After it was all over, the fires put out and most of the wreckage cleaned up, Pinkie Pie sat with her friends in the shade of the big oak tree beside the stream in Applejack's south orchard, clouds drifting across the perfect summer afternoon, and started deciding what parts of the story she would tell and what parts she would carry to her grave.
"Well, to start with," she said after Spike had poured seven glasses of lemonade and passed them around, "most of it was Twilight's fault."
"Me??" Twilight sputtered the sip she'd just taken through her straw. "What did I do??"
Pinkie spread her front hoofs. "You gave me the mirror."
Twilight closed her eyes. "I swear, I am never going to look at another one of those as long as I live!"
A gasp from Rarity. "Darling, tell me you're joking!"
Fluttershy covered her mouth and giggled while Applejack cleared her throat, the sour smell of guilt wafting up from her mane and making Pinkie's nose twitch. "Reckon I'd better take summa that blame, too, then, seeing as how I's the one dug the dang thing outta the barn in the first place."
"I told you!" Dashie sprang into a hover, her front legs bunched like she wanted to punch things. "If you'da just let me smash it after that first night—!"
"What??" Pinkie couldn't stop herself from leaping up, but she did manage not to grab the blue pegasus and shake her. "No, no, no, no, no, Dashie! That woulda been the worst thing that ever coulda happened anywhere in the whole entire world!"
They all blinked, and Rarity cleared her throat, her horn glowing to adjust her parasol. "Worse than everything that actually did happen, you mean?"
That made Pinkie stop, but— "Yes," she said with a nod. "If Rainbow Dash had broken that mirror, or if I'd never seen it that day at Twilight's..."
Enraptured, Pinkie Pie reached a hoof out to touch the silver framework of the object leaning against the wall between two of the library’s bookshelves. "It's so shiny and shimmery and much much more than three-dimensional! What magical, marvelous, miraculous thing is this, Twilight??"
"Uhhh...," her friend said from across the room. "It's a mirror, Pinkie."
Pinkie cocked her head. Rectangular and a little taller than her, it did look like a mirror, and the pink pony with the rainbow-striped saddlebags that was gazing at her from within it might have appeared to be her reflection— "To the untrained eye perhaps," she said aloud.
The Twilight Sparkle in that backwards world glanced up from the book she was nosing the wrong way through. "No, it's a mirror, all right." Twilight's voice came from behind Pinkie, but the duplicate unicorn cleverly mimicked the movements of her mouth. "I was looking for something I could use to build Spike his own telescope, and Applejack remembered she had this out in her barn. But the glass is too pitted and warped, so... Could you use a mirror, Pinkie?"
Everything Twilight wasn't saying sent such a storm of twitches through her, Pinkie gasped in shock and delight. "You're absolutely right! It's my destiny, isn't it?" She struck a heroic pose and couldn't help admiring the similar stance her counterpart took. "I must guard this portal against those monsters who would dare invade our beloved Equestria with their...their—" She rubbed her chin. "Should they have slime-dripping tentacles or bone-crushing teeth, d'you think?"
Glancing back and forth, Pinkie saw each Twilight wearing that furrowed expression Pinkie so often saw on other ponies. "Excuse me?" the Twilights asked.
Pinkie clapped her hoofs. "Of course! They need both!" Pressing herself against the cold surface of the infernal device, she dug her snout into her saddlebags, pulled out a mouthful of pink and purple streamers, and quickly lashed the thing to her back. "Fear not!" she announced. "They! Shall! Not! Pass!" Trying to rear up and scissor her front legs dramatically, she misjudged how heavy her new burden was and ended up sprawling face first onto the floor, the mirror sliding forward to bop her in the back of the neck.
A moment of effort got her hoofs under her again, and she turned a triumphal grin toward the one remaining Twilight. "Fear not!" she said in her most reassuring tones. "The gateway remains secure!" And with a toss of her mane, she galloped toward the library's front door.
"But..." she heard Twilight call. "It's just a mirror!"
Rolling in the grass, Dashie hooted like a barn owl. "Now that, I'm sorry I missed!"
Twilight was shaking her head. "I checked that mirror three times the next day! There was nothing even remotely magical about it!"
"Well, actually..." Rarity pointed her horn at a spoon, and it rose, tapped more sugar into her glass. "All mirrors are magical. I've in fact had more than one ensemble I've put together actually change in measurable ways the first time the client looks at herself wearing it."
"Huh." Applejack took a pull from her straw. "All I know is: Granny Smith said that mirror'd sat on its own in the barn long as she could remember and that she didn't have no idea where it come from." She gave Pinkie a grin. "Just waiting for you, I s'ppose, sugar cube."
Fluttershy shuddered. "Destiny always makes me nervous."
A clearing of throat from Twilight. "Well, strictly speaking, there's no such thing as 'destiny.'" And Pinkie almost cheered when the unicorn actually made little air quotes with her hoofs. "We're all born as free agents, able to choose whatever path we might wish to take."
Dashie blew a gust of air through her lips. "Excuse me, but those of us who were born 180% awesome, we've pretty much got no choice." She flapped her wings, a cloud forming behind her out of thin air, and she leaned against it like a big pillow. "Yep, yep, yep. Destined for greatness."
Applejack gave a snort of her own. "Hard work's what does it, Rainbow, not any sorta destiny thing. Or are you saying all that practice you do ev'ry day don't amount to nothing?"
With a wave of her hoof, Dashie closed her eyes. "I practice because I'm awesome, not because I'm trying to make myself more awesome; I mean, that wouldn't even be, like, physically possible!"
"Uh-huh." Applejack stared at her. "You know that don't make sense, right?"
"Girls, please." Rarity looked like she wanted to make a rude noise, too, but Pinkie was pretty sure she didn't allow herself to do that sort of thing. "It's six of one and half a dozen of the other."
"Oooo!" Pinkie leaned forward. "Unless it's a baker's dozen! 'Cause that's thirteen! And half of that would be six-and-a-half! And that's just the smidgeoniest smidgeon more than six!"
The others blinked at her, then Spike held up his glass. "Can't argue with that."
Grinning, everypony agreed, and Pinkie could barely stay sitting, her heart feeling like a soap bubble and wanting her to leap to her hoofs and dance around the tree at the thought of having not just friends like these but any friends at all! Only two days she'd been here, and she was already—
No. Wait. She'd grown up here! Had met Applejack and Rarity at school before any of them had even got their cutie marks, had come across Fluttershy on the other side of Ponyville not long after that and had finally met Dashie after she'd joined the local Weather Patrol! Then Twilight and Spike had showed up, they'd all become the Elements of Harmony, had had a couple big giant adventures and a whole bunch of cute little ones together!
She knew this, knew it as clearly as she knew her own name, knew that she was really...was really—
Who was she again?
The name struck her like a bucket of cold water, and she startled back to find Dashie looking at her, her head cocked to one side. "You OK?" she asked.
"Oh, Dashie!" Unable to stop herself this time, Pinkie threw her front legs around her friend, pressed her snout into her chest. "It was horrible!"
A burst of worried voices, hoofs touching her, Spike asking if she was all right, Fluttershy urging her to lie down, Twilight wanting to know if she'd rather wait till later to tell them the rest of the story.
"No, no." Taking deep breaths of their wonderful tangled scents, Pinkie made herself calm down, swallowed, let go of Dashie, and formed a smile to turn toward their anxious frowns. "I wanna tell you what happened. I hafta tell you. But talk about traumatic! I mean, meeting my own evil twin??"
"She wasn't—," Twilight began.
But Rarity's put a hoof over the other unicorn's mouth. "It's all right, Pinkie," she said, her voice gentle. "You just tell it your own way, and we'll be here listening."
A moment, then Twilight nodded, and Pinkie's heart got all bubbly again. "Well," she went on, "that night..."
Armed with several boxes of cupcakes and a pitcher of ice tea, Pinkie Pie set up watch in the kitchen, the alleged mirror propped against the wall beside the bakery's big oven. She was going to need a lot more room than she had upstairs, after all, for when the Dark Forces Beyond—she thought briefly about just calling them the D.F.B., but she finally decided that that wasn't nearly dramatic enough—when they tried to breach the barriers between their nightmarish netherworld and the wholesome vistas of her sweet, beloved Equestria.
Besides, she would've had to keep coming downstairs to get more cupcakes anyway, and, well, the bakery was just a more defensible position, with rolling pins, bags of flour, and big metal bowls all standing by in case she needed to clonk anypony over the head.
Because she was going to need every advantage she could muster, she knew, to see this through...though why she knew it, she had no idea. But even back in the days when her folks were still trying to make the rock farm work, Pinkie had always had her twitches: the way she knew they were digging the well in the wrong place, for instance, or that those funny-looking little bugs out in the fields weren't funny at all but were instead eating holes in the rocks.
And after she'd gotten her cutie mark and had thrown that first party and her parents had turned the house into an inn and the barn into a nightclub and casino, she'd found her twitches becoming even more useful, telling her when to smile and when to look bashful, when to laugh and when to keep quiet, when to be serious and when to be funny, so much information floating to her just from the way ponies smelled, from the way they rubbed their eyes or tapped their hoofs.
So the minute she'd seen that mirror, she'd known. Maybe not tonight or tomorrow night or the next night or the night after, but sometime something somehow was going to happen around that mirror or behind it or because of it. And knowing that, she knew that she had to be ready.
She felt so comfortable in that knowledge, in fact, she had no trouble at all stretching out on one of the bakery's little throw rugs and falling immediately asleep.
A humming, though, poked her awake, a sound that made her think maybe bees had gotten into the bakery and were quietly trying to replace the regular honey with experimental, mutant honey again. Opening her eyes to tell them she'd rather they not do that, she was confused to see nothing but the mirror reflecting the silvery shimmer of the moon over the walls, the pots and pans, the stoves and ovens—
Which was especially confusing since the moon wasn't shining in from anywhere.
Still, the mirror kept shimmering, and as she watched, something began moving deep inside it, something dark getting larger, pushing now against the mirror's surface and bulging it out like an unwanted raisin in the otherwise perfectly baked crown of a muffin. Pinkie's tail twitched, and a pony emerged from the mirror like she was coming out of a sideways pond, a black pegasus with a white mane, her cutie mark something that looked like a capital 'H' with a new hairdo, the tops trimmed off and curls brushed out on either side.
Looking around, the pony moved into the center of the room, and Pinkie saw she had little round glasses perched on her snout and a green kerchief gathering her mane into white spikes over her forehead. "Gracious!" she said, her voice almost as snooty-sounding as Rarity when she was making one of her points. "Has it worked?"
"Yes!" Pinkie yelled, leaping up from the rug. Hearing that voice was all it took: once again, she knew exactly what was going on.
The pegasus startled back a step, snapped her head over. "Ah! Hello!" She began to trot toward Pinkie, Pinkie's heart beating faster and faster with each step the other took. "Please forgive my unorthodox entrance. My name is Thagoras Pi, and I am—"
"My evil twin!" Pinkie shouted. She started to dance around the kitchen. "I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!"
"Twin?" Pinkie's evil twin blinked through her glasses. "But...we look nothing alike."
"Well, of course we don't!" Pinkie stopped, rolled her eyes that she even had to explain something so basic. "If you fool everypony into thinking you're me just because you look like me, where's the evil genius in that??"
The pegasus ruffled her wings. "I don't think I quite qualify under the 'evil' provision, either." She cocked her head as if considering. "Yes, like all of us, I have the occasional moral lapse, but—"
"OK. First thing?" Pinkie assumed her lecturing position, one front hoof raised, her eyes partly closed. "Your name." She drew the syllables out and used her spookiest voice. "Thag-or-as! How is that not evil??"
Thagoras blinked some more. "It was my grandmother's name."
"Second! You stepped—no, you oozed! You oozed out of an evil magic mirror!"
"Ah, yes. Actually, you see, I was—"
"And third!" Pinkie advanced toward Thagoras with her most devastating point, the black and white pegasus backing away from her. "You're my evil twin! They don't let you be an evil twin if you're not evil!"
Thagoras's nostrils twitched. "I...I can't help but feel we've gotten off on the wrong hoof somehow. Perhaps—"
"Fine!" Pinkie sat back and folded her front legs across her chest. "If you're gonna be that way, I'll show you how it's done!" She stood, flicked her tail, and started for the door.
"Hold up a minute." Applejack had a look on her face that Pinkie saw pretty regularly on ponies she talked to: not really confusion and not really disbelief, Pinkie had always wanted to call it 'condisfusiolief,' but she'd never been able to figure out a way to say it out loud. "This here evil twin of yours—"
A strangled sort of sigh from Twilight: "She wasn't anypony's evil twin! She was—"
Pinkie gave a much more extravagant sigh—just to show Twilight how it was done. "Well, I know that now. But back then, I was still so young and foolish."
"Ummm, Pinkie?" Fluttershy raised a tentative hoof. "This was all just last week, wasn't it?"
"I'll say it was!" Pinkie shook her head. "And yet, I remember it like it was yesterday!"
Storming out of the bakery into the midnight streets, Pinkie wasn't even sure if Thagoras was following. Just her luck to get stuck with some sorta rookie evil twin! She started wondering who she could complain to—was one of the princesses maybe in charge of assigning evil twins?—but a scuffling on the doorstep made her look back, Thagoras there with her eyes wider than ever behind her little glasses. "I've done it! An alternate Ponyville! The cafe's on the wrong side of the street, and— Is that the library?"
"Twilight's! Yes! We'll start there!" Pinkie nodded in satisfaction and started trotting across the town square. Maybe this would finally get her evil twin into the swing of things!
Thagoras caught up and matched her pace. "Twilight? At the library?" Excitement filled her voice. "That proves I've crossed over! The Bosky Twilight I know would much rather loll about teasing her mane than do anything as strenuous as turning the pages of a book! Why, I recall one time—"
Pinkie nodded as Thagoras launched into some story about an earth pony she knew, but Pinkie wasn't listening, too busy watching along the gutters for— "Ah!" She smelled it before she saw it in the shadows of Princess Luna's half moon floating high overhead: a cabbage that must've fallen off a produce wagon during the market earlier in the day. "Here we go!"
"—it was simply the most ridiculous thing for— Hmmm? I'm sorry; what?" Thagoras had gone on a few steps without apparently noticing that Pinkie had stopped. Pinkie added it to the list she'd started for her eventual complaint letter and decided she'd better keep things basic.
"Stand here." Pinkie pointed to the cabbage. "And kick that—" She moved her hoof to point at the front window of the library. "There."
The black and white pegasus blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
Pinkie puffed a breath through her nostrils. "I'm getting awful tired of this whole sweet and innocent thing!" She spread her front hoofs in appeal. "Dark passions swirl within your fiendish breast! Let's get 'em on out here!"
Thagoras just looked uncomfortable. "I don't wish to appear rude, ummm... I'm sorry, I never did get your name."
"Didn't get my—??" That was it! The last straw! Pinkie felt her eyes spinning in her head. "I'm your good twin! Pinkie Pie! Don't they even give you, like, a brochure or something explaining all this??"
"Pinkie Pie??" Thagoras's spiky mane sprang up even further. "Then you're my—! And I'm your—!"
A hinge creaked. "What's going on out there??" Twilight's voice called.
"It wasn't me, Twilight!" Pinkie had been waiting all night to say it. "It was my evil twin!"
"No, no, no!" Thagoras took a step back from Pinkie. "Something's gone horribly awry!"
"What??" Twilight was leaning further out the window now. "Who's down there with you, Pinkie?"
Pinkie gestured to the pegasus. "I told you! Thagoras Pi! My evil twin! She came out of that mirror just like I told you! I mean, just like I would have told you if I hadn't thought that monsters would come out, but—!"
A sigh from above. "Hold on," Twilight said, then the air beside Pinkie fluttered, and Twilight Sparkle appeared wearing what Pinkie always thought of as her grumpy face. "OK, now, what—?"
"No!" Thagoras cried again, turning and running for the bakery. "I can't be here! My formula should only have taken me to a plane where my counterpart no longer existed! My presence here imperils the entire multiverse!"
"What?" Twilight asked.
"Wait!" Pinkie yelled, and the two of them took off after the other pony. "There's so much more we need to do! Tying Twilight to the railroad tracks! Ringing Dashie's doorbell and hiding! Sticking your tongue out at Fluttershy!"
Apparently not even listening, Thagoras flew through the bakery door, but Pinkie and Twilight weren't far behind: skidding inside, Pinkie saw her evil twin gesturing and tapping on the mirror, little spots of light dancing over its surface. "I checked and re-checked!" she was muttering. "This never should've happened!"
"Magic?" Pinkie heard Twilight say beside her. "From a pegasus?"
Pinkie cleared her throat. "Not just any pegasus!" She tapped her chest with a front hoof. "My evil twin!"
Thagoras turned, her eyes panicked behind her glasses. "It's more physics than it is magic, and while this looks like a lovely Ponyville, I can't take the time to explain. The quantum energy flux that must even now be building up around us—" She tapped one last place on the mirror, and the surface went all shimmery like it had earlier, that hum filling the air. "For the continued existence of all baryonic matter, perhaps it might be best that you consider this to have merely been a dream of some sort." And turning, she pushed against the glass, melted into it like butter into a hot pan. The wavering light swallowed her and vanished, darkness filling the kitchen again.
When it kept on being dark and quiet, Pinkie blew out a sigh. "Oh, well. Even if she wasn't the best evil twin, I guess it's still nice to know she's out there somewhere."
"But..." Twilight squeaked; Pinkie turned, saw her friend's eyes wide and white-rimmed, her ears folded back along her head. "It's just a mirror..."
"Well, yeah." Pinkie trotted over, touched the silver frame, grinned at her reflection, and thought about the pattern Thagoras had tapped there, a pattern as easy to remember as the recipe for chocolate peppermint cupcakes. "It is now."
A crow cawed somewhere in the distance, the afternoon breeze rustling the leaves and making the oak tree sound just like the little brook flowing beside it, something that always made Pinkie smile.
Of course, most everything made Pinkie smile, especially now, and she let herself shiver at how wonderful it all was: the blue sky, the green leaves and grass, the way the breeze didn't smell like rotting fish...
"I gotta say," Applejack drawled into the silence, "it still makes my neck all goose-pimply. I mean, who was this Thagoras character anyway? Where'd she come from? And if'n that mirror weren't magic, how'd she—?"
"Yes, yes." Pinkie waved a hoof and gave a sniff. "All will be answered in good time, my dear Applejack."
Dashie snorted, and Pinkie grinned. "That's how Fetlock Shorns would say it, right? When things're about to get even weirder and more mysterious? I mean, after the part you already know about 'cause you were all there...."
The next day brimmed over with horn glows from Twilight, hoof stomps from Dashie, narrowed eyes from Applejack, nervous laughter from Rarity, and little squeaks from Fluttershy. "It's OK, guys," Pinkie kept trying to tell them. "She wasn't even that evil an evil twin."
"Not the point, Pinkie!" Dashie was hovering over the kitchen at Suger Cube Corner like she was a storm cloud made of bumble bees. "Whoever or whatever this Thagoras was, she's got no business walking outta mirrors! And what if it's a manticore or a dragon comes out next, huh??" She aimed a front hoof at the quiet silver frame still leaning against the wall. "We needta get that thing outta Ponyville! Maybe, like, five hundred feet straight up and let it find its own way down!"
Eyes as big as frying pans, Fluttershy peered from behind the wall of the corner booth at the far end of the bakery. "But Rainbow! That'd be seven years bad luck!"
Rarity took a delicate bite of her croissant. "And think of the mess!" She gave Dashie a tight smile. "I agree with you about the mirror, Rainbow, but perhaps hiring a cart and pony to haul it to the dump would be more efficient."
Dashie folded her hoofs and gave a snort while Twilight, in front of the mirror, shook her head, purple light wavering from her horn. "It's not magic," she said for what Pinkie guessed was the 78th time since yesterday. "Thagoras said what she was doing had more to do with physics, and while the books on quantum theory that I was looking at this morning offered some interesting ideas..." She sighed and looked back over her shoulder. "I need to do more research."
Applejack nodded, stepped up beside her. "Reckon you'll need any help getting the consarned thing back to the library?"
Which almost made Pinkie's mane blow up like a balloon. "What?? Wait a minute!" She threw herself across the room, slid on her hind legs to press her back against the mirror, her front legs splayed to protect it. "Guardian of the portal here, remember??" She pointed a hoof at each of them in turn. "'Cause it never did anything all those years it was in your barn, Applejack, and it did even less when you had it, right, Twilight?"
Twilight's ears fell. "That's true..."
"Horse apples!" Applejack gave a stomp. "That don't matter at all!"
Pinkie settled onto all fours and put on her serious face. "I know this is all kinda scary, but it was my evil twin who came outta this mirror, not any of yours. And that means it's my responsibility, don't you see?" A wonderful idea came to her then, and a good thing, too, 'cause she really didn't think she could've held her serious face for another second; she busted out a smile and told them, "But if you gals wanna help me guard the portal, that'd be great! 'Cause I'm guessing it'll mean sleepovers!"
Her friends looked at each other, and Pinkie couldn't help but notice how they weren't squealing with excitement. "Umm, Pinkie?" Twilight bit her lower lip. "I know this is really important to you, but you have to understand that Thagoras wasn't your evil twin."
"Oh, Twilight." Pinkie reached out, took Twilight's hoof and patted it gently. "It's half of one, six dozen of the other." Which didn't sound right, but Pinkie kept going anyway. "You were there when Thagoras said she only came out of the mirror 'cause she thought I wasn't here, and you saw her run back into the mirror when I told her who I was. So evil twin or not, her and me are connected with, like, big strands of invisible salt-water taffy." Which made her stop and lick her lips—till a horrible thought occurred to her. "Unless maybe invisible salt-water taffy tastes invisible, too? 'Cause that wouldn't be any fun at all!"
"OK," Dashie said, settling to the floor. "Hoofs up all ponies who think we should stop listening to Pinkie and get on with some mirror smashing."
"Rainbow..." Twilight rolled her eyes, then those eyes lit up in a way that made Pinkie's ears twitch in a happy way. "How about this, Pinkie: we take the mirror over to the library at night and have our sleepovers there? That way, you can still watch it during the day while you're working, but the Cakes won't have to trip over all of us laying around on their floor in the morning when they're trying to open."
Bounding forward, Pinkie wrapped as tight a hug around Twilight as she could. "You're a smarty ev'ry day!"
Another snort from Dashie. "And maybe somepony'll, oh, I dunno, accidently drop it when we're moving it or something..."
Leaning back against her cloud in the shade of the oak tree, Dashie waved a front hoof. "But did we? No! Nine or ten times we musta carried that stupid mirror back and forth between Sugar Cube Corner and the library, but—!"
"We?" Rarity arched an eyebrow. "Odd, but I don't seem to recall you being involved in any of our little parades last week, Rainbow Dash." She touched her chin. "I can quite distinctly see Pinkie strutting along in front followed by Applejack with the mirror standing upright on her back due to the magic myself and Twilight were applying to it while Fluttershy flew along steadying the top. Yes." Her eyes got all narrow. "Nine or ten times, as you say, marching past our bemused friends, neighbors, and family members. Just not all of us, it seems to me..."
"Yeah." Applejack pushed back her hat. "Reckon I noticed that, too."
Dashie's mouth went thin. "Hey! I was there! I just—" She stopped and glanced sideways at Pinkie.
Pinkie patted her hoof. "It's OK, Dashie. I saw you."
"What?" Twilight blinked back and forth between the two of them, so much surprise on her face, Pinkie wished she'd had an empty ice cream cone so she could collect the surprise if it started dripping off. "I thought you said you had to work early and late those days, Rainbow!"
"Ummm..." was all Dashie managed.
So Pinkie reached out her other hoof to pat Twilight's. "It's OK," she said again. "Dashie was just being extra-super-special careful. She was up on a cloud watching the whole time we walked, and I mean, wow! You shoulda seen her! She was all like—!" Pinkie leaped up and took a stance like a pony getting ready to start a race. Or even better— "Like she was a bow and arrow, see? Aimed right at the mirror the whole time and ready to fire herself—ka-zang!" Pinkie sprang forward to sprawl in the grass in front of a cringing Fluttershy. "So if any monsters came out, she could slam 'em before they knew what was going on!" She turned a grin back at Dashie. "Isn't that right?"
A little red touched Dashie's cheeks. "I...I just wanted to be ready, y'know?"
In the silence that followed, Rarity cleared her throat. "I owe you an apology, Rainbow Dash. I shouldn't've—"
"Forget it." Dashie blew out a breath. "It's not like anything happened."
"Excuse me?" Pinkie jumped to her hoofs again. "Five great sleepovers at the library happened! You and Fluttershy even danced on the ceiling that first night!"
That got Fluttershy blushing, and Dashie waved her hoof again. "I mean nothing came outta the mirror!"
"Yeah," Applejack added quietly. "Nothing came out. But that last night—"
"Morning." Pinkie tried to swallow, but her throat was too dry all of a sudden; she moved back to her place, took a sip of lemonade. "Just before dawn, actually."
The sleepovers had been great, and each one had been a little different, too, since after the first party when everypony had laughed and played games and cuddled into their sleeping bags on the library floor with the mirror propped against the wall beside Twilight's writing desk, they'd all started taking it in shifts.
Pinkie stayed over each night, of course, after they'd promenaded the mirror down the street, and Twilight and Spike did, too, since, well, they lived there. But that second night, it was only Dashie with Pinkie downstairs, nothing but her four hoofs visible around the edges of the cloud she'd made in the middle of the library's main room; the third night, Rarity curled herself into a mountain of comforters in the corner; the fourth night Fluttershy, her legs tucked under her like a cat; and the fifth night Applejack stretched out snoring lightly on the other side of the room.
It made Pinkie's heart buzz like a hummingbird to know that her friends were there to help her guard the portal when most of them didn't really think it was a portal. Even Twilight who spent most of the evenings paging through books, making notes, then stepping up to poke at the mirror before frowning and going back to get more books, even she seemed to get more discouraged as the week went on. "It's just a mirror," she said at least five times a night
To tell the truth, though, Pinkie wanted to agree with her. Not that her life had changed all that much since the daunting responsibility of being a mystical guardian had fallen onto her shoulders. But she could almost pretend that everything had changed because of the twitches that kept rattling through her. And each dawn—or not dawn, but the silent, itchy darkness of an hour or so before dawn when the sky felt like Princess Luna was ready to go to bed but Princess Celestia wasn't quite ready to get up—right at that time every night, Pinkie would find herself coming awake, would find herself lying on her side and staring at the mirror—
And it would never be glowing, would never be buzzing, would just be sitting there, the ash-gray light not swirling in it but just laying over it like dust.
That didn't fool her, though. She knew that her evil twin—or whatever—had stepped out of that mirror just like in one of those books Pinkie had devoured ever since her earliest days on the rock farm, the ones where space ponies or fairy ponies or ghost ponies or whatever showed up and the heroine had to stop them or help them or make friends with them or whatever.
Staring at that mirror then with just about everypony in the whole world asleep somewhere around her, she would remember those books and wonder if she should grab the mirror and shake it, do a dance for it or sing it a song or maybe one of her comedy routines. 'Cause how do you make a mirror smile? How do you make friends with it and convince it to tell you its secrets?
Applejack gave a mumbled sort of snort, and Pinkie looked at her in the dingy light, realized that they'd gone through one complete shift, that they were about to circle back around to Dashie again, her friends ready to spend another week helping Pinkie with her appointed task.
But, well, she was the heroine of this story, wasn't she? She was the one with the magic mirror, the one with the evil twin, the one who'd watched and memorized the hoof motions Thagoras had used to open the mirror up and step through—
So why was she just laying there, she wondered, squirming out of her sleeping bag. If her destiny wasn't gonna come to her, why shouldn't she go, ring its doorbell, and introduce herself? That was how Pinkie Pie did it, wasn't it?
Yes, it was!
Touching the first spot on the mirror's frame felt completely regular: just metal, a little cold, a little hard, a little slippery. The second spot Thagoras had touched, though, seemed to splash when she tapped it, and sweeping her hoof diagonally along the glass to a spot near the bottom while she stretched to poke the very top with her other front hoof, that tingled almost like all the times she would dare herself to brush her tongue against the socket while changing a lightbulb.
Continuing the pattern brought the hum she'd heard that first night, and her reflection in the mirror started to get smoky—like a fog had rolled into the library. The mirror got deeper, too, suddenly looking to Pinkie more like a window, the mist swirling on the other side. And when she gave the last of the proper taps, she saw that the glass wasn't glass at all but something more like mist rising from a waterfall.
Easy enough to step right through. So she did.
"Just like that." Applejack's face had a clenched look to it. "Me asleep not five yards away, and you don't even gimme a 'toodle-oo' or nothing??"
"Wait." Twilight, on the other hoof, seemed more shaky than clenched. "You memorized Thagoras's pattern?? After only seeing it once??"
Pinkie shrugged. "All the songs I do and the dances and the jokes and the recipes and the things I hafta know about other ponies when I'm talking to them: I've gotta be able to memorize stuff, or I wouldn't hardly be me."
Pressing a hoof to her forehead, Twilight gave a little groan. "And you didn't think to mention this to me while I spent the whole week trying to figure out how to work that mirror??"
Again, Pinkie could only shrug. "I was getting ready for stuff to come out; it wasn't till right that minute that I thought about going in." Looking at Applejack, though, that was a little harder. "And I'm real sorry about just leaving you there, AJ, but, I mean, I was the heroine, right? It was my destiny!" She swallowed, her throat dry once more. "And once I got in there, well, I think it's probably a good thing nopony else was with me..."
Stepping through, Pinkie's hoofs settled onto something that felt almost like the sort of ice that covered the lake in the deepest parts of winter: blackish-blue and hard as rocks. It wasn't cold, though, but it wasn't warm, either, and the dark blue mist swirling around her was the same way, like it didn't have any temperature at all.
In fact—she took another step, blinked, craned her head around—it didn't even look like mist anymore. She could see walls now, dark and blue like the floor, and what she'd thought was mist seemed to be more like the ripples of sunlight on the bottom of the lake when she would go swimming in summer and would open her eyes so she could make googly faces at the fish.
A third step, and things shifted again, the shimmery ripples not reflections under water as much as the silver light of a big harvest moon shining through the wavering leaves of an apple tree. But one more step, and it was like when Twilight would show movies on the old projector at the library, Spike twisting the lens till the fuzzy picture on the screen jumped into sharp focus: Pinkie was in a huge cave, the walls, floor, and roof dark-blue but sparkling with gray lights. It made the whole place very shadowy and flickery, and she almost expected to hear spooky music in the background.
Silence settled over everything, though, and Pinkie was just starting to think that maybe a song would be good when one of the flickering shadows ahead of her moved in a different way, became a silhouette of a pony: tall, slender, wings tucked along her flanks, what could only be a horn spiraling up from her forehead—
Twitches rippling through her, Pinkie gave a little squeal. "Princess! What are you—??"
But she stopped when the dancing lights seemed to shiver and turn to focus on the figure, as big as Princess Celestia but as pink as Princess Cadance, her eyes big and solid white like Princess Luna in a scary mood, her mane a glowing puffy mass of strawberry and bubble gum. And her cutie mark—
Her cutie mark? How could that be her cutie mark? A yellow balloon flanked by two blue ones? 'Cause that was—!
"Ah," the impossible pony said, the white of her eyes darkening, deepening, becoming as blue as the cave around them. "At long, long last, I can bid you welcome."
Her voice flowed like the most perfect buttercream frosting, and Pinkie began wishing she had an oven so she could bake a cake worthy of that voice. Not that she could, though, she found herself thinking. Why, compared to this pony, Pinkie was nothing more than an evil twin...
But that couldn't be right, either! "Ummm," she said then, picking one of the questions bouncing around in her head like so many squirrels chasing flying nuts. "Am I you?"
The big mare smiled. "It would be more correct to say that you are me: a reflection of me, at any rate. For you are Pinkie Pie, are you not?"
"I am!" Pinkie gasped. "Are you a mind reader, too?"
That smile got a little strained around the edges. "I am Pinkie Prime," she said, cocking one front leg and spreading her wings. "I am the original of all Pinkies and all Pies everywhere throughout the multiverse, the source who casts you shadows into the past, the present, the future, and all possible times and places in between."
"Wow!" Pinkie darted forward, just noticing the big pink crown thingee Prime wearing. "Can I try that on? It looks really shiny!"
But Prime suddenly wasn't standing there, had flashed like a silvery lightning bug to a spot behind Pinkie. "I'm afraid we're on something of a schedule, my own, for a very important event that I—"
"A party??" Bubbles popped through Pinkie like bread dough rising. "'Cause what could be more important than that??"
"Exactly." Prime gave Pinkie a little bow. "Right here in this cavern, we shall gather all my shadows, all you Pinkies and all you Pies, and we shall stage the biggest party the multiverse has ever seen!"
Pinkie's mind switched immediately into planning mode, and she gave the cave a quick glance. "Well, we'll definitely need some decorations around here, Primey, 'cause, I mean..." She gestured with a hoof. "A little drab, y'know?"
