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Secrets of Black Sands: Libraries of Saddlelon


Ciraxis
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Prologue

 

"I am so sorry." Hou said, while the body of last Temple defender hit the floor. Despite the wording, there was no hint of remorse in her voice, which was instead dripping with sarcasm. And why would she feel it? Defenders of Xuanwu Temple were her sworn enemies, Fenghuang Monks after all. But it was not a reason for today's invasion...

Hou was stirred from her contemplation by the bang outside. Ahh...the first, pre-mature fireworks of the First Moon of this year....The holiday was one of few of the Empire traditions she still practiced, despite cutting herself off from most of Long-Guo customs.....But she wasn't above exploiting the opportunity it provided either.

 

Shuren gazed for a moment at the display of lights and noise, appearing over the cold steppe - after all, Xuanwu Temple was north-most settlement in the realm - before averting her gaze and stepping over the body. Those monk's lives were like those fireworks - a promise of enlightenment and ability to spread their voice to converse with all things, but overall brief and pointless. She herself was like a planet - not as spectacular, but ultimately much more important, ever-present and only smart entities could understand her true influence.

 

In the past, she wouldn't need any more reason then her enmity to start such slaughter. But it wasn't the past right now, and Hou wasn't the mare she was then. She had the temple in her sight's for a long time by now, but she was waiting for an excuse that would make her choose to claim what was underneath the temple.....And right now, she was carrying that excuse with her....

 

"Take anything of value. Especially books, no matter how unimportant they appear to be. Be methodical, take your time. This is first night of First Moon, and all knows that Xuanwu Temple dedicate it to prayer.....we won't be disturbed." sorceress ordered her masked minions. While she could very well do the job alone, she had to be sure that no-one escaped. This guaranteed that what happened here tonight won't get discovered for days, perhaps even weeks.

 

Shuren walked to the now, mummified corpse of the head monk - a sign of her soul stealing - and took a key from around her neck.

"I will be below. Follow me after you are done here." unicorn mare made yet another order, and took a walk to the hidden door.

 

The door, the chambers below that it lead to, and their contents were supposed to be secret - known by few, important people: Emperors of Long Guo, Head of the Imperial Watch, Abbot of Fenghuang Monastery,  Serpent King and of course, head monk of Xuanwu Temple.

 

Naturally, Hou knew about it too. For a long, long time at that. And today she was ready to to claim what was inside.....

"Let's see if today will bring more information about you...." she spoke to Remembrance Stone - safely resting in pocket of her dragon-leather duster - as she passed the hidden door, and down the stairs they revealed.

Her descent was long, the prize was deep beneath the mountain, but finally the stairs had ended. The dark. that she was surrounded by didn't bothered her, but it would make the search all but impossible. A quick spell, and every underground chamber was illuminated by a ghostly-blue light, coming from now lit torches.

 

Many Emperors and Empresses of Long Guo pasts have decided that there were certain types of knowledge that were too dangerous to be spread, but too important to be forgotten either. In their hubris they locked it up - never to be seen again, unless desperately needed. But they forgot that for clever mind, no prohibitions or obstructions were issue for too long. Especially if this was a mind of Hou Shuren.

 

"Let's make some quick reading. Let's start...with foreign sources." she said. As she cleared the dusty desk that looked comfortable enough.

 

The quick reading stretched into hours, and soon her Shadow Warriors appeared. Hou wasn't disturbed by the newfound bustle of her minions at all. Only ordering them to leave any scroll, tablet or book tied to relics alone for now - which they did, taking anything else that wasn't nailed to the floor instead.

 

Finally, at what was perhaps three A.M. , Hou gazed at the book of Saddle Arabian origin. The volume appeared - and felt - very old, more ancient then even herself. It didn't speared to be tied to artifacts at all but.....

Upon studying it, she found out it told about reign of Pharaoh Theth'Ka....who was grandson of infamous Teti-Ra. This would make a book a copy of even older written source...which still made it one of oldest 'true' books in the future Saddle Arabia, if not the oldest. But what really made Hou pay attention, was the brief mention of supposed power Teti-Ra possessed - an ability to rip the deepest of secrets, memories from the minds of those who oppose him. Unfortunately, it didn't elaborate on them further...apparently Theth'Ka took knowledge about secrets of his tyrant grandfather to his grave. 

Shuren grit her teeth in frustration and...wait...didn't that book was suspiciously heavy? After careful examination, sorceress discovered that one half of the cover was heavier - and thicker - then the other. Normally she would be vehemently against damaging the books, but....

 

After reaping the cover apart, Shuren was now holding a golden disc in her hooves. It radiated a magic similar to he Remembrance Stone, but ultimately different. It was a not a magical artifact, but a magical seal. perhaps one to a hidden vault or a tomb. And hieroglyphs adorning it, made it clear to what pharaoh it belonged to.

"Theth'Ka...."

 

Hour later Hou was standing outside. Every treasure inside was looted, every text secured. Thus she didn't hesitate to set the Temple on fire. The foolish peasants from the steppe won't find it suspicious at all, until well in the morning at least - after all, there were records of monks making similar celebratory pyres in the past. By the time somepony notices that was not the case,  she will be far away, and tracks of her activity here will be covered by embers and ashes.

 

"....It seems my search has only begun. It will be nice, a Saddle Arabian vacation..." Hou smiled to herself, as she turned away from now ablaze temple. She had get back to Wunyun. To get to prepared.

