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Chapter 16

"Know thy enemy"

            She just wanted to cry…

            She knew she couldn't, not anymore, but that didn't stop her from wanting to. There was something wholly unsatisfying about sobbing when your body can't create tears. Her own heat boiled them away the moment they formed, even when she struggled to keep her powers turned off.

            Her blonde mane and tail flared with heat as her emotions refused to listen, swirling out of control. Pyre couldn't cry, so she would do the next best thing; she would get angry. Angry at the Imps who "retired" her friends with so little effort. Angry at the team for not saving them. Angry at Indigo, a unicorn she'd befriended when she had been first forced out of the clouds, who was killed almost as soon as the team landed. She never even got her lightning powered up, the foal! And Cream Swirl… what good is creating force fields and protecting ponies if you can't protect yourself?!? Barricade? Pah, she couldn't even… even…

            Ember Spark tossed her head furiously, her blonde mane crackling as it turned more and more into yellow flames. The grass about her began to brown from the heat, but she didn't care. More work for the grounds-keepers for Luna's little special training field. She flared her wings, feeling the air catching them almost immediately, fire extending them almost twice the size they really were. Her hooves left the ground with a single savage beat, launching herself into the air.

            She flew towards the light fluffy clouds that hovered overhead. She knew what would happen when she reached them; the clouds would boil away. That's why she had been forced out of her home when she was a filly. When her fire powers surfaced she accidentally vaporized three cloud-houses with the heat in an uncontrolled burst, and almost fell to her death from Cloudsdale. Of course she had wings, and managed to stop herself, but the mayor politely had her banished from the city of Pegasai.

            Sure enough, the clouds began to dissipate as she got close to them, almost seeming to dodge from her, fading away to nothing when she got within feet of them. Memories bubbled forth of those first days on the ground, her parents moving "dirtside" and commuting to the city for work. Meanwhile she was left to try and adapt to life on the ground. Everypony avoided her; she was prone to burst out into flames at the merest provocation or emotional outburst. Then she met Indigo… a silly unicorn with an ability to generate and control lightning.

            A momentary smile touched her lips as she remembered the rainstorm that night they met. How she marveled as Indigo played with the lighting, juggling sparking balls of electricity in midair like they were toys. How she was fascinated and stole closer, badly startling the unicorn. Then talking out there in the rain, both of them getting soaked but not caring. A few days later she was introduced to Cream Swirl, Indigo's friend, who was also a "special". They became such fast friends so quickly... They'd joined the Agency together, and stuck together as a team. They even helped pick out code-names for each other. In the end Ember Spark became Pyre, Indigo became Ion Storm, and Cream Swirl became Barricade…

            Recent events intruded, dashing the smile from the pegasus' face. The sight of seeing Indigo struck down, Imps pouncing before she even fired out the first lightning bolt. Their claws stealing her life before any of them could respond. Then Cream Swirl was struck, some weird yellow beam from another Imp, lancing down her side and sending her tumbling over to the ground…

            Ember screamed with wordless fury at the clouds, lacking any other target. Fiery wings swept forward, tearing apart the clouds and boiling them away. She chased more clouds around, screaming in rage and frustration. What good were these powers if she couldn't even protect her friends? She couldn't live like a pegasus thanks to them! She couldn't even grieve properly thanks to them!! WHAT GOOD ARE THEY?!?

            She finally stopped and hovered in place, the sky now clear of clouds. The lone pegasus shuddered, her body wracked with sobs…

            She just wanted to cry….


            Clockwork poked her head up from under the floor, a robotic arm draped across her head in such a way its "claw" seemed to be almost trying to pet her ears.

            "Ah, there you are," Galaxi said, her smile warm, "Come on, it's time for you to take a break."

            "You know, just because Mai is gone, doesn't mean you need to take up her job," the short mare made a face.

            Galaxi started to tug on the other mare's leg to help her out, "If I don't, who would?"

            "Point taken," Clockwork sighed and patted her hip, leaving oily smudges on her coat, "Give me one second and we'll head out. I think this is ready to test."

            "Only if you hurry."

            "Cross your hooves then," Clockwork grinned and moved to the console in the room. It had taken her two days to undo most of the damage Burner had done to the lab, a majority of which seemed like intentional sabotage to her. But, despite everything, the system finally seemed ready for a test run. She sucked in a breath, her hoof hovering over the power, the memory of the screaming chorus that had reduced her to tears the first day surged through her mind. She stabbed her hoof forward, and the system powered up with a hum.

            Clockwork's ears were folded tightly back, but the feared aural assault didn't come. She heard plenty of discordant tones in the lab, but it was a far cry from the ear-shattering cacophony she had gotten two days ago. She tapped another switch, and the robotic arms folded themselves up, panels on ceiling and floor closing over them to once more create the starkly empty room Clockwork had created for her workspace. Even the holo-projectors snapped on, showing a basic system prompt hovering in mid-air.

            "Looks like you finally got it working," Galaxi stated, walking about the room, and right through the hologram she couldn't see.

            "Finally. I still have plenty of work ahead of me, but at least now I can do it by ear," she sighed, "That should make it go a LOT faster."

            "Good, then you can take a break," Galaxi stated, bodily blocking the smaller mare and nudging her towards the exit, "Besides, you need to eat."

            "Yes ma'am," Clockwork giggled, and stuck her tongue out at Galaxi.

            "NOW young filly!!" the other mare reared, and promptly chased a laughing Clockwork out of the lab and down the hall.

            The two mares were all giggles when they entered the cafeteria, and Clockwork was surprised to see a majority of the group there. Pyre was sitting in a corner, simmering lightly and frying the edges of her salad, which she picked at disconsolately. Spectrum and Steelwing were sitting near the entrance, chatting amiably. Only Flourish was missing. Clockwork would have guessed she were visiting Skillet, if not for the conversation she had with the stallion. Flourish seemed to be avoiding him, and he wasn't sure why. Clockwork resolved she would have to talk to her about that…

            Galaxi steered the other mare towards the line, where Clockwork got herself a light vegetable soup with some sesame seed seasoning and a side sandwich of violet and rose petals. Galaxi got herself a salad with a heavy tomato sandwich on the side, and, after a moment of hesitation, lead the duo towards where the gryphon and pony sat.

