only thing you had relied on my for in the past decade. And when it came to the single event I was most suited to help you with, I failed!”
  2074. “There are other dresses…”
  2075. >”If you show up in a branded product that’s available for sale at three locations in Canterlot and just happens to be from an old friend’s product line, it would seem nepotistic on your end and as a cheap publicity grab on my end.”
  2076. “Fair enough.”
  2077. >”Alright… the salon starts in under five hours, although we can arrive fashionably late. Do you have any old dresses that I can spruce up? Give the crowd a throwback, that always goes well…. usually… sometimes… occasionally… no, last season was completely about reviving the greats, and this isn’t last season. ”
  2078.  
  2079. “I could always go without a dress… that’s a statement, right?”
  2080. >”Oh no, no, no. You have grown into a beautiful mare, but each and every time the ‘no dress’ trend was attempted in the last two decades it failed spectacularly.”
  2081. “Armor?”
  2082. >”Is it that piece in the corner?”
  2083. >She trots over to your armor stand.
  2084. “Yeah.”
  2085. >”Very intricate… a nice ornamental piece.”
  2086. “It’s actually fully functional, not just a ceremony set.”
  2087. >”Granted armor style has ever exactly been my forte, but it could work… but as a guest…”
  2088. >Then she eyes the scratches.
  2089. >”No, too many dents. Ornamental armor only really works if it’s in perfect form. Four years ago, ‘war-battered’ was in, but it didn’t last. Focus on the… dreadful realities of battle aren’t exactly what ponies want while they relax and socialize.”
  2090. “Well what IS in style this season.”
  2091. >She seems completely perplexed.
  2092. >”Well… it’s hard to really pin down. A lot of things aren’t in style this season, but the defining trait of this year’s fashion trends hasn’t really been defined yet.”
  2093. “Alright then… Rarity?”
  2094. >”Yes?”
  2095. “Look, you had a luggage mix up, I don’t hold that against you. I really don’t. I still think of you just as highly as I did a week ago. You have your own preparation to do for the salon, so go ahead. I can figure… something out.”
  2096. >She takes a look at the clock on your desk.
  2097. >”Four hours and twenty-three minutes…”
  2098. >She then looks over to the various supplies she packed.
  2099. >”To make a dress…”
  2100. >Then looks you in the eye with a determined look.
  2101. >”Princess Flurry Heart, if you’d still have me, I’ll take that challenge.”
  2102. “There’s not much I can do to stop you, is there?”
  2103. >”Not a single thing.”
  2104. “Then work your magic.”
  2105. >”Would you mind staying so I can use you as a model?”
  2106. “Not at all.”
  2107.  
  2108. >…
  2109. >You continue blazing through the swamp.
  2110. >And you haven’t slept in a week or so.
  2111. >Reminds you of college.
  2112. >But there are no adverse effects.
  2113. >Harv’s really activating the right neurons.
  2114. >As a gator surfaces in front of you, you fire a few shots at it.
  2115. >Been draining a lot of ammo.
  2116. >But it keeps the wildlife at bay.
  2117. >Last night, there were a few giant cricket type insects that jumped at your boat.
  2118. >That was fun to deal with…
  2119. >Almost shot a hole straight into the hull.
  2120. >Taking your left hand off of the rifle, you pull out the cigar in your mouth and flick the ash off into the water.
  2121. “Come on Harv!”
  2122. >He’s sitting opposite of you, wearing Vietnam-era army fatigues and a helmet.
  2123. “Born on the bayou! Born on the baaaayou!”
  2124. >”You really shouldn’t be enjoying this so much.”
  2125. “What, cause this place drive people insane?”
  2126. >”Precisely.”
  2127. “Harv, would any of my actions since coming to this world be defined as ‘sane’ in the slightest?”
  2128. >”Well…”
  2129. “Sane people don’t fight dragons and chimeras. Let alone take vacations to hunt them. I’m in a world of talking horses and magic, either embrace it or get lost in it.”
  2130. >”Fair enough.”
