Cheerilee and Spike braced themselves against the hurricane of words that hurdled at them. After searching in front of the castle for a number of minutes, the three missing fillies had suddenly appeared in front of them and started babbling about something that neither the magenta earth pony nor the baby dragon could quite understand between the three of them. The three Crusaders were making all kinds of odd gestures including waving their hooves in front of their eyes, struggling against an invisible wall, and something that looked like an impersonation of Twilight when she was freaking out.
“Girls… if you could just… girls wait a minute… girls…,” Cheerilee tried, but they were too engrossed in whatever they were talking about to listen.
Finally, Spike reached into an unseen place and pulled out a gong. As soon as he struck it, the three fillies went silent.
“Um… thanks Spike,” Cheerilee said slowly.
“I knew this birthday present from Princess Luna had a purpose.” Spike smiled.
“Uh huh…” Cheerilee shrugged and returned her gaze to the three little ponies in front of her. “Okay girls, one at a time. What happened?”
Technically they spoke one at a time, though they constantly interrupted each other, only saying about three words each before the next one took over. From the jumbled mess, Cheerilee was able to make out something about Twilight and Plum being in the castle, and that Celestia and Luna had apparently captured Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie. Then there was something about a strange red light that had come out of Plum’s eyes.
“Sounds like you had quite the wild time in there,” Cheerilee said after they had finished. “Are you sure you saw Twilight?”
“Positive,” Apple Bloom said.
“Then it seems she was never missing at all. Strange how she wouldn’t tell anypony though.”
“What about Ms. Plum? She did that weird light thing with her eyes.” Scootaloo opened her eyes as wide as she could as she spoke.
“I thought you said something like that.” Cheerilee wasn’t sure she had heard right the first time. If it really was true, what would have produced such a strange light to give the Crusaders the idea that she was doing something to Pinkie and the others? And Celestia and Luna capturing them? That was preposterous. But why would Plum be in Canterlot anyway?
“What happened after the princesses captured the others?” Cheerilee finally asked.
“We ran away!” Sweetie Belle exclaimed.
“Did not!” Scootaloo argued. “We made a calculated escape.”
“So you didn’t see anything else?” Cheerilee wondered.
“No. Fluttershy and the others just sort of stood there afterwards. The princesses didn’t even have to hold them down anymore,” Apple Bloom finished.
“Then they weren’t really in danger, right?” Spike said, holding his hands together.
“I don’t know. I kinda thought the red light did somethin’ to em.”
“Well it is true that some studies claim that different colors can affect a pony’s mood,” Cheerilee said, going back into lecture mode. “Red is thought to be an emotionally intense color that stimulates a faster heartbeat and quicker breathing which is why it is also the color of love. In addition, red clothing is more easily noticed by ponies but also makes the wearer appear heavier. Of course, since it is an extreme color, red clothing might not help ponies in negotiations or confrontations. Also, when it comes to decorating, red is usually used as an accent. Decorators say that red furniture should be perfect since it will attract attention. In fact, the eye is drawn to heavier colors, which is why…” Wait a minute. For some reason that reminded Cheerilee of something. The eye is drawn to red… like red light… and red light in say mythology for example…
Cheerilee blinked. “It couldn’t be…”
“What couldn’t be?” Spike asked.
“Everyone, why don’t we go back to Ponyville.”
“What? But what about Fluttershy? What about Twilight? If she’s here, then maybe Applejack is here too,” Apple Bloom wailed.
“I know, but there is something very important I need to check first. It could help us save them.”
“You mean they really are in danger?” Spike cringed.
“I don’t know that for sure yet, but there is one way to find out. Come on, back to the train everyone. If I’m not mistaken, we should arrive back in Ponyville before sundown.”
Just as Cheerilee had thought, they arrive as the sun was about to disappear behind the mountains. Cheerilee had one particular destination in mind. If her suspicions were right, then they were all in more danger than they realized.
As soon as they reached the home she was looking for, Cheerilee knocked. After waiting a few moments, she knocked a second time but the house remained dark. “That’s odd. It’s almost eight. Why wouldn’t Kickerbuck be home?”
