Higher.... A little to the left.... There! The sun beamed brightly, seeming as happy to find itself gliding along its familiar path as she was to put it there. Another perfect start to another perfect day.
She allowed herself one brief ladylike shake of her mane before trotting off toward the royal gardens. Off at the northern archway leading into the keep she saw Bright Eyes, her chief minister, snort in frustration as he watched her go. Oh, there was so much to do today! And that would make it all the more fun not to do it!
Her guards stood stiffly at attention as she passed. She would have loved to stop and ask how their day was, how the wife and kids were, and if that golden armor wasn't just a little bit hot now that her sun was climbing its way towards the top of the sky. But she knew they wouldn't like that. They wanted her to be perfect and above them, so they could simply delight in her presence. And she could be that for them.
It wasn't as easy as it seemed, being a god. It wasn't what she had expected.
But she mustn't dwell on that. Happy thoughts, Celestia! Rainbows and unicorns!
The wrens and finches were in the garden, politely taking turns singing. That was how birds ought to behave. Birdsong was beautiful and transcendent. Not in her world would it be used to mark out territory, to warn off lust-filled competitors this is MY tree this is MY bitch stay aWAY I'll peck your EYES out—
She gasped as she felt the bloody intentions trickle out of her mind and leak into the world. The songs turned harsh and raucous. She staggered, grasping for control of her thoughts, while she felt the darkness inside her surging upward, sensing a chance to escape—it wasn't FAIR!—One finch cocked his head at another, eyes narrowed, then leapt forward into the air toward his rival—Luna could go far away and let her feelings ALL OUT but she had to stay here and look out for these DAMN PONIES and—
Think happy thoughts.
She regained her footing and stood up straight, panting. A sickly yellowish haze that had gathered about her blew away in the gentle breeze. A patch of withered, brown grass extending several yards around her slowly uncurled its blades as a healthy bright green color spread up once more from its roots.
There. Finches and wrens, singing a four-part interspecies harmony, with the females on alto and soprano and the males on tenor and bass. The way things ought to be.
She drew a deep breath and raised one hoof to wipe her brow.
Then she pranced around to the front of the castle, inhaling the fragrance of the flowers, or merely admiring from a distance those too subtle for her nose. Her royal sleigh was waiting exactly where it should be, with one white pegasus stallion at each of its four corners, every bright feather in place, awaiting her orders. And though it was such a lovely day that she was tempted to spread her own wings and leap into the air right where she was, she knew how disappointed they would be. So she sprang gracefully into the sleigh, and smiled at each of her escorts in turn, and said, "To Ponyville, my dear ponies!"
They rose into the air, and she sat on a red silk cushion and looked out at her lands below her, fields and forests in a checkerboard of bright and dark green, and she knew—knew—in each field and in each home were happy little ponies, and they loved her, and she would not let them down. It was going to be another beautiful day.
She gritted her teeth.
"And now," Gandalf said, "we come to the matter of the Ring-Bearer. For who among us could carry this burden?"
The Council, gathered in the shade of Elrond's porch, looked questioningly at each other, till each saw that none of them knew of whom Gandalf spoke.
Boromir, son of Denethor, rebuked the wizard, saying, "Surely that is the least of our problems. Seldom has an assembly of so many of high repute gathered in one place."
"And that is itself the problem," Gandalf replied sternly. "None of us may carry the Ring. I myself have carried it too long already. For the gravest danger to the Ring-bearer's mission is not the Dark Lord, but the Ring-bearer himself. Or, as may be, herself."
"Herself?" Gimli repeated, incredulous.
"You will meet her shortly," Gandalf said. "She may do what none of us could hope to, for her greatness is that she is the humblest creature I have met in my travels—and I have travelled more than a little. The Ring tempts all to power. It corrupts all whom it touches. Anyone who thinks highly of himself—anyone accustomed to the esteem of others—in short, any one of us—would ourselves become the new Dark Lord long ere we reached Mordor. Ah, I hear her approaching now."
In the distance, hooves drummed against the hard earth of the road approaching Elrond's house. They did not stop, but turned to a sharp ringing as the animal continued onto the paving-stones leading into the house. Soon a small, light-yellow horse with a flowing ribbon of pink mane passed out from the house, under an archway, and stood before them, regarding them with wondering, innocent eyes. The members of the Council likewise stared back in wonder, for great gossamer wings were folded along her sides.
"Um. Hi?" the yellow pegasus mare said. She looked to Gandalf.
"This is Fluttershy, of the Pony folk," the wizard said the the Council. Then turning to her, he said, "Fluttershy. The burden I ask you to bear is a heavy one. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right."
"Okay," Fluttershy said. "If you think so." And Gandalf placed around her neck a silver chain, which bore a plain golden ring of no remark, save for an almost sinister, winking gleam.
Aragorn, son of Arathorn spoke. "You shall not bear it entirely alone. Many who stand before you now already have pledged their lives to see you safely to the land of Mordor, even unto the very crack of Mount Doom."
"Gee," the pegasus mare said, taking stock of all those gathered there. "That's an awful lot of people."
"A shamefully small number, lady," Aragorn said, "to stand against the evils arrayed against you. But if by my life or death I can protect you, I will. You have my sword."
