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Equestria's Secret Service

by Edward J. Night

With special thanks to the Good Masters:

Demetrius, Seattle_Lite, NickNack, Vimbert, LunarShadow, and Cold_in_Gardez

EqD image credit to Iram

Alternate (FiM:Fic)

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Peace reigns in Equestria in a glorious tone that rings throughout the land.  Surrounding it are rival nations, each embroiled in their own bitter struggles, each looking upon the home of ponies with envious eyes.  When all around them are corrupted by greed, selfishness, and bitterness, how does this nation remain free of war?

Equestria's Secret Service is an organization hidden from the public eye. These brave ponies are unknown to the populace, and their brave deeds are ever unsung.  In a world brimming with cold anger, hate, and violence, they move to prevent conflicts before they ever happen.

For peace. For Celestia.

For the good of Equestria.

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Author’s Notes

Chapter One - The Captive

Chapter Two - The Plan

Chapter Three - The Expedition

Chapter Four - The Mines

Chapter Five - The Escape

Chapter Six - The Traitor

Chapter Seven - Pacts and Alliances

Chapter Eight - The Hunt Begins

Chapter Nine - Trusting Bonds

Chapter Ten - The Shaman's Pride

Chapter Eleven - The Garden Party

Chapter Twelve - Paths

Chapter Thirteen - The Cause

Chapter Fourteen - The Right Road

(new)  Chapter Fifteen - The Gala  (new)

Chapter Sixteen - (25%)

Other Chapters Forthcoming

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        Note:

        Thank you, all, for reading.

Alicorn (n): The horn of a unicorn

        Alacorn (n): A winged unicorn [derived from Latin: 'Ala' (wing) and 'Corn' (horn)]

        Updates:

        Chapters updated for smoothness; no reread required.


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Chapter One

"I am a servant of Equestria, bound to the land and its Princess.

I am sworn to defend the realm from all who threaten it.

I am a protector of the peace and a bulwark against chaos.

To this end, I am prepared to give my life for the cause.

By the Sun and Moon, I swear this oath: to bind my life in service."

~Oath of Equestria's Secret Service

        The ledge overlooked the underground pit that the diamond dogs were gathered in.  The pit was immense, almost unbelievably so; it must have taken days, even weeks, for them to dig it this size.  There were four elevated platforms with thrones in the pit, empty at the moment, each placed away from the others, sitting at the corners of a great square shape.  Most disturbing were the thousands of dogs gathered, raising such a cacophony it was a wonder that the whole mine did not collapse around them.  Initial reports had claimed that there were only a few hundred dogs gathered.  The others must have had arrived since first discovery; such things were known to have happened before, though never this fast, and never in this number.

        Spotter was nervous.  He was an earth pony, his tan coat and amber mane visible where it left his camouflaged uniform.  His cutie mark was printed on the uniform's flank: three spots, each of a different size.  He had several years experience in Equestria's Secret Service, and in all that time he had never seen such a force on the doorstep of Celestia's throne.  Worse, even in the short time he had been here, he had seen new dogs arriving; it was still growing.  What it was that could attract so many, he could only wonder.

        "This is bad, Sly," he whispered to his partner, a unicorn clad nose to hoof in camouflage that hid her light-blue coat, with her star-and-moon cutie mark printed on her flank.  Sly had never liked dogs, and the number below had given her considerable pause.  It was for this reason that she was maintaining an illusion spell over them, further hiding them from the eyes of watchdogs.  Spotter considered it a foolish move; though they hadn't seen any, the reports had mentioned a Shaman dog in this group, and such creatures were capable of detecting the use of magic.  Sly played it cautiously, keeping her illusion weak to avoid detection, but Spotter never saw the use.

        "Understatement of the day," Sly whispered back.  She was getting that strained look in her eyes, the look that said she was pushing her magic close to the edge.  To be fair, while the spell was simple, the delicate balancing act of keeping it both functional and undetectable was akin to walking a tightrope with a stiff breeze: possible, but only just.  "Step back a bit, I need to drop the spell a moment."

        Spotter and Sly slipped back behind the ledge, and the illusion faded.  They could no longer see the commotion the dogs were making, but they could still hear it.  A few voices began to carry louder than the others, and some of the noise quieted down.  Spotter knew a few words in their barbaric language, and every once in a while, between the shouting and guttural cries, he could pick some out.  "...day... revenge... pegasus... Celestia..."

        Wait, what was that?  "Sly, did you hear that?"

        "What?  Sorry, no, I don't speak Dog."

        "No, I swear they said 'Celestia.'  Please tell me you heard that!"

        "Sorry, I wasn't really paying attention.  I can barely understand them when they speak proper, anyway."

        "I heard it," a voice whispered by his ear.  Spotter glanced over, and noticed that they were now joined by a third pony, standing between them.  Instead of camouflage, this earth pony hid behind a dusty black cloak and a white ivory mask with red markings.  He peered out of his mask with red eyes.  "'Celestia.'  I do not know any of their language, but I heard that."  He approached the ledge and looked down.  "This does not bode well."

        "About time you turned up, Autumn; Sly is running on fumes over here.  What's happening down there?"

        Autumn took a careful look at the pit.  He was laying flat against the ground, and even to Spotter, he seemed to almost not be there.  "I count three dog Shamans."

        "Three!?"  Sly's voice almost broke whisper.  "Three blasted Shamans?  How the hell are they not at each other's throats?"

        "Would that I could tell you.  Strange; this is almost exactly the kind of cohesion that we fear the dogs ever acquiring.  Three Shamans together would create such a powerful magic force... why have they not attacked yet?  Why do they not look to be preparing for war?  What are they waiting for?"

        The questions were met with silence.  They were just a scouting party, sent to confirm initial reports of increased activity in the border mines.  A force like this had to be met, and soon, but they lacked the power themselves, and trying to rally Equestria's forces before they had good intel would be tantamount to suicide.  Who knew how much larger this gathering could grow in the next few days?  Already this was larger than any other recorded gathering, and they knew that number would only increase.  But for that same reason, did they have time to collect the necessary intel before reporting?  Canterlot had to know about this; if the invasion were to be launched tomorrow, they had to be ready for it.  Spotter looked at Sly, who seemed almost recovered.  "Sly?" he ventured.  "What do we do?"

        Sly coughed quietly, and sat in silence for a few moments more.  "We need more information before we can set up a strike force, but Command needs to be aware of this right away.  I don't want to use my magic so close to those Shamans, but it may be the only option we have.  You two, stay here; I'll try to get to the surface and away from here, and see if I can get a message off in safety.  If it works, I'll be back; if not... well, I'll keep running.  Spotter, I'm leaving you in charge while I'm gone.  Keep an eye on-"

        "Something interesting," whispered Autumn, still watching the pit.  "Food."

        There was a pause.  "What?"

        "Food.  Not dog food, pony food.  The dogs are not eating it, they just placed it in front of a Shaman.  The Shaman is doing... something to it; casting some spell, looks like."

        "Spell?  What kind of spell?" asked Sly.

        "I am no magic pony, Sly," he answered. "I just hide."

        "Hm.  Well, keep hiding.  If it becomes something worth reporting, let me know."

        "Sly," began Spotter.

        "No, stay quiet.  Spotter, you're in charge.  Keep your eyes open for anything that might help us know 'what' and 'why,' but take no unnecessary risks, do you understand me?"  Spotter nodded.  "Good.  If I'm not back in two hours, assume I won't be back.  Protect the Dawn."

        "Protect the Dawn," the other two echoed, and Sly scampered off, keeping low to the ground and moving quietly.  Spotter sighed and crept up beside Autumn, who had not moved since arriving on the ledge.  Peering over, he saw that three of the throne platforms were now occupied by Shaman dogs.  The food was being carried from one Shaman to another, who also waved his staff over it.  The dogs were hooting and howling, drowning out any intelligible noise that he may have otherwise heard.  Suddenly, a Shaman stood upright, his paws in the air above him, and all the dogs fell silent.  The Shaman began speaking, and he was echoed by the other two.  It seemed rehearsed; the first would say something, the other two would respond, giving a whole speech one piece at a time, and Spotter found himself wishing he had paid more attention to his language courses.

        The last sentence he understood perfectly: "Take it to the alacorn!"

        His eyes went wide as his mind raced.  An alacorn?  Where in Equestria did they find one of those?  Aren't the princesses... they're back in the palace, I know they are!  This is big.  This is probably the biggest thing that...

        ...wait a minute, calm down, he told himself.  It's been awhile since your lessons.  Maybe... maybe you misheard?  He looked over to the pony beside him.  "Autumn," he whispered, "I think that Shaman told the dogs to take the food to an alacorn."  The masked pony betrayed a slight twitch, his eyes flicking over to Spotter before returning to the pit.  "I could be wrong, but I want to make sure.  I need you to follow those dogs, and see where this food is going.  Do not get caught."

        "They will never see me," said a voice; the pony was gone.  There weren't even any marks where he had just been laying down.

        Spotter peered over the edge once more, trusting his camouflage to hide him as well as the illusion had. "Well," he said to himself, "Let's hope I'm wrong about this..."

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The stone walls always felt too close to the pegasus.  She was a creature of the skies, born on a white cloud with the endless blue calling in all directions; now she was trapped in an underground cell, just six paces to a side, always the same six paces, and the oppressive walls always felt too close.  Lying on the straw-and-feather pile that served as a bed, she stared blindly at the torch on the far wall that weakly cast its gloomy light through the iron-bar door on her cage.  Her sky-blue coat looked a pale grey under the dull light, and her bright yellow mane looked like desert dust, but the ropes that bound her wings were clearly visible.  The dogs had not been gentle then, and her right wing had made a sickening snap when they tied her.  The ropes hadn't been undone since.

        It had to have been months since she had been brought here.  She didn't know how many, but she was only a few weeks pregnant when she was taken, and now her belly was heavy with foal.  So many months had passed; so many months since she had danced on the clouds, held her lifemate close, or felt the warm kiss of the sun.  She clutched the thin blanket around her, trying endlessly to stave off the cold.

        The dogs had treated her gently after she was caged; the large one who called himself 'Shaman' had seen to that.  She was given meals on a regular basis, and as plain as they were, they were filling.  Every so often a tub of water was brought in and she would be bathed.  The Shaman always accompanied the bath.  He would watch to be certain she wasn't being mistreated, and he would smile.  It was the same smile he wore when they captured her, her lifemate lying motionless beside her.  The smile would give her nightmares, but his words always sent a chill down her spine.

        "Good, good."  It always started like this: his broken Equestrian speech slipping between his rotten teeth, and he would be smiling; always smiling.  "Eat, bathe, be healthy.  Grow big, have good pup, yes?  Good, strong pup, and give to us, and we set free.  Is good deal, yes?  You no give pup, we take, and you no go free, so is good deal, yes?"

        She used to cry.  In those early days, the tears would flow so easily.  Whatever the reasons: fear, hurt, or loss, the tears were the same, and the dogs would always smile.  She stopped crying after a few weeks, but the pain was still there.  Those were the early days, though.  She was cold, frightened, and alone, but these days the pain was routine, and she was growing numb.

        She heard the sounds of the dogs coming from down the passageway, and she assumed it was for her next meal.  She had once tried to judge the days by the meals they brought, but soon it proved useless; days had long since blended into one bad memory.  The dogs sounded more excited than usual, she noticed; they were laughing when they got to her cell.  The one holding the plate gently lowered it to the floor, and slid it under the door.  "Eat," it said. "Eat well, pony!"  With that, they all ran off, hooting and laughing at some joke only they knew.  They were long gone before she came out of the shadows, hunger driving her to the plate.

        "You are a pegasus," a voice said.  She jumped back in terror, looking around frantically for the source.  "Just a pegasus," the voice continued, "unless I am mistaken.  Did you have a horn?  Did they cut it off?"  A pause.  "No... that would not make any sense.  Why would they take the horn, but leave the wings?  You are just... just a pegasus."

        This was different, and she was terrified.  "W-w-who are you?" she cried.  "I-I can't..."  She stopped mid-sentence when a figure appeared on the other side of the bars.  A pony figure, wearing a dusty black cloak and a white-and-red mask.  He looked at her with red eyes, deep pools of crimson that threatened to swallow her.  Am I dreaming? she wondered.  Could this be real?  "You... you're a... pony?"  

        "I am," he said.

        Her initial terror had drained away, and now it was replaced by something almost wholly unfamiliar: hope.  "Are... are you here to rescue me?"

        "I am not, I fear."

        "B-but..."  It felt as though the world had twisted, and she fell to the ground.  The strange pony continued to watch her in silence.  She couldn't bear to look his way.  After several moments, she asked, "Why are you here?"

        "I am come to investigate... rumours of a growing number of diamond dogs in this region," he said calmly.  "These stories are, it seems, very true.  Nothing was said about a pegasus in captivity with them.  I followed these dogs down here because dogs don't eat pony food; not if they can help it, anyway.  I have now found you.  What is your name?"

        Her name.  It had been so long since anyone had cared.  She looked up, eyes slowly coming to life again.  "It... it's been so long, I..."  She looked at her cutie mark, half obstructed by her mangled wing: the sun peeking out from behind a cloud.  The memory it looking perfect against her sky-blue coat suddenly brushed her mind.  "Clear Skies... yes, that was it:  Clear Skies."  She looked over at the strange pony.  "Will you... will you help me?"

        The pony shuffled his hooves, and looked to the ground.  "I will do what I can, but that is not much, I fear.  I have no skill in picking locks, and I see no lock on this cell, so I do not think I can get you out of there.  Sly might be able to use her magic if she comes back, but with three dog Shamans about, we would be detected for a certainty."

        Clear Skies felt tears coming back.  It was almost too much for her; here was the first pony she had seen in months, and still she was trapped!  She looked at the back wall of her cell, ashamed of crying after such a long time.  "What can you do, then, if you cannot get me out of here?"  Her voice was clouded with despair, and edged with anger.

        "Currently?  Nothing.  I can, however, let others know about you, and ensure that the response is fast.  You will have help as quickly as I can make it happen."  There was a moment of silence.  "Please," the pony asked, "I need you to-"  He stopped, and looked down the passage.  "What is that noise...?" he mumbled.  After a moment, Clear Skies heard it too; a distant rumble, and what sounded like a lot of shouting.

        "This cannot be good," said the strange pony.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The dogs were fighting again.  Spotter knew better than to think that this would be the start of a great uprising that would be the death of this gathering.  After all, part of dog culture hinged on social fights.  Personal strength, respect commanded, mating rights; all were things that a good fight could make clear.  Friendship, too, seemed to have a staple in these fights.  While ponies might go have lunch or spend a day at a spa, dogs would get together and have a brawl, or go and cheer one on.  This had to be the eighteenth fight since he had ordered his companion to investigate the food, and besides, there were only three participants this time.  Hells, even the other dogs seemed bored with this one.

        Spotter usually found the dogs' fascination with violence academically intriguing, but right now he had other things on his mind.  For starters, what the hay just happened?  After the fervour that surrounded the Shamans and the food, he wouldn't have been surprized if the invasion had started right then.  Instead, as soon as the food had left, the entire gathering had calmed down and started socializing.  The three Shamans had remained on their thrones, addressing the questions or concerns of those that approached them, but most of the creatures had just turned to each other and started talking.  It was as though they had all come to witness some pivotal event, and then decided to sit down and discuss it.

        It had been nearly an hour, Spotter reckoned, since the strange ceremony had ended.  In that time he had gained valuable insight to the horde below him: the fights that he had witnessed were sloppy, clumsy, even uncoordinated, and there was no organization in the mass of bodies below; these were civilians.  There were only a few of them that bore the traits of warriors, and they looked to be busy enough keeping order.  The good news this presented was that this wasn't an invasion force; not even the dogs threw their civilians into combat unless the situation was truly dire.  So, then, the question remained: why were they all here?  The beasts usually operated in small tribes, with the occasional Shaman gathering up to a couple hundred followers; this was an underground city.

        The Shamans were the key to it, he knew, as well as whatever purpose the strange ceremony was for.  Shamans were religious leaders, mostly, and they commanded powerful magic, the kind that usually took a team of highly trained unicorns to counter.  Worse, pooled magic had power greater than the sum of its parts, and three Shamans?  Spotter had little doubt that the princesses would have to get involved in that fight, and that was something that had to be avoided.

        It was fortunate that Shamans were very rare amongst the dog clans; latest estimate he could remember had placed the total number of Shamans in the whole of the dog clans to be five.  With intel the way it was, he doubted that figure was accurate, but it did show how rare they were.  To have three of them in one place... well, such a thing was thought to be an impossibility.  There was no formal religion across the clans, so each Shaman had his own beliefs, and they would generally fight each other until death.  'Spiritually territorial,' the scholars called it.  Whatever the fancy term for it was, here were three of the rarest breed of dog gathered and working together; it was unheard of.

        Even so, there was still a divide amongst them.  Spotter watched as two of them, while addressing the dogs before them, would glance up to the third before answering.  Small movements: the shifting of the eyes, the twitch of the tail, even the slight pause before their mouths would start moving; these Shamans were unsure.  They were balancing their words with what they thought the third Shaman, obviously the leader, would want.  They looked... intimidated.  Shamans were known to attack anything they found threatening, so what could possibly cause them to work with one that they feared?  How fragile is this gathering?

        All these questions, and too few answers.  Spotter shifted nervously, looking behind him and hoping to see his companion return.  Whatever was at the end of that trail, he hoped it would give him the answers he needed.  It isn't an alacorn; it can't be, but please, by Celestia, let the answer be there.

        A sudden howling snapped his attention back to the pit.  The Shamans were all standing, howling into the air, while the entirety of the gathered dogs were deathly quiet.  The howl stopped, and the two minor Shamans slammed their staff butts on the ground, chanting, while a blue and green magical swirl began building at the staff heads, growing and intertwining.  The third Shaman, the Grand Shaman, pointed to one of the pit exits, and shouted.  Spotter only understood two words, but it was enough.

        "Pony Magicks."

        For a moment, nothing happened; the only noise came from the chanting of the two Shamans and the fading echo of the Grand Shaman's shout.  Then every single dog in the pit turned and ran for the exit, shouting loudly.  Oh, no... thought Spotter, retreating behind the ledge.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Sly had managed to dodge a lot of dogs on her way up, but that was no easy feat.  She predicted they were at least half a mile below the surface, and the way was a twisted tangle of passages and mineshafts.  She had been able to use minor magics to help guide her out without being detected, but with three Shamans spotted and four stone thrones, she wasn't putting it past this pack to have that fourth Shaman, and she used her magic only when needed.

        She climbed for what felt like hours before making it to the surface.  The openings of mines dotted the mountainside, several of them guarded, and the rest caved-in.  Sly's team had gotten lucky and found a shaft that was both open and unguarded.  Getting in was easy: slide down.  Getting out, well...

        Sly drew the rope from her saddlebags.  It was of simple, sturdy construction and boasted a padded grappling hook on one end.  This was where her being a unicorn became a hindrance.  Under normal circumstances, she would be able to levitate the hook to the top of the shaft, secure it on a good rock, and then make her way up, no problem.  If she didn't feel like wasting time with that, she could just teleport out.  However, with the Shamans below, she couldn't use her magic, and she had never really practiced for this situation.

        She tried her first throw.  It didn't make it halfway.

        Cursing, she tried again, with similar results.  How do those earth ponies do it, she wondered.  She pictured one she had seen once playing with ropes, twirling it around, launching it far... that's it!  She picked up the rope again, this time holding it a bit farther away from the hook, and began to spin it.  The first few tries got the rope tangled on her horn, but she kept trying.  Eventually she could get a good spin going, and then learned that getting the rope to throw the direction you wanted was another sort of challenge altogether.

        After a few unsuccessful minutes, she sat, slightly upset with herself.  She could not manage to get the rope up the shaft straight!  It kept hitting the walls and rolling back down, causing no small amount of noise, or so it seemed to her.  She had to take a breath before she really got angry.  Focus, she thought.  Focus on your task.  You need to get the message out before anything bad starts happening.  You need to get the rope up the shaft.  Calm down, try again.  Easy throw, easy does it.  She picked up the rope and tried again, and again it came tumbling down the shaft.  She was getting worried now; the dogs were sure to have heard something, and if they had, they were certainly coming to investigate.  She saw only one choice left.

        Light and gentle, she thought, light and gentle.  Throw the rope, let the magic guide it, nothing more.  Keep it light, keep it easy; keep it quiet.  Nervously, she again threw the rope, but this time she nudged it, ever so slightly, with a whisper of magic.  The rope made it to the top of the shaft, but didn't catch.  When she saw it start to slip, she pulled her magic and let the hook tumble back down, wincing each time it hit the sides of the shaft.  This couldn't go on, she knew; even with the grapple padded as it was, the noise it made... she was getting desperate.  Once again, she picked up the rope.  Once again, she threw it up the shaft, and once again, nudged it with magic.  When she saw the hook make it to the top, she held her breath, waiting to see it fall; it didn't.

        Relief flooded through her as she let herself breathe again.  She looked around one last time, straining her ears for any sign of dogs following her, and began to climb.  It was slow going; she wasn't used to this kind of physical stress.  Sure, she had built up her body strength like all unicorns in the Service, but like most of them, she also didn't keep up with it as much as she should.  After all, they were unicorns, and magic was their power.  Leave the earth ponies to their brute strength, they had something better.  Now, though, her neck hurt from the strain, her jaw hurt from clenching the rope, and she found herself wishing she'd never neglected the exercises.

        Slowly, she crawled out of the shaft, lying at the mouth while she caught her breath.  She only gave herself a few seconds before getting her hooves back underneath herself.  The sun was still in the sky, and she couldn't afford to be seen, so she hugged the ground beneath her.  Picking her way carefully down to the plain below was trying work; avoiding all the stationed watchdogs just made her task even more difficult.  She might have used an illusion to help, but the required spell was difficult enough when she wasn't moving.  Instead, she placed her trust in her camouflage.

        Sly was struck on the side of her head by a large rock.  When she cried out in pain, there followed a cry of discovery from nearby.  She quickly turned to the noise and found two sentries, one levelling a crude spear at her while motioning the other to go, likely to sound an alarm.  That couldn't be allowed to happen.  Before she had time to think, she charged the two sentries, horn low and positioned to gore.  The first stood his ground, but the second turned to run.

        NO!  The thought ran through her head, loudly demanding attention.  Before she realized what she was doing, she unleashed a magical blast that knocked both sentries to the ground, unconscious.

        She stopped her charge, staring at the two prone dogs before her.  Tartarus; THAT did it.  Quickly, she cast a minor teleport spell.  It wouldn't get her far, but it was fast and would get her far enough that she could get the message sent before any dogs interrupted her.  Once she emerged from the spell, she immediately pulled out the imprint parchment from her bags.  She felt the ground begin to rumble as she organized her thoughts for the message back to Canterlot.

URGENT

Reports of diamond dog activity in the Morlan Mines confirmed.  Horde: numbers in the thousands.  Confirmed sighting of three Shaman dogs.  Immediate action required.  Scouting team spotted; presume compromised.

        The specially-made parchment copied her thoughts, displaying the message in a ink that shimmered in gold before fading to black.  She rolled up the message, sealed it with the ribbon of the Service, and cast the spell to send it to Canterlot.  In a flash, the scroll vanished from sight.  Now, to get away.

        She gathered power and prepared for a major teleport spell.  Alone, she couldn't jump very far, but it would be far enough that the dogs would lose her scent; or so she hoped.  She closed her eyes and cast the spell.  When she opened them again... she hadn't moved.  What?  Quickly, she tried again, and again she went nowhere.  It was then that she felt it: a strange, pulsating magical energy all around her.  Curious, she cast a small scrying spell... and nothing happened.  There was no return, no sudden rush of knowledge or visions, just... nothing.  She knew she had cast the spell, she'd felt it, but nothing had happened.  She looked behind her, and saw the message she had sent, lying quietly on the ground.  By the Sun and Moon, she thought as the mountainside erupted with diamond dogs, all howling and running at her.

        She took a step back, her mind racing in a blind panic.  Feelings, emotions, and impressions flitted through her head, never taking the time to transition into words.  In less than a second, she felt that there had to be some kind of magical barrier surrounding the area, preventing her spells from working.  She knew that the idea of the thing, the very concept of it, was unheard of; that it couldn't exist, yet here it was.  She was certain that the Shamans, somewhere deep inside that mountain, were the only things that could possibly be responsible for this.  She felt that there was no way this barrier could cover the whole of the land, and that it must end somewhere.

        With that last fleeting impression, her panicked mind latched onto something solid: escape.  It didn't matter how far it took her, she had to go; she had to get out of this barrier-thing.  She had to warn Canterlot.  She had to outrun the dogs.

        She turned and ran.  Behind her, the dogs howled.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Down by the cell, the noise was barely audible, but the shaking of the ground was crystal clear.  A quiet rumbling; not a quake, but the feel of a stampede.  Something big had happened up there.  Clear Skies looked at the strange pony.  "What is that?"

        He paused a moment.  "I do not know, but it does not seem to be coming for us."  He brought his attention back to her.  "Clear Skies, I need your help.  Can you answer some questions?"

        Clear Skies looked at the pony, really looked at him for the first time.  Standing in the torchlight, what little of the earth pony's coat peeked out from his cloak was coloured a dark rust-brown.  His white mask was covered in simple patterns, curves and spirals, all dyed red.  Behind his mask were those deep red eyes she had almost fallen into, and they seemed to flicker with the torchfire.  After these months, his was the kindest face she had seen in her life.  "What... what do you want to know?"

        "Everything you can tell me.  Do you know why the dogs are here?"

        "I don't even know where 'here' is," she answered.  "They took me while I was exploring an old quarry outside of Ponyville.  They tied me up and carted me away for what felt like days.  Once they got here, they threw me inside and never let me out."  She paused, remembering her lifemate lying motionless on the ground.  She had spent her entire imprisonment afraid of the truth, but now she summoned her courage to ask.  "Do... do you know my lifemate?  A unicorn named Silver Dawn?"

        "I cannot say that I have met him.  I will be sure to seek him out when I get the chance.  Have you... a unicorn, did you say?"

        "Yes," said Clear Skies, standing up.  "Do you know him?"  Is he alive?

        The pony was looking at her curiously, then his eyes widened slightly.  "I... are you with foal?"

        She looked down at her swollen belly; Did he not notice before?  "Yes... yes, I am.  She... will be born soon.  Please, I don't want to have my foal here, in this cell!  I don't know why, but the Shaman wants her.  He keeps coming down and telling me he'll let me go when I give him my foal.  I don't want that to happen!  Please!  Get me out of here!"  Tears began to run down her cheeks.

        "They are after your foal...?" the pony said quietly.  Suddenly, he looked at her and his eyes locked with hers.  "Clear Skies, I need you to listen to me.  I will get you out of here.  You will be free before you have your foal, this I promise you."  He looked around.  "You need to be strong.  I must go; I must deliver this message."  His eyes landed on the food plate, still sitting in the cell.  "One other thing," he said as he lifted his cloak.  Underneath was a set of saddlebags, which he removed and slipped between the iron bars of her cell.  Clear Skies was able to see that he wore a many-pocketed vest as well, and even glimpsed his cutie mark: a white mask, identical to the one he was wearing.  "Hide these bags; in them you will find rations and trail meals.  It is... not a lot, I fear, but this is necessary.  Eat the rations; do not, if you can help it, eat what they bring you.  I do not know what they are doing, but they have done something to it; some strange spell.  You say they want your foal, so I suspect that whatever they have done, is done for her.  I doubt it to be dangerous, but I do not know what it is.  If you feel you need, there are pills in the saddlebags to treat a variety of ailments; each comes with instructions."  He looked at her one last time.  "I will return quickly.  Eat carefully, and eat little."

        "Wait!" cried Clear Skies, "Don't leave me!"  She found herself shouting at the wall; the strange pony was gone.  Not even a sound remained.  She sat down and sobbed into the floor.  "I... I don't even know your name."

        "Autumn," a voice said.  "My name is Autumn."

*          *          *

        Clear Skies woke up again.  She was in the same cell, lying in the same straw bed, watching the same torch cast its gloomy light all around.  There was a plate of food waiting for her, and the mine was quiet.  Had it all been a dream?  The strange pony with the mask, the promise of freedom?  Had she dreamt of the Shaman dog coming down and yelling at her, asking his angry questions?  It had felt so real, and yet here she was, watching the torchfire burn away the memories like the morning dew.  She collapsed back onto the bed, feeling defeated.

        She landed on something hard; something buried in the straw.  Bolting upright, she dug into the straw bed, and there she found the saddlebags.  Old, worn things they were, emblazoned with the cutie mark of its owner: a white mask.  For a long time, she didn't move; she just held the bags, letting the happy fact that it wasn't a dream, that there was somepony out there who knew who and where she was, wash over her.  After a while, she held the bags close, as though embracing a lover, as his words went through her head: I will get you out of here.  You will be free to have your foal, this I promise you.  She caught the scent on the bags; it smelled like sweat and stallion; like warm earth, open sky, and bright sun.  For a moment her world was outside again, running through the open fields, chasing her love and laughing with joy.

        A sudden noise snapped her back to reality, and she quickly buried the bags again.  She lay atop the straw, nervous that some dog might see.  Seconds passed.  Then minutes.  Nothing came by the cell.  Slowly, very slowly, she relaxed.

        She dug out the saddlebags again and looked through them.  The meals were there and, as promised, they weren't much; looked enough for three days, taken sparingly.  There was also a small canteen of water, only about half-full.  The medicinal pills did cover a wide variety of ailments, from poisons to the simple cough, and even some to help against magical hexes.  She looked at the food the dogs brought her, and considered taking those ones.  What was it that he had said?  Some spell cast on the food?

        She looked over the descriptions again.  Each gave an overview of the magical ailments that they could help stall or reverse.  Nothing major, of course; only a fully magical counter could truly repel a curse, but these were designed to give the afflicted pony enough time to get that magical treatment.  But, she thought, looking back over at the food, they did nothing dangerous, did they?  Would these even do anything?

        She was hungry.  Sighing, she put the pills down, picked up the plate of food, and dumped it down the waste chute in the corner.  Then she organized the pack rations to last as long as possible, and ate her first clean meal in months.

        For the rest of the day, routine took over.  The dogs would bring food, she would dump it, and have a pack ration meal.  The rations were good, and whatever they were made of filled her better than she would have imagined something that size to do.  They also gave her some of her strength back, but that might have just been from not eating the dog-enchanted food.  If that was so, she decided, maybe taking one of the magical ailment pills would be a good idea.

        She took one as the torchlight began to fade.  In a few minutes, she knew, it would go out, leaving her alone in the darkness before a dog would come by to replace it.  Sometimes that took hours, sometimes just a few minutes.  Now, though, she decided to call it nightfall.  Pretending it was the setting sun, she looked at the faint glow of the dying torch on the wall, smiling as she lay down to sleep.  For the first time in a long while, she was looking forward to what tomorrow might bring.

つづ

To Be Continued...


=========================================================================================

Chapter Two

"Equestria no longer has a formal military force; what was has since dissolved into the multiple militia and town guardships of today.  Even though few of these organizations work together, Equestria remains at peace with her neighbours.  This is due to the fact that, though the fractured armed forces present a vulnerable target, Princess Luna's Service remains strong, working behind the scenes to dismantle enemy plans before they can gather strength..."

~Excerpt from "Equestrian Histories," by Scarlet Quill; Scholar

Archived history teachings

Near 200 years before the Nightmare's Rebellion

        "Autumn!  What are you doing back so early?"  A deep-blue pegasus mare with falling raindrops on her flank ran up to the cloaked pony, her blue-and-white mane flowing behind her.   "I figured you'd be gone for two weeks, at least."

        "Dew," he said, turning to face her.  "Perhaps you can help me.  I need to find the pony in charge of the follow-up to the Morlan Mines; I have an urgent update on the mission."

        Dew cocked her head to one side.  "Follow-up?  Autumn, it's been four days.  Nopony is going to send a follow-up after just four days; you know this."

        "But... surely you received Sly's message?"

        Dew shook her head.  "Not that I know of.  I don't think there has been any new word on the mines since your team left."  Autumn was silent.  She knew him well enough to know what was going on behind his mask, and it worried her.  "What happened out there?"

        "...I need to deliver this report.  Where is Keystone?"

        "Keystone?"  Dew balked.  It was one thing for Autumn to be back so soon, but to go straight to the Commissar?  Whatever happened out there, it had to be big.  "She's... in a meeting."  She paused, but only for a moment.  "This way."

        She led him down the hallways of the Royal Palace, bringing him to the main conference hall used by the Service.  All along the way, ponies stopped and whispered.  'Isn't that Autumn?'  'He shouldn't be back yet, should he?'  'Where is he going now?' A few followed them all the way to the closed doors of the hall, where Autumn marched up to the pegasus guard.  "I have an urgent message that must be brought to the attention of Keystone," he said.  "Let me pass."

        "No-one is to enter the room until business is concluded."

        "This must be heard; the fate of Equestria may hang on this."

        The guard's eye rolling was barely noticeable.  "Heard that one before."  His head turned, slowly, until he was looking Autumn in the eye.  "No admittance."

        "I see."  Autumn's voice was level and calm, and he seemed set to wait.  He had never been much of an aggressive pony, so it surprised Dew when he simply shouldered past the guard and barged into the closed meeting.  By the guard's reaction, he hadn't expected it either.

        "H-hey!  Get back here!"  The armoured pegasus followed his ineffectual shout into the room.  Dew trotted in after him, concerned; Autumn was acting strangely.  What happened out there?

        In the centre of the room was a large triangular table; the point farthest from the door cut flat to allow the head seat to overlook the three sides.  Ponies from the three major branches of the Service sat at the three sides, and all had turned at the commotion at the door.  There, Autumn was kneeling before the assembly while the guard tried to make apologies.  What caught Dew's attention was that Keystone wasn't there.  Looking down from the head of the table was an all-white unicorn, his golden eyes carefully regarding the cloaked pony who had interrupted the meeting.  Golden Lock, thought Dew.  Why's he here?  Where's Keystone?

        Golden Lock held up a forehoof, and the guard immediately went quiet.  The unicorn spoke very slowly and deliberately, his voice carrying over the assembled ponies.  "This is a closed meeting.  I had hoped that the orders of your superiors was good enough reason to stay outside, but it seems I was mistaken."  He leaned over the table.  "Pony, you'd better have an exceptionally good reason for me not to have you whipped."

        Autumn stood, and looked Golden Lock in the eye.  "Equestria is under dire threat from the Morlan Mines."

        There was a murmur from the table as ponies turned and whispered to each other.  Golden Lock didn't move, but when he started speaking again his voice was even and level.  "Very well; I'm listening."

        Autumn gave a quick nod before starting.  "Vice-Commissar; Fillies and Gentlecolts of the council; I bring important news.

        "Four days ago, myself, Spotter, and Sly were sent to investigate reports of diamond dogs gathering at the Morlan Mines just outside of Equestrian borders.  When we arrived, we found the mine well guarded, and it took the better part of a day to gain access.  Once inside..."  He paused for a moment, as if trying to find the right words.  "Lordship, council members; the mines hold a dog tribe numbering in the thousands, led by three shamans."

        Shocked whispers erupted from around the room, and Dew turned to find that, with the door still open, curious ponies had wandered in.  Turning back, she found that though the council members were whispering fervently to each other, Golden Lock remained unmoving, his golden eyes fixed on the pony before the table.

        "While there, we bore witness to a strange ritual," Autumn continued, staring unblinking back into the unicorn's eyes.  "The Shamans cast several spells over a plate of food; food for a pony.  Spotter said that a Shaman had then instructed the dogs to take it to an alacorn."  A few gasps and mutterings were heard; Dew found herself too engaged to care.  "I followed to where it was taken and discovered a captive pegasus, heavy with foal from a unicorn father.  She told me the dogs want her foal; I believe they are trying to breed an alacorn.

        "Before this discovery, Sly had gone to send you a report, but she was found; it felt as though the entire tribe had been sent after her, the way the mine shook.  Afterwards, I saw the dogs bring her broken horn back into the mine; I could not find Spotter."

        Autumn paused, looking to the floor; it was never an easy thing to lose comrades.  His silence was echoed by all the ponies in the hall.  Finally, he drew himself up and continued.  "After that, I knew I had to get back to the palace as soon as possible.  I had assumed that Sly had sent the report before she... was found, but it seems that was not the case.  Therefore, instead of updating the report, I am here giving it.  Lordship; council," he finished.

        The council turned inward and whispered to each other for a moment, slowly growing silent as they all looked up toward Golden Lock.  At the head of the table, the unicorn sat like a statue.  His expression was unreadable as the whole room waited with bated breath for his answer.  As the silence stretched into minutes, a growing unease was felt.  Ponies gave each other worried looks, nervous chuckles were heard and quickly silenced, and nopony dared to speak.  In the middle of the room Autumn stood, a statue himself.  When Golden Lock finally spoke, his words were ice.

        "How long did you spend in the mines?"

        A pause.  "Two days, your Lordship."

        The unicorn tapped on the table several times.  "You interrupt us for games?"

        Autumn blinked.  "Your Lordship?"

        Lock pointed at Autumn.  "You bring wild tales before us and expect us to take them seriously?  A gathering of thousands of diamond dogs, three Shamans, and a heart-breaking tale of a captive pegasus, there to give birth to an alacorn."  He snorted.  "That aside, you stand before us a mere four days after you say you left.  Two days in the mine, and two days on a journey back that takes five on hoof.  How would you explain that away?"

        There was a pause before his answer.  "I can move when the need arises."

        "'When the need arises,' of course.  Pity your flank doesn't show a blur, else I might have believed you."  He shook his head.  "Any foal could tell you there is no truth to be had here."

        "Your Lordship," protested Autumn, "what would I have to gain by bringing you false reports?"

        "Ah, what, indeed?  Let us consider a moment."  His voice dripped with contempt as he leaned forward, crossing his hooves on the table in front of him.  "You," he began, "are Autumn, a pony not unknown to us.  A talent of hiding, and very good at it, if the tales are true.  A useful talent, I must say: to be able to sup with the enemy and them never know you are there.  But then, your allies can't find you either.

        "I suspect you never left for the mines.  Perhaps you hid in the palace for a few days, waiting for the right opportunity to come into daylight and scare us all.  Why, at the numbers you describe, the entirety of the Secret Service would have to go and meet this threat, as well as the whole Royal Guard."  He leaned over the table.  "And with the palace empty, you would have a golden opportunity to pick through the royal secrets."  He cast a baleful smile down the table.

        Autumn remained still.  "If I wanted your secrets, I would already have them."

        The unicorn laughed.  "A foolish statement; it takes much more than being able to hide to get at our secrets.  But, of course, with everypony gone-"

        "Were you not listening?" Autumn interrupted.  "It may not be necessary to send a large force.  We would-"

        "Not a large force, you say?  For an enemy of thousands?"  He shook his head.  "As amusing as this has been, I've had enough of this farce.  Leave, before I have you confined to quarters."  He waved his hoof in a dismissive gesture.

        "Your lor-"

        "DISMISSED, pony.  Do not force me to have you escorted from the premises."  Autumn was quiet a moment, then he gave a quick bow, turned, and walked out the door.  Three steps later, everyone lost sight of him.  "Off to trouble, no doubt," spat Golden Lock.  He turned to one of the unicorns sitting at the table.  "Inform the palace guards to keep an extra eye out; we cannot have anything go missing now.  The rest of you," he said, turning to the gathered onlookers, "this show is over.  Get back to your duties."

        The assembled ponies began to shuffle out, whispering quietly to themselves.  Dew stood outside the door until the last pony had left, closing the door behind him.  As he trotted off, she turned to the unicorn standing beside her.  A pretty mare, her coat spoke of fresh cream and her bright red mane looked like fire against her neck.  Her flank was marked by a rainbow encircling a star.  "Well, Gleam, what do you think?"

        "I believe Autumn," said Gleam without hesitation.  "I've never known him to lie.  Goldie, though... sometimes I think he forgets what he's doing here.  He should have at least agreed to investigate further."

        "But," said Dew, "if what Autumn said is true, then another investigation would just waste valuable time.  Action is what is needed now, not deliberation."

        "Oh, you'll get no argument from me; I'm just saying that Goldie is a bit of an old pony, and action isn't something he supports a lot of.  Keystone would have listened, I'm certain."

        "Yes, that reminds me: where is the Chief Commissar?  I thought she would be the one leading that meeting."

        "Not sure, really.  Rumour has it she was called away for some really important mission or some such."  Gleam smiled and leaned in close.  "But as for Autumn... personally, I am most curious to hear his plan."

        Dew smiled.  "Well, then, we had better move quickly, shouldn't we?"

        Gleam hopped to attention.  "Yup!"  She trotted off, smiling and humming to herself.  Dew watched her go, then turned and went in the opposite direction.

        She walked down the familiar royal halls, watching the tapestries as they passed.  The halls were cavernous, easily over fifty meters of grandeur.  She could fly the length of them and never worry about running out of room.  It helped her to remember that.  This part of the palace was inside the mountain itself, carved from the living rock.  There were no windows to let the sunlight in; instead, light simply existed, a magical glow with no apparent source.  Even after all this time, it still felt a little eerie to her.

        The door to Autumn's room was open slightly, so Dew walked inside.  Here, the luminescence was less pronounced; Autumn had always liked the dark, and so he had gotten some unicorns to dim the glow here.  Rather than making the room feel unwelcoming, it had a quiet warmth to it, like drinking tea in candlelight after a long day.  The room itself was rather spartan: a bed, a standing cabinet, a writing desk, and a phonograph were the only pieces of furniture visible, though she knew there were some chairs stacked in the closet.  The walls were bare save for a single picture frame above the desk; inside it was a map of Equestria.  There was no sign of Autumn.

        Dew closed the door behind her.  "That was quite a performance you gave," she said to the empty room.  "I quite liked the part where you can 'move when the need arises.'"  She flapped her wings a bit for emphasis.  "Or was that too much, you think?"

        "What kind of pony does he think he is?" came an angry growl.  "I bring him truth, and he throws it in my face!  Is this what the Service is becoming?  Willing to let Equestria fall just for a few laughs at me?"  There was a loud thump, and the quills on the desk rattled.

        Dew was taken aback; it had been a long while since Autumn had been this angry.  "No-one is laughing, Autumn."

        "Aren't they?  You saw them; they were practically crawling over each other in there, eager to be pleased by my humiliation.  This is-"

        "Autumn, stop!"  Her voice echoed in the bare room, and a few seconds of silence followed.  "They were not there to laugh; they were curious.  You burst in on a closed meeting with a high-importance report.  How can you expect them not to want to hear it?  Stop being afraid of them."

        "What makes you think I am afraid?"  His voice was barbed.

        "Because," Dew said slowly.  "You're still hiding."

        There was a pause, then a quiet sigh, and Autumn emerged from the shadows.  His hood was still down from when he interrupted the meeting, showing his mask in its full glory.  He seemed to have calmed a bit; his voice was traced with sadness more than anger when he spoke.  "I was a foal all over again, being mocked before the entire school.  What happened?  I thought we left these schoolyard games behind us when we grew up.  What does it take, Dew?  What does it take?"

        She wrapped her neck around his, quietly urging those memories away.  "We're not on the playground anymore; nopony wants to laugh at you.  Golden Lock may be a bully, but the rest of us aren't those callous schoolfoals willing to praise any mockery that isn't pointed their way."  She pulled away and looked him in the eyes.  "If anything, he alienated himself more than you."

        "No-one stepped forward."  His voice was soft, and Dew had to strain to catch his words.  "They were all content to simply watch; even you.  What am I to make of that?  How is that any different?"

        She shifted uncomfortably.  "We were afraid, too."  She spoke just as softly, pulling his attention to her words.  "He's our Vice-Commissar, and he could easily extend his beating to anypony who stepped in to defend you.  You know me, I'm not... I'm not exactly Service material.  Lock would have no reservations about removing me if I upset him.  The rest of them may not have the courage to face him directly, but they are behind you.  Don't lose faith in all of us for one pony who lets his power go to his head.  We're here for you.  I'm here for you."

        Autumn took a deep, slow breath, and Dew saw the anger melt away.  "I... I can understand that.  Thank you, Dew, for... for being here."

        She smiled.  "You wouldn't have it any other way."

        He chuckled quietly, a soft smile coming to his lips; it vanished quickly as he hung his head.  "He is dooming us," he said, his voice heavy.  "He will not act, and Equestria lacks the power to fight them head-on.  There was still a chance, but now..." he shook his head.  "So many will die."

        "So what will you do?"

        He looked up, meeting her gaze.  "Do?" he asked.  "What can you expect of me?  I hide.  I cannot... just..."  Slowly, his eyes wandered over to the standing cabinet.  "I could..."  He walked over and began filling the pockets on his vest with miscellaneous assundry.  "I will have to keep my promise, then."  He turned back to Dew, who still stood in front of the door.  "Please, I need to go."

        "Just like that?"

        "I cannot afford to wait."

        "You won't succeed on your own; you do know that, right?"

        "I have to; who would help me?  You said it yourself: they are afraid.  I have no authority to command them; even if I did our glorious Vice-Commissar is planning on grounding me, and you are blind if you think that he has no support.  If I stay and try to convince others to join me, it may become too late to leave.  If I do not leave now, I will not have any other chance, and Equestria will fall."  He looked at Dew, who hadn't moved.  "Please let me leave."

        Dew shook her head.  "Weren't you listening?  Golden Lock may have support, but he hardly speaks for all of us.  The others may be afraid to face Lock directly, but they will help you.  You don't need to convince anypony to join you, you just need to ask."  She gave him an imploring look.  "You have allies right here, Autumn; don't turn them away."

        He sighed.  "What can you expect me to do?  If I announce my intention to return to the mines and ask anypony who wishes to follow me to do so, Golden Lock will hear of it and will not hesitate to place me under house arrest, and that if he is feeling benevolent.  Taking the time to garner support one pony at a time takes too long, and only the worst can come of it.  I need to leave now."  Even as he said the words, he stood and waited, making no move to push Dew out of the way.

        "Listen to me," Dew said, stepping away from the door and closer to him.  "You don't have to try to take all the burdens yourself.  I'm your friend, Autumn, I want to help you."  She looked to the floor.  "That's... that's what I'm here for."  Silence descended on the room; Dew could hear her own heart beat.  Several strained seconds passed before she spoke again.  "It's just..." she looked back up at him.  "This affects all of us, not just you; surely you can see that.  You don't have to do this alone."

        He smiled.  "The two of us, is it?  No offense to your skill, but I do not think the odds improved.  I would rather you stay safe in this."

        She shook her head.  "No, not just me; I'm not the only one who would follow you."  She smiled.  "Come with me, and I think you'll find the odds very much improved."

        His ears perked up.  "How many?"

        She shrugged.  "I don't know, I haven't asked anypony yet.  I had to make sure that you weren't going to disappear too soon.  It's hard work, keeping tabs on you."

        "Then-"

        "Oh, don't worry so much!  Gleam has been taking care of that for us.  I'd say she has rounded up a good number of ponies by now.  Care to take a look?"  Autumn stood there, seemingly stunned.  "I told you," she said, smiling warmly. "You're not alone here."

        He chuckled and shook his head.  "Dew... thank you."

        "Autumn," Dew said as he moved for the door.  He stopped and looked at her.  "We're going to need a story."

        "What do you mean?"

        She faced him.  "It was cute when you interrupted the meeting, but somepony is going to wonder how you actually did get back in two days.  You may want to tell them something if you want them to continue to trust you."

        He sighed.  "Right, of course.  Thank you; I would not have thought of that."

        "Honestly," she said, pushing past him; "What would you do without me?"

*          *          *

        Gleam was waiting for them outside one of the palace's privacy rooms.  "Oh, good!  You found him!  I was starting to get worried."

        "Sorry about that," Dew said, looking to the privacy room.  "How many did you get?"

        "Fifteen volunteers in total," Gleam chirped, smiling.  "Nine unicorns, five earth ponies, and even one pegasus."

        "A pegasus?" asked Autumn.  "You did tell her we are going underground?"

        Dew looked sharply at him while Gleam laughed.  "'Him,' actually, and of course I did; do you think I'd leave that part out?  He knows where we're going, and he still volunteered."  She leaned in close.  "Perhaps he hopes to impress some forlorn captive, hmmm?"

        Autumn shook his head.  "He would be disappointed, I think; she has a lifemate."

        "Oh, well, he'll find that out soon enough, I suppose."  She cocked her head Autumn's way.  "Incidentally, do you know how many of them are looking forward to meeting you and seeing you in action?  You should get out more; make more friends."

        "Shall we get going?"  Dew interrupted.  "We don't have a lot of time, remember?"  She opened the door to the privacy room, and found it was empty.  "Where is everypony?"

        "Packing, and getting dressed," Gleam answered simply.  "Should be here any minute now."

        Dew sighed; so much for getting out in a hurry.  Still, with fifteen volunteers, that brought their total up to eighteen for this highly dangerous and possibly suicidal mission.  Better odds, she hoped, but whatever Autumn's plan was, it had better be a good one.

        They waited in the privacy room for the others to arrive, which, one by one, they did.  Seeing them made Dew feel a little foolish for not thinking to grab her saddlebags or camouflage, but she wouldn't have the time now.  She looked over at Autumn, and remembered that he had been filling his pockets.  "Autumn, where are your saddlebags?  Didn't you just come from the field?"

        "They were left behind.  I will explain once everypony is here."

        Dew settled down, waiting for the others.  As they arrived, almost all of the ponies went over to Autumn, trying to talk to him.  He gave them all the same answer: wait until the others are here.  He stood over by the corner, she noted.  Even after reminding him that there were only friends here, he still was keeping himself distant.  She sighed inwardly; old habits, she supposed.

        Finally, when the last pony arrived, Autumn detached himself from the shadows and gathered them all up in the middle of the room.  "I..." he began, "I want to thank you all for doing this.  You are no doubt aware that this is going to be a difficult mission, and you risk a lot by coming here, so... thank you."

        "Don't mention it," said one of the earth ponies.

        "Yeah," one unicorn added, "We're all here to help keep Equestria safe; this is what we do."  There were assorted murmurs of approval at that, and Autumn gave a small smile.

        "Never-the-less," he continued, regaining his composure, "this is a dangerous mission.  The first thing we must do is get out of Canterlot before Golden Lock can stop us."  He pulled out a map and pointed to a location on it.  "This spot is safe, and a good distance away from the mines.  With the Shamans there, we cannot get too close, so this is our safest entry point via teleportation.  We have ten unicorns here; will you be able to make it this distance with all of us?"

        The unicorns checked the map while quietly discussing the situation; Gleam spoke for them.  "Not in one go.  We can get close; probably within twenty miles or so."  She indicated the proposed area on the map.  "We would need a moment to rest before the final push, of course, but we should be able to get there in an hour or so."

        Autumn looked at the area Gleam had indicated; it was inside the Everfree forest.  "Hmmm... I do not like the idea of sitting exposed in the forest."  He pointed at another location, closer to Ponyville.  "What about here?  If we arrive here, would you still be able to get us to the safe zone in one jump?"

        Gleam looked it over.  "Sure, but that's still in the forest.  What's different about there?"

        "A friendly face," answered Autumn.  He looked up at the assembled ponies.  "Well, then.  We will make the first jump as soon as the unicorns are ready, hopefully soon."  He emphasized the last word with a pointed look at the unicorns, who immediately began mixing their powers and preparing the teleport spell.  "At the halfway point, be polite; Zecora is a friend of Equestria, but it is unlikely she will be too happy about a group of eighteen ponies dropping in unannounced.  Do not take advantage of her hospitality.  If she offers, accept food or drink graciously, but ask for nothing.

        "Secondly, we shall discuss the plan at the safe point; do not bother asking for it sooner."  He looked over at the unicorns; the spell was beginning to take shape.  "Any questions before we leave?"

        "Yeah," one earth pony piped up.  "How did you make it back in two days?"

        Autumn looked to the floor.  "I... got lucky.  I enlisted the aid of two pegasi who happened to be in the area.  I asked them for speed, and they dropped me off outside the city."

        "Why didn't you just tell the Vice-Commissar that?" the pony asked again.

        Autumn gave a nervous chuckle as the spell enveloped the group.  "A-heh.  Well—"

        There was a loud slam.  Standing in the now-open doorway was Silent Scroll, a member of the

council, flanked by two pegasus guards.  "What do you think"

        And then they were gone.

*          *          *

        "I should have expected this," Autumn was saying.  They had arrived in the Everfree, off-course and spread out.  A few ponies were still missing after all those who landed nearby had gathered.  Nopony could be blamed for that, of course; blind teleportation has always been a tricky thing, even dangerous if not prepared for.  The fact that the group had ended up only a little scattered was a good deal, considering the distraction that Silent Scroll had provided when he burst into the room.  Right now, however, getting their bearings was a secondary concern.  Dew was organizing search parties while listening with half an ear to Autumn.

        "Can he track where we went?" he asked Gleam.

        "Sure, it's possible.  Would take a bit of time, though."

        "Is it possible to hide our trail, or to create a false one?"

        "On this end?"  Gleam considered for a moment.  "Not to create a false trail, but it could be possible to disguise or destination.  It wouldn't cover the whole trail, mind you; he would still be able to figure out our general direction."

        "How soon can you have it done?"

        She cocked her head to one side.  "A few minutes at most, but doing it is draining.  We'd have to take more time to recover; we might not get out of these woods tonight."

        "Better to be delayed than stopped.  Please have it done."

        Gleam sighed and nodded.  As she turned to the rest of the unicorns, one of them spoke up.  "What's the point, though?  It doesn't take a genius to figure out where we're going.  Even if we hide here, he'll just cut us off at the mines."

        Dew looked over at this outspoken unicorn.  A mare, pale plum coat, happy pink-and-blue striped mane, and a quill-and-star cutie mark.  She knew the unicorn's question had merit, but it seemed to her to be very close to giving up.  They had barely started, and this mare was thinking of running away already?  She fought the feeling down; it was plain that the council knew of their group, and it would be a safe bet that they would tell Golden Lock.  The Vice-Commissar was a dangerous pony, and not just because he was a powerful unicorn; he could kick them all out of the Secret Service.  The fact that he knew that ponies had left against his orders had only increased the danger of this mission; this was no time to be infighting.

        "I am aware," answered Autumn, "but if we make it to the mines before he catches us, he will see the danger for himself.  If that happens, then he will have no choice but to support us.  If he stops us before then... well, I don't think we could talk our way out of that."

        The unicorn paused, then turned back to the rest of the group.  But then, Dew thought as she watched the unicorns preparing their magic, the danger of Golden Lock finding us has always been there.  Why did she join us if she was afraid of that?  Again, she pushed the thought aside.  She's here, and she's here to help; let it go.

        "Did you plan for this?" Dew asked as she came up beside Autumn.  "Not the scattering of the team, but the idea of Lock following us to the mines?"

        "I admit, it was a thought I had entertained when I thought I was going alone.  Seemed dangerous then, and more so now."  He looked to the canopy.  "I honestly hope we can make it to the mines; it is getting to be a challenge doing just that."        

        Dew followed his gaze.  It was midday, but on the forest floor it seemed like twilight.  The treetops swayed in the wind, letting small slivers of sunlight twinkle and dance in the gloom.  She had never liked the forest; everything always had an unnatural feel to it.  She shivered.  "I don't like this place.  Where's your friend?"

        "Hard to say.  She lives somewhere near here, but we arrived in a bit of a mess.  I fear I have not taken the time to scout the area."  He paused.  "We do have ponies scouting out right now, yes?  We need to make sure we all made it."

        She smiled.  "Yes, I took care of that while you were talking to the unicorns.  We had three ponies who never turned up, all earth ponies.  The two remaining earth ponies are searching together, while our young pegasus is looking best he can from the air.  They will meet back here in a few minutes.  Our unicorns, as you know, are all working on hiding our trail."

        He nodded, and they waited in silence.  Waiting had always been the hardest part for Dew.  She knew better than to confuse 'motion' with 'progress,' but sitting still always made her feel as though something wasn't being accomplished.  When the unicorns came over and informed Autumn that the trail was obscured, he thanked them and bid them to wait and rest.  Though he hid it well, Dew had known him long enough to see that he was worried.  She wanted to comfort him, but knew that he would only turn her away; a lifetime of keeping secrets and hiding from everypony cuts deep into a pony's habits.  Instead, she just sat beside him and waited.

        There was a crashing noise above them as a mint green pegasus tumbled through the canopy.  He hit the ground awkwardly and stumbled, flaring his wings to keep balance.  After his ungraceful landing, he ran over to Autumn.

        "It's a mess out there!  The trees are too thick to see through and I swear the birds thought I was after their eggs or something.  One of them snuck up on me; almost got my eye."

        Dew chuckled.  "You are probably the only pegasus who almost got shown up by a bird."

        "Hey," he responded defensively, "the birds are wild out here.  I can't help it if they've never seen pegasi before."

        "Did you make note of any landmarks?" Autumn asked quietly.

        Camlock paused.  "Yeah, um... there's a clearing to the north, maybe two klicks out; looks to be a swamp.  Small village to the east, about a klick out.  South by south-east there's a really tall mountain, lots of klicks out; hard to tell at this distance.  The forest just continues to the west; can't make much out that far."

        Autumn closed his eyes while he considered the information.  A cry came from the woods, and all heads turned.

        "I heard you los' something!"

        Coming towards the gathered group were four earth ponies.  Dew recognized the two in front as Forte and Last Leaf, the ponies she had sent off in search of the others.  The two behind them, then, had to be two of the lost ponies; one was still missing.

        The four walked up to Autumn.  Forte, a charcoal-coloured stallion with a crossed-lances cutie mark, spoke.  "Foun' these two wanderin' a ways off.  Well, foun' one, and th' other foun' us.  Either way, figured we ought get 'em back here afore tryin' to delve deeper into the forest; they needed ta know where we are."

        Autumn nodded, but said nothing.  He looked around the forest, lost in his own thoughts.  "So... I guess we'll be off, then," Forte said.  "Still got one more pony to find."

        "Do you know the missing pony?" Autumn asked, still looking away.

        "Eh?"  The charcoal pony stopped a moment.  "Oh, yes; she'd be Maple Song.  Cute little filly; got a coat like rubies, and her mane is cream white, so she ought be easy to spot."