Prepared for.......

 

 

 

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Week Later - Luxury Ocean Liner - RMS Arcania:

 

"Hear this Dear. It reads here that ancient Temple in Long Guo burned to the stone." said the middle-aged stallion reading the newspaper.

"Oh.My.Gosh! This is horrible? Did those...monks living there came out alright?" the mare - presumably stallions wife - asked in return.

"Opposite my Dear. It appears no one survived." he husband replied with pity.

 

The nearby mare, till now relaxing on sun lounger, lazily opened one of her eyes. Well...wasn't that interesting....

"So news got our already? I hoped I will have more time for myself, but oh well." she mused to herself in her thoughts. With the wave of her hoof, she summoned a hired help to attend her needs for this voyage. "I request a newspaper." Shuren asked. Not even two minutes passed, and she was already reading the article in question and sipping a drink.

"Hmph....to think Empress Yù Yuè failed to keep this under the wraps. Pitiful." Back in the day, the Dragon Throne Sovereign would do everything to keep the information of spreading, sending her loyal servants for equinehunt to deliver the retribution on their Lord's terms. But should she be surprised? So far the fresh Empress - aside from diplomatic meeting with Shogun of Neighpon - displayed pro-activity of cold, dead fish. For Darkness sake, there wasn't even a bounty notice in that paper!

 

For a moment Hou's though shifted to the Last Emperor of Long. Incompetent ruler he was, he didn't go gently. She knew...after all, his soul still resided within her.

Of course it wasn't an only Dragon Throne seat warmer she interacted with, but even among them young Yuè appeared...bland - at least so far. That's what happens when bureaucracy overwrites the common sense. If she was in her horseshoes, Shuren would purge this system. Following by purging the bureaucrats themselves - Hou found them annoying, and with overblown sense of self-importance, but without any merit. At least harmonious monks - as much as she despised them - could throw a punch. Meanwhile pencil pusher at sign of proper action would just throw up....

 

....Bah, wondering about shortcomings of modern Long Guo and it's ruler was not worth her time. Seeing that new about burning of Xuanwu Temple spread already, she will without a doubt be one of the suspects. It's certain that other nation like Neighpon and Equestria know already as well. In that light, sending Wūyún to Saddle Arabia waters on the roundabout way - around Hesperia and Unyasi - proved to be sound move already. No doubt her potential foes will be thrown off by her motives. It seems that her search for Teti-Ra won't be boring.....

 

Three days later....

 

Ahhh finally the end of the voyage. While Hou was born in northern Long Guo, she always was drawn to more sunny, warmer climate of Tropics and Equator. ironic, considering her relationship with Celestia. She would visit Arabia more often, but it's political system was fluid, and difficult to influence. Still, the country was good for getting magical artifacts and relics. She learned some interesting curses too, after visiting a tomb or dozen.

That said, this will be search unlike few others...which was why Hou took quite a bit of luggage. Some of it was hidden in pocket dimension of course, but she rather overestimate security measures Teti-Ra or Theth'Ka invested in then the opposite.

Those were the thought that accompanied Hou as she disembarked the Arcania...which made her that all the more surprised when she saw who was waiting for her on the shore, even dropping one of her bags. Seriously, it was rare to see her eyes open so wide....

 

"........Alright. When and how?"

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In the foothills of the Antlion mountain range, near Shatt al-Malik, a week's travel from Manephis


Tongue Twister peered through the sighting line of her compass, and could just make out a small hill in the distance.


Archaeological site SA:PV 1497-060-117B, 'The Graffiti Cave'.


It was one of her favorite sites in the region.  It had been used occassionally as a rest stop by various groups of travellers over the millennia.  It was originally a small tomb at the end of a deep tunnel in the rock, but everything valuable had been looted about eighteen hundred fifty (+/- 15) years ago.


But it still provided shelter from the sandstorms and shade from the relentless sun just as well today as it did then.


And some of the many groups that had passed through had scribbled and carved on the walls.  There were samples of at least nine different ancient alphabets all in one place.


It was one of the first sites she'd worked on as a grad student.


Back when she was still in school.  BEFORE all the craziness in her life.


"Why are we out in this desert again ?" the Abomination inquired, spoiling her good mood.


"The best way to get away from all the craziness and drama is to literally get away from it all." TT replied mentally, "It's quite refreshing to just do something because you WANT to do it !"


"Well, I don't want to do this !"


"Well, I don't care !" she sniped back, "Since I'm currently waiting for an offer of employment, I have the time to actually enjoy life.  At least for a little while.
Besides, I can get a much better deal on certain items in the shops here in Saddle Arabia than I can back in Equestria."


Once she arrived at the Graffiti Cave, she pitched her tent near the entrance (so as to NOT risk damaging an archaeological site), and started making a shopping list while paging through one of the books she bought from her dad - the Florilegium Mischiefii.


"What is that mishmash of fragments of bad poetry you're subjecting me to ?"


The Florilegium Mischiefii was written by a gadgeteer that made spy gadgets for a forgotten agency almost a century ago." TT replied, "But needing to keep his brilliance hidden drove him mad.  So he wrote down how to make all his items, but encrypted it by writing it down in fragments scattered through a collection of what looks like bad poetry.


