Meanwhile, back in Ponyville...
Princess Celestia paced around in Twilight's library, her face locked in a cold stare at nopony in particular. The three friends standing around her just waited. They hadn't seen Celestia look this genuinely scared, even though the monarch tried to hide it, and they felt deeply overwhelmed. Fluttershy cared for Sweetie Belle as Rainbow Dash scouted across the Everfree, trying to find Zecora and look for clues.
"Why did Applebloom pick that spell? How did she even manage to make the spell work?" Celestia repeated for the umpteenth time, talking to nopony in particularly.
Twilight pulled up book after book, trying to remember the volume that contained this one particular reference, something about "darklands" created by ponies' own inner thoughts. She paused, leaning up against a wide bookshelf, and she let out a whistle. "I know, I've read that. And I just read it last week. How in the hay am I forgetting where I read it?" she murmured. Her eyes slanted from bookshelf to bookshelf, pausing at a very thin and very old book titled Interpretations of Dreams: A New Scientific Analysis. "Maybe..."
"Rarity," Celestia said, staring straight at the floor.
"Yes, your majesty!" Rarity replied, standing up at full attention.
"Are you sure that Sweetie Belle hasn't had problems sleeping recently?" the alicorn asked, sitting down upon a stack of pillows and locking eyes with the worried big sister. Rarity felt taken aback at how tender and concerning Celestia looked.
"Why, no, I'm very sure of that."
"Did she keep some kind of a 'dream journal' or one of those personal type diaries?" Celestia leaned back, gears turning in her mind. "Maybe she had issues that she didn't want to talk to you about, feeling embarrassed."
Rarity shifted her head to the side, wiggling her mane around her back. "She just has a sort of 'promise keeper'-type diary. She's showed it to me a few times. Nothing in there at all that would have anything to do with the changeling queen or some kind of 'netherworld', goodness no." She paused, and she chuckled. "She writes about feeling weird at herself for maybe-kind-of falling for Snails, about her favorite type of cake frosting, about how she's improved so much at bowling, and... all that stuff..." Rarity trailed off as Celestia made an angry sigh.
"Same thing for Scootaloo as well," Celestia said, partly to the other ponies but mostly to herself. "It doesn't make sense. It just doesn't." She walks over to the window, watching as the rain streaks down the glass. "The cultists that made that spell, those old world extremist ponies expelled from the Canterlot Mystical Society centuries ago, wrote about servitude. They described their nightmares in great detail, turning those horrible thoughts into concrete spells, and they claimed that the 'negation of the illusion of free will' came in embracing one's dreams. They wanted to turn one's dreams into reality in order to be 'happy slaves' to the primordial 'force', like an aether, going through the whole universe."
"Religious extremist stuff that I've herd before, jes' only from long-bearded loonies on big city corners," Applejack commented. She slanted back and collapsed into a chair, motioning for the tall glass of water behind her.
"It should be just a mouthful of nonsense," Celestia replied. She stopped. She started to feel angry, clearly, as her ears perked up and her breaths becoming short. She knew that she absolutely could not make a scene in front of those ponies, especially Rarity given the poor mare's emotional rollercoaster. She felt her heart burning.
"Yes, Scootaloo hasn't had any problems sleeping. No nightmares. No reason for her to be particularly interested in this spell or receptive to a kind of thing that would turn her darkest mental desires into a reality," Twilight commented, combing through the book in front of her.
Celestia wanted to just smash the bookshelves against the floor in frustration. "Foals in danger," she whispered to herself, so quiet that she couldn't even hear herself. "Thousands of years can go on, and I'll never be able to stand it. To take it. Seeing these-- these-- sick, twisted monsters-- hurting foals." She felt like a second-mother to each new generation that she oversaw.
"Wait 'jes a cotton-pickin' moment," Applejack suddenly called out.
All eyes aimed at her. Celestia, Twilight, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie-- staying uncharacteristically silent through this whole time-- waited for the next world. Applejack blushed a tiny bit at the attention.
"Applebloom did have some... well, it's hard to explain. Ya'll know what nightmares are. Ya'll know what regular dreams are," Applejack went on, walking over and grabbing another glass of water. "I guess I just should spit it out."
"Yes," Twilight said, walking over to Applejack's side.
"She had super good dreams recently," Applejack said. "Especially in the last couple weeks."
"Super-de-dooper good?" Pinkie chimed in.