            "Mind if we join you?" Galaxi asked nervously.

            "I don't see any reason why not," Steelwing answered, and Spectrum just shrugged.

            "Not eating?" Clockwork asked the gryphon curiously as she sat down.

            "My eating habits are not… palatable to most ponies," she answered easily.

            "Haven't really had much chance to introduce myself to you again Steelwing. We met briefly before but…" and Clockwork shrugged.

            "Aye, the Princess was in a rush to return you to the hospital," the gryphon nodded, "No harm done that I can see. Please, I am just Filigree."

            "Alright then, Filigree."

            "You two vanished yesterday," Galaxi mentioned softly…

            "I took her home to meet some of my neighbors," Spectrum shrugged.

            "Oh? Got some interesting friends back there?" Clockwork asked.

            "She does," Filigree said, folding her forelegs on the table, "Not many gryphons living in the Pony lands. We usually prefer the mountains you ponies find less hospitable."

            "Some old friends of the family," Spectrum added.

            "Oh? How close is home from here anyway?" Clockwork asked.

            "New Ponyville," Spectrum answered.

            "Seriously?" the small mare asked, taking a sip of her soup.

            "Yes. Why?"

            Clockwork smiled, "Just before getting recalled from the Northern Reaches, I had been talking to somepony from there, a unicorn who had lived there and in the original Ponyville."

            "Northern Reaches… Unregistered?" Spectrum mused softly.


            "Couldn't have been one of the Crusaders, could it?"

            "On the nose," Clockwork grinned, "You remember Echo, don't you Galaxi? Sweetie Belle, her civilian name, was up in the local Library chatting my ears off for a bit about the old days. She was telling me some stories about when she was a filly, and about 'The Six' back when they were normal mares."

            Spectrum smiled softly herself, "Lady Sparkle spoke about that sort of thing a lot herself when she came to visit. I heard all sorts of stories about those days from her."

            "Lady Sparkle wasn't all that social with me. But I bet she gave you the same reason Sweetie Belle gave me," Clockwork grinned.

            "So that we'd know what life was like before the Imps," Spectrum answered, "So that we know what we're fighting for."

            "Sounds noble," Filigree inserted, "I am not sure how possible it is to bring those days back, however."

            "Only way to do that is to end the Imp threat," Clockwork noted.

            "I wish there was another path," Spectrum sighed.

            "Not sure how," Galaxi offered softly, "I mean, they attack nearly anypony, without provocation."

            "Warriors never take to peace easily," Filigree said softly.

            "That's it, isn't it?" Clockwork asked, wiping her chin from the soup, "The Imps are warriors and nothing else. The Nightmare potentially created them from the very ether itself…"

            "And they think nothing of suicide or self-sacrifice to achieve the Nightmare's goals," Galaxi pointed out.

            "Warriors to the end. I wonder if they have a sense of honor, or at least a belief that sacrifice is for some sort of greater glory?" Filigree considered.

            "I find it hard to see suicide as glorious," Spectrum noted with a frown.

            "I don't know," Clockwork said softly, "Sacrifice to rescue your friends is very much worthwhile. I don't know about glorious, but it is honorable."

            "That can be twisted though," Filigree said with a pointed claw, "Just ask the gryphon clans about that. There's some truly twisted concepts of honor amongst some of the more remote clans."

            "But did Nightmare find and twist the Imps," Clockwork asked, "or did she create them from whole cloth?"

            "Brainwashing is easier then creation," Spectrum answered softly.

            "Space faring flyers that she captured? That sounds…."

            "Absurd," Filigree finished.

            "But when you have eliminated all the possibilities…" Clockwork said.

            "…what is left, no matter how absurd, must be the truth." Spectrum finished, "I used to love Sheerluck Hooves as a filly."

            "But we don't know if that's all the possibilities yet," Galaxi frowned.

            "Aye, but it is a strong one," Filigree pointed out, "and it might explain their preference for the darkness."

            "Eyes and skin are acclimated to the deeper dark," Clockwork mused.

            "But what about lack of air? Or intense cold away from any sort of light?" Galaxi asked.

            "I've never seen them breathe," Filigree said.

            "Come to think of it, I don't see where they would have room for much in the way of lungs," Spectrum pointed out, "In fact, they look pretty emaciated, like they are starving all the time."

            "I think that might just be how they are built," Clockwork added.

            "Besides, they don't need a stomach," Spectrum continued, "They 'eat' magic energies, sucking it from the aura of the living creature, and possibly even from the ether itself."

            "So that solves food. But what about heat? I can't see where they could be all that warm as they are. They are all thin and emaciated, as you said a few moments ago, so they can't exactly preserve body heat."

            "Maybe that's what they use the magic for?" Galaxi chipped in, "I mean.. their sparkly skin goes away when they're dead."

            "So being cut off from magic would kill them… Wait," Clockwork said, her eyes widening, "That's it! Galaxi you're a genius!"

            "I am?"

            "Don't you see? They absorb magic to allow them to exist in the deeper darkness beyond Equestria. They don't need the light, the magic keeps them warm, and all they need to do is grab the energies that are out there naturally," Clockwork said, now on her feet, "But Nightmare lured them in, a buffet of strong magic to feed on, and she turned it against them. She fed herself to them, at least initially, and promised them more if they did her bidding. She used her own magic to brainwash them to her cause! That must be why she needed the Elements, she's getting a bit low and she needed a boost in magic power, so she's using the Elements to advance her plans, evolving and brainwashing them even faster!"

            "But where do the new ones come from?" Spectrum asked softly.

            "We don't know how they reproduce, but if we assume they have children that need to gather magic energy as they evolve so…" and a new expression washed over Clockwork's face, "so that means the spy imps… are their young."

            "That makes sense," Filigree said softly, "The spy imps know how to hide, if it were for absorbing as much magic as possible until they were old enough to move into the deeper dark themselves, it would make sense. The young hide until strong enough to protect themselves. Their ability to hide in the shadows would also give the classic cub-hood fear of the dark a startling new reason."

