Song Tags (Number in story text denotes where suggested song should be played; (~) indicates where song ends in story):

(#) - Song Title (Artist) [specific interval of song, if applicable]

(1) - After The Fall (Two Steps From Hell)

(2) - Moving Mountains (Two Steps From Hell) [0:00-0:34]

(3) - Asimov (Two Steps From Hell)


In Tooth And Mane

Episode 1: Malice in Wonderland

Part 3

In retrospect, Twilight probably should've been more prepared for Spike's reaction to her news than she was. To be fair, though, there was no way she could've expected Ditzy Doo to be of the same mind.

"I promise I wouldn't get in the way!" Spike assured her for at least the third time. "Seriously, I bet there'll be all kinds of stuff you'll need me for!"

"Like if we desperately need some popcorn popped in the heat of battle?" Twilight suggested dryly as she poked around in her desk for a compass.

"Well…yeah, that could be one thing," the desperate baby dragon conceded in an attempt to keep the upper hoof he liked to imagine he had in situations like these. "But what if Rarity gets ponynapped and I'm the only one who can save her? Or what if she gets trapped behind enemy lines, or needs someone to carry her bags, or can't find her scarf…"

"Or stubs a hoof."

"Or stubs a…" Spike's glare intensified for a moment. "Face it, Twilight," he finally said, turning away and sticking his nose up in the air. "In a few days, you'll be back in here begging me to come help you save Equestria." Too caught up in his fantasy to notice Twilight's eyes drifting up towards the ceiling, Spike clambered up on top of a nearby bookshelf and stood regally at the top, chest thrust out and fists planted firmly on his hips. "You'll look up from your hooves and knees and shout, 'Save us, Spike!' And I'll whisper…whoa-ho!"

After a second or two of swinging his arms so fast they became nothing but purple and green blurs at his sides, Spike completed his topple off the summit of the shelf. Just before he hit the ground, a haze of purple energy caught him in midair and lifted him back up, depositing him gently on top of a stack of books a few feet away.

"Sorry, Spike," Twilight said as the light from her horn faded away and a spare bottle of ink disappeared into her bag. "But this will be a very dangerous journey, and the only reason we're going at all is because of our duties as the Elements of Harmony. I'm afraid you'll just have to stay here and take care of the library while I'm gone."

Spike huffed out a loud sigh and crossed his arms again. "I never get to do anything fun," he pouted quietly.

"It doesn't sound like very much fun to me," Ditzy remarked, coming to stand beside Spike. "It sounds like it'd be hairy-scary-crazy-peary. And that's why you need us two to come along. To protect you."

"To protect us?" Twilight mirrored indifferently, still loading various items into her saddlebags without turning around.

"You betcha!" Ditzy answered gleefully. "See, what I figure is that all those Seven Mices-"

"Vices. Seven Vices."

"Yeah, those guys. They're all gonna be aimin' for you, right? 'Cause you're the Elements of Harnessing…"

"Harmony."

"So while they're all trying to hunt you down and kill you and blow you up with their laser eyes, me an' Spike'll come swooping in from on high and beat 'em back with our own element…the Element of Surprise!" Before she could elaborate any further, the looping flight pattern Ditzy had been absentmindedly taking around the library took an unexpected dive to the right and sent her crashing right into Spike's book stack, which sent them both hurtling to the floor under a dense pile of encyclopedic tomes on battle maneuvers and Equestrian military history.

"Mm-hmm," Twilight hummed apathetically, only half-listening even now. Where had that pamphlet on proper etiquette in magical duels run off to?

"So can we come?" Ditzy asked as she popped out from beneath the pile, wearing a paperback copy of Saving Private Ryder like a hat. "Pretty please?"

"Actually, I…think I might be okay with staying here, now that I think about it," Spike said nervously as he squeezed out from the bottom of the heap. "I'm sure Rarity can handle all those…" He gulped. "…laser eyes without my help."

"And I think it'd probably be best if you stayed behind too, Ditzy," Twilight said, finally pulling her thoroughly stuffed bags shut with some difficulty. "I appreciate your offer, really, but Spike's got the right idea: there'll be a lot of things we'll come across that you just wouldn't be prepared for. Probably that we won't be prepared for either. I just wouldn't feel comfortable…putting you at risk like that."

