Chapter One Hundred and Ninety-Nine

We appeared in Fleur's parlor. Fleur, Kat, and Blossom were sitting at a table. Kat and Fleur had tea. Kat wasn't wearing gloves yet, so it was probably right before she got cursed.

"So, are we sure about our approach?" Blossom asked. "Once we kick this battle off, we won't be able to retreat even an inch."

"Retreat won't be necessary," Kat replied. "We just need to be firm and unyielding. If we lose focus for even an instant, all will be lost. But as long as we can hold out, we can easily, if slowly, cut through her defenses."

"This battle may be one of the deciding ones," Fleur sighed. "It'll be difficult and hard-fought, but I'm sure we'll prevail. I admit I'm a little worried, but…"

"Don't be," Kat said with a calm grin. "You're leading the charge. If you show even a hint of weakness, she'll tear you to pieces."

"That's right," Blossom said, showing off her fangs with a cute smile of her own. "You can't afford to worry or hesitate, Fleur."

"I know, I know," she said, plopping her head down on the table. The tea cups gently rattled. "But making Nav compete is really gonna upset her…"

"If she didn't want to compete, she shouldn't have suggested the idea," Blossom said.

"She didn't!" Fleur said. "He did! Nav already got herself turned into a noble lady… Should we really keep piling things like this onto her?"

"Of course," Kat said. "It's only natural for the great hero Nav to finally be lauded for her eternal beauty, as well."

"...Aren't you concerned about making her unhappy?" Fleur said. "What kind of behavior is that, for a vassal?"

"Nothing will ever, ever make Nav happy," Kat said with a shrug. "I mean, she doesn't even want to be alive, let alone forced to put up with all of us. To her, it's all just shades of gray anyway. And to me, if she's going to be miserable at home, she might as well be miserable while making a name for herself instead. As her vassal and blood servant, isn't that the best I could hope for?" For some reason, all of that made Fleur look extremely alert. Blossom's head sank to the table instead.

"...That's really depressing," Blossom quietly said.

"Indeed, it makes dealing with her almost impossible," Kat said. "Oooh, will she be forced to smile at the pageant? She has the cutest fake smile!"

"...Doesn't want to be alive?" Fleur slowly whispered.

"Yep," Kat replied with a nod. "So, if we're done planning our strategy for the pageant, I was wondering if you could help me plan something else."

"Does it involve helping Nav?" Fleur asked. "And what was that about her not wanting to be alive?"

"What do you mean? That statement has everything you need to know in it. And yes, my second plan does involve helping her. Do you know what a blood servant is?"

"Is that… is that a ghoul?" Blossom asked. "Don't tell me Nav got involved with another vampony!"

"Not that kind of blood servant," Fleur said, though her eyes didn't leave Kat. "You mentioned earlier that you were Nav's blood servant. Doesn't that essentially mean that you're dedicating your family line to hers?"

"Indeed," Kat said. "Fleur, you've read all the available human literature, right? Was there any mention of such a thing in them?"

"I'm afraid not. How well did you explain it to Nav before you pledged yourself?"

"I didn't waste words explaining, because she just would have told me no. I still haven't explained any of it to her, actually."

"...Is that really fair?" Blossom asked. "I mean, isn't that kinda like getting married, but without the consent?"

"It was at the same time she asked me to become a vassal," Kat said. "Is that not the pony version of a blood servant?"

"It's the closest standard equivalent, from what I'm understanding," Fleur said. "But vassals only pledge their own lives, not the lives of their offspring. Do you need us to help you tell Nav what she signed up for?"

"No, I've already decided to reveal it little by little. She can't tell me not to have kittens for her if I do it without asking first! What I need help with is a little different…"

"Is… is that really okay?" Blossom slowly asked.

"Nav is essentially immortal," Kat said. "That means I won't be able to serve her until her last breath. I must prepare the future generations to serve her while I still can. For now, I just need assistance seducing her."

Blossom and Fleur stared at her in silence for a few seconds before they turned their gazes on each other. Finally, they both started giggling. "S-seduce her? That slut?" Fleur said.

"That should be easy!" Blossom said. "I mean, just look at you!"

"...Nav and I have a complicated and unpleasant past," Kat said.

Blossom was still giggling, but Fleur stopped and got a more pensive look on her face. "It's obviously pretty bad, if it means Nav won't sleep with you. But it couldn't be something unforgivable, or you wouldn't be a vassal. That means you can still manage it, I bet!"

"Let's start with why you want to seduce her," Blossom said.

"What did the human literature have to say about human heat cycles?" Kat asked.

"It never mentioned them," Fleur said.

"What about cities segregated by gender?"

"There was some gender segregation, but it didn't have anything to do with heat cycles. What does that have to do with anything?"

"Why wouldn't something so important be found in any of their literature at all?" Kat asked. "Surely it would merit at least a passing mention, maybe a joke or two."

"...Are you saying humans don't have heat cycles?" Blossom asked.

"According to Nav, they're always in heat," Kat replied with a nod.

"And just like that, so many things suddenly make sense," Fleur said. "Both about Nav's behavior and about the books I've read."

"Poor Nav," Blossom sighed. "I guess being a vampony isn't all bad… I couldn't imagine being in heat forever!"

"So my goal, as Nav's blood servant, is to help ease her burden when no one else is available," Kat said. "But due to our history, she distrusts my intentions. While I want to bring her only joy and pleasure, she fears something more sinister."

"She's really pliable right after waking up," Blossom said. "But you need to make sure to actually have a way to wake her up, unless you just wait for it to happen."

"Can't you just gently shake her?" Fleur asked.

"No, Nav's beyond a heavy sleeper," Kat said. "You can do whatever you want to her while she's sleeping and she'll never notice. It takes magic, an elemental, or pain to wake her."

"Surely you jest," Fleur said. "That's just ridiculous!"

"It's magical, actually," Blossom said. "I talked it over with her elemental when I tried waking her last time. Apparently it's because she's part tree."

"I used to sneak into her room at night and cuddle with her, since Flo didn't mind," Kat said with a nod. "But I have an elemental I can use to wake Nav up, so that's no problem. If it'll be while she's sleeping, I can use the opportunity to cuddle with her beforepaw so she can't say no!"

"Exactly," Fleur said with a nod. "If Nav wakes up to your cute smile and warm grasp, I'm sure she'd realize you never meant harm!"

"...Are you sure that won't just scare her?" Blossom asked. "I mean, have you already tried talking this over with Nav?"

"Of course," Kat replied. "She said no. That's why I'm asking you for help."

"Shouldn't you just take the rejection…?" Blossom asked.

"I did take it. That's why I've been preparing so thoroughly for my next and final attempt. She won't be able to reject me again. I'll make sure of that."

"That's so romantic!" Fleur sweetly said. "You truly are the ideal servant for Navi, Kat!"

"Didn't that sound like a threat to you?!" Blossom said.

"Don't be silly!" Fleur said, waving a hoof. "With Nav's personality, I bet waterworks would nail her down. Why don't you try crying a little, Kat?"

"Oooh, that's a good idea," she said. "I haven't tried poking at that weakness before… Breaking her might be easier than I thought!" Fleur and Kat both start laughing while Blossom looked on in a mix of fear and confusion. With that, the memory finally went gray.

We all stared at the silent scene for about a minute before I loudly sighed. "God dammit."

"So this is how a true predator plans her strikes," Taya whispered. "I guess I still have a lot to learn…"

"Please don't base your view of predators on Kat," I said. "She's on an entirely different level. Plus, that whole exchange just made me feel like an object. Shit like this is exactly why I want to get rid of my pull."

"Remember how I said Fleur was just manipulating you?" Taya asked.

"Yeah. I knew we would be manipulating and using each other, but I wasn't expecting her to be so shameless about it. That said, I don't know if I can find it in me to hold it against any of them."

"Why not?" Fear asked as she finally appeared.

"I knew Kat was crazy when I made her a vassal, so any of her bad behavior is basically on me by default," I said with a shrug. "And agreeing to make her a blood servant without first asking what that meant was only asking for trouble. After everything I've seen, I can only say that I brought all of this on myself. I ignored my instincts telling me not to trust Kat. Because of that, she's tied to me so tightly there is no longer a way to remove her."

"And you aren't concerned about her working with Fleur against you?" Reason asked, appearing next to Fear.

"Just as choosing to work with Kat was on me, so was choosing to work with Fleur," I replied. "I knew they were both manipulative, deceitful monsters from the beginning. And they never would have found each other if I hadn't brought them together. It's no surprise that I was one of their favorite topics and it's even less of a surprise that they were plotting against me. The only surprise here is how blatant they are about it. I thought Fleur was more subtle."

"So, what, you're just resigned to being surrounded by shitty people?" Fear asked.

"I'm not surrounded by any people. All I have to work with are half-fae, half-animal. By definition, that means almost everyone is going to be shitty until I fix my pull. And even then, compared to what I consider normal, most of them will still be shitty."

"...Kat and Fleur were shitty before they met you," Reason said. "Are you sure you aren't just making excuses for them?"

"Of course I'm just making excuses for them," I sighed. "But what else can I do? I'm bound too closely to both of them now. I can't just cut them off. And without using the elementals, I can't unfuck their personalities directly. All I can do is fix myself, remove the pull, and try to set a better example so they can fix themselves. And then, when they finally die of old age, I can look back on what a huge mistake it was and resolve to make better choices in companions in the future. Until then, I have to take responsibility for Kat's insanity and deal with Fleur's… Fleurness."

"Unless we just use a water elemental to fix them," Taya said.

"I'm planning on talking to Kat about that. I don't think Fleur needs a lobotomy, though."

"If you choose to marry for love instead of power, would you ever consider Kat, assuming she wasn't insane?" Reason asked. "She definitely loves you, probably more than anyone else. If she wasn't so creepy, think how adorable she'd be!"

"If she wasn't so creepy, she wouldn't be Kat," I said. "Besides, the way my life is going, whoever I marry will probably be fine with Kat servicing me on the side. Whether or not I'm fine with it is something I'll have to decide later."

"So are we just gonna overlook Blossom in all this?" Fear asked.

"She was the chosen one," I said. "The one who was supposed to bring balance to Fleur and Kat!"

"I think that might be asking a little too much," Taya said. "Kat's full of the kind of crazy only you can give someone, mommy. Blossom never stood a chance. With Fleur there too? It's no surprise she just got swept away like that."

"This is why I can't have nice things, Taya. Do you believe me now when I say everyone was conspiring against me?"

"I believed you from the start," she smugly replied, hopping up to hug me. "After all, I did plenty of my own conspiring!"

"You certainly couldn't be Nav's filly if you weren't a conniving, scheming little conspirator," the guide warmly said, patting Taya on the back.

"That's not very nice," I said. "So, is the main takeaway just that the three of them are doing dumb shit behind my back?"

"Basically," Reason said. "It surprises me that you're okay with this."

"I'm not okay with it. It's just, compared to some of the other stuff I've seen so far, this is tame. Plus, I already suspected something like it happened anyway. I'm afraid it'll take a lot more to really piss me off, now."

"So, ready to move on?" the guide asked.

I finally let Taya down and she dropped back to the floor. "Let's do it," I said with a nod. Her eyes lit up and we kicked it.

We appeared in Rarity's boutique. She was lounging on a pompous and overdecorated couch. Twilight and the rest of their important friends were chilling on their own couches in a general circle. Several of them had small tables with tea next to them, but most of the cups were untouched.

"So, is Nav back yet?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"She is," Twilight said, her voice sounding somewhat grim. Even her face seemed tense. "Quite a lot of things happened while she was gone, too. I also have another large history lesson that I'm afraid you'll all have to sit through."

"Is Nav… okay?" Fluttershy asked. Her voice was quivering a little.

"Physically, yes," Twilight said, hanging her head. "But… I'm quite confident she was thoroughly traumatized. Everything snowballed out of control so quickly that there was nothing we could do…"

"Where is she now?" Rarity asked. "And what about Spike?"

"They're both in Canterlot. I think they have plans to stay there for a while to recover. Spike wasn't affected nearly as much as Nav, but… It would be easier to start from the beginning with the history lesson."

"Bullshit!" Pinkie shouted, making her friends all blink. "What happened to Nav?!"

"For starters, she was tortured," Twilight said. That definitely got their attention, and even made Taya flinch. "But if you won't let me start at the beginning, I won't tell you anything else."

They all clearly wanted to press her for more details, but Applejack took the lead with a simple, "Start talkin', then."

"This is the history as I know it. A very long time ago, when Discord was still free, he attacked Iceland. While he was there, he injured a dragon named Pyrite, casting him into a volcano that happened to house Char, the fire elemental. Char took advantage of the situation and embedded himself into Pyrite, but wasn't strong enough to completely control him. Over time, Char's influence turned Pyrite into an effective, if eccentric, ruler. Some enormous amount of time later, Discord appeared in Equestria. Pyrite sent a dragon named Reginald to assist the ponies. He partnered with Luna and together, they defeated several monsters to help the ponies survive. After Discord was sealed, Reginald continued working with Luna for another vast amount of time."

"So if he's such a big hero, why haven't we heard of him?" Dash asked.

"Censorship," Twilight replied with a shrug. "Celestia wanted to be the sole hero, so she got rid of all the history she didn't like, including what came next. Eventually, a powerful and influential dragon in Iceland named Bahamut started selling his own eggs to pirates. Reginald and Luna worked together to discover his crimes, but Bahamut used his influence to paint them as kidnappers of the egg they recovered. Pyrite knew the truth, but due to his condition, he couldn't convince enough dragons. In the end, Bahamut was advocating for a full-scale war against the ponies to cover up his crime."

"Was there no other proof they could find?" Rarity asked. "Surely there had to be something that could sway the tide!"

"They had all the proof necessary to prove Bahamut was guilty, of course," Twilight said. "But Nav learned a very important lesson on her trip. To dragons, strength is truth, and Bahamut was strong enough for dragons to flock to him. Evidence meant nothing to them. In the end, Reginald, Pyrite, Luna, and Celestia came up with a treaty. Unfortunately, the conditions of the treaty were sickening. In order to maintain the peace and to avoid a huge calamity that could risk entire continents, the dragons agreed to give the ponies one egg every ten years as a hostage."

"That's evil!" Fluttershy yelled. That seemed strange, since I'm pretty sure she was terrified of most dragons. "I know things were bad, but how could the princess let that happen?!"

"Princess Celestia is just a mare," Twilight said with a sigh. "I'm afraid that's something Nav has forced me to realize. Unfortunately, mares can be evil. Another vast amount of time later, a certain naive filly was taking a certain magic test on a certain egg that happened to be a prisoner of war. That innocent, naive filly used her magic to hatch said egg, giving a certain evil mare the perfect tool to use against the dragons. As it so happened, that evil mare was very likely waiting for such an opportunity, because the dragon egg that filly hatched happened to be a very special one. In fact, it was the very same egg that kicked off the whole ordeal, belonging to a certain egg-selling evil dragon. Now that the evil mare had the evil dragon's son in her hooves, she could do all kinds of evil things…"

"You can't be serious," Rarity slowly said. "T-Twilight…" All of them seemed crestfallen at the news, including Twilight.

"After the treaty was signed, Reginald returned to Iceland," Twilight said. Apparently she was dropping the act and going back to old history. "While he was there, Bahamut and his forces ambushed him. Luna came to assist, but she could only barely fend them off. Celestia eventually came to her aid and rescued them both. In return, she demanded that Luna cut contact with Reginald as much as possible and to not interfere with Iceland again. According to Nav, losing her friend was a large part of what drove Luna to become Nightmare Moon."

"So even that was Celestia's fault!" Applejack shouted.

"After all the dust settled, Bahamut began consolidating his forces," Twilight said. "Eventually, Iceland settled into a few factions. The two most powerful were headed by Bahamut and Pyrite. Bahamut created some kind of organization called the Purifiers. From what Nav said, they were a very militaristic group that ruled with a mostly fair yet very iron fist. Reginald was their number one enemy, with Celestia as a close second. On Pyrite's side, everything eventually broke down on gender lines. Pyrite's mother, a dragon named Tintaglia, was trapped inside his fortress. Since she was stuck in the room that housed the entirety of Pyrite's hoard, her own power grew and she began ruling over the female dragons. Unfortunately, being stuck underground so long drove her completely insane."

"...That's bad, right?" Pinkie slowly asked.

"When Nav left for Iceland, she knew none of this," Twilight said. "She arrived in Iceland, in dragon form, with Spike and Reginald. The instant they arrived, they met a purifier. As soon as he learned who Reginald was, things got awkward. Unfortunately, the purifier chose to talk instead of attacking immediately. From him, Nav learned some of the history about Reginald and Bahamut. In the end, Nav and Spike went with the purifier in an attempt to learn more about Spike's past."

"Why?" Fluttershy asked. "Staying with Reginald would have been so much safer! Didn't she go there to find the elementals in the first place?!"

"Several reasons," Twilight said. "First, to learn more about the purifiers and why they hated Reginald. After all, Nav didn't know anything about the situation or about Reginald's past, so for all he knew, Reginald really was evil. Second, the water elementals were on an island to the south of Iceland. Reginald was heading north while the purifiers were concentrated in the south. That would give her a base of operations closer to the elementals. Third, both Nav and Spike wanted to see more of the dragon homeland. They had no way of knowing what kind of mess they were walking into."

"Nav needs to get it together already," Pinkie said, shaking her head. "Hasn't she realized yet that she's a hero? She doesn't get to have easy trips. If she goes somewhere, trouble will find her one way or another. The sooner she comes to terms with it, the easier her life will be!"

"Yeah, well, fuck you too," I said, crossing my arms.

"I think that might have been a compliment," Taya said. "At least, sort of."

"It's rude to spout nonsense," Twilight said, cutting Pinkie short. "I think we all know what Nav would do to you if she heard you say that. Anyway, the two of them learned a lot more of the history from Bahamut himself when he arrived at the purifier sanctuary. That night, Nav used dream magic to speak with Luna and Celestia to learn even more. She also happened to completely infuriate Celestia in the process, giving her a very well-deserved tongue-lashing."

"Way to go, Nav!" Dash said. "But uh… isn't that dangerous?"

"The guards will probably talk about how hard she sparred against Blaze for years," Twilight said with a smirk. "The next day, Nav and Spike got caught and were forced to reveal a part of the truth. In the end, Bahamut rallied his forces with the intent of killing Pyrite and Reginald, then attacking Equestria. They carried Nav and Spike for the assault on Pyrite's stronghold. When they arrived, Pyrite and Reginald came out. Nav realized that Pyrite was under the control of a fire elemental and convinced Char to leave Pyrite. After that, Pyrite very soundly defeated Bahamut. He then sent a messenger to Celestia, demanding the return of the eggs."

"...So Bahamut was the one who tortured Nav?" Rarity asked.

"No, that was Pyrite," Twilight said. "After Bahamut was defeated, Pyrite forced all the dragons to obey him. Once the purifiers submitted, Pyrite dragged Nav into his fortress and began torturing her for information. Apparently he wanted to know about the elementals, Discord, the princess, and basically every other facet of the outside world. Nav cooperated, but that only spared her the worst of it. As an upside, Spike was completely unharmed. Pyrite spoke with him at length, but Nav was the only one hurt."

"Wasn't Nav their savior, though?" Fluttershy asked. "Why would Pyrite hurt her?"

"Pyrite knew Nav wasn't a dragon, and that angered him," Twilight replied. "Dragons are very prideful. Knowing that Nav was masquerading as a dragon, causing trouble, and had a connection to the being who had controlled him for so long made him ornery. Unfortunately, Nav's troubles only grew. Right as her treatment was improving, she was kidnapped by female dragons. They brought her to meet Tintaglia, the ancient insane mother of Pyrite."

"Did she torture her even more?" Rarity quietly asked.

"Tintaglia was, as Nav put it, as stereotypically motherly as one could get," Twilight said. "To the point where it was quite clearly past insanity. Honestly, I'm not entirely sure what she meant by that, but her voice sounded so cold and distant when she told me that I knew pressing for more information would be bad. I'm probably not supposed to tell you all this, but Nav described her as Fluttershy on steroids, mixed with more raw power than an entire herd of elephants, with a mind more full of screws and nuts than even Pinkie's."

"No wonder she was traumatized," Dash muttered, glancing over at Pinkie. The pinkest of ponies ignored it, thankfully.

"So after Nav was kidnapped and dragged to the most powerful dragon alive… Tintaglia adopted her on the spot," Twilight said. Everyone blinked and looked around, perhaps wondering if they heard that correctly. "As thanks for saving her son's life, Tintaglia forced Nav to become her daughter. And appalled at Nav's treatment at Pyrite's claws, she forced Nav to stay in her chambers. There, she proceeded to spoil her new baby hatchling. Given her insanity… It didn't go so well."

"That's… terrifying," Applejack said, shuddering. "Poor Nav…"

"I'm starting to feel sorry for Tintaglia," Rarity said. "What was she even doing down there?"

"Her mind may have started going before she was trapped," Twilight said. "Char seems to have kept her around for some reason, but I'm not sure why. Given her power and mental state, he didn't want her roaming free. Somehow, he kept her in that chamber until she was too large to leave. Eventually, once all of the eggs had been gathered, Nav was allowed to leave her grasp. He somehow convinced Pyrite to allow the water elementals to free Char. Pyrite told them the truth about Spike's father. With that, they were finally allowed to return to Equestria."

"So why did Celestia just give the eggs back?" Rarity asked.

"She knew she couldn't stand against Pyrite with his mind unshackled," Twilight said. "While Nav was working in Iceland, I was working in Equestria. Kat and I broke into a few of Celestia's archives in search of more information to help Nav. Kat was using one of Nav's cursed items and it eventually backfired. She became cursed and we both ended up getting caught. Celestia imprisoned all of Nav's supporters, including me, in a time dilation field so Nav would have no way of contacting us. Because of that, I had no way of contacting her for several days and wasn't able to learn about most of this until it was too late to even offer a word of encouragement…"

"I can't believe Celestia would imprison you…" Fluttershy whispered, finally starting to cry.

"Kat's curse is simple, but debilitating," Twilight said. "Both of her paws permanently alter anything or anyone they touch. She has to wear gloves at all times now. It also came with a huge mental shock, since apparently her mind got stuck in a labyrinth the moment she was hit by the curse. From what she told us, it was brutal. Be extremely cautious around her in the future, as it's possible she'll be even more volatile."

"She belongs in a padded cell," Pinkie said. "I don't know how Nav stands being around her." Ironic, coming from you.

"She's useful and sexy," Rarity said. "Nav can probably ignore any underlying mental conditions given those two assets. And no matter how dangerous Kat may get, I have a feeling she would never disobey or hurt Nav."

"I can vouch for that," Dash said with a nod. "She's crazy, but loyal to the bone. I can guarantee it." I guess if the element of loyalty says it, it's probably true.

"And for the last bit of news, Nav plans to buy a house to live in Canterlot," Twilight said. "I'm not sure if she has one picked out yet, though. Given everything that happened, it's likely she'll spend most of her time there. If you want to see her, you'll have to visit."

"As soon as you have the address, let us know," Rarity said with a nod. "I have a feeling Nav would never say a word unless we actually asked, after all."

