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Alright, I am, right now, at... not a KEY point in the story, but definitely one that could use a little insight from the readers. Oh, and, for those not caught up to Where Night Meets Day, there are spoilers below for chapter 20, so leave now or forever be spoiled.


















Are they gone? Good.

At the point I am in writing the current chapter, I have 2 directions I can go with it. Either I can flesh this one out a little more with a quick scene of Ink Well talking about his travels in little detail, giving some backstory, but leaving most of it for... I don't actually know where to put it in the story, OR I can keep this chapter slightly shorter, but add another one after it that is pretty much dedicated to explaining what kept Ink Well away for 7 years. It's going to be a lot of exposition that will probably end with people going "Why didn't you write a whole story on THAT?" but it'll be much more in depth, at the cost of lengthening the time to the final chapter by however long it takes me to write this new bit in (I have it all fleshed out in my head, just not in any sort of useful form for posting).

I know what way I'm starting to lean, but I figured I want the input of my loyal readers (you know who you are, and you are amazing!) before I went any further.

So, quick backstory in summary form or full backstory in epic story teller mode? Leave your vote below!
  • Mood: Eager
Mature Content Filter is On
(Contains: violence/gore)
She crawled through the tangled underbrush, twigs snagging at the hem of her grey plaid uniform skirt and tearing at her bare legs. She pushed them away, hands sticky with her blood, though they were soon washed clean in the driving rain. The heavy mud squished into her flat black shoes with each step, staining her knee-high socks, but none of that mattered right now. Right now she just had to keep running.
She pushed through the inky blackness of the forest, running from the roaring inferno behind her. A glance back showed her the burning school, a pyre in the night that sizzled in the rain that barred her leave. With her attention lost, she tripped over a stone, tumbling end over end down an embankment, crashing into every bush and rock in the process. She rolled to a stop on hard rough ground as her book bag flew open, the many tomes inside coming to a rest around her. She lay still for a moment, adding her scraped skinny elbow and bruised sides to the running checklist of injuries before trying to brush her soaked black hair from her face. Try as she might, it swung limply before her eyes once more, and she was forced to give up attempting to control it to collect her things.
Books, chalk, boxes of juice, and trinkets and baubles that would confuse even the most eclectic pack rat surrounded her in the darkened forest, and she scrabbled about trying to collect them all with the urgency her running had held just moments before. She needed to keep running, but leaving even one item behind could be a costly mistake she wasn't going to chance.
As she went about her task, a pair of bright lights rounded a corner, illuminating the thin, winding road she had lucked upon and helping her search for her things. The search became frantic moments later as she was torn between her items and a potential rescuer. Standing on the double yellow lines, she jumped up and down, waving her arms to try to get the oncomer's attention.
The rain turned to small spears of light as the vehicle approached, and her arms came down before her, her eyes slamming shut as she tried to protect her injured body from impact. The squeal of wet rubber on asphalt pierced the endless pounding rain, causing her to brace herself further. When she opened her eyes, the vehicle was at an angle before her. The light reflecting off of her soaked white blouse revealed the black and white markings of a police car. Thankful to be alive, she watched the door open, a tall figure stepping out and shining a flashlight in her face. It was hard to make out past the glare, but she thought she saw a uniform and badge.
“What in the hell are you doin' out here? Are you alright?” He was worried and scared, and she didn't blame him, as she motioned hurriedly in the direction she'd come from. She was still being followed, she knew it, from that school manor that she'd...
Her jaw dropped as she looked to the trees, the orange glow of the fire gone, like it had never been. Even in this rain, hard enough to drown out the whoosh and roar of the fire, the glow on the heavy clouds should have been visible for miles. Yet there it wasn't. Heart dropping in her chest, her body likewise dropped to the ground, scrambling on all fours to collect the last of her items. A few things were lost beneath the cop car's tires, but everything else she managed to eventually wrestle into her waterlogged backpack.
The cop had been watching this all quizzically, his flashlight swinging from the strange girl in front of him to the spot in the trees she'd been so focused on previously. When he saw he had her attention, he yelled over the rain, thinking perhaps she hadn't heard him earlier. “Were you being chased by someone? Can you tell me what happened?” She immediately shook her head, making some motion that was lost even feet away in the heavy downpour. Still shaking from her sudden appearance in the road, he knew there was just one course of action to take. “Get in. We'll figure this out at the station.”
For the entire car ride into town she was jumpy in the back seat of the car, constantly rifling through her bag and making saddened faces at the damage the water had done. Officer Lawrence's curiosity was peaked as he checked her in the rear view mirror. She never once made a sound as she looked nervously out of the back of the car, as though watching for something she was sure was out there. No matter how weird her actions, though, Lawrence had vowed to protect and serve the people of Edgewood, and that meant the crazy little girls too. Eventually he decided to ignore her movements, listening instead to the steady hum of the engine as he made his way into town proper.
Edgewood was a small and quiet town, made to roll up shut at 8pm sharp most weeknights, and this one was no exception. If it weren't for the streetlights and the wires barely visible beneath them, it would have been easy to confuse Main Street with the forest roads surrounding the place. There wasn't a single building light to be seen until they pulled up to the Edgewood Police Station, each step sending up a large splash of water as they both hurried their way inside. Both of them were trailing water behind them as they moved through the warm, dry building.
“Hey Richard, could ya please get us a towel?” Lawrence asked the desk clerk as entered the station.
“Sure thing, Law,” Officer Richard replied, heading into the back room. The few other members of the force liked to call Lawrence 'Law' for his zeal at his job. He was still a rookie, barely a 'real' cop for a year now, and he still got excited when a new type of case showed up. He always followed the book, but every so often he'd start looking for crimes that just weren't there.
Richard returned with towels for Lawrence and the girl before going into the break room, figuring Lawrence could take over the front for a few minutes. After they had dried off a bit, Lawrence brought the young girl into the waiting room, looking her in the eyes. “Okay, let's try this again. I'm Officer Lawrence. Can you tell me why you were out there?”
The girl nodded silently, then repeated the motion she had out in the road. It was a request for something to write on. Annoyed by these games, Lawrence tried to pull the notebook out of his front pocket, but the soggy wad of papers barely refused to budge. Instead he had to take one from the front desk, grabbing a pen in the process to hand to the girl.
Immediately she wrote one word, showing it to him as she pointed to herself. 'Mute.' Lawrence raised an eyebrow. “Yer mute?” She nodded, then wrote down a few more notes. 'I'm Cordi. Looking for help – running from fire.' “There was a forest fire out there?” Cordi shook her head, causing Lawrence to look serious. “Well, there ain't anything else out there, so what fire were you runnin' from? I didn't see any fire.” Cordi rolled her eyes and shook her head, then wrote a few more words. 'Safe now. Free.' She smiled at Lawrence, a spark of joy in her eyes.
Unfortunately Lawrence saw other things there. Darker purposes, the kind where a girl runs away from home and becomes an arsonist for kicks. It wasn't something he'd allow in his town, that was for sure. “Do you have parents or somebody we can contact?” Cordi shook her head. She was playing dumb, of course. Lawrence might have never had a case like this before, but he'd read enough detective books to know what to do. “Well, Cordi, I'm gonna have to ask you to stay in the holding cell for the night. You're not under arrest, but I can't just release you until I know you'll be alright, okay? We'll even check on those cuts and bruises in the morning.”
Cordi just nodded, seeming pleased with the outcome as she gave back the notepad and was led to her cell, where she sat wetly on the bench before plopping her dripping bag next to her. He let her keep her stuff. He had to have her trust, after all. Going back into the main room, he spotted something on the floor: his first clue! He picked up the grey plaid tie, noting the small shield on the bottom of it with E.B.A.G. and a picture of a manor on it. On the back, there were two things printed out on a sewn in label. Cordi, just as she had said her name was, with no last name or anything, and a phone number. Grinning to himself at how simple this was, he went behind the front desk, picked up the phone, and dialed in the number.
“Edgewood Boarding Academy for the Gifted, how may I help you?” The voice on the phone was a chipper young voice, answering much to happily considering it was nearly midnight.
Lawrence smirked. This was easier than he'd thought it would be. “Yes, this is Officer Lawrence with the Edgewood Police. We have one of your students here, a miss Cordi, and-”
“Ah, cool, I was wondering where she'd escaped to! She always did go sniveling to others right when the games got fun,” the voice said with a sneer. “And to think, she thought something as small as a fire would stop me. Anywho,  thanks for the information, she'll be taken care of shortly!” Immediately the line went dead, signaling that the girl had hung up.
Lawrence's smirk faded immediately. This wasn't nearly as good a clue as he wanted, and now the case was disappearing behind even more questions! But he did have evidence of a fire, at least. That had to count for something. He took the tie and flopped it wetly over his shoulder, ready to give Cordi a real talking to, even if the school didn't press charges. Come to think of it, he didn't remember there being an Edgewood Boarding Academy for the Gifted, and he'd lived in this town all his life. How could he have missed something like...
He stopped dead at the entrance to the cells, jaw dropping open as he saw Cordi tossing up and lazily catching a tongue of flame in her left hand, her right preoccupied sipping a juice box. With each sip her injuries disappeared, leaving her to idly watch the project in the opposite corner of the cell. A fuel-less fire burned beneath her book bag, quickly removing any water left in it and, presumably, the items inside. Her clothes were already bone dry, though her hair still dripped from the rain outside. When she finally noticed Lawrence, Cordi smiled innocently and waved, the fire in her hand sparking back and forth.
“Witch!” screamed Officer Lawrence in a panic, throwing the damp neck tie at the pyromancer and running outside as fast as his legs could take him.
Cordi blinked in confusion, dropping her finished juice box on the floor. Of course she was a witch, Modern Witchcraft and War Craft had been her second period class for the entire last semester, right after Mercantilism and right before Beating Back Shadows. Although, it was fuzzy... she could have sworn her last year's classes were Mud, Hacking, and Art, but she could remember every day so clearly. Sometimes more than once.
She shook her head, trying to beat back the pounding headache the juice boxes could never cleanse. She was free of that wretched school. Free of the dreary grey halls abandoned months ago by the teachers and staff. Free of the rabid children and their foul creations... She'd made sure of that, burned it to the ground as Regan laughed among the ashes. The cruelest and most popular girl before the teachers disappeared, she'd come to power in their absence and ruled the school with an iron fist. Yes, there were roaming cliques and clans of bullies, but every one of them bowed in deference to Regan's vicious rule.
But that was over now! Cordi hopped up from the prison bench in glee, silently bouncing in place and ignoring the throbbing in her skull. Maybe, for once, she could finally live a worry free life, free from the torment of the cursed academy! If she had any clothes but her uniform, she'd have tossed it in the fire, but since even the school frowned upon nudity, she kept it on, noting the lack of her tie. For a second she delighted in the thought that her neck was already free, but a quick glance around the cell showed that its prison had followed her, slapped in a wet corner where the officer had thrown it.
She picked the tie up, hanging it over the fire she had set in the corner when she remembered what was written on the back. The number! If he had called, then maybe Regan knew. They'd come back for her! She could have sworn she saw movements in the forest shadows...
But that was insane! The building was burned down, the phones nothing more than melted plastic puddles in the ashes. Cordi smiled at that thought. Nothing but ashes! In the wake of that cleansing fire, she could finally breathe free.
After drying her neck tie and putting it back on, old habits dying hard, she looked to the front of the cell, wondering where the Officer had gone to in such a hurry. Instead of his grumpy face, however, she saw the notepad she'd been using earlier sitting on the floor. Reaching between the bars she found she was just able to grab it. If she started now, maybe she'd have a good note to explain to him why he shouldn't be afraid. Even if Paranoia had been her second period last semester... No, it was Witchcraft... Hacking?
It didn't matter. With the headache returning she flipped through the notepad, finding the page she'd written on. Underneath, in flowing script, there was more. 'Hello Cordi. It seems I've found you.' Confused as to why the Officer would write something like that, she flipped the page over, only to drop the book with a silent gasp. On the next page was the setup for a game of hangman, the same flowing script beneath the eight letter spaces under the drawing. 'We aren't yet done with our game.'
Cordi kicked the notepad into the fire, watching the pages burn and almost able to hear Regan's laughter in the embers. Her head throbbed and she sank to her knees, old memories battering on the edge of her mind, trying to tell her something. Trying to remind her of her collection, of the fires she'd set before, of the countless times she'd heard that laugh before. Trying to remind her this had all happened before.
As she sank to her knees the twisting halls of Edgewood Academy laid themselves out before her. From that bookshelf she had pulled herself out from under mere hours ago, gathering what books she could and setting off. But after that it always changed: doors where there were only walls, stairs to nowhere replaced with hidden passages, monsters and children more beast than person tearing at her, launching magic, falling to her fire... and killing her.
