Fallout: Equestria - The Hooves of Fate

by Sprocket Doggingsworth


Sorcerers Are Annoying

* * *

BOOK FIVE

* * *

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO - SORCERERS ARE ANNOYING

"There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss." -Douglas Adams

“When despair for the world grows in me and
I wake in the night at the least sound…
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.
For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."
—"The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendall Berry





There are times I'm very grateful to be a small town girl. Hearth's Warming break is one of them. Big city Canterlot kids only get three weeks off of school. Manehattan kids, two. Here in Ponyville, we get nine. Something to do with farming communities, and Winter Wrap Up, and all that stuff. Same reason we get harvest time off. And Running of the Leaves.

I never really bothered to do the math and actually figure out how much time we spend in that little red schoolhouse each year, but on your average Ponyville day, you're more likely to see kids running all over the place, getting into filly adventures than cloistered away inside doing classwork. It's 'cause of all our small town school vacations.

So after I got out of the hospital, even though I'd had a rocky start, (what with the family teas getting thrown out, and that creepily silent musical number, and my fight with Roseluck, and all that), I still had weeks and weeks and weeks all to myself to do whatever the hell I wanted.

And it was great! I didn't have a single time mission dream. Each morning, I visited Bananas Foster. We hung out, played chess with the board that my ancestors had left me. We talked, and laughed, and put our shadow business aside - at least for a while. Almost like a couple of normal fillies.

And after that, I would journey into the Everfree Forest with Cliff Diver as my guide. I got to study under Zecora. Intensely. Every single day. And over time, I learned to master that terrifying void outside of my dream door - the one where I'd once fallen outside of my body, outside of my mind, and outside of myself. Zecora taught me how to gain control, and eventually, how to step into other ponies' dreams (if I had a strong enough connection with them).

Cliff was my first dream buddy. Zecora had given him some tea to invite vivid dreams - the first of many occasions he would partake of herbs and act as an assistant of sorts in my apprenticeship. We had each lain down in her tree-hut. Cliff had fallen asleep like normal, and I'd gone to the dreambeach like Zecora and Princess Luna had taught me. I delved into my mind-cave just like before, and stepped into the void outside of my dream door. But when everything else went dark, I focused on the hair in my mojo bag. Reached for it as time and space themselves spiralled out of existence around me - gripped it like a rope as my body tried its damnedest to flee my consciousness. I'd chomped down on the strand and used my legs to pull myself along, thinking about Cliff's caring heart the whole time - our friendship - our connection. In that state, Cliff Diver was almost like a physical land that I could reach for. I just had to concentrate on the idea of him. Picture his face. Remember how his kindness made me feel. I'd tug and tug and tug on the rope through the mind-rapids of the dream void, reaching for Cliff Diver, until whoosh. I found myself in a quiet place. Totally still.

It had an invisible floor, surrounded on all sides by stars and cosmic purple mists and stuff. It was like standing up in the middle of the night sky. Right in front of me was this plain wooden door - Cliff's door. And the hair I had used to get me there ran straight from my teeth into the keyhole. On the other side, was Cliff Diver himself. Waiting for me. Half-dreaming up on the surface world, thanks to some tricks that Zecora had taught him.

The first time I successfully made it through his door, he hugged me. Shed tears of joy. 'Cause we were finally dream buddies.

* * *

With practice, I learned to find other doors too. Like Misty Mountain's. The process of getting there was exactly the same, though I didn't dare set hoof inside. The entanglement of our fates was still too much of a mystery.

I found Zecora's door too, but only during our practice sessions. The rest of the time, she kept it well hidden. When you juggle as much mojo as she does, it just isn't safe to have a door that can be reached on anypony else's terms.

I even found Screw Loose's door once. While practicing on my own time. I'd stepped into the void, clutched the mangled old sock that she had given me, and pulled my way to safety just like I'd done a dozen times before with Cliff and Zecora. But this time, when I opened my eyes, there was no door anywhere to be seen. Just an empty outer space hallway. Stars and nebulae and galaxies in all directions - left, right, forward, back, up, and down. It was totally empty, except for a single thread entangled around my hoof. I knelt to examine it. Sock wool.

I tried to tug it - to tuck it back into my mojo bag - but the strand kept going - stretching out into the darkness. I followed it. Deep into the twinkly mists. Down, down, down an empty hallway until, at last, I saw a speck. That speck eventually became a door. A tiny diagonal door, warped into an unearthly shape - and bolted down with a hundred chains, and giant bars, and padlocks.

The sight of it made my blood run cold. I stooped down to gather the thread and get outta there, but it had instead become a key - as though the sock-wool had petrified.

Everything about that door said Don't Open Me. But I had a handy dandy little key that could break through all of that security with a single click! My hoof started to tremble. I didn't even like to be in the same room as my sister's diary, let alone read it. And there I was - one key-turn away from invading the very depths of Screw Loose's mind.

What if I stepped into her dreams and exposed her deepest fears and nightmares that she kept locked away?

What if the whole reason that Screw Loose wandered from dream to dream to dream was that she couldn't bear to climb back inside her own head? To look behind that door?

No. I said to myself, tucking the Wool Key safely back into my mojo bag. That's not what the sock is for.

I retreated to my own dreamscape. Back through the door, and the cave, and the beach, and all that. Plopped down on a rock and caught my breath. Watched the moon hang over the ocean in my brain. The waves smashed against the rocks below - made a constant rrrshhhh sound that filled the air, all ambient-like. It was so loud, that when the waters briefly receded, the air grew eerily silent.

I shimmied the mojo bag open with my teeth and shook the sock loose onto my lap. Stroked the mangled wool with my forehoof and wondered if Screw Loose was okay. All alone in the hospital without her favorite chew-toy. Her spirit meanwhile wandering around, making itself at home in every dream except her own.

"Poor Queenie," I whispered, remembering the dog name I once had given her - (that perhaps I shouldn't have).

And Wham! I got swept off my rocky perch - rammed onto the squishy bed of sand and seaweed below. And assaulted with a rapid barrage of licks to the face. The dogmare was on top of me. The sock had called to her.

"Ahh, ahh!" I said. "Down, girl."

So she stopped what she was doing. And lay down. Right on top of me.

I rolled my eyes and grumbled. But when I looked at her face - really looked at her - I was awestruck.

I had forgotten that, in the realm of dreams, she was basically a giant gray dog. It shouldn't have surprised me. After all, when my physical self was too sick to get out of bed, Dream Rose was busy running up and down trenches trying to end an entire fucking war. Luna had straight up told me that our bodies don't always match our spirits - and that any Duckyverse we entered would even force our bodies to conform to its rules. Like how a journey to Sandwichia would make a pony take the shape of a sandwich, or how a world with no dragons might turn one into a puppy.

What's more, I already fucking knew that Screw Loose was a great big pony-sized dog in the land of dreams. I had seen her! But never quite so close. Or while holding quite as still as she was just then. Her nose was sharp and long and shaggy. Her teeth, eerily jagged. Her eyes, so canine and innocent, yet still so equine. So aware.

"Roll over," I said.

And she did as I asked. 'Cause she understood exactly what I meant. So I rubbed her exposed belly with my hooves and watched the crescent moon set over the ocean.

* * *

That's how I spent my winter break. Playing fetch under the moonlight with a giant dogmare, swinging around the Land of Dreams, practicing zebra magic. And on my down time, I hung around the hospital listening to classical music with a changeling.

I didn't write that in my "winter break" homework essay. But I could talk about it for days. The times we had. The places I visited. The dreams, and visions, and lessons I learned under Zecora's tutelage. But that alone could take up an entire book.

No. I'm just gonna tell you about one. The time that Zecora showed me how to find my way back to the Pit of Infinite Duckies.

* * *

It was a bright Everfree afternoon. Way warmer than winter break had any business being. I staggered into the little oasis that passed for Zecora's front lawn. Just like I had every single other day - clutching onto Cliff Diver - wincing in agony as the woodland voices finally started fucking off.

But this time, Zecora wasn't waiting inside like usual. She was out front, fiddling with some shrub or another. So when I dropped to my flank and rubbed my throbbing temples in pain, she actually noticed.

"What a sorry sight I see," Zecora trotted up to me. At first I thought she was gonna get all concernitty, but she didn't kneel down to my level to see if I was alright, nor did she offer a hoof to help. Merely looked over me, all judgey like. "You've been keeping something hid from me." She said.

"What?" I groaned. "Me? No, it's not like that. It's--"

Boom. Boom. Boom.

I lost my train of thought. Zecora was tapping her hoof at me impatiently. And each rap was like a little explosion inside my aching brain.

