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Stoker - An Anonymous Werewolf in Canterlot 3

Oct 9th, 2016
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  1. Previously: http://pastebin.com/H8Pi5qKw
  2.  
  3. Story Theme Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUQiUFZ5RDw
  4.  
  5. >No matter where you go, things never stop being strange.
  6. >Of course, it's not just that strangeness actively follows you, but that you actively seek it out.
  7. >This has, on occasion, necessitated that you leave home to chase down the curious, the cryptic and the crazy things that go bump in the night.
  8. >That's what you've been doing for the last year: travelling from state to state, seeking
  9. >For three years now you've lived a life that is equal parts natural and supernatural; you and your friends walk the line between what is real and what only seems real.
  10. >But unlike the first two, this last year was spent on a trip, travelling from state to state in a large mobile home.
  11. >It's been a nice journey: seeing the sights, taking pictures, making new friends, fighting freakish monsters of all shapes and sizes, the usual.
  12. >That's what's taken you here, on your last leg of the journey, outside of the US to the open stretches of Mexico.
  13. >It's made local news that recently people have been disappearing, only for their corpses to show up days later.
  14. >This only started after much of the local wildlife started to die in much the same way.
  15. >With sights turned to south of the border, you travelled here and now you find yourself staring at a most peculiar sight.
  16. >The silence of the night air is punctuated by a shrill and terrible scream as a woman backs away from a terrifying beast.
  17. >The gangly and quill-covered thing, its frame wiry and sickly-looking, looks upon her with burning red eyes and a maw of dripping fangs opens in a hungry growl as it advances towards her.
  18. >She crawls on her back as it stalks her across the open farmland; she continues to scream and call for help, begging for the beast to leave her alone in her native tongue.
  19. >But even if it could understand her, it wouldn't listen.
  20.  
  21. >The monster's talon-like claws dig into the soft dirt as it moves closer and closer to the shrieking woman, ready to tear her to shreds.
  22. >Alright.
  23. >That's enough of that.
  24. >Leaning down, you pick up a rock and throw it at the beast's head, smacking it squarely on the side of its forehead.
  25. >The creature's face twists into a confused and angry visage as it turns its head towards you.
  26. >You walk down the hill, lightly tossing another stone up and down in your hand.
  27. "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to step away from the lady."
  28. >The creature's red eyes size you up, quickly deciding that you are no threat.
  29. >It turns back to the woman and is about to resume its dinner plans when it receives the second rock thrown even harder against its head.
  30. "Hey! You're dealing with me now, ugly." You look at the woman and tell her to vámonos, which is just about the extent of your Spanish.
  31. >She gets the idea and quickly runs off.
  32. >As the beast shakes its head, it now turns its attention to you fully, angry at having lost its previous meal.
  33. >You walk down the hill and approach it as it screeches at you in a shrill, loud cry.
  34. >In the moonlight, you look at its thin form, with its patchy skin and needle-like quills.
  35. >It's not even that large, barely bigger than a full-grown mastiff a face that looks both diseased and like it was run over by a car.
  36.  
  37. "Boy, you are just about the ugliest damn thing I've ever seen," you smile as you look at the thing. "You're supposed to be El Chupacabra? I was expecting something more beefy; you look like a starved and ugly dog. You'd think after all that Mexican food you'd at least look well-fed."
  38. >The creature again gives a cry, its maw of sharp and long fangs opening up to spew spittle at you.
  39. >You brush a small amount of saliva off of your shirt and cock an eyebrow.
  40. "And bad breath to top it all off, too. If you aren't the ass-end of the evolutionary spectrum, I don't know what is. It's like all the other monsters got the good genes and all you got was what was left over."
  41. >The monstrous goat-sucker seems disinterested in conversation, as it now moves forward to attack.
  42. >Its hunched-over frame is well-suited to pouncing, as it seems more like a dog than a man, but if anyone is more qualified to deal with dog-man-things than you, you've yet to meet them.
  43. >You move your foot back and bring up your hands, moving to grab the cryptid as it flies at you.
  44. >Using your strength and skill, you manipulate its forward momentum and toss it clear over your head.
  45. >This is not done without getting a few scratches from its claws; they tear your shirt and draw blood.
  46. >But it hits the ground and rolls, getting up after a moment and growling.
  47. >You look at your arm and see three bright red lines under your shredded sleeve.
  48. "That was rude," you say, reaching up and tearing the sleeve off completely. "Even the Jersey Devil had better manners than you."
  49. >The Chupacabra charges back in, only to be met with a swift fist to the face that knocks it back.
  50. >The beast backs up a few paces, rubbing its nose with a paw.
  51. "That was for my shirt. The next twelve or so punches are going to be for the people you killed. Then we'll get to the animals, and brother, you've got a lot of punches coming up for them."
  52.  
  53. >As you hold up your fist, the scratches on your arm seal shut and any evidence of them existing, outside of a little bit of blood on your skin, is gone.
  54. >The beast runs up again and swipes at you, but you're more than ready to meet it head on.
  55. >You dodge its first attack with a simple side-step, then punch it in the face again.
  56. >Again and again it tries, and occasionally it manages to scratch you, but each time you respond with a swift punch to its face.
  57. >Soon enough its nose is bloody and its face is bruised, but you're unharmed; each scratch is healed up.
  58. >The most damage it's done so far is to your clothing, which is annoying, but clothes are cheap down here, so it's not much of a loss.
  59. "I've seen better monsters in my sleep," you mock the beast as it scratches your arm, digging in deeply before you punch it again. "My best friend has a fish man for a pet, and he put up a better fight than you!"
  60. >Suddenly, the beast lunges forward and snaps its jaws around your left wrist, violently twisting.
  61. >You let out a grunt as you pull against its mouth.
  62. "Alright, I've been using my left hand, but I think it's time you met my right," you say, curling your right hand into a fist. "Chew on THIS!"
  63. >You swing it upwards in an uppercut against the monster's jaw, knocking a few teeth out.
  64. >It lets go of your hand and reels backwards, crying out in pain as you shake out your left hand.
  65. >There's a tooth lodged in your arm; you pull it out and inspect it for a moment before flicking it away.
  66. "Nice tooth," you say with a smile. "Now then, I think it's time we stopped playing around."
  67. >You run up to the monster and kick it in the chest, rolling it onto its back.
  68. >Quickly stepping on its chest, you kneel down and hold it by the neck as you pummel it over and over with your right hand in a rain of blows.
  69. >You punch again and again, until it stops scratching at your legs.
  70. >You hold up your fist, red with its blood, and step off to dust your hands.
  71.  
  72. >As you brush your hands against your pants, you look back and see the thing struggling to get up.
  73. "Now would be the time for you to surrender, unless you want to fight back. Please tell me you want to fight back, it would make my night."
  74. >It looks at you before rearing its head up to the night sky and letting out a loud, painful cry.
  75. >The shrill, high-pitched wail reaches out far and wide, and after it is over, more are heard in the distance that answer its call.
  76. >You wait with a smile on your face as its reinforcements begin to arrive.
  77. >It's just like Twilight hypothesized; there are more than one of them.
  78. >And now they come out of the darkness, running in small packs up towards the farm.
  79. >They leap over the fence and through the plants, running up until they have you surrounded on three sides.
  80. >Their red eyes gleam in the dim light of the crescent moon, their mouths snarling and snapping as they slowly approach.
  81. >Even the one you subdued and beat to a pulp is back up, bolstered by the appearance of its pack.
  82. >You put your hands on your hips and smile even wider.
  83. "Wow, you brought friends! I wish I had thought of that."
  84. >For a moment, nothing happens.
  85. >You blink and then look back over your shoulder.
  86. "I said: I WISH I HAD THOUGHT OF THAT!"
  87. >Your hyper-sensitive ears pick up the sound of an engine starting.
  88. >Two large headlights shine down from atop the nearby hill, startling the pack.
  89. >The mobile home roars to life as its driver slams down on the peddle, driving down the hill.
  90. >As the monsters scramble over each other to escape, it slams into several of them, running them over.
  91. You bring a hand to your face. "You still missed your cue. Whatever."
  92.  
  93. >As the creatures regroup nearby, the side door to the grand caravan bursts open as a blonde-haired gun-toting girl emerges, trigger-happy like it's the Fourth of July.
  94. >Shotgun in hand, Applejack blasts one of the creatures as they leap at her, painting the side of the vehicle with blood.
  95. >As one of the monsters that wasn't run over climbs on top of the vehicle, the roof hatch slams open and a vampire emerges, spreading her large, bat-like wings as she takes flight from within.
  96. >She swoops down and tackles the Chupacabra off of the roof, carrying it up into the sky by its neck.
  97. >The pack moves in, hoping to overwhelm you in greater numbers, but they don't realize just who you have on your side.
  98. >From the entrance comes two of your heavy-hitters; Gummy and Spike.
  99. >The gill man and the reanimated flesh golem both roar as they charge into the fray, joining you as you hold off the horde; you have your hands around two of the creature's throats and were using them to keep the others at bay.
  100. >But as Spike runs in, his massive and bulky frame dwarfing the dog-like creatures, he brings up a massive boot and slams it down on one of them, all but snapping it in half.
  101. >Gummy is more vicious, equipped with sharp teeth and claws, and he puts them to great use as he tears into the creatures with abandon.
  102. >As Applejack puts down another with her last shotgun shell in the weapon, she drops it and draws a crossbow from her back.
  103. >Taking aim, she fires and impales another two beasts; the silver bolt flies cleanly through the first and nails the second to the ground.
  104.  
  105. >As she takes out another bolt, a dead Chupacabra falls onto the ground next to her; Fluttershy then swoops in to pick up another victim.
  106. >You toss aside the two creatures you were holding and look around, seeing another two figures emerge from the mobile home.
  107. >Pinkie Pie, armed with a small cannon she's borrowed from Applejack, aims at one of the nearby beasts that snarls at her.
  108. >"Bye-bye~!" she says in a sing-song voice before blasting it away.
  109. >The projectile, a combination of a cannonball and confetti, bursts cleanly through its stomach and out its back, completely blowing it in half.
  110. >Alongside her, Rainbow Dash steps out and over a dead monster as she holds up a sword in its sheath.
  111. >With a wicked smile on her face, she draws the blade out and holds it up high as it glows with a bright light, illuminating the battlefield.
  112. >The Chupacabras all shy away from the light as it encompasses her body; two beams emerge from her back and turn into angelic wings.
  113. >As the light dies down, the wings remain, and the Valkyrie is ready to party.
  114. >She kicks off the ground with a single beat of her wings, kicking up dust and sand behind her as she flies towards the nearest one.
  115. >With a single swing of her sword, she cuts it in half.
  116. >She then follows this up by dragging her sword along the ground, leaving a cutting trial behind her as she slices into another one while flying past.
  117. >She circles around the battlefield, picking off the stragglers, before she lands next to you.
  118. >"So, are you done showing off yet, or what?" she asks with a big grin. "Just transform already! You're not impressing anybody."
  119.  
  120. "I'm enjoying myself," you say, picking up one of them and snapping its neck with your bare hands.
  121. >"Yeah. I'm worried about you, dude." One of the monsters then leaps at her, which she impales on her sword.
  122. "Well I'm not the only one," you joke, kicking the beast off her blade.
  123. >Before she can reply, a call is heard throughout the field, louder and more ear-splitting than any up until this point.
  124. >The Chupacabras all seem to back up a few paces and part as a new foe appears, moving through their ranks to the front.
  125. >This one is larger than all of the others, bigger even than a man, and twice as ugly and mean-looking.
  126. >You let out a long, low whistle as you look at the leader of the pack.
  127. "Now, I have seen some damn ugly monsters in my time, but you take the ugly cake."
  128. >It roars at you, eyes blazing and drool dripping off gnarled fangs.
  129. "Hey! Don't be mad at me, be mad at your mother for not bashing your head against a rock when you were born." You look the creature up and down. "Of course. she might have, it's hard to tell."
  130. >Your friends all snicker as the alpha charges, with the rest of its pack following.
  131. >You immediately drop your smile and rush back at it, meeting it in the middle.
  132. >The two of you clash against each other, but it has the strength of a bear and quickly overwhelms you.
  133. >It knocks your hands aside and then swipes a paw across your face, digging deeply into your skin and tearing out a few chunks before it knocks you aside.
  134. >You hit the ground as Spike and Gummy move in to deal with the beast.
  135. >Nearby, Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie and Rainbow Dash are handling the rest as best they can.
  136. >You cough and shake your head, feeling a very painful stinging sensation all around your face.
  137. >It'll heal, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt like a bitch.
  138.  
  139. >As you pick yourself up, you feel a hand on your shoulder.
  140. >You look up and see Twilight standing over you, holding a syringe full of green glowing liquid.
  141. >"Are you ready?" she asks, squirting some of it out to get rid of any air.
  142. You nod. "Hit me with the juice."
  143. >She brushes aside part of your torn shirt and holds the syringe right over your heart before plunging it in, injecting its contents directly into your bloodstream.
  144. >Your eyes shoot wide open as you feel the green fluid being swiftly carried all throughout your body.
  145. >The effects are almost instantaneous; your skin feels like it is on fire as every nerve in your body screams at once.
  146. >You throw your head back and shout as something deep within you awakens.
  147. >In the dark recesses of your soul, forced prematurely out of his slumber, the Wolf begins to surface.
  148. >As he claws his way to the front of your mind, your body begins to change.
  149. >Your spine grows, along with your skull; your skin is stretched and elongated as your mouth begins to jut forward unnaturally.
  150. >Lips curl away from teeth that grow and change, getting sharper and yellower.
  151. >As your back, shoulders and chest expand, the remnants of your shirt tear away, as do your pants, shoes and socks, until you are completely nude.
  152. >Your feet and hands spread out, with your fingers and toes thickening into paws.
  153. >Afterwards, claws sprout out from their ends, which then dig into the earth as the painful transformation moves into its next phase.
  154. >As your legs painfully snap and grow new joints near your feet, a tail forms at the end of your spine.
  155. >With your face now fully formed into its new shape and your ears now pointed, your hair begins to lengthen as well.
  156.  
  157. >All over your body, grey and white hair begins to form until you are completely covered in it, along with a slightly-bushy tail.
  158. >The final and most minute changes take place as the transformation comes to a close, and your eyes snap open, revealing bright golden orbs that shine in the darkness.
  159. >With your claws still dug into the earth, you rear upwards, now much larger than an average human, and point your head up to the sky.
  160. >You then let out a long, loud howl to the quarter-full moon, alerting everyone that the Wolf has returned.
  161. >When you stop, you stand up on your hind legs, hunched over as you look at the alpha Chupacabra throwing Spike and Gummy off of him.
  162. >Your muzzle opens and you bark a challenge at him, growling and baring your fangs.
  163. >Twilight steps out of the way and back towards the RV, where she sets aside the used syringe and quickly begins preparing the counter-solution in a larger autoinjector.
  164. >The largest Chupacabra faces you fully, answering your challenge with a cry of its own.
  165. >Behind your wolfen eyes, you and your animalistic companion work as one to focus on your newest foe.
  166. ‘Let’s show that ugly son of a bitch what a real monster is,’ you think, and the Wolf agrees with your sentiment.
  167. >You take a few steps towards the alpha, your feet leaving large paw prints in the dirt.
  168. >One of the lesser beasts leaps at you in an attempt to stop you, but you snap your larger jaws around its neck and twist, snapping it as easily as a candy bar.
  169. >You drop the body and then charge at the alpha, grabbing a smaller Chupacabra in your claws as you do, before using it as a club and bashing the alpha over the head.
  170.  
  171. >Both monsters let out a screech as you do this.
  172. >Once the alpha is on the ground, you toss the lesser beast away and descend upon the creature that clawed your face earlier.
  173. >What ensues is a struggle for dominance as both of you roll on the ground, snapping and clawing at each other.
  174. >In your human form, the alpha was much larger and stronger, but now you are on even ground.
  175. >Both of your jaws clamp around each other’s shoulders, digging deeply into the flesh.
  176. >But unlike you, he doesn’t have the supernatural power of the moon on his side; though only quarter-full, it continually rejuvenates you, providing you with regenerative healing and constant stamina.
  177. >Not only that, but your body is more suited to combat than his.
  178. >Your thicker coat makes it harder for him to hurt you, whereas his comparatively wiry form is all too easy for you to bite and claw.
  179. >Though his attempts at pushing back against you are admirable, you ultimately begin to push him back as his clawed feet drag through the dirt.
  180. >Around you, the battle continues to rage, with Applejack and Fluttershy teaming up to take down more of them.
  181. >The vampire picks them up and throws them into the sky, where the monster hunter shoots them as they fall, not unlike shooting skeet.
  182. >With you taking on the alpha, Spike and Gummy are free to mop up the remainder around him, keeping you free from smaller pests attempting to swarm you and protect their larger cousin.
  183. >That leaves Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie to clean up the perimeter, taking care of any who try to escape.
  184. >Rainbow soars overhead, dipping down and spinning with her wings held close against her body as she holds her sword out.
  185.  
  186. >This creates a whirling, chopping cyclone that quickly slices several of the creatures down.
  187. >Pinkie, meanwhile, has reloaded her cannon and fires another confetti-covered cannonball at a group of them, which blows cleanly through three of the monsters, taking the third one’s leg clean off.
  188. >”Talk about a fiesta! Aye-yai-yai!” she cries with a big smile on her face.
  189. >At the mobile home, Rarity has appeared in the doorway, having left the driver’s seat, and is helping Twilight with the necessary post-battle preparations.
  190. >With so much going on, one could almost be forgiven for being distracted.
  191. >You don’t see the alpha’s hand come up to your face and dig into your eye, nearly gouging it out.
  192. >Your vision turns half red and you howl in pain as you back up a few steps.
  193. >The Chupacabra attempts to follow up with another attack, but you then spring forward and tackle it to the ground.
  194. >There, in furious rage, you snap your jaws tightly shut around its throat, clamping so tightly that it can no longer breathe.
  195. >It kicks and claws at you but you hold it in place, shaking your head slightly as your mouth fills up with its blood.
  196. >Eventually, after a few moments, the creature chokes to death, unable to breathe.
  197. >It twitches a few times, claws grasping at nothing in its death throes, until it is completely still.
  198. >You stand up, your maw dripping with blood, as you pick up the body of the alpha and hoist it over your head.
  199. >With a great howl, you throw the body down onto the earth and step upon it, roaring triumphantly.
  200. >Their leader dead and their numbers decimated, the remainder quickly loses any heart to fight and flees.
  201. >Rainbow is about to chase after them, but is stopped by Fluttershy.
  202. >”No! Remember what Twilight said.”
  203. >”But… Argh! Fine.”
  204.  
  205. >Both of their eyes are then drawn back to you as you growl, digging your claws into the alpha and tearing it to pieces.
  206. >With the corpse destroyed, now your attention turns to your friends, who are carefully surrounding you.
  207. >Inside your head, you watch this happen, knowing what must be done.
  208. >They’ve done it at least a dozen times by now, and know what to do.
  209. >The problem is, the Wolf knows it as well, and doesn’t want to go through with it.
  210. >”Easy there, big fella,” Applejack says, taking out her lasso. “Fight’s over. It’s time to back down and let Anon back out.”
  211. >The Wolf snaps at her, baring your fangs.
  212. >Nearby, Twilight holds up the autoinjector as Spike and Gummy stand protectively in front of her.
  213. >Rainbow and Fluttershy land behind you.
  214. >And inside, you speak to the Wolf.
  215. ‘Just calm down. You know what’s going to happen.’
  216. >’Not this time,’ the bestial spirit barks back. ‘Not this time!’
  217. >Once he comes out to play, he never wants to go back in the cage.
  218. >He crouches low and then pounces upwards, intending to escape and have some fun of his own.
  219. >Fluttershy, having anticipated this, shoots up and tackles you from behind, taking you to the ground.
  220. >Once there, Applejack quickly throws her lasso around your neck and pulls it tight as she and Fluttershy work together to hold you down.
  221. >The Wolf desperately resists this, thrashing in her grip.
  222. >Spike and Gummy are there in an instant to hold down your arms and prevent you from clawing at Fluttershy or the rope.
  223.  
  224. >Your mouth snaps violently as you attempt to bite them, but they’ve done this plenty of times before and know just where to hold you to stay out of the reach of your claws and teeth.
  225. >Twilight and Rainbow walk up to you, and the scientist hands the Valkyrie the autoinjector.
  226. >Rainbow bites the cap off and turns it so that the needle is facing downwards.
  227. >Quick as a rabbit, she darts forward and stabs it down into your heart.
  228. >The Wolf howls in pain and continues to snap and growl, but as the serum of the counter-solution works its way into your body, he loses more and more strength.
  229. >’One day,’ he growls in your mind. ‘One day, she won’t be around…’
  230. >His threats are empty and you simply let him fade back into the darkness of your mind.
  231. >As the serum runs through your blood, you begin to change back.
  232. >The others all let go as your body rapidly shifts, growing smaller until you are human once more.
  233. >Rarity is quick to provide a blanket for your nude form from the cabin in the RV.
  234. >Though painful, you bear the pain of the transformation that you have felt at least a hundred times now and wait for it to finish.
  235. >Your mouth is left feeling slightly numb as your teeth return to their normal shape.
  236. >Twilight always mixes in a little bit of painkiller to make the return transformation less painful, but it leaves you dizzy for a while.
  237. >You sit up and rub your head while the others take stock of the battlefield.
  238. >Twilight kneels down next to you. “How are you feeling? Do you need something to help with the pain?”
  239. “No,” you grunt. “No, I’m fine.”
  240. >Applejack offers a hand and helps you up to your feet.
  241.  
  242. >You pull the blanket close and let her do so.
  243. >Not far away, Rarity is fussing about the large spatter of blood on her RV.
  244. >”Applejack! How could you be so careless? Look at what you did!”
  245. >”Aw, can it Rares, you ran over like six of ‘em anyway!”
  246. >Pinkie Pie bounces up. “It’s okay, Rarity! We can take it to the car wash like that time we got it stuck in the swamp with the skunky ape-people!”
  247. >The purple-haired girl shivers. “Ugh! Don’t remind me! Such abhorred stenches in that swamp…”
  248. You look around at the bodies on the ground. “So… Are we gonna have to clean this up? Because it’s at least two in the morning…”
  249. >Twilight shakes her head. “No, I don’t think so.” She turns over to AJ and asks, “Did our plan work?”
  250. >”You’re darn tootin’,” she replies, walking over to a nearby ditch.