Ditzy still wasn't convinced. "I swear, Twilight, I could just-"

"Please, Ditzy, just…" The idea that suddenly came to Twilight would most likely turn out to be a terrible one, but it was also one that would provide her a quick and simple way to get Ditzy out of her mane. "Why don't you stay here with Spike this week and help him look after the library? I'm sure he'd appreciate the help." She risked a quick glance in Spike's direction and was rewarded with an excellent view of the squat purple dragon vigorously shaking his head and waving his hands back and forth in protest.

"You sure?" Ditzy asked. "Because I could totally…"

"Yes, I'm sure," Twilight said. "Please stay here, Ditzy? For me?" In the background, Spike slapped his open palm against his forehead.

Twilight was honestly surprised to see how deeply disappointed Ditzy was. "Oh…yeah, I could do that…I guess," she said with downcast eyes that only stayed pointed in Twilight's direction for snippets of seconds at a time. As Twilight watched and Spike stomped away in frustration, the morose mail pony put on a faltering smile even through her obvious dismay. "For you, Twilight," she said quietly. Still smiling.

Well, that was just great. Twilight finally had Ditzy taken care of, but it felt like she'd done it the wrong way, like she'd stabbed her in the back in doing so. Uncoordinated and at times inconvenient though she was, Ditzy couldn't have been any sweeter if Pinkie Pie had baked her from scratch. But considering what they were going up against and how short time already was, the last thing they could afford to bring along with them was someone as…well, as ditzy as her. For a moment, though, Twilight almost wished they could have.

"Thank you," Twilight said gratefully, trying for Ditzy's sake to make it clear that she meant it. Feeling that she should say something else but drawing a blank on what else to say, Twilight eventually settled for an awkward nod and a mumbled goodbye to Spike. He didn't even bother to turn around.

"Well, that went wonderfully," Twilight muttered to herself as she willed the door shut behind her. And of course, it looked like she was the first one ready to leave. Now she'd get to stand in the middle of the square for Celestia knew how long while everypony in town stared at her and whispered about what they had heard she was about to do. Like she needed any more reminders.

Thankfully, she wasn't left waiting alone for long. Only a few minutes had passed before Applejack joined her outside the library, with Apple Bloom trailing along a good distance behind.

"You're ready right quick," the earth pony commented with a smile.

"I could say the same about you," Twilight countered. "What are you bringing?"

"Food."

Inside her head, Twilight smacked herself. That would've been a really, really important thing she would've completely forgotten about without Applejack. "What kind of food?" she asked.

"Well, Ah got some apples, apple cinnamon crisps, apple tarts, apple jam, apple muffins, apple noodles, apple mousse, apple coleslaw, apple salad, apple fool…yeah, that's about it."

"That's it, huh?" Twilight couldn't help but say as she stared at the overstuffed saddlebag that Applejack didn't seem to have any trouble carrying.

"Yep…well, and Ah got this too." Applejack shifted around so the other side of her saddlebag was facing Twilight and pulled out a thick spiral of tightly coiled rope, the loose end snaking back down into the bag. "Ah've had this lasso since Ah was just a little filly," she said proudly. "Can't go wrong with a rope that's strong."

Twilight nodded but didn't say anything further; she didn't get the feeling that Applejack was nervous, but maybe the blond-maned workhorse was just better at hiding it than she was. In any case, as long as she was thinking about that subject, Apple Bloom looked pretty well terrified.

Fluttershy was next to arrive, her bags small and colorfully patterned. As she approached the square, a tiny white rabbit no bigger than one of her hooves bounded up behind her with something square-shaped and bulky-looking clasped between his front paws.

"Oh! Thank you, Angel Bunny," Fluttershy said softly as she nosed open her saddlebag for him to shove the object inside. "I've been so nervous ever since we went to see Princess Celestia that I just keep forgetting things. I don't know what I would have done without you getting my things and helping me pack and…"

With an exaggerated sigh, Angel reached out with both paws and pushed with all his strength on Fluttershy's hind hooves. "And reminding me when it's time to go," Fluttershy added meekly as she trotted the last few steps over to join her friends.

"What'cha got there, Fluttershy?" Applejack asked, motioning toward the beige pegasus with a flick of her head.

