“Oh, Twilight,” Pinkie Pie said with a smile, “that’s a loooonng story.”
Twilight Sparkle’s shrunken pupils surveyed her surroundings once more. It was quite similar to the Everfree Forest, although much brighter and more bizarre. The prevalent plant life spiraled and twisted toward the strange, sparking sky. The landscape bulged and dipped for miles in all directions in seemingly impossible ways, sectioned into squares as variously colored as pony coats. Glancing over her shoulder, Twilight ogled the tall rectangle she and Pinkie had just passed through. Its surface, though transparent, simultaneously bore a spectral sheen like the rainbow in bubble solution. Through the angular hole suspended in space, Twilight could still see Pinkie’s bedroom exactly as they left it.
Struggling to keep her breathing steady, Twilight looked Pinkie Pie dead in the eyes. “It could be the longest story in history and I would still demand to hear it. Tell me, Pinkie: where in Equestria are we?”
Pinkie squinted in thought. “I don’t think we’re in Equestria, Twilight. I don’t even think we’re on Equus!”
Twilight’s eyelid started to twitch. “Okay then... where do you think we are?”
“I’ve always thought of it as another dimension!” Pinkie said, bouncing up and down on a spot of polka-dotted ground.
“Another dimension?” Twilight croaked. “That doesn’t make any sense! There are no other dimensions!”
“Sure there are!” Pinkie argued cheerfully as gravity lost its hold on her. Twilight gaped as her friend began to drift lazily over her head. “There are lots and lots of other dimensions!”
“H-h-how do you know that?” The blood began to drain from Twilight’s face.
Pinkie shrugged, “landing” upside down on an invisible plane directly above Twilight. “Sometimes I see super weirdo worlds through the Portal, and I don’t think they could exist anywhere in our dimension. One of them looks a lot like Equestria, but everything’s burnt and dark and the ponies are so sad! Another one doesn’t have any ponies at all, just these tall pink things that wear clothes all the time. And another one’s really creepy: there are all these ponies hooked to chains, and for some reason it always makes me think of cheese strings...”
“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?”
Pinkie tsked dismissively. “You’re right, the other dimensions don’t really matter. The important things are all the mirrors in our version of Equestria!”
Twilight scraped her hooves against the marble-like square beneath her to keep from screaming. “Are you telling me this hole is the other side of your mirror!?”
“Not just my mirror, Twilight!” Pinkie said, rolling her eyes. “Every mirror in Equestria!” She swam through the air until she reached the floating rectangle and swiped her hoof across it as if turning a page. Twilight yelped as the Portal buckled, collapsing on itself and reappearing as an oblong oval. She gaped in disbelief at the very familiar sight beyond the hole: the main corridor of the Canterlot Library.
“I-I-I can’t believe it!” she stuttered as Pinkie swiped again, bringing the wrong side of a public restroom’s long mirror to their view. Nopony was in the bathroom at the time, but Twilight could see droplets of water staining the bottom of the surface.
“I don’t know why that’s the part you’re struggling with, Twilight,” Pinkie Pie said, skipping in orbit around her twitching friend. “I’ve popped up behind the mirror before!”
“And you were doing so well…”
Twilight’s back teeth started to grind. “I thought it was a trick mirror or… something! I don’t know! It’s not possible to appear on the wrong side of a mirror. Mirrors are just reflections!”
Pinkie gave her a questioning look and gestured to the jungle around them. “Oh, reeeeaally?”
“Pinkie Pie…” Twilight closed her eyes. “Please, you have to tell me. H-how did you find this place?”
“Bluish Carol showed it to me,” Pinkie answered brightly.
Twilight’s ears shot straight up at the nonsense author's name. “You’ve met Bluish Carol!?”
Pinkie snorted. “No, silly! How could I have done that? He’s dead!” She used her tail as a paddle and backstroked away from Twilight, weaving in between colorful trees of various shape and size. “I read about it in the anthology you borrowed.”
“I looked through the whole thing,” Twilight argued, “and there was nothing about another dimension behind the mirror!”
“Sure there was! There’s a whole book about it!”
Twilight slowly shook her head as her breath came out in tiny puffs. “A whole book?”
“Through the Looking-glass and What Surprise Found There,” Pinkie recited.
“Through the looking-glass…” Twilight repeated, her head swaying back and forth on the base of her neck.
“It was written for my Grammy Pie! Wasn’t that nice of Mister Carol? There’s nothing more exciting than having a story written just for you!”
“Nothing more… exciting….” Twilight’s lavender cheeks were adopting a shade of green.
By the time Pinkie took notice of her discomfort, Twilight’s eyes had rolled to the back of her head. Swooping down from her perch on a bright red palm tree, Pinkie latched onto Twilight’s around the middle and carried them both to the Portal.
“Pinkie!” Twilight yelped, snapping back to full alert. “What are you doing?”
“I keep forgetting you’re the kind of pony who has to see something to believe it,” Pinkie said, “so since your big cute brain is having trouble with this place, I have something for you to see that might just clear things up a little.”
She flicked her hoof to the right several times. An array of mirror-shapes appeared and disappeared before their eyes. Pinkie came to a stop at a wide, hexagonal hole with spots of dirt on its surface and salt caked along the edges.
“What is this?” Twilight breathed.
“It’s a mirror on a boat,” Pinkie answered with a smile. She swept a hoof toward it invitingly. “Go ahead! Take a look!”
With Pinkie’s comforting arm around her shoulder, Twilight gulped and leaned forward, peering through the grime at the old wooden deck of a huge sailing ship…
“The bowsprit got mixed with rudder again!” a gruff voice called through the thickening gale.
“That frequently happens in tropical climes when a vessel is, so to speak, Snarked!” the Bellsteed cried back cheerfully. “Back to your stations, lads! No need to fear a smatter o’ curséd rain! This only means we’re close!”
He let out a boisterous, nigh-maniacal laugh, echoed by the ear-splitting cracks of tumultuous thunder as bolts of liquid lightning struck the ever-churning sea. The dark-grey clouds swirled overhead like a dancing dome of death, and as each member of the crew strained to keep the ship from veering off course or, Celestia forbid, capsizing, they wrapped their minds around the prize their employer commissioned them to capture.
There were ten souls on the ship, including the Bellsteed, all hailing from different professions and walks of life. Most of them were rather frightened by the storm but maintained complete faith in their captain. He stood above them all in front of the ever-silent stallion at the helm—with whom none of the crew were allowed to speak—holding before him the map to the island that nopony’d heard of before.
There was one among the crew, however, who was both especially frightened of the storm and especially wary of the captain. He was a middle aged stallion with a flat, wavy, brownish-grey mane and a bluish coat. That was the only word he had ever used to describe it, for though his fur was not entirely blue, it was not entirely any other sort of color, either. No one he had ever met was able to identify it. Even his parents, at the stallion’s birth, were baffled with his strange but fascinating coloration.
He was a baker and aspiring writer, though he was not hired to the Bellsteed’s crew for his prose. From the meager kitchen in the bottom of the ship, the unicorn had been slaving away for nearly two weeks at that point in the voyage. There was no telling when they would arrive at the island—this so called “Wabe”—and the poor baker was already running out of ingredients.
As if that wasn’t enough, he had accidentally left all forty-two of his luggage boxes on the beaches of Van Hoover from whence they departed. Luckily, due to the cold, he had been wearing several coats and insulation for his hooves at the time and had not yet suffered from his lack of baggage. Still, the mishap was a stark reminder of his worsening condition: if his memory continued to deteriorate with age, he’d likely be mindless at fifty years old.
“Hey, Toasted Cheese!” a gruff voice called, catching the baker’s attention. It came from a grimy old earth pony with a rope pulled taught between his hooves. ‘The Boots’ is what they called him. “Think you could save daydreaming for after the bloody storm?”
Surrounding crewponies laughed at the baker’s embarrassment, both from the disheartening nickname and the reminder of his distractibility. He immediately got back to work, securing various riggings and magicking water away from the deck.
“It’s all right, Candle Ends,” a small voice suddenly said from beside him, making the nervous baker twitch. “Don’t pay the Boots any mind. You’re doing fine up here. Thanks for the help, really.”
The baker turned to see one of the two friends he had among the crew, a soft-spoken pegasus named Feather. She offered him a smile, squinting against the rain, and flew off to another part of the large sailing vessel. The baker sighed. He much preferred that nickname, derived from his habit of burning candles to their bases as he wrote throughout the night.
If only he could remember his name, none of these ridiculous monikers would be necessary. Alas, his memory was a fickle friend at best—perhaps even an enemy at times—and he was forced to answer to the most bizarre of titles.
“Thing-um-a-jig!” the Bellsteed cried, beaming from his perch. The baker finished tying a knot with his magic and galloped to the call.
“Yes, Captain?” he reported above the gale.
The old steed smiled down at the unicorn. “Get down to the galley and make the boys a breakfast!” he ordered through the rain with inappropriate glee. “We’re almost there.”
The baker tried to stop himself, but the words were already out. “How can you be sure, Sir?”
“It says so right here,” the Bellsteed guffawed, spinning his ‘map’ around for the baker to see, “on the Perfect and Absolute Blank!”
There was really no purpose in turning the square around. Both sides of the panel were exactly the same: a brittle, cloudy glass of sorts, like a slice of an unwashed sapphire. The entire crew regarded it with utmost awe and reverence, aside from the baker, of course, who considered it nothing more than a useless pane of quartz. Nevertheless, he made a quick bow and hurried below deck to begin preparing the meal… but not before stealing a glance at the ship’s large mirror built into the side of the Bellsteed’s balcony for nothing more than decoration.
He could have sworn that, for just a moment, two pastel faces peered at him from beyond the salt-stained glass. One bewildered blink later, both splashes of color were gone. Growling at himself, the baker hurried off, hoping that hallucinations were not about to plague his already faltering mind.
“Pinkie, what is this?”
“That’s the Lutwidge, a big ol’ ship that sailed beneath the Celestial Crest in search of the Wabe!” Pinkie declared in her best announcer voice.
“The Wabe?” Twilight asked, rubbing her temples. “But... Pinkie, please! None of this is helping me! Just explain what’s going on.” She grabbed the grinning frizball by the shoulders and held her still. “Please? Just try?” Her wide eyes shone with sincere imploration.
Pinkie’s brow creased and a lump appeared in her throat. “Oh, Twilight! I’m no good at explaining things…” she mumbled, rubbing her forehooves together. “Remember that one time, with the parasprites? None of you understood what I was trying to do, but I thought I was perfectly clear! And that ended up okay, right? You said I was a good friend.” She sighed and slouched into Twilight’s outstretched legs. “Just… trust me one more time, okay? I promise it’s really easy once you wrap your brain around it. And you’re such a super smart smarty smartpants—I’m sure you’ll understand in no time!”
Twilight groaned. “I would understand in no time, Pinkie, if you would just talk it out with me!” She whipped a hoof toward the portal. “What exactly are we looking at? Where is this? Who are those ponies?”
“Nnnggerrhh….” Pinkie shut her eyes tightly and ground her teeth as if trying to dig up the answer to an exam she barely studied for. “They’re… they’re the crew of the Lutwidge…”
A purple hoof smacked against an equally purple face. “I gathered that much, Pinkie Pie.”
But Pinkie wasn’t done. Suddenly, akin to a balloon popping, she exploded at Twilight with bulging eyes and a flapping mouth.
“Clover the Clever commissioned a captain and crew to uncover a crazy incredible country of secrets and colorful creatures across the Pahoofic ocean!” she rambled, then sucked in a deep breath. “He was obsessed with saving his instructor Star Swirl the Bearded who disappeared during the defeat of Discord while trying to turn back time to stop the tear that emptied the terribly terrifying creatures of Tartarus into Equestria!”
She slumped into a heap on her haunches, breathing heavily while her bright blue eyes rolled around in her head.
Twilight gaped. “Wh… what?”
Pinkie got a hold of herself and sighed, resting her chin in one hoof. “See? I should have just showed you.”
High pitched sounds were squeaking intermittently from Twilight’s twitching face.
“Star Swirl the Bearded? Clover the Clever? Discord?”
She began trotting back and forth, speaking in between deep breaths. “Okay, no, this is good… this is exactly what I want.” She turned her head mid-pace and locked her eyes on Pinkie Pie. “Now, Pinkie, you just have to take each of those things you just told me about—all of those crazy, ridiculous things—and explain each one of them in order. It won’t be very hard.” She gulped. “Just… just start with Clover the Clever. You said he was trying to find Star Swirl?”
Pinkie nodded, sending locks of bouncy pinkness in all directions around her ears. “Yup! Star Swirl disappeared when the Elements of Harmony turned Discord to stone!”
Twilight stopped pacing and shook her head. “No, Pinkie. Star Swirl the Bearded left the country in search of a cure for the blizzard under the reign of Princess Platinum, leaving his apprentice, Clover the Clever, to advise the princess in his stead. He was never heard from again.”
“False!” Pinkie trumpeted, sticking a hoof in Twilight’s face. “That might be what your history books say, Miss History Books Believer, but Bluish Carol knows the reeeeaal story.”
Holding back an outburst, Twilight channeled all her academic rage into one word: “Oh?”
“While Chancellor Puddinghead was making Equestria—”
“You mean while the three tribes united under one flag.”
“—Star Swirl crossed the Pahoofic ocean and accidentally found the Wabe!” She threw her hooves out to her sides and spun around in circles.
Twilight raised a hoof off the ground in surprise. “Star Swirl found this place?”
“He sailed here,” Pinkie affirmed. She squinted in the direction opposite of the portal and poked her tongue out from the corner of her mouth. “Uhhh… oh, there! See? The ocean!”
Twilight peered in the same direction, taking note of the sparkling surface painting the horizon.
“But, Pinkie… you said this place wasn’t on Equus!” Twilight reminded in a shrill tone.
“It’s not!” Pinkie said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t sail here.”
Twilight’s ears twitched. “Yes, actually, it does mean that! How can you sail somewhere outside your own planet!?”
“Duh! Portals!” Pinkie skipped merrily around her friend and tapped on the floating doorway.
Twilight’s brain was practically whirring. “Did…” She shook her head briefly and pushed out her jaw. “Did you say—earlier—that those sailors we saw through the mirror were commissioned by Clover the Clever?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Pinkie chirped, “to find Star Swirl here on the Wabe.”
“How did they know he was here if he found it by accident?”
Pinkie giggled. “No, silly! That was the second time Star Swirl came to the Wabe. The first time, he came back to Equestria all by himself!” She winced. “Well… not actually by himself, but… he figured out how to come back without help.”
Twilight nodded. “Go on. How did he get back?”
“With that thing!” Pinkie said, leaping to one side of the portal and pointing to something behind it. Nervously, Twilight Sparkle trotted to her side and gaped at the abstract scenery beyond.
The portal was at the foot of a wide, grassy hill—although the grass was mostly cream-colored with a black line spiraling around it to the peak. From the crest of the hill sprouted a massive stone structure, comparable in size (and even shape) to Ponyville’s library. It was a highly decorated, ancient Sundial of gargantuan proportions. The concave, trunk-like pedestal that burst from the oddly colored grass was carved with intricate crisscrossing patterns intercepted by the visages of vicious looking animals, archaic plants, and… alicorns. The disk atop the pedestal was even more complex, but the details of its decoration were hazy from Twilight’s distance.
“What is it?” she breathed.
“I have nnoooo idea!” Pinkie answered. “But I think it’s just beeeeaautiful! Don’t you?”
“Yes,” Twilight answered honestly. “It looks very old.”
“I bet its millions of years old!” Pinkie said, beginning to bounce. “Billions, even! Star Swirl said that nothing on this island ever changes, ages, or dies. Isn’t that wild?”
“Never changes?” Twilight repeated, tearing her eyes away from the Sundial.
“That’s right, never changes. Everything here stays exactly the same! That’s why Bluish Carol said the portal lets you go through space and time, because no matter what’s happening out there—” She pointed to the portal. “—everything stays exactly the same in here!”
“Wait, when did Bluish Carol come into this?” Twilight asked. “How did he find out about the Wabe?”
“He came here, Twilight,” Pinkie explained, “on the Lutwidge. You were just looking right at him!”
Twilight was thoroughly exasperated. “But he only lived a hundred years before us, Pinkie Pie,” she said. “If the crew of the Lutwidge was commissioned by Clover the Clever, that would mean it sailed more than a thousand years ago.”
“Yup! It did!”
Twilight was speechless. Her jaw hung at an awry angle as Pinkie giggled.
“Mmmaaaybe I should show you something else,” she said, beckoning Twilight back to the Portal. “It’ll help! I Pinkie Promise!” She drug her hoof twice across her chest and pressed it over her eyelid.
Surprisingly, the simple gesture did wonders in calming Twilight down. She trotted, head low, back to the hexagonal hole in the air and watched in awe as Pinkie twisted her hoof at its center. The images beyond sped up; the storm disappeared, the ship approached a colorful island, stopped and anchored near the shore, and the lanky Bellsteed helped each member of the crew through the ocean by twisting his hoof in their manes.
“That looks painful…” Twilight muttered.
“He’s a rough guy,” Pinkie said, shrugging. “Oh, oh, here it is!” She stopped whatever she was doing and the image slowed to normal speed. Beaming briefly in Twilight’s direction, she said, “Come on! We’re gonna miss the speech!”
Twilight gasped as Pinkie leapt through the portal. She appeared on the other side, landing on the empty deck, and nodded encouragingly back at the mirror. “You remember how to pass through, right?”
Shaking with a range of emotion, Twilight closed her eyes and focused on her desire to understand. Without opening them, she followed an old Pinkie-Pie-adage, passing through the Portal with a hop, skip, and a jump.
“Well done!” Pinkie squealed, hugging her friend quickly before hurrying to the edge of the boat nearest the island. “Heehee, isn’t this weird? We were just over there, but waaaayy in the future! Or maybe the past… who knows with the Wabe?” She giggled again and leaned over the wooden railing, pointing both of her ears at the crew gathered in a circle on the distant beach. “Good thing sound travels well over water, right, Twilight?”
The unicorn swallowed and strained her ears. “Er… right.”
They listened closely. Twilight was surprised at how well they could hear the Bellsteed’s speech from their distance.
“The time has come,” the Bellsteed said, “to talk of many things: of shoes, and ships, and ceiling wax, of cabbages, and kings! And why the—”
“You aw-ready to’d us that,” a nasally voice shouted out from his small audience. “Twice!”
A murmur of agreement passed through the crew.
“Ah, yes… but remember, my friends.” The Bellsteed held up an old bony hoof. “What I tell you three times is true.”
They were silently impressed with that.
“Now, to business!” the Bellsteed continued. “This is just the place for a Snark, as I have told you twice before, and where the Snark is, the Wizard must be also! Now I have chosen you all because you have certain qualities that are useful in tracking a Snark, for they are the most bizarre and unpredictable of creatures. However, if we work together, I have full faith that we shall find it, and the Wizard with it!”
They broke into a quick round of cheering.
“Now I wouldn’t be surprised if there were several Snarks on this island, so don’t get too excited if we find just one or two. We must keep searching until we find the Snark and the Wizard. Quite a hoofful, I’m aware, but it’s what we are being paid to do, and so we shall do it! What what?”
“Huzzah!” they cried. Pinkie laughed.
