You Only Live Twice

by JohnPerry

Chapter 2: The Mane Comes Around

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Vinyl Scratch groaned as she clenched her eyes shut and clutched her head. She had a pounding headache and felt slightly nauseous. Then again, that wasn’t anything particularly new. At least it was nice and dark here.

“Uggghhh...buck me,” she moaned as she began pulling herself across the floor, looking for her nice soft mattress to sleep on. “That’s it, I am never touching booze again.” A stray thought reminded her that she always said this when she had a hangover, but Vinyl immediately dismissed it.

Still, something seemed off. Vinyl was thankful that it was dark, but she couldn’t remember her apartment ever being this dark. And her floor seemed strangely clean as she crawled along it. For that matter, shouldn’t she have bumped into a table or the wall by this point? She lifted a hoof to her face to turn on her goggles’ night vision, only to poke herself in the eye. Her signature shades were missing.

Vinyl frantically began searching for her goggles. They weren’t perched on her forehead or hanging around her neck, so she began stumbling around blindly, sweeping her hooves across the floor in an attempt to find them. “My goggles...I can’t see in here without my goggles!” she muttered. “For that matter, I can’t be seen without my goggles! I have appearances to keep up!”

Her search was in vain. But one thing became clear to her as she looked; this was definitely not her apartment. Sighing, she resorted herself to one last tactic, even though she knew it would hurt. Concentrating, Vinyl summoned her magic, trying to ignore the pounding headache that made her forehead feel like it was being repeatedly bucked. A faint, uneven glow illuminated from her horn and danced across the walls, giving the DJ her first glimpse at her surroundings.

For a brief second she thought her goggles were on, just with the lenses cracked. The walls had a purple tint and were highly reflective, like glass. It took her a moment to realize they were made of some sort of crystal. As she trotted towards the wall, she saw herself reflected in each face of the crystalline wall before her. She looked much like she normally did, albeit without her shades and with dark circles under her eyes. The walls stretched far above her, giving the impression that she was in some sort of cave.

“Where am I? Hey! What’s going on?!” she yelled, hearing her voice echo through the cavern. “Hello? Can anypony hear me?” Only silence greeted her. Vinyl sat on the ground, trying to remember what had happened to her. She recalled meeting a friend at the bar, sharing a drink, then leaving, then somepony grabbing her and shoving a cloth over her mouth...

“Oh. Yeah.” Vinyl sighed as her memories of the previous night came back to her. She had been kidnapped and brought here, which could only mean that something serious was going down. She had to get out of here, but first she needed to figure out where ‘here’ was.

“HEY! CAN ANYPONY HEAR ME?” she yelled again. “Your prisoner is awake and demands a glass of water! Oh, and some aspirin!” She paused for a moment. “And some food would be nice too! I’m not picky!”

Silence reigned. Oh, they were good.

The white mare continued to walk along the walls, searching for any sign of a way out. She managed to circle the room three times, but nothing presented itself. No crack, no opening, nothing but solid wall. The ceiling looked just as impenetrable. Vinyl frowned. Unless she had been teleported into here, which seemed unlikely as that would have eliminated the need to be drugged in the first place, there had to be some sort of door. Which meant it had to be hidden.

Her forehead throbbed painfully and she had to extinguish the light from her horn to stop her headache from getting any worse. In the darkness, she rubbed her temples with her forehooves, gently massaging her head in small circular motions. At that moment, she heard a strange chittering sound.

Her head shot up and she immediately lit her horn again. The cavern was still empty, but Vinyl could have sworn she heard that noise. It sounded like some sort of animal, but she couldn’t quite place it. “Hello?” she called out again.

Suddenly there was another chittering sound, even louder and more urgent this time, which ended with a loud ‘THUMP,’ like something heavy being knocked against the wall. Vinyl approached the wall where the noises seemed to be coming from, only to step back in alarm as one section of the wall slid away, revealing a gray mare with a black mane. She was standing in a very proper pose despite also wearing a saddlebag and brandishing a long blade encased in a musical bow.