Tears began to stream from her eyes as memory after memory flashed. Death after death, by fire, by fang and beak, by vicious beatings and falling lumber. By sneak attacks from classroom desks, by clocks gone mad and deadly, by her own hand, and that of a copy superior in every way. And, more times than she could count, by Regan's cruel laughter and crueler illusions. Tens, dozens, hundreds of deaths, the pain tearing through her, her strength giving out each time. And she always awoke in the classroom, under the bookshelf, the same day old Mr. L had disappeared...
But was it the same day? Her memory was that the teachers had only left earlier that day. She was sure of that. Just this morning she'd watched Mr. L walk from the room, Regan looking around the room with a cruel smile before she made her move. But her rule was long standing and established, far more than could be done in a day. According to her memories, there was no way the school had been abandoned for months, yet the way the school had looked and the children had acted... It couldn't have been...
Officer Lawrence came around the corner of the hall, uniform dripping from a new coating of rain as he aimed his gun at the shaking girl trapped in the jail cell. “Don't you move, Cordi, or I swear I'll fill ya full of daylight faster than you can blink.” A few more tears dropped from Cordi's eyes as she raised her hands in surrender, wishing now that she could speak, though he would never understand. In class she'd written on chalkboards to get her thoughts across, but now... how could she put into words the state of her mind? The jumble of memories tore at her sanity. How could she even begin to go about asking his help? Her eyes were pleading with him, but she remained as silent as the day she was born, resigned to whatever happened.
“Now I want you to put out that fire in the corner, alright? And then you throw that bag of yours to the door, and no funny stuff!” Cordi nodded, the fire winking out of existence with a wave of her hand. She then slowly got up, keeping her arms raised in surrender until she got to the bag. Surrender had never saved her life before, it had only brought a swifter end in those cursed halls... but if it could set her free, she would do it a million times over.
With one last look at the books that had saved her life this time, she tossed the bag to the jail door, remaining motionless as Lawrence reached in and pulled it out, never once taking his gun off of her. When that was done, he locked her in again. “Now Cordi, you stay right where you are and don't do anything crazy. I'll figure out how to deal with you later.”
Officer Lawrence kept his weapon trained on her all the way to the evidence room, only putting it down once he was safe inside. He didn't know what kind of madness he was dealing with, but it wasn't going to happen in his town, that was for damn sure. Placing the book bag on the table, he started going the items to note down, as was standard procedure. One fabric book bag, grey. One teddy bear, grey, broken. One... err, pile of twisted pipe cleaners. Two juice boxes, Edgewood Academy on the label. Three boxes of Edgewood Academy chalk, twelve piece, all full. Five books, titles: Witchcraft and War Craft, a Modern Guide, To Kill a Rocking Chair, Mercantilism and Counting Your Coin, Advanced Shadow Boxing, Winning the Fight, and Zen and the Art of Pummeling.
He stopped at the books, partially because all that remained after that was lint and partially because they seemed so... fake. The covers were grey, each with their title, then a grayscale picture beneath, and they all had a dusty feeling to them even though they had been soaked by rain and dried by fire. Curious about what he was going up against, he opened up the book on witchcraft only to close it once the swimming words made him sick to his stomach. His mind felt twisted up in knots from only a second of trying to read, and it wasn't unique to that tome. Whatever magic Cordi had worked on her books, she wasn't going to access it now.
Throwing everything in the evidence locker and working off a minor headache, Lawrence went for the break room, hoping a coffee and some aspirin would set him straight. For some reason the lights were off, which was against the rules on its own, but also was strange since he'd yet to see Richard leave the break room. It wasn't unheard of for the desk clerk to take a car and go on the beat when the beat officer came back, but normally they worked it out or talked or something.
Lawrence dragged a hand along the wall, still feeling that same dry dusty feeling from the books as he searched for the switch he'd never had to turn on before. When finally he found it, he flipped it on, then let out a cry at the horrible sight before him.
Swinging from the center of the room on a white rope was Officer Richard, eyes rolled up in his skull, body motionless apart from its gentle sway. The rope around his broken neck came down from the ceiling, seeming to merge into it at the top, where a chalk drawing of a wooden beam went all the way to the wall, then down until it merged into something like a crudely drawn gallows. Every wall, every cupboard, even the refrigerator was covered in more chalk drawings of hundreds and hundreds of hanging figures, so many that it seemed like Richard was hanging in the middle of an endless expanse.
Lawrence rushed to the middle of the room, his wet uniform pressing against his skin as he frantically tried to hold Richard up and get air back into him, but he already knew it was too late. He'd known the moment the light had come on, but he'd refused to believe it. As he climbed on the table to undo the rope, he noticed two things. First, that the rope itself seemed to be made of chalk dust, though sturdy enough for the grisly task it had done. Second, that the wall Richard was facing had eight little dashes, the first two blank, but the next six falling beneath the word ESCAPE.
There was only one escape attempt he could think about and, drawing his gun, Lawrence ran back out into the jail cells, ready for anything. What he got was his fear confirmed. Cordi stood at the far wall, a piece of chalk in hand, drawing something all over the rough brickwork. Immediately the gun was on Cordi again, Lawrence's hands shaking as he barely kept his trigger finger under control. “Don't you dare move and no funny business! Drop the chalk and get on the ground!”
Cordi jumped at the sudden shouted command, looking behind her to see a distraught Lawrence with his gun pulled and tears forming at the bottoms of his eyes. She had no explanation of why he was doing this, but she turned to face him revealing her work on the wall. It was as detailed a list of what she was experiencing, and if he'd just read it, maybe he would understand. She tapped her chalk on one of the maps, hoping to draw his attention from his fear to the wall. A moment later, pain lanced through her writing hand as her ears rang from the gunshot.
Lawrence watched the bloodied chalk hit the ground, not letting that witch to do him what he'd done to Richard without him seeing. “I said get on the ground!” The disjointed fragments of thoughts and strange, twisted maps she'd drawn all over the wall made no sense, but whatever arcane purpose they served, he'd sooner see she never got to use them. He swiveled his gun from her hand to her head, daring her to disobey him one more time. “Down! Now!”
Cordi did as he said, her hand bleeding freely on the cement floor. “Hands behind your head, no sudden movements!” Already wracked by the pain and holding back tears, Cordi moved her hands behind her head, feeling the warm wetness seeping into her hair. “I said no funny business Cordi! Call it off!” Cordi braved herself to look up at him, her fear and confusion showing clearly in her eyes, but he wasn't looking at them.
He was watching her drawings slither across the wall, lengthening and shifting until they turned into a continuation of the hanging field he'd seen in the break room. He had no idea how to stop this, but his quivering hands kept the gun on Cordi, knowing she did. “I mean it, stop all of this right now!” He glanced down at her for a second, then looked again, seeing the true, deep fear in her eyes. Whatever this was, it wasn't her doing it. But then who was?
While the show had been taking place on the wall, lines had been extending from the fallen, bloodied chalk on the ground, going unnoticed as they wound their way across the floor. Cordi had been looking the wrong way, her eyes on Lawrence's face, which is why she had only an instant to react to his startled jump before the ropes were around her body, dry and dusty, yet rough and fibrous like any rope would be. They wrapped around her wrist and ankles, slamming them to the floor before they dragged her bodily towards the wall, leaving behind a trail of oozing blood as she tried to reach out for anything to grab. She even called up fire in her free hand, but it did nothing to ignite the chalk. Fight as she might, the ropes bit against her skin, and she realized she was trapped. There was no escape.
“Very good, Cordi! I knew you'd get it eventually.” Lawrence jumped at the girl's voice, matching the one that he'd heard on the phone. He spun around, and standing behind him was a ghostly figure in chalk, yet as real as him or Cordi. She smiled smugly at him, flipping her chalky hair out of her face. “You see, officer? I told you she'd be taken care of. No way I was going to give up my favorite toy! And she even finished her game before giving up the ghost.” She pointed at the cell, where the eight blank spaces had appeared on the wall, all filled in. NO ESCAPE.
“This is all a game to you? After what you did to Richard?” Lawrence's gun came flush with the chalky hair, then fired, the muzzle flaring. And yet, the chalk girl didn't slump down, nor did Cordi's dragging stop. She just stood there, a condescending sneer appearing on her face.
“You see, this is why I didn't bother getting rid of you. You weren't a threat, and I don't waste time with dumbasses like you. You didn't even try to go in and save her.” Her hand then shot out, grabbing the ring of keys on Lawrence's belt and holding onto them fast as he moved. When Lawrence ran for the door, the key ring slipped right off of him, where the chalk girl twirled it around her finger. “But, just to make sure you don't get any ideas, I'll be keeping these. I'll only need them for a few moments longer.”
Cordi had been able to recognize Regan immediately, watching helplessly as the cruel chalk proxy toyed with Officer Lawrence, her unmistakable laugh ringing out. But Cordi wasn't going to give up without a fight. As she was pulled closer and closer to the wall, the ropes slithering towards an empty gallows within it, she tensed her legs, ready to push with all her might. Even if they tore the skin off her body, she would be free, and then she'd end this madness... somehow. Her feet made contact with the wall and she pushed, only to feel them slip through it, like passing through the surface of water. She looked down in horror as her feet, then her ankles took on a chalk outline, the cold of the world beyond the drawing chilling her with its alien, yet familiar touch. She looked back to Lawrence for help, finding him still staring at Regan. She wished she could cry out, but all she could do was slap her bloody hand on the floor, hoping through the pain that the splashing would somehow get his attention.
Lucky for her, it worked, and Lawrence was watching as a few drops of her blood landed on one of the ropes moving from the fallen piece of chalk to her wrists. Where it connected, the liquid ate through the chalk like an eraser, though the rope was only slack for a moment before it connected itself once more, tightening around her wrists before she could even think about getting away. He looked from Cordi to the smug chalk girl, almost wishing he had his own injury to do the same to her. Except... he didn't need blood. He was covered in wet cloth.
Before Lawrence moved he spit at the chalk girl, causing her laughter to turn into a horrified shriek as the glob of water ate its way through her hair and head. With her distracted, he rushed forward, tackling the chalky form in a full body hug that pressed her against his rain soaked clothes. When he hit the ground, he felt her rapidly dissolve, her voice cutting out and leaving him laying on his key ring. He scrambled to his feet, slipping on the odd chalk puddle beneath him as he ran for the door and unlocked it. He then dived across the cell, barely able to grab onto Cordi's hands as the rest of her body sank into the wall. He had vowed to protect and serve, and all he'd done was lock this innocent girl up, get her hunter on her again, and shoot her. If he had any honor left as an officer of the law, he wasn't going to let this go without a fight.
Cordi grabbed onto Lawrence's hands as hard as she could, her face twisting  in agony as the ropes rubbed her raw, pulling her over her head into the wall. On this side, the cold of Edgewood Academy crept into her bones, the still, stuffy air of the colorless world pressing in on all sides. She could still see him, in glorious color holding her tightly, more real than the ropes pulling her away. He was her escape into reality, and mentally she begged that he could truly pull her free. The very real pain in her hand doubled as he squeezed down, pushing more blood from the wound as he tried to get a firmer grip, and that would prove to be their downfall. In just an instant her hands slipped free, then through the barrier, cutting her off from that real world beyond. She reached out to him as the ropes lifted her up, tying themselves to the gallows. Tears rolled down her face as she watched him pounding on the wall, yelling to her, though his voice didn't penetrate into the twisted reality around her.
She felt the rope burn as it slid around her neck, fitting tightly before snaking up to the grey wood above. As she looked out at Officer Lawrence, she could see him mouthing an apology as he continued to futilely fight for her freedom. She shook her head, smiling sadly as the rope pulled taught and she was lifted higher. Death and failure were nothing new to her. They were all she had known for longer than she could remember. This had all happened before. It'd probably happen again. As the support dropped out from beneath her, she knew there was nothing to be done.
Officer Lawrence could do nothing as he witnessed the ropes drop Cordi, her chalk outline going still instantly, through red dust fell from her bound hands. He pounded on the wall one more time, his wet sleeves failing to erase the scene, no matter how hard he tried. He had failed her, failed to protect or serve... Failed in the line of duty. But the flicker of a thought nudged at him, remembering the dusty books in the evidence locker. Their chalky feeling, the chalky ropes, the chalky girl... Maybe... maybe whatever madness this was could be avoided somehow.
He reached down for the bloodied chalk, looking back to the wall in time to see a great manor rising from the ground behind Cordi. It matched the symbol on her neck tie, the school that wasn't real, coming to claim its student. He didn't know what drove him, but as the manor rose, he put chalk against the brick wall, drawing something simple in Cordi's hanging hand. Just a book, like the ones he had taken from her, in hopes it would do something. Anything.
He stepped back from the wall, breath held as he watched the manor settle into place. Its doors slammed open, thick, tendril like arms reaching out and gripping cruelly at her body, cutting it from where it hung. He watched it pull her inside, a final apology leaving his lips as the doors slammed shut behind her. The second they did, the chalk dust puffed off of the walls, the piece in his hand crumbling to join the dust settling on the floor. Where it met with blood, the dust seemed to soak it up, until nothing was left but a layer of fine white powder on the cell floor. Lawrence sat in the middle of it, wondering if there was anything more he could have done.

