"What a wondrous village this is!"
Elsa and Anna walked slowly along a sidewalk. Anna gazed at their surroundings with wide-eyed wonder; Elsa frowned and walked with purpose, paying only cursory heed to the city around them.
"Elsa," Anna said reproachfully, "stop making that face."
"What face?" Elsa asked, eyes never straying from the path before them.
"That super-serious, 'this is nothing but a problem', 'I am the cold ice queen who can't take one minute to just enjoy life' face. The one I thought you were going to stop making."
Elsa sighed, then stopped and turned to face Anna. "Anna," she said calmly and patiently, "We are in danger. We passed through a cursed forest into an unknown land. Do you know the way back to Arendelle? Because I don't." She threw her hands out to encompass their surroundings. "Do you see any mountains or fjords here that you recognize? Because I don't!"
Anna frowned. "Okay, so we're lost," she admitted. "But being lost isn't so bad! It can be an adventure! Adventure is a good thing! It's fun!"
Elsa pinched the bridge of her nose. "Anna," she said softly, "if we're both missing, Arendelle is without its Queen and the entire rest of the royal family. The Chancellor can only keep my absence quiet for so long, and what then? If word of my disappearance spreads, Arendelle is in danger."
"What danger?" Anna scoffed.
"What danger?" Elsa echoed sarcastically. "Oh, let me think. How about every kingdom that's made threats against Arendelle since my magic became public knowledge! Anna, our forces can only do so much. Right now, the fact that I can cause an eternal winter if I'm in a bad enough mood is the only thing keeping a lot of very hostile, supercilious, short-sighted little men from launching fleets of ships into Arendelle to conquer us out of fear. If word gets out that the Snow Queen disappeared and can't freeze the fjords..." She left that thought hanging.
Anna sighed. "Okay, so we need to find a way back," she admitted. "But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the journey!" She gestured around her. "Look around! Have you ever seen anything like this?"
Elsa snorted, shaking her head as a small smile graced her face. "Alright," she said. "We'll have an adventure. But it needs to be a quick adventure."
"Yay! Oh! We need to do some shopping!"
"Do you have any money?"
"I do not!"
* * * * *
After exchanging contact information with the CHS gang, the ever-expanding group of Power Rangers returned to Crystal Prep, agreeing that keeping their forces spread out made more sense than gathering all the superheroes in one place. Shortly after that, the group at Canterlot High had been distracted by video footage from the airport, where a very bizarre wrestling match had broken out on the tarmac. Once the situation had resolved itself, Rarity received a call from Sweetie Belle; she borrowed Fluttershy and headed for the airport to collect her family.
In the aftermath, a tremendous lull of activity fell across the city.
"So...no Inves anywhere?" Miles asked.
"Doesn't look like it," Sunset said, checking her phone. "Looks like the city's pretty quiet right now."
"Good, I think we can use the rest," Adrien said, helping himself to a packet of tortilla chips from the ever-replenishing buffet. Beside him, Marinette studied a wrapped honey bun with a disdainful frown before setting it aside and grabbing some pita crisps and a can of juice.
"You don't like honey buns?" Pinkie asked.
"I don't like stale pastries that have been sitting on a shelf for who knows how long," Marinette answered as she opened her drink.
"Really?" Pinkie asked, checking the sell-by date on the bun. "It can't be that old..."
"Her dad's a baker," Adrien explained. "Owns a boulangerie-patisserie, one of the best in Paris." He glanced at Marinette with an understanding smile. "That's why, right?"
"Yeah," Marinette said. "When your house is full of fresh-baked breads and pastries every day, stuff like that is just..."
"Ahhh," Pinkie said, nodding in understanding and tossing the honey bun down the table. Rainbow Dash caught it and tore into it. "Yeah, I getcha." She gasped. "We'll totally have to get together and bake some cupcakes later!"
Marinette frowned. "Do we really have time to do something like that, though?"
"Yeah, Ah reckon y'all do," Applejack put in. "Shucks, given how crazy things've been lately? Ah reckon we could all use a little downtime."
"Makes sense to me," Kim said. "We can't stay on full alert all the time, we'll all go nuts. Besides, we can always drop what we're doing and rush to the scene if anything happens."
Sunset stretched. "I think I'll go check up on Flash," she announced. "I'm a little curious to know exactly what kind of mess he's gotten himself into this time." Under her breath, she muttered, "It'd better not be anything like that weekend with that crazy Siren..."
"Do you need me to go with you?" X asked.
"Nah," Sunset said. "Actually, it might be better if you stick around here. You don't really need rest like the rest of us, right?"
"That's true," X said. "I don't mind taking a break and relaxing, but I don't get fatigued the way humans do. Besides, reading is about the most relaxing thing I do when I'm off duty anyway."
Sunset nodded. "Then do you mind sort of being mission control, keeping things buttoned down here at base? Maybe give Sci-Twi a hand if she needs one?"
"As long as you don't mean that literally," X said with a wry smirk.
"A little downtime does sound good," Adrien said. He glanced at Marinette and blushed. "Besides, we...uh...we do still have some stuff to talk about."
"Oh...yeah...we do," Marinette said bashfully.
"Aww," Shego cooed half-sarcastically. "You two are so cute I wanna puke."
"Shego!" Kim snapped.
Pinkie seized each of the French teens by one arm and hauled them away from the table. "We'll go to my place!" she declared. "We'll get our bake on, we can share baking tips and secrets, and you two can be as adorkable and awkward as you want without anybody judging you!"
"Uhh...o-okay," Marinette stammered.
"Works for me," Adrien said with a grin.
"I think I'm gonna find somewhere to catch some rays," Shego said.
"That sounds nice," Tenten said. "I think I'll join you."
"Works for me," Shego said. "Whaddya say, Twin Peaks, wanna get your tan on?"
"Pass," Kim said with a sour frown at her latest nickname. "Sunbathing's so not my thing. I think I'd rather go with my usual relaxation activity."
Shego smirked. "The mall?"
Kim shrugged. "It's what I do."
"I could go for some mall time," Miles said. "If you're down with that."
"The more the merrier!" Kim said cheerfully.
"I might as well tag along too, seeing as there's nothing else cool goin' on," Rainbow Dash said.
"Shucks, reckon Ah'll go with y'all," Applejack said. "Need t' stretch mah legs anyhow."
"I'll join you then," Kouta said. "Just so Miles-kun doesn't feel outnumbered."
Miles snickered. "Thanks, bro."
"Sounds like just about everybody has a plan then," Sunset said. She glanced at Brook. "Brook? What about you?"
Brook leaned back, his hands folded behind his skull. "I'm just going to stay here and rest my bones." He paused. "Since all I am is bones."
"Riiiight," Sunset said into the silence that followed. "Well, I guess we're all doing our own thing today!" She smiled brightly. "Have a good time, everyone!"
* * * * *
Monica emerged from the bathroom, freshly scrubbed, hair still damp from the shower she'd taken after her morning workout in the hotel gym. "Where's Tron?" she asked.
