Who Told You This Was A Good Idea?!

by Bender Alpha

Chapter 2 - When's lunch?

I will say this for certain: I will never look at transformation magic the same again. Not that it was anything I directly dealt with before coming here, but the baleful polymorph spell has been forever ruined for me. Now that I’ve had a taste of its horrors, all my opinions on the matter will be tainted by bias.

Because for the first few hours of my new existence as a blob monster, I couldn’t figure out how to eat.

I’ll just let that sink in for you.

Imagine holding a sandwich, and not knowing which end goes in where. Eventually you figure out to put it in your mouth, but the next step eludes you. You can’t dissolve it with your spit, because – for some god awful reason – you no longer automatically salivate, and you haven’t figured out how to start. You can’t even try to swallow it whole, because you’ve forgotten how to swallow.

Sounds like Tartarus, doesn’t it?

That’s basically what my ride to Starlight’s campsite consisted of: snatching up leaves, twigs, berries, insects, and even pebbles from the passing scenery and cramming them into myself, trying to figure out what or how I was supposed to eat.

Getting stuff was no problem. In my desperation to find something to quell my hunger, I even managed to snatch a bird from its perch before it could react. But as I watched it struggling to escape the tar-like substance of my body, a profound sense of guilt washed over me. Bugs were one thing, but I’d never been a hunter. I’d gone fishing once with my father when I was little, and cried when he wanted to gut and clean the rainbow trout I hooked. I like meat, I just don’t like to think about its origins.

When I let the bird go, using the same trick I’d learned while tangled around Starlight, I could tell she was looking back over her shoulder at me.


“What was that about?” She pried.

“I… missed what I was aiming for.”

I could tell she didn’t believe me. Probably something to do with the dozen or so recently deceased bugs floating around with all the other debris inside me. I wasn’t particularly proud of that. In fact, it made me feel queasy just thinking about it.

Why won’t they hurry up and digest already?

Thankfully, she dropped the matter, as we had reached her camp. It was a simple set up; a canvas pup tent in a small clearing, a rudimentary fire pit, and a pot hanging from a tripod made of branches and twine. I could see a set of what could only be called saddlebags just inside her tent, one side of which held a hefty book. The sun was starting to set, tinting the edge of the sky orange, and I could feel the breeze carrying a chill through the air.

“This is nice,” I offered, trying to strike up a different conversation. “Very cozy.”

“It’s… liveable,” she sighed dismissively, then lowered herself to the ground to let me off. “Give me a minute and I’ll get a fire going.”

I slid off of her back with minimal effort. I felt a little swell of pride, knowing I was starting to get the hang of my new body. For her part, Starlight barely shuddered this time, as I made my dismount. As soon as I was free and clear, she got back up – albeit a bit unsteadily – and made her way over to the campfire. She moved the pot aside and began piling up sticks and dry moss, arranging it all with her mouth. I grimaced, imagining the taste.

I wanted to help, but in order to do that, I would need to get over to her first. I considered my options. There were animals I could mimic, like the snake and the earthworm. However, there were a couple of more unorthodox methods that had crossed my mind on the ride over. Methods I now had an opportunity to practice.

To start I decided to test the properties of my new form. Specifically, whether or not I could rotate parts of my gelatinous mass without twisting them off or flinging myself apart. I lifted up an arm to take a look at my crude hand. It rotated easy enough, following what I knew about how my human arm had worked. But for what I was planning, that wouldn’t be enough.

Concentrating, I twisted it as far as my mind would let me. I felt a twinge, but it wasn’t actual pain, just the memory of the limits of my human body. So, with an application of willpower – and more than a little nervous lip-biting – I forced myself to keep turning. Sure enough, my hand rotated past the one-eighty degree mark. As it twisted a full three-sixty and kept on going, without showing any signs of slowing or warping, I grinned excitedly. Apparently, the laws of elasticity didn’t apply to sentient slime.

With one aspect of slime anatomy confirmed, I knew I could move on to testing my first theory on slime self-propulsion. I looked down at the gelatinous mass of my main body, and applied my will to it. I tightened up, almost like sucking in my gut, and began rotating my lower half. Not horizontally, of course, that wouldn’t have done much. Instead, I essentially turned my lower half into treads; a looping river of gelatin to caterpillar myself across the ground. Sure enough, I slid across the ground, picking up more twigs and dead leaves as I went. The slight frustration at this still did nothing to dampen the gleeful excitement of a successful experiment.

What did dampen it was the pained look on Starlight’s face as she attempted to light the fire with her horn. At first, I wasn’t sure what she was doing, as I could only see her hunched over the fire pit. But then, I noticed the slight tremble in her shoulders, the sparks coming from her horn, and the small wisps of smoke coming from a tiny pit of turquoise glow within the pile tinder. She was struggling, that much was obvious. If her magic worked the way I thought it might, then she was in danger of over-exerting herself.

“Hey, Starlight?”

She yelped and nearly jumped out of her skin. Her concentration now lost, the little glow winked out of existence, along with all traces of smoke.

“Oh, great. There goes our fire,” she bemoaned her loss. “What the hay did you do that for? Couldn’t you see I was trying to concentrate?”

“Yeah, and struggling with it. Don’t worry, I can take it from here.” Thankfully, when you work at a library, there are plenty of opportunities to read anything that strikes your fancy. Inspired by all the doomsday scenario films that have been coming out recently, I had taken it upon myself to study some survivalist books in addition to my usual fare.

I looked around the campsite. “Okay, so, where’s your knife?”

She gave me a puzzled look. “I don’t have a knife.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

“You… don’t have a knife.” It was more of a statement than a question, but I was too flabbergasted to notice. She just stared at me uncomfortably, like she didn’t understand why I was upset.

“You came out here, into the wilderness, without a knife? Do you have a deathwish of something?”

“Why would I need one? I have magic.”

“Situations like this are exactly why you need one!” I reined myself back in; yelling at her would not help. We only had a few hours of daylight left, and I needed that to see what I was doing. As I glared at her in frustration, I was reminded just how bad her situation had become. I felt it plainly while riding on her back, even as I was distracted with trying to eat; Starlight Glimmer was undernourished. I could feel the outline of her ribs as she trotted, although they weren’t quite visible from a distance. I could also feel tough, fleshy streaks underneath her coat. Whatever they were, I dreaded the answer. She needed help, that much was certain, and I was the only one around.

