To Wear a Mask.
Sleep did not come to the unicorn that night: too many thoughts milling about her mind conspired to drive back the wisps of sleep from her. The fact that she had two snakes within three hooves of her did not help the matter either. Fluttershy's words were still on her mind, like a poison coursing through her veins. Did her friends really see her as nothing more than a weapon to be wielded against the queen?
She could not, and did not, want to believe her vicious words. The lavender pony did not think she could live with herself if what she said was true: that her friends really did not care for her anymore. Shaking her head, she tried to roll onto her other side, only to be stopped from doing so by the thick vines keeping her legs together. Twilight had no doubts she could burn them away with magic, but that would destroy the hut as well and she did not want to leave her friend homeless.
So, she lay there for hours on end, watching shapes move about beyond the windows, listening to the whispering hisses the terrifying snakes made with each breath. Everything would be sorted out in the morning: perhaps the stress had made her hear things again and the yellow Pegasus was only trying to calm her down? It was a flimsy hope she clung to desperately.
Dawn came late that morning, or so she thought as she watched the oppressive blackness beyond the windows turn into deep indigo before swelling into the green-tinted hues of an orange sunrise. With the sun up, her body's urges for sleep died down, allowing her to no longer fear that one of the snakes might bite her in the night. She sighed deeply, growing increasingly weary of her situation.
A few minutes (or possibly an hour) after sunrise, the sound of humming filtered through the other room as the Pegasus stirred. The tune was one the librarian was unfamiliar with, but it sounded chipper and pleasant enough to not worry over. Sure enough, the yellow pony emerged from her room just a moment later, dripping a little bit of water from her mane and tail. "Good morning, Twilight," she chirped. "Did you have a good night's sleep?"
"No," the purple pony replied curtly. "You know I'm afraid of snakes, Fluttershy. I can't sleep when I know they're here!" However, the gentle Pegasus seemed to ignore her plight as she hovered over to a stove to start on breakfast. Twilight was taken aback: she never so blatantly ignored a pony before, especially when they were upset. Then again, she did shout, but the Pegasus looked unafraid.
Irritated, she got to work on the vines binding her legs, rubbing them in an effort to loosen them and allow her to get free. However, this prompted a giggle from the cheery Pegasus as she made the soup, watching her out of the corner of her eye. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, Twilight. Those vines have thorns in them that spring out when warmed. Isn't it just the most adorable thing ever?" she smiled with her back to her.
Twilight immediately stopped rubbing the vines together, not willing to take any chances, and growled in frustration. "Please, Fluttershy, let me go! I need to find Spike... if only to make sure he's still okay. Please? It's really important to me that I find him."
"No," she replied simply.
"You can't just keep me tied up like this! I'm a pony: I need to be able to get up and walk around. I need to eat, sleep and... and I need you to be my friend. I don't know what I would ever do without your kindness and love, Fluttershy. Please... please let me go?"
The Pegasus sighed, putting down what she was doing and came to sit in the chair directly in front of Twilight, a serious look in her eyes. They lacked the softness the lavender mare remembered: they were hardened by trauma and pain. She looked over the unicorn for a couple of minutes, as if pondering her words before she opened her mouth once more to speak.
"I can't be your friend anymore, Twilight Sparkle," she sighed. "I am only friends with nature and the creatures she makes. The fact is I'm not going to feed you or let you run about. Do you know why, Twilight?" The bound mare shook her head, not knowing where her train of thought was going. "It's because you're NOT a pony. You're a golem: an unnatural and ARTIFICIALLY created being!"
Suddenly, a look of pure rage came upon her face, stunning the lavender pony into silence. "By all rights, I should have destroyed you the very minute you dared to step hoof in my forest! How dare you taint this hallowed ground with your EVIL and NATURE-CHALLENGING magic! The only reason I didn't let one of my bear friends rip you to shreds is because I need you! You're nothing to me, Twilight Sparkle! Now shut up like the good little weapon you are and let the REAL ponies eat in peace!"
Stunned into silence, the lavender pony's jaw hung agape. Tears began to flow freely from her eyes as realization crept across her mind: she was not her friend anymore. If a pony as kind and loving as Fluttershy could come to see her as naught but a tool, then what happened to the rest of her friends? Could she trust nopony in the world?
