Rainbow had been Twilight's tutor in fighting anything airborne, and some of that instruction had been a little on the reluctant side: her friend wanted Twilight to be capable in a battle, but wasn't altogether happy about being on the receiving end of the sparring. It wasn't entirely because she didn't like being shown up: in the event of a Twilight win, Rainbow could always prank up some revenge later. It was the lack of commitment. Twilight had real trouble marshaling her efforts for something which centered around potentially hurting a friend. Even with armor donned and the world around them padded with density-adjusted clouds, getting her to launch a real attack against Rainbow was difficult, typically requiring that the pegasus push multiple emotional buttons before anything got started at all.
(Those were becoming less effective over time: there was only so many ways to trick Twilight into thinking somepony had just sold off her personal book collection. And with the lesser offenses, Rainbow emptying a pantry was just about a weekly event anyway.)
She had the basics, though, along with the central philosophy behind them: when you were up against a flying opponent, your first job was to get them out of the sky. But in this case, it wasn't dropping anything to the ground: it was potentially sending them into lava. She would fight if she had to -- but she didn't want to kill, and so she waited until the first turtle was safely above her platform before releasing a lance of field projection towards it. The intent was for the impact to disorient, followed by placing it in a field bubble and pressing it into the ground -- but this way, if she somehow knocked it out, the fall wouldn't send it into liquid death.
Her aim was true: the burst of energy hit the turtle. The result wasn't quite what she'd intended.
The shell, and therefore the turtle, dropped. The wings stayed behind, hovering in the air, flapping on their own, without a single drop of blood dripping from completely intact bases. The attachment points were, biologically speaking, perfectly fine. It was just that they were now detached.
A yellow body withdrew into its own center as it fell, and the red shell skidded to a stop against her forehooves.
"Now, really!" a muffled voice stated from within. "We have complaint cards!"
Twilight's eyes involuntarily went to the still-flapping wings. Back to the shell. Up to twenty rather offended-seeming turtles. The wings again.
Her scream echoed through the narrow corridor of the world, and a score of suddenly-confused turtles stared at her. The one at the very back lifted a small black rectangle to his mouth.
The response was inaudible to all but that turtle, especially with the scream still bouncing around.
"She's -- being weird."
A faint buzz of a growl reached Twilight's ears.
"Yes, I know she's a good client. We always give the best clients some leeway in their behavior. I'm sure I'd appreciate her a lot more if any of us had been in the squad which did the last kidnapping. Or the generation. But..."
She forced herself into focus, got ready to go on the offensive.
"...yes, King. Should we just treat it as a reset? -- yes, I know you have other things to -- all right, sir. King sir. Yes, we can think for ourselves. Sometimes. Should I think for myself now? King? Um..."
It slipped the rectangle into one of the shell's arm holes, then called out to the rest of the bale.
"All right, guys! Let's just start over! Kidnap her again!"
"You would think," the lead turtle huffed as they carried Twilight down a castle corridor, "no one reads the Terms And Conditions section of the contract."
(She was using the opportunity to check on rooms. There were definitely other captives on her floor: she could hear some of them moving. And based on the number of stairs they'd gone up within the Employees Only Access stairwell, there could be hundreds -- or at least, the castle had that kind of potential capacity.)
Roy -- she knew which one he was now, thanks to the way he kept trying to introduce himself while finding out what she'd written on the card -- blinked a little and held her hindquarters a little higher. "Um... was I supposed to..."
"The kidnappee has certain responsibilities," the lead turtle sighed. "Such as remaining kidnapped for the full duration of her stay. And when it comes to taking out any feelings you might be having about your perfectly lovely quarters on the staff, we have certain facilities for that. Also, a most excellent and well-regarded system for evaluating feedback. Honestly, Princess, if we did something wrong, there are established avenues to follow. You'll find the paperwork on your nightstand. Please fill it out. And should you require one of us to inflict bodily injury upon, may I recommend the track?"
Twilight blinked, mostly because it served as an alternative to screaming again.
"Do you know what it's going to take before we can get Carl's wings back on?"
The head shake was instinctive, and almost immediately regretted.