  251. >You and Twilight walk up and look down to see a live Chupacabra, specifically the one you were fighting one-on-one earlier, tied up in a net.
  252. “Ugly bastard, isn’t he?” you ask.
  253. >”But alive,” Twilight points out. “Now, when the authorities arrive, the Mexican government will have no choice but to investigate the recent rise in the Chupacabra population.”
  254. >”Why’s that?” AJ asks.
  255. >Twilight takes out her phone. “An anonymous tip to a local news outlet should do it. Once this hits the news, the whole world will know. Unless they cover it up. In either case the problem will still be dealt with. I’ll make the call.”
  256. >She walks off as AJ approaches you.
  257. >”I guess your plan to be bait worked.”
  258. “We should do it more often. It was fun.”
  259. >Rainbow, using a rag to clean the blood off of her sword, walks up. “Yeah, what the hell was up with you, anyway? Getting all taunting with it and stuff?”
  260.  
  261. You shrug. “Like I said, it was fun.”
  262. >The rainbow-haired girl gives you a look of concern as you turn back to the RV.
  263. >Inside is a change of clothes.
  264. >As you pass by Gummy, Pinkie Pie is checking him over.
  265. >”Did you have fun, Gummy? Did you have fun tearing apart all those meanie-weenie Chupacabras?” She hugs him close and pats the fish man on his head. “Yes you did, yes you did!”
  266. >He gives an affectionate growl and hugs her back.
  267. >Near the entrance to the RV, Rarity is using a flashlight to check over Spike.
  268. >”I’m okay, Rarity, really,” he says.
  269. >”Oh! Some of the stitching on your neck came loose! We need to get that fixed right away! We can’t have your head coming off!”
  270. >”I’m fine…” he grumbles as she fishes around in a bag for her sewing kit.
  271. >You walk past without saying anything and enter the RV.
  272. >Inside, Fluttershy is tending to Angel in his cage.
  273. >You move past her, but she turns and speaks.
  274. >”Anon? Are you okay?”
  275. “Yeah. I just need a drink.”
  276. >You open the cabinet and take out a bottle of whiskey.
  277. >Fluttershy is concerned, but doesn’t object as you plop down on the couch and take a swig.
  278. >You swallow it down and let it rest for a minute before taking another drink.
  279.  
  280. >You don’t think you have a problem, but lately you’ve found that it helps after transforming to get just a little bit hammered; it keeps your head from aching too hard.
  281. >Twilight enters the RV. “Alright, I left a message. We need to get out of here before anyone comes looking.”
  282. >”Did you get your samples?” AJ asks.
  283. >Twilight holds up a bag and several jars containing Chupacabra remains. “You know it!”
  284. “Does this mean we’re leaving Mexico now?”
  285. >The scientist nods. “I don’t see any reason to stay.”
  286. >”The food!” Pinkie calls from outside.
  287. >At that moment, Rainbow pushes past them and looks at you on the couch. “Come on, man. At least get dressed before you get drunk. Last thing we need is for that blanket to slip and everyone to get a look at your little werewolf.”
  288. >You respond by taking another drink, but then heading to the bathroom to change.
  289. >Once inside, you set the whiskey down and shower.
  290. >Outside, you can hear the others packing their things up and getting ready to leave.
  291. >Soon enough, the RV starts up and you’re driving off.
  292. >You lean up against the wall of the shower as the water runs down your body, taking a deep breath.
  293. ‘Leaving Mexico,’ you think to yourself. ‘Two weeks spent tracking these damn Chupacabras. It took way longer than we thought.’
  294. >You turn off the water and step out to towel off.
  295. >Your phone is on the counter.
  296. >You pick it up and check it; one missed call from Sunset Shimmer.
  297. >The date, now that you’re past midnight, is October 1st.
  298. >Originally your group had planned to be back in Canterlot by this date.
  299. >This trip has been fun, but it’s been too long---you’re homesick.
  300.  
  301. >But that’s not the only reason you’re feeling the way you are.
  302. >After all, October is when the stranger things tend to start happening around home.
  303. >Thinking back on the last two years---Archsepsis, Spencer---you can only wonder what might be going on now.
  304. >Of course, you hope that after such an eventful trip like this, nothing will happen.
  305. ‘After all, we’ve been through two doomsday scenarios in the last two years in October; what are the chances that this will be the third in a row?’
  306. >You pause for a moment, then reach for the bottle and take another drink.
  307.  
  308. >Setting the bottle aside, you pause and look into the mirror.
  309. >You look rather tired, all things considered.
  310. >The scars are gone, the physical ones at least.
  311. >You open your eyes and examine how bloodshot they seem.
  312. >While not entirely red, they don't look very white either.
  313. >Coupled with the bags under them, it's clear that you haven't been getting as much sleep as you used to.
  314. >The RV bumps along; these old back roads aren't very smooth or well-paved, so on occasional the entire room shakes.
  315. >You turn on the faucet and splash some water on your face before taking a deep breath.
  316. 'I'm losing it,' you think to yourself. 'Every time it's not the full moon, it's like I'm thrown into a meat grinder.'
  317. >Your hand comes to rest over your heart, where the serum is injected each time you need to trigger a transformation.
  318. >It's not as painless as it was with the moonstone; quite the opposite, really.
  319. 'It's tenderizing me, making me weaker. The meat's getting soft.'
  320. >You may think that, but it is in a purely metaphorical sense.
  321. >Your human body has never been stronger.
  322. >You've been prioritizing transforming less and less, focusing on fighting the supernatural with your mind rather than letting the Wolf out of his cage.
  323. >To that end, you've been honing yourself over the last year with a strict workout regimen and diet.
  324. >The thought was good, but more often than not, a monster comes along and proves too difficult to handle with more conventional means, forcing you to fight on its territory.
  325. >But with no moonstone to transform, that's where the serum that Twilight invented comes in.
  326. >After two years of intense study of your lycanthropic qualities, she managed to isolate the physical trigger that forces the transformation itself to take place, thus allowing you to transform with a single injection.
  327. >You never would have accepted it unless she had the counter-solution as well, which forces you to change back into human state.
  328.  
  329. >It was theorized there could be side effects; transitioning from a physically-forced transformation as opposed to a magical-based one carried a number of then-unknown variables.
  330. >No one could have really known that it would result in you losing whatever control you had gained over the Wolf after the Spencer Incident last year.
  331. >You look back into the mirror, staring into your golden eyed reflection, and think about your first serum-induced transformation.
  332. >It wasn't pretty---for you, or your friends.
  333. >And ever since, you've been back to battling him in the realm of your mind, forced to live alongside him again.
  334. >When you're not transformed he keeps quiet, usually.
  335. >Sometimes you have an odd craving here or there for raw meat, but it's not too intrusive.
  336. >No, ultimately the greatest negative effect it had on you was that you began to distance yourself from the others.
  337. >Spending more and more time by yourself, getting lost in your new physical training or reading.
  338. >You thought that if you could hone your body and mind, you could better control the animal within, and you were correct up to a certain limit.
  339. >Your personal relationships suffered for it, though.
  340. >When this trip began, you were dating Dash.
  341. >At first she was very supportive of your new lifestyle; being very active herself, she was quick to work out with you.
  342. >Then came the desire to be alone, snapping back at her, arguments and worse.
  343. >You splash some water on your face again.
  344. >Some things were said that probably shouldn't have been said, and there's been some animosity ever since.
  345. >For the sake of the job, you two have remained on the team, though there isn't as much interraction between you as there used to be.
  346. You let out a sigh. 'I screwed up. I didn't need to let things get the way they are.'
  347. >Thinking about your relationship with Dash brings you back to your phone, and the missed call from Sunset, another monster-hunting ex.
  348. >You hesistate briefly, then pick it up to dial her.
  349.  
  350. >It rings twice, then is answered.
  351. >"Hello? Anon?"
  352. "Hey Sunset. You called?"
  353. >"Yeah. What time is it over there?"
  354. "About two or three in the morning."
  355. >"What are you doing still up?"
  356. "Washing Chupacabra blood off myself. Nothing new."
  357. >"So you finally found it? What happened?"
  358. "There were a lot more than we thought, but we handled it." You rub your forehead and sigh. "I had to transform again."
  359. >"How are you feeling?"
  360. "Worse each time. I don't know what it is."
  361. >"Well... maybe you should stop. You remember what happened to Twilight when she took too much of her reagent, right? Maybe there could be something similar happening."
  362. "I don't know. I don't take it as often as that, but that doesn't make it any better. It's like... every time it just keeps making me, I don't know, angrier, more distant. I think it's changing me."
  363. >"Is it the serum, or you?"
  364. You sit down against the wall. "I don't know."
  365. >A moment of silence passes.
  366. >"Well, keep me informed. I still worry about you guys."
  367. "What time is it in Egypt?"
  368. >"About nine-thirty in the morning. Not too bad. I'll be coming home to Canterlot in a few days."
  369. "Is... 'it' safe?"
  370. >"Yes. It's somewhere nobody will find it, trust me."
  371. "Alright. I'll take your word for it. Are you sure it can't just be burnt?"
  372. >"That wouldn't be a good idea. The power contained in it would be much more dangerous if released in such a way. It's better to hide it away."
  373. "I understand. It's kind of like that with the Wolf, I suppose. Better to keep him hidden away than let him out and play."
  374. >"You know, if you're really worried, we might be able to link up when we're both home and figure out a magical solution. Maybe something I have can remedy whatever you feel is wrong. Or maybe we could make a new moonstone; I don't know how, but it could be possible."
  375. "We'll see... It might take a few days for us to get home, depending on how long it takes us. I'd like us to hurry up, we were in Mexico too long. It's October already."
  376.  
  377. >She understands what that might mean.
  378. >"With the timing, we might end up coming home around the same time. You haven't heard anything strange from back home, have you?"
  379. "No. At least, nothing that Big Mac hasn't called back about."
  380. >"Well that's good at least. I've been hearing about some strange things over here."
  381. "In Egypt? What, a mummy uprising? Pharaoh coming back? Do we need to fly out there and punch him in the face too?"
  382. >"Oh, shut up," she laughs. "No. People are saying that they are seeing strange lights over some of the pyramids at night, but nobody can be certain if it's real or what it means."
  383. You let out a chuckle. "Ahh, so it's the 'ancient aliens' coming to take back the pyramids!"
  384. >She laughs again. "I missed this."
  385. "Well, wait until we get home, then you can have all the sarcasm you want."
  386. >There is a bit of silence again before she asks, "So... how are things between you and Rainbow? Any better?"
  387. >Your smile slowly fades.
  388. "No. Still the same."
  389. >"Okay, well, if you ever want to talk about it, I'm here."
  390. >You scratch the top of your head in frustration as your thumb rubs up and down the side of the phone.
  391. "No thanks, I'll be alright. I'll deal with it."
  392. >"If you're sure." She changes the topic and her tone a bit. "Well, I should probably let you go. You need to get some sleep."
  393. "Tell me something I don't know. Hey, why did you call originally?"
  394. >"I just wanted to see how you guys were doing."
  395. "Yeah, but why me? Why not Twilight or AJ?"
  396. >Silence.
  397. >"I just... wanted to see how you were doing."
  398. >For a few moments more, the two of you remain silent on the phone.
  399. "Good talking to you, Sunset. See you soon?"
  400. >"Yeah. Bye."
  401. "Bye."
  402. >You hang up and set the phone in your lap before running your hands up and down your face.
  403. >As you sit and think, your train of thought is suddenly interrupted by a hard pounding on the door.
  404. >Rainbow shouts from the other side, "Hey! There's more than one person covered in monster blood out here! Come on!"
  405.  
  406. >You stand up and get dressed before opening the door.
  407. >Dash makes brief eye contact before standing aside to let you past, but doesn’t say anything else.
  408. >She shuts the door behind her and you head to your bunk.
  409. >The nice thing about Rarity’s RV is just how extravagant it is on the inside, and it should be---it's massive on the outside, too.
  410. >You living in close quarters with the others has been made a lot easier thanks to this.
  411. >It’s also very comfortable, with lavish furnishings and plenty of amenities.
  412. >The luxury of the mobile home has allowed a number of things on this trip that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, such as bringing Gummy along.
  413. >What with him needing to be hydrated every so often and such at the risk of drying out otherwise.
  414. >Pinkie takes great care of him; much like Rarity does for Spike, who has also been along for the ride.
  415. >You pass by him as he drinks from a cup of grape juice, his favorite, while Twilight sits nearby with a book and a microscope.
  416. >She definitely doesn’t waste any time, as she is already studying the remains of the Chupacabras.
  417. >Spike watches curiously, but doesn’t interrupt her.
  418. >He’s gotten much smarter in the last year or so; Twilight attributes this to his body continually adjusting and learning new things.
  419. >Reemerging trace memories or patterns in the brain they put in his skull may also be the reason for his boost in intellect, but that’s not to say that he’s exceptionally clever or anything.
  420. >In fact, most would compare him to something of a ten-year-old or somewhere in that range.
  421. >Another useful thing about the size of the RV is its ability to hide things you wouldn’t want to be seen crossing a national border with, such as fish men, reanimated corpses and AJ’s loads of weaponry, along with most of Twilight’s questionably-legal equipment.
  422. >And by questionably-legal, you mean completely illegal nuclear accelerators meant to be used in fighting ghosts.
  423.  
  424. >That’d be tricky to explain to a border patrolman, so it’s better that they just don’t know.
  425. >Pinkie Pie is in her bunk snoring away, but Fluttershy isn’t, as she’s sitting in her bunk and also reading a book.
  426. >She’s more of a night kind of girl anyway.
  427. >AJ and Rarity are up front; they often take turns driving and sleeping.
  428. >With Gummy in the second shower, that accounts for everyone.
  429. >You crawl into bed and adjust your pillow before closing your eyes.
  430. >Before you go to sleep, Rainbow comes back and crawls into her bunk above yours.
  431. >With the lights off, all you can do is really hear and smell her.
  432. >She’s still using that same shampoo that she always uses; that’s the first thing your nose picks up.
  433. >You close your eyes again and finally get to sleep.
  434. >The next day, after not nearly enough sleep and a close encounter with the border patrol when Gummy was nearly found, you find yourselves in Texas, eating at a roadside diner.
  435. >Outside, Rarity hooks up the RV to a pumping station to expel garbage and waste while also filling up the truck.
  436. >She comes back inside to find you all sitting at a table and scoots in next to Fluttershy.
  437. >The waitress walks up with a notepad and a hairstyle that looks a few decades out of style.
  438. >”Mornin’ y’all. What can we get ya?”
  439. >”Black coffee,” AJ is quick to answer.
  440. >”Tea, please,” Fluttershy says.
  441. >Pinkie’s next. ”Coca-Cola!”
  442. >”Lemonade,” is Twilight’s choice.
  443. >”Coffee with sugar and cream, but separate and with a little spoon so I can stir it in myself,” Rarity says with a polite smile, at which the waitress raises her eyebrow but jots it all down.
  444. >”Ice water,” Dash says, and then it’s you.
  445. “The same. Ice water.”
  446. >She jots it all down. “Anythin’ to order yet?”
  447. >Not everyone is ready, but you are.
  448. “Steak, please. Extra rare.” You pause for a moment as she writes it down, but then you say, “Actually, make it two if you could. On the same plate.”
  449.  
  450. >”You want anythin’ on the side?”
  451. “No thank you. Just steak.”
  452. >After a little longer of studying the menu, the others order breakfast; Pinkie Pie makes sure to order for two and specify that one will be to go.
  453. >When she leaves, Twilight places her phone on the table and opens up her travel planner app.
  454. >”Well, at this rate, we’ll be back in Canterlot in two days if we drive straight on and keep stops to a minimum.”
  455. “And if we don’t stop at all?” you ask, drawing some of their eyes towards you.
  456. >”Well, we’ll need to stop,” Twilight points out. “Gas and such.”
  457. “I know, I just hate that when we started this little road trip, it was always our goal to be back by now.”
  458. >”Yeah, well, things happen,” Rainbow says, taking a drink.
  459. >You stare at her while the others remain awkwardly silent.
  460. >Twilight clears her throat. “Well, it’s not so bad. We’ll only miss the month by a few days.”
  461. >AJ tips up her hat. “Yeah! Besides, nothin’ ever happens at the beginnin’ of October. It always happens near the end, ‘round Halloween.”
  462. >”And perhaps nothing at all will happen this year,” Rarity points out. “I mean, not to jump to conclusions or anything, but we are effectively out of enemies, aren’t we? What with that Spencer fellow perishing and all the work we did in rounding up all the escaped---“
  463. >She stops speaking as the waitress comes back with the first round of food.
  464. >Yours is here, since it’s pretty simple; two hunks of barely-cooked meat.
  465. >You lick your lips and start chomping down as soon as it arrives.
  466. >Fluttershy’s meal is set in front of her, and then Pinkie Pie’s, but the energetic girl isn’t in her seat.
  467. >She’s climbed out of the booth and is in front of the jukebox, flipping through tunes, eagerly searching for something.
  468.  
  469.  
  470. “I don’t know,” you say to Rarity. “I can’t shake the feeling. The hairs on my neck have been standing up. I keep waiting for something to happen or for one of us to get a bad phone call.”
  471. >AJ and Twilight exchange slightly worried looks.
  472. >The blonde leans over the table and asks, “Are you alright, sugarcube? You’ve been awfully… well, somber lately.”
  473. “I’m fine,” you say, taking another bite and swallowing. “I’m just… still tired, is all.”
  474. >In her drink, Rainbow mutters “Suuure…”
  475. >Suddenly, the group hears Pinkie Pie saying, “Oooo~!” as she finds just the right song.
  476. >She plays it and suddenly the upbeat sounds of a guitar start to come out of the jukebox and played over a few speakers.
  477. >You know the song; Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.
  478. >Pinkie Pie skips over and puts a hand on your shoulder.
  479. >”Cheer up, Anon! We’re going HOME! No need to be so grumpy-wumpy all the time!”
  480. >In the background, John Fogerty starts to sing and Pinkie sings along with him, “I see a bad moon rising! I see trouble on the way! I see earthquakes and lightning! I see bad times today!”
  481. >The others are all amused at the lyrical connection to both your lycanthropy and doom-saying, but you aren’t.
  482. >Maybe you just can’t take much of a joke this morning.
  483. >You down the rest of your drink and stand up.
  484. “I’ll be outside.”
  485. >”Aw, come on,” Pinkie says, trying to get you to dance with her to the song. “Please cheer up?”
  486. >She gives you her biggest, most friendly and heartwarming smile and puppy-dog eyes.
  487. >Defeated by her masterful tactics, you give in and start dancing with her to the song, finally starting to lighten up and set your worries behind you.
  488. >Rarity snaps a quick photo for the album as AJ taps along to the beat.
  489. >Rainbow eats her food, purposefully not watching.
  490. >The only other person not watching is Twilight, whose attention is drawn to a nearby television.
  491.  
  492. >It’s small and in the corner of the room and playing local news, but she can make out the headlines.
  493. >Twilight stands up and scoots past the others to approach the diner’s counter while you spin Pinkie around, where she asks the chef, “Excuse me, sir? Could you please turn that up?”
  494. >He looks at the TV, shrugs and turns the mute function off.
  495. >”…a dazzling display last night as the skies over northern American territories were treated to a grand meteor shower, one of the largest in recent recorded history. Dozens of small lights streaked across the sky in a spectacular show from space.”
  496. >The co-anchor then says, “Yes, I saw it from my window last night; it was absolutely marvelous! A once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, some observers are calling it.”
  497. >”What is it, Twilight?” Fluttershy asks.
  498. >”I’m just wondering why we didn’t see that, is all.”
  499. >”Well, we were pretty busy last night…” Rainbow replies. “Plus, we were in Mexico. Maybe it just wasn’t seen down there.”
  500. >”I would’ve liked to observe it,” Twilight says as she walks back. “Astronomy is one of my passing hobbies.”
  501. >”Tell us something we don’t know, Miss Master-of-Every-Science,” Rainbow jokes.
  502. >The jukebox finishes playing the song as the lyrics wrap up, “Don't come around tonight, well, it's bound to take your life! There's a bad moon on the rise!”
  503. >As it does, you spin Pinkie away and she ends it with a big bow.
  504. >AJ, Fluttershy and Rarity all applaud, and you give a little bow of your own.
  505. >As you both take your seats again, following Twilight who does the same, Pinkie says, “Hey, didja ever notice how that last part always sounds like, ‘There’s a bathroom on the right’?”
  506. >Everyone snickers and finishes up eating, then contributes to the table tab to pay before heading out to the RV.
  507.  
  508. >After leaving the diner and helping Rarity unhook the pumps from the RV, you’re all loaded up and rolling in minutes.
  509. >Everyone settles into their little areas of the mobile home as Applejack drives in order to allow Rarity to bring Spike his breakfast.
  510. >She places the to-go box in front of him as Pinkie Pie passes by to do the same for Gummy.
  511. >Spike eagerly licks his lips and rubs his hands together, but upon opening it, he seems disappointed.
  512. >”Aw… I wanted scrambled eggs.”
  513. >”Nonsense, dear! Scrambled eggs are a simpleton’s meal. Sunny side up is the proper way eggs are to be enjoyed.”
  514. >Nearby, Rainbow scoffs. “Whatever, Rarity. Eggs are eggs! Let him have it the way he likes.”
  515. >Rarity lets out a small ‘hmpf’ of disapproval. “It’s all in the presentation, darling. I wouldn’t expect you to understand the intricacies of true cuisine.”
  516. >Rainbow leans over the table and looks her square in the eyes. “Oh yeah? Well, I guess some of us are a little bit too busy to care about crud like that. Sometimes I just crack my eggs into a glass and down them straight!”
  517. >She shivers. “Goodness, revolting!”
  518. >Rainbow laughs and sticks her tongue out.
  519. >Meanwhile, since Rarity was so distracted, Spike has been using his spoon and fork to mash his eggs into a scrambled-like pulp.
  520. >You sit up from your chair and decide now would be a good time to get a workout in.
  521. >Heading towards the far, far back of the RV, you enter the fitness area.
  522. >It never fails to impress you just how opulent this damned oversized car is.
  523. >While not very large, it’s got a number of useful things; a mat, pull-up bar, weights and a number of other useful items.
  524. >Sure, it’s not a full-fledged gym or anything, but you make do with what you have.
  525. >Shedding your shirt, you go through a number of early stretches to prepare your body.
  526.  
  527. >Personal fitness was something you never really focused too much on early in your monster-hunting career; after all, you were already working with werewolf stamina.