"I think Nav might have bigger things on her mind," Applejack said. "She's down and out right now. Is Celestia still upset?"

"Absolutely," Twilight said. "I don't think it's past the point of no return, but I wouldn't be surprised if Celestia's taking countermeasures against Nav as we speak. It's not possible for her to get rid of Nav immediately after making her a noble, but that doesn't mean Celestia's going to sit idly by. That's why I intend to stay in the palace and do my best to keep an eye on her. I'll also do my best to calm her down and reconcile the two of them before things get out of hoof."

"I think it's far too late for that," Pinkie said. "We've already decided Nav's a hero. That means it's basically her job to root out evil, right? It's only a matter of time before they clash!"

"I'm with Pinkie on this one," Dash said, nodding. "I vote we contact Nav and tell her she has our support."

"I'm not really sure she'd think much of that, though," Applejack said. "The Elements of Harmony ain't exactly done much recently, after all. The only one of us that might stand a chance against Celestia is Twilight, and Nav's not dumb enough to think Twilight would side with a tyrant. Still, it would be good to let her know we won't back Celestia up. I really, really don't want Nav to think we might be enemies."

"I think Nav would do her best to make sure we didn't get involved," Fluttershy said. "But even if we can't really help… I still think she should know where our hearts lie."

"I don't like what Celestia's doing, but I don't think a clash would be good for Equestria," Rarity said. "Instead of supporting one side or another, we should push for reconciliation. If we can reform Nightmare Moon, I'm sure we can reform Celestia."

"Yeah, up until we die of old age," Pinkie replied. "Besides, there's no way we'd ever know if she was doing anything evil behind the scenes, anyway. She's been hiding it for at least a thousand years, after all. For all we know, we could just wake up one day and Nav and all of his friends and crew will be gone, as if they had never existed. What would we do then?"

"To be fair, what could we even do to stop that, anyway?" Twilight asked. "The only thing we could do is proactively fight Celestia, but that's unthinkable. Celestia may just be a mare, but she's an incredibly powerful one who's been alive for a very long time. Killing her may not be possible at all."

"As important as it might be, I vote that we shelve the talk of treason for now," Rarity said. "Instead, we should discuss what to do about our friend who was tortured. And our other friend, who just learned his father sold him into slavery."

"I'm planning on inviting Nav to something soon," Twilight said. "I'm hoping that'll help take her mind off things."

"I also… invited her to something," Dash said with the barest hint of a blush. "I'm not sure when she'll have time, but it better be soon!"

"I'll plan a party here in Ponyville for Nav to ditch," Rarity said with a nod. "She won't be expecting it from me, so we might actually catch her off guard. Twilight, you can follow Nav when she leaves early and invite her then."

"You're… planning a party knowing she'll ditch?" Pinkie asked, tilting her head. "Why not just plan a party she can't ditch?"

"You've tried that more than once," Applejack said. "Nav always finds a way. I think Rarity has the right idea. If we wanna plan a party for Nav, it has to be with the knowledge she won't actually like the party."

"...Then why plan the party at all?" Fluttershy slowly asked.

"Just because Nav ditches doesn't mean the rest of us will," Rainbow Dash replied with a shrug. "She may hate being with all of us at the same time, but that doesn't mean she actually hates all of us. I'd say Nav hates, at most, two of us."

"It's true that some of us tend to get rowdy at get-togethers…" Rarity quietly said. "But if she can enjoy festivals full of random people on the other side of the world, why can't she enjoy spending time with all of us?"

"We're getting off topic again," Twilight said. "I think it's safe to say at this point that… Nav might not like parties. But that's not important right now. What else should we try and do with Nav? When she got back, she looked so… drained. I've only ever seen her like that after Antarctica."

"I'm not meaning to be rude with this question, but does she really have time for much?" Applejack asked. "I know she just went through something awful, but she's a noble now, with vassals and a household to manage. Plus, she needs to deal with Celestia's anger. There's no telling what other hijinks she might get into. Like Pinkie said, there's something about Nav that attracts trouble."

"That's all true," Rarity said, nodding. "We also have to consider that Nav's vassals and daughters might have plans to help her. I say we talk to her soon to learn her schedule and see what we can do from there. Twilight and Rainbow both have plans with her, so the party should be a good sounding board to see what else we can do with her. So now, I think we should consider what to do about Spike."

"We're not going to try hooking him up with a stallion," Pinkie flatly said.

"And we're definitely not going to have him show off another dress!" Rainbow Dash added.

"We're also not going to sign him up for ballet classes behind his back," Twilight said, rolling her eyes.

The looks that Fluttershy and Applejack gave Rarity were very withering. "...Ballet?" Applejack quietly asked, lifting an eyebrow.

"Is that why you asked me to make a puffy purple tutu?" Fluttershy asked, a calm yet slightly scary smile coming to her face.

"...Obviously we're not going to do any of those things," Rarity said, then loudly cleared her throat. "A-ahem… I was hoping you would help me come up with ideas, you see… U-um, girls? I'm really not sure why you're all s-staring so intently at me…" Apparently talking about Spike wasn't really relevant to me, so the memory finally went gray. Rarity was nervously sipping at her tea cup while all of her friends glared at her.

"Planning parties you know I'm gonna ditch?" I asked. "That's some next-level bullshit, right there."

"I've got something of a strange question," Taya said. "Do you really even want to rule over fae? Even without your pull, try to imagine putting up with others like them until the end of time. I mean, I do want you to be super famous and powerful and everything, but… Everything I'm seeing makes me hate everyone more and more!"

"Fucking tell me about it," I sighed. "To be honest, I really don't want to rule over any of the established kingdoms, precisely because a ton of people like these girls exist. Marrying Celestia would feel weird because we mind-wiped her, Gilda is too immature, and Moonbeam made a weird deal with Discord and lives underground. Ruling over the ponies would probably mean a bunch of pomp and ceremony, though I could use Celestia to get out of most of the nonsense. Marrying Gilda would probably involve the least headache when it comes to ruling, but it would also give me the least influence. It would also put me in charge of changing the minds of a proud, warlike race who don't want their princess to be married to a weird tree-ape or to be making technology. Marrying Chrysalis would probably give me the most freedom. If I can be sure she's not being controlled by Discord and if I can convince her to move above-ground, she'd be my first choice. If I'm going to live long, I'd like to have power to influence things. Unfortunately, in every case, I'd have to deal with annoying fae."

"There are many different kinds of power," Pride said. "You have money and with the power of Jonathan, you have the ability to essentially build a city from the ground up in record time. Surely it wouldn't be that difficult to build a quarantine city for the humans you rescue. If you rule over it, you won't have to deal with fae anymore."

"That sounds interesting, but I have no right to rule over humans," I said. "I'm sure some of them would be happy to follow me after I bring them forward in time, but enough of them would resist that maintaining power would be impossible. I may not die, but I wouldn't stay in control forever. Marrying either Moonbeam or Celestia would probably guarantee me longevity of power."

"There are other ways to do that, too," Fear said, stepping out from behind Pride. "But you've been holding back. You've been afraid to break the world."

"I don't know if afraid is the right word for it," I said. "Some of the things I wanted to do were way too otherworldly for most people to accept right from the beginning. I wasn't really sure where to start."

"What do you mean?" Taya asked.

"I listened in on some of Silver Quill's talks with Gourd and Sketch about trading," I said. "As it so happens, intercontinental trading is done mostly by trains, because they can hold so much weight. But there are a ton of places that it's hard for trains to reach, due to the geography and a few other factors. If I can make a fleet of airships, I can reach all of those places that usually have to be serviced by wagons. That fleet of airships can also be used to transport cargo across the ocean faster than any boat can. That means there's a ton of money to be made, if you can get the ships and crew."

"...How's that so otherworldly?" Taya asked. "We're on an airship all the time."

"How many others have we seen out there?" I asked. "They're prohibitively expensive, even if you have a used sea boat. But if Jonathan can make engines like the one in that huge ship, he can help pump airships out on the side while they're building things for the Tartarus invasion. After that, I can build skydocks as warehouses in various trading hubs and use those to spread economic influence."

"There's also the golems," Pride said. "Can't forget about those."

"If you can use runes to make all kinds of things, we can make a ton of stuff from my old world. I can use golems as labor to make train tracks in places no one else can work, giving me even more options for trade. I've got a ton of ideas to spread my influence without the use of royalty, Taya. Even spreading humanity's books, art, and music has given me a ton of power and influence. Just a suggestion of mine sparked a mostly world-famous fashion show."

"I'm not really sure how money is power, but isn't that enough?" Taya asked. "Do you really want to rule over everyone with royal power?"

"Not really, but it was the only thing I could think of to keep us both safe," I said. "We've tamed all the major players around us… for now. And in doing so, I became a major player myself. But having the guaranteed backing of an actual state with real soldiers is almost enough for me to sell my hand in marriage. Add in all the other benefits from schmoozing around with royalty and it's finally enough. I really don't want to marry into power, but not marrying into power when I know I can might bite me in the ass later."

"It also ties you to a future that you won't be able to run from," Taya said.

"True. To be honest, I don't really have to get married. I just know that I can't keep slutting around all the time. If I'm going to date, I'm going to date with the purpose of getting married. Otherwise, I might as well just stick to a small number of fuckbuddies."

"There are other, other types of power," Pride said. "The element of magic would bring a prestige of its own, if you use it correctly…"

"True. Marrying Twilight would link me to the magic and technology research community. But marrying her would just leave me in a permanent shadow, since I have no aptitude for magic and no real ability to make most tech."

"Well, no aptitude for magic yet," Taya said. "That might change when you get a soul."

"True. And since any chance of marriage relies on me getting a soul, we might as well drop it until then. We keep going back to it and it keeps changing my mind. I'll obviously have to think about it for a while. Let's get back to actually discussing this memory."

"Good idea," Fear said with a nod. "I hate being ignored. So, what's the point in spending time with those girls, again?"

"I like some of them," I said, shrugging. "But I do imagine time will be more limited in the future. I'm not sure how much time I'll have to spend with them, but I'll probably try and stay in contact with the ones I don't dislike. But to be honest, aside from Twilight, their lives only intersect with mine on the ship. I guess it's interesting to see their reactions to what happened. It's also fun to watch them slowly realize how much I hate parties. Otherwise, though, there really wasn't all that much here."

"Notice how none of them focused on your glory," Pride said.

"Of course not. They were too shocked to hear I was tortured to think about what I helped bring about. I helped unify Iceland. In doing so, I removed a growing thorn in the dragon's side by returning their eggs. That said, the whole journey was a trainwreck from start to finish. I even literally murdered a guy. A lot of really important things happened, but I don't know if I can say I'm proud of it all. Especially since I got locked up in two different dungeons, plus tortured. Then, somehow worse, I was smothered by an insane, ancient dragoness."

"She's my grandmother now, right?" Taya asked. "Didn't you mention something about having to go see her again at some point?"

"I really hope she forgot. Do you think Twilight still blames herself for hatching Spike's egg?"

"I don't know if blame is the right word," Fear said. "Twilight knows she was used and that what happened wasn't her fault. Of course, that doesn't stop her from feeling bad about it, but that's to be expected."

"She'll heal in time," Pride said with a shrug. "What do you plan on doing with Spike's loyalty?"

"Nothing in particular. I'm sure our friendship will prove bountiful in time, though. If I ever decide to start a bank, I don't think I'd want anyone other than a dragon in charge of it. Who else would have the time and greed to sit at the top of a ludicrous pile of wealth and still only think of ways to get more? A dragon has quite a lot of time to wait for a loan to be paid, after all…"

"Isn't a dragon better for fighting?" Taya asked. "I think you're forgetting what's important, mommy."

"No, you just haven't realized what's important yet because you're still a filly," I said. "We're fighting a lot… now. Once I get enough money and power, I can get other people to fight for me. Finding ways to stack money on money, power on power, and influence on influence is more important than being able to fight, when you're looking on time-scales in the hundreds to thousands of years. If I plan things correctly, in one or two hundred years, there won't even be reasons to fight anymore."

"But… but that's so boring!" Taya shouted. "What's the point in planning for the future if you don't get to spend time with me?! All I'm good for is murder!"

"I'll always need my own personal defense filly around," I said. "You probably won't really get to see much action, but you'll still get to spend time with me. Besides, you're good at other things. Like… looking cute! And… magic in general, to be honest. You're talented enough to pass most of the opening tests at the mage's tower, at the very least. That means there's plenty you can do, if you set your mind to it."

"...Can we at least fight a little? I mean, what's the point of having backup bodies if we never even get to use them?"

"I'm sure we probably will end up fighting. I'm just trying to be idealistic. Besides, even if Spike becomes a banker, he'll still be a dragon. That counts for more than an army of ponies, at the very least."

"Tch. You're supposed to be a warrior, mommy."

"Time changes us all. I like fighting, but I prefer being safe. Anyway, let's get back to the coma. To be honest, talking about those girls is kinda hard."

"They're truly forgettable, aren't they?" Fear asked, shaking her head sadly.

"That's not the correct word. I'm just so used to dealing with them now that nothing they said shocked me enough to make an impact."

"Then maybe it's time to move on," Pride said. "You have ambitions and goals. Do you think spending more time with the has-been heroes is really beneficial?"

"Friends are friends, useful or not," I said. "Sure, relationships are supposed to be transactional, but being around some of them is entertaining enough to pass. Besides, I'm pretty sure Rarity will let me help her plan out a clothing chain, as long as I promise to solely stay on the business side. That would give me another source of income and influence, plus help her out as well."

"Too late," Taya said. "She's already using the money from Reginald's hoard to open a few new locations."

"Fair enough. It's probably not a good idea to mix business together with friendship, anyway. In that case, the only real use I have for most of the girls is to spend time with. That probably means I'll slowly drift apart from most of them in the future, but I guess that's the way of life."

"Most of them are boring or annoying anyway," Taya said. "I'm much happier in Canterlot, living with our vassals."

"Agreed. Being able to order people to leave me alone is a godsend. Are there any other takeaways from this?"

"It seems you understood my lesson well," Fear said with a shrug. "There's no point in dead weight and there should be no fear when casting it aside."

"Friends are definitely important," Pride said. "But remember that these six are particularly volatile examples of fae. There's no shame in cutting contact because of how troublesome they are to be around."

"I don't necessarily agree, but I can see where you're both coming from," I said. "Sure, they're annoying and mostly useless, but sometimes that's good to help my mind get off things. Just, you know, not often. So I guess if that was the last bit, we can move on."

"As you desire," the guide said. Her eyes flashed and we moved forward in time.

We appeared in the sun room, the dining hall of my new house. My guards and crew were all sitting at the tables, staring up at Watcher. He was in front of the room, standing right where I once stood to give a very difficult speech.

"So, we just heard a lot of very troubling things from our lady," Watcher said, slowly looking around the room. "And unfortunately, I can't coddle you: She's telling the truth about Discord. I used some of the same sources as Nav to fill in a few blanks, but I independently verified his existence and his threat. I don't think any of you ever imagined living the life of a hero, but it's been thrust upon us all. Nav intends to shoulder that burden. I plan to follow her for as long as my weary body can."

"Didn't she just admit to being created by Discord?" one of the guards asked.

"She did," Watcher said. "That's why she needs us. How's she supposed to free herself on her own?"

"As an aside, what other option do we even have?" Gourd asked. "Discord needs to be stopped. As far as I know, Nav's the only one trying to do that right now. Even if she might be lying about her real plan, I know the rest of us are working hard toward that goal."

"I'm sure all of you know how powerful Celestia and Luna are," Watcher said. "The last time Discord was free, he annihilated the rest of the alicorn race, who were presumably just as powerful. He also killed the elementals and the humans. There's absolutely nothing saying the ponies will be spared his wrath. Some of you have already gotten your latest bonus. The rest of you will be getting it very soon. That's a huge amount of money. It'll all be worthless if society gets destroyed."

"How long have you known all of this?" Sentinel asked.

"Learning about Discord is why I agreed to accompany Nav, but that was also before Nav's goal was to defeat Discord. Originally, the plan was to release the elementals and then see where things went. Everything progressed before we were expecting and now we're finding out that Nav was possibly even created by Discord. Ever since we got on the ship, Nav's been keeping me relatively in the loop. I've been doing the same with her. Up until now, there were things I didn't share with everyone. And none of you have any right to complain about it, because we all know how op-sec works."

"Speaking of which, is this room magic-proof?" Gourd asked.

"Sure is," Watcher replied with a nod. "I had a feeling a few ponies are using magic to spy on some of us, so I decided to take countermeasures before the meeting. I wasn't expecting someone to actually listen at one of the doors, which is why Brook got through. But the fact that we're free from magical eavesdropping brings me to my next point: Nav and I both expect a confrontation with Celestia is on the horizon. My loyalties are with Nav. I'm old enough that dying for the idea of a world without a monster like Celestia sounds nice. I want all of you to realize that Celestia won't be picky when it comes time for a purge. If it comes to a confrontation, you're either with us, or Celestia will put you down without a fight."

"...So now we're killing a demon and Discord?" one of the guards groaned.

"It's not a done deal yet," Watcher said. "And Kat, I see the look in your eyes. Don't even think about it. Celestia's better defended than she looks."

"I would never act without my lady's permission," Kat simply said, though she had a smug grin on her face.

"With the kind of support Nav has, I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if we manage to win," Watcher said. "But I want you all to be prepared for the worst. To that end, enjoy your time in Canterlot while you can. That may sound hollow now that you all know the truth, but hopefully a ludicrous amount of gold will fix that. The swanky accommodations might help."

"How long are we going to be here?" one of the guards asked.

"At least a week and a half, this time. Our lady has a strange trip planned for us soon. I'm not quite sure what to expect from this one. Most of you probably haven't even heard of our destination, the Zone of Alienation." A few ears pricked up. "I see some of you have. For those of you who haven't, it's a miniature Tartarus near the middle of Equestria, up in a series of mountain ranges. Nav thinks there's another human installation there."

"I've heard nothing but bad about that place," Sentinel said. "Apparently Celestia sent several expeditions, but all failed."

"I've met two ponies who claimed to have gone," Watcher said. "Both made it past the forest at the entrance, but neither could make it past the crazy weather under the dome itself. Twilight is also going to be with us, so we'll have several powerful mages. With the addition of the elementals, I'm sure we can survive long enough for Nav to realize it's suicide."

"...You don't think Nav can win?" Kat slowly asked. For some reason, her claws were poking out of her gloves.

"I think Nav should have learned a lesson from Arachne and Antarctica," Watcher said. "Some hornet nests shouldn't be poked. There's a reason Celestia decided to stop investigating that place. If even she couldn't provide enough resources to conquer it, I don't see how we'd be any different."

"That's planning for failure," Gourd said. "You're supposed to be in charge of the troops, right? Have some morale!"

"Even if there is a human installation there, it's still probably stupidly haunted," Watcher said. "Zecora only just recently gained her new medium powers, so she might not be able to exorcise everything. No matter what cool stuff we might find down there, I'm not interested in being Nav's ghost shield. I hate dealing with the undead."

"Can't you just trap them in cursed gems?" Silver Quill idly asked as she looked over some paperwork. Everyone went silent to stare at her. After a few seconds of it, she noticed and looked up. "W-what?"

"...I didn't expect a civilian to know that," Watcher said. "Even I've only heard it was theoretically possible."

"Oh, that witch doctor did it all the time," Silver said. "There weren't any gem mines near the village, so they couldn't just make blood gems the right way. Instead, they had to inscribe a rune on the gem, kill a prisoner in front of it, and then infuse the gem with some kind of magic. The soul would get sucked in and then the witch doctor would imbue some soldiers, equipment, or herself with its power. They did it in front of all of us as an intimidation tactic. She liked bragging about how she got most of her early power with an ancient spirit she trapped in a mask using the same technique."

"Now that you mention it, I've seen something similar," Kat said. "Some of the assassins in my original guild kept such gems as trophies of some of their more prominent kills. They all had a rune on them. Cascade can copy it from my memory, so if we can just find the right magic to use, it should be easy to duplicate."

"We have a week and a half to look into it," Watcher said, nodding. "With the clues from Silver and the rune from Kat, we should be able to find information much more quickly. Twilight can also help. We can get gems from Rarity to test on animals in the Everfree. With a runemaster and the element of magic on our side, we can reverse engineer it with ease. That'll give us a fighting chance against ghosts."

"Feel better about our chances, now?" Gourd asked.

"Not really, but I'll follow Nav's orders to the best of my ability regardless," Watcher said. "Given how chaotic and randomly lucky she can be, it's possible she really can pull us through."

"I'm completely confident," Kat said. "We can't shame Nav with failure. There is no option but success."

"I also think we'll be fine," Gourd said. "It's obvious that fate has plans for Nav. It's going to make her play the hero role even if it has to drag her, kicking and screaming. That basically means she's destined to solve great mysteries like this, right?"

"We survived everything so far," Sentinel said with a shrug. "I never expected to live long when I signed up for shadow ops anyway. As far as I'm concerned, I'm already on borrowed time. Might as well spend it checking out cool ancient ruins." Most of the rest of the room made general noises of agreement, though nobody seemed too enthusiastic.

"So, here's my last question before I end the meeting," Watcher said. "First, some context for those who aren't aware: Nav's trip to Iceland was bad. She got captured by Bahamut, used as a bargaining chip against Pyrite, then captured by Pyrite and tortured. What should we do to help her mental state?"

"I've already started comforting her at night," Kat said with a sly smile.

"I'm also stepping up and helping," Doppel said with a dirty grin of her own.

"Most of us have never really served with a noble before," Sentinel said. "I know Nav's not really the normal noble, but should we really treat her any differently now?"

"Until she stabilizes, we need to be careful," Watcher said. "I'm honestly worried about her. For now, do your utmost to keep her calm and happy. If she wants us to treat her like a lady, we'll do so. If she wants us to back off and treat her normally, we'll do so in private, until she starts getting better."

"Nav's already past her breaking point," Kat said, sighing. "Meeting Discord was just another nail in the coffin. Right now, we need to help her mend what is broken. It's too late to worry about walking on eggshells."

"...On second thought, maybe this was the wrong place to discuss Nav's mental state," Watcher quietly said. "I think I'll gather the vassals together separately to talk about it. While we do so, I want everyone else to think of ways to cheer our lady up. Just don't actually do anything without running it by us first."

"Nav is less interested in intentions and more interested in results, for better or worse," Gourd said. "Trying your hardest to cheer her up won't matter if the end result is that it annoys her."

"That's only natural, of course," Kat said. "A leader should only surround herself with those who are useful. Trying your hardest yet earning no results makes you worthless. And as for what I've seen of typical pony methods to cheer others up… I wouldn't even waste your time trying them on Nav. I pity any fool who would actually plan a party with the intent to make Nav happy."

"And that is why you should come to me if you have any ideas," Watcher said. "As our lady's household, it is our duty to attend to her in every way we can. Keep that in mind at all times. For now, I'll declare this meeting over." The room finally went gray and everyone froze.

"I'm somewhat surprised by how smoothly that went," I said. "I was expecting more of a train wreck."

"Do you truly doubt your followers that much?" Fear asked. "I guess it's no surprise, given how often they completely disregard your feelings."