Soft sobs escaped her muzzle as she buried her head into the blanket, too choked up to speak or try and sway her friend's opinion. So she just stained the blanket with hot tears for lack of ability to do anything else.
After a couple of minutes, the yellow Pegasus sighed and got up from her seat, the chair scraping against the wood as she floated up to a cupboard. "Twilight," she spoke softly, gently stroking her mane with a hoof. The lavender unicorn raised her head expectantly, eyes brimming. "Shut up!" Before she could react, the Pegasus shoved a hoof-full of foul yellow gunk into her mouth.
She tried to spit it out, but the sticky sap quickly thickened into a tough gum, spreading down her jaw to coat all of her teeth. "Mmmph!" she cried in surprise, beginning to struggle as her cries became muted by the sap. Satisfied, the yellow Pegasus turned away to finish making her breakfast, leaving the muted unicorn to sob silently.
It was not easy to pick up the trail again once it had gone cold like that, but she did not mind a single bit. After all, she did prefer the hunt to the actual capture. News of Twilight's narrow escape from the Huffington guard quickly spread through town that day. Naturally, Governor Coppertop was enraged by the news. Vinyl thanked her lucky stars that she was not working directly for him: a perk of being a bounty hunter instead of a member of the guard. In fact, while he was busy chewing out his troops, she was busy deducing that Twilight had left town to brave the Everfree Forest.
So, Vinyl Scratch trotted forth into the evil forest. Slowly, she was beginning to get an idea about what her quarry was up to. Directly on the opposite side of the forest was a small village called Coltsberg: too small to even have a governor of its own. Still, it would be an ideal place for her to lie low and recuperate from her time in the forest. The quaint hamlet had no love for the queen, so they were not likely to turn her in, even for the amount listed on the poster.
Of course, one never went into the Everfree Forest unprepared, unless they knew the lay of the land like the bottom of their hoof, or if they had a death wish. Thankfully, Twilight Sparkle was not the first bounty she had that decided to flee into the confines of the wicked wood. Unfortunately, most of them were dead by the time she could find them.
Yet, the lavender unicorn had to be made of tougher stuff than that: why else would she be listed as dangerous? So the former DJ took her time trekking through the wood, bobbing her head to a beat she recalled to pass the time. A predator might choose that moment to strike, but that would be a big mistake, since her ears were always alert. Thankfully, most of the monsters rose with the moon and the day began a few hours ago, so she had little to worry about.
Eventually, the hunter came across an interesting sight: it was a sprung sling trap, but the vine making it had been chewed away by some creature. As well, clumps of purple hair lay littered among the undergrowth, torn off on some spiny bushes. Although her vision could not make out the marks, a feel of her hoof told her that a small herbivore, maybe about a hoof high, nibbled through the vine. Twilight could not have chewed herself free, so something else did it for her.
Checking over the immediate area, the white unicorn soon found disturbed dirt and more hairs in bushes and on rocks. As well, there was a tiny line of dried blood leading from one of the sharper stones in the path. Whatever had freed Twilight probably knocked her unconscious or otherwise immobilised her before dragging her off. The list of suspects quickly narrowed at that revelation.
After tracking the trail for several minutes, down steep rocky hills and across a creek, the dragging suddenly ceased, at least as far as she could tell. Vinyl looked around, the forest a blur of green as she tried to figure out the next step. If the dragging stopped, that meant she had to have been moved onto a transport of some kind, possibly a cart.
She felt out the ground for something like the rut of a wheel. Shortly enough, she came across a patch of mud, with an obvious trough in the wet earth. This told the experienced tracker that the mare she sought was picked up and placed on a cart before being carried off. Now all she needed to do was track down where the cart went, and soon she would have the unicorn in her grasp!
However, that age-old saying of 'easier said than done' reared its ugly head once more as she tried to track the transport. If she had her normal vision, the task would be foal's play. However, she had to make due with a fuzzy world of indistinguishable colours all meshing into one smudged-up tapestry. Thankfully, the forest floor was generally soft, able to retain the rut the wheel made as it rolled along.
