Thursday, March 7, 2013

6-Star Reviews Return Monday

I am moderately sick; sick enough to spend most of the day lying in bed and groaning, anyway.  Since this is not a state conducive to reading OR reviewing, I've got nothing ready for today.

If you find that you absolutely need something from me to ponder as you go into the weekend, here.  That ought to keep you busy for a while.

I feel like I should say "6-Star Reviews return Monday  to close, but I already put that in the title, so it seems redundant.  So, ah... cia!


  1. Screw sleep, I'm going to listen to that in its entirety while reading sadfics

  2. Hmm… we should write a 6-star story for Chris to review when he gets back. I'll start.

    Torrents of rain fell from the darkened skies as Cannonball, fur heavy with mud, scrambled up the steep hill outside the walls of the rebel stronghold. It was known as Fort Maleficent, and with good cause. Of all the horror stories this war had produced, only the worst were associated with this place. It was home to every crime against friendship known to ponykind—as well as some they didn't even have names for yet. Hopefully, however, if his squad succeeded, the only thing it would be remembered for in the end was for creating Equestria’s largest crater.

    Removing his heavy saddlebags, Cannonball retrieved the aptly named, "crater maker" explosive from within and began to set the primer, but the sound of hooves stomping on cold stone suddenly caught his attention, and he pressed himself against the stronghold wall as a pair of rebel guards passed by overhead. For a moment they paused, and he held his breath, praying to Luna to not let him be seen. After a few tense seconds they moved on, and he let out a sigh of relief. Finishing up his task, he dug out a small groove to ensure that the bomb wouldn't slide back down the hill after him (that would be disastrous) and secured the ignition wire in place before discreetly fleeing to safety.

    As Cannonball leapt into the trench where the rest of his team had already assembled, landing with a messy splash, the scrawny orange unicorn at his side looked over at him with a sharp-toothed grin. "Are you ready?” he asked, a trail of magical sparks dancing up and down his horn. “Ready to see the biggest, wonderfulest, most beautiful—"

    "Keep it together, Killswitch!" Cannonball replied. Water was pouring in from all directions, and despite them having built a retaining wall, it was already up to his chest. "How are we looking, Brighteyes? Are the rest of the bombs in place?"

    "Yes, sir. Everything is looking good, sir," the other unicorn on his team responded from the far side of the trench, looking up from his telescope and brushing back a lock of silver mane that had matted itself to the side of his face.

    "Good. That's what I like to hear."

    "We doin' this, or are we gonna keep gabbin like a bunch of prissys?" called the last member of Cannonball's team; a white earth pony who was as thick as a tree and just as stubborn.

    "Sorry, Ironjaw. I know how much you love the sound of my voice, but not this time. I'd like to be a hero before we drown, I think. On my mark, soldiers!" Reaching down, Cannonball attached his wire to his personal detonator and placed a hoof on the switch. The rest did the same with theirs. "Three. Two. One—"


    1. Cannonball jolted at the sudden cry of alarm, stopping himself just in time. "Celestia's fiery forelocks, Brighteyes! What is it?"

      "It's… it’s him!"

      “Him who?!”

      Stumbling back, Brighteyes dropped his telescope into the water, pointing toward the stronghold with a shaking hoof. “Him!

      Cannonball’s eyes widened as he realized what Brighteyes meant. Diving under the water, he located the telescope, wiping it off as best he could before peering through it. “No! No, it can’t be!”

      “What’s goin’ on?” yelled Ironjaw, looking between Cannonball and the stronghold with a worried (or at least what could be considered worried, for him) grimace. Suddenly there was a series of magical flashes all around Fort Maleficent’s base, and the detonators were yanked from their grasps as the wires connected to them snapped taught. An instant later, an explosion as bright as Celestia’s sun tore open the night sky.

      The explosion wasn’t at the base of Fort Maleficent like was supposed to be, but instead was high up in the air. As the four of them fell to the ground, bowled over the by following shockwave, a second sun erupted into existence, this time much closer.

      Killswitch!” yelled Cannonball. “Deactivate the other bombs before—” but he was interrupted as the second shockwave forced him under the water.

      Before he could resurface, there was a third bloom of light, this time so close that the shockwave hit immediately—along with a searing wave of heat. For a moment Cannonball was glad he was underwater, else he was sure it would have seared off every hair on his body. That didn’t last long, however, when a familiar looking object landed with a heavy splud in the murk beside him. Letting out a silent scream in the form of a cascade of bubbles, Cannonball jumped back, breaking above the surface.

      “Killswitch! Brighteyes! Get us out of here!” he yelled. “There’s a bomb in the trench! Get us out now!

      As the bomb began to glow, so did the horns of the two unicorns in the group. “So beautiful!” Killswitch giggled psychotically as their magical auras widened to surrounding the group. “So lovely, amazing, beautiful!

      The bomb emitted a small beep.

      Go go go go go go—”

      There was a flash of magic, then a flash of fire, then everything within a hundred meter radius of the bomb was suddenly gone.

    2. “That’s the most rediculous story I’ve ever heard!”

      “My apologies, Captain. Would you prefer we make something up instead?”

      “Don’t backtalk me, soldier, or it’s another week in solitary for the lot of you!”

      Captain Starkicker paced back and forth behind his desk, eying Cannonball and the rest of his squad with unwavering contempt. He was an ugly pony. After Cannonball and his squad barely managed to teleport out of the Crater Maker’s kill zone, then hike thirty kilometers on hoof back to base, he’d been considerate enough to welcome them home with a solid week in the pipes; a series of metal tubes that ran under the training grounds which had been converted into a set of prison cells for the more… free-spirited ponies among the troops. It had the charming feature of allowing the incarcerated to hear the pounding hooves of the soldiers running laps above them at all hours of the day or night. It wasn’t so bad once you got used to it, though, and Celestia knew that they were. As a matter of fact, that was where Cannonball and his team first met.

      “I swear, sir,” said Brighteyes, somehow snapping even more to attention than he already was, “it’s true. I saw it myself. The pony on the wall of Fort Maleficent fit the description from the history books perfectly.”

      “And how do you know it wasn’t just some delusional rebel who went mad with power and decided to dress the part? Maybe you simply botched the plan, and they decided to mess with you before blowing you to smithereens. Celestia’s withers, son! For all I know, maybe you’ve been hanging around with Killswitch too long, and his crazy is starting to rub off on you!”

      “It’s not, sir. It was him.”

      Captain Starkicker slammed a hoof down on his desk. “How do you know?!

      Looking away, Brighteyes shivered slightly. “…It was his eyes. I don’t care what you think, Captain, but you can’t fake eyes like that.”

      Stepping forward, Cannonball slammed his hoof down on the desk as well. “With all due respect, sir, we nearly died getting this information. We’ve crawled through dirt, blood, and fire to bring it back to you, knowing full well that even mentioning it would get us time in the pipes, yet we served it willingly. I mean… Luna’s mercy! Ironjaw hasn’t even bathed since we got back!”

      “Like I care about that,” Ironjaw grunted, scratching his side.

      Cannonball rolled his eyes. “Point being, Captain, how do you even have the gall to not believe us at this point?”

      For a moment Captain Starkicker was silent, a vein in his neck visibly pulsing as he stared Cannonball down from across their mahogany battlefield. After what seemed like ages, he grimaced, letting out a low groan as he did so. “Sometimes I wish I didn't made it out of that skirmish in Mulesaban just so I never had to meet the likes of you, soldier. The only thing I can ever count on your sorry squad to do is bring back the worst possible news.”

      Leaning back, Cannonball smiled, victorious. “Only because we love to see the look on your pretty face when we do.”

      With a huff, Captain Starkicker opened a drawer in his desk and removed large, official looking piece of paper and pen before slamming it shut. “Get your team prepped and ready to return to the field by this time tomorrow,” he ordered. “And try to make yourselves look presentable.”

      “Why?” Cannonball asked. “You have another mission for us?”

      “Not yet, but I will. And I can only hope by Celestia’s good graces that this time you won’t come back again to ruin my day. Now get out of my sight. I’ve got a letter to write, and I don’t need you distracting me while I try to figure out the best way to tell our beloved eternal princesses that King Sombra has once again returned.”

      “Sir, yes sir,” Cannonball quipped, giving a lax salute. Turning in place, he and his team exited through the door, slamming it shut behind them.

    3. CV... I wanna know what happens next! D:

    4. “Atten-tion!”

      Cannonball snorted, reflexively falling out of bed at the harsh voice screaming into his ear. Untangling himself from his sheets, he climbed to his hooves. Apparently when Captain Starkicker said, “this time tomorrow,” what he actually meant was, “before Celestia’s good sun had even graced them with its light.” At least in the pipes nopony bothered you.

      “I said attention!” Captain Starkicker yelled again, using his signature riding crop to whip Cannonball right between the shoulder blades as he passed by. “That means stand up straight!”

      Yaah! Geeze, fine!” he yelped, snapping to attention. “What’s got you in such a bad mood?”

      “Bad mood? Why, Soldier, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I've never felt more alive." The captain took in a deep breath. "Ah yes, today is going to be a good day.”

      As much as Cannonball would have liked to make a snarky comment at this, he actually refrained for once. He’d learned from experience that a good day for the captain meant a very bad day for him, and at the risk of agitating Captain Starkicker’s manic schadenfreude, he held his tongue. Best to conserve his energy until he knew what he was in for.

      “Where are the others?” Cannonball asked, noticing his team was absent.

      “They’ve been sent ahead,” the captain replied. “This is a momentous occasion, soldier, and I wanted to make sure I got a few minutes with you… alone.”

      Walking by again, Captain Starkicker looked Cannonball up and down. “Son,” he said, “I know we’ve had our differences over the years, but I feel it my duty to inform you that despite the endless hours of grief you’ve caused me; despite the mountains of paperwork I’ve had to go over, and formal apologies I’ve had to sign in order to keep this base from falling into ruin due to your impetuous actions… I respect you.”

      Now Cannonball was starting to feel genuinely worried.

      “It’s your gumption,” he continued. “The fact that you never let me break you, no matter how hard I tried—and don’t sell yourself short there, son, because I have tried—has proven to me that there are still ponies out there who know how to take every beating life could possibly throw at them without batting an eye, then get back up and do it again. As such, I would like to award you with this.” Reaching into his coat pocket, he retrieved a small wooden box and handed it to Cannonball.

      “Whoa now, Captain. I like you and all, but I don’t think I’m ready for this type of commitment.”

      “Just open it,” the captain huffed.

      His humor obviously not being appreciate at the moment, Cannonball shrugged and obeyed—then let out a gasp of surprise so uncharacteristically girly that at first it seemed like Captain Starkicker had actually proposed. Inside the box was something much more unexpected than a ring, however. Lying there, surrounded by dark velvet... was a medal. An iron saddle. The highest award a pony of his rank could receive.

      “Oh Luna. Oh Celestia Luna stars in the heavens,” Cannonball said, looking up at the captain in terror. “You finally did it, didn’t you? You finally found a way to convince the board of ethics to let you kill me with your bare hooves! Please, Captain, don't! There are too many gorgeous mares back home that wouldn’t know what to do without me!”

      Captain Starkicker’s face twisted into an evil grin. “Oh, don’t you worry, soldier. It’s nothing like that. As a matter of fact, it's quite the opposite. You’re getting a promotion. From this day forward you’ll be somepony else’s problem, and when they’re through with you... you’re going to wish I'd shown such mercy. Now pack your things. A very important guest will be arriving shortly, and you do not want to keep them waiting!”

      “Y-yes sir,” said Cannonball, an ominous sense of dread falling over him.

      With a curt nod, Captain Starkicker turned to walk away, using his riding crop to give Cannonball one more quick snap across the knees. “And for the last time, son, stand up straight!

    5. Mystic, what happens next is up to you!

      Wait a wiggly minute...

    6. As Cannonball exited the sleeping quarters, he found the other three members of his squad waiting outside. Ironjaw was obviously not happy about having been woken up so early, and stood, hunched over like an angry stone, staring straight ahead with bloodshot eyes. Killswitch, in stark comparison, was scampering around the field, lost in his own world as he attempted to snatch fireflies out of the air with his teeth. By the looks of it, he’d already managed to catch several. Neither of them seemed in the talking mood, so Cannonball made his way over to Brighteyes, who was sitting a ways off, staring up at the stars.

      “Morning, Brighteyes,” said Cannonball as he approached. “Something on your mind?”

      “Just… the sky.”

      “Well I’d guessed that much. Anything about it in particular?”

      “The sun should have risen by now.”

      “Really? How can you tell?”

      “Because the sun always rises as the moon is setting. Do you see the moon anywhere?”

      Furrowing his brow, Cannonball looked around, realizing for the first time that he, indeed, did not. “Huh," he mused. "Well I suppose even the gods accidentally sleep in on occasion, aye?”

      “Hopefully. It’s better than the alternative, anyway.”

      “What alternative?”

      “That they’re dead.”

      When Cannonball didn’t respond, Brighteyes looked over at him nonchalantly. “That was a joke.”

      “…Ah. Good,” he replied. “That’s… good.” Giving Brighteyes an awkward pat on the shoulder, Cannonball took a step back. Brighteyes was an excellent soldier, to be sure, but for the life of him, Cannonball could not understand what went on in that head of his. It was like trying to guess what was behind a locked door based purely off the color of its paint.

      “So,” Cannonball continued, “did old Starkicker give the rest of you any hint as to what’s going on, or are we all being equally kept in the dark? No pun intended, of course.”

      “Nothing to report,” said Brighteyes, once again looking skyward, “but I have the feeling we’ll find out very soon.”

      “Why do you say—”

      Suddenly something large and dark fell from the sky, careening past Cannonball so quickly that he barely had time to dive out of the way. “Celestia’s holy haunches!” he screamed, tumbling to the ground as a gust of wind followed in its wake. An instant later, similar cries of alarm were heard from his teammates, followed by an abrupt and all encompassing silence.

      Lying on the ground with his hooves over his head, Cannonball yelled, “Ironjaw! Brighteyes! Killswitch! Report!” but they didn’t reply. A moment later, he heard the sound of hoofsteps as somepony approached.

      “I apologize for scaring you,” said an elegant female voice, “but I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a rush. Please, rise. I can explain everything on the way.”

      Lifting his head just enough to see the ground in front of him, Cannonball caught sight of four gold-clad hooves. As he did, his heart began to pound. Swallowing hard, he followed the hooves up to the body of the one they were connected to, and there, for the first time, he saw it. Saw her. The alicorn ruler of Equestria. The sister of the dawn. Princess Celestia.

      “P-princess!” he stuttered, climbing hastily to his hooves and hoping that the rumors about her gaze causing sinners to combust weren’t true. “I-I… It’s an honor to meet you!”

      With a pleasant nod, she replied, “The honor is all mine, Cannonball,” then leaned down, and with a smirk, added, “Now, what was that you said about my haunches?”

    7. “I want to go down.”

      “Keep it together, Killswitch.”

      Please, Cannonball! I don’t like heights. They make me sick. I don’t like falling. Not after the first time.”

      “Then stop peering over the edge!” Grabbing Killswitch by the ears, Cannonball dragged him to the center of the carriage. “I don’t like it anymore than you do, but we’ll be back on the ground soon enough. Until then just… lay down and close your eyes.”

      With a pitiful whimper, Killswitch sank to the floor, burying his head in his hooves as he began to gently rock himself back and forth.