There is part of a poem about the glory of rotting leaves on this page, and on the other side of the page is the last third of a poem describing the joys of mud, and some random illustrations of unknown vermin doing Celestia knows what.


But hold the page up to a strong enough light source, and some of the strokes blend together to form words and diagrams.  But only if you can read Akkadian script !


Which I can.  He just used it as a direct cipher, probably because the letters lend themselves well to being depicted as lines and wedges.


This page, for instance, gives the recipes for an assortment of small, throwable grenades.
This one makes an inpenetrably thick smoke - and it even says how to change its color.
This recipe makes a thick cloud that irritates the eyes and nose.
This recipe is for a substance that will coat the floor in an extremely sticky glue.  This one coats the floor with a nearly frictionless puddle.  This one engulfs a small room in sticky silly strings that tangle everything up.  This one makes a cloud of very strong acid that will dissolve just about any kind of stone or metal.  This one just damages stuff by exploding.  And still others !"


The Abomination thought for a moment.  "WHY would you waste time on any of that useless stuff ?"


"It is not useless !" TT replied, "These gadgets were fifty years ahead of their time - about sixty years ago !"


The Abomination looked at her blankly.  "Again - why waste time on stuff that is so out of date ?  It is no match for anything modern spies have."


"It may not be a match for what spies have today," she replied, " but it can still give me an edge over just about anypony else that isn't a fully equipped spy !"


After a few minutes, she noted that all of the various bombs had a few of the same base chemicals.  So she made up a list and, in the morning, headed for the nearest town a few days walk away.


Days later, Tongue Twister's saddlebags were stuffed with supplies of all kinds.


"Whoa !  That is a big ship !" she noted to herself as she strolled along, "Must be one of those luxury ocean liners.  More comforts than you'll ever have at home.
Hmm - I wonder if I could afford a trip for mom and dad for their anniversary ?"


She stopped for a bit to wait for the passengers to disembark and for the road ahead to clear.


Then she noticed one of the passengers - then turned around, and ran and hid as fast as she could.


"By the thousand and one names of Nyarlathotep !" she exclaimed to herself inside her head, "THAT was Hou Shuren !  What does the universe have against me ?!  I go to Saddle Arabia to escape The Crazy - and The Crazy comes to me !!


... and just what are YOU laughing at ?" she snarled at the Abomination in her head (who was laughing so hard he nearly lost cohesion).


"This land is loaded with ancient relics, powerful magics and knowledge unseen for aeons  !  Why would you ever believe that she'd be here just for somepony like you ?"


TT was angry at being insulted by a vagrant figment in her imagination - but then realized that he WAS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT !


"This is an Alicorn-level threat." she mused to herself, "And since I'm not one of Harmony's Chosen, I have zero chance of making a difference or even surviving direct contact.
I need to contact the Important Ponies to deal with this !"
she continued as she slunk away through the alleys.


Once she managed to find a cheap dive to hide within, she sat down and composed a letter.


Then realized that as the lowest caste in the STAR organization, she had no way of getting information back to headquarters quickly !


So she'd just have to rely on first class mail, and hope for the best.


So she addressed the short missive to Ice Storm at her casino.

 

Spoiler

Attn : Black Ice
From : Private Lowest Class Tongue Twister
Subj : Alicorn Level Threat Ho Shuren presently in Saddle Arabia.


 

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Things had been interesting lately for him, with the chance to learn from Sombra and that ice mage, but also with following Hou’s antics. When he had heard about the fire, and that no survivors were found, he was pretty sure she had been the culprit. He knew how she felt about those monks, and what kind of stuff was being kept in that particular temple. With that in mind, he had his spies keep an eye on Hou’s movements, and once she was on the ship he was alerted to it’s destination. 
 

As she disembarked the vessel, Dox was waiting on the shore in a simple unicorn disguise, mostly so he wouldn’t be bothered by those that didn’t like the old changelings or any that may recognize his sorcerer form. At her question, he looked over at her and smiled, closing the book he had been reading and dropping it into a portal as he approached her.


“Come now, is that really how you greet an old friend?” Dox chuckled before continuing. “<As for your questions though, you’re not the only one with spies, and I figured that temple fire had something to do with you. Once I knew where that ship was headed, I could meet you there. So, what did you find that brings you out here? Anything interesting I could assist with?>” He asked in the language of Long Guo. He wasn’t sure which languages they shared, not a complete list anyways, but he knew that was one of them. Especially since they had both grown up in that country. 

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"<When they come without warning? Yes.>" Hou answered, switching to their native tongue before he did. "<And of course you wat....>" white mare attempted to continue, before she cut herself short as she realized something. They had this conversation before. As in literally, word for word....except their roles were reversed! It was in Maratonia if she recalled correctly, where she surprised him in the port...."<....Two hundred years...you really go extra mile for a punchline Hei, you old fox.>" Hou begrudgingly admitted that what he did was indeed amusing. She held a stern face for a moment before giving resigned sight.

"<......Maybe you can help me, but before you do I want to know....Is this official Shadow's business, or are you here on your own?>" how asked. Usually Shadow's done their best to not rub each other the wrong way. But if three or more members found what she was doing not to their liking....

 

Her train of thought was broken by something...a sting, no...a feeling. Hou snapped her head to the side.....but she saw nothing. Was it just her? Perhaps some strong emotion in one of nearby natives or travelers? Not that she could properly locate it. The port was PACKED....with some many beings here, she could be here all day and don't find anything. Even her sense of dark magic was useless. There were at least ten bloodlines of her own sleeper agents here. In short - it had to be her own imagination.