  528. >But ever since really, really working at it, you’ve become a beast.
  529. >Again, in a metaphorical sense.
  530. >Though it is quite an appropriate description, really.
  531. >Pausing to down an entire bottle of water, you rub your lips and toss it aside.
  532. “Alright, let’s make the walls sweat.”
  533. >Three-hundred push-ups nonstop, three-hundred mountain climbers nonstop, three-hundred one-armed push-ups for each arm (also nonstop).
  534. >You really like the number three-hundred.
  535. >Three-hundred push-ups with rotations, three-hundred tricep dips.
  536. >Moving onto the pull-up bar, you start off with bringing your knees up to your elbows three-hundred times.
  537. >Then, kicking outwards by swinging them up.
  538. >From here, you start doing full pull-ups, with your head in front and back of the bar alternating for three-hundred each; that makes six-hundred in total.
  539. >Once this is done, you bring your legs up and hook your knees around the bar, hanging freely from them and interlocking your hands behind your head to do some hanging sit-ups.
  540. >You do two-hundred and ninety-nine just to be funny.
  541. “Alright… That’s set one. Time for two.”
  542. >Your unnatural physique and stamina allow you to do all of this consecutively, without breaking.
  543. >If you really pushed yourself, you could do even more, go even further and harder.
  544. >Hell, if you gave a damn you could put most Olympians to shame.
  545. >Hell, maybe you could even get merchandising rights; your face on a box of cereal.
  546. You can’t help but chuckle at the idea. “Full-Moon-O’s,” you say aloud. ‘Probably need to workshop that a bit. Werewolf Bites, maybe?’
  547. >Your brand-deal train of thought is derailed from a knock on the door.
  548. >A single sniff tells you who it is by the lavender shampoo she uses.
  549. “Come on in.”
  550.  
  551. >Twilight opens the door and sees you hanging upside-down at the knees.
  552. >”Should I come back later?”
  553. “No, this is fine,” you say, pulling yourself down. You grab a towel and another water bottle, and as you do you notice her eyes on your chest. “Come to talk, or to stare?”
  554. >She blushes and adjusts her glasses.
  555. >”Well, you work hard. It should be appreciated, right?”
  556. “I guess so,” you say as she closes the door.
  557. >At first, you aren’t quite certain of her intentions, but she folds her arms and says, “And yes, there is something I’d like to talk about.”
  558. “I’m all ears.”
  559. >”I know you’ve been doing this for a reason,” she says as she indicates the workout equipment and your sweaty body. “You’re trying to physically control yourself to the point of mastering your body in the hopes that you can figure out what you lost.”
  560. >You sit down on the stool next to the weight rack.
  561. “I suppose I am, yeah.”
  562. >”Well, have you ever considered that you’re going about it the wrong way?”
  563. “What, like I should do more push-ups?”
  564. >”No! Your arms are big enough. Seriously.” She brings a hand up to her mouth and stifles a giggle. “What I mean is that you’re so focused on yourself that you’re neglecting other things that might contribute to the control of, well, the beast within.”
  565. “I know where this is going,” you say, capping the water bottle. “I haven’t been very social lately.”
  566. >”Try ‘at all’. You’ve been keeping to yourself and everyone’s noticed. We’re not just a group of strangers who go around and fight monsters like some Saturday-morning cartoon show, we’re friends. And if I remember correctly, it was you who exposed all of our secrets to each other and brought us closer than ever.”
  567. >You sit back and twiddle your thumbs in your lap, nodding.
  568. “I remember.”
  569. >She takes a step nearer and kneels down alongside you.
  570.  
  571. >”Look… I know what’s brought this about. It’s the Wolf inside of you. You’ve been transforming less and less as time goes on; it used to be your go-to thing but now you avoid it like the plague.”
  572. “Because I lost control,” you remind her. “Everything I had, everything I built up was gone and I still haven’t gotten it back. And---”
  573. >”And you’ve been trying very hard to get it back, I know. But you’re so wrapped up in this idea that you can do it by yourself; don’t you think it’s gotten worse instead of better? Why is that?”
  574. You inhale sharply though your nostrils and slowly let it out. “I don’t know.”
  575. >”I have a theory. And it deals directly with how much you’ve distanced yourself from the rest of the team. I think you should let us help you, because what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working.”
  576. You rub your forehead. “What? I can beat the Wolf with the power of friendship?”
  577. >She’s not as amused as you are.
  578. >”What I am saying is that you should seriously consider lightening up and letting us back in.” She reaches up and places her hand over yours, squeezing it gently. “We all care about you, Anon. Some more than others.”
  579. You look into her eyes. “Twilight, I…”
  580. >”And I’m talking about Rainbow.”
  581. You break eye contact. “Right, of course. Rainbow.” You clear your throat. “Well, it’s just that it’s... Look, I screwed up there. She was in the right. And what’s more, I just don’t think I’m very good at, well, relationships.”
  582. >You sit back and think for a moment.
  583. “I remember when Dash was dead, and we talked about how when she came back she’d want to start living life to the fullest. And I was with her on that, I was, but…”
  584. >”But?”
  585.  
  586. “I can’t really describe it. Ever since I started losing control, I just sort of wanted to go back to what was familiar. She talked me out of living in fear of the Wolf, like not wanting to pursue a relationship in case I killed someone again. But ultimately I just kind of… fell back into old habits.”
  587. >”Is that what all this working out is about? Trying to externalize and work off all this inner doubt?”
  588. “I can’t say for certain. Part of me wanted to focus more on being me, but part of me wanted to get away from it all. Either way it doesn’t really stop me from thinking that I messed up big time with her.”
  589. >”You can’t keep blaming yourself like you do. You’re not completely at fault.” She reaches up and takes off her glasses, looking at them in her palm. “After all, I’m the one who made the serum that caused you to lose control in the first place.”
  590. You look up, surprised. “You can’t blame yourself for what’s going on in my head.”
  591. >She smirks. “You know, no matter how smart I think I am, every now and then I run into a big red stop sign and smack my face in it.”
  592. “We talking literally or metaphorically?”
  593. >”Metaphorically. I tend to watch where I’m going.” Her smile fades as she continues, “I’m talking about with my science. For all the good I’ve done, I’ve done a lot of bad too, accidentally. Mixing science with the arcane like I’ve been trying to do is dangerous. Sometimes it’s wonderful, like Spike---other times we get hordes of zombies or I go crazy.”
  594. “That’s all in the past, though.”
  595.  
  596. >”Is it? We’re all the sum of our choices and experiences and we all go through periods of doubt and difficulty. Some of the things we say or do stay with us forever, no matter how much we claim to have moved on, but we never have to deal with those things alone. The point I’m getting at is that even after I’ve messed up, my friends were always there to support me. I wouldn’t be the person I am without them, and that includes you.”
  597. >She squeezes your hand a bit more tightly as she says, “We’re all in this together. No matter what.”
  598. You listen to her words and after a moment of thinking, you relent and ask, “Well, what should I do?”
  599. >”Just be you, not what you think you should be. Everything else will come around.”
  600. “Thanks,” you say. “Now… You should probably get out of here. I have another set to complete.”
  601. >Her shoulders slump a bit, but she says, “Take your time. We’ll be here to talk if you need us.”
  602. >She stands up and moves to leave, but when she opens the door, Rainbow is there in loose clothing; seems like she was just about to knock to use the room.
  603. >She looks at Twilight, then at you, slowly raising a brow.
  604. >”You two… busy?”
  605. >”No,” Twilight is quick to say. “We were talking, that’s all.”
  606. >Rainbow looks her up and down; she notes that she isn’t sweaty or anything else that would seem to indicate she isn’t telling the truth.
  607. >”Something wrong?” Twilight asks her.
  608. >”Nah.” She looks over at you. “You done in here yet?”
  609. “…Sure. Let me get out of your way.”
  610. >One set or several don’t make much of a difference; you already work yourself to the bone every day.
  611. >Might as well shower off
  612. >Twilight slips past Rainbow and you move to follow her, but as you do, the RV hits a bump in the road.
  613. >You inadvertently bump into Dash and pin her against the wall for a moment.
  614. >She looks up and makes eye contact, and for a moment she seems almost glad that you’ve done this.
  615.  
  616. >When you don’t go any further and step back, however, her brow furrows slightly and she pulls away, closing the door behind her once she’s inside.
  617. >You stand there for a moment, thinking.
  618. ‘Just apologize. Just go in there and apologize.’
  619. >Your hand hovers over the door, about to knock, when she starts playing loud music on the other side.
  620. >You lower your hand and walk off.
  621. ‘Later, then.’
  622. >But you don’t.
  623. >The trip takes a few days for you to reach Canterlot, and during that time, things are pretty much the same.
  624. >Change doesn’t really spring out of nowhere, but you also don’t make any extreme effort to kick it off.
  625. >To be fair, you try to take Twilight’s advice and spend more time with the others.
  626. >Just not Dash.
  627. >You keep telling yourself that you’re just waiting for the right moment, but it never comes---or maybe you just never go about trying to make it happen instead of waiting for it to happen.
  628. >You end up convincing yourself that the RV just isn’t the right place to talk about it.
  629. >Home would be better suited.
  630. >And speaking of which…
  631. >It’s around evening on the fourth when you’re sitting in the living area, helping Fluttershy assemble a photo album of pictures taken from the trip, when AJ calls back from the driver’s seat.
  632. >”Hey everyone! Come look an’ see!”
  633. >The group all quickly crowds towards the front of the RV to get a good look at your first sight of home since leaving.
  634. >A large wooden sign with a sun painted on it reads, “Welcome to Canterlot!”
  635. >”Yippie!” Pinkie says, grabbing everyone she can and pulling them tight. “We made it! We made it home!”
  636. >Rarity taps her on the shoulder. ”Pinkie, darling, I think you’re suffocating poor Fluttershy.”
  637. >The vampire’s face bears a smile, but with Pinkie’s arm wrapped tightly around her neck, is rapidly losing color.
  638. >”Whoops! Sorry!” Pinkie smiles and lets go, allowing her to breathe normally.
  639. >The RV drives past a few familiar structures.
  640.  
  641. >In the distance, the Everfree National Forest looms.
  642. >”Well, ain’t that a sight for sore eyes,” Applejack says. “Ya know, we never talked about what we’re gonna do for a homecoming celebration. I’m thinkin’ we should have a barbeque! Let everyone in town know we’re home again!”
  643. >”I think that’s a marvelous idea!” Rarity agrees.
  644. >Pinkie’s eyes nearly pop out of her head. “A homecoming party! I’m so excited!” She seems as though she’s ready to explode.
  645. >Twilight puts a hand on her shoulder. ”Calm down, Pinkie. We’re still driving.”
  646. >”I’msorryI’mjustsohappytobeback!” Pinkie says in one long semi-comprehensible blurb.
  647. >You lean over the driver’s chair, looking out the window at your home.
  648. >Everything still seems normal.
  649. >Maybe you really were just worrying about nothing.
  650. >Speaking of which, Rainbow is just as quiet as you are.
  651. >You wonder if she’s as anxious to get off this RV as you are.
  652. >Maybe she’ll be too busy unpacking to talk; you might want to give her a few days to settle back in.
  653. ‘Or maybe I should just fucking talk to her and get it over with.’
  654. >For now, you and she remain silent and simply look out at Canterlot as it rolls by.
  655. >You should just enjoy being home.
  656.  
  657. >One by one, everyone is dropped off at their homes.
  658. >First Fluttershy, then Pinkie and Gummy, then Twilight and Spike and so on.
  659. >Pinkie is already all over social media, planning the barbeque for tomorrow; it's set for the afternoon.
  660. >When it comes time to stop by Rainbow's house, she quickly grabs her things and sets out without much of a goodbye.
  661. >After all, you'll be seeing her again tomorrow.
  662. >Still, it's a little awkward, so she leaves as quickly as possible.
  663. >Rarity and AJ exchange looks before moving on to your apartment.
  664. >You grab your suitcase and backpack, say goodnight to them both and step out.
  665. >As you approach the door to your apartment, you take out your keys and open it up.
  666. You flip on the switch. 'Just as I left it. Home sweet home.'
  667. >Mostly empty.
  668. >At least the rent is cheap, and with dad always gone anyway, you’ve never needed to furnish it.
  669. >And considering you haven't been here for a while, at least it was never broken into.
  670. >You toss your things on the couch and crash onto your bed, feeling the old familiar mattress.
  671. 'Might as well get some sleep. Not much else to do.'
  672. >You kick off your clothes and toss and turn for hours, trying to get comfortable.
  673. >But no matter what you try, it just doesn't seem to work.
  674. >Something beneath your skin is itching at you and you can't seem to scratch it.
  675. >You get up a few times to get a drink of water, or to adjust the thermostat, or do some wall push-ups, but nothing seems to be working.
  676. >Eventually you go to the bathroom for a hot shower and end up in front of the mirror afterwards.
  677. >It's all fogged up, so you wipe a hand across it and stare at yourself.
  678. >Your hair has gotten longer than usual, and you haven’t shaved in a while.
  679. >More than that, your chest and arms have gotten hairier.
  680. >You can’t see your back, but that’s probably the same.
  681. >What has caused this?
  682. >Simple maturity, or are you actively turning into something else more permanently, even while you are human?
  683.  
  684.  
  685. 'Who is staring back at me right now? Me. Only me. Nobody else.'
  686. >You pry open your eyelids with your finger to stare at your eye.
  687. 'What is wrong with me?'
  688. >For some reason, you feel on edge, unable to relax.
  689. >What is it caused by?
  690. >Is it simply being back home, your recent conversation with Twilight, your unresolved issues with Dash, or something else?
  691. >You stare into the mirror some more.
  692. "Or is it you?" you ask your reflection as you stare into your golden eyes. "Down there, deep inside of me. I know you're there, that you're listening. I can feel you. What is it, huh?"
  693. >You grip the sink firmly and your neck tightens.
  694. "What the hell do you want? To just run around eating, fucking, what? What do you WANT?!"
  695. >Somewhere, deep inside, you get an answer.
  696. >'Freedom.'
  697. "Well you're not getting it, not from me. This is MY body damnit. You live in MY mind. I tamed you once before and I'm going to do it again."
  698. >There is no response, prompting you to squeeze the sink even tighter.
  699. "Speak up you worthless mutt, I know you're there! Come on, let's go already!"
  700. >In the mirror, you suddenly see something behind you; a shadow of a wolf's head rising on the wall behind you.
  701. >You spin around and punch the wall, leaving a large hole.
  702. >But nothing is there.
  703. "Don't you fuck with me," you mutter, turning back to the mirror. "Don't you fucking fuck with me!"
  704. >When you look back in the mirror, it's not you that you see, but something else entirely.
  705. >Pale skin, dirty hair, and as you see it, it smiles with a mouthful of yellow, sharp teeth, with monstrous yellow eyes.
  706. >It is a mockery of you, and its smile is taunting you.
  707. You give a shout, "ARRRAGH!" and slam your fist into the mirror, smashing it to pieces.
  708. >Afterwards, you bring your fists down and crack the sink.
  709. "I'm in control, I'm in control! It's me!"
  710. >You back up into the wall and slide down, breathing heavily as you pull on your hair, feeling a pounding in your chest and head.
  711.  
  712. >Every muscle in your body feels tense and ready to burst; your heart races as your breaths come in short, quick gasps.
  713. "I'm in control, I'm in control, I'm in control," is your mantra, and you repeat it a few more times.
  714. >As you begin to calm down, you hear a faint ringing from the next room.
  715. >Your phone.
  716. >You crawl out of the bathroom and up to it, seeing that it's Sunset.
  717. >There's no reason not to answer.
  718. "Hello?"
  719. >"Hey, it's me. Did I wake you?"
  720. "No. I wasn't asleep."
  721. >"I saw that you guys were home; Pinkie sent me an invite to a barbeque you're having, or something?"
  722. "Tomorrow, yeah." You check the time and see that it's 2am. "Or today, rather."
  723. >"Well, I won't be able to make it. My flight was delayed."
  724. "Can't you just teleport?"
  725. >"Hey, some of us like being normal. You can understand that, right? From what I hear, you're transforming less and less these days."
  726. "Yeah."
  727. >She pauses for a moment. "Hey, are you alright? You're breathing pretty heavily."
  728. "I was... working out."
  729. >"I've seen some of the pictures of you guys from your trip. How come you never take a picture of yourself without your shirt on, stud?" she asks in a playful tone.
  730. You manage to chuckle as you calm down some more. "Just not vain like that, I guess."
  731. >"Well, you should be making someone happy with a body like that. Any... progress there?"
  732. >The question is somewhat awkwardly worded, but you understand her intent.
  733. "No. I haven't really been trying." You bring up a hand and rub your eyebrows in frustration. "I just, I don't know what it is. I think I'm going nuts again, like back when I first started turning."
  734. >"Do you want to talk about it?"
  735. "I'd prefer talking in person."
  736. >"Okay. I'll let you know when I get in. This delay is killing me; it's not just my flight, but nearly every flight all over."
  737. >You blink in the darkness and then sit up.
  738. "Why? I mean, what caused it?"
  739.  
  740. >"There was some kind of accident. I read that a few planes crashed due to navigational errors; two collided in the air, it's a really big tragedy. There's a big investigation going on about it, like they're trying to figure out if it was human error or some kind of computer glitch."
  741. "...You don't think it means anything, do you? I mean, about this time of the year..."
  742. >"What? Um, well, I don't really know. I guess it could, maybe, but have you been seeing anything strange lately?"
  743. >You think for a few moments.
  744. "No, I don't think so. At least nothing that's jumped out to me as being really odd or out of the usual... I think I'm just trying to look for something that isn't there."
  745. >You let out a sigh and rest your head backwards.
  746. "Or maybe I'm just hoping something comes up so I can focus on that instead of what's going on in my mind. I don't know."
  747. >"You sure you don't want to talk about it?"
  748. "Again, I don't know. Like I said before I've been really out of whack lately; I just broke my mirror."
  749. >"Oh, wow. Listen, do you really need me there? I can work my magic and be there tonight."
  750. >She sounds so supportive, so warm and comforting.
  751. >Like someone you could use by your side tonight.
  752. >You sit against your bed and remain still for a few moments as you breathe through your nostrils.
  753. >You can't deny it, you would like to see her again.
  754. >It's been a while since you've seen her.
  755. >But with everything going on, is that the best idea?
  756. "I'll be alright," you whisper. "Really, I will. I'm just too in my own head, I need to relax. I've been stressing over so much lately, I need to just clear up and focus on what's important. I'm going to the barbeque tomorrow; maybe there I'll try and talk to Dash."
  757. >Her tone is hard to detect, but she replies, "Okay. My next flight is going to be in a day. We'll see each other when I get back there."
  758. "Bye," you say, and she repeats it back and you hang up.
  759. >You stare at your phone for a moment, and then decide to open your browser.
  760.  
  761. >It doesn't take long to find a news story about these planes; it's all over the world headlines.
  762. 'At least two-hundred dead in fatal midair plane collision. Airplane crashes in Atlantic; rescue operations underway. Several airlines temporarily grounded as investigation continues.'
  763. >As you read more headlines, you can't help but feel a strange knot forming in your stomach that grows tighter and tighter.
  764. >What if something is actually happening, but it isn't in Canterlot?
  765. >What if it's all over the world?
  766. >Flights from Tokyo to Maine to Africa are being cancelled or rerouted into emergency landings, but what could it all mean?
  767. >The flight issues can't be a coincidence, but is it a coincidence that it's happening in this month?
  768. >You can't be certain.
  769. >Turning off your phone, you crawl back into bed and close your eyes.
  770. >Only this time, sleep actually finds you.
  771. >That night, you have a dream.
  772. >You're running through the woods, sprinting as fast as you can.
  773. >You are naked, your body honed and lean from all the work you've put in, muscles rippling in your arms and legs.
  774. >The way you dash through the trees and leap over rocks, it's almost like you're Tarzan.
  775. >At the side of a river, you pause and kneel down to drink from it.
  776. >Then you hear something.
  777. >Very still, you watch as a deer walks towards the river on the opposite side.
  778. >It is a buck, with grand antlers, unafraid of anything that could challenge him.
  779. >You watch him with singular focus, eyes locked on.
  780. >He drinks and then lifts his head, staring at you.
  781. >Then you pounce, leaping across the river and grabbing his antlers, wrestling him to the ground.
  782. >He struggles, but you are stronger, and soon you have him pinned.
  783. >That's when you open your mouth and tear into his neck, consuming his flesh raw.
  784. >You can taste the blood in your mouth, the meat.
  785. >Delicious.
  786. >When you awaken, it is with a startle; you sit up straight in bed, covered in sweat and panting.
  787.  
  788. >Your fingers are white from gripping the sheets as hard as you are.
  789. >You throw the sheet off of yourself, fully expecting to find the dead body of a deer under it, or at the very least yourself covered in blood, but you aren't.
  790. >Everything's normal.
  791. >Eventually, you manage to bring yourself down and calm your rapidly-beating heart.
  792. "It's alright," you whisper to yourself. "It's okay. Goddamn..."
  793. >You stand up and move into the bathroom; the mirror is still broken and the sink is still cracked.
  794. "Gonna have to get that replaced," you mutter as you step in the shower.
  795. >After a period of cleansing and getting dressed, you check the time.
  796. >11:30.
  797. "Shit. The barbeque..."
  798. >You quickly leave your apartment and lock the door before running out.
  799. >It's taking place out on AJ's farm, with the most open land, so you've got a ways to go.
  800. >It's about 12:15 when you arrive, and it seems like half the town has shown up!
  801. >Cars completely fill the long driveway and stretch around for a ways.
  802. >As you approach the farm, you see a large grill with Big Mac working it, flipping burgers and steaks.
  803. ‘Nice that he got off from ranger work for this,’ you think to yourself.
  804. >You can spy some of the extended Apple clan, like Braeburn and Apple Fritter, along with several other friends from school.
  805. >A few sets of parents here and there, and even some faculty from the school.
  806. ‘Pinkie wasn’t stingy with those invites. Damn.’
  807. >And, of course, your team is all spread out to greet everyone, shaking hands and exchanging hugs.
  808. >As you walk up, Applejack looks over and immediately points you out with a smile.
  809. >Several people see you and walk up to greet.
  810. >Fluttershy’s brother, Allie Way, Granny Smith, Mr. Cake and several other townfolk are all positively delighted to see you back, even though you never knew them too well.
  811. >Others you do know better, like Braeburn, Principal Celestia and her sister Luna.
  812.  