  2131. “And that’s how I know you were really separated from your body, and this isn’t all just some elaborate scheme. The real Discord wouldn’t question anyone’s sanity.”
  2132. >”What, you didn’t just take my word for it? That hurts Anon.”
  2133.  
  2134. >…
  2135. >Dozens of pieces of cloth are whizzing around you as Rarity envisions her final product.
  2136. >Every now and then, the magical whirlwind of fabric and threads pauses as she takes a long look at you.
  2137. >When she studies your body, you can see her eyes darting around at incredible speeds.
  2138. >As if she’s going through hundreds of ideas every second.
  2139. >Sketching through each possibility in her mind before making a decision on it.
  2140. >Right now, she’s sitting on the side of your bed.
  2141. >Each of her front hooves are pulling at the measuring tape she has around her neck.
  2142. >Her head is cocked up and to the right as she-
  2143. >Rarity then blurts out something, which takes you off guard because she’s been almost completely silent up until now.
  2144. >”I’ve got it!”
  2145. “Great… what is IT?”
  2146. >”Elegance meets simplicity. Give me two- no, two and a half hours. I’ll have to go pick up some shoes to go with the ensemble.”
  2147. “I thought you didn’t want to use anything that’s already made.”
  2148. >”Oh, the dress will be completely custom. The boots and slippers I have in mind to compliment it won’t be released until this autumn’s line… And to be completely honest, I simply wouldn’t have the time to finish them and the dress, unless we’d like to arrive around midnight.”
  2149. “Fair enough.”
  2150. >”With luck, we might not even be late.”
  2151. “But won’t you have to get ready also?”
  2152. >”Trust me darling, that won’t be an issue.”
  2153. “Are you just saying that to be polite?”
  2154. >”Not at all. But on a similar topic, might I ask to have the room? I’d prefer to unveil after the outfit is complete.”
  2155. “Sure, I’ll let you work.”
  2156. >”Oh, and you do have an enclosed carriage ready, correct?”
  2157. >Right, she wants a proper reveal.
  2158. “Should be, I’ll go double check while you do your thing.”
  2159. >”Excellent, I’ll find you once my work is finished.”
  2160.  
  2161. >…
  2162. >Well the ambassador wasn’t in his office…
  2163. >That means he’s probably in the kitchen.
  2164. >You’ve never actually seen him in the dining hall or one of the smaller dining rooms.
  2165. >As you enter into the kitchen, you see him standing in front of an open fridge.
  2166. >He’s drinking straight from a carton of milk.
  2167. >He finishes chugging, then crushes it against his chest and tosses it into the nearest trash can.
  2168. >And then he starts rummaging through the fridge.
  2169. “Enjoying magical refrigeration?”
  2170. >”Immensely.”
  2171. >He says without looking over to you.
  2172. >”Once this is all over with, assuming we survive, I’ll have to employ a few unicorns for this.”
  2173. “Assuming we survive ‘the sundering’ or the salon?”
  2174. >”Both.”
  2175. “Look, I don’t mean to offend, but-“
  2176. >”Oh no, please do offend. Almost no other pony in this city will.”
  2177. “How do you manage to eat so much?”
  2178. >”It comes naturally when you have four stomachs.”
  2179. >He says as he pulls out an apple to chomp on.
  2180. >Then he closes the fridge to focus on you.
  2181. >”So how can I help you?”
  2182. “I just wanted to make sure you’re prepared for tonight.”
  2183. >”Of course.”
  2184. >Okay…
  2185. “Of course as in, of course you’d want to ask, or of course I am.”
  2186. >”The latter.”
  2187. “And you have the…”
  2188. >”I do.”
  2189. “And you have your-“
  2190. >”Oh do not worry one bit. I’ll make quite the entrance.”
  2191. “Good, I’m banking on you pushing things just over the precipice.”
  2192. >The minotaur holds up his mutilated hand.
  2193. >”It might not be all there, but I can push just fine.”
  2194. “Excellent.”