            "Do you realize what you're suggesting?" Spectrum asked, her voice wavering slightly.

            "Yes," Clockwork answered, "They're sending their young to spy on us…"

            "…and we're killing them."

            "You could have warned me about them."

            "Warned you about who?" Spectrum asked innocently, "Clockwork and Galaxi?"

            "No, they were as I expected. They are a pair of introverts who have latched on to each other," Filigree shrugged, "Clockwork has a growing self-confidence, and Galaxi is slowly shedding her innocence, and together they support each other. I will admit I did not expect them to be quite so mentally agile."

            "Clockwork's intelligence is her 'Special' ability."

            "Interesting," Filigree mused, "A power that is all but invisible. I wonder if there are any like that in the Clans, and how successful they are. I highly doubt they would advertise themselves, even if they realized."

            "So who was I supposed to warn you about?"

            "Your friends yesterday," Filigree said softly, "I did not expect them to be so…"

            "Welcoming? Friendly?"


            Spectrum blinked slightly and looked to the gryphon, "I'm sorry? I don't quite follow."

            Filigree shook her head, "The last time I felt that plain, it was standing in the presence of Princess Celestia. Between Scarlett and Bracket, I felt overwhelmed. And those triplets… they would have princes and dukes alike falling over their talons to have them bearing their eggs."

            Spectrum laughed, "Is that all?"

            "You DID do it intentionally," the gryphon hissed, "You didn't tell me about the brothers."

            "It was a big clutch, I forgot."

            "You're a horrible liar."

            "No worse than you. You couldn't stop staring at Chase," the mare smiled, watching the gryphon blush.

            "Chase was… the white one?"

            "That was his brother Alto," Spectrum said, still smiling, "Chase was the red furred one with black feathers who was so fascinated with your metal wings… which I noticed you kept flared the entire time."

            "You are damnably perceptive, pony."

            "Yes, I know," she teased, flapping her wings a little, "But you seemed to enjoy the attention."

            "I am… not used to that much attention," she admitted, refusing to add that when she had before, she was being punished for something, "I was the youngest in my family, who only had 2 others."

            "Small family for gryphons," Rainbow Star noted softly.

            "Precisely, but there were reasons. Resources are difficult for those in the lower castes, thus they have fewer cubs then those in upper castes."

            "Makes sense, but wouldn't that imbalance the castes?"

            "You pick up on the problem more quickly then a lot of gryphons," Filigree said with a nod, "You are correct, that is why it's very easy to slide down in caste, but extremely difficult to climb up."

            Spectrum made a face, "Sounds like an excuse to keep pushing gryphons down."

            "I won't argue the intelligence of that statement."

            Spectrum leaned close to the gryphon and grinned, "You know they're going to invite you back when the holidays come around, right?"

            Filigree raised an eye-ridge and looked at Spectrum, "Um… maybe?"

            "Good," she smirked as she flicked her wings, "I'm sure Chase will love hunting something down for you. I'm told he's quite a talented hunter…"

            "Now you're just teasing me."

            "Is it working?"

            Filigree growled softly and looked away, "Yes."

            The Gryphon was spared further embarrassment when Clockwork trotted up, "Sorry to interrupt, but the Princess wants us all in her office. Galaxi is hunting down Pyre and Flourish psychically."

            "Did she say why?" Spectrum asked curiously.

            "Not offhand, but I got the impression it was important."

            "Then we will not delay," Filigree stated, and took to her wings, Spectrum flying close behind. Clockwork sighed and galloped after them.

            The group assembled quickly in the Princess' office, but each were surprised to find Luna was not the only Princess in attendance this time, and Celestia stood by her sister's side. Both were shown in relief by the afternoon sun washing through the bay window of the office. Flourish was the last one to arrive, teleporting into the room behind Galaxi as the group lined up.

            "Pyre tells me that you ponies may have made an important discovery over lunch," Luna said softly.

            "I'm not sure how 'important' our conjecture was," Spectrum said softly, her brow furrowing. She wanted to be angry at Pyre, but the hot-headed mare looked shaken.

            "Any conjecture into the nature of the Imps is important," Celestia interjected, "We know so little about them, save what little our scientists have been able to preserve and study after battle. I admit some uncertainty that a group of ponies like yourselves could out-think some of the best scientists in Equestria, but…"

            "But it was enough to bring Pyre to my office," Luna gently cut in, "Which means we can either dispel the rumors now, or confirm some horrible truths."

            "Understood, Princess," Spectrum answered, "Clockwork? The main thrust of the conjecture was yours, do you wish to outline it?"

            "Me?!? er…" Clockwork stammered, then took a steadying breath, "Alright."

            "Very well, Clockwork Key, please speak freely," Celestia prompted.

            "Our conjecture was simply about what the Imps were," Clockwork started, "Our personal conclusion, between the four of us, was that the Imps were likely a space-faring race from potentially beyond the Deeper Darkness we see about Equestria. There appears to be no room in their bodies for lungs or stomach. We concluded that, as we were told before, Imps feed on magic to sustain themselves while in the darkness beyond our world."

            "This parallels what our scientists have concluded."

            "Our conclusion was this must mean they are a native race, not created by the Nightmare as some ponies believe. This could mean that they were altered from their more peaceful existence by the lure of Nightmare herself, signifying a large source of magic for them to feed on, and in exchange she used that magic to twist them into her servants."

            "Again," Celestia said softly, "your conclusions match that of our scientists."

            Clockwork took a slow breath, "Then we questioned how they would reproduce. Our conclusion was that the Spy Imps, as we've taken to calling them, are in fact their young. They are well suited for hiding so they can collect enough magic to fuel their eventual launch into space, where they begin the next cycle of their lives. While this was pure speculation on our part, it seemed to make sense to us."

            Celestia looked to her sister for a moment, then let out a slow breath, "Yes, that is the conclusion I feared you had reached."

            "Princess?" Spectrum asked gently.