        There was a rustling noise, and a growl emanated from somewhere in the forest.  Autumn turned to the ponies.  "We cannot stay here; the forest does not like intruders.  We must try to make it to Zecora's.  Do not hide your tracks; let it be a simple matter for Maple Song to find us; easier for one to find seventeen than elsewise."

        "Such wise words, and true indeed; you would do well to pay them heed."

        Everyone looked over to the source of the strange rhyme, and there they found a zebra.  Beside her, there was an earth pony with an embarrassed smile.  "Hi," Maple Song said.  "I'm back."

        Autumn got up and bowed his head.  "Good to have your safe return.  Zecora; I am glad to see you here."

        "And I am surprized to find you back among these trees; what brings you and your friends this deep into the Everfree?"

        "An adventure," he replied.  "Forgive us for intruding, but we need a place to rest before the unicorns can teleport us out.  I know your hut is a safe haven in these woods, and so..."

        Zecora smiled.  "Of course you may, Autumn, my friend; a helping hoof I will gladly lend."

        He bowed again.  "My thanks, Zecora; we are in your debt."

        "Speak not to me of debts, Autumn; I tell you again, you do not owe one."  With that, she turned, and began walking back into the woods.  After a moment, the rest of the ponies followed.

        "This your friend, then?"  Dew asked, coming up beside Autumn.

        "She is."

        She looked the zebra up and down.  "Exotic," she said dryly.  "How did you meet her?"

        "Like you, she saved my life.  I... have not yet repaid the favour."

        So that's how it is, she thought, watching the group follow after the strange-looking pony.  Autumn never had made friends easily, but when it came to a life, well... that was a debt he would never let go of.

*          *          *

        The second jump brought them out in the open plains, out North-Northwest of the Morlan Mines.  Here they set up a temporary camp in the tall grass, hidden from the casual eye.  Zecora had been kind to them, taking them all back to her hut and giving them some food for the trip.  She had even supplied the unicorns with a draught that helped them recover their magic more quickly.  Autumn insisted that he pay for her aid, but Zecora would not hear of it.  In the end, Autumn had discreetly left some bits in a pot by the door.

        Autumn wandered the camp, helping where he could and answering some questions, getting to know some of the ponies who signed up for this mission.  Most of the ponies were asking about the plan, but Autumn would tell them to wait until after the hard work was done.  Dew watched him move; she could tell something was bothering him, even as he hid it from everypony else.  She hoped it was just mission stress.

        Half an hour later, eight ponies were gathered in the command tent, while the others saw to the smooth running of the camp.  Big as it was, it had been disguised well, looking like nothing more than just another patch of grass in this sea of green, and with the night falling, there was little chance that anything seeing it would think twice.  Its utility was still limited, however; once they entered the barren flatland, even the smaller tents would be easily spotted.

        Autumn led the meeting, while Dew, Gleam, and five other ponies listened intently.  Dew knew most of the ponies present, at least by reputation.  Forte was a good, strong earth pony, talented in the art of combat.  Of all the ponies here, he had probably seen the most dangerous missions, and seen them through to completion.  When the going got tough, Forte was the pony to handle it.

        Maple Song was a small mare, and her cutie mark, three maple trees with leaves swirling around them, belied her talent of tracking.  There were few who could read the subtleties of a trail as well as she could; she would say the forest sings to her.

        The other three were unicorns, and while Dew didn't know a lot about them, they all bore the star in their cutie mark which told of some type of magical talent.  Constellation, she knew, had been all over Equestria, and her service record was phenomenal.  She had never managed to push the ranks very well, but she never seemed bothered by that, either.  Dew had heard that she liked where she was, and had no intention of trying to make a fuss about it.  The other two were newer to the Service, or Dew had not yet come across them.

        "Fillies and Gentlecolts," Autumn began, drawing Dew's attention back to the matters at hoof, "I know I have no authority to command you, so I thank you for accepting my lead.  What we are about to do will not be easy.  I welcome input from you all once you have heard my plan."  He nodded to Dew, who placed the map in front of him.  "As I have said, we spotted three Shamans in the mines.  We are here."  He pointed with his hoof.  "I believe this is the maximum distance where I believe we can use magic safely.  After we leave here, the going will get tough.  We must move carefully to avoid patrols, so I do not expect to make it to the mines before nightfall tomorrow."

        "A full day's march?" asked one unicorn.  Dew noted that she was the same plum unicorn from earlier.  "Shamans can't detect our magic anywhere near that distance."

        "A necessary precaution, Celina," answered Autumn.  "A single Shaman may not be able to detect you, but three together?  We have no idea what they may be capable of."

        "But didn't you get much closer with magic the last time?  If they could have detected you at that distance, don't you think they would have?"

        "Last time they had no idea we were coming," Autumn replied.  "However, we were discovered, and Sly was found.  With this in mind, it is safe to assume that they may be expecting more forces.  Under such conditions, they may be keeping a more vigilant watch on the surrounding area."  Celina was about to speak up, but Autumn didn't give her the chance.  "I do not like the idea any more than you do, Celina; every day delayed is a day the dogs gather strength, but if we move too quickly and attract notice..."  He let the rest hang there, unspoken.  Celina didn't say a word.

        He turned back to the rest of the gathered ponies.   "Once we have arrived, we will check the mineshaft my team used before; if it is still open and unguarded, that is our way in.  If not, we will scout the area and find an entrance.  We will then break up into smaller teams and make our way inside.  Most teams will be tasked with monitoring and intelligence gathering; those teams will need to keep everyone appraised of dog movements.  I will-"

        "How can you expect us to do that?" Celina interrupted.  "You're playing it overly cautious, and for that I know that you won't let us use magical communication.  How are we supposed to 'keep everyone appraised'?"

 

        He looked her squarely in the eye.  "I would ask you to create a new code, one that uses only small, short bursts of magic to-"

        "How can you expect that to work?" shouted Celina.  "No message can be sent over a small burst of magic; you can't even send anything comprehensible!"

        "Then perhaps you could learn a system that uses letters instead of words," Dew said suddenly; she was growing tired of this unicorn's bickering.  "Is that too hard to do?"

        "Oh, for the love of-"  Celina turned to face her.  "You have no idea how magical communication works, do you?  Well, we don't send words, or even letters for that matter."

        "Uh," one of the other unicorns hesitantly volunteered.  "Celina?"

        "It's a sending of emotions; of feelings and concepts."  Celina paid the other unicorn no mind, continuing on her rant against Dew.  "A bunch of little things that add up into a bigger picture."

        "Celina?" the other unicorn ventured again.

        "And unlike words," she continued, "you can't just break it all down into individual pieces; the whole thing would just fall apart if you tried."

        "Celiiiiiiiiiina!"

        "And furthermore... WHAT?"

        The unicorn's tone suggested he was stating the obvious.  "We can do it.  Not sending letters, exactly, but we can work of tiny impulses of magic.  It would just..."  He shrugged.  "...you know, be limited, and it'd take some time learning it, really."

        Celina was looking daggers at him while Autumn spoke.  "Good.  Please put it together, and familiarize yourselves with it during the march."  He turned back to rest of the ponies.  "While most teams will be gathering intelligence, I will lead the team to go rescue the captive pegasus.  Once she is free and out of the mines, we will regroup and make our way back to Canterlot."

        There was a pause.  "Wait, wait."  Celina again.  "That's it?  Just rescue the pegasus and and go home?  What about the dogs?  What about this threat to Equestria?"  She looked around.  "I mean, I'm all for charity cases, but isn't there something a bit more important going on?"

        "If this plan works," Autumn answered, "then the dogs will disperse."

        A murmur ran through the assembled ponies before Celina spoke up again.  "What do you mean by that?  Rescue the pegasus and the dogs leave?"

        He was quiet a moment, and Dew could see he was gathering his thoughts.  The rest of the ponies looked on anxiously.  Finally, "As I told the Vice-Commissar, I believe the dogs are trying to make an alacorn, though for what purpose I cannot say.  I believe that the Shamans are working together for this common goal.  If we remove the objective, then they will revert to infighting, and ultimately tear themselves apart and disperse."

        "But," said Celina, "an alacorn is not made by simply pairing a pegasus and a unicorn; their plan can't work."

        "What matters," stressed Autumn, "is not if their plan is feasible; what matters is that they think it is.  So long as they think they have chance at this, they will continue to work together and continue to gather support.  This must be stopped."

        "If that's the case, then couldn't we just wait for events to unfold?  When the foal is born, they will see it isn't an alacorn and then disperse themselves, won't they?"

        A heavy silence settled on the assembly.  Dew took the moment to confirm that she really didn't like this pony, and decided that she was likely going to be a problem; she would have keep a close eye on her.  Autumn exhaled slowly, and the assembly waited with bated breath for his response.  "That," he said coldly, "is a possibility.  However, it is important to remember that the Shamans are casting some kind of spell over the food they are giving their captive.  Even if what they are doing proves fruitless, imagine what might happen if the foal is born with even the appearance of an alacorn.  Even if it is a failure, it could encourage the dogs to try again, and again, and again, until they get a success."  He stepped closer to Celina.  "That aside, would you honestly condemn an Equestrian pony to the cells of a diamond dog mine?  Would you really risk more ending up beside her?"

        Celina looked around her nervously; Dew noted the look of fear in her orange eyes.  "I... I... of course not, I just... I'm just trying to understand the whole plan, is all."  She paused a moment.  "What... what will you do if it doesn't work?"

        Autumn responded with silence.  He turned his back on the assembly and walked to the flap covering the opening of the tent.  "It would have to," he finally said.  "Shamans are violently territorial by nature, so if we remove the one thing that holds them together, then how can they not start infighting?  However, should they not, then I would hope that the testimony from the ponies here would convince our leaders that this threat is real.  After that, I suppose it would be on their backs."  He turned back to the assembly.  "We would need one of the teams to stay behind in the mines; a team of watchers, to report if the dogs do disperse or not.  I should not have to tell anypony here that it will likely be the most dangerous part of this mission, but perhaps the most important."

        The tent remained silent while the ponies digested this.  With no further questions, they divided the eighteen ponies into the teams they would be using in the mines.  Afterwards, Autumn dismissed the assembly, reminding them that Golden Lock would likely be out there, and that they must try to avoid him until the mines themselves.  They left with instructions to tell the others the plan.  Dew watched them all go, then noticed Autumn was gone.  She went looking for him, and found him on the outskirts of the camp, watching the sun set while the grass bent to the wind.  "I'm not sure I trust Celina."

        "Why not?" asked Autumn.

        "Just a feeling, really; like she's trying to give up, like she doesn't believe we have a chance.  I'm worried that she won't co-operate with the mission."

        He looked over and smiled.  "Everypony here volunteered to come, remember?  She is here to help; she chose to be here for that."  He turned back to the setting sun.  "Every one of us is risking a lot out here, and we don't even know for certain if my plan will work.  If this should fail, then there will be nothing at all to show for it, not even commendations of service.  We are all here without orders, and the Vice-Commissar may even say against them.  If he catches us, who knows what he will do."  He sighed.  The sun kissed the horizon, and the red sky was slowly darkening.  "The odds are against us, Dew; Celina probably sees that.  She is worried, and understandably so.  Give her a chance."

        Dew thought about that.  It was true, the plan did have a ring of desperation; too little intel, too much theory.  It had been three days since Autumn and his team had last seen the mines, and a lot could happen in that time.  She trusted the plan, though; it made sense, in that sick, perverted kind of way that she figured the dogs thought in.  "Maybe you're right," she said; Autumn didn't answer.

        As the last tip of the sun vanished, she sat down quietly next to him, and together they watched the stars come out.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Clear Skies was bleeding.  The night before, she had taken one of the pills to fight magical ailments, and had awoken in the darkness to her unborn thrashing violently in her belly.  Painfully, she had clutched her stomach and sung sweet songs to her foal through her tears, but the kicking never stopped.  Lying in the black of her cell, she couldn't help but wonder if this was her fault.

        Eventually, one of the dogs had come by to change the torch.  When he saw the condition she was in, he dropped the torch and ran off.  The torch sputtered on the floor, struggling to stay lit.  She lay there in the dim light, crying, singing lullabies, and whispering apologies until the dog returned with the Shaman.

        The Shaman immediately opened the cell and came over, waving his staff over her, eyes closed and whispering a chant.  A light blue spiralled horn, newly hanging from his staff by a thin sliver of leather, drew small circles over her head.  When he opened his eyes he saw her belly bucking to the foal's kicks.  He turned to the other dog and yelled something in that rough language of theirs, and it dropped to all fours and sprinted off.  The Shaman knelt beside her and stroked her belly; it took Clear Skies completely off guard.  His eyes had a look of concern in them, and his touch was almost affectionate.  He stayed there until the other dog returned with a plate of food.

        The Shaman took his staff and waved it over the plate, muttering something under his breath.  He pushed the plate towards her.  "Eat.  Make feel better."  She pulled herself to the plate and ate everything on it.  The whole while, the Shaman watched her.  He stayed with her after she had finished, watching her carefully.  Over the course of what felt like hours, her foal slowly calmed down.  She was still moving, but it was quieter now; just a gentle twitching of a fitful sleep.

        The Shaman didn't leave until he was sure that the foal was calmed.  "What you do?  Why this happen?" he had asked, but when she didn't answer he had left, giving some instructions to the dog still standing outside her cell.  Her foal had never stopped moving since.  She had dumped the rest of the pills the first chance she had, but even so, she was still afraid of what the dogs were doing to her food.  They had taken to coming by every few minutes to check on her, so she had to carefully hide the rations she was eating and the dumping of her meals they brought, even as she took to drinking the water they provided.

        The pain in her belly was sharp, but she hadn't ever considered the full extent of what it could mean until she felt the blood running down her legs.  She didn't know how bad it was, but she knew that her foal must have done some damage while she thrashed.  There wasn't a lot of blood, so she guessed that it wasn't serious, but it still worried her.  What would the Shaman do when he found out?  There was no doubt that he would; she had no way to wash herself, so it was only a matter of time.

        She lay down to sleep as a dog wandered by her cell, looking in curiously.  She could still feel her foal moving, and she hoped that sleep would come easy.  She watched the torch burning on the wall, and silently prayed that help would come soon.

つづ

To Be Continued...


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Chapter Three

"Secret Service ponies are chosen for their skills as much as their talents.  It is widely known that a pony has a talent that defines them, but all ponies can learn a variety of skills that have nothing to do with their special talent.  While they will never be as good at these skills as ponies who have them as talents, it presents a great opportunity to widen one's horizons.  It is unfortunate that most ponies focus on skills relevant only to their talent, as doing so creates a hampered society where ponies can only do a single thing."

~Excerpt from the Guiding Manual of the Secret Service

        Dawn found the party on the move.  The ponies made their way across the plain, dressed in their camouflage even this far away from their destination.  Only three, Autumn, Dew, and Gleam, wore none.  Both Dew and Gleam wore blankets to hide their colours, while Autumn...

        Celina glared at the back of the cloaked pony leading the group, mentally wishing some unnamed catastrophe on him.  She couldn't do anything, of course; the unicorns were practicing the new code, and she was expected to be there, learning alongside them.  She found it maddening; there were better things she could be doing, things she had to do.

        The unicorns were all around her, sending tiny whispers and trying to unravel the secrets.  It would be impossible to send a message to the Cause without any of them noticing.  And what if Autumn was right?  If the Shamans could detect strong magic at this range, sending anything could result in the death of everypony here.  She wanted to stop this expedition, not kill everypony involved.

        Maddening.

        She had tried previous night.  After the plan was revealed, she had wandered some distance from the camp; the tall grass had been easy to hide in.  Even with the all the ponies nearby, she had felt safe in the night, looking up to Luna's sky.  Perhaps, in truth, not even Luna could claim this sky as her own, but Celina liked to think of it that way.  With the stars twinkling against the black, and the moon shining brighter than ever without the Mare darkening its face, she could feel that even the sky belonged to them.

        To ponies.

        The thought gave her solace as she looked away from the night sky.  She had no idea where the Cause's agents would be at that time; presumably they'd be searching for them.  The best hope she had was to send a message back to the palace where they would eventually return.  Sighing, she put together a letter telling where they were, and gave them suggestions for a perfect surprize attack at dawn.

        Then Autumn had woken everyone before daybreak, and they had been on the move at least an hour before sunup.  Even before then, when she had tried to dismantle his plans, she had been met with solid answers; answers she couldn't fight without giving herself away.  Sun and Stars, does that pony have an answer for everything?

        For now, she could hope.  They had left the verdant green behind, and were now in barren land.  The ground was dry and cracked, and the only vegetation that grew here were spindly trees and brown shrubs.  The sky was free from clouds, and the relentless heat was playing on all of them.  The whole group was exposed out here, and perhaps the Cause would be able to find their trail and catch them out here.  Perhaps, if the earth ponies would stop hiding their tracks.

        Hope, she thought.  That's all I have.  Maybe I'm not cut out for subterfuge like this.

        "Celina?" asked one of the unicorns, bringing her attention back to the present.  "Are you feeling all right?  You're kinda spacing out on us."

        She forced a smile.  "Oh, right, right... I'm sorry; just tired, I suppose.  Stayed up a little late, I guess."  She gave a fake yawn.  "I'll be fine; don't worry about me."

        The unicorn smiled.  "Yeah, I don't think any of us were prepared for that awakening.  I tell you, I was having the nicest dream right before he interrupted it.  Can't really remember what it was about, but I do remember I had such a happy feeling while I was in it."  He pursed his lips in a thoughtful expression.  "I think there were some balloons involved."

        She couldn't help but chuckle at that.  Balloons were such a foalish thing, and here was this full-grown unicorn having such a happy dream, and the only thing he could remember about it was balloons.  It was absurd!  It was... kind of cute, really, she admitted to herself.  In that pinch-his-cheeks kind of way.  "Well, I'm sure that we could find some real balloons after the mission," she teased.  "You know, if you want to."

        He laughed.  "You'd do that for me?  Why, it's a date, then."  He smiled and winked at her.

        Celina hadn't expected that, that was for sure.  Had she really just asked this stallion on a date with balloons?  She opened her mouth to respond, but no words came out.  Before the situation could get really embarrassing, Gleam stepped in.

        "As good as it is to know that you now have activities planned for later, we really need to focus on the task in front of us.  Celina, what does this mean?"  She accompanied her question with a tiny flare of magic, almost undetectable; her horn didn't even glow when she cast it.  As the nature of the training, the signal had been sent to all the unicorns present; it was just her turn to answer it's meaning.

        She rolled the signal in her head for a moment.  Learning new code was always hard; like learning a new language, but this one was especially difficult.  Not wanting to be discovered, the code developed was using power well under the known level that a Shaman could detect, and on a scale this small, only a slight breath of magic could be used.  To say that it was a daunting challenge was not giving it enough credit.  They were working on deciphering the colours of the magic, the slight accents and inflections, and the sharpness of the spell.  Each unicorn had even added their own signature to the code, so that the others would know who  had sent it and which team it had come from.  "Caution; Increased patrols," she finally said.

        Gleam turned to the rest of the unicorns.  "Anypony have a different take?"  The rest of them shook their heads 'no.'  Gleam nodded.  "Good.  Celina, your turn.  Send us a message."

        Celina thought for a moment, then cast her spell.  She wasn't quite as quiet at Gleam had been, but in the daylight nopony would notice the glow of her horn.  She looked to the unicorn beside her.  "All right, Balloons: what was that one?"

        The unicorn raised an eyebrow.  "Is that the game now?  So, what am I supposed to make of this 'All Clear' signal?"

        'All Clear'?  Is that what I sent?  "Anypony else?" she asked the rest, hoping that one of them would speak up.

        One did.  "Um, I think it's 'Captive Missing.'  Am I wrong?"  There were a few murmurs in the group.  Gleam looked pointedly at Celina and raised an eyebrow.

        "Uh... I was trying to send 'Danger: Contact made,'" she said sheepishly.

        Gleam shook her head.  "You need to spend more time on your notes, I think, and less time on your after-school plans.  As for you," she said, turning to the other pony, "I think you mixed her signature in with the message.  Try to avoid that."

        Celina sighed and pulled out her diagrams.  The parchment was a complex scribbling of magical notations, each describing a certain accent, colour, shape, or edge of a spell, and its corresponding meaning.  She looked and, indeed, she had sent the 'All Clear' sign.  Damn; she was usually very good at this kind of thing.

        Balloons sidled up beside her with a pitiful expression.  "You wound me," was all he said.  She didn't answer.  If they did end up entering the mines, she was going to have to know this code inside and out.  She stared at her notes and rolled the spells around in her head, familiarizing herself with them all.

        "Autumn!  There's a pony over there!"  Dew's sudden cry grabbed her attention, and she followed the cry to the head of the group, where Dew and Autumn had started running out ahead of everypony.  Looking forward, she saw a pony stumbling toward them.  At this distance it was hard to make out, but it looked like it was an earth pony; it's coat certainly blended a bit with the dead plains.  However, given it's apparent state of health, it was unlikely to be one of the Cause.

        Still, she thought, Autumn will probably call us to a stop while we care for this vagabond.  Perhaps I can make good use of that time...

~ * ~      ~ * ~     ~ * ~

        Spotter awoke in shade.  As his eyes began to focus, he saw that there had been a blanket pulled above him, suspended in the air by some sticks; there was also a canteen lying next to him.  At the sight of it, his dry throat was suddenly quite apparent.  "You're awake; good," a voice said as he reached for the canteen.  He rolled over to see a deep blue pegasus standing up to leave, a brown blanket wrapped around her shoulders.  "Wait here a moment," she said.

        So he waited, pulling himself into a sitting position and drinking the water.  Somepony had also left some rations with him, and so he ate those as well.  He was feeling his strength slowly return when the pegasus arrived with Autumn.  "Autumn!  You're alive!"

        "Yes, you mentioned that just before you collapsed."

        "Yes, well, it's good to see it wasn't a hallucination; it's been a rough few days."

        "I can believe that," Autumn said as he sat down.  "You were barely keeping your hooves under yourself when you found us.   What happened out there?"

        "Oh, this?"  He gave a dry chuckle.  "This is nothing; just a little bit of hunger and dehydration, is all.  I was trapped in the mines a few days and my rations ran out.  There is no water in this barren place, and eating the shrubs just dries you out faster."

        "I had hoped you escaped the mines; I was not able to find you before I left."

        Spotter couldn't help but laugh.  "Maybe it was easy for you, but us regular ponies can't turn invisible at will.  After Sly's spell got the attention of the Shamans, they increased security patrols and damn near locked the place up tight.  It was practically a miracle that I got out at all."

        "What happened in the mines?  I know the Shamans sent dogs after Sly, but..."

        "'Sent dogs'?  Sent the whole mountain, looked like.  The Shamans themselves stayed behind, though.  Two of them started casting some spell that looked like swirls of blue and green.  I don't know what it did, but they were quite intent on it.  I don't know exactly what the third did; I didn't stick around that long.  After that..."  Spotter shrugged.  "I went deeper, I guess; took me a bit to get my bearings after the stampede.  I spent a lot of time in the belly of the mines, trying to avoid getting caught.  By the way, I want to thank you for the pointers you gave me on hiding; I doubt that I would have made it without those."

        "You give yourself too little credit; you were well trained before my advice.  Please, continue."

        He took another swallow of water.  "As I said, the dogs increased their security.  The deeper I went, the less they patrolled, but to get out I almost had to swim through Guards.  It was tough, and by the time I had found our exit, the dogs had, too.  Our entrance shaft now has guards on the inside; I think they are hoping to surprize the next pony who tries to drop in."

        Autumn seemed troubled at that.  The slight narrowing of his eyes, the faint twitch of his jaw; that was all that Spotter needed.  "You... you're planning on going back there right now, aren't you?"  He looked around; he could see a few ponies drifting about in the sun, some standing watch, some resting under whatever shade they could make.  It was a small force; he could make out ten different ponies.  "Autumn... please tell me that you brought more than this."

        Autumn followed his gaze.  "There are a few more; the outrunners are keeping an eye out for any patrols, though we do not expect to find any this far out.  We-"

        Spotter leapt to his hooves.   "Don't joke with me, Autumn!  You know how many dogs there were before; that number has grown!  Packs have been arriving every day, some as large as a hundred!  And this... this is what you bring?"

        "Hey, hey... calm down," the pegasus chimed in.  "Autumn knows what he's doing, and he has a good plan.  This will work, I'm sure of it."

        Spotter looked her over; deep blue coat, blue-white mane, falling-raindrops cutie mark.  "You're... Dew, aren't you?"

        "Yep," she said, straightening up.

        "I know of you; you're Autumn's friend.  Forgive me, but I'm not sure if you are in the best position to judge his plan."

        Dew bristled, but her response was cut off by Autumn; "Peace, Dew; perhaps Spotter has a point.  I think it would be best to let him know the plan himself.  Are you interested?"

        He sat back down.  He was, admittedly, curious to know why Autumn had brought so little help.  "Very.  Please, tell me."

        Autumn laid out the plan as Spotter listened, quietly processing the information.  He found himself unsurprised that Golden Lock refused to believe the report Autumn had given—it was, after all, a very unbelievable circumstance—but still found his inaction inexcusable.  Because of him, it was only this small band of ponies trying to bring down a mountain.  Autumn's plan was simple, but that was hardly a mark against it; it was the complex plans that usually got bogged down in details gone awry.  Once the whole thing was before him, he couldn't help a wry smile; what the Shamans were trying was incredulous.  An alacorn, he thought.  They are trying to breed an alacorn.  In all his wildest imaginings, he never would have even considered that.

        He worked over the plan from a thousand different angles.  He had to admit it had merit; he had seen the chasm between the Shamans, and knew it was a weakness waiting to be exploited.  It was, however, desperate and optimistic.  He had no idea exactly how much power the Grand Shaman held over the other two.  If that Shaman can hold them together after this...

        Autumn took his silence as a need to justify himself.  "We cannot just wait for her to foal; the Shamans-"

        "I know, Autumn.  Even if the foal only has the appearance of an alacorn, it could prove disastrous."  He pawed at the earth, and looked at the small gathering surrounding him.  "But what will you do if they just find another pony and keep trying?  You cannot expect to just keep rescuing them."

        "Testimony," he replied.  "If Golden Lock and the council hear from all these ponies, I would hope that"

        "Hope doesn't win this," Spotter interrupted, looking him squarely in the eye.  "This... this is insane; you recognize the weak spot in this whole thing, but fail to see how superficial it is.  Oh, it's your plan, alright.  Get in, get out, and never be seen; always hiding, never taking direct action."  He shook his head.  "It's a wonder you got out here in the first place."

        "Hey!"  Dew came to her hooves.  "You can't talk to him like that!  He's the reason everyone is here right now trying to help.  He brought them all out here, and he is the reason these dogs are being dealt with."

        Spotter regarded her curiously.  "So it was you, then."  She paused, blinking.  "You brought him out here.  You have my thanks for that, and possibly all of Equestria will owe you as well."  He turned back to Autumn.  "You want this to end?  Once the pegasus is free, we assassinate the Grand Shaman.  That dog gathered them in the first place, and he will be what keeps the others in line after her rescue.  Once we're all in the mines, it's the perfect opportunity.  Do you really think we have the time to wait for the council to come around?"

        Autumn remained silent for several moments, while Dew looked back and forth between them.  She was clearly torn; she believed in her friend, but saw Spotter's words for the truth they carried.  Perhaps, Spotter considered, she dislikes the idea of killing as much as Autumn does.  Such a strange place for these two to end up.

        Autumn finally broke the silence.  "Who... who would do this?"

        Spotter shrugged.  "I could, if others aren't willing to be up to the task."  He saw the eyes behind Autumn's mask had lost some of their shine, and their gaze never lifted from the ground.  He sighed.  "If it makes you feel better, I can wait a few days; if the gathering breaks up, then I won't kill him needlessly."

        Those red eyes regained some of their light.  "I..."  Autumn straightened and took a deep breath.  "It is a good plan," was all he said.

        Spotter nodded.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        "Hey."  The word woke Celina from her reverie.  "We're about to get moving again.  You should get ready."  She thanked the pony and he wandered off, leaving her with her thoughts.

        It had been hard deciding what to do.  She was sick of just having hope; she wanted action, but what to do?  Since word came down that nopony was allowed to stray from camp alone, she had been stuck surrounded by those who didn't understand.  All she could do was think, and she was tired of thinking.  Now, though, the ponies were packing up; they were too busy to notice her.  Now she could move.

        She stood and, moving purposefully, began to trace lines into the dusty soil.  The old code wasn't the best option, but it was the safest.  If she used her magic, she would easily be seen, and if the Shamans could detect her this far out...

        She shook the thought from her head; it wouldn't get her anywhere.  Hells, even this was a long shot.  Assuming that whatever ponies were searching for them came this way, and assuming that the winds didn't erase this message, and assuming that they even saw it at all, then it would point them in the correct direction, and would help them catch up before it was too late.  Autumn was right, after all; if this was seen publically, then there would be no choice but to help disperse the dogs.   That had to be prevented; an opportunity like this could not be wasted.  How long would it take for another like it to show up?  Years?  Decades?  Celina didn't want to think about it.

        She paused; she had dug the lines a little too deep.  While that would probably help it survive the winds, it did make it a little more conspicuous.  She looked over at the ponies running around, packing away the lean-tos and preparing for march.  None of them were looking in her direction; they probably wouldn't notice.  Casting a last glance over her shoulder, she joined the party again, clearing her hoofprints behind her.  Now the earth ponies wouldn't go over that area again; they would have no reason to.  They wouldn't see the message carved in the dirt.

        A few minutes later, when the march resumed, she noticed that the vagabond had joined in at the front.  For a moment she wondered who he was, but quickly she lost interest as she looked at the cloaked pony leading them all.  She felt a moment of pity for him.  In truth, she could not hate him at all; his intentions were noble, and she respected that.  He was just... misguided, is all.  Her task, however, was beyond something so frail as intentions.

        This was for the good of Equestria.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        They stood over the desecrated body of Sly, her broken form lying in a heap on the dusty plains.  Dew felt sick; the mare was barely recognizable.  The dogs had torn into her viciously; most of her blue coat was dyed brown with dried blood.  Long, deep cuts ran through most of her body, bearing the tell-tale marks of rough claws, but there were no flashes or burns of magic.  Her horn was missing, and the hide of her flank had been torn off.  Why this had been done, and why they had left the rest of her for the buzzards and scavengers, Dew could not even guess.

        Spotter had led them here.  He had stumbled upon her body shortly after escaping the mines, but had little time to do much but make note of where she lay.  Exactly why he had brought them here, Dew couldn't say; perhaps it was a sense of obligation to a fallen comrade, or as a reminder to everypony else of how high the stakes were in this game.  Maybe he just wanted everypony to see her, in the hopes that doing so might prevent others from sharing her fate.

        "How could this happen?" Autumn wondered aloud.  "She should have been able to get away."  He looked to the mountain; the sun was almost set, and they were only an hour's march away.  "She knew how to teleport; they never should have caught her."

        "I don't know," responded Spotter.  "The Shamans stayed in the pit the whole time, as far as I could see.  The only thing they did was that green swirly magic I told you about.  I wish I knew more."

        "We should..." Dew coughed.  "We should give her a burial, at least."

        Several ponies voiced their agreement, but Autumn remained silent.  After a while, he disagreed.  "The dogs are patrolling this area.  If we bury her, they will notice.  We need to remain unseen."

        "Autumn..."

        "No, Dew.  I do not like this any more than you, but we must remain unseen.  If we give the dogs reason to believe we are here, everything we have done will be for naught."  He looked at Sly's body, and, much more quietly, said, "We can give her the burial she deserves afterwards."

        "There won't be an afterwards.  Once we get out of the mines, we will be running away as fast as we can.  By the time we will be able to return, the scavengers will have picked her apart."  She gave him a pleading look.  "This is the only chance we have."

        "The time it would take"

        "We can build a cairn; it takes less time.  Please, it's the very least we can do."

        Autumn was silent again.  Spotter likewise said nothing, but watched with a look of mild interest.  When Autumn finally spoke again, his only reaction was a raised eyebrow.  "Very well.  Build a cairn, but dig a small pit for it as well; we don't need it standing tall and warning our enemies we are here.  Move quietly, and stay alert; nopony else needs to share her fate."

        Several of the gathered ponies eagerly volunteered, and Autumn even helped dig.  He and Spotter carried Sly's body to the cairn.  So it was that after nightfall, working slowly and under constant alert, they laid Sly to rest, her cairn half-buried in the dirt.  All ponies present gave a quick prayer before they resumed their march to the mines.

        It was a New Moon night, dark and heavy; the ponies were easily able to disappear into the night.  Dew was still worried.  True to Spotter's reports, the diamond dogs had increased their night patrols heavily.  Autumn suggested that this might be because the pegasus was so close to term, the dogs wanted no chance of this plan being interrupted; Dew and Spotter agreed that it sounded reasonable, but it still made their mission that much more dangerous.  Since the entrance shaft they had previously used was under guard, they had to try to find new ways to get in.  In the dark night, the ponies would watch the torches carried by the dog sentries to see what they did.  It was not easy work.

        "Those damn Watchdogs have no schedule!"  This was a common complaint from those watching the mines.  "It's maddening, it is!  One watch stays for an hour, the next for six.  How can we plan a good operation under a schedule like this?"

        "Improvise," was all Spotter would say.  He and Autumn were working to put together a map of the mine interior, drawing on every detail they could remember.  It wouldn't be a complete map, but it would help.  Dew, meanwhile, had been talking to the unicorns, trying to figure out what may have happened with Sly; it wasn't going very well.

        "It makes no sense, though," one pale brown unicorn was saying; he had been saying it rather often.  "If she could teleport, the only thing that could have made her not jump is if one of the Shamans blasted her before she could cast it!  I examined her body myself; there were no signs of magical trauma anywhere."

        "But the Shamans weren't there," she reminded him.  "There must be something that you're missing."  The whole conversation was made in whispers, and there was a sentry standing watch over them, keeping an eye out for any dog patrols.

        "Easy for you to say; you don't know what magic is or how it works.  I grew up with this; I know what can be done."

        "In that case," Dew said in a dangerously level voice, "educate me.  Tell me everything you know about the magic of the diamond dog Shamans."

        That brought the unicorn up short.  Dew was well aware of the basics on how magic worked; the Secret Service had mandatory classes on the basics of every pony type.  This was done to ensure that all ponies knew the strengths and weaknesses of their comrades, allowing them to work together in better harmony.  She also knew that very little was known about the magic that the Shamans used.  This was not for a lack of trying; many an expedition had been fielded with the goal of learning more, but very little useful data was ever gained.  The Shamans kept their secrets to themselves, and usually the best way to see them use their magic was to attack them; ponies tended to shift their concerns from 'data retrieval' to 'survival' when an angry Shaman started flinging magic in their direction.  "So," Dew supplied after some silence had passed, "not much, I take it."

        "That's... no, we don't know a lot about how the Shamans use their magic, but the principles are the same everywhere, no matter how you use it.  I know these principles; there should be"

        "We know; you've said it often enough."  She turned to another of the gathered unicorns.  "Bellrose, what can you tell me?  Why do you think that Sly didn't teleport?"

        Bellrose didn't answer right away; she seemed to be organizing her thoughts.  "I... I don't know, honestly," she said at last.  "Conker is right, she should have managed to teleport to a safe distance.  Why she didn't... it's as though she couldn't use her magic."

        "Is that even possible?"

        "It has been known to happen, but"

        "It's a hex, Dew," Conker interrupted, "and a powerful one at that.  There would still be traces of it on the body if it was used, and there aren't any of those either.  I'm telling you, this"

        "Dog," whispered the sentry, and everypony fell silent.  Lying on the ground, hiding beneath their brown blankets, they held their breath as the patrol wandered close, praying that they would not be noticed.  The dogs came close enough that Dew could smell them.

        The patrol was a four-dog team, and they were moving slowly, quietly talking amongst themselves in that guttural language of theirs.  Dew didn't understand a word of it; languages had never been something she was good at.  The patrol walked right through the middle of the camp, pausing only briefly as one of their number stubbed his toe on a rock and the others laughed at him.  She sent a quiet thanks to the dark night.

        Everypony began to breath again once the patrol had passed.  "That was close," whispered Bellrose.  "I thought they were going to step on me."

        "Be glad they didn't.  The night is good, but I worry about what we will do when the sun comes up.  Please, keep working on this; I can't believe that a scared pony would choose to not get away.  I'm going to try to find Autumn."  With that, Dew left the unicorns to their own devices and carefully made her way around the outpost.

        Calling the site an outpost was really just a courtesy.  Little more than a large patch of ground, the eighteen ponies spread themselves about so that they might be harder to detect.  The closest thing to cover was at the doorstep of the mines, and nopony wanted to get that close.  After some time spent searching around, Dew began to suspect that was where Autumn had gotten to.  She was spared the prospect of checking by Spotter.  "Autumn?  Yeah, I saw him here a moment ago.  Probably still over there somewhere."  She thanked him and went in the direction he indicated.

        Autumn addressed her when she got close.  "How is everypony?"

        Dew didn't see him.  "Jumpy, but otherwise they seem to be fine.  The unicorns don't have an answer for Sly's... for her... they don't think there is any way that her magic could have been blocked.  I still disagree with them, but... I don't know.  What's the look from the front here?"

        "Busy.  When the sun set the mines exploded with activity.  I think our best notion might be to move during the day, but I do not want ponies sleeping while dog patrols walk through this area almost every half hour."

        "We could have them sleep in the morning, keep the watches light, then start moving at noon."

        "True, but that does cut our operating time."

        "The other option is the energy pills, and you know as well as I that those can be a liability in operations like this.  A morning's rest is our best option."

        There was a sigh.  "I suppose you are right, Dew; spread the word, then: we will sleep come sunup, and move come midday."  She nodded, and slipped away.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Autumn's ponies had arrived.

        Grey Gale watched the ponies on the barren plains, his enchanted spyglass turning the dark night into bright day.  He counted eight distinct spots where a pony was hiding, and seven spots where one could be.  Relying too much on the darkness to hide you; sloppy.  It wasn't a completely fair assessment, though, since he had watched them arrive and knew where to look.  He still saw about fifteen ponies who needed to brush up on their vanishing skills.

        He hadn't seen Autumn, though given that pony's reputation, it was hardly surprizing.  He'd heard all sorts of things about him, though; Autumn's skill was something of a legend in the Service, some saying that he wasn't an earth pony at all, but a unicorn using magic to hide and disguise himself.  The tale was understandable, given that his skill at hiding crossed into the supernatural if the stories were to be believed.  Gale didn't believe most of them, of course; it was downright impossible to steal fire without anypony noticing, but he knew that all legends are born from some point of fact.  He really wanted to know the real story behind that one.

        "What happened?" the silver pegasus mare to his right whispered.  "They weren't supposed to have made it this far."

        "How should I know, Starwind?" he responded, keeping his eye on the ponies below.  "That was Scroll's task.  He usually doesn't fail."

        "Do you think they found Scroll first?" she asked excitedly.  "Do you think they killed him?"

        "You're getting paranoid again," he chided.  Starwind fell into a grumpy silence, and Gale continued his vigil.  She's right, though, he reflected, looking at the group below; it looked as though they hadn't been harassed at all.  Could they really have simply avoided the Cause this whole time?  Is that why they took so long getting here?

        Grey Gale's team had been dispatched two days previous, shortly after Autumn had given his report to the Vice-Commissar; their task was assessing the situation in the mines and determining if there was opportunity there.  At that time, Silent Scroll had been excited while giving them the mission, but it had quickly switched to fury when he received word of Autumn's group.

        "Sun and stars!  I should have known he'd do this!"  He turned to Gale and his team.  "Carry out the mission; I will see to it that Autumn doesn't get far.  Protect the Dawn."  He stormed off without waiting for the response, muttering about placing Autumn under guard.

        "That might prove interesting," commented Spell Swirl, one of the unicorns.  "Can you imagine?  A guard keeping tabs on Autumn?"  He chuckled quietly.

        Grey Gale looked over slowly, his expression unreadable.  "Don't tell me you believe all those stories about him, Swirl."  His voice held a hint of contempt.

        Spell Swirl straightened up as Gale spoke.  "Of course not, sir.  I just-"

        "No matter," Gale interrupted with a dismissive flick of his wings.  "Our concern is not Autumn; the councilpony will deal with him.  If you doubt his ability, then you have my pity."  Swirl didn't move.  "Come, then; we have a mission to accomplish."

        The six ponies all wore a uniform of black with a dark purple trim, denoting them as an elite group.  As with all the uniforms of the Secret Service, it covered the bright ponies nose to hoof, while on those with more earthy tones, the head and neck were left free.  In the white halls of the palace, they stood out in a stark contrast as they made their way to the teleportation chamber.

        The teleportation chamber: a large rotunda with a zebra incantation circle engraved upon the entirety of the marble floor.  Large enough to send a hundred operating teams in times of crisis, the six elite ponies were tiny, inky blots on its alabaster interior.  Gale didn't know a lot about the magic of the runes beneath his hooves, only that it somehow allowed a unicorn to call upon more power than they normally could.  In truth, however, he didn't much care; magic was the realm of the unicorns, not pegasi.  The most enjoyment he ever got out of the circle was the artistic æsthetic of the whole piece; the gentle curves, the flowing lines, the multitude of runes... the magnificence of it all called to him, and many a lonely night would find him in this room, gazing at the floor, tracing it out with his hooves.  That, however, was when there wasn't a mission to be accomplished.

        He and his team walked to the centre of the room, where five unicorns were gathered, waiting for them.  They were the Gatekeepers, masters of the room and guides of the spell.  Every exiting team went through them.  As Gale approached, one of them stepped forward.  "Afternoon, Grey Gale," he said.  "Emergency mission, I hear."

        "I've heard that as well.  Please co-ordinate your spell with Dusk and Spell Swirl."

        The unicorn laughed.  "Straight to business as usual, eh?  Well, who am I to argue?"

        Gale stood in the centre of the room and waited, where he was joined by Starwind and the two earth ponies, Chestnut and Good Harvest.  He watched the floor; it always excited him the way the circle and runes would light up as the spell was being cast...

        They arrived South of Morlan Mountain, working under the theory that since almost all mining had taken place on the North, the South should be relatively unguarded.  After a half-day's march, they had arrived at the southern foot of the mountain and found it completely unwatched.  They rested a few hours, then began their climb over it near midnight.  They crested the peak at dawn and spent the rest of the day studying the dogs and their movements.  They could find no way in undetected.

        Autumn's ponies had arrived a little after nightfall.  They were now huddled up about a kilometre from the mountain's base, watching the dogs just as he had been all day.  He doubted that they would see anything he hadn't, but he resolved to keep himself informed of their movements.

        "Are we going to attack them?" Starwind asked, eagerness on her tongue; Gale could almost hear the smile on her lips.

        "No.  Our mission is to observe."  There was a silence that told him she had resorted to sulking.  "Go wake the others," he told her.  "Tell them that Autumn is here.  We are to keep an eye on them during our watches.  If they find a way in, we'll be right behind them."

        Starwind shifted so she was lying right next to him.  "This will cut into our night," she whispered playfully, licking his cheek.  When he turned to face her, she was gone, flying down the mountainside to tell the rest of the team.

        Grey Gale sighed turned back to the ponies below him, keeping watch through his spyglass.

~ * ~      ~ * ~     ~ * ~

        Spotter had been awake all night.  Try as he might, his eyes refused to stay closed, so he ended up standing a lonesome watch.  The sun had risen hours ago, hidden behind some thin clouds, but he paid it little mind; the mines and the dogs it contained were the only things he could see.  He lay in the shadow of the mountain, thinking his thoughts.

        "I take it you could not sleep either?"

        Spotter looked to his right; nopony was there.  "Is that you, Autumn?"  Silence.  "Yeah, thought so."  He looked back to the mountain and sighed.  The dog patrols had vanished with the morning light, but the sentries still hovered in the dark of the mine's entrances.  "This doesn't make sense, you know?  Golden Lock should be here; he isn't the kind of pony to let his orders be ignored.  Where is he?"

        "That has been on my mind as well," came Autumn's reply.  "I had thought that, perhaps, he teleported in too close, and the dogs had attacked him, but that does not fit.  Even if he disbelieves my story, the report we were sent to investigate mentioned a Shaman; he would not overlook that."

        Spotter gave a dry chuckle.  "That, and if the dogs had attacked, there would be a few bodies out here."

        "Yes... there is that."  There was a pause as a hawk flew over, scanning the ground for a hapless meal.  "Is that what has kept you up all night?"

        "For the most part; I've also been thinking about our current problem.  You do realize that it's going to be relatively easy to get into the mines; getting out is the real challenge."

        "I... have realized."

        "What will you do?"

        Silence.  Spotter began to suspect that Autumn had left before he suddenly began speaking again.  "Move quickly, I think.  I have Sleeper's Dust, enough to make certain our entry will be easy.  I... did not think there would be so many more guards; I doubt I have enough to see us out."

        "So you would bet on the dogs taking their time to change their watches."  He chuckled lightly.  "Dangerous proposition, Autumn."

        "What else can I do?  I had hoped that Golden Lock would be here; that he and his forces would be obliged to help us, but now..."

        "You may learn yet, you know.  That is a good plan, it just seems that Lock has dropped the ball on his end.  Not your fault, of course, but there are other options."

        There was a hint of desperation in the response.  "Please."

        Spotter crossed his forelegs and rested his chin on his ankles.  "Distraction."  Silence followed, and it stretched into minutes.  He glanced over at the clump of earth he assumed was Autumn.  "Still listening?"

        "...yes."

        "Just checking."  He gazed up at the mountain, picking out several shapes moving in the shadows of the mines.  "Reorganize the teams," he said.  "One team of three unicorns, and the rest as normal.  The three will stay outside, waiting for the rest of us to signal when we need to exit.  Once received, they will cast a powerful spell, one that the Shamans cannot fail to notice.  If they act like last time, most of the tribe will be sent out to find the unicorns, leaving the rest of us an easy exit."  He paused, cocking his head thoughtfully to one side.  It felt wrong, calling that gathering a 'tribe'; such a word felt so small, so inaccurate, but he couldn't think of anything else to call them.  Pack?  No, same problem.  Nation?  No, implies too much.  Gang?  Oh, definitely not.

        "What of the unicorns?" Autumn asked, interrupting his thoughts.  "How would they get away?"

        "You mean, 'What if they can't use their magic, like Sly?'  I respond that Sly could use her magic, at least while she was with us.  I presume that it was that strange spell the Shamans were casting that cancelled her magic, in spite of what our current unicorns say; I think they're too caught up in what they know, and they're forgetting to think about 'possibly'.  Anyway, the unicorns should have no trouble with casting a single spell.  Make it a teleport spell, and they've escaped before the rest of us."

        "You are... risking a lot on this."

        "Aren't we all?  Nineteen ponies, thousands of dogs, and a magic mystery.  Not to mention the firestorm we may all face when we return."  He let out a small sigh.  "We're risking too much simply by being here, but still we must press forward.  How can we turn back now?"

        He didn't expect an answer, and none came.  After some time, he decided to close his eyes and enjoy the quiet, feeling the warmth of the sun as it drifted overhead.  Enjoy this while it's here, he thought, for tomorrow may never come.

        "Come, then," Autumn said, breaking the long silence.  "It is time."  Spotter looked up; the sun was at it's zenith.

        Midday.

        In the daylight he moved carefully, waking sleeping ponies around the outpost.  As they rubbed the sleep from their eyes he told them to gather together; there were things to discuss.  It was a strange thing, it seemed to him: a meeting where everypony involved did their best to not be seen.  But, then, one sees all manner of strange things in the Secret Service.

        As Autumn explained the new plan, he saw several of the ponies look around at each other, as if to wonder who their new partners would be, but there were no objections.  Conker, Bellrose, and Merriweather even volunteered to remain outside to cast the escape spell.  For that, Spotter was grateful; as much as he believed they would be safe, he didn't want anypony forced into that role.  His own team would be another matter altogether.

        "Finally," Autumn was saying, "there is one other change.  Spotter shall lead the last team; the watchers.  If, after the pegasus is rescued, the dogs do not disperse, then... then they shall move to eliminate the lead Shaman."

        There was a moment's silence before Forte spoke up.  "Um... can't we just do that?"

        "Not while they still hold the pegasus," Spotter responded.

        "Okay, but what about right after we rescue her?"

        "We could, sure.  But if the dogs tear themselves apart first, why bother?  Less work for us, right?"  He glanced back at the mountain, looming over them in the noontime sun.  "We watch and see.  If they break apart and the Grand Shaman still looks like he could start over, then we strike anyway, and with less other dogs in the way.  Our mission becomes a waiting game."  He looked back at the assembly.  "Who will join me?"

        Forte didn't even hesitate.  "Love to."

        Spotter nodded.  "We'll need a unicorn."

        A pause, then a mare's voice.  "I... I'll do it."  Spotter turned, curious.  Celina had spoken hesitantly, and her face betrayed a look of reluctance; she didn't want to do this.  Why is she coming along?  What is she hoping to gain from this?  His thoughts were interrupted by the rest of the assembly finalizing the new team layout.  When it was all finished, he looked Autumn in the eye.  "Ready?"

        The cloaked pony nodded, and the groups made their way over the last stretch of open plain.  They moved slowly, and it took near an hour to get to the mountain base.  There, Autumn signalled a halt, and vanished.  Spotter took a deep, slow breath; it was Autumn's game now.  He had no doubts, but it always seemed difficult to just wait on somepony else.

        The minutes felt like an eternity.  It was odd, really, how much relief he felt when Autumn returned, signalling to them that they way was clear.  They moved again, up the side of the mountain and past the sleeping dogs; everypony being careful to step around them.  They kept moving, and the light of the sun was soon lost to the rock.  In darkness, then, they moved, and soon found a torch bravely standing against the dark.  Before them, lit bright by the torch, the passageway split in three.

        Spotter looked around at the assembled ponies.

        Showtime, he thought.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The bleeding had stopped the night after it had started, and for that Clear Skies was grateful.  Her foal was still moving, but she took a strange sense of comfort in that now.  She had long since grown used to the feeling, and so long as it was there it meant her foal was alive; still had a chance.  She still sang whispered lullabies to her belly every night, partly because she wanted her foal to know her voice and her love, and partly because they helped her sleep.

        The rations that Autumn had given her had run out before she had last slept.  She still didn't want to eat the meals the dogs brought, but she was too hungry to ignore them.  As something of a compromise, she ended up only eating half of each meal she was brought.  It wasn't enough to satisfy her, and more and more she prayed that rescue came soon;  each passing hour whittled her hope down.  How much longer could she wait?

        She had been given a bath earlier.  The dogs had been unusually careful with their task, and the whole while the Shaman watched.  Every other time she had been bathed he had worn that smile as he told her that he wanted her foal, but this time was different.  He had watched in silence, a look of genuine concern over his features.  Every time she winced he would twitch a bit, as if holding back an instinct to leap forward and help, but every time he would settle back down when it was clear she remained unhurt.

        His silence was more frightening that all the times he had promised to take her foal.

        She huddled in her cell, watching the torch sputter its dying flame.  She knew the Shaman didn't hold a concern for her; he only cared about the foal she carried.  He had placed a rough paw on her stomach after her bath, and when he had felt the foal still moving he had cooed softly; he sounded sad.  Afterwards he had left, pausing only slightly with a look over his shoulder before disappearing from view.

        A dog came by and changed the torch before it went out.  He said something to her she didn't understand, his voice rough and grating, before he left.  She had gotten used to the leering that a lot of the dogs did, but recently all that had stopped and been replaced with something resembling kindness; it made her uncomfortable.

        A sudden thump caught her attention, and she bolted upright.  Looking out through the bars of the cell, she saw the old torch rolling on the ground, sputtering and going out.  She watched it, and suddenly a unicorn, a brown blanket around her shoulders, walked into view.  Her coat was the colour of fresh cream and her mane looked like fire.  She looked into the cell and smiled.  "Found you."

        A deep blue pegasus mare, also blanketed, stepped into view, followed by another, a younger stallion covered in camouflage.  Clear Skies found herself standing, blinking back tears.  "W-who-" she began.

        "Hello, Clear Skies," a familiar voice said, as Autumn appeared by the door.  "I brought friends."

        She felt as though she could fly without her wings.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Celina had seen the pit, and it was immense.  There were two Shamans down there right now, but what really shocked her were the regular dogs.  Hearing the numbers was one thing, but seeing them... there were thousands of them, all milling around and creating such a cacophony that she doubted any of the dogs had the slightest idea what was going on.  Why, this force alone, ignoring the Shamans, was a great threat to Equestria's peace.

        She glanced over at Spotter.  As glad as she was that she wasn't on the all-unicorn team outside, she didn't feel she had it much better.  Staying here after the captive was freed just sounded like an invitation to suicide, but what other choice did she have?  If this gathering refused to break up, Spotter was determined to break it himself.  Forte, too, had seemed excited about the prospect.  She had to be there; she had to try and keep them from succeeding.

        Fortunately, that was something she didn't have to worry about just yet; the captive hadn't even been rescued.  With the number of dogs milling about, there was still a hope that the rescue would fail.  Autumn's team had remained unchanged, even after the shuffle, so she hadn't the chance to join them and try from that angle.  She was left to hope, and act only if the situation arose.

        "Inform the teams," Spotter ordered her.  "Objective reached: two Shamans accounted for."  She nodded as she mentally reviewed the code.  The message would have to be sent in two parts, but that wasn't a concern of the earth ponies.  She waited several seconds between the two parts so the others wouldn't get confused by the second message while they were translating the first.  The two earth ponies were whispering to each other as she finished sending off the messages, and so she peered over the edge again.

        It was still unbelievable.  The pit was cavernous, large enough that the whole of the royal palace might easily fit inside its expanse.  Huge columns carved out of the rock held the mountain from collapsing upon itself.  There were torches all along the walls and the column bases, and several large orbs hung from the ceiling, glowing with a gentle light; the source of which she could not say.  In the light she saw the dogs, thousands of them, swarming around like bees in a flower garden.  She had imagined that, maybe, this was the threat that Equestria needed, but seeing it, actually seeing it... the feeling was indescribable.  Even without knowing what the dogs wanted with an alacorn, she felt as though this was the right opportunity; this was what was needed.  The more she thought that, the more she knew that the mission had to be stopped.  If this gathering dispersed, it could be decades before another such thing appeared.  How, though?  How?

        She was suddenly aware of Spotter's loud whispers, trying to get her attention.  "CELINA!  MOVE!"  She looked behind her, and a dog on patrol stepped around the corner.  It stopped when it saw her, surprize written all over its face.  A cascade of thoughts tumbled through her head, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Forte start to move against the dog.  Before she really knew what she was doing, she lowered her head and unleashed a magical blast that knocked the dog out cold.

        Forte stopped in his tracks, and Spotter gaped at her.  "What... what the hell was that?"

        "I..." she took a step back as a loud howling erupted from the pit below.  "I panicked!  I'm sorry!"

        Spotter looked down into the pit, where the two shamans were shouting instructions.  "Well," he said, as they slammed their staffs down and began chanting, green and blue swirls emanating from the staff heads.  "This just got difficult."

つづ

To Be Continued...


=========================================================================================

Chapter Four

"Our Princess desires, above all else, to keep her subjects free of the fear of war.  For this reason, she has given the order that we are to become hidden, operating in the shadows.  Publicly, the Service has disbanded, and we shall hereafter remain behind closed doors.  This shall be our blessing and our curse; our enemies will believe us a myth, and with that we can strike without warning, but our deeds shall be unsung save by our own brothers and sisters.  I urge you: remain strong!  For Equestria, for our Princess, we shall bear this burden..."

~Excerpt from a speech by Iron Lore

One-hundred eleventh Chief Commissar of the Secret Service

        "Um... I don't see a lock here."  The camouflaged pegasus' words were like a blow to Clear Skies.  Was this all she could hope for, to be taunted with freedom?

        "Let me see."  The unicorn stepped over and touched the door with her horn.  "Figures; it's magically operated."

        "A magic lock?" the pegasus asked.

        "No, just magically operated," the unicorn corrected.  "All the workings are mechanical, but instead of moving them with a key, you move them with magic."  She bit her lip.  "Getting in may be tricky."

        "Well, can't you just magic it open?"

        "Maybe.  I might just attract the Shamans while I'm at it."

        "Well, if the parts are mechanical, maybe I can do something.  There's gotta be an access plate somewhere."

        "Possible, but where?  We'd have to..."  Clear Skies lost their conversation as Autumn came up to the bars of her cell.  He smiled at her, and everything started to feel real again.

        "Good to see you again.  My apologies for the delay; we got here as fast as we were able."

        The delay?  He was apologizing for that?  Why?  They were here now, and all the days she had been counting didn't matter anymore.  They were here, and now only the bars stood between her and, and everything.  Only the bars.  She found herself staring at the two ponies who were discussing her cage.  "Will... they will get me out, won't they?"

        Autumn followed her gaze.  "I have no doubt.  Gleam is quite skilled in the use of magic, and Camlock knows mechanics better than he knows his left hoof."  He turned back to her.  "You have no cause for worry."

        She looked over to the other pegasus who was keeping an eye down the passage.  "W-who...?"

        "A friend," he said, looking over.  "Dew; a very capable mare."  He leaned in close and whispered, "She would get you out of here through sheer tenacity alone, if it came to it."

        It was a joke, she was sure; a playful jab at his friend.  She made a small noise; at first she thought it was a hiccup before she realized it was laughter, and she found herself smiling.  It was a strained smile, worn weak by the months of neglect, but it was good to know she still could.

        "Excuse me."  Camlock slid a small mirror beneath the cell door.  "I hate to interrupt, but I need to borrow our damsel a moment."  Autumn nodded, and he turned his attention to her.  "Clear Skies?  Hi.  I need to look at the inside of this door, see what there is.  Could you hold this mirror for me?"

        She nodded and picked up the mirror.  For the next few minutes she held the mirror where he directed, and he would scratch at the dirt and make 'hm'-ing noises.  Finally, he motioned for her to put the mirror down.

        "I don't see any access points.  I'm gonna assume that we'd need to get the door open to get at the insides of this lock."

        "So, what do we do?" asked Gleam.

