Magic of the Heart

by Pegasus Rescue Brigade

Chapter 17


Inkwell called out into the darkness. She was relieved when nopony replied. Stepping carefully over some fallen debris, she slunk into the vacant building, and looked around in search of any room that might contain something to eat.

Ten days ago, Wishing Star had captured Princess Twilight and torn Canterlot from the mountainside. Since then, nopony had seen her or her captives; presumably, she was still holed up in the castle. Suspended thousands of feet in the air, and sealed within a seemingly impenetrable magical barrier, the ponies within Canterlot were left with only what they could find within the captive city.

Inkwell was terrified of what was going to happen to her and her friends. There didn't seem to be any end to the siege in sight, or any hope of rescue, but there was little choice but to try to make it through each day in the hope that something would change.

Today, she and her friends needed food.

Inkwell poked her head into one of the dim rooms, and her eyes lit up as she spotted a pantry not yet raided by any of the city's other captive residents. That was certainly one advantage to being small; the earthquake that had occurred when the city was pulled from the ground had damaged many buildings and blocked off a lot of interior areas. Squeezing through narrow openings in the rubble had allowed the foals to access places not yet reached by adult ponies. Places with solitude, shelter, and if they were lucky, unclaimed food.

Inkwell quickly stuffed her saddlebags with everything she could carry and scurried back the way she came, squeezing through a collapsed doorway and galloping down the block to the little cellar she and her friends were currently using as their shelter. Just before she pulled open the doors, the sound of muffled voices reached her ears; two ponies were clearly speaking rather heatedly to one another. She winced.

No... not again...

Sighing, she pulled open the doors.

"This is your fault, you know! If you weren't so slow and out of shape, maybe we could've escaped Canterlot in time!"

"You're the one whose resolution to that complication was to convey me like a parcel draped across your posterior!"

"I don't know what that means, but if you're talking about me carrying you, I was trying to save your sorry life 'cause I thought you were on our side, but you've been nothing but an annoyance this whole last week!"

"Me? You're the origin of our irritation presently, you overbearing ignoramus!"

"Don't insult me with words I don't know, Top Percentile!"

Inkwell crept into the room. "Guys, um, I found some food..." she mumbled.

"About time!" Portabella snapped. "Dealing with Top's gibberish really works up an appetite."

"Just hasten to grant me my portion before our corpulent companion ingests every last morsel," Top said darkly, glaring at Portabella.

"What'd you call me?" Portabella asked, returning the harsh stare.

"Bella, Top, please!" Inkwell cut in, her voice cracking slightly. "You need to snap out of it. Whatever terrible magic Wishing Star is trying to spread across the world is making you both act nasty. The three of us are best friends; we have to work together as a team if we want even a chance of getting through this!"

"Maybe it's Wishing Star's magic," Portabella grumbled, "or maybe Top's just being a butt and won't admit it's his fault we're in this mess?"

"Or, conceivably, it's Portabella's ineptitude that is culpable here, but she's too vacuous to even comprehend her shortcomings, let alone rectify them," Top replied acidly.

"Again, didn't catch that, but I don't like your tone!" Portabella warned.

Inkwell hung her head as her friends ignored her and continued to fight. She took a single piece of dry bread and a slightly overripe apple from their pile of provisions and retired to the furthest corner of the cellar. She tried to block out the sound of the others bickering and focus on her food, but it was no use; she just couldn't work up an appetite. Dejectedly, the filly slumped down onto her stomach, crossing her forelegs in front of her and resting her head on them as she felt the first of a fresh wave of hot tears trail down her cheek.

It's no use, she thought, squeezing her eyes shut. This is all my fault; if we'd just gone home on the first train instead of hanging around in Canterlot, we wouldn't have been here when the city was captured. Now we're all trapped here, doomed to just wait while our friendship fades away, just like Wishing Star wants. I like to think somepony down below is trying to save Canterlot, but if Bella and Top know that Wishing Star is trying to stamp out the magic of friendship and harmony, and they still can't stop themselves from giving in... do the ponies down below who don't know what's happening even stand a chance?"

Bella and Top's voices rose to a shout. Inkwell covered her ears with her hooves and curled up on the dusty stone floor, quivering.

I just want this nightmare to be over! Please, somepony... anypony... help us!

"Whinnychester. End of the line."

Ditzy hopped off the train, extending her wings to keep her balance. Sparkler and Presto stepped down behind her.

"Finally," Sparkler sighed. "It sure is a pain coming all the way out here from the Canterlot metropolitan area."

Ditzy caught a whiff of salt in the air. The sea was supposed to be visible from Whinnychester station, but it was too foggy to see that far today. She peered down the deserted main road of the town instead.

"So, you guys have an address for somepony here?" she asked.

"That's right, and it looks like it's just up the road," Presto answered. "I hope we have better luck with this one than the last four. Otherwise, we came all this way for nothing.

Ditzy followed the pair of unicorns to a fairly normal looking home, with the exception of several metal antennae and some sort of satellite dish situated on the roof. Sparkler knocked.

"So who are we meeting with this time?" Ditzy asked, while they waited for the homeowner to answer.

"A pony who graduated a year before us," Sparkler explained. "We picked her because she's... well, brilliant. Even by Academy standards, which is saying something. Her name's—"

Sparkler was cut off as the door swung suddenly open. Ditzy did a double take when she caught sight of the pony on the other side, mainly because she bore a tremendous resemblance to Clarity, save for the bright purple color of her mane, a pair of red-rimmed glasses on her face, and an image of three red and yellow firework rockets on her flank.

That must mean this is...

"Good afternoon, Lucid," Sparkler greeted, nodding to the surprised unicorn politely. "It's been a long time."

"Sparkler?" Lucid asked, bewildered. "And Presto, too? It's nice to see you, but what brings you all the way out here in such dark times? And who's this you brought along?"

"Ditzy Doo," Ditzy introduced. "I'm the mother of your sister's friend Dinky."

At the mention of Clarity, Lucid's face fell. "Oh, we're in the same boat then, aren't we Mrs. Doo?" she asked sadly, hanging her head. "I heard about Dinky's incident at the Academy, naturally. There hasn't been anything in the news yet about any confirmed sighting of Dinky or Clarity. I know my sister can take care of herself, but... oh, I hope she's okay..."

"She's fine," Ditzy promised. "A friend of mine took Dinky, Clarity, and their other friends somewhere safe."

Lucid's head shot up so fast her glasses nearly fell off her face. "You've seen Clarity? Like, in person?" she asked frantically. "Oh, thank Celestia she's alright. Be right back; my parents are worried sick too, I need to let them know."

Without waiting for a reply, she disappeared in a bright red flash.

"You know, I didn't even take the time to stop to think about it," Ditzy said, feeling ashamed, "but it should've been obvious I wasn't the only one worried sick. Honeydew's parents don't seem to care much, but I'm sure Clarity's family has been petrified since Dinky and her friends escaped the Academy..."

"It's not your fault, Mrs. Doo," Presto comforted. "There's nothing wrong with putting your own daughter first, especially since it's Dinky that's a wanted fugitive now, not her friends."

"I guess," Ditzy said with a nod. "So we're trying to recruit Clarity's older sister, huh?"

"Well, not just because of her connection with ponies already involved," Sparkler clarified. "Lucid's scores on Academy exams were the highest of any student since Twilight Sparkle herself, ten years earlier. I've never met anypony with a better grasp of magical theory; if there's one pony in Equestria besides the princesses who might be able to understand the spell that's been holding Canterlot aloft for over a week, it's her."

Lucid reappeared in another flash. "Sorry for the wait. What's up?" she asked. "If you're looking for me, this has to have something to do with whatever Clarity's up to now, right? You said she went somewhere with Dinky?"

"Yes, and I know what you're going to say," Ditzy replied quickly. "But despite the news about Dinky being a wraith, she's not evil, and Clarity's not in danger, I promise."

Lucid shrugged. "Oh, I know."

Ditzy blinked. "Y-you do?" she stammered. "That's not the response we usually get when somepony finds out Dinky's a wraith."

Lucid snickered. "Clarity let it slip years ago," she explained. "Poor thing was mortified and begged me not to tell anypony. When the four of them vacationed here after their third year at school, I actually discreetly scanned Dinky with a gizmo of mine to confirm it. Fascinating stuff; she's made entirely of dark magic, but hey, I've seen her spend a whole summer with Clarity and be perfectly harmless and well behaved, so I'll take Clarity's word for it on this one. I don't think even Dinky is aware that I know the truth."

"Alright, that saves us some explaining," Sparkler said, relieved. "But Lucid, listen, we really need your help. The princesses think Dinky's dark magic may be pivotal in saving Equestria now that they've all been captured, but if we want to stand a chance, we're gonna need to learn more about what's happening in Canterlot. Clarity's already helping Dinky with her end of things. We were hoping... you could help us, too?"

Lucid smiled. "I can do better than that!" she chuckled. "I may not know anything about the spell that's holding Canterlot captive, but I can still give you some details about what's happening to Equestria right now as a result! Come inside, I need to show you something in my lab."

She ushered her guests into the house. Ditzy stepped inside and quickly noticed something strange; although the home was about an average size for a standard village cottage, the living area, kitchen appliances, and even bed were crammed into a space no bigger than a studio apartment. After passing through the next doorway, she understood why.

Nearly two thirds of the space inside the house was occupied by a huge variety of strange instruments and humming machines, one of which was printing out page after page of data. Lucid paused to check several of the dials for a moment, then nodded, apparently satisfied.

"Lucid, what is all this?" Presto asked.

"Just a hobby," said Lucid casually, taking a moment to turn a large crank on one of the machines several times and watching as a string of numbers dozens of digits long displayed across the screen it was connected to. "I have a pretty analytical approach to magic. As soon as I moved out of my parents' place last year, I got to work building this little setup. The instruments here make spellweaving a lot easier; these devices let me measure fluctuations in magical fields and changes in thermodynamic output from spells; with this stuff, I can actually quantify the imperfections in an experimental spell, and do a few equations to figure out which element of it needs tweaking."

"Is that good?" Ditzy asked, her eyes drifting slowly further apart to stare at two different unfamiliar machines.

"That's amazing," Sparkler breathed. "The level of understanding you'd need of the physics of magic to make any use of that kind of information is astronomical, but I guess I'm not surprised you can pull it off, Lucid."