            "We have been hiding this conclusion for fear of what it would cause amongst the ponies in general, and the Agency in specifically," Celestia said softly, "Many a pony would find themselves unable to combat the Nightmare if they knew they were potentially fighting foals."

            "Then you knew?" Clockwork asked softly.

            "We know nothing for sure, for we only just recently discovered the existence of these Spy Imps," Luna added, "But Celestia and her scientists suspect it, many of whom followed the very same theories you have had."

            "Wait, they're RIGHT?!?" Pyre demanded, motioning wildly to Clockwork and the rest of the team.

            "We do not know if they are right," Celestia said softly, "But we do not know if they are wrong either."

            "Children on the battlefield," Flourish said softly, her voice uncharacteristically harsh, "One more crime for the Nightmare to pay for."

            "She would likely take pride in it," Luna said sourly.

            "All the more reason we must win," Celestia said, her voice swelling, "A monster such as this cannot be allowed to continue to pervert life in this manner. My little ponies, allow this evidence only to steel your resolve to the path you have chosen. You are the shield to protect ponies, gryphons, and everpony else over the entirety of Equestria. You are the spear with which to strike back against the Nightmare who would seek to subjugate this world as she has these formerly peaceful creatures from the deeper dark. Do not let new evidence of her atrocities stay your hoof, but use it to harden your resolve. You work towards the end of the Nightmare that has plagued Equestria for two generations. More horrors of the Nightmare stand to be exposed when you finally breach her citadel, but know you not only carry with you the hopes of all of Equestria, but the future freedom of an entire race we did not even know existed prior to this…"

            "Um… Celestia?" the younger sister gently interrupted.

            Celestia blinked as she looked at the six ponies gathered before her, each looking at her with slightly puzzled expressions, and dipped her head, "Too much?"

            "Too much."

            "You've been avoiding me."

            The voice caused her to jump, and the grey mare spun around on the foal that snuck up on her. She was surprised to see Clockwork standing there, her head cocked slightly to her side. Flourish forced herself to relax from the fighting stance she'd adopted by reflex.

            "Hello there!" Flourish offered with a broad grin and an exaggerated bow, "What can Flourish do for you?"

            "Well Flourish can tell me why she's avoiding Skillet," she answered.

            The grey mare felt her smile twitch slightly, but held it in place, "Whatever do you mean?"

            "Skillet's an old friend of the family," Clockwork stated, as if Flourish would forget, "Which means we talk a great deal. When we came back a few days ago and you were in the hospital, he rushed to try and catch up with you. You vanished, literally, before he could talk to you. When I went to lunch, you were missing as well, hiding once more from Skillet."

            "What, Flourish can't have her privacy from time to time?" she sniffed.

            "You're starting to sound like Tome, talking in third person like that."

            Flourish winced, but carefully covered it with a laugh, "Well, I guess I slipped a little bit. But still, she was a show-pony too, so it stands to reason we'd share some traits."

            "Something's eating you," Clockwork said evenly, "Now this isn't my usual sort of thing, I'm not the sort who is good at taking the initiative with other ponies, but I'll admit I'm a bit worried. You and Skillet were damned near inseparable, and now you're avoiding him? That doesn't make sense."

            Flourish looked Clockwork in the eyes for a moment, "My dear, there are a LOT of things you don't know about me."

            "Then tell me."

            "I would rather not," Flourish answered with a sweeping bow, "Some secrets I wish to stay a secret. Adieu." A pink explosion of smoke surrounded the mare in question, but for once her teleport didn't happen as planned, and she felt a YANK on her tail pull her back.

            The pink and purple swirled tail was held firmly in the clawed hand of Filigree, who was looking at the pony with a bemused expression, "That's why she asked me to help. Besides, I can see it in your eyes, you're a warrior. That means you aren't going to respond like other ponies."

            "What do you know about warriors?" the grey pony hissed.

            "I know that's how I was trained," the gryphon answered simply, and glanced to one side. Galaxi appeared from a darkened doorway, and the grey pony could guess that Spectrum had joined them as well, surrounding her.

            "So you're ganging up on me now?"

            "No," Spectrum answered softly, "We're your team. We're your friends, I hope, and your family. I know I'm the new filly here, but we're all worried."

            Flourish looked around, looking to each filly sharply for a moment, "Are you so eager to push past the filly I prefer to be to see what I once was?"

            "Honestly, I'd be willing to let you adopt the face you feel is best," Filigree supplied, "But when it threatens to harm the team, then it becomes the concern of the team."

            "How, exactly, have I hurt the team?" Flourish demanded.

            "You haven't… yet," Galaxi answered, "But I can sense the pain just below the surface. It's getting worse. I didn't used to be able to feel it from you, and now it's so strong that it paints every action you take, every joke you make, with tears. It's getting worse, and I don't know why."

            "I have a guess," Clockwork answered, "Skillet, formerly Ironjaw."

            "You seek to analyze the clown?" Flourish demanded, her voice cracking, "Can any pony know what goes on beyond the make-up? What hides behind the smile? Who is the clown when the make-up comes off?"

            "She's a mare," Spectrum said softly, "Just like the rest of us."

            Flourish's head snapped up and focused on Spectrum for a long moment, her eyes watering in a vain attempt to hold back tears, "The tears of a clown are said to be the saddest in the world. Would you be so quick to draw them forth if you knew the pain they held?"

            "If we knew what they held, we wouldn't be here right now," Spectrum said softly, moving a step closer.

            The grey pony flinched slightly and gave a mirthless laugh, "So be it. Let us relocate from this hallway then, the cafeteria should have enough room."

            Flourish simply began to walk, not questioning the rest of the group would follow. Filigree let the tail slip from her claws and got to her feet, leaning close to Spectrum.

            "You sure about this?" she asked in a whisper.

            Spectrum just smiled reassuringly, "You said once that I take on too many problems that aren't my own. This is what I'm good at."

            The quartet of mares filed into the cafeteria behind the lead pony, an oddly deflated looking Flourish. To the ponies assembled, it seemed as if her soft grey coat was the color of an angry storm-cloud, and her pink and lavender mane somehow looked drab and flat compared to just moments ago. Still, without being bidden, the mare spun to face the quartet, her eyes partly hidden by her mane as she took a slow breath.

