Out of Touch

by ToixStory

First published

Outta Time.

A young inventor named Tinker has her life turned around with the arrival of a mysterious mare in a crimson cloak and a tattoo in the shape of a draconequus that runs the length of her body. When their fates become intertwined, Tinker will travel through time and space with the pony once known as Twilight Sparkle and witness the nature of her universe and the ponies who inhabit it.

The Beast Within - I

My name is Tinker. When I was a kid, I wished to travel amongst the stars. It’s a common enough dream for a mare raised on a colony world far from the more populated star systems. We relied on massive, fish-like starships to brave the vast gulf between worlds and to deliver the goods made in our planet’s many factories, so it was not uncommon to see the twinkling stars at night that rode down on repulsors and boosters through our atmosphere to land at our planet’s busiest—and only—starport: Journey’s End.

That port had been named after wayward colonists who, after being denied entry to a dozen other worlds, finally settled on this one. I set out for it only a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday. I wouldn’t call it running away, because to run away you have to have something to tie you to your prior location.

That little town, which had no other purpose than to a convenient resting place for supply trams that sped across the surface of our world, had never truly felt like my home. The modest hotel my family had run for travelers who, for whatever reason, wanted to stay the night in our little town, had seemed like only a temporary resting place before I moved on to bigger and better things.

My heart ached to leave, so when the time came for my family to relocate halfway across the continent, I stole away with what money I had saved up and caught the last train for the coast. It took me to Journey’s End, the industrial city on the cliffs where the air was filled with the hum of starship engines. There wasn’t anything on land to interest me any longer, so I decided to take to the stars. I was determined to purchase a ticket on the first transport ship offplanet.

It wasn’t until then, however, that I realized how much such a ticket would cost—much more than I could afford. I tried to at least gain employment on one of the ships, but I found their berths already full of trained sailors and engineers.

My lack of experience hampered me from looking for a job among the construction yards, despite a cutie mark that displayed both a welder’s torch and a wrench. Work hadn’t been given exclusively for cutie marks for centuries, so I was turned away.

I was at the end of my rope and very close to returning home and begging for forgiveness when I finally found a job working at the Utopia Planitia Ship-Breaking Yards just east of the main port. It wasn’t from any sort of interview or bribery that I found that job, however.

I had been lounging at a local bar when a brawl had started around the booths. Perhaps with a little too much to drink myself, I had gone to investigate.

My parents’ hotel had contained a small bar in the basement that managed to stay packed in the busy seasons when the spring burned away into summer, so in my eighteen years I had been witness to a number of scraps and fights. I had even been taught the ways of breaking them up, when it became necessary.

That night, I shoved one of the combatants into the hooves of a few others who would sort him out, and grabbed the other and pulled him into a booth. After a good talking-to, he had calmed down and even thanked me for ending a fight he was sure he would have lost. As it turned out, he worked at the local ship-breaking yard. One explanation later, I had a recommendation; three days and a tram-load of forms after that, a job.

Now, the general idea of ship-breaking sounds like something that may be—if not exciting—at least interesting. It isn’t. Specialized engineers on lease from firms in the city are the only ones who handle the more interesting parts of a space-going vessel like the navigation deck, the medical bay, and the engine room.

For the average worker, ship-breaking involves working with a cutting torch—which the hiring officer had assumed my cutie mark to be, and I hadn’t corrected him—to take large sections of bulkhead down to a manageable size. Some of the skilled labor work in teams, but for the rest of us it’s a line job.

So, as usual, on the last hour of the last day of the working week, I found myself on the assembly line. Or, rather, disassembly line. An old drillship off a team of planetbreakers had come in that morning, and we’d spent the whole day cutting it down.

The bulkheads on a drillship are made to withstand the heat of a planet’s mantle, so the steel is as hard as diamonds. Even after an entire day with the hottest torches we had—as well as burned hooves and tired eyes on the part of us workers—we had only made it through a few medium-sized sections.

As the last piece continued down the line, the stallion across the conveyor belt from me lifted up his welder’s mask and gave a toothy grin. His light gray muzzle still had a small scar running along it from the night at the bar where we first met.

Ponies said that he and I looked alike, though only our coat colors—despite mine being more of a cream color—were close to being the same; his red, frizzy mane was hardly comparable to my blue-green curls. “Long day, eh Tinker?” he said.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” I said, flipping up my tinted goggles.

The floor managers never paid us any attention around quitting time, so we could get away with idle chatting.

“I gotta tell you, Charm, you really had me worried there with that gas overflow from earlier.”

“I guess I did, huh?” he said. He looked around before gently tugging at the light purple charm hanging around his neck that served both as his cutie mark and the reason for his chosen name.

“So, since it’s been such a long day and all, I was wondering if you would want to just relax at our place tonight right after our shift ends?” he asked. “You know, pizza, pop, vidscreen, that sort of thing.”

I tried not to grimace too much, but knew it showed on my face anyhow.

“I’m sorry, Cha’, but you know I’ve got to do a little extra work tonight. Tomorrow’s the market and I have a few touches to put on my gear before we head over there in the morning.”

“I know, but can’t you do that back at home? We can clear off the kitchen table and everything—”

I shook my head. “I’d like to, but we just don’t have the tools there that I can use here. I can’t fit a square peg into a round hole without the proper tools, after all.”

He smiled and gave in.

“I understand.”

Charm had always understood. He’d understood when I hadn’t had any place to stay in the city and needed to crash at his small apartment for a week. Then a month. Then a year, and so on.

He also had understood when I needed an entire room of said apartment for my work, and that he would have to sleep on the couch. Really, I was afraid of the day he wouldn’t understand, and what that would mean.

The shift ended a short while later and all the workers packed up their helmets, masks, goggles, and uniforms before they went home for the weekend. It was a Friday, so everypony’s spirits were up; they would soon be hitting the city’s numerous bars for a night of debauchery.

Charm gave me a nod and a smile before he left along with the crowd, though I knew he would separate from them somewhere along the avenue to head back to our apartment along the wharf.

Meanwhile, though, I had to talk to one of our managers. He was a burly stallion with an ever-present stubble upon his chin and beady eyes that always caught you when you decided it was safe to take just one more unscheduled break. He scowled a lot when he talked.

“You can stay behind just for two hours,” he said. “I’ll be checking the timecodes, and if you’re here just a second longer, I’ll be collecting your next paycheck for myself.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, “can I just have the key already?”

He looked at the small little card in his hoof. “Did you deposit our, uh, agreement into my account already?”

“Did it this morning.”

“. . . fine.” He sighed and handed over the key. “But if it isn’t there, then it’s two paychecks!” he called as he left the building.

The vast metal door slammed shut and I was alone in the main building of the ship-breaking yard. The lights flickered and hummed above me in a steady beat, giving me a soothing tone to work with.

I’d never minded working alone, ever since I’d tinkered with little toys in my attic room back at my parents’ hotel. There was something about sweeping my eyes across the vast workplace of the building and knowing it was all mine, at least for the next two hours.

I walked over to my workstation with a spring in my step and took out a cardboard box, the parts inside seemed to rattle eagerly. Taking apart the coffee machine and old vidscreen that I’d found in an alley had been the easy part, but it was figuring out what to actually do with the assortment of doo-dads and thing-a-ma-bobs that was the hard part.

I dumped them out on the now-still conveyor belt and glared at them, hoping my cutie mark would kick in at some point and help me out.

After a few minutes—or rather, seconds that felt like minutes—of absolutely nothing, I glared at my rump and tried to will it to start glowing. I wanted an idea, at least, even if it was a silly one. Not that the numerous other little gadgets lying around Charm’s apartment weren’t silly . . . or that they sold well.

I tried rearranging the pieces on the table and gazing at them hard and even a little longingly, but still couldn’t see anything. I never set out an actual plan for what I wanted to do with a project, so they tended to be slow going, but tonight it seemed even slower than usual.

So, I decided to do everything in my power to change that. I grabbed a stool from a workstation located across the building and moved it over to my station. I climbed on top and was able to lean over the still conveyor belt to get a full look at the parts. Then, with all my might, I concentrated on them and the desire to see them put together into an object that might be useful to somepony.

I strained and strained and strained some more, until I thought a vein would burst in my head. I thought I could feel . . . something . . . but I didn’t know what. A tingling in the air?

I thought I imagined the feeling until the tingling grew stronger and very real. Then it was everywhere, and I felt like my tail had been plugged into a socket as the room exploded into white light.

The stool toppled to the floor, taking me with it, so I was unable to see what lay at the heart of the white light.

I lay on the ground rubbing a sore spot on my head when I heard the clopping of hooves echoing through the building.

I picked myself off the ground and weighed my options while dusting myself off. On one hoof, somepony had just materialized in a room through magic, which meant they could be a powerful sorcerer . . . or an escaped criminal . . . or even an Everfree Knight!

On the other hoof, somepony had just materialized in a room through magic. Something that didn’t exactly happen every day—outside of the unicorn communes—in the normal, earth pony worlds. At that moment, however, I realized that I did not have much of a choice as said pony seemed to have suddenly appeared directly in front of me.

I slowly looked up at the figure, trying to avoid any sort of confrontation.

It wore a large crimson cloak with a hood that hung down over its face, obscuring it from view. From what little I could see of the pony, it looked to be lavender in color, and around its front legs was wrapped an impressive collection of scars.

“Um, h-hi,” I stammered. “That was a, uh, pretty impressive magic trick you did there.”

The figure seemed to look at me like it was I who had suddenly appeared in the room.

“Time,” it spoke suddenly in a deceptively feminine voice. So it was a mare, it seemed. “What is the time?”

I shot a look at the clock that hung in a cage on the far wall.

“Just about a quarter until seven,” I said.

She—the pony in the cloak—shook her head and sighed. Shook her head so hard, in fact, that the hood came down from her head and fell to her shoulders. Her face was the same color as her legs, and just as scarred. Her mane was darker purple, almost black, with what looked like the remnants of a pink streak.

Most shocking, though, was the tattoo on her face. It was black and ended just below her left eye; it looked like some sort of serpentine beast, but I could not tell exactly what kind. The eye it ended below seemed to glow a deep purple.

Her face showed signs that it had once been much more pleasant, before the scars or the seemingly permanent scowl she displayed as she looked down on me.

“The date,” she said. “I need to know the date.”

“It’s, uh, the fifteenth of March,” I stammered.

“And the year?”

“820,” I replied. “ALR, After Luna’s Return.”

At the time, it seemed crucially important that I include that last bit, though I did not know why.

The mare accepted my information without a change in her demeanor, though she seemed to pause and think about my answer before moving on. She began to walk away, and roughly pushed past me on her way out of the building. Instead of trying the door, though, she simply stared at the wall and was suddenly gone in a flash.

Unsure if what I had witnessed had actually been real, I quickly gathered up my scattered pieces of machinery into a ancient, battered saddlebag I had scrounged off an drunken old spacer.

A quick swipe of the key later, I was out into the dirty, unwashed streets of Journey’s End and safely away from the ship-breaking yard and the mystery of the appearing mare. Or so I thought.

* * *

I washed up on the front porch of our apartment complex like so much trash from streets, which were muddy after a long rain and wash-off coming down from the hills.

Charm buzzed me into our building without protest and I took the stairs two at a time past the broken elevator until I found myself in the little foyer of our apartment. I dropped my bag by the door and trotted over to him.

He sat on the couch in the middle of the room that doubled as his bed, and boredly waved his hoof through channel after channel on the vidscreen. An open pizza box lay on the coffee table in front of him, with half the slices already gone. All the makings of a usual night for him.

“You’re back early,” he said nonchalantly.

“So what,” I said in the same tone. “I just finished early is all.”

He laughed as I took my usual place on the couch beside him and grabbed a slice of pizza for myself.

“So you’re saying that you didn’t actually get anything done?” he said.

“Shut up,” I said, though I included a grin to show I wasn’t really serious.

I don’t think I’d ever stayed mad at Charm for more than few fleeting seconds, even when I’d tried. He just had one of those faces.

Charm grabbed a can of pop and opened it with his teeth. “Then I guess we’ll try to sell some of the old gadgets tomorrow?” he said. “Though what should we rebrand them as this time? Novelty pet toys?”

“Better than last time,” I said. “Who knew that people would bring their kids to a booth advertising ‘marriage enhancements?’”

We both shared a laugh over that and settled in to watch the vidscreen. It was another vapid romantic-slash-comedic series set on the inner colonies about a pair of middle class couples and their upper class friends whose biggest concerns were preparing for kids or trading one high-paying job for another.

Suffice to say, it was our favorite show. Escapism and all that.

A little while into the third episode, though, I was absentmindedly tapping my hoof against the unopened can of cherry-flavored pop in my lap as my mind drifted back to the mare in the crimson cloak. I’d hoped that would have been forgotten as soon as I had returned home, but that wish had turned out to be fruitless.

After a few minutes of relentless tapping, I began, “Charm, have you ever had the feeling that you’re part of something big, but you don’t really know exactly what that thing is?”

Charm swallowed the last bites of pizza and thought for a moment, tugging at his necklace. “Once,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“Something happened at the yard,” I said. “After everypony else had left and I was working on my new gadgets.”

“Oh yeah, was it the return of the ‘ghost’ that turned out to be a stray cat?” he said lightly.

I shook my head. “No, no, something else. Something . . . real. There was a bright flash of light and suddenly there was this mare in a great red cloak that appeared out of nowhere and asked me what year it was. That was the funny thing, too. She didn’t ask where she was, but when. Then after I told her, she just vanished again.”

Charm’s brow furrowed and the mood in the room suddenly became serious.

“Are you sure this wasn’t just some, I don’t know, some magician practicing a trick? Unicorns are rare here, but there are still a few around.”

“She wasn’t a magician,” I said. “I mean, yes, she was a unicorn and all but she didn’t look to be doing some trick. She had scars all over her, and the way she looked at me . . . she was something more than an ordinary unicorn.”

“And you say she disappeared right after you met her?”

“Just out of the factory, I think. It wasn’t the same kind of flash that she arrived with.”

Charm rubbed the back of his head.

“Well, it doesn’t sound like she was very interested in staying around. Do you think you’ll see her again?”

“Not really,” I admitted, “but the funny thing is, I think I want to.”

Charm raised an eyebrow but said nothing, instead choosing to settle back in and watch our show. I joined him after a time, but the atmosphere of the room didn’t feel quite the same.

Eventually, he shut the vid screen off and we both went to bed early. That night, I dreamed of the mysterious mare and her crimson cloak.

The Beast Within - II

The next day was a Saturday, but not just any ordinary Saturday. It was the third Saturday of the month, so the inventors of Journey’s End’s underclass were out among the town square to hawk their wares to passersby. Some sold homemade pottery or jewelry or even strange dishes cooked with whatever strange ingredients the ponies could find.

For a few more enterprising young colts and fillies, however, the trade days represented a time that they could sell their newest idea or invention in the hopes of making it to the better areas of the city, or even off this rock. In that sense, I could count myself among them, though I was rapidly approaching the age when applying the word “filly” to myself would bring about looks of concern.

Charm and I arrived early in the morning and headed to our stall in the right corner of the square. The market was set up thus: pre-built stalls were laid out around the edges of the market square, with the foodsellers nearer to the entrance of the square than the inventors.

The prefab structures folded down into large cubes when not in use.Charm helped set ours up in the normal vendor position while I set out my little gadgets and machines.

Some did nothing but spin like a top, while others simply waved about or did silly little tricks. I suppose I could have tried to make something useful, but starting a project like that left me with a headache and the feeling like I was stranded on an island of incompetence among a sea of brilliance.

So instead I settled for making money piecemeal and squirreling away as much as I could in the hope that one day it would be enough for a berth on a ship bound for another world.

Charm had no such ambitions, but never seemed to mind helping out on market days.

We quickly finished setting up the bins and free-standing displays and the sign advertising “children’s amusements.” Charm had come up with the idea five minutes before we opened, so I was shaky on the pitch, but I had nothing better.

Ponies—potential customers in the eyes of the sellers—began to trickle in a few minutes after we had opened, and I sat on an old stool in front of the counter while Charm lounged in the small rear area of the stall, lazily flicking through a magazine.

Customers came and went, but in a pattern that was no different from the other weekends. Our booth drew at most four or five ponies an hour, but only one or two would stay around to look at any of my wares, and even fewer would pay for one. Though the re-branding at least seemed to raise the profits by a little bit, a fact which Charm reminded me of every twenty minutes or so.

For the most part, however, my mind was left to drift in the usual monotony. The path it took, of course, led me back to the previous night at the factory. The mare and her cloak and that strange tattoo . . . the mystery of it all felt like an itch I just couldn’t quite scratch, and it began to drive me mad.

So mad, in fact, that I began to perceive that I could see that same red cloak among the crowd of customers. It bobbed and weaved its way among them, and presumably the mare inside did so as well. I blinked a few times and rubbed my eyes, but found the apparition was still there.

“Hey, Charm?” I asked.

“Yeah?” he said with his nose still pressed into the magazine. It was one of the common periodicals detailing interplanetary politics and trade disputes. I found them dreadfully boring, but he kept a stack of them back at the apartment all for himself.

“Do you, uh . . . do you see a pony in a red cloak out in the crowd?”

Charm got up off his seat with a sigh and walked to the front of the stall. He put one hoof on his brow and scanned the crowd. I watched nervously as he set on the mare in red, but to my great relief he stopped and nodded.

“Yep, I see her,” he said. “Should I not?”

“No, but, um,” I stammered, looking around. “Would you mind watching the stall while I try to get a closer look?”

His eyes narrowed. “Wait, mare in a red cloak . . . is this that same mare from last night?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I just feel like I need to find out, you know?”

“No, I don’t,” Charm said. “Are you sure you really want to do this? What if she does turn out to be the mare from last night? You don’t know what she’s capable of.”

I shrugged. “And I never will if I don’t try and investigate at least a little bit. Besides, this is the most exciting thing to happen around here ever. I don’t want to miss this.”

Charm eyed me closely, but eventually gave in with a sigh. “There’s really no convincing you, is there?” he said. “Well, try to be careful at least?”

“I’ll try,” I said with a wink.

Charm just rolled his eyes and went about managing the stall while keeping a careful eye on me.

As for myself, I scampered over the stall counter and disappeared into the mass of ponies that occupied the square’s middle.

Among the pressing bodies and sharp voices, I lost sight of the mare in the cape and had a brief moment of panic while I whirled around, trying to find her. A curse of being short, I supposed.

I finally spotted her over by a table supposedly selling antiques from other worlds. I couldn’t see her face, but she seemed to linger over the stall before continuing on.

Suddenly, a rumble from under the ground shook the square like a ship cast about in a storm. Ponies toppled to the ground amid screams of shock and surprise. I swayed on my hooves, but my smaller stature allowed me to stay upright along with a few others.

The shaking of the ground stopped as abruptly as it had started, and ponies climbed shakily to their hooves while the vendors set their stalls back into shape as if nothing had happened.

Quakes were rare on the colony, and I hadn’t ever heard of one around our area, but it wasn’t major enough to warrant more than a few concerned looks. Everypony had business to attend to, after all.

That is, everypony else but the mare in the cape. She hadn’t fallen over either, and now seemed to be almost testing the air. She began edging her way away from the stalls, and I sought to follow her, keeping to the outskirts of the stalls to avoid becoming lost in the crowd.

The entrance to the square is divided into two main causeways and a smaller road—almost an alley, really—that leads off to the factories and the ship-breaking yard; it’s rarely used on the weekends. The mare, of course, headed in that exact direction.

I found myself leaving the crowds of the square behind, and Charm along with them. I briefly considered letting the mysterious mare go and simply leaving it a mystery that I would one day forget about. However, something in my being cried out ardently for me to continue my pursuit. For one reason or another, the case felt almost personal.

Away from the crowd of ponies to hide my presence, I stuck to shadows of the fabcrete walls of the alley and tailed the mare at a distance that I considered reasonably innocent.

The buildings that abutted the alley street were mostly administrative offices or workplaces for skilled engineers, so they were empty on a Saturday. That left me and the mysterious mare the only ponies in the street.

The mare continued her trek down the alley. Shortly, she began to turn down sidestreets, first to the left, then to the right, and then to the right again. I had to close my distance from her out of fear of losing her trail.

After another left turn, however, I realized I had been lured into a trap.

I turned the corner and came to a halt almost directly in front of the mare. The hood on her cloak was again down, and she stared hard at me with her mismatched eyes.

“You’re following me,” she said tonelessly.

I looked up at her. “Well, not exactly . . .”

Her eyes widened when she heard me speak, and she must have put a voice to my appearance.

“You’re that mare from the factory,” she said.

“That’s me,” I said with a small smile. “My name’s Tinker, by the way.”

“I don’t recall asking.” She sighed and rubbed her tattoo on the side of her face. “Why are you following me, anyway? Didn’t you get the idea to stay away?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I just wanted to know about, well, you. You can’t very well expect to suddenly show up in my company’s building out of nowhere and not expect me to wonder at least where you came from, can you?”

She glared at me.

“I was hoping you would know well enough to keep it to yourself,” she said. “If I told you where I was from, you wouldn’t believe me anyway. Now it would be in your best interest to leave and forget all of this happened.”

The mare in cloak seemed to believe that she had effectively ended the argument, and started to walk away. A glow from her horn sent the hood back up on her head.

“But I want to believe,” I called out to her, the words forming themselves on my lips. “Haven’t you ever been curious about something like this? You can ignore me if you want, but at least give me a good reason.”

She stopped walking away, but didn’t immediately turn around. For a second, I thought I could hear her whispering to herself, but it quickly subsided.

“So you think you’re curious?” she asked.

“I know I am.”

More whispering, which I was sure of that time.

“And you work in that factory, right?”

My heart swelled with the spectre of hope suddenly lighting the alleyway. “Yeah, I do,” I said. “It’s a ship-breaking yard, actually. I know just about every inch of it.”

Finally, the mare turned around to face me again. If I hadn’t known better, I would have said her glowing eye had begun to throb.

“Can you show me where your company’s records are kept?”

“Yes, of course,” I said. I’d been called to the supervisor’s makeshift office enough times to at least have a good guess of where the records were, though I didn’t know their exact location. Not that she needed to know that, however.

The mare walked back to my side and looked down at me, her horn piercing up from her hooded cloak. A whisper of a smile seemed to briefly grace her face.

“Close your eyes and try not to move,” she ordered.

I did as I was told and the tingling I had felt the previous night alighted across my body, though not in the same force. Suddenly, though, I felt weightless and falling through nothing.

* * *

The sensation stopped as soon as it had come, and I felt solid fabcrete beneath my hooves once again. When I cracked open my eyelids, however, I realized that we were back at the ship-breaking yard. A small scattering of ash lay on the floor around us, and a sinking feeling told me that the ash were parts of me that had separated on the journey.

“Lead the way,” the mare told me.

I nodded obligingly and set off down the main row between conveyor belts, which remained in the same shape as I had left them the night previous. The lights were off, but after the first time I managed to trip over a box of scraps somepony had carelessly left out, the mare set her horn glowing and the lights overhead sprung to life.

The supervisor’s office was at the far end of the deconstruction room, so it took some time to walk over there. In the meantime, I sought after answers to my questions.

“So what were you doing at the marketplace?” I said. “It doesn’t really seem like the kind of place a mare like you would hang around.”

“You don’t know me well enough to make that judgement,” she said icily, but then softened up. “Besides, I was acting on a hunch, and it proved to be definitively correct.”

I paused. “Are you talking about the ground shaking?”

“Yes, and now I need to see your company’s records to perhaps shed some light on my suspicions.”

“So you did need me,” I said.

“I’m sure I would have found the records eventually,” she said, “but having you along speeds up the process, and in a situation like this time is essential.”

“And what kind of situation is that?”

“It’s best if you don’t know.”

I might have complained, had we not reached the supervisor’s office by then.

The room was little more than a closet beneath the stairs leading to the second level, but it was more than most of us had. Besides, he was the supervisor to the unskilled workers—barely a step above us himself. One of the reasons why he drank on duty, probably.

I pushed open the door—our company was too cheap for a lock—and went inside.

The place was dominated by only two pieces of furniture: a cheap metal desk and an old liquor cabinet. The desk had been cleaned off for the weekend, meaning that the wastepaper basket was filled to bursting with logs he either hadn’t gotten to or wouldn’t have bothered with anyway.

The mare looked practically mortified at the scene of the room.

“How can he be your supervisor?” she said. “This is the worst organization I’ve ever seen!”

“Our company’s not too big on the details,” I explained.

“Alright, well, just find the records, and quickly.”

The desk had no locks on it either, so it was a simple task to root through its drawers and, good luck willing, find the outgoing records for our yard.

I stepped behind the desk and opened the top drawer. Inside were several flasks of hard alcohol. Nothing too strange, I supposed, so I opened the drawer below that. More alcohol.

The mare was looking at me strangely, so I picked up the pace. Another draw. Alcohol. I checked all of them and they all held the same prize. Sure there were in all kinds of different weapons for the war against sobriety, but none of them were in the shape of company records.

“Is there a problem?” the mare asked.

“Just a, uh, delay,” I said hastily. “It seems he moved his records since I was last here.”

“Moved them to where?”

I closed the open drawers. “That’s what I’ll have to find out.”

I set my hooves on the desk and tried to think. The supervisor rarely strayed far from his office or our disassembly lines, so I had no idea where else he would put the records.

At that moment, I happened to look up in my newfound despair and my eyes alighted on the liquor cabinet across the small room. It was supposedly an antique brought by a captain on one of the colony ships, though almost everypony in the office could tell it was locally-grown wood.

But the more important thing, I realized,what did a pony need a liquor cabinet for when all of his alcohol was in his desk?

I walked over to it and carefully opened the door while the mare in the cloak watched me with a strange sort of interest.

Peeking inside, I saw stacks and stacks of papers piled haphazardly on top of each other. I opened the cabinet doors all the way and grabbed a folder that looked important off the top shelf.

“Is this what you’re looking for?” I said, holding the folder up to her.

She yanked it out of my hoof with a spark of magic and opened it in the air in front of her. Her eyes quickly scanned the contents before gently placing the folder back on its shelf. Her face darkened.

“It’s just as I thought,” she said.

“What, what’s like you think?” I asked.

“Your ship breaking yard has a severe imbalance in its system. Every week, you are processing enough material to fill a cruiser, but only a cargo ship’s-worth is making it out.”


“Well, ask yourself: where is all that steel and circuitry going?”

I thought. Come to think of it, I had never actually seen where all the steel we cut apart went after it disappeared off our lines. I’d seen magtrucks in the back parking lots that I had assumed carried our goods throughout the colony, but I’d never actually seen them being loaded.

“Alright,” I said, “you may have a point. But what exactly does all this mean?”

Another quake suddenly erupted beneath our hooves, though it was much smaller than the one in the square. Despite that, it also felt closer . . . more localized.


The mare quickly bounded out of the room, and I was stumbling after her as she wove a complicated pattern in the air. She jumped over and around the conveyor belts on a path not toward the exit, but to a door that led down below the disassembly room. How she knew where to go, I wouldn’t venture to guess.

As we moved, more tremors rocked beneath me, slackening in power but growing in frequency. They seemed to have an effect on the mare, as her breathing grew heavy and the tattoo on her body almost seemed to glow. Sweat had begun to gather on her forehead by the time we reached the door, and I feared she might collapse before we could get it open.

That proved to not be a problem, however, as it swung out on its own accord. A large tremble from underneath preceded the reveal of the ponies behind the door.

Stepping through the entryway were two ponies from the line next to mine and Charm’s, while the other was a figure much more surprising.

Real Steel, the stallion who owned the entire ship-breaking yard, stood before us. He didn’t have the most friendly look on his face, however.

“Thought you two would stick your noses where they don’t belong, huh?” he sneered. He turned to two burly line workers. “Grab them!”

The mare’s horn started to spark in what I hoped would be a little working of her magic in protest, but it stopped as her tattoo flashed red and she collapsed to the ground with a groan.

Steel’s enforcers hesitated for a moment, and she took that opportunity to grit her teeth and force her horn to flash, disappearing in a burst of magic.

Unfortunately, I was not included in her escape plan.

“You idiots!” Steel cried. “She’s gotten away!” He sighed and turned to me. “Alright, bring her along . . . it’s time we consulted with the master again.”

I was roughly grabbed by my hooves and dragged with one line worker on either side of me. I didn’t speak up in protest or try to escape; their muscles gave me a good idea of how that fight would end. What I did notice, however, was a strange, silver glow in their eyes.

I was dragged through the doorway and down into the depths of the building.

The Beast Within - III

Down, down, down we went, down far deeper than I thought our building ran.

The more secure staircase gave way to a hastily-crafted metal structure that leaned and groaned when hooves trod upon it. Farther below, the heat began to increase as well. The metal tunnel I was dragged down was barely lit, and seemed to almost close around me.

Real Steel and his cronies kept quiet for the trip, except occasional grunts or mutterings from the two line workers when they began to lose their grip.

It wasn’t too long, however, before the metal staircase opened up onto a large platform placed over a chasm that ran deep into the planet’s bedrock. The ceiling to the chamber ran up hundreds of feet into the air, giving a colossal scale to the room.

A railing was placed at the edge of the platform, but that didn’t help my fears of falling when I was shoved roughly against it. My hooves were kept unbound, but my guards kept near enough to not give me a hope of escaping. Instead, I was left trying not to look down.

I turned away from the sight and focused on Real Steel, who stood nearby with a smirk on his face.

“What kind of place is this?” I shouted. “And why in Tartarus did you drag me here?”

“You know too much,” he said simply.

“What are you even talking about?”

“Don’t worry, the master will explain.”

Before I could ask just who the master was, another quake rattled the steel platform and I grasped desperately at the railing lest I fall. It was then I realized, to my growing horror, that I hadn’t just felt the tremor, but heard it.

Chancing a look downward, I was just in time to see a massive silver shape rise up from the depths with a flap of its titanic wings.

The scales, the elongated neck, the reptilian eyes and claws . . . even a pony like me knew a dragon when I saw one. I was shaking so hard that I would have fallen to my knees had I not already been on them. My heart thumped in my chest as I gazed up at the great silver beast. Only his eyes were a different color: the cruelest hue of amber that I had ever seen.

Then, to my horror, he extended his head down to our level and stopped right in front of me. A low rumble filled his throat, preceding his speech.

“Who is this hatchling you have brought to me?”

“We found her snooping around upstairs,” Steel said, “so we brought her down here just like you ordered.”

“And was she with someone else?”

Steel nodded. “There was a mare . . . she looked all weird and then teleported away before we could capture her.”

The silver dragon’s massive eyes narrowed. “Indeed . . .”

He bent his head in a way so that he was look directly at me, and I at him. I tried to push back away from the edge of the platform, but the two line workers held me in place.

To my surprise, the dragon chose that moment to close his eyes and take a big sniff of me. He smiled a smile that was not altogether very friendly.

“You smell like her,” he rumbled.

“I-I do?” I stammered. “What does that, uh, mean, exactly?”

“And ask as many questions as she once did,” the dragon observed with a small chuckle. Small, as in it only lightly shook the platform.

He glared down at me again. “Tell me, little one, do you even know the name of the mare who led you here?”

“Not exactly, no,” I said quickly. “Am I supposed to?”

The gravity of my situation with the dragon was lost on me as I gazed into his massive eyes. They seemed to calm me . . . to reassure me that nothing was a secret between us, and that the wise old dragon was only there to be my friend. I began to feel almost woozy and looked away.

“I suppose not,” the dragon answered finally. “Few of your kind do anymore. You with your short lives and thinking always of the future, but not of the past.” His eyes sparkled. “What, then, do you know of the Elements of Harmony?”

The absurdity of trying to recall grade school lessons while on a metal platform suspended over a chasm that was home to a colossal dragon was not lost on me.

“That’s the old story, right?” I said. “The six elements who freed Luna of the Everfree from the moon after Empress Celestia locked her away for one thousand years.”

“You are correct in that aspect,” the dragon thundered, “but what, then, were the names of the elements?”
“Princess Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie the Magnificent,” I s
aid with confidence.

I’d never been one for history lessons, but the Elements of Harmony had been my favorite subject. Next to recess, of course.

“That’s only five,” the dragon said. “Who was the sixth? The Element of Magic?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but was forced to shut it when no answer came to mind. I could feel that I knew the correct name, but it was like every time I called it forth in my mind, it slipped away.

“I don’t . . . I don’t know,” I said at last.

He smiled. “So she has been forgotten.”

The great dragon snapped his claws like a crack of thunder and suddenly the two line worker stallions grabbed me again and held me up off the ground so I could not move, no matter how hard I kicked.

“What are you doing?” I demanded.

The dragon laughed at what must have been, to him, a very pitiful attempt to get answers.

“I’ve had my fun, so now it’s time to get down to business,” he explained. “You honestly didn’t think I would let you go after all you’ve seen, did you?”

“Then wh-what are you going to do to me?”

“The same thing I’ve done to the ponies you see here,” he said. “It is not easy to convince the owner of a ship-breaking yard to allow me to ingest most of the metal that comes through his doors, but with a little dragon magic, anything is possible.”

He stuck his head down until one of his eyes was almost directly at my own eye level.

“Just stare into it, and you’ll soon understand,” he cooed.

By far the most disturbing thing I’ve ever heard is the sound of a dragon trying to sound enticing.

I struggled and tried to look away, but Real Steel held my head in place himself. When I shut my eyes, they were forced open with a little bit of what I presumed to be the dragon’s magic, for none of us were unicorns.

“P-Please, just let me go!” I cried. “I won’t tell anypony, I swear!”

“I could trust you,” the dragon said, “or I could guarantee it. But don’t worry; you won’t be harmed. You won’t even know you’re under my control unless I become in need of your . . . assistance.”

His pupil shrunk and seemed to try to force its way into my head. Emotions raged inside of me as I could feel his warm influence bubbling up in my mind. Part of me just wanted to . . . to give up. Stop fighting and welcome his leadership. The master’s leadership.

The master laughed.

“I see I am already having an effect on you; a pity you had to be so weak-minded. I thought this might have been fun.” He shrugged. “Oh well.”

Real Steel no longer had to hold my head as I willingly looked into the master’s wonderful, wonderful eye. I could not even speak, his hold was so great upon me. My head felt fuzzy and my limbs trembled in his presence.

“Before you go,” the Master said in a fading voice, “I will impart on you a name that has been lost, but should never be forgotten. Perhaps even your . . . new . . . memories will retain it. The name of the mare who led you astray, and the same mare who banished me here all those years ago when she overthrew our splendid revolution.”

The Master’s eye narrowed. “Her name was—”

“Twilight Sparkle,” a different voice said. A familiar voice.

The Master roared and snapped his head up, and suddenly the warm feeling was gone. For a second I missed its soothing presence, but I shook my head and my thoughts cleared. The master? I had called a dragon my master!

I was dropped to the ground as Real Steel and the line workers turned to face their new threat, and I looked in the same direction.

The mare with the tattoo stood defiantly in an entryway that seemed to be made out of solid rock, her cloak fluttering in the hot breeze rising up from the deep. She had said her name was Twilight Sparkle.

My eyes widened as the name fit like a missing puzzle piece into my memories. Of course; the lost Element of Magic!

“Twilight!” I called. “You came back!”

She seemed rather surprised at the inclusion of her name, but didn’t show it for long.

“Yes, I did,” she said. “But not for you; I came for him.”

The dragon did a reptilian impression of a smirk.

“Did you now?” he said. “I am surprised that even a mare of your . . . considerable power could break through the magic shield I placed around this facility to keep your kind away.”

The mare’s, er, Twilight’s tattoo flashed red like it had in the facility, and she winced. When her eyes were open fully again, the one right above the tattoo had turned a startling color of red.

“A dragon using magic?” she said through gritted teeth. “Now I’ve seen everything. And if you knew me, then you’d know that’s saying a lot.”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he snapped. “What else was I to do when you and Spike the Oathbreaker threw us out of the civilized worlds three hundred years ago and told us to never return to ponydom? This shield has been my only protection against the likes of you, and it hid me so I could feed on mere scraps these past centuries. Not a single gem, even! And your probes against my shield had this entire colony shaking like a leaf in the wind!”

Twilight did not look amused.

“Your kind were banished for a reason,” she spat. “Your scourge consumed three colonies, and you threatened the Empress herself! You deserved everything you got, and should have been happy that you were even allowed the unpopulated worlds.”

“You don’t know what it’s like on those worlds . . . how lonely it can be.”

“Don’t I?”