The girl awoke under the overturned bookshelf, her entire body aching after the others had attacked her. Still, unlike so many, she had survived the coup following Mr. L's departure. She was going to make the best of it, and she was going to get back at Regan.
She grabbed her book bag, collecting her scattered books from the pile under the shelf, carefully picking her own from the multitudes. It was then that she noticed there was an extra book there. It seemed... different from the others. Somehow more solid, more real. She flipped it over, reading the top cover. Remembrance, by Officer L. In an instant her brain pounded against her skull as memory after memory flooded it. The halls, the monsters, the children, the escape, the policeman... the gallows, and her endless return to where she now stood.
Cordi placed the book reverently in her bag, a pained smile playing across her face as the throbbing headache cleared. So that was why there were no extracurriculars at Edgewood Academy. She peeked out into the hallway, ready for whatever danger lay before her. She wasn't going to thank Officer Lawrence just yet as she started her escape once more. He had given her a key, not a cure. But that key might be just enough to break the endless cycle. With some work, it might just ensure she never swung from the gallows again. It might be enough to defeat Regan's tyrannical rule, if luck was on her side. And she would do everything in her power to make that happen, no matter how many lives it took, no matter how futile the fight.
Slowly approaching the first of the twisted children of Edgewood, she sighed mentally. If she ever got out of here, she made a promise to herself that she'd thank Lawrence in person.
Remembrance
Something a little different, and a Deviant Art exclusive, you lucky devils!

I am currently sitting in on a fiction writing class, for fun, at the local university and this was the first of 3 stories I'm gonna be writing for it. It was in its final form, so I figured why the heck not?

Decidedly non-pony, though bonus points if you can name what inspired it. Also... There may be something with a similar theme coming up if WNMD ever reaches its finale.

The violence is minimal, but there's just enough squik factor to warrant it. If you got through Newsworthy and Deception on the Darkest Night, you can get through this.
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Silver Lining slowly trotted up to the tent lent to the New Lunar Republic behind Fluttershy's cottage. In a much larger pink tent there was laughter and music, the sounds of a legendary Pinkie Pie party, but here the cool winter air took on a feeling of severity, only adding to Silver's apprehension. Was this really a good time for something so unimportant?

Except it was important, if only to her, and so she pressed onwards, knocking on the solid post beside the door flap. “Come in,” came the quick reply in a voice she knew quite well. Even with all the time apart, she could never really forget it. She cautiously stepped inside, heart in her throat as she tried to find the words to say.

The inside of the tent was plain, identical to the outside except for the lack of snow and the addition of a couple cots and a table. A lamp hung in the center of the structure, bathing the interior in an orange glow that complemented its only current occupant. She looked up from the map she was studying, her purple eyes hard and irritated at first, though they softened the moment they recognized Silver. “Oh! I didn't think it was
you! How's the enemy been treating ya, lil' sis?” Scootaloo trotted quickly over to her side, her steps clanking under the weight of her armor.

Silver smiled at the good reception, hugging her 'sister' affectionately. “I've been just fine. Grounded more than I'd like and harassed to no end, but fine.” She would have carried the hug on for as long as she could, to something more deserving of so many years apart, but the armor got in the way of that. Instead she pulled away, doing her best to keep herself level. It was twelve years ago that she'd last seen Scootaloo, over half of her life... But it wouldn't do to start off on the wrong hoof. “Can I sit and chat for a bit? You weren't at the party, but you didn't want to be lonely, right?”

“Of course! Stay as long as you like. Pinkie invited everypony to her party, even some Empire Knights, but that's just her being her. There needs to be some prep before I can throw the night away, though.” Scootaloo gave Silver another quick hug, then offered one of the cots to sit on. Scootaloo sat on the other one, bowing the material beneath her heavy armor. Her eyes ran over Silver's body, a hint of surprise showing in her eyes. “You've gotten so big since I last saw you... I guess time really has been marching on.”

Silver nodded, looking at the first hints of wrinkles around Scootaloo's eyes. “I just turned twenty this year. I wasn't even in the double digits when this all started.”

Scootaloo looked saddened by the information. “Has it really been that long?” She shook her head, looking down at the dirt floor. “I guess that's just one more reason why this needs to end as soon as possible...” She sighed, then perked up again. “How's mom doing? I meant to send a letter at some point, but mail doesn't cross the border easily. Is she still teaching?”

“Every day, or she would be if it weren't break,” Silver confirmed. “Cheerilee's as active as ever, though there's only a couple fillies to teach this year. It's the second year in a row with no new enrollments in the school. Ponies just aren't having many foals lately.”

Scootaloo gave a sorry smirk. “Here too? I wouldn't know too much about it, but apparently the birth rate is waaaaay down in Manehattan and the other cities, too. Though with so many ponies out fighting, I'm not surprised there aren't as many being made at home.” She looked over into the corner of the tent, as though that particular bit of dirt was suddenly very interesting, before rolling her eyes slowly, following the trajectory of her slowly approaching thought. “Sooooo... speaking of, you got anypony special in your life?”

Silver looked at Scootaloo flatly. “Really?”

“What?” Scootaloo said defensively. “Aren't I allowed to be curious?”

Silver sighed. This was as good a time as any. “It just wasn't one of the first questions I expected after my mother's return.”

Scootaloo's eyes narrowed to pinpricks, her breathing visibly increasing in speed. “Did Cheerilee-?”

“I figured it out on my own. Cheerilee doesn't know I know, but she might have a suspicion. She said a few unsubtle things.” Silver was calm apart from her wings, which twitched at her side, betraying her worry. She could see Scootaloo's freakout as much as she could feel her own pounding heart. Still, the news was being taken fairly well.

Scootaloo's ears drooped as she looked at the floor. “You must hate me for keeping it from you this long.”

Silver let out a breath. This was all going smoother than she'd hoped. “No... not at all, really. Cheerilee was an amazing mom, and you had a whole war to go and start. You were too busy to take care of me.”

Scootaloo stood up, fear in her eyes. “No, that wasn't it at all! I just—”

Silver held up a hoof to stop her mother, a gentle smile on her face. “I'm not blaming you or anything, and I got over thinking I was the problem years ago. If I was in your position, I can't say I wouldn't have done the same.”

Silver stood up, meeting Scootaloo halfway and looking her right in the eyes. “Cheerilee was everything I could ask for in a mom, and if you didn't think you could give me that when you left, then I completely understand your decision. I'm not mad and I really don't hate you. It's just, now that the secret's out... I wanted to get to know the real you. Not my busy big sister, but my super important world changing mom.”

Scootaloo's eyes were shining with the promise of tears, not the eyes of a hardened war veteran, but those of a mare not sure if she should be relieved or horrified. “So... you're really okay with all of this? You don't hate me or never want to see me again or anything?”

Silver giggled, wrapping a wing around Scootaloo and hugging her close. “Just don't keep something that big hidden again and we should be good. Though you could visit more often than you did during your guard training.”

Scootaloo smiled warmly, wrapping her own wing around her daughter and leaning into the hug while nuzzling against her affectionately. “You don't know how happy I am, my little Silver Lining.”

Silver disengaged from the hug herself, laughing at the reaction and sudden attention. “I'm sure I can take a guess.” She walked back over to the cot, sitting down quickly before a thought occurred. “Oh, and to answer your question: No, there's nopony special right now. There almost was, but things got complicated and you probably don't want to hear about that...”

“Nope, I don't want to hear about it. I
need to.” Scootaloo sat down on the other cot, listening with rapt attention in a pose Silver had caught herself in more than once. “Now, from the beginning. We've got a lot of catching up to do.”

*     *     *     *     *

Flora wandered haphazardly through town, deliberately trying to avoid anywhere where she might run into somepony she knew or somewhere she'd remember the current situation, but she wasn't having much luck. Everywhere she went, the usually sleepy town of Ponyville buzzed with activity, its ponies atwitter as they recounted the tale for ponies who hadn't seen it or been further back in the crowd. The market was the worst, as were many of the notable 'historic' sites where the Elements of Harmony had spent their time before becoming big deals, but even the edges of town weren't safe, skirted with gawkers or the very armies she was trying to forget about.