“What exactly does a Snark look like?” asked a burly pony. Twilight remembered him from the last scene: he had called Bluish “Toasted Cheese” for some reason.
“That’s the Boots,” Pinkie reminded her, whispering into her ear.
The Bellsteed rubbed his bearded chin. “Hm… well, there are two quite distinct batches. One has feathers and bites, the other has whiskers and scratches. And although common Snarks do no manner of harm, yet I feel it my duty to say, some are Boojums—”
He broke off in alarm as the baker—Bluish Carol himself—whimpered and fainted to the sand. The Boots and his posse laughed at the display while a fiery-maned pegasus and a few others dove to his aid. They began removing items from their saddlebags to help revive him.
Twilight gasped. “Is he all right?”
“Well, I’d hope so!” Pinkie said. “He’s our main character!”
“Oo, watch! This part’s funny. Hee hee!”
The baker eyes fluttered as a muffin waved back and forth under his snout. He began to slowly inhale its sweet, familiar aroma—and then gasped as a bag of ice was dumped over his chest. He sat up, hyperventilating, casting his eyes from face to face on the flawless shore of the Wabe.
Everypony shouted at him, asking for an explanation. He cringed at their noise, holding his hoof defensively over his eyes, until the Bellsteed cried “Silence! Not even a shriek!” and excitedly tingled his bell.
Though the Boots and his closest companions continued to murmur amongst themselves, the Bellsteed lowered his head near the baker’s and asked, “What’s the meaning of this, lad? Have you drank enough water?”
“Yes, yes, I’m qu-quite fine,” he stammered, struggling to his hooves. Feather helped him on the rise and offered a look of concern.
“Then why on Equus did you faint?” the Bellsteed groaned, causing the Boots to howl with laughter.
The baker cringed. “You… you mentioned a… a Boojum,” he whimpered, shuddering.
“Yes, yes, they're related to Snarks. What about them?” The Bellsteed lifted his brow expectantly.
The baker sighed and looked to Feather; the sweet mare nodded kindly, giving the baker the strength to speak. “Well… my mother and father were honest, but poor…”
The Bellsteed grunted. “Skip all that! We haven’t got all day.”
The harshness in his tone tore at the baker’s fragile composition. An embarrassing tear leaked from his eye as he said, “I skip forty years to the day we embarked from Van Hoover. My uncle was there to see me off—I’ve lived with him all my life, you see—”
“Oh, skip your dear uncle!” the Bellsteed exclaimed, jolting the poor unicorn.
“He told me, just before I boarded, about… well, you see, he was a professional hunter in his day and had quite a bit of experience with Snarks. He gave me advice on how to properly catch one and… and warned me to beware of…” He swallowed hard. “…B-Boojums.”
The baker had to shut his eyes and take several breaths through his teeth before he was able to continue.
“He was an odd soul, my uncle—spake often in meter and rhyme. It rubbed off on me, I suppose—I’m something of a poet in my spare time. Oh, but, anyway… he told me, just before I boarded the ship, he said:
‘But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum, for then
You shall softly and suddenly vanish away
And never be met with again!’
Is that true, Bellsteed?” The baker shivered and looked deeply into his captain’s eyes. “Are there Boojums here, and… do they… do that?”
The Bellsteed stood silent and grim in the sand. “I wish you would have mentioned this before, chap. It’s excessively awkward to mention it now.”
The baker dug his hoof into the sand shyly. “Well, I…”
“Well, there’s no use debating over it now. Yes, if you must know, the Boojum does in fact remove one’s existence, so I advise you all—” He swept his eyes over his crew. “—to beware of them. I’ll give you the rest of my speech when I feel it is necessary, but for now, let us begin the search! The princess’s vizier expects us home within the month, and Snarks are about as difficult to locate as Wizards… and we need to find both! So hop to it! The day’s just begun!”
He galloped into the wonky treeline without another word, bearing a determined smile. The baker sniffled and marched in that direction, leaning away from Feather’s attempts at a comforting embrace of her wing. The Boots snickered and kicked sand in the baker’s direction. “Try to keep up, Toast,” he taunted. “Don’t wanna run into any Boojums on your own!”
The shout made the timid baker yelp, drawing cruel laughter from most of his compatriots. Feather shook her head in the Boots direction, but he paid her no mind.
“Don’t listen to them, Candle Ends,” she said with a small smile. “I’ll stay right here with you, okay?”
The bluish unicorn nodded sadly, forcing himself to trudge closer to the multicolored jungle.
“By the way,” Feather continued, biting her lip, “those muffins you made for breakfast this morning? Those were the best yet. You’re a really talented baker.”
Feather leaned forward from his side, trying to catch his eye. “You said, uh… you said you were a poet, right? Is that what you scribble all night in the ship? Poetry?”
The baker made no noise, but met Feather’s eyes for only an instant.
She smiled. “I’d like to read some of that sometime. If you don’t mind.”
Unsurely, he nodded. Satisfied, Feather stood upright and trotted bravely at his right. The unicorn dared not straighten his slouch, frightened by the line of alien trees quickly engulfing his path.
“Oh, shoot!” Pinkie said, pounding one hoof into the flat of her other. “I forgot, they go into the Wabe before it happens!”
Twilight’s irises shrunk. “Before what happens?” she managed to ask.
“Come on, we gotta follow ‘em!” Pinkie said, grabbing Twilight by the hoof. While the purple mare screamed in protest, Pinkie pulled the pair of them over the railing of the Lutwidge and into the lukewarm ocean water below.
The darkness, by far, was the most upsetting feature of the Wabe. It didn’t make any sense: the Sun was shining on the sea, shining with all its might, but in the tulgey wood it seemed that nighttime reigned supreme. There were surprising pockets among the trees where Sunlight exploded from above, but generally it seemed that the island’s bizarre jungle rejected the concept of daytime.
This perpetual dimness was especially unnerving for the poor, quivering baker. He could barely remember how long it had been since they left the Lutwidge, and every time he saw Feather out of the corner of his eye he jumped in fright.
“Goodness, Candle Ends!” she said. “Why so jumpy?”
He groaned and dragged a hoof across his face. “It’s my blasted memory. I keep forgetting you’re here, and I can’t even keep track of time!”
She patted his shoulder sympathetically. “I’m sorry, friend. That must be very frustrating. You can ask me if you have any questions, you know. I promise I won’t get upset with you.”
He glanced at her sincere expression and relaxed the tautness of his neck. “Thank you, Feather.”
She smiled sweetly. “Absolutely. I’m keen to help.”
His eyes turned to the looming branches of impossible colors and angles. “How long have we been out here?”
“Just over an hour,” Feather said. “The Bellsteed wants us to stay in pairs and hunt for the Snark, remember?”
“Yes,” the baker answered with a nod. “Yes, I do remember. Do we have everything we’ll need?”
The cream-coated pegasus flipped back a lock of her wavy, bright orange mane and stuck her snout into her saddlebags. One by one she removed the tools of the hunt, setting them on top a thick, protruding root. “I’ve got the forks, thimbles, and soap right here.” She frowned at the small pile. “I can’t imagine how they’ll possibly be of any use, but the Bellsteed was pretty specific.”
“My uncle used the same things to catch Snarks,” the baker said. “He told me about it when he saw me off in Van Hoover.”
“It’s more than this, though, isn’t it?” Feather asked.
The baker shrugged. “Well, the old legends call for things like care, hope, and charm, but I have a hard time believing those would really make any difference.”
Feather gave him a questioning look and tapped the thimbles on the root. “And these will?” she asked teasingly.
He cracked a smile. “I guess we’ll see.”
They divvied up the unusual items and continued on their march, peering past the twisting trees in search of a creature of unknown appearance. It all seemed rather aimless to the baker, but the Bellsteed had assured his crew that this was the proper method for hunting a Snark. Self-conscious enough as it was, the baker did not argue.
A rustling came from the ponies’ right. They swiveled toward the noise, holding up their tiny forks in helpless apprehension. Two familiar figures emerged from striped bushes, relieving the baker and his companion as much as it confused them.
“Caster!” Feather sighed, her wings folding back at her sides. “It’s good to see you. Oh, and… hello, Mr. Butch.”
Caster Fiber, the youngest of the crew, stood several yards from his bulky, stone-faced companion. “Hello, Feather,” the copper pony said, shuffling from hoof to hoof and frowning at the ground. His short-cropped, chocolate brown mane glistened with nervous sweat. “Any luck yet?”
Feather smiled and shook her head, her twisting locks of golden-orange hair swaying beneath her freckled face. “And you?”
“Haven’t seen a dang thing,” Butch replied, repositioning his muscular, blood red forelegs. A greasy, midnight blue mane hung around his chiseled jaw, complimenting his silvery eyes that stared unemotionally into the distance. “This two-by-two business is a waste of time, if you ask me.”
“It does seem rather impractical,” Feather admitted softly, “but I think we ought to give it our best try. The Bellsteed seems to know what he’s doing.”
“Clover the Clever trusts him enough,” Caster defended. “Why can’t you?”
“He’s too eccentric for my taste,” the rippling stallion muttered.
“What taste?” tiny Caster snapped.
“If you’d like,” Feather called out, flapping to the space in between the stallions, “we four can search for the Snark all together. I think that would increase our chances of finding one safely, don’t you? Eight eyes are better than four!” She giggled at herself, a bubbly sound that cooled Caster’s jets.
“All right, Feather,” he submitted.
“Good idea,” Butch grunted.
Feather smiled and trotted back to the nameless baker’s side. “Now, Caster, I know you’ve already met him, but I’d like to introduce my partner, Candle Ends.” She tapped him with a wing, encouraged him to lift his head just long enough to nod a greeting. “He’s the baker on our little voyage.”
“Great muffins this morning, Candle,” Caster said, walking closer.
Butch raised an eyebrow. “Candle Ends? I thought you was the wanker who couldn’t remember his name.”
The baker winced as Feather stomped a hoof. “He has a… rare condition,” she said with force. “I call him Candle Ends, and… well, it’s better than ‘Fritter my wig,’ at any rate.”
A smirk pulled at the corner of Butch’s thin lips. “All righty.”
Blinking away her outburst, Feather cleared her throat and added, “What I mean is… I would appreciate if you called him by a name, rather than shouting silly words at him like the rest of the crew.”
“Candle Ends it is,” Butch said, bowing a little. “S’a pleasure to meet you.”
The baker whimpered.
“Well, we best be off,” Feather said, sweeping her emerald eyes over their surroundings. “Which way do you suppose we ought to go?”
“I vote we don’t backtrack,” Butch said snidely.
“That way looks good,” Caster suggested, waving his hoof toward a brighter line of trees between a pair of polka-dot conifers.
“Right! Here we go,” Feather announced, pressing forward with her wing behind the baker’s head. The four of them continued their directionless trek, thimbles, forks, and soap in their hooves, smidgeons of hope in their hearts.
“Who are they?” Twilight whispered.
“More of the crew!” Pinkie replied, pointing at each pony in turn. “The big one is a farmer who raises pigs back in Equestria, and the little guy is the Bellsteed’s apprentice.”
Twilight’s face scrunched up. “Apprentice for what?”
“Sailing!” Pinkie explained. “Apparently Caster is pretty talented, too! The Bellsteed said he saved the ship from wrecking several times, though nopony really knows how.” She shrugged.
“They don’t seem to like each other. Why are they together?”
“The Bellsteed paired up his whole crew so nopony’d get lost in the Wabe,” Pinkie explained. “They happened to be the last ones.”
Twilight narrowed her eyes. “I think they’re moving again…”
Pinkie gasped. “Then come on, we gotta keep up!” she said, wrapping her hoof around Twilight’s. Bravely, she leapt from the top of the palm tree in which they had been hiding. Twilight refrained from shrieking as they galloped from treetop to flimsy treetop, somehow staying perfectly aloof. Pinkie seemed to know the tricks of the Wabe and, when in contact with Twilight, ensured that both of them were practically weightless. Twilight tried not to focus on the scientific aspects of their stalk, training her ears on the grounded group of four as they made idle chitchat among the alien plants.
“So… this is where they came from, huh?” the young stallion, Caster Fiber, asked.
“They who?” grunted the large, maroon stallion.
Caster gulped. “You know… the monsters…”
A shudder accompanied the band’s sudden silence.
“I think that’s right,” the pegasus mare offered after a long moment. Her tone was kind, but seemed to condemn the topic.
Caster must not have noticed. “Does that mean this is where the Alicorns—”
“I really don’t think that’s an appropriate question right now, Caster,” the mare said firmly, comforting the baker twitching at her left.
“Oh, come on! Aren’t you thinking the same thing?” Caster glanced at everyone but the large steed. Twilight noticed with a grimace he had a knife for a Cutie Mark. Caster continued, “If this is where the creatures came from, it must be where they were banished. All of those horrible things are somewhere on this island, right here in these trees!”
“That’s enough!” the pegasus warned, flashing Caster a meaningful glare. Her Cutie Mark was a single green feather, angled like a quill. “The Bellsteed made it very clear that we would not be bothered if we stick together. Now let’s just… focus on that Snark.” She breathed through her nose and forced an encouraging smile. “We have to have hope, remember? Come on, let’s say the Bellsteed’s chant.”
The other ponies groaned or slumped further toward the patterned ground.
“‘We seek it with thimbles, we seek it with care,
We pursue it with forks and hope…’
Say it with me, now!”
The stallions mumbled the rest along with her.
“‘We threaten its life with a stable share,
We charm it with smiles and soap.’”
“So come on, boys! It says we have to smile!” She showed her healthy teeth, gleaming even in the perpetual dimness of the Wabe. “This Snark’s not gonna find itself!”
While she courageously grinned and urged the group on, Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle stayed in the branches of a thick pine tree, albeit against Pinkie’s will.
“Twiliiiight!” she breathed, tugging at her friend. “They’re getting away!”
“The princesses banished creatures here…” Twilight said, wide-eyed. “Creatures escaped from this place into Equestria, and the princesses banished them back…”
“Yeah, duh!” Pinkie said, pulling harder at Twilight’s hoof.
The unicorn yanked it from her friend’s grasp. “Pinkie!” she seethed in a harsh whisper. “You knew about this?”
“Of course!” said the earth pony, tossing her hooves above her head. “I thought it was obvious!”
“Obvious? Obvious?” Twilight’s eyes started twitching again. “Pinkie, none of this has made any sense at all, let alone been obvious! Are you trying to tell me that this place we’re in—this island accessible by… by mirrors and curiosity—is actually Tartarus!?”
Pinkie beamed and nodded, getting her mane tangled in a bristly branch above her.
The tendons in Twilight’s neck protruded. “But… but I’ve been the entrance of Tartarus! It’s at the base of Canterlot Mountain! It’s sealed off by an enormous, enchanted crystal and guarded by Cerberus!”
Pinkie kept nodding as if urging Twilight to go on. “What color is the crystal, Twi?”
“What?” Twilight head jerked in its socket. “It’s… it’s blue! Light blue!”
“And where have you seen a light blue crystal around here?” Pinkie asked, lowering her eyelids halfway and waggling her eyebrows.
“I don’t know!” Twilight yelped. “I haven’t seen any—”
She thought back to the ship. She remembered the Bellsteed standing in the rain, lifting a slab of murky gemstone and reading it like a map. He called it “the Perfect and Absolute Blank!”
She gasped, nearly falling from her perch on a thick, yellow branch. “The map! The Bellsteed’s map! It’s cut from the entrance of Tartarus!”
“Yes! Yes, yes, yes!” Pinkie squealed, spinning around and somehow untangling her mane. “Oh, I knew you’d figure it out, you big smarty! See? I just have to show you!”
“But, Pinkie, that doesn’t help me at all!” Twilight moaned. “How could a slab of the crystal keeping the creatures of Tartarus at bay lead them across the ocean to the Wabe?”
“Oh, no no no no!” Pinkie said, pulling back the corners of her mouth. “You were so close! You already answered this part!” She animated her words using her hooves while Twilight watched with tiny pupils. “Star Swirl went the Wabe… then he came back from the Wabe with all its creepy creatures… then he went back to the Wabe to try and fix everything… then the princesses banished the creatures back to the Wabe—”
“But they called it Tartarus,” Twilight realized, “after the pit in the underworld of pre-Equestrian mythology.”
“Pinkie…” Twilight asked, leaning forward on her branch, “did you say that Star Swirl brought the creatures back with him?”
“Not on purpose,” Pinkie said, waving her hooves. “When he ripped a big space-hole back to Equestria, all of the Wabe’s nasty wasty creatures came with!”
“You mean to say that Star Swirl the Bearded initiated the Chaotic Era?”
“On ac-ci-dent!” Pinkie said, tapping her hind hoof with every syllable. “He did everything he could think of to fix his mistake. He even returned to the Wabe!”
“But he never came back…” Twilight peeked through the branches at the wild island around them. “So his faithful student, Clover the Clever, commissioned a search party to find him.”
Pinkie’s giant smile shone like a lantern in the shadows. “Exactomundo!”
“Okay…” Twilight nodded, breathing deeply. “Okay, I think I’m starting to understand. So… Bluish Carol is going to sail back to Equestria and write about his experiences… in the form of… nonsense poetry?”
Pinkie giggled. “Not quite. First he has to travel through time.” She smacked her hooves over her mouth. “Oops! Spoiler alert. Hee hee! Sorry, Twilight.”
The violet mare’s eye went right back to twitching. “Time… travel?” she stuttered.
“It’s not that weird,” Pinkie said, rolling her eyes. “You’ve done it before! And look, we’re doing it right now!”
“But… b-but…” Twilight’s shoulders tensed and drew together. Her ears flattened tightly over her skull and her back teeth ground together noisily. After glancing around frantically, she grabbed the back of her mane and held it over her mouth with her hooves, screaming out some of the stress. Pinkie helped, pushing a large amount of her own cottony mane over Twilight’s hooves and face.
“Shh, shhh… it’s okay,” she said with a kind smile, reaching forward with her other hoof to pat Twilight’s back. “Not everypony’s as curious as Pinkie Pie.” She suddenly lost her balance—“Wuuuoah!”—and tumbled from her perch, pulling Twilight with her as they crashed through levels of evergreen branches and landed hard on the brown, furry ground.
“Aww! This section of the Wabe is cute!” Pinkie said, rubbing her face against the mahogany tufts growing from the ground. Twilight winced and leapt to her hooves, making Pinkie gasp. “Good thinking, Twilight! We’ve gotta catch up to them! It’s gonna happen any minute!”
“What’s gonna happen?” Twilight squeaked, but Pinkie was already bouncing in Bluish Carol’s direction.
The dismal and desolate valley narrowed until the four ponies were forced to trot along shoulder to shoulder between the walls of jagged, lightless stone. The baker shivered and closed one eye at the leftmost end of the party; Feather cantered with head held high while humming a tune quick and hearty. The tiny brown pony was pressed at her right with a grimace pulled for his position, and big Mister Butch’s eyes searched for the sight of a Snark with their own intuition.
A tremendous screech pierced the air as though the sky itself had ripped. Caster Fiber’s copper coat paled from his hooves to his ears and he froze in place, throwing his gaze in every direction. The baker effectively dove beneath Feather and squeezed himself into a quivering ball.
Even Butch’s silvery irises shrunk in fright as the scream’s echo lingered and died. “Sounded right like a pencil on a slate,” he mumbled.
