From breakfast until several hours after, the group went over everything they could, covering each detail of what had transpired since the first appearance of the black ponies. After it was clear some records were going to be taken, Twilight called down Spike from his duties in her tower. The six were glad to see him again, as it had been months in some cases; Twilight, in particular, noted that Rarity had blushed slightly when he’d embraced her.
“It’s great to see all of you again!” he commented, his voice squawking in the broken tones of a male dragon starting to approach puberty. He was much taller and bulkier now, too large to be given rides by Twilight or other ponies; but unlike so many others of his species, he was mass in strength and pure muscle, not the avaricious obesity of others his age. His years in Ponyville – and especially his brief flirtation with his worse nature – all but ensured that he would grow up to be a wise and stately dragon.
“Spike! Ain’tcha sproutin’ like an apple sapling!” Applejack blurted, clapping him on the shoulder with her forehooves. “Lookin’ plum handsome, y’are.”
“Um, thanks, AJ,” he commented, turning away. Scales on his face briefly went a rosy tone instead of their natural hues, and upon seeing that, Applejack just laughed all the more for her young friend.
Rarity, on the other hoof, had a brief flash of – jealousy? – cross her face. It quickly disappeared when she saw Rainbow Dash looking straight at her, cataloging the moment for future good-natured torture.
“Spike, it’s really good to see you again,” Fluttershy said with an earnest, winsome smile, “but if things are as bad as Luna says they are, we should probably just hold off on the greetings until after. If that’s okay with you.”
Luna nodded. “Fluttershy’s absolutely correct – now’s not the time for pleasantries.” Closing her eyes, she willed a magical map into being. The glowing map, floating in the air, showed the boundaries of Equestria, as well as the closest parts of the immediate bordering nations. A blue glow lit up on the map close to the country’s eastern seaboard, the location of Canterlot. In turn, smaller dots populated the map, from major cities such as Manehattan, Torontrot and San Caballo, to smaller towns like Ponyville, Appaloosa, and Rockton. A second wave of dots began to populate the map, these ones hued green and representing the military garrisons. Lastly, a series of red dots popped up sporadically on the map, that of the known incursions of the Black Ponies.
“This is the latest map, updated just before you all arrived, indicating three more incidents in Saddleback Ridge, Colton, and Hoofington. But that’s not all – there are now reports of Black Ponies in Caballus as well.” Caballus was the ancestral homeland of the three pony tribes; those that had not emigrated to Equestria thousands of years ago still remained in the older land, which had since been united under a different ruler. “Several reports were given around Trottingham Castle, as well as Trotterdam and Barceloneigh.”
“So we’re dealing with a wide-scale problem, then. Any chance the Caballan military will be able to assist?” Rainbow Dash asked and for that received deadpan stares from both Twilight and Luna. Despite the latter’s mention of the country, the whole topic of Caballan government was a sore spot for both mares, probably for some time to come.
“Mayhaps it’s best to change the subject then,” Rarity interjected. “What can we do in the meanwhile?”
“I’d like you to stay at the ready for the next few days while we gather intelligence. If the Black Ponies are nothing but a brief nuisance, the military should be able to handle it, likely with some support from all of us. But if this is a full-scale invasion….”
“Oh, my….” Fluttershy realized the implications of the unspoken words: Equestria would be at war.
“Scoots, fly back to the team as fast as you can. Tell them they’re off stunt status and to prep for standby. Then find Spitfire and give her an update; if I remember correctly, the Wonderbolts are performing at the New Spurlin Air Show this weekend. We’ll need both squadrons ready if we have to go to combat.” She placed a forehoof on her protégé’s head. “And please be careful. We don’t know what the Black Ponies are capable of in the air.”
Scootaloo suddenly lost her bravado at that; death-defying stunts were one thing but this was risking one’s life in an entirely new way. “I’ll be careful,” was all the young pony could say.
But the blue pegasus wasn’t done yet. “Fluttershy, we’ve got to let Cloudsdale, Las Pegasas and the other pegasi settlements to warn them of what’s going on.” Turning back to Luna, she added, “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“Best t’ send other flyers, Ah reckon,” Applejack suggested. “Y’all’re too important.”
Rainbow shook her head. “Sorry, but they’re nowhere near as fast enough, and as much as I hate to admit it, when Fluttershy pushes herself, she can fly even faster than me.”
“Rainbow Dash is right – we’re faster than most of the other pegasi and we can be spared for a day or two.” As always to the girls, it was always a note of pride when Fluttershy set aside her natural shyness and timidity, taking on nerves of steel. “Besides, we can’t just sit here when we can do something. I can’t just sit here with tact, when I need to act.”
Rarity groaned. “Fluttershy, dear, it sounds as though you’ve been watching those dreadful Iron Will videos again.”
“Well, um, no, not really. He actually called me the other day to see if I’d be willing to write some lines for him. I told him I would get back to him on that shortly.” A thought crossed her mind. “Oh, I do hope he’s okay. He wasn’t the best teacher, but I’m sure he’s helped somebody.”
“What-ever.” Rainbow Dash had already tuned out the conversation. “We’ll be back as quick as we can. Even quicker than that, maybe.”
“Then go and be careful, my little ponies,” Luna said. “Be safe, and I expect you to all stay that way.” Favoring the princess with earnest smiles, the three winged ponies walked away from the table and towards the window to begin their trips.
As the trio left, Pinkie felt a sense of dread. Not a “Pinkie sense” type of dread, but a feeling as though she’d never see her friends again. Before she realized what she was doing, she reached out towards them as they shrank into the distance, as if she could pluck them from the sky and hold them safe to her.
“Pinkie?” Luna called out, “is something the matter?”
“I..uh….” She forced a giggle. “Just, um, waving goodbye until next time, ya know?” She jumped to her feet. “Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I’ve gotta get down to the kitchens and get the staff to prep for a Pinkie-style paaaar-tay!” The whole bit looked as forced and limp, as un-Pinkie as could be.
Almost on cue, the sun began to creep over the horizon, signaling dawn and the start of a new day. “Great,” Luna muttered. “I forgot there’s a Day Court session today that I’ve got to stand in for Celestia. Sorry, heavy lies the mane, crown and all that.”
“Ah guess Ah’ll git headed t’ Ponyville t’ let th’ mayor know,” Applejack responded. “From there, Ah c’n round up th’ fastest runners in th’ town an’ have them head to other parts. But Ah’ll be back sooner ‘n you c’n count.”
“Looks like we’d best leave soon,” Rarity commented. “We should ask the Day Guard to prepare a transport – it’ll be faster than waiting for the train.”
“Rarity, if you don’t mind, I’d prefer if you spent some time at the Academy learning some protective spells, something that you can use,” Twilight commented. “I’ll send word to Autumn Wood to assist you. He’s a good teacher, and he’d be more than happy to do so.”
“Yes, but, Twilight, all things considered, I think I should head back to Ponyville as well.”
Twilight shook her head. “Rarity, you need to learn other types of magic, because how will you be able to protect yourself if nopony’s around? Besides, think of your sister – if you learn the spells, you can teach her so she can protect herself.”