"Oh…this is Angel Bunny," Fluttershy replied with a smile. She was halfway through a full introduction of her animal companion when the little rabbit slapped one paw over his eyes and used the other to point impatiently at the fresh bulge in Fluttershy's saddlebag. "Right…" she mumbled with another red-faced grin. "Well, I know that a lot of ponies will be counting on us this week and I thought they might like to know what we did once we get back, so I brought this old notebook for us all to write in about what happens while we're going to stop Manedrake. If…y'know, if you think that'd be a good idea…"

"That's…a great idea, Fluttershy," Twilight replied with complete honesty. It was a brilliant idea, actually, enough that she wished she had thought of doing something similar herself. Over the last year, Twilight had heard a different story about how they had defeated Nightmare Moon and restored balance to Equestria from nearly every pony she'd spoken with; what better way to make sure their expedition was properly documented for future generations than to do it themselves as it happened? The sociable side of Twilight was happy to see Fluttershy smile at her friends' approval of her proposal; the scholarly side, on the other hoof, was just about ready to scream with satisfaction.

A small crowd had started to gather by this point, but Twilight found herself not minding as much as she had; utterly enamored with the prospect of penning a travel diary that would be lauded among the greatest works in the annals of Equestrian history, she hardly even noticed when Rarity strutted into view wearing a daisy-laden sunhat atop her head and carrying a bulging set of matching rucksacks, one hanging off each side of her back. Sweetie Belle stuck close to her side the whole way over.

"Landsake, Rarity…" Applejack muttered in amazement. "How many scarves d'ya need for one trip?"

"Well, accessories are a girl's second-best friend, you know," the primped-up pony preened.

"Don't reckon Ah see much'a that particular friend'a mine," Applejack remarked with a cocked eyebrow and a small smirk. "You'll have ta reacquaint us sometime."

Rarity coughed out a sarcastic laugh and brought her gaze up to a low simmer. "Honestly, it's a wonder you're even presentable half the time," she grumbled to herself, but with an air about it that made it perfectly clear she had intended for Applejack to hear it too.

"Beg ya pardon, Miss Prissy?" Applejack intoned back. The sudden entrance of Pinkie Pie upon the scene overshadowed whatever response Rarity may have had to the open challenge of her more homely companion.

"Isn't anypony gonna ask me what I brought?" the pink pony shouted giddily, her wide-eyed gaze focused on a visibly shocked Twilight as she hung upside-down from one of the lower-hanging branches of the library's tree, a cloud of dislodged leaves swirling around her inverted head. Either the branch wasn't very sturdy or Pinkie Pie wasn't very dedicated to holding onto it, though, because it wasn't long before she disconnected from the tree and crashed to the ground, only to pop back up onto her hooves almost before her back hit the cobblestone. Completely unharmed, of course.

"Ah…think we kinda already figgered what you'd bring by ourselves, Pinkie Pie," Applejack said slowly. "Balloons, for one."

"Party favors," added Rarity.

"Streamers."

"Noisemakers."

"Ribbons."

"Bows."

"Cupcakes."

"Hats."

"More cupcakes."

"Confetti."

"Cupcake mix."

"Hot sauce…"

"Annnnnd Wendell!" Pinkie Pie finished, bouncing in between Applejack and Rarity and throwing a hoof over each of their shoulders, an ear-splitting grin on her face.

"Wendell?" Rarity snorted. "Who on earth is Wen…" The unicorn trailed off with her jaw still gaping as Pinkie Pie swung around the object she'd just pulled out of her bag with her teeth.

"Ya gave your toy chicken a name?" Applejack asked in disbelief.

"Doesn't everypony?" Pinkie Pie replied through her rubber-filled teeth.

Neither pony seemed to have an answer to that question, and so all three of them remained silent for a moment or two. Applejack and Rarity shared an expression similar to the one they might have had if a midsize vegetable cart had smashed through their parlor window during breakfast, and then profusely apologized before exiting out the back door. Being thoroughly baffled herself, Twilight decided that the best approach would be to fill the silence with words. Preferably, the kind that made sense.

"So, does that mean everypony's here?" she said, a false display of cheerfulness invading her speech.

"It does now!" Rainbow Dash answered for the group as she descended into the square to take her long-reserved title of last to arrive.