Legolas stepped up. "And you have my bow."
"And my axe,” Gimli said grimly.
"Or ... um ... I could just fly it there," Fluttershy said. "If that's okay with you."
The members of the council looked at each other in wonder.
Gandalf stroked his beard. "I was thinking you could fly back from Mount Doom. After walking all the way there, experiencing many marvellous and terrible adventures, and witnessing the heroic death of at least one of those present here."
And the rest of the council all coughed and shuffled their feet.
Then Elrond spoke. "To walk into Mordor needlessly would be an act of folly."
"Flying's good, too," said Gimli. All save Gandalf nodded in agreement.
"Okay," Fluttershy said. "I'll just go drop this nasty thing in the big boiling volcano, then." And she unfurled her wings and leapt into the air.
"Wait!" Gandalf called after her. "You're missing out on a wonderful learning experience!" But she had already vanished from sight.
All were silent for a time, until at last Elrond spoke again. "This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."
"Hooves," Gandalf corrected, still cross.
"Yes. Small hooves. And to divert the eyes of the great, we must straightaway move on Mordor, though all the might of our armies be naught but a distraction from the mission of this most humble mare—"
"Hi again," Fluttershy said, landing softly on the flagstones before Elrond.
Gandalf spoke softly. "Back so soon? Does this burden weigh heavily, now, my dear Fluttershy? There is no shame in saying so."
Fluttershy shook her head. "Oh, no. I gave the Ring to Rainbow Dash. She's a much better flyer than I am."
"Rainbow Dash?!" Gandalf struck the stone floor with his staff. "Fool!" he cried. "You have doomed us all!"
And thus began the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth, the Age of Awesome. And the shadow of Rainbow Dash fell across the land, and all trembled before the terrible glory of Her rainbow.
Vincent lay on his cot. The sun outside was bright, and the shadow of the maple tree on the canvas roof of his tent was sharp. He had not raised the fly off the roof vents, and the air in the tent was hot. He took another swig from the bottle of whiskey on the floor beside the cot. He should be out guarding the trophies, not getting drunk in his tent. God knew what kind of predators they had in this place.
He drank whiskey from the bottle when he was very happy or very sad. He did not know which it was this time. It had been a clean shot. When he got home they would mount the head on the wall of the lodge and Vincent would be a somebody. Even Sir Gradson had never shot a unicorn. That crazy witch doctor who brought them here knew what he was doing after all.
The creature had walked right into their camp. Sometimes animals did that. It had walked underneath the oak they had hung the carcasses from to drain, and stretched its neck down to sniff the blood on the ground. It hadn't noticed Vincent lying behind a clump of ferns not fifty yards away. The angle had been no good. Its neck had been in the way of its heart, and the Rigby .465 left holes that made taxidermists cry. There were mosquitoes in the shade under the ferns, and they had bitten his arms and face as he waited for the thing to lift its head.
"Daddy," he heard a little girl call from outside.
"Go 'way," Vincent muttered.
Brett thought the lodge was going to mount his gryphon over the fireplace, in the empty space to the left of Sir Gradson's tigers. When he and Molo returned, he would see the unicorn stallion's carcass hanging from the oak tree and would know that his gryphon would never be mounted over the fireplace next to the tigers.
"Daddy!" the little girl screamed.
Vincent cursed, and took another drink. "Leave me 'lone!" he shouted. "You aren't real!"
The gryphon had also screamed, and kept screaming for a long time, after Brett gut-shot it. Brett always jerked the trigger. A loop of intestine had fallen out, and the thing had attacked it, yanking it out like a long, pink-purple earthworm. If it had flown off instead, they never would have found the body.
Now the little girl was sobbing. She sounded almost real.
"Honey," Vincent called hoarsely. "It wasn't Daddy's fault. Daddy didn't wanna leave you. Your mommy wanted a somebody." He rolled onto his back and stared at the patterns the maple leaves cast on the tent roof. "But 's gon' be okay," he slurred quietly. "Daddy's a somebody now."
The sobbing continued. "Daddy... Daddy... Oh, Daddy..."
Vincent staggered to his feet. He stumbled once on his way to the end of the tent. He was terrible with children, even when he was sober and they were real. "Hold on, honey," he said as he opened the tent flap. "Daddy's coming."
Brian drifted, weightless, in a dark tunnel of what looked like clouds. Far above him, a light twinkled invitingly. He let his eyes close as it drew him gently upwards, until—
He blinked and raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sudden light. It poured in through a rift in the side of the tunnel, where a familiar alicorn, flanked by two pegasus guards barded all in gold, stood on a platform of cloud. Her horn glowed brightly, pulling him towards them.
"Princess Celestia!" Brian shouted, as he touched down softly on the cloud. "You're real!" He looked up the tunnel towards the light at the other end. "And you saved my life!"
Celestia stepped forward to meet him, and her laugh made Brian think of a champagne waterfall. "My dear Brian. No, you're as dead as they come. Didn't you see the size of that truck?"
"Oh. No, I was texting."
"Of course you were," she said. She came a step closer. "Brian, because you were such a—devoted fan in life, I've decided to make you a very special offer. How would you like to spend eternity in Ponyville?"
Brian clapped his hands to his ears, bent his knees and head, and yelled, "Squeee!"