“You’re serious about this, aren’t you, Twilight.” It wasn’t a question.
“I wish I wasn’t. At least you’ll be able to learn general protective and defensive spells. Because of my position and abilities, I have to learn the offensive ones as well.” Twilight sounded genuinely disconcerted at that; while they had all been in some form of combat before, the battles against Nightmare Moon and Discord were in hindsight much less dangerous than they’d seemed at the time. “I’d be lying if I said I wanted to learn them, because somepony will get hurt when I start using the heavy spells and worse, I’ll be the one doing the hurting. But that’s my duty now.”
Chastened, Rarity nodded in agreement. The inconvenience was worth it if it meant she could protect Sweetie Belle, duty to the Equstriani crown or no. “Let him know that I’ll meet him prompt at noon. For now, I’d like to at least get a couple hours of beauty sleep.”
“Spike, would you show Rarity to the guest quarters in our tower?” Twilight asked gently before adding with a growl, “Pinkie and I have to have a little talk.”
“Sure thing, Twi!” both Spike and Pinkie said at the same time, though their tones were vastly different. Both Rarity and Spike caught that something was suddenly wrong between Twilight and Pinkie, but felt it wasn’t best to intervene. Instead, as a gentledragon, Spike escorted his charge towards his and Twilight’s apartments.
As the two left earshot, Twilight turned on Pinkie. “You’re going to the Infirmary, now.” Pinkie was about to say something when a look from Twilight shut her up. “You’re not acting like yourself, and I’m worried – I think everyone else is starting to pick up on it as well. I promised I wouldn’t say a single thing, but at this rate I don’t have to since you’re doing a good enough job of broadcasting it yourself.”
Pinkie buried her head in her hooves. “Twilight, I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m just…afraid.”
Twilight hugged her friend. “So are the rest of us. This isn’t like anything any of us have ever been through before and I can’t imagine all the bad memories it’s bringing up for Celestia and Luna right now – they were the ones fighting in the last two wars, hundreds of years ago. And they’d do everything they could if it meant we wouldn’t have to put ourselves in danger.” She sighed. “At least let Candystripe give you a sedative or something so you can sleep.”
“I’d really rather not, but I’ll do it for you,” Pinkie said in somewhat defeated tones.
“Give me a second to contact her.” Twilight’s horn flickered with the violet hue of her magic signature as she started the communications spell. “Candystripe? It’s me, Twilight. Do you have a second?”
A tinny, small voice seemed to emanate from Twilight’s horn; as it did, flashes of pink danced in time with the voice. “Twilight, I’m glad you called. Look, I don’t have much time, but I’m going to have to cancel tonight.”
“Is something wrong?”
“We took some of the most serious wounded from the Everfree Garrison, and they’re going into trauma, so we’re working overtime. I won’t even be able to pick up Caney from school, but fortunately she’ll be staying over a friend’s place tonight.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Twilight asked, her concerns about Pinkie momentarily forgotten.
“Not much, to be honest. They’re not responding to healing spells, so we’re doing it the hard way with medicine. Dr. Carehooves is a part of the Guild anyway, so he’s looking into what else can be done.” Some background murmur, followed by, “I’ve gotta go, Twilight. If something really urgent comes up, you’ll be the first person I’ll call.”
“Okay, take care then,” she said as she broke the line. “Well, looks like you get a reprieve, but I’d really like you to go there first thing tomorrow. Promise me, Pinkie.”
“Pinkie Promise me.”
“Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye,” she intoned as she performed the pseudosolemn ritual; it was not lost on Twilight that it was the least convincing promise Pinkie had ever done. “Does that make you feel better?”
“It does. Since you really don’t have anything to do here today, I think you should get some sleep. I can cast a delta sleep spell on you, if it will help, and I already had Spike prepare the guest chambers for all of you.”
Pinkie sighed. “If it’s okay with you, I think I’ll just stay at my sister’s place. I haven’t seen her in a while anyway, so it’d probably be a good idea to drop in.”
Twilight suddenly growled softly, a clue that she’d forgotten about a vital detail. “Ooooh, I’d completely forgotten that Octavia lives in Canterlot. Maybe you just need to be around some family for a bit. Go ahead and give her my regards. But if something comes up, you’re always welcome to stay with me.”
“Thanks, Twilight.” She nuzzled her friend. “Don’t know what I’d do without you.”
About an hour later after stopping by the Court to inform Luna of her whereabouts as well as briefly mingling with her fellow nobleponies, the taxi carriage dropped Pinkie off at a familiar brownstone townhouse on the other end of Canterlot City. The house was stately yet relaxed, the ivy vines scrambling up the façade of the building, giving it that special touch. Hanging over the door was a wooden sign in the shape of a cello: MUSIC SCHOOL, Ms. OCTAVIA, EDUCATOR. As always, Pinkie appreciated her younger sister’s lesser talents; in many ways, they were almost as strong as her true talent, the one that gave her the cutie mark. Blinky always had a way with plants. Walking up to the door, she knocked, then sat and waited. She didn’t have to wait long, as there were some steps and a musical voice calling out, “Just a moment, please!” A second later, the door opened, and an elegant gray pony with a long black mane appeared from behind. “Good morning, what can I – sis!”
Pinkie reached over and embraced her sister. “It’s good to see you, Bli…I mean, Octavia.”
“Please, come in and make yourself at home, dearest sister.” Turning away briefly, Octavia clapped her forehooves sharply, calling out, “Students, the remainder of the day will have to be home study.” A small chorus of dissenting cries made Octavia smile briefly, before she said, “Now, as much as I would like to continue your lesson, I do have an important visitor.” Gesturing to Pinkie, she said, “Students, this is my sister, Lady Pinkamena, Duchess Vanner and the Knight Elemental of Laughter.” As the colts and fillies “ooh”ed and “aah”ed, she commented to Pinkie, “My, aren’t you the popular one.”
Pinkie dropped down to face the kids at their level. “Keep at it, and you’ll be as good as me!”
“You can play, Lady Pinkamena?” one unicorn filly inquired.
Pinkie grinned from ear to ear. “Maybe your teacher will tell you ‘bout the time I stopped parasprites from eating Ponyville by making a one-mare band.” That got amazed looks from the students and it took several more seconds for their teacher to calm them down. “Well, she’ll tell you later, I guess.” As they were ushered out the door, Pinkie overheard the foals gushing like “A real knight! Wow!” and “Someday I wanna be like her!”
After ushering the students out the door, Octavia exhaled in relief. “Sis, I don’t know how you do it,” she said, as she pulled off her bow tie. In that simple action, “Octavia” was gone, replaced by Pinkie’s younger sister Blinky. “I’m always wiped out by my students at the end of the day.”
Pinkie giggled. “What, Mistress Octavia is worn out by her students?”
“Mistress Octavia finds her students to be a delight and an honor to teach,” Blinky said in the formal tones of her alter ego, before adding in her regular voice, “But it’s me who gets worn out at the end of the day. Getting old, I guess.”
Pinkie plopped down on the couch. “Sis, you’re 25. How are you old, exactly?”