"Thanks, but as cool as all this stuff is, only one thing here is important right now," Lucid replied, leading her guests to a wide machine with dozens of different needles each fluctuating on their respective scales. "This is a thaumatograph, which is a device used for measuring the natural flow of magical energy through our world. Spells cast by unicorns don't really affect it; it only varies when some event changes the way unfocused magic moves through everypony and everything. For example, it shows the dip in power of certain types of magic and rise in others based on the current positions of the stars."

"What does that have to do with Canterlot?" Ditzy asked.

"Well, I've been keeping an eye on the readings all year, and there's a strange trend going on," Lucid explained. "Something's restricting the flow of magic, but I haven't quite pinned down exactly what's been affected by that restriction yet. Regular unicorn spells are fine; their power continues to cycle in accordance with the stars as normal, so something else, probably something less consciously accessible, is being tampered with instead. My guess is it's something that influences the mental or emotional state of ponies. I admit, I have been noticing a lot of ponies acting a bit more testy than usual lately; I've been getting easily frustrated myself, but every time I do, I just remind myself that an interruption in the flow of magic may have something to do with it, and I can manage to focus on my work again."

"We noticed that too!" Sparkler announced. "A lot of our old classmates seemed unnaturally nervous or dismissive."

Lucid indicated a series of color-coded graphs, all of which were trending noticeably downward. "I've counted four magical frequencies that have dipped way below their normal levels, and analysis of past measurements shows that all four of those frequencies have been remarkably stable for years," she continued. "What concerns me is that the fourth one's sudden dip in normal flow coincided almost exactly with the moment Canterlot was hoisted into the sky. Correlation doesn't necessarily equal causation, of course, so I don't want to make any judgments on what exactly that might mean until I have more info, but the timing seems suspicious to me."

"Is there any kind of pattern?" Presto asked. "Maybe there's a specific unit of time between each interruption in the flow of magic?"

"That was the first thing I checked, but no," Lucid answered. "The first interruption happened all the way back in April, and has been falling lower and lower for seven months. That one's barely flowing at all now. The second was not too long after, in May. Then there was a long period of time where things were normal, before I suddenly saw a drop in the third one in October, and the last, just a week after it, when Canterlot was captured. The spans of time are so... random."

Ditzy did some mental math. "Pardon me if you've already looked into this, Lucid," she ventured, "but since Princess Twilight was presumably captured along with Canterlot... doesn't that mean the dates of those events match up with the disappearance of each princess?"

Lucid opened her mouth to answer, but then closed it again. Hastily, she checked the charts, and then the thaumatograph readings, and finally a normal Equestrian calendar.

"How... how did I not notice that?" she whispered. "Here I was comparing the timing to all sorts of natural events, movements of the stars, changing of the seasons, and never realized it might be tied to something going on in pony society!"

"So there's a chance the princesses themselves affect the way certain magic moves through Equestria?" Sparkler asked. "I wonder if whoever captured them realizes that?"

"It's still too early to jump to conclusions," Lucid warned. "But it's definitely something that warrants investigation. If these events really are connected, it may be a lot more than just Canterlot that's currently in danger. Whatever's going on up there may be fundamentally changing the nature of Equestria right under our noses!"

"Then please, Lucid, come with us," Ditzy begged. "My friends and I are trying to do our part, and Dinky is doing the same with hers, but we need a pony like you on our side. You have expertise that nopony else does."

Lucid drew a long breath. "You want me to go to the front lines, huh?" she asked. "I've never really been good at handling myself when it comes to danger and adventure..."

"But your sister kind of is," Sparkler pointed out. "You two are both brilliant in different ways. Think what we could accomplish if you worked together!"

Lucid nodded slowly. "Clarity once told me she was jealous of my smarts," she admitted. "And I told her I was jealous of her spirit. She'd never give up on ponies she cares about when there's a chance she could help them. So... maybe it's time I take a leaf from her book."

"Is that a yes?" Presto asked, smiling brightly.

Lucid smiled slightly. "Let me just pack a few things," she replied, trotting deeper into the maze of machinery. "Hang in there, Clarity; your big sis is coming to back you up!"

Scorpio's Apex arrived.

Dinky quietly stepped out of her cabin, taking a moment to listen to the muffled sound of the waves beyond the walls of the ship. In her saddlebag were six nearly identical gemstones; she'd used the runecrafter's chisel Dean Script had given her to carve Scorpio's rune into the surface of each one. Right now, they were still inert, but they wouldn't be for long.

She heard hoofsteps. Peeking around the corner, she spotted Honeydew trotting down the hall. The other filly didn't notice her as she turned and made her way up the stairs to the deck. Dinky glanced down the hall in the direction she had come from.

Wait a sec... she was in Scuffle's cabin.

Dinky walked to the end of the hall and pushed open the door to find Scuffle packing his saddlebag. "Hey Dinks," he greeted. "Today's the day, huh?"

"Did... did Honeydew spend the night in here?" she asked, giving the colt a playful smile.

"Wha— no! No, no, nothing like that," Scuffle replied, reddening a little. "She was up at the crack of dawn like she always is, and she was feeling nervous about... y'know, this whole insane plan of yours we're apparently carrying out today, so she came looking for me so we could talk. Y'know, help calm her down."

Dinky just smirked at Scuffle. The colt looked away indignantly.

"...Alright, talk and also maybe snuggle a little and that's it, Dinks!" he insisted. "Jeez, we've been dating for like three days, and spent every minute of it on this slimy old ship. Not much is all that different yet."

"Sure Scuffle, whatever you say," Dinky sang, knowing full well the colt was probably telling the truth but having far too much fun teasing him to care.

"Dinks, you are the actual worst sometimes," Scuffle huffed. "What's got you in such a good mood anyhow? It's Scorpio's Apex. In about ten minutes we're gonna fling your conscious mind into some other dimension, and yet you're standing here making dirty jokes."

"I've just been trying not to think about it too much," Dinky admitted. "I still think it's our best bet, but I really don't like what we're gonna have to do to make it work."

"Same," Scuffle grunted, slinging his bags over his back. "But Dewey, Clarity, and Pip are probably up there waiting for us, so if we're really doing this, let's get started."

Dinky nodded and led the way up to the deck. Their other friends were indeed waiting above, their expressions grave.

"Morning Dinky," Pip greeted. "I set up the site like you asked."

Dinky walked to the center of the deck to inspect her coltfriend's handiwork. A large, black circle had been painted on the wood, with Scorpio's sinister rune drawn quite large at its center. Just north of it, toward the bow of the ship, was another circle, identically designed but much smaller. The tuft of Scorpio's tail sat in the middle of the second circle.

"Looks just how I hoped," she said with a nod. "Here's how this is gonna go down. I'm going to enchant the gems, place them on the perimeter of the big circle and then stand in the center. Once they're activated, they should prevent me from taking a step, and from using any magic, so that's when Clarity, Honeydew, and Scuffle are going to have to each use a dark spell within a few moments of each other. First, I want Scuffle to imbue the big circle with dark magic, which will trigger all the gems; I won't be able to activate them all myself since they'll begin to restrict me as soon as the spell begins, and I need all six of them triggered for this to work."

"Got it," Scuffle said, looking at Scorpio's rune nervously.

"As soon as that's done, Honeydew has to trigger the teleport anchor," Dinky continued. "This should open a portal above the small circle. Since we're trying to cross so many dimensions, the portal probably isn't going to be very stable, if it works at all, so she'll need to try to hold it open until I'm safely inside."

"I'll try..." Honeydew mumbled.

Dinky turned to Clarity, her expression grim. "And Clarity... assuming both those things work as planned, that's when you cast the spell we've been working out the details of for the last few days. The same way Antares did it, I need you to separate my body and mind, so the latter can pass through the portal."

"We've gone over how to do it in theory about a hundred times, but it's not like I've been able to practice," Clarity pointed out. "The three of us still have never cast a dark spell."

"I know," Dinky sighed. "We can't risk practicing, though; you'd start to be corrupted by dark magic if you cast the spell over and over, and trust me, you don't wanna go through that."

"Anything you need me to do during all this?" Pipsqueak asked.

Dinky stepped closer to the pinto colt and craned her neck to nuzzle him. "Pip, if something goes... y'know, really wrong..." she began softly, "...your job is to help keep the others safe, okay? I'm sure my big navy stallion will know what to do if things get dangerous."

Pip chuckled. "I'll do my best, Dinky."

She kissed him on the nose. "That's all I can ask."

As her friends watched, Dinky placed the gems on the deck and imbued each one with dark magic, causing the runes on them to glow a dull purple. "It's time," she announced, as she placed them around the edges of the circle.

"Dinks, quick question," Scuffle piped up. "How do we actually cast dark magic? I don't even know where to begin."

"When Antares was posing as Sunbeam, he summoned it and let his horn touch mine, so I could get a feel for the energy inside myself and bring it forward," Dinky explained, letting a black aura, kept as calm and controlled as she could make it, spring up around her horn. "Who wants to go first?"

Clarity stepped forward frowning. "...Does it hurt?" she asked finally.

"Hurt? No," Dinky answered. "But it feels extremely unnatural. Your body will resist it. Casting it for the first time is like trying to force yourself to take a breath while underwater; all your instincts will fight you."

Clarity took a shaky breath and slowly leaned forward. The very tip of her horn came in contact with Dinky's.

"Feel that?" Dinky asked softly. "There's energy like that somewhere deep inside you. You need to find it, and force it to come to your horn."

Clarity backed off a little, letting the usual shimmering red appear around her horn. She closed her eyes, concentrating. Her legs shook with effort.

Then, slowly, the red color became deeper, darkening from a cheery cinnamon to a color unnervingly like blood, and then further still. After a moment, the red slipped away entirely, leaving a crackling black in its place.

"Dear Celestia," Clarity muttered, shivering as the angry aura swirled around her horn and violet haze started to seep from around her eyes. "It... it's just... I've never felt something so fundamentally wrong before. My body feels like it wants to escape from my own horn."

"Once a pony gets corrupted, it gets easier," Dinky reminded her. "And when they get seriously corrupted, it starts making its own way out of your horn, even when you try to hold it back. Imagine that sensation growing inside you, forcing its way to the surface against your will. That's what I went through four years ago."

Clarity shivered. "You're a stronger pony than I am, Dinky, I'll say that much..."