Kooh, who was lounging on the bed watching television, shrugged. "She's at the garage fixing up her robots." The day after arriving in Canterlittle, Monica had found a run-down garage whose owner was looking to sell, and had bought it for Tron to store and repair Gustaff and the Servbots. It wasn't exactly a modern, hi-tech garage, but Tron seemed satisfied enough, and the price had been right (two gold bars from Monica's seemingly infinite supply).
"Still?" Monica asked. At that moment, the door opened, and Tron walked in, greasy, bleary-eyed, and rumpled.
"Got enough of the Servbots fixed up that they can finish the repairs to Gustaff," she said, cracking a huge yawn. "Gonna take a shower then crash."
"Aww, I was hoping you'd be up for going to the beach with us," Monica said.
Tron shot her a sideways glance. "I already told you, I'm not a fan of the beach."
"I know, I know, but you could use some fresh air and sunshine," Monica said with a wave of her hand. "Besides, you can sleep on the beach under the sun just as well as you can here. Wouldn't you like to get out for a bit?"
Tron frowned. "Well..." She shrugged. "I guess you have a point," she admitted.
"Ooh, I can't wait to show off my sexy new swimsuit!" Kooh said excitedly.
The other two girls stared at her.
"Uhh...what exactly do you think you have to show off?" Tron asked curiously, tilting her head.
Kooh stuck her tongue out at Tron. "You're one to talk," she said.
"Okay, girls, cut it out," Monica said with a sigh. "Tron, go get cleaned up. We'll head down to the beach as soon as we're all ready."
* * * * *
"This village goes on forever and ever!" Anna exclaimed, clasping her hands together. "I've never seen a village so huge!"
"I'm not entirely certain I'd call this place a 'village'," Elsa said.
Anna frowned. "A township, then?"
"I don't think that's quite right either," Elsa mused. "So much is...very strange here. Have you noticed the people we've seen?"
Anna tilted her head. "They do seem quite...colorful," she said thoughtfully. "Could we be in Africa? Or Asia?"
Elsa pinched the bridge of her nose. "Anna," she said tiredly, "people don't have blue or gray or purple skin anywhere. I'm beginning to believe we've wandered into the feylands, or..." She paused, eyes wide. "Or perhaps..." She shook her head. "No. I'm not going to think like that."
At that moment, a pale-skinned girl wearing the most bizarre outfit either royal had ever seen rounded the corner. Her hair was a shaggy blue mop, and she wore large purple glasses that obscured her eyes. A step behind her was a gray-skinned girl in a tasteful if plain dress, knee-high socks, and glossy black shoes. Her long dark hair was meticulous and neat. Elsa stepped into their path. "Excuse me," she said. "My sister and I are lost and require assistance."
"Certainly," the gray-skinned girl said, pulling a small, flat rectangle from her pocket. "Where exactly are you trying to go?"
"We need to get to Arendelle, but we don't know the way from here," Anna said.
"Arendelle," the girl repeated dubiously. "I'm afraid I don't know that place." She turned to her companion. "Do you?"
The pale girl shrugged and shook her head.
"Very well then," Elsa said primly. "If you could kindly direct us to your ruler's palace, or the nearest embassy receiving foreign dignitaries—"
The pale girl held up a hand to stop her, then turned to her companion, lowered her glasses, and rolled her eyes.
"Ah, yes, of course," the gray-skinned girl said. She looked Elsa and Anna up and down. "You haven't...been wandering the city all day, perchance? In those shoes? Dressed like that?"
"City! It's a city, Elsa!" Anna exclaimed brightly. She paused. "Wait. What's a city?"
"Nevermind that, Anna," Elsa said. "Yes, we have," she addressed the gray girl.
"You must be exhausted," the girl said. "I can't imagine your feet are very happy with you either."
"Now that you mention it," Elsa said with a grimace, looking down at her shoes.
The girl smiled consolingly. "Why don't you come with us," she said. "My house isn't terribly far from here. You can rest, I can offer you a change of clothes, something more comfortable to walk in. Maybe we can try to figure out where it is you need to go."
"We couldn't possibly impose," Elsa said.
"Yes we could!" Anna chimed in, nodding eagerly. "I didn't want to say anything but I am exhausted. Besides, we do need to know where we are, right?"
Elsa pursed her lips. "Very well," she said. "We will take you up on your generous offer, Miss—?"
"Octavia," the girl said. "And you may call my friend here Vinyl if you like."
"Miss Octavia, then," Elsa said. "I am Elsa, and this is my sister Anna. We are grateful for your kindness..."
* * * * *
When Fluttershy and Rarity arrived at the airport, it took them some time to find Rarity's family in the sea of people.
"RARITY!" Sweetie Belle called, running up to her and flinging herself at her sister.
"Good heavens, Sweetie Belle!" Rarity said as Sweetie Belle's hug knocked the breath out of her. "I'm ever so glad to see you safe and sound as well, but a little decorum and restraint, please!"
Sweetie Belle looked up at Rarity with tears in her eyes. "You have no idea what I've been through," she said. "I am never leaving Canterlot ever again."
"Oh, don't be silly, of course you will!" Rarity said. "Once, ahem..." She trailed off and looked at Hotaru, who was walking over with their parents. "And who's this, then?"
"Oh, this is my new friend Hotaru!" Sweetie Belle said.
Hotaru stepped forward and bowed politely. "Hello," she said. "Your sister saved my life. I'm mostly aware of what's going on in this world, and it seems as though this is the place I need to be if I want to get home."
"There's a lot of that going around," Rarity said. "So, you'll be staying with us for the time being, I take it?"
"If it's not an imposition."
"Of course it isn't!" Sweetie Belle said.
"Rarity?" Rarity's mother asked cautiously. "It...it is safe to go home right now, isn't it...?"
"For the moment, things seem rather calm," Rarity said. "The awful bug monsters seem to have stopped attacking, and the Shadowbolts and their new friend dealt with that horrid giant fire-breathing turtle that attacked..." She trailed off at their confused and horrified looks. "Well, it...it's a long story."
"Giant fire-breathing turtle?" Sweetie Belle cried. "How the heck did we miss that?"
"We probably hadn't started our descent yet," her father said. "Maybe the flight crew knew about it but didn't want to scare us."
"I'm sure you'll see plenty of video about it," Rarity said. "Come, let us head for the van...Fluttershy, would you be a dear and help with...yes..."
"Of course," Fluttershy said. She smiled gently at Hotaru. "It must be so terribly terrifying for you, a normal young girl getting caught up in all this scary monster business," she said in a reassuring tone.
"Normal, are you kidding me?" Sweetie Belle said with a laugh. "Hotaru killed the first monster that got loose in our hotel like it was nothing!"
"Sweetie Belle!" Hotaru hissed, face flushing. "I don't exactly want everybody knowing I'm...!" She sighed. "Nevermind, I guess it doesn't matter here..."
Rarity and Fluttershy blinked. "This girl...killed a monster?" Rarity asked. "But...but darling..." She looked Hotaru up and down. "No offense, but you look as though a faint breeze could carry you away, you're so thin and pale!"