“I don’t have the advantage of being a Knight Elemental to keep me going,” she said with a bright grin. “So, what brings you to town?” She went to the kitchen to get some drinks. “Want some cider? Just picked up a batch of Appaloosa Acres Private Reserve.” Blinky popped the tops off two bottles, heading back into the parlor room.
“Thanks,” Pinkie said, taking a bottle from her sister. “As to what I’m doing here, it’s official government business. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything about it.”
She nodded. “One of my colleagues in the orchestra is dating a Guardsmare. Apparently there’s something about mysterious ponies being spotted all around Equestria?”
“Something like that – I was only briefed this morning, and we don’t have that much information at the moment.” Pinkie’s voice was flat and even. “There’s more to it, but that hasn’t been disseminated to the public just yet.”
Blinky narrowed her eyes. “Sis…go get some sleep.”
“You can’t fool me. I’m not like your friends – I’m your sister, and I’ve known you long enough to know that when you’re really tired, you start getting very terse and formal.” She pointed to the stairs. “You know where my bed is, so I want you to get some rest. Later tonight, we can go out for dinner – there’s a new restaurant I’ve been dying to try – and catch a movie.”
“Blinky, I’m fine.” Pinkie took a long swig from the bottle. “Just been a lit—”
“You’re acting like Mother.” That pulled Pinkie up short. “I thought we agreed that Inky takes after our parents, while you and I are like our grandparents – you, especially, are like Grandmother. But if you keep up the act, I’ll take you down to the salon to have your hair done in a bun. So tell me, wire-rim glasses work for you?”
“Just teasing, sis. Call it payback for when you and your friends trashed the Gala way back when. Yes, you told me later that the Princess specifically asked you guys to come so she could play one huge prank on the gentry, but that was my first year in the orchestra. Do you know how much I was freaking out when you kept shouting asides to me?” she laughed, clapping her sister on the shoulder. “I wish I had known about all of that, it would have saved me from almost passing out.” Blinky’s laughter was infectious, and soon both mares were roiling on the couch, giggles of glee echoing throughout the house.
“I needed this,” Pinkie admitted. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends, but there are just times when you need family.”
Blinky nodded. “You really sound as though you’re having it rough. Explain to me how a duchess and one of the personal knights to the princesses has a rough life.”
“Whenever I’m being ‘Duchess Vanner and the Knight Elemental’, quote unquote,” Pinkie shrugged. “I live in a small town where everypony knows me as a filly who moved from a rock farm – and most have no idea what a rock farm even is – and became a baker’s apprentice. Ponyville isn’t a place where I’m all my titles and all my stations, I’m just Pinkie Pie, just like you’re Blinky when no one’s around.”
“Okay, now I really know you need sleep – you’re getting sappy.”
“I’m always happy.”
“And you’re always playing word games. Go,” Blinky pointed, brooking no arguments. Pinkie rolled her eyes, then obeyed her sister’s wishes and went to lie down. She might not get some sleep, but maybe just being there would help.
In the park across the street from Blinky’s townhouse, a pony lazed on a picnic blanket, a half-eaten lunch the remains of an idle day relaxing. The pony was a deep shade of orange, with a mane of grass green tied in the back by a black ribbon. Her flank was unadorned, an unusual situation for a mare her age but not exactly unheard of. She turned the page of the book she was looking at with feigned interest and to any passersby she was nothing more than one of the rare misfortunate ponies to be a “blank flank” into adulthood.
None of them could have ever suspected that this was all a lie.
As the pony turned the page once more, she rubbed a hoof on her bookmark, an ornate cloth design that suddenly began to vibrate and glow a deep green. The markings on the ward flashed in staccato synchronicity with the soft hum that began to emit from the object. Eventually that hum became a voice, crackling and buzzing too much to be easily identifiable, which was the point. “Hunter One, report. What is your status?”
“I’ve located one of them, the one they call Pinkie Pie.” The pony identified as “Hunter One” spoke the name delicately, as if uncomfortable speaking it. “She is currently at the home of another pony and has been there for a few hours now. I have not located any of the others, nor either of the princesses. It seems that she would be the easiest to deal with.”
“Have you confirmed this with any of the other Hunters?”
“Two pegasi fitting the descriptions of two of our targets were seen departing the castle around six this morning. The sun princess is presumably still in the zebra kingdom, and as there is a Day Court session currently ongoing, the moon princess is likely standing in her sister’s stead. As for the others, they are most likely in the castle somewhere.” Hunter One scanned the area with a disinterested look, as though she was just resting her eyes before focusing back on her book. “Pinkie Pie seems to be the one least defended and most accessible.”
“Good,” the other voice said. “With this…Pinkie Pie…out of the way, we will have prevented them from using their strongest weapon and dealt a fatal blow to their morale. The unicorn Twilight Sparkle would have been the better target, but she’s as well defended as the princesses. In any case, you have permission to carry out your orders. Will you be able to handle this yourself, or do you require assistance?”
“No, I will be fine,” was the response, terse and prepared. “I will not fail.”
“See that you don’t. She will not be pleased if you do. Besides, we have other means of dealing with the remaining ‘problems’. Contact me as soon as your mission is complete.” The communication abruptly stopped, and the bookmark stopped glowing and began to smolder. Looking around quickly to ensure that nopony else was watching, Hunter One stepped away from the picnic setting, but not before tearing off two orange strips from her flanks, revealing her cutie marks. She also ran her hooves through her mane, and on cue, the color began to change from the soft green to a delicate shade of lavender.
As she departed, the picnic blanket, food and book began to disintegrate into nothing, with no sign that any pony had been there.
Rarity walked into the Unicorn Magic Academy. Part of her felt slightly embarrassed, as she was a full-grown mare and here she was, learning from one of the teachers as if she were still a school-age filly. But then again, the Academy was run by members of the Mage Guild, the most elite magic users in Equestria; and any unicorn foal living in Canterlot, regardless of station, attended the school. Had Rarity grown up here instead of Ponyville, she would have attended the Academy instead of the Ponyville Unified Elementary School.
But then, I wouldn’t have learned from Miss Daisy Days, she thought, the nostalgic memory bringing a smile to her snout. It had been the fastidious but kind pegasus that had first noticed Rarity’s interest in fashion and had encouraged the young filly to look in that direction; it had also been Daisy Days that had found Rarity after her first, wild lapidimancy spell had dragged her hundreds of miles away from home. When she retired from teaching, Rarity found it a shame, as she felt it would not have taken Sweetie Belle long to find her true talent had Daisy Days been at the blackboard – by no means was that a mark against Cheerilee, but the earth pony was a different kind of teacher with a different teaching style. As it was, whenever Rarity found herself in Palomino Springs, she always made a point to visit her old teacher.