Dinky let her horn touch Scuffle's next. The colt tried not to react too much as the blue light around his horn deepened to black, but though he kept quiet, he looked like he was about to cry.

Honeydew looked nervously between the three friends, all with matching dark auras churning on their horns. "And now my turn, right?" she squeaked.

Dinky nodded. "Whenever you're ready."

Shaking, Honeydew leaned forward and felt Dinky's magic. Scrunching up her face, she strained to imitate what she felt. It pained Dinky a bit to watch the pale green light on her friend's horn turn to a muddy brownish before finally sinking to true blackness.

"Ahhh! I hate it! I hate it!" Honeydew wailed, shaking her head fiercely as if trying to physically throw the magic off her horn. "I can't do it! Make it stop!"

Despite his own struggling, Scuffle managed to swing a foreleg over his fillyfriend, holding onto her tightly. "I hate it too, Dewey, but it'll be over in a second," he soothed as she started to cry. "Let's do this, Dinks! None of us wanna keep this up for a second longer than we have to!"

Dinky leapt into the center of the circle. "Scuffle, go!" she instructed. "No need to worry about the type of spell, just pour dark magic into the circle!"

Scuffle's horn gave a loud, electric crackle, and darkness struck the deck of the ship. It traveled through the lines of the circle, and a moment later, it reached all the gems.

Dinky had never had her unicorn disguise torn away so quickly and forcefully before. Darkness surged through her, seeming to burst from her pores and wipe away all traces of her pony form with it, leaving behind the wraith beneath. The influx of power did what it was intended to, though, activating all six gems.

Hesitantly, Dinky lifted a leg. When it was no more than an inch off the ground, a deep black shackle materialized around her ankle, with a dark, shining chain tethering it to one of the gems around the perimeter. It vanished again as she returned her hoof to the floor, but she knew it would reappear if she tried to move.

"Good, the gems should stay active for as long as necessary, but keep the circle charged until the whole ritual's done," she instructed. "Honeydew, portal, now!"

Honeydew staggered across the deck in a zigzag path, her tears hitting the wood below as she stumbled to the ring containing Scorpio's tail. She cried out like a distraught foal as she forced herself to let the dark magic loose, and Dinky watched as something began to happen in the air above the tail fragment.

"Portal" wasn't quite the right word. The means that Scorpio had used to exit (and ultimately re-enter) the Realm of Stars was a portal. What formed here was more like a weak spot in the fabric of space; a rippling, blurry anomaly with some vague lights behind it that Dinky really hoped were stars.

There was no true opening to pass through, so there would be no way to send a pony's body through the anomaly that was created. Fortunately, that wasn't the plan.

"H-hurry!" Honeydew begged. "I d-don't know h-how long I can keep it active!"

Dinky tried to stay as still as possible so the chains wouldn't materialize again. "Alright Clarity, this is it!" she yelled over the crackling of multiple dark spells. "Just like we discussed!"

Clarity hesitated. "What if I make a mistake?" she asked, shaking. "What if I sever your body and mind entirely so they can't come back together later?"

"There's no time!" Dinky insisted, as Honeydew's attempt to keep the teleport anchor active were already beginning to falter. "Just try! Now!"

And so Clarity tried.

The spell hit Dinky squarely in the chest, and she was struck with the sensation of tumbling backwards. Which was strange, since she could feel that she was still rooted in place exactly where she had been standing. She opened her eyes, staring at Clarity, and yet... also staring at herself as she stared at Clarity. For a moment, she felt paralyzed, unable to parse the information. She tried to call out, but couldn't control her body, or even remember what was happening or why.

Then the power of Clarity's spell increased, and Dinky felt one set of sensations slip further away from the other. Physical stimuli faded; the sea breeze on her coat disappeared, the cries of her friends became muffled. Unable to move or even focus her thoughts, she felt the world slip away. She was tumbling, falling as the world faded around her. Her last shreds of conscious thought faded away as an endless darkness, dotted with tiny, distant lights, swallowed her up.

"Horns off!"

Tremendous relief washed over Clarity as she extinguished the black aura writhing on her horn. She shook her head, trying to clear away the purple fog hanging in front of her eyes. As it faded, she got a good look at her friends.

Honeydew was lying on the deck, curled up and shaking. Scuffle was still standing, but he was pale and looked like he was about to be sick. And Pipsqueak stood just at the edge of the ritual circle, staring at Dinky, who had collapsed at its center.

"So did... did it work?" Scuffle croaked.

"I... don't know," Clarity admitted. "I cast the spell how Dinky explained it as best as I could, but I guess there's no way to know right now."

Pip leaned forward. "I think she's breathing, just barely," he said, squinting.

"Don't get any closer," Clarity warned. "Dinky made it very clear we can't enter the circle. It's extremely dangerous."

Honeydew staggered to her hooves. "So we just... wait?" she asked. "Wait and hope she eventually wakes up and we haven't basically removed her mind and turned her into a vegetable?"

Before Clarity could answer, Dinky stirred. One of her legs twitched, and her smoky tail gave a flick. Very slowly, she stood, with her head bowed and her eyes closed.

"W-wait, she's up?" Scuffle asked. "Did the splitting spell fail, maybe?"

Clarity stepped to the edge of the circle. "Dinky? Can you hear me? Are... are you okay?"

Dinky opened her eyes, and Clarity's breath caught in her throat. The yellow lights within the wraith's sockets, the one part of her that allowed her to make expressions that showed hints of pony emotions, had gone dark. Two empty black chasms stared at her instead. For a moment, the two of them stared at each other in silence.

Then Dinky lunged.

The restrictive enchantments reacted immediately. Glossy black manacles materialized on all four of her legs, and another, much larger shackle surrounded her barrel, stopping her just inches from Clarity. All five of them were chained to their respective gems. Snarling like a rabid animal, the wraith gnashed her teeth and strained against the chains. She tried to use her magic, but in doing so, caused the sixth gem to react, which added an additional shackle to her horn. Thrashing and crying out in animalistic rage, she fought fruitlessly against the spells holding her back, but never made it a single inch past the edges of the circle.

Clarity galloped to the other end of the deck, and her friends raced over to her immediately. "Well, I'm glad Dinks had the foresight to put those enchantments in place before we did this," Scuffle commented. "Looks like she was right about the feral wraith bit. Pretty sure all four of us would be dead by now otherwise."

Honeydew cowered behind Scuffle. "A-a-are you sure she can't get free?" she whispered.

"I don't think she's going anywhere," Clarity replied. "And if anything, this is a sign that the spell worked how Dinky expected. All we can do now is give Dinky... err, give that thing that looks like Dinky a wide berth, while we wait for the real Dinky to complete her mission and come back."

"And... what if she missed something when planning this out?" Pip asked, watching the mindless wraith continue to struggle. "What if she... can't come back?"

Clarity turned away and opened the door to the interior of the ship. "Let's not consider that until we have reason to believe it might happen," she suggested, leading the way inside. "For now... all we can do is wait. The next part's all up to Dinky."

Ditzy Doo shivered.

It started as a shudder at the base of her spine and worked its way steadily upward until her wings quivered and she gave her head a shake.

"You okay, Mrs. Doo?" Sparkler asked, from one seat behind in the train car.

"Something feels off all of a sudden," Ditzy admitted, working the muscles in her wings a bit before folding them back into place.

"That's probably either a result of the magic interruption that's affecting everypony else, or an effect of Scorpio's Apex," Lucid chimed in, carefully watching the readings on a simplified, portable version of the thaumatograph that she'd brought along. "Both of those events are having an impact on Equestria right now, although the latter is much more well-understood and predictable than the former."

Noticing Ditzy's expression, she coughed awkwardly. "And, um, it occurs to me you're probably well aware, considering your daughter' s a wraith."

Not wanting to think about Scorpio, Ditzy changed the subject. "So, one more stop before we head to Canterlot?" she asked.

"That's right," Presto confirmed. "Lucid thinks it's in our best interests to bring along a unicorn or two who know how to really pack a wallop with their spells, even more so than we can. Even if she can figure out how to disrupt the barrier around Canterlot, we may need extra help to do it. Sparkler and I have some ponies in mind, but..."

Ditzy raised an eyebrow. "But?"

"But it's not gonna be easy," Sparkler grumbled. "You'll see what we mean."

"Fillydelphia station," came the conductor's voice over the speakers.

"This is our stop," Sparkler said, standing. "Follow me."

Ditzy stepped out of the train and immediately tensed. Inner city Fillydelphia wasn't the nicest area at the best of times, but the magic adding to the distrust and aggression of other ponies really seemed to be taking its toll here. Ponies shuffled about, avoiding eye contact as they hurried to their destinations. Windows were broken on many of the local buildings, and graffiti covered the walls of several nearby alleys. An abandoned, broken cart on the side of the road was on fire, though nopony seemed to care.

"We couldn't find the exact address, only the neighborhood, so we should probably split up to cover more ground, Sparkler," Presto suggested. "Mrs. Doo isn't a unicorn, and Lucid's no battlemage, so I think you and I should each accompany one of them to make sure everypony stays safe."

Sparkler nodded. "I'll go with Mrs. Doo then," she announced. "Let's meet back here in twenty minutes."

Presto and Lucid disappeared down a nearby side street, and Ditzy followed Sparkler down another. "So, what do the ponies we're looking for look like?" she asked.

"They should be hard to miss," Sparkler explained. "The two of them, in my experience at least, are pretty much never apart. They're both male unicorns, and both of them are loud, rude, and generally obnoxious. We wouldn't be turning to them for help if we didn't have to. Unfortunately, I've seen them do more damage with battle spells than just about anypony I've met."

"They're brilliant battlemages?" Ditzy asked.

"Oh no, they're idiots," Sparkler muttered. "Their spells have a lot of force, not finesse. But Lucid's got the finesse part covered."

The two mares trotted up to a convenience store. It was grimy and run down, but appeared to be open. "Let's ask in here," Sparkler suggested. "I know they live on this block, so maybe somepony here knows where to find them."

Ditzy stepped carefully inside the store. The inside seemed no more inviting than the outside. A strong looking unicorn with a dull, brick red coat and bright orange mane sat at the register, reading a magazine. He glanced up at the sound of their hoofsteps, and his jaw dropped.

"Yo, bro, c'mere!" he yelled into the depths of the store. "Take a look at who just walked in!"