Hotaru giggled. "I'm stronger than I look," she said simply. "But yes, I...I am rather delicate. I have a...tricky constitution."
"Let's talk about it more when we get home," Rarity's mother insisted. With that, the group collected their luggage and fought their way through the crowds to the parking lot and Fluttershy's waiting van.
"What I really want to talk about," Sweetie Belle said as they all buckled in and Fluttershy started the engine, "is this other Sunset Shimmer we ran into..."
* * * * *
In an upscale condo in Manehattan, a man in his early twenties sat in an expansive breakfast nook, sunlight from a large window flooding the space, offering ample light by which to read. Which, considering the dozen or so heavy books spread out across the table, almost all of them open, was a good thing.
Adjusting his small, round-rimmed glasses, he sipped his tea as his blue-green eyes danced across the pages of the nearest book. His amber brow furrowed in thought, and he reached for another book, flipping through its index before turning to the back and looking for something in the text.
The front door opened. He looked up. "Back already?"
"Short line at the bakery," the teenage girl who had just walked into the living room said. Her copper and gold hair shone in the brilliant sunlight. She favored him with a frown. "You're seriously still in your pajamas."
He looked down at himself and his star-spangled cobalt blue pajamas and blue slippers, then shrugged. "Why not? It's not like I'm going anywhere."
The girl dropped a waxpaper bag on the table next to a stack of books, then pointed a finger at the ceiling. "Grandma said this," she intoned.
He rolled his eyes. "Here it goes," he muttered.
"The path of God is only walked by those who are neatly groomed and properly dressed at all hours of the day," the girl continued.
"Grandma never said that ever, Sunset," the man said in a resigned tone.
Sunset Shimmer slammed her palms on the table. "Then I'm saying it, Sunburst," she said. "If all you're going to do is read all day, at least put some care into your appearance! Take a shower, put on some clothes, do something about that hair, trim that stupid goatee!" Shaking her head and muttering to herself, she stormed off to the upper floor of the condo.
Sunburst rolled his eyes and smiled. "Love you too, sis," he said as he dug into the bag and fished out a bear claw.
* * * * *
Pinkie Pie unlocked the front door of her house and led Adrien and Marinette inside. "I'm hooooome!" she called out. "And I have guests!"
She led them from the foyer into the living room, where her sister Maud sat across the coffee table from an anorexically thin girl with chalk-white skin, red eyes, and short, pale blue-white hair.
"Rock. You are a rock. Grey. You are grey. Hard and round, in the ground, like a rock. Which you are. Rock."
"empty apartment. one day follows another. i am not a doll."
"Wow. That's deep."
"Hi Maud! Who's your friend?" Pinkie called.
"This is Rei," Maud said. "I found her in the bathtub. She was naked. I loaned her some of your clothes. She likes my poems."
"Cool," Pinkie said. "We're gonna go do some baking now. Oh! This is Adrien and Marinette. Guys, this is my amazing older sister Maud!"
"Hey," Maud said tonelessly.
"Hey," Adrien greeted uncertainly. Marinette waved.
Maud went back to reciting poetry at Rei; the others headed for the kitchen. "Yikes," Adrien said once they were out of earshot. "That's...some party going on out there, huh?"
Pinkie giggled. "Okay, so Maud can be a little..." She made a vague gesture. "Anyway, you just have to get to know her. Now come on, let's bake!"
Pinkie led them into the family kitchen and headed for the cupboards, rummaging around for mixing bowls, flour, sugar, and other ingredients. Marinette went straight for the refrigerator, grabbing the milk and eggs. Adrien stood just inside the kitchen door, wringing his hands awkwardly. "So, uhh..." Adrien coughed. "How do we do this whole thing?"
Pinkie blinked at him. "You've never baked before?"
Adrien scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Honestly? No. But I can't wait to learn!"
"Well, with all your other talents," Marinette said as she began cracking eggs into a small bowl, "a little baking should be a piece of cake!"
"Or a cupcake!" Pinkie added with a giggle.
Adrien scratched the back of his head. "Well, if you say so," he said. "It's just...I've never done any cooking at all..." He paused. "Or anything creative, actually. Except for writing crappy Valentine poems."
"It wasn't crappy, it was sweet!" Marinette said.
"Ooh, he sent you a Valentine?" Pinkie asked. "Wait...I thought he was crushing on your superhero alter ego?"
Adrien scratched his nose. "Yeah," he said awkwardly, "so, uhh...I was writing sappy Valentines for, well...for Ladybug..."
"And I found one of them in the trash at school and answered it," Marinette said. "Only I forgot to sign it..."
"So it was you," Adrien said, eyes wide, a deliriously happy smile plastered across his face.
Pinkie giggled as she began sifting flour. "It'd be funny if she was constantly giving you cards and gifts and stuff and forgetting to sign them and you had no idea who they were from and they were really from her all along and—MMPH!" She blinked and looked down at the measuring spoon which had found its way into her mouth.
"We get the idea," Marinette said, her face red as she eyed the milk critically. "You bake with this crap?"
"Well, yeah, and drink it, and pour it over cereal," Pinkie said as she pulled the spoon from her mouth. "Why?"
Marinette shrugged. "It's terrible for baking, that's all. But if it's the best you've got."
"Wow, really?" Pinkie asked, tilting her head. "I mean, I know skim milk's no good for baking, but that's whole milk, it's—"
"I wouldn't pour it for a cat, this milk," Marinette said with a frown. "But again, I live in a boulangerie, I'm used to..." She trailed off, then sighed. "Sorry," she said. "I'm being snobby. That's not me."
"Eh, it's cool," Pinkie said. "I'm just happy to learn from a professional, it'll help me take my party planning to the next level!"
"I'm not a professional," Marinette said. "That's my Papa. I just grew up in his kitchen."
"Marinette?" Adrien asked suddenly, a contemplative frown on his face.
"Y-yes?" Marinette stammered, brought up short.
"The scarf, the one that was supposedly a birthday present from my father," Adrien said. He gazed intently at Marinette. "It wasn't from him at all, was it? It was from you."
Marinette shifted awkwardly. "I..."
"It was, wasn't it?"
Pinkie stopped sifting, watching intently.
Marinette looked at Adrien. "Please don't ask me that," she said.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Adrien asked softly, walking up to her and taking her hands.
Marinette looked into his eyes, swallowed, and looked away. "It made you so happy, believing it was from your dad," she said. "I couldn't take that away from you."
Adrien drew her into a tight hug, burying his face in her hair. "Marinette..."
Pinkie sniffled. "Wow," she said. "You two...you're really..." She grabbed a paper towel and blew her nose loudly. "Really made for each other. Like, literally. Like, the universe you're from exists just so you two can be the sappiest, most adorable couple ever."
The two French teens blushed, stepping slightly away from each other, and looked away, scratching their heads awkwardly. "So!" Adrien said loudly. "Baking. Help. Do. How?"