The dragon laughed. “Old Silverback is not a fool. I know of your condition.” His smile grew crueler. “And I know how to exploit it, too.” His eyes flashed and Twilight’s tattoo glowed a fiery red once again.

She cried out and fell to the ground, sweat pouring down her face and her horn crackling.

Silverback nodded to his guards. “See that she is lost to time more . . . permanently.”

The three stallions advanced on her, but Twilight was still aware enough to notice them, and apparently that was enough. With just a slight twitch of her horn, the three of them were sent flying across the room in bursts of magic.

Real Steel himself landed next to me. I watched as the silver faded from his eyes, and when he got up, he looked around like he had no idea where he was.

Silverback sighed. “So hard to find good help in a place like this. But, that is why I made sure to keep an ace in the hole, just in case you showed up.”

He turned to me. “Are you ready, little one?”

I started to back away, but suddenly found I couldn’t. In fact, I could not control a single part of my body outside my eyes and brain. I was forced to watch in horror as my body marched itself unceasingly closer to Twilight.

“Like it?” Silverback asked Twilight. “It’s a new one: a deeper control than even you can penetrate with a simple burst of magic. The very depths of herself belong to me, even if her brain will not cooperate.”

He laughed. “And I know of your affinity, your weakness for these kinds of ponies. Even three centuries later, I can see it in your eyes. You won’t dare harm her, lest you be plagued with guilt.”

Meanwhile, my limbs continued to march themselves forward and one of my hooves drew up as if to strike Twilight. Her eyes that stared at me grew conflicted. I was made to watch as she decided my fate in front of me.

She screamed in frustration.

“Stop it, just stop it!” she yelled. “Leave her out of this; she has no part in our fight!”

“Neither did my hatchlings,” Silverback said coldly.

I tried to move, tried to run, tried to do anything . . . but I couldn't. I was going to die, down here, alone. Never to to see the surface again, or Charm, or travel the stars. Die as an unwilling slave of a dragon.

"Please, help me!" I cried to Twilight in desperation.

She looked at me helplessly, and the tattoo on her face glowed an even brighter red, but she didn’t seem to notice. Instead, she whispered to me, “I’m sorry,” and her horn flashed a brilliant purple.

The burst of magic hit me in the chest and sent me skidding across the platform before I came to a rest in the middle of it. I regained control of my limbs as Silverback’s warmth left my body, only to be replaced by . . . something else.

It felt as if a great cold had set over me at first, before it suddenly snapped inside me. Agony coursed through my body and out my lungs as I cried out while white-hot lances of pain shot up and down my spine. My vision filled with red and I realized I was shaking and convulsing on the ground.

Still, though, I was aware. Aware enough to watch Twilight’s pained look as she watched me. And then the fury that filled her eyes when she turned to Silverback. Her horn glowed far brighter than I had seen it, and crackled with energy.

“Get. Out. Now,” she bellowed in a voice that didn’t sound all her own.

Silverback raised a claw as if to strike, but he was too slow. A massive bolt of pure magic shot from Twilight’s horn and struck the dragon right in the chest.

Scales burned away and I watched as the skin under it curled and smoked. Silverback howled and yelled in pain and anger, but did not raise a claw to Twilight again.

“Get out,” she said again. “Leave the civilized systems and never return! Because if you come back, it will be the last time you do.”

Silverback said nothing more. He turned and clawed away a great section of rock in the chamber to reveal a massive tunnel that I assumed led to the surface.

Whether dragons could fly in space or he had a spaceship stashed somewhere, I did not know or care.

The pain had started to subside, but left behind a feeling that reminded me of a cold winter’s night. I coughed and my breath sparkled and turned gold. My eyes widened. Magic.

My vision began to turn blurry as I coughed some more, but I was able to see Twilight finally walk over to where I lay, she looked down upon me with concern.

“Well this is quite the mess you’ve made,” she said.

But, wait, she hadn’t said it. Her lips hadn’t moved. I began to blink furiously as her tattoo seemed to come alive and detach itself from her! Not all the way, but from the side of her face.

The little tattoo seemed to take an almost-third dimensional shape, and crossed arms that didn’t match, Its beady little eyes glowed red.

“Hold on, you didn’t do what I think you did, did you?” it said.

“I had no choice,” Twilight said.

“You could have at least thought about it . . .”

“No time. I made my decision.”

The tattoo tsked. “And my my, what the decision. I can see the spell’s effect already taking hold on her: she looks absolutely frightened!”

“It might also be the sight of a talking tattoo.”

“Oh. Right.” The tattoo extended itself down toward me.

“Greetings!” it said. “I’m Discord, former Lord of Chaos and temporary tattoo for Miss Sparkle here. Hah, get it? Temporary!”

It gave me what I assumed to be a smile. “And you are?”

It may have been the tattoo calling itself Discord or the fact that I heard his voice inside my head, but it was that moment that I chose to pass out.

* * *

The first sensation I had when I was awoke was one of being carried. Specifically, being hauled through air by the power of magic. The cold sensation was still with me, but it felt . . . deeper. Easier to manage, at least.

I opened my eyes briefly, but the sensation hurt my head so I shut them again. From what I could see, though, it was night once again and the flickering lights of Journey’s End had begun to dim in the late hours.

I heard whispering coming from Twilight and, uh, Discord from in front of me, so I ascertained that Twilight was carrying me behind her back. She must still assume I was asleep. I took my chance to listen in.

“Are you sure this is where she lives?” Twilight was saying.

“Mostly,” Discord replied.

“What do you mean by mostly?”

“Well, that little fragment of me you put inside her isn’t cooperating very well with me, so this is my best guess.”

“It’ll have to do then.”

A pause.

“You know this isn’t going to work, don’t you?” Discord said. “She’s practically part of us now.”

“We have to try,” Twilight said. “She didn’t deserve . . . this. She had no way of knowing what she was getting herself into.”

“Still have that weak spot for curious ponies, I see. And yet, this mare—Tinker, wasn’t it?—still made the choice to follow you. That counts for something.”

“Yes, well, we all make choices we regret.”

“Don’t I know it.”

I felt myself being lifted higher up and over Twilight’s head, and then being placed on a familiar stoop in front of Charm’s apartment building.

They started to leave, but I snapped my head up and called out to them, “Wait!”

Discord, half of him unattached to Twilight’s body, placed a very small lion’s paw on his forehead.

“Of course she’s awake,” he muttered.

“What do you want?” Twilight asked, more to the point.

“You two were going to leave . . . just like that?” I said.

“That’s how it usually works,” Twilight said. “The monster’s gone and the problems are over and now you can all go about living your happy, normal lives.”

“But-But what about you?” I said. “What am I supposed to think about you and that dragon?”

“It’s best if you forget everything,” Twilight said quietly. “Forget about the dragon, what happened to you . . . forget about me. If you ever want to be happy, you will forget about me.”

“But what if I see you again?”

“If you’re lucky, you won’t.”

And with that she was galloping down the street and around a corner into an abandoned alley. I felt defeated, though a little bit of me was also relieved. No more dragons or magic, but just another story to tell Charm. Charm . . .

I mashed the buzzer next to the complex’s front door that had our room number on it. Around me, the wind began to pick up just like the night before at the factory. A few pieces of trash rolled every which way.

My attention was brought to the apartment complex door as it suddenly swung open. Charm stood in the doorway with dark circles under his eyes and hair that was messed in every direction. The look of a stallion who had been under tremendous stress.

“Tinker!” he said as a smile erupted on his face. “I waited all day! Where have you been?”

I laughed. “Oh, Cha’, when I tell you, you won’t believe—”

From around the corner where Twilight had gone came the sound of a tremendous boom and suddenly Charm and Journey’s End and everything else was gone in a sea of white.

Death of the Magician - I

“. . . what happened.”

The light faded before my eyes as the words meant for Charm were wasted on the open air.

I reached out with my hoof at where Charm would have been, standing in our apartment’s doorway, before thumping it on the ground.

“No!” I cried. “No, no, no, no!”

My chest heaved as my breaths came in gasps and my vision briefly filled with red. Somewhere, a little bird chirped and the wind picked up.

Little by little, I calmed down and began to take in my surroundings. I was standing on a grassy hill that was beset on all sides by trees with leaves beginning to hang off of their branches and flowers that had begun to wilt and droop. Autumn.

Autumn on another world, in fact. The trees, with their soaring branches and leaves that had begun to turn color, were definitely not native to my homeworld. I’d seen such flora, but only in books and nature shows on my home vidscreen that I had memorized when still a filly dreaming of leaving the planet.

I realized with a thumping feeling in my stomach that I was, for the first time, standing on the crest of another world. My dream had come true.

But at what cost?

I noticed out of the corner of my eye that an older, light-blue unicorn with a scraggly pink beard was looking at me as one would a dog that just made a mess on the floor. That was when I looked down to behold that the ground I had landed in and thumped my hoof on was, in fact, a flower bed.

“Did you feel like a walk in my garden,” the stallion said, “or do you just have something against petunias?”

My face reddened and I hastily stepped out of the well-cultivated dirt onto a normal patch of grass. I did my best to wipe the remains of multicolored flowers off the bottom of my hooves.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I just kind of . . . appeared . . . here, and didn’t know quite where I was standing.”

I saw for the first time that the pony had a wooden cart loaded with bags of dirt and flowers behind him. A gardener.

He walked over to where I landed and sniffed the air.

“A teleportation spell, eh?” he said. He looked me over. “What I’d like to know is how an earth pony like yourself managed one of those.”

“I, uh, had some help from a friend.”

“Indeed,” he said with a smile.

He walked over to his cart and started pulling out some plants in bags of soil. The flowers were in brilliant hues of blue and yellow that I hadn’t seen before, and piqued my interest in where exactly I was.

The little unicorn gardener didn’t seem very interested in answering my questions, however. He instead placed a few bagged flowers next to the soil I had landed on and bent down to work.

I walked back to the spot.

“I’m sorry about the garden,” I said. “Is there way I could, uh, help?”

He smiled.

“I won’t trouble you, but I wouldn’t mind the help. Especially from an earth pony like yourself.”

I wished to question him on how exactly my being an earth pony would help me in planting flowers, but he had already passed me a bagged rose and I accepted it.

I got down on my knees and placed the flower into a hole my hoof had made. I patted the dirt around it like I had seen, but then something strange happened.

The bottoms of my hooves began to glow, as did the rose. Its petals opened up and grew taller and, apparently, healthier.

I let out a cry of surprise and sprang away from the possessed flower.

“W-What was that?” I cried.

The gardener took his time to laugh before answering.

“That’s called earth pony magic,” he said. He raised an eyebrow. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

I shook my head.

“No, I just teleported here with my, uh, friend and we got separated. Now I’m lost.”

“Well you don’t have to make it sound like it’s such a bad thing,” the gardener said. He used a little bit of his magic to levitate more flowers into place and fill in soil around them.

“From the looks of it, you’re pretty far from home, but being in a new place can be pretty nice. Of course, I’m speaking about my own home, so I may be a little prejudiced.”

The way he smiled, I couldn’t help but return the gesture. Maybe it was his easy-going manner, but I was at least able to have a little respite from my situation.

“Well, I am far from home,” I said. “And my friend didn’t let me know where she was taking me, so I don’t really know where I am.”

Silently, I added, or when I am.

The gardener’s eyes sparkled.

“So you’re telling me that you don’t know where you landed?” he said.

I nodded.

He laughed and slapped one knee. “If you’re telling the truth, then you’re in for a treat. Follow me, and I’ll show you.”

With a surprising swiftness, he dropped his gardening implements and led me in a fast trot across the hill until we reached the crest, at which point he eagerly nodded to me and swept his hoof over the landscape before us.

The hill overlooked a large road with trees on either side, which led to chasm that was crossed by a massive stone bridge with many banners and frillery decorating it. It was wide enough that ten ponies could cross shoulder to shoulder without touching the edges.

However, it was what was beyond the bridge that mattered more.

A great castle rose up from a grove of trees, standing proud and lively among the forest. Its stone ramparts jutted out from the smooth surface, and stained-glass windows decorated the exterior above the wide oaken doors that led inside.

It was sight that was familiar in every textbook and vid documentary on every world of the Harmonious Empire.

“The Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters,” the gardener said. “Cornerstone of Equestria. Pretty good luck you landed here, eh?”

My breath came in short gasps as I realized that not only was I seeing the castle, but seeing it in its heyday. Before the abandoning, the ruin, the return of Nightmare Moon, or its final demolition to make way for the Sky Tower of Everfree City.

“Y-Yeah, very lucky,” I said.

“Even better, you landed at the right time.” He grinned. “The crowds are sure to be in full swing today.”

Now that he mentioned it, I could hear the gentle hum of dozens of conversations that signaled the presence of a crowd that had begun to wait for their entertainment.

“What are they here for?” I asked.

When he didn’t answer, however, I turned to find that the gardener was gone. I gave it a moment’s thought, but didn’t linger on it and instead began my trek down the hill and towards the noise.

* * *

My expedition to find the source took me through the trees just off the beaten path to the castle and to a massive clearing just beyond.

To call the area a village, despite its rustic appearance, would have been very wrong. Instead, the area closer resembled a prefab machine set to old-world cottage style and left to do its work for a year straight. An entire sea of wooden houses and businesses spread out before me.

Thatched roofs and smoke trailing from fires filled the air, and above them pegasi flitted about in a never ending dance between shops and homes and the beginnings of what I knew would turn into Cloudsdale above.

On the ground, the mix between unicorns and earth ponies seemed to be just about even, though the magic was easier to pick out. Crude carts moved on their own and brooms swept shops without anypony to attend to them.

I might have kept standing there until my bones turned to dust had some bulky pony come along and shove me out of the way as he carried a large box through the street.

I snapped out of my daze and continued on further into the city, tasked with finding Twilight. The problem was, of course, that it was a time in pony history that wearing clothes was more common—a trend that picked up and died out through the years—so finding one single mare in a red cape was not dissimilar to picking out a slightly darker grain of rice.

The streets further into the town quickly turned from hard-packed dirt to mud as they became busier and busier, and soon I was trudging hoof-deep in muck while ponies swarmed around me and virtually forced me off the road and to the side beneath the overhang of a small inn.

Instead of fading quickly as I thought it would, the crowd instead pulsed and grew larger as ponies continued to file past. They all chattered quickly to each other and had expression of anticipation and excitement on their faces.

Some even wore some very silly costumes with bells, pointy hats, and designs of stars all over. The first time I saw somepony wearing one, I just thought them silly, but more and more of the passersby wore the same outfit or some variant thereof.

There was a chubby mare in a maid’s outfit standing near me under the inn’s overhang, so I turned to her.

“What’s happening today?” I said.

She raised one eyebrow. “How can you not know? Have you not heard the announcements?”

“I’m, uh, new in town. Just got in today.”

“Then you’ll want to head to the square.” Her mood visibly brightened. “You’re in for a real treat today; Starswirl the Bearded is coming to town today!”

I had better credence of mind than to ask her who that was, though I remained puzzled. The name certainly carried a great deal of weight behind it, but I drew a blank for who she was referring to.

Then again, I hadn’t been the most attentive student in my Ancient Equestrian History class.

Strangely, it was that thought that almost sent me sprawling.

I wasn’t just thinking about history: I was living it! Every pony around me, every building that lined the street . . . it was all gone. Lost to the turn of time.

But somehow I had beaten it.

The sour feeling of leaving behind Charm and Journey’s End still stayed with me, but suddenly the sun above seemed a little brighter.

At any rate, I took the maid’s advice and carefully fell back in with the crowd that was presumably drawing toward the town’s square.

Mud splashed on my hooves and flanks once again, but the ponies around me didn’t seem to mind when the same happened to them. Differences in cleanliness, I supposed.

The path surrounded by wood-and-thatch buildings suddenly ended in a very large open area that was lined by more official-looking huts and towers. A large clocktower was the centerpiece of the surrounding buildings.

What drew most of the eyes, however, was the center of the square. The grass around it had long since been ground down by thousands of hooves, leaving it in the same condition as the street, but it still managed to look impressive.

A large wooden stage rose above the mud and muck, made of heavy timber beams and nails the size of a unicorn’s horn. Above the stage was a midnight-blue curtain that kept secret the sight that the large crowd near the front was there to see.

Whether I wanted to join said crowd was out of the question, as I was pushed and pressed into the fold as more and more ponies continued to arrive behind me.

Finding Twilight in such a position was all but impossible, so I settled for waiting until Starswirl made his debut. If she acted as she had before, Twilight would find a way to the front of the crowd.

A hush fell over the crowd as the curtains began to rustle. They pulled back with an audible whoosh to reveal a singular figure.

He was dressed much as some of the crowdgoers were—in a wizard’s hat and robe with star patterns—but wore it much more impressively. The beard on his chestnut face shone a brilliant ivory that spoke of vitality and strength.

His muscles tensed beneath the robe and his great stature allowed his piercing green eyes to sweep the crowd in a way that kept every single pony focusing their attention upon him.

He was hot, is what I was saying.

“Greetings, ponies of Equestria!” he called out in a booming voice.

The cheering that followed lasted for a full minute before he calmed it down with a raised hoof.

“I, Starswirl the Bearded, have come back from my campaigns in the Crystal Mountains to the North and the Dragon Badlands to the South to reassure the Empire’s loyal subjects that their greatest hero does, indeed, live!”

The crowd was putty in his hooves as they roared and screamed his name over and over.

“Star-swirl! Star-swirl! Star-swirl!”

After a little bit of drinking it in, Starswirl held up a hoof again for silence. A spell appeared in front of his mouth that amplified his voice across the entire square.

“Now, I know you are here to honor me, but what kind of visitor would I be if I did not regale you with stories of my travels?”

More cheering, and Starswirl let it continue this time.

His horn glowed a golden hue and the air around the stage sparked and burst to life in a splash of colors and magic that swept through the crowd.

A visage of mountains that reached up to pierce the sky and streams bluer than the clear sky appeared in the air above the stage.

The peaceful image was suddenly disrupted by a dragon of Starswirl’s magic that swept over the crowd in a simulation that felt so real the crowd ducked their heads and cried out.

“The Dragons dwelling in the Swayback Mountains were a particularly angry bunch!” Starswirl cried. He laughed. “But were no match for an experienced magician!”

His eyes glowed an even brighter shade of gold and an arc of light spat forth from his horn and struck the beast in its midsection.

The magical mirage disappeared in a spark of magic that delighted the younger foals within the audience. The ponies who had ducked stuck their heads back up and laughed nervously to each other as well.

The act continued as Starswirl used his magic pictures to show off the splendors of the Crystal Empire, the sandy shores that I knew Los Celestias would one day call home, and many other wonders that had been lost to even my own history.

I was so entranced by the act—as the crowd around me was—that I didn’t even notice the figure beside me until it spoke.

“It’s all wrong,” it said.

I sprang back in surprise, only to behold the sight of Twilight Sparkle once again by my side.

“Gah, y-you’re here!” I said.

Twilight let the hood of her cape down.

“You sound like you’re surprised. Did you expect to have traveled here by yourself?”

“Well, no . . .” I paused as reality hit me like a hammer to the chest and I sucked in the air of truth. “Hey, you are the one who brought me here in the first place, and against my will! You took me away from my world!”

The ponies around us had cleared a small circle of the two of us, and watched us almost as intently as Starswirl on stage.

“Calm down,” Twilight hissed. “You’re making a scene.”

“Who cares if I make a scene?” I stomped my hoof in the mud. “It’s not like it matters anyway; nothing I do here will even matter by the time I'm born!”

Twilight’s magic grabbed my by the neck and held me in front of her face, where her eyes bored into mine. The one on that tattoo’s side was glowing a bright red.

“The future is what you make it,” she growled. “What you do here can affect what happens farther down the line. There are things going on here that are bigger than your problem right now, so you’re going to need to act like a big girl and shut up. Do you hear me?”

I gulped and nodded.

Her expression softened a little. “I know this is hard for you, but you’re going to have to trust me. That spell that tied you to me is a strong one, so we’re going to be stuck together.”

“Can I ask one question?” I said softly. She nodded. “Will I be able to go back?”

Twilight didn’t reply, but the pained look on her face said more than enough. My heart sunk in my chest and my hooves fell to my side as I floated in the air. I guess I’d started to figure that already, but the reality of it was really starting to sink in.

Her tattoo separated from her body into the form of Discord.

“Well now I do believe you’ve gone and taken away her spirit,” he said. “And without a spell, too! Most impressive.”

“Shut it,” Twilight snapped.

Discord shrugged. “If it weren’t true, you wouldn’t be so defensive.”

“Look,” I said while making sure to keep steady and look Twilight in the eye, “I’m fine . . . I just need a few minutes to get used to this. Honest.”

Discord raised one very tiny tattoo eyebrow, but Twilight took my word and lowered me gently back to the ground.

The ponies around us had watched in interest when Twilight dragged me off my feet, but quickly decided that a heated talk wasn’t as interesting as more magic tricks onstage.

I dusted myself off as best I could, which meant that globs of mud still stuck to my coat, and I didn’t even want to look at my tail.

“Okay,” I said, “now that that’s over, would you mind telling me what’s so important at the moment, and why you’re acting so mad?”

Twilight bit her lip, but eventually conceded.

“It’s about Starswirl,” she said.

“What about him?”

“He shouldn’t be up there . . . what’s he’s doing, what the crowd is watching, is all wrong. Not only do they not understand him, but he doesn’t either.”

I scratched my head. “Well, I guess showboating isn’t very humble, but how does he not understand himself?”

“Because,” Twilight said, “that’s not the real Starswirl.”

Death of the Magician - II

I turned to the Starswirl on stage, back to Twilight, and then repeated the action. The allegedly-fake Starswirl was still in the middle of another—quite impressive—trick that involved showing off adventures he had taken in the underwater lost kingdoms of the Pegasi Cities.

“How exactly can you tell?” I said. “He looks like a pretty powerful magician to me.”

Twilight shook her head. “I know because I’ve met the real Starswirl personally.”

“That, and it’s easier than you think to trick the average pony,” Discord chimed in.

Twilight glared at him.


“So you’re saying that he’s not really doing magic?” I said.

“No, no, that’s magic alright,” Discord said. He picked at one of his tattoo-claws. “If a little unrefined, after all.”

Twilight nodded. “He’s using some strong magic, but nothing like the real Starswirl. Not even close.”

“Okay, so what are you going to do about it?” I kicked at the muddy ground under me. “I mean, is it really wrong that he’s cheering ponies up?”

Twilight sighed. “No, I suppose not, but we rarely land somewhere in time for no reason. The last time we fell into this time period, I fought a siege against a griffon aviary with the real Starswirl the Bearded, and that must have been years before this. If we’re here now, it means something’s going to happen.”

I laughed. “You make it sound like you can’t control your time travel.”

When Twilight remained as grim as ever, my laughter faded off. “You . . . you can control your time travel, can’t you?”

“Time for us is like . . . a street pony who steals your purse constantly and you have to chase after him and find out why he took it in the first place,” Discord explained. “Not that I would know anything about carrying a purse . . .”

“Great,” I said. “Really great. I’m stuck with the two embodiments of crazy on a time traveling adventure that none of us have control of.”

Discord clapped. “Thank you for summing up out loud what all of us already know. That was very helpful.”

“Will you two be quiet?” Twilight glared at the both of us, then turned her attention back to the stage.

“It looks like something’s changing in his act.”

She was right, of course. The magic pictures had disappeared from the air and Starswirl strutted about the stage to build up tension for his next announcement.

“Now I know my feats my look impressive to the average pony,” he boomed, “but presentation is no substitution for action! That is why I challenge any pony in the crowd who is brave enough, to come challenge I, Starswirl the Bearded, in a feat of magic! Allow me to prove to all who are here that I am, indeed, worthy of your praise!”

Oh no.

I spun to face Twilight.

“You’re not-” I began.

A twinge from Twilight’s horn and my mouth snapped shut within a small field of violet magic. There was a very particular sparkle in her eye when she smiled again.

“He said he wants a challenger,” she said. “I just intend to give him one.”

I shook my head and tried to move in front of her, though it was mostly a worthless endeavor. I also did my best to glare and her and look mighty fierce.

“It’s not like I’m going to hurt him.” Twilight smirked. “I just want to give a little . . . test. After all, this imposter could be a monster, or a changeling, or-”

“Me?” Discord said hopefully.

“Hush, you’re still a statue,” Twilight said.

She left me sputtering in the mud, still under her spell, while she roughly shoved past ponies on the way to the front of the crowd.

Up on the stage, Starswirl had made short work of a few brave-but-stupid ponies who seemed to think the best way to beat a magician was to run at him really fast. It ended about as well as one might expect from one of those geniuses.

Twilight’s spell on me finally broke and I thumped to the ground, gasping for air. I shook my head to clear the buzzing that had settled over my vision.

On a normal day, my struggling probably would have been noticed, but the spectacle that had started on stage stole the spotlight. Feeling eventually returned to my extremities as oxygen again flowed to my brain.

I had apparently not been in the frame of mind to actually use my nose to breathe, being the genius I am.

As the chatter of the crowd grew, I quickly set down on the path Twilight had cleared to the stage to catch what I was sure was going to be a disaster.

I mean, it probably wasn’t the best idea to try to imitate the idol of a mare who can chase off a dragon.

I made it to the front of the crowd and watched what was happening on stage. Which, at the moment wasn’t much.

Twilight stood across from Starswirl, as motionless as a statue and keeping her eyes locked on him. Starswirl, for his part, seemed to grow more nervous by the second.

“So a, uh, new challenger appears?” he said, but nowhere near as loudly as before.

“What is your name, fair challenger?”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed.

“My name is not important,” she growled. “The question should be: what is yours?”

The crowd chuckled at the—to them—absurd question, but “Starswirl” got the message just fine. He backed away a little and gulped.

“W- Well I assume you wish to fight?” Starswirl said.

Twilight smiled.


Quicker than I could track, a bolt of violet energy sailed from Twilight’s horn right at the imposter Starswirl. Despite his nature, he wasn’t less than impressive himself.

Starswirl the Faked dodged Twilight’s attack with pegasus-like agility, even as the board of the stage beside him buckled and fizzled under the magic bolt.

Twilight looked surprised that her initial attack had missed, allowing Starswirl enough time to gallop closer and unleash a blast of his own.

Whilst Twilight’s magic bolts were focused and lethal in their design, Starswirl’s had a more showboating quality to them, flashing colors and in the shape of a star as they lanced toward Twilight.

Or, rather, where Twilight had been.

The stage burst and sent wood flying in all direction as a technicolor explosion consumed Twilight’s former position.

The violet unicorn, however, was decidedly not in that location, but rather several feet straight up. Her jump took her over the affected area, over Starswirl’s head, and right behind him until they were but a foot from each other.

Twilight’s face broke out in a smile and a beam of light shot forth from her horn, right at Starswirl’s neck. The crowd below her cringed and I watched with care for what seemed to be the final blow.

Then, the beam missed. Faster than I had seen even Twilight move, Starswirl had ducked and gotten under his opponent.

This imposter was good.

Sensing that formal combat was over, Starswirl chose to use more practical force against Twilight, and launched a hard kick at Twilight that connected beneath the unicorn’s jaw with a sickening crunch.

Twilight was sent sprawling across the stage while Starswirl panted in either rage or terror. Maybe both.

“So that’s how you want to play?” Twilight shouted, rubbing the side of her mouth.

“I do not play,” Starswirl shot back.

In a different situation, bold words like his may have sent his opponent off balance, giving him an edge. Perhaps they had, many times before. But Twilight was no ordinary opponent.

Instead, Twilight just screamed in frustration and stomped her hoof on the stage. Her eyes began to glow a flashing combination of red and purple as the magic building around her horn glowed a glaring shade of white.

The normal field tripled in size, and crackled and sparked all around her. The fake Starswirl watched her in silence, even as he began to backpedal across the stage.

Twilight, however, never gave him the chance. Her pent up magic suddenly exploded forth in a tidal wave of energy that engulfed the magician in a flash and mighty boom that sent ponies around the stage sprawling.

Maybe it was my link with her, but the energy seemed to rush by me like I was a boulder in a river, leaving me the only pony standing near the stage. Which meant I was also the first pony to witness the aftermath.

The fake Starswirl lay on the stage, his mane and tail burnt at the edges to compound the numerous abrasions and burns on his body. He weakly made it to his hooves, which was a feat in itself.

His costume was gone, and defeat filled his eyes as he looked out on the horrified crowd. His mouth opened like he was going to speak, but then shut once again.

Without a word, he dragged himself off the stage and through the back curtain, away from the stares of the other ponies.

Twilight watched the whole thing, then took her opponent’s former space at the forefront of the stage.

“I win,” she said dryly.

Her voice was so quiet that I imagined only I could hear it, but the intent was obvious to the rest of the gathered ponies. Their expressions quickly turned hostile and they shouted at her to come down.

What was most surprising of all, though, was the last figure to land on the stage with a thump.

Her mane of many hues fluttered across her ivory coat and partially obscured by a bright sun cutie mark on her flank. The Empress of the Harmonious Empire, Holy Sovereign of a Thousand Systems!

The eyes that watched a billion ponies on countless planets and moons from her Golden Throne looked down at Twilight not in anger, but in disappointment. Which, in that situation, was far worse.

As I immediately bowed my head and fell to my knees, Twilight stared back defiantly.

“Princess Celestia,” she said simply.

“Twilight Sparkle,” the Empress reverently spoke, “we need to have a word.”

* * *

The light faded from my eyes and I found myself inside a high-walled chamber of stone and stained glass windows that let colored light flood in from all sides. In the middle of the room was a massive fixture adorned with six spheres and at the head of the chamber lay a singular golden throne upon a red carpet that draped over the steps in front.

The throne room.

I immediately threw myself to the ground and prostrated myself in front of the throne. To worship the Empress on a far-flung colony was one—expected—thing, but to be in the chamber itself. And not even the chamber high in the Celestial Spire in Canterlot . . . but in old throne room in the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters!

Deep down I still ached for Charm and Journey’s End, but those feelings were nothing in comparison to meeting the sovereign herself.

“Your friend seems to be shaking,” the Empress said. “Is that normal?”

“O- Of course it is, Empress!” I answered quickly.

I wanted to hit myself as soon as the words left my mouth, though. What kind of answer was that?

The Empress raised one royal eyebrow. “Empress?”

“She’s not from around here,” Twilight explained.

“I would say so.”

The Empress smiled—if I wasn’t mistaken—mischievously. “Is this perhaps another tiding you bring me from the future?”

Twilight even smiled a little bit herself. “Spoilers.”

She cocked her head. “Wait . . . have you dropped the royal ‘we’?”

“Yes, I have,” the Empress said. “Recent . . . events . . . have necessitated a more singular approach to my rule.”

She looked forlornly at her throne, and the spot beside it that still held the remains of a second throne that had once sat there.

“She’s gone?” Twilight said.

The Empress nodded. “Just months ago.”

Twilight rubbed her head. “That must be why I can still feel the Elements in this room . . . they haven’t gone completely inactive since their last use.”


The Empress looked skyward, then back to Twilight. “But that is not why I have called you here.”

“Is this about the fake Starswirl?”

The Empress nodded. “Yes, it is. To use such brute force against a pony who had done no wrong to you . . . I am very disappointed in you, Twilight.”

“But he was an imposter!” Twilight protested. “Besides, I didn’t even use any high-power spells on him at all; I wasn’t going to hurt anything more than his pride.”

The Empress’ divine eyes narrowed at her student’s statement.

“The question is not whether you brought him harm, but why you took it upon yourself to bring your idea of justice into my realm.”

Her words hung in the air as Twilight looked up at her. For once, she actually seemed hurt, with her lip quivering ever so slightly and limbs shaking under the pressure she held on herself. To see her so easily cowed was a sight all in itself.

“I’m sorry, Princess,” she admitted at last, “but how does letting an imposter of the greatest magician in all of ponydom go around claiming his titles help your realm?”

The Empress thought for a moment, then wisely decided, “I could just as easily tell you, but perhaps this is a lesson that you should learn for yourself. You once told me that I will be your teacher, correct? If you still need instruction after all this time, then so be it.”

“As you wish, Princess.” Twilight sighed.

“Though, if I were you, I would start at the Green Dragon Inn,” the Empress said with a small smile. “A student needs somewhere to start, after all.”

“Yes, Princess.”

“Good to hear. And Twilight? Take care of this one who is with you . . . she is still shaking like a leaf!”

I quivered a little at the mention of my shaking which was, indeed, true. I kept my head bowed to the ground, even while the two of them shared a laugh.

“Her name’s Tinker,” Twilight said.

“And will I see her in the future?”

Twilight smiled. “Maybe.”

* * *

The Empress allowed us the use of her teleportation to reach the city much quicker than we could have done by walking.

With the veil of their hero torn apart, the crowd of ponies in the square had long since dispersed and gone back to their homes and shops as the sun continued its laborious journey to the west.

When we passed them, the downtrodden ponies had a quiet sort of despair to their actions: brooms swept slower, newscolts shouted softer, and carts on the once muddy street—now caked to a solid state in the hot sun—moved slower.

The only action they seemed to have was to glare at Twilight everywhere we went, though no course of action or spoken word was raised against her. But perhaps that was their punishment; complete ignorance of our presence.

If she minded, Twilight didn’t show it.

“You know the Empress!” I said to fill the silence.

“Of course I do,” Twilight said. “I was once her student, after all.”

The impact of that particular revelation kept me still in the street for a few moments, and I had to gallop to catch up Twilight before she left me behind.

“Well . . . wasn’t your name deleted from history or something?” I said. “If so, how come she knows it?”

“Only five, well, counting you, six, beings throughout history know my name, for one reason or another. Princess Celestia is one of those, as well as Silverback, Lord Of All Dragons. Few are so privileged . . . even Princess Luna does not know it, and her sister keeps my identity guarded closely.”

I thought for a moment. “So if the Empress already knows who you are now . . . then she’ll know who you are when you come around naturally, right?”

Twilight stopped for a second. The sunlight lanced through her mane as she looked up at the sun with a reverence that I had not seen even in the highest of priests.

“Yes . . . she will. She will watch as her prized student grows into the same mare that has visited her many times before, and she will be unable to stop it. Even when she knows that I become . . . this . . . she will not be able to speak a word of it to me.”

“That sounds terrible.”

“We all have our own troubles to bear.”

Twilight looked down at her tattooed side, and poked it with one hoof. “Speaking of which, mine seems to be unusually quiet.”

Discord the tattoo glowed red and slunk up from Twilight’s side, stretching in mock exhaustion.

“Can you really blame me?” he said with a hint of irritation in his voice. “You know how Celly feels about me. First a lover’s spat, then the Elements of Harmony got involved, and she sealed me in stone!”

He huffed.

“I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut around her. It was only our last visit that she stopped trying to purge me from you because it would open a rift in reality.”

“Rift in reality?” I said.

“Think of it like the mysterious area all of your socks disappear to in the washing machine, but big enough for an entire pony to fit in to, but not quite as malevolent,” Discord explained.

Twilight waved at us to be silent.

“Hush you two, we’re here.”

The Green Dragon Inn was, unsurprisingly, a two-storied wooden building with a thatched roof that had a sign hanging from a post with a woodcut of a dragon painted green on it.

At least they were straightforward, if nothing else.

Twilight took a deep breath before pushing the door open and stepping in. After a moment, I followed her.

Inside, the inn was much the same as I had always pictured them, or how they had been portrayed on holovids. The usual bar with the world-weary barkeep behind it with his array of drinks in many colorful bottles.

The brightly-painted walls stretched up high to the ceiling above the loose spread of circular tables to give the illusion of the room being much larger than it actually was. An ivory piano sat on a small stage in one corner, but remained unoccupied in the aftermath of recent events.

From the looks on the ponies lounging at their tables with drinks in hoof, they had come to the inn to forget themselves and their adoration for a hero for a little while. To see his conqueror walk in to the same room must have been quite a shock.

“Can I help you?” the barkeep said, in a way that suspiciously sounded like he actually didn’t want to help us at all!

Twilight kept her voice low and monotone.

“I’m looking for Starswirl.”

A collective gasp rose and lingered through the room.

“Haven’t you done enough to him already?” one pony cried.

“Leave the poor stallion alone!” said another.

The barkeep glared at Twilight icily.

“He’s ain’t here,” he said.

“I have it on the best authority he is,” Twilight said.

“Oh yeah? Who?”

“The Princess.”

The barkeep snickered. “Right, and I have a secret mailing service to Night Mare Moon.”

