Trixie shot off, running for the rear entrance of the Court. The other five ponies followed quickly. Beyond the ruined Court was a wide plaza, probably a former courtyard. The trees of the Everfree had yet to encroach on it, meaning the entire plaza was covered in slushy, melting snow that covered the tiled ground beneath them. Trixie had paused as she entered, letting out a huge sigh of relief as she did. A slight tingling sensation was running across her body, but she chalked it up to nervousness, fear, and mounting exhaustion.
Sitting in the plaza, near the exact center, was what looked like a sculpture made from obsidian. Rising in its center was a pillar of the volcanic glass, about ten feet tall. At its tip stretched more than a dozen long spikes made from the same stone, each a different length. The five longest spikes, at their ends, were impaling five stone spheres, each of which bore a different marking carved into their surfaces. It looked almost like a sculpture of a star in nova, and definitely looked far too delicate to have possibly withstood a millennium of not being tended to by master stonemasons. The most interesting part of the statue, though, was that it was bare and smooth. Despite the low fog and the snow all around it, the statue itself was dry. Even more so than the rest of the palace, this place seemed somehow utterly still and inert.
Trixie let out a sigh of relief as she turned around, gesturing to the statue. “The Elements of – ” she began, when she noticed that the other five ponies were casting their gazes around in panic, none of them looking at her.
“Where’d she go?” Carrot Top demanded as she trotted forward several paces, nearly running down Trixie before the unicorn side-stepped out of the way. “Trixie?”
“I’m right here,” Trixie said, looking down at her hooves – or trying to, anyway, as her hooves seemed to have vanished, along with the rest of her body and clothing. “Or not…okay, I’m invisible, must be the poison joke – ”
“She can’t have just disappeared,” Cheerilee interrupted.
“I totally can, actually,” Trixie noted, “but I’m – ”
“Maybe one of the traps was still active?” Ditzy Doo asked, as she beat her wings several times, getting to the air as she searched the courtyard’s surface, presumably for any sign of a trap having gone off. “Everypony stay in place for a second…”
“…and I’m inaudible.” Trixie observed, eyes narrowing. Not that anypony could see her look of consternation, apparently, but at least she knew she was making it as she trotted over to Carrot Top, who was nearest. “Except I can hear me. I can’t see me, though. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Trixie extended a hoof and poked Carrot Top’s neck.
“Gah!” The earth pony exclaimed, leaping sideways in fright. “Something just touched me!”
“What?” Raindrops asked, joining Ditzy Doo in the air, though looking more like she intended to land with extreme prejudice on something rather than remain in the air for safety. “What was it?”
“I don’t know!”
Trixie sighed, looking down at the slush in the ground and drawing out a few letters – or trying to. Her hoof just seemed to pass through the slush without being able to interact with it at all – which admittedly made sense, to an extent, since nopony had noted hoof-tracks with no owner being made when she had gone up to Carrot Top.
“But I can touch you guys,” Trixie noted. She tried her telekinesis, and found it similarly unable to affect the slush, but a brush of Carrot Top’s hair was apparently possible – eliciting another surprised shout from her, as despite her telekinesis working, the normal telltale blue effervescence was missing.
Trixie thought a moment, then stamped her hoof – not that it made a sound – when an idea came to her. She took off her hat and cape (also rendered invisible – somehow – Trixie did not understand poison joke’s rules) and threw the latter around Carrot Top’s back, despite her protests, and then setting the former down on top of the earth pony's head.
Carrot Top froze in place. “it’s on me…” she said in a very quiet, frightened voice. “Whatever it is…it’s on me…my back and my head…”
The other ponies approached cautiously, as Trixie observed, waiting for them to figure things out on their own. She frowned even as she did, though. “You walked into the poison joke first,” she observed. “Why weren’t you affected first?”
Lyra had reached Carrot Top first. “Your head?” she asked softly, staring just above Carrot Top. The earth pony nodded slowly.
“Must be earth pony fortitude,” Trixie decided, waving her hoof through the slush again. It was a unique sensation, passing through solid matter, or solid-ish matter, anyway. “Unicorns are more delicate than earth ponies. Raindrops will probably be next, then you.”