Taking a moment, I looked around. “What’s your pot made of?”

“This? Uh, steel, I think.”

I huffed in relief. “Good, that should work. Are there any rivers or streams nearby?”

“Yeah, there’s one only a couple minute’s trot in that direction,” she said, pointing southeast of us.

“Alright. And how much food do you have left?”

“Well, I have some hay…”

The reluctant way she said that didn’t inspire much confidence. Looks like I’ve got some shopping to do, too.

“Well then, I’ll look for some berries and things while I’m out and about. You go lie down and get some rest. I’ll be back shortly.” With that, I zipped off in the direction of the stream.

As I trundled out of the first ditch just outside camp, a thought came to me. This is my first moment alone since waking up here. If I truly am awake.

I fully expected the anxiety and melancholy of the situation to blindside me in that moment. But, like a deer caught in the headlights, the absence of an impact did not leave me disappointed. The situation was still too surreal to take seriously. Some visceral part of me, enmeshed in the physical sensations of the world around me, told me that what I was feeling was real. But my higher thought processes scoffed. Going from a human body one day to something completely alien the next? It was completely absurd! I had a higher chance of being struck by lightning while being attacked by sharks.

And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d wound up in some twisted god’s idea of an afterlife. The last thing I could remember – before waking up as a single blob in Satan’s jam jar – was sitting at my drawing desk, idly puffing at a pack of menthols while I tried to unclog my creative juice pipes. Not a good sign in any case.

And no, not that kind of pipe unclogging. I wait until nighttime for that, like a responsible adult-type person. Most of the time, anyway.

Reflecting on the precarious nature of my time here only served to give the rational part of my brain more ammunition.

Why are we helping this pony creature, anyway? It protested to the rest of my thoughts. We don’t owe her any allegiance. It’s possible that it wasn’t even she who rescued us. And, even if it was her, she did so with the intent of controlling us? All the more reason to drop her like a sack of potatoes and get the hell out of dodge!

I reluctantly pondered this argument for a while, until another thought came unbidden to the fore.

She reminds me of Emma.

The unusually candid thought hit me square in the gut, or at least where I thought my gut should be.

I hadn’t thought of her in what felt like months. The guilt came tearing back into me full force, causing phantom pangs of the way my heart would try to wrench itself from my rib cage every time she crossed my mind. I hastily stuffed those emotions back down into their jar; now was not the time or place to be dredging up painful memories.

So engrossed was I in wrangling my thoughts back into line, that I only realized I had reached the stream when I almost rolled right in. The stream wasn’t terribly deep or wide, but the sight of its edge mere centimeters away sent a thrill of primal fear through my mind, washing away all else. It was in those frozen moments, as I desperately braked against my momentum, that I realized what a danger water was to non-solid creatures.

I was soluble. Water was a solvent. It would undoubtedly do to me what The Dip did to Judge Doom.

What followed out of my mouth was a string of expletives completely unsuitable for print. So, in the interest of keeping a good relationship with my publishers, I will omit them from the record. Suffice it to say, had there been a nunnery nearby, I would have immediately been set upon by a vengeful flock of yardstick wielding harpies.

After spending a solid five minutes flopped over backward, collecting my wits, I nearly grabbed the nearest boulder-sized object I could lift to hurl into the stream out of sheer spite. Then I remembered that I wasn’t entirely sure what getting splashed would do to me. Probably nothing irreparable, but I also didn’t want to take any chances, so I let it go. It wasn’t the stream’s fault I hadn’t been paying attention, after all. Instead, I set about my original plan: searching the edges for flint, chert, quartz, or anything hard enough to draw sparks from steel.

Of course, I only had a vague idea of what flint looked like; that it was supposed to be smooth and glassy when broken open. Considering its hardness, I probably wouldn’t find concrete proof of it with anything short of a rock hammer. So, I had to settle for scraping rocks on each other, taking the ones that left marks and leaving the ones that were marked.

An hour and change later, I rolled back into camp like a rock tumbler, bloated with a large number of pebbles. Above me, I held aloft a broad leaf, piled up with blueberries from a bush I had found on my way back. Of course, the only reason I had found the bush was that I had nearly gotten lost trying retrace my steps – seriously, how do you lose a trail of forest floor nearly cleared of debris? – but Starlight didn’t need to know that.

Starlight lay on the ground between the tent and the fire, like she had made an effort to get back to the tent, but gave up halfway. She lifted her head from where it rested on her forelegs to investigate the odd rattling sound. When she spotted me, her expression instantly changed from curiosity to incredulity.

“Eric? What-”

“Don’t worry about it. All part of the plan.”

I set the leaf down next to her and made my way back to the little fire pit. For a moment after I reached the edge, I puzzled how exactly I was going to retrieve the rocks from within me. But then, out of frustration, I just plunged my makeshift hand into the sludge of my gut. Initially, I figured this would be about as effective as trying to scoop debris out of a swimming pool with the spray from a garden hose. However, to my surprise, my hand stayed semi-solid, creating an outline of ripples in my body. The longer I stared at it, coming to terms with it, the sharper the outline became.

Huh, mind over matter indeed, I mused. This confirmed it; all I needed to make my body do something was to think it hard enough. This called for further experimentation, but it would have to wait. I had rocks to bang together.

I plucked out one of the river rocks at random with one hand and picked up Starlight’s pot with the other. Forcing myself not to get sidetracked wondering how many limbs I could realistically have at one time, I scraped the rock against the lip of the pot. Nothing happened, so I plucked out another and tried again. I repeated this process several more time with varying levels of success, setting aside ones that produced at least a few sparks. Meanwhile, I pretended not to notice the sounds of a hungry pony all but inhaling a pile of berries.

Finally, one of the stones produced a shower of hot sparks. My non-existent stomach lurched. Gingerly, I held the pot up to the tinder and struck the stone against it. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, just as I was about to strike it again, I saw the tiniest wisp of white smoke curl up from beneath the pile of sticks and dried moss. A thrill of excitement quivered through me, quite literally. I sucked in a breath, careful to draw it from outside the firepit, and gently blew on the ember. The pile began to glow red and – before I knew it – a flicker of warm light flared up. I clapped like a giddy schoolgirl. A short while, several sticks, and a fresh log later, and I had a nice, crackling fire going. I turned to Starlight with a smug grin.