The best place to hide in town, it seemed, was the park. With the bare trees and mounds of snow it lacked the springtime flowers or the summer sun that normally drew ponies there. However, even solitude didn't help her efforts in the park, as her hooves inevitably took her past that fateful bush. It was like any other bush in the park, but as a filly she'd heard the story over and over about how her father had tried to sneak out while injured and how her mother had found him sleeping in the park, unable to get much further in his weakened state. It had been a cute story, even the twelfth time she'd heard the darn thing, but that memory was the worst offender right now. It had made her directly think about him.

His arrival had immediately stoked a fire in her chest as he strutted around in front of the strongest ponies in the land as though he owned the place. After all these years, after abandoning her and her mother, after driving off her sister and getting her brother killed, he had shown up like it was nothing. Even if he had left to protect them, even if he had thought the whole time that his actions were just and right, the fact that he had the audacity not to come back groveling for forgiveness...

But Rose had offered it. After everything he'd done, after all of that suffering, the crying, all those nights for years that Flora lay awake in bed listening to her mother sob, unable to do a thing about it, he'd returned and none of it mattered anymore. One slap and the air was clear again.

Flora stomped hard, sending up a flurry of snow as she turned away from the bush, only her honor as a gardener keeping her from trampling it into the dust. All of that pain gone in a single hit? Flora kicked Jazz halfway across a greenhouse and they still hadn't talked to each other. If it hadn't been for the armies meeting, she still wouldn't have seen him since the argument, but they got a happy ending?

For five years all on her own she'd kept the house safe, kept her mother above water, kept Rosewater in business, kept Sweet Apple Acres from stagnating and falling apart, and the only consolation she'd gotten from all of that was the ability to do her own experiments in what little free time remained. She'd been a stranger in the sad, stuffy air of her own home for years, missing out on all that carefree teenage time... How come they got to instantly be happy again? Where was her pony to hold her close and tell her everything would be alright?

She ripped open the door to her greenhouse, slamming it shut behind her and locking it firmly. This wasn't even a place for Silver right now, this was a place for the warmth around her to match the fire in her chest... a fire dangerously close to dying out and letting in that stabbing icy cold once more. Dejectedly she moved to the center of the room, curling herself around the pot that contained her crystal tree. It was the last thing she had, the dampness of tears running down the clay container as she hugged it close, looking up at the two growing buds. One was on the edge of blossoming, filled with life and happiness, but the other remained frozen and still, as locked as the rest of the plant had been. A third bud had even appeared, tiny, hidden under the leaves around it, but even it had shown some growth.

Looking at the frozen bud, she noticed a vein of black appearing in the center of the vibrant green crystal, and it brought her to tears. She was great at growing plants, it was her entire cutie mark! And yet somehow this one was dying before her. Something was eating it alive from the inside, but nobody could help it or tell it why… She knew exactly how that flower bud felt, but she couldn't even begin to think of a solution.

*     *     *     *     *

Rose and Ink Well took the trip from town square to home slowly, moving as though getting more than a few inches apart would be a worse pain than death. Ink Well had trepidations as he embraced his wife with his wing, with his heart fluttering and falling with every few steps, sure that the bliss he was feeling was too good to be true, that all of this had to be a dream. There was no way, in any of the scenarios he'd played out in his mind in the seven years he'd been gone, that she would so happily be under his wing once more. Yet there she was, bringing a warmth to his side more precious to him than anything else in the world right now.

As they turned the corner to their street, beginning the long walk to the house, Rose's head leaned against Ink Well's shoulder, her steps getting even closer to him as they went along. He looked at the top of her head worriedly, seeing a few hairs of her beautiful burgundy mane replaced by grey. The years had not been kind to either of them, and before he could give it a second thought, he gently kissed the top of her head, then leaned his own against hers. She didn't stir, which, he continued to hold in his harrowed heart, was a good sign, but they both began to walk a little awkwardly to keep up the position.

As they reached the door, Ink Well had to pause before it, mind yelling at him not to break the dream. However, the key was in his bag, currently covered by his wife's form, and if they wanted to enter the house, something was going to have to give. He could feel her head turn to the door, her shoulders heaving in a sigh before she lifted herself from him, leaving from beneath his wing to get her key and open the door. He almost stopped her before she completely pulled away, breath held to see if she'd become a changeling or fade into the aether, but she remained herself as she reached the handle, opening up the house he'd left behind.

He'd seen this moment hundreds of times in his dreams, sometimes in spring, with the smell of fresh flowers and butterflies floating through the windows, sometimes in the dead of winter, standing alone in drifts of snow collected on the carpet. More than once the house wasn't there at all, just charred remains smoldering around three charred corpses... Sometimes blood he couldn't stop, or fates worse yet awaited.

Stepping through the door, it was nothing like he had pictured, yet everything he wanted. The house was cold with winter chill, but warm with the slight mess of everyday living. Many of the decorations were gone from the shelves, a crack in the glass of a nearby cabinet showing that the house had not gone unscathed. Even by leaving and doing everything he could to keep them safe, trouble had found them all on its own...

A short growl came from the doorway to the dining room, and as Ink Well looked over, he saw Dot's hairs bristle on the back of her neck. However, after looking at his face, recognition bloomed, and she ran over to greet her master and friend. Or, rather, she waddled over quickly, her aging legs only letting her move so quickly, no matter how quickly her tail wagged. When he had left, she'd still seemed like such a pup playing around her mother's old form... My, how times had changed.

He stood in the living room, slowly looking around at a house he no longer belonged in. Everywhere were little changes, small things that made the place alien to him, until he turned around and saw Rose at the door, a her eyes sad, yet gleaming as she watched him. She closed the door behind her, cutting off the chilled wind before walking past him towards the dining room. “Is there anything you would like? Tea or coffee or something else?”

Ink Well hesitated, watching her go on without him. She knew his preferences still, right? And yet, why should she? He didn't look like the same stallion he was when he left, he couldn't blame her for thinking his tastes had changed too. “Tea, a little honey, some lemon—”

“—and a dash of sugar, of course.” She smiled back at him from the doorway, something warmer and deeper than he imagined he'd see. Though he was happy to see it at all, the memory of those skeletal forms he'd been haunted by for years flashed over her face before she left. He shook his head, dismissing the demon of doubt from his mind before walking into the dining room and taking his seat nearest the door.

As he sat down and looked in front of him, his heart plummeted, quickly trying to drown itself beneath the tears the sight had threatened to spill. A royal helmet, a flag, and a letter leaning against it. He'd carried the letter for over two years, knowing it would have a place of honor when it finally arrived, but never guessing it would be there. In a way, it made sense, as Newsprint was always at the table, but to keep it in such a prominent position still... To have those memories pressing in every day, threatening to take hold, she'd... well, she'd be in the same position he'd kept himself.

Ink Well didn't move to a different spot as he waited for his tea, nor did he shift as it was placed before him, Rose placing her own cup at her chair beside him. Other couples ate across the table, but they were never that far apart. Or, they hadn't been... It was still only hope that made him think it wouldn't happen again. But hope had gotten him this far, so it had to be trusted for something.

He blew the steam off of his tea, then took a sip, eyes closing as the familiar, almost forgotten taste slipped past his tongue and nearly brought him to tears once more. It was just a little too sweet, always just off from right, and at the end there would be a glob of honey stuck to the bottom of the teacup, but it was perfect exactly how it was. He'd never take it for granted again.

“I should've insisted that I take the train.” Those words snapped Ink Well from his memories, causing him to look over at Rose, who watched him carefully. “You could've flown to Canterlot and met me there. We would've met with her together.”

Ink Well sighed heavily, a slow nod showing he'd had that thought too. He'd had hundreds of thoughts on how the night should have gone, but he'd been judged before he even had made his appearance. “I couldn't have carried you out with me and made it to the border, especially not after flying to Canterlot to start, and who knows what would have happened to the kids without their mother?”

“Newsprint would have stepped up to keep them safe, and all of them would have been here for our return.” Rose took a sip of her tea, the matter having been decided in her head many moons ago. “On hoof, slowly, perhaps nursing an injury we got in the escape, but at least together.”

Ink Well smirked at that, warmth flooding his body as he looked at her determined face. “Looking back is always so simple, to the point where one questions how we ever looked ahead. And, as your simple solution shows, we did a poor job of that at the start.” He looked into his teacup, already sadly low considering how recently he got it. He hoped this wouldn't be a recurring theme, but there were still so many things he had to do. Looking at Rose, he began down the list. “I abandoned you. I broke our vow, shamed our family, put all of us in danger, and then vanished without a trace to let you deal with the consequences. My actions caused our son to give his life for a fight he didn't believe in and our daughter to run away from her home into a dangerous land, and you did not get so much as one letter explaining any of it.”

Rose watched Ink Well flatly, the hint of surprise from his initial statement disappearing as he continued his list. When he finished, she was silent for a moment, looking into her teacup, then into his eyes, looking for her answers there. “Is this a confession, an admission of guilt, or an attempt to take the blame?”

Ink Well took a deep breath to calm himself, wishing her earlier warmth would return, but knowing he deserved much worse than he was getting. “All three. I need you to remember and keep those in mind, else I fear you won't judge me as you properly should.”

Rose continued to look at him blankly. “So this is a trial?”

“No more than we've already been through.” Tonight was going to be a long night, but even if it was the only one he ever spent by her side again... at least he'd gotten one last afternoon together. “It all started when I arrived in Canterlot for the Grand Galloping Gala, draft letter in hoof...”

*     *     *     *     *

As the sun began to set Flora set out from her greenhouse, though her destination still eluded her. She couldn't go home, knowing exactly what she'd do when she saw her father and how little her mother would appreciate it. She could have gone to the shop, but for some reason seeing Wind and her friend together just rubbed her the wrong way. Being chased from their homes, hunted across the wilderness, and still they always smiled like everything was going to be okay. Like the world was better just for them being here... It was almost as bad as her parents right now.

She supposed she could sleep in the greenhouse. It wouldn't be the most pleasant place in the world, but it would do. However, after spending so much time curled up around the crystal plant sympathizing with a flower bud, she really didn't want to repeat the emotions if she could avoid it.

Instead she wandered, keeping her mind as blank and free from thoughts she didn't want as she could manage. Instead of focusing on the negative, she tried to pull up a positive image. Something she could truly grab onto and be happy. One piece of good to come out of all of these war torn years.

A stallion standing tall, eyes closed, completely lost to the music he is creating as the flowers behind him glowed and pulsed, the buds enjoying the moment as much as he did. The music ends and the world holds its breath with the reverberations of the final note. There is a gentle smile on his face as he opens his eyes... and there is nothing but anger in them, the flowers behind drooping as he stomps towards her, face filled with hate.

Flora stopped in her tracks, feeling the ice spearing through her heart again. Why did all of her happy memories have to be with Jazz? On the farm, in the orchards and fields, laughing, working, playing. The kiss in the barn as both of their worlds met through music, even the haunting chill of hearing him play in Jennydale... Silver was there for so much, the best and most supportive friend, yet still Flora could only focus on what could have been.