  813. >But Pinkie knows everyone, and she’s the one who summoned them all, as though she were a mythical pied piper who played the right note to bring them all out.
  814. >Applejack is quick to hand to a plate with an extra-rare steak on it, just the way you like it, with a smile and a wink.
  815. >With some music, showing off pictures from the trip (but not certain photos that would expose anything strange or unusual, naturally) and getting to catch up with old friends.
  816. >Celestia and Luna in particular; as one of the few trusted individuals who know your secret, and with secrets of their own, they were instrumental in putting together the trip you went on.
  817. >Although you and the others graduated earlier this year, it was the promise of both psychics that they would watch over Canterlot while you were gone that helped push all of you towards the decision to ultimately leave, assured that things would be safe in their hands.
  818. As you sit at a table with them over a plate of steak, you ask, “So, how have things been?”
  819. >”Quiet, thankfully,” Celestia replies with a smile. “The school year has been going marvelously.”
  820. >Luna nods and looks around to make sure nobody else is listening before she adds, “The peace that you have afforded Canterlot cannot be overstated. With Spencer and his cult gone, the town has never been nicer.”
  821. >Rarity, sitting alongside Luna, asks, “But what of any non-cult issues? Ghosts or anything supernatural?”
  822. >”There hasn’t been anything too active. Not even any hauntings, even in the older districts.”
  823. >Celestia sets a fork down in her salad. “Yes, I’d say that things around here have been quieter than they have for several years it seems.”
  824. >Fluttershy speaks up then and changes the subject. “Did you hear on the news about all the airplanes?”
  825. >Celestia is quick to reply. “Yes, my goodness, what a terrible thing! I just can’t believe it. I have a relative who could have been on one of those flights, you know.”
  826.  
  827. >”My word, how awful,” Rarity comments.
  828. >Luna nods. “Thankfully nothing has happened around here like that. The last thing we need is planes falling out of the sky.”
  829. >Applejack comes up and sets down a plate with a big bacon cheeseburger. “I’ll say. I don’t think even we could stop that.”
  830. You take a drink of punch. “Sunset’s own flight home was delayed because of it.”
  831. >Luna then says, “I don’t mean to change the subject away from the macabre for a moment, but there is something that’s happened in town recently, and it’s putting our community on the map as it were.”
  832. >With a mouthful of bacon cheeseburger and a disregard for table manners that causes Rarity to physically react, AJ asks, ”What’s that now?”
  833. >”A new television show started up not too long ago, by one of our own residents, ‘Time for Thought with Dr. Turner.’”
  834. >”An alumni of ours,” Celestia explains. “He’s a quite brilliant doctor with degrees in a few fields; psychology, pharmaceuticals, the list goes on.”
  835. “I think I remember Twilight mentioning him once,” you say. “Doesn’t he run the observatory here in town?”
  836. >”Yes, it’s actually where his studio is located and he broadcasts from.”
  837. >Rarity seems interested. ”What’s the show about?”
  838. >Luna picks up. “It’s part talk show, part self-help, part science. He often examines difficult medical cases, usually mental but sometimes physical, and talks about the impact of the disabled on society and the need for charity and assistance.”
  839. >Celestia enthusiastically adds, “But it’s not always like that. Last week, he had several local mothers on and interviewed them on the subject of motherhood and how important certain factors are to early development of children, as well as a wonderful segment on childhood education.”
  840. >Luna looks at her sister and smiles. “It almost made a certain principal consider finally getting a bun in her oven.”
  841.  
  842. >Celestia’s face turns bright red. “Luna! That was told in confidence!”
  843. >The girls all giggle and finally Celestia calms down.
  844. >”The point is, his show is really getting quite popular,” Luna explains. “It’s all local right now, but there’s talk in the papers of it going even further. I really recommend it.”
  845. >You take another bite, nod and smile, but inwardly you don’t really care.
  846. ‘Don’t even own a television.’
  847. >As Rarity and Fluttershy both continue speaking with them, your eye catches something else---or rather, someone else.
  848. >Rainbow Dash, by herself, getting a drink.
  849. ‘Now or nothing,’ you think as you excuse yourself and stand up.
  850. >You walk towards her, mentally preparing what you are going to say, when suddenly you feel a hand on your shoulder roughly turn you around.
  851. “Hey, what the?”
  852. >You stop when you look down and see Caramel, a student who is one year younger than you, now in the senior year.
  853. >”H-hey there, Anon!” he says nervously.
  854. >Almost immediately, you detect something odd about him, and as you look more closely, it’s not hard to see why.
  855. >He’s a wreck.
  856. >His brown hair is all disheveled, and he is visibly shaking, with his eyes darting erratically.
  857. >He has a water bottle in his hands; the liquid inside is constantly jostling from his hands.
  858. >What’s more, every single heightened sense you possess tells you that he is afraid.
  859. >And not just afraid, but out of his wits terrified.
  860. “Caramel, hey,” you finally reply. “You seem… Are you alright?”
  861. >”What, me? Fine, fine, finefinefine, hey listen, um,” he pauses, looks around and takes a drink of water. “You, uh, you and your friends just got back in t-town, right? Last night? Late?”
  862. “Yeah… Last night, real late.”
  863. >”Oh, good, that’s good, it’s good that you’re back,” he says loudly, almost like he’s trying to make sure others hear him.
  864.  
  865. >He takes another nervous sip of water as he again looks around, but you can’t imagine what the hell he’s looking for.
  866. “Caramel, are you okay? You want maybe a drink of punch or---“
  867. >”NO!” he shouts, drawing some eyes. He laughs nervously and says, “No, no thank you, Anon, no punch for me.”
  868. >He’s sweating profusely.
  869. ‘What the hell is going on with this guy? What’s he so paranoid about?’
  870. >”Listen, Anon, uh… I know we’re not, like, good friends or anything, but I was wondering, and d-don’t take this the wrong way or anything… But were you with anyone last night?”
  871. >Your eyes narrow in suspicion, but you don’t know what to begin being suspicious about.
  872. “What do you mean exactly?”
  873. >”Oh, you know, just… Did you talk to anyone in person or meet up with anybody or have any kind of, um, interaction at all with anyone who isn’t any of the people you went on your trip with?”
  874. ‘The fuck kind of question is that?’
  875. >Might as well be honest, he seems like he’s ready to snap, but over what you don’t know.
  876. “No… I was dropped off at my apartment, slept and came here.”
  877. >”Oh thank Jesus,” he mutters. He steps closer and says, “Listen, we need to talk in private, now.”
  878. “O-kay…” you reply, unsure of where this is going.
  879. >But for someone to be so frightened as he is, there must be more to it.
  880. >You follow him out behind the barn.
  881. “So anyway, what’s this all abo---“
  882. >Suddenly he turns around and grabs your shoulders, looking you straight in the eyes.
  883. >”Don’t trust anyone! Don’t talk to anyone, don’t be alone with anyone!”
  884. “Woah, Caramel---“ His grip on your shoulders tightens. “What the hell is wrong with you, man?”
  885. >”Don’t TRUST anyone! Don’t TALK to anyone! Don’t BE ALONE with ANYONE! Do you understand?!”
  886. “I’m alone with you RIGHT now!”
  887. >”Yeah, but I’m not one of them, and neither are you!”
  888. >The fear in his voice, the desperation, tells you to remain calm.
  889.  
  890. “Look, man, just tell me what’s got you so freaked out. Maybe I can help you.”
  891. >”No. Nononono. There’s no helping it. It’s too late for that---all we can do is try to remain ourselves!”
  892. >Now you grab him and push him up against the wall.
  893. “Caramel, CALM DOWN. Just talk to me. Alright? Just talk to me.”
  894. >”Okay, okay, I’m calm, I’m calm,” he says, even though he’s breathing faster than ever. “My parents are gone. They’re not the first.”
  895. “What? Where are they?”
  896. >”I don’t KNOW!”
  897. “Okay, calm down! What’s going on?”
  898. >”I said I don’t know! People around town are vanishing! And then they come back, and it’s like they’re normal, right? But they AREN’T!” Tears well up in his eyes as he says, “And now my parents are gone and I’m next, I know it!”
  899. “Next for what? What is it?”
  900. >”It’s been going on for a while. I’m not the only one who’s noticed. But the papers don’t talk about it and the police don’t look into it because they’re IN on it, I know it!”
  901. “Wait, wait, what? The police and papers are in on it?” You sigh and let go of him. “Listen, are you sure you’re al---“
  902. >”I’m NOT crazy! I’m NOT one of them!” he says, desperately defending himself.
  903. “One of WHO?”
  904. >”Them,” he whispers, very unhelpfully. “I don’t know what’s going on and I’m scared. It’s the town, the whole town maybe, I don’t know how far it goes, but, but---”
  905. You run a hand through your hair. “Look, you said your parents are gone. I get that, that’s big. But whatever you’re talking about is much bigger than that. Do you have any proof?”
  906. >”No! They cover their tracks, whoever, whatever they are. But I’m not the only one who’s noticed! Flash, Flash Sentry---he’s been working with some of the others around the school.”
  907. “Flash? He knows about this, too?”
  908.  
  909. >He nods like a jackhammer. “He noticed it before I did. People go away then they come back like nothing’s wrong but there IS something wrong, something about the way they act, I can’t describe it, but---“
  910. >Suddenly, Celestia walks around the corner and Caramel instantly shuts up.
  911. >”Caramel! There you are! You’ve been absent from school for nearly an entire week!”
  912. >He looks at the principal with pure, utter terror.
  913. >”Remember what I said!” he screams as he turns and runs away as fast as he can. “NO ONE!”
  914. “What the…?”
  915. >You watch him go and are about to chase him when Celestia puts a hand on your shoulder. “Wait, Anon. Let him go, he’s… He’s in a very difficult position right now.”
  916. You turn and look up at her. “He’s paranoid. Everything about him was terrified, like he was being watched. He said his parents were gone, and that he’s next.”
  917. >”The rumor around town is that they’ve divorced, apparently. Or are in the process of getting divorced. There was a terrible fight at their home… the police were called in. I’m afraid I don’t know much else about it.”
  918. “But he said they were gone.”
  919. >”I can’t speak for his mother, but his father was brought in for questioning by the sheriff. This was in the newspapers. She may have left due to the stress.”
  920. “I’ve seen fear before, quite often. Had a lot of it myself. But nothing, I mean nothing, was like that. He’s a nervous wreck, he was talking about something, like the entire town was out to get him.”
  921. >”The school has been trying to get in contact with him throughout the week. He stopped coming to school after Tuesday. I think the stress of the situation with his parents is having a terrible effect on him, but chasing after him won’t do him any good.”
  922. >You listen to her words, and while they make sense, something about how afraid he was just doesn’t add up.
  923.  
  924. “If he’s really that out of his element, he needs help. He was rambling, paranoid, delusional it seemed like.”
  925. >”I absolutely agree. While I’m not an expert in the matter, I think this situation with his parents has created a kind of persecution complex within him---he’s inventing demons and other things to blame for what’s going on in his home.”
  926. You look back up at her. “What about his mind? Did you read it?”
  927. >”No, I tend not to do that to my own students. And it’s a bit more complicated than that---he may not even be thinking straight.” She sighs. “I’m going to talk to the school counselor, see if there isn’t something we can do about all of this. We’re going to get him help, I promise you.”
  928. >Applejack then comes around the corner. “Anon? Celestia? Somethin’ goin’ on?”
  929. >She pats your shoulder and turns back towards the girl. “No, nothing, just talking about one of the students at the school. He was here, but isn’t now, unfortunately.”
  930. >As she goes, explaining what happened to AJ, you watch her back and think about everything that just happened.
  931. >’Don’t TRUST anyone! Don’t TALK to anyone! Don’t BE ALONE with ANYONE!’
  932. >You look back in the direction he ran off in.
  933. >What could he have been talking about?
  934. >Why is he so afraid?
  935. >You need to talk with the others about this, right now.
  936. >Something could be happening in town after all…
  937. >You purposefully didn’t mention to Celestia that Caramel talked about others, specifically Flash.
  938. >Maybe you should start with him.
  939.  
  940. >As you rejoin the party, you scan your eyes around, taking in absolutely everything you see.
  941. >But more than that, you pause and try to see beyond the surface, as though you are trying to see the invisible.
  942. >What you see is a perfectly normal gathering of people.
  943. >Enjoying food, sharing drinks, exchanging stories and having laughs.
  944. >For a moment, it's almost as if he's transferred the paranoia to you as you search for anything that seems wrong.
  945. >But you see nothing.
  946. >You close your eyes and smell, but even your heightened senses of smell and hearing detects nothing unnusual.
  947. >Usually you have a very good sense for danger as well; a kind of animalistic or instinctual "sixth sense" that tells you when something bad is about to happen.
  948. >But there is simply nothing unnusual going on, at least as far as you can detect it.
  949. >Why, then, was he so adament about there being something wrong with the townfolk?
  950. >You look at the bowl of punch and see someone getting a drink.
  951. >Why was he so afraid of the punch?
  952. >But maybe it wasn't just the punch---he had a water bottle, but no food with it.
  953. >Maybe he is so paranoid that he doesn't even want to eat food that he hasn't prepared?
  954. >But what could possibly cause such a fear?
  955. >You look over and see Celestia part ways with Applejack.
  956. >Everything she said did seem plausible enough, but he was terrified of her.
  957. >She couldn't be in on it, could she?
  958. >But why would she be?
  959. >And what exactly would she be 'in' on?
  960. >"Anon?" You turn and see Twilight standing with a cup of the punch. "Is something the matter? You've kind of just been standing for a minute, staring."
  961. >You purse your lips together and then lick them as you give her a concerned look.
  962. "Something strange just happened."
  963. >"What kind of strange?" she asks, stepping closer and lowering her voice.
  964. "Perhaps mundane strange, but maybe the kind of strange that we specialize in."
  965. >She understands immediately and takes your words seriously. "Should I assemble the others?"
  966.  
  967. "I don't know. I just spoke to Caramel, and---"
  968. >"Caramel? From the year before us?"
  969. "Right. He was just here, but he ran off. He was terrified, utterly delusional with fear. He could hardly put a sentence together."
  970. >"What could have driven him to such a state?"
  971. "He was talking about people in town disappearing, and then reappearing, but he wouldn't say why they were different. They just were. He kept talking about not trusting the people in the town, about not going anywhere alone."
  972. >Her brow furrows as she gets deep in thought.
  973. >"Do you suppose he is disturbed and inventing it all?"
  974. "That's what Celestia thinks, but that's the strange thing about it: he was terrified of her, too. Like he thought she was one of 'them' and ran away. She told me that he's been absent from school ever since his parents vanished, but she says they've gotten divorced and he's making all of this up due to stress."
  975. >Twilight looks over at Celestia as she talks to some of the parents about the current curiculum and budget plans for the school.
  976. >"Well... I mean, we trust the principal, don't we?"
  977. "Sure," you shrug. "So far we have no reason NOT to, I suppose. But you need to understand, he was absolutely frightened, I could practically smell the fear on him."
  978. >Twilight's fingers tap on her cup a few times before she says, "Okay. I'm going to let the girls know. You go see if you can find him and try talking to him some more. If he isn't crazy, if he's really onto something, then he needs our help. But Anon?"
  979. "Yeah?"
  980. >"We should also be prepared in case he is under too much stress. If that's the case, we need to help him before he hurts himself or someone else."
  981. "I'll be careful. But there's something else: he mentioned others know about whatever he's afraid of too. The only one he mentioned by name was Flash. If there is something going on, he might know about it as well."
  982.  
  983. >"But what could they be implying? What does 'people vanishing and then reappearing but different' really mean? What difference in behavior could he be talking about? Have you sensed anything wrong?"
  984. "No. Everything seems normal. But he was so paranoid it's gotten me paranoid, too." You lean in closer and whisper, "He was adament, absolutely adament, about not trusting anyone in town. About not going anywhere alone, or talking with anyone."
  985. >"Well, that's a little extreme, isn't it?" Twilight points out. "I mean, my parents were home last night. Technically I was alone with them."
  986. >You blink a few times and stare at her, slowly studying her eyes.
  987. >"What?"
  988. "Nothing... Like I said, his paranoia's rubbed off on me. Maybe if we investigate it a bit, we'll find that there's no reason to be worried. But given what we are and what we do, I can't just ignore the possibility of something going on."
  989. >"I understand and agree completely. I'll brief the others."
  990. "And Twilight... Just to be safe, maybe we really shouldn't go anywhere alone for now. We haven't been in town, and we've only been here today, so I would think that we could rule out everyone who was on the trip as being... I don't know, whatever he's afraid the people in the town are. We should stick around just each other and not go alone with anyone else. Sleep over at each other's places or something."
  991. >She nods and then asks, "Are you going to need someone to come with you to find him?"
  992. "No, I'll be fine. But pass this along to the rest of the gang: be careful. Something just may yet be going on."
  993. >Twilight hesitates for a moment. "I will, but let's also consider that we may be looking for trouble when there is none purely because of what's been going on lately. What with us getting back and the month being---"
  994. "I know, I know, believe me I know. But has being cautious ever proven to be a bad thing?"
  995. >"No, not at all. Just as we wear safety goggles when we do chemistry, just in case."
  996.  
  997. "Just in case. I'll go try to find Caramel, or Flash. I'll keep in touch."
  998. >"Stay safe, okay?"
  999. "Same to you."
  1000. >You step back and unceremoniously leave the party behind, as well as any thoughts of approaching Dash.
  1001. >This has put you through a bit of a spin, you must admit.
  1002. >At the edge of the party, you turn back and take a final look.
  1003. >You see a few things; people chatting, eating, Celestia talking on her cell phone...
  1004. >Your eyes hone in on her as she speaks into it, then turns it off and slides it into her pocket.
  1005. >A completely innocent action, and yet...
  1006. >No, there's nothing there.
  1007. >Is there?
  1008. 'Can't be,' you think. 'She was just answering a call.'
  1009. >And yet, how can you know for certain?
  1010. 'So this is what paranoia feels like.'
  1011. >If something was going on, something so under the surface that you would need a microscope to examine it, how would you ever know?
  1012. >Like you and your lycanthropy.
  1013. >Everyone has their secrets, everyone lives something of a double-life.
  1014. >Some are tame, some are wild, but everyone has them.
  1015. >So how would you possibly know if something was going on in the town?
  1016. >As you leave Sweet Apple Acres and walk back to town, your eyes scan every street corner and passerby.
  1017. >People are going about their lives; working, socializing, reading, walking pets and more.
  1018. >Normal.
  1019. >You were with Caramel long enough to pick up his scent, and so you follow it.
  1020. >He was sweating pretty profusely, so there's a strong enough trail.
  1021. >It seems that he went straight home, as you soon find yourself in a suburban neighborhood.
  1022. >Not exactly the high-end part of town, but the houses here are nice enough.
  1023. >You pass by a dog, who growls and barks at you as its owner pulls on the leash, but you don't pay it any attention.
  1024. >Instead, you continue up to the front door of a brown house.
  1025. >Pausing, you inhale deeply to confirm: this is the place.
  1026. >The first thing you notice is that the mailbox has mail in it, and there is an unopened newspaper in the front.
  1027.  
  1028. 'The front lawn could use a mowing, too.'
  1029. >Your eyes are inevitably drawn to the windows, where you see no lights on inside.
  1030. 'Fair enough, it's still daylight.'
  1031. >You walk up to the front and knock.
  1032. >No answer.
  1033. >You knock again, harder and longer.
  1034. >Nothing.
  1035. 'He was here,' you think as you smell again. 'I'm not detecting any scent of him leaving...'
  1036. >That doesn't preclude getting into a car and driving off, but you don't smell anything around the garage.
  1037. >Looking up and down the neighborhood and seeing nobody, you then walk into his backyard.
  1038. >A lone tire swing hangs from a tree.
  1039. >The backdoor is locked.
  1040. >So are the windows.
  1041. >As you try to pull one up, you then notice something unusual.
  1042. >You peer through the glass at the other side and see the heads of nails sticking up.
  1043. 'He's nailed the windows down...'
  1044. >You quickly check he others to confirm this; they're all the same.
  1045. 'Barred from the outside world.'
  1046. >You approach the backdoor and look around again before bringing up a foot and kicking it open.
  1047. >It was nailed shut; the board flies off into the empty garage.
  1048. 'I've heard of shut-ins but this is downright ridiculous.'
  1049. >You step inside and close the door behind you after checking to make sure there wasn't an alarm system.
  1050. 'Well, they live in a good neighborhood. But you never know when a werewolf is going to come knocking. They really should've invested in some anti-burglar alarm or something.'
  1051. >No time to dwell on that, however.
  1052. >You walk up into the kitchen and look around; you can see a hammer and some nails on the countertop.
  1053. You call out, "Caramel? Hello? Anyone?" and wait a few seconds for a reply. When there is none, you say, "This is Anon. I tried knocking, but..."
  1054. >You pause as you walk into the dining room.
  1055. >Walking up to a window that you were on the outside of, you inspect the nails.
  1056. >Three or four per window; someone was very, very concerned with them getting open.
  1057. You mutter, "Where is that person now, hm?"
  1058.  
  1059. >You stand up and walk to the front door to turn the doorknob.
  1060. >It's unlocked, but there are some scratches on the brass.
  1061. >You kneel down in front of it and see that, while the door wasn't boarded like the backdoor, there was some kind of additional lock on here recently.
  1062. >Given that he left the house to go to the barbeque, he must've removed it.
  1063. >But if he came back, why didn't he put it back on?
  1064. >You begin to inspect the rest of the house.
  1065. >There isn't any sign of a struggle anywhere, but his room is rather messy.
  1066. >It's also the only room that seems to have signs of recently being lived in; the master bedroom is empty and without odors to indicate human presence.
  1067. >You enter his bedroom and look around.
  1068. >It's a simple room, all things considered; normally furnished, with a messy bed.
  1069. >Seems he rather likes Japanese mech figures; he's got a shelf full of them.
  1070. >The second thing to catch your eye is his desktop, which is on and unlocked.
  1071. >Fortunate for you, he isn't one for screensavers.
  1072. >You sit down in front of it and crack your fingers in preparation to type away.
  1073. 'Let's see here... Recent tabs, recent tabs... Search: DNA testing. Search: Blood sample how to get. Search: How to tell if someone is not who they really seem. Search: Newspaper illegitimacy. Search: Canterlot missing people records public. Search: Canterlot police personnel 2016.'
  1074. >The list goes on for a short stretch, all similar in nature.
  1075. >You open up his Facebook page; there are a few notifications that haven’t been checked.