"<......That recent meeting really got into me....>" Hou mumbled. Just after Heartwarming, in Ponyville....

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Tongue Twister paced back and forth in her rented room as she tried to figure out what to do next - and discern just how deep in the crap she truly was.


"It will take a few days at least for my message to reach STAR." she mused to herself as she took a few deep breaths, "And an unknown amount of time for them to respond.
Which means I have to hang around here until someone shows up !"


"And when - IF - they show up, what will you tell them ?" the Abomination began, "You've been too busy cowering in fear in this hovel to keep track of Hou Shuren !
It's been almost an hour !  She could be anywhere by now !"


TT thought for a moment.  "Not really.  One does not step off a luxury liner into a slum !  She'll most likely be staying at one of the better - if not the BEST - accommodations they have here.  At least for a little while.  All I need do is maintain surveillance of them, at long range so I am a pebble in a field of gravel."


"How does that help anyone ?"


"That is how the villain/hero cycle goes." she began with a sigh, "Heroes are reactive - they have nowhere to go and nothing to do until the villains DO something.
So Hou having a few days head start is pretty much expected at this point.


But if I hadn't been here and sent that note, no one would even know Hou was here until it was far too late to stop, well, whatever it is she's up to.  At least now somepony will be watching for something odd to happen.  And perhaps have better odds at stopping her."


"You don't even know what she's doing down here in Saddle Arabia that needs stopping."


"I don't have to know to know it can't be good for Equestria."


The Abomination grumbled and shook his head.  "I'm trapped in the head of a sappy, wanna-be hero !"


"Well, you can leave any time you want !" TT cheerfully offered as she rummaged through her packs to retrieve a pair of binoculars.


Then made her way to the roof for a clearer view of the area.


She was watching the hedges and awnings near the better hotel entrances.


"I doubt Hou is hiding in the shrubbery."


"Most ponies can somehow sense when somepony is looking at them." she noted to Abomination, "But when somepony is looking at something near them ?  Not so often !
It is safer to watch somepony out the corner of your eye than to look directly at them."


Abomination thought for a moment.  "You are suspiciously good at this sort of thing.  Why is that ?"


"Not sure." TT answered within her head with a shrug, "I may have once been an agent whose competence stole glory from her bosses, so they had my memory scrambled so they can keep looking good.

 

Or I got cursed in a temple because I learned Things Mares Weren't Meant To Know - that is an occupational hazard for those that roam around in old, forgotten tombs.


Or I've read or translated one too many spy novels.  Or seen one too many cheezy spy movie.  I'm - not really sure myself anymore."

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Dox was grinning as Hou came to the realization. It was the kind of grin of someone who couldn’t wait for the punchline to arrive. After a short laugh, he settled back into a more neutral expression, though he clearly was still enjoying her company. She was probably his favorite member of the group, partially because of what the two shared in terms of their pasts. 
 

“<I saw no reason to involve them right now, I’m just here because I want to be. I enjoy collecting knowledge, and I’m sure whatever led you here will also lead to some interesting discoveries.>” He nodded, looking around as Hou seemed to sense something. He had felt something, fear, probably, but that could’ve come from any of the crowd around them for any number of reasons. It always seemed to be easier to hide in a crowd, for many reasons. 
 

“<Well, shall we get going? Perhaps to your room? We can figure things out in private there.>” He said, waiting for her to take the lead. This one was her show, after all, he was here to help and share in the rewards. 

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Well that was a relief. Knowing that Dox(or Hei Xue, as she preferred to call him) was acting on his own here, just like she did, made things so much easier....

"[Sigh....So you are here to take slice or two out of whatever cake I am baking? Since when did you took courses in 'witless minioning' Hei?]" she asked him with sarcasm, switching to the local tongue at the same time. It was nice to finally have someone around smart enough to have a 'sass-off'.

 

"[Ha! No inns! No rooms! First, we going to buy suitable travel clothes at local bazaar. Then we finding the quickest caravan to Saddelon.]" Hou explained as she walked forward. "[I never was fond of Manephis and it's surroundings, and I refuse to stay here longer then necessary.]" she added. The port town they were at was not close to the city proper, but still close enough that Hou could eye capital with disdain. After all it's palace complex was HUGE. "[And take some of lady's luggage, would you? You don't expect me to haul all of this alone?]" she 'asked' while pushing one of her bags into his embrace. He will repay her for that with the prank later, but that's how they rolled with each other.

"[...Also, since we here we might as well eat something. There is a family run tavern here. They serve GREAT kushari and......]" Hou kept talking as they dived into local street market. So it happened that way to it, run along local hotels....

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TT was completing one last visual sweep of the street most of the hotels were on when she caught a glimpse of Hou Shuren turning down a side street.


"Who's that guy ?" she muttered to herself upon noticing the unicorn stallion with her.  


Judging by the way he was walking with her, he wasn't one of Hou's servants.


She sighed heavily as she put her binoculars down to rub her forehead, "Oh joy !  NOW she may have an ally !  With unknown motives, resources and abilities.


Did I mug a priest in a past life ?  Did I mug one in THIS life and I'm just not allowed to remember doing it ?  This is turning into SUCH a mess !"