            "You want to see past the clown? Then let's peel back the layers, shall we? It's really too bad Tome isn't here, she's a much better storyteller then I am," she laughed humorlessly, "But there is a reason the Princess has never uttered my name. Princess Luna knows me better then any other pony in this room, even if she has gone to great lengths to hide that association so that she does not appear to be playing favorites.

            "My name, such as it is, is Thistle. This is a name long forgotten by many ponies. Years ago I was an idealistic and energetic filly who was signed up for military service. That's right, little ponies, Thistle was in the Royal Guard. Her faded green coat is long gone, isn't it? How about her mane of fire red streaked with silver? Yup, that's gone too. I looked a lot different then I do now, but I had a talent, and a cutie-mark. A rapier… a war-time cutie-mark. Guess what that gets you? Drafted. See this cutie-mark right here? That's not the one I earned, but it's close. So I learned how to fence with my horn, and was extremely talented with it.

            "Do you know what happens to ponies drafted into the royal guard? Stallions and mares each end up magically colored to match their chosen Princess as part of the swearing in. Celestia always has white ponies with golden armour. Luna has dark grey ponies with silvery manes and tails… guess what my coloration is? That's right, dark grey with silver mane and tail. How's that for a deep dark secret? I DYE my mane and tail!!" and the pony let out a bitter laugh.

            "Flourish…" Clockwork started, but Flourish threw up a hoof.

            "You wanted the story!!" she thundered, "Now stay silent and listen to it!!"

            Clockwork recoiled, and only when Flourish was satisfied with the silence did she continue, "A Royal Guard, that's what I was. Not the high ranking special unit, the Equestria Stars, but Royal Guard none the less. Nightly I was up and around, escorting Princess Luna through the streets; she did so love the nightlife. Sometimes we did missions for her. Since I didn't have wings, I had to catch a chariot, but there were all sorts in the guard, and that doesn't matter. But our jobs were important; we had to protect the Princess. The imps were out to get her… to steal her away from us…

            "But did they remember the others they were out to get?!? NO!!! I lived right here in Canterlot, born and raised. I even started seeing a stallion in my time off. Head over hooves in love, cute little filly that I was. He was a local Deejay for some club or another, whichever was paying the most bits at the time. But we had similar shifts, and he had these lovely fetlocks….

            "But my duty was to the Princess. I had to put her even before my own life, didn't I? What about the life of someone I loved? I got that answer soon enough, when the Imps tried to invade Canterlot. I'm sure you remember it… I know I do. I was home, my day off, when I was suddenly recalled. I had to leave my parents, I had to leave my love… for what? The Imps never even TRIED to reach the Princess… but my family… everypony I cared for and loved… GONE! Erased off the face of Equestria. That's when my 'special' gene woke up, and I got a revamped cutie-mark. I was a late bloomer, wasn't I? Most ponies discover it before they're even out of school, for me… it took KILLING EVERYPONY I LOVED!!!

            "But that wasn't good enough! Being a special meant I couldn't be part of the Royal guard anymore… I had to become an Agent in Luna's pet project," the mare looked down at the floor and wiped her face, as if realizing for the first time her face was covered in tears, "So I was reassigned. I really don't blame the Princess for this. It wasn't anypony's fault, not even my own. My power showed up late? Great! I could save other ponies from this pain!! No, I couldn't mope about, I couldn't let this pain eat away at me. It would destroy me! I've seen it destroy other ponies, I would NOT be like that!!"

            "What changed?" Spectrum asked gently, stepping forward until she sat right before the grey mare. Clockwork instinctively reached to stop her, but Filigree just shook her head and made a shushing gesture.

            "Ironjaw," Flourish answered, "Old feelings woke up. I always told myself I'd never fall in love again, I'd never let myself fall for a stallion, or mare, again. Hey, I'm an equal opportunity freak. But that big metal stallion… woke those feelings up in me. At first I thought he'd just be fun to joke around with, to hang out around, and now… I can't look at him without feeling other things too. I encouraged it, he was perfect, that metal shell meant I couldn't loose him like I lost those others before."

            "But he got hurt!" Flourish scrubbed at her face, "That… FLANKHOLE got hurt!! I thought I could handle it… I tried to be there as he recovered… but I… I keep getting scared. I'm scared I'll get close again and… and…"

            Spectrum took the hint and leaned close, hugging the other mare. For a moment Flourish tried to pull away, but seemed to loose the battle against herself, and wept openly on Spectrum's shoulder. Clockwork quickly got up and added her forelegs to the mix. She was followed shortly by Galaxi. Filigree felt silly, but something told her this was important, and she carefully added her own forelegs to the mix, using her wings to shield them all in a steel-feathered dome.

            Thistle, feeling drained, just cried.

MLP (c) Hasbro

More exposition, yay!

I technically should have included the starting segment with last chapter, but it didn't hit me until after I put up 15.

As always, feedback and comments are appreciated and highly encouraged.

- Polecat
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block1431 Featured By Owner Jul 18, 2012
*sniff* group hug? Group hug!
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Jul 18, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist

- Polecat
Nova225 Featured By Owner Aug 28, 2011
... Ah, some characterization for 'Pyre'. I was previously wondering if some of the new (well... the only ONE that apparently survived ?) member(s) were going to be just side-characters or more ...

>"NOW young filly!!" the other mare reared, and promptly chased a laughing Clockwork out of the lab
-Heh, some good light moments. Always nice to see some, from time to time.

>"On the nose," Clockwork grinned
-Honk! (It had to be made ;))

>"Sacrifice to rescue your friends is very much worthwhile. I don't know about glorious, but it is honorable."
-Then it is not ''suicide'', as she just said it herself.
It's odd that Key is talking about *self-sacrifice* (and self-sacrifice, in itself, doesn't mean a mandatory death-sentence, by the way), and yet she seems to be trying to make it look like she's talking of ''suicide'' instead, for some reasons ?