"Okay," I admitted. "I get these...headaches...whenever I walk through the Everfree Forest, okay? It's 'cause of all these stupid voices I hear...well, they're not reeeally voices. They don't speak in words. More like eyeballs. Whispering eyeballs! Looking at me and stuff." I let out a nervous little laugh.

Both Cliff and Zecora declined to laugh with me.

"...But it's not like a problem or anything." I added. "I'm fine once I get to this little area over here." I gesticulatized at the clearing surrounding Zecora's tree-hut.

"Clearly." Cliff Diver said sarcastically.

"Okay, smart guy," I retorted. "I'm fine a few minutes after I get here."

"I wish you'd learn to trust me more." Zecora replied bluntly. "I can teach you a simple cure."

"It's not that I don't trust you, it's...um...not like that...it’s just…"

I tried to explain that I simply didn't want to be a complainitty burden, but Zecora turned her flank on me and headed straight into her hut. She wasn't even mad or anything - simply dismissive of all excuses. Reluctantly, I followed her inside. By the time I got there, she was already way up on a stepstool, bringing a jar down with her teeth.

"Oh, it's okay." I said awkwardly. "I don't need anything. I'm fine."

"You're not fine." Cliff insisted as he came up behind me.

"Am too!" I snapped. "The headache's mostly gone!"

Zecora dropped the jar into a great big giant saddlebag full of other zebra stuff, slid the whole thing on her back and sauntered proudly out the door. She meant for me to follow her.

I turned to Cliff and looked daggers at him.

"What?" he said. "You think I haven't noticed?"

I grumbled in reply, and followed Zecora. She was halfway across the clearing by the time I set hoof out the front door. It was fucking weird. Not like her at all. Our other lessons, and quests, and stuff all happened from inside the safety of her tree hut.

"Where are we going?" I asked nervously. But she didn't answer. Just lead me out of the oasis and back into the woods. "Oh, come on!" I said. "We're headed to Headache Town?!"

"I thought you said you were fine." Cliff quipped.

"Shut up." I said.

"Rose," Zecora commanded attention. "Listen to my words quite plain. / As we walk, describe your pain."

"Fine." I said. "Just step into the hurtzone and talk about how much it sucks. Great."

Did I mention that having Zecora as a teacher is a thorn in the flank? It's hard to convey this with the written word. In fact, when I was little, I used to read Pinkbeard and the Fallen Mysts again and again and again, dreaming of having a teacher just like the great Sorcerer Planktoneth. He was wise and tricky, and even though he pushed Daisy the Cabin Filly around, and made her clean everything, and do all this hard work, and grueling study and stuff, it fucking worked. One day, her magic was strong enough on its own to confront the Whale of Perpetual Sadness, who had swallowed her brother. And she won the day! 'Cause the Great Sorcerer Planktoneth had tricked her into learning stuff!
His cruelty was really wisdom. His discipline, love in disguise. I used to fantasize about it so much. Craving such sagely guidance. Imagining the potential I could unlock in myself. But when you actually have to deal with somepony like the Sorcerer Planktoneth, it doesn't feel quite so romantic. It's fucking annoying.

"Okay," I said. Then I thought about the forest voices for a minute. Listened carefully as the Everfree-drama-in-my-brain slowly mounted.

"You know that eyeball-feeling I was talking about? Well, it's like they're everywhere. Looking at me. Because I don't belong." I gritted my teeth. Concentrated real hard on my own headache. "It is kind of like...they hate me. And they want me dead...It's weird, though." I added. "They're not at all like the shadows. In fact, I'm totally cut off from the shadows whenever I'm here in the Everfree. I don't even feel cold in my hoof. Nothing. Instead, I sense all of this weird, woodsy hatred and fear pointed at me."

"Your view is far too narrow, and too slight." Zecora replied. "There's more magic in this world than darkness versus light."

"But what is it?"

Zecora closed her eyes, and lifted her head as if to smell the forest air. Savor it. Then she explained forest mojo to me without opening her eyes.

"Hunting, fighting, fleeing, making child. / These struggles make the music of the wild." She said.

"Ewww!" I shrieked.

Zecora's eyes snapped suddenly open like a pair of old window shades.

"Are all the woodland creatures making child with each other right now?"

I spun around looking in the trees and bushes and fallen logs. Gross.

Zecora roared out a laugh so hearty it shook the ground. "No," she chuckled. Struggled to catch her breath. "Not where there's a stranger to be found. / That's why they hate so much when you're around." Zecora straight up pointed at me and cackled.

"Very funny." I rubbed my aching head. Recoiled at the thought of the nasty stuff those Everfree eyeballs apparently wanted to do to each other.

When I opened my own eyes, there was Zecora with an outstretched hoof. Offering me what looked like a strip of bark that she'd brought with her from home. The empty jar sat on the ground beside her.

"To hear them, here's what you must do. / Put this inside your cheek, but do not chew."

"I hear them too much. That's the problem." I leaned forward and examined the bark more closely. "This one's safe?" I asked with raised eyebrow.

Zecora answered by thrusting her hoof at me further. She and I had an understanding about herbs. Zecora was well aware of my situation. My family history. My blood curse. And most of our lessons didn't involve plants at all - just me, my brain, and I.

But there were also times when botanical intervention proved not only necessary for progress, but also, a basic safety precaution. It's all fine and good to worry about eventually growing dependent upon herbs to give you a little edge in your mystical travels. It's quite another thing to refuse to take them all together, and put yourself at risk 'cause you were stumbling blind in dangerous realms.

I'd learned from experience that when Zecora shoved a plant at you, you fucking did as you were told. So I put the bark in my mouth, plopped my flank on a nearby fallen log, and waited. Tap click. Tap click. Tap click. My hooves fidgeted impatiently against the surface of the log.

But nothing else happened. Not at first. Just those same eyeball voices. Woodland creatures that apparently wanted to do gross stuff to each other all the time. And kill me. Oh, yeah. They definitely wanted to kill me.

"Listen," Zecora said. "Pinpoint which are far and which are near. / Reflect on everything you hear."

"Okay." I closed my eyes. Felt that wall of angry forces surrounding me. It was like getting yelled at by a hundred different ponies at the same time. I couldn't tell one from another. And it fucking hurt to try. "Ahhhh!" I squirmed. Opened my eyes, and rubbed my throbbing temples with my hooves.

But Zecora stared me down sternly. Like Sorcerer Planktoneth.

"Fine." I pouted and tried again. Listened for the difference between near and far. At first, it was nothing but an overload of all my senses, but I kept focusing on the idea of "near" and the concept of "far." Slowly, the angry eyeball voices started taking shape. Dimension. None of it was pictures. None of it was words. It all came as weird feelings and smells. As Zecora's magic bark slowly took hold of my brain, each one of the sensations separated itself from the one next to it. Like opening a pop-up book

A panicked whisper from the log beneath me. There was a mouse under there. Hiding. Waiting for me to go away.

A sudden sting of pure hatred. Coming at me from behind. Some kinda Everfree death pigeon. Mad at me for disrupting her mouse hunt.

Above us all were leaves. Not just the ones that clung to the branches despite the bitter cold. Freelance leaves. Floating on the slightest breeze like sails made of delicate gossamer. They too straight up wanted to kill me. I have no clue why.

And, last but not least, just to my left was a regular old squirrel. Furious that my arrival had interrupted his wooing of a girl-squirrel somewhere not too far from the log I was sitting on. He wanted to get gross with her.

But all these desires - all the drives and wills and forces of the Everfree - every plant and every creature - they amplified one another. There was, like, a roaring river of power running through the air above. A pulsing rhythm surging from the earth below. A current that flowed right through me, and made all my hairs stand up under my jacket. It made me taste rhythms. Hear colors. Smell voices. And feel everything.

Except a headache. No pain. No doom cloud of eyeballs shouting inarticulately at me. Instead, there was a strange sort of clarity.

Zecora looked down on me smugly. "Tomorrow, you can do this if you try." She said. "No bark nor tea, just listen with your eyes."

"Listen with your what now?" Cliff said.

Zecora and I both turned to him. I did my best to keep a straight face, though it was hard to keep from smiling.

"What?" He said. "What's going on?"

"The time is right, you're both equipped." Zecora announced. "The time has come to set off on a trip."

"A trip?" It was my turn to be confused.

"A trip." Zecora rhymed right back at me.

She set her giant saddlebag on the ground, and produced a big round wooden object from it.

"A drum?" I asked.

"A drum." She replied.

She set it down gently in front of me. "You're right," she said. "The shadows cannot track you here. / Too much magic interferes."