"Oh, now, Pinkie Pie." Prime gave Pinkie a look kind of like Princess Celestia was always giving Twilight, all warm and nice and motherly. But Pinkie couldn't help but notice how Prime's eyes didn't wrinkle at the corners, how they stayed every bit as temperatureless as the cave around them. "Let me worry about that. The reason I caused Thagoras Pi's experiment to go slightly awry so that it would bring you here before any of the others is because you, my own, are the only pony in all the multiverse to whom I could entrust the most vital element of my plan."
Her destiny! Pinkie was vibrating so fast, so wasn't sure her hoofs were touching the weird cave floor anymore. "Baking the cake?" she asked, barely able to get the words out.
"Better." Prime flashed again, stood directly in front of Pinkie, bowed her long, long neck with that solid and massive cotton-candy mane so she could whisper in Pinkie's ear. "You must issue the invitations." She leaped back, then, her eyes exploding with light, and Pinkie could suddenly see every inch, every foot, every furlong, every mile of the whole gigantic cavern, those little silver lights twinkling everywhere along the wall, the floor, the ceiling. "You must journey through these mirrors, my own, must gather your sister, your twin, your counterpart from wherever she may be on the other side, and you must bring each one of them here for our party!" Prime's laughter rang in Pinkie's ears. "A party that all baryonic matter will never forget!"
Stopping to take a pull on the curly straw sticking up from her glass of lemonade, Pinkie looked back at her wide-eyed friends, Spike with his mouth actually hanging open, the wind in the oak tree the only sound for a cupful of seconds. Then: "Tarnation," Applejack muttered. "I gotta say, Pinkie, if'n I hadn't seen what I seen yesterday, I reckon I'd be hooting right now about your wild imagination."
"Yeah," Dashie said way more quietly than Pinkie liked.
So she jumped to her hoofs. "C'mon, guys! It's all over now, remember? Ev'rypony lived happily ever after!" Which, she realized, was pretty much the first lie she'd told them so far, but, well, she needed the practice for parts of the story that were coming up.... "'Cause, yeah, some of what happened gets a little scary, but I don't wanna see any sad faces, OK?" She couldn't keep the tremble out of her voice. "Please?"
"Of course, darling." Rarity nudged Fluttershy, and the pegasus pulled her hoofs away from her eyes, a little blush touching her cheeks. "This is all so astonishing, however, I hope you'll not mind a startled gasp now and again."
Pinkie nodded. "Gasping's OK. And questions, too—just shout 'em out anytime."
Twilight cleared her throat. "I can't help wondering, I guess, about Pinkie Prime's laugh. Was it more a Princess Luna 'The fun has been doubled' laugh, or a Nightmare Moon 'The night will last forever' laugh?"
"Hmmm." Pinkie rubbed her chin. "Y'know, if you'd asked me that when I was standing right there in the cave with her, I woulda said—"
"Party!" Pinkie sprang onto her hind legs and threw out a few dance moves. "And with all my twins?? Epic!" Which turned her thoughts toward— "Thagoras!" She spun to face Pinkie Prime. "Can I give her her invitation first? It's just I prob'bly oughtta apologize for calling her my evil twin last time I saw her, but, I mean, that was before I had any idea how many twins I even had! Come to think of it—" She cocked her head at the big mare. "How many twins do I have?"
Pinkie Prime still had her wings fully unfurled, the sight sending a little tickle through the part of Pinkie's brain that always made her want to bow whenever she saw one of the princesses. She ignored it pretty easily, though; it wasn't like Primey really was a princess, after all...
Still, the winged unicorn's voice echoed all big and impressive when she announced, "One of your twins exists behind each light that shines forth within this cavern's darkness!"
"Wow." Pinkie looked up, down, backwards, sideways, and all around, little silver spots glittering just about everywhere over the dark-blue walls and ceiling and floor. "So which one goes to where Thagoras lives?"
Something like a growl rustled against Pinkie's ears, but when she turned her head back to Primey, that 'almost Princess Celestia' smile hadn't moved from her lips. "I'm thinking that Thagoras Pi will be something of the guest of honor at our little party," Primey said, her words as friendly as ever, "since her experiments led directly to our being able to meet like this in the first place. I'll ask, therefore, that her universe be the last place you visit."
"Okie dokie lokie!" Glancing out into the depths of the cave again, Pinkie shook her head. "But I hope you've gotta cubic mile or two of construction paper. 'Cause we're gonna need a lot of invitations!"
"Actually,—" Primey tapped one of her fancy pink metal shoes against the floor with a sound like wind chimes tinkling. "Given the nature of this party, I feel it would be fitting for you to deliver verbal invitations to all your twins in person."
It took Pinkie a few blinks to figure out what that meant. "You mean I getta go see all of them??" A vibration of pure happiness started in her middle, her mind already racing to sketch out the words and melody she'd need for her singing telegram:
But I'm a Pinkie, too!
And I've come through this mirror
'Cause I'm inviting you!
Primey was tapping her shoe harder, the crystal tone of it starting to get a little clanky in Pinkie's ears. "Time has no meaning in this place, Pinkie Pie, so no matter how long you spend delivering the invitations, the cake here will never go stale nor will the punch go flat. And once you begin fetching your twins, they can set off as well, each to a different universe! So whenever you return, you will in essence logarithmically increase your invitation-issuing abilities!"
Which got Pinkie blinking even more. "Y'know, you sound a lot like Twilight sometimes. Are you sure you're me?"
"I am not you!" Primey snapped with a stomp, pink steam gusting from her nostrils. "You are me!" Her eyes squinted closed immediately, and she held up a front hoof. "By which I mean," she went on in her regular voice, "you are more precious to me than jewels and puppies and that sort of thing." Her smile came back, but it seemed a little ragged around the edges. "Forgive my excitement. I'm just very, very anxious for you to begin so we can get this party started. That sounds good, doesn't it?"
"You bet it does!" The enthusiasm that flooded Pinkie helped her ignore the two or three unhappy little half-twitches itching at her; she bounced in place and let her head tip back to take in the sparkling little spots, more of them than even the stars in Princess Luna's night, she thought. "Where should I start? Should I just pick one?" She rushed forward, poked at one of the lights, and almost leaped out of her hoofs when it sprouted from the floor into a silvery rectangle almost exactly the same size as the mirror she'd stepped through back in the bakery. "OK!" She whirled to check with Primey. "Is this good?"
Squinting again, Primey had turned kind of sideways, like maybe the silver shimmer was too bright for her. But— "Yes," she said, "that ought to be fine." She flared her wings and peered over her shoulder at Pinkie through the veil of their feathers. "Whichever Pinkie or whichever Pie you find, bring her back here. I'll begin baking the cakes."
"Whoo!" Pinkie leaped onto her hind legs, started into the dance she'd come up with for Thagoras's mirror moves: tap, slide, tap, double-tap, tap, slide, tap, double-tap, double-tap, tap, tap! The rectangle went through all the same changes as before—brightened, deepened, went cloudy, then went misty—and she skipped through into—
The stink whapped her across the snout like the time she'd helped Fluttershy catch fish for some little otters whose mother and father had the flu. The fish, it turned out, hadn't really wanted to be caught, and by the time they'd gathered a bucket for the otters' dinner, Pinkie was soaked and laughing and smelling fish every time she took a breath.
This was worse, though, something smoky mixing with the fishy stink and making Pinkie cough. The sound echoed, and she blinked at the alley she was standing in, the mirror she'd stepped out of propped against the wall behind her, a few trash cans slouching around it.
But who would throw away a mirror? And the walls, they were tall and straight and boring, not like in Ponyville where even the plain ol' regular walls had some color to them. These were all just gray—
Like the sky, clouds as solid overhead as the walls that stretched up toward them. She wanted to sniff the air, see if it smelled like rain, but all the smoke and fish got in the way. Still, she wasn't getting her usual pre-rain twitches, so she prob'bly had plenty of time to find her twin!
Bouncing along the rough paving stones of the alley—the first time, her hoofs seemed to be telling her, that a pony had ever bounced here—Pinkie came out into the street, ready to greet any ponies she saw, introduce herself, and ask for directions.
Except that the street lay quiet and deserted, the shops closed, some of them so rusty and dusty, she started wondering how long it had been since they were last open. Something else about them didn't look right, either, and she was just rubbing her chin and trying to think what it might be when an almost familiar voice shouted behind her: "Hey! You can't be out on the street without a pass!"
Pinkie turned, a smile bursting over her snout to see a blue pegasus winging down to land on the street, violet eyes glaring from beneath the rim of the big metal helmet she was wearing.
"Rainbow Dash!" Pinkie cried, rushing forward to—
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Dashie leaped into a hover. "You're saying it was me??"
"Well?" Pinkie shrugged. "With all those Pinkies out there, it wouldn't be any fun if they didn't have the same number of Dashies, right?"
"No way!" With a sharp whoosh, Dashie sliced a front hoof through the air. "There's only one Rainbow Dash, and you're looking at her! Anypony else says she's me, she's lying!"
Searching for the words to explain, Pinkie was really glad when Twilight spoke up: "It's OK, Rainbow. It wasn't really you anymore than this Pinkie Prime pony was really our Pinkie. It's like a picture. Or like when you look in a mirror, or—" Her face lit up. "Or like when you play Commander Hurricane in the Hearth Warming Eve pageant. It's you, but it's somepony else at the same time."
Still frowning, Dashie slowly settled back onto the ground. "I just don't like anypony saying she's me when she isn't!"
Which gave Pinkie a way out. "Oh, but she didn't say she was you! As a matter of fact, when I called her your name, she said—"
"That's Captain Thunder Flash to you!" The pegasus was dressed kind of like Commander Hurricane from the play, too, though her armor wasn't nearly as fancy or as shiny. Her eyes darted from side to side, then she slid a step closer to Pinkie and whispered, "Did you come through the underground?"
For a second, Pinkie wanted to say that she'd come through the mirror, but the nervous smell jittering up from the captain's coat made her stop. This pony was more than a little scared about something.
"Typical," Captain Thunder Flash was muttering now, her eyes rimmed with white. "I mean, sure, we don't do these patrols for real here in Ponyville, but that doesn't mean you can just come walking right into town, y'know! We could all get in a lotta trouble if there's any snoops from Canterlot sneaking around; doesn't anypony but me get that??"
It was just about then that it all sank in: Pinkie was in Ponyville, but not the Ponyville she knew; this jumpy pegasus, she was as much Dashie's twin as Thagoras had been Pinkie's; and—
"Ummm, Pinkie?" Fluttershy raised a hoof. "I don't know; maybe I missed a part, but...the way you described Thagoras Pi, she...she didn't sound like she actually looked like you at all."
Pinkie nodded. "That's a really good point, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy hid behind her mane, but she was smiling her happy little smile, so Pinkie was happy, too. "But the thing is..." Again, Pinkie tried to find the words. "Thagoras looks so much not like me that she couldn't be anything else but my twin. Y'see?"
From the way all their foreheads were wrinkling, Pinkie guessed that they didn't see. "That's OK," she told her friends. "You'll get it here in a minute."
But thinking about twins made an idea blossom into Pinkie's head like some sort of magic lily pad. "I'm not here because of anything that's underground," she whispered just as sneakily to the pegasus who wasn't Dashie. "I'm here to get a pony who maybe reminds you of me. Her name prob'bly has a 'pinkie' or a 'pie' in it, and once I find her, we'll both be—"
"Plinky Pie?" Captain Flash looked even more confused than before. "But...I don't think she's ever left Lady Verity's inner court! How could you—?" Her mouth went sideways, and she blew out a breath. "Well, I hafta take you over there anyway since that's where the viceroy is tonight. C'mon." She started up the street. "Oh, and if anypony asks, you're my prisoner, OK?"
"OK!" Pinkie moved quickly to trot alongside the captain. "D'you wanna put me on a leash?"
The hard scowl on Flash's face made her look even less like Dashie than before. "I got myself assigned to Ponyville," she said through clenched teeth, "so I wouldn't hafta do things like that anymore. So don't even joke about it!"
A few twitches shivered up Pinkie's spine, and she suddenly felt like she'd just cut open one of those cantaloupes that looks fine on the outside but is all stinky and slimy inside. It got even worse when she and Flash rounded the corner and came into Ponyville's town square, as empty of ponies under the overcast sky as the street they'd just come down, but the other changes almost made Pinkie rattle to a stop right there.
The shops and homes all squatted instead of stood, their windows and doors droopy like they weren't feeling well—except for two big buildings at each end of the square, both of them gigantic swirls of silken color and bright paint. One had swallowed up the whole couple of blocks that would've surrounded Carousel Boutique, Pinkie realized, and the other spread over the area where the library's tree should've been growing.
The gasps from Rarity and Twilight made Pinkie raise a hoof. "Just wait; it gets even weirder."
Captain Flash was plodding toward the fancy building on the Boutique's end of the square, the front door more like some sort of huge pastry than anything else and bigger all by itself, Pinkie was sure, than Sugar Cube Corner. A group of six or seven pegasuses—
"Pegasi," Twilight said, her voice so quiet, Pinkie guessed it was more automatic than anything else.
Six or seven pegasi in armor were standing outside the door, and when Flash ruffled her wings, the others all did the same. One of them flew up to the top of the big door, tapped a hoof against a golden button; the door shuddered, folded open with the rustle of a pony wearing the swankiest dress she'd ever worn in her whole life, and on the other side lay a hallway all shiny with gold and marble, more pegasi standing along the walls like they were pretending to be statues.
Flash headed down this hall, then turned down another one, then another one, then another one, more unmoving guards everywhere, and by the time Pinkie was sure they'd walked halfway to Canterlot, they came into a great big room. Except it was more an indoor park, green with the first grass Pinkie had seen in this Ponyville, a little stream flowing through, a bunch of earth ponies in filmy robes lounging around on the ground a dozen or so yards away.
Music was playing, Pinkie realized with a start, quiet and slow from some sort of stringed instrument: a hammered dulcimer, she guessed, the way it was gentle and twangy at the same time. She could hear singing now, too, somepony with a soft, sad voice that Pinkie almost recognized:
But, oh, at such a cost!
They turned him to stone
By their power alone
But splintered the world,
Made the future all swirled:
And the unicorns got lost.
The unicorns got lost."
"No more," another oddly familiar voice said, and Pinkie, wiping the sudden tears from her eyes, saw two sofas among the crowd of earth ponies, the only pieces of furniture in the whole place. On one of the couches lay the fattest unicorn Pinkie had ever seen, her white coat and purple mane telling Pinkie whose twin she was, and—
"Fat??" Rarity had leaped to her hoofs. "How dare you insinuate such a thing about me??"
"It's not you!" Pinkie sighed and wished she could borrow Twilight's brain for a couple minutes so she could once and for all explain this mirror stuff. "Remember? She looked so much not like you that she had to be your twin!"
Dashie gave a little laugh. "Don't know how to break it to you, Pinkie, but that didn't make sense the first time you said it, either."
Desperate, Pinkie fixed her pleading gaze on Twilight. "Like a play, right? Or like wunna those fun house mirrors! Real, but not real! The same, but not the same!"
Twilight was nodding. "A fun house mirror. That's probably the best way to think of it. You see, in quantum physics, the 'many-worlds interpretation' states—"
Spike gave a little groan. "Can we please just get back to the story? All these interruptions are driving me crazy!"
"Yes," Fluttershy said, then immediately covered her mouth. "I mean, I...it's just that mirrors are never exactly the same. It's like Rarity said: you put on an outfit and look at yourself in the mirror and it looks fine, then you get home and put it on and it...it's like a whole different dress! Sometimes better and sometimes not, but always backwards and always a little bit fuzzy." She shrugged. "If that makes any sense..."
Rarity had her lips pursed like she did when she was thinking. "It does, actually." She settled back into the shade of her parasol. "The ponies you meet through these mirrors, they're all the ponies we could have become if we'd been put together a bit differently."
"Hooray!" Pinkie clapped her hoofs together. "And it's because of those differences that you can recognize your twin in one of the mirror worlds! The less she looks and acts and thinks the way you do, the more your twin she is!" She tapped her glass. "Spike? Another round for ev'rypony, please, 'cause Twilight's twin's coming up next!"
The big white unicorn had one front leg stretched dramatically across her face. "Must we hear this ballad every week, viceroy?"
"It's tradition," a pinched voice said from the other couch, the unicorn there purple and magenta but looking a lot sourer than even Twilight in one of her real sour moods. "Decreeing that 'The Defeat of the Din' be performed once a week is the only thing the Council has done correctly in twenty-five hundred years, and I'll have no pony in this province ever forget the sacrifice we unicorns made for Equestria."
A little snort from Flash, and she muttered, "Like that'd ever happen..."
Both the unicorns' ears flicked, and they turned on their couches, a smile lighting the big white one's face. "Captain Flash! How delightful! What have you brought for us today?"
Flash bowed and started across the field, Pinkie hopping beside her, all the earth ponies perking up as well. "Viceroy Gloaming, Lady Verity, I came across a stranger wandering down South Bridle Way. She didn't have a pass, so I—" Her shoulders slumped, her head shifting as she glanced from side to side. "I thought maybe the underground had sent her," she finished in a whisper.
Viceroy Gloaming's thin face got even thinner. "I've had no word from Hard Cider about any ponies coming to join us." A purple glow came over her horn, the wavering color darker than Twilight's ever was but just as tingly along the back of Pinkie's neck. "Did it occur to you, captain, that she might be a spy sent by the Council? Although..." Gloaming's brow wrinkled. "There's something...odd...about her...."
"Yes." Lady Verity had put a hoof to her chins. "She has a certain je ne sais quoi, does she not?" She motioned with her other front hoof. "Come closer, young lady, and tell us of yourself."
Pinkie thought for a second about launching into one of the several song and dance numbers she'd put together over the years to introduce herself to other ponies, but, well, wanting to get back for the party, she really didn't have the time! "That's OK, Rarity—I mean, Verity. I'm just here to invite Plinky Pie to a—"
A gasp so tiny, Pinkie had to listen twice to be sure she heard it: it drew her attention to the other side of the two couches, the hammered dulcimer in the grass there, an earth pony Pinkie hadn't noticed before sitting still and quiet behind it, little gloves over her front hoofs with the hammers attached. And looking at the beige pony—her long straight mane a slightly lighter shade of beige, her big frightened eyes a slightly darker shade—Pinkie saw her mirror image, as backwards and different from her as Thagoras had been.
"It's all right, Plinky, darling," Lady Verity cooed, stretching to touch the little earth pony's shoulder. She looked back at Pinkie, then, her gaze sharpening. "I don't know who you are, madame, but if you mean ill to my Plinky, you and I shall have words!"
And that was all it took. Yes, this mirror world had some things wrong with it—the smell and the clouds and the way ev'rypony seemed so worried—but the ponies right here, Pinkie's twitches were letting her know, these were good ponies.
So she told them ev'rything.
"You what??" at least three voices shouted, and Twilight's went on from there: "Pinkie, they were already suspicious of you! If you start talking about walking through mirrors and meeting your twins and all that, they're likely to lock you up!"
"Huh." Pinkie blinked at her friend. "I never thought of that." She gave them all her biggest smile then. "Good thing they didn't think of it either!"
Viceroy Gloaming's eyes kept getting bigger and bigger. "Of course," she said when Pinkie finished. "That's why you seem to stand out so oddly against everything else here."
Pinkie shrugged. "Well, they call me odd back home, too."
A little annoyance flashed across the viceroy's face. "It's that you don't truly fit anywhere, Pinkie Pie, unmoored from all normal time and space by the influence cast upon you by this transdimensional being who calls herself Pinkie Prime. Much like..." Her voice trailed off, and the tenderness in the look she gave to Plinky, still cowering behind her hammered dulcimer, made Pinkie want to put pointed hats on ev'rypony's heads and throw them all a party right here and right now. But with the other earth pony shivering worse than Fluttershy at her scardiest, Pinkie decided that might not be the best idea.
Lady Verity had also been looking at Plinky, but she turned now to look at Pinkie. "Could you?" she asked softly. "Take her away from this awful place? Please?"
"Awful?" Pinkie looked around. "It's actually pretty nice in here. I mean, yeah, the town could use a little perking up and ev'rything smells like oily fish, but I'll bet if you got summa these pegasuses working on the sky—"
"And yes," she told Twilight. "I know. But 'pegasuses' is what I said, and, well, you wouldn't want me to tell you I said something that I didn't say, would you?"
Twilight sighed. "I guess not..."
"We can't." Viceroy Gloaming's mouth was a thin, tight line. "Tucked up against the Everfree Forest, we're far enough out in the wilderness that the Council doesn't pay us any real attention, but if we had nice weather or seemed to be a bustling town, they might take a closer look at us. That's a thing we cannot afford, not the way we ignore most of the Council's policies."
Pinkie waved a hoof. "If this Council is being a buncha meanies, why don't you just tell the princesses? They're always real good at having talks with ponies who need talking to."
"Princesses?" The viceroy's brow got all wrinkly again.
More twitches along Pinkie's spine. "Yeah! We've got Princess Celestia who raises the sun ev'ry morning, Princess Luna who works with the stars and the night, Princess Cadance who—"
"Ah." Viceroy Gloaming gave a curt nod. "The members of your Council call themselves princesses, then." She shook her head. "In our Equestria, we haven't had a princess since the days of Princess Platinum, back before the coming of the Din and the Great Sacrifice."
"The Din?" The word made Pinkie think of— "You mean Discord?"
Ev'ry last bit of sourness came back into Gloaming's face. "I mean a creature born of malice and dark magic, a creature who invaded our beloved land, enslaved our ancestors, and would certainly have destroyed everything we hold dear had not we unicorns sacrificed ourselves to defeat him."
The whole inside park had gone completely quiet, Pinkie not even sure she was hearing the stream anymore. "Yes," Lady Verity said, her voice more easing the silence aside than breaking it. "If you'd arrived a bit earlier, you could have heard Plinky's wonderful rendition of our national ballad."
"I..." Pinkie swallowed at the memory of the sad song she'd heard when she'd first come in. "I heard some of it, I guess. But...but what happened?"
The two unicorns looked at each other, but it was Plinky who spoke, her voice soft and musical even though she was just talking: "Clover the Clever summoned the power of all unicorns everywhere, not just those unicorns then alive but those unicorns yet to be born. The spell turned the Din to stone and freed Equestria from his evil reign, but it required so much power, it literally drained the life force from each succeeding generation of unicorns. In the thousands of years since, in all of Equestria, there are no more than twenty-five unicorns alive at the same time: no unicorn foal is born until one now living has passed on, and we venerate them rightly for the magic they bear, raising the sun and the stars for us each and every day and night, and for the sacrifice they made to save us all."
"Then..." Fluttershy's voice, quiet as the breeze through the oak leaves. "They don't have princesses?"
"Which means," Applejack added just as quietly, "they ain't never had no Elements of Harmony, neither."
"And..." Twilight, absolutely breathless. "Only twenty-five unicorns?"
Pinkie nodded, her throat so tight, she couldn't talk any louder than them. "Of all the mirrors I went through, the one into Plinky's world is maybe the one that makes me the saddest. Because all my twitches were telling me her story was true. And then Gloaming said—"
"As proper as it is for our fellow ponies to hold us in such high esteem..." The viceroy had her teeth clenched. "Too many among our unicorn brothers and sisters would denounce me as a traitor simply for using the phrase 'our fellow ponies' when talking about earth ponies and pegasi."
Lady Verity heaved a massive sigh. "It's perfectly awful to see how grotesquely most unicorns behave! Ordering the others around like they're children! Refusing to treat them with any respect whatsoever! And even worse—" She reached out to touch Plinky Pie again, the earth pony's eyes downcast. "The abuse they will often direct toward them! It's why I've chosen to live in this out-of-the-way spot, and why the viceroy took the posting as governor here: to create an oasis, however small, where such shenanigans will not occur, and to welcome in all whom our agents in the underground deem worthy of us!"
"That's great!" Pinkie jumped up. "'Cause you're gathering your forces, right? So you can march on Canterlot and show those mean ol' unicorns that they've gotta play nice with ev'rypony! Right??"
Both Verity and Gloaming had expression on their faces like Pinkie had just grown wings and a horn. "I beg your pardon?" Gloaming asked after a moment.
"Well, yeah!" Pinkie waved a hoof. "Captain Flash and all those guys out in your hallways with their armor and ev'rything! They're totally your air force! And us earth ponies, well, when you gotta get tough with somepony, we're the guys you wanna have on your side! And you!" She aimed her hoof at Gloaming. "Back in the mirror that I come from, my friend Twilight is, like, the greatest unicorn magician ever! And here, I mean, since there's so much fewer of you guys, you're prob'bly even better!" She started dancing around like she was a marching soldier pony. "You just go right on up to those Council unicorns, and you tell 'em, 'Hey! Cut it out and be friends with us! Or we'll just hafta start poking you in the nose!'" She spun in place and sat down facing the two unicorns. "That's what you gotta do!"
Looking out at her gaping friends, Pinkie pointed the end of her straw at them. "Y'know, that's exactly the look all the ponies in Lady Verity's park gave me, too! Well, except Plinky Pie."
And sure, Plinky Pie was staring at Pinkie the same as the rest, but fear wasn't shimmering in her eyes like it was in the others'. Pinkie wasn't even sure what was glimmering there—hope or excitement or determination or something—but Pinkie liked seeing it, liked knowing that her twin wasn't completely lost in the sorrow that hung around her like a cloud of pepper around a shattered pepper pot.
"You..." Gloaming finally stammered. "You can't be serious! It would be the height of madness for just the two of us to pit ourselves against the Council!"
"Ah." Pinkie raised a hoof. "But it wouldn't be just the two of you. It'd be you and all your fellow ponies."
That seemed to stop the viceroy, and she looked away, her thoughts almost loud enough for Pinkie to hear. Lady Verity, though, she still looked more shocked than anything else. "Please," she said, her voice breaking. "I'm not looking to start a revolution. I'm just...I just want my Plinky to be happy for once in her poor little life." She turned to where Plinky still sat behind the hammered dulcimer. "Wouldn't you like a party, Plinky? A party with Miss Pinkie here and all your twins from the mirrors?"
Plinky had shut right back down as soon as Lady Verity had begun paying attention to her, Pinkie noticed, that wonderful spark completely doused in less than an instant, everything about her as fragile as a spun-glass statue again. "I..." she more whispered than said. "Do you want me to go, my lady?"
Lady Verity's eyes wavered. "It's not about what I want, darling. It's about what you want."
"I..." Plinky's long beige mane almost seemed to twitch, another hopeful sign as far as Pinkie was concerned. "I'm allowed to want things?"
Viceroy Gloaming slapped a hoof against the cushions of her sofa. "All ponies are allowed to want things! And they're all allowed to do everything reasonable to get what they want, too!" A sour little trickle of fear rose from her. "At least, that's how it ought to be..."
More silence, but the air around Pinkie seemed to hum with the energy of ponies making decisions, a feeling even sparklier than Applejack's bubbliest apple cider.
"Then yes," Plinky said suddenly, her voice maybe a touch louder than before but still on the shaky side. "I...I would like to go to Pinkie Pie's party!"
Pinkie couldn't keep from leaping up. "Whoo-hoo!" she shouted even though she knew it would make Plinky wince. "'Cause a Pinkie Pie party is always the right decision!" She turned her big grin at the teary but smiling Lady Verity. "You got a mirror we can borrow?"
"What??" Dashie's jaw dropped. "You just left??"
"Yep." Pinkie took a long draw from her lemonade; all this talking sure was thirsty work!
"But—!" Twilight flailed her hoofs. "Viceroy Gloaming! You practically insisted she stage a revolution against this unicorn Council, and you didn't even stay to help??"
Pinkie shrugged. "Plinky and me had a party to get to."
Applejack laughed. "That's our Pinkie."
A toss of her mane, and Rarity's horn flared, levitated her glass over to Spike, the little dragon waiting with the pitcher. "Surely, darling, you were at least slightly interested in the outcome of what you'd begun in that odd mirror image Equestria?"
"Don't worry." Pinkie forced herself to wink and smile, tried to think of a way to get back to the story without lying too much. "We haven't heard the last of those guys yet. But right then and there, Plinky led me down some more hallways to one of Lady Verity's salons, I did my dance in front of a mirror that was about the right size, and we stepped through into—"
"Excellently done!" Primey's voice boomed, the winged unicorn bursting all pink and majestic into the darkness in front of Pinkie and Plinky as soon as the silvery rectangle behind them had sucked itself back into one of the little glowing spots on the wall of the cave. "I, Pinkie Prime, bid you welcome, Plinky Pie!"
With a squeak that would've done Fluttershy proud, Plinky ducked and scrambled, tried to bury herself in the tangles of Pinkie's tail. Pinkie blew out a sigh. "Might wanna tone it down a couple dozen notches, Primey." She turned, smiled one of her extra-soothing smiles at the cowering beige earth pony. "Primey's OK, Plinky. She's just real big and real excited about this party."
"She—" Plinky sounded musical even when she was whimpering. "She has a horn and wings! How...how can that be?"
"Ah." Primey's eyes softened. "You've arrived from one of those unfortunate universes." She was talking quieter now at least, and when she stepped forward, bent to touch her horn to the top of Plinky's quivering head, she had that whole 'almost Princess Celestia' thing going on again, her smile gentle, her bearing regal. "You have nothing to fear any longer, Plinky Pie, for you have come home to me at last. And together, we will bring about the grand work that has been so many countless millennia in the planning."
Pinkie blinked up at her. "You mean the party, right?"
Which made Primey blink. "The— Ah! Yes! The party! Exactly!" Her horn flashed, and a table appeared on the cavern's rough floor beside her, a cake jutting up from it, white buttercream flowers spotting each of its seven round blue-frosted layers. "You returned a bit earlier than I expected, so I have but the one cake baked."
"Nice!" Pinkie gave it her best professional once over. "Chocolate between the layers?"
"Of course!" Primey's smile became just a bit pointed. "Am I not Pinkie Prime?" She tapped a pink metal shoe against the stone like a bell chiming. "But there are more Pinkies and more Pies that must be gathered." Her voice was getting louder. "More slices of myself that must attend our festivities! For only in that way can we shake the foundations of the firmament and raise the very roof of heaven!"
Plinky had been creeping slowly back into the open, her stare a mix of fear and awe, but now she tried to squeeze herself between the cave wall and Pinkie's tail again. Pinkie rolled her eyes. "Notches, Primey, remember?"
Something that might've been annoyance flashed across Primey's face. "Nonetheless, my plans must continue. I must prepare more cakes, must mix more punch, must assemble more platters of egg rolls and sandwiches, and you, my own, you must journey separately to more universes, must draw your sisters here for the party to end all parties." Her ears perked. "Ooo, I like that!" She raised a front hoof, swept it through the air before her with a pink glittering swoosh. "The Party to End All Parties!" she announced, and Pinkie could hear the capital letters this time.
Pinkie's tail was shivering, but most of that, she figured, was from Plinky hiding under it. "Ummm, listen, Primey, how 'bout if Plinky sticks with me the first couple mirrors, OK? She's had kind of a tough time, I guess, and I don't think she's really the 'go-it-alone' type."
Unsure how Primey might react, Pinkie was glad to see some of that softness came back into her expression. "You have all had a tough time, my daughters, have all felt the unjust sting of the multiverse's disregard." She nodded. "Journey together, then, the two of you, and hurry back with more of your sisters in tow!"
"Hmmmm..." A little frown creased Fluttershy's brow. "I don't mean to be rude, Pinkie, but...Pinkie Prime seems sometimes scary and sometimes not, and I was just wondering—" She blinked. "Which one was she?"
The breeze ruffled Pinkie's mane, and she struggled to keep her ears up. "Well,—" she began.
But Applejack's snort cut her off. "After what happened yesterday? I'm gonna say 'scary' wins out."
Fluttershy ducked her head. "I know you don't believe me, Applejack, but Pinkie Prime did save my life yesterday."
Applejack sighed. "It ain't that I don't believe you, sugar cube. It's just, I mean, we still got crews out in what used to be my west fields checking for hot spots!" Her mouth tightened. "Whatever else mighta happened, I lost a good quarter of my crop, and that's whole trees burned to ash! Even with insurance, it's gonna be a rough next couple years!"
"I—" Dashie looked uncomfortable, something Pinkie didn't see very often. "Look, I didn't wanna say anything earlier 'cause, I mean, with all the smoke and the shouting and the fighting and ev'rything, I wasn't really sure, but..." She turned her confused gaze to Pinkie. "But I almost think I saw more'n one of those big pink princessy ponies crashing around yesterday. Like maybe four or five of 'em, even."
Pinkie swallowed, still not ready for this part of the story. "Lemme just...lemme just tell it like it happened, OK? Some of it, I'm still a little fuzzy on, and...and I think maybe doing it all step-by-step like a recipe'll help."
Twilight nodded. "Whatever works for you, Pinkie."