"And how are you going to clean it up ?" the Abomination simply had to needle her, "You have to hang around town until 'STAR' shows up.  But the longer you're here, the more chances Hou has of uncovering your silly efforts !  If I could feast on your misery, you'd be an all-you-can-eat buffet !"


TT was angry for a bit - before she started chuckling.


"By the stars !  I'm being as stupid as everyone thinks I am - and needs me to be !"


"Say what now ?"


"It's like YOU said : 'This land is loaded with ancient relics, powerful magics and knowledge unseen for aeons  !'  Hou probably isn't here for a vacation !  She's up to something !  So she wouldn't be spending much time lounging about in hotels !  So there is little point watching them.  Not many choices for someone like her down here.


She's probably been raiding the tombs in Pharaoh's Vale for centuries for foul magics and dangerous artifacts to further her goals.  That's one option.


And Saddlelon is essentially one big ancient library.  LITERALLY - they have four gigantic buildings known as the Palaces of Thought.  If there was an answer to an ancient question - or even a user's manual for some weird and forgotten item - they'd most likely be there.  That's the other option."


"So how are you going figure out where she's going ?  Roll a dice and hope for the best ?"


TT smiled.  "I don't have to.  Once she and her ally leave, I can simply ask the local merchants what they bought.  Should be simple enough to figure out that way.
True, they'll be a day or so ahead, but that cannot be helped.  But that's probably for the best.


So now all I have to do now is hang around here and stay hidden until they leave, then figure out a way to discern STAR agents when they get here."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Tongue Twister took her saddlebags off and dropped them on the cot (the room she rented on such short notice was very, VERY cheap) as she stepped away from the window and pulled the shades partially closed.


"I doubt I'll have much to do for a bit ...." she mused to herself as she rummaged through the bags to find some water, "They'll need some time to conduct whatever business they have here before they head off to wherever they're going.  The last thing I need is to bump into them !


Good thing I have some supplies left - enough to hole up in here for two or three days.  That should hopefully be long enough.  I'll just need to watch the routes out of town, then start some inquiries once it's safe."

 

She thought for a bit.  "From here, the best route to Saddlelon is down one route, and Pharaoh's Vale another.  Only two major roads in and out.  Every other direction leads into the desert.

 

So instead of watching the whole town, I only have to watch two roads !

 

Doable.  Mind-numbingly dull, but quite doable ...." she continued as she wrote her current findings in her journal (in Demotic - an alphabet not used for 3500 years.)

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“[Oh come now, since when is taking advantage of a good opportunity such as this witless?]” He replied, feigning offense as he followed her language shift. “[Besides, I’ve had quite enough of being someone else’s pawn, living in a changeling hive gives you plenty of experience.]”

 

Dox hummed a bit as Hou explained her plan for what to do here, taking the ‘offered’ bag in his magic and walking off beside her. Some good food would be nice, though it’s not like he needed it. He ate food for the experience, mostly. “[By the by, do you still need food to survive? I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good meal.]”

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"[Oh, I dunno?]" Hou mused. They both knew that if their situations were reversed, she would do the same. Them being apex predators, didn't meant they didn't scavenge once in the while.

Shuren also rolled her eyes when he reminded her it was ages since he became his own....uhhh.... 'stallion'.

"[Yes. yes. You drone on about that every other decade.]" she replied in placatory tone - but not without slipping a pun.

 

She suppressed another eye-roll when he asked about her nutritional needs. They had talk about this as well, but Shuren answered him all the same.

"[Souls have no vitamins or minerals Hei.]" she pointed out as they slipped into bazaar. Since this was a port town, they didn't stood out to much in their overseas clothing....but Hou couldn't help but cling to the nagging feeling she got since disembarking the ship. And when you lived that long like her, you start to trust your instincts.

"<......Let's buy something local to wear before we eat. I can't help but feel like if somepony is tailing us....>" Hou said, switching back to language of Long Guo. The waving of her own tail only emphasized her suspicions, as she walked towards the nearest clothing stand.

 

Luckily for them, a traditional clothing of Saddle Arabi - and travel wear in particular - tended to cover the body and the face while being loose. A mundane, and less taxing way of hiding themselves then her illusions or his shape-shifting.

For herself, sorceress chose the combination of thawb and tagelmust....several of them in fact, in various colors. Switching them as required, would surely made that much more difficult to identify her. The only downside was that it costed more then she anticipated. She will have to give a signal to one of her numerous servants to wait for her at one of caravan stops with more money. That Saddlelon will bring more expenses was a given - starting from inns, and ending in bribery. With that in mind.....

 

"<Please tell me you brought your own coin purse Hei.>" Hou said while trying on her new garments. They looked good on her and fitted well, but it was a given, since she was Hou Shuren.

Next stop - meal.

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One problem with long term, long distance surveillance was boredom; without something to focus on and anchor the mind in place, it tends to wander.


For some, much more than others ...
 

Spoiler

"Why are you even here ?" the dark stormclouds that were the Abomination's current form  scowled at Tongue Twister inside her mindscape (which currently looked like an endless black sea, with her sitting in a small boat sipping from a drink with a tiny umbrella in it), "There is literally NOTHING you can do that will ever make the slightest bit of difference !
If you try to sneak in closer, she'll detect you, and you'll die in one of any manner of painful and gruesome means.  If you're lucky.


If you stay far away, she'll easily evade you because you can't watch everywhere all the time.