"Two of us," the turtle lectured, "have to stand next to him. One on each side, holding a wing. And then he has to step between us. Followed by having four additional staff members immobilizing him. One to each of the limbs he still has attached. To keep him from fleeing. From the torture."
"Um," Twilight tried, and instantly regretted that.
"Carl," the turtle sighed, "is extremely ticklish -- and here is your room." Two turtles got the door open. "Now. That is the complaint card. You can see it quite clearly from here: it's the pink edge. And just above that in the stack is the full list and schedule of activities which you can use to get rid of all this strange aggression." A slow head shake. "All right, set her down -- yes, be very careful when freeing her wings from the net -- Roy, that is a flight feather: release it at once! -- and now ease the restraint off..."
Twilight, now frozen with shock, watched as the turtles carefully restored her magical capabilities. This included the part where they gave her horn a quick polish, just in case the restraint's inner cone had produced any degree of scuffing.
"So once again," the lead turtle stated, "welcome to your kidnapping. Please fill out your complaint card. Once we've left the room, because we don't want to exert any undue influence on you." This with a side glance. "Roy..." Back to Twilight. "And of course, we'll see you at lunch. Assuming you wish to leave your room." A long pause. "Perhaps we should escort you. It has been quite some time since you were here last, and there's been any number of changes... well, I look forward to discussing the contents of your card with you. After you've collected your thoughts enough to put them in ink, rather than simply arguing here and now while you're still upset about -- whatever you're upset about. Don't you find it's so much easier to talk things out after you've already written them down?"
The group was starting to file out of the suite. She watched them go, right up until Roy, as the very last turtle to depart, paused in the doorway.
"...was it me?" he whispered, and fearfully shut the door.
Twilight stood perfectly still, her hooves caressed by the touch of truly expert carpeting, trying to get her thoughts in order without benefit of freshly-composed checklist. (The lead turtle's suggestion had merit, but she wasn't sure there was enough ink in all the world.)
...since I was here last?
All right, Twilight. Review. There's lots of purple unicorns in the world. There's even others with a pink stripe in their mane and tail. My mark is rare, but historically, it isn't unique, and somepony else in the current population could have the same icon. So it's possible that they could have been looking for somepony they kidnapped before, a pony who got away, who looks a lot like me --
-- alicorn. I'm an alicorn.
(She felt she was still allowed to forget that. It had taken her three years of puberty before she'd stopped thinking of herself as a filly.)
They came prepared for an alicorn. To stop all the magic as quickly as they could. And I was practically under her tower...
But alicorns are a little hard to mistake for anypony else. And there aren't enough alicorns to mistake any of them -- us -- for each other. None of us look anything like the others, for features, colors, and especially heights. Even if there was something so different about their vision that they could only see us all as silhouettes, they could still pick me out every time: I'm smallest.
They brought extra porters...
Rainbow had also made a point of telling her -- repeatedly -- that one of Twilight's biggest problems in combat was that she often spent all of her time thinking about her next move instead of simply making one, and so lost the chance to do anything at all.
Twilight shook her head. She was thinking, yes: that was what she did. But there were in fact times when she thought instead of acting, and there was a good chance this was one of them. She'd been put back in the room, had her magic freed a second time -- and for this placement, she'd been awake all the way down the corridor. It had given her a look at the door.
The door which completely lacked any degree of outer reinforcement. It didn't even have a outside lock.
Think later. The physics are crazy. They're crazy. The 'client' thing is just the insanity showing. Stay with the most important thing: I have been kidnapped and I'm not the only one. There are other victims in this place and this is the time before the turtles have all their defenses against me ready. Don't waste it.
I am not going to teleport into the corridor. There might be a turtle there. Teleporting to a spot which might be occupied is never a good idea.
Breaking down the door, however, will do no more than have it land on them. At which point they'll pull into their shells. So no problem.
And possibly their wings will fall off.
...don't think about that.
I'm an alicorn.
I'm a Bearer.
I am leaving.
Her horn ignited.
When it comes to the fading of emotions surrounding events examined in memory, embarrassment has a half-life of infinity.