        He thought for a moment, looking the door over with an investigative eye.  "Well, there's cutting our way in, but this is good iron; would take too much time, not to mention the noise."  His eyes wandered.  "I suppose we could take the hinges," he said, walking over.  "They are cell hinges, so they won't be easy, but we should be able to dismantle them quietly enough."

        "How long?"  asked Dew.

        "Hooooo... couple minutes?"

        She glanced over at Autumn.  "Hallway's quiet for now.  I'll head down a bit, try to catch anything coming this way before it catches us.  I'll be back in a 'couple minutes.'"

        Autumn nodded.  "Very well; be careful.  Camlock, get this door open, as quiet and quick as possible."  Dew trotted off and Camlock pulled tools from his saddlebags.  Gleam trotted over and began helping him with the hinges.  Their work was barely audible.

        He turned back to her.  "We will have you out of there soon."  He paused.  "...How have you been holding up?"

        The question was simple, straightforward, and it caught her completely off guard.  "I..."  How could she describe the recent days?  So much had happened in the short time he had been gone, she didn't know where to begin.  "...I've held on," she finally said.

        It sounded so silly, just saying that, but still he smiled at her all the same.  "Good; I suppose that is all we can ask for."

        His smile was a warm comfort in the cold air of the mines, and before she could think about it she was speaking again.  "The Shaman," she heard herself say.  "He came down after you left.  He was angry; he seemed to know that you had been here.  He asked so many questions."  She shivered.  "He scares me.  I didn't tell him anything, and when he left... he was so angry I thought he might kill me."  She took a deep breath, mentally pushing the memory back, before continuing.  "The next day I... I took one of the pills you gave me; one of the ones to fight magic.  I-I don't know what it did, but I think it hurt my foal."  Autumn was listening intently, his smile gone.  Gleam and Camlock had stopped their work, one hinge removed, and were staring at her.  "She kicked all night, painfully hard, a-and when the dogs came in the morning they saw me.  The Shaman... the Shaman..."  The words were stuck behind a lump in her throat.  She forced them around it, and suddenly it all spilled out.  "He had me eat.  He enchanted it, right then and there!  I saw it, but it hurt so much I ate it all.  It was hours before my foal calmed down, but now she won't stop moving."  She clutched her stomach.  "I can still feel her; it's like she's trying to run away."

        Tears were forming in her eyes, threatening to spill over onto her cheeks, and she took a deep, shuddering breath before continuing.  "The Shaman changed after that.  He wants my foal badly, and I see it hurts him to not know if she's alright.  He treats me like I'm a delicate shell, ready to fall apart at any moment."  A tear ran down her cheek.  "He doesn't want to see his prize die before she's born."  And neither do I, no matter what they've done to her.

        "Which pill did you take?"

        The question surprized her; she looked over to Gleam, who took a step forward, waiting for the answer.  "I-I don't know.  I dumped all of them afterward."

        Gleam bit her lip.  "...doesn't make sense."

        "Gleam," Autumn interrupted.  "We must first open the cell."

        "Oh, right!"  She and Camlock immediately went back to the hinges, working faster.

        The next minute went by painfully slow.  The two ponies worked on the remaining hinges while Clear Skies tried to avoid eye contact with Autumn.  Finally, there was a soft thud as the iron door sagged.  With an exclamation of pride, Camlock pulled the door off the cell and leaned it against the far wall.  In the still air of the mine, Clear Skies felt a breeze.

        Gleam was the first one to enter the cell, concern written all over her face.  Before she could say anything, a quiet noise echoed down the hall.  Everypony stopped and listened.  Silence, then a new noise rose up and took its place.  Clear Skies took a step back; she knew that noise: it was the same noise that had interrupted the last time Autumn had been here.

        The cacophony of a thousand shouting dogs.

        "What is that?" asked Camlock.

        "The dogs," replied Autumn.  "Gleam, get a message to the rest of the groups: we are discovered; pull out.  Clear Skies, we have to go now."  He took his cloak off and threw it over her shoulders.  "This will help hide you.  Stay close to us.  Everyone; time to go."

        She hung back for a moment; only a moment.  In that moment, the step that led to the other side of her prison felt to be unreachable, a wide and terrible chasm worn there by time.  In her first days here it would have been a simple matter to take that step, but now... now the scent that permeated the cloak that was wrapped around her reached her nose: it was sweat and stallion; it was warm earth, open sky, and bright sun.  She inhaled deeply, and it carried her easily across the threshold of her cage.

        The four ponies met up with a fifth down the hall, and together they raced for the exit.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        "You hear that?"

        The three ponies stopped and listened.  Only silence greeted them.

        "Hearing things now?"  The earth pony Deep Roots had been teasing her like this the entire time; it was quite apparent he didn't like the idea of being bossed around by a mare.  "Look, I know this mission is a little stressful, but"  He stopped, interrupted by a distant shouting echoing along the walls.  The ground began to shake a few seconds later.  Roots looked worried.

        Constellation almost smiled.  "Deep Roots, look," she said.  "I know this mission is a little stressful, but..."

        The glare he gave her could have levelled a small village.

        "Would you two cut it out?" pleaded Farsight.   "We have enough to worry about without you two giving each other cheap shots."

        Constellation scoffed; Farsight was only jumping in now because she liked Roots, Celestia knew why.  If I had known this team would be like this...  It was a futile thought; they were all here, they had to work together, and as much as it stung, Farsight was right.  "Right, fine; I'll be good so long as he is."  She looked around, listening to the shouts that were growing louder.  "Let's get back to that alcove we passed earlier; we should be able to hide there while we figure out what's going on.  Farsight, I want you to inform the teams that we may have been discovered.  ALL of us," she added.  She may not have a clear idea of what was happening, but she was certain this affected everypony here.

        "Why do I have to do it?  You could send the message yourself, you know."

        "Didn't you just say something about cheap shots?" Constellation asked pointedly.  Farsight glared, but sent the message anyway.  It was a little sloppy, she noticed; Farsight put a bit more power into sending the message than any of her previous sendings, but Constellation let that slide.  She watched as the glow around Farsight's horn faded, leaving them again in dull torchlight.  Something tugged at the back of her mind, an uneasy feeling that whispered nameless doubts to her.  She brushed it away; she had more important things to worry about now.

        Quickly, quietly, the three ponies retraced their steps, retreating to the alcove hiding space.  All the way, the nagging unease pulled at Constellation's mind.  The more she tried to ignore it, the more it screamed at her, until it was all she could think about.  What was it that had gotten into her head?  It couldn't have been the rumbling of the earth or the echoes that were slowly growing louder; those were obvious, sitting in plain view, understood.  This feeling was something different; it appeared well after the dog's shouts were heard, when Farsight had sent the message.

        Farsight?  Is that it?  She looked over at the other unicorn, moving stealthily beside Roots.  She moved smoothly, only occasionally stealing a glance at Roots and blushing whenever he noticed.  What was it about Farsight that had her so worried?  It was true they didn't get along very well, but that was no reason for this sudden distrust.  Sure, she was irritating, whiny, lazy, foalish...

        Calm down, Stella, she told herself.  That line of thought'll get you nowhere.  Think: she sent the message, and... was it too powerful?  Could the shamans have picked it up?  She ran it over in her head, but it didn't add up.  Farsight wouldn't deliberately tip off the shamans, and she certainly knew better than to risk exposure over taking unwanted orders.  Besides, the message hadn't felt that powerful.

        The message hadn't felt at all.

        She stopped.  It was true: she hadn't received Farsight's message.  She should have; all unicorns in the mine should have, so why hadn't she?  Hell, she had seen the glow of her horn, so why had the message not gone through?

        Ahead of her, Deep Roots and Farsight were still working their way down the corridor, oblivious to the fact that she had stopped.  Curious, she sent a message of her own, directly to Farsight.  Quietly at first, slowly growing in strength until she feared that she might be detected.

        There was no response from Farsight.

        What the hay is going on?   She watched as Farsight and Deep Roots turned a corner and vanished from view, never once breaking their stride or giving any indication that they noticed her absence.  Left alone in the stone passage, the memory of a unicorn's broken corpse slowly wormed its way into the forefront of her thoughts.

        Unable to use magic.

        The memory hung in the air like dark prophecy.  No, she thought; there was no way she was going to end up like that.  The dog's shouts were still still some ways off, dampened by the solid rock all around.  Quickly, she ran to catch up with Farsight and Deep Roots, caring less about silence and more about speed.  They had to get to the alcove; hiding might be the only option they had right now, and she needed to try and find out what was blocking her magic.  No, not just hers: all of their magic.

        She turned the corner and ran into the smiling faces of a dozen dogs.  They stood over the bodies of two ponies, an earth and unicorn.  One dog was kneeling, stripping one corpse of its horn, while the rest were staring at her.  Somewhere in the back of her head she registered the distant shouts of the dogs, but the ones before her were deathly silent.  She took a nervous step back, mind racing.

        One dog pointed.  The rest ran forward, never making a sound.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Under normal circumstances, Celina would have complained about being led about like a foal.  These were not normal circumstances; ever since the Shamans had started their strange spell, her magic had been useless, and magic is what she did best.  It was maddening; there was a strange, pulsating energy in the air, and even though she could cast her spells just fine, none of them ever did anything.  Maddening, indeed... but it sparked a curiosity in her as well.  So many theories were running around in her head, vying for attention.  Under ideal conditions, she would take all the time she needed to study the effects, dissect the magic, and see how it worked.

        These were not ideal conditions, she had to remind herself as Forte signalled for her to stop.  Her curiosity would have to wait until they were safely out of the mine; she could only hope that her short experience with this mystifying effect would be enough for her to study.  Keep an open mind, she told herself.  Memorize as much of this as possible.  Figure it all out later.

        Forte signalled again, and once more the two of them were on the move, ducking into the shadows that lined the stone halls.  The roar of the dogs was everywhere, strong and constant, and it had them constantly looking over their shoulders.  The rumble of the dog stampede was occasionally punctuated by tremors of a different kind, slightly off-rhythm to the pounding of feet.  Ahead of them, they had only the hope that their exit was still undiscovered.  Spotter had ordered them to try and hold it open if needed, but Celina was looking only to escape; she wanted to go home.

        She hadn't meant to alert the dogs, and she certainly didn't want to to leave it up to chance whether or not Spotter could successfully pull off the assassination of the lead Shaman, but she also didn't want to stay here with a bloodhunt going on.  Besides, she had been ordered, and those were orders that were easy to obey.  She consoled herself with the thought that, with this many dogs running around, Spotter was sure to be found; he was a fool, or extremely arrogant, for staying behind.

        They had to duck down an unused shaft while a patrol of dogs rushed madly by.  There had been more and more of these the closer they got to their exit, and Celina was afraid that it was closed off.  If Forte felt the same, he never showed signs of it.  He remained calm and determined, duty written all over his stern face.  "Come on," he whispered, encouragement lacing his words.  "Patrol's past; we'll be able to make the exit with our next push."

        He was right, they made it to the exit easily.  Relieved, she began to leave when he hissed at her to stop; she looked around, and saw the dogs waiting in front of her; waiting in ambush.  She looked up at Forte, wondering what he would do next.  His brow was furrowed, his lips were moving, and he looked to be calculating the odds.  She nudged his shoulder and shook her head, motioning him to follow back down the path.

        "What is it?" he whispered, once they were at a safe distance.

        "We can't make it through that; we have to find another way."

        "Then what?  Other ponies will be coming this way; what if they don't see the ambush?  We need to at least try to clear it."

        Celina's brain stopped working for a moment.  Two ponies, one of them rendered mostly useless, against at least fifteen dogs, all of them able, and he wanted to attack them?  For what?  The fantasy that killing himself would alert everypony else to the ambush?  Earth ponies...  She shook her head.  "No... no; watch."  She looked around, making sure that there were no dogs in sight, and scratched out a symbol near one of the torches.  It was small, and it looked like natural marks unless you saw the pattern in it.  "Remember this?"

        Forte slowly nodded, understanding finally dawning in his eyes.  It was old code: the other agents would be warned of the ambush ahead.  "Now, then, we need to find another exit, and fast; keep that one open and guide ponies to it.  Understood?"  Forte nodded, and so they were on the move again.

        The going was a little rough; Spotter had been with them last time and he had known the mine rather well.  The maps he and Autumn had put together were with those teams they were not a part of.  Celina and Forte could only guess where other exits could be.  Even though the mine had a logical pattern to it, the old miners would dig where the prize was, so many passages got tangled at some point or another.  More often than not they just ran into one of the collapsed openings.

        "This is getting ridiculous!"  Celina almost shouted.  It was the fifth cave-in they had come across, and it smelled strongly of rock.  "I know there were more open ones than this!  We can't be that far off, can we?"  She sneezed; something in the air was tickling her nose.

        "I don't know, Celina," Forte provided.  "I spent most of my life on the surface of the earth; I'm not that skilled at navigating her innards."  He looked around.  "I can't disagree, though; we should have found an open one by now."  He sniffed and wiped his nose before looking at her.  "Where are the dogs?  We haven't seen any for a while."

        "Probably feel they don't need to guard a dead-end."  She sneezed again.  "Ngh, I hope I'm not coming down with something."

        "Ah, you should be all right.  It's probably just the dust in the..."  He trailed off, a look of curiosity slowly becoming one of realization.  "Celina?  There's rock dust in the air here."

        She blinked.  "So?"

        "The whole way here, we didn't come across dust in the air like this; only here do we find it."  He looked at her with an urgency in his eyes.  "Celina, this cave-in is fresh."

        There was a pregnant silence while his words sank in.  The whole weight behind them slowly pressed on Celina until she felt she might buckle under it.  A fresh cave-in?  Are the dogs behind it?  No, stupid question; of course they are, but why?  Why would they seal themselves in like this?  She looked at the pile of rubble, confused.  Spotter had said that more dogs showed up every day, so why would they close the entrances?  No, that wasn't right; while dogs were seen above ground, most preferred to travel beneath the surface.  Sealing off ground access was a minor issue to them; right now it only really affected the ponies.  Besides, they weren't completely sealed off, were they?  There was one outside exit left.  With an ambush lying in wait.  Suddenly, she felt cold.  "They're herding us," she whispered.  "Only one way out, and there they are, lying in wait."  There was fear in her eyes when she looked back to Forte.  "What do we do?"

        A pause.  "We fight our way through."

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        "That's odd."  Gleam's comment brought the whole party to a halt.  They had been moving in a silence broken only by Dew's occasional whisper to Clear Skies, helping her learn to stay hidden.  It had definitely helped; shortly after leaving the cell a Shaman ran past them, heading in the direction of the cell.  Clear Skies had frozen in terror when she saw him, and it was only with some urging after the Shaman had past that she was able to keep going.  His scream of rage had been clearly audible, even against the backdrop of the thousand other dog voices.

        Now Dew was looking at her friend, curious.  "What is it?" she asked.

         "It's just... there's something wrong with the magic here.  It's hard to explain; it's like it doesn't accept my spells."

        Dew blinked, confused, but it was Camlock who spoke up.  "What does that mean?"

        Gleam looked at him.  "Well, imagine..."  She bit her lip.  "I don't know how to describe this.  I mean, do you even know what 'mana' is?"

        Camlock shook his head, and Dew certainly hadn't heard of it before.  Autumn's answer caught her by surprize.  "Ambient magical energy; present most everywhere."

 

        Gleam blinked, but carried on.  "Uh, right; a little simplified, but right.  It's a background energy; I cast a spell and it reacts, but here?  I don't know; it feels... rough?  Turbulent?  I cast a spell and it just gets drowned out like... like..."

        "Like trying to be heard at a Vinyl Scratch venue?" suggested Autumn.

        Gleam nodded.  "That's... a good analogy, I think."

        "Is it dangerous?" he asked, an urgent tone in his voice.

        "I... I don't think so, but I've never even heard of something like this.  Mana is usually more like... like still water; no movement, no ripples, nothing.  Celina's better at magical theory than I am; she may have a better idea of what this is.  You should ask her, if... you know."  She looked down the hall behind them.  "I can't raise the other teams in this mess."

        "But," Camlock interjected, "Can't you stop it somehow?  Or work around it, maybe?"

        She shook her head.  "I can't stop it without knowing what's causing it.  In theory it could be possible to burn through it, but... Camlock, I don't have the strength for that.  I would burn out before anything pushed though this."

        Dew looked over to Autumn.  "I guess we figured out what happened to Sly, then."

        Autumn nodded slowly, his lips set in grim determination.  "I do not wish to let that happen to anypony here.  Come; we must hurry."

        On the move again, Gleam slid up next to Dew.  "Hey," she whispered, "Why don't you go on and help the others?  I'll watch over Clear Skies."

        "You sure?"

        She nodded.  "Whatever this thing is, I can't use magic.  You're still fully capable; without magic, I'm the most useless pony here, but I can help Skies stay hidden.  It's best to do it this way."

        Dew thought a moment before responding.  "Fine, but never call yourself 'useless' again."

        "Wouldn't dream of it," she said, smiling.

        Dew caught up with the silhouette that was leading the group through the winding passages of the mine.  It was unusual for Autumn to allow himself to be so visible, but with their rescued charge, she could understand.  She sidled up beside him.  "Gleam is taking over watching Clear Skies; she says the lack of magic makes her the best pony for the job."

        "Makes sense," he responded.  "Likely will not matter too much; the exit is just ahead.  With some luck, it will still be unguarded."

        "And if it is guarded?  Then what?"

        "Then we see."  Dew waited him to continue, but when he remained silent she let it go.  Falling into step behind him, her eyes wandered until she found herself staring at the ceiling.  It was an ugly thing, reflecting the industrial engine that drove ponies to dig their way into a mountain this far outside of the Equestrian border.  It was covered in pockmarks and scratches, looking like it hadn't changed since the day it was first hewn out.  Only the wooden rafters that kept the mine from collapsing showed any signs of age.

        Dew suppressed a shudder; she hated being underground.  Under the layers of stone and earth, she felt buried, cut off from the open skies that were her home.  The mine was... cold, oppressive, heavy; it was everything the sun and sky were not.  This must be what dying feels like.

        She shook the thought from her head.  Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Dew pushed a different thought to the front of her mind and held on to it, embracing it for its warmth.  The exit is just ahead; we're almost home.

        In the flickering torchlight, something caught her eye.  "Autumn!" she whispered urgently.  He stopped and turned to see her pointing at the torch.  He looked, and soon he saw it too: just to the right of the sconce, a pattern of scratches.

        "'Ambush.'"  He said the word like a curse.  "Wait here."  Just like that, he was gone, vanished into the shadows.  Dew sat back, clutching at the warm thought as it slipped away.  They weren't almost home, were they?  The dogs wouldn't be that kind.

        Clear Skies was visibly shaking.  Both Gleam and Camlock were whispering comforts to her when Autumn returned.  "I count almost fifty dogs.  We may need to find another way out."

        "There aren't any."  Dew turned, and Celina made herself visible in the torchlight.  "Forte and I looked around.  The dogs have collapsed the other exits.  This is the only one we have."  She looked over at the pony huddled in Autumns cloak.  "Who's this?"

        "That's Clear Skies," responded Dew.  "The dogs' captive."

        For a split second, the look on Celina's face was one of disgust.  Then the torch flickered, and it was gone, given way to a neutral, disinterested expression.  "Hope you're worth it."

        "Be nice, Celina," came a different voice, this one from a charcoal-coloured earth pony.  Still hugging the shadow, Dew could barely see him.

        Autumn stepped in before Celina could respond.  "Forte, Celina; where is Spotter?"

        "Still at the pit," answered Forte.  "He's staying behind to see what the dogs do.  We didn't abandon him," he quickly added, "he ordered us to go.  Celina..."  He trailed off, looking sidelong at the mare.  The mare, for her part, was looking shamed.  What is that about, wondered Dew.

        "So what happens now?"  Camlock seemed oblivious to the awkward silence.  "Only one exit and fifty dogs between us and it.  I mean, what can"

        "Voice down!" hissed Autumn; Camlock immediately went silent, looking both worried and apologetic.  Nopony moved; Dew's breath felt lodged in her throat.  The silence stretched, and was broken by Autumn taking a deep, slow breath.  "We... cannot just charge in and hope for the best; we need a plan.  Forte, you're talented at combat; your input would be appreciated.  Everypony else, give me inventory.  What did you bring with you?"

        Quietly, the assembled ponies began going through their saddlebags, pulling out everything that might have some value to the task ahead.  Barely anything was overlooked; even the trail rations might make for a good distraction, if used right.  Autumn and Forte were huddled over the items, whispering plans and stratagems when Celina and Gleam perked up.

        "Feel that?" asked Gleam.  "It's gone."

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Spotter was still at the pit.  It had been almost a full hour since Celina and Forte had run for the exit, trying to leave before the dogs found them, but Spotter refused to leave.  He was here to see the dogs break apart or watch them grow stronger, whichever would happen.  His mission was important, perhaps even more important than getting the captive out; the results of this endeavour must be known.

        He kept glancing behind him to where the endless passages met the ledge, searching for signs of another dog sneaking up.  So far, he had been lucky.  Before his companions had left, they moved the fallen dog away from the ledge, and the only patrol that had come by was sufficiently distracted by their unconscious comrade that they left the ledge, and Spotter, alone.

        He returned his attention to the cavern below him.  It was almost empty; most of the dogs had run off to find the ponies now infesting the mines, leaving only about a hundred still milling around, acting as guards for the two Shamans present.  The Shamans, completely engrossed in their combined spell, hadn't moved since they started casting it.  Swirling above their heads, it was only through the gaps in the spiralling energy that Spotter could see the dogs below.  It was a wicked thing, that spell; blue-and-green energy spiralled off each Shaman's staff, bathing everything around it in an eerie glow.  The torches that usually held sway in the deep were drowned out.  The spirals met between them, and where they met there was a violent storm of energy as the spirals tried to move in opposing directions.

        It was bright and hard to look at, but Spotter was certain that this was the cause of the magical trouble that Sly had surely experienced.  Hells, he could feel the air roiling from it.  How it worked... that he could only guess at, but any knowledge here was invaluable.

        A flicker; Spotter blinked.  Was that...?  No, it couldn't have been, could it?  He looked carefully; the spell was steady, unwavering, so what had he seen?  He was about to scan the cavern floor through the gaps when he saw it again.  Transfixed, he watched as flickering light travelled from one dog's staff all along the spiral of the spell, watched as more and more flickers filtered onto the blue-green glow, watched as they reached the violent storm where the two spells met.  There, the flickering spell collapsed upon itself while the other spiral surged forward.  The Shaman collapsed with his spell; the other stopped shortly thereafter, perhaps having felt the spell drop, and fell to one knee, panting heavily.  The pit went dim, leaving only the torches to struggle against the dark.

        About an hour, thought Spotter as the roiling in the air came to a stop.  Long enough for a battle, but hopefully not enough to prevent an escape.  Below him, the fallen Shaman had been helped into his throne, but the other had waved off assistance and climbed into his on his own.  He was not too proud to be attended to, however, as both Shamans were given steaming drinks by their followers.  Spotter watched them with an eager curiosity.  How long does it take them to recover?

        He glanced over his shoulder again, searching for any tell-tale signs of dogs sneaking in behind him.  Seeing none, he turned back to the pit and watched.  The Shamans' movements were sluggish, their eyes closed more often than not.  Whatever this spell was, it took a lot out of them.  Suddenly, the Grand Shaman came running in on all fours.  All the dogs turned to face him as he began shouting.  He was angry, that much was obvious, but he was speaking far too fast for Spotter to pick out anything intelligible.  One of the other Shamans responded, and the Grand Shaman rounded on him.  A few seconds of dressing down, and he spoke to one of the soldier dogs cowering in fear, who quickly ran off.  Silence filled the cavern in his wake, and the exhausted Shamans struggled to sit upright on their thrones.

        Some minutes later, the soldier dog returned, paws full of mushrooms and various fungi, and presented them to the Grand Shaman.  The Shaman pointed at the other two, and Spotter understood the words, "To them!"  The soldier dog quickly complied, and the two minor Shamans received and ate what was brought to them.  The Grand Shaman yelled at them a bit more, then hurried off.

        Where is he going, Spotter wondered.  He was torn; whom should he follow?  The minor Shamans were clearly spent, but it would be hard to catch up to their leader; it wasn't unlikely that he would lose him and just end up lost.  As he considered, movement caught his eye, and he was shocked to see the two Shamans struggling to their feet.  Painfully at first, they slowly gained in strength as they stood, until they were breathing easy and standing tall.  They slammed their staff butts against the stone floor, chanting, and a familiar blue-and-green swirl began illuminating the cavern.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        "Feel that?" asked Gleam.  "It's gone."

        Autumn and Forte went quiet, and everypony looked over to Gleam.  "What's gone?" asked Forte.

        Dew knew the answer before Gleam responded.  "The... whatever it was.  The mana is... calm again."  She looked puzzled.  "Just like that."

        "What's that mean?" asked Forte.

        "It means they can use magic again," said Autumn.  "Get a message out; rally any surviving ponies to this location.  Make it fast."

        "Right," Celina said, but Gleam was already sending the messages.  A hush fell over the group as everypony waited for news of other survivors; the seconds stretched 'til they felt like minutes.  Finally, Celina spoke up.  "We got three responses.  Teams are inbound."

        "What of the team outside?" asked Autumn.

        Celina shook her head.  "Nothing from them.  Could be they escaped, but..."

        Dew took a slow breath.  Three responses, she thought.  Three teams.  Not including hers, there had been five teams total, the all-unicorn team staying outside.  With two-thirds of Spotter's teams here, that left one team unaccounted for.  In worst case, that team was dead; best case, only the unicorn had been killed.  Even in the better case, it was unlikely that that team would find their way to exit in time; they may as well be dead.  Then again, she thought, it might just as well be only three surviving unicorns.

        Again they waited while Autumn and Forte finalized plans against the ambush that lay ahead of them.  It was less than a minute later when two ponies came around the corner; an earth and unicorn.  Forte held up a hoof, signing 'silence,' and so the two of them quietly joined the group.  While nods were given in greeting, Gleam and Celina began discussing things with the new unicorn, scratching their conversation on the floor in old code.

        It was a waiting game, and Dew found it hard to sit still.  On the other side of an order was a fight for life, and her wings twitched in anticipation.  It wasn't that she was excited about the prospect of fighting the dogs, but rather that she wanted to be doing something; waiting was never her favourite game.  In an effort to take her mind off it, she let her eyes wander, and they found the shaking form of Clear Skies.

        "Hey," she whispered, coming up beside her.  "You all right?"

        Clear Skies looked up at Dew, eyes filled with fear.  Her mouth opened a few seconds before words came out.  "...I'm okay."

        "Horseapples," Dew chided, lying down next to the frightened pegasus and draping a comforting wing over her.  "We're all friends here; you can talk to me."

        Clear Skies swallowed and let out a tiny sob.  "I'm scared, Dew; really scared.  I'm... we're so close to being free, and they're waiting for us."  Her eyes became fixated on the path ahead of them, leading to an ambush and the outside world.  "I don't want to die, but more than that I don't want to be taken prisoner again.  I don't want to have my foal for the Shaman to take.  I don't want to live trapped underground with these dogs.  I don't want..."  She hung her head, looking defeated.  "I-I want to run and hide, but there's nowhere to go."

        Dew pulled her in close and brushed her cheek.  "It's alright to be frightened, Skies.  Not a single one of us here isn't, but you can't let that control you.  We're going to push through those dogs ahead of us and then we'll go home; you'll see."

        Clear Skies didn't move.  "What if we don't?"

        "Don't think like that."  She nudged Skies' chin, pushing it up.  "Keep your chin up, and stay close to me; I'll get you through safely.  Deal?"  The sky-blue pegasus looked up at her and said nothing, but the fear in her eyes was starting to look more like hope.  Dew smiled warmly; a genuine smile of friendship.  "I promise," she corrected herself.

        Clear Skies leaned into her; Dew barely heard her whisper, "Okay."

        Around them, Autumn and Forte had finished their plans and another team had arrived, this one a full team of three, one unicorn and two earth.  As the plans were shared amongst the assembly, a single unicorn appeared around the corner, limping.  Gleam immediately recognized her.

        "Constellation!" she exclaimed quietly, rushing over.  "What happened?"

        Constellation was walking on three legs, her right foreleg tucked up close to her chest.  Blood was seeping through her uniform and she kept one eye closed.  "Dogs," she said, her voice was barely more than a ragged breath.  "They got Farsight and Deep Roots.  I ran.  Found a hiding spot and stayed put until you called."  She winced.  "Don't... don't think I'll be too much help, but I'll do what I can."  When Gleam began to look over her wounds, she was pushed away.  "No!  We... don't have time for that.  Every second we delay is... another second we can be found."  She smiled at Gleam.  "After... after, we'll have time.  I'll make it."

        Gleam slowly nodded, and so the ponies prepared for their final act in the mines.  Dew winked at Clear Skies.  "Stay close to me."

        Autumn took the last of his Sleepers Dust, and Dew blew it down the passage with a gentle breeze.  There wasn't nearly enough to make the dogs fall asleep, but hopefully it would dull their reflexes just enough to give the ponies an edge.  Once the air had settled, the ponies crept forward, quietly, in the hopes that they might pass to freedom undetected.

        Forlorn hopes.

        As Dew crept along, doing her best to keep Clear Skies as quiet as everypony else, she saw several dogs in the darkness shuffling from paw to paw or yawning; the Dust was working.  Then there was a shout from up ahead, and all the dogs struggled to full alertness.  In the moment before they pounced, the ponies struck.

        The unicorns lit off with a colourful display of magic, knocking aside almost half of the dogs that were about to leap in.  The earth ponies rounded up and lay about them with kicks and bucks, and Autumn disappeared.  From his unseen vantage, the dogs never knew what hit them.  Dew flared her wings protectively over her cowering charge, snarling at any dog that dared to come close and lashing out at any who ignored her.  Within seconds, the ponies looked to have the upper hand.

        The unicorns could not maintain a constant rain of magic, and they needed some seconds between spells to recover.  Many of the dogs knocked down in the first wave were standing again, leaping into the melee.  Forte was everywhere, laughing and enjoying his element, keeping battle with dogs all over the exitway.  Camlock was running distraction, flying fast and bouncing off the walls, keeping several dogs off-balance.  Last Leaf and Roanoak ran about holding a rope between them, hooking and tripping dogs everywhere they went.  The unicorns fell into a pattern where always one of them was throwing magic around, but still it was not enough.  The dogs still pushed forward.

        More than half of the dogs were on the ground, unconscious or bleeding.  Those standing continued to fight, but their attacks were becoming more and more desperate.  It wouldn't be long before they all turned and ran.  Dew felt the edges of elation running into her mind.

        Then everything turned off.  Unicorns and dogs alike saw spells fizzle in the air, and the dogs attacked with renewed fervour.  Dew saw Constellation get swarmed by no less than six dogs, her horn glowing with a spell that would never go off.  Other dogs attacked the unicorns first, but the earth ponies stepped in to protect them, taking blows themselves.  Roanoak succumbed to a dog's claw, and Last Leaf was forced to drop her end of the rope as another dog grabbed it.  Camlock spun into a wall, a dogs several metres behind him holding his bloody wing.  Forte was backed up into a corner, cut off from the rest of the ponies; he was still smiling.  In an instant, the tide had turned.

        Dew grabbed Clear Skies and, taking flight, shouted, "GET TO THE EXIT!"  Holding tightly, she barrelled through the dogs that stood between her and freedom, opening a path and taking a spear to her back.  It felt like little more than a scratch, and she burst out into the bright sun of the afternoon air.  Up, she flew; up the side of the mountain refusing to let go of her charge.  High in the air, she placed Clear Skies on a cloud.  "Stay here," she commanded.

        She dived back down, calling on the air currents, water vapour, and dust, mixing them into the perfect recipé for a storm.  Down below, the remaining ponies were fighting their way free of the mountain, some of them having reached the plains.  All the way down the dogs were in hot pursuit.

        It began to rain.  Slowly at first, quickly building into a torrential downpour.  Coaxing the currents, she built up high winds and threw them at the pursuing dogs, angled so that the ponies could run without being hampered by them.  Several dogs, pounded by the winds, slipped in the mud and were unable to stand.

        The rain stopped; all the moisture in the air had been spent.  Dew flew low over the earth, kicking up the water into vapour, forming a dense fog that covered her companion's escape, but the dogs, even slowed by the winds, still came forward.  She would not let them reach her friends.  She pulled the winds and spun them together, faster and faster, until she met the lead dog with a growing tornado.  Larger and larger it grew,  scattering the remaining dogs across the plains.

        One last spiral, and Dew flew off, leaving the storm to its own devices.  She caught up with the fleeing ponies and settled into a run next to them.  "You all right?" she yelled.

        Never breaking stride, Autumn answered for them.  "We lost some, but thanks to you, we live.  Where is Clear Skies?"

        "On a cloud, where I left her."  Taking flight again, she stayed at ground level and pointed.  "Head that way once you're off the wet ground; it should help disguise your trail.  I'll meet you there with our guest."  Autumn nodded, and Dew took to the sky.  She circled over the group, and counted them.

        There were six ponies beneath her.  Including herself, only seven ponies walked out where nineteen had walked in.  Perhaps Spotter was still alive in there somewhere, and the three unicorns had somehow escaped, but she couldn't bring herself to believe it.  She hoped, yes, but believing was a different matter altogether.

        She banked and flew back to the mountain, staying high in the air.  With relative ease she located Clear Skies' cloud, and landing on it she found her lying down and in tears.  She walked over and gently nudged her.  "Hey, don't cry; I'm here for you."

        Clear Skies shook her head, struggling to speak.  "N-n-no, i-it isn't..."  She sniffed, and Dew saw that she was clutching her stomach.  "I-it's... She s-stopped moving."


~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        "Why didn't you stop them?" Good Harvest asked.

        Grey Gale continued to watch the storm outside the exit.  Left alone, it would die down in a few minutes, but it would be a few more before the dogs would be able to pick themselves up from it.  By that time the ponies would be long gone.  "Because we are here to observe," he answered.

        "But," the earth pony persisted, "If this is the threat Equestria needs, isn't it in our interest to help?"

        "You are young, so I will forgive your ignorance."  He turned and faced the colt.  "Dusk, please educate him."

        Dusk's eyes were closed.  She was in the midst of trying to figure out what happened to the magic here, but she answered easily and immediately.  "If this is the threat we need, it shouldn't need our help."

        Good Harvest paused thoughtfully.  "I guess that makes sense."

        "You learn quickly," he said, nodding once.  "Come; it will take some time before news of the captive's escape is well known to the dogs.  We must hide until things calm down again, then we shall see what happens."

        Grey Gale turned back into the mine, and his two companions fell into step behind him.  "But," Good Harvest asked, a thoughtful expression on his face, "When we do find the threat, we are planning on helping it.  Why do that if we are looking for a threat that stands on its own?"

        Gale mentally sighed.  The colt was smart, but he needed to learn to widen his view.  "You are asking the wrong questions.  Tell me, do you think that any beings have any chance to cause the princess and Equestria worry?"

        "Aren't we here to determine that?"

        "The answer is 'no,' Harvest," Dusk interrupted.  "As powerful as many creatures can be, the princess' power dwarfs them all.  Luna is back, and if anything were to invade there is no doubt that even she would leave her room to fight.  In addition, there is still the Service to contend with; those still loyal to the old ideas.  Against that, do you really think that the princess would be worried about something like this?  Would it, alone, help Equestria?"

        The earth pony fell into thoughtful silence.  "I suppose not, but then why"

        "Wrong question," Gale cut in.  "Ask yourself, 'What would happen if ponies were seen helping an invading force?'"

        "The ponies would be seen as traitors, of course."

        "And what of the enemy?  How would they be seen?"

        Silence.  "I suppose... like tools?"

        "Something like that," continued Dusk.  "However the details go, it illegitimizes the attack.  Best case scenario, nothing changes.  Worst case, ponies' mistrust is turned inwards, and they turn on each other.  Civil war is something we must avoid."

        Harvest digested the information.  "So... we help them so they're powerful enough to be worth noticing, but they must be able to stand on their own so we are not seen helping them?"

        "You understand," said Grey Gale.  "There  may be hope for you yet."  He picked up speed, trotting down the stone hall not bothering to check if his two companions were following him.  Starwind, Spell Swirl, and Chestnut were all on the other end of the mine, gathering their own intelligence.  For his part, he hoped.  He was impressed at the size of the pack here, and almost giddy at the fact that there were three Shamans.  He was eager to see what they would do, now that the captive was gone.

        This was the real test.

つづ

To Be Continued...


=========================================================================================

Chapter Five

"History shall be scrubbed, the books rewritten.  The stories that are passed down shall be made to be fantasy; children's tales of courageous make-believe.  The deeds of the Secret Service shall pass from fact to legend, from legend to myth, and then be lost from memory.

"But the Library will maintain.  In a forbidden archive under lock and key we will keep the records, and as the Service acts so too shall these deeds be kept and stored.  The archive will keep; the library will maintain."

~Celestia, on the Hiding of the Service

        The earth pony Last Leaf cut through the rope that bound her wings, and Clear Skies gratefully took a deep breath, feeling her chest expand to its fullest; breathing had never felt so good.  As the ropes were cleared away, Gleam, supported by Maple Song, limped over.  "All right," she said, "let's take a look at that wing.  Can you spread it for me?"  Clear skies tried, but to no avail; it felt as though her muscles had turned to lead.  Slowly, hesitantly, she shook her head.  Gleam smiled weakly.  "That's alright.  Here, try not to move."

        Gleam grasped her wing and pulled; Clear Skies gasped and struggled not to leap away.  There was no feeling in her wing at all, but it was all fire and needles at the shoulder.  Gleam looked apologetic, still holding the wing in her mouth.  "Fowwy."

        Clear Skies said nothing, only nodded slowly.  It was painful, but it was nothing to what the others had to be going through.  Of all the ponies, only Autumn had remained unhurt, but Gleam had the worst.  She walked on three legs, and one of those very gingerly.  Her body was decorated with bandages that covered numerous wounds, and though most of her bleeding had stopped, one gash on her belly continued to leak a slow stream of red.  Her left eye was closed, swollen shut, and her horn had a small chip near the end.  It looked as though every breath she took was fire, and every so often she would cough up blood.  Despite all of this, it was Gleam doing most of the medical aid, assisted in small parts by the earth ponies.

        She winced again, closing her eyes against the pain; Gleam had stretched her wing out.  Opening one eye, she watched as Gleam examined the splay of her wing.  She worked slowly, carefully tracing the paths of the feathers, the flesh, and the bone with her hooves.  Gentle as she was, even the smallest movements set her wing shoulder afire, and Clear Skies cast her mind around for a distraction.  "Are"  Fire.  "Are you feeling okay?" she asked, and suddenly felt foolish for it.

        Gleam smiled.  "I'm"  She was suddenly wracked by coughs.

        Maple Song wrapped her foreleg around Gleam's shoulders; her voice was full of concern.  "You should rest," she said.

        Gleam shook her head as her coughs subsided.  "No... no, I can't.  There's still too much work to be done."  She brushed Maple's hoof off her shoulder.  "I'm fine, really; I've been through worse than this."  She returned to her task, her gentle nudge causing more needles to course through Skies' shoulder.

        Clear Skies clamped her jaw tightly shut, closing her eyes and willing the pain to stop; a whimper escaped her lips.  Soon after, she felt her wing tucked back against her side.  She opened her eyes to see Gleam sitting back, leaning up against Maple Song.  "Your wing," she said, pausing to take a slow, painful breath.  "I'm afraid there's nothing I can do.  The bones have long since set badly, and your muscles have atrophied.  It can be fixed, but you'd need a medical pony for it."

        Clear Skies was taken aback.  "You... aren't you a medical pony?"

        Gleam smiled.  "Not by talent, no.  I have some small skill in the area, and a bit more"  She coughed, and paused to take a breath again.  "...a bit more experience than the others here.  This is beyond me; it requires talented help.  Not to worry," she quickly added, "we know some good ponies; you'll be right as rain in no time."

        Clear Skies nodded idly, her head swimming.  Her wing was broken, and there was no way to fix it out here.  She tried stretching out her left wing, but it, too, stubbornly remained at her side.  She sighed, looking around at all the ponies who had rescued her.  They had been running hard all afternoon, ever since escaping the mines.  After she had been dropped off with them, Dew had flown back to keep the storm raging, keep the fog thick, and make the dogs think they were still hiding in it.  She took the storm North while the ponies ran East, back toward the Equestrian borders.

        She pulled Autumn's cloak back over her shoulders, covering the broken things on her sides.  Her gaze drifted over the camp, surprisingly well hidden for how quickly it had been set up.  Evening had fallen, and the party had stopped and erected crude, quick shelters for the night.  Tired as all of them were, Clear Skies felt worse.  She was heavy with foal, and the long run had been agony on her.  She had slowed them all down, and no matter what they said she still felt terrible for it.  When they had all stopped for the night, she had collapsed while everypony else had begun setting up camp and making sure she was alright; she still saw the disgust in the one unicorn's eyes.  She was a burden, and she knew it.

        It was more than her, though; the dogs would be content to leave them all alone if it weren't for her foal.  Why they wanted her, Clear Skies couldn't even guess, but she would die before she let them have her.  Unfortunately, that was hardly a barrier in her condition.  Again, she had to rely on the ponies around her, adding to their burden.  If the dogs came, there wasn't much she would be able to do; she still felt so trapped.

        She looked away from the mountain that held her captive all those months, out over the open expanse of the barren plains.  She had heard the unicorns talking on teleportation earlier; most of it was just magical jargon to her, but she did understand the lack of promise in their voices.  Will we be walking all the way back? she wondered.  How far will this place take us?

        She looked back toward the setting sun, toward the mountain, where Autumn stood watch.  His cloak around her shoulders, he wore only his vest and mask, and to her he looked almost regal in the evening light.  The bright of the sun made his colours shine more beautifully than the dim torchlight ever could; the chestnut hue of his coat, hazelnut in his mane, and the white mask that made his cutie mark.  She looked down, and peeking out from the cloak's hem were two bright blue hooves.  Beside her eye a golden mane fell, gleaming in the vibrant light.  The grey was gone, vanished in the open air.

        She was free.

        The realization snuck up on her, quiet as a wish, and soon she found it encompassing her every thought, brushing aside all her fears and trepidations in a glorious light.  Free.  The wind tickled her mane, the air was crisp, clean, and full of warm scents, and the sun, the sun!  As it slowly turned red to meet the land below, it cast its warm light over her face, melting away her fears.  Off in the distance, lightning flashed from Dew's storm.  The quiet thunder rolled over Clear Skies, and her useless wings tingled in excitement.  Somewhere, in the back of her head, a small voice whispered about still being far from home, but it was quickly brushed aside; that was a thought for tomorrow.  Right now there was dirt instead of stone under her hooves; right now the open sky was above her, calling to her, inviting.  Out here she could run, laugh, and dance far away from the bars and dim torchlight.  Out here there were no walls to hem her in, and the Shaman was far away from her and her foal...

        Her foal.  The sweet air blanded at the thought.  She had been still ever since they left the mines; Clear Skies didn't know what it meant, not truly, but she feared for the worst.  The colours drained from the world as the sun descended behind the horizon, and she looked up and watched the blue sky disappear; she was used to utter darkness.

        It took her some time to realize that the stars were there.  Shining in the velvet black, little pinpricks of light struggling against the infinite.  Against the whole universe they continued to shine, lighting the night with tiny glimmers of hope.  Soon she found herself staring at a single star, its comforting light gently kissing her tired face.

        She made a wish.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        It was close to midnight when Dew flew into camp.  The strong winds buffeted her as she came in.  Exhausted as she was, she hit the ground hard.  Last Leaf, the pony on watch, ran over.  "Dew!  What happened?  Are you alright?"  She quickly checked the wound on Dew's back.  Blood was plastered over her right side, but it was all dry; the bleeding had stopped some time ago.

        Dew's chest was heaving as she lay there, trying to regain enough composure to speak.  "Dogs," she managed, fighting between breaths.  "Following.  Caught your trail.  Know storm is diversion."  She gratefully accepted the canteen from Last Leaf and took a huge swallow, coughing a bit when a few drops took a wrong turn.  "Running hard.  Hour at most."

        There was a pause while Last Leaf processed the information.  "Wait here," she said, and ran back to the camp centre.  Dew almost chuckled at the command; she didn't think she could move if she wanted to.  She was weary, all she wanted to do was sleep.  The dogs had caught on to the diversion some time before she noticed; she had flown fast to overtake them, and flown high to avoid being noticed.  The air was thin and cold so far up, and the earth was so warm, even in the winds.  She was grateful to be back on the ground...

        Her eyes snapped open to find Autumn standing over her.  Behind him, Last Leaf was rousing the rest of the camp.  "Can you stand?" he asked her.

        She thought about it, flexing her legs.  There seemed to be some energy left, so, taking a deep breath, she pulled herself upright.  With her hooves under her, she tried to push the earth away.  Slowly, she lifted herself.  Before she made it halfway up, her breath caught in her throat and her muscles gave out.  Autumn was there when she fell, holding her up and smiling warmly.  "Here," he said, "let me help."

        She smiled back and leaned against him.  "You could have done that from the start," she chided.

        Gently, he walked her over to where the other ponies were gathered.  Last Leaf stood with Celina and the other unicorn that Dew didn't know, surrounding Gleam and Maple Song, lying together in the dirt.  Clear Skies was huddled under Autumn's cloak, separate from the others, her head peeking out from the folds.  As they approached, Maple Song got up and hurried over.  "Autumn, I..." she started.  She looked around, leaned in close and whispered.  Even over the winds, Dew heard her.  "It's Gleam; she can't stand, and she's burning hot.  She needs medical attention, but... I don't know what do to."

        "Gleam?"  Dew had taken a step away from Autumn, and her legs buckled under her weight.  Autumn caught her before she she hit the ground.

        Maple Song looked at her, as if seeing her for the first time.  "Are you okay?"

        "I'm fine, just... just tired."  She looked at Autumn.  "Please, I need to see her."

        He paused for, but only for a moment.  With a nod he took her weight again and the three of them went over to where Dew lay.  She opened her good eye at their approach.  "Dew," she said, her voice barely audible over the wind, "you're back."  She lifted her head.  "What happened?  Are you alright?"

        "I'm fine, Gleam," she responded.  "Just tired.  What about you, though?  You look terrible."

        Gleam gave a quiet chuckle.  "Oh, this?  Looks worse than it really is.  I'll be right as rain in no time, you'll see."  With that, she lay her head down again, her eye closed.  "No time at all."

        "She keeps saying that," said Maple Song.  "She needs help, but she refuses to accept it.  She... she's in denial, I think."

        "No," said Dew, struggling onto her own four hooves.  "She just doesn't want us to worry."  She hobbled over and lay down next to the broken unicorn.

        "Whether or not we worry, we still need to move," Last Leaf provided.  "How far away did you say the dogs were?"

        "Less than an hour, at best guess," Dew replied.

        Last Leaf looked at the unicorns.  "Looks like it's your show."

        Celina shook her head.  "Not that simple, I'm afraid; there are"

        "What's that supposed to mean?" Maple Song cut in.  "Gleam can barely stand, let alone walk, and we need to move now.  Seems pretty simple to me."

        Celina closed her eyes and rubbed her temple, taking a deep breath.  "Listen, hornless"

        "PLEASE," Dew interrupted, casting a wilting glare.  "Take your bickering elsewhere."

        The ponies looked around at each other, and quietly shuffled off, speaking in hushed voices.  Dew looked over to Autumn, who still stood beside her.  "You'd better go; I'll stay here."

        "They will want to hear your voice," said Autumn.

        Dew shook her head.  "They've heard what I have to say.  I won't leave her."

        Again, he paused only a moment, then nodded and turned away.  With a final concerned look, Maple song followed him.  Dew wrapped her wing over the unicorn beside her, forcing herself to stay awake; she wasn't going to sleep while her friend was in pain like this.  She watched as, a short distance away, Autumn addressed the gathered ponies.  He spoke, but whatever he said was lost in the wind.

        "You should have gone," whispered Gleam.  "I'll be fine by myself."

        "They won't need me over there; they already know what I have to say."  She nuzzled her friend affectionately, smiling warmly.  "And you're not getting rid of me that easily."

        "Being stubborn as always, I see."  Gleam chuckled quietly, but her laugh quickly turned to coughs.  Dew started as small speckles of red flew from Gleam's mouth, but she held herself in check.  This was the kind of thing that Gleam didn't want them to worry about; mentioning it would only push her away.  Once her coughs subsided, Gleam sighed and nestled under Dew's wing.  "Glad you're here," she whispered.

        It hurt to sit there, just watching her friend suffer.  She could feel Gleam's fever burning against her side.  Between them, where the wind couldn't reach, a thin coat of sweat was quickly forming.  It was the blood that had her worried, and she wanted to lean over and kiss it all better, just like her mother used to do.  But then, she was a grown pony, and she knew better.  Instead, she lay her head beside Gleam's, and pulled her wing tightly over her.

        Out of the corner of her eye she watched the others hold their meeting.  Celina was clearly angry, but quiet, so it was up to the other unicorn to try and placate everypony else.  After a while, the earth ponies left the meeting, while Autumn continued to discuss things with the unicorns.  Last leaf went off into the plains, digging at the ground, while Maple Song wandered the camp, collecting and sorting through the saddlebags.  "What happened?" Dew asked when she came near.

        "We're making a stretcher," she answered.  "The unicorns won't teleport, so we walk.  And, since nopony wants to leave Gleam behind, we need a stretcher to carry her."

        "What?  But, why?" Dew asked, completely baffled.  Teleportation was the fastest method of travel known in Equestria, and any dangers it held were easily controlled by any competent practitioner of magic.  "The dogs already know we're here; there's no reason to keep hiding our magic."

        "That's what I said."  She emptied a saddlebag on the ground, and began picking through the items.  "But you heard them: 'not that simple,' they said.  I mean, honestly, how can"

        "Makes sense."  Gleam's quiet voice was the only indication that she was listening.  "With only two able unicorns, we wouldn't make it very far, at least not without exhausting them.  Then they would need to rest before moving on... it could be faster to simply walk."

        "But," objected Maple Song, "We made it pretty far when we came out here.  I mean, I know we don't have as many unicorns now, but it's, what, one-fifth the power?  We should be able to make it a good distance with that."

        Gleam opened her good eye, and fixed it on the earth pony.  "Please don't talk about us like we're just numbers."

        The pony blanched.  "I-I didn't mean"

        Gleam's eye closed again as she gave a soft chuckle.  "I know," she said.  She took a deep breath before continuing.  "Pooled magic is...not like addition.  It's more like multiplying.  More unicorns, much more power.  On the way out here, there were more unicorns than...others.  Easier to carry the rest of you.  With only two...it would be...harder..."  She trailed off, and appeared to be sleeping.

        Power, thought Dew, that's what we need.  She was about to suggest a circle, like the one in the palace teleportation chamber, but caught herself.  The soil here was too sandy and the winds too strong; no circle would last long enough.  If she hadn't been so exhausted she might have been able to calm the winds enough, but for now there wasn't much she could do.  Perhaps walking really is the best answer.  She looked up to the open sky, where the stars were twinkling against the night.  Or perhaps, it's the only answer.

        Maple Song stood there for a while, watching Gleam sleep, before she seemed to remember what she had been doing.  Last Leaf came over, carrying a small selection of saplings and roots that she had dug up, and together they began to fashion a serviceable stretcher.  As they finished, a flash of light washed over the camp, causing Dew to shut her eyes against the sudden bright.  Autumn was walking over when she opened them again.

        "How are you feeling?"  he asked.

        She looked at Gleam, who's rest appeared calm for the moment.  "We're... alright, but Gleam can't stay out here; we need to get her to a medical pony."

        "I know," he said.  "We have just sent several messages to Canterlot; there will be several ponies woken up by this news, and at least one of them should want to see our safe return.  I expect we will have help before dawn."

        "Before dawn?  Autumn, the dogs are near half an hour away by now, and if they have a Shaman with them, that bit of magic just pinpointed our location.  We don't have until dawn."

        "Which is why we shall be moving in the meanwhile."  He turned to the earth ponies.  "Is it ready?" he asked; they nodded.  "Good.  Celina, if you would?"

        Celina obliged, her horn glowing gently with a purple light.  The same glow enveloped Gleam's sleeping form, and she was lifted from the ground and onto the stretcher, now borne on the backs of the two earth ponies.  The stretcher sagged under her weight, but held.  Gleam shifted uneasily and moaned, but otherwise took no notice of her surroundings.

        "So, when these other ponies show up, where will we meet them?" Dew asked as the ponies all gathered together.

        "I do not know."

        "What?"

        "We do not know where we are.  It is hard to find a place to meet when we cannot find ourselves.  We have told them, then, that we are east of the mountain, near one day's hard march of distance, and that we shall be continuing easterly tonight."  He looked over his shoulder at her.  "They shall need to find us."

        Needles in a haystack, she thought, but she said nothing.  What else was there to do?  Sighing, she looked around.  She couldn't see much in the starlight, but she didn't need the sun to know that only the empty plain was there to greet them; it would be two more days at least before the forest appeared.  The ponies were tired; they had been running for much of the previous day, and most had only managed a few hours sleep before she had landed.  It would be a rough run.

        "Hey, hold them up a second, will you?"  Dew stood on shaky legs and slowly trotted off, not waiting for a response.  She stopped in front of Clear Skies, who hadn't moved since Dew had arrived.  "Hey," Dew said.  "You ready to go?"

        "I'm sorry."

        She tilted her head to one side.  "For what?"

        "It's my fault," she said, sadness in every word.  "All these ponies are dead and hurt, and all because of me."

        "Don't say that."

        Clear Skies ignored her.  "I thought I could do it, you know?  Be happy.  I was finally free, and everything could be just a bad dream.  Even though I can't... I can't fly, the sky felt so inviting, so warm.  But when I look around at all of you, so tired and hurt, and I know it's all because of me..."  She looked up, and there were tears in her eyes.  "I-I just..."

        Dew was beside her, holding her in a comforting embrace.  "No, Skies, it isn't your fault; never tell yourself that.  We're all here because we chose to be.  We all came to help."

        Clear Skies shook her head.  "But if I hadn't been there, none of you would've come; you'd've had no reason to.  You'd've all stayed safe at home, a-and nopony would have died, and w-we wouldn't be out here, being chased by angry dogs trying to... trying to kill us."  Her tears were streaming down her cheeks, and she could barely contain her sobs.  "I-if it wasn't for me... it's my fault, and I'm s-sorry to put you all through this."

        Dew was at a loss for words.  She wanted to tell her that it wasn't true, that they would have been there anyway, but she couldn't tell the mare about the Service; that went against everything the Service was founded in.  Secrecy meant immunity; it meant surprize; it meant everything.

        "So what will you do?"  Both mares looked up at the sound of Autumn's voice.  "Walk away?  Go back to the dog's prison?  Would you sacrifice yourself and your foal just to apologize?  Do you think any of the ponies we lost would want you to give up?"  He leaned in close.  "Do you think the ones here want to watch you walk away?  All of us here chose to come.  All of us knew the risks.  We came anyway.  The ponies who died, died free, following their own choices.  They died so that you could be free to choose for yourself again."  He stood straight again, looking down gently at the pegasus.  "You are a strong mare, Clear Skies; you would not have survived those months were it otherwise.  This is not an easy road ahead of you, but I have no doubt that you will make it through.  Stand up, Clear Skies; honour our efforts, and live free."

        Clear Skies sniffed and wiped her eyes.  A sob got caught in her throat, and she fought it down and swallowed it.  She stood, faced Autumn, and for a moment she looked into his eyes with an emotion that Dew almost called 'love' before it became simply 'gratitude.'  "I-I..."  Her words seemed to catch in her throat, and she looked to the ground.  "...thank you."

        Smiling, he closed his eyes and bowed his head.  "Come, then; the long night awaits us."

        The three of them rejoined the rest of the group, where Celina was magically drawing a circle in the dusty soil.  The whole thing glowed gently as her magic held it against the winds.  "A circle?" asked Dew.  "I thought the unicorns weren't going to use their magic."

        "They changed their minds," Autumn answered.  "Sometimes it is only a matter of asking the right question."

        "What did you tell them?"

        "What was said is unimportant.  The result is two shorter jumps that, together, takes us farther than a single jump would, and requires less exertion from the unicorns.  It will not get us very far, but it will give us a good start."

        Dew was stunned.  "How does that work?"

        Autumn shook his head.  "They did not tell me the details."

        "It's done," Celina said.  "Balloons, you ready?"

        Balloons was standing in the centre of the circle.  It was a small thing, only about three metres in diameter, and it continued to glow under Celina's magical care.  The unicorn sighed.  "My name isn't... never mind.  Yes, I'm ready."

        "Good.  Everypony gather 'round!  Don't step on the lines; I don't want them scuffed."

        The ponies took up places all around the circle, and Balloons lowered his horn, glowing with a steady teal light.  The runes in the circle pulsed in response, then took up the glow, overpowering the faint purple that held them.  Slowly, the power built, casting the teal across the plains.  Tendrils of power reached out and enveloped the ponies, and the magic reached its apex...

        Balloons winced, and in a flash the ponies were gone; the plain was empty and dark once more.  In the starlight, just hoofprints and a circle could be seen, quietly blowing away in the wind.

*          *         *

        "Sorry, I kinda screwed that up."  Balloons' voice was weak through his embarrassed smile.  Celina only sighed.

        "What happened?" asked Autumn.

        "Nothing too bad," Celina said.  "Doofus here just put a bit too much power into the spell.  Can't really say if we got farther on it, but he's going to have to rest before he can draw the next circle."

        "We do not have the luxury of time."  Autumn looked over at Balloons, still lying where he had collapsed after the spell had lifted.  "Can you walk?"

        "What?" Celina interjected.  "No!  He needs rest.  If you make him march, it will take longer for him to recover."

        "Time in which we will be gaining distance.  As you said, we do not know if we made better distance on his spell.  We must keep moving if we hope to remain ahead of our pursuit.  Or, do you want to wait for the dogs to find us here?"

        "No!  No, not at all, I just... I was just letting you know," she finished weakly.

        "I thank you for your concern, then."  He looked back at Balloons.  "Can you walk?"

        The unicorn nodded slowly.  "It'll be rough, but I can manage.  Can't really afford any other options, can we?"