“Maybe he’s still at school?” Scootaloo suggested.
“I don’t see why he would be. The doors are always locked promptly at five. Kickerbuck is very particular about that. Why, I was once locked in the school and had to get out through a window.”
“Well, he’s been a real dodo the last few days so maybe he forgot what time it is.”
“Apple Bloom, I don’t want you saying things like that about your Principal… but…,” Cheerilee thought a minute. “Maybe we should check the school just in case.”
“Is something on your mind, Cheerilee?” Spike asked.
“The way the girls described the red light from Plum… I think I may have heard of something like that before.”
Still deep in thought, Cheerilee and her four young companions went the relatively short distance to the schoolhouse. Kickerbuck lived barely ten minutes walk from it. As they approached it, Cheerilee confirmed exactly what she had been expecting.
“The school’s dark. I don’t think anyone is here.” That avenue exhausted, Cheerilee tried to reason where else the Principal might have gone. He couldn’t have become a missing pony too.
Abruptly, a low creaking startled Cheerilee.
“The door’s unlocked,” Sweetie Belle said quietly, backing away from the door she had cracked open.
“That’s definitely not normal.” Cheerilee approached the door and pushed it open the rest of the way. You four stay here. I’ll check this out.”
“Fine by me,” Spike said, staring into the darkness.
Cheerilee walked in cautiously. There was little to see with the lights off. Even if no one was there, Cheerilee wanted to confirm something in the school’s paperwork. The budget and the roofing project she had inadvertently stopped. Those records must have been in the Principal’s office. Fortunately, she knew the school well enough to walk through blindfolded, which she might as well have been save for the moonlight.
Kickerbuck’s office wasn’t difficult to find anyway. It was just straight down the hall. Opening the door, which also should have been locked, Cheerilee glanced around the office once before flipping on the light switch. She nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Principal Kickerbuck?” The Principal turned around in his swivel chair from where he had been quietly sitting at his desk. “What are doing sitting here in the dark?” Better yet, why was he sitting in the dark while still wearing his signature sunglasses?
“Cheerilee… you don’t work here anymore. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“I’m sorry Kickerbuck, I didn’t want to intrude… well, maybe that’s not entirely true, but there was something I really needed to…,” Cheerilee took a good look at Kickerbuck. “You look so thin. Have you been eating well, Principal?”
“Cheerilee, you don’t work here anymore. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Yes, of course, but there is one thing I would like to ask you first.”
“Cheerilee, you don’t work here anymore. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Uh… Kickerbuck? Are you okay?”
“Cheerilee, you don’t work here anymore. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
The ex-teacher froze. Something wasn’t quite right. She had found the Principal, so it was time to see if her suspicions were true. “I know this may sound rather strange, but would you mind taking off your sunglasses for a minute?”
“Cheerilee, you don’t work here anymore. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Yes, you’ve said that…,” Cheerilee slowly approached the desk. “I insist, take off your sunglasses.”
“Cheerilee, you don’t-”
“Cheerilee?” The magenta earth pony turned as a trio of heads popped into the room.
“I told you to wait outside,” she answered sternly.
“Students, it is after hours. I’ll have to ask you to leave,” Kickerbuck stated flatly.
“Principal, please. Now girls, go outside and wait for me.”
“But Cheerilee…,” Sweetie Belle started.
“Students, it is after hours-”
“Kickerbuck!” Cheerilee turned and shouted at him. “Shut up and take off your sunglasses!”
Cheerilee swiped at his sunglasses but was surprised when the Principal suddenly reacted. He slapped her hoof away and then slapped her across the face as hard as he could. Cheerilee was knocked on the floor, momentarily stunned by what had just happened… but then she found something else to be shocked about. Along with the force of the blow, Kickerbuck’s sunglasses had fallen partially off his face, only hanging by one of his ears. Not just Cheerilee, but the Crusaders stared at his eyes. There was a strange red light in his eyes that moved like the ripples of a pond when a stone is thrown exactly in the center.
Kickerbuck quickly replaced his sunglasses on his face and sat back down in his chair. “Cheerilee, you don’t work here anymore. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Yes, sir,” Cheerilee said quietly before picking herself up and backing out of the room. The Principal calmly turned back to his desk and simply sat there, doing nothing but staring straight ahead.