She looked up into the clear cold sky, wondering how the world could stay the same when so much change was threatening to come. Tomorrow the world was threatening to change for the better, but it didn't alter her reality or her petty little selfish heart. She should be happy for everypony else, supporting them through the good and the bad like she always did. But instead she wandered through the cold, probably worrying her mother sick, and for what?

She looked around, ears drooping as she recognized her surroundings, even in the dark. She'd walked this path a million times, and it led to all those painful, happy memories. Of course I walked here, it's all I can think about! she yelled in her head, furious at her heart and her hooves. She prepared to turn around, refusing to think this was what she had wandered for, but through the trees she caught glimpses of a light, while the faint sounds of happy chatting voices promised her warm food and a fire. Her stomach growled, ignored all day for matters of the heart, and the cold reaching from the dark and leeching heat from her bones sealed the deal. With only a moment's hesitation she hopped over the fence, making her way through the sleeping orchard.

As she got closer to the farm house she was able to make out a tent, the Equestrian banner proudly displayed at its entrance. It would make sense that the Royal Army would camp out on Applejack's land. She was their leader, after all. However the tents looked empty, the warmth and sound and joy all spreading from the barn. As she came closer, the top of the doors swung open, ballons and confetti exploding into the dark, powered by the sounds of endless mirth and joyful music, calling like a siren song to Flora's saddened heart.

As she got closer, she wondered for a moment if she would be welcome, but the glimpse she caught of the scene inside had a surprising amount of Ponyville crammed into the wooden structure as well. And even if they'd been invited, Flora was sure Big Mac or Applejack would let her in to help out. 'It wouldn't be a party without family!' Applejack would yell, while Big Mac quietly kept the concession area full and the ponies happy, glad for a little quiet company in the revelry. Suddenly the image of worry that must've hit Mac's face when he was told to cook for the surprise party sprang into her mind, causing her to laugh, her breath visible in the air outside. But what was she still doing outside? She happily trotted the rest of the way to the door, her hoof touching it and gripping to pull as she heard the fiddle start to play.

She froze at the door looking up at the small 'stage' set up where Jazz was playing brightly, a smile on his face as he kept the others dancing with his tune. And it really was a sight to see, with the Knights all out of armor, twirling around each other or with friends and supporters from Ponyville. Even Big Mac was in on the fun, dancing with his bad back while Applejack stood on the side, making sure nopony got too carried away. And moving between it all, the biggest oddity by far, the puffy pink mane of Ponyville's Premiere Party Pony, returned from her stint in the New Lunar Republic and celebrating among 'the enemy' like it was nothing.

Flora could barely take it all in before the music called back to her, tugging on her ears before pulling at her memories. It took a few moments, but eventually she recognized the tune. He'd played it many a time for the jazz apples, but never like this, with swoops and flourishes his trumpet couldn't catch, nearly hitting the entire counter melody with just his one instrument. She'd always felt she was holding him back, but he didn't have to rub it in...

But it wasn't. Even if he'd known she was there, there was something deeper to the music. Even with all its happiness and mirth, there was darkness welling up beneath it. It wasn't just a happy song, it was remembering the happy times, lamenting their passing and hoping they could return. He was making his instrument cry for him, just as he had in Jennydale, and it had the same effect. Soon the dancing had stopped, all ears enraptured by the music twirling about their heads. Without knowing, they could feel the undercurrents... they could feel him calling for her to return to his side.

The last note was drawn out beautifully, holding the entire barn in silence before they let out a cheer of joy, the party starting once more. The spell was broken, leaving Flora leaning awkwardly on the door, her face flushed with embarrassed anger. How could she have gotten so caught up in those charms? They'd pulled her in before, thinking he was more than he proved to be, and now she stood at the gate projecting all over him like he was going to run down to her and take her in his arms and everything would be fine again. But he didn't care. If he'd cared, he would have said something after all of the commotion earlier. If he'd cared, he wouldn't even be playing that violin right now!

She looked at the stage again, her eyes unmistakably locking with his, and she tried to read them, tried to look for just a hint of the love that was there before. A pony passed between them and she saw her moment, turning from the door and walking back out into the snow. It didn't matter if her stomach rumbled or her hooves cried for relief from the cold hard ground, she wasn't going to stay around. She walked out of the light, past the farm house, and risked one glance behind her at the empty space in front of the barn. If he'd cared, he would have followed...

She continued on her path from the Acres, but an incredibly stupid idea made her turn, instead heading for the unused fields in the back. She didn't want to go back to the shop or her greenhouse. She wanted to feel at home, like she'd so rarely done at her own house, and that could only be accomplished on the farm. But, more than that, there was one place she had in mind. She climbed up the old ramp to the treehouse, pushing open the door to the small space where she'd spent so much time as a filly. Luckily there were still a few blankets from Jazz's date all those months ago.

It'd be bitingly cold, but Flora was willing to take that chance as she grabbed as much bedding as she could, then lay down in the thinking spot, her pillow directly beneath the dusty old lamp that marked it. All of the Crusaders' best ideas had come from this very spot, and tonight she hoped to use its mystical powers one more time.

If I'm gonna think of a solution, she thought as she shivered beneath her meager covers, it's gonna be here. Resolutely she curled up into a ball, hoping the solution would come before the dawn.
Ink Well stood on the balcony of the capitol building, looking grimly at the chaos below. There was a crowd of ponies from the door filling three blocks of Mane Street, all of them unicorns and their families clambering to get out of the cities and across the borders to the Solar Empire. And that was just in that direction. Coming in the east side of the building the line of pegasi and their families needing homes after fleeing the empire was astonishing, at least rivaling if not surpassing the unicorn line. It was all a mess.

Even worse, a keen eye could see members of the 'wrong' race in both lines, keeping their heads low and sticking close to their partners as they fretted for what would become of them in their new nations. Ink Well had witnessed the Battle Beneath Cloudsdale, he'd heard with his own ears the threats Princess Celestia had laid out after the pegasi's 'counter attack,' and he, of course, felt an innate fear for his feathered kin willing to brave it, but he'd also seen what had been done in retaliation an entire nation away. The pegasi, he felt, would at least survive. He wasn't so sure about the unicorns.

He, more than most, understood the riotous rage ruffling the pegasi's feathers. Cloudsdale was his home for so many years, and even when it wasn't, he was loyal to the floating city and its ancient cultural heritage. Even when he'd witnessed and stopped the atrocity going on within its city limits, he never tarred the pristine clouds with that brush of shame. And, unlike most of the rioters below, he had watched it burn, turn to mist, and break apart as it tumbled from the sky. He had witnessed the injured ponies plummeting to the hard ground, watched the wounded valiantly fight to save what buildings they could, and he felt the hole deep in his heart where his son had once stood. He understood why the pegasi raged, but even through his tears and keening grief, he didn't see how he could ever join them.

“We fear the numbers will never end,” said President Luna, alerting Ink Well that she had joined him to oversee it all. There was worry in her voice that carried to her cyan eyes as she scanned the scene before her. “Our nation would empty out its borders before the week's end were it not for those we are struggling to find room for. At least the homes won't remain empty for long...”

She placed a booted hoof on the banister, the cobalt metal clinking lightly as she put it down. She looked at Ink Well, clearly hoping for some conversation in her brief free time away from the throngs below. But just because the time was free did not mean she was relaxed. She was always dressed in armor now, believing that if she would ask her ponies to go to war, she should be prepared to join the fight, and despite her advising against it, the decorative design of her armor, matching both the color and the shapes of her flag, truly showed her as a champion of her nation. Even her mane was ready for war, no longer long and flowing, but bobbed as short as her tail was, the ethereal stars still shimmering with her every movement and gleaming off of the small armored circlet she wore on her crest.

Her worry broke as she looked at Ink Well, a little life being breathed into her movements as her demeanor eased outside the presence of the masses. “How are you holding up, friend? These days have been hard on us, but could only have been more so on you.”

Ink Well shook his head sadly, his age showing in the crows feet at the edges of his eyes. “This is all... madness. From the bottom to the top, none of this makes any sense. But... I believe you are doing the right thing. Better to let them leave now in peace then end up like that community outside of Trottingham...” He sighed, looking out into the city, where even now guards held back the protesters just waiting to turn violent. “You'd think we'd all have seen enough destruction.”

Luna walked over to his side, placing an armored hoof on his shoulder. “We have. All of us. But despite the best efforts of the ages, when hurt and frightened, ponies still run for safety and fight any who may threaten it.” The gesture was comforting, but the effect was cold and heavy, leaving him chilled as she removed her hoof and continued to speak. “Unfortunately, it has revitalized the war effort. Ponies are signing up in droves to retaliate, and we cannot afford to turn them down.” It was her turn to sigh. “We shall have to remind them their enemy is not the ponies themselves, but the tyranny the enemy represents, else we fear very little shall stop the cycle from continuing. And even that will do little to help those still within our cities.”

“Your propaganda machine had better be well oiled, or it will only print in blood. These ponies you are saving won't dampen the fire the loss of those choosing to stay could ignite.” Ink Well looked over at Luna, once more seeing the worry on her face. It was well founded. “But you know all too well what could happen if an uncaring regent is careless with her iron hoof.”

“And this is why our every step is chosen carefully.” She lifted her booted hoof so she could look at the intricate design on the front of the armor plating. “If we wear our burdens every day, they cannot be ignored or forgotten. They shall weigh upon our mind until the day we are free of them.”

Ink Well looked at Luna, his face determined, though the sorrow in his eyes could not be denied. “One day they will be gone, Selene. The days will come when peace will reign once more and the weight of thousands will be lifted from your shoulders.”

Luna nodded sadly, turning reluctantly to the door to take her place inside once again. “That day will be the first to see us smile again, Ink Well, and we await it eagerly. But in the light of the moon and the sun both, the end is impossible to see. Those days have been delayed so long, even the optimistic fear they never will return, or will be replaced by sorrows we have not yet imagined. We cannot afford wait for them idly, and so, we must return to the work at hoof. Fare thee well, Ink Well. We hope for more wisdom as the days go by.”

Ink Well watched her leave, a fire growing in his chest as he did so. “I'm afraid you hope in vain, Selene. Since you cannot afford to wait for peace,” he said to himself, wings twitching in agitation, “somepony will just have to find it.” He trotted quickly through the capitol building, heading directly for the room he'd been so generously given. There was much preparation to be done, but by that night, there'd be one more room free for an incoming refugee.


*     *     *     *     *    

Steam Cloud peeked her eyes open and stretched out luxuriously on her slightly musty but oh-so-comfortable bed before snuggling the warm downy quilt tightly in her arms. Judging by how little light was coming through the window, she had woken up bright and early, as she had the day before, but this time it was her choice to do so, and she relished it. No freezing dog nose, nopony forcing her to get moving, no tiresome dead-end job to be getting ready for... She practically purred as she sunk back into her sheets, knowing that this was the life she'd been meant to live for the past five years. Isn't it amazing what happens when you finally do get across that border?

She could see the old clock on the wall ticking away the minutes until dawn truly broke, each sound accusing her of laziness and trying to pull her out of bed. She defiantly stuck her tongue out at it, turning over to look at the sandy beige wall and curl up even cozier beneath the covers. She watched the light from the window appear high on the wall, tracking it as it slowly descended towards her. Once it was there she'd have to start moving. Make the bed, clean up anything she and Rose had missed the day before, do a quick tune up on the Ready Wings...