      Patting him on the back, Cannonball squeezed past Ironjaw and Brighteyes to reach the front of the carriage. Leaning toward their royal chauffeur, he shouted over the wind, “I’m sorry to be so blunt, Princess, but how much longer do you think this will take? I'm not sure my companion here is going to make it!”

      “It’s just around the next mountain!” she replied.

      After arriving at their base, Celestia had commandeered one of the infantry transport carriages and told them to climb aboard. It seemed almost sacrilegious to have a creature such as herself ferry them around the night sky, but she insisted.

      “This is the best way I can guarantee you will all arrive safely,” she had said, “and despite my appearance, I assure you I can hold my own in any carriage race. Besides, after your previous comment, I can only assume you'll enjoy the view.”

      Blushing apologetically, Cannonball muttered, “Once again, Princess, I am so sorry about that,” but she only laughed.

      “I’ve heard much worse things about myself come out of a soldier’s mouth in my time, Cannonball. Comparatively, I might even consider it a compliment. Now hurry. We're already running late.”

      As his team entered the carriage, Cannonball thought to himself that despite the great many rumors he’d heard of the Princess’s stern and uncompromising nature, he was beginning to like her more and more already.

      “So what’s this all about?” Ironjaw demanded only a few seconds after they got off the ground. “We bein’ discahrged fer blabbin’? Locked up? Executed?

      “No, no. Goodness no,” said Celestia. “Nothing like that. Seeing as the four of you learned of King Sombra’s return, my sister and I simply deemed it necessary to take some… extra precautions.”

      “What do you mean?” asked Cannonball.

      Celestia's eyebrows arched in concern. “King Sombra is… persistent, if anything. Perhaps relentless is a better word. My sister and I have tried to destroy him countless times, but he always finds a way to return. He’s a being of powerful emotions, and once he sets his mind to something, there’s no way to deter him. In short, the worst type of enemy one could have. Seeing as how you attempted to demolish his main base of operations, it’s only a matter of time before he'll come after you.”

      “So this is witness protection, then,” said Cannonball. “You’re going to keep us safe until he’s been dealt with.”

      “Erm… something like that,” Celestia replied. That didn’t sound particularly assuring.

      “What do you mean ‘learned?’” Brighteyes suddenly asked.

      “What?” replied Cannonball in confusion.

      “I was talking to the princess. On our mission we discovered King Sombra’s existence, but she said we learned of it. What do you mean ‘learned,’ Princess?”

      At this revelation, all eyes but those of Killswitch turned to the Princess. His were still hanging over the edge of the carriage at this point, staring down at the ground in sheer terror.

      “Oh. Ah-h… um,” she stuttered. Actually stuttered.

      “Wait. Wait, wait, wait, dear Princess!” Cannonball exclaimed. “Are you meaning to say that we nearly died attempting to destroy a stronghold that, unbeknownst to us, housed the greatest living evil in all of Equestria, only now to learn that it was already… beknownst?

      Celestia sighed. “Well if you want to put it that way… yes.”

    8. “Aw, what?! Heck no, Princess! Heck no!”

      “’Heck?’” Celestia repeated, looking back at Ironjaw quizzically.

      “He refuses to swear,” Cannonball explained. “A promise to his mother before he joined the war.”

      “She raised me right! Doesn’t mean I’m any less angry, though! What do you mean you already knew King Sombra was back?”

      “We—and by that I mean strictly my sister and I—have known for several months now,” Celestia bashfully admitted. “After battling him as much as we have, you begin to pick up on his more subtle tendencies. A pattern in the rebel crimes started to emerge recently, and soon it became clear what was going on. King Sombra has a propensity to hoard magical artifacts, you see, and over the course of the last few years, all the most powerful ones on record have started disappearing.”

      “What does he want with them?” asked Brighteyes.

      “To corrupt them, most likely, and use them in his experiments to increase his power. It’s all he ever wants. The ‘how’ of that was a bit trickier, though, so we set into motion a plan to find out. Selecting the best from among our royal guard, we sent spies to infiltrate and report back to us what was going on, and for a time it worked… but then something went wrong.”

      “What was that?” asked Cannonball.

      Frowning, Celestia turned her head forward again. “That is something which we will discuss in the castle. For the time being, due to current… circumstances, nowhere else is safe.”

      And so, for the remaining bulk of the flight, Cannonball and his team remained silent. All except Killswitch, whose sobs and moans of misery only grew louder over time. When they landed in the Canterlot courtyard, he immediately rolled out of the carriage onto the cold granite, then proceeded to lay there like a corpse until a pair of armored guards came to pull the infantry transport carriage away.

      “Is… this unicorn alright?” one of them asked, prodding Killswitch carefully with his hoof as the other dutifully attached himself to the carriage.

      Don’t touch him!” Cannonball suddenly exclaimed, jumping forward and grabbing the guard’s hoof. “Don’t—just… give him a few minutes. He gets a bit unstable on long trips.”

      “Is there anything we can do to help him?” asked the guard, looking concerned as another latent sob escaped Killswitch’s throat.

      “Yes, actually. If you have anything flammable that you don’t mind losing, then go ahead and set it down next to him. Just make sure to stay a safe distance away as you do.”

      Looking hesitant, the guard removed a handkerchief from his pocket and tossed it toward where Killswitch was huddled. There was a flash of orange as it ignited midair, burning to a crisp before it even touched the ground. As its ashes swirled away, Killswitch let out a quiet giggle. Taking a large step back, the guard’s expression went from concerned to outright scared.

      “Don’t worry,” Cannonball assured him. “He’s harmless for the most part. Fire just helps to calm his nerves.

      The guard’s only response was a small, fearful nod before walking over and attaching himself to the carriage along with the other. Not looking back, the two of them quickly pulled it away.

      “…So,” said Cannonball, once they were gone, “glad we all made it here safely. Shall we continue our conversation?”

      “In a moment,” replied Celestia. “I’m just waiting for the yin of my yang.”

      “The what of your wh—Luna’s unshorn fetlocks!

      There was a sudden whoosh of air as a living shadow came plummeting into the center of the courtyard from somewhere high above, causing every light source in the vicinity to momentarily go dark. Stumbling back, Cannonball barreled into Brighteyes, who in turn tripped over Killswitch and caused them both to go crashing to the ground.

      Aaah!” Killswitch yelled, a stream of orange sparks exploding off his horn as he was shocked back to life by the sudden collision. As they did, they illuminated the shadow's face, and two turquoise eyes looked down at Cannonball angrily.

      What did you just say about my fetlocks?”

    9. “Luna!” Celestia exclaimed, running over to her frowning sister and wrapping her in a hug. “I’m so glad you could join us.”

      “Continue to restrain me, Sister,” Luna replied, “lest I be unable to control my wrath, and this foul-tongued plebian perish.”

      “Oh, Luna, don’t be that way. It’s just a saying! And even then, it holds no actual weight. Your fetlocks are sheared perfectly.”

      Still struggling to free himself from his teammates, it took Cannonball a moment to catch on to what was happening. When he did, however, he stopped dead, a sense of doom falling over him as he looked between Celestia and the new arrival and once again realized what he'd done. “Oh fff—er… forgive me. Forgive me, oh great Princess of the Night! I have a terrible habit of yelling the first thing on my mind when I’m surprised. A panic-induced Tourette’s syndrome, if you will.”

      “And by this, scoundrel, do you mean to suggest that the first thing on your mind were my fetlocks?”

      Cannonball didn’t have an answer for this. Looking at his friends for help, they quickly scrambled off of him and lifted him to his hooves.

      “You know, forgiveness is a very flattering trait,” Brighteyes carefully suggested. “To see it exercised by one so glorious as you would be most impressive.” Glancing at Cannonball out of the corner of his eye, he added, “in this case doubly so.”

      “Yeah! Come on, Princess! Cut our buddy some slack!” Ironjaw chimed in.

      Luna remained silent. In desperation, the three of them looked over at Killswitch for additional support. “Hrmm…” he whined, fidgeting under their gaze. Looking up at the princesses, he suddenly bounded over, catching them by surprise as he joined into their hug with a nervous twitch.

      Ah…!” yelped Cannonball, leaning forward impulsively. At first Luna’s eyes went wide at this, and Cannonball mentally cringed, but much to his relief, as she looked down at the odd little unicorn clinging to her, they seemed to soften.

      “There, there,” she said, patting him on the head. “You need not fear.” Looking up at the rest of the team, Luna announced in a commanding voice, “The orange one has appeased me! All is well!” to which they breathed a collective sigh. Turning and walking back to the group, Killswitch gave Cannonball a knowing wink, and they discreetly bumped hooves.

      “Now then, back to business,” said Celestia, also releasing her sister from her grasp. “Luna will lead you to the safe room and explain things there. Meanwhile, if you will excuse me, I have an urgent matter to attend to. Arriving under cover of darkness was a necessity, but I can’t keep the sun down for too long, else some form of widespread panic will no doubt ensue.”

      Without wasting another moment, Princess Celestia took to the sky and vanished over the courtyard walls to the east. In the same moment, Luna began making her way inside, and Cannonball’s team followed.

      “Despite your unbecoming first impressions,” Luna said as she lead them down a long hall ending at heavy stone door that looked like it was carved into the very mountain, itself, “I still find your bravery admirable. Not many would be willing to do what you have done.”

      “Well, I don’t like to brag,” said Cannonball as she ushered them through, “but yes. We are rather impressive.”

      "Indeed..." she replied, then whispered to herself, "I only hope such courage holds out."

      As the group crossed over the threshold of the massive safe room, the lights in the hall flickered. Muscles tensing, Luna jumped back, twisting in the air so that she landed on all four hooves facing the opposite direction. For a moment she waited, scanning the area for any sign of movement… but it seemed nopony was there. Still looking around suspiciously, she followed them through. Once they were all inside, the safe room’s wall of a door silently swung shut behind them.

    10. “My sister has no doubt informed you of our situation, yes?” asked Luna, taking a seat at the head of a large wooden table in the center of the room.

      “She told us you sent spies to infiltrate King Sombra’s ranks,” said Brighteyes, sitting across from her, “and that something went wrong, but that’s all.”

      “Good. Then we shall pick up from there. Due to King Sombra’s cunning and unpredictability, we needed a way to guarantee the information our spies returned could be trusted. To accomplish this, they underwent stringent mental training which allowed them to communicate with me at will through their dreams.”

      “Whoa!” Ironjaw exclaimed. “That’s crazy!

      Luna looked over at him flatly. “Yes. Crazy. As I was saying, for several months, things went as planned. Our spies reported that King Sombra was assembling a war machine. Some sort of massive weapon which he intended to use to destroy targets from great distances, but then....”

      Luna paused for a moment, seeming troubled.

      “But then, a few weeks ago, the connections between our spies and I abruptly began to break. It happened so quickly that we were unable to discover the source. In a final effort, we sent in one last spy to find out what had occurred, but since passing beyond King Sombra’s walls, he has fallen silent as well.”

      “Did the same thing happen to him that did to all the rest?” Brighteyes asked.

      “No,” said Luna resolutely. “No.... He was one of our best. I can still sense the connection between us, but for whatever reason, he remains silent. That, friends, is where you come in.”

      “Wait, what?” said Cannonball, suddenly deciding to pay attention. He wasn’t really much of the briefing type.

      “Is something wrong?”

      “Only the fact that you just inserted us into your account of meddling in King Sombra’s base! Now, correct me if I’m mistaken, but Princess Celestia said that for attempting to destroy said base, said king would try to hunt us down and kill us. If you’re job is to protect us, isn’t, ‘That’s where you come in,’ the last thing you should be saying?”

      Luna raised an eyebrow at him. “You seem confused.”

      “Utterly and completely,” Cannonball agreed, throwing his hooves in the air. “Would you care to explain?”

      “Certainly. First of all you say that King Sombra will try to kill you, but that is not the case. He simply will. No force in Equestria is powerful enough deter the green-eyed monster when he is on the hunt. You will die, your friends will die, I will die, we will all die; if not immediately, then after years of being worn to nothing as slaves under the crushing force of his indomitable will. Against such promises of death, what idle hope is there in something so fleeting as protection?

      A morbid silence filled the safe room then. After some time, Cannonball, eyes wide with bleak realization, slowly lowered his hooves back down to the table and muttered, “...Well now I wish you hadn’t explained.”

      Despite the grief-stricken terror that plastered the faces of the four ponies in front of her, Luna seemed undeterred. “Do not fret, little ponies,” she said, leaning back in her chair, “for though we cannot hide from death, there is still one thing that offers a chance at living lives free of King Sombra’s reign… well, allows you a chance. For my sister and I, it is merely a reprieve.”

      Leaping up from his chair, Ironjaw slammed his hooves down on the table so hard that the entire opposite side momentarily lifted off the ground. “Well… I want that!” he exclaimed. “What is it?”

      Eyes gleaming, Luna leaned forward, and with a delightfully wicked smile, said, “We can fight.

    11. “So let me get this straight. King Sombra has marked us for death, and if he catches us, will imprison us within Fort Maleficent and make us work as his slaves until the day we die.”

      “Yes,” said Luna.

      “Therefore, in order to prevent this fate from befalling us… you’re going to send us into Fort Maleficent, and have us work as slaves for King Sombra until we find this missing agent of yours.”

      “Correct,” said Celestia.

      “And if we fail?”

      “Then you die.”

      Cannonball stared hard at the royal sisters, looking for any signs that this might be some sort of joke. “You do realize this plan is terrible, don’t you?” he finally asked.

      Celestia got up from the chair next to her sister where she had been sitting since joining them after finishing her work of raising the sun and walked over to Cannonball’s side. “Don’t think of it as ‘terrible,’” she said, resting a hoof on his shoulder. “Think of it as ‘having a slim chance of success.’”

      “I think you underestimate our agent,” Luna added. “He is a master strategist and tactician, as well as a master technician when it comes to magical and mechanical devices.”

      “Sounds dreamy,” Cannonball scoffed, rolling his eyes.

      “His dreaminess is of little significance in this matter,” said Luna. “The point is that plans were already underway to sabotage King Sombra’s machine and bring an end to his rule. If our spy has not yet been found out, then you can be assured he is continuing to move the plan forward.”

      “How will we be able to tell him apart from the rest of King Sombra’s troops?” asked Brighteyes.

      “You won’t.”

      “Wait, what?” Cannonball interjected. “What do you mean 'we won’t?'”

      Looking over at him, Luna replied, “He is also a master of disguise.”

      With a frustrated neigh, Cannonball slammed his head onto the table. Celestia once again tried to run a hoof over his back for comfort, but he shooed her away.

      “Come now, Cannonball,” she scolded, “don’t be like that. You four are the only ones currently qualified to undertake this task. Would you rather have us send in a different team of ponies? Ones not yet caught in King Sombra’s sights, and who have no experience dealing with either him or Fort Maleficent whatsoever?”

      “Do we have a choice?”

      “Well… no.”

      “Me! Me!” exclaimed Killswitch, who had been staring at Luna with a sickeningly mushy smile on his face since the briefing began. “I’ll go… for you.”

      Smiling back at him, Luna said, “Thank you, dear. You are very sweet.”

      For a moment Cannonball looked between the two of them, then shouted in a reprimanding voice, “No! Bad Killswitch! You do not volunteer for suicide missions to win attention from mares!”

      Not looking away from her, Killswitch replied, “She’s pretty.”

      “Well I’m your friend!”

      “Pretty is better.”

      With an appalled look on his face, Cannonball jumped up, turning toward Luna. “Look what you’re doing!” he exclaimed. “You and your mission are tearing this team apart!”