As the lunch bell rang and dozens of unicorns streamed out of the classrooms, she began to look for Room 105. Ah, here it is. Knocking on the door, she called out, “Excuse me, is there a Professor Autumn Wood present? I have an appoi…oh, my.” Surprise, to say the least, was an understatement. Seated at the desk and grading some papers, was a rather large stallion with a tan coat and short, tousled indigo mane. He was almost as big as Applejack’s brother Macintosh, broad and muscled. There was another thing like Big Mac as well: there was a gentle look in his eyes, obscured as they were behind slightly out-of-date eyeglasses. His hooves shuffled the papers with a delicate, artful grace. He was certainly handsome, eyecatching to any mare. But…
The pony at the desk turned to her and chuckled. “I tend to get that look at lot from my student’s parents.” He rose from his desk and walked over to Rarity, introducing himself. “You must be Rarity. I’m Autumn Wood, just ‘Woody’ is fine. Twilight sent me a message to expect you.”
She flushed. “I’m…sorry,” she stammered, “Please, you’ll have to forgive me: I’m just a bit surprised that—”
“—there’s an earth pony teaching unicorns magic?” he finished her sentence, smiling. “Don’t be. My special talent is understanding magic – I just really can’t utilize anything beyond the inherent agrimancy that earth ponies have.” Sure enough, from his head to his very unusual cutie mark, there was nothing to even remotely indicate that he was anything other than an earth pony. “Sure, I can tell you everything there is to know about Rosemary the Sage’s book Monas Caelestis et Lunarum but don’t expect me to perform the basic light spell on page six.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, er, your cutie mark?”
“Ah, that. It’s the ouroboros, the ancient serpent eating its tail to signify wisdom and eternity. Well, that, or it’s really hungry. Speaking of which, I was just about to step out for lunch. Would you care to join me? There’s a nice café across the street.”
With that, Rarity smiled, relaxing instantly. It was clear why Twilight had asked this pony; he was knowledgeable enough to be able to teach her while his status as an earth pony ensured she wouldn’t feel pressured at performing to the teacher’s level. “I would be delighted,” she responded, moving next to him to have him lead the way.
“Ah, it seems I’ve arrived just in time,” a gravelly and somber voice intoned. Both looked to the door to find a bearded and wizened unicorn of pale gray coat and white mane standing there in very stately robes. “You must be the Duchess Lippizan, I presume. It is a pleasure to meet you, milady.”
Woody adjusted his glasses, shocked at this new arrival. “Archmagus Gainsboro?” For the second time in the past hour Rarity was somewhat surprised, the Archmagus was the head of the Mages Guild and, aside from the princesses, the only unicorn that outranked Twilight. “C-can I help you, sir?”
“I had just been passing through the school to see how the teachers were doing, when I had the misfortune to run into Lady Fleur de Lis. She was looking for you, something about her daughter’s grades.” Gainsboro shook his head in sympathy. “I sympathize with you, Professor. She was a handful when she was my student in bygone days, and it seems as a parent, she’s only gotten worse.”
Woody looked caught off-guard. “My apologies, Rarity, but duty calls. Would tonight be a better time to teach you? I can meet you at the castle – that is where you’re staying, correct?”
“That would be wonderful, thank you,” she answered. “If you’d like, I can talk to Fleur – I know her well enough, and I could probably defuse whatever mood she’s in.”
But the Archmagus stepped in. “Thank you, milady, but I will have to intercede on that. It is paramount that the teachers deal with these matters personally, regardless of how a parent feels. If they do not, many of the gentry may attempt to use their stations as an excuse to bully the faculty, and I will not stand for that. Additionally,” he said with an amused glance, “Woody is more than capable of taking care of this. Anypony of the mundane tribe who can keep up with, and in many cases surpass, any of the magic tribe is more than adept at dealing with a petulant parent.” He stepped forward, “So, if you’ll follow me back to my office, we can begin.”
“But I thought Twilight asked Woody to instruct me.” The Archmagus was pleasant, certainly, and years ago, Rarity would have preferred to be taught by him, if only for the status. But she was a different Rarity back then, and now she found it odd that the head of the Guild would have such an interest in a unicorn only proficient in her special talent and lapidimancy.
“Please, don’t get me wrong: I’m more than sure that Woody will be handing the heavy lifting, as it were. But it would be shameful of me if you came all the way out here to miss your appointment through none of your own fault, and I would be unworthy of my title and duty to the princesses if I did not at least give you some sort of training while you were here. I must also confess that if that happened, regardless of the situation, Mage Sparkle would not let me live it down.” He favored her with another smile. “As you well know, our mutual friend is a bit…brusque, shall we say, when it comes to planning and administration.”
There was something in his tones that bothered Rarity when he mentioned Twilight, but she let it pass for the moment; it was probably something she misinterpreted due to his deep baritone voice. “Twilight is one of my dearest friends, but I certainly understand her faults, Archmagus.”
“Please, just Gainsboro – I find that titles tend to get in the way of everything. So, shall we?” he asked, gesturing towards the door.
“We shall…and just call me Rarity. Do lead on, dear sir.”
Worn to the bone, Fluttershy almost crash-landed in a small town six hundred miles to the south of Canterlot. In retrospect, Rainbow Dash had been right about two things: one, that when push came to shove, the frail yellow pegasus was anything but, and in truth was probably the faster flyer out there; and two, that speed didn’t mean squat if one’s range was almost non-existent, as it tended to be for the usually non-flying Fluttershy. As this was an emergency, she pushed herself harder than she ever did before and easily reached the hypersonic speed of just under Mach 10…for all of two minutes. After landing on the first available tree so she could hyperventilate for a few minutes, she then continued her journey at an easier to handle – and definitely sub-sonic – speed, the rest of which took her much longer to head to her destination.
As she approached the main street, she realized a graceful landing was not in the cards, so she spread her wings out as much as she could for stability and coasted the rest of the way into the town. The touchdown was as bad as she feared, sending her in a head-over-tail tumble for several feet before coming to a violent stop courtesy of a nearby wall. Disregarding the world-spinning that was going on in her vision, she ignored the pain and tried to lift off, only for her wings to give out, her strength spent.
“Lady, are you crazy?” someone behind her snarled in a gravelly voice. “You almost hit two ponies with that sorry attempt of a landing! That doesn’t happen in my town.” Fluttershy looked up and saw a large blue earth pony standing in front of her. He seemed as if chiseled out of stone, and the short, buzz-cut mane only served to enhance his look. But most important, the pony wore a black shirt with a badge on it, the symbol that he was one of the town authorities.
“Excuse me,” she said, sitting down to rest, “where am I?”
“Great – another one of those happy-go-lucky types,” he muttered under his breath. “Listen, missie, this is the town of Horseshoe Lake. I’m the town sheriff, Hardcase, and unless you’re just in town on the way somewhere else, I don’t want you messing things up here, got that?”
Horseshoe Lake…that’s about thirty miles north of Fetlock Mountain. Fetlock Mountain was Fluttershy’s goal, one of the few places in Equestria where pegasi lived on solid ground as well as the location of the local weather station and rainbow factory. I’ll just rest here a while, then I should be there in twenty minutes. Fluttershy was jolted out of her thoughts by the unwelcome violation of her personal space as Hardcase stuck his muzzle mere inches from her.
“I just told you, missie, I don’t want any problems here. That includes lying here in the street like you’re some kind of tarpan! If you want to lollygag around the town, either hit the hotel or get out of here, got that?”
