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Secrets of Black Sands: Libraries of Saddlelon


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Later that day, in the room she'd rented ...

Ancient ponies that had written languages wrote down everything that they thought was important.  The more important it was, the more permanent the media inscribed.

Prayers to the gods to ensure an easy trip to the afterlife.  Incantations to keep evil spirits away.  Glyphs to gather and shape the magic that flowed all about them.

All available and waiting for anyone that could read them (assuming, of course, 'brave adventurers' and 'intrepid treasure hunters' didn't destroy the buildings first !)

The spell Tongue Twister was setting up was primitive.  Crude.  And about as subtle as a slap upside the head.  It could easily show the direction of the magic's matching source, but not the distance.  It was not very efficient, and far more energy escaped into the aether than into the spell - in fact, the only reason she even had anywhere near enough power to cast it was because she'd been loaded up with dark magic !

She'd drawn a large circle on the floor with a four-pointed star within in a single line while chanting in a language unheard for 1200 +/- 50 years, then emptied a bag of ball bearings in its center.  Sitting nearby, she closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths, then extended one wing into the center of the circle.

From comparing one society's beliefs about magic with all others, TT had concluded two things were needed : a way to gather the magic that flowed through Equestria, and a way to shape it so it actually does what you intend.  Many societies had magic, and many different ways of using it.

The unicorn way was to gather the magic, use their ego and will to shape the power, then use it to beat the universe into submission !!

What Tongue Twister was doing was the exact opposite : allowing the magic to flow, without trying to guide it, or wanting it to go one way or another, or even hoping it worked.  No expectations.  She literally removed herself from the equations and let the dark magic within her reach out to its original source. 

The ball bearings began to twitch, then rolled in tight orbits until they formed a straight line.

"She's that way, sir." she stated to Sombra once she used her compass to get the bearing of the line.

A quick trip outside and a check of the compass told her which way to look.

Off in the distance were the ziggurats of the Palace of Thought.

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Deep breath...then another.....Alright, good.

It's not like this was the first wringer she found herself in. It wasn't even definitive end of her plans here. But Hou had to admit, Twister put her into situation where she had to choose.

Cornering Shuren like that, was something worthy of respect....

And something that brought sorceress ire.


"...Lesson one. Basic, fundamental methods...." she muttered, as dark aura spring to life around her. "...Are usually two-way street."


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


Tongue and Sombra didn't even manged to go ten meters, before Shuren's counterattack hit the pegasus.

It wasn't really harmful.....In fact despite everything, Hou was still too invested into corrupting Twister body and spirit as her little 'pet project' to really harm her. But she could hold her in place for a while.....

And make it unpleasant while doing it. Not unlike well known 'Evil Eye' set of curses. But without actual eye contact.


It came without warning. A sudden pressure falling on her mind, body and soul, simultaneously. Outside,Twister looked fine, still upright, still blinking, and still breathing. But if one could feel like she did, they could experience how hard suddenly everything became. Her heart was filling like it was wrapped by a set of chains, preventing it from doing it's job. Her blood, dens, and moving through veins and arteries at seemingly glacier pace. Her lungs and diaphragm, heaving with effort, as if they were weighed down by whole Canterlot Castle. All of this sense - fooling illusions. And yet all of those signals were enough to turn her legs into unmoving pillars.


Twister's mind was whole other matter.  It was like a steel fortress - unbowed, unbending, unbroken. Shuren's dark magic could all but siege it, unable to break those mental defences. in fact, most of the magical energy sorceress was expanding, was used to keep Tongue's mind from regaining control of the body.....


And yet....it was less  spent magic then she anticipated. As if this great wall had to weather pressure from both inside and outside.....Curious.


Twister's soul meanwhile...here chances was evenly matched. Like two equal rikishi, grappling with each other. Neither gaining an advantage, but neither getting ground either.


Hou held no false hopes. She knew that in mere moments, Sombra will come to help his guide with his magical counter-counterattack. She had....seven...no...five minutes top before her attack is repelled.


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


It was this concentrated state that Dox found his colleague in. The white mare didn't stop her assault - apparently skilled enough to keep it going while multitasking. Shuren' noticed the latest book that Hei brought.