Vinyl couldn’t suppress a grin. “Hey, Octy. Fancy seeing you here.”

Octavia sheathed her sword, giving the DJ that raised eyebrow the cellist frequently deployed. “You don’t seem very surprised to see me.”

“Who else would save my sorry flank?” Vinyl replied jokingly, throwing her forehooves around her friend’s neck and pulling Octavia into a hug. The gray mare let her haughty expression drop for a moment, smiling softly as she returned the hug. “So let’s see,” Vinyl continued as she broke the hug. “If I’m here, and if you’re here, that must mean something really big is going down.”

“See for yourself,” Octavia answered, gesturing at the tunnel she came through. Vinyl spotted the bodies of two changelings lying on the ground, both knocked unconscious. “They were guarding this secret door to your cell. Though I must say, it’s not much of a secret if you station a pair of guards in front of it.”

Octavia pulled off her saddlebag and tossed it to Vinyl, who only just managed to catch it. “Here, you can carry that now. It’s got the usual equipment: rope, grappling hook, glass cutters, copper wire, lantern, communications device-”

“Rubber duck?” Vinyl asked, already rummaging through the sack.

“I said the usual equipment,” the cellist replied, rolling her eyes. She began walking down the dark passageway while Vinyl pulled out a lantern. She turned it on and gripped the handle in her mouth before throwing the saddlebag over herself and following her friend through the cave.

“...So...?” Vinyl asked expectantly.

“So...what?” Octavia replied in a confused tone.

“So how are things?” the DJ continued enthusiastically. “What’ve you been up to? How’s your music going?”

“It’s...going,” the cellist answered with a shrug. “The nice thing about classical music is that it doesn’t have to conform to the whims of the latest trend. The classics will be there when I’m ready to return to them.”

“Hey, watch who you’re talking to,” the DJ teased, winking at her friend. “I am the latest trend.”

“I know. I’m very happy for you, Vinyl,” Octavia said in a sincere tone. “But right now I think we need to focus on getting out of here.”

“Okay,” the white mare said with a mock sigh. “So how’d you find me, anyway? For that matter, where am I?”

“You’re in the caverns under Canterlot and I found you by interrogating your doppelganger. As I’m sure you heard, we’ve had agents disappearing left and right lately,” the cellist explained, discreetly peering around a corner to make sure nothing was coming the other way. “When they didn’t come back, we had to move to make sure the rest were safe.”

“But...they did come back,” Vinyl pointed out. “It was all over the news.”

“No, they didn’t. Take a look at your captors and make a deduction,” Octavia said.

Vinyl gasped. “You don’t mean...”

The cellist nodded grimly. “They were changelings in disguise. Somehow, they’ve infiltrated the agency and uncovered the identities of our spies. Once we realized what we were up against, Melody ordered every agent, past and present, put under watch.”

“Well that was nice of her,” Vinyl said airily. “Speaking of which, how is ol’ Double-M doing?”

“She’s under quite a bit of stress right now, so I would recommend not calling her ‘Double-M’ when you see her.” The two ponies emerged out of the tunnel into a small cave. A lone mine cart sat on a rail track leading out of the cave into the darkness beyond.

“Hey sweet, we can take this!” Vinyl said, galloping over to the mine cart. “It’ll be like Daring Do and the Temple of Gloom!”

“You mean in that the competent lead mare has a loud, annoying and immature sidekick?” Octavia asked, smirking.

“Exac-Wait, what?” the DJ inquired, frowning. The cellist chuckled lightly.

“Anyway, that is far too risky. We have no idea where that track leads or if it’s even safe,” Octavia pointed out. “We should go-” She stopped mid-sentence as a loud chittering sound cut her off. The two ponies whirled around to see several pairs of shining blue eyes approaching them through the darkness. Their strange clicks and snarls echoed ominously off the walls of the cave.

“On second thought, maybe we’ll go with your idea,” Octavia said hurriedly.