She pointed her nose above us. There were streams of purple light pouring sideways through the branches. Moving like a stream. Chugging along in gusts with the rhythm of the magic of every critter and every plant.

"You've been initiated to the bark." She continued. "So we must use it wisely before dark. / There are other doors that you must learn to find. / So copy me, as you unclench your mind."

She gave Cliff a piece of bark too. A big one. Without question, he put it in his cheek. Cliff didn't have the same blood curse I did. Also, he needed more help than me. So, during our lessons, he ended up taking a whooooooole lot of herbs. He was cool with just about anything. He only objected when Zecora sat her flank down on an adjacent log. Made herself comfortable.

"Wait." He said. "Here?" He whipped his head around in every direction. "What about the animals, and the poison, and the...the, you know, killer forest stuff?"

Zecora smiled. Brought her hoof to her lips, and mimed a ssshh gesture.

"There are so many worlds out there to show." She turned to me. "Our senses chain us to the world we know. / So when the time is right we shut them down, / revealing what is hidden all around.

"When shuttered eyes deprive you of your sight, / Your mind can seek and find another light. / Your ears and flesh are far more stubborn, though. / We must distract them with a rhythmic flow."

She pounded a gentle beat on her drum. Cliff followed her example and started banging on his. Just a simple beat. Nothing fancy.

Bomm. Bomm. Bomm.

Zecora turned to me, expectantly, but my mind was too distracted by the very concept.

"A rhythmic flow." I repeated in astonishment. Something about it seemed so very familiar!

Zecora kept on urging me with her eyes. So I took the drum between my knees and started tapping it. Every other note. Just to sort of accentuate the important beats without actually mimicking her and Cliff exactly.

BOOM bum bum bum. BOOM bum bum bum. BOOM bum bum bum. BOOM.

After a while, I felt my body relax and my attention start to slip away. My thoughts and feelings rode the groove like a wave. I could almost feel my whole body getting carried away. 'Till suddenly, out of the blue, I remembered the sensation!

"The Crystal Empire wall!" I leapt to my hooves and exclaimed. "The Crystal Empire wall!"

"What?" Cliff asked, clearly annoyed. And kind of hazy judging by the glazed look in his eyes.

"When I was stuck inside the Crystal Empire wall, I fell into another place." I turned to Zecora and said. "All this time, I thought it was because of some weird magic inside the city's defense mechanism. But it was this! It was rhythm."

Cliff looked at me all dumbfounded-like. Zecora too.

"Remember I told you about that hallway inside the wall!" I exclaimed. "It was so dark, and I couldn't hear anything either. Except a loud hum that dulled my senses! Oh! Oh! And my hoofsteps had taken on a sort of rhythm that made me forget my own ears and forgot my own skin, and my own coat. My own bones!"

"Good." Zecora replied with a smile. "Sit down then if you will, / and learn to seek these travels with intent and skill."

I plopped my flank back down. And the drumming started up again.

BOOM dum dum dum. BOOM dum dum dum.
BOOM dum dum dum. BOOM dum dum dum.

I focused on the vibe of it. Not just in my ears, but in my hooves. In my belly as the body of the drum vibrated against me. Pbbbt. Pbbbt. Pbbbt. Pbbt. Pbbt. I felt the groove. It made those trails of energy in the air come to life like a moving train, or a river. It seemed like all I had to do was leap straight up, and prepare to get swept away.

So I banged on the skin of the drum. And closed my eyes, imagining in my brain the desert that the Crystal Empire wall had sent me to with its strange hypnotic hums. I pictured the look of it, with its strange red sands, and unearthly dust. The feel of it - the heat. The warmth of the realm's eternal daylight despite the fact that there was no sun to be found in the purple cloudless sky.

And it occurred to me then. There was gonna be so much to see! So much to do! So much to fucking learn now that I could finally go there ‘with intent and skill’ as Zecora had put it.

But there was one problem. After minutes and minutes and minutes of banging away, nothing happened.

"I can't reach it," I said.

"Please tell me, do you follow this vibration?" Zecora asked, referring of course to the rhythmic flow of the drums. "Or do you seek your destination?"

"Um, I'm kinda thinking about this place I've been before. The last time I got drum-hypontized at the Crystal Emp--;"

"Well, stop." She snapped.

"Stop?"

"Stop." She flicked my ear emphatically with her hoof.

And it worked. It got my fucking attention. And the word hung in the air. Stop. She'd rhymed it with itself, for Celestia's sake. For some reason that made the command hit me like a hammer.

"Ow," I answered. "Okay, okay, okay."

I glanced at Cliff for support, but he was drumming up a storm, and his eyes flickered wildly under their lids. So I shut mine again. Pounded my rhythms. Tried not to think about the desert really really really really hard. But then of course, all I did was concentrate on not thinking about the damn desert.

Fuck.

I screamed internally in frustration. Tried not to let my desperation show, lest Sorcerer Planktoneth over there flick me again.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck! I said fuck inside my brain a lot. So much that it kinda became part of the beat.

BOOM fucka fucka fucka. BOOM fucka fucka fucka. BOOM fucka fucka fucka. BOOM fucka fucka fucka.

It was oddly soothing. So I banged away and mouthed along with all the fucka-fucka-fucka's. Felt them flow from my hooves to my heart. 'Till at last my eyes opened, I and happened to glance upon a moth. It was flapping clumsily all around. Right in front of my face. Bobbing up and down with its spazzy little moth wings.

Then it perched itself on the log right beside me. It wasn't startled or scared. Even though I was still pounding up thunder on my drum.

It looked at me. At least I think it did. Then it stretched out his wings. A moth-yawn perhaps? And just sort of flapped its way upward.

I craned my neck to follow. And saw him dancing around up there. But the interweaving branches above me made a weird checker-pattern over the sky. Some leaves, some bare branches; some low, some high. If I focused my eyes on one aspect of it too hard, it would shift around like those eyeball-dizzying puzzle posters. But I still followed the moth. Up-and-up-and-up. 'Till that stream of light above - the energy in the wind and the branches - started to warp, and twist, and turn with the moth's every motion.

At some point - I can't say when or how - the forest and the trees themselves just sorta melted away. And suddenly it was just me. And Gary. The moth.

Don’t ask me why, but he seemed like a Gary.

Anyway, he kept on flapping, and I felt like he was pulling me with him. Up, up, up, up, up. 'Till at last, he disappeared into the light above. And when I looked down again, there was Zecora. Standing beside me.

Neither of us had drums in our laps. Or logs under our flanks. We both stood upright. Surrounded by a great big plateau of nothing. White as far as the eye could see.

"I see you've made it out the wood." She said. "Just like I always knew you could."

I smiled. "Yeah, I guess so. There was this...moth. He was like...my dude. And I followed his flapping wings 'till...it...made this place, like, you know, appear."

"Ah," Zecora smiled. "So it was Gary who has brought you here." She rhymed her words with mine.

"You know him?"

It shouldn't have come as a surprise. But it did. All that mystic crap makes super obvious stuff seem really obtuse, and the deepest esoteric mysteries seem somehow simple.

"What was up with that?" I looked around the void for some trace of the moth, but found none. That's what makes it a void. "What's up with Gary?"

"He’s a moth." Zecora answered bluntly, not even bothering to rhyme.

The silence that followed was deafening.

"Well, okay then," I said.

...

...

"Hey, where's Cliff?" I asked out of the blue.

Zecora stretched out a hoof, and touched my mojo bag. And in there, I felt this...warmth. "He'll feel for us from far away. / That is how he'll spend the day. / He cannot join us as we roam." She answered. "That hair of his is your way home."

"Ah." I replied.

Her plan made a certain kinda sense. During those weeks of training, Cliff would sometimes stay behind in a twilight state of sorts - a daydream - and no matter where Zecora and I travelled to, we could use him as an anchor. The hair was like a life rope. Once we'd pulled our way up to his door, and climbed into his head, we could wake ourselves up and be safe.

But that was dreaming. This journey was different. It was like, some crazy moth limbo duckyverse shit.

"So, what do we do now?" I said, looking all around me at the field of white.

Zecora gazed at the emptiness too. White, white, white, white, white. Everywhere. There was noplace to go. She lowered her flank to the fine silt below. Patted the ground with her hoof until I did the same. But then the two of us just fucking sat there. Doing nothing. Saying nothing.

There was a certain kind of silence Zecora commanded. A look she gave. I don't know what it was exactly. Maybe the way she narrowed her eyelids? But I'd learned that those glances always meant something. That her little silences usually had a reason.