"It better be this one. We have been traced..." she said, before clarifying. "...or rather, I have been traced. That little squirrel is even more resourceful then I gave credit for. Right now I am holding them in place, and borrowing her sight but...at this distance, I can only buy few minutes doing so." she explained.

"Hei, you have to finish here without me." she asked. Not only the changeling had to make all the important notes, he and his minions had to clean after the search, to obfuscate what information they were searching for.

"I will be bait and stall them further. Doing so in person will be more...efficient..." Hou said before cutting herself short. Fighting in city was not battling in uninhabited woods. She will have to limit herself, and she will start with less then half of her usual energy at best as well. Converting souls to mana took time. Meanwhile Sombra will start almost fresh, and had an ally who can serve as the distraction.


Without word, Hou reached into her pocket space and hoofed to Dox book she took from Xuanwu Temple. Then - after a moment of hesitation - the golden scarab depicting  disc, ripped out of the cover of the said book. That and....

"...Just like in Maretonia." white unicorn mused, while she hoofed to Dox an enchanter earring. Close or not, keeping in touch was vital. And this little trinket allowed just that. And not first time either, just like Hou mentioned.  The second earring, matching first one, was already clipping around Hou's own ear.

"...I have three minutes to prepare. For Dark Preservation, do what you can...." she said, while trotting to female bathroom. Sorceress didn't had to mention for changeling to make haste. Shuren knew she didn't had to.


Because they were caught by surprise, Hou's toolset was limited. She slowly relived as much tools as she could from her pocket space. It was all she could do under the circumstances.

Twelve throwing daggers made from ghostly white metal. A jian 'sword'. Vial of her favourite tool. Four small soul gems. Three pellets with highly compressed 'tear gas'. One scroll of pre-cast support spells.

"...Let's do this...."


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


If they weren't occupied by Hou's magical attack, Sombra and Twister might notice that compass needle stopped pointing to palace of Thought, instead snapping to their right...


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


"Crowd. Good, very good. How nice for some spectacle to happen today." sorceress mused, now perched on corner nearby souq, setting sun behind her back. There was more then one way to teleport, and one minute was especially easy, if you had a waypoint in the form of your own magic present at the destination. It was way less flashy too...

Of course she could not afford to keep Twister in place anymore. Instead she needed to formulate a new plan. Oh? Wasn't there some show happening? A concert. Shuren could see a respectable gathering of ponies and other creatures, waiting or a songstress...

"It would be a shame if...all this audience starts to panic...." she mused to herself and Dox alike, crushing three of four soul gems while doing this.


Normally summoning was crude and inefficient, unless one took much preparation. Drawing summoning circles took time, maintaining the connection required much energy, and spawning  more then one familiar from portal while maintaining control was difficult.


How convenient that all of those sticklers could be brushed aside, by throwing some souls as offering into the mix!


Three circles, one for each gem, and each in range of hearing. One on the roof, one on the wall, and last one in dark, damp alley. A panther resembling....things...started to crawl from the circles, responding to the sorceress call. Not creatures of flesh and blood, but of negative emotions and darkness....Almost like umbrum, amusingly enough.


"Terrorize, hurt, maim...but not kill...No, let the panic last as long as possible. You can only rip Fallen King to shreds, if you able, that is...." she ordered dozen of 'panthers' that managed to come so far.

"Now, citying a clever playwright..." she straightened herself, brandishing her 'jian'. "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war..." Hou said, as she sicked demonic 'felines' on concert the pair that was hunting her, and audience alike.



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The unicorn could hear her manager repeating the words 'two minutes'. She rolled her eyes every time. She was getting annoyed by the constant pressure- by the continuous nagging to get out on the stage and start singing to all her fans that came out that day. That hot.. miserable day. The pink mare really was about to start singing and dancing to these ponies in the middle of a heat wave, getting all sweaty herself. She was wearing clothes too, which made her feelings worse. 