Marinette let out a high-pitched giggle. "Umm...preheat the oven? I think we forgot to do that, didn't we Pinkie?"
"I knew I forgot something..."
"I think I can do that," Adrien said, looking around the kitchen. "It's this big metal thing, right?"
"That's the refrigerator..."
"Oh. Then this one?"
"That's the dishwasher."
"What about this one?"
"That's me, Minou."
"Well, yeah, but you're more fun to warm up."
* * * * *
The hotel Monica had chosen was directly on the boardwalk, with a beautiful decorative walkway that passed underneath the boardwalk and down to the beach proper. This allowed guests to change into their swimwear and put on their sunscreen and suntan lotion in the privacy of their own suites before heading down to the beach instead of using the public locker rooms.
The three girls emerged from the walkway onto the warm sand and blinked in the bright sun. Kooh wore a dark pink one-piece with black stripes up the sides and black trim around a curious cat-shaped cutout in the front that bared her navel, matching black flip-flops with day-glo pink straps, and pink-framed sunglasses. Tron, despite her insistence that she had no interest in the beach, had bought a tasteful black bikini and a simple pair of beach sandals; similar sunglasses to those Kooh wore were perched on her forehead.
As for Monica...
Monica wore a skimpy blue tie-front bikini top with a high-cut black bikini bottom that left very little to the imagination, with a gauzy dark blue sarong tied loosely around her waist that did little to cover anything her bikini didn't. Her hair was gathered up in a high ponytail and held with a blue butterfly-shaped clasp, and she wore fancy blue beach sandals with two-inch heels and beaded faux-pearl straps. A tote bag was slung casually over her shoulder; inside it she carried her magical bag of holding and all three girls' phones, as well as blankets, towels, and a few loose sundries.
When she had emerged from the bathroom in her swimsuit, the other two girls had stared enviously at her. "You know, you don't have to rub our noses in it," Tron had said.
"What?" Monica had asked, blinking innocently.
"Mmm, the breeze feels nice," Monica said. "It has a nice smell. This reminds me of Veniccio back home."
"Or Blue Lagoon on Pangya Island," Kooh said.
Tron looked around. "Wow...you mean there's all this empty coast, and people just...lie in the sand or play on the water?"
"Well, yeah," Monica said. "What, you don't have beaches where you come from?"
Tron snorted, pinching the bridge of her nose and shaking her head. "I told you already," she said. "Ninety-five percent of the Earth is covered in ocean where I come from. You either live your life in ships on the ocean, in airships over the ocean, or on the handful of habitable islands scattered across the world." She put a hand on her hip and gave Monica a reproachful stare. "Tell me, if your entire civilization was crowded onto a tiny little island, how much of it would you waste for just lying in the sand staring out at the super-depressing ocean that goes on forever in every direction?"
Monica flinched. "I...I guess that'd kinda kill the fun, huh..." She shook her head. "Well, it isn't that way here, so maybe you'll find something you like about it, yeah?"
Tron chewed on the inside of her cheek. "Well..." She sighed. "It's nice and warm out here," she said. "Not a bad place for a nap."
"Come on, let's stake out a place and spread out some blankets!" Kooh said excitedly. "It'll be nice to enjoy some beach time someplace where I'm not constantly watching out for flying comets!"
"Flying comets?" Tron asked, tilting her head.
"Golf balls," Monica explained. "They call golf balls comets where she's from. Her entire island is just golf course after golf course. Seriously, everything on Pangya Island is a golf course. The beach, the forest, the mountains, the volcano, the one city on the entire island...it's all golf courses."
Tron blinked. "Weird," she said.
"Eh, it means you never run out of stuff to do there, that's for sure," Monica said.
As the girls searched the beach for an ideal spot to spread out, idly observing the small clusters of beachgoers scattered around, Tron asked, "You said her world...you're not both from the same place?"
"No, I'm from a different universe from Kooh," Monica said. "I was actually taking a vacation on Pangya Island in her world when we both got sucked into this mess."
"Ouch," Tron said. "Vacation, huh?" She smirked. "Playing hooky from school? Running from boys clamoring after those huge tits?"
Monica blushed. "N-nothing like that!" she said. She sighed. "The thing is...I'm the Crown Princess of my kingdom. My father...he was assassinated a year ago. I've...I've been fighting for a long time to avenge him, then to save my kingdom—to save the world—from being destroyed by an evil dictator. It's a really long story and I don't feel up to telling it, but it's only been a few months since my friend Max and I put an end to the war." Monica wrapped her right arm around her stomach, looking down at it unhappily. "Now we're rebuilding, and I'm constantly under pressure..." She shook her head. "I know I have duties, I know I have to work hard to be ready to take my father's place and become Queen, but..." She sighed. "I've been through so much. I'm not ready. I just...I just wanna relax a little, y'know?"
"Huh," Tron said. "You'd think being a princess would be like...awesome. Everybody doing whatever you say, all the money in the world...that's the kind of life I'd love to have."
Monica shook her head as she stopped and spread out a blanket. "That's so not what my life is like," she said. "Four hours a day of sword practice and magic practice, three hours a day of studying, two hours of meetings, and then there's all the time I spend helping rebuild or fight off stray monsters that are left over from the war." She sighed. "I know I shouldn't just sneak off and take a vacation on my own, but honestly? There are days I wish I was still running around with Max risking my life in some creepy forest full of things trying to eat me, kill me, or..." She coughed. "Well, do other stuff to me."
Tron and Kooh exchanged a look. "Ewwww," they said.
Once the blankets were spread out, Monica stood up and stretched. "I think I'm gonna take a walk up the beach, check things out," she announced. "You girls do whatever you want."
"Works for me," Tron said, flopping down on the blankets and folding her arms behind her head as she kicked off her sandals. "I'm gonna snooze."
"I think I'm gonna rent one of those blow-up dolphins and play in the ocean," Kooh announced. "I've always kinda wanted to do that, it looks like fun!"
"Have fun, then!" Monica said, waving as she jogged off, her chest bouncing alarmingly in her skimpy top.
Some time later, Tron awoke to find herself buried in sand, the other two girls crouching over her and giggling. She scowled at them. "What do you think you're doing?" she demanded angrily.
"Aww, come on, it's all in good fun!" Monica said. Kooh giggled and sat down on Tron's chest, her butt dangerously close to Tron's face. Tron couldn't see what she was doing, but Monica let out a loud squeal. "KOOH! That's NASTY! What's wrong with you?"
Kooh burst into laughter and rolled away, dodging a sharp gust of wind that skimmed over Tron and demolished whatever sand sculpture Kooh had made before she could see it. Shaking her head, Monica started helping Tron dig herself out.
"Thought you were taking a walk," Tron said as she sat up and brushed sand off herself.
"Yeah, I did," Monica said. "You've been asleep for a couple of hours."
"Oh." Tron blinked, looking up at the sun. It was indeed higher in the sky, and there were more people on the beach than there had been before. "So, find anything interesting?"