A unicorn with an almost identical build and mane style to the first one, but instead sporting a grey coat and stark white mane, appeared from one of the aisles. He broke into a big, rather malicious-looking smirk.

"Wow, long time no see, Sparki," he chuckled. "What brings our favorite Overseer to a place like this?"

"She probably finally figured out we got away with messing with our records to get out of about a dozen detentions years ago, and swung by to award 'em retroactively," the red unicorn joked.

Sparkler snorted. "Well, I guess this saves us the trouble of looking for them," she grumbled. "Let me handle this one, Mrs. Doo. Perhaps these two have come up in conversation with Dinky at some point. They're my oh-so-charming ex-classmates, Scorch and Frosty."

Ditzy's ear twitched. "I know those names. Scuffle's older brothers, right?"

"Don't compare us to that runt!" Frosty snapped. "The kid coulda been great like we were, but no, he decided to be a goody-two-hooves colt who follows the rules and hangs out with a gang of sissy fillies."

"We tried to toughen him up, we really did," Scorch added. "But sometimes, ponies are just born losers, I guess."

"Right, sure," said Sparkler dryly, rolling her eyes. "You two attended the most prestigious school of magic in the world, and then went on to run the register and stock shelves at a convenience store, but it's Scuffle who's the loser."

Scorch narrowed his eyes. "I don't like your tone, Sparki," he growled.

"You were top dog at the Academy, but you're on our turf now," Frosty reminded her, as an aura appeared around his horn that immediately began to form a haze of ice crystals in the air. "Might wanna watch what you say before we decide it's time to get a little payback for all those detentions you piled on us years ago."

Realizing that these particular ponies weren't above violence even when there wasn't a magical disruption making ponies extra irritable, Ditzy backed off slightly. Sparkler stood her ground. "Cut it out you two," she replied, glaring at them. I'm not here just to visit, you know. I have a proposition for you two. Do you wanna hear it, or not?"

"Oh, this should be good," Scorch laughed, leaning back in his chair behind the counter. "What could you possibly need us for?"

"Mrs. Doo and I are gathering ponies to help us deal with whatever's going on in Canterlot," Sparkler explained. "We're under the impression that we're going to need extreme firepower if we want any chance of disrupting that barrier around it. You two blew a crater the size of a buckball field into Academy grounds during your last year there, which is just the kind of thing we're looking for. Just come with us, and the quicker we deal with whoever's attacking Canterlot, the quicker everypony can return to their normal lives."

"Hear that, Scorch?" Frosty asked incredulously. "Sparki thinks we're some kinda superheroes! Told ya she always respected us more than she let on."

"Tell ya what," Scorch added, grinning devilishly. "If you're so desperate for our talents, why don't you show us? Seeing high and mighty Sparkler groveling a little and kissing our hooves might be enough to make us at least consider helping you out."

Sparkler snorted. "I will do no such thing, you pig-headed moron," she snapped.

Fire sprung up around Scorch's horn. "You're gonna regret it if you piss us off..." he warned.

"Try it," Sparkler shot back.

Scorch tried it. With surprising speed, the big colt lobbed a fireball at Sparkler. Even from several steps back, Ditzy had to raise a hoof to try to block some of the heat. She expected Sparkler to cast a shield to absorb the spell. Instead, the young mare instantly placed a self-enchantment on her hoof, wheeled around, and used the enchanted hoof to kick the attack right back at its owner. Scorch gasped as the fireball knocked him right out of his chair and against the far wall, knocking over a display of cheap sunglasses and singeing his coat in the process.

"I don't have time for this nonsense," she barked as Scorch staggered to his hooves and glared at her. "Are you coming, or are you gonna stay here in this rat hole?"

"Give us one good reason why we should give a damn about you and your noble little mission to save the world," Frosty challenged.

Sparkler prepared to answer, but instead, Ditzy spoke up for the first time since the conversation started.

"Well, for the fame and glory, obviously."

Sparkler glanced over her shoulder, bewildered. "Huh?"

"Yeah, huh?" Scorch parroted.

Ditzy shrugged. "I mean, come on, think about it," she continued. "Let's say we actually manage to save Equestria. What do you think the other stallions on the block will think if they hear that Scorch and Frosty took down the pony who took down the princesses? Nopony would dare mess with you if you showed them you were that powerful."

The twins exchanged a glance. "True..." Frosty muttered. "But we don't need to do anything that fancy to prove we're the top dogs around here. Everypony already knows we're the best, and when they forget, we're happy to 'remind' them."

"Well, okay," Ditzy said in a singsong voice as she turned toward the exit. "I guess you two have it covered here then. You know, at least until Scuffle gets back. After all, he's helping save the world, so I guess he'll get all that recognition among the ponies around here after this is all over."

"Like Tartarus he will!" Scorch snarled. "If that shrimp is in, I'm in too! Trust me, that kid can't save the world half as good as we can!"

"Yeah, we'll show him who's really got the most power!" Frosty added. "Heck, we'll show all of 'em! Lead the way, Sparki; the Frostfire Twins are gonna demonstrate how to properly kick some crazy evil unicorn's ass!"

"I... o-okay," Sparkler babbled. "Head to the train station. Presto and Lucid should be meeting us there any minute."

Whooping and yelling, the twins charged out of the store. Sparkler looked at Ditzy, dumbstruck.

"H-how did you know they would—"

"In the shipping business, if you want to succeed, you have to be able to figure out what makes somepony tick," Ditzy said with a wink. "I need to figure out what my client can do to draw the target's attention, based on what I can learn about that target's personality in a very short time. In this case, it's easy to see Scorch and Frosty want to be recognized as better than their peers, and really want to one-up Scuffle. So I worked with that."

Sparkler smirked. "The more time I spend with you, the more I realize what a remarkable pony you are, Mrs. Doo," she admitted, patting her traveling companion on the back. "I'm glad we were able to gather at least a few allies, but this ragtag band we've scraped together is going to have to do. Let's head to the station. Next stop: the area outside Canterlot, and let's hope your friend Cloudcover has some idea what to do next."

She trotted out of the store. Ditzy took a breath and prepared for another long train ride.

I just hope Dinky's part of the plan is going well, she thought as she followed Sparkler. And even more than that... I hope she's safe...

Sparkler's Alliance

Suddenly, Dinky realized that she did, in fact, still exist.

Immediately after that came the realization that she hadn't stopped existing at any point. She'd just been so disoriented that she was no longer aware of it.

Satisfied that she was, at the very least, more than just a collection of loose thoughts, she tried to focus her mind on figuring out the rest of the details about her current situation. She remembered being on the ship, and being with Clarity, Honeydew, Scuffle, and Pipsqueak. Piece by piece, she put the events of the last few days back together. There was the nymph, and Scuffle's confession of his feelings, and days of practice and training, and the ritual to open a portal to..."

It finally clicked. I'm in the Realm of Stars.

Banking on the possibility that whatever part of her had been hurled across the dimensional border still had some sort of actual form, she tried to move, and excitedly found she was easily able to do so. She opened her eyes and looked around in awe.

Dinky knew, if she ever made it back to Equestria, there wouldn't be a way to put what she was seeing into words. She was lying in what seemed to be a great hall of unfathomable size. She could see its walls clearly, and yet at the same time, she knew they were infinitely far away, unreachable. And yet, although she seemed to be inside some sort of temple or other archaic structure, it was simultaneously clear that she was out in the furthest reaches of space. Trillions of stars hung in the air, pricks of light tinier than the head of a pin. Galaxies no bigger than her head floated lazily by, but when she looked at them, she could tell they were millions of light years wide, and yet no more than a foreleg's length away. It was paradoxical, yet in the state of being she was now in, Dinky found she didn't struggle to comprehend it.

She took a single step, and her surroundings changed completely; new stars and new galaxies replaced the old, as if she had moved an impossible distance through space. The celestial bodies didn't react if they touched her; they flowed through her as easily as they floated through space.

It's like I'm a part of the universe itself, she realized. Not an object contained within it, but woven into its very fabric.

For the first time, it occurred to Dinky to examine herself. She glanced down at her chest and forelegs and was met with another paradox: she seemed to be in both her familiar forms at once. She could clearly see the pale lilac fur of her unicorn appearance, yet just as obvious was the sinister violet and smoky black of her wraith form. Once again, being two things at once, while it would have been impossible to comprehend in Equestria, seemed normal and easy to accept here.

Her body (although body wasn't the right word, but Dinky didn't have a word for her form as it now was) was translucent. Critical points within her, mainly her heart, her head, and each of her joints, were illuminated with a bright light. Quickly, she realized they were stars.

I see now, she realized. I'm like... a living constellation.

Dinky may have well spent much longer taking in the impossible, wondrous sensations around her, but at that moment, something whizzed through space. It stuck into the ground, though once again, "ground" seemed the wrong word, inches in front of her hooves. Startled, she stared at the object; it was a golden arrow that seemed to be made of solid starlight.

But if this is an arrow, who fired the bow?

"Stop," commanded a male voice, startling Dinky as it broke the utter silence. "Identify yourself at once, newcomer."

Dinky turned her head and discovered another pony standing nearby. He was an orange pegasus with a very dark grey mane and tail. Like her, he was faded and ethereal, save for the skeleton-like arrangement of stars within the boundaries of his form. He looked vaguely familiar, though Dinky couldn't pinpoint why. In one forehoof, he clutched a starlit bow, with a second arrow nocked and pointed right at her.

"I'm D-Dinky Doo," she stuttered.

The stallion stared at her, unmoving. "And how did you come to be in this place, Dinky Doo?" he asked.

"I... I chose to come here," she answered. "My friends and I created a portal..."

The stallion's harsh expression grew softer, although he didn't lower his weapon. "Oh, my dear, what a terrible mistake," she said mournfully. "Surely you know there is no leaving this place. There's nothing left of you now to return to Equestria; you've become little more than a spirit bound loosely within a veil of starlight."

"No, my body is fine. At least I think," Dinky explained. "I separated my mind from my body to come here, so I should be able to get back."

The stallion raised his eyebrows. "And... how did you accomplish such a thing?"

Dinky paused, realizing too late that she would now have to admit the truth about her powers. For a moment, she considered lying, but she realized the pegasus could probably see her true form as easily as she could.

"We... used dark magic to do it..." she confessed.