  1076. >He received Pinkie’s invitation, but did not publically accept it.
  1077. >In fact, he hasn’t been active for several days; at least that’s when he stopped posting.
  1078. >There are a few unread messages that he seems to have purposefully avoided.
  1079. >But the one nearest the top is a conversation with Flash Sentry, with the last message sent from this account.
  1080. >You open it up and read it.
  1081.  
  1082. >’THEY ARE COMING FOR ME KNOCKING ON MY DOOR DON’T TAKE ANY MORE MESSAGES FROM ME IT WON’T BE ME CANCEL MEETING THEY WILL KNOW’
  1083. >It was written nearly twenty minutes ago.
  1084. >A chill crawls up your spine as you read this.
  1085. >Did you just miss something happening?
  1086. >You read the message again, narrowing your eyes.
  1087. >You can see that Flash has seen it as well, but has not replied.
  1088. >The last message from him is from three in the morning.
  1089. >‘They have Ms. Harshwhinny now. We’re sure of it. She was with the others. Meeting tonight, same place. Remember the secret knock.’
  1090. “Harshwhinny… I remember. Teacher, accounting. Meeting tonight…”
  1091. >You scroll up, but there is no mention of a meeting location, who else is involved, or what the secret knock is.
  1092. >This must all have been communicated in person to leave no digital trail.
  1093. >Scrolling up further, you can see that Flash and Caramel only became friends about two weeks ago.
  1094. ‘That must be when they both noticed something going on,’ you realize.
  1095. >That gives you a lead to check on who else he’s become friends with lately; Octavia, Vinyl Scratch, Thunderlane and Blossomforth.
  1096. >Cross-referencing this, you begin to notice another pattern emerging, of them talking to each other more across their pages in the last two to three weeks.
  1097. >Well, now you have a larger picture to work with, or at the very least people you can question.
  1098. >But that still doesn’t answer where Caramel is.
  1099. >You stand up and walk over to his window; there’s a perfect view of the driveway.
  1100. ‘He could’ve seen someone drive up and then have sent that message. But where would he go from there?’
  1101. >You look around, smelling, trying to find something to take you to the next step of the mystery.
  1102. ‘He was here, but now he’s gone… He knew, or at least thought, that someone was coming for him. The backdoor was barred, he wouldn’t have gone out the front…’
  1103.  
  1104. >You walk out into the hallway, pretending to be him, and then you look up.
  1105. >There’s a trapdoor leading up to an attic, and you spy something on it: dust.
  1106. >Or more specifically, recently-disturbed dust, with clear fingerprints in it.
  1107. >You reach up and grab the handle, pulling it down to reveal an unfolding ladder, and then climb.
  1108. >You stick your head up into the attic.
  1109. “Caramel? You up here?”
  1110. >No answer.
  1111. >But you do smell something else…
  1112. >It smells like… chlorine?
  1113. >They don’t have a pool, though.
  1114. >You get up in the attic and look around, sniffing, until you come to a spot behind some old cardboard boxes with Christmas decorations.
  1115. >There’s a lot of kicked-up dust here, and a few things knocked over.
  1116. >A box is spilled over onto the floor, its contents strewn about.
  1117. >No blood, no bullet casings, nothing of the sort…
  1118. >But the strange scent gets stronger.
  1119. >You lean down and look at the ground, experimentally running your fingers across the wooden floor, right up until you feel something wet.
  1120. >There’s a pool of transparent liquid here, very viscous and thick, almost like saliva or sex lube.
  1121. >You bring it into the light of the only window and inspect it, rubbing it between your fingers.
  1122. >When you bring them apart, it sticks between them in a strand.
  1123. >You smell your fingers, and this is definitely the scent you were picking up.
  1124. ‘Like a public pool or a freshly-cleaned bathroom…’
  1125. >Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem normal to be up here, especially in a small pool of the stuff…
  1126. >You’d like to bring a sample back to Twilight, but you don’t really have a sealed container to do so with.
  1127. >In fact, it may already be spoiled, whatever it is.
  1128. >Still, you go back down into the kitchen and get a cup, then return to the attic to collect as much as you can.
  1129. >You scoop it into the cup with a knife and then leave the house through the front door.
  1130. >As you do, you notice someone across the street getting into their car pause and look at you.
  1131.  
  1132. >You make brief eye contact and then continue walking down the sidewalk, quickly heading back towards downtown.
  1133. ‘Twilight’s first, to drop this stuff off. Then onto the next step: figuring out what Flash knows.’
  1134. >As you walk, you notice the car that the man across the street was getting into drive by.
  1135. >You think you catch a glimpse of him looking out his window at you, but with the light on the window you can’t be certain.
  1136. >It drives off and doesn’t turn around.
  1137. ‘Am I going crazy? Am I seeing things that aren’t there?’
  1138. >You look around, feeling like the perfectly-normal houses have taken on some kind of almost sinister air.
  1139. You shake your head and mutter, “This must be how people felt in the fifties about communists… Beware the Red Menace.”
  1140. >You pick up your feet and head to Twilight’s a bit more quickly, carrying the cup all the while.
  1141.  
  1142. >Unlike Caramel, you actually do know where Flash lives.
  1143. >While you and he have not always been on agreeable terms, things picked up in your senior year.
  1144. >After the school was attacked by zombies and other monsters, that is.
  1145. >But, like everyone who wasn’t you and your friends, his memory of the occasion was wiped by Luna and Celestia, the events obscured through the use of their telepathic abilities.
  1146. >While he couldn’t remember why he was no longer antagonistic with you, he didn’t question it much.
  1147. >As you and the others worked to help cleanup and rebuild part of the town that was destroyed by a ‘tornado’ you got to bond with him for a short while.
  1148. >It was actually rather pleasant to have a male friend to hang around with until you left for your trip.
  1149. >Now that you’re back, hopefully things should pick up where they left off.
  1150. >But given his involvement with this curious business, you can only wonder what he is up to.
  1151. >As usual, his nice house has a shiny red sports car parked in front of it, which is a clear indication of him being home.
  1152. >You approach the door and knock on it, only to receive no answer after a few moments of waiting.
  1153. >Tapping your foot on the ground, you try knocking again, and ring the doorbell.
  1154. >That’s when you hear a mechanical sound; a soft and subtle one, like the adjustment of a lens, something that a normal person would not be able to detect.
  1155. >You look up and see a camera focusing on you.
  1156. ‘Someone’s home, alright,’ you think as you look at the security camera.
  1157. >You give a little wave to the camera.
  1158. >That’s when you start hearing footsteps behind the door.
  1159. >It opens, just a crack; you can see a brass chain is still in place to keep the door locked.
  1160. >Flash’s face is on the other side, looking at you with suspicion.
  1161. “Flash, hey.”
  1162.  
  1163. >”…Anon. Long time no see.”
  1164. “We, uh, missed you at the barbeque.”
  1165. >”I didn’t go.”
  1166. “Clearly. Hence the whole ‘missed you’ part.” You bring a hand up and scratch the back of your head. “I was… hoping to catch up a bit now that I’m back home.” You lean closer and add, “Since I haven’t, you know, been here for a while. Wanted to know how things are going.”
  1167. >You are purposefully not talking about Caramel, to gauge his reaction.
  1168. >After a moment of looking you in the eyes, he closes the door.
  1169. >You hear him unlatch a few things and then open it back up, this time all the way, so as to let you inside.
  1170. >”Come on in,” he says, though he still sounds suspicious.
  1171. >You step inside and look around as he closes the door quickly behind you, latching it back up.
  1172. “You seem nervous,” you note. “Something the matter?”
  1173. >He finishes with the last latch and looks back at you.
  1174. >”So, you haven’t been around. On your trip with the gang, right?”
  1175. “Yeah… We were having a kind of ‘back-in-town’ barbeque earlier. Weird thing, though… I ran into Caramel there.”
  1176. >He stops moving and looks at you. “Really…”
  1177. “He was acting a little funny,” you say, running a hand over the furniture in the living room. “So I decided to follow him home.”
  1178. >You wait for his response, but none comes.
  1179. >Instead, you hear him reach for and grab something.
  1180. >”I didn’t think it would be you,” he whispers. “Of all the people, I didn’t bet on you.”
  1181.  
  1182. You pause when you hear him say that. “Sorry?”
  1183. >You look back at him and see him holding a shotgun, which was apparently behind the door.
  1184. >A good model, too; pump-action, probably loaded with some decent stopping rounds.
  1185. >He’s pointing it right at you.
  1186. >”When did they get to you? At the barbeque? How long does it take, huh?”
  1187. >He stands ready, still, his finger dangerously on the trigger.
  1188. >You remain calm and assess the situation.
  1189. >Obviously, he’s just as paranoid as Caramel was, the primary difference being that Flash is armed and ready to exercise his second amendment rights.
  1190. ‘That won’t kill me, but it’ll hurt… And I’ll be pissed off.’ You clear your throat and slowly raise a hand. “Now Flash, I need you to calm down for me. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Caramel was acting crazy, talking about something going on in town. I wanted to find him and help.”
  1191. >”That’s exactly what one of them would say.”
  1192. “Well then, I don’t have a very good defense, do I?”
  1193. >”Nope.”
  1194. >He then pulls the trigger and blasts you square in the chest.
  1195. >You fly backwards, over the back of the couch, ending up in the middle of the living room.
  1196. >As you land on your stomach, blood seeps out of your body and onto his nice, white carpet.
  1197. ‘That’s going to stain…’
  1198. >You cough and hack for a moment as you find yourself unable to breathe.
  1199. ‘Son of a bitch actually shot me. He actually just straight-up fucking shot me.’
  1200. >Flash comes around the couch on the other side, and points the gun at you again.
  1201. You let out a long, low groan, and when you speak, it is in a labored tone. “You know… I’m curious… What was your plan if I was a normal person and you just committed murder?”
  1202.  
  1203. >”So you ARE one of them. I knew it!”
  1204. >You push yourself up onto your arms and then turn to face him with a less-than-pleased expression.
  1205. “No, I’m NOT… and it would really be nice if you or someone would explain what THEM means.”
  1206. >Flash cocks the shotgun and aims it at your head and speaks as you stare down the barrel. “You already know.”
  1207. >He fires, but this time you swing a leg up and kick the barrel, faster than he can react.
  1208. >The shot goes wide, blasting the nearby wall and leaving a sizeable hole, roughly the same size as the one in your chest.
  1209. >You follow this up with a swipe from your hand, grabbing the front of the barrel and tearing it from his grasp.
  1210. >He backs up as you stand, straightening your back as you take a deep breath into your regenerating lungs.
  1211. “You really don’t know how much this kind of thing stings, Flash.”
  1212. >He looks down at your chest as the hole he left begins to close up; the blood seeps back into your body and the flesh begins to mend.
  1213. >”I knew you were a freak,” he says with wide, fearful eyes.
  1214. “Not the kind you’re thinking of.” You look down at your torso. “And you ruined my shirt. I’m gonna need a new one.”
  1215. >As you look down, Flash reaches behind a sofa chair and pulls out a machete.
  1216. >”DIE, FREAK!”
  1217. “Did you just have that behind the---“
  1218.  
  1219. >He charges at you, but is stopped when you bring up your foot and kick him in the chest in a strong standing kick.
  1220. >This sends him back up against the wall, where he breaks a mirror with his back and head.
  1221. >He slides down, sitting in a pile of broken glass.
  1222. “Now… I’m going to ask you again to calm down.”
  1223. >His eyes open and he grits his teeth, determined to keep on fighting.
  1224. ‘Aw, hell.’
  1225. >He shakes his head and jumps up, swinging the machete at you.
  1226. >You dodge three swings before grabbing his arm holding it, twisting it to make him let go.
  1227. >He then punches you in the face with his other hand, and then again, and then a third time, but only because you let him.
  1228. >Honestly, it feels kind of good to take a punch, and he’s trying his damnedest to hurt you.
  1229. >Flash isn’t exactly a slouch when it comes to fitness either, but only one of you has supernatural stamina and strength on your side.
  1230. >Really, it’s very little contest.
  1231. >Still, he’s got some moves, which he demonstrates as he wraps an arm around your neck and wrestles you to the ground.
  1232. >”You’re not… taking me in… without a fight!”
  1233. As he tries to choke you, you shrug and think, ‘Well, if it’s a fight he wants…’
  1234. >You stand up, nearly effortlessly taking him with you, and then turn to get an arm under his waist.
  1235. >You then lift him up and carry him across the living room as he punches you in the face, where you then throw him into the wooden table in front of the TV.
  1236. >Thinking that he’s done for, you dust off your hands and speak.
  1237. “Now then… As I was saying, I---“
  1238.  
  1239.  
  1240. >He springs up out of the wreck, pushing wood off of him as he shouts.
  1241. >He then Judo-rolls into the next room, where he picks up a baseball bat.
  1242. >As you contemplate the number of weapons he has lying around, he swings it at your head.
  1243. >You duck and punch him in the gut, which makes him reel backwards and hold onto his stomach in pain, but he’s not done yet.
  1244. >You kick at him but he blocks it with the bat before using the head to slam your jaw.
  1245. >He then swings it upwards and knocks you to the floor, and this time it wasn’t because you let him.
  1246. >As your sore jaw aches in protest, he brings the bat over his head and swings down at you.
  1247. >Both of your arms shoot up to block the attack by grabbing it and gripping tightly.
  1248. >Your feet kick outwards at his waist, knocking him into the dining room and atop the table there.
  1249. >You stand up and break the bat over your knee before tossing both halves aside.
  1250. >And again, you warn him, but you doubt he’ll listen.
  1251. “Flash, you really don’t want to keep this up. Come on, man.”
  1252. >He looks up from the table, a thin line of blood coming from his mouth. “I’ll never join you! You’ll have to kill me before I turn!”
  1253. “I’m NOT trying to---“
  1254. >He grabs a plate and whips it at your head; you sidestep to the right and it smashes against the wall.
  1255. >Next comes a second plate and then a candlestick.
  1256. “How much else you got in there?” you chide him, goading him into throwing more.
  1257. >He rolls off the table and heads into the kitchen, where you hear him open a drawer.
  1258. >You follow him into the dining room, where you see a bowl full of apples on the dining room table.
  1259.  
  1260. >Picking one up and cleaning it on your tattered shirt, getting a little bit of blood on it in the process, you take a bite as he readies a large collection of knives.
  1261. >”Hey, Anon!” You look up at him as he holds two fairly large knives, one in each hand. “Stay SHARP!”
  1262. “…Did you seriously just---“
  1263. >Then he whips them, one after another.
  1264. >Your eyes narrow as you hone in on them with your lightning-fast reflexes.
  1265. >One, you catch in your open hand, and the other you block with the apple.
  1266. >The blade pierces the red skin, going through the core and poking your hand harmlessly.
  1267. You cock your brow. “Nice, try, though. Can you just let me explain---“
  1268. >He runs out of the kitchen, into a back room and out of your sight.
  1269. >You sigh, set down a knife on the table and then take the other one out of the apple.
  1270. ‘Might as well finish this.’ You start dicing the apple and eating it.
  1271. >After all, you’re not exactly afraid of whatever he’s going to come back with, unless it’s silver or covered in holy water.
  1272. >Or both.
  1273. >In a funny, roundabout way, this whole situation reminds you of those times you used to fight with Applejack when she thought you were a monster.
  1274. >Well, technically she was right, but still.
  1275. >You walk back into the living room, enjoying the apple when you hear Flash coming back.
  1276. >Out of the corner of your eye, you see him run out of the dining room, holding a wood chopping axe.
  1277. Your eyes widen and you dodge his wild swing, thinking, ‘Where the hell is he getting all of these?’
  1278. >He shouts and swings again, only this time you turn, catch it in your hand and stop its forward momentum.
  1279. >You then finish the apple and toss the core behind you.
  1280. >Time to stop playing around.
  1281.  
  1282. >You tear the axe out of his hands and punch him with your other hand, launching him in front of the fireplace.
  1283. >He hits the bricks and groans, reaching for a fire poker.
  1284. >You drop the axe and walk over to him, grabbing him by the neck and hoisting him up before slamming him against the wall and holding him there.
  1285. “ENOUGH!” He continues to struggle in your grasp, but eventually relents, his arms dropping to his sides.
  1286. >He opens an eye and looks at you with a hate-filled yet defeated gaze.
  1287. >”Just… Just get it over with, you freak…”
  1288. You wipe a bit of apple off of your lips. “I have to admit, Flash, you’re pretty tough.” You let him go and step back. “Now, granted, I let you get some of those hits in, but still. Not bad.”
  1289. >He looks up at you, confused. “What are you waiting for, huh?”
  1290. You shrug. “An explanation would be nice. Maybe give me some reasoning behind you trying to, you know, murder me by shooting me with a shotgun, but I’ll wait.” You rub your chest through the hole in your shirt.
  1291. >He forces himself to sit up. “You aren’t mad about that?” he asks, confused by your tone.
  1292. “Well, you’re not the first person to shoot at me. Applejack used to do it all the time.”
  1293. >”What?”
  1294. >The confusion is still present on his face as you pat your now completely-healed torso.
  1295. “I’ll keep you out of the suspense. Most people don’t find out this way, but I’m a werewolf.”
  1296. >”…What?”
  1297.  
  1298. “A WERE-wolf. A lycanthrope. Full moon comes and I turn into a beast, come on man, keep up here. I know you’re smarter than you look.”
  1299. >He slowly pushes himself up and stares at you, half-believing and half thinking you’re full of bullshit.
  1300. >You can nearly see the gears turning in his head.
  1301. >He KNOWS something otherworldly is about you; after all, you just tanked a shotgun blast to the chest and are perfectly fine.
  1302. >Finally, he comes to a conclusion and asks you the question on the forefront of his mind.
  1303. >”…So then why are werewolves trying to take over the town?”
  1304. “What? No! I’m the only one. That I know of… And I’m pretty sure that whatever you and Caramel are so frightened about, it’s NOT werewolves.”
  1305. >”But you’re one of them…”
  1306. “No, I’m NOT! I’ve said this at least a half-dozen times now!” You rub your eyes and let out a frustrated sigh. “Now LOOK… and I’m only going to explain this ONCE, so listen too. I’m trying to HELP you. I came here because Caramel came to the barbeque, talking all kinds of crazy about people in town disappearing and for me to not trust anyone before he ran off. I followed him home, but someone got there first, because he wasn’t there when I got there. I saw his message to you on his computer and came here.”
  1307. >He blinks a few times, digesting the information. “And… And you being a werewolf…”
  1308. “COMPLETE coincidence.”
  1309. >His arms fall down and his head slams gently against the wall as he sighs. “I don’t know whether to be relieved or terrified.”
  1310. “I get that a lot, trust me.”
  1311. >You walk over and sit down next to him as you survey his now-destroyed living room.
  1312. “So… You gonna need some help in cleaning this all up, old buddy?”
  1313. >”Yeah, I think so.”
  1314. “Good. And while we’re doing that, maybe you can finally explain to me what the hell is going on around here.”
  1315. >He brings up a hand and rubs his forehead. “I wish I knew…”
  1316.  
  1317. >After a few minutes, you’re helping him pick up the wreckage around his home.
  1318. >You hold up the axe and the machete he attacked you with, inspecting them.
  1319. “So you just had these at the ready, huh?”
  1320. >”I didn’t know who or what would come after me, so I prepared.”
  1321. >He sweeps up the broken plates into a small receptacle as you set the weapons aside.
  1322. “Well, points for trying, but only silver works on me.”
  1323. >He looks up and asks, “How long have you been… you know?”
  1324. “A werewolf, man. Get used to saying it.”
  1325. >”Fine. How long have you been a werewolf?”
  1326. “About two years now. It started one night in October when I turned for the first time and killed Roseluck.”
  1327. >He drops the receptacle, and the plates with it.
  1328. >”That was YOU?!”
  1329. >You hold up a hand and urge him to calm down.
  1330. “Easy, easy. That was when I didn’t have it under control. Plus, I made peace with her spirit, so we’re cool now. But I’m probably not cool with her family so keep that to yourself, alright?”
  1331. >He tosses the broom aside and throws up his hands.
  1332. >”Well, forgive me for being a little bit reactionary, but I just found out my friend is a werewolf and a murderer!”
  1333. “Hey, you shot me. If I wasn’t a werewolf, I’d be dead, so don’t get all high and mighty on me now.” You take a steadying breath and relax. “Alright, look, let’s just both calm down. There’s a lot to take in and I don’t mean to blow past the heavy stuff.”
  1334. >You walk around the sofa and sit down on it, kicking out the leg rest and cupping your hands together in your lap.
  1335. “So… I’m a werewolf.”
  1336. >”We’re a bit past that part,” he deadpans.
  1337. “Now, I wouldn’t normally tell people this stuff, but you kind of forced my hand. You know, by shooting me.” You let that sink in for a moment before adding, “And I still need a new shirt.”
  1338. >He indicates the rest of the room and says, “But look at what you did to my living room!”
  1339.  
  1340. “Hey! That was YOU, Flash. Not me. I’ll help you clean up this mess, but I won’t take the blame for it.” You sit up and continue, “First thing’s first---aside from me being a werewolf---the supernatural, the world of the spooky and the surreal, well, it’s all real. All of it. Vampires, monsters, ghosts, most mythologies that I can think of, they all exist, hidden from normal view.”
  1341. >As he listens, he sits down on his couch.
  1342. >”And… And you, what? You just know about all of these things that nobody else knows about?” He rubs his forehead as he attempts to comprehend everything he is hearing. “How could all of that be real and the world not know about it?”
  1343. “Ignorance is a virtue,” you mutter. “Most people like to think that there can’t be anything worse than normal life lurking in the dark, that there really is nothing that goes bump in the night. But there is. I’m living proof of it. You’ve seen it for yourself now, so the sooner you start believing everything I say, the sooner we can move past this part and get to what matters.”
  1344. >He takes a deep breath and sits back, still trying to work it all out in his head.
  1345. >”Okay… Okay, fine. Let’s say I believe you. That all this terrible, kid’s story or horror movie stuff is just real, and nobody ever knew about it.”
  1346. “Well, I wouldn’t say NOBODY---after all, there’s a reason we have legends, stories, movies and things like that. It’s all just a product of people trying to rationalize the fantastic as just that: fantasy. But legends and myths come from somewhere.”
  1347. >”Alright. So it’s all real then. But then what’s happening to the town?”
  1348. “I have no damn idea! I came here hoping YOU at least knew.”
  1349. >He shakes his head. “No. It all started about a month ago---maybe two. But nobody noticed it at first, so by the time we started noticing strange things, it was too late.”