“Okie-dokie, Ms. Octy!” Vinyl added, already dashing for the mine cart. The two jumped in as the DJ used her magic to begin turning the wheels of the cart, letting it pick up speed as it wheeled down the tracks. The changelings’ wings started buzzing as they began hovering off the ground, but weren’t fast enough to catch the two ponies as they hurtled down the tracks.

Octavia clung to the side of the cart, hanging on for dear life as they raced through the tunnel. The cart rattled loudly as it rolled down the tracks, creating a cacophony from all the noise echoing off the walls of the enclosed space. Vinyl sat in front, her lantern illuminating the tunnel walls, but the cart was going so fast and there were so many curves in the track that they couldn’t see very far ahead of them. The stale air rushed through their manes and their teeth rattled with each bump the cart hit in the track.

Suddenly, they were out in open air, or what felt like it after being inside an enclosed tunnel. The mine cart had emerged into a huge cavern that stretched many lengths upwards, so high that the lantern couldn’t illuminate the ceiling. The track creaked ominously on the stilts that were holding it high above the ground. Vinyl looked over the side, seeing the track run around the cavern in wide circles before reaching an abrupt end over a crevasse where a section of track had fallen away.

“Octy!” the DJ yelled, pointing frantically at the dead end. The cellist’s eyes widened in alarm as she spotted the danger.

“Rope and hook! Quick!” Octavia yelled urgently. Vinyl quickly levitated the rope and the grappling hook out of the saddlebag and tied one of the ends of the rope to the hook before hoofing it over to her friend. The cellist grabbed it and drew her musical bow, pulling the hook against the string as she aimed for a ledge high up the wall of the cavern.

After only a few seconds she let go, sending the hook flying into the air. They watched it sail across the cavern as the cart raced towards its doom. After a moment, they heard a loud ‘clang!’ as the hook caught hold of the rock wall. Vinyl and Octavia had just enough time to grab the rope and tie it around their midsections before the cart collided into the barrier at end of the track.

Vinyl and Octavia were sent flying, tumbling around in mid-air before both felt the sharp, abrupt tug of the rope around their bodies. Suddenly they were swinging backward, praying that the rope would hold. A huge, booming crash came from below them as the mine cart smashed into the floor of the cavern. The two ponies remained as still as possible, hardly daring to breathe as they swung back and forth across the cavern. Each swing became shorter until they dangled limply from the ledge.

“Just like old times, huh?” Vinyl said, grinning. “We should hang out more often.”

Octavia rolled her eyes. “Indeed, just like old times. Now how about getting us out of here?” she added, gesturing towards the ledge above them. Vinyl nodded and touched her horn to the rope, casting her come-to-life spell to allow it to wrap itself around the rock ledge, pulling them up towards the ceiling. They clambered onto the ledge just as they heard the buzzing of the changelings flying through the tunnel they had come through.

“Time to go,” Vinyl suggested, jerking her head towards a nearby tunnel. Octavia nodded and they dashed inside, the lantern bobbing in the DJ’s grasp and casting its dancing light upon the walls as they ran as fast as they could from the sound of their pursuers. The two ran side-by-side, both panting from their exertion. After a moment however, Octavia began to pull ahead of Vinyl without really attempting to. The cellist couldn’t help but note this aloud.

“Um...perhaps it is just me,” Octavia began, looking back at her friend. Vinyl noticed the cellist had a certain glint in her eye. “But I seem to recall you being faster than this.”

“Huh?” Vinyl blurted out, taking short breaths to keep her going. “What are you (pant) talking about?”

“I think being away from the agency has made you soft,” the cellist teased.

What?” the DJ exclaimed. “No way! I’m in...(pant) the best shape... (pant) of my life!”

Octavia couldn’t stifle her giggle. “I think somepony needs to get back into physical training. We wouldn’t want you getting thicker around the middle, now would we?”