>"But what about lack of air? Or intense cold away from any sort of light?"
-Didn't seem to bother Luna... much... back in the day, when she was on the Moon. But, they probably don't really know about the old tales...

>to allow them to exist in the deeper darkness beyond Equestria.
-Why does she say that, as if she was speaking of the planet ?
Equestria is a country, both in the series and in almost every stories out there...

>"They're sending their young to spy on us…"
>"…and we're killing them."
-Boohoo... Killing those who are trying to murder you and annihilate your entire species and probably the world itself...
Hopefully, they aren't gonna cry over that forever ?
With 'Nightmare', it's not like they much of a choice anyway.

...Heh. Filligree ''showing-off'' her metal-wings, in front of another (male) griffin, to get his attention ;). (Kinda reminds me of bird species doing simillar things, with shiny objects.) ...

>"Now you're just teasing me." >"Is it working?" >"Yes."
-Well, it seems those 2 are gonna have plenty of funny-silly interactions too :). (Key and Galaxi being the first duo, though of a slightly different kind...)

>You are the shield to protect ponies, gryphons, and everpony else over the entirety of Equestria.
-Again... country, not PLANET !
There can be many (more than 1...) countries on that ''disc''-world of yours, you know ?

>That's right, little ponies, Thistle was in the Royal Guard.
-GASP ! ...wait ? So what ? I don't quite see how being a royal guard, in itself, could be a ''terrible'' thing.

>How's that for a deep dark secret? I DYE my mane and tail!!
-I must say that I fail at seeing ANYTHING that could be perceived as something ''bad'' to be kept secret, so far ?

>That's when my 'special' gene woke up >for me… it took KILLING EVERYPONY I LOVED!!!
-Ah, right... I was starting to wonder if anything bad had really happened in her life.
(I think it's the way she reveals the previous things that, kinda, minimize the impact of her 'revealation'.)
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 29, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Barricade survived too, but she lost a leg in the process.

Heh. CW and Gal having fun. Honk indeed.

I was coming at it from a different angle, I suppose.

Admittedly, Luna is a Princess-slash-Goddess, so conventional rules don't apply to her. ;)

You're thinking a slightly different route then I am in this case. I pegged Equestria as the name of the world, not the name of the country. If anything, I imagine there really can be only one "country", since there are kinda a pair of Goddesses ruling over it who raise the sun and the moon and stuff. Kinda hard to stand against that.

Filigree and Rainbow Star clicked, I agree. It actually wasn't planned, but just sorta happened as I wrote. And yes, that was a Wing-boner joke...

There can be, but admittedly that wasn't how I conceptualized it.

As for Thistle, yeah, I chose an odd tact for her revelations. But honestly, it felt like "her" too, to take that method of toning it down and simply ranting the way she did, almost like a show-pony there. Despite the lowered impact, that's how her personality dictated it to me.

- Polecat
Nova225 Featured By Owner Aug 29, 2011
For Flourish's revealation, how I saw it as I read, it was like :
-''I was once a Royal guard !!'' / *Dun-duun DUN*
-''I dye my hair !!!'' / *DUN-DUUUN DUN !*
-''Oh, and I became 'special' when my familly was brutally murdered.'' / *quiet pouet sound*
It seemed/sounded like the first 2 things were far more ''grave'' than the last one.

For the world... well... meh, anyway. Here's a pretty awesome map, if you are curious : [link]
(It's well drawn, and regroup information from various stories, in a rather accurate way, with just a few compromises. It's the best one out there, so far at least.)

Just to be sure...
I saw the Let's Play of Discworld 1 and 2 (it was a while ago), and... wasn't there more than one ''country'' (as far the 'zones of population' could be called), in the games (mostly the second one, since you go outside the city in this one) ?

To add just one final thing.
Celestia and Luna are ONLY the ruler of Equestria(nation), and when it comes to controling the movement of the Sun&Moon, it's essentially there Eternal Duty, a responsability they have/took... not really a mean to allow their reign or a weapon(or at least it shouldn't be).
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 30, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I meant the first two to be more humorous, while the last one to be serious. Flourish is still the "clown".

I've seen the map before. And while helpful with names, it's not exactly how I envisioned the world and lands.

I actually never played Discworld, or read the books. I just liked the idea.

Again, you're taking it differently than I've been writing it. For the world I've been working with, Celestia & Luna have stewardship over the celestial bodies AND the planet. Not one or the other, but BOTH.

- Polecat
TillsterRulz Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2011
I sense a lack of Skillet in this chapter, but then you added in more Flourish/Thistle, so I guess that evens it out.
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 28, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Not everypony can get the spotlight all the time, ne?

- Polecat
TillsterRulz Featured By Owner Aug 28, 2011
True, but I would love a chapter with lots of Skillet D:

Anyways, this chapter helped me clear out A LOT of things.

I feel bad for Pyre, her powers seem to be holding her back or something of that nature.

And poor Thistle D: I feel bad for her, it also seems like her powers are holding her back from her normal life. Hopefully it will be resolved (If not I shall do horrid things).

Please keep up the surprises, I'll be looking forward to the next chapters as always.
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 28, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
*chuckle* Seems like Skillet is an interesting character for you. ;)

Pyre... well, from a "normal" life maybe. But in her case, she's also dealing with a major loss.

Thistle... I'm not sure it's holding her back. More that she adapted, but her past is holding her back from opening up.

Anyway, glad you're enjoying it. :)

- Polecat
Chill-penguin Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2011
is thistle related to pinkie pie? i cant help but feel she is.

I mean she teleports, often talks about parties and having fun. I cant shake the vibe. even if im totally wrong.

Although i suppose she could represent the element of laughter without being related to pinkie. I suppose spectrum is loyalty, hinted at when she wouldnt allow clockworks accusations to affect her opinion of ultrapony. i cant place the others right now, but ill figure it out!!!! YOU'LL SEE...YOU'LL ALL SEE!
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
*LOL* I'm not going to give away future plot-points. However I will state one thing... you're only half right. ;)

- Polecat
Chill-penguin Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2011
but i made three guesses there, hmm, you have perked my interest. also how do you feel about sidestories? i was playing with an idea concerning someone elses oc, who would have quite a different backstory if she existed in your universe.
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I have no problem with side-stories. Just understand that I have my own path set aside for the story, so there may come about conflicts when I don't share all of my "ultimate plans"....