Finally when the time came, she walked out onto the stage. A bunch of ponies stamped their hooves onto the ground erratically, their excitement filling the air. Being able to see the pop queen herself made them excited. Bellissima fed off of this energy. It made her cocky, self absorbed. She couldn't help but love the attention, though. They were all cheering her name as she levitated the microphone to her mouth. A small smirk lifted the side of her mouth as she raised her hoof to wave at her fans. She was already sweating. Her heart was beating too. Maybe from over exertion. It was hard to focus on everything around her. She had to be perfect. 


She didn't notice the black shadows encompass her stage until it was too late. Before then, she began to speak loudly to her small audience. "I thank you all for coming to my show! You guys have no idea how much it means to me to see you all here, even in this heat," she said with a smile, trotting around the stage. "I am so very grateful to see all your beautiful and handsome faces. It's really an honor." She had to milk her time to make it seem like she loved her fans. She really didn't care about them.


The mare then introduced her first song, "Ain't it Fun". The music started to play in the background as she started, darkness surrounding her stage. Her eyes were closed, unable to see the terrifying presents that was bestowed around her. 


"I don't mind

Letting you down easy, but just give it time

If it don't hurt now then just wait, just wait a while
You're not the big fish in the pond no more
You are what they're feeding on


So what are you gonna do
When the world don't orbit around you?
So what are you gonna do
When the world don't orbit around you?" 


She sang proudly, dancing around the stage. She was an amazing dancer, as she took classes since she was a filly. Her moves were always on beat with her uptight music. 


Sadly, she didn't notice her fans start to worry about the shadows. They were running around, fearful of what was to come. Bellissima still didn't notice, as her belting got louder. 


"Ain't it fun?
Living in the real world
Ain't it good?
Being all alone"


Her fans started to scream in horror. Bell's ears perked up, thinking they were screaming for her. She couldn't help but smile as she sang, continuing to let the music fuel her body. She was relaxed, eyes closed. 


"Where you're from
You might be the one who's running things
Where you can ring anybody's bell and get what you want
See it's easy to ignore trouble
When you're living in a bubble


So what are you gonna do
When the world don't orbit around you?
So what are you gonna do
When nobody wants to fool with you?"


The screams got louder. Now, they were a little frightening for Bell. She opened her eyes, her pupils growing small. 


"Ain't it fun?
Living in the real world
Ain't it good?
Being all alone?"


She whispered her lyrics, then came to a sudden stop. She was absolutely horrified. What was going on? Her instincts finally kicked in as she ran behind the curtains, looking for her manager. "Sweet Tune? Sweet Tune where are you? There's a catastrophe outside!" The mare was screaming now, her heart was racing. What do you do in this situation? 


She sprinted everywhere looking for him, finally losing hope and jumping off the stage and onto the outside. She was soon caught, a bunch of demonic felines all around her. She fell to the ground dramatically, covering her head with her arms. "Please.. please.. Don't hurt me! I've never done anything wrong! I- I-" She began shaking. If only she knew some spells to get her out of this situation. But right now, she was all alone. 

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"Did you really think you'd get away with that stunt ?" the Abomination smirked at the immobilized Tongue Twister from inside her mind.

"Nope.  This is pretty much what I expected to happen."

"Say what ?"

TT had to focus for a bit - even thinking was like trying to walk through thick tar.  "It was a very crude ritual.  Predates the unicorn's codification of magic.  I'd have been greatly surprised if she DIDN'T notice me pulling on her with her OWN magics."

"Yeah, whatever." the Abomination replied dismissively, "The misery you are feeling now is but a tiny fraction of what her wrath can inflict !  If you want it to stop, all you have to do is give in.  Submit to her superior might and will.  Sacrifice who you are to become what she tells you to be.  Accept that you are a nothing compared to the eternal glory that is Hou Shuren."

TT smirked (with some effort).  "And why would I do that ?  I have endured far worse than this, and did not yield.

Thanks to that Dreamslayer, I know what it feels like to be torn apart and eaten !  It was the second worse thing I've experienced, and outlasted.  This - ranks third."

"Third ?  What was first ?"

"Not telling.  You'd just try to dig it up and throw it at me again."

"True.  But no matter.  You cannot last against Hou's might forever.  Sooner or later, your defenses will crack.  She has broken far greater than you !"