So I shut my face-hole about the situation we were in. Eventhough I had soooooooooooooooooooooo many questions about what the fuck was going on. And I took a moment to turn my attention toward the past instead. To gather my thoughts on everything that had happened so far. The treks through the woods. The voices. The headaches. The glowering forest eyeballs. The magic mind bark I'd stuffed in my cheek to clear my head, and of course the crazy rhythms of the Everfree that the bark had revealed to me.

All these ideas and pictures slid over my brain like water running off a tin rooftop. But one question kept nagging at me. A thought that refused to wash away. "The Everfree Forest." I said aloud. "Um...Enemies can't find me there 'cause it's too crowded with other magic and stuff, right?"

I was careful not to refer to the shadows directly. Especially while sitting in a void that I didn't quite trust or even understand yet.

Zecora nodded.

"Soooooooo," I continued. "Like...if you hypothetically had a friend who had escaped um...you know...a bad place. And that pony had gone crazy and thought that they were a dog...or something. And, like, that friend was later found in the Everfree Forest...it miiiight be 'cause they were hiding out there, right? Because it was safe?"

Zecora cocked her head at me in confusion. But gave me a straight answer anyway. "It is ideal to hide amongst the trees and ferns. / That's why I set up camp - to live on my own terms."

"Your own terms?"

She nodded.

I hummed in reply. Deep in thinkitty mode. It took a solid minute or two for me to realize what she was really saying.

But then it hit me like an iron pail to the face. "The brain hornets." I whispered in shock and awe. "They bug you too. And the Everfree! It lets you...be like a free agent or whatever." I remembered that term from all our family's weird business entanglements - contracting out with the other flower ponies. Free agent.

It painted a whole new picture of Zecora's entire life. Made me wonder what it musta been like for her before she'd sought refuge in the woods. Had she been wrestling with the same kind of insanity that ran rampant up-and-down my family tree?

And what about her family? Where was she from? What was it like? Did she still have friends and relatives who yearned to see her? She had been gone for such a long while! Did she miss them as well?

"So..." I asked. "If you're not from the Everfree, you're, like, from...Zebraland?"

Zecora chuckled at the term.

"Do you ever miss it?" I pressed her. "Don't you, like...you know, get lonely out here?"

She smiled. The very air around us seemed to grow warmer, just from the sight of her face. "I may be far from my own childhood home, / but rest assured that I am not alone."

Zecora looked up at the sky. Even though there wasn't much of one (what with all the white everywhere and all). And she sighed, contented-like. She was so at peace with everything. It made me wonder if those forest eyeballs were her friends and company. Or maybe she spent all her time hanging out with weird spirits like Gary?

This image sprang into my brain. Of Zecora at a moth-party. Laughing. Serving punch. It was kinda cute.

"Now it's time for you and me / to look beyond what we can see." Actual Zecora patted the ground yet again.

"Is this gonna involve more drums?"

Zecora rolled her eyes and shook her head.

"Okay, um, sure. I'll give it a try." I said. And craned my neck to look over her shoulder. But all I saw was a valley of white silt and a silvery gray sky. "So what are we looking beyond again?"

Knock! Zecora rapped my noggin with her hoof.

"Ow!"

"The world's a patchwork you can peak through at the seams." She said referring to prior lessons. "You know how. You've done it in your dreams." Then she looked at me all super stern. Disapproving-like. Enough to make me physically cower.

"Okay, okay!" I said. "Fine."

And I did as she said. I thought of previous lessons. How she had taught me - first thing - before I even tried journeying anywhere, to find a focal point. And let everything else sorta fall away from it. The trick wasn't to try to force anything to happen. The trick was to forget.

Now before I tell you what I saw when I stretched my mind outward beyond the void, let me just say that forgetting on purpose isn't easy. My entire first week of training had been wasted. Pressuring myself to empty my stupid mind. Failing hard.

So if you ever find yourself in a Great Sorcerer Planktoneth scenario, take my advice. Ignore all the stupid riddles and stuff your oh-so-wise instructor throws at you. The sound of one hoof clopping. Whether or not lonely trees make sound when they fall down. Emptying your brain like a cup of tea waiting to get filled. By...like...some other kind of knowledge-tea or whatever.

It's fucking dumb. If you really wanna trick your brain into ignoring what's going on, just do what I did. Pretend you're in the middle of Miss Cheerilee's class and she's talking about something really really really really boring.

'Cause the gateway to brain doors and dream magic and that ducky stuff? It's not some mysterious thing. It all begins with plain old ordinary daydreaming. Something everypony already knows how to do.

* * *

So I sat in the void with Zecora and brain drifted. The first thing I saw was that desert again. Red sands. Purple skies. But I wasn't actually there. I was looking in on it. Like you might peer into a snow globe.

I probed a little deeper. Sent my vision hovering over the dusty planes. Empty, empty, empty, empty, empty. Bananas Foster's voice spoke up from inside my head. Telling the story of her hive getting lost in that desert. "Mareheart!" She had pleaded desperately with her mother and queen. "Tell me! The goggles. Did they have the inscription, 'Amelia Mareheart'?"

My brain got excited at the notion, and sent my eyeballs soaring across the desert in search of the crash site. In search of her journal. Vwoom. It all flew by so fast that the red sands and purple skies blurred and shifted and warped until I could kinda sorta sense it. The smell was getting stronger. I could feel myself getting closer. I could almost see Mareheart's crash site. Until a hoof landed on my shoulder out of nowhere.

"Ahh!" I said.




Suddenly there was Zecora. Sitting across from me. Just like she had been before. I could still see the big red dust desert, faintly - like a hazy bubble over her shoulder. But I realized then that I was still sitting on the ground of that silvery white void that the moth had brought me to. I had been the whole time.

"Rose, I do not understand." Zecora said gravely. "How you came upon this land!"

"Oh," I said, totally taken aback. I hadn't realized that her brain had been drifting with me. "I guess I've just been thinking about it...You know, 'cause you said that we were going to other worlds, and like, that annoying dusty desert place is where you start, right?"

Zecora shook her head. Slowly. Horrifiedishly.

"The fabric of each world is specked with holes, / and folks fall through into a desert of lost souls. / It stretches flat ten thousand miles wide / and then ten thousand more upon the other side. / It's not a place we're meant to go. / It's not a place we're meant to know. / How is it that you've gone and yet come back? / That barren waste of dust has neither hill nor crack."

"It does have a crack, though." I yammered reflexively. "A big one. Full of shadow fog. They're spreading from their own country, and swallowing up the dusty land!"

Zecora stared at me in even more disbelief. Wondering how the fuck I could have gotten close enough to observe such a phenomenon and yet escaped.

"Or so I'm told." I added smoothly. I couldn't have her thinking that I had gotten swept away by shadows, and tagged and released from the dark castle on a great big evil mission o' evil the way Bananas Foster had.

"These things that have been told to you." Zecora narrowed her eyes and inserted a long, potent silence into the rhythm of her poetry before asking the dreaded question. "Told they were by who?"

Damn it.

"I don't know," I said. "I musta...heard it around somewhere. But ooh!" I exclaimed, eager to change the subject. "You wanted to know how I was connected to the dusty-barren-wasteland-where-lost-souls-go-to-die, didn't'cha? Well, I first put myself in one of those trances I was telling you about. By marching in the dark, and getting hypnotized by the rhythm. And I found myself there."

I pointed at the horrible dusty limbo that Zecora and I were both looking in on.

She stared me down with hard, impatient eyes. I laughed nervously. She could be intimidating when she needed to be. But it didn't matter. I couldn't betray Bananas Foster. No matter what. So I kept rambling on about absolutely everything else.

"Then my...uh...vision just sorta flew over that red and purple desert. You know, the ten thousand miles of nothingness or whatever." I flashed a meek little smile. "And I found myself on the edge of it all, and everything was cold. The castle on a cloud that the shadows had taken. It floated over the abyss at the edge of the cliff, and there was, like, this lightning and ice and shadowy stuff."

Zecora opened her mouth to interrupt, but I just kept on going.

"Soon my eyeballs were flying even further away! A platform on the edge of creation. And I fell right off of it. Bouncing down into all these different universes and different times and places. Each realm was shaped like a rubber ducky, and as I fell down the Ducky Pit, they squeaked whenever I knocked into one!"

Plompf. Zecora shoved her hoof in my mouth. Everypony does that eventually.

"Keep your secrets," she said - totally on to me that I was changing the subject on purpose. "And focus on what you must learn. / So to the 'Ducky Pit' you can return."

"We're going there?"

Zecora nodded.

"Now?"

She patted my forehoof with hers. "Whenever you may travel, you might find / yourself pursuing that which springs to mind. / And though this feels like power, and a thrill. / Your motions are not truly your own will."