Tarpan? Fluttershy inwardly cringed at the epithet. “Oh, my apologies, I wasn’t aware I was still in the street. I’ll move right away.” Fluttershy began to stand up…until her knees buckled and she found herself back on the ground. “I must be more tired than I thought. Would you mind giving me a helping hoof…that is, if it’s okay with you.”
“Why do I get all the town crazies,” Hardcase muttered under his breath, reaching down and violently yanking the pegasus to her feet. He smelled something suddenly and… “Do I smell cider on your breath?”
“No…I haven’t had anything to drink in the past couple of days….” Suddenly she smelled it too. She looked down and realized that there had been a half-consumed bottle of cider spilling its contents by where she’d sat; she looked up and noticed she landed by the town bar. She must have gotten some of the bottle’s remnants on her coat, having knocked it over without noticing.
“Yeah, yeah, tell it to the judge. It all makes sense now. Your drunk flying, smelling like you’re a cider brewery and laying around in the middle of the road like you’re Princess Celestia herself.”
“Oh, I would never pretend that I’m Celestia. She’s a friend of mine and that wouldn’t be very nice of me.”
Hardcase rolled his eyes. “Oh, so the Princess is a friend of yours, huh? What are you, one of the Knights? Lemme guess…you’re Fluttershy, right?” Hardcase saw two of his deputies and waved them over. “Hey boys, lookie here. We got an actual ce-le-bri-tee here with us.” His mouthing of each syllable clearly underscored his intent. “Boys, why don’t you take Lady Fluttershy here to the holding tank until the cider wears off and we find out who Miss Cantering Princess really is.”
One of the two deputies, a unicorn named Gumshoe nodded. “Roger that, chief. C’mon, lady. We have a personal castle just waiting for you to sober up in.”
“I truly appreciate the offer, but I need to get to Fetlock Mountain as soon as possible.”
Hardcase barked a short bit of laughter. “Yeah, sure, and I’m Prince Blueblood. Gum, get her to the tank now.”
“On it. Lady, I’ve already had a bad day, and you really don’t want to make…Holy Celestia….” He looked up, his jaw dropped and his forehooves dropping off of Fluttershy. At nearly the same time, everyone else’s attention was fixed on what Gumshoe was staring at, and the looks of shock suddenly began to turn into looks of horror. Fluttershy immediately turned around to see what the matter was.
In the distance, Fetlock Mountain was aflame. Colorful mushrooms of smoke reached for the sky as the ingredients in the rainbow factory cooked off, belching gouts of technicolor flame. Parts of the sky became speckled dots as whole groups of pegasi raced off in panic, trying to escape the prismatic firepit that had been their town. The sides of the nearby mountains glowed with a riot of colors that would have in other times been cheerful and bright, but for now, it was a sign that something was terribly, horribly wrong.
Hardcase reacted immediately, turning to his pegasus deputy. “Johnny Law, round up the rest of the force and have them meet me by the Fire Station. We’ve got to get to Fetlock immediately. Gumshoe, you’re in charge while I’m gone – and get that two-bit nag out of my sight!”
“How dare you.”
“Excuse me?” Hardcase heard the change in tone, but it happened so fast he really wasn’t sure if it was real.
“HOW DARE YOU!” Fluttershy snarled, wheeling around and staring him straight in the face, practically snout to snout. “Innocent ponies’ lives are at stake, and you’re sitting here, parading your authority around like a prancing stallion instead of saving lives! And if you so much as treat me like a foal again, I swear I’ll….”
“That’s it mare, you’re done. Gumshoe, get a hobble on her now and lock her away until whenever the judge wants to deal with this looney!”
“Fluttershy?” a voice called out. The three in the middle of the argument turned to look at an earth pony and a pegasus, looking right at them. “Wasn’t expecting to see a friendly face here,” the blue pegasus said.
“Oh, hello, Wind Whistler. I didn’t expect to see you here,” Fluttershy said, her attention and temper taken off her impending arrest for the moment.
She nuzzled next to her husband, Caramel. The earth pony grinned and said, “I had some business here in town, and Windy thought that it’s been a while since we took a vacation…”
“So we decided to stay here for a few extra days!” she chirped. “But what are you doing here?”
“I’m on royal business and was on my way to Fetlock Mountain and I needed to rest a bit. Unfortunately, I seem to have run into a misunderstanding with the local authorities.”
Hardcase suddenly did a doubletake. “Wait…you mean you’re the real Fluttershy?”
Caramel looked at Hardcase. “Um…Hardy…you didn’t know she’s Fluttershy? You really didn’t know?” The mustard-colored pony looked at Hardcase and shook his head. “Cousin, you’ve been to Ponyville how many times now? She lives just outside of town, and in all this time that you’ve passed her house on the road, you’ve never seen her?”
“I…uh…” He looked at her and she favored him with a slightly embarrassed smile, complete with a squee.
Gumshoe suddenly decided it was in his best interests to step a few paces back from a mare who could pretty much put him out of a job with a word. “Hey, Chief, didn’t you and your wife just name your newborn daughter after her?”
Hardcase did a facehoof. He suddenly imagined himself being stationed to garbage patrol if he was lucky. He found someone tapping him on the shoulder and he said, “Not now, I’m counting the minutes in what’s left of my career.” He looked up and found himself face to face with his worst nightmare.
Fluttershy just favored him with one of her most heartfelt smiles. “Don’t worry about it, it was just a mistake. Now, if you don’t mind, if you’d please get all the emergency responders in one place, we’ll head to Fetlock as soon as we can. I hope we’re not too late.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Wind Whistler asked. “Caramel and I will do whatever we can.”
Fluttershy was about to speak when Hardcase interrupted her. “Caramel, you and Windy take um, uh….”
“The Duchess Andalusia, Knight Elemental of Kindness,” Wind Whistler said, rubbing it in. She liked Caramel’s cousin, but he seriously needed to learn to unwind.
“Um, yeah. Meet me by the Fire Station in five minutes and we’ll all head out from there.” Turning back to his deputies, he said, “Round up everyone now, boys, pronto! The Lady’s in charge. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head back to my office real quick.”
“Paperwork?” Caramel inquired.
“No, some aspirin and a stiff drink.”
Day Court had just ended, and Luna asked one of the pages to announce that this evening’s Night Court would be suspended. Divinity or not, listening to requests and demands, dealing with court intrigue and expecting to hold opinions on the most banal of subjects would tax anypony. Sometimes I envy my friends, she thought to herself. They’re largely free of all this bucking garbage Tia and I have to deal with. Leaving the throne room, she magicked away her royal cape, wishing she could permanently do the same with her royal tiara and gorget.
As she entered the hallway, Twilight was waiting there for her, looking out the window at her namesake. The sky was a beautiful array of colors, reminding the night princess how very lucky she was to have this young mare in her life. “Twi, were you waiting for me?”
She turned away from the window, and Luna could see that she looked crestfallen. “We just got a report from Fluttershy an hour ago. Fetlock Mountain – it’s been completely destroyed.”