“Tis the voice of the Jubjub!” Feather announced, beaming upward at the distant line of muted light that marked top of the narrow canyon. “The voice of the Jubjub! Oh, I can hardly believe it!”
“The voice of the what?” Caster whimpered, brushing down the hairs of his coat.
“The voice of the Jubjub!” Feather said again. “It’s the rarest bird known to ponykind!”
“That’s not surprisin’, considerin’ where it lives,” Butch mumbled.
“How do you know about it, F-Feather?” the baker managed to squeak from under her belly.
She poked her head between her forelegs and giggled at her friend. “I love birds! I know about all sorts of them, and the Jubjub happens to be a specialty of mine!”
Butch snorted. “What d’ya think’s so great about it?”
Feather’s eyes glazed over with a dreamy look. “It’s a fascinating creature, really. The Jubjub is an unusually passionate creature, desperate for attention. It can change the colors of its feathers to any shade it chooses, but rather than using them to camouflage, it tries to stand out! Absurd, if you ask me.”
Helping the baker to his feet, she added, “It also has a terrific memory, Candle Ends. It remembers the face of everything it meets. Maybe you could learn a thing or two from the Jubjub, hmm?” She playfully tapped his snout, bringing forth a tiny smile.
“I don’t understand. Is it dangerous?” Caster asked, backing into Butch’s side.
The red pony moved as if to push him away, but stopped with his hoof in the air when he noticed the tears building up in the small pony’s eyes. Instead he used his hoof to stroke his chin as he said, “If I remember right, it’s a rather polite creature. Encourages charity and coexistence within the animal kingdom or some’n.”
Feather gasped. “That’s exactly right!”
Caster turned his head and squinted at his companion. “How did you know that?”
“I graduated from a university not too long ago,” Butch replied.
The smaller stallion’s eyes widened. “You did? Studying what?”
The baker’s head rose a little, but Caster leapt two feet into the air. “Did you really?” he squealed. “I struggle with mathematics, myself. The Bellsteed tells me I must improve my marks in that subject lest he dismisses me from my apprenticeship!”
Butch blinked and cleared his throat. “Well, uh… I’d be more than happy to tutor you, if you think it would help.”
“I would certainly appreciate it!” Caster said. “Shall we start immediately?”
A genuine smile appeared on Butch’s mouth. “I’d be happy to oblige, so long as it’s not interruptin’ Miss Feather’s exploration.”
Feather shook her head and waved an encouraging hoof. “Not at all! Go on, Professor Butch.”
The red pony launched into a lecture of his numerical learnings. His voice garnered volume and pitch as he spoke while Caster gaped and nodded frequently. As the quartet resumed their walk through the crag and Butch’s sermon ebbed between complex equations and natural history, Feather turned to the baker and whispered, “You see? The song of the Jubjub brings about the most unexpected connections.”
“Awwww… isn’t that the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen, Twilight?”
The mare in question twitched as she peered down at the four ponies trudging along the bottom of the chasm. “What are you talking about? I can’t hear a word they’re saying!”
“Butch and the Beaver just became friends!” Pinkie cooed.
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “The Beaver?”
“That’s what everypony will call Caster in a few years,” Pinkie explained. “He uses his knowledge of water and mathematics to become the greatest dam designer in all of Equestria!”
“What? He’s really good! His discoveries made it possible to build the Ponyville Dam hundreds of years after his death!”
The mares stared at each other for a moment before silently agreeing to let the topic go, dropping their gazes back to the ponies hunting for a Snark.
“I think it’s super cute,” Pinkie said, grinning. “After this experience, Butch and the Beaver become the very best of friends. They’re hardly ever seen without each other for the rest of their lives!”
Twilight rubbed her eyes. “Ugh! Pinkie, how do you even know all of this?”
“I’ve watched this a hundred times!” Pinkie said. “It’s a great story!”
Dragging her hoof down her face, Twilight asked, “Okay, so what happens next?”
“I’m not gonna tell you, silly! You just have to wait and see!”
“Well, is it going to happen soon? Because you’ve made it seem like a pretty big deal.”
Pinkie bit her lip and looked at the sky. “Uhhh… yeah, it’s really close! In fact, I bet it’ll happen at the end of this chapter!”
Twilight’s head tilted. “Huh?”
“Come on, they’re starting to climb out of the gorge!” Pinkie said, sprinting along the edge of the canyon at speeds to rival Rainbow Dash—with Twilight’s tail in her mouth. The poor unicorn flapped behind her like a flag, adding a streak of purple to their trail of solid pink.
“…and that, my friend, is how you count to three,” Butch finished. A warm gasp filled his lungs as the glimmer in his eyes shook with emotion. “My friend,” he repeated, placing a hoof on Caster’s shoulder. “I am proud to call you my friend.”
With tears of joy in his eyes, Caster replied, “And I’ve learned in ten minutes what books couldn’t teach me in seventy years.” He threw his forelegs around Butch’s neck and they shared a glowing embrace.
The baker pushed his jaw to one side and leaned closer to Feather’s ear. “Is my mind playing tricks on me, or is this normal?”
Feather snickered. “Well, I can’t speak for your mind at the moment, but this certainly isn’t the regular way of making friends.” She scanned the sloping path to the jungle above fondly. “Perhaps the magic of the Wabe isn’t all scary.”
“What are you all doing down there!?” a scary voice exploded down the crevice, making the baker eep and dive. With a sweep of her wing, Feather managed to keep him on his hooves as the voice came down again. “The rest of the crew’s a-waiting! We’re on the right trail!”
“That’s the Bellsteed!” Caster said, dropping his hooves from Butch’s thick neck and standing right beside him.
Feather beamed. “Come on, boys! We may be closer than we think!”
The baker blanched and stumbled after his partner. She offered him a hoof and, using her wings, helped them climb out of the gorge. The entirety of the Bellsteed’s crew, save for the four ponies who had heard the Jubjub’s song, were waiting at the start of yet another trail snaking up an impossibly tall, multi-peaked mountain.
“Hello, everyone!” Feather greeted. “Have you found something?”
“Not explicitly,” the Bellman cried, “but I’ve got a fantastic feeling there’s a Snark within our reach!” He spun and pointed to the tallest peak of the mountain. “Somewhere up there!”
“How is that considered in our reach?” the Boots asked under his breath. The ponies nearest him snickered in agreement.
Butch and Caster appeared and joined the group, flank to flank, with expectant smiles. “Has anything exciting happened while we were gone?” one of them asked.
A green pony, a banker, pointed to the stallion at his right. “The barrister had a super weird dream about…”
“It doesn’t matter a bit!” the captain shouted, tingling his bell. “Let us begin the climb! Has everyone got their thimbles and forks?”
Several of the items were lifted by many colored hooves.
“Excellent!” The Bellsteed spun about, sending his beard flapping in a sudden dramatic wind, and galloped onward.
Feather exchanged an unsure glance with the baker. “This place is sure weird,” she said, taking up the end of the group as they all began to trek.
The foliage around the twisting path was thick and leafy. Hundreds of trees stretched their branches over the entire length of the trail, creating an effective tunnel through which the motley crew advanced. Strange noises occasionally crackled from both sides, varying from the animalistic chirps of birds and primates to the distinctive grind of sharp scissors. The baker was not the only pony shivering in fear by the time the green banker startled them all with a notable burst of nervous courage.
“Come now, friends!” he shouted, trotting his hooves twice as fast as anypony else without going any faster. “There’s a Snark to be caught! Let’s not laze about!”
In a veritable explosion of energy, the banker galloped ahead of the rest of the group, passing even the Bellsteed.
“Ah ha!” the bony captain laughed, raising a triumphant hoof. “Now that’s the spirit, boy!” As the banker’s green coat disappeared around a corner of similarly hued shrubbery, the Bellsteed looked over his shoulder to say, “What zeal to discover a Snark!”
“I think he’s mad to run off on his own,” Caster whispered to his best friend. Butch nodded in humored agreement.
As if on cue, the stallion’s shriek pricked the ears of the entire crew. He continued to scream as a number of concussive SNAPs punched the air. Scrambling like frenzied ants, the rest of the crew simultaneously tried to run away and help the victim from whatever vicious creature was repeatedly trying to bite him. It resulted in a cloudy pile of wiggling hooves rolling toward the attack.
The moment the ponies untangled themselves and rounded the corner, a furry, long-necked creature with enormous jaws disappeared into the shadows, leaving a twitching mess on the ground who used to be a banker.
“Clover’s cape!” the barrister yelled. “What happened to him?”
“What’s wrong with his coat?”
The banker’s coat had turned black as coal; his eyes and mane flashed with snowy whiteness. The Bellsteed grimaced and shook his shrill bell, shouting, “Tis just as I feared! He’s been assaulted by a Bandersnatch!”
Feather gasped, leaning away from the thrashing pony drained of color. “What is there to do, Captain?”
“Help him up, lads!”
A number of the crew complied, hoisting the fallen pony onto a stump. There he sat, running his hooves through his mane or beating them against his ribcage, mumbling the mimsiest of inane nonsense.
“Hello?” Feather said, trying to lift his chin and look into his pupil-less eyes. “Good banker, can you hear me?”
“…offered a check for seven-pounds-ten…” he rattled off, looking everywhere but at the pegasus. “…to bearer, to bearer… discounts, yes! And the purple and pink…”
“Oh, you poor thing,” Feather breathed, stroking the blackened pony’s cheek.
“He’s insane,” the Bellsteed said, pulling Feather away. “We’ll have to leave him. It’s getting dark!”
The Boots scoffed. “It’s been dark all day!”
“Not to these creatures,” the Bellsteed said in a low voice that chilled those who listened. “We’ve lost half the day, and we must find the Snark before night, lest we risk the same fate as our good banker here.”
With a final glance at the babbling pony, the entirety of the crew rushed on, huddled close together and peering through the underbrush as keenly as they collectively could.
The baker was close to vomiting, tripping at every other step as his eyes swirled in their sockets. Feather noticed his state and wrapped one wing around him, pulling him close to steady his shivers. “We’ll be okay, Candle Ends,” she whispered, “as long as we all stick together.”
“Y’know,” said a voice from Feather’s other side, “I wouldn’t mind a bit o’ cuddlin’ myself right about now.”
Feather scowled even before facing the Boots. “It’s called comforting. I wouldn’t expect a bully like you to understand.”
“Bully?” The Boots made a pouty face. “Is that how you see me, sweetflank? Well, I musta gotten off on the wrong hoof.” He wagged his eyebrows and adjusted his path, brushing his shoulder against her closed wing. “How ‘bout you open this one up and see how comforting I can be?”
Feather extended her wing for just long enough to slap the Boots in his lopsided jaw. “I’d say this is neither the time or the place, but that would imply a chance in the future.”
Rubbing his face, the Boots let out a dry laugh. “Oo-hoo-hoo… so Feather’s a feisty one, eh?”
“She can be,” the pegasus growled, adjusting her saddlebag.
The Boots eyed it with a mischievous squint. “Watcha got in there?”
Feather shot him a deadly glare. “Nothing of yours.”
“Not yet,” he quipped, sticking his muzzle into the bag and removing a small, bound journal.
Feather gasped. “Give that back!” she shouted, diving at the Boots.
He trotted out of her reach, pulling the tiny tome’s elastic band from around the cover. “Let’s see what you’ve got in here…” the earth pony said, flipping through the pages. “Pff. There’s nothing but sketches of birds in here!”
“I’ve been observing with that journal for years,” Feather said, stomping a hoof. “Give it back!”
The Boots revealed his crooked teeth with an even more crooked smile. “Come and get it, sweetflank!” He clamped the book between his jaws and galloped away from the group.
“You idiot!” she called out, flaring her wings. “Didn’t you just see what happened to the—”
Her words were interrupted by a sharp intake of breath as a second stallion chased the thief along the mountain’s path. “Candle Ends!” she called out. “Don’t!”
The baker didn’t listen, locking his eyes on the Boots grimy tail. His heart pumped steadily as his back teeth ground; ears pressed to his head, he bent low and sprinted as fast as he could, closing the gap between him and Feather’s journal.
The Boots glanced over his shoulder and, seeing the baker approach, dove off the beaten path. Without a second thought, the baker followed, filling his lungs again and again with the Wabe’s heavy air.
The Sunlight was even less prevalent there than it was at the bottom of the chasm. Soon he lost sight of the Boots and the book, weaving aimlessly between bizarre trees and bushes. He skid to a stop near a particularly glossy tree, stretching its dozens of red-striped branches up and out of sight. Panic began to take hold as he searched for the path and the safety of his crew.
“Hello?” he shouted, backing against the metallic tree. “Feather? Captain? Can you hear me?”
His heart continued to hammer for a very different reason. The absurd jungle seemed to close in on him as his eyes darted from leaf to giant leaf. “Boots!” he yelled, closing his eyes. “Boots, are you close? We have to get back to the—”
The sound of a rustling bush elicited a tiny yelp from the bluish baker. The overwhelming fear began to chase away his memory, and soon he couldn’t even remember which direction he had come from… or even that he had come from a direction.
“Hello!?” he shrieked. “Anypony? Please, I don’t want to be attacked by a—”
The rustling came again; the baker scrambled to the other side of his tree, peeking between two of its branches as a short creature emerged from the shrub. His jaw dropped to his chest as the low light illuminated it just enough for identification. The wide mouth filled with pointy teeth, the senseless feathers sprouting from its armless body, the way it waddled forward on two stubby legs…. There was no doubt about it. The baker had found a Snark.
“I… I found it!” he squealed, grinning like a madpony. “Ha! Haha! I found it!” He stood up from his position behind the tree. “Quickly, everyone! Come quickly! Here in the jungle, by the tall red-striped tree, I found a Snark! It’s a Snark!” He let out a torrent of laughter and cheers, hopping between the branches to grab the little creature.
To his utter horror, the shining red orbs in its eye sockets glowed with dark ferocity. It opened its razor filled mouth, noiselessly expelling a tiny blue drop of sparkling matter from the back of its throat. As soon as the pellet made contact with the baker’s lifted hoof, it grew into a whirling ripple twice as tall as the terrified pony.
“It’s a Boo-” he tried to say, but the vortex swallowed him without a trace.
“Yay!” Pinkie said, clapping her hooves.
“Gaaah!” Twilight screamed, clutching her head. “What just happened?”
“He softly and suddenly vanished away,” Pinkie declared, hugging the other pony on the tree branch, “to never be met with again!”
Twilight wheezed. “H-h-how is that a good thing!?”
“Because we get to go with him!” Pinkie said, jumping off the branch with Twilight tight in her embrace. They fell toward the Boojum’s portal, passing through its inky membrane just before it vanished with an electric slurp.
The Boojum blinked and waddled away.
Though Twilight had never visited a rock farm, it was not hard to identify. The dullness of the cloudy sky was matched only by the brittle dirt beneath her hooves. Dark, dying trees grew between the thousands of rocks sprouting from the flattened field for miles in all directions. Round hills made wavy lines of the horizon, and a single, thatch-roof homestead surrounded by a wooden fence stood at the far end of the field.
All was dim and quiet as Twilight soaked in her new surroundings, but the moment her eyes fell upon the bluish stallion frozen in place a dozen meters from where she stood, a sharp gasp passed between her lips. The stallion whirled around with wild eyes—
—and saw nothing but more of the empty field studded with skeletal trees and various stones. Large, small, blue, grey, sharp, smooth, clustered, alone, countless rocks buried halfway into the bone-dry dirt. Another panicked spin turned him toward a distant house, where a small light shone from the windows.
“Ovens and oceans and orifice beasts…” he mumbled. “On my poor fortune has Fate had a feast.”
He covered his mouth with a hoof, stumbling backward to sit on a dull blue rock. “What bizarre magic has made it a treason to speak without rhyme at the leisure of reason?” He shuddered, squeezing his own throat. “Never have I been a pony to speak with such lengthified syntax; ‘tis silence I seek!” His breathing quickened as he glanced up at the sky. “Yet here in this undefined dome of dark cloud, I cannot but utter a couplet aloud.” He shook his head and hissed between tightly shut teeth. “To never be met with again was the curse… what Boojum could force me to speak in just verse?”
He growled and slammed a hoof into the dirt. “The Boojum, the Bellsteed, the Boots and the book with birds of dear Feather the bad bully took! Will she get it back, or was he caught as well? Will every last sailor be Boojum’d to hell?” He dropped his face into his hooves and wailed for a moment, squeezing his shoulders together in an effort to stop them from shaking.
When he looked up, the light in the distant homestead seemed to glow brighter than before. He sniffed and slid off his seat, trotting unsurely in the house’s direction. “Is this but a dream: a third part of my hex? Is that but a lonely illusion complex? Or is there a pony awaiting inside with a drink for my belly and hearth for my hide?”
Inspired by the possibility, the baker rose from his rock and stumbled forward. As he approached the house, the cloudy sky grew ever dimmer, suggesting a hidden sunset. The air chilled around him, lifting the hairs of his bluish coat and troubling his lungs. He picked up his pace, ignoring the impossible hoofsteps sounding at his back.
“Many mirages of eye and the ear,” he mumbled among short breaths, “I fear my approach makes the house disappear!”
His worry was for naught, for soon his front hooves wrapped around a post of the wooden fence. A windmill beside the house squeaked as it turned in an unfelt breeze, providing the only other noise aside from the stallion’s shuddering exhalations. “If only a dreamland,” he said, stroking the splintery wood, “I could not embrace. To where did the Boojum eject me; what place?”
Once he had steadied his breath and gathered control of his hooves, the stallion tentatively approached the house’s door and knocked upon its surface. After a heart-stopping moment of silence, the baker heard hoofsteps—real ones, he hoped—plod through the house. The lopsided door opened inward just a crack, revealing a bright blue eye. “Yes?”
Just seeing the face of another pony snapped the baker’s resolve. He collapsed into the dirt, choking on sobs from a hundred emotions.
The mare behind the door wrenched it open, scooping the stallion through the doorway in a sapphiric aura of magic. “Mason!” she called over her shoulder. “Mason, come quickly!”
A lean, muscular stallion galloped around a corner into the homestead’s antechamber. He had a golden coat dulled by fine dirt, his rosy eyes surrounded by dark circles and presently lit with worry. He stood close to his wife and draped a leg over her pink coat, gawking at the stallion sobbing just inside their door. “What happened?” he asked in a deep bass voice.
“He just… collapsed!” she breathed, tucking a lock of her indigo mane behind her ear. “I opened the door for him and he fell down.”
“What’s happenin’, Mom?” asked a tiny voice as a third pony bounded onto the scene. “Who’s that? Is he okay!?”
The baker opened one eye, calmed by the foalish voice. He tilted his head to view the newcomer: a tiny, white pegasus filly with a frizzy golden mane and glistening purple eyes stared down at him with more curiosity than concern.
“Hush now, Surprise,” her father said, shooing her away with a hoof. “Go up to your room. We’ll be there in a minute.”
“No, please, do not push the child away!” the baker yelped, struggling to stand. “I promise to stay on my hooves; let her stay.”
The adults stepped away from the bony, bluish baker as he wobbled to a weak standing position. He dropped his head to clear his throat and sheepishly looked up at them. “I’m sorry to startle, I’m simply confused: where are we, and for what are all the rocks used?”