      “Actually…” said Brighteyes, “I volunteer as well.”

      Yeah!” roared Ironjaw. “Let’s bust some heads!”

      As each of his teammates announced their decision, Cannonball’s expression went from appalled, to aghast, to outright horrified. “What is going on?” he muttered, falling back into his chair. “Why is everypony suddenly going crazy?”

      “Well, I can’t speak for anypony but myself,” said Brighteyes, “but personally… I’m tired of this war. It may sound odd, but the reason I joined in the first place was because I was tired of fighting. I wanted it to be over. I wanted peace. I'm willing to do whatever needs to be done in order to see that dream come true, and if there’s a chance, no matter how small, that this mission can do that, then it’s good enough for me. You’re our leader, Cannonball, and if you’re willing, it would be an honor serving by your side to bring Equestria peace.”

      At Brighteye’s words, Cannonball looked around at his team of misfits, who all returned his gaze hopefully. “...Will we at least get paid?” he asked.

      “Obscenely,” Luna replied.

      “Alright,” he sighed. “I’m in.”

    12. Cannonball had to give it to the royal sisters, when it came to making somepony appear feeble and subjugated, they had a gift. The two of them handled the transformation of his team from soldiers to slaves personally in order to keep their mission as secret as possible, and they were extremely thorough. They applied makeup, gave instructions on how to hold yourself to seem more timid, and were even so kind as to rough them up a bit to make it look truly authentic. The first time he looked in a mirror, Cannonball had actually scared himself. It was a very odd sensation to see your own reflection and have the first thought to cross your mind be, “Thank Luna I’m not that poor colt.”

      After preparation, the princesses took them and quietly slipped them into one of the slave caravans heading toward Fort Maleficent, and they were on their way. A few days later they arrived at the gates, but, as Cannonball had somehow always known would be the case deep down in his heart of hearts, the moment they swung open, problems started popping up immediately.

      “State your names,” the guard just inside the gates ordered as they approached, holding a clipboard out in front of him.

      Ham hocks!” Cannonball swore under his breath. He knew they had forgotten to do something.

      “Your name is Ham Hocks?” the guard repeated, giving him a strange look.

      “Um, yes. I—” Cannonball stopped, coughing several times as he remembered he was supposed to be in character. Letting his body sag down, he squinted up at the guard and shivered. “I mean… yes. That’s my name.”

      “That’s a terrible name.”

      “Yes, well, my parents hated me.”

      Seeming to accept this as a reasonable excuse, the guard moved on to the rest of his team. “And you?” he said, pointing past Cannonball at Brighteyes.

      “I’m… Potato,” Brighteyes awkwardly replied, then motioned toward Ironjaw and Killswitch, “and these are my brothers, Lumpy and… Moose.”

      The guard lowered his clipboard slightly. “What moonblighted place did you come from?”

      “Oh, just a tiny mound of backwater hovels,” Cannonball insisted. “It's not even on the maps. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it.”

      Glaring down at him threateningly, the guard once again asked, “What was it called?”

      Looking around desperately for inspiration, Cannonball replied, “It's called… um… Mud.”

      An audible groan was heard from his team as he said this, and quite honestly he couldn’t blame them. Even by his standards, that answer earned zero points in creativity. Shaking his head, the guard lowered his clipboard the rest of the way and looked at them incredulously. “Something’s off about this. Stay here. I’m going to need to report this to my superiors.”

      As the guard began walking away, Cannonball wracked his brain to think of a solution to their predicament, but before he had a chance to act (which he was glad for, in retrospect, seeing as he was sure it would only have made things worse), a powerful voice rang out from somewhere above them.

      “Come now, Sue, how can you have never heard of Mud? It’s right next to Dirt and Pond Scum!”

      “Severed wings, Swordbreaker! I told you not to call me that!” yelled the guard, looking up at a brawny pony atop the stronghold wall who was dressed in full armor and leaning on the hilt of a hefty looking broadsword.

      Swordbreaker ignored the gate guard’s complaints. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from, Sue. A slave is a slave. It’s not as if our leader is going to turn them away for not being qualified. Quite causing trouble and let them in!”

      Glowering up at his fellow guard, Sue turned back to Cannonball the others and ushered them through with a flick of his head. “Princess-loving showpony…” he grumbled as they passed. “I’ll dance on his grave someday. Just wait and see.”

      Trying to remain decrepit-looking, but feeling amazingly relieved, Cannonball glanced up at Swordbreaker one last time as they moved further into the stronghold. Catching his eye, Swordbreaker winked, giving him a casual salute before turning and walking away.

    13. Did you seriously just introduce a colt named Sue? You have no idea how happy that made me :D

    14. Rrrrrreferences!

    15. Potato?”

      “I was hungry, sir. I'm sorry. I was thinking of mashed potatoes when the guard’s question caught me by surprise. I had no choice but to go with the current theme or risk stumbling with my words and blowing our cover completely.”

      “Then why did you name Killswitch Moose?!”

      For a moment Brighteyes looked distressed. “I don’t know, sir. I just don’t know.”

      “Well," Cannonball sighed, "I suppose there’s nothing to be done at this point. Now come help me with this box, ‘Potato.’ I’m sickly and frail, and can’t lift it on my own.”

      Ever since their arrival at Fort Maleficent, Cannonball’s team had been hauling crates of who-knew-what from a line of carriages near the front gates and stacking them inside the stronghold’s storage facility. All in all it wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t getting them any closer to their goal, either. On top of that, it had started raining, and nothing made being trapped inside your sworn enemy’s inescapable hive of crime and villainy more unpleasant than being wet as well.

      “Careful with those boxes, meat!” shouted one of the many guards who patrolled the area as he watched Cannonball and Brighteyes struggle down the slippery ramp leading out of the cart. “Those boxes are fragile. You drop ‘em, you get put in the cage.”

      “The cage?” asked Cannonball, ears suddenly perking up. “What’s that?”

      “Ha!” laughed the guard. “Fresh meat doesn’t know about the cage? Well, meat, there’s only one thing you need to know about the cage, and that’s that you do not want to be put in the cage! Understand?”

      Cannonball didn’t reply.

      “…Good,” the guard said after a few seconds. “Now get back to work.”

      Cannonball watched as the guard walked away. Once he was gone, he leaned toward Brighteyes and whispered, “We have to get in that cage!”

      “I don’t know, sir,” Brighteyes replied. “From what I hear, that’s something we don’t want to be put in.”

      “No, no,” said Cannonball, “don’t you see? This ‘cage’ is Fort Maleficent's version of the pipes! And I bet you my right hind leg that it’s just as poorly guarded and out of the way. It’s the perfect place for us to regroup and formulate a plan without drawing suspicion!”

      Brighteyes considered this a moment. "But how can we be sure all four of us will get in?” he asked.

      “Oh, I think I know a way,” said Cannonball. Looking around, he spotted Ironjaw and Killswitch carrying a box of their own a ways off, and discreetly motioned them over.

      “So what’s your plan?” asked Brighteyes, once they arrived. For a moment Cannonball stared at him blankly, then, without warning, shoved him and the box off the side of the ramp.

      There was a loud crash as the three of them collapsed into a pile. At the same time their boxes broke open, spilling a collection of random machine parts out across the ground. Jumping off the ramp, Cannonball landed on top of them just as the sound of approaching guards reached his ears.

      Before they arrived, however, Cannonball was startled by a skinny yellow pegasus who suddenly darted over to his side. Digging through the random parts on the ground, she located a thin silver rod and tucked it into her mane.

      “Hey! What—” Cannonball began, but she cut him off.

      “Sorry! No time to explain. You’ll thank me later,” she said, then once again darted away. Before Cannonball could question what just happened, the same guard as before arrived to witness the mess.

      “Oh, well doesn’t this just seal the deal!” he exclaimed, grabbing Cannonball by the mane and lifting him off the ground.

      “I’m s-sorry!” he stuttered, laying the cowardice on thick. “It was the rain! The ramp was—they’re the ones who—oh please, sir, don’t put us in the cage!”

      “Sorry, meat! No second chances! You mess up, you serve your time… in the cage!”

      As three more guards arrived to drag them away, Cannonball looked over at his team and risked a sly smirk. Yes. This was a good idea. Everything was going exactly as planned, and as far as he was concerned, there wasn’t a single thing that could possibly go wrong.

    16. Luna’s ghost! What is that?!”

      “That,” said the guard holding Cannonball, “is the cage.”

      It was a cage. That was true. It was set into the back wall of a large stone room, and was slightly smaller than an average prison cell. There were no windows, and only one door, but none of that was what made it intimidating. What did make it intimidating was the large, vicious creature chained up within that was repeatedly bashing its face against the metal bars in an attempt to get at the ponies on the opposite side.

      The creature itself was just as big as a pony, and had many other similar characteristics as well, such as four hooves, a head, and even a tail and mane. What caused it to stand apart, however, were the facts that instead of the pleasant herbivore teeth of a normal pony, it's teeth were closer to those of a shark. Its eyes were yellow, with cat-like pupils that dilated with excitement at seeing fresh prey, and its body from the neck down was covered with leathery scales that had terrifying barbed spikes running the full length of its spine.

      “Well, in you go, meat!”

      Opening the door, the guard attempted to shove Cannonball through, but he slammed his hooves against the frame, holding himself back. As he did, the creature lunged forward, but the chain around its neck snapped taught at the last second, halting its jaws only inches from Cannonball’s stomach. As the guard continued to push, it continued to tug at the chain, gnashing eagerly. At this point Cannonball was seriously regretting his decision.

      “You can’t throw me in there!” he exclaimed. “I'll be eaten alive!”

      “Not if you stay against the walls,” said an unfamiliar voice. “And don’t make any sudden movements….”

      Approaching from behind the group, a mare with deep green fur and a scar over her right eye walked into view. She wore a heavy canvas duster that went all the way over her tail, and had a band visible around her left foreleg that held several different styles of daggers. Pushing Cannonball aside, she retrieved a small apple from her pocket and held it out in front of her.

      Upon seeing the apple, the creature calmed, and she slowly extended her hoof forward. For a moment the creature hesitated, but then let out a snarl and nipped at her fetlock. Pulling back, she dropped the apple, and the creature grabbed it off the floor, retreating to the center of the cage and tearing into it defensively while watching them out of the corner of its eye.

      “Ah well…” she sighed. “I never could break it completely.”

      “Wh-who are you?” said Killswitch.

      “The name’s Hunter,” she replied, looking over at him with a smile. “I watch over the animals… both feral and otherwise.”

      “So that must mean you're in charge here,” suggested Brighteyes.

      “Me? No. I’m just one of King Sombra’s hired hooves.”

      Nhgk!” one of the guards suddenly spat, looking around nervously. “You're not supposed to say his name!”

      You’re not,” she said. “My loyalties, however, lie elsewhere, meaning I can say whatever I want.”

      Now Brighteyes raised an eyebrow, looking intrigued. “If you’re not loyal to King Sombra, then who are you loyal to?”

      With a suspicious glance, Hunter walked over to him and leaned in close. “Only to myself, handsome. Anypony who tells you otherwise is either confused or a liar.”

      “Well if that’s the case, then how did you gain favor with King Sombra?”

      Hunter frowned. “You’re just full of questions, aren’t you? Best be careful. Questions make it hungry.”

      Stepping back, she looked at each of the guards, then said in a callous tone, “Throw them in the cage.”

    17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    18. “Luna’s flank!”

      “Celestia’s grace!”

      “Fudging apples!”


      Several frantic seconds passed where Cannonball’s team tore wildly around the cell, barely dodging the creature’s jaws before finally managing to slam themselves against the back wall. Once again the chain snapped tight, and after several frustrated attempts to drag one of them back into range, it gave up. Walking over to a small pile of hay near the wall, it lay down, growling menacingly.

      “Ha!” Hunter laughed. “Good show, boys! I do so hope you enjoy your stay.” Bowing simply, she turned and began to leave.

      “Wait!” called Brighteyes. “You didn’t answer my question!”

      At this, Hunter stopped, a subtle smile making its way across her face as she turned back. “My, you are persistent,” she quipped. “Fine. If you must know, I found my way into King Sombra’s good graces because he’s somewhat of a… collector. He likes rare and exotic toys, and I just so happen to have a talent for acquiring such things. Before me, this place was lacking that little something to strike terror into his subjects, but after bringing him the beast before you, I practically had him eating out of my hoof… King Sombra, that is. The beast still gives me trouble. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have work to do.”

      Pivoting in place, Hunter made her way out the room, and the four guards followed after. Once they were gone, Cannonball took a moment to catch his breath. “Good then," he said. "I think that worked out quite nicely.”

      The three other ponies in the cell glared at him.

      “Well not perfectly.”

      “Let’s just… try to stay on task,” said Brighteyes. “We need to find out how to get out of here and reestablish contact with Hunter.”

      “What?” said Cannonball. “Why would we do that?”

      “Because she’s the one we’re looking for. A mysterious, high ranking mercenary with no loyalties to King Sombra? It’s the perfect guise.”

      “Yes,” said Cannonball, “unless she's telling the truth, which seems likely, seeing as how she just tried to kill four defenseless slaves for fun. No, my bits are on the wall guard, Swordbreaker. You saw how he helped us when we arrived. Why would a rebel do that? Plus, patrolling the walls is a perfect position for observation.”

      “Or the mud pegasus!” added Killswitch. “She has a secret.”

      “The what?”

      “I think he means the one that ran over before the guards showed up,” said Ironjaw. “And I agree! She wasn’t just pilfering loot fer fun. She had a plan!”

      “Yeah!” said Killswitch.

      Yeah!” Ironjaw replied.

      Cannonball bashed his head against the wall. “This is ridiculous! There are too many possibilities, and we can’t even use the process of elimination, because if we choose the wrong one before we find the right one we'll blow our cover! I can’t—argh! Why did the princesses even think we could find their spy in the first place?!”

      At Cannonball’s outburst, the beast’s eyes suddenly shot open. Snarling, it stalked towards them, and they quickly backed away. The chain around its neck once again stopped it just out of reach, but this time instead of giving up, it did something… different. Reaching down, it grabbed the chain in its jaws and thrashed it like a whip, sending a wave down its entire length and causing the stake that held it in place to move upward a fraction of an inch.

      Aaaaah…” Killswitch squeaked as the group huddled behind Cannonball for protection.

      Repeating the process, the beast caused the stake to slide up again, then again. Soon it was so loose that it began to wobble, and with a final whip, fall, clattering loudly against the stone floor. Turning back to the group, it stepped forward, dragging the stake behind it, and looked Cannonball directly in the eye. A whimper escaped him as his life flashed before his eyes, but then the beast did something none of them could have ever expected.

      “It’s about time I received some support,” it said, standing up straight. “Now listen closely. We don’t have a moment to lose.”


    20. “It can talk!”

      “Yes I can,” said the beast. “Thank you for noticing.”

      “It can talk and it can it can be sarcastic! Nopony listen to it, or it will beguile you straight down its throat!”

      Staring down at the cowering pony before him, the beast sighed. “Perhaps introductions are in order.” Taking a small step back, he extended a hoof. “I’m Agent Linchpin. I’m a spy in the service of the royal sisters. For the past three weeks I’ve eaten nothing but spoiled fruit and wet hay while observing the happenings in Fort Maleficent, and I cannot express how much of a comfort it is to my sanity to see a friendly face.”