When Twilight didn’t leave, the crowd began to budge in toward us, growing more bold and angry by the second. Maybe it was the alcohol in their systems or the anger of having their hero taken from them, but they were mad.

Discord sighed, though did not remove himself from Twilight as he normally did.

“Let me handle this,” he said.

Suddenly, Twilight’s back arched and her eyes flashed and pulsed a deep red color. An out of character smirk appeared on her face.

“Now where were we . . .?” she said to herself, though it was evident that it was not her own voice coming from her mouth, but Discord’s.

Twilight/Discord turned back to the barkeep with a wicked grin that twisted into an expression of anger.

Where is he?!” he/she bellowed. “Where. Is. Starswirl?”

The terrified barkeep cowered behind his bar while the crowd backed up a few paces. Even then, though, he tried to keep up a brave front.

“I- I don’t know,” he stammered.

He was immediately pulled across his own bar by a magic field around his neck until his face was almost touching Twilight/Discord’s.

Listen to me,” he/she said. “I do not have much time here, so I will make this request simple. You will tell me where in this claptrap Starswirl the Bearded is, or I will tear out your soul and wear your skin as a suit while I go door to door asking where the magician is until your lifeless husk begins to rot. Understand?”

The shaking barkeep and pointed to a room a doorway at the top of some stairs.

“He- He’s up there,” he said. “Just, please . . . don’t hurt him.”


Twilight/Discord strode through the room toward the stairs, and the crowd parted as quick as they could to let him/her pass. I followed with my head down, trying not to catch the eyes of any ponies in the frightened crowd.

Once we had made our way upstairs and away from anypony’s prying ears, Twilight/Discord slumped against a wall and moaned. A faint red glow enveloped him/her, then disappeared. When he/she opened her eyes, they were back to the usual violet, with one only slightly red.

Twilight was back.

“What have I told you about doing that?” she snapped to Discord.

The little anthropomorphized tattoo shrugged.

“You were taking too long, and it seemed like we needed to find this imposter pretty quickly.”

He looked at me.

“And you can tell Tinker that my threats were, as usual, empty. She’s practically ready to collapse in fright.”

“I would tell her that, but I’m never quite so sure myself.”

“Fine, do as you want.”

Discord collapsed back against Twilight. She walked up next to me.

“Are you alright?” she said.

I slowly nodded. “I’m . . . I’m fine. Let’s just find the fake Starswirl, okay?”

“It doesn’t happen very often, you know.”

With her last words of reassurance, Twilight walked down the hall, checking the doors one by one. There were only three, so it wasn’t a very difficult endeavor.

When the last door opened with a soft creak, Twilight went inside.

There was a small bed on a wooden frame and a chest of drawers beside it. A washbasin lay under the bed and a small table was pushed up against the opposite wall. In all, it was a simple room meant for simple ponies.

But the pony that lay on the downy mattress was not a simple pony at all. The lumpy form of the imposter Starswirl the Bearded remained still as Twilight approached the bed.

“Starswirl . . .” she began.

The defeated magician started, and rolled over with exaggerated slowness until he was facing us. He squinted up at Twilight.

“It’s you,” he said glumly. “What do you want? To defeat me again?”

“No, I’m here to help,” Twilight insisted.

“Oh yeah, and how do you plan to do that?”

Twilight bit her lip, then her eyes lit up and she smiled a little bit.

“Starswirl, we’re going to make you a hero again.”

Death of the Magician - III

“The first thing you should know is that my name’s not actually Starswirl,” the imposter said. “It’s Magik Tome. Though, I think you had the first part figured out already.”

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up on the floor. Magik grabbed the washbasin from under the bed and splashed some water on his face.

His mane dripping, he looked at us with eyes that were now wide open and alert.

“So how exactly do you two plan to make me a hero again?”

Twilight stepped forward. “We’re going to fight.”

“Haven’t you had enough already?” Magik took a step back. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but you’ve already done enough with your fighting, don’t you think?”

“Yes, but this time it will be different,” Twilight said.

“How so?”

“This time, I will lose and you’ll be the big hero.”

Magik leaned against the bed and kept a skeptical look on his face. The same kind of look I had seen on Charm a thousand times: he wanted to know what was in it for us.

“Okay,” he said, “let’s say this isn’t some sort of trap and you’re actually being nice to me: exactly why do you want me to be a hero again?”

Twilight paused and held a hoof to her chin. Finally, she answered, “Because Princess Celestia believes it’s the best thing for Equestria, and I agree with her. The ponies around here need you to be their champion, but you can’t until you defeat me in front of them.”

“But do you believe that?” Magik smirked. “Judging from the scars, the tattered cape, and the way you used your magic, you don’t seem like a mare that’s still young enough to be taking schoolyard lessons from anypony, even if that specific pony is the Princess.”

“I am simply inclined to agree with Princess Celestia,” Twilight said with a gleam in her eye. “It just so happens that even in my current state, she still has more experience and wisdom than I.”

“Well isn’t that perfect.”

Magik lay back on the bed, his eyes locked onto the ceiling and forehooves splayed across his chest. His eyes seemed to glaze over and he remained motionless for some time.

“You know, I think it was a good thing that you defeated me,” he said finally.

Twilight cocked her head. “And why is that?”

“I’d gotten too . . . reckless. I forgot what my shows were supposed to be about, and had made myself into my own hero. In this case, I should really be thanking you; you are the one who reminded me that I’m not actually Starswirl the Bearded.”

Twilight bit her lip and looked at me. I shrugged to inform her that I didn’t know how she was supposed to respond, so she walked a little closer to the bed to look down on Magik.

“Well, uh, how did a pony like you start imitating Starswirl the Bearded in the first place?” she said.

He smiled a little. “That’s an easy one.”

Magik waved his hoof in the air and his horn began to glow, painting a picture with his magic of a verdant valley with lush, green trees and a sparkling blue lake in the center of it. There was a castle that sat on the marshy land next to the lake, and walls even went down into the water.

“I was part of Starswirl’s team of unicorn magicians. We were given to him by the Princesses to help stop a conflict in the old pony lands between the earth ponies and the unicorns.”

There was a large army that surrounded the castle’s high walls and laid siege to the main gate. In the foreground, a contingent of gold-armored guards marched behind Starswirl’s group to the castle.

“We hoped to solve the situation without violence, but, well . . .” The image in the air faded away like the twinkling of stardust. “When all was said and done, we had used some powerful magic, and a lot of ponies lay dead or dying. They cried out at night . . . I think that’s what got Starswirl. He disappeared a few nights after the siege ended, and we didn’t hear from him after that.”

“So then how did you start pretending you were him?” Twilight said.

Magik held up a hoof. “I was getting to that. Anyway, that was when The Troubles began between the two sisters and ponies started learning about what we had done. So when they asked about it, I’d just tell them about Starswirl . . . about the good things he’d done.

“It started with me just telling his stories, but then ponies unfamiliar started thinking I was the hero in all my tales. Then I stopped correcting them . . . and it just kind did a downward spiral into what it is now: a sham.”

“So now you’re just going to lie there until you rot?” Twilight said.

“That was the plan, unless you can give me a better reason than doing what your Princess tells you to do.”

Twilight stood aways a bit while Magik continued to lay on the bed, his eyes slowly starting to drift closed. If he wanted us to stay, he was doing a poor job of showing it.

Twilight for her part bit her lip and didn’t reply to him. I got the sickening feeling that, in her devotion to the actual Starswirl, she didn’t really have a good reason for him to be impersonated.

Luckily for Magik, I did.

I walked over to the bed and stuck my head over it so that Magik was looking up directly into my eyes.

“Hi,” I said quickly. “My name is Tinker and you two seemed to forget I’m in the room too.”

“Uh, well, sorry-”

“No, no, that’s alright.” I stuck my face even closer to his. “Because, you see, I have the solution to your problem. You want motivation? I”ll give you one.”

I grinned.

“You see this mare, the one that beat you? She dragged me across time and space from home against my will! And you know what? She’s so powerful that there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Not a thing!” I tapped him in the chest. “But that’s not true for you. You are being given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to really rough up this mare.”

Magik shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I know what you’re trying to do, and it isn’t working. I would not feel right sullying Starswirl’s good name any more than I already have.”

“Oh, but you see, this isn’t about you.” I leered down at him, and watched as he began to squirm a little. “This is all about me. Because you are going to beat the living hell out of this mare because I want to see somepony do it. And if you don’t, I’ll take every last bit of what I want to see done to her and use that on you. Get me?”

Our noses were almost touching now and his eyes were locked on to mine in a terrified gaze. He gave one curt nod of his head before I moved off him and stood by Twilight once again.

“Good,” I said. “Put the costume on and meet us downstairs. We’ll be waiting.”

Twilight and I left the still-blubbering Magik alone in his room and gathered in the hall outside once again. Twilight glowered at me.

“Did you mean all that you said in there?” she said.

I shrugged. “I was about as serious as Discord was earlier.”

Twilight rolled her eyes while Discord popped up from her side and clapped his tiny paw and talon together. “Oh bravo, I really like this one! Oh please can we keep her, mommy?”

I snickered a little while Twilight only huffed and led me downstairs to wait for Magik to come out. The ponies who still remained on the ground floor cast us sour looks when we dared to sit at a table, and the bar refused to serve us any food. Twilight didn’t seem bothered by that fact, but my stomach grumbled mightily.

The whispers in the room directed toward us stopped abruptly as everypony’s attention was pulled to a figure at the top of the stairs.

Magik Tome was dressed in full Starswirl the Bearded regalia. Standing at his full height with his back erect, he again took on the impressive stance that had swooned so many ponies before. In just a few minutes, he had changed from a defeated husk to a confident stallion.

Or, on the outside anyway. The way he looked at Twilight and I and shook ever so slightly, it was obvious that he was still nervous. Still, he did his best to hide it as he strode down the stairs, taking them two at a time.

A few ponies approached him, but were stopped with an outstretched hoof. He only stopped briefly by our table and gave Twilight a knowing look before heading outside. A moment later, Twilight followed him, leaving me alone in the bar.

“What was that about?” was the general question.

All eyes turned to me.

“They had a, uh, discussion,” I stammered. “Starswirl the Bearded has challenged his new nemesis to a rematch for his honor in just a short while. You should go see!” I added.

The burly stallions nodded to each other and began to smile at the suggestion. There was a hunger in their eyes: a hunger for their hero to be redeemed, and the new upstart put in her place.

Before any of them could make the obvious link between me and said upstart, I scurried out of the inn and back into the city.

* * *

Twilight and Magik had already left a trail of confused ponies in their wake, and as I walked along I took the time to tell each of them about the upcoming rematch between the two.

Some of the ponies were indifferent to the idea, but many had the same smiles of vengeance that those back at the inn had displayed. And the more ponies I told, the more followed me toward the town’s square.

“Starswirl’s back!” some cried.

“He’s going to give that mare what she deserves!” said some more.

Somepony had managed to get word to the pegasi, and they began to swoop down toward us and whoop and holler just as loud as anypony else.

By the time I had reached the now-empty square, a variable mob of ponies was gathered behind me and followed me closely out into the square and back to the wooden stage.

The curtain was re-erected and the stage set for the performance. The only thing missing were the actors. Upon that sight, the crowd grew visibly anxious.

Ignoring the thumping in my heart, I scrambled on stage and looked out at the sea of ponies. Seeing some action onstage, the chattering stopped for the most part.

“Ponies!” I said. “The rematch will begin in just a few minutes: please be patient!”

With my words of reassurance spoken, I scrambled past the curtain and backstage to find out just what was going on.

Between rope pulleys and barrels was Twilight, standing next to Magik who had his rump planted on top of a wooden crate and his head and his hooves.

“What’s going on?” I said. “You two are supposed to be out there!”

Twilight sighed. “This one got cold hooves right after we got here.”

“Is that true?” I walked up next to Magik. “Do I need you to remind you of our agreement?”

“No, no you don’t.”

He took the cape patterned after the constellations in the night sky in his hooves and bunched it up as he clutched it to his chest. Magik looked down at it, then up to me without a word.

I got the message.

“You really don’t feel right doing this, do you?” I said.

He nodded.

“Starswirl was . . . he was just such a hero to me. I feel like I’ll be betraying him if I go out there.”

I looked at Twilight, but she remained resolutely silent. Great, I was going to have to do something on my own.

“You know, you’re not the only one who looked up to Starswirl,” I said.

Magik sighed. “Yes, I know, but-”

“But nothing,” I said. “There is a crowd of ponies out there who came here today to watch their greatest hero reclaim his greatness. Sure, the hero they want isn’t the real one, but does that really matter? Can’t the legend of Starswirl the Bearded be greater than a single pony? Can’t it just be an idea of a hero?”

“Mother of Luna, I think Tinker said something smart,” Discord gasped. Twilight shushed him.

Magik looked up at me. “So why does it matter if I go out on stage?”

“It doesn’t.” I pointed to his cape and hat with the bells. “But right now you are the pony wearing the silly hat, and it’s time you started acting like it.”

Magik was silent for a moment, and I was afraid that I had overstepped my boundaries. But, at last, he stood up and rearranged his cape.

“Alright,” he said, “I’ll do it. It’s . . . it’s what Starswirl would have wanted.”

Twilight nodded her approval. “When we’re out there, just follow my lead and you won’t get hurt. My blasts are going to have to be real to make this authentic, so pay attention. Tinker, go tell them we’re ready.”

“Right,” I said.

I scrambled out from behind the curtain and back onto the stage to soothe the restless crowd. I had expected the group to had shrunk, but there looked to be more ponies in the square than ever, and they all watched me closely. I gulped.

“Mares and gentlecolts!” I said as loudly as I could, “I present to you the rematch of Starswirl the Bearded and . . . a Madmare with a tattoo!”

The crowd cheered and roared as I hopped off the stage and the curtain parted to reveal the two combatants. Magik was quick to fall back into his routine and waved to the crowd while giving them a cheeky smile.

“Are you ready to relinquish your title?” he boomed.

Twilight growled, though I knew not whether it was real or fake. “No words . . . let’s just do this.”

“As you wish.”

His statement was still hanging in the air when a golden bolt of magic cut through it on its way for Twilight. She made sure to dodge, but the bolt still grazed past her close enough that a few ponies held their breath for the impact.

Magik had a ghost of a smile as he watched Twilight send a beam his way in return that sparked and flashed a deep violet as it cut across the stage towards her combatant.

I watched as, subtly, Magik watched Twilight’s eyes and was able to step out of the way with plenty of time with a show of bravado. Many of the crowd remained watching, but silent.

The fight continued on much the same, with both Twilight and Magik exchanging blows at an even pace, but neither placing an attack that landed on the other. Whenever it looked like Twilight would finally take a blow and end it, she would dodge out of the way.

It made for a good watch for a little while, but the crowd started to grow bored as their hero did not seem able to regain his title.

Magik noticed, too. After swinging a lance of magic to swing around Twilight’s left—which missed, of course—he chanced a look out into the crowd, and was obviously disappointed by what he saw.

Ponies looked up at him, not with defeat, but with boredom in their eyes. Their hero was failing.

Magik was so entrance, so shocked by what he saw, that he missed the signal for Twilight’s next attack, a rumbling wave of magic that crashed across the surface of the stage and struck him across his midsection.

He was sent tumbling across the stage and nearly fell of the far side. Twilight watched in shock at the results of her spell while the crowd gasped.

For them, they’d just seen their hero defeated again by the same opponent. Some of the ponies even started to walk away.

But when I saw Magik weakly begin to get to his feet, I knew I had to do something. Today was turning out to be a proactive day for me, apparently.

“Don’t despair!” I said. “Starswirl the Bearded is not down yet, but he needs us to help! If he sees that he’s still a hero to all of us, then he can conquer anything!”

I felt like one of those foal’s show hosts trying to get a bunch of little colts and filly to mindlessly chant whatever word of the day was on the vidscreen. But, well, there was a lot to say for crowd mentality.

My little speech—if it could even be called that—got a few ponies near me to start chanting Starswirl’s name just like before, and the ponies near them took up the action as well. Before long, Starswirl’s name filled the air in a roaring blast coming from the crowd and washing across the stage.

And it had a real, tangible effect on Magik, too. A great big grin broke out across his face as he watched the crowd urge him on, then turned to face Twilight.

When she let her next attack fly, he didn’t even both to wait for a signal of where to dodge it. Instead, Magik bolted across the stage, rolled underneath the wave of malevolent magic, and found himself face to face with Twilight.

Taking no time, a blast of golden sparks flushed out from his horn and sent Twilight sprawling on the far side of the stage, curls of smoke rising from her mane.

The crowd screamed in ecstasy at “Starswirl’s” sudden and bold move, and at his victory over the evil and cruel Madmare with a tattoo. And, again, as much as the crowd loved him, Magik loved them back and bathed in their adulations.

He looked right at me one last time and mouthed, “Thank you,” before being whisked away on the shoulders of ponies happy to have their heroes back.

* * *

In the uproar following Magik’s victory, Twilight had slunk backstage and I had followed. She grunted about her mane’s new condition and Magik’s cheap shot. I did my best not to smile a little.

Twilight glowered at me. “What are you so happy about?”

“You did a good thing out there,” I said. “You gave these ponies their hero back.”

“But is that really such a good thing? I mean, you’re the one with the whole ‘a hero is bigger than one pony thing’, not me.”

“Oh, I’d like to think it’s quite a fine idea,” a voice said. “As long as the message remains the same, the bearer doesn’t really matter, don’t you think?”

Twilight and I whirled around to see a familiar gardener with his blue face and pink beard stuck beneath a calm smile. I was happy to see a familiar face, but Twilight’s reaction was quite a bit . . . more.

With as much reverance as I had shown to the Empress—being the pious pony I am—Twilight bowed her head to the gardener.

“Starswirl, it is an honor to see you again,” she said.

I gaped at both them. “Starswirl the Bearded is a gardener?”

“What are you talking about?” Twilight said.

Starswirl himself laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about her,” he said, “Tinker and I met outside the city earlier today. She even helped me plant a few flowers she had stepped on.”

Now that I knew who he was, I felt a burning embarassent at so carelessly messing up the great Starswirl the Bearded’s flower bed.

“So, um, what brings you here?”

“I heard an old friend from my younger days was in town, and I wanted to see her before she disappeared again.” He smiled. “Isn’t that right, Twilight?”

Twilight, so help me, smiled like a little foal. “It is wonderful to see you again, Starswirl,” she said, “though I do think we are due to leave.”

From Twilight’s side came Discord’s voice, “Right-O; not even enough time for a quickie.”

Starswirl turned to me. “But, visiting old friends was not the only reason I came here.”

“And, uh, what other reason could there be?” I asked nervously.

Starswirl reached down into his beard and produced a small band made of what looked to be a combination of rubber and stone, colored aqua blue.

“I also came to give you this,” he said.

“What is it?”

“This is a little something I whipped up after you landed. It’s got a spell in it that should lock you a little closer to Twilight so you don’t have a repeat of our flower incident . . . unless you two have it together.” He passed it to me. “Also doubles as a nifty hair-band.”

I hesitantly took the band in one hoof and pulled my curly mane back in the other, and quickly gave myself a rough ponytail with the band as the center. My hair felt . . . bouncy. An improvement, in my opinion.

“Oh, I get it!” Discord said. “They’re called ponytails because they look just like a pony’s tail. I feel so dumb now.”

As if on a signal, Twilight and I began to glow white and I knew our time to leave was near. Starswirl, it seemed, did too.

He waved to us and grinned. “Good luck!”

And with that we were gone, lost in an entire universe of white.

And The Stars Did Wander Darkling - I

The light faded only to be replaced by a splitting pain in my new ponytail—the one I wasn’t born with, anyway—that felt like somepony was physically pulling my hair out. I groaned and grabbed at the new hairband, only to receive a slight shock for my trouble.

My head eventually cleared enough for me to open my eyes and get a good luck at the area around me. Unfortunately, said area was pitch dark, so it was no different than before.

I was afraid that I had gotten separated from Twilight again, but a purple glow of magic lit up the room we were in and revealed Twilight standing in her cape just a few feet from me. She didn’t look very amused.

“Where are we?” I said.

“How would I know? All I can see is a dark room,” she said. “Just give me a second.”

Her horn glowed brighter until a white-purple light covered the entire room like it was day. Dark gray metal that started below my hooves and stretched up to form a cavernous, spherical room. Besides that, there was only a small platform against the far wall and what looked like a control panel.

So we were quite a bit past Luna’s return, at least. How far, I couldn’t tell. I wish I’d taken that machine class they had offered at the yard, I might have known how to work the panel.

“Hmm, quite the boring place we’ve landed,” Discord said. “Where are we, a library?”

“Shut up,” Twilight hissed, walking up to the platform and its panel.

She looked down at the control panel, raised a hoof, and then lowered it. She squinted her eyes at it for a second before lighting her horn and fiddling directly with the podium through magic.

A few seconds of this, and suddenly a grinding sound filled the air. I looked all around me to find the source, until I looked down and found myself standing on nothing.

I screeched like I was a little foal and tried desperately to run, only to find my hooves were still on something as solid as steel, but thoroughly transparent. Now that I noticed it, too, below me was a vast sea of stars that flowed out in every direction.

Space! I was in space! My real dream had at last come true. My heart wouldn’t stop skipping as I watched the silent race of balls of nuclear fusion as they soared across the cosmos. It was a quiet miracle.

“It’s called transparent aluminum,” Twilight said. “It’s made for moments like these.”

She looked down at the panel again.

“And you might want to keep watching for the next, oh, twenty seconds.”

I backed up a bit to give myself a better view of whatever was coming. I noticed for the first time that the stars below were actually passing by: we were moving.

“I remember your first time in space,” Discord said to Twilight. “A combination of screaming and crying, wasn’t it?”

“I wasn’t very old then,” Twilight shot back.

“And, compared to me, you still aren’t.”

They continued to talk, but I paid them no heed as my prize came into view. Far below us, in all its glory, was a sun that glowed in the furious heat of a billion nuclear explosions all going off at once. It wasn’t excessively large: just about the size of the one back home. But it was underneath me!

The transparent aluminum adjusted itself to allow for the glare and let me watch it without my eyeballs boiling. It was by far the most beautiful thing I had ever seen . . . to feel as an ant does to a giant and completely at the mercy of the ship around me to keep me safe.

“So we’re in space . . . orbiting a sun,” I said, more for my benefit than anything else.

“That seems to be the case,” Twilight said.

“But what ship is this?”

Twilight used her magic to press a few buttons on the panel. “The only thing I can get off of this is a name: Venture. Anything else, we’ll have to get from the crew, wherever they are.”

On cue, doors hidden in the grooves of the wall slid open on tracks to reveal a crowd of ponies on the other side. They all wore dark combat suits with helmets and visors and such. The pattern was unlike any I had seen before: interlocking hexagonal plates that fit together to form the armor. We may have gone a little farther into the future than I thought.

Twilight saw them at about the same time I did, and jumped down to stand beside me. Her horn glowed.

“We come in peace,” she said. “We are lost travelers and only wish to speak to a member of the crew.”

It was then that I noticed that each pony had a amorphous blob of a gun built into their suits that glowed a faint green. And they were all pointing them at us.

“I said,” Twilight began, more agitated than before, “we only wish to speak to a crewmember. Guns aren’t necessary.”

When they still did not lower the weapons, Twilight’s eyes pulsed a bit and her horn glowed brightly and suddenly all of the guns wrenched themselves from their mounts on the suits and flew through the air to orbit around Twilight’s head.

In short order, the guns rotated slowly in the air until all ten were pointed at their former owners.

“Talk. Now.”

The visor on a pony near the front of the group turned from opaque to transparent to reveal the muzzle of a bright green mare. Her eyes seemed to be permanently narrowed and a long scar ran from her mouth back up into the helmet.

“If you want to talk, any official speech must be made with the Captain,” she said tersely.

Twilight wagged the guns at her. “Alright, take us to him.”

“Unauthorized passengers are barred from speaking to the Captain-”

The guns began to glow a bright green and Twilight brought them better to bear, pointing the weapons at each of them individually.

“I didn’t stutter.”

The green mare gulped and reluctantly began to lead her troop farther into the ship, allowing us to follow at a safe distance. Discord slithered out a little.

“You go, girl!” he said.

“Try to keep quiet,” Twilight hissed. “We don’t need them freaking out on us.”

“Because two ponies suddenly appearing on their ship out in deep space isn’t weird enough already.”

I ignored them, for the most part. Instead, I was far more interested in the interior of the ship I found myself in.

We followed them down a narrow corridor that sloped above us to meet the lights that glowed a faint blue. Around us, airy rooms branched off on all sides. With no doors, I was able to see that most of them were made for habitation, but looked to have not been used in years, if at all. Dust had begun to settle in, and some of the furniture looked visibly decayed. Besides bunk rooms, there were untouched kitchens and immaculate lounge rooms with models of vidscreens that I had never seen before.

“Why are so many of the rooms empty?” I asked.

At first, I did not think my question would get an answer, but the bright green mare went ahead and did me the favor.

“We launched with only a quarter of our crew,” she explained. “Most of it was due to troubles back home; this mission never required a full force, anyway.”

We arrived at the end of the corridor and an elevator whose doors creaked open to reveal a large freight tram. Inside, there was plenty of room for us to all fit in with Twilight keeping her distance and the guns firmly out of reach.

“To the Captain,” she ordered.

One of the armored ponies mashed a button and the elevator lurched upward with a sickening grind of gears. My stomach flip flopped as we shot up, only to come to a lurching stop a few moments later.

We all filed out and soon came to another door, this one much larger and heavier than the rest. One of the guard ponies—with a reluctant nod from their bright green commander—punched in a code and the blast doors lumbered open to reveal a mighty chamber.

It was easily the size of a transport ship and lined with transparent aluminum windows that gave the room the feeling of a mighty cathedral dedicated to the Empress with the light that streamed in through the windows from the breathtaking view outside.

Workstations with all numbers of screens and dials were cut down into the deck itself and lined the room in a horseshoe shape, and in the middle of that horseshoe was a massive table and an even larger monolith of unknown origin, shaped like some sort of obelisk.

The workstations were empty, but the smooth, holographic top of the table was bright and busy as little figures and readouts danced across its polished surface around a large representation of what I presumed to be the ship in miniature orbited around a to-scale model of the star outside.

The ship itself resembled a long, thick spoon covered in spires and lights with the inwardly-curved part turned upside down. Small claws lined the underbelly of the ship while the top was segmented into various decks. The command deck was at the very tip of the ship.

We were led up to the black, smooth-faced obelisk and the guard ponies backed off. Twilight and I stared up at it with a mix of fear and wonder.

“Is this . . . thing your Captain?” Twilight said.

The ponies didn’t answer, but they made to move away. Across the blank surface of the monolith, lines began to appear and the surface split in half as sections unfolded away from each other, stretching away to reveal a chamber within.

Inside the chamber sat a completely gray unicorn, covered in wires that stuck out from points across its body. Its eyes were closed, but the machine began to hum.

“Who are you?” a voice thrummed from inside the chamber, neither male nor female.

Twilight stepped forward. “We are weary travelers who have come a long distance and arrived here by accident. Who are you?”

“I am the Captain,” it answered.

“What about your real name?” I asked.

It paused. “I am the Captain.”

“But . . . don’t you have a name for yourself?”

“I was grown above the desert moon of Eridanus VI within the vats of Titan Eridanus Shipyards and inserted into this ship as soon as she was laid down. I am the Captain of the ERS Venture and that is all I am. It is your turn to speak.”

Twilight eyed the pony eerily while I gulped. “I am, uh, from the planet Kaishi in the Wolf 359 system. My name is Tinker.”

“Wolf 359 system . . . you are very far from home, Miss Tinker.” Though it did not move, there was an eerie feeling of it turning its attention to Twilight. “I would ask your name, but I believe it already is somewhere in Venture’s databanks . . . but yet my mind slips over it. Interesting.”

“I tend to have that effect on other ponies,” Twilight said.


It hummed a bit in a way that was both mechanical and organic. And very unnerving.

“I do not believe in pleasantries,” it said, “or coincidences. You have arrived here for a reason, and though I do not know it, I sense that you are also unable to leave.”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed. “And I sense a certain captain wishes to strike a bargain.”

“A necessary measure. In truth, I, er, we have been in need of assistance for quite some time now.”

“What kind of assistance? Twilight said.

The leader of the guards pointed out one of the windows toward a small, dark shape just off the bow, orbiting slightly closer to the sun. “That’s why.”

“What’s going on over there?” I said.

“That is the Venture’s engineering section,” the Captain answered. “It was ejected from this ship following a dispute between the crew. While we remain in our respective positions, neither group can move from this system until both sides agree.”

The guard leader coughed. “The problem is, they’ve gone a little . . . wrong . . . in the heads. This kind of work, especially around the drive core: it gets to you. So attempts to reason with them haven’t exactly, uh, gone over very well.”

“So why us, then?” Twilight said.

The Captain hummed. “Attempts to send over my crew have been met with hostility, but now that you have shown up, you present the possibility of negotiation with the crazed members of the crew.”

“We don’t have much of a choice, do we?” Twilight sighed. “I suppose it’s better than staying here and doing nothing.”

“Sergeant, lead them to Airlock Six,” the Captain said.

The light-green sergeant led us back to the elevator and we screeched our way down further into the bowels of the ship. The guard remained silent and with her back turned to Twilight and I.

“So why exactly are we trusting this Captain, again?” I said.

“We’re not,” Twilight said. “We just don’t have much of an alternative right now.”

I paused. “Well couldn’t we just wait around if we’re teleported away again? I mean, this seems pretty dangerous.”

“This magic doesn’t work that way,” Twilight said. “I spent a month in ancient Trottingham until I figured that out. If we don’t solve whatever problem faces us, we’ll be stuck here.”

“How do you know every time what you have to do to leave?”

“It’s usually pretty obvious.”

The elevator ground to a halt and we were let out into a long, dank corridor with a large heavy door at the end. As we walked along, it was easy to tell that there were scratches and dried blood stains around the wall that got more frequent as we got closer to the door.

“Anypony else getting the creeps?” Discord said.

“This is one of the places that the two crews fought,” the sergeant explained. “We . . . we lost a lot of good ponies that day.”

“Who ejected the engineering section?” Twilight asked.

“Nopony knows; most of our crew involved in that died from their wounds before our auto-docs could reach them.”

Discord coughed. “Well that didn’t help at all.”

The sergeant stopped beside the door and Twilight and I caught up to her moments later. She typed a few buttons on a keypad to reveal a small room within.

“This is where I leave you two,” she said.

Twilight and I walked in to and looked at the small room. “Is this like a, uh, really small chamber to board a shuttle?”

“Not exactly.”

The door whooshed shut and we were left alone in the chamber whose interior door clearly read: “AIRLOCK”. I began to beat on the door, believing us about to be flushed out into space, when some sort of goop dripped onto my hoof.

As I looked at the dark spot, more of it began to pour from the ceiling until Twilight and I were almost completely covered in it. Before we drowned in it, the thick, black goop began to harden and take shape around our forms until it had transformed into a sturdy and flexible suit. A transparent bit of goop stretched around our heads to give us a view of the world outside.

“Pretty nifty,” I heard Discord say over a built-in intercom.

A red light on the wall began to flash and the outer door slowly creaked open to reveal only a pallet of stars outside. Eventually, the air had fled out the door and left only silence in its way.

The mike in my pseudo-helmet crackled.

“Hold on to me if you don’t want to go falling into that star,” Twilight said.

I obeyed and clung to her as tightly as I could. Our suits melded together, startlingly, to form a tight bond. With that, Twilight jumped out into space.

* * *

Space is big. Really big. Like . . . way bigger than, well, anything! Especially when you’re floating through it while clinging to a mare of questionable sanity who is using her magic to guide you along.

Twilight’s magic propelled us through the void toward the black spot against the massive sun that grew bigger by the second. While we moved, I took the opportunity to watch—through my tinted visor—the star below us, blazing in all its majesty.

Strangely, the star almost had a feeling of . . . malevolence out here. Like it watched me as its tendrils of fire leapt out to me.

“Tinker, you okay?” Twilight asked.

I shook my head. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”

“Your eyes were getting a little glazed over.”

“Just looking at the sun, that’s all.”

Twilight followed my gaze and squinted a little. “Solar flare activity is picking up rapidly in our area,” she said. “That’s . . . odd, to say the least.”

Another burst of her magic increased our speed to the engineering section that was now clearly outlined against the star.

Suddenly, another flare reached up almost as if to grab us. It felt as if the vacuum had caught fire until Twilight extended a shield around us. The tendril missed us by a comfortable margin, but only just.

“Uh, that was really close,” I said.

Twilight said nothing and only spurred us on. I could see her begin to strain as she pushed her spell as much as she could, but space is vast and the gulf between the two parts of the ship was great.

“Can’t we, uh, teleport over there?” I asked.

“No,” she grunted. “These ships are magically-shielded. My spells would just bounce off of it.”

Even with the massive distance to the engineering section, Twilight began to draw us close to it, enough that I could see its irregular box shape quite clearly. The only remarkable thing about it were the dark thrusters near the back.

“Almost . . . there . . .” Twilight said.

Almost wasn’t close enough, though. Like a beast reaching for its prey, a massive flare extended out directly toward us. It wasn’t even very large—no wider than a starcruiser—but it didn’t need to be. Before it even reached us, Twilight’s shield popped under the pressure.

I closed my eyes to keep them from being immediately seared away. But what did it matter? We were dead anyway.

Suddenly I heard a loud, magical pop around us like when were teleporting and then all was silent. I realized quickly that I couldn’t be in space: there had been a noise! I cautiously opened my eyes to find myself surrounded by a crowd of ponies within some chamber in a foreign ship. The engineering section, I supposed.

Remembering the warnings from the ponies on the main ship, I clung closer to Twilight, who was herself finally waking up.

When she saw the same thing I did, she stood up and dropped into a fighting stance. But when we expected them to fight, they did not.

Instead, a pony with a graying beard and a twinkle in his eye stepped forward and looked at us. “Thank Celestia you’re not hurt!” he said. “How did you ever make it off that deathtrap alive?”

And The Stars Did Wander Darkling - II

I noticed that we stood on a large, dark circle covered in a grid of green lines. A teleportation circle, and a big one at that. One that would have been large enough to transport a few tons of cargo at a time, by the looks of it. Or several shuttles.

The room itself stretched far out in the distance as a maze of pipes and wires along the ceiling met heavy machinery that I assumed to be the titanic engines large enough to power a ship of that size. They glowed a faint blue with magical energy moving through their cylindrical drive cores.

I also noticed, as I clung to Twilight’s side, that some of the ponies in the crowd around us carried makeshift weapons of scrap metal sharpened to whatever points they could find. Most of the ponies wielding them, however, did so with the skill—or lack thereof—of an amateur.

Twilight’s eyes played over them just the same as they would a rocket launcher or railgun.

“More weapons, I see,” she growled.

The bearded pony wrapped in a coat of soft gold and a mane in ivory held up his hooves and tried to put on a calming smile.

“They are only for self defense,” he said quickly. “We mean you no harm.”

“Then why are the weapons still up?”

The pony sighed. “My crew are very . . . jittery about new arrivals. But please, honest, if you do not mean to hurt us then we are at peace with you already.”

Twilight didn’t look ready to stand down, so I decided to step in. Literally.

I walked in front of Twilight and placed myself between her and Mr. Beard. Considering we were surrounded on all sides, it must have looked ridiculous to the ponies in the crowd in that I was trying to protect Twilight from them. They didn’t know, of course, that I was trying to protect them from Twilight.

“Twilight,” I said, “can’t we just calm down? I mean, these ponies don’t seem to really be trying to do us any harm. Plus, they even saved us from that solar flare; without them, we’d be hot plasma drifting away from the star.”

She glared at the ponies around us, but eventually sighed and dropped out of her fighting stance. “I guess you’re right.”

The ponies around us, however, made no move to relinquish their weapons.

“You say that we saved you from a solar flare?” Mr. Beard asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, it was coming right up at us.”

He looked around at his comrades and they all shook their heads sadly. There was sorrow in their eyes. Then, before we could make a move, he whipped out some sort of box device and mashed a button on it.

At first there was nothing, but then suddenly the gel suit around my hardened until it felt like somepony had welded steel to every inch of my body. I couldn’t move, and could hardly even breath. The suit kept me upright, if unmoving.

The stallion with the beard walked over to Twilight and I’s still forms and sighed. “I’m sorry about this, I really am,” he said. “We just can’t take any chances, not now. Not after the past few times.”