"Ain't ya gonna tell us why you're late this time?" Applejack teased after a moment's delay. The invasion of Pinkie Pie into her stubbornly straightforward consciousness wasn't something that was easily shaken off, it seemed.

"Nap attack," Rainbow Dash replied without hesitation. "Couldn't be helped."

"Okay, well, as long as you're here now…" Twilight began to say before she noticed something odd. "Uh…aren't you forgetting something, Rainbow Dash?"

Dash looked puzzled. "No?"

"Your bags?"

Instead of looking embarrassed or annoyed, Rainbow Dash just smirked. "Bags? Peh…where I'm goin', I don't need bags. I got everything I need right here…" She lifted up her right foreleg and let all her friends and a few of the braver members of the surrounding crowd move in closer to see the silver-studded, lethal-looking horseshoe attached to the bottom of it. "Just a little somethin' I got from a guy I used to know at flight school," she said proudly. "Always wanted to try 'em out. This guy, he said he talked to this one other pony who got in a fight with these on, and knocked the other dweeb's teeth right out of his skull. Those Vice chumps ain't gonna stand a chance, long as I got these babies on!"

"Well, they do look…dangerous," Twilight scrambled to say as Dash let her hoof fall back onto the street with an audible clunk. "In any case, I suppose that means we're all set. So I guess we'll just…"

"Wait!"

Everypony turned to look at Apple Bloom, who was now standing a bit in front of the mass of ponies ready to watch their departure and chewing on her bottom lip. A moment later, a decision solidified in her eyes, and she ran forward to Applejack for one last goodbye. Sweetie Belle took the opportunity to do the same with her sister, as did Fluttershy with a thoroughly irritated Angel. Even Pinkie Pie got in on the act, rearing up on her hind legs to wave an emphatic goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Cake, who to their credit managed to put on weary but still halfway convincing smiles in return. As her friends reveled in the quiet affection of their families and loved ones, Twilight turned around to watch the library door, waiting for Spike to come running out at the last minute for a final farewell. Seconds ticked away, and the knob remained unturned. She thought she saw Ditzy pass by an open window on the second floor, but other than that the tree behind her was just that: a tree, unmoving and silent.

This was neither the time nor the place for Twilight to start feeling sorry for herself, but that was the feeling that pervaded her mind all the same. At least Rainbow Dash didn't seem to have anypony wishing her well either, she told herself. Granted, that was a terrible thing to be happy about and thinking of it as one was mostly just making her feel worse, but if you thought about it, Rainbow Dash wasn't the type who would've really cared about having some sort of significant other to see her off. She was probably too busy admiring her hoofwear to even notice what was going on around her now. So it was probably okay, then, for Twilight to feel some sense of solidarity with the polychromatic pegasus. And that made her feel just a little bit…

The sudden gap in the crowd was much bigger than what the size of the pony who had caused it should've warranted. The abrupt silence was probably a stretch too, but perhaps the scene that morning had been a more arresting experience than anypony was letting on. Regardless of how fitting the circumstances were, all eyes were still on one orange-coated filly with a bandaged left wing and an eerily blank look on her face. All eyes except those of the one pony that filly was staring at almost unblinkingly, the one who was still grinning with slightly mad approval at her newly weaponized hooves. Rainbow Dash.

The cyan pegasus eventually realized what she was missing around her, and in the moment she turned to look up at the little orange filly, time seemed to skip forward past a thousand words left unspoken. Scootaloo broke away from her parents before either of them realized what she was doing, and without even so much as a whimper she threw her forelegs up around Rainbow Dash's neck and hugged her lifelong hero for all she was worth.

Dash's expression consisted of an eclectic mix of shock, embarrassment, and what, oddly enough, looked a great deal like fear. Laughing nervously as she lowered her neck far enough for Scootaloo's hind hooves to be able to reach the ground again, she reached around her admirer's back with her own hoof and halfhearted hugged her back.

"H-hey, Scootaloo," she mumbled. "Er…you're welcome, I guess. For savin' ya and all. So, um…you can, y'know…I mean, this is really nice of ya and all, but could you, uh…"

Rainbow Dash's lips went numb before she could finish her sentence, but Scootaloo got the message and backed off a bit with a somewhat bashful look. The two stared at each other for a moment, and then…

And then Rainbow Dash smiled.