"There's a little diner a ways up the beach called Dazzling Delights," Monica reported. "It's closed right now, sign says it'll open at one."
"Thinking of heading there for lunch?" Tron asked.
"Up to you girls," Monica said with a shrug. Two boys walked up, then, and started flirting with Monica. While she dealt with them in a graceful and diplomatic manner, Tron unearthed her phone from Monica's bag and started scanning the news. *Things are still pretty quiet, but that whole thing about a giant robot fighting a giant monster up in Canterlot...I kinda wanna look into that. But how do I convince the girls...?*
* * * * *
Of all the things Sunset Shimmer expected to find when she descended into Flash Sentry's basement, the sight that greeted her was not remotely even within the ball park of her expectations. It wasn't in the same league. It wasn't even playing the same sport.
Flash was grinding away on his guitar, jamming out something angry, harsh, and vaguely Germane-sounding. Accompanying him on the other instruments were a three young girls; the bassist was obscenely close to being naked, and what little she wore was mostly black leather and fishnet mesh; the drummer had long blonde hair and wore some kind of elaborate, fancy white dress, and the girl on the keyboard was wearing a Neighponese school uniform and had bat wings on her head.
And then there was the...whatever it was...singing lead vocals.
It was a fat, egg-shaped black rabbit with a shiny blue jewel on its forehead. Its eyes were closed in a blissfully happy expression. It held a microphone in one stubby little paw. And whatever it was singing, it was not only angry-sounding, it was familiar.
But Sunset was pretty sure it wasn't singing it quite right...
"Pu. Pu PU! PU PU PUU!! Pu. Pu PU! PU PU PUU!!
Pu. Pu PU! PU PU PUU!! PU PU PUU!!
PU PUPUU PUPUU! PU PUPUU PUPUU! PUPUUPUU PUPUU PUPUPU PUU PUPUU!!"
"What...the...fuck..." Sunset croaked out numbly, pointing at the...well...everything.
Everyone stopped playing. "Oh, hey Sunset," Flash said. "What's up?"
"What's up?" Sunset asked incredulously. "What's UP?!" She threw her arms out, encompassing the basement. "You've got a lolicon harem and a weird magical girl mascot in your basement and you're asking ME what's up?"
The blond girl waved her hands frantically. "Ah! I know we look like a lolicon harem, but we're not! Really!"
"That's right, I'm hundreds of years old," the bassist said, stretching her back. "I don't think I qualify for 'lolicon' anymore."
"I meant the harem part, Etna!"
"Oh, right. That too."
"I don't object to either part of that statement," the keyboard girl said with a sultry giggle.
"Pupupuu pupuu," the rabbit opined.
Flash sighed. "Look...it's..." He shrugged. "Yeah, okay, so this looks bad. But these girls are actually pretty cool. They're a little crazy and Etna kinda has this casual murder problem, but other than that, I mean...we've just been hanging out playing music and video games and eating junk food." He shrugged. "I mean, you know what it's like out on the streets, right?"
"Yeah. I've kinda been dealing with it," Sunset said sourly.
Flash flinched. "Yeah, well...we all pretty much decided..."
"We decided fuck it," Etna—the bassist—interrupted. "I mean, I love a good fight and it looks like you've all been having a super fun time killing all those gross maggot monsters and everything? But this, what we're doing here? Is pretty much the first vacation I've had in decades."
"And...I should really stick close to Etna," the blond said. "Besides, this is fun!"
"I'm just along for the ride," the third girl said. "Any ride," she added with a giggle.
"Pupuu," the rabbit added.
Sunset facepalmed. "Okay. Okay, fine. Okay." She looked at Flash. "Just answer me this one thing. You're not doing any..." She looked the girls over, then grimaced. "This isn't a repeat of the Sonata thing, right?"
Flash scowled. "No, Sunset. It absolutely is NOT that."
"Just making sure," Sunset said, holding up her hands placatingly. "I mean, you get how this looks, right? If anyone wandered in on this..."
Flash grimaced. "Yeah, I...I do kinda see what you mean," he said. "Umm...so this whole mess is supposed to be over and done with inside of a month, right? That's what I told Mom and Dad when they called from Prance. They're staying put until this all blows over."
"I was kind of wondering where they were," Sunset muttered. "Your folks sure don't bother being around much, do they?"
Flash shrugged. "Dad can work anywhere, Mom can work anywhere, you know how they love to travel, so..." He paused, then smacked his forehead. "Crap, I didn't even introduce you to everyone yet!" He gestured at each of the girls in turn. "The redhead there is Etna, the blond on the drums is Flonne, over there on keyboards is Lilith, and..." He paused. "We don't know what that thing is."
"Sunset Shimmer, nice to meet you," Sunset said absently. "Okay, so your incredibly irresponsible parents aren't around, but what about your crazy gay uncle?"
"Oh, Uncle Rear and Stephen moved to Neighpon," Flash said. "Or rather, they've got a vacation house there. They're staying there six months out of the year."
"Huh, I see," Sunset said. "Well then..." She trailed off lamely. "I guess...keep on rockin' then?" She turned to leave.
"Wanna hang a bit?" Flash asked. "We were about to take a break, watch some movies."
Sunset thought about that. "Sure, why not," she said. "I don't really have any plans for today and everybody's kinda taking a breather since the Inves aren't showing up anymore for some reason."
"Inves?" Etna asked.
"The maggot monsters. They're coming from this weird parasite forest that's attached itself to our world."
Flonne gasped. "HELHEIM?! That awful thing is here?!"
Etna glanced curiously at her. "You know about it, Flonne?"
Flonne was pale with dread. "God created it to test humanity's piety a long time ago," she said. "But, well...the first Overlord of the Netherworld perverted it into a terrible, diseased weapon. God cast it into the vast ocean of the cosmos to save humanity from it, but the legends..." She shuddered.
"Yeah, that sounds about right," Sunset said. "Anyway, Sci-Twi is pretty sure we'll be rid of it once we contain the, umm...source of all this. As long as we can do it quickly enough." She clapped her hands together. "So! Movies!"
And with that, the group headed upstairs to relax and veg out in front of the television.
* * * * *
"I can't help but notice that we've been sitting around doing a whole lot of nothing-geso."
"We're hardly doing nothing, squidling," Arlong said, making Ikamusume jump. "In case you haven't noticed, this monster invasion has been wearing down the stamina of those attempting to keep order in Canterlot. And other places." Arlong leaned back on the sofa, spreading his arms wide along the back. "Meanwhile, we've been conserving our energy, preparing ourselves to strike, and gathering intel on our enemies." He nodded at the television. "This Sunset Shimmer girl the Sirens have a grievance against, she's gathered a crew with varied and formidable skills. If there is any one thing I would thank that rubber bastard for, it's teaching me not to underestimate my enemy." He curled one hand into a fist. "I will not allow myself to be humiliated again. Especially not by humans."
Ikamusume dug in one ear with a tentacle. "Humans can't be all that tough-geso. The two of us together should be more than enough to crush all the humans on the surface and make them pay!"
