Scootaloo turned around, feeling slightly dizzy. Hadn't she just been standing ... no, she must have zoned out for a second. She looked at the young green pegasus mare before her. "What is it, Loop?"
"I'm not sure whether I can do the triple-flipped barrel roll run for the show tomorrow night. I've been trying for hours, and it simply won't work out." Cirrus Loop was staring down at her hooves.
"Cirrus, I've seen you pull the run off, more than once." Scootaloo smiled at the youngest member of the Wonderbolts. "You have it in you, and if my instincts aren't totally off, you'll be the star of our little team tomorrow. Courage, kid."
"Yes, but..." Loop managed to look Scootaloo in the eyes. "It always looks so easy when you do it. I bet you've never had problems like this."
The orange pegasus managed to bite back a laugh, just barely. "I wouldn't put too much into that bet if I were you." She looked around conspiratorially. "Do you want to know a secret?" Loop just nodded. "I was thirteen when I first managed to take to the air."
Loop's eyes threatened to bulge out of their sockets. "You're kidding me. That's three years over the standard age!"
"Yep. And I was an incredibly weak flyer at first, to boot. These babies," she flapped her wings, "only really started to develop when I was fifteen."
"And you still managed to become a Wonderbolt?" Loop bit her lip, seemingly realizing how condescending that sounded.
"Well, obviously, but it took a lot of effort, that's for sure." Scootaloo grinned. "I remember the face of my mentor when I got the acceptance letter. Yeah, she was proud, but she was also jealous."
"Your mentor wasn't a Wonderbolt, then?"
"Oh yes, she was, but she was a fair bit older when she was accepted, and she never managed to become captain. In fact, you only just missed being on the same team with her - she left last summer," Scootaloo said.
"You mean...?" Loop's eyes widened further. "Rainbow Dash was your mentor? She taught you how to fly?"
"I don't make a big thing of it usually, but yeah." Scootaloo ruffled the other mare's mane. "And if the fastest flyer in Equestrian history could see something in me, I can definitely see something in you."
Loop just smiled, eyes glistening with tears, and took off back towards the training parcours, Scootaloo looking after her.
"So this is it?"
The voice seemed to cut through a haze of some kind, right into Scootaloo's mind. She turned and saw the team's first and only honorary member lounging on a cloud sofa.
"Gilda? When did you ... how much did you see?" Scootaloo was confused - Gilda wasn't usually the quietest of flyers, and she wondered why she hadn't heard the griffon approach.
"I saw it all." Gilda stood up and took a few steps towards the captain of the Wonderbolts. "What is this, Scootaloo? I know it can't be real - you don't do flying stunts, and certainly not better than RD. Where are we?"
A sharp pain tore through Scootaloo's head, and for a second, she seemed to be somewhere else, hovering over a grey plain. Gilda looked at her with a strange gleam in her eyes. "I see. This is a dream of yours, isn't it?"
The pegasus mare squeezed her eyes shut, trying to focus on what was real and what wasn't. "I've always wanted to make Rainbow Dash proud."
She felt something soft touch her cheek. "You and me both, kiddo. But is this really what you want? In here, you're Rainbow Dash the Second, not Scootaloo the First. You have managed to build a career of your own, back in the real world, and I've seen that Dash is proud of you, even though you don't do anything related to flying."
Scootaloo fought to hold back the tears, barely managing to choke out an answer. "I know that, and still I've never been able to let go of this." She clenched her teeth, digging her front hooves into the ground. "This is what I dream of, but it's not what I really want. I am Scootaloo, not the next Rainbow Dash."
A flash of yellow light seemed to envelop them both, and when Scootaloo opened her eyes, she saw that they were standing inside a yellow gemstone. "Huh? What...where are we?"
Gilda looked around, fascination in her eyes. "I'm not sure, but I think we're inside my Element." The griffon looked at Scootaloo. "You do remember those, don't you? The Elements of Harmony and whatever else there was?"
"Unity." The word was out of Scootaloo's mouth before she even realized it, and in response, something around her neck seemed to flash white for a second. "I'm one of the Elements of Unity. I'm Courage."
"I see." Gilda touched one of her talons to a facet of the gemstone. "But this isn't the Element of Courage, is it?"