Naturally, conditions began to deteriorate as she moved onto harder ground, up and away from pools of water and mud. The bounty hunter furrowed her brow as she flared her nostrils, deciding to rely on scent to guide her. The trail was very faint, but the canopy of the forest thankfully provided some shelter from the wind, meaning she could follow it reliably.
It was not until about noon that she approached a small clearing, keeping her body pressed against the ground as she spotted all sorts of creatures ambling about. A small sod and wood shack sat in the middle of the grove, a shape of yellow discernible through the leaves of the bushes and the windows. Horseapples, she thought in anger and frustration. Of all the ponies to steal my bounty, it had to be that tree-hugging horse! Now how am I supposed to steal back Twilight!?
Vinyl detested the idea of hurting innocents just to get at one pony, even woodland critters. Yet, the mare that had her prize would not hesitate to order an attack on her. Although she lacked it ten years ago, she had developed the intent to kill others if they threatened her or her beliefs. The white mare ducked her head behind the bush, trying to form a plan and come up with escape routes.
I have to be at least halfway through the forest, she mused. Mountains flank to the west and east of here and it would probably take longer if I went back to Huffington. So... I need to head north to Coltsberg once I have her. Great: absolutely wonderful. I'd be hopping out of the oven to get into the frying pan. I don't like where this concert is going, but if I want the payoff, I've got to play that song.
An idea slowly came to her mind the more she pondered the savage beasts between her and the prize. It was noble to go in there guns blazing, kicking flank and taking names. Yet, against such numbers, it would be a suicidal move. She could make out bears, wolves, coyotes, and stranger beasts like manticores, flaming salamanders and even perytons!
However, the alabaster unicorn was more than just a one-trick pony: she still had a few spells left in her horn. With a light blue shimmer, soft and gentle music began to fill the clearing, all the creatures looking around in surprise. Vinyl nodded her head to the beat: a simple but effective way to keep the score from working on her. Some of the beasts roared, others simply looked around curiously, but after a few minutes of the calm, relaxing lullaby, they all dropped like flies, falling asleep peacefully.
Once confident all the creatures outside were passed out, she moved in, being careful not to step on any of them, or disrupt the spell with a howl of pain. Yet, she still kept herself as close to the ground as possible, in case the pony that captured her bounty could resist the spell. If so, then she could kick her flank, but the noise would probably wake up the animals and enrage them.
After careful minutes of walking past the gauntlet of sleeping creatures, she kept her sleep spell up while nodding her head to the beat. She slowly poked her horn and eyes above the window sill to see two ponies and a rabbit inside, all passed out. The hunter smirked in victory, gently opening the door just in case it would clatter. Thankfully, both her target and her captor remained sleeping, under the influence of the spell. Even a couple of snakes seemed to be grooving on the sleepy beat, hissing unconsciously.
Using her magic, she dragged the blanket off the unicorn mare to see her legs bound in thick vines, causing her smirk to widen. "I love it when they come gift-wrapped," she chuckled before she moved the snakes out of the way and pulled her off the ledge with a soft thump. The mare was heavier then she anticipated, but once they were clear, she cast a featherweight spell on her to make the trek a little easier.
Seizing hold of her by the tail, the mare with the electric blue mane slowly pulled her away from the shack. It was slow going, since the risk of stepping on a sleeping monster was incredibly high and that would bring with it nothing but trouble. The yellow mare was probably going to be pissed anyway, but by the time she and her army of critters woke up from the spell, she and her quarry would be long gone.
Rustling leaves met Twilight's ears hours later, the wind gently playing across her body as it moved. The occasional bump and turn would make her stir, but she did not open her eyes. She did not want to see where her friend wanted to take her. However, the hoofsteps seemed hurried: almost panicky.
Reluctantly opening her eyes, the lavender mare found her legs still tied up by the strange vines, and her mouth was still caked with the sticky sap that silenced her. She lay upon some sort of thatch blanket, being towed at a quick clip through the woods. Lying on her side, she could make out a white flank and electric blue tail in her vision. Twilight could not help but groan through the sap: somehow, Vinyl Scratch had managed to pull her from the yellow mare's base.