"Exactly." Rarity reached over to pat her hoof. "Take your time." She drew back, a little alarm coming into her eyes. "As long as there's no chance this Pinkie Prime will be coming back; you said that last night, didn't you?"
"I did." Pinkie took a breath, blew it out, found her smile, and used it to cover up the lie. "We're all safe and happy now, ev'ry single pony of us. And even the married ponies, too!"
That got a few chuckles, and Pinkie felt better. "So me and Plinky, we went through, like, six or seven mirrors after that, and, yeah, they were all int'resting, but they were pretty much normal, too. I mean, in one, my twin was Slinky Pie, a fancy dancer pony with a big hat and a rustly dress you woulda loved, Rarity, and in another, my twin had goggles and overalls and ran a little shop next to Quills and Sofas where she fixed stuff that ponies brought in."
"Lemme guess." Spike gave her a half-lidded look. "Tinker Pie?"
Pinkie tapped her snout. "On the nosey! I was kinda surprised how easy it was to convince 'em all to come—" She stopped, cocked her head, thought about that. "Though really, y'know, if a pony pranced into Sugar Cube Corner and told me she'd come through a mirror to invite me to a party with all my twins, I prob'bly woulda jumped at the chance, too! 'Cause, I mean, a party! With me! And not just me, but me and me and me and me and me and me and—"
A clearing of throat. "We got it, Pinkie," Twilight said dryly.
"Just making sure!" Pinkie set the story back into place in her mind. "But all these first mirrors we went through had Ponyvilles, and all my twins in them were earth ponies like me and Plinky. But by the time we came back out from something like mirror number nine..."
It was starting to look like a party now, Pinkie was happy to see, turning away from the mirror her miniature pony twin, Pink Kneehigh, had just stepped through. Like her other twins, Kneehigh had picked up the mirror dance pretty quickly—and having Slinky teach her a jazzier way to dance it had been the most fun Pinkie'd had in weeks! Then they'd all spread out, picked silvery spots of their own from the countless number shimmering all around the cave ev'rywhere, had stepped through and started fetching more Pinkies and more Pies.
All except Plinky, of course: she stuck to Pinkie like caramel on an apple, never quite bumping into her or rubbing up against her but always right in Pinkie's hoof prints or half a step to the side. She didn't say one word in any of the mirror Ponyvilles, either, her eyes never getting smaller than dinner plates, but Pinkie noticed that her other twins always spent a lot of time looking at Plinky while Pinkie was singing them her invitation song.
'Cause there was something about her, something that made Pinkie think of a filly who couldn't find her mom and dad and was just sitting quietly trying not to cry about it. It made Pinkie want to be her friend even more than she already wanted to, and all her twins seemed to act the same way. Having Plinky with her, Pinkie figured, really helped the others to believe what she was telling them, but once she got them through the mirror and introduced them to Primey, of course, well, that was it: none of 'em showed any doubts at all after that.
Primey was loving it, too, the big mare setting up a pretty good beat with those metal shoes while the others learned the mirror dance, and since all these twins came from mirrors that had princesses, they weren't anywhere near as scared of Primey as Plinky still was. And ev'ry time Pinkie and Plinky had come back from one of their trips, more ponies were wandering around, teaching each other the dance, tapping spots that would then grow into full-size mirrors, stepping from mirrors with another one of her twins staring around with her mouth open. Tables kept spreading out from that first one with the big blue cake on it, and neat glowing balloons hung ev'rywhere in bunches, tickling Pinkie's nose with a sparkly sort of smell.
"It..." Plinky said beside her. "It feels so very...so very different from anything I've ever felt."
Pinkie's heart did a little dance to see Plinky's plain beige mane looking puffier than before, and leaning over, she nudged her shoulder gently into her twin's. "Where I come from, they call that feeling 'fun.'"
Plinky smiled, the first time she'd done that, Pinkie thought. "I've seen fun before, actually, after I came into Lady Verity's service. They've been very kind to me in Ponyville." Her smile stumbled, her musical voice scratching a little like a bow going wrong on a violin. "Even when I scream and scream and scream in my sleep, they never beat me. It's been...so wonderful..."
Leaping onto her hind legs, Pinkie grabbed two cups of punch from a nearby table, thrust one at Plinky. "Then here's to Lady Verity and all your friends back home! 'Cause they sent you here so you could have a good time!"
Taking the cup, Plinky's smile strengthened, and she sipped at it, Pinkie tossing hers back with one swallow and flinging the empty into one of the trash bins set out here and there. "You're right," Plinky murmured. "They did." Another sip, and her eyes lit up. "I've been having a very good time so far, in fact, and have especially been enjoying your invitation song, Pinkie. I, well, I've come up with some harmony for it is the thing, and if you'd like, I'd be happy to add my voice to yours when we go through the next mirror."
Bubbles of pure happiness popped in Pinkie's brain at the thought of singing harmony with herself, and she jumped onto the table, spun around till she caught sight of Primey talking with Tinker and some more of her twins beside something that looked like it was gonna be a bandstand. "Primey!" Pinkie yelled. "Best! Party! Ever!"
Primey's smile got so big, it seemed to light up the whole cavern, and she spread her wings, rose into the air, glided across to land with a tippity-tap of her shoes next to Plinky, the little earth pony's eyes going all dinner platey again. "That it shall be, my own, that it shall!" She leaned down, touched her horn to Pinkie's head, and the shiver that burst through her was warm and wild and weird and wonderful all at the same time. "Still, you spoke of notches earlier, and I can't help but think it's time we kicked this party up one."
"Whoo-hoo!" Pinkie whirled and leaped, landed between Primey and Plinky, and even more bubbles perked in her when Plinky didn't try to scootch under her tail and hide. "'Cause I think we might just be ready for that!"
"Then behold!" Primey flared her wings, a little puff of red and white light shooting from her horn with a sudden peppermint scented gust of wind and sailing out into the depths of the cave on the other side of the table. "You have done splendidly well gathering my selves from those mirrors nearest to your own, Pinkie Pie, but now?" She stretched a front leg out, gestured her hoof toward the minty little light twinkling in the darkness. "Now we must venture further afield if we're to gather all your scattered sisters."
"A field?" Pinkie blinked, then shook her head. "Just looks like rock to me!"
"No, Pinkie!" Plinky whispered urgently beside her. "She means—!"
"Fear not, Plinky Pie." Primey had one of her Princess Celestia smiles on again. "As I am the source of you all, I contain within my infinite self all your limited aspects." Her smile went a little sideways. "Including, alas, your senses of humor."
"Humor?" It took some effort, but Pinkie almost managed to get her expression as innocent as Plinky's. "Me?"
Primey waved her hoof toward the floating light again. "Be off with you, my own. Perhaps you will find a field through one of those more distant mirrors."
"Okie dokie lokie!" Pinkie hopped onto the table again, swigged down another four quick glasses of punch, then jumped to the cave floor on the other side. "C'mon, Plinky! I'll race you!"
She heard light hoofs clattering behind her. "Race?" Plinky called breathlessly. "But...where?"
"Dunno!" Pinkie lowered her head, broke into a gallop that sent her mane streaming along her back. "Let's find out!"
"Yow." Dashie was shaking her head. "Why'd you hafta go and have a whole big adventure without the rest of us, huh, Pinkie?"
Applejack cleared her throat. "Thank you right kindly, Rainbow, but the part we did have was plenty enough for me."
Dashie snorted, Fluttershy and Rarity both nodding, but Twilight had a thoughtful look on her face. "I'm not sure," she said slowly. "I mean, yes, adventure always disrupts my schedule, and most of the time I find I don't really enjoy it while I'm in the middle of it..." Her voice trailed off, but then her eyes refocused. "But it's all worth it at the end if we've done some good and we're all together, right?" She smiled at Pinkie. "And if we weren't all there for most of the adventure, well, then we can sit around afterwards and listen to the story of it!"
"We could," Spike grumbled, "if some ponies would stop interrupting all the time...."
Twilight glanced sideways; her horn glowed, and one of the lemon slices leaped from the pitcher to splatter against Spike's snout.
"Ha!" The little dragon's tongue snaked out, wrapped around the lemon, and popped it into his mouth, ev'rypony wincing as he chomped it down. "Tangy!" he said, then he turned to Pinkie. "Now, you were saying?"
After a few minutes, Pinkie slackened her pace and fell back to trot alongside Plinky. "I'm serious, y'know." She did a quick spin, her front hoofs stretched out so she could cover as many of the little silver spots as she could. "Ev'ry wunna these spots turns into a mirror that'll have some Pinkie or some Pie inside it that we need to invite." And since Plinky had started coming out of her shell a little— "So you pick the next one! Any one you like!"
Staring up and around, Plinky slowed to a walk, then stopped, the lights shimmering in those big eyes. "Any one?"
"And I just have to—" Plinky reached out a hoof as gingerly as a snail's feeler, touched a spot on the floor beside them, and it inflated quicker than a balloon at the fair. But it didn't stretch up into a big cloudy rectangle like the others all had; this one came up sort of oval just barely big enough, Pinkie figured, for them to walk into.
She blinked at it. "Guess we'll hafta duck some."
Plinky was quivering again. "Did I do it wrong? Should we...should we try another?"
"Nah." Pinkie waved without looking away from the mirror. "We gotta do 'em all anyway, right? And besides, I've seen plenty of mirrors that weren't square." She pulled out one of her favorite special smiles and pointed it at Plinky. "What could possibly go wrong?"
Eyes bigger than ever, Plinky was shifting her gaze around like she was looking for someplace to hide. But they were out in the middle of the cavern, the party just a little glow way over by the wall, so there really wasn't anywhere she could go except— Pinkie gestured to the glowing circle. "You wanna do the dance this time?"
Knees folding, Plinky settled onto the weird blue-black rock and shook her head so vigorously, Pinkie was surprised it didn't rattle. She shrugged, though, reared up, did the dance with the extra little sashays Slinky had added—tap, slide, tap, double-tap, tap, slide, tap, double-tap, double-tap, tap, tap—and when the oval went misty, Pinkie looked back, waggled her eyebrows at Plinky, bent her neck, and slid through, her tail bunching up as Plinky pushed in right behind her.
The light here was dim and kind of fuzzy, and glancing around, Pinkie saw that they'd stepped out into some sort of big tent, the canvas walls all glowing and shadowy at the same time. Things hung on the walls, too, drawings or charts or like that, their careful lines and curves making patterns that sent Pinkie's senses twitching. "Magic," Plinky whispered behind her. "Like Viceroy Gloaming has in her special books."
Pinkie nodded, the rest of the place reminding her a little of the library and a little of her own fortune-telling tent: a few throw rugs, some round tables, an unmade bed tucked into one corner, shelves packed with scrolls and jars and little glass balls, the mirror on a low padded stand leaning against one of the shelves. A brighter glowing strip running from top to bottom in the canvas wall to her right showed her where the door flap was, so she turned and started toward it. "OK! Let's see where in Ponyville we are. 'Cause this could maybe be our twin's tent, but I think it's prob'bly gonna be—"
Nosing aside the flap, she stepped outside and had to stop, had to let her mouth fall open and her eyes do some staring. 'Cause with the joke she and Primey had made about the field...
Grass as green as the middle of spring rolled out in front of her, rolled out and out and out and away along low lumpy hills, a giant afternoon sky of pure crystal blue overhead, the few wisps of cloud drifting along on the breeze only making it look even emptier. And not a path, not a building, not a flag, not a thing except grass and sky and hills.
"Where...?" Plinky moved up beside her, the beige earth pony staring as well. "Where's the town?"
"Hey!" an almost familiar voice said, and turning, Pinkie saw a pony who looked almost exactly like Twilight in her Nightmare Night costume.
Twilight sat forward. "You mean... it was Starswirl the Bearded??"
Pinkie waved a hoof. "Well, she didn't have a phony beard like you did, and instead of that big fancy cloak like you had, she was wearing a plain gray fuzzy blanket over her back. Her hat was diff'rent, too, more like a big upside-down ice cream cone between her ears and her horn. Oh, and her hat had this cottony sort of stuff around the brim instead of any bells."
A couple blinks from Twilight, and Rarity sighed. "In other words, it was a pony dressed in a costume that looked just like Twilight's Starswirl outfit except, of course, that it didn't look like it at all."
Dashie laughed, and Pinkie nodded. "Exactly!"
Even thinner than Viceroy Gloaming, this unicorn was tough and wiry and had the look of a pony who would play hide-n-seek or checkers not because she thought they were fun but because she had to if she wanted to become the best hide-n-seeker or checkers player ever. "What are you doing lurking around my tent?" she demanded.
Without even thinking, Pinkie gave the only possible answer: "We were waiting for you!"
The unicorn's scowl seemed to sharpen, but Pinkie couldn't tell if that was good or bad. Then beside her, Plinky folded into a bow, ev'rything about her quivering, and panted the words, "Apologies, viceroy."
"What?" That scowl got scowlier, definitely a move in the direction of bad. "I am no mere viceroy! I am Bomu Huahuo, sorceress to the great Khan!" Purple light so dark it was almost black crackled up and down her horn. "Ponies who were truly waiting for me would know that, I think."
Laughing, Pinkie tossed her head. "Oh, Plinky's just getting confused a little. We've been in and out of so many mirrors today, I can't really blame her, and you do look an awful lot like—"
"Mirrors?" Bomu's scowl stretched into a gape, and Pinkie felt the butterfly-soft touch of magic stroking over her. "You...you two are each other's quantum doppelgangers!"
That made Pinkie blink. "If you mean we're mirror twins, then you're right-a-rooty!"
The excitement dawning over Bomu's face made her look a lot younger suddenly and a lot more like Twilight, too. "This is impossible! And no doubt insanely dangerous! Please, come in!" She rushed forward. "I'll need to run some tests!"
And as much fun as Pinkie had when her own Twilight ran tests on her— "Actually, we're having a big party for all the Pinkies and all the Pies, so we—"
"Pin Qi Khan??" Bomu literally screeched to a halt in the doorway of her tent, her hoofs digging divots from the grass, her head snapping around so quickly, she nearly lost her balance. "You're speaking of our Khan??"
"Maybe." Pinkie shrugged. "I won't really know till I look at her and see if she's my twin or not."
Staring from her to Plinky, the little earth pony standing again but still smelling scared, Bomu shook her head and started back along the front of the tent. "Come this way."
Plinky looked at Pinkie. Pinkie nodded, Bomu rounding the tent's corner and shouting, "Sergeant Hong! I have need of your expertise!"
Following the unicorn, Pinkie had to stop and do some more staring. 'Cause, yes, there was still mostly grass and hills and sky on this side of Bomu's tent, but the grass and the hills over here sloped down into a valley, a valley completely filled with tents: square ones, round ones, big ones, small ones, all of them with ponies even tougher-looking than Bomu walking around between them or sitting in front having cook-outs, the scents of buttered rice and bean curd wafting up from their campfires. "Hong Ruiqi!" Bomu was shouting now. "At your earliest convenience, if it wouldn't be—!"
A familiar tingle in the air, and Pinkie braced herself as Dashie's twin came swooping up from the valley below, Plinky squeaking and ducking, Bomu wincing, the shockwave blowing her hat clean off. "—too much trouble...," the unicorn finished, cracking an eye open.
"No trouble, sorceress." The midnight blue pegasus had landed gentle as thistledown beside Bomu's hat; she poked a hoof into it, flipped it back at the unicorn, speared it right over her horn like she was playing ring toss. "No trouble at all."
"But she wasn't you," Pinkie added quickly to Dashie.
Dashie shrugged. "It's OK. This one sounds cool."
Scowling, Bomu waved a hoof at Pinkie and Plinky. "These two, Hong: give me one of your vaunted snap judgments."
Hong's gaze flicked at them almost too quick for Pinkie to see it. "A jester and a broken doll," she said with a shrug that made her look even more like Dashie. "Anything else?"
"Wow!" Pinkie couldn't keep from hopping up and down. "You're good!"
This brought Hong's gaze back so sharply, Pinkie could've sworn she felt it combing through her mane. "Odd," the pegasus muttered. "There's something about them, something like pickled ginger or horseradish." She snapped her head over to Bomu. "Who are they?"
Bomu was adjusting her hat, light from her horn surrounding it. "They say they'd like to see the Khan."
"Who wouldn't?" Spinning toward them again, Hong spread her wings, fixed her hoofs, and practically barked, "What business have you with Pin Qi Khan??"
Pinkie thought for maybe half a heartbeat about singing them her invitation song, but she wasn't really inviting them, and with Plinky all shrunk up against the ground again, Pinkie kinda doubted she'd be ready with her harmony. So instead— "I'm Pinkie Pie! This is my friend Plinky Pie, and we're here to invite this Khan to a real special party!"
Hong blinked, then tucked her wings back to her sides. "Yeah, OK," she said, her voice normal again. "That's weird enough to be true." She turned to Bomu. "Khan's sparring with Ping Guo Jiu and Poyong Xi in her dojo. You gonna take 'em down there?"
A little smile from Bomu. "You don't want to see what the Khan does to them?"
Moving her glance from Pinkie to Plinky, Hong shook her head. "The pink one might be amusing, but knowing how the Khan feels about cuteness, I find I honestly wouldn't mind missing her reaction to the little beige one."
Bomu's mouth went sideways. "It's no wonder you're still a sergeant."
But Pinkie turned on her big smile. "Don't worry, Hong! Your Khannie's gonna love us! Ev'rypony does!"
"Khannie?" Whiteness rimmed Hong's eyes, and she staggered back like she'd maybe lost her balance for a minute. "Yeah, OK, sorceress, you've convinced me: I've gotta see how many pieces the Khan breaks this one into."
"Whoa." Dashie sat forward. "She really said that?"
Fluttershy looked concerned. "How scary a pony is this Khan going to be? 'Cause I can just cover my eyes right now if that'd be OK."
Rarity sniffed. "She sounds like a brute!"
"Khannie?" Pinkie waved a hoof. "Are you kidding? But yeah, Plinky was a little nervous about meeting her..."
"Pin Qi Khan." The words shivered out of Plinky's throat and surprised Pinkie, the two of them following Bomu down from her tent perched on the rim of the valley. "She...she heads the Council here?"
"Council?" Bomu looked back, her eyes narrow. "Our Khan takes no pony's council."
"Well..." Hong was drifting along beside them, not really walking but not really flying, either, her wings as blurred as a hummingbird's. "The Khan has a few advisors she trusts—me and Bomu, Jiu and Poyong and Linlang—but she's pretty much the law under the Arch of Heaven from one end of the steppe to the other."
"Neat!" Pinkie wanted to hop faster and faster along the slope, but Plinky didn't seem to be in too much of a hurry, and besides, it wouldn't do any good to get out ahead of Bomu since she was the one who knew where they were going. "I can't wait to meet her!"
Bomu stopped so suddenly, only Pinkie reaching out to grab Plinky stopped the two from crashing into each other. "Neat??" Bomu asked like she wasn't quite sure what the word meant. "There are those who say our Khan's father was a griffon and her mother the Great Sun Mare herself! Just the rumor that our Khan will be passing by has made whole communities spring up where none have ever been before and caused others to vanish into the grass of the steppe never to be seen again! When our Khan smiles, the rain falls upon the dry and barren desert, and when she frowns, the earth itself trembles! Our Khan is many things, Pinkie Pie, but she is not now nor ever will be 'neat'!"
Pinkie bounced forward and patted Bomu on the head, her twitches giving her a pretty good idea what was making the unicorn so grouchy. "It's OK, Bomu. I'll bet your Khannie really does listen to you when you talk! I'll bet she thinks of you as one of her bestest friends, and I'll bet she'd be more'n happy to give you a real big hug if you just once asked her to!"
The look on Bomu's face was one Pinkie saw a lot from her newest friends: like they thought maybe Pinkie was about to burst into flame and shoot up into the sky or something. And, yes, she did do that ev'ry once in a while, but this wasn't the time or place quite yet. "You...you...you," Bomu stammered.
But Hong burst out laughing. "Sorceress? I know you and I have had our differences, but I hereby forgive you all your many faults." She did a quick somersault in the air. "Because now I shall forever have fixed in my head the image of you asking the Khan for a hug!"
"Enough!" Bomu was blushing furiously, her eyes narrow and her teeth gritting. "You are a fool, Pinkie Pie, and I do not envy you the lesson you will soon be learning!"
"Lesson?" Pinky cocked her head. "Your Khannie's a teacher, too?" She gave a whistle. "She just sounds neater and neater ev'ry minute!"
Opening her mouth, Bomu froze, closed her mouth, and started stomping down the hill again. Grinning, Pinkie gestured for the shivering Plinky to precede her, then swung into her place with a flick of her tail and a skip of her hoofs.
They started passing other tents then, the tough ponies in their plain blankets and pointy hats looking at them with varying degrees of confusion—mostly, Pinkie thought, 'cause she kept waving at them and calling out things like, "Hi, ev'rypony! Hope you're having as good a day as me! And I'll bet you are 'cause that stew smells great!"
A lot of the younger ponies waved back, but the older ponies glaring at them made them stop. Pinkie didn't stop, though, and after a good ten or fifteen minutes winding through the camp, they came to the middle, a tent set up here so big, it was practically a regular building, posts that still looked mostly like trees holding up the sides with banners of ev'ry color Pinkie could think of streaming from the tops into the blue above. A kind of porch ran around the whole edge of the roof, and pegasi were sitting up there looking out at the camp. Pinkie waved to them, too, but they didn't seem to notice.
Unicorns and earth ponies stood and marched around down on the ground, most of them with little wooden spear-things tucked into sleeves strapped to their sides. None of them waved back at Pinkie, either, but she didn't take it personally: they looked like they were really busy standing and marching and all that.
Hong flipped overhead to land beside Bomu, and the two led Pinkie and Plinky right up through the hard-packed dirt to the wooden front gate of the tent-building. The unicorn standing there just bowed, lit up his horn, and sent the glow out over the big door to set it swinging open.
Inside was mostly open with a few smaller tents—they were only maybe the size of Twilight's library or Sugar Cube Corner—but no other ponies that Pinkie could see. She heard some things, though: hard breathing, the thwack of wood hitting wood, a grunt now and again. It was all coming from the tent just off to their right, the very tent that Bomu and Hong were heading for. Bomu lifted the flap with her magic, and Hong grinned back at them. "You're in luck," she said, her wings flaring. "For our Khan is a teacher as you said, and it sounds as if class is still in session."
Plinky made a little squeaking noise, but Pinkie knew better: however scary this was gonna be, being afraid of it wasn't gonna make it any better or any worse. So she clapped her hoofs together and sprang past Hong into the shadowy darkness inside.
A carpet of what looking like woven reeds covered the floor, and the only furniture in the whole tent were a couple of water buckets and a long rack beside the tent flap on Pinkie's left, a rack that seemed to be holding nothing but long shiny wooden sticks. But the middle of the tent was where ev'rything was happening, and Pinkie scooted to her right along the tent wall so the others could come in and see it, too.
'Cause out in the middle, a pegasus mare even bigger and redder than Big Macintosh was play-fighting with two regular-sized earth ponies, one a slightly darker yellow than the other. Not that they were playing, Pinkie saw right away by the sweat dripping from all their manes and the fierceness glinting in all their eyes. But the way they moved around each other and the strange happiness that filled the air thicker than the smell of their sweat, that told her they were friends. So instead of the kind of fighting where anypony was really trying to hurt anypony else, this was the kind that was more like a dance.
They were all good at it, Pinkie could tell, and as much as she didn't like to think about fighting, if she ever had to do it, she decided, she would want one of these three ponies beside her. Especially the big pegasus, fast and tough and holding her own against the others even though she wasn't using her wings at all, was just flinging the stick she had held in her mouth so skillfully that ev'ry time one of the earth ponies went in for a hit, she had that stick right there, knocking their sticks away and even aiming a bash or two of her own at them.
That she was Pinkie's twin was obvious, and seeing her in action, she could understand why Hong and Bomu—and all the ponies they'd passed outside in the camp—why they were such big fans of this Pin Qi Khan.
The tempo of the dance/fight had been picking up while Pinkie watched, a little foam flecking the lips of the two earth ponies, and Khannie gave a sudden snort strong enough for Pinkie to feel it all the way across the tent. The stick seemed to flash in the big pegasus's mouth, whacked solidly against the heads of both earth ponies, and staggered them in opposite directions. "A break!" she announced, slinging her stick with a clatter into the side of the rack, her contralto voice one that Pinkie immediately wanted to hear adding a bass line to her invitation song. "You're becoming lathered!"
Picking themselves up, the earth ponies bowed to the big pegasus, dropped their own sticks, and headed to the buckets, Hong leaping into a hover and wafting a breeze over them. The darker-colored earth pony looked up with a grin and said, "Always on the spot, ain'tcha, Ruiqi?"
Hong shrugged. "When it counts."
The other earth pony had stopped, too, her sea-green eyes, Pinkie discovered, focused directly on her. "Guests?" she asked quietly.
This got the Khan's attention, the big pegasus looking over from the rack where she was putting her stick away. "Bomu? What have you brought us here? They look almost..." Ev'rything about her became sharper somehow, the air suddenly seeming to crackle. "Familiar," she finished.
Bomu nodded. "They claim—," she started.
But Pinkie couldn't keep quiet anymore. "We're your mirror twins!" she shouted. "I'm Pinkie Pie, this is Plinky Pie, and we're here to invite you to a party!" She spun on Plinky. "OK! Just like we rehearsed it!"
Except, she realized, they hadn't actually had a rehearsal yet, and with Plinky cowering down against the reed mat, well, it looked like Pinkie would be singing another solo. Sucking in about half a lungful of air, she opened her mouth to start, but Khannie spread her wings, rearing back on her hind legs and shouting, "What nonsense is this?? Pathetic little creatures like you claiming to be my twins?? I should strike you down where you stand!"
"Well,..." Pinkie knew this game though she didn't much like it. Eyes downcast, she stepped between Plinky and Khannie, then raised her head, met Khannie's gaze straight on. "You could try, I guess."
"No way!" Dashie's ears, eyebrows, and smile were about as perked as Pinkie had ever seen them. "No way you really did that!"
And since it wasn't exactly a lie, Pinkie felt OK nodding. "It's all about knowing your audience. I mean, with Gilda, all I had to do was set things up, and she did all the work herself, showing ev'rypony what a meanie she really was. But with Khannie, well, she had a totally different problem..."
The tent went silent, Hong's wings freezing and dropping her the couple inches to the floor. Khannie lowered her hoofs more gently, a slow smile curling her muzzle. "A challenge, is it?"
Pinkie shrugged. "All we wanna do is take you to this really great party we're setting up on the other side of the mirror. Ask Bomu, and she'll tell you—"
"Sorceress?" Khannie didn't look away from Pinkie. "Is this one of your attempts at humor?"
Not looking away from Khannie, either, Pinkie could still hear Bomu swallow. "My Khan, they...they appear to be quantized images of each other and...and of you. I would've said it was impossible, but I've not yet had a chance to—"
"Enough." Khannie already deep voice got even deeper, her deep blue eyes narrowing, and Pinkie's twitches started pointing her toward some of the things the big pegasus wasn't saying. "You dare come to my encampment and challenge the great Pin Qi Khan, lowly duplicate?"
"You want a challenge?" Staying focused on Khannie's eyes, Pinkie waved a hoof over her shoulder. "Come with us, Khannie. We'll show you worlds—"
"Khannie??" Her wings burst from her sides again, and she launched hard and fast straight at Pinkie.
She was strong and quick, sure, but she was also pretty much an open book, Pinkie's twitches telling her what Khannie was gonna do whole tenths of a second before she actually did it; flexing her knees, Pinkie flipped herself right over the charging Khan, spun in mid-air, and landed easily between those wings on that broad back. "Worlds you've never even dreamed of," she whispered into Khannie's ears, folded tight against her thick red mane.
Khannie ducked and rolled, Pinkie just barely scrambling away before she could get squished. "'Cause that's what you need, isn't it?" She ducked the roundhouse kick Khannie wheeled at her. "A world where you aren't already the biggest and best pony around?" A flurry of punches sent Pinkie diving and leaping, but she couldn't stop now! "You've beat ev'rything this world could throw at you, Khannie, and now you don't know what to do with yourself!" Trusting her twitches, she stopped, turned, took a stance, found herself staring up into dark angry eyes in a red angry face. "Let your friends be in charge here for a while, and let us take you to places that'll truly give you the challenge you want! The challenge you need!"
Hot breath gusted into Pinkie's face from Khannie's nostrils, but second followed second with no hoofs slamming her. "Yes," Pin Qi Khan said slowly then. "I find myself interested in these other worlds of yours."
"So then—" Pinkie said.
But that was as far as she got before ev'rypony else broke in: Rarity exclaimed "Gracious!" while Fluttershy, peering out from between her front legs, gave about the biggest gasp Pinkie had ever heard from her; Spike added an "Awesome!" to Twilight's "Are you serious??" and the "Whoa, Nelly!" from Applejack; and the way Dashie pounded the ground and hooted, "Pinkie Pie getting it done!" Pinkie was afraid she might spill her lemonade.
She didn't, though, just sprang into a hover, stretched out a hoof, and shouted, "Hit me high, girl!"
Grinning all over, Pinkie gave her a smack, Dashie spinning in place a couple times before settling back into the oak tree's shade and saying, "That big lug shoulda known better'n to try messing with you!"
"Aw, c'mon, guys!" Pinkie didn't want to get stern with them, but— "Don't be so hard on Khannie! I mean, it's not like she's the only pony who ever tried to kill me two seconds after we met!"
That got a laugh from Rarity, and she cocked her head at Twilight. "Did I ever tell you about the first time Pinkie introduced herself to me? We were just schoolfillies, of course, and I was—"
"Ummm, Rarity?" Spike swallowed so hard, Pinkie could see the bulge of it travel down his neck. "As much as I'd really, really, really like to hear that story sometime, right now, we're kinda in the middle of..." He gestured with all his little claws at Pinkie.
Several blinks, and Rarity started back. "Oh! Yes! Of course! Forgive me, Pinkie; you were telling us about taming the savage beast."
"She wasn't—!" Pinkie stopped again, took a breath. "Lemme just tell you what happened next."
Pinkie had thought they'd prob'bly all head back up the slope to Bomu's tent on the rim of the valley right away 'cause Khannie didn't seem the type to have mirrors laying around. But instead—
"Please, my Khan!" Bomu was saying, and Pinkie could almost smell how hard she was trying not to look scared. "Leaving us to go off with these...these—??" She flailed a hoof at Pinkie and Plinky, and Pinkie, glad someone was finally waving at her, waved back. Bomu scowled. "It's madness of the worst sort!"
A shrug from Hong. "'Fun,' I think, is the word you mean, sorceress."
"Yes," Poyong said, the lighter yellow of the two earth ponies and Fluttershy's twin, Pinkie was guessing, from the three lumpy green cocoons she had for a cutie mark. But when she added, "New worlds and new adventures," her expression was such an odd mix of dreaminess and fierceness that Pinkie couldn't help remembering how good she'd been with that big shiny stick when she'd been sparring with Khannie.
"Exactly!" Pin Qi Khan gave a crisp nod. "Jiu! When was the last time the northern clans staged a raid into Equestria??"
The darker of the earth ponies shook her head. "Don't reckon I can remember that far back, my Khan."
"Point one!" Khannie turned to Hong. "Have the griffons shorted us on their tribute since we forcibly brought the matter to their attention? Have the dragons made any further complaint about our pact since we paid them that visit?"
Hong laughed. "They're none of them that stupid, my Khan."
"Point two!" Her smile as sharp as a bucket of porcupines, Khannie gazed at the frowning Bomu. "Do our ponies starve? Are their crops withering? Their flocks dying? Has Linlang's treasury run dry of jewels or precious metals?"
"No, my Khan...," Bomu muttered.
The big pegasus stomped a hoof and flared her wings. "Then would you not say that we six have tamed this land, sorceress, with the blessing of our Mothers, the Sky Mares, and the occasional bit of more substantial help from that quarter? Would you not say that, Bomu Huahuo?"
Bomu looked so downcast, Pinkie couldn't keep from sliding over to Khannie's side and whispering, "Just tell her you trust her and you'll miss her, then give her a hug. That'll make her feel a lot better."
Khannie glared down, her ears folding, but instead of following Pinkie's advice, she turned back to her friends with a gruff, "Jiu! Hong! Poyong! Take yourselves to Linlang's tent! Tell her I'll be gone within a quarter hour if she has any need to see me and that I'm leaving the realm in your hoofs!" She took a stance so heroic, Pinkie thought it a shame no wind was blowing to make her dark red mane stream out behind her. "So says your Khan!"
The three all bowed and left the tent, Khannie looking back at Pinkie. "Now, Pinkie Pie. How do we get to this land beyond the mirror?"
Pinkie rolled her eyes. "Well, we kinda need a mirror first."
The Khan growled, a sound, Pinkie realized, that she didn't hear too often from ponies. "Do you mock me, duplicate?"
Snorting a laugh, Pinkie reached up and tapped Khannie's nose. "Just 'cause you're being so mockable!"