        "Indeed."  Autumn turned to the rest of the group.  "We shall move before making the second jump.  If you feel the need, I remind you of the energy pills, but remember to be careful with their use."

        The energy pills.  Dew really didn't like that idea.  She was tired, and she knew that there would be no time to rest on the march tonight, but the thought of those pills made her sick.  The last time she'd taken one she had become hyperactive to the point of paranoia, or at least that was how she remembered it.  She was particularly sensitive to the effect the pills had, and she would become too wired to think clearly.  Still, they were designed for situations like this.  Maybe if I took only half of one?

        She decided to wait for a bit, see if she could manage to keep awake on her own.  As the group began to move, she fell in beside the stretcher that bore Gleam.  The earth ponies were keeping it as steady as they could, but they could only do so much to keep the stretcher from jostling.  Gleam was beginning to twitch fitfully in her sleep, kicking out at whatever phantoms that haunted behind her eyelids.  Dew wanted to lie beside her, to comfort her.  Instead, she nuzzled her neck, and whispered comforts in her ear.

        "Why don't the unicorns just take the pills?"  Dew looked to find Clear Skies walking beside her.  "Won't that give them the energy to keep casting spells?"

        Dew shook her head.  "The pills don't do anything for magic.  We actually don't have anything that can help with that; Zecora's brew was like a miracle, really."

        Clear skies cocked her head to one side.  "Who's Zecora?"

        Dew paused for a moment, considering her answer.  "A friend we met along the way; she didn't come with us."

        The cloaked pegasus nodded, and the two of them fell silent, walking alongside the stretcher and the earth ponies.  Gleam murmured fitfully in her sleep.  "Isn't easy, is it?" Skies finally said.  Dew looked, and saw that she was staring at the unicorn.  "I remember once when Silver Dawn was bedridden."  She smiled at the memory.  "Heh.  He really took advantage of that near the end, making me do all sorts of things for him.  Simple things, really, but he could have done them.  Still, though," she said, her smile fading, "I couldn't get mad; he looked so helpless.  I remember how much it hurt to see him there, unable to stand, struggling to swallow his soup.  Every night I'd pray that he would get better; that he would stand up and we would run outside again.  Every morning I would see him lying there, and I'd have to swallow my fear and wear a smile for him.  He liked my smile."  She fell silent, reliving the old memories; happier ones than the cold cell ever gave her.  Happier places than these plains.

        When she spoke again, she was quieter.  "I don't know what happened to him.  He... he tried to fight off the dogs when they came, but..."  She trailed off, threatening tears.  She took a deep breath and, looking up to the stars, exhaled slowly.  "I hope he's okay."

        "I'm sure he hopes the same for you," said Dew.  "I'm sure he misses you just as much as you do him.  He probably prays every night for the chance to see your smile again."  Clear Skies gave a small laugh, but it was an empty thing, hollow and lifeless; she only half-believed it.  "Tell you what," Dew added, giving her companion a playful nudge.  "When we get back, let's go find him; we'll have dinner and everything."

        Skies smiled, and for the first time it looked genuine.  "Yes... let's."

        They fell into silence once again, but this time it was a peaceful quiet; there was a hope that filled the air between them, and it seemed to light the night ahead of them as they marched to keep ahead of the dogs.

*          *          *

        Celina made the second jump, while Balloons held the circle against the wind.  She had better control of the spell than Balloons had, but it didn't matter; the unicorns' magic was spent.  It would take the better part of a day for them to regain the mana required to cast the spell again.  That had been only a few hours ago; they were walking the rest of the way.

        They continued easterly, guided by the glowing stars above them, and all the while looking over their shoulders for the first sign of their pursuers; Dew thought she could hear the howls.  She had taken only half of her energy pill, but it still made her jumpy; she would twitch at the slightest noise.

        "Keep moving forward.  Keep moving forward.  Keep moving forward."  Last Leaf's chant was quiet and constant, designed to keep her focused and steady through the haze of static energy that clouded her brain.  Maple Song was resolutely holding onto what energy she had left; she hated the idea of pills.  Gleam's stretcher-bed swayed in rhythm to the ponies' hoofsteps, rocking its occupant into a soft, gentle slumber.  Blind to it all, Last Leaf walked steady, head down, and constantly muttering.  "Keep moving forward.  Keep moving forward.  Keep moving forward."

        Clear skies slept.  Months in the cell had drained her muscles of their strength, and Dew was adamantly against her taking the pills.  Instead, she had flown up to catch a cloud, and Clear Skies slept on it while Dew pushed.  It had taken much to convince the pegasus to use the cloud; she had felt guilty resting while everypony else was tired on their hooves.  She had refused to sleep, but soon her fatigue had overpowered her will.  It was an easy sleep; the cloud hovered effortlessly above the ground, refusing anything but a smooth, gentle glide.

        The unicorns slowly plodded forward in silence.  The drain of energy that came with the casting of spells was momentarily forestalled, but the pills could only do so much.  They kept their strength enough to walk and their minds enough to fight off sleep, but looking in their eyes one might think they were dead.  Still they plodded forward, dimly aware of the world around them, forward into the night.

        At the head of the group, Autumn led.  He had refused the pills himself, and though he had to be dead tired, he never showed it.  I wonder if his talent covers hiding his weaknesses.  The thought idly crossed Dew's mind as she watched him, his head held high as he walked straight, never slowing down.  They had been walking for hours, and dawn couldn't be far away; the black night was starting to take to blue.

        The pegasus landed in the middle of their group like an apparition; Dew jumped back and hissed before realizing what was standing in front of her.  He wore the camouflaged uniform of the Service, a set of goggles reflecting the starlight.  He raised a quizzical eyebrow at Dew, then looked around at the rest of the ponies who had all stopped at his appearance.  "Autumn's group, I suspect?"

        The question was met with silence as the tired ponies struggled to find their words.  Last Leaf giggled, her focus lost with her chant; all the excess energy was starting to make her giddy.  After a few seconds, Dew stepped forward.  "We... we are."

        The pegasus turned to face her and nodded.  "I'm Swift Storm, Service Hunter.  Where is..."  He trailed off, looking at the cloaked pony sleeping on the cloud.  "...is this Autumn?  I heard he was an earth pony."

        "Or a unicorn," commented Last Leaf, bubbles in her voice.

        "He's neither," Dew said.  "I mean... not unicorn, or..." she gestured at the sleeping pony, "...her.  He's..."  She looked around, finally spotting him in the starlight, still moving forward.  She looked at Swift Storm with a smile.  "Aa, wait here a moment."

        With that, she leapt a few feet into the air and surged forward, quickly closing the distance to her friend.  Landing beside him, she saw his red eyes had dimmed to a hazelnut brown, and his cutie mark...

        She quickly glanced behind them to see if anypony was following, and she nudged him, hard, in the chest.  "Autumn!" she whispered.

        He blinked, suddenly aware again.  "Dew?  What happened, is something wrong?"

        "You, ah... you fell asleep on your hooves," she said.

        Worried, he glanced back to the group of ponies, all waiting patiently.  Relieved, he closed his hazelnut eyes and opened them red.  His head tilted as he noticed the new pony.  "Who is that?" he asked.

        "Our rescue.  He wants to speak with you."

        Autumn started to breathe a little easier.  "They found us.  Praise Celestia, they found us."  He sighed, and all his tension seemed to leave his body with his breath.  "Well, then; we should not keep him waiting."

        Swift Storm looked like he wanted to snap to attention.  "Aa, the famous Autumn; pleasure to finally meet you.  My name is Swift Storm, Service Hunter.  Is this everypony?"

        "The ones who made it, yes," he answered solemnly.

        "Aa, yes... of course."  Swift Storm looked downcast.  "My apologies."

        "You are not the one who needs to apologize," Autumn said simply.  "Are you the only one out here?"

        "No.  We have a large detachment of pegasi scouring the skies for you.  The unicorns brought us in near the halfway point between Canterlot and Morlan Mountain, and they're awaiting signal that you've been found."

        "And now we have been."

        Swift Storm nodded.  "Right.  Wait here."  He took off to the skies, straight up, and the night quickly swallowed him.  Waiting, Dew felt the change in the weather; a slight change of pressure, a shift in the winds... and then lightening illuminated the sky.  In the flash, she saw Swift Storm kicking a thundercloud.

        Clear Skies woke with a scream as thunder roared over the ponies.  Instantly, Dew was by her side, trying to comfort her.  "Wha-what's going on?" she cried.

        "We've been found!" Dew responded as lightening and thunder sang again.  Clear Skies' eyes widened in fear.  "By ponies!" Dew hastily added.  "We're safe!"

        A third time the pegasus kicked the cloud, and in the flash she saw movement in the corner of her eye.  Glancing over, she saw that Gleam was likewise awake and afraid, and Maple song had shrugged out of the stretcher to try and calm her down.  Last Leaf stared at the sky, a bright smile on her face and a whisper on her lips.  "It's so pretty."

        "There," the pegasus said as he landed.  "The other pegasi will home in on that thunderhead, and the unicorns should be here shortly.  Soon, we will"

        "NO!"  Gleam's cry cut across the plains, loud and terrified.  She was kicking at the air around her, her eyes dashing back and forth, unfocused.  "No... they're coming!  Dogs and shadows... they're all around me!"

        "No, Gleam, it's okay!"  Maple Song dodged a swinging hoof.  "Nobody's coming to hurt you!  You're safe!"

        Gleam didn't seem to hear her, squirming in the stretcher.  "Get back... STAY AWAY!"  Now panicking, her horn began to glow.  Faintly at first, it grew stronger, sputtering as the magic wrapped itself around her.

        "Gleam" began Dew.

        "GET AWAY FROM M"

        Gleam never finished her sentence.  Her horn sparked where it was chipped, and all the magic she had built up burst in a flash, sending shockwaves of magical energy flying across the plains.  Maple Song and Last Leaf caught the brunt of it, and were flung away from the panicked unicorn.  Everypony else was knocked to the ground or into the air; Clear Skies' cloud was ripped apart, dumping its occupant onto the ground.  A cloud of dust was kicked up, pelting the ponies with grains of dirt.  Gleam screamed in pain, the sparks sputtering from her horn slowly subsiding.  Her stretcher was broken, and she had been flung to the ground.

        "What in the flying hell was that?" Swift Storm asked as he flew back in.

        "I... I think she's having fever dreams," Celina answered, struggling back to her hooves.  "Come on, Balloons; we need to get her magic under control!"  Balloons groaned and rolled to his hooves, but didn't stand.  As he pushed with his legs, the only thing he accomplished was rolling back onto his side.

        Celina didn't notice, already hobbling over to where Gleam was lay, still twitching in panic.  "Stay... stay away," she whispered, her horn beginning a faint glow once more.

        "Oh, no you don't."  Celina's own horn flashed brighter, and the purple glow wrapped itself around Gleam's horn, dispelling her magic.  "You're not going to"

        "AAWWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUUU!"

        Everypony froze, heads turned in the direction of the howl.  The magic lock around Gleam's horn dropped as Celina stared, mouth agape, toward the sound.  Last Leaf, lying on her back, giggled.  Gleam twitched fitfully.  "No..."

        Clear Skies took a trembling step backward.  "W-we have to go."

        "We can't," said Swift Storm.  "The rescue party is coming to this location.  If we aren't here"

        "GLEAM!  NO!" Dew cried, and everypony turned to see the unicorn struggling to stand, her horn again wrapped in as steadily growing glow.  Again, Celina locked her horn, but the strain of magic upon her exhaustion soon made itself apparent.  She collapsed, struggling to breath steadily.  Free, Gleam's horn began to glow on its own once more.

"No..."

        Autumn barrelled into her, knocking her onto the ground.  The sudden action broke Gleam's concentration, and the spell dispersed quietly.  "Quick!" he shouted, "before she recovers!"

        Balloons, still lying some distance away, closed his eyes and clamped his jaw shut, his horn glowing while a teal lock wrapped itself around Gleam's horn.  Gleam thrashed around, still trying to summon her magic at her dreams.  "I... I can't hold it!" he shouted.

        The ground was rumbling as the dogs closed in.  "Long as you can, then," Autumn said.  Then, looking over at Swift Storm, "Your party had best arrive soon."

        "Th-they will," he stammered nervously.  "Should be soon; it... it shouldn't take"

        He was cut off by a bright flash.  Standing in the midst of the group appeared fifteen unicorns.  Gleam screamed again, and her magic broke free of Balloons' constraints.  Still on the ground, she lashed out, but again her magic broke as it reached a crescendo, sparks flying from her horn.  The backlash was less this time, the shockwave only causing the ponies to close their eyes to the wind, dust, and sudden bright.  Autumn, standing next to her, was pushed back only a few inches.  Dew watched helplessly, not knowing what to do.  Maple Song was still lying on the ground, unconscious, while the Earth continued its slowly growing tremble under the feet of a thousand running dogs.

        "What the hay?" one of the newly arrived unicorns said.  "What's this about?"

        "Fever dreams!" shouted Celina, struggling to stand back up.  "Quick, we need to contain her magic!"

        Three unicorns instantly leapt forward, their horns glowing; Gleam was locked in a magical bind, holding her still to keep her from hurting herself or anyone else.  Still she tried to kick at the air around her.  "...away... stay away..."  Her voice was weak, and her breathing was shallow.  She coughed, and blood flew onto the dirt.

        The pounding of the earth suddenly stopped, and low chuckles were heard all around them.  In the light of the coming dawn, the shapes of dogs appeared as the wind blew the dust away.  One stepped forward, and his staff, now adorned with the severed horns of five unicorns, started to glow white.  The rest of the unicorns all took a defensive line, horns lowered.  The Shaman looked at Clear Skies, who whimpered and huddled down under Autumn's cloak as the big dog grinned.

        He pointed his staff at the ponies before him.  "Give back what you stole, and we let you go."

        The unicorns shifted, looking amongst themselves with unspoken questions.  Autumn stepped in front of them and looked the Shaman in the eye.  "You shall not have her."

        The Shaman's grin fell.  "Then you die."

        He raised his staff, and a pegasus dropped into the middle of the group, its wings flared defensively.  The Shaman paused, a confused look on his face.  Another pegasus landed, head lowered and ready to fight.  The Shaman looked up, and in the pale blue of the fading night, he saw pegasi circling in the sky, and three more dropped to the ground.

        The Shaman lowered his head and growled.

        "Get us out of here," Autumn said as the dogs surged forward.  The unicorns began their magic as the pegasi ran up to meet the dogs.  Those still circling above dove down, like hawks coming in for the killing blow.  Dew stepped in front of Clear Skies, wings flared, as Last Leaf finally pushed herself to her feet, her giddy energy now solidly focused on the incoming horde.

        The first dog to reach the ponies struck out with its claws at the pegasus in front of it.  The pony dodged the blow, and the dog fell under the blow of a diving pegasus.  All around him, other dogs suffered the same fate as several pegasi fell like rain.  Undeterred, the dogs surged over their fallen comrades.  The pegasi leapt back from the horde, but three dogs pounced for the slowest one, claws outstretched and jaws wide open.

        They fell into each other, bright light taking their target away from them.  Dogs surged over empty space, finding the ponies vanished with the wind.

        The Shaman howled in rage.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The unicorns sent off three flares in the pre-dawn light; one red, two blue: return to base.  There were still pegasi in the air, and this signal would bring them home.  The dogs would see it as well, but even if they did decide to follow the flares, the ponies would be gone long before the dogs ever reached them.

        Celina was dead tired; she was certain it was only the pain in her chest that kept her eyes open.  She thought it might be a broken rib, but even thinking was hard.  She knew that they had been rescued, but the details were very sketchy.  She clearly remembered Gleam having fever dreams, but after that everything became something of a blur.

        There was a unicorn talking, she knew.  Not to her, though, and for that she would have been grateful if she could have afforded the energy for the effort.  No, the unicorn was talking to Autumn.

        "Quite a following you had there," he was saying.  "Haven't seen that many dogs above ground since my early years.  All after her, was it?  The pegasus?"  The unicorn chuckled.  "She's pretty, sure, but I wouldn't have thought her worth all that.  Heh.  I guess it's true, then: it's what's on the inside that counts."

        She knew this unicorn, but she was having a hard time fighting through her fatigue to remember him.  Perhaps it wasn't important, but it bugged her.  The two of them, Autumn and the unicorn, were standing over Gleam.  She had been sedated, and was now sleeping peacefully.  Autumn stood there, likely to keep watch over the mare and see to it that she was alright, but the other unicornwhere do I know him from?was standing there simply because that was where Autumn was.

        "By the way," the unicorn continued, "I'd heard you ran off with several more ponies than this.  You got some of 'em doing scouting runs or something?"

        "'Or something,'" responded Autumn.  "If that is your attempt at a joke, it is in poor taste."

        She closed her eyes in an attempt to eliminate the distractions around her, focusing on the unicorn's face and voice.  An older pony, he had soft colours: a teal coat and his mane was a washed-out rose, almost white.  An old teacher of mine?  No, no... more recent than that.

        "Dead, then, are they?  Well, that puts some work on Intelligence's back, I suppose.  How many was it?  Six?  Seven?"

        There was something wrong there.  It scratched at her mind, but she couldn't place it through the fog in her head.  "Eleven," Autumn said; Celina laid the matter to rest.

        The unicorn let out a low breath.  "Eleven.  I wouldn't want to be in Intelligence when that assignment comes in."

        There it was again, that little scratching unease.  What is that? she wondered.  What is he saying that is so wrong?  She shook her head, trying to clear some of the fog.

        "Did you want me to look at that?" a voice asked.

        She opened  her eyes to a pegasus holding a roll of fresh bandage.  Beside him was a unicorn, and it was to her that Celina spoke.  "...what?"

        The mare pointed.  "Your leg."

        Celina looked down.  Oh, she thought.  I'd forgotten about that.  She nodded idly as she brought her attention back to the elder unicorn.  "Still, though... eleven," he was saying.  "Don't get a number like that very often.  Can you imagine what they'd have to come up with?  Hoo, Sunmeadow is going to have a field day with that one."

        Even Celina could hear the barbs in Autumn's reply.  "I would appreciate it if you would stop referring to lives lost as an inconvenience."

        The unicorn looked up.  "Oh, now that got your attention.  Sore spot, is it?  Didn't think this would happen when you decided to run off and play leader to a bunch of fine ponies, did you?  Finer ponies than you, I might add, and who would still be in Service today if not for your foolishness."

        Astral Chance, she thought, finally placing the unicorn.  He's with the Cause, that's right; always stands by the door.  She nodded slowly, trying to convince her mind to calm down, but that scratching unease refused to leave; there was still something she was missing.

        "And what would you have done?"  She looked over at the new voice, and saw Dew sitting between the unconscious earth pony, Maple Song, and their rescued captive.  She stopped; there was something about Clear Skies that tickled that itch at the back of her head.  It was demanding her attention, and she lost track of the conversations going on around her.  What does she have to do with anything?

        Clear Skies was lying down, a frightened figure cowering against Astral's unhidden contempt; it made Celina sick.  Where would she hide if not for that cloak?  The thought passed idly by before the scratch took control again, and she found herself staring at the pregnant mare.  Try as she might, though, she couldn't think of any reason that Clear Skies would be trouble.  Too tired to think, she told herself.  She's a civilian; what can... oh.

        "Now, see here" she heard Astral sputter; she wasn't going to let this argument go on any longer.

        "Enough," she said.  Fatigue kept her voice low, but it carried well enough over the bickering ponies, if a little lazily.  "Astral, this is hardly the time to be trying to make new enemies.  Also,"

she fixed him with a pointed look"might I remind you to watch your tongue?  We wouldn't want our guest to gain a bad impression of you."

        Astral looked over at Clear Skies, who shrunk back under his gaze; Celina shook her head.  So weak...  "Aa... right you are."  He looked over at Autumn and motioned away with his hoof.  "Come; let's talk over here."

        "As you will," he said.  Astral turned and began walking, but Autumn went in the opposite direction, toward where Dew and Clear Skies sat.

        "Hey!  Where are you going?"

        Autumn ignored him, walking up beside the two mares.  "How are you feeling?" he asked them.

        "Tired," answered Dew; Clear Skies only nodded.  "Maple Song seems fine, but it'll be hard to tell for certain until she wakes up.  The unicorns say that she doesn't appear hurt beyond what Gleam already cared for, but..."

        Autumn nodded.  "That is good," he said.  He looked at Clear Skies.  "Will you walk with me a moment?"

        Clear Skies was taken aback by the request, but she quickly recovered.  "Y... yes," she said.  She stood, and Autumn led her away from everypony else, well out of earshot.

        "What's this all about, huh?" Astral indignantly asked.  "Trying to score some points with her or something?"

        Dew glared at him.  "Perhaps he is trying to undo the damage you did with your careless tongue.  Honestly, talking openly about the Service in front of a civilian?  What is wrong with you?"

        Astral snorted.  "Hmph.  Yes, well... the remaining pegasi will be here shortly.  Make sure he's ready when they arrive; our next jump takes us back to Canterlot."

        Canterlot; good.  Celina was looking forward to getting back; there was so much that she had to say, so much that the Cause had to know.  Not right away, of course; the first thing she had to do was sleep.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        They arrived back in Canterlot midmorning, arriving in one of the mansions reserved for Service use; almost immediately Balloons and Celina sank to the floor and fell asleep.

        "Aa, to be young again," Astral sighed.  "Well, we still got things to do; let's wake them up."

        "Oh, let them rest," Dew said.  "They certainly deserve it."

        Astral shrugged.  "Very well, then."  He gently lifted them into the air.  "I'll just take them to bed; better to sleep on soft down than hard wood, eh?"  He chuckled quietly to himself as he walked off, the two sleeping unicorns in tow.  He paused, looked back, and called, "Star, could you grab those other two?  Storm, get a medical pony in here, on the double."

        The ponies nodded, and quickly went to their tasks.  Another of the assembled pegasi walked over to Autumn.  "Come with me," he said.  "We'll need to get a report from you."

        Autumn shook his head.  "Later.  I must take Clear Skies to a good hospital."

        "There'll be a medical pony here shortly; I don't think one more patient will make much difference."

        "This is not for fresh wounds; there is a need for full examination.  Not to worry," he added, "I shall not be gone long."  He then walked out without waiting for a response.  Clear Skies hesitated only for a second, then ran over and followed him out.

        The pegasus looked over at Dew.  "He always like this?"

        She shrugged.  "Well, Astral there did make him mad.  But if he says he'll be back, you can rest assured he will be."  With that, she likewise followed Autumn out.

        The three of them stepped out into the street, into the urban bustle so common in this city.  It took a few steps for Clear Skies to fall behind, staring at the many ponies around them.  Dew pulled Autumn to a stop, and they waited for her to catch up to them again.  "Something wrong?" she asked.

        "There's..."  Clear Skies looked around, taking the the entirety of the city around her.  "There's just so many ponies," she said.

        Autumn and Dew looked at each other, and shrugged.  After months alone in the belly of a mountain, this would be a little overwhelming.  "Here," Autumn said, pulling the cloak's hood up over her head.  "If you need, keep your eyes on the road, and do not let the world distract you."  He smiled, and placed himself beside the pony.  "Shall we proceed?"

        They continued down the street, with Dew taking a position on the cloaked pegasus' other side.  Try as she might, Clear Skies could not keep her eyes down.  In wonderment she looked upon the homes and shops that lined the streets; in large crowds she shrank back from the noise of the many hooves on cobblestone and the cacophony of the multitude of voices.  With infinite patience, her two companions stayed by her side, guiding her through the streets thick with ponies.  Eventually, they left it all behind as they stepped into the hospital.

        A little while later, they stood before a nurse as she explained the nature of the treatments they would be using to repair Clear Skies' wing.  Dew listened with only half an ear; she understood that most of the procedure was magical, and that, in order for the healing to be full and complete, it would take over a month of work.  Beyond that, most of what the nurse was saying was lost on her.

        "...we can start today, if that's okay with you," she was saying.  "Of course, this is not a cheap procedure, but it is the best option; anything less, and your wing could break again under any number of common stresses."

        "...oh," was all Clear Skies said, shrinking into Autumn's cloak.

        The nurse raised a quizzical eyebrow.  "We can arrange automatic withdrawals from your bank if you need," she said.

        She shook her head.  "No, it's just... I don't know if I have anything left right now."

        The nurse opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off.  "She has... been away for a while," Autumn said.  "No matter; I shall shoulder the fees.  What information will you need?"

        The nurse looked him up and down.  "Are you a relative?"

        "I am not; that should not matter.  It is my choice, is it not?"

        The nurse nodded slowly, then sighed and handed over the paperwork.  Autumn quietly filled it out, all the while Clear Skies watched him, a look of bewilderment on her face.  Dew leaned in close.  "Something bothering you?" she asked.

        Clear Skies turned her head to face her, and mouthed the word 'why?'  She swallowed, and found her voice, whispering, "Why is he doing this?"

        Dew shrugged.  "Just his way of doing things, I suppose.  He likes to see things through 'til the end; perhaps he is just making sure this ends right.  Or, maybe..." she dropped her tone to a conspiratorial whisper and winked.  "...you could ask him instead."

        "There we go," the nurse said, collecting the papers from Autumn.  "I'll go file these away; please wait here."

        The three of them sat quietly as the nurse trotted off, the papers held in her mouth.  After a few seconds, Dew mentally sighed and nudged Clear Skies, motioning toward Autumn.  The mare swallowed, and hesitantly broke the silence.  "W... why are you doing this for me?"

        He looked at her and smiled.  "Because I want to see you fly."

        Dew smiled inwardly.  Cheesy old sap, she thought.  Still, she couldn't deny it sounded nice.  It certainly had an effect on Clear Skies; she looked to the ground, blushing slightly.  A few seconds later, Autumn cleared his throat.  "I... I must apologize, Clear Skies."  She looked up at him, a hint of fear behind the curiosity in her eyes.  "I fear I have not had the time to look for your lifemate; these past few days have been busy."

        There was a pause, then she chuckled.  She couldn't stop, and soon she was laughing heartily; all the stress built up over the many months all seemed to wash off her weary face.  She was smiling a radiant smile, her eyes sparkled, and for the first time in many moons, even if was just for this moment, she was completely carefree.

        When the Nurse came back, Clear Skies was still smiling; the weight of the world was resting a little easier on her.  "Ready?" the nurse asked.  The pegasus looked up and nodded.

        "Hey," Dew said, "we're going to head back to the house; unfinished business and all that.  We'll be sure to come and visit you later, okay?"

        Clear Skies nodded, got up, and walked over to the nurse.  "Oh," she said, suddenly turning around.  "I forgot..."  She pulled Autumn's cloak off her shoulders, held it close for a moment, then offered it back to him.  "Thank you," she said as he accepted it.  "For everything."

        "It was my pleasure."

        They watched her go before heading back out to the city.  "So, what now?" Dew asked as they made their way through the busy streets.

        Autumn shrugged.  "I suppose I give my report, and then Golden Lock will punish me for my disobedience."

        "That's unlikely, you know.  There are too many ponies who would side with you now; he can't punish you like that."

        "Perhaps.  I have known him to ignore good sense before."

        They walked together for a while longer, the noise of the city drowning out the silence between them.  Finally, Dew spoke up.  "We should grab lunch."

        "I doubt now is a good time," Autumn responded.  "If I am gone too long, Astral may accuse me of running away."

        "Later, then," she persisted.  "After all this, you're bound to get some free time.  What about this weekend?"

        He thought about it.  "Hm... cannot, I fear; I will only have the one day, and I shall be doing my music thing then."

        His 'music thing.'  He never said more about it than that.  Dew stopped walking.  "Autumn... is there something wrong?"

        He stopped and looked at her.  "No.  Why do you ask?"

        "It's just... you've been growing distant, like there's something bothering you."

        "This last mission was"

        "No, Autumn; this is longer than that.  The past month you've been..."  She trailed off, looking away from him.  "I feel like you're trying to avoid me sometimes.  I know you'll go out of your way to help others, but what about you?"  She looked back, and stared into his eyes; tears were threatening in her own.  "Aren't friends supposed to help each other?  Where do you go?  Am I... am I not your friend anymore?"

        "Dew..."  For a moment, he didn't move, then he closed his eyes and hung his head.  "I'm sorry... I didn't realize."

        She shut her eyes against her tears.  That's it? she thought.  An apology and it's over?  She was about to run when she felt a soft kiss on her cheek.  She opened her eyes to Autumn's masked face.  "You are my first and only friend, and I will never leave you behind.  You have sacrificed too much in my favour to let me to forget that."  He smiled.  "Lunch it is, then; this weekend.  We shall spend the day together."

        She smiled, and gently butted her head against his.  "You big dummy."

        "I am at that," he said, "but for now, we need to get back to the manor; they will be waiting for us."

        "Right, then."  She straightened up.  "Back to business, I suppose."

        Dew felt a lot more at peace as they walked up the steps to the mansion, Autumn at her side.  Most of that peace was instantly dashed when Astral spoke.  "About time you two got back.  I was beginning to think you had run off to avoid your punishment."  He looked Autumn up and down.  "I see you have your cloak back."

        "Hello, Astral," Dew said wearily.

        He glared back at her.  "That will be 'Astral Chance' to you two."

        "I am surprized they have already decided on a punishment.  Usually there is a proceeding."

        Astral Chance shifted his glare to Autumn.  "That remains to be seen."

        "How is Gleam?" he asked.

        The unicorn didn't answer right away; Dew thought he seemed very annoyed at being brushed off so casually.  "Up the stairs and on the right.  The nurse is with her now."  Autumn bowed his head, and Dew followed him up the stairs; she felt Astral's glare at her back the whole time.

        Gleam was still asleep when they entered the room, and the nurse was still giving an examination, her horn glowing gently.  "Almost done," she said, jotting down some notes on her clipboard.  Finished, she looked up at the ponies in the doorway.  "Want me to look at that?"

        "Huh?"  Dew looked down, and was suddenly reminded of the bandage wrapped around her body.  "Oh, uh... no, that's okay.  Just... how is she?"

        The unicorn levitated her glasses off and wiped her eyes.  "Not well, I'm afraid."  Her glasses landed on her nose again as she looked through her notes.  "Most of the lacerations are easily dealt with, and have already begun healing well.  Some will require more work to fix, and there are a couple of infections to deal with, as well as her fever."  She flipped the page.  "She has some broken ribs and a punctured lung; I suspect that happened later, as there are signs that the bone scrapped against her lung before it punctured.  One leg broken, bone bruised in another, miscellaneous fractures... she's seen rough times."  She set the clipboard down and sighed.  "But the real problem is her horn."

        Dew was now standing next to the bed, watching Gleam sleep.  Her eyes were darting around under her eyelids, and she seemed to be having a nightmare.  "Her horn... it was only chipped a little."

        " Your friend had more than a small chip; there was a fracture that ran from that chip to the core of her horn.  When she started casting those spells at her fever dreams, though..."  The nurse tapped her own horn.  "These things are powerful conduits, but they're not infallible.  When she put that much power through a freshly damaged horn... well, it's like trying to lift weights on a fractured leg; the leg is going to break.  The fracture she had now runs the length of the core, down to her skull."

        "Can anything be done?" Autumn asked.

        The nurse sighed.  "I'm afraid not.  Treating horn fractures is still beyond us."

        "Will she..." Dew swallowed a sob.  "Will she still be able to use magic?"

        "Hard to say."  She picked up her clipboard again and tucked it against her side.  "It depends on how much the horn heals.  In any case, the power she'll wield will be greatly diminished.  She should still be able to manage everyday tasks, such as brushing her teeth or cooking, but beyond that..."  She stopped as a sob escaped Dew's throat.  "I'm sorry," she said, and left the room.

        Autumn stood by the door, ever the distant pony.  "Will you...?"

        Dew nodded.  "I'll be fine.  Go; you need to make your report."

        He lingered a moment.  "I... I will be there if you need me."  With that, he slipped out of the room, leaving Dew alone with her broken friend.  A tear ran down her cheek.

*          *          *

        Faster, faster, FASTER.  The wind whistled by Dew's ears as she pushed herself to her fastest speeds.  She had only heard about this an hour ago, and she knew she had to make it fast; time was against her.  Her saddlebags slowed her, but she'd be damned if she dropped them.

        She banked left, hard, and flew over her destination.  Slowing down, she scanned the ground, eventually finding a bright blue pony against the green of the grass.  Softly, she came in and landed near the figure, almost afraid of what she might find.

        Clear Skies lay on the grass, seemingly asleep.  She was thinner; she had obviously given birth.  The lustre in her mane was gone, her coat looked drab, but she was breathing and Dew thanked Celestia for that.  The mare had been lying here, unmoving, for the past few days.  She hadn't taken food, but it looked like she had, at least, taken water.  Dew approached carefully.  "Hey," she said.  "I heard you were here."

        Clear Skies woke with a start, momentarily frightened before remembering where she was.  "Oh," she said when she saw Dew.  "It's you."

        "Yeah.  Sorry about not coming by sooner; work really came down hard on me."  She smiled and lay down beside the mare.  "I'm skipping work today."

        Clear Skies said nothing, only stared ahead at the gravestone in before her.

Here Lies Silver Dawn

Beloved Son and Lifemate

May He Find Eternal Peace

        An urn was standing next to the gravestone like a companion piece.  There was no inscription in the clay, but Dew didn't need one to know that it contained the ashes of the stillborn foal.  With both of the ponies in her life dead, is it really any wonder she's given up?

        "The dogs have broken up, you know," Dew said.  "We got word back; the mountain is empty again."  Spotter hadn't returned, though, but Dew wasn't going to mention that.  It had been just three days, and Spotter would be returning on hoof.  The word had come from a unicorn; it seemed that Golden Lock had sent ponies to the mines after all, and they'd seen the tribe scatter as it fell apart.  In spite of that, the unicorns hadn't seen Spotter, or at least didn't mention him.

        "Why are you here?"  Clear Skies' question was carried on a weak voice, but it was no less barbed for all that.

        "I've come to keep a promise."  The pegasus looked over at the sound of glass and paper; Dew pulled out a bottle of wine and a picnic cloth from her saddlebags.  "I said we'd have dinner and everything."

        Clear Skies stared, her mouth agape, but then turned away.  "I don't want it."

        "Come on, now; you can't just"

        "I said I don't want it!"  She rounded on Dew, sadness and anger filling her eyes.  "Why can't you just leave me alone?"

        Dew stared back into her eyes, unflinching.  "Is this how you pay us back?"  Clear Skies stopped.  "By killing yourself?  You were strong once; why are you giving yourself up now?"

        Her lip trembled.  "I... I don't... I have nopony left; I can't make it alone."

        "I'm here."

        The heartbroken pegasus sniffed, then her breath broke into sobs.  She collapsed on the grave of her lifemate, and Dew wrapped her wing around her.  "They... they didn't..." she tried between sobs.  "They didn't let me even see her.  Sh-she was born, and they took her away.  They waited an hour to tell me she hadn't made it, then they gave me her ashes.  I never saw her once."

        Dew stroked her mane.  "I'm sure she was beautiful, just like you."

        She shook her head.  "No... not like me; like him.  I felt it... she had a horn, I'm sure of it.  I just..."  Her body shuddered, and she fell into sobs.  Dew nuzzled her gently, and opened the basket she had brought.

        "Here," she said, offering a sandwich.  "You need to eat something.  Your body is weak right now, and you'll need strength to get up."

        She shook her head.  "I-I don't"

        "You will.  I'm here for you, Skies, and Autumn is too.  If you need someone to lean against, we'll be there for you.  But right now, I need you to eat."  She looked over to the headstone.  "I think he'd like you to live as well."

        Clear Skies swallowed a sob, and took a small bite from the sandwich.  She looked up at Dew.  "Do... do you have clover and daffodil?"

        Dew smiled, reaching into the basket.  "As a matter of fact, I do."

        The time passed smoothly after that.  Clear Skies ate slowly and drank water, and Dew likewise avoided the wine she'd brought.  Seemed a silly thing now, but she had a plan for it.  Right now, she was laughing with Clear Skies in the sun.

        "...and then, he just vanished!  The other guy, poor thing, was so shocked by it that he dropped his pipe; almost burnt the house down."  Clear Skies laughed quietly, and Dew rolled her cup in the grass.  "Took forever to convince Autumn to come out of hiding after that; he was afraid that the pony would attack him for making him drop his pipe, or something.  Never fully understood it."  She chuckled.  "He's always been a little shy around strangers."

        Skies was smiling, but it never seemed to reach her eyes.  She kept glancing over at the headstone where her family lay, as if she hoped to find something new each time.  Each time, she returned almost despondently to her half-eaten sandwich.  She hadn't eaten much, but after a few days of fasting, it was to be expected.

        Sighing, Dew stood up.  "Tomorrow, then; you're invited."

        "To what?"

        "Autumn and I are going to have lunch.  Promise you'll be there."

        Skies looked down.  "I-I don't"

        "Skies."  The mare looked up again.  "Promise me."

        Silence; then: "...ok."

        Dew nodded.  "And I'm holding you to that."  She looked over at the headstone.  "Well, we're not the only ones at this dinner, are we?"

        "It's lunchtime."

        Dew waved that aside.  "Semantics.  Was Silver Dawn ever opposed to drinking?"

        "He... never drank a lot."

        "But he did drink?"  Skies nodded.  "Very well, then."  Dew held up the bottle of wine.  "Shall we give him one last toast?"

        A pegasus the colour of sage landed before the bottle was opened.  "Dew!" he called.  "Thank the heavens I've found you!"

        Dew stopped and turned.  "Swift Storm?  What are you doing here?"

        "It's Autumn," he said, his voice near panic.  "He's been declared a traitor!"

つづ

To Be Continued...


=========================================================================================

Chapter Six

"The Intelligence branch is the heart of the Service.  It is these ponies who dissect reports, rumours, and tall tales and turn them into something useful and useable.  Taking information from a wide variety of sources, they must work to separate fact from fiction; find grains of truth hidden in fanciful tales.  These are the ponies who must find the hostile gatherings while they are still manageable, see the stampedes of monsters before they run rampant across our land, and identify and locate the ponies that will continue the grand traditions of the Service."

~Excerpt from the Guiding Manual of the Secret Service

        Golden Lock was not happy.  The three ponies before him shifted nervously, exchanging quick glances amongst each other before returning their gaze, reluctantly, to the Vice-Commissar.  He sat behind his desk, his elbows resting on its lacquered surface, the soles of his hooves pressed together under his chin.  He let the silence stretch, watching the three ponies sweat before he spoke, his voice flat.

        "What?"

        The leader of the three, relieved to have a clear path before him, snapped to attention and began speaking.  Golden Lock wasn't listening; he'd heard it well enough the first time.  The report had come as no surprize.  A disappointment, to be sure, but hardly a surprize.  As quick as his order had been given, he knew that trying to find a cowering Autumn was an exercise in futility.  He had hoped that, perhaps, he could have found Autumn before he slipped into shadow, but he hadn't expected to.  Not really.

        It took a moment for Golden Lock to realize that the pony had stopped speaking and, in the prolonged silence, had fallen back into the nervous shifting pattern of his partners.  He wanted to yell at them, make them regret ever failing his order, but he knew that would be the wrong approach.  Most ponies seemed to believe the tall tales about Autumn, and if he punished them for failing to find a pony who could turn into mist it would only turn them against him.

        Finally, he sighed and lay his hooves on the desk; the gesture caused the ponies to stop moving and stand at perfect attention.  He watched them as they snapped to, checking their form.  A misplaced hoof may be a little thing, but it could betray a lax in the discipline he demanded.  "You..." he began, pausing slightly to collect his thoughts, "...have failed."  The assembled ponies took a collective breath.  "However, I cannot, in good conscience, find it in myself to punish you as such failure dictates.  Autumn excels at evasion and shadow dancing, and I cannot expect everypony to be able to compete with him.

        "But know this," he said, fixing his steely gaze upon them.  "Autumn's capture is a matter of national security, and I do not take your failure lightly.  For now, you are dismissed; I shall decide my actions at a later time."  With curt nods, the three ponies left, almost tripping over themselves, leaving Lock to his own thoughts; they rested darkly on a certain missing pony.

        Autumn.

        The name rolled around in his head, drumming up emotions best left untouched and throwing his thoughts into a veritable storm.  It had been mere hours since the pony had been declared a traitor, and already he was becoming a headache.  Golden lock found himself filled with a grim determination.  Autumn had to be found, no matter what it took.  He didn't know what that pony knew about the secrets the palace held, but he wouldn't allow any opportunity to find out.

        He found himself staring out the windowpane.  The enchanted glass was one of the luxuries his office held, magically presenting a wonderful view of Canterlot as though he wasn't locked inside the mountain's heart.  He was directing angry feelings towards an innocent bird when he heard the knock at his door.  He turned, and the bronze-coloured unicorn stallion in the doorway flinched under his baleful gaze.  "Aa, uh... sir, I..." he stammered, taking a step back.

        Lock closed his eyes and exhaled, relaxing as the air left his lungs.  When he opened his eyes again they were no longer burning.  "Ingot, what is it?" he asked calmly.

        Ingot, suddenly sensing that he was out of danger, quickly regained his composure.  "Sir, I... I have the reports you requested."  He cast a nervous glance to the side.  "It isn't much, I'm afraid."

        "Anything is better than nothing," Golden Lock said, resuming his place behind his desk.  He magically pulled up a cushion and motioned towards it.  "If you would."

        The stallion didn't sit.  Instead, he pulled out the report and gave it a critical eye.  "Well," he began, "Autumn's file is quite clean; he's stayed out of trouble, for the most part.  A couple of small incidents in the beginning, but those quickly disappeared.  Performed his duties with exceptional skill and results, even if his leadership was lacking.  He—"

        "I know his file," Golden Lock interrupted.  "I didn't ask you here to read that to me.  I need to know more about the pony himself."

        Ingot shifted uncomfortably.  "Well... that's just it: we don't know much more than this.  I mean... here, take his talent."  He dropped all pretence of formality, helplessly pulling out random sheets from the folder.  "He hides, and he's good at it.  We know this, but, how good?  You've heard the rumours; I have some reports that make some of those look tame!  Most are unconfirmed, of course, but the sheer volume of them is harrowing.  I mean, we know that, under non-magical conditions, nopony has managed to find him.  Ever.  I have reports of him remaining unseen throughout the entirety of a week-long exercise.  Where magic is involved... I have confirmed reports of him hiding from passive magical scans.  I have confirmed reports of active scans finding him, but I have unconfirmed reports of him hiding from those as well!  I mean—" He shook the papers caught in his magical glow, gesturing helplessly at them.  "With all this, I'm inclined to give credence to the rumours that he's a unicorn in disguise."

        "Really?  And what do his physical evaluations say?"

        "Well," he said as he shuffled through some of the papers, "they say he's an earth pony, but... I don't ever remember seeing him at the evals.  I mean... here, look at this one."  He placed one of the papers on Lock's desk.  "See here?  This was the same day I took it.  It was a make-up day, there was only one timeslot."  He shook his head.  "I don't remember him being there."

        Lock glanced over the report as though it were yesterday's news.  "This was several months ago.  Do you think it unlikely that you simply forgot?"

        The pony shrugged.  "He kind of stands out, you know?"

        Golden Lock looked at the paper before him.  A standard report, there was nothing remarkable about it at all; Autumn's scores were average for a pony of his age.  So much for standing out.  In fact... "How do the scores on this compare to the others he's taken?"

        "Oh, uh..." Ingot quickly shifted through his files.  "Ah, here," he said, placing several more papers on Lock's desk, who proceeded to look them over.

        Remarkably average, he thought.  Purposefully so?  "I want an investigation into these records.  If they have been falsified, I want to know.  All of them, not just his physical evals," he added, giving Ingot a pointed look.

        He nodded.  "Of course, sir, but... do you really think he faked these?  I mean... why?"

        "Because he's a foal who likes hiding.  Perhaps he thinks this is all a game."  He looked out the window, watching the ponies wander around in the city far below.  Though it strained his belief to think that the records were faked, he wasn't going to overlook anything; not with this pony.  But how, though?  How could he change his records?  Is he hiding a skill from us too, or does he have help?  Who wouldHe stopped, and shook his head.  Of course.  "Where is Dew?"

        "Dew?  She was out of the palace when we locked it down, I'm afraid.  We don't know where she is."

        Of course she was.  The thought tasted like bile.  He swallowed, draining the taste from his mouth.  "Lift the lockdown," he said.  "Autumn is already gone; there's nothing to be gained by keeping it."  He paused.  "Still, though... place unicorns at the exits.  If we have confirmation of active magical scans finding him, then we will employ those.  If he tries to enter or leave, I want him stopped there."

        Ingot blinked.  "Didn't you just say he was gone?  Why post the guards now?"

        "Because," he said, turning back to face Ingot, "he may just be hiding, waiting for us to release lockdown.  You said it yourself: he's remarkably good at hiding.  Most of our ponies have family to go home to, and if I can grant them that without further risking our security, I will do so."  He pointed his hoof.  "Station the unicorns; they are to maintain active searching spells.  In addition, verify identities of all exiting and entering agents.  There are to be no errors, no exceptions.  Is this understood?"

        "Of course, sir.  Um... for how long?"

        "As long as it takes."

        "They will get tired."

        "It is necessary."  The pony said nothing, and after a silence Golden Lock sighed.  "Leave the report; you are dismissed."

        Ingot nodded sharply, finally regaining his formal composure.  As he reached the door, he looked back and said, "Also, Keystone is asking for you at your earliest convenience."

        Lock nodded, looking at the stack of paper on his desk.  Piled high, there were a lot more than he had thought.  Most of it was baseless rumour, he was sure, but sorting through it all would take time.  He was not looking forward to the task.  The thought of all the tall tales and obvious exaggerations in the hiding in the stack made it look more like a pile of manure than of paper.  He checked the clock; he'd been staring at the papers for several minutes.  Oh, stamp it all, he thought, pushing away from the desk.  The reports weren't going anywhere, and Keystone wasn't to be kept waiting.

        Keystone, he thought as he made for her office.  When did she get back?  It wasn't anything surprizing, of course; she rarely did anyone the courtesy of letting them know what she was doing.  In spite of her age, she still went out and did field work, and if disappearing for weeks on end was her idea of 'fun,' then she had a sick sense of humour.  Such excursions tended to cause small amounts of panic in the higher command, leaving him to keep things calm and running.  Not that he minded much; it was an opportunity to show his leadership.  This time, she had only been gone a week.  Must've been a dull mission.

        The earth pony lay on the couch beside her enchanted windowpane, her eyes closed as she bathed in the simulated sunlight; her russet coat and amber mane appeared to be glowing.  On her flank, clearly visible, was a picture of her namesake: the centre stone of an arch.  Golden Lock entered quietly, allowing only enough sound from his hoofsteps to announce his presence.  It was the same ritual they did every time.  In the ensuing silence, he would wait, standing perfectly still, until she decided when the meeting would begin.

        "I've always liked this window," Keystone began.  "It lets me forget I'm stuck inside a mountain with nothing to keep me company but piles of paperwork.  I look out and I can see this beautiful city sprawled beneath me, with all the ponies I fight to protect wandering the streets like ants."  She smiled.  "When I close my eyes, I can almost hear them."

        "The glass doesn't produce sounds."

        She opened her eyes and gave him a mildly disdainful look.  "I know that; I'm being poetic."

        He bowed.  "I apologize, then.  Please, continue."

        "Oh, no, it's too late now," she said, getting up from her seat.  "You've ruined it, and no amount of grovelling is going to bring it back."  She stopped in front of him, looking up into his eyes.  "I hope you're rightly ashamed of yourself."

        "Quite," he replied placidly.

        "Good," she said, nodding once before turning back to her office.  She continued to address him, trotting over to the enchanted glass to gaze over Canterlot, a sing-song melancholy dancing throughout her words.  "I've heard some distressing rumours, Lock.  A lot of what I do involves that, I know, but rarely do I have the opportunity to hear such tales of my subordinates.  Now, though, I hear that one of our own has turned traitor, right after disrupting an unprecedented gathering of diamond dogs just outside our borders."  She paused a moment, turning her head to look back at him.  "A little odd, don't you think?"

        "I couldn't tell you his motivations."

        "No, of course not."  She sighed, returning her attention to the glass pane before her.  "Tell me, how did you find out about this treason?"

        "He was seen planting a device near the princess' quarters," he replied.  "When confronted, he fled, taking the device with him.  At this time, we do not know what this device was meant to do, but we are conducting a search of his quarters.  With luck, the result should shed some light on this... situation."

        "'He was seen,' was he?  Is this the same Autumn that I have heard such extraordinary stories about?  One would think that he might try hiding a bit if he wanted to plant such a nefarious device."

        "As I said, I couldn't tell you his motivations."

        She turned her head, studying him scrupulously with amber eyes.  "What about your motivations, Lock?  What can you tell me about those?"

        He blinked.  "My motivations?"

        "Yes, your motivations," she said, once more leaving the window.  "You have accused a pony, who would otherwise have a clean record, of treason.  A pony who disobeyed your orders, and in doing so kept Equestria's peace."  She stepped closer.  "A pony who made you look a fool.  Yes, I question your motives.  What can you tell me about them?"

        Golden Lock was unmoved.  "Do you really think that I would stoop to such depths?" he asked.  "You made me the Vice-Commissar, your second-in-command, and you didn't do that because I pandered to my pride.  I have served the princess, you, and Equestria faithfully in all the time I have been here.  You have seen me grow up here, and you know the troubles I had every step of the way.  Yes, I made a mistake, and it will have terrible repercussions for me, but I don't attack those who point out my errors; I'm not so petty as that."  He looked her squarely in her eyes.  "Were I a lesser pony, I'd feel insulted at the accusation."

        She met his gaze, unflinching, her eyes narrowed.  Finally, she broke the silence.  "I had to make sure," she said.  "We are all ponies, Lock, each and every one of us.  We've lived in harmony with each other for generations, never falling to the incessant infighting of our neighbours.  We in the Service may come from different walks of life, but we all wound up here, set to protect the princess and her people."  She paused, a thoughtful look settling onto her features.  "Both the princesses," she added.  "I find it hard to believe that one of us would do such a thing."

        He smiled, but it was a sad thing, overflowing with sympathy.  "You're not alone there.  I think this news rattled the whole Service.  When it comes down to it, the only ponies behind us are our own, and if we can't even trust them..."  He let the rest hang there, unspoken; the silence enough spoke volumes.

        She sighed wistfully, looking away from his eyes.  "'...can't even trust them,'" she whispered.  For a moment, she seemed to slump, as though her age had finally caught up to her, but only  for a moment.  She straightened, regaining all her formal composure again.  "And can we trust you, Lock?"  She pointed to the glass behind her, displaying the vista of Canterlot warmed by the midday sun.  "See that window?  It offers me a spectacular view, and lets the sun shine into my office.  But you know what?  As real as it looks, you can step in the light, and it's cold; you can easily tell it's fake."  She turned all her attention back to him.  "It's the same kind of feeling I get from this whole debacle, Lock.  Tell me, why did you throw out Autumn's report?  Why did you ignore such danger?"

        "The report was ludicrous; how could I believe it?  That many dogs in one place hasn't been seen outside the first pack's civil war, and nopony could have missed something like that happening again."

        "Yet there it was.  Knowing your history is all well and good, but we are not here to prevent the past from taking up arms again.  We are here for the now, and we must not ignore warnings simply because it isn't common.  The least you could have done is sent additional scouts to confirm."  The look she gave him could have caused Nightmare Moon to wait a few years before breaking free.  "Or maybe you could have taken to the field and seen it for yourself."

        "As always," he said humbly, "your wisdom is invaluable."

        "Shove it," she responded.  "Until further notice, you are on probation.  You shall retain your title, but all command decisions you make must have the backing of either myself or the council before it can be enacted.  I am leaving Autumn on your back, but you are to provide me with constant updates to the situation, as well as any incidents within the Service.  Lastly, you are forbidden from taking to the field."  Her voice dropped to a dangerously level tone.  "I am taking back major control of the Service.  Do I make myself clear?"

        Golden Lock bowed.  "Perfectly."

        "Have you informed the princesses?"

        He paused a moment, then realized that Keystone was asking about Autumn.  "I have told Princess Celestia," he replied.  "She, of course, wishes to speak with the traitor when he is found.  Princess Luna, of course, I haven't disturbed."

        Keystone nodded automatically.  "Of course," she said, turning back to her window in an obvious dismissal.  "I expect everything you have on my desk by this evening."

        Golden Lock said nothing, only bowed and made his way outside, leaving her to sit in the cold sunlight of the enchanted glass.  As he made his way back to his office, he considered his new predicament.  It wasn't as bad as he thought it would be, his punishment.  He still had control of the situation with Autumn, and though it would mean some minor delays, needing the council's backing didn't worry him.  Keystone was obviously quite serious, however.  He would have to tread carefully around her, make it look like he was troubled by it all.

        A teal-coated earth pony mare was waiting by his door, holding the handle of an oblong case in her mouth.  He immediately recognized her as the pony in charge of searching Autumn's quarters.  When she saw him, she waved a hoof in greeting.  She may have smiled, too, but it was hard to be certain.  "Erro, Wice-Cawissar," she said.

        Golden Lock nodded.  "Quillstroke.  What do you have for me?"

        "Weu, we fou' a coupoh o' fings—"

        "Hold a moment," Lock interrupted, opening his office door.  He stepped inside, motioning for the mare to follow him.  She obliged, and placed the case on his desk as he sat down behind it.  "Now, then: what were you saying?"

        "Thank you, sir," she said, much clearer now.  "We found a couple of things in his quarters, most of which were turned to Intelligence for analysis.  Some of it's pretty heavy, too; analysis may be just a formality at this point.  However," she patted the case, "this I thought you'd like to see."

        Lock raised an eyebrow.  Quillstroke gave him an encouraging nod, a wide smile plastered on her muzzle.  Lock snorted, but proceeded to open the case.  A rich smell of beeswax and spruce drifted out.  The object inside was a plain thing, but that did little to hide its beauty.  Light danced on the instrument's polished surface, the strings pulled tight over the chamber and neck.  Quillstroke was still smiling.  "Seems the colt had a hobby."

        "A violin," Lock said, looking back up at the mare.  "How does this help us?"

        Her smile fell away, replaced by the familiar expression of a teacher explaining things to a slower student.  "Well, it gives us two things.  First and foremost, look at the neck and tell me what you see."

        He looked.  "Scratches," he said.  Quillstroke nodded again, her eyes sparkling encouragement.  "I'm sorry, I don't get—"

        "He's non-magical," she interrupted.  "This instrument is played by hoof."

        It clicked.  "Oh, that.  Sorry, I never believed he was a unicorn; the rumours were far from my mind."  She shrugged in response, so he continued.  "What's the other thing it gives us?"

        She smiled like a colt pulling wings off a fly.  "It gives us a place to start looking.  How many musical ponies live in Canterlot?"  She leaned in a little closer.  "How many of them play classical instruments?"

        Lock thought for a moment.  It was true: there weren't too many ponies who fit the bill.  It was still a wide area to cover, and there was no guarantee that Autumn actually knew any of them, but it was a place to start.  He nodded slowly.  "Very good, Quillstroke; see to it that the search starts now.  If he is found, kill him if he tries to run."  His voice dropped low as he added, "He will try to run."

        She nodded.  "Yes, sir.  Um, what d'you want done with the violin?"

        He closed the case, locking it shut.  "Take it to Intelligence, let them make record of it.  After that, I think I'll hold on to it.  If he decides to come back for it, he'll have to come to me."

        "Very well, then," she said, picking up the case.  "I wiu shtart za seerch unce I finish."  With that, she walked out, humming a quiet tune.

        Golden Lock turned to his windowpane, gazing out over the mountain city below him.  A little past midday, the city was alive with ponies carrying on with their lives.  Somewhere down there, he was certain, was a pony hiding in the daylight, yet now the size of the city seemed smaller.  The long streets and dark alleys seemed less intimidating, more manageable.  Now that he had a place to start, the whole thing started to look... easier.  He could do this.

        He smiled, and magically pulled out a glass and a bottle of wine.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Octavia swept.  She had finished packing her instrument up a few minutes earlier, right after a good morning of practice and exercise.  In about an hour, she would be heading to one of the grand estates for a small party being held in honour of the foalday of the gentleunicorn's nephew.  She had already gotten her necessary shopping done the day previous, and all other matters of house and home had done her the favour of letting up for the day.  This left her one small hour of time with nothing to occupy it, and so she swept.

        Her house was clean, though that did little to dissuade her.  Even if the settled dust was less thick than a hair's breadth, enough time and patience would gather it to visible piles; it never seemed to end.  She was hardly a fastidious pony, not by any stretch of the imagination, but she knew the importance of a good appearance, and so she kept one up.  Mostly, though, she liked the rhythmic sound of the broom across the wood floor.  She could play whole orchestral pieces in her head while sweeping, letting the soft swish of the broom keep time like a conductor's baton.  Some of her best compositions were written with her broom in hoof.

        Swish.

        A low hum starts as the lights turn on; the stage is revealed, and the audience holds its breath.

        Swish.

        The lower instruments—the Contra-Bass, the Bassoon, and her beloved Cello—begin building a foundation.  Slowly at first, they rise in volume and speed, creating a harmonious ring that echoes in the soul.

        Swish.

        The higher instruments—Violins and Violas, Flutes and Piccolos—leap in, dancing around the harmony in a beautiful, gentle melody.

        Swish.

        The two sides, high and low, come together, mixing their voices and dancing in the antechambers of both the concert hall and the belly of the instruments.  The low boom of the Bass resounds in the Violin as much as the shrill cry of the Piccolo reverberates through her Cello.  It feels like the music is making love; it feels fantastic.

        Swish.

        Faster now.  The prelude is over, giving way to the next piece of the symphony.  The high voices rise and fall, the joys and hardships of living echoing in their fervent dance.  The low voices stay strong and soft, pushing through the trials of life in a gentle subtlety.

        Swish.

        The first crescendo is reached.  Effortlessly, the music rises to its highest, filling the concert hall with a towering expanse of sound—joy, harmony, beauty; the audience has yet to realize the music has already taken their breath.

        Swish.

        Quieter now.  The soft march of the low voices is playing guide to the high voices, those slipping in sidelong to the procession.  The low voices lead the way, and the deep notes pull at the hearts of those listening.

        Swish.