"No. My Element is white, not yellow." Scootaloo looked at Gilda's neck, expecting an Element, but her eyes seemed to reject focusing on that area.
"This is my Element, then," Gilda said, gazing upon her reflection in the jewel. "But what does it mean? What am I? And why are you here with me?"
"Wait." Scootaloo looked around again. "Your Element only showed itself when we met, didn't it?"
"True." Gilda turned and looked her in the eyes. "You pulled it from within me. It took courage for me to open that final door, break down the last barriers, in order to find..." The griffon hesitated. "To find myself. I lived a life of lies for seven years, and you finally helped me to shake that off."
Scootaloo stretched out a hoof and touched Gilda's crest. "So what exactly was it that you found underneath all that ... that wrongness?"
"I told you already, I found myself. My own spirit, my..." The griffon broke off abruptly, as if afraid to say the next word, then steely resolve crept onto her face. "My individuality."
As if in answer to the word, the gemstone rang out in a clear tone, and the next thing Scootaloo knew, they were standing on the grey plain again, looking down onto their unconscious bodies. The gemstones in their Elements were glowing brightly.
"That's it, isn't it?" Scootaloo pointed to Gilda's necklace. "You pulled me from that dream when you reminded me of who I really am."
Gilda looked down at the necklace for a second, then her beak twisted into the griffon equivalent of a happy smile. "This is who I really am, then. I'm the Element of Individuality."
"Of course you can have the evening off, Applejack." Apple Bloom couldn't suppress her grin. "Celestia knows it took you long enough to find your special somepony, who am I to stand in your way?"
Apple Bloom's younger sister could barely keep from jumping up and down in joy. "Thank you, AB. I'll be taking up the north fields tomorrow morning, then."
"Don't think about that for now, AJ. Just go out and have the time of your life." Apple Bloom turned back to the stove, where a pot of stew was bubbling happily. Just a few more minutes, and it'll be perfect.
"Oh, I will. Thanks again, and see ya!" Applejack sprinted out the door and up the stairs. The oldest Apple sibling found that joy infectious, and she started humming to herself while stirring the stew.
"AB? Can we talk for a moment?" Her brother was standing in the doorway, looking at her as if seeing her for the first time. She could have sworn he hadn't been there a second ago, but then Big Macintosh, despite his bulk, could be very stealthy when he wanted to be.
"Sure. What is it, little brother?" As she said the words, something stirred in Apple Bloom's mind. That sounded wrong.
"This isn't real, AB. You're not my big sister." The quiet, matter-of-fact tone robbed the words of any hurt they might otherwise have caused.
"What do you mean, you big lug? Of course I'm your big sister. Apple Bloom, eldest of the Apple siblings. Have you been working too long in the south fields again?" The earth mare tried to smile, but it refused to reach her eyes.
"Shake out of it, AB, please. What is this place? Why are we here?" Big Macintosh looked around.
"You're acting really strange, brother. Perhaps we should..." A sharp pain made Apple Bloom break off, as though somepony had driven a spike through her head.
Spike... That word - something about the word made her double over in pain suddenly.
"Where are we, Bloomy?" Big Macintosh stared at his sister helplessly, something green starting to shimmer around his neck.
"I..." Apple Bloom gritted her teeth, trying to focus on her surroundings. "I've imagined this sometimes. What it would be like if I was the eldest. If you had to look up to me and respect me, ask me for permission, not the other way round."
"Ah." The red earth stallion approached his sister and hugged her. "Trust me, AB, being the eldest isn't all it's cracked up to be. I've been jealous of you sometimes, getting away with things I never could have done without getting grounded for a month."
"Really?" Apple Bloom looked up at her brother. "You? Jealous of me?"
"More than you can imagine, AB." The stallion's gaze wandered off into the distance. "I've always been the responsible one. I've never done things just to see if it would work, like you used to do with the Crusaders." A smile slowly pulled at his mouth. "Well, almost never."
"I wouldn't really want to be the one responsible for Sweet Apple Acres," Apple Bloom admitted.
A deep green flash of light enveloped them, and then they were someplace else, inside a green gemstone.
"Whoa." Big Macintosh stared at the walls. "That does look like my Element, doesn't it?"
"Yup." Apple Bloom put a hoof against the wall, but it felt solid. Then she remembered something. "Wait. You said 'almost never'. What did you mean?"