      “…Oh. Oh, thank Celestia," said Cannonball, accepting his outstretched hoof with a sigh of relief. "My name’s Cannonball, and this is my team, Ironjaw, Brighteyes, and Killswitch, and I assure I feel exactly the same way. I thought you were going to kill me!”

      “My apologies for the misdirection,” Linchpin replied, “but when in the company of enemies, you can never be too careful.”

      Rising from the floor, Cannonball dusted himself off. “No, no, it’s fine. I understand completely. If anything, I should be impressed. I mean, you’re not actually a... demon, serpent, shark thing, are you?”

      “What, this?” said Linchpin, motioning down at himself and chuckling. “Oh, no. This is merely a disguise I made from the remains of a demonic river serpent I killed on the way here in order to insert myself into King Sombra’s base. Underneath I’m completely normal, I assure you.”

      “Ah. Well that’s a relief… I think.”

      “So what’s the deal?” said Ironjaw, stepping forward. “Princess Luna told us you had a plan to take down Sombra! If that's true, then why are you sittin' around doin' nothin' in the cage?”

      “And what happened to all the other spies?” Brighteyes added. “If you’ve been safe here all along, why haven’t you reported anything to the princess?”

      “All good questions,” said Linchpin. “Let me begin by answering the last one first, and we can work backwards from there.”

      Walking to the center of the cage, he placed his stake back into its hole and waited patiently for the others to join him. Gathering around, Cannonball’s team sat down, and he began.

    21. “As you know, King Sombra has amassed a collection of magical artifacts from all across the kingdom. These include everything from the Alicorn Amulet, to the Enchanted Bridle of Saddle Arabia, to even more obscure relics like the Emperor’s Stable Blanket, said only to be visible to those who are worthy of its power. All this was reported by previous agents via Luna’s dream link, but recently King Sombra acquired something that allowed him to traverse the dream realm as well. Using this, he rooted out every one of the sisters’ spies, discovering the last only days after I arrived. Since then I’ve been forced to remain silent, or else be found out as well.”

      “So where are they now?”

      Wiping a hoof across the floor, Linchpin gathered a collection of dust, grimacing at it before blowing it away. “Where aren’t they now?” he said in a morbid tone.

      “…So about getting out of here,” said Cannonball, raising a hoof off the floor.

      “Right,” continued Linchpin. “As I'm sure you know, King Sombra has been building a weapon with which to lay waste to the kingdom. The original plan was to sabotage it repeatedly over time, then, when morale and resources were at their lowest, sweep in and destroy King Sombra in a full force attack. Seeing as it’s just the five of us now, that plan is no longer viable.”

      “Are you implying that you aren’t working with anypony else?” asked Brighteyes. “Not even Hunter?”

      “No. Due to exceptional acting on my part, Hunter fully believes I’m some rare, exotic animal. As such she's been very helpful, but is not to be trusted. Judging by your description earlier, the pegasus you mentioned is most likely Wind Dancer, and while equally unaware of our intentions, is a crucial key to our success. There are rumors of an uprising, you see, and she's at the head of it.”

      “And Swordbreaker?”

      Giving Brighteyes a questionable look, Linchpin replied, “I’ve never actually heard of this ‘Swordbreaker’ before.”


      With a frustrated sigh, Cannonball said, “That’s all well and good, but what’s the plan? How do we destroy King Sombra and get home? From what I understand, there’s a massive pile of bits waiting there that needs me to keep it warm.”

      Clearing his throat, Linchpin brushed a hoof through his mane. “Yes, well, I’m afraid the plan I’ve come up with isn’t quite as clean as the princesses', but it should get the job done. The first thing you need to know is that the cannon King Sombra has built requires a massive amount of magical energy to function. So much, as a matter of fact, that without having a reservoir to draw from, it would hardly be able to fire even once without needing several days to recharge.”

      Suddenly Killswitch let out a deranged chortle, the air around him literally crackling with excitement.

      Aah!” yelped Cannonball, jolting as the magical aura brushed against his side. “Sizzling saddle sores, Killswitch! What is it?”

      “We’re going to blow it up!" he sang. "I think we’re going to blow it up! Oh please say we’re going to blow it up!”

      Staring at Killswitch, Linchpin raised an eyebrow and said, “It appears that great minds think alike. In order to compensate for this flaw, King Sombra, has, indeed, gathered a reserve of magic which is stored directly below the stronghold; a reserve, which, if manipulated in the right way, would quickly become dangerously unstable.”

      Closing his eyes, Killswitch bit his bottom lip and squealed with joy. Cannonball had never seen him look so happy, and quite frankly, it had him worried. “Exactly what time frame do we have to accomplish this?” he asked.

      “That depends when the slaves decide to riot. Once they do, we can use their distraction to make our way to the cannon’s power source and cause it to melt down. That, however, could be in several months, or—”

      Suddenly there was loud crash from outside, followed by the sound of a stampede and the spirited chanting of, “Down with the King! Down with the King!”

      Giving a small nod of approval, Linchpin finished, “…Or right now.”

    22. Bursting through the door, Cannonball’s team entered into the chaos that was the revolt against Fort Maleficent. Guards fought with swords and shot arrows from the walls, while slaves grabbed whatever they could find to pummel their captors into the mud. As Linchpin stepped through behind them, there was a sudden scream of panic from the surrounding slaves, and they scattered in all directions.

      “Hm…” said Linchpin, watching them go. “Perhaps it’s time to take off the costume.”

      As a passing guard ran by, Linchpin performed some sort of sweeping, throwing combo on him that was too fast to follow. Cannonball wasn’t sure what happened, but the end result was the guard lying face-down in a pile of barrels several meters away with Linchpin in possession of his sword. In what must have been a gruesome-looking display to any watching, he then proceeded to shove the blade into his chest and run it down the full length of his stomach. Once this was done he peeled back his skin, stepping out of it for the first time in weeks, which smelled just as bad as one would imagine.

      The effects of this were not what would have been expected, however, because when Linchpin had said he was completely normal underneath, he had apparently been lying. Instead of seeing a normal pony appear, it was like watching a terrifying metamorphosis occur. As the skin fell away, two wings appeared on his back that were black and scaly, with sharp spines extending from their tips. Throwing them open, he flapped them a few times, eliciting another cry from not just the nearby slaves, but Cannonball’s team as well.

      “Blazing saddles!” Cannonball yelled, jumping back. “What are you?”

      Looking over at him, Linchpin opened his mouth, removing a false set of sharp teeth that fit over them, but the fangs stayed. The fangs stayed! “That’s a rather insensitive thing to ask, don’t you think?” he replied. “I do have feelings, you know.”

      When Cannonball’s team didn’t answer—only continuing to stare in horror—he rolled his eyes.

      “I’m a member of the night guard,” he huffed. “Luna’s personal branch of the Canterlot militia. Admittedly we’re not as well known as the royal guard, but I’d hoped that the fact that we’ve existed for almost as long might have at least somewhat subdued the general populace’s blatant racism.”

      “I’m not—” Cannonball began, but stopped when his protesting earned him nothing but a flat stare. “Well… I mean, no! That’s not it at all! You just… surprised me.” Under Linchpin’s continued judgmental gaze, he tried to simply wave the matter off. “Never mind that! We have things to do. Let’s hurry up and do them so we can get them done!”

      “Fine,” he replied, shaking his head once more before returning to the present matter. Planting his sword in the ground, he pointed toward a far off tower. “That tower leads to the sublevels of Fort Maleficent. We need to head there in order to reach our destination. Equally important, however, is to ensure the battle lasts long enough for us to accomplish our goal. King Sombra keeps his personal collection of magical artifacts in a vault within the stronghold’s central structure. If we can fortify the slaves with those, then we should have more than enough time.”

      “Alright,” said Cannonball. “You take Killswitch and Ironjaw and make your way to the power supply. Meanwhile Brighteyes and I will head to the vault. Once we’ve organized the revolt, we’ll meet you there and finish this once and for all.”

      “A masterful plan if ever I’ve heard one,” said Linchpin. “I look forward to it.”

      With a smile, Cannonball stood tall and gave a crisp salute. Linchpin returned the gesture, and the party split, each going their own way to do the manly things that only they could do.

    23. “Something still bothers me, sir,” said Brighteyes as he and Cannonball ran down the hall leading to the vault.

      “I know, soldier. It's the eyes, isn't it? I mean, I’ve seen sinister things before, but those knife-like pupils on that bright yellow background… they're going to haunt my dreams for weeks.”

      “No, sir. Well… yes, sir, but that’s not what I mean. What concerns me is why we haven’t seen king Sombra all this time.”

      “Personally I think that's a good thing,” Cannonball replied. “Anyway, you’ve seen how secretive his troops have been acting. Perhaps he simply learned from past mistakes and decided to keep himself hidden this time instead of making his presence as overshadowing as he has in the past.”

      “Even when his base is being overrun?”

      “It’s hard to say, Brighteyes. Far be it from me to know the mind of an ancient, power hungry overlord. For now let’s just stay focused on our current task, shall we?”

      Brighteyes still looked concerned, but nodded nonetheless. “Yes sir.”

      Rounding a corner, the door of the vault came into view. It was a large, heavy slab of metal sunken into to the wall that very clearly made the statement, “I’m impenetrable. Don’t bother.” Despite this, however, it seemed somepony was still willing to try, and as the two of them approached, they realized that they knew exactly who it was.

      “Wind Dancer, I presume!” called Cannonball as they reached her.

      At his voice, the skinny yellow pegasus jumped. She was holding some sort of strange contraption in her hooves, and up until a few seconds ago, had been focusing on the door intently. “Stay back!” she said, spinning around and holding it up like some sort of weapon, but lowered it when she saw who it was. “Hey, I recognize you! You’re the ponies from before who dropped the crate.”

      “Indeed,” Cannonball replied, taking a bow. “Glad we could be of service.”

      “Boy, were you ever!” she exclaimed with a smile and a short laugh. “Thanks to you I was finally able to finish my disenchanter.”

      “What’s a disenchanter?” Brighteyes asked.

      “Isn’t it obvious?” Wind Dancer replied, holding up the device. “It disenchants spells. With this, I was finally able to open the locks on the prison cells and free everypony at once. I was on my way to break into the armory next when I came across this,” she motioned back at the vault behind her, “and thought it might be worth seeing what was inside, but so far I haven’t had much luck.”

      “Well it seems your luck has just improved!” chimed Cannonball. “We had the same idea, and it just so happens that my friend here is very talented when it comes to getting into places he’s not supposed to.”

      “Is that true?” she asked, looking over at Brighteyes.

      With a humble smirk, he replied, “I guess I just don’t like closed doors. Honestly, it’s gotten me into trouble more than anything.”

      “Well, today is all about trouble,” said Wind Dancer. “Get over here and tell me what you think.”

      Brighteyes looked over at Cannonball for approval, and he nodded, patting him on the back. “You two have fun,” he said. “Meanwhile I’ll make sure you’re not disturbed.”

      Nodding back, he walked over and joined Wind Dancer. Lighting his horn, she raised the disenchanter, and the two of them got to work.

      As Brighteyes and Wind Dancer toiled with the door, Cannonball patrolled the surrounding halls searching for any signs of trouble. After several minutes with no interruptions, he decided to go back and check on their progress, but as he began toward them, the door next to him burst open, and a pair of hooves dragged him inside. An instant later something struck him in the back of the head, dazing him as he felt himself get shoved up against the wall.

      “They make a cut couple, don’t you think?” said a sultry voice through the haze of his partial concussion. As his vision began to clear, his attacker came into focus, and he groaned as a dark green mare wearing a heavy duster came into view. With a sinister smile, she raised a dagger to his throat. “It’s a shame you’ll never get to see if things work out.”

    24. “Wait!”

      At Cannonball’s cry, Hunter paused. “What?” she asked in annoyance.

      In all honesty, Cannonball didn’t actually have anything to say. Under the circumstances, yelling wait had simply seemed like the right thing to do. “Uh… um…” he stuttered for a moment, before finally deciding on, “Why are you doing this?” Luckily Hunter seemed to be in the mood to talk, and released the pressure on the knife just slightly.

      “Why?” she began. “Why? Oh, there are plenty of reasons. Though I think the biggest one is that recently, I saw my prized catch running across the courtyard, without his skin, speaking out loud to some of your friends. I don't know what your game is, handsome, but I do know that I was played to look like fool, and it made me angry. Ever since then I’ve been positively aching to find a quiet place where I could blow off some steam.

      “And you’re going to do that by killing me?!”

      Hunter smiled. “A pelt for a pelt. It doesn’t have to be all bad, though. Maybe if you make it fun, I’ll leave you alive enough that someday, you might even be able to walk again! What do you say, sweetie? Do you want to make it fun?”

      “I… um….” Pausing for a moment, Cannonball took a deep breath—then reared up and kicked Hunter square in the face.

      Rgh!” she cried as she stumbled back, allowing Cannonball to fall to the floor. He felt rather conflicted, never having kicked a mare square in the face before, but decided that perhaps it was acceptable in special situations like this one. No apologies, then. Just running.

      Bursting through the door, Cannonball ran. He ran down the hall, then turned a corner and began running down another that lead to the vault. Halfway down this hall, however, Hunter caught up with him, halting his attempted escape as she grabbed his tail in her teeth and forcefully threw him to the ground. Apparently she was faster than he thought.

      “Haha… ha…” she laughed, running her tongue over the spot where Cannoball’s hoof had collided with her teeth. “Oh, sweetie, you really know how to flatter a girl. Now, let me return the favor.”

      “No! Really, there’s no need! I’ve always liked to give more than receive, anyway!”

      Stomping down on his neck, Hunter raised her dagger into the air and snarled, “I insist.”

      “Now’s the time for work, not play,” a voice suddenly called from the far end of the hall. Turning his head, Cannonball saw a large, armored guard approaching from the distance whom he recognized as Swordbreaker.

      “You! What are you doing here?” said Hunter as she spun to face him, which, for Cannonball’s throat, wasn’t at all a pleasant experience. Perhaps it was just the circulation getting cut off to his head, but from where he lay, the tone in Hunter’s voice sounded almost fearful.

      “I’m doing my job,” he replied. “As should you. Not gallivanting around performing joy kills while our great lord’s valuables go unguarded.”

      “I’m not gallivanting,” Hunter insisted. “It’s just this one. He and his friends offended me personally. I can't—just let me have this, Swordbreaker. I need it.”

      “The only thing you need is to return to your post. I’ll detain the escapees, and we’ll sort out any personal matters afterwards, understood?”

      Scowling like she'd just drank a pitcher of fresh bile, Hunter threw her dagger to the ground, causing it to embed itself in the floor only a hair’s width from Cannonball’s ear. “Yes, sir,” she replied, stepping off of his neck and beginning to walk away.

      “Oh, and one more thing,” said Swordbreaker as she passed. Stopping, she was about to respond, but before she could, he suddenly swung around, bashing her in the back of the head with his sword hilt so hard that she literally went skidding across the floor and into the far wall.

      “Holy hellkite!” Cannonball choked out as he scrambled back.

      Taking a moment to admire his work, Swordbreaker let out a gruff laugh, then turned toward Cannonball. “Honestly, lad,” he said in a casual tone, “what would you do without me?”

    25. “What is this madness?!”

      “Ha! Madness? Why, Ham Hock, I assumed you would be grateful.”

      It took Cannonball a moment to realize that Swordbreaker was referring to him, but once he did, he quickly replied, “No—I mean... yes, I am grateful. But… why? I thought... don’t you work together? Shouldn’t you be on the same side?”