She half expected the stallion to grow angry or afraid, but he did neither. He just pursed his lips in mild discontent.

"You're one of hers, aren't you?" he asked finally. "I can see what her corruption has done to you. Are you part of her latest plan to be free of this place?"

"No!" Dinky insisted. "I'm not one of Scorpio's servants. I'm the pony who was corrupted by her magic when she managed to return to Equestria a few years ago."

There was a long silence. To Dinky's relief, the stallion finally lowered his bow. "I think I can believe you," he said. "Scorpio's lot are too selfish to endanger themselves by coming here."

Dinky sighed with relief. The stallion stepped closer and extended a hoof to her.

"How rude of me not to introduce myself," he continued. "I am Sagittarius of the Zodiac, one of the original pioneers of modern magic, and father of the field of enchantments."

Memories from Astronomy class came rushing back, and Dinky's jaw dropped. "You're Sagittarius?" she gasped. "Sir, what an honor to meet you! Enchantments have been my favorite field of magic since I was just a filly, and I never would've been able to explore what they can do if it wasn't for you."

Sagittarius smiled. "It brings me joy to hear you say that, young one," he replied. "After all, I've been in this realm with the rest of the Zodiac since modern magic was still in its infancy. It comforts me to know that thousands of years later, there are still ponies who see the value in placing magical properties in the objects around them."

"There are more than just a few," Dinky chuckled. "Princess Celestia's school has an entire class dedicated to enchantments, and other fields of magic use them to enhance their own spells."

Sagittarius nodded. "As marvelous as that is to hear, we shouldn't get too far off topic," he pointed out. "At the moment, I'm more curious what circumstance has led somepony like you to invoke such corrupt magic to willingly enter a realm at the very edge of existence."

"Right, sorry," Dinky said quickly, as she remembered the gravity of her situation. "Sagittarius, Equestria is in great danger right now. The princesses have all been captured, and a letter from Celestia revealed that my ability to use dark magic for righteous reasons may be the only way to save them. But I've only been a wraith for a few years; I've barely scratched the surface of what my powers can do. So I came here to learn how to unlock their potential. To seek help from... from Scorpio."

Slowly Sagittarius turned away, staring into the starry infinity. "I hope you understand the sacrifice we made in order to imprison Scorpio here," he said slowly. "The course of Equestrian history changed in the span of a night all those millennia ago. I will take you to her, if that's truly what you want... but I want your word that you will not aid her in anything she asks of you. She's likely to refuse to help you unless you offer something in return, but even if it means your mission here was for naught, I'm sure you know that we cannot risk her escape again."

"I swear," Dinky pledged, raising a hoof. "I'll do what I can to learn what I need to, and if I can't get her to help me... well, that's my own problem."

Sagittarius nodded. "Very well, young Dinky. Let's go."

He turned trotted off into the expanse of space. In just a step or two, he was a million miles away, but Dinky caught up with a few short steps of her own. Keeping pace, she followed the pegasus into the unknown.

It was a cloudy evening. Clarity, Honeydew, Scuffle, and Pipsqueak sat on the deck, watching the ocean's rhythmic movement. At the far end of the deck, the imprisoned wraith seemed to be mercifully quiet. Exhausted from thrashing against the enchanted chains for hours, it sulked in the center of the ritual circle.

"Dinks has been gone all afternoon," Scuffle said, breaking the silence. "How much longer you think this'll take?"

"I don't think anypony has a frame of reference for this sort of thing," Clarity pointed out. "She could be back in minutes, or it could be all night. Of course, that's assuming the spell worked... and Dinky's plan to return to Equestria works just as well. She can't take too long, or the fabric of space will strengthen as Scorpio's Apex gets further away. After one full day, the teleport anchor won't work anymore."

Scuffle didn't have anything else to say to that. After a few moments, Honeydew lowered her head, hiding her face behind a curtain of mane as she started to cry softly.

"This was stupid," she whispered. "Why did we let Dinky talk us into this? What if w-we never s-see her again?"

Scuffle scooted closer to Honeydew. "Dinky gave this plan a lot of thought and care," he reminded her. "She knows what she's doing. She'll be back, you'll see."

Honeydew just looked miserable. Scuffle stood and pointed out toward the ocean.

"Come on, time will pass a little quicker if we do something to keep busy," he suggested. "There's a sandy shoal over there in easy teleport distance. You haven't tried Lifesense out on sea life yet, right?"

Despite her worry worn face, Honeydew did look a bit intrigued. "I... suppose we could go try it out for a little bit..." she mumbled.

Scuffle smiled and put a foreleg around the pony beside him, and the two of them disappeared in a blue flash, leaving Clarity and Pip alone.

"Honeydew's lucky," Clarity said with a bit of a smile. "There's no question that Scuffle's gonna do everything in his power to help her manage her fears. He's terrified too, of course, but he's willing to be the strong one if it means alleviating some of her suffering. I'm a little jealous."

Pip cast her a sidelong glance. "Wishing you had a special somepony of your own, Clarity?" he asked.

Clarity shook her head. "Not really," she admitted. "I can't say I've ever felt the urge to try the whole relationship thing; I'm fine with being single for now."

Pip raised an eyebrow. "Then what are you jealous of?"

Clarity shrugged. "Those two may have just started dating, but they've been very close for years. I'm sure Honeydew's just as upset about this as we are, but she's got the pony she trusts and relies on the most right beside her," she pointed out. "But for me, well... Dinky is that pony. We've been best friends since our very first day at Celestia's Academy. We've had each other's backs through every single adventure these last five years. I can't turn to my closest friend for comfort about this like Honeydew can, because the pony we're all worried about is that closest friend. This is the first time I haven't had her right beside me for something dangerous and... and I'm scared, Pip. I really am. You're Dinky's coltfriend, and you've known her even longer than I have, so you've got to be in the same boat, right?"

Pipsqueak nodded solemnly. "Petrified, honestly," he revealed. "But I trust Dinky. She's never let me down; she says what she means, and when she sets out to do something, she does it. Dinky truly believes this was the right solution to this whole mess. Once I could see that conviction, I decided to support her idea, even if it sounded crazy. I know being a wraith influences the way she thinks and makes decisions, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. When it comes to dark magic, she knows better than me. Better than all of us, actually. If you trust her the way I do, hopefully you can find some comfort in that, too."

Clarity chuckled softly. "I suppose you're right," she agreed. "Dinky hasn't let us down before. I doubt she'll start now."

The clouds began to part, allowing a view of the first stars twinkling in the sky as the sun dipped below the horizon. Clarity looked up at them and gasped.

"Pip, look!"

Pip looked. "Something out of the ordinary?" he asked finally. "I'm afraid I don't have the night sky memorized like you astronomy students do."

"There's a new constellation, look!" Clarity cried, lighting her horn and drawing a diagram a few pony lengths above their heads. The reddish lines spread from star to star, forming a crude, but recognizable, image of a pony.

"Is... is that Dinky?" Pip breathed. "Does that mean the spell worked? That she really did make it to the Realm of Stars?"

Clarity reared up on her hind legs and cupped her forehooves in front of her mouth. "Listen up, Dinky!" she cried, as if her friend would somehow be able to hear her across several dimensions. "You better stand up to ol' Scorpio, learn what you need to, and get back here safe and sound, you hear me!? We're counting on you! In fact... all of Equestria may be counting on you, Dinky!"

Scuffle's plan worked perfectly. He smiled to himself as Honeydew carefully examined a tide pool, her Lifesense grid illuminating the aquatic plants, crustaceans, and tiny fish within.

"There's so many species I've never seen before," she chirped, dipping the tip of a hoof into the salty water to feel the texture of one of the plants. "The ecosystem here is so fascinating; plants and animals and microorganisms are all working in tandem to benefit themselves and each other. I wrote a paper on mutualism for class last year, but I wish I could've included some of these findings in it. I can learn more in minutes with Lifesense than I can in weeks without it."

Scuffle didn't understand most of the biological concepts Honeydew had been discussing for the last several minutes, but that didn't really matter. She seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself for the first time since they'd left the Academy; seeing that sparkle in her eyes for the first time in so long felt to Scuffle like the first sip of water after a hard day's work in the hot sun. Relief wasn't enough to fully describe it.

"Oh gosh, and the ocean," Honeydew continued with wonder in her voice. "My spell only extends a few pony lengths out from the shore, but just that small area has volumes of information to discover. I think I'll need to spend some more time at the seaside once this whole mess is over."

"I think I'd be down for a little beach vacation once next summer rolls around," Scuffle agreed. "Maybe you can teach me a little about sea creatures."

Honeydew stood up and stepped away from the tide pool, leaning her body up against Scuffle's and nuzzling his cheek. "You were right," she admitted. "Using a little life magic really does make me feel a bit better. I guess over time you've figured out how calm me down when I'm getting too anxious, huh?"

"Well, I've known you for a long time," Scuffle reminded her. "It doesn't matter that you've only been my fillyfriend for a couple of days; we've been friends for years, and I just don't wanna see my friends sad, y'know? Especially not you, Dewey."

The two of them stood together, watching the lingering twilight fading to night.

"...You've liked me for a long time, haven't you?" Honeydew asked suddenly. "Like, as more than just a friend."

Scuffle flinched. "Um... a while, yeah," he admitted. "How'd you work that out?"

Honeydew blushed lightly. "You treat me a little bit differently than you treat Dinky and Clarity," she said. "I always assumed you were just being considerate because you know they're made of tougher stuff than I am, but now that I know the truth, I realized... it's not only now that you're the kind of pony I want as a special somepony. You have been for a long time. You're a wonderful colt, and I'm sorry for not recognizing sooner than you cared about me as much as I know you do now."

Scuffle threw a foreleg around Honeydew, and grinned as she happily snuggled more closely against him. "There's nothing to apologize for, Dewey," he assured her. "It all worked out, right? I still got to spend these last few years with my best friend. We've already been inseparable for a long time; being in a relationship won't really be super different, at least not right away."

"Although... ideally, with more snuggles than in the past," Honeydew giggled, nosing the colt affectionately.

Scuffle felt his heart skip a beat at her delicate touch. "Oh jeez, hope I can handle extra hugs from an especially cute filly," he joked. "Might be a deal breaker."

Honeydew laughed softly. "On a more serious note," she continued, "thanks for trying so hard to help me feel better. I don't know how I'd deal with any of this without you. I'm glad I always have you by my side."