“Hold real still,” Lyra said, as her horn began glowing. With a shout, she lashed out with telekinesis, grabbing “whatever” it was that had perched on top of Carrot Top’s head. As her golden aura wrapped around it, it outlined the general shape of Trixie’s hat.
“There,” Trixie said happily. “See? Just my – ”
“It was trying to eat my head!” Carrot Top exclaimed as she backed away. “Look at the size of its mouth! Gah! And something’s still on my back!”
Trixie’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. They swiftly widened, however, when Lyra threw her hat down onto the slush, and Raindrops landed on it with all four hooves, stomping several times. “You idiots!” The normally blue, currently transparent unicorn exclaimed, stomping up to Raindrops. “Leave my hat alone!”
Raindrops paused in her stomping, hefting the hat upwards with one hoof – still grasped in Lyra’s telekinesis – and regarding the shape and feel of it. “I don’t think it’s a monster,” Raindrops observed. “I think it’s a hat.”
Carrot Top paused. She had been wrestling with Trixie’s cape, Ditzy Doo and Cheerilee having grasped its ends in their mouths and pulling at it as well. Trixie wasn’t as concerned for the cape, as it bore several fortifying enhancements that made it far sturdier than its plain cloth would suggest – but her hat did not have such protection. Worst of all, she couldn’t even see the damage.
“A hat?” Carrot Top asked, then paused as she shifted a little, feeling the invisible thing on her. “And…this feels kind of like cloth...wet cloth, but that’s probably the slush…”
“Thank you for that, by the way,” Trixie said, sighing as she stuck a hoof up her hat and began waving it around. The other ponies all started at the sight of Lyra’s aura moving of its own accord.
“Ith Twikthie!” Cheerilee exclaimed suddenly, though she still had a mouthful of cape. She spat it out and tried again. “It’s Trixie! She’s invisible!”
Lyra frowned at that, extending her telekinesis. Sure enough, her aura spreading around Trixie outlined the general shape of a unicorn, as Trixie set her hat on top of her head, ignoring the fact that it was now wet. Somehow. Despite her not being able to interact with the slush.
Poison joke didn’t make sense.
She waved at Lyra as she grasped her cape on Carrot Top’s back and retrieved it, ignoring its wetness as well. What she got in return for the wave, however, was a series of annoyed stares. “This isn’t funny, Trixie,” Cheerilee observed.
“I’m not doing it on purpose!” Trixie exclaimed, throwing her forehooves in the air. She jabbed a hoof at Raindrops, then Carrot Top, then herself, and proceeded to repeat the process.
“Oh!” Carrot Top exclaimed. “The poison joke!”
“It can turn somepony invisible?” Ditzy Doo asked.
“It can do just about anything, it’s magic.” Carrot Top explained. “Like I’ve said, it plays a joke on you, takes something you love and twists it.”
“Oh, I get it!” Cheerilee said. “So I guess…it’s because Trixie always wants to be flashy and noticed, so the poison joke turned her invisible and silent!”
Trixie made a mental note to make sure to later inform Cheerilee that she had been glaring at her after that comment.
“Probably,” Carrot Top confirmed. “It probably affected Trixie first since she’s a unicorn. Unicorns on average don’t have the same kind of toughness as pegasi or earth ponies – no offense, Lyra.”
“And Trixie,” Trixie appended.
“None taken,” Lyra said simultaneously.
“So Raindrops, you’ll probably be – ”
There was an explosion of green from Carrot Top’s mane and tail. The two of them almost instantly tripled in size, at least, and changed color from orange to a dark green, shooting out from her head and dock like streamers. Even after the initial explosion of length, they continued to visibly grow, albeit at a much slower rate.
Carrot Top had frozen in place again, eyes wide – probably, anyway, as her eyes were now covered by a mass of green. She looked behind her as well. “M…my mane!” she exclaimed. “My tail!” she tried to flick her tail, but sheer mass meant that she got nothing more than a vague twitch.