The filly—Surprise—scrunched up her shoulders and giggled. “Mommy, he talks funny!”
“Are you from Trottingham?” the father, Mason, asked, pulling his wife closer.
The baker blinked. “Trottingham? No, I’ve not heard of the place. Before our great union, ‘t’was under which race?”
Surprise laughed again. “He’s funny, Dad! I like him!”
“Go to your room, Surprise,” her mother said with a stern glare. The filly shrunk on the spot, backing up toward a set of stairs.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I mean you no harm!” the baker said, tugging at his mud-brown mane. “This strange way of speaking must carry no charm, but here I do promise and now I do swear: I only want answers, beginning with… ‘Where?’”
Surprise immediately brightened. “He sounds like a Hearth’s Warming carol!”
The older pink mare squinted at the poor, slender stallion. “Can you speak without rhyming?” she asked.
The baker shook his heavy head.
Mason spoke next. “And… you don’t know where you are?” Another negative response encouraged the dirty earth pony to ask, “Well, where did you come from?”
A shiver, and the baker’s vision glazed over with distant terror. “An island of secrets too somber to share. A dark sort of magic rules everything there.” He shook his head clear and focused on the family. “I sailed with a crew as their voyage’s chef. I warned them of Boojums, to which they were deaf!”
He gnashed his teeth and pressed his ears against his skull, frightening the small family. Seeing their fear, he smacked his own forehead with a hoof, slouching even further. “Again, I’m so sorry for bringing you grief; if only you’ll answer, my stay will be brief. Where is this strange field full of sediment gems? To where have I vanished, ne’er met with again?”
The parents looked thoroughly puzzled, but little Surprise took a bold step forward, extending her miniature wings. “What do you mean? We’re meeting you right now!”
He faced her with wide eyes. “Dear child, did you understand what I said despite the poor manner it reaches your head?”
“Of course!” she chirped, beaming. “I think you talk just fine!”
“Then tell me please, filly of pure alabaster, how far am I from Butch, Feather, and Caster?”
“I don’t know where your friends are,” she said with an apologetic frown, “but you’re in Equestria!”
The stallion’s jaw dropped. “Equestria? Really? It just… sent me back?” He laughed and reared into the air, wiggling his forelegs with joy. “What sweet serendipity life does not lack!”
“Yay!” Surprise shouted, bouncing in place.
Mason rubbed his eyes. “So, wait… you’re not lost, or you are?”
“If truly this country is our new Equestria, ruled by the six alicorns… dear Celestia! Here I was dreading a dark, endless hell; the beast merely skipped the intense ocean’s swell!”
“Did you say six alicorns?” the mother asked.
“Yes, all six siblings: the mighty Celestia, quiet Alula and happy Piedra, Beatrix sweetest and Calupan fair, and dear little Luna with stars in her hair!”
Even Surprise gave him a quizzical look.
“There is only one princess of Equestria,” said Mason’s wife with an anxious tilt of her brow. “Princess Celestia, Bringer of Night and Day.”
The baker’s smile faltered. “One princess? Ha! What a preposterous notion. Who, then, guides the winds, and all life, and the ocean?”
“There really is just one, Mister,” Surprise said. “There’s always been just one.”
The bluish pony’s heart rate quickened again. “Oh, dear… what a mimsy discovery, this. Perhaps, though I’ve not been confined to abyss, Equestria here is a much different land than the country I saw formed of three pony clans.”
“Three pony clans? Like Hearth’s Warming Eve!?” Surprise gasped. “You were there?”
“Of course I was there, back when I was a colt.” He nodded at Mason and added, “I’m sure that your father remembers the jolt.”
The large stallion’s brow furrowed. “What jolt?”
“The shock of the missive from Puddinghat’s court declaring all ponies were of the same sort! My parents had taught me that unicorns cheat and pegasi took from the earth all the heat!”
He laughed heartily at that, even as the adult ponies cringed, insulted. Surprise cackled along with him, swishing her frizzy tail back and forth in childish delight.
“I remember no such thing!” Mason cried out over the laughter. The crossness of the shout silenced the baker immediately. “There hasn’t been division among pony tribes in well over a thousand years!”
A slow, cold gasp filled the baker’s innards with icy realization. “Oh, goodness… that’s it, then: along with my rhyme, the Boojum has thrown me far forward in time.”
Twilight’s head rose involuntarily with yet another gasp. Pinkie’s hoof was quick to grab her by the horn and pull her below the windowsill. Her violent hooves impressed small craters into the dirt outside the homestead.
“Be careful, Twilight!” Pinkie hissed. “We can’t let them see us! I already had to tackle you once!”
“I still can’t believe we both fit behind that tree…” Twilight mumbled, shaking her head clear. “Pinkie, I get it! Bluish Carol sailed to the Wabe in the days of Star Swirl the Bearded and lived only hundreds of years before us because he traveled through time!”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Pinkie triple-hoof-pumped, squeezing her eyes shut with glee.
Wearing a wide smile of her own, Twilight peeked into the house again where Bluish had dropped to his flank in terror. The little white pegasus flapped to his side, trying to comfort him with gentle nuzzles. Twilight noticed a set of three periwinkle balloons adorning the filly’s flank. “Pinkie,” she whispered with widening eyes, “is this your family?”
Pinkie’s grin morphed into one of nostalgic pride. “It sure is! That cutie-patootie pony with the fluffy, golden mane is my Grammy Pie, Twilight! Surprise!”
Twilight laughed through her nose. “That sure is a surprise…”
“No, silly! That’s her name! Surprise!”
Something flashed behind Twilight’s eyes. “Oh my gosh… Pinkie, that book! The one Bluish Carol wrote!” She finally looked away from the window, staring into Pinkie’s clear blue eyes. “Through the Looking-glass and What Surprise Found There. That was about your grandmother—who he’s meeting right now.”
“You got it, you big smarty-smart pants!” Pinkie said, bumping Twilight on the end of her snout. “Heehee! Bluish ended up staying here and working on the farm for five years. He and my grammy became really good friends. Then he moved to Canterlot where he became a famous author, basing his stories and poems off of stuff that really happened to him!”
A small, bewildered smile hovered on Twilight’s lips. “Just like Daring…”
Pinkie tilted her head to one side. “Huh?”
“Daring Do’s books,” Twilight said, leaning against the wall under the window. “Remember meeting her the other day? Her books are based on the adventures she really had with her sister, Ditzy.”
“Awww, that’s cute!”
Twilight snorted. “Not as much as it should be. But that’s not important right now.” She bit her lip. “Now that we’ve seen all this and I understand… how do we get back home?”
“We can’t go home yet, silly!” Pinkie said, rolling her eyes. “We have to go back to the Wabe first and see the rest of the story!”
Twilight waved around a hoof. “Yes, well, wherever we go, how will we get there? The Boojum’s portal brought us back to future Equestria. Or… past Equestria, for us, I guess… oh, dear.” She rubbed a throbbing vein on the side of her head as Pinkie tip-hoofed to the front door.
“It’s easy to get back to the Wabe, Twilight,” Pinkie whispered. “All we have to do is find a mirror.”
The family of three had led the poor baker into an adjacent room where he tried to tell his story. As the stealthy snuck into the house and made for a bathroom Pinkie said was upstairs, Twilight caught bits and pieces of the future Bluish Carol’s tale. His constant poetry delighted young Surprise, who had to translate every few stanzas for her parents’ sake, and Twilight couldn’t help but smile at how much sense it all made.
A mirror was located without their detection, and with a bit of practiced curiosity, both Elements of Harmony found themselves back in the center of the Wabe at the foot of the Sundial’s swirly hill.
“Pinkie,” Twilight began, “was it your grandmother who told you about the Wabe?”
“She gave me the book that helped me figure it out,” Pinkie said, shrugging, “so yeah, I guess so!”
“It’s amazing,” Twilight breathed, looking around the island with new eyes. “It’s… it’s real. It’s so bizarre and ridiculous and completely nonsensical, but…” She laughed. “I like it. It’s really here.”
“Of course it is!” Pinkie cooed, shaking Twilight with a hoof around her shoulder. “I wouldn’t take my bestest friend somewhere that didn't exist, would I?”
“No wonder you’re so happy, Pinkie Pie,” Twilight noted. “If I was the only pony who knew about a parallel world that tied together every point in equine history, I’d probably be bouncing off the walls, too.”
“Now we can bounce off the walls together!” Pinkie chirped, bounding in circles around the giggling unicorn.
“I don’t think so,” Twilight said, brushing down part of her mane. “You have far more endorphins than I’ll ever be able to produce.”
“Okie dokie lokie, whatever that means!” Pinkie said, freezing mid-bounce with a jaw-dropped gasp. “Oh, shoot! We have to hurry! They’re probably leaving right now!”
Twilight blanched. “Who’s leaving?”
“The crew of the Lutwidge!” Pinkie squealed, grabbing Twilight around the middle and sprinting for the shore on her hind legs alone.
Blinking against the speedy wind, Twilight asked, “Wait, they’re still here? When are we!?”
“See… for… yourself!” Pinkie said, reaching the top of a tree-covered cliff and holding Twilight over the edge. The ocean lapped the sharp rocks far below, making Twilight squirm in Pinkie’s grasp.
“Gaaah! What are you doing?”
“Look! Down there, to your right!”
Twilight glanced as directed, noticing the Lutwidge’s minimized crew gathered on a briny beach. The ship itself was anchored at sea, and the ponies were waiting for the Bellsteed to return with a smaller boat to carry them all back to the ship.
Squinting, Twilight recognized Feather, Butch, and Caster, huddled in a tight circle away from the rest of the group. From their weary slouches, Twilight guessed they had been searching for Bluish for some time. “They’re going back?”
“Yes,” Pinkie sighed as she stood at the edge of the cliff.
Twilight frowned. “Did they catch a Snark?”
“Noooo,” Pinkie moaned, shaking her head. A trail of tears slid down her face.
“So…” Twilight shifted in Pinkie’s outstretched forelegs. “They lost two of their crew…”
“Three,” Pinkie corrected. “They never found the Boots.”
“And they didn’t do what they came here to do.”
Her violet eyes narrowed. “Then… what was the point of coming back here? Just to watch them mourn?”
“Well, that would make for good closure if this was a tragedy,” Pinkie allowed, nodding at the sky, “but since it’s a comedy, it has a happy ending!”
Twilight groaned. “Pinkie, what are you talking about? What else is there for us to see?”
“Do you remember why the Bellsteed brought his crew to the Wabe, Twilight?”
“Sure. Clover the Clever commissioned them to…. Oh!” She kicked her legs in open air, trying to escape Pinkie’s frightening position. “Star Swirl the Bearded! Did they ever find him?”
Pinkie smirked at the pony hanging over the cliff. “Nope… but I know where he is.”
“Yoo hoo! Snarky! Snarky Warky Snarkaloo! Snarkaluffigus!”
Twilight winced at every shout from her pink companion. “Are you sure attracting this much attention is the best idea?”
“Of course!” Pinkie chirped. “If we’re gonna find Star Swirl, we’ve gotta follow his Snark!”
“I thought you said you already know where Star Swirl is.”
“I do! He’s exactly where the Snark is going to lead us!”
Twilight facehoofed but said no more, keeping close to Pinkie’s side and throwing her eyes toward every sign of movement in the tulgey wood.
“Come on out, little Snarky!” Pinkie yelled with a charming smile. “We’re not gonna hurt you. Look! I’ve got sooooaap!” She pulled a bar of soap from thin air, earning a bewildered stare from Twilight.
“Soap?” the unicorn squeaked. “Why soap?”
“Snarks love to take baths!” Pinkie explained, tossing the slippery bar from one forehoof to the other. “Some of them carry bathing machines with them wherever they go!”
Pinkie gasped and pressed her friend’s head into the candy-flavored dirt below. “Twilight, get down!”
Spluttering, Twilight grumbled, “It’s not like you gave me any choice!”
Pinkie dropped to Twilight’s level, bulging one of her sapphire eyes closer to Twilight’s left one. “I think we found him!”
“What? Already?” Twilight tried and failed to get up, held down by Pinkie’s hoof. “But… we’ve barely been at this for ten minutes!”
“Wow, it must be our lucky day!” Pinkie giggled, crawling into a collection of tall, spiraling blades of grass. Licking the sugary soil from her face, Twilight followed suit, crouching next to Pinkie Pie and squinting into the dimness of the Wabe beyond.
A small, brown, fuzzy-looking creature was sitting upright in between a number of glass palm trees—taking a bath. Its miniature, porcelain tub was filled with clear, steaming water. Twilight’s pupils shrunk as the creature looked left and right with confused desperation. Its head, sitting atop an armless, elongated, pear-shaped body, was topped with huge round eyes and featured a wide, lid-like jaw. A row of sharp teeth poked neatly between its lips. It had no discernible nose, though it seemed to sniff the air, and Twilight was sure she could see feathers matted against its body.
She grabbed onto Pinkie’s hoof. “Are you sure it’s not a Boojum? It looks just like the thing that sent Bluish back in time!”
“Forward in time,” Pinkie corrected, “and yes, I’m completely sure! Look at its eyes!”
Twilight remembered the solid red eyes of the black-coated Boojum. This creature’s eyes were milky white with large, black pupils, totally void of any colored irises. Before she had the chance to ask Pinkie anything else, the party pony poked her head out of their hiding place and smiled at the tiny creature. “Hi!”
It squealed and dunked its head under the water of its tub, sending little waves splashing over the side. Twilight couldn’t help but giggle at the way it poked one eye above the surface of the water to observe Pinkie.
She stayed where she was with a smile on her face, waving to the Snark with a bar of soap cupped in her hoof. “Hey there, little guy! Were you looking for some of this?”
Its wide head rose timidly over the edge of the tub, gazing at the cream-colored soap with stars its eyes.
“Here ya go!” Pinkie said, tossing the bar into his bath. “It’s all yours!”
The Snark squealed again, this time with delight, and lifted the soap to eye level… with nothing. Twilight stared in shock as it ran the bar over its body as if with magic, though no colored aura of levitation twinkled around its form. “How does it do that?” she asked Pinkie.
“I dunno,” Pinkie replied, inching out of the twisted grass. “Maybe its arms are invisible.”
“That doesn’t make any sense!” Twilight hissed, unable to force herself out of the shrub even as Pinkie approached the Snark.
“I’m Pinkie Pie!” the happy pony introduced, leaning over the lip of the Snark’s bathing machine. “Do you remember me?”
It nodded jovially and continued to lather its fur with thick suds. Twilight tilted her head to one side. “Remember her?” she muttered.
“It’s so good to see you again!” Pinkie exclaimed. “If you weren’t all soapy, I’d give you a big hug!”
The Snark hunched and smiled as if it were blushing, scrubbing Pinkie’s gift beneath its own chin.
“I brought a friend along with me,” Pinkie continued. “She’s really nice and likes to think about stuff, just like you!” She looked over her shoulder briefly and leaned closer to the Snark, whispering, “Plus she doesn’t have the greatest sense of humor, so I bet you two will get along just fine. Wanna meet her?”
The Snark’s brow creased and it bobbled its head from left to right unsurely.
“Don’t worry, I bet you’ll really like her,” Pinkie said. “Come on out, Twilight! Show the Snark how nice you are!”
After a deep breath through her snout, Twilight climbed out of the shrub with a meager smile on her face. “Uh… hi,” she said, waving a forehoof.
The Snark eyed her up and down with a blank expression. Finally, it smiled and waved the bar of soap, tossing loose suds onto Pinkie’s mane. She giggled and dunked her head under the water to clear it all away. To Twilight chagrin, she dried within seconds.
“Twilight’s a biiiiiig fan of Star Swirl the Bearded,” Pinkie said, splashing her hooves in the water. “Isn’t that right, Twilight?”
“Huh? Oh… uh, yeah! I’ve read all the books he left behind, and I’m simply fascinated by the method he used to create new spells with nothing but—”
“We come from a time way ahead of Star Swirl, so Twilight’s never met him,” Pinkie said, curving her mouth into a pout. “Do you think maybe you could take us to see him? That would make my friend very happy, and seeing her happy would make me happy!” She switched to a full beam, nodding hopefully at the Snark.
The chocolate-colored creature set its soap aside and disappeared beneath the bubbly water. Pinkie stepped away as it wiggled out of sight, spilling waves of water onto the candy dirt below. Twilight watched in awe as little lollipops grew from the moistened ground like flowers.
When the Snark was done thrashing, it stood up in the center of the bathtub and knocked its head against a strange tube holding up a shower nozzle. Fresh water spewed down onto its head, clearing away any residual suds, while the water in the tub itself mysteriously drained away. In seconds, the Snark was sparklingly clean, standing at the center of an empty white bowl and nodding agreeably with Pinkie Pie.
She gasped. “Really? You’ll take us to him?”
It nodded again, leaping from the tub with a spray of warm water. After shaking itself of excessive droplets, it flashed a big smile at Twilight and started to run through the forest.
“Hooray!” Pinkie cheered, galloping after him. “This is gonna be so much fun! Heeheehee! Oh, I just can’t wait to see your face!”
With one last look at the senseless bathing machine, Twilight cantered after her friend and the Snark, wondering how it could move so fast on such tiny, adorable legs.
The tree was unsettlingly familiar.
“Pinkie Pie,” Twilight said in a hushed voice. “What is my library doing in the Wabe?”
“That’s not your library, silly!” Pinkie said, bouncing behind the waddling Snark headed straight for the thick oak tree embedded with a door.
“Well, not exactly,” Twilight allowed, “but you have to admit, it looks just like it!”
Pinkie squinted at the upcoming tree. “Hmmm… nope, sorry! I don’t see it.”
Twilight knew better than to argue.
The door was angled funny, painted dark, and bore the symbol of a staff topped with a five-pointed star leaning against a misty spiral. She gulped as the Snark knocked on the door with an invisible fist, followed by a long and terrible silence.
Pinkie didn’t seem to mind, bouncing happily in place as her eyes inflated like balloons.
Quick hoofsteps sounded beyond the door. After a brief rattling of the knob, it swung open with a burst of sparkly powder and light.
“Gaaah!” Twilight yelped, curling into a ball on the ground and covering her eyes.
“My dear Miss Pie!” a strong, gravelly voice announced. “What a pleasure to see you again! How long has it been?”
“What does it matter?” Pinkie asked, drawing a long, dry laugh from the voice.
“Well said, dear Pinkie, well said!” The stallion cleared his throat. “And, uh… who is this?”
“Stand up, Twilight!” Pinkie urged, nudging her with a hoof. “Meet my friend, Star Swirl the Bearded!”
“Your… friend?” Twilight squeaked, peeking between her hooves. Before her stood a wrinkled, grey-green stallion with a long, white mane and beard, both of which fell straight until curling slightly at the tips. “Oh my gosh…” Twilight breathed. “I-I can’t believe it!”
The blue-robed stallion bowed a little, tipping his pointy, bell-brimmed hat.
“St-st-st-st—” Twilight bumbled, scrambling to her hooves and brushing her mane out of her widening eyes.
“Ha! Look at that, Swirly,” Pinkie giggled, elbowing the stallion in the side. “Twilight’s a little… star-struck!”
“Haa haa! I suppose she is.” He smiled, showing his pearly white, though slightly crooked, teeth. “It has been such a long time since I met an aspiring magician.” He stroked his beard. “Or has it? Hmm… hard to tell in the Wabe.”