        The high voices take the lead again, swirling around the low, obscuring them in a fast dance melody.  It twirls and spins, rises and falls, and all the while it—

        A sudden dissonant thunder shattered the symphony, bringing a resounding silence to her ears.  Octavia's eyes slowly refocused back to the here and now.  She had paused mid-sweep, a scowl sitting upon her face.  In the quiet, she looked at the clock; barely ten minutes had passed.  Her thoughts collected themselves, trying to find the source of the interruption.  Her memory strained; though counter to her symphony, there had been a certain rhythm to the dissonance: a solid beat, repeated three times.

        Knocking at the door.  She sighed; so much for an hour's peace.  She leaned her broom against the wall, dropped to her hooves, and answered the summons of her door.

        On her doorstep stood a chestnut pegasus.  A scar crossed his left eye, a strained smile rested on his lips.  "Hello," he said weakly.

        "Fiddler!" she exclaimed, recognizing the stallion.  "Well, this is a surprize.  I thought you wouldn't be dropping by until tomorrow."  She looked down at his hooves, where an overstuffed bindle and stick lay.  "...are you alright?"

        He managed a dry chuckle.  "It appears I am now homeless and destitute."  He quickly held up a hoof.  "I am not here to trouble you with my misfortunes, I just... thought I should say 'goodbye.'"

        Octavia blinked.  "...trouble me with your... Fiddler, what happened?"

        He shook his head.  "Nothing you need worry about, I will just—"

        "Don't give me that," she snapped.  "You came here for a reason, and it certainly wasn't just to say 'goodbye.'  You obviously want my help.  If not, why did you even come here?  Why didn't you just leave?"

        He looked to be at a loss.  "It... seemed rude."

        She sighed.  Opening the door wide, she motioned with her hoof.  "Come inside; I'll make you some tea."

        He hesitated; it looked as though he wanted to grab his stick and bolt.  Then, slowly, he picked the stick up in his mouth and followed her inside, closing the door behind him.  "Leave your luggage by the door," she said, heading into the kitchen.

        She grabbed her favourite kettle.  Unlike the common kind one finds that gives a banshee's whistle when the water under its care boils, this one had a three-stage harmonic instead.  Three notes, playing in progression up into a harmonic chord, would announce the water's roil.  Filled, she placed it on the stove.

        Next, she went over to the tea cabinet.  She had several varieties, so she took a good moment to decide which to make.  Even with all the times he had visited her, Fiddler had never once asked anything of her house.  He would claim that he didn't want to impose; to Octavia, he seemed to be walking on eggshells with any subject not related to music.  Still, he would accept drink when pressed, and so far hadn't voiced any complaint.

        Selecting a good classic, she prepared the tray.  Teapot, sugar bowl, cream pitcher, two cups and saucers, and two spoons.  Just as she finished setting it up, three notes sang in a musical chord.  As always, they played the beginning of an orchestral piece that began in Octavia's head.  She pulled the kettle off the stove, humming a new melody to herself.

        After pouring the hot water over the tea leaves, she picked up the tray and brought it out to the den.  She paused; Fiddler was nowhere to be seen.  Did he leave?  Setting the tray on the table, she went back to the foyer to see if his stick was still there.

        Upon seeing the bindle stick propped up against the doorframe, she couldn't help a dry smile.  "I said to leave your luggage by the door, not yourself."

        "I did not want—"

        "'—to impose'?  Listen, dear, if I invite you in, you're not imposing."  She turned back to the den.  "I'll say it again: come in.  It'd be a shame to let the tea go cold."  She left him there, and after a moment there followed the soft sound of hoofsteps behind her.

        He joined her in the den as she was pouring the tea, the aroma of bergamot dancing in the air.  She set one teacup at the far end of the table, close to where the pegasus was still standing.  "Sit," she said.  "It's Earl Neigh; your favourite."  Like always, he hesitated a moment before joining her, taking a sip.  She smiled, looking over the rim of her cup.  "Feeling better?"

        He nodded.  "Yes, thank you."  He took another sip, and his lips curved into a wistful smile.  "I will miss this, I think."

        "No tea where you're going?"

        He looked up sharply.  "What? No, I did not mean—"  He stopped, seeing her smile.  He responded with a small chuckle of his own.  "...sorry."

        "You have no reason to be," she chided.  "Now, then: what happened?"

        He looked down.  "It... is not worth talking about."

        "Nonsense.  It's enough to send you away from your home and to my doorstep with nothing more than a bindle and the coat on your back.  If it's worth all that, then it's certainly worth talking about."  She set her teacup down.  "I'm not here to judge you, you know; I may be able to help."

        He looked around uncomfortably.  She was pressing him, she knew.  They had never spoken to each other about their own personal lives; it was something of a promise he'd made for his visits.  She had never fully understood it, but she had obliged him all the times before.  "Just... someone is spreading lies about me," he finally said.

        "They must be some pretty big lies to kick you out of your home," she observed.

        "...yes."

        Octavia thought about it; she couldn't think of any kind of lie terrible enough to drive somepony from their home.  I really don't know anything about him, do I? she considered.  All these visits, and all we've ever talked about is music.  For a moment, it occurred to her that perhaps he was lying, and what drove him out was a revealed truth.  She quickly laughed the thought away.  She had always believed she was a good judge of character, and Fiddler was a good and intelligent pony.  Besides, he seemed too timid to do anything.  "So, what's next?" she asked.

        He stirred his tea.  He'd added nothing to it, but still he stirred.  "Leave," he said.  "Find someplace new.  Start over."

        "Like going into hiding?  Why not try to tell the truth?"

        He shook his head.  "I do not have evidence.  It would just be my word against theirs."  He smiled grimly.  "After this, I doubt they would even listen to me."

        "Must be quite a tale they're weaving.  Should I be concerned?"

        He looked up, confused.  "What do you mean?"

        "I mean, will they come after you?  Will they try to find me because I know you?"  She leaned a little closer and, in a half-joking tone, added, "Have you doomed my house?"

        Fiddler was suddenly frantic.  "No!  No, they... it... it will not leave the city.  My home.  Cloudsdale."

        "That's quite a distance from here.  How much further are you planning on going?"

        He shook his head.  "I do not know; just 'away.'"

        A thought occurred.  "Why not stop here?"  He blinked, looking all the world like he was lost in the desert, and so she continued.  "Canterlot is a good city for musicians like us.  There are many rich ponies here who have nothing better to do than hold private parties, and they never hesitate to provide music.  If you want to start over, here is as good a place as any."

        He found his place again.  "There... is no place for me to start here," he finally said.

        "Isn't there?"  She set her tea down.  "What if I let you stay here?  You know, until you get your hooves under yourself again."

        Fiddler was staring at her, eyes wide and mouth agape.  "I... that is unnecessary, really, I—"

        "It's no problem," she interrupted.  "You'd hardly be imposing; this house is too big for myself alone.  I know all the local hotspots, and I can introduce you to all the right ponies.  You could be back on your hooves in a matter of months!"

        His expression was fixed in a combination of shock and confusion, and he started shaking his head.  "I have no money, and my violin was taken.  I would not be able to pay you back, nor can I play."

        She waved that aside.  "You can pay me back at your own convenience.  As for your Violin, you can use one of mine until you get another one.  How would you expect to start over without one, anyway?"

        He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.  He seemed to be fumbling, as though he wanted an excuse but couldn't find one.  Finally, he settled on, "...I cannot abuse your hospitality like that."

        Octavia sighed.  He's so timid.  "Very well, then.  If you are so set on striking out alone, then that's your choice.  However, should you ever change your mind, then my offer stands."  She looked at the clock; she had ten minutes before she had to leave.  "I really do wish you the best, in whatever you end up doing.  As for me," she said, getting up, "I've got a party to get to.  You're welcome to come along; I doubt Spice Melange would have an issue with a guest of mine."

        He stood.  "Thank you, kindly, for the offer, but I really should get out of your mane."  Looking down at the table, he added, "And for the tea, as well; it was delicious."

        "We should do it more often," she replied, picking up the tray and heading back into the kitchen.

        She met him at the door, her with her Cello and him with his bindle, and together they stepped outside.  They walked down the path together, idle conversation about the weather between them, and bid their farewells at the street.  As he turned to fly off, another pegasus, a deep-blue mare, landed in front of him.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The chestnut pegasus stopped.  His eyes were blue and his mark was of two joined eighth notes and a quarter rest, but Dew saw the scar across his eye.  Certain now, she ventured, "Looking for something?"

        There was a moment's hesitation.  "Only if it is found," he replied.

        Autumn!  Found you at last.  She fought the urge to hug him right then.  Who is he now?

        As though in answer to her question, the pony she recognized as Octavia spoke up.  "Friend of yours, Fiddler?"

        Fiddler? she thought as he turned to Octavia.  What a terrible name.  "She is," Fiddler said.  "We were young together."

        The earth pony smiled.  "See?  You still have ponies behind you.  Maybe things aren't so bleak as you imagine."  She looked to the sky.  "Well, I need to be moving.  I wish you the best."  With that, she shouldered her Cello and trotted off, humming a quiet tune to herself.

        Dew raised an eyebrow.  "Fiddler?"

        "It seemed appropriate," he replied.

        "It seems rude," she countered.  "What, exactly, do you 'fiddle'?"

        He laughed.  "Just a violin, no worries."  He suddenly looked around, nervous.  "Perhaps we should get out of the street?"

        Of course; they'd be looking for him.  While it was unlikely that they'd find him, they might be following her.  "Follow me," she said, taking flight.  After a few beats, he followed, lagging behind to waylay suspicion that he was, in fact, after her.

        Dew spied her target: a large cloud casting its shade over a particularly rich estate.  She banked and dove into it, feeling her senses come alive in the fog.  She tucked her wings and twirled, creating a small hollow in the cloud's centre.  The cloud would appear to grow, she knew, but there would be few ponies paying attention to a detail like that.  She sat and waited, and soon after Fiddler joined her.

        She embraced him the moment he landed.  "Thank Celestia you're alright!  I've been so worried."  She let him go and looked into his eyes.  "What happened?"

        He took a deep breath.  "I had to run."

        Silence.  "That's it?  That's all you have to say?  You've been declared a traitor, Autumn!  Do you have any idea what that means?"  He nodded hesitantly, so Dew repeated herself, emphasizing both words.  "What happened?"

        "I overheard," he finally said.  "I was walking the halls of the palace, down in the less-travelled areas.  Two ponies were talking about the dogs in the mine.  I did not hear much, but enough.  They were unhappy about the gathering breaking up; they said something about a war."

        "How did they find you?" Dew asked in the ensuing silence.

        "I was not hiding.  I was walking the friendly confines of the Palace; what need would I have to hide?  I heard them, and before I could react they saw me.  I knew I had to leave before I was caught."

        "But why not go to Golden Lock or the council?  You found some ponies trying to start a war!  That is treason beyond anything else.  Why didn't you report it?"

        "Because the council is a part of it,"  Dew took a reflexive step back.  "I do not know how many of them, but the two implicated as much in what they said."  A dry chuckle.  "And I doubt the Vice-Commissar would listen to another impossible tale from me, especially one that attacks the good ponies of the council."

        Dew's mouth was dry.  The council is part of this?  All the implications ran through her head, firing off one after the other.  If enough of the council was turned, then they could override Commissarial orders.  If they managed to keep things within the Service, then Celestia wouldn't know about the misdeeds until it was too late, and her supreme power would be of no use.  Even still, a larger question rested on Dew's mind, one that she found impossible to shake off, impossible to answer.  If it has members of the council, how much deeper does this treason go?

        "Autumn, you have to fight this.  Tell the Princess!"

        He shook his head.  "I tried.  By the time I got to her, Golden Lock and the council had already told her of my treason.  What cause would she have to listen to me?  I am a traitor with no evidence to the contrary."  He seemed to collapse within himself.  "What could I do?"

        "Everything you can!"  Dew was standing now, and close to yelling.  Her eyes threatened tears, but whether they were of anger, sadness, or worry she could not tell.  All she knew was that her friend was running away, and she couldn't let that happen; not now.  "All of Equestria is at stake here, not just you!  Think of all the ponies that live here!  Think of how many would die if a war broke out!  You can't just turn your back on them; you just can't!"

        He almost laughed.  "Dew, listen to yourself; there is no way they could ever manage to start a war.  The dogs are too scattered, the gryphons are in full diplomatic relations with us... even the Dragon Kings barely give us a second glance.  None of the neighbouring nations would step forward to war, you know this.  It will not matter if I disappear; their plan is unfeasible."

        "You don't really believe that, do you?"

        "It is true."

        "Says the pony who just broke up a dog pack of unprecedented size.  Golden Lock made the mistake of not believing what was right in front of him.  Would you really do the same?"

        "This is... not the same thing."  He looked away, trying, it seemed, to find justification.  "A scheme like theirs does not arrive overnight.  In all the time they have had, there has been no result.  It would not change so easily now."

        Dew stomped on the cloud.  "You think the dogs just up and appeared the day before?  Autumn, I know you know better than that.  Why are you running from this?"

        He was quiet for a moment.  "There is nothing I can do."

        "I heard you say something similar just a few days ago."

        He shook his head, looking at his hooves rather than at her.  "This is not the mines; there I had a clear target, a plain enemy.  Here... where would I even begin?"

        "So you'll just go into hiding, then?"  She didn't bother to hide the bitterness in her voice.  "Would running away again make things all better?  What about me, Autumn?  You'd go and play with her and leave me behind?"

        "No, of course not," Autumn said, pleading.  "I didn't leave you the first time, what makes you think I'd do it now?  I just... just said 'goodbye' to her.  I was going to find you as soon as time allowed."

        "And what then?"

        He looked at her, imploring.  "Come with me.  The Service will have no more need for you; who knows what they will do?  We can start again, far away, and—"

        "No."  Autumn stopped, his mouth hanging open with unspoken words.  "No, I won't leave.  You know why?  Because this goes beyond you, beyond us.  This is the whole of Equestria, and I cannot turn my back on them."  The look she gave him was harder than she had intended, but she didn't care.  "How can you so easily?"

        It seemed as though Autumn had stopped breathing, the silence was so deep.  A slight wind swept through the cloud, causing the white walls around them to ripple in the breeze.  When Autumn finally spoke, his words were soft.  "Because... I don't know what else to do."

        Dew let out a quiet breath, a small smile coming to her lips.  And there it is, she thought.  All the years of service, and he's still scared of coming out of the shadows.  She sat back down, and she spoke warmly again.  "You can expose this treason, and clear your name; put the right ponies to justice.  It won't be easy, I know, but there is nopony better for the task."  She lifted his chin.  "And I'm behind you all the way."

        He didn't respond at first, keeping his eyes down, trying hard not to look at her.  There was a battle inside him, Dew knew, but which side would win she could not say.  So it was with bated breath that she heard him say, "What will you do?"

        A little less than she had hoped.  "Go back to the Service; find out what I can," she said.  "Eventually, I'll build a case and bring it to Keystone, or even the princess if need be."

        "I doubt they would give you the time.  They may even arrest you when you arrive."

        "Then I'd feel much better with you at my back."

        Another pause.  "Very well," he said, defeated.  "I will stay."

        Dew smiled and nuzzled him, whispering in his ear.  "Thank you."  

"Must you go back?" he asked.

"I have to," she replied.  "What do you think they'd do if I ran away?  This is the best way for me to avoid suspicion."  He said nothing, and she pulled away.  "You'll need a place to stay, somewhere they wouldn't think of looking.  I'd suggest a hotel, but they've likely frozen your accounts."

        He nodded slowly.  "I do not think that will be an issue.  Octavia offered to let me stay with her."

        "I thought you said you were only saying 'goodbye' to her."

        "I was.  She wants to try and help me."

        Dew blinked.  "What did you tell her?"

        He shrugged.  "She knows me as a musician from Cloudsdale.  I told her that I had fallen on hard times and had to leave.  She believes I could start over here, and she wants to help."

        Octavia, huh?  She pursed her lips.  "Think you could do it?  Live the lie?"

        "I've been living one for enough years.  A change in my facade might prove invigorating."

        "It isn't the same, and you know it," she countered.  "You've been living a story, and a simple one at that.  You've never really had to invent a lie to hold it together.  To her, Octavia, you're what?  A musician from Cloudsdale, sure, but what else?  How many more lies are you standing on to make that believable?  I know you, Autumn; you can live a story, but you're a terrible liar.  If you have to suddenly invent something, you could blow your whole cover.  So I ask you again: do you really think you can do it?"

        He was quiet, considering himself and his answer.  Dew waited patiently, but she knew his answer before he spoke.  "I believe I can do it."

        "All right, then.  I'll try to drop by next week, and—"

        "No."  He finally looked at her again.  "We cannot be seen together; even if they grant you a modicum of liberty, they will be following you.  It would be best if we had an intermediary, one whom they would not suspect."

        She sighed.  "Who, then?  Octavia?  No, Autumn, I don't think—"

        "No," he interrupted.  "Someone else, closer to the palace."

        Dew blinked.  "Who?"

        "I do not know," he said, "but I will find someone.  Go back to the palace; keep your head down, stay out of trouble.  As soon as I can, I will get a message to you."

        She paused a moment.  "How will I know it's from you?"

        He shrugged.  "We are always looking for something, are we not?"

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The foal was quite obviously dead.  Stillborn, its eyes had never opened, and it had never tasted the sweetness of fresh air.  These were minor details, however; one might easily overlook them if they were not paying attention.  Indeed, many would overlook these for the much more apparent causes of the foal's death.

        The thing was a grotesque.  Its fur was splotchy, bulbous lumps covered its small frame, its legs bent at odd angles and places, and its mouth was fixed in a scream that the foal never had the breath to voice.  The thing that most ponies noticed, however, wasn't so much that its wings were twisted and its horn was crooked, but rather that it had both to begin with.  Exactly how any of this had happened—from the thing being an alacorn to its horrific demise—nopony could say, but it was the one thing that drove them forward.  Something like this was, after all, quite an unexpected turn of events.

        "What can you tell me?" asked the stallion.

        The mare, likewise a unicorn, took her time before responding.  "Not as much as I'd like."

        "Anything is better than nothing."

        She nodded.  "Well, I can tell you something went wrong.  Whatever the spell's original intention, this was not it."

        "How so?" he asked, walking around the dead foal, carefully examining it in the flickering torchlight.

        "There are parts missing, for starters.  Given the method of delivery—the enchanted meals—you might say that that's to be expected, but that wouldn't account for the size of these missing pieces.  It's like someone cut out parts of the spell after it was cast.  That's what led to its death."

        "Explain."

        "I'll try, but it's mostly theory right now."  She clicked her hoof against the stone floor; a habit when her pride was stung.  "I don't understand this spell," she began.  "The missing pieces make it hard to gain any sense from it.  Plus, this spell went beyond simple enchantment; it became an essential part of the foal's essence, its very being.  With something like that, it becomes nigh impossible to track the traces."  She clicked her hoof.  "Suffice to say, I don't have much on it.

        "What I do have is this: since the spell made up... oh, I don't know, half the foal's essence at this point?  More?  Well, when the spell was... erm, shattered, I suppose, the foal was also broken.  It's like trying to live when someone has removed your heart."

        "It became a part of the foal's essence?" he asked.  "How is that possible?"

        She shook her head.  "I've certainly never heard of anything like this.  It's possible that it's the fact that their target was an unborn.  As the foal developed and grew, it absorbed the spell into itself."  Her hoof clicked.  "Not a very satisfactory answer, I know, but it's all I've got right now.  I might get a better one after some experiments, but I don't even know where to begin with that."

        The stallion pursed his lips in a thoughtful expression.  He prodded the foal, turning it over.  "So you don't know what caused this?"

        "What broke the spell?  No.  I don't even know what the spell was."

        "I'm sure you'll be able to figure it out; you have one of the best minds for magical theory."

        Click.  "Don't remind me."

        "Anyway," the stallion continued, turning his attention back to the foal, "is it safe to assume the spell works?"

        She shrugged.  "Hard to assume anything at this point.  If it were alive I'd have better answers.  But, if we assume that it was an outside force that broke the spell and not a flaw with the spell itself—and let's be honest, it is a dog spell—then, in theory, yes."  She held up a hoof.  "However, I want to make it clear that we are working with a dead thing; I can't tell you how much power the living thing would've had, if any."  She gestured to the dead foal.  "It may be purely cosmetic."

        The stallion considered the information, his lips pursed thoughtfully.  Finally, he said, "What do you think the dogs wanted with an alacorn?"

        Again, she shook her head.  "You're asking the wrong pony.  I work with magic, not psychology."

        "But if you had to guess," he prompted.

        "Had to?"  She paused.  "I don't know, use her as a banner to rally under?  A weapon to fight with?  Maybe just examine her to find a weakness?"  She shrugged.  "As I said, I'm not one for psychology."

        "Would you like to find out?"

        The mare blinked.  "Sir?"

        "There is still one Shaman left in the mines; reports indicate that he was the leader."  He smiled as he turned to her.  "He might even be the one who came up with this spell.  Care to pay him a visit?"

        The mare's confused look slowly fell away, a smile coming to her lips.  "Hmmm," she said, her eyes sparkling in excitement.

つづ

To Be Continued...


=========================================================================================

Chapter Seven

"Little is definitively known about Diamond Dog society, though hardly for a lack of trying.  Their tribal and nomadic nature makes such study difficult.  In fact, most of what we know of them comes from observation of their only city, but even that is misleading.  The dogs who live there have different tendencies than the much more common nomad.  For example, the city dogs are much more open to trade and peaceful diplomacy than their gypsy brethren.  They are the exception, not the rule, and we must learn to draw the line between the two before we can truly understand the dogs as a whole."

~Excerpt from "Our Planet: Species and Cultures"

by Broken Hooves, Explorer and Naturalist

        The pegasus woke with a start; something had disturbed his sleep.  On the fringe of panic, his eyes darted around the unfamiliar room, finally landing upon the grandfather clock quietly chiming the early hour.  As the sound faded back into silence, taking the echo of his dreams with it, he released his breath as his memory came back to him.  The room was no longer unfamiliar; this was the guest room where Octavia had allowed him to stay for the remainder of his ordeal.  He was a guest and the musical acquaintance of the Cellist.  Autumn closed his eyes, and Fiddler opened them.

        He crawled out of bed.  The sun hadn't risen, but that did little to bother him; he was usually up before it, anyway.  He checked himself in the mirror, making sure of his blue eyes and musical mark, before heading to the closet to get dressed.  Fiddler dressed plainly, wearing only a simple, lightweight coat tailored for pegasi.  In truth, he owned little else; only a small amount of coin and a dusty black bindle that held a vest and mask.  These he kept tucked away, safely hidden from prying eyes.

        His coat donned, he flapped his wings to test the fit and found it comfortable.  He then went to the room's sink and washed his face, taking a moment to ponder his dripping wet reflection.  It had been several days since he'd been welcomed under Octavia's roof, and in all that time he felt he was still just hiding.  He had made a promise, and he was doing everything he could to delay.  Though thinking about it was enough to make him sick, he knew why he had held back so much.  His dream had hardly been prophetic, but it plainly wrote his fear.  Standing in the bright light, nowhere to hide, and the shadows constantly retreating—

        He shook his head, clearing his eyes of the dream.  Whatever happens today, he thought, I cannot shy from it.  He stared a few moments more, watching droplets of water fall from his fur into the sink.  It took those moments for him to gather the courage he needed to turn and face the oncoming day.  He checked the window, making sure it was unlocked.  Then, taking a deep breath, he left the safety of the room, of familiar ground, closing the door quietly behind him.

        He wandered to the kitchen.  The few days he'd stayed had taught him a little about his host, questions that he never would have thought about asking before.  He knew, for example, that she was likewise an early riser.  More often than not, she would spend her morning watching the sun crest the horizon, and he knew that she preferred to have a cup of tea accompany her to her date with the dawn.  So it was that, in the light of a firefly lamp, he set the kettle to boil.

        Octavia came downstairs a few minutes later, seemingly drawn by the sound of her kettle's distinctive whistle.  Fiddler was pouring the hot water into the prepared teapot when she entered the kitchen.  "Fiddler," she asked, "what are you doing?"

        He glanced over.  "Good morning," he said, returning his attention to his task.  "The sun has a few more minutes before it decides to grace us with its light, so I decided to spend that time doing more than simply waiting.  Besides, you have done so much for me these past few days, and all I feel I have done is be a burden and impose on your hospitality.  I feel I must try to repay you at least a bit while I can.  So" —he picked up the tea tray and set it on the table— "I made you breakfast."

        She looked over the tray; sitting beside the teapot, from which a warm scent of cinnamon drifted, was a salad of fruits, garnished with lavender and chrysanthemum.  She raised an eyebrow.  "So, to make up for imposing on my house, you use my food to make breakfast?"

        Fiddler blinked; his brain had screeched to a halt.  "Ah," he said, his thoughts slowly chugging back into motion, "I... well, I didn't—"

        He was interrupted by a melodious sound; it occurred to him that even her laugh sounded like music in a concert hall.  "I jest, Fiddler, truly.  I appreciate this, thank you."  She smiled warmly before turning to her balcony.  "Care to join me and the dawn?"

        "I would," he said, an apologetic smile on his lips, "but I cannot; I have an errand I must attend to.  Perhaps another time."

        "An errand?  This early?  Surely it can wait; most business doesn't begin until after sunrise."

        He shook his head.  "It cannot wait, I fear.  If I delay any longer, it may become too late."

        "'Too late'?  Fiddler, are you doing a surprize act?"

        "Ah... well..."

        She smiled again as she shook her head.  "It's alright; wouldn't be much of a surprize if you told everyone.  Still, it's good to see you're getting back out there.  Now go have fun.  Oh, and please don't be out too late; I have a surprize for you later today."

        Fiddler gave a gentlecoltly bow.  "I shall return as soon as I am able."  If I am able.  He hid his fear behind a forced smile,  bid his farewells, and left Octavia to enjoy her morning.

        He was only three steps down the walkway when he took flight, turning back toward the window to his room.  With the window unlocked, it was a simple matter for him to enter in silence.  Once inside, he made his way to where he had hidden his bindle, took it out, and left the room once more; he needed to be prepared for whatever lay ahead.

        Clutching his bindle, he soared out over the slumbering city.  The last of the nightclubs had closed little more than an hour ago, bidding their patrons a safe journey home.  The morning was still too young for the early shifts to begin, so the night crews wandered the dimly-lit streets, going about their final tasks in preparation for the day ahead.  They moved like shades under the light of the lampposts, flitting from one to another as they marched through the dark.  Most of the city, however, sat in stillness, the roads and building frames quietly illuminated by lampfire and firefly.  Fiddler flew over it all, seeing none of it.  He was focused solely on his target, and the danger that lay in wait there.

        He had spent the last few days in deep thought about this, about who he could turn to.  Someone who knew of the Service but whom no-one would suspect.  That alone had been challenging enough, but adding that they needed enough power to help the investigation had made it daunting.  Without knowing who was part of this conspiracy, nopony in the Service was an option.  In the end, there was only one pony he could go to, though he fought against it.  In the end, he had to go to the last place he wanted to.

        The Royal Palace.

        Even at this distance, the palace was a majestic thing to behold.  Growing out of the mountain, it loomed over the city at its feet like a mother watching over her children.  Its outer walls stretched around Canterlot, hugging it in a protective embrace.  The white spires, coloured grey in the night, stabbed upward to the sky.  At one time, he saw it as the closest thing he had to 'home,' but now it was a dragon bearing its fangs.

        It was amazing how a few days could change things.

        As he neared the palace he dropped in altitude, landing a few blocks away in a secluded alley; it wouldn't do to be seen flying over the palace walls.  Now hidden, he untied his bindle, the cloth unfolding over itself several times.  Fully laid out, he looked over the two items his cloak had held.  In spite of himself, he paused; if he did this, there was no going back.  For a moment the idea of fleeing, of grabbing his few things and flying far away, dashed across his mind.  No, he thought, shaking the idea from his head.  I will not shy from this.  He picked up his mask, turning it slowly in his hoof.  Celestia, give me courage.

        The mask fit just as snugly as it had these past many years.  The vest he folded and tucked away; he would need his wings.  He pulled the cloak over himself, taking a deep breath as it settled over him.  Its familiar weight wrapped around him, shrouding him from the world outside; its comfort gave him strength.  Determined once again, he slipped out from the alley into the coming dawn.

        He walked along the street, staying to the ever-fading shadows.  He knew the palace walls well, but as of late the guards had increased their number.  Nothing greatly significant, really; just a few more unicorns near the gates, but in the wake of his branding it was enough to give him pause.  Unicorns could find him, and he didn't want to give them the opportunity.

        He saw the poster as he neared the inner walls.  A plain thing, he would have walked past it had he not seen the large WANTED printed along the top.  If seeing that caused his heart to skip a beat, reading the whole thing drained him.

WANTED

Earth Pony: Chestnut coat, hazelnut mane, red eyes, white mask cutie mark.

Special Talent: Hiding.  Considered highly dangerous.

Usually found wearing black cloak and white mask.

Declared Traitor to her Royal Majesties, the Princesses Celestia and Luna.

If spotted, DO NOT APPROACH; inform the Royal Guard immediately.

        What followed were general orders to report any suspicious activity, as well as sketches of him, cloaked with hood down, and his cutie mark.  The artist sure knew his stuff; there was little doubt that, if anypony spotted him, word would get to the Service.  Remembering to breathe again, he glanced around, and with a whispered word slipped into the shadows.

        His mind was racing as he covered the last distance to the palace walls.  He knew the guards were looking for him; it had only been two days since several of them came by Octavia's door asking questions, but posters?  No such things had been anywhere in Canterlot yesterday, so they must have been placed late last night.  If the council had issued them, then it showed how truly desperate they were to catch him.  This cannot be sanctioned, he thought as the wall loomed above him.  How did they get them out to begin with?  The more he thought about it, the more he was certain that the princesses hadn't been informed.  Well, they'd find out come sunup, but even if they took them all down the damage would be done; one glimpse of Autumn's mask and the Service would be upon him soon after.

        He glanced over his shoulder; the sky was turning blue again.  With a quick prayer, he flapped his wings and slipped over the wall.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The Shaman felt the ripple of magic reverberate throughout the cavern.  Instinctively, he deciphered the spell as a pony-cast teleportation.  The Shaman didn't budge; he couldn't have cared less.  It had been only a few days since everything had fallen apart.  Everything he had taken those months to build, all those years of planning and preparation, had collapsed around him in less than a day.  What did it matter that there were ponies coming to clean up the mess?

        He sat slumped in his throne, his staff leaning nearby.  These last days had left him mentally torn.  Ever since the ponies had gotten away, he would fly between emotions: his rage kicking up in righteous fury at the slightest provocation, and the weight of his failure crushing him down into a hopeless mire.  Most dogs left him after the first day.

        His eyes were open, but he did little more than stare straight ahead, never bothering to see what was around him.  He knew, of course.  Of the few dogs still loyal to him, only a handful remained, and even they were losing faith.  They still brought him meals and kept his bedding clean, but around him they never said a word, only looking up at him in a mixture of fear and worry.  They no longer asked questions of him, their silence stained with fear.  It hurt to know that he was the cause of that, but part of him was too numb to care.  He had stopped speaking, only leaving his throne when necessities demanded it.  The great cavern which once rang with thousands of voices was now quiet as death, and he found it oddly fitting.

        His thoughts rested on Nadezhda.  He had poured everything he had into her, dreaming for the day when she would be born.  She would have been his, and his alone.  He would have raised her, teaching her everything he knew, giving her purpose and meaning.  With her he would have... well, none of that mattered now.  Nadezhda, his Nadezhda, was gone, and without her he had nothing.  The Divine Master had commanded him, and he had failed.  There was a time when everything had felt so inevitable, but now there was nothing but soot and ashes.

        "What happened here?"

        Dog voices.  The question sounded like claws on slate against the silence.  It raked against his ears, bringing a scowl to his face.  He looked toward the offensive noise and found a small pack of dogs.  Most were armoured, their chests covered in thick iron plate with helmets that obscured their eyes, but the three in front wore small jackets and diamond-studded collars.  They were looking around, their mouths agape.  The smallest of them caught sight of the dog skeleton lying on a patch of blackened rock; he took a terrified step back.

        The hunting party, he recalled.  They are back late.  Part of him was ready to believe that their absence helped allow his plans to crumble, that things would have been different if they had been there, but the rest of him wasn't willing to put the effort forward.  Instead, he simply stared numbly at them until one of them hesitantly, reverently approached his throne.

        "Great Shaman," he started, bowing low, "your humble servants return.  We have done as you commanded, and behold!  We bring you gems!"  With a flourish, he gestured at the pack behind him.  The armoured dogs stepped aside, revealing an old mining cart nearly full of a wide variety of gems.  Rubies, emeralds, sapphires, garnets, diamonds; all glimmered in the torchlight, as though they were rejoicing in the dimness.

        The Shaman said nothing, merely shifted his gaze from the grovelling being before him to the cart of gems.  It was an insult; it wouldn't satisfy even the small band that was left.  In the prolonged silence, the grovelling dog began to sweat.  "I-it isn't much, w-we know," he stammered.  "B-but we can go out again, i-if you wish it.  We c-can find more."

        The pack began to shift about on their paws, nervously stealing glances amongst themselves.  Leaning forward, the Shaman finally found his voice.  "I sent you to provide for the pack, and you bring me this."  He spat each word, earning flinches from the dogs at his feet.  "I sent you with the knowledge that the pack would grow, and you return with this."  He was growing angry, all the wreckage of the past days coming to the fore.  "I sent you with expectation, and you repay me with this."  He grabbed his staff and, pointing it at the dog before him, growled, "Explain yourself, Fido."

        Fido lost his voice; his mouth opened and closed uselessly.  The Shaman's lips curled into a snarl before Rover stepped forward and saved his companion.  "We did, Great Shaman; we did find many good gems, piled high in many carts!  We found them, but they were taken from us!  We couldn't come back with empty paws, so we... we scraped together what we could."  He glanced back, nervously, at the cart.  "It was all we could manage."

        The Shaman narrowed his eyes.  "Taken by whom?"

        Rover gulped.  "It was... a pony, Great Shaman.  She had magic," he quickly added, trying desperately to stave off the Shaman's anger.  "She could find hordes of gems, so we captured her and made her find them for us!  But she stole them from us and ran away with her friends.  We tried to chase her, but she used her magic and disappeared!  We... we lost her," he finished sheepishly.

        Magic, he thought.  Why must these fools try to control what they don't understand?  He had calmed only slightly when the small dog spoke up, confused.  "Didn't we let her go 'cause she was annoying?"

        "Ssshut uuup, Spot!" hissed Rover.  Fido flashed a nervous grin.

        It took a great deal of control for the Shaman to keep his voice level.  "You let her go?  With all the gems?"

        "But she wouldn't leave without them!" protested Spot.

        Magic lashed out at Spot before the Shaman thought about it.  It knocked him back into the cart, spilling the contents all over the floor.  The dogs gathered around it leapt back in fear.  The Shaman was standing, a faint red glow flickering into existence around his staff.  He spoke through clenched teeth, his voice a low growl.

        "I should kill you where you stand.  Fools, every one of you.  Is that all it takes to beat you?  A small pony that annoys you?  For that you would sacrifice your entire tribe?  You would bring such a small offering and call it good?"  What little control he had was lost, and the cavern echoed with his shouts.  "IT WAS A PONY!  A small, weak little creature, and you let it best you!  You were dogs of my pack, my tribe.  What is a mere pony to the likes of us?  HOW COULD YOU—"

        He stopped, his staff aglow and pointed at the terrified dogs, huddled and cowering against the overturned mining cart.  He stood there, the glow on his staff slowly fading as the full effect of his words ran home.  Extinguished, his staff clattered to the floor and he fell back into his throne.  Then, to the terror of the dogs around him, he started laughing.  He couldn't help it; the whole thing was just so absurd.  Here he was, yelling at his pack for letting a pony make fools of them, and he himself had lost his greatest treasure to the same thing.  How audacious of him!  The thoughts rolled in his head, and the whole pit rang with his laughter.

        In wonderment or relief, the dogs looked on as he slowly calmed.  He sat slumped in his throne, one paw covering his eyes, the occasional chuckle still escaping from the soft, absurd smile on his lips.  What am I to do? he wondered.  My pack has collapsed upon itself.  My only warriors cannot even fight a single unicorn's voice.  And here I am, frozen in place.  I have no hope left, no future.  He sighed mentally.  Where did it all end? 

        "Good ta see we cotcha inna good mood."

        The voice was light and smooth, but the words were spoken badly and with the thick accent of the City.  He opened one eye, and standing before his own dog's spears was a small pack of ponies.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Autumn landed inside the palace grounds, hidden in the shadow of the inner wall.  He moved quickly, taking care to avoid any unicorns that may have noticed a breach in security.  He didn't know for a fact if there were detecting spells over the walls, but he didn't want to take the chance.

        He was guessing.  He had spent very little time in the palace proper, since the works of the Service kept him to the interior of the mountain.  He thought he knew which room was his target, but that was from the inside.  Out here he was counting windows, trying to match them with the hazy mental map he had of the Sister Wing.

        The day was growing brighter; he couldn't stay out here for long.  Nervously, he glanced around and, seeing no guards in the area, took a chance and picked a window.  Beating his wings, he scrambled up the wall, catching the window ledge as he neared it.  He looked inside: the royal bath.  Cursing, he dropped back to the earth and into the embrace of the brightening shadows.  Too much longer and the palace grounds would be filled with sunlight; he had to act fast.  Revising his mental map, he picked another window and tried again.

        Three attempts later he was growing desperate.  Two of the rooms he'd checked he didn't remember, and it was throwing him off.  This couldn't go on.  Dawn had broken, and the sun's rays were dancing on the tallest spires, slowly trickling down to light the whole of the palace.  It wouldn't take long for even the most inobservant of guards to notice him running up and down the towers.  Once more, he told himself.  I have to try at least once more.  Steeling himself, he once more picked a window, and once more clambered up the face of the tower.

        The window was still dark, and he hoped that was a good sign.  He caught the ledge and, holding his breath, peered in.  At first he saw nothing; the night still pervaded this room.  Then, as his eyes started to adjust, he saw the flicker of movement.  Straining his eyes, he waited.  The room gained shape and details; a bed, end tables, cushions, and books.  Books everywhere; stacked against the walls, lying on the floor, hanging over furniture, and there, draped over a large pillow, was a pony.  Her wings lazily splayed beside her, she held a book in the cobalt-blue grasp of her magic while her mane drifted and flowed effortlessly in the still room.  He had finally found it: the room of Princess Luna.

        One quick glance over his shoulder told him that the guards had started the morning shift; that meant that there were nearly twice their earlier number patrolling the grounds, and he was still hanging onto the window ledge.  With only one option left to him, he silently tripped the latch and slipped inside the dark room.

        A bolt of magic smashed into the wall beside him.  He turned and saw that the princess was standing, wings fully flared and horn aglow, pointed directly at him.  "Who art thou that disturbs us?"

        She can see me?  A passing thought; he quickly realized that she must have had some alarm spell set up on her window.  Even so, every bone in his body was screaming at him to run, to hide.  In the second it took him to quell his instinct, the door burst open and the two nightguards ran in.  They took up positions beside the princess, guarding her on her flanks, facing outward to cover her from all angles.  One of them spoke, his voice calm and flat.  "Majesty, are you well?"

        "We are," she replied.  "There is merely an intruder in our chambers."  The nightguards' eyes shifted, scanning the room.  Autumn knew that, though they couldn't see him, it was only a matter of time before the princess would use her magic to find him.  If he waited for that to happen they certainly wouldn't listen to anything he had to say.  So it was that, with a quiet breath, he stepped out of the shadows and bowed low.

        The nightguards immediately turned on a hoof to face him, their strange bat-like wings flaring, their faces still locked in an emotionless mask.  The princess didn't move, her eyes seeming to bore into him.  Suppressing a shiver, he stayed against the floor.  "Your highness, I come to request an audience with you."

        "Is this how ponies of this age seek audience?  By sneaking into the chambers of their princess?  Nay, begone.  Seek our sister for thy questions."

        "I cannot," he said, unmoving.  "There are those in the palace who would not hesitate to make me disappear for the knowledge I possess.  The princess... your sister is being watched, and I cannot get to her.  I come to you with all the hope I have."

        He waited; there was no response.  He fought the urge to look up as the silence stretched.  It felt like a minute had passed, then two.  It was coming up on the third when Luna finally spoke.  "If this be true, then we shall hear thy words.  Rise."

        Relief flooded through him at those words, and suddenly he could breath a little easier.  "Thank you, Highness," he said as he stood.  Before him, the nightguards were standing at an easy attention, their wings folded neatly against their sides, each keeping a watchful eye on him.  Luna herself had straightened, wings now elegantly splayed in a regal pose.  She has grown, he thought, remembering how small she had been the day of her return, standing beside her sister.  She looks to be just as tall now.  How did she grow so fast?

        Her eyes narrowed slightly as he looked forward.  "Thou didst say thou wert here for audience, yet thy face is concealed beneath an assassin's mask.  Tell us truly, why art thou here?"

        His breath caught in his throat.  An assassin's mask?  Before he could respond, one of the nightguards began speaking, his voice calm, level, and devoid of any inflection.  "This would be Autumn.  Earth pony, rumoured to be a unicorn.  Member of your Service before being declared a traitor by its council."

        "Lies," Autumn spat.  "I am no traitor."

        "Of course not."  A hint of contempt.

        "Assassin and traitor, then?"  Luna's gaze turned baleful as her horn sparked to life again.  "We ask thee one last time: Why art thou here?"

        Everything rested on his next words, but he didn't have time to choose them carefully.  "Highness, I have given you only the truth since I arrived.  I am not an assassin; this mask was a gift, given to me because I hide.  I did not know its history until now.  I am no traitor; I am being framed by those who are.  I come seeking audience with you because the true traitors are ponies in the Secret Service itself, even some of those sitting on the council.  I have nowhere else to turn."

        The princess took her time before answering.  "Thy accusations are heavy, but thy words are light.  Why would we trust thee?"

        "Check my record!"  He was growing frantic.  "I have been nothing but loyal to Equestria and the crown.  What reason would I have to turn against her?"

        In response, Luna looked over at the nightguard who had spoken earlier.  "He speaks truth, Majesty," he said, "at least in part.  His record is clean, his service is commendable.  No indications of desire or intent.  However, a search of his quarters revealed some compelling evidence to the contrary, most notably a journal detailing several plans to usurp you and your sister.  A curious case indeed."

        The look she gave Autumn almost drove him back into the shadows.  He felt stupid.  Of course they'd plant evidence against me!  Oh, how could I have overlooked that?  Every instinct he had woke up and started screaming at him to run and hide, to be somewhere that wasn't at the horn of one of the most powerful beings in the land.  In spite of it all, he held himself in place.  Whatever happens, I will not shy from it.  For a moment, his thoughts drifted.  Dew, please be safe.

        "Thy thoughts?"

        The question startled him, but before he answered he found it was not directed at him.  "Compelling, but not yet certain," the nightguard said.  "Intelligence is still in the process of verification.  I understand they are having some troubles.  No details."

        Autumn was stunned; the things Intelligence did were always behind closed doors.  Few ponies knew what went on there, and even fewer had anything resembling the whole picture.  As far as Autumn knew, the nightguards never left their posts guarding the princess' room.  How does he know all this?  The pony saw Autumn staring, and merely looked his way, his expression just as stoic and unreadable as when he first ran into the room.

        As for Luna, she was looking slightly askance, her brow furrowed.  Finally, she looked up and addressed Autumn once again.  "Thou wouldst ask for our trust.  We would have thine.  Tell us this: thou art called both earth pony and unicorn.  Truly, which art thou?"

        He paused.  An act of trust...

        Slowly, he unfastened his cloak.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The Shaman glared at the ponies before him.  All unicorns, they numbered close to twenty, their coats displaying a rainbow of colours in his dark cavern.  He found it grating.  Leaning forward, he growled at them in a tongue they would all understand.  "You have chosen bad day, pony."

        One of the unicorns laughed.  "Ah, it speaks our language.  Good; that'll make this easier."  The stallion stepped forward, unconcerned about the spears levelled at him.  "You are the Shaman who wanted an alacorn, aren't you?"

        This pony was already fraying his nerves.  "Why does pony care?  Come to end what other ponies started?"

        "Not at all," said the pony, smiling amicably.  "I thought that maybe I could help."

        That caught the Shaman off-guard.  The hunter pack at his feet stole glances amongst themselves, confused.  The Shaman scoffed.  "Pony think I am fool?  There is no reason you help us.  Perhaps, simply want us unprepared for attack."

        The unicorn's smile didn't even flicker.  "You seem pretty unprepared as it is.  Do you have any idea how many of your dogs we've run into inside these mines?"  He looked around, taking in the sight of the dogs gathered in the cavern.  The warriors were still standing strong, giving few signs of weakness.  Most other dogs were cowering, peering out from behind whatever cover they had in a sense of terrified curiosity.  Only a few non-warriors were standing, unafraid, in the open.  The unicorn gestured to them all.  "Just these."

        The Shaman snorted.  "Your point escapes me, pony."

        The unicorn sighed.  "If I wanted to attack you, destroy you, it would be a very, very, very simple matter.  You may not think it, living in whatever pitiful luxury your underlings still provide you, but your pack is broken and weak.  If I wanted you dead, you would be."

        Too late, pony; we are already dead.  The thought slipped through his mind, and suddenly he realized the truth of it.  He had known, of course, but it was an easier thing to ignore than to accept.  Now this pony had come in and shoved it in his face.  He couldn't pretend anymore.  He couldn't lie to himself, tell himself that everything could be salvaged given time and effort.  He couldn't hide anymore, the truth of the pony's words shattered his last illusions.  He might have been grateful if it didn't sting so much.

        As the full weight of the pony's words struck home, he felt as though his last foundations were pulled from under him.  He was suddenly very, very tired.  He collapsed back into his throne, deciding to forget about everything and everyone in front of him.  What did it matter, anyway?  The ponies were right, after all; there was no way his pack would survive another year.  Even if the remaining few stayed by his side, they didn't have the resources, food, or gems to stay strong.  Even if these ponies left them untouched, other packs would come and tear his apart.  He was doomed.

        Acceptance was oddly liberating, and he would have laughed again if he had the energy.  I wonder who it will be that destroys us?  Some nameless clan?  Ha!  Such a disgrace that would be!  His head rolled slightly as he looked over at the charred skeleton on the ground, left untouched since it first fell.  Perhaps it will be the other shaman, the one that ran.  He might build himself a pack and take revenge for his arm.  He considered that for a while.  At least that one would be worth a fight.  Perhaps they'd sing songs about it.

        The unicorn cleared his throat.  The Shaman's eyes lazily drifted back to the ponies as he was reminded of their existence.  For a moment he wondered what it would be like to die by their paws.  "Well?" the pony asked.  "Nothing to say?"

        The Shaman regarded him curiously, remembering something the unicorn had said.  "Why would pony want to help us?"

        "Because I think we want the same thing."

        This time, the Shaman did laugh.  His warriors shuffled nervously, worried by their Shaman's sudden outburst.  "'The same thing'?  Pony speaks joke, I think."

        "Not at all.  I don't suggest to know your ending goals, but those are not what interest me.  What does is your means."

        "'Means'?"

        "Your methods," the pony corrected.  "You were trying to create an alacorn, yes?  Why?  The alacorns are some of your most powerful enemies, so why would you want to make another one?"

        "Why should I tell you?"

        "Because I can help you," the pony said patiently.  "But, if I'm going to do that, then I need to know why.  You can't expect me to simply give you everything you want, now can you?  I know you don't have money, but you dogs understand 'barter,' don't you?  You give me information, I give you assistance.  Barter."

        "Pony wastes his time.  There is nothing to give."

        "Of course there is, you're just being stubborn."

        The Shaman spread his arms, gesturing at his meagre pack.  "Pony think I am fool?  You want information, but then you kill us anyway.  Why should I give?"

        The unicorn sighed.  Those behind him exchanged glances, mentally preparing for conflict.  The Shaman watched them carefully, giving a raspy growl to remind his own warriors to be ready.  He knew that he wouldn't be able to win against this many unicorns, but, by Lassie, he was going to give them a fight worth remembering.

        "I don't think you fully understand this situation, dog," the unicorn said, either oblivious to or completely disregarding the heightening tension between the groups.  "I am not being unreasonable, and given the fact that your little pack is in shambles, I think I'm being quite generous.  I don't need anything from you; I can find something just as good, given time.  What you have is merely convenience, and you would do well to remember that.  I am offering you an opportunity to do something again, this time under my protection."  He looked around at the gathered dogs; the warriors clad in steel, the acolytes in their training cloth, the hunter leaders wearing their collars.  "That is, of course, only if you have something of interest.  If not, I don't even have to kill you; I can just leave you here to die, alone, in this grave of your own making.

        "So tell me, dog: what did you want with an alacorn?"

        The Shaman said nothing; too many of the pony's words struck close to home.

        The stallion narrowed his eyes.  "I doubt you just wanted a pet.  Did you want to learn a weakness?  Were you planning on dissecting her?"

        "PONY IS A FOOL!"  He was standing now, spittle flying from his mouth as he yelled, the thought of his Nadezhda dead and cut open throwing open the doors that held his rage.  He spoke in his native tongue, forgetting, or perhaps not caring, that the unicorn wouldn't understand him.  "We would never do such a thing to her!  How can you even suggest that we, that I, would destroy a gem of such value?  Is this what you ponies do?  Create something beautiful just to see it destroyed?  HOW CAN YOU LIVE LIKE THAT?  My Nadezhda would have been—"

        He stopped.  Before him, a multi-coloured glow had come into existence, emanating from the horns of the unicorn pack.  His own warriors gripped their spears tighter, their jaws set, determined to show their Shaman that they could stand their own against mere ponies.  Yet still the unicorn leader stood, calmly as ever, perfectly confident in his own and utterly dismissive of the Shaman's.

        The Shaman's anger evaporated.  The pony was right, after all; he couldn't win, and his pack would disappear.  Their bones would be buried, no songs would ever be sung.  These ponies, these arrogant ponies, would simply forget, leaving his pack and their memory to oblivion.

        For the last time, the Shaman sagged back in his throne.  There really is no purpose left to us, is there?  His eyes wandered to the ceiling of his cavern.  The darkness swallowed everything that high up, the last light of the torches holding only halfway up the pillars.  He smiled as he remembered when the light reached the full distance, when the orbs would glow against the black.  He closed his eyes to the darkness and simply gave up.

        "Pony really wants to know?" he asked, once more in Equestrian.  "I wanted home for my people.  Someplace safe.  Someplace warm.  Someplace plentiful."  Briefly, his dreams flicked across his eyelids: warm pools of water, flowing rivers, homes above ground without fear of exposure.  He dreamt of light breezes and heavy rains.  He took a deep breath, and for a moment tasted fresh air.  "Nadezhda would have led us there.  She would have been mine, and we would have gathered all dogs together.  We would make First Pack real again.  We would make this world ours again."

        "You have a home."

        The Shaman looked at the unicorn again.  "Pony know nothing.  We had home, then ponies took from us.  Drove us below surface, banished us from wealthy lands.  I would take back."

        "So why don't you?"

        "Because ponies take Nadezhda.  Ponies kill Nadezhda, I think.  Now ponies simply curious."  He waved a paw in a dismissive gesture.  "Pony's questions answered.  Leave; leave us to our rot."

        "If you could do this again, get another... what did you call it?  Nadishta?  If you had another, would you try again?"  The Shaman said nothing; he was done talking.  Perhaps I should fight them anyway, songs or no songs.  Maybe then they'd leave.

        He might have gone through with it; called upon his pack to fight and die.  He might have basked in the relief that nothing more could go wrong, that his failures couldn't haunt him anymore.  He might have died smiling, but the unicorn spoke again.  "I could help you, you know.  Help you build up your pack again.  Give you strength to use.  How about it?"

        The Shaman paused.  There was something in this pony's tone, something that didn't sit quite right.  "What does pony want?"

        The unicorn smiled.  "War."

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        His cloak dropped to the floor, and his mask soon fell beside it.  Hesitantly, he spread his wings, almost flinching as the last wall of security he had crumbled.  "I am neither," he said, barely keeping the tremble out of his voice.

        He thought he saw a flicker of shock pass over the faces of the nightguards, but Luna remained unmoved by his revelation.  She only nodded and asked another question.  "Why didst thou disguise thyself?"

        No more running.  "So I could disappear if I needed to."

        Luna quietly considered his answer.  She looked over his wings, then her eyes hardened.  "Thou didst claim thou wert no assassin, yet thy mark depicts the mask.  Art thou lying still?"

        He looked back over his shoulder; of course.  Without his cloak, his flank was clearly visible.  He closed his eyes and, for the first time since he ran from home, willingly became himself again.  It was through hazelnut eyes that he looked back to Luna.  "A falsehood, Princess; an aspect of my talent.  This is my real cutie mark."

        The nightguards still stood stoically, yet their eyes had widened.  As for Luna, she no longer saw him; she was looking at a memory.  "Thou art markless."

        He nodded.  "It took me a long time to realize that.  Heh.  The names they used to call me..."

        "It is usually difficult for those such as thee."

        What?  "'Such as...'?  There are others?"

        Luna nodded.  "Indeed.  Thou wouldst not have heard of them, of course, but we knew one such pony, many years ago.  A friend, she helped us found the Service."

        Autumn gulped.  "Silent Hoof?"

        The princess smiled.  "No.  She declined leadership, and in respect of her wishes, we shall not name her."

        Nameless, he thought.  "I can understand that."  It was strange, though; the sense of kinship he suddenly felt.

        Luna trotted over, looking not at him but at the mask at his feet.  "Before the Service passed into secrecy, ponies such as thyself were sought after.  Thy talent is valuable in its tasking, and few enough ponies possess it."  She picked up his mask, turning it in her hoof as she examined it.  "It is a testament to our loving society that so few ponies are driven to hiding talents, yet such irony that those same talents became the wall that kept it together."  A pause, then she looked back at Autumn.  "Thy foalhood must have been painful.  Tell us, from where didst thou get this mask?"

        "It was a gift, as I said.  She said it would be useful to me, to 'one who hides before he thinks to run.'"

        "A powerful gift.  Thou didst say thou knew not its history?"

        "I only know she had no use for it."

        Luna nodded and set the mask down.  "That is likely for the best."  She returned her attention to Autumn, extending her hoof.  "Thou wished for an audience; it is granted."

        He paused, staring at her hoof; he had never seen such a gesture.  He glanced up at the princess, who stood expectantly.  He glanced over at the nightguards, but they were as unreadable as ever.  Whatever this was, he was getting no clues to decipher it.  Some old custom? he thought.

        Time stretched, and Autumn began to sweat.  That last thing he wanted to do was insult the princess, but he feared that was precisely was he was doing with each passing second.  Thinking quickly, he did the first thing that came to mind: he bowed and kissed her hoof.

        Time stopped.  Did I do the wrong thing?  He glanced around, hoping for some cue for what he should be doing.  Seeing nothing, he was saved by a small voice in the back of his head, reminding him of something so very simple.  "Th... thank you, princess."

        She withdrew her hoof, and relief flooded through him.  He made a mental note to try and look up the old royal customs for his future dealings with the princess.  If this goes well, of course.  Luna trotted back over to her nightguards and sat between them, wings still regally poised.  "Autumn of the Markless: rise and speak."

        'Of the Markless'? Never heard that before.  Obediently, he rose and began speaking.  "Your Highness, much of what I have to say you already know by now.  There are traitors in the Service, though how many I cannot say.  I discovered them, and so they accused me before I could accuse them.  In defence, I ran.  I would have never returned had it not been for my friend.

        "I do not know their number, but I do know that this treason runs deep, even up to the Service's council.  I do not know their reason, but I do know they wish to start a war.  I... regret to say that is all I know."

        Luna paused, considering the information.  "How is it thou didst come upon this treason?"

        "By accident.  I was wandering the deep passages when I stumbled across two ponies talking.  I only heard a few sentences before they spotted me."  He paused, remembering.  "It was enough."

        "Dost thou know the two ponies?"

        He shook his head.  "I did not get a good look at them."

        Luna pursed her lips.  "Very scant."

        A worn sigh; he had been having that same thought a lot.  "I know, Princess.  I have been trying to remember their faces, but I do not wish to accuse innocent ponies.  Had I been hiding then... all of this could be avoided."

        "Thou shouldst not blame thyself.  'Twas merely happenstance that put thee there; thou couldst not have known what thee would find there.  Beside which, thou hast taught us of true treason.  Surely, that counts in thy favour."

        He looked to the floor.  "Still feels less than useful."

        "'Tis a place to start.  With such small things the Service doth make its victories."  He considered that for a bit.  It was true; he rarely received more than a hint to go investigate.  Funny; I never considered myself much of an Intelligence pony.  He might've laughed at the thought, but Luna spoke again.  "Thou didst say our sister was watched?"

        A nod.  "She is."

        "Then we cannot tell her," she said, thoughtful.  "Doing such would only drive the traitors deeper into hiding.  We shall need them to believe they are still invisible.  What is thy plan?"

        His plan.  I probably should have thought this through.  "In truth, princess, I do not have one.  I am just trying to make sure that something can happen right now."

        "Admirable, yet short-sighted."

        "Princess, I would have run away if not for my friend."

        "Yes, thy friend; thou didst mention earlier.  Who is this friend?"

        The question felt sudden, yet he knew it was one that had to be asked.  He didn't know why it had broken his focus so much.  Perhaps, he felt, he was still trying to protect her.  Do I not trust Luna?  The question burned in his mind.  He knew that it would be a simple matter for her to find Dew; it was hardly a secret that she was the only pony he would call a friend.  He looked over at the nightguard.  He probably already knows.

        Gathering himself up, he faced the princess again.  "My friend... her name is Dew.  She works with the Intelligence branch, sorting the reports.  She came back the day I was accused to try and find evidence, but... I do not know what has become of her."

        The princess looked over to her nightguard.  "Dew has returned to work, Majesty," he said.  "She is under suspicion, currently being watched for signs that Autumn is in contact with her."

        Autumn breathed a sigh of relief.  She's safe.  Under watch, but safe.  He felt a lot of his tension wash away with that thought, and suddenly the room seemed a bit brighter.