“Told you I had it covered.”

Starlight stared at me.

“How did you do that?”

“Ever heard of flint and steel?”

“Well, yes, but I didn’t think you had.”

I sighed in exasperation. Time for more bullshitting.

“Listen, when you’ve been around for as long as I have, you start to pick up on a few things. Including how to manually start a fire.”

“But why? What would the Smooze need fire for?”

Well, crap. She had me there.

“Y- you’d be surprised.”

“Try me,” she said with a clearly unamused glare.

“Well, there’s… cooking. Some things just taste better cooked, you know?”


“And…” I wracked my brain for anything else that might apply, but only came up with static. Growing more and more frustrated, I eventually reaching a boiling point.

“And I don’t see why I’m being interrogated. You’re the one who called on me, remember?”

Starlight flinched away from the sudden opposition.

“You’re right. It’s just… you act nothing like how the book described you. And with what I know now, I have to be careful about who I trust.”

“Is this about the Masters?” I hazarded a guess.

Starlight nodded reluctantly. Well, I thought, ‘know thy enemy,’ as the saying goes. I rolled to the side and patted the spot next to me, beckoning her closer to the fire. She hesitated for a moment, then sighed in resignation and got up. As she walked over, I fielded my thoughts.

“I think it’s high time you told me about these jerks.”

She let out a single, mirthless laugh and flopped down next to me. “Where to begin?”

The writhing flames were reflected in Starlight’s eyes, giving her a haunted look as she stared into them. She remained silent, mind a thousand miles away. I figured I had better reel her back in.

“Well, the beginning would be nice. Explain it like I’ve been living under a rock for the last thousand years.”

This time, the laugh was a little more genuine.

“Well, I suppose I can tell you the official story, for what It’s worth. It was only recently that I started to doubt its authenticity.

“Our history books state that, a thousand years ago, Equestria lived under the iron-hoofed rule of the Princesses of the Sun and Moon. They were greedy, scheming, and jealous mares, who desired power above all else. So great was their lust for power, that they wrested control of both the sun and the moon from the heavens. As you can imagine, this gave them great sway over not just the ponies of Equestria, but all the races of the world. The other races had not yet bowed to their demands, however, because as much as the Princesses wanted dominion over the world, they were also jealous of each other. Much of their resources and time was spent on monitoring and spying on each other. The Moon Princess wanted the respect and authority that her older sister held as the wielder of the sun, and the Sun Princess was envious of her sister’s ability to manipulate the stars of the night sky, as well as her control over the dreams of their subjects.

“One day, they snapped, and began a vicious battle for control. The battle was so fierce, and their spellcasting so intense, that the Veil between worlds was weakened. It was then that our Masters returned from their long banishment. They defeated the Sisters and locked them away, never to see the light of day or night again. Then, they took up the reins, and have been ruling Equestria ever since. There’s a lot of propaganda and ego stroking after that, so I’ll skip over those bits.

“Nowadays, there are seven states in Equestria, each ruled by one of the seven Masters. The leader of the Masters is King Argent Light – a powerful alicorn stallion – who rules over the state of Argos, and oversees the Masters’ Court, Equestria’s governing body. The other Masters are Princess Camellia of Vivre, Prince Silver Song of Arrow, Master Gold Standard of Gilder, Lord Adamant Steel of Gladius, Lady Ruby Drops of Sangria, and Brother Odd of Merth – spelled with an E, not an I, by the way. All of the Masters are alicorns, except for two; Lord Adamant Steel is a minotaur and Prince Silver Song is an earth pony, although I hear they both have magic on par with the other Masters.”

“We’re standing in Sangria, the realm of La-” She paused a moment, emotions warring just behind her face.

“...Of Ruby Drops, keeper of the Element of Kindness.” She snorted disdainfully. “I don’t know if that’s some kind of cruel cosmic joke, or if she bears it for a specific purpose, but that’s just the way it is. I’ve lived in Sangria all my life, most of it at the Silverglow School for Adept Casters. I used to think that Ruby Drops was the only one of the Masters who actually cared about her ponies, who could be trusted. Until recently, when I actually met her. Until I saw what she did to… to…”

Starlight voice grew increasingly strained, until she had to choke back a sob. I looked up from the fire to find tears streaming down her cheeks, a hoof clamped over her mouth to stifle her cries. At a loss for what to say, I could only reach up and lay a comforting hand on her trembling shoulder. She jumped a bit, not expecting such sympathy. Her eyes whipped over to mine, searching them for something. Perhaps deception? In any case, I felt the need to put her at ease.

“Starlight, if this is too painful for you, we can continue this conversation later.” She gave me a sad nod, wiping her eyes with a fetlock. “You’ve given me enough to think about for now. Go get some rest, you look exhausted. I’ll keep watch.”

With a tired sigh, Starlight plodded over to her tent and shuffled inside, crawling sloppily between a pair of afghan blankets that served as her sleeping bag. She tried to shift them into a comfortable position using her teeth for a bit, then gave up and lay still.

I watched her try to fall asleep for a bit before returning my attention to the surrounding forest. Dozens of thoughts buzzed through my head, each demanding my attention, and each receiving the same pre-generated, noncommittal answer:

Out to lunch. Come back at [blank].

The day had been an absolute clusterfuck of noise and garbage, physically and emotionally. I should have felt exhausted. I should have been fighting to keep my eyes open. I shouldn’t have been wide awake, trying with all my mental prowess to convince myself that I had actually dreamt all this.

Okay. Okay. Don’t freak out. Just because this incredibly depressing nightmare is unlike any other nightmare you’ve ever had, or even heard about, there’s no need to blow everything out of proportion. The sensations have been an odd addition, but nothing that can’t be explained rationally. Maybe I’m just… in a coma… and up to my face in river mud! Yeah! That’s believable, even if I doubt there’s any spot with that deep of mud anywhere in Arizona. Still, it’s not like I have the entirety of the Colorado River mapped out, so it’s possible there’s a place like that somewhere, right?

Besides, there’s a surefire way to check. All I have to do is stick my hand in that fire, and I’ll know for certain. If I really am unconscious, I won’t feel a thing!