"It... kinda works both ways," Scuffle admitted. "Remember when we dueled my brothers back in our first term? I didn't have the guts to stand up to them when they were only tormenting me, but it got a lot easier to find the strength to fight back once they started bothering you and Clarity and Dinks. I kinda feel the same way now; I guess it's easier to be brave when it's for the sake of the ponies I care about instead of my own. Go figure."

Honeydew smiled slightly, and turned to look at the dark outline of the ship not far away. "I hope being brave and giving it our all is enough this time..." she whispered.

"It will be," Scuffle replied. "Dinks will be back any time now, with all sorts of new tricks. We'll go to Canterlot, meet up with Mrs. Doo and her team, save everypony, and by this time next week, we'll be back and school tellin' everypony all the cool stories of our big adventure. You'll see."

Honeydew didn't reply, but she seemed just a tiny bit more relaxed. "It's almost dark," she said suddenly. "Let's go back to the ship."

"Got it. Get ready to teleport."

Honeydew once again stood right up against Scuffle, and the two of them vanished in another flash.

Dinky and Sagittarius walked, with hooves that weren't quite solid, on ground that wasn't quite there. The "walls", which Dinky had begun to suspect were the boundaries of the universe itself, never grew any closer, but the starry landscape shifted and changed with every step they took.

She had no idea how long they would be walking for. Fortunately, Sagittarius seemed willing to pass the time with conversation.

"So tell me, Dinky Doo, what exactly is happening in Equestria? How could it be that even the princesses have been overpowered?"

"I wish I knew..." Dinky admitted. "All we know is a unicorn has somehow captured the princesses— there are four of them now, by the way— and then tore Canterlot from the ground and is holding it captive along with its rulers, miles in the air. The barrier around it is keeping out any pegasi trying to approach from the air, and preventing unicorns from teleporting in or out. The whole nation is in a panic over it; no one pony should have that kind of power, not even an alicorn. We still don't know what they're up to either, or why. But Celestia thinks the only way to overcome a pony with apparent mastery of unicorn magic is to use magic they aren't familiar with. Scorpio's magic. And I'm the only pony who knows how to wield it safely."

Sagittarius nodded. "It makes some measure of sense," he admitted. "Not the way I would've handled it, but we do what we must, I suppose."

Dinky cocked her head. "You have a better idea?"

"I would've turned to my old friend Ophiuchus for aid," Sagittarius continued. "His powers would probably be sufficient to remedy the situation."

Dinky blinked. "Ophi-who now?"

The pegasus raised his eyebrows. "Don't they teach you about the Zodiac in that school you mentioned?" he asked, surprised.

"Of course they do," Dinky replied. "There are twelve of you— thirteen, counting both of the Gemini twins— but I know all twelve of those names, and none of them are Ophiuchus."

Sagittarius bit his lip. "How interesting. It sounds like one part of our story has been lost to history," he noted. "Would you allow me to fill in the blanks? We have time to kill anyway."

"Please do."

Sagittarius drew his bow and fired it into the distance. The starry arrow exploded in midair, and the light formed twelve familiar runes. "These runes represent the twelve Zodiac members you recognize," he explained. "As you know, in the earliest days of Equestria, magic flowed more freely than it does now. Earth ponies and pegasi could manipulate it as easily as unicorns, which is how a pegasus like me can be considered the creator of a field of unicorn magic."

"Yeah, I remember the story from Astronomy class," Dinky confirmed. "It was because of Scorpio that that had to change, right?"

"Correct," Sagittarius continued. "While each member of the Zodiac worked on developing the abundant magic in Equestria into coherent, repeatable spells, Scorpio focused instead on twisting and corrupting that magic for her own aims. She began teaching ponies to do as she did, and very quickly, she gained an army of powerful followers. In order to thin their numbers, we had to restrict magic in such a way that most ponies could only wield parts of it. Nowadays, even unicorns, who have the most magical freedom, do not have access to the magic that earth ponies and pegasi have."

"Right," Dinky said. "Magic became harder for ponies to access so the rest of you would be able to overpower Scorpio and her army of corrupted ponies. But she had grown so powerful that you had to seal her— and yourselves— in the Realm of Stars, to keep her from doing more harm."

"And there we have remained to this day," Sagittarius finished. "Good. I see you know most of the story."

"But then who is Ophiuchus, and what does he have to do with all this?" Dinky asked.

Sagittarius smiled mysteriously. "Did you ever wonder how the Zodiac were able to fundamentally change the way magic moves through living things in Equestria?" he asked. "As it turns out, there are not twelve signs of the Zodiac, but thirteen."

A new symbol appeared among the other twelve runes hanging in space. It looked to Dinky like the letter U, with a wavy line running horizontally across the middle.

"Ophiuchus, the thirteenth sign of the Zodiac, did not invent a particular field of magic," the pegasus explained. "His powers were very different than ours; his talent wasn't in casting magic, but regulating it. He is the pony who had the ability to control the way raw magic flows, and he is the one who made it possible for the rest of us to stop Scorpio before she took over our land."

"The rest of you?" Dinky queried. "Wait, does that mean... Ophiuchus didn't get sealed in the Realm of Stars along with the other members?"

"You're a bright one, indeed," Sagittarius complimented. "Ophiuchus remained behind as the rest of us dragged Scorpio into this prison in the stars. Of course, that means he remained mortal, and would be long dead by now, but magic like his doesn't simply leave. His spirit, and his powers, would've been housed in a new pony after he passed on, and then another pony after the previous one's passing, and so on."

"So you're telling me that right at this moment, somepony in Equestria is actually a reincarnation of Ophiuchus?" Dinky asked, shocked.

"Indeed," Sagittarius said with a nod. "But Ophiuchus himself would remain dormant within that pony unless they were to intentionally summon him. Given the fact that Ophiuchus seems to have been forgotten by history, it's extremely likely that the pony in question has no idea they are Ophiuchus's reincarnation."

"Or... maybe they do," Dinky realized. "Sagittarius, is it possible that the unicorn that attacked Canterlot is actually the reborn Ophiuchus, using his powers to do more with magic than a normal unicorn should be able?"

"Impossible," Sagittarius replied, shaking his head. "Ophiuchus was strong, intelligent, and cunning, but he was not evil. I would've trusted that stallion with my life. I only mentioned him because, if somepony was able to find his reincarnation, he might be able to help the ponies of Equestria wield magic strong enough to overcome the evil they are now facing. But the odds of finding that pony are next to none."

"Yeah, it's a nice thought, but sadly it sounds even less likely to work out than my plan," Dinky sighed. "If we somehow were to find the pony who has his spirit, how would we bring it forth?"

"With a simple incantation," Sagittarius said matter-of-factly. "The pony in question would need only to speak the phrase, 'Ophiuchus, hear my plea. Manifest yourself through me.' Then the ancient mage within them would awaken."

"I'll keep it in mind, in case all else fails," Dinky said, quickly memorizing the phrase. "Thanks for the tip, but for now, I'm gonna go with Celestia's plan and try to use dark magic to save the kingdom."

"A reasonable choice," Sagittarius admitted, nodding. "And you won't have to wait any longer to do so. We've arrived."

Dinky looked away from Sagittarius for the first time in a while and discovered a structure that resembled an ancient, columned villa, although it was just as starry and ethereal as everything else around. "Wait, how is this here?" she asked, bewildered. This place has just been an empty expanse up until just now."

"Like my bow, it's not a true material object, but merely a construct of starlight," Sagittarius pointed out. "Scorpio, ever the narcissist, chooses to create the illusion of luxury for herself, even here in her celestial prison. You'll find her inside, and that means this is where we part ways."

"You're not coming with me?" Dinky asked nervously.

"You are in no danger here," Sagittarius assured her. "The 'bodies' this realm creates for us are just starlight, like everything else. Scorpio cannot harm you; you have no body to harm. Even my enchanted bow can only stun or bind the entities here, not wound them."

Dinky took a deep breath. "I guess this is goodbye, then," she sighed. "Thank you for the help, Sagittarius."

Sagittarius nodded. "We both know how Scorpio is, so I'd prepare to discover your errand was in vain," he warned. "Nevertheless, good luck, Dinky Doo."

He turned and spread his wings, and the universe swallowed him up the instant he took to the air.

Swallowing hard, Dinky turned and stepped across the threshold of the villa.

Just inside the mysterious structure, at the other end of a narrow hallway, was a wide chamber, lined with imposing columns and decorated with ornate, glowing designs.

And at the far end of the room, lying on what appeared to be a velvety chaise lounge that glimmered with thousands of stars, was a reddish mare with a long, jointed purple tail that ended in an imposing, stinger-like point. Dinky quickly hid herself behind one of the pillars, unsure how best to approach.

"Who is it?" Scorpio asked in an incredibly bored voice. "I'm growing rather tired of your little tricks, Capricorn. Get out of here and find some other way to keep yourself busy."

Should I just walk right up to her? Or call to her from here? Dinky wondered. Even if she can't hurt me... it's not exactly comforting to be face to face with this pony again...

"Staying silent, eh?" Scorpio questioned, still making it clear how tedious it was for her to even ask. "Pisces, you sniveling rat, how many eons is it going to take for you to work up the courage to announce yourself when you enter?"

Dinky peeked carefully out from behind the column. The wicked mare wasn't even looking in her direction; she was simply staring at the ceiling as she reclined on her lounge. The only part of her that moved was her strange tail, which flicked back and forth in agitation.

"Fine, stay there then," she said finally. "There's no reason for me to waste my time playing your little games, whoever you are. I'm trying to enjoy this painfully short respite from the presence of that insufferable little—"

Yip! Yip!

A bright orange blur sprinted into the room and latched onto the end of Scorpio's tail before she could even flinch. Furious, the mare snapped her tail like a whip, flinging her attacker into the air, and following the movement up a split second later with a tremendous, thundering blast of dark magic. Dinky had only just enough time to catch a glimpse of the creature, with its fiery orange fur, little black paws, and pointed snout, before the dark spell struck and utterly disintegrated it.

...For a second or two, anyway.

The trillions of microscopic stars hanging in the air began to move, converging on one spot as if pulled by some unknown gravitational field. They all collided in a bright, shimmering display, completely reforming the creature Scorpio had just annihilated an instant before. Dinky leaned further out from behind the column to make sure her eyes weren't deceiving her.