"Sounds like somepony's wakin' up," the unicorn breathed as she trotted through the undergrowth. "Sorry 'bout being so sneaky, but I didn't feel like havin' to fight my way through her beasties. That tune just doesn't go on my turntable, dig? Oh, I wouldn't try magic either. Mythril ring on your horn." The librarian sagged in the sling, knowing she was caught and utterly helpless to resist.
So Twilight lay, watching the scenery pass before her eyes, torn about how she should feel at that moment. Was she supposed to be thankful or mad at Vinyl for getting her out of Fluttershy's house? When it came to Fluttershy, was she supposed to be happy to be away from there, or sad that she became like that? The words she spoke earlier came back to her mind, chilling her to the bone. You're nothing to me, Twilight Sparkle! Now shut up and let the REAL ponies eat in peace!
Muffled sobs filtered through the sap, fresh tears streaming from her eyes. How could a friend say such a horrible, hurtful thing? Did she think the emotions she felt were not her own? "I'd be upset too if I were in your shoes, but it's nothing to cry over, Twilight. Sheesh!" the bounty hunter sighed in frustration, slowing down her pace.
"Mmph, mph," the lavender unicorn muttered, shaking her head in a vain bid to tell her that was not why she was upset.
Vinyl sighed, reluctant to fix the issue with the tree sap, but her constant sobbing was really starting to get to her. Besides, she liked talking to her prey after they were finally caught. Hearing a river nearby, she pulled the mare over to it, the waters roughly lapping at the bank. "Here," she spoke, unhooking herself from the sling. "Take a drink and it'll get rid of the sap."
Walking around, she grabbed the other pony by the scruff of her neck and pulled her to the water's edge, allowing her to dunk her head at her own leisure. Twilight dipped her muzzle in, a little apprehensive to do so around the hunter, but when she felt the cool, refreshing water pierce the sticky barrier, she dunked her head in, desperate to remove the obnoxious substance.
Once every bit of the goo was washed out of her mouth, she greedily drank the waters from the river, having not had any liquid since the previous day's ill-fated breakfast. Twilight pulled her head out with a deep gasp, finally able to breathe through more than her nostrils. "Gotta love Sticky Root Sap," the former musician chuckled. "Of course, I'm sure you know what that song is all about."
"Yes, and thank you," the mare replied. Sticky Root Sap came from a specific species of tree in the Everfree Forest. If a creature tried to eat the sweet sap, it would expand in their mouth and render them unable to continue; unless they figured out they had to drink from moving water. It was an interesting defence mechanism on the tree's part, no matter how annoying it was to experience.
Strapped back into the sling after dragging her catch away from the water, the white unicorn began speaking again as she pulled her prize. "It's too long to head back to Huffington, so we're going to Coltsberg. As is, I doubt we'll get out of the forest before dark though. Don't worry: I've traveled through the forest at night. Now, I noticed you were cryin' earlier. Do you mind tellin' me why? Not that it's any of my business."
"You're right. It is none of your business," she replied curtly, in no mood to talk to anypony at the moment.
"Fair enough, but we could at least make conversation. Like... um... what did you do to get such a price on your head? Did you slight the queen by tellin' her how ugly that mane is, or are you a rebel leader? Did you kill a lot of ponies, or engage in major tax evasion and refused to pay your debts?"
Twilight sighed before speaking. "If you know the rumours, she probably feels threatened by me." The white unicorn simply nodded her head in reply, knowing well the rumours that surrounded the mare like a haze. Fact and fiction easily became distorted around Ms. Sparkle and her friends. The two ponies traveled in silence from then, neither willing to break the tension between them.
Nightfall, however, brought about many new dangers in the forest. All sorts of creatures that slept in the day came out at night: most of them dangerous and hungry for flesh. Yet the hunter continued unabated, although she picked up the pace considerably. For even if one had experience with the forest, they could not survive out in the wilds for very long: especially once the sun began its slumber.
In addition to the usual suspects of wolves, bears, manticores, ursas and cockatrices, the Everfree occasionally played host to the supernatural. Creatures like ghosts or zombies would occasionaly rise from the ground and spring upon unsuspecting travelers. However, sometimes creatures from other planes would materialize in the world of the living: demons most foul.