The silence in the tent was only broken by the clatter of Plinky's teeth and the crack of Bomu's jaw falling open. But just like Pinkie'd thought, now that they were practically alone, Khannie gave a snort of her own, a smile bursting across her snout, and she crooked a hoof around Pinkie's shoulders. "Fair enough!" she announced. "Bomu! You have mirrors?"
It took a second for Bomu to get her jaw back into place. "Of...of course, my Khan!"
"Then take us to them!" Khannie wrapped her other arm around Plinky, hauled the gasping beige earth pony to her hoofs. "Worlds await!"
Pinkie hooted. "And parties, too!"
Turning away, Bomu sighed and repeated, "Of course, my Khan."
"And Bomu?" Khannie's voice got much quieter, and she let go of Pinky and Plinky, stretched her wings, leaped overhead to land in front of the unicorn. "You are to have this." She turned her head, dug her snout into the part of her mane that bunched around her neck, and when she faced forward again, she had clenched in her teeth a little chain with a green gem dangling from it.
Bomu's jaw dropped again. "Your signet, my Khan?"
Khannie stepped forward and with surprising gentleness wrapped the chain around Bomu's horn. "Of all the rogues, varlets, thugs and ruffians I've surrounded myself with," she said, cupping Bomu's chin with a hoof and forcing the sorceress to meet her gaze, "you are the one who's always been a sister to me, who's always told me when I'm being petty or foolish, who's always looked beyond the question of where we're getting our next meal from to the question of where we'll be getting our meals next season. What peace Equestria knows now is because of you, and I entrust that peace to your keeping till I return."
Eyes shimmering, Bomu whispered, "Yes, my Khan."
"Now!" Khannie spun, threw to tent flap open, the afternoon sunlight pouring in. "On to our mirror!"
"Y'see?" Pinkie thought about sticking her tongue out at them all, but she decided that would make it hard to keep talking. "I told you guys Khannie was OK!"
Twilight was nodding. "You can't judge a book by its cover," she said.
And Pinkie couldn't help it. "I don't think Khannie could read," she said with as straight a face as she could.
That got Twilight's eyes rolling, and Rarity's mouth went sideways. "All humor aside,..." And if Rarity's accent was usually as sharp as the big knife at the bakery, it was even sharper now. "I suppose it's only proper to give this Pin Qi Khan of yours the benefit of the doubt."
Fluttershy looked like she wanted to disagree, but all she said was: "She seemed nice when she was being quiet at least."
"Guys!" came the wail from Dashie and Spike, and Dashie went on, "We're never gonna get to the cool parts of this thing if you keep interrupting!"
"Really?" Pinkie cocked her head. "There haven't been any cool parts yet, y'mean?"
Dashie groaned again. "No! It's just that we've finally get a pony here who can maybe kick Pinkie Prime's tail!" She sat forward. "Do they get in a big fight?? 'Cause I totally wanna see 'em get in a big fight!"
Applejack cleared her throat. "Maybe if'n you'd let her talk, we could all find out."
"What??" Dashie jumped into the air, her wings practically buzzing. "I'm not letting her talk?? It's ev'rypony else keeps jumping in all over the place! How am I the one not letting her—??" She stopped, blinked, gave a sheepish grin and a little laugh before drifting light as a feather back into her place among the oak tree's roots. "Hey, how 'bout I just sit down and let Pinkie talk?"
Word must've spread through the valley as quick as pancake batter over a hot griddle about Khannie leaving 'cause as soon as Pinkie followed the strutting Bomu out the front gate, Khannie on Pinkie's left and Plinky on her right, she found herself staring at soldier ponies standing in the hard-packed dirt between Khannie's big tent-building and the rest of the camp. Whole bunches of other ponies had crowded in behind them, too, all of them staring and kind of worried-looking and none of them making a sound.
Khannie gave a little growl. "Nothing's ever easy," she said so softly, Pinkie was pretty sure no one but her and Plinky and Bomu were close enough to hear it. Then Khannie was flexing her big legs, her wings spreading and flapping and rocketing her up into a hover, her red hide seeming even redder against the blue afternoon sky. "Loyal ponies!" she called, and this time, not only was Pinkie pretty sure ev'ry pony ev'rywhere would be able to hear her, but the wind was also making her mane flow the way it was supposed to. "Thank you for coming to see me off, and let me assure each and every pony here that I will return soon! For you are the blood that courses through my veins! You are the breath that fills my lungs! And by the Sky Mares, I swear that we will all meet again!"
The soldier ponies cheered, the unicorns shooting little fireworks into the air, and a lot of the ponies in the crowd cheered, too. But some of them still looked nervous, standing five or six ponies deep on both sides of the path Bomu took during the long walk back through the camp and up the side of the valley: Khannie kept stopping was the thing, nodding, saying a word or two to the ponies standing there, making ears perk up all around her.
They did get to Bomu's tent finally, though, the crowd not following them the way Pinkie'd half expected. Which made her wonder— "Hey, Bomu. Why's your tent way up here all by itself?"
Clambering over the lip of the valley, Bomu looked back and sighed. "Trigger a few explosions, and suddenly you're not terribly welcome in camp."
"That changes now," Khannie rumbled. "You and the others will take up residence in my compound till I return." She leaped the last few steps, glided to land beside Bomu's tent. "Keep this place for your experiments if you must, but I want everypony to see the five of you together." She raised her voice. "You hear that, you sorry wastes of horseflesh?? All of you! Together!"
Pinkie heard a sigh and a laugh and a swishing of hoofs through grass, and the other mirror versions of her friends came trotting around the corner of Bomu's tent along with a unicorn swathed from ears to fetlocks in flowing purple cloth—satin or silk or something shimmery like that—only her deep turquoise eyes and the eggshell-colored swirls of her horn visible. "My Khan," this new pony said, her voice quiet and scratchy. "We will not disappoint you."
"See that you don't." Khannie gave one of her crisp nods. "Linlang, Jiu, Hong, Poyong, take note who wears my signet." The four ponies gaped at Bomu, her smile as smug as any Pinkie had ever seen. "For should word of any unpleasantness among you reach me in the world beyond, I shall return early and crack your good-for-nothing skulls." She spread her wings. "Now go! Let our ponies know that Equestria remains united even without her Khan! And if either or both of the Sky Mares should stop by..." Her gaze flickered sideways to meet Pinkie's. "Tell them I've gone to visit some cousins."
Khannie's friends bowed, trooped over the edge, disappeared back down into the valley, and Khannie seemed to droop a little watching them go. So Pinkie stepped over to the big pegasus and nudged her with a hoof. "I still think you shoulda hugged 'em."
That got a sigh instead of a snort. "They have certain expectations of me," she said, everything about her quiet again.
"You—" Plinky swallowed, shuffled back half a step when Pinkie and Khannie both turned to look at her, but wide-eyed and focused on Khannie, she went on: "You tell them to do things, and they...they listen to you. How...how—?" She waved a hoof. "How?"
The smile that curled over Khannie's muzzle made her look like a completely different pony. "We all have our gifts, small one." She nodded toward Plinky's flank and the hammered dulcimer of her cutie mark. "I would guess you are more a musician than a leader of ponies."
"Well,..." Pinkie shrugged. "There's such a thing as a song leader, y'know."
They both stared at her, and Pinkie gave them her biggest grin. "Now, c'mon! We've got a party to get to!"
"Oh, hey!" Dashie tapped the grass in front of her. "What was Pin Qi Khan's cutie mark, anyway?"
Pinkie blinked at her. "Actually, that was the first thing Primey mentioned when we got back to the cave."
Dancing in front of Bomu's mirror, Pinkie gestured for Plinky to go first, and while the little earth pony fit easily enough, even when Khannie squeezed herself, the mirror's frame was so tight around her barrel chest and powerful wings that for a long couple of seconds, Pinkie found herself sitting on the floor of Bomu's tent watching Khannie's fiery red tail and hindquarters thrashing around on one side of the mirror, nothing at all on the other side.
"I can give you a push!" Pinkie called, then added, just to make sure: "Or I can go and get your friends! You think they'd be OK with kicking you a little?"
That got more thrashing, and just when Pinkie thought she might actually have to try her hoofs at Khannie bucking, one last shove of those big hind legs popped the pegasus through, Pinkie tumbling after maybe two seconds before the mirror collapsed back into the dark blue rock of the cavern floor. Looking up, she saw Plinky letting go her grip on Khannie's front hoofs, heard that musical voice asking frantically, "Are you all right?? Khan?? Pinkie?? Did...did you get through??"
"Moomph!" Khannie said—or something that sounded like that, anyway. Her wings shot out, lifting Khannie into the air with flaps so strong, the wind of it nearly knocked Pinkie over, then landing her on all four hoofs with a thump that seemed to shake the whole place. "I take it, then, that we've arrived in this other world?" She looked around, a weird mix of excitement and wariness in the set of her ears. "A bit gloomy, isn't it?"
Pinkie looked around, too, more than a little surprised that there was nothing but the silent silver-spotted cave ev'rywhere. "Well, the party's s'pposed to be going on right here...somewhere. But to get to the other worlds, we've gotta poke those little mirror spots, do the dance, and step through."
"Indeed?" Khannie lowered her snout, sniffed at the nearest silver spots. She jabbed a hoof at one and didn't even bat an eye when it sprang up into a tall thin mirror she would never have fit through. "And you will teach me this dance?"
"She will!" came Primey's booming voice, and the big winged unicorn dropped from nowhere onto the blue-black stone beside them all. "The three upraised scimitars on your flanks say that you are the part of me known as Pin Qi Khan, and I bid you welcome!"
Plinky, Pinkie couldn't help but notice, slid sideways so Khannie was between her and Primey. But Khannie turned slowly, her eyes half-closed, gave Primey a long look up, down, back, forth, and from side to side, then focused back on Pinkie. "Our hostess, I presume?"
"I am Pinkie Prime!" Primey had her wings spread, one front leg cocked, the cotton candy and bubblegum of her mane sort of pulsing around her head.
But Khannie was still looking at Pinkie. "And she knows she's not truly one of the great Sky Mares, doesn't she?"
Twitches shivered all over Pinkie, Primey's face bunching up like she'd smelled something bad. "I'm not," she said, her voice quiet but not fooling Pinkie for one single second: the only reason she wasn't yelling was 'cause she was trying so hard to be princessy. "They have no concept of me, of course, no clue that I exist, but if they did, they would wish to be like me, would wish they could sprinkle themselves throughout reality and experience the multiverse as I have." A pink glow shimmered over her eyes, her voice getting a little growly. "Oh, how they would envy me. A pity it's already too late..."
A nearly inaudible squeak, and Plinky dove for her regular spot beneath Pinkie's tail. Pinkie thought about maybe following her, but by then Primey was smiling, stepping aside, gesturing with a wing to the cave behind her. "But look, my own! Behold our party!"
Some sort of curtain seemed to flip open, and light burst over Pinkie, a rush of music and chatter, the luscious scents of fried foods and punch, chocolate and happiness flooding past.
"Surprise!" Primey shouted, her grin showing all her teeth, and Pinkie couldn't keep from hopping up and down, that whole end of the cavern filled with tables and balloons stretching back into the distance as far as she could see. And among those tables, Pinkies and Pies of every size, shape, and hue: the band all her, the dancers all her, the ponies talking and laughing and singing all, all, all her!
Plinky was looking up from her crouch, her eyes wide, and even Khannie seemed impressed. "A party, indeed," the big pegasus rumbled.
Primey was doing a little shimmy dance. "I've been waiting and waiting for you to get back so I could do that!" She did a flip in midair. "So many thousands of me, Pinkie Pie! And so many thousands more arriving with every passing second!" Another big sweep of her wings. "But come! Enjoy baklava and falafel before bidding your new friends farewell and sending them on through mirrors of their own!"
The storm of twitches cascading through Pinkie told her that that would be the very worst thing ever. "Ummm, actually, Primey, I was thinking maybe me and Plinky and Khannie could stick together, y'know? Maybe—" The plan hit her so suddenly, it almost knocked her off her hoofs. "Maybe try summa those mirror spots up there!" She waved at the cave's ceiling. "'Cause Plinky's still not ready to go her own, and just looking quick, I didn't see any pegasus or unicorns at the party at all yet! So maybe if you have summa the others go through the spots on the floor here, they'll find more like Khannie, and if Khannie flies me and Plinky up there and the three of us go through, we'll find even more!"
A small and quiet part of Pinkie, a part she didn't listen to very often and had almost forgotten she had, whispered that this didn't make a whole lotta sense. The rest of her, though, knew it was the only possible way to go about all this. And since she was dealing with the ultimate version of herself—
"Of course!" Primey said. "Now that I've sprung my joke upon you, I shall let your sisters into this area as well! And the ceiling, yes, we must have wings to reach it, mustn't we?" She bent down, touched her horn to Pinkie's forehead, and the warmth this time felt more feverish than soothing. "You are as always, Pinkie Pie, the first among my various selves, and your efforts on our collective behalf shall never be forgotten!" She leaped into the air, winged across the cave to the nearest edge of the party.
Pinkie scrambled to Khannie's side, Plinky's hoofs clattering behind her. "Can you get the three of us up there?" Pinkie asked.
"Easily." Khannie's gaze shifted to where Primey was talking to a bunch of the others. "I've not felt nervous in more years than I can count, but looking at this Pinkie Prime, I find myself thinking that whatever it is she truly wants will be disastrous for everypony else."
Plinky was nodding. "I've served unicorns like her," she whispered. "They see the rest of us only as stepping stones to reach their goals."
Putting a front leg around each of her friends' necks, Pinkie also kept her voice down. "The thing is," she told them, "Primey's all of us, ev'ry Pinkie and ev'ry Pie, all crammed together into one big pony. And that means she's crazy in the good ways we all are and...and in the bad ways, too." She looked from Khannie to Plinky and back again, saw Plinky's eyes go wide and Khannie's mouth go tight. "So we hafta be ready, hafta be her friends even if she doesn't want us to be, hafta find out what she's doing and tell her if it's something she shouldn't be doing." She couldn't help remembering herself, her mane all horrible and straight, her mind all terrible and bent until her friends got her back to her good crazy self. "So we...we hafta get some unicorns in here in case we need to...to make her listen..." Swallowing, she couldn't go on.
"Agreed." Khannie flexed her wings. "I long ago learned to trust my instincts, and this Pinkie Prime makes my hackles rise." Grabbing Pinkie and Plinky, she hefted them from the ground and vaulted upward. "Hang on!" The cave swirled around Pinkie, made her gasp for breath, Khannie's laugh echoing from the walls. "Now this is what I call a party!"
"Of course!" Twilight said suddenly. "You were, weren't you?"
Pinkie had stopped to take a breath, so instead of using it to start the next part of the story, she used it to say, "I was what?"
Twilight blinked, gave a sheepish grin at Dashie scowling beside her. "Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt, but—" She pointed her snout at Pinkie's flank, her whole face all shiny like when she'd solved some problem or other. "You said at the beginning that Pinkie Prime had your cutie mark, but your other selves have all had different ones! So it's like Pinkie Prime said: you were her first iteration!"
That made Pinkie blink, and Twilight rolled her eyes. "Her number one other self," she said.
"Oh! Yeah!" Pinkie glanced back to check, saw the blue and yellow balloons right where they were supposed to be.
Dashie sighed, but Twilight was going on. "It would mean that Pinkie Prime was the zero vector of the non-Euclopean space that our Pinkie experienced as this cave! And as such, she would've been completely unable to breech the De Trotglie limits constraining her from interacting with the larger physical multiverse unless her first iteration, the reflection of herself with the lowest possible eigenvalue, somehow formed a quantum tunnel into her initial matrix!"
Applejack reached over to pat Twilight's hoof. "Sugar cube? I'm guessing that's all mighty important, but I reckon I can speak for ev'rypony else here when I say I ain't hearing much more'n buzzes and clicks."
"It—!" Twilight began, then she stopped, took a breath, blew it out. "It just fundamentally changes everything science has ever thought about the construction of space and time." Her horn glowed, lifting her glass, and she took a big swig of lemonade. "I'll need to write several letters to the princess about this..."
"But—," Fluttershy murmured then, and Pinkie looked over to see her eyes were wavering. "If Pinkie Prime really was crazy in a bad way, why...why did she save me from the fire?"
Still not ready for that question, Pinkie held up a hoof. "There's still a lot more story till we get to that part, and by then, I'm pretty sure it'll make sense. Or, y'know, at least make less non-sense. But right then and there—"
Hovering thirty feet above the cave floor, they shifted around a little: Plinky crept up Khannie's front leg and clambered to settle between her shoulder blades, the big pegasus's red wings flapping with a strong, steady motion. Then Khannie took Pinkie in both front hoofs and raised her the rest of the way to the ceiling, Pinkie poking a silver spot and making it leap down into a square the size of the display window at Carousel Boutique.
It took a little more doing to touch all the proper places on this new mirror since Khannie couldn't get as close to the ceiling as Pinkie needed to be without her wings slapping the rock. But they finally worked out some acrobatics, Khannie tossing Pinkie upward so she could tap the frame where it needed tapping, then Pinkie spreading her arms as she dropped back down so Khannie could catch her around the middle and hold her up for the next move.
Clapping and cheering rose up below them: Pinkie spared a quick look, saw a bunch of her twins staring from the cave floor where they'd started picking silver spots, and she gave them a wave. Then her mirror was going all misty, Khannine diving in—
And they popped out into a long dark room, the picture windows on the wall a few yards across the way showing a starry night sky over a city that looked even bigger than Canterlot. Carpeting as clean as new snow covered the floor a couple feet below them, the couches and chairs all padded and fancy, the sort Pinkie imagined Rarity would really like to faint onto. Behind them, the mirror filled a big part of the wall, but on both sides of it hung painting after painting after painting stretching out into the shadows of the room like at one of Princess Celestia's art museums.
Except...the third painting along on the right side of the mirror was sitting on the floor, a pony dressed all in black standing beside it and opening a safe set into the wall where the painting looked like it prob'bly shoulda been hanging.
Pinkie didn't have time to wonder about this, though, 'cause that's when the alarm went off, a big hooting, clanging, ringing noise that made the pony in black jump away from the wall and spin around, her face and horn such a light pink, they almost weren't that color at all, her blue eyes going wide when they met Pinkie's.
She heard Plinky gasp, felt Khannie shudder, her own twitches telling her the same thing. "Our twin!" Pinkie shouted.
"Freeze!" somepony else shouted further off to her right; figures moved in the shadows down that way, and a bolt of unicorn magic sizzled past about an inch away from the tip of Pinkie's nose.
"Let's go!" Pinkie swung herself onto Khannie's back. "All of us, I mean!"
"Who—??" the unicorn in black managed to say before Khannie was swooping down, scooping her up, and barreling away from the sudden flurry of unicorn blasts, Pinkie barely having time the reach out and shut the safe: no point in leaving the place untidy, after all.
Clinging to Khannie, Pinkie couldn't help whooping as the pegasus spun the four of them from wall to wall of the long room, more shouts and shimmers of magical fire crashing around them. One more roll and a dive, though, and Pinkie suddenly found herself staring between Khannie's ears at the back of a gigantic ceramic apple in a glass case, Khannie holding up the unicorn she had clamped in her front hoofs and demanding, "Magic us out of this place!"
The unicorn wasn't squirming in Khannie's grasp, but she didn't look happy to be there. "Are you daft?" she asked. "Baron Von Hoofstoven has the latest in magical detection alarms!" She tapped her horn, not a single bit of a glint anywhere around it. "I had to numb myself up with hornvocaine before I dared break in!"
More bolts of unicorn magic whizzed by, and Pinkie sighed. "'Scuse me." Hopping off Khannie, she stuck her head around the corner of the case and called out, "Hey, guys! We're trying to talk back here, and we just need, like, a minute! OK?"
"Huh?" a voice asked from down by the mirror. In the shadows, Pinkie could see the silhouettes of two ponies in guard uniforms looking at each other, then one of them called, "Uhh, OK. Sorry!"
"No problem! Thanks!" Pinkie waved, then ducked back, her three mirror selves staring at her. "How'd you get in, then?"
"Climbed down the elevator shaft." The unicorn arched a perfectly manicured eyebrow. "Don't suppose your new friends'd let us stroll past them and climb back up it, would they?"
Pinkie shook her head. "They seem like nice guys, but not that nice, y'know?"
Plinky had slid from Khannie's back by then. "There's a door here," she said, and that was the first time Pinkie saw why Khannie had stopped: the long room they'd been flying through ended in a wall just past the case they were crouched behind. That wall did have a door in it, though...
But her unicorn self was shaking her head. "The Baron's emergency exit isn't magic, but it only opens to his touch! No pony's ever been able to break the code!"
"No code." Plinky was looking dreamily at it, her voice somehow even more musical than usual. "Can't you hear it?" She started humming, and Pinkie could almost make out a tune winding in harmony around her. "Such a delightful melody..."
"What's going on??" a grumpy voice yelled back by the mirror. "Why're you just sitting here??"
A shuffling of hoofs, and Pinkie heard the guard she'd talked to saying, "They said they just needed a minute, baron."
"Idiots!" the new voice roared. "I finally have Modesty Pink in my clutches, and you're doing nothing??" Pinkie peered around the display case, saw a third unicorn powering up his horn.
"Ah...," Plinky sighed, and with a click, the door swung open. Then Khannie was grabbing her, grabbing their unicorn twin, leaping through the doorway while grabbing Plinky, and racing down the stairs on the other side, the one wall still a big window showing the glittering stars above and the gleaming city below.
"Nice town!" Pinkie said, sliding sideways in Khannie's grip so she could grin at the unicorn. "I'm guessing you're Modesty Pink! 'Cause I'm Pinkie Pie, that's Plinky Pie, this is Pin Qi Khan, and—" Rounding the first landing, Khannie was scrambling for the next section of stairs, but the thousand pin-prickly twitches that swarmed over Pinkie made her shout directly into Khannie's ear, "We need to stop right now!"
Khannie froze, and more crackling bolts shot up from between the steps she'd just been about to start down.
Modesty sucked in a breath. "The guards below must be on their way up!" She swung her head around. "And we've left the door open at the top!"
"Well, then!" Khannie wheeled, reared onto her hind legs, leaped charging for the window. "Cover your eyes!"
Torn between wanting to see what happened and maybe not ever seeing anything again, Pinkie buried her face in Khannie's mane just as a shattering of glass cracked through the air around her, Pinkie's stomach stretching, the delicious sensation of free fall making her squeal.
Plinky was squealing, too, but hers was the unhappy kind, Pinkie could tell. Shoving herself up to peer between Khannie's ears again, Pinkie couldn't stop grinning at the beautiful city stretched out below, Khannie's big wings pumping them even higher. "Where?" Khannie was shouting.
"There!" Modesty, tucked under Khannie's right front leg, waved a hoof. "The alley on the other side of that third pyramid! I've a carriage waiting!"
Gravity did some more amazing things, the city swinging around as Khannie banked them sideways and down, and Pinkie wished the ride would never end. But they were quickly past the purple and gold lights of the pyramid the unicorn had pointed to, were dropping toward the street quicker than Dashie when one of her tricks goes wrong, Khannie hitting the pavement running, lunging, ducking into the mouth of an alley, the ponies on the sidewalks clutching their hats as the shock wave swirled over them.
Just like Modesty had said, a pretty fancy open-top carriage sat a few yards in, a big black stallion in a gray turtle neck sweater and a slouch-brim hat yoked to it. "Mackie!" The unicorn sprang from Khannie's grasp and pulled the carriage door open. "We need to be elsewhere quickly!"
"Yep, princess," the stallion said, Khannie scrambling in, Modesty following to slam the door shut.
"Princess??" Pinkie stared, Modesty stripping off her black suit to reveal a short, tight, sparkly white dress underneath. "You're not a princess! You don't have wings!"
The carriage started forward, and the unicorn rolled her eyes. "No, I don't. I do, however, the occasional spot of work for the princesses." Her face got cloudy. "Like tonight when I was supposed to retrieve an item of Princess Selene's that the Baron had gotten hold of."
"Huh?" The stallion snapped his head around. "You didn't get it??"
Pinkie felt Modesty's glare poke into her as sharp as a prod from her horn woulda been. "I was somewhat interrupted before I could grab the case."
"Case?" Pinkie dug into her mane, pulled out the case she'd taken from the safe before closing its door. "Y'mean this one?"
Her unicorn self stared, laughed, and wrapped both her front hoofs around Pinkie's. "Well! Turns out I'm pleased to make all of your acquaintances."
"No fair!" Dashie's wings had frozen in mid-flutter. "You got to be in a jewel heist??"
"No!" Pinkie puffed out a breath. "It wasn't a jewel 'cause when Modesty opened the case, it had a silver spiral bracelet inside! And it wasn't a heist either 'cause we were stealing it back from the guy who'd stolen it from their Princess Selene in the first place!"
Applejack didn't look convinced. "You're sure? 'Cause if'n this Modesty Pink was a thief already, might be she was a liar, too, and just told you she was stealing it back so's she could trick you into helping her."
Pinkie shook her head. "If you'd seen that bracelet, you woulda known same as I did: it was definitely something for a princess."
Twilight cleared her throat. "Well, since somepony already interrupted you,—" She gave about half a glare to Dashie. "I was wondering about the alarm system. Because if it was truly triggered by magic, well, your arrival through the mirror shouldn't've set it off! After all, Thagoras said herself that her method of travel wasn't based in magic, and all my investigations pretty much bore that out!"
Happily, Pinkie realized she could answer that without lying. "Y'know, we actually talk about that later, so I'll wait till I get to that part. But right now, I'm still at this part—"
From the floor of carriage, a blanket covering her, a shivering Plinky, and a grumbling Khannie, Pinkie told Modesty all about the mirror stuff while the stallion trotted them through the carriage traffic rattling along the city's wide streets and the unicorn, lounging across the seat, tried to look like she wasn't listening. The gleam in her eyes and the excitement in her voice, though, told Pinkie the truth. "I knew there was something about you," Modesty said softly when Pinkie finished. "Other than the way you all popped out of that mirror, I mean. I had but to look at you, and it was like...like..." She shook her head. "Like meeting sisters I never knew I had."
Pinkie liked the sound of that. "Does that mean you'll come with us? 'Cause we're gonna need somepony smart and good with magic if it turns out we hafta give Primey a little talking to."
Modesty rubbed her chin, but Mackie spoke from the yoke at the front of the carriage: "Might be wise, princess, with the Baron all stirred up. You do this mirror thing, and I'll tuck myself into a nice comfortable bolt hole till I hear from you."
"Yes. Problem is—" She moved her hoof to touch her horn. "I'll still be numb for a couple hours." Her gaze darted down, met Pinkie's, bounced away. "If you're planning on mixing with this Pinkie Prime any time soon."
Plinky piped up: "Maybe we won't have to! Maybe...maybe she really does just want to have a party!"
That got some more grumbles from Khannie. "Most of the petty dictators I've had to pound into the ground enjoyed a good party, too."
Pinkie sighed and looked up at Modesty. "Besides, we can't really do anything till we've got Thagoras. The one time I met her, she said it was bad just to have the two of us together in one place, but maybe the cave doesn't count 'cause it's not really a place." She shrugged. "But Thagoras is prob'bly the only pony who'd know for sure."
"Very well." Modesty tapped the side of the carriage. "We'll swing by the palace to deliver our cargo, then off you go, Mackie, and—" She turned a slow grin toward Pinkie. "Off we go as well."
"Hey, wait!" Reaching for the lemonade pitcher, Spike stopped, blinked, pointed a claw at Pinkie. "This is just like when Twilight and me first came to Ponyville, isn't it? You're meeting all these other Pinkies the same way we met you guys, and you're gonna end up being, like, the Elements of Harmony and ev'rything, aren't you??"
Twilight gave a little laugh. "Well, in this case, it'd be the Elements of Pinkmony."
Applejack's low chuckle. "How 'bout the Elements of HarmonPie."
A snort from Dashie. "Try the Elements of Partymony!"
"Oooo!" Fluttershy clapped her hoofs. "I think it should be the Elephants of Harmony! Wouldn't that be funny? If we were all elephants?"
And while Pinkie's heart was doing a happy dance about having such wonderful friends, she put on her best pretending-to-be-annoyed face—ears down, eyes half-closed, chin tucked into her neck—and asked in as clipped a voice as she could manage, "If ev'rypony's quite finished?"
Rarity was tapping her upper lip. "Perhaps I'll think of one later." She waved her hoof at Pinkie. "But for now, yes, please, darling, do go on."
Pinkie peered from under the blanket at all the different carriages rolling along the street around them, all the different ponies pulling them and riding in them and strolling on the sidewalks, all the steel and glass buildings with their colored lights reaching up into the night sky, and thought that she'd maybe never seen anything so flashy and fantastic as this mirror version of Canterlot in all her life.
Beside her, though, Khannie was shifting uncomfortably. "How much longer must we cower like this?"
Modesty chuckled. "The palace is just around the next—" She stopped, her ears pricking, and Pinkie heard it, too: the wail of a siren drifting up from behind them somewhere and making Modesty's mouth go sideways. "Mackie, love?"
"Princess?" the stallion asked from his yoke up front.
"Might be best if we parted ways here and now." Her hoofs moving quickly, Modesty stripped off her sparkly dress and slipped back into the black sneaky-suit she'd been wearing when Pinkie'd first seen her, Pinkie grinning at the white domino mask cutie mark barely visible on the unicorn's slightly pinkish flanks. "Lead our friends in blue a merry chase for me, and I'll send word when I'm back in town." She took the case with the bracelet in it and held it out to Pinkie. "Could you do the honors, Pinkie, till we present it to her Ladyship?"
"Hooray!" Pinkie jammed the little box in amongst the tangles of her mane. "Are we gonna meet your princesses, then?"
Modesty had crouched down onto the floor of the carriage. "Thought perhaps we could use one of their Nibses' mirrors, as well." She raised her voice. "At the next corner, Mackie."
"Yep. See you 'round."
A shifting in the blanket, and Plinky Pie's wide-eyed face peered out. "What...what are we doing, exactly?"
The carriage was slowing, moving to the right, the buildings on that side of the road looming closer, the siren echoing off them. "Simple." Modesty touched a hoof to the door handle. "You're following me quick as you can." She glanced back. "Ev'rypony got it?"
"About time," Khannie rumbled, and Pinkie nodded her head hard enough to make the bracelet tucked into her mane rattle.
"Stalwart." Modesty flashed a smile. "Then we're going in three, two, one—" The carriage jostled, the door popped open, and Modesty tumbled out; Pinkie leaped after her, turned to grab Plinky, Khannie shoving her from behind, then scrambled beside the both of them into the alley where Modesty had vanished.
Not that she had vanished; her face, the only part of her not covered by the sneaky-suit, almost glowed in the shadows ahead, and as Pinkie's eyes got more used to the darkness, she could see her unicorn twin grabbing a metal grate, swinging it open, a storm drain gaping behind it. Plinky rushed through, Pinkie cocking her head at Khannie and trying to figure—
"It's a squeeze for Mackie," Modesty whispered, "but he can do it."
Khannie scowled. "I don't care much for the scale of these other worlds so far, Pinkie Pie." She ducked, her wings wrapped tight around her, and managed to slide in, Pinkie right on her tail just in front of Modesty clicking the grill closed, the sirens getting louder and closer outside.
"Press on!" Modesty hissed. "This first bit's rather dark, cramped, and unpleasant, but it opens up not much farther inward!"
A little whimper from ahead was followed by Khannie's voice, softer and warmer than Pinkie had heard it before: "We're here with you, small one. Single steps are what's called for now, one after the other."
Hoofs shuffled in the darkness, and Pinkie felt the stale air move. "That a girl, Plinky!" she added, stepping forward herself.
The way wound downward steadily but not steeply and was so dusty dry, each breath almost made Pinkie sneeze. After a few minutes, though, the sweet scent of fresh water tickled her nose, and she had to ask, "Is there a river down here?"
"Almost," came Modesty's voice with a little snicker in it. "Just about there, girls."
"Is that—?" Plinky gave a gasp. "A light!"
Pinkie could see it now, too, a shimmery sparkle splashing over the wall from around a corner ahead and showing her silhouettes of Plinky and Khannie. Then Pinkie was following them out into an arched tunnel, a channel flowing from left to right, a little walkway running alongside it. And while the stuff in the channel sounded like water, the way it glowed dark blue with silver sparks made Pinkie think of a summer night full of fireflies. "What is it?" she asked.
Brushing past her, Modesty grinned. "Their Nibses aren't quite like other ponies, are they? And what comes out the royal loo when they drain the tub or flush the johnny, well, that ain't quite like other ponies', either."
Khannie barked a laugh. "I often tease the Sky Mares, asking if they piss rainbows." She bunched herself to the wall to let Modesty shuffle by along the edge of the walkway. "Looks like I was closer to the truth than I knew."
Plinky was staring at the channel. "Then this is—?" She turned as Modesty stepped around her. "A sewer?"