The fearless little intruder was definitely a fox.

"You little cretin!" Scorpio snapped, constantly moving her tail out of the way as the fox chased after its tip like a toy. "We've been sealed back in here for four years, and every last second of it, you've been absolutely nothing but—"

"Trouble!" Dinky cried out, finding her voice at last.

Trouble's ears stood straight up. He turned his head, staring at the filly now standing in the open. Yipping excitedly, he bounded across the room and bowled her over, eagerly licking her face the moment she hit the ground. Dinky laughed and pushed her long lost friend off, scratching him behind the ears once he calmed down a bit.

"I can't believe it! I never thought I'd see you again, Trouble," she cooed, as the fox rubbed against her leg affectionately. "It seems like just yesterday you were sharing the hideout at the Academy with us."

Trouble yipped in reply, rolling onto his back in hopes of additional petting.

"Well now, this is not the visitor I was expecting."

The voice sent a shiver down Dinky's spine. She suddenly remembered her situation and quickly looked up. Scorpio had risen to her hooves, and stood with her tail dangling over her back, just how a real scorpion would. "I see you've grown up a bit, but you're still quite unmistakable, Dinky," she growled.

"Uh... hello, Scorpio," Dinky said awkwardly.

"Something finally happens to break the endless, mundane routine this place offers, and of all things it's a visit from the defective wraith responsible for cutting my escape short," Scorpio grumbled, scowling. "Though I suppose there's something of a sweet irony seeing you here. I knew you couldn't resist the temptation of the darkness forever."

Dinky raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Why must you make me spell it out?" Scorpio groaned, scraping a hoof on the ground impatiently. "There's only one explanation for seeing you here. Eventually, you succumbed to the lust for power that all wraiths have; why you didn't do so immediately upon your transformation is still a mystery to me. When you began to use your dark magic to dominate those weak ponies, one of the princesses or some similarly powerful figure found a way to seal you here where you could no longer cause harm. I bet now you regret sealing me away; if you'd just accepted my offer to serve as my right-hoof wraith, I could be ruling that pitiful nation right now, and you would answer only to me, with everypony else either subjugated by our terrible power... or killed. Instead, we're both trapped in this prison for the rest of eternity."

Dinky couldn't help but flash a smug grin, something she never would've risked in Scorpio's presence if they'd been in the corporeal world. "Afraid not!" she laughed. "I came here on purpose, and unlike you, I have a way to get back.

Scorpio scoffed. "You know that even I, the most powerful dark mage in all of history, can't break out of here without help on the Equestrian side, and yet somehow you think you can?" she sneered. "Well, denial is the first of the five stages of grief, I suppose."

"I have help on the Equestrian side," Dinky countered. "And I don't even have to wait thirty-six more years for the fabric between realms to become weak enough to tear; I found a way around that."

Scorpio narrowed her eyes. "You're bluffing."

"Think that if you want," Dinky chuckled, starting to enjoy the chance to infuriate the pony she'd once so gravely feared. "I'll be on my way home later one way or another, and you'll still be here. Guess my friends are more clever and loyal than your wraiths, huh?"

Scorpio's tail coursed with darkness, and Dinky suddenly found herself yanked into the air and dragged nose to nose with the other mare.

"You will not sass me!" Scorpio boomed. "The laws of this place may not allow me to physically destroy you, but you know full well that dark magic can also impact the mind. Hold your tongue, child, or you'll find yourself in such psychological agony that the tortures of the pits of Tartarus would be a mercy!"

That shut Dinky up. She nodded slightly, and Scorpio casually tossed her guest aside with a flick of her tail. Trouble yipped angrily and snapped at Dinky's assailant, who responded by incinerating him, though he reappeared just a moment later, unharmed.

What am I doing? Dinky internally cried, mentally cursing her vindictive side. As nice as it is to be the haughty one this time, it's not worth angering her when I need her to help me!

"Now, you little worm, what could possibly be so important that you'd cast yourself into this dead-end dimension on purpose?" Scorpio demanded. "Even you're not foolish enough to come here just to taunt me."

Dinky stood up, and was relieved that everything she understood about the Realm of Stars seemed to be correct; Scorpio had flung her to the ground with considerable force, but she didn't feel even the slightest pain."

"I'm here because... because you were right about one thing you said a minute ago," she admitted. "You are the most powerful dark mage in all of history, and this newbie dark mage could, uh... use some pointers."

Scorpio looked at Dinky with utter disbelief. "You... came here to ask me to teach you about dark magic?"

Dinky had hoped her careful wording and subtle flattery would've been enough to prevent Scorpio from seeing her request so starkly. "Well... yes," she confessed. "I only understand a bit of what my powers can really do, and you're the only pony alive— well, sort of alive— who can show me."

Scorpio laughed. It was a malicious, sharp sound that made Dinky instinctively flatten her ears against her head. "And why would I do that?" she asked, looking thoroughly amused. "You are the only reason I'm trapped in a prison outside the corporeal universe, instead of ruling over Equestria and all the lands beyond it with an iron hoof. Well, you and your damned pet fox, anyway. The thought of helping you with anything after ruining my plans so completely is absolutely ludicrous!"

"You're just going to turn me away? Even when you've been so bored here, for centuries?" Dinky asked. "The rest of the Zodiac don't seem keen on talking to you. This is probably the first time since your defeat millennia ago that anypony has cared about learning more from you about the magic you created. I'm surprised you'd pass that up."

"You won't sway me with reverse psychology," Scorpio said flatly, turning away and trotting back to her lounge, where she flopped down dramatically. "You've wasted your time and effort coming here, even if you can get back home. Now run along."

Dinky frowned. "Fine," she grumbled. "I'll find some other way to learn what I need to. This was our best bet, but I know in my heart that my friends and I can—"

"Heart?" Scorpio interrupted. "You're a wraith, you brainless little troll! You don't have a heart! What part of that are you still not getting!?"

Memories of Honeydew's discovery about Dinky's apparent lack of a detectable heart flashed through her mind, though she tried not to let it show. "Of... of course I have a heart," she replied. "I sealed you in here, didn't I? I still have friends and family that I care about. I still don't want to harm innocent ponies. How do you explain that?"

"You're a mistake," Scorpio deadpanned. "Something's wrong with your head, child; dark magic didn't impact your thoughts the way it does for everypony else. It didn't fill you with a desire for power and destruction. But in spite of that, it wasn't just your body that was burned away when you transformed. The magic of your heart, the very essence of the unicorn you once were, was destroyed as well, swallowed up by all-consuming darkness. What you're mistaking for a moral compass is actually just learned behaviors; you're still acting kind because that's what you were used to as a pony, and whatever anomaly is going on in your mind prevented those behaviors from being overwritten."

"That's not true!" Dinky insisted. "I would never hurt anypony intentionally with my magic!"

"So you haven't actually attacked anypony with dark magic since becoming a wraith besides, you know, me?" Scorpio continued.

Dinky shook her head. "Of course not."

"Well, that would be why you don't believe me," Scorpio chuckled. "You think you're following your moral code, but if, hypothetically, you were to leave this place and murder the first pony you see in cold blood, you'd find yourself quite unable to muster up any guilt about it. You believe you're the righteous one, because at one time you were, but in reality, you aren't; you're as indifferent to causing suffering as the most twisted sociopath, and one day you'll realize you're only kidding yourself. A creature with no heart, no spirit within her, cannot have the compassion that those with hearts do. It's impossible."

"That doesn't make any sense," Dinky said, more weakly than she would've liked. "I celebrate the good times with my friends, and lament with them during the bad ones. Are you trying to tell me those are just habits? Because I don't believe you; I know those feelings are real!"

"I don't care what you believe," Scorpio muttered, stretching out on her lounge with her forehooves behind her head. "I'm just telling you the reality of your situation. You're perfectly welcome to ignore me."

She closed her eyes and relaxed. Her strange, monstrous tail dangled limply off the edge of the lounge, swaying slowly. "Are you going to stand there and gawk, or are you going to go away and leave me in peace?" she asked finally.

"L-let's just say, for the sake of argument, that you're right, and the magic of my heart is gone," Dinky continued after considerable thought. "What would that mean, exactly? Is there anything stopping me from going on living the life I've always lived?"

Scorpio snorted. "Theoretically, no. Not now, anyway," she grunted. "Like I said, you've got a strange defect that allows you to continue to find reasons to do the things you did as a pony. You'd also be able to behave like a proper wraith without restraint or guilt, if you tried, but I know you won't. So for the moment, I imagine your life in Equestria could continue to be pretty normal."

Dinky's ear twitched nervously. "What do you mean 'for the moment'?"

"Well, first of all, I'd prepare to start watching your so-called "friends" age around you," Scorpio continued, rolling her eyes as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. "Once wraiths reach physical maturity— and you look to be just about there— their rate of aging suddenly becomes quite different than a pony's would be. Since your physical body is built of dark magic, it degrades much, much more slowly than the flesh-and-blood bodies of the ponies around you. By the time they're in their fading years, you'll still look and feel like a young adult."

"Wait, what?" Dinky gasped. "When I spoke to Antares a few years ago, he told me he was very old, but he said that was because he manipulated the aging process with magic."

"He did," Scorpio said with a yawn. "He was all-but-immortal. Pity I had to take his body to re-create my own, but that's how the Realm of Stars works. Had I not done him in, he would've lasted for ages and ages yet."

"Ok, but wraiths aren't naturally immortal, right?" Dinky asked.

"Of course not," Scorpio laughed. "But if left to wait for their natural expiration, they're exceptionally long lasting. Your pony friends will be gone in another six or seven decades; you, however, have a few millennia, and that's assuming you don't manipulate your lifespan like Antares did."

Dinky reeled. She kept reminding herself to take anything Scorpio might tell her with a sizable grain of salt, but she couldn't see any reason to have for the evil mare to lie about this. "I'm... I'm going to live for thousands of years?" she asked, her voice cracking.

Scorpio shrugged. "Unless you get yourself killed somewhere along the line. Always a possibility. But really, most wraiths just do what Antares did and further twist and corrupt the laws of nature in search of immortality. It'd be silly not to, considering the other option."

Dinky scrunched up her nose. "If I'm really going to live thousands of years, I'm sure I'll be ready to join my friends and family in the afterlife by then."