"You're all right, pipsqueak," she said, her normally gruff tone infused with a good bit more warmth than Twilight or anypony else had ever seen from her. "Gotta work on that flying technique, though."

Despite Dash's bluntness, Scootaloo smiled back. "Promise me you'll come back," she said suddenly. "Promise me you'll save them too. Please?"

"No problem," Dash replied. "I promise."

Scootaloo's smile flared into a grin, and then with one last gaze into her idol's eyes she backed off slightly before running back to her parents, who like much of the crowd had tears gathering at the corners of their eyes.

"Oh, come on," Dash muttered under her breath as she took note of that fact. "It wasn't that cute."

(1) Feeling every passing second as a nauseating pulse inside her stomach, Twilight swallowed back the sudden lump in her throat—the one that had nothing and everything to do with Scootaloo—and sank back into her inexpressive leader mode before anypony noticed how much she was blinking. "We should probably get going," she said somewhat brusquely. "If we're all ready."

"Ready when you are, sugarcube," Applejack replied, with the nods of three other ponies confirming her statement. After a quick shake of her head, Rainbow Dash took to the air and came to a hover over Fluttershy, her eyes already locked into combat mode. That made five everyday ponies ready to start the greatest journey of their lives, and one confused unicorn who could think of nothing but how much she didn't know about what could happen during it. But that was something to be revealed later, when it would just serve to embellish the rousing tale of their victory. Not now. Not when she hadn't the slightest clue how they would go about achieving that victory. Not when she was scared stiff of admitting that to anypony, least of all her friends who had placed their lives in her hooves. Not when the heat in her cheeks wasn't coming from the afternoon sun.

The crowd had long since spread apart to allow them through by the time they actually started walking. No one there who hadn't been in Canterlot that morning knew what the true reason for their trip was, of course, but rumors had a funny way of spreading quickly and never leaving once they reached the homey village of Ponyville. The explosion and the fire at Whitetail Wood would've been more than enough to get the town talking anyway, to say nothing of their resident heroes' fairly publicized audience with the Princess. The fact that they weren't even waiting until morning to leave was the last piece of evidence anypony in Ponyville needed to convince them that something important was happening, and that it was happening right now. Twilight could see the curiosity displayed on all their faces as she passed, and her years of research and relentless pursuit of knowledge made her ache to tell them everything, to sate those pleading faces with facts. But the knowledge of what would become of Equestria—of the entire world, she realized with a shudder—if they failed was something that she wished with all her heart that she herself didn't have to be burdened with. The last thing the general population of Ponyville needed or deserved was to shoulder that same weight without her there to explain things further.

So Twilight kept walking, and looked at nothing but the cobblestones between her hooves. And as she and her friends finally reached the outskirts of town and their home began to sink back into the valley behind them, her eyes lifted again to look ahead. To whatever it was that lay over the next hill, around the next corner. To something all her magic and all her strength wouldn't be enough to overcome alone. To something that would require the unyielding trust of her friends in her abilities, and her own unyielding trust in theirs.

And that was the one thought that didn't occur to Twilight as she unfurled the map she had been given just before her brief return to Ponyville and took the first steps down the road to her greatest adventure yet: trust was an easy thing to say she had, but how much of it did she truly feel? How much did the others feel for her?

And how far along the winding ink path on the page in front of her would they have to go before any of them knew for sure? (~)

• • •

All things considered, they'd made good time to the Fortress of the Four, considering their meet-up with that hotheaded little pegasus and all. What had her name been? Rainbow something-or-other. She hadn't really been paying too much attention when she'd cracked open the little pony's mind; mostly, she'd just been looking to scare the living daylights out of the runt.

Rainbow Dash. That was it. Well, by this point Rainbow Ash was probably a more appropriate name. Geez, that forest had burned good. She hadn't had so much fun setting something on fire since…well, since the last time she'd set something on fire. Guess you don't realize how much you miss things unless you go a few hundred years without them, she'd thought once or twice that day.