"The royal sewer." Modesty started upriver along the path. "It flows down to Canterlot Water and Power where they mix it with the rest of the city's waste water. Freshens it up clean as you like, and they pump it back into the reservoir to start the whole trip over again."
"Thrifty!" Pinkie couldn't help bouncing up and down. "I wonder if they do that in the Canterlot back home?"
"So?" Pinkie blinked eagerly at Twilight. "Do they?"
Twilight had as horrified a look on her face as Pinkie had ever seen there, and Rarity raised a hoof. "I think I might perhaps speak for all of us when I say, 'Ewww.'"
"I dunno." Applejack was rubbing her chin. "As powerful magic as them princesses are, might be there's something there needs looking into."
"No!" Twilight brought her hoof down and somehow managed to make a pretty good crash even though she was just stomping grass and dirt. "We will not be looking into anything that has to do with the princesses' bathroom habits!"
"OK, OK!" Though Pinkie couldn't resist adding, "But y'know, Twilight, you'd be the perfect one to ask about it, seeing as how you spent so much time—"
"Enough!" Twilight was blushing now, and so was Fluttershy. "We're moving on! The story, remember?? You were telling us a story!"
Modesty led them another couple minutes through the tunnel, and while they passed openings ev'ry once in a while, she kept going without slowing down. "Makes a lovely little shortcut, coming through here, and not one that gets much traffic."
"I—" Plinky seemed to flinch from the sound of her own voice echoing off the tunnel's stonework; when she went on, Pinkie could barely hear her. "When Viceroy Gloaming's agents rescued me from my last master, we had to sneak out of Canterlot through the sewers. They...they weren't nearly this nice."
"Really?" Modesty looked back. "Your princesses falling down on the job, are they?"
Head drooping, Plinky didn't answer; Pinkie finally had to say, "They don't have princesses in Plinky's mirror."
That got Modesty to stop, Khannie stretching her neck to gently grab Plinky's tail before the little earth pony could run into the unicorn. "No princesses?" Confusion spread over Modesty's face like food coloring through frosting. "But how...how does that even work?"
And Pinkie had to be honest. "Not very well, from what I saw."
Plinky snapped her head back up, a sudden fierceness in her expression. "Our unicorn masters and mistresses sacrificed their lives and the lives of all their children to keep us safe! And meeting Pinkie Prime, well, I'm sorry, but she seems no different from most of the masters I've had!"
Pinkie shrugged. "Primey just looks like a princess, but she isn't one for real."
"Exactly." Khannie reached out a hoof and touched Plinky's chest. "When you gaze upon a Sky Mare, small one, you feel it here in a way that you've never felt anything before." She scowled, her wings partially unfurling. "All this Prime of ours makes me feel is a desire to be more heavily armed."
The only sound for a moment was the rushing of the sparkly water stuff, then Modesty faced forward. "Best get a move on, then, hadn't we? Not much farther, girls."
"Huh?" Pinkie waved at a part of the tunnel just ahead, the differences in the stonework small but obvious. "Isn't that the secret door right there?"
Modesty blinked from Pinkie to the wall and back again. "How in Equestria did you—?"
"Hooray!" Clapping her hoofs, Pinkie did a little dance. "'I spy with my little eye' is my favorite game ever!" She stopped. "Well, I mean, other than checkers and mah-jongg and go fish and—"
With a roll of her eyes, Modesty tapped the wall, a section sliding open to reveal a set of stairs going up. They climbed four flights, Pinkie listing more of her favorite games, but when Modesty pushed open the door at the top and the four had stepped through, Pinkie had to stop and stare, the room beyond all dark wood and marble, lights glowing low along the walls, tapestries and thick carpets making the place seem grand and comfortable at the same time.
But what really stoppered Pinkie's throat was the tall, elegant pony gliding across the room toward them, the smile wide on her dark face, a purple glow wavering around her horn, her wings just visible behind and through the diaphanous nightscape of her mane. "Modesty Pink," the princess said, and bowing to the floor, Pinkie gave a sigh: it had been way too long since she'd seen and heard one of the real princesses.
Her three friends were all bowing, too, Khannie giving a sigh of her own. "At last, small one," she said, drawing herself up to her full height—still a good head shorter than the princess, Pinkie couldn't help but notice—and smiling. "Here is a Sky Mare."
Plinky was staring up like a thirsty pony looks at a rain cloud, but all she said was: "Oh."
The princess had stopped, her eyes almost as wide as Plinky's. "Modesty? What—? Who—? How...how can these ponies be here? They...they're all you!"
Modesty had straightened up, that big grin back across her snout. "Long, confusing story, your Nibs, but I've been invited to help sort it out." She turned to face Pinkie and the others. "Princess Selene, may I introduce Plinky Pie, Pin Qi Khan, and Pinkie Pie?" She gestured for Pinkie to step forward. "Bit of a delivery for you, then we must dash."
Pinkie hopped forward—and the princess jumped back, silver sparking in her eyes and the sour tang of fear entering her scent. "I...I'm pleased to meet you all, of course, but you being here, I'm afraid, is extremely dangerous."
Putting on a big grin of her own, Pinkie nodded. "We're kinda figuring that out, your Highness, which is why we wanna get going pretty quick." She dug the box out of her mane and tossed it to Modesty. "In case, you know, me getting too close makes the world explode or something."
Princess Selene's jaw dropped even further. "Is that—?"
"What else?" Modesty caught the box and flipped it open, the bracelet glittering even in the dim light.
The purple glow increased around the princess's horn, and the bracelet rose into the air. "Excellently done, my faithful student," she said, bending down to touch her horn to Modesty's, and Pinkie smiled at both the nickname and at the way ev'ry bit of Modesty's coolness puffed away, leaving her blushing like a filly.
When the princess straightened, though, and looked back at Pinkie and the others, she was all serious and sad. "The implications of you three being here chill me to my very core, and were you the quantum doppelgangers of anypony other than my dear Modesty Pink, I would be rousing my sister as well as every pony I could think of who possessed even the slightest bit of magical knowledge. As it is, however..." She blew out a breath and turned to Modesty. "Whatever multiversal catastrophe has allowed this horrendous breach of all proper physics and metaphysics, I can think of no pony to whom I would rather entrust the repairs than you and your...your—"
"Sisters!" Pinkie shouted, her heart overflowing at the princess's words. "Sisters and cousins and twins and...and ev'rything!" Desperate to hug somepony, she swept forward and grabbed Khannie and Plinky. "Whatever else we do, your Highness, we won't let you down! That's a Pinkie Pie promise!"
Modesty rolled her eyes again, all her coolness back. "So begging your pardon, your Nibs, but if we can borrow a mirror, we'll be—"
"Must we?" asked a voice as soft as an evening breeze through a willow tree, Plinky hanging from Pinkie's grip, her gaze still locked on the princess. "Can't I just...just curl up in a corner somewhere? Please? You won't even know I'm here, my Lady, and I'll just...just...just..." She trailed off, pure happiness lighting her face.
A little silence, then Modesty gave a shrug. "Can we leave her?"
Pinkie shook her head, her ev'ry twitch telling her how disastrous that would be, and Khannie reached past Pinkie, took Plinky's chin in her hoof, forced her head to turn away from the princess. "We've work to do first, small one, work that you're a vital part of."
Plinky blinked. "I am?"
"You are," Khannie said, Pinkie nodding as hard as she could. "We'll not succeed without you."
"And then?" Plinky's eyes shone. "Can I come back then?"
Khannie didn't answer, and Pinkie blinked, not a twitch rattling through her to give her a clue. "We'll hafta see," she finally said, then a thought made her brighten. "Maybe you can come and meet my princesses! They're great, and me and them are practic'lly best friends!"
"Ha!" Khannie gave Pinkie a smack across the shoulders. "I am adopted daughter to my Sky Mares, and they will surely welcome you into their house, Plinky Pie!"
"Ummm..." Princess Selene still had that skittish look about her. "While I admit to not understanding the exact process that's allowing this to happen, let me just repeat how terribly dangerous it feels when I see the group of you together like this. You seem like very nice ponies, but having you here, it...it just isn't right."
"OK!" Pinkie jumped up. "To the mirror, girls! We've got a party to get to and then— I dunno: maybe we hafta stop it?" She shrugged and gave the princess a salute. "Playing it by ear, ma'am! Pink Squad's specialty, ma'am!"
Khannie had her eyes half-closed. "Pink Squad?"
Pinkie nodded. "I was thinking we could all get hats."
Modesty cleared her throat loudly. "What say we discuss merchandising options later?" She gestured to their left. "Mirror's this way."
"Hats?" Rarity shook her head. "Scarves, I should say, bright pink and just long enough to flare dramatically behind you as you all rush about doing—" She stopped, waved a hoof. "Whatever it is you're actually doing."
"Yeah." Pinkie sighed. "Too bad we never got a chance to talk about it."
Twilight had a troubled look on her face. "So Pinkie Prime was right about the princesses not even knowing she existed."
Fluttershy shuttered. "I don't like thinking that there's stuff the princesses don't know. It's like Princess Selene said: it's just not right."
And while that sort of nudged around the edges of things Pinkie didn't want to talk about, she found she was able to be completely honest when she said, "I can't even imagine how tough it must be being a princess and having to know so much about ev'rything. Like chocolate chip flan, y'know? I mean, is it a myth, or is it real? 'Cause it should totally be real! And who would know if the princesses didn't??"
She blinked at her friends, and they all blinked back, the wind rustling late-afternoon shadows over them from the high branches of the oak tree. "So," Applejack said slowly after a moment. "You was all heading for the mirror."
Pinkie did her dance in front of the fanciest mirror yet, the frame all silvery curlicues that almost looked like pony faces, Khannie hovering behind her with Plinky and Modesty crooked in her front legs: "We went through the cavern's ceiling to get here, recall," the big pegasus had reminded her. Then the glass went misty, and Pinkie leaped onto Khannie's back as they flew through into—
Music crashed over them as hard and refreshing as a water balloon on a hot day. Pinkie couldn't keep from bouncing a little, peering over Khannie's fiery-red mane at the cave floor covered with Pinkies and Pies laughing and dancing and eating and talking, the band wailing away from the little stage Pinkie had seen the first group of her twins putting together—
How long ago? Hours? Days? Pinkie had literally no idea....
Flocks of her pegasus twins swirled around them this time, though, popping in and out of mirrors all over and across the walls and ceiling, silver flashes going off everywhere she looked, the sheer smell of so many ponies cutting straight into the party part of Pinkie's brain and making her whisper, "It...it's beautiful...." Spreading her front legs, she let out a whoop. "Hello, Party Central!"
"Pinkie!" came an equally excited shout, and Primey burst out of the air beside them, a pointed party hat sticking up from between her ears, red and green fire spiraling up and down it. "You're back!"
"My front, too!" Planting her hoofs between Khannie's shoulder blades, she flexed her legs and jumped. "Catch me, Primey! Catch me! Catch me! Catch me!"
Three gasps behind her, but powerful wings whooshed through the air before Pinkie even had time to feel the pull of gravity, magic and arms wrapping her close but gently, whinnying laughter in her ears, Primey's wild eyes and grin suddenly above her. "You, my lovely one, are crazy," she said; then she was shouting it—"Crazy!"—was spinning, whirling—"Crazy!"—swooping high and low over the heads of the partiers—"Crazy!"—Pinkie clinging to her chest and laughing till she didn't think she had a breath left in her body. "Crazy!"
Eventually, though, the roller coaster ride evened out, and Pinkie got her eyes to focus, saw Primey was drifting along on her back, the very picture of relaxation, her front legs still around Pinkie, her head stretched out so Pinkie was pretty much lying on her neck. "Oh, Pinkie," Primey murmured. "Of everything I've seen throughout the multiverse, you, I almost think, will be the one thing I'll actually miss..."
A flotilla of twitches stormed through Pinkie, most of them bad. "Miss?" she managed to ask.
Beneath her, she felt all Primey's muscles tense, the big mare's eyes snapping open. "By which I mean, of course, that I miss you terribly when you're gone gathering the others of your sisters." Primey flashed a more controlled smile, but its phoniness stank like a box of powdered sugar the ants had gotten into. "And now with so many of my daughters here, we can let them take up that burden! You and I, we can...can...can enter the pie eating contest! Yes!" She straightened up, her magic yanking Pinkie away and holding her in empty air like a kitten hanging by the scruff of its neck. "Together, we shall be unstoppable!"
"Sweet!" Pinkie let her mind race. "But if we're getting to the games, shouldn't I go get the guest of honor? 'Cause I would love to see Thagoras try to eat a whole pie by herself!"
A tremor rattled the whole left side of Primey's face, jerked half her smile into a momentary grimace. "Not quite yet, my own," she said, reaching out to take Pinkie into her hoofs again. "Let the party play a while longer. Thagoras will be our pièce de résistance, and we'll reward her for her vital contributions to our efforts just before...before the closing ceremonies." A sort of sadness drifted across her face, but then that manic grin was back; lifting Pinkie, Primey tapped her forehead with her horn, and Pinkie couldn't stop a shiver, the touch as cold as a February icicle. "So return to your friends, Pinkie Pie! Eat, dance, make with the merriment, and let all be spiced cider and chocolate cake!" A flash and a laugh, and Pinkie found herself hurtling through the silver flashing darkness of the cave.
Eyes closed, arms spread, trusting her twitches, Pinkie didn't try to stop her corkscrew flight, her ears pricked for one very particular set of wings. Hearing them, she willed herself to go limp, took as deep a breath as she could, and whooshed it all back out when she collided with a broad muscular chest. "Blast it all!" Khannie's voice shouted, and Pinkie let her eyelids pop open, the big pegasus glaring down at her. "Are you trying to get yourself killed??"
"No time!" Pinkie grabbed the red curls of Khannie's mane. "We've gotta find Thagoras right now before Primey can blow ev'rything up!"
"What??" Spike shouted. "Wait! Go back!"
"Ha!" Dashie pumped her hoofs. "I knew it!"
Spike's head swiveled back and forth between Dashie and Pinkie so fast, Pinkie was surprised his eyeballs didn't rattle. "You knew Primey was trying to blow ev'rything up??"
Dashie puffed out a sigh. "No duh, Spike. 'Cause she's totally the bad guy in this!"
"Well,..." Twilight shrugged. "It's more like Fluttershy said: she displays a certain dichotomy."
Fluttershy blinked at Twilight. "I said that?"
Sipping her lemonade, Applejack chuckled. "Well, you said Primey was sometimes scary and sometimes not, and Twilight's just using a fancy word that means that same thing."
Rarity gave Applejack a look. "Speaking of evil twins, who are you and what have you done with Applejack?"
Applejack poked a hoof into Rarity's side. "Could be you don't recall it, sugar cube, but you and me went to school in the very same classroom."
"Hmmph!" Rarity shifted a little in the grass. "For my part, I'm not at all surprised to finally learn of this Pinkie Prime's true agenda! Oh, and I find I must agree with Twilight: 'The Elements of Pinkmony' has the best ring to it."
Spike still didn't look convinced. "So all this stuff about the party was fake? Pinkie Prime was just doing it as a cover to her wanting to blow ev'rything up?"
"Oh, no!" Pinkie leaned forward. "The party was as real as anything! In fact—"
"It's because of the party that ev'rything's gonna blow up! 'Cause we're all here!" Pinkie wanted to grab the other three and squeeze them hard enough so all the stuff slopping around in her brain would squish out of her and into them. "Your Princess Selene, Modesty, she said us being together wasn't right, and Thagoras said that, too! And the way Primey looked sad when she was talking about closing ceremonies and how she said she was gonna miss me—!" She sat back, spread her front hoofs, lowered her voice 'cause if she didn't she knew she was gonna start shouting. "Can't you guys feel it? The way the air's humming like seventy thousand electric bees??"
They'd moved far enough away from the party so it was just a muddy fog of light and sound in the distance, but still, a few of Pinkie's twins wandered by and waved before poking mirror spots, doing the dance, and stepping through. "Yes," Khannie finally said, ruffling her feathers. "It's the tension before the battle."
Plinky was staring around. "A string pulled an octave too tight."
"A balloon," Pinkie said with a nod. "Ev'ry one of us stretches it just a little more when we show up, and once we all get here—" She threw her arms wide. "Ka-boom!"
Modesty was rubbing her chin. "But what's it about? Is Primey just wanting to kill the rest of us so she's the only one left?" She nodded toward the ceiling. "Or does the blast blow out ev'ry wunna these spots and make the whole multiverse into one big charcoal briquette?"
Pinkie's eyes widened. "I hadn't even thought of that first one! But yeah, that'd make sense! 'Cause how can she say she'll miss me if she's gonna blow up, too?"
"Oh, no." Plinky had that hard look on her face again. "She's got an escape route somewhere." Her head drooped. "Like I said, my last master was the same way..."
Khannie's feathers were bristling. "So we don't know what her plan is other than that we're none of us meant to survive it." She looked from Modesty to Plinky to Pinkie. "We just need to stop her before the last of us arrives."
"Thagoras." Pinkie tapped a hoof against the blue-black stone. "Like I've been saying: If any pony knows how this stuff works, it's her! We needta find her mirror, go through it, and get her!" She looked at Modesty. "How's your magic doing?"
"Feh." The unicorn flicked her horn. "Another hour, maybe, but right now, ev'rything's still numb. And to be blunt..." She swept her hoof to cover the whole vast cavern, the part filled with their twins, the part nearer them with more and more popping in and out, and then the part past them, every inch and crevice and lump covered with little silver spots. "How're we to know which mirror this Thagoras is in?"
Plinky looked like she was thinking, and that was a good thing. But till somepony came up with something— "We need another unicorn," Pinkie told them. "One who's all fancy-flash and smarty-pants like my friend Twilight Sparkle!"
"Hmmmm." Twilight cocked her head. "Well, if I'd been there, I would've—"
Four ponies and one dragon held their various hoofs and claws to their mouths and hissed "Shhhhhh!" so whooshingly, Pinkie almost thought somepony must've sprung a leak.
Twilight blushed, whispered, "Sorry!" and waved for Pinkie to go on.
So they all loaded onto Khannie again, Plinky in the crook of her right arm, Modesty in her left, Pinkie along her back, and she leaped upward, her big wings pounding the air around them. "I've seen pegasi and earth ponies in abundance since our arrival," she said, her voice not even straining, "but not a single unicorn other than Modesty."
Pinkie leaned over the top of Khannie's head and pointed forward. "To the ceiling, then! And we'll go through whichever one Modesty wants!"
Modesty coughed a little laugh. "But no pressure, right? And since it's a bit of a drunkard's walk anyhow—" She flailed a hoof. "That one! Right there!"
Khannie pulled up sharply and rose to hover as close to the ceiling as she could get. "This one?" Pinkie asked, standing on the tips of her rear hoofs and reaching for a spot.
"Stalwart," Modesty said. "The very one I meant!"
"OK!" Pinkie poked it, and it unfolded, became a cloudy rectangle prob'bly just big enough for Khannie to leap through. "Hold 'er steady, Khannie, and I'll dance!"
This one was a lot smaller than the one they'd used to get Modesty so Pinkie could reach the top and the edges without having to do any acrobatics. And a good thing, too, since all this mirror hopping was getting her a little grumbly in the tummy: she really needed to suck down a couple or twelve egg rolls if they were gonna keep running around like this....
Then the mirror was misting up, and she pounded her hoofs between Khannie's ears like she was a big bongo drum. "Go, Khannie, go!" Khannie reared back, Pinkie digging into her mane so she wouldn't fall off, and the pegasus bunched herself up, vaulted through the frame—
And slid sprawling on her belly across a wooden stage, footlights burning to their left, a purple curtain hanging as a backdrop to their right. The sudden stop pitched Pinkie over Khannie's head, and she tumbled onto the boards, Plinky and Modesty rolling from Khannie's grip to plop beside her as she landed smack on her bottom, something small and hard striking her forehead and sticking in her hair.
Several gasps from beyond the footlights, and a voice behind her shouted, "Viola! Behold the miraculous prowess of the great and powerful Pinxie! Not only, sir, is your watch returned to you intact,—" Pinkie felt the familiar tingle of magic combing over her to pluck away whatever had lodged in her hair. "But Pinxie has brought it back to you courtesy of her four lovely assistants!"
Something moved between Pinkie and the glare of the footlights, a silhouette of a pony wearing a cloak and a big pointy hat. "Stand up and bow, fools!" the silhouette hissed. "Then get off my stage!"
Pinkie bounded to her hoofs immediately, saw Modesty do the same out of the corner of her eye, turned to help Plinky up, the little beige pony's pupils shrunk to pinpricks, Khannie looming up near the mirror standing at what Pinkie figured was about center stage.
An earth pony stallion was standing over there, too, his mouth open, his eyes staring. The cloaked figure slid up beside him, and Pinkie could see that it was indeed her twin, a unicorn of a pinkish-purplish color with a long straight purple mane under her dark blue hat, her cape covering her cutie mark. "Is this, sir, your watch?" she asked, a wristwatch hovering in the glow of her horn.
"Huh?" The stallion's gaze fluttered back and forth between Khannie and the showmare before his eyes fixed on the watch. "Oh, hey! Yeah! Yeah, it is!" He reach out a hoof, slipped it through the watchband. "That's amazing!"
"Pinxie??" Applejack's snort almost knocked Pinkie over sideways. "You have got to be kidding me!"
Twilight looked like she'd swallowed a bug, and Rarity's nose was wrinkled up the way it would be if she'd smelled something bad. But Dashie was hovering a couple inches off the grass with a huge grin on her face. "Don't keep us hanging here, Pinkie! What happens next??"
Applause trickled up from beyond the footlights—not too many ponies out there, Pinkie figured—but the showmare bowed anyway. "Amazing is indeed one of the many adjective that has been used to describe the great and powerful Pinxie!" She was trying real hard to sound excited and happy, but from the way her ears clenched tight against her head and her teeth flashed when she talked, Pinkie was pretty sure Pinxie was more annoyed than anything else. "And with that feat of legerdemain, the great and powerful Pinxie will bid you all goodnight! Thank you, Trottingham, for your abundant patronage!"
Pinxie bowed, and everything flared a cherry-red color, Pinkie blinking till her eyes cleared and showed her the purple curtain now in front of her. Turning, she saw her four friends beside her in a cramped backstage area, all of them looking about as discombobulated as she felt herself.
"Imbeciles!" Pinxie spun to glare at Modesty, and the way the two unicorns looked so completely different—Modesty smiling in her black sneaky-suit, coolness radiating from her, and Pinxie sneering under her pointed hat, everything about her screaming 'grouchy'—Pinkie felt even more certain that they were all twins, all right.
Modesty made a fish-face. "Sounds like somepony needs a kiss."
Pinxie was practically vibrating. "What I need is for you idiots in the Magisterium to take 'no' for an answer! I'm not interested in becoming one of your tame wizards, flitting about Equestria at their Majesties' beck and call! I am Pinxie, the great and powerful! And if I must play county fairs and dilapidated road shows for the remainder of my life because you're too insecure to allow me—!"
Khannie stomped one front hoof loud as a thunderclap, the whole room swaying like an earthquake had hit. "We're not who you think we are," she growled into the following silence, Pinxie staring wide-eyed, her mouth frozen partway open.
"I'll say!" Pinkie hopped past Plinky, also frozen and wide-eyes, and gestured around the group. "I'm Pinkie Pie, that's Plinky Pie, that's Pin Qi Khan, and that's Modesty Pink who thinks you need a kiss." She shrugged. "I woulda just said a hug myself, but, hey, whatever boats your float, y'know?"
Only Pinxie's eyes moved, her gaze hopping like a frog on a hot day to land on ev'ry one of Pinkie's friends. "You...you—" she finally said. "You're all me!"
Modesty touched the tip of her own snout. "On the nosey, sweetness! And we're here to recruit you into our little one pony band!"
Twitches rattled though Pinkie, made her wince as Pinxie exploded again. "Recruit?? Recruit??" She crooked a hoof at her chest. "Pinxie works for no pony but Pinxie! No bands, no groups, no ensembles! None are her equal, and any time that fools have tricked her into thinking they might be, when the truth finally catches up and collapses whatever house of cards we'd tried to assemble, it's always Pinxie stuck at the bottom with nothing but her own wits and power to see her safely out the other side! So while you may in fact not be stooges sent by the Magisterium, you will still find my answer to be the same!"
Pinkie opened her mouth, but Plinky's musical voice snuck in quicker: "Please, mistress! We...we're in direst need, and you're the only pony anywhere in the multiverse who can help us stop Pinkie Prime!"
Which wasn't exactly true, but the waver in Plinky's words combined with the helpless earnestness of her expression sure made it sound true. And judging by the way Pinxie sucked in a surprised breath and didn't use it to keep yelling, Pinkie figured mixing truth with flattery was the right way to go here. "We've come from a whole buncha diff'rent mirrors looking for you, Pinxie, and if you turn us down, I mean, I don't know what we're gonna do!"
Khannie was frowning just a little, but Modesty was grinning the same amount, so Pinkie figured they cancelled each other out. "We're real sorry about breaking up your show," Pinkie went on, "but if we're right about what's gonna happen, we maybe don't have a lotta time left."
"Please?" Plinky whispered, and Pinkie almost felt her mane start straightening, there was so much sadness and fear in that one little word.
Pinxie, though, her expression went completely blank—like she'd slipped a mask of herself over her face. "These two play their parts very, very well," she said. Her gaze flickered over Khannie. "Your warhorse, however, finds my manner distasteful and feels you should continue looking till you find somepony whose face she doesn't wish to stomp so badly." She pointed her snout at Modesty. "And you? What have you to say to the great and powerful Pinxie?"
Modesty shrugged. "Just that they're all four of 'em right. We need a unicorn if we're gonna figure out what Pinkie Prime's about, and my horn's all numbed up at the moment. That you're damn annoying's a point against you, sure, but if you're as good as the buzz I'm feeling off you says—"
"Oh, I am." Pinxie stepped forward, touched her horn to Modesty's, and the purple flicker that passed between them made Modesty gasp. "There." Pinxie stepped back with a smug smile. "The effects of hornvocaine are easily countered when one has an elementary understanding of magic."
Her grin gone, Modesty's eyes moved to focus on her horn, and a pinkish light began wavering around it and the curls of her short-cut black mane. "That," she said, looking back to Pinxie, "is absolutely stalwart! Can you teach it?"
"Perhaps." Pinxie's smile got even smugger, something Pinkie wouldn't've thought was possible. "If that's the price for you leaving me alone and going on your way, then I shall happily—"
"No." Pinkie said it at exactly the same time Khannie and Plinky did, but Khannie was the one who kept going: "We've not come here by accident, sorceress, and as much as I would wish nothing more than to, as you so eloquently said, stomp your fool face, we are now all caught in the same web. So if you ever wish to be free of us, you will come and add you strengths to ours."
"Please?" Plinky asked again.
"Besides," Modesty added, her grin back. "If Pinxie only works for Pinxie, well, like you said: we're all you, aren't we?"
"Yeah!" Pinkie couldn't keep from hopping up and down. "'Cause you're totally the pony Primey hasta meet! You'll knock her crown right off!"
All the smugness stayed in Pinxie's smile, but some of the anger Pinkie had already seen from the showmare came into it, too. "Knocking off crowns happens to be one of Pinxie's favorite pastimes." She held out her right hoof. "Very well. You may take us to this mirror world of yours!"
"Hoo-whee!" Applejack stood, planted her front hoofs and stretched her back legs, tiny cracklings popping from her spine. "Gimme a li'l minute here, Pinkie: I ain't sat this long since Granny Smith roped me into taking her to armchair adventure night at the senior center!"
Dashie glanced up through the oak's branches, her ears folding. "Whoa! It's gonna be supper time here pretty quick!"
Even Pinkie could tell the sky was seriously considering slipping out of its afternoon clothes and into something more evening-y, but Twilight with her curliest grin—the one that always made Pinkie feel as floaty as a soap bubble—just said, "Time flies when you're having fun."
"What??" Spike waved his claws frantically. "But Pinkie Prime! She's gonna destroy the world! How can you call that fun??"
Twilight just blinked at him; it was Rarity who said, "Spike, perhaps you remember earlier today? All the shouting and rushing about and things bursting into flames?"
"You mean—?" Spike clutched his chest. "That was her destroying the world??"
Rarity sighed, and Fluttershy reached out to touch Spike's cringing shoulder. "That was her trying, silly, but it didn't work." She turned a gentle smile toward Pinkie. "You know, they ought to tell stories this way all the time! Because if I didn't know everything was going to turn out all right, I'd be hiding under my bed right now!"
Pinkie made sure her own smile was showing, made sure it was covering any little twinges of doubt that might tug at her. 'Cause it wasn't really a lie to make her friends think ev'rything had turned out all right, was it? After all, it had turned out all right!
Well, most of it had, anyway...
A little humming noise from Twilight. "I don't know, Fluttershy. A story loses a certain tension, I find, when I know the ending before I even start."
"Nah!" Dashie fluffed the cloud she was leaning against. "I mean, I musta read Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone, like, five hundred times by now, and I swear, it just keeps getting better!"
Applejack was shaking her hind legs: right, left, right, left. "Me, I like them myst'ry stories where I think I's got it all figured out, but then they pull one last fast one on me at the end. Don't happen that often, but I gets all goose pimply ever' time it does!"
It took Pinkie some effort not to flinch, and swearing to herself that she'd make it up to all of them with extra-special cakes on their birthdays, she said, "Well, don't expect anything like that here. This story's just as simple as simple can be!"
Twilight giggled. "As simple as anything with an infinite number of Pinkies in it can be, you mean."
"I'll say!" Spike was still looking a little shaky. "I mean, what if Pinkie Prime did blow ev'rything up, and we just haven't noticed yet??"
With a snort, Applejack settled in her place, leaning sideways to nudge her shoulder into Spike's. "Could be I'm mistaken, sugar cube, but I reckon that's the sorta thing one or two of us mighta picked up on." She nodded to Pinkie. "So, you was telling us 'bout this Trixie Pinkie y'all'd rustled up?"
Pinxie gestured with her snout to the curtain behind her. "I'll ask you four to remain here a moment while I collect my pay from the rustic bumpkins who run this lovely little jerkwater review, then we can be on our way."
"Pay?" Modesty arched an eyebrow. "We don't get going, won't be anything left to buy with it!"
That got a little laugh from Pinxie. "Fear not for the safety of the cosmos. Pinxie makes it a habit to succeed at the tasks to which she applies her hoofs. Besides—" The glow of her horn pushed the curtain aside, and she patted Modesty's hoof with her own. "Since you've obviously never worked an honest day in your life, I wouldn't expect you to understand the importance of gathering the fruits of one's labors." A toss of her head, and she stepped out of the little backstage area.
Plinky was staring after her with wide eyes, but Pinkie had to nod. "I like her!"
"Oh, aye." Modesty brushed at her close-cropped black curls. "Can't wait to hear what other int'resting opinions she's got tucked away in that purple bonce of hers."
Khannie gave one of her grumbles. "I had to go through six sorceresses like that before the Sky Mares brought me Bomu, and what a treasure she's been! More powerful than the wind and completely insane, of course, but as sweet and honest as a field of daisies."
"She..." Plinky swallowed, shuffled half a step closer to Modesty. "Pinxie has so much anger in her...."
"Yeah." Modesty looked at Pinkie. "You sure we need her? I mean—" She cocked her head, rose-colored light shimmering up from her horn. "She's got me back on all fours again. Whatever magicking we need, likely I can do it as well as that one can."
Pinkie shrugged. "It's too late now." And as much as she didn't like pointing hoofs— "If you didn't wanna come through this mirror, you shoulda picked a different one."
A little annoyance flashed across Modesty's face. "Pinkie Pie, I didn't pick it! I just flung my hoof up at random and nodded like a blinking wind-up doll when you asked if this was the mirror I meant!"
"Huh." Pinkie looked around. "Weird how we still got here, then, isn't it?"
Modesty rolled her eyes, but Khannie was slowly shaking out her wings, the air stirring around them. "As much as I dislike it, Modesty, I fear that this Pinxie is the version of us that we need. I can smell the destiny on her."
Plinky nodded, and Pinxie's sharp voice spoke up. "Outvoted, Ms. Modesty?" The curtain whisked aside to reveal the darker of Pinkie's two unicorn twins standing in the center of the stage, the mirror in its frame beside her, the rest of the auditorium nothing but shadows. "Alas, that's what comes from giving our flighty pegasus and superstitious earth pony cousins an equal voice in affairs. Rest assured, however, that the great and powerful Pinxie, being a level-headed unicorn such as yourself, would also vote against her being allowed entry into your ranks." All the shadows made it hard for Pinkie to tell if Pinxie's smile was really as mean as it looked, but she kinda thought it prob'bly was. "Alas, again, but a final tally of three 'yes' votes to two 'no' votes would still fail to change the outcome."
"Yeah." Modesty sauntered forward. "Both alas and alack, ain't it?"