She scratched that one from her mental checklist, remembering that she'd left the wings back at Rose's house... and had forgotten to check them the day before. They should be alright, she thought to herself. It's not like they were delicately built.

But what if somepony finds the letter?
Steam's cheeks blushed at the thought and she pulled the covers over her head. If anypony else reads that... She shook her head, feeling her slightly messy mane rub against the covers and frizz even more than it normally did in the morning. Nopony will. Nopony is using them. Just take a trip over there later and it'll be fine... maybe sooner. You could get breakfast in the process! Assuming Rose is awake. She frowned, moving the cover away to see the sunlight's progress down the wall.

It was much slower than she'd been expecting. Still, when it reached her, she was going to make the bed, clean the room, take a quick morning shower, run to the other house, hope somepony was awake and the door was open so that she wouldn't be bothering anypony, check the Ready Wings, eat breakfast, come back here, check on the work from the night before, plan out the rest of the repairs the place would need, and then do them.

And get Wind's help, that needed to be inserted into the plan somewhere. Though... why did it? It had been so very long since she'd had her own room, she should be enjoying the time to think like she used to. So why was she feeling so...

She shook her head. No, she wouldn't accept that she was feeling lonely. She'd been on her own for years, and she'd never been lonely then. There'd be no reason to be feeling it now! Except that then she'd always been paranoid and miserable and worried about dying, while now she was warm and safe and happy. It was so quiet without somepony else breathing in the room, and the covers were no substitute for a soft wing draped ever so-

Nope. I'm not lonely, I'm not thinking like that, and even if I am, I just... got used to company. Yeah. And there's no reason to bug her anyway! Let the mare be with her mother, for Luna's sake, it's been years! She looked at the light's progress on the wall, positive it hadn't moved since she'd last checked it. She stared at it, daring the sun to continue its game, before, frustrated, she kicked off the comforter, got off of the bed, and decided to meet the dawn head on. With the golden glow of her horn she made the bed immaculate, then spun around to see what needed sprucing up in the room.

Nothing, it turned out. She and Rose had been very thorough, even getting rid of the dust and making sure the water was running before calling it a night. It meant that things were going quite smoothly this morning, as it had been intended. Sooooooo smoothly, thought Steam as she looked at the sun barely peeking over the horizon. Even if she took a slow morning shower, there was no way that she wouldn't—

A knock came from the front door, catching Steam off guard and derailing her train of thought with amazement at how audible it was considering the soundproof room below. Switching from the knock to whoever was behind it, the only pony she could think would be awake this early would have been Silver, who she'd only met the night before and would be hard at work on today's weather. Still, when the knock sounded again, Steam knew it wasn't a fluke and made her way down stairs, through the dormant, shining work of the night before and out into the shop.

There was a moment of hesitation at the shop door, an image of the wanted poster coming to mind, but that was all in the past. She was on the other side of that border, where... well, where Wind might have a matching poster soon, if she wasn't careful, but nopony would go searching for them here, right? No, it was probably just... the mailpony. Or Rose remembering something she forgot the night before. Perhaps she didn't have an extra key, so she had to knock? Reassured, Steam opened the door, ready to deal with whatever was behind it.

But she hadn't once expected Wind. “Good morning, Steam! I hope I'm not too early, but mom was up super early and I convinced her to make her cinnamon apple muffins for breakfast, and they're much too good warm to eat cold, especially on a cold winter day like today is planned to be, so here I am!” She walked inside quickly, shaking her shoulders to knock off some of the snow that had accumulated on her back while she was outside, revealing what was hidden between her wings. It was a large brass harness, with folded bits that seemed a lot like...

“Did you bring over the Ready Wings?” Steam asked, staring at the strap where even now she could barely see the paper poking out, her heart pounding in her throat.

Wind nodded brightly. “Yup! I figured we could get started right away on the rest of the repairs and stuff here, and then, to celebrate, we could both take a quick flight around the town. I could show you some of the sights, give you an aerial tour, it'd be great!”

While Wind was distracted taking off the pack, Steam slid the letter out of it with her magic, folding it tightly and placing it in her own mane for later. It was then that a few inconsistencies from Wind's story hit her, along with the tantalizing aroma of her breakfast held in Wind's wing. “That sounds great, but won't ponies be suspicious of ponies flying around over town? And how early were you up to get your mom to make these muffins?”

Wind shrugged at the questions. “I was hoping they'd let it slide if they saw you were a unicorn, and I'm willing to get yelled at if I'm wrong. And... well, I guess I asked mom to make them last night when she got home, and I remember Flora saying something about mom sometimes waking up super early, so when I got up these were already almost done. But I didn't even eat one, just grabbed a few and came straight over here.” She opened up the bag in her wing, filling the perfume store with the scent of perfectly baked pastries.

Steam pulled one of the muffins out of the bag with her magic, floating it over to her hoof, where it sat warmly and smelled divine. Unable to hold herself back, she bit into it, her tongue delighted by the moist muffin's delicate balance of apple and cinnamon dancing across her taste buds. Her eyes shot open wide as she swallowed her bite and looked at Wind. “These are amazing! I wish I could cook this well.”

Wind smirked, taking a bite of her muffin before answering. “Well... mom might have gotten some pointers from Applejack, so technically these are Apple family muffins, but that doesn't really matter when they taste this good.”

“Agreed!” The two mares finished their muffins, then Steam reached into the bag for seconds, only to empty it as she pulled out one final muffin. She offered it to Wind. “You can have it, you've already done more than I have lugging the wings over and delivering these.”

Wind shook her head, pushing the pastry back. “It's all yours. You've got the harder task ahead of us when we get to the repairs, and you've never had them before.”

Steam smirked, then pulled apart the muffin, splitting it roughly in half and tossing one half to Wind. “Fine, be difficult about it. But we're going to have to work fast if you want that aerial tour to happen in the light.” She ate the rest of breakfast as she walked into the back room smiling brightly, soon joined by Wind doing much the same. In moments they were both fueled up and hard at work, ready to get on with the day and get to the plans they'd made for later.

*     *     *     *     *    

Rose and Flora walked side by side through town, enjoying a brief moment of togetherness before they went their separate ways for the day. The greenhouse was on the way to the marketplace, where Rose was hoping to find a few ingredients she would need to fulfill one specialized order, and since they were both heading the same direction it seemed silly not to go together. Some mares might have complained about being under their mother's watch, but after how well her advice had gone to Flora, she was thankful to have a mom so wise to walk with.

At the small path to the building they parted ways with a warm hug and promises to be safe before Flora made her way into the greenhouse, wondering what she would find inside. Holding the key in her snow chilled hoof, she unlocked the building, holding her breath as she slowly opened the door.

And letting it out in a slightly disappointed sigh. There had been no huge jump like the day before, though the fact that the crystal bush hadn't shrunk at least let Flora know she wasn't going mad. She watered the plants in the building, then began to compare measurements against those from the day before. Everything was exactly the same apart from one key difference: of the two flower buds that had formed, one was much larger than the other. She had no idea what it meant, but it was something, and every little change brought with it a sense of purpose. Something big was coming, and now she just had to remain patient to see what it was.

A flurry of knocks at the greenhouse door meant she didn't wait very long. It was rare for somepony to disturb her, so it had to be important, though she made sure a set of pruning shears was within reach just in case. She carefully swung open the door, only to nearly be nailed by the hoof preparing to pound again. Luckily, it stopped, the pegasus it was attached to able to contain her nervous energy.

“Flora!” Silver yelled, running into the greenhouse and shoving at Flora's rump. “You need to get to Town Hall! I've never seen anything like this!”

A second shove had Flora outside, looking rather frustrated at Silver's antics. “What? What is it? I was in the middle of something!”

“Flora, your flowers can wait. Get your sister and get to Town Hall, now. Your mom was already on her way.” Silver shut the greenhouse door, then started to shepherd her friend around to the road.

Flora huffed in annoyance. “What is so important for all of this?”

Silver gave her a dead serious look, standing stock still apart from her nervously twitching wings. “Flora, just trust me on this one. Whatever's going on, it's big, and you won't believe me if I tell you so just go. I'll see you there.” Before Flora could question any further, Silver was off, flying in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres.

It was rare that Silver showed nerves like that, and she was never as serious as that last message had been. Taking those into account, Flora decided she'd trust her best friend on this one. Breaking into a quick gallop she made it to Rosewater in no time, sprinting through the shop and slamming open the door to the distillery. This startled the ponies inside, causing a metal pipe to lose the magical aura around it and crash loudly against the floor. “Flora, what's up?” asked Wind, looking worried after Flora's rushed entrance caused her to spill polish all over her wings.

“I... don't know,” said Flora, suddenly feeling completely foolish for her actions. She really wished she'd asked for more details. “But Silver said there's something huge going down at Town Hall, and we should all be there to see it.”

Steam looked at Wind, raising a concerned eyebrow, which Wind met with a small confused shrug. Wind was tempted to tell Flora to head off on her own, but even if it was just some overreaction, like many that flooded Ponyville's streets when she was much younger, it would still be interesting and only cost a little time. “Alright,” said Wind, wiping off some of the oil that clung to her fur and scraping her wings as best as she could on the polish container. “Let's go see what all the fuss is about.”

With Wind agreeing to go, Steam decided her work could wait, bringing up the rear as all three of them went to find out what was going on.

*     *     *     *     *    

The square in front of Town Hall was filled with enough murmuring ponies to actually create a significant block between Rose and the square itself. It was as if every pony in Ponyville had come out of their homes to see what was going on, and that was no wonder. It wasn't every day that Princess Celestia herself showed up in your town surrounded by a retinue of the highest officials in the Royal Army. Captain Applejack, Princess and Arch Magus Twilight Sparkle, and General Ironsides all stood proudly before a full platoon of knights in shining armor, all surrounding Princess Celestia's Royal Carriage, where the leader of Equestria could sit in unseen safety and watch over whatever was happening.

But nopony seemed to know what was happening, as apart from showing up in town unannounced, the army seemed to be simply standing at the ready, some more patiently than others. The knights closest to the carriage nervously eyed the ponies around them, horns and spears at the ready should the crowd suddenly prove traitorous, a seemingly likely thought in the mind of General Ironsides. He was an old grey unicorn with a strong jaw line and years of tactical training even before the war had begun. Some might have seen him as a relic of a past age in times of peace, but he seemed to be holding his own and truly proving his use these last twelve years.

It was clear that he was more used to the safety of the castle, however, as his gleaming, mostly decorative armor and almost jumpy paranoia showed. Applejack's dinged, heavy plate had been proven in countless battles, with no frills that might stop her from leading the charge in the field, and it sat calmly on her form as she looked almost relaxed to be back home. Even Twilight, in her light armor for those few instances where she was on the front line, seemed at ease, scanning the skies with purpose. Her armor hadn't seen use since that fateful night beneath Cloudsdale, a choice she had willingly made and willingly broken today.

Rose looked on the visiting army with more than a hint of distrust. She still hadn't replaced everything broken by the last time Twilight had shown up in town with armored ponies in tow, and the youthful faces of both Twilight and Applejack just reminded her of her own age. At least Princess Celestia had the decency to look a more proper age for a wise and timeless ruler. Though the fact that she remained in her veiled carriage was unsettling. If she was going to leave the castle for the first time in years, even under heavy guard, why wouldn't she show herself? This mystery was what had most of the citizens of Ponyville chattering in hushed tones.