The other ponies rushed over to her, the golden aura around Trixie disappearing as she joined them, despite not being visible.
“Are you okay?” Ditzy Doo asked, eyes wide and mostly coming into focus as she examined Carrot Top’s mane, holding it up in her hooves The longest strands were an easy six feet long at this point. “It’s still growing!”
“Where’s it coming from?” Raindrops asked.
“Magic,” Trixie said, then face-hoofed when she remembered her predicament. Fortunately, Lyra said as much a moment later.
Carrot Top had closed her eyes, forcing herself to calm down. “I’ve always been proud of my mane,” she stated. “So that’s how the poison joke got me.”
“Still growing,” Trixie observed, hefting up a mass of it with one hoof – eliciting a slight jump from Carrot Top. “Maybe an inch every ten seconds…”
Carrot Top stared more-or-less at Trixie. “Do you think you could keep Trixie highlighted, Lyra?” she asked. “I’m…I don’t need constant scares.”
“Not really,” Lyra observed. “I mean, I could, but then Trixie wouldn’t be able to walk around on her own. I doubt she wants that.”
Ditzy Doo trotted over to where she guessed Trixie was, extending a hoof cautiously. Trixie tapped it back, and Ditzy used that as a guide to get beside Trixie and extend one wing over her back. “There,” she said. “She’s here.”
“Thanks,” Trixie and Carrot Top said simultaneously.
Raindrops tapped a hoof on the ground. “So I’m guessing it’s really just random,” she said, as she, Cheerilee, and Lyra helped Carrot Top get her still-growing mane out of her eyes. “But I’m next either way.”
“We need to focus, though,” Cheerilee said, as Carrot Top looked morosely at her mane. “The Elements of Harmony. Trixie ran off looking for them. Are they here?”
“Yes,” Trixie responded, before sighing at her own forgetfulness. She gently extended her telekinesis around Ditzy Doo’s head and neck and made the pegasus nod. Surprisingly, Ditzy didn’t resist – apparently she’d anticipated that Trixie would need to do that exact thing.
“She’s making me nod my head,” Ditzy said. “So that’s a yes – ”
Everypony blinked at the sound, and turned to look upwards, except for Raindrops. The jasmine-coated pegasus, having grown to be more than thirty feet tall, looked down instead at the other five ponies. She blinked a few times. “And now we know,” she boomed, everypony else covering their ears at the sound of her voice, which had dropped several octaves and was loud enough to be felt as much as it was heard. “Sorry,” she whispered after a moment, as she backed away from them gingerly – her hoof-steps shaking the ground slightly – and sat down as best she could in what had suddenly become a somewhat narrow space for her.
“You okay?” Carrot Top asked, brushing her still-growing mane out of her eyes. It was now at least eight feet long, and her tail was even longer.
“Fine,” Raindrops whispered, though her size meant that it was still as loud as a normal-sized pony’s regular speaking voice. She looked between each of them.
“Why are you a giant now?” Cheerilee asked.
“Insecurities about being a big, clumsy oaf when flying, probably,” Raindrops observed. “Either that or insecurities about my anger problem and the possibility that I might hurt somepony when I’m being a big, stupid ball of fury.”
“You have an anger problem?” Lyra asked. “But you seem…calm.”
“Oh, she has them,” Trixie confirmed, vividly remembering the events of – stars above, had it really only been yesterday afternoon? It seemed like forever...Trixie stifled a yawn, then realized that nopony could really see her anyway so there wasn't much point.
Raindrops also nodded in confirmation to Lyra's question. “I’ve got a lid on it. Mostly.” She looked to Cheerilee. “Anyway. You were saying?”
The earth pony blinked a few times at how well Raindrops was taking her new size, then shook her head and looked back to Ditzy Doo, or rather Ditzy’s left, where Trixie was still under the pegasus’ wing. “So the Elements are here,” she said. “Where?”
Trixie pointed at the obsidian statue, paused, slapped her face with her hoof, and then grasped Ditzy’s hoof and made the pegasus point. The other ponies all looked at the statue, Lyra’s horn beginning to glow as she examined the statue. “I…don’t feel anything,” she said.