“Just shut up and keep running,” Vinyl grumbled, picking up her pace. Even from the dim light of the lantern, the cellist could make out the faintest hint of a blush reddening her friend’s cheeks. She smirked as they continued galloping through the tunnel.

At last, after a hard hour of galloping, the two ponies could finally see the faint glimmer of light coming from outside. It was accompanied by the roar of water, giving the two a good idea of what they were about to find.

They emerged into another cave, this one large but with a low ceiling and open to the outside world. Spilling over the wide opening was a massive waterfall, one of several that flowed through the city of Canterlot. However, neither of the two ponies were paying any attention to the waterfall or the spectacular view beyond. They both stopped short, all their attention on the shadowy figure of a familiar stallion standing in the middle of the cave.

“N...No...” Octavia muttered, her voice faint and unusually high. Vinyl’s mouth merely fell open in shock.

The stallion took a step forward, allowing a beam of light from the lantern to reveal his handsome face, slicked-back mane and his outfit of a tuxedo and bow tie. He gave the two mares a broad, smug grin.

“Hello, darlings,” Con Mane greeted them. “Did you miss me? What am I saying, of course you did! Who wouldn’t miss this face?” he added, flashing another toothy smile.

“Wh...What... in Celestia’s name are you doing here?” Octavia sputtered, her voice almost cracking from her surprise.

“Enjoying death,” the stallion answered smoothly.

“That’s impossible,” Vinyl muttered, beginning to recover from her surprise. “You can’t be here. I saw you die!”

“Please,” Con Mane scoffed. “It would take more than an airship crash to kill me.”

“But...the cops recovered your body!” Vinyl exclaimed. “Your death was reported all over the news!”

“Yes, I was reported as dead. By cops on my payroll,” the stallion answered, smirking. “I told you: San Franciscolt was my city.”

Octavia snapped out of her shock and, with a roar of fury, leapt at Con Mane. The stallion, taken aback, had no time to react. Within a second, the agent had him pinned to the ground as she drew her sword and held it against Mane’s neck.

Mane, however, did not look particularly alarmed. He smiled up at Octavia, who had her teeth gritted, bracing herself to make the decisive move.

“You made your last mistake coming here. If you didn’t die before, then I will end it here,” she growled.

“I think not.” The words, despite being Con Mane’s, didn’t come from the stallion lying beneath Octavia’s sword. The agent looked up in the direction of the sound, spotting another Con Mane trotting out of the shadows. Indeed, all around them were copies of Con Mane, each giving the two mares the same sly grin.

“You see, you’re going to find it very difficult to kill me,” one of the Con Manes said.

“Especially when that’s not even the real Con Mane,” another one pointed out.

Octavia felt the fabric of Con Mane’s tuxedo and his fur beneath her hooves morph into something hard and spiny. She looked down to see the fanged smile of a changeling grinning up at her.

Vinyl backed slowly towards Octavia and the changeling as the group of Con Manes closed in around them. The cellist did a quick mental count; there were a dozen of them, each emerging from the shadows of the cave and cutting off all escape routes save for one: the waterfall.

Octavia swiftly rose to her hind legs, pulling the changeling against her so that she faced the group of Con Manes. The cellist held her blade threateningly against the changeling’s neck, giving each of the stallions a hard stare.

“Stay back, or your friend here will pay the price,” the agent growled. “Vinyl, get beside me.”

“Right,” the DJ muttered quietly, backing up to stand beside her friend, never for a second taking her eyes off the bizarre sight in front of her. “This is seriously creeping me out...”

One of the Con Manes adjusted his bow tie, looking as smug as ever. “You know, I always thought it a tragedy that there weren’t even more of me for the world to love.” Each of the other Con Manes chuckled, a sound magnified by the same twelve mouths and sending shivers down the two mares’ spines.

“Yes, from all the time I’ve spent with these changelings, they’ve really picked up on my mannerisms,” one of the Con Manes offered.

“And they take their acting very seriously,” said another.

“It would be annoying if it wasn’t so flattering.”