To make matters worse, judging from the night before, that night would be the night of the new moon, meaning they had no light to guide them in the dark depths of the forest. Creatures that hunted in the dark would find that night to their advantage. Vinyl Scratch quickened her pace more, trying to keep her ears peeled for any of the tell-tale sounds of an approaching predator. Despite the long centuries since the pony races had ceased to be nomadic, nothing had changed when it came to the danger monsters in the Everfree Forest posed to their kind.
Long after the sun had dipped below the horizon, the pair of ponies entered a small clearing, the lavender mare still tied while being dragged behind the white unicorn. Just as she was about to muse on her excursion with Princess Luna, and how safe she felt then compared to the present moment, the white pony stopped dead in her tracks. "Vinyl?" she asked. "Is something wrong?"
However, all that came out of her mouth was a squeak. At first, she did not understand what had happened... until they made their presence known. Large, emerald eyes stared at them from beyond the darkness, glowing the same shade as the emerald aura that outlined their abyss-black bodies. They swiftly and silently surrounded the small clearing of trees.
Silhouettes of tendrils squirmed sickly from their faces. The creatures were roughly the size and shape of large wolves. They now slowly emerged from the darkness, closing their deathly circle around the pair of unprepared ponies. Quavering cries of fear sounded from the white mare. They moved forward with unnatural grace, making almost no sound, even as they passed through bushes. Their legs were lean with muscle, obviously able to propel their bodies forward at unmatched speed. Even if the little ponies tried to run, they were doomed.
"Well," spoke one of the creatures, his voice barely more than a whisper, "Looks. Like. We. Caught. A. Fellow. Hunter." The other creatures laughed in a staccato fashion, taking slow, methodical breaths. Although they spoke very softy, the tones carried much farther than one would expect. Every word was slow, deliberate, and just enough to make even the most brave pony weak in the knees.
Vinyl shivered in fear as the lavender mare looked around to the obvious pack leader. "Look. The talking. Horse. Wishes. To speak. How. Precious," the leader spoke once more. He appeared to attempt grinning, circular rows of jagged, razor-sharp teeth lining his maw. It was not until then that Twilight became sure about what they were: Barghests, also called 'The Children of Nightmare.' They could only emerge during the new moon and repopulated by mutilating their prey and injecting them with a black sludge-like fluid that would transform their corpse.
Yet, thinking back on the dark book she read on them, their weakness came to mind: sunlight. "Vinyl!" she cried out, desperately. "You have to untie me! I can save us! Please, you have to trust me, or we WILL die!" Unfortunately, the former DJ was paralyzed in fear, the creatures no more than a pony length away from them, ready to pounce.
"What. Could. You. Hope. To do. Little. Horse?" the pack leader snickered slowly. "Be. Still. And. You shall. Join. Our pack. Painlessly."
Twilight struggled in renewed vigour from her binds, trying to get the Mythril ring off of her horn so she could wield her magic. The sound of a rattlesnake's tail filled the air as the tendrils flared, their teeth bared as a sign they were about to feast on flesh. You can't go a single day without putting your life in danger, can you? The annoying voice in her head sighed. Give me a second.
Their advance stalled as a purple light began to overtake the clearing, covering their large, murderous eyes with their legs. The Mythril ring on her horn glowed brightly, trying in vain to suppress the overwhelming magic she possessed. A snap filled the air as the trinket disintegrated, lacerating a couple of the creatures, who oozed the black sludge onto the forest floor. Immediately, the vines binding her legs burned away, allowing the mare to stand once more, her hooves a little shaky.
However, the monsters refused to back down, seeing the development as nothing more than a nuisance. Twilight charged her horn, glowing soft lavender before rings of yellow rippled up, congregating at the tip of her horn. Crying out, the mare unleashed the spell, a point of light as bright as the sun emerging. The beasts gave a rattling hiss, retreating into the thicket in an instant, yet they had not fled. "RUN, VINYL!" the mare screeched, slapping her flank to snap her out of the daze.
It seemed to do the trick, as the alabaster mare galloped off into the forest, her former prey right beside her, helping the little ball of sunshine follow them. Through the trees ahead they could make out the glowing eyes of the monsters: a tribute to their speed and stealth. However, as they came hurtling along, they would have to move, lest they be exposed to the blinding light of the miniature sun.