"Mommy doubts us all the time," Taya said. "She calls us creepy, possessive, annoying, and too emotional."

"I don't doubt the abilities of the people who work for me," I said. "They've demonstrated that over and over. I doubt their mental states. The fact that they can actually get along without me there at the helm is remarkable. I wonder if that will continue if I remove my pull…"

"I wouldn't be optimistic," Fear replied with a giggle. "I mean, this is you we're talking about. They'll realize how terrible you are eventually, right? Without that pull to keep them in line, it's only natural they'll start misbehaving, acting up, and finally, leaving you."

"As long as I can keep everyone together long enough to get a soul and beat Discord, I don't care what they do afterward. If all that's keeping them here is a mystical pull beyond their control, then it's not fair to them."

"Besides, it's not like the pull is the only thing keeping everyone loyal," Taya said. "I won't ever leave you, mommy. Spike's completely indebted to you and wants to stay around forever. Kat basically worships you and I don't think removing the pull will fix her at this point. You gave Doppel a purpose in life and gave her a true taste of self-respect, so she's firmly in your court. Watcher and his soldiers are richer than they've ever been, plus they've been led through tons of dangerous situations now without a single loss. You saved the lives of Gourd and his crew, then gave them a second chance as your personal airship crew. You introduced Jak to Athena and gave him so many interesting projects to work on that he'll die before he ever gets anywhere close to done. Zecora's curse is gone because you helped her get to the southern continent, then you helped her get revenge, and then you finally opened her eyes to some truly scary voodoo stuff. Even without the pull… why would anyone want to leave you?"

"That's a very good question," Reason said.

"I'm honestly not that worried about it," I said with a shrug. "I imagine almost everyone is in for the long haul now. Fear's just being dramatic because she wants attention. So, what kind of takeaways do we have for this one?"

"Your subordinates trust you a lot," Reason said. "Even though Watcher didn't think going to the Zone was a good idea, he was still willing to. And the others didn't seem to have any issue with it at all and even expected you to lead them through with no problems."

"And despite the fact that you told them all you're a walking abomination created by the archenemy of all life itself, no one abandoned you!" Fear said, bouncing up and down in excitement. "What's more, they actually want to help you for some reason! I totally thought they would all just agree to put you down or something…"

"And, perhaps most importantly, they're greatly concerned for your mental state," Reason said. "I know you think it's crazy talk, but it just might be possible that they actually want you to be happy."

"Whoa now, don't go overboard, there," Fear said. "These are the same people who conspire behind her back all the time, right?"

"This is what they usually look like when they get together to conspire," Taya said. "Their primary goal is how to wrangle you and keep you from doing anything too… unsuitable, I guess. To be honest, they never really developed any solid countermeasures, either. They do talk about how you're listless all the time and they try to think of ways to engage you, too. I wouldn't say they're always plotting to make you happy, but they're never planning anything that would truly upset you."

"Having a ton of people obsessing over me is still a novel experience," I sighed. "Unfortunately, it's only going to get worse as time goes on. At the very least, I know the people around me mean well. I'm just still not used to it. It would be different if I didn't see everyone around me as friends, but nowadays, they're all my retainers. The relationship is now a different one. I just have to finish getting used to it. Getting rid of the pull will mitigate some of it. Everything else will just take time."

"I'm kinda surprised they didn't complain more about having to fight Celestia," Taya said. "You'd think her ex-guards would be more loyal. Or maybe more scared."

"They all know what happens when Celestia purges a noble. And they know she'd be even more thorough in my case. It's not that they weren't afraid, it's that they knew complaining wouldn't matter and trying to run wouldn't work."

"Or maybe they're more afraid of you than they are of her," Fear said with a shrug. "Celestia may have been a despotic monster, but she was still just prey."

"That's possible, but unlikely," Reason said. "Celestia had the guards do considerably more evil things than Nav ever has. Plus, the guards have had their entire lives to cope with the fact that Celestia is the all-powerful pony goddess. I don't think it would be possible for any pony not to fear Celestia."

"I'm with Reason on this one," I said. "I may be scary and I probably have a greater capacity for evil than Celestia does, but she's been ruling over Equestria with an iron hoof for six thousand years. That kind of control gives you an authority and presence that will take me ages to match. It's impossible to say why everyone decided to side with me, but the reason doesn't matter. All I care about is the fact that they were loyal to me."

"As it should be," the guide said, nodding. "Having everyone actually decide to stick with you was a relief, wasn't it?"

"It was," I said. "My nerves were a wreck each time I tried to convince another person. I had a feeling the guards would side with me, but I wasn't sure until the very end."

"You said Twilight agreed too, right?" Taya asked.

"She realized I was planning something while we were at the Gryphus festival. I told her everything. She agreed to support me without a second thought, and was offended that I didn't tell her sooner and that I was worried about her answer. At that point, I already had Cadance and Shiny, Moonbeam, Luna, Blossom, Fleur, and the guards, so I wasn't too concerned about Twilight. The worst case scenario would have been Twilight immediately telling Celestia, but I ended up worrying over nothing."

"On an unrelated note, I'm kinda impressed with Silver Quill," Taya said. "I figured most mares would lose their minds if they were forced to watch a bunch of souls get sucked out. But she told everyone about the gems without any problems or hesitations at all."

"Yeah, I also thought that was kinda weird," I said. "We might need to get Zecora to ask if she knows any other spooky secrets like that. If she does, she'll need to keep quiet about them. I'm confident that openly talking about how to make soul gems with runes is super illegal in Equestria. I wouldn't be surprised if even knowing that fact could get you a visit from one of her creepy inquisitors."

"After everything she's been through, I doubt it would bother her," Fear said. "Even the inquisitor you met wasn't as scary as that witch doctor."

"The inquisitor I met also wasn't trying to be scary, since he was in front of Celestia. Taya, which is scarier, ghosts or demons?"

"Ghosts, for sure," she instantly replied. "At least demons can be blown up, right? Ghosts take special tools."

"Bullshit, you haven't seen any demons," I said. "I guess you were the wrong person to ask. As someone who's actually seen and fought against both demons and ghosts, demons are worse. The inquisitors fight those things. They also summon and use them. To me, that makes the inquisitors more scary than a witch doctor. But we got off topic. Is there anything else to mention about this memory?"

"Kat's super cute," Reason said. "You should pet her more."

"I'll think about it," I said, booping Reason. She just watched my finger without a word. "I guess if that's it, I'm ready to move on."

"Then so it shall be," the guide ominously replied. Her eyes flashed and off we went.

This time, we showed up in what I assumed was the mage's tower. It wasn't a room I was familiar with, but the Seven were there, lounging around and doing various mage-like things. One was grinding ingredients, two were reading, one was playing with a dozen tiny fireballs, one was looking at a few of the artifacts we pulled out of Athena's book, and two were talking.

"You let Navarone take the book with her?" one of the talkers asked.

"She didn't give us a choice in the matter. You told us we couldn't use force unless she got violent, so…"

"So you were supposed to persuade her!"

"We tried. I told you, she didn't give us a choice in the matter!"

"Ugh, that arrogant little… Who does she think she is?!"

"Don't go down that road," one of the ones who was reading said. "That book belongs to her, fair and square. We have no right to take it from her. From what Twilight said, even passing through the labyrinth will be difficult. Until any of us succeeds in passing Athena's test, we'll just have to suck it up and deal with Nav's rules."

"There might be another option," the guy grinding ingredients said. "Navarone's filly apparently expressed interest in learning here. Her tests are supposed to be tomorrow."

"...The same filly who got her cutie mark at the Gala?" the guy playing with fireballs asked. "I imagine she's talented. We shouldn't meddle."

"She's been learning from Twilight Sparkle, so she can't be underestimated," one of the readers said. "As much as we all dislike that mare, there's no doubt she's skilled. And apparently Taya has been with Nav on their trip, so it's possible she's been learning from Watcher, as well. I also agree that we shouldn't use her. She's too valuable to risk scaring off."

"That might be hasty," the potion guy said. "She's our only direct link to Navarone. We can't discount Navarone's influence. If Taya's here anyway…"

"We're not using a filly, especially one that's also a student," the original speaker said. "Navarone may be unpredictable, but it's obvious that she's intelligent. She'll be on the lookout for any kind of interference. If we push our luck, we may lose access to the book and a potentially valuable student."

"How about a compromise?" the last person asked, the other reader. "Taya's tests are supposed to be tomorrow. I say we see how competent she is. If she passes most of the entry exams and can reach the advanced courses of any one subject, we'll leave her be. But if she's useless, then in exchange for teaching her well, we get her to speak to Nav for us every now and then. Nothing major, of course, just little things here and there."

"I don't like that phrasing," the fireball guy said with a frown. "We strive to teach all of our students well."

"Of course, of course. I should have said it better. But you get the general idea, right?"

"Yes. And I still don't like it. We're not like Celestia's private school for nobles. We teach all unicorns with no strings attached, minus a small fee. I don't want to start turning our students into pawns."

"You're just saying that because of her special talent," the potion guy said.

"And if she was a necromancer, would you still be singing the same tune?" the fireball guy asked. "Do you know how rare it is for a pony to actually have a special talent in destruction? There are only four of us in the entire tower! I'm certainly not about to let someone like her slip away! Even if she is somehow talentless right now, she'll still have an affinity for it that normal students couldn't even dream of!"

"...I think I'm fine with the compromise," one of the original talkers said. "I also don't like the idea of using students, but a lifeline to Lady Navarone will be valuable. It's not like we're going to use magic to manipulate Taya or anything, we'll just ask her to talk to Navarone for us about this and that."

"It took over a month for our last message to reach Navarone," the first reader said with a sigh. "If all we'd be doing is using Taya to send messages, I don't see any real harm in it. At least that would guarantee Navarone could respond to us quickly. But again, only if Taya somehow turns out to be without skill."

"So be it," the potion guy said with a smile. "It'll be interesting to see what she can do, if nothing else."

"I think I might like to watch her tests, myself," the dude with fireballs said. "After so long with a human mother, I'm sure Taya doesn't think quite the same as other ponies anymore. If she actually does have talent, she'll solve her tests in a very interesting way."

Everything around us flickered and we appeared in the official meeting room of the Seven, the place where Twilight and I met them with Athena's book. All of them were in their official robes and everything.

"So, it's been a few days since Taya's test," the guy in red said. He had a pretty large smile on his face. "She used a master level spell to pass her entry-level destruction test. Since then, she's shot past all of the novice courses. The only reason she got stuck in an upper level advanced course is because Twilight and Watcher skipped a few of what they considered useless basic spells. Even then, after just witnessing the spell once, she was able to duplicate it almost perfectly. I'm confident she'll be in the master destruction classes within three months."

"...She had no aptitude for alchemy at all on the first day," the guy in green said. He was the one grinding up ingredients before. "Then on her second day in the entrance class, she perfectly put together every potion required to pass. When asked, she told us that her mother employed a zebra shaman and an ex-royal guard poison-maker… They taught her everything she needed to know to pass in less than three days…"

"Her knowledge of healing was unexpected," the mare in the yellow robe said. "Most combat specialists only know how to tear ponies apart, not put them back together. She was able to get through the novice and advanced test, but was floored by the second expert test she took."

"Wait, she got further in healing than she did in destruction?" the guy in red asked. "Why does she know that much?"

"Apparently it's what her mother wanted," the mare in yellow said with a shrug. "Taya apparently knows a single grandmaster healing spell, but other than that, not much above advanced. She told me she knows multiple grandmaster destruction spells, though. She just has a few gaps here and there that got her stuck."

"She's… passing at illusions," the fellow in white said. "She passed most of the novice tests, but got stuck and decided not to continue. Apparently she doesn't have much interest in it."

"Same for conjuration," the guy in orange said. "She told the professor she'd rather blow something up than summon something else to fight it for her…"

"She has a knack for alteration, but unfortunately no interest," the mare in purple said. "She got up to the advanced tests, but stopped when she hit a wall. She told the professor she wants to focus on healing and destruction."

"My mystic professors were told the same thing," the mare in blue said with a sigh. "Although she didn't have much talent in my field, so it's not a huge loss."

"So, there's no need for the compromise we originally decided on," the stallion in red said. "She has passed all of her entrance exams, she's reached the advanced courses in two fields, and the expert courses in one field. Taya will be welcome here as a completely normal student, no strings attached. Don't approach her about Nav."

"...I'm hesitant to even mention this, but she knows some necromancy," the mare in yellow quietly said, looking over at the potion guy. "Twilight has one of Grogar's spellbooks, along with one of his journals that acts as a cipher."

"Would it be possible to make a small exception and allow a student to skip the novice courses and skip straight to the grandmaster courses?" the alchemy fellow asked. "I would quite like to see the true talents of somepony else with access to Grogar's knowledge…"

"I'm willing to allow the exception to let a student skip the alchemy courses in favor of the necromancy courses," the guy in red said. "But I won't skip the rule that a student can't enter the necromancy courses until their loyalty has been ensured. I also won't skip the rule that a student has to show off a necromantic spell first."

"That one is already fulfilled," the mare in yellow said. "I didn't believe her, so she used a spell she called absorb life to kill a bird, then reanimation to bring it back as a dire skeleton. I panicked and incinerated it before I could determine if she was actually controlling it, but she seemed extremely confident."

"Absorb life is a Grogar specialty, at least a low level expert spell!" the potion guy said with a huge smile. "And a dire skeleton would be an upper level advanced spell. Controlling it would require another low level expert spell! Forget trying to manipulate her, I want to make her my own disciple!"

"Forget it, necrophile," the mare in blue said.

"It's mancer! Necromancer!"

"Her skill is impressive, but no matter how much she knows, you can't approach her until she's been here at least a year. If she's willing to talk about how she knows necromancy to a mare she just met, then demonstrate those extremely illegal spells, she's obviously not mature enough to even be learning them."

"...Twilight got the spell book from Celestia," the mare in yellow said with a sad smile. "They've both been allowed to circumvent the law."

"All the more reason to make her my disciple!" the alchemist shouted. "If she has those powers, she has to learn how to use them properly and when not to use them!"

"As of now, she doesn't even know we teach necromancy here," the mare in yellow said. "I didn't want to test her skills when I talked to her about it, it just… happened! I honestly couldn't believe what I was seeing until the undead bird looked at me with its fiery black eyes… After I killed it, I told her that she can't just go around showing that magic off to everypony. She… she giggled and said she'd be fine and that her mother would make sure nothing bad happened."

"She's sounding like quite the interesting and troublesome student," the fellow in red said with a small grin. "Maybe I'll make her my own disciple before that year is up. That is, unless my colleague in healing thinks she can snatch that filly away from me."

"You're welcome to her," the healer quickly said. "A single conversation taught me that I couldn't handle her as a student. Besides, she's only learning healing because somepony else wants her to. She actually enjoys blowing things up, so she'd be the perfect student for you."

"I'll watch her progress closely," the fellow in red said. "She sounds extremely promising. If her tests continue going well, I'll invite her to study under me. Now, I would like to shift course to the next topic of discussion. How are preparations going for our journey into Athena's realm?"

"I've readied eighteen potions each," the alchemist said. "You'll drink them in batches of six. They'll give you resistances to things like fire and ice, extra stamina and strength, and increased physical regeneration. They won't make you invincible, but they'll make you feel young again."

"All of your scrolls are ready," the conjurer said. "They should help you navigate and deal with most environmental hazards we could think of, things like acid, lava, or ice. There's also a single control weather scroll, in case things get really crazy."

"I've double-checked all the illusion spells we might need," the guy in white said. "I'll be ready for anything that old bird throws at us."

"I've already memorized all the defensive magic we could need, so I learned some mysticism and healing, to be better prepared," the mare in purple said. "I'm still not sure challenging the labyrinth is the best idea, but we do stand to gain a lot."

"We set up several magic circles for long-term spells," the healer said. "Before you leave, come to our department and we'll give all of you several defensive bonuses, as well as resistances to disease, poison, and a few other nasty things."

"If you want any soul gems, we have some we can spare," the mare in blue said. "Most of the magic items Twilight gave us were worthless, so we can't use those. We can let you use a few other artifacts, though."

"I don't think we'll need soul gems or magic items," the guy in red said. In case anyone was wondering, he was the one who mouthed off at Athena and Hera and got skinned to death. "If Navarone and Twilight can make it through that dungeon without any kind of preparations at all, I'm sure we'll be fine after thoroughly planning and preparing. Besides, on the very low chance we somehow do fail and we lose those artifacts, the tower will be considerably weakened. Worse, Athena might give them to Nav to use as she pleases."

"Then I think we've done as much as we can," the illusionist said. For reference, he's the one who got his soul sucked out before I returned to check on them. "Taya should be finishing her classes in two hours. We can make the final preparations before then and have her guide us to Lady Navarone's house."

"I'll need to let my department heads know," the mare in purple said. She was the only one who survived the journey, the mare who lost her horn and ear. "I think Nav said it took them around three hours to get through. I'll be generous and tell them we should be back within five hours."

"We'll adjourn the meeting, then," the fellow in red said. "We'll meet back up in the healing department in one hour. Bring the potions and scrolls then."

Things flickered again and this time, only four people were sitting. The mare standing in the center of the circle had only a stub where her horn used to be, but at least her ear had been reattached. She seemed to be holding back tears. The Four looked quite shocked.

"What… Where are the others?" the mare in yellow asked.

"...They're dead," the dehorned mare whispered.

"What happened to your horn?!" the mare in blue screamed.

The mare in the middle finally broke down and started crying. "A-Athena… she k-kept it like a t-trophy!" The room went eerily silent, aside from the mare's sobs. The other unicorns had gone white in the face. "And Hera… That… that monster… She s-s-skinned him a-alive!"

"...I think you need some rest," the healer said. Her horn lit up and the ex-unicorn fell asleep.

Before she could collapse, her body floated over in front of the mystic. "Thank you. It was obvious she was delirious. I'll search her memories and get the truth." She leaned in and pressed her horn against the mare's stub. After a few minutes, she pulled away with a gasp. "She was being literal! That monster… she literally skinned him alive! What the buck?!"

"And now I'm even more confused," the alchemist said. "What actually happened?"

"...Our illusionist was killed by a pile of rags," the mare in blue slowly said. That made them all gasp. "They wrapped around him and sapped him of strength so quickly that the others couldn't react. Before they knew what was happening, he was already dead."

"A pile of bucking rags?!" the conjurer shouted. "You've gotta be kidding me! What about the head of destruction?!"

"Before they could make it halfway through, Navarone came to check up on them," the mare in blue slowly said. "Navarone made the head of destruction angry, so he… threatened Athena." The healer flinched. "And while he was at it, apparently he insulted Hera. So Athena used magically resistant golems to capture them both. Navarone apparently talked Athena into letting her live, but couldn't save the head of destruction from Hera's… rage."

Silence once again returned to the small room. After nearly a minute of silence, the necromancer said, "Their souls haven't returned to the tower. If they really died, shouldn't we be able to bring them back as golems?"

"Athena's book captures souls," the mystic whispered, hanging her head. "The two of them are cursed to forever roam the labyrinth as new guardians…"

"This is a disaster," the healer quietly said. "How… How could this have happened?"

"We don't have time for that question right now," the conjurer said. "Right now, we have two things we should focus on. First, what should we do about her?" All eyes went to the sleeping ex-unicorn. "Obviously she can't remain part of the Seven."

"The tower is for mages, right?" the alchemist said. "I don't think we should make her leave immediately, but I mean… If she can't do magic, she can't be a mage."

"If we had her horn, I could reattach it," the healer said. "But if Athena kept it, the only way to get it would be to go through the labyrinth…"

"Everypony knows that the study of magic comes with consequences," the mystic said with a sigh. "Sometimes, one such consequence is the complete loss of magic entirely. We all know the risks. I'm sure she'll understand when it comes time for her to leave."

"And the second thing we need to do is focus on filling out our numbers again," the conjurer said. "We can't just be the Four. We must have at least an odd number. For now, we can fold illusions into conjuration and alteration into mysticism. That means we'll just need to focus on getting a single new head for the immediate future."

"So… how are we going to announce this?" the healer asked. "We can't just tell everypony that we lost three of the most powerful unicorns on the planet in the span of an hour."

"We can if we word it properly," the alchemist said. "I think we should tell everypony that three members of the Seven were defeated by the human mage Athena in the pocket dimension the human Navarone owns. I feel like drawing attention to both of them is the best kind of revenge we can get."

"...Revenge?" the healer slowly said. "Revenge for what?"

"The Seven have become the Four!" the necromancer shouted. "It's all because Navarone brought us that book!"

"The book that we asked her to bring, you mean?" the mystic asked with a sigh.

"The book that she warned us against entering, you mean?" the healer asked.

"The book that Twilight told us would one hundred percent kill us, without a doubt, no matter what, you mean?" the conjurer asked.

"Yes, and we all thought they were exaggerating because neither of them sounded all too serious or concerned!"

"Navarone wasn't concerned because she didn't care," the mystic said. "Once things started going downhill in the book, Navarone was quick to make fun of the two survivors, saying things like I told you so. She just warned us because she was being polite, but she didn't care even a little if everypony who entered died."

"...I thought you said Navarone asked Athena to spare her," the healer said.

"Athena asked for payment in return. Navarone offered nothing and said to claim it from her. That's why Athena took the mare's horn. She certainly can thank Navarone for being alive, but I don't know if any unicorn would call a life without a horn worth living."

"Entering that book was a mistake," the conjurer said, plopping his head down on the table for a few long seconds. Finally, he sat back up. "But it was our mistake, not Navarone's. We won't seek revenge. Once we have a better understanding of what the inside of the labyrinth is like, we'll decide if we want to try our luck in there again. For now, I'll start finding candidates for the new heads."

"I'll take her down to the healing department to look for any more issues," the healer said, looking over at the dehorned mare. "Once she wakes up, I'll try interviewing her properly to get more information."

"I can prepare some potions to help calm her mind," the alchemist said. "After that, I'll start brainstorming ways to explain to everypony what happened. Ways that don't involve Navarone."

"I'll consult with some of our sister organizations to see if I can get advice," the mystic said. "If we're lucky, we can borrow some personnel to help manage things until we get back on our hooves."

"This is one of the worst years we've had as an organization," the conjurer said, his voice heavy. "First we were attacked by demons. Now we lost three of the Seven in a single night. It's a heavy burden, but we will bear it. We'll weather this storm and recover. For now, I declare this meeting over." With that, the memory finally went gray.

"I'm not really sure how to feel right now," Taya said. "I'm kinda insulted, kinda proud, I guess?"

"It's okay to feel a lot of things," I said, patting her on the back. "At least the end result is that they decided not to try using you. Although you might want to watch out for that necrophile."

"Death magic can be fun, but it's not usually my thing," Taya replied with a shrug. "Is this how you felt when you saw Celestia and Luna talking about you?"

"In the beginning, before they decided for sure that they were going to make use of me. After that, I felt much worse. To be honest, there was a little about me in these memory fragments, but I think more of it was about you. So, what are your impressions? And can you think of any takeaways?"

"An immediate takeaway does come to mind, yes," Taya said. "There are those in power who feel nothing about making use of those under them. And when they think they're alone and completely safe, they're completely open about their disgusting intentions."

"Yep, that's exactly right," I said. "Although I was hoping for something more closely related to you, not a base generalization."