TT sighed before starting to repeat a Neighpalese mantra : 

"All is illusion.
Illusion is nothing.
All is nothing.
From Nothing, all arose.
To Nothing, all shall return."

Abomination thought nothing of it at first - but then noticed it was getting darker and colder in TT's mind as other voices joined in one by one.

"What are you doing ?"

"Oblivion Loop." Tongue Twister replies, "When trapped in a harmful illusion, shutting everything down and starting fresh really clears the old noggin.
Since I can't trust what my senses are telling me at the moment, I'm just going to shut out what they're telling me.

At least until something from the outside 'wakes' me up.  Or I get too bored to continue.  Whichever comes first ...."

After an unknown period of time, Tongue Twister woke up.
She was still in the marketplace, near the set up stage.
There was screaming.  And Saddle Arabians running about for some reason.
She noticed the shadowy 'panthers' stalking about.

"What fresh madness is this ?" she groused to herself when she noticed an Equestrian unicorn mare surrounded by those shadowy felines.


Normally, the best thing to do would be a swoop gain altitude, swoop in, grab the victim, then fly off and up to a nearby safe rooftop.


But with her wings of alchemic mercury, she couldn't fly any more.  So that effective idea was out.


So she did the next best thing : get a good running start, then use her wings to push upward suddenly, catapulting herself twenty feet into the air.


Then landing with all four hooves on the skull of one of the panthers, using her weight, speed and gravity to slam its head into the ground.


"WHAT THEY HAY ?!  This isn't fur !  There's no bones !" she noted before yelling "MOVE !!" to the unicorn mare while motioning over her shoulder (with one shadow down for a moment, there's a gap.)

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It felt like it was about time that they finally caught up to where Hou Shuren must be, if not close to it. It looked to be a busy day when they'd arrived, with something going on further on. A stage, perhaps some sort of performance. Sombra had little idea of what it was and he hadn't had a chance to really investigate further before Tongue Twister had simply.. frozen up.

Without much of an idea of what was happening, beyond traces of Hou's magic upon something- perhaps the darkness that she unleashed upon Tongue Twister back at their fateful reunion- Sombra tried to see what he could do about it, dark magic curling around his disguise's horn under the hood of his white garb before his attention was pulled away by the mayhem that erupted. Dark, feline shapes, and the screams and hoof-beats of fleeing ponies.

He sucked in a breath through his teeth in a hiss and shifted his focus onto those nearest him, intent on trying to blast away any that might have tried to threaten him and Tongue Twister- who seemed to finally come to her senses, if not just simply released now that whatever damage was done, already off to help somepony in need.

It figured that Hou would pull something like this, to slow them down a little more. His tail lashed and he moved ahead towards the stage, where most of them seemed to have originated from, keeping any magical retaliations against the shadowy beasts to simple shots of magic. He didn't want to alarm anypony by pulling off anything else than he already was- they were already panicked enough.

Somewhere ahead, he thought he could hear a mare screaming in the mayhem.

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  • 3 weeks later...

They still haven't noticed her. Good. Ironically, for being an 'umbrum' , Sombra wasn't good against those skulking in the shadows.


Of course 'He wasn't a fool' Shuren thought as she squinted her eyes. As much as she hated the wasted potential he represented, and his loathsome...apathy for most of things.....when it came down to purely intellectual exercises, he was very quick stallion. Her stealthy approach right now wasn't a best method of dealing with him right now - it was a only approach Hou could take at the moment, in her exhasuted state. For his limited toolbox and her repeatedly degrading him during their last encounter in Whitetail Woods, Sombra was one of few creatures alive that wasn't an alicorn, capable of lasting more then two minutes against her. At full strength. Right now? Right now he would roll over her in direct confrontation.


No.... Hou had to rely on her wits, and his ignorance of things outside of Equestria to outdo the fallen king....


Which was problematic too, since Tongue Twister - being apparently very knowledgable mare - was a perfect partner for the warlock to alleviate that weakness, being a walking exposition piece for him. She could also at least distract sorceress if things get more physical the Shuren wanted. Right now Hou's only hope was that the pegasus (That was apparently altered somehow. She had to investigate who toyed with her experiment later) will be kept bust by the shadow beasts - and if not, that her degree of knowledge hadn't covered Neighpon and Long Guo obscure (from Equestria's point of view) mystic arts....