Together, the two mares galloped, jumping over fallen trees, stumps and the occasional trap or two set by Fluttershy and her minions. Twilight's heart pounded in her chest, pumping pure adrenaline. She had not used that much magic since the day she attacked the princesses. Overloading a Mythril horn ring was no easy task: only an extraordinary amount of magic could do so. Then again, the same could be said for the miniature sun flying right behind them.
Slowly, the trees became thinner, the undergrowth less littered and a little more tidy. Even as they passed the threshold of the forest, they did not stop until they were upon the town's doorstep. A dozen emerald eyes flickered in the distance, glaring at them with anger and hunger before they reluctantly turned away: not willing to run the risk of being hurt. Only when they were gone did the miniature sun fade from existence, the librarian panting with expended effort.
"You... you saved me, Twilight," the bounty hunter panted, leaning against a lamp post for support. Neither of them moved for minutes, the adrenaline washing out of both of their systems as they calmed down from their flight. "Listen... I'm an honourable pony," she started, "How about we pause the jam right here and take a break from the dance? You know, mingle, and have a couple of drinks? Then we pick up the beat from the beginning, dig?"
The lavender pony blinked, not quite sure what she was talking about. The DJ smirked and chuckled. "In square terms, it means I'm giving you a break from the hunt. Say... thirty seconds head-start? I'll just stand here and groove and you do your thing. I'll start the counter the second you start running."
"You're still going to hunt me!?" The lavender mare opened her jaw in disbelief. How could she say she was still going to turn her in after saving her life?
"I have to eat, Twilight. I could slip another ring on you right now and knock you out, but that ain't my scene. So, I suggest you get going." In a flash, the purple pony teleported away to some distant point just in sight. However, before she could make it out, she vanished. True to her word, she sat there for the full thirty seconds, letting the mare escape once again. "Damn. I should have made it ten seconds," she chuckled before she moved.
That day proved to be one surprise after another for the lavender unicorn as she quietly fled down the streets of town, looking for the Crusader's mark in desperation. She knew she could not trust them, but for the moment they did not know it, which put her at the advantage. She hoped Fluttershy had been lying to her about their goal. Did they really plan to sacrifice a pony just to remove power's temptation permanently?
Thankfully, as she snuck around, she noticed the town of Coltsberg had very few guards, if any. She planned to keep an eye open and an ear on the alert, just in case. Her memories drifted back to the time she was in Fluttershy's house. She was laying on the ledge, sobbing over how hurtful her friend's words were. Suddenly, some sort of music started playing, making her relax before everything went black.
It only took a minute of thinking to remember she had pulled a similar stunt on a cranky Ursa Minor. Twilight had to admit the feat of putting all of those creatures to sleep was impressive. She had gazed out the window beside her earlier to see the army of critters and monsters in a ring around the central hub of the hut. Even if she could get herself out of there without hurting anyone or anything, she would have been too taxed to deal with the Barghests later on.
The lavender pony shook her head: she could not afford to drift off in musing when she had a bounty hunting pony breathing down her neck, trying her damnedest to catch her again. Looking down the streets of the town, she came across a curious cellar door, since it was neither chained up nor appeared to be locked. Venturing closer, she got a good look at the mark of the Crusaders! Opening it with a flick of her magic, the mare descended into the cellar.
Jars of various pickled items sat on dusty shelves, glimmering in the light of a single hanging candle. Of course, it all had to be an elaborate trick to deter unwanted company. She lifted every jar and prodded under every shelf for a button, or a lever of some kind to open a trapdoor, or a hidden passageway. However, the deeper she looked, the more she came to realize that it was just a dusty old cellar.
Twilight emerged from the underground about an hour later, the darkness of the night beginning to give way to her namesake. Shutting the door, she glanced at the mark burned onto the wood. Perhaps it was just a decoy to throw pursuers off of the real base? Placing her hoof on the mark, she felt the same strange tingle she did from the Huffington base, a click sounding beyond the double doors.