Arlong glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "You're not very bright, are you?"
Ikamusume shot him a half-lidded glare...which turned to a frightened grimace of horror when he bared his teeth.
Snorting, Arlong shook his head. "Even I don't stand a chance against that...that metal giant that fought that enormous dragon. We're going to have to pick and choose our battles carefully, and take what we can from those we conquer without tipping our hand too early. When the time comes to lay siege to Canterlot, I want to be ready."
"Well said, my handsome king," Adagio purred, draping herself across Arlong as she sauntered into the room.
"Frankly, I think you're both nuts if you wanna go anywhere near that crazy shit in the city," Aria said from where she leaned against the wall, arms folded, glowering at the world in general. "I mean, do you really think a huge, super-strong shark man and a girl with squid tentacles for hair have a chance against all this magic and robot shit going on?"
"We'll never know until we try-geso!"
"Hey, guys? Not to interrupt or anything, but...we are gonna open the shop today, right?" Sonata asked. "I mean, we still gotta pay the bills on this place, so..."
Arlong snorted. "Go ahead, open your diner," he said. "But tomorrow, we're making our first step toward establishing territory for the New Arlong Pirates!"
The lights suddenly flickered and dimmed, the television blinking off as the air conditioner cut off and the ceiling fan slowed to half speed. "Ugh, a brownout? Now?" Aria complained.
Then the entire room flickered. Images danced along the walls and through the air, of an ocean, of creatures fanficul and mythical. Of a stage, of lights, of green mist. Of glowing red eyes and...
Then everything went pitch black.
The lights snapped back on, the ceiling fan span back up to speed, and the air conditioner cycled. All present blinked, looking around at each other.
"Nan de geso?" Ikamusume wondered.
Sonata gasped, pointing at Adagio. "Dagi! Your..."
Adagio's eyes widened. "And your..."
Each of the Sirens reached up and clasped their hands around the blood-red jewels which now hung at their throats.
They looked at each other, slack-jawed.
Then, as one, they closed their eyes...
Aah-aa-aah, aa-aaah...aah-aa-aah, aa-aaah...
The jewels flickered with a dull ruby shine. Adagio opened her eyes, which briefly flashed a bright green.
"Girls?" she purred. "We're back."
* * * * *
It had taken some time to reach Octavia's house. Once they entered, Anna looked around in awe. Vinyl bounced past her, picked up the TV remote, and turned on Octavia's large-screen TV.
Anna gasped as the TV screen lit up. "What wondrous magic!" she exclaimed happily. "Look, Elsa! These girls have magic too!"
"Erm...that isn't magic, it's technology," Octavia said. "I take it you aren't familiar with television?"
"Tell...a...vision," Anna sounded out. "Oh, like soothsaying?"
"...not quite," Octavia said dryly. "It's...it's difficult to explain."
Elsa frowned as she studied the image on the screen. "Strange. I do not recognize this script, but it is clearly language. I do however understand what the woman is saying." She tilted her head. "Could this perhaps be...some form of heraldry? Information about current happenings in this land?"
"That's exactly what it is," Octavia said. "So much has been happening lately, we've simply left the television tuned to the news all day." She shook her head. "Let me see what I can find for you two to wear. Umm, you can use the upstairs guest bathroom to change. If you'd like, I have garment bags you can place your own clothes in. We can get them cleaned for you, or..."
"I believe Anna can figure out how to clean her own clothes," Elsa said. "As for me, it won't be necessary."
"Are you quite certain?" Octavia asked.
"She's quite certain," Anna said with a slight giggle. "Elsa's whole outfit is made from her magic. I'm pretty sure she just whips up a fresh one every day, right Elsa?"
"More or less," Elsa said with a shrug. "I mean, there are days I wear actual dresses, but...I've grown so used to this look, and our subjects seem to love it, so..."
Vinyl raised an eyebrow and looked at Octavia, who also raised an eyebrow and looked at Elsa. "Forgive me, but...magic? Subjects? Are you royalty?"
"Ah, did we not mention that? Forgive me, I suppose I was being a bit...guarded." She drew herself up. "I am Queen Elsa of Arendelle." She paused. "If...if I trust you, will you..." She looked uncertainly at Anna.
Anna smiled. "These girls are very kind. I'm sure they'll understand."
"You need not feel ill at ease here," Octavia said. "We are simply offering you rest and comfort. It's...it's the kind and generous thing to do, after all."
Elsa smiled gratefully. "And we appreciate it, truly." She took a deep breath. "I should...tell you, then, that...I possess a powerful magic." She held out one hand, palm-up, and created a single, large, perfect snowflake which spun in the air.
"Hmm. Interesting," Octavia said. "We're no strangers to magic in Canterlot, of course. Not with the things that have happened at our school this past year." Vinyl nodded in agreement. "Plus, with the world at large going crazy lately, a little ice magic is hardly anything noteworthy."
"Oh, it's not a little ice magic," Anna said. "Elsa can bring an eternal winter if she wants. There's nothing she can't freeze."
"ANNA!" Elsa snapped, her snowflake shattering and evaporating. "That is not something we should go around boasting about!"
Octavia's eyebrow went up again. She looked at Vinyl, whose jaw had dropped. Vinyl lowered her glasses, revealing startled red eyes. Octavia cleared her throat. "Y-yes, well...you're not presently planning to bring a sudden winter storm upon our fair city, I should hope?"
"Of course not!" Elsa said. "I would never harm innocent people with my magic! ...anymore. Not on purpose..." She sat down in the nearest armchair, rubbing one arm with her other hand.
"Well then there's nothing to worry about," Octavia said briskly. "I'll find some more comfortable clothes for you, something you can move around more easily in. You may rest here as long as you wish. I believe you should watch the news, get a better grasp on the situation, decide what to do from there." She paused, glancing at Vinyl. "Did I overlook anything?"
Vinyl pulled her phone out of her pocket and sent a text to Octavia. Octavia glanced at it, rolling her eyes at the string of bacon emojis that comprised the volume of the text. "Yes, I suppose we should call Sunset Shimmer about these two at some point. Once they've had a chance to rest, get their bearings." With that, she headed upstairs. Vinyl motioned Anna over to the large, plush sofa and plopped down, sprawling out like a broken puppet.
Anna sat down beside her, looking her over curiously. "Sorry for asking, but...you don't speak? Or can't speak?"
Vinyl looked over at her and smirked. "Nah, I can talk," she said. "I just do the whole Silent Bob thing to razz Tavi."
* * * * *
Rodimus Prime coasted down a street devoid of traffic and cluttered with litter. "This is the place. Be careful, you two. I don't know what we can expect to find here."
"I don't know what you're expecting to find. I mean, that incident ended hours ago."
"True, but...you never know. Just...just bear with me, alright?"
Enzan shrugged. "You're the one driving. We're just along for the ride."
Rodimus Prime rounded a debris-strewn corner and slowly, carefully pulled into the ravaged parking lot of a demolished hospital. "Whoa," Enzan said softly.
"Trashing a hospital," Rodimus said bitterly. "That's just low."