"Um, sooo...we're not going there?"

Zecora sighed. Gave me a we're gonna be here a while face.

But who could blame me for getting confuzzled? Her warning was like, totally random and devoid of context. If my motions weren't my own will, then who’s were they? And what was wrong with pursuing what springs to mind? Hadn't many of our lessons been about that very thing? Teaching my brain to let go?

Zecora cleared her throat and started telling a story to clarify. Out of nowhere. A zebra myth.

"There was a filly by the name of Z'orange." She said…

* * *

What followed after was the most extraordinary piece of poetry I'd ever heard. Epic folklore of the zebra ancients. The rhythm and the wordplay alone sounded like music - long and beautiful passages ornamented with hundreds of melodious words that rhymed with "Z'orange."

But since I can't remember any of those rhymes, I'm gonna retell it here in plain old ordinary Ponish...

Z'orange was a promising student. Practicing eagerly under the great dream instructor, Zewu. From the moment he agreed to teach her, Z'orange threw herself into her studies in the hopes that one day, he would teach her how to fly.

So she pushed herself. Every hour. Every day. And by the time night rolled around, she would just come home, shove a simple meal down her throat, and then head straight to bed.

Her parents and kid sister hardly ever saw her.

She went on an entire year like this. Which sucks if you ask me. And in that time, Z'orange got really really really good at dream trotting. Better than any of Zewu's other students. (Even those who were older, and had been practicing far longer).

But still, Z'orange was no closer to learning how to fly.

When the harvest finally came around, the whole village partied themselves silly with public festivities, (which Z'orange didn't bother to take part in). Once the confetti settled, the great teacher took his small cabal of students aside. Called their names, and one by one, he presented them each with a coin.

A black coin meant moving on to the next level of study. White coins meant staying on another year as a novice.

Z'orange bounced with gitty anticipation - struggled to maintain her poise as she waited for Zewu to call her to him. She was so very excited to advance - to move beyond mere dream trotting, and finally learn to fly! Soar from world to world to world. (Or ducky to ducky to ducky). Like she'd dreamed of ever since she was little.

But when her name was called, and Zewu actually shook his rattles, chanted his chant, and gave Z'orange her coin, her heart sank at the sight of it.

"White?" She said.

Zewu nodded.

"Why white?" She asked. It was the first time she'd ever questioned her teacher's judgment.

He replied merely by saying, "You are not ready."

Z'orange was devastated to hear this. "But haven't I gone further than every other child here?" She asked. "I delved into the void, and followed a whole line of dream doors - twelve in a row through twelve different zebras' minds!"

"You have." The teacher replied.

"Haven't I succeeded in all my exercises?"

"You have." The teacher answered again.

"Haven't I trained harder than absolutely anypony else?"

"You have." The teacher replied yet again. "But there is more you need to do before you can be ready."

"I'll do anything." She said.

"Your classmate Xenova's moving on." The teacher answered. "She volunteered at the temple to clean and maintain the grounds. Perhaps if you did the same, then this time next year, you would also be ready."

So Z'orange did. She started helping out. Tending herbs. Picking sacred flowers. Cleaning the wooden masks adorning every wall. And though she didn't complain through any of it, her mind was always on practice. On magic. She dreamed of flying to far away lands, and spent her time in the temple garden wishing simply for a better view of the sky. Just so she could see a little further. Imagine herself soaring a little bit higher.

When actually inside of the temple, Z'orange quietly observed how the magic tinctures and brews and potions were made. Super secret like. She watched her friend Xenova advance. But never got jealous. Because Z'orange knew in her heart that, come next harvest, she would be given the black coin, and all her time spent gathering herbs and dusting masks would come in handy. Somehow.

Her teacher simply had to have a reason. A plan. There was a mystery to be solved here. Z'orange was sure of it! Zewu wouldn't just send her there to clean masks. Not when she was so very awesome!

So for a full year, she pushed on in good faith. Dutiful. Eager, (even if a little distracted). But when harvest time came around, her stupid teacher gave her the damn white coin. Again. And again, she pleaded with him for a reason.

And again, he replied by saying, "You're not ready."

Can you fucking believe how vague that is? I literally screamed in frustration when I heard the story told.

Anyway, this time, the teacher suggested that Z'orange spend more time at home with her family. Her kid sister missed her terribly, after all. And Zewu felt that this change of scenery might actually help with her studies.

At this point, Z'orange got really frustrated. And I gotta tell you, I was right there with her. These Sorcerer Planktoneth types are gigantic pains in the flank. They never give you straight answers about anything! When Z'orange asked her teacher directly, "Why? Are you throwing me away?" Do you know what he said?

He told Z'orange that there were things he couldn't teach her, but that she actually stood a chance of learning from her own sister. And when Z'orange begged him to tell her more - what sorts of things she should stay alert for; what she should be studying; what sorts of questions she needed to be asking - that wise zebra sorcerer dude said nothing at all.

It's no wonder that when the third year came around, and Zewu pulled the same shit, Z'orange freaked out. Stole a bunch of herbs from the temple. Made her own damn mixture. And set off on her own damn journey.

To find other worlds. To explore. To fly.

And you know what? It worked! She was a total natural when it came to dream magic. And she had studied everything else so hard, that flying turned out to be no trouble at all! She sent her mind far off into the sky. Careening over the forests and deserts and oceans of strange new lands. And she laughed and smiled. And flew! Really fucking flew!

'Till at last, she made it to the cliff at the edge of the known universe. The Pit of Infinite Duckies.

It was there she found Zewu. Waiting for her.

"See!" She laughed. "I can do it! I can fly."

"I never doubted that you could." He replied woodenly.

This, of course, only enraged Z'orange. "Then why didn't you teach me?!" She cried out as tears flooded down her cheeks to even her own surprise.

"Because nopony can teach you how to land." He replied. "Until you figure out where your hooves belong."




It was at this point in the story that I stopped Zecora to ask her what the fuck was going on with all the stupid riddles. And she explained to me that, just as my eyes had first hovered over the Lost Lands, and then fired like shooting stars across the whole damn landscape, ducky traveling could likewise zip you anywhere.

It does strange things to your brain. You fly so fucking fast. And then, outta nowhere some stray world in the duckyverse senses the energy of your random-ass stray thoughts. And the next thing you know, you're in a totally different place and you've forgotten the way you came.

It's only with a firm feeling of belonging - of home - grounded in our own world - that we can ever find our way back again. And even then, you have to be careful not to fly too far from wherever you started.

"Like those stupid puzzle cubes!" I said, all of a sudden-like, right in the middle of Zecora's explanation.

She squinted at me in confusion.

"You know," I said. "Each side has nine boxes and they're a bunch of different colors and then you have to twist, and turn, and rearrange-ify them...try to figure out how to set things right again?"

Zecora batted her eyes at me. Blink bloink. Blink bloink.

"Ugh!" I rolled my eyes in frustration. "My point is: when you're dealing with a puzzle cube, even if you're just a few twists from where you started, you're pretty much bound to lose your place eventually, and then you'll never ever ever solve it. Unless you're some kinda cube wizard."

Zecora booped me on the nose, and shushed me so she could finish the damn zebra story (which is almost done by the way). Here goes...




So Z'orange stood on the precipice of the cliff. And Zewui knew that nothing he could say or do would stop her from making the leap. So instead, he gave her the best advice he could on the slim chance that she'd actually listen.

"Jump if you feel you must." He said. "But listen carefully. You must visit one world, and one world only. Then return at once...if you can figure out how."

He produced a black coin from out of his saddlebag. Hoping he could appeal to her pride. And it worked. She fixated on the sight of it. Before she could even ask, Zewu answered the question that was burning at her. "All will be forgiven if you return." He said. "I swear."

She nodded gravely. Taken off guard by the gravity of this sudden trust her teacher was placing in her. But when she peered back over the edge, she sensed the ducky-shaped worlds below. The colors. The lights. Their songs. Those universes were calling to her, or so it seemed.

"I won't let you down." She said. And jumped without any foo-for-ah or ceremony of any kind.

The first ducky she entered put her in a forest overlooking a mountain lake. Its still waters reflected the clouds above. She saw an older sister and younger sister playing in the water. The youngest slowly worked up the nerve to remove her inflatable water wings. Squeaking them off. One leg at a time. And for just a moment, Z'orange thought of home.

You should go back to them. She thought. Your sister must be worried. And then Zewu's words came back to her also. One world, and one world only. Then return at once...if you can figure out how.