“In my time, sir, you’ve been gone for well over a thousand years,” Twilight said between deep breaths. “It is a real honor to meet the father of the amniomorphic spell.”
Star Swirl stood up straighter. “Ah-ha! A real admirer, I see! Well, young lady, I can honestly say it’s an honor to meet you, too… although that may not mean much. At this point, it would be an honor to meet anypony with all their wits about them.” He chuckled to himself and stepped aside. “Please, both of you, come in! I see my little friend has helped you find the way.” He patted the Snark on the top of its head with one hoof as he closed the door with his magic. The feathery creature purred and smiled under his owner’s touch.
Twilight marveled at the tree’s interior. Had the walls been covered in shelves and books, she might have mistaken it for her own home. The staircase and loft were in exactly the same place; Star Swirl even had a wooden bust of a horse on his central table. “I don’t believe this!” she said aloud.
“Well, it’s not much,” Star Swirl said, “but it’s my eternal home, so I might as well be decorative with it.”
“No, no, I mean… this looks just like my library in Ponyville!”
Star Swirl raised a bushy eyebrow at that. “Does it, now? Well, that is interesting.” He magicked a whistling teacup from another room of the tree. “May I tempt either of you with a beverage?”
Twilight blinked. “Uh… yes please!”
Pinkie shook her head politely.
As the wizard prepared two cups of tea, Twilight further examined the room while Pinkie tickled the Snark. “Who’s a cute little helper? Who’s the cutest little helper? You are! Yes you are!” It snickered and wheezed under her touch.
“Miss Sparkle, was it?” Star Swirl asked.
Twilight gulped. “Uh… yes, sir. Twilight Sparkle.”
As she took the cup of tea he offered, Star Swirl asked, “Tell me a bit about yourself.”
“Oh… well, I was born in Canterlot—“
“That old town is still around after a thousand years?”
Twilight blinked. “Why, of course it is! It’s one of the most beautiful cities in all of Equestria.”
“Hhhm… Equestria.” Star Swirl grinned and removed his hat, revealing a thick head of combed, silver mane. “I was never able to enjoy Equestria. I’m sure it’s a beautiful country now, but due to a number of unfortunate circumstances, I never saw peace since the nation's founding.”
Twilight’s entire disposition saddened. “I’m so sorry, Star Swirl…”
“It’s quite all right!” he exclaimed, taking a sip of his tea. “I may not have seen many bright days during my life, but the darkness of my world inspired me to create my own light. Without my circumstances, I never would have become the magician I am today.” He offset his jaw. “Or… was yesterday. Or will be tomorrow.” He shrugged, chuckling at himself.
“In my time, you are renowned and studied as one of the greatest magicians of the Pre-Classical Era,” Twilight informed him with pride. “There is an entire wing of the Canterlot Palace library that bears your name.”
The wizard’s eyes lit up. “Is there, now?”
Twilight nodded. “It’s where all the time spells are kept.”
“Haa haa haaaa!” Star Swirl stomped a hearty hoof. “How very appropriate! Heeheehee…”
A warm smile slipped onto Twilight’s face. “It really is incredible to meet you, sir.”
He waved a hoof. “Yes, yes, I’m sure it must be. But remember, I am also meeting you, and I would still like to hear of your life. Did you grow up in Canterlot?”
“Oh, y-yes. My father was an astronomer and professor at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, and my mother was an established children’s book author. My brother was just as influential on me as they were. He’s now the captain of the royal guard.”
“All unicorns?” Star Swirl asked.
“Yes, all unicorns.”
“Did you attend the school at which your father taught?”
Twilight blushed. “Well… sort of. During my entrance exam, I lost control of my magic and accidentally… damaged… the building.” She cleared her throat and scraped at the ground. “Princess Celestia happened to be nearby at the time. She was able to reign in my episode and took me under her wing as her personal student from then on.”
Star Swirl’s eyes widened. “Princess… Celestia?” he asked in disbelief. “She took you in as a student?”
Twilight smiled. “Yes. I am the princess’s faithful protégé.”
The sorcerer’s eyes darted to Pinkie Pie, searching for confirmation. When she nodded enthusiastically, Star Swirl’s countenance darkened.
“You’re certain it was Celestia?” he asked. “Your mind has not been clouded by the Wabe?”
Twilight stepped back. “What? No, of course not. Princess Celestia has been my mentor for as long as I can remember.”
Star Swirl’s jaw clenched for a moment. “Celestia? The eldest? The raiser of the sun? The bearer of the Element of Loyalty?”
Twilight’s horn sparked. “What!?”
Tiny muscles in Star Swirl’s face twitched. He rubbed them with the edge of his hoof while he asked, “You’re absolutely sure it wasn’t Beatrix?”
“Who?” Twilight squeaked.
The old magician sighed and set his cup of tea on the central table. “Oh, dear… I forget how much can change in over a thousand years.” He plopped to his hindquarters and invited Twilight to do the same with a slow motion of his hoof. “I expect our conversation might consist of many shocking questions.”
Twilight bit her lip. “Maybe you should just… tell your story, and I’ll ask questions at the end.”
Star Swirl blinked. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely.” With a sideways glance at Pinkie Pie, Twilight added, “It will be nice to hear some straightforward information for a change.”
Pinkie blushed and twirled a lock of her mane around her hoof.
“Very well then,” Star Swirl said. “What exactly would you like to know?”
“Well… everything,” Twilight admitted, smiling sheepishly. “But I suppose it would be best to begin with your experience in the Wabe.”
“Ahhh, yes, Miss Sparkle. That would, indeed, be a perfect place to start.”
A terrible, wintery storm of unprecedented duration desolated much of our planet’s northwestern continent. I assume you are aware that the Windigos were responsible, feeding on the hatred between the pony tribes, but in the midst of the event we were unaware of the monsters’ presence. If only I had read the signs, the following disasters may have been avoided; alas, I was old, and though the Wabe has restored a great deal of youthful vigor to mind and body, I had not the full capacity of reason. My age, combined with the cold and hunger ravaging all unicorns, drove me to a state of desperation. I left my position as chief advisor to Her Majesty, Princess Platinum, leaving in my stead my most prized and brilliant pupil, Clover, in hopes of discovering a solution in some uncharted land. I will admit it was a foolish and insubstantial quest, but in that frazzled mindset I did not heed to my students’ counsel. I headed west, toward the sea.
I was surprised at how small a distance the storm covered. It was not three days into my journey that the untouched countryside became green and lush around me. A dark cloud did not dot the sky; birds of every sort and color flew and twittered past me as I trotted and smiled o’er hill and river. With every step, it seemed, my intellect grew clearer, until I was quite certain I had made a mistake. What use is a journey with no destination, no prize to win but some vague magic of a hopeful and sourceless breed? I was quite prepared to give up and return—not quite sharp enough to realize relocation as an obvious answer—when I came upon the coast.
There was a very small town erected there. To my surprise but, to my credit, not disgust, I found therein each kind of pony—winged, horned, and unadorned—living together in a state of love and harmony. I found that they spoke a language unfamiliar to me, and so I was unable to communicate with them more than my intention of crossing the sea. The lot of them seemed quite nervous for me, though nopony ever protested my advancement. They were a kind clan and even offered me a boat. I informed them that I would construct my own.
And so I did, for the next week or so, using the lumber in the forests north of that isolated village. If I were a younger stallion, I may have tried to learn their language, but as it was I focused all my efforts on magically constructing a suitable ship. It was not long before my vessel met the water and I was off, but not without accepting generous supplies of food for me from that interracial village. I never saw the town again, though I am constantly curious of its origin.
Having been a fervent sailor in my youth, the sea was no stranger to me, and even my old mind rekindled its friendship with that great frontier as I journeyed to unknown lands beyond the Pahoofic ocean. Of course, I never reached them, for on the fifth day of my lonely voyage I was attacked by nature’s blameless wrath. Had Fate not been guiding me, I know I would have died. As it happened, after my ship passed through the storm—battered and ruined beyond simple repair—I found myself within a league or two of a small, oddly colored island. Magicking together a simple craft from the remains of my ship, I hurried to its shore.
Of course you know, I had found the Wabe, though my own awareness of this fact would not come for some time. Immediately after my arrival, I was made aware of the islands more vicious creatures. It was also at this time that I discovered the islands peculiar effects on my mind and body, for though I knew I was quite old, I could think and move as if I were at my prime of life. This proved invaluably useful in terms of survival, especially during those first few hours upon the isle.
My newfound vivacity gave birth to courage, and when I found myself removed from certain unfriendly beasts, I moved deeper into the island. It was not long before I came across the first creature that did not try to kill me—only because it was actively avoiding its own demise from a freakish, serpentine predator. The prey appeared to me so innocent and fearful that I felt it my duty to ward off the hunter. With magic, I did just that, pushing the horrendous creatures away with all manner of offensive spells. It retreated permanently when I temporarily blinded it, and I was free to turn my attention to the quivering creature whose life I had saved.
It was the Snark, this adorable little animal who has scarcely left my side since. It is a remarkably intelligent and perceptive creature, despite its bizarre and irremovable quirks. Though it cannot speak, I feel that we understand each other rather well nowadays. At the time, however, I found the indebted look in its eyes rather off-putting and tried to shoo it away when it began to follow me, but after some time I decided to respect whatever duty it felt it owed me, hoping that its custom would not last for too long.
After wandering the island aimlessly for some hours, I began to talk aloud to myself—or perhaps to the Snark, I’m not sure. In any case, I asked aloud if there was anything on the island worth discovering or studying. The Snark leapt for joy upon hearing this and proceeded to guide me to the center of the island where I first beheld the enormous Sundial that there stands sentinel.
It became the object of my obsession for some time, the exact amount of which I could never calculate. How ironic that time was so far from my mind while I studied the most basic and primitive device for recording it. The oddity of its placement, size, and general existence so consumed my mind that I quite forgot about my home and the initial purpose of my quest. In fact, it was not until I discovered the Sundial’s power that I realized its potential to save my fellow ponies from their affliction.
When I had finally studied the markings of the Sundial enough to make some sense of them, I realized its ability to alter magic; that is, it was designed to amplify and minimize the intensity of spells cast upon it. I could understand the desire to amplify a spell, but its unique ability to negate magic was puzzling to me. I did not think much on the matter—at least not as much as I ought to have done—and once I believed I had mastered the function of the sculpture, I altered and amplified a teleportation spell to create a portal home.
Now, already within my tale I have made mention of the three factors which contributed to the disastrous nature of this mistake. Had any of three things been different, I believe ponykind would have been spared great tragedy. They are: my senile nature while away from the Wabe; the existence of ferocious creatures upon the Wabe; and my vast misperception of time.
While for me the portal opened on the side of the Sundial, its other end appeared at the foot of Canterlot Mountain, directly at the center of the newly founded Equestria. In the time I was gone—or whatever strange force replaces time on the Wabe—the pony tribes had come together in a new land south of our frozen nation. I assume that nation is where you now live, and I’m glad to know it survived the catastrophe I brought upon it.
I had planned to keep my magic focused on maintaining the portal all the while I was away from the Wabe. Unfortunately, the moment I stepped through the portal, my mind was once against burdened with its deteriorating age. I forgot my entire purpose within a matter of seconds. Startled by the glowing hole behind me and the strange creature at my side, I attempted to close the portal by means of covering it with a magic-induced avalanche. As I hope I have made clear, my reasoning in the real world is below a newborn foal’s.
The avalanche did not cover the portal, but instead widened it to the point that, on the other end, it created an unstable rift between the planes. This rift did not only allow the creatures of the Wabe to enter Equestria—it flung hundreds of them and, quite sensibly, enraged them. In almost every case, a creature of the Wabe, which is composed of far more magical stuff than ponies can comprehend, is troublesomely transformed within a time-governed environment. Most were gifted with grotesque, supernatural powers of chaos and destruction, but fortunately not with powers of reason. They were mindless beasts, mostly, wreaking confused havoc in every corner of Equestria. The exception—the one creature which was granted both godlike powers of universal manipulation and the mind of a skillful craftspony—was the Jabberwock, the same horrific serpent from which I saved the Snark. In his new world, the Jabberwock quickly became a creature of pride and greed. Within days of the rift’s appearance, he ruled over Equestria with the care of a newborn for its playthings.
I was largely oblivious to the chaos, demoted by my mental faculties to a bumbling amnesiac. Somehow I was located by Clover the Clever, who was at least twenty years older than I had left him, and he managed to coax enough information from me and the Snark to lead me back through the rift to the Wabe. Once there and cured of my madness, I relayed to him all that had happened and begged for his help in reversing what had happened. He asked me how, and so I revealed the primary power of the Sundial. It was, at its simplest, a machine designed to manipulate time from an island that was not affected by the phenomenon. While I had gathered this from the Sundial’s descriptive markings, I had not been able to access its temporal abilities. I asked Clover to help me save his new Equestria from sure destruction by turning back time. He eagerly agreed to help me try.
To make a long story short, we did not turn back time. In our attempt to activate the Sundial, we accidentally opened it. I cannot recall exactly how it happened, or even the precise events, but one way or another there was a bright explosion of mist-like energy from the base of the Sundial and then, when our eyes adjusted to the light, we saw six magnificent creatures standing before us around the giant structure. They spoke to us in a foreign, beautiful tongue, and yet we both understood with perfect clarity and answered question each in turn. We told them our names, positions, and races; then they told us theirs.
They were Celestia, Alula, Piedra, Calupan, Beatrix, and Luna, the alicorns of the ancient world, locked in a timeless void for longer than any of them could rightfully say. They did not reveal the reason for their imprisonment, and we did not ask. Their very beings exuded such tangible forces of pure power and righteousness that we dared not insult them, nor did we feel any reason to do so. We were astonished by their beauty, stature, and instantly apparent wisdom.
We told them of our recent experiences, our reasons for tampering with the Sundial, and our intentions so save our world from the rampant creatures of the Wabe. They conversed with one another—and only at that time, we could not comprehend their language—before asking to see the world of which we spake.
We brought them to Equestria through the nearby rift. After taking in the destruction, the alicorns displayed their inherent compassion by promising to help the ponies of our world in every way they could. Shocked and humbled by the turn of events, Clover and I returned to the Wabe (for my memory’s sake) and spoke of many things. Few of our thoughts were concrete, as so much at that point was up for speculation. Most of our words expressed only hope that the alicorns could succeed where I had failed.
In time, they did. The entirety of the Wabe’s vile creatures were herded back through the rift—except for the Jabberwock. His newfound intellect and immense power kept him out of the alicorns’ hooves. They understood the magnitude of his threat to the ponies of Equestria, and also that he was a different enemy than the other creatures of the Wabe. With what I now see as great wisdom, they decided to first seal up the rift before facing the Jabberwock.
I was faced with a decision… or so I like to tell myself. In reality, only one choice was actually plausible for a stallion of my caliber. Was I honestly expected to consider staying in Equestria where I could hardly remember my own name, and would likely exist in such a useless position for many torturous years? No! The Wabe, though dangerous, offered an endless life of clarity, and endless mysteries to engross my talents. I chose to stay.
Clover was displeased with my adamant decision and promised to find me. I told him that I did not think it wise to search for the Wabe, but even so we parted on good terms. I do remember a certain look of interest he cast upon my Snark, but I excused it as a gut reaction; Snark hunting had become something of a sport during the months of the Jabberwock’s reign, and, though cruel, some ponies had actually taken a liking to it. In fact, because they are not hostile, I believe many Snarks were left in Equestria when the rift was sealed, but I cannot be sure.
Either way, that is the extent of my knowledge, for I have lived here ever since with no communication with Equestria… though “ever since” is more of a phrase for your benefit, Miss Sparkle, as to me it feels as if no time has passed at all, even though a million new memories confirm to me that many years have indeed gone by.
Twilight, at first, was breathless, but she soon found it within herself to blurt, “Then where did you get your sour perception of Princess Celestia!?”
Star Swirl raised his thick eyebrows and chuckled at her sudden volume. “My, my. I did not mean to upset you so.”
Expelling a long breath between pursed lips, Twilight shook her head. “No, no, I’m sorry. I’m really grateful for you telling me. It’s just that… it’s all so much to take in.”
“I will not argue that,” Star Swirl said, smiling. “I will try to be as clear as I can with all of your questions. As for that first one, I spent enough ti… er… well, I got to know each of the alicorns well enough in the Wabe while they were herding its creatures back through the rift. Besides, they all had starkly different and dynamic personalities that it was not hard to feel as if you ‘knew’ them right away.”
“What were their personalities?” Twilight asked.
“Celestia was certainly a leader,” Star Swirl remembered, “but also something of a hothead. Though the alicorns were in every way glorious and respectable, they were not without their flaws. Each of them had something of a noticeable vice, and Celestia’s wisdom and power were sometimes hidden behind her ego.
“Alula was very quiet, I remember, even to a fault, and seemed to always be thinking about some distant event of great importance.
“Calupan was my favorite, if I am to be honest. He had a fondness for the sea, as did I, and a jovial personality that always brought a smile and hearty laugh.
“Piedra was an interesting fellow; he seemed to have a big heart and longed to be of help, but sometimes shied away from responsibility.
“Beatrix was also very quiet, though in a different way. She paid very close attention to everything that was said, and whenever she spoke it was as if the sky itself was singing. I thought that she may have been your teacher because she was always very keen to learn more about ponykind and impart to them some of her expansive knowledge.
“Luna was noticeably younger than the rest of them and seemed to always be getting in the way, though she was quite aware of it. Still, her siblings—for so they called each other—were all very kind and patient with her…” He winced. “Except for Celestia. She had a rather sharp tongue when it came to communicating with her youngest sister. They rarely got along, and though I respected both of them, I was rather more fond of Luna, and so my opinion of Celestia suffered.”
Twilight looked horrified. “But Celestia isn’t… a hothead! Celestia is kind and wise and quiet and thoughtful and full of power and… and all those things you said about the others. She’s interested in everypony she rules over, and she loves her sister more than anything!”
“I believe you!” Star Swirl said, holding up his hooves with a gentle smile. “I have no qualm with the Celestia you know, believe me. Hearts are sure to change in over a thousand years. I am glad to hear that she improved herself—though, if I’m honest, I do wonder why you, a personal student to the leader of the alicorns, have not heard of Beatrix.”
“Actually, sir,” Twilight said, ears drooping, “I’ve never known any alicorn but Celestia and Luna. I had… heard rumors… that the Sultan of Haissan is an alicorn, but I never thought to ask the princess about it.” She ran her hoof over her face. “In fact, I haven’t thought to bother the princess with a lot of things recently.”
“I believe that to be commendable,” Star Swirl said. “As a teacher to beloved students, I promise there is nothing more rewarding than to see a pupil use my teachings to solve a difficult problem on their own.”
Twilight grinned. “Thank you, Star Swirl. I hope the princess feels the same.” Again, she ground her hoof against her pulsing temple. “I still have so many questions…”
“Any that I can answer?”
She bit her lip. “What did you mean by… by calling Celestia the ‘bearer of the Element of Loyalty’?”
The old wizard blinked in surprise. “Goodness, now you’re making me second guess myself. Has she told you anything about her past?”
“Not really,” Twilight admitted, “but it’s never felt as though she was keeping secrets.”