  2195. >”Tonight should be exciting. I’ve been to one or two pony social gatherings, and while they did possess a welcome amount of refinement that I don’t enjoy with my own people, they could be a bit dull.”
  2196. “And by dull, I assume you mean ‘lacking in violence.’”
  2197. >”I do like a fair amount of drama.”
  2198. “Well hopefully the evening won’t be too painful for either of us. Figuratively, that is.”
  2199. >”Here’s hoping.”
  2200.  
  2201. >…
  2202. >After taking a fair amount of time to sit down and relax away from everything, you make your way back to your room.
  2203. >Which Rarity has turned into an impromptu workshop.
  2204. >Reaching the door, you look over to the nearest guard.
  2205. “Is Rarity still here?”
  2206. >”She is not, your highness.”
  2207. “Thank you.”
  2208. >You could take a peak.
  2209. >Or you could spend your time on something more important that fashion.
  2210. >That one sounds more interesting.
  2211. >Maybe there’s a pressing emergency.
  2212. >As you start back down the hallway, you see Rarity trot around the corner, a shopping bag floating beside her.
  2213. >She immediately notices you.
  2214. >”Excellent timing.”
  2215. >When she reaches you, she stops.
  2216. >”Well, after a slight detour, I’m delighted to say that everything is ‘ship shape and ready to go.’”
  2217. “Great.”
  2218. >You’re not getting out of this…
  2219. >Turning back around, you move forward and open the door for Rarity.
  2220. >”Thank you.”
  2221. >She trots into the room with a satisfied grin on her face.
  2222. >Well…
  2223. >Let’s see what she cooked up.
  2224.  
  2225. >…
  2226. >”Alright, you can open your eyes.”
  2227. >Rarity insisted that you go blind as she placed the dress onto you.
  2228. >She then walked you over, to what you now know was the mirror.
  2229. >Opening your eyes, you take a look at what she managed to make in under two hours.
  2230. >The front of the bright scarlet dress has a single thin strap over your right shoulder.
  2231. >It hooks under your left arm.
  2232. >Across your torso, it tightly hugs your body.
  2233. >Snug, but not too cumbersome.
  2234. >You shift your body to see your left side.
  2235. >It continues to grip your body until it reaches your hip.
  2236. >Once it arrives there, the dress bows out to cover your tail in a close-fitting arch as it goes down your legs.
  2237. >The end of the dress reaches about halfway between your knee and hoof.
  2238. “Is this silk?”
  2239. >”Only the best.”
  2240. >The fabric is smooth and contains a bit of shine that catches the light.
  2241. >Moving your body to see the other side, you see that over your left knee there’s a cut that reaches up to the midway point of your thigh- revealing your coat.
  2242. >”What do you think?”
  2243. >You take a moment to test your flexibility one each side.
  2244. >The cut and length of the dress make it rather easy to maneuver.
  2245. “I like the room to move. Are solid colors ‘in’ this season.”
  2246. >”Palette hasn’t been defined yet, but I think you might just make monochrome the defining trait of the season.”
  2247. “And you got shoes?”
  2248. >”Yes!”
  2249. >Rarity’s horn lights up as she pulls out two boots.
  2250.  
  2251. >They’re rather simplistic, and look like they’d go up to your knees.
  2252. >Black- no, just off black with a hint of red.
  2253. >Slightly shiny too.
  2254. >Matching the shine of the dress.
  2255. >Yeah, you have no idea about fashion terminology.
  2256. >She then pulls out a pair of scarlet slippers that match the hue of the dress.
  2257. >”And these are for the front.”
  2258. >They’re entirely for show, provide no support, and have some intricate embroidery that would reach up a couple of inches past your front hooves.
  2259. “Well, let’s see how they look.”
  2260. >…
  2261. >As you step in front of the mirror with the boot/slipper combo added to your attire, Rarity moves around, checking different angles.
  2262. >Looking into the mirror… it looks… good?
  2263. “Okay Rarity, I’m going to be honest. I’ve never had your eye for fashion, but I like it.”
  2264. >”I’m thinking…”
  2265. >She pauses as she kneels down to get a different angle.