“What was that?” Scootaloo asked as soon as they were outside.
“You should a seen it, Spike, his eyes were all crazy,” Apple Bloom said.
“What’s wrong with him?” Sweetie Belle asked
“Something I was hoping not to find,” Cheerilee said slowly.
“You know what it is?” the three fillies said together.
“And what did I miss exactly?” Spike wondered. The baby dragon didn’t get an answer though. Instead, Cheerilee paced back and forth a moment trying to piece everything together.
“Girls,” she finally said, “About your new teacher, was she wearing anything?”
“Um… glasses,” Apple Bloom shrugged.
“A braid,” Scootaloo put in.
“That ain’t somethin’ you wear.”
“Yeah huh,” Scootaloo retorted.
“Girls!” Cheerilee spoke up. “Focus, please. This is important. Was there anything else? An accessory perhaps?”
“Oh! She wears earrings!” Sweetie Belle put in.
“Earrings…,” Cheerilee repeated slowly. “Red earrings?”
“Yeah, I think they are. But how did you know?”
Cheerilee didn’t answer. Her mind raced through the facts she had accumulated over the last three days. The school’s budget crisis. Her sudden termination as well as that of two other teachers. Ms. Plum’s arrival at school. Cheerilee’s discovery of the school’s scheduled re-roofing despite the budget crisis. The Cutie Mark Crusaders singled out for extra hard homework. Applejack, Twilight, Rarity, and Plum’s sudden disappearance. The stolen train that had turned up a short distance from Canterlot. Princess Celestia’s sudden letter to Twilight’s friends. Both princesses’ strange behavior as described by the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Plum and Twilight’s reappearance in Canterlot. The rippling light in Kickerbuck’s eyes. Plum’s red earrings. Strangely enough, it was those earrings that made it all fit together. In fact, there was another factor that may have been connected. The robbery of the natural history museum the week before.
“It’s quite overly complicated, but I think I finally understand what’s really going on,” Cheerilee announced. “Spike, take a letter.”
“Wait, what?” Spike said in confusion. “A letter? To who?”
“We have much to prepare. Come on you four,” Cheerilee said, starting to move. “Write while we walk.”
“What’s going on? What am I writing?” Spike asked.
“I’ll tell you on the way.”
“Where are we goin’?” Apple Bloom asked.
“To Rarity’s house. I hope she won’t mind, but I’m going to need to borrow a few things before tomorrow.”
“Why? What happens tomorrow?” Scootaloo asked.
Canterlot castle was relatively quiet. Celestia sat quite focused and patient, awaiting the guest that was supposed to arrive soon. Her sister, Princess Luna stood next to her to Celestia’s right. Even though it was late morning and night was long put away, Luna hadn’t gone to bed yet. Just below the throne area, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash stood to one side of the red carpet. Opposite them, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Fluttershy stood waiting as well. Having all of them present wasn’t really necessary but it didn’t hurt to be prepared. Plum stood next to Celestia’s throne, opposite Luna, impatiently tapping her hoof. Where was the guest?
Finally, a little before noon, a trumpet blared and a guard opened the door.
“Presenting the Prime Minister of Ponyland,” he said before stepping to the side.
A female earth pony walked in, dressed in a fine outfit of silk and durable travel cloth as well as glasses with faint blue lenses. She had come a long way to discuss the latest future plans between the two peaceful countries of Equestria and Ponyland. They had remained allies since the original founders of Equestria had first left Ponyland in search of refuge from the then wintry outbreak of the Wendigos. Fortunately that enemy was long gone, never to return as long as ponies remained in harmony.
Plum silently watched the Prime Minister approach the throne. It wouldn’t be long now. With the bearers of the Elements of Harmony acting as guards, there was no need for the real palace guards to be present. Everything was working out perfectly, just as Plum had planned. Only a few steps closer and…
Plum waited, but Celestia and Luna didn’t do anything. They didn’t even greet their guest. The Prime Minister stood in front of the throne between Twilight and the others. Plum gulped. Why wasn’t Princess Celestia doing anything?
The tan earth pony began to sweat as she cleared her throat. “Welcome to Equestria,” she said as she averted her eyes to Celestia. “Our princesses are happy to see you, Prime Minister.” The Prime Minister bowed, and still, the princesses did nothing. “Ahem, Princess Celestia, do you have anything to say to the Prime Minister?”
Celestia turned to look at Plum. “That is not the Prime Minister of Ponyland.”
“Huh?” Plum stared at the pony just a short distance below her. This was the appointed time. It had to be the Prime Minister.
“Princess Celestia is right,” the pony said. “My name is Cheerilee and I came here to see you, Plum.” She pointed right at her.
“What? Me? What do you mean? What happened to…?” Sudden recognition dawned on Plum’s face. “Cheerilee? Aren’t you… one of those teachers…?”
“Yes. I’m one of the teachers that you fired.” Cheerilee’s conviction was absolute, but Plum wasn’t having any of it.
The wicked teacher harrumphed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What makes you think I had anything to do with that?”
“That’s exactly what I came here to find out.” Cheerilee stood her ground despite the fact that she was standing in between all six of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. Plum raised her eyebrow at the strange notion. “I am rather ashamed to admit that the last few days have not been my best and I intend to find out exactly why my life has become such a snake pit.”
“I suppose I must not be making much sense, but bear with me, because I’m going to tell you exactly what I think has been going on around Ponyville. All I ask is a little confirmation if I happen to be right.”
“What? Are you kidding me? You came all the way out here just for that? I don’t know what you were hoping to accomplish, but it’s over. I’ve already won.” Plum reached her hoof up to her ear and touched her red earring. Almost immediately, a strange rippling light radiated from her eyes straight into Cheerilee’s. It was the same as the light in Kickerbuck’s eyes. For a few moments, Plum snickered to herself as she focused on the magenta earth pony. However, her joy was slowly shattered when Cheerilee smiled back at her.
“Sorry Plum, but I already figured out what those earrings you wear are. They’re the source of your power, an item in mythology called the Earrings of Somnambula. They allow the wearer to take control of any number of ponies.” Cheerilee pointed at her own face. “Why do you think I’m wearing these glasses with rare baby blue sapphire lenses crafted into them?”
“B-baby blue what?” Plum stuttered.
“Baby blue sapphires, the only thing that cancels your earrings’ power, courtesy of Rarity’s workshop, the only place in Ponyville I could find such a rare gem.”
The light stopped as soon as Plum let go of her earring. She glared at Cheerilee for a moment. “So you have protection against my earrings. Big whooping deal. What are you hoping to accomplish with that? You do realize the situation you’re in, don’t you?”
“Yes, but if it awards me with answers then its well worth it.”
“I really don’t understand you at all. What’s the point?”
We’re about to find out,” Cheerilee said with a hint of a smile. “For starters I want to discuss the school’s budget crisis. I don’t think our school was ever in danger of such a thing in the first place. That’s why you had to create one,” Cheerilee pointed at Plum again. Plum merely frowned. “There was a robbery at the natural history museum last week. I never actually heard the details of that robbery but I’m willing to bet that was you that broke in, and the item that was stolen was those earrings. Apparently, you know the history of those earrings and how they work and you used them to take control of Principal Kickerbuck. Afterwards, you made him order for the school’s roof to be completely re-shingled.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“By coincidence, I happened to take a job as a roofer and found out about the school’s project that way. In fact if I hadn’t been so bad at that job, the re-roofing project would have already taken place.”
“Okay, and if I really did do that, what’s the point? Why would I possibly need to make the school lose money?”
“To fire me and the other two teachers so you could be hired without seeming suspicious. In fact, you specifically needed the three of us gone so the classrooms could be rearranged.”
Plum raised her eyebrow again. “Oh really?”
“You see, each of the three of us has certain students that we teach. Three of those students happen to be Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle.” Plum looked genuinely surprised. She opened her mouth to say something, but Cheerilee cut her off. “Though you didn’t know them by face, you needed those specific three students in your classroom and they happen to be dispersed between myself and the other two teachers. And the reason you needed them? They have a connection to three of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. Specifically, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity.” She pointed to each of the three ponies in turn as she spoke. “Of course, since you know so much about the Earrings of Somnambula, you must be aware that their hypnotic effect doesn’t work on children or dragons. Therefore, you devised a way to get Applejack and the others’ attention. You gave those three fillies extremely hard homework that no pony their age or any ponies without a degree in mathematics would be able to solve in their entirety.”
Plum laughed. “That seems like an awful lot of trouble, especially when I have the power to control ponies already.”
“It’s not foolproof though. Those earrings take a few moments to work. What’s more, they don’t work so well on unicorns because they can fight back with their own magic. Truthfully, you were lucky because Applejack happened to come looking for you first, and on the first night no less.”
Plum had plastered a smirk on her face as if she thought all of this was amusing now. “Why is that significant?”
“However you did it, I’ll bet you took control of Applejack that night. With that under your belt, you had a game piece to use when you had an unexpected visit the next day. You were hoping for Rainbow Dash and Rarity, but instead of Rainbow, Twilight Sparkle showed up. Or rather, I should say, the most difficult and the reason you needed the other three in the first place, showed up. You were planning to use the other three to catch Twilight, but when she arrived early along with Rarity, you knew you couldn’t take on two unicorns at once, let alone just Twilight. So you took a risk and revealed that you had Applejack under your control so that they would follow you home. Of course, that was after ordering the Principal to take over for you. This explains why he gave the same lesson three times, and why he never left the school, even to eat.” Cheerilee gave an extra long glare at Plum. Kickerbuck probably hadn’t eaten since becoming hypnotized. “Your plan worked, didn’t it? You used Applejack to take control of Twilight and Rarity.”
“Perhaps. What of it?”
“With that done, you had the one pony you really needed in the first place… Twilight Sparkle. With her under your control, you had a free pass into Canterlot and a free shot at your real goal… Princess Celestia and Princess Luna.”
Plum gave a brief side look to the princesses who hadn’t moved or reacted since Cheerilee started talking.
“You stole a train and took Twilight to Canterlot with you. Probably Rarity and Applejack too. So as not to raise any suspicion, you left the train just a mile out of Canterlot and went the rest of the way on hoof. By the time you arrived, it was probably almost dawn. Even though it was so early, Princess Celestia must have been happy to allow Twilight and her friends into the castle. That’s where your plan became very tricky. How to catch either of the Princesses? It is quite logical to assume that either of them holds more magical power than Twilight, so catching them would be difficult. However, the time of day you arrived was important, assuming you really did arrive around dawn. The guards know that Twilight is special to the Princess so they probably allow her permission to things that other ponies never could. Princess Luna was just going to bed, so while Celestia attended to her morning duties as the bringer of the sun, you probably accessed Luna’s room with Twilight and Rarity, caught Luna sleeping and forced your hypnosis on her.”
“It wasn’t that easy,” Plum said slowly. “Luna came quite close to overpowering those unicorns before I took control.”
“As I thought. And using those earrings takes quite a toll on the user as well, as I understand it.” Plum nodded in slow confirmation. “You probably had to wait most of the day to recover. Once you were ready, overpowering Celestia would be a relatively easy task between two unicorns and Princess Luna. Besides, you had Twilight to use as a bargaining chip if you somehow failed. Thus, Celestia succumbed to your power. I’m not really sure why it was necessary, but you decided to take control of Twilight’s other friends too.”
“You can never be too cautious. They are heroes after all. Ponies might believe them if they discovered what had happened.”
“But that’s not the end of your plan is it?” Cheerilee continued. “It’s no coincidence that you chose to start your plan this week. You took control of the princesses just in time for the Prime Minster of Ponyland to arrive. You planned to control both lands, didn’t you?” Cheerilee pointed at the pony before her, confident that the answer was yes.
Plum shook her head, though she still smiled. “I’m really shocked. You figured all that out to the last detail. I think I might actually be impressed.”
“Well, not every detail. The only thing I can’t figure out is why. Why would you do something like this? Who are you, really?”
At that, Plum frowned. “Why? Who am I? I’m Plum. I always have been, but that doesn’t mean I always have to be.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
Plum stood up and turned to let Cheerilee see her from the side. “Do you see my cutie mark? Do you know what it is?” Her cutie mark looked to be five horizontal black lines, parallel to one another. Whatever they meant wasn’t clear at all. “This cutie mark is my prison, just as every other ponies’ cutie mark is. I have a special talent, but so what? Why does that have to be everything that I am? Why does this dictate what I do with my life? Isn’t there anything more?”
“What is your cutie mark?”
“It doesn’t matter. What does is that I don’t care to do what my special talent is. It’s a horrible job and a horrible life. I’m poor. I travel around all the time for practically nothing. I asked myself, why do ponies have to live their lives based on some unique talent?”
Cheerilee was speechless. She had never really thought about that before, but then it had never been an issue either. She loved her job and she loved the talent that her cutie mark personified. In fact, she had nearly gone crazy just because she wasn’t able to use her talent. Okay, she really did go crazy for a while. But all the same, it sounded like Plum was quite the opposite of her. Cheerilee wanted to stay in, but Plum wanted out, so to speak.
“This is the answer I came up with.” Plum indicated her earrings. “I heard about these and learned where they were. These could change everything, and make me the master of my life. And look where they’ve gotten me.” Plum snickered to herself, arrogantly flipping her braid behind her. “Now I’m a princess. I can sit in this throne.” She ordered Celestia to move out of the way and sat down.
“Does that prove something?”
“Of course it does. It means I’m in charge and can do whatever I want.” She looked around and noticed a fruit bowl sitting next to the throne. “See. I’ll take this apple… and eat it!” She took a huge bite out of the apple and smiled.
Cheerilee cocked her head to the side. “Soooo… eating an apple is equal to the epitome of absolute power?”
Plum partly choked on the apple, coughing vehemently before answering. “Don’t get smart with me. You know what I mean!”
Cheerilee watched Plum cough up the rest of the apple and shook her head. “I honestly feel really sorry for you. I always used to think that a pony’s special talent made them happy. In a way, you remind me of Apple Bloom, except in reverse. She would do anything to find her special talent and when she does, I’m sure she’ll be the happiest pony. But you… you would do anything to change yours.”
“Isn’t that what I just said?” Plum coughed as she spit out an apple seed that had lodged between her teeth. “My talent isn’t getting me anywhere, so I’m making my own rules.”
Cheerilee shook her head. “It’s true that everypony has a special talent, but that doesn’t mean it is the only thing they are good at. That’s something I’ve learned over the last few days. I may not have been particularly good at them, but I’m sure over time I would have been able to comfortably settle into any one of those jobs. I know plenty of ponies who are good at lots of things. Just look at you. You have some very impressive math skills and knowledge of mythological lore. Your plan was very complex and really you may have very well gotten away with it too.”
“What’s that?” Plum demanded. “What do you mean may have? I have gotten away with it.” Plum got up out of the throne and held her head up high so as to look down her nose at the magenta pony below her. “You think it changes anything just because you figured everything out? I don’t think so. I’m still in charge of the princesses and the Elements of Harmony. That means I own Equestria.” Plum threw her head back and cackled. “Did you really think your petty little protection was going help you save them? This whole plan of yours is a joke. Your imitation of the Prime Minister failed almost as soon as…” Plum looked her over again, this time with more of a confused expression. “Where’s the real Prime Minster? How did you get here ahead of her?”
Cheerilee smiled. “I didn’t come here ahead of her. I came with her.”
As if by some invisible command, the doors suddenly flew open.
“Unicorns!” a white earth pony with a pink mane suddenly shouted from behind eight unicorns in armor. As one, their horns all glowed, immediately igniting Celestia and Luna in a light that stunned them. Two pegasi flew in and clapped metal chokers over the princesses’ necks, the sort of chokers used on unicorn prisoners to prevent them from using magic.
Then several earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns ran in, clasping anti-unicorn chokers on Twilight and Rarity before holding the six bearers of the Elements of Harmony at a standstill.
Plum gaped. What the hay had just happened?