“What . . . what are you talking about?” Twilight grunted as half her mouth had gone solid.

“That ship you came from, the Venture?” the pony said. “It is a . . . a dead ship. What is left of the crew are crazed, and howl over the intercom all day and night, so much that we have had to permanently severe our connection. And that Captain, it is their leader, their priestess of madness.”

Twilight glared at him. “You’re lying. We were just over there, and it was perfectly fine. At this point, you are the one that’s sounding crazy.”

“If you won’t believe me, then perhaps you’ll believe the data.” Mr. Beard nodded to one of the crew who activated a vidscreen on the wall that showed a live picture of the sun. “Rewind to shortly before our new guests’ arrival.”

The image backed up and zoomed in, and I could see Twilight and I floating along in space. Suddenly, Twilight’s magic bubble went up, popped, and we were teleported away. The whole time, however, nothing from the sun tried to burn us at all.

“That’s impossible,” Twilight moaned.

Mr. Beard waved and the screen switched off. His voice grew grave. “I was afraid of this . . . you two do not seem crazed, and yet seem to be under the same control as the others that have tried to float over here in the past.”

“But do you know who’s under nopony’s control?” came a voice from within Twilight’s suit. “Me.”

Flames burst out from the gel suit, dissolving the material as Discord popped forth in his tattoo form from underneath. With a quick sweep of his flames, Twilight and her cape were free.

The crew around us only watched in fear as Twilight now turned to Mr. Beard with anger flashing in her eyes. Some even raised up their improvised weapons.

“Okay, I want answers now,” Twilight said. “Why didn’t the Captain seem crazy to us and why did we see solar flares that did not exist?”

“Yeah, and why do those gel suits ride up in the crotch?” Discord added.

Mr. Beard backed up a little and started to quake in fear. “It’s . . . it’s the madness,” he said. “Some of us think it’s from staying out here for too long, and others say that the Captain had a deformed brain, but either way it went mad on our trip around this sun. And it’s madness spread.

“An army of insane ponies drove us to jetison the engineering section from the Venture. Here, we’ve waited for two years with dwindling supplies for some sort of help to come.”

Twilight eyed him curiously. “An army of ponies? There couldn’t have been more than ten guards from what we saw.”

“Oh no, there aren’t any left now, but the Venture was once a colony ship, filled to the brim with ponies on their way to the outer worlds.” He paused. “Many did not make it.”

Twilight’s mouth hung open a little as she processed the information. The empty rooms and corridors . . . the scratch marks in the halls . . .

“Okay, then why us?” she said. “Why would the Captain put up some charade and send us over here? You said that we were already being affected him or her or whatever? If we were already being affected by this madness, then why put up with all of this?”

Mr. Beard shook his head. “I do not know. Most likely, it was to get at us, the thorn in the Captain’s side. It is possible that if we had not decided to teleport you here where we could interrogate you, that ‘solar flare’ would have pushed you both over the edge.”

“But we’re not over the edge!” Twilight proclaimed. “You can all see we’re fine, so just let us go!”

“No, you are not fine,” he said with remorse in his voice. “In your state, our hasty teleportation has only staved off the worst for a little while. Shortly, you will begin again your progression into madness. We have seen this many times before.”

Twilight stepped toward him, her horn starting to glow. “There has to be a way to stop it. I have lived for far too long and seen too many things to be stopped now. Come on, ponies like you always have some sort of plan that you’ve thought up, but haven’t enacted yet.”

The stallion with the beard gulped. “Is it that predictable?”

“After a while, yes.”

“Well, yes, we do have a plan . . .” he gulped, “but it’s very dangerous. It is only a contingency in case our supplies finally run out before help can arrive from the Empire.”

“We’ll do it,” Twilight said. “Just let my companion go, and call off the ponies with the weapons.”

Mr. Beard hesitated, but eventually pressed a button on the control box from before and I felt the gel suit drip off me and land wetly on the deck below. He also took the time to call off his crew, who reluctantly began to drift off toward makeshift tents and hovels built in the shadow of the engine blocks a dozen feet away.

They all made sure to give me a few strange looks as I followed Twilight and the bearded stallion to the holovid screen against the wall. On closer inspection, it seemed to be a former workstation for the engineering section, but had been converted to a more general use in the time since they had jettisoned themselves from the ship.

When we arrived and I got what must have been the tenth stare, I decided to speak up.

“Okay,” I said, “what’s with all the weird looks I’m getting? What’s so weird about me when compared to her?” I pointed at Twilight.

“It’s your, uh,” Mr. Beard began, “well, um, your nudity. You see, I don’t know the customs of whatever colony you come from, but we’re ponies who wear clothes . . .”

Now that I noticed it, all the members of the crew were wearing some sort of get-up, whether it was simple dungarees or more complex jumpsuits with buttons and dials all over them. A few even wore a similar type of gel suit that Twilight and I had received.

“If I get some clothes, will that make them stop?” I asked.

“Most likely.” He motioned for one of the stallions near the tents and hovels, ordered him to get me something to wear, and then that same pony returned with a set of clothes for me.

It wasn’t much, really: a white shirt whose sleeves went all the way to the bottom of my forehooves and long black vest with pockets on it. Comfortable, but not overly-heavy.

“So what’s the point of clothes, exactly, if my flank is still uncovered?” I said.

Mr. Beard smiled. “It’s more of a symbolic thing, really. We could cover up cutie marks, but then that would be hiding away our true talents and who we are. If that makes sense.”

“I’ll pretend like it does.”

“Alright, she’s not naked, great,” Twilight said. “Now, can we get down to whatever—certainly dangerous—plan you have before this madness thing sets in?”

“Oh, right.”

The stallion touched a red circle on the large vidscreen and the image transferred to a cross-section of the Venture. I noticed the big chunk of it that was colored black that must have been the former location of the engineering section, located near the back of the “spoon”.

“When we separated, the teleportation grid went haywire,” he informed us. “What we could set up was quickly lost as the Captain sought to shut us off from the ship, effectively stranding us here.”

Across the diagram of the ship, red circles highlighted the areas of the ship that were inaccessible by the teleporter. The cross-section quickly became a sea of red as just about every part of the ship was blocked off.

“As you can see, the Captain’s efforts were mostly successful.” He paused. “However, there are a scant few gaps in the blocked-off areas.”

Those few areas highlighted in green, though as small as they were, it was difficult to see them at all. Mr. Beard pointed to one that was along the top spine of the ship, about a third of a mile from the bridge.

“That’s the closest area to the bridge that we can teleport you to,” he said. “It’s not much, but the best we can do. It’s an area that we’ve kept from interfering with, too, so the Captain doesn’t know it’s open.”

“And what’s the catch?” Twilight said.

“Besides the fact that the entire ship, once you see it as it really is and not the illusion the Captain gave you, is dark and filled with insanity and madness?” He shrugged. “The spine of the ship that ran from the bridge to the bow was one of the first areas lost to ponies who had been turned. Most of the violence went on there. They’ve probably moved on since then, but don’t expect it to be a walk in the park.”

Twilight smiled ruefully. “I can take care of that. My big question is: what do we do once we get there?”

Mr. Beard bit his lip. Before speaking, he took a long breath and let it out. “That’s . . . that is the difficulty of this mission. You see, all of the madness seems to have stemmed from the Captain; the ship is the Captain and the Captain is the ship, so to speak. Removing the Captain from the picture may be the solution we’re looking for.”

“Well that’s not so bad,” Twilight said. “Killing that Captain shouldn’t be hard at all.”

“No, see, that won’t work. Suddenly severing the connection would only make things worse.” He paused. “To end this, you must fight your way to the bridge and hook up to the external neural link in the Captain’s obelisk. Find a way to bring down his mind, and you’ll break him.”

“But what if she just gets worse from that?” I said.

“That’s the reason why we have not tried sending over any of our own,” Mr. Beard said. “The Captain has a strong—if insane—mind. To break it would require intense mental strength and stamina.”

Twilight smiled. “Then it’s a good thing I’ve got both.”

Mr. Beard sighed, and nodded. “Alright, it you both feel that way, then step onto the teleportation grid once again and we’ll get you two over there. Best not to waste time: you’ve only got precious little of it until the madness fully sets in.”

Twilight turned to me. “You don’t have to come, you know. You’ll be flashed out of here at the end of the journey with me wherever you are, from what we’ve seen. You can just wait here and let me handle this.”

I shrugged. “The way I figure it, if you fail and I’m here, then they’ll kill me or dump me out an airlock or whatever. If I’m over there with you, at least I get a chance to fight for my sanity.” I smiled a little. “Besides, I think you can protect me.”

Twilight did not return my gesture, but neither did she protest when I followed her onto the teleportation grid. A pony dressed in a bright red jumpsuit stood near a console and pressed a button.

Suddenly, a tingling filled every inch of my body and the world turned white and we were gone.

* * *

My senses returned and, once again, reported only blackness. That seemed to be becoming a trend on this little trip.

“Twilight, you there?” I whispered.

In response, a harsh purple light appeared a few feet away from me, connected at its brightest point to the familiar scarred mare with the cape and tattoo.

Her magic glowed even brighter along the wall, like she was searching for something. It eventually lighted upon a small box, and a little fiddling switched on the lights on the sloped ceiling above us, bringing them to flickering life.

They revealed that we stood in a massive corridor big enough for ten ponies to stand shoulder to shoulder, and that stretched on so far in both ways that I could see the curvature of the ship if I looked far enough.

It wasn’t easy to look too far, though, as most of the lights tended to flicker on and off at semi-regular intervals.

“Ooh, spooky flickering lights,” Discord said, rising up off Twilight. “Tell me again, why is inconsistent lighting scary?”

“Nice of you to show up again after that little stunt of yours,” Twilight said.

He shrugged. “I figured it was best to let you take over. That kind of exposition just bores me to tears.”

“Hey, uh, Discord?” I said.

He drifted his corporeal form over to me. “Hmm? Is our young companion really talking directly to me?”

“Well, I, uh, just figured since you were the Element of Chaos, that you might be able to tell us if this madness is really all that . . . real?”

He pointed to the wall behind me. “You tell me.”

I turned around to find the rough steel covered in the dark red color of dried blood. It was shaped into only one word: “HELP.”

There were little white dots on the word and, on closer inspection, I found them to be teeth embedded into the steel itself.

“I-I have a very bad feeling about this.”

“We all do,” Discord said. “That just means you two aren’t quite mad yet.”

“What about you?” Twilight said. “Since when are you excluded from the group?”

Discord laughed. “Honey, I’ve been mad for years. Some creepy blood messages and flickering lights aren’t enough to make me even a little worried.”

A startling groan that sounded two parts steel and one part pony echoed through the corridor, like it was racing up from behind us and in front at the same time.

“What about that?”

“Eh, I’d give it a five out of ten.”

Twilight shook her head and began to walk on toward the front of the ship. Her hoofsteps echoed through the corridor as they impacted the steel in an assured way. My own soft steps didn’t make as much noise, and for that I was thankful.

That was probably the strangest part of it: the silence. Besides the blood stains and scratches along the walls, the entire place was more like a ghost town than anything else.

It was then that another screech came from somewhere in the corridor. The hairs on my neck stood up, and I pushed past Twilight as she whirled around, her horn glowing and at the ready.

“Where’s that coming from?” she hissed.

The noise came again, but much louder this time. At least, it allowed us to find the source: right above us. I looked up, only to watch as the screeching got louder as a massive metal bulkhead descended from the ceiling, right between Twilight and I.

I scrambled toward her, but the door was too fast and I found myself banging on the hard metal to no avail.

“No!” I screamed. “No, no, no!”

I sank to my knees, and let the tears building at the edges of my eyes flow. I was trapped on this ship, and away from Twilight. All alone. Alone . . .

I looked away from the door and at the hallway stretching out in front of me. My heart began to beat as, off in the distance, a light went off. Then another. Another.

Slowly, the lights in the corridor went off one by one, crawling their way toward me until the one above me went off without a sound.

The dark . . . It crawled at me. Drowned me, suffocated me, tore me apart in its silence and nothingness. I was nowhere, I was everywhere, I was gone. I couldn’t see . . . couldn’t think. Swallowed up in the inky darkness.

But at least that’s all that it was: the dark. There was nothing scary about the dark itself; it was just the same corridor, but without light.

I tried to reassure myself with that thought even as I tried desperately to press myself further against the bulkhead door.

For a moment, I thought that telling myself that might actually work. Then the intercom turned on.

Like a phantasm drifting on the winds of fear that blew through the corridor, the voice of the Captain came to me.

“Tinker, Tinker, little star, how I wonder where you are . . .”

And The Stars Did Wander Darkling - III

Those words drifted out of the darkness, wrapped around me and refused to let go. The haunting visage in the Captain’s voice, and the threat that came within left me desperately scrabbling against the bulkhead door that felt cold against my back.

I sat there for a few minutes, gasping for breath in the choking darkness as I expected at any moment some sort of horror to bounce out into my view and swallow me whole. Nothing of the sort came about.

Instead, silence grew deeper and deeper into the corridor until it roared in my ears and threatened to drive me mad simply by the sensory deprivation.

Cautiously, I stood up and took a big gulp before taking a step forward. Nothing. The only sound that rang out came from me, and it was little at that. I began to take small steps forward and try to keep myself from wanting to cry out curl into a ball on the deck.

My hoofsteps slowly but surely grew stronger as I made my way down the corridor and deeper into the blackness. Still, nothing came to harm me. I began to even believe that no harm would come to me so long as I didn’t give in to fear.

That was when I heard the sound. A ticking, like metal upon metal. But no . . . not exactly metal upon metal, more like metal upon bone.

I did not know how I would know that sound, but suddenly there was no other explanation. The sound came again: tap, tap, tap. It came like the beating of a drum, or the rhythmic thumping of my heart.

And it was coming toward me.

My breath came in gasps and I tried to run back, told my legs to move, but they refused. I halted in place, desperately crying to myself to run or hide or anything else than wait.

Oh! How I wished I had some sort of weapon . . . a gun or a sword or even one of those plasma cutters from back in the ship-breaking yard. That wasn’t such a ridiculous thought, was it?

Tap, tap, tap.

No movement, no sound, no nothing outside of that tapping. In sync with my heart, my breath, my thinking now. I giggled a little to myself. I hadn’t been gone from Twilight’s side for more than a few minutes and the first thing I hear paralyzes me in fear!

I giggled again, louder this time. Wasn’t that just funny?

Tap, tap, tap.

Closer now. Always closer now. It was right upon me now! Right. There!

“P-Please,” I managed as a last desperate cry to reason against an enemy I could neither see nor feel.

It stopped.

The tapping . . . it ended. The darkness in front of me remained just as impenetrable as before. Just as silent. I let out a slow laugh of relief.

Then the light overhead flickered to life. Just that light, and nothing more, cast its glow into a circle around me. I looked at the bulkhead.

A scar, dug deep into the metal like a bleeding wound that ran along the wall before it stopped. Stopped just next to me. It was fresh.

My heart beat faster and I found myself screaming. Screaming with all my might, surely alerting every horror and evil in the hallway but I did not care. I pressed myself to the floor and wished it to end. End!

It was silent again.. I guess I had got tired of screaming and stopped at some point. I lay on the ground in the circle of light that flooded down from above. My safe haven from everything.

Then my safe haven began to go out. Darkness swallowed me up again and I was lost within it. Drowning again.

Tap, tap, tap.

Another light came to life down the corridor, no more than one hundred feet ahead of me. The tapping grew louder. Go! Now!

I sprinted toward my safety, my salvation. All the while, the tendrils of the black corridor bled into me, covering my eyes and muting my ears. The thump of my hooves on the deck and the tapping that surrounded me on every side was the only thing I knew. The only thing that mattered.


I landed with a dull thud within the confines of the lighted area. The tapping stopped and I could breathe again. I looked down at my hooves and saw that I was shaking.

Little rivers of water ran across the sloped deck below me. I checked and found I was crying. So alone in this corridor . . . this corridor that never ended. There was nothing for me to do, nowhere to go: I was hopeless without my little circle of light. My lamp in the darkness that kept the monsters at bay.

An intercom somewhere along the wall sparkled to life and my heart froze in my chest. The Captain’s voice came again in sweet sing-song voice.

“When the blazing sun is gone, when he nothing shines upon . . . Then you show your little light, Tinker, Tinker, all the night.”

I expected the light above me to go out again, but it did not. Instead, the light next to it turned on, and then the one next to that one came to life. The corridor was slowly bathed in fluorescent light that stretched its length.

I very nearly cried out in joy as the darkness was banished from my world and I could once again see. But then I looked up and my heart leapt to my throat.

It was not a pony or a griffin or any fabulous beast of old. Its limbs stretched out to me in their inky darkness as its slime drip, dripped down to my face and my hair and everywhere else. Its eyes . . . Those maddening red eyes that searched for me!

The creature lunged its massive body on top of me, seeking to drown me within its form. I screamed and flailed at it as it came down.

I lost all sensation of what I was doing. My limbs were not my own as I punched and kicked and fought with everything I had to try and remove that unholy presence from me. I fought back.

The abomination made a horrible screeching noise as it moved atop me, but that same noise continued even when it stopped moving under desperate blows. Then I realized that noise was coming from me.

I stopped and looked down at the horror but found . . . nothing. There was no monster, but instead the broken and battered corpses of the crew members. Husks long since gone gray with age; they must have been left behind when the crew fought each other those years ago. But why, then, did they look so fresh?

I shook my head to clear that thought, even as it threatened to dig into my skull and plant itself there. The more I looked in the light, the worse it became. The corridor was not empty, but littered with all that remained of a pointless struggle between the two.

I had to step over what could only be described as a shoulder joint locked halfway within a ribcage to get to the wall and lean against it. But not for rest. Oh no, to reach myself up to the little gray box that somehow seemed brand new in the hallway that clearly showed its age.

“Captain!” I called desperately. “Turn off the lights! P-Please . . . just turn the lights back off!”

“Oh? Can little Tinker handle her truths illuminated in the light?”

I took a step back and shook my head. No, no, that voice . . . the voice that came from the box was no longer the Captain’s sing-song lilt. It was Charm’s. The same voice that he would use when I was late back from the factory or working in my room late at night.

The voice that used to show he cared.

And now, it was tainted with, “I thought you were afraid of the dark?”

“What have you done to me?” I shouted. “You are not Charm!”

The voice that wasn’t Charm laughed. “Really? Because I certainly feel like Charm. But that doesn’t really matter, does it? This isn’t about me, but about you.”

I shook my head. “Just an illusion,” I said to myself. “It’s the crazy Captain . . . that madness they told you about.”

“But is it really madness when it’s been here this whole time? We both know that it isn’t the darkness that you’re actually afraid of . . . after all, we stop fearing the monsters in the dark when we figure out the real ones are inside of us.”

“I’m not going to take this,” I growled at it.

With all the bravado I could muster, I began to tread further down the corridor and away from the squawking box. Not that it matter, though. Another one like it was placed every ten feet.

When Charm’s voice came next, it came from every intercom.

“Oh, Tinker, always so afraid to stand and face your problems,” it said. “Always running away before they can catch up with you.”

“I’m not running away,” I said, “and I’m not afraid of my problems. I’m dealing with them right now.”

The voice laughed. “I do suppose that’s how you deal with things. Does this sound familiar: ‘Tinker, I waited all day! Where have you been?’”

I froze in my tracks. Where before the voice had merely mocked me with Charm’s voice, this time it was a perfect duplicate of those words he had said that night.

“Who are you?” I screamed. “Who are you and how do you know what he said?”

The voice laughed. “Isn’t obvious, Tinker? I’m you.”

“That’s impossible,” I said. “I can’t be in two places at once.”

“Normally, that would be true, but I’m afraid you’ve gone quite insane.” The voice giggled. “Or did you really think you were standing in a corridor lined with gore?”

I was almost afraid to look, but I gave a quick sweep of the hallway that had just moments before been filled with the rotting remains of long-dead ponies.

Nothing. Not even a scratch on the walls or a single bloodstain.

“What is this?” I demanded. “Some kind of joke?”

The voice didn’t respond again, and the intercom remained quiet. Dead.

But that was really the whole situation, wasn’t it? Just a conversation with myself . . . just a fight with myself. The scratches on my hooves were real enough, though.

Real or not, I could be hurt.

The lights began their march again toward blackness around me, like they worked on some demented switch. A crackle and a fizz and a little more light disappeared from my limited world. The pattern continued until once again it was only the fluorescent bulbs above my head that kept my world alive for a few moments more.

That tiny little light that seemed to grow smaller and smaller.

“It’s all in your head, it’s all in your head,” I thought aloud. “None of this can hurt you . . . you’re just going a little crazy. Yeah, that’s all.”

“Are you sure about that?” I said.

But no, that wasn’t me. Or, at least, not me me. I looked outside my little ring of light and I could perceive dark . . . shapes . . . that ringed around it. The shapes materialized into clearer visages, though they were somehow less believable than anything I had seen that day.

Surrounding me on every side was, well, me. But they weren’t perfect copies, however. It was like watching me after a dozen deaths and horrors had been visited upon myself.

Burnt me, shot me, there was a me who looked ill with a plague and a me with bloodshot eyes who couldn’t stop smiling. It was a crowd of every fear I had ever imagined would strike me, brought to life before my very eyes.

I was shaking again.

“What’s the matter?” gouged-eyes me said. “Scared?”

“S-Scared?” I said. “N-Not at all . . . none of you are even close to being real! Why would I be scared of myself?”

I laughed from a dozen scarred mouths. “Why aren’t I scared of myself?” I said in unison. “I am the scariest thing I know, after all. What’s scarier than what I can imagine?”

The image of Charm dissolving into thin air appeared and was gone just as quickly. Even then, I found myself desperately reaching out for it, and feeling another knife digging into a vein when I could only watch him go.

I slumped onto the floor. “Just leave me alone,” I said softly. “Please, just . . . just go. You’re all just this madness taking hold!”

I must have thought that was quite funny, because they all started to giggle. They all took a step forward and the lit area began to shrink.

“Do you really think we’re only showing up now?” said Tinker whose chest cavity was nothing but a gaping hole.

There was me with translucent skin who nodded in agreement and I watched as my bones and muscles made it possible. “That sounds like us, though. Never think of the problem until it’s right in our faces!”

“And always putting the blame on others!” said another of me.

“Must’ve been our parenting.”

“Or maybe we’re just sexually frustrated.”

I, me, we, they kept laughing as they advanced and kept closing the circle. My little arena of solace that shrank and shrank even as I trembled and backed up across the deck.

“Stop!” I shouted. “Just stop! Why are you even doing this?”

“Oh, it isn’t us that’s doing this,” heartless me said. “Turns out, the thing that’s killing you was yourself all along.”

I let out a cry as I fell to the deck while they continued to close up their ranks around me. My fears were closing in and threatening to swallow me up in a sea of my own madness.

They began to chant in a sing-song tone as they moved in: “Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky . . . Tinker, Tinker, little star, how we wonder what we are?”

The sound of my own voice from a dozen mouths filled my ears no matter how I tried to keep it out.

And just when the darkness began to descend upon me when once again, a wholly different voice sang out, strong and true: “As your bright and tiny spark, lights the traveler in the dark . . . Though I know not what you are, Tinker, Tinker, little star . . .”

That same poem, and to the same rhythm too . . . but this time without a threat or malice. A crystal voice that calmed the storm and halted the advance of the figures around me.

I looked up to look for the source of the voice and found myself staring at a purple unicorn with darker violet mane. Twilight.

But at the same time, she was not Twilight. She was shorter, and her mane better kept. No scars or tattoos covered her body, and her cape her gone. And those eyes . . . those eyes that sparkled like a thousand tiny stars.

She smiled at me and helped me off the ground. “Are you okay? You look awfully scared.”

“Y-Yeah, well I—”

I looked around and saw that the horror versions of me had retreated back to the edge of the light where they stared at us silently, waiting.

“I’m, uh, I’m scared of them.”

Twilight tilted her head. “Well that’s kind of silly, don’t you think? Who ever heard of a pony scared of herself?”

“No, it’s not like that; those aren’t me.” I sighed. “Those are every fear I’ve felt . . . every regret I’ve had.”

“But that’s nothing to be scared of,” she said. “If they’re already inside of you, then what’s so bad?”

“It’s bad because they are what hurt me.”

She giggled. “That’s not true; not all of those feelings are bad. Most of them aren’t, even.”

I gaped at her. “What are you talking about? It’s these feelings that are tearing me apart . . . that are driving me mad.”

“Really? Does the fear of losing the ones you love drive you crazy?”

“Well, no—”

“And does regretting running away from home make you a worse pony?”

I paused and sat in thought. The dark figures around me seemed to blur out as I considered what she had said. Because that fear and regret was there, in my mind if not in the crowd. But they weren’t bad, were they?

“So what you’re saying is,” I began carefully, “that fear helps me because it makes me remember what hurt me, and that regret keeps me from forgetting how I’ve hurt others?”

Twilight beamed. “I think you hit it right on the head!”

I looked around at all the copies of myself. “Then what am I supposed to do about all of this? How do I make them go away?”

“I’d think you just have to accept them.”

With a few careful steps, I stood in front of one of my horrors, this one the copy with transparent skin. “How do I do that?”

“Isn’t that something only you would know?”

I turned back to the me and looked myself in the eye. Tried to feel something, and at first there was nothing . . . but the longer I looked the more I began to understand. That to face my fears, I’d first have to accept them.

“Afraid to reveal myself to others,” I whispered.

That Tinker smiled and suddenly turned into an exact copy of me—no scars or bruises or anything—before fading to nothing.

I stood in front of the next, the one with an empty chest cavity.

“Afraid of having my heart broken.”

She faded away, too.

Around the circle I went, naming fear after fear and regret after regret. They all faded in their turn and left me feeling a little more confident each time. A little more sure of myself.

Finally, I came to the last in the line, and the worst of them all. It was like somepony had taken Charm and I and fused our bodies together, then stretched them apart until they were only connected by the thinnest strands of skin.

It was also the one I was most sure about.

“I won’t forget you,” I told the Charm side, “and I will find a way back. No matter what I do, no matter where I go, I’ll find my way home someday.”

They both smiled as they too faded, leaving only Twilight and I standing in a now-lit corridor. The lights had never been off, of course.

“You did a good job,” she said.

I smiled. “I think I’m better, now. I can feel them . . . but it’s not a bad feeling.”

“It’s never supposed to be.”

There was a silent pause between us as we stood by each other. The lonely corridor didn’t look so unfriendly now, just empty. That’s all it was, in the end: just a hallway of metal. Nothing scary about that.

“So where did you come from?” I said. “Are you part of that spell Twilight put on me?”

She looked up at me and smirked. “Maybe, but I’d like to think I’m a little more than that. A little more . . . you.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“You tell me.” She winked as she too began to fade, and before long was gone, leaving me once again all by myself. Or, at least, on the outside.

* * *

I eventually found myself at the end of the corridor that opened up back onto the deck right before the bridge. The same huge steel door was still shut, and I spied the elevator that we had taken, what, hours before with the guard ponies.

A quick sweep of the area revealed that I was, in fact, still alone. Which was good for the moment. My mind noted, however, that beyond the door lay a completely insane Captain and I had no Twilight to back me up.

I didn’t have anywhere else to go, however, so I strode up to the door and tapped on it. I’m not sure what I expected, but sure enough the massive blast doors slid open and allowed me a small hole to walk through before closing up again.

That was when the gravity reversed itself.

I fell, screaming, to the ceiling, which was now the ground. A very rough ground, but one I was able to stand on.

I had a moment of sickness before my head was able to adjust to the new directions, as well as my new partner in the room.

The Captain’s black obelisk hung from the ceiling like an evil stalactite, with the Captain itself hanging limply out of it, attached to the interior only by wires. In that state, the Captain no longer quite resembled a pony, but rather an amorphous mass of flesh and wires that looked down at me with dead eyes.

“So you made it here after all,” it said. “I cannot say I’m not surprised. I would have thought you would be the first to go insane.”

“I guess you thought wrong,” I spat.

“Indeed.” A metallic humming emanating from the obelisk filled the air. “So I suppose you were sent here by the ponies in the engineering section. To kill me, yes?”

“You lied to us about them. You were the crazy one, not them.”

What passed for a laugh came from the Captain. “Oh, I assure you, I never lied to you. They are quite insane. But, I suppose, so am I.”

I shook my head. “Why, again, am I supposed to believe you?”

“They told you that we have been adrift for two years, correct?”

“Yeah, they did.”

“Well then, you have your answer,” the Captain said. “Come now, surely you’ve noticed that the wear and tear to this ship couldn’t have happened in only two short years.”

Now that she mentioned it, and I got a closer look at the top of the bridge, the metal didn’t just look used, but old. Very old. And when the crazy pony is right, that’s never a good thing.

“You see, our day of separation was not just two years ago,” the Captain continued, “but twenty. It was back then that the two parties on this ship separated in ideologies of their insanities borne of too long on a ship that had long since gone off course. One group, of course, very literally separated themselves from our ship.”

“Well I’ve been there,” I said. “They didn’t seem very crazy to me. They were even the ones who were able to point out what was going on with me and Tw- er, my friend.”

“Yes, that is the most frightening part, isn’t it? That they can so clearly see the insanity in others, but not in themselves.” Somehow, I could hear the malice enter the Captain’s voice, though neither the tone or pitch changed. “It cost the lives of many who once called this ship their temporary home. It was I after all, who ejected their section of the ship away from my own.”

I stared up at the obelisk. “You know, you don’t sound very insane.”

A chuckle. “Ah, Tinker, the pony so far from home . . . that is the beauty of it all. To you, I appear normal, but from my point of view, ah, well, you’ll see soon enough.”

“Soon enough?”

“Why, you don’t think I called you hear just to speak to you, do you? No, I am so excited to add a couple more ponies to my happy crew. I look more forward to picking the brain of your friend, but you will do for now.”

With that, more wires unwrapped themselves from the obelisk and sped through the air toward me. I tried to back up and run from them, but the Captain simply reversed the gravity and left me falling back down to the deck.

The wires caught me in midair as they wrapped around me. I tried to struggle, but it was really no use. They shoved and plunged their way into my head, into my spine . . . into my brain.

Waves of agony coursed through me and I screamed as I felt the icy-hot presence of the Captain drip into my mind.

“Isn’t that better?” it cooed through our sudden connection. “Just open your eyes and see the world as I do . . .”

I realized I had been clenching my eyes closed and slowly began to open them. Why not? I didn’t feel different, but I had lost anyway. Might as well take a peek.

I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but “nothing” probably hadn’t been on the list. Not a void of nothingness, but literally nothing different than before. At all.

“Um, is everything supposed to look the same?” I said aloud. “Because if so, your view is pretty boring.”

“What?!” the Captain boomed through both my head and out loud. “Do you not see them? The dark ones?”

I could feel its mind pressing further into my own, and suddenly figures did begin to manifest. Black shapes that lined the transparent aluminum windows, completely blocking out the light coming from outside.

None of them resembled me, however. They were all in the shape of the Captain. So many grotesque visages . . . but so familiar that it was almost comforting.

I found myself laughing.

“Really, this is all there is?” I said. “All you see are your fears?”

“Of course!” the Captain screeched. “To be consumed by your fears is to be insane. But when you can see them . . . you are no longer afraid!” It paused. “Why are you still laughing?”

“That’s about the stupidest thing I’ve heard today,” I said. “And here I thought that the Captain would be so wise or some junk like that. Turns out, you’re just so scared of yourself that you’ve spent twenty years justifying it.”

“And I suppose your vision is much better?”

I snorted. “I’ll tell you this, Captain, where you see all those dark shapes, I see nothing. Zip, nada, zero, not a single thing.”

“Explain. I can feel your mind . . . the madness is there. I can see it. How do you not?”

I smiled and allowed myself to relax as best as I could against the cables sticking out of my body.

“I had to accept my fears. Once you do that, things aren’t so bad. Am I crazy? Maybe, but I can at least live with that.”

I could feel the Captain consider what I said, and glow a little brighter, but then settle back to dark as it looked out at its fears. They had moved forward, and were now inside the bridge. I’m not sure the Captain noticed.

“I-I cannot do that,” it said. “There are too many . . .”

The dark figures surrounded the Captain’s platform.

“I don’t understand!” it shouted. “How can you accept them? Fear will always be there, you cannot overcome it!”

Now the dozens of corrupted Captains surrounded the obelisk itself.

“No, you cannot overcome fear,” I said. “Because it isn’t something you’re supposed to overcome in the first place. Accepting it instead of obsessing over it and trying to hide from it is the only way to keep if from consuming you like this.”

The Captain finally looked up and opened its eyes for the first time in its life to behold the dark creatures that had now surrounded the pony itself.

“Huh, guess I failed.”

They fell upon the Captain then, and the wires severed from me and sent me falling to the deck, where I landed hard and lay sprawled on my side.

Right before I had been disconnected . . . for a moment, I had seen and felt and remembered everything the Captain had. The first time being disconnected from the growing pod, the connection he—a male Captain, as he had turned out to be—had felt when placed into the Venture for the first time. The power and the pride.

But then the fear and the loss when they fell off course. The horror as he had felt the insanity welling up inside of him as he endlessly tried to put them back on course to no avail. And how scared he had been when it had spread to the crew and passengers.

I looked with my normal eyes and vision at the obelisk with pity, and the limp body that hung within. Even as his body began to grey, so too did the ship begin to groan and heave. Without its Captain, it did not have much time to live.

Just then, the blast doors at the back of the room buckled and exploded off of their hinges, flying in two directions before crashing into the transparent aluminum around the room. Luckily, the metal held and kept me from being sucked into space.

From out of the smoke strode Twilight, her horn blazing in white light that also flared out from her eyes. Discord was mostly detached from her side, and fire trailed off of his breath.

They looked at the obelisk as if expecting a fight, then back to me.

“What happened here?” Twilight said. “And how did you beat the Captain?”

I looked at the lifeless obelisk. “I didn’t, the Captain . . . he beat himself, in the end. I just helped it along, I guess.”

Discord huffed and drew himself back into Twilight. “Glory hog.”

I kicked at the deck under me. With the Captain gone and my own stuff dealt with, the ship seemed so much more empty and lifeless. Just a big hunk of metal. Judging by Twilight’s condition, she had probably helped clean it up from any of the other crazy guards stalking about.

“So what now?” I said. “Do we just go, like all the other times? Or do we have to just go take care of the ponies on the engineering section?”

Twilight shook her head. “With the Captain’s influence gone, these ponies should be able to help each other. And, well, the way the spell works seems to be more based on me—or you—personally than the situation itself.”

“It’s pretty much arbitrary,” Discord chimed in. “Speaking of which . . .”

My hooves began to glow and sparkle with a white light that soon had consumed my entire vision and left me with that floating feeling again. The last thing I saw was the sun floating serenely out the windows of the Venture, burning as it always had like nothing even happened.

Manehattan Calling - I

The magic field burst in a shower of light and left us behind in its wake. It took my vision a few moments to clear, but when it did, I fell to the dusty ground in sheer awe and disbelief as to what now lay before my eyes.

We were standing in a blackened field that had, at some point long in the past, been green and overflowing with flowers and grass. Now, only the burnt ashes remained.

Surrounding the the field—which seemed to be a courtyard of some sorts—were massive skyscrapers that reached miles into the sky in order to fulfill their name. What had once obviously been shiny glass and clean steel was rusting beams and crumbling fabcrete foundations. Some of the buildings had even toppled over onto each other other and now topped small mountains of rubble.

The wind whistled softly through the broken windows throughout the city, like the empty and gaping mouths of a thousand dead giants of old.

In the end, that was really the only way to properly describe the place: like some sort of sick fantasy land with a modern twist. A graveyard to every achievement modern pony had made in the past centuries.

“What is this place?” I asked Twilight softly. “How . . . how could this happen?”

She looked up quietly at the grey landscape of fallen grandeur around us.

“Manehattan,” she said at last. “After the Third Migration, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Migrations? What are you talking about?”

“It’s exactly what it sounds like.” Twilight kicked a yellow patch of soil that might have once been a flowerbed. “Whenever Equestria would grow too large, the government would organize a migration to spread the population out further among the stars and free up space down here. In fact, the first happens not too long after your own time.”

I turned to her. “So what went wrong, then?”

“I’ve only heard stories, so I may not have the most reliable information.”

“Try anyway.”

She sighed. “It’s said that this Third Migration wasn’t like the others: the ships were fewer and planets that would accept new colonists less than the last two times. As a result, more ponies had to be left behind than usual, and most of them were not happy about it.