But even as she reflected on his advice, she could feel herself being lifted up. And a twinkle in the sky caught her eye, and she thought. "I'll just have a look. One teeny tiny brief little look. See what's going on up there."

And the magic brew coursing through her blood made her confident. The urge to fly was almost a physical compulsion. She obeyed, and soon she was soaring across the stars. Doing barrel rolls through spirals of light.

But she stll knew the way home. She would be fine! She was certain of it!

She flew everywhere. Above an ocean. Over a valley. Across a vast metropolis full of creatures she couldn't begin to explain. She journeyed from world to world to world. Entranced by her mere ability to do so. And she thought, what if this is home? What if journeying itself is my destiny? What if the sky is where my hooves belong?

So she kept going, and going, and going, and going, and going. 'Till the magic brew wore off.

And she found herself a stranger in a strange land. Grounded. Not only unable to find her way back. But with no access to herbs at all. No training in how to ducky-hop without them. And not a soul in the world to help her.

She cried every night until the day she died. Z'orange never flew again. Ever. The End.

* * *

Now I know what you're thinking. That's fucking bullshit. It was the teacher's fault. The whole damn thing could have been avoided had he given her any actual instruction.

Yeah, sure, he thought she would ignore it. Blah blah blah. She needed to discover it on her own. Yadda yadda yadda. But Zewu was still a dick.

The moral of the story is supposed to be to stay true to your training. To find meaning here in real life as well as in your cosmic ducky one. To learn to land, you apparently have to know where your hooves belong. All that stuff. But Z'orange still didn't deserve what happened to her.

And I told Zecora as much…

* * *

"That's dumb!" I protested. "Why even tell me that?"

"The tale exists for your own sake." She said. "Before you ride the 'duckies' you must know the stakes."

"But what was the point?" I squeaked. "Listen to your teacher or die?"

"The point." She retorted. "Is not to fly too far or too high."

"But that's so stupid!" I said. "Zewu didn't even try to communicate. Z'orange couldn't have known. And her sister! What about her sister?! In the end, Z'orange reformed! She realized how much she loved. Her. Sister." I said that last part emphatically.

Sisterly love was the root of all magic. Every pony knew that!

"The universe is very rough." Zecora replied. "Sometimes love is not enough."

"Well, then the universe is dumb."

Zecora went quiet. Refused to debate me any further. Just tapped her hoof on the ground, and waited for me to drop it and move on.

"Okay," I said. "So, um…you were gonna, like...show me how to get to the Ducky Pit or something?

Zecora shook her head. "I will not tell you how to go / to places you already know."

Blink-bloink, blink-bloink went my blinkitty bloinkitty eyelids. "Then why did we bother with any of this?!" I reared up on my hindquarters and flailed my forehooves in the air.

"It's your quest," Zecora replied, almost smugly. "Go and see. / When you get back, you tell me."

* * *

So I did the trick again. Where my eyeballs hovered over the great big evil desert and fired like shooting stars across the vast expanse of purple skies. I didn't know what sorts of brain thoughts I was supposed to keep in my head. And didn't know how to keep it empty either. But I sure as fuck didn't wanna end up like Z'orange. So I flew with caution, for what little good it did.

'Cause the land below me sped up into a crimson blur as I zoomed on by, caution or no. I had no idea how fast I was going. It was all just...flat. Miles, and miles, and miles, and miles, and miles, and miles of nothing.

Dust. Limbo. Death.

And I was really fucking afraid of flying too high. Too far. Of losing my way. But still, I pushed my eyes further across the landscape. Faster. Faster. Faster.

'Cause of a feeling. A presence I was flying toward like a magnet. Drawing me to something I didn't even have words for. But the mystery didn't last long. The second I started to even question that strange feeling, the answer came right to me. In the form of a grey and black fog. Looming enormous in the distance.

"Ahh!" I said. 'Cause I couldn't slow down. Whooosh! I was already there. Right smack dab in the middle of Shadow Country.

The fog completely surrounded me. When I felt that old familiar chill, I screamed some more inside my head. AaAaaAaAaAAahhhHhh! AaAhh! AaAAAh! AaaaaaaAaaaAaAaaaAAAahhhHhh! AaaaAaaAaaAaAaAhhhhaAahhhhh! AaaaAAhh!

...But nothing fucking happened. I just kept flying. Untouched for some bizarre reason. None of the usual hoof pain - none of the scratchy voices clawing at the inside of my skull. Zilch.

It's like they weren't even trying to get me. Like they didn't even know I was there!

It shouldn't have been possible. The very idea of it shocked me. Jostled me so hard, that my brain said What the fuck? Why? And started to let its guard down. It tried to listen. To hear what the shadows were saying. To find out why they weren't following me.

It was just a brief little thought. Like a flash. Or a picture, or an idea. But the second it crossed my mind, I felt like I had just shouted from the hills, and announced my presence. "Hey, do any of you shadowy fucks know where I can find Rose Petal?"

I cringed. Tried to turn back. Braced myself for the surrounding fog to close in tight, and drag me down.

But to my surprise, I got an answer. An actual fucking answer.

I saw them looking for me. Frantically. There were boiling globules of tar shaking with anger. Reaching their tendrils out of the Shadowlands. Out through magic doors I couldn't see. Reaching from deep within the castle. Probing all of the worlds. All the duckies. Near and far. Trying to figure out where the fuck Rose Petal could be.

They scoured every timeline. And every land.

Except their own.

Zecora was right. I thought. A few steps into the Everfree Forest, and I was totally fucking lost to them.

It didn't take me long to realize that, if they were looking that hard for me in worlds with names I couldn't even pronounce, they were probably waiting, real super eager-like, on the edge of the forest, anticipating my return.

My eyeballs veered left and shot out of the shadowy mists. Reaching out, just like the shadows were, to faraway Ponyville. They'd sent a whole ton of shadowy mist to lurk over there. Not to destroy me. But to spy. It hung over the air, invisible to the naked eye. With a presence that was everywhere. However faintly.

It confirmed what I had already known deep in my gut. What Cranky had known. What Zecora had known. That something wasn't right. Ever since that damn blizzard. The shadows had their eye on my home.

I saw it clearly. Only for an instant. And then I freaked the hell out.

"Fuck!" I said. "Ponyville!"

I snapped out of my trance. Tried to skid myself to a halt and turn around, but that scattered my mind - sent me spiralling out of control - tumbling straight on up through the bubble that holds the skies together. The ratosphere, or whatever the fuck it's called. I cartwheeled out of the shadow mist, flailed around with no idea how to tell up from down. 'Till…

Squeeeeeak. I slammed into an adjacent ducky. Not bright or rainbowy, how I had remembered other duckies to be. This ducky was ashy grey like the used-up ends of the paper fire sticks that the soldiers of No Mare's Land used to puff on.

Fwomp, Squeaka-deeka-deeka.

I was in.

* * *

I found myself standing on the ruins of a building. Columns spiralled all the way up to the sky. Broken at the top. No roof. No ceiling. Just sorta stretching upward, like trees trying to grab a hold of the clouds. The cobblestones beneath me were cracked almost to dust, and it was like that everywhere - spanning across a huge platform the size of twenty buckball fields. It was once the foundation to a building so large, it musta been some kinda palace.

Everything was silent all around. (Except for the wind whistling against the broken pillars). I didn't see anything either. Just a giant ruin. Surrounded by a ton of nothing. Battered roads lead off to desolate horizons in every conceivable direction. Except for one side. A hill of broken stones stood at the far end of the "palace" and I couldn't see over it.

"Ugh! Can I once - just once - land in a world that isn't a shithole?!" I exclaimed. "A world made out of water slides, or cotton candy, or something?'

A moment later, I heard my own voice slapping back off the broken remains of a wall. After that, it carried over the vast emptiness. Echoed diffusely over the lifeless mountains way off in the distance.

Sweet Celestia. I thought. I'm here.

In my previous journey into the Ducky Pit, I had jumped in and out of different worlds, in and out of different times - eras and epochs thousands of years apart. Like a bouncy ball in a tiny room, knocking into every single thing at random. But they were experiences of the senses. Of the mind. I couldn't move, or speak, or touch anything on my own. I certainly couldn't make a noise.

But here in Columnland, my voice carried. Echoed right back to me.

In amazement, I looked to my hooves. (That's what Zecora had always taught me. When you're lost in a dream, and trying to make sense of things, and you need to get a hold of reality - to gain control - you've got to try to force yourself to look down at your own hooves). But this time, I had no problem at all bringing them to focus. It was just like being back at home. You lift your hoof, and there it is. Solid. Present. Tangible.

This awful world was more than a vision, or a glimpse. I was there. In Columnland. Physically.