In any case, she had arrived now, along with the Living Smokestack himself, who for some reason had been following her around ever since she'd woken up that morning to find herself finally back in Equestria, with a scorched expanse of shattered rock surrounding her and the scent of fresh ozone still draining away from the lightning bolt that had delivered her back into the mortal plane. Hopefully, the bozo who'd summoned them all this time would know a bit more about what he was doing. The last one had skipped a few steps and was already spread across several of the fortress's walls by the time she had reached him. Mr. Cloudy over here said he was like that when he got there too. She had never forgiven him for not saving her a piece or two.

Predictably, the first and only one of them waiting outside the castle when she and Cloudy arrived was Big Brother. He hated being called that, so she made a point of calling him nothing else. Somehow, even after thousands of years it was still funny to see the top of his head spin off into the stratosphere.

"You're late," he said gruffly as she came in for a hard but still mostly controlled landing. He had fallen back on his default form this go-around: reddish-maroon coat, good-sized unicorn horn, flowing bronze mane that looked about as oily as the black marble beneath his hooves, and a cutie mark of an opened eye that matched his own dull red ones perfectly.

"Got chested up by some local out in the boonies," she explained once her hooves were on the ground, in the center of a now deeply cracked square of tile. "You know how it is, Big Brother."

"I would've thought I could say the same about you," he cut back with acid in his voice. His eyes and his cutie mark glowed like rubies now. "And I'm not your brother."

"Technically, we're all related if you look at it sideways. So yeah, you kinda are."

Big Brother sighed and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. When he opened them again a moment ago, the irises had dried out into a misty gray color. "Get inside," he continued, his attention pointed at the crackling puff next to her this time. "And at least try to look like one of them." As Big Brother turned to leave, Cloudy grew a wispy set of legs and contorted himself into a roughly pony-like shape, one which eventually solidified into an actual earth pony with a jet black coat and a wild, unkempt mane that shifted and shimmered like the embers of a dormant fire. His cutie mark, appropriately enough, was an undulating ball of reddish-orange flame.

"Aw, can't you let him express himself, Big Bro?" his pegasus partner cooed in a way that was sure to infuriate everypony within earshot. "He's so adorable when he's just a bitty wittle waincwoud. And hey, if he goes postal again, all we gotta do is turn the fan on high."

The pony formerly known as Cloudy grew to nearly twice his previous size in an instant, his pulsating mane dancing around in a nonexistent breeze. "Oh, cool it, Angela," she added in a deadpan a moment later. "No one's impressed."

Now Not-So-Cloudy was three times as big, a feat that the thoroughly amused pegasus reacted to with a yawn and a lazy smirk. A glare from Big Brother quickly brought both of them back down to Earth, though, and with varying degrees of reluctance they both followed him into the cavernous main hall of the Fortress of the Four.

(2) Even in the nearly pitch-black darkness inside the foyer, four other diversely-sized equine shapes were still visible in various parts of the room. So everypony else had decided to show up early too, it seemed. Fine by her. If time had ever held any real weight to her, it would've been the kind of weight that could be easily ignored until she felt it was time for her to start bothering to carry it.

"Even Acedia beat you here this time," Big Brother said with a smirk, using the archaic name for his fellow Vice like he was prone to do way too often. "That local from the boonies must've had quite a chest on him."

"Hey, Big Brother, you see this?" the golden-maned pegasus intoned back, forcing a lethargic expression onto her face without too much difficulty. "This is me giving a-"

"Quiet!" Big Brother hissed suddenly. "The Summoner's here," he continued with a nod towards the back of the room before she could get a chance to speak over him.

With a dismissive snort, the aquamarine pegasus turned to face this millennium's new bozo. He was a kind of scrawny-looking pony, with some kind of navy blue coat and a black mane that lay mostly hidden beneath an expansive robe of the same color. He was also a unicorn, of course; they were the only mortal ponies with both the magical skill and the alarming lack of foresight necessary to summon the Seven Vices that now occupied the room with him. He also seemed to be in one piece so far, though, so perhaps this most recent power-hungry wannabe had actually done his homework. Regardless, they were all here now, waiting for him to speak.

And waiting. And waiting. Guy isn't too much of a talker, is he?, the pegasus found herself thinking at the exact moment he started talking. (~)

"So these are the seven great Vices of ponykind," he murmured pensively, sounding like he either wasn't quite aware that said Vices were standing right in front of him or just didn't care that they could hear him. "Sloth, Gluttony, Vanity, Envy, Anger, Greed…and Pride," he rattled off, directing the last three titles towards Cloudy, the pegasus, and Big Brother, respectively. "To be perfectly frank, I must say I expected something slightly more…intimidating."