“Well, the Elements of Harmony are surely artifacts of appropriate scholarly discussion. You must have heard of them, I hope.”
“Oh, yes!” Twilight assured him. “In fact, I myself am the bearer of the Element of Magic.”
A long silence followed her reveal. Star Swirl’s jaw dropped open as slowly as a tortoise’s. “Y-… you?” he bumbled. His hat slipped halfway off his head. “You are connected with the Element of Magic?”
Grimacing, Twilight leaned forward and said, “Star Swirl, there must be something I’m completely missing here. Would you mind explaining what you know about the Elements?”
“It’s not much, I’m afraid,” the sorcerer said. “At some point since the rift was sealed, I gathered enough courage to further study the Sundial. After much hard work I discovered this place’s natural connection with other dimensions.”
“Through mirrors?” Twilight interrupted.
“Well, yes, but not exclusively,” Star Swirl corrected her. “You see, if my observations are correct, the Wabe acts as something of a centerpoint—a hub, if you prefer the term—that connects every other dimension in the universe. I can’t pretend to understand it, but it seems there are several factors of connectivity, the strongest of which are reflective surfaces, for whatever reason.
“By analyzing my mistakes with the first portal, I managed to open a small and stable one, connected not with a specific place, but to the Wabe’s very relationship with the universe.”
“That’s the Portal we used to get in here, Twilight!” Pinkie chirped from a corner of the room where the Snark was tickling her underbelly.
“You made that?” the unicorn asked her superior.
“Only by tapping into an already existing phenomenon,” Star Swirl said. “It’s quite a complicated system, one that Pinkie understands far more than I was ever able to. I used it to visit Clover once. As you can imagine, it came as quite a shock to see his mentor step out from his bedroom mirror. I tried to explain the process to him, but my memory began to slip away before I properly expressed myself. Embarrassed, I reentered the Wabe and have not left it since, though I think I may have worried Clover into launching his recent exhibition.”
“Relatively recent,” Twilight added with a lopsided grin.
Star Swirl laughed. “Indeed. Though I did not visit Equestria again, I used my Portal many times to observe the past. From my limited perspectives, I have managed to deduce the discovery of the Elements. They were fabled charms of enormous power for centuries before my time, of course, but never had they been obtained and used by searching hooves. The six alicorns, when informed of the Elements, journeyed to find them, believing they held the secret of defeating the Jabberwock.
“I know not of their journey, but only that they succeeded, and each took upon themselves an Element suited to their natures, of which Celestia’s was Loyalty.”
“And who bore Magic?” Twilight asked with sparkling eyes.
Star Swirl smiled. “Princess Luna, I believe.”
A faint smile twitched on Twilight lips, even as her brow creased. “I… I had no idea. I was never told.”
“I cannot profess to know everything that happened next,” Star Swirl said, “but I feel that it is right to tell you what I’ve learned through my exploits at the Portal. The six used the Elements and encased the Jabberwock in stone, freeing Equestria from his chaotic reign. The citizens appointed the alicorns as their new rulers and monarchs. The great beings accepted the duties and further took upon themselves the care of the natural world, lifting a great burden from the shoulders of the ponies. It took nearly every able-horned unicorn to raise the Sun and Moon, while Celestia and Luna could each do it on their own. Alula took charge of the winds, Beatrix of the plants and animals, Piedra of the earth, and Calupan of the sea.
“Now, of course, with my Portal, I had the great advantage of leaping forward along the timeline. Some decades later, the ponies of Equestria had taken to a form of worship, treating the alicorns as deities. It was an understandable practice, of course, but the problem lie in the hierarchy with which they ordered the alicorns. Celestia became the primary object of their worship—which, again, makes perfect sense from their perspective, considering she raised the Sun which is an indisputable source of life and power—while the rest of the alicorns took the roles of lesser gods, angels, or even servants to the great Queen of the Day.
“From what I have seen, Celestia basked in the limelight, for though she loved her siblings, the poison of popularity made her blind to the shadow she cast over her siblings. It grew ever longer as years passed, until one alicorn decided she had lived in the background for long enough.”
“Luna,” Twilight whispered.
Star Swirl sighed. “Well, at least you know that story. The poor mare was so corrupted by jealousy that she became Nightmare Moon and tried to overthrow Celestia. Knowing she could not win against the bearer of Magic, and in an act of what I will boldly call stupidity, Celestia took upon herself all six Elements of Harmony—without her siblings’ consent—and banished her youngest sister to the Moon.
“As you can imagine, that did not fare well with the others, but who dared face Celestia now that she held the power of six gods in her hoof? Unable to look on their sister, they simply vanished, one by one, to the far corners of Equus, leaving Celestia alone to rule her nation.
“I stopped observing after that, far too emotionally distraught by something in which I could have no part.” He forced a smile. “But I am glad to know Luna is back, and that Celestia seems to have changed, enough even to pass the Elements on to… mortal ponies.” He shook his head and smirked.
Twilight’s face was frozen in a look of abject horror. “No,” she breathed. “It… it can’t be true.”
Star Swirl frowned sympathetically and placed a hoof on Twilight’s sagging shoulder. “Perhaps it is not,” he said. “I may have misinterpreted the entire debacle. Perhaps, if you are so close to Celestia, you might ask her for the truth of the matter.”
Twilight nodded and absentmindedly rose to her hooves. “It was an indescribable honor to meet you, sir, but I really think I ought to go home and do that right away.”
The old wizard nodded. “I entirely agree. Go on, then. The Snark will lead you back to the Sundial.” He turned to Pinkie Pie, who was wrestling the Snark with her forehooves tied behind her back. “Pinkie, I do hope you can help Miss Sparkle back into your world with as few distractions as possible.”
Eyes alight, she tried to salute, but ended up toppling over herself and knocking several precious looking stones from a cabinet against the wall. They shattered on the ground.
Twilight snapped out of her trance and gasped. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!”
Starswirl chuckled and waved his hoof. “It’s not a problem. I’m sure they’ll mend themselves sooner or later. Everything else does in the Wabe.”
Pinkie Pie zipped across the floor and tucked her foreleg under one of Twilight’s, dragging her to the front door with the Snark close behind. “See ya later, Swirly!” Pinkie called out, swishing the door open with her tail.
“Farewell, Pinkie Pie. And it was a real privilege to meet you, Miss Sparkle. I wish you the very best on your studies and hope to see you again.”
The unicorn barely managed a nod before Pinkie slammed the door shut behind them and raced after the bounding Snark.
“What’d you talk to Swirly about, Twilight?” Pinkie asked, galloping alongside her friend as they swerved between trees and hurdled odd roots following the Snark back to the center of the Wabe.
“You weren’t listening?” Twilight shouted. “Pinkie Pie, everything I know about Princess Celestia might be a lie! I-I don’t know what to think or believe… but I know what I have to do. I have to…” She swallowed hard and took a few deep breaths as her hooves slammed into the varying terrains of the island. “I have to go to Canterlot and find out for myself exactly what’s going on.”
“But you got a lot of your questions answered, didn’t you?” Pinkie asked, jumping onto her tail with her hind legs and using it to grind along an overturned log.
“Well, yes,” Twilight admitted, tossing her mane out of her face. “I don’t understand the Wabe yet, but I know what it is. I know how it’s connected to our world and why Bluish Carol knew about the creatures of Tartarus. But along with that, I know a bunch of stuff I never came here to find—”
“YAAAAAUGH!” Pinkie yelped, and disappeared from Twilight’s side.
The unicorn skidded to a stop. “Pinkie!” she shouted, staring into the thick treeline. “Pinkie, are you okay?”
There was no answer. Twilight looked over her shoulder at the Snark, far ahead of her and continuing on its way. “Wait!” she called out, but the creature didn’t hear her, vanishing around a corner. She bit her lip, throwing her eyes between the darkness of the trees and the Snark’s path. Groaning loudly, she jumped from the path and peeled her eyes for pink.
“Pinkie, this isn’t funny!” she shouted. “We’re going to lose the Snark if we don’t hurry up! Pinkie?”
Beginning to worry, Twilight picked up her pace, weaving in between the foreign trunks of a strange forest, shouting her friend’s name. “Pinkie, where are you?”
“Twiliiiiiiight!” The shriek came from even deeper into the tulgey wood, and Twilight immediately answered the call.
“I’m coming, Pinkie!” she yelled, teleporting again and again as far as she dared. “Where are you!?”
“Twiiiiiiliiiiiiiiight!” The yell was even quieter now.
“PINKIE!” Twilight screamed, imagining some ferocious creature ripping the pony to fluffy shreds. “Pinkie Piiiie!”
One last flash of teleporting magic brought her out of the forest—standing on thin air over an impossibly deep chasm.
“Gaaah!” she yelped, trying to swim back to the cliff’s edge, but panic overtook her and she plummeted downward. “AAAAAHHHHH!” Channeling as much magic through her horn as she could, Twilight managed to wrap herself in an aura of levitation. It wasn’t enough to keep her still, but it was plenty to slow her fall until she landed semi-gently at the bottom of the crag.
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…” Twilight whimpered, trotting in place as she glanced around. “Okay, Twilight, everything’s gonna be fine… you just have to get out of this—” She looked up at the sliver of light at least a mile over her head. “—canyon… and then you have to find Pinkie Pie, and possibly rescue her from ravenous creatures of mythical desolation.” She gulped. “No problem! You’ve faced much worse…” Her lip quivered. “…with five other ponies at your side. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…”
Twilight collapsed and draped her forelegs over her head. “What have I done? Oh, sweet Celestia, what have I done? I never should have come in here! I should have left all this crazy nonsense to itself and focused on Dinky. Where is she now? How long have I been gone? Did Ditzy and Daring and Rainbow find the cake twins in Haissan? Will I ever even know?” She sobbed into the cold stone beneath her, flattening her ears against her head.
A tiny chattering noise to her right made her gasp and lift her head. A number of tiny, wide-eyed animals squealed and dove for the shadows. Twilight hugged herself, flicking her vision from one concealing rock to the next. “Go away! Shoo, all of you!”
They peeked around their hiding places, blinking curiously.
“Shoo! I said get away from me!” She wiggled a hoof toward one of them. “Go on, get out of here! Don’t you hurt me, or I’ll…”
The creatures didn’t seem to understand her, glancing at one another with perplexed expressions.
She swallowed. “I-I-I’ll… throw you! With magic!”
The tiny critters of various size, shape, and texture only moved closer.
“I said I’ll push you! I will do it!” she hissed at the ring of them closing in around her. “Look, see?” She grabbed a nearby rock in her magic and tossed it aside. It landed with a dull thump five or six feet away. “I’ll do that to you! I’m not kidding!”
When still they didn’t seem to understand a word she yelled, Twilight gingerly lifted an orange frog-like creature and shook him around in the air. “You see this? I’m gonna throw him! I’ll do it!” She magically swung the frog as if preparing to launch him further down the canyon.
Finally, the animals stopped approaching to watch her antics with utmost fascination. The creature in her violet aura croaked and squirmed, folding its arms over its chest in a deep pout.
“Oh, don’t do that!” Twilight said, setting it between a couple other tiny animals. “I’m sorry! I was just trying to use you as a visual example.”
To her surprise, it cupped a hand around its hole of an ear.
“I said I was trying to use you as a visual example,” she repeated, blushing.
It shoved a webbed finger into its earhole and spun it around, removed small bits of wax before leaning even closer to Twilight.
She frowned. “I said I was using you as a visual example!” she shouted.
In unison, every one of the creatures made noises like “Ooohhh!” and nodded their heads, smiling peacefully at Twilight.
She snapped her jaw shut and blinked. “You understood that?” she asked. Their expressions became confused, and she rolled her eyes. “Of course you didn’t. Oh, why can’t Fluttershy be here? I’m no good with animals… except for owls, I suppose…”
“Oooowls, did you say?” a smooth, sultry voice purred from overhead.
Twilight gasped and ducked lower to the ground, sweeping her eyes in every direction to find the source of the voice. “Who’s there?”
“Who, me? Why does it matter? I’m certainly not an owl.” It snickered playfully.
“I don’t care what you are,” Twilight said. “I asked you who you are.”
“Who? Who! Who.” Another airy laugh echoed through the canyon walls. “Perhaps I am an owl after all.”
“Show yourself!” Twilight demanded, rising to her hooves.
“As you wish,” the voice said in a carefree sing-song voice. It started to chuckle, a noise which, at first, bounced to Twilight’s perked ears from every direction, but gradually it focused until all the noise was coming from an empty spot on top of a rock directly in front of her hooves.
Twilight stepped away, careful not to squish any of the tiny animals still watching with giant eyes. “Are you… invisible?” Twilight asked.
“I can be,” the voice replied, followed by a long silence.
Twilight bit her lip. “Well… can you not be?”
“Of course I can’t not be. Even if I ceased to be, you would still remember me, and so I’d be a memory. I’d become ‘was’ rather than ‘am’, but both are still ‘to be’.”
“Whu… huh? I… I don’t…”
“Goodness, child, don’t strain yourself! You’re getting violet in the face. Well… you know what I mean. Heeheehee…”
Twilight scowled and flicked a hoof in the voice’s direction. “If you can stop being invisible, please do. It’s making me uncomfortable.”
“And how do you think I feel, being asked to dress in front of a lady?”
“Dress?” Twilight scoffed. “I’m not asking you to—”
“When you dress, you cover things that were not previously seen, yes?”
“You can’t see me, but you wish to, so in asking me to cover my absence with presence, and seeing that you are, in fact, a mare, I do believe I’m being asked to dress in front of a lady.” The voice tittered. “Oh, dear… I do believe you’re making me blush.”
Twilight gaped as two rosy spots of color materialized above the rock. To her further astonishment, an enormous, toothy grin soon appeared beneath the rouge, followed by a bright pair of slyly narrowed eyes. Stumbling back, Twilight fell on her rump and sat amidst a group of gawking critters as, bit by bit, a clay-brown feline faded into existence before her eyes. “That’s impossible…” she breathed.
“Quite incorrect, but I won’t argue with you,” the cat said, rising from its belly and stretching its front legs, swishing its lazy tail. Through all the motions, he—for by the voice Twilight assigned it a male gender—never lost his face-splitting grin.
“I’ve seen a lot of weird things around here,” Twilight said, “but you’re the first weird thing that can talk.”
“Sometimes I wonder if we all can talk,” the cat admitted, leaping gracefully from its post and smoothing down the bright green fur of one miniature creature, “but I’m the only one who knows enough words.”
“How?” Twilight asked.
“The chloroplasts do most of the work, I believe.”
Twilight squinted. “What?”
“You only gave me part of a question,” the cat said. “I had to make up the rest myself.”
Grunting, Twilight articulated, “How are you able to speak?”
“I move my lips for the consonants, my tongue for the most of the vowels, and something in my throat just buzzes away and moves up and down as it’s told.”
Slamming a hoof into her forehead, Twilight mumbled, “Okay, fine, I get it. Look, I don’t have any time to waste with pointless conversation. My friend might be in a lot of trouble, and I’m stuck at the bottom of this stupid crag, so unless you have some way to help me, I need to get going.”
“I do,” the cat said, examining its claws.
Twilight tilted her head. “You do what?”
“I do have some way to help you,” the cat explained. “Your friend was taken by the Bandersnatch and it plans to add her to its next meal.”
“I will bring you to its cave if you follow one suggestion.”
“Really? Oh, thank you!” Twilight moved nearer to the mysterious cat. “What do I have to do?”
Somehow, his long smile grew even wider as his eyelids closed halfway. “Follow her advice. It’s usually very good.”
“Whose? Pinkie Pie’s?”
But the cat wasn’t there to answer, nor was the canyon there to reverberate her words. Instead, Twilight found herself staring into a huge, dark cave. She gasped and cantered backward, reminded of the dragon’s cave she had to enter some years previous. This cavern, however, was infinitely more terrifying, as the creature within it was not only unfamiliar, but Pinkie’s life was hanging on the line by a single strand of her mane, so to speak.
“How did he…” Twilight whispered, looking everywhere for the cat. Focusing instead on the task at hoof and trying her best not to panic, Twilight pressed herself against the right wall of the cave and hurried into the darkness, scanning the blackness for some sign of pink.
As Twilight’s eyes adjusted to the chilling darkness, she saw the great dimensions of the cave in eerie clarity. The long tunnel led into a great, jagged dome of wet, grey rock. The floor of the cave was bumpy and irregular, tilting toward the center where a makeshift cauldron, carved from a lopsided boulder, floated in a natural pool of steaming water. Inside the cauldron, a smelly liquid simmered. Twilight could see stark white bones bobbing at its surface.
The Bandersnatch itself had its back turned to Twilight, crushing something in the corner of the cave. Twilight grimaced, hoping with all her might that the crunches were not from Pinkie Pie’s bones. She hid herself behind a pile of discarded skeletons, bathed in the dark of the cave. Steeling her nerves, Twilight moved from heap to heap of pre-devoured carcasses, approaching the monster as quickly as she dared.
The Bandersnatch’s grinding slowed until it turned around, revealing its hideous features to the hidden pony. Its neck was long and worm-like, supporting a squat head with distant eyes and greasy, matted fur. It stood on tall, stork legs and stalked toward its cauldron, dumping a fistful of fresh, green powder into its broth. Without bending over, it stretched its slimy neck toward the soup until its head rested just above the lip of the pot. Its tongue flicked into the liquid and drew back enough to swallow, followed by a loud smack of its lips and a disapproving grunt. To Twilight’s relief, it moved to another part of the cave and revealed a familiar pony slumped against the opposite wall of the cave from where she hid.
“Pinkie!” Twilight said under her breath, but her excitement faded as her vision cleared. “Pinkie?”
The pony was definitely Pinkie Pie, identifiable by the frizz of her mane and tail and the trio of balloons on her flank, but—unless the lack of light was playing tricks on Twilight’s mind—the party pony’s coat had turned completely black. Her hair was as white as snow, her eyes grey and lifeless, and though she shivered in a ball, her face bore no expression.
“Oh, Pinkie Pie…” Twilight breathed, stealing a glance at the Bandersnatch. It was occupied in another section of the dome, giving Twilight the confidence to sprint across the slanted floor and stop at Pinkie’s side. She lifted the vacant pony’s head with a hoof tried, with no avail, to look into her eyes. “What happened to you?”
A sharp sniff from the Bandersnatch sent chills down Twilight’s spine. She whipped her gaze in its direction just as its head snaked around to see her. With a hoarse, monotone roar, the beast leapt from its crouch and bounded at Twilight on birdlike legs. Yelping, Twilight hoisted Pinkie Pie onto her back and scrambled out of the monster’s way. Its claws scraped and sparked along the stone ground before it collided with the wall, chasing the galloping unicorn through the tunnel that led into its cave.
The clacks of its talons reverberated in the wide tunnel. Twilight knew by their increasing volume that the creature was closing the gap. Struggling to keep Pinkie’s limp form balanced, she sparked up her horn and sent a blast of magic over her shoulder. The Bandersnatch howled, more in surprise than pain, and veered off course enough for it to slam into the wall. Twilight kept sprinting forward until the dim light of the Wabe’s unpredictable sky replaced the dripping rock above her head.
She stopped for just a moment, holding Pinkie in the air with magic as she poked and prodded her face and ribcage. “Pinkie! Wake up! Are you okay?”