Destroyed? Luna couldn’t believe it, and part of her was furious with herself for having wasted the day in court. “What’s the report?”
“I have a paper copy here, if you’d like to read, but…” Twilight paused for breath. “No, you probably wouldn’t. As of the last count there were nearly a hundred wounded, but thankfully nothing worse than that. Considering the size and importance of the town and the weather factory, as well as all the rainbow ingredients stored there, it’s a miracle that nothing worse happened.”
“But you’re worried about the homes lost and the fact that the weather will run wild for a while. I can see that in your eyes, Twi.” Luna closed her eyes. “I feel worse than you, if that makes you feel better. It is not the job of a princess to rule in joy while her people toil in sorrow.”
“There is one bit of good news, though: a unit of guardsponies that were in the area found no sign of…well, you know.” Twilight’s sudden discretion in her words accompanied the sudden sound of hoofsteps clacking against the marble in the distance; the last thing they needed was for some bored and chatty noblepony to make things worse. “Every indicator seems that it was just a very horrific accident.”
“I understand. Thank you for the news, my stalwart mage.” The courtier walked past them, both mage and princess returning the informal nod of acknowledgement they had been given. “It is almost time for me to raise the moon. Will you come with me, my mage?”
Twilight nodded. “Yes, your majesty.” The two walked a bit, with Twilight peeking behind her occasionally to ensure that no one was in earshot. Once she was sure it was clear, she said, “When I was younger, people couldn’t stop me from being so overly formal. Even Celestia asked me once or twice to just drop the title when we were alone and I just couldn’t do it. Now, I’d do anything to not have to choke over every ‘princess’ and ‘my lord’ that gets me through the day.”
“And you wonder why Tia and I have mischievous streaks – when you’re an immortal divinity, you need something to keep you tied to reality and to the mortal world. But now we have you all,” she said, lowering her neck to nuzzle her friend. “That way, it makes it unnecessary for a princess to ask her mage as to the condition of one of her sworn knights…and simply for Luna to ask Twilight what’s wrong with Pinkie.”
“I promised her I wouldn’t,” Twilight began, “but I’m sure you figured it out by now.”
“I thought about entering her dreams at one point, but your thoughts and dreams are none of my business, since it would be rude, to say the least, to peek in on your innermost thoughts. Unfortunately, that means I can’t protect Pinkie from whatever’s bothering her.” As they approached Luna’s apartments, she asked, “I’m sure I’m stating the obvious, but did you insist she go to the Infirmary?”
“Unfortunately, they’re tied up with multiple trauma issues from the Everfree Garrison, and I suspect that regardless of what Candystripe says, they won’t be able to see her tomorrow either. I offered to put a delta sleep spell on her, but she insisted otherwise. I did make her promise – Pinkie Promise, that is – that she’d go as soon as possible. In the meanwhile, I did the best thing I could for her: she’s staying at her sister’s place.”
Luna nodded. “Good call. Well, I’m famished. Let’s get Rarity and Spike and we’ll grab dinner, then go do something fun this evening. I’m tired of being a princess 24/7.”
“Sorry, but I’ll have to take a raincheck on that.” Rarity approached them, looking as if she were burnt out. “I’m expecting Autumn Wood tonight for an evening session, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it. As our dear Applejack is fond of saying, ‘Ah’m plum tuckered out.’” The imitation was passable, and the three mares chuckled at it.
“Tired? Was your earlier session with him that draining?”
Rarity shook her head. “Unfortunately, when I arrived, dear Woody could not stay long due to his duties. Fortunately, the Archmagus himself was present, and Gainsboro was more than willing to give me some training in Woody’s stead.” She lifted her head and the blue aura of her magic signature lit briefly before guttering out like a dying flame. “I have simply not felt this tired in years, and I think Gainsboro is at fault here. For an educator, he is a stern taskmaster.”
“I’ll say. I might have more raw power, but it’s amazing how much refinement he has over his abilities. But that’s why he’s the Archmagus.”
“Well, I have to admit, you were right, Twilight, and I cannot thank you enough for changing my mind. It did allow me to meet Woody. I’m curious: how did you meet such a wonderful stallion?”
Twilight blushed at that and tried to speak, without success; Luna took that as a sign to mercilessly tease her friend. “Twi and Woody dated for a little while. Not sure why any relationship between two very introverted ponies wouldn’t take off, but they were able to maintain their friendship.”
“Ah,” Rarity said, figuring it was best to leave things be, or at least not give Luna any further ammunition. At this point, one of the pages approached her; she already knew what it was about and asked the page to escort the professor to the south garden. “Well, off to my second battering of the day; I hope I don’t end up with a hornache in the morning. I’ll see you both later.”
In the end, the two were alone. “So, your place or mine?” Luna said, with a laugh.
“Well, since Spike’s at my tower, I guess we should head there. In fact, why don’t I just make dinner for the three of us tonight? It’d be a nice change of pace to have a simple meal without waiters and pageantry.”
“Sounds fine, but only if I do the cooking; after all these years, you really still haven’t learned to cook. Admittedly, I’m immortal and divine, but I’d rather not test that theory, if you don’t mind.”
“There, you’ll be okay, I promise.” Fluttershy tied a bandage around the frightened colt’s foreleg; it was broken, but it would heal. Long before her life changed she was nothing but the town veterinarian who ran the local animal shelter, so she was used to medical care for animals. The past few years, however, had convinced her to learn at least a certain degree of first aid for sentient species as well.
“Thank you,” the poor foal said, before adding, “I want my mommy.”
“Why don’t you come with me, and I’ll help you look for her,” Caramel said in calm, parental tones, as Fluttershy gently placed the foal on the earth pony’s back and briefly gave him a look of thanks, letting her get back to the aid station. Having Caramel and Wind Whistler here was a calming effect on both the foals that had been separated briefly from their parents as well as Fluttershy’s own nerves. She had long realized her own faults, and while she was able to rise to the occasion when needed, trying to change her daily attitude usually met with disastrous results. Fortunately, the current situation let her operate in the former attitude vice the latter.
Hardcase approached Fluttershy, and there was a look on his face that was disconcerting. “Lady Fluttershy? Do you have a moment?”
“Of course,” she said, setting down the bandages and letting another volunteer take over. “And please, just call me Fluttershy. I’m not entirely comfortable with titles.”
“Certainly,” Hardcase said, much calmer now that he realized his encounter with the knight had been a genuine misunderstanding and that she was not holding it against him. “I just spoke with Sheriff Pumpernickel – she’s the top cop here – and she said one of her deputies found something strange near the feed lines of the factory. You may want to look at this.”
The two ponies walked away from the rescue station, walking through the burnt streets of the now-ruined town, headed for the rainbow factory on the other side. Since the town was in the mountains, it was pretty much just one long main street, and as they walked, they had plenty of time to see how much had been done to the place. When they’d first arrived, it was clear the destruction had been extensive, as it had burned some of the mountains around the town. Even still there were a few places, such as the Town Hall, which were still aflame in prismatic colors and tying up some of the firefighters. But mostly there was the smell of burnt wood, scorched plastic and the cinnamon scent of the rainbow ingredients that had been spewed around the town.
“Worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Hardcase commented to her as they walked through the center of the main street. “When I was just a brand new deputy ages ago, I worked in the Pransing Sheriff’s Department…it’s a suburb of Detrot.”
“I know where that is. It’s a beautiful place. I have an aunt that lives there.”
“It’s my hometown,” Hardcase pointed out. “Anyway, there had been an accident in the local Mage Guild office and wild magic was setting everything on fire. I worked security to make sure nopony was harmed, but by the time the fire department was done, the guild building and houses in every direction for a couple of blocks were ruined in one way or another. This…this is worse.” Fluttershy, not knowing what to say and already feeling terrible about the now-wasteland surrounding them, decided to continue to the factory in silence.
As they approached the factory, they were met by Pumpernickel, the local sheriff. A huge brown pegasus with a tan mane – almost as large as Big Mac, certainly as tall as Luna – stood by the entry gate, flanked by a few of her deputies and a couple firefighters. “Heya, Hardy, glad you could make it. And you must be Lady Fluttershy. It’s a pleasure meeting you.”
“So, Nicky, what’d you find?” he asked as Fluttershy and Pumpernickel shook hooves.
“It’s on the back end. Follow me and I’ll show you.” As they started to walk around the perimeter of the factory since the building was too damaged to simply walk through, she continued to explain. “It almost escaped our notice, but one of my deputies has a wife who works here, so he’s familiar with the place. The object – we’re not sure of what else to call it – was placed on the wall as if it was a part of the building itself. From the burn marks, it looks as if there were several of them and there was only one that survived.”
“Could it be a bomb?” Hardy asked.
“Doubt it,” a pony near the site said, having overheard them. “Bombs are round metal balls with fuses and explosives inside. I don’t know what this is.” As they approached the wall, all ponies present got a good look at the “object”. It was a black object that looked reminiscent of a calculator, with a display on the screen that showed 00.00.01. There were several colored wires coming out of the back, all of which were stuck to what looked like a giant piece of white bubblegum, which was in turn stuck to the wall. The orange numbers on the dark screen continued to blink repeatedly, as if it were saying something…or stuck.
Something in the back of her mind told her something wasn’t right. While Fluttershy didn’t have Pinkie’s inexplicable sixth sense, she began to back away slightly. Pumpernickel looked at Fluttershy and said, “Is something wrong?”
“I’m getting a bad feeling…I think we should leave it alone,” Fluttershy said, unable to take her eyes off the thing. It felt alien and wrong, as if it were something that didn’t belong in this world.
“Well, I guess we should take this back to the lab to study,” the deputy said. “Someone pass me an evidence bag.” With that, he put his hooves around the object and pulled.
“Don’t!” Fluttershy found herself yelling suddenly.
There was a massive burst of light and an ear-shattering roar, followed by a blast of something that threw her clear. Being a pegasus, she knew exactly what hit her: a bow shock, a physical force that was only created when a flyer broke the sound barrier…or an explosion. As she stopped her tumbling by careening into a tree, she immediately forced herself back to her feet and looked at the situation.
Flames – regular flames this time – were scattered lightly, but nowhere near as much as earlier. Several other ponies had been knocked back as well, though none as far as she had been. Running forward, she noticed that Hardcase and Pumpernickel, closer to the scene were moving as well, as well as firefighters immediately turning on a hose and letting it blast full force. There was a sickening smell, something that she’d never encountered before.
I have smelled that before, she suddenly realized as her stomach began churning. She smelled it on the rare occasions Twilight had made a certain dinner for Spike. While ponies were mostly vegetarians, they needed protein and usually got it from chicken eggs. Spike, however, was a dragon, and dragons needed protein from a different source. Twilight had told Fluttershy more than once that she felt really bad about it, and that said meal was magically created, so it didn’t come from a natural source, per se, but it was designed to perfectly mimic the real thing.
Meat. Specifically, charred meat.
Fluttershy nervously stepped forward. The fact that everyone there was already silent and stock still was the first warning. The second was the steaming, acrid smoke in the air. The third was the burnt blast crater where the deputy had been. The yellow pegasus looked…and then ran for the nearby treeline. She didn’t know if she was going to be sick, cry, or scream. When she got there, it was all three. An hour ago, she’d reported to Twilight that there was a small miracle that no one had been killed. That was now, horrifically, monstrously, untrue.
In a deceptively pleasant Canterlot evening, two ponies walked down the street, somewhat staggering. The restaurant had been better than prescribed, and both Pie sisters had probably eaten a little more than was necessary. So they were talking a stroll around the shopping district to burn off some of the food before sitting down to catch a movie. Plus, it gave both mares a chance to enjoy the evening air and spend time together.
For Pinkie, it was like coming up for air after being submerged for so long. Twilight had been right, as usual; Pinkie had not been herself lately, and only now was she starting to feel a bit like the old Pinkie Pie. Whatever was bothering her earlier was just night after night of being really busy and had nothing to do with their current problem. Once Pinkie had completely relaxed, she’d look at the problem from her particular point of view and probably confuse her friends a couple of times before explaining her solution in a way they could understand.
As they turned the corner, something suddenly popped into Pinkie’s mind. “Weird…we’ve been out for a couple of hours now, and you haven’t been bothered for an autograph.”
“Well, for starters, orchestral musicians aren’t as famous, as, say, Vinyl Scratch.”
“DJ P0N-3. That’s her real name, but like me, she prefers a stage name. Anyway, dance music is more popular than classical, so I’m less likely to be stopped. But you’re right, there are groupies for everything, and unfortunately Ivory Keys, who is one of our piano players, has a lot of them. Fortunately, his wife is a unicorn who has disguise magic, so she made us some enchanted items to give us some everyday breathing space. In my case, it’s this baseball cap.” She looked up at the white-and-pink hat on her head.
“Um, okay, but you look the same to me.” Despite her affinity for costumes as part of her natural talent, Pinkie was horrible at disguises.
“That’s because you already know what I look like, silly. But because I’m not speaking with my Octavia voice right now, and with the ballcap on, they can’t even confuse me with her. After all, we don’t have the same cutie mark,” she said with a smug grin.
“Sis, ponies don’t ch…hey, waitaminit…when did your cutie mark look like mine?” Indeed, on Blinky’s flank was no longer the magenta G-clef she usually had, but three plum-colored balloons, similar to her older sister’s.
“Magic, like I said. And it’s not your cutie mark I chose it to look like, it’s Grandmother’s.”
“Wow….” Pinkie’s eyes lit up like gems. “Can I try?”
“When we get back to my place. I promise.”
“Well, you’re my sister, so I won’t make you Pi—” Pinkie suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. Her ear suddenly began twitching, a clear sign something was about to happen. “Uh-oh…”
“Surprise Sense?” Blinky asked. She’d remembered the stories about their grandmother’s inexplicable ability to foretell something coming, but their mother had told them more than once it was nothing more than a superstitious old pegasus spinning tales for her grandfoals.