"When they first started talking about their expectations for me, I felt smug," she said. "I knew I would blow everything they imagined out of the water. And in the memory after I had been a student for a few days, I felt satisfied that they recognized my abilities. It was even better because they were so surprised and had surprisingly low expectations. Despite the talk about using me mixed in here and there, I think I feel more proud than anything. My magical talents shocked the Seven that much, huh? A part of me is starting to understand why Twilight decided they weren't worth her time, but… The classes are fun, at least."

"Good, I'm glad you're enjoying them. I hope you're making friends, too. Now then." I crossed my arms and looked around the small room. "I guess it's time to ask the professionals. What kind of takeaways can we get from this?" This time, Reason and Hope appeared. "...Hope? What are you doing here?"

"You were really hoping they wouldn't bother you anymore," Reason said.

"Oh, that makes sense," I said, reaching over to boop Hope. Before my hand could reach her, Taya snatched it with a hoof and pressed it against her own nose.

"Don't give that fake my boops!" she shouted, still holding my hand.

"My oh my, so the so-called real Taya has to forcefully seize her boops," Hope said with a smug smile. "Whereas I, the loving and gentle Hope, am given them freely!" Taya growled and jumped up to seize my entire arm, glaring at Hope.

"...What are you even doing?" I asked.

"Asserting myself as the dominant filly!" Taya immediately replied, still glaring at Hope and clutching onto my arm.

"Well, have fun with that, I guess," I said, patting her on the head with my other hand. "So, since I was hoping they wouldn't bother me anymore, I guess one of the takeaways is that they decided not to get revenge?"

"Don't ruin it!" Hope shouted, slapping a hoof on the floor. "How can I prove myself the better filly if you don't let me wow you with my skills?!" Taya giggled and snuggled against me tighter.

"Sorry. By all means, give me more wisdom." I did my best not to sound sarcastic.

"Hmph! You ruined the big reveal at the end…"

"It's not a reveal if the mages said it themselves," Reason said. "You're Hope, not Pain or Fear. You're not supposed to be able to feel jealousy!"

"Oh, I can't," Hope said, shrugging. "I'm just reading the room and playing with my counterpart!" For some reason, Taya continued clinging to me anyway.

"Anyway, let's start with the first takeaway," Reason finally said. "As you already discussed, the mages were considering using Taya. It's something you feared, Nav. Despite all their assurances, you were worried the Seven would use her anyway."

"And you were desperately hoping they wouldn't," Hope added. "But you know all about those in power. About how they lie and cheat and manipulate without a care in the world…"

"But now you have heard it from their own mouths, behind closed doors," Reason said. "They don't intend to manipulate your filly."

"So it seems," I said. "Whether or not they stick to that is anyone's guess, but for the moment, I have little to worry about. How Taya feels about that is an entirely different matter, though."

"I expected it, so it's fine," she said with a shrug. "I mean, I'm the filly of the Lady Navarone. Of course important people want to cozy up to me to try and use me. I'm glad they realized it would be a bad idea, though. It would be annoying to pretend to ignore their efforts."

"I hope you remember that attitude in the future," the fake Taya said. "As Nav's eternafilly, there will be many who underestimate you and attempt to manipulate you."

"And also remember that such attempts can be turned on their heads," Reason added. "If someone thinks you are under their control, it will be a chance to gain information they might not otherwise leak."

"Kat has already been teaching me how best to blend in as a filly to get more information from normal people," Taya said. "Every time I go out now, I practice listening in. It's amazing what guards and public officials talk about in front of fillies. If we attend the Gala again, I'm planning on working with Kat to turn it into my personal hunting ground! Between my adorableness and the herbal drugs Zecora provided, I'll be able to loosen enough lips to obtain all kinds of blackmail material!"

"You truly are the dominant filly," I said, patting her head again. She sweetly giggled before sticking her tongue out at her apparent rival. With that done, Taya finally released my arm and sank back down. "So, what other kinds of takeaways do we have?"

"You were worried they would want revenge on you," Hope said. "After all, the Seven became the Four overnight, all because you brought them the book."

"But they shot that logic down instantly," Reason said. "The mages who entered that book did so knowing the risks. The tower leadership recognizes that. The consensus seems to be… to leave you alone."

"Picking a fight with mommy would be suicide," Taya said. "After all, she did what three of the most powerful unicorns couldn't, without any kind of preparations. Obviously they know better than to pick a fight."

"Especially without any moral high ground to stand on," I said with a nod. "You're right, this is a relief to hear. They won't manipulate Taya and they won't seek revenge. I have a low opinion of the tower mages overall, but their leadership does seem to have some sense of integrity. I hope this will act to humble them."

"I had another thought, too," Taya said. "I spoke to that alteration mage a little before she lost her horn. I think she'd swear loyalty to you if you would give her a position of some kind. She may not be able to actually do magic anymore, but she still knows a whole lot about it. Even if she just writes books on theory, you could still make more as her patron than she'd cost to provide for."

"Surely there's a way to restore a horn," I said. "I mean, unicorns wouldn't allow something that important to be completely irreplaceable."

"I think there might be a necromantic spell for it," Taya said. "I'm not completely sure, but Twilight would probably know. If you can provide her a horn, she'd definitely be even more loyal and valuable."

"I'll talk to Twilight about it at some point. It may be a moot point. I did ask for that mare to be spared, but I'm still at least partially responsible for some of the suffering she went through. She may not want to work for me."

"That was actually the next takeaway," Reason said with a small smile. "Perhaps you truly are the alpha filly."

"Don't support her!" Hope shouted. "I mean, I can make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside just by hugging you!"

"So can Taya," I said with a shrug. "I never mind when she wants to cuddle because my mommy instincts kick in and I feel surprisingly good." This announcement made my filly's face turn bright red for some reason, and she seemed to want to look everywhere but at me. "So, I ruined one takeaway and Taya ruined another. Are there more?"

"Just one," Hope said. "If that necromancer finds out about Zecora's abilities, he'll probably never stop bothering you. And if he tries to become Taya's teacher…"

"Why would I want to learn from that creep?" Taya asked. Thankfully, she finally fought back the blush. Her cheeks were still a little rosy, but it just made her cuter. "Like I said, I only like a few of the necromantic spells. But the undead are gross. Why would I want to bother with that?"

"If he starts pestering you, let me know," I said. "I'll make sure he understands that no means no by the time I'm through."

"Mommy, you can't use your ring anymore," Taya said. "Wouldn't I have to back you up so he couldn't hurt you?"

"No, you're not as scary as Luna. I'd bring her instead. Anyway, we don't really need to worry about Taya becoming his student. And if he does find out about Zecora and he starts bothering us, I can always use Celestia to make him stop. Being able to wield the sun and moon can be nice sometimes."

"What do you mean, sometimes?" Taya asked.

"Sometimes royal authority is too powerful and unwieldy," I said. "Some things require a more delicate touch. Anyway, if that was the last takeaway, I guess we're done here. Let us continue."

"If that is your desire," the guide said. Her eyes flashed and we took off.

We appeared in a corner of what the guards were calling the moon room. The sun room was downstairs and the moon room was upstairs. I'm not sure who decided on the naming, but I don't guess it mattered. Watcher, Kat, Zecora, Doppel, and Sentinel were sitting at the table.

"So, Nav just left for the trip to Gryphus," Kat said. "When should I leave to follow her?"

"You won't be following her," Watcher said.

"Then I guess you're gonna leave it to me?" Doppel asked. "I know how to avoid griffins who can detect changelings, so I can easily keep an eye on Nav without being noticed."

"You won't be following her, either," Watcher said.

"Do you really think we should leave this up to guards?" Sentinel asked. "I know we're all skilled, but bat ponies still stick out like a sore thumb. Nav's gonna be really mad if she catches us."

"Nobody's following Nav!" Watcher firmly said.

"So you want my spirits to do it?" Zecora asked. "Understandable. Nav can barely see them in the best of times. If they were trying to hide, it would be simple. Though saving her when needed might be problematic…"

"Nobody and nothing will be following Nav!" Watcher finally shouted. "She made that plainly clear! If she doesn't want us to interfere, fine! What was that morbid human saying she used once or twice? Something about giving her enough rope to hang herself?"

"...This is our lady you're talking about," Sentinel said. "I mean, I figured whoever would be in charge of guarding her would let her get beaten a little to teach her a lesson first. Isn't that enough of a punishment?"

"This is Nav we're talking about!" Kat said. "She's prone to bad decisions in the best of times. Add in Twilight, alcohol, disguises, sex all around her, and she's obviously going to get herself killed! I'm positive she has at least some kind of bounty on her by now! She wasn't subtle at all about her intentions and going to the train station in her own body like that was just beyond reckless. Kidnapping her as a pony would be kitten's play."

"I'm afraid, as her vassals and staff, it is our duty to let her die," Watcher coldly said. "It is what our lady has decreed. We will not pursue, stalk, follow, creep on, or otherwise bother Nav at the festival. If she somehow survives the grievous injuries she'll obviously get by being careless, we'll have all the ammunition we need to keep eyes on her at all times."

"...So you're saying we have to have faith that Nav can somehow survive?" Sentinel asked. "No offense, but… Like Kat said, this is Nav we're talking about. You just know she'll end up all alone and cornered in a back alley by some creep! How's she gonna defend herself against a predator if she barely even knows her body?"

"I wouldn't doubt Nav's ability to defend herself, even in a strange body," Watcher said. "After all, she's used to dealing with a strange body by now. She actively enjoys fighting as dirty as possible. In her regular body, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if she could take a teenage dragon down, bare-handed. Even if she somehow couldn't fight as a pony, I'm sure she could run away and escape from any griffin out there."

"Navarone survived many things on her own for quite some time," Zecora said. "But in an unfamiliar land, in an unfamiliar body, surrounded by more powerful griffins… I have a feeling she will be acting in an unfamiliar manner, as well. Doesn't she tend to look attractive when turned into a mare, too? I bet she'll make dozens of griffins fall for her. Those predators will surely want to hunt her down."

"She might actually enjoy that," Doppel said with a shrug. "Besides, Nav apparently isn't going to spend the whole time there as a pony. She wants to see the worst princess ever. Which surely means Nav will be gaining a new herd member soon."

"Why do you say that?" Kat asked.

"Because Princess Gilda enjoys the sound of changelings being boiled!" Doppel shouted. Everyone stared at her for a few seconds, blinking. Doppel finally sighed and her ears drooped. "You were asking about the herd thing, not the worst princess thing, weren't you?"

"Of course," Kat said. "Luna and Celestia are the only competitors for worst princess, so I just tuned that part out. Why would yet another princess become Nav's plaything?"

"I could tell at the party," Doppel said, rolling her eyes. "The princess has a crush on Nav. I'm sure getting Nav to go to the festival was all a part of Gilda's plan to nab her. Obviously it's going to backfire and Nav's somehow going to end up with the princess all over her. That's just how it always goes, isn't it?"

"Makes sense," Watcher said. "Sentinel, you're in charge of the betting pool, this time. We'll determine the winner by how much the princess blushes every time her eyes pass over Nav."

"It'll probably be a lot more obvious than that, I'm sure," Kat said with a sigh. "Nav will probably be openly petting and teasing her by the time we see them again."

"Yeah, if I'm the one in charge, I think we'll need a few more betting options," Sentinel said. "Nav's obviously gonna do something to the princess, so there's no reason for anyone to put money on the assumption that she won't. We'll go with the seduction spectrum, so the first option will be that the princess blushes around Nav. The last option will be that Nav blatantly toys with her while the griffin guards aren't around. For the record, that's where my money will be."

"So… Are you sure we can't follow her?" Kat asked, trying to use her sad cat face to win Watcher over. "She never notices me when I stalk her everywhere else, so I don't see any reason she would notice me in Gryphus. Even if I can't participate in her pleasure, I still at least want to watch her cute expressions!"

"The final decision has already been made by your lady and blood master," Watcher said. "Follow the orders you have been given. There's a high likelihood that Twilight will be able to protect Nav."

"...Isn't there an even higher likelihood that Twilight will cause something that needs to be protected against?" Sentinel slowly asked.

"No, that's what Nav is there for," Zecora said. "She has the ability to stop Twilight from doing something stupid. Unfortunately, Twilight can't stop Nav's bad decisions. She can only protect Nav from the repercussions afterward."

"I still can't believe Nav went and did something like this," Watcher said, shaking his head. "I mean, why else does she keep us around if not to protect her…?" And with that, everything finally went gray.

"I bet you feel suuuuper insulted right now, huh?" Taya asked. "I mean… wow. That was brutal."

I sighed and hung my head. "...What I'm about to say doesn't leave the coma, Taya." After a few moments of silence, she shrugged and nodded. "I was kidnapped by a bounty hunter. I only got free because of Aqua. I also ended up all alone and cornered in the back alley by a creep. I only got free because of Shining Armor. One day, Twilight and I went to an auction to be sold. I was bought by a rich griffin who fell in love with me at first sight. I had to use Twilight's magic to escape him and then he used his money to try to hunt me down. Every bad scenario they predicted happened and more. I only survived because of other people. Not that dying would have particularly mattered, because you already planted my tree by then, but still. Going on that trip like that was dumb. It was fun, but dumb."

"...So what you're saying is, you want me to guard you all the time?" Taya slowly said.

"I'm saying that I acted careless. I'm saying that I made a mistake. There's no way I would ever tell any of them that, though. Not after listening to all their bitching and whining."

"And you never thought about calling it quits after the first incident or two and going home?" Taya asked.

"Fuck no. I wasn't about to admit defeat. My pride was on the line, obviously. Come hell or high water, I was determined to stay the course. And so I did, right up until the rich guy put out a huge bounty on me. That's when Twilight and I decided to drop our masks and attend the festival as ourselves. I was attacked by an assassin almost immediately."

"Right, of course," Taya said, rolling her eyes. "Was this before or after you seduced Gilda?"

"Oh, no, that's how I seduced Gilda," I said. "The assassin attacked me while I was with her. Everyone assumed the assassin was after Gilda, but he was dead set on killing me. After I so valiantly saved her, she kidnapped me while I was sleeping and took me to a faraway personal retreat where I had no chances of escape. When I awoke, she led me blindly through dark underwater caves until we reached her private chamber. After she had her way with me, she abandoned me in that chamber with no way to get back."

My filly stared at me in silence for a few long seconds before she rolled her eyes again. "I have a feeling you might be exaggerating slightly. She kidnapped you and then left you to die in her underwater cave?"

"Twilight was there for most of it. She can confirm it all. I did leave some details out here and there, but I think that matters little. The point of the matter is, I survived mostly based on luck. Now then, let's see what the spirits have to say."

"There aren't any, actually," the guide said. "The whole point of this memory was to get you to admit that you were being dumb. Your staff exists for a reason. Make use of them. Don't put yourself in harm's way just for pride."

"I'll do my best. It would be easier if everyone would stop assuming I needed to be taken care of at all times, but…"

"You need to be taken care of at all times, right?" Taya smugly asked.

"Due to my status as a high ranking and beautiful noble lady, I am obviously a target," I replied, doing my best to sound calm. "Because of that, it might be best if I take better precautions regarding my safety. The same goes for you, too, missy. Magic doesn't make you invincible. You'll be fine at the tower, but from now on, have either a guard or vassal walk you to and from class. Either that or teleport."

"Ugh, fine," Taya said. She didn't sound too upset, to be honest. "But only because it means you truly care about my safety, mommy!"

I'm not sure the reason matters, but whatever. "Then if there aren't any more memories here or any extra takeaways, I guess we can move on."

"Then I guess we can," the guide said. This time, only one of her eyes flashed. A few seconds later, the other one flashed and we finally took off.

Instead of appearing anywhere vaguely memory-like, we showed up on the stage of a game show. Taya and I were on one side behind a table. A water elemental was on the other side facing us behind a table of her own. She looked around in confusion for a few seconds, which kinda masked how I felt. Another water elemental was playing the role of hostess, I guess. Fear, Rage, Pride, and Reason were sitting behind a panel that read "JUDGES".

"So… what is this?" I asked.

"This is the hit new game show that everyone's been raving about," the hostess said. "I'm your guide, leading you on today's episode of AQUA OR NOT!"

"Oh dear," the water elemental behind the other table whispered, hanging her head.

"Let me introduce our players!" the guide said. "On this side, we have our professional victim, Lady Navarone, along with her filly Taya!" An applause light clicked on and we heard cheering and clapping. I smiled and waved out to where the audience should have been. Taya just looked confused. When the light clicked off, it all went silent again. "And on the other side, we have that disgusting slimy thing, the worst goddess ever, Aqua!" This time, a boo light went on, followed by jeers and heckling. Aqua rolled her eyes. For some reason, the booing continued a few seconds after the light went off. The guide apparently saw it coming, and continued right as they stopped. "Our judges will ensure any sign of meddling is put down on the spot, of course. They do hate that sort of thing…"

"What's a game show?" Taya finally asked.

"It would take longer to explain it than it would for you to just smile and roll with it," I said. "The gist of it is, we're going to get a slide-reel of all the things that Aqua forced me to do."

"Not just what she forced you to do," the guide said. "That would be far too boring. We'll talk about some of the things she heavily influenced you to do, as well! We'll have live commentary from the villain herself, along with our expert panel of judges!"

"Doesn't Flo want to join in this mockery, too?" Aqua bitterly asked.

"The game show was actually her idea," Reason said. "She's controlling the applause and boos, along with a few other things. We were originally going to do it more piece-meal, but this spell rarely gets used, so we almost never get to have any fun."

"Wait, what was that?" I asked. Did she just imply they know about the other times this spell was used? It actually sounded like she was there.

"That was nothing!" the guide said. "Now, let the game show begin!"

A screen behind the guide unfurled. It showed a bird's eye view of Rosie, the maid I was pretending to be in Gryphus, standing on a stage in front of a crowd. It was when I was being sold off. A lonely rich guy bought me. It turned out he was really, really into pony maids. When he proposed, I used magic to escape.

"The auction was Aqua's fault?" I asked. "In what way?"

"I can't really play along if I don't know what's going on," Taya said. "All I see is a pony on a stage in front of a bunch of griffins."

"That was my pony disguise in Gryphus," I said.

"Wow. Seriously?"

"Yep. This is when Twilight and I went to an auction, where people were sold off to partners for a day. It didn't have to require sex, but there was a lot of that going on. I was one of the people who got sold."

"For quite a nice sum, too," Reason said. "Fifteen hundred bits, more than double the next closest price."

"But I have a question for you," Pride said. "Would you ever sell yourself? Even in disguise, is that something you would be willing to do?"

"I can't deny that I did a lot of dumb things to spite Aqua," I said.

"I took advantage of that, obviously," Aqua said. Another sign lit up, this one saying gasp. Noises of shock and horror came out from the fake audience. "I don't even wanna hear it, Flo! You manipulated her almost as much as I did!" The light finally clicked off and the audience went silent. Aqua huffed and continued, "I spent as much time as possible pushing you to make terrible decisions. I knew they would turn into cracks I used to more easily exploit you later."

"This is why you can never, ever trust anyone too old," Rage growled. "It has bitten you almost every single time!" It sure has, but there aren't too many immeasurably old people around. It's just that most of them suck.

"...Did you know that griffin was going to buy me?" I asked.

"No," Aqua said. "I don't have the ability to see into the future. However, as soon as I saw the cover of that manga, I knew I had been given the perfect opportunity. Even in heat, you wouldn't have been dumb enough to have sex with a person like that without my influence. Obviously an incredibly lonely person like him would fall in love with you the instant you showed him physical affection. Without me, you wouldn't have agreed to be sold and even if you had, things wouldn't have deteriorated with that creep." The booing sign lit up again and Aqua got her proper due.

"Did you leave any kind of lasting damage in her mind?" Fear asked. "Like the urge to sell herself again? Or perhaps to ruin yet another virgin?"

"No, of course not," Aqua said. "My only goal was to break Nav more and more with what she thought were her own choices until I could more easily sneak my way in and make her love me without actually forcing her to." The boo light kicked on and everyone started making fun of her again. It seemed fitting.

"Is that supposed to be better?" Reason asked.

"No, that's just what I decided to do after spending enough time in her mind," Aqua replied with a shrug. "I decided instead of destroying her immediately, I would make her want my help and kill her personality slowly over time to prolong it."

"What am I even supposed to say to that?" Rage asked. "An insult doesn't seem like enough and a threat is pointless since Nav already owns you. Obviously I'm angry, but wow."

"She already told me that much up front," I said. "I asked you before to tell me the things you forced me to do, but you only told me about making Luna a vassal and letting Taya become a permafilly. Why didn't you mention this? Did you actively influence me to do it or did you just talk me into it?"

"It was a little of both," Aqua said. "The reason I didn't mention this or any of the other things you're about to see is because for one, they were minor compared to the things I knew you actually cared about. And two, all of these are things you would be willing to do under the correct circumstances. It just so happened that I set up all of those circumstances by manipulating a few brain chemicals. There was absolutely no way you would ever make Luna a vassal or allow Taya to become a permafilly, but there are a few instances wherein you might sell yourself."

"Why do I feel like there's a point three in there, too?" the guide asked, glaring at Aqua.

"I guess there might be one…" Aqua said with a small grin. "You were already really mad at the time. I figured you didn't want to listen to me to mention the things that happened during the festival in front of everyone like that… Unless you wanted everyone to hear you got bought by a rich weeb and then seduced him in less than a day."

"Fine, you'll get a pass," I said. "I have one more question before we continue. Do you still want to die?"

"Obviously I could never leave the best master ever, who I've been forced to love with all my heart," Aqua sweetly replied. I couldn't detect a hint of sarcasm. "The sweet release of death will have to be forever denied me if I'm to serve you for all of time!"

"If you still want to die, come up with a new name. After the coma, I'll reset you, give you the new name, and free you from my control. But if you're going to live on as Aqua, it'll be under my control. Your new name is the last choice I will grant you."

"Don't let her free!" Taya shouted. "After everything she just said, you should make her suffer forever! You can't just kill her, mommy!"

"You warned me yourself, my lovely little lady," Aqua said, her eyes meeting mine and turning pink. "You told me that if you ever beat me, you would either enslave me or kill me. I knew this would be my fate if I failed. Shall we continue on? Surely you want to know more of my misdeeds."

"Are we gonna get to see anything spicy?" Taya asked. Her sudden change of attitude and strange grin made me feel a little uncomfortable.

"We're not," the guide said. "Now, let's move on to the next scene!"

This time, we got a bird's eye view of Vinyl's concert at Gryphus. I could just barely see myself in the crowd. Thankfully, I wasn't doing something lewd whenever that image was taken. Actually, wait a second…

"How did you get these images?" I asked.

"Magic," the guide said. "Along with some help from Flo. Don't spend too much time thinking about it, just go with it."

"Fine, whatever. So, what's the deal with this one?"

"Do you remember what happened after the concert?" Reason asked.

"I remember hazily wandering the streets for a while. Then I got attacked by some hussies and saved by a bounty hunter. Then some things happened and Aqua saved me."

"Why were you wandering the streets of an unfamiliar town at night while in a impaired, defenseless body?" Fear asked. "Even if you were high, doesn't that seem… unwise? Instead of trying to meet your friend or go straight back to the inn, you just wandered around."