The pony’s jaw fell open, revealing a snow-white tongue and coal-black teeth. Repulsed, Twilight slammed Pinkie onto her own back and took off toward the central forest of the strange island. “Stay with me, Pinkie,” Twilight said. “I’m sure this will all go away if we can just get back home.”
The persistent roar of the Bandersnatch reminded her of that task’s difficulty. Clenching her teeth, Twilight lowered her head and broke through the treeline without slowing. She wove between the trunks as aptly as a Snark, following her instinct sense of direction to find the center of the island.
The horrible sound of snapping branches and scattered soil blared behind her. She tried to pay her pursuer no mind, teleporting herself and Pinkie Pie forward several yards at a time. As she came to a particularly thick collection of trees, Twilight had an idea. Staring up through the branches, she focused her teleportation in a different direction. In a flash, the pair of ponies were airborne, above the branches, but Twilight wasn’t done. Flaring her magic again, she rose even higher above the forest, repeating the climb until she had a good enough vantage point to spot the island’s central Sundial.
“Here we go, Pinkie!” Twilight screamed, squeezing her eyes shut to focus on her horn. With a series of flashes and pops, Twilight carried them through the air and nearer to the Sundial, teleport after teleport, like a pinball in giant, invisible machine.
With a final crack of brilliant magic, Twilight collapsed at the foot of the monument, blinking yellow stars out of her eyes. Fear struck her every nerve as the trees nearest to the base of the spiral-decorated hill parted to reveal the fuming Bandersnatch, rising to its full height which matched the tallest conifers. Twilight set Pinkie on the ground and stood between her and the monster, baring her teeth and allowing a few menacing sparks to shoot from her horn.
The Bandersnatch took three steps forward before it froze in place. It stared at the hill for a long moment, its eyes following the dark spiral that cut through its cream-colored grass, and then it snarled at the purple pony at the peak. With a resounding snap of its frumious jaws, the beast began to stalk around the foot of the hill, never looking away from its prey.
Twilight held her breath, examining the beast’s behavior. When the thought occurred to her that creatures of the Wabe could not approach the Sundial, or even mount the hill, she expelled her air in a sigh of relief. “Phhew! We’re gonna be okay, Pinkie! Don’t you worry.” She turned around to see the blackened pony twitching on the ground. Wincing, Twilight dropped to her dear friend’s level and pushed her mane out of her face. “Oh gosh, Pinkie! I-I don’t know what to do! There must be something around here that can help you!” She gasped as she spotted the Portal at the foot of the creamy hill. “Of course! Come on, Pinkie…”
Once again, Twilight lifted Pinkie in her magic and trotted down the slope with the poor pony in tote. The Bandersnatch lapped around its invisible barrier, keeping as close to Twilight and Pinkie as it could. Bravely, Twilight did her best to keep from looking at it.
Luckily, the Portal was within her range of sanctuary. It was still looking through the mirror on the Lutwidge, and for a moment Twilight was tempted to check up on Feather and the crew. Instead, she pressed her hooves over her eyes and tried to imagine Pinkie’s bedroom. “Come on, now,” she hissed. “We need to get home. We have to get back.”
She opened her eyes, reached out a hoof, and flicked it to the right as she had seen Pinkie do. The floating hole in the air collapsed and instantly reappeared in a different shape—but not the tall rectangle Twilight expected.
“Oh, come on!” she shouted. “Don’t you understand how important this is? My friend might be dying!”
She swiped her hoof again, and again, but each time the Portal seemed to change at random, no matter what image Twilight tried to project on it from her mind.
“Why isn’t this working!?” she screamed, flicking through mirror after Equestrian mirror. “I need this to work! Work, dang it!” She stopped opening new Portals and slammed her hooves angrily into the center of the solid shape. On the other side, a blue pony sitting in a large throne looked toward her. She hopped back, waiting for the image to sharpen.
A pony out of the frame began speaking in Haissanic. To Twilight’s amazement, though she had never studied the language, she could understand every word he spoke.
“Are you all right, my liege?”
The large blue pony blinked. By the intricate shape of the Portal and her viewpoint, Twilight determined she was in a mirror on the wall of a large throne room. She dared to take a few steps nearer, hidden from the view of the real-world ponies while able to watch and hear them.
“I thought I heard something…” the seated stallion said. After a dismissive shake of his head, he ruffled his wings and turned to face the two stallions waiting before the throne.
With a strangled gasp, Twilight noticed the blue pony was an alicorn. “Alula…” she whispered, turning her ears to better hear their every, magically translated word.
“Do you mean to tell me,” the sultan asked in an even voice, “that she bore twins?”
“She must have, my liege,” a three-legged pegasus replied, leaning on one of his lowered wings for support. “One unicorn, one pegasus.”
Alula’s brow lowered. “Open the basket.”
The stallions complied. With two flaps of his enormous wings, the dark blue stallion landed in front of the sleeping babies’ wicker cradle. Even from her distance, Twilight could see his shoulders tense.
“They are infants,” he said in a low tone.
“Just as you predicted, my liege,” said a servant.
In a movement so swift that Twilight flinched, the sultan swung a hoof and struck the speaker in his snout. “Fool! If they had separated at birth into regular breeds, the slow aging of an alicorn would have had no effect!” He growled and spun around, rustling his wings. “You have brought me the wrong foals!”
The servants cowered behind the baby ponies’ basket as Alula paced and snorted. “A-Are you certain, my liege?” one of them stuttered.
“Of course I am certain!” he bellowed. “I would know my own child—or children—I assure you.”
“Then we shall return them immediately.”
“It is not so simple! She will be expecting you now. She may have even moved the child to a new location!” The alicorn slammed a hoof into the tile and slumped, dropping his regal head and allowing his mane to fall about his face. “You have committed a great failure. I have waited eight years for a chance to rescue my offspring from her reign, and you have obliterated that opportunity.”
“We apologize to no end, my liege,” the three-legged pony wailed, pressing his forehead into the ground. “Forgive us. We will act with a great deal of swiftness and accuracy.”
Alula laughed. “I cannot believe that.” He dropped to his haunches and smoothed his mane back with a trembling hoof. “Your chance for action has passed. I will not let Celestia’s overthrow be held back by your impotence any longer.”
Twilight’s pupils shrunk. “Overthrow?”
The stallions seemed as shocked as she. “What did you say?”
Alula’s upper lip raised. “Ah, yes, I quite forgot how long you had been scouting in Equestria.” Clearing his throat, the monarch said, “I assume you are aware of the events that transpired three years ago concerning the return of Nightmare Moon.”
Both of the servants nodded. Twilight leaned closer to the mirror.
“In her defeat, the Elements were transferred away from Celestia. She is no longer connected to their power.” A light glinted in his periwinkle eye. “The time has finally come for me to strike, but I will not release the monsters until my child is safe at my side. And now, you may have extended that time by tenfold!” Twilight shuddered as a sudden coldness appeared in Alula’s countenance. A gust of frozen air tossed the servants’ manes. “To ensure my next scouts do not make the same mistakes, I must make an example of your failure.”
As the Haissanic pegasi began to scream for mercy, Twilight swiped her hoof across the surface of the Portal. The horrible scene vanished from her senses, replaced with a serene view of a bustling outlet store. As Twilight’s breath returned to her, the implications of what she had seen weighed her spirit down.
“Oh my gosh,” she said. “Pinkie, it’s all coming together. Daring’s new book… the grey pegasus… Dinky must be Alula’s daughter! And if he finds her, he’s going to try to overthrow Celestia by breaking the seal between Equestria and the Wabe—or Tartarus, I guess, whatever you want to call it.” She stared at the Portal with disbelief. “When did that happen? This thing can peek through space and time… I must have been meant to see that.” She rolled her eyes at the idea of it all, but swallowed her pride nonetheless and lifted her hoof to its surface. “What else do I need to see? I’m… very curious.” Waving her foreleg brought up yet another mirror in what seemed to be a dimly lit, cobweb-covered cellar. Twilight pressed her face against the Portal for a better view, frowning at its emptiness. Once again she raised her hoof as if to change the hole, but stopped when her ears pricked at the sound of muffled hoofsteps on the other side.
To her absolute shock, an extremely familiar, bright blue pegasus trotted into view. The tips of her prismatic mane and tail were singed and she wobbled under the dead weight of the yellow pony draped over her back. Was that… Daring Do?
“Rainbow!” Twilight shouted, pressing the flats of her hooves against the Portal. “Rainbow Dash!”
The weary pegasus snapped to full alert, looking every which way in the dark room. “Twilight?”
“Rainbow, I’m over here! In the mirror!”
Rainbow Dash froze, turning her head slowly to the suggested object. Her ruby irises shrunk to pinprick dots inside her eyes. “T-T-Twilight?” She set the unconscious Daring on the ground and galloped to the mirror. “Twilight, how are you doing that?”
“Never mind me, where in the world are you?”
Rainbow’s head tilted. “Huh?”
“Where are you!?”
“Uhhh… Haissan! I’m in some kinda… I dunno, basement thing… connected to a big old chute that hid a flying carpet…”
“Psh, it doesn’t matter! What are you doing here?”
“I’m not there. I’m in the Wabe, but I can explain all that later.” A pulse of pain in Twilight brain made her add, “Well… I’ll try, anyway. Where’s Ditzy?”
“She made it out a different way,” Rainbow explained. “I’m gonna go find her right now.”
“Yes, okay, that’s great! Before you go, there’s something really important I need to tell you about the Sultan Alula!”
Rainbow rolled her eyes. “What, that he’s evil?”
A bewildered expression straightened Twilight’s face. “How did you—”
“He locked us in a big creepy cave that nearly blew us to smithereens.”
“Oh my gosh! Are you okay?”
“She’s not,” Rainbow said, jabbing a hoof in Daring’s direction, “but yeah, I’m fine.”
“Oh, Rainbow,” Twilight said with concern in every feature, “I hate to tell you, but I’m afraid it gets even worse. He’s planning on unleashing the creatures of Tartarus back into Equestria!”
“What!?” Rainbow shouted, leaping into the air and hovering there on singed wings. “Why?”
“To overthrow Celestia,” Twilight answered. “I saw him through this same portal. The conversation must have happened some time ago.” She winced. “Wait… when is this happening? When are you?”
“When am I?” Rainbow repeated. “What the heck is that supposed to mean?”
“How long ago did you leave Ponyville?”
“I dunno, like… three or four days ago?”
Twilight sighed. “Oh, good. That’s lucky.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m sorry, Dash, but I don’t think we have much time. Pinkie’s hurt, and apparently so is Daring. Go find Ditzy as fast as you can and let her know that Alula is planning to take over Equestria, but not until he finds his daughter, who I think must be Dinky.”
Rainbow nodded. “Yeah, it is. Don’t tell anypony though, okay? She’s really embarrassed by it.”
Twilight scoffed. “Who am I going to tell? The Bandersnatch?”
“The what now?”
“Never mind,” Twilight said, waving her hoof. “Go, now! I’ll… I’ll see you back in Ponyville!” She offered a small smile. “Sooner than later!”
Rainbow let out a strangled chuckle and zipped back to Daring, lifting the injured pony over her flanks. “We sure will. I’m glad you’re okay, Twi. Daring said you’ve been missing.”
With a snort, Twilight said, “More than she’ll ever know. Good luck, Dash!”
“Uh… you, too, I guess.” With that, Rainbow flipped her mane out of her eyes and took off up a flight of stone stairs Twilight hadn’t noticed along the wall of the cellar.
“Sooner than later,” she mumbled again, stepping back to check on Pinkie Pie. The pony’s breathing had slowed, too much for Twilight’s comfort. “Oh, no… it’s okay, Pinkie Pie, we’ll get you back to normal. I promise!”
The Bandersnatch roared from without his barrier. Turning back to the Portal, Twilight glared into its wide-set eyes. “Oh, shut up, you!” she snapped, flicking through mirrors in search of modern Ponyville.
“Thoooose who are deeeeaad are not deeeeaad, they’re just living in my heeeeaad… oh-oo-whooooaa…”
“That’s right, Pinkie,” Twilight said, frantically flicking through mirror after mirror in search of a familiar place and time. “Stay with me, just keep singing.”
“Aaaand since I feeeell for that speeeell, I am livin’ there as weeeell…”
“Come on, come on, come on… where is it?” Twilight bit her lip hard enough to draw blood, swishing her hoof across the Portal over and over to random results. “Pinkie’s bedroom, the library, Canterlot, anything in our time!”
“Tiiime is so short, and I’m suuuure, there must be something mooooooooore!”
“Rrrrrgh!” Twilight slammed her forehead into the wrong side of yet another empty bathroom’s mirror and slumped against its surface. “I wish you could do this, Pinkie. The Portal always goes exactly where you want it to.” She looked at her delusional, monochrome friend, lying on her side and lulling her head over the creamy grass as she sang. “How do you do it? What’s the secret?”
“Forty-two!” Pinkie drawled. “What I tell you three times is true!”
“Uh-huh,” Twilight sighed. “Well… at least the Bandersnatch left.”
Something hit the ground a few feet from Twilight’s tail, startling her. On examination, she found a large pebble lying in the grass. “Where did this come from?” she wondered, looking up into the sky. “Does the Wabe rain rocks, too?”
A similar stone knocked her in the back of the head. She yelped and dove behind the Portal. “What in the world was that!?” Peering around the small, floating square, Twilight saw a third stone hurl from the treeline. She lit up her horn and stopped it mid-arc, throwing it back into the trees. “Who’s doing that? Stop it!” she shouted, scowling. “I have enough to deal with already, thank you very much!”
“You’re a toymaker’s creation trapped inside a crystal ball…” Pinkie mumbled.
“Darn it, Pinkie Pie!” Twilight yelled, stomping her forehooves. “If you’re going to drone, will you please say something useful?”
“‘Cause IIII loooove to seeee you smile, smile, smiiiiile, yes I do…”
“Auugh! I can’t believe this is happening!”
Another pebble thumped against Pinkie’s belly, making her giggle. “All I really need’s a smile, smile, smile…”
“STOP THAT!” Twilight yelled into the woods of the Wabe, staring at the spot from which the rocks were flying. “You could hurt someone!” She gasped when she noticed a sliver of white among the dark branches. When she squinted, a disembodied grin hovering next to a pile of pebbles became clear. “You?” Twilight asked loudly. “What do you want?”
The invisible cat just continued to smile.
“Come on everypony, smile, smile, smile…”
“Don’t you have something to say?” Twilight yelled to the grin. “Some sort of stupid philosophical nonsense, or maybe some actual advice? Or are you just here to tell me to listen to her advice again, because obviously that’s not gonna be very helpful right now!!”
“All I really need’s a smile, smile, smile, from these happy friends of miiiiine…”
Twilight froze. Something—or rather several things—clicked in her head at once, and she glanced over her shoulder at Pinkie.
“Smile, smile, smiiiiile…”
Twilight blinked. “What I tell you three times is true,” she whispered to herself. Her eyes whipped back to the cat she couldn’t see. “What I tell you three times is true.”
The floating smile widened and even seemed to nod.
Twilight beamed and leapt into the air. “What I tell you three times is true!” she cheered, rushing back to the Portal. “All you need to do is… well, be curious—” She giggled. “—and smile, smile, smile.”
With a smile as wide as a mile, Twilight swiped her hoof one more time across the Portal. Immediately, Pinkie’s bedroom appeared on the other side, identical to how they had left it. Squealing with joy, Twilight waved and shouted “Thank you!” to the mysterious cat, lifted Pinkie in a bubble of magic, and lifted her forehooves to the Portal’s surface.
“I’m very curious as to why that worked,” she whispered, and fell through the mirror, pulling Pinkie with her.
The plain, wooden ground of Sugarcube Corner had never felt more heavenly beneath Twilight’s sore hooves. As soon as she and Pinkie Pie were safely through the mirror, she collapsed and rubbed her cheek against the floor. “I’m so happy to be home!” she said. “Aren’t you, Pinkie?”
Twilight shrieked and jumped away when she saw Pinkie’s unchanged curse: coat black as coal, mane white as snow. “What happened to you?” Twilight asked the semi-conscious pony. “And how am I going to fix it?”
She trotted in place, looking everywhere around the room in search of something, anything, that could possibly help Pinkie. Her bulging eyes landed on an empty space in Pinkie’s bookshelf. Twilight gasped. “The Complete Works of Bluish Carol! Surely that has the answers!”
She made firm her stance and focused on the distant book, still in the front room of her library. Stretching the leylines of her magic to their limits, she managed to spark her horn and teleport the large anthology into Pinkie’s bedroom with a loud bang and a bright flash. “Wow!” she said when the book was in her hooves. “I didn’t know I could do that!”
Flipping it open to the table of contents, Twilight scanned for some helpful words. Unsuccessful, she opened the huge volume to her own bookmark stuck in the middle of Carol’s poem, The Hunting of the Snark. “There’s got to be something in here,” she muttered, turning page after page with her magic and trusting her well-trained eyes to pick out something of value.
She stopped when she saw the word Bandersnatch and poured over the surrounded stanzas.
It was matter for general remark,
Rushed madly ahead and was lost to their view
In his zeal to discover the Snark
But while he was seeking with thimbles and care,
A Bandersnatch swiftly drew nigh
And grabbed at the Banker, who shrieked in despair,
For he knew it was useless to fly.
Twilight’s eyes widened. “Oh my gosh… this really happened. I saw that happen!” She skimmed through the following verses, trying to remember what happened to the Banker.
Went savagely snapping around—
He skipped and he hopped, and he floundered and flopped,
Till fainting he fell to the ground.
The Bandersnatch fled as the others appeared
Led on by that fear-stricken yell:
And the Bellsteed remarked “It is just as I feared!”
And solemnly tolled on his bell.
He was black in the face, and they scarcely could trace
The least likeness to what he had been:
While so great was his fright that his mane hairs turned white—
A wonderful thing to be seen!
“That sounds like what happened to Pinkie,” Twilight noted, reading on.
And chanted in mimsiest tones
Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity,
While he rattled a couple of bones.
“Leave him here to his fate—it is getting so late!”
The Bellsteed exclaimed in a fright.
“We have lost half the day. Any further delay,
And we sha'nt catch a Snark before night!”
Twilight gaped. She turned the page, only to find the beginning of the eighth chapter. “That’s it?” she asked no one, reading the final stanza again. “That’s it!? They just… leave him there?” She quickly read the final chapter, finding no further mention of the Bandersnatch. “How could they just leave him there? There had to have been a way to help him! There has to be a way to help Pinkie!”
“Hello? Is someone in there?” Mrs. Cake’s voice came through Pinkie’s closed door.
“Uhhh…” Twilight answered, looking for someplace to hide the colorless mare.
Mrs. Cake opened the door before Twilight could move. “Twilight! Where have you been? The whole town’s been worried s—” When her eyes fell on Pinkie Pie, her round face tightened with concern. “Oh dear! What happened?”
“There’s no time to explain, Mrs. Cake,” Twilight said. “We need to find a way to help her, and I think the answer is in this book!” She closed the volume and held it up for Mrs. Cake to see. “Do you know anything about it?”
Mrs. Cake took deep breaths, trying to keep herself together. “Only that Pinkie treats it like scripture! I’ve never read it myself.”
Twilight groaned and slammed her forehead into the back of the book.
“But Carrot has!” Mrs. Cake continued. “I’ll go fetch him!”