I stared at the fire for a long time, unable to bring myself to take the plunge. An insidious little voice whispered in the back of my head, reminding me what it would mean if I did actually feel pain. Couldn’t I just stick to the excuse I came up with a moment ago? Why risk my already fragile sense of security?

But the larger part of me had to know, had to be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that what I was feeling and seeing wasn’t real. It was this part that took control of my arm, and slowly reached out.

At first, I felt nothing. I was ecstatic. I wanted to cry out in relief. But then, my hand started to feel warm. Then, it felt hot. My gooey flesh began to boil, and searing pain suffused my entire arm. I jerked it back with a yelp, slapping and splattering my arm into the dirt, trying to quickly dissipate the heat and the hurt.

A minute later, I was gazing at the smears of steaming goo all around me, trying to get my mind to pick up. But it was ignoring all my calls. I had just gotten news that rivaled the likes of my parents getting divorced, Santa not being real, and my puppy having been run over by a cement mixer, all in rolled into one horrible package.

What’s more, the gel on the ground wasn’t moving.

News Flash: Fire hurts, genius.

I just continued to stare at the lifeless streaks of slime as they dissolved, my self-critic continuing its rant in the background.

But you already knew that. Just like you already knew that this place, this new body, that pony mare over there, they’re all real. You were deluding yourself pretty hard for a minute there. But guess what? You die here, you die for good. You’ve been given a second chance after dying of your own foolishness. Don’t squander it.

Emma would want you to live.

The thought jerked me out of my stupor. I was right. I couldn’t just shut down every time something bad happened. I wouldn’t! This was a golden opportunity for redemption, and I wasn’t going to waste it!

But before I raced off, half-cocked and blinkered, to go on some grand adventure, I first needed to figure out more about how my body worked.

First step: How the hell do I digest?

I pondered this for a while. Was it just an extremely protracted process? No, I could still feel the hunger, even though I had stuffed myself almost to bursting with assorted crap. Was I just not consuming the right stuff? Possibly, but by the fact that this form had evolved to feel pain, it would make sense for it to also have some way of automatically ejecting unwanted or unnecessary materials, at least after a period of time. I continued to think of questions and answers like this, until I became fed up.

Argh! Why won’t this damn body just do what I tell it to?

And then I had an epiphany.

Could it really be that simple? My body already did whatever I told it to. Maybe I hadn’t really been telling it anything when I put stuff in it. Maybe, just maybe, I needed to actively focus on the process of digestion.

What was in a stomach? Acid. I needed to be acidic.

So I thought about stomach acid, about the dissolution of hydrogen and chlorine in water, about rocks being worn down to sand, and the taste of bile. Imagine my surprise when I started to hear a hissing sound, and feel a bubbling sensation coming from within.

My eyes snapped open and I looked down. The ground around me was sizzling and foaming. What’s more, I was beginning to feel sated. Leaning back, I stretched out like taffy to look down at the main mass of my body. Except for the rocks, all the debris I had accumulated was rapidly dissolving. The rocks, too, were having some kind of reaction, albeit much slower. Which made me wonder: what was happening with my eyeballs?

Concentrating on the image of a snail’s eye stalks, I closed my eyes and willed my body to change. I felt a shift, and peeled my left eye open. Sure enough, I was looking out from a slightly higher vantage point than usual. Getting a feel for the strange sensation of a prehensile eye tentacle, I wiggled it back and forth. It was a similar sensation to when I rattled my head, but on a much smaller scale.

Another successful experiment in the bag, I waited for the dizziness to wear off before I made my next observation. Once I had regained my bearings, I turned my open eyestalk to look at the closed one. What I saw confused me greatly.

Inside the eyestalk was the outline of a very mammalian eyeball. The eye was enveloped in a dark green skin, which was oddly nonreactive to my newly acidic sludge. I frowned, puzzled.

Curiosity overwhelming me, I opened my right eye, curious about what it looked like.

Immediately, the conflicting, yet crystal-clear views sent my head spinning for a second time. I shut my eyes again, willing them to return to normal.

Well, that was a stupid idea. I should probably just wait for the next pond or mirror we come across.

Before I could continue my contemplation, I heard a quiet whimper behind me. I turned around to see Starlight shivering violently in her sleep, obviously cold. Concerned, I rolled over to her as quietly as I could. As I neared, it became painfully obvious why she was cold. The poor thing’s blankets were ratty and threadbare from years of heavy use. I could also see that her tent was less of a tent and more of a square of canvas propped up by sticks. I couldn’t tell if the canvas had been treated at one point, but it certainly wasn’t now. In fact, all of her belongings, except for the book, were old and worn. And right now, the only thing separating her from the cold, hard ground was a single, thin blanket.

Well that won’t do, I decided. Let’s think… How can I fix this? She needs an insulator, and a cushion, preferably. Wish I had one of those inflatable sleeping pads.

A moment later, another thought occurred to me.

Then again, don’t I already?

I looked down at myself. Most of what I had consumed was now dissolved, except for the rocks. Those I forced to settle on the ground, ejecting them from my body. I thought about water, about adding two parts of sodium hydroxide to one part hydrochloric acid, and other pH neutral solutions. The sizzle of the detritus beneath me slowly petered out, until I could no longer feel it.

However, I decided that ‘trust but verify’ was the better policy in this situation; I didn’t want to accidentally burn Starlight in her sleep. So, I first pinched a corner of one of the blankets, to see what would happen. After several minutes of sustained contact, the yarn hadn’t even so much as discolored. Satisfied, I conducted my last experiment of the night.

With a little concentration, I was able to slide under Starlight without disturbing her. Then, utilizing my supreme knowledge of the arcane wonders, I became the greatest human invention of last century: the memory foam mattress.

Okay, so maybe not the greatest, but still pretty damn nice.

I drew in thousands upon millions of microscopic air bubbles while thickening myself into a plastic, turning a thin sheet of gelatin into an inch-thick layer of foam. It felt like something straight out of Looney Tunes, as though Bugs had stuck one of those old-fashioned seltzer siphons in my mouth and didn’t let up until the bubbly froth bloated me to the size of a Plymouth. However, in reality, I was closer to an unrolled sleeping bag, and not even one of those nice, thermal ones. That wasn’t quite enough to keep her off the ground, so I pulled more mass in from the sections she wasn’t lying on.