"It's like, well, she's wanted to sleep more than do anything else, almost from that." Applejack stroked her chin. "She said that her dreams felt like real-life. They even seemed 'more real than real-life', even thought that don't make a lick o' sense. She became a conquerin' warrior gettin' to be queen, became a ship captain defeatin' a sea monster, became a champion flyer beatin' the Wonderbolts, a super genius talkin' fancy with the Canterlot high society folk, and much more." She took a little breath. "She kept on bragging about her dream life that Big Mac and I couldn't keep from rollin' our eyes, every mornin'. She insisted that it felt so weirdly good, that she remembered every single event like real memories."
"Fascinating," Celestia replied. She felt her anger fading, and she tried to think back. So much of her classical education had told her that dreams meant nothing, as useful as crust along one's eyes, and yet so many top advisers over the years had found otherwise. She made for another glass of water herself.
"I didn't speak 'bout that earlier," Applejack commented. "I 'jes heard ya'll talkin' 'bout 'nightmares', when Applebloom's the exact opposite sort. I suppose I should've talked' 'bout that before."
"Your highness?" Twilight suddenly asked. She pulled up too thin, freshly printed books from the far side of the bookshelves. She made a happy squeak as she recognized the titles.
"Have you ever played video games?"
"Why," Celestia began, and she wondered just how to answer the question, "yes. I'm not what one would normally label as a 'gamer', but I enjoy character-driven experiences where one solves puzzles." She makes a soft chuckle. "I've had a particular fondness for Silent Canterlot, playing as the young stallion thrust into a frigid ice world as he seeks his older sister." She paused. "Okay, I admit that I'm a 'gamer'."
"In video games, the player has this sort of special ability-- let's call it 'user power'. They can't really get killed. They always restart somewhere. They can see past corners where in game non-player characters can't," Twilight said, ripping through the first book, which featured a fancy, glossy red cover.
"Darling, I have no clue where you're going with this," Rarity commented, coming up behind the unicorn.
"Applebloom has magic in this netherworld! Even as she stays an earth pony!" Twilight called out, turning around and magically holding up the second book. "If it's supposed to be a nightmare world, then why the hay would she have magic? If she's truly being kept prisoner, then it makes no sense."
"Twilight," Celestia said, "I understand, but what does any of that mean?"
"Applebloom is stronger," Twilight said, feeling so overcome with emotion that she trembled. "She has the user power. It's her game. It's her dream. That's why she was the one that picked this spell in her little cutie mark ability test, that's why she actually activated the spell, even though she didn't understand it all consciously."
"Twilight!" Pinkie interrupted, hopping over out of nowhere with another tray of snacks for the group. "I think they want you to get to the point."
"We had it backwards," Twilight replied, "The changeling queen needs Applebloom and not the other way around. She's used the power of her dreams and this old, horrible spell in order to break into this underworld. But it's not an inherently evil underworld, or at least that's what Strong's Commentaries on Dissident Magic seems to indicate--" She magically threw over a battered and torn old book from the corner of the floor over to her side, speeding through the pages to a bookmarked section. "Right!"
"Right!" Rarity repeated, still rather confused about Twilight's discovery. She lowered her voice. "At least she's excited about whatever she read."
"The queen feeds from love. Applebloom's dream state had enough love, love for herself and for adventure with her dream friends, to keep her somewhat alive. But the queen couldn't do much with that. Thus, she subtly, subconsciously influenced Applebloom to get the whole Crusaders to do this spell and do it right. That whole thing with the doors?"
Rarity took a deep breath, recalling how horrified Sweetie had been when talking about her entrapment. She felt so happy that Mr. and Mrs. Cake had welcomed the now peacefully safe and sleeping Sweetie, both of them telling Rarity to "kick the sorry flanks" of the "monster that would do that to a filly" when Celestia arrived in Ponyville. She sat down, trying to take in Twilight's monologue.
"It would make sense if the queen put Sweetie and Scootaloo in danger, maybe making tests puzzles for Applebloom to complete in order to save her friends. Then, this netherworld ends up working as a sort of video game platform!" Twilight said. "The queen feasts from Applebloom's love, and she manages to use the place as well as a re-arming place at the same time. She could re-amass her army on the sidelines. Just think about how Sweetie desribed the water area. Doesn't that seem like an area from Silent Canterlot or some other new release for the Pony-Box?"
"Too bad that Sweetie didn't have that grappling hook thingy-a-mah-bob like Princess Zedra in that Quest for the Eternal Four Swords game!" Pinkie burst out, hopping around and pretending to shoot ropes from her hooves. "She could just hop from metal grid to metal grid by tapping 'Z'!" She whistles, tapping against the ground. "Z! Snap! Z! Snap!"