  1350.  
  1351.  
  1352. “Caramel was telling me about this, but he was rambling and incoherent. Try and give me the honest truth of the matter as best you can.”
  1353. >”Wait, wait, hold on,” he says, waving a hand. “…Who else knows about you? I mean, your lycan-whatever?”
  1354. “Lycanthropy. And the girls do, and so does Principal Celestia and Vice Principal Luna. And three werecat witches, and a shapeshifting Native American, and---“
  1355. >”Wait. You said Celestia and Luna know?”
  1356. “Yeah, what of it?”
  1357. >He sits back, his face masked with concern. “I think they’re in on it.”
  1358. “They were at the barbeque and seemed perfectly normal to me. They talked about school, and the town, and some new TV show---“
  1359. >He jolts upwards. “The TV show! ‘Time for Thought’ right?”
  1360. “What? Yeah, I think so. Why?”
  1361. >Flash starts pacing around the room as you track him with your eyes.
  1362. >”That show started when all of this strange stuff started happening. And what’s more curious, is that the people who began to disappear would almost always show up as guests on his program later on as part of his talk-show segment.”
  1363. “So… You think he’s kidnapping and brainwashing people, or something?”
  1364. >”I don’t know. I don’t know what the endgame is, but I’m almost positive he’s involved. And it’s not just him, but the police too, and the newspapers!”
  1365. “Flash, these are some pretty heavy things you’re implying. If something really is going on in town, and it goes as far as you think, we’re going to need proof.”
  1366. >He stops and sighs. “Well, I don’t have any. Whatever these people are, they’re good at hiding their tracks. There’s no evidence anywhere of whatever it is they’re doing, and the police don’t investigate it. The newspapers don’t report it. All I can think of is that they’re all in on it and working together to keep the people ignorant.”
  1367.  
  1368. You lean back in the chair and reply, “Well, like I said, ignorance is bliss. If I were trying to take over a town, that’s how I would want to do it.”
  1369. >You look over on the window sill near the front door, where you set down the glass you took from Caramel.
  1370. >Walking over, you pick it up and show it to him.
  1371. “But maybe this is our first piece of evidence right here. I took this gunk from Caramel’s attic, where I think he was hiding. Someone---or something---went up there and got him, and this was all that remained.”
  1372. >He looks at the stuff and nods. “Okay, so we finally have something to go on. What’s next?”
  1373. “We get this to Twilight to analyze.”
  1374. >”Twilight? You said she’s in on your secret too, right?”
  1375. You think for a moment. “I think she was actually the second one to find out, if memory holds. She was there when a bunch of cultists burnt down my grandfather’s house with him inside.”
  1376. >He blinks. “Dude… What?”
  1377. “Nothing. Long story.” You take the cup back and set it down. “If we’re going to get to the bottom of this, we’re going to need to know who our friends are.”
  1378. >You face Flash fully and put a hand on his shoulder.
  1379. “Flash, you’re about to enter a world of the strange and the weird. We deal with monsters, hauntings, ancient evils and pandimensional entities on a fairly regular basis. It’s going to be dangerous, it’s going to change your life forever, so I just have one question I need to ask you.”
  1380. >His eyes get serious. “What?”
  1381. “…Can I have one of your shirts?”
  1382.  
  1383. >With Flash’s living room cleaned up as best you can manage at this time, and a nice new shirt from his closet, you leave his home and walk to his car.
  1384. >He’s right behind you with the keys in his hand, unlocking it and climbing into the driver’s side door as you briefly look around.
  1385. >A stray wind blows past, bringing an odd smell with it, which you pick up immediately.
  1386. >It resembles a kind of strange cologne, though you aren’t sure of the type.
  1387. >Looking in the direction it came from, you see someone in the far distance of his neighborhood, near the street corner, standing near the bus stop.
  1388. >You only catch a glimpse of him before a bus pulls up and blocks your view, but in that brief and narrow window, you see that he is tall, has pale skin and wears a suit---and is staring right at you.
  1389. >Not just in your direction, but you’re positive he’s looking directly at you.
  1390. >He’s also carrying a briefcase in one hand.
  1391. >As the bus pulls up, he adjusts his tie, briefly revealing a thin neck set beneath the narrow ridges of his cheekbones and jaw.
  1392. >You stop in your tracks the moment you see him, watching the bus.
  1393. >When it pulls away, he is gone.
  1394. >The bus rounds the corner and goes out of sight, vanishing as quickly as he did.
  1395. ‘Who the hell was that?’
  1396. >Flash rolls down the passenger window. “Hey man, you coming?”
  1397. “Yeah… I just… Nevermind.”
  1398. >You open the door and sit inside.
  1399. >This is the first time you’ve ever been inside Flash’s sports car; it’s really nice.
  1400. >A bit too, well, ‘flashy’ for your personal taste but hey, whatever works for him.
  1401. “Twilight’s,” you say, holding the cup in your hand. “And don’t step on it. We might be watched.”
  1402. >”Did you see someone?”
  1403.  
  1404.  
  1405. “I thought I did… Some stranger with a briefcase. Looked like a government official. He was just at the bus stop, and I could have sworn he was looking this way.”
  1406. >Flash hesitates as his hand hovers over the stick.
  1407. >”You know… I think I’ve seen him, too. Pale guy, right?”
  1408. “Do you know who he is?”
  1409. >”No idea.” He looks over at you and asks, “Do you think he might be involved?”
  1410. “Maybe he’s just a guy going to work.”
  1411. >”But maybe not, right? I’ve never seen him before.”
  1412. “If we keep getting hung up on every little thing we’ve never seen before or never noticed before, we’re going to go crazy. Let’s just stick to the mission in front of us, alright?”
  1413. >”Right. Right. Twilight’s, then.”
  1414. >He puts the car in reverse and drives off.
  1415. >As he makes his way across town, you explain a few things.
  1416. >Leaving out the details of your friends and their abilities, you cue him into a brief glimpse of your life as one who battles the supernatural.
  1417. >You also clear up any questions he has about Roseluck, and the other questionable things your other half has done.
  1418. >”So, you said that was when you didn’t have it under control… Does that mean that you have it under control now?”
  1419. >You pause, considering lying to him for a few moments.
  1420. >Then you shrug and decide that if he’s going to be in on it, he needs to know the truth.
  1421.  
  1422.  
  1423. “I used to. When I had a magical amulet, but it was destroyed. I lost control of the wolf and killed someone else.”
  1424. >”Who?”
  1425. “…Rainbow Dash.”
  1426. >He nearly slams the breaks on the car. “What?! But how is she---“
  1427. “She got better.”
  1428. >”Then… Then is she like… a zombie?”
  1429. You can’t help but laugh. “No, no. She’s not a zombie. She’s something far more magnificent than that, but I’ll let her tell you.” You readjust your seatbelt and change the subject back to the original point. “Look, I manage the transformations now. Twilight isolated the gene sequence of my lycanthropy and created a serum that can trigger it, even in the daylight. She also created a suppressant to turn me back into a human.”
  1430. >”So then, what’s it like? When you’re not you.”
  1431. “Just like that: me not being me. The thing inside of me, it’s a wild animal. It doesn’t want to be chained or caged. I thought I had him leashed for a while, but the serum did something to me the first time we tried it out and I lost control of him again. I don’t know if it’s empowered him or weakened me or what, but when I change… I don’t have control. I can kind of ‘aim’ him, but once he wakes up, he’s the one in charge. At least until the others can inject me with the cure.”
  1432. >”That’s pretty crazy, man. How can you live with that thing inside of you?”
  1433. “I manage. Some days better than others. But it’s kind of gotten to me lately.”
  1434. >”What’s that mean, exactly?”
  1435. “Well, I…” You sigh and rub your eyes. “I guess I can talk about this with you. Everyone else knows it.”
  1436. >”Hey, it’s not like I’m going to shoot you again. You can trust me.”
  1437. “Fair enough. Lately, I’ve been letting it affect my personal life. I had a, well, a kind of a thing going with Dash.”
  1438.  
  1439. >”Before or after you killed her and she came back?”
  1440. “Well, it started kind of in the middle.”
  1441. >He cocks a brow, waiting for you to continue.
  1442. “She was a ghost for a while. We got to talking a lot during this time and we agreed to start dating once she came back. So we did.”
  1443. >”And what’s wrong now?”
  1444. “I said some stuff I probably shouldn’t have said. Well, okay, there’s not so much a ‘probably’ in there as I put it; I really meant that I definitely said some stuff I shouldn’t have said. We had a big fight, both got very angry, and haven’t really patched things up since.”
  1445. >”I thought she was loyal to her friends to a fault. What could you have said to her to make her so angry?”
  1446. “I don’t want to talk about it. Sorry.”
  1447. >”S’cool, bro.” He shakes his head and lets out a chuckle. “I just can’t believe all this shit is real… You’re a werewolf, Dash actually died… Something must be going on in the town then, right? I mean, with all your stuff being real, there HAS to be.”
  1448. “We’ll keep looking. For now, I don’t know what it could be.”
  1449. >Flash pulls up to a red light and looks around.
  1450. >”There,” he suddenly says, pointing a finger at a street corner.
  1451. >You look and see three adults standing and talking to each other.
  1452. “What am I looking at?”
  1453. >”That’s Mr. Cake, Filthy Rich and Ms. Harshwhinny. They’ve never even been in the same room as each other.”
  1454. “Look, I’m not trying to doubt you, but how can you be sure of that?”
  1455. >”It’s not just a conversation,” Flash insists. “Something is going on.”
  1456. >When the light turns green, he drives past them, casually so as not to draw suspicion.
  1457.  
  1458. >”Anon, good to---“ She pauses immediately upon seeing Flash, who throws up his hands in mock-guns at her. “…Flash. Nice to see you.”
  1459. >She looks at you beneath her glasses, shooting a ‘what are you DOING’ glare as she does so.
  1460. >”I, uh, wasn’t expecting you. To be here. With Anon, I mean. What I’m getting at is that I didn’t expect Anon to bring you.”
  1461. “Yeah, me neither. But he knows.”
  1462. >She reaches up and takes off her glasses. “Knows what?”
  1463. You lean closer. “He knows about me,” you say, heavily implying without outright saying it.
  1464. >She looks up at Flash before sighing. “Perfect. Well, come on inside, then.”
  1465. >Flash quietly follows as you two enter; she closes the door behind her and locks it.
  1466. >He looks around the basement, noting the scarcity of furnishing, and says, “So… where’s the lab?”
  1467. >”First thing’s first,” she says, pointing at him. “You do not tell ANYONE about this. And you,” she points at you now, “are going to owe the group an explanation.”
  1468. “Oh, it’s a good one,” you assure her. “Now if you don’t mind, we have a missing person and a weird goo I need you to look at.”
  1469. >She looks at the cup in your hand and takes it. “What is this?”
  1470. “After Caramel ran off from the party, I followed him, just like I said. But he wasn’t home. Someone---or something---came and got him. That’s all I could find, up in his attic.”
  1471. >She sniffs the contents of the cup, her nose scrunching up. “Fascinating.”
  1472. “Like a pool, right?”
  1473. >”Similar, yes. Come this way,” she says, mostly to Flash.
  1474. >She approaches the large metal door that leads to her lab.
  1475. >”Woah, you have a vault down here or something?”
  1476.  
  1477. >”Or something indeed,” she says, opening it to reveal a room awash in green glow.
  1478. ‘She didn’t waste time in getting this old lab up and running again,’ you think as you follow them inside.
  1479. >The tables and shelves are lined with vats, bottles, alembics and vials of various liquids, many of them filled with some variation of her reagent.
  1480. >”Woah,” Flash says, approaching some of the beakers. “This is amazing. I feel like I’m in a mad scientist’s lab!”
  1481. >”Flattering,” Twilight says as she approaches a microscope. She sets down the cup and prepares a few things as she says, “Don’t touch anything, if you please. Lots of this equipment is very sensitive.”
  1482. “Yeah, and you don’t want to make her angry. She’s got stuff in here that turns her into a monster when she gets angry.”
  1483. >”Seriously?” he asks.
  1484. >Twilight rolls her eyes and goes about preparing a viewing sample on a plastic palette.
  1485. >You watch Flash as he approaches the opposite wall, where the ghost containment unit is stored.
  1486. >He reaches up to inspect some of the buttons, but you catch his hand and stop him.
  1487. “Trust me. Of all the things in here, you don’t want to touch that.”
  1488. >”Sorry. There’s just so much stuff in here, it’s hard not to be curious.”
  1489. “Well, that’s where we store excess ghost hunting equipment,” you point at a few lockers. “This is where we store the ghosts,” you indicate the unit. You then point at the freezer. “And that’s where Twilight keeps her dead bodies.”
  1490. >”Which I don’t have anymore, incidentally,” Twilight points out. “It’s proven to be too much of a hazard to keep corpses around my reagent.”
  1491. “You could say that again,” you mutter.
  1492. >”So… This stuff makes zombies?”
  1493. >”Only under very specific circumstances!” she is quick to defend herself, even though he doesn’t understand the context.
  1494.  
  1495. “And only once every year or so.”
  1496. >”Anon!”
  1497. >You shrug as Flash asks, “Wait, what?”
  1498. >You’re about to explain, but then Twilight says, “I need concentration, please! No more distractions or talking about past misuses of my reagent, okay?”
  1499. >She then busies herself with examining things under the microscope.
  1500. “I’ll explain later,” you tell him.
  1501. >Just then, there is a knock at the cellar door, which echoes into the lab.
  1502. >Four slow knocks, just like you did.
  1503. “I’ll get it.” You look at Flash and say, “Don’t break anything and cause an apocalypse while I’m gone.”
  1504. >”Hey, I’m not touching a thing in here, I got it.”
  1505. >Approaching the door, you unlock it to let the others inside.
  1506. >Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, the lattermost of whom pushes past to get in the lab first without a hello.
  1507. “Rainbow, you shouldn’t---“
  1508. >”Yeah, that’s nice Anon.”
  1509. >She enters the lab, and a moment later you hear her again.
  1510. >”What the hell are YOU doing here?!”
  1511. >”I wasn’t touching anything!” Flash insists.
  1512. >The others all curiously follow as you walk inside, closing the door behind you.
  1513. >”Hello everyone,” Twilight says, not looking up from her microscope. “Flash is here.”
  1514.  
  1515. >”Seriously, what’s going on?” Dash demands to know. “What is Flash of all people doing here?”
  1516. You fold your arms and lean up against the wall. “Yes, Flash, please explain now that we’re all here.”
  1517. >He looks at them all as they stare at him. “Aw, come on man, don’t make me do this.”
  1518. “If you’re going to be one of us, the first thing you need to learn is that we don’t keep secrets from each other.”
  1519. >”Wait, he’s going to be a member?” Rarity asks.
  1520. >”Why?” AJ follows up.
  1521. “Flash?” you deflect their questions back towards him.
  1522. >He gulps and straightens his jacket.
  1523. >”I, um… Anon’s a werewolf.”
  1524. >Dash slaps her face. “One day back and he’s already screwed up.”
  1525. “Hey, this was NOT my fault,” you say, somewhat defensive. “Now Flash, tell them how you learned about me, or I’ll do it, and I won’t make it pretty.”
  1526. >”Fine. I shot Anon.”
  1527. “With?”
  1528. >”With a shotgun.”
  1529. “And why?”
  1530. >”Because I thought he was a fake Anon coming to kill me so I tried to kill him first.”
  1531. “There, see? That wasn’t so crazy. I mean it sounds crazy, sure, but we’ve had worse.”
  1532. >”So you shot him?” AJ asks. “With what kind of rounds?”
  1533. >”Uh… shotgun shells?”
  1534. >”I mean what were in ‘em? Any silver, or holy water, or flame rounds?”
  1535. >”Uh… No?”
  1536. >She tips her hat and shakes her head. “Amateur monster hunters, I swear…”
  1537. “Go easy on the guy. He was as ready as he could be; he came at me with a machete, an axe, a baseball bat… He’s a decent puncher, too. Not as good as me, but we can get him there. And he needs some work on his one-liners…”
  1538. >"Hey, man, I don't need any more shit about that. It sounded cool at the time, alright?"
  1539. >"The hell are you two on about?" AJ asks.
  1540.  
  1541. >”Woah, woah, back up a minute,” Dash says as she holds up her hands. “You thought he was a ‘fake?’ How and why did you get that idea?”
  1542. >Flash leans over the table he’s standing behind and quickly lays it all out.
  1543. >”Because something is happening in this town! People are disappearing and when they come back, they’re not the same. They act strange, they gather in strange groups and something about them is just… off!”
  1544. >Applejack puts her hands on her hips. “Like what?”
  1545. >”I… I can’t really explain it. It’s subtle. Whatever’s going on, it’s hard to explain.” He stands back and rubs a hand through his hair. “Nobody noticed the pattern until kids in school started talking about their parents disappearing. They’d always come back with excuses: a sudden trip to Vegas, a family emergency, ‘I just had to get away for a few days’ and stuff. And none of these things are looked into by the cops or anybody. And strangers around town...”
  1546. >”I’m still not hearing much proof,” AJ replies. “Look, I don’t mean to play devil’s advocate, but what if this is all just a series of coincidences? How do we really know something is happening?”
  1547. >”I don’t have any proof… just a feeling.” When that doesn’t seem to win over any hearts, he says, “But it’s a STRONG feeling. It’s not just adults, either---Caramel was still going to school. He was telling me about---“
  1548. >”Excuse me, but what’s this about Caramel?” Rarity asks, interrupting him. “Twilight mentioned him as well.”
  1549.  
  1550. “We might not have proof, but we know one thing: Caramel, and his parents apparently, are gone. He was at the barbeque and talked to me. He told me not to trust anyone in town, but that since we were away, we were safe from whatever’s been happening---that’s why he confided in me in the first place. Then I went to his home, found it boarded up from the inside, like windows nailed shut, but he was gone. His scent was strong, so he had been there, but he wasn’t when I got there. So now, he’s missing.”
  1551. >”He was part of a group I’ve been a part of for the last few weeks,” Flash explains. “It’s made up of students who have noticed what’s been going on. Octavia, she’s in it---she’s got a chart she’s been working on that can explain all of this way better than I could. But I’m getting off-point: Caramel contacted me and said ‘they’ were coming for him. That’s the last we heard of him.”
  1552. “That’s when I went to his house and he shot me,” you add.
  1553. >”Wait, wait, wait,” Applejack says, taking off her hat. “Let’s say, for the moment, that the thing Celestia told you and me was wrong: that Caramel’s parents aren’t going through a rough patch, that he isn’t crackin’ under the pressure. If so, what are we talkin’ about? I mean, what are we REALLY talkin’ about? If people around town are being replaced, why? And by what?”
  1554. >”ALIENS!” Pinkie Pie exclaims. “It has to be!”
  1555. >”Come now dear, be serious,” Rarity replies.
  1556. >”Think about it! It has to be aliens!” Pinkie runs around the table, to Flash’s side. “They’re invading, and taking over the town! It’s just like in those old movies!”
  1557. >”That’s plum ridiculous,” AJ says, her voice heavy with doubt.
  1558. >”Is it?” Fluttershy asks. “I mean, we’ve seen some very strange things, so… why can’t it be aliens?”
  1559.  
  1560. >”We deal with threats of the Earth,” AJ replies. “Sometimes things from elsewhere get in, but everything we’ve ever seen, everything we’ve ever fought has been of the Earth. I don’t believe in aliens.”
  1561. >”Oh, come ON!” Pinkie shouts. “How can you NOT? Do you know how many billions and billions and billions of planets there are in our galaxy ALONE?”
  1562. >Twilight looks up from the microscope. “Roughly one-hundred billion.”
  1563. >”RIGHT, THAT MANY!” Pinkie waves her hands. “With those odds, there HAS to be alien life!”
  1564. >”Well, the odds are actually very narrow,” Twilight points out. “There are many competing theories about the viability of a planet’s habitability zone being concurrent with---“
  1565. >”Hold it,” AJ cuts her off. “Not that your rant wouldn’t be inerestin’ an’ all, Twilight, but come on now. Aliens?” She looks back at Pinkie and places her hat on the table. “So you’re tellin’ me that honest-ta-god alien life came to Earth, landed here, and are replacin’ people in town for an invasion?”
  1566. >Pinkie taps her fingers together. “Well, when you put it like that, it sounds kind of silly… But that’s EXACTLY what I’m saying!”
  1567. Before anyone can reply, you raise a hand. “Strictly speaking, we’ve dealt with things not ‘from’ Earth before. Sunset once told me about all the extraplaner life she’s read about in the Necronomicon and other books. We all know that magic is real, and other dimensions are; what is a being from another dimension if not technically an alien, at least to our prime reality?”
  1568. >”Now you’re just arguin’ semantics,” she says, waving away the notion. “Besides, what kind of aliens are we even talkin’ about? Little green men in UFO’s?”
  1569. >”Now, now, darling, let’s not rule it out solely on that basis,” Rarity says. “They could be aliens, but not as we know them. What if they're... shapeshifters?”
  1570. >”Are you on their side now?” AJ asks her.
  1571.  
  1572. >”Why do we have to be on sides?” Flash asks. “Can’t we just recognize that there is a problem and go after it?”
  1573. >Everyone is quiet for a moment.
  1574. “He’s got a point, surprisingly,” you nod at him. “Caramel is gone. Something may or may not be going on in the town. We need to find him, and if there really is something strange or alien going on---and I’m not saying it’s aliens---but the trail will pick up with him.”
  1575. >”On that note,” Twilight says, walking over with the sample, “this doesn’t help us any.”
  1576. >”Nothing?” Flash asks, somewhat dejected.
  1577. >”As far as I can tell, it’s some kind of mucus. But from what, I can’t tell.”
  1578. >Rainbow chuckles. “So someone sneezed on the crime scene and that’s our only clue?”
  1579. >”I don’t think it is snot, based on the smell alone. But I’ll need to analyze it further.”
  1580. “Damn. I was hoping that would lead us to the next step… This means that we’ll have to find him the old-fashioned way.”
  1581. >Rainbow Dash cracks her knuckles. “Let’s get to it, then!”
  1582. “Wait,” you say, stalling them. “First thing’s first. I said earlier that we don’t keep secrets from each other, so that means Flash is going to need to learn a few things about us.”
  1583. >Everyone looks at him as his eyes drift from one person to the next.
  1584. >Pinkie Pie raises her hand. “Oh! Oh! Me first!” She clears her throat. “I don’t have anything special, really, but I do have a super-duper pet named Gummy! He’s a precambodian life form!”