        "Very well."  Luna's words were accompanied by a cobalt-blue shimmer appearing before his eyes.  He took an instinctive step back and ran into a wall of pure force; his whole world was coloured in blue, and he saw they dying glow from the princess' horn.

        He looked all around him and almost panicked.  He was trapped in the princess' force bubble, immobile and sitting in plain sight.  Even his cloak and mask were on the wrong side of his magical cell.  Fighting for control, he took several long, deep breaths before he trusted his voice again; it still held a tremor.  "W-why, Highness?  Do you not believe me?"

        "No; not as yet.  Thou hast shown enough trust in us that we shall investigate thy claims, but thou art still accused of treason.  We cannot let thee go until we know for a certainty.  If thy claims prove true, then thou shalt be released.  If they prove false, then thou shalt be returned to the Service."  She watched him pace, nervously, in place inside the sphere.  "If thou speaks the truth, then thou has no need to worry."

        He found it comforting to know that he still had some cognitive function left.  "I know, your Highness, it is just... hard... being trapped."  He was starting to get nervous twitches, and he bit down on his fetlock in an attempt to keep his hoof from scratching at the bubble.  Sunlight was pouring in through the window.  "Nowhere to hide," he whispered.

        At that, the bubble lifted, then floated into a corner of the room.  He glanced over at Luna, trying to decide whether to panic more or less at this strange development.  "Perhaps this will help," she said as the sphere came to a halt in the corner.

        A dark corner, he quickly told himself.  Darker than the room; darkness you can hide in.  He still couldn't move, but soon he felt himself calm a bit.  "It—"  He gulped.  "Th-thank you, Highness."

        She nodded, but barely, before turning back to her nightguards.  "Smiles," she said, "Meadowlark; there is work to do."  The two of them bowed deeply before leaving the room.  Luna stood silent for a moment, then returned to the book she had been reading before Autumn had interrupted.  In the corner of the room, trapped in a magical cell, Autumn curled up and huddled in the shadows.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The Shaman stared at the stallion for a few seconds, unbelieving.  "Pony head broken, I think."

        The unicorn laughed.  "No," he said, tapping his head.  "All sound up here.  But this is what I want, and I think you can give it to me."

        "Why?"

        "Because you had a pack.  A large one, not those tiny little things you commonly see out in this desert.  You had potential.  I want to give that back to you.  It was my fault it was taken away from you to begin with, you see.  I tried to stop them, but... well, I hope to make it up to you."

        The Shaman shook his head.  "No.  Why does pony want war?"

        "Oh."  The pony blinked.  "Does that matter?"

        "I think, yes."

        "Why?  You want the same thing, don't you?  A war to get your land back?"

        The Shaman shook his head, slowly.  "If pony believe that, pony ignorant fool.  Can't see past own nose.  Don't want war, want home."

        "You can't have one without the other."

        The Shaman didn't move.  He supposed he knew that, all along.  He had always hoped he could get what was rightfully his without needless bloodshed, but these ponies... he knew they wouldn't let him.  Maybe that was why he had sought a power to rival their queen.  Maybe he knew it would have gone to war, no matter how he prayed.  The more he thought about it, the more he felt it was right; the more he realized that he was willing to shed as much blood as he needed.

        He sat back in his throne and, with a gesture, growled out a command.  The warriors at his feet obeyed, though reluctantly and with confusion.  Seeing the spears lowered, the unicorn smiled.  "Coming to your senses, I see."

        "Why does pony want war?"

        "I thought we agreed that—"

        "NO!" the Shaman barked.  "YOU said, I heard.  Pony want war?  I will know why, else pony only gets small fight, here and now."  He leaned forward and growled, "Why does pony want war?"

        The unicorn's demeanour went cold.  "It wants to know, does it?"

        "It does," came the snarling reply.

        "Fine.  Since it asks nicely, I shall answer."  He turned his back on the Shaman, collected himself, and spoke over his shoulder.  "I'll make you a promise: I won't lie to you.  You can understand that, can't you?"

        He began pacing before the dog warriors, most of whom nervously held their spears close.  "Have no illusions, I am not doing this for you.  I am not trying to do you a favour.  What I do is for the good of Equestria.  This is for my people, as much as you think it is for yours.  You want a home, I wish to keep mine.  I will not help you win, but neither will I force you to lose.  My help shall end when you can mount your own attack.  Then it's up to you.

        "Of course, this is hardly the best deal for you, but what other options do you have?  Dying in a cave, pretending that you won glory?  Going slowly mad while your body decays?  I think even you can realize this is the only way to get anything back."  He stopped, looking the Shaman squarely in the eye.  "Of course, you will have the opportunity to try and stab me when my back is turned, and, really, what more could a mutt like you ask for?"

        A tool for his own ends.  The idea was insulting, and yet...  "Pony did not answer."

        "But I allayed your fears.  You now know that I am not trying to trick you; surely even a dog like you can understand that.  I mean what I say.  I will help you, and you will go to war, but I will fight against you, and I mean to win.  I expect you to do the same.  It won't work otherwise."

        This pony possessed a glib tongue.  He also had no respect for the Shaman or his people, that much was clear.  He wanted to use them as tools, not equals, in some war scheme that he would not give purpose to.  Does he think we will come running, like pets to a treat?  Does he think we cannot move for ourselves?  Insulting, to be sure, and yet...

        The Shaman looked around the cavern, darkness clinging to the edges where once was light.  The silence echoed more deeply than the thousand voices ever did.  His tiny pack huddled around him, terrified of the even smaller pack of ponies standing before him.  With all he used to have, this was all he had left.  He had already lost so much, what did a little dignity hurt?

        He looked back at the unicorn, standing so very expectantly, so very eager.  His face was a mask, but the Shaman could smell it on him.  "What help would pony give?" he asked.  "What would Shaman need to give up?"

        The pony smiled and swept a hoof wide.  "Why, everything and nothing, Shaman.  Anything you need, if it is within my power, I will provide it to you.  Everything you have, you keep; I want none of it.  You can even build your pack in this forsaken mine again.  No ponies will come this time, you have my word; I'm good at keeping secrets.  I only ask for you; you will accompany us to Canterlot."

        The crack in the diamond.  "Hostage?"

        "Ally."

        "You want keep me prisoner in own city, and call it 'ally'?"

        "I would only hold you as prisoner if it becomes required, to keep you safe from those ponies who wouldn't understand.  If they would see you moving with freedom, they would try to kill you right then and there.  In a cell, they would believe you harmless.  I can assure you, it wouldn't be locked."

        The Shaman scoffed.  "Why bring me at all, I wonder.  Let me have my freedom here."

        "Because your spell doesn't work."

        For a moment, the Shaman forgot to breath.  That can't be true, it can't!  I made certain...  Every other dog who understood the unicorn had turned to each other in frantic whispers, and soon the word was understood by all.  The warriors were uncertain, now, and his acolytes were shaken, doubt flooding their minds.  The Shaman knew he had to keep what little control he had, else he would be abandoned, utterly alone and forgotten.  Finally, he managed to choke out a reply.  "Pony... pony lies."

        "Do I?" came the reply.  "Did you see the result of your little experiment?  Oh, it bore some traits of an alacorn, but it died in birth, a grotesque mockery of everything you wanted.  But, then, what can you really expect from a dog?  Your spell killed it."

        The Shaman's mind cast about, frantically trying to find reason.  "The... the dam.  She killed Nadezhda, did something to her.  After first time ponies come, Nadezhda became sick.  It was her, not I."  He was certain of the truth in that.

        "Oh?  All the more reason to come with us."  He glanced around the dark cavern as though he were looking at a giant dungheap.  "A place like this, I'm not surprized you lost control of your little project.  We have much better facilities for magical experimentation.  Such future tragedies would be avoided."

        This pony was certainly generous with his insults.  The Shaman continually found the idea of working beside him sickening, and yet...

        "Pony wants to help us, even thinking that spell does not work?"

        "Pony is an expert in magic.  I have little doubt that I can fix your spell."

        "I will not be caged."

        The unicorn laughed.  "It shouldn't come to that.  While in Canterlot, you will be under my protection, and as I said, I'm very good at keeping secrets.  Nopony will ever know your there."

        The Shaman sat back, slumped slightly in his throne, his chin resting upon his paw.  He was quiet, eyes half-closed as he considered everything around him.  It was all appearance, though; he realized his mind had been made up for some time now.  He smiled inwardly, taking solace in the decision.

        Slowly, the Shaman stood.  He pointed his staff at the hunter pack, saying, "Go.  Find gems, bring them here.  Do not bring back insults."  He turned to his acolytes and instructed them, "Go.  Spread the word, gather the dogs.  We shall grow again, stronger than before.  Tell them we shall grow strong on the backs of our enemies.  Tell them we shall have our home back."  He faced to the few servants who were left, cowering in fear, and commanded them, "Go.  Prepare the rooms, prepare the cellars, prepare for the pack.  We are not done."

        He stepped off the dais and stood at his full height before the unicorn.  Such a small creature, he thought.  "Lead the way."

        The unicorn nodded.  "Glad you see reason."  Looking at the Shaman's staff, his eyes betrayed revulsion.  "You will have to leave the horns behind."

        "Pony will get no such thing."  The Shamans voice dripped with challenge.  "I am Shaman; I carry what Master demands of me."

        The unicorn huffed quietly, but said nothing.  He turned away and, with the Shaman following, led them out of the mines.

        One of the unicorns slid up beside the Shaman as they walked.  "Ya know," he said, in that terribly accented city-dog tongue, "I unnastood whatcha said back dere."

        The Shaman only smiled at him.  "Then I have allayed your fears."

        His head was filled with a calm determination, a confident smile resting on his lips.  He felt like laughing, the irony was so thick.  He had lost everything to these ponies, from his ancestral home long ago to his Nadezhda just a few days past.  Now these same ponies came back, just before he utterly lost himself, and they were giving him everything.  The word had never been clearer.  He was not beaten.  He was not finished.  How could he be?  The Divine Master had commanded him.

        It was inevitable, after all.

つづ

To Be Continued...


=========================================================================================

Chapter Eight

"We, the Citizens of Equestria, in order to preserve the peace so rightfully returned to us, do hereby call upon our Royal Majesty, Princess Celestia, to disband the Service created by her Sister, the recently corrupted Nightmare Moon.  This Service, sworn in her blighted name, presents a constant threat to the peace and well-being of this nation.  In the interest of peace, prosperity, and the persistence of the land, this Service must end."

~Petition to Princess Celestia

Shortly after the Nightmare's Banishment

        "Celina!"

        The mare stopped at the sound of her name echoing down the empty corridor.  Turning, she saw a stallion cantering toward her, a smile on his face.  The unicorn looked familiar, but she couldn't quite place from where.  His neck and left hind leg were wrapped in bandage, and there were stitches along his flank.  Perhaps he was in the hospital with me?  It was certainly possible, and she had done her best to ignore everypony else there.  Figures I would catch the eye of some other patient.  This is not what I'd hoped to come back to.

        The unicorn came up next to her, still wearing that happy smile.  "It's nice to see you again; I'd heard you'd gotten out early.  Guess the dogs can't keep you down for long, eh?"

        Oh.  Him.  She put on a strained smile.  "It was no picnic."

        Balloons laughed.  "Oh, I remember.  Didn't mean to say that you got off easy, please don't think that.  Still, though, how are you feeling?"

        Celina looked herself over.  "Well, I can't put too much pressure on my leg or it starts to bleed again, it hurts to take deep breaths, and doing so sends me into coughing fits that have their own version of pain, my body is generally bruised and sensitive to the touch, and the doctors keep fussing over the cut near my ear.  They want to keep an extra eye on it because it qualifies as a 'head wound.'"  She sighed, which almost sent her into a coughing fit.  "So... good, I suppose.  I'm still walking."

        His smile had faded while she spoke, but it came back at that.  "I'm glad for that.  We lost so many, it's good to be able to walk.  I mean, Gleam is still..." he trailed off, his smile flickering a bit.  "But they say she'll recover, given a bit of time.  I just hope it's sooner rather than later."

        "Hoping to try and comfort her, too?"

        "What?  No, just... it would be nice to see her up, to know she's still with us.  I would rather we didn't lose another pony to this mess.  I mean, even Autumn has disappeared now.  It's starting to kinda feel like a cursed mission."

        "I'm fairly certain he started being a traitor before then.  I really don't think the mission had anything to do with it.  Besides, I'm not really sure if 'mission' is the right word; we were basically ordered to stay here."

        He blinked.  "What's that got to do with it?"

        "It couldn't be a 'cursed mission' if it wasn't a mission."

        "A cursed 'outing,' then."  He chuckled.  "It feels like a cursed outing."

        He was kind of cute when he smiled like that.  "What about you, then?  How are you feeling?"

        He laughed, but it quickly died with a wince.  "A little the worse for wear, but I'll manage.  I've finally been allowed some time outside of the hospital, so I thought I'd use it to wind down.  Talking of, I'm glad I ran into you.  Care to join me for the afternoon?"

        She would have sighed again if it didn't hurt so much.  "Are you asking me on a date?"

        "No," he said playfully, "I'm trying to collect the one you promised me."

        She blinked.  When did... Oh, Celestia's mane.  "You took that seriously?"

        "Why not?  The mission—I mean, the outing was rather stressful, even then.  Who could blame me for wanting to imagine a nice, relaxing ride with the prettiest mare in the group?"

        He's certainly forward.  "Well, when you put it like that... no.  I'm in no mood or condition to be ridden."

        He stopped, and blushed.  "Wha... no, no, I didn't mean that!  I meant... here, come on; I'll show you."  With that, he turned and began trotting down the corridor.

        Celina watched him go, and soon found that curiosity was moving her own hooves after him.  It can't be anything bad, she reasoned, not after the way he retreated at my ridden comment.  Besides, I know my magic is stronger than his; I can defend myself if necessary.  The thought was less than comforting, but it was enough to prevent her from forcing her hooves to turn around.  Balloons continually trotted forward, never looking back, set on his destination.

        They soon left the inner corridors of the mountain, entering the public halls of the palace proper.  Unicorn guards were still posted at the threshold, checking and double-checking anyone who tried to cross.  It wasn't easy work, maintaining the searching spells, and while Celina would voice sympathy for them in their duty, she was overly thankful that she was not going to be sharing it with them; not while her wounds persisted, anyway.  Balloons said nothing, himself, preferring to simply follow through the motions.  The guards were probably thankful for his co-operation, but to Celina it just made him unreadable.  She still didn't have any idea what this was about, and there was a growing unease in the pit of her stomach.  It was still tenable, and not strong enough to overpower her curiosity; not yet.

        He didn't look her way until they reached one of the grand balconies the palace boasted.  Large enough to hold a whole wing of pegasus guards, it was mostly used as a landing platform as they showed up to and departed from their shifts.  Balloons pointed to the opposite side.  "That's what I meant."

        Celina looked over, and almost laughed.  All the tension she had built up collapsed at the sight.  She looked at the stallion, a half-smile on her lips.  "A hot air balloon?"

        He nodded.  "Yep.  This late in the day it'll need to be held aloft by magic, but I really don't want to wait until morning; I need to be in the air again."  His eyes drifted at those words, but he quickly came back.  "So," he asked, all smiles again, "care for a ride?"

        She couldn't help shaking her head through her smile.  "Is this the balloon you were dreaming about back then?"

        "Of course," he said, trotting off toward his balloon.  "What did you think I meant?"

*          *          *

        Half an hour later, they were floating above the city, looking down upon its denizens running about their daily lives, nary a worry in the world.  Celina watched them, amazed at how the change in view had changed the city.  She still believed that the magic unicorns possessed was the best possible thing she could ever have, but she could now understand why the pegasi were so proud of their wings; the open sky felt so free.  She could only imagine how it felt to a pony who wasn't confined to a basket.  Perhaps there's a spell for that.  I may have to look into it.

        She looked over at her partner, currently fiddling with the magical flame above their heads.  He was so engrossed in his task, keeping the balloon aloft in the midday heat.  She couldn't fault him for that, of course, but it seemed so ironic that after pursuing the sky's freedom so much, he was stuck watching a flame.  Wanting the sky, but trapped by the flame.  Perhaps I misjudged him, she thought.  He's willing to do the ugly things to see his beautiful dream.  She turned away from him, and once again swept her eyes over the beautiful city below.  Purposefully, she let herself slump over the side of the basket, gazing at the city.

        "Balloons?"

        He sighed.  "I've told you, my name is—"

        "Do you ever feel like what we're doing is pointless?"

        The unicorn paused, thoughtfully adjusting the flame.  "What do you mean?"

        "I mean... I know we go out there and prevent problems, but nopony will ever know.  No thing will ever know.  Every time we do it, it's as if nothing ever happened, so our enemies never know that they have been stopped, time and time again, so they always keep trying."  She sighed.  "It never stops."

        "I like to think of that as job security."

        She turned and faced him.  "I'm serious, Balloons!  Every day, every mission... it feels like we're only delaying the inevitable.  It feels..."  Again, she slumped against the side of the basket.  "It just feels so pointless."

        He came up behind her and nuzzled her neck.  "Hey, cheer up.  Look."  He gestured at the scene below; Canterlot spread across the mountainside, ponies running along the streets, off doing some errand or another.  Peaceful.  "We make this possible.  Because of us, every pony you see here can enjoy their lives, free from the fear of violence or war.  Even if it is for just one more day, they live happily."  He smiled.  "How can that be pointless?"

        "We're deluding them," she answered.  "They think this world is perfectly safe, and so they wander into danger without a second thought.  How does that help anypony?"

        "We're here to prevent that, remember?  We stop the danger before they walk into it."

        "Doesn't always work, does it?" she remarked.  "Who was that mare?  Dreary Skies?  The one the dogs had?"

        "I think you mean 'clear.'  Clear Skies."

        She waved her hoof.  "You know who I mean.  Her.  We certainly didn't do much for her, did we?  Several months she languished there, and the only reason she's free now is because a traitor ignored orders."  She faced him again.  "How many more do we miss?  How many ponies are still held captive somewhere, or killed in ways that could have easily been prevented if they had only known?  How are we helping them, really?"

        He paused, thoughtful.  "I'm not sure I can answer that, but I think the princess knows what she's doing.  She's been around for a few years."

        Beneath her, she saw the open markets.  Ponies filled the narrow street lined with merchant carts, haggling and bargaining their way to new wares.  Several blocks away the train pulled into station, sending up a cloud of white steam as it came to a stop.  "I'd like to believe that, too," she said, "but sometimes...  Remember that dragon near Ponyville?  The one that almost choked Equestria in smoke?  That was a simple matter, an easy job for the Hunters, but she sends foals to deal with it."

        "Those mares did defeat Nightmare Moon, and they brought Princess Luna back to us."

        "They had weapons, then; tools.  Tools that our princess now has locked away.  She sent them unarmed and naked."

        "It worked out."

        "By luck, sure; I heard they almost made the situation worse.  Did the princess not trust her own Service so much that she'd send some foals to the dragon's mouth?  Is that the kind of decision a sane leader would make?"

        Balloons was staring at her now.  "Celina... what are you suggesting?"

        "I'm not suggesting anything, Balloons, I'm just... I don't know, thinking out loud.  The princess has experience beyond almost anything else in this world, and I know she cares about us, it's just... I wonder if her long years have made her forget who the rest of us are.  Made her forget what being mortal is."

        "These... are dangerous thoughts right now," he finally said.

        "I'm not..."  She shook her head.  "I'm not conspiring against Equestria, Balloons, nor am I trying to make you do the same.  I still believe in the princess, and I know we wouldn't be able to find a better leader anywhere else, but sometimes she just seems so... I don't know.  'Ineffable,' I guess."

        "She has lived for over a thousand years; she has a much wider perspective than any of us."

        "I know that, and that's why I have to believe in her: she's the best thing that could ever happen to us.  Who else could give us such wisdom?"  She thought about that a moment.  "Well, except for princess Luna, maybe, if she ever leaves her room.  But still, don't you think that may be the problem?  Her perspective, I mean.  Maybe she's too caught up in the bigger picture that she forgets about all of us individuals who make it up."  She shook her head, bringing a smile to her lips.  "No... No, I'm sorry, I'm rambling now.  Look... thanks, I feel better; I guess I just needed to say it."  She kissed him on the cheek.  "Thanks for listening.  And for not turning me in as a traitor."

        He returned her teasing smile.  "I haven't really had the opportunity yet."

        "Does this mean you're going to?"

        He looked out over the city, past the outer walls, beyond the horizon.  His eyes fell on a tall mountain in the distance, where a threatening cloud of dragon smoke once poured from.  "No," he said, "I think I'll let it slide for now."  Her looked back to her, a coy half-smile on his lips.  "But in return, you'll need to help me land this thing."

        "I... have no idea how to do that."

        "It's easy.  Here, I'll show you..."

        The next few minutes were probably the most interesting minutes of the whole ride.  He was sidled up next to her, whispering quiet directions and encouragements in her ear while his magic was wrapped around hers, giving it gentle nudges and guidance.  It tickled.  She found herself smiling, holding back giggles as she brought them back to the balcony where they left.  They landed roughly, the solid thump almost knocking Celina off her hooves and sending Balloons to the other side of the basket.  He got up, laughing and wincing all at once.

        "That could have gone smoother."

        "Hey, give me some slack," she retorted, hugging her wounded leg close.  It didn't look like it had started bleeding again, but it still hurt.  "It's my first time."

        "So?"  He gave a pointed look at her flank.  "You have a magical talent."

        "Magic theory," she countered.  "Magic practice still takes some... well, practice."

        "Theory, is it?  Well, then, I expect you'd be able to pick things up quickly.  Next time should be smooth as silk."

        She raised an eyebrow.  "Next time?"

        He nodded.  "Yep.  If the doctors let me, I'll be up again early tomorrow morning.  If not, I won't be denied the morning after.  And I am not accepting another ride without you."

        She stared for a moment, her mouth open through her smile.  "You sure this isn't some trick to lure me back so you can arrest me?"

        "Nothing of the sort," he promised.  "On my life's work in the Service, I only wish to take you to heaven.  You're responsible for bringing us back."

        She laughed, and it quickly turned to coughs.  She didn't mind, though; this stallion was too absurd.  "Very well, Balloons; I'll be here."

        He sighed.  "Must you call me that?"

        "Why not?" she asked, walking up to him.  She kissed him again, quickly, this time on the lips.  "It suits you."  With that, she turned and went back into the palace, leaving a bewildered unicorn behind her.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        It was midday when the train pulled into Canterlot station.  With the hiss of steam and the screech of brakes, it came to a halt before the loading platform.  The doors flung themselves open and passengers hurriedly exited, rushing to their next urgent event in life.  One earth pony, his tan coat still sullied from his days of travel, stepped out and, slowly, took a deep breath.  It's good to be back.

        Spotter watched the balloon float overhead as he trotted easily along the wooden platform, never bothering to try to maintain the crowd's frantic pace.  Bodies shoved past him, some half-whispered comments about inconsiderate ponies reaching his ears.  He didn't care; there were too many ponies wasting their lives galloping from one event to another, and he had no inclination of being one of them.  He had rushed enough to get here as fast as he could, and still he only made it near four hours early.  As unsuccessful as that had been, he decided he was going to take those extra four hours for himself; he had the time.

        He was going to stop by his home to get cleaned up before heading to the palace to deliver his report.  He was going to have a nice meal of fresh vegetables, scented flowers, and sweet fruits.  He was going to relax a bit before letting the stress of work back in.  The report was good news, and it could wait.

        The poster caught his eye, and he stopped cold.  At this distance, all he could clearly make out was the large WANTED across the top, but that was all he needed to get his mind racing.  What in Tartarus? he wondered as he approached.  Who got these out?  How did they get these out?  Who could warrant such a—

        He recognized the pony in those sketches.  Eyes wide, he galloped the rest of the way over, stunned as he read the proclamation.  Autumn...  His eyes drifted to the palace.  What happened here?

        "Pay no attention to that," came a voice from behind him.  Turning, he found himself facing two white pegasi in the golden armour of the Royal Guard.  "Just a prank some ponies pulled off last night," the large guard continued.  "Managed to cover most of the city with these."

        "A... prank, is it?" Spotter asked.  A liable cover-up.

        The guard nodded.  "Indeed.  Pulled the idea from some storybook, I imagine.  Excuse me," he said, trotting passed Spotter.  He stopped in front of the poster and, with a quick motion, tore the thing down.

        "Did you get any reports yet?" Spotter asked.

        "Hm?"

        "Well, you're only just now taking the posters down.  Surely most of the city has seen them already and, prank or not, some likely took it seriously.  Anypony come up and tell you terrible stories of a masked traitor wandering the streets?"

        The guard blinked.  "Why would you want to know?"

        Spotter shrugged.  "Curiosity.  I just got here, I'd kinda like to know the type of ponies I'll be living with for the next several years."

        "Of course," the guard said, feigning politeness.  "There have been no reports.  The ponies of this city know better than to believe such nonsense as this.  You may take comfort in that fact."

        He was lying.  The stiffness in his voice, the change in his breathing, the shifting of weight on his hooves; the small actions spoke volumes to Spotter.  He looked back at the other guard, obviously the junior of the two, but he only followed his senior's leads.  "Well," he said, facing the older guard again, "that's quite a relief.  Wouldn't want to move in with a bunch of crazies, eh?"  The guard only gave a professional smile and a single, quiet laugh of agreement.  It stank of impatience; the guard clearly wanted no further part in this conversation, he had a job he wanted to get back to.  "But then," continued Spotter, "it was somepony who lives here that put these up to begin with, so maybe we're not completely in the clear.  There's obviously some crazies about.  Hope they're not my housemates.  I tell ya, that would ruin my week, and I've been through a lot this week.  Ever met a gryphon before?  Let me tell you, you do not—"

        "Excuse me," the younger guard interrupted.  "I hate to interrupt, but we do need to be on our way.  Surly and I have a schedule to maintain."

        "It's quite alright."  Surly's tone was almost flat, a trick of many years on the beat.  Anypony else may have missed it, but Spotter easily heard the irony in his voice: he wanted to be walking away just as much as his junior.  "There is always time for the citizens."

        "Oh, no, you're right, of course," Spotter replied.  "You have places to be, gotta keep the city safe and all that.  Keep us regular ponies out of harm's way, rescue kittens from trees, usual stuff, and here I am just blathering on about gryphon encounters three days from last Friday.  Had to give her the boot just yesterday, and what a nightmare that was.  Can't imagine what it would be like to live in one of their households.  Probably don't even celebrate Mother's Day.  Seems a bit ungrateful, don't you think?"

        "Fascinating," the younger guard said, a clear note of annoyance coating his words.  "If I ever see one in this city, I'll be sure to ask it about its holiday practices.  Now, if you'll excuse us?"

        Spotter cringed and gave an apologetic laugh.  "Oh, of course, of course.  Silly me, there I go again.  Please, don't let me be in your way."  The older guard, his jaw set in mild irritation, nodded curtly as he joined his junior.  Spotter allowed them three steps.  "Oh!  Hey!  Hey, listen, I just want to apologize for wasting your time back there; it was rude and inconsiderate of me.  I know you guys got lives to live, and jobs to do, and you really don't need random citizens pestering you with meaningless drivel.  I mean, I've heard some of the things that get said about some ponies and their ridiculous questions!  A-heh.  My favourite is the one when they asked one of you guys if you were all related, what with all of you being white and such.  Well, 'cept for the unicorns; they're grey, but I guess they figured that was a different family.  In-laws, maybe."

        Surly, while clearly irritated, had adopted an expression of quiet resignation, prepared to listen patiently for the next several hours if need be; a true professional.  His junior looked about ready to do anything to get away from the rambling lunatic.  "Anyway, I was just wondering if, before you go, I could have that poster you tore down?  I think it would make an interesting souvenir of the day I arrived in Canterlot.  'The first wanted pony in generations!' I'll tell my friends.  Sure, it's just a prank, but it's still a good story.  And can you imagine the—"

        "Here."  The younger guard tossed the poster over, and immediately began walking away.  Surly blinked, then gave a polite nod as he joined his junior.  Spotter watched them go, then picked up the poster and dropped it in his saddlebag.

*               *               *

        "What is this?"  Spotter flung the question at the councilpony before him, a pale green pegasus mare of the Operations branch.  Between them, thrown onto the pegasus' desk, was the poster he had collected from the guards.  "Is this some kind of joke?  Are we trying to cause panic?"

        The pegasus looked up from her desk, regarding her visitor with a disdainful gaze.  "Is that any way to address your superiors?"

        "Hang your rank," Spotter responded.  "You won't be keeping it if things go south because of these.  Sun and stars, Skymoss, there's a reason we stopped using these!"

        "I am well aware of my history, Spotter," Skymoss spat back.

        "Really?  Then why do I find this city covered in these posters?  Trying to undo centuries of our princess' hard work?"

        Her eyes narrowed.  "You're out of line."

        "Am I?"  Spotter brought his hoof down on the poster.  "If this is your line, then I will gladly step away from it.  Why was this sanctioned?  Whose idea was this?"

        "Mine."  Both ponies turned toward the source of the interruption, and a white unicorn walked into the room.  He stopped in front of Spotter.  "I'd heard you were back."

        "Vice-Commissar," Spotter replied.  "Did you take leave of your senses, or are you vying for an early retirement?"

        Golden Lock didn't say anything, his eyes darkening slightly as he looked from Spotter to the poster on Skymoss's desk.  Spotter took the moment to check himself.  For all his talents, he could never get an accurate read on Lock; this was a unicorn who knew what signals he was sending, and only let the ones he wanted be seen.  Genuine or fake, they all came across with equal sincerity.  Long experience had taught him that Lock was always hiding something, but it was impossible to know what was truly going on behind those golden eyes.  Dealing with him always made Spotter uncomfortable.

        "Walk with me."  The order was given plainly as Lock turned and left the room.  He was several seconds gone before Spotter sighed, collected the poster, and followed after him, Skymoss glaring at his back as he left.

        They walked in silence through the expansive halls of the Service, a nervous scratch tickling Spotter's stomach.  Their initial direction led him to believe they were heading for the Vice-Commissar's office, and the next turn cemented that thought.  Trying to keep himself calm, he glanced around at the ponies of the Service who likewise walked the halls.  There was little change to the order of things, he noted; ponies were still running to accomplish whatever tasks occupied them at the time, still gathering in corners and laughing at bad jokes, still skipping a minute of work to grab some small bite to eat.  It was as it had always been, but now there was a shadow behind every sparkling eye.  Everypony seemed to be resisting an urge to look over their shoulder.  Everywhere he looked, a single word was hanging in the air, and it asked a question that no-one had an answer to.  If one of our own could turn traitor, then who can any of us trust?  Spotter shuddered and looked to the floor.

        They entered the office, Golden Lock walked behind his desk and opened one of the drawers.  Spotter stood there as he shuffled through it, finally pulling out a folder and laying it open before him.  He looked up to Spotter.  "This is your debrief," he began.  "You were sent on a mission with Autumn and Sly to investigate the presence of dogs in the Morlan Mines.  The mission, as such, has been resolved, and final reports have been given; only yours is absent."  The folder turned toward Spotter in a magical golden glow.  "Do you have anything to add?"

        The change in subject made Spotter wary.  He had practically insulted the Vice-Commissar to his face, and all he was getting was a debrief?  His mind shifted into overtime, trying to figure out what angle was being played as he stepped forward to read the reports.  They were incredibly detailed, more so than they should have been.  There were items that only he, as the lone stay-behind, could know.  He hoofed through the papers, trying to find an explanation; he found a name.  "Grey Gale?  You sent an elite pony after us?"

        "After Autumn, when he ran off against my order," Golden Lock corrected.  "I had intended to detain him and his companions, but once they reached the mines, Gale knew better than to risk Equestrian safety for my blind arrogance.  He ordered his team to assist in secret, and it was with his help that they escaped.  It is with his help that we know what became of the dogs, but nopony has your talents.  I expect you found some things that everyone else missed."

        "Your...'blind arrogance'?"

        Lock raised his brow; a gesture of curiosity.  "What's wrong?  Surprized that I will admit to my own faults?  I am a reasonable pony, Spotter; I know when I must take my lessons."

        "Is this why you blanketed the city with posters of Autumn?  A lesson of humility well learned: try to destroy the pony who exposed your faults."

        "There is evidence against him."

        "Evidence can be planted."

        He sighed; it was a tired sigh, and it carried a hint of pain.  "You've been absent, Spotter; you don't know what happened.  I excuse your blatant disrespect for that; not even a pony of your talents can see everything."  He turned then, and with a subtle weariness looked down upon the city through his windowpane.  "You aren't the first pony to think I am pursuing Autumn for my own ends, but you should know that Keystone has me placed on probation.  My hooves are tied; I cannot do anything without either her backing or that of the council.  I cannot pursue a private war."

        Spotter was silent; a lot had happened while he was gone.  On probation?  Keystone's serious about this.  Of course, if Lock couldn't do anything on his own, then that meant he wasn't the only one who thought the posters were a good idea.  "Why the posters?" he asked.  "We've never needed them before."

        Lock turned his head, looking at Spotter with a single eye.  "A necessary evil.  In order to find a pony like Autumn, everyone in the city must be looking for him.  In order for that to happen, they must first know about him."

        "So you'll cause panic to catch him?  Spread fear throughout the peaceful lives of Celestia's subjects?  This is half of what we're supposed to prevent, and you're here making it!"

        He turned away from the window to face Spotter, his eyes darkening dangerously.  "Mind your tone, agent.  I am well aware of my duty to Equestria and her populace.  Do you honestly think me that much of a fool?  I act only for the good of Equestria, and I know what I am doing.  There will be no panic—the whole thing is being declared a grand prank.  The ponies will believe it, of course.  We live in a peaceful propensity unheard of by our neighbours; who could believe an actual traitor exists?  But while they disbelieve, the mere idea is novel and the prank is intriguing.  Yes, ponies will still talk; and when they see him, they will talk more about him.  We shall hear their whispers, and our hunters will find him."

        It was an impressive speech.  Spotter wondered how long he had been practicing it.  "You must realize that not all ponies will believe the cover-up," Spotter countered.  "What happens when they start spreading the tale, and you aren't there to call 'prank'?"

        Golden Lock shook his head.  "The only ponies who would believe them are their own ilk, and they are few and far between.  The hunters can stop any damage they might cause before it becomes a problem.  I told you," he said, looking Spotter squarely in the eye, "I know what I'm doing."

        "Is that what you told Keystone?  Or the council?  What of the Princesses, then?  Did you—"

        "Enough!"  Spotter resisted the urge to step back.  "The decision has already been made.  The council, a body made of several voices, a body designed to debate the merits and flaws of any action, agreed to go ahead.  I have no need to justify their decision to you.  What does interest me, however—" he pushed the folder closer to Spotter "—is your report."

        For a moment, Spotter didn't move.  Half of him wanted to push the matter, but the other half warned against pushing too far on a pony he couldn't read.  He ground his teeth.  "Do you need it right away?"

        Golden Lock visibly relaxed, though he held his dominant composure, a quiet reminder of who was in charge.  "Not all of it, no; you may put it together later today, but have it on my desk by supper.  Right now, however, you will tell me about Autumn."

        Spotter blinked.  "What do you mean?"

        Lock put on a strained smile and spoke slowly, as though explaining things to a small foal.  "You have worked with with Autumn for almost a year now, and nopony has your talents of observation.  You must have seen something that could help us find him.  Perhaps a habit of his, or a hobby?  Somepony he talked of often?"

        "Dew."

        He waved that aside.  "We've already asked her; she is being unco-operative.  This is why I am asking you."

        "No, you misunderstand: he talked of Dew often.  Well, as often as he talked of anypony.  Autumn wasn't really social; most of our conversations were about our current mission, and he shied away from every off-work event."  He paused.  "Never got the chance to see any hobbies."

        Golden Lock looked to the windowpane briefly, considering the information.  "And you noticed no indications that he would turn traitor?"

        Spotter shook his head.  "None.  I have a hard time believing he is one."

        "Yes... another thing he managed to hide from us all, it seems."

        Spotter didn't believe it; Autumn could hide under a stiff breeze, but it was far too easy to catch that pony in a lie.  "I would like to look over the evidence you have.  Perhaps I can make something of it that has been overlooked."

        Somehow, he wasn't surprized when the Vice-Commissar shook his head.  "You are no longer an Intelligence pony, Spotter; you were transferred by your own request, if you'll recall.  You should have more faith in your old follows; they are doing a fine job in your absence."

        "Never-the-less, I'd like to see it.  For a pony like Autumn, I think I could be a useful asset in finding him."

        Silence; the room seemed to darken slightly.  "Your dedication is admirable, but your help is not needed; I have the Autumn case on the back of a very capable pony.  And if you must know," Lock said tersely, "the report came in this morning.  All the evidence has been verified; it is genuine.  You will let this matter go."  He kept speaking, cutting off anything that Spotter tried to say next.  "Have your full report on my desk by supper, and get yourself cleaned up; there is another matter I shall need you to look into, close to the borders of the Dragon Kings.  You'll be working with Last Leaf, under the command of Sunflare on this one.  You leave before nightfall."  He turned away, once again looking out over Canterlot.  "Dismissed."

        Spotter hung back for a moment, instincts rooting him to the spot.  The room stank of unspoken words and hidden agendas, but still the Vice-Commissar was displaying nothing that betrayed such things.  Spotter couldn't help but wonder if, perhaps, he was just imagining things, nervously grasping at even the slightest hints of unstated motive in the presence of a pony who gave none himself.  Perhaps he was giving too much credit to the whispers, and making mountains out of mirages.  So he lingered, but only for a moment.  Quietly, he bowed and trotted out, leaving the white unicorn to watch over his city.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Starwind lay on her bed, exhausted, but so happily warm.  Grey Gale was nestled up behind her, his grey limbs wrapped around her silver body, his breath brushing her neck every few seconds.  She liked that feeling; like a miniature breeze after a hard flight.  Mostly, though, it meant he was still there.  She could never admit that to herself: that she loved him just being there.  His warmth, his sweat, his strength wrapped around her.  She felt safe in his embrace, like she could fall asleep and never have to worry about waking up again.

        Nothing could hurt her here.

        She ached, but it was a good pain; a memento of him, in a way.  She didn't want to move lest she disturb the feeling, and it was something to be savoured.  She almost reached down to cradle her stomach, but stopped herself; this moment didn't want to be disturbed.  Instead, she simply lay there, wrapped in his embrace, a contented sigh on her lips.

        He grunted, and the bed shook as he unwrapped himself from her and got up.  She rolled her head over to watch him stand, and took a moment to admire the sight.  "You seemed excited," she said.  "Something I did?"

        "Don't flatter yourself, Starwind; it is unbecoming."  His head turned toward her.  "And stop pouting."

        Ignoring his command, she rolled herself over.  "What's wrong with me?  Did I disappoint you?"

        "You performed admirably, as usual," he said, turning his attention to the sink.  "Chestnut complained about your incessant teasing, of course.  You may want to go a little easier on him; he is still young and susceptible."

        Her pout grew deeper.  "You're no fun at all."

        He washed his face.  "The mission is no place for wanton games.  I've told you this before, yet you still play."

        "Because I know when to stop," she countered, rolling out of bed.  "It isn't my fault if the colt can't keep his focus."  Her pout was gone, replaced by a devilish smirk.  "And if you hate having fun on a mission so much, then stay at home next time.  I'll be sure to make up stories of just how dull it was."

        His head turned slightly, just enough that one eye saw her.  "Enjoying one's work is a different matter entirely."

        There was a sparkle in his eye.  "Well, something's got you excited.  If it isn't me, then... should I be jealous?"

        He turned back to the sink and looked at her reflection in the mirror.  "A very... intriguing mission has presented itself.  I am finding it hard to turn down."

        She was beside him, whispering in his ear.  "Tell me."

        There was a pause.  "Autumn."

        "Oooh, the traitor," she whispered, rolling her head along his neck, the white of his mane mixing with the black of hers.  "How very patriotic of you."

        He didn't move, continuing to stare fixedly into the mirror.  "It is... a tempting challenge; to find the unfindable pony."  She felt his wings quiver.  "It is hard to sit still with that on my mind."

        "Mmmm... picking a stallion over me," she teased.  Her neck was wrapped around his, and she whispered in his far ear.  "Now I am jealous."  Gently, she bit his ear, and immediately was off him, cantering away toward the door.  "Let me know when you've finished admiring yourself," she called, leaving the room.

        Starwind entered her kitchens, a single thought on her mind.  Apple.  Apple.  Apple apple apple.  She opened several of her cupboards in search of her elusive prey, eventually finding them in plain sight on the dining table.  She grumbled at them for hiding from her, picked one up, and balanced it on the back of her hoof.  Slowly, she turned her hoof, carefully examining the  fruit  before taking a satisfying bite out of it.  Wherever these apples came from, she thought as she let the sweet juices fill her mouth, I thank Celestia they exist.

        Grey Gale came in shortly after.  He had cleaned himself up and his coat seemed to sparkle in the afternoon light coming through the windows.  He helped himself to one of her apples, and chewed it thoughtfully.  Between them, there was only the sound of crunching apple.

        "I may want you to accompany me," Gale said, breaking the silence.

        She paused, giving him a sidelong stare before slowly swallowing her last bite of apple.  "And why would I want to do that?"

        "Because I would command it."

        She made a sour face.  "Hardly enticing."

        "I shouldn't need to convince you to act for the good of Equestria.  It should be something you leap at the chance to do."

        "You can't expect me to believe you're doing this 'for the good of Equestria,' Gale.  More likely you want the fame."

        "There is no fame in our work."

        "But there is notoriety.  Imagine the hallowed halls of the Service, echoing with hushed whispers.  Did you hear?  Grey Gale found Autumn!  He was cowering in some dark alley, pissing himself in terror!  I guess he wasn't invisible after all.  Oh, I'm sorry... you've already thought about this, haven't you?"  She leaned in close.  "Is that what makes you wet?"

        Grey Gale took another bite from his apple, chewing it slowly while Starwind glared at him.  Finally, "Working for one's own benefit runs counter to what is asked of us.  We—"

        "Oh, staaaars," she complained, collapsing over the table.  "You always say the same things."  She rolled onto her back, staring up at the ceiling.  She reached a hoof upward.  "I wonder who you're really trying to convince."

        "I am trying to remind you—"

        "—that I am a useless pony, and that I should take my job more seriously."  Only her eyes moved when she looked at him.  "It's such a boring speech."

        "You have a serious job."

        "Doesn't mean you have to be so dull about it.  What's wrong with having a little fun?"

        He looked away from her, and a thoughtful breath escaped his lips.  For her own part, she kicked off her hind legs, pushing all her weight onto the table, where she kicked the air lazily, tracing out random lines with her forehooves.

        "Perhaps you are right."

        "Wha?"  Starwind immediately righted herself, her brow furrowed in confusion.  "Did you just...?"

        He looked at her mildly.  "I have been unsure whether or not I should pursue this mission.  As you have said, I have something of a, hm, personal goal in this.  The tales of Autumn are... exceptional.  I was worried that I might let my own goals get in the way.  But, perhaps, you are right.  Perhaps I should embrace this, and have my fun."  His last sentence came with a smile.

        She had forgotten to breathe, it seemed.  She sat there, crouched on the table, her mouth agape.  Slowly, a smile spread to her lips and little bursts of laughter escaped through it.  "Well!  Grey Gale admitting to wanting some fun!  Who would have thought it possible?"  He gave no reaction, so she cocked her head as her smile turned sultry.  "Perhaps I'll join you after all.  Just the two of us, chasing after a rogue traitor."  She leaned forward and licked his cheek, whispering, "It would be just wonderful."

        "Not just us.  The whole team will be there, and we will be working closely with the Hunters."

        She pulled her head back, pouting once again.  "You're no fun at all."

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        "Looks like it's moving south."

        "If it is a thing."

        "Right, if is it something.  How many reports is that, now?"

        "Depends on how you count them.  Upwards of fifty, I'd say, but with little in common."

        "Except the thing itself, of course."

        "Of course, but that isn't much right now."

        "Hm.  What if we sent an elite team this time?"

        "We could try, but I doubt the council would approve.  Likely they'd call 'goose chase' and be done."

        "It's looking a little consistent for that, don't you think?"

        "Oh, I agree, but try telling the council that.  Without something more solid than this..."

        "I know, South.  Five expeditions, and all we have is mirage."

        "Something interesting, then?"

        The two unicorns were huddled over a large table, a world map painted into its surface, but they turned at the sound of the third voice, startling them from their hushed conversation.  Their shock quickly turned to joy.  "Spotter!  Welcome back, old friend; how've you been?"

        "Yeah, how's life out in Operations?  Miss us?"

        Spotter smiled.  "I've been better, but I've been much worse as well.  So far, though, I'm surviving."

        "Well, that's good to hear.  We'd hate to have you die before our next round of tea."

        "Yeah; it's your turn to pay for it."

        He laughed.  "It's good to know you have my best interests in mind.  At least until after you've had your Jasmane."

        "Don't you know it!"  The two ponies laughed with him, giving him a playful punch.  "So, then—"

        "—What can we do for you?"

        Spotter's smile lost its shine.  "I need information."

        "Right, I'd heard you got a new mission."  North began rummaging through the papers on the table before him.  "Working with one of the mares who ran off with Autumn, yeah?  Leaving before nightfall, was it?"

        "Short notice," said South, joining his brother with the papers.  "Hm, Dragon Kings... I thought we already sent the file; didn't you get it?"

        "I did, and I'm not asking for that."  The Poles both stopped and looked curiously back up at Spotter.  "I'm looking for information in Autumn."

        "Ah," said North, scratching the back of his head sheepishly.  "Bad bit of business, that."

        "Out of the blue, that's for certain," agreed his brother.  "Teamed with you, didn't he?  You didn't notice anything?"

        Spotter shook his head, and the brothers glanced at each other.  "Don't that beat all?"  South just nodded, so North continued, looking back at Spotter.  "Well, the story we know is that he was seen planting some device near the princess' quarters, fled with it when they questioned him, and hasn't turned up since."

        "Still in the city, though.  We got a poster hit this morning; old mare looking out her window.  Near the palace, actually.  Mare said he disappeared right before her eyes."  South shrugged.  "Sounds like him, anyway."

        "Anyway, after he vanished, we did a search of his quarters, and... we..."  He stopped, a curious look coming over his features.  South soon mimicked it.  "Spotter—"

        "—Are you cleared for this information?"

        Spotter shook his head.  "No."

        North slowly nodded.  "Thought not.  Seems a bit odd, don't you think?"  South nodded also, glancing back over the table littered with various messages from hunter ponies.  "I'd put you at the head of this investigation, you know," North continued, his voice distant, "but between the evidence and this, I... "

        South looked around, then dropped his voice low.  "The evidence that came in?  Six items, each of varying degrees of incriminating, from circumstantial to outright accusatory.  A small group was assigned to verify the pieces, but—"

        "—They were doing a rush job, kind of a cursory glance over each piece.  Now, South and I don't run like that, and so we pushed our way in; started causing trouble, looking into each piece.  And you know?  Compelling as some pieces were, it didn't sit right.  It's like you taught us—"

        "—'If it's too convenient, it probably is.'  Like that journal?  Full of plans; well thought out ones, too.  Had contingency plans, as well; could work through most any situation.  But, you know—"

        "—Who would leave something like that in a desk drawer, locked or not?  Especially inside the palace itself?  Just seems... convenient, you know?"

        "So we looked deeper into it, and each piece looked like it had a trail, like it came from somewhere else.  But the moment we tried to follow that trail, it vanished.  Like... you can see it out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn your head to look at it..."

        "So we try to tell the others, get them to help shed light onto this, but they all keep brushing it aside.  'It's fine,' they'd say, 'don't worry about it.'  They kept fighting us the whole time.  Then, this morning—"

        "—The case was closed; evidence packed in storage.  They'd called it good, golden, and verified, and ignored everything we'd said."

        "We've filed a report of Negligence," finished North, "but it'll still take a few days before that'll get this opened up again."  He looked back to the table, then at Spotter again.  "Would... I'd like it if you'd take a look over what we gathered; you might find something we missed."

        The knot in Spotter's stomach had grown.  His jaw was clenched tightly, and that was the only thing preventing him from grinding his teeth.  Slowly, he relaxed his jaw and forced a smile.  "I'll take a look, though I doubt I'd find anything you missed, North; you guys learned quickly."

        South nodded.  "Thanks.  I'll be sure to get you the folder before you go."  He glanced up at the clock.  "...Shouldn't that be now?"

        "They won't leave without me."

        South glanced back at Spotter, nodded once, then ran out the door.  North gave a dry chuckle.  "Kinda feels like someone wants you away from the palace, doesn't it?  You just got back and they're sending you out again."  He turned back to the table, returning his attention to the reports that littered its surface.  He spoke absently over his shoulder.  "Might just be coincidence, but Last Leaf just got the 'OK' by the doctors.  The moment she's good to go, she's sent off on a mission.  Maple Song, too; she left yesterday.  Even Dew was reassigned this morning.  Shame, that; I always liked seeing her when I came in."

        Spotter's ears perked.  "What about the others?  The unicorns?"

        North shrugged.  "Still in hospital care, so I can't really say.  One of them's in a coma, but the other two should be out soon.  We'll see what happens."

        South came running back in, holding a folder which he promptly slid into Spotter's saddlebag.  "There you go," he said.  "Please... be careful out there."  Spotter nodded, bid farewell, and walked out of the room.

        His thoughts were dark as he trotted down the corridor, heading for the teleportation chamber.  Late as he was, he was sure to get yelled at by the unicorn leading the mission, but that thought was far from his mind.  Instead, his focus was on the conversation he had walked away from; there were far too many coincidences for his liking.  He couldn't—or at least, wouldn't—accuse anypony on merely hunch, so for now he resolved to dig as deep as he had to to find his proof.

He thought back to the mines, where Grey Gale had come up behind them and helped them in secret.  Why did he do that, he wondered.  Why in secret?  He would have to look over Gale's report, try to find some reasoning behind the pony's decision.  As his thoughts drifted back to Autumn, the weight of the folder in his bag was suddenly a lot heavier; six items without any apparent source.

        He knew of only one pony who could keep secrets that well.

つづ

To Be Continued...


=========================================================================================

Chapter Nine

"And thus the war was won, and the sisters stood victorious against their enemies.  But lo, for their victory did come at great cost, for their subjects were tormented, homeless, and alone.  The sisters did see them, and did weep for them.

"And so it came to pass that the sisters, in their wisdom, did create guardians to care for their peace and beloved subjects.  Sister Celestia, the Princess of the Day, did create the Guardians in Light; a Royal Army sworn to defend her subjects in her name.  Sister Luna, the Princess of the Night, did create the Guardians in Shadow; a service sworn to unmake enemy strength.

"And Lo! the land knew peace..."

~Excerpt from 'The Twin Stars'

Banned Book of Worship

        Autumn lay huddled in his cobalt-blue prison, maintaining a conscious effort to keep his breathing steady.  Shivers still ran through his body, and he had taken to lying on his limbs to keep them from twitching.

        Breathe in.

        He had calmed dramatically since yesterday morning.  The room had never gotten very bright, even with the sun shining in through the window.  The room seemed to drink the light; it never even touched the floor.  Night had done little to darken the place, though; the walls themselves appeared to shine with moonlight.

        Breathe out.

        Luna had barely moved since the nightguards left.  She lay atop her pillows, poring over old tomes and yellowed scrolls by the pale light of glowing walls and fireflies; she would stop only long enough to practice some small spell or another.  Autumn didn't think she even slept.

        Breathe in.

        He had tried, unsuccessful though it was.  Sleep had never come easy to him in unfamiliar places, and being behind an impenetrable wall didn't help matters any.  It had been all he could do to catch the few moments of rest his nervous mind let him.  He told himself it was better than nothing, but it certainly didn't feel much different.

        Breathe out.

        He let his breath escape slowly, almost counting the seconds it took to fully exhale.  Trying to tell how much time had passed by the number of breaths he took had long since been abandoned, but it kept him focused on something other than imprisonment.  His next breath in was deep, and he glanced up at the window.  A faint glow, the first breath of aurorean light, was barely visible; a full day had passed.  One look at Luna told him that, if she even noticed the time, she didn't care.  He found himself focused, watching her read as the fireflies circled around her.

        "What are you reading?"

        The page, caught in her magical glow, stopped mid-turn.  In the silence that followed, Autumn wondered why he had said anything.  Far from believing that he may have insulted the princess or crossed some forbidden line, he simply didn't remember ever thinking the question.  It started to concern him that he didn't seem to have control over his voice when she surprized him with an answer.  "We are studying magic."  The page finished its turn.

        "Is that what you have been doing since you returned?"

        Again, there was a silence before her reply.  "We have."

        He paused, considering her answer.  It seemed odd to him; she had been back close to a year now, and the reason she never left her room was because she was studying magic?  Everypony knew she'd been gone for a thousand years; surely they'd forgive her ignorance of recent theory.  Studying with other unicorns might even provide an excellent excuse to interact with the populace.  "Why?" he asked.  "Why have you not gone out to see your subjects?"

        She turned her head to face him.  "Thou dost ask many questions."

        A nervous chuckle escaped his lips.  "I apologize, Highness; I did not mean to offend."

        "Thou hast not offended us, only interrupted our studies.  Why so suddenly curious?"

        He looked around and answered, "I... suppose I am just nervous, your highness; it is not easy being a prisoner."

        Luna frowned.  "Thou hast been a prisoner but for a day.  If thou art asking for pity, thou asketh the wrong mare."

        "I... did not mean..."  He struggled, trying to figure out what it was that he'd been asking; his thoughts had been wandering on their own.  Finally, "Equestria worries, Princess.  Nightmare Moon is not so distant a memory anymore, and you have not been seen since your return."  She looked away.  "Why, Princess?  Why do you stay here?"

        He feared she would not answer, the way the silence stretched.  When she turned another page, he found himself listening to his breaths again.  He closed his eyes and focused.

        Breathe in.

        "We cannot."  Instantly, his eyes opened; there was a sadness in her voice.  "We are... not ready."

        He waited for her to say more; she didn't.  "What are you waiting for?"  The question, he knew, wasn't one he had any right to ask, but he couldn't find it in himself to hold it back.  Ponies everywhere needed to know their princess; to know that she was no longer the stuff of nightmares.  So he asked, but only the quiet responded.  With a sigh, he lay back down to rest.

        The sound of the door opened his eyes again, and he saw the nightguard enter.  He still held himself tall, the mask that served as his face betraying no emotion.  Luna set her book aside as he bowed deeply before her.  "Majesty."

        "Smiles; thy findings?"

        "Uncertain," he responded, standing.

        "We are listening."

        He nodded once.  "We began by verifying Autumn's story, or what we could of it.  Your sister is, indeed, being watched.  Careful note of whom she meets with is taken; their conversations are recorded"—Autumn thought he saw rage flash in the princess's eyes—"and her guests are thoroughly investigated afterward.  It would not be foolish to assume that they are looking for someone in particular."

        Autumn was only listening by half; most of what Smiles was saying he already knew, and what he didn't barely surprized him.  Mostly he watched the princess, trying to judge her reactions.  It proved futile; she betrayed only slight signals, and all of those were unhelpful.  Still, he persisted, hoping that some clue toward his fate would be given.  Then, out of the corner of his ear, he heard that the evidence against him had been verified.  He went cold; he had hoped that whatever trouble Smiles had mentioned the other day would have prevented a 'genuine' verdict, or at least delayed it until he was free and proven to Luna.  Now, though, he didn't think he'd have the chance.  I'm sorry, Dew...

        A twitch in his ear caused him to start listening again; Luna had sounded confused.  "Meadowlark believes it is relevant," Smiles was saying.  "Their reliefs did not show up late; rather, they turned them away, telling them to take a few more minutes."

        "Strange," commented Luna.

        "Perhaps," agreed Smiles, "but these are different times.  I could not tell you if this is a common practice now."

        Luna considered the information for a time, and Autumn wondered what he had missed.  He could almost hear his heart beating in the stillness when she looked up at Smiles again.  "Truly, 'tis difficult to judge.  Thy council?"

        He paused.  "Meadowlark is inclined to believe him."

        "And what of thee, Smiles?"

        He looked over at Autumn, still huddled in his prison.  "I want for more evidence."

        "Dost thou distrust Meadowlark's judgement?"

        "I trust Meadowlark; I do not trust him."

        "Where lies the difference?"  Smiles paused again, still watching Autumn.  Though he still gave no sign of emotion, it seemed to Autumn that he was struggling to find an answer.  With none given, Luna spoke again.  "Where is Meadowlark?"

        "On his way," Smiles said, looking back to Luna.  "I expect he will arrive shortly."

        Luna nodded.  "Very well; we shall await his council."

        Smiles nodded back, and turned to face the door.  Realizing that his fate wasn't yet sealed, Autumn found himself with a spark of hope in his chest.  He prayed that whatever reason caused Meadowlark to trust him was enough to convince the princess.  For now, though, he had to wait.  Once again, he settled down and closed his eyes.

        Breathe in...

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        "Welcome," said Dew, "to day one."

        There were a few hushed murmurs in the group before her.  They had already been several weeks in training—strange tests and stranger games—and many of their number had left them.  What had started as over a hundred ponies was now less than two dozen, and this strange mare was welcoming them to day one?  Most only whispered their confusions quietly to their neighbours, but a few openly scoffed.

        Dew was well aware of their feelings—she had, after all, been in their place several years ago—but even more than that, she was aware of the nightguard in the corner.  His presence was unsettling; she had never known them to leave their princess's door, not since she returned.  She hadn't seen him enter, but since she'd seen him he'd been all but a statue.  At first, she had thought that he was there to watch the proceedings, but he was entirely disinterested in the gathered recruits.

        He was watching her.

        It was unnerving, the way he stood.  She had seen all the royal guards stand as perfectly still as he was, but his eyes followed her everywhere.  His head would turn to face her, the only part of him that moved; she didn't even think he blinked.  He had ignored everypony that had come up to him and asked him questions, remaining focused solely on Dew.  She couldn't help but wonder why he was there, why he had left his princess's side.  She could only think of a single reason, and it filled her with trepidation: Luna, the original founder of the Service, was becoming active, and wanted her.