“W-e-l-l, I c-a-l-l i-t P-i-n-k-i-e S-e-n-s-e n-o-w.” Pinkie was jittering, more so than she ever had in her entire life. Both ears flopped at the same time, followed by her eyelids shutting, followed by her knees giving out. It had never happened before, and in all the times her grandmother had discussed their mutual abilities, nothing like this was ever brought up. Pinkie continued to vibrate on the floor as if plugged into an electrical outlet, while Blinky just looked supremely embarrassed, giving an apologetic smile to another pony as she’d walked past.
After what seemed like forever, Pinkie stopped shaking and looked up at Blinky. “Wow. That was…weird. Kinda fun, too. Very much an E ticket ride.” The pony closed her eyes for a second, actually savoring the moment. “But very weird.”
“You okay? That looked pretty rough.” Blinky extended a forehoof. “For a minute there, I thought you were going t—” Blinky stopped in mid-sentence, the words dying on her lips. She pitched forward, falling towards Pinkie, who moved up to catch the grey pony.
“Blinky?” Pinkie felt something warm and wet. She moved her hoof back and saw blood. “Blinky!”
“I didn’t mean to stab her, so I apologize.” Pinkie looked up and saw the pony that had moved past them a couple of seconds ago. She stood on her hindlegs, carrying a bloody knife in her forehoof; on her other foreleg was a bandolier with several other knives. She had a lavender mane and orange coat, and a very unusual cutie mark. Despite the blood on her knife, the pony looked a bit sad. “It’s not the best way to make amends, but I’ll kill you quickly to spare you the pain of seeing your sister die.” With that, the pony stabbed forward, jumping with the speed of a well-trained dancer.
Pinkie leapt back, turning. The blade missed her, but in the process, it sank into Blinky’s coat, plunging far enough to stick in. The assailant let it go, reaching for one of her other knives instead.
Pinkie’s eyes went wide. “Wh-what are you doing?”
“Lady Pinkamena, this is called an assassination. I’m an assassin. That’s what I do.” Putting the blade in her mouth briefly, she closed her eyes and stretched her forelegs out as far wide as they could go. A blast of green magic shot out from her, stretching out for several hundred feet before enveloping everything in the area in a domed spell. “There, that should do it. I’ll have to do this quickly, a spell such as this cannot last long before any authority notices it.”
Under normal conditions, it would seem impossible than one of the earth tribe could do magic. Moreso, this was powerful magic, far more than the average unicorn could do and on the level of someone in the Mage Guild. But Pinkie didn’t care about that in the least. She was terrified for her sister, not even thinking that the stranger was here specifically to kill her.
Twilight! Luna! Somebody help me! she screamed in her mind, unable to the bring words to her mouth. She looked at her sister, holding her close as if mere proximity would save her.
“Pinkamena…Pinkie, isn’t it?” The pony bent down, and she seemed genuinely contrite at her mistake, as if that would make a difference. “You’re hurting her by shaking her like that. She’ll bleed to death before you do if you keep that up.” The pony got back up on all fours and said, “Please run. If you get a distance enough away from her, you won’t have to see her go like this. Treasure those happy moments with her as your last.”
“No.” Pinkie felt something in her snap, an anger building in her. This was magnitudes stronger than when she thought her friends abandoned her or when she was corrupted by Discord. Her skin began to flush with anger, turning the pink pony briefly closer to magenta.
“Pinkie, I’ve done this many a time before, and it doesn’t get easy for either me or my target. Go.”
“No.” Pinkie stood on her hindlegs, stepping between the pony and Blinky. “I won’t abandon my sister.”
The pony shook her head. “You’re truly brave. I thought you, the yellow pegasus and the white unicorn were the weaker half of you six Knights. I may have to revise that.” And with that, she moved forward in a twist, turning and bucking Pinkie in the side, knocking her off her feet.
Pinkie felt something crack in her side, an agonizing pain ripping across her flank and hurting like nothing she’d ever felt before. She’d had plenty of bumps, bruises and faceplants, but nothing ever felt like this. She bit down on her lip to prevent herself from screaming as she got back to her feet.
“Yes, very brave,” a voice said from behind her and she felt a sharp pain in her back, then a tearing sensation. Pinkie collapsed to the ground, her mind spinning. Somewhere distant, she heard two voices. The first was the assassin’s: “I’ve met beings that haven’t faced their death as bravely as you have, Duchess. You have my sincerest respect.”
The second voice, becoming stronger and louder, was a memory:
In the bedroom she shared with her sister Blinqestra and their yearling sister Incara, young Pinkamena heard her grandmother walk into the room. “Pinkie, dear heart, are you awake?” Surprise asked.
Pinkie sat up, rapt at her grandmother’s visit. “Grandmother!” she said, reaching out to the elderly pegasus. “I love you!” the foal cooed, nuzzling and being nuzzled in return.
“Pinkie, I came by one last time to say goodbye,” Surprise said, “and I wanted to talk to you and you alone.” Pinkie looked around and found that her sisters had been removed from the room. “I asked your parents to allow Blinky and Inky sleep with them tonight; I’ll sleep here with you. What I have to say is for you and you only. Your sisters won’t understand, your father doesn’t believe and your mother, as much as I love her, refuses to admit it.”
“I don’t understand,” Pinkie said, and she didn’t. She was just a foal, having just turned eight.
“You don’t have to, not right now,” Surprise answered. “Pinkie, I’m an old mare, and it’s my time to go. I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity, one that means a lot to me, and I’m going to take it. It means I won’t see you all ever again, but I’ll never be away from you, never in my heart.”
“You’re going away?” That was the only thing the pink foal understood. She held her grandmother closer to her, pulling with all her tiny might.
“I know this is hard for you, and it’s not easy for me either, dear heart,” Surprise said, wiping a tear from her eye. “But someday you’ll understand what I’m about to tell you: Pinkie, you are powerful, strong in a way you don’t understand yet. You are filled with laughter and joy, just as I am, and you will bear my mark. You will be a mare amongst mares, a pony apart from others. And you will know when that day comes – I have seen it in my dreams, though I cannot explain in words.”
“I’ll be strong, Grandmother,” Pinkie said. “I’ll be strong and protect Blinky and Inky.”
Surprise smiled. “I’m proud of you for that, but it’s not what I meant. But always remember this: your true power comes from inside and beyond.”
Inside and beyond.
Inside and beyond…
Pinkie closed her eyes, and remembering her grandmother’s advice, reached inside – and then beyond. She felt something brush against her hoof, something she could use to protect Blinky, just as she promised so long ago. With all her strength, she grabbed whatever it was, and it filled her hoofspace, solid and sure. She opened her eyes, in time to see the assassin leaping at her for the final blow.
“Goodbye, Lady Pinkamena. I will remember you as one of the brave ones,” the pony said, diving with two knives forward, ensuring the kill.
“Lady, I don’t think so!” Before she could realize it, she was on her feet, leaping at the assassin, righteous rage in her heart and something to protect Blinky with in her hand. The next thing she realized, she’d swung her foreleg forward, hitting the assassin as hard as she could with the object.
The world exploded in electric blue.