“Then, disaster struck: one after the other. A series of earthquakes, famines, tsunamis, and other troubles hit the aging planet. Every nation—including Equestria—had a hard time rebuilding with what little resources remained . . .”

“So they fought over what remained,” I finished.

“You can figure out the rest. Looks like megaspells were used here: cleans out the organics, but leaves the infrastructure intact.”

I sank to my knees as I tried to take the information in. It was all coming . . . too much. Too fast. Streets that should be bright and happy were nothing more than cracked and barren avenues.

I had called it a graveyard before, but that wasn’t quite accurate. It was more a monument, now, to just what my own species could apparently do.

“How could we . . . how could we ponies . . . do something like this?”

Twilight stared out in the distance. “Every animal that is backed into a corner lashes out eventually, and lashes out hard. Ponies are no different.”

We remained in those positions for a long time. I could feel a whole gamut of emotions ranging from shame to grief run through me at once.

Sure, some ponies back home would have considered me sappy in such a situation, but it was the realization that I stood on the graveyard of millions that kept me from caring much about that. It was not for some time that I was able to raise myself up, and even then kept my eyes to the sky rather than the destruction.

It was funny, seeing a great blue sky with puffy white clouds hanging over Manehattan. Something so normal and upbeat that it seemed out of place.

“So what do we do now?” I said eventually. “This city’s dead . . . so what cosmic good are we supposed to do to take us to the next location?”

Twilight shrugged. “It usually reveals itself.”

Just then, there was a rumble in the ruins of what once had been a city hall behind us. Sure enough, a small colt in a red scarf and dark hat came tearing out of the building and down the steps right toward us.

Behind him, a larger stallion in significantly dirtier clothing and a matted, brown mane ran after the young colt, practically glowing in anger.

“If this were a sitcom, I’d start tacking up the coincidences to lazy writing,” Discord remarked, ever the comedian.

The colt ran across the desolate field over to us, his green eyes shining in fear as he kept looking behind him. The light blue mop he wore for a mane kept falling into his eyes as he did.

He came to a halt when he neared us, and even leapt behind Twilight as if seeking protection from the stallion who had begun to catch up.

The stallion, too, stopped in his tracks when he spotted us, and looked at each of us closely. Not out of hostility, but curiosity.

“Who’re the two of you?” he asked in a guttural voice.

“Just two travelers,” Twilight answered. “The better question is, though, why were you chasing after this colt?”

The stallion’s eyes narrowed. “’Cause he stole from the Hall. Nopony takes anything from the Hall without permission from our council.”

“But I was taking it for a good reason!” the small colt squeaked. “Packer, you know the council doesn’t approve any of my ideas!”

“Runt, if they don’t approve them, then it’s for a good reason,” Packer said evenly. “Now, are you going to give the artifact to me, or not? The council doesn’t have to know that you were stealing again.”

Twilight stepped a little further in front of Runt and raised an eyebrow. “Who was stealing what now?”

Packer blinked. “Oh, well, you see . . . Runt here stole some artifacts from one of the Old Ones’ buildings.”

“And that’s bad?”

“Well . . . yes. Our town’s council says it is blasphemous to try to remove any of the artifacts.”

Twilight turned to Runt. “And what exactly did you remove?”

The little colt parted his messy mane to reveal small, stunted horn that glowed and held up a tiny, yellow object. A battery, to be more precise.

“I just needed another one of these,” he said. “The last one I had broke, and the talk-box won’t work without one, and if it doesn’t work, I can’t hear the voices come out of it.”

“Which was an invention that the council barely approved in the first place, anyway!” Packer protested.

Twilight paused. “You said you heard voices come out of it?”

“Besides the crazy ones?” I heard Discord mutter softly where only Twilight and I could hear.

“Yes, why?”

“If the city is in this ruined state . . . then who is broadcasting?”

Runt shrugged. “How should I know?”

Nopony should know,” Packer butted in. He snatched the battery away from Runt and glared at all of us. “Runt will have to answer for his actions to the council. The two of you are not from here, and may leave us.”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed. “And if we stay?”

“Then you will answer for his actions as well. Be warned: if he is punished, you will receive the same.”

Twilight laughed. “Right, I’m very afraid.”

Packer shook his head. He grabbed Runt by the tail and started to drag him off in the distance while Twilight and I followed.

“Uh, Twilight?” I said.


“You do remember that I’m a lot easier to harm, right?”

Twilight scratched the back of her head. “Uh . . . maybe?”

Well that was just great. I was now being led to a trial against using machines that would feature a colt who was obviously guilty. Then the punishment afterward.

Packer led us into the shell of a department store. The interior was blasted clean, and only a few bits of metal racks and counters remained, all rusted. Ash scattered around my feet as we walked through it.

Ahead, the large room had been blown open at the back, and we filed through the hole and onto the highway on the other side. The city had been pretty advanced, even for my time: the system of highways rising and diving beneath each other on more than ten levels made me dizzy just to look at them.

Most of the roads were crumbled and cracked, though the one Packer led us on seemed at least somewhat complete. The asphalt was hot in the heat of the day, and Runt made a show of jumping from hoof to hoof as we walked.

“Did this happen to all the cities on the planet?” I asked Twilight as we climbed over the wrecked remains of a traffic jam. My hoof shattered a windshield whose glass had gone brittle over time.

“Quite a few,” Twilight said, “but not all.”

“Then why didn’t they help the survivors?”

Twilight looked around at the crumbling edifices lining the roadway. “I don’t think they thought anypony could survive after what happened here.”

She jumped from the roof of a small sedan onto a cargo container loaded onto a truck. The metal groaned under her weight.

“Then again, most of the cities that were left were probably the ones with the least amount of resources, so it’s doubtful they were in any position to—”

The roof of the cargo container, rusted in time, gave in and collapsed, taking Twilight with it. She fell through with a shriek and the sound of rending metal.

Packer, Runt, and I scrambled over to the rear entrance of the cargo container, which was open to the elements. We found Twilight laying on her side and rubbing her head, looking no worse for the wear.

She grinned sheepishly. “. . . help.”

Twilight climbed out of the cargo container and continued on the road with us, though a bit more carefully.

We walked for an hour before the massive and long roadway finally ramped down to meet the ground once again. Here, we were met by the ruins of suburbs.

Somehow, it was even worse than the inner-city. The ruins of houses and towering apartment complexes just seemed more ghastly. Perhaps it was the fact that ponies had not just worked there, but lived there.

We didn’t dare go in any of the houses.

Twilight kicked at a mailbox that had been withered away to almost nothing.

“Really brings it home, doesn’t it?” she said.

“You say that like you’ve seen this kind of thing before,” I said.

She looked away. “Maybe.”

“Will you two shut up?” Packer growled. “We’re almost there.”

I jogged up next to Runt.

“You walked all that way just for a battery?” I asked.

He nodded his head sadly. “All of the buildings closer to the village have been sacked already. To find anything oldtech, you have to go a bit farther out.”

The road split in two directions up ahead to circle a large area that had once been—apparently—a park. What remained of the actual park, however, appeared to be the husks of a few trees.

What was most striking about the area, however, was how it teemed with life. A rough fence surrounded the park and past it the signs of civilization could be seen. Simple civilization, but civilization still.

Tents and houses made of scrap rose from the tortured ground. The smoke of campfires could be seen drifting up over it, as well as the din of talking ponies.

“That’s where all of you live?” Twilight asked.

Packer nodded. “It’s home.”

“Why not live in the houses?” I asked.

Packer whirled around and stared me in the eyes.

“Why, that would be heresy,” he said icily.

When he continued on, Runt walked up next to me and whispered, “They tried to at first . . . but they couldn’t bear to try to take over the remains of ponies like that. The heresy laws came after.”

“How would you know that?”

“My dad, of course.”

Runt hurried to catch up to Packer, who had stopped at the point where the rows of houses abruptly ended but before the park began.

“His father, huh?” Discord said. “Let me guess, he’s trying to make it up to dear old dad. That’s how it goes, right?”

“If you don’t keep your mouth shut, I’ll punch myself just so you feel it,” Twilight growled.

Discord pouted. “You must be terrible at parties.”

“Look,” Twilight said. “These ponies are paranoid of old technology as it is. I don’t want to imagine how they would react to seeing you.”

“Point taken.” Discord sighed and retreated to Twilight's side. She drew her cape closer around her to keep him as hidden as she could.

As a pair, we walked up to join Packer and Runt at the same spot, where they remained rooted to the ground. They kept eying the buildings around them.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Stand still,” Packer ordered. “The Sentry has to check you first before you can be allowed entrance.”

I did as I was told, though felt very silly. Twilight, however, chose to scan the area with her own eyes, as if she were looking for any hidden enemies.

Suddenly, however, a pony appeared on top of a nearby roof that I could swear hadn’t been there before. He wore tattered rags around his head that flapped behind him like a cape of his own. The only gaps in the rags were for his eyes and a small one for his nose.

The tan-coated pony hopped off the roof and landed on the ground with a very precise movement that left almost no sound.

Closer up, I could see that he carried a single weapon with him. It was a pony-style rifle, all right, but in the worst condition I had ever seen one. The barrel was dented and misshapen, while the rest of it looked to be rusting and falling apart.

It was a wonder that it held together.

Even then, however, he handled it like a veteran and kept the weapon trained on us.

“Who are these two?” he asked in a surprisingly warm voice.

“I found them out by the city hall,” Packer said proudly. “They were poking around, but they appear harmless.”

The Sentry turned toward us. “You two are not from here,” he observed. “Your clothes, they are too clean.”

I looked down at my shirt and vest. They were covered in grime and various other substances, but immaculate in comparison to the others.

“No, we come from far away,” Twilight said.

“Ah.” The Sentry turned back to Packer. “If they are harmless, then why do you bring them here?”

They brought themselves,” Packer said. “I caught Runt trying to sneak sacred artifacts again, and they wanted to vouch for him to the council.”

“I see.”

He nodded to all of us.

“Alright, you’re all clear,” he said. “Go on through.”

With a few quick jumps off various pieces of scenery, he was back on the roof and out of sight just as fast.

Packer led us across the street to the entrance to their little village. The walls appeared to be made out of scrap, and one had a large name written across it, like it had once been part of a starship or airframe or some other.

Revelation,” I said. “Is that the name of your village?”

Packer nodded. “Yes, it is named so after the artifact that we used to build our village in the first place.”

Twilight peered past the wrought-iron gate, which had many gaps in it. “This place isn’t very big; it can’t have more than thirty ponies, can it?”

“Twenty-one adults and six children,” Runt said. “Used to be seven, but I turned sixteen a few months ago.”

Packer banged on the gate, and it began to slide open obligingly on squeaky tracks. Once they were open, we were led inside the village proper.

The interior of the village, placed on the ancient park ground, was not much to look at it. A scattering of tents off to the left and buildings made out of the same materials to the right. In the center was a large ring which appeared to have a captain’s chair at its head, embedded into the ground.

Three more ponies sat near the gate with guns in about the same condition as the Sentry, though the way they handled theirs showed that they had never actually shot them before.

“Come on,” Packer said, goading us forward. “The council’s already in session. We can get this over quickly.”

An old pony with a bushy, salt-and-pepper beard sat in the captain’s chair and stared out at us with green eyes set deep into his golden face. He seemed to grow wary as soon as he saw both Packer and Runt approach the circle.

Two more old ponies sat in the circle on the ground, one on each side of him. They seemed almost as old, but not quite. They stared at the new arrivals.

“So Packer returns, and brings Runt with him,” the one in the captain’s chair spoke. “What tidings do you bring us?”

“Oh, Father Eden,” Packer said, “I bring Runt before you once again to be charged with the tampering of artifacts.”

“Again,” Eden grumbled. His eyes lit up, however, when he caught sight of Twilight and I. “Tell me, who are these guests you bring with you?”

“Oh, them?” Packer said. “They’re just citywalkers who wanted to vouch for Runt. Now about that—”

“Hush, boy,” Eden said quickly. He stared at Twilight like she was a present on Hearth’s Warming Morning.

“Now,” he said, “who exactly are you?”

“J-Just a traveler,” Twilight said, watching all the eyes that had suddenly fallen on her. “Nothing more.”

“Is that right?” Eden said. “Because, the books of ancients seem to mention a mare perfectly fitting your description. Purple and covered in scars, with a crimson cloak . . . though most also mention a tattoo.”

“I don’t know what you’re—” Twilight began, but was cut off by Eden who raised a hoof and one of the other council members, a unicorn, turned his horn to Twilight.

A small bit of magic, and the cape lifted up to reveal Discord’s tattoo.

Gasps were heard from the ponies outside the council circle who had gathered to watch. Eden’s eyes only narrowed.

“So the prophecy is true,” he said. He waved a hoof at the flustered Packer. “You may go now, boy. Take the other ‘traveler’ and place her in Runt’s tent until we get to him. I believe this council has much to talk about with the prophesied one.”

“What if I refuse?” Twilight said haughtily.

Eden laughed, a very dry motion of his lips. “The ancients did not believe this to be your way. Is it?”

Twilight looked at me once, gave me a little nod, then answered, “No.”

“Good, then we have much to discuss.”

* * *

Packer roughly led us to a small tent near the fringe of the village and made sure we were both inside before leaving, grumbling about his fair share.

That left Runt and I in the middle of a very cramped canvas tent. The entire interior consisted of a rough cot and a scrap-metal table covered in junk. Junk that was, at least, familiar to me.

“Is this it?” I asked, walking over to the table. “Your, uh, talk-box?”

Runt nodded. “It was, but Packer smashed it up last time I got some parts for it. Now, I don’t even know if I can fix it . . .”

“Yeah . . . me . . . neither . . .” I began, but drifted off as I looked at the pieces more closely.

I felt a slight burning in my flank as my cutie mark, and suddenly the pieces looked so, well, obvious. Of course this one goes there and that one goes there! It was simple.

“Mind if I try to fix it?” I asked hurriedly.

“Your eyes are glowing,” he mumbled.

“That’s a good thing!” I laughed. “You’re not the only pony here who’s good with tinkering.”

I quickly set about grabbing and adjusting all the little bits on the table. My hooves flew in front of my face until I lost track and began to act purely on instinct.

It may have been hours or only minutes, but eventually I had cobbled together what could more or less be called a radio from spare parts. I was only missing one element.

“Hey, do you still have that battery?” I asked.

He pulled out the yellow cylinder. “You mean this thing?”

“Yeah. Give it here.”

He did, and I carefully attached it to two wires that allowed the electricity to flow through it. I licked my lips and placed a hoof on the radio’s on/off dial.

“You ready?” I asked.

Runt laughed. “You just fixed my radio like it was nothing. Of course I’m ready!”

I took a deep breath. “Then here we go . . .”

I turned the knob and static flew out of the mesh speaker. I let out a happy squeal and grinned at Runt, who returned the gesture.

However, static wasn’t the only thing we received back.

As soon as it had come, the buzzing in the speaker was replaced by a slow, drawling voice calling out through the circuits.

“This is Manehattan Calling,” the voice said. “If anyone can hear this, this is Manehattan Calling, and we need your help.”

Manehattan Calling - II

The broadcast repeated itself several times, leading Runt and I to conclude that the broadcast was just on repeat and not actually directed toward us, unfortunately. After a while, I just turned the thing off when it became apparent that nothing else was going to be said.

“So, what do you think?” Runt said.

I shrugged. “The broadcast has to be coming from sort of station, but the problem would be pinpointing exactly where the signal is coming from.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said hesitantly.

I turned to him. “Do you even know what a broadcast is?”

“Is it when the voices come out of the box?”

“Yeah, kind of.” I tapped the antenna hastily attached to the radio and made of scrap metal. “Every broadcast needs a source, though. Usually, it’s a tower of some kind. If the ponies from that broadcast still need our help, then we’ll have to find that tower.”

“Well, there are a lot of towers in the city,” Runt said. “Why do we have to help them, anyway? I mean, uh, we’re probably not the only ones to hear the broadcast . . .”

I paused. To be fair, setting out and immediately helping any pony who had the slightest problem was probably disconcerting to the average individual. Then again, I hadn’t been with Twilight too long either, and here I was jumping at the chance.

Not that it was necessarily a bad thing.

“Well, think of it this way,” I told him, “if they are continuously broadcasting over a channel like this, then they must have a bunch of ancient technology to help them. If you can guide us to a likely location, my, um, partner and I can take care of whatever danger there is, and you can help yourself to what tech they offer afterward.”

“I, well, that does sound good . . . but I don’t know.”

“That’s okay,” I said, “you don’t have to decide now.”

“Yeah.” Runt scratched at the back of his head. “I just wonder what’s got them so scared over there.”

“Well, I figure it’s probably some sort of brigands or raider group,” I said. ‘Doesn’t this place have ponies going around and stealing from each other?”

“Not that often.” Runt shook his head. “Most pony groups I’ve seen besides ours weren’t really looking to hurt anypony else. There isn’t a lot of food or shelter in this city . . . So most ponies just spend their time trying to get that instead of anything else.”

“Yeah, but a gun could get those faster,” I pointed out. “I mean, even your guards at the gate had guns.”

Runt glared darkly at the ground. “They’re all relics from before the end that our council keeps patching up . . . they told me it was heresy to try to find out how they would work!”

I didn’t bother to point out that if weapons could be maintained since whenever the megaspells went off, then ponies without obstructive councils probably had guns as well.

Twilight would want to know, of course. That, and I’d want her to know, too, so she could keep any bullets off of me should we run into ponies wielding the weapons.

Packer suddenly appeared at the entrance to the tent. “The council will see the two of you now,” he said.

Runt looked at me once before taking a deep breath and following Packer out of the tent. I stayed on their heels, though I couldn’t help but look back one last time at the radio.

Outside, the council members were still intact and Twilight didn’t look particularly angry, so I expected the meeting to have gone at least somewhat amicably. Eden, however, glowered when he saw Runt.

“And so we now return the subject of this meeting to you, Runt, son of Liam,” he said. “Do you know of the crimes which you are charged?”

Runt gulped. “H-Heresy in an attempt to scavenge old world tech— er, artifacts?”

“So you do know.” Eden grunted. “Though, ignorance of the law would be no excuse anyway, especially in a situation such as this. Not only have you committed heresy, but have done so again after being reprimanded before.”

“But why is trying to tamper with old technology such a bad thing?” I asked.

The entirety of the council, Packer, and even Runt himself looked at me in surprise. To them, I guess, I must have been asking a child’s question about a truth they had all accepted long ago.

Eden cleared his throat. “Since you are an outsider, we will spare you your ignorance. This council—and those that served before us—forbid the use of the old world technology to prevent us from coming into the very weapons that destroyed the ponies of old and even caused their gods to flee to the stars.”

“We only want what’s best for the village,” Packer insisted, “but Runt here refuses to accept that.”

Runt angrily kicked at the ground. “Not everything the old ones left behind is evil.”

Packer raised a hoof as if to strike the upstart, but Eden moved forward and held the bulky colt back. The council leader then stood before Runt, towering over the little inventor.

“We may argue semantics all day, but this will not excuse you from your crimes,” he said, “and crimes must result in a punishment.”

Twilight stepped forward. “You’re not going to kill him, are you?”

“Kill him?” Eden snorted. “Our village has a low enough population as it is, and to think of doing something so horrible to the son of Liam is out of the question.”

Twilight and I both let out the audible sighs we had been holding. I briefly dwelled on the fact, however, that that had also been our first assumption from this society. Maybe their talk of the pre-war culture wasn’t completely wrong . . .

Eden looked at us both quietly before continuing. “You are, instead, going to be given a very certain task to accomplish to redeem yourself in the eyes of the council.”

“W-What would that be?” Runt asked.

“You are to accompany the prophesied One on her journey until its completion, at which you may be allowed to return home. Doing so before her journey is complete will result in banishment.”

Runt gulped. “I understand.”

“Good, now leave with the One and do not return until her journey is complete.”

The council immediately turned away, apparently satisfied that their job had been done. Twilight, Runt, and I looked at each other, shrugged, and started to back out of the camp.

“Guess I’m going with you guys after all,” Runt said, “whether I like it or not.”

“I guess so,” I said. I turned to Twilight. “What was all that stuff about prophecy and you being the ‘One?’”

Twilight held up a hoof to silence me while the gates were opened once again. They slid open on their noisy—and rusty—tracks to let us out, then closed shortly after that.

“They’re calling me the ‘One’ because of some stupid prophecy,” Twilight began. “It’s something about how a madmare with a tattoo will come after the end of the world to save it again or something like that. It’s ridiculous.”

“Is it?” I said. “I mean, couldn’t you have made the prophecy, like, in your future, but their past?”

“Possibly.” Twilight looked at Runt. “You ever hear of this prophecy?”

He shrugged. “There’s a bunch of them, so I might have, but maybe not. This is the first to come true as near as I can tell.”


Twilight started to walk down one of the urbanized streets lined with houses, then stopped and turned around. “Say, would that prophecy happen to say exactly what I’m supposed to do?”

Runt shook his head, but I eagerly raised my hoof. “We may have discovered a lead while you were talking to the council, actually.”

“Oh, and what would that be?”

“There was a radio transmission broadcasting over a single, open channel,” I explained. “All it said was: ‘This is Manehattan Calling,’ and then something about needing help. I mean, that’s a lead, isn’t it?”

Twilight nodded. “Probably, but the problem is finding a radio tower around this city.” She sighed. “I could teleport to the top of a big building to find one, but I’m not going to risk it in a city filled with leftover residual magic from a megaspell. I wouldn’t want to end up with my skin on the inside.”

“Yeah . . .”

Runt and I just kind of sat back in our helplessness while we watched Twilight walk around and try to come up with a situation. Feeling particularly useless, I turned back to look one last time at the village behind me, only to come face to face with the Sentry’s facewrappings.

“Gah!” I cried. “You!”

The Sentry tilted its head, then shoved past me and approached Twilight. The sight of the large gun strapped to the pony’s side caused the lavender mare to drop slightly into a territorial stance and her eyes to darken, though she didn’t say anything.

The Sentry stopped just before, raised a hoof to its face, and pulled them down enough to reveal the face of a . . . Mare?

“Y-You’re a girl?” I said, perhaps a little bit too loudly.

He, er, she whirled around and said in an angry voice, “Of course I’m a girl! Just what did you think I was?”

I gulped. The warm voice . . . the way she hopped around all over the place with a surprising amount of grace . . . the slim body I had tacked up to malnutrition . . . oh, this was embarrassing.

“Well?” she demanded.

“N-Nothing,” I stammered, “I was just, uh, surprised because of the gun—”

“Are you saying a girl can’t handle a gun? Kind of surprising coming from a girl traveling around with a prophesied warrior.”

I shook my head. “No, it’s not like that at all! You see—”

“Tinker,” Twilight said icily. “Shut. Up.

I closed my mouth while she turned back to the Sentry. “Did you have a reason to approach us?” she said.

The Sentry nodded. “I overheard your talk with the council, and then what you were saying out here.” She swung her rifle around and pointed to the scope. “If you can tell me what a ‘radio tower’ looks like, I’m sure I can find it. I get bored, so I’ve scouted all over this city.”

“And why do you suddenly want to help us?” Twilight asked. “Don’t you have a village to guard?”

She snorted. “Duh, you’re the prophesied One. All of the cool stuff is going to happen around you; all we ever get around here is a whole lot of nothing, coupled with the occasional drifter.”

She lifted up her cloak to reveal a cutie mark of a sniper’s crosshairs. “When your special talent is shooting things, guarding a peaceful town sucks.”

Twilight sighed. “Fine, you can come along, if only so we can get to this radio tower before everything really goes out of control.”

The Sentry saluted. “Got it. Now, what does one of these radio tower things look like?”

“Well, it’s like a big metal tower, but with a, uh, bunch of little cross beams through it. And it’s hollow,” I said.

“Right,” the Sentry said. “I’ll, uh, look for that. Wait right here.”

She scrambled up the nearest house and leapt across the rooftops away from the village and down a side street toward a large, concrete building near the houses. Somehow, she re-covered her face as she went, with two cloth strips still trailing behind her. The rifle bounced against her back as she went, sometimes even resorting to running along for a brief time on two legs.

Twilight, Runt, and I had a hard time keeping up with her on the ground, even when she stopped on the large building—a bank—and waited for us.

“Has she always been like this?” Twilight asked as we ran.

Runt shook his head. “I’ve never seen much of her, so I don’t know. She mostly keeps to herself when she’s in the village at all.”

“Hey,” the Sentry called down, “does the radio tower kind of look like the inside’s made up of a metal spider web, and have a big ball on top?”

“That’d be the one,” I yelled up to her.

She shimmied down a ladder on the side of the building, though chose to drop the last ten feet or so, still managing to land softly somehow. She brushed herself off and looked at Twilight.

“We’re lucky; the tower’s not too far, and directly east of the village. We should be able to make it there if we follow this street.”

“Great then,” Twilight said. “Lead the way.”

The Sentry started down the street, and we followed where. Whereas we walked down the middle of the cracked concrete boulevard, however, she kept to the shadows and overhangs of the buildings, always keeping out of sight except for the briefest moments when she’d move to more cover.

The houses quickly disappeared behind us as we moved into a sort of low-grade commercial sector with the remains of restaurants and shopping malls staring out at us in all their decadence. The road widened as we went, as well, turning from a two-lane residential street into a four-lane highway.

Off in the distance, between more tall buildings but still within the unending sea of concrete that was Manehattan, I finally spotted the radio tower.

As the Sentry had said, it wasn’t very far. At most, it was twenty city blocks, which were much easier to travel without traffic. Which, oddly enough, there wasn’t a lot of.

“Hey,” I said, “how come there aren’t a whole lot of cars on the road out here?”

On the crumbling highway in front of us, in fact, there was only one vehicle: a rather large tanker truck that had fallen on its side and was now rusting away.

The Sentry looked both ways, then walked out tentatively toward us in the road. “The city was given an evacuation order before the bombs hit,” she told us. “Most of the ponies managed to clear out of the business districts, but got stuck on the highways. And then . . . well, you can probably figure out the rest.”

“How do you know all this?” Twilight asked.

“You can find the information if you look hard enough,” she said. “Isn’t that right, Runt?”

Runt gulped. “Y-Yeah, though the council doesn’t look highly on it . . .”

“That’s why it helps to be the Sentry; they need me.”

We continued onward after that, though a question started to bug at me. I drifted over toward the sidewalk that the Sentry crept along, and she regarded me with a huff of annoyance.

“What do you want?” she said.

“Oh, uh, just wanted to ask a question,” I said.

“Yeah, well, spit out.” She hopped over an overturned mailbox. “Once we get to the station, I get the feeling that we won’t have time for this.”

I nodded. “I just wanted to know, since you’re traveling with us, uh, what’s your name?”

She looked at me funny. “Sentry.”

“Your name is your job? Isn’t that kind of redundant?”

“Oh yeah, and what’s your name?”

“. . . Tinker . . .”

She snorted. “Right, my name’s ridiculous.”

Sentry shook her head and started to laugh a little as we walked, though her moment was quickly cut short.

The sound of a single bullet cracking through the air echoed across the empty street. It had come from the direction of a radio tower.

Soon, another crack followed it, and then another, and another. The sounds of a gun battle filled the long-desolate air over the Manehattan suburbs.

“What’s that noise?” Runt asked.

Sentry grinned. "Show time."

* * *

We practically ran the rest of the way to the radio tower, though we couldn’t get a good look at the battle going on until we rounded one final corner and ducked into the cover of a restaurant’s doorway.

The road continued up the road a little bit, until it ended in a large, squat building with the radio tower jutting out of its top. Where it would normally have front steps and a wide patio, there were sandbags and weapons emplacements. Ponies in steel helmets and armor blazed away with semi-automatic rifles and submachine guns.

Startlingly, given how far into the “future” we were supposed to be, the weapons looked no different than what the guards around Journey’s End had carried, if a little more worse for the wear.

The ponies they were shooting at were more ragged in their appearance and in weapon choice. Despite that, however, they were smart enough to take cover among the rubble strewn about on the road and to the side of it.

Occasionally one of them would try to move forward while his comrades provided covering fire, but the ponies defending the station weren’t as keen on keeping their heads down as the ragged ones would have liked, and kept the other ponies pinned down.

“So are we going to take bets on who’s the good ponies in this fight?” Twilight asked.

Sentry pulled a bullet out of the tattered clothes on her back and slid it into her rifle’s chamber. “I don’t know, but I’m gonna get up on this restaurant’s roof to get a better look.”

“Here, take this, just in case,” she told me. She tossed me a blocky pistol that she also pulled out from somewhere beneath her clothes.

Without another word, Sentry scrambled up the crumbling parts of the restaurant until she was on top.

Meanwhile, Runt, Twilight, and I took cover behind some of the remains of one of the restaurant’s walls that was scattered in the street. Luckily, none of the combatants had noticed us yet, so we were content to watch the battle continue.

I watched Sentry slowly move toward the edge of the roof, put her rifle on her shoulder, and looked through the scope. Unfortunately, putting weight on the rifle put weight on the edge of the unstable rooftop, and a section of the roof suddenly fell off and hit the ground with a large crash.

Immediately, several of the ponies in ragged clothes who heard the noise turned and began blasting away at the roof with their bolt-action rifles.

I could hear Sentry curse as she, too, was pinned down.

“Great, now what?” I said, turning to Twilight. “Any bright ideas?”

“My magic doesn’t work, remember?”

“And all of your ideas involve magic?”

“Element of Magic: kinda my thing.”

Runt growled in exasperation. “We can’t just leave her to die!” he cried. He snatched the pistol out of my hooves and, before I could stop him, ran out of our cover and into the middle of the street.

“Leave her alone!” he yelled, opening up on the ponies closest to us with the gun, though every shot went wild by several feet. The intended effect of drawing their attention away, however, worked perfectly.

Bullets snapped at Runt’s hooves as he ran across the street toward more rubble to escape the gunfire that the ponies now shifted towards him.

They didn’t get much of a chance to, however.

As soon as their fire was off of her—and confirming who exactly she should shoot at—Sentry laughed, raised herself back up, and started taking shots at the ragged ponies below.

I could see Sentry grin as she watched the first bullet enter its victim.

The high powered rifle bullet hit the middle stallion in the knee, the high speed lead ripped his foreleg off in an explosion of gore. The stallion dropped to the dirt, clutching the remains of his leg in agony.

The other two stallions quickly met similar fates. As she saw the gruesome toll her bullets wrought on the ragged ponies, Sentry’s grin widened and she laughed out loud.

The sound was high and melodious, the sort a filly would make running through a field of daisies in summer.

My stomach, instead, turned as I looked at the slick remains that covered their former positions and spots of cover.

Sentry jumped down from her spot just like she didn't have a care in the world just as several of the armored ponies approached us with their weapons still drawn.

“We don’t mean any harm,” Twilight said quickly, though Sentry’s ready gun kind of made it a moot point.

The leader of them, a tan pegasus with a chocolate mane looked us over, then widened his eyes. “Stand down,” he told his soldiers.

He walked up to Runt and looked down at him. “You. Are you the son of Liam?” he asked.

Runt gulped. “Y-Yeah, why?”

“Then you just might be able to save us all.”

Manehattan Calling - III

The leader of the armored ponies had introduced himself as Steady Aim. He led us back across the now-quiet courtyard to the radio station. Some of the other armored guards had begun to sweep away the spent munitions and clean up the bodies of the ponies Sentry had taken out.

They dumped them near the front of the street leading to the radio tower. Steady Aim explained at as an “intimidation factor.”

He kept very close to Runt the whole way as we walked, making sure to keep his bulk behind the young pony like he was a physical shield. Runt himself seemed pretty confused about the whole thing, and his eyes almost continuously swept across the courtyard like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Sentry, meanwhile, just looked to be on edge by all the other ponies with guns that weren’t hers. She eyed the semi-automatic military rifle slung across Steady Aim’s back hungrily.

Twilight and I just took everything in stride, like usual. A few ponies with guns isn’t exactly comparable to a dragon, Equestrian history’s most powerful wizard, or a ship filled with insane ponies, after all.

The guards by the radio station’s doors saluted Steady Aim as we went inside.

* * *

The interior of the station wasn’t much, but it was at least cleaner than the outside. It mostly consisted of an entry room filled with boxes of supplies and resting soldiers, and then the next room where the actual radio-ing went on.

All sorts of electronic equipment were piled on tables and leaning in haphazard towers that scraped against the ceiling. Most of them didn’t even seem to be on, or even whole.

The equipment that sat on a smaller desk at the center of the room, however, blazed with life. Obviously cobbled together from a variety of sources, they glowed green and red and hummed with power. Wires snaked their way around the floor and under a large red door at the back of the room.

A lone pony sat in an old chair in front of the table, a microphone placed just under his mouth and massive headphones on his head. His pure, white coat seemed to be out of place in a city like this, though his mane that was the same color red as blood fit right in.

Steady Aim coughed, prompting the radio pony to turn around. He wore thick glasses that were covered in tape from years of repair. By all accounts, he seemed to be very old.

He smiled at us. “Ah, Steady Aim, I see you have found some new friends.” His gaze focused on Runt. “Some very special friends indeed.”

Steady Aim nodded. “Yes, sir. They helped us in that recent Raider attack, and even brought us the son of Liam.”

“Yes, yes, his son looks just as the old coot used to describe him.”

“You knew my father?” Runt said finally.

The radio pony nodded his head. “Oh yes, quite well. When your father left your village, he combined his work with my own; this radio station is only part of our combined success.”

“So you were the pony broadcasting on the radio?” I asked.

“Ah, yes. ‘Manehattan Calling’ was Liam’s idea, and I’ve kept it up over the years in hopes of any ponies who might be able to help.” He smiled at Runt. “I could only hope that it would wield such results.”

Everypony looked like they were trying to ask another question at once, so Twilight stepped forward with a swoosh of her cloak that quieted us all.

She focused her attention directly on the radio pony. “I’m sure somepony knows what’s going on here, but I, for one, am lost. Care to explain before we get into how Runt is supposed to help you so much?”

The radio pony coughed. “Oh, yes, of course.”

He stood up from his chair. “Ponies around here call me Aradesh; it’s an odd name, I know, but I’ve grown quite fond of it.”

“Alright, Aradesh,” Twilight said, “explain what you’re doing here.”

Aradesh sighed. “It all has to do with this city.”

He pointed to a faded map showing a massive city grid spreading along the Equestrian coast. “The city of Manehattan must have been the largest in the world before the War. Now, the Manehattan Boneyard stretches forever, the skeletons of buildings lying under the hot sun. Not even the wind enters this dead city.

“My family was part of one of the many roving bands who made camp in the suburbs of Manehattan, but I lost them to raiders at a young age. I wandered across the Boneyard for years—so large as it is—until I came across Liam, Runt’s father. He had just run away from his village to escape their views on technology, though he regretted leaving behind his frail wife and child.”

Aradesh’s eyes closed and he clenched his jaw. “He never stopped regretting that. However, he put up with it out of the dream that he could make the Boneyard a better place. He sought to use old-world technology to create a sort of purifying device that could restore life to Manehattan once more.”

“I’m guessing something went wrong,” Twilight said.

Aradesh shook his head. “No, his research was sound and the project neared completion in this radio station that he used for a laboratory. His action, however, did not go unnoticed.”

The radio pony paused.

“Raiders who believed him to be building a great weapon invaded our facility. We had no guards, and no armed ponies besides us. If I had not been out that day . . . then they would have gotten me, too.”

Runt’s lip began to quiver. “Then my father is . . . dead?”

“I am sorry you had to find out this way,” Aradesh said slowly. “They took him and his project to their camp . . . and no pony has ever come from there alive.”

Runt didn’t respond, or obviously cry. Instead, he sat in a corner away from us and held himself, shaking. After a moment’s hesitation, Sentry went over to him, and laid a hoof on his shoulder.

“So how’d you end up with all of these guard ponies?” Twilight asked.

“When I returned to the station, I tried to clean it up as best I could and began the broadcast that your friend heard. These ponies were the first to respond: The Iron Battalion, they are called.”

Steady Aim stepped forward. “We are the descendants and heirs to Equestria’s 101st Armored Battion: The Iron Battalion. They were in the field when the megaspells hit, and survived the war. We continue their duty of searching the vast Equestrian Wasteland for ponies to help. The contingent here is the one that chose to try and enter the Boneyard on foot.”

“That leads us up to today, for the most part,” Aradesh told us. “We have been sitting here, waiting for either the son of Liam to show himself to us one day, or the Iron Battalion to link up with its vehicles trapped across the city so we could effectively drive back the raiders who continue to pester us.”