- Polecat
vVKaptainVv Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2011
SummerPwny is right. "The tears of a clown are said to be the saddest in the world." If you only knew just how much those words held for me. This is now in my list of quotes I never want to forget, tied at the top with "If I wrote an autobiography, would it be in the fiction section?" Your background chapters are well done, and I actually find myself looking forward to the next chapter instead of the next action scene: a rarity in itself.
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
*bows* Thank you. I'm glad you're enjoying them as I have been writing. As for the quote, I'm, surprised it was so popular, but I am flattered.

- Polecat
aroras Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Artist
... What's Spectrum's power again? Making rainbows doesn't seem like something to get her on the team. Also, did flourish's cutie mark change when she got her power? This is such a great story and it irks me when I don't get things like this.
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Spectrum is stronger and faster then other ponies. Flourish's cutie-mark did indeed change when she gained her power, altering from a simple rapier mark to a rapier with a pink cloud backing it.

- Polecat
aroras Featured By Owner Sep 2, 2011  Hobbyist Artist
heartsvenom Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
I'm Liking Filigree more and more.
This chapter makes me feel bad for pyre, losing your only friends would be devastating for anypony.
And again for the 15th time... amazing story looking forward to next chapter.

Oh, One more thing, i hate your ending.....for the reason that it ended =P
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
*LOL* I've gotten that twice with this chapter. Maybe next time I should forgo the action parts and just write the team sitting around and talking all the time. ;)

- Polecat
heartsvenom Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
Lol. And I would still read it. >.o
SummerPwny Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
"The tears of a clown are said to be the saddest in the world. Would you be so quick to draw them forth if you knew the pain they held?"
i liked that. alot.
these background story chapters are growing on me, or maybe it's the characters. i want to know More!
now the feeling was just right.
i needed this.
and i got it.
thank you.
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I get a lot of positive comments from chapters like this. It surprises me sometimes, because I worry that they are taking away from the action. ^_^

Glad you enjoyed it.

- Polecat
Camaricangirl Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
ooh new team (mostly) time for a new character analysis
yay for character development!!

Clockwork: my last observation still stands except there is also a strong sense of loyalty as well as the brutal honesty she is a very strong pony in her own right physically as well as emotionally something like the loss of tome and Ironjaw's injury would have broken a lesser pony prepare for angry fans if you remove her from the team for good ^^

Galaxi: again my last observation still stands but the innocence is beginning to crack and fall away despite this the new galaxi that is rising from the ashes of her innocence is stronger and more confident this is good

Ember Spark aka Pyre: a wild card if i ever saw one her unstable emotions could make her a liability unless someone finds a way to tame the inferno she is hurting because all life has ever done for her is take things away she needs someone to rely on massive amounts of friendship are needed her methinks

Thistle aka Flourish: much like Ember and Pinky Pie she is hurting and like Pinky she is also very insecure i noticed her entire manner of speech changed when she was confronted to a pattern that resembled Trixie's. this pony needs to be shown that it's okay to let people in. on an offhand note what color was Thistle's coat and mane before she was drafted?

Rainbow Star aka Spectrum: She seems very nice much more humble than her father also very straight forward and honest i like that. She also seems to be good at reading people although i suppose it helps that she knew her father very well. who was her mother though? did she grow up without one?

Filigree aka Steelwing: Reminds me of Twilight because of how socially awkward she is then again that might be because she was a slave rather than because she was a bookworm but the similarity is still there even though she seems to be having trouble adjusting she still seems to be protective of the team despite her defensiveness
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Yay, character analysis!! Always fascinating to see how close I am portraying these characters to how I see them in my head. ;)

Clockwork: Nice. I've got her close to where I want her.

Galaxi: Again, this is close to where I want her. She's shy, but she's no Fluttershy. ;)

Pyre: Dead on.

Flourish: That was the point of that vignette at the end where she cracked. Most readers took her for a very light-hearted character, so it was time to give her a serious side as well. I just want to avoid making her angsty, so the fact she's willfully being happy-go-lucky struck me as appropriate. As for her colors, I mentioned she had a faded green coat and fire red with silver streaked mane and tail before she was drafted.

Rainbow Star: I made a point not to reference the mother because she really didn't know her mom. It was one of Ultrapony's random "conquests" and he took responsibility for her. The elder Twilight Sparkle acted as a sort of surrogate mother for Star.

Steelwing: Comparing her social awkwardness to Twilight is interesting, and a perspective I hadn't considered. But yes, she's warming up to the ponies herself. However she's a little... stoic. In my mind, I frequently compare her to Worf from Star Trek TNG.

- Polecat
Camaricangirl Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
1-3 hehe i love being right i compare them to The Six because that's our starting point therefore i try to relate who you have on the team back to them hence the fluttershy/galaxi comparison

with flourish you hit just the right note she has the right amount of serious and depressed without being angsty. I saw through the light hearted facade early on and wondered why she was trying so hard to hide her pain, now we know

well at least Sunset took responsibility for his actions even if he did keep her hidden away
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Don't worry, I still have a few surprises in that vein up my sleeve. Heh Heh Heh. ;)

Thank you. That Flourish vignette was difficult to write, and was driven entirely by the character's "voice" as I heard it. She took me down that road, not the other way around, so I am glad I hit the proper balance.

Aye. One of the truly rare times Sunset Sparkle did the right thing.

- Polecat
Camaricangirl Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
you write like that too? I know what you mean letting the character lead rather than you can be hard sometimes especially with emotional scenes but they usually turn out ok in the end because it sound natural rather than forced

anyways good job on this chapter i can't wait to see how you will continue to flesh out these newer characters my next character analysis will probably be for chapters 17-24 cause i think this is fun
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I've found it more important to let the characters "take the lead" in every major interaction. I find I can't always do that in action scenes, but otherwise...