  1585. >”Precambrian,” Twilight corrects her. “It means he predates the modern fossil record.”
  1586. >”He’s missing a link!” Pinkie exclaims.
  1587. >”No, he’s A missing link. Between humans and fish.”
  1588. >”He likes to eat birthday cake!”
  1589.  
  1590. >”Well, that’s technically true.” Twilight sets down her sample. “I’m sure you can guess what I contribute to the team, Flash. I deal in the science of what we do, and design most of our gear. I also have, on occasion, reanimated dead bodies. For science.”
  1591. >”And I work with Twilight, usually,” Rarity says. “I… suppose that I used to dig up dead bodies, chop them up and stitch them back together, but I haven’t done that since we made Spike.”
  1592. >Flash’s eyes go wide. “Uh… Spike?”
  1593. >Twilight coughs. ”You’ll meet him later. He’s watching cartoons upstairs.”
  1594. >Rainbow unslings a guitar case from her back and opens it up.
  1595. >Inside is not a guitar, but a sword, which she holds up.
  1596. >”Behold, Flash---when I draw this blade, I grow an awesome pair of wings and become a living Valkyrie!”
  1597. >”That sounds cool! Can I see?”
  1598. >”Erm, not here. My wings would probably knock over all of Twilight’s beakers and junk.”
  1599. >”Thank you,” Twilight replies.
  1600. >”Hey, what are friends for, right?”
  1601. >Fluttershy now speaks up. “And, um… Well…”
  1602. >She opens her mouth, revealing a set of sharp fangs to Flash.
  1603. >He reacts in shock, stepping backwards. “You’re a… A…”
  1604. “Don’t act so surprised, you’ve seen them before,” you chuckle.
  1605. >He tears his eyes away from her to you. “Wh-what?”
  1606. “Oh. Right. Your memory was wiped but Fluttershy once bit you.”
  1607. >”Anon!” Fluttershy protests, her face growing red.
  1608. >”Wh-what?!” Flash stammers. “What are you talking about?”
  1609. “Well, that’s kind of a long story… Sit down, buddy, you might need it for this.”
  1610. >You walk over to him and put a hand on his shoulder as he sits and prepares.
  1611. “You see, Flash… Once upon a time, you were bitten by Fluttershy and your memory was wiped.”
  1612. >”…That didn’t tell me anything!”
  1613.  
  1614. “I know man, I’m just messing with you. It actually all coincided with the attack by a cult of werewolves who tried to bring about the Norse apocalypse by spreading chaos and resurrecting an army of the dead in order to enact a ritual to free a giant wolf from his chains and have his son swallow the moon. There’s some more details that I’m leaving out, like a trio of werecat witches and a wendigo, but honestly there was a lot going on. And that's not even getting into the year before that! The point is that the town was destroyed and Principal Celestia and Vice Principal Luna used their psychic powers to convince everyone that a tornado hit the town instead of, you know, all of that other stuff. That’s why you don’t remember Fluttershy biting you, even though she did. For what it’s worth, I’m sure that she’s sorry.” You look back. “Right?”
  1615. >”Yes… I’m very sorry about that.”
  1616. >He blinks a few times as he attempts to digest all the information you just fed him.
  1617. You slap his shoulder. “So, any questions?”
  1618. >His mouth opens and closes several times as he stares, dumbfounded.
  1619. “Is that a no?”
  1620.  
  1621. >”I, uh, I need a minute,” he says, standing up and walking over to a wall.
  1622. >He puts a hand on it to steady himself.
  1623. >In the meantime, you look back at the others.
  1624. “So, we spread out. Search the town. Sooner or later, we’ll find him, or someone who knows what happened to him.” You look back at him and ask, “You think your friends in that group would be willing to help?”
  1625. >”Yeah… Yeah, of course,” he nods. “I’ll let them know what happened and maybe we can all get together or something. But we need to keep this secret!”
  1626. >”We always do,” Applejack says. “Hell, my family’s been huntin’ monsters in Canterlot for generations, ain’t nobody ever spilt the beans until we all teamed up.”
  1627. >”You don’t understand; we don’t KNOW who could and could not be in on it. Your parents, the postman, the police, hell maybe even the mayor---they could all be in on it.”
  1628. >”That’s a little TOO paranoid, don’t you think?” Rainbow asks.
  1629. >”I’m just asking you to please not trust anyone in town. I think I can trust all of you because you haven’t been here, and it’s because of that we shouldn’t go anywhere alone.”
  1630. >”We can handle ourselves, thanks,” Dash says.
  1631. >”He may have a point,” Twilight says to her. “We should all stay with at least one other member of the group and keep up communications.”
  1632. >”Slumber party?” Pinkie asks in a hopeful voice.
  1633. >”Yes, Pinkie, that means a slumber party.”
  1634. >”Yippie~!”
  1635. >Fluttershy strokes a lock of her hair and says, “Well, we could all stay at my place… it’s far enough out of town that it would minimize the risk of… whatever it is we’re talking about.”
  1636. >”Until disproven, it’s aliens!” Pinkie insists.
  1637. “So… Break, then? Let’s hunt down Caramel.”
  1638. >”Wait!” Pinkie says, suddenly shifting gears again. “We need a password!”
  1639. >Rarity is confused. “Wait, for what?”
  1640.  
  1641. >”For in case one of us is replaced by the aliens, doy!” Pinkie thinks for a moment. “It needs to be something that never comes up in normal conversation… I GOT IT! Dildos!”
  1642. >Rainbow smacks a hand over her face. “Really, Pinkie?”
  1643. >Pinkie sticks out her tongue. “Oh really? How often do YOU have a conversation about dildos, huh?”
  1644. >”Really, must we be vulgar about it?” Rarity says.
  1645. “How about ‘dolphin’ then?” you ask. “We never talk about dolphins.”
  1646. >Pinkie nods, her wild hair poofing out a bit. ”Good point! And it sounds like dildo, kind of! In that they both start with D!”
  1647. >”So long as it isn’t dildo dolphin, I’m good,” Rainbow says.
  1648. >Flash takes out his phone. “So… Can I get all your numbers, ladies?”
  1649. >”Smooth,” AJ says, and Rarity giggles.
  1650. >”For the mission!” Flash insists. “Really, I mean it!”
  1651. >After a round of everyone giving him their number, and him theirs, they all confer on a few last-minute details.
  1652. >It’s decided that you will temporarily hang out with Flash and that they will all stay at each other’s homes in teams of two or three.
  1653. >When everyone leaves for the night, with the understanding that tomorrow they will begin searching the town in teams, you stop and pull Rainbow off to the side, behind Twilight’s house where you can be alone.
  1654. >Now that you finally have a chance to talk to her, you’re going to take it.
  1655.  
  1656. >Slightly annoyed, she says, “What? What is it?”
  1657. “I’ve been trying to talk to you,” you tell her. “It’s been on my mind a lot lately.”
  1658. >”Has it? I haven’t noticed.”
  1659. “Come on, Rainbow. I’m trying to apologize here.”
  1660. >That seems to have caught her attention, but she’s no less skeptical. “Really? Now? Maybe you’ve already been replaced by an alien.”
  1661. “I’m serious. I want this hostility between us to end.”
  1662. >”Well, I’m ready for your apology. I’ll see how I’m feeling at the end of it.”
  1663. >She folds her arms and waits.
  1664. You take a deep breath and say, “I’m sorry.”
  1665. >A few seconds of silence pass between the two of you.
  1666. >”…And? Is that it? Seriously, dude?”
  1667. “Well, I am! I am sorry!”
  1668. >”For WHAT?” she nearly shouts. “Come on, out with it!”
  1669. “For what I said, obviously!” you reply, growing a bit irritated. “I’m sorry for what I said, okay?”
  1670. >”You think this kind of apology is going to make things better?” She rubs her face and groans. “I can’t believe this.”
  1671. “Alright, just… Let’s back up.” You bring up your hands and then lower them, taking another deep breath as you do. “I’ve been going through some things lately and I got angry at you. I shouldn’t have and I said some things I never meant to say.”
  1672. >She is still for a few moments, but then relents. “Well, that’s better than the first try…”
  1673. >Her expression softens and she says, “Look… Anon, I know most of the things you’re going to say. I know you’re sorry, I know you didn’t mean it, I know you can be kind of a pigheaded moron numbskull---“
  1674. “I wasn’t going to say any of that last part!”
  1675.  
  1676. >”Oh. Well, anyway, I know you didn’t really mean it, what you said that night. Truth is… I’ve kind of been wanting to apologize too.”
  1677. “Really? For what? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
  1678. >”Well, yeah, I have been. When we fought, I should’ve, I don’t know, stuck with you even though you said that stuff. I know you’ve been having trouble lately, with that snarling bastard inside of you, so I should’ve, I dunno… have been there for you, I guess.”
  1679. >She rubs her arm and looks away sheepishly.
  1680. >”I just got angry, too.”
  1681. “So… What now?”
  1682. >”I don’t know. I mean, I still like you, I do… even if you can be an idiot sometimes… but I don’t really know where we’re at.”
  1683. “I, uh… I mean, I wouldn’t mind just kind of going back to the way things were.”
  1684. >”Do you really? I mean, with all that stuff that’s happening to you?”
  1685. >That gives you pause and you step back.
  1686. “Well, now that you mention it…”
  1687. >She folds her arms again. “Thought so.”
  1688. >Having been baited into the trap, you are quick to defend yourself.
  1689. “No, wait, that’s not what I meant. It’s just that---“
  1690. >”It’s just that it’s still the same as last year,” she interrupts you. “You’re still afraid of doing the stuff we talked about doing because I could get hurt, so it’s better to do nothing at all, right? Because you’re still afraid of living life to its fullest like we both said we wanted to!”
  1691.  
  1692. “That’s NOT what I said.”
  1693. >”But it’s what you meant.”
  1694. Your hand scratches the back of your head in frustration. “Look, Rainbow, I just want to get the damn Wolf back under control before I commit to anything! Alright?! Is that too damn much to ask?”
  1695. >That disarms her a bit, making her back off.
  1696. “Sorry.”
  1697. >”No, I get it. It’s cool, really. I mean, I just pull out a sword and get these badass wings, but you’ve got this whole other thing you have to deal with.”
  1698. >She’s quiet for a moment, giving you some time to calm down.
  1699. “Thanks. I just… I’m going crazy, Dash. I don’t know what it is.”
  1700. >Her face grows concerned, and you see the part of her that wants to be with you resurface.
  1701. >”Are you going to need my help?”
  1702. >You look into her eyes, but when you do, for some reason all you can see is the visage of her corpse, floating in the air, the ghost that she once was, because of you.
  1703. “…No.”
  1704. >She steps back, her voice betraying the hurt she feels.
  1705. >”So… What, then? Are we still just on a break?”
  1706. “It’s… Not you. It’s me.”
  1707. >”That’s an old line if ever I heard one.”
  1708. “Yeah, well, it’s true.” You stop for a moment and look around at the sky, seeing the setting sun over the rooftops paint it orange. “And maybe it isn’t just me, too.”
  1709. >”What? What are you trying to say, exactly?”
  1710. “I’m talking about what month it is. I know I seemed a little paranoid before but there’s something legitimately strange going on around here. Look… I don’t want to use what could be going on right now as an excuse for us to be, you know, apart… but maybe we just keep it easy until we learn what’s really going on?”
  1711. >”And then what?”
  1712.  
  1713. “And then I’ll see how I feel. And you see how you feel.”
  1714. >”I already know how I feel,” she says. “I want ‘us’ to work, but I can’t just keep giving and giving without getting anything in return, Anon. I need to know if you’re ready for us to go even further beyond.” She pauses for a moment and adds, “I need to know if you care as much as I do.”
  1715. >You step back and put an arm on a nearby tree.
  1716. “I don’t know if I can do that right now.”
  1717. >She shifts onto one foot. “Boy, Anon. You sure do know how to make a girl feel special.”
  1718. >You hold up your hands an offer an apologetic shrug.
  1719. “That’s all I can do right now. I’m sorry.”
  1720. >”Yeah, you said that. I know.”
  1721. >She walks past you and back to the front, where she gets into her car and drives behind Fluttershy to stay at her house.
  1722. >You remain in the back for a moment, leaning against the tree, before punching it in frustration.
  1723. ‘Damn it all.’
  1724. >That didn’t exactly go as you wanted it to, but then again, with how you’re feeling and everything that’s going on, how well could it have gone?
  1725. >You walk up to Flash, who is quiet up until you move to get into his car.
  1726. >”You alright?”
  1727. “Fine.”
  1728.  
  1729.  
  1730. >He smirks and elbows you in the ribs. ”Bitches, huh?”
  1731. You pause. “Right.”
  1732. >”Yeah, tell me about it, man. Me, I’ve been trying to just keep it cool, right? But these crazy chicks, they just---”
  1733. “Drive your damn car, Flash.”
  1734. >”Oh, sorry.” He quickly gets in and starts it up while you buckle up. “So… Any ideas on where to begin?”
  1735. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that chart you mentioned Octavia was making.”
  1736. >”Right. I’ll contact her tonight. There was going to be a meeting, but I cancelled it when Caramel sent me that message. I’ll set something up for tomorrow, how’s that?”
  1737. “Should be fine.”
  1738. >”Yeah, cool. I’m really glad you guys are helping. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was freaked out for minute there but I feel a lot better now.”
  1739. “Well, just don’t forget that you shot me, and that’s why you know.”
  1740. >He rolls his eyes. “How can I forget if you keep reminding me? Look bro, I said I was sorry.”
  1741. “You really can’t just say that about shooting a man, Flash. You SHOT me.” You look out the window and smirk. “But hey, I forgave Sunset for stabbing me, so maybe if you survive long enough you’ll get there.”
  1742. >”What do you mean, IF I survive? You saw how good I was back at the house.”
  1743. “I saw an idea of how good you could be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you’re quite there yet. You need some time battling the supernatural before you’re an action movie hero, buddy.”
  1744. >”Well, just you wait and see. When we find whatever this is, I’m going to kick its ass and smoke it like grass.”
  1745. “And you need to work on your one-liners…”
  1746. >Soon enough, you’re at Flash’s place, ready to help him clean up the remainder of the mess left from earlier and then sleep.
  1747. >Tomorrow, the search begins.
  1748.  
  1749. >The next day, you begin coordinating with Flash, his allies and your team to search the town for Caramel.
  1750. >As your friends begin to look around, you meet up with the pseudo-underground-resistance that Flash has been leading to get a look at this graph.
  1751. >They have been meeting in an abandoned farmhouse on the edge of town; a secret knock is required for entrance.
  1752. >You are introduced to them: Octavia, Thunderlane, Blossomforth, Lyra and Bon Bon.
  1753. >Their hideout is fairly barren, but they have a table that you all gather around with a map of the town on it.
  1754. >The walls are also plastered with newspaper articles, printouts from online articles and photographs.
  1755. >Octavia, a very bright student and a British transfer, has put together a chart of teachers and other faculty members and their relations to one another.
  1756. >The chart, a series of lines and circles with a few pictures, deals with who they have been interacting with as of late.
  1757. >Unfortunately, it doesn't give you many clues; all it seems to indicate is that recently there have been more instances of teachers meeting outside of school than usual.
  1758. >But at the same time, it also doesn't prove that anything sinister is going on underneath it all.
  1759. >However, one small detail that the others can corroborate is that they have all seen strangers in town lately; in particular, a man in a suit with a briefcase.
  1760. >Blossomforth got a very good look at him one day when she was coming home from a yoga class.
  1761. >"He's got a super-creepy face, all pale skin and bright-eyed, with slick-back hair and stuff."
  1762. "Did you get a good look at him, up close?"
  1763. >"No. He was at the end of the street, and when I saw him, he walked around the corner and left. But I know he saw me looking at him."
  1764. "Have any of you gone to the police about this man?"
  1765. >They all shake their heads.
  1766.  
  1767. >"The cops are in on it," Lyra says, walking forward with a series of clipped articles. "Here, look at these."
  1768. >You take them in hand and look them over.
  1769. "Mayor approves new extension to sewers. Local library renovated. Supermarket blowout sale breaks records. Investigation into plane crashes continues." You set them down. "I'm sorry, but is there a pattern here I'm not seeing?"
  1770. >"Those are all headlines, and nothing about people in town disappearing. Nobody's reporting it, nobody's investigating it!"
  1771. >Flash walks around the table. "When we first started, we tried going to the police and the mayor's office, but got turned away. They always say 'oh, we'll send a unit' or 'we're still looking into it' but they're lying."
  1772. >Bon Bon throws in, "I once spent a whole day following a police car in secret. All it did was go around town, doing nothing."
  1773. "I believe that's called a patrol."
  1774. >"That's not the point!" she insists. "Nobody is doing anything about these disappearances and nobody seems to want to talk about them."
  1775. "It's not that I don't believe you, I do. I was there in Caramel's house, I know he's gone. But we just don't have any kind of solid lead we can use right now."
  1776. >"That's why we need to start searching the town in sections," Octavia says. "We work a grid and find him."
  1777. >She takes out a ruler and some red markers and starts drawing on the town map.
  1778.  
  1779. >As she does this, Flash takes you off to the side and whispers.
  1780. >"Is there anything you can do to help find him? I mean, special powers, you know."
  1781. "I have a good sense of smell. It's how I found him originally. But unless I pick up his scent again, it's not going to work."
  1782. >He nods and turns back to the table with you as Octavia finishes with the map.
  1783. >You snap a picture of it and send it to the others to give them an idea of where to begin.
  1784. "So, is it just us in this?" he asks. "Do you have anyone else?"
  1785. >"Yes," Octavia replies. "Vinyl."
  1786. "Who?"
  1787. >"She was that girl who was always on her headphones," Flash explains.
  1788. "Ah, right."
  1789. >"She has a radio station that she runs out of her home. It’s kind of a podcast-thing. Most of the kids at the school still tune into it, and we’ve been trying to get her to spread information around with it and clue the others in.”
  1790. “Right, because the news isn’t doing it, right?”
  1791. >”Exactly!” Octavia turns back to the map while you and Flash walk towards the exit.
  1792. >”So, what’s first? Uptown, downtown, public parks?”
  1793. >You pause at the door in thought before making up your mind.
  1794. “Let the others stick to the grid for now. I have an idea of where I want to begin.”
  1795. >Several minutes later, the two of you pull up in his car in the morgue parking lot.
  1796. >”What are we doing here? You don’t think he’s dead, do you?”
  1797. “Look Flash, I’ve been around the block a few times. Trust me on this: when something supernatural is going on, the morgue is always involved.”
  1798. >The two of you approach the front door.
  1799. “Now then: you go in there and distract the workers. I’m going to sneak into the back and check on the dead bodies.”
  1800.  
  1801. >”I really don’t know what you’re looking for here, man.”
  1802. “I just want to rule a few things out. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
  1803. >Flash takes you up on your word and enters while you circle around to the back.
  1804. >There is a fence here, which is easy enough to hop over.
  1805. >You sneak up to a window and peer inside at a sterile examination room.
  1806. >With nobody in sight, you walk up to the door and try it; locked.
  1807. >Back to the window, then.
  1808. >Using your hands, you dig your fingers into the wood, allowing you to pry it open.
  1809. >From here, you carefully climb inside, finding yourself in an empty room with a stretcher in the center.
  1810. ‘Now, let’s see who died recently…’
  1811. >You sneak up to the wall lockers that hold the corpses and open the first one, only to find that it is empty.
  1812. >The second one, too, is empty.
  1813. >And the third.
  1814. >Soon enough you’ve searched every single one and they are all empty.
  1815. ‘I guess it’s a slow time for business,’ you think. ‘Still, strange that there isn’t a single body here…’
  1816. >Furthermore, this examination room looks like it hasn’t been used for a while.
  1817. >The instruments, all laid out neatly and ready for use, are covered with dust.
  1818. >A shelf containing substances like embalming fluids and preservatives is similarly untouched.
  1819. >A noise nearby alerts you to footsteps that are growing louder.
  1820.  
  1821. >Thinking quickly, you hop into a nearby closet, leaving the door cracked open only slightly.
  1822. >The morgue worker comes back and looks around, scanning his eyes across the entire room.
  1823. >He fixates on the open window, and then approaches it to investigate.
  1824. >You watch from the narrow crack in the door as he wipes a finger across the windowsill, then checks the dust, carefully observing every little detail that he can.
  1825. >He turns back to the rest of the room, now seemingly more suspicious, as he approaches the wall lockers.
  1826. >Slowly, he opens them, looking inside, as if he were searching for someone---like an intruder.
  1827. >You prepare to defend yourself if he comes to search the closet, stepping back slightly and nearly bumping into something.
  1828. >You turn and come face-to-face with a skeleton, staring at you with empty sockets.
  1829. >It takes a moment for you to realize that it is nothing more than a medical dummy hanging on a rack.
  1830. >Though you made no noise, the man outside in the room is getting closer.
  1831. >As he stands outside the closer, reaching for the doorknob, the office phone rings.
  1832. >He turns to the red phone on the wall and walks over to pick it up.
  1833. >”Hello? …No. It was nothing. Have you received the latest shipment? Good. I’ll keep you informed.”
  1834. >He hangs up without saying goodbye and then approaches the sink.
  1835. >You watch as he turns it on, putting his hand under the water and cupping it before bringing it up to his mouth to drink.
  1836. >He does this several times, and seems to take great enjoyment from it; he sighs deeply as he is rehydrated.
  1837. >The sink is turned off before he leaves the room, and a few seconds after he does so, you prepare to leave yourself.
  1838. >After hearing his footsteps vanish down the hallway, you leave the closet and make for the window, all but diving out of it.
  1839. >Back outside, you scale the fence and meet Flash in the back.
  1840.  
  1841. >”Dude, what happened? Everything alright?”
  1842. You straighten your collar. “Fine. Almost got caught. Weird thing---there were no bodies in there.”
  1843. >”None? At all? Did you check the basement?”
  1844. “No I didn’t check the basement; who keeps bodies in their basement?” You pause for a moment. “Who other than Twilight keeps bodies in their basement?”
  1845. >”I don’t know. Chill.”
  1846. “The point is that all of the lockers were empty, completely empty.”
  1847. >You look around and spy a newspaper stand and run over to it with him following.
  1848. “You have change?”
  1849. >”Uh, yeah, I think so, hang on…”
  1850. >He begins riffling through his many pockets on his jacket.
  1851. >”Hang on, I know I do. Let me just…”
  1852. >He unzips an inner pocket as you tap your foot on the ground impatiently.