She could, in some ways, argue that she'd been doing rather well. She'd gotten into the corridor without issues, and the wood rebounding off the door on the other side had served for her first attempt to rally the other victims. The full-fledged gallop through what had quickly started to feel like endless hallways had been performed while sounding the alert, she was escaping, she was getting out, she'd take everyone she could, those healthy enough to come needed to help those who might have been too hurt to move on their own, she was here to help, and she was also here to take out every turtle she saw along the way.
She saw more than a few. Two were pushing carts laden with cleaning supplies, which she treated as take-along ammunition. Several were carrying food trays. A burst of magic caused one of those to retreat into its shell and fall over right into her galloping path, which was how she both nearly tripped and learned that even the lightest contact against a fallen shell would cause it to skid all the way down the hallway until it hit a wall and executed a perfect rebound in the other direction, never losing the smallest amount of speed. It took her three seconds to stop cursing the physics which refused to respect friction in any way, followed by thirty more before she started using it as a weapon.
She called out, and doors opened. But they only opened by a crack. Eyes would stare out at her. Some of them were similar to pony eyes: others were faceted, or emerged on stalks. She never saw a whole face. Just a simple confused gaze which was afraid to open the door all the way, and it would be some time before she realized that it was because they didn't want to be part of what was so clearly a total nervous breakdown, one which was looking to recruit.
She didn't understand. But she galloped, and screamed, and fought. In all ways, she thought she was winning. The castle's defenses couldn't form a response to her. They didn't know how to deal with a victim who was truly fighting back. She just had to find someone who wasn't afraid, someone who wanted to be free, where Gotland Syndrome wasn't in play.
She could take on the entire castle if she had to. She kept telling herself that with every little victory. She had to keep going. They couldn't stop her.
Instead, they just kidnapped her for the third time.
There were two turtles standing in the corridor. (She could easily see them through the gap where the door had once been.) They didn't exactly look happy to be there. Taking care of Spike for the little dragon's lifetime had made her good at reading reptilian expressions, and these specimens struck her as being rather scared. But more than that, they were confused.
It made sense. In their world, victims weren't supposed to fight back.
Strategize. It's going to be more than two guards pretty soon. Maybe I need to try for the platform again. And I need to do something before --
There were footfalls in the corridor, and that was too weak a word for the sound. It was foot impacts. A very large body was making its way down the hall, at speed. She could hear deep huffing breaths, each exhale jarred loose by the impact of frustration.
-- they call in their leader...
She got into position, just as the turtles scrambled to clear the doorway. Got her head down, ready to charge if need be, started reviewing every offensive spell she knew, braced herself --
-- and then it was right in front of her.
It was something like a turtle, and more than a little like a dragon. The red crest atop its head made her think of Spike, and the utter exasperation in the red eyes made her wonder what a truly frustrated Snowflake might look like -- no, it wasn't just the eye color doing that, it was the size. It was bigger than every other turtle she'd seen. It was bigger than the doorway. It seemed too tall and wide to fit in the corridor, and the spikes which covered the shell should have been tearing up the wallpaper (it hadn't entirely sunk in that she'd been galloping past wallpaper) with every scraping step.
It wasn't happy.
It tilted itself, and then it was inside, having passed through a doorway which never should have accommodated the thing. It took a deep, angry breath. And then it yelled at a space several hoof-heights above her head.
"WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?"
The voice was that of a male. It was also extremely loud.
She took a step back, and her hindquarters bumped the edge of the plush mattress. She couldn't help it. She had faced down Nightmare, Discord, Sombra -- and this was still one of the most terrifying entities she'd ever seen. Twilight could feel its power, the sheer strength just barely being restrained, the anger...
"LEAVING THE CASTLE GROUNDS! ASSAULTING MY STAFF! ACTING LIKE YOU'RE SOME KIND OF HERO! AND ON TOP OF ALL THAT, YOU'RE ONE OF MY FIRST CLIENTS, JUST ABOUT THE LONGEST-TERM CONTRACT I HAVE, WE'VE ALWAYS BEEN GOOD FOR EACH OTHER AND NOT ONLY ARE YOU DAMAGING THINGS, ATTACKING PEOPLE, SCARING MY OTHER CLIENTS, BUT I HAD TO BE TOLD BY MY SECURITY STAFF THAT THEIR SENSORS SAID SEVERAL TOWELS LEFT THE BUILDING!" In rage-surging tones of ultimate offense, "SINCE WHEN DID YOU DECIDE IT WAS OKAY TO STEAL MY --"
Which was when it finally registered on the creature that he was screaming at a portion of air.
