Twilight Sparkle sighed heavily. This was becoming a habit for her today, much to her disgust. She wasn’t normally given to whining or carrying on, but, to be fair, she was having a sufficiently bad day to justify it. The muscle ache had nearly faded and, though the throbbing pain was still great, the blow on her head at least helped distract her from her loss.
It could distract her a little, at least.
Twilight rubbed at her forehead miserably, her lavender hoof touching the place where her horn should have been, just below the still-soft contusion. She was, at that time, laying on her belly in a bed at Ponyville General Hospital’s emergency room, where tan walls rose warmly about her. A medical center that served much of the basin, Ponyville was lucky to have such a modern facility, though, in her opinion, it would do the six of them very little good, no matter how modern and sophisticated its machinery and the quality of its medical supplies. The doctors had, of course, insisted on running tests on them anyway, and the girl had reluctantly agreed, just in case something awful had occurred on top of the transformations.
The last thing we needed was for one of us to be missing both her kidneys, or for somepony to have a newly defective heart. A unicorn can never be too careful, she mused silently to herself, and then winced. Former unicorn, she corrected her own assessment, bitterly, and rubbed more vigorously at her forehead, as if she could somehow search out a tiny, infinitesimal nub of horn to call her own once more.
The trip had been very quiet, at least for the girls. Big Macintosh had come charging in through the hole, barreling over poor innocent ponies who were too slow to dodge in his desperation to reach them, looking as if he was prepared to do battle with a whole army of foes ranging from dragons to hippocampi to pie-wielding cultists. After it was clear that they were all right, aside from being unable to walk in a straight line and being transformed as they were, they were all herded, against their protests, into a wagon. Matters had become even more awkward when Thunderlane, still smoking and twitching, was scooped and poured into the back. Thankfully for the girls’ consciences, his plaintive moans had sounded more faked than anything serious, and so they stopped paying him attention and turned to more important matters.
It had seemed, then, that they were all beginning to cope fairly well under the circumstances. Friendship and unity could go a long way to healing wounds of a more subtle nature. When it came to Rainbow Dash, however, Twilight was far less certain that her friend was coping adequately. The collapse in Twilight’s library, in her embrace, had in her dazed state nearly been too much to handle entirely. For Rainbow Dash, who had seemed nearly untouchable in her mind, rising above any challenge, both literally and figuratively, to suffer a breakdown of that magnitude was just about as terrifying a thought as Twilight was capable of imagining. There had certainly been times when she had shown a more vulnerable side, be it through performance anxiety or her desire for acclaim, but the loss in her eyes... Twilight Sparkle sighed again.
Turning her head, she looked over at her varicolored-maned friend, who was even now standing on her own four legs by her own hospital bed, with only a slight tremor. If anything, the sight was almost enough to bring her to tears once again. She could vividly recall how, on the wagon trip to the hospital, the other girls, who had at last managed to regain their own senses following the magical burst, crowded around Rainbow Dash and belatedly offered the mare their mutual support. Ten hooves belonging to five girls had crushed the cyan blue unicorn between them. It was what happened next that had convinced Twilight Sparkle something was terribly wrong.
Earlier, on the wagon...
Rainbow Dash laughed. She laughed long and hard.
Startled, the sway of the wagon knocking them apart, five sets of pony eyes widening in surprise at this unusual reaction, their group hug terminated before it could really even begin. Scrubbing her face of the leftover tears that had been soaked into her fur, Rainbow neither laughed cruelly nor callously nor shrilly nor even madly. Lacking even any real humor, it was as if she were, somewhat shamefacedly, laughing at a joke that had gone badly.
Noting their confused looks, she offered them all a sheepish grin, saying in more normal tones, “Hey, c’mon... don’t look at me like that, guys.” Shifting in her seat, her horn barely missing Applejack’s eye before the other new unicorn jerked back, she scooted over to Twilight and gave her a brief, but firm hug.
“It’s all right,” she said, her voice regaining some of its proper toughness and pitch, “I don’t really blame you, Twi. My fault for bringing the stupid things in.”
That set the others at ease. Together, they rocked to the sway of Big Macintosh’s borrowed wagon, on towards the hospital and its promised medical aid.
Chewing over her reminiscences, Twilight Sparkle glanced over at her friend again, her thoughts whirling. Rainbow Dash had moved over to Applejack’s bed, joking with the other pony and trying to stick a tomato from the mare’s hospital salad on to the orange pony’s new horn, like it was a skewer. It seemed to almost everypony that her breakdown had been merely a momentary lapse in her otherwise endless well of coolness and fortitude.
It seemed as if Rainbow Dash was, in fact, perfectly all right. She seemed to be coping well and was going out of her way to make sure the other ponies were being taken care of. Still, Twilight felt deeply unsettled, and she thought she could put a hoof on why.
Unlike the others, Twilight Sparkle had seen into Rainbow’s eyes in that critical moment, following the transformation. She had seen, and could not forget no matter how hard she might have tried, the emptiness within them Additionally, she could recall quite clearly a few times that Rainbow Dash had been sick in the past as well as the stories Fluttershy would tell about their time together in Cloudsdale, and she knew that when Rainbow Dash was sick, she made sure to let everypony know it, carrying on and milking attention for all it was worth. Perhaps with an injury inflicted during training she would be too annoyed at the circumstances to do so, but given even a minor illness she would play it up as if it were her last hours at the hands of the plague.
If Twilight wasn’t mistaken, and she had every reason to believe she wasn’t, then if Rainbow Dash was putting on a brave face and trying to convince everypony around her that she was doing perfectly well, rather than being irritated and grouchy or miserable and needy, then chances were she was every bit the opposite of well.
Twilight had not wanted to think about it, but she believed she could sympathize completely. Rubbing the space where her missing horn had been, yet again, she could not shake that deep, abiding sense of something missing. Her magic was an intrinsic part of her, and much of her life’s study had been dedicated to understanding it and learning more about it, picking up an array of skills, spells, and talents that would be dizzying to almost any other unicorn she knew. Any unicorn could, of course, pick up a certain degree of proficiency in magic, and it was even theoretically possible that another could have the same degree of power and proficiency as she. Starswirl the Bearded’s more advanced work gave even her headaches, and his mark had not been a talent for pure magic as hers was. The thought of giving up magic for good filled her with a level of dread and loss that she nearly broke down into tears herself.
Indeed, she felt she had to admire Rainbow Dash. It had to take a sort of courage beyond Twilight’s conception of the word to suck up such a serious blow to her identity, worse than anything but the most tragic of injuries, and put up a good face of camaraderie and security to see to it that her friends wouldn’t be hurt, even if she was hurting inside.
Even so, Twilight knew that she had to get Rainbow to open up again, for her own sake. If she was right, then bottling up her feelings, no matter what altruistic purpose it served, could be a recipe for disaster.
Rainbow laughed, dodging back as an involuntary bolt of orange magic shot by her head. “Oh come on, you wuss, you can take a better swing than that!” she goaded Applejack, who was glaring at her cyan friend, a cube of hospital jello jammed onto her curled horn.
...Then again, maybe Rainbow is just being Rainbow, she considered, with another depressed sigh. If I were Rainbow Dash, if I had lost the wings that made me who I am... If I wasn’t a unicorn any more, if I didn’t have unicorn magic, then what am I?