"Twilight..." Rarity began, not knowing how to finish.
"And it's so easy now from our side!" Twilight went on. "All we need to do is to all wear items of Applebloom's, maybe all of us putting on one of her matching bows--" She felt around her mane, wondering if she'd look too tacky. "And we just go to that same spot in the Everfree to recite the "system jail-break" counter-spell found in Your Easy Guide to Video Game Cheats by Skanky Flanks Jr." Twilight held up the book she had finally found-- bright shiny icons from the latest Pony-Box releases all across the cover. S.F. Jr.'s author signature, a boot rubbing up a fat red stallion's plot, decorated the lower-right corner. "Then, we arrive right there in the netherworld that she's in."
"Twilight," Celestia said, putting a hoof over on the unicorn's shoulder and rubbing forwards.
Twilight turned a variety of colors. Celestia's motherly, soft attention always melted her heart. Celestia leaned a few inches even closer, making Twilight take a little breath.
"We don't have to do anything," Celestia said. "On the contrary, I feel like the best thing for you and the rest of the elements of harmony to do is to keep Ponyville safe. Sweetie must be protected. And you're all in that monster's sights. I feel like the larger the force we bring into the netherworld, the worse things might become."
"Are you saying--" Rarity, Pinkie, and Twilight all said at once.
"I'm not going by myself," Celestia replied. She paused, trying to think of how to word things. She wanted to protect those ponies that she loved so dearly, that felt as much of a part of her as her own hooves, but she couldn't patronize them. "My best guards and I will test Twilight's hypothesis. Another alicorn, or several others, may accompany us as well."
Celestia stepped over to the door. She looked out and saw the rain pounding harder than ever. Even though administrative ponies had planned this minor rainstorm far in advance, the torrents of flowing wanter felt so ominous.
"Your highness," Applejack said, walking right behind Celestia. "I'm gonna have to put my hoof down."
"I knew that you would."
"She's my flesh and blood sister. She's still in danger, maybe even havin' her life threatened 'jes at this moment."
Celestia sighed. She turned around and faced the four ponies in the room. Twilight had a look of pure conviction. Rarity and Pinkie just seemed totally confused. Applejack seemed so sure of herself that she had to go, her eyes focused as her heart beat like a jackhammer.
"Applejack," Celestia said, laying on that motherly tone even thicker than before, "I don't think you understand."
Applejack opened her mouth to respond, but she hesitated. Celestia's face seemed to hold so much emotion.
"Assume that Twilight is correct. This is all wild speculation at this point, but this line of reasoning seems to be all that we have to really go on. Thus, Applebloom's love is being eaten, literally," said the alicorn. "Scootaloo and Sweetie's peril made the changeling leader stronger, even though Applebloom herself is the one who's dream-like state powers this underworld. Now, imagine what would happen if Applebloom were to see her sister, somepony that she loves with every last fiber of her being more than a friend, put in danger in front of her. Would that only make the queen even stronger?"
Applejack understood, nodding.
"The more ponies we send, the more we prolong this game and all the queen more opportunities to feed. This grows worse the emotionally closer those ponies are to Applebloom." Celestia paused, trying to diplomatically phrase what she would say next. "My understanding is that Applebloom does not have particular fondness for myself, for ponies associated with the royal family, or for Twilight." Celestia didn't say one crucial thing. She didn't reveal this one particular thing that she knew about this 'netherworld' that the other ponies couldn't even guess-- she vowed long ago to protect this secret even in the most extreme circumstance.
The three ponies just stared back, not sure even how to take that in.
"Your highness," Twilight meekly interjected.
"I don't know how to put this. So, I'll just say it." She summoned up courage, sitting up tall. "I believe that you're thinking about things totally wrong."
"How so?" she flatly asked back.
"I agree that we shouldn't send a whole army there. I also agree with what you said about Applejack and about the nature of Applebloom's love being eaten. But," Twilight said, "we shouldn't be thinking about defeating the queen at all."
Celestia rose her eyebrows, not expecting to hear that at all.
"The best thing would be a feint."
"Yes..." Celestia muttered, too quiet for them to hear. She wondered if her secret might actually help her out after all.
"And, during our feint," Twilight said, "we wouldn't need to fight the queen. Applebloom can do that. She's the player, and she controls the whole thing. She's stronger. Literally all she needs to do, if all this reasoning is correct, is just to realize that she's stronger."
"And then?" Rarity asked. "What happens."
To Be Continued...