Your choices are FAILURE, or FAILURE !  There is no action you can take that will grant you even the most minor of victories !


You might as well just go home and let the IMPORTANT ponies deal with this !  You'll live longer.  Well, probably not THAT much longer if Hou finds a way to bring all beneath her hooves."


TT actually grinned up at him.  "The pony who is free from all coercion and one who's every decision is punished are equally free - the only difference is the amount of pain.


It is like that old Fenghuang monk's condundrum : imagine you are sitting at a table, ready to drink some tea.


The master states 'I will beat you with this stick if you drink the tea', and 'I will beat you with this stick if you do NOT drink the tea.'


Most ponies are so conditioned with limiting themselves to the options an opponent gives them that they don't see the pain free option."


"WHICH IS ?!"


TT smirked at him.  "Take the stick away.


All of this is the First Path of the Way of the Nothing : Glorious Irrelevancy.  Since nothing I do will ever matter, I CAN DO ANYTHING I WANT, 'cause I decide what does or does not matter to me !


So all your talk about inevitable failure means NOTHING, since all I have to do to succeed at my current impromptu mission - is nothing !


There are only two logical places Hou can go from here - Pharaoh's Vale, or Saddlelon.  All I need do is stay hidden, and wait for her and her friend to leave.  Then just [REDACTED]."

 

The Abomination howled in rage, solidified briefly and slammed its kaiju-sized hoof into the water, causing a tidal wave that filled all space.


After a few moments, the vicious currents and waves quieted down.  The mental sun returned.  The psychic sea was peaceful and quiet - until the keel of an upside down boat breached the surface.


TT's boat - the Kobayashi Maru MMCMLXXII - turned over.  TT blew water out of her mouth, shook herself to dry off her coat, flicked the glass still in her hoof to get rid of the seawater, sat back down, and then held her empty glass out in front of her.


Her drink and ice cubes fell back into the glass; moments later, the straw dropped back in.


The little umbrella lazily drifted down and came to rest inside the glass where it began.


The Abomination growled and reverted to a dark and raging storm that dissipated after a few moments. 


"You do realize your 'no Aspect can harm any other Aspect' rule is the only thing protecting you from his wrath, right ?" Yang's contrail spelled out once she was sure the Abomination was gone.


"Yes.  And that rule is the only thing protecting HIM from Zagzig and Null's wrath.


Dynamic tension generates much power." TT finished before taking a sip of her drink, "If you can withstand the pressure."


TT took out a map of the area and examined it.


"Let's see - both Pharaoh's Vale and Saddlelon are a few day's journey from here.


Hou and friend will need supplies.  Which means they have to buy them from somepony."


She smirked.  "If you're willing to ask around a bit, there are hundreds of eyes available to notice what somepony is doing; why limit myself to just my own ?"

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Dox rolled his eyes, giving Hou’s pun a small chuckle. He nodded at the information on her nutritional needs, filing that away so he’d remember it. “[Sorry, don’t mean to keep bugging you.]” He added, sliding his own pun in before they got to the clothing store. He picked out his own outfit, a few varieties in case they needed to switch. Of course, he could just shapeshift, but this worked even if he somehow didn’t have the energy to shift. He gave some money to the creature running the shop, floating the parts he wasn’t already wearing in a bundle next to him. 
 

“<Well then, lead the way to this food.>” He said, smiling over at Hou. It was always nice to experience the culture of the places he visited, it gave him more insight into them. Plus, knowing your enemy was helpful, so those experiences could come in handy should he find himself against the culture. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

"<Like you don't know this food is.>" Hou said with an eye-roll, but complied with his request. They never really discussed which of them was older, but ancient they were still. Shuren knew that Dox feigned this...marvel...about new experiences, only to humor her....But at the same time she felt alright with playing along.

 

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Several Days Later, Trading Road Between Manephis and Saddleon - Evening:

 

Hou wasn't the mare who really had nightmares. She knew what she was, and she embraced it. In her eyes, she outgrown simple morality standards and labels....

But even beings like her had doubts.

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

"...from Long Guo...."

 

"....with a warning...."

 

 

"......come for those 'crystals and slaves' of yours, yes...."

 

"Why? They are simply that kind of mares, alicorns....."

 

".....preservation of  dark arts, that's enough of a reason....."

 

"You aged like milk."

 

"A King of Stubborness!"

 

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Hou eyes snapped open and she sat upright. It was cold, desert night...most of the caravan was already asleep. Sorceress slowly walked to the edge of the camp - passing a fire that still had some strong embers left - before staring at those of the northern constellations still visible at this latitude.

"<....How good I knew him exactly?>" white mare wondered.

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It'd taken a few days by the airship Ice Storm gave him, piloted by its small crew, to finally reach Saddle Arabia at what looked like a small port town. The trip itself had started off nice, and Sombra was fascinated with the airship and how it functioned, a little of which was explained to him by one of the crewponies, though the rest of the trip quickly lost its luster. Sombra was glad just to finally disembark and have his hooves on solid ground again- at least while he had it. There looked like there was expanses of sandy desert in this part of the world, and it became clear rather quickly how dry and warm the climate was, something that made wearing his usual cape uncomfortable; if he didn't find something else soon, it would probably make him start to sweat.