It wasn't easy to tell when the stallion blushed, but it was fairly obvious this time - his cheeks seemed to have caught fire. "Well, there was Colt Fawkes. Me and Fluttershy."
"I know. I saw you finally make your move." Something stirred in Apple Bloom's memory. "Come to think of it, you really only went in for it after we'd made eye contact."
"Eeyup. I felt like something had opened up inside me when that happened," Big Macintosh said. "It felt like a door opening, and you gave it the final push."
"I'm the Element of Confidence," Apple Bloom said, trying to gather her thoughts. "But this isn't my Element, it's yours. So what are you?"
"Hmm." Big Macintosh stared at his reflection in one of the green facets. "I wanted to try what would happen, and I've never really done that before. I just gave in to it."
"To what?" Apple Bloom asked. "Try to give it a name, Big Mac, I think we're onto something here."
"Well, I just wished to try, even though I had no idea whether it would work. I wanted to indulge my..." The stallion's eyes lit up. "My curiosity."
A deep, resonant tone shook the gemstone, and then they were standing out on the grey plain again, above their unmoving bodies, the gemstones in the necklaces almost too bright to look at.
"You wanted to know where you were, and you managed to pull me out of my dream by just asking that." Apple Bloom stared at her brother in wonder. "No offense, Mac, but I'd never have thought of curiosity as that important to you."
"It wasn't." Apple Bloom had never seen her brother this radiantly happy. "Don't you see that that's the point of it all? I suppressed it all this time, because it wasn't expected of me, but it was always there, and now it's found its way to the light." Big Macintosh's face hardened into a mask of resolve, though he didn't lose the smile. "I'm the Element of Curiosity, and let nopony say any different!"
"Spike, dear, would you be so good...?"
Spike hastened to Rarity's side and helped her push the dress puppet back into balance. He shot her a look of mock exasperation. "Haven't I told you a thousand times that you should leave this to me?" His glance wandered down towards her rather large, bulging stomach. "I wouldn't want you to overexert yourself."
Rarity glared back at her husband with a ferocity that could have melted steel. "I'm perfectly able to look after myself, darling. I just lost focus for a second, that's all."
Spike stepped around the puppet and embraced her. "I know. I'm just nervous. This is the first time this is happening, after all."
Rarity smiled. "I know, and it's just as unfamiliar to me as it is to you." She stroked her belly with one hoof. "It's worth it, but I'm in no hurry to take any of those supplements again."
"They're that bad, huh?"
"Try chowing down on a piece of iron sometime and..." Rarity broke off. "Nevermind, you'd probably enjoy that, you philistine."
"Philistine?" Spike huffed and struck a pose. "I would have you know, Lady Rarity, that I am a dragon of the most exquisite tastes, in food," he couldn't suppress a grin, "as in matters of the heart."
Rarity tried to keep up her haughty facade, but after a second or two, she returned the grin. "Touché. How could I possibly argue with that?"
Something in her tone made Spike step closer again. "What is it, Rares?"
"Oh, it's nothing, really. I just suppose I'm nervous as well."
"Perhaps one of those strawberry cupcakes of Pinkie's could remedy that." Spike opened the door. "Don't move an inch. I'll be back in a heartbeat." He stepped out into the street, blinking his nictitating membranes once or twice against the sunlight, and made a beeline towards Sugarcube Corner, returning a few minutes later with a box of his wife's favourite sweets.
"I should have guessed."
Spike pressed his free hand against his temple as a sharp pain jolted through his head. When he looked around, he saw a familiar blue unicorn mare leaning against Rarity's fence.
"What do you mean, Trixie? And why are you here?" Spike asked, completely lost. He hadn't seen the showmare in Celestia knew how long.
Trixie sighed and pointed to her hat. "I'm an entertainer, Spike. One of the basic skills of that is knowing how to read an audience. I saw you back when I first came to Ponyville, and I immediately knew you had a thing for that white unicorn." She looked down, almost as though ashamed. "Which reminds me, I probably need to apologize to her for what I did to her mane."
"Trixie, how long ago was that? And yes, I loved Rarity from the moment I first saw her. Why do you think I married her?" Spike asked, growing ever more confused.