  2266. >”That I agree. The mismatch between the hoofwear might raise an eyebrow from me, but nopony else will be able to tell the difference.”
  2267. >She stand back up, then trots over to a position just to the right of your view of the mirror.
  2268. >”I know that you can be somewhat utilitarian, so I made sure that you movement wouldn’t be impaired. How’s the fit?”
  2269. “Very nice. In terms of movement, it doesn’t really feel like I’m wearing anything. It’s a bit tight in the center of my torso, but still a lot better than my armor.”
  2270. >”I should be able to fix that if you-“
  2271. “No. Please, you’ve done more than enough already. And I meant that as a compliment.”
  2272. >”Are you sure?”
  2273.  
  2274. “Rarity, you’ve done more than enough already. And I love it, it’s more than I need for the night.”
  2275. >”Well, it’s just that…”
  2276. >She stops herself.
  2277. “What is it?”
  2278. >”Oh, never mind.”
  2279. “Please, you’re like family to me. What’s on your mind?”
  2280. “Well it’s just that since Twilight… left. I’ve never had many opportunities to design for close friends. More than anything, I’d like you to be satisfied with the dress.”
  2281. “Rarity, and this is the complete truth: I am not a fashion or trend minded pony, I never really have been. But if you think that this ‘works’ for the ‘season,’ then I COMPLETELY trust your judgment. No ifs ands or buts. Period.”
  2282. >”Thank you your highne- Flurry. I can only hope that your faith in me pans out.”
  2283. “If you are even half- no, if you are even a fifth of the pony I remember you to be, and I’m sure that you still are the pony I remember, then I have absolutely nothing to worry about.”
  2284.  
  2285. >…
  2286. >”Okay, you can turn around.”
  2287. >Rarity wanted to reveal her outfit to you.
  2288. >You turn to take a look.
  2289. >On her front half, she’s wearing a white blouse that’s just a bit darker than her coat.
  2290. >Over the shoulders and under her neck, there’s an intricately woven golden design that branches out like a swirly tree.
  2291. >There are three buttons under the neckline, which she has undone.
  2292. >Around her neck, she’s got a small tape measure hanging off to each side, it’s probably only two feet long or so.
  2293. >She’s leaving her front hooves go bare, and while the sleeves to her blouse would go down the full length of her arms, she has them rolled up to her elbows.
  2294. >Taking a look at her mane, you see that most of it is tied up into a tight bun, but she has a decent sized strand hanging over her right eye.
  2295. >Looking further down her body, you see the pants she made.
  2296. >Very deep blue denim.
  2297. >Her blouse is tucked into them, revealing a belt inlaid with a few brighter blue gems.
  2298. >The pants snugly hug her body and legs, but there is a slot for her tail to be free.
  2299. >And over her back hooves, she’s wearing very simplistic black boots that go up only a few inches.
  2300. >Oh, and you forgot to mention the gold wristwatch she’s wearing on her left arm.
  2301. >”I call it: Designer Chic.”
  2302. “Very meta.”
  2303. >”I thought so too.”
  2304. “It’s good. Suits you pretty well.”
  2305. >She feigns offense.
  2306. >”Just ‘pretty’ well?”
  2307. “Well, that’s for the other fashion types to decide. So, ready to head out?”
  2308. >”Not so fast!”
  2309. “What?”
  2310. >Her horn lights up as she grabs a hair straightener.
  2311. >”We need to do something about your mane.”
  2312.  
  2313. >…
  2314. >You’re actually quite amazed.
  2315. >She actually managed to- pardon the horribly clichéd pun- tame your mane.
  2316. >Your bangs are hanging over the left side of your face while parted in the usual spot by your horn, and the back of your mane is entirely set off over your right shoulder.
  2317. >It actually reaches down to your knee.
  2318. >Both of them are incredibly free flowing.
  2319. >It feels wrong.
  2320. >You hate it.
  2321. >But how did Rarity put it?
  2322. >’Now darling, your mane is beautiful naturally, but you look absolutely stunning.’