Curious, the mare opened them with her magic to find a different sight. Beyond was a narrow passageway leading down, lit by magical torches that sprang to life as she descended. The door slammed shut behind her, another click telling her the false entrance had reset. "I wonder who came up with that one? It was actually quite clever," she spoke, removing her invisibility spell.
Coltsberg's base reminded her of the one in Ponyville in many ways: a steep winding passage leading down followed by wider passages branching off into halls and rooms. However, the deeper she went into the chambers, the more apprehensive she became. No pony came to greet her, or at least inspect if friend or foe had come into their midst. An eerie calm met her ears as she called out for somepony, anypony to answer.
Rounding the next intersection, she turned: everything suddenly becoming clear. Splotches of red dotted the floors and walls, arrows embedded in the stone at every turn. Tattered vests painted in magenta polka-dots of dried blood lay on the floor beside dented helmets of gold. Doors were broken off their hinges and parts of the ceiling were scorched. "The base is abandoned," Twilight realized.
This conclusion presented her with two new facts: one good and one bad. On one hoof, the guards knew it existed, but by the looks of things it had been quite some time since the battle, so they would not count on her being here. On another hoof, all the food had probably spoiled. Unless she could sneak up into the cellar and steal some of the food there, she would go hungry... but she did not really like the idea of living on pickled onions.
Still, the mare wandered around the facility to try and find the storage room. If nothing else, they probably left things behind that she could use to help her trip a little bit, especially if she was going into the dragon lands. Wandering down flights of stairs and past more hints of the battle within, the lavender pony finally came across the storage rooms. They were dark and caked with dust, but a little light from her horn was all that was required to illuminate the fairly small space.
Rows of shelves contained just about everything she needed: tents, magical stoves and heaters, portable fairy lights, maps of different parts of Equestria as well as pots and utensils to cook and eat with. Sadly, she could not find any place where there might be bits or even saddlebags lying around for her to carry all the stuff in, which frustrated her to no end. "What kind of storage room doesn't have bags!?" she fumed to herself.
Keeping her items in a pile, she left the room in search of something to use as a makeshift bag. She considered making a bindle out of a stick and blankets, but she did not want to look like a hobony. Nosing into many of the different rooms, Twilight let out a soft gasp as she saw a brown pair of saddlebags sitting in the corner. Trotting over, she felt a little bad stealing the bags, but they had no special marks on them, and they were abandoned with the rest of the facility. Thinking along those lines soothed her guilt a little bit, but not so much when she found a pile of bits inside the bag.
Pulling the currency out, she placed them into stacks of ten, yielding twenty-five stacks of coins. "Two hundred and fifty?" she asked herself. "Who keeps that much on them?" Shaking her head, she replaced the bits and levitated the bag, placing it gently on her shoulders. The fabric was worn and tattered, frayed around the edges. Rarity could have made it more appealing, but right now she needed it to be functional. Trotting back to the other room, her mind began to ponder the subject of disguises.
Over the next couple of days, Twilight Sparkle stayed within the confines of the Crusader's base, for the most part. She only ventured outside to visit the local market and steal the odd apple or two (under her invisibility spell, of course). In the course of her combing the base, the librarian had found a whole bunch of books on magical disguises and their applications in the group. Apparently, that base used to be the chief supplier for all the stealth needs of the Crusaders.
Included in the instruction book she found, not only did she need to cement an appearance into her mind's eye, but a suitable back story as well: preferably one that could not be verified unless one of the operatives in the Register's Office looked into the faked files. So, during her excursions to get food, the mare would take note of all the ponies wandering around, trying to decide how to make herself look when the time came.
Of course, being gifted with magic would have her master the spells almost instantly, but it still needed a vivid mental picture of the pony the user wanted to be in order for it to work. Without that, nothing would happen and she would be stuck having to try and explain a floating pair of saddlebags to some guard later down the road. She already decided on a white coat: in tribute to her fallen mentor. However, a lot of other questions remained.
However, on her third day out, she could not help but become infatuated with the colour green. Thinking about it, it would contrast nicely to the white coat, although she was sure Rarity would throw a fit to end all fits. The thought nearly made her giggle out loud in the middle of a quiet street, making her blush as she remembered she was invisible. Soon after, all the other pieces began to fall into place as she noted the differences in architecture between Coltsberg, Huffington and Ponyville.