Words stopped. The red gaze slowly, slowly shifted down.
"...who are you?"
It wasn't a whisper. It was a simple, careful, and extremely powerful question.
"Twilight," she tried.
He was looking at her. Up and down, back to front. His eyes visibly paused at the horn, then stopped again at the wings.
"...excuse me," he said, and those words were soft. "There's something I have to do." The giant body did a quarter-turn, and the head faced the empty doorway. "I WANT KIDNAP SQUAD FOURTEEN SPAWNED IN FRONT OF ME WITHIN THE NEXT TEN SECONDS!" And then he was facing her again. "Look away."
"...I -- ...what?"
"Look away," he told her. "They don't spawn when someone's looking at them. Just glance to the side."
It was an order, and she didn't know why she obeyed it. There was just something in her that recognized the sound of royalty which wasn't completely happy, and a distant, unfaded post-doll mental echo of 'Twilight Sparkle!' forced her gaze to the right.
There should have been a sound, and there was not. Instead, there was a moment when it was just the two of them, pony and creature. And then when she glanced back, the space between was completely filled with turtles. Several of them had taken off and were performing a rather awkward foot shuffle in midair.
"Sir?" the lead one said.
"I just want to work out what happened here," the creature slowly said. "What were my original instructions? Repeat them back to me."
The lead turtle swallowed.
"We were supposed to -- head for Equestria. Specifically Equestria. Not any of the other nations on that world. And the capital --"
"-- you are," the creature slowly said, "adding words. Tell me exactly what I told you."
Another gulp. "'Go to the castle's eastern tower. You'll see a balcony. There's a pony there who's waiting to be kidnapped. In the event that there's somepony visiting her quarters, or you get multiple ponies in the area, you can't possibly confuse her with anypony else. She's the only one in the entire world with... a horn and wings...?'"
The creature took a deep breath. A huge right hand came up, briefly covered the red eyes, and then lowered again.
"...she was outside," the lead turtle helplessly tried. "We saw her when we were on the descent. Near that balcony. We thought she might have forgotten the schedule and gone for a trot, or wanted extra witnesses. And since she's the only one with a horn and wings in the whole world, it isn't as if we could have gotten -- the wrong pony?"
The creature sighed.
Twilight blinked. She hadn't been expecting the sound, much less to have it seem so normal.
"Disperse a little," he said, and the turtles moved to the side, creating a clear sight line between them. "Twilight, was it? I want to ask you three things. If you'd be so kind as to answer them, I think we can straighten this out."
She managed a very small nod.
"Are you a Princess?"
"...sort of." She didn't know why the words were so shaky. "I mean... I'm not a Princess of anything. A lot of ponies just automatically call alicorns Princesses. I did sort of have a coronation, but..."
"Yes," the creature interrupted. "I'll take that as a yes. Second: is this a joke?"
She blinked at him.
"Are you under any sort of illusion at the moment?" he partially clarified, and a giant arm poked at the space above her head. "No: I know her. She's horrible with illusions, she always has been, and it would still leave a pony of her height and mass standing there. And your species hasn't figured out basic size-switching, or hadn't the last time she booked. There haven't been any changes there? Nothing which would make somepony else appear to be you?"
A slow head shake.
"Which brings us to the important one." He took a breath. "How many alicorns exist?"
More than three dozen turtles simultaneously squeaked.
"Four," he repeated. The thick red spines which substituted for eyebrows curved.
"There's the Princess, and Cadance, and we just got Luna back a few years ago, and then I --"
"Not one. Four."
Somehow, this nod managed to be even smaller.
He sighed again. "Squad Fourteen? None of this is your fault. You, and everyone else affected by this, will find appropriate extra compensation in your next pay packet. I'll explain things in more detail after I finish with the Princess. Dismissed."