Like she was walking on eggshells, Plinky slid alongside Modesty, Khannie stalking across the boards after them, her laugh nothing like a real laugh. "But now we are one hearty band of Pinkies and Pies united to stop a force who fancies herself the original of us all and who has unknown but no doubt nefarious plans for the cosmos." The smile she turned on Pinxie wasn't real, either, Pinkie thought, except that it sure was real scary. "A worthy cause, wouldn't you agree, sorceress?"
Pinxie just stared with half-closed eyes, then a little glowing ball popped from the tip of her horn, floated a couple yards up above the stage, and flared to a point as bright as the sun standing at noontime. "Shall we get started?" she asked.
"Ooooo!" Pinkie was busy squinting at the ball of light. "I'll bet you practice all the time!"
That just got a sniff, and when Pinkie looked back down, she saw that Pinxie was focusing her bored expression on Modesty. "Or is this all in fact not as pressing as you were leading Pinxie to believe?"
Modesty shook her head, her smile not quite as mean as Pinxie's had been earlier. "Not me, sister. I haven't learned the mirror opening routine yet."
"Then—" Pinxie turned a confused look toward the others, and Pinkie realized that was her cue.
"Ooooo!" she squealed again, scrambling past Pinxie to the mirror. "Plinky! Gimme a beat!"
Just like she'd hoped, Plinky had seen her do the mirror dance enough times to tap a nice little rhythmic accompaniment with her front hoofs over the boards, and Pinkie put a few more flourishes in under the pressure of Pinxie's gaze. She got more than a few gasps from the grouchy unicorn, too, as the mirror went through its stages, and she added a fancy spin right at the end so that she could end up on her knees with her front hoofs spread just at the exact moment that the mirror went completely misty behind her.
"Impossible!" Pinxie blurted out, and Pinkie looked up to see her newest twin staring at the passageway the mirror had turned into. "Magic?? From an earth pony??"
Khannie had moved up beside Pinxie by this time, Plinky tucked into the crook of her left arm, and Modesty sidled up to Pinxie's other side. "Stalwart, ain't it?" She tapped her horn. "Best have a levitation spell ready, Pinxie. Likely we'll be coming out thirty or forty feet above the floor of as big a cavern as you'll ever wanna see."
"Besides," Pinkie added, nestling herself with a sigh into the strong embrace of Khannie's right arm, "this isn't magic. My friend Twilight looked at it, and she said—"
"Not magic??" Purple sparks shot from Pinxie's horn and began arranging themselves around the mirror's frame. "Is this Twilight a simpleton??"
"What??" Twilight sprang to her hoofs, one eye twitching, the words squeezing out from between her clenched teeth. "What did she call me??"
Applejack reached for her. "Settle down, sugar cube."
Twilight stomped, a little flicker of fire crackling into the grass. "I ran every single test anypony has ever invented on that mirror! Not only wasn't it magic, but it had never been enchanted, either! I don't know what this Pinxie thinks she's talking about, but—"
"A cantrip!" Pinkie exclaimed.
That stopped Twilight, her friend staring at her with her mouth open. "A...a cantrip?"
Pinkie nodded. "After Pinxie called you a simpleton, she started saying all this stuff about what sort of magic the mirrors were using, but the only part I remember was when she said the dance was a cantrip. 'Cause I said it wouldn't be a very good dance if it made everypony trip, and when she turned to glare at me, that's when Modesty shoved her through the mirror."
A thoughtful look had slid over Twilight's face. "A cantrip," she muttered, then eagerness flooded her. "Pinkie, can you show us this dance?"
"Sure!" Pinkie jumped up. "I mean, yeah, it won't work anymore, but I can still—"
"Won't—?" Rarity blinked, then smiled. "Ah. Because we haven't got a mirror."
"No." Pinkie gestured to the afternoon around them, more than happy to tell this particular lie. "After ev'rything was all over, we changed the universe so the dance would just be a dance from now on. But I can still do it if you wanna see how it used to go!"
With a sigh, Twilight sat back down. "No, that's OK, Pinkie. Maybe after you get the story finished."
"Okie dokie lokie!"
Clinging to Khannie's big forearm, Pinkie squealed happily to feel the half second or so of free fall tickle her insides before Khannie's wings swept out and back, the fall turning into a glide. Plinky gave such a tiny little yip, Pinkie was sure nopony who hadn't been expecting it would even have heard, and besides, the party below them was still in full swing, the music and the laughter easily covering any of Plinky's little sounds. And if that hadn't been enough—
"You dare??" Pinxie was shouting at Modesty, both unicorns floating in wiggly bubbles of their own colored light just below the rectangular shimmer Khannie had just leaped out of. "Those who lay hoof upon the great and powerful Pinxie without her consent often find themselves with fewer limbs afterwards!"
"Yaddiddy, yaddiddy." Swinging around so she was drifting along on her back, Modesty tucked one front hoof behind her head and waved the other at the mirror. "Thing is, love, these windows are limited time affairs." Which was exactly when the silvery shine leaped back up into the ceiling and vanished. "Me, I'd rather not be caught halfway when it does that."
Pinxie was still glaring, her cloak snapping behind her like in a strong wind, but the anger on her face quickly changed to wonder as her gaze moved along the ceiling, then down to the party going on all over the floor of the cave. "This place! And those ponies! They...they're all...all..."
Khannie rumbled a laugh, pulled around to hover between the two unicorns. "Take a moment," she said. "I'm still unused to the sight, myself."
Pinkie couldn't bounce as much as she wanted to with Khannie's arm holding her in place, so she wriggled out onto the pegasus's shoulder and flipped herself over onto her broad back. "Isn't it great??"
And when she looked over, for the first time since she'd met her, Pinkie didn't see any sort of sourness on Pinxie's face. "This is madness," she whispered, her voice barely audible over the ruckus shaking the air. "Can you not feel the stresses? It's like earthquakes, floods, and typhoons all striking at one time, over and over again..."
Modesty had straightened up, her ears pricking forward, ev'rything about her serious again. "And that, my dear Pinxie, is what we've gotta stop."
"I agree." Pinxie folded her arms. "Any ideas how?"
"Thagoras Pi." Pinkie started to explain the whole thing, but the other three kept interrupting her when she tried to add all the interesting little bits and pieces. Still, Pinkie had to admit they managed to fill Pinxie in pretty quickly, floating there above the edge of the party, and Pinkie did get the last word: "So all we hafta do is find whichever of these is her mirror, and we'll be all set!"
Pinxie was nodding, stroking her chin and looking out at the cavern. "Well, separating which of these has been used from those which haven't should be a simple enough spell. Then we can perhaps filter the unused spots by the percentage chance—"
"Except," Pinkie had to stick in, "Thagoras's mirror did get used. She woulda come through it, like, a week before I came through mine and started all this."
"Yes!" Plinky perked up in the crook of Khannie's arm. "I've been thinking we could look at each spot as if it were a dulcimer string!" She made a motion with her front hoof like she was playing her instrument. "Once a string is struck, it continues vibrating even after the sound dies away! So if we could separate the mirrors that have been used from those that haven't, then look to see which of the used mirrors is vibrating the least—"
"Stalwart!" Modesty grinned at the little earth pony. "Full marks for that one, Plinky Pie."
"Indeed." Khannie ruffled Plinky's beige mane, and Pinkie did some more bouncing on Khannie's back to see how poofy and happy Plinky's hair was getting to look.
Still stroking her chin, Pinxie shot a little glance at the others, then went on looking at the party. "Quite a possible paradigm. We'll need to set up screens for the vibrations all these duplicates are causing, though, before—"
"Got it." Modesty's horn flared up even pinker. "The ol' stealth spell, but kinda inside out." She squinted, her jaw clenching. "Insteada making us silent, it...makes us...so we can't hear...nunna...them!" A burst of sparks from the tip of her horn, and something like a giant soap bubble sprang out of the air to surround them, ev'ry sound and smell of the party cutting off like somepony had flipped a switch. "There!" She gave that big grin of hers. "Our own little portable spot of tranquility!"
An impressed expression flickered across Pinxie's face, but it was gone so quickly, Pinkie wished she'd had a camera. "Interesting," the sorceress said, her sharp little smile back. "A spell you use often?"
Modesty shrugged. "'Swhy they call me Modesty: whenever I pop 'round somewhere, I prefer slipping in and out without causing anypony any fuss, y'know?"
Pinxie gave a sniff. "Pinxie much prefers the grand entrance, truth be told." The waver around her horn started getting brighter and faster. "Still, with this barrier in place, we should be able to see—" All the silvery spots suddenly pulsed, and when Pinkie next blinked, most of the ones in front of her had turned white while those to the side and behind her—she turned to look just to make sure—had gone completely black.
"There." Pinxie was trying really hard, Pinkie could tell, not to look like she was straining, but the smell of her sweat gave her away. "The white ones are those that have been activated. Adding, then, a condition that measures the decay rate of their vibrational amplitudes..." The nearer white spots stayed white, but the ones closer to the center of the party took on a pinkish hue, the pink getting deeper and deeper the further into the distance Pinkie looked. "Yes." Pinxie nodded. "The more solid the pink color, the longer ago the spot was used."
Pinkie smacked herself in the forehead. "Well, of course it's gonna be over by the wall where the party started! I shoulda thoughta that!" She looked up at Modesty. "You said this bubble could move?"
"Aye, but..." Modesty's jaw was still clenched. "Not sure I've got the 'oomph' in me right now to do the pushing..."
Khannie grunted. "Allow me." She reached out the hoof not holding Plinky, planted it against Modesty's rump, and gave a solid flap of her wings, the whole bubble sliding forward like it was on wheels as she pushed Modesty through the air. "Sorceress?" Khannie looked back over her shoulder. "Feel free to grab hold if you need a ride."
A little sweat had broken out over Pinxie's forehead. "Thank you, but I—" She jerked forward, then stalled. Pinkie wrapped a hoof in Khannie's mane, leaned herself way, way back, stretched the other hoof toward Pinxie. For an instant, the stubborn look on Pinxie's face made her think she wasn't gonna take hold, but the way her eyes went wide and panicky as the bubble began leaving her behind quickly decided things; lunging, she wrapped her hoofs around Pinkie's. "Thank you," she said again, her voice about as quiet as Pinkie had ever heard it.
They drifted over the heads of the partygoers, then, the silence making Pinkie feel like she was looking at pictures or watching a buncha ghosts or something. "Can they see us?" she asked.
Another sniff from Pinxie. "Should they be bothered to glance up from their self-indulgent and frenetic hedonism, they would experience the joy of beholding the true artistry that flows from the great and powerful Pinxie, yes. But I feel certain that won't be a problem."
Even the pegasi darting past just smiled and waved, but that was fine with Pinkie since it gave her a chance to smile and wave at them. There were more and more pegasi each passing second, though, the party raging pretty thoroughly all around, and looking ahead to the wall of the cave, the spots getting pinker and pinker the closer they got to the bandstand packed with Pinkies and Pies wailing away—not that she could hear them, of course—Pinkie realized something else, the twitch that rattled through her telling it as plain as vanilla ice cream on peach cobbler. "It's right there." She aimed a hoof at the little sliver of rocky floor between the front of the bandstand and the first scrum of dancing ponies, at the one little mirror spot seven or eight times pinker than any other spot in the whole cave, Pinkie was willing to bet, sitting smack-dab in the middle of that clear space. "Primey's got Thagoras's mirror right where she can see it all the time."
Which was when Primey's voice sliced through the silence—"There you are, Pinkie Pie!"—Modesty gasping as her bubble burst, raucous music and laughter flooding over them. The big pink winged unicorn herself came sailing by, banked around, and settled into a hover there in front of them all. "And all your new little friends as well!" She cocked her head, her smile as weird and jagged as something reflected in a cracked mirror. "Come at last to join the party, have we?"
"You bet!" Pinkie crowed, hopping up and down on Khannie's back some more. "In fact, we wanna be next up on the stage!" She looked back at the two unicorns. "Don't we, girls?"
Without even the tiniest pause, Modesty slid right in as smooth as if they'd practiced it. "I'll say! 'Cause we've got right here, your Nibs, not just a couple terrific song-and-dance ponies—" She waved her front hoofs at Khannie, Plinky, and Pinkie, Pinkie giving as big a grin as she could since she was pretty sure Khannie and Plinky wouldn't be smiling at all. "But also a showmare par excellence—one might even go so far as to say the showmare of showmares—the great and powerful Pinxie!"
She spun around to wave at Pinxie, and Pinkie couldn't stop a cheer when lightning flashed, thunder roared, and Pinxie seemed to appear from within a cloud of smoke, her arms folded, an expression on her face like she owned the whole world.
"Gracious!" Primey put a hoof to her chest. "You certainly are one of mine, aren't you?"
Pinxie's long straight mane and her cape billowed out behind her. "Pinxie is all things to all ponies!" she announced. "A mystery wrapped in a conundrum veiled in the mists and shadows of ages!" She did something to her voice when she said it, something that made the words ring clear through the hubbub of the party, made them cut like little silver knives right into Pinkie's ear, and the way ev'rypony seemed to suck in a breath and look around, Pinkie was pretty sure Pinxie had cut into their ears, too.
Primey's smile got a little more real—though the itchiness of Pinkie's twitches made her think Primey might almost be too far gone into whatever she had planned for her whole 'destroying the world' thing to ever really smile again—and the big mare reared back, her wings spread, her horn dazzling. "And so it shall be!" she declared, her voice even sharper than Pinxie's had been. She whirled in place and faced out over the whole huge gathering, ponies covering the floor of the cave literally as far as Pinkie could see. "All my Pinkies and all my Pies!" Primey's voice blasted like a whole barrel full of trumpets, and every other sound ev'rywhere in the place stopped. "Prepare to be astounded, edified, and amazed at the prestidigitational exploits of your sister, the great and powerful Pinxie!"
"Grand entrance, right?" Modesty asked so much more quietly, Pinkie almost mistook it for a rustle of a passing breeze. "All eyes on you, Pinxie, and we'll do the rest."
The barest nod from Pinxie, and the unicorn shot forward to float beside Primey. "I thank you, your Ladyship, for the effusiveness of your introduction and your welcome!" She made the absolute most extravagant bow Pinkie had ever seen, so full of hoof flourishes and hat waves and bended knees that Pinkie might almost have thought that Pinxie was making a joke out of it.
Primey didn't seem to notice, though, nodding like she wasn't just impressed but was actually expecting something as over-the-top as that. Pinxie turned away with a roll of her eyes that sent a ripple of laughter through the crowd and drifted further toward the ceiling. "I needn't tell you all," Pinxie went on, "how marvelous it is to be surrounded by a veritable plethora of my most ardent admirers—I refer to myself, of course." More laughter, Pinxie's horn flaring to fill the air above the cavern floor with multiple glowing copies of her own face. "But of course the great and powerful Pinxie has had many an adventure before audiences not nearly so lovely and refined. For instance..."
She started into a story, illustrating it with scenes sketched in light around her, but Pinkie suddenly found the show getting further away. Blinking, she looked down and around and saw that Khannie was slowly settling toward the ground, Modesty dropping just a little faster to land on the edge of the stage, all the musicians standing with their heads craned upward, the sparkles of Pinxie's magic reflecting in their wide and smiling eyes. "Pssst!" Pinkie heard Modesty hiss. "Sorry, folks, but we're gonna need the stage for the last part of Pinxie's show."
Khannie landed with just enough of a thump, Pinkie noticed with a grin, to make the stage shake, her various twins—all of them smaller than Khannie, of course—swaying from the impact. "Kushlamacree!" a greenish earth pony with a trombone both in her hoofs and on her flanks said. "Sure, and that one's a crew of roadies all on her own!" She slid her horn into its case and scampered down the steps at the side of the stage.
The other musicians followed quickly, joining the crowd all staring up at Pinxie's display, and Modesty sidled over. "Bit of a snag," she murmured. "The plan's for me to lift the stage and Khan to shove it forward enough so's when I set it down, it'll cover over the mirror spot that'll lead us to this Thagoras of yours, Pinkie Pie. Trouble is..." She aimed her snout at the five or so feet of silver spots covering the blue rock between the front of the stage and the crowd. "Didn't quite mark in my mind which spot exactly it is, did I?"
"That one." Pinkie had hopped off Khannie's back, and she waved a hoof at the right spot. Not that it was glowing pink anymore, but— "I spied it with my little eye, and once I've done that, I could find it buried under half a foot of custard." Which made her lick her lips, the wonderful scents of the party food tugging at her. "You s'ppose we can grab, like, a bucket of chili-cheese fries and ice cream before we go? I'm almost totally starving!"
Plinky stared at her, but Khannie gave a little smile. "After we save the multiverse, perhaps," the big pegasus said.
Pinkie sighed. "It's always so hard being the hero!"
"And then!" Pinxie's amplified voice was echoing all around the cave, and Pinkie looked up in time to see what looked like a giant volcano exploding, a glowing river of lava streaming toward where Pinxie floated with a couple or twelve magically-conjured foals. "With the pyroclastic flow racing toward Pinxie and the poor band of orphans, all hope truly seemed lost!"
"Orphans?" Fluttershy asked, her eyes wide.
"Volcano?" Spike asked, his eyes wider.
A little snort of Twilight. "Oh, please," she muttered.
Applejack gave one of her low chuckles. "Sounds like this Pinxie of yours had herself a pretty fair line of patter."
"Yeah." Pinkie sighed. "I mean, I guess. 'Cause you know the other bad thing about having to be the hero?"
She waved her hoofs at the others. "We're missing the whole show!"
"Can't be helped." Modesty grinned. "Not when we're the closing act." She tapped the stage and suddenly became all business. "Now, Pinkie and Plinky, we'll need you down on the ground right by the spot. I lift the stage, Khan pushes it over you, and I set it back down. You then trigger the mirror and start the dance, but stop just before the last step, see? Once Pinxie's down here, you listen for the signal, do the last bit of the dance, and bam! We pop through slicker'n eggs through a hen."
"Signal?" Plinky asked, still standing on the stage right next to Khannie, her eyes huge and focused on Modesty. "What signal exactly?"
"No idea." Modesty's horn started glowing, and Pinkie's stomach yawed, the boards swaying under her. "We'll try to make it a big one, though, so pay attention, and off you go!"
A quick scamper to the edge of the stage, and Pinkie jumped down, careful not to hit any of the silver spots hard enough to make them spring up into full mirrors. Plinky followed even more gingerly, ducking as the whole platform behind them drifted a little further up and started inching toward them. Pinkie settled onto her stomach beside the spot Pinxie's spell had marked out earlier, and Plinky squatted, too, the stage slipping over their heads and settling over them, the shining of the spots all strange and slippery in the close dark space like moonlight glimmering on water.
"See?" Pinkie shook her head. "A whole big fancy light show and story going on, and I end up stuck under the stage!"
"Still," Rarity said, reaching over to pat Pinkie's hoof, "it must've been terribly exciting, knowing that only you and your few friends stood in the way of some sort of fiendish plan or other."
"Huh." Pinkie blinked at her. "Y'know, I hadn't thought about it like that."
Dashie flapped a puff of air through her lips. "Yeah, yeah. Just 'cause you've saved the world three times now and the rest of us've only done it twice!"
Which made Pinkie feel like doing a little bouncing. "Hey, yeah!"
"And besides," Twilight added, "when you're part of a team, everypony's important."
"You're darn tootin'!" Applejack gave the grass a stomp. "Even if'n you're the one stuck underneath waiting for ev'rypony else!"
Beaming, Pinkie slid forward, wrapped all her friends in a hug. "You guys are the best, you know that? The very, very, very, very, very, very best!"
Spike squirmed free. "Aw, c'mon! Less mushy stuff and more volcanoes!"
Pinkie did a backflip out of the hug and landed in her place under the tree again. "Your wish is my command!"
Even though it was pretty much totally muffled by the wooden planks a few inches overhead, Pinxie's show still sounded pretty exciting, explosions and big swooshing sounds going on around the rise and fall of Pinxie's voice. Pinkie could hear whistles and cheers from the crowd, ev'rypony really getting into it, and she just hoped that meant Primey was, too.
"Ummm," Plinky's voice asked, and Pinkie looked back down, the silver spatter and splash of the mirror spots' light and shadow dancing over Plinky's concerned face in the cramped area under the stage. "Which one is it again?"
Pinkie looked around, found the little knob of rock that looked like Dashie's left ear that time she'd slammed into the side of the hill while working on one of her fancier moves, followed the curve of it over toward— "This one." She set her hoof gently on top of the spot. "S'ppose we oughtta get started?"
"Wait." Plinky glanced around. "Can you—? I mean, you haven't mentioned it, so I don't know, but..." She took a breath, let it out with a whoosh. "Every time I've been in this cave, I...I've kind of heard them, y'know? Kind of heard the way all these spots sing and hum and vibrate together, and..." She blushed. "I guess you don't?"
"No, I don't!" Pinkie scooted forward. "What's it like?? Is it music?? Or is it just buzzing like bees??"
"It—" Plinky's ears twitched, her mane poofing up just a bit. "It's like the wind chimes in Lady Verity's garden: not organized like regular music, but really, really beautiful."
Pinkie twitched her own ears, tried to stretch them far enough so she could hear anything like what Plinky was talking about, but all she heard was another explosion from Pinxie's show. "Well, I'm not getting it here," she said. "But I'll bet it's pretty neat!"
"Oh. Yes. It...it is." Plinky squirmed, looked sideways, squirmed again. "But, see, I...I noticed that the little mirror we went through into Khan's world and the big mirror we went through into Modesty's world, they...they had different tones, kind of, like the big one was deeper than the little one if...if that makes any sense."
"Well, sure." Pinkie brushed a hoof against her chest. "I've played enough banjoes to know the thick strings at the top make the low notes and the thin strings at the bottom make the high ones."
"Exactly!" Her mane poofing up even more, Plinky reached out, touched her hoof to Pinkie's where it rested over Thagoras's mirror spot. "And that spot? It...it sounds even deeper than Modesty's..."
A twitch shook Pinkie's spine. "Then Thagoras's mirror—" She looked up, the boards of the stage so close, Pinkie felt them brush the tippy-tops of her hair.
The boards shook then, a thump from center stage behind Pinkie and to her left, Pinxie's voice suddenly louder and more understandable: "The final obstacle, then, sprang from the watery depths to block Pinxie and the orphans from the safety of the far shore: a wall of ice at least thirty stories tall!"
Which was all Pinkie needed to hear. "Get ready to jump!" she told Plinky, and she stomped with all her strength on the little glowing spot.
Her first thought had been to grab the top of the mirror so she could ride it up onto the stage, but some hard twitches in her shoulders pulled her front hoofs back just as a slab of silver fire burst from the rock, the thing not thirty stories tall, no, but plenty big enough and moving plenty fast enough to shatter the wooden slats above her with just as much of a crunching, crashing, smashing blast as any wall of ice could've done, the light of the party lanterns flooding in through the jagged hole now gaping across the stage, the mirror towering up ten or twelve feet through it.
A gasp from Plinky told Pinkie her friend was OK, so she spun, grabbed the edge of the hole, hauled herself out to see Pinxie floating above her, sweat dripping from the straight edge of the unicorn's mane where it jutted out beneath her hat, her front hoofs spread to conjure a giant wall of ice, the image of it sitting very nicely between the mirror and the ponies in the audience.
Modesty shot a wide-eyed glance sideways, the pale rosy fire of her magic, Pinkie could now see, weaving a support lattice holding Pinxie up, but Pinkie only had eyes for Khannie, just turning her head from where she stood blocking the steps leading onto the stage. "Khannie!" Pinkie waved her arms frantically. "Alley-oop me! Alley-oop me!" And she leaped straight toward the big pegasus.
Khannie spread her wings, swooped to grab Pinkie out of the air, and hurled her toward the top of the mirror, Pinkie jabbing out to hit the edges in the proper pattern, Pinxie all the while exclaiming: "But were we discouraged?? No! For was not Pinxie one of the Pinkie?? Were we not one of the Pie?? Would we not conquer any foe, overcome any odds, triumph over any adversity to win the day for the good, the true, and the virtuous??"
Sailing from Khannie's hoofs, striking the mirror and dropping back before sailing up again, Pinkie could hear the audience cheering, and as she gave the final poke, saw the mirror go completely misty, turned to give the unicorns the hoofs up, she couldn't help cheering herself. "Indeed we would!" Pinxie shouted. "And plunging headlong into the wall of ice, we expended our last iota of power, our last jot of stamina, our last joule of wherewithal, and tore a path to freedom for ourselves and our charges!" Leaping from the scaffold Modesty had formed for her, Pinxie vanished into the mirror, Modesty not far behind, Khannie sweeping Pinkie into her arms and leaping through, a little beige flash below them telling Pinkie that Plinky had followed.
"Yes!" Spike and Dashie both crowed, Dashie spinning, Spike holding up his front claws, the two of them 'high-fiving' while the others looked on with grins.
All except Fluttershy, of course, her hoofs in front of her mouth, her sides heaving like she'd just flown all the way down from Canterlot. "Oh, Pinkie!" she gasped. "I thought they'd catch you for sure!"
Pinkie held up a hoof. "Well, we weren't outta the woods yet."
Whiteness ev'rywhere, Pinkie couldn't manage to focus on anything—until two swooshes of color dropped right on top of her, Khannie whooshing out a breath and gravity going haywire as they tumbled from the impact. "Look out!" Modesty shouted from somewhere near Pinkie's right ear, and she hit the ground then with a squish and a squeak, the squish coming from the thick, white plush carpeting and the squeak from Plinky.
Around about Pinkie's left ear came a groan and Pinxie's voice, rougher than before: "After that performance, we'd better save the world. Because I have got to take that story on the road!"
Pinkie struggled to untangle herself from Plinky's feet and Khannie's wings, sat up, brushed the tail of Pinxie's cloak from her eyes, and saw a very big room, the whole wall behind them nothing but mirror while the other walls and the ceiling were all painted the same shade of white as the carpet.
In the middle of the room, maybe five yards away, sat a ruby-red overstuffed lounging sofa, and lounging on it, raising her exquisite head, deep purple locks tumbling along her pure-white neck and shoulders, the most beautiful earth pony Pinkie had ever seen blinked languidly back at her. "Thagoras!" the pony called, her voice even more musical than Plinky's. "When you're finished fixing the sink, there's something gone wrong with my mirror!"
Rarity cleared her throat. "The most beautiful pony you'd ever seen, you say?"
About this part at least, Pinkie didn't hafta do any lying. "Most beautiful earth pony. 'Cause, I mean, c'mon!" She grinned and waved her hoofs at Rarity and Fluttershy. "We've got the most beautiful unicorn and pegasus right here!" She turned to the others. "Am I right? Honestly, now, ev'rypony!"
Fluttershy was blushing, and so was Spike, trying so hard not to look at Rarity, Pinkie thought he might get a crick in his neck. Twilight rolled her eyes, and Applejack gave that low chuckle of hers. "You saying you and me ain't gonna win no pageants, Pinkie?"
That got Dashie laughing. "If it was baking or bucking, I'd vote for you guys in a second! But beauty?" Her grin showed all her teeth. "No way!"
Tossing her head, Applejack grabbed the brim of her hat as it came off; she swung it around, whapped Dashie in the snout with it, then flipped it back into place. "If'n you think, Rainbow Dash, that you can out-beauty-contest me,—!"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Dashie held up both her front hoofs, a little panic in her face. "Not a picture we wanna put in anypony's head, AJ, especially not—!"
"Well, now!" Stars lit up Rarity's eyes. "I can see it already! The two of you parading about in evening gowns and swimwear—of my personal design, of course—while answering questions on current events! And, oh! The talent portion of the pageant alone would be worth the price of admission!"
Applejack was staring at her like she was a cloud of locusts. "What have I done?" she asked, her voice cracking.
The teeniest, tiniest bit of a second, and Rarity giggled. "You know, it would almost be worth going through with this absurd plan just to see how you two would manage to wriggle out of it." She looked back at Pinkie. "But tell us about this earth pony twin of mine; you've got us all on pins and needles!"
"Actually?" Pinkie couldn't stop a giggle of her own. "She wasn't your twin, Rarity..."
A muffled sigh, and a door opened in the white wall behind the lounging pony. "Bosky Twilight!" came a familiar, slightly peevish voice. "How many times do I have to tell you? There's nothing that can go wrong with a mirror!" And into the white room stepped Thagoras Pi, the black pegasus with a tool belt around her middle, her little glasses perched on her snout, her green kerchief tying back her white shock of a mane. "If it's not cracked, then it's—"
She stopped, her eyes going wide. And Pinkie had no choice; springing up from the pile of her twins, she flailed her front hoofs and shouted, "Surprise!"
"No." It came out of Thagoras more like a groan than a word, and she took a step back. "It...it can't be!"
"You see?" Bosky Twilight was asking, waving one perfectly formed hoof. "I'm supposed to be the only one in this mirror, Thagoras!"
Pinkie beamed at her. "Oh, that's all right. We were in it, sure, but we're not anymore!"
Bosky cocked her head. "Then perhaps you wouldn't mind moving a bit to the side? You're rather obstructing my view; I have a performance at the theatre tonight, and I must practice my—"
"No!" This time, Thagoras shouted it. "You've got to go back! You've got to get out of here before—!"
"Exactly!" Modesty had climbed to her hoofs, was smiling her big smile and using her calmest, friendliest voice. "Thing is, y'see, we kinda need you to come with us back through the looking-glass or, well, there's likely to be a couple thousand more of us pouring out in short order. And that's something no one here wants, believe you me!"
Khannie and Pinxie were standing now, Pinkie looking around with obvious amusement on her face, Khannie spinning to face the mirror. "No sign of pursuit," she announced, looking back over her shoulder.
Plinky was still crouched on the carpet, her ears folded, her eyes wide. "But...why? They must've figured out what we did by now! Why aren't they—?"
"Who??" Thagoras looked really, really upset, like she wanted to cry and scream and maybe even start smashing things. "What are you talking about?? How are you even here?? There isn't a pony alive who knows my methods, and I've sworn never to use them again!"
"Ah." Pinkie gave a sheepish grin, tried to keep her voice as calm as Modesty's. "That's kinda my fault, Thagoras. See, when you went back through my mirror after we had our visit—and I'm awful sorry I kept calling you my evil twin; I didn't understand how the whole twin thing worked till, like, this morning." She blinked. "Or was it yesterday morning? I've lost track a little, I think..."
Thagoras's back legs folded, dropping her onto her fanny in the thick carpet. "You...when I flew back into the bakery, you saw the pattern, and you've been...been—" She leaped up suddenly, her lips pulled back. "Are you insane?? Do you have any idea what you've done??"
Pinkie wanted to sink right into the carpet—well, sink even further into it—but Pinxie stepped forward, her hat and cloak still stained with sweat. "Enough," she said, ev'rything about her all stern and serious. "We've been through a great deal to come here and fetch you, Thagoras Pi, since you are apparently the only pony who knows how to stop the horror that even now is building up in the spaces between space."
That got Thagoras to stop yelling, at least, and Modesty began to tell her the whole story: the mirrors and Pinkie Prime and all the Pinkies and Pies she was gathering for her party and ev'rything. And even though she skipped over a lot of it, Pinkie felt so bad about how this was all her fault that she didn't even chime in with any of the missing details.
But listening to somepony else tell it, Pinkie found her twitches going off now and again, drawing her attention first to one piece of what happened, then to another. The pieces started adding up after a while, and Pinkie was absolutely vibrating, her head as full of ideas as candy is full of sugar, by the time Modesty was finishing up, saying, "So we all jumped through and popped in here."
"And that means—!" Pinkie shouted, but Thagoras was shouting even louder:
"It's impossible! In the first place, my method isn't magic: I'm a pegasus, not a unicorn! It's science, based on extrapolations I made from certain physical laws and principles that—!"
"Bosh!" Pinxie leveled a hoof at Thagoras. "This cantrip of yours is brilliant, and that isn't a word Pinxie often uses to describe anything she wasn't directly involved with! As near as I can tell, you somehow managed to tap into the raw power of the aethersphere itself to—!"
"Primey!" This time Pinkie not only shouted but also started jumping up and down. "She's the one! She's been behind ev'rything the whole time!"
"She what?" Applejack asked.
And at the exact same time, Twilight gave a gasp. "Of course! Pinkie Prime must've—!"
"Shhh!" Dashie scowled at both of them.
Applejack scowled back, but Twilight blushed. "Sorry," she whispered.
They all looked at Pinkie, but Pinkie focused her attention on Thagoras. "Primey can't come through the mirrors herself—she doesn't even like to look at 'em when they open! But she knows who we all are, has some way of—I dunno—peeking out through our eyes or slipping into our brains or something. And when she saw the mirror science stuff you were doing, Thagoras, she musta given your brain a little push here and there, mixed her magic in with your science so you could step through the mirror and into her cave! And when you did that, she pushed you a little more so that the next mirror you'd open would be mine: didn't you say you only shoulda been able to go to a mirror where there wasn't already a Pinkie or a Pie?"