Runt, sniffling, joined us again. “How am I so important, exactly?”

“You are the catalyst of your father’s project,” Aradesh said. “A key was made with old-world technology that could activate the purifier, but only if used by one with his DNA. That would be, right now, you.”

“I’m going to take a guess and say you don’t have it,” Sentry quipped.

Aradesh nodded. “The raiders took it when they took Liam. We know the location of the camp, but cannot hit it without the full force of the Iron Battalion, lest they destroy the project before we can reach it.”

“That’s where we come in, isn’t it?” I said.

“Yes,” Aradesh said. “The four of you are a small enough force to sneak into the raider camp virtually unmolested. Once there, you can locate the key and signal us. Our forces will storm the camp, with or without vehicles, and we can all activate the project and finally begin purifying the Boneyard.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Sentry said, absentmindedly grabbing at her rifle.

“It sounds suicidal,” Twilight shot back.

Sentry just grinned.

“What it sounds like to me is something my father would have wanted me to do,” Runt said. “I didn’t know him for long, but if he abandoned me and my mom for this . . . I have to believe that it was for a good reason. A reason worth dying for.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, while Sentry laughed.

“That’s the spirit!” she said.

“If you choose to go,’ Aradesh said, “we will be right behind you the whole way. Their camp is quite large; it should not be a problem for all of you to sneak in. Once in, you know what to do.”

Runt nodded. “Then let’s do it.”

* * *

We were escorted away from the radio station and down the street, but at the end of the block our group of guards turned back. All save for Steady Aim.

He looked across the city, and pointed out the direction we needed to go: due North from the radio station.

“Their camp isn’t hard to miss,” he told us. “It’s placed at ground zero of a megaspell crater. Some of the ponies around here think it’s why they’re all so crazy.”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed. “Center of a megaspell crater? The magic there will be off the charts . . . this could complicate things.”

“Well, you don’t have to come,” Runt said cautiously. “This is my fight, not yours.”

Twilight snorted. “I wish.”

He looked at her funny, shook his head, and took off toward the crater. Sentry followed behind him, still keeping to the shadows of the nearby buildings that lined the street.

Twilight and I exchanged a look before following them.

The avenue toward the crater got progressively messier and run-down as we neared the center. A side effect of being in the actual blast of the megaspell, I supposed.

Concrete buildings that had once stood solid by the side of the road now crumbled and swayed dangerously in the late morning sun.

It was evident that many ponies had been trying to take refuge in the more sturdy-looking buildings. The remains of wood that had been for boarding up the windows and heavy doors made of steel littered the street. Most of the cars, however, were gone.

The Boneyard, Aradesh had called the city. A pretty apt name, I began to realize.

Twilight jogged up next to me while Runt and Sentry pulled ahead.

“Hey,” she said.

“Oh, so we’re talking now,” I said.

She ignored my comment. “Am I the only one getting on odd vibe from this Iron Battalion?”

“Maybe?” I said. “I mean, what’s so weird about them? They want to take down these raiders and restore the wasteland. What’s so bad about that?”

Twilight shook her head. “It just seems really . . . contrived. Runt shows up, and suddenly they’re willing to attack the raiders now, even though they’ve waited a long time to do so in the past.”

“I think you just worry too much,” I said.

“I hope so.”

“Will you two pipe down?” Sentry hissed. “We’re here.”

Up ahead, the road rose slightly, and when we came to the end of it I realized that I was standing on the lip of a massive crater in the middle of the city.

The other end of the depression must have been at least half a mile away, if not farther. The inside of the crater was not empty, as I would have expected, however.

Large amounts of blasted buildings and general rubble littered the center of the crater, providing large amounts of cover for the raiders who crawled like ants over the destruction.

“The buildings are still . . . intact?” Runt said.

“The concussive force of a megaspell is low compared to the deadly magic it puts out,” Twilight explained quietly. “While it will level a few buildings, most of the damage it does is to flesh-and-bone ponies, not concrete and steel.”

“Any excess magic I should watch out for, then?” Sentry said, taking her gun and cradling it in her hooves.

“Just some that’s going to be stored in concrete and steel of the rubble itself, but not much of a worry for you—” Twilight began, but Sentry didn’t stick around to hear the rest.

She was off, dashing across the no-mare’s land between the lip of the crater and the first group of rubble. Sentry had switched the gun to her teeth and managed to make it across without arousing any obvious suspicion from the raiders.

Then again, most of them were on the other side of the crater, and those that were visible were a small number—not more than twenty or thirty—for the size of the area.

Still, it was more than the four of us could handle, especially without Twilight’s magic.

Runt was the next to run across the open ground to the rubble, though at a considerably slower pace. Twilight and I followed him, doing our best to stay quiet and low the whole way.

We managed to make it to the cover of a toppled housing block without being seen. The building was on its side, so we entered in somewhere around the fourth story into the empty interior. Sentry was waiting for us.

She scrambled up to the one of the building’s gaping windows, and pointed outside. “I can see some smoke rising from the center over there. That’s probably where that command of theirs is located, if I had to guess, which I am.”

Twilight nodded, and Runt and I peeked out a hole in masonry to see what she was pointing at. Sure enough, a thin tendril of black smoke rose from what was more or less the center of the crater.

“There’s fairly good-sized tower that’s mostly intact over there,” Sentry continued. “I’ll make my way in there and give you guys and Runt cover while you sneak in and find that key.”

The tower she was indicating was a bit less than “mostly intact.” It looked like massive bites had been taken out of its side, and was a wonder to just stand up on its own in the first place. Still, I didn’t object.

Sentry hopped down from her spot and led us across the ground toward the center of the crater. We made sure to keep to the cover the rubble provided, though Twilight shied away from it a little; every time she got close, her horn started to glow.

Finally, we came to the base of the tower.

“Wait right here,” Sentry said. “I’ll give you all a signal when I’m ready.”

With that, she deftly began to climb up the tower, her gun slapping against her back on its strap. The tower groaned a little, but otherwise she had no trouble.

She gave us a wave from her new perch at the top of the tower, and we all started to move forward.

As we stepped carefully among the scattered metal on the ground near the center of the crater, Twilight turned to me.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” she whispered. “This is too easy.”

“Yeah, I feel it too,” I replied.

“Good,” said another voice.

Twilight and I turned around with a start to find a pile of rubble to our side suddenly occupied by raiders in tattered armor. More raiders began to flow out of the surrounding masonry to surround us. Their guns were held at the ready.

“Congratulations, you walked right into where we could trap you,” a pony at the crowd’s head, said.

Unlike the others, he wore clean, shining armor and a large helmet on his head that muffled his voice and gave it a tinny quality.

“Here I was expecting more from the Iron Battalion.” He turned to one of the ponies near him who was hold a large tube-like weapon. “Take out their sniper, if you would.”

The soldier nodded, and leaned on the ground before bringing his weapon to bare. A press of a large button on the side sent a large rocket sailing through the air out the front and a profuse amount of heat and smoke out the back.

Runt had to be held back by two of the soldiers as the rocket reduced the tower to a smoldering heap of concrete and dust that crashed to the ground below.

“Sentry!” he cried.

He struggled against his captors. “Let me go!”

“Hold him,” the captain ordered his soldiers. They complied.

“Now, let’s see about the two of you,” he began, turning to Twilight and I. Most of his attention, however, fell solely on Twilight.

“The tattoo, the colors, the scarring . . . so you must be the prophesied one,” he said.

“So I keep hearing,” Twilight said evenly. “Nopony seems to think actually telling me would be worth my time. Then again, I am talking to a glorified barbarian; you even took our companion’s father.”

The stallion laughed, then removed the helmet keeping him contained. The sandy face with a shaven mane that was revealed didn’t seem to be what Runt expect, as he looked crestfallen and turned away.

I was going to assume that it meant that the pony was not his father.

“I am Captain Raven of the true Iron Battalion. The ones of us who did not follow the insane rantings of that fool, Aradesh,” he said, showing off the rank insignia now obvious on his chest. “You would be careful to talk of Liam so flippantly. He spoke of the prophesied one from before the war: the one ‘who was to bring light to the Boneyard.’”

Raven’s eyes narrowed. “He did not consider this a positive prophecy.”

“What do you mean?”

“He interpreted the prophecy as—”

Raven was interrupted as the head of one of his soldiers was splattered across the chest of the stallion behind him. The echo of the shot carried across the crater, along with the sound of a rifle being reloaded.

The soldiers scrambled for cover, but not before a shot tore a chunk off a large soldier’s shoulder, sending him skidding to the ground.

Sentry was laying against a rocky piece of rubble, clutching her gun in two hooves and sighting targets through one eye. The other was swollen shut, and the rest of her wasn’t much better. She was bloodied, burnt, bruised, but very much alive.

She laughed as she loaded another copper bullet into her gun and fired away, almost landing a shot on Captain Raven right next to us.

“Kill her!” he shouted.

Bullets sparked and cracked around Sentry, though she made no move to take cover. She kept firing until another snapped toward her, though this one hit home.

A nasty red wound ripped open Sentry’s hoof, and she struggled to hold onto her gun. I could hear her cursing, decidedly not under her breath.

“No, stop!” Runt cried in futility. “Don’t hurt her!”

He tried to grab on to Captain Raven, but the stallion shoved him off. However, with their attention all focused on Sentry, nopony was paying any attention to what Runt was doing.

Before we could make a move to stop him, Runt ran toward Sentry’s position, even under heavy fire. The surprised soldiers stopped their fire and looked at each other, apparently confused on whether to shoot or not.

Runt made it easy on them. He pulled out the pistol Sentry had given him, and pointed at the soldiers, who immediately re-aimed their weapons.

“Nopony move!” he said. “Just everypony calm down!”

The soldiers began to advance on him anyway, though slowly and cautiously. They moved like confronting a family member gone crazy.

The gun shook in Runt’s hoof. “I-I mean it!” he said. “Stay back, or I’ll shoot!”

When they didn’t, Runt pointed the pistol at the nearest soldier. His eyes were bloodshot and his hooves shaking like crazy, but he was determined to protect Sentry, who clung to her wounded hoof while somehow keeping her rifle at the ready.

When that soldier took another step closer, Runt closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. Nothing. The gun went click.

He had used up all the bullets.

The soldiers, emboldened, raised their weapons and prepared to fire on both of them.

Runt stared them down. Now that his death was assured, I could see a sense of calm was over his face. He raised the pistol one last time, now toward Captain Raven.


The soldiers opened fire in a hellstorm of lead that nopony could ever hope to dodge. The bullets kicked up such a dust storm that obscured the two from view. Not that I wanted to see.

I cringed when the dust finally settled, ready for the second blood bath that day. Instead, the settling smoke revealed a shining, purple shield covering Sentry and Runt, who cowered inside, safe from harm.

I looked at Twilight to see her horn and eyes glowing like white fire.

“I thought you said using magic was too dangerous here,” I said.

She laughed. “It is, but what fun has there ever been in doing things the safe way?”

“I agree!” Discord shouted, coming to life and growing to several times his normal size until he was a giant outline of a draconequus that towered over the soldiers who had trained their guns on the pair.

“Before you do anything excessively stupid,” he said, “I should inform you that you are about to attempt to use simple ballistic weapons on an immortal and powerful unicorn infused with all the powers of Chaos. I advise you all to run, and run very fast.”

The soldiers, seeing a giant talking tattoo threaten their lives, didn’t need any further encouragement. They quickly disappeared into the rubble.

All, that was, save Captain Raven. He watched us defiantly as Discord wound down back to his usual form.

“Exactly how immortal are you?” I asked Twilight.

“Never quite enough,” she said, “but more than you’d think.”

“That doesn’t even—”

“Hey, what are we going to do about him?” Runt asked, pointing to Raven.

Sentry raised her rifle with her wounded hooves and aimed it at the defeated Captain. “I can think of a few things.”

Runt stepped in front of the gun. “No, killing him isn’t the answer. Enough ponies have died today.”


He looked at her. “There will always be more bad ponies to kill . . . right now, though, is not the time for that.”

Sentry huffed in annoyance and put her gun down. “And here I was, just about to compliment you, too.”

Twilight turned to Raven. “Now, give us a good reason we should keep you breathing for the next thirty seconds. Why did you shoot at us? Why is the prophecy a bad one?”

“The prophecy of the chosen one can be seen as—” he began, but that’s as far as the Captain ever got.

Without warning, his head blew apart, splattering those of us unlucky enough not to have a shield—namely everypony but Twilight—with the remains of Raven’s head.

Standing behind him, holding a smoking revolver, was Aradesh.

That was for Liam,” he said.

“Aradesh!” Runt said. “You’re here!”

“Yes, and I brought the Iron Battalion with me,” he said. “They’re mopping up the last of the raiders as we speak. I see the four of you managed to make it hear.”

“Yeah, we did,” Runt said. “So now what?”

Aradesh brightened. “We take you to the project, of course! There is not time to waste with activating it: the sooner this Boneyard is purified, the better!”

He led the now-enthusiastic Runt toward a squat, somehow intact building in the center of the crater while Twilight, Sentry, and I dubiously followed. Twilight especially looked wary.

The inside of the building was dim, and mostly covered in tents and weapons from the raiders. It was at the center of the room, however, that Aradesh took Runt to.

Sitting in the middle of the room, practically shining in the light, was a massive white cylinder. It had a small datapad on top, and a plastic card was lying next to it.

Aradesh took the card and gave it to Runt.

“Is . . . is this it?” Runt said.

Aradesh nodded. “This is the key your father created. Just by inserting it into the machine will begin the purification process! The Boneyard will finally be pure!”

Runt gave him and Sentry a nervous smile before walking over to the machine—that stood, at its tallest, up to his shoulders—and inserted the card into the slot.

Twilight had been glaring at the cylinder the whole time, but suddenly jumped just as the card went in. “No, don’t!” she cried.

But it was too late. Lights around the cylinder—hidden from view before—turned on all over the cylinder as it blazed with life.

Twilight staggered and clutched her horn.

“What’s wrong?” I said, putting a hoof on her shoulder.

“The key . . .” she said. “Get the key!”

I ran over to the cylinder and plucked the card out of the machine while a startled Runt simply watched. Aradesh, too, made no move to stop me.

Taking the card out, however, didn’t seem to have a visible effect on the machine as the lights continued to blink. Near the bottom of the cylinder, all the lights suddenly turned red.

“Uh, Twilight?” I said. “This thing’s not stopping. Is that bad?”

Twilight growled as she fought to stand again on her feet. “You bastard!” she yelled at Aradesh. “How could you?!”

“What? What’s wrong?” Runt cried.

“That’s not some sort of purifying device,” Twilight spat. “That’s a megaspell!”

I looked at the cylinder that lay before me. The blinking lights and smooth, white shape . . . it was hard to believe that I was staring at something with enough power to destroy cities.

Aradesh laughed. “Of course it’s not some ordinary megaspell . . . no, it’s far more than that. While megaspells have the sole purposes of destroying life and leaving the scenery intact, this bomb was modified by Liam to destroy everything around it with the purifying power of a miniature sun! I gave him the science behind it, and the fool went right along with me!"

“My father did this?” Runt said, taking a step back.

“Why of course he did.” Aradesh sighed. “He figured it out in the end, unfortunately. Decided that the glorious future I had told him about wasn't worth it anymore. Shortly after, he defected to Captain Raven and brought the bomb with him. As I expected, though, he kept his old work around. He never could bear to see his work destroyed . . . the only reason your friend Runt is with us today.”

More of the lights turned red on the cylinder. I tried pushing the key back into the slot, but it didn’t seem to work.

“You monster!” Sentry cried, and tackled Aradesh to the ground. She jammed her rifle into his face and growled at him. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you now!”

Aradesh smiled. “I don’t need to: when this goes off, everything in ten miles will be gone. It’s worthless to resist!”

“Why do you want to kill everything in the city?” Twilight spat. “What does that gain you?”

“Purity.” Aradesh spread his hooves up toward the ceiling. “Through my life, I have witnessed the worst this Boneyard has to offer. In times like these, ponies turn from their peaceful ways: it makes them barbarians. Looting, killing, and far worse crimes are committed against their own kind. With this device, this city will be able to start anew, without any marks left of the city that was destroyed.”

“You’re insane,” Sentry growled.

“Uh, Twilight . . .” I said as more of the lights turned red.

“There must be a way to stop this,” Twilight muttered to herself, staring at the ceiling.

More red. “Twilight, uh, you might want to see this . . .”

“Can’t teleport it away, it’d just destroy everything there too,” she said, “but if I teleport us away, then everypony in this city dies . . .”

The only lights not red were on the top of the cylinder, and they all turned green. Twenty rows of three lights each began turning red one by one.

I searched on the cylinder for some way to stop it, but found nothing. I looked at the slot with the card sticking halfway out of it, but there was nothing else.

As more of the green lights turned red, I did the only thing I could think of and tried to literally shove the card farther into the slot. Surprisingly, it worked.

My other hoof that was resting on the cylinder burned a bit and a computerized voice beeped: “New user accepted.”

At the same moment, more red lights switched on until only one green remained. Even I could figure out what that meant, but, yet, the last stubborn light refused to go off.

“Hey, uh, Twilight?” I said in a high pitched voice.

She ignored me, however, and turned around with a big smile. “I’ve got it!” she said. “I can create a magic shield around the bomb and let it explode on the inside!”

“How much time do we have left?” she asked me.

I smiled. “Um, I think I stopped it, actually.” I looked at the green light carefully, but it refused to turn red.

“That’s great!” Twilight said. “Go ahead and step away so I can activate the shield, though. Just in case.”

I started to release my hold on the bomb, but was stopped by the shrill laughing coming from Aradesh on the ground.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said in a sing-song voice.

“Why not?” I growled. “I stopped the bomb. We won.”

He started to giggle in a fit. “You haven’t stopped it! You just created a new user using your own DNA. That bomb won’t go off so long as you’re touching it, but the second you do, judging from how many of the lights turned red . . . it’s curtains for all of us.”

He looked up at Twilight. “Unless you think you can stop the power of a miniature sun escaping the bomb’s confines in less than a second and avert the prophecy.”

Twilight looked at me. “Tinker, step away from the bomb.”

I gulped. My hooves started to shake. “Twilight, you know I can’t do that.”

“Tinker, step away from the bomb.”

“If I do we’ll all die!” I cried. “You know you can’t stop it! With all the extra magic in the room . . . if my hoof comes off it, we’ll all die!”

“You’re not sacrificing yourself,” Twilight said icily. “Not today. We will think of something to avert this. We can teleport you away, or you off of it, or . . . something.”

“Hmm, maybe it would be nice to mention the automatic kill switch lasts for about five minutes,” Aradesh said with a giggle. “A pony who knew the bomb could easily disarm it in that time, but can you?”

I looked Twilight in the eye. “This bomb’s going to explode somehow,” I said slowly. “We both know the only way to keep the casualties for a minimum.”

“B-But you’ll die!” Twilight said. The lines etched in her face from her years of travel suddenly seemed more visible. “You can’t die! Not here, and not now!”

“It’s either me or everypony in a fifty mile radius,” I said.

Runt and Sentry, meanwhile, were backed up in the room, and had somehow found each other in the hooves of each other. I wanted to laugh. A bomb going off in my face was going to be the best thing for another colt’s love life.

“Tinker, I—” Twilight began.

“The five minutes are almost up,” I interrupted. “Activate the magic shield around me. Just . . . please, do it.”

In the end, I felt empty on the inside. I had come across the galaxy to die because some stupid, insane scientists had built the bigger bomb.

There wasn’t any glory in it besides saving other ponies. When Twilight’s shield finally sparkled and glowed around me, I didn’t feel victorious. I had lost.

Twilight’s eyes sparkled in the light of her magic. It looked . . . pretty. Runt and Sentry watched with her too as the shield was completed.

I looked down at my hoof and took a deep sigh.

I took my hoof off the bomb, and a white light consumed my being.

“I wish—”





White. That was all. A white light that encompassed my vision.

I floated in a timeless void, my limbs free to drift around me. Rayless and pathless I went. There was nothing more for me.

I was done.

“You know that’s not true.”

What? A voice?

Not mine, that was for sure. With an effort that defied myself, I spun around in the white space. There was a figure standing there.

As soon as I perceived him, gravity returned and I fell to a floor as white as the space around it. I picked myself up and tried to look at him, but it was like my eyes kept slipping off of him.

“W-Who are you?” I said. “And why can’t I see you?”

My words seemed to echo through the empty space.

His form did, however, clear up, if only a little. It was strange: he seemed to keep fading between the shape of a pony and something . . . else. Something in a suit and the universe's dorkiest bowtie.

But his face . . . whatever form he took, his face emanated power and wisdom far beyond what the soft features could show. Behind him was a large, blue . . . box-ish object that seemed so out of place in this void world. He was watching me patiently.

“I’m only just another story,” he told me in a heavily-accented voice. “We all are, in the end. But your story’s not over quite yet.”

I looked down at myself, which seemed to be wholly intact. “So you’re saying I’m not dead?”

“No.” He smiled. “You’re just waking up.”

He turned on his heel and started to walk away on long legs that kept switching from four to two, back toward his box.

“Wait!” I called. “What does that mean?”

He didn’t listen, and the edges of my vision began to get blurry. Or, rather, the white void itself began to waver.

Another voice called out to me through the nothingness.

“Hey, are you okay?” it asked.

I looked up, trying to find the source. Even as I did, the world around me began to fade to black and everything lost its focus.


* * *

My eyes fluttered open. I was lying on my back somewhere dark. Brick and concrete buildings stretched far above me in the electric night until they met the dark, cloudy night sky. It was raining.

A fat drop fell from above and struck me on the cheek with a soft glop.

“Hey, can you hear me?” the voice said again. It sounded so much like Charm . . . but no, it couldn’t be.

I rolled over to face my savior, only to be met with a face that stopped my heart cold.

Sitting next to me with a worried look on his face was Charm, about ten years younger and without a cutie mark. Behind him, silhouetted against the stormy night and lit up with a thousand lights, was the Celestia State Building, striking defiantly up into the night above the rest of Manehattan.

Deference For Darkness - I

“Hey, can you hear me?” he repeated again. No, Charm repeated again.

I gulped. “Y-Yeah, I can hear you.”

“Good.” He looked me over. “You gave me a big scare; I found you lying here in this alley, and I didn’t know if you would wake up.” He held a hoof over my face to keep a little of the rain off. “What’s your name, miss?”

“My name is—”

Before I could finish, I clutched my stomach as pain suddenly rocketed through it. It burned like acid was chewing away at it, and I curled into a tight ball. I could hear Charm yelling at me again, but it was like he was behind a foot of glass. Then, the pain starting shooting upward.

Up from my stomach, through my throat, and finally it forced my mouth open. I watched as the sensation fled from me in a field of gold that dissipated into the air. My eyes widened. Magic.

Charm reached down and pulled me up onto his back. His younger frame was smaller, but he was still as strong as I had known him to be. I tried to stand on my own, but my hooves didn’t respond and he had to hold me entirely on his back.

“We need to get you to the hospital,” he said.

I tried to tell him that it wasn’t necessary and he could very kindly put me down, but only vague grunts came out of my mouth. My tongue felt dry as a desert and stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Without any verbal objection from me, Charm continued on out of the alley and into the late night Manehattan streets.

Neon signs burned atop glassy buildings as the rain fell and washed down the smooth surfaces of skyscrapers and penthouses. It was quiet, save for a few cars who cut through the wet streets. Big drops fell hard on the concrete that Charm walked along, and gave me a firsthoof view of the whole thing.

Manehattan . . . still very much alive with life and energy. It was a stark contrast to the ruins I had seen, and almost made me doubt I had seen them at all. How such a wonderful place could fall into such a state of decay was beyond me. I didn’t want to believe it.

Then again, my mind was reeling at just about everything. The digital ads that played on massive screens on the sides of buildings in particular threw me for a curve. My thoughts felt . . . slippery. The world went dark a few times before I felt my body being pulled out of the rain.

I was put onto what felt like a soft bed, but I was moving. I looked down. A stretcher, of course. Fluorescent lights zoomed by above me. I was in the hospital, and I could just see Charm following alongside my stretcher. Why he was sticking with a mare he shouldn’t even know, I had no idea.

They wheeled me into an empty room with windows that looked out over the dark city. Lights flashed in the buildings outside, or was that lightning? Somepony jabbed a needle into one of my hooves and I bucked against the bed. Ponies stronger than I held me to the bed as the medicine worked its way into my veins.

I fought against the coming darkness. No, I didn’t want to go back there! I struggled, but I could already feel my muscles loosening and my lungs slowing themselves against my will. The last thing I remembered seeing before then was Charm’s face, standing by the hospital room door and looking very concerned.

* * *

I don’t know how much time went by after that. I drifted in and out of consciousness over a long period of time. I saw doctors and nurses flash by in their white coats and frocks. For a little while, there were ponies in dark suits standing near my bed, but I could have just imagined them.

I started to think I had imagined a lot of things. Had I really spent all that time with Twilight Sparkle the time traveler? Had all that time really only been a few days? I didn’t know, and switched between opinions every time I had a brief lucid moment.

Each time, though, I would see Charm still sitting in the corner. Sometimes he would be wide awake and flipping through a magazine, other times asleep. I wanted him to be real. I didn’t want him to be a fake. Every time I would open my eyes my heart would beat a little faster until I saw him in the corner again.

My brain knew that it couldn’t possibly be him. How could Charm, of all ponies, be far into the past in Manehattan of all places? I knew it was probably just my megaspell-damaged mind that kept insisting that my long-lost friend was here. Still, though, I wanted to believe the illusion. If only for a little while.

Eventually, the medicine was weaned out of my system. My thoughts became a little clearer. I could see all number of strange machines hooked up to me. Worse, my stomach was burning again.

I watched the monitors began to beep and whine as the burn worked its way up and out my mouth again in the form of a burp. Just as the magic dissolved into the open air, the door burst open.

Two ponies in matching—and tacky—dark suits marched in and surrounded my bed. A doctor and trailing nurses followed, quisitive looks on their faces. One of the suits spoke into some sort of device on one hoof, but I was too out of it to make out what he was saying.

Their body movements spoke volumes, though.

One of them drew up to my bedside. He slid the needle out of my hoof and began unhooking me from the machines.

“Wh-What are you doing?” I slurred.

They both ignored me, but I could see Charm get out of his chair in the corner and approach the group. One of the doctors was shouting at the suit who wasn’t with me. The doctor suddenly went down with a small flash and the nurses starting shrieking.

I felt myself being picked up by the agent. I kicked at him and tried to struggle in his grip, but I was too weak. I saw Charm rush forward to my aid, but the other pony in the suit stopped him.

I watched in slow motion as Charm tried to shove past him and the agent brought up a little box that he had flashed the doctor with. I tried to move toward them, tried to struggle, but couldn’t do anything. I was helpless. My anger rose at the injustice of it all: to finally find Charm and then to have him threatened right away.

The burning began again, but not in my stomach. It burned in my head. Then, like a bolt of lightning, a gold bolt of magic leapt out of my head and exploded out toward the agent.

A massive boom shocked my ears as the agent crashed through the far wall and into the hallway. The pony who had been holding me was lying against the bed, his suit smoking. Charm, somehow, was still on his feet and looking wide-eyed at me.

I fought my way onto my feet. “We have to run,” I told him. He blinked, but didn’t move. I stumbled over to him, and grabbed him around the neck. “Run!”

He responded to the shouting in his ear by letting me rest against him and we both set off out of the room and into the hallway. My legs still felt like jelly, but it’s surprising what a pony can do when she finds herself being hunted.

The whole world swirled and drifted around me, and I was surprised I even managed to remain upright. We managed to get past the nurse’s desk, but came to a halt just outside the swinging double doors that led out of the ER and into the lounge.

In front of us were half a dozen more agents in dark suits. Behind us, the rest of the dozen showed up. We were trapped.

I pushed myself closer to Charm as the agents started to close in. “Just hold still,” one of them said, brandishing a needle. “We’re not going to harm you. We just need to take you with us.”

I shook my head. I tried to tell them no, but my mouth was stuck again. Charm did all the shouting for me, though.

“I’ve seen you guys before,” he said. “You’re just going to take us away and nopony is ever going to see us again!”

“Pipe down!” the agent yelled. He turned to the pony next to him. “Take care of the brat.”

I did my best to step in front of Charm and look aggressive, though in my current state I probably wasn’t fooling anypony. The agents continued to move forward and sweat began to bead on my forehead.

“Miss, now would be a good time to use that boom thing-y,” Charm whispered to me.

“M-Magic,” I managed to correct. Why, for the life of me, I don’t know.

The burning was gone, and no matter how hard I tried to bring it back up, I couldn’t. Every time I tried to focus on blasting the agents away, I couldn’t stop thinking about how bad I wanted to be anywhere but here.

I grunted. “Why won’t this work?” I cried. I slammed my hoof on the ground.

When I looked up, though, the agents had begun to back away. Their eyes were white and pupils shrunk in fear. Even Charm was looking at me, mouth agape.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

“Uh, Miss,” he began, “you . . . you’re glowing.”

“I am?” I asked. I looked down at my hooves, and saw they were ablaze with golden light. Then, just by chance, I imagined how I’d like to see my hooves anywhere but there.

And suddenly, Charm and I weren’t there anymore.

* * *

The air sparked and pulsed around us. A small explosion deposited us on the rough concrete of another desolate alleyway. My mane smoked at the ends and I smelled like burnt rubber. It appeared my magic wasn’t quite as refined as Twilight’s.

My magic.

Oh . . . this was probably not good.

Charm stood up beside me. He coughed and shook off his grey coat that of soot that made him almost look pitch black. His bright red mane seemed mostly unaffected, though.

“Miss,” he said, “I don’t know who you are, but that was one hell of a time.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, um, sorry about that. It’s not normally like this, I promise.”

“Right.” He tilted his head. “Y’know, I never caught a name.”

“Oh, um, Leda Oakwood,” I stammered.

He looked at the cutie mark on my flank and raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got a cutie mark and haven’t chosen a name yet?”

“Well I’m working on it . . .”

Charm laughed. “Well, until I can find my own cutie mark, I go by Karamat.”

“Karamat?” I asked. “Where’s that from?”

“I dunno, it’s not like I was around my parents long enough to ask them. Although Oakwood . . . is that Los Celestias?”

I coughed a little, then nodded. “Yep. Los Celestias. That’s where I come from.”

“So how’d a mare like you end up in the bowels of Manehattan . . . and how in Tartarus can you use magic?”

I took as long as I could to answer. In the end, I couldn’t come up with a good story, so I went with, “I’m not exactly sure . . . the last thing I remember is waking up in that alley. Before that, not much.”

“Sounds like some kind of pulp novel.” He laughed. “Considering those ponies in suits, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. This city is like a magnet for the weird anyway.”

I chuckled. “Speaking of weird, what kind of pony who doesn’t know me stands vigil in my hospital room for so long?”

“You were only out for like four hours,” he said. He rubbed the back of his head. “Plus, well, it’s kind of my job.”

“What kind of job is that?”

“You’ll see.” He waved to me. “Come on, I’ll take you to my boss.”

I paused and clutched at my stomach, that seemed to recoil in pain at the thought. “We’re going to . . . urgh . . . see your boss? Now?”

“We do our best business at this time of the night.”

With that, he set off and left me to follow him. So I did, of course. I’m not that stupid. Besides, the rain felt good against the sweat that had continued to build up from the fire raging inside that made me feel like I was about to burst.

Then again, what could I expect after taking a weapon of mass destruction to the face and somehow living?

We walked down the wet streets that glowed bright from the neon above. I couldn’t get enough of the city. It was beautiful in its own sardonic way. The dark night picked me up and twirled me around; it danced with me in its quiet beauty. I had spent so many nights admiring the simplicity of Journey’s End . . . and never had I imagined something like this.

“You like this city?” Charm asked in a hushed tone.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “It’s like the city has its own kind of breathtaking-ness, different from the countryside but still the same somehow.”

Thunder boomed in the distance. “Yeah, this place is nice,” he said. “Sometimes I forget until somepony new comes to town.”

We walked on. Eventually, the streets grew narrower and the buildings darker and quieter. Most of them were old, and beginning to lean. The color was gone from the bricks and the cement soft.

Charm stopped in front of one such building. It looked to be about eight stories, and the sign on the front had long since worn away the names of the residents. We went inside a rotating door.

The lobby was dry and warm, but that was just about the only positive thing I had to say about it. The once-shiny brass was worn and the wood warped. The carpet under my hooves was frayed and thin as paper. Nopony any longer worked the front desk.

Instead, Charm walked over to the desk himself and pressed a button beside the number four. An intercom burst to life. “Who’s goes there?” a gruff voice on the other side demanded.

“It’s me, boss,” Charm said. “I’ve got a guest. Let me in.”

“Matty?” the voice said. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been worried sick here, trying to figure out where that kid of mine has gone.”

Charm sighed. “Sorry, I’ll explain when I get up. Just try not to get mad, okay?”

“Aw fuhgeddaboudit, you know I can’t stay mad at you for too long. Come on up.”

An elevator off to the side of the lobby dinged and its doors opened. Charm beckoned to me and we stepped inside together.

* * *

The elevator doors slid open to reveal a small hallway with a single door at the end. The tinted glass had a stenciled name on it: Cloaked Dagger: PI. I looked at Charm, who merrily trotted down the hall and knocked on the door.

“Come on in, Karamat,” the same voice from the intercom said. “And show me whatever broad you brought up this time.”

I stepped into the office on my own, but nearly reeled back from the stench. The office was choked with smoke and the smell of cheap cigarettes that Charm’s boss apparently smoked by the pack. Rotting food and alcohol didn’t help the atmosphere, either.

The office was simple with wood floors and plaster walls that had once been white but had begun to yellow. A massive wooden desk covered in ashtrays—many with their contents spilling over—and at least a dozen bottles of whiskey. A caramel colored stallion leaned back in a large chair behind the desk, with a tweed derby sitting at a jaunty angle on his head. A coat was wrapped tightly around him, and a Marelbro dangled from his lips.

“This the client, huh?” he said.

Charm nodded. “Yeah, this is her, boss.” He turned to me. “Uh, Miss Oakwood, meet Cloaked Dagger, Private Investigator.”

I turned to him. “Leda Oakwood . . . no job, at the moment.”

Dagger snorted. “Good luck affording us, then.” His eyes snapped to Charm, and then he sighed. “Matty, please tell me you don’t accept another one of those charity cases.”

“This one’s different, boss—”

“You say that about all of them, Matty.” He looked up at me. “I’m sorry, miss, I don’t know what he promised you, but if you don’t have the cash then I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”

Charm shook his head. “She has nowhere to go. She told me so herself; I found her in the gutter.”

“Come on, everybody’s got somewhere to go,” Dagger said.

“But the government’s after her!”

Dagger started. “The government? You brought somepony wanted by the government to my office?” he shouted.

He began moving toward me. “Out, out, out! Don’t show your face ‘round here again, or I’ll call the gov’ment myself!” he said. “I’ve got enough problems as it is; I don’t need no jail time.”

“But boss,” Charm said, stepping in front of me, “she’s an earth pony that can use magic!”

Dagger halted in his tracks. “Come again?”

“I took her to the hospital and while we were there, some government goons tried to corner us. When one of them went for me, she blasted him with magic. Then, when they nearly got us again, she teleported us halfway across the city!”

“You really saw this?”

“I’m sure of it!”

Dagger took off his hat to reveal a horn underneath it. It lit up with a dull glow and a screen of magic fell on me. I could see him scan me, top to bottom. I almost wanted to cross my legs to preserve my modesty, but the desire to find out what was going on was greater.

When the scanning hit my stomach, however, I doubled over on the ground in pain. “Leda!” I heard Charm cry. He rushed to my side as the scanning switched off. Again, the burning sensation rose up through my throat and forced its way out of my mouth.

Once the magic was gone, I managed to pull myself up with Charm’s help. I saw Dagger staring, well, daggers at me.

“That’s quite the magical punch your little friend is containing,” he told Charm. “That belly of hers has roughly enough magic to collapse a star.” He stepped toward me. “Mind explaining how you got it?”

“I don’t remember—”

“No, no, ‘course you don’t.”

He returned his hat to his head and started for the door. “Much as I hate to say it, Miss Oakwood, I’m interested enough in this case to take it pro bono.” He stuck out a hoof. “Cloaked Dagger, PI, is on your case.”