“After all, who wouldn’t want to look at this face?” Laughter erupted from the twelve stallions again.

“ENOUGH!” Octavia yelled, looking increasingly alarmed and infuriated at this flawless display of imitation. It was as if each of the doppelgangers spoke with the same mind. “You’ve been kidnapping agents and replacing them. Why? What did Con Mane offer you?” A couple of the Con Manes offered their answer in turn.

“The chance of a lifetime.”

“An opportunity to take down Canterlot’s elite spy force.”

“To penetrate the Equestrian government.”

“Revenge.” This time it was the exposed changeling rather than one of the Con Manes who spoke. The stallions nodded grimly.

“Revenge for the defeat of the changeling queen.”

“Revenge for what this agency did to me.”

Octavia slowed backed away, drawing closer to the waterfall. She could feel the spray of water on her back as she leaned over towards Vinyl, who was also retreating towards the waterfall as the Con Manes resumed drawing closer to the two mares and their changeling hostage. “Follow my lead, and keep that saddlebag close,” she muttered under her breath.

“Got it,” Vinyl whispered back.

“You know, I realized how much damage a single capable pony can do, much less two of them. You showed me that back in San Franciscolt,” one of the Con Manes explained casually as he took another step closer.

“And what I realized is: if just one of me could cause so much trouble...”

“Why not a whole bunch of me?” another finished with a grin.

“You made a terrible mistake coming back to Canterlot, Mane,” Octavia growled, her eyes darting from one stallion to the next, wondering if she was looking at the true Con Mane. “You can’t hide from the agency here.”

“Ms. Octavia, I’m a spy,” one of the stallions scoffed.

“Hiding is what I do,” another added, in perfect synchronization with his partner.

“Now if you would please, let our dear comrade there free and allow us to take you back to your prison cell with as little distress and blunt force trauma as possible.”

“I respectfully decline,” Octavia stated, placing a hoof on the changeling’s back and shoving it toward the group of Con Manes before promptly turning on her hind legs and bolting out of the cavern. Vinyl was hot on her tail.

“You got the bag ready?” the cellist asked urgently.

“Yep,” Vinyl quickly answered.

“STOP THEM!” one of the Con Manes yelled frantically, realizing something the others didn’t, but neither of the two mares saw which one it was. The sound of a dozen sets of hooves galloping after them could just be made out over the roar of the waterfall.

At the crucial moment just before they reached the edge, aiming for a narrow gap between two large streams of water, Octavia threw her forelegs around Vinyl. They both flung themselves over the edge, easily clearing the waterfall before plummeting towards the ground.

Octavia clung to her friend as Vinyl fumbled with the saddlebag. The cellist squinted her eyes against the rush of the wind, catching a glimpse of the cloud of mist that obscured the jagged rocks she knew must be at the bottom of the waterfall. At last, Vinyl yanked on a string connected to the saddlebag, causing a mass of fabric to unfurl into the air, held to the bag by several cords. It unfolded into a large parachute, catching the breeze and abruptly halting their fall, slowly carrying them away from the cliffs beneath Canterlot.

In the cave, the group of Con Manes - save for one - promptly transformed into changelings. They watched the two mares sail away under their parachute, the changelings buzzing their wings angrily as they prepared to take to the air and pursue them.

“Wait,” Con Mane commanded, holding out a hoof in front of the nearest changeling. The group of villains watched as the shape of a small airship came into view around the waterfall. It was a brightly colored blimp with the words ‘CANTERLOT SIGHTSEEING TOURS’ printed in large letters on the side. As they watched, it began moving towards Vinyl and Octavia as they waved frantically to the airship.

“We can’t go out there now,” the stallion muttered. “There would be too many witnesses. And we need to stay undercover until we enact the plan.” He nodded curtly at the changelings, who nodded back before they all retreated into the depths of the cave.

Next Chapter: Back in the Saddle Estimated time remaining: 2 Hours, 4 Minutes
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