With the appearance (and subsequent Cutie Mark Sticker design) decided upon, the mare got to work crafting her new appearance in her imagination. A change of hue there, a sprinkle of colour there, a streak or two here and the pony in her mind was coming to life. With that out of the way, she focused her magic, pulling up a sheet of plastic before staining it white to match the coat colour. Sharpening her mental picture, an image of a house popped into existence.
Twilight frowned at the design: it looked far too much like a traditional house and too elaborate in design to fool anypony. Cutie marks were usually simple and featured three or four colours at maximum. An idea suddenly came to mind, much simpler then what she first foolishly planned. It was a house like the last one; however, it appeared to be made of blocks of different sizes, much like building blocks that young colts would play with. She made them all a light green to compliment the future colours of her mane and tail.
After repeating the process on a second sticker, the mare walked in front of a large mirror in the room she decided to sleep in. Much like the base in Ponyville, it was fairly Spartan with only a bed, dresser and said mirror inside. Her new bags laid on the floor at the hoof of the bed: everything inside and ready to go at a moment's notice. However, her concentration was on the mare staring her in the mirror.
Taking a deep breath, Twilight focused on her eyes with all of her attention, the striking amethyst slowly fading into pink before turning white. She panicked at first, staring back into the narrow points, but quickly resumed the spell, turning them into a striking green as she was reminded of the Barghests. "No!" she cried out. "I wanted them to be blue! Ah well, it will have to do," she sighed before focusing on her coat. Soft lavender faded into a snowy white, the mare stopping the spell halfway through.
Next, she focused on her mane: the dark blue becoming progressively lighter until it too became white. With a push from her magic, it slowly faded into a deep green, her pink streak going further to become a sharp black. Satisfied, she started on the next spell. It was slightly more complicated, but it would cement the appearance of her body, but allow her to switch back and forth quickly in an emergency. A light flash surrounded her, showing that it was a success as well.
Applying the stickers over her usual mark, the unicorn placed two powerful spells on them. One made sure the bond would be waterproof so that it would not peel off in rain, or if she had to swim. The second, meanwhile, made the plastic feel like a smooth coat to the hoof. Of course, it could not be one hundred percent perfect, which explained why the girls felt her flank when they first met. She would just have to be careful.
Looking into the mirror, she smiled at her appearance. At first glance, no pony would suspect her of being Twilight Sparkle! However, she became disheartened when she began to notice the similarities upon closer inspection. She may be under watch from hostile ponies for hours at a time! They would surly recognize her in a few minutes! Thinking quickly, the librarian pulled a brush out of her bag and began to fray the edges of her orderly mane and tail.
Staring back at herself, she could still see traces of Twilight Sparkle in the mirror. Looking at her forehead, however, it soon became clear. She sighed and lowered her head, not wanting it to come to such an extreme. But, if she wanted to be undetected, she would have to do so. Taking a deep breath, the mare focused on her horn, applying an invisibility and intangibility spell upon it that Princess Luna had taught her.
Looking at her from the mirror was a white earth pony mare with emerald green eyes, a dark green mane with a streak of black and deeper green. Her cutie mark was that of a simple light green house silhouette made up of several different blocks of all different shapes. She swished her tail happily back at her, trying to pick out the bits that were still her old self. However, they were minor and only things she would know anyway.
"So long, Twilight Sparkle. Hello, Blueprint," the mare smiled to her reflection.
Although her horn was hidden, the mare levitated her saddle bags onto her back, making careful note not to use her magic in public anymore. It was a foreign concept to her, since she used her magic to do a lot of the work that would be tedious to an earth pony. However, it might be beneficial to put her magic aside for a while, like she did for Winter Wrap-Up back home. Trotting to the base's door, she scanned the street before emerging, putting her disguise to the test.
Walking down the streets of Coltsberg, she noticed nopony looked at her in fear, joy or anger anymore. They just looked past her, like she was just another face in the crowd! Twili- Blueprint had to stop herself from giggling like a school filly at the overwhelming success of her disguise. Humming happily to herself, the white pony gladly walked up to the stores and bought some canned goods and other camping items she would need before turning towards the north, heading for the Outlands.