"I'm pretty sure it was abandoned," Blues said. "I'm not picking up anything that is or was alive."
Enzan snorted. "I don't need scanners or sensors to tell you that," he said. "Look at the dumpsters full of rubble. This place was already being torn down." He folded his arms. "Probably why they had their little kaiju battle here in the first place. So nobody would get hurt."
"Makes sense," Rodimus said as he slowly circled the parking lot.
"More importantly, look at those," Enzan said. His eyes focused on the five giant, gleaming animal-shaped vehicles spread out across the vacant, junk-strewn parking lot. "Are they...are they more of your kind, Rodimus-san?"
"I don't think so," Rodimus said. "Cybertronians generally choose vehicle modes that don't, well...stand out so much." He paused. "I mean, I guess they could be like the Dinobots, or the Predacons, or the Insecticons, or the Sharkticons, or..." He trailed off. "Yeah, you know what? I have no idea." He paused. "I am picking up something here that almost feels Cybertronian, but...it's wrong somehow. And it's not nearly enough of a signal to account for five Autobots."
"I'm not picking up much of anything from the vehicles themselves," Blues said. "Their power systems are all on standby. There's...there's a transponder signal coming from each one."
"They're talking to somebody?" Enzan asked.
"It's passive," Blues said. "Seems to be a standby mode."
"Maybe they're waiting for their friends to come back!" a new voice intruded, making Enzan and Blues slide back defensively and look around warily.
"Who's there?" Rodimus asked.
A grey and orange garbage truck drove out from behind the parked mecha, ponderously transforming into a grey and orange robot with a square head, black-ringed blue eyes, a long jaw, and a beardlike stripe bisecting his pointy chin. "Hi! My name is Wreck-Gar!" the robot said cheerfully. "Don't mind these guys, they don't say much."
"He's another one of you," Enzan said.
Rodimus transformed and frowned at the other robot. "Friend, I've served with Wreck-Gar. I know Wreck-Gar. Wreck-Gar is a friend of mine. You, sir, are no Wreck-Gar."
"I sir am yes Wreck-Gar!"
"Look, friend...I think you're confused. I'm telling you, there's no way you could possibly be Wreck-Gar! Wreck-Gar fought alongside me and my team when we took on Unicron. We've been through a lot together. I think I'd know."
Wreck-Gar frowned. "Unicorn?" He began digging through his backpack. He pulled out a giant teddy bear wearing a red shirt. "A grand Pooh Bear..." He tossed it aside, then pulled out a bottle of laundry detergent. "Hmm. Eliminates even the toughest stains..." He dropped it back in his backpack, then shrugged. "Sorry, I don't have any unicorns."
"Not unicorn, Unicr—you know, nevermind," Rodimus said, shaking his head with a sigh. Off to the side, Enzan snickered. Blues watched the exchange with an air of cautious confusion. "Look. Are you, or aren't you, an Autobot?"
"That's what they tell me," Wreck-Gar said. "I think." He looked down at his chest, pulled off his Autobot insignia, and held it up for inspection. "That's what this says, right? Autobot? One of the good guys?"
"Well...yes," Rodimus said. "And that just proves you can't be Wreck-Gar. Wreck-Gar wasn't an Autobot."
"Oh! So Wreck-Gar is one of these then?" Wreck-Gar asked, pulling a Decepticon insignia out of his backpack and slapping it proudly onto his chest. It fell askew.
"No, that's not right either," Rodimus said. "Wreck-Gar's a Junkion, he's not...not affiliated...why am I even arguing this?"
"Don't look at me," Wreck-Gar said with a shrug, replacing the Decepticon symbol with a new symbol that looked like a grilled cheese sandwich crossed with an accordion. "I'm just as confused as you are. Maybe even more so!"
"Rodimus-san," Blues said softly, "I don't think there's any point continuing this conversation. This...being...is clearly severely addled."
"Yeah, well, so's the real Wreck-Gar," Rodimus said. "But right now, this guy's the only one who saw anything, so..."
"Well..." Wreck-Gar drawled, stroking his long, pointy chin. "That's...not entirely true."
"What do you mean?" Enzan asked.
"Well, there was this bunch of humans running around earlier," Wreck-Gar said. "They were all wearing these funny suits, and some of them got out of these guys. I didn't think anything much of it, but now that I think about it, it's kinda weird that these bots stopped doing anything when the humans left. Even when it was just us bots here! That's why I've been trying to patch them up, see if I can't get 'em talking. After all, can't have too many friends, am I right?" He paused, then tilted his head. "Am I right?"
Enzan pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yareyare," he said in a resigned tone. "Now I understand. These vehicles are some sort of military hardware created and piloted by humans. They must..." He gestured vaguely. "Combine into a giant robot somehow, but without their pilots, they're just machines."
"That seems to be the case," Blues said.
"Huh, really?" Wreck-Gar said. "Well no wonder they haven't been talking, then! That's...kinda boring."
"That's kind of creepy," Rodimus said with a shudder. "When you personally know as many Autobots and Decepticons as I do that can combine with their teammates into giant forms, thinking about machines built by humans to do that, but with no Sparks..." He grimaced. "I'm not sure how to feel about that."
"Eh, makes sense to me," Wreck-Gar said with a shrug. "Humans built me and I don't have a Spark either!" He knocked on his head. "Or at least I didn't until..." He paused. "Hmm...I wonder..." He began rooting through his backpack again, then pulled out a handful of small, glowing crystal shards. "A-HA! I knew you guys would be good for something!"
"What are those?" Enzan wondered.
"Allspark fragments!" Wreck-Gar said triumphantly. "Just a teeny-tiny little piece of all the cosmic power of creation!" He drew back his hand and threw the crystals at the five inert mechs.
"Wait, don't—!" Rodimus interjected a moment too late. The Allspark shards impacted the mechs' armor, then sank in.
For a long moment, nothing happened.
Then, the red condor-plane let out a long, low, feminine moan...
...and transformed into a sleek, streamlined, decidedly female robot with large, folded angel wings on her back. "Mmm," she groaned as she stretched. "That's better. I can't believe Lamia just up and left me here after all we've been through!"
Rodimus' jaw dropped, as did Blues' and Enzan's. "By the Matrix," Rodimus whispered.
The robot looked around at them, blinking owlishly. "Hello," she said. "I don't believe we've met. I'm CrossCon—" She paused, frowning. "No, that doesn't feel right." She coughed into one shiny golden fist. "I'm Airazor. Nice to meet you."
One by one, the other four mechs transformed into very confused robots.
* * * * *
After a full day's hike into the depths of the mines, where the party's progress was slowed by narrow passages, low ceilings, and various stalactites and stalagmites which had to be carefully removed with precision magic (and catalogued for later study by the Pie sisters), the mining expedition found a large, stable cavern in which to set up their second campsite.
As Princess Twilight took large bites of hot, savory vegetable stew and reviewed their map, Sunburst sat down beside her. "Your Highness?"
"Call me Twilight," Twilight said absently.