      “It seems that way, doesn’t it?”

      “So why did you whang her in the skull like you were hoping candy would come out?”

      “Ham Hock, something every young pony needs to learn about life is that there are times for subtlety, and there are times for force. This just so happened to be one of those other times.”

      For several seconds, Cannonball simply stared at Swordbreaker, then loudly exclaimed, “What in Celestia’s blood red skies is going on?”

      Looking a bit perturbed, Sworbreaker took a heavy step forward. “Listen, lad, I’ve saved your haunches twice now. I think I’ve earned the right to keep my secrets to myself. If you’re not willing to trust me, then that’s fine. We can be enemies, and I’ll be forced to put a stop to your plans right here, but there’s more to this than you realize, and I would much rather help you.” Hefting his sword onto his back, he looked Cannonball in the eyes. “Now, what do you choose?”

      Cringing, Cannonball glanced at Swordbreaker, then Swordbreaker’s sword, then Hunter, who was still lying completely motionless in a crumpled heap against the wall. “What about her?” he asked.

      “Don’t worry about her,” Swordbreaker replied, tapping a black gem inserted into the crux of his breastplate. As he did, it emitted a shadowy glow, and a set of magical manacles appeared around her legs and neck. “She’s not going anywhere.”

      “Eeeh… fine,” Cannonball finally conceded, deciding that gaining an ally—no matter how shady—was better than being cut in half on the spot. “But at least tell me what you think we’re doing first.”

      “Bringing an end to King Sombra’s reign, of course.”

      “Ah, good then. We are on the same page. So… if you’ll come with me, I’ll take you to my friends.”

      With a polite nod, Swordbreaker said, “Lead the way.”

      As Cannonball rounded the corner to the vault, Brighteyes and Wind Dancer looked up—and their eyes suddenly shot wide open. “Don’t tell me who’s behind me,” he preemptively interrupted. “I know. He said he wants to help us. Now, how’s it coming with the door?”

      “I… we’re having some trouble,” said Wind Dancer. “It turned out to be a lot more complicated… than we… alright, I’m sorry, but who is this? Why is he dressed as one of the rebels? And if he is a rebel, then why isn’t he trying to kill us?”

      “My name is Swordbreaker,” said Swordbreaker. “And if you wish, I can open this door for you.”

      Without waiting for a response, Swordbreaker walked over and placed a hoof on the door, using his other to once again tap the gem on his chest. As he did there was a heavy thoom of magic, followed by a loud clank as some mechanism slid out of the way. Stepping back, he smiled with satisfaction as the door swung inward.

      “Oh!” said Wind Dancer. “Well then, that seems to have worked. Thank you, I suppose?”

      “You’re welcome. Now, what’s next?”

      “Next…” said Brighteyes, looking over at Cannonball with concern, but he only shrugged. “We needed to make our way to King Sombra’s cannon.”

      “I see,” Swordbreaker said, stepping inside. “Very wise. With his collection of artifacts in our control, as well as his super weapon, finishing him off should be no trouble at all.”

      As Swordbreaker and Wind Dancer began gathering up artifacts from within the vault’s walls, Brighteyes sidled over to Cannonball and muttered, “Sir, are you sure letting him help us is a good idea?”

      With a whimsical sigh, Cannonball patted his friend hard on the back and said, “Brighteyes, at this point, I can say with almost complete certainty that I don’t know anything. Now grab whatever you can carry. Destiny is a harsh and unforgiving mistress, and we do not want to keep her waiting.”

    26. “What's with all these stairs?”

      After leaving the vault, the group battled their way across the courtyard to the tower leading to Fort Maleficent’s lower levels. It was difficult, but thanks to Wind Dancer and her new army of artifact-empowered escapees, they managed. On arrival, she bid the party adieu, choosing to continue fighting the good fight alongside her brethren. Wishing her well, the rest began their journey down.

      And down.

      …And down.

      By the time they reached the bottom, Cannonball wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d ended up exiting out on the other side of the planet. Opening the door in front of them, they stepped through, and he discovered that this was not the case, thought what they did find was equally as astoudning.

      Upon entering the room, Cannonball was immediately blinded by a light brighter than Celestia’s midday sun. He would have shouted some sort of expletive at this, but for once in his life he was literally speechless. When Linchpin said the weapon had a reserve of magical energy, Cannonball imagined a large crystal, or maybe an obelisk covered in runes like the history books always showed, but no. This was… much more impressive than that. Stretching out before him was not just some sort of metaphor, but an actual reservoir of magic.

      Directly beneath his hooves, contained behind a layer of glass and steel, was a lake of pure energy, swirling and humming with barely contained ferocity. In the center of the chamber, a pit wide enough for a fully grown horse to stretch across fell straight down into the floor. Squinting, Cannonball spotted the forms of three ponies on an elevated platform not far from it, and ran over to meet them.

      As Cannonball approached, he saw Killswitch standing in the center of the platform, hooves planted and head low as he concentrated intensely. The aura around his horn pulsed with magic so bright that it literally looked like it was on fire. Each time it did, the floor lit up below him, broadcasting his spell out through an intricate series of grooves that trailed off the edge and into the maelstrom below.

      Ironjaw was there as well, busily pulling levers and turning valves in an attempt to keep the needles of several different gauges in the correct place, while Linchpin monitored a control panel off to the side. They were all wearing dark goggles over their eyes, and as Cannonball approached, Linchpin handed him a pair as well.

      “What in Luna’s loin is all this?” he called over the noise as he quickly slipped them on.

      That,” Linchpin replied, motioning toward the pit, “is King Sombra’s super weapon, and it’s much more advanced than even I imagined. He must have had this in the works since his last appearance in Equestria, else I have no idea how he could ever accomplished such a task.”

      “Can we still destroy it?”

      “I don’t see why not.” Raising a hoof, Linchpin pointed at different parts of the control panel. “This controls aiming the device,” he said, “while this adjusts distance calibration. These meters display power levels and stability, and while we could cause them to go critical, that would most likely obliterate everything from here to Canterlot. As such, it might be better to simply overcharge the cannon. If Killswitch can cause enough destabilization in the flux, it should effectively make it tear itself apart, crippling King Sombra long enough for the princesses to provide a more… diplomatic solution, so to speak.”

      “What’s that button do?” asked Cannonball, pointing to a part of the control panel Linchpin had skipped.

      Don’t touch that,” he replied. “It fires the cannon. If you fire the cannon before it's been raised, it will kill us all.”

      Suddenly something flew through the air, landing on the platform with a heavy clang! Looking down, Cannonball let out a scream, jumping back as he saw that it was Brighteyes.

      “Wise words!” Swordbreaker exclaimed, stepping onto the platform with a smug grin. “After all, we wouldn’t want anything to go wrong, now would we?”

    27. The fight didn’t last long. Ironjaw was the first to go down, despite giving it his all. As soon as he saw Brighteyes bleeding on the floor, he pounced. Swordbreaker raised his sword to block him, but Ironjaw caught it and pushed him back. It was a struggle of brute force, with neither one willing to give in, and between their combined strength and determination, the blade of the sword began to bend.

      Snarling, Sworbreaker lunged forward, living up to his name as the force caused his sword to snap clean in two. Caught off guard, Ironjaw was left wide open, and there was a sickening thud as his skull collided with Swordbreaker’s helmet, and he collapsed to the ground.

      Next was Linchpin. Recognizing the jeopardy they were in, he quickly mashed several buttons, then flipped a switch. As he did, the cannon resonated to life, and gravity seemed to suddenly lurch in its direction. Having been standing near the edge of the platform, Cannonball proceeded to go tumbling off, rolling several meters before regaining his balance. Swordbreaker only stumbled, but Linchpin was fast, and he wasn’t going to let even the smallest advantage slip away.

      In the split second Swordbreaker took to catch himself, Linchpin darted past him, snapping his teeth down on his ear as he took to the air. Swordbreaker reared back at this, yelling in pain as he tried to prevent Linchpin from claiming it as a permanent souvenir. Twisting through the air in a way that seemed almost impossible, Linchpin managed to keep Swordbreaker off balance, while simultaneously avoiding his constant attempts to grab him. Leading him to the platform's edge, he let him go, and, twirling stylishly, sent him flying off of it with a solid kick to the chest.

      It seemed Linchpin was in full control of the fight, and he most likely would have stayed that way if it weren’t for what happened next. As Sworbreaker fell, he threw the hilt of his sword into the air. Honestly, it seemed like he did it out of frustration more than an actual attempt to hit his foe, but to Linchpin’s great misfortune, it just so happened to cross directly through his path. As it caught him just above the left eye, he cried out, lurching uncontrollably to the side and barreling into the ground.

      Before he could recover, Swordbreaker tapped the gem on his chest, and a pair of magical bands suddenly appeared around Linchpin’s wings and legs. Unable to free himself, there was nothing he could do as Swordbreaker grabbed his tail, dragging him across the ground and swinging him into one of the platform’s supports so hard that Cannonball was surprised he hadn’t been decapitated. Even then, it wasn’t good, and Linchpin went limp. Falling to the ground, he didn’t rise again.

      All throughout this, Killswitch hadn’t moved. He was so lost in concentration, that Cannonball wasn’t even sure he realized what was going on. This fact didn’t deter Swordbreaker, however. Retrieving his bloody sword hilt, he made his way back onto the platform. Looking down at the still completely oblivious unicorn, he raised it above his head and grinned his signature grin.

      “I am a terrible leader!”

      At this odd announcement, Swordbreaker paused, turning around in time to see Cannonball pull himself up over the edge of the platform.

      “I’m too reckless. Completely unwilling to follow orders,” he continued. “At least that’s what they told me in the army.”

      “Well, don’t be too hard on yourself,” Swordbreaker replied. “Nopony’s perfect, after all.”

      “Still, I feel that I need to make up for it.”

      Swordbreaker chuckled. “If you seek to change your ways, you’re a bit late. You can’t beat me.”

      “Oh, I know,” Cannonball conceded. “I wouldn’t dream of it. You’ve won, and far be it from me to go against my natural instinct. Even so, I like to think that I keep getting put in charge because deep down, my superiors know that if necessary, I would be willing to do what no other pony would.”

      “And what’s that?”

      Looking Swordbreaker in the eye, Cannonball's lips twitching into a smile.

      Kill us all.”

    28. Before anypony could stop him, Cannonall jumped forward and slammed his hoof down on the button. As he did, two things happened.

      First, Killswitch’s eyes shot open—glowing with magic like a pair of high powered spotlights—and he let out a laugh so maniacal that it should have gone down in history as some sort of record. Second, the cannon fired, and Cannonball learned that although Linchpin was right about a lot of things, even he didn’t know everything.

      As the pure white beam of magical energy left the cannon, it smashed into the ceiling of the chamber. Instantly, the air seemed to turn to fire, but then something changed. Flashing orange, the beam wavered impossibly in place, then tripled in size. The sudden increase was so powerful, that it forced the cannon down, cracking the glass and tearing straight through the stone ceiling, erupting in a shower of earth as it opened up to reveal Luna’s night sky.

      Aaaaugh!” Cannonball screamed, falling to the floor. Simply the sound it made felt like enough to shatter bone. His scream was joined by Ironjaw and Brighteyes as they were shocked back to life, and even Swordbreaker, who always seemed so sturdy, stumbled back, colliding with the still laughing Killswitch and knocking both of them to the ground.

      Only moments later, the chamber began to collapse. Cracks raced through the walls that became wider by the second, and any stones that hadn't been vaporized by the initial firing of the cannon now came crashing back down to in a most spectacular manner. Falling through the hole in the ceiling, slabs of stone larger than houses exploded into rubble as they hit the glass floor below, sending fissures through its surface that vented deadly streams of magical energy.

      Head ringing, Cannonball struggled to his hooves just in time to see Swordbreaker galloping toward him. He tried to move, but dazed as he was, he might as well have been trying to dodge an avalanche. When he next opened his eyes, he found himself lying on the glass floor not far from the platform with several new bruises decorating his body. Peering over the edge, Swordbreaker jumped down, abandoning his former good-natured act as he landed directly on top of him.

      Ah! Celestia’s sunspots!” Cannonball cried. A moment later he felt a pair of hooves clamp down on his head, and he was lifted off the ground.

      “You idiot!” Swordbreaker yelled. “What have you done?!”

      “I don’t know, but by the look on your face, I’m guessing you’re going to make me severely regret it!”

      Swordbreaker only nodded, then began pressing in like he were getting vengeance on a particularly witty raw egg. Once again, Cannonball screamed, his head exploding into the worst headache he’d ever had, which, for him, was saying quite a lot. Cannonball hated headaches. Luckily, only seconds before he was sure his head would actually explode, a dark blur darted between them, and Swordbreaker yelped in surprise, stumbling back as a cut appeared over his right eye.

      Coming back around, Cannonball discovered with amazing relief that the blur was, as a matter of fact, Linchpin. “Oh thank Luna!” Cannonball exclaimed, grabbing his head. “Thank—ah—Luna!”

      “We’ll all be thanking her soon,” Linchpin replied. “Both she and her sister are on their way.”

      “Wait, what? How?”

      “Because I just spoke with her,” he said, tapping his head. “No reason to stay undercover now. Besides, even if I hadn’t, I’m sure the pillar of fire you just launched into the sky was signal enough.”

      “It doesn’t matter!” Swordbreaker roared. “Nothing matters! All will fall to the power of the king!”

      “King Sombra can shove it!”

      Looking over, Cannonball saw Ironjaw jump down from the platform, followed closely by Brighteyes, then Killswitch, who was still looking around in childlike wonder. Running over, they helped Cannonball to his hooves, then turned toward Swordbreaker, readying themselves for battle.

      Looking at the four of them, Swordbreaker snarled, then, without a word, charged.

    29. “Oh come on!”

      Cannonball had assumed that four on one would have made the fight with Swordbreaker simple, but apparently, judging by how things were currently going, he was wrong. It became blatantly obvious that he was holding back before, when almost immediately upon clashing, he’d used whatever powers his artifact gave him to collectively pick them up off the floor and hurl them into one of the chamber’s increasingly numerous ruptures of magical energy. Killswitch managed to shield them just in time, but things had only gone downhill from there.

      Bouncing across the floor for the hundredth time, Cannonball slammed his hoof against it in frustration. They were throwing everything they had at Swordbreaker—and hitting him with most of it, too—but no matter how many cuts, bruises, or concussions, he just kept coming, getting angrier with each one. In return, Cannonball had received two black eyes, a deep cut across his right foreleg when he’d stupidly tried to block a swing from Sworbreaker’s hilt, as well as what felt like an entire side of broken ribs. Sadly, even with all this, he was still faring better than most of his team.

      “This… isn’t… working!” he huffed.

      “Just… hold out a bit longer!” Linchpin panted back. “The princesses will be here soon! Until then, we just need to keep him dis—”

      Linchpin was interrupted as a ball of dark energy sent him careening into the ceiling of the chamber, then falling back to the floor. Sobbing inwardly, Cannonball forced himself to stand, knowing that something equally as enjoyable would no doubt be awaiting him.

      “Honestly, Swordbreaker!” Cannonball exclaimed, stumbling around to face him. “Why do you insist on keeping this up? The cannon is damaged beyond repair, and from what I hear of King Sombra, he’s not the forgiving type. What is there to possibly gain by continuing to beat on us?”

      Holding both Brighteyes and Killswitch by the throat, he bashed them together, then used his magic to throw Brighteyes into Ironjaw before walking over and using his now free hoof to pick up Cannonball instead. Smiling, he said through his cracked teeth, “Maybe I just enjoy it.”