I smiled, took his hoof, and shook.

Deference For Darkness - II

On the way down to the lobby, Charm filled Cloaked Dagger in on the current situation. The detective listened, never speaking a word. He kept one hoof on his chin the whole time however, and when Charm finished he nodded and readjusted his derby.

The elevator dinged and we got out into the empty, dusty lobby. Charm watched Dagger as he walked out.

“I’m going to need to make a call,” the detective said. “Come on, let’s go find a payphone. If this city even still has one.”

We walked out of the lobby and back onto the streets. It had stopped raining, but the ground was still slick. My hooves fought for purchase on the wet ground, and I fell against Charm for balance. His cheeks flushed a little and I had to stifle a giggle.

There was a payphone sitting down the street a little, shining in the light of a lamppost sitting directly overhead. Dagger went on ahead of us and stepped into the red booth. He dialed up a number and cupped the receiver to his ear.

Charm and I waited outside. I turned to him. “So you bring in mares like me ‘all the time’, huh?” I asked.

He gulped. “Well, uh, not exactly,” he said. “I mean, it’s not what you think it is.”

“Then what is it?”

“Well, Dagger seems to think I have a tendency to bring in hard-luck cases.” He rubbed the back of his head. “You know, ponies that can’t pay for the services we give them, but we take their cases because Cloaked Dagger is really a softy at heart, even if he won’t admit it.”

“So I guess you guys taking on a lot of cases for free is why you’re still in that ratty old building?”

“Pretty much.”

Dagger slammed the phone down and stomped out of the booth. “Damn it!” he cried.

“What’s wrong?” Charm asked.

“She ain’t answering,” Dagger said, rubbing his temple. “The phone rang and rang but she didn’t pick up. Same goes for her mobile. Something’s up.”

I stepped between them. “Hey, who is this ‘she’ anyway?” I asked.

“Goes by Roaring Whisper, but her real name is White Lie. She changed it for obvious reasons.” Dagger chuckled. “She works as a psychic, but her real talent is being able to, well, ‘see’ into you. It’s hard to explain, but she’s the best at figuring out what makes a pony tick. I thought she might be the best to help out with your . . . unique . . . problem. ‘Sides, at this point I’m a might curious too.”

I noted with interest that this was the first time anypony had been so interested in what was going in my loins since a certain late arrival after my third Grand Galloping Gala. Spike had been so anxious and Rarity had been practically . . . wait, what?

I shook my head. Where had that come from? My mind went all fuzzy and the memory disappeared, but for a second Princess Rarity had been clear in my mind, strutting around her Boutique like it was yesterday. Even though, by now, she had been dead for four hundred years.

I took a deep breath to calm down. I didn’t have time to worry about that for the moment. I had to focus on the task at hoof.

“So where do we go from here?” I asked. “I mean, you’re a detective so surely you have tons of contacts over this city . . .”

“Not for stuff like this,” Dagger explained. “Your problem is very . . . particular. We could take you to the hospital, but you see how that worked out last time. So, we’ll try ol’ White’s place. If she’s not in, we can figure something out.”

Dagger spun on his heels and started back down the street, pulling his jacket closer around him. Charm and I looked at eachother then followed him at a small distance.

“He’s pretty blunt, isn’t he?” I said.

Charm nodded. “It’s part of how he is. I’ve just gotten used to it, I guess.”

I allowed myself a small smile in his direction. “It is pretty amazing how you put up with all sorts of ponies.”

“I guess . . .” He looked up. “Hey, wait how would you know?”

I paused. Crap. I might have been in a sticky situation, but while I was thinking up a good excuse a car decided to drive by.

It wasn’t an extraordinary car, except for, perhaps, the fact that it decided to drive so close to the street. One of its wheels bounced into a deep puddle that been left in the rain. Water, of course, splashed out and onto the curb. On a normal day, I would have been walking away with a sopping wet mane and a chip on my shoulder.

I first noticed that I felt like I was throwing up, but nothing physically came out. Instead, a bright, golden shield of pure magic roared to life in front of me. The water splashed against it and boiled away with a sizzling sound. Beams of light radiated off the edges of the shield and illuminated the entire city block.

The driver of the car swerved and almost collided with a truck in the oncoming lane. What ponies that roamed the streets stopped to stare. I hiccuped a little and a little more magic escaped out of my mouth.

Charm was staring open-mouthed at me. Cloaked Dagger was behind him and not far from having the same expression.

“Well damn,” Dagger said. “This is worse than I thought. Come on, let’s get out of here before more of those goons of yours show up.”

* * *

The walk from the pay phone to the part of town where Dagger’s friend lived was a long one. It gave me some time to think, however. Which, in the end, didn’t turn out to be that good of a thing.

I couldn’t get my mind off those brief memories. Princess Rarity . . . but I hadn’t thought of her as a Princess. I’d thought of her as just plain old Rarity. Same with Spike. Even Ponyville had looked much different than the one I had been taught about in school. Gone were the glass spires or tramways. It was just green grass and houses and a big tree in the middle of town.

I looked at Manehattan that spread in every which way around me. Times had changed since then. The district that Dagger had led us into wasn’t any less seedier than the last, but was at least more festive. Many more neon signs decorated the buildings and were done up in at least half a dozen languages. More ponies were on the streets too, but didn’t seem to notice us as we trundled by.

“This is Griffintown,” Charm told me. “It’s nicer than back where our office is, but there’s a whole lot more crime here.” He smiled. “We tend to come here pretty often.”

The farther we got into Griffintown, however, the fewer ponies we encountered. It was if a wave of passersby had washed over and we were left only with the remnant. Dagger’s movement became more careful and he began to lean closer to the brick walls of shops and alleyways as we moved. Charm and I followed his example.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered.

“Something’s not right,” Dagger replied. He stopped and Charm and I almost bumped up to him as we brought up the rear. After a moment, Dagger led us around the next corner, clinging to the wall.

The alley ended in front of a block of apartment buildings. All was quiet around them . . . too quiet. No ponies walked the streets and most of the lights were off in the buildings. A cold wind blew down the cobblestone streets. Even the colors seemed muted.

“Not right . . . not right at all,” Dagger muttered.

“Then why are we going near here, Boss?” Charm asked. “If you’re not feeling good about this, shouldn’t we just leave?”

Dagger shook his head. “We need to find White,” he said. “Need to figure out what’s up. It’s our jobs.”

“Yeah, but—”

“No buts. We’re going.” He nodded to me. “Then we’ll see if she can’t take a look at Miss Oakwood.”

We headed into an apartment building in the middle of the row. It sagged at the middle and gazed out into the street mournfully through its old eyes of glass. The lobby was deserted, as could be expected. It too was dark and silent. There was no buzzer to call up, however. Just one dirty elevator among the cracked walls and worn carpets. A single light buzzed overhead.

Without a word, Dagger called the elevator down and we all piled in. The building was eight stories up and we headed for the fourth. The elevator creaked and groaned as it went.

“So is this a normal sort of thing for you two?” I asked.

Dagger shook his head. “Something is . . . funny today. And I mean something besides your magic.” He reached in his coat pocket and drew out a shiny, silver revolver. My eyes alighted on it and I gulped.

He saw me looking. “Just in case,” he told me. “Let’s hope I don’t have to use it.”

The elevator skidded to a stop and we filed out one by one, with Dagger taking point. The walk down the hall wasn’t far; White Lie’s room was apparently 4D, anyway. Or, at least, that’s the one Cloaked Dagger stopped in front of.

He took a deep breath, nodded to the both of us, and knocked on the door. Just as quickly, he flattened against the wall next to the door, revolver at the ready for whoever or whatever poked its head out.

The door opened and for a moment I was stuck in my tracks. Pinkie Pie stuck her head out and grinned at me. She was happy to see me, of course. Even in times like these, I could tell she had been baking. There were cupcakes in the oven and spilled batter all over Sugar Cube Corner’s Kitchen. Pound and Carrot would be getting home soon from school and—

I opened my eyes to find myself curled into a ball on the floor, hiccuping and expelling magic as fast as my lungs could move. There was a mare standing over me alright, but she for sure wasn’t Pinkie Pie the Magnificent from the stories. She was pink, but had streaks of violet and white in her mane.

Charm was yelling my name. Well, my name that I hadn’t used except for official documents since childhood. “Leda!” he cried. “Leda, are you okay?”

I pulled myself off of the floor, careful not to move to fast and hurt my head. It was buzzing again, and I didn’t want to jerk myself around too much. Cloaked Dagger and White Lie—who wasn’t exactly white—looked at me with concern. The revolver was gone.

A little more of the golden magic escaped out of my mouth as I steadied myself, but the flow had stopped.

Dagger nodded and turned to White Lie. “See, this is what I was talking about,” he said. “She’s been doing it since my apprentice brought her to me, and a quick scan showed that she’s got a lot of magic in her that no earth pony has any right to have.”

“How much?” White asked, chewing on her lip.

“Enough to collapse a star.”

She whistled. “You never bring me the normal ones, do you?” After a second, she nodded and motioned to the couch just inside her sparse apartment. “Alright, bring her in.”

I could stand on my own, but Charm let me lean on him while I made it over to the couch. I wasn’t about to complain. The one constant in this whole scary place, Charm was like my life raft in an ever-growing sea of confusion.

I was laid out on the couch and White Lie approached my side. Dagger joined her. I looked up at them. “So what is she gonna do?” I asked.

“Well, you know how I can see the magical traces in the air?” Dagger began. “Well, White Lie here can see more what’s going on inside a pony that isn’t just magic. Emotions, I guess. She’s never explained it to me.”

White Lie slugged him in the shoulder. “I have too!” she said. “You just never pay attention.”

“Same difference.”

She rolled her eyes and focused her attention back on me. There was a horn on her head, I noticed. Pinkie didn’t have one of those.

“Just lie still, dear,” she said. “This will only take a second.”

Hearing those words didn’t alleviate any fears I was having, so I watched Charm on the side of the couch as a pink stream of magic enveloped me. White Lie’s eyes glowed, well, white and her horn pulsed as her gaze swept across me.

My whole body felt like somepony had plugged my tail into an electrical outlet. My hair stood on end and my mane curled up. I was thankful, for once, to have kept it in a ponytail. The magic field eventually dissipated and White Lie’s eyes returned to normal. They were a sour orange color.

She looked grim, and my stomach began to sink. “It’s worse than I thought,” she said at last.

“What’s wrong with her?” Charm asked.

“The magic inside her is very powerful, but not her own.” White Lie sighed. “Because of how strong the magic is, it is fighting to escape her. Even then, it would take far too long to escape on its own. If she is not rid of the magic soon, it will consume her.”

My heart grew cold.

Charm’s voice shook. “Then how do we get the magic out of her?”

“That’s not for me to choose,” White Lie said. She shook her head. “Not anymore. I’m . . . sorry.”

Charm and I looked at each other in confusion, but Dagger whirled around to face her. “You didn’t,” he growled.

“They gave me no choice,” she said. “Everyone knows I’m the best analyst in the city, Cloak. They knew about your apprentice and knew he’d take her to you and that you would come to me.”

Just as I began to piece things together, stallions in dark suits barreled out of the side rooms in the apartment. Dagger tried to raise his revolver, but one of the suits caught his hoof and slammed him to the ground.

Not to be outdone, Dagger bucked him with his hind legs and sent the agent sprawling across the room. The rest of them began to close in.

“Go!” he shouted to us. “Get that girl out of here, Karamat!”



I sprang from the couch as Charm rushed to my side and together we ran for the door. For a brief second, it looked like White Lie would try to stop us, but she let us brush past her without a word.

We burst through the front door and into the hallway with the agents fast on our heels. The elevator was our first option, but its doors opened and spilled out two more agents who began to advance on us as well.

With no other choice, we turned the other way and ran for a door marked “Stairwell” at the end of the hall. Our footfalls echoed in the empty hall. At least now we knew why all the ponies around were quiet. Nopony wanted to disturb the agents.

The stairwell was a plain grey affair with stairwells leading far down to the ground and equally far above. Looking down, though, we could spot a number of agents rushing up the stairs. Charm nodded to me and we ran for the roof.

My lungs burned and my hooves begged for me to stop, but I could hear the agents closing in behind us and spurned myself to go faster even as we ran up stair after stair to the building’s roof.

The top of the stairs ended in a plain door. I tried to push on it, but the thing was locked. I growled and slammed my forehooves into it. I thought I saw a little gold at the end of my hooves, but I didn’t care as the door buckled beneath me and fell open on its hinges.

I galloped through to find myself . . .

. . . back in the library. It was late at night and Spike was asleep among a pile of books. He was getting big now and couldn’t fit in his old bed anymore. I’d need to buy him a new bed soon enough. Little spouts of fire escaped his mouth while he snored.

I laughed and draped his favorite blanket over him. He sighed in his sleep and gripped the blanket tightly around himself. I watched him for a minute and smiled. After all that had happened lately . . . that was still happening . . . it was moments like these that I could appreciate.

I picked up a stray book and turned around to put it back on its shelf. When I did, however, the book dropped in surprise. Spike was standing on the other side of me, too. He looked older and very much awake. He also didn’t look very happy.

“You’re going to want to wake up soon, Tinker,” he said.

“What?” I asked. “My name’s not—”

He put his clawed hands around my shoulder and stuck his face right next to mine. “Wake up!”

Charm had dragged me to the edge of the roof. Agents surrounded us and were only kept back by him bluntly threatening to throw me off the roof if they did.

“I’ll do it,” he cried. “Just watch me, I will!”

I looked up at him. “Hey, Charm,” I whispered.

He raised an eyebrow but smiled back. “Hey, there you are,” he said. “I was worried.”

“Just give us the girl,” one of the agents ordered. “We promise no harm will come to her, but she is needed by order of the state.”

“Just try and make me,” Charm snarled.


The golden magic was back and bright as ever. This time, though, it was sticking to me. I must have looked like a Hearth’s Warming tree. I wrapped my hooves around Charm.

“Hey, Charm?” I asked in a voice that seemed very far away.

“Yeah?” he answered to the name he had not yet taken.

“I’m really tired . . . I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“We’ll be fine just as soon as these goons back away.”

They didn’t, though. With me awake, they finally began to advance on us even while Charm continued to warn them not to come any closer. It wasn’t a big deal to me now, however.

I looked down at myself. “Hey Charm, I’m glowing,” I said.

Then, with my hooves still around him, I pushed us off the roof and into space.

Down we fell. There was little time to scream, and I wasn’t about to anyway. The ground rushed up to meet us. I didn’t want to be on the ground, though. I wanted to be far way. Oh so very far away. I wanted to be home, but if not that, I’d settle for . . .

* * *

With a loud boom, we materialized inside an office somewhere in downtown Manehattan. We left a smoky trail across the smooth office carpet and mahogany business tables. I was lying on top of Charm. He coughed and we parted before getting to our hooves.

“Where are we?” he asked.

I didn’t answer.

I was too busy staring down at my hooves. My legs were still their same teal color, but when it came down to my hooves . . . purple. The bottom of my hooves were purple, and just not any kind of purple. Twilight’s color.

To add on to that, a shadowy figure stepped out of the shadows in the conference room. He wore a white tweed hat and a custom suit to match. Strangest of all, though, was the dragon emblem on the back of the suit like he was part of some sort of gang.

“Miss Tinker, formerly Leda Oakwood?” he spoke.

In a daze of confusion, I nodded.

“We’ve been waiting for you.”

Deference For Darkness - III

The stallion in the white suit approached us on the soft carpet of the Manehattan highrise conference room. The lights were off so it was hard to tell any defining features, but he didn’t look very friendly.

“H-How do you know my name?” I asked, my wits returning.

He turned around and showed off the back of his jacket. There was a dragon on the back, but not just any dragon. A very particular green-and-purple dragon that every schoolfilly knew about. Spike.

“I was sent here at the behest of my boss, Spike the Dragon,” the stallion said. “There were very, ah, specific instructions on how to handle you.”

“Handle me?” I asked, taking a step back. “What are you talking about?”

Charm stepped in front of me and did the best he could to look brave. “Yeah, what are you talking about?”

The stallion sighed and took off his hat to reveal a horn. “I was warned that you would act this way,” he muttered.

“By who?”

“Spike the Dragon, of course.” He coughed. “We’ve known you were coming, Miss Tinker. Or Oakwood, if you prefer.”

I narrowed my eyes. “So what, the government got to your organization too?”

“No, that isn’t—”

“Then what is?” Charm snapped. “Who are you and why are you calling Leda by a different name?”

The stallion looked past Charm and snickered. “You mean he doesn’t know? You haven’t told him?”

“Hey, shut up!” I cried. “He doesn’t need to know!”

Charm turned. “Need to know what?”

“Well, uh . . .”

The stallion sighed and walked toward us, shaking his head. “Look, before this goes any further, let’s just end with the truth.” He leaned close to me and looked me in the eyes. “Tinker, formerly Leda Oakwood, is a female earth pony who is not going to be born for two hundred years on the planet Kaishi in the Wolf 359 system. A system which, at this moment, will not be discovered for three more years.”

“Wha-?” Charm began. He shook his head. “No, no, you’re wrong! You’re just another one of those government agents!”

The stallion in the suit smiled. He nodded his head and began to move toward the wall. “I knew you were going to say that,” he said. “And that me trying to convince you isn’t going to work. So, why don’t you let Miss Oakwood answer me for you?”

He turned around and I opened my mouth to speak, to try to fib my way out of this somehow, but the stallion hushed us and tapped the wall. “No,” he said, “let her tell you fifty-eight years ago.”

His horn glowed and the wallpaper of the conference room tore itself away. Big strips flaked off to reveal a wood paneling underneath. On the wood, written in red paint, was a message. Charm stepped forward for a better look, but when I tried to join him the stallion barred my way.

Instead, I had to watch Charm as his eyes darted over the paint that I couldn’t quite make out. When he started, he had been standing tall, like usual. By the time he finished, though, his head had started to slump like the weight of the world rested on his shoulders.

“Charm?” I called to him. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said automatically. As soon as he said it, though, he coughed and jerked his head up. The stallion in the suit nodded and let me approach him.

“Charm, what’s wrong?” I asked.

“Read for yourself,” he whispered, moving away so I could see.

The message was written in red paint using fast, quick strokes. The ways the “t”s were crossed and “i”s dotted, I could tell it was my own. That alone was enough to start my heart racing. It didn’t get better as I read the message:

To Karamat Kai (soon to be known as Charm),

I apologize that I don’t have long to explain. If I do not write this as fast as I can, the memory will fade. But that’s not the point. You, Karamat, have met myself long in the past. You know me by my given name, Leda Oakwood, but my real name is Tinker. You will come to know that name in time because one day, far in the future, you will meet a young filly with that name in a bar on a distant world . . . you will meet me. I’m sure this is confusing, Charm, but it is for me too. You see, I will be transported away from that time and jump through time and space, hoping that the next jump would bring me back home. One of these jumps was here, but the me that’s with you doesn’t know how to get home.


I can’t say everything, but know that I must get home! You must help me in the past find a way home or the future as you will know it will never exist. But to do that . . . you must go now. Go where the stallion in the suit tells you, and do not go back for Cloaked Dagger under any circumstances. Forget about him and don’t look back.


I know this will look bad, but you’ve got to trust me on this. I know you won’t believe any of this is true, so I’ll include a simple little test. The next thing you will say is “I’m fine.”

Oh. I took my time to shake my head. This whole thing was confusing. I had written it alright, but in the future? Well, really, the past, but my future. Ugh, time travel made my head hurt. It was nice to see that I got out of this . . . but how I did that, I didn’t know. And what if I made a mistake? Could time be rewritten?

I decided to try a test. If it could, I promised myself, I would write the answer to that question at the bottom of the message. I closed my eyes. Can I rewrite my own time?

I opened my eyes.


Oh, haha, very funny, me. At least I knew I would be the one writing the messages. I looked up to see that Charm had walked out of the conference room while the stallion in the suit looked on.

I trotted over to where the grey stallion with his roughshod, red mane stood. Even when he was younger, he was still handsome. Not that I had ever let him know that, of course. Now, I really wish I had.

“Charm?” I began.

“My name isn’t Charm!” he snapped. “It’s Karamat, okay? K - a - r - a - m - a - t. I will never be Charm, and I don’t care if that was you who wrote the message or not.”

I swallowed. “What’s gotten you all eaten up like this?”

He snored. “Oh, maybe that I have some cryptic message telling me what I can and can’t do? Just this morning you were a sweet girl I tried to help off the streets and then waited to see if you didn’t die in the hospital. Now you’re some time traveling freak who apparently knows more about me than I do and tells me what to do.”

Freak. The words seemed unreal, coming out of his mouth. Not once had I heard Charm raise his voice to me like that. Maybe he was right . . . maybe he wasn’t Charm. Just Karamat.

I looked away, little droplets beginning to sting the edges of my eyes. I wasn’t quick enough, though, and he saw them.

“Look, I’m sorry, don’t be like that—”

I felt him stop beside me, hesitate a moment, and then awkwardly wrap his hooves around me in a semi-hug. I looked up.

“I know you lost him, but remember we’re all here for you,” Pinkie Pie whispered.

“Ah!” I cried, trying to backpedal away. For a moment, I could tell it was fake. Pinkie started to fade away and Charm took her place . . . but then it came back to Pinkie. My head felt fuzzy and my vision swam.

“No, no, no!” I cried. “Stop it, just stop it!”

I shut my eyes tight. When I opened them, it was back to Charm, but the room was filled with golden magic. It swirled and danced around us, but did not disappear. Instead, it ran itself back toward me and washed over me like high tide. When it was done, I looked down. All four of my legs were now violet.

I realized I was shaking. I tried to take deep breaths to steady myself, but every time I closed my eyes I was afraid that opening them would be to another illusion. And, even then, which one was the illusion?

Charm swallowed. “It’s getting worse,” he said.

I nodded and winced. “Yeah, and at the wrong time, too. I guess, uh, sorry about all this.”

He sighed. “I got myself into this crazy mess in the first place, I guess.” He smiled a little. “I won’t pretend to like everything that’s going on, but it’s nice to have somepony else that has it worse for once.”

I returned the smile. “Gee, thanks.”

The stallion in the white suit coughed. We turned around to face him. The hat was back on his head and he leaned against the doorway. “If you two are done,” he said, “we can get back to business.”

“And what business is that?” Charm asked.

“I didn’t come here on my own venture,” the stallion said. “I came here on the specific request of Spike the Dragon for the sole purpose of bringing the two of you back to Los Celestias.” He leaned closer. “Very specific instructions.”

Charm shook his head. “I can’t do that,” he said. “Not while Cloaked Dagger is still being held by the government.”

“The message from Tinker here told you not to,” the stallion reminded him. “Or would you rather play with fate?”

“It’s better than leaving him to die!”

“Not when doing so would risk the future as you know it.” The stallion grunted, then turned to me. “Tell him, Tinker.”

Charm turned to me as well. “Yeah, Miss Oakwood,” he said. “Tell him that we have to go back for Cloaked.”

I looked from one face to another. Familiar to new. Security to risk. Future to past.

They might have stood there all day if not for a phone ringing in the pocket of the stallion. He reached in and snatched it open before putting it to his ear. His expression changed almost as soon as he did. His eyes widened and his jaw set a hard line. After a moment, he held the phone to me.

“It’s . . . for you,” he said.

I took the little gadget and placed it to my ear. A raspy voice came over it. “Miss Tinker,” it said. “We have waited so long for you to come.”

“Who are you?” I barked. “And how do you know my name?”

“I’m a gatherer of intelligence and, well, I’m a gatherer of intelligence. You see, Miss Tinker, formerly Leda Oakwood, I am responsible for our lovely government’s sector that collects . . . legends. Myths, mostly. Anything that could be true, no matter how improbable.”

“So you found my name.”

“It wasn’t exactly hard. Mentions of you are in every history text, in every library. In truth, it was your partner that was much more difficult to find, but in the end that doesn’t mind. The weakest link, as they say.”

I snorted. “You’ll have a hard time getting to her right now.”

“Oh, I have no doubt,” he said. “But you will do for the moment. We waited a long time for you, Miss Tinker. Had it not been for a bout of incompetency and surprise on our part, we would have taken you in that hospital right then and there.”

“Too bad about that,” I said, “because I’ve escaped your clutches.”

“Really?” He laughed. “Then how do you believe that I managed to call this number? It’s a very secure line, I assure you.”

I whirled around like he was watching me from another corner of the room, but he just chuckled. “Oh, don’t bother looking for me. I can tell you’re stressed enough already.”

The line went dead and I hurled the phone down. “They’re close,” I said. “And probably coming for us right now.”

The stallion in white grunted. “We need to get you out of here,” he said. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a small pistol. “Follow as close as you can behind me until I tell you to get to cover. Once you do, do not leave until I tell you to, understand?”

“How are you going to defend us against as many agents as they’re going to send?” Charm asked. “You’re just one pony.”

He smirked. “Spike wouldn’t have sent me if he didn’t trust me.”

There was a crash far below us and the stallion motioned for us to get next to him. We trotted across the dark office for the elevator. The stallion mashed the button and the doors opened. Before I could tell him that taking it would be suicide, he pressed the emergency stop button inside.

“They won’t be coming up behind us,” he explained.

He burst into the stairwell and Charm and I followed close behind. He grunted. “Going to be a close fight in here.”

We took the stairs three at a time the way down. I could hear voices ringing up from below, but that only spurred me on. If we could reach the landing just a couple floors down, we could have a position to fortify ourselves and maybe hold off their attacks for a little while.

We were almost there when the agents got about halfway to the landing as well. We all looked at each other for a moment before everypony started to shoot at each other.

The stallion in white shoved us behind him, pistol blazing to life. My ears roared and squealed from the sound of all the weapons being fired in such a small environment. It was like somepony had dumped a war zone right on my head.

Charm shook his head. “We can’t move,” he spat. “We’re stuck.”

“Yeah, thanks for the help, genius,” the stallion said, rising to take a few pop shots at the guards trying to rush our position.

He turned to me. “Now would be a great time for some of that magic from earlier.”

“I can’t control it like that,” I said. “It just comes and goes.”

Charm slunk forward. “What if I, uh, put myself in danger? I mean, that seemed to work last time.”

A few bullets snapped over our heads. They smashed into the concrete across from us before I even heard them. I grabbed him by the neck. “You are not doing something crazy as that. Not here, not ever.”

“He better do something fast,” the stallion said, “or we’ll all be dead when I run out of bullets.”

Charm smiled at me. “I’ll be alright,” he said. “I trust you. Besides, you can’t change the future, right?”

He began to raise himself out of cover and in the line of sight for the agents. Time seemed to slow down. That big no at the bottom of the message that had appeared out of thin air. Time could be changed, and if he died . . . I was just as much dead on the filthy streets of Journey’s End.

So I did the only natural thing to do.

I jumped.

I soared through the air, over the stairs and toward the agents. My mind was only tentatively aware of what was happening. They were shooting at me, I was aware of that. Were they hitting me? I didn’t care.

I plowed into them and sent most of them sprawling. I was a blur of movement, acting on an instinct that wasn’t entirely mine. There were flashes of action. A hoof thrown in the air here, a gun batted away there. The stallion in white joined the fight at some point.

It ended.

I slumped to the ground around the bodies of the agents. Unconscious or dead, I didn’t know. My breath came hard and I looked down at myself. I groaned. Glistening bullet holes stared up at me. The more I looked, the more they began to hurt.

Before I could start to worry about them, though. It stopped. I watched as flesh sewed itself together with a little golden spark to reveal brand new flesh and hair. The golden glow didn’t stop there, though. The pain in my chest was replaced by a massive headache that sent me doubling over on the stairs.

When I was done, I reached up and touched my forehead, hoping against hope there wasn’t what I thought it was. My hoof bumped into bone. Yep, I had a horn. Lavender, if I had to guess. I shook my head to clear out the buzzing. It lasted longer this time, and almost faded out to a library somewhere before I fought myself back to reality.

The stallion in white walked up to me, his face grim. “It’s gotten worse,” he said. “We need to leave for Los Celestias at once. Once we’re there, Spike can—”

“Buck that,” I breathed, climbing to my feet. “We’re not going across the country before we find Cloaked Dagger.”

I saw Charm smile, but the stallion didn’t look so happy. “Even your own self told you not to,” he said. “It’s suicide. The only chance you have is to get out of this city as fast as you can.”

I shook my head. “We’re staying. That pony on the phone, whoever he was, managed to track us here within an hour. We can’t just escape from him. He’ll hunt us down before we even get halfway to Los Celestias. If we stay here, we might have a fighting chance.”

“Then what do you propose?”

“We find Cloaked Dagger, and through him we find the pony on the phone. Not just any sort of search, either. I’m tired of us sneaking around so much. All it’s done is make me more like . . . this . . . and get Dagger captured. So no more running, no more hiding, and no more sticking to the shadows. We’re going to attack and get Dagger back.”

The stallion in white took a few steps back and shook his head. “That’s crazy; nopony that’s gone up against this agency has made it out alive. Just what makes you so sure this will work?”

I smiled to Charm. “Because it’s never been done before.”

Neon Night - I

We took some of the weapons from the guards. I tried not to look at them while I did so and had to keep swallowing lest anything come up. Most of the weaponry went to the stallion in white, but Charm took a pistol for himself. He watched me as he did it, but I didn’t speak out.

In the end, I decided against a gun. Twilight hadn’t used one, so why should I? I was her, now, after all. Sort of. Maybe. I don’t know. I grabbed at my new horn and groaned that I even had to think of that sentence.

What in the world was happening? My legs were purple and I had a horn. Great, just great. I was afraid to check my flank in case my cutie mark was a six-pointed star.

The stallion in white huffed while we stood around the demur lobby. “They’re going to figure out their agents failed pretty fast,” he said. “We need to get out of here if we’re going to do . . . whatever it is you’re going to.”

Charm turned to me. “What are we going to do?”

I opened my mouth to say I didn’t know, but shut it. Because when I looked down at the bodies on the floor, I realized I did have a plan. A crude one, perhaps, but still a plan. One that Twilight would be proud of. Or, more likely, one Twilight would have thought of.

“I know what we’re going to do,” I said, mustering up as much conviction as I could. “First, we need to get outside.”

The stallion in white nodded. “I’ll lead.”

He trotted on ahead, his gun at the ready. He stuck to the corners of the building’s lobby and kept his eyes on the entrance. We tried to follow his movements as best we could, but Charm and I hadn’t had any sort of formal training before. We made a lot of noise and just about tripped over each other.

Rain had started to fall once again outside. The stallion pushed his way through the glass doors and hugged the wall outside. Three large cars were parked near the doors, their wheels up on the concrete sidewalk.

The stallion in white (I’m just going to call him Mr. White) raised his gun and walked a perimeter around them. After a moment, he raised his hoof. “All clear,” he said. “No drivers. They must have gone in with the teams.”

“Okay, we’re outside, so what now?” Charm asked.

I patted the side of one of the cars. “We take this,” I said. “We take it and drive right out of the city, down the highway out toward Los Celestias.”

Mr. White frowned. “You said you didn’t wish to head out. Change your mind?”

“Not at all,” I said, “but we need a diversion, don’t we? If they can send this many ponies out on such short notice, they’ve got to have an army somewhere. So we’re going to give the fat cat the mouse to chase.”

I popped open the passenger door of the car and hopped in. After a moment, Mr. White and Charm followed. The keys were still in ignition and Mr. White turned them, starting the car with a dull roar. The headlights flashed on, cutting through the rain that had begun to pour outside. It seemed like the only weather in Manehattan was rain.

Mr. White backed the car off the curve, looped around the small parking lot in front of the building, and pulled out onto one of the main boulevards. Traffic was light and we glided down the boulevard like the wind was in our sails.

“So what’s the plan from here?” White asked. “They’re going to follow us everywhere we go, so you can only pull them off their headquarters for so long.”

“Oh, you won’t be coming back to town,” I said.

“Wait, what?”

I smiled. “It’s simple. You lead them on this wild goose chase while I teleport back to town without anypony noticing. I find that boss of theirs and take him down.”

“You’re crazy,” White hissed.

“That’s the idea.”

“Uh, guys?” Charm said. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news and all, but we’ve got company.”

I turned around in my seat to see him staring out the rear window. Sure enough, more cars with tinted windows had begun to follow us. They kept their distance at the moment, though. Maybe they were scared of whoever could kill all of their agents so fast. In that case, I figured, they may have been right to be scared.

“I’m going to take the main highway,” White said. “We’ll have more room there to maneuver.”

He steered the car away from the narrow streets of downtown Manehattan and up a massive concrete ramp to the overhanging superhighway. It was the same that I had walked on what seemed like only a day ago, but hundreds of years in their future.

The whole thing was much cleaner than I remembered. A big concrete slab with a large divider in the middle and walls on each side to keep cars from tumbling off. The speed limit was higher and the drivers more daring. Even the normally white road lines were colored a brilliant yellow.

Our own car tore down the highway as Mr. White set it in gear. It was just in time, too, as the other cars began to catch up. Overpowered or not, they were determined to catch me.

“Alright, so we’re drawing them away,” White said, “now what? You said you can get back, but how do you know where to go?”

There was a box sitting on the dashboard and blinking red and green lights. If my hunch was right, it was what I thought it was. “There aren’t many options for how those agents found us so fast,” I said. “They must have been already prowling around and had the coordinates sent to them.”

I pressed a promising-looking button on the box and a small screen turned on. I flipped through a few menu screens and got to the previous destinations box, but a password kept me out. I gritted my teeth. I was good at taking machines apart and putting them back together, of course, but not so much at the password thing. Charm had always been the one to mess with software back at home.

That gave me an idea.

I spun around in my seat and beckoned to him with the box. “Hey, can you pull the previous destinations off this thing?” I asked. “It’s password encrypted, but I figured you could do something with it.”

He smirked and snatched it from me. “You’re lucky Dagger is so afraid of electronics that he paid for me to take courses on them.”

I nodded. “How long do you think it will take?”

“A few minutes.”

A bullet snapped through the rear window and shot out through the front windshield. Mr. White jerked the car around and the tires squealed. “We don’t have a few minutes!” he yelled.

“Well yelling at me won’t help!” Charm returned. He turned his attention back to the device and began moving his hooves in deft movements across the delicate keys. His eyes beaded in concentration even as a side window shattered.

“Okay, I can’t take this anymore,” Mr. White growled, then turned to me. “You drive. I’m going to see if I can give these bastards something to keep their heads down over.”

Without checking for my agreement, White rolled down his window and stuck his torso out. I grabbed onto the wheel as he brought his gun out and traded a few shots with a pony in a van following us. I did my best to get a good grip on the wheel as we swerved through the gathered traffic that was pressing to get ahead of us and out of the city.

A sedan collided with the center guardrail as we barreled past it, with a few spent cases from Mr. White’s pistol dropping on its hood. The car we were in hadn’t seen a mechnaic in some time, and listed to the left as I tried to steer from my seat. I was only lucky that the other pedestrians had enough mind to get out of my way lest I collide with them at close to one hundred and twenty miles per hour.

I grunted and lost control for a moment when another bullet found its way into the car and into me. From the feeling, it hit somewhere in my spine and I lost all control of my limbs for a few seconds. Then, I felt a small tingle and golden magic burst from my new horn and I could feel again. As freaky as the situation was, a broken spine would have been a lot worse.

Which gave me an idea.

“Hey, Whitey,” I called to the pony leaning out of the car.

It took him a second to figure out I was talking to him, and didn’t look at me when he spoke, “I’m a little busy here, if you can’t tell.”

“No, I know,” yelled up to him, “but you’re too vulnerable! Let me do it! They can’t seem to hurt me with bullets, remember?”

He paused. “Right. Invulnerability. None of the texts mentioned that.”

“Well great,” I said, “then this is a new experience for the both of us.” I relinquished the wheel over to Mr. White and accepted his pistol. With a grunt, I managed to pull myself out my own window.

The wind whipped and snarled at my ponytail, but the little band “Starswirl” had given me still held. I had to grip the top of the car tight just to keep from falling out, though. I gripped the gun in one hoof and tried to aim, but it was a hopeless task.

The guards in the other cars didn’t seem to have the same problem, however. Bullets whizzed past me and a few even hit me, but were gone a moment later. I tried to shoot for their wheels, but my bullets just bounced off the pavement.

“Okay, screw this,” I muttered under my breath.

I closed my eyes and focused on thinking of myself standing in the middle of the road in front of the oncoming cars. Not my brightest idea, but hey, invincibility. How many times was I going to get to do that? Was I crazy? Probably.