“Yes, please do!” Twilight said, leaping forward. “Tell him it’s very urgent!”
Mrs. Cake nodded so quickly her hair fell out of place and she disappeared down the upstairs hallway. Shivering, Twilight threw Carol’s collection open to a random page and started to read at a head-aching pace.
Sooner than she expected, Mr. Cake flung himself into the room. “What’s going on? Twilight? Gaah! Pinkie Pie!”
“Mister Cake, your wife said you’ve read this book,” she said, tapping on the open pages. “Is that true?”
“Bluish Carol’s anthology?” he asked, stumbling closer. “Yes, I-I’ve read it. Why do you ask?”
“Do you know of any cure to a Bandersnatch attack?”
The poor stallion’s brow began to twitch and his wife appeared in the doorway. “Excuse me?” he squeaked, Mrs. Cake covering her mouth with a hoof.
Twilight pointed at the pony on the floor. “Pinkie has been decolorized and desensitized by a Bandersnatch, and I need to know if there’s any way to make her better!”
“A B-B-Bandersnatch?” Mr. Cake stuttered. “A-Aren’t those just fictional?”
“I wish they were,” Twilight said. “Please, can you think of anything that might help Pinkie?”
Mr. Cake ground his teeth and glanced around for an escape.
“Please, Mister Cake! Pinkie might be dying! Think!”
He shut his eyes and pressed a hoof between his eyes. “Yes, yes, I… I think…” He grimaced, clenching his jaw over and over. “I was friends with her father, you see—Pinkie’s, I mean. His mother used to tell us the most amazing stories from when she was a girl. We thought they were true until we read them all in that book and realized she was just borrowing from a famous author.”
“No, Mister Cake, she wasn’t! They are true stories! She knew Bluish Carol, she probably visited the Wabe through the looking-glass, and he wrote about her real adventures!”
The yellow stallion reeled. “What? Through the looking-glass?”
“Pinkie just showed me!” Twilight said, gesturing to the mirror. “It’s real! I don’t understand it, but it’s real! And so is this problem on our hooves. Please, was there anything Pinkie’s grandmother told you about a Bandersnatch or some kind of cure or… I don’t know, healing spell?”
Mr. Cake’s head lifted an inch. “There were… cakes.”
Twilight squinted. “Huh?”
“There were cakes in Wonderland,” he remembered in a breathy tone. “She always used to… poke my nose when she said that part…”
“What cakes?” Twilight yelled. “What did they do?”
“All sorts of things,” Mr. Cake said. “They made her grow and shrink and… I dunno, change.”
Twilight nodded. “That might work! Do you the recipe?”
He snorted. “Of course not! It was all pretend!”
Twilight stared at the anthology. “No. It wasn’t. It isn’t.” Her eyes swept to Pinkie Pie. “Mister and Missus Cake… has Pinkie ever… experimented?”
The couple glanced at each other. “Definitely,” Mrs. Cake answered.
“Hundreds of times,” her husband confirmed.
“Does she keep her own recipes anywhere?” Twilight asked.
“If she does, I don’t know where,” Mrs. Cake said worriedly.
Mr. Cake stared at the Complete Works. “I might,” he said, and stepped closer to Twilight. He turned the book onto its front and lifted only the back cover, revealing a clear envelope taped to the inside full of small recipe cards.
“Yes!” Twilight cheered, pulling every note out with her magic and spinning them around her head. “Growing Cake, Shrinking Juice, Magical Mushroom Preparation… ah-ha!” She snatched one card out of the air, letting the others flutter to the ground. “De-Mimsying Pie! This must be it!”
“How do you know?” Mrs. Cake asked from the doorway.
“When the Banker was attached by the Bandersnatch in Carol’s poem,” Twilight said, hoofing the recipe to Mr. Cake, “it said that he ‘chanted in mimsiest tones’. Mimsy must describe… this!” She pointed at Pinkie and beamed at the Cakes. “Quick! Go bake that pie! Pinkie’s whole life depends on it!”
The older ponies jumped and scurried down to their kitchen, leaving Twilight to cradle Pinkie in her forelegs. “It’s going to be fine, Pinkie Pie,” she said with utmost confidence. “Everything will be okay, because you weren’t just curious… you acted on your curiosity. You really wanted to know.” She looked into the mirror—the plain, reflective, rectangular mirror—and was overjoyed to see a wide grin on her own face. “And you figured it all out with a smile, smile, smile.”
Pinkie choked on her third piece of pie. “Hwuuacht! I still can’t tell if I love this stuff or hate it!”
“Why don’t you take a break and think about it for a minute?” Twilight suggested as seriously as she could, pushing Pinkie’s hoof away from the oddly colored desert.
“But I’m a doer, Twilight, not a thinker!” Pinkie said. Her mouth straightened. “Or am I such a thinker that other thinkers seem like doers? Or are all doers thinkers, because thinking requires doing, doesn’t it?”
Twilight laughed and gave her re-pinked friend a hug from the side. “It sure is, Pinkie. And it’s good to have you back.”
“It’s good to be back, too!”
Mrs. Cake handed the remnants of her successful pie to her husband. “What was it like, dearie?” she asked in a hushed tone. “We were so worried about you!”
“I could kinda tell what was going on… and kinda not,” Pinkie said, rubbing her chin. “I thought I might be a ghost!”
“I’m glad that’s not true!” said Twilight. “I don’t know if anypony would believe me if I told them you’d died on the other side of the mirror!”
Pinkie smiled weakly. “Speaking of which… I really, really need you all to promise not to tell anypony about the Wabe.”
Mr. and Mrs. Cake shared a confused glance. Twilight’s face paled. “But… surely I can tell Princess Celestia?”
“Well… maybe soon!” Pinkie said. “But not just yet! I… I sorta didn’t want anypony to know.”
Twilight tilted her head. “But you practically tried to smash me through the mirror to get there!”
“I thought you were ready!” Pinkie said, turning her hooves over each other. “I’ve kept it a secret for so long because I didn’t think anypony would be able to wrap their heads around it. And now that I know even you struggled with it, Twilight—you! The smartest, most thinker-est pony I know!—I’m not sure I want to share it at all.”
Twilight frowned. “Well, that’s sort of selfish. It’s a whole world of mystery and magic that could be studied and—”
“Disturbed? Dangerous? Deadly?” Pinkie bit her lip. “Twilight, I’ve been the Wabe hundreds of times, and I was still mimsied by the Bandersnatch. Do you really wanna risk it happening to anypony else, especially some poor pony who will be totally confused by all its crazy Wabeyness?”
“Well…” Twilight sighed. “When you put it that way, no. I guess it is a good idea to keep it a secret.” She glanced at the Cakes. They nodded with forced smiles that suggested to Twilight that they really didn’t know what was going on, anyway. “But I have to tell the princess,” Twilight said, turning back to Pinkie Pie. “Even Star Swirl said so.”
“If I remember right, he said you should ask her to tell you the truth,” Pinkie said with a narrow squint, leaning closer to Twilight. “He didn’t say anything about the Wabe.”
“But won’t I have to tell her about my visit to the Wabe in the long run?”
“Yes,” Pinkie said, “but just… be careful, okay? I’m kinda nervous she’ll…” Pinkie mumbled the rest of her thought at the ground.
“What was that?” Twilight asked.
Pinkie shrunk. “I’m scared she’ll get mad at me or something, and that she won’t let me visit the Wabe anymore.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Twilight asked. “Wouldn’t you rather stay safe from the—”
The pained look in Pinkie’s eyes was enough to cut Twilight off.
The unicorn nodded. “Okay, Pinkie. I promise I’ll… choose my words carefully.”
Twilight closed her eyes and made the proper actions. “Pinkie Promise.”
“Thanks, Twilight!” Pinkie said, throwing herself around the burdened purple pony. “You’re such a good friend.”
Twilight chuckled. “Not as good as you, Pinkie,” she said, “but thank you.”
She stayed with Pinkie Pie and the Cakes for another hour or so, just to make sure her mimsification didn’t return or leave any side effects. Once they convinced Pinkie to get some rest in her room, Twilight caught up with the Cakes in their kitchen.
“Daring Do brought the foals home safe and sound,” Mrs. Cake said with a soft smile.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Twilight said, bringing a hoof to her chest. “Where are Ditzy and Rainbow now?”
“Daring didn’t say,” Mrs. Cake answered. “She flew in, gave us the foals, and took off again.”
“I think she mentioned going back to Haissan,” Mr. Cake added.
Twilight nodded, remembering her conversation with Rainbow in the mirror. “That would make sense. How many days have they been gone?”
“Four, now,” Mrs. Cake said, glancing out the window. “It’s past afternoon.”
Twilight gulped. “I hope they’re all okay,” she said.
“I hate to worry you more, dearie,” Mrs. Cake continued, “but the three little fillies who spend so much time together… do you know who I mean?”
“Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo,” Twilight replied. “What about them?”
“They’re missing, too,” Mrs. Cake said, “along with Ditzy Doo’s daughter. They’ve sent out a few search parties, but the general opinion is that they tried to follow Daring and Ditzy to find my children.”
“Oh, no!” Twilight cried. “Applejack and Rarity must be so worried! Have we searched Manehattan?”
“The mayor sent word to their officials,” Mr. Cake said, “but we haven’t heard any news yet, good or bad.”
“Oh, it’s all going so wrong!” Twilight groaned. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get home and check on Spike! I didn’t even know I’d been gone for so long.”
“And… where were you, exactly?” Mr. Cake asked.
His wife elbowed him in the ribs and rolled her eyes. “We’re not supposed to know about it, remember?”
“Honey bunch, if there’s a world behind a mirror in our house with creatures that can turn a pony into… whatever just happened to Pinkie,” he said, “I think I have the right to know about it!”
Itching to go, Twilight thought on her hooves. “If it makes you feel better, just get rid of the mirror in Pinkie’s room,” she said. “Replace it with a different one.”
“Won’t she mind?” Mrs. Cake asked.
“I doubt she’ll even notice,” Twilight assured them. “I’m so sorry, I’ve gotta go! Be sure to tell me if Pinkie starts acting strange.”
The bakers gave her sordid looks.
Twilight huffed. “Never mind,” she murmured, and galloped out of Sugarcube Corner. A few ponies tried to stop her in the road to ask where she had been, but Twilight dashed between them all and didn’t stop until she had locked the door to her home and library.
Spike was reorganizing books inside. “Twilight!” he screeched, throwing the volumes stacked in his arms and sprinting to hug her around the leg. “I was so worried about you! Everypony kept telling me not to worry and that you’d be fine, but I was still worried and couldn’t stop wondering if something terrible had happened and why you didn’t tell me where you were going and—”
“Oh, Spike, you won’t believe where I’ve been!” she said, stroking his scales. “Let me write a letter to Princess Celestia. I promise I’m all right, but this is something I have to do.”
The urgency in her voice ignited Spike’s obedience. He retrieved parchment and a quill from nowhere. “Want me to dictate?”
Twilight smiled sadly. “Not this time, Spike,” she said, trotting to her desk. “I need to think this one through.”
Spike blinked. “Oh… all right.” He tilted his head. “Uh, Twilight? Where have you been?”
As she organized her desk, Twilight ground her teeth together. “I… I promised Pinkie Pie not to tell anypony just yet.” She sighed and gave him a sorry look. “Feel free to ask her—maybe she’ll tell you—but I feel like I should keep that promise.”
Spike nodded. “Oh, believe me, I understand the importance of a Pinkie Promise. Do you think you’ll have that letter ready tonight?”
“I hope so,” Twilight said, dipping a quill in some ink. “Thank you for watching the library while I was gone, Spike. I really didn’t mean to disappear like that.”
“No problem!” Spike gulped and furrowed his brow. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
Twilight’s quill hovered over the paper as her ears drooped. “I… will be,” she said, less than firmly. “I hope.”
Spike scraped his foot over the ground. “Gosh, I feel so helpless.”
“Oh, don’t!” Twilight said, spinning around from her desk. “It’s me who feels helpless, Spike. I wish I could explain everything, or even that I understood everything, but I think the first step to wrapping it all up is sending this letter to the princess.”
“I trust you, Twilight,” Spike said earnestly. “I’ll send it as soon as you’re done. Uh… do you want me to go upstairs, or should I just…?”
“I think you should stay down here,” Twilight said with a sweet smile. “I’m so glad to be home.”
Though his face betrayed his confusion, Spike managed to smile. “I’m glad you’re home, too, Twilight. And don’t worry, after you send that to Princess Celestia, I’ll make sure you know right away when there’s a—”
Spike burped. “Letter for you, Twilight!” he called through the house after reading the front of the envelope caught in his claws.
“Finally!” Twilight shouted, teleporting into the front room from her loft. “It’s been nearly two months since Celestia promised to explain everything to me. I’ve never felt so in the dark!”
“Yeah, well, join the club,” Spike mumbled.
“Oh, Spike, I’m so, so, so sorry!” Twilight said, scooping into a hug. “I hate this! I hate it, I hate it, I hate it! I wish I could tell you everything, and the girls, especially with Rainbow coming back safe and sound… I feel like I’m putting a storm cloud over everypony’s head! But Pinkie is so adamant that I—”
“It’s okay, Twilight,” Spike said. “Honest! I understand how badly you want to let it off your chest. Hopefully this letter—” He wiggled it. “—will help move things along!”
“Thanks, Spike,” Twilight said, nuzzling his cheek. A tendril of her magic reached out to lock the front door before she tore open the letter and removed a small piece of parchment.
“What does it say?” Spike asked.
“It’s an invitation,” Twilight said. “To Canterlot.”
“Just for you?”
Twilight turned the paper around for Spike to see. “Just for me. Today.”
“Wow.” Spike’s eyes widened. “This all must be a pretty big deal.”
“I think it is, Spike,” Twilight breathed. “Bigger than either of us can imagine.”
The little dragon bit his lip. “Uh… so, should I go pack your stuff?”
Twilight blinked out of brief trance. “Oh, would you?”
“Yeah! Totally.” Spike saluted and hurried up the steps.
“Thank you!” Twilight called out, pacing around the central table and mumbling to herself. “Oh, I hope this meeting answers all my questions… I really don’t like having this much on my mind!”
Somepony tried to open the bolted library door. Twilight groaned and shouted, “Sorry, we’re not open right now!”
“Twilight? It’s me, Ditzy. Can we please come in?”
Twilight grimaced and rushed to the door, unbolting the lock and throwing it open. “Ditzy! I’m so, so, so sorry about letting Dinky out of my sight! I wish I could explain everything, but—”
“Twilight, it’s fine,” Ditzy said, holding up a hoof. “You don’t need to keep apologizing. Everything turned out just fine.”
Twilight’s violet eyes darted between the ponies on either side of the mailmare. One was a guilt-inducing, periwinkle filly, and the other was a bizarrely familiar, mustard-yellow mare in a dull green hoodie. “Hi, Dinky,” she squeaked to the tiny pony, “and… hello, Daring. When did you get back to Ponyville?”
“Today,” Daring said, flashing a quick grin.
Ditzy cleared her throat. “Uh… may we come in?”
“Oh, sure! Yes, of course,” Twilight bumbled, stepping out of the way. She closed the door once all three ponies had come inside.
“Dinky, go find the next book in the series,” Ditzy said to her daughter.
“Okay!” She zipped off to the fiction section, leaving the three mares in a tight triangle.
“Did you need something?” Twilight asked.
“Is there any chance you can watch Dinky again?” Ditzy asked right away. “Maybe for a week or so?”
Twilight blanched. “I don’t think so, Ditzy. Not only do I feel supremely underqualified due to recent failures in that area, but the princess has asked me to visit her in Canterlot today.”
Daring’s ears drooped. “Awwwww, shoot.”
Ditzy nudged her in the ribs. “It’s fine. I’m sure we’ll find somepony else who will be glad to take care of her.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Twilight said, “what will you be doing for a whole week?”
Daring brightened. “Ditzy and I are gonna—”
“Go back to Haissan and make sure everything’s all right,” Ditzy interrupted. “We left quite a mess and want to make sure that—”
“Oh, shut up, Sis,” Daring cut in. “Why do you always lie about this kinda stuff?”
“Don’t have to anymore,” Daring said with a smirk. “Look, Eclipse…”
“Twilight,” the unicorn corrected.
“Uh huh, listen.” Daring raised one eyebrow in a self-sure expression. “You’ve read my books, right?”
“Of course,” Twilight said, pointing at Dinky as she browsed the shelf across the room full of Daring’s series.
“Right. Librarian.” Daring waggled her eyebrows and nodded her approval. “So, you’ve prob’ly figured by now that all that stuff is pretty much true.”
“Twenty percent true,” Ditzy said.
“Like, at least sixty percent true,” Daring corrected. “Biggest thing I left out was this bubble-head following me around all the time.”
“We were partners,” Ditzy said to Twilight.
“I did come to that conclusion,” Twilight admitted.
“So, here’s the point blank truth,” Daring whispered, putting both of her hooves on Twilight’s shoulders and staring straight into her eyes. “Our dad was a world class archaeologist who instilled a love for adventure and discovery into our young minds.”
Ditzy snorted. “Just because she’s a librarian doesn’t mean you have to talk like a book.”
“On one of his missions,” Daring continued, “he tampered with very old magic, and it brought a fatal curse upon him. We watched our father wither over the course of our teenage years as we sought for ancient artifacts that might relieve him of his illness, but none of them were as powerful as the curse, and he passed away while we were searching for the Magic Carpet.”
“Oh, gosh…” Twilight breathed. “I’m so sorry.”
“She’s being a little dramatic,” Ditzy droned, “but she is telling the truth. All of our adventures were spurred by the goal to save our father. Now we wonder if the Carpet might have been the answer, so we plan to go find it and settle our final mystery.”
Twilight squinted. “How will you know? I won’t… bring him back to life, will it?”
“Oh, heck no!” Daring said, jumping backward. “Ewwww, ew, ew! Nah, see, I’m thinking of it as more of a closure thing between me and Ditz. If we have the Carpet in our hooves, we can finally move past all the stuff that happened eight years ago and be sisters again.”
Ditzy smiled. “Oh, Daring. We’ll always be sisters, and I already said I forgive you.” She turned to Twilight. “But I do think it’s important we finally end this adventure.”
“I understand that completely,” Twilight said, nodding. “I wish I could be of more help, but I can’t miss this meeting with the princess.”
“Of course not,” Ditzy said. “Do you know of anypony who would watch over Dinky for me?”
“Fluttershy comes to mind,” Twilight said with a distant look in her eyes. “Did you say your father was cursed?”
“Yeah, when we were kids,” Daring said. “He went on this awesome excavation down south of the Badlands where some ancient pony tribe worshiped a sundial—”
“The Neighr, I believe they were called,” Ditzy added.
“—and he tried to remove an effigy from their temple and got super cursed.”
“We spent the rest of his life looking for cures,” Ditzy reiterated, “but in the end, we never found anything that gave him back his life, or even explained his disease.”
When the Sisters looked at Twilight, her pupils had all but disappeared in the center of her widening eyes, and the color in her face was draining to a shade close to Dinky’s.
“Whoa,” Daring chuckled, “you okay?”
“Twilight, you look like you’re about to faint,” Ditzy said. “Is something wrong?”
Twilight blinked. “Did you say… a Sundial?”