        The timing was impeccable; four days since Autumn was declared a traitor, and only one since the whole of Canterlot knew as well.  If Luna had any interest outside her room, there was little doubt she'd heard of it.  After that, it was a small matter to learn that Dew was Autumn's only friend.

        She tried to ignore him as she faced the gathering.  "Over the past few weeks you've been playing games, ones that helped us determine which of you were the right material for the road ahead.  Congratulations; you've made it past the first step.

        "The second step is harder.  From here on out, know that you will be working in secrecy.  All the training, all the schooling, everything that you will learn will be spoken about to nopony.  This is not to be taken lightly; it lasts for the remainder of your life."

        "Hold up."  A young unicorn near the back spoke up; she had an amber coat with a long green mane.  "The rest of our lives?  I was told that I'd be helping Equestria with my talents, not that it was some secret hush-hush deal.  What kinda job is this?"  Her question elicited sympathetic murmurs.

        Dew's eyes darted over to the nightguard before she took control of them again; he hadn't moved, was still watching her.  "Silence is the price to continue," she told the mare.  "If you don't think you can do it, then please: the exit is over there."  She motioned with her hoof, and waited.  Nopony moved.  "You won't be thought of poorly," Dew assured them.  "I... we understand it's a heavy burden, and not everypony can handle it.  If you're not sure, it'd be best to leave now."

        "You can't scare me like that," the mare said.  "I'm not leaving.  I just wanna know what I'm getting into."

        Dew forced herself to smile, all the while the nightguard's presence tugged at her mind.  Is he judging me? she thought, trying to find some reason, any reason, that didn't lead back to Luna.  Watching to see how I deal with this?  Focusing back on the outspoken mare, she tried to fill her voice with sympathy.  "You won't find out until you've taken the plunge, I'm afraid."  Again, she motioned toward the exit.  "I ask you once more: will any of you leave?"

        A minute passed, and all the ponies remained; nopony ever left when simply asked to.  Dew set her hoof down.  "Well, then," she said, standing up straight.  "Welcome to the Secret Service."

        She expected the laughter that followed, but her eyes darted over to the nightguard.  What would he expect?  If he had any thoughts, he gave no sign.  He continued to stare at her, silent, his deep golden eyes boring into her while his face remained a mask.  She suppressed a shiver.

        "You're joking," said a purple earth pony near the front.  "The Secret Service is just a myth—stories told to frightened fillies so they'll go to sleep.  You can't expect us to believe this rot."

        She heard a few voices of agreement, one loudly calling, "That was a waste of six weeks."  A few ponies looked confused; perhaps they had never heard the stories, or maybe they had realized.

        "I'm joking, sure," Dew replied.  "It's a grand joke, you know, one that has led you all inside the Royal Palace.  Why, even the Princess would have to be in on it."  Soon, all the ponies shared that confused look.  She could imagine their thoughts, likely similar to her own years ago.  Sparing a glance over to the nightguard, she continued.  "You've all heard the stories, I'm sure; grand tales about elite cadres of ponies diving into enemy territory and saving Equestria from some evil scheme or another.  Discounted as fantasy, a foal's tale.  And you know?  We keep it that way for a reason.

        "But we are real; we do exist, and you have been chosen to join our ranks."  She looked over the ponies before her, watching their faces; her eyes flashed to the nightguard, still standing in the corner.  What does he want? she wondered.

        Her thoughts were interrupted by laughter; she looked over to see the purple stallion with a knowing smirk.  "Oh, very well-played, missy.  You know, you almost got me there."  He looked around at all the ponies he had arrived with.  "Oh, I admit this is huge, but it's only a prank.  We've been playing strange games ever since we showed up, haven't we?  How hard is it to see that this is just another one of those?  Next you'll be telling us this 'traitor' is real!"  He flashed a grin at her.  "Besides, just because we're in the palace doesn't mean the Princess is involved—all you'd need is a single guard."  He pointed over to the nightguard in the corner, still unmoving.  "I bet it's all his idea," he spat.

        "Do you have something against our fellow ponies?" she asked.

        "'Ponies?'" he asked, turning back to her.  "Does that look like a pony to you?  Oh, it's got four hooves, all right, but if that's all that makes a pony then my cow should be eating at the table!"

        "I'm sorry you feel that way."

        He eyed her suspiciously.  "Don't tell me you're a sympathizer.  What, were you raised by pigs or something?"

        Dew had been fighting the urge to glance back at the nightguard, worried about what he might think of this outspoken pony; now she was fighting the urge to buck this pony across the room.  It was with great effort that she kept her voice level.  "The exit is over there, if you choose to leave."

 

        He huffed.  "Typical.  I suppose you pegasi would defend anything with wings."  He stood up and began heading toward the door.  "I've had enough of this farce; who's with me?"  The gathered ponies looked amongst themselves, a few hushed whispers between them.  Several of the pegasi were clearly offended by his last remark, and the others looked to have some sympathy for them.  When no-one stood to join him, he scoffed at them all.  "Bah!  Fine; have fun being laughed at.  I'll be waiting when the real training begins."  With that, he left the room.  Then, almost reluctantly, three others followed after.

        There was a moment's silence.  "You're just gonna let 'em leave?  Just like that?"

        Dew faced the amber mare, a rueful smile on her lips.  "No."

        The mare looked back to the door.  "What're you gonna do?"

        "If you want to know, feel free to follow them."  The mare looked back at her, shocked.  "Don't worry: it isn't dangerous.  They're safe, and so would you be if you followed; Princess Celestia won't let her subjects come to harm.  Not if she can help it."

        Several of the ponies were looking at the door, wondering.  "Then... what's gonna happen?"

        Dew shook her head.  "I can't say."  Her eyes found the nightguard, still standing in the corner, still watching her with that same emotionless gaze.  "Will no-one else leave?"  There followed silence; nopony moved.  "Very well," she said, taking her eyes off the nightguard.  "I'll say it sincerely this time: Welcome to the Secret Service."  As she spoke, she bowed low.  A second later, she heard the tell-tale sound of hoofsteps entering the room.  The gathered recruits gasped and quickly followed Dew's example.

        "Rise, my little ponies."  Celestia's voice was a warm bell echoing in the room; Dew could almost hear the last doubts fleeing the minds of the recruits.  As she stood, she felt a smile come to her lips.  Celestia's presence was warm, a gentle kiss from the early morning light, and it never failed to be soothing.  As the princess addressed the new recruits, Dew could hear the old words from long ago echoing in her mind.  It was different this time; the same themes were there, but it wasn't a prepared speech.  Celestia always spoke from the heart.

        Dew's gaze fell to the corner, and she skipped a breath; the nightguard was gone.  A quick scan of the room showed him nowhere in sight.  She wasn't sure if this was a good or bad thing, but before she had much time to think about it there was a whisper in her ear.

        "You are to follow me."

        She almost leapt away.  Her whole body twitched as she glanced behind her and found herself looking directly into a pair of golden eyes.  He stood there, statuesque as ever, his gaze boring into her.  "I...I can't," she managed to whisper.  "I'm not finished here..."  She looked up at Celestia, mentally pleading for an excuse to stay.  The princess, never breaking from her speech, looked down at her, and smiled.  With a nod, her attention returned to the recruits, none of whom seemed to have noticed the exchange.

        "The princess has given you leave," whispered the nightguard.  "Come."

        Reluctantly, with a backwards glance to the recruits, she followed.  In spite of it all, she resolved to carry herself well, and so she matched the nightguard's posture.  They were several corridors away when the nightguard spoke.  "That was quite a performance you gave; very dramatic.  Tell me: why did you wait to call the princess in?  Her presence would have convinced the others to stay, I think, and you need the numbers."

        The topic surprized Dew, and it took her a moment to find her answer.  "Not about that," she replied, shaking her head.  "It has to be their choice.  If the princess asked, anypony would eagerly join.  We want to avoid taggers-on."  One is enough, she almost said.  "Besides, would you want to work with that... stallion?"

        "I'd work with worse if his skills were sufficient," he replied.  "Equestria's safety is too great a concern to worry about petty quarrels."

        She fell into silence.  He was right, of course, and she felt foolish.  His head turned slightly, and he regarded her with one eye; she looked away.  "What will happen to him?" he asked.  "The stallion, and those who left with him?"

        She met him with a confused look.  "You don't know?"

        "When I was last a member of the Service, it wasn't a secret."

        Dew stopped, and the nightguard followed soon after.  "'Wasn't a secret'?  That was a thousand years ago!"  He nodded, nonplussed.  "How old are you?"

        "Not very," he replied.

        "'Not...'  Compared to what?"

        He shrugged.  "You.  What will happen to the stallion?"

        Dew blinked.  "He's... a memory spell, to keep the secret.  It's one of the few times Celestia will allow memory alteration."

        "Hmmm..."  His eyes flicked to the floor as he considered the information, then back to her just as quick.  "Come; we mustn't waste time."  With that, he turned and continued down the hall.

        She fell in step behind him, confused.  What would he gain by lying about his age? she wondered; it didn't make any sense to her.  She was so caught up in her thoughts that she almost ran into him when he stopped and put a hoof to the wall.  Her eyes widened; the wall parted soundlessly.  "It's quicker this way," he said, stepping into the now-revealed passage.

        It was a narrow thing, that passage; less than a wingspan.  Even standing in the hallway she could feel its oppressive atmosphere.  Dew looked around; the hallway was completely empty.  If she stepped inside, nopony would know where she had gone.  The nightguard cleared his throat, and motioned for her to follow.  She took a deep breath, and stepped inside.

        Darkness swallowed them when the wall closed.  Her breath caught in her throat as the sensation of dying swept over her.  Blind and shaking, Dew was intensely aware of the clack of hooves against the stone floor.  He had been behind her when the entrance had closed, and she felt her back bristle as his hoofsteps came closer.  If he tries anything, I swear I'll buck him through that wall.  She tensed, but the sound passed her by.  A few seconds later, it stopped.

        "Ah, right," he said, apologetic.  "You're not used to the dark, are you?"  She felt something leathery brush her chin, and she took a step back.  "Here," he said.  "Grab my tail; I'll lead you."

        His tail?  Tentatively, she stepped forward and found it brushing her cheek.  It was odd; it shared the bat-like quality of his wings.  Gently, she bit down on it.  "Good," he said.  "We'll start walking forward... now."  If she hadn't been warned, she may have lost her grip when he started moving.  As it was, she felt the tug and followed it.

        The darkness was stifling.  Every hoofstep echoed of the walls, reminding her constantly of how close they were.  He was very conscious of her, taking slow steps and calling out when there was a step in the path or when they were to turn a corner.  Even so, she brushed against the walls several times.  She felt constricted, hemmed in, and more than once her tensing muscles caused her to bite harder on his tail.

        Soon, though, she found her eyes adjusting.  The passage wasn't completely dark; there was a subtle glow coming from lichen on the walls.  The light was dim, but enough.  When she let go of his tail, he looked back to see what was wrong.  "It's alright," she assured him.  "I can see well enough now."

        He nodded once, and continued down the path.  She was glad, though, that he maintained the slow pace of before; the light was too faint for her to trust faster speeds.  However, now she could talk, and he touched upon the subject she had feared.

        "Tell me about Autumn," he said.

        "He's a traitor," she responded automatically.  She had lost count of how many times she'd had to say that.

        "So what does that make you, as his friend?"

        "Not his friend anymore," she said simply.  She took a step, and stopped.  In the dim, she could see that he had stopped as well, and was looking at her calmly... or was it amused, or affectionate?  It was hard to see.  She took a step back.

        "You still know him, don't you?" he asked.  "If you're not his friend anymore, surely you can tell me about him."

        It occurred to her how trapped she was.  He was better suited to the darkness, and even if she could get away from him she didn't know where any of the exits were.  Worse, nopony even knew she was here.  She might spend days in these tunnels before ever finding a way out—if she ever did.  As the full weight of it came down on her, she felt the walls close in and couldn't stop herself from shaking.

        "Are you alright?" he asked.

        Her answer caught in her throat, and only a small noise scratched out.  In spite of her efforts, her hind legs buckled and she sat hard as her stomach began to roil.  As her breathing started to spiral out of control, she found his wing wrapped around her and his foreleg over her shoulder.  She tried to pull away, but he pulled her close.

        "Calm down," he said, "you're safe.  I'm not here to hurt you, you're not under arrest."  His wing flexed, and it had a massaging effect.  "Relax; breathe easy.  The doors are open, the ceiling is gone."

        He kept speaking, and there was a comfort in his voice, in his warmth.  She closed her eyes and pictured the open sky.  Slowly, her breathing calmed and her stomach settled.  When she could open her eyes again, he had a sympathetic smile.  "I'm sorry," he said.  "I should have known.  Are you good to walk?"  She nodded, not yet ready to trust her voice.  "Good.  Come, then."  He stood and continued down the path.  As she got up to follow, light flooded the passage, momentarily blinding her.  Blinking through the bright, she saw him standing by the exit.  "We're here."

        Cautiously, she stepped out into hallway.  There were windows, actual windows, set high in the walls; this was the palace proper, sitting outside of the mountain's guts.  With that simple realization, she felt a wave of relief wash over her.

        It died when she heard his hoofsteps, reminding her who she was with.  She set herself again and turned to face him.  "Where are we?"

        "Outside Her Majesty's quarters."  He opened the door before him.  "Come; we mustn't keep her waiting."

        The first step was the hardest.  The room beyond was dark, even in the morning light, and she felt the same oppressive atmosphere as from the tunnel.  She glanced nervously at the nightguard; he returned a nod.  Swallowing hard, she entered the room.

        Inside, the room was brighter than it had appeared; a small amount of sunlight shone in through the window, and fireflies flew lazy circles around piles of old tomes.  Princess Luna, lying on some pillows in the midst of the books, set one aside when she walked in.  Beside her stood another nightguard, standing like a statue, and in the corner behind them...

        Autumn looked up at her, and for a moment her breath caught and a feeling of euphoria surged forward.  She lifted her hoof, about to take a step forward, when she noticed the imprisoning bubble around him—she had to choke back her cry of joy; Luna and her nightguards weren't allies, after all.  Her hoof touched the floor again.  "You... you've caught him."  Her voice was weak, but she kept it from trembling.

        "I would have thought you'd be happier, since you're no longer his friend," the nightguard said, coming up beside her.  All the compassion he displayed in the tunnel was gone; he again stood straight, stoic in his duty.  He turned and bowed.  "Majesty."

        Dew suddenly remembered she was in the presence of a princess; there was an audible thump as she followed suit.  "P-princess," she stammered.  "Please forgive me, I..."  What can I say?

        "She was distracted, Majesty," the nightguard said as he rose.  "She was not expecting to find her friend here."

        "He's not—"  The words caught; she had said them countless times, but somehow it was harder with him there.  She looked up, looked over to where he sat in his prison.  Naked, he looked so weak, so exposed.  One hoof was pressed against the magic wall, and he was watching her with such sad eyes.  "He's..."

        "Meadowlark."  Luna's voice was barbed.  "Why didst thou bring her here?"

        "To act as witness," he replied.  "She knows our traitor, and can testify to his character."

        Dew looked back to the princess; she was frowning.  "Dost thou truly trust his word?"

        "I find it hard not to."

        "Smiles has given us report; very little gives his claim cause.  Why dost thou give him thy trust?"

        "Very little goes against him," he replied.  "Most of it would happen if either tale is true, but there is a secret being kept within the Service, Majesty.  If it is the treason he claims to have found, we would do well to heed his word."

        The princess's ears flicked forward.  "We are listening."

        Meadowlark looked over to Autumn.  "Recently, Autumn rescued a pegasus from the care of diamond dogs; it was his belief that the dogs were trying to breed an alacorn."  The princess scoffed, and Meadowlark nodded.  "Indeed; the council had much the same reaction.  However, when she foaled, the Service made sure that the only doctors present were its own.  The foal did not survive, and was cremated.

        "Yesterday morning, the Gatekeepers changed shifts late.  Those standing willingly took extra time, telling their reliefs to return later.  An hour passed, and they were relieved without further incident."

        "This is hardly worth her Majesty's time," the other nightguard said.  "The dog report told of spells being cast on the pegasus's food; it is hardly surprizing that the Service would want to make certain that the foal wasn't damaged or changed by those spells.  And what difference does a watch turnover make, late or otherwise?  Our concern is treason, not the strange customs of this age's ponies."

        "I agree, Smiles, but do you truly think these events are unrelated?  You know that the official report on the dog's plan calls it a 'mad dog's dream,' yet the council sends its own doctors to preside over the birth; the mother never saw her foal.  History teaches us that ponies are ponies no matter the age they live in, so why would a whole group volunteer for extra duty?  One or two could be excused, but all of them?  What were they waiting for?"

        Smiles was undeterred.  "You are grasping at loose threads."

        "You always were a straight-forward thinker; this requires a bit more finesse."  He turned to Luna.  "I admit it is a thin thread, but these are things that would not happen unless there was something behind it; I am certain of that.  This is why I brought Dew.  She can speak for our traitor, and we shall see what kind of pony he really is.  We shall see if he is honest."

        "She is his friend," Smiles objected.  "She will support his word."

        "She admitted to letting go of that friendship; I know what her lies sound like."

        Smiles said nothing to that.  He only looked at Dew, who was still prostrate and starting to feel sore.  When their eyes met, she quickly looked to the floor again.  Her mind was racing, trying to come to terms with what she'd just heard.  Luna and her guards weren't allies, but they could be.  All it would take was...

        "Very well; we shall hear her."

        Dew could feel herself starting to panic.  What do I say? she thought; one wrong word could put them both on trial.  She felt Meadowlark tap her shoulder.  "This is where you stand, and start speaking," he whispered.

        Slowly, she stood, her eyes nervously darting between the princess and Smiles by her side.  "Princess, I..."  She looked over to Meadowlark, hoping to find some clue of where she should begin; his face was an unreadable mask.  She looked over to Autumn; he was calm, serene—he had utmost faith in her.  She felt her panic fade, and suddenly it didn't seem hard anymore.  Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and spoke.

        "He's always been reserved," she began; it seemed right to start there.  "Never been one to get out and meet new ponies.  But he was exceptional, very good at what he did.  I think that's what got everyone curious about him.  Thing is, if you don't say anything, it won't take ponies long to start making up stories themselves.  He never said anything about them, so the stories continued to grow and become more fantastical with every mission he accomplished.  It started with little things—like him being raised by creatures of the Everfree—but they grew wild quickly.  I think my favourite was one where he made a deal with the monsters of Tartarus: traded his equinity for the power to walk through walls.  I heard one that claimed he was a sleeper agent of Gryphus, and that's why he was able to stop their... recent attempt."  Her brow furrowed.  What was it they'd tried to do?  Attempts from the gryphons were few and far between, and the last one had been a few years ago.  She glanced up at Luna, who was watching her with a frown.  She quickly pushed the thought from her mind and returned to the task at hoof.

        "A-anyway, Autumn never talked about these stories himself, like I said, so they kept growing.  He isn't a sleeper agent, but with stories like that going around... I don't think that him being a traitor is something too far away from that.  A lot of ponies, I think, believe it because all they know are these stories.  They don't know him.

        "But he isn't; he can't be.  He's an honest pony, he always has been!  He's..."  She looked over at Autumn in his prison.  There was no hiding his true nature, that which he had kept hidden from the Service ever since he joined.  She realized how ridiculous it sounded: calling him 'honest' when nopony knew he was truly a pegasus.  Her eyes returned to the princess.  "I... have to remind him, sometimes, that he needs to lie.  About being an earth pony.  There've been some times when he would've been found out, and he doesn't think to lie first; his first reaction is always truth."  She smiled to herself, remembering.  "What would you do without me?"

        "Thou doth support his disguise.  For honest ponies, both of thee perpetuate a lie."

        She paused.  "Princess, he... he's frightened, deep down.  He wants to be able to run away if he needs to; he won't do anything without that."  Her eyes found him again.  "I want to help him."

        There was a span of silence when she finished.  Luna was thoughtful, but her guards remained expressionless.  Finally, Smiles spoke.  "She certainly loves him."

        "Perhaps," said Meadowlark, "but she speaks truth; this is not a traitorous pony."  Smiles said nothing.

        "Thou art certain, Meadowlark?" Luna asked.  "Certain that she gives us truth?"

        "Certain, Majesty."

        Luna paused, then looked up to Smiles.  "And what of thee?  Dost thou have objection?"

        He was silent for a time, his emotionless gaze fixed on Dew.  She felt it was a heavy thing, and quickly her worries began springing up again.  He doesn't believe us.

        "No objection," he said.  "Meadowlark's judgement is sound."

        Luna nodded.  "Very well."  With a glow of her horn, the bubble that held Autumn rose from the corner and came to settle beside Dew.  When the glow faded, so did his prison, and Autumn stumbled as he landed on the floor.

        Dew embraced him before he had his hooves under him, almost knocking him down; she felt like crying.  He returned the hug, whispering in her ear, "Thank you for coming through for me."

        "Of course," she replied.  "I'm your friend."

        Meadowlark cleared his throat, and the two friends let go of each other, turning to face the Princess.  There was a blush on Dew's cheeks, so she hid it in a bow.  "I'm sorry, Princess, I just—"

        "Peace," she said.  "Thou art here now as friends.  Thou hast told us of treason, and now we must all work together to find it.  We give thee our trust."  Her eyes flashed darkly.  "Do not give us cause to regret it."

        "Of course not, Princess," Autumn replied, bowing; Dew was impressed that he didn't sound frightened at all.

        As he rose again, the nightguard stepped forward.  "Forgive me, but we have not been formally introduced.  I am called Sunshine Smiles."  He bowed.  As he rose, he flicked his nose toward his partner.  "This is my compatriot, Frolicsome Meadowlark."

        Meadowlark bowed in turn.  "Charmed," he said.

        Dew blinked.  "Dew," she said.

        "Autumn," Autumn agreed.

        Luna stood and splayed her wings.  "Now, we must plan our next step."

        The nightguards nodded, and they all sat down.  Dew smiled; for the first time in four days, she started to breathe a little easier.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        It was just after nightfall, and Octavia was finishing up her second glass of brandy.  She rarely had more than one, but tonight was a special occasion: she was getting worried.  The sun had risen and set twice now, and Fiddler hadn't returned.

        She knew that he didn't have any ties to her home; not really, anyway.  Hers was a roof to hide under until the storm passed by, but he did say that he'd be back.  Didn't he?  She thought back on their last exchange two mornings ago.  The words she knew well enough, but... He did seem kind of hesitant to leave.  She shook the thought from her head; she was probably just imagining things.  On the other hoof, he had claimed—or rather, she had said and he had agreed—that he was doing a surprize performance.  It wasn't until that afternoon when she noticed that the Violin she'd lent him was still there.  By that time, of course, it was too late.  She'd still expected him to return before the afternoon was done, but even that proved fruitless; Frederic had not been happy about a wasted day.

        She had greeted the next sunrise with an empty house around her.  It shouldn't have bothered her, she knew; he was, after all, a grown stallion, perfectly capable of taking care of himself—but then, he was in trouble; over his head, it had sounded like.  She had carried on her business for that day—going to a rehearsal and a garden party—and found her house still empty upon her return.  She knew that he didn't have any ties to her home; not really, but she worried anyway.  Perhaps I have gotten too used to him being around, she thought.  She was about to take the last sip of her brandy when there was a knock at her door.

        She glanced at the clock, mildly irritated.  Who would be visiting at this hour?  She set her glass down and, with a shake of her mane, got up to answer the summons.

        She found a pegasus on her doorstep, his head held low and an apologetic smile across his muzzle.  "Fiddler!" she cried.  "Where have you been?  I was starting to wonder if you'd just left to find some other city."

        "I do apologize, Octavia," he said.  "I was... unavoidably detained."  He looked up at her.  "I did not mean to wake you."

        "You didn't," she said, then held the door wide.  "Better come in, then, before it gets colder."  He stepped inside, and she closed the door behind him.  "Have you eaten?" she asked.

        "A little bit, yes."

        She heard his stomach grumble.  "Not much then, I take it?"  She sighed.  "Come on; I'll make you something."

        "That really isn't necessary," he said.

        "You're right," she replied, looking over her shoulder at him.  "The way you made me worry, perhaps you should make me something."

        He hung his head.  "I am sorry about that."

        She sighed again; he looked so pitiful like that, she couldn't help but feel some sympathy.  She walked back and lifted his chin.  "Don't worry about it; just... send a letter next time, or something.  I don't know how it is in Cloudsdale, but they do have magical delivery here; your letter can arrive instantly."

        He smiled sheepishly.  "I will try and remember that."

        "Good.  Now come on; no guest of mine will sleep on an empty stomach."

        She trotted into the kitchen, and his hoofsteps followed.  It was after nightfall, so she pulled down only a few things for a light meal; a quick salad and a sandwich.  She made a half-sandwich for herself; she had been drinking, so it couldn't hurt.  Finished, she brought it over to the table, where Fiddler sat looking morose.  Her almost-empty glass was tilted under his hoof, and he was watching the liquid roll around.

        "I could fill that for you, if you wanted," she offered.

        He looked up, startled.  "Oh... no, thank you."  He let the glass go and she placed the tray before him, taking her plate to her seat.  She took a bite of her sandwich, watching him as he made no move to eat his own.

        "Is something wrong?" she asked.

        He didn't answer right away, preferring to contemplate the complexities of the beets and spinach in the salad.  She waited patiently, and soon got her answer.  "I..." he began.  "I was wondering if... if it would be no trouble, of course, if I could... accompany you to your shows."

        She smiled; he was so nervous asking for such a simple favour.  "Of course you may, Fiddler.  I won't say you can perform at any of them—not yet, anyway—but I think it would be good for you to meet these ponies.  Who knows; they may be your clients soon."

        She found a smile on his lips when he looked up.  "I... thank you," he said, before taking his first bite of his sandwich.

        Octavia paused and watched him for a moment.  I hope he wasn't trying to ask me out, she thought.  That would be just awkward.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Scrape.

        She watched him drag his hoof slowly along the wall, looking for something, anything, that would give him a clue.  She leaned heavily against the same, a look of exasperation on her features.  She spoke lazily.  "This is boooooooo-riiiiiiiiiiing."

        Scrape.

        "It was around here," he replied.

        "I don't see why you need to find it; it's obvious that she was being taken to Luna—what difference does the path make?"

        Scrape.

        "She didn't even take these things back," she continued.  "She came back using the regular halls.  Why bother finding a path she won't take?"

        "I do not like rats in my palace."

        Scrape.

        "They looked more like bats to me."  He didn't respond.  "I still think Dusk is lying," she said.  "I'll bet she did find it, but doesn't want to tell you."  She glared at the unicorn from the corner of her eye; Dusk didn't respond.

        Scrape.

        "You still need to learn to trust, it seems."

        "Maybe you need to learn to be suspicious," she countered.  With a sultry smile, she leaned up close and whispered in his ear.  "Maybe she wants to take you to bed."

        Scrape.

        "We are not all as open as you, Starwind," Dusk responded, not bothering to look her way.  "Some of us know how to keep our tails down."

        Scrape.

        "Ooh, it fights back."  Starwind shook in mock fear, then put on a pout.  "You see how she treats me, Gale?  I told you we should've done this alone."

        "You threw the first kick," he replied.  "Do not complain to me if you cannot handle the backlash."

        Click.

        He smiled.  The wall parted soundlessly.

        "Finally, we're done."  Starwind started to leave, but stopped when she realized she was the only one.  "What more do you need from that?  We know where it is now."

        Grey Gale was halfway into the dark passage, looking in as far as he could.  "Dusk," he commanded, "you and Spell Swirl will map these tunnels.  Find all the exits and entrances, and place alarm spells on all of them.  If somepony uses these, I want to know."

        "Of course, sir," Dusk replied.  She stepped into the tunnel, her horn sparking to life.

        He left her to her task, and Starwind cantered up beside him as he walked down the hall.  "Well, that was dull," she said.  "Worse than watching paint dry.  When does this mission become exciting?"

        "We are hunting a master of the shadows.  Before it becomes... 'exciting,' we must find him."

        She let a long breath escape her lips.  "Staaaaaaaaaaaars, that'll take forever."  She collapsed into him, letting him carry her weight as they walked; he paid it no mind.  A smile suddenly appeared, and she licked his ear, whispering.  "At least we can keep our nights alive."

        "Doesn't it concern you that Luna is getting involved?"

        "Why should it?" she whispered back.

        "She is an unknown element," he replied.  "Why is she leaving her room now?"

        Starwind's head rolled along his neck, coming to a stop when her eyes met the ceiling.  She sighed.  "Because there's a traitor," she said monotonously.

        "Do you really think it so simple?"

        "It's her service.  Of course she wants to know what's happening to it."

        Grey Gale stopped, a thoughtful breath escaping his lips.  "This is not good; she could throw all our plans into disarray."  Starwind burst into laughter, mirthfully cantering away from him.  His eyes narrowed.  "This is no laughing matter, Starwind; we have no idea what Luna will do.  We cannot predict her actions."

        "And you think she'll fight us?"  She suppressed a giggle, then locked one sultry eye with his.  "Gale, sweetheart, think about it: she ruled the Service openly.  If anything, she'd join us."

        He paused.  "You think so?" he asked.  In response, her smile turned mischievous.  "I see.  In that case, she is your task.  Find out what you can about her, but take no forward action yet.  If you are right, she would prove a valuable ally."

        She put on an expression of shock.  "Me?  Spy on a princess?"  She chuckled quietly.  "Well, I'd better put on my best dress; I wouldn't want to be insulting."

つづ

To Be Continued...


===================================================================================

Chapter Ten

"Magic is everywhere.

"To the non-unicorn, this fact is generally accepted without thought, but for the thinking practitioner, it must be taken with the fullest understanding.  In order to successfully create new spells or to fully understand old ones, a unicorn must have a working knowledge of how the ethereal energies of magic interact with the material substance of our world, and the basis of all of this lies in mana.

"In simple terms, 'mana' is an ambient magical energy that exists everywhere in the world.  However, it is virtually undetectable.  In fact, we wouldn't even know of it's existence if it hadn't been for our encounter with the Zebra and their incantation circles.  Since then, great advancements have been made in the field of magical research and theory, but many scholars believe that we have barely scratched the surface of the mystery that is mana..."

~Excerpt from "Introduction to Magical Theory"

by Radiance; scholar of magic

Course textbook

        The Shaman paced restlessly in the dungeons.  The unicorn had been true to his word, and not a single cell had its door bolted or locked.  Not that it would have made much difference; the signs of disuse were plain and evident: iron rusted red and frail, mushrooms and roots growing between cracks in stone, puddles of water from unseen drips.  It had been generations since anyone had even opened the door, and the Shaman had decided that he would need this place cleaned up to be even remotely liveable.  So far, though, little had been done.  He wasn't above doing the work himself, but he couldn't focus on any of it.  Indeed, he could barely think as it was.

        No matter where he went, no matter how deep he walked, the very air convulsed with the magic of the pony city.  A jumbled wave of noise, a constant thrum against his mind.  At first it seemed that it would be little more than annoyance—not unlike his own mana-disrupting creation—but it never let up and never died down.  By now his head throbbed, and it was keeping him awake.

        With a growl, he lashed out at a nearby door; the corroded iron broke under his claws, and the dull thunk of bad metal hitting stone floor seemed to protest the act of echoing.  The Shaman paid it little mind; his head was already full to bursting with noise.  Nothing he did stopped it; even his own magic would ring painfully by now.  Part of him wondered if this was some pony trick to drive him insane.

        "I 'ope we 'aven't come atta bad time."

        He turned, snarling, toward the voice thick with city-dog accent.  There, he found two unicorns, one of whom took a fearful step back upon seeing his face.  The other, a mare, lowered her head an inch, eyes narrowing.  The ache in his head overpowered any sense of caution or diplomacy he may have had, and he growled in their tongue.  "What do you want?"

        "We just came down to see how you were doing," the mare responded.  Following the Shaman's example, she spoke in her own language, keeping his ears free of the stallion's grating accent.  "If there's anything we can get for you."  Her leg was wrapped in bandages, there were healing cuts all over her body, and yet she kept her voice level, completely unafraid of the Shaman.  He almost took insult to that.

        "Get me silence," he growled.  "City crawls with noise."

        The mare cocked her head, and the other unicorn—the stallion who spoke Canid—looked around curiously.  "This is... too loud for you?" she asked.  She looked over at the stallion, who simply shrugged.  Returning her attention to the Shaman, her horn began to glow.  The magic was so close and clear that it felt like a needle against the constant ache, but he was instantly able to identify it as a spell of silence.  As her spell solidified, the mare gave him a questioning look.  "Does this help?"

        The new spell seemed to scream against his mind, giving a sharp new pain to the dull throb of before.  With a snarl, he slammed his staff against the stone floor, his own spell ripping the unicorn's to pieces.  "Pony know nothing," he growled.  "Always so arrogant, so proud.  City reeks, and you hear nothing!"  He shouted the last word, and the pain in his head pulsed.  With a wince, he forced his anger into check and turned his back to the ponies.  "Leave me."

        The unicorns had retreated a few steps at his outburst, but they made no move to obey his wishes.  "Ah... ya shore dere's noffing we c'n do?"

        Why does that pony feel the need to butcher my language?  His head turned, and one eye fixed on the stallion.  "Leave," he hissed.  His staff began to glow.  Again the familiar ring of his own magic accented the pain he felt, but he wanted to make his message dead clear to these ponies.  I am Shaman.  Do not trifle with me.  I am not to be ignored.

        The mare's eyes shifted, but she understood.  "Come on, Sunmeadow; let's leave the dog to his room."  He watched them leave, but the mare held back at the door, looked over her shoulder, and took the last word.  "We are here to help you, but we can't do anything if you're not willing to let us."  She turned away from him.  "See you tomorrow."

        Alone again with nothing to distract him, the throbbing in his head became that much more apparent.  The ponies couldn't help him—they had no idea what he was talking about.  If something was to be done, he was the only one who could do it.  Growling, he turned away from the door and stalked deeper into the cells, fighting the storm and trying to think.

        In a calm corner of his mind, a quiet thought appeared.  It whispered to the Shaman, chuckling at the knowledge that the unicorns couldn't feel the magic in the air.

        In the noise surrounding it, it went unheard and was quickly lost.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Celina shivered against the morning chill.  Beneath her, Canterlot slept in the darkness before dawn, huddled warmly in its dreams.  Streetlamps and the occasional glow from windows lit the urban landscape, giving the whole place an eerie, ghost-like appearance.  It was a beautiful sight, flying over the slumbering city; almost enough to make her forget about the cold.

        Almost.

        She looked over at Balloons.  The unicorn was focused, keeping the fire above them burning.  She watched him, idly making note of how he shaped his magic and the flame.  The magic was simple, but she suspected that it was more feel than force.  She couldn't help but smile; after being confined to his bed the previous day, he'd taken the morning as an occasion to sneak out of the hospital for this, and he was still stuck to the fire.  "You're missing the view," she teased.

        "Almost done," he said.  "Just gotta make sure the fire'll hold us."

        "It got us up here easy enough."

        "Sure, but we don't want to go too high, or fall too early.  The fire's hot air lifts us against the cool air of the morning, but it doesn't stay warm.  It cools, like anything else, and then it—"  He stopped, glanced over at her, and smiled.  "Do I need to go over the science of this, or is that more of an evening conversation?"

        She chuckled and shook her head.  "I think I understand it well enough, Balloons."

        "Then give me a moment; I'll be with you shortly."

        He returned to his work, and she watched him for a time before turning back to the horizon.  The early morning dark had something of a crystal clarity to it, and even the brisk air smelt fresh and new—a side of her city she had never seen.  She smiled and took it all in.

        A faint whisper of light had begun to colour the distance when she felt him nuzzle her neck.  "Finished."

        "You missed a show," she said.  "The fireflies got in a jousting match with the candleflames over whose light was prettier."

        "Bet they lost to you," he replied, settling down beside her in the basket.

        She gave him a playful shove.  "Quiet, you.  I'm being serious."

        "Oh, my apologies, then," he said, smiling.  "Please continue."

        "Well, as I was saying, it was quite the epic battle.  It started small, yes, but grew quickly.  The fireflies would gather their numbers, circling and rallying their troops, finally charging the fortified lampposts of the candleflames with their sharpened lances and scissors."  She began making grand sweeping gestures with her hooves, illustrating the violent battlefield.  "The candleflames retaliated with hot wax and decoy traps, showing the 'flies they had no claim to the name 'fire.'  Though many burned, the 'flies would push on, and many a valiant candle wick was cut short, it's light extinguished."

        "Sounds gruesome," commented Balloons.

        Celina nodded.  "Oh, it was.  But in the end, despite their loses, the fireflies won out.  They'll probably light the streets for years to come, while the candleflames will only dream."

        "Surely it won't be that bad," he countered.  "The candleflames will always have a place in the night."  He looked over the edge of the basket.  "See?  There's still some down there."

        "But what a terrible life they'll have, always under the oppressive hoof of the fireflies and their victory."  She sighed.  "They'll never be able to shine as bright as they did before."

        He paused a moment, watching her.  "Were you hoping the candles would win?" he finally asked.

        She didn't answer right away, looking out beyond the city to the brightening sky.  As the first tip of the sun peeked over the horizon, she finally found her voice.  "They doomed themselves," she said.  "They sat inside their castles, thinking themselves untouchable.  When the fight came to their gates, they had nowhere to go."  She shook her head.  "Can't win a defensive war."

        "Celina..."

        She turned to him and smiled.  "Anyway, that's what you missed while you were fiddling with your fire over there.  And now you'll never have this story to tell to your grandfoals.  You can only say, 'I heard this once.'"

        Balloons' smile had become forced.  There was something on his tongue, something he wanted to say, but he couldn't quite find how.  He watched her with curious eyes, that smile on his lips, as the sun left the horizon behind.

        "...yeah."  He sounded lost when he spoke, and he looked out to the sunrise.

        Celina trotted up and draped her neck over his.  "Something wrong?"  He gave no answer, continuing to watch the day being born.  She closed her eyes and whispered.  "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to ruin your balloon ride."

        "It's alright," he said quietly, turning his head to rub his cheek against her muzzle.  "Nothing's been ruined, you just... where did you ever hear that story?"

        "I don't remember," she told him.  "It's been with me ever since I was a foal.  I used to feel sorry for the candles, you know?  Back when I was young and didn't know better.  They were the ones content with life, just selflessly giving their light to others, and then along came a swarm of jealous, bitter fireflies.  They challenged the candleflames to a friendly joust, and then, after the first pass..."

        "Turns out it isn't so friendly."  She nodded slightly; he felt it against his neck more than he saw it.  "You know," he said, looking back to the sunrise, "I've never heard anything like that before.  The most violent stories I heard were the Service tales, and you know how tame those have become."

        "I guess I just had strange parents," she suggested.

        He chuckled.  "Maybe.  What were they like?"

        "Hm?"

        "Your parents.  Any really fond memories?"

        "My parents, huh?"  She sighed and trotted to the other side of the basket.  "Both unicorns, both rather successful.  Dad's still around—he's an advisor for the Trades Council; spends a lot of his time in the guildhouse.  Thinks I work as a researcher for new applications of magic.  He pretends to be excited about it, but he never really understood magic beyond the basics."  She shrugged.  "I can make things up and he'd believe me."

        He was watching her again, smiling.  "And your mother?"

        "She's gone.  Happened a few years before the Service pulled me.  Still don't know what happened.  There's a story, yes, but after working here I'm not sure if I trust it."

        "Have you tried to find out?  The Service usually keeps records, you know."

        "Not really," she admitted.  "Don't see much of a point.  She's already gone, and knowing if I was lied to won't change anything."

        He didn't say anything at first, only frowned slightly and drooped his ears.  Finally, "Was she in a dangerous field?"

        "Nurse.  She would travel around, helping anyone in need.  She didn't care if they were ponies or not, only if they needed help."  Celina looked west, out over the vast flatlands and forests of Equestria.  "She wasn't around much."

        "Must've been hard."

        "Not really," she said.  "Dad was there, and all his friends.  They kept the house full.  When we were told about Mom, it didn't seem real at first, but she never came home."  She paused at the memory; grim-faced ponies knocking on their door late one evening, apologies dripping from their tongues.  She remembered scoffing as they told her father, and why wouldn't she?  Back then, she knew the world wasn't a dangerous place; she had wanted to slam the door on their faces.  She had been angry, but the truth of their words slowly sank in over the following months.  By the time she had fully accepted it, it was too late to mourn.

        "Anyway," she said, returning to the present, "with all that, it's really no wonder why I can't tell you where I heard that story.  Honestly, maybe Mom heard it on some trip outside of Equestria, or one of Dad's friends made it up—they usually talked a lot."

        "Was your dad friends with any firefly breeders?"  He was struggling to hide a smile.  "Maybe he was trying to get ponies to buy less candles."

        "...How would that work?"

        "Well, they got in a fight over whose light was prettier, right?  And the fireflies won, right?  That means that their light was prettier, so you should buy more firefly lamps."

        She stared at him, mouth agape, struggling to follow along.  "That... is terrible marketing."

        "Which is why it never took off!  You might've been his first test audience, and when you showed sympathy for the candles, he knew it would never work."

        By then he was grinning widely, and Celina couldn't help but chuckle.  "That is utterly absurd," she stated.  "Nopony would be daft enough to think that'd be good advertisement."

        Balloons shrugged.  "Maybe he was drunk."  He started swaying and slurred his speech.  "Hey, thar, li'l filly.  Uncle Lampfly gots a story ta tell ya."

        Her laughter filled the sky, and his soon sounded beside it.  It carried over the waking city, heralding the joyful day to come.  It took several minutes for their laughter to subside, and by that time their sides ached with glee.  "Thank you," she said, wiping tears from her eyes, "for turning part of my foalhood into a poorly thought-out marketing scheme."

        "Ah-heh... sorry about that," he replied sheepishly.  "You just looked so sad."

        She smiled at him.  "It was a nice thought, then."  He blushed lightly, looking down with a smile.  In the silence that followed, Celina noticed that the morning was unusually warm for the early hour.  She looked up.  "Hey, Balloons?  Is the fire supposed to be this hot?"

        "Hm?"  His attention followed hers, and suddenly he was all business again.  "Is it that late already?"  His horn sparked to life, and the fire instantly cooled.  The balloon dropped slightly, but before it got too far he cast a second spell, steadying them above the city.  Celina recognized it as the same spell he had used the first time he'd brought her up here.

        "Got too warm out?"

        "Yeah," he replied.  "Sorry 'bout that; usually I'm paying better attention to the temperature.  Guess I was just wonderfully distracted."

        "You're a charmer," she teased.

        "Hey, don't relax yet; you're taking us down, remember?"

        Celina smiled and tilted her head, cracking her neck.  "Smooth as silk," she responded.

        A few minutes later, the basket landed on the balcony with a thump, but this time it barely jostled its occupants.  Balloons was smiling.  "Well, maybe not silk, but we can certainly call it cotton at least."

        Her smile was strained as she looked at him, and her hoof clicked against the basket's base.  "Very funny, Balloons."

        "Hey, now, don't be upset; that was much smoother than last time."  He nuzzled her behind her ear.  "I'm sure you'll have it in no time."

        She flicked her ear; he'd rubbed her cut.  That should've been fine!  What went wrong?  Where did I mess up?

        Balloons seemed to sense her frustration, and he stepped away, his horn sparking to life.  "Want to help put the balloon away?"

        "Can't," she replied, hopping out of the basket.  "I've gotta get to medical; my appointment's in a few minutes, looks like."  She looked up at the sun to make her point.

        He followed her gaze.  "Ah, right.  Well, then, I won't keep you.  Oh, and... could you not tell them where I am?  If they find out they'll send orderlies to interrupt me."  She looked at him and her eyes narrowed suspiciously.  "I'm going back," he added hastily.  "I just need to put this away first."

        She gave a short laugh.  "I don't know what you're talking about, Balloons; I haven't seen you all morning."

        He smiled, but it vanished quickly and his eyes fell.  "Hey, uh... Celina?  About those candles..."

        She hesitated a moment, one hoof hovering in midstep.  "What about them?"

        "Well... earlier, you said you used to feel sorry for them, when you were younger and... and... what about now?"

        She looked up to the spires of the palace, towering above them and the city below like guardians.  "Now?" she asked.  "Now I pity them.  They had the power to prevent their downfall, but they'd grown too soft and complacent.  They couldn't win when it mattered the most."

        He was silent for a time.  "Is that why you accepted the call to service?"

        She chuckled and glanced up at him again.  "Maybe.  But what a line that would be: from bad marketing to defender of the realm!"

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The Shaman's eyes were closed, and he was breathing softly.  He sat on a small, moss-covered stone, his forward lean supported by his staff.  Sunlight filtered through the canopy, creating a dancing red lightshow on the inside of his eyelids.  The air was fresh and clean, and a smile came to his lips as birdsong reached his ears.  The place was calm, quiet; there was a small whisper of magic in the distance, but compared to the maelstrom of the city it was a lullaby.  The pain in his head was little more than a memory, and even the sudden flash of a nearby teleport spell failed to erase his smile.

        "Ran this far, did he?"  The mare's voice was sharp and flared with anger.  "Alright, ponies: his first jump got him here.  He won't have stopped, so start searching for his next one.  I want to know where he's 'porting to yesterday!"  There followed several voices in acknowledgement, and a wave of scrying magic that threatened to bring back the ache wiped his smile away.

        "Pony waste time."  Instantly the scrying stopped, and the Shaman breathed a sigh of relief.  He heard the sound of hoofsteps on soft ground behind him, rapidly coming closer; he didn't open his eyes to greet them.

        "What do you think you're doing?" asked the mare's voice.

        "Breathing," he replied.  "Is quiet here."

        "Is dangerous here," came her retort.  "You could be seen."

        He opened one eye and regarded her.  "Then I kill pony who sees.  I remain dirty secret."

        "No."  The unicorn's voice was barbed, and she made no effort to hide the anger in her eyes.  "You'll come back with us and stay hidden."

        The Shaman was unmoved.  "Pony not want dead ponies?"

        "Do you like it when we kill your dogs?"

        "Yet pony wants Shaman to start war.  Does pony think ponies safe?  That no pony die?"  He leaned closer,  both eyes boring into her.  "Or is this lie you are telling Shaman?"

        The mare glanced around.  "That's ridiculous," she said, meeting his gaze.  "There's no reason to lie to you."

        "Perhaps wish to make Shaman feel safe," he growled.  "Perhaps want Shaman's secrets for self."  He touched her shoulder with his staff, the five horns hanging from it clacking against each other.  "What does pony truly want?  Tell to Shaman."

        The mare's eyes shone with revulsion as the horns touched her flesh.  Magically, she pushed his staff aside.  "Right now I want you to return to Canterlot and teach us your spell.  Then we can fix it, and you can start your war."

        "'My' war, of course.  All without killing ponies, yes?  Very real, this war you want."

        "Now is too soon," she responded.  "If you killed somepony who saw you, you might very well remain a secret, but that pony would be found.  The first time might only start a search for enemies in our borders, but if you kept doing it panic is sure to erupt.  Either way, you'd be found and all of this would be for nothing."

        "Pony think I am fool?  Body vanish, never found."

        "That might work in the Everfree, but this is Whitetail Wood.  The most dangerous thing here is a termite.  Ponies disappearing here would have the same effect as finding bodies."

        "Then pony make good on promise.  Keep other ponies away."

        The mare snorted.  "We don't control everything.  Not yet.  Listen, we can keep secrets well, but you need to follow our instructions and let us do that."  She flicked her head toward the group of ponies she arrived with.  "Now come; we must get back."

        The Shaman leaned back, coming to rest against the tree behind him.  The past few hours of quiet had done wonders for his thoughts, and now even the inevitability of his victory seemed tenuous.  So much of it, too much, hinged on the goodwill of his enemies, and they had already admitted to keeping secrets.  Before, he'd been lost, but now?  He wasn't going to simply roll over and let these ponies have their way.  "Is comfortable here," he said.

        The mare let out an irritated whicker.  "We'll get you a cushion if you want, but you're coming back now."  At her last word, her horn began to glow.  The air began to vibrate with the beginnings of a teleport spell, and the other unicorns quickly followed suit.

        An explosive magic wave boomed out, knocking the unicorns to the ground and interrupting their spell.  The squawking of birds filled the air as they were flung from their perches, and the rustling thunder of a thousand feathered wings taking flight filled the woods.  The Shaman sat still, unmoved from his comfortable seat, the glow of his staff and its horns slowly fading.  "No.  Pony want spell?"  He leaned forward, holding his staff between the mare and himself like a dividing line.  "Pony learn here, not in city."

        The mare struggled to stand again; the Shaman could smell fresh blood through the bandage on her leg.  He could see that she was struggling to maintain herself, trying to act like she still had control.  Maybe she does, he thought.  Who knows what these ponies have hidden from me.  His grip tightened.

        "Why here?  You can't stay; too many ponies come through these woods."

        "City too noisy; can't hear spell."

        A curious look came to her eyes, but it was quickly replaced with a frown.  She glanced around at her companions; her hoof tapped against the ground.  "Go form a perimeter," she told them.  "Stop everypony who comes near here."

        The others hesitated.  "Are you sure—"

        "I said GO!"

        Slowly, reluctantly, the others dispersed.  The Shaman didn't bother watching them, all his attention focused on the mare in front of him.  Then, with the backwards glance of the last of her companions, they were alone.  They stared at each other, as if daring the other to break the silence first.  Finally, the pony spoke up.  "Well?"

        The Shaman's staff flashed.  The mare flinched and leapt back, her own horn bursting to life defensively, but nothing came her way.  His staff held a constant glow as she regained her composure.   "Here is spell," he said.  "You hear?"

        There was a pause, and then—curiously—she cast a scry.  His head tilted slightly as he watched her, her spell quietly invading his.  Strange markings, glowing in the colour of her magic, began to take shape, hovering in the air beside her.  As she examined his spell, she would consult or alter these markings, or draw out new ones.  The Shaman had never seen such a thing before, and yet these shapes looked somehow familiar.

        His spell extinguished, and he gestured at the glowing shapes.  "What is these?"

        The mare stopped, halfway through drawing another symbol, and glared at him.  "What is what?"

        "These."  He again gestured.  "What is these?"

        "The runes?  You don't..."  She glanced between him and the glowing shapes.  "They're used for magical annotation.  They... ought to be universal.  You don't have anything like this?"  He shook his head slowly; she looked utterly perplexed.  "Then... what do you use?"

        "I don't understand."

        "How do you teach your magic?  How do you learn spells?"

        Again, his staff began to glow.  "I show.  You listen, you learn."

        "But," she protested, "what about the more complex spells?  Simple ones, sure, but how can you explain actual magic?"

        The Shaman almost responded, but caught himself.  There was a small whisper in the back of his mind; a thought almost forgotten.  These ponies... they really can't feel the mana.  He stared at her for a moment, then extinguished his spell again and pointed to the runes.  "Teach, then."

        "What?"

        "Teach Shaman runes.  Teach Shaman how you learn."

        The mare paused.  "Why?"

        "Pony wants to fix spell.  How will pony teach Shaman to fix if Shaman cannot understand your teaching?"

        "Maybe we won't.  Perhaps we'll be the ones casting the spell."

        "I will not sit and let spell be taken from me," he growled.  "You will teach, or I will not."

        She was glaring at him, but it soon gave way to a smile.  "Very well, Shaman.  I'll teach you, but you'll have to return to Canterlot before I do."

        "There is time now," he responded.  "Your ponies keep other ponies away.  Until sun sets, there is time."

        "This is not negotiable."

        He laughed.  "It is.  Pony calls Shaman mere convenience, but how long pony already been waiting?  Does pony think it can wait enough for another convenience?  Pony die first, I think.  Pony dream wasted.  But Shaman stands here now, and Shaman will help.  All Shaman ask is trust."  He gestured at the runes.  "And these.  Is good deal, yes?"

        The mare didn't respond right away, preferring to limit herself to that same baleful glare.  With an frustrated whicker, her hoof tapped against the ground and a glowing rune appeared before the Shaman.

        The Shaman smiled.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The mare entered the chamber through the hidden passage, blinking as the bright crystalline glow reached her eyes.  The place was large, often accommodating the Cause members when they had to meet.  Right now it was vacant save for herself and the unicorn at the far end, occupying himself with some manner of report or another.  A lot of wasted space for two ponies, she thought, but she knew it was necessary; there were few places in the palace that provided the privacy of these forgotten gemstone mines.

        The other unicorn was standing on a crystal dais, his back to her as he studied the magical message displayed in one of the gemstone spires.  She came up behind him and cleared her throat; he didn't turn around.

        "Has there been any progress?" the unicorn asked.

        She took a moment before answering.  "Some."

        "Anything is better than nothing."

        She nodded.  "It'll take time to fully extract his spell.  The dogs, interestingly, have no runes.  Instead, it seems that they somehow decipher a cast spell.  Sounds strange, I know, but when we remember that Shamans can detect magic being cast—he uses the term 'hear'—it starts to make an amount of sense.  Anyway, because of this, I'll be pulling the spell manually."  She breathed a sigh of annoyance.  "As I said, it'll take time."

        "Can you tell me anything about it yet?"

        "Nothing substantial; the Shaman is difficult to work with.  When he's in the cells, his temper is short and he's unwilling to talk.  He complains about the noise, so it might be he's 'hearing' all the magic we're casting, and... well, I guess that'd be like having someone yelling in your ear all the time—understandable if he's getting irritable.  On the other hoof, when he ran to the woods he was calm and arrogant.  I know Whitetail's well outside Canterlot, but surely the ponies in that area use magic of their own?"  She paused.  She knew Ponyville didn't exactly have a high unicorn population, but still... He would've heard something, wouldn't he?

        She snorted lightly, remembering how he had sat there, arrogantly smiling, as his words filled her ears again.  "He suggested that we needed him more than the other way around.  The moment he saw me draw out the runes, he demanded to be taught, refusing to go further with his own spell until I agreed."  She shook her head.  "I'm not sure I like that."

        "I wouldn't worry about it," he assured her.  "He's just a dog, after all.  What can he gain from it?"

        What could he lose?  She gave no voice to the thought, saying only, "He hopes that we can teach him how to fix his spell using the runes."

        The stallion turned his head to face her.  "Is that a problem?"  She didn't answer, so he continued, "It would be unwise of us to be the ones casting his spell.  We will help him, yes, but he's the one who'll end up getting his hooves dirty.  Or 'paws,' in his case.  He needs to learn his spell."

        "What about his pride?" she asked.  "If he keeps being difficult, we may not get anywhere."

        He turned back to the spire.  "I'll speak to him; perhaps remind him of his place.  Go ahead and spend the next two days away from him.  Hopefully that'll help show him we don't need him as much as he might think."

つづ

To Be Continued...


=============================================================================

Chapter Eleven

"The ponies of the Hunter branch serve as the eyes and ears of the service, as well as the tip of our lance.  Generally operating as solo units, the Hunters are highly trained agents who delve deep into the wilds, enemy territories, and even our own cities, gathering information and disrupting small-scale problems.  In addition, these ponies are responsible for stopping wild animal rampages, necessitating a principle understanding of rural survival for those ponies wishing to join their ranks..."

~Excerpt from the Guiding Manual of the Secret Service

        Dew had been standing outside the princess' chambers for several minutes, but still she was hesitant to enter.  The nightguards flanked the door as always—silent, unmoving.  Even though the princess was allowing her open access, she couldn't bring herself to knock.  Special permission or not, it just felt wrong to interrupt a princess without a summons, especially for something so foolish as...

        She shook her head; she wasn't used to feeling like this.  Most of her friends had outright turned against her, and those who hadn't now regarded her with an air of suspicion.  The two who didn't gave only little comfort; Gleam was still comatose, and Autumn... Autumn was gone—out of reach.  Ever since they'd saved each other he'd been there, an unwavering friend, but now... now here she was, standing in front of the princess' door, feeling lost.

        She glanced up to the nightguards.  Perhaps, she hoped, she'd feel more at ease if one of them were to accompany her, but it didn't look like they even noticed her presence.  That just made her feel even more uncomfortable.  She let out a sigh and decided to abandon her attempt.

        "Well, hello there, Misty," a sultry voice purred.  Dew turned to see a pegasus mare sashaying toward her, a smile that looked all too predatory upon her muzzle.

        "It's Dew," she responded quietly.  The mare seemed familiar, but Dew couldn't place her.  Her silver coat shimmered in the morning light that shone down from the high windows, her black mane falling carefully to the left.  Her mark was covered by a blue dress, elegant in its simplicity, and her gilded horseshoes clicked softly on the marble floor as she approached.

        The mare shrugged.  "Eh, it's a misty name—you can't blame me for getting it wrong."  She cocked her head.  "Perhaps your parents, but not me."

        "I'm sorry," Dew said, trying to remain polite, "but I don't know your name."

        "Really?  After all your time sorting through papers?  I'd've thought a name like mine would'a stood out."  She leaned forward.  "Isn't that what you were doing in Intelligence?  Collecting dirt on us for your friend?"

        Dew bristled.  "I'm not a traitor."

        "Must be why they reassigned you, then.  Can't have a loyal citizen handing the papers, now can we?"

        Dew bit off her reply.  She remembered this mare now: Starwind.  Dew knew very little about the ponies in the elite ranks, but she knew that she wasn't going to play Starwind's games.  "I suppose," she said.  Looking over her shoulder to the empty hallway, she added, "If you'll excuse me, I have work to return to."

        She managed to take two steps away.  "What're you planning here?"

        Dew slowly turned around.  "What do you mean?"

        "I mean you've done nothing but stand there for hours.  Didja come by to see the bats?"  Starwind's tail began brushing Smiles' chin, slowly sliding up his cheek and over his head.  "I couldn't blame you if you did, you know.  They're dark, handsome, and quite the mystery... not unlike your Autumn, hm?"

        Dew took a slow breath and fought down her rising anger; she was still under suspicion, and fighting could only prove detrimental to her.