"I—" Thagoras still looked scared and mad, but she also looked like she was thinking, something that made Pinkie feel a whole lot better. "You're right. All my calculations indicated that quantum feedback would prevent me from entering a universe where I had a living counterpart, but even though I scoured my notes after returning from your universe, Pinkie Pie, I couldn't find any flaw in my formulae. The risk of multiversal cataclysm, I felt, was much too great to attempt another passage, so I abandoned the project and went back to work on a machine I'm calling an internal combustion engine." An almost smile tugged at her snout. "It should revolutionize—"
"Yeah, that's stalwart." Modesty was looking at Pinkie. "But why should ol' Prime-puss send Thagoras here to you straight off? Whadda you got the rest of us don't?"
Pinkie looked back at the familiar balloons decorating her flanks. "I think I'm her first reflection."
Pinkie gave Twilight a little shrug. "So, see, that's why I didn't get all excited when you figured that out earlier." She grinned. "But you had a lot better words when you were talking about it! I especially like 'eigenvalue' 'cause it sounds like I'm getting a good deal on something!"
"Actually, it has to do with—" Twilight began, then she bit her lip. "Never mind. We don't want to be here all night."
"Yes," Plinky said, sitting up. "You and Primey have the same coloring, the same cutie mark, the same—" She stopped, a blush lighting her beige cheeks. "Forgive me, but you both have a similar outlandish way of leaping before you look."
"Yes," Khannie rumbled as well from where she was still standing guard at the mirror. "You said before, Pinkie Pie, that we are all of us crazy. You and this Prime of ours, however, you seem to be crazy in much the same way."
Pinkie had to nod, wishing a twitch or two would go off to tell her she was wrong about what came next. "And it...it means that—" She swallowed, her hair wanting to go flat and sad like a balloon three or four days after the party had ended, and she looked up at her twins, the whole group of them looking back at her. "She's thinks she's seen ev'rything worth seeing is the thing, thinks she's lived the lives of ev'ry one of our twins ev'rywhere and has done all the things she could ever wanna do. And thinking that, it...it's gotten her sour and grouchy, more sour and grouchy than anypony's ever been before."
Thagoras looked like she'd eaten something icky. "So she's what? Decided to gather us all together so she can pull the plug on the entirety of the multiverse? Is that it?"
Khannie was nodding slowly. "No more worlds to conquer," she muttered, "and nothing left to live for."
"Her horizons have shrunk," Pinxie added, her eyes unfocused. "She can feel the sky pressing against her snout each time she takes a breath."
"And the anger." Plinky shuddered, her voice barely a whisper. "That the world should treat her so badly after all the life and beauty she's tried to give it."
Silence filled the room, then Modesty gave a little snort. "So, death, destruction, and mayhem, is it?" The laugh behind her words made Pinkie look up, the unicorn in her black sneaky suit giving a sideways smile. "Sounds like a law firm to me, and for myself, I'd much prefer none of it." She jerked her head back toward the mirror. "So whaddaya say, gals? How 'bout we pop back in there and give her Phony Nibs something else to focus on?"
Pinkie felt her mane spring up faster than cinnamon rolls in a good, hot oven, and she leaped to her hoofs, saw Thagoras step forward to Modesty's side. "Yes," her black pegasus twin said. "We...we've got to stop this!"
"Indeed..." Pinxie shook her head like was she waking up from a bad dream, then said it more forcefully: "Indeed! And with our skills, we shall surely win the day!"
Plinky still looked scared, but she nodded and stood, Khannie clapping her front hoofs together. "Pinkie Pie!" The big pegasus grinned and gestured toward the wall-sized mirror. "Shall we dance?"
"Yes!" Pinkie sprang into a series of cartwheels, spinning into Khannie's arms; a whoosh and a rush and she felt herself leave the ground, struck the top of the mirror's frame in the by now familiar opening move of the dance. "Let's go, Pink Squad!" she yelled.
"But," she heard Thagoras mutter somewhere behind her, "I'm not pink."
"Me, either," came Plinky's soft voice.
"No worries." Modesty gave a laugh. "Today, we're all pink!"
"Indeed," Pinxie said again. "And today we will show this Pinkie Prime the true power of pink!"
"That's it!" Rarity chimed in so suddenly, it shocked Pinkie right out of the story. "The Charge of the Pink Brigade!"
The others were blinking at her, too. She blinked back. "Earlier? Perhaps you'll recall how you were all offering your suggestions as to an overall theme for this presentation? 'The Elements of Pinkmony' and all that?"
A moment of silence, then Twilight said, "Umm, yes, I...I remember saying that. But—"
"My suggestion," Rarity went on, touching a hoot to her chest, "is somewhat more expansive, I feel, and will convey the intrinsic drama of the—"
"Jokes, Rarity." Dashie sounded like she was explaining something to a foal. "We were just making some stupid jokes, not trying to do...whatever it was you said."
Another moment, then, "Ah." Rarity folded her front legs and smiled sweetly at Pinkie. "Pray continue, Pinkie Pie."
With Thagoras right there watching, Pinkie was glad she'd had so much practice doing the mirror dance. Sure, maybe it was the main reason ev'ry world that ever existed was now about to get blown up or whatever, but, well, that didn't mean they couldn't do the thing in style.
Sure enough, she heard Thagoras gasp a couple times during the routine, and when she gave the last tap before dropping back into Khannie's arms and flipping out to land on all fours in the neat squishy carpeting, she couldn't help but smile at the black pegasus exclaiming, "Impossible!"
Pinxie's harsh laugh. "You may wish to retire that word from your vocabulary after all this."
"Quickly!" Khannie said. "Pinkie Prime is no doubt prepared for our coming, so we'll need to—!"
"Thagoras?" came a voice that didn't sound like one of her twins; looking toward it, Pinkie saw Bosky Twilight sitting up, wrinkles of confusion marring her perfect brow. "You're not going off and leaving my sink plugged, are you?"
A sigh, and Thagoras turned to look back at her, too. "It's fine now, Bosky. You just need to put that strainer in when you wash your mane."
"And my show tonight!" Something close to real fear crept over Bosky's face. "I never do nearly as well on stage if the rest of you girls aren't in the audience watching! You know that!" She leaped from her lounge more gracefully than any pony Pinkie had ever seen—
"And this time," Pinkie said, "I really mean any pony. You shoulda seen her! She was, like, the Rainbow Dash of being all pretty and floaty and empty-headed."
"Whoa." Dashie's mouth went sideways. "Is that a compliment or not?"
Rarity sniffed. "Well, actresses, you know."
Pinkie thought she might go on, but she didn't. So Pinkie went on instead.
And the look Bosky gave to Thagoras as she glided up to her was about the most heartbreaking thing Pinkie had ever seen. "Please, Thagoras," she whimpered, and even Plinky had never sounded so miserable. "Tell me you'll be back in time."
It was hard to tell with Thagoras's dark hide, but Pinkie was pretty sure the pegasus was blushing. She started to mumble something, but Modesty slid in between the two, that big smile on her face. "Tell you what, Bosky. If Thagoras isn't back for your show, like as not there isn't gonna be any show nor much of a universe to stage it in, either. That sound good?" She started pushing Thagoras toward where Pinkie was standing. "Now, you'll excuse us, but we've got a bit of the ol' stomping the villain we'd best attend to."
Plinky and Pinxie had already moved past her, and Pinkie turned to see them standing with Khannie right at the edge of the misty wall the mirror had turned into. Thagoras and Modesty reached her then, Thagoras staring at the swirling clouds. "I...I can't believe this is really happening..."
Pinkie fell into step with them and nudged Thagoras with her shoulder. "Just wait till you see what's on the other side! Even I can scarcely believe that!"
"Small one?" Khannie nodded to Plinky. "I'll have you and Thagoras follow Pinxie and me with Pinkie and Modesty bringing up the rear." Plinky nodded and took a step back while Khannie's gaze moved around to each of Pinkie's twins; she reached Pinkie last, and the seriousness in her eyes was thicker than any marshmallow chocolate fudge Pinkie had ever even tried to make. "Be prepared for anything," Khannie said, "and we shall have our enemies dancing to our music before the hour is out!"
Pinxie gave her bark of a laugh, and Khannie flared her wings, the two of them stepping into the mist. Plinky and Thagoras went next, both of them smelling nervous in totally different ways, and then Pinkie was shuffling through, Modesty beside her breathing the word, "Stalwart."
And for all that Pinkie had told herself she was gonna be ready—especially 'cause she liked the whole dancing thing Khannie had been talking about—stepping out into near darkness and complete silence wasn't one of the things she'd even thought possible, not after all the raucous ruckus they'd left behind them not that many minutes ago.
"Where—?" Plinky started.
But Khannie cut her off: "Recall, small one, that this Prime of ours can draw a cloak around portions of this place when she wishes to."
"Indeed?" Pinxie's horn flared. "Then let us fling back her cloak and reveal what she—"
"No!" Pinkie shouted, her twitches making her see what was about to happen, but Pinxie's magic was already spreading out from her in a purple glowing bubble; all Pinkie could do was throw herself sideways into Modesty and shout, "Shield!"
Modesty gasped, but her horn had barely started glowing when Pinxie's bubble stopped with a clank, cracks spiderwebbing over it like it was ice on the lake during Winter Wrap Up. And then it popped—though it was less a pop and more a roar, blinding white light hotter than any oven crashing into Pinkie from all sides.
Another gasp beside her, and the heat vanished, Pinkie blinking to see a shimmery pink bubble spreading out from Modesty, her eyes and teeth clenched, to surround all Pinkie's friends, ev'rypony's manes a little singed at the edges, a big slash of soot smeared across the fancy silver threadwork of Pinxie's hat.
Silence, then Plinky asked, "A...a trap? Was she—?"
"Primey!" Pinkie couldn't keep the anguish out of her voice, pressed her front hoofs against the glassy surface of Modesty's shield spell. "You don't hafta be mean like this! We...we just don't want the party to end!"
A sigh echoed from the depths of the cave, a breeze that washed over Pinkie and blew Modesty's bubble away like dandelion fluff, Pinkie dropping to all fours on the blue-black stone with its silvery spots. "And yet..." Primey's voice rolled out of the darkness so tired and sad, Pinkie felt her eyes tear up. "All things must."
"But—!" Pinkie tried to think of something to say. "We only just got Thagoras! The guest of honor, you said! How can you end the party now??"
"Ah." The laugh that came then was as soft and cynical as any of Pinxie's. "You wish to discuss your treachery and betrayal, Pinkie Pie? Is that your desire?"
"Look!" Modesty was panting, but her words came out loud and clear. "Nopony's betrayed anypony! We just—!"
"Ha!" The darkness ev'rywhere swirled away like smoke to reveal Pinkie Prime striding toward them with her wings tight against her body, her horn and eyes as bright and angry as a sunburn. But what made Pinkie gasp—and at least a couple of the others, too—were the partygoers Primey was weaving through, all the Pinkies and all the Pies all frozen in place, happy expressions stretched over their faces, pizza and pastries in their hooves. "I gave strict orders," Primey was shouting, "that Thagoras Pi should not arrive until the time had come for the closing ceremonies!" She stomped up, thrust her muzzle down into Pinkie's face. "Did I not, my own??"
Pinkie found a smile, though she could tell it was a pretty wavery one. "Surprise?" she more asked than said.
Primey's grumpiness seemed to waver, too, the feverish glow of her eyes fading till they were just regular sky blue again, and for two-and-a-half heartbeats, Pinkie thought that maybe...just maybe—
But— "No," Primey said, her voice even scarier now that it was quiet. "It's too late for that, I'm afraid." She stepped back, cocked her head, her too-serious gaze moving, Pinkie realized, to acknowledge the other five. "Still, a valiant effort on all your parts. I would surely look back upon this moment with pride and fondness if, well, if there were going to be any future from which I could look back..."
"But why??" Fluttershy blurted out, just enough of The Stare flashing in her eyes to make Pinkie suck in a breath. "The way you were talking earlier, it...I mean...you made it sound like she was going to destroy the world and ev'rything because...because she was bored!"
And about this, Pinkie didn't need to lie at all. "That," she said quietly. "And a little more, too."
"Please," Plinky Pie whispered, so much music in so soft a sound. "You...you don't have to do this, Pinkie Prime."
Shaking her head, Primey fluffed out her wings and rose toward the roof. "Look at yourselves, after all," she murmured, then she was rearing back, pink light bursting from her in waves. "All of you!" she shouted, and the frozen ponies around Pinkie shifted, blinked, dropped their cups of punch and their sandwiches, their eyes going wide, their heads turning till ev'ry pony Pinkie could see—and, she was betting, all the ponies she couldn't see, too—were looking in utter silence at Primey, the winged unicorn hovering like a big pink pony-shaped sun in the middle of the cavern.
"Consider the lives you live!" she was yelling now. "Petty, paltry, pushing into untold wretched depths with every foul breath you take!" She brought her front hoofs up, crooked them at her own chest. "I know the truth of this for I have been you all, have slogged through the fetid swamps of your hearts from history's earliest dawn to the final whimpered heat death of the multiverse! But no more!" She swept her hoofs out like she was trying to push away from ev'rypony in the whole cave. "No more will you twist the gifts I have given you! No more will your braying, hollow laughter echo down the marrow of my bones! No more will your stink fester in the formerly sweet and pristine air! For you were once mine, but now you have gone astray, gone squalid, gone jejune! And I will take you back, will take you in, will use the power I so foolishly squandered on you to erase every trace of this poor cosmos that you have so benighted and besmirched!"
And suddenly Pinkie found herself looking straight into Primey's eyes, harder and more awful than biscuits left way too long in the oven. "And perhaps," Primey said, her voice quieter but still carrying, Pinkie was sure, to ev'ry part of the cave, "just perhaps, I can finally rest in peace...." Lowering her head, she raised her front legs, and the light that began to pulse from her made Pinkie feel queasy all the way down to her fetlocks.
Ahead of her, Khannie spun, her ferocious gaze fixed on Thagoras. "This is your time, wise one! What must we do to stop her??"
Thagoras took a step back, nothing but fear in her scent, and for the briefest of instants, Pinkie thought her twitches had all been wrong, that Thagoras didn't know how to work this place, that ev'rything they'd tried to do to save the world was all gonna fall to pieces right here and—
"There!" Thagoras took the step forward, waved her hoof at Primey. "Pinxie! Modesty! You need to ionize every oxygen atom in the air around her! That'll disrupt the quantum pattern she's initializing!"
Pinxie turned a wide-eyed look over her shoulder, and Modesty stomped the ground. "And what in the bright blue above does that mean??"
"This!" Primey aimed her horn at Pinkie, and the fire that lanced from it was the pink of skin scraped raw by a fall down a mountainside. "For I shall absorb you first of all!"
Pinkie couldn't look away, but a flash of darkness, and Modesty sprang into the space between Thagoras and Plinky with a cry of "Huddle!" Pinkie slid forward, pressed herself into Thagoras's side, saw Khannie leaping, her wings unfurled to cover them all, Pinxie scrambling back to stand with Modesty, both unicorns' horns flaring so bright, Pinkie had to look away.
So she saw the exact moment that Primey's fire engulfed them all, saw it lick against the eggshell thin flicker of purple and rose colored magic, heard Pinxie and Modesty cry out and collapse to the rocky floor beneath Khannie's outspread wings, Thagoras and Plinky throwing their arms around the unicorns and trying to cushion their fall, and Pinkie found herself pretty much buried underneath the other five. "We need more time!" she heard Thagoras shout. "Need to coordinate our actions, know each other's strengths! Otherwise, we'll be—!"
"That's it!" Pinkie struggled upward till she could see the others above her, more twitches clattering through her than she'd ever felt before. "Guys! Do you trust me??"
Modesty and Pinxie, their faces clenched and sweating, looked at Pinkie like she was crazy, but Khannie gave a crisp nod while Plinky sang out, "Yes, Pinkie, of course!"
Pinkie focused on the two unicorns. "'Cause you need to drop the shield," she told them. "And I mean right now!"
Pinxie stared at her, then at Modesty, and Modesty, her eyes closed, tendons standing out all along her neck, gave a little laugh. "Yeah, all right, Pinkie. Anything for a weird life, y'know?"
"You can't be—!" Pinxie started.
Reaching up between their tightly pressed bodies, Pinkie managed to touch a hoof to Pinxie's lips. "It'll be scary," she said. "But it's the only way."
Primey's fire roared all around them, so it wasn't exactly a moment of silence, but Pinxie jerked her head into something like a nod. "On three, Modesty. One, two—"
Their horns flickered out together, and Pinkie couldn't help shrieking as the fire rushed over her, the entirety of her being—mind, body, hair, teeth, spirit, hoofs, and ev'rything—dissolving into nothingness.
"What??" Dashie had jumped into the air again, her wings beating furiously. "You dissolved??"
"Yep-a-rooty!" Pinkie tried to grin, but the memory of that horrible, horrible moment caught at the edges of her mouth, kept them from curling up the way she wanted them to. Twilight, Spike, and Fluttershy were staring at her with gigantic eyes, and when Applejack and Rarity both at the same time reached out and touched her hoof, she felt safe enough to give up on the whole smiling thing. "It, uhh..." She swallowed. "It wasn't any fun at all. Not even a little."
And looking around the group of her friends, she vowed once more to make ev'rything extra-specially good and fun for them from now on since, well, since this was pretty much where all the serious lying had to start... "But, see, I was her first reflection, right? And that, well, that's always meant I can do things no other ponies can."
Still, it was kinda hard and scary for Pinkie to reach out with her hoofs when she didn't really have hoofs anymore, to use those non-existent hoofs to grab the less-than-smoke that her friends were now, and to take them into herself just like Primey had been talking about.
She did it, though, 'cause she knew she could, knew she was the only pony anywhere other than Primey who could pass under and around and through regular space this way, and with each stretch, with each grab, with each strange and wonderful crash as one of her friends stopped screaming and dying and flowed into her, added their strength to hers, their knowledge, their power and their personalities, their thoughts and their astonishment, Pinkie felt herself pulse and grow, felt Khannie's mighty wings join with Thagoras's clever ones as they unfurled from Pinkie's back, felt the delicate touch of Modesty's magic mix with the brass and flash of Pinxie's to spiral to a point from the middle of Pinkie's forehead. And when she and her friends realized what was happening and that it was working, the laugh that Pinkie gave rang with Plinky's music.
Somewhere in the distance, she heard Primey shouting, "And so you shall all be disintegrated and reintegrated into me! For without me, you are nothing! And I am all that you shall ever be!"
"Excuse me!" Pinkie called, bursting the barrier between non-existence and existence with a toss of her mane and scattering the thorns of Primey's magic from her flanks like water after a bath. She spread her wings, her pinions singing with joy, and lit the cave around her with a mother-of-pearl splash from her horn that danced through the air like hundreds of unpoppable soap bubbles. "But that's not entirely accurate!"
Pinkie paused, her audience staring at her with their mouths open and their eyes wide. "Any questions?"
"Wings?" The word came all shivery outta Dashie.
"Horn?" Twilight asked.
"Just wait!" Pinkie did a quick drum roll over the grass in front of her. "It gets better!"
Primey's jaw dropped, and Pinkie knew exactly what the big winged unicorn was seeing: another winged unicorn, just as big and just as pink, with the same fancy pink crown thingee and neckpiece as well as those sweet pink metal shoes. Though we're much cuter, of course, the part of her that was Modesty said silently.
By that time, the Khannie inside of Pinkie's new self had risen to the fore. "My fellow Pinkies and my fellow Pies!" she announced, Plinky stepping in to add her honey to Khannie's thunder. "You have heard from her own mouth how this Pinkie Prime of ours has lured us here with the intention of destroying not only us but all that we hold dear in every world from which we have come! I, however, say that this will not happen!"
"No!" Primey shrieked. "You can't!"
The anguish in her words pulled at Plinky and Pinkie's hearts, but— Stay focused, Pinxie cautioned. The less control this one feels she has over the situation, the more dangerous she'll become.
Then stand by, Khannie rumbled internally. We're about to push her over the brink. And while Pinkie couldn't help smiling at that, she knew it was Modesty's sardonic grin that showed on their collective snout. Out loud, then, Khannie and Plinky went on: "I therefore call upon everypony here to lend your strength to our cause! For it is only united that we can prevail!"
"Pinkie!" a voice called below, and Pinkie looked down to see Slinky Pie, the fancy dancer pony she'd met way back during one of her first trips through the mirrors with Plinky. "What can we do to help??"
"Betrayer!" Primey aimed her horn at Pinkie. "You cannot stop me from taking you into myself!"
Which was when Pinkie turned things over to Thagoras. So, her snooty little voice came from somewhere inside Pinkie's head, ionization is when you do this. And dipping into the magical reserves Modesty and Pinxie had brought to them, she launched a tiny ball of pink fire from their shared horn. Little crackling tendrils began arching out from it immediately, and even though Pinkie was pretty sure she hadn't known what an atom was till about a minute ago, she was sure she could see millions and billions of them spinning and churning as the fiery tentacles leaped from the little ball.
A weird sort of gas began filling the space between her and Primey—Not gas, Thagoras corrected her. Plasma.—and the tendrils of the fire ball really liked it. 'Cause they went crazy, became a streaming swarm of criss-crossing purple lightning bolts that washed over Primey and made the sickly pink glow forming around her horn snuff out like a campfire under a bucket of water.
Primey made a strangling sort of noise, but the rest of Thagoras's plan was already moving through Pinkie's mind and body: Modesty and Pinxie joining Thagoras at the horn to prepare the next layers of spells, Plinky and Khannie using the voice to call out, "Those who would join us in opposing Pinkie Prime's designs for us, signal your willingness, and we will gather you up for the final and decisive battle!"
"No!" Primey cried again, but the uproar from below almost drowned her out:
"Yes!" Pinkie's twins were yelling, or "Here!" or just waving and stomping their hoofs to get her attention, the clamor growing larger and larger, Pinkie's eyes misting up.
Ready? Thagoras asked.
She nodded and called, "Thank you! Thank you all!" Another little ball popped from her horn, and this time, the effect spread at something like the speed of light, snapping outward through the sea of electrons freed by the ionization spell and carrying Pinkie's awareness to the very farthest corners of the cave. And from there, it was a simple matter of reaching out to the near-infinite number of upraised hoofs, slipping the spell over them with another whispered, "Thank you," and drawing them all up, back, and in, ev'ry single Pinkie and ev'ry single Pie in that whole unfathomable space leaping forward with a cheer to add what she could to the force opposing Pinkie Prime.
Two instantaneous flashes of light, one outbound, the other incoming, and Pinkie drew a breath, felt herself even fuller and more energized than when she would eat an entire chocolate cake for breakfast and burst out into the morning, ready to show another day as good a time as she knew how. The entire cavern, she saw now, stood dark and empty, all her myriad sisters settling into place inside her, and she turned toward Pinkie Prime, vibrating in fury a few dozen yards away. "I should've killed you when I first laid eyes on you," Primey growled.
Pinkie shrugged. "Yeah, I get that a lot."
"And the worst part?" Primey swept a hoof over the vastness around them. "You've only made things more unpleasant for yourself. For I am your Prime, and even united, the rest of you haven't a fraction of the power I command."
Uh-oh, came Thagoras's voice, and calculations that even now Pinkie could barely understand began racing through her brain. Because if she's warping quantum space in a logarithmic rather than arithmetic fashion, she might be right about—
Incoming! Modesty shouted, and Pinkie slipped with Khannie into their wings, all her pegasus and earth pony twins adding their expertise to the flips and dives they spun and twisted through and into so they could evade Primey's blasting beams of energy, the air screaming in their wake.
Steady... Pinxie was muttering, and the spell that slashed from Pinkie's horn in the instant she next looked at Primey hit the other winged unicorn hard, knocked her back a good dozen yards, and stopped the magical onslaught. There. And Pinkie could hear Pinxie's mean little smile. Now for a bit of payback.
No! Pinkie shouted, and she pulled them all into a hover. "I don't want to hurt you," she called across the cavern.
The laugh that trickled out of Primey then didn't have anything fun or funny in it at all. "Which is another reason you'll fail."
"But—!" Trying to think quickly, Pinkie came up with: "If part of this is 'cause you've already done ev'rything in ev'ry universe, well, I mean, what about this right now?? Doing a big aerial martial arts scene with yourself?? That's gotta be new!"
Primey's eyes glowed with the pink of gums around an infected tooth. "I've been fighting myself for more millennia than you can safely imagine, my own. But if I must end it all one universe at a time, then so be it." Sparks began snapping from her horn like boiling oil from a griddle.
Pinkie felt the defensive spells from her unicorn parts gear up, but Primey turned her head away, blasted a jagged hole in the wall of the cave. "We'll start," she shouted, streaking toward the familiar-looking room on the other side of the hole, "with your universe, Pinkie Pie!"
The main room of the Ponyville library, Pinkie realized. And without another thought, she dove after her twin.
Twilight's ears folded. "I remember it...it sounded like Spike had knocked one of the bookcases over again."
Spike gave her a tight-lipped glare. "When have I ever?"
"But when I looked down the stairs..." Twilight swallowed. "For half a second, I thought it was Princess Celestia standing there, but she was pink and snarling. And when she looked up at me, it was like...like everything exploded. I mean, I could feel the heat, feel the pressure, could almost feel it...tearing me apart." She shook her head quickly. "But then I blinked, she was gone, and things started exploding outside. So I ran downstairs to see what was going on."
Pinkie considered lying about this part, but no. Not with all the lies she hadn't gotten to yet. "Primey blew up the library tree the very first thing."
"What?" Twilight's eyes got huge. "But...no, no, she didn't! It came through everything just fine!" She leaped to her hoofs. "Or are you saying she came back and—??"
"It's OK!" Pinkie jumped up, took Twilight's front hoofs in hers. "But when I came flying outta that hole she'd blasted in the cave wall, I saw her standing there laughing with the fire and the wreckage all around! And—" Pinkie couldn't stop a shiver at the memory. "And I saw wunna your arms, Twilight, sticking out from under a big chunk of burning wood. And I...I...I wasn't gonna let that be true."
Silence from the others, but Pinkie kept her eyes focused on Twilight. "It was Thagoras who fixed it, and I can't even tell you how. All I remember was I was screaming inside our head, and she was flashing through these calculations about how to use our infinite energy to reverse entropy or something. And then she had the unicorns cast a spell, and it...it split us in two! Except I was inside both heads along with all my twins, and then suddenly one of me saw the library flying back together around me till it was all fixed and there was Primey coming through the hole!"
"Whoa." Spike's tail swished like a cat's. "You went back in time?"
"Kinda. See, 'cause when the one of me who went back saw Primey come through, I tried to rear up and push her back into the cave! And that stopped her from blowing up the library, so the one of me who hadn't gone back in time found herself standing with that first Primey outside the non-blown-up library 'cause the Primey in the past hadn't been able to blow it up!" Pinkie grinned weakly at Twilight. "See?"
A twitch pulled the corner of Twilight's left eye, and Rarity cleared her throat. "I may not be a scientist, Pinkie, but I believe I can say with a fair degree of certainty that that makes no sense whatsoever."
Applejack nodded, Fluttershy's brow wrinkling like wet laundry that had been sitting in a heap for too long. "Then...," the pegasus said slowly. "There were...two of...each of you?"
"Exactly!" Pinkie sat back down. "Except that then, Primey did the same thing and sent another of herselves back to stop the me in the past from stopping the Primey in the past, so I had to send another me back to stop her! But while I was doing that, the first Primey jumped into the sky and started trying to blast more parts of Ponyville! So I had to chase after her while the ones of me in the past were chasing after the other Primies, and—" Pinkie stopped, took a breath, gave a shrug. "It got really, really confusing really, really fast."
Nothing but the late-late-late afternoon breeze rustling the leaves, then Dashie said, "So that's why I thought I saw a buncha these Pinkie Primes? 'Cause some were her and some were you and some were from then and some were from the past?"
Pinkie clapped her front hoofs. "See?? You guys do get it! There must've been, like, five hundred million of us flying around here before we were done, and all the ones of me stopped all the ones of her from hurting anypony. Except—" She swallowed, turned to Applejack. "We had to pick and choose when and where to fight, see, 'cause she was just too much faster than us. So I'm really, really sorry, AJ, that we couldn't keep her from burning down some of Sweet Apple Acres. I kept having to be ev'rywhere else—that was me who saved you, Fluttershy, not Primey—and we just...we couldn't..." The lump in her throat got too big for any more words to come out.
A sigh, and Applejack reached over to pat her hoof. "'Sokay, Pinkie. Like I said, we'll get by. Gotta wonder, though: all the kerfuffle this morning hit hard, then just plain disappeared after maybe three minutes. What'id y'all do to finally get rid of her?"
Again! Thagoras was shouting somewhere, Pinkie grabbing Fluttershy and knocking Primey away from Carousel Boutique and joining a couple more versions of herself to summon rainclouds in the past so Primey couldn't start any of the fires in downtown like she had a couple hundred times already. One more of us to the point of initial entry! If we can carry her with us back into the cave, it won't stop whatever the last round of damage was, but it will pull all ourselves and all herselves out of this universe and into the realm between!
Beyond exhausted, Pinkie turned, sprinted through the confines of time and space, pink fire scattering from her like a spray of cherry blossoms, and streaked into the library—how many times had she stopped it from blowing up at this point?—aimed herself like a comet at the chest of the first Primey emerging from the hole, rammed her hoofs into her and shoved like she was kneading all the bread dough in all the bakeries in all the mirrors ev'rywhere. The other hundreds of thousands of Pinkies there managed to hold off the other hundreds of thousands of Primies, and wrapping herself around Primey's head, Pinkie bent her over backwards, flipped her horn over fetlocks by sheer momentum, and tumbled with her onto the floor of the cave, the hole into the library sealing shut with the sound of a million pickle jars all popping open in reverse.
Unable to move, Pinkie lay there panting, sweat pouring off her like she was a melting iceberg, Plinky's quiet voice coming to her from inside: Did...did we do it?
"Well done, my own," Primey whispered right into Pinkie's ear, and with a cry she stumbled up, somehow got her hoofs under her, looked at her twin standing beside her, Primey's cotton-candy-and-bubblegum mane barely mussed even after ev'rything that'd happened. "That was indeed something I'd never done before."
Pinkie couldn't get air into her lungs for long enough to work her voice box, so she didn't say anything.
"And as your reward," Primey went on, "I shall give you two more minutes to catch your breath before I open that hole again and go through it to destroy your universe."
"What??" ev'ry Pinkie and ev'ry Pie inside her screamed aloud at the same time.
"Oh, yes." Primey gave a nod. "That time travel trick was quite clever, but I'll not let you get away with it a second time." She cocked her head, her smile like the cut left by a rusty knife slicing a honeydew melon. "If you're ready?"
"No." The twitches that rocketed through Pinkie then were diff'rent from any she'd ever felt, and she flexed her aching neck, pointed her horn at the ceiling, and let those twitches spurt out the end of her horn, emerald green fire swirling up from her to form a whirlpool in midair above them.
The whole vast cavern fell completely silent, Primey and all her interior twins staring at it. "I—" Primey whispered after a minute, a look of wonder on her face. "I've never— That isn't— What...what...what—?"
"There." Pinkie's gasping had slowed just enough for her to choke out the words. "Silly Primey. Why'd you think...this was the only...multiverse, huh?"
Primey was still gazing at the whirlpool, her ears trembling. "Another—?" She spun, her hoofs dancing like a filly at her birthday party. "A whole entire new and different multiverse?? You...you mean it??"
With what felt like her last bit of strength, Pinkie waved a wing at the whirlpool. "It's all yours."
Rearing back with a whinny, Primey launched herself upward, passed through the green fire, and it vanished with a lilac-scented breeze that toppled Pinkie right over sideways and into unconsciousness.
"And then?" Pinkie clapped her front hoofs together. "And then we all lived happily ever after! The end!" She jumped up and bowed to the imaginary applause in front of her. "Thank you! You've been a lovely audience!"
Dashie's cry of "What??" broke the silence first, followed quickly by Spike's "Wait..." and Fluttershy's "Ummm..." Rarity and Twilight both said "Pinkie!" very sharply, and Applejack wrapped it all up with: "Now just a gol-durn minute!"
As innocently as she could, Pinkie smiled at her friends. "Questions?"
"Yeah!" Dashie flailed her hoofs, her wings a blur hovering her just above the grass. "What kinda ending is that??"
Fluttershy was sort of mashing the tips of her mane into the grass. "You sent Pinkie Prime away and passed out, but, I mean, something had to happen between then and now." She blinked. "Didn't it?"
"Most certainly!" The teeniest frown pulled at Rarity's muzzle. "And I'm not sure I approve of you letting this Pinkie Prime simply scamper off into another universe or what have you. How can you be sure she won't attempt the same sort of shenanigans there as she did here?"
Pinkie looked at Applejack, and her fellow earth pony shrugged. "What they said."
Spike nodded, and Twilight blew out a breath. "Your story so far has raised several questions in my mind about the basic structure of matter and energy, but I'm going to need to do some research before I'll be able to ask them properly." She waved a hoof. "So maybe you can answer everypony else now, and I'll get back to you in a couple days."