"Sorry...Twilight," Sunburst said, coughing once into his hoof. "I wanted to ask you something about the alloy you're planning to use to contain this artifact."
Twilight glanced up. "Hmm?"
"Well, what I mean is...what metals were you planning to alloy the bulfecium with?"
"Oh," Twilight said. She tilted her head back. "Well, at first I thought cold iron would do it, but I've been thinking maybe mithril or moonsilver would produce more consistent and controlled results."
"Hmm." Sunburst stroked his goatee.
"Why, something wrong?" Twilight asked.
"Well, it's just...I was looking over the latest data Starlight sent you," Sunburst said, "and I actually was thinking the same thing you were until something in the new data caught my attention." He adjusted his glasses. "I don't think a mithril alloy is going to provide enough control to the bulfecium to keep it from producing a mana inversion, and using moonsilver, well, you might as well use tin for all the good that'd do."
Twilight frowned. "Okay, so...what would you suggest?"
"Well, that's the problem," Sunburst said. "I can only think of one magical metal strong enough to completely control the bulfecium reaction to the chaos magic. The problem is, it's even more rare than bulfecium. In fact, I'm not even sure we can find it." He frowned. "But with the stakes being as high as they are and at the rate that thing's power is growing? If there's any way to guarantee this won't end in a total mana inversion that would completely destroy reality..."
Twilight grimaced. "Yeah," she said. "So, what's this incredibly rare metal you're talking about?"
Sunburst fixed her with a serious gaze. "Escudo."
A beat passed in silence.
"I've never even heard of it," Twilight said.
"I'm not surprised," Sunburst said. "The only record I have of its existence predates even Starswirl the Bearded. I, uhh..." He coughed. "Found some scrolls preserved in the ruins of Unicornassus, back before I moved to the Crystal Empire."
Twilight's brow furrowed. "You...looted an archaeological preserve?" she asked reproachfully.
Sunburst's eyes darted left and right in a panic. "It wasn't my idea!" he hissed quietly. "After I left Celestia's school, I spent five years traveling with an Anugyptologist named Rosetta Stone! He's one of the most brilliant researchers of ancient languages and writings Equestria's ever seen, but, well...he's got the common sense of a deranged housefly!" He gestured with a hoof. "He got it in his head to sneak into the restricted areas of Unicornassus, I went after him, we found the scrolls..." He shrugged. "They were too valuable and too incredible to just leave them there!"
"But if you'd turned them over to any museum both of you would've been thrown in the dungeons," Twilight said, eyes half-lidded.
"Well..." Sunburst looked away sheepishly. "That, and we just...didn't want to, you know?"
Twilight giggled. "I...I think I can understand." She paused for a bite of stew. "So whatever happened to this Rosetta Stone?"
Sunburst sighed. "I wish I knew. We parted ways when he joined up with the EEHS. We kept up contact for a while, but the last letter I got from him was something about a dig in Anugypt. He said they thought they found Lionaptra."
Twilight gasped. "The city of the Sphinxes?"
"The same," Sunburst said. He shrugged. "I haven't heard from him in five years."
"That's awful," Twilight said. She frowned thoughtfully. "So...Escudo, was it?"
And Sunburst went into lecture mode with Twilight as his sole attentive student, talking long into the night about a rumored magical metal few living ponies had ever even heard of...
* * * * *
Evening passed into night, then gave way to morning. As the day wore on with no Inves activity anywhere in Canterlot, Kazuraba Kouta paced restlessly around the courtyard of CHS. "This doesn't feel right," he said for the fifth time in an hour.
Sunset groaned. "Kouta, why can't you just relax? No monsters is a good thing. Trust me."
"No, you don't understand," Kouta said. "Helheim...this isn't normal."
"So take your little flower bike and go check it out," Rainbow Dash suggested.
Kouta shot her a look, snorted, and shook his head. He pulled the Lock Vehicle Seed out of his parka and summoned his bike, which he straddled and gunned. With a roar, he swung it out onto the street and, in a hurricane of petals, opened a Crack.
The instant the Crack opened, Kouta knew something was wrong, for a frigid gust of wind roared out of the Crack, buffeting him as though he were driving into an open freezer.
Which, as it turned out several seconds later, was exactly what he was doing.
"Nani kore...?!" The Lock Vehicle stopped just inside the Crack, and Kouta got off, looking around in stunned shock.
Helheim was a frozen wasteland. The ground was covered in ice and frost, thick icicles hung from every plant, and a multitude of fruits lay on the ground, shattered after having been frozen solid.
"Masaka," Kouta whispered. The bitter cold of the frozen forest pressed in on him from all sides, and he transformed in the hopes that his armor would offer some protection. Gaim straddled his bike and took off through the ice-encrusted forest at a slow pace, surveying the devastation.
Everything for miles was frozen solid. He encountered the corpses of Inves, encrusted with ice and snow. No matter how far he penetrated the forest, everything was dead and cold.
He finally reached the Yggdrasil research camp, which he had avoided on his earlier excursions into Helheim after the forest had transported itself to a different universe. He knew that some of Yggdrasil's people had probably been dragged along with the forest, but honestly saw no reason to make contact with them—after all, he and Yggdrasil were not on especially friendly terms.
Now, however, he wished he had evacuated the Yggdrasil researchers when he'd had the chance. For just like the Inves, the dozen or so humans who had been working in the forest all this time lay dead on the ground. Some of them had suffered extreme frostbite, which made Gaim look away, fighting down sobs of regret and the urge to vomit.
A man crawled out of one of the tents. His hair and eyebrows were crusty with frost, and his eyes were haunted. "T-tasukete," he rasped, licking his chapped, cracked lips.
Gaim knelt beside the man. "What happened here?" he asked.
"I don't know," the researcher said. "The forest...it happened so quickly. The ice just..." He shivered. "Everything froze. Everything." He turned bleary eyes on Gaim. "What happened to the Crack? We lost contact..."
"Don't worry about that right now," Gaim said. "I've got to get you out of here, get you help."
The man coughed and shook his head. "Too late," he said. "I only lasted this long because..." He looked down at his waist. Gaim noticed, for the first time, that the man was wearing a production model Driver. "There's...there's no more Fruit," the man rambled. "No more Lock Seeds..."
And then, he croaked out a shuddering cough, then fell still. Gaim checked his pulse; all he could do was stay there, motionless, feeling the life ebb from the man as his slowing heart beat one more time...then one more...then stopped.
Gaim closed the man's eyes, then stood with a tired sigh, head bowed. "This...this is my fault..."
He returned to his bike and gunned it, opening a Crack back to the outside world. As he drove back onto warm, paved streets, a tumult of conflicting emotions warred within him:
Helheim was dead. For that, he was grateful. Nothing pleased him more than to see the accursed forest destroyed.
The Yggdrasil people had died because he had not bothered to remove them from Helheim as soon as he understood the situation. For that, he felt ashamed.
Something had killed Helheim. Brutally. Absolutely. From the sound of things, instantly.
And that terrified him.