When Sombra was walking towards the stage, she was already on the top rail, clad in illusions of her own.

A slight nudge of telekinesis and...one of massive stage reflectors was sent falling from the rail, straight onto Sombra's head. Of course, alert, he dodged it easily....straight into the spot she expected he would.


For Hou has already thrown a pearl white kunai. It's colour - a result of being dipped in the sap of white, moonwillow tree - a perfect tool for dealing with various shadow yaoguai....capable of pinning and hurting them them even their immaterial form, and forcibly making them corporeal...And well...Sombra's skill-set was close enough to logically work against him too! Each dagger held power for but one cut, but each of these cuts would destabilize his control over his shifting power. Five cuts would probably enough to shut down his shadow-form completely for a dew minutes....


And this will be long enough for Hou to pummel the fallen king and snap his neck!

'For a 'Seeker of Knowledge' you certainly are ignorant of your weaknesses, Sombra!' the white mare thought. That what happened when you drew knowledge from only one place - it became rigid and stale.

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The king chose to be careful, considering the crowd of ponies that was steadily beginning to thin as they ran away from the stage just ahead of him. He wasn't quite sure how to handle the shadowy felines otherwise, but at least he could manage something to rid himself of their presence.


His tail lashed behind him as he looked around, scouring the area for any sign of Hou or what sort of disguise that she might choose to take to elude him. This was likely all just a big distraction to get her further away from him, to hold him and Tongue Twister up for a little while.. Even in his disguise, the use of this magic would have given him away to her if she was still around to observe him.

Overhead came the metallic creak of something moving, and Sombra got a glimpse of it before it fell his way: it was one of the stage lights, and he threw himself out of the way of it as it came crashing down. He deftly landed on his hooves, his eyes already up and searching the stage by the time that white blade came whizzing by, slashing a cut into his shoulder. Sombra hissed at the sting and started off again to keep himself moving just in case any more came; he only considered a quick, momentary thought about what could have possibly been on the blade. He at least knew it had come from somewhere from the stage itself- somewhere up high, perhaps, judging by how the stage light had toppled. It could have simply been a result of the mayhem, but Sombra wasn't willing to consider it coincidence.

The shadows cast by the upper part of the stage's supports began to writhe when he focused his magic upon them, and exerted power to start trying to tear it apart. He wanted to draw out Hou one way or another- either her or her meddling lackey.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Tongue Twister watched the shadow panthers, trying to figure out WHAT they were.  Psychic projections ?  Manifestations of rage ?  Thaumic constructs ?  Certainly not illusions !

She didn't know, couldn't guess, but decided that for the moment it really didn't matter - they could be solid enough to do damage.  They didn't seem to harming any pony, but that could change on a whim !

"This is comic book villainy 101 !" she noted to herself, "'If being pursued, endanger some bystanders, and escape in the chaos !'

It's White Tail Woods all over again !  Except THIS time, there's a crowd.  Which means the local law is going to show up soon and Start Asking Questions.

At best, they'll delay us for a few hours.  At worst ?  Days, maybe months, depending on the legal system and how much behind-the-scenes influence Hou has here !"

The only way to figure out Hou's next move would be to ask about in the libraries to see what she's been reading.  


Only problems are that she was in disguise, and this is a BIG library !  We'd have to search through every list of every book retrieved BY EVERY STALLION AND MARE PAIR DOING RESEARCH AT THE TIME !  


And even then, there is no guarantee we'd uncover the pattern of what she and her friend were looking for; we'd be more likely to either find someone else's research/plot, or go off on a random tangent.

Given her centuries of experience being covert, it would be near impossible to pick up her trail by any means.  This will be quite a challenge ...

"But as uncle Legbreaker says : 'if someone slams a door in your face, find a nearby window and fly in !  Or a nearby wall and smash through with brute force !'

Or the Caballeron Routine.  Why expend effort when you can just hold back and let that adrenaline junky Daring Do find the temple, neutralize all the traps, defeat the guardian and get the McGuffin ?  Then just mug her as soon as she exits the temple !"