Tingling inside to think that she actually would still be here in a couple days, Pinkie told Twilight, "It's a date!" Then she looked at the others, swallowed, and got all her biggest lies ready. "But you guys wanna know what happened next?"
Plinky's voice stroked Pinkie's ears like velvet, soft and gentle but kinda tickly: Please, oh, please, oh, please let this work! And then...then Pinkie's mouth was filled with the most gorgeously delicious chocolate cake she had ever tasted—no, it was way more than just tasting. This chocolate cake gliding over her tongue was an experience, her ev'ry sense gasping and sitting up and looking around for some ice cream to go with it.
Pinkie! Plinky cried, and Pinkie focused her eyes, saw her snout buried in a round, multi-layered, blue frosted cake—the very first cake Primey had shown her, she realized, way back when the whole cave was empty except for her and Plinky and Primey. I couldn't get anypony to wake up! Plinky was going on. And I'm not sure how to make the horn work or the wings and there wasn't anywhere to go anyway and I was all alone in this great big giant cave and I didn't know what to do!
"Umm-hmmm," Pinkie said, digging deeper into the cake and letting her eyes roll shut again so she could sharpen the sensations caressing her tongue. Because the cake? It was perfect, perfect in absolutely ev'ry way, and not for the first time in her life, Pinkie found herself wishing she could be a cat for a while so she could do some purring.
So I was just wandering around! Even in full panic mode, Plinky sounded all musical. And I saw some of the party things were still here! And I thought that if I got some food into us, it might help! And— Pinkie swallowed, and Plinky gasped. And this cake is incredible!
Mmmmmm..., Khannie's deeper rumble came then. If this is what it tastes like to be dissolved in eldritch fire, why have I avoided it for so long?
Ambrosia, was Pinxie's word for it.
Better'n that, Modesty said with a sigh.
With each bite of cake, more of her twins were coming awake, and Pinkie realized she felt wonderful. Except— Snapping her head up, she stared at the ceiling, felt her eyes dampen around the edges. "Why??" she wailed, her voice echoing through the trackless depths of the cave. "Why'd we hafta send Primey away before we got her recipe for this cake??"
Sniffling, Pinkie wiped her nose and looked back at the confusion and disbelief mixed over her friends' faces. "What?" she asked. "It was really good!"
After that, though, ev'rything went pretty easy: Pinkie thanked all the millions and millions of her twins tucked up inside her, sent beams of pink light dancing out from her horn to touch all the mirrors in the entire cavern, and sent most of herselves back to their own universes after promising them that she'd fix the fundamental laws of particle physics so the mirror dance wouldn't work anymore.
But five of her twins she didn't send back right then; instead, she popped 'em out of her horn to land on their hoofs there in front of her, Plinky and Khannie and Modesty and Pinxie and Thagoras all smiling and stretching on the weird blue-black stone.
"Well!" Pinxie adjusted her hat. "This has proven to be not an entirely useless experience. Pinxie finds herself thinking that this and the volcano story might even get her some bookings despite their Majesties' attempts to limit her audience."
Modesty tapped Pinxie's nose. "And y'know, doing a bit of work for Their Nibses now and again isn't the worst thing in the world." She grinned. "Keeps 'em off-balance, see?"
"Agreed." Khannie gave her wings a flap. "The sky mares are wonderful ponies, yes, but they do need the occasional head butt when they become too full of themselves."
Plinky cleared her throat. "Speaking of which, Pinkie, you, umm..." She swallowed hard enough for Pinkie to see it bulge down her neck. "You're still all tall and still have your horn and wings and...and everything..."
Thagoras had been cleaning her glasses against the downy feathers at the base of her wings, but now she put them on and blinked up at Pinkie. "I feel almost silly saying it after everything we've just been through, but isn't that impossible? I mean, it was only the collective power of all our myriad selves combined that enabled us to take the winged unicorn shape, wasn't it?"
Pinkie shrugged. "All I know is I've got three more things to do like this: open up the mirrors for you guys, change the universe so no mirrors'll ever open up again, and then bake two magic cookies, one for Khannie and one for me."
Khannie's brow wrinkled. "Magic cookies?"
"Yep." Pinkie folded her long legs, settled onto the stone, met Plinky's wide eyes. "'Cause I'm gonna ask Khannie to go with you into your mirror to help you and your friends deal with those unicorns who are being so mean all the time." She looked over at Thagoras. "The multiverse oughtta be able to handle just two of us in the same place for a little while, shouldn't it?"
Frowning, Thagoras still nodded. "After the shock we put it through, its fluctuations will be greater than normal, I'm guessing, and it'll probably be a while before it settles down again." She turned to Khannie. "I'd recommend getting back to your own universe as quickly as possible, though: the transdimensional framework might end up even more sensitive than before because of all this."
A nod from Khannie, and Pinkie focused on her. "Be gentle with the unicorns there 'cause they've really had it bad for a long time. But be firm and tell 'em they need to start treating the earth ponies and the pegasi a whole lot better." She cocked her head. "And if they don't wanna, I'm pretty sure you can find a way to convince 'em."
That got a little smile pulling at Khannie's snout. "Perhaps I can at that."
"You—?" Plinky's gaze had been darting back and forth between Pinkie and Khannie. "You'd do that? You...you'd come help Lady Verity and Viceroy Gloaming?"
"No, small one." Khannie bent her neck to touch her muzzle between Plinky's ears. "I would come help you." She raised her head and nodded to Pinkie. "The magic cookie, then, I take it, will get me back to my own world once I've finished settling Plinky's since the mirror routes will no longer work?"
"Right-a-rooney!" Taking big scoops of air with her wings, Pinkie sprang upward and started warming up her horn. "And I'll need a cookie, too, so I can get home after I change the universe from the cave here." She gave her friends a smile. "Plus, I mean, a cookie! Who doesn't want a cookie??"
Dashie's stomach grumbled, and her face turned a little purple with her blush. "Will you stop talking about cake and cookies? It's practic'lly dinner time!"
A few laughs from the others, and Pinkie nodded. "That's just about it anyway. I used the primary forces of the universe to bake the two cookies and open the other guys' mirrors. We all hugged each other and said we hoped we would all have fun lives, I made Khannie a little purse to put her cookie in, and then they all went home with Plinky and Khannie going together into Plinky's mirror. I used the last of our power to stop up the mirrors so they wouldn't ever open again, then I ate my magic cookie, popped through the mirror in the library, and ran out to see if ev'rypony here was still OK."
Silence followed, and Pinkie tried not to sweat, tried to keep her smile from looking too strained and phony, but it was really, really hard, her stomach all twisty from telling lies to ponies who were her friends. But she couldn't tell them the whole truth, not without telling them—
"Hoo-wee!" Applejack said, smacking the ground with a front hoof. "I reckon that's the sorta thing could only happen to you, Pinkie Pie. Leastways, I sure hope so!"
"Aw, c'mon, AJ!" Dashie had on her most daredevil grin. "Think how awesome a room fulla Rainbow Dashes'd be!"
Applejack's mouth went sideways. "You trying to put me off my feed?"
"Then..." Spike's eyes were wide and shining. "The world didn't get blown up after all?"
Pinkie reached over to rub the top of his head. "Just a little. But most of it got fixed, and we showed Primey that there's plenty of other places for her to go and see stuff so she shouldn't ever get bored and shouldn't ever try to blow up anypony's world again. And once Khannie gets done helping Plinky and her friends, ev'rypony'll be back in her own universe as nice as pie!"
This time, it was Twilight's stomach that grumbled; her ears drooped, and Rarity gave a chuckle. "From the sound of things, perhaps we'd best call this adventure finished and head back to see about some supper."
"Yes!" Pinkie jumped to her hoofs. "My treat, you guys!" She gave little glares at Rarity and Applejack. "And don't try to talk me out of it! I—" A lump tried to close her throat, her nose all sniffly again, but she kept talking as well as she could. "I wasn't sure a couple times that I'd ever see you guys again, and now that I am, I...I just don't want to stop."
"Oh, Pinkie...," came Fluttershy's voice, then her friend was hugging her, a wonderful scent of feathers and ferns surrounding her. "We're so glad to have you back!"
A rush, and more arms, more scents, Pinkie closing her eyes, leaning into them, never wanting the moment to end.
It did, of course, but, well, the next bunch of moments were even better, Pinkie walking and laughing with the others back to Ponyville, most of the town's lights on and most of the shops open. She shuddered a little, remembering all the different sorts of damage she'd seen Pinkie Prime do, but since Thagoras's trick had stopped most of it before it had even happened, she let it go, marched straight into the cafe, and declared, "Your biggest table, please! And that'll be for here, not to go!"
So they settled onto the patio and laughed some more and talked and ate, and Lyra and Bon Bon and Cheerilee and the Mayor and a lot of their other friends came by to say 'hi.' Some of them smelled a little tired or a little scared when they first walked up, but Pinkie gave them smiles and hugs and asked the folks who looked especially shaky if they had time to sit down and have some falafel or a few dandelions or some hay fries. And pretty soon those other ponies were smiling back and pulling more tables together, a little spring in their steps all of a sudden, a little stronger shine in their eyes.
And by the time full evening had come on, Pinkie looked around at the ponies talking, at the DJ who'd set up at some point in the corner of the patio, at the colored lanterns strung overhead, at the buffet the restaurant staff had put together and the desert tables across the street at Sugar Cube Corner, and nudged Applejack at the table beside her. "Hey! Did a party just break out here?"
Applejack laughed and nudged her back. "Reckon you'd know better'n me, sugar cube. But I gotta say it sure looks like it!"
It made her mane poof up, made her leap to her hoofs and wade spinning into the midst of the crowd, amazed at the way a word here and a touch there would cause harmony to bloom across the space, the ponies around her almost seeming to shimmer with happiness. Falling down laughing with Twilight and Dashie as they tried to match each other's goofy dance moves; sharing some cake with Fluttershy; suggesting that Rarity set up a face painting booth, then helping Applejack get the paints mixed in the right colors: she loved ev'ry minute of it.
She coulda gone on all night and all the next day, too, but she knew it wasn't time for that party yet, not with parts of the town still needing to get cleaned up. So she let it wind down naturally, said good night to folks as they left, hugged the cafe owner when he waved away her attempt to pay—"We almost closed down for the day just before you gals got here; now, we've done a week's worth of business in one night!" She told her friends she'd see them all tomorrow, helped the Cakes get their tables back into the shop, then just about floated up the stairs to her apartment, drifted to her bed, settled there as gently as a leaf.
And she could do this for as long as she wanted, they'd all said. Even though she wasn't really—
The thought made her tense up, made her eyes crack open and blink at the lighter square of black that was the night sky through the window of her darkened room. And suddenly the scene she'd tried so hard all day not to think about began playing through her: as light and empty as a soap bubble, alone again in her own slight beige form and watching all the infinite number of her twins vanish back through their mirrors; smiling at Pin Qi Khan and Modesty and Pinxie and Thagoras, these wonderful new friends whom she was beginning to realize she would never see again; turning to Pinkie Pie, still tall and beautiful in the body they'd all recently shared and hearing her say, "We're not quite done yet," the intense blue of her gaze fixing on—
"Plinky!" a low voice called, and she stumbled out of bed: who in this world knew her real name?? Blankets tangling around her hoofs, she almost fell over sideways to see a pink glow growing by the bedroom door, the light spreading sweet as a summer dawn and becoming unfurled wings, a cotton-candy mane, a horn shimmering between eyes brighter than a noontime sky, a smile that set her heart to beating faster. "Ev'rything OK?"
Taking a breath, she dug herself out from the layers of memory and mannerisms she'd taken on, found her voice again after a day of using the voice she'd been given, and smiled her own smile up at the winged unicorn through the pink face that wasn't exactly hers. "Oh, Pinkie, it's been wonderful! Your friends are so—!"
"Uh, uh, uh!" One of those shining shoes touched Plinky's nose, sent a tingly wave of warmth through her. "They're your friends now, too, y'know."
And as much as she wanted to agree— "Except that they think I'm you."
"Plinky..." A chocolate-minty sigh washed over her. "Didn't we all agree this'd be the best place for you while Khannie and Pinxie and Modesty and Thagoras get ev'rything all fixed back in your Equestria?"
She couldn't lift her gaze from the carpet. "Yes."
"And didn't Verity and Gloaming and all your other friends back there want you to have a vacation?"
A comment rose in her throat, but she swallowed it. After all, everything Pinkie was saying was true. So again, Plinky said, "Yes."
"And—" The pink light flowed even stronger over the walls and floor, made Plinky look up into Pinkie's gleaming face. "Didn't I promise that I'd introduce you to the princesses??"
"The—" Her heart kicked up another couple notches. "Like the Princess Selene we met in Modesty's world?? Like the sky mares Khan always talks about??"
"Yep-a-rooty!" Pinkie tossed her head, her mane sloshing around her tiara like pink pudding. "Princess Celestia and Princess Luna got real excited about meeting you after I stopped in and told 'em ev'rything that'd happened." Her smile somehow got even bigger. "Sound like fun??"
The parts Pinkie had given her surged to the fore, and she started bouncing in place. "Yes, please!"
"Then hang on, little skipper!" The light from Pinkie's horn stretched out like salt water taffy, wrapped itself around her, and Plinky smelled something that made her think of the maple syrup she'd had to prepare every morning for Lord Pantaloons, her former master. "'Cause here we go!" The surface beneath her hoofs changed from the fuzzy carpet of Pinkie's room to smoothly polished stone, and the pinkness faded to a warm semi-darkness. "Or I guess I shoulda said 'here we are,'" Pinkie went on. "'Cause here we are! Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, this is my friend and mirror twin, Plinky Pie!"
Plinky blinked, a wall of windows curving left and right and arching overhead in front of her to form a sort of sun porch, a panorama of the midnight sky visible through it, light and shadow mixing everywhere. Then her eyes focused, and she gasped to see the shadows turn and look at her, a winged unicorn darker than dusk standing at the center of the room, her mane a beam of moonlight aswirl with stars. And the light, oh, the light took the shape of another, all banked fire and relaxed, stretching herself in the colors of a sunset rainbow across a chaise lounge along the windows to Plinky's right.
Without needing to think, Plinky bowed, straightening up to see Princess Celestia smile. Pure serenity stroked through Plinky's mane, and the sun mare said in a voice to match, "Well! Two Pinkie Pies! One who isn't what she appears, and the other of whom is much, much more..."
"Ooops!" Pinkie came fluttering around from beside Plinky, puffed out her cheeks, and blew a jasmine-scented breath over her, Plinky's borrowed pinkness puffing away to reveal her regular beige beneath. "There! There's our Plinky!"
A chuckle from the moon mare. "She's still you, Pinkie Pie, regardless of her coat's shade."
"I know!" Pinkie bounded into the room between the two mares, and Plinky almost gasped again, the contrast between the two actual sky mares and Pinkie wearing the shape of one just as stark as when Plinky had beheld the princess in Modesty's world after seeing Pinkie Prime. "Isn't she great??"
"She is," the Princess Celestia said, the deep glimmer of her gaze touching Plinky as gently as her voice had. "And as much as I welcome her here for as long as she might wish—"
"You're right," Plinky said, stirring within as if she'd just come awake after a long and restful sleep. "I...I can't stay. I wish I could, but..." She moved her head, saw Princess Luna nodding.
"Plinky?" Pinkie stopped bouncing and stared, perhaps the first time Plinky had ever seen her not moving.
Swallowing, Plinky made herself say what she'd been wanting to say all along. "You and all my friends, Pinkie, you...you've been so very kind. And as much as I know you only want to help me, my Equestria with all its problems, it...it's my Equestria. So I...I've got to go back, got to do my part to make it right." She couldn't stop a shrug. "I don't know what possible use I could be, but..." Her eyes wanted to focus on the floor, but she made them stay fixed on the three winged unicorns. "But I have to."
Silence, then Pinkie Pie said, "Huh! You guys were right! She does wanna go back!"
The two actual princesses flowed like wind over water, crossing the room to stand before Plinky without seeming to move at all, their heads bowing, their horns touching the straight beige mane between Plinky's ears. "Remember," they said together, and Plinky felt electricity in the air.
"Your heart is strong," came Princess Luna's voice as pure and breathtaking as the harvest moon rising. "Listen to it."
"Your heart is gentle," came Princess Celestia's voice as sweet and soft as a summer afternoon. "Listen to it."
Another flow took the two back to their places. "And whatever else happens," Princess Luna said, cocking her head at Pinkie, standing with her forehead wrinkled, "don't let Pinkie Pie talk you into throwing a party with all your other selves in attendance."
"Hey!" Pinkie pointed a hoof at the princess. "I know better'n to do that!" She shrugged. "I mean, I know it now!"
"Just so." Princess Celestia gave a crisp nod. "Still, you two had best be on your way." That dazzling smile spread out from her again. "Perhaps, Plinky Pie, we will speak again."
Princess Luna's smile had a few more shadows in it. "And when the time comes, 'Tambourine' would suit you perfectly." She rolled her eyes at Princess Celestia's sigh. "Although my sister's suggestion of 'Terpsichore' has some merit as well, I suppose."
"Luna..." Princess Celestia's mix of playfulness and exasperation made Plinky wish for the first time ever that she had a sister. "I thought we agreed—"
"Yes, yes." Princess Luna's wings flared, the lovely summer night outside seeming to spread from them. "Now, you should go before the recriminations begin flying here in earnest."
Plinky couldn't help giggling, but Pinkie looked a little uncertain. "All right," she said with a shake of her floofy mane. "But you promise ev'rything'll be OK?"
Princess Celestia eyes were as deep and calm as the big lake in Lady Verity's woods. "Everything will be as it needs to be."
"Huh." Pinkie's mouth went sideways, then she shrugged. "Guess that's as good as we're gonna get." A flap of her wings, and she arched through the air, landed with a tinkle-de-tink of her pink metal shoes beside Plinky, sparks glittering from her horn. "C'mon, Plinky; let's get you home."
Home. It wasn't a word that had meant much to Plinky for most of her life, but hearing it from Pinkie's mouth made her want to start hopping up and down all of a sudden. And when the light of Pinkie's horn washed over her, wrapped her tight and made her stomach stretch, she did start bouncing at the thought that she would soon be seeing not just Khan and her newest friends, but Lady Verity, the first unicorn who'd ever made Plinky feel like she was a pony, too, and Viceroy Gloaming, always so serious but always so kind. Then the pink light was whisking away, and—
That it didn't smell of fish oil struck her first, the sky so bright and blue overhead that for a moment, she thought Pinkie had brought them to the wrong Equestria. But the dirt under her hoofs, well, it felt right in a way even the sweet green grass of Pinkie's world hadn't, and looking down the hill she and Pinkie were standing on, Plinky couldn't mistake the cinderblock buildings of the Ponyville that had taken her in and shown her what a home was.
Figures, though, moved around many of the buildings, covered with scaffolding, colors splashed over their gray walls. "Are..." Plinky squinted in the sunlight. "Are they painting the town?"
"Yeah!" Above her, Pinkie sucked in a breath. "Time gets so wonky with all this universe hopping, but the girls sure have made some changes since they got here! And look!" Plinky turned, saw Pinkie's wings spreading, her head and horn pointing off to their right. "They're having a camp out!"
Plinky followed her gaze down the hill toward the empty stretch of river valley between Ponyville and the heights of Canterlot—and saw row after row of tents covering the ground, ponies walking between them and flying above.
"Oooo!" Pinkie started waving frantically. "There's Khannie! C'mon!"
The landscape flashed, and Plinky blinked at the tents and the crowd now surrounding her, other earth ponies shying away with gasps, a few pegasi—including Captain Thunder Flash—leaping into the air. One pegasus, though, big and red and smelling very much in charge, merely glanced slowly over her shoulder as Pinkie's voice rang out: "Khannie! Hi! It's us!"
"So I see," Khan rumbled, her eyes narrowing. "This was not part of the plan, Pinkie Pie."
”Yeah, well,—" Pinkie started.
But Plinky interrupted. "That's my fault, Khan." She stepped forward, made herself meet that hard gaze. "And I'm sorry, truly, but I...how could I relax among Pinkie's wonderful friends when my friends here were struggling? How could I—?"
"Plinky!" The voice made her mane poof up; she spun, her grin so big, she wasn't sure all of it would fit on her face, and rushed to throw her arms around Lady Verity, the white unicorn's bulk somehow squeezed into a suit of plate armor that gleamed in the midday sun. "Darling, what are you doing here?? Your friends assured me you were somewhere safe!"
"I couldn't!" Plinky stepped back, swallowed, nodded to Clover Dale and Daisy, the two earth ponies standing beside Lady Verity. "I had to be here with you all!"
A familiar sigh behind her, and she spun again, Viceroy Gloaming smiling sadly in her own plate armor. "It's wonderful to see you, of course, Plinky, but right now, this might not be the best place for you." Her smile faded. "Or any of us, for that matter..."
Behind the viceroy, a hiccough of light rippled over Pinkie Pie, rustled her wings and made her eyes go wide: a flood of twitches, Plinky guessed from the memories Pinkie had given her so she could play the part more easily back in that other Equestria. Smacking her lips, Pinkie blinked. "Huh. Y'know, I'm starting to think this might actually be exactly where Plinky needs to be."
"Might as well," Modesty said, coming around the end of the tent to Plinky's left, Pinxie beside her, both unicorns also wearing shiny armor. "Likely we'll need all the help we can get 'fore today's through."
Plinky blinked, the tension in the air making her coat bristle. "Why? What...what's going on?"
Pinxie snorted. "This so-called Unicorn Council here is as useless a bunch of brick-headed nincompoops as Pinxie has ever had the misfortune to encounter! Our requests were denied in the brusquest possible terms, and the demands they sought to impose upon us, well!" Eyes closed, she aimed her snout at the sky. "I shall say no more about it!"
Wings flapping drew Plinky's attention to Thagoras landing beside Khan. "Hard Cider's reporting the first line of troops is coming up the valley," the black and white pegasus said. "Earth ponies with pegasi above, and she says it looks like Lord Pantaloons himself at the vanguard with the rest of the Council following along behind."
Catching her breath, Plinky stared at Viceroy Gloaming. "The Council? They...they're attacking?"
The viceroy shook her head. "When they wouldn't listen, we began tidying the town and asked Cider to proclaim publicly through her underground network what she'd been whispering till then: that any pony in Equestria who wished to live in equality would be welcome here in Ponyville. We expected a few dozen at most, but so many refugees flooded in, we had to erect these tents. And the Council, well, they really couldn't continue to ignore us after that, could they?"
Khan stomped a hoof. "They've got five times the ponies marching in their ranks, but we've got five times the spirit, five times the determination, and five times the heart." Her ferocious smile seemed to spread from face to face among the ponies gathered around them. "We will carry the day."
"Stalwart," Modesty said with her sideways grin. "And the four of us brawny, experienced unicorns against them twenty-three dilettantes? What could possibly go wrong?"
Horror mounting in her, Plinky looked from Viceroy Gloaming to Lady Verity, from Modesty to Pinxie, from Khan to Thagoras to Pinkie. "No," she found herself saying. "No! We can't— We can't fight! That's—! It's—! No!" And leaping forward, she sprinted through the crowd, tears wavering her vision.
"Plinky!" she heard more than one voice cry out, and she expected at any moment to feel unicorn magic or the strong grip of Khan's arms wrapping around her. But looking up, blinking her eyes clear, she saw she'd already left the tents behind, was galloping faster than she'd ever moved in her life across the muddy floor of the river valley, a glitter ahead that she knew was the armor of ponies bent on destroying everything she'd been trying to protect during her whole adventure through the mirrors.
Quicker than she'd thought possible, the line came on: grim faces, stomping hoofs, and right at the front, his armor almost blinding in its radiance—
"Lord Pantaloons!" Plinky sang out with every ounce of her strength, drawing upon her inner music in ways she never had before. "Please, I beg, do not ignore a voice raised in supplication!"
It flowed out of her—though what it was exactly, Plinky didn't know, couldn't imagine, the sensation more like the magic she'd felt during the time she'd been one with her sisters battling Pinkie Prime. But whatever it was, it stroked across the entire line of soldiers, made their steps falter and their eyes blink, brought them to a sudden and complete halt there under the early afternoon sky, Lord Pantaloons, one of the unicorns who still woke her shrieking from her dreams, going even paler than his already bone-white hide. "Plinky?" he asked, his words reaching her ears though she could tell he was barely whispering them. "Alive? And...and fighting for the rebels?"
"Fighting for Equestria!" She had to get through to him, had to make him understand, needed to— Reaching out, she found her front hoofs slipping into her hammered shoes, struck down with them against the strings of her dulcimer, suddenly propped on the ground before her, a stirring chord leaping from it into the air. No time for questions: she raised her voice, found her starting note, and began.
And she sang them the whole story—the whole, true, and entire story—of what had happened beyond the mirrors, how ponies of every sort with every possible background and every sort of pain and disgruntlement had come together in the face of a powerful foe bent on destruction and had used their skills, their strengths, their talents to show that foe a different way, to send her down a different path, to turn her sorrow to joy and make the uncountable worlds safe again.
For hours she sang, felt the sun add its rhythm to hers, the earth and the air and the river bringing their three parts of harmony to her lead vocals, all of Equestria blending with her till the final chord rang out in full-throated splendor from forests to mountains to sea coasts and out onward from there to the world's every nook and cranny.
Opening her eyes at last, Plinky blinked to see the entire army, earth ponies and pegasi with Lord Pantaloons and the other unicorns, all seated before her and staring up with their mouths open, tears on their cheeks. Plinky took a breath, the air traveling through her in odd and wonderful ways, her whole body somehow—
"Whoo-hoo!" Pinkie Pie shouted, and Plinky turned, looked down at the little pink earth pony bouncing, grass sprouting from the dirt beneath her. "Let's sing it again!"
"Pinkie? Why are you—?" Plinky began, but the rich contralto she was hearing made her stop, touch a hoof to her throat—
Her neck longer, she realized, her coat a deep earthy brown, a gleaming alabaster shoe on her hoof. And when she moved that hoof higher, found the tiara on her brow and the horn now sprouting from her forehead—
She glanced back, the graceful pinions of her spreading wings framing hundreds and hundreds of smiling faces—not just all her friends, but all of Ponyville—sitting in rows behind her. "Yep," she heard Pinkie say. "Turns out I was just holding onto all this princess stuff for you."
"I—" She cleared her throat, the music there almost more beautiful than she could stand. "You mean, I'm...I'm—?"
"That you are, your Nibs," Modesty said, stepping up to settle beside Pinkie. "And a right proper one, too."
"Indeed." Khan moved forward, Plinky amazed to see tears in those tough eyes. "For sky mares aren't born, small one. They're made. And you, I feel, will make a very good one."
Thagoras had joined them by now. "Your transformation!" she breathed. "I...I've never seen anything like it!"
"Yes." Pinxie sat, her plate mail vanishing with a pop, her hat and cloak appearing in their place. "I find myself thinking it may be time to visit my own princesses." She tapped a hoof against Modesty's armored shoulder. "See what Pinxie can do to keep them honest, as you said."
"Honest?" Modesty's grin spread over her snout. "We talking 'bout the same Pinxie?"
"Plinky?" Lady Verity's face shone with awe and delight, warming Plinky all over. "Is...is that you?"
But Pinkie was leaping up before Plinky could even nod. "No! You can't be 'Princess Plinky'! You've gotta be something sweet and neat like—" Her eyebrows shot up, her twitches making the new grass rustle against her. "Oooo! That's what Princess Luna meant! Remember?? So you getta be 'Princess Tambourine' now! Or— What was the other one she said? 'Princess Slurp Chicory?' 'Cause that's not a very good—"
"Dulcimer." Viceroy Gloaming was sort of wavering in place. "When I was a foal, I...I had recurring dreams of a beautiful winged unicorn, and the music she made, it helped me discover the magic within me. It...it's why I always loved your playing, Plinky, the way it made me think of those dreams. And she was...her name was Princess Dulcimer."
"Ah." Khan wiped her eyes, her smile huge. "Destiny, then."
"But—" Lady Verity's voice shook. "How? And what does it mean? What—?"
"I..." Plinky stood, shook herself, her wings flaring, power surging through her, her ears catching the gasp that rose from every pony in the vast crowd around her. "I don't know exactly. But I do know this." Opening senses she'd never had before, she found the black, scabrous thread that connected all twenty-five of her Equestria's unicorns to the spell their ancestors had spun so many centuries ago to defeat the Din; a flex of those new senses snapped the cords, and she wrapped them around herself, the power she'd inherited from the multiverse easily feeding the curse's fearsome requirements.
"From this moment on," she announced, the words resounding and making her shiver with joy, "unicorns will once more be born freely and naturally among our foals." She turned, bewilderment and wonder drifting up from Lord Pantaloons like a scent. "You have been crushed and stunted for far too long, paying the price for saving the world. I now gladly relieve you of that weight." Stepping up to him, she bent her neck, touched her horn to his, used her new magic to wash the bitterness from her own heart. "And I forgive you. I forgive each and every one of you."
Lord Pantaloons' eyes quivered, and he dropped to the ground, to the soft green grass that Plinky realized was actually spreading out from her hoofs, a growing ring of green expanding through the dirt with her at the center. "Princess Dulcimer," Lord Pantaloons more groaned than said. "After everything I've done, I...I don't deserve forgiveness."
"You do," she told him gently, "if you can change your ways." She touched a gleaming white shoe to his chin, raised his head till he was staring up at her. "Can you, my Lord?" She looked around at the other members of the Unicorn Council. "My Lords and Ladies?" she asked them.
They were all huddled down now, all covering their faces with their front legs, the earth ponies and pegasi from the ranks behind them staring and sniffling. Then Lady Verity was moving forward, Clover Dale and Daisy beside her, Captain Thunder Flash overhead. "We are all ponies," she said in her lovely ringing tones, "and under the leadership of our Princess Dulcimer, we shall together rediscover what that truly means!"
Viceroy Gloaming burst into the space next to Lord Pantaloons, held out a hoof to help him stand, and then all the ponies seemed to be moving at once: pulling off their armor and hugging each other, laughing or weeping into each other's manes.
"This could work," Plinky heard Modesty say, and she turned to see her five twins standing beside her, an island of stillness in the rushing sea of jubilant ponies. "'Trust but verify,' we call it, your Nibs." Modesty winked. "Keep an eye on 'em, and you'll likely come through all right."
With as little effort as taking a breath, Plinky whisked herself and her friends away to the hilltop overlooking the tent city where she and Pinkie had appeared all those hours ago. "I...I don't know what to do," she told them, the sheer power behind her words making her afraid to speak above a whisper. "I'm certainly not a leader! I never have been!"
Pinxie snorted. "Then you will be a decided improvement upon the princesses Pinxie has dealt with! Too certain of themselves by half, those mares are!"
Plinky stared at her, and Modesty gave a little shrug. "A bit of truth there. 'Cause a smile's a better prod sometimes than a cudgel, if you know what I mean."
"And listening!" Pinkie flapped her ears. "Princess Celestia and Princess Luna said something about that, didn't they? I wasn't really paying attention."
Thagoras laughed. "Ah, yes. That's my evil twin."
"Hey!" Pinkie stuck her tongue out.
A nudge at her side, and Plinky looked down into Khan's smile, the big pegasus at least a head shorter than her now. "On any issue, small one, yours must be the last word. Just take care to hear all the words that come before, be true to yourself, and you'll do fine."
Nodding, Plinky took a breath, blew it out, took another, and even though she knew what had to happen next— "You don't really have to go, do you? You can stay, oh, I don't know..." She gave them a smile she didn't quite feel. "Another couple months?"
"Ummm..." Thagoras looked over the top of her glasses. "I'd say we've taken about as much advantage of the current elasticity of space-time as we should."
"Yep-a-rooty!" Pinkie was bouncing again. "Time for all good Pinkies and all good Pies to brushie-brush their teeth and climb on into their own comfy, cozy universes for a good night's sleep!" She dropped into a bow, then, as graceful as any Plinky had ever seen. "Princess Dulcimer, it's been an honor and pleasure." Hopping back up she somehow managed to wrap her hoofs around all five of them, squeezed them together with a force that made Plinky gasp. "This has been the best 'my evil twin nearly destroying the universe' ever!"
Closing her eyes, resting her head in the nest of her other selves, Princess Dulcimer whispered, "I'll never forget you." And unzipping the multiverse one last time, she wafted herselves back to their own worlds.
Pinkie tucked and rolled from the mirror like a bowling ball, tumbled giggling across the library floor, and crashed into a shelf of books hard enough to shake the whole tree, a shelf or two coming loose, books clattering down around her.
A snort, Twilight's sleepy voice saying something that sounded to Pinkie very much like, "Whosie whatsit?" Then a click of a light switch, and Twilight herself blinked down from the top of the stairs. "Pinkie? What...what...what are you doing?"
"It wasn't me, Twilight." Pinkie stood, saluted the mirror, and with a sigh, used the line that she figured she'd prob'bly never be able to use again. "It was my evil twin."