No. We are going to fix this. We’ve beaten Nightmare Moon and Discord, we can beat a stupid party favor, she told herself, firmly, and awkwardly shifted in the hospital bed, every movement echoed in her injured head, adding in an uncertain voice, quietly, “We will.”
It seemed that the blast of magic had been involuntary, for Applejack followed it up by tackling the offending former pegasus and began to tussle, much to the nurse’s disgust. Twilight sighed.
Trotting as fast as his little legs could carry him, Spike barged into the ward later that afternoon, with the sun still hanging over the western horizon. Dodging between the pale legs of the nurse, he charged into the care unit and skid to a halt, sliding along his soft belly as he tripped in his excitement. As his momentum ceased at last by Twilight’s bed, he lifted the scroll over himself towards her, calling in his exhausted voice, burnt out from running all the way there, “Twilight! It’s... phew... Princess Celestia! She wrote back!”
His voice rousing her out of her funk, Twilight rose on the bed a little to get a look down at her favorite assistant and de facto adopted baby brother. The words certainly got the attention of the other ponies, who had returned to moping around on their beds, exhausted and stuck in their own thoughts. Looking pleased that the situation may be over at last, each of them crowded around, though Rainbow Dash’s attempt to float over them was futile, ending in her smacking herself into Applejack’s bed and planting both forehooves in her unused bed pan. Grumbling to herself, the blue unicorn stomped over with both hooves still jammed in.
Concentrating, Twilight floated the scroll into the air so she could-
Everypony’s eyes darted back down to the scroll still held in Spike’s claw, apparently having expected the very same thing as Twilight. Laughing in a sheepish fashion, Twilight quickly reached down and snatched the scroll, embossed with Celestia’s own personal seal. Trying not to concentrate on how her still-tender wings shifted sensitively to adjust for her balance, an action that, for Twilight, was becoming increasingly and uncomfortably natural, the young mare slid the seal off and unfurled the rolled and snowy white vellum. Quickly, she read the words out loud for the benefit of the other girls. “My Faithful Student-” she began, unconsciously echoing her master’s velvety voice.
“Oh man, we’re going to be ourselves before the hour is out,” Rainbow Dash gushed, excited and almost squealing with joy and relief, “Which is good, because she’s the Princess of the Day, and she hibernates all night long, so we’d have to wait, for... what?”
Few ponies could match Twilight for exasperated glares. She knew this empirically, for she practiced them in the mirror daily and elicited volunteers to conduct trials, and expected to have the results ready for publishing in two to three years after the double-blind studies could conclude. “Really? Never seen her with the sun down before, huh?” Twilight asked, dry.
Rainbow squirmed, coughing awkwardly, “Well, okay. Shut up.”
“It’s okay, we’re all on edge,” Fluttershy murmured, leaning into the blue unicorn comfortingly. Dash feigned distaste and squeamishness briefly, before grunting and leaning back into her yellow-coated friend.
“C’mon, Twilight, let’s have it,” Applejack said, with unconcealed impatience, her horn poking up through the front of her hat, the durable leather shining in the hospital lights.
Nodding, Twilight smoothed the parchment out on the sheets in front of her with a hoof, reading the elegant script of her master and Princess. Clearing her throat, she began to read aloud again, resisting the urge to scan ahead, “I apologize for not arriving at once. I have the greatest sympathy for the plight of you and your friends, and I-” Twilight frowned, and paused.
“What’s wrong?” Rarity asked, “Is it fatal? Are we going to die? Oh Sweetie Belle, I-”
“Stopping you right there,” Twilight snapped, aggravated. Reaching behind her, she shoved Pinkie Pie, who had been trying to peek over her shoulder; the pegasus had apparently already discovered how to hover, rather like a large pink bottle fly with rapidly buzzing feathered wings. While, gum-like, Pinkie Pie clung to her hoof and arm in her attempt to catch a glimpse of the vellum, Twilight Sparkle concentrated and read again, “I have the greatest sympathy for the plight of you and your friends, and I regret to inform you that I have, at present, no means to restore you to your natural forms.”
Powering through the chorus of yelps, shocked noises, and demands, Twilight raised her voice, continuing, “I am even now having the Royal Library of Canterlot turned inside-out, searching for any reference to a spell or situation that might be considered remotely similar to your own. I will be taking many of the tomes and scrolls, those which can survive the journey, with me when I come to visit you in person in Ponyville, after the Wizard’s Council, myself, and Princess Luna make a preliminary investigation here in Canterlot.”
That quieted the other girls. Settling back, Applejack waved her hat at her face, as if to cool the red blush on her cheeks, leaking through her orange fur, muttering, “Shucks. Now ah feel bad.”
“All those people are going to be... concerned about us?” Fluttershy murmured uncertainly.
Rainbow Dash might have added a comment, but she apparently decided a choked gasp was more appropriate. Applejack loosened Fluttershy’s foreleg from about Rainbow Dash’s neck, where it had been clamped tightly, restricting the unicorn’s airways.
“That’s why she’s Princess,” Twilight said, proudly, her fears melting away. With both Princesses and all the best wizards in the realm working on their problem, it couldn’t possibly withstand scrutiny.
“I’m pretty sure she’s Princess because she’s over a thousand years old and raises the sun,” Spike said, in a low, sarcastic tone.
“Because she’s generous, kind, and all of the other things the Elements represent. Also, she has millenia of magical experience behind her! You just wait, girls, we’ll be back to normal before you can say ‘Wonderbolts!’” Twilight declared, pumping a hoof in the air.
“Ugggh,” Rainbow Dash groaned, laying on her back on one of Twilight’s couches, which had been pulled up to the library’s loft. Unable to return to her cloud home for the duration of her transformation, Twilight had offered her friend a place at her library home once they had been released from the hospital that night. “I was supposed to fly out to the Wonderbolts show tonight, I had tickets and everything!” she groused, as if her life hadn’t taken enough miserable turns as it was.
"Ugggh!" she added again, more loudly, in case her roommate hadn't heard her the first time. Agitation burned in her, a sensation she was no stranger to, but one she was accustomed to coping with by the simple expediency of intense physical activity.
Certainly, she could have run around the tree or done a couple hundred push-ups, but that would only remind her of things she didn't want to think about just now. Rainbow Dash dealt with neither idleness nor disability in a constructive nor graceful fashion. That it was due to end within the next day or so didn’t really help, for it was qualitatively different from past maladies. Her agitation stemmed not from situations which had left her grounded before, such as her wings being broken, sprained, or tied up. Her wings were gone, as if she had never had them in the first place.
Somewhere up above, in her bed, Twilight Sparkle seemed to be beginning to regret her generosity. Looking up from the couch, Rainbow could see that her friend was staring at Luna’s moon, seemingly trying in vain to find comfort in the familiar contours of its surface. The former unicorn asked, annoyed, “You know, you could have just asked somepony else to fly you to the show.”
Somewhere in the library below, Owloysius was probably hard at work cleaning up the results of the party. A canvas had been stretched across the damaged wall, awaiting the attention of an arborist who could help the tree regrow into the wound inflicted on it. Spike snoozed in his basket at the foot of Twilight’s bed, oblivious to the argument between his roommates and seemingly blissful in his dreams. The song of late summer crickets was soothing, albeit not soothing enough to quiet the agitation of the two ponies, awaiting word from their leader and mentor.
For a moment, Rainbow Dash was silent, staring up at her friend incredulously. It was, for her, really hard to believe that anypony, especially a pony with a set of wings of her own, however recently gained, could say something so breathtakingly stupid. “Go to a Wonderbolts air show not under my own power? Are you crazy?” she asked, perhaps more insultingly than she had first intended. The pain in her forehead, the throbbing ache in that horn she didn’t want to admit existed, had not yet gone away, and it was fraying her already volatile temper, leading her to snap, “A pegasus athlete who does something that pathetic deserves the humiliation.”
If she had been hoping that Twilight would snap back at her, rise up and flare her wings and rage back at Rainbow Dash, to call her a jerk or at least protest that she wasn’t pathetic, the unicorn was disappointed. Indeed, when Twilight just rolled over in her bed, pulling her sheets about her more tightly, she felt her stomach sink a little in her chest, a deeply uncomfortable sensation Rainbow found neither familiar nor welcome. Another one of those rattling sighs carved the air, and Rainbow stewed quietly below. Never having been a bully, she couldn’t really appreciate a fight when the other pony just lay down and took the abuse.
Turning, she dug her face into the pillow, wincing and almost growling when her horn dug into the fabric of the couch. It was sensitive enough without being irritated, and she barely managed to suppress a weak sputter of magic from the tip by clenching her jaw tightly, sending fresh shoots of pain up the bone. Rainbow was surprised she could still walk after blasting Thunderlane like she had that afternoon, for the unintentional magic had sapped her of energy as good as a 10 mile race might have. Her horn had already ached like someone had given it a few whacks with a hammer and her head had ached as if said horn had been a railroad spike driven into bone. With her barely being able to stand as it was, shooting someone with lightning bolts had felt like picking up an entire storm cell with her own back and carrying it from Ponyville to Manehattan.
Worse, it was getting increasingly hard for her to pretend like she wasn’t being affected as much as she was, and she groaned silently, I can’t let on, not with everypony counting on me to look out for them, too. I’m supposed to be the tough one, I’m supposed to be the one who holds together and blows it off like nothing happened.
The young mare suppressed a sign of her own, thinking irritably, Who do I think I am, the new Twilight Sparkle? Wishing she had a nice cloud to curl up on, she settled on thoughts of flying as she began to drift off. No matter how soft a bed Twilight’s couch made, it couldn’t really compare to a cloud. The mare turned a bit, the thought of climbing up on to a cloud giving her a rather unusual brand of chills. If someone did toss her on one in her present condition, she would find, rather than a soft bed, a plunge into the depths, screaming into the abyss.
Trying to put aside unquiet thoughts, Rainbow Dash fell asleep, and into dreams.
Rainbow Dash could fly.
In dreams, she could fly.
Great blue feathered wings spread out to either side, catching the crisp, thin air of the upper atmosphere.
It was sometimes asked of her, by people who didn’t really understand her, why she let her mane grow out so long. They wondered why, since a long mane could get in the way of an active pony. They wondered even more when they considered how much of a tomboy she was, and would point out that it seemed like such a waste to grow her hair out so much if she wasn’t even going to bother brushing it, leaving it matted and tangled for most of the day.
Quite aside from how awesome it was to have hair that naturally evoked the colors of the rainbows that named her, Dash had another, far more important reason for a good head of hair..
Tucking her wings up, she dived towards the earth far below, her energetic scream of joy tearing the heavens asunder. Clouds burst around her as if detonated by charges of blasting powder, forming expanding rings in a descending cone in her transit. As she closed her eyes, unafraid of anything here in her natural element, she smiled a broad, tight grin. Her mane unfurled like a banner and fanned behind her, leaving trails of multicolored light that spread behind her in a beautiful contrail, effervescing particles of radiant light. To anyone watching from afar, it may have seemed as if the sun, breaking through the clouds, had scattered its light through the rain and made a perfect ribbon of color fall back down to grace the earth, freeing its inhabitants from dreariness.
“Wha’cha doin’, Dash?” Scootaloo’s voice called, her tones as adoring as they always were in addressing her hero. Jerked out of her meditative contemplation, Rainbow Dash yelped and spread her wings automatically to come out of free fall, only to find that nothing was changing when she tried. Opening her eyes, panicked, she could see Scootaloo flying beside her, her tiny orange wings beating so fast they steamed in the air. For some reason that eluded Rainbow, the filly was riding a jackhammer, the long cable flapping in the air far above. Terror-stricken, Rainbow tried to flap her wings and arrest her fall, but again nothing happened, nor could she feel either her wings or the air flying past them. Tucking her head to look at her sides above her, she could see why: Bare sides, her barrel unadorned by any such appendages.
Apple Bloom, lounging on a jackhammer above her, looked down, her apple red mane flapping behind her. “Gosh, Rainbow,” the yellow filly observed, her eyes wide, “Why’d you come up all this way, you know unicorns can’t fly.”
Horror beat through Rainbow Dash’s throbbing equine heart, even as the clouds all around turned dark and threatening, the sky racing with ill intent. Feeling at her skull, she pushed aside her waving forelock and felt with her hoof. Chills ran up and down her spine as she ran it along the curled, sharp appendage jutting there.
“It’s okay,” Sweetie Belle squeaked, drawing Rainbow Dash’s eyes again, her breath now coming faster and harder. Standing atop her own power tool, the unicorn filly gave her a broad grin, adding in a bright tone, “All you have to do is cast a spell to arrest your momentum without, you know, smashing into, um..”
“Paste,” Apple Bloom supplied.
“Yup! Zap apple paste!”
Already sickeningly dizzied by her uncontrolled free fall, Rainbow Dash wondered if she’d vacate herself of the spaghetti Spike and Rarity had made them all for dinner in the library that night. Horrifying visions of Granny Smith scraping rainbow jam off a smear of blue paint in the pavement just about did her in right then.
Who am I kidding?
I can’t fly.
“I can’t cast spells, I’m not really a unicorn, I’m Rainbow Dash!” she protested to the Cutie Mark Crusader Skydivers, unsure if the stabbing sensation in her chest was her heart trying to beat itself to death on her rib cage or the aching pain of loss.
“It’s okay, I’ll show you. Now, how did that go again...?” Sweetie pondered, rubbing her chin with a hoof, blithely unconcerned by the fact that she could no more cast spells at her age and development than Scootaloo could fly or the onrushing ground, which was even now dominating far more of Rainbow Dash’s world than she cared for, could treat an unhindered landing gently. Ponyville looked strangely alarming in this light, the pointed roofs jagged and their cheerily lit windows turned into burning pits of flame. The street had recently been paved with flagstones, and looked about as soft and inviting as a granite cliff.
“The Rainbow Dash I know isn’t a unicorn,” Scootaloo accused, her eyes narrowing suspiciously as she watched the rainbow-tailed pony fall, “She’s the fastest flier in Equestria, the awesomest pony in the world. She’d never let me down. You’re just going down.”
Well, that did it, Rainbow Dash grimaced, watching as her heart, freshly cut out of her chest, fluttered away in the growing storm. With a despairing sob, she reached her hooves out to Sweetie Belle imploringly, begging, “Help me! I can’t fly, I’m going to crash, I can’t fly!”
“I remember now!” Sweetie Belle said triumphantly, her eyes popping excitedly, “It goes like this!” Closing her eyes, the young unicorn focused her thoughts, and her horn began to glow a soft, very pale pink. An iridescent rose-colored bubble shot up around her and her three friends, decelerating gently and leaving Rainbow Dash behind in moments.
Struggling to concentrate, to repeat what she had seen Sweetie Belle do, the plummeting mare’s horn sputtered, fitful sparks launching off into the darkness about her, illuminating briefly the mockingly glittering black shoes on her hooves, but she was not supposed to be a unicorn and she did not truly know magic. She couldn’t sure what she was, there in the dark, before the ground rushed up to claim her for its own.
The night sky over Sweet Apple Acres was filled with the rich vastness of the night sky, impeded only here and there by the occasional cloud. A full day without Rainbow Dash’s attention during one of the least critical junctions of the year, the slow, easy transition of summer into autumn, wasn’t going to cause any immediate natural disasters that the less able ponies of the Weather Patrol couldn’t handle.
Applejack, for one, was glad that it wasn’t the time of year for the nightly covers of cloud to hold in the day’s heat for the critical run up to the harvest, or the time for the showers to wash away the remains of autumn in preparation for winter and to refill the stocks of aquifers, for it allowed her to see the sky unhindered. Though no real connoisseur of constellations and their stars like Twilight Sparkle was, Applejack knew them all from watching the seasons all of her years, and it allowed her a chance, sitting on her porch, to really appreciate the sky Princess Luna had fought so long and hard to be appreciated for. Certainly, she didn’t order the stars in the heavens as she did the changing moon each night, but she clarified it, bringing to light such beautiful stellar phenomena such as the milky spill of the Galaxy, and the swell of nebulae and the intricate dance of further, stranger things nopony yet understood. Without the Princess of the Night, so much of the true sky faded into insignificance, and those parts that were there had seemed dull and uninteresting compared to the night skies of this age. Applejack felt pity for the long generations of ponies who never had had the chance to see such wonders in anything but the most ancient of paintings, and perhaps, in that moment, felt an inkling of sympathy for the ancient alicorn. It made her wonder if those ancient ponies of yesteryear had just taken a lovely night sky for granted, and its mistress along with it.
“Appleja-aaaa-ck,” Rarity whined from inside the farmhouse’s kitchen, “Your food is getting cold! I didn’t spend all night cooking just so you could get all mopey and stare at space all night long!”
“Well, ah can enjoy it until somepony starts hollerin’ and carrying on,” she carped, pawing at the ground. Tucking her father’s hat back on her head, Applejack stifled a groan. She kicked a loose can down the way out of the warm golden light of the back porch and rose from the swing chair, cracking her back with a stretch that brought her still-powerful chest towards the ground. Personification of honesty or no, Applejack felt that unnecessary complaining should be kept to a pony’s own self, and not foisted off on other, innocent ponies, especially ones who might have serious problems of her own to work out. She would also sooner rather have Big Macintosh buck her into the next county than admit that she had been staring at the sky partially to keep from looking down, at the land itself.
To admit that she had felt, in a walk from the hospital that had seemed to take forever and a day, almost no relief or sense of peace at the sight of her beloved apple orchards had been almost too much to bear.
Rarity had, at the time, taken her silence for an invitation to gab, and Fluttershy was always far too retiring to object to anything, and so they had all been treated to a lengthy diatribe on why being an Earth pony suited the fashion designer not at all. At the conclusion of her rant, Rarity had punctuated by smacked face-first into the kitchen door, which had at least given Applejack something to chuckle over after making sure her friend wasn’t hurt.
Moseying back into the kitchen, Applejack bore witness to repetition of that moment, as, in turning to go into the pantry to collect some more plates for the extra guests, Rarity slammed head-first into the door, apparently forgetting, once again, that she didn’t have any unicorn magic left in her, let alone a horn to work it with. The farmgirl suspected this would become something of a pattern for Rarity.
“Oh!” Fluttershy said, almost a mirror for her earlier reaction, with her soft eyes wide and concerned as she darted over to the alabaster mare’s side. While Rarity had agreed to come to Sweet Apple Acres so she wouldn’t have to return to her empty home in the Carousel Boutique alone that night, much as neither she nor Applejack had either admitted to or hinted at such, Fluttershy had been so sick with worry for her animals in her absence that Applejack was surprised that she hadn’t simply declined. Apparently, concern for her friends eventually outweighed her natural worry for her animal friends. Applejack supposed that animals could care for themselves at least a little, but sometimes ponies could be absolutely helpless under the right conditions. “Are you all right, Rarity?” she asked gently, examining the other’s head for any damage.
"Oh, I've never been better, dear," she answered with more than her fair share of bitterness. Rising to her hooves, she shook off her daze and pushed the door open with a shoulder, her head erect and affronted, as if it had done her a great insult. After a spare moment remembering she couldn’t pick the wooden plates up with magic, she took them in her mouth and returned, placing her and Fluttershy’s plates on the table, speaking in a relieved manner while Fluttershy took her seat, politely, “I am glad, at least, that Sweetie Belle isn’t here to see such inelegant blundering on my part, to think I had almost been beginning to miss her.”
“When will the girls be back from their camping trip?” Fluttershy asked softly, eager to bring the conversation somewhere pleasant, “They must be having so much fun. Hiking in the hills, roasting marshmallows over an open flame...”
“Tellin’ ghost stories?”
“Oh! I hope not,” Fluttershy shivered, scrunching unto her chair as if she could fold into a pocket of space and vanish entirely, in Pinkie Pie fashion, “That would be scary.”
Applejack grinned, taking the pot off the hearth and planting it on the table before answering, “They’re due back sometime in the afternoon.” She glanced through the doorway at Big Macintosh, who was pulling a blanket over Granny Smith in the front room by the fire there, the ancient pony too tired and insufficiently hungry to join them. He tip-toed as delicately as an enormous draft stallion could into the kitchen, on the edges of his hooves, which raised a grimace from Applejack as she saw the increased pressure was leaving indentations on the wood paneling.
“With any luck, they shan’t discover our condition except as a dire and swiftly forgotten rumor,” Rarity sniffed, taking a seat. “Forgive me, Applejack, but I surely miss my horn as much as you would wish to rid yourself of it.”
“How d’ya know this one is yours?” Applejack asked, reaching up to rub at the tip, though the involuntary wince she saw on her friend’s face made her pause. Perhaps excessive fiddling with a sensitive instrument of magic wasn’t such a good idea.
“Because, dear, it’s obvious dramatic convenience.”
“Drama-what now?” Applejack asked, skeptically.
“Uhm...” Fluttershy murmured, “Maybe it’s more the horn you might have had as a unicorn? If, you know, you could have been one.”
“Nonsense, dear, that horn is mine. Thankfully, it shall be mine again by this time tomorrow, and I’ll never let it go again..”
“Ye’re welcome to it,” Applejack tossed, with a hint of heat that caught the others at the table somewhat off guard.
Filling his enormous bowl with a heaping helping of the stew, with carrots, potatoes, soy blocks, and other good bits, Big Macintosh very nearly slopped a load onto the floor in shock at his sister’s bite.
Feeling embarrassed at herself for snapping, Applejack thrust up from the table. “I’ll be back. Forgot t’feed Winona,” she said, loudly enough to talk over their concerned requests for her state of being, and trotted out the back door and leaving them all a little stupefied.
Making her way over to the doghouse illuminated by the bright moon above, she had her work dog’s chow bag in mouth. The liquid-eyed border collie gave her a completely trusting look as she sat patiently by her bowl, just inside the work shed, saying without words that she completely forgave Applejack for delaying her dinner. The farmpony made it herself, of course, she didn’t trust a city packing factory to feed any member of her family, no matter how carnivorous, and little chunks of ground bone meal and bean mash fell into the wooden bowl. Topping it off, she added a few chunks of relatively fresh fish, her nose wrinkling, her herbivore’s instincts recoiling at the odor.
“There ya go, lil’ doggie, vile-smellin’ meat just for you,” she said, and, since she was speaking in a cheerful tone, Winona of course wagged her tail enthusiastically, awaiting politely until the pony had moved back before digging in eagerly.
While her dog ate, Applejack took a little walk towards the nearest field, where the very oldest of their family’s orchards were, planted when Granny Smith was just a young pony and the Apple family had first set down its roots. A low stone fence surrounded it, thick with green moss, and the orange unicorn vaulted it with an easy leap rather than go all the way over to the rusty gate. With her shod hooves digging firmly into the rich loam, which was refreshed by her own labor every year, she looked up at the starry expanse above, and, then, down at the earth below, which was as warm and inviting as it could be in the early autumn. Digging a hoof, she upset a worm, which was busily devouring earth to add its own contribution to the vitality of the system.
There was, however, no mistaking the feeling she had here, in the beating, living heart of her family and their land, two things that were as near to her heart as could be.
Or, perhaps more aptly, the lack of feeling.
Certainly, standing here where her blood had settled and worked the earth for so long gave her a quiet sort of thrill, the weight of history settling on her hardened shoulders, but Applejack could tell quite clearly that something important was missing. Some deep, abiding connection to the land and its fruit, the produce of her labor and the very purpose of her life. Maybe she could tell herself it would all come rushing back to her tomorrow, yet just now, there was no denying it. Applejack had never been a good liar, and that included to herself.
Ah just feel...
She knew that Fluttershy, with Rarity in tow, would come to retrieve her in short order, to bring her back to the cooling dinner with a friendly nuzzle and distracting conversation, but, until then, Applejack continued to stare up at the sky, wondering where it had all gone.
“...and then she started screaming, and she exploded!” Twilight hissed to Applejack, that following morning, as they all gathered back in the library. Pinkie Pie, presently munching on a sour lemon cake as she cheerfully hovered over the crowd below, had suggested Sugar Cube Corner for a meeting place, but, for some reason, none of the other girls had expressed any real interest in sweets, almost as if they all felt rather too sour themselves. The purple pegasus scrubbed a hoof over her face, looking sideways at the rainbow-maned unicorn across the library’s floor. Lyra and Bon Bon, who had come in to return some books and peruse the shelves for new reading material, looked rather antsy at all the tension and eager to leave, the latter quickly avoiding Twilight’s gaze when it happened to fall on her. “I don’t know how, but she’d somehow managed to cast a hover charm in her sleep, and she was zipping around the loft until I managed to calm her down. Then she grabbed me and shouted, ‘I’m not a tomboy, I’m comfortably feminine!’ What does that even mean?”
Tilting her hat up, Applejack looked up from where she was leaning on one of the library’s long chairs, taking in the sight of the heavily agitated Twilight Sparkle. “Ya look an unsightly mess, Twi, maybe you should take an ease and stop thinkin’ so hard,” she said, drawling slowly, clearly preferring to focus on the matter at hoof than get into gossiping about Rainbow Dash’s erratic behavior. A mess was an understatement for Twilight, so frazzled with the thought of her mentor’s imminent arrival and Rainbow Dash’s odd morning behavior, hadn’t had a chance to shower or comb herself at all, and her mane and tail even looked slightly out-of-place. Her lavender coat was mussed, with the parts she had been sleeping on, her left side, matted and flat, while the right side stuck straight out. Her wings, of course, looked miserable and bedraggled, for she had never been taught, nor had she attempted to figure out, how to properly preen them.
“I know, I know,” the former magician moaned, rubbing her hooves through her mane in a vain effort to smooth it, “I tried reading but I just couldn’t concentrate. I feel like I need to go for a run, or scream, or... something!”
“So why don’cha?” Applejack asked, reasonably.
“Because that would be just silly!” Twilight said, flapping her wings in frustration, a gesture she didn’t even seem to notice herself performing. With little midnight feathers falling off, it made her look somewhat like a particularly oddly shaped chicken trying to scare others off her feed.
“Uh huh. C’mere, sugahcube,” she said, annoyed. Affixing her hat to her head more firmly, she tugged Twilight Sparkle to the bench beside her with a powerful limb and smoothed Twilight’s coat for her. It was such an aggressively motherly action that Twilight actually blushed, and glared Lyra and Bon Bon out of the room when they had the temerity to giggle. Still, it settled her somewhat, and she sighed a bit melodramatically. “You’re right, I’m being stupid,” she said, slumping on the long couch.
Applejack had, of course, said no such thing, but she didn’t contradict her. “Just take it easy,” she offered instead, “In a few minutes or an hour, we’ll be back to our normal selves and I’ll buck a forest just to prove how happy I am about it. You can, ah dunno, blow up a mountain or somethin’, whatever you do with magic.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Hah, hah,” she grumped, but smiled, and reached over to pick up a book. It one of her favorites, she was pleased to see, the Principles and Applications of Buoyancy.
Meanwhile, towards the center of the room, Spike was looking decidedly agitated. He was fidgeting with his claws, looking at each of the girls with studied impatience. Taking pity on him, as was her lot in life, Fluttershy nosed the dragon and asked, “What’s wrong, Spike? Twilight has been feeding you right, hasn’t she?”
“He feeds himself!” the negligent big sister in question shouted, a comment that was promptly ignored.
“Twilight? No, that’s not it - well, okay, maybe she doesn’t feed me as much as I’d like-” he started, but quickly diverted at the death glare Twilight delivered, her attention pulled from her book, “It’s something else, though!”
“What is it?” the pink-maned Earth pony asked, her wide eyes and manner suggesting she would happily listen to anything Spike chose to divulge, at any length or frequency. Which she would, but that would not be required today.
“I dunno, you probably wouldn’t like it,” he hedged. What ponies might or might not like was rarely a problem for Spike, who blithely invited disaster every time he opened his scaly mouth, but his trepidation increased in direct proportion to the number of hooves that could kick him were in his immediate vicinity.
A little more intimately aware of her assistant’s quirks, and his foibles, than the other ponies, Twilight Sparkle groaned and rolled her eyes. “Knock yourself out,” she said cryptically, having a pretty good idea about what this was all about, “It’s your last chance and I know you’ve probably been aching to do it.”
Spike grinned, almost hopping in place, ignoring the others’ confused looks. “Oh man, you have no idea. I stayed up all night thinking about them!”
“What’s this, Spikey-wikey?” Rarity asked, puzzled, her lovely face adopting a thoughtful pout, “Is it a gift?” Somehow, even without magic, the clothier had managed to style her mane into its customary flip, her coat smooth and sparkling in the sunlight from outdoors. The white Earth pony had just finished putting the last touches on her modification to the hole in the library wall, in what she clearly thought was a very lovely distraction from the ugly canvas sackcloth that had been used to patch the hole until somepony could look at it, with several indoor plants and a hoof-knitted tapestry. Where she had found the last article was a total mystery to everypony else, and would remain so.
“Better!” the young dragon said, his grin now quite broad, and he hopped up onto the table. Clearing his throat, he pulled out a scroll which was covered with all manner of crossed-out, scratched-out, or otherwise deleted words, leaving only a small number of circled ones.
“Applejack? You are now Applecorn.”
Almost giggling with excitement now, he moved his claw down the list, looking to Fluttershy, “How’s the earth feel under your hooves, Flutterock?”
Blinking, the butter-colored mare didn’t quite know how to take a comment like that, and settled for a polite, “Uh... fine I guess.”
“Pega Pie, high in the sky!” he announced, pointing up at the circling pink pony.
Giving a gleeful giggle, Pinkie laughed, “I’m not that high. Not yet, anyway!”
The others had begun to cotton on to what the often irritating little boy was up to, and so Rarity had something of a cross look as his attention settled on her. “And of course, my perfect lady - Rare Earth. The most delicious and obscure of elements. With a magnetic personality!”
Caught a bit off center, Rarity blinked, unsure if that was a compliment or not, which was all the opening Spike needed to dodge away from any retribution she could dish out if she decided the wrong way. Hurrying to hop onto one of the smaller book stacks, he grinned over at Rainbow Dash, whose horn was looking decidedly threatening as she narrowed her eyes up at him beneath her tangled forelock. “And of course, how could I forget? The amazing, the spectacular, the indubitably stupendous,” he paused, sucking all the drama he possibly could out of the moment, “Rainbow Magic!”
“Rainbow Magic?” she groaned, making a face, “Spike, that’s horrible. It’s not even good horrible.”
“Fine, fine, second run, second run...” he squinted at his list, “Prismatic Spray!”
“Ugh, never mind, I’ll come back to you,” he huffed, and turned to face the mare who hatched him.
“Well? Come on, get it over with,” Twilight grumbled, crossing her forelimbs as she sat on her belly.
“I’m trying, sheesh. It wasn’t exactly easy, you know,” Spike complained, hopping off the table, going into the sunlight streaming in through the open window.
“You had all night to come up with this, and you’re still not sure?” the pony said, exasperated.
“Seriously, Twilight, I keep telling you, you need a new name,” Spike insisted.
Twilight blinked. “What? I like my old name, my old name is great!” she said, animated, “What’s wrong with Twilight Sparkle?” Looking to the others, as if for assurance that her name was perfectly acceptable, she growled before returning to glaring at her assistant.
Lidding his eyes with a wicked look, he chuckled, saying in that low, sotto voce voice he loved to use to mock others with, “Oh, well, I suppose it’s not important any more, you basically do have a new name. You’re the new Rainbow Dash.”
“I AM NOT!” Twilight Sparkle shouted, rather more loudly than she had intended. The words struck with remarkable accuracy, stabbing deeply into her gut and wrenching. To be fair, she probably should have expected that little indiscretion from Discord’s reign to bite her in the flank at some point, but Spike had evidently managed to find the best possible moment to drive in his verbal dagger.
Behind Spike, Rainbow Dash started, “Wait, what?” Her eyes were wide, and she seemed almost frightened, strangely.
“Come, Twilight. You know it to be true. Search your feelings,” Spike taunted, reveling in the librarian’s distress, bubbling over with tormenting glee as he watched.
“What is he talking about?” Rainbow asked, sounding more than a little alarmed.
“Oh, and we can’t forget about you!” Spike said, remembering now that he had been meaning to come back to Rainbow, “I guess since Twilight is the new Rainbow Dash, that makes you the new Twilight Sparkle.”
“Heh,” Applejack chuckled, from under her hat, “Twilight Dash and Rainbow Sparkle.”
“Nah, Applecorn, she’s not Rainbow Dash anymore, not without her-”
Spike had been right to be worried earlier, before beginning to hand out his chosen nicknames for the girls. With a crack, he was sent flying through the air, barely having time enough to yelp before he was driven headfirst into the wood between two bookshelves on the side of the stairwell. Rainbow lowered her hind leg, giving the others a challenging look as they stared at Spike embedded in the carved trunk, protesting in her defense, “What? He’ll be fine. Besides, he was asking for it.” Given the well-known fact that Rainbow Dash was prone to taking offense at what other ponies considered to be fairly shallow slights and insults and dishing out equally petty revenge in return, nopony really noticed the deeper edge of discontent in her words, least of all Twilight.
Just then, a belch ran through the purple dragon, making him pop off the wall with the pressure of the hot exhaled gasses. A spark, then a flame, launched from his open mouth as he lay there dazed, resolving into a tightly wound scroll. Acting quickly, Pinkie Pie snatched it up with a swoop, though it seemed as if her landings needed improving upon, for she slid in the air and smacked into the floor back-first after her aerial dive. While Fluttershy tended to the baby dragon, Twilight scooped the scroll off the floor with one hoof, where it had rolled after bouncing out of Pinkie Pie’s mouth.
Scrubbing a little saliva off the back, Twilight Sparkle unfurled the scroll and read her Princess’ majestic lettering.
Twilight paused, and read it again. Her ears drooped.
“What do you mean she isn’t coming?” Rarity gasped, shocked and horrified out of her poor wits, which were already frayed like a particularly well-worn hemline on a much-loved winter dress. Her panic was rising to a fever pitch, the white Earth pony erect with tension. Already having spent nearly a full day without her horn, Rarity didn’t want to contemplate what the Princess’ change of plans could mean.
“I mean,” Twilight Sparkle drew in a deep breath to calm herself, continuing, “That she isn’t coming yet. Because, um..” The lavender pony shrank back, as if trying to hide herself, “...because she can’t cure us.”
Outside the library, a pair of stallions carefully carrying an enormous glass vase between them had to steady themselves against a thunderous noise coming from the library, a collective scream of, “WHAT!?” that shook nearby windows in their casements. They breathed a sigh of relief, as they managed to regain their balance.
“Now hold on to your horses, everypony,” Applejack said, coming to Twilight’s side to ward the others off from crowding around her, as if she, too, hadn’t screamed at the cowering little pony herself, “Give her a chance to explain, ah’m sure the letter has more to say than that. Our Princess wouldn’t just leave us hangin’, laughin’ from that pretty throne she’s got.”
Thoughts of Princess Celestia cackling maniacally in a fair approximation of her sister’s twisted villainous alter ego, Nightmare Moon, did do a number on their indignation as they each reflected on the notion. Rarity laughed to herself, Really, who could think our graceful and lovely Princess capable of anything like cruelly laughing at her subjects’ misfortunes? Even the idea of her engaging in harmless pranks seemed absurd.
At the Canterlot Royal Library, in the depths of one of the archives, Princess Celestia winced and gave a great, unladylike sneeze into the crook of her foreleg.
“Careful of the dust, sister,” Luna said, cheerfully, the Night Princess said, floating books over to glance at the titles, her excitement undampened by failure with the prospect of in-depth research.
“Princess Luna spent the whole night with volunteers, trying to turn them into other sorts of ponies?” Rarity repeated incredulously, having just listened to Twilight Sparkle’s recounting of the letter’s contents, “Oh dear... I can’t imagine how that would have turned out for the failures.”
“It’s all right, nopony was seriously hurt,” Twilight assured, looking over the scroll again, as if for comfort, “Though one apparently still thinks he’s a pegasus, so they had to tie him to a bed for now. The Princess and the wizards with her tried everything they could think of or put their hooves to, but, even though they could make the spell last just about as long as they wanted, it was always a superficial change alone. No unicorn was ever able to use magic, no pegasus was ever able to fly.” Smacking herself with her hoof, she groaned, “I should have known, this has been tried before, I’d read the studies in school. Nopony has ever been able to really become another pony, at least not and told anypony else about it that we know about.”
Sobered, the other girls settled back. Spike, almost forgotten, slowly came back to wakefulness nearby, the bottom-heavy dragon rising up on his squishy lower body. Almost forgotten.
With a crack, the little dragon went flying through one of the open windows. There was a pair of noisy, shattering crashes, almost as if a glass vase had suffered an impact from a flying reptile and the ground in quick succession. Rainbow Dash whistled innocently, tucking her hooves in a manner reminiscent of Applejack, suffering only a glare from Fluttershy.
“The Princess said they aren’t giving up, though, and she’s going to come visit us soon,” Twilight continued as if she hadn’t been interrupted, injecting a bit of forced levity into her voice, re-reading the last portion, “To check up on us and see how we’re doing.”
Rarity, for her part, was simply distraught. With her breath coming in shallowly, she was due for a good fainting. But no, she realized, looking around, I couldn’t give in to such a base result, tempting as it was to slip away into oblivion. No, I simply have to set an example, the mare decided, firmly. With the other girls set to mope about and carry on like a covey of mourners, an example of style, grace, and perseverance under adversity, as she believed a true lady should.
Striking one perfectly hooficured toe against the ground, the sound of its impact ringing through the library’s sanctum, she raised her head proudly. “Ladies!” the alabaster Earth pony declaimed, once she had all of their attention, a state she rather enjoyed even in these troubled times, “What is this disquiet I hear? Are we not the thrice-victorious heroes of Equestria itself? A mere set back such as this will not deter us!”
“Don’t get all Twilight-y on us, now,” Applejack muttered, ignoring a noise of protest from Twilight, but Rarity had the bit in her mouth and was pulling for all she was worth, now. Pinkie Pie, above, started patting a little drum, to give a beat to the designer’s speech.
“Even as we speak, the Royal Pony Sisters themselves are preoccupied with the cause of our restoration, and it would an offense, a treasonous disregard, to insult the sacrifice of their time and energy on our behalf with meek and pointless meandering, in word or deed!” Rarity said, lifting her head and giving her hair a defiant toss. She pointed a perfect, gleaming hoof at Twilight, “Rainbow Da- I mean, Twilight Sparkle!”
Pretending she hadn’t just heard herself almost being called by another name, Twilight blinked owlishly, “Yes?”
“It is the root cause of our misfortune which must be located and delivered at once to the Royal Palace at Canterlot!”
“Sorry, didn’t follow that.”
“The shoes, my dear girl, the shoes!” Rarity said, drawing it out. Sometimes, the poor girl seemed almost too dense to be as smart as she was.
“Oh... Oh!” Twilight said, catching on to Rarity’s vague phrasing, her wings spreading excitedly as she hopped over to Rainbow Dash, “And we should find out where they came from, too! Where did you get them?”
“Uhm, well...” Rainbow scuffed at the floor, her hoof almost drawing into the hardwood, “I may have kind of bought them off the back of a wagon.”
“Well, you know,” she huffed, “Okay, okay, I bought it off those guys who mashed up Applejack’s trees to make cider.”
That got Applejack’s attention, all right, her teeth grinding audibly.
“You weren’t, um.. suspicious?”
“I didn’t recognize them at the time, all right? I mean, I was really thirsty back then and then I was choking on dirt and then there was the whole ‘being squashed into a treadmill’ thing...”
“We remember,” Twilight groaned, rubbing her forehead. It was clear to all that her lack of a horn was causing her a great deal of distress, but Rarity couldn’t pause to comfort her just yet.
“Perhaps we should try convincing the Royal Guard to intervene,” Rarity suggested, “With the Flam Flam brothers engaging in illegal commerce, I do not doubt that they could level a dozen or so charges.”
That idea brought a wince from Twilight. “I’m reluctant to suggest that, it’s kind of abusive of my position,” she frowned, considering it, “You’re right, though, they are shady and suspicious, and we do have a victim of a malicious sale of an unknown magical object, which is probable cause.”
“Why don’t you write it up in your return letter to Princess Celestia,” Rarity recommended, gently. Now that she had established enough leadership to help settle the others and give them a purpose to overcome their fugues, she could afford a gentle touch. Turning, Rarity looking over to the other side of the library, “Now, Fluttershy and Pink- where did Pinkie Pie go?”
Looking around and up, the girls saw neither hide nor feather of the pink pony, the library empty of her presence..
“Oh,” Fluttershy murmured, only now speaking after such a long time being silent, “She said she had a lot of parties to make up for, now that we know we aren’t going to be turning back, and flew out the door.”
“Well, Fluttershy,” Rarity continued, in a sympathetic voice, “Why don’t you go see to your animal friends? They must be positively worried sick with you absent so long without explanation. Once you’ve seen to them, you can come help Applejack and I question some ponies I know about town, who might have some idea of where those horseshoes came from. I know some who have traveled very far, and others who trade in rare curios, so we may stand a fair chance.”
“O-okay, so long as you don’t expect me to do any,” she swallowed and stammered, as if the word itself were intimidating, “In-in-interroga-gating.”
“Of course, dear, not at all, I just expect you to be your normal charming self,” Rarity assured her, giving her back a stroke and seeing her on her way. In a way, such focus gave her the opportunity to distract herself from the prospect of long-term loss. Though by no means as attached to her horn as Twilight was, Rarity was still a unicorn, and magic had been a part of her life for its duration. Aside from allowing her to avoid getting her own hooves dirty, it was an important part of her identity, not to mention the effort it would take to sew all of the necessary modifications she’d have to make to her outfits to suit her Earth pony build, by hoof alone. Oh, she shuddered at the thought of being seen in her gala dress now, that would just be a disaster!
What is likely to be even more of a disaster, she reflected as she walked out with Applejack at her side, Is how I am going to live this down if word became widespread that I am no longer a unicorn. Certainly, she knew, Equestrians were centuries beyond the petty racism that had defined their prior separation, but the shame of allowing herself to be transformed so at all. It was almost a scandal. The most alert - that is to say, the most gossip-minded - ponies in the land would assume that she had, of course, intended it in some fashion, or perhaps that she had been experimenting with some forbidden or salacious deviancy. Thinking on it again, she reconsidered, deciding that she could probably turn that to her advantage if it came to it.
Worst of all, though, would be the look on her dear, beloved little sister Sweetie Belle’s face. Shuddering, Rarity could imagine it now...
Sweetie Belle’s eyes had grown to fill her entire head, from the looks of it, watery and shiny in the moonlight that shone down on the graveyard. Behind the mulberry-and-rose maned filly was a pit, freshly dug by her two rather more boyish companions-in-arms, their jackhammers ringing as they encountered stone far below.
“How could you, Rarity? Don’t you love me? Didn’t you want to be a unicorn like me?”
“Oh!” Rarity wailed, her voice echoing across the land, throaty and thick, “Sweetie Belle, my one and only sister, for whom I would move mountains, never would I have disappointed you, had it been but within my power!” The white pony drew the stylish black cloak about her tighter, the symbol of her shame.
Collapsing, weeping, onto her own oversized power tool, Sweetie Belle cried out for mercy to the uncaring stars, but it was too late. Her sister, the fair and noble Rarity, marched steadily to the lip of the grave. Down below, Scootaloo whooped, “Oh hey, dinosaur bones! Awesome!”
“Rarity!” Applejack shouted, annoyed, “Focus, girl, task at hoof.”
“Ah, right,” Rarity coughed delicately, and struck a pose as they faced out of the library’s open doorway, “Let us go, then, and restore ourselves to our natural forms.”
“Or just, y’know, question some ponies.”
“Applejack, darling, you lack all sense of drama.”
Hope, so briefly kindled by the enthusiasm Rarity had shown in the tree, was swift dwindling to a rather sad little flame by the time everypony gathered again, that afternoon, in Sugar Cube Corner. Persuaded by Pinkie Pie to grab some comfort food, Rarity, Applejack, and Fluttershy were the first to arrive, and were commiserating over eclairs, a slice of apple pie, and a shockingly large bowl filled with double fudge chocolate ice cream.
“...what?” Fluttershy murmured, defensively, hiding under her hair and shrinking behind the table and the conveniently placed bowl topped with dark ice cream, “High metabolism.”
“I was not about to comment,” Rarity demurred, a little too quickly, eying her eclairs with a second glance. Maybe something stiffer was called for in such a situation, she considered.
Twilight Sparkle, looking strangely exhausted for someone who had such a simple job, slumped into the bakery with her saddle bags stuffed full of books and scrolls, a somewhat scuffed Spike napping on her backside. Pinkie Pie pushed open the salon doors that led from the front room into the kitchens, a cake balanced atop a milkshake lay balanced on her head, giving Twilight a look.
“Wow, Twilight, no luck for you either, huh? I woulda helped, but I was, like, so far behind on my schedule. I can’t rain joy on ponies without putting the hours in, you know!” she said, cheerfully, laying her burden expertly on the table with nary a drop nor crumb spilled, “Oh! I know, I can, like, make it rain now, can’t I? I should see if I can rain something other than rain - chocolate milk if I can hang it, Discord had least one good idea.”
Letting Pinkie Pie motor off, Twilight slumped into a seat and pulled her milkshake over. Spike slid listlessly onto the floor, where he was promptly ignored.
“You look absolutely devastated, darling, what happened?” Rarity asked, concerned now. Twilight wasn’t even reaching for her books to read at the table, and Rarity had been trying to break her of that habit long enough now to notice.
Grumping, the purple pegasus sucked harder on her milkshake, before wiping her mouth with a fetlock. “Rainbow started accusing me of-,” she paused, considering, “Accusing her, I guess. I can’t really follow her train of thought these days.”
“Ah was worried about that,” Applejack said, shaking her head, wincing as a spark of magic flew off the tip of her horn. It seemed to Rarity that Applejack’s horn was firing off unusually frequently, ever since the other mare had had a chance to rest and put some real food in her belly. It always came as sparks or spurts of light, and from the looks of her face it was making her head ache, if the twitching her eyes was any indication. “Ah think she feels guilty.”
“Whatever gave you that impression?” Twilight muttered, covering poorly the fact that such an obvious notion hadn’t really occurred to her. “I think it’s more than that, though, she was already on tenterhooks last night, and after this morning...” she said, trailing off. Twilight shook her head, fiddling with the cinnamon shaker at the center of the table as she spoke, “I think we should talk to her, this may have hit her harder than we think. Why isn’t she in here, bragging about how much more ice cream than Fluttershy she can stuff down while telling us about all of the totally awesome stunts she’ll be doing when she gets her wings back?”
“It really isn’t that much ice cream,” Fluttershy muttered to the table, defiantly scooping more with a large spoon.
“You may be right, Twilight,” Rarity agreed, washing her early dessert off with a glass of chilled milk, “But where is she? Wasn’t she with you last?”
“Ah, well, that was kind of the point where she ran out. Her horn was acting up, and she said she needed some fresh air,” Twilight answered, pausing as she saw the look on Applejack’s face, “What is it?”
“Nothin’,” Applejack lied, and was terrible at it as always. As if to emphasize its owner’s malfeasance, the orange horn on her head gave a series of pops, with little green rings zipping up to bounce into the ceiling.
“Applejack, is your horn hurting? Are you having headaches?” Twilight asked, more intently now, and Rarity also became very interested in her friend’s answer, having a dark inkling about what Twilight was on about. Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy exchanged confused glances, but left the matter in the hooves of the two former unicorns.
Applejack squirmed under their gazes. Her fork rose of its own accord, a green aura matching the glow about her horn surrounding it, and tapped it nervously against the plate. “Well, maybe,” she admitted, sweating, even as she winced again. She flexed her muscles, a visible shiver racing down her spine.
“Oh no,” Twilight groaned.
“This is bad,” Rarity agreed.
“What, what is it?” Applejack demanded, fur sticking up along the back of her neck, another chill racing up her spine as if Pinkie Pie had just ran an ice cube up it, “Goldang it, girls, if my horn is about to explode or buck me into the sun like Big Macintosh drunk on spirits, ah’d sooner know about it than find out when ah’m settin’ up an apple shop on the corona.”
Punctuating her remarks at each pause, her horn began to pulse and glow, in multiphasic brilliance, green and orange auras flaring one after the other. Throughout the room, loose dishes, chairs, confections, and pictures of the Cakes’ twin foals began to lift themselves off of available surfaces with Applejack’s agitation. As the thrumming hiss of her magic built, Applejack’s grip on the table hardened, for it was matched by the increasing intensity of her headache and muscle spasms.
“Applejack!” Rarity shouted, “You need to calm down, listen to me!”
Twilight, acting quickly, dived for her saddle bags, emptying one even as Spike started to float into the air.
“Wh-what’s go-goin’ on?” Applejack stuttered, her teeth chattering. A spark lit, and a bolt of lightning connected her with Pinkie Pie’s cake. Instantly, the pastry burst as if someone had placed a charge inside it, spraying the others with steaming hot dough. Rarity, giving up the apparently useless effort of trying to talk Applejack out of her panic, did the next best thing, and, bracing herself, slapped the orange unicorn right across her horn.
Pain exploded in Applejack’s world, as, with a clatter and clash of whatever dishes Pinkie Pie couldn’t save, her magic abated. Relief was temporary, however, for the involuntary nature of Applejack’s magical discharges were not so easily suppressed as that, and it began to spark and hiss again even as Applejack shuddered against the table. Leaping into the open moment, Twilight threw her bag about her friend’s head, closing it tight about her snout.
Surprised, Applejack tried to draw another sharp, shallow breath, but found it arrested. A few more such inhalations and exhalations into the bag and she found her shoulders slumping, a sort of calm forced over her. Leaning into her pegasus friend, she gave an apologetic look at the other ponies, particularly Fluttershy, who had taken to cowering under the table with her bowl of remaining ice cream in her forelimbs, and gave a shuddering, final breath before taking the bag off, looking exhausted and pained.
“Don’t speak,” Twilight cautioned, putting a hoof to her mouth, “Just focus on relaxing and calming down.”
“It’s as if you were just a foal... no, not just a foal,” Rarity said, with growing horror, “As if you had a baby foal’s utter lack of control or skill and a fully grown adult unicorn’s power.” Looking towards the open door, she shuddered, continuing in the same dire tone, “And, somewhere out there, Rainbow Dash has, or is about to, unleash the very same thing...”
Rising to all fours, she spoke in almost a whisper, her voice carrying in the dead silence left by her pronouncement, “Only we won’t be there to stop her.”