Raindrops groaned. “They’re fake?” she demanded, forgetting to whisper.
Lyra shook her head quickly lest she anger Raindrops the Titan. “No. I don’t feel anything. Magic is supposed to be everywhere and in everything. Even when I was overchanneled I still had a bit left in me and always would…but looking at that statue, it’s almost like all the magic has been stripped away from it.” She shivered slightly. “I didn’t know that was possible. I was happier not knowing that was possible.”
Trixie nudged Ditzy Doo slightly, and the two began trotting forward, up to the statue, stopping within a few feet of it. Trixie reached out telekinetically and began yanking on one of the orbs. It came free surprisingly easily – when it reached Trixie, it was completely smooth stone, except for an arcane mark carved into its surface. The spot where the obsidian spike should have been impaling it had simply disappeared “Kindness,” she stated, handing the orb off to Ditzy Doo. The other ponies, sans Raindrops and with Carrot Top now lugging an easy twelve feet of mane and tail, crowded around, looking at it.
“That’s…Kindness, I think?” Cheerilee remarked, with Lyra nodding. “Lyra, Trixie, do you think you could get the other four down?”
It took only a few seconds for the two unicorns to take down the five orbs, setting them down in a pile that the ponies quickly surrounded, looking over. “Generosity,” Lyra said, pointing to the one in front of Carrot Top, then began counting them off “Honesty, Laughter, Kindness, and Loyalty,” she finished with the one in front of her. “At least that’s what they told us in Canterlot.”
“We’re missing one,” Cheerilee noted. “The sixth Element.”
“Which one was that?” Carrot Top asked.
Cheerilee, Lyra, and Trixie all shrugged. “It’s a mystery,” Cheerilee explained. “Nopony knows. And whenever anypony asked Princess Luna, the rumors say that she just smiles.”
“It’s not a rumor,” Trixie said. “Luna loves being mysterious. It’s annoying.”
Nopony heard her, of course. Instead, Cheerilee began trotting around the statue. “I don’t see the sixth Element…”
“It’s not here,” Trixie said. “It wasn’t last time, either. When I asked Luna where it…why am I bothering?”
“Did somepony steal it?” Raindrops asked, as she squinted and leaned forward, looking closely at the nearest Element to her, Honesty.
Trixie once again grasped Ditzy Doo’s head, though this time she made it shake. “Trixie says no,” Ditzy Doo answered.
“So where is it?” Lyra asked. After a moment, she realized her mistake. “Right, yes or no questions…is it nearby?”
“Maybe?” Trixie asked, sighing. She tried to conjure up an illusion of words with her horn, but like her telekinetic aura, it was invisible, and nor could she conjure ghost sounds.
“Just write in the slush already,” Lyra insisted.
“You’re being added to my list of ‘ponies I’m going to glare at later,’” Trixie responded. She shook Ditzy Doo’s head.
“I don’t think she can,” the pegasus said, as her head shook. “She’d probably have thought of that already if she could.”
“I like you the most, Ditzy Doo,” Trixie said as she got out from under her wing, then put a hoof to her shoulder and used the point of it to trace out a letter on Ditzy’s coat. She continued doing this a few times, until Ditzy Doo put the idea together.
“Okay,” Ditzy said. “Hang on, Trixie’s going to write on my coat…sort of. I get the idea, Trixie, just go slowly.”
“It’s my first time too…” Trixie said under her breath, chuckling a little, as she began to ‘write.’
“Nopony…knows,” Ditzy read. “Luna…didn’t…tell…me. Just…gave…stupid…riddle.”
“What was it?” Cheerilee asked.
The ponies all thought about that one. “That?” Raindrops asked, extending a massive hoof and pointing at the statue. “The statue itself?”
“No,” Ditzy responded as Trixie ‘wrote.’ “That…was…behind…me…”
“Oh!” Cheerilee exclaimed. “Magic! Like your cutie mark? Get it? Because it’s beside you?”
Trixie rolled her eyes. “No,” she had Ditzy say. “That’s…on…me…not…beside…me.”
Cheerilee deflated somewhat. “Oh…” she said. “Right…”
“Maybe it was Princess Luna?” Ditzy guessed, then ‘read’ out her response. “No, she says Luna was in front of her.” The pegasus paused. “And that she hates Luna right now.”
“Gotta admit I’m not too fond of her right now either,” Raindrops whispered. “Saving the world shouldn’t be this hard. The steps shouldn’t be something like journeying through a deadly forest to a ruined castle past death traps in order to retrieve ancient artifacts and then figure out how to use them. It should be something simple. Like ‘push this button.’”
“Trixie agrees,” Ditzy said as Trixie made her nod her head, then ‘read’ as Trixie wrote. “Trixie says she’s tired.”
Cheerilee sighed at that. “She’s got a point. We need to rest. We’ve all been up too long and aren’t thinking straight. We should just take the Elements and hide them somewhere…”
Trixie sighed. “Can’t move them, remember?” she asked as she hefted one at random – the Element of Generosity – and threw it. After about thirty feet, it hit some kind of barrier and bounced back. Trixie caught it as it did, and set it down in front of Carrot Top.
“I think Trixie just showed us that we can’t take them from here,” Lyra observed. She sighed. “And we still don’t know who set off all those traps…”
“We’ll rest while we can,” Cheerilee said. “Corona will be tied up for days dealing with Canterlot and all the other cities and towns in Equestria, we have time. Two of us will stay awake, the rest of us should sleep for a few hours, then those two can rest.”
“I’ll stay awake,” Raindrops volunteered, as she blushed slightly – and a look of embarrassment was the last thing anypony had ever expected to see on her face. “I, um…snore. Given how big I am right now…”
“And me,” Ditzy Doo volunteered. “I’m used to not getting a lot of sleep.”
“Okay,” Cheerilee confirmed, as she trotted forward. “Let’s see if we can’t save the world once we’ve got clearer heads…”
Celestia alighted atop a tall ridge that overlooked the Palace, about a half-mile away from it. Truly, the place had seen better days – far, far better days. To see the once proud structure fallen into disrepair and ruin, fighting a losing battle against the encroaching vegetation of the Everfree Forest, nearly broke her heart. Perhaps, once Canterlot was dealt with, she would rebuild the Palace, and make her capital. Yes, it would be in the midst of the Everfree forest, but for all its peculiarities, the Everfree was still made of leaves and wood, which would burn as easily as in any other forest. It would be a small matter for the rightful Queen of Equestria to shape the Everfree to her desires…
Ah, but she was getting ahead of herself. Glancing over her shoulder, she set down her hostages, surrounding them in fire once more, albeit this time it was as much for their protection against the savage monsters of the Everfree as to keep them contained. Having done thus, she turned around once more to the palace, or intended to, but her intention was instead drawn to a more interesting sight much closer – just at the bottom of the ridge she stood upon, in fact. Approaching her was a zebra, wearing a brown cloak, though as the zebra approached she threw off the cloak, revealing, emblazoned on her flank, a cutie mark of a spiral surrounded by outward-pointing triangles – a sun. The zebra – Zecora, Celestia supposed – knelt when she had drawn close enough, head pressed to the ground.
It took a considerably amount of effort on Celestia’s part, despite how un-Queenlike it would have been, to stop herself from exclaiming Finally! at the sight.
“Queen Corona, it gladdens me to set my eyes upon your majesty!” The zebra exclaimed whole-heartedly, as she looked up.
That ruined Celestia’s good mood, though only a little. “Thy respect is genuine enough,” Corona announced, “but thou shalt not address me by that name. Corona is a false title invented by my treacherous sister to assuage her own guilt over her betrayal. I am Celestia.”
“As you wish it to be. I shall follow your decree.”