"No." Trixie raised her head and looked the young dragon straight in the eyes. "I know that you did not marry Rarity, because I performed at her wedding party - the one in Canterlot, with Fancy Pants's side of the family. You were there, Spike. You were Fancy's best dragon, because he wouldn't trust anypony from Canterlot with anything like that. Don't you remember?"
Spike collapsed to his knees as another bolt of pain shot through his skull. "What's happening?"
"You tell me." Trixie looked around. "This is your playground, I guess. A dream, perhaps?"
"No. This is reality, and you don't belong here," Spike snarled.
"Snap out of it!" Trixie was almost shouting. "What about that yellow earth mare with the red mane? From what I saw at Colt Fawkes, you two are an item. And you'd simply discard her like that, forget about her just because your precious Rarity whistled?" The showmare's eyes were blazing, but there was something else beneath the anger, something far more deep-seated.
Apple Bloom. As Spike thought the name, snatches of memories started flying around in his mind, and it seemed to him that the world began to fracture.
"Rarity is with Fancy Pants, and you're with Apple Bloom. Would it really be worth hurting them just so you could indulge in your kid fantasies?" The rage had evaporated from Trixie's face, leaving only a deep uncertainty.
Spike clenched his teeth. "No. I've never been able to let go of Rarity, but I think nopony can really do that with their first love. I want her to be happy, that's all."
"And you're not really ready to be a father either." At Spike's surprised look, Trixie laughed. "You're barely more than a child even by pony standards, and your kind live far longer than we do." A shadow fell on her face. "Trust me, I've seen what happens when stallions and mares - colts and fillies, really - have foals before their time. Not a pretty sight."
Spike simply nodded, wondering what the blue mare was talking about, when the world exploded in a flash of light. When sight returned, they were standing inside a light blue gemstone.
"Wow." Spike tried to sink his claws into one of the facets instinctively, but it didn't budge an inch. "This is not an ordinary gem. Where in the hay are we?"
Trixie just gawked, open-mouthed. "This is my Element. I can feel that this thing is a part of me, somehow."
The dragon turned to the unicorn. "But what is it, exactly? What are you?"
"I still don't know. I thought you could tell me, or Twilight," Trixie admitted. "Besides, it only showed up when..." She stared at Spike. "When we made eye contact, back at the palace."
"Yeah. And before that, at Colt Fawkes, you said it opened something in you." Spike slowly let one claw slide down the facet he had tried to cut into, leaving no trail of any kind.
"When that thing at the palace happened, I finally felt complete." Trixie cast down her gaze. "I finally found the resolve to leave my hate and anger behind me, so I could treat Ponyville and the Elements of Harmony, if not with friendship, then at least with..." Realization dawned on her face. "With respect."
A clear tinkling sound resonated through the gemstone, and then they were back on the grey plain, hovering above their own unconscious bodies, Elements glowing with power.
"You pulled me out of that dream by reminding me of how it would affect others." Spike breathed out slowly. "Respect, hm?"
"I'm honestly as surprised as you are," Trixie admitted. "I always wallowed in my pride and arrogance, but..." Her voice began to crack. "I really only wanted to be admired. Why else would I do what I do?"
Something clicked inside Spike's mind. "But if you don't show anypony respect, how can you expect to be shown any?"
"I know. But I could never find the resolve I needed to overcome my arrogance. I had hidden behind that mask for so long that I had forgotten how to take it off, until I met you." Trixie looked at Spike, tears gleaming in her eyes. "Thank you, Spike. The Great and Powerful Element of Respect owes you one."
"And now, fillies and gentlecolts, the highlight of the night!"
Sweetie Belle beamed as the announcer continued heaping praise on her. This was it. This was the moment she'd been waiting for all her life.
"For one night, and one night only! The new Princess of Pop, the Queen of Glamour - Sweetie Belle!"
It was perfect. The lights, the sound, the audience going wild during the uptempo songs and then tearful during the ballads - nopony who had been there would ever forget it. Sweetie Belle gave it her all and more, including three encores, and at the end of the concert, it seemed the audience would never stop applauding and cheering.
"That was beautiful, Sweetie Belle."
The voice had come from behind her, but it didn't belong to any of the crew. The white unicorn turned around slowly, coming face to face with a grey pegasus mare with distinctly odd eyes.