Almost immediately, she all but stopped shivering. I felt the foam beneath her warming up, reflecting her body heat back into her. I grinned inwardly, satisfied with a job well done. However, I also realized I was in for a long night of absolute stillness. Luckily, as the minutes passed, it seemed as though I felt no real discomfort. My foam state felt odd, but without bones, muscles, blood vessels, or anything else that came with being an endothermic vertebrate, I felt no need to find a comfortable position, even while lying on a bed made of rocks and sticks.

Instead, I could focus on the one thing that really bothered me: the fact that I didn’t feel fatigued. I’d be damned if I was going to resign myself to a life of insomnia. So I began with the oldest trick in the book.

One sheep, two sheep, three sheep…

Now, I know I wasn’t present for several of the scenes I will be relating to you, but I have some very reliable sources and recordings that I am able to draw from. So, what follows is the absolute, unedited, and only slightly biased truth of what happened leading up to my summons.

An hour or so before Starlight began her ritual, in the West Wing of Canterlot Castle, King Argent Light sat in his high-backed chair at the head of the Seven Seats, the half-circle table where the Masters’ Court met – which, in truth, had only six seats and one conspicuously wide empty spot. He was staring at the pages of text arrayed before him, waiting for the others to arrive. The Court Chamber was relatively spartan, given the level of opulence he was accustomed to, but that didn’t faze him in the slightest.

I will be the first to admit, Argent Light was an objectively attractive stallion. He stood nearly as tall as Celestia – though he insisted he was taller – with a build like a Clydesdale. His salt-and-pepper mane and tail always had a windswept quality to them, although his goatee was conversely always neatly trimmed. His steel-blue eyes glared out from a stern, chiseled face with just enough age lines to give him a mature look. A glossy, silver coat nicely contrasted his Cutie Mark: a silver white, seven-pointed star with one long point at the bottom, as though it were a firework shooting up into the sky.

Altogether, these things made for a ruggedly handsome stallion. The kind that, were he human, would put the likes of George Clooney, Hugh Jackman, and Robert Downey Jr. out of business. He fit the part of the wise, passionate king to a T.

The only thing he lacked was empathy. Then again, the same could be said of the rest of the Masters, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.

As the door to the chamber opened, Argent called out without looking up from his papers.

“Brother Odd. Early as ever.”

Odd Bodkins was a strange sort of stallion, even before his ascension. He seemed to be in a state of perpetual exhaustion, no matter the time of day. Dark bags hung under his tired eyes, and his pale grey coat and long chestnut mane and tail were constantly bedraggled. He wore a simple, traveling priest’s habit, entirely covering his wings. The baggy clothing also concealed his form, making it difficult to discern his physique. And, by all accounts, nopony ever saw him smile.

Odd looked up, fixing Argent with a humorless gaze.

“When am I ever not?”

“True, true. I see you still haven’t caved to Camellia’s requests yet. Why do you still wear that old thing?”

“Habit, I suppose.”

The King looked up, startled, and the barked out a single laugh. Odd just looked at him, eyebrow raised. King Argent’s smirk died like a goldfish out of water.

“Ah, right, apologies. It’s just that…”

“Just what, your majesty?”

“Oh come now, Oddy-boy,” a new voice called out from the doorway. “Even you should be able to recognize such an obvious pun.”

The mare standing in the doorway was beautiful, but not in the traditional frame of beauty. Like the others, she was an alicorn. Like the others, she caught the eye. But whereas the others caught the eye like a beautiful candelabra or chandelier, Ruby Drops was a gasoline fire started at the edge of an oil spill. She transfixed the viewer like an impending disaster. Sure, she had normal enough colors: a cream coat, and auburn mane and tail done up in loose buns. But she was rail thin, just a week’s worth of missed meals away from anorexia. Her legs, her wings, her torso, her face; all sharp angles and lines, only accented by the slinky, ruby red evening gown she wore. Her hungry, crimson gaze occasionally glinted with dangerous desires she only barely suppressed. She was a coiled cobra, swaying hypnotically and tensing to strike.

Of course, this didn’t faze Odd in the slightest.

“... Ah. Yes. Ha ha.”

Without another word, Odd made his way to the seat at the far end of the table to the king’s right.

“Well, you’re just as much fun as usual,” Ruby needled, taking the seat at the opposite end. “Would it kill you to chuckle, or even just crack a smile…? Actually, that does sound fun. Care to test my theory? I’m sure I could make you howl.”

Odd ignored her, even as she stroked her upper lip with her tongue.

“No, thank you. I will be steering clear of your dungeons for the foreseeable future.”

“Whatsa matter, Odd? ‘fraid of a little pain?” Came the booming, almost Cockney tones of the Masters’ resident minotaur.

“Well, I certainly can’t blame him. There are much more worthwhile things to be doing with one’s time,” huffed the abundantly affluent alicorn stallion beside him.

Lord Adamant Steel and Master Gold Standard were about as far removed from each other as two beings could possibly be.

Adamant Steel was a brick shithouse; the culmination of the pinnacle of Minosian physique and over a dozen lifetimes of martial training. His forest green skin was criss-crossed with countless scars, although they did nothing to obscure the definition of his musculature. In contrast, sharp, black horns as big as a man’s arm curved out of his skull, as immaculate as the day they grew in. Shaggy black fur covered his lower half, all the way down to his black, cloven hooves. Despite the scarring, Adamant had a face like a block of granite and the voice to match. His dark brown eyes scanned his surroundings with burning intensity, and half of his right ear had been lopped off. I always found it odd that somebody with alicorns for colleagues would have so many scars, even if he had been severely injured. Then again, chicks dig scars, or so I’ve been led to believe, and I’m sure he thought so too.

Gold Standard, on the other hand, was about as far from attractive as you can get. He was less of a stallion and more of blob of fat rolls in the general shape of one – which is actually pretty impressive, when you consider an alicorn’s metabolism. What one could see of his light orange coat glistened with a sheen of sweat, the rest collecting in pools on his extravagant clothing; on the day in question, he wore a burgundy silk doublet with gold brocade, a pair of tan silk pantaloons that could double as a parachute, and enough jewelry to make a dragon jealous. Droplets trickling down his rotund face from his slicked-back, golden mane. Beady, green eyes watched from behind fat cheeks, which puffed ceaselessly, as though he was running as marathon. A majority of the time, however, he could not be found outside the comfort of his gondola of a throne, which had been enchanted to hover. To hide the odors that he produced, he practically bathed in perfume, though it only made his scent suffocating for a different reason.

“Like what? Stuffing yourself until you look like a rotting pumpkin?” Ruby remarked acidly. “Lay off the pastries, Gold. Maybe in a century, you’ll be reunited with your stallionhood.”

Adamant nearly bust a gut laughing, as he sat in the chair next to Ruby, pounding his fist on the table.

“Ahaha! She got you good, Gold!”

Gold’s lip curled into a sneer. “Yes, well, she’s just jealous that I came away from our latest trade so much the richer. What was that mare’s name? Chiffon Swirl? I really must thank you, Lady Ruby; she truly is an exceptional baker.”

“But of course,” Ruby jeered, tracking Gold as he floated around to park his throne in the large empty spot between Odd and the chair immediately to King Argent’s right. “It’s unfortunate that you only got one use out of her. You have to stop trying to force yourself upon your servants; they only suffocate beneath your fat rolls.”

As they continued bickering, a teenage earth pony colt strode in.

“Ooo, is this what’s on the agenda today? A fight between a black widow and a tub of butter? I wonder who would win?” He mused, his lilting voice washing over the room. The bickering immediately stopped, their ire redirected towards the newcomer.

“Silver Song. Good of you to join us,” King Argent greeted.

Prince Silver Song ran a hoof through his immaculately coiffed, baby blue mane, and flashed the room with his perfect smile.

“Yes, well, I suppose it is my duty to attend these get-togethers every now and then. Besides, I had nothing better to do today.”

If Argent Light was Equestria’s George Clooney, then Silver Song was its Robert Pattinson. With his gleaming white coat, midnight blue eyes in a face that was neither too young nor too old, and a voice to make angels weep – redundantly represented by a winged microphone for a Cutie Mark – he was, as modern parlance has it, a ‘slayer of mad puss’. I’m not kidding. Take all the popularity of Robert Pattinson, Ashton Kutcher, and Ryan Gosling, and mash it all into one stallion, and you have Silver Song. Of course, with the non-female demographic he was about as popular as Justin Bieber. Still, all the controversy around his popularity kept too many ponies from asking how an earth pony became a Master. The ones that did had a tendency to disappear.

As he made for his seat, Silver addressed King Argent.

“Alright, that’s all of us. Let’s get this thing ro-”

“Not quite,” Argent interrupted. “We are still waiting on Camellia.”

Silver groaned as he slid into his chair, between King Argent and Gold Standard.

“C’mon, do we really have to invite the baby?”

“Agreed,” Ruby added. “I still think she has yet to prove her usefulness.”

King Argent sighed forcefully.

“We have already discussed this at length. She has more than demonstrated her ability with the subjugation of Sombra, and that is my final decision,” he asserted. “That is… unless either of you wish to dispute my decision…?”

The meaningful glares he cast in their directions immediately silenced them. Ruby and Silver both looked away, wordlessly acceding to his will.

At that moment, the doors swung open once more, admitting the final member of the Masters’ Court.

“Sorry for the wait,” she apologized breathily. “I just got back from my meeting with Dainn, and… well… you know how those caribou are.”

Now, there is something you should know about Princess Camellia. Historians would have you believe she was sex incarnate. I am here to tell you that those accounts are absolutely true. Every word, every step, every glance; everything about the mare was a promise to leave you breathless, sweaty, and satisfied beyond compare, should you simply give in to her desires. Ruby Drops may have tried to look sexy in a dangerous sort of way, but Camellia didn’t even have to try. She had the proportions of a fertility goddess, all supple curves and soft, flawless flesh, with just enough muscle definition to hint at her sexual prowess. Her pink coat was always lightly flushed, betraying a thousand dirty thoughts running through her mind, and her long, blonde mane and tail were smooth and gently mussed, as though she had recently come from a clandestine meeting in some out-of-the-way bathroom or broom closet. Her light purple eyes danced with a mischievous energy, and the red heart on her flank appear to throb with every slight movement. Perhaps the most dangerous thing about the mare was that her appeal knew no barriers; Silver Song and Argent appealed to mares, and Ruby to certain stallions, but Camellia didn’t limit herself by sex. Ruby may have been a firecracker, but Camellia was the atomic sex bomb.

Jesus, I’m getting worked up just thinking about her. And I don’t even have a discernible anatomy!

King Argent grinned conspiratorially.

“Ah, yes, our would-be conqueror. Tell me, how is the young buck?”

“Doing rather well for himself, actually. It seems he’s even convinced some of the ponies from our neighboring lands that he’s created a magical artifact capable of overthrowing Equestria.”

The king’s expression transformed into one of expectant curiosity. “And has he?”

Camellia laughed derisively.

“Hardly. Although, I must say, he has certainly created the world’s most extravagant marital aid.”

“Yes, I read the reports,” King Argent sighed. “But does it have any value? What does it do?”

“Other than serve as a magical treatment for erectile dysfunction, not much. I think Dainn expected me to be more impressed, the way he prattled on; he was all ‘Crystal Heart’ this and ‘male superiority’ that. Honestly, his so-called shamans make a few simple adjustments to a crusty old relic, and suddenly they’re proclaiming themselves masters of-”

“Camellia! The point, if you please.”

“Hmph!” Camellia pouted, making her way to the last open seat, next to Argent. “Long story short, I put on a little… distraction, and sabotaged their pet project while their attention was elsewhere. Now, when they try it out, well… Let’s just say they’ll fall entirely under my domain.”

King Argent hummed disappointedly. “Pity. It would have been nice to recover such an old artifact, even if we have no real use for it.”

“Forgive my presumption, your Majesty,” Camellia nearly purred, “but I didn’t think a stallion of your… caliber, would need a piddly little trinket like that. Then again, I’m not one to judge. If you’d like me to go back and retrieve it, I’m sure we can… put it to good use.”

A focused flirtation assault from Princess Camellia would have reduced a lesser stallion to a stammering puddle of libido and desperation. I suspect that her efforts aroused every creature in the entire West Wing, much to their confusion. King Argent, however, merely cleared his throat.

“Thank you, Princess, but that will not be necessary. I trust you handled matters with due diligence. We will collect the Crystal Heart when your trap has been sprung. In the meantime, just continue monitoring the situation in Eichenwalde. I have other, more pressing assignments for you here.”

“Why, Argent!” Camellia cooed. “I knew you liked putting pressure on me, but really! You have to give me a moment to prepare to receive your massive-”

“For gods’ sakes, put your tail down, filly!” Ruby snarled, blushing despite herself. “You can continue trying to sleep your way into power after the meeting concludes!”

“Yes, I’m afraid I must agree,” Gold added, fanning himself frantically. “While your antics are quite… charming, we have important business to discuss.”

“I dunno,” Adamant added with a smirk. “I could stand to hear a bit more.”

Silver just groaned.

Camellia looked around with an exaggerated pout. When her gaze fell on her second favorite target, her eyes lit up.

“Oddy,” she pleaded, “You don’t think I’m being a nuisance, do you?”

Odd Bodkins yawned, eyes drifting sluggishly over to the discussion.

“I just want to get this over with. I have far too much still on my plate.”

King Argent was quick to jump on the opportunity.

“Ah, right! That reminds me; how has the situation with the ‘Mirthful Jester’ progressed?”

“Not at all,” Odd growled. “Whoever he or she is, they've eluded me at every turn. The Carrot Cake interrogation was a bust. The stallion had neither the stamina nor the reaction speed that the Jester has displayed, even if his build is similar. Then again, there’s no guarantee that whatever magic disguises the pony’s voice doesn’t also alter their physique. And the damnable sneak never leaves even a trace of his or her passing! Simply put, I’m no closer to discovering the Jester’s identity than when I started!”

After a lengthy pause, he added with a sniff, “Nothing else to report.”

King Argent sighed.

“Very well. Luckily, the Jester’s schemes have not hampered our plans irreparably. Continue your efforts, but try and get some rest, hm? For our sakes, if not for your own.” He turned to the other side of the table. “Now then, let’s get the rest of the preliminary reports out of the way. Lord Adamant, how is recruitment and training coming along?”

Adamant puffed up like a rooster, a proud smile on his lips. “Jus’ peachy, if I do say so, meself. The recruits these last couple o’ decades’ve been top notch. ‘Course, I’d have a better grad rate if I didn’t test ‘em out so hard, but where’s the fun in that, eh?”

His raucous laughter echoed through the chamber, joined by a strained chuckle or two from the others. Ruby’s throaty chortle was the only genuine reaction, if not the most terrifying. She spoke up after Adamant calmed himself down.

“Yes, well, on that note, crop production is up five percent from last year. At this rate, we might want to consider razing more of the Everfree to make way for more production and storage facilities. That being said, worker casualty rates have also increased, so I may need fresh bodies before long.”

“I, too, have some good and bad news,” Gold Standard added. “The good is that mining operations in the southeastern Badlands have discovered large veins of iron and copper that were previously overlooked, and the collection of gold and precious gems is continuing smoothly. However, due to certain… unsavory elements–” he said with a glance at Odd “–our refineries have encountered nearly catastrophic setbacks. Additionally, the native population of the Golden Jungle has become quite recalcitrant. To deal with these obstacles, I have drafted a list of resources I require, which is as follows…”

As Gold Standard began rattling off the items on a long scroll he pulled from places no one wanted to imagine, the door to the chamber creaked open.

A lilac unicorn mare paced nervously back and forth just down the hall from the Masters’ Court, muttering to herself.

“Okay, Twilight. You can do this. All you have to do is walk up to the King of all Equestria, and deliver the report that something has gone wrong and he needs to fix it. No pressure. None at all… Oh ponyfeathers.”

Twilight Sparkle whined in distress, wanting nothing more than to run away and hide under her cot. These orders spelled out her doom. She had only been working in King Argent’s magic research group for just under two years. She was the very definition of expendable, a fact that her superiors were quick to remind her.

But then, her doom would be much doomier if she failed to relay the message, if something went seriously wrong, which could have been prevented if she had only mustered up the courage to walk into the Court. Twilight swallowed her fear, and made her way down the hall, trying desperately not to stumble.

All too quickly, she reached the doors to the Chamber of Seven Seats, flanked by hulking creatures of magic and metal. The automatons were incredibly simple in design, but undoubtedly powerful. They were shaped like ponies, but scaled up by two hundred percent, and wielded their massive halberds as easily as a foal might swing a stick. Twilight tried futilely to wet her tongue.

“I- I’ve been sent to with a message for the King, f- from the Canterlot Arcane Research and Development Department.”

After a minute of nothing, Twilight suddenly remember the other thing she had with her.

“Oh! Um, I guess I’m supposed to show you this?”

She held out the turquoise pendant hanging from her neck. Apparently, the golems were supposed to glean something from it. Twilight stood there, pendant in hoof, long enough for her to start fearing for her life. Had she made a mistake? Was she about to meet a messy end at the hooves of something that wasn’t even alive?

Just as she was about to consider running away, the golems stepped aside, allowing her clear access to the Masters’ Court. Rather than feeling relieved, her anxiety only escalated. She was about to enter the lion’s den.

Twilight gently opened the one of the doors a crack, and slipped inside as quietly and unassumingly as she could, fixing her gaze on the floor. Of course, she was immediately noticed by everyone in the room.

“Ms. Sparkle,” King Argent addressed sternly, “I assume you have good reason for interrupting a Court meeting, which is meant for our ears only?”

Twilight Sparkle felt the floor fall out from under her. The eyes of the most powerful beings in the world were all on her. This was it. There was no turning back now.

“I- I’m very sorry, your Grace. It’s just… Doctors Honeydew and Beaker are requesting your presence. They say it’s a matter of utmost urgency.”

King Argent’s eyebrows shot up, though he maintained his unshakably calm demeanor.

“Ah, yes, that is important. Thank you, Ms. Sparkle.” He turned to his compatriots. “Apologies, but it appears I must call a short recess to deal with this. We will reconvene in an hour.”

Twilight Sparkle felt like the weight of a whale had been lifted from her shoulders. She had done it. Not only had she delivered an unfavorable report to King Argent Light, but she had done so without drawing his ire. Unfortunately, she was stopped in her tracks before she could even reach for the door handle.

“Ms. Sparkle, a moment, if you please.”

She turned back to find that King Argent was standing right next to her.

“Prepare yourself for teleportation.”

Twilight had only a moment to ready herself before she was stuffed through a pinhole. In an instant, King Argent had transported them to one of the few places Twilight had never thought she might end up.

The entrance to the Forbidden Archives.

“How long have you been working for me Ms. Sparkle?”

Twilight gaped openly for a few seconds before her wits returned to her.

“Ah! Um, t- two years, Your Majesty.”

King Argent hummed thoughtfully. “Is that right? Is it just me, or does it feel like it’s been longer?”

“Your Grace?”

King Argent gazed at the runic carvings covering the wall before them, following the flares of arcane power as they traveled along the lines.

“Twilight – may I call you Twilight?” She nodded, starstruck. “Twilight, I see something in you. Something that so many others who came before you have lacked. A certain, indescribable quality that marks out ponies destined for greatness.”

Twilight could only stare, slack-jawed, as the most powerful pony in Equestria played out the fantasies of so many thousands of foals, right in front of her eyes. What could she say? This scene only happened in her wildest dreams.

“You are capable of a great deal, Twilight. And if you would have me, I wish to be the pony to show you the path. To teach you what I know, and to help you mould your future into the incredible mare I know you can be. Would you like that, Twilight Sparkle? To be my apprentice?”

Air squeaked out of Twilight’s throat, her brain desperately trying to give voice to the words that her mouth was failing to shape. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, and all she could do was stand there and gawk like an idiot. Ice-cold horror washed over her, as she heard King Argent chuckle. She was going to blow it!

“I shall take that as a yes, then, shall I?”

Twilight closed her mouth with a click, nodding furiously. If her voice was going to betray her, she would have to rely on good old-fashioned body language.

“Excellent! I see great things in your future, Twilight, and they all start today.”

He put a hoof out towards the door to the Forbidden Archives and the runes flared to life.

“What you are about to see are secrets that I have kept from the public for a very long time. I trust that you will be able to keep them secret?”

Twilight nodded again, solemnly this time.

“Good. We’re going to go visit an old ‘friend’ of mine. Remain silent, do as I tell you, and no harm shall befall you. You will find that many of the things I keep here are dangerous, even to the casual observer. Try not to let your eyes stray for too long.”

Twilight clenched her teeth, and gave him a third, more fervent nod. She trained her eyes on the back of King Argent's head, afraid that she might be reprimanded if she looked anywhere else.

He led her down several hallways, past many doors both open and closed. Terrifying sounds assaulted her from every direction, but her gaze never wavered. She knew just how horrible mind-affecting magic could be from her studies. The slightest slip-up could spell out a fate worse than death. Her fantasies had just started coming true, she wasn’t about to risk it because she thought she heard her brother’s voice.

Even when she heard him call out her name with heart-rending despair…

King Argent looked back over his shoulder to see her still following, eyes locked forward. His smile made her insides melt.

“Good girl. You’re doing very well. We’re almost there.”

A minute later, they turned down a side passage to another large doorway. King Argent muttered an incantation, and the door swung open. She followed him in, and what she saw astonished and nauseated her.

In the center of the room, surrounded by a wall of blue light, stood a pair of diagonally crossed, half-lapped wooden beams, coated in the same glowing symbols as the rest of the room. But this wasn’t the source of her distress. That honor belonged to the thing that the cross displayed.

Nailed to the beams by its limbs was a patchwork creature of indeterminate origin. He had a goat-like head, mismatched horns, a long, serpentine body, and the arms, legs, and wings of several different animals. I’m sure you know the creature of whom I speak. Brutal iron spikes had been driven through each of his paws, claws, hooves, and wings, and into the wood of the cross. The wounds had closed around them, leading Twilight to believe he’d been there for a long time. He hung limply, sapped of all energy, pale, and barely breathing. As King Argent drew nearer, he let out a weak, wheezing laugh.

“Hello, Argy… we were just… t- talking about you.” Discord’s voice was feeble and hoarse, and it seemed he was unable to even lift his head. His bloodshot eyes could only peer up from beneath heavy eyelids.

“King Argent, Your Grace!” Cried a fat, blue, bespectacled stallion in a lab coat. “Thank the stars you have come! I was beginning to fear our message hadn’t made it through to the main lab.”

“Meep!” Added his lanky, wide-eyed, orange colleague.

“Discord,” King Argent addressed, disregarding the scientists, “I hear you have been making trouble. Care to explain yourself?”

“Not p-… particularly, no. My throat is f-… far too dry…”

“King Argent, he used magic!”

At this, King Argent turned back.

“Is that so? When was this, Dr. Honeydew?”

“Twelve minutes and…” He checked the clock. “Forty-two seconds ago, Your Grace.”

King Argent turned back to Discord.

“What did you do?”

Discord gave another rasping chuckle.

“Oh n- nothing much. I’d been saving up… for quite some time now. Even so, I w- was only able to move a… about a bowl-full of gelatin… two hundred feet straight up. Made a p-… a perfectly messy impact… on some poor mare, I expect.”

King Argent glared at the trickster. After a few moments, the one that could only be Dr. Beaker spoke up.

“Meep meemeep meep meep.”

“Ah, th- that’s true,” Doctor Honeydew offered placatingly. “By our calculations, after subtracting the amount of energy required to bypass the wards, his output would allow him to telekinetically lift a weight of one hundred pounds only two point seven feet in the air, but that’s only within the confines of the castle. Limit the weight to, say, five pounds, and the distance moved to two hundred feet, and he would have an effective range of… approximately thirty-six miles.”

King Argent gritted his teeth. “Can you trace the spell?”

“I- I’m terribly sorry, Your Majesty. If we were talking about normal magic, it would be no problem. But this is chaos magic. Since the effects aren’t immediately obvious, we won’t know what he’s done either until it’s too late, or somepony stumbles across the spell’s target.”

“Very well. Post a bulletin to all critical facilities and law enforcement offices in the kingdom: ‘Be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary, anything that might lead to an accident of any kind.’ I’ll not let some psychotic trickster bring about…”

King Argent’s voice slowly faded into the background of Twilight’s thoughts, as she noticed Discord was looking directly at her. It wasn’t the look of disgust and hatred she might have expected from someone in his position. Instead, there was an air of melancholy around him, even pity, as though he was not the one in captivity. Shortly, his eyes fell shut as he succumbed to exhaustion. She saw him mouth a single syllable that caused her no end of confusion: