“So let me get this straight,” Applejack said, glancing at Pinkie Pie with a raised brow, “You knew that singin’ and stuff was gonna make the crazy magic work because ya didn’t know it was gonna work at all?”
Pinkie nodded. “Yep, basically it didn’t make any sense for the song to create anything just because there was a song so it started to create things.”
“It was actually quite genius,” Twilight added, “Chaos Magic is a tricky kind of power. The whole way one uses it is by not trying to use it at all. I had never even heard that song before, but once I managed to tap into the magic too it just came to me. Oh, I wish I had my books, we could spend years on just chaotic musical numbers alone!”
Applejack’s nose scrunched up and her eyebrows lowered. “Now that just don’t make a lick of sense. Usin’ it by not usin’ it? No, don’t try ta explain it again. I’ll be happy with the fact that magic’s weird and ah’v gotta deal with it.”
Rarity smiled at the conversation. After the little fiasco with Discord, the entire group dynamic was better than ever. Even though Applejack had acted distant at first she was quickly warming up to the other ponies and Rarity was pleased to see the kind-hearted filly she grew up with hadn’t disappeared entirely.
The lightened mood, or perhaps one more parting gift of Discord’s, also appeared to be helping with their pace and Rainbow had declared that they would get to the castle sooner than expected.
Then Rarity tripped.
Her good foreleg came out from under her and she instinctively tried to catch herself with her other one; only to give a strangled cry as that one crumpled with a shot a pain and she fell to the ground. The forest was once again flooded with darkness as the pain caused Rarity to lose control of her light spell.
Instantly, there were feathers draped across her back and strong hooves lifting her up. “Rarity, you okay? What hurts? Did you hit your head?” Rainbow’s rapid fire questions assaulted her ringing ears.
“I’m… fine darling,” Rarity muttered, biting her lip as she was delicately set back on her three good hooves. “I just tripped, that’s all.”
“Nuh uh,” Pinkie spoke up, examining the place where Rarity had fallen, “You were tripped.”
Applejack glanced up at the other Earth Pony from her deep inspection of Rarity’s leg. “That’s what she said, sugar.”
Pinkie rolled her eyes and fished something out of the fallen leaves that decorated the forest floor. “I mean, someone caused her to fall over on purpose.” She triumphantly recovered a thin, snapped piece of wire and gave it an experimental lick. “I don’t think vinyl grows naturally in the Everfree.”
“Let me see that.” Twilight’s magic flared to life, bathing the trees purple and gently lifting the wire out of Pinkie’s hooves and into her own. The Unicorn turned it over itself, scrutinizing it closely. “It’s new,” she declared after a couple seconds, “not the wire itself but it definitely hasn’t been sitting in the forest for more than a few hours.”
“How can ya tell?” Applejack asked, joining Twilight in peering at the thin metal.
Twilight shrugged. “It’s dry. If it was here for long dew would have collected on it like everything else.”
“So someone planted it,” Rainbow growled, “for us.”
“Oh, I don’t think for you in particular,” A new voice spoke from the shadows, “We’re just after any suspicious ponies lurking around the forest.”
Each pony whipped their heads in different directions as they tried to search for the newcomer. The rustle from the undergrowth got increasingly louder and slowly, ponies began to emerge from the surrounding vegetation. No less than a dozen Earth Ponies crawled out from behind trees and around bushes, each handling some type of dagger or knife and each with more muscle mass than even Applejack had.
Overhead, the leaves rustled and the small group looked up to see at least five Pegasi crouched in different trees, brandishing wicked crossbows aimed directly at their heads.
They were surrounded.
Finally, a dark tan Earth Pony with a slicked back black mane emerged from the shadows. A wicked smile splitting his face.
Twilight’s and Rainbow’s jaws dropped simultaneously. “Dr. Caballeron?!?”
The Earth Pony smiled wider and nodded, “Ah, I see my reputation precedes m…”
“You’re real?” Twilight sputtered, eyes wide.
“Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh.” Rainbow Dash hopped from one hoof to another grinning like a foal in a toy store. “Does this mean Daring Do is real too? That is so cool!”
Dr. Caballeron scowled and bared his teeth. His lackeys around him chuckling under their breaths. “You read those ridiculous children's books? I wish Nightmare had just burned them all. I can assure you I am much more… ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING?”
Rainbow Dash and Twilight were not listening. Instead, they were practically bouncing around each other and talking over one another. “You read Daring Do? It’s the best! Totally radicalest. Did you catch that foreshadowing in book three? What about the plot twist in book five? I was screaming! Ohmygosh! It’s real! I know!”
“ENOUGH!” Dr. Caballeron screamed, flinging a knife at Rainbow’s head. “I am not just a villain in a storybook!”
Dash didn’t even flinch as she lifted her wing and caught the dagger in between her feathers. In one movement she turned and shot it into the trees where it lodged in one of the archer’s crossbow, jamming it beyond use.
“Hey man,” Rainbow growled, all mirth gone, “Not cool attacking while your enemy’s distracted.”
“I don’t care!” Dr. Caballeron shouted, stomping a hoof on the ground, “I am going to bring you into to my employer and get my reward and you are not going to talk about stupid Daring Do in the process!”
That gained everyponies’ attention.
“Someone’s paying you to capture us?” Twilight asked, eyes wide.
Applejack snorted and withdrew her knife. “Nightmare Moon can’t do her own dirty work now, huh?”
Dr. Caballeron stuck his snout in the air. “For your information, my employer is not the Empress. But, they do wish to remain anonymous so just be good little ponies and surrender yourselves.”
Rainbow Dash crouched into a battle stance and withdrew her own weapon. “Yeah, right. We aren’t going anywhere with you.”
Dr. Caballeron snorted. “Please, put aside the fact you're five against fifteen, my snipers could hit half of your group in under a second.” He paused and tapped in his chin in mock thought. “I suppose one of you could escape, but that’s hardly any skin off my back. I’ll still be rich bringing the others in.”
Rainbow faltered a moment at that but she quickly put a brave face on and snorted in return. “Or you could leave now and save yourself the embarrassment of being owned by such a small group.”
As the two argued, Rarity cautiously glanced around at the thugs. None seemed to be buying Rainbow’s bluff, a few were even laughing at the Pegasus’ bravado. There was no way they were all going to get out of this situation if it came to a fight and Rarity highly doubted chaos spirits or legends were going to show up and save them again. They needed a plan, some way to settle this peacefully. And then, Rarity had it.
“You’re mercenaries aren’t you?” She called out just as Dr. Caballeron raised his hoof to give the order to attack, “Doing this job to get paid and not for any… hmmm… moral or political reasons, correct?”
The doctor paused and raised a brow at her. “That is correct. We do a job, we get paid. That’s how life is.”
“Of course of course,” Rarity said quickly, calmly brushing her mane out of her eyes as if she wasn’t about to get shot at, “Nothing wrong with that. We all have to survive somehow. So what happens if you, say, get a different job that conflicts with the first one? Do you feel obligations to the first one?”
“Rarity, what are you doing?” Twilight whispered to her.
“Bargaining for our lives, dear,” Rarity hissed back, “just trust me and stay quiet.”
The good doctor, thankfully, didn’t seem to be in any rush to finish them quite yet. “Oh no, that just complicates things. We are always loyal to the highest bidder.” His grin stretched out like a shark’s. “Why? Do you have a proposal, milady?”
“Yes,” She said, flashing the villain a smile, “I would like to place a bid and request you not take us away and, perhaps, keep any other nasty surprises off our backs.” With a flourish, her horn glowed and a moderate sized sack of coins flew from her saddlebags and to Dr. Caballeron’s hooves.
The Earth Pony gently prodded the bag, then shook his head with a slow chuckle. “I’m afraid that my employer has offered much more than what this measly sack could contain. No, I’ll think we’ll stick with the previous offer.”
“Oh, bits aren’t all that’s in that bag Darling,” Rarity continued, not letting her voice falter as the thugs slowly started to close in, taking their time like cats with a cornered mouse, “If you look, you’ll also find a check to Miss Rarity Belle’s savings account at the National Canterlot Bank. If you let us go, I don’t see any problem with you writing down what you think you deserve and retrieving it at a later date.”
Dr. Caballeron raised a hoof and the other ponies instantly halted in their steps. He reached into the sack and brought out the checkbook, ideally flipping through it. “And how much do you have in your account, Miss Belle?”
Rarity took a shuddering breath. “Almost a hundred thousand.”
He hummed thoughtfully. “And how did you come by all these bits? You certainly don’t seem like the type of pony to be sitting on a fortune.”
Rarity huffed. “I don’t see how that’s any business of yours. But, if you must know I’ve saved it. Every day of every year, every paycheck only had the bare minimums taken out to go to me. The rest went to that bank in hopes… in hopes that one day I could move with my family out of Equestria. Rejoin them someplace better, safer.”
“And what’s stopping me from just taking your bits and fulfilling my other contract too?”
“I have to write a letter.” And now Rarity had real confidence. The kind that could only be gained from pure honesty. “The bank is very specific that I have to write a detailed letter whenever anything is withdrawn. It’s to keep me from spending it freely you see. If you kill me or cut me off in any way then the money will sit in that bank account till the end of days and you won’t see a cent of it.”
Dr. Caballeron stared Rarity dead in the eye and Rarity held his gaze right back. She could sense the stillness in the air as her friends didn’t dare to breathe and the thugs poised on the edge of movement. Rarity, however, was confident in her movement and stillness. If the doctor was looking for her bluff, he would find nothing for there was nothing to find. The only question would be if Dr. Caballeron was true to his philosophy of the highest bidder. Or, even worse still, her funds weren’t the highest after all.
Eventually, the Earth Pony smiled and scooped up the sack of coins into his hoof. “Well then Miss Belle,” he said, tipping his head to her, “It seems we have an arrangement.”
With a flick of his hoof, the entire gang fell back into the undergrowth and vanished as though they hadn’t been there at all.
There was haunting silence for a few heartbeats, but then the sounds of the forest that no one realized were even gone came trickling back. The owls and other birds started chirping, the squirrels made the leaves rustle, and the wind gently whistled as it picked back up.
Rarity turned back to her friends and frowned at what she found. Instead of the looks of relief and gratitude that was obviously called for, instead there four ranges of concern. “Well,” She said, trying to put on a confident smile, “Now that that nasty business is out of the way, we should be off, yes?”
She made to trot past them, further down the path, but before she could get more than a few steps Rainbow grabbed her good leg and stared deeply into her eyes.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” The Pegasus whispered, her voice speckled with emotion, “About your family. I could… I could have helped Rarity. Got you… Paid for… You said they were on vacation.”
Rarity didn't look at Dash. She didn’t look as Pinkie silently wrapped her other side in a gentle hug. She didn't look when one of the other two choked back a sniffle. She kept her eyes straight ahead and answered Rainbow’s question. “I try to convince myself they are, it’s easier to think they’ll come home one day.”
She tried to move forward but stopped again when Pinkie Pie spoke. “How long has it been?”
Rarity’s breath shuddered and she closed her eyes, remembering the last time she had seen her parent’s gaudy style of clothing; the last time she had tasted one of her mom’s homemade cookie; the last time she had held her little sister and told her she loved her.
“And Equestria barely has contact with other countries anymore.” She heard Twilight mutter. “You probably haven’t even gotten a letter…”
Rarity gently pushed her friends off her and stood up straight. “Well, yes, that’s why we’re doing this aren’t we? Saving the day, making everything right again? We shouldn’t doddle any longer.”
“Right,” Rainbow muttered, wiping her face with the back of her hoof, “Right, let’s go punch Nightmare Moon in the face.”