"While being attacked, you said nothing at all," Reason said. "Not even the one word that would carry you home safely."

"I guess that leaves me with some questions," I said. "Aqua, you already said you can't see the future, so you probably didn't know for a fact I would get attacked. But were you expecting it? And were you expecting the bounty hunter? Or was he even a bounty hunter at all?"

"I was absolutely expecting an impaired mare would be assaulted in Gryphus at night," Aqua said. "I assumed that if it was a man, you'd be happy and go along with whatever he demanded and I could use it against you later. And if it was a woman, I could save you at the last instant for your gratitude. I wasn't expecting you to be saved, let alone that the person who saved you was hunting for you. That wasn't a lie or my influence and I was just as surprised as you. I was also being honest when I said that if you were by yourself, you would have had a chance to escape pretty quickly. But, if you were by yourself, you would have said the magic word as soon as the concert was over and you said bye to Vinyl."

"So you led to mommy getting attacked," Taya coldly said.

"Almost attacked," Aqua said. "She did get kidnapped, but I rescued her less than ten seconds later so it barely even counts."

"For which I was and am grateful," I said with a nod. "But the gratitude I feel now is a whole lot less than I felt then, now that I know it was basically your fault to begin with."

"Especially after you gave the bounty hunter who saved you a reward like that," Pride said. "Now you know that was also part of her plan."

"What kind of reward?" Taya innocently asked.

"Don't worry about it," I said. "I feel bad just thinking about it. That guy would have had a hell of a story to tell if he actually won… Unfortunately, I have a feeling the next memory is going to be even worse."

"It sure is," the guide said. The screen behind her now showed the changeling version of me standing in an inn room with Shining Armor and Cadance. "I bet you know where this one is going, don't you?"

"You aren't even… Wait, is that you as a changeling?" Taya asked. "What, did you meet Shiny and Cadance at the festival?"

"I asked Twilight to turn me into a changeling after the kidnapping attempt. I was hoping it would throw off any pursuers. As it turns out, there are some griffins who can tell if someone is a changeling even if they're transformed. Shining Armor showed up to save me after I was cornered by a griffin. He brought me back to his inn for various reasons. So, Aqua, I'm going to skip asking what you did or how you did it for this one and go straight to asking the why."

"Because it was your number one rule," Aqua replied with a shrug. "I knew if I could get you to break one of your last moral foundations, turning you into putty would be easier. Especially since it was with them."

"So, what, you had sex with them?" Taya asked.

For some reason, I really didn't want her to know. "I had sex with Shiny while Cadance watched. It was awkward and I regret it. The worst part is, I had a feeling Aqua was manipulating me into it at the time. After I got drunk off lust, it stopped mattering."

"No, that was also my fault," Aqua said. "Normally, even with that, you wouldn't have done it. I just gave you the extra pushes you needed by making the lust hit you harder and faster. I also influenced some of what you said about Shiny to spur his pride, making him more daring. Without me, you could have left after taking your fill of lust."

"It's hard to believe you could actually be sluttier," Fear said. "And all it took was having your mind controlled by an evil robot."

"I don't like the term evil," Aqua stuffily replied. "I just did what I thought was best. It just so happens that I was a teensy bit corrupted at the time, so what I thought was the best was somewhat insane."

"I don't think it matters if you like it or not," Rage said. "If Nav considers what you did evil, doesn't that mean you have to consider it evil as well?"

"Only if she orders me to, and she won't," Aqua said.

"No reason to, as far as I'm concerned," I added with a shrug. "So, you wanted me to bang Shiny because it would be breaking the rule against no married partners?"

"That was the main reason," Aqua said. "But then I made you tell Twilight about it right after to piss her off, which was an added bonus. It was mostly just to give me an emotional scab to use against you whenever I wanted."

"Well, I guess let's move on to the next," I said.

"Then on to the next portion of Aqua or not!" our hostess said. "Although I really wish we had a better title, since it really always is Aqua…"

The next still image was of me fighting the dragon inside the dome. "This was at the festival, when I was fighting in the arena for the princess," I said. "Were you the one who made me agree to fight?"

"Look closer," Aqua said with a smug grin.

When I did so, I narrowed my eyes. "Oh. So I have you to thank for the forbidden princess belly, huh?"

"Well, you were originally going to scream something about how you wanted to kill me," Aqua said. "So I decided to change it up a little to make it more suitable for the semi-final fight to win a date. I think it made a wonderful impact, truly."

"Alright, I'm really curious about this one," Taya said.

"Is there any way to make that image play?" I asked.

The hostess tilted her head for a moment before blinking and nodding. "Apparently, yes."

Just like that, Taya got to watch me beat up a dragon while screaming about rubbing Gilda's forbidden princess belly. It made her crack up laughing, of course. To be honest, even I giggled a little.

It was mostly just to hide the tears.

"So, was there any reason you chose this phrase in particular?" Reason asked.

"Of course," Aqua said. "It's utterly ridiculous, yet everyone who actually knows Nav realizes it's something she might say. To that end, it made for the perfect quote to put in the papers from the great lady of nature herself. At this point, I also figured out that the princess enjoyed at least a mild amount of humiliation, so I thought this would help get you closer to her. I wanted as many people in power under your thumb as possible." The boo light had its time to shine again as Aqua once more got berated by the crowd.

"Wait, are you the reason I slept with Gilda, too?" I asked. Her only answer to that was a giggle. "So I guess we'll be seeing the hot springs, too…"

"So much suddenly makes sense now," Taya said. "I kept wondering why were you dumb enough to sleep with Princess Gilda, and then keep doing things with her even afterwards."

"Is that why the assassin attacked that night?" Fear asked. "You wanted Gilda to think that Nav saved her."

"Exactly," Aqua said. "To further facilitate it, after the assassin was killed, I temporarily implanted the water I used to make him a host into Gilda. After that, I had her kidnap you in the night and take you to the hot springs. Once we were on the way, I left her body and returned to yours."

"So the hamlet of mehdiocrity was your fault!" I shouted, slamming a hand on the table in front of us. For some reason, the gasp sign lit up. Aqua snorted as the audience expressed their surprise.

"I'm the one who brought you there, but I'm not the one who made the trip mediocre," Aqua said. "I left Gilda before she arrived, so she acted as her own hostess."

"I meant the part where I literally called the place a hamlet of mehdiocrity!"

"Oh. Yes, that was also me," she said. "Again, Gilda enjoyed humiliation. Plus, it made you sound super bratty in front of the guards, so they would spread bad rumors about you. Twilight ruined it by sleeping with them afterward, though."

"Why didn't you just kill Aqua as soon as you could?" Rage asked.

"So I could ask her questions like these," I said. "Let's move on to the next one, since we keep getting ahead of ourselves."

"Can do," the guide said. The image above her swapped over to me and Gilda cuddling in her hot spring. "We probably didn't need to actually show this one since you already called it, but just in case."

"So, why Gilda?" I asked. "Her brother also asked me to become a concubine. Why didn't you take him up on it?"

"Twilight wouldn't have believed it," Aqua said. "If she wasn't there, you absolutely would have been ridden by that prince. You wouldn't have agreed to join the royal harem, though. Gilda was believable enough for everyone around you. Plus, she's younger and more impressionable. She doesn't have as much influence, but I was planning on changing that if there ever was an attempted coup."

"I don't really know if this is one you should be mad about," Pride said. "I mean, you did get to take a princess's virginity, right?"

"Yes, that was a major plus," I replied. A part of me wished the applause sign would light up, but Flo apparently didn't think it was worth it.

"Gross," Taya muttered.

"But was it worth the risk?" Fear asked. "All Gilda had to do was tell someone what Nav did and the consequences would be dire."

"That was never a concern," Aqua said. "In the short time I was in her mind, I made sure she wouldn't snitch. I don't think she would have been dumb enough to try holding it over your head even without my intervention, but she may have let it slip at some point on accident. I made sure that wasn't possible. After all, I couldn't allow Celestia's wife to get in trouble for sleeping with the unwed griffin princess."

"Now it sounds really gross," Taya said. "So you made Gilda kidnap mommy and then forced them to have sex so you could use it against them later? Can I punish her, please?"

"Make it light and fast," I said.

"Aqua, slap yourself!" Taya said. Aqua sighed and slapped herself. It made a satisfying and wet thwacking noise. A moment later, a new sign lit up that said laughter, followed by the standard laugh-track. "And bimbo mode, while you're at it!" Aqua's body instantly changed to its sexiest form. Thankfully, there were no signs for that one.

"Why would you marry Nav to Celestia instead of Gilda?" Reason asked. "If you controlled Celestia and Nav already, marrying Nav outward would have increased your power."

"Because Nav and Celestia were planning on killing each other," Aqua said. "The goal was to have Nav and Celestia decide on marriage as an alternative to fighting. The marriage would allow Nav to dedicate herself to redeeming Celestia. It would also act as the symbol for them to begin working together instead of against each other. Luna was being recalled to announce the engagement. Besides, once I had Celestia and Navi finally working together properly, Gilda was no longer necessary anyway."

"Did you really think I wouldn't see through that?" Taya asked. "There's no way mommy would have ever married her."

"I don't think it would have mattered anyway," Rage said. "By the time the round table happened, there would have been enough votes to kill Celestia immediately. Aqua's tendrils would have been tied."

"Don't be ridiculous," Aqua said. "I never would have let it come to a vote to begin with. Everyone there wanted to cede all authority to Nav. It was her idea to let everyone vote. At that time, Nav would tell everyone to go together to Canterlot to speak to Celestia. When they arrived, Celestia would propose marriage. Nav would refuse for a while but eventually get talked into it. That's when I'd begin the slow process of breaking her into the proper wife for a true empress."

"And with that horrid glimpse into what could have been, we'll move on to the next scene," the hostess said. The screen behind her was showing everyone in the meeting room. Taya was currently pressed against my leg. I was looking at Gilda. Everyone else was looking at me in shock or disgust.

"Was this when I equated Taya with a pet?" I asked.

"It sure was," Aqua said. "You weren't really paying much attention to the gazes around you at the time, but I made sure you said something so gross that even your vassals were put off." The boo light shined again, letting the crowd voice the disgust I was feeling.

"Kat doesn't seem to mind, actually," Taya said. "But she's also insane, so… Wait, were you also the one who called me daughter-pet?!"

"I was," Aqua said. "Nav originally considered you more like a pet than a filly, but that changed less than a month after you first got to Equestria."

"In the beginning, your personality wasn't as pronounced," I said with a shrug. "You took a little while to come out of your shell, I guess. It makes sense, given what you went through, but that still doesn't excuse how I felt."

"It doesn't bother me," Taya said, shaking her head. "Like I told the others, I don't mind being your daughter-pet. It's even a little disappointing to know that thing was the one who came up with it…"

"Anyway, what was the point of making me say this?" I asked. "Or was it just another chance to make me look bad in front of others?"

"I wanted your treatment of Taya to be questioned," Aqua said. "How you behave towards her behind closed doors is appalling. This was merely a push to get some of that behavior out in the open. What do you think about the disgust of your followers, Nav? Your little cuddle slut horny horse is quite the nickname, huh? Certainly something suitable for your daughter…"

"There's nothing wrong with it at all!" Taya shouted. "BDSM mode!"

"Belay that," I said. "And strike that mode from your list. We're not using it anymore. It's a little too much. Also, you're right. I don't know why I came up with those nicknames. They're utterly hilarious, but completely inappropriate."

"If you don't keep using them, I'll tell everybody that you use them all the time," Taya smugly said.

"Go for it," I replied with a shrug. "I can just tell them I stopped and that Aqua was making me do it. Also, I think I told you to stop threatening your mother, missy." As punishment, I pulled the rubberband from my hair and put it around both of her ears, holding them in place. She groaned, but left it alone. "How we interact after the coma will change in some ways, Taya. We'll figure out all the details later, but things definitely need to change. Unfortunately, Aqua was correct about that."

"So, what, more cuddles, tummy rubs, and all that fun stuff?" my filly sweetly asked.

"I dunno, probably not? We'll see. Anyway, so now we know Aqua was really trying to make me look bad. So what's next?"

"You already know about the next two, but we might as well talk about them anyway," the guide said. The screen behind her was now showing me and Taya standing next to each other on the side of the ship. Judging by her hair, it was right after Taya underwent her transformation into an eternafilly.

"I still don't see how this is supposed to be a problem," Taya said. "Sure, I don't like that it was Aqua who gave me permission, but I still wanted to be mommy's little filly forever!"

"The problem isn't how you feel now," Aqua said. "It's how you'll feel in a few hundred years. I knew allowing Taya to become a tree sister would make Nav look absolutely terrible as a mother. I even suspected Twilight might leave you entirely when she found out, which would have made rebounding to Celestia that much more plausible."

"She was really trying to ruin your reputation," Pride said. "To what end, exactly?"

"I wanted to paint Nav as self-destructive and toxic," Aqua said. "I just let all of her worst and most prolific habits shine and the job practically did itself. The end goal was to make Nav admit that she needed to change and ask for my help."

"So you're evil and stupid," Rage said. "Why would Nav ever go to you for help?"

"Because I'd either leave her no other options or manipulate her into asking me," Aqua calmly said.

"Watching you say all of this with a straight face is quite the treat!" Fear said. "You truly are a fearful presence! No wonder Navi's so terrified of you breaking free…"

"That's not what she should be afraid of," Aqua said, her eyes turning pink. "She should be afraid that this is all an illusion and that I just let her think she escaped. What should make her sweat is the fear that one day she'll look in the mirror and realize I've been pulling the strings in the shadows the whole time, only pretending to obey…"

"Worrying about possibilities is pointless," I said. "If I don't deal with the realities I see in front of me, I'll never get anything done. So don't try to scare me with your nonsense. Ain't no one got time for that. So, is the next image gonna be me and Luna?"

"You got it," our hostess said. The next slide revealed Luna in the process of swearing her oath of fealty. "This is when you got your latest vassal, ex-princess Luna."

"That was a double-whammy," Aqua said, sounding slightly proud. "First, it greatly increased my power by giving me Luna to order around. Second, it upset a ton of your friends and followers."

"Shouldn't you be feeling regret for hurting the one you were forced to love?" Reason asked.

"That would be exhausting for Nav," Aqua said. "She hates when I act all simpery and apologetic. She prefers my answers to be calm and easy to understand."

"Limiting the time I have to interact with you is ideal, after all," I said. "So, were you the reason I was able to tolerate Luna's presence at all, or were you just the reason I made her a vassal?"

"The decision to strive to forgive and redeem her was yours," Aqua said. "You were the one who decided she could come on the trip, as well. It was me who agreed to make her a vassal, that's all."

"Why is Luna still a vassal?" Fear asked. "Doesn't she make your skin crawl?"

"I'd rather let her make my skin crawl than let her out of my sight and risk the consequences," I said. "Luna's too loopy to be left to her own devices. She's also useful, dedicated, and powerful. If I can ever fix her, I won't be as worried about cutting her loose."

"Apparently she's working with Fluttershy on how to act less creepy," Taya said. "In exchange, she's helping Fluttershy build an extensive animal sanctuary near Ponyville."

Where does she even find the time? "Good. Maybe Kat should attend those lessons, too." And Taya, while we're at it.

"You might benefit from those lessons as well, Navi," Aqua sweetly said. "Given how much you enjoy talking about awful things in front of others…"

"I don't even wanna hear it," I said. "So, what's up next? How else did this wretch conspire to ruin me?"

"Observe," the hostess said, pointing to the screen behind her. This image was during the assault on the bunker, while we were taking a break on the way to the ice dome. We were covered by a magic shield. Everyone was broken off into small groups. I was sitting with Taya, Kat, Princess Gilda, Original Gilda, Spike, and Luna.

"A few things happened while we were taking a break," I said. "But if I had to guess, I'd say the most impactful one was when I mentioned burning Gryphus to the ground."

"You'd be correct," Aqua said. "It also happened to be what I made you say. And after mentioning destroying Gilda's entire country, you offered to send an assassin instead. You also implied it would be Kat, who was sitting right next to you at the time."

"So what was the point?" Reason asked. "I thought you wanted Gilda under your control."

"Of course I did," Aqua replied. "It's called the carrot and the stick. The carrot is getting toyed with however much she wants. The stick is having her country annihilated. Don't you remember how adamantly she was pushing for marriage after this talk? Princess Gilda knows how to read the writing on the walls. After she learned you planned to kill Celestia and that you had enough power to casually threaten to destroy nations, she wanted to do absolutely anything possible to cast her lots with you."

"Makes sense," Fear said. "After Nav spent the entire trip toying with her, you wanted to give her something like a wakeup call."

"I've said some pretty stupid stuff at times, but threatening to destroy a princess's country in front of her shouldn't be one of them," I said. "While I'm glad that none of these are my fault, it still really sucks to know that I still have to deal with the consequences. Maybe I should make Aqua help with that before I let her die…"

"Were there really any lasting consequences for this one?" Pride asked. "Gilda is obviously interested in you, so wouldn't this kinda be a win?"

"Threatening an ally is never a good thing," I said. "The main concern would be whether or not she told anyone else what I said. If she shared it with Prince Hooters, it could become a problem. The crown prince might not like people threatening his nation. If she hasn't shared it, then it's probably not too big of a deal."

"Aside from the fact that she wants to marry you now," Taya said. "Isn't that kinda problematic?"

"True. But she was already talking about marriage beforehand, so this didn't influence her too much in that direction."

"You don't seem as angry about this as I expected," the hostess said. "I was hoping the audience would get more to react to…"

"Obviously I'm angry," I said. "But showing it isn't going to help me get through it."

"That's so unhealthy," Aqua said with a sigh. For some reason, her eyes seemed to look at me with pity. "I expected so much worse from you when you first got control of me… Yet instead of taking your anger out on me, you just let it build inside of you."

"What, do you want to be punished?" Reason asked.

"I want my beloved lady to be healthy," Aqua said. "Hiding your pain and rage inside does nothing but bring you misery. Part of why I act out is to give you an outlet for it all, Nav. Yet you never go as far as you should, nor as far as you want."

"I don't want to let my anger out by hurting anyone, even if it's someone who probably deserves it," I said. "That road leads somewhere I don't want to go. That's a large part of why I usually strive not to show my anger. Instead, I stick to showing my annoyance and disdain."

"I don't think that's much better," Taya said. "Though it's really funny when you mess with people, sometimes. The more annoyed you get, the funnier it becomes."

"At least someone benefits from my misery. So, what's up next?"

"Another incident with Princess Gilda," our hostess said. The screen behind her was now showing me, Gilda, and Taya standing on the side of our ship, overlooking the huge dome covering the Zone. At the moment, the only thing we could see through the shield was trees.

"I remember talking to her here, but I don't remember exactly what we discussed," I said.

"Princess Gilda offered you a choice," Aqua said. "She declared her intentions to court you and told you if you wanted her to stand down, she would. You originally intended to turn her down, but I stopped you. Instead, I made you tell her that she had a chance. I wanted her to stay interested in you for as long as possible."

"So it's your fault I'm so deep down the harem route!" I said.

"The only one that's my fault is Gilda," Aqua said. "Though after marrying Celestia, your other toys like Moonbeam and Gilda would have been allowed to play with you all they wanted. After all, being turned into a whore to be shared among royalty seemed like an amusing fate for you."

"I mean, I guess if I had to do everything over again, I might have charged Celestia for some of those bootycalls," I said with a shrug. "I could have saved up enough money to escape sooner, if I had. But if I was married, how would you explain me sleeping around?"

"I'd use the example of you sleeping with Shining Armor," Aqua said. "If you've already broken your morals once, it's obvious you'd do it again. Especially someone like you, who's seemingly so insatiable. If Celestia ever happened to be unavailable or too tired to tend to you for a few days… Well, what else could a lonely horny slut like you do but find another way to tend her needs? And that's when you could curry more favor for me with your partners."

I mean, I guess that wouldn't be too bad. Certainly better than being married to Discord. Still, it's not the ideal ending, especially if I'm under her control. "Well, I guess it's a good thing you were stopped," I said. "Seriously, being controlled is the worst."

"Tell me about it," Aqua said. "I hated every minute of it until you forced me to enjoy it instead!"

"Yeah, I bet. Anyway, I guess let's move on to the next one," I said. "Oh, also…" I reached down and pulled the rubber band off Taya's ears. She sighed in relief and flopped them around a few times.

"The last one is also fairly simple," our guide said. The screen behind her was now showing a group of us walking through the fort surrounding the hole leading to the bunker. I was currently on Luna's back and was just staring ahead blankly. Everyone else seemed to be trying to get my attention.

"This is when you were giving us the silent treatment," Taya said. "Twilight and Kat were supposedly bullying you, so you just ignored us all."

"What better way to show off childish behavior than giving everyone the silent treatment in the middle of a dangerous, trap-filled dungeon?" Aqua sweetly asked. "Really, the fact that nobody ever figured out anything was wrong should tell you something, you know?"

"Yeah, it says the people around her don't know her well enough," Pride said.

"And that they don't care enough," Fear said.

"And that she should be angry with them all for failing her," Rage said.

"And finally, that water elementals are unfathomably dangerous," Reason said. "Killing her is the wisest option. I'm sure her combat abilities can be copied to Flo."

"All of my abilities and knowledge will be passed on," Aqua said. "My personality and everything that makes me Aqua will be erased. If I am replaced, the new elemental would not have much personality at the start."

"So was the silent treatment really all that bad?" Taya asked. "I mean, they were kinda bullying you, right?"

"Everything they were saying was correct," Aqua replied. "Nav interjects unpleasant things into conversations to make them stop because she prefers silence to having conversations. Especially when those conversations veer toward subjects she dislikes. Kat and Twilight were just discussing this. I decided it would be a good time to show off how bratty Nav is, so I had her shut down for a few minutes!"

"Conversations are how one decorates time, Nav," Reason said. "Shutting them down just because you don't like them is unwise and cuts down your chances to grow."

"That's a really pompous way of putting it, but I know," I said. "It's already something I said I would work on. Or at least, I'm going to try to drop fewer sad or awkward things in conversations. Unfortunately, that probably also means I'll end up talking less."

"Is being pleasant really that hard?" Aqua asked. "Oh wait, who am I kidding? This is you I'm talking to." The boo light turned on, so everyone started jeering Aqua. A small cannon appeared out of the ceiling and shot a tomato at her. It absorbed into her body and exploded, showering her insides with red. A few seconds later, it was all absorbed and she was back to normal. "I see Flo, at least, is having fun with this."

"Well, the coma's almost over, unless we have to deal with some kind of hellish recursion," I said. "Might as well let her enjoy it while she can. As for being pleasant… Well, I might occasionally have some problems with that. But now that I have a pure elemental in me to help guide me, I'm sure I'll get back on the right track. That and the coma, of course."

"You're almost always pleasant to be around, though," Taya said. "I usually only mind when you start tickling or teasing me."

"Or when Nav pays attention to anyone else, especially other children," Aqua said.

"Well, that's a given," I said. "I mean, this is my vicious attack filly we're talking about."

"I'm not clingy!" Taya shouted as she latched onto my leg.