"Derpy? Why are you here?" Sweetie Belle couldn't remember giving a ticket to her, much less a backstage pass.
"I don't know." The pegasus smiled. "I guess I need to be here for some reason, maybe to get you to wake up."
"Wake up? What do you mean?" The unicorn felt a pressure mounting inside her head. It was starting to hurt.
"Oh, come on." Derpy's smile deepened and turned almost sad. "Anypony can see that this is a dream, Sweetie."
"Yes, of course it is. A dream come true." The pain intensified.
"I saw you perform yesterday. On a small stage in Ponyville, at Colt Fawkes Night. You were brilliant, as a friend of mine would put it, but how did you go from there to here in one day?" Derpy gestured towards the audience. "Look at them, Sweetie, and try to see their faces."
Sweetie Belle did, and she realized that most of the ponies looked eerily similar, almost identical. "What's happening?" The pain in her head was making it hard for her to think straight.
"You need to wake up." Derpy had never looked this serious for as long as Sweetie Belle knew her. "Yes, this is great, but would you really want to skip all the steps ahead of you? Remember how long you worked at getting your cutie mark?"
"Yes, but it didn't lead anywhere! The adults were right all along, I should just have given in to what they said." The white mare was fighting hard to hold back tears.
"No." Derpy managed to focus both eyes on the singer before her. "Never give in. I saw some of the things you did with the other Crusaders." She grinned, and her lazy eye danced out of line again. "I see a lot of things with those eyes. You had fun. You were a carefree foal, and you had great friends. Would you really have wanted to miss out on that?"
"I..." Sweetie was speechless. She never would have believed the grey pegasus to be this perceptive. "No, I wouldn't. You saw all that?"
"I know what you're thinking, everypony does," Derpy said, lowering her head. "Slow, stupid, clumsy Derpy."
Oh no. The white unicorn stepped close to the pegasus and hugged her. "I'm sorry. I never really thought about it, and you are a bit prone to accidents."
"I know, and I'm not mad at you." Derpy broke the hug. "Trust me, I know all about dreaming yourself to a better place. But it never helps. Not until you wake up and actually do something."
"You're right." The world exploded in light, and they were standing on the bottom of what looked like a giant translucent grey soap bubble.
"Ooh, I like this place!" Derpy exclaimed, shooting up into the air until she floated right beneath the upper end of the sphere. "This isn't your dream anymore, is it?"
"I don't think I've ever wanted to be trapped inside a bubble made of..." Sweetie Belle probed the ground with a hoof and found it hard and unyielding. "Made of rock, it seems."
"Well, me neither, so what is this place?" Derpy floated back down.
"That alicorn said something about all the Elements being needed," Sweetie Belle reflected. "That would include you, even though you haven't shown an Element yet."
The pegasus stared at Sweetie Belle in disbelief. "Me? An Element? Is this a joke or something, because I don't get it. Elements are ponies of legend, larger than life, ponies like Twilight Sparkle or Rainbow Dash. How could dumb little Derpy ever be worthy of something like that?"
The self-loathing oozing out of the grey mare's voice hit Sweetie Belle almost like a physical blow. "Don't do that to yourself, Der...Ditzy. I could not have gotten out of that dream without your help. We wouldn't even be here if you hadn't noticed the Elements back at the palace." She stepped right in front of the pegasus and looked her in the eyes. "You are every bit as worthy of bearing an Element as anypony who holds one. I believe in you."
Derpy stared back at Sweetie Belle for a second, then a flash of silver light enveloped both ponies. When their sight returned, they were hovering over their unconscious bodies, cast in purplish light by the glowing gemstone in Sweetie Belle's Element.
"What just happened?" Derpy looked down at her own body and gasped. "Sweetie, look at that!"
The unicorn turned her head and saw what had the other mare so excited. Around the unconscious Derpy's throat, a necklace had formed. Sweetie Belle grinned. "See? Told you so."
"You did this. I felt your trust, and I just thought, to Tartarus with what anypony thinks of me." Derpy still sounded as though she expected to wake up any second. "But what am I supposed to be, exactly? The Element of Crashing?"
Sweetie Belle laughed. "That would have to be Rainbow Dash, certainly? Besides, I think it has to be something more ... personal."
"Like what?" the pegasus asked.
"Hm. Let's see how you pulled me out of that dream, I believe that'll be our answer." Sweetie Belle frowned in concentration. "I was fighting you, because I didn't want to believe it was a dream. You got through to me when I realized you really grasped what my dream was about."
"I've always been good at noticing things nopony else cared about." Sweetie's enthusiasm seemed to have jumped to the pegasus. "And when you said you believed in me, I felt that I really knew who I was for the first time. I..." Derpy's eyes widened. "I understood."
The grey bubble-shaped gemstones in Derpy's necklace started to glow. "That's it!" the pegasus mare exclaimed. "It's the final step in the cycle."
"Cycle?" Now she had lost Sweetie Belle completely. "What cycle?"
Derpy pointed to Gilda, Big Macintosh and Trixie. "Those three and me aren't just a random gaggle of strangers lumped together as Elements." She grinned. "Okay, maybe we are, but that seems to be the point. The Elements of Harmony found themselves only when they became friends, and the Elements of Unity were friends before the fact. But these four are different."
"Different in what way? And how do you know that?" Sweetie stared at the other three new Elements.
"I'm the Element of Understanding. I have no idea how I know, but then that may be part of it. I just...understand."
Yes, you do. Warden Grey appeared before them. My congratulations, Elements of Unity. You have passed your test, as have the new Elements. He waved a hoof, and the ponies, dragon and griffon stirred awake, suddenly pulled back into their bodies.
"Urgh!" Gilda spat. "Now what? Was that it?"
Most certainly not, Element of Individuality. Warden looked at each of the fourteen Elements in turn, finally focusing on Derpy. So your Element has shown. Just in time. Do you know who you are?
Derpy's eyes seemed to glow slightly. "I'm Understanding, Fourth in the cycle of Diversity." Her voice seemed overlaid with a second, much deeper one.
"Cycle of Diversity?" Twilight looked from Derpy to Warden in confusion. "What does she mean?"
The Four That Are Hidden have shown themselves, and they will have to explain their nature, for I do not know it. Warden pointed at Derpy.
"It's actually pretty easy, Twilight," Derpy said, now sounding normal again, and even smiling. "Even somepony as slow as I am can understand it. The four of us," she pointed at Gilda, Big Macintosh, Trixie and herself, "are the Elements of Diversity. Harmony and Unity are very well..."
Gilda took up the thread. "But they will stagnate, like a pond with no streams flowing into or out of it, unless Diversity turns things around every now and then. Individuality is the First in the cycle of Diversity: Every one of us is a different individual, and it's good that way."
Big Macintosh continued. "When Individuality looks at others, it could easily find flaws. That's where the Second in the cycle comes in: Curiosity. We're different, yet we want to learn from each other."
"And when Curiosity exhausts itself, finding some things strange about others, the Third in the cycle takes the helm: Respect. We're different, and we can take that as a simple fact, not a challenge to turn others into copies of ourselves." Trixie's eyes were glowing softly.
Derpy took up the reins again. "And then, when Respect has had time to mature, it turns into the Fourth in the cycle: Understanding. We're different, yet we can embrace that."
The Elements of Harmony and Unity stared in wonder at the three ponies and the griffon in their midst. Finally Spike turned to Twilight. "That's why you said Trixie was far from Harmony."
"Yes," Twilight whispered. "They're on the side of good, but they're very different from us." She smiled. "And that's a good thing."
Pinkie bounced up and down. "Of course it is, silly. Can you imagine how boring parties would be if everypony was the same? Duuuulll!"
Warden looked at the pink earth mare with a half-smile. Laughter always was the maverick among the Elements of Harmony.
"Like we couldn't tell," Rainbow Dash laughed. "So what happens now?"
The ground shook violently, and the golden disc rose from the ground. Cracks were beginning to make their way from the outer edge into the centre, and that eerie golden glow had intensified.
I do not know, Element of Loyalty. The Dawn of the Seventh is at hand, but everything after that is hidden beneath a veil of shadow.
A single ray of golden light shot out from the disc and over the heads of the Elements. A slight hiss was heard, and then a voice rang out from behind them. "Then it is time to pierce that veil with all the light of the sun."
Slowly, the Elements turned around to face the source of the voice.
Princess Celestia stood on the grey plain, eyes blazing with golden fire.