She noticed that Sombra was battling somepony with his shadows.

"Sir !  This battle is a completely pointless waste of time !" Tongue Twister shouted to him, "It might be best to get out of here and regroup before the local law arrives !

They could make things - complicated !"

Especially with an Equestrian celebrity in the fracas ....

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  • 1 month later...

"Gads !  I haven't felt this frustrated since I was a filly !" TT grumbled to herself, "Is there TRULY no way to win here ?!  Or even get a draw ?!"

She took a deep breath as she recalled the last time she felt this way :


She was just nine years old.  Her parents had just moved to Manehattan months ago.

She was playing 'Find the Princess' cardgame with her mom on the kitchen table.

It was a simple game : two jokers and a princess card were placed face down on the table, then their positions scrambled.  All she had to do was keep her eye on the winning Princess card.

It was a simple game, but
WIN !!

No matter how hard she tried, or how determined her attention, she always picked the wrong card !

"You know, a pegasi's greatest strengths are bravery and determination." her mother Shady Dealer stated, "Look at Somnambula.  A sphinx terrorized her village, and she alone strode forward to deal with it.  She was willing to do what had to be done !

But, sometimes, that determination can be a bad thing.  Your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness."

TT merely glowered up at her.

Shady picked up the cards.  "How many cards are in my left hoof ?" she asked.

"Two." TT replied, "You picked up a joker, then the princess card with your left."

Shady tossed one card from her left hoof facedown upon the table.  "What card is that ?" she asked.

"The princess card." TT replied.

"You sure about that ?"

"Yes !" TT groaned and rolled her eyes, "The last card picked up is ALWAYS the first card tossed !"

"You sure about that ?" she asked before showing TT the card she was still holding - it was the princess card.

TT looked between the card in her mom's hoof and the one on the table.  She flipped it over - it was one of the jokers.

"With just a little practice at sleight of hoof, I control what card gets tossed first." Shady stated, "You were watching the wrong card the whole time.  And no amount of hard work or determination or 'can-do !' attitude  would've helped you win.

Your determination could have cost you every bit you had, if we'd been playing for money."

"You cheated me ?!" TT squeaked (as young fillies are prone to do sometimes).

"Yes.  Because I was trying to make a point." her mom Shady Dealer replied as she took out the rest of the deck, put the three cards away and started shuffling the deck, "Not everypony is nice.  Not everypony plays fair.  And sometimes, the only winning move is to walk away.

Calm down.  Maybe get a new angle on the problem.  Or see what is really going on." she finished as she spread the whole deck out face down on the table.

With a flick of a wing feather, she flipped the cards over in a ripple.

They were perfectly ordered.  Every suit in sequence.

TT looked at the cards, pondering just how improbable it would be to order cards by shuffling them.  "I never really had a chance of winning, did I ?"

"Nope !" her mom replied with a smirk as she gathered up her cards, "And THAT is why  'Find the Princess' is illegal !  It is not a game, it's a con !"

TT thought for a moment.  "But how do you know when to stick with something, and when to walk away ?"

Shady sighed.  "That - is a difficult question.  You need a good and accurate idea of what there is to gain and lose by continuing.  Sometimes you'll guess right; sometimes you'll guess wrong.  All you can do is keep doing what works, abandon or  change what does not."

TT snapped out of the flashback much calmer than before.

"We're going to have to find some other way to figure out where Hou Shuren went." she mused to herself, "I'll have to assume she covered her tracks far too well for anypony to have any chance of discovering anything here.

Q : Why is something always in the last place you look ?

A : Because as soon as you find what you're searching for, you stop looking !  IF there were a way to detect the residual energy of her magic when she moved the books via standard unicorn telekinesis, all we'd have to do is look for the book with the greatest remaining energy, since that was the last thing she looked in !  


But I have no idea WHERE in the library she was looking, and this place is HUGE !  And the longer it takes to look, the weaker the residual becomes.  Guess wrong, and the signal is gone before we even had a chance to find it !

Not sure if there is a spell like that.  Or if I would be 'allowed' to cast it even if it did exist.

The only bit of good news is that there aren't that many places to go from here."

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