They filed out, on foot and wing. Three of them paused and straightened out the towel arrangement in the bathroom before leaving. And then it was just Twilight and the creature, who began to pace back and forth in a room which was too small to allow such frustrated travels, and somehow did so anyway.
"You know," he said to nopony in particular, "she really is one of my oldest clients. I don't see her that often, but I'm always happy to have her back, and I've felt that she's always been more than happy to return. She needs my services more than just about anyone and to that degree, I wish I got to kidnap her a lot more than I do. And me? I don't ask for much. The chance to fulfill my destiny in a way which actually does some good, that's all. A little smile and thanks when someone leaves. A moment of appreciation --"
He stopped, spun on one foot, leaned all of his bulk in just before the roar erupted in Twilight's face, sending her ears straight back as it flattened the fur across her entire body.
"-- AND MAYBE JUST A TOUCH OF UPDATE WHEN IT COMES TO CURRENT EVENTS!"
Her hindquarters were now trying to merge with the mattress. He didn't seem to notice, and the pacing resumed at triple-time.
"One alicorn! Century after century, one! And sure, it's been a while since we've spoken, it's one of those relationships which only renews when we have business to conduct, but we've always gotten along, haven't we? We had some good times together, she and I. Wrecked a few carts, stolen each other's stars, had a few laughs. Maybe we're not strictly friends, but we're certainly friendly with each other when we get together. And then finally a kidnapping after all this time, I was looking forward to seeing her on the track tomorrow and showing off all the improvements by firing them straight at her horn, and in the middle of arranging everything, she forgets to tell me that by the way, not entirely sure what happened, but it's one of those minor details you might need to know, there are now four alicorns! And because my squad doesn't know that, they get the wrong one!"
He stopped, breathing hard.
"Shells and spikes," he muttered. "It's the Daisy fiasco all over again."
Twilight decided it was a good time to risk a few very confused words, especially as memories of other recently-spoken ones were finally slotting into place.
"They were supposed to kidnap -- Princess Celestia?"
"By appointment," he verified, not looking at her as he spoke. He seemed to be inspecting the bathroom.
One of the two words failed to fully register, and it was the longer. "...why?"
"By. Appointment," he frustratedly repeated. "You're not supposed to be here. She is."
And the next sentence just slipped out. "...then I can go home?"
She hadn't meant to say it, and the implications were just barely starting to sink in when the creature turned to face her again.
Red eyes blazed. The mouth opened, and pointed teeth glinted in the suite's light.
"Home?" he half-whispered. "Oh no, Princess -- because you are a Princess, yes?" He leaned in a little closer. "Yes, there it is. I didn't see it at first, and that's probably because you're so new. But it's there. The weight. Pressing on your head at all times."
And pulled back.
"With Celestia, I forgive a lot," he continued, the words almost casual as his blasphemy readily discarded the title. "Because she's been a client for so long. She even helped me get started in a lot of ways: I was already going when she signed on, of course, but when it came to refinement... well, she's helped me, and helped so many others through doing so. But it's been a long time, Twilight. Long enough that I was starting to think she'd forgotten me. And to not bother updating me on something so fundamental as a population count, or the potential expansion of a client list, added to the damage you did to my castle and the near-loss of towels..."
His arms folded over his torso.
"She booked a four-day Princess kidnapping," he stated. "You are a Princess. Your stay has been paid for. Your Hero will be on the way soon -- I'm surprised that hasn't happened already -- and you don't get to rescue yourself."
A wide-eyed "But --" was all he gave her time for.
"No," he snorted. "You stay here until your time is up, your Hero arrives at the gates, and my old client remembers something about common courtesies. I'd hate to lose her -- but I can afford to drop one here and there. And besides..." The lips curled. "...now I just. might. have. you."
He turned away, took two steps towards the door -- then glanced back at her frozen form.
"Walk with me, Princess. Take a trot at old King Bowser's side. I think you need an education."
And Twilight, who had seen too much strangeness, who was filled with both confusion and questions to the point of overflow, with only one possible source of answers to consult -- followed.