      At that exact moment, there was a raucous rumble, and a chunk of stone half the size of the room broke away from the ceiling. Sliding down, it collided with the floor, sending a massive crack skittering across the entire length of the chamber. Lighting his horn, Killswitch threw back his head, and the crack suddenly swerved toward them, running directly under where Swordbreaker stood. For a billionth of a second they all looked down, then simultanouly went blind as it split apart.

      RAAAAAAUGH!” Sworbreaker screamed as a torrent of magic erupted directly underneath him. Dropping his victims to the ground, he began to dissolve before their eyes.

      Erupting into a prismatic display of flames, his armor was first to go, glowing white hot before melting away in an instant under the intense heat. Shortly thereafter he followed, flesh and bone exploding into an acrid tornado of ash. This would have been bad enough, but as Cannonball continued to stare, something even more terrifying began to unfold.

      As Swordbreaker's ashes blew away, a shadow, seemingly cast by nothing, remained, that continued to writhe in the air. It quickly grew darker, and as he looked closer, Cannonball realized that at its center was the gem that had once been embedded in Swordbreaker’s chest plate. Soon the shadow became solid. Four legs, girt in dark armor, amplified into existence, then a body cloaked in a royal mantle.

      “Oh no. Oh no, no, no!” pleaded Cannonball, but it was no use. As the neck formed, followed by a head crowned with a blood red horn from ages past, two green eyes looked down at him with joyous malice.


    30. Cannonball was a simple pony, and throughout his life, had adapted a simple philosophy: In any situation you found yourself, you either had the option to fight or run away. It had served him well, and when the war started, and he was young, he chose to fight. He would often dream of standing atop the smoldering remains of some enemy base, limbs heavy with mares fawning over how gallantly he'd overthrown its tyrannical leader. It was why he joined in the first place; to be a hero. The war had been hard, though, and now, as he found himself in the crumbling remains of the enemy base, face to face with its tyrannical leader, he thought to himself that he was getting too old for this sort of thing.

      Spinning around, Cannonball unapologetically exclaimed, “Run away!”


      As soon as the animal voice hissed the order, there was a sound like shattering ice, and Cannonball stopped. Looking down, he discovered that he was encased from crest to hoof in black crystal, or at least… he hoped he was simply encased. It felt unnaturally cold, and though he didn’t want to acknowledge it, when he tried to move, he was almost certain he could feel it scraping against his bones.

      You… burr in my saddle. Face me.

      Helpless, Cannonball could only cringe at the terrible sensation of his body moving to obey completely against his will. With several clunky steps, it turned around until he was once again facing the shadow king. As it did, he discovered the rest of his team to be in the same predicament. None of them looked particularly happy about it either.

      Floating down from his place in the air, King Sombra walked directly up to Cannonball, leaning in so close that his horn bumped into Cannonball’s forehead, then growled.

      Weakling. I remember you. The trench outside the walls. In the rain. I destroyed you with fire.

      “Um… well, your eminency, you would have, I assure you. When my team saw you, though, we couldn’t help but flee in terror. I mean, with such an intimidating presence as yours, how could we not flee in terror?” As Cannonball spoke, he looked over at Killswitch and Brighteyes desperately.

      Catching his gaze, they gave quick nods, then lit their horns, but it was not to be. Looking over, King Sombra let out a gruff snarl, and a spray of black crystals sprouted from their horns, causing them both to yelp, shrinking away in discomfort.

      I see. I will not make the same mistake again.

    31. “A bold claim for such a coward!” Linchpin suddenly shouted from next to Ironjaw, who was still silently struggling against his bonds. At this, King Sombra looked over, then used his magic to lift him into the air and slam him down next to Cannonball with a resonating clang!

      Fool!” King Sombra roared. “You will die first, but before then, explain yourself.

      “It’s simple,” Linchpin replied, not seeming the least bit phased by the sinister pony before him. “Ever since the war began, you’ve hid in your fortress. Ever since you discovered that our glorious princesses had infiltrated your defenses with spies, you sequestered yourself from their view. Even now, when you finally do reveal yourself, we discover you to be huddled behind one of your lackeys in the form of a petty trinket until you could hide no more. Why don’t you explain yourself to me, coward? How can a creature who only rules from the shadows dare to call himself a king?”

      Cannonball had to admit, witnessing Linchpin all but spit in the face of an ancient evil was one of the most kick-flank things he’d seen anypony do, as well as one of the most foolish. All the while that he spoke, King Sombra’s expression became more and more severe, until by the end, the grinding of his teeth could have pulverized diamonds.

      I... AM NOT... AFRAID!” he demanded. “It is the sisters—ignorant foals—who are fearful! They send in worms to do their work for them, hoping that they can find my weakness, but I have none! Swordbreaker, my second in command. I did not hide behind him, but used him as a vessel. Through his mind, I traversed the realm of dreams, dug up the worms….” King Sombra smiled. Not a pleasant sight. “But I do not need to remind you of that, do I, worm? Nor do I need to remind you of what happened to them.

      Reaching up, King Sombra grabbed Linchpin by the throat. Where he touched, tendrils of crystal began to spread, reaching down to those that covered the rest of Linchpin’s body. The moment they connected, a high-pitched squeal echoed through the chamber, and Linchpin grimaced as the tip of his crystal tail slowly began to turn to dust.

      Tell this to your princesses, worm” said King Sombra, looking him in the eyes. “For I want them to understand. Compared to me, they are children. No matter what they try, no matter how long it takes, they shall fail. I am eternal, and all shall be swallowed up by my might. As such, they are nothing more to me than a snack.”

      Just then a ball of light came rocketing through the hole in the chamber ceiling, followed closely by one of dark. From between them, a spiraling beam of magic shot forth, knocking King Sombra across the chamber and into the far wall. Raising their heads, the princesses smiled, and Luna coolly replied, “Why don’t you tell us yourself?”

    32. There was a flash of sunlight, and the crystals encasing the five ponies shattered.

      “Oh thank Celestia!” Cannonball exclaimed.

      “You’re welcome,” she replied.

      With a grunt, Ironjaw added, “I would’ve gotten out on my own in a couple more minutes anyway.”

      Walking over to Linchpin, Luna looked down at his tail, which was now less than half its previous length. “Living dangerously, are we?”

      “No danger is too great for the night guard,” he replied. “Besides, it was due for a trim.”

      Luna gave him a rare smile. “So it would seem. Your loyalty is admirable, Linchpin. When this is over, I shall see to it that you are rewarded, but for now, stand aside. My sister and I have work to do.”

      With a sharp salute, he obeyed, pulling Cannonball along with him as he stepped out of the way. With Celestia at her side, the two approached King Sombra, who was struggling to his hooves.

      No…no!” he said, “I will not be banished again!”

      “Yes, yes, you will,” replied Celestia, “and it would be greatly appreciated if—for all our sakes—you would stay that way this time. Honestly, Sombra, after beating you so many times, you’re starting to make me feel bad.”

      “Not I,” said Luna. “All you touch becomes corrupt, and nothing brings me more joy when you rear your ugly head than to justly bludgeon it back down to whence it came. Now look at us, monster, so that I may have the satisfaction.”

      You do not understand corruption," King Sombra growled. "You think I destroy that which is pure, but I do not. I merely make it mine. You are right about one thing, though. Everything I touch, I control. As such, little Luna, you should be sorely afraid.”

      “…Why?” she asked, slowing slightly. Celestia looked back at her, but Luna didn’t take her eyes of King Sombra.

      Because,” he laughed, “my latest foray was into the realm of dreams. And the last thing I touched….” King Sombra raised his head, looking Luna in the eyes. “Was your mind.”

      As soon as he made eye contact, Luna cried out, and he lunged toward her. Celestia attempted to dive into the way, but as she did, he passed through her and disappeared into the princess of the night. With something between a gasp and a scream, she stumbled back, managing to look at her sister for only a fraction of a second before her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed.

      “Luna! Luna!” Celestia yelled, running to her side and attempting to pull her up. “Luna, speak to me! What has King Sombra done?! Luna!”

      Upon seeing this, Linchpin quickly stepped forward to help, but Celestia raised a hoof to stop him. “No!” she ordered. “Do not come any closer!”

      Linchpin seemed conflicted, but managed to control himself. Looking scared, he bowed his head. “Y-yes, Princess,” he said as he stepped back.

      After a moment Luna stirred, and both Celestia and Linchpin sighed with relief. “S-sister,” she muttered.

      “Yes Luna, what is it? Are you alright?”

      “Sister, I’m…”

      Celestia leaned down with concern. “You're what?”

      Suddenly Luna reached up, hooking a hoof around her Sister’s neck. Pulling her close, her eyes shot open, revealing themselves to be a ghostly, glowing green. As her red iris twisted up to look at her celestial counterpart, a victorious grin spread across her face.

      I’m fine.

    33. Thanks, DeftFunk! Though I think the most shocking twist is that someone is still reading this.

      Ahywho! Moving on....

    34. “Yaaah! Waagh!”

      Celestia chose her words well. There really was no other way to describe it. Upon witnessing her sworn enemy speaking to her through her dear sister, she attempted to leap back, but Luna refused to let her go. Lifting her head, a rapid series of red flashes burst from her horn, and Celestia cried out as they began to sear her.

      “Ironjaw, Brighteyes, interception!” Cannonball exclaimed.

      “No!” Linchpin yelled, but they ignored him. There was no time.

      As Brighteyes charged forward, his horn began to glow, and Celestia and Luna were surrounded by a misty silver haze. Cannonball referred to it as a slush field, and it was one of Brighteyes’ more helpful unique magical skills (especially when working with Killswitch). As the haze became thicker, everything in it cooled, for lack of a better word. The princesses’ movements became slower, the flashes of magic dimmer, and the smell of burning fur diminished. It wasn’t an overpowering effect, but enough to give his team an advantage.

      Jumping through the field, Ironjaw barreled into the side of Princess Celestia with enough force to knock her free of Luna’s grip. Luna tried to reach up and grab her again, but her reactions were slowed just enough that she barely missed. Celestia and Ironjaw seemed to float in the air for a split second as they passed through the opposite side of the field, then suddenly snapped back to full speed, landing on the ground with a set of heavy thuds. At the same time, Luna looked over at Brighteyes, her mouth slowly turning down into a snarl.

      Moving as if she were underwater, Luna rose to her hooves, then began to charge. As she reached the edge of the slush field, her horn once again emitted a dim red glow—which erupted into burning crimson as she passed through. Snaking through the air, the spell struck not only Brighteyes, but Killswitch as well, paralyzing them as sparks of red lightning arced between their horns. Luna ignored them, batting Cannonball out of the way with a sweep of her wing as she continued running toward the hole in the chamber ceiling.

      Realizing what she was trying to do, Linchpin quickly stepped into her way and flared out his wings, but she only laughed. “You wouldn’t hurt your princess, would you, darling?” King Sombra’s voice said in a mocking tone. “For we are a delicate thing, and could so easily come to harm!”

      Against these words, Linchpin held his ground, but it was obvious they had an effect, and he practically withered where he stood. Seeing this, she let out another cruel laugh, and as she leapt over him, kicked down with her back leg, striking Linchpin directly in the base of his right wing.

      “Augh!” he yelped as something which most definitely shouldn’t have made a popping sound let out a loud POP, and forced him to his knees.

      Looking over just in time to see her sister leap into the air, Celestia shouted, “No! We can’t let him escape! Not with her!” and jumped up, her horn glowing bright as she gave chase. Just as Luna disappeared through the hole to the sky, a golden chain of light exploded into existence around her. Running back, it twisted around Celestia as well, and together, the two of them were unceremoniously dragged into the heavens.

    35. For a few seconds, all was silent. Then, quite suddenly, things changed.




      All at once, every din imaginable erupted from above Cannonball and his team, along with a display of lights that rivaled even the most dangerously reckless of firework displays. At the same time, the magic holding Killswitch and Brighteyes faded, and they climbed to their hooves. Together with Ironjaw, they made their way over to Linchpin.

      “Can you stand?” asked Cannonball, leaning down and resting a hoof on Linchpin’s back. Even though he made sure to be careful, it still caused him to flinch.

      “I… rrgh. I think so, if you can support me.” The wing Luna kicked stuck out from his back at a horribly unnatural angle and refused to close. As he tried to rise, his muscles flexed around its base, and it shifted, making a moist tearing sound that Cannonball had learned over his time in the war to associate with separating cartilage. Trying to be polite, he stifled his gagging, but couldn’t suppress the need to look away.

      “Oh... star fall,” he muttered, taking several deep breaths as he squeamishly allowed Linchpin to lean against him. Once he was up, Ironjaw helped him from the other side, and they all limped over to the edge of the cannon.

      Upon reaching their destination, they looked up through the hole to see the two royal sisters, still chained together, battling high up in the sky. It was a fierce struggle, with each sister holding her own, but it was still all too clear who was winning. With King Sombra in control of Luna’s body, there was no telling what might happen if Celestia attempted a genuine attack, and it was too much of a risk to find out. As a result, she was being forced into the role of defense, but she was already looking fatigued from her efforts, and it was only a matter of time before she made a mistake.

      “Princess!” Linchpin exclaimed, reflexively moving to help, but gasped in pain as his wing once again caught, causing him to stumble. As Ironjaw and Cannonball caught him, he raised his head skyward with a desperate look in his eyes and said, “We need to help them.”

      “Help them?” said Cannonball. “They’re battling hundreds of meters in the air with magic that would reduce a normal pony to vapor if he got anywhere close. We can’t even reach them, let alone help them.”

      “No. There has to be a way. We can’t just stand by and let Celestia—let Luna… we can’t let either of them destroy the other! If only we could force King Sombra out of her, then—” suddenly Linchpin’s eyes went wide. “Of course! The crystal, where is it?”

      “What?” asked Cannonball in confusion. “What crystal?”

      “The one Swordbreaker wore! It might still be able to contain him!”

      Catching on, Brighteye’s gave a firm salute and said, “I’m on it,” before galloping away.

      “Well… fine. Perhaps that might work,” agreed Cannonball, “but even so, how are we supposed to use it? We still can’t reach them.”

      “But we can!" said Linchpin. "The cannon; if there’s enough magic left in the reserve, it should still function. We could use it to launch the crystal! But... not by itself. It’s too small. The turbulence might push it off course. In order to reach them, it would need a stabilizer. Something large, with enough weight to ensure it stays on path, and that could protect it from any dangerous magic on the way. We need….” Linchpin’s eyes darted back and forth as he racked his brain for an answer, then suddenly stopped as the answer came. “We need… a pony.”

      “…Excuse me?” said Cannonball in bewilderment. “Did you just say we need to launch a pony out of King Sombra’s super weapon?”

      “Yes,” Linchpin replied. “It’s the only possible way.”

      “That’s insane! Who would be stupid enough to allow themselves to be launched out of the most powerful cannon in Equestria?!”

      There was a long pause. Without a word, all eyes slowly turned toward Cannonball.

      “...What?” he asked, giving his companions a strange look. “Is there something on my face?”

    36. “It’s just a name! Don’t—that’s not even what it means! My father was a tennis player!”

      Crystal in hoof, Cannonball struggled violently against his friends as they tried to shove him into the opening of the cannon.

      “We’re not using you because of your name!” Linchpin said. “You’re simply the only one that can do it! Killswitch needs to operate the cannon, and Brighteyes needs to stay focused maintaining the shield. He couldn’t do that if he were tumbling through the air surrounded by explosions.”