Celestia noted with some further dissatisfaction that Zecora seemed to have the same poor grasp of Equestrian that everypony did these days. Celestia was no stranger to the evolution of languages – she herself did not know precisely how old she was, as neither she nor Luna had bothered to keep track of the first few millennia of their existences – but Equestrian had reached a certain nobility a thousand years ago, a nobility which had fallen far by the wayside in the intervening years of her imprisonment, it seemed.
Dissatisfied or no, however, this zebra’s intentions were pure enough, and Celestia had far more pressing concerns right now. She looked up from Zecora, to the ruined palace. “They have arrived?”
“It is so, my Queen,” Zecora said apologetically. “In the palace they convene. I would have stopped them before, but my skills are not those of war. I beg forgiveness of your majesty.”
“What skills dost thou possess then, Zecora?” Celestia asked, surprised that the zebra had not rhymed the last thing she had said. Had that peculiar zebra quirk also begun to fall by the wayside?
“My queen, I am blessed with the gift of prophecy.”
Ah, there it is, Celestia noted, as one eyebrow raised. Aloud, she continued. “Prophecy?” she inquired. “Certainly thou couldst have taken greater steps to prevent any from challenging my right to rule with such a gift.”
The zebra bowed her head. “Forgive me, your highness, for being unable. But for some time the future has been unstable. Your return has been all I could see with my gift of prophecy. I do have other talents, brewing potions and rituals I can run – I used the last to aid your escape from the sun.”
Celestia had been looking again to the ruins of the palace, but froze slightly as she heard Zecora finish speaking, and looked down at the zebra. “What?” she demanded. “Thou…thou believeth that I required thine aid to free myself?”
Zecora blinked. “The possibility of your return has been known to me for some time,” she said cautiously, “and so we journeyed to the site of your sister’s crime…using ancient testaments, I worked magic over the Elements, created a storm of great power at the appropriate hour – ”
“Silence!” Celestia exclaimed, as she leapt down from the ridge and landed evenly in front of the zebra. “I required naught from thee! My escape was under my own power! The Elements are strong, but I am the Sun! Thou didst nothing!”
“H…hey! Leave Z alone!”
Celestia had been glaring down at the zebra - to the mortal’s credit, she didn’t flee from the wrathful alicorn – but at the sound of the small voice from several dozen feet away, she looked up. Charging towards her was a small, green-and-purple creature. He stumbled, however, when her gaze fell upon him, and looked terrified when a white aura wrapped around him and dragged him before Celestia.
“What have we here?” Celestia asked as she held the creature in place, leaning down. “A little dragon? And thou knows this zebra?” The alicorn looked to Zecora. “Thy familiar?”
Zecora eyed the baby dragon, who was now looking like he had seriously reconsidered his suicidal charge. Celestia, however, only laughed as she leaned back, releasing the dragon from her grip. “Misplaced courage seems to have grown in abundance in mine absence,” she observed. “Stupidity as well, but with my sister in charge for a thousand years, this is hardly surprising. What is thy name, little dragon?”
The dragon stared, eyes wide. “Spike,” he said.
Celestia tapped a hoof to her chin in thought. “Spike. A simple name. For that I am grateful – far too many dragons pick names of unnecessary length, as though the number of syllables in their names somehow grants them power.” Celestia turned once more to Zecora. “Thou art in error, my servant. I did not require thy aid. But…what is the saying…’tis the idea that matters.”
Spike looked for a moment like he wanted to speak, but then thought better of it. Celestia turned, leaping once more onto the ridge and looking back to the palace. She had wasted a significant amount of time dealing with the zebra and the dragon. For all she knew, the treacherous ponies – perhaps prepared by her sister for this very eventuality? – already had the corrupted Elements and were waiting for her even now to strike. Regardless, the Elements would be protecting the Palace from any great works of magic, at least from this distance – she could not simply call down a solar flare and immolate the Palace, no. She would need, instead, to test the waters somehow, something that would be enough to reveal whether or not the ponies already had the Elements but which would not put her in danger.
Not that she was in the least bit afraid. Just…cautious.
Celestia’s eyes once more turned to Zecora, and then to Spike. They lingered on him for some time, before she smiled, and her horn began to glow.