Nopony in Ponyville could resist some good gossip, and the constant chatter continued until one of the guards broke the silence held by the army. “Incoming forces, four o'clock and approaching fast!” Twilight had seen them long ago and remained calm, but all other heads turned to look where the knight had pointed, jumping at the announcement.

Swooping low and skimming over the trees of the Everfree was a great dark blob moving across the bright sky. It grew larger, then, as it entered the clearing between the forest and the town, it ducked low, disappearing behind the buildings. The General was the first to move, taking a step away from the incoming form and barking out an order. “Knights! Defensive positions! Be ready to attack on my command!” The armored forces got on guard, ready for whatever they were about to face, while he quickly made his way closer to the safety of the carriage.

The dark mass was upon the army in seconds, a hundred pegasi strong as it swarmed over the town. Ponies screamed, citizens panicked, and every knight held up his spear or set her horn glowing in readiness. However, as jumpy as they were, they waited patiently, seemingly driven so by Twilight and Applejack's complete calm as they watched the display with careful eyes. Rose watched on as well, joined by her daughters and Steam, all of whom were held rapt by what was going on before them.

The swirling forces, for all of their apparent randomness, were well organized, forming into a sphere above the Town Hall before shooting down, landing swiftly across the square from the members of the Royal Army. They landed in unison, hitting the snowy earth heavily and standing, despite their tension, at ease, not one of them ready to attack. At their head, closest to the opposing army, was President Luna herself, flanked by Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo. Luna wore her armor, commanding a regal presence, but the only other armored pony was Scootaloo in a set quite similar to Applejack's, the rest of the unit in a deep blue cloth uniform matching Rainbow's. That is, apart from one bouncing sprig of pink moving between the disciplined troops. Nopony seemed to be paying too much attention to Pinkie Pie, and none on the ground had any idea how she had gotten there, but in her wake even the grimmest NLR soldiers couldn't help but smile.

“Knights! Take aim!” Ironsides bellowed, causing the armored members of his army to ready their weapons at the stationary members of the Republic. There were two Royal Army members for every member of their foe, and yet, the Lunar Republic forces didn't shake, didn't balk, didn't even give an inch, standing proudly behind their leader. The aging general turned red at this, anger seeping into his eyes, and he took in a large breath of air before he was frozen in Twilight's magic field.

“Hold, Ironsides. They aren't here to fight, we should at least hear them out.” Despite Ironsides' outraged expression, Twilight took a few steps closer to her enemies, looking directly into Luna's eyes. “President Luna, what is it that brings you unheralded into these lands?”

“We have come to talk to you, Princess Sparkle, as well as our sister, on a matter of utmost importance. We come to talk of peace.” This brought a whole new murmur through the crowd, as well as through the Royal Army, many of whom seemed disbelieving that this could happen. Behind Luna, Scootaloo scowled at her former companions, having known that this would be their reaction.

However, before anything more could be done, the screech of a train whistle wrenched away everypony's attention. A large train of pure crystal was rumbling into Ponyville station, its entrance nearly unnoticed thanks to the display that the New Lunar Republic's soldiers had made. However, even if it had been surreptitious in its arrival, the following moments were nothing similar. The second the vehicle came to a stop the doors shot open, pouring out not just a wave of sparkling ponies in crystal armor, but an equal number of gryphons, who rushed the town square in their own formation, taking up a position on the edge between the two other forces. They were lead by Princess Cadance and, at her side, a large gryphon with a colorful feathered crown perched atop his head, King Grandis.

The arrival of both of these forces together brought confusion to both Twilight and Luna's faces. Together, the gryphons and the crystal ponies had an army that matched the Royal Army, but Cadance was allied with Twilight, while Grandis was allied with Luna. Conveniently, Cadance was more than willing to address their confusion. “Leaders of the Empire and the Republic, we request a council.”

At her side, Grandis stepped forward, proclaiming over the entire square. “For too long we have been seen as pawns in this great war you two wage. For too long we have been made to send aid while receiving nothing in return. While you allow us in your lands, you treat us like toys or leeches, and we will stand for it no more. You will hear our demands or you will fall here before—”

“I did not summon you here to threaten, Grandis. I asked you, all of you, here to do one thing...” The voice carried over the citizens of Ponyville, with no apparent source, and yet many of them should have known it. Rose's eyes went wide at the first words, scarcely able to believe her own ears. She was the first to spot the cloaked figure standing on the steps of Town Hall, his voice carrying past its own ability. “I wanted you to sit down and talk.”

Ironsides looked up at the mystery stallion, his eyes wide with barely contained fury. “And who do you think you are, citizen, to claim to have orchestrated this madness? I will see you suffer for this!”

The cloaked figure paused for a moment, chuckling to himself before he continued. “General, you do not know the meaning of suffering. The ponies around you have watched too many of their friends die for something they didn't believe in. Some of those you call enemy were once your friends, forced from their homes by a cruel and careless decree, while many you call friends only stand by your side for fear of the danger they faced otherwise. And, while it is true that I asked them all to come, I am not the one who actually brought them here. They did that all on their own.”

As the cloaked figure gestured to his right, another group of ponies could be seen waiting in the shadow of the Town Hall. They bore a marking all in the army knew by now: The Peace Corps, headed by their 'fearless' leader Fluttershy. Or, more accurately, she stood in the center of the crowd, edged onward on either side by her personal Angels, her rabbit and Dented. They were surrounded by nearly every doctor in the corps, as well as many a wounded warrior in both side's armor. Yet the wounded did not join their kin, instead waiting to see what developed.

“You may want me to suffer, Ironsides, but I can assure you I have had plenty of time for that.” All eyes arrived on the cloaked figure once again, only to see yet another familiar face having arrived. Rarity stood in the shadows behind him, calmly surveying all the ponies present as the stallion continued his speech. “But pain is not just a destructive force. It has driven me onward and taught me harsh lessons, as it has all of the ponies you see around you. I offered them little, merely a chance at conversation, a glimmer of hope that they may resolve this all in one fell swoop. Peacefully. And every one of them took it. They've learned, some over months, some over a decade, and some over centuries, that we are not so different that we cannot talk. Violence is a solution for the weak and the fearful: it is the brave who step forward with empty hoof and offer peace.”

“Wait a second...” said Wind, brow furrowing as she tried to get a better look at the shrouded figure. “Is that Homeward?”

“No,” both Steam and Rose said in unison, one remembering her discovery, the other knowing the truth no matter how hard it tried to hide. They gave each other a look, asking silently who would be the one to explain, but their attention was soon drawn back to the square.

The General laughed smugly at the cloaked figure. “The weak and the fearful? Do you know who you are talking to? I—”

“I don't think you really belong here, do you General? I'm certain you demanded to come along when you heard of the others moving out, refusing to leave your Princess 'unprotected.' You didn't think two Elements of Harmony were enough, right?” The figure in the black cloak stepped down to street level, walking directly between the two armies, his hood giving the  and giving the impression of a stern glare at the General standing on the carriage. “Well, people thinking like you aren't allowed at these talks.” The stallion moved towards Ironsides, looking him in the eyes, before the head tilted, a smirk barely visible from the shadow.

“Do you understand the foe you fight? They rose up, not because they wanted to, not for any petty reason or to rip the nation apart, but because your leader refused to send them the aid they requested. When they needed water, it was being used for you precious unicorns in Canterlot to keep the gardens nice and green, and, after years of neglect and willful ignorance, that was a straw too far. They rallied behind their leader looking for freedom from oppression. Looking to matter again. While Equestria tried to hide its past and pretend everything was fine, pretend it could reign in the will of a people as though they were just an unruly teen, it destroyed the very city that could have saved it and drove all those attached to that city's mistake from the country.”

The stallion stood in front of all of the knights, seeming to dare the spears to fall on him as he spoke. “The Solar Empire is weak, not in numbers, but because it refuses to stop clinging to memories of better times. It ignores its mistakes, and that's why it loses its fight to a smaller nation only fighting for its own freedom.”

The cloaked figure then whirled around, glaring up at President Luna and making his way towards her. “Which is not to say your nation is without fault. You fight for your right to exist, for freedoms and a fear that tomorrow will be taken from you, but your fear has taken over the people. The Republic embraces the new with an almost fervent desire to get rid of the old, and when you are given a black eye, you try to retaliate to show you aren't to be pushed around. You, rightfully, fear that you will be crushed by numbers or torn apart by magic, and so you commit atrocities as bad as those you ran from to escape magic's grip, with plans for weapons that should make you ashamed to call yourself civilized ponies! The other side fights to keep its nation together from these rowdy rebels, and with the way you act, ignoring even the ponies who led you to your freedom, I'm not surprised they fight as hard as they do!”

“And who are you? If you are so brave to point out the nation's flaws, why do you keep yourself hidden away?” Ironsides ran from the carriage to the empty space between armies, only to stall when he felt the weight of hundreds of eyes watching his every movement. He was outnumbered here, and there were far too many armed ponies for that to end well.

But the cloaked stallion did not turn or show a hint of worry. He merely moved a hoof up to his hood, shaking his head sadly. “I am no brave pony. I am the largest coward and greatest fool to traverse these lands. I am, according to some, the Harbinger of War, but to many more I am nothing but a wanderer and a storyteller, always running in search of a way to see others see the truth.” The hood of the cloak fell, revealing the aged stallion with fur the color of parchment, his inky blue black mane kept neatly beneath the tattered and torn hat he wore. “I am Ink Well, Public Enemy Number One, and I am here to end this war.”

A gasp could be heard throughout the crowd, though none made as much noise as Wind and Flora, both stunned that they had not recognized their own father. The moment was short lived, cut shorter still by the barking from the enraged general. “Knights! Arrest that pony in the name of the Princess!”

“You have no authority over me, General.” Ink Well flung back his heavy cloak, spreading his wings wide and showing his off the woven vest he wore beneath, pinned on either side with symbols unmistakable to the important ponies around him. A golden ruby-studded sun, a silver star and cobalt crescent moon, a single feather tipped with gold, and a small heart-shaped phial filled with a glowing green liquid. “I am blessed by both the Sun and Moon, I am the Gryphon's Wings, and as I stand, I represent far more than myself. I am the will of all the people here, the only arbiter in this senseless destruction, the only voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Our land is being torn apart by war, and, with the help of everyone present, I hope to see it safe and sound by Hearth’s Warming Day.”

The General stalled, instantly recognizing the golden broach Ink Well wore. It was the highest honor a pony could receive in the Solar Empire. Nopony had been given it since before the Elements of Harmony had been found... What was it doing on his chest?

Ink Well lowered his wings to his side, his left resting comfortably on his tattered and heavily patched messenger bag. “I didn't want your brand of help, General, but since you are present, I suppose I will accept it as well. In return, there's something you'll have to accept.” He gestured with a hoof, calling forward a sandy colored pegasus with a partially missing ear: the only pegasus to still be wearing the Royal Army's armor. As the knight made his way to the clearing, Ink Well continued speaking. “Whether one nation or many, it is my belief Equestria belongs to all of its inhabitants, be they pony or gryphon,” he gestured to the armies around him, then to the pegasus in the armor. “...or even changeling.”

A flash of green fire engulfed the armored pegasus, replacing his sandy fur and soft feathers with black chitin and a hard clear membrane used to fly. He removed his helmet, revealing his solid blue eyes, as well as the frills that replaced his mane, tail, and ears. The frill on the right side of his head was almost completely gone, matching the ear he'd lost in his other form.