      “Why can’t Ironjaw go?”

      “Because he’s too big to fit.”

      “This is bull manure!” Cannonball exclaimed, grabbing onto Brighteye’s ear and trying to pull himself back out, but he batted him away.

      “You’ll be fine,” Linchpin assured him. “I would be perfectly willing to do it myself, I assure you, if not for my wing.”

      “Good! Then let’s put it back in place!”

      “We can’t,” said Brighteyes.

      “Well why not?!”

      “Because nopony on our team has any medical training.”

      “…Wait, really?”

      Brighteyes sighed, shaking his head. “It’s one of the reasons Captain Starkicker was always so surprised we kept surviving our missions.”

      “Huh,” said Cannonball, furrowing his brow. “I just thought we’d silently agreed to tough things out. Seems like a rather serious oversight on my part.”

      “That's irrelevant,” said Linchpin. “Even if we could, there’s simply no time. The princesses need you now, Cannonball. As one of their loyal servants, I’m begging you, stop worrying about yourself and save our beloved leaders.”

      “I… but… fine,” Cannonball finally said, giving up his struggles.

      Linchpin gave him a grateful look. “You’re doing a noble thing. Now get ready. Brighteyes? Raise the shield.”

      As a pale silver orb popped into existence around Cannonball, floating him precariously above the black pit of the cannon’s barrel, he stood up straight and tall. “What I do now, I do against my better judgment, and if fate decides that I'm not to return, let it be known that I blame all of you. Brighteyes?”

      “Yes, sir?”

      Looking over at him, Cannonball's expression softened slightly. “I’m trusting you to keep me safe. Can I trust you?”

      Snapping as rigid as a board, Brighteyes saluted harder than he ever had before. “You have my word, sir!”

      Smiling slightly at his overwhelming enthusiasm, Cannonball nodded, then turned to Killswitch. “Killswitch?”

      Bouncing up and down with excitement, the orange unicorn squealed, “You’re so lucky!”

      “Keep it together, Killswitch… please, for the love of all that is good in this world, keep it together.”

      Still bouncing, Killswitch nodded so rapidly that his mane flew forward and hit him in the face. That was probably as good as Cannonball was going to get.

      “Ironjaw?” he said, turning to Ironjaw.


      “For Luna's sake, quit being so muscle-lovingly gigantic.”

      Grumbling, Ironjaw replied, “Only if you actually die.”

      With the final respects out of the way, Linchpin stepped forward, wincing as he lifted a foreleg to give Cannonball a salute of his own. “It’s been an honor serving with you, Cannonball. Good luck.”

      “Much appreciated,” Cannonball replied, reclining in his bubble as it lowered into the cannon. Right before he disappeared from view, he added, “I’ll see you at the award ceremony!”

      Linchpin chuckled. “I’m sure you will.” Stepping back, he looked over at the rest of Cannonball’s team. “Ironjaw, Killswitch, with me. Brighteyes, you stay here and make sure that shield stays intact. Also… you might want to cover your ears.”

      Nodding, Brighteyes hunkered down, covering his head with his forelegs while the rest of the team followed Linchpin over to the platform. Nopony could be sure what would happen next as the cannon rose up, turning itself toward the battle raging in the sky, but whatever it was, the one thing they did know was that this night was going to be a night to remember.

    37. BANG!

      The cannon fired, night turned to day, and a tremulous echo thundered across Equestria so loud, that it just barely managed to drown out the constant spray of curses from Cannonball’s mouth as he tore through the night sky. This shot was only a fraction as powerful as the first, but to him that hardly mattered. It was still more painful than anything he'd ever known—even counting the time he’d fallen out of a transport caravan after nodding off and gotten dragged through two kilometers of brambles and poison oak by the hair of his tail.

      “…nebula moon crater world ending kugleblitz!” he finished, just as an wall of ruby magic washed over his shield.

      Cannonball was only vaguely aware of his surroundings as he approached his target. Through the constant flashes of light, he thought he could see the princesses battling in front of him, but how could that be? It had only been a few seconds since he was fired into the air. They couldn’t be that close already. Cannonball pressed a hoof to his skull and braced for imapct. His head was ringing so hard that he still wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but it was best to be ready. After all, he might reach his target any—

      “Ahgkpth!” Cannonbal choked, the wind rushing out of him as the shield disappeared and he plowed into Luna’s side with the force of a runaway train. Luna responded in kind, and the two of them continued on, leaving behind a very confused Celestia in their wake.

      Argh! What—you!” yelled Luna, once she saw him.

      “Very observant!” Cannonball wheezed. “Now, time for you to go.” Raising the crystal, he silently prayed to the possessed princess in front of him that this would work, then slammed it against her chest.

      There was a pulse of black, and Luna let out a savage scream. “Augh! How did—no! You cannot have her! She is MINE!

      Twisting in the air, Luna used all four of her limbs to try and pry Cannonball off. On several occasion she even tried to bite him (which Cannonball felt was completely out of line, even under these circumstances), but he held tight. Wrapping one foreleg around her neck, he held the other to her chest as the crystal did its work.

      No! NO!” she continued to scream, but despite her protests, her kicks slowly became weaker, and her frantic spiraling slowed. With one final growl, the green faded from her eyes, and the crystal let out a satisfying whump as King Sombra was locked away within.

      Shaking her head, Luna looking around in confusion, taking a moment to realize she was in the air, then a moment more to realize there was a pony desperately clinging to her side. Reaching down, she wrapped a foreleg around him before asking, “What… where are we? What happened?”

      “King Sombra took control of your body,” Cannonball replied. “I’m not sure the technicalities, but he then proceeded to beat the whey out of us with it and run away. Your sister stalled him long enough, for me to selflessly come to your rescue, however.”

      “King Sombra…” muttered Luna. Suddenly her eyes lit up as she remembered. “Oh! King Sombra! Where is he now?”

      Cannonball held up the gem proudly. “Right here, safe and sound. And I only broke every bone and organ in my body doing it.”

      Luna nodded in approval. “Thank you, Cannonball. You have done a brave thing."

      "Just part of my job," he replied.

      "Quite. Now take comfort, for you are safe, and everything is—ah!”

      “Princess? Are you—wah! Are you alright?!” asked Cannonball as Luna faltered, nearly dropping him in the process.

      “I… yes. I’m sorry. I just feel a bit weak after all that has happened.” Looking down at the battered pony before her, Luna offered a soft smile. “But do not worry. As I was saying, you are safe, and everything is going… to… be….” For a moment Luna’s eyelids fluttered, then her head lolled to the side as she gave into exhaustion.

      “Oh… buck me,” groaned Cannonball. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried not to look as the two of them went plummeting to the ground.

    38. Cannonball….


      Opening his eyes, Cannonball squinted as the royal sisters came into focus on either side of his bed. “Oh, this dream again. I’m sorry, lovelies, but I’m really not in the mood.”

      Luna frowned, taking a threatening step forward, but Celestia stopped her.

      “Please, Sister, he’s only just awoken. Give him some chance to recover.”

      “…Very well,” she replied, “but only this once. And only because he saved all of Equestria beforehoof.”

      Looking between them in confusion, Cannonball tried to figure out what was going on. This wasn’t usually how this went at all. “I… you… wait! The battle! The cannon! King Sombr—oh stars in heaven I’m not dreaming!” Shooting up in bed, Cannonball steepled his hooves with the intent of begging for forgiveness, but suddenly got very dizzy. Slipping to the side, he almost fell to the floor, but Luna begrudgingly caught him, pushing him back to an upright position.

      “If not but for the grace and mercy of all the fates that favoreth thee…” she sighed.

      “What my sister means to say,” added Celestia, leaning forward, “is that we’re happy to have you back.”

      “I… b-but, what happened? There were explosions, and we were falling, and—”

      “Allow me to explain,” said Luna. “According to my sister, during our battle, I expended a rather profligate amount of energy trying to destroy her. After you removed King Sombra’s influence from my mind, it caught up with me, and I lost consciousness. My sister was hardly better off than I, but when she saw our conundrum, she managed to catch us just in time. Together we herded the survivors out of Fort Maleficent just before the cannon chamber imploded, and the entire base collapsed. After that you were brought to Canterlot with the rest of your team, and have since been recovering under our royal healers’ care.”

      Looking a bit taken aback by all of this, Cannonball asked, “How long has it been?"

      “About a week,” answered Celestia. "Not long at all."

      “And… what of King Sombra? What happened to the crystal?”

      At this, Luna and Celestia exchanged furtive glances.

      “Unfortunately,” said Luna, “the crystal was lost when the stronghold collapsed. Our guards are combing the ruins as we speak, but it seems that for now… King Sombra has once again slipped from our grip.”

      “Curses,” bemoaned Cannonball. “And after all of that, too. Well, at least the mission was a success… wasn’t it?”

      Smiling, Celestia rested a hoof on Cannonball’s chest, gently easing him back down to his pillow. “That it was, Cannonball. My sister and I—as well as all of Equestria—owe you a great debt. You're a hero, and we plan to do all we can to repay you.”

      Turning to smile back, Cannonball suddenly paused, his grin momentarily faltering. “There’s still something that doesn’t quite add up, though,” he said. “I remember… but wasn’t I holding the crystal?”

      “What do you mean?” asked Luna.

      “I mean, if I were holding the crystal, and Celestia caught us, then… and if she caught us, why did I go unconscious? Shouldn’t I… unless… wait.” Looking at the sisters, Cannonball’s expression snapped to one of irate realization. “Did you drop me?”

      There was a long pause as the royal sisters stared down at Cannonball in silence. Glanced back and forth between them, he pushed Celestia's hoof off his chest and sat up again, mouth slowly falling open in disbelief.

      “…We should go,” said Luna. “There are others who wish to commune with you, and it would be uncouth of us to delay them any longer.”

      Before Cannonball had a chance to respond, Luna grabbed her sister by the hoof and dragged her out of the room. Without looking back, she called, “Rest well, good sir, and we wish upon you only the speediest of recoveries!”

    39. Cannonball continued to stare at the door of his room long after the princesses left, and most likely would have continued to do so, had more visitors not arrived a short while later. Catching sight of something silver and blue passing in front of his vision, he quickly snapped out of his stupor, smiling awkwardly as he tried to forget what just happened and return to the moment before him.

      “Morning, sir!” said Brighteyes, walking over to his bedside and saluting, then leaning over and giving Cannonball a rather uncharacteristic, but still much appreciated hug.

      “Same to you! I hope the squad didn’t get too lonely without me!” Ironjaw and Killswitch entered shortly thereafter, and as Brighteyes stepped back, Cannonball saw that they were all wearing crisp new uniforms decorated from collar to cuff with dozens of shiny metal pins. Leaning back in his bed, he let out a disappointed sigh. “I take it I missed the award ceremony, then.”

      “Missed, but not missed out on,” said another familiar voice. Stepping through the door, Linchpin dropped a heavy chest at the foot of Connanball’s bed.

      Eyes lighting up with excitement, Cannonball leaned forward and exclaimed, “Celestia’s glory, is that my pay?”

      “What, this?” he laughed. “No, these are your medals. That’s your pay.” Linchpin looked toward the door as a royal guard stepped through, carrying a chest easily twice as large as the one Linchpin held. A moment later another followed. Then another. Then a fourth, and fifth, and sixth. “All in mint condition straight from the royal vault,” he said. “That’s only about half of it, but it’s against Canterlot law to have any more of the royal wealth on public display at any one time. I’m sure you understand.”

      When Cannonball didn’t respond, Linchpin looked over at him—then jumped in surprise as he saw him laying back in his bed, both front hooves covering his face while he openly and uncontrollably wept. The rest of his team looked just as startled, and had collectively backed themselves up against the far wall. Running to his side, Linchpin said, “Talk to me, Cannonball. What’s wrong?” as he quickly began scanning over the monitors reading his vital signs.

      Swatting randomly in his direction, Cannonball blubbered, “I’m not hurt, Linchpin. It’s fine. I just… I’ve never felt this happy before! I’ve never seen—I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do—I feel like I need to kiss somepony! Bring me somepony to kiss!”

      Suddenly Cannonball felt a pair of lips press against his, and he let out a, “Wmph!” of surprise—especially since he hadn’t recalled there being any mares in the room. Opening his eyes, his “wmph” turned into a full-fledged “Wgamph!” as he discovered who it actually was. Jumping back, he shoved his assaulter away, grabbing his pillow for protection as shouted, “Hunter?”

      Smiling, the deep green mare stepped back, performing an elegant bow. “After all of your head trauma, and you still remember my name? Why, handsome, I’m flattered!”

      “What the friendship is going on?!”

      “I quite agree!” Linchpin exclaimed. “I’m standing right here, after all!”

      “Oh, don’t be so upset,” said Hunter, looking over at him. “I was just having a bit of fun! Besides, he asked for it… though we may need to try again. I feel like he could have done a lot better if he wasn't so startled.”

      “I… I don’t understand!” said Cannonball, looking between the two of them.

      Stepping forward, Hunter wrapped a foreleg around his neck. “Don’t worry, handsome, you don’t need to. Just relax.”

      “Darling, please!” Linchpin literally interjected, shoving himself between the two of them, “I am right here!”

      Giggling, Hunter reached forward, mashing her face into Linchpin’s instead and muttering, “Oh hunny bunny, you know I just like getting you riled up, is all.”

      Not answering, Linchpin smirked, leaned back into to her enthusiastically as Cannonball shriveled away behind his pillow.

      “...Dude,” said Ironjaw from his place against the wall, “that is messed up.”

    40. “Seriously! What is going on?”

      Finally relinquishing at their sucking of face, Hunter and Linchpin leaned back, giving Cannonball room to breathe.

      “Oh,” said Hunter, “you know how love goes. While digging through the ruins of Fort Maleficent, Linchpin found me. I tried to kill him and escape. He gave chase. Eventually the two of us ended up stumbling down a hillside that lead to the exact spot where I’d originally captured him before all this business with King Sombra started, and we suddenly realized that in our big, crazy world of assassination and espionage, the hunter had become the hunted. I was smitten the moment we hit the ground, and since then it’s been clear that we were each other’s perfect predators.” Smiling over at her “hunny bunny,” Hunter let out a whimsical sigh.

      “Darling, you make it sound so meager when you put it that way,” replied Linchpin, smiling back. “You didn’t even mention the forest fire, let alone the pit trap or the cave of feral hogs.” Looking away, he turned his attention back to Cannonball. “I assure you there was much more to our courtship than just that, but the long and short of it is through our experiences, Hunter and I have bonded. She’s turned over a new leaf, as they say, and joined me as an official member of the night guard.”

      “As you say,” Hunter quipped back. “I might switch sides at any moment, for all you know.”

      Walking over, Linchpin nuzzled her in the neck, nipping at her playfully. “And if you did, I would chased you to the ends of the earth to get you back.”

      “…There are levels of strangeness to this relationship that I dare not even begin to fathom,” said Cannonball, hugging his pillow tight. “Killswitch!” he exclaimed.

      “Yesssssir?” he replied, jumping forward. For once in his life, he had his mane brushed neatly, and it made him look terribly out of place.

      “Report! What are you going to do with your share of the pay?”

      “Holiday, sir!”

      “You’re going on vacation?”

      “No sir! Going to m-make a holiday! I’m going to call it Burning Pony, and we’re going to make things, then burn them! Lots of things, all different colors and sizes. It’s going to be beautiful.