  2323. >As you walk down the halls with Rarity, you see Lancer up ahead.
  2324. >”Good afternoon ladies. Looks like you’re dressed to kill.”
  2325. “I can only hope.”
  2326. >You say in a completely deadpan tone.
  2327. >Rarity then looks over to you.
  2328. >”Figuratively, of course… right?”
  2329. >You respond with a smug little smile.
  2330. >Lancer then breaks the silence as he speaks over to Rarity.
  2331. >”Now have her back by curfew. She’s to be in bed by half past nine, and not a second later.”
  2332. “No… just, no. Stop that.”
  2333. >”Tough crowd… well, your carriage is ready and two dozen of the Old Guard will be escorting you. And before you start, yes you can have them wait outside. If you send them off, then you’ll find that there just happens to be several patrols in the area tonight.”
  2334. “Guards are fine, after all it’ll be expected.”
  2335. >And with what you’ve got planned, they might be needed.
  2336. >Oh you’re going to enjoy shaking the night up.
  2337.  
  2338. >…
  2339. >As you step outside of the palace with Rarity, you see your escort standing in two staggered lines to the rear of your carriage.
  2340. >And as you step outside, you see each of their eyes shoot directly towards you.
  2341. “Hello boys.”
  2342. >As they realize you can see their gaze, they step to attention and point eyes forward pretty much in complete unison.
  2343. >Walking over to the guided carriage, you open up the door with your magic.
  2344. >It’s been really convenient to get basic telekinesis back.
  2345. >You were never that great at advanced magic, but you really relied on the basics.
  2346. >Stopping in front of the door, you motion your arm to let Rarity enter first.
  2347. >”Why thank you.”
  2348. >Once she gets settled into the carriage, you then enter.
  2349. >The dress doesn’t even encumber you as you step up onto it.
  2350. >And the fact that your wings are free, makes things even that more comfortable.
  2351. >Closing the door behind you, you then look over to Rarity.
  2352. “Honestly, I’m loving the dress on flexibility alone.”
  2353. >”Functionality is at the top of my goals for your projects.”
  2354. “You know me so well.”
  2355. >The carriage lurches into movement.
  2356. >Surprisingly it’s very smooth.
  2357. >Rarity looks around at the interior, specifically the gilded velvet seats.
  2358. >”Was this Celstia’s carriage?”
  2359. “One of them I think. Honestly nobody thought that I’d ever use one, so a replacement wasn’t high on the priority list.”
  2360. >”Well, it gives a sense of continuity at least.”
  2361. “Do you have a problem with how we’ve handled Celestia? And Luna.”
  2362. >”The policies of the past couple years have been inexcusable, but…”
  2363. “But?”
  2364. >”Ponies have been redeemed and forgiven for far worse. Are you really sure that locking them into dungeons is the right course of action?”
  2365.  
  2366. “I appreciate the forthrightness. But it’s a really complicated situation. And between us, I know that I can trust you to keep this under wraps, it’ll be settled within a few months. We’re working on it. Once everything’s been settled, everypony will get the full story.”
  2367. >”Well that’s good to hear. A few years of bad shouldn’t erase the centuries of good.”
  2368. “And the centuries of good shouldn’t erase the few years of bad.”
  2369. >”That’s fair enough.”
  2370. >This is an incredibly smooth ride.
  2371. >Celestia must have spared no expense.
  2372. “Rarity?”
  2373. >”Yes Flurry?”
  2374. “What have the others though about the war? Specifically the… change in power.”
  2375. >”Well, Applejack hasn’t been a particular fan of the portions of her crop that have been taken in taxation. I believe Fluttershy stopped following current events since Twilight left and war became more common. Pinkie Pie is… hard to judge. She misses open relations with the yaks, but beyond that I’m not sure. And with Rainbow Dash, it’s been several years since I’ve seen her. So I couldn’t really say. Although if she is still the same pony I remember, which she most likely is, then she would be no fan of the more drastic measures that Celestia put forward.”