My legs seized up. Like four stone columns of their own. And my heart bucked at the inside of my chest like the pounding rhythm of dance music played on a phonograph that spun too fast because its motor was powered by lightning that had struck it, and cursed it to play super fast and super loud, and super duper annoyingly until it burnt out, exploded and died.

I panted a thousand shallow breaths a minute.

I just made a sound. I thought. A very, very, very loud sound. If there was anything alive in that stupid world - anything at all - it had fucking heard me. It knew where I was.

I spun around in all directions. My hooves cruuuunched against the cobblestones that had practically been shattered into gravel by the ravages of time. The scraping was so shrill that I froze all over again. Still as a dragonequus imprisoned in stone.

I watched the battered roads that lead from the empty mountain ranges straight to the ruins of the "palace" where I stood. I darted glances at the columns a hundred yards away. The piles of rubble beneath them. The cracked stairwell that lead up to a broken platform way off in the corner. I shifted my eyeballs anywhere a bad guy might conceivably hide.

And I listened too. The sudden gusts of wind. The haunting silences in between. I waited, and I waited, and I waited, and I waited. And then, just when I thought I was alone...

...Absolutely nothing fucking happened. 'Cause I actually was alone. In the middle of nowhere!

I sighed. And took to pacing around. Crunch crunch crunch crunch. I couldn't just...stay still. Not forever.

Alright, think, Rose Petal, think! How did you get here? How'd'ja get here? How'd'ja get here? My brain was a bit foggy from the ducky shift. But it only took a moment to get my bearings.

"The puzzle cube!" I exclaimed out loud.

Zecora'd said that the questions that plague our souls attract a certain kinda energy. (Which totally makes sense considering that my first trip to the Ducky Pit had given me sooooo many fucking visions that were oddly relevant.)

But it also made me wonder what the hell was wrong with my soul that I kept on attracting these awful fucking wastelands?

It didn't matter. This was no time for whiny piratetry! I couldn't fly my way out of Columnland no matter what the answer was. I pretty much had to hoof it and figure out what I was dealing with. Hope the bark hadn't totally worn off.

I crunched my way across the foundations of the palace ruins. Crkkk crkkk crkkkk. All the while sucking in air that tasted like a stale old basement closet. There were no signs of danger. No signs of life. No signs of anything!

And any toppled pillar or pile of debris that I dared to stray near turned out to be just as deserted as the rest of that fucking dump. So I kept moving. Headed across the long field of stone. Toward that warped staircase of broken marble all the way on the edge of the platform. It lead upward, to the top of a giant mound of rubble. If I climbed it, I might, at the very least, get a better view of the surrounding lands - a better understanding of how fucked I was.

Crkkk crkkk crkkkk crkk crkkk. The sound of my own hooves continued to creep me out. There was just no getting used to it. The way it echoed back to me like a ping pong ball. The way it cut through the silence. The sudden gusts of wind were almost a relief. The whistling sound actually made Columnland feel less empty somehow.

I shoulda been figuring out how to leave. How to fly again. How to backtrack through the puzzle cube and find my way home. I shoulda been worried that Cliff Diver was my lifeline - my safety net - and that I couldn't risk reaching out to him like I'd done in prior dreams. 'Cause there was a million miles of shadows between Columnland and Equestria, and that meant that there was a very real possibility that climbing my way into Cliff's brain would wake up all the shadowmajigs in between.

I fixed my eyes on that staircase instead. There was purpose in it. As miserable as that palace ruin was, I couldn't turn away from the whole stupid ducky. Not yet. Not until I knew for sure that there was nothing to be learned there - not 'till I saw just a little bit more of it with my own eyes.

I ascended the steps. One by one by one by one by one. Without disruption. No brigands in flowery cloaks. No bandits. No nightmare monsters from the Dimension of Pain. All I had to do was climb on up there and be careful not to trip along the way.




By the time I reached the summit, I wasn't thinking about shadows, or duckies, or the apocalypse, or any of that stuff at all. Not even the fact that I appeared to be stranded right the fuck in the middle of Nowheresville. It was my aching lungs.

"Too." Pant. "Many." Pant. "Stairs." Pant. I said out loud as I splayed across the stone platform, struggling for breath.

Coughing and wheezing stale air, I rolled over on my back and breathed in real mega deep. Looked straight up at the pale grey sky.

A tall stone towered over me. Not a column. Some kinda pedestal. There were stone talons or claws dangling off the edge of it. I coughed some ducky dust out of my lungs and squinted. From the base of the claw, a leg reached out to the sky. But the statue ended there. No fragments lying around it either. No face. No body. No wings. It was hard even to tell what race that thing was supposed to be. A griffin? A dragon? Some kinda weird lizard thing?

I got up and brushed myself off, got a closer look at the pedestal right side up. There was something haunting about it. Maybe it was the reminder that Columnland had been a real kingdom once. With living, sentient creatures. With princesses and generals who ordered statues of themselves to be made, overlooking vast halls where they greeted guards, and dignitaries, and artists, and masses of common everyday folk who had built the damn thing.

I pressed my hoof against the pedestal, and fwish! A cold silence washed over my heart. My brain went totally blank as my lips whispered mysterious words that came to me from somewhere far far away. "Look on my works ye mighty and despair." I said.

I drifted past the remains of the statue. In a haze of sorts. Like a pirate entranced by sirens' songs. There wasn't much left of the second floor of what once had been a grand structure. But beyond it was an unnatural landscape. A vast concave groove in the ground ran all the way from the base of the "palace" straight to the horizon.

An ocean. All dried up except for a slick oily film lining the bottom. Black and tarry like rancid rubber.

Straight below me were the petrified remains of a fragment of a ship. After the years I'd spent studying diagrams in the backs of Pinkbeard books, I'd recognize that shape anywhere, mutilated though it may have been.

Further out was a twisted bramble of metal beams, turned to rust, and almost disintegrated completely, except for the sticky black oily substance congealing to the outside, giving it some semblance of a shape. It looked like some kinda construction equipment, but what it was doing in the middle of (what used to be) an ocean was anypony's guess.

What struck me was that that mass of hideous blackness wasn't shadow tar. It wasn't made of nightmares or malice or evil. At least not in the traditional sense. It was just...nasty black stuff, reaching far out into the distant ocean, glistening ever so slightly with a hideous rainbow.

But worse than any of that was what floated above the horizon like a Sun, or a Moon. Far away, hanging in the sky, was the Evil Castle. Yes, that castle.

It was kind of sideways-ish, like the gravity of Columnland didn't apply - and it took the form of a silhouette 'cause it was so very far away. But I still knew it for what it was.

And I had a pretty good idea where I was too.





Bananas Foster had described her trip from the Lost Lands through Shadow Country all the way to that awful castle. She'd said it was like a thousand miles of rail moving through shadowy mists faster than the equine eye could keep track of. Passing dead worlds along the way. Places where the shadows had won. And totally abandoned once destroyed.

I was standing in a world like that - a civilization that they had sucked dry. A ducky left barren and oily and gross.

No creatures. No love. No light.

They'd killed it all. And then just forgotten about it entirely. Like totally fucking ignored it.

Those shadowy clitweasels had inky claws stretching across the entire universe looking for me. And there I was. Practically at their front door, making a ruckus so loud it could be heard across Luna-damned mountain ranges, and they didn't even notice!

Looking out over that ex-ocean, and seeing the castle hanging there like a star in the sky, I realized that it was my evil hoof that had gotten me through the door. My evil hoof that had kept me from being noticed. And gotten me passed all the mists, and physically to Columnland - a world so forsaken even the shadows didn't care about it anymore.

"Sweet Celestia." I whispered to myself.

That zebra medic back in No Mare's Land was right. My cursed hoof held a kind of dominion over them. They feared me because I was a loose end. A breech in their nightmareitty clitweasel security.

I felt a burst of power surge through me. A confidence of sorts. And in an instant - like the flash of a camera - I got hit with a brief but blinding realization - a vision of every single fucking thing that had happened between then and now. And I remembered each turn of the puzzle cube that had gotten me to that Dumpsville, Columnland. It was a window of opportunity. A door about to close!

So I shut my eyes. And fwomp. Willed myself right the fuck out of that ducky.

So long columns. So long oily ruins. So long mountain passes leading to nowhere! I transformed myself back into a pair of eyeballs up above. Floating. Watching. Firing like canons.

'Cause now the question eating at my soul was totally different. Guided by a whole other kind of light. I sent my vision straight toward the evil castle. Without fear.

They couldn't fucking see me anyway.