Immediately, weapons were drawn on all sides, none willing to forget the threat those creatures had been so long ago. Even most of the Elements of Harmony took a worried or aggressive stance, only Twilight seeming unfazed by the appearance of a former enemy before her. Ink Well shook his head at the display, a frown weighing heavy on his features. “See? Even torn apart, all of you remember your history lessons and jump at your 'enemies.' It's almost as if you'd still be on the same side if changelings had remained a threat.” He looked around him, his eyes scanning to meet every eye in the crowd, only lingering when they passed over his family. Unfazed, he continued speaking. “It is time for a new chapter to be written in their story. Sandstorm was just the first, but friends, please... It is time to stop hiding.”

There was a long pause, and Sandstorm himself had to give a pleading look into the crowd, but eventually there was another flash of green flame, replacing another knight in Celestia's army. As weapons turned on her, another flash joined, then another, then a half dozen more, each appearance sending the ponies around them scurrying away from former allies. But it didn't stop with the Royal Army. Three ponies in Luna's army changed in unison, standing proudly among their friends even when said friends looked flabbergasted. Even two of Grandis' gryphons changed, one of whom was his personal bodyguard. Then it spread past the armies. Bystanders in Ponyville burst into flames, only to be replaced with changelings as well. Some were proud, some were ashamed of their true form, but in the end, another eight had been under everypony's nose the whole time.

Ink Well motioned to the changelings, as well as the startled ponies near them who couldn't believe their friendships had all been lies. He knew that look, and it had to stop. “I know many of you are scared right now, and I am sure there is a lot of explaining that these brave changelings will have to do to their dearest friends, but this is not a bad thing. As much as you may think the worst, the changelings you now cower from are the same friends you have always known and have been since the day that bond was formed between you. They, like yourselves, are nothing more than citizens of this country, and, like all of us, they want to see a nation returned to peace.”

Ink Well walked back up to the balcony of Town Hall, turning so that he could see everyone in front of him so they knew he was speaking to them all. “Peace seems like an impossible task. Think of how strong Equestria used to be, all of the principles it used to stand for, then remember that it was ripped apart so violently even the Elements of Harmony were unable to come together, creating a rift that set the sun and moon fighting for dominance in the sky they were supposed to share. Fixing it will be nigh on impossible, and it will involve a lot of compromise. A lot of ponies aren't going to walk away from this happy, and a lot of you will probably want to walk away long before any kind of agreement can be met. This will be difficult, you may even think it unsatisfying, but think of the alternative.”

Ink Well watched all of them closely, seeing who was disheartened and who looked uneasy with the whole prospect. It was they he spoke to next. “Right now, you may walk away. You may decide that you 'can't reason with those maniacs' and run for safety, or think that now would be the perfect time to wipe your enemies out. I can't promise you those won't be very appealing. All I can promise is this: if we can't work this out here in the next few days there will be fighting once more. Even as we talk, ponies far away are patrolling like they have been ordered. What if they meet? Imagine the chaos, the confusion, the damage... Now imagine if the talks break down here: take that fight and multiply it a hundredfold. There will be blood, there will be destruction and death, and by the end, many of those you stand beside right now won't be standing when all is said and done. But maybe, right now, in the spirit of the warring tribes that came together at Hearths Warming or just to avoid that image in your minds, all of us can sit down, talk, and maybe, just maybe, find that common ground where something truly great could grow.”

The silence that followed was contemplative and heavy, everypony considering all that had come before. Would they be able to put their fights aside and talk? Could peace really be brokered with the side opposite them? Could they forgive the enemy for all of the ponies they had lost? In the cold winter air ponies pondered the questions, and one saw the time to make his move.

Their army was right there! If he could just take out the leaders... One shot from the alchemical contraption hidden in the Princess's carriage and this war would be over immediately! Ironsides slipped through the crowd quickly, glad that they were so preoccupied by that pandering fool in the center of the square and thanking him for delivering such a perfect target.

Ironsides ran to the side of the coach and was reaching for the secret panel behind the door when a gold adorned hoof lightly touched onto his. He looked up, straight into the ancient magenta eyes of his ruler. “That's enough, General,” she said calmly as she stepped out of the carriage, a hoof lightly touching down in the Ponyville snow.

It was Princess Celestia's first public appearance since the Grand Galloping Gala that year, and the first outside her castle in many more. This alone was enough to draw the attention of everyone there, causing those still loyal to her to supplicate themselves as they always did. She looked over them, and yet, her eyes were tired, the soft regal smile she'd once been known for completely gone. Still, when she spoke, it was with the same dulcet authority she had always held. “This is a golden opportunity we hold in our hooves now and, come what may, it must be seen through. Ink Well has spoken very clearly and truthfully, and I believe many of us have to think long and hard on his words. Tomorrow, once our hearts and minds are clear and set, we shall begin the talks. Until then, we should make camps and celebrate this time we share once more.”

President Luna nodded, watching her sister's flowing mane behind the golden tiara Tia had worn for centuries. Celestia might look the same as she had when Luna had left, but maybe this time things could be different. “We shall be ready to talk in the morning. There is much we all must consider before then.”

Grandius huffed, but was stopped by Cadance's hoof. This was something he was going to have to accept, and reluctantly the king did. “I see no reason for the delay, but if it must be done... We will wait. Tomorrow, though, this is settled.”

Grandius and his forces walked away at that, but there was a brief hesitation between the other two armies, both forces seeming to be daring the others to make a move. Fluttershy's doctors readied themselves for the fallout, but none came. The process was slow, but the Royal and Republic Armies both backed away from town square peacefully, each heading for a different outskirt of town. The last ponies to leave were the Elements of Harmony, all looking as though they wanted to say something, but none making the first move. Eventually, in pairs, they all went their separate ways, Rarity joining Fluttershy's doctors and offering them rooming around the Carousel Boutique.

As the armies dispersed, so did the crowd, the townsponies all going on with their day as though the strangeness had been nothing, though some life had been breathed into the previously dead town. Tomorrow would prove to be something amazing, whatever happened, but the only thing created today were whispers about the changelings nopony had known was among them. It wasn't enough to change the world, but it could at least pass the time before they waited for the morning.

Five ponies remained in the square when it was emptied, though, all waiting for the horseshoe to drop. Ink Well, wrapped in his cloak and bearing the marks of nations and the wear of years of travel, stood silently, watching his wife and daughters to see what they would do. But they didn't even know, none of them actually expecting this moment to ever come. Only the chilling winter breeze let them know it wasn't a dream.

The first to move was Wind Key, recovering from her shock and doing the one thing she'd wanted to for over five years. “Daddy!” she yelled as she leaped into the air, charging him and tackling him into the thin snow with a crushing hug. “I missed you so much... Why didn't you tell me you were Homeward?! Why could I never find you?”

Ink Well opened his mouth, about to attempt an explanation, when it was snapped shut at the sight of Flora, a furious glare sitting firmly on her features. “You've got some nerve coming back like this! Do you have any idea what mom's been through? Not a package, not a letter... you might as well have died for all we knew, while leaving us with the guards! If I didn't—”

“Flora... that's enough.” Rose put a gentle hoof on Flora's shoulder, moving her aside before gently doing the same to untangle Wind from Ink Well. When that was done, she offered the hoof to her husband to help him up, which he solemnly accepted. When finally they were standing there, face to face, they both seemed emotionless, just looking into each other's eyes and reading all that had happened in them.

After a long moment in silence, Rose lifted a hoof to Ink Well's cheek, caressing it once gently before she suddenly pulled back, smacking him hard across the jaw. In that moment he still looked solemn, as though both expecting and accepting that this would be the outcome, which is why his expression turned to surprise when Rose stepped forward and hugged him tightly, love pouring from the gesture. After just a moment of hesitation he hugged her back, tears rolling down his cheeks as he nuzzled against her neck.

She did the same to him, tears she didn't know she had left to cry spilling from the side of her eyes. “Don't you dare leave me like that again,” she said quietly. “We go together or not at all.” Despite her tears, she was smiling slightly, a warmth she hadn't felt in ages coming back to her heart.

Ink Well's hug grew tighter, joined in by his wings wrapping around her entire form. “Never again.” It pained him to do so, but eventually he had to pull away from his hug, looking into Rose's eyes sadly. “I had to go alone, but I will explain everything I can. You deserve that much at least.”

The reunited couple walked towards home, side by side as though the other would disappear if they moved even a step away. Wind started to follow, but stopped, instead going over to Steam and nodding in the direction of the shop. They had spent weeks traveling with him, Rose deserved her time undisturbed. Flora, however, was long gone, unwilling to watch her parent's happy reunion.

It all hurt just a little too much right now.
Here I sit, in one of the last places to enter the new year, smiling through the haze of firework smoke as I look forward to what is ahead.

May your next year be greater than the last, and happiness nip constantly at your heels.

  • Mood: Optimism
Alright, I am, right now, at... not a KEY point in the story, but definitely one that could use a little insight from the readers. Oh, and, for those not caught up to Where Night Meets Day, there are spoilers below for chapter 20, so leave now or forever be spoiled.


















Are they gone? Good.

At the point I am in writing the current chapter, I have 2 directions I can go with it. Either I can flesh this one out a little more with a quick scene of Ink Well talking about his travels in little detail, giving some backstory, but leaving most of it for... I don't actually know where to put it in the story, OR I can keep this chapter slightly shorter, but add another one after it that is pretty much dedicated to explaining what kept Ink Well away for 7 years. It's going to be a lot of exposition that will probably end with people going "Why didn't you write a whole story on THAT?" but it'll be much more in depth, at the cost of lengthening the time to the final chapter by however long it takes me to write this new bit in (I have it all fleshed out in my head, just not in any sort of useful form for posting).

I know what way I'm starting to lean, but I figured I want the input of my loyal readers (you know who you are, and you are amazing!) before I went any further.

So, quick backstory in summary form or full backstory in epic story teller mode? Leave your vote below!
  • Mood: Eager

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Medicshy
To heal with love!
United States
I'm just here to help everypony, and solve what I can with as little violence as possible. And when that isn't possible, I am here to make sure my team lives.
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:iconshimmycocopuffssx1:
ShimmyCocoPuffssX1 Featured By Owner Feb 16, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
thanks for the fave  n_n
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:icongodzillabadger:
godzillabadger Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanx for the fave! :)
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:iconuseraccount:
useraccount Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2014
BAPPY HIRTHDAY! 

Haha, yeah, I saw my post from [I]last[/I] year, and I decided to change it up a bit.
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:iconmedicshy:
Medicshy Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2014
lol, thanks dude!
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aNIGHTLYpony Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2014  Student General Artist
:iconthankuplz:
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:iconuseraccount:
useraccount Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2013
HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
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:iconmedicshy:
Medicshy Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2013
thank you very much!
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:iconinksnote:
InksNote Featured By Owner Apr 12, 2013  Student General Artist
[link] finished ur commission. I wasn't sure exactly what you wanted, but i hope u like it!
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:iconuseraccount:
useraccount Featured By Owner Feb 19, 2013
Well, my mind was just blown. Why? Watch this video (it's on Youtube. It's Fluttershy speaking German) -->[link]
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:iconrex42:
Rex42 Featured By Owner Nov 28, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
thx for the fave(s) :D
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