        "Besides," Starwind continued, turning toward Smiles, "these stallions are everything the Royal Guard are not."  She leaned up on him, placing her hoof around his shoulders, and, very slowly, licked his cheek from jaw to ear.  Smiles stood motionless—a statue.  "You see?"  Starwind's voice was barely above a whisper, her lips still beside Smile's ear.  "He remains vigilant, never giving in to the distractions around him.  Mmmm... a perfect example of what a guard should be."  She nipped his eartip before turning back to Dew, hopping back down on all fours.  "Bit of a shame, really—he tastes so good."  She circled Dew, coming to a stop between her and the empty hallway she'd hoped to escape by.  "Really, a couple distractions would be good for 'em, doncha think?"  She leaned in close, nuzzling Dew's ear as she whispered, "Whad'ya say?"

        Dew fought to keep her expression neutral.  "Not interested."

        "Shame.  Then tell me: why are you here?"  Starwind's voice turned to ice, and Dew took a reflexive step back.  "Just standing in front of the princess' room might be fine for somepony who didn't have a traitor for a friend, but you?  I know the old girl saw you once, so why would you come back?"  She stepped closer.  "What're you hoping to accomplish?"

        "She was given a summons."  Starwind leapt back at the sound of Meadowlark's voice.  "She was not expected for another hour."

        Starwind's eyes were wide, her mouth open in wonderment.  "It talks," she whispered, slinking closer.  "Hey, hey, Misty, what else can you make it do?"

        Meadowlark ignored her, turning his head to face Dew.  "Miss Dew, her Majesty has time now.  If you'd prefer, I don't believe she would have objection to seeing you sooner."

        "You made it move," Starwind marvelled.  She turned to Dew with a mischievous smile.  "You're good.  Hey, you think it'd dance for you?"

        Dew glared at her.  "He's not a toy."

        Starwind chuckled.  "And yet you're playing with him."  She slid up to Meadowlark, stopping so close she might have kissed him.  "He's bending to your command," she whispered, "and you're just leaving him here, hoping."  She smiled warmly at him, brushing her lips by his ear.  "I wouldn't leave you cold."

        "I will see the princess," Dew said.  Starwind cast her a baleful glare, but Dew ignored her.  "If," she added to Meadowlark, "it is acceptable?"

        "Quite."  He turned away from Starwind and opened the door, motioning for Dew to enter.  Taking a deep breath, she obliged.

        "Hey—"

        Smiles was standing in front of Starwind before she had taken her first step; Dew hadn't even seen him move.  He looked down at her through his emotionless mask.  "My apologies, Madam," he said, "but you will have to remain outside."

        Starwind blinked twice, the look of shock slowly evaporating into yet another sultry smile.  "So, you can move too," she purred, "and fast.  Tell me, girl, what is it about you that brings out the best in these boys?"

        Dew bit her tongue in an effort to maintain a neutral demeanour as she walked past Starwind, past Meadowlark, and into the princess' room.  Behind her, Meadowlark followed and closed the door.

        Very little had changed since Dew had last seen it, she noted.  It was still dark in spite of the bright day outside, the walls still glowed with moonlight, and the princess still lay in the centre, atop her pillows and surrounded by books.  One hovered in front of her as they entered, but it closed and floated to the side as Luna saw them.  "Meadowlark," she greeted, "friend Dew.  What news?"

        Meadowlark bowed, and Dew followed suit.  "Majesty," he began.  "We bring no news.  Dew has visited us out of concern."

        Luna turned to Dew, and a small smile appeared on her face.  "Thou art worried?"

        Dew swallowed hard.  "Princess, I—"  Her words caught.  Why did I even come here? she asked herself.  It seemed obvious now, bowing before her, that the princess had better things to do than give comfort to a lonely pegasus.  She felt foalish, suddenly wishing that Meadowlark had remained quiet outside.

        She felt a tap on her shoulder.  She looked up into his face, and he raised his eyebrows.  Sheepishly, Dew stood, her eyes locked to the floor.  "I-I'm sorry, Princess, I... I shouldn't have disturbed you."

        "Such nonsense," came the princess' reply.  "Thou art welcome here."  A faint cobalt-blue glow moved in the corner of her vision and quickly faded.  Glancing over, she found a pillow had been placed beside her.  "Thou hast concern for thy friend.  Come; let us talk."

        Dew looked from the pillow to the princess, then over to Meadowlark, who nodded.  "Her Majesty asks that you attend; you would not be interrupting."

        'Her Majesty asks,' she thought, wincing.  Going there without a summons, she never expected to actually get one.  With no choice but to obey, she stepped over and lay down on the pillow.  "Of course, Princess.  I apologize."

        "Thou hast done no deed worthy of apology.  Now come; tell us what troubles thee."

        Dew was silent a moment.  "It's... nothing, Princess; I'm just worried for him."

        Luna waited.  When Dew said nothing more, she asked, "Dost thou lack faith in him?"

        "No!"  There was no hesitation in her response, and Luna smiled a knowing smile.  "No, of course not."  She spoke quietly again, remembering she was in the presence of a princess.  "It's just... everywhere I go, I hear the same things.  It's like half the ponies here want him executed, and they're working hard to convince the rest that he deserves it.  A-and it sounds like they're winning."

        "Thou hast no cause for worry; our sister hath commanded that he be alive when brought before her."

        "I know, Princess, but..."  She lay her head on her crossed hooves in front of her, a small sigh escaping her lips.  "He's losing support inside the Service.  If things keep going like this, I don't know if he'll be able to return.  I don't know if anyone would listen to him."

        "Doth thee forget?  He hath allies here, and if thine enemies wouldst seek to silence us, then all the court wouldst know them for the truth of their hearts."

        But you've been hiding from the court since you came back, a small voice whispered.  Would they need to silence you?  Who would care to listen?  She hid the thoughts behind a weak smile.  "You're right; I shouldn't be so worried.  Thank you, Princess."  The princess smiled and bowed her head; Dew raised her own.  "Do... do you know how he's doing?"

        Luna looked out her window, silent.  For a time, she simply sat there, her ethereal mane waving in an absent breeze.  Dew waited, but soon felt foolish for asking.  "I'm sorry, Princess," she said.  "I shouldn't—"

        "He attends a gathering of ponies," Luna interrupted.  "The host is lifemate to the councilmare Sky Tale.  It is not unlikely that others of the council wouldst attend.  If he must have a starting place, we could little ask for better."

        Dew paused.  "You suspect Sky Tale of treason?"

        "We know treason has spread to the council," Meadowlark said.  "Without knowing to whom, all are suspect.  A party like this gives us opportunity to examine a number of the council, and perhaps find those corrupted."

        Dew stared at the princess, unbelieving—Luna's expression was serious.  Meadowlark, too, stood stoically, showing no emotion.  "But... Princess, the Hunters use these parties to gather their rumours!  He could be caught!"

        "Indeed."  Luna cocked her head to the side.  "We thought thee had faith.  Is he not a pony of exceptional talent?"

        "If they do spot him," Meadowlark continued, "it will work to our benefit.  If they know he is still in the city, they will try harder to capture him.  In doing so, they risk exposing themselves."

        "We trust that Autumn will evade capture," Luna finished.  "Otherwise, we wouldst not have sent him."  The look she gave Dew was not without warmth, but it was the look of a princess to her subject.  "Have faith in thy friend."

        You don't know him, she thought.  He's too honest for this.  She closed her eyes, trying to will the thought away.  Luna was right, after all; she needed to have faith.  Even so, faith alone felt scant.  As she looked out the window, she added a prayer.

        Dear Celestia...

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Fiddler tugged at the bowtie around his neck, frowning.  In the mirror it looked lopsided, but he had spent the last several minutes trying to put it on right and it was finally staying together.  Still, it was uncomfortable, feeling less like a fashionable accessory and more like a noose.  Perhaps that was just his imagination, reflecting his fears about heading into the manticore's maw.  Perhaps he found it difficult to swallow because he felt trapped, heading into danger without even the comfort of his mask.

        Perhaps it was just on too tight.

        "Almost ready?" Octavia asked, appearing by the door.

        "I believe so," he replied, his hoof still on the knot.  He pulled on it, trying to ease the feeling of strangulation, but only succeeded in making it feel chafing.  He made a noise of discomfort.

        Octavia came up beside him, frowning as she looked him over.  "You really should leave your vest behind, you know.  Some ponies out there are going to think you're trying to outclass them."

        He continued to stare blindly at his reflection, pulling gently at his noose.  "I do not see how," he said quietly.

        "You haven't worked with many of the high class, have you?" she asked, chuckling.  He didn't respond.  Octavia sighed and batted his hoof out of the way.  "You tied this too tight," she said, undoing the bowtie.

        So it was just that, he told himself.  She was still speaking, giving him instructions as she tied it for him, but he only half heard her; the next few hours were weighing too heavily on his mind.

        Octavia stopped.  "What's wrong, Fiddler?" she asked.  When he gave no response, she took his chin in her hoof and turned his head toward her.  "Fiddler," she repeated, "what's wrong?"

        "I..."  He paused, unsure of what to say.  He couldn't tell her the truth—that he was afraid the Service would find him walking about in open daylight—but no other response came immediately to mind.  After a moment, he told her half of it.  "I am just... nervous, is all.  You need not worry."

        "There's no need to be nervous," she assured him.  "You're just going there to meet ponies; you won't be playing for them yet.  All you need to do is make a good first impression.  Which is why"—she tapped his shoulder—"you should leave your vest."

        He forced a smile onto his face.  "The high class would prefer me naked?"

        She smiled back.  "Of course not, dear; they'd never invite you back.  You must understand: clothing is a status symbol for them, and they can be very sensitive to perceived insult.  If they think you're trying to outclass them you'll never get their business.  Show up naked and they'll think you don't respect them, and again you'll lose their business.  It's a delicate dance we're in, but it has its rewards."

        Fiddler thought about that, his hoof coming back up to his bowtie.  "There is not much difference between being naked and a bowtie," he said.

        Her smile turned mischievous.  "We're musicians; we already have them outclassed.  Wearing anything else would be an insult."

        He blinked, confused; the whole thing suddenly felt backward.  Octavia saw his face and chuckled.  "Frederic told me that once.  I like the thought.  Practically, though, it's more likely that they tolerate our lack of attire because we're just the entertainment.  And being entertainers, we should do our best to not insult our hosts."

        He looked to the floor, bringing his hoof to where the vest hid his stomach.  Memories of that first night in the Everfree flashed across his mind; it was a lifetime ago, but some things don't heal.  "I'm trying to help you, Fiddler," Octavia said.  "Do you really think I'd lead you astray?"

        "Of course not, I just... I cannot," he said, shaking his head.  "I do not wish to cause insult, but..."

        Octavia sighed.  "Very well.  I won't force you, but you should know you're trotting on a tightrope, and I disapprove."

        He nodded.  "I understand, and thank you."

        She returned his nod, then pulled on his bowtie and the whole thing unravelled.  "Now try it again."

*               *               *

        A few hours later, Fiddler trotted through an oversized, elaborate garden in the backyard of an upscale Canterlot estate.  Though the party was still almost an hour from starting, several guests had already arrived.  They stood about the garden, dressed in the finery of high class and aristocracy, sipping expensive wines while discussing pointless trivialities at great length.  He noticed that some of them would point and talk in hushed whispers as he walked by.  Such things sent chills down his spine—he felt like he was being hunted.  I am, he reminded himself, but these ponies do not know me.  Taking a deep breath, he tried to calm his nerves; even with his vest and bowtie he felt naked and exposed, and he wished for some shadows to duck into.

        Beside him, Octavia shone.  She held herself with such grace and poise that she instantly stood out.  Many ponies would come and greet her, trying to woo her into their own circles.  She would smile and reply with pleasant conversation, but would politely decline their invitations.  "I'm sorry, Miss Slipper, but I do have business to attend to.  Another time, perhaps."  She was elegant, effortless... and something else.  She noticed his gaze, but said nothing until they arrived at the small stage their host had set up for the musical performance.

        "Is something bothering you?" she asked, setting her cello down.

        "You are hiding."

        Octavia paused.  "What do you mean?"

        Fiddler gestured at the garden behind them, slowly filling with ponies.  "You are a different pony when you talk to them.  They all call you 'Octavia,' but none of them really know you, do they?"  She looked away, opening her case and pulling out her instrument.  "Why do you do it?" he asked.  "Why are you afraid of them?"

        "'Afraid'?"  Octavia looked at him, curious.  "Why would you think that?"

        "I..."  He paused, and it struck him that he never thought about why; he just did.  Hiding was a way of life for him, but the only thing that ever motivated him to do it—

        "Is that why you're so distant?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts.  "Are you... afraid of me?"

        "Wha—?  No!"  He'd taken a half step back before he realized how bad of a response that was.  Octavia's expression didn't change, but a sparkle was lost in her eyes and she looked away.  It took two steps forward for him to be beside her.  "No," he insisted.  "You are not..."  ...my enemy, he wanted to say.  "I am not..."

        She sighed.  "Fiddler... I won't pretend to understand what you're going through, being driven from your home and all, but if fear is your first thought..."  She shook her head and whispered, "What have you gotten yourself into?"  He had no answer to give, so he remained quiet.  Octavia turned to face him, placing a hoof on his shoulder.  "I know we agreed not to discuss our personal lives, but that was before you started living with me; I don't know if that promise can keep now.  I won't pry, but... if there's anything that I should know, or anything that I can help with, then please... tell me."

        Her words were a knife in his stomach.  She stood before him, giving him her trust, and he could give her nothing but lies.  He swallowed hard, and gave her one more.  "I—"

        "Early as usual, I see," a mare's voice interrupted.  "Trying to get the best spot on stage?"

        They turned toward the interruption, and Octavia bowed her head in greeting.  When she rose, Fiddler saw that she wore her mask again.  "Symphony.  A pleasure to see you again; it's been far too long."

        The earth pony was a pale olive, and the breeze pulled teasingly at her violet mane as she sauntered up to the stage and set her violin next to Octavia's open case.  "Oh, I do agree," she replied.  "I apologize that I couldn't keep up a more constant correspondence, but it was so busy, you understand."

        "It's quite all right, dear," Octavia soothed.  "I know what those trips are like.  I hope you enjoyed it, at least?"

        She closed her eyes and let out a pleasant sigh.  "Mmmm... It was wonderful, Tavi.  I performed for princes and peasants, for queens and countries.  I saw the world beyond Equestria, and I played for the whole of it."  She met Octavia with a warm smile.  "You should really come next time."

        "Perhaps I will," she replied.

        Symphony nudged Octavia's shoulder.  "You'd better," she teased.  She glanced over at Fiddler and her eyes widened slightly, as though she hadn't noticed him before.  "Oh!  And who's this?"

        Fiddler had been considering using Symphony's arrival as the perfect distraction to slip off unnoticed.  Now her eyes felt like grey-green spotlights.  "I..." he stumbled.

        "This is Fiddler," Octavia said, stepping forward.  "He's a friend from Cloudsdale."

        "Fiddler?"  Symphony's eyes narrowed.

        "He plays classical rather well."

        "Oh!"  Her eyes instantly lit up again.  "Well, then."  Her gaze briefly lingered on his scar, but she said nothing on it, only extended a hoof.  "'Tis a pleasure to meet you."

        There was something in the way she said that, in the gesture of her extended hoof, that tickled Fiddler's memory.  He took her hoof in his own and, instead of shaking it, he leaned forward and kissed the back.  "The pleasure is all mine, Symphony," he said, rising.

        "Ooh, a gentlepony, even."  She leaned close to Octavia and whispered, perhaps too loudly, "Caught yourself a fine one."

        Octavia blinked, her mask slipping for an instant as she opened her mouth to respond, but was spared an answer by a boisterous voice.  "Octavia!" it called.  "Symphony!  There you are!"

        The three of them looked over to where two earth ponies were approaching, one of them waving enthusiastically with a broad smile on his features.  He wore a ruffled white shirt and a black tailcoat, capping it off with a tall top hat.  His right foreleg was draped over the mare by his side, and it looked like she was carrying most of his weight.  In spite of that, she wore a bright smile.  Fiddler recognized her as Beauty Brass, and he noticed that she, just like Octavia and Symphony, wore a bowtie.  He began to wonder if it was simply an unspoken agreement amongst the musicians of Canterlot.

        The duo stopped in front of the stage, where the stallion dismounted the musician.  "Welcome, welcome," he said, giving a quick, unconvincing bow.  "Glad to see you could make it.  After I heard about Concerto, I was beginning to wonder, but here you all are!  We can still have a good show, eh?"

        Octavia and Symphony shared a confused look.  "Thank you for inviting us, Mister Sterling, but what's this about Concerto?" Symphony asked.

        "He—"

        "Oh, I was just talking to Beauty here," Sterling interrupted, "and it seems he won't be able to make it tonight.  Some kind of last-minute pop-up.  Anyway, you three are still here, and it looks like you brought your own?"

        Octavia shook her head.  "He isn't playing, I'm afraid."

        "Oh."  He glanced over to Fiddler, then quickly forgot about him.  "But there's still the three of you, yes?"

        Beauty glanced at Fiddler while Octavia and Symphony shared a momentary frown.  Sterling, oblivious to the exchange, continued to smile happily.  "We can manage," Octavia finally said.

        "Excellent!  Well, then—" he checked his pocketwatch "—the party will be starting in thirty, so I'll leave you girls to set up.  Should you need anything, don't hesitate to call!"  Turning, he gave Beauty a quick peck on the cheek before he cantered off to attend to his party.

        Beauty watched him go, then wiped her cheek.  "Salesponies," she sighed.

        Symphony glared at Octavia.  "Why can't he play?  You said he can manage classical."

        "Unless you brought a spare violin, he has no instrument," she responded, turning to her cello case and leafing through the scores she brought.

        "So, what?  I'm supposed to carry the melody by myself?"  She pointed to the scores Octavia held.  "Tell me: how many of those require a second alto?"

        "Which is why we'll need to find the few that don't, as well as some solo numbers to fill time."

        "Right.  And of course you'll be wanting some improvised melodies," Symphony spat.

        "Sounds fun to me," Beauty chirped, heading to the far end of the stage to collect her sousaphone.

        Fiddler found himself locked in a glare with Symphony.  "Why the hay didn't you bring your instrument?" she demanded.

        His mouth opened, but no words came out.  His mind stuck on the fact that he couldn't tell her why he hadn't brought anything, why he was really here.  He closed his mouth, then opened it again to the same result.  Symphony raised an eyebrow.  The moment was saved from becoming too awkward by Octavia, who glanced over to Symphony as she picked up her cello.  "Let him be, Symphony.  He's here only to meet ponies."

        Symphony faced her.  "But—"

        "Let him be.  He can't join us; there's no need to berate him for it."

        Symphony looked like she was about to protest, but stopped when she caught Beauty's icy glare.  Instead, she closed her eyes and sighed.  "Fine.  We'll play with three, but don't blame me if things go badly."  She looked back at Fiddler and shook her head.  "Celestia, I need a drink."  With that, she walked off.

        Fiddler watched her go, and Beauty came up beside him.  "Don't let her bother you; she's a bit of a perfectionist, and tends to overreact if things go a bit... awry.  She'll calm down."

        "I just hope she comes back before the performance," commented Octavia.

        "She usually does."  Beauty paused for a moment.  "I'll be sure to get her, though."

        Octavia nodded once, plucking a string and listening to its sound.  The result caused a frown to appear over her muzzle.  Fiddler looked up to her as she gave a peg a quarter turn.  "Octavia, I—"  She cut him off with a glance.  He recognized the look; it was the same that Dew would give him when she wanted him to be quiet.  He dropped his gaze.

        "We have a performance to prepare for," she said.  "You'd best go meet with the guests.  I'll see you afterward."

        He nodded slowly.  "I'll... see you after, then."

        As he walked away, he heard Beauty behind him.  "Good to see you two get on well."

        The hint of a scowl darkened his eyes.  He wanted to kick himself; in less than ten minutes, he had already come close to exposing his cover and getting himself thrown out onto the street.  It had never come that close in the Service.  Perhaps they did not care so much for what I did, he thought.

        He paused at that.  It wasn't right, he realized; the ponies in the Service already knew what he did—he only had to keep his past away from them.  Here, though, he was lying about his current actions, and that was something he couldn't recall ever needing to do before.  Even when dealing with overly-curious civilians, the Service had a number of canned responses to use.  He'd never done it on his own, and if the past few minutes had taught him anything, it was harder than he'd imagined.  Maybe Dew was right, he thought.  Maybe I am not up to this.

        Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a unicorn enter the estate grounds, and all his doubts were instantly forgotten.  The deep red pony had a grey mane, and his cutie mark showed a magnifying glass examining an unfurled scroll.  Silent Scroll, a member of the council, had arrived.  Fully ready or not, Autumn had a mission to accomplish.  He took a deep breath, steeled his nerves, and began to shadow the unicorn.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Silent Scroll cast an eye over the party guests, trying to gauge how this event was going to turn out.  There were a good number of recognizable faces in the small crowd, but more would show up well after the party started proper—'Fashionably Late' was an almost religious phrase among the social elite.  Even for that alone, he much preferred working with Service ponies, but such were the trials of office.  At least the music will be good, he thought, glancing to the stage.

        He wandered over to the eastern side of the garden, where the hors'dourve tables had been set up.  He looked over the offered treats—very standard fare, for a party like this—but his attention was elsewhere.  His ears perked, he listened to the quiet droning of the other guests.

        "...Graphite's business is doing quite well, these days.  In fact, I hear he's putting the final touches on some trade arrangements..."

        "...but really, dear, you shouldn't listen to a pony like that when it comes to the latest in hatwear..."

        "...flew right by my window, nearly shaking the thing loose!  That boy is Wonderbolt material, you mark my words..."

        "...you know Pound Sterling?  The host, yes.  This party is a last-ditch effort to save himself, you know.  Gain new friends.  I'm just here for the cake..."

        He could feel his mind starting to deaden, but he fought it off.  The gossip of the higher classes was a weary affair, but it held nuggets of pure gold if one could sift through the nonsense.  Moreover, he needed to know what the city was talking about, and everything passed through here.

        "...and he's proud of it!  Can you imagine?  Why, if my son joined the Guards, I'd give him a right good thrashing..." 

        "...don't know what Celestia is thinking, allowing her sister freedom.  She's a bad apple, you mark my words, and it won't be long before she turns back..."

        "...and Photo Finish's newest model—you know, the one from Ponyville?—just up and vanished!  No-one's seen hide nor hair of her..."

        "...gryphon ambassador.  It's true!  I saw him this morning.  Sitting on the balcony, talking to the princess, smug as you please..."

        Silent Scroll collected a martini glass from a passing server, letting it hover just in the corner of his vision.  He selected a few appetizers—baby carrots, steamed beets wrapped in cabbage, and salted mango—and nibbled on them thoughtfully as he wandered the garden.  Most ponies were too wrapped up in their own conversations to give him notice, but a few greeted him politely as he passed.  He returned the 'hellos;' there was no need to be rude, after all.

        "...disgusting creatures.  Probably drink blood, too.  They must be native to the moon, and she brought them back with her..."

        "...putting together another expedition to the dragon lands.  Pointless, I know, but he insists that if we can just start talking to them..."

        "...Sapphire Shores' new album!  You know, I saw her in concert a week ago—she had the most wonderful dress..."

        "...never let her go outside, of course.  If she went about chasing mice under the hedges, it would do terrible things to her coat..."

        More guests were trickling in, and he recognized several others from the Service; a good number of Hunters spread throughout the crowds ensured a wide net of data collection.  On stage, the musicians were warming up; it wouldn't be long before Pound came out and gave his speech, formally starting this little gathering.  He was more looking forward to the end, but he was working here, and he would gladly suffer boredom if it meant staying ahead of Equestria's enemies.  Then again, this party might only hold the secrets to Hoity Toity's fashionable new underwear.

        How he hated high society.

        "...party was cancelled, you know.  Shame, really.  I haven't seen Keystone in months, but at her age I suppose it can't be helped if she gets sick..."

        "...wife got a new dress.  Don't tell her I said it, but it makes her look like she should be cleaning our house rather than living in it..."

        "...heard that Upper Crust is seeing other stallions while Jet Set is out golfing..."

        "...couple of gryphons came through today, said they've always wanted to visit.  I think it's nice for them to see how a more civilized race lives..."

        There was the quiet tinkling of a bell, and the ponies' chatter died down.  Up on stage, Pound Sterling smiled at the herd.  "Welcome, welcome," he began.  "Welcome, everypony, to my humble estate.  I'd like to thank you all for coming and showing your support, or, in the case of Cookie, to eat cake."  There was a rustle of laughter, but one pony simply flushed scarlet.  "No, no," he continued, "that's fine, really.  I made sure to bring in the best cake, so be sure to save room for a piece.  Yes, even you, Madam Dis Lee.

        "So, really, glad you all could make it.  We've got fine food, drinks, and music for your pleasure.  Please, make yourselves at home, and enjoy the party."  With that, he nodded at the musicians and hopped off stage.  At least he kept it short, thought Scroll as the music began.  All around him, the chatter slowly picked up again, and he resigned himself to the high-class drudgery.

        "...was saying, rumour has it the Eyrie is intending to impose new import tariffs.  Supposedly, it's to protect..."

        "...though it's a prank, they're still asking us to call in if we see him.  Honestly, these Guards are just becoming more..."

        "...and Caesar got jealous, so he went out and bought a yacht too!  Now I have to look at that ugly thing sitting across the harbour..."

        "...couldn't even come up with decent hors'dourves to serve, and he thinks I'm going to invest?  He's lucky I don't walk out right now..."

        He sipped his martini, taking a momentary respite in its pleasant flavour.  He wouldn't be able to drink too much, as he had to maintain a clear head, but he could enjoy what he could.  It certainly helped take the edge off of the increasingly vapid conversations around him.  At least he didn't have to deal with it for much longer; the party would end in... Almost six hours.  Damn.  He decided to leave the after-party to his subordinates.

        "...daughter was caught taking the serving colt into her stable.  He insists that nothing happened, that they just talked..."

        "...closed down, so now I have to go find another spa to get my hooves done.  Really, though, Camellia was the best in the business..."

        "...and then she copied my manestyle!  Now everypony's going to think that I am copying her just because she gets a stage show..."

        "...was asking about earth pony violinists.  I know!  Really, you'd think he'd be the one to know..."

        "Enjoying yourself?"

        Scroll turned around, coming face-to-face with a pale brown pegasus mare, her russet mane tied up in a bun.  She smiled at him, and he rolled his eyes.  "Sky Tale, you know how much I loathe these events."

        "And yet here you are, eavesdropping on my guests."  She frowned.  "Hardly seems polite."

        "Trials of office," he replied.  "I end up doing rude things I hate.  But surely you didn't come over simply to interrupt me?"

        She nodded.  "We have business to discuss."

        He glanced around, spying several of his Hunters in the crowd.  There were enough; he could leave the party for a few minutes without worry.  "Lead the way."

        "My office.  Five minutes."  With that, she wandered off, probably to give her lifemate a peck on the cheek.  He watched her go, and found himself suppressing a smile as he headed for her house.  Certainly one way to catch a break.

        Inside, the house was as decadent as the party outside, which was to say that it was all show.  The foyer was decorated handsomely, and he knew that the dining room shared the motif, but if one was to explore the house, they'd find that little else held up.  It was to one of those other areas that he headed, up the stairs and down the hall.  Out of sight of the foyer, pictures abruptly stopped appearing on the walls.  The place was kept clean, but no extra effort existed.

        He found Sky Tale's office door closed.  Being a gentlepony, decorum insisted that he knock.  Knowing that no-one was around, he opened the door.

        "Haven't you ever heard of knocking?"

        His eyes narrowed as Sky Tale closed the window behind her.  "I was expected," he answered, closing the door.  Turning, he greeted the other ponies present, two unicorns and an earth pony.  "Pleasure to see you three, as well.  Will there be others?"

        Sky Tale shook her head.  "Just us."

        "Hm.  Then what's this about?"

        "Well, firstly," said the earth pony, detaching herself from the wall, "I'd like to know what you plan on doing with our little protester."

        Scroll frowned.  He hadn't heard anything about any protesters, which doubtless meant that there was some report or two buried on his desk.  Still, he didn't want the mare to know that she had information he didn't.  "Is it really a problem?" he asked.

        She shrugged.  "Not right now, perhaps, but she's certainly adding validity to the Vice-Commissar's posters, don't you think?  She could start a firestorm.  So what.  Are you planning on doing?"

        "I'll look into it," he said.  "Find the best solution."

        She scoffed.  "You'll 'look into it'?  What, are the Hunters afraid of taking direct action?"

        "If it's direct action you're looking for," he countered, "then perhaps you should deal with it.  Operations is, after all, well equipped for it."

        "Something this small is Hunter territory, and you know it.  I'm not going to—"

        "—Derail this meeting with petty squabbles?" interrupted Sky Tale.  "We're here for a reason, if you'll recall."

        "This is important business!" she protested  "If that mare—"

        "—And you have his promise to take care of it.  What more do you need?"

        She didn't respond at first.  Instead, she finished casting her glare at Sky Tale, huffed indignantly, and gained an air of indifference.  "It'll do."

        "Glad you see it that way.  Now, on to the business at hoof.  The letter, please?"

        One of the unicorns nodded and stepped forward.  "This came in," she said, floating a roll of parchment over to Scroll.  Scroll took it, examining the broken seal.  It was plain, unmarked, but the wax sparked at the prodding of his magic.  From the Service, he thought, opening the letter and scanning it.  Most of the coded content was stock language, but that which wasn't...

        "Who's idea is this?" he asked.

        "Yours, I was told."  The others nodded.

        He returned his attention to the letter.  "'In light of recent events,'" he read, "'in order to continue the smooth operation of the Service, I call upon the council to restore limited power to the Vice-Commissar.'"  He looked up at the gathered ponies.  "A vote to overturn the Commissar's orders?"

        "Not entirely," corrected the other unicorn, still leaning against the bookshelf.  "It isn't a full restoration, just enough to keep things smooth—prevent unnecessary delays and so forth.  We, plus one other, are in favour."

        "Just enough," said Sky Tale.

        Scroll glanced at the letter again.  "Emergency meeting," he read.  "Well, we'd best not keep them waiting."  He looked over to the other unicorns.  "Shall we?"  The two stepped forward, their horns sparking to life in time with his own.  The earth pony joined them, but Sky Tale stepped toward her window.  "Aren't you coming?" he asked.

        "In a bit," she replied.  "I need to give my lifemate an excuse.  I'll be along shortly.  Protect the Dawn."

        "Respect our Strength," the others replied, and vanished in a flash of light.

        Sky Tale lingered for just a moment, a satisfied smile on her lips, before turning back to her window and leaping out.  Her office door remained closed, and the pony on the other side stood still only a moment longer.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The Shaman hadn't slept in two days, but neither had he noticed the time pass.  Deep under the pony city the air still thrummed with the noise of its magic, but the ever-present ache in the Shaman's head was forgotten.  He was focused, intent—there was a whole world opening up in front of him, and there was no way he was going to let it pass.

        The runes were amazing—a whole alphabet of magical notation.  All his life, he had listened to the song of mana and revelled in its embrace, but he had never known the shape of magic and spells—he had never thought to look.  Now it all opened up before him, and he was enthralled.

        The pony had only taught him only a few runes, but it had been enough.  As he'd played with them, he recognized why they had seemed so familiar: they were the shape of magic!  That simple discovery had led to sleepless nights and busy days spent toying with spells and mana, looking for the runes contained within.  He had found a whole library beyond what the pony had shown him; the shapes hung in the air around him, glowing in an iridescent rainbow of colours.  The discovery that the runes would shape raw mana that was pushed over them had fascinated him.  True, the result was weak and barely worth anything, but the implications!  And if one rune could do that, what might a full sentence do?

        He watched as the mana rolled over the runes before him.  Each flickered with live energy, but the magic felt... rough; turbulent.  He glared at the runes; he'd been having this problem ever since he began writing these sentences.  Alone, the magic flowed easily through them, but the moment he added that second rune—or third, or fourth—they seemed to disrupt the natural harmony of mana; he'd found that trying to cast something through a sentence usually ended up fizzling.  It might have been infuriating if his fatigued mind had the energy, but for now it was content to be just mildly exasperating.

        He closed his eyes and let out a slow breath, feeling frustrated.  The excitement of discovery had gone, leaving him suddenly feeling the lack of sleep.  Taking a seat, he waved his staff, shifting a number of runes around and forming a new sentence.  He rubbed the bridge of his nose—his headache was becoming apparent again.  I'll need to sleep soon, he realized.  It's probably several hours past

        His ear twitched.  He looked up at the runic sentence before him, confused.  Did it just...?  He leaned closer, and pushed mana through it again.  The magic still felt rough, but there, at the end, it was smoother.  He squinted at the last runes, but it made no sense; he'd used those before, in that order.  Why are they smoother now?  Behind him, the unused runes flickered out as he concentrated on the ones before him.

        He pushed magic through them again, watching intently.  Unsatisfied, he did it again.  And again.  And again, save for the fact that the magic was smoother, there was no noticeable difference between the runes on the end and the runes in the rest of the sentence.

        It was fairly close to infuriating, but he didn't have the energy to make it worth the while.  Instead, he sat back in his seat and let all his tension out in a single breath.  The runes flickered, but he didn't let them fade; he had come too close to lose this chance.  He sat there for a few minutes, doing little more than stare blindly at them.  The sentence was a little lopsided, he saw; absently, he straightened it out.

        That's strange, he thought, as the magic suddenly became rough again.  He leaned forward, his curiosity piqued, as he dropped the last rune a couple of—

        "I see you've managed to keep yourself entertained."

        The Shaman stopped, the sudden sound of the stallion's voice a cacophony in the silence.  Slowly, he turned his head to face the intruder.  At least this one didn't try to butcher his language.  "Pony," he said.  "Is little late for visiting, I think."

        "Is it?" asked the unicorn.  "It's barely past noon.  I didn't realize you wanted your door closed so early."  He looked around.  "Ah, but you have no clock down here.  Would you like me to get you one?"

        Barely past noon?  He fought off a yawn.  Did I stay up all night?

        The unicorn, meanwhile, was looking at the runes before him.  "This one's off-centre," he said, pointing.

        The Shaman growled and jabbed his staff into the ground, dispelling the runeshapes.  "What pony want?"

        "Temper, temper," the pony chided.  "With an attitude like that, we may never manage a good working relationship.  And, if you can't follow along, I may just have throw you back into your wasteland without help."  He narrowed his eyes.  "Perhaps without life."

        The Shaman scoffed.  "Is this what pony came to say?  Pony waste breath.  Empty words."

        "You think so?"  He stepped closer.  "I told you once you were merely a convenience.  You doubt me?  No-one's come by in the last two days; we've had bigger things to work with.  Do you think that we'd abandon something as important as you think you are?"

        The Shaman was quiet.  Two days?  Has it really been so long?  He looked around the dungeon, idly wondering where the time had gone.  Now that he thought about it, he was exhausted—and hungry.  Two days suddenly didn't feel like a stretch of the truth.

        The unicorn seemed to take his silence as validation.  "Good, you can see logic—I was beginning to wonder.  So tell me, dog, how important do you feel now?"

        "Enough that pony try to make idle threats believed," he answered.

        The pony burst into laughter, his guffaws echoing throughout the dungeon.  He wiped the tears from his eyes, struggling to bring his laughter under control.  "Oh, this is too rich!" he finally managed.  "You just... you still think..."  A few more chuckles escaped his lips before he finally gained control again.  He cleared his throat, failing to remove his amused smile.  "I'd hoped you were smarter than this," he said, "but I guess I shouldn't be surprised.  Ok, dog, let's see if you can follow along here:

        "I don't need you.

        "If all else fails, I don't need anyone.  I can do this on my own and still benefit from it.  The only difference I have between working with you and working alone is ease.  You help, because you do half the lifting, but I don't need you to."

        He pointed at the Shaman.  "You, on the other hoof, gain everything.  You gain a pack, you gain a goal, and you gain what you perceive as a chance.  You have everything to lose if I cut you loose, but I will only suffer extra hoofwork."

        The Shaman had stopped listening.  He could tell the pony was still talking, but he couldn't bring himself to care.  In truth, he was too tired.  He did, however, realize that this pony thought of him as slow, at best.  More likely, he thought him an idiot.  By his language, he probably didn't think this of the Shaman alone, but about all dogs.  The Shaman would have been angered by the insult, but he was too exhausted for the effort.  Instead, in the calm where his anger would have been, an idea formed.

        A glowing rune appeared in front of the unicorn, silencing him.  "Why this not work?"

        The unicorn glared at him.  "I have no reason to help you, dog.  Your usefulness is about wore thin with the trouble you seem intent to cause."

        "Other pony say rune is magic, but it not work.  What she not say?"

        The unicorn shook his head.  "This just shows how helpless you are.  The runes aren't magic—they represent magic.  You could probably learn a lot if you could understand them."

        The Shaman put a smile on his face.  "Does pony not know?  Then come; learn with Shaman."

        The pony was dumbstruck.  "You... cannot possibly be that..."  He shook his head and regained himself.  "No, dog, I know what these mean.  All unicorns do, it's in our blood.  You, on the other hoof, will get nowhere without us.  You want to learn?  Then follow where you're led."

        The Shaman made an act of being insulted, then slowly letting the anger drain away.  "Shaman will stay," he said weakly, leaning forward on his staff and letting his fatigue show plainly on his face.  "Shaman will... I will play pony's game."

        "This isn't a game, dog.  If you choose to play, you play seriously."

        "Pony right, of course," he said.  "Shaman... will try to remember."

        The pony paused a moment, then smiled again.  "Got through, did I?  Well, then... perhaps I will give you another chance.  Tomorrow, I'll see if we have the time to spare for you, so be ready.  We still must fix your spell, after all."  The Shaman grunted, and a yawn escaped from his muzzle.  "Well, I'll leave you to rest, then."  After the last word, the unicorn turned and left.

        The Shaman watched him go, losing the battle to keep his eyes open.  With a sigh, he gave in and found his bed; he'd look for food once he woke up.  As he drifted to sleep, his thoughts wandered back to the runes, right before he had been interrupted.  So they don't work in a straight line, he thought.  Should change that, then.  Should stagger the runes, or set them on a curve, like the edge of a circle...

つづく

To Be Continued…


==============================================================================

Chapter Twelve

"Magical runes are a curious case.  While we learned of the circle and it's properties from the Zebra tribes, we both developed the art of magical notation via runic alphabet.  Our two cultures, worlds apart and without contact, developed the exact same symbols for the exact same meanings.  There were a few runes on either side that were exclusive to that culture (the circle runes, for example, existed only in the Zebra tribes), but even those were revealed to be missing gaps in the other culture's magical understanding.  Furthermore, archaeological evidence suggests that every culture that had magic has used the same runic alphabet..."

~Excerpt from "Introduction to Magical Theory"

by Radiance; scholar of magic

Course textbook

        A harmonic chord whistled in the kitchen, and Octavia took the kettle off the stove.  She glanced at the clock; ten minutes 'til.  She began steeping the tea, making note that the scones would be ready in about five.  That was good—everything was proceeding on time; her coming guest was very particular on that front.  While the tea steeped, she prepared the serving tray, humming quietly to herself.

        Today was going to be a good day.

        The scones were ready—she placed them on the counter to cool while she discarded the spent leaves from the teapot.  Covering the pot with a teacozy, she settled in to watch the clock.  At one minute 'til, she left the kitchen for the front door, counting down in her head.  Five... four... three... two... one!

        She opened the door, and standing on her doorstep was a brown-coated, grey-maned earth pony stallion, his left forehoof hovering, about to knock.  "Punctual as ever, Frederic," Octavia greeted, smiling.

        Frederic returned her smile with one of his own as he set his hoof down.  "Octavia, my dear.  Lovely to see you again."  He arched his eyebrow.  "I trust this is a good time?"

        She nodded.  "He's here."  She stepped away from the door.  "Please, come in."

        He entered her house, closing the door behind him.  He stopped a moment to appreciate the smells from the kitchen before he snapped back to business.  "I'll wait in the drawing room," he said as he started down the hall.  Octavia nodded and turned for the stairs.

        She paused outside of Fiddler's room.  She knew he was in, but was sure he was alone.  The quiet noise of what sounded like conversation carried through the door, and she strained her ears to listen.  The voice she heard didn't sound like him at all.  "...close to the truth as possible," it said.  "Makes for ease of memory, flexibility, and less to invent."

        "That sounds... simple enough," Fiddler's voice responded.

        "Mayhaps, but there is an art to it."  The stranger's voice was flat, emotionless.  "Practice is essential.  Shall we try a few scenarios?"

        "Please."

        It struck Octavia both that she was being rude, and that she had a very punctual guest downstairs who shouldn't be kept waiting.  She shook her head as if to clear it of eavesdropping desires and knocked on the door.  "Fiddler?  May I come in?"

        There was a sudden silence from inside the room, lasting several long seconds.  "Ah... Y-yes."

        She opened the door to find Fiddler standing alone.  She cocked her head to one side.  "Were you talking to someone?"

        "I..." he paused, looking down to the floor for a moment.  Then he let out a short chuckle and he visibly relaxed some.  "Yes," he said.

        Octavia looked around; they were alone in the room, and there were no places big enough for anypony to hide.  Curiosity got the best of her and she found herself asking, "Who?"

        "Someone who is trying to help with... well, my situation," he replied.

        Octavia smiled.  "And to think, you were planning on simply running away last week.  Now you have all sorts of friends trying to help you."  She paused, her smile fading a bit.  If he had Cloudsdalian friends helping out now, then... "Does this mean you'll be leaving soon?"

        He shook his head.  "There is still too much to do, and I cannot... I cannot go back yet.  I fear I shall have to stay here for a while yet."

        Her smile returned and she nodded.  "That's good to hear.  Would you please accompany me downstairs?  I have a surprize for you."

        He hesitated a moment, then followed her out of the room and down the stairs.  She led him into the drawing room, where Frederic stood looking out the window.  He turned at the sound of hoofsteps behind him.  "Frederic, this is Fiddler," Octavia introduced.  "Fiddler, I'd like you to meet Frederic Horseshoe-pin; pianist, conductor, lover of music, friend, and teacher."

        Fiddler bowed.  "Pleasure to meet you."

        Frederic regarded him with a critical eye.  "Well," he said, after a few seconds, "Let's hope you can play."

        Fiddler stood, confused.  Octavia smiled at him.  "I told you I had a surprize.  Frederic is the pony to know in Canterlot music, and he's agreed to teach you."

        "Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Frederic remarked.  "I only agreed to give him a chance, and that only because you give him credence."  He narrowed his eyes.  "If he does poorly, I may think less of you."

        Octavia knew the stallion well enough to know he was joking, but Fiddler's eyes were wide as he looked nervously at Octavia.  "I-I—" he stumbled.  "A-are you sure this is a good idea?"

        She struggled to hold back a laugh.  "It's fine, Fiddler; I wouldn't have told him about you if I didn't think you could do it.  Just relax, don't worry."  She glanced up at Frederic.  "I'll go get the tea."  With that, she trotted off for the kitchen.

        She returned with the serving tray to find Fiddler nervously holding her Violin, hesitating to draw the bow.  Frederic wore a very disapproving scowl, and it remained as he turned his head to face her.  "Your guest can't perform."

        Octavia sighed and set down the tray.  "Fiddler," she said, "please collect my Cello from the den."  Fiddler paused a moment, then set her Violin down and trotted off.  Octavia turned to Frederic the moment he'd left.  "You made him nervous."

        "Did I?  How does he presume to perform in front of hundreds if an audience of one terrifies him?  What kind of pony are you showing me?"

        "A talented one," she replied, "but timid.  You saw how he reacted when you said you'd think less of me—he doesn't want to cause me distress."

        Frederic snorted.  "If he can't handle a simple jest, then how is he supposed to handle a disruptive audience?  He may have music talent, but performance requires more than that."

        "But it is the start; everything else can be taught and overcome.  That's why I called you: you're the best pony for the case."

        Frederic said nothing as Fiddler returned, toting Octavia's Cello.  He set it before her, and she stood it up and began tuning it while Frederic watched with a scowl.  "Fiddler," she said, "please pick up your Violin; we'll play together."

        Fiddler looked as though he was about to object, but Frederic spoke first.  "Octavia... what do you think you're you doing?"

        "Overcoming stage fright," she said simply.

        The corner of his mouth lifted in a slight smile before he looked over to the still-unmoving Fiddler.  "Well?  Are you just going to stand there and ignore her obvious ploy to help you?"

        Fiddler still hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath and collected the Violin.  Octavia smiled.  "Shall we begin, then?"  He nodded, and Octavia began the melody.  It was one that they'd done many times before, and she knew that he could do it well.  As she concluded the prelude, he brought his bow up the the Violin and played.

        Octavia closed her eyes, letting the room fade away to the sounds of song and melody.  On stage or in her own practice room, it didn't matter; the music was all she cared for in those moments.  There was no audience who could compare to the simple sound and glory.  Her hoof danced along the strings without thought, shifting the tones and colours with practiced precision, and she heard Fiddler's Violin singing alongside in perfect harmony.  It was haunting, sweet, and lifting, and she couldn't help but fall in love again.

        The song ended, and she opened her eyes and returned to her room.  In the past few minutes she had forgotten that Frederic was there, but upon seeing him again she suddenly felt a twinge of nerves.  After all, it wasn't how she felt about the performance that was important.  Frederic had a curious expression as he regarded Fiddler; Octavia hoped that was a good sign.

        "'Fiddler,' was it?" he asked.  The pegasus nodded, and there followed a few seconds of silence.  "You're good," Frederic finally said.  "Not great, but good.  This is how you made a living?"  Again, Fiddler nodded.  "Why have I never heard of you?"

        Fiddler blinked.  "What?"

        "Young pony, music is my business.  I make it a point to know all the up-and-coming musicians in Equestria.  By your skill, I should have heard of you some years back.  Where have you been playing?"

        "I... I've been in Cloudsdale.  Not many earth ponies up that way."

        "I have contacts in Cloudsdale.  They would have told me about you.  Where have you been playing?"

        Fiddler's mouth opened, but he gave no response.  Octavia decided to intervene.  "Is that really important right now?" she asked, setting her Cello down.  "Frederic, you can't expect your contacts to be everywhere at once; some ponies are going to be missed.  Besides that, he's right in front of you now, and you've heard him play.  Isn't that all you need?"

        Frederic was silent for a time, obviously not pleased with the answer he'd come to.  "I suppose so."

        "And what's your answer?" she pressed.

        He shook his mane.  "Alright, fine; I'll teach him, if only to try and break his stage fright.  A crippling disability for a musician, to be sure."  He turned to Fiddler.  "Once you're free of that restraint, I expect you to measure up to where a music-talented pony should be."

        Octavia beamed.  As Frederic trotted over to the tea tray, she turned her smile to Fiddler.  "There, you see?  Nothing to worry about.  With Frederic's help, you'll be on your hooves in no time!"

        His smile looked strained.  "That's great."

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Dew sighed and checked the clock.  Almost a full hour had passed since she'd arrived, and still her only company was the quiet beeping of machines and the book in her hooves.  Still, it could be worse, she reasoned—Gleam could be dead.  Instead, the unicorn lay quietly, sound asleep upon the hospital bed.  Though she'd awoken from her coma a few days ago, she wasn't really on any kind of schedule—the best Dew could hope for was to be there when she woke up again.

        It had taken some pleading and a word from Meadowlark, but Service command was finally allowing Dew time to visit.  Not alone, of course; she was still under suspicion, and though her escort was out of sight she knew that he was close by, listening.  Dew didn't mind; she had no intentions to talk about work or Autumn—Gleam would have enough to deal with trying to recover.

        There was a small groan as Gleam opened her unbandaged eye, blinking against the light.  Dew smiled at the sight and put her book down.  "Good morning, sunshine."

        Gleam's head rolled toward the sound, and a moment passed as her eye started to focus.  "Dew," she said, her voice weak.  "You're looking better."

        Dew chuckled.  "I'm certainly feeling better.  Glad to see the rumours were true."  Gleam's brow furrowed as her head rolled in what could amount to a tilt against the pillow.  "That you woke up," Dew clarified.

        "Mm..."  Her eye closed as her breathing slowed.  Dew glanced nervously at the various medical instruments around the room; she couldn't understand any of them, but none of them seemed to be giving off any alarms.  She began to think that Gleam had fallen asleep when she spoke again.  "I guess it took a while."

        "About two weeks," Dew replied.  "I think Hotspot and Red were starting to call dibs on your things."

        Gleam's chuckle turned into a short coughing fit.  She still wore a smile when it subsided.  "Mm, so eager—I'd hate to leave them disappointed.  They should get something for their efforts."  She opened her eye to look at Dew.  "I'll have to give them my next mission."

        Her cheer was infectious; Dew found herself smiling back.  "I'll be sure to pass that along; I think the captain'll be able to pull that off."

        "What's she got to do with it?  It's my mission—if I want to pass it to a couple of overly eager colts, who can stop me?"

        Dew shook her head.  "No-one that I can think of."

        "That's right," she replied, her voice fading again.  "No-one c'n stop me."  Her eye closed and her breathing slowed, but her hoof stretched out toward Dew, who took it in her own.  "Glad you're here," she whispered.

        "Same," Dew said.  "To be honest, I was starting to get worried."

        A chuckle.  "Shouldn't a' been.  Told you, looks worse than it is.  I'll be back up in no time."

        "Of course you will."  Dew said it with as much sincerity as she could muster.

        Gleam's smile faded as she opened her eye again.  "How are the others?" she asked.

        Dew cocked an eyebrow.  "I thought the Service debriefed you when you first woke."

        "Did they?  I don't remember."  She chuckled.  "It's been kinda hazy."

        "Well, then," Dew said, patting her hoof, "try to pay attention this time."  Gleam smiled and chuckled at that, lifting her other hoof to pat her heart.  "The others are doing well," Dew continued.  "Spotter made it back safely, and the dog gathering broke apart.  Last Leaf and Maple Song had brief visits to the hospital, but they're out and off doing missions right now.  Spotter, too; he's off with Last Leaf.  The other two unicorns are still about, still getting check-ups in medical.  Clear Skies—"

        She stopped short, and Gleam's brow furrowed in concern.  "What's wrong?"

        Dew shook her head and forced a smile.  "I-it's nothing," she said.  "Clear Skies was taken to the hospital for her wing..."  And she's been kicked out since Autumn's accounts were frozen.  She shook the thought from her head and started again.  "I haven't managed to see her lately, since..."  Since I'm not allowed to leave the palace and she's been thrown on the streets.  "...Well, I'm sure she's fine," she lied.  "I'll have to check up on her when I get the chance."

        "How's her foal?"

        She paused.  "Not an alacorn, if that's what you're asking.  Seems the dog's plan wouldn't have worked."

        Gleam chuckled softly and shook her head.  "I could've told you that," she said.  "Was a very silly idea they had.  But how is she?  Did the dog's spell do anything?"

        She paused again.  All in all, Dew wasn't sure why she wasn't telling Gleam the whole truth.  Part of it was, for certain, that she couldn't—telling her about the conspiracy in the Service would only result in them both being picked out.  Perhaps it was that she didn't want Gleam to worry about the other ponies while she was busy healing—she didn't need added stress.  "I don't think that foal has anything to worry about," she finally said.

        In the silence that followed, Gleam's gaze bore into her.  It wasn't aggressive—rather, it was searching and concerned.  Finally, "She's dead, isn't she?" she asked.

        Slowly, Dew nodded.

        Gleam closed her eye and sighed.  "Shame."  Dew said nothing to that, and the silence stretched.  After a time, Gleam looked back up at Dew and asked, "How's Autumn?"

        Dew didn't answer right away.  Gleam was her closest friend next to him, and it hurt to lie to her.  Worse, the truth she could tell would only make her worry, and she needed to rest and recover.  "Autumn... was given pardon for disobeying the Vice-Commissar's orders, and..."  And was awarded the title of 'traitor.'   She clenched her jaw tight, making an effort to keep a neutral expression.  "He's... away, right now, recovering."

        "Recovering?" Gleam asked, chuckling.  "From what?  Colt didn't have a mark on him."  Dew had no answer, and Gleam's smile died in the silence.  "What happened?" she asked.

        Dew shook her head.  "He—"  The words caught and it felt as though she choked on them—she coughed and her vision blurred, and when she blinked to clear it she saw that Gleam was struggling to sit up.  "No!" Dew quickly said, leaping over from her chair.  "You mustn't try to move yet; you're still recovering."

        "I'll have a lot of time for that later," Gleam replied, propped up on one elbow.  "Right now there's something you're not telling me."  She reached over and placed her hoof softly on the back of Dew's head.  Leaning close, she asked, "What happened, Dew?  Why are you crying?"

        Am I?  She ran a hoof under her eyes and it came back wet.  She struggled to smile.  "It's... it's nothing, really; you shouldn't worry yourself."

        Gleam looked her in the eye.  "Horseapples," she whispered.

        Dew's lips quavered as the words caught in her throat.  She had to say it, she knew, but still it was difficult.  She shook her head and forced them out; this was the truth of it, and Gleam deserved to know.  "It... it's Autumn; he's been declared a traitor."

        Gleam's eye widened.  "What?"

        A nod.  "There was... they found some plans in his room and..."  She trailed off, afraid that she might say the wrong things if she continued.

        "But... you don't really believe that, do you?"

        Dew looked at her friend, trying to put as much meaning into her gaze as she could.  "I have to."

        Gleam was silent, then she lowered her head; her horn glowed for only an instant before it sparked.  The crack of dispelling magic set off a ferocious beeping on one of the machines in the room, and Gleam gave a short scream of pain and collapsed back into her bed, clutching her forehead.  "Gleam, no!" Dew cried, far too late.  "No, you can't; your horn... it's still healing."

        Her breathing slowed as a tear ran from her good eye.  One hoof fell to her side while the other remained at her temple.  After a time, she asked, "What happened while I was asleep?"

        Before Dew could answer, a trio of nurses burst into the room with various medical instruments, summoned by the still-beeping machine.  One turned to the thing, silencing it, before ushering her from the room.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        The unicorn rubbed his temples, closing his eyes as he did so.  The pile of paper on his desk had shrunk considerably since that morning, but there was only so much a stallion could do before he needed to move again.  Still, the remaining pile had to be dealt with, so he settled for a stretch before returning to his task.  

        He was interrupted by a mare bursting into his office, her horn glowing as she cast a privacy bubble around them.  "It's Hex-based!" she cried.

        The stallion glared at the grinning face of the unicorn before him.  "Come again?"

        "The Shaman's spell," the mare clarified.  "It's Hex-based!  Ingeniously done, too.  It certainly explains why it was so badly broken on the foal, you know—those anti-magic pills she took.  Probably did that much damage because the spell was incomplete at the time.  Heh.  Here I was looking for enchantment principles—no wonder I couldn't find anything!"

        The stallion frowned, considering the information.  As intriguing as the Shaman and his little magic was, his office wasn't really the place for it—he'd have to make sure to remind her to only discuss such things in the gemstone mines, privacy bubble or otherwise.  That was later, however; right now, she looked positively jittery, and in spite of himself his curiosity was piqued.  The details, he was sure, were very interesting, but there was one thing that really stood out to him.  "Hex-based?" he repeated, and the mare nodded vigorously.  "That's... highly contradictory.  Would it even work?"

        "That's the best part!  He made the spell so that it counteracts the hex's negative effects!  At least, at first it does.  After that..."  She raised her hoof and rocked it from side to side.  "Well, at some point it would eat itself.  No telling when, or what that might entail."

        A hex that counters itself?  The idea was ludicrous—hexes weren't built for shifts like that.  Likely the effect wasn't intentional and the Shaman had blindly stumbled upon it.  That thought only increased his concern.  "Is it even possible to fix?"

        She paused, her excitement replaced by a furrowed brow.  "Right, right, um... Yes, it is possible, but it'll take a while.  I'll need to unravel the core components without damaging them, then figure out which enchantment sequence would best complement them while trying to make them as effective as possible—"

        "How long?" he interrupted.

        She let out a long breath, blowing a few stray mane hairs away from her eyes.  "I could probably get the core workings isolated in just a few days time.  After that, it'll really depend on what I'm left with."

        "Best guess."

        Her hoof clicked against the floor.  "I'd call it a week."

        "Sooner would be preferable."

        "Of course, sir; I'll do the best I can."

        He nodded once and returned to his work before the interruption.  Soon, though, he realized that the her spell still shimmered around the room.  He arched an eyebrow as he looked back up to her.  "Is there something else?"

        She nodded, slowly.  "Yes, sir, it's... well, the Shaman, he's..."

        He took a slow breath, placing his forehooves together under his chin as he fixed her with a stern glare.  "Do you really want to have this discussion here?  Now?"  She glanced toward the door, nervous, before slowly nodding.  He sighed and leaned back into his seat.  "Well?"

        She glanced around the room, as if to make certain her spell was still there, before she spoke.  "The Shaman... I'm beginning to worry about him."

        "How so?"

        "It's just... he knows more than he's letting on.  Like today, when I started to teach him more runes, he already knew them.  I had to show him circle runes to find ones that he didn't know."

        "You're not trying to teach him how the circles work, I hope?"  The last thing he needed was a dog playing with magic like that.

        "No, no... I lied about what they meant, but that isn't the point.  He's keeping secrets from us."

        He was unmoved.  "Of course he is.  Are you telling me that you're worried because the dog is trying to be clever?"

        "I know what I taught him," she insisted.

        "And runes are universal," he countered.  "I find it hardly surprising that it happens to know a few."

        "But he shouldn't!  That's the whole point.  The Shamans... they 'hear' their magic, remember?  He was mystified the first time he saw—"

        "So he lied back then, probably to see if you knew any he didn't.  Now he knows you don't.  Mystery solved."

        "But he—"

        "Celina!" he barked, and the mare fell quiet.  He let the silence hang in the air for a time.  "While I appreciate your efforts in keeping the Shaman leashed, may I remind you that he is a dog, and nothing he does can change that.  The best of them are dullards and incompetents, and you would do well to remember that.  He is a fool, and you should not let him play you for one.  Am I understood?"

        Celina was biting her tongue, and her hoof clicked against the floor.  "Yes, sir," she finally said.

        "Good.  Now I expect our next discussion to show progress on his spell.  You are dismissed."

        He returned to his work as the privacy bubble collapsed around them.  Celina gave a curt bow and left without a word.

~ * ~      ~ * ~      ~ * ~

        Dew sat on the balcony's edge, neck craned as she watched the night sky turn overhead.  This high up—on one of the palace's