  1853. >”Ah-hah! Told you.” He takes out several coins and you snatch them from him, depositing them in the machine.
  1854. >You open it and grab a paper before searching through its pages.
  1855. >Flash, meanwhile, walks over to a nearby garbage bin and picks up a discarded paper.
  1856. >”You owe me some quarters,” he says with a smile.
  1857. “Look at this,” you say, holding up the obituaries. “Six deaths in the past month, and three of them are due for funerals that haven't happened yet.”
  1858.  
  1859. >”So… it would stand to reason that those bodies should be in that morgue, right?”
  1860. “It would.”
  1861. >”Maybe they’re at another morgue?”
  1862. “There’s only one in town.”
  1863. >”Or at the hospital?”
  1864. “Or they’re not fucking HERE, Flash. The guy in there got a phone call and mentioned something about ‘shipments’ to whoever was on the other line. I think he might have been talking about bodies.”
  1865. >”So… What do we do, then?”
  1866. “Twilight developed a tracking device and we once used it to hunt down some swamp monsters in Florida. We can tag the back of the van and wait for it to move.”
  1867. >Flash nods as you both walk back to his car.
  1868. >”So… This has been interesting and all, but was any of it related to Caramel? Got any other weird ideas on where to search?”
  1869. “I’d like to hit up the hospital, just to double-check,” you reply. “Let’s go.”
  1870. >”This isn’t going to be another thing where I distract people, is it?”
  1871. “Actually, about that…”
  1872. >Less than half an hour later, you’re pulled over in an alleyway not far from the hospital and punching Flash in the face.
  1873. >”Are you sure---this is really---necessary?”
  1874. “You’ve still got at least thirty punches before I begin to forgive you for shooting me,” you reply. “Besides, I’m just trying to make you look hurt, not ACTUALLY hurt you.”
  1875. >You give him another good punch in the face before he holds up a hand.
  1876. >”Okay, hang on, truce for like five minutes.”
  1877. >He rubs his bruised cheek; his eyebrow is split and bleeding.
  1878. >You lean your back against the alley wall and shake your hand.
  1879. >”Can I at least hit you a few times?”
  1880.  
  1881. “Sure,” you smile and stick out your chin. “Give it your best shot. Go on.”
  1882. >"I ain't gonna hold back on this one."
  1883. "I'm shaking. Really."
  1884. >Flash rubs his arm across his lips, taking away from blood from his nose, as he gets ready to lay you out.
  1885. ‘Not that he could,’ you think with a shit-eating grin.
  1886. >He curls his hand into a fist and gets a determined look in his eyes.
  1887. >When the punch comes, it is sudden and fierce, and next thing you know, you’re sent reeling from it and are on the ground.
  1888. >Your eyes widen and blink in surprise; you honestly didn’t see that coming.
  1889. >Flash’s hand is once more in your vision, only this time he is reaching down to help you up.
  1890. >You grab it and he pulls you up, whereupon you both start slowly laughing.
  1891. >Soon enough you’re leaning over your knees as Flash leans against the wall, both of you chuckling like idiots.
  1892. “Good one,” you earnestly compliment him. “I was getting a little bit too cocky there.”
  1893. >”A little?” he laughs.
  1894. >You straighten and let out a breath before looking out of the alley at the hospital.
  1895. “Alright. We’re going to stumble into the emergency room, me holding you like you were just in an accident or something. The doctors will take you, and I’ll split off and search.”
  1896. >”You think they’ll give me any sweet drugs?” he asks.
  1897. “Well, only if you’ve been a good boy this year. Now come on, let’s go.”
  1898. >The plan works flawlessly, if you say so yourself.
  1899. >You drag Flash through the emergency room doors and shout for help.
  1900.  
  1901.  
  1902. >Nurses and a doctor come to attend to him, checking his vitals as you explain he was just in a car crash.
  1903. >For his part, Flash plays up the pain he is feeling.
  1904. >While he won’t win any Academy Awards with moaning and groaning like that, he certainly looks the part of someone injured.
  1905. >As they take him away, you slip into a closet and close the door, waiting a few moments for the nurses to pass by.
  1906. >When this is done, you leave and begin stalking through the halls, carefully avoiding anyone else by hearing or smelling them in advance.
  1907. >When you do detect someone, you try to hide in a room or take another hallway.
  1908. >At one point, when there is no other place to hide, you leap up to the ceiling and push against the walls to remain there as a doctor leaves a room, his face too buried in a clipboard to notice you.
  1909. >You eventually make it to the lower levels of the hospital, where you begin to search for bodies.
  1910. >But much like the morgue, all you find is a whole lot of nothing.
  1911. >Cadaver examination rooms are barren and there seem to be no bodies to be found, no matter where you look.
  1912. >There is something, however; you hear a television playing in the janitor’s break room.
  1913. >A single janitor sits, transfixed by the screen, eyes all but glued to it.
  1914. >It seems to be that television show that was mentioned at the barbeque; ‘Time for Thought with Dr. Turner.’
  1915. >On this episode, Dr. Samuel Turner is examining the psychosis of sleep deprivation and the phenomenon of insomnia.
  1916. >As you push open the door ever-so-softly, you watch and listen.
  1917. >”What is remarkable is that human beings, because we are so self-aware, are one of the few species on earth who choose when and when not to sleep. While all beings sleep, this is true, animals never stop to consider it outside of their biologically programmed routines. For them, sleep is just another part of life---and while the same is true for us, many of us can come to see sleep as a burden of sorts.”
  1918.  
  1919. >The screen changes to show a sleeping figure, eventually zooming in on her head, which turns into a 3D graphic of a brain.
  1920. >The doctor’s voice returns in narration.
  1921. >”We spend much of our lives asleep; in a very generalized figure, roughly 30% of our lives is spent in this state. Imagine that: almost a third of your life. All that time that could be spent honing a new skill, exercising, reading, living. That’s what some people come to see sleep as. I personally find this to be a rather cynical point of view: focusing purely on the ‘time lost’ rather than seeing it as time gained, for without sleep we wouldn’t be able to do any of those things.”
  1922. >The camera zooms in more upon the brain, focusing on the neurons, which light up like Christmas lights.
  1923. >”What is important to understand is that sleep is a rejuvenating process. It is a healthy thing, something that refreshes and renews the mind for another day. We’ve all had days where we slept badly, or were forced to wake up early due to school or work, but I promise you this: the number of nights you have slept well vastly outnumbers the number of nights you have slept poorly.”
  1924. >Suddenly, you shake your head and realize you’ve been staring at the screen for too long.
  1925. >As you quietly shut the door and walk away, you find yourself rubbing your forehead slightly.
  1926. >It’s almost as if walking away from the show was more difficult than watching it all the way through.
  1927. ‘Weird…’
  1928. >Once you are back upstairs, you find Flash outside of the hospital and at his car.
  1929. >”Find anything?”
  1930.  
  1931. “If you count the absence of anything a thing, then yes,” you reply, climbing into the passenger seat. “There’s nothing down there. It’s mind-boggling.”
  1932. >”And you think it’s all connected somehow?”
  1933. “At this point, I can’t really afford to believe in coincidences. Now come on, let’s keep looking.”
  1934. >And so the search begins in full.
  1935. >Three days are spent combing the town, searching high and low.
  1936. >You coordinate with the others, searching parts of the town and the Everfree Forest, but nothing comes up.
  1937. >Eventually, you go to the police to attempt to form a report, mostly just to see for yourself how unhelpful they are being.
  1938. >Much like what was described before, although they take the information you give them, they don’t do anything with it.
  1939. >There are no organized searches, no face on milk jugs, no missing person fliers.
  1940. >You begin to see why Flash and his gang were getting so frustrated with the lack of progress, and now it’s even more apparent on their faces since one of their own is missing.
  1941. >And the more you search, the more it becomes apparent how nothing seems wrong in town.
  1942. >Everyone is just going about their daily lives, working, sleeping, eating, shopping and existing.
  1943. >There are portions of some of the days you search where you simply sit and observe everyone passing by.
  1944.  
  1945. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOKwewc9dns
  1946.  
  1947. >Even something as simple as sitting on a park bench and watching people can be a profound experience of sorts when you notice just how little anyone actually interacts with their environment.
  1948. >People are glued to their phones, driving their cars, working with lifeless expressions on their faces.
  1949. >Shuffling from one area to the next, getting on a bus but never looking anyone in the eyes.
  1950. >It’s funny, in a way---this is the world you have fought to defend, yet nobody seems to appreciate it.
  1951. >Just like the last two years, everyone is living in comfortable luxurious ignorance of what could really be going on around them.
  1952. >Is that for the better, though?
  1953. >Can you honestly say your life has become better since learning and doing all that you have learnt and done?
  1954. >More interesting, certainly.
  1955. >But everyone just seems so blind to what could be lurking just beneath the surface.
  1956. >Yet even you don’t know where to start looking, and you’re the one who has been trying.
  1957. >What is really going on?
  1958. >Is there in fact something happening, or is it all an elaborate series of coincidences?
  1959. >Is it paranoia?
  1960. >You don’t know.
  1961. >But what you do know is that there is someone who was afraid and is now missing, and that’s all that matters, so you resolve to keep looking.
  1962. >And so it comes to be, three nights later, that you are sitting in Applejack’s living room with most of the others, from both your inner circle and Flash’s group.
  1963. >All of you have worked tirelessly the past few nights looking all over town; it seems like no stone has been unturned.
  1964. >But all leads have turned cold and no further clues are found.
  1965.  
  1966. >Twilight’s analysis of the goo turned out nothing helpful; it seems to have degraded fully, leaving nothing useful behind.
  1967. >And even though you tagged the morgue’s van, it hasn’t moved.
  1968. >”This is horseapples,” AJ mutters. “I just don’t get it. How can someone up and vanish and nobody in the town give a damn?”
  1969. >Rainbow, sitting next to Blossomforth, has her feet on a coffee table over a map of the town that has been drawn on multiple times.
  1970. >”I just don’t know what we’re doing wrong,” Rarity says over a cup of tea.
  1971. >Fluttershy, also drinking tea, says, “I don’t think we are. I mean, we’ve looked all over.”
  1972. >You, meanwhile, are near the door and rubbing your forehead in frustration.
  1973. >In the background, music from Vinyl's radio podcast is playing.
  1974. >Octavia and Thunderlane are going back over the map, drawing out areas that have been searched multiple times.
  1975. >Amidst all of this, your phones all begin to buzz with a message from Twilight.
  1976. >She is at home with her parents, along with Pinkie Pie so as not to break the buddy system, and is watching television with them.
  1977. >The message consists of the following: "Caramel is on television with Dr. Turner tune in now"
  1978. >As soon as everyone checks the message, you look at each other before turning towards the television.
  1979. >Applejack fumbles for a moment with the remote and turns it on, quickly turning it to his show.
  1980.  
  1981. >Everyone is immediately fixated on the image as it appears; sure enough, there is Caramel, wearing patient's clothing, on the set of Dr. Turner's pseudo-talkshow.
  1982. >The camera is focused on Caramel; his face seems slightly dull, like he is fatigued or burdened with something.
  1983. >He is speaking slowly, and as your group tunes in, you hear the latter half of his sentence.
  1984. >"---really know what I was doing all along. I was going crazy in my head."
  1985. >"Holy shit that's actually him," Rainbow says.
  1986. >"Shh!" AJ shushes her.
  1987. >The camera turns back to Dr. Turner as he leans forward with a concerned look on his face.
  1988. >"So, why do you believe you did what you did? Boarding up your home from the inside, avoiding going to school, becoming so reserved and anti-social?"
  1989. >Once more the camera pans in an expert shift to focus on Caramel's slightly confused face.
  1990. >"I was afraid," he admits. "I, I was terrified. I thought everyone was out to get me."
  1991. >"You weren't alone, though. There were others who fed this behavior?"
  1992. >"Yes... Yes, there were. I had a group of, well, friends who helped convince me that something was going on, something bigger than just my parents."
  1993. >"Are you comfortable explaining what you came to believe?"
  1994. >He shifts, slightly nervous.
  1995. >"It's alright if you don't."
  1996. >"No, no, I just---It's all so strange to me now. I don't know why I was thinking the way I was, that people in town were being kidnapped or disappearing. I was convinced, completely convinced, that I was next..."
  1997. >"You felt persecuted? Isolated, paranoid, always looking over your shoulder or out your window?"
  1998. >"Yes... Yes, I did."
  1999. >Dr. Turner puts a hand on his knee and smiles.
  2000. >"Modern society can do that to a person."
  2001. >You watch, horrified in a way, as all of this unfolds before you.
  2002.  
  2003. >He's done something to Caramel, you know it.
  2004. >Making eye contact with the others, you get the idea that they are thinking the same thing.
  2005. >But soon enough your eyes are back on the screen, drawn into the program.
  2006. >Dr. Turner looks into the camera now and speaks to the audience.
  2007. >"Here we see the disastrous effects that too much reliance on technology, a lack of a strong safety net, poor public education and our rampant addiction to over-the-counter medication can bring to an otherwise perfectly healthy young man. Caramel's problem was entirely invented, a figment of his imagination. Yet to him, it was all too real."
  2008. >He stands up and walks further out onto the stage with arms wide open to better address them.
  2009. >"In our modern society, we are metaphorically choked by the pressures it levies upon us: pressure to do well in school and be successful, pressure from our peers, pressure from our parents. And therein lies another part of the equation: the parents."
  2010. >He returns to his seat and looks over at Caramel.
  2011. >"Now, this all began when your parents left without a notice, isn't that right?"
  2012. >"Y-yes, that's right."
  2013. >"What was the first thing you felt when you realized they were gone?"
  2014. >"Well... afraid."
  2015. >"Precisely." He looks back out at the audience. "People, particularly children to young teens like Caramel, tend to put parents on a pedestal. And why wouldn't they? Our parents are our caregivers, our providers. A safety net. And when it is removed so suddenly and so without warning, what is one to do?
  2016.  
  2017. >"What Caramel did was invent a boogeyman. It's all-too common for us to invent a kind of mythical 'them' to place the blame on. But in doing so, in creating this invisible army that was out to get him, he created a dangerous fantasy of persecution, a paranoid work of fiction that soon drove him to seek help from others."
  2018. >As you sit and watch, you briefly stray your eyes over to Flash, who is similarly looking at you, clearly wondering the same thing you are: 'What is really going on?'
  2019. >But not for long; your eyes snap back to the television.
  2020. >"But unfortunately we were not the first group Caramel turned to. Without his parents, Caramel went to his friends, but what did they do? Instead of recognizing and helping him, they fed his delusion, reinforced it. Undoubtedly for fun, or for issues of their own, knowing kids these days." He pauses to allow the audience to laugh.
  2021. >Alongside him, Caramel also chuckles nervously.
  2022. >"This dangerous peer group almost led to Caramel hurting himself, or others, out of fear. It is truly wonderful that he contacted my office and begged for help, so that we could give him the treatment he needed." He puts a hand on the young man's shoulder and gives him another comforting smile.
  2023. >"Yes... Thank you," he says, sounding truly grateful.
  2024. >"But Caramel, that earlier point I made about parents, and putting them on a pedestal: it's a natural thing, but what so many children---and indeed, so many adults---don't realize is that parents are simply people. People who work, get frustrated, and sometimes have arguments. People are fallible---after all, the expression, 'To err is human!' exists for a reason."
  2025. >Everyone in the living room is dead silent as the camera changes focus to a wide shot of the entire stage as Turner continues speaking.
  2026. >"Caramel, I know you felt your parents were kidnapped by some antagonistic force, but the truth is that sometimes people fight. Sometimes, we make mistakes. And your parents made a mistake. Now now! Don't worry, it wasn't you!"
  2027. >The audience all laughs at the joke while Caramel sweats and tries to laugh along.
  2028.  
  2029. >Dr. Turner uses his hands to calm the audience down. "Now, if you will, please, allow me to introduce my other two guests... Please welcome Caramel's parents to the stage!"
  2030. >The audience applauds as two figures emerge from off-camera.
  2031. >Caramel looks at them and a look of relief and happiness comes upon his face as he runs up to them, tackling them with a hug.
  2032. >The mother and father, two perfectly normal-looking people, hug their child as tears stream down their faces to the uproarious applause of the audience.
  2033. >Dr. Turner approaches a camera, and it switches focus to his smiling face.
  2034. >"Now, the healing process can truly begin. It is regrettable that it got to this point, but the important thing is this: a family that was teetering on the edge of fracturing completely has now been given a second chance. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet had a fight, like we all do from time to time. They left in a hurry. Was this wrong? Surely, it could have been handled better. But people make mistakes, and forgiveness is the first step."
  2035. >As the parents hug their child, Dr. Turner walks back over to them and places a hand on the husband's shoulder.
  2036. >"We live under constant pressure, and we can only take so much. Sometimes, you just need to get away from it all. That's why our studio is sending the Sweet family on an all-expense paid vacation to beautiful Hawaii! They'll be leaving on a plane this very evening!"
  2037. >The audience claps and cheers as the family graciously thanks the doctor.
  2038. >But to you, their joy is matched only by your dread.
  2039.  
  2040. >Everything you have just witnessed, while wholesome on the outside, conceals something dark underneath.
  2041. >You know it does.
  2042. 'And with them being sent away tonight...'
  2043. >The trail ends here.
  2044. >Or does it?
  2045. >On the show, Dr. Turner adjusts his glasses and smiles at the camera.
  2046. >"Thank you for watching Time for Thought. I've been your host, Dr. Turner, hoping that you all make some time for thought tonight. Thank you."
  2047. >At that exact moment, you feel a distinct stinging sensation in your head, like an acute headache.
  2048. >It distracts you from the thoughts about everything you just saw, but quickly as it comes, it goes away.
  2049. You rub your forehead slightly and ask, "Did anyone else just feel that?"
  2050. >But your question is lost to the sudden burst of dicussion that goes on all over the room.
  2051. >"I can't believe it," Rarity says, still staring at the commercials on the screen. "I simply don't understand."
  2052. >AJ turns down the volume. "He was there the whole time. They kidnapped him!"
  2053. >"Did they, though?" Blossomforth asks.
  2054. >Octavia nods. "They must have. They've done something to him, they must have!"
  2055. >Rainbow's fingers skim the screen of her phone. "Social media is blowing up about this. Everyone in town is talking about the episode. Nearly everyone was watching it---a record for their ratings."
  2056. >Your phone buzzes with a message from Twilight, reading, 'It must be mind control'
  2057. >"But it all seemed to sincere," Blossomforth says, her voice full of doubt.
  2058. >Flash is steadfast in his belief, however. "It's all a trick. It all has to be a trick."
  2059. "I have to agree... That station... That station is in on it."
  2060. >"What do we do, then?" Rarity asks. "Do we go up to his broadcasting station and just bust in?"
  2061. "I think that's exactly what we should do." You look at AJ, who nods in agreement. "How far off is his station?"
  2062.  
  2063. >"Not too long of a drive," Flash replies. "I'll drive."
  2064. >"We're all gonna go," AJ says, walking up to a nearby panel on the wall. She kicks it once, opening a hidden section behind it. "But we ain't goin' unarmed."
  2065. >There are collective gasps from Flash and his group as they take in the sight of crossbows and shotguns.
  2066. >Octavia stammers. "I can't... I mean, I've never even---"
  2067. >"You learn right quick, trust me," AJ says, taking a shotgun off a pair of hooks.
  2068. >Blossomforth seems to share her unease, as does Bon Bon, but Thunderlane and Lyra are both interested, as is Flash.
  2069. >Fluttershy looks nervously over at Rainbow, who is busy texting Twilight about everything that's happening over here.
  2070. >Just then, there is a knock at the front door.
  2071. >Everyone freezes.
  2072. "Were we expecting company?"
  2073. >As AJ reaches for her revolver, she says, "Nope."
  2074. >You hold up a hand and approach the front door.
  2075. "Be ready," you whisper, before opening it.
  2076. >As all of the others prepare for whatever it may be, you find yourself staring into a pair of cerulean-green eyes surrounded by fiery red hair.
  2077. "Sunset," you say, relief palpable in your voice.
  2078.  
  2079. >She smiles and throws her arms around you in a tight embrace, just as warm as you fondly remembered.
  2080. >"Look at you!" she says, squeezing your arms. "When did you get all of this?"
  2081. >You can't help but give her a sheepish , she then notices everyone lowering their weapons.
  2082. >"Woah. Is this the kind of reunion I should have been expecting?"
  2083. >AJ slides the revolver back into her holster. "Thank stars. We've been missin' you, girl."
  2084. >Sunset keeps an arm around your waist as she says, "Oh, it's been one hell of a trip, I can't wait to---Wait, don't let me get ahead of myself. Why were you all armed?"
  2085. "It's a long story. Hop in Flash's car, I'll explain on the way."
  2086. >As you turn to walk outside with her, you notice Rainbow staring at you both with an unreadable expression on her face.
  2087. >Flash follows you both outside and unlocks the car while the others filter out to other vehicles.
  2088. >Once the three of you are inside the car, Flash begins driving.
  2089. >"Haven't been in here for a long time," Sunset notes.
  2090. >Flash laughs. "Hah, yeah, I remember..."
  2091. "Remember what?"
  2092. >Sunset waves a hand. "Oh, we used to date."
  2093. "Really?" You cast a strange look at Flash and then at her.
  2094. >"Before you moved here," she explains. "We split up, though."
  2095. "I see..." You cough into your hand. "Well, I'm glad you're back in time. Some strange things have been happening around town."
  2096. >"What kind of strange?"
  2097.  
  2098. >"Anon's a werewolf," Flash says bluntly.
  2099. "Dude!"
  2100. >"What? She knows, doesn't she?"
  2101. >Sunset answers for you. "Of course I know. I was the FIRST to know." She then casts a look in your direction. "Well, technically not the first, considering you found out the hard and bloody way."
  2102. "Can we not, right now? I'm not the only one with a shaky past in this car."
  2103. >"Fair enough. But Flash, you can't just go blurting that out! Also, how do you know?"
  2104. >"Funny story..." he starts to say.
  2105. "And I hate to cut you off, but there are other things going on right now. We're on our way to Dr. Turner's broadcasting station. For the past three days, we've been looking for Caramel."
  2106. >"Twilight messaged me about some of the details."
  2107. "Well, let me fill you in."
  2108. >"Please do," she says in a flirty tone that could imply any number of things, and makes let out a surprisingly nervous chuckle.
  2109. "So, it all started when we got back in town..."
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