Sombra would venture further into the town to find himself a temporary replacement that would be more ideal for the climate, and stash his cape in his pocket realm, and then see if he couldn't find any hint of Tongue Twister or information from anypony that might have seen somepony with Hou Shuren's description so he could pick up the trail. He already knew he was days behind, which he despised, and he really needed to cover all that ground that he lost.

 

Hopefully if and when he found Tongue Twister, he would do so; if not, he'd go it alone.

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Morning after Hou and Dox left 

 

Tongue Twister grumbled as she shifted about on the shabby bed as the sun's morning light hit her right in the eyes.


Exactly as she wanted it to, for Nature's alarm clock is near impossible to ignore.


After a quick wash and brushing, she put on a white robe (thawb) and tagelmust (turban with veil that wraps around face) and headed out, reasonably sure that Hou Shuren and ally had already left town.


"The LAST thing I need is to run into them while I'm asking about them in town !" she muttered to herself as she turned toward the marketplace, "That could get .... unpleasant."


When she'd been doing her graduate research, she spent months at a stretch here.  So she was quickly able to find a stall that sold adventuring sundries - Madu's.


She asked about a unicorn mare with a white coat, black mane, cobra cutie mark, with an elegant and imposing demeanor.  He hadn't sold her anything, but a mare passing by had.
She was quite thrilled that Hou and friend had purchased so many thawbs and tagelmusts !


"No real need for so many." TT mused to herself after she bought a scarab necklace (for luck) from the mare in appreciation, "Either Hou suspects she's being followed, or changing outfits is just an evasive protocol she's developed after centuries of being discreet and evasive.


Hmm - that could be a problem.  Worst case scenario : she left some agents behind, with orders to quietly dispose of anypony asking about her.


And if STAR sent someone down here to rendevous with me ?  They'd know who I am, but I may not know them, since there were other agents.


So there may be ponies I don't know asking about me.  That may or may not be hostile.  


I suppose I'll have to deal with that when the time comes."


She spent most of the day making discreet inquiries of the merchants, seeing if any of them overheard where Hou was headed - no luck.


Then she noticed a familiar, rather disgruntled grey unicorn.


"Good to see a familiar face, Sombra." she stated with a slight bow, "We see our note was received.


We really need to get you some local clothing though.  The sun is quite punishing around here - especially to those of us with darker coats."

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  • 2 weeks later...

The former tyrant made his way down the little town's streets, ignoring the growing discomfort of the heat as he looked over the stalls of what looked like the market, all presenting various wares. Pottery, food, strange knickknacks, rugs.. Some of them were things he might like to look at just to see the products of an entirely different culture if he'd had the time, but as it was, he did not. He needed to pick up Hou Shuren's trail and find something to help him stand the heat before he could even think of venturing outside of the town. Maybe even a map would be useful.

Sombra asked a few of the stall owners his questions, targeting those that seemed to speak Equestrian to some extent because he didn't know the native language required to speak to some of the others. So far, there were a few dead ends; only one question bore him any fruit and that was on the matter of desert-friendly wear.

 

Before Sombra could take another step, a familiar voice caught his attention and drew those inequine eyes around to the face he was hoping to find sooner or later: Tongue Twister.

"It was. It took a few days by airship, but I'm here now," Sombra gestured at the market with a small sweep of his hoof, a disgruntled tone in his deep voice. "I've managed to get an answer on that particular issue, though I wonder.. will they take Equestrian bits? It's the only money I've got on me." He frowned as he started off down the street, heading towards the vendor that seemed to be the one selling the pale robes he would need.

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"They're merchants, sir.  Of course they'll take Equestrian bits." TT began, "But normally at a VERY steep exchange rate.

 

Don't worry about it, sir.  We have plenty of local currency, and we know some locals willing to haggle." she continued, still referring to herself in plural.

 

"Oh, did anypony ever figure out what was taken from the vaults ?" TT inquired quietly while looking around sneakily.

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Sombra's lip curled briefly, displeased by the mention of a steep exchange rate. It figured that they would want to gouge foreigners a little, though if Tongue Twister had Saddle Arabian currency on her then it shouldn't be too much of a bother to get what they need and finally head out. If Tongue Twister knew where Hou had gone, anyway. His tail flicked and he glanced over at the mare, a small frown on his face. He'd noticed the 'we' in the place of any 'I'.

 

"We did, at least we hoped. I went to the princesses and that purple one seemed to have an idea of what was taken. Something called the Remembrance Stone. I found out as much as I could about it through her and what little I could find in STAR's library with Ice Storm," he replied quietly, dipping his head towards her so that he could keep the answer between them. There was enough noise from the market crowd that they didn't have too much of a chance of being overheard by any nosy ponies. "Whoever holds the stone can see the memories of whoever it belonged to, and I believe something about how it can store, implant, or alter memories too. They don't know what all it can do for certain. I don't know why Hou has it or where she's going, and for what purpose, but that's why I'm here. Do you have any idea where she might have gone?" He glanced over at Tongue Twister, questioning.

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At the mention of what the Remembrance Stone could possibly do, Tongue Twister's pupils went vertical as her sclera turned black, and she growled lower than any living creature should be able to.


She took a few deep breaths to calm down and regain control of her temper.


"Sorry about that sir." she stated gruffly while not looking up, "There are five things we hate most in this world : things that shove memories into your head, things that rip them out of your head, things that can read them, things that can twist or alter them, and things that can control minds."