Pretentious, too. She could respect that. But not like it. She didn't really think of herself as a mare who really liked anypony.

Big Brother held out a foreleg in front of Anger, though the move was purely symbolic; if Anger had really wanted to lay into the cocksure mortal, nothing in this world or any other Greed had ever heard of was going to stop him. "We take whatever form belies the circumstances we find ourselves in," Big Brother explained through gritted teeth.

"And I suppose you thought your true forms would frighten me?" the navy blue unicorn laughed. "There is only one thing anypony truly fears, and very soon I will no longer have need to fear that either. So you'll forgive me when I say that your…aptitude is less than striking thus far."

With a throaty roar that had haunted the final moments of so many mortals over the past few thousand years, Anger's mane fully erupted into a column of white-hot flame, and as the mortal's eyes widened ever so slightly, Cloudy returned with a vengeance, his earthly manifestation dissolving into a billowing maelstrom of fire and smoke that filled the entire front hall of the castle. Thunderclaps rent the air and jets of lava sprayed across the hall at random…and the mortal merely smiled. With another roar, the black and orange mass rushed at him, while Greed watched from behind with growing curiosity. She hadn't been present for the last time this had happened; she didn't want to miss a second of it this time. The mortal wouldn't even have time to turn that smile into a frown before Anger ripped him into bite-sized chunks.

Except Anger never even reached the navy blue unicorn, because as soon as he got within three feet of the mortal's nose he ran smack into an electric blue barrier that appeared without any warning whatsoever around the still unperturbed unicorn. Okay, didn't expect that, Greed had to admit to herself as a gasp rang out from the weaker Vices sequestered away in the shadows. Full-body protection against even the strongest physical and magical attacks…there were very few spells powerful enough to do that, and only one powerful enough to do it against the unbridled power of a ticked-off Vice. This mortal had done his homework. As Anger beat relentlessly against the insubstantial barricade, the mortal raised an eyebrow.

"Are you quite finished?" he intoned. The cloud paused for a moment, and then to Greed's surprise, Anger collected himself back into his mortal form, his brutish face twisted with confusion as he snuffed at the ethereal blue force field. "Yes…I think you'll do very nicely," the mortal said in an almost loving croon. Whisking away the force field with a flash from his horn, he stepped past Anger and addressed the entire room.

"Allow me to introduce myself," he announced. "I am Manedrake. I have summoned you all here because I require your…unique talents in bringing forth the legendary Four Horses of Destruction."

It was the same spiel they all heard every time one of their summoners made it far enough through the process to meet them all, but after this mortal's display a moment ago, Greed actually felt inclined to pay attention this time. No one had ever actually completed the ritual he was talking about, but right now it wasn't looking too far-fetched to believe that this pony might be the first to pull it off.

"As you all are undoubtedly aware, the procedure is complicated and will involve a great deal of preparation in order to be successful. The Seven of you will assist me with this and another smaller matter, and when the time comes you will play the roles the ritual demands of you. Understood?"

"All except for that smaller matter," Big Brother replied.

"In a moment, in a moment," Manedrake continued. Now he turned to face Greed specifically. "You encountered some resistance on your way here, did you not?"

"Hardly," Greed scoffed. "And how'd you know th-"

"Magic can accomplish many things," he said, cutting her off like, quite frankly, no one else ever had who'd lived to tell about it. "Inference can accomplish many more. For example, I can infer from the direction from which you arrived and your conversation with Pride that you passed through Ponyville on your way here, a town which has become noteworthy as of late due to the exploits of six of its more prodigiously talented residents. And based on your chosen form, the 'local' you chanced upon was most likely a pegasus as well. A pegasus who, judging by her reportedly rash and confrontational behavior, was most likely a very specific member of that group of six."

As Greed's glare intensified, Manedrake's smirk grew wider. "I can also infer from your expression and what I know of your abilities that you've just attempted to read my mind, and have found yourself unable to do so. Is that about right?"