      “…Killswitch, that's the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. You make sure I get invited.”

      “Yes sir!” he replied, knocking a trail of sparks from his horn as he slammed a hoof to his head in salute.

      “Ironjaw! Report! What about you?”

      “I’m gonna buy my mom a freakin’ castle! With butlers, and maids, and a heated pool! Also a workout room! It’s gonna be sweet!”

      “Ironjaw, you’re an example to sons everywhere. Your mother should be proud of having created you.”

      “Heck yes! You know it!”

      Finally Cannonball turned to Brighteyes. "And you, soldier?"

      Standing up straight, he replied, “I’m investing my share back into the source, sir. I’ve talked with the princesses, and they’ve agreed to convert our old base into an official covert training ground for special forces teams assigned with the task of keeping Equestria safe from King Sombra and other similar threats.” Brighteyes smirked. “Who knows? I might even hang some new pictures in the pipes.”

      Cannoball looked at Brighteyes for a long time, then chuckled and leaned back in his bed. “Good on you, soldier.”

      “...What about you, sir?” Brighteyes asked, after a short pause.

      Smiling, Cannonball closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath of everything around him. “Honestly? I don't have the faintest idea, and that's exactly how I like it.”

    41. Yay! That was fun! :D I liked Killswitch's idea for using his reward.

      Now what, we get Chris to judge these or something? <.< That's what was going on here, right?

    42. Yay! It was, wasn't it?

      As far as Chris goes, I'm not sure what his plans are, but don't you worry. Uncle Vortex has everything taken care of. I'm sure things are going to work out juuuuust fine.

    43. Hello. The real Chris here. As you know, being real, I often have opinions, and say things about those opinions to other people, so that they can know them as well.

      When it comes to this story, though, I don't think that's necessary. It's obviously perfect in every way, and needs no opinions to support that. I give it all the stars.

      Star rating: ★ x ∞

    44. How did you... I mean, how did I do that with the profile picture? Anyway, I figured I'd just sign in with my regular account to verify that that post is totally legit and not just a clever impersonation. Star x infinity is my OTP.

    45. And us groundlings even got:

      Some OC shipping in there at the end! A four de torce, I say! A four de torce!


    46. The only story to get infinity stars? That's going to the top of my favorites list!

      Sorry you had to write the whole thing, Mr. Vortex. I woulda helped but anything I would've thought would not have been nearly as awesome as it turned out.

  3. Good! I want the finished product on Chris's desk by Sunday night! I'll be back to check your progress come... the future. Now get to it!

    1. Damn, Chicken!

      I'm gonna stay outta this. Don't really have the necessary qualifications. I may just help with editing, though, as I've noted a few potential changes so far. Can't have errors in a 6-star fic, after all! Well, you can, but I'm assuming we want Chris to enjoy reading this

    2. This just in! Writing is hard!

    3. Hehe, I know. Writing's just one of those things where I'm interested enough to read about it and maybe improve my own a little bit, but not enough to expend the required effort to do it professionally or as a serious hobby. Even if I did have that strong an interest, the point is that I'm not skilled enough to contribute to the story above. I'd want to get some practice first

    4. Mr. Vortex, you're my type of guy!

      Now see, I was going to contribute something something earlier, but you beat me to it. Now I got nothing.

    5. Sorry. After the first nine hours with nothing happening, and a deadly deadline looming, I decided that maybe not everyone was as gung-ho about said story as me, and that I might need to power through on my own. As it is, I'm most likely not going to make the deadline anyway, but oh well! I'll probably keep going until its done anyway, just because.

      Hopefully it's still fun to read, though, right?

    6. I thought you were powering through it on your own! <.< Anyway, I have seen your challenged and raised you...

    7. Hm, seems more like a standalone piece. It'll be interesting to see how that gets worked into the main story (unless I've COMPLETELY misunderstood what's going on here)

      Also, you guys just inadvertently taught me something about writing, so thanks for that!

  4. That's weird. I replied to CV several hours ago, but I'm not seeing my comment

    1. I blame the Canadian economy.

    2. Now I'm gonna have Blame Canada stuck in my head all night

  5. ...this:

    The rock cut into her fetlock, drawing blood and sending her tumbling against the thick oak beside the path.


    Her pack clanked and rattled irritatedly, its contents pressed into her spine by the tree's unyielding surface. Falling to her hooves, she groaned and squeezed her eyes shut against the pain. The last time she'd tripped over that particular rock, she'd spent the night alone in the forest, crying herself to sleep over a broken pastern until her brother and sister had found her the morning after. They'd banned her from venturing out alone, but that barrier, as it had turned out, had consisted of little more than words.

    "I thought I moved that darn rock already!"

    An inspection of her leg revealed a short, jagged cut, bleeding profusely, though not worryingly so. She'd taken to carrying bandages out here ever since an encounter with a bramble patch. She'd been certain that a timberwolf was on her tail even though they weren't native to the Whitetail Woods; it would have proven a good hiding spot, anyway, had they been. It had been three years since then, a time that seemed forever ago.

    She wrapped the bandage tightly to stanch the flow of blood. Infection shouldn't be a worry, as she had not planned to stay long. There was just one thing left to do before everything was finally in place. Breathing deeply through her nose, she hoisted herself up, finding that she could put weight on the cut leg with minimal pain. Then she turned to face the path that only she knew, better than her cutie mark even, and prepared to mount the steep, rocky rise.

    Finding that special talent had been the catalyst for her decision to come back to these woods and continue the project that she knew in her bones to be something she could finish. It had been a monumental venture from the outset: cutting a trail that was usable but not visible; moving wood plank by plank through thick undergrowth and across the small lake until she was strong enough to fell trees on her own; not to mention planning everything in her head. The delays had been as numerous as the parts she'd needed to build the thing: storms, looming nightfall, her myriad injuries, and the countless necessary sub-projects like the rope bridge across the lake.

    Even just finding the right spot to build had been a challenge all on its own. She'd almost missed the tree, an oak that had seen Nightmare Moon's banishment as a sapling, almost passed by a spot that had otherwise seemed perfect. From here, her practiced eye could just make out its sprawling, writhing branches through the tangle of trees whose trunks barely matched them in girth. It was the kind of forest that Scootaloo would jokingly refer to as a "wingbreaker", in conversations that always ended in awkward silence.

    The biggest obstacle, of course, had been hiding both the site and her activities from her friends. As they had grown older, pursuing their talents separately, it had become easier not to spend every moment with them. Excuses stopped being necessary, though the guilt over her obfuscations never lessened, not when both Sweetie and Scootaloo gained so much joy in describing their own pastimes to her. She just couldn't give either of them the slightest hint what she was doing until everything was ready, no matter how long it took.

    Then again, Sweetie could never know.

    She slipped on a patch of gravel and her chin reached the top of the rise before the rest of her. The previous night's rains had left the ground muddy and unstable, and impacting with it not only sent stars of pain shooting through her face, it also left her tunic muddy and rumpled. As she struggled to her hooves once more, something shifted in the satchel on her back, threatening to spill out.

    "Not yet, ya don't." She reached back with her uninjured hoof and pushed the red plastic handle back under the canvas.

    1. Scootaloo's growing interest in her had been the final obstacle, compounding the difficulties in maintaining secrecy. For a time, she had considered giving everything up, as it had all meant something different when she had first started, something that had eventually lost its magnitude after kisses stolen behind the barn and nights spent in the old clubhouse, one ear perked for possible interlopers. Little voices would say, time and again, "You have what you want; it's over; there's no need for this struggle, this toil, just to create a symbol."

      And then she would tell those voices to shut up until everything was done. There was no sense in letting so much effort and hurt go to waste. Finishing it would simply cement everything she had poured her heart into. It would be a crowning, lasting symbol for what they had become, and what they would be.

      The hill was the most difficult part of the journey, if one didn't count the waters she no longer had to swim across. From this point, the path became a straight shot, aside from the few trees that had been too scrawny for her to consider as timber. The undergrowth thickened slightly in the spring, but after a few dozen paces, it thinned, and a ring of felled trees heralded the mammoth, ancient oak and its lodger.

      The walls were crafted from broken, shaped timbers she had pilfered after a barn collapse. Paint and siding had gone a long way to both strengthening them and making them look nicer, at least from the outside. Within, the crooked seams and mismatched nails still stood out garishly, a testament to her inexperience as well as her lack of real building supplies in those early days. The piecemeal construction schedule had meant that some sections had had to weather the elements longer than others. The northeastern corner of the lower level had collapsed after a particularly nasty winter, when she couldn't sneak off as often or for as long. It had nearly done in her drive for completion; the voices had returned, suggesting smaller projects that would have been easier to finish.

      She had bounced back with the upper story, external staircase, and roof, then had set about fashioning rooms. For shingles, she used shed bark from the native forest. Once she'd started cutting her own trees, she had even been able to shore up the roofing with mud and thatch, and it was now the section that brought her the most joy to look at. The whole structure was sound against cold, rain and snow, but the roof stood out as proof of her ability to conquer any problem laid before her.

      ...Almost any problem.

      Standing there, she felt a tightness in her chest at the impending finality of today's undertaking. Yet she also felt a giddy buoyancy despite the clanking metal contraption that refused to stay settled on her back. This was, she mused, what it must feel like to stand at the edge of a cliff, wings spread, before kicking off. There would be that lightness, that giddiness, coupled with a sense of dread, the knowledge that this would be the last flight, just like all those before it. All your dreams would rest on the sureness of muscle and feather. When those dreams were never meant to be, there could only be gravity.

      She swallowed and blinked, wiping her bandage across her face. The dried blood softened just enough to create a smear of orange under her eye. Her mouth dipped into her saddlebag, drawing forth the painted wooden plank for a moment. The sight stirred her legs into motion; she trotted to the rope ladder and began to climb.

      At the top, the metal clanked dully against the planking of the deck as she finally relieved herself of her burden. Despite the weight of everything on her mind, she was growing excited. One last task, and she would finally be done; it seemed beyond the realm of possibility.

    2. She withdrew the hammer she had shaped to match her cutie mark, along with a mouthful of nails. With a hoof, she held the placard above the door and began to pound. The familiar rhythm of ache, ache, ache driving into her skull dissolved the dread lingering in her heart. Out here, with just the wood and the trees, where nopony else knew where she was or saw what she was doing, she could find peace.

      Four nails were all it took. She had considered using but one, and affixing a twine hanger to the top of the sign so that it could swing freely, but the threat of wind and even animals dashing it against the ground below had led her to the more practical course of action. Gathering up her satchel in her mouth, she pushed the door open and entered.

      It was dark within, but though there was a gas lantern placed on the small wooden end table just inside the doorway, she did not need it. She knew how to find the shutters, knew how many paces across each room was. The locations of each piece of furniture, each door, were revealed to her simply by closing her eyes. She belonged to this house just as much as it belonged to her. And now, it belonged to another.

      "Here you go, Scootaloo," she said with as much brightness as she could muster. Dropping the satchel revealed at last its contents: a slightly dented, slightly rusted scooter, polished with good intentions that could not restore its metal to newness. It listed to one side, the kickstand still holding it up despite having snapped off at least once in every ravine around Ponyville.

      "Do you like it?" She closed her eyes and let her head swivel. "It's got everything, even an upstairs. I been buildin' it for a long time now. I'm sorry I couldn't tell ya sooner, but I just... I had to make sure everything was right first. Or it wouldn't-a been... proper."

      A soft laugh barely escaped her lips. "I kinda sound like Rarity, now that I think about it.

      "Anyway, its yours now. Yours and mine. If you'll have it. If you'll have..."

      The words stopped, and she scrubbed once again at her cheek. For a few minutes, she simply breathed, looking but not seeing, thinking but not remembering.

      "I'll leave you two alone for a while now, so y'all can get acquainted," she whispered. Reverently, she backed through the door, closing it behind her, her soft touch coaxing but the tiniest click from the doorknob.

      Her head turned, and she took a long, greedy look through the trees at the view she never thought she would have a chance to leave behind. This didn't have to be the end, not the real end anyway, but with her next breath, she realized that there was a lightness pricking at her withers. She did not, she could not, regret a moment spent in the construction of this place, but with its completion behind her, there were no more shackles, self-made though they may have been. There was no more guilt. There was only freedom.

      She turned to the ladder and started down it. The last thing she saw as her head slipped below the surface of the deck was the placard nailed above the door, painted orange, yellow, red and purple, that read in large block letters,



      High Admiral Scootaloo stood on the deck of the carrier class warship, Space Scooter. It was one of the most advanced ships to date, able to do anything from level mountain ranges with its magnetoid bombardment ray, to zapping the hair off a moving fly with any one of its dozen precision laser boring turrets. The flies were safe today, though. Today, High Admiral Scootaloo was content to look out from the observation deck and bask in the simple fact that it was hers. Yup. Aaaall hers.

      "Ah," she said, taking a sip of her space-mocha-latte supreme. "There's nothing quite like being in space."

      Her quiet time was interrupted, however, when the Space Scooter's proximity alarms suddenly blared to life.

      "Admiral Scootaloo! Admiral Scootaloo!" a pale stallion barely old enough to have graduated from space college exclaimed as he galloped toward her. "We have an unidentified spacecraft coming in fast! It's on a collision course with us! If you don't do something now, then upon impact, our orbit will deteriorate and we'll make contact with the planet, resulting in—"

      Keeping cooler than an ice cube on Pluto, Scootaloo raised a hoof to silence the frantic stallion. "That's High Admiral Scootaloo," she corrected as she took another sip of her space-mocha-latte supreme. "And I know the risks. Get Commander Sheeple on the line. Tell him I want all upper channel communications with this spacecraft decrypted and ready for use by the time I reach the bridge. It's time to save all life on Equestria... again."

      "B-but High Admiral," the stallion stuttered. "That's just the thing. We've already made contact. They were emitting a distress signal on our exact frequency down to the last pico-placement. Even the encrypted channels!"

      Even though High Admiral Scootaloo remained calm on the outside like the beacon in a storm of chaos that she was, on the inside all the red flags were going up. "How.... That's impossible. What does the message say?"

      "It... it's a warning, High Admiral. Even though intergalactic law forbids ships to fire on possible friendlies, they're practically begging us to blast them out of the sky."

      "What? Why would they want that? Who are they?"

      At this, the stallions face went even paler than it already was. "That's just the thing, High Admiral. The message... the voice code... it...."

      "It what?!" High Admiral Scootaloo demanded. "Out with it, boy!"

      "According to the readings... it was sent by you."

      Dropping her space-mocha-latte supreme, High Admiral Scootaloo bolted for the bridge. For a moment she wished that she'd stay planet-side for once, thinking to herself that Applebloom and Sweetie Belle never had to put up with things like this.


      I'm sorry, Present Perfect. I'll delete that if you want, but it was just too perfect for a "MEANWHILE IN SPACE" transition for me to pass up. They're my 14th favorite thing, after all.

    5. I really hope you don't delete it, but I saved it just in case. That was too amazing! XD

      Only change I'd make is to have Scoots drink a Space Mocha Latte Supreme™

    6. Chicken

      what are you doing


      STAHP D:

    7. This story too, is also good. It captures both emotions and thoughts in a way that makes them seem like good emotions and thoughts, and also space. I would give it all the stars, but since I already did that, and am now out, I instead give it a cloud, an airplane, two hazard symbols, and a phone.

      "Star" rating: ☁✈☢☣☎


      I will keep all these symbols and treasure them for days to come.