  2376. “Can I be completely honest for a moment?”
  2377. >”Of course! I’d expect no less.”
  2378. “Honestly, I think all this stemmed from Twilight’s departure. You and the rest of the girls would go throughout and beyond Equestira righting wrongs and bringing people together. When she went after my father, that map of hers stopped working… without the magic of friendship, well just take a look around.”
  2379. >”Truly, I’ve never thought of it like that. But now that you bring it up…”
  2380. “Well, there’s no sense in brooding over what could have been.”
  2381. >”Quite right. Today, there’s only one event to ‘brood’ over.”
  2382. “And that’s the salon.”
  2383.  
  2384. >…
  2385. >The boat jumps as you run over something.
  2386. >The propeller must have hit something too, because speed really went down.
  2387. >After a moment, you start moving at a normal pace again.
  2388. >Glancing back, you think you can see some blood in the water.
  2389. >Huh.
  2390. >Alright then.
  2391. >”Anoooon!”
  2392. >Harv pops into existence opposite you.
  2393. >You bark at him:
  2394. “What?”
  2395. >”I’m bored.”
  2396. “Well go watch a movie or something.”
  2397. >”I miss being able to do things. The freedom of walking around… well, teleporting. The ability to do literally anything I want.”
  2398. >Sounds like he’s getting tired of watching your memories.
  2399. “I’m sure your body is having all sorts of fun.”
  2400. >”That’s not funny.”
  2401. “Well just go make one of those voids in my mind and do whatever.”
  2402. >”It’s not the same.”
  2403. “Get used to it.”
  2404. >”You’ve just been sitting there for days. Occasionally you’ll shoot something, but that’s it. It’s dreadfully monotonous.”
  2405. “Monotony is good over here. Means I’m not having to carve my way out of a stomach… again.”
  2406. >”At least cutting yourself out of the hydra is one of my favorite memories to watch.”
  2407. “I bet you filter out the smell.”
  2408. >”The smell was the best part! I really wonder what it ate before you dove down one of its throats.”
  2409. >You raise the M16 and fire a single shout straight through Harvey’s forehead.
  2410. >He doesn’t even flinch as the bullet passes through his illusion and hits the huge bug that was flying at you.
  2411. >You could just see the wings buzzing on each side of Harv’s head.
  2412. >And you hear its body splash into the water.
  2413. >”Nice shot.”
  2414. “What was it even, my view was a bit obstructed.”
  2415. >”Dragonfly. It probably wouldn’t have bothered you. It was big, but not big enough to hunt for a creature of your size.”
  2416.  
  2417. “Probably?”
  2418. >”Yeah.”
  2419. “Well anyway, look. There are no killer trees, or dragons here. Not even a Cyclops. I can deal with the alligators and mosquitoes, and even relax in this swamp.”
  2420. >”Well that’s because you don’t know about the spores you’re regularly inhaling. It’s harmless in your lungs, but small amounts remain in your mouth and whenever you swallow they head down to your stomach, and that’s fun.”
  2421. “What spores?”
  2422. >”Oh it’s just some fungus that’s trying to use your stomach as a breeding ground. I think it’s trying to kill you then grow through your whole body until the entire thing is just mold. After that point, it would shoot out new spores to find other hosts.”
  2423. “And you’re just telling me this now!”
  2424. >”It’s no big issue, I bumped up the acidity in your stomach. Destroys the spores very quickly. I think that the fauna that’s still alive in here are mainly comprised of creatures that naturally have more acidity in their digestive system… you know, because the ones that don’t are dead.”
  2425. “Life finds a way.”
  2426. >”So, want to talk?”
  2427. “Sure. How much longer am I going to be in this boat?”
  2428. >”I don’t know. Five or six days maybe.”
  2429. “Well isn’t that just peachy?”

Heart of War- Prologue

by ThingPaste

Heart of War- Act I

by ThingPaste

Heart of War- Act II

by ThingPaste

Heart of War- Act III

by ThingPaste

Heart of War- Act IV

by ThingPaste