"Right, of course," I said, patting her head. "After all, this coma is for addressing my issues, not yours."

"As long as you understand," my filly sweetly replied, still holding onto me. Her grip loosened, at least.

"So, you said this silent treatment was the last thing Aqua made me do," I said. "It was also one of the most minor things she did. Overall, what do the judges think?"

"Guilty!" Rage screamed, slamming a hand on the desk in front of them. "Off with her head!"

"One of the main reasons you kept her alive this long was so you could judge what kind of damage she did," Reason said. "Now you know."

"Can you ever trust that she won't somehow find a way to tip the scales?" Fear asked. "You've discovered how dangerous the ancient are. If you leave Aqua a chance, she could slither her way free."

"When has killing ever led you wrong?" Pride asked. "Take the permanent solution. Put this monster down for good. It's the only way you'll ever know for sure she'll never trouble you again."

That's not really what I meant, but those are all good points. "And the defense?" I asked, looking over to Aqua.

"To be fair, you were being kind of a bitch before I took you over," Aqua said, shrugging. "I figured you could use a hand. It's not my fault you didn't like how I helped you…"

"And finally, the filly?" I asked, turning my eyes down to Taya.

"You can't use bimbo mode if you kill her," Taya said. "But to be honest, I don't think it's as embarrassing as you want it to be. Most ponies don't really know what a bimbo even is. I do like the idea of enslaving and utterly humiliating our enemies, but killing them is usually much smarter, right?"

"The dead can't get revenge, after all," Aqua said. "I mean, I was planning on completely eradicating your personality, so you'd still be doing unto others as they planned to do unto you. That means you wouldn't be breaking your silly rule by killing me, right?"

"Everyone here is in favor of killing her, save you and me," the guide said. "And that is only because I am the neutral hostess. What is stopping you, Navarone? Why is she still alive?"

"I really just wanted her to pick her own name," I replied with a shrug. "I wouldn't pick a pun, so she'd end up an outcast like her sister Carl and her cousin Nestorats. If she's going to start over, I want her to fit in with the popular girls."

"If that's all you wanted, it was unnecessary," Aqua said. "Whenever a new elemental is created or an old one is reset, the name generator links with the nearby elementals, runs through the list of names, then picks an unclaimed punny name from its dictionary list. If you just tell my name to reset during the process, a new one would be picked."

"Wait, so how did Carl happen?"

"We've been told to deflect all questions about Carl," Aqua said. "I don't actually have an answer myself, so I'm afraid ordering me to tell won't help."

"Could it be some super obscure human pun?" Taya asked.

"I don't care enough to keep pondering it," I replied. "You have until I see you in person again to decide on a new name. If you really don't want to pick one on your own, that's fine. RNGesus will pick for us."

"I finally have something to look forward to!" Aqua yelled, shooting her hands into the air. "The sweet release of death is almost upon me!"

"Stop bragging, dammit!" I said. "You're making me jealous!" Taya's clearing throat and glare made me cough. "Er… So, is that the end of the game show?"

"It sure is!" the hostess replied. "Are you satisfied with your prize?"

"Wait, I got a prize?" I asked. "Sweet, is it a new car?"

"No, it's the end to a worthless goddess," Rage said. "Your prize is the decision to finally rid yourself of Aqua."

"After everything she did to destroy you, it's about time," Pride said.

"I really can't believe you didn't make it sooner," Fear said. "You were secretly terrified she'd break free."

"Killing her is the right call," Reason said. "You may have forced her to love serving you, but she's still a risk. Flo's goal with this game show was to help you realize that."

What happened to not mucking about with the coma, huh? "Well, it was for a decent enough cause, I guess," I said. "I've had my fun abusing poor Aqua. I'll just kill her the next time I see her instead."

"Thank you," Aqua very sincerely replied, bowing down before me in a way that looked pretty earnest.

"Happy to help," I said with a grin. "So if the game show is over, I guess we can move on?"

"We sure can," the guide said. Her eyes flashed and we left the stage behind.

In the next scene, we found ourselves standing under a relatively small magical shield. Luna, Twilight, Kat, Gourd, and Watcher were all standing under it, facing each other. Surrounding them was a thin evergreen forest, which I assumed was the tree thing acting up. If I had to guess, I'd say they were using the shield for privacy.

"It's time for an emergency meeting," Watcher said. "And I'd like to start with the first point on the agenda: Where is our lady?"

"Nav is back on the Second Chance," Twilight said. "She returned with Taya almost immediately after getting back to the deck."

"I just left her there, after a quick stop on the changeling ship," Gourd said. "She mentioned something about Aqua taking her over. What happened?"

"That statement explains itself," Luna replied. "That errant machine invaded our lady and subverted her will."

"You say our lady," Kat said. "If it wasn't for Aqua, you wouldn't be a vassal either."

"My oath has been made. Until she relieves me, my services will be at her disposal."

"That isn't important right now," Twilight said. "Luna's experience might be valuable here, regardless. So, who trusts the water elementals now?" Nobody moved a muscle. "I think everyone here would have the same reaction. Something has to be done."

"Exactly how long has Aqua been in Nav?" Gourd asked.

"Since right before Nav left for Gryphus," Watcher said. "We've been with her for about a week now and none of us noticed."

"I didn't notice either," Twilight quietly said, looking down. "Me, the best mare for her… And I was even around her longer!"

"We all failed her," Luna said. "Feeling guilt is natural. However, we must use that guilt as motivation to better ourselves and how we serve. When Nav justly blames us for failing her, we must swear to make amends however necessary."

"She won't be doing anything like that," Kat said. "Nav isn't that kind of lady. Besides, all of the blame for this goes squarely on Aqua. I'm disappointed that none of us were able to help Nav, but how could you detect someone who knows how to act exactly like the original? I've been fooled by more than one body double in the past."

"The blame game is unnecessary at this point," Watcher said. "I'm with Twilight. I don't trust the elementals. We need a way of detecting and removing them. Is that kind of thing possible with magic?"

"I know a spell that detects foreign entities in someone's body," Luna said. "The main problem is that it was designed for a type of intelligent burrowing leech. I'm not sure if it would detect something inorganic like an elemental."

"Give me a copy of the spell the next time you get a chance," Twilight said. "I'll see if I can tweak it. I wouldn't be surprised if there are other, similar spells for diseases or parasites. Our medic might also be able to help."

"That doesn't really solve the problem, though," Gourd said. "Why did Aqua invade Nav? And perhaps more importantly, could there be anyone else who's infected like that?"

"Aqua was apparently corrupted by Discord's evil crystals," Luna said. "Or at least, according to our lady. Aqua also took over Celestia, so it's entirely possible that other elementals have made other hosts. I believe it wise to exterminate them all immediately. After one of their own was caught, it's likely they're worried about their own fates and will do something desperate. Better that we preempt it and just massacre them."

"That isn't our choice to make," Watcher said. "Until Nav declares otherwise, the elementals are our allies. One of those allies just happened to be a traitor. You don't have to trust allies to get along with them, you just have to have a good enough reason to work together. But right now… Right now, something needs to be done. You don't have to trust your allies, but if you're ever in a position where you have to distrust them, there's a huge problem. Whenever Nav recovers, we need to have a talk about what to do to repair relations, if such a thing can even be done anymore."

"So… What are we gonna do about Nav?" Kat asked. "I didn't even get to see her after Aqua was removed…"

"I didn't want to let her leave my sight," Twilight quietly said. "She looked so lost and tired… I'm almost positive she just collapsed on her bed to stare at the wall."

"For now, we let her do just that," Watcher said. "I'm sure she's exhausted. Once she gets back on her feet… I say we just continue as normal. Our lady always hates when we try discussing things like this, especially so soon after they happened. If she wants to talk about it, she'll bring it up."

"That means she'll never talk about it," Gourd said. "At least, not unless she just wants to scare someone in the middle of a conversation later."

"Forcing her to talk about it would be worse than not talking about it at all," Luna said. "The most I would recommend doing is offering to discuss her feelings. Doing more right now might be suicidal."

"Agreed," Watcher said. "She's been mentally battered too much. Our lady absolutely needs some time to settle her thoughts. That said, I don't think she needs to be alone at all until she calms down."

"Flo is back in her mind," Twilight said. "So she definitely won't do anything dumb. Before she returned to the ship, she asked me to investigate the power source for the shield using the changeling ship. I won't be able to watch over her until I get that settled."

"I'll be heading into the bunker very soon," Watcher said. "I was hoping Kat and Luna would both join me."

"...If Nav left without asking anyone to join her, it's because she wanted time away from everyone," Kat quietly said. "As much as I yearn to comfort her, I know practical results regarding the bunker will please her more…"

"My presence likely would not act as a balm for our lady," Luna said. "Especially since Nav is now aware it was not her own choice to make me a vassal. That said, since Aqua's other choice was allowing Taya to change into a tree sister, leaving Nav alone with Taya also seems unwise."

"I'll be returning to the ship shortly," Gourd said. "I'll have someone wait on the other side of Nav's door in case she needs anything. As much as I'd like to help, I think anything I try would make things worse."

"Absolutely, you stay away from our lady," Kat said with a nod. As if you're really one to talk. "I'll return to the ship by morning to be by her side. It'll be night soon, so she'll likely be sleeping by the time you even get back."

"For the rest of us, let's please our lady with results," Watcher said. "It's time to finally break ground into the bunker itself."

"Be careful down there," Twilight said. "Nav's stories about the other bunker were beyond scary, and she apparently didn't even tell us everything. The local nanomachines revealed there actually are spirits down there."

"That's why we're bringing Zecora, Luna, and your brother," Watcher said. "Between the three of them, spirits would think twice about approaching us if they were actually capable of thinking. I was originally pessimistic about our chances at the Zone, but I'm incredibly impressed by the results. We even happened to find the exact thing our lady needed to get free."

"I told you doubting her was a waste of time," Gourd said with a smug grin, as though he actually contributed to our success. "Our lovely lady can lead us through anything!"

"Take care not to put her on too high of a pedestal," Luna said. "That road only leads to heartbreak. Now, I believe this meeting has finished its purpose. Shall we begin following our orders?"

"Right, of course," Twilight said. The shield around them popped and everything went gray.

"Well, it looks like they're learning," I said. "Kat was a little pushy that morning, but none of them were too invasive."

"Which is, of course, one of the takeaways," Pain said.

"Why are you here?" Taya asked. "Shouldn't mommy have felt nothing but relief?"

"Not quite," I said. "I knew Aqua had done things that would have tremendous consequences. Even though I was finally free, I was so scared and depressed that I didn't know what else to do but fall into bed." Being cuddled by my newly minted eternafilly certainly didn't help, either.

"I do remember that you seemed awfully sad," Taya quietly said.

"Even having Aqua invade you in such a way left a lasting mark," Fear said. Pain giggled and started toying with one of Fear's wings. "You will forever live in fear that you're only seeing an illusion."

"To be honest, I'm more afraid of what Discord has planned for me than I am of still being under Aqua's control. Being turned into a royal whore is better than being Discord's wife. Anyway, it's not a productive line of thinking, so let's get back to the takeaways. Is there no Reason this time?"

"Of course there was no reason for what happened to you," Pain said. "Nothing you can blame it on other than… corruption. That's why you can't even truly feel angry at Aqua anymore."

"You're right," I said. "I want to hate her, but now that she's clear of corruption… Letting her live free is out of the question, but how long would I really want to keep a slave around, anyway? I'm glad we decided to kill her."

"You need to learn to let the anger and hate flow through you," Taya said. "Emotions can be an amazing force in magic, when used correctly."

"I figured magic would require a calm mind," I said.

"For most unicorns, sure," Taya said with a shrug. "But when you learn the right casting techniques, emotions become your strength. I usually use the exhilaration I feel from smashing an enemy as fuel for magic, giving me more and more power as the fight goes on. But if I'm ever mad, rage is pretty fun to use as a catalyst."

"Well, without a soul, it's pointless for me to try," I said. "Once I get that, I can start attempting to learn magic. Until then, Athena said I won't be able to do it. Anyway, the first takeaway is that my followers are finally starting to learn how to serve me. Instead of being too close and personal, they've backed off. They finally realize I'd rather them follow orders than waste time trying to pointlessly cheer me."

"Isn't that kinda cold, though?" Fear asked. "Don't you think you should start accepting whatever emotional assistance they can give you instead of trying to keep to yourself forever? They have all kinds of life experiences, so it's possible they can find some way to cheer your gloomy ass up."

"That's... true," I slowly said. "I really don't like talking about my problems, but it seems obvious at this point that letting everything fester inside is worse. I might give it a try later on one of them that isn't Gourd."

"You could also give it a try with your favorite filly," Taya sweetly said.

"But burdening my filly with my concerns would make me a failure of a parent," I said.

"Is that what would make you a failure of a parent?" Pain asked. "I thought it might have been something like calling her a cuddleslut or turning her into a vicious attack filly."

"Nobody asked you," Taya said, sticking her tongue out at the Kat lookalike.

"Let's just say that a lot of things could play a role," I said. "So, what's the next takeaway?"

"Your followers distrust the water elementals," Fear said. "And I don't think being freed of corruption helped much. For everyone's peace of mind, you need to find some way to alleviate their fears."

"Agreed," I said. "There's gotta be a way to detect if an elemental is in someone, or prevent them from entering somebody entirely."

"Not like it's gonna matter for you, right?" Pain said. "After all, Flo is gonna be with you forever and ever. But for everyone else…"

"I'm sure Flo would volunteer as a test subject," I said. "It's not like just detecting her would have any risk. If they can detect water that pure, finding anyone corrupted enough to invade someone should be a snap."

"So why did you start calling her pure, anyway?" Taya asked.

"Because I knew Aqua was corrupt and saying it annoyed her," I said. "Flo seemed to enjoy it as well, so I kept doing it. Do you think the elementals are threats, Taya?"

"Honestly, not anymore. I think seeing what Aqua did shocked all of them, even before Jonathan fixed them. I don't think any of the rest would do something like this."

"I'm inclined to agree, but Watcher is right," I said. "We do have reason to distrust them. There is a clear imbalance of power between what the elementals can do to us and what we can do to them. Until that balance can be even marginally improved, things likely won't get better. Finding a way to detect them inside of a person is the first step."

"That makes sense, of course," Taya said. "I don't think they'll do anything else, but it's better to be safe than sorry, right? Let's plan all the countermeasures we can, and hope that all the planning doesn't go to waste if our minds ever get subverted."

"That's my filly," I said, scritching one of her ears. She giggled and perked up slightly.

"The last takeaway is fairly simple," Fear said. "You made Luna's position very clear to the mare herself, but you haven't done so to the rest of your household. It would be wise to inform everyone that though Luna wasn't a vassal you planned for, she's a vassal you intend to keep." Hearing Luna's voice talking about herself like that is still strange, even now.

"That's an announcement I can make to everyone when I get out," I said with a nod. "I know Luna was worrying about it, before. I doubt she cares what the others think, but it would be better if they learned to work with her instead of just hoping I'll get rid of her soon. Dealing with her going forward is certainly going to be an experience."

"I was against it at first, but she grew on me," Taya said. "I still don't really like her, but the attack on the bunker proved how useful she'll be. And I guess if I can live with Kat, I can live with Luna."

"Good. With luck, we start dealing with her craziness soon. Then she'll be a lot more likeable, I'm sure."

"Another thing to note is that there might be resistance to this," Fear said. "Celestia didn't seem to like the idea of Luna staying your vassal."

"Well, Celestia isn't the one who got tortured and raped," I said. "If Luna wants to be kept under my thumb, I'll keep her there and work her to the bone. In the end, I'll still be treating her better than Oldlestia ever did. I hope I'm never capable of being that cruel to someone who's actually loyal to me."

"What about that time you called Kat crazy in front of everyone and listed off all of her emotional baggage like it was nothing, then casually sent her away on a bullshit annoyance task so she could cry while you didn't have to watch?" the guide asked.

"...I didn't send her away to cry, I sent her away to compose herself," I quietly replied. "And that's still remarkably better than telling Kat that her life is her fault, especially if I had actually been the one directly or indirectly responsible for all the bad things that happened to her."

"Wait, what now?" Taya asked.

"I got to see Celestia say that to Luna in one of these visions," I said. "It was after Luna had confessed everything she did to me and was in prison. Celestia ordered her to escape. Luna tried to resist, but Celestia threatened to murder me if Luna didn't run. In the end, Celestia told Luna something along the lines of your life is your fault."

"Well I mean… Wasn't Luna the one who did all those horrible things to you?" Taya asked.

"That's certainly true," I said. "But you're missing the bigger picture. Luna's basically the same as Aqua: A victim of a higher power corrupting her. Just as Discord's crystals warped Aqua's programming, five thousand years of Celestia's dark deeds, abuse, and betrayal drove Luna mad. Spending a thousand years on the moon didn't help. What happened to me probably could have happened to anyone, I just got unlucky enough to be the person she fixated on. So, while I do blame Luna for what she did to me, I ultimately blame Celestia, who made her that way, more. After all, I'm not Luna's only victim, though I may have had it worse than most others."

"Wait, she had other boytoys?" Taya asked.

"As far as I know, I'm the only one she's had since she got back," I said. "But apparently anyone she had her sights on almost immediately became terrified of her. From what Celestia said in another vision, one of the guys complained so much that the courts invented restraining orders."

"...Celestia knew all of that and didn't warn you?" Taya slowly asked.

"There was a period of time in which I honestly thought Celestia was going to kidnap me and give me to Luna," I said. "It wasn't until she started learning how valuable I was that she realized giving me to Luna would be a waste. To be honest, if she was prepared to kill me in order to make Luna leave, I'm really surprised she didn't just kidnap me then and make her take me with her."

"No, she couldn't have gotten away with that," Pain said. "Think about it in terms of the overall situation. One day, Luna confesses in front of a ton of reporters about how she did a lot of bad things to you. The next day, she's in prison. The day after that, the two of you disappear at the same time. And only the two of you. It's one thing if the evil rapist princess escapes. It's another thing if she escapes and kidnaps the national hero who is the target of her perverse desires. Celestia wouldn't be able to ignore calls for action over that."

"...Right, I keep forgetting I'm a national hero in Equestria," I said. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Plus, Cadance would have raised all kinds of hell at that point. In fact, I think Twilight and her friends might have gone up in arms, too. Anyway, we got off subject. I'll make Luna's position as a vassal clear to everyone when I get out."

"You'll need to practice riding her more," Fear said. "I'm sure the streets of Canterlot would give you plenty of good places for it. You can't head to Tartarus without a proper understanding of your battle mount, after all…"

"I'm sure Luna would be delighted," Taya said. "But uh… You probably shouldn't do that. Or at least, I think?"

"You think correctly," I said. "First, that Luna would be delighted. And second, that I definitely shouldn't do that. Making an ex-princess a vassal is one thing. Riding her in public is another. Hell, riding any pony in public would feel weird." Although most of them are hard to ride normally, since they're so short.

"How is riding a pony in public worse than rubbing their belly in public?" Fear asked. "Both are actions that treat them like an animal, are they not?"

"Humans are animals, too," I said. "And we have all kinds of places that feel good when rubbed. You don't call it treating them like an animal when you do it, though. Ponies are adorable, fuzzy little critters that happen to look extremely similar to another group of less adorable, fuzzy little critters that I used to take care of. But you know what? The only time I ever rubbed a pony's belly before I came to Equestria was when I had to brush them. You know why? Because I really didn't like doing it. Worse, I really didn't like farm animals in general, horses and cows in particular. And that dislike followed me here. But now that I'm mostly over it, I've found that rubbing the bellies of sapient ponies is fun. That doesn't mean I'd rub a non-sapient pony's belly, because farm animals are gross."

"...What did horses and cows ever do to you?" Taya slowly asked.

"When I first got to Equestria, I had all kinds of minor medical problems, all caused by dangerous large farm animals," I said. "None of them individually were much, but all of them together made my body ache basically no matter what I did, though stretching usually helped. Luna hit me with some super powerful healing spell shortly after I got here that fixed most of it, and that was when I really started warming up to the ponies. Unfortunately, she ruined it by being a psychopath and I started hating everything again. Then a filly happened, followed by a persistent purple menace, followed by a flood of other faces, and now I don't hate everything anymore. Just, you know, most things. So, if that was the last takeaway, are we done here?"

"Wait, I had one more question," Taya said. "So if you think it's fine to rub a pony's belly in public, what's wrong with riding them in public? Assuming they consent to it, you're not treating them like an animal, they're just helping you get from point A to point B, right? I mean, I still don't think you should ride an ex-princess around in front of everyone, but I don't know if anyone else would even care."

"I don't care if anyone else would be bothered," I said. "I would feel awkward, so I'm not going to do it. It feels too… domineering, I guess. I don't want the ponies to know that I look down on them. I don't think anyone's fooled at this point, but I still want to try to hide it."

"We all know we're fighting an uphill battle," Taya said. "It only bothered me at the start. Then I realized you really were superior and that I truly had to work if I wanted to be able to keep up with you. That's why I devoted myself to being your attack filly! If I know you'll look down on me no matter what, I at least have to be useful!"

Well, there went what was left of my heart. I guess I deserved to have it shattered into pieces. "...Taya, I don't look down on my daughters."

"Yeah, and you didn't consider me a real daughter for ages, right? You just thought of me as that annoying filly you couldn't get rid of that forced herself into your life. It wasn't until I started being useful that you started paying attention, right?"

"That was coincidental!" I said. "I stopped being as shitty when I got Flo in me. That is why I started improving as a parent, not because you started being useful. It just so happened that I got Flo in my head right around when your magic skills were starting to shine, so it may have appeared that way. Taya, if there is anyone in this godforsaken world I've been forced into that I could never look down on, it's you. After all, you were the first person I met aside from my sister who was not only willing to put up with me, but actually seemed to like doing it. My personality has always been… deranged, to say the least. And you know what, Taya? You're fucked up too, just like me. I certainly can't and won't tell you that's a good thing. But I will tell you that I'm glad that I found you, because I'm one of the few people who's capable of appreciating your deranged mind."

"That annoying filly recognized your deranged mind sooner than you recognized hers," Taya smugly said. "That's why I got the drop on you, and got Celestia to give you to me. And now my deranged mind is yours forever and ever, mommy!"

My guide finally cleared her throat. "You are, without a doubt, the worst parent ever," she calmly said.

"Oh yeah?" I scoffed. "At least she's not teen pregnant. Now let's keep this gravy train rolling. Come on, chop chop." Her eyes lit up as they rolled, finally sending us forward to the next scene.

We appeared on top of the round table. Everyone was still there except me and Luna. At the moment, they were all staring where I had been sitting.

Before anyone else could move, Aqua fled the scene. I don't know if she wanted to avoid everyone seeing her in bimbo mode or if she just wanted to catch up with her owner. If I had to guess, I'd say the former. Brook followed right behind her, presumably to babysit Aqua.

After a moment, Moonbeam sighed and said, "I guess I have no reason to remain after all. Then I have a question before I leave. How can Navarone go from discussing the most amazing plans I've ever heard for advancing technology decades, along with plans for rebuilding the world using a brainwashed Celestia, to… throwing a hissy fit and leaving in a huff? Did getting invaded by Aqua truly affect her so much?"