While my brain kept chattering, I managed to keep that picture of where I wanted to be on the forefront. There was a flash of golden light and then my hooves were on hard concrete. I took a moment to get my bearings, which seemed rather pointless at the moment.

Bullets flew around me while I brought my own gun out. My shoulder burned for a moment before it healed. Standing in the gunfire, I noticed the bullets made almost made a whistling sound when they went past me. Without the ability to die, it was . . . pleasent. Kind of awesome, too, feeling like a badass. Oh, look at me, I’m in your face and can’t die!

Oh, right, the oncoming car.

I raised the gun and let bullets fly and slam into the front tires. The car began to swerve on its damaged wheel as the driver lost control. It started to flip on its side, knocking its way through one of the other cars.

It was at this time I realized one of the failings of my plan, namely physics. Causing an oncoming vehicle to crash wasn’t going to stop or even slow it down. I realized that about two seconds before my ribcage was crushed beneath the hard steel of a very fast wreck on wheels.

The bones in my rear legs snapped with a sickening popping sound as they were pulled under. I felt a tug on my right foreleg and when I looked, there was nothing left but a bloody shoulder. I saw all of it, knew it was supposed to be painful, but only laughed to myself a little bit. There was no pain, just a dull sense of loss.

My little journey ended when the car currently stuck to me collided with an SUV farther ahead of us, bringing the whole thing to a stop. I had trouble figuring out what part of me still worked under the pile of wreckage, but I managed to throw myself out.

I watched as my stump itched and glowed golden as it grew the leg back, purple and all. Twilight’s purple, of course. Not that I minded it as much now, even if some part of my brain screamed that I wasn’t acting quite right.

While the rest of me healed, I was free to lean against what had been an SUV and look up at the sky. It was blue, but not like a dark blue or a “blue” blue. It was that soft color that belonged in a painting somewhere, hanging over a meadow. No clouds, just the sky that darkened as it rose toward space and all that lay beyond.

Somewhere out there was Wolf 359, and home with it. Journey’s End. Charm was there, so many years in the future. Too bad for him, though, when I had him to myself for the time being.

I giggled.

Okay, even to me that was weird.

“You survived the crash remarkably well,” Mr. White said as he walked through wreckage toward me. Charm followed at his heels, scanning the rest of the cars for signs of the guards, though didn’t seem to find any.

Mr. White stopped and stood over me. “Though for one with remarkable invincibility, you seem to have done a poor job of things.”

“Hey, I stopped them, didn’t I?” I asked.

“Yes, but at what cost?” He looked closer at me. “Your eyes, have they always been purple?”

I blinked a couple times, then rubbed at them. “Okay, so, maybe healing after being steamrolled by a car cost a little. But it was worth it, right?”

I looked at Charm, who nodded and held up the little GPS device. “Last available coordinates are locked. You’ll be able to go there in no time.” He looked away. “Unless, of course, you needed some help.”

“No, she must do this on her own,” Mr. White butted in before I could take Charm up on his offer. “We have stopped them for now, but the agents will keep coming. Not just that, but Tinker is the only invincible one here. If we are with her, we provide a vulnerability for our enemies to exploit.”

Charm bit his teeth, but then sighed and gave in. “Alright,” he said.

“Hey, it’ll be okay,” I said. “You two head out of the city right now and it’ll be ages before they catch up to you. Then I’ll get Cloaked Dagger back and we can find a way to teleport far away from this city.”

Mr. White shook his head. “All of this for one pony . . .”

“It’s what Twilight would do,” I told him. “If I look like her, then I’m going to act like her too. Like you said, I’m invulnerable. I go in, smash up their headquarters, and get Dagger away before anything goes wrong. Then it’s just a cakewalk to Spike.”

Charm passed the GPS to me. “Whenever you’re ready.”

He and Mr. White stepped back while I examined the device. In the mode that Charm had hacked it into, it only displayed the latitudinal and longitudinal data for the last locations, and nothing more. I would be running blind.

I took a deep breath. I was invincible and I had Charm counting on me. How could I lose?

With a moment’s hesitation, I set my hoof on the device and focused all of my thoughts on the coordinates. Take me there, I told my magic. After a second, my horn complied and I was gone in a spark of light.

* * *

I reappeared, only to find myself in total darkness. I tried to blink a few times, but it didn’t work. I grumbled and wish I had a light. Then, to my surprise, my horn obeyed my command and lit up like a flashlight. I stumbled back and let out a startled cry, but then smiled when I was able to project the light where I turned my head. This whole unicorn thing wasn’t so bad.

Even with the extra light, though, I couldn’t see much. Just a carpet under my feet and a desk to one side. I decided to press my luck and brighten the light more. I closed my eyes and concentrated into turning my purple-y self into a lightbulb. When I looked again, it had worked, and revealed the room was in.

My heart sank when I saw it.

I was back in Cloaked Dagger’s office in the high rise building. It was empty this time, but it was unmistakable for his. I turned around to try to get a bearing on the location, and my heart stopped beating altogether. Behind me was a massive banner, strung across the eaves.


Before I could do anything, there were a few soft explosions and I watched small steel cables whiz their way past me until I was surrounded on all sides. Suddenly, they sparked to life as bright magic lit up on them and plunged itself at me.

The pain receptors that had been off since I had begun to assume Twilight’s form came back in full force. Worse, every time my new body tried to repair itself, it hurt even worse. Gashes opened up along my body that snarled with magic and felt like somepony was continuously cutting them with a knife, over and over.

I cried out and tried to fall down and curl in on myself, but the magic from the wires held me in place. I felt my horn crack and snap off, only to grow back again a moment later like somepony was driving a spike through my skull. I was screaming so loud my throat began to hurt, but I didn’t care.

After what seemed like an eternity, the wire magic let up and I fell to the ground in a heap. I couldn’t move anything. It felt like every single molecule of my being was in pain and I wasn’t about to test that theory. While I was on the ground, though, I heard the distinct crackle and hiss of a speaker coming to life.

“So good of you to take the bait,” a voice said. The same voice from the office, in fact. “I was beginning to fear that you had actually run away from this place.”

I didn’t respond. I was too tired. But then again, I don’t think the stallion cared.

“It is so wonderful to capture you after all these years of waiting,” he continued. “Over here, we started to think that maybe you were perhaps not the companion of she without a name. Good to know that, too, was wrong.” He laughed. “No, don’t worry, I don’t expect you to get up. Or even answer. Just know that we will be coming for you, and that your chances of escape are, well, laughable. Enjoy your time alone, for it will be the last you will get for a very long time.”

The speaker switched off just as the wires turned back on again. I screamed and screamed and screamed until my voice gave out. Then I closed my eyes and gave in to the pain, if only to keep it away.

It didn’t help.

Neon Night - II

The pain was all around me. I could feel my mind try to shut itself down, try to block out the pain. Maybe it was my magic or the speaker stallion’s magic, but I couldn’t do it. I was kept alert.

I don’t know how much time passed. Time was no longer a familiar sensation. For all I knew, it could have been five minutes or two weeks. I could feel my own mind drift and wander. It was like I was separate from the tortured being that I had once called myself.

My own body was a prison. I could escape, so I turned inward. I turned to strange dreams and lost memories that were not my own. I passed by them like I was watching a video on a screen.

They were Twilight’s, I realized.

Her doubts, her insecurities, and her fears. There was failure, loss, and hopelessness. Failure to live up to her friends and teacher. Loss of those close and dear to her, and one even closer that I could not discern. The hopelessness of it all as her friends drifted away and she was left on her own.

There were dark times for her, even before she assumed the mantle of protector and time traveler. It was almost funny that I had never thought about that. Classes taught in school of the famous Elements of Harmony had always painted their lives as carefree and wonderful.

I should have known better, but the idea had never occurred to me. Even if we weren’t taught about Twilight, I still doubted that Pinkie or Rarity received their titles without hardships of their own. But watching the memories, even knowing this, was like seeing the figures of my heroes tarnished and broken. Especially Twilight.

I watched through her eyes as she bade goodbye to Spike as he flew off to find a mate and start a horde of his own. As Owlowscious succumbed to old age. Ponyville grew, and she didn’t seem to like it. More customers came in to her library, but they were strangers. Nameless faces that didn’t care for those who had already been there.

I mean, how could all those ponies do that to me? I could give them a stack of books but not one thank you. Worse still, all they came in for now were cheap romance novellas or picture books for their little bratty foals. Nopony ever went in the history section anymore . . .

I shook my head and sighed. My mane was getting long again. I was going to have to cut it. The violet split ends would be a pain if Rarity dropped in for a visit and saw them. I put down the quill I had been using to write the latest checklist on the wooden desk by my bed. A single candle gave me light enough to write.

Princess Celestia had promised a new shipment from the Canterlot Archives for my research, and they would be here in a couple days. I was going to have my hooves full just trying to organize the whole thing.

“Spike!” I called. “Start a new checklist, I’m going to need—”

Oh. Right.

I sighed and rubbed my forehead below my horn. I needed to stop doing that. Fluttershy had told me it was a natural thing, and that I could use new pet for company or something. But how was I supposed to replace Spike? You can’t replace a friend.

At least there was this whole deal with Discord. The statue had gone missing, and now Princess Celestia, of course, expected me to find it. She kept worrying about him escaping, I guess, but it was probably just some thieves looking for an artifact. I laughed to myself. They could have at least picked a statue a little less ugly.

I looked down to what I had written so far for the books checklist. When I did, though, my vision almost seemed to go blurry. I shook my head, and all the words I had written had disappeared. In their place was: “WAKE UP!”


My eyes fluttered open. The wires had shut off some time ago. I touched myself all over to make sure I was still there. Yep, still me. Still Tinker and still in Cloaked Dagger’s office awaiting the government’s officers to come take me. Joy.

But for a moment there . . . for a moment there I had scared myself. I wasn’t just reading Twilight’s thoughts; I had been Twilight. The way she had seen things, thought about the world, even her smelling was different! Unicorns didn’t seem to pick up as many smells as earth ponies, I guessed.

When I happened to glance down at myself, I realized the situation was far worse.

Where before I had only kept some of Twilight’s appearance, now all of me was a spitting image of her. My coat was exactly the same, my mane was the same shade, and even my eyes had adjusted every so slightly. I took a whiff of the charred air around me. Yep, smelled the same.

“What’s happening to me?” I wondered aloud, then slapped my hooves over my mouth with a startled cry. I even sounded like her. For all intents and purposes, I was Twilight Sparkle.

But . . . was I even Tinker anymore

I shook my head and tried to think. Remember . . . remember Leda Oakwood. Playing in the yard outside my family’s hotel. That stupid ball that would never inflate all the way . . . the mag train ride to Journey’s End and seeing the coast for the first time. My heart had leapt to my throat as I looked with wonder. And then, when I met Charm for the first time.

Charm . . . Charm! Yes, Charm! The memories came flooding back of him. The little friendship that we had grown and cultivated. He had always been the one to be there for me . . . oh, Charm, how could I forget?

Even now, he was in this city, and I was going to find him again. I promised myself that. As long as I could remember Charm, I was going to be okay.

It was all I could do to hang on to that thought, though. My mind rebelled at everything around me and wanted me to curl into a ball and never think again. The stresses, I realized, were killing it. So why wasn’t I being affected? Was Twilight’s sanity the only thing keeping me together?


I stumbled to my feet, my hooves scrabbling for purchase on the carpet floor. My joints and muscles felt like they had been through a ringer, and I struggled just to stay upright. I leaned against Dagger’s desk and looked out the plate glass windows overlooking the stoic metropolis of Manehattan.

The sun dipped low over the jeweled skyscrapers and cast its glare across them. I had been out of it for hours, I realized. Though, at least, I was almost glad for it, if only because of the view. The pollution that settled around the upper tiers of the city turned into a muggy haze in the dying light, as if a bright orange sea had thrown itself on top of the buildings.

Maybe it wasn’t really that much in the grand scheme of things, but that moment felt special to me. For the first time in what seemed like a long time—though it had only been mere days—I had a moment of peace and silence.

Dagger’s metal desk felt cool against my back as I slid down onto my flank and closed my eyes for a second. I was seeing, hearing, and smelling the world in a different body, but it was a better one at that moment.

Then, of course, the door was knocked down.

A swarm of black suit agents scrambled through the door, practically falling over themselves to get to me. They raised rifles, submachine guns, and even a straight up machine gun in my direction. They kept together and surrounded me until I was cut off from any escape and staring down the barrels of something like two dozen weapons.

“You are under orders to come with us,” one of them barked. “The Head of the Department of Mythology would like to speak with you.”

“Then let him come down here and get me,” I said. “I don’t really feel like going anywhere with the likes of you.”

The pony snorted. “We are under orders to incapacitate you with weaponry if needed. We know of your regenerative powers.”

In response, the other agents cocked their weapons and pointed them closer to me. I didn’t get up and just looked at them with a small smile on my face. Tinker might now know how to get out of the situation, but Twilight did.

“Tell me,” I asked, “can I give the order to fire?”

They didn’t give me the chance. “Take her down!” the agent cried.

Lead filled the air as the guns spat round after round through the air and at me, just inches away from a few of them. The sound was deafening and was liable to take out my hearing if I hadn’t used a simple spell to block up my ears.

The one to stop the bullets was only a little more complex. I didn’t understood it too well, but what I got from the Twilight side was that it was something to do with the planet’s electromagnetic field in the air interacting with the bullets or something . . . I don’t know, and didn’t feel like asking. All I knew is that I had dozens of shiny bullets waiting patiently in every square inch of air around me.

The agents all took a few steps back. I smiled and turned the bullets around until they were pointing at my former assailants. Some tried to stand their ground, but the swarm was broken now. It was every pony for himself as they scrambled for the door.

I rolled my eyes and moved the bullets until they were pointing at the windows. I let them fly and glass shattered outward in a brilliant explosion of kinetic power. Little dusty bits of the windows fell around me like sharp little snowflakes.

Only one of the agents was in the room to watch me. He was the one who had spoken earlier.

We shared a look for a small eternity before I turned away, then took a running jump and leapt out of the building. Open wind swirled around me and I had to tuck my legs in and lower my head to keep from being battered too much.

The ground began to rise up to meet me, however, so I gave the city a once-over look before focusing on the sidewalk below the building. A moment later, and I was safe on the ground. There was a boom above my head and gust of wind that nearly swept me off my hooves. The extra kinetic energy from falling letting itself out, I supposed.

I was still in front of Cloaked Dagger’s building, so I trotted away before the agents could come back out and find me. I ran away from Griffintown and anything that it held. I ran back toward some nameless slums that coursed and pulsated along the edges of finer Manehattan society.

Wherever I ran, I could see shadows around me. Shadows of a time long gone to all but me and what part of Twilight occupied my mind. Ponyville, as it had once been, and the Elements of Harmony while they were still alive. Rarity wasn’t buried next to Blueblood in the gem fields north of Canterlot, but instead stood down a dark alley, beckoning me to enter the memory. I fought that thought of her until the alley was once again just gray brick and mortar.

My vision blurred and I didn’t know where I was going. I was on some side street with wooden buildings and small lanterns in paper sacks that lit the way. Very few cars came by, and most ponies chose to walk. I stopped under a small overhang and tried to catch my breath.

I realized, after a moment, that I was hyperventilating. My vision kept trying to switch between the verdant green fields of Ponyville and the dark bricks of Manehattan at night. The parts of my brain were fighting for control and my consciousness didn’t have a say in it.

The mood swings, the visions, the chase, the invincibility . . . it wore me down until I was almost no more. With a grunt, I pitched forward and collapsed, the flashing images finally going dark.

* * *

I woke up on soft linen sheets and a downy pillow that seemed to have been made out of pure clouds. Or, at least, what I assumed clouds felt like. My eyes blinked open and I looked down at myself. Still purple, but the visions were gone, which was definitely an improvement.

I looked around. The air smelled like blistery flowers on a warm summer’s day, even though the windows on the other side of the small room still showed the dark streets outside. The room itself wasn’t much: a wooden floor with a small stove in the middle that appeared to burn real wood.

The most striking thing about the hovel, however, was the light source. A dozen paper lanterns hung from the ceiling in every color and size. They cast their glows through holes poked in them that were shaped into little designs. I saw one that was a dragon, another that was a griffin, and even one that was a hydra.

They swung gently on their rope ties, buffeted by the wind coming from a small electric fan on an endtable.

“Oh good, you’re awake!”

I bolted upright in the bed and crawled away from the voice. When I turned to look, I didn’t exactly get what I was expecting. Maybe I had figured that it would be another agent of the government’s or Spike’s or something, but what I got was something else entirely.

There was a little colt grinning up at me from beneath a mop of blonde hair. His little green eyes watched me until I swung myself up until I was sitting like a civilized pony on the bed instead of being tangled in sheets.

“Who are you?” I asked with a yawn.

The orange little colt didn’t answer, but instead bolted away from me to somewhere else in whoever’s house this was, calling, “Dad, she’s awake!”

What took me for surprise the most, however, was my voice. I muttered my ABCs out loud a few times, my smile growing louder each time. My voice was my own again! It wasn’t much, but that a little bit of Tinker had returned was enough to make me happy, even if I didn’t know why it had happened.

The colt came back a moment later, a pegasus stallion in tow who I assumed to be his father. Daddy stomped over to me on light brown hooves and eyed me up with emerald orbs set deep in his head that was topped by a close-cropped mane of bright orange.

“So you woke up,” he said.

I gulped. “It seems so, yeah. T-Thank you for taking me in, whoever you are.”

The stallion grinned. “Oh, right, sorry. I’m Golden Flower, and this little one is Bristle Flower.” The colt stuck his tongue out at me. “And we found you on the side of the road, so we figured you might need a place to rest for a while.”

“Thank you for your generosity,” I said. “I was, ah, not in the best place at that moment.”

“You were babbling about all sorts of weird stuff!” Bristle squeaked.

“That’s enough,” Golden told him.

Undaunted, the colt continued, “You kept saying all these funny sounding names. Especially ‘Charm’! You said that one a lot.”

My face burned. Great, even a little kid knew about him. I sighed and got to my hooves. I was a little uneasy, and my stomach snarled, but it was better than back at the office.

Golden cocked his head when my stomach growled. “You could use something to eat,” he said.

“No, really, it’s fine—”

“Think nothing of it,” Golden said. “It’s all we can do to help a stranger.”

He helped me over to a small table that squatted low, almost touching the ground. Instead of chairs, we sat around it like we were some sort of new age ponies. That said, the carpet mats around it were soft and I wasn’t going to complain.

The kid, Bristle, slid a bowl of noodles in front of me and a ceramic cup filled with steaming tea. The smells of the two drifted up and erupted a hunger in my stomach that had lay dormant for so long. Come to think of it, I hadn’t eaten in what had seemed like forever.

I more or less buried my face in the bowl, not caring for the slurping noises I made as I shoved the food into my mouth in a few moments of total, sated bliss. When I raised my head up again, noodle juice dripping from my chin, to find Golden and Bristle staring at me, I just smiled.

They looked at each other, then began to eat as well, though at a more measured pace than I. While they ate, I wiped my mouth and took a sip of the tea. It was hot and soothing as it went down my throat; a far cry from the cheap pop back at Journey’s End.

Twilight’s stupid mane kept getting the in the way when I swung my head back and forth. She kept her bangs way too long; I missed my ponytail. I blew a few strands out of my face and smiled at the two.

“Thanks so much for the food,” I told them.

“No problem at all,” Golden said. “In times like these, ponies need to stick together as best we can.”

I nodded. “How have things been around these parts?”

“You don’t know?” Bristle asked, his eyes wide. “The government’s been all over the place! They’re all mean and don’t let you back talk them or nothing. Daddy says I’m not ‘posed to go near them.”

“And I’m right,” Golden said, wagging a hoof at him. “Those stallions are up to no good, and you know it.”

“Why have they been around so much?” I asked.

Golden shrugged. “Celestia knows. It’s just, in recent months, they’ve really stepped up their presence and haven’t left. After the big accident on the highway this morning, I don’t imagine they’ll be leaving anytime soon.”

I almost choked on my tea and had to force it down. There was a strong urge to look down at the leg that had been regrown, but I fought it.

“So I guess you’re not from around here, are you?” Golden asked.

“Not, uh, exactly,” I said. “I’m from pretty far away, actually. Just passing through.”

Golden nodded and sighed. “If I were you, I would get out as fast as you can. Stay too long and this city has a tendency to keep you trapped. If you’re lucky enough to get out, then go.”

“Is it really that bad?” I asked.

“I’m afraid so.” Golden sighed. “After Princess Celestia abdicated control of the city districts to the mayors, things in some places got better, like in Fillydelphia where my mom lived. But places like here, well, the government just cracked down when they became afraid that they couldn’t rule without the princess backing them up. It’s been this way ever since.”

“And nopony does anything to fight it?”

“How would we? Most of us are too poor or disorganized to do anything. The rest are just content with the security they get, even if they have to give up a few things to have it.” He sighed. “If my mother knew that I wasn’t doing anything, she’d be mad. She and her friends changed Fillydelphia almost by themselves, but times are different now. It’s just not possible anymore. Too many guards, too many guns, and not enough resistance.”

It was silent at the table for a few minutes while they ate in silence before Golden clapped his hooves and stood up. “Enough of this sad talk, though,” he said. “Would you like to stay the night?”

I smiled and shook my head. “You two have been wonderful to me,” I said, “but I really have to be going. I thank you so much for your hospitality.”

I got up and Golden led me to the sliding door with Bristle in tow. He creaked open the door to reveal the wet streets outside bathed in inky darkness. “Are you sure?” he asked one more time.

“Positive. But I won’t forget somepony giving me a helping hoof. If there’s anything I can do . . .”

Golden held up a hoof. “Helping a stranger get back on her hooves is its own reward. Like I said, we need to watch out for each other. Hope you have a nice night.”

Neon Night - III

I stepped out into the cold night lit by neon lights reflecting on the puddles forming on the sidewalk. As I watched Golden slide the door shut, a part of me wanted to run back inside and stay with them forever, even though I knew I couldn’t. I sighed and walked down the narrow street lined with small houses identical to Golden’s.

Tall buildings leered over me and the district, their glass eyes keeping a close watch on the city’s poor. I could see how living in a place like this long enough could start to have effects on a pony.

I stumbled around aimlessly for a little bit, not really caring which way I was going. I walked down side roads and big avenues and under the wooden overhangs of shops lit up in the night and defiant to the downpour that fell around them.

My mind wandered for a bit. It seemed stable for the moment, but I didn’t know when it would crash next. I had no way of getting to Charm and Mr. White or even Cloaked Dagger. I was stuck and without anywhere to go.

I sighed and leaned under a sign advertising some ethnic restaurant. Above me, airships flew through the night, casting down beams of light from platforms beneath them. I looked up at them for a moment, then waved off the thought of capturing one. Where would I go? How would I find Cloaked Dagger?

Despite myself, I laughed a little. It hadn’t been about finding Cloaked Dagger for quite some time now. It had been more about me on a big invincibility ego trip, then getting my flank kicked, going insane, and then getting picked up off the street by strangers way nicer to me than anypony had any right to be.

But maybe that could be why I would fight, really. Not fight for Cloaked Dagger or for Charm or Twilight or even myself, but for those who couldn’t. The ponies like Golden who were caught in a system that drove ponies to hurt those below them. I wasn’t sure if it was me or Twilight talking anymore, but I didn’t care.

I looked like a hero, so I was going to be that hero. If I brought harm to myself, well, what did it matter? I was stranded here without a clear idea of how to get back to Twilight or even Journey’s End, and Charm, for all I knew, was just gone. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was the best of times and the worst of times.

With that foolhardy determination, I ran out into the middle of the street under one of the blimps. It had a police crest plastered on the side of the balloon and was sweeping the searchlight lazily across the district.

Gathering as much magic as I could, I let forth a massive blast from my horn that sailed straight up, pierced through the crowds, and continued toward the heavens. It was a single, massive beam of violet let that could be seen throughout the entire city. Just as planned.

Sure enough, the searchlight of that blimp and a half dozen others were soon focused on me as they drew closer. The wailing of sirens approached my position as the inhabitants of the district scattered away from me.

Within minutes, I was surrounded by at least twenty police cars and ponies armed to the teeth and pointing their weapons at my head. It appeared they had learned from their previous lessons, and some had those cables like from the office ready to throw at me in case I tried anything funny.

One of them chatted into a radio, “We found her. The subject is under control and ready to be brought in.”

I couldn’t hear the reply, but a dozen police officers swarmed around me and grabbed from all sides before slapping cuffs onto both sets of legs and some sort of band onto my horn. Maybe that would have affected a normal pony’s magic, but I could feel mine still throb beneath it. I let them have their fun, though.

Soon, they shoved me into the back of a large white van and roared off toward what I hoped would be the final confrontation with whoever had been so gung ho on hunting me down. I smiled to myself. One way or another, this was going to end.

* * *

I was bound and tied as we drove to whatever building housed the seedier parts of the government. They locked some sort of device over my horn that dulled my magic senses, though not completely as I assumed they had intended, and put a blindfold on. They spoke in whispers and seemed only to talk about taking me to see their mysterious boss.

The van stopped and I could feel us rising. Some sort of massive elevator, I supposed. It’s not like anypony was going to tell me otherwise. Though I kept quiet, my heart was thumping in my chest like a jackhammer.

My mind kept playing back to the incident in Dagger’s office and those horrible cables that made every fiber of my being ache in pain. I knew I would be confronting the pony who set them up and who, no doubt, was not afraid of using them again.

I wanted to run, but it was far too late for that.

The rising stopped and a loud humming filled the interior of the van. Then the door opened and I was bodily hauled out and dropped on the floor. I could hear the air whistle around the room, so it was some sort of massive structure. Figures, for somepony with this much of an ego.

“Welcome Tinker,” a high-pitched voice called, “or, what remains of the pony once named Tinker.”

I struggled against my binding, but it was for naught. I couldn’t move or see anything going on. “What do you want?” I yelled.

He laughed, a shrill and annoying sound. “You, of course. Why else would I bring you here and go through the trouble of kidnapping all of your friends?” He paused for a second. “Oh, right. Take her blindfold off!”

One of the guards tore the blindfold off and the light briefly blinded me. When my sight came back, I realized I was standing on the edge of a concave room that sloped down to a small platform at the top of circular steps. They glowed and pulsed in some sort of field and kept Charm, Mr. White, and Dagger trapped.

Sitting on top of the white metal platform, beneath the pyramidal roof that extended up into darkness, was a pony of purest white. He was small, just larger than a colt, but his bright red eyes bore down on me above a small snear.

“Impressive, no?” he called from his platform at the bottom of the artificial crater. “I built it because I could. And it. Is. Wonderful!”

“You built this so ponies could look down on you?” I called, then received a smack from one of the guards.

The director pony just snorted. “Ponies have been looking down on me my whole life,” he said. “It makes them underestimate me. It’s why I refuse to take the position of director, instead choosing Lieutenant. It’s a Prench word, meaning in place of or holding position. Beneath. And look where I am now.”

I could have sworn that the little pygmy wanted me to actually look around the room. With big metal walls in orange gothic lighting, it might have looked impressive to some cranky interior designer, but to me I didn’t care.

I stepped forward as much as I could in my bindings. “Okay, so what?” I asked. “Why did you drag me here? To gloat? If so, great, can I go home now?”

Lieutenant said nothing, but held up a small object in his hooves. I had to strain to see it, but when I did my heart stopped. There, at the end of string wrapped around his hooves, was a small crystal. But not just any crystal. Charm’s crystal. The very charm that gave him his name.

And it was glowing.

“You like?” he said. “It is a very rare, very magic crystal from the Empire itself. It can hold enough condensed magic to power a star. And do you know what I filled it with?” He smirked. “I filled it with you. All that magic that was drained from you in that office is in here now.”

I tilted my head. “So you just made a crystal that glows purple?” To my knowledge, the crystal had never done anything for Charm except give him a cutie mark. Perhaps Lieutenant had made a mistake for once.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. No sooner had I finished speaking than Lieutenant pointed the crystal at one of his guards. It pulsed for a moment and the guard disappeared in a puff of ash and a lingering scream.

My stomach jumped. Charm had never used that setting before.

“Very glow-y indeed,” Lieutenant said. “In addition to fun tricks, your magic is rumored to give immortality. After all, you have popped up in history for longer than we have kept records.”

I coughed. “So that’s all this is? A bid for immortality?”

“It is not just immortality,” Lieutenant cried. “Look at me. Who would think I could succeed as much as I have? But the one thing I have never had is time. Time! Time to do everything I have ever wanted in the world.” He took a tentative step toward me on the platform and winced. “I am far older than I look, and ponies like me don’t live long. But not anymore.”

“Okay, but you have my juice already,” I said, “so why not just let us go? You’ve wasted agents to catch us and now you’ve got your immortality. Just leave us alone.”

Above me, wires snapped down and impacted into the floor, held there by small hooks. Before I could run, they surrounded me like a cage. I was trapped. I could feel a scream welling up inside of myself and I had to fight it down.

The top of the platform Lieutenant was on rose and separated itself from the stairs. It hovered up above the captives and floated until he was just a few feet in front of me. He was grinning.

“I’m afraid what we got you the first time was just a . . . sample,” he said. “The amount you gave me would extend my life fifty, perhaps a hundred years, but I have much more planned. Much more.”

A lever extend through the floor of the platform and Lieutenant placed his hoof on it. “I apologize that we did not get to meet each other sooner, Miss Tinker,” he said, “but perhaps it is better this way. The draining process is not very pretty.”

He pulled the lever down, the cables lit with their magic, and I lost myself as my vision went white and my body shook in agony.

* * *

The white didn’t fade, but my vision eventually cleared until I found myself standing on a featureless plain that stretched forever. No horizon, no bend, no curve . . . just straight emptiness. So I was here again. Since when had my life gotten so repetitive?

I blinked. No, it wasn’t empty, and something like mirages were clearing in front of me. Fuzzy shapes that materialized into three figures sitting on the ground. I ran toward them.

However, it seemed like no matter how quickly I ran toward them, I could not reach them. They remained forever on the horizon until I finally quit running and threw up my hooves in confusion.

Then, when I looked back down again, the figures were right in front of me. I let out a startled yelp and scrambled backwards.

On the ground in front of me were three figures of . . . me. Not exactly me, though. Well, one of them was for the most part, but not all of them.

In the middle was the one who most looked like me: seagreen mane pulled back in a ponytail with violet eyes and a cutie mark of a wrench crossed over a blowtorch. For some reason, though, her coat was green as compared to my own silver.

The other two were familiar as well. To the left of “me” was Twilight with her cape and tattoo and everything, but somehow she had my height and eyes. More disturbing, to the right was what could best be described as a cross of me and Discord; mismatched limbs and all.

The trio didn’t talk or say a word; only stared up at me in what I assumed was anticipation. For what, I didn’t know.

“Yes, you do.”

I whirled around to see the first figure that didn’t look like me: Charm, looking like he had when I had left.

“You know exactly where you are and why you’re here,” he said.

“This is my mind, I guess,” I said. “But . . . I don’t know why I’m here. Besides dying, I mean.”

He sat on the ground and looked up at me. “Well yes, you’re dying, but there are a million places your mind could have gone and it chose this one. Why?”

I shrugged. “I don’t even know anymore. The past weeks have been so much . . .”

“Six days,” Charm said. “You’ve been gone six days. Not even a week.”

“Seriously?” I screeched. All the things I had gone through . . . but he was right. Celestia, it hadn’t been an entire week yet. If I had been normal, it would only have been next Thursday.

Charm nodded, his rusty red hair swaying with him. “You’ve done a lot in those six days, Tinker. More than most ponies do in their lifetimes. But it seems to have fractured your mind, as you can see. Heck, I’m nothing more than you speaking to yourself.”

“Okay, me,” I said, charging forward and trying not to think of how insane I sounded, “what do I think I should do?”

Charm shrugged. “You haven’t exactly been thinking about that for a while, have you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Think about it: Since you threw yourself on that bomb, it’s like you’ve been trying to be Twilight. But you’re not and right now you’re having your life drained away and then the Lieutenant will kill the rest. In fact, since you met her, you’ve been trying to be more like her. When’s the last time you, you know, tinkered with something?”

I bowed my head. “Why would I want to be me, though? Twilight’s a hero . . . I just get in the way. By being her, I solved my problems.”

“No, when you acted like her you created more problems. You can be a hero, but you’ll have to be Tinker first. There's a hero inside of you somewhere; you just have find her.”

“But how do I do that?” I asked.

“First,” Charm said, pointing at my purple coat and horn, “you have to get rid of Twilight.”

“I don’t know how—”

Charm rushed forward and our lips met. Sure, technically I was making out with myself in Charm form, but I didn’t care. It was wonderful.

I leaned into him and it was like the whole weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders for the first time since coming to Manehattan.

When I looked again, though, he was gone. The versions of myself had disappeared as well, but most starting of all was myself. I looked down at myself and I was Tinker again, though now with a green coat under my white overshirt and black vest. If that’s what it cost then I wasn’t going to complain.

The white world faded from view and I opened my eyes.

* * *

Outside, I was still the same, though still surrounded by the cables. I could see the magical energy flowing out of them and into the crystal that Lieutenant held. It sparkled and glowed until the entire room seemed to grow dark save its purple light.

And yet, though the cables were drawing energy from me, I felt no pain. When I looked down, I could see why. Like paint peeling off a wall, the purple coat from Twilight was coming off, starting off at the bottoms of my hooves and moving up.

It continued on its way as Lieutenant watched in confusion. He was yelling, but I couldn’t hear what he said.

Beneath it, the mint green coat from the other “me” replaced Twilight’s color. I smiled a little when I saw it. Even if it wasn’t the original, it was me. When I looked back, it was my cutie mark and my seagreen tail.

The essence of Twilight climbed up until it came to a point on the top of my faux-horn. It pulsed and swelled into a bright ball of light.

I could finally hear what Lieutenant was screaming: “What are you doing?”

A smile made its way onto my face and I leaned against the cables, which bent under my weight. “If you want Twilight so badly,” I said, “then you can have her!”

I reared back and threw my head, sending the ball of light soaring out and into the cables. They flexed and burst from the weight of the magic. The magic flow from them grew and shot out toward Lieutenant, who threw up his hooves in a vain attempt to protect himself.

The magic went right through and into the crystal. For a second there was silence, then the Lieutenant burst into a cloud of gas and drifted away while the crystal floated to the ground.

I walked over, picked it up, and held it up to my face. It was such a simple, yet precious thing. I kicked away the ash that was the remains of Lieutenant or whatever he had been.

It had been pretty anticlimactic, in the end. Yet another sick freak just wanting more power. But it wasn't about him, I supposed; it was against myself that I had fought the real fight.

“Thanks for nothing,” I mumbled to his remains.

It was at that time that I realized what had happened by getting rid of Twilight’s magic. What had really happened.

I felt myself being tugged by the hooves of time as they ached to take me away and back to wherever Twilight was. I fought it as I stumbled over to where Charm and the rest lay in a daze.

They looked up at me and started to speak, but I cut them off.

“I don’t have much time,” I told Charm, taking him by the shoulders. I shoved the crystal into his hooves. “But I trust you . . . use this and it will take you anywhere. One day, someday, you’ll find me again. I promise.”

He opened his mouth, but I held my hoof over it and smiled. “Save it.”

There was a popping sound and the universe disappeared as I was flung through time once more. It almost felt good to be back. Almost.

* * *

I found Twilight again on a grassy knoll on the thinning edges of a forest beneath a great blue sky dotted by puffy white clouds. Wind ran down from the mountains behind and rolled over the waves of tall grass on the plain in front of her. It may have been Equestria or an alien world, but I didn’t care.

I walked up next to her and sat down to watch the sea of grass as it rose and fell beneath the bright sun. We didn’t say anything. She scooted next to me and let me rest against her.

I was back.

Author's Notes:

EDIT: Alright, clarification time. For those of you wondering why this fic ended as it did (namely, without a real ending), well, the simple of it is that I grew tired and stressed from this story a year ago and cancelled it. However, under the recommendation of others, I slapped a complete tag on it. I regret that I cancelled it, but the concept was rapidly becoming more about Tinker than Twilight and spiraling out of control, which just wasn't doing at all. I realized this when I wanted to come back to the story, so instead of trying to overhaul the story halfway through, I created a new story called Bullet With Alicorn Wings, a full reboot. It's fine not to like this "ending" and I can only urge you, dear reader, to check out the reboot for more about Twilight and time travel.

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