He writes! You read. That is all.
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Morning came, and it with it a new watch. Harmony Grass talked to the evening shift and found out about the progress that Princess Luna and Twilight Sparkle had made over the course of the evening and that the chances of anything with the prisoner were less likely to occur. While they weren’t yet out of the clear, they were keeping four-pony teams of mages to guard the cell until further notice. After relieving Cinnamon Breeze’s group, he sat down with his three other mages, hoping it’d be a quiet shift. He brought some paperwork with him: the newest dissertation by Mage Trixie Lulamoon regarding a perpetual motion engine was impossible, but he’d peer review it and recommend she be replaced on the scientific research committee – her weird notions were starting to come up one too many times.
“Reading Mage Lulamoon’s paper?” a voice called to him; he looked over and saw that while the other two mages had decided to just doze off, his third teammate, Island Rainbow, had brought paperwork of her own. Originally from tropical Hoofolulu, she seemed quite studious and professional; really cute too. She looked back at him and said, “I’ve met her. Arrogant as an alicorn, and I’ve heard she and Royal Mage Sparkle do not get along.”
“Like oil and water,” he chuckled. “They were both at the Central Thaumaturgical Conference in Salt Lick City six months ago and ready to tear each other apart by the second day. By the end of the week the Archmagus was ready to start selling boxing tickets.” Using his telekinesis, he shook the papers. “While Lulamoon’s work’s incredibly detailed, it’s also incredibly wrong.” He chuckled. “Would you believe that in her last submission she came up with the crackpot idea that the atom can be divided?”
“Really?” Island Rainbow clucked her tongue in annoyance. “Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me. I peer reviewed the one she did where she claimed to find a human skeleton – humans, of all things; you think she could have at least said something feasible like a proto-minotaur – and the fossil record showed it to be dwarf dragon bones. I still have my copy and read from it occasionally when I really need a laugh.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen that one. Perhaps I could borrow it sometime, if you don’t mind.” Yup, Harmony Grass thought, really cute.
“Sure, I’d love to. Maybe we could talk about it…over dinner? You free tonight?” Her winsome smile pretty much said everything that needed to be said. Harmony Grass got up and moved closer to her so they could go over more of the paperwork together and get to know each other a little more.
“Excuse me,” a voice called from the other side of the cell. “I’d like to speak to Her Majesty Princess Celestia, Her Highness Princess Luna, Knight Commander Sparkle and Lady Knight Pie, if you’d please.”
Harmony Grass, busily drinking in his exotic companion’s eyes, absently said, “Yeah, I’ll get to it when I get to it, prisoner. You’re not my highest priority right now.”
“I’d better be – or else she’ll spend an eternity being torn apart and reassembled by powers you can’t comprehend…and you, you’ll spend that eternity, watching, unable to help,” Hunter said nastily. “Alternately, I could also introduce you both to the Eldritch Horror that is Zalgo….” Hunter held up a hoof and closed her eyes. The tiniest flicker of magic appeared; it was as much as she could do, given the heavy wards, but he probably wouldn’t know that.
What Harmony saw was a prisoner who could potentially break the barriers…and chose not to, on purpose. She wanted something and wanted it now. I don’t have time for this. Irritatingly, he opened a comm spell while Island Rainbow went back to her work, trying not to look as if she was terrified for her life. “Twilight? It’s Harmony. Our, ahem, ‘guest’ wants to see you, Pinkie and the princesses.”
A pause for a few seconds, followed by a groan. “Sorry, Harmony – just woke up. Let her know I’ve got to round up Pinkie and the princesses. I’ll send Spike down in an hour to get her; I’ll need you to escort as well.”
“Sure, will do. Harmony out.”
Stalliongrad, located on the northern coast of Caballus, was the world’s paramount refinery town. Not far from the polar bear nation of Arctica, the city was responsible for most of the normal and magical metals in the world. If it was a metal – iron, copper, gold, aluminum, mithril, alkahest – chances are you got it from Stalliongrad. Granted, the ponies that lived here weren’t the only ones who sold their wares in the global market; the southern diamond dog nation of Canistralia was a major competitor, and the jaguars in Mewrugay were said to be setting up their own industry as well. Even still, all the nations, from Gryphonland to Equestria, from Dragonica to Zebrababwe, from the Gazelle Republic to the Democratic Republic of Beasts, got the lion’s share of their metals from Stalliongrad.
At least that’s how it was until yesterday. Now, there was nowhere to buy steel…unless you planned to pick up the boiling hot pools of metal that were strewn everywhere. Huge gouts of natural or mystic flame belched into the sky as a new refinery or smelting plant was destroyed. The city itself was covered in thick, oily smoke, which was a blessing; now the fleeing residents were spared seeing their homes and livelihood destroyed by a huge host of black-clad earth ponies that seemed to come out of nowhere and in numbers too huge to believe.
Rumors were rampant: the earth ponies were using magic; they were using human weapons; they were Windigo spirits, given a new form to rain destruction upon ponykind; they were Discord’s followers, come too late to rescue their lord but would continue the anarchy in his name. As the casualties continued and the number of evacuees fleeing the city went from a trickle to a torrent of panic, stampeding bodies, it became worse and worse. Firefighters fought in vain to put out the fires and help evacuees to safety and the town sheriff’s department was overwhelmed trying to solve a military invasion with police tactics; eventually even these emergency services had to pull out of the dying city. The truth was, Stalliongrad was lost and it would take a long, long time – if ever – to rebuild.
Based on a hill overlooking what was left of the town, a unit from the Caballan military sat, collecting intelligence. Dispatched too late from their base and far too small to even consider fighting, the squad opted to camp and gather as much information as possible to relay to headquarters, and to help the survivors once complete. Two groups of scouts had been deployed, one earth pony team for ground work and one pegasus team for aerial surveillance, and their commander sat waiting for them to return as the unicorns compiled the data to send to HQ. Additionally, a few unicorn medics had been sent to carefully make their way to the city to see what they could do to assist.
The unit commander paced back and forth, her frustration growing; to show up in full force would be complete suicide for the troops under her command, but at the same time the civilians needed assistance. Setting up intelligence gathering had been the best compromise, but to her it was cowardly albeit necessary. But that was the burden of command, she knew: sometimes she was the one who got to sit in unwanted safety while ordering good mares and stallions to their fate.
At last, the pegasi came swooping in, looking the worse for wear and already battle-weary for a non-combat action. But that turned out to be a lie; while some of their wear was from flying through the tarry smoke of the city, some of it was the scars and burns of magical attacks. As the pegasus lieutenant ordered his wounded flyers to see the medics immediately, he strode up to the captain. “Captain, I’m back. I’ll have to tell you, though, it wasn’t easy and it’s not pretty.”
The captain nodded. “You don’t look good, Windmane. You probably need to see a medic after this.”