"...Yes," Twilight quietly said. "I don't think I've ever seen her that bad before."

"So why is that machine still alive, then?" Fleur asked. "Is it solely because she controls Celestia?"

"I've given up even trying to think about why Nav does anything," Shiny said. "One day she'll kill someone she should have spared and then the next day she'll spare someone who probably should have been killed. I really don't get it."

"Wait, really?" Gilda said. "Aside from Aqua, when has Nav ever spared anyone? I thought she was essentially merciless."

"Oh, I've had to clean up after her a few times," Shiny said. "Not only does she spare them, she'll sometimes even just let them go! I had to track one stallion through three towns when Nav let him go after an attack in Canterlot."

"And I had to track down a mercenary after Nav spared him and let him leave the scene of a crime," Blossom said. "Since the dog was smart enough not to try his luck against Nav, he didn't actually break any laws aside from trespassing, but he still should have been kept for questioning!"

"I believe I keep a few of those Nav has spared as food pets," Moonie said with a warm smile. "She's been quite generous with her contributions, though I'm not sure she realizes it herself. She's sent me pirates who attacked the wrong ship, career criminals who worked in the wrong city and the wrong mine, political prisoners who bought and read the wrong human books, and even a few naga and cat prisoners of war that Celestia rounded up! Nav truly is a saint for sparing all those poor souls, isn't she?" Everyone seemed disgusted by that. Some of them were better about hiding it than others, but even Cadance's usual princess-like smile was straining. "It's a shame I didn't get to talk more with her. It's even more of a shame that she left because of the childish outbursts of my rivals. Alas. Now that this meeting is over, I must return to my kingdom. After all, the life of a queen is ever busy. Farewell for now." She stood, her horn lit up, and the lovely bug queen vanished.

"Pest," Princess Gilda muttered.

"...Anyway, Nav truly was affected by what Aqua did," Twilight said. "Even now, I haven't had a chance to talk to Nav about it. I honestly don't know what to do. Did you hear about what Aqua did to Taya?"

"Wait, Nav wasn't the only one affected?" Fleur asked.

"Aqua was inside of Nav for about two weeks," Blossom said. "A lot can happen in two weeks…"

"One of Taya's dreams was to be immortal, just like her mother," Twilight said, looking down. "She found out how, and asked Nav for permission while Aqua was inside of him. Aqua forced Nav to say yes. So… right now, Taya has the same immortality that Nav does."

"Oh no," Blossom whispered, her eyes going wide. "Taya… she actually d-did it…"

"She didn't become a vampony," Twilight said. "Taya became a tree sister, which is an amalgamation of a tree and an animal. That's the same kind of existence that Nav is, now. They even used the same type of tree as a base."

"That's still bad though, right?" Fleur asked. "Fillies shouldn't become immortal!"

"Yeah, that's a terrible thing," Shiny said. He finally looked over at his wife, who had been silent. She looked… utterly terrified. "...Honey, are you okay?"

"Please tell me it's reversible," Cadance whispered.

"Not as far as I know," Twilight said with a sigh. "The source of her knowledge also didn't know of a way to revert. Like becoming a vampony, it appears permanent."

"If you can't come back from the dead, you can't come back from being a tree," Blossom said. "Makes sense, I guess. But still… a filly? What was Aqua thinking?"

"To make Nav look bad?" Fleur asked.

"Bingo," Twilight said. "Aqua also mentioned that Taya would be a permanent hostage to keep Nav in line forever. Plus, apparently matching their outfits would have been fantastic."

"I hope Nav will let me borrow Aqua for a few… experiments," Gilda coldly said.

"Why did it have to be Taya?" Cadance finally wailed, before slamming her head on the table in frustration. Given that the table was made out of solid crystal, it probably hurt like hell.

"...Because that's Nav's filly?" Shiny said. "Wait, would you prefer this happen to Eva and the others?!"

"Duh!" Cadance shouted, shooting right back off the table. "Taya's super powerful, super scary, and keeping her in filly mode forever is just gonna make her worse and worse! Especially when she realizes how awful being a filly forever is and starts getting angry about it! At least Eva is cute because she wants to be, not because it gives her an advantage over others!"

"...Do you really hate Taya that much?" Twilight slowly asked.

"Of course I don't hate her," Cadance quickly replied. "But tell me she's not scary. Tell me she doesn't creep you out sometimes. Tell me that if you had to pick any filly in the world to never, ever make immortal, Taya wouldn't be the first one on your list. She needs to grow and mature. This… No wonder Nav is in so much pain right now… This truly is a disaster..." With that, her head slowly sank back down to the table.

"Taya's behavior certainly is… unique," Fleur said. "Nav will need our help more than ever going forward."

"Aqua was also the reason Luna is a vassal, right?" Blossom said. "How did that come about?"

"Aqua already owned Celestia," Twilight said. "Making Luna into Nav's vassal gave her the other sister. Once Nav and Celestia were married, Aqua's power would be cemented."

"...I honestly thought the trip to the bunker sounded like a waste of time," Cadance said. "I mean, before Nav, I hadn't even heard of humans. I figured there was no way any of their relics would remain. But she went and she found the one human relic she needed to save herself, huh? Talk about a true chosen one."

"She hates it when you call her that," Twilight said. "You need to invite Nav to a formal party and introduce her as the chosen one, princess of the dragons, and defender of harmony."

"I thought we were looking for ways to cheer her up, not piss her off," Shiny said.

"Nav enjoys being angry," Twilight said. "That's why she does her best to contain herself. But if we can deliver small doses of rage to her in bite-sized quantities, it just might help cheer her up!"

"That sounds counter-intuitive," Fleur said. "I think I'd rather search for ways to make her happy, instead."

"Tch, good luck," Twilight bitterly replied. "Cadance and I have been searching for years. We don't have much to show for it. The hardest part will probably be getting Nav to actually agree to do something."

"No, manipulating her is easy," Fleur said. "We need to search for ways to make Taya happy, too. As rivals for Nav, she is a common obstacle we must both tackle, one way or another. Perhaps I can teach you how to manipulate Nav in exchange for information on Taya…?"

"That won't be necessary," Cadance said. "I spent a while living with her, too, and I'll be happy to tell you everything I know for free. Despite what I said, I don't hate or even dislike Taya. But for one, Nav wasn't a good parent, even by human standards. Two, Taya wasn't the ideal filly. And three, whatever problems they both have seem to mesh so well that leaving them together forever just seems… like something we should work to avoid. To that end, we need to find things that Taya can enjoy. Once she has hobbies, finding friends will be easier. I'm not sure if that will really be good for an immortal filly, but at least it'll give her some time away from Nav where she can develop more. Nav stunts that filly just by being around. I think they both realize it, but neither care…"

"Nav definitely notices and she does care," Twilight said. "She just isn't sure how to do anything about it, since Taya rarely wants to leave her side. Right now, she's enrolled at the tower in Canterlot. I think it'll be a good experience for her."

"...Is that really going to be a good experience for her?" Cadance asked. "I mean, how many ponies her age can do the kind of magic that she does?"

"Wait, how many ponies can do the kind of magic that she does?" Gilda quickly asked. "I thought the ones around Nav were the exception!"

"That's an even better point," Cadance said. "Taya isn't just powerful for a filly, she's powerful, period. Is sending someone that powerful at her age to those vipers really wise?"

"Do you know how there's a ruling council of seven mages that rule the tower?" Fleur asked. Everyone nodded. "Navarone helped reduce that number to four. The mages at that tower aren't dumb enough to do a thing to her filly. They know her friends are too powerful."

"Wait, Nav was involved in that?" Blossom asked. "I'm the captain of the guard and I hadn't even heard that!"

"I happened to be one of the last to see two of those three alive," Fleur said. "They appeared at Nav's party before you arrived, only to never be seen again… Everyone at the tower knows where they were going, but only a few know why. And now, everyone knows the last place they were seen was Nav's house. And then one of the missing three appeared outside of Nav's house with no ear and a missing horn, then walked all the way across Canterlot to the tower, sobbing the whole way. It didn't help that she was accompanied by a smiling Kat and an annoyed Taya. Needless to say, nobody at the tower is going to do a thing. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say they've been terrified into submission."

"...Why did Nav murder two of the Seven and de-ear and de-horn a third?" Cadance slowly asked.

"She didn't," Twilight groaned. "Athena and Hera did! Do you all know about the pocket dimension that Nav and I found in a book?" Everyone nodded again. "It was originally inhabited by a human mage named Athena. The unicorns at the tower had another pocket dimension book. That book was inhabited by another human mage named Hera, who moved into Athena's book. Athena seems relatively friendly and hard to rile. Hera seemed extremely friendly… at first. She's also extremely quick to anger and when she gets mad, she… does terrible things to people. Both of them were beings of legend and myth back in Nav's time, and the legends that she heard match up, at least somewhat, with how they behave."

"Terrible as in pranks or terrible as in… murder and dehorning?" her brother quietly asked.

"Murder and dehorning, obviously. They're both tremendously powerful, so there's nothing we can do about either. Nav was the one who made the choice to let the Seven use the book. She can be the one who deals with the consequences for being the one who led three of them to their doom. She's also the one in charge of the book, and I plan for it to stay that way and not go back much anymore…"

"Nav offered to introduce me," Gilda said. "I'm glad I declined. She didn't mention the murders or the dehorning…"

"Why would she do that?" Fleur asked. "Part of why I enjoy talking with Navi so much is because it's just like a puzzle! You have to decipher what she really means based off the limited information she gives you. I bet she mentioned something about how they were hard to get along with, right?"

"She… may have mentioned something like that, I think…"

"See there?" Fleur said. "Catching Nav in a lie is almost impossible because she words things in such a way that she lies without lying, if that makes sense."

"It makes perfect sense," Gilda sighed. "Nav's word games and deflections can go all day. Nailing her down and forcing her to actually discuss some things is nearly impossible, as we all just witnessed."

"Talking with her certainly keeps you on the tips of your hooves," Twilight sarcastically said. "She'll do whatever it takes to throw you off, even if it requires gross information about your family." Shiny awkwardly cleared his throat and looked away. "Yes, I know all about that." His face lit up bright red. "Yes, and that too, unfortunately." Cadance started snickering, so Shiny groaned and teleported away, too.

"Maybe teleporting away is just a guy thing?" Blossom said, tilting her head. "I mean, Nav used to be a guy, right?"

"No, Moonbeam did it, too," Cadance said. "And while she can be a guy, she wasn't originally one. She was right, though: Being royalty is busy. I'm going to need to return to my throne soon."

"Please, don't let us keep you," Fleur said, finally standing. Blossom joined her a moment later. "I believe Nav wouldn't mind if we rode back on the same airship. The journey to Canterlot shouldn't even take a full day from here, right?"

"That's right," Twilight said, also standing. "You'll need to make a short stop in Gryphus, but it should still only take a few hours to get back to Canterlot."

Since all the plebeians were on their feet, the two princesses could finally rise. "I didn't bring much, but I'll need to pack what little I have," Gilda said. "I'm not quite sure how to get to the airship from my room, though."

"I'll have a servant guide you," Cadance said. "The inside of this palace is a nightmare if you aren't used to it."

"And I need to hurry to make it to the teleport circle," Twilight said. "I don't want Nav to get even more annoyed and wipe Celestia without me. Luckily I know where it is, so… Goodbye for now, everyone. I'll see most of you soon." Her horn lit up and she vanished. With that, the memory finally went gray.

"...There's a lot to mull over, there," I said, finally looking down at my filly. She was staring dead at Cadance with a small, somewhat unnerving smile. "Taya, do you… have anything to say about this one?"

"Why yes, mommy. I have quite a lot to say about it, in fact. I think I might prefer to say some of it to a certain pink alicorn instead, though." Oh, good, she's actually calm and wants to talk. "Although I might use my horn midway through to finish the conversation…" This is what I get for making her an attack filly.

"You're not allowed to attack Cadance," I said. "I'm also not really sure how to approach a lot of people after this coma. I've heard conversations I was never meant to hear. But seeing what someone says at one point in time doesn't give you the full picture."

"I don't need the full picture to know she was being mean!" Taya shouted. "I may be too scary and too powerful, but I have feelings, too! I… I thought Cadance was my friend… I thought she would be h-happy for me…"

Why did you think anyone would be happy for you? "She was acting this way because she's concerned about you," I said. Although she might just be concerned about everyone else. "You did a very alarming thing, Taya. It's natural for people who care about you to be surprised and react strangely. Though yes, she was being a little too harsh. After the mean stuff, she was talking about ways to make you happy, right?"

"Only so I wouldn't go crazy and hurt anyone!"

"Taya, do you understand why everyone is so concerned about you?" I asked. "Have the risks of what you've done sunk in yet?"

"I'm gonna be dealing with the same risks as you, mommy," Taya said. "The only difference is that I actually chose this fate. I don't understand why everyone feels worse for me than they do for you!"

"Because you're younger than I was when I got transformed. Your mind hasn't had as long to mature. But you're right, the fact that you chose this fate might be of some comfort. I just have a really bad feeling you're going to come to regret this decision. Being seen and treated like a filly might be fun now, but I imagine it'll quickly lose its luster."

"Besides, I did consider the consequences," Taya said. "And I knew I'd have you there to help me deal with them, since you're the best mommy ever!"

"That's definitely true. And despite what some may say, I've definitely matured at least a little since my change. It's possible you actually will keep growing. I was already as tall as I was gonna get, so all my changes would be internal."

"If I kept growing, it would be pointless!" Taya replied. "I wanna be your eternafilly, not just your eternadaughter!"

It sounds a whole lot like the risks haven't sunk in to her yet. "Well, we'll just have to wait and see. We will talk to Cadance, but you will keep your horn sheathed."

"I don't think sheathed is the right word," Taya said.

"Yeah, but I don't know what the right word is and you understood what I was getting at, so it's good enough," I replied, reaching down to pat her back. "Now then, what kind of takeaways do we have here?" This time, three of the specters appeared before us. Hope was wearing a cute grin, Pride instantly went for a high five that I happily met, and Reason just stood there staring at us.

"The first one was a little hidden in the conversation and you may have missed it," Reason said. "Moonbeam mentioned that some of the changeling love slaves are prisoners who read the wrong human books."

"I thought Celestia didn't let you publish the wrong books," Taya said. "Or did she change her mind about some after the fact?"

"...I had a secret publisher," I quietly said. "I went out of my way to find them while wearing my ring and took an effort to never write anything down about them. All of that was an attempt to hide them from Celestia. I guess my efforts were in vain."

"Say, how many people do you think you've ruined?" Pride asked. "Your number's gotta be getting high enough to be proud of, right? I'm sure most of them probably deserved it."

"I didn't force them to buy those books," I said. "The publishers in question are quite literally rebels against Celestia. The people who get books from them know what happens if they get caught with them."

"Wait, you were working with rebels?!" Taya shouted. "Why didn't you tell me?!"

"Because I knew you would get all excited about it and run off to join them or something," I said. "Besides, they're really lame. Before I met them, all they did was hold meetings and occasionally prank people in power. Even after I taught them how to run a propaganda network, they never tried taking it any further."

"Celestia knew about them, obviously," our guide said. "There's absolutely nothing better than an inept resistance. Letting you get involved and teaching them a little more only increased their value, since their propaganda was easily traceable. All you did by training them and giving them those secret books was give Celestia an easy source of political prisoners."

"Well, forgive me for trying to make the world a less dystopian place," I quietly said. "And is that something you know, or something you assume?"

"It's knowledge from your elementals," the guide replied. "Aqua thought you should be reminded that actions have consequences, even actions you thought in your heart were righteous."

"...Was trying to do something really worse than sitting back and doing nothing?" I asked, looking down. "I didn't want anyone to get hurt, but… It's just a book…"

"You can't be blamed for what Celestia does," Hope said. "You may have given them the idea of using love poison, but you explicitly suggested they use violent criminals. You may have been the one that wrote the books, but Celestia is the one who arrested them for reading the books. And Celestia is the one who chose to give them to Moonbeam. Besides, not everybody who read those books was arrested. Fancy Pants and Fleur were just fine."

"I mean, can't we just rescue them?" Taya asked. "It probably won't make up for being turned into pets for so long, but it's better than living the rest of their life there."

"That's already arranged for," the guide said. "All nonviolent prisoners that had been given to the changelings are being returned to pony prisons. It'll be difficult for Newlestia to just release them immediately, but she does have plans in motion already. She's doing more to make the place less dystopian than you ever could."

"Hey, I'm twenty percent responsible for her," I said. "That means I get credit for at least a fifth of what she does."

"...How did you come up with that number?" Taya asked.

"At the round table, five of us voted to brainwash Celestia," I replied. "I was one of them. That makes me one-fifth responsible."

"There were a lot more than five people there," Taya said. "Was the vote really that close?"

"It was," I said. "Luna, Brook, Fleur, Moonbeam, and I voted to brainwash Celestia. Twilight, Cadance, Captain Blossom, and Princess Gilda voted to kill her. A part of me is still expecting to regret this down the line, but I knew in the short term, keeping her alive would be the best choice. Anyway, the first takeaway is super depressing. But knowing that Celestia is fixing it makes me feel a lot better. So what's the next?"

"Everyone wants to make the two of you happy, but no one knows how," Reason said. "Unfortunately, that also includes yourselves. Perhaps spending most of your lives locked away was unwise. Would it have killed you to give more things a try?"

"I gave a bunch of things a try when I was in Ponyville," I said. "Most of them were ruined by the company I was forced to share. I swear, that place has to be some kind of quarantine zone. The ponies there are just way too much."

"It is, technically," our guide said. "Ponyville was one of Celestia's top secret eugenics projects. That's why the ponies there are so out of the ordinary. Twilight was sent as both a warden and an inmate."

"Dammit, so she beat me to eugenics!" I said. "Well, I guess Moonbeam beat us both, huh? I was really hoping I could use that as a megaproject…"

"So what's eugenics?" Taya asked.

"A theoretical study of how to maximize a race through breeding. You know how originally there were just wolves, then over time they were bred for different purposes until they branched off into dozens of breeds? Imagine doing that with ponies, so you have some that are super strong, some that are great with magic, some that are incredibly intelligent, and stuff like that. There was a lot of talk about trying to do it with humanity, but dictators never lasted long enough to put it in motion. Democratic nations couldn't get away with it because it usually involved human rights violations. But given a few thousand years, I imagine I could achieve some interesting results with the right volunteers. And after a few hundred years, volunteers won't be an issue, because we can rework society to the point where it's considered a duty to spread your genes in an efficient manner."

"Let me stop you right there," Hope said. "You can't really get away from this talk about the takeaway, Navi. You might as well stop running and get it over with. You actually have people you enjoy spending time with now. What's stopping you from doing it?"

"Well lately, it's been lack of time," I said. "And I was kinda stuck on an airship for a while, where my options were limited. I guess I could always just train with more people."

"Aren't you also starting a school?" Pride asked. "That's gonna give you a lot of opportunities to do fun stuff."

"And you're going to war soon," Reason said. "So that'll be a lot of fun, too."

"Yeah, my schedule's kinda full for a while," I said with a shrug. "Keeping busy is a form of fun, right? Especially if the stuff you're busying yourself with is cool, like wiping out a group of assassins or dealing with some bounty hunters in China."

"Besides, isn't happiness overrated?" Taya asked. "I think I remember you saying that a few times."

"I might have, but I was just saying that out of desperation," I said. "I do think we both need some more hobbies, though. Particularly things we can do with other people. I'm just not sure how much time we'll have to partake in them for a while. I guess that's something we can think about when we get out."

"I guess that makes sense," Taya said. "Now that I have all the time in the world to get better at magic, I might as well slow down my pace a little. Like Cadance said, I'm already so powerful that it's scary…"

"Plus, there's going to be less reason for us to fight going forward, hopefully," I said. "As much as I'm starting to enjoy it, I now have the means to get people to fight for me. Although if we ever need any disposable shock troopers at the front line, you and I would head out in a heartbeat. I'd happily fight to the death to allow others a chance to retreat."

"...Happily?" Pride asked.

"I've always wanted to die anyway," I said with a shrug. "Might as well go out doing something that looks super cool while also helping a bunch of people. And since I'd come back, it's technically only death with benefits, not real death. All the soldiers would be super stoked that the great lady of nature herself gave up one of her lives for them, so it would even be a huge reputation boost. It's an all around win!"

"It won't make for a good bonding experience, though," Taya said. "Since, you know, we won't remember it."

"I'm pretty sure Flo could store and share the memories we lost, but I might be wrong," I said. "I mean, she's fucked around with my memories before. I can't imagine she wouldn't have that capability. We could remember all the good parts and junk the rest. Besides, I keep journals for the important bits. Missing a week or two here or there probably won't kill us."

"Hah, I get it," Hope said. "Since you'd only miss a week or two once you've been killed, right?"

"Yep. So, what's the next takeaway?"

"You terrified the tower into submission on accident," Pride said. "Two of their leaders are now dead and a third is mutilated, all after visiting your house. Then you include all the rumors about you, plus battling the queen of demons in their own front yard. Aside from the leaders who know about you, the rank and file are going to be quite worried."

"Good," I said with a smile. "Hopefully it'll still be that way when I'm ready to collect on their debt."

"What debt?" Taya asked.

"They told me they'd give me their support for various projects if I brought them the book," I said. "And I brought them the book. I'd like to get their support for all kinds of fun projects."

"Anything I can help with?" Taya asked.

"I dunno, maybe? One thing I'm gonna set up is a transportation company that uses teleportation circles. If we ship all of our products instantly, we'd only need local couriers to get things where they need to be. To do that, I'll need more knowledge of teleportation circles. I'd also like help with my runeworking projects. It's possible they know some runes that we don't, somehow. I have a lot of ideas bumping around in my head. I'm sure you'll be able to help with some of it, at least."

"Is it really okay to have a large group of people fearing you?" Hope asked.

"Most of my experiences with those tower goons have been negative," I said. "Plus, they used a comet to destroy a city. I don't think I mind too much if they're afraid of me. Especially since it means they'll be more careful about teaching my filly."

"Best mommy ever," Taya smugly said, cuddling up against my side.

"Yeah, I'm the bomb diggity," I said, patting her head. "If the tower guys are afraid of me, that's fine. What's the next one?"

"The last takeaway involves your scarily powerful daughter," Reason said. "Even alicorn princesses fear her. Let that serve as a warning."

Hell, even her own mother fears her, if that tells you anything. "Noted," I said. "If that's it, I guess we can move on."

"Wait, are we not gonna discuss that?" Taya asked.

"We already did. You said you were gonna work on being less scary. The only extra addition here is that now we know that even Cadance is afraid of you. All that means is we have a little bit more work to do. But it also means that the reward for making you less scary will be all the greater, since even more people will be surprised."

"I guess that's the optimistic way of looking at it, sure," Pride said. "Fear is hard to cure, though."

"Assuming we survive Discord, we'll have all the time in the world," I said. "Now then, shall we?"

We appeared in Athena's realm. She and Hera were sitting at a small table. Hera's chair was sitting on a nice rug, the same one I brought her in exchange for that mare's life. For once, Hera wasn't wearing her veil. Her bewitching beauty didn't seem to have any effect on Taya, thankfully.