After a few more cleansing breaths, she reverted to normal and continued "We asked around.  Hou's headed for Saddlelon.  And from what you stated, most likely looking for the directions on how to use that stone properly.   Or tracking down the last user to gain their secrets; after all, if they could make something like that, who knows what else they could make.  We don't see anything else valuable enough for her to show up in person.


Oh, more bad news : she has an ally.  A unicorn stallion.  Don't know how powerful he is, or what he's up to, but he is at a minimum on rather good terms with Hou."
 

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Sombra's stride slowed and he tilted his head to peer at her with one, questioning eye when that growl rolled out of a throat that shouldn't have been able to make that noise. After what he'd seen Hou do and how she might have altered Tongue Twister, he couldn't be too surprised. Her apology only earned the lift of a brow and he continued on down the street, sticking close enough to his current companion that he'd be able to hear what she was saying without too much trouble.

 

"I don't really know what it's capable of, beyond what they said it can do: see the memories of who it once belonged to. I don't really know who that would be, or what reason Hou would have for coming here." He paused, turning his head towards Tongue Twister a little, though he still kept his eyes ahead on the road and the ponies mingling at the marketplace. "Saddlelon?" His dark brows furrowed.

"A unicorn stallion.." he mused. He met a 'colleague' of Hou Shuren before named Dox, but he was a kirin as far as Sombra knew; that meeting hadn't gotten very far. The only unicorn he could think of in relation to Hou, even though Sombra wasn't sure if those two had ever spoken, was Magnus, who showed up after his fight with Hou. Tongue Twister would have mentioned him by name if that was the case.

 

"Whoever they are, I'm sure we'll figure out how to deal with them when it comes to it. For now.. the matter of the clothes?" Sombra gestured to the stall.

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Dox had left behind the need for sleep many years ago, though he could still do it if needed, and was currently reading a book. Even in the low light of night, he could read just fine by utilizing his changeling abilities to gain eyes with night vision. He was very relaxed, having set up a myriad of protection and alarm spells, there was very little chance of anything sneaking up on them. Likewise, he knew Hou was up and moving around, so once he finished the page he closed the book and put it back into the bag, then went to stand next to her. 
 

“<Can’t sleep, Hou? Anything you want to talk about?>” He asked, following her gaze up to the stars above. It was pretty fascinating, really, what could be up there besides what could be seen with the naked eye. 

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Dox of course was up - not surprising seeing that he removed the need of entering realm of dreams long ago. Shurend wondered at times what did he did at nights these days, when he ran out of books and scrolls to study. Biological experiments? Writing? It wasn't really her business, and she doubted she will find out until she visits his lair again, to see what new hobby he picked up. When you long-lived like Dox or she herself, you end up pursuing a lot of interests.

 

"<......If reevaluating my choices can be really considered 'talk'. The Fallen King is on my mind lately. Having hindsight now I can say that our latest meeting should been concluded....better."> she said with a grimace "<Either I shouldn't approach him at all, or should be more...patient.>" Hou confessed, still staring at the starry sky.

"<But I couldn't help it. The sorry state he is, his obliviousness combined with how clueless he is.....Sight of such wasted potential made me furious. If he wasn't so STUBBORN, he could be so much more...bah....>" sorceress shook her head. If he actually cared, Sombra could become one of the Seven.....but well, as they said - apathy killed the cat.

"<And now I starting to wonder....am I becoming one trick-mare myself? I waved schemes for so long that it became predictable in it's imperceptibility. That and....>" Hou reached into pocket dimension to retrieve Remembrance Stone for a moment. She continued moments later why staring at Stone, hovering in air before her face.

"<Scavenging relicts and artifacts of old is hardly a waste of time....but if I could find them, then surely other creature out there can have information about them too? Perhaps...it's about time to make some of my own....I certainly absorbed enough talent fragments, and gathered enough knowledge to be capable of it.....>" she mused before finally turning to her colleague.

"<Relying on items for power is dangerous...but Purple Princess power....I caught the glimpse of it Dox. In her versatility, she is mightier then Celestia was millennia ago. Anything that could grant advantage over such mare...shouldn't be discarded carelessly. Regardless of ponysonal tastes.>" Hou said, while her mind was already drifting to distant Wūyún forges.

"<I am sure you wouldn't mind if I made something for you as well. It wouldn't hurt you to try this, instead of trying to graft two extra limbs to yourself or something....>" she said in her characteristic snarky tone.

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“<Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. With hindsight, you can say almost anything could’ve been handled better. Still, nothing wrong with learning from past mistakes.>” He said, humming slightly as he listened to her continue talking. When she pulled out the stone, he looked at it, sorting through his knowledge to see if he knew anything about it. Off the top of his head, all he could find is it’s name. He would have to research it when he could. 
 

“<You know how I feel about collecting the past, so I agree that collecting these artifacts is not a waste of time, even if only to preserve the history and learn from it. As far as making artifacts of your own, I would certainly be interested in seeing how that turns out. Twilight certainly is a mighty foe, judging by what she’s done in her life, it would be a tough fight even with my own vast versatility to draw on. Knowing many different types of spells and how to utilize them together can overcome someone stronger than you, but fighting someone that thinks the same way and also has more raw power is very difficult.>” Dox nodded, watching the sky again. “<That said, I would be very interested in what you could make for me, perhaps it could be something I help with.>”

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