17-24? No offense but... well I know this story doesn't go on THAT long. ;)

- Polecat
Camaricangirl Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
you never know I've seen story's that have upwards of 80 chapters so yes next one will either be at Ch. 24 or the last chapter which ever comes first you seemed to be at mid plot for this one therefore by my reasoning the next few will be reaching the climax and I'm getting off topic anyways forgive a fan for wishful thinking but you will indeed get one final one of these at the end of your story be afraid be very afraid XD
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Actually, the fact I've already written the future chapters and know where the story ends helps. ;)

- Polecat
(1 Reply)
Levia-the-Dragon Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
Hrm, interesting thoughts on the imps... and I guess now that Flourish/thistle has faced up to things, she might be able to move on.

Pyre still strikes me as a hell of a liability though, very unstable.
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
You'll see a bit more on Flourish "moving on" later in the story. As for Pyre.... I won't ruin future plot points. ;)

- Polecat
Levia-the-Dragon Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2011
Mmm, if they can get back Tome, she'd be far more suited, godhood and all...
Pyrox90 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
Nice chapter, hated the ending... with all the nothing-more-to-read-atm-ness... ugh, i hate most endings ;p
Might just be me with my bad memory but do you think you could include some sort of re-cap in the beginning of the stories?
Keep up the awesomeness^^
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I will admit that this ending was a bit more abrupt than my usual.

As for the recap, I've been avoiding doing that because it would take up a LOT of space with something most already know....

- Polecat
kotmorda Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
Well we got some backstory and then some.
And THE TEAM is more and more like Ragtag Bunch of Misfits.
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Any team are a ragged band until an effective leader makes them more....

- Polecat
DarkonShadows Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
I love exposition and some really good stuff it is.

Today with Darkon Arters Shadows is the lesson on incredible ability of literal 'fire' power. There are several known methods for creating fire, biological (Like dragons or the very interesting Pistol Shrimp), Chemical (Napalm, could also be true of dragons), Magical (Lighting ice cubes on fire without them melting for a interesting drink, again dragons could feasibly do this) and pyrokinesis. (The ability to draw physical fire from one’s mind and or heart, something that is usually given to characters that aren't dragons, then again...)

The point I'm going to get to here is just how powerful a 'fire' power can actually get. I'm going to use two examples of 'fire' power that are downright lethal to everyone but the user, without it have to actually be directed at anyone personally.

The first example is the ability for a person to create deserts from heat alone. The only thing the user would need is the ability to flair out enough power like Liz Sherman from ‘Hellboy’ constantly for a matter of at least two hours and everything that does not have a severe immunity to fire is going to have a bad day if they are not very far away from the epicenter. (Princess Celestia could turn the entire planet into a desert. Luna could inversely restore the world by controlling the planets water with her moon or she just flood the world and hope for the best after it's scorched. They did make Equestria once and they can just as easily unmake it.)

The other ability is for a person to possibly create a small scale ice age. All the user has to do is be able to absorb enough heat or draw enough to themselves and the area that is not close to the towering inferno created will freeze over. (I'm thinking anime movie Steamboy where the steam castles ices up everything, 'Red Star' from teen titans could also effectively create a nuclear winter depending on interpretation used.)

Enough of that, I have to say Flourish's story sounds kind of sad; like watching a Kikoskia starting a terror mission in one of his X-com let’s plays, which I have to say she really needed that group hug.

Pyre is worse off as her powers are controlled by her heart as much as they are her mind and she kind of can't have hugs because of it. (Body immune to volatile fire; mind burnt by guilt, a heart that fans the flames of the power and a spirit that burns its strongest... before it completely snuffs out.)

Nice bit of disturbing story about the imps’ origin; there are plenty of disturbing connotations behind all of this, including the fact that Nightmare Moon has a 'supposedly'(top part of a list of my favorite words) unlimited power source to which she can keep the imps under wraps. The problem is that Nighmare Moon cannot personally use the elements of harmony herself, she has to steal the energy as much as she’s willing to in a safe; for her, manner. I'll also conjecture that they; the imps, don't always consume magic in a normal way, as they can be possibly killed with it.

Last thought: Celestia's speech isn't very inspiring, given the circumstances. I've read 'Ender's Game' game, children on the battlefield is not as ludicrous as it sounds to me. Forcing them to grow up that fast and to innovate to obscene levels kind of reflects to what the imps are doing here. I forgot to ask, are beam imps less capable underwater?

Also it has been confirmed as of late that MLP season 2 is upon us watchers, also that Celestia had a techno-magical doorway to a hidden room but thats about it. Do you have any idea how long it takes me two write one of these comments compared to how long it took me to read the story?
TCPolecat7 Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
If I had to guess, these responses take you almost as long, if not longer, than it took you to read the chapter. ;)

Interesting "lesson" on fire powers. I keep it simpler for Pyre, she has the classic "Human Torch" type powers, but with more control over flames, especially drawing heat from ambient sources. The downside is she can't truly shut it off, which can make things difficult. A friend suggested she probably only gets enough water to drink because she has a ceramic straw. ;)

Flourish's story is a little sad, yes. But she's made the literal choice not to dwell on it. But even then, sometimes it comes back to bite you in the flank when you least expect it.

Pyre has... problems, yes.

The Imps... I planned to reveal more about them, but finding the right way to do it took me longer then I expected. And imps CAN be killed by magic, if you overwhelm their natural ability to "eat" and absorb it. The normal Imps are attuned to a very low level of background radiation, so they are falling to normal magic attacks. What happens when an imp "supercharges" that aspect... you'll see in later chapters.

Celestia's Speech was a momentary inspiration... and was done for a few grins. I liked the idea of Celestia getting a bit too caught up in the moment and starting one of those "fire them up" type speeches, only to be pulled back shortly into it when she's made aware she's overdoing it. Just struck me as very fitting for Celestia's personality.

You have no idea how thrilled I am about season 2. *bounce bounce* And the beams are just an expulsion of magic, so aside from some distortion in the direction from the water, they would be perfectly capable for use in water.

- Polecat
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