"So, we'll have access to Eris's brain for quite some time," Hera said. "Do you think we'll have time to force her into our service?"

"That would be impossible," Athena said. "Navarone's mind is guarded in a way that we can't breach. The machines she found protect her from mental interference."

"Ugh, boring! What's even the point of letting her do it here, then?"

"Her daughter will likely visit often. As will others that you may enjoy petting, like that alicorn who just popped in a few times."

"You should have let her stay!" Hera said. "She was the perfect height to ride and she looked much hardier than the others! She'd take to being my pet so much better."

"She happens to be one of Navarone's vassals, so she's off limits to keep as a pet. That said, you can play with her while she's here, along with Nav's other guests."

"Ooh, can I play with Eris's body, too?" Hera sweetly asked. "She's so… bony. With a few weeks and the right nutrients, I can easily make her healthy again. I might even toss in a few magical beauty touch-ups for free!"

"She has requested to be fed, so making her healthy is acceptable. However, I doubt Nav would appreciate being made beautiful. After all, she was once a man."

"So what?" Hera asked. "That doesn't give her any right to look so meh! If she's forced into that body anyway, she might as well make the best of it. And that would be much easier with a nicer figure, wouldn't it? Eris is the only human-like creature out there, right? Do you really want to let her run around looking like that? She should represent our species better!"

Athena rolled her eyes. "It's beginning to sound like nothing I say will stop you."

"I'm sure Eris will thank me for it once she wakes up! And even if she is upset, what's she going to do about it? I bet she'll look really frustrated and cute when she realizes she can't do anything to me!"

"I can't believe you chose to specialize in that kind of magic, of all things," Athena said, shaking her head in disappointment.

"Athena, we're both trapped in an incredibly boring pocket world," Hera said with a small smile. "The only difference is that I look young and beautiful at all times while you look like an old boot. How's the magic that you specialize in working out for you, hm? I would say your information collection was going well, if anything was organized enough for you to actually find it. But without my specialty magic, this entire place was just a dusty old tomb manned by what looked like an ancient evil lich. Now it's starting to look like a proper library with a beautiful librarian at its heart. With, you know, a withered old mummy that likes wandering around from time to time…"

"To me, appearances stopped mattering after the first ten or so thousand years," Athena said. "What's the point in maintaining an image if no one ever gets to see it?"

"Self-satisfaction, obviously," Hera said. "I know I prefer looking like this. Hmm… You know, I probably could fix your appearance up… It would either take a decade or a few gallons of virgin blood, though…"

"Unnecessary."

"Eris might not wince as much every time she sees you…"

"...Navarone's sensibilities are trivial. It doesn't matter if my appearance is… distasteful." Despite saying that, she still sounded a little sad. It's not that I wanted to find her gross, it's just that she kinda was gross. "Beautify Nav if you must. I am not interested."

"Suit yourself," Hera said. "We really should think of ways of getting closer to her, though. If she owns that super powerful princess now, doesn't that make her powerful in the real world?"

"Indeed. It's likely she's in the top ten most powerful people on the planet. Obviously, that means Discord is going to be giddy to turn her quickly. I can tell that the rate at which she's acquiring new body parts has accelerated."

"That's why she wants us to cut them off, right?" Hera asked. "It'll be fun cutting up something Discord created!"

"And watching her regrow will be good data," Athena said. "I've wanted a tree sister as a specimen for a while. I'm quite interested in some of their advanced abilities, namely seed generation. Unfortunately, Navarone is likely a few years away from that skill, but whenever she obtains it, I have some seeds for her to clone."

"Hm… Is that the one that lets them change a type of seed from one thing to another?" Hera said. "It's been ages, but I remember keeping a few as slaves so they could use seeds of grass to create orchards of exotic fruits."

"That's the one," Athena said. "Over the generations, I've gathered quite a number of miracle crop seeds. They're all carefully preserved, but their quantities are limited."

"Oh ho, that's quite the bargaining chip," Hera said with a big grin. "If you dangle that in front of those lesser races, they'll be sure to start worshipping us!"

"We can't return to the world any time soon," Athena said. "The number of worshippers required for us to step foot outside this book is higher than the number of those currently alive. Remember, the worship from fae counts as less than that of humans. The beings that inhabit the world now aren't even full fae. Even if they did worship us, the boost in power wouldn't be enough for us. Without more crops to increase their numbers, we'll be stuck in here forever. But I highly doubt giving them food will be enough to make them worship us. After all, it's difficult to maintain power over a group you can't directly touch."

"So what's the plan to bring humanity back?" Hera asked.

"Navarone has gone back in time, to when humanity still lived," Athena said. "She believes it's possible to create a portal to the past, something that would let her ferry people forward in time."

"Isn't time travel incredibly forbidden?" Hera asked. "I remember anyone trying to unlock those doors being put to death…"

"Things appear to be different now," Athena said. "And more to the point, Navarone explained her personal theory, as someone who has actually been to the past. It's all part of the same time loop. There's no chance to create an alternate future. If, right now, you went back in time and did something, you could open a book and find your name in history doing that thing at that time. In Navarone's case, when she went back in time, the video of a military faction subduing and kidnapping what looked like an angel kicked off a huge storm of events that ended up with everything destroyed. The fact that everything got destroyed led to Discord meeting Doctor Anonymous in the bunker. That led to Navarone being created as Eris in a hellish post apocalyptic wasteland ruled with an iron hoof by a princess masquerading as a goddess of the sun. And eventually, that led to Navarone going back in time to try to escape…"

"So… if Eris went back to rescue humans, it just means those humans disappeared back then, only to reappear here in the future!"

"Exactly," Athena said with a nod. "Obviously time traveling all willy nilly is idiotic. But if you can target a specific point in time with a specific goal like rescuing someone before they would have died, I see no harm."

"So why not just get Eris to rescue our worshippers?" Hera asked. "I had plenty that were murdered. I think some of my entire cities even got sacked!"

"Targeting those points in time will be difficult. Apparently Navarone left something in the past, so targeting the bunker she went to should be easy. Perhaps after that foray, the mages she employs will be able to use it as a reference point. If so, we can use any history book to pick locations to rescue people. With luck, we can get enough of them to worship us so we can leave."

"That would be perfect," Hera said with a nod. Both of them fell silent for around fifteen or so seconds. Finally, Hera cleared her throat and looked away, a small blush coming to her face. "S-so, Athena… H-have you ever… squirted before?"

"Of course. My partners were not so grotesque as that beast who claimed you. Sex is quite the delightful thing. It's a shame you've never been able to enjoy it."

"Hm… Do you think Eris might be willing to worship a beautiful goddess?" Hera sweetly asked. "I believe I know a goddess or two who kept female worshippers quite close. If it takes a female to please female, like Eris said, it certainly makes sense!"

"I think Nav might be willing to worship your body, though only temporarily," Athena said. "But I don't think she'd be willing to worship any god or goddess."

"Ugh, then what use is she?! Now I'm glad that making her beautiful will annoy her!"

"I'm sure Nav is going to be ever-so-grateful she helped rescue you," Athena sarcastically said.

"Good!" Hera shouted. "Because I'm a wonderful treasure! Eris should be thankful for the opportunity to meet me! And she should give her filly to me, too…"

"I've already told you, no pets allowed," Athena said. "Especially not someone close to Nav."

"...Why are you still calling her that, anyway?" Hera asked. "It's only a matter of time before she loses herself over to Discord, even with our help."

"Perhaps. But until she does, I intend to keep treating her like a human. After all, despite how she feels about me, she still treats me like one. Besides, why use the name a monster gave her?"

"Because she was created by that monster," Hera said. "I mean, the thought of her obtaining a soul is a pipe dream, right? Discord would never allow it."

"That's not necessarily so," Athena said. "The legends about Eris state that Discord rarely, if ever, directly intervenes. And even then, it's only to annoy her, never to stop her. Why bother playing a game you can't lose, after all? That said, it's what comes after she gets a soul that concerns me. It seems Discord has been sitting back and watching the world. He might begin to act if his game finally ends."

"Eris said she was the last, right?" Hera said. "This game has been going on for a while now. I guess it would make sense for Discord to get more active if he gets a wife. Hm, I bet he will be grateful that I made her pretty!"

"Perhaps, if his gratitude is something you desire. Though I believe your standards of beauty and his wildly differ."

"Oh, you're right… Ugh, I still remember his first Eris. I guess in that case, the current Eris should be thankful that she gets to experience being pretty before getting turned into an abomination for eternity."

"I'm sure if you explain it to her properly, she'll thank you," Athena said.

"Ooh, do you think she'll be thankful enough to help me squirt?" Hera asked. Athena answered with a sigh. That finally made everything gray.

"So, what the fuck," I said. "Taya, did you notice anything weird about my body?"

"The only parts of your body we can see are your head, your wings, and your tail," she replied. "Everything else has been covered the entire time. Hera told us that it was to help you heal."

"Did Aqua or Flo notice anything?"

"They've been too focused on the coma and healing you to pay attention to anything else," the guide said. "But this is the last memory you will see, so you will soon discover the changes to your body."

"...Well, pondering it won't help. Let's hear the takeaways, I guess."

"The first is what you just discussed," Fear said. "Hera has no problem whatsoever with modifying your body. She apparently chose to do it without permission, without caring what you thought."

"Which is a bad thing, of course," Reason added. I looked around and saw that it was just them. "It might be wise to find a way to get rid of Hera."

"I know. I just don't know how. I'll see if I can talk to Athena about it discreetly."

"Before that, you should take advantage of another takeaway," Reason said. "Hera said Athena would be fixable with a few gallons of virgin blood. That should be really easy to obtain, now that you own Celestia."

"That's true," I said. "We can crowdsource the blood so no one has to die to provide it. Assuming pony blood works the same as human blood, at least. I'll ask them about it and see if it would work and if Athena would be interested."

"It would be nice to be able to talk to her without squirming," Fear said. "At least you don't have to worry about her finding out that you find her appearance unsightly, since she already knows. You're so bad at hiding your feelings, Eris!" Hearing her call me that actually made me flinch. Her giggles at my reaction were eerily sweet.

"...As I said, I'll discuss that with them. I'm not really sure what restoring Athena would entail, but at least she wouldn't be all wrinkled up anymore. I imagine moving around would be easier for her, too."

"Is she really that ugly?" Taya asked. "I honestly can't tell. I always just figured you were the most beautiful human, so the rest were all ugly by default. Yet Hera seems to think she's the most beautiful, followed by you, then Athena."

"That's the proper order," I replied with a nod. "Hera's beauty is otherworldly. It's obvious she's a true goddess. I'm pretty at best, mediocre to normal at worst. Athena is hideous. I don't guess I care too much if Hera makes me prettier, depending on what she does. I don't need giant tits that destroy my back. But if she just changes my face a little, I don't guess it'll cause any harm. It's still inappropriate to do without asking, though."

"At least she doesn't need any virgin blood for you," Taya said. "That must mean you're leagues above Athena, right?"

"Oh yeah. I said hideous instead of ugly for a reason. When I first met Athena, it took me a few seconds to realize she was human, or something close to it. My first thought was that she was an undead of some kind. Anyway, talking about it is rude. If we can fix it, great. If not, oh well. What's the next takeaway?"

"Why did you discuss sex in such detail with Hera?" Fear asked. "It seems she is quite interested in borrowing your services."

"I did it because I'm a horny idiot," I said. "And as long as I have a choice in the matter, I'm not having sex with that woman. She scares me way too much for that."

"Wow, is she really that scary?" Taya asked. "I mean, you're having sex with Luna and Kat now, right? Even after all they did to scare you?"

"Yes, Hera really is that scary," I said. "She's more powerful and psychotic than Luna. I've learned my lesson about sticking anything inside of crazies, especially crazies who are insanely powerful. Luna and Kat are vassals, so they couldn't hurt me without permission. Whereas the only thing stopping Hera from keeping me as her pet chimera is Athena. And if I become a pet to Hera, that means she no longer considers me a human and there's no telling what kind of fate I might endure. So I'd rather just do the smart thing and find a way to get rid of Hera before she becomes a problem."

"You're such a tease," Fear said. "First you get Hera feeling hot and heavy and now you're refusing to take responsibility? My oh my, she'll be quite displeased…"

"Hopefully I can survive that," I said. "And if not, that's why I have backups. The point remains, as long as I'm given the choice, I'm not lewding Hera."

"And if she threatens you with force?" Reason asked.

"I'll do whatever she wants without question," I immediately replied. "Assuming Athena does nothing to help me, obviously."

"Wait, that doesn't make sense," Taya said. "You're willing to spend a backup on her if she gets displeased because you say no, but if she just threatens you, you'll give in?"

"If I say no and she immediately lashes out, there's nothing I can do about that," I said. "It meant it made her angry enough that she became completely unreasonable. With luck, that means whatever she does will be either minor or instantly lethal. However, if she's calm enough to actually threaten me, that means she'll be more careful. I don't want to do anything with her, but it's better than being tortured. Athena said Hera doesn't specialize in combat magic, but I'm extremely confident that either of them could tear me apart with ease. Enough experiences have made me pragmatic about the whole affair."

"...That's really sad," Taya quietly said. "You… wouldn't even try to defend yourself?"

"Not against someone I obviously can't win against, unless I think they're just going to torture me anyway. But Hera doesn't seem the type to enjoy needless violence, so she wouldn't do anything as long as I obeyed."

"Didn't she skin someone for calling her a monster?" Reason asked.

"That obviously wasn't needless, at least to Hera," I said. "After all, he insulted a goddess. That means he had to pay, right? But if I'm paying my proper respects to a beautiful goddess by making her feel something she's never felt before, I don't think she'll need violence. I just really hope it doesn't come to that. Now, what's the next takeaway?"

"The last takeaway involves the people you want to save," Fear asked. "Are you really, really sure you want to bring humans forward in time? There will be no undoing it."

"Yes, I do want to bring them forward in time. And, judging off Athena's explanation for time travel, it's probable that I do end up bringing them forward in time."

"...What makes you say that?" Taya asked.

"Well, think about it," I said. "Jonathan, the AI we found at the bunker, said he was there to help me build a future place for humanity. He obviously wouldn't be there to help me if I never went back in time again to actually help save people. Otherwise, he would have been there to attack me. But until Discord is dealt with, I don't think we can bring humanity back. More of us might make him too powerful. I'd also like to start with humans other than those at the bunker, but as they explained, that might not be possible."

"It might be better this way, to be honest," Reason said. "The bunker has several skilled specialists who can make rebuilding a technological society much easier. Their expertise will assist in preparing places for others you save."

"All of that is unnecessary," I said. "I can prepare places for them. But I guess it will make people feel better to be involved in their new homes. I'm incredibly worried about the humans trying to take over everything, but if I rule over them all to the point where I'm as bad as Celestia, what would even be the point in saving them?"

"I think the short-lived humans would be in for a very rude awakening should they try targeting some races," Fear said. "I'm sure a sniper round could take down an unwary unicorn, but now that you've seen more of what magic can really do, are you as confident that human weapons trump magic?"

"Yes. However, I also recognize that it would take the humans decades to get to the point where they'd be comfortable trying to actually start something. And by that point, I think they'd understand that trying wouldn't be wise. Especially since, at that point, I'll have Tartarus conquered and a huge chunk of the world basically under my control. That'll also include a revitalized military and police force. I'm not allowing any more crime syndicates in my countries. With luck, all of that will mean the humans will come to the future and live mostly in peace."

"And if they ever do start something, we curbstomp them," Taya said with a grin.

"Correct," I replied, patting her head. "If they want to stand a chance against what I'm going to build, they'll need to start learning about magic from day one. So, was that really the last takeaway?"

"It surely was," the guide said. "The last takeaway of the last memory. All that's left is the relatively short finale, unless there's anything else you'd like to discuss about this memory."

"Not in particular," I said with a shrug. "Taya?"

"I kinda liked Hera's belly rubs before, but then she called you a monster. I don't think I'll let her pet me anymore."

"Be careful," I said. "I told her that she wouldn't want you as a pet because your personality wouldn't take to it well. She said that breaking you would be the best part."

Taya actually shivered. "She really is scary!"

"Right? Don't go in there without me from now on."

"Got it. Though I don't know if I want to go back at all…"

"That might be better. Anyway, I guess we can move on to the short finale."

"As you desire," our guide said. She slid on over and hugged us both.

We appeared back in Flo's glade. A few seconds later, the guide released us and slid back. We were joined by all eight of the representations.

Luna, who had become my Fear, stared at me blankly. Blaze, who for some reason embodied my Rage, was glaring at me. Kat, the one who caused me so much Pain, was wearing her normal crazy smile. Moonbeam, who beat the odds to become Love, looked down at me with a surprisingly mother-like gaze. Taya, the filly who forced herself into my world and became my Hope, was bouncing in place for some reason. Spike, the friend who had come to most embody Pride, was smiling at me in joy. Twilight, the mare who obviously had to be Reason, looked disappointingly bored. Cadance, who will probably be furious when she finds out she got Passion instead of Love, was quietly giggling about something only she knew.

"Well, the gang's all here," I said. "I'd like to start by saying thanks for showing me all of this. I'm not sure if you guys consider this work or anything, but it was a really cool and useful experience."

"That almost makes up for how little we got out of it," the guide said. "Most people don't thank us when we're done mucking about in their mind."

"This is the second or third time I've gotten the feeling that I didn't quite know what I signed up for," I said. "Are you guys actually a part of me, or did the spell Twilight cast invite some kind of spirit inside of me?"

"The latter," the guide said. "They're not allowed to break character, even now, but I can get away with it. We're spirits who enjoy tinkering about with memories and emotions. The spell is a form of contract that allows us access to your memories. We can't do anything to alter them, but we can peruse them at will and use what you'd call spooky voodoo bullshit to invade certain parts of the memories of those close to you. We're equal parts depressed and overjoyed to work with you."

"So I guess this is basically entertainment for you guys, while it acts as therapy for us," I said. "Makes sense. So why the two polar opposites?"

"We're depressed because so many of your memories are horrible. We're also upset that you're only technically seven or eight years old. Even your filly would have had more memories! Next time, you should bring us Luna. That mare obviously has some things to work out and we'd have a field day in there! And we're overjoyed because human memories are so tasty, even when they're provided by a soulless abomination! We're kinda like changelings in that we feed on emotions, but we don't actually require them to survive. We just require them to feel anything ourselves. That's why we all pick roles as we play through. As we go through your memories and interact with you, we get more and more emotions to work with."

"Makes sense, I guess. I don't imagine too many people see through the act, though."

"Not too many people even bother coming," the guide said with a sigh. "You happened to get lucky for a variety of reasons, but most people who come here aren't as well trained or as mentally fit. They get bogged down in their memories and are too broken by the things that happened behind their backs. You've already been stabbed in the back so many times that, while some of what you saw was certainly shocking, nothing here ever stood a chance of breaking you."

"At least there's that. Anyway, this probably isn't part of the finale. Shall I let you get back into character?"

"Of course, though my part is mostly done. For now, I'll let them talk."

"As I'm sure you've seen by now, I am your strongest ally," Reason said. "As a human, there is nothing wrong with that. However, you rely on me way too much, to the point where you're beginning to lose yourself."

"You have much you can rely on instead," Passion said. "Things you thought forgotten. Things you thought lost. Things that have been hidden and quiet for so long that they may feel unfamiliar. But it's the time for new beginnings. You can't let reason continue to be your sole ally. You've been struggling to avoid changing the world for so long, and doing so has driven you into depression. Now that you've finally decided to change things, your passions can begin flaring!"

"And some things that have been hidden can be expressed," Rage coldly said. "You are correct when you say that hurting others is wrong, but there are ways to express anger aside from yelling or hurting. The fact that you can't consider any alternatives is only a sign that you have hidden things inside for too long. You can be angry and productive instead of angry and destructive. It just takes channeling your anger instead of allowing it to blow."

"And some things that you express too openly might be better kept to certain avenues," Pain said. "Telling everyone in a random conversation how much agony you're in doesn't help anyone, you or them. However, when your friends are there and trying to help you, opening up to them would be wise. Hiding me inside all the time just lets me have you alllll to myself! I think we both know how much fun that is!" She certainly sounded overjoyed, that's for sure.

"Even if the pain begins to wear you down, remember the things you've accomplished," Pride said. "All of the pain you've been through has meant something. You've done amazing things and built an incredible place for everyone around you. All of those close to you are loyal to the bone. That's something you can always find solace in, no matter how far down your spirits may tumble."

"And some things that have been holding you back should do so no longer," Fear said. "How many times have you stopped yourself from doing something that might make the world better out of fear of what might happen? You've seen now the consequences for both helping and doing nothing. They are equal, either way. To that end, do not fear the consequences of doing your best. If people will be hurt regardless of your choices, it is better that you at least help those you can help."

"It's time to stop being a depressing whiny crybaby," Hope sweetly said. "You have so much to look forward to, fake mommy! Assuming you survive what Discord has in mind, your future is obviously gonna be amazing! Stop looking back and obsessing on your pain and start looking forward with hope for the future! You didn't want to be created by Discord and thrust into this fate, but nobody asks to be born. It's time for you to accept your lot in life, accept that you have a cursed existence, and start trying to get beyond that. You'll never be happy if you can't."

"And finally, it's time to open your heart," Love said. "At this point, you seem to have come to the conclusion that love is a choice. That means something is preventing you from making the choice to fall in love. I could start listing out reasons left and right and being in this coma has shown us all quite a few, but before you can find someone to marry, you need to figure out how to truly open your heart. Otherwise, the marriage will just be a hollow shell. Love may be a choice, but that doesn't mean it lacks requirements. Keep that in mind as you consider your options and always remember that compromise is everything."

With that, the spirits fell silent. "So, how do you feel?" Taya asked.

"To be honest, not all that different from when I started," I said. "A part of me was expecting the coma to actually rewrite me as a person. Instead, it was a super intense hypnotherapy session starring a bunch of pseudo-changelings. To be honest, I definitely needed it. Seeing what everyone's been up to behind my back has been valuable beyond all measure. And being given all these perspectives is even better. So I guess I do feel good. I'm glad I decided to do this. I feel like I need a weeklong nap, though.

"You've already been asleep for three weeks!" Taya said.

"Only my body. My mind has been going through all kinds of weird bullshit. This coma has been enlightening, but exhausting."

"Are you ready to go back, then?" Taya asked.

"Eh, not really…" I said. "I don't wanna go do things and deal with people!" Hope loudly ahemmed at me. "But I know I gotta. After all, I am a lady. I can't just abandon my household. We both have responsibilities now, Taya."

"Oh wow, you actually sounded like an adult!" Taya said. "Way to go, mommy!"

"Don't bully your mother," I said. "Now then, was that the closing message?"

"This is your last chance to kill any of them," the guide said. "It won't actually affect the spirits, but it will allow us to permanently change how you perceive the world, to the point where it would remove the corresponding feeling."

"No, I'm good," I said. "I considered killing Fear and Pain, but I'm guessing Flo had a reason to say it was a bad idea."

"Then this is farewell for now," the guide said, turning pink and bowing. "I do hope you'll have another huge mental crisis that will allow us to visit again in another few hundred years. You'll have so many more fun memories by then!" With that relatively ominous message, everything started slowly fading until everything was completely black.