Every single one of Greed's comparisons to former Summoners fell away. This guy was something else. "The small matter," Manedrake said to Pride again, "concerns those six ponies from Ponyville. The reason they are as well-known as they are is because they have, within the last year or so, become the physical embodiments of the Elements of Harmony."

"Oh, gimme a break," Greed interrupted. "The Elements are small-time magic."

"And yet they were still large enough to defeat one of the most powerful magical forces this land has ever seen," Manedrake countered. "The Elements themselves are hardly dangerous, but their avatars are a different matter. For every spell, there is inherently a counterspell. If they are allowed to discover the counters to your powers, they may very well pose a very severe threat to our operations. At the very least, they could significantly delay the process to summon the Four. At the very worst, they could completely unravel it."

"So what do we do?" Anger growled in a raspy voice, speaking up for the first time since his summoning.

"The avatars were chosen because they are strong at heart and noble to their cores," Manedrake said, his eyes narrowing as he spoke. "They epitomize the very underpinnings of virtuous purity. I need you to corrupt them. By deceiving them, by tricking them, by pitting them against each other and against the morals that give them their power…whatever the method, their strengths must become their greatest weaknesses. Accomplish that, and the Elements will abandon them, as will any leverage they may seek to gain against us."

"Seems like a lot to go through for something that probably won't even happen," Greed muttered.

"I have worked far too long and suffered far too much to be undone by a petty miscalculation of my own strength," Manedrake growled, suddenly incensed. He brought himself back down under control a moment later. "Unlikely as their interference may be, it is still a possibility, and as such we will not hinge whether we succeed or fail on the assumption that that possibility will not become reality," Manedrake explained. "I plan on leaving you to our own devices as far as this matter is concerned, but rest assured that I do so with the belief that it will be taken care of without my involvement." He gazed around the room one last time. "You should have no trouble finding them. Don't disappoint me."

With that, Manedrake turned on his hoof and swept out of the room, through a secluded door in the back wall into some kind of private quarters. Everypony remaining inside the echoing hall turned to Big Brother.

"Well, Big Brother?" Greed asked. "What'cha gonna do?"

"What am I going to do?" he repeated sullenly. "I'm going to spread my forces all over this miserable country because our Summoner can't tell a group of children playing dress-up from a legitimate threat." He turned to the smallest of the shadows languishing near the edges of the room. "Just keep them out of the way," he said. "Do what you always do." The shadow gave a slow nod, then began to drift towards the door.

"And you," Big Brother continued, shifting his gaze to one of the larger shadows. "If they get away from her, you know what to do." Another nod followed his order, and soon enough the Seven Vices had been reduced to five.

"What about us?" Anger asked.

"We're staying here," Big Brother answered darkly. "If anypony's going to waste their time mucking about with those six weaklings, I'd rather it be somepony who knows how to waste time."

(3) His tone making it more than clear that the conversation was over, Big Brother stalked off after Manedrake to see what else their surprisingly capable Summoner wanted them to do. After a moment, the remaining Vices followed, but not before Greed thought back to Manedrake's mentioning of her—what had he called it—"encounter" with Rainbow Dash. So that little firebrand was one of the Elements of Harmony…well, whatever gods were responsible for that mistake, they sure weren't paying too much mind to her now, judging by what was coming her way. A part of her wanted to break away from Big Brother and go add her own particular flair to "keeping them out of the way", but a much larger part of her didn't want to be any farther from Manedrake than necessary. The ability to stop Anger dead in his tracks and the tenacity to use it without batting an eye…now that was power, and she could see in his eyes the kind of longing for it that defined her own existence in more ways than one. A few days with a pony like him, a few days to steer him a bit left of center as far as his goals were concerned, and she might very well forget that Rainbow Dash even existed.

Then again, it wasn't like it would really matter whether she remembered the scrawny cyan pegasus or not. In a few days, Rainbow Dash wouldn't remember her either. In fact, if the two Vices headed her way did their jobs right, she'd be lucky if she could remember anything at all. Satisfied with that thought, Greed extended her wings and glided ahead to join the rest of her brethren, but not before one last deliciously vivid thought floated through her head. One that had nothing to do with Rainbow Dash, or anypony else for that matter. Just her. Always her. Just how it should be.

This is gonna be fun. (~)