Scorpio sat up, staring at Dinky curiously. Slowly, a wicked smile crept across her face. "Afraid not, little wraith," she hissed. "The afterlife is the final state of being. It's not possible to visit it while still being attached to any other realm, like one might do when they're dreaming. Only the purest, deepest magic, that defines everything a pony is in life, moves on to the afterlife. Or, to use the colloquialism, their heart. And you, Dinky Doo, no longer have one. Assuming you make it back to Equestria from here, your life will be long, but when it does finally come to a close, the same thing will happen to you that happens to all wraiths; consciousness and sensation will vanish with death, and with no heart to proceed to the afterlife, you will entirely cease to be."

Dinky suddenly felt distinctly hollow. She tried to continue to look defiant, but judging by Scorpio's growing malevolent grin, she was failing.

"S-so, after my friends pass on, that's it? I'll never see them again, in this life or any other?"

Scorpio nodded. "Which is why I know it's only a matter of time until your wraith aspects start to shine through. Your so-called friendships will be cut short, your bonds with other ponies will fade. One day, you'll be alone, faced only with the prospect of oblivion, and a life of isolation until that day arrives. Inevitably, you'll try to fill that void with anything you can. You'd be surprised how much violence, conquest, and the subjugation of others will distract you."

"I've heard enough," Dinky said loudly, turning away so Scorpio would stop gawking at her expression. "No matter what happens to me, I'm not going to go down that path. I'm not going to hurt anypony, or conquer anything, even if it means I wither away alone in the darkness. I'm going home, and supporting my friends the way I always have."

Scorpio yawned. "Good luck with that," she said boredly. "You don't have any abilities that I can't match or surpass. This whole discussion of your eventual fate doesn't even matter; there's no way for you to get back to Equestria."

"I am going back!" Dinky snapped, suddenly desperate to prove Scorpio wrong, as if that would somehow invalidate everything else the dark mage had said as well. "Maybe you can't get out of here, but you don't have a teleport anchor like I—"

She stopped, but far too late. Scorpio burst into laughter.

"You got here with something as simple as a teleport anchor?" she guffawed. "It's feasible, I suppose, but you'd need two parts of the same object on both sides of the teleport. There's nothing in this place except the ponies of the Zodiac. Your anchor would've had to have been something like..."

She trailed off, and her mirthful expression was replaced with a dawning comprehension. "...Like the remaining bit of my tail..." she finished. "The rest of my new body was destroyed when I was sealed in here, like all matter would be, but I suppose that bit was left behind."

"Doesn't matter that you figured it out," said Dinky bitterly, as Trouble slunk over to rub against her flank with concern. "It's not like you can escape with it; you have no body to go back to out there."

"Neither do you," Scorpio pointed out. "If you entered this place, even by teleport anchor, the Realm of Stars destroyed your body when you arrived. So unless you have somepony to sacrifice in order to rebuild yours when you exit..."

"Never mind how I'm getting out," Dinky growled. "I'm done listening to you and your grim predictions. If you're not going to teach me about dark magic, I'm getting out of this place."

"Oh really?" Scorpio asked, with an almost playful glee in her voice. "And has it occurred to you, child, that I'm not willingly going to hand over a piece of my tail for you to use in your spell?"

Dinky froze. Horror slowly crept over her as she realized, during all her planning on getting into and back out of the Realm of Stars, it had never occurred to her that Scorpio's tail might not be readily available when it came time to use it to return home. Panicking, instinct took over.

"I'll duel you for it."

Scorpio was stunned into silence for a moment. A disbelieving smile crept across her features.

"Now there's the wraith bit of you shining through!" she chuckled. "Your knee-jerk reaction is to solve things with violence. I'd honestly feel a bit proud if you weren't such a traitorous slug.

This time, she was correct in interpreting Dinky's actions, and she knew it. Why did I say that? Dinky wondered. I can't take Scorpio one on one. Though now that I think about it... maybe I can take advantage of this problem to solve another one.

"That's right, I'll duel you," she continued, sticking to the improvised plan. "We can't destroy each other here, so we'll just fight until one of us reduces the other temporarily to stardust, like you did to Trouble before. But it's not going to be worth either of our time if I fight you as I am now. So let's make a deal; teach me what I wanna know about dark magic, and I'll show you what I'm really capable of."

Scorpio rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "I suppose I'm not really withholding those secrets for any reason other than to spite you," she said finally. "I don't really care if you know how to fully utilize your powers or not, but I can't pass up the chance to finally show you just how much of a fluke my defeat a few years ago really was."

Dinky lit her horn, letting black sparks fly as she did so. "Then show me," she insisted. "Show me how to truly bring out the power of darkness."

In the next few hours, Dinky learned three things.

One: Scorpio was a surprisingly good teacher.

Two: Casting more technical, refined spells was much easier than she thought, despite the chaotic nature of her dark energy.

And three: Dark magic was far more horrifying than she'd ever dared to imagine.

Scorpio created another projection of a random pony, as she had done over and over for the past several hours. "This next one's easy, and particularly brutal," she chuckled darkly.

"Almost all of them are particularly brutal..." Dinky griped, positive she'd be feeling quite sick to her stomach if she was in a body that had one. "Why do we have to test these on pony-likenesses? Can't we just use inanimate objects?"

"How would you know you even did it right then?" Scorpio scoffed. "Most of these spells will just break apart or melt inanimate objects. And casting them on you is pointless, since you don't have a body that can be damaged by them. If you want to learn anything, we need to use pony lookalikes that will react the way real ponies would back in Equestria."

Dinky scowled. "I guess that makes sense..." she relented.

"You're the one who wanted to learn what you can do," Scorpio pointed out. "If you meant it, then stop complaining and torture some more pony projections."

"Fine," Dinky grumbled, letting her dark aura spring to life. "How's this next spell work?"

"Remember the one I showed you a bit ago that lets you shape the darkness into something that almost acts like electricity?" Scorpio asked. "Channel it a little more gently, so it doesn't cause instant death, and then hit that pony square between the eyes with it and watch what happens."

Dinky looked at the faux-stallion standing across from her. With a shrug, she built up the spell Scorpio had suggested and let it fly. It struck the target and vanished. He didn't move, and for a moment, Dinky thought the spell was a dud.

Then, suddenly, the projection began to quiver. His pupils shrank to two tiny dots as purple, misty energy began to seep from around his eyes. "N-no..." he said in a strangled voice. "No. No! Please! G-get away!"

Dinky looked where the projection was looking, but there was nothing there. "Is he hallucinating?" she asked finally.

"Yes. He's witnessing his greatest fear," Scorpio said, almost uninterestedly. "This trick was a favorite of a particularly famous wraith named Sombra. You've probably heard of him, at least. Some ponies even think he came up with the spell, which is nonsense; he learned it from my followers, and decided to make it his signature spell."

Dinky watched the stallion cower in terror. "I guess it's a good spell for incapacitating ponies, at least..."

Scorpio nodded. "Great for subjugation; it breaks ponies' wills pretty easily. It also can be used to more permanently 'deal with' particularly bothersome ponies, if you're feeling especially sadistic. Like this."

Scorpio flicked her tail and flung more magic at the projection, and his terror turned into absolute panic. Screaming bloody murder, he sprinted to the far wall of the villa, scraping at it with his hooves and throwing his weight against it with bone-breaking force in a desperate attempt to escape. He seemed convinced the self-injury his actions were causing were a result of whatever malevolent entity he was hallucinating, which only increased his frenzy. Unable to watch any longer, Dinky fired a powerful blast at the suffering stallion, reducing what was left of him once again to a silent cloud of stardust.

"I suppose just blasting them to bits works too," Scorpio said with a yawn. "It's more efficient, though notably less entertaining."

"You're psychotic," Dinky muttered, shaking her head. "It's no wonder a pony like you was the first one to twist magic into corrupt, unnatural forms."

Scorpio smirked. "You'll learn to love it someday, child. Your denial just makes it all the more fun."

Dinky sighed. "Alright, so you've shown me spells to make ponies hallucinate, to cause them pain and illness or to slowly destroy them from within. Don't you have anything more... practical? Something I can use to work with the environment instead of just all this torture and death? None of this is gonna work in a duel here anyway; it won't affect either of us."

Scorpio narrowed her eyes. "I know what you're trying to do, you know," she growled, her tail swaying angrily as she spoke. "You wouldn't have come here looking to learn more about dark magic unless you had some urgent need for it back in Equestria. Knowing you, and those pony habits you haven't outgrown, you're probably trying to save the world or some such nonsense."

Dinky stamped a hoof. "Are you gonna show me or not?"

Scorpio rolled her eyes. "Fine. You can travel through the darkness undetected with a spell that lets you melt into the shadows around you," she explained. "It's like a unicorn invisibility spell but with an added intangibility effect as well; as long as you're somewhere relatively dark, nopony will be able to find you."

"That's the kind of stuff I'm looking for!" Dinky announced, sounding a little more hopeful. "What else?"

"Binding opponents with tendrils of shadow? Draining your opponent's power to boost your own?" Scorpio listed, utterly disinterested. "They're really not the most exciting techniques. Frankly I don't understand how you didn't stumble across them yourself these last few years."

"Because there is nopony out there to give me any hints!" Dinky reiterated. "Becoming a wraith doesn't suddenly understand how to use a whole new field of magic."

Scorpio raised her eyebrows. "...I think I see the problem," she said finally. "You're convinced that dark magic is it's own entity, entirely separate from unicorn magic, when really, it's not."

"What do you mean?" Dinky asked, exasperated. "Conjuring up dark energy feels totally different than normal magic."

"And that's about where the differences stop when it comes to casting spells," Scorpio continued. "Dark magic isn't a new field, it's just a corruption of existing spells. Melting into the darkness, like I said a moment ago, is merely a dark illusion spell. Draining energy or messing with thoughts and feelings are dark magical biology. And I'm sure you recall Antares' various dark enchantments a few years ago."

Dinky's eyes widened. "Wait, so..."

"So, considering you've already had years of schooling at Celestia's cozy little Academy, I'm sure you're already versed in all those things," Scorpio observed. "If you want to master dark magic, don't search for new spells; take the ones you already know, taint them with a generous dose of darkness, and twist them into horrific new forms. Your command of unfocused dark energy itself is clearly proficient; spellcasting