Celestia blinked. "Squee? Did you really just say squee? Don't you know that's onomatopoeia?"
"Never mind. Does that mean yes?"
"Yes! Omigosh yes! This is going to be the Best ... Afterlife ..."
Celestia quickly raised one hoof to Brian's mouth, cutting him off. "Wonderful!" she said, with a smile that would melt glaciers. "This is going to make me very happy, Brian."
"Really? So, you're not mad about...." He fell silent.
She bent her head down to him with one raised eyebrow and a coquettish smile. "Oh, come now. You can tell me."
"You know," he said, looking down while shifting back and forth from one foot to the other, "the fan-fiction."
"Fan-fiction? It must have slipped my mind. I'm terribly sorry. What was it called?"
"Um ... you know...." Brian mumbled something and began to blush.
"Sorry, what was that?"
"Molestia does Equestria."
"Oh!" she said, brightening. "I think I remember it now. It was pretty long, wasn't it?"
"There were a lot of characters in the show," he said, scraping one foot on a cloud.
"I seem to recall an especially steamy chapter with Featherweight."
"And Tank the Tortoise."
"Tank doesn't get enough attention."
"And a rock. What was that about?"
"Rocks need love too!"
"No, they don't." She nickered pleasantly. "But it was all in good fun. I've been known to play a prank or two myself." She turned to regard the two guards waiting just out of earshot. "Just out of curiosity, Brian. Why didn't you ever ship me with one of the strapping hunks of stallionhood that I always keep by my side? It's not like I'm being subtle. I've got more eye candy that a Bond villain."
Brian blinked. He glanced at the guards, then whispered, "Well, just between us, those guys weren't exactly chosen for their personalities."
"No, they certainly weren't," Celestia said. She closed her eyes for a moment and smiled absently. "In fact," she said, "that reminds me. I really must get back to—" she glanced over her withers again at the two guards standing ramrod straight, a fine layer of sweat on their flanks glistening in the bright sun—"some Sun-goddess things. So long, Brian. Enjoy eternity!"
"Boy, will I! I can't wait to find out who really ships with who!"
Celestia rolled her eyes. "With whom, Brian," she corrected. "Just once in your life—oh, too late. Anyway, don't be silly. There's no shipping in G3!"
She winked, then she and her guards faded into stardust and sunbeams.
The light dimmed, the clouds dissipated into a fine mist, and Brian found himself standing in a field of grass covered with bright flowers. Butterflies even more colorful than the flowers fluttered here and there, leaving trails of glitter behind them. Soft, tinkling, unrelentingly cheerful music played somewhere in the distance. As the mist evaporated, Brian saw a group of brightly-colored ponies further off. They were puffy-looking, as if made out of marshmallows, and they looked back at him with the whole-hearted smiles of children. Or half-wits.
"Hey, everybody!" a pony said in a squeaky voice. "It's a new friend to play with!"
A differently-colored but otherwise identical pony said in an almost-identical voice, "I love having friends! Don't you love having friends?"
"Oh, yes! I'm just so excited. Aren't you so excited?"
"Yes! I am excited!" The marshmallow ponies thundered softly towards him. The gentle, chiming music started the same saccharine refrain for a third time.
"Da buck?" Brian said. He looked up to the skies. "Princess Celestia! Help!"
But Princess Celestia was busy.
Looking back, I have no real regrets. Questions, maybe. I could have had had a family. I could have been less focused on impressing you. I could have spent less time reading and more time with my friends. All that learning is going to die with me now anyway. Maybe I could have even been a little ... crazier in my youth. I didn’t know that was a one-time opportunity.
But the thing that bothers me most isn’t a regret. Because I know I’d do it again.
When I used to live in Ponyville, we had a mail-mare who was ... eccentric.
Oh, Celestia, that’s a stupid excuse. I was more eccentric than she was.
She was sweet, okay? I liked her. Everypony liked her, I think. I just liked her in small doses.
I mean, that mare was a walking disaster area. Like the time she destroyed half of town hall by accident while trying to fix it. Come to think of it, I don’t recall ever seeing her again after that. Hard to imagine somepony could disappear, in a town as small as Ponyville, without there being talk.
I hope she’s happy, wherever she is.
I know this is the part where I’m supposed to regret not trying harder to be her friend, and give some lesson on how we can learn something from everypony. Sure, you can learn something from everypony, if you listen long enough. But I barely had enough time for the friends I had! The friends I enjoyed being with.
I think I can honestly say I never learned anything from Derpy.
I had my own life to live. I had my own problems. I wasn’t as happy as I pretended to be. I needed my friends. I needed to write those letters to you, fatuous as they seem now. I needed to grab onto anything that would make my life more meaningful, more ... noticeable. The older I got, the more I needed it; and the less time there was for anything that didn’t help me feel better. The last thing I needed, when I was struggling every minute to stay afloat in a sea of despair, was to have my ear talked off for half an hour by somepony I couldn’t even understand half the time.
What? No, Pinkie Pie was different. Though it is funny, now that you point it out. Talking to Pinkie made me feel better, even when I had no idea what she was talking about. Talking to Derpy just made me sad. Or irritated.
There are only so many things to say about muffins!
So I avoided her. I memorized her route and schedule. I don’t mean I was like a, an un-stalker. But I knew that, if I went to Sugarcube Corner between 2 and 3pm, there was risk of Derpy.
Oh, come on. She dropped a piano on me. I think anypony can be excused for avoiding somepony who dropped a piano on them. That’s just classical conditioning.
Pinkie Pie never avoided Derpy. She loved talking to Derpy as much as she enjoyed talking to anypony. She was indiscriminate. And Fluttershy, of course. To somepony who spent the morning talking with rabbits and chickens, Derpy probably seemed like a stellar conversationalist.
Did that sound condescending? I guess it was.
Truth is, I always thought I was a little bit better than my friends. You can probably relate to that.
I had to do things. You invested a lot of time in me. I had to honor that. And I had to honor the gifts I was given. Ponies need somepony who can figure out how to grade a track so the train doesn’t fall off, or how filling in a bog to eliminate mosquitoes will affect the apple harvest. Or when Nightmare Moon is coming back from her thousand-year exile. I saved that town! Several times! So don’t tell me it wasn’t worth it. I had to know things. I didn’t know ahead of time what I’d need to know. So I had to know as much as I possibly could.
I couldn’t let myself be the kind of pony who could take pleasure in ... just ... being with somepony else, somepony who wasn’t helping me along that path. I didn’t have that luxury. Rarity would have understood. So would Applejack. Heck, Rainbow Dash would probably have understood.
Stop looking at me like that. I didn’t do it for me. Do you think it was fun? Toiling late into the night, every night, on things whose importance was so subtle that other ponies would have simply laughed at me even if I’d been able to explain to them what I was doing?
Maybe it was a little fun.
But I could have had lovers. I was famous, you know. I could have had foals. They’d be here with me, now. I gave that up. For you. For everypony.
I hope it was worth it.
What? You’re really going to let me off that easy?
I know you tried to warn me. Time and time again. “Twilight, make some friends. Twilight, don’t spend all day indoors.” I’m not blaming you. Okay, maybe I was blaming you.
Maybe I did do it all for myself. I thought that if I did something amazing, ponies would like me.
I never did "make" any friends. I just took the friendships that were offered me, for reasons I never understood. I was never exciting or cool. I could never make anypony feel better just by talking to them. All I had to offer was braininess, but that wasn't what they wanted.
I was Derpy all along.
I was better than them. But they were better ponies than me. Why did they give me their friendship? Did I do anything more for them than Derpy did for me? Did I do anything more for you?
I never understood friendship at all.
But I tried. I tried very hard.
Please tell me I’m not a bad pony.
The young man in the torn khaki flight suit, blood-stained and sweating, grasped the gantry's steel supports with his remaining arm as his lightsaber—still clenched in his right hand—fell into the endless abyss below him. He stared in horror at the black-armoured figure looking down on him.
The dark Jedi switched off his lightsaber. Its ominous humming stopped, leaving only the sounds of the endless wind rushing downward past them both. He returned it to somewhere within his cloak and reached out one arm towards the other man.
"Join me," he said, "and I will complete your education. With our combined posting, we can end this destructive trolling and bring love and toleration to 4chan. Join me, young Skytrotter—"
"Stop it! My name is Skywalker. Skywalker!"
"Just go with me for a moment on this. I've got some really cute vector avatars from DeviantArt you can use. Let me show you—"
"No!" The beaten jedi's hoarse cry fell away into the vast tunnel and disappeared without an echo. He stared downward for a moment as if contemplating the drop. Then he pulled himself up a few inches closer to the gantry railing with his remaining arm and clung to it tightly. "You spammed my email with lolcats," he said. "You forced my friends to watch your Lego stop-motion animations. But I'll never join you in your furry depredations!"
The black-suited figure's steady mechanized breathing was interrupted by a sharp inhalation. He drew back from the precipice. "What?"
"I said, I'll never—"
"We're not furries."
"—dress up in a cheap polyester costume—"
"We're not furries."
"—at a convention at a seedy hotel—"
“You seem to have an inordinate fascination with this topic.”
“—and slide my hand over a taut, zebra-striped rump, feeling the soft fur—"
"We're NOT—" The dark figure threw up both arms in frustration. "Silence! You leave me no choice, young Skytrotter—"
"—but to provide you with ... a demonstration." He reached into his robes and pulled out a simple, oblong device about half the size of a lightsaber, and pointed it to the wall across from them. "Observe." He pressed a button on the object's surface.
A vast stretch of the black metal surface opposite them began to glow. For a moment, dim figures could be made out on its surface, which quickly resolved into bright scenes of a forest and a small town in all the colors of a pastel rainbow. And that terrible music that haunted Luke's dreams began to play—
I used to wonder what friendship could be
Until you all shared its magic with me
Luke threw back his head in despair. "NOOOOO!"
One month later, the same two figures sat on an avocado-green sofa, in the center of a room with wood-veneer panelling and a horrible 1970's shag carpet. Pastel ponies ran across the screen in front of them, until finally they were replaced by credits scrolling to that very same music. The younger man, holding a bowl of popcorn in his new cyborg arm, turned to the older.
"That was the best. Episode. Ever!"
The taller figure turned to the other and raised one black-gloved fist towards him. "Bro-hoof, son!"
Luke’s arm paused in mid-bro-hoof. “Wait—‘son’?”
The dark jedi reached for the popcorn. “Oh. Remind me to tell you about that sometime. But first, I hear there’s a new Friendship is Witchcraft....”
On the way back from Fluttershy's cottage, Twilight almost didn't register the familiar voice coming from a dead-end street on the outskirts of Ponyville. "Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one...."
She had a familiar sense of foreboding. She knew that she should continue walking and not stop to find out what Pinkie Pie was doing. Also, that she would stop anyway.
Twilight walked down the street towards the sound, until she saw a familiar pink pony, still chanting, jumping high up into the air and then landing on a ponyhole cover in the middle of the street, over and over again. A crowbar was slotted into place just under the lip of the cover, as if she had been about to remove it and then gotten distracted by a sudden fit of jumping.
"Pinkie Pie?" Twilight asked. "What are you doing?"
Pinkie landed on the ponyhole cover. She cocked her head at Twilight. She looked down at the iron cover. She looked back at Twilight.
"Is this a trick question?" she asked.
Twilight shook her head violently, trying to clear it of the impression that Pinkie was making more sense than she was. "Okay," she said, "I can see that you're jumping up and down on a ponyhole cover and shouting 'twenty-one!'"
Pinky nodded eagerly and gave Twilight a wide, congratulatory smile. "You got it!" She began jumping again. "Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"But why are you jumping up and down on a ponyhole cover and shouting 'twenty-one!'?" Twilight shoulded up at her.
Pinky came to a stop again. She raised one hoof to her chin, perplexed. "I don't think I understand the question."
"What's not to understand? Why—"
"Stop! That's it. That word. It confuses me."
"Yes! That's the one."
"No, I mean—" Twilight scrunched up her nose in thought. "Why does it rain?"
"That's easy!" Pinkie said. "Because pegasus ponies make it rain! Didn't you know that, Twilight? Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"Of course I knew that! My point was that you understood the question. The use of the word 'why' indicates I am asking what caused some event."
"Yes," Pinky said, between jumps, "I. Know. That." She came to a stop again and leaned forward to come nose-to-nose with Twilight. "But since I am a sentient and purposeful agent, my will constitutes the final cause of all my actions, and your asking me for a cause of my jumping up and down when you can clearly see its final cause constitutes a violation of the Gricean conversational maxims, silly!" She began jumping again. "Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"Gaaaaah!" Twilight said. "How do you even know about Aristrotle and Grice?"
"Who? Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"Gaaah-aah-aah!" Twilight said, hoping to drive the point home this time.
She began pacing back and forth, while Pinkie kept jumping and shouting "twenty-one" at the pinnacle of each leap. Phrasing her question, Twilight realized, was a semantic problem. Pinkie literally did not know why she did what she did. But Twilight was still curious; and that proved that "why," at least in the sense of intentions, wasn't what she really wanted to know.
"Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one...."
Pinkie Pie's lack of conscious insight into her motivation wasn't mere cluelessness, Twilight realized. Most people in fact had no conscious insight into any of their motivations; they merely invented them after the fact, as demonstrated by experiments in which people were asked to justify decisions that were the opposite of the ones they had actually made. Pinkie was actually more self-aware than most in apprehending her lack of self-awareness.
"Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one...."
Perhaps, Twilight thought, she should take a behaviorist approach. She was interested in the operational effects of this activity, not Pinkie Pie's motivations. And yet, she could not treat Pinkie Pie as a black box, as B.F. Skinhorse would have advocated, since the primary effects were probably some subjective emotional payoff.
But, if she focused on the action's conscious effects, rather than its conscious causes....
"Pinkie!" Twilight finally said.
Pinkie stopped. "Yes?"
"How do you feel when you jump up in the air on a ponyhole cover and shout 'twenty-one'?"
"I feel great!"
"Hmm," Twilight said. "Not really helpful. Wait—hold on, give me a moment." She smiled slyly. "I've got it. Pinkie, how would I feel if I jumped up and down on a ponyhole cover and shouted 'twenty-one'?"
"Well, that's a silly question!" Pinkie said with a laugh.
"GAA—Why is it any sillier than jumping up and down and shouting 'twenty-one'?"
"Because," Pinkie anwered, "the only way to answer it is to do it!"
"You're ... right," Twilight said. "You're actually right." Twilight shook her head again, even more violently.
"Course I am! Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"Pinkie ... Pinkie!"
Pinkie came to a stop yet again, smiling as excitedly as if she were just seeing Twilight for the first time. "Yes, Twilight?"
"Pinkie, may I jump on your ... um ... can I try that?"
"Okie-dokie-lokie!" Pinkie stepped aside, and Twilight stepped on to the heavy iron cover. She looked up and down the street to make sure no ponies were in sight.
"Well," she said, "here goes."
Twilight began hopping up and down.
"You've got to count!" Pinkie said.
"Twenty-one.... twenty-one.... "
"Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
Twilight grunted as she jumped as high as she could, and shouted, "Twenty-ONE! Twenty-ONE—"
At the top of Twilight's jump, Pinkie stomped on the crowbar with all four hooves. The ponyhole cover flipped off like a tiddlywink, and Pinkie watched as Twilight dropped into the hole with barely enough time to register a look of surprise before she disappeared from sight. A loud and disturbing thud came out of the hole.
Pinkie walked over to the cover, and kicked it until it slid back into place over the hole. Then she walked onto it, and began jumping up and down again.
"Twenty-two, twenty-two, twenty-two...."
Celestia trotted into the hedge garden behind the castle. The sky was a bright hazy blue, the heat of the sun drove the aroma off the leaves of the lavender and rosemary bushes and into the air, birds sang, and beetles buzzed. This day was all the more beautiful to her because she had waited so long for it.
She quickly found the lopsided statue of her old draconequine nemesis. Her horn began to glow, and she touched it to the statue's belly. A patch of color appeared on the white marble there and began to spread. The frozen white fur glowed with color and began to ripple in the wind, and the scales glistened in the sunlight. Last of all, the stone eyes came to life. Discord quickly locked eyes with the princess. He jumped away and arched his back in a more threatening pose.
"Back for more so soon?" he asked. "Did you finally tire of your little proteges? Or are they waiting around the corner to blast me again with—"
Celestia raised a hoof to interrupt. "No, no, stop. Time's up."
The cocky look on Discord's face vanished. "What? Are you sure?" His moustache drooped sulkily. "I spent an entire year preparing my banter!"
"I'm sure. Add it up. I ruled the first three thousand years. Then you had a thousand, then I had a thousand."
Discord pursed his lips moodily. "I think the first two thousand were more of a tie."
Celestia smiled her radiant sun-goddess smile. "If you say so. Now, let's see. I counted two hundred seventy-five thousand, three hundred and ninety-one songs, poems, stories, plays, paintings, sculptures, and other artistic works about me, and ... forty-four thousand, six hundred and seventeen about you. Oooh. That must smart."
"I'm more difficult to draw!" Discord protested.
"Nonsense," Celestia said. "You're far easier, since it's practically impossible to draw you wrong."
"Now you're just being mean, Tia," Discord whined. "I don't think I want to play anymore."
"Don't be a sore loser," Celestia said. "Just a short game. Two thousand years."
Discord eyed her warily. "No turning anypony into a statue this time?"
Celestia's smile lost a little of its radiance. "Oh ..." She kicked a pebble along the flagstone path with one hoof. "All right. No statues."
Discord frowned down at the ground for several seconds, then looked up at her. "Okay," he said reluctantly. "But this time, I get to play white."
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I clicked weak and weary,
Thru many a vile and bilious image on slash-b of yore,
Amidst the trolling, tired and phony, suddenly I saw a pony,
With noodly arms like macaroni, and a pastel-hued decor.
"'Tis some anime," I muttered, "with those big eyes that I deplore—
Only this, and nothing more."
Yet so heavy was my sadness, I was seized with sudden madness,
despite the years of pony badness, for a torrent of that mare.
Quick I turned with pirate scheming, to a Youtube channel streaming
to the phosphor brightly gleaming, vector art from everywhere.
Rainbow-coloured pony gladness, in the monitor's flickering glare.
"Just one show is all, I swear."
Pony followed on the heel of pony, pleasant was the feel of
ponies on the print from We Love Fine that soon adorned my chest.
Daymares took me on fantastic flights of fancy, and the plastic
figurines I'd purchased "for my niece" still lingered on my desk.
Half the ringtones on my phone were songs composed by Sherclop Pones,
Daniel Ingram wrote the rest.
Heretofore, I'd been laconic; yet those ponies, so iconic
(plus a little gin and tonic) had me writing fics galore.
My family, seeing me so Byronic, feared that I had turned moronic,
I swore that it was all ironic, as my fics grew by the score,
As my ships grew less platonic, and my tags included gore.
Far too late 'twas, when I realized I had struck a Faustian deal, and
tiny hooves would softly steal the reins that held my soul in sway.
And my stomach soon was feeling, like the remnants, still congealing,
Of another Happy Meal, forebodings of the price I'd pay.
And at the pony gods I hurled the vilest curse I yet could say:
"Sweet Celestia, what the hay?"
"Ponies!" said I, "things of Hasbro!—atop the pyramid of Maslow,
By the grace of Leader Kibo, leave me browse in peace once more!
Haunt not all mine waking hours with thine pastel-coloured flowers,
Choreographed thundershowers have no place in Edinburgh!"
But the ponies kept returning, with pony plots my brain was churning,
With a never-ending roar.
And the ponies, always grinning, now I fear are just beginning
To drive my feverish brain to spinning ponyfictions evermore.
And my eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is scheming,
As the lamp-light o'er me streaming throws my shadow on the floor;
Pointed ears and nostrils flaring, in my shadow on the floor.
Sombra excelled at all forms of magic, but his special talent—some would say obsession—was alchemy. He specialized in the properties of esoteric forms of matter. In the spring, he would leave his village pulling a small wagon behind him, and where he went, no one knew. When he returned in the fall, his little wagon would be full of scrolls and tomes from foreign lands, written in nearly-forgotten tongues. Then he would spend the winter in a laboratory he had dug deep under his house, working from before sunrise until past sundown. Sometimes passers-by saw a warm glow or sudden flash of light play on the crude stone steps leading down, or smelled sweet scents or noxious fumes.
One cold winter evening, Sombra staggered up the steps with deep circles under his eyes and a strange burning light within them. A few crystal ponies, hurrying by to reach the warmth of their homes before nightfall, stopped and stared. He blinked in the sunlight, then held his arms above his head. Something brightly-colored, with an iridescent glow, oozed from his hooves and splatted on the ground before him like fat, rancid raindrops. It trickled down his fetlocks and pooled in quivering slimy mounds on his shoulders.
"Behold!" Sombra called in a booming voice that trembled with just a hint of mad laughter. "I have done it! I have discovered the secret of—"
But the glowing substance had seeped into his ears, and the few watchers later swore that his eyes changed color and a sickly green smoke came out of of his throat. He stumbled forward, his now-glowing eyes bulging wildly.
"What?" a pony called. "What did you discover?"
Sombra clutched at his throat, struggling to speak, but all that came out was, "Gack!"
This is an adaptation of Ursula LeGuin's story "The ones who walk away from Omelas." It is "alternate universe" and "dark". If you don't want to read something sad about an Equestria not quite like the one you love, DON'T.
Somewhere far away from here, although no one who knows will say exactly where, lies the magical land of Equestria, where brightly-colored ponies tend rich valleys of fields and orchards, crowd each other hurrying to and fro through the cobblestone streets of their great cities, or bask in the sunlight on the soft cottony backs of clouds. The capital city of Canterlot gleams white, clinging improbably halfway up the side of a mountain, from which the loving eye of a powerful and benevolent princess watches over them all.
These gentle creatures are said to be the friendliest of all the races of the earth. The unicorns with their natural grace and powerful magic, the hot-blooded pegasi diving through the clouds, and the wise and dependable earth ponies all live in harmony, taking pride in their own abilities and talents even while admiring those of their fellow Equestrians. They live in such unnatural harmony that even the wind, rain, sun, and moon obey them, knowing that the time and place for their respective work will be planned and agreed on for the good of all.
A visitor to Equestria might brave a few dust clouds to take a seat on one of the plain but sturdy wooden benches lined around some fallow field and watch local earth pony stallions test each other in a friendly game of hoofball. He might visit a village marketplace and taste for himself that unnamed sixth flavor found only in food grown by those who love and are loved by the earth. Or he might stand in line outside the palace gates on a cold Canterlot morning, to be let into the yard with a hushed crowd of ponies at precisely five minutes before dawn and silently watch the silhouette of the sun princess emerge onto the balcony above, ready to summon the light for a new day. There is work, hard work, and there is money, and clothes and residences signifying higher or lower status, for those who care to play the games common to all civilizations. But if a pony tires of all that, there is always grass, and peace, and friends.
It is, as I said, a magical land, and besides ponies there are dragons, manticores, and other nightmare creatures, so that the visitor might wonder at the casual freedom of the inhabitants, who let their foals play near woods full of ravenous beasts. But it is part of the magic of that place, that no pony ever comes to harm from these things. There is an invisible line, inscribed with powerful magic, over which terrors may not cross.
And yet, every year, ponies can be seen leaving the fields and the cities and the clouds, walking or flying outward, always moving directly away from Canterlot and the watchful eyes within it. They do not say where they are going, and no one asks, nor watches them as they go. The ponies they pass on the way do not look at them, and they do not look at those ponies, and the travellers meet each others' eyes only reluctantly. When they have passed, the birds begin singing again, and the sky is again as blue and the grass as green as it was before.
But every thirty or fifty years, the blue drips from the sky, and the green fades from the grass, and the ponies of Equestria give each other extra-hearty greetings through tight lips and glance uneasily in the direction of the mountain and the white city which clings to it. At those times many ponies can be seen walking away, especially young mares big with foal. Some travel with silent, brooding stallions at their sides, their eyes cold and dark. Some travel alone. Those least-able, heavy and near term, walk most urgently, and their wide eyes flash white easily.
The ponies who stay, wait. When the sky has faded from the color of a robin's egg to that of slate and the grass has wilted and yellowed, a collection of dignified-looking noble ponies trots up to the palace and requests an audience with the princess. They are brought inside, and flashes like lightning are seen from the windows, and an angry shout heard that penetrates the thick glass, and soon the noble ponies flee from the palace and rush headlong across the manicured gardens in their haste to escape it.
When the slate sky has faded to the color of dust, and the grass has died and shrivelled into stiff brown claws, a herd of angry-looking farmers and townsponies bursts into the palace grounds and demands an audience with the princess. They are brought inside, and from within can be heard a great sobbing, and soon the farmers and townsponies walk slowly from the palace, dragging their hooves, their faces ashen.
When the dust sky has bleached to the color of bone, and the dead grass has blown away, a silent procession of parents approaches the palace with their heads down, and request only that their foals, who stumble behind them on thin legs and wait meekly with hollow eyes, may enter the palace grounds and eat what scraggly shrubs and withered grasses remain, for nothing else in the land remains to eat.
Then, and only then, the call goes out from the palace for a volunteer. To answer this call is the land's greatest honor, and the names of those who have done so are a closely-kept state secret, though it is certain they are richly rewarded. Some say that sometimes no volunteer can be found and one must be chosen, though I do not know if this is true.
I have said that Equestria is a magical land, but in truth, all lands are magical. There are laws, deep laws, some known by only a few, some as yet undiscovered, governing all the earth and beyond. The deepest magic of all is how these few simple laws combine to give birth to matter, energy, and life. Equestria is distinguished only by its inhabitants' ability, at times, to reach a hoof down into those cold, vast streams. They may not stop its flow, or divert it to another final destination. They may only redirect, sending it briefly here rather than there. The princess who watches over Equestria is most skilled in such diversions, and in the trading-off of many small things that will scarcely be missed for one precious thing—or of one precious thing for a great many smaller things. I have said Equestria is unnaturally harmonious, but beneath the surface it balances out. The deep laws must be observed.
Eventually, some sad-eyed mare creeps up to the back gate of the palace at Canterlot, and the guards admit her while keeping their eyes straight forward. She follows someone—some say it is the princess herself, some say only an old gray nag—into the palace, into the basement, through an unmarked door, and into dark tunnels reaching deep into the heart of the mountain. There she waits in a secret room, attended on foreleg and back by a host of hoofmaidens, in as great luxury as the wealth of Canterlot will allow, until it is her time. Then she is escorted through a plain door covered with decades of dust, into a vast, dark, foul-smelling stone cavern, where a vast pile of hay has been stacked in the meantime, and births her foal on its rocky floor.
She may not lick it, or touch it, or call out to it. She is allowed one look, by torchlight, which is immediately extinguished before the foal's eyes have opened, for it must never see light, hear another's voice, or feel another's touch. Then her hoofmaidens escort her out of the cavern, and as the foal gasps in its first breath and struggles to its shaky feet to take its first stumbling steps in the dark, the heavy door through which no sound can penetrate is sealed behind them, not to be opened again until the next time that the deep laws require balancing.
And as the grass springs back to its verdant green, and the sky regains a healthy blue flush, another wave of ponies can be seen walking away from Equestria. They will never be seen again in Equestria, nor will their names ever again be spoken. Some say that the magic demands this, too, but I myself think there may be a simpler answer.
She nodded absently and pushed her way through a cluster of reporters, the mugs of cider in her teeth her excuse. The orange earth pony's Stetson was easy to see above the crowd, up against the far wall, a dark unmoving island on the edge of a shifting multicolored sea.
She set both mugs down on the small, round standing table between them. "Courtesy of the Wonderbolts."
"Thanks, Dash," Applejack said. "Guess I win on both ends of this transaction."
They each took a long draw of cider and looked out at the ponies milling around the dance floor. There wouldn't be any dancing for at least an hour, after the fanboys had gotten their signatures, the reporters their soundbites, and the schmoozers their business cards. And if some fanboy could keep up with her dancing, then–
Dash leaned over and nudged Applejack's elbow, and nodded over towards where Twilight, Derpy, and Fluttershy were being chatted up by three stallions. Twilight seemed to be arguing a point with one of them, Fluttershy was backed up against the wall and nodding intermittent reluctant affirmatives, and Derpy was leaning forward excitedly, as if the story the agitated unicorn across from her was telling were the most fascinating thing she could remember. Dash didn't doubt that it was.
"I should totally set them up," she said.
Applejack rolled her eyes.
"I could too!" Dash insisted. "You see how Twilight's about to wreck it for all of them? I go over there, give her a big hug, be all buddy-buddy with them, sprinkle a little Wonderbolt glitter, and, bam, it's over. Even Twilight's dancing won't be able to scare them off then."
Applejack snorted. "Ah'm sure Fluttershy would be eternally grateful for that."
"Or Derpy's eye," Dash added.
Applejack looked away.
"And we have to stay for the dancing. Just to see if Derpy is worse than Twilight."
Rainbow Dash frowned. "Sure, sure. I understand." She took a longer drink and gulped it down. "You gotta stick up for her. I respect that, AJ. I really do. It was hard enough to get anything done dragging around Pinkie and Fluttershy. I can't imagine how you don't go crazy with a third–"
"She's loyal. That's all the job requires."
The two ponies both looked away. Off to the left, a DJ was setting up for karaoke.
Rainbow Dash took another long look across the room at Derpy, then pushed her empty mug away from her. "On second thought, I saw a cute stallion in the corner with stars in his eyes. I oughta snap him up before one of my teammates does."
"If it makes you happy."
"It does," Dash said. "Very. You oughta try it sometime. You staying at the palace?"
Applejack shook her head. "The Sun's Rise. Less fuss."
"I'll stop in and see you after, okay?"
Applejack raised her eyebrows. "After?"
"I'm fast," Dash said. "You should know that."
"What about your friends?" Applejack nodded to a couple of other Wonderbolts out on the floor, surrounded by reporters.
The hair on Rainbow's neck rose.
Applejack fiddled with her hat. "I mean, sure, Dash. Come on round by after. That'll be nice."
Rainbow set off for the other side of the club, where she'd idly noticed the stallion half an hour ago. He wasn't really all that cute, but she might give him a chance. Or she might just step outside, climb into the night air, then fold her wings in tight and dive down the side of the mountain until the air pressure squeezed any pointless thoughts out of her head.