And I perceived it clearly for the first time ever. All of the abandoned fragments floating around beneath it. All the debris hovering around as the castle just sorta hung there on its black cloud o' doom. All the duckies. Gray and useless. Used up. Even as that bone cold evil stretched its many smoky claws from the castle out into the odd cosmic thoroughfare, it weaved over and under and around all the wretched worlds that they'd discarded like candy wrappers.

A sort of hate boiled in my heart as I watched that fucking place. Those broken duckies floating lifeless in its orbit had each been home to millions - maybe even billions of creatures. But the scale of their interduckymensional conquest was way too vast to wrap my brain around.

Sending my sight toward the castle itself, on the other hoof, knowing what they did to individuals. Like Foster. Like me. Like Cranky's traveler friends, and Screw Loose.

It set off a little voice in my brain that told me to storm the castle. Break down all the walls. Free the kids that musta been trapped inside. You can't just hover around, luxuriating in the ether. It scolded me. Not while there are ponies enduring unspeakable tortures in there!

I saw that little boy all over again. The one I'd abandoned to the mercies of the cloak-o's on my first night in the Wasteland. Was this the same? If I flew home again without doing something, would the pain the shadows inflicted afterwards be like blood on my hooves?!

The impulse to act - to charge over there and fucking do something - was strong. But I didn't. 'Cause that stupid Z'orange story got stuck in my head. I was flying too far. Too high. I'd made promises to Zecora. Who was no doubt waiting for me. Worrying. And Princess Luna herself had warned me that the shadows would try to bait me into attacking their castle.

Even if I did knew things now that she probably hadn't at the time, I still couldn't just charge right up to the castle door. I had to think of Cliff. Of Foster. Of Roseluck.

I had an altar full of candles burning in my room. And the second I turned my mind toward family, I could feel their light. Their warmth. Come home. They said. Come home now.




So I yanked my eyeballs back. Way way way way waaaaay back through the shadows. Through the fog. Over the great big evil chasm that Bananas Foster had warned me about. Through the ink and the hate and the bitter cold and fear. Back into the desert of nothingness.

And right away, I started to fall. To crash. As my eyeballs ran out of steam, I saw my hooves start to take form. Felt the burn of the dry desert air on my back. Like a slow awakening from a dream, my mind was starting to remember my body, and the Lost Lands were pulling on that body. Hard. Trying to drag me down like it had Amelia Mareheart.

I closed my eyes, clutched the mojo bag around my chest, and used the last of my focus to call Cliff Diver. To grab that rope made out of his mane hair, chomp down on it like a mad dog and fwoiing.

It jerked me outta there like a rubber band.

AaaAAaAaAaahH! I somersaulted through time, and space, and duckies, and states of being I can't even begin to understand, let alone explain. Imagine having your head stuck in the middle of a kaleidoscope while your body rode the teacup ride at the town fair. l screamed and spun as my brain turned itself inside out. And all the while, I clutched that hair-rope for dear life. Zigging and Zagging all around. 'Till wham!

* * *

Suddenly I was in the Everfree Forest again. Cliff Diver as on the ground, and I was on top of him.

I jerked my head around. Looking for signs of danger. But it was all just the same nature stuff as always. The foresty whispers that had given me that awful headache only a few hours before were piping up again. But it didn't hurt this time.

Zecora sat on a log across from the one I'd just toppled off of. She scrunched her nose and looked at me sour-like. "To ducky's edge you were supposed to go." She scowled. "I waited and you did not show."

I rolled off of Cliff. Staggered around to get my bearings, and shrunk back at the sight of Zecora's disapproving glower. "I...I...I…" I tried to apologize - to explain - but the words just wouldn't come.

"It's not her fault!" Cliff Diver leaped up. "There were shadows everywhere, and it was cold and scary. And there were these worlds floating around like islands. And they were dead. And Rose Petal was stuck there. Oh, and Ponyville!"

He spun around in blind panic. "There is a bunch of evil there now! Right now!" He added. "And that's why she lost control! When she saw what all that evil stuff was up to back in Ponyville, she flipped out and then...Oh Luna!" He shivered. "It was so cold, and dead, and there was a dried up sticky old ocean, and a crumbled kingdom, and an empire made by creatures who had been destroyed so long ago that there was no sign of them left! I don't know why everything was so deserted," he sobbed. "But Rose Petal had to find out whatever she could while she still had the chance. She had to!"

Zecora came to him and laid a reassuring hoof on his head. Cliff looked to me with these weird gigantic eyes. Pupils the size of bowling balls. And then threw his face into the zebra's chest, sobbing.

I wish I had gone to him. Hugged him like Zecora did. Held him tight and told him that everything was gonna be okay. But instead, I backed away. Jaw agape. Watching in horror as Cliff Diver wailed and keened.

He had been there. With me. The whole damn time. Shadows, and fog, and worlds laid waste. He'd felt it all.

Because I'd dragged him there.

* * *

Even though the day was dying, and the shadows of the trees were stretching long and low against the forest floor, Zecora took the time to lead us back to her tree hut. Get some nice warm peppermint tea in Cliff. While I told her everything that had happened. As clearly as I could.

It was a long rambling mess. But Cliff just stared at the floor. The whole damn time. Eyes a hundred miles away. Like those soldiers, huddling in the trenches of No Mare's Land.

Zecora stopped me now and again to throw him some random reassurances. She'd hold up her hoof and offer Cliff Diver refills on his tea. Though, really, she was just checking on him. Watching him to see how distant he really was.

When at last, my story was over, and Zecora's questions answered, she pointedly left the two of us alone for a little while. That's when the air grew heavy. Every crackle of the cauldron fire cut through the silence like canon shots. Booming inside my ears.

It bugged me. 'Cause we shouldn't have been silent in the first place. Cliff was my best friend. We shoulda been talking it out! I'd dragged him to the Shadowlands and back, and I was so ashamed, I had nothing to say for myself. Even though there was so much that fucking needed saying.

"I'm sorry." I spoke up at last.

"Don't be." He replied, lightning fast, before the words could even finish leaving my mouth.

Then he stared at the fire. Watched it pop and spark as he sipped his tea. "I never told you how I broke my wings." He said. "Did I?"

Cricka crocks POK a cricka. Went the fire as I worked up the nerve to answer.

"No." I replied at long last.

"I was a little foal. Too young to fly. Predictably at least. But I had gotten these ideas in my head. That I was destined for greatness. So one day, I just...leapt."

"Off a cliff?" I said, reminded of his namesake.

"Off a cloud." He answered. "Turns out I couldn't fly at all. I hit a tree on the way down. Every branch." He laughed lightly to himself. "Doctors said they couldn't fix my wing. That I was lucky to be alive.

"I shouldn't have done it. Just like I shouldn't have leaped headfirst into this shadow business." He said. "I thought it was a game, you know? I was so in love with the idea of good guys versus bad guys And the idea that all my theoretical science stuff was actually right. About all the other worlds out there. Other timelines. Other...duckies." He smiled weakly at that last word.

Then he sighed. "I wish I was wrong." He looked me in the eye, and said. "I wish I hadn't treated this like an adventure or a mystery. Or a game." He said that word again, this time with acid on his tongue. Game.

"It's okay. I wish I hadn't dragged you into this." I said, even though it wasn't true. The fact of the matter was, I'd have been lost without Cliff. The weight of that realization was really clobbering me now. I couldn't have made it this far alone.

The shadows woulda made Rosemeat of me ages ago without him. But I couldn't say that. This wasn't about me. It was about him. For once.

He stared at the fire again. Though this time, his eyes didn't seem quite so far away. He was present. Lips muttering to themselves. The sight of it made me start to cry. And I batted my squishy eyelids, rubbed my face casually, pretending to scratch at an itch as I stealthily wiped away the tears.

I don't know how long the two of us went on like that. But it was Cliff Diver who broke the spell with a sigh. He took the world's deepest breath,and said, "Same time tomorrow, okay?"

Cliff turned to me, looked me in the eye, and offered me his hoof, and his help. Even though he was terrified. Even though he finally knew what I was up against.

"You don't have to." I said.

"Yeah, well I wanna, okay? So there." He snapped at me, all grumpy-like.

Clop. He bumped my hoof sardonically without my having a chance to reciprocate, or even think about it. And turned away from me to look at the fire again. "I want to." He said again, this time in a whisper to himself.

So I scooched over. And leaned my head against his shoulder. "Thanks." I said. It felt like my throat was full of gravel. He ran his hoof over my mane. And the two of us watched the fire side by side. In a strange sort of peace.

The air between us was no longer awkward. We just sipped our tea in silence, and waited for Zecora to guide us home.