“Probably,” he admitted, holding out his left wing for inspection. Some of his remiges looked as if they’d been shattered. “Got attacked with an ice spell and barely moved out of the way. If I hadn’t, I would’ve been the biggest ice cube in Stalliongrad…for about two seconds. As for the main brunt of the report, we’re seeing upwards of 6,000 enemy troops vice our platoon of fifty. It’d be a slaughter.” He looked nervous, moving from one foreleg to the other before asking, “Permission to speak freely, Captain.”
“Gilda…they’re killing innocents out there!” he whispered harshly, wanting to explode but not wanting to set off the unicorns compiling the new evidence. “I know you’re not a pony, but…seeing those bodies out there….” He shivered; Windmane had been a career military pony coming from a family of military ponies, but even still, this had shook him to the core. “How could those killers be so bucking feral?”
Gilda gave him a concerned look. “Hey, Windmane, these are my ponies too…well, sorta. You get what I mean.” And it was true; having grown up in Equestria instead of Gryphonland, she was mentally more pony than gryphon. After having had a falling out with her only friend, she considered moving amongst her kind, but instead went across the ocean to Caballus, where she’d since fared much better in a military career (she was from a predator species, after all) and other friends. Still, she missed Rainbow Dash and hoped someday to make amends. She’d also tempered her attitude quite a bit; military life had since taught her that ultimately she’d been responsible for that day, not anyone else.
“Look, if it was up to me, we’d be going in there full claws and beak, but like you said, we’d be toast in a minute. The best thing we can do is to get this information to HQ, so we can come up with something: we’re facing some kind of attack and I’ll bet my pinion feathers we’re not the only place getting hit right now. Get your best flyers ready and we’ll send the info back soonest, then we’ll do what we can to help the refugees – these attackers can’t be so feral that they’d hit evacuees.” The look on Windmane’s face said he doubted her words. Turning to one of the unicorns, Gilda asked, “Mulberry Silk, how much time do you have left until that report’s ready to go?”
“Another ten minutes, Chief,” the unicorn answered as she worked at the typewriter, pausing only briefly to adjust her glasses. “Just typing up a spare copy now in case something happens to the original.”
“Make it fast,” Gilda said as she looked out towards the burning city. “If Stalliongrad is today, Trottingham might be tomorrow.”
It was a beautiful morning in Equestria. The sun had been raised a couple of hours prior, the birds were chirping and a couple of specifically designed clouds were hanging lazily in the sky. The local weather board had voted to have some light showers early in the afternoon, but in the wake of the Fetlock Mountain incident it was being held off until further notice. All in all, from the western garden patio, it was a perfect scene, the hope of peace ever present in the air.
It was, Hunter admitted, a frightening naivety for a nation on the very brink of war. But maybe they didn’t have to be, she thought to herself. The events of last night – and this morning – had given her food for thought, even as she had been invited to breakfast. What she thought would be a somber affair was one held in the light of day, surrounded by the warmth of Celestia’s sun and ponies that were earnest and honest in their dealings – quite the opposite of what she was used to.
Using her magic to lift the teacup to her lips, she said, “It seems I am alive today, thanks to one or more of you. When I thought the Mortem would activate that it would stop my heart or something equally gruesome, not bring a demon to my very hoofsteps.”
“Well,” Luna said, sounding as if she were grasping for straws, “Nightmare Moon…isn’t as strong as she used to be. She knows she…can be killed with regular weapons now and is more of a nuisance than anything dangerous, really.” She immediately drank from her coffee mug, lest she need to invent any other details on the spot. Note to self: come up with better excuse next time.
“I see,” Hunter said, thoughtfully. “Well, I’ve had time to consider your decision and to think about my own mortality. If you are willing to protect me, I will tell you everything I know. The truth is, I’ve hated killing since my very first one, and each life taken has been complete torture for me. I would relish the chance to escape my bondage.”
“Then why do you do it?” Surprisingly, it was Pinkie who asked. Prior to the meeting, both Princesses and Twilight had made her Pinkie Promise that she wouldn’t do anything; in fact, Spike sat next to her in case he needed to use his considerable strength to corral her. “You tried to kill me. You seriously injured my sister. And you’re telling me you hate it?”
Hunter nodded. “Pinkie, you might find this hard to believe, but I had no choice. I am in thrall by the dozens of spells placed upon me, and when I am given an order, I have no choice but to obey. Worse, there is nothing I can do to countermand any of it; even death by my own hand is not an option.” The very mention of suicide left the pink pony quiet. “And after what I’m about to tell you, you might think very differently about me. I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive.”
“I have this feeling we’re not going to like what you’re about to tell us,” Celestia said, pouring herself a cup and refilling Hunter’s. The ruling princess was being friendly yet detached; she weighed her duties to her people against the potential that the gypsy pony stated. Moreso, Celestia looked at the spells interwoven into Hunter’s being – for a divinity that lived and breathed magic, they were impossible to miss – and while she didn’t entirely understand, it was clear they were keeping her the way she was for a reason.
“You won’t – no sane being would.” She looked down into her drink as if for courage, then back at the others. “My name…my name is Pumpkin Tart. I don’t know who my mother and father were, and I was chosen to be one of the Hunters, along with my siblings. That’s ‘siblings’ as in colleagues, not blood or bond,” she added. “We’ve been serving our liege for two years now, and…despite how I look…next month I’ll turn six years old.”
All sound at the table stopped at the mention of her age. After a few seconds to think it over, Twilight asked, “Six? Forgive me if I don’t believe you, but I don’t believe you.” She looked the same age as Twilight herself, and amongst her circle of friends she was, at 27, the youngest, with Fluttershy turning 30 later in the year.
“She’s telling the truth,” Celestia said. “Those blue runes…those are artificial aging ones, aren’t they.”
“Correct, your majesty. A series of them were placed in our bodies so that we would never grow younger than 18 or older than 36 physically. The orange ones were to help us mentally, emotionally and physically develop to someone of the equivalent age. I often wonder how much of that is me, and how much is my acceleration,” she admitted, oddly calm for someone who admitted to being nothing more than a puppet for a creature. “I’d like to think that part of me is myself, but then I see all the runes on me – I can see them as well – and I wonder if they were all removed, who would I be?” She shook her head, and then looked back at them. “And then I tell myself I’ll manage somehow, one way or another.”
“Well, that settles that: you’re technically a foal and even aside from that, your actions were under magical duress, to the point that you couldn’t even kill yourself to stop the bloodshed,” Luna intoned. “I think it’s fair enough to say that we can let you go. Sister, would you please write up a royal pardon, just in case?”
“I have a stack of pre-signed ones I keep in my desk in case of emergencies like this. But let’s get back to the subject. Who are you sworn to?”
“Well, you now, I suppose,” Pumpkin Tart said, with a hint of a smile. “But I suppose you’re referring to my former employer, to turn a phrase. My sister Hunters and I – there are ten of us – are the primary warriors of the leader of the Gypsy ponies, She Who Calls Herself the Queen of Magic.” Again, there was surprise, and she laughed softly. “I thought that would catch your attention. But please don’t ask me to tell her your name – that would lead to a very untimely death for me, most certainly. She pointed down towards her heart, and the three mages present used their powers to see the glowing black line of magical runes that encircled her heart.
“That’s terrible!” Twilight said, seeing just exactly what had been done to this young mare…filly?...pony. “Did they do the same thing to the rest of you?”
“All my siblings have been, save for the oldest, Hunter Zero, who is our leader. She, however, has the actual special talent of being an assassin and thus had no need for enhancement. In fact, it was Zero who stole the Elements and left behind the evidence that was used to attempt to frame Rainbow Dash. Zero is the best of us and she is fiercely loyal to the Queen.”
“So, all we have to do is capture this ‘Hunter Zero’ and then we should be okay. What’s her name? Do you have a description? How powerful is she? Where did she take the Elements?”
“Not as easy as it seems, Twilight. She was probably ordered to disperse the Elements to other realities so that you would never get your hands on them.”
“Other…realities? I understand there are other realities, but I didn’t think they could actually be travelled to.”
“Absolutely they can…where do you think we came from?” Looking at the princesses, Pumpkin Tart said, “I understand that it is your belief that when Faust sent the original gypsies away, she sent them across the sea to a new land, where magic had died out but the terrain was lush and vibrant, is that not correct?” When Celestia nodded, the gypsy pony continued. “I presumed that was the case. It’s similar to our own, save without the vitriol. The truth is that Faust sent us to another reality, one that in truth was vibrant and lush and perfect for us gypsies to settle on. The problem was that with her choice – one she probably couldn’t have foreseen – was that as the magic was dying and our own powers were fading, the very world itself was dying as well.”
“Then how did you…?”
“About ten years ago, when the dying began in earnest, several ponies travelled the world in hopes of finding a miracle that would stave off our extinction. Most never came back, so I’ve been told and of those that did, their missions ended in failure. All, except for a pair that found a temple in a faraway jungle that had managed to somehow survive. What they found was two things of importance.
“The first was that Queen Bright Eyes had an emergency plan for her people should they ever be defeated by the ‘lesser tribes’. She imbued a crystal with a seed of her power, one that was designed to grow the magic within it until the day a worthy successor was found. Several of her closest hoofmaidens traveled to this new world, then went away from their own, building a temple on the far side of the world, where it would sit for millennia until found.
“The other, and possibly more important, was that there was not one successor, but two. The two that had traveled to the site were good friends, lifelong friends…and both were direct descendants of the queen.”
“I knew Bright Eyes briefly, before her corruption,” Celestia said. “I don’t recall her having children.”
“She used a spell in which she induced the image in her mirror to become pregnant with her children. I don’t know the full legend, but I don’t think there was a sire involved.”
“Parthenogenesis?” Luna asked.
“There’s a word for that? Interesting….” was Pumpkin Tart’s reply before continuing. “When the once the image gave birth, a second set of hoofmaidens took the children to raise as their own, so that should Bright Eyes’ line fall, there would be some day someone who would return the gypsies to their glory. These two children, raised apart with no knowledge of each other, became the ancestresses of two different lines that would meet in the friendship shared by the two travelers.
“But once they came back, the older of the two began to experiment with the magic crystal, plumbing its power, commanding its mystic energies, and eventually proclaiming her to be the next Queen of Magic. The other one, however, had not absorbed as much power, and it was her desire to use the Gypsy Crystal to rejuvenate their world, even though it would exhaust all the magic in the crystal; eventually people saw her as a holy maiden and called her the Hierophant. Despite their deep friendship, the Queen and the Hierophant eventually went to war with each other over the fate of our world.
“The Hierophant sounds like a cool pony,” Pinkie chirped, her animosity at this poor pony now all but forgotten. She may have hurt my sister and tried to hurt me, but it wasn’t her fault. She was just used. Pinkie grinned inwardly; sounded like Pumpkin Tart needed an “I-forgive-you” party and she was just the mare.
“I wish she’d won – maybe I would have had a normal life. The fact is the Queen won and slaughtered all the Hierophant’s followers; possibly even the Hierophant herself. She then made an ultimatum to the rest: she was moving to conquer this world in revenge for what was done to her people and nothing would stop in her way. And that’s where we are now.”
“So, we’ve lost the Elements, then,” Spike blurted out, having been quiet all this time. He knew what that meant, and for the first time in his life, he was truly afraid for Twilight, Rarity and the rest.
“No, there may still be hope. Someone can travel to the other realities and retrieve them,” Pumpkin Tart pointed out. “Unfortunately, that won’t be me; I’d be a marked target in a heartbeat once they found out I changed sides. But…there’s an advantage that you do have: you have a gypsy of your very own.”
“Me?” Pinkie asked, looking at the orange pony with a jaundiced eye. “I mean, I just learned yesterday that all my prestidigitation was actually teledigimation.”
“I can teach you the technique, Pinkie. It’s not hard, for gypsies such as us.”
“No. I know what you’re saying, Pumpkin Tart, but it’s too dangerous,” Celestia said, firm in tone. “We’ll find another way. I won’t risk any of my sworn knights – my personal friends – to risk their lives.”
“Tia,” Luna said, “We have to think of the realm – how many times do you tell me that? Pinkie’s one of my closest friends, but if she’s the one chance we have, we have to take it!”
“Are you willing to risk our friend like that? I’m not, so I forbid it. It’s not going to happen. Case closed.” Her tone was firm.
“No, sis, you’re wrong on this one,” Luna countered, equally as firm. “If I could do it, I would – I’d spare all of them, if I could! She goes!”
Celestia bolted from her seat, rearing up to her full majesty. “You would dare defy your princess?”
Luna jumped to her feet as well. “Buck yes I would!” she yelled. “I am your heir, and am expected to act in defense of the realm, even when its sovereign is acting like such a bucking horse!” The profanity rolled straight off the younger sister’s tongue, and both princesses glowered at each other, to the point that it almost felt like a replay of a thousand years back. The others were aghast at the scene; in all their years together they had never seen the royal sisters disagree so vehemently.
“Luna, Celestia, please.” To their chagrin, Twilight, brave as always, stepped between the two divinities, pleading for calm. “This is going to be rough for all of us, but remember that Pinkie has a say in this too.” Chastened, the two alicorns stopped to consider how Celestia’s protégé was probably more deserving of divinity than they were at the moment.
“You’re…right, Twilight,” Celestia said, reseating herself. “I didn’t think about Pinkie’s thoughts in all this; I only sought to selfishly protect someone I care about. I’m sorry for not considering your thoughts, Pinkie.”
“Yeah, me too,” Luna said, dejectedly. Her tone was still defiant, but at the same time, carried an undertone of worry.
Pinkie got up from the table. “Pumpkin Tart, let’s you and me find a place to practice.”
“We won’t need anything large. A gypsy gate, properly created, does not take up a lot of space.”
“Hey, I’m a first timer, so I suspect it won’t be properly created. Oh, and Spike, might need your help.” She said the last more to spare the young dragon the angst of seeing the adults arguing than any actual need for his assistance, but he clearly picked up on that and eagerly agreed.
“Sure, Pinkie, coming!” He looked at the three left behind with a glance that said it all: it was ultimately Pinkie’s decision. Nothing more to say and not willing to scar each other emotionally any further, the princesses departed for their own duties. Feelings would be soothed and things would be mended later, but a cooling off period was probably best for the moment.
That left Twilight alone at the table, staring at a trio of pegasi in the distance, playing tag in the air and living a carefree life. That would probably change soon, and not for the better. “Great way to start a morning,” she said sadly as she drank her cup of tea and waved over waitstaff to clear the table.
Unbeknownst to Twilight, the three pegasi she’d been staring at in the distance was Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Bamboo Grove. Bamboo had tried out for both the Wonderbolts and the Starbolts, and right now was just happy to be in the air with the Starbolts’ CO. Hundreds of feet above the earth the trio flew, lounging in the natural space that was the domain of the pegasi.
“So is it true what they’re saying, Dash? That we’re headed to war?” While Bamboo wasn’t as timid as Fluttershy, she still had a hesitancy to her that both Rainbow Dash and Spitfire agreed that she’d need to get over before she qualified for either team. “My twin brother’s an earth pony with the guard. He’s stationed down south at the base in Outer Flanks.”
“He should be fine,” Fluttershy said, uncomfortable with the height they were at but dealing with it, as Rainbow Dash said she needed training. “We really don’t know much about the Black Ponies yet, so the Princess said to prepare for it, but preparing isn’t the same as being in one.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t worry your head over it, Bamboo,” Rainbow Dash said as she lazily performed an arc turn called an Immelmanm after a famous pegasus that had invented the move during the days of the old stratocracy. “Just focus on what you need to do, especially if you want to make either of the teams!”
“Bamboo flipped a salute. “Aye aye! So, what are we practicing today?”
“Supersonic flight. Both Fluttershy and I can do it, but I want to make sure that you can as well. As for you, Fluttershy, I want to you to practice endurance – if we get into some kind of trouble in the air, I want to make sure you can get safely away, which means pushing yourself to hold up faster, okay?”
“Oh, but I’ll be fine, Rainbow Dash, because I have you and the others—”
“Don’t think that way, Fluttershy. There might come a time where it’ll be you and you alone, and I want to make sure you’ll be okay.” Rainbow Dash gave her friend a brief concerned glance before turning back to Bamboo. “Okay, so here’s the deal: quick run to Mt. Gaskin. We’ll start off at supersonic right off the bat.” The blue pegasus pointed to the spire mountain in the distance, hundreds of miles away. It had been where both she and the gang had encountered the sleeping dragon; since then, the huge cave had been turned into an airbase for the pegasus guard fleet.
“Wait, isn’t that a little dangerous?” Bamboo asked. She could go to Mach 1 easily, but Rainbow Dash was talking about starting off at Mach 5; going from zero to 3800 mph in a heartbeat seemed risky, at best.
“That’s the way it works, Bamboo. The stunt teams require riskiness and the like; I had a hard time starting off even at Mach 1 when I first decided I wanted to join the Wonderbolts way back when,” Rainbow Dash admitted. “But you’ll notice that your best tricks come at those really awesome speeds. Yeah, sure, simple soundbooms come instantly at Mach 1, but the really radical stuff comes when you hit hypersonic.”
“Well, if you’re sure….” The tea-green pegasus was anything but.
“Sure I’m sure. Fluttershy, why don’t you start us off?” Blue wings beat slowly, as if mirroring their owner’s contemplation. “Now, I want you to think on this one, Bamboo: Fluttershy is one of my closest friends in the world, and as fragile as she is – uh, no offense, Fluttershy.”
“None taken,” she said, sweetly, while focusing on the mountain in the distance.
“See? Now as I was saying, I’d never risk Fluttershy’s safety, but as a knight, she has a duty to be prepared for things like this. That’s the way these things go when you sign on the dotted line.” Rainbow raised a hand, calling out, “Ready?” A she watched Fluttershy hunch in the air like a sprinter ready to take off, Rainbow Dash chopped the air, shouting, “Go!”
And go Fluttershy did – and Rainbow Dash completely dropped her jaw at the result. From the moment Fluttershy took off there was the loud roar as she passed the transonic barrier; pegasi ears were naturally immune to the air-shattering noise of a point-blank soundboom. But as she hit Mach 5, a curious thing happened. While it wasn’t exactly the sonic rainboom, from Mach 5 on, there was an explosion of what appeared to be butterfly shaped magic, which floated in the air briefly before turning back into water vapor. As she melted into the distance, Fluttershy trailed behind her a contrail composed of mystical lepidopterans, as if leading a huge flight of butterflies into the distance at hypersonic speed.
Rainbow Dash blinked her eyes. Wait…did she just do what I think she did? She immediately blasted off, rocketing into Mach 5 within seconds. As she felt the familiar shudder of a sonic boom and then the bigger jolt of the sonic rainboom, she found that she was having a hard time catching up to her friend. Rainbow quickly did the math: so if I’m pushing 7, she’s pushing…10? She looked behind her and saw a vapor cone in the distance as Bamboo had just passed into transonic speed.
Everything ended, quite literally seconds later, when Fluttershy reached the mountain and landed at the foot of the entry to the base. Almost right behind her was Rainbow Dash, shouting for Fluttershy to stop. A few seconds later, a very exhausted Bamboo Grove all but crashed on the ground, panting heavily as she’d exerted herself far beyond what was expected.
“I feel exhausted,” the yellow pegasus said, looking at her friend. “I felt…as if something left me. Does that make sense?”
“Does it ever!” Rainbow Dash shouted, not sure if she should be proud of her friend or jealous. “Did you see what you j—”
"Halt!" A group of guard pegasi came running out. “This is a military garrison and…oh, it’s you, Commander Dash. Sorry about that – base has been on high alert since the news.”
“News?” Whatever Rainbow Dash was going to ask was immediately forgotten. “What news?”
“You don’t know?” the guard pegasus was shocked. “You’d best see this, then. Just got it by dragon fax twenty minutes ago.” He handed her a scroll.
Rainbow Dash looked at the scroll, then blanched. “Fluttershy, you’d better see this, too.” Though not bidden, Bamboo looked at the scroll as well.
FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
Distribute to all guardsponies
There have been reports of attacks on the Caballan cities of Stalliongrad and Barceloneigh, the Gryphonland city of Highmount, and the Dragonica base at Lonely Mountain. These attacks have been caused by the group or groups of enemy forces that have been probing Equestriani defenses for the past few weeks. At this time, the Caballan government has announced that they are now in a state of war with the enemy designated “the Black Ponies” (TBP) and that Gryphonland and Dragonica’s parliaments are also considering declaring war against TBP as well.
While we have informed the Princess of what has transpired, there is no expectation that Equestria will declare war immediately; however, all guard garrisons, fleet bases, and mage guild offices are reminded that vigilance is required, as anything may transpire soon. Furthermore, with this joint declaration, all leave statuses are cancelled and all reserve centers are reminded to keep in touch with the reserve forces, as they may be activated at any time. All unit commanders are required to report into their respective branch commander as to their unit readiness. Lastly, any sightings of TBP forces should be immediately reported to the authorities immediately.
More information will be disseminated as we have it.
In Her Majesty’s name,
Goldengrape, GEN, Earth Pony Guard Forces
Upper Reaches, ADM, Pegasus Guard Fleet
Gainsboro, Archm., Unicorn Mage Guild
Distribute to all guardsponies
“Unbelievable,” Fluttershy whispered. Three major cities had been attacked, which meant casualties. The Black Ponies, that is, the gypsy ponies were behind it, which meant that Hunter’s people were behind it, and they apparently did not share the same gentle heart as the assassin did.
“We’d better get back, soonest,” Rainbow Dash said. “The Princess will be looking for us, and I’ve got to report to the Admiral as soon as possible. “This is getting serious.” Rainbow turned to Bamboo. “You see what’s going to happen, are you sure you still want to join the squadrons?” When Bamboo nodded in the affirmative, Dash continued. “Okay, as of now you’ll be training with my team. If we go to war and we’re in a combat situation, you’ll be prepared.”
“Perpared for what?” Bamboo asked, unsure. While her commitment was unwavering, what did a pegasus do during wartime?
“I don’t know,” Rainbow Dash answered in a quiet, soft voice. “I don’t know, and Celestia as my witness, I’m hoping we don’t find out.”
Rarity walked into the Academy, ready for her daily training. To her surprise, the school was empty, and Autumn Wood was waiting for her by the front door. “Good afternoon, Woody” she said, all smiles. “Were you waiting for me?”
He blushed. “Well, as dazzling a mare as you were last night while training, I had to catch a glimpse of such fairness in the day,” he said, soul of a poet and tongue-tripping over every word. “Seriously, though, the students are all in the main auditorium. Apparently there was an attack today on three foreign cities today and those three nations are declaring war. So the Academy is holding a special lesson on the history of war. Besides, it was my turn to help with hall monitor.”
“Good heavens,” Rarity said, shocked. She hadn’t been told anything about that this morning while having breakfast with Applejack and the Pies, but it was entirely possible the information had been left out as to not disturb any of them. “That’s horrible! Is everything okay?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” he said, reaching into his sidebags and pulling out a scroll. “You might want to look at this. It’s official, but you’re one of the Knights, so it should be okay for you to see it.” Rarity took it with her telekinesis, unfurled and began reading.
“Oh, Holy Celestia, is this true?” He nodded. “I’d best get back to the castle immediately. Would you let Gainsboro…I mean, the Archmagus, know that I won’t be able to attend our session this morning?”
Woody nodded. “It’s just as possible he wouldn’t be available, either, as he’s been in a meeting all morning with General Goldengrape and Admiral Upper Reaches.”
Rarity nodded. “So, I’ll see you tonight?”
He nodded. “Absolutely.”
“I’ll see you then,” she said with a wave and a second later, blowing a kiss. She hadn’t even realized she did that until she left the Academy ground, and then idly wondered why.
A figure watched as the Duchess Lippizan departed the school. The plans were in motion now, and if all went perfectly, another of Celestia’s knights would fall. While there had been no word that Hunter One had succeeded in her mission, it was expected that news would be squelched that one of the most important ponies in the land had been attacked. However, Hunter Seven had reported that the rather distraught family of Pinkamena Pie was in town, a sign that she was dead. Of Hunter One, there had been no sign either, but it was likely that her usefulness to the Queen was up and Hunter One had been sent to the Great Pasture in the beyond. Such was the life of a Hunter; that pony had not been the first to bear the name “Hunter One” and she would not be the last.
Still, that odd earth pony could put a crimp in the plans to deal with Lady Rarity. There would have to be a way to keep them apart; perhaps their ally in the Equestriani government could be of assistance; he was, after all, doing this in return for a very healthy reward from the Queen should she succeed. The figure laughed softly; the Equestriani government had been compromised and the alicorns didn’t even know it! Of course, that wasn’t a surprise: what could so-called “divinities” do, compared to the great machinations of the Queen of Magic herself?
Enjoy what little peace you have remaining, Rarity, Hunter Zero thought to herself. You’ll soon have plenty of time to regret ever knowing your life as it stands.
In retrospect, Spike had turned out to be useful; Pumpkin Tart had told him to ensure that nopony was to approach the north gardens, as what they were about to do would probably turn the worldview of anypony who saw it upside-down. In truth, she was right; Spike was a dragon, but had very much been raised like a pony, and it was making him freak out somewhat.
However, as if proving her gypsy heritage, Pinkie was taking it in stride; not only that, she was a quick learner. While this had been a rush course in how to do things the gypsy way, it was becoming apparent that Pinkie had learned much of this on her own without even realizing it and hundreds of her quirks had actually been unconscious application of spells. Now that she was conscious of her abilities, she was performing at a level very much like the average gypsy, possibly above average.
“You’re a fast learner,” Pumpkin Tart said, impressed.
Pinkie waved it off. “Piece of cake.” As if to illustrate a point, she reached behind her, bringing forth a slice of cake. Munching on it, she asked, “Wanb a bibe”?
“Ah, no, but thank you regardless.” The comical site brought smile to Pumpkin Tart’s face and it dawned on her how powerful Pinkie could be; the smiles had possibly been an application of her ability as the Knight Elemental of Laughter; she had no idea how the Harmonic powers worked, but a pony with two different sets of magic could very much be a dangerous pony to her enemies. She then thought about Twilight Sparkle, the Knight Commander and Royal Mage, who was said to be almost as powerful as the alicorn sisters themselves. Maybe it was a good thing that I was assigned to deal with them; I don’t think I’d want to be any of their enemies.
“So, how’m I doing, teach?” Another thing about the pink pony: when she was in good spirits, she seemed to run on pure sugar and giggles; it was very different from the earlier, dour look on her face when they’d first met.
“Well, I’m not a magic teacher, but I’d say you’ve got the basics known by any gypsy. But now here’s the hard part: creating a gypsy gate. It’s a simple matter, but you must be careful. You’ll be transporting mass whenever you use one for yourself, and nature abhors a vacuum. Some mass, no matter how little, must be swapped with you and anypony traveling with you, or else the gate will go awry and you may end up making things difficult for the place you left behind. During training, one of the Hunter candidates opened a gypsy gate, but did not bother to account for mass. When the gate closed, he’d displaced a baby atlatch-nacha – a giant spider – and even baby atlaches can be aggressive and lethal. Two of our numbers were slaughtered by the thing before Hunter Zero had destroyed it.”
That news sent a shiver down Pinkie’s back. “What happened to the candidate?”
Pumpkin Tart’s suddenly looked crestfallen. “He…never came back. It was believed that he gated right into an atlach nest on the other side and became an instant meal.” But she looked right up and said, “The best way to do it is the moment you cross over, materialize something small, a rock, for example, and then toss it in to close the gate. If not, the closest thing that is not you or your fellow travelers will be sucked into the gate to maintain the balance.”
“Okie dokie, Loki!” she said, absorbing the information…as well as to remind herself not to go wherever that student did. “So, how do I do it?”
“You just think about where you wish to go, and create the gate,” Pumpkin Tart commented. “There’s not a formula or spell, it just is.”
Okay, you can do this, Pinkie. She closed her eyes, and as always, she reached inside…and beyond. Instinct told her to reach out and tap the air, and so she did. Soft blue light burned into existence as a circle of energy began to draw itself in the air. Light pink and soft yellow motes of light joined in the tracings, and unreadable runes of magic began to appear on the gate. When it was done, it was a wonder to behold: a great alchemical circle of blue, with a triangle of pink in the center overlaid over a smaller yellow circle in the north-east position. Embedded in the triangle were three smaller circles, each with a rune in it and a line connecting to the greater circle. Lastly, in the center of it was another rune-scribbled circle, and the centerpiece of the gate was the creator’s mark: burning almost as brightly as the sun were three balloons, two blue and one yellow, revealing the gypsy whose work this was.
Pumpkin Tart looked at Pinkie, back at the gate and then back at Pinkie, who merely said, “Um, I can’t read any of that.”
“Pinkie…you just created a gate in seconds. It usually takes any traveler minutes of concentration to do this…it takes me about five minutes to complete a fully-formed gate, and I don’t think I’m a slouch at all.”
“Um, beginner’s luck?”
“Close your gate, quick. We don’t want any accidents, and we’d better tell the princesses that you’re ready. Then you can decide if you want to do this or not.”
Instead, Pinkie began to approach the gate. “No. If I go now, there won’t be anyone to stop me, not even Celestia. Somepony has to find the Elements, and that pony is me.” She stepped within inches of the gate. “Tell everyone I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“No.” Pumpkin Tart reached over and grabbed her tail. “That should be your doing.” She paused and said, “Pinkie, I’ve never had any family or friends, just so-termed ‘siblings’ that try to kill me as much as I tried to kill them whenever we weren’t on a mission. As short as it’s been, my life has been diamond-dog-eat-diamond-dog and I’m still trying to comprehend how you all live yours. But you, Pinkie – you have a family and true friends, ponies who love you and would be hurt if you didn’t say goodbye. Think of your family: they’re afraid of losing one daughter, what happened if another one just disappeared?”
“I…I hadn’t thought of that.” Even now, Blinky was present on her mind; how would her family react? How could she do that to them? Unbidden, the gate closed, vaporizing into colorful confetti of light. “You’re right. I can’t do this without letting anyone know. Thank you, Pumpkin Tart,” she said, nuzzling the other pony.
At first, Pumpkin Tart flinched, Pinkie had invaded her personal space in a very huge way, and the only time that had ever happened without warning was punishment, or an attempt for a candidate to kill an existing Hunter to take her place. But just as fast, the orange pony realized that it was something she’d never really experienced before: affection. Timidly and hesitantly, she returned the gesture. If normal life was like this, filled with caring and friendship, then her former Queen had robbed Pumpkin Tart of something truly precious and valuable…and had just made a new enemy from her own ranks.
Pinkie’s gate did not go unnoticed. The reality-breaking magic was strong enough to catch the attention of every magic user on the planet. Most of them thought nothing of it, however; when two divinities who essentially controlled the cosmos lived on the mortal sphere, one gets used to sensing that level of magic every once in a while.
However, Hunter Zero sensed it and knew what kind of magic it was; furthermore, it came from the castle. The power of the gate had been too short for an existence to have been fully formed, she knew; could it have been that Hunter One survived after all and was attempting to escape? Well, if that was the case, it would fall to Hunter Zero to assist in that escape. Such loyalty to the Queen could not go unrewarded, and in any case, to leave a gypsy in the hands of lessers would be an insult to their entire tribe.
Applejack stared at the larger earth pony when he’d told her. “Yer kiddin’, right? Ah’m pretty sure yer jokin’ at any rate.”
“No, I’m not, Duchess Mustang,” General Goldengrape had said as the two sat at his desk. He’d requested an audience with her earlier in the day after having wrapped up his meeting with the other branch heads.
“Please, just ‘Applejack’, if’n y’ don’t mind,” she said. “Ah’m not keen on titles.”
“Then, please, just call me Goldengrape. But as for a title, you may have to be keen on them, Applejack. You are a Knight Elemental, with a sworn duty to our princess. But as you may also know, your title and duty also comes with responsibilities martial. While I understand your primary duty in that regard is the personal protection of her majesty, your responsibility is to the platoon that is assigned to someone of your rank.”
Applejack’s brows furrowed. “In case y’ haven’t noticed, Ah’m hardly the leader type. That’s why Twilight’s the Knight Command’r, and why Dash leads a squad of her own, not me. Sorry, but Ah’ll have t’ decline.”
“I see. Well, I feel you undersell your own abilities, but there’s nothing to be done for that. But there’s something else, something a little more personal, that I felt you must be informed of. Normally, we wouldn’t do this, but considering the situation, one of my junior officers felt it was a good idea and I agree with her.” He pushed what looked like a report in front of her. “Do you know anything about the military?”
“Not much,” she admitted. “Mah older brother Big Mac did a stint in when Ah wus a youngin’, but that t’was my cousin Braeburn’s idear. Thought they’d make a name fer themselves while in th’ Guard. Neither of them liked it, so they left ‘s soon as their time wus up.”
“Well, each service has their elite units. The pegasi have their precision squadrons, The Wonderbolts and the Starbolts – as you mentioned, your friend commands the latter unit. The mages, not so much, but they create special teams as necessary, and those teams are the best of the best. But we earth ponies have a long and storied tradition with our own wartime elite: the Destriers. Destriers are pretty much unstoppable juggernauts, fully vested in the military arts and capable of supreme amounts of destruction when called to do so.”
Applejack was reading the report, and at first she didn’t like it: the report turned out to be her brother’s service dossier. But as she got to the status of duty, she began to blanche. Big Mac didn’t like talking about his military years, and while he didn’t act as if they were a shame, he just didn’t discuss them. Now she knew why. “Is this true?”
Goldengrape nodded. “As true as Luna moves the moon, Applejack – as you can see in the report, I was your brother’s CO during the dragon incursion fifteen years ago.” Applejack remembered that; when she was a filly, there had been a group of dragon separatists trying to create a break-away nation within Equestria’s borders. The dragon king of Dragonica had sent assistance to Equestria but it was mostly intelligence and non-material support. It had been left to the Guard to deal with the separatists, and shortly after it ended, Mac and Braeburn had left the military. Since his time was up, it had seemed coincidental, but now…. “Your brother left, not because he was dissatisfied with the job, but because he was too good, and it disturbed him. He has the only recorded single-hooved kill of any pony against a dragon.”
Applejack’s eyes scanned the incident report. Goldengrape had been the unit commander at the time, and Big Mac, then a sergeant, had rescued a group of children from a town that had been attacked by the separatists. The dragon had been about to roast them with its flame, so Big Mac did the only thing he could, according to the report: he rushed in for the attack, breaking his lance off in the dragon’s stomach, then as it was down, he killed it with his sword.
“Another Destrier who was on-scene reported that a couple other dragons saw that and immediately turned tail and ran, saving the town. Your brother is a hero – it apparently runs in your family,” Goldengrape said with a smile.
“No!” Applejack’s tone was frantic as she slapped the report down. “Ah know whut yer tryin’ to do. Please don’t. He got married jest a co’pla months ago. Our granny…she’s not got much longer t’ live, and someone has t’ take care o’ li’l Applebloom.” In her mind she could already see a funeral – a double funeral, as her grandson’s death would probably be the end of Granny Smith; Cheerliee in the grieving black of a widow; Applebloom without a father figure, even though she was nearly grown up already.
“Well, you could countermand it. You do have that authority, even over me. But if you do, it will require a royal review because of the level used to counter the request while we’re gearing up for potential war. Someone higher than you, maybe Mage Sparkle, Senseschal Blueblood, or perhaps one of the princesses themselves, will have to review it. It won’t look good, Applejack, it’s called nepotism, and as I understand it, her majesty doesn’t tolerate it, even from her closest advisors and friends.”
“Ah’m beggin’ ya. Please.”
“Fortunately, there is a compromise. As I’m the head of my particular branch now, I can’t just go out into the field and lead whenever I want. You are due a command, but you’re turning it down. I propose that your brother take command of the platoon that would be assigned to you. We would have a trained and talented Destrier whenever we need, and as a unit commander he likely won’t see as much action as some of his junior ponies.” He leaned forward, sinking back to a speech he’d given more than he liked. “Look, if this were a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to worry about this. But you’ve been in battle twice, as I understand, against forces far more powerful than what we’re likely facing. Plus, he’ll be a Destrier commander, surrounded by stallions and mares just as capable as he. Truth be told, he’d be far safer in uniform than he would be at your family farm, should anything come up.”
“Ah don’ like this. Ah don’ like this one bit.” Applejack’s eyes narrowed. “But yer right, the princess won’t back me on this.” Getting up, she signaled the meeting was over, whether Goldengrape agreed or no. As she reached the door, she turned to him and snarled, “If anythin’ happens t’ him, you and Ah will have words, y’ got that?” She slammed the door as she left, not giving a buck about how it looked.
Goldengrape looked at the door as she left; she’d broken one of the hinges in her huff and the door now hang at a broken angle. “Well, that went well,” he said to himself.
Pinkie, followed by Pumpkin Tart, walked into the court. “Celestia, can we talk?” The court came abuzz with the scandal that a commoner would even dare to address the princess by name. Others talked about the scandal that one of Celestia’s knights demanded a personal audience, perhaps to inform on the oncoming winds of war. Yet others were scandalized that court would be upset by the private matter, as it took away from the natural intrigues of the nobility.
The day princess didn’t know whether to laugh or at least feign discomfort; while she knew Pinkie was never one for formality – not any of them, really, save for Rarity – she should have at least figured that the court was a place for it. “Pinkie, I’m working right now!” she said, breaking into an amused laugh.
“I’m going, Celestia,” Pinkie said firmly, sitting down before her princess. “You don’t want me to go, nopony does – I don’t even want to go. But if I don’t, something very bad will happen, I’m sure of it. It’s not a Pinkie Sense thing, it’s a…general feeling.”
Celestia’s smile died. “Okay, clear the court, we’re done for the day,” she said, clapping her hooves. As the gentry began to depart, Celestia descended the dais and faced her. “Pinkie, are you sure about this?” Seeing Pumpkin Tart behind her, she asked, “And did you suggest it to her?”
“No, she didn’t. The choice was mine.” She looked up into her princess’ eyes. “If we don’t get the Elements, we’ll have to fight a war, and ponies will die. The last two times something has come up, the Elements saved us, and nopony was hurt. That’s the best option and that’s what we should be going for.”
“Pinkie, I’d rather you not go. It will break everyone’s heart. You may never come back and we will never know what happened to you. This isn’t just a happy jaunt to the beaches of San Caballo, this is travelling far, far beyond even the range in which Luna and I can help you.”
“Then I’ll go with her,” Luna said as she walked into the court. “I…came to apologize for my outburst, but it seems I’m needed after all.” The night princess stood by her younger friend. “I’ll go with Pinkie.”
But Celestia shook her head. “Luna, you’re needed here. If for some reason something happens to me, it will fall to you to rule. And…it’s selfish of me, but you’ve only been back a while from your exile. I don’t want to lose you again.”
“Then send Twilight or one of the others,” Luna said, knowing she was going to lose that battle. “One of them can accompany her.”
“We can’t send any of them. Their mere presence maintains the seal on Discord, and just sending Pinkie alone weakens it.”
“I’ll go alone, then,” Pinkie said. “To some degree…I’ve always been alone. I have a power that sets me apart from my family and friends. I’m probably the pony that least likes being alone, and yet I live by myself. I live hundreds of miles away from my family, and though I lived with the Cakes for a number of years, again, I live alone. I’ll be fine, Celestia; if anything, I’m more worried about you all.” She looked at everyone around. “I’m the only one who can go.”
“Then let us see you off, then. A dinner and a chance for everyone to see you off.” The white alicorn smiled. “Think of it as a going away party.”
“I’d rather see it as an until-next-time party,” Pinkie said. “I’ll get started.”
“Oh, no you don’t!” Luna said, grasping the pinky party pony in her magic. “You’re the Guest of Honor – your job is just to sit around and let everyone else plan for a change.” Nodding her head towards Pumpkin Tart, she said, “I’ll let my new hoofmaiden deal with that.”
“I’m your hoofmaiden?” Pumpkin Tart didn’t even really know what one did, and she’d rather not kill again, though the navy-hued alicorn probably had little need for those types of assignments.
“Well, do you have anything else to do? We don’t have a need for an assassin, and Tia has Twilight as a hoofmaiden, sorta. I could use an assistant. Besides,” she added, “you need to get away from knives and all that. A new job means a new life…and who knows? Maybe you’ll even figure out what your cutie mark means.”
“Sure,” Pumpkin Tart said, genuinely grateful for the princess’ understanding. “Just point me to the kitchens, and I’ll get started.”
Once preparations had started, Luna explained everything to the others regarding Pumpkin Tart’s existence and with that the girls accepted her as one of them; Applejack even joked that had she shown up just a few years earlier, she probably could have been the fourth member of the now-defunct Cutie Mark Crusaders. They also agreed not to tell Pinkie’s family about any of it; if they knew, they probably wouldn’t understand, even if Celestia and Luna explained themselves. As far as everyone was concerned, the new pony was selected from a distant village to be Luna’s hoofmaiden and was just fully taking the role as of today.
As for Pinkie, she spent the remainder of the day talking to her family and convincing them of her mission. As expected, her parents were less than thrilled; her father practically cursing the divinities for the cruel fate that had befallen his family; as for the blasphemies, both princesses understandably took them in stride. She then spent the last few hours before dinner in quiet repose with them as they sat in the ICU room with Blinky. It was then that a doctor told them of a small bit of hopeful news: she had been stabilized enough that she could be moved out of ICU, though long-term hospitalization for a coma patient was the result.
As she was moved to the new room, Pinkie took her sister’s hoof in her own. It felt so small, so frail. Pinkie kissed it and whispered, “You’d better get well by the time I get back, sis, or I’m going to be mad.” The whole family stayed there until visiting hours ended, and Spike was sent to retrieve them.
“How you holding up, Pinkie?” he asked, concern clear in his voice.
“I’d be lying if I said I was fine,” she admitted, “But I’ll manage. Now, let’s get to the party. Can’t wait to see what everyone planned!”
Dinner was a stately, subdued affair. They’d intended to be more cheerful, but when one you love leaves forever, it’s hard to remain upbeat. Celestia had everything set up in the grand ballroom, with explicit orders not to disturb at all unless all-out war had begun. No servants allowed, this was only for them and Pumpkin Tart would handle the rest. Even then, she wasn’t left out of the festivities; a new expansion to the circle of friends.
But finally, as everyone grew tired, Pinkie decided it was time to go. Stepping slightly away from everyone else, she tapped the air, summoning her gypsy gate for everyone to see. Every one of them were impressed with the gate but at the same time reminded by its beauty that the pony they loved would soon be gone.
“Pinkie, for your travels I give this to you,” Celestia said, presenting a gray cloak. “May its warmth remind you of the embraces you’ll miss.” She hugged the smaller pony and said, “If I could take this burden from you, I would.”
“For my friend with the odd tastes and bottomless stomach,” Luna said with a grin, hugging Pinkie in turn. “A magical set of bags, ensorcelled to have no end. When you can’t use your magic, these will always help you, as much as I wish I could.”
“Pinkie, I hope this book will help you through your travels.” Twilight presented her with a book entitled The Official Guide to Staying Out of Trouble. “I’ll miss you,” she said, holding her friend.
“Well, I’m glad Celestia gave you that cloak, but a lady oftentimes needs other things for warmth.” Rarity’s gift was a matching set of scarf, saddle and leg warmers. “I hope you come back soon, dear.” Rarity’s hug bordered on the melodramatic, but understandable.
“Ah’ve never dun good at goodbyes,” Applejack said, hugging her friend, “an’ Ah don’ know what t’ say.” She explained that her gift was already in the bags Luna gave her, about ten barrels of the Apple Family Special Premium Cider. “When y’ drink it, remember us.”
Fluttershy looked positively heartbroken as she presented her gift, a pendant with a crystal that repeatedly changed colors. “It’s supposed to lead you home to us, if the story’s true.” Hugging her friend and starting to break into tears, she said, “I hope it is. I really hope it is.”
Rainbow Dash was next. Surprisingly, the pegasus had no idea what to say, so she gave her friend a quick hug and presented her gift. “I, um, it’s a bunch of Daring Do fanfics, that…well, let’s just say I hope by the time you get back, the publisher will let me turn them into a real book.”
Last, finally was Spike, who presented a heartstone, one of the rarest gems in the world. “Twilight got this for me for my birthday last year,” he said, as if parting with his favorite object in the world…which he was. “I want you to hold on to it until I see you again.” He hugged her tight, feeling another part of his young life passing.
The friends stepped away to let Pinkie and her family have the last words. “Pinkamena…Pinkie,” her father said, stammering, “Oi…Oi know Oi ain’t done roight by ye, not been th’ Father Oi coulda be,” he said, holding his daughter and not wanting to let go. “Oi’m proud o’ ye,” he said, meaning every syllable of every word.
“If we could go in your place, Pinkamena, we would,” her mother said, adding to the embrace. “Your father’s right, we are very proud of you.”
“Ye come back soon, sis!” Inky said, joining the embrace. “Oi want t’ hear all ye stories!”
Finally, Pinkie broke away from their embrace, walking back to the gypsy gate. “I love you all,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek. “I’ll have the Elements and come back in a jiffy! Say, what is a ‘jiffy’?”
Wiping her eyes, Twilight said, “It’s about four milliseconds.”
“That’ll take too long,” Pinkie lied. “I’ll be back before that.” With that, she stepped into the gate, melting into it as one steps into water. She passed through it, and was gone. A second later, a paper airplane soared through the gate and with it, and the gate…and Pinkie...was gone, possibly forever.
Inky practically dived for the paper airplane. Opening it up, she saw a message, which she read aloud: “Dear everyone, I love you all and don’t worry. I’ll be home soon. Pinkie Promise! Love always, Pinkie.”
The room grew still and silent as if grieving for one lost. Then the tears began, immediately followed by tear-stained embraces, and finally Mrs. Pie fainted, the stress of losing two daughters too much for her. As the others moved to assist, there was a knock on the great doors.
“Come in,” Luna shouted, walking across the room towards the doors. Celestia was better at the social stuff, so she could see to Mrs. Pie’s needs better than the night princess could. As the guard came in, she met him immediately. “I’m presuming this is important enough to disturb us,” she said, knowing it to be so but underlining it just in case.
“Yes, your highness. I understand this was a private function with her majesty’s orders not to disturb you all unless it was the most urgent of matters,” the earth pony said. “We’d already forwarded this to Prince Blueblood, but he felt it was critical enough to risk disturbing you all.”
“And it is?” Luna somehow knew what the answer would be, and the thought chilled her blood.
“It’s the town of Dodge Junction, my princess. It’s been attacked…and completely destroyed. There were no survivors.” The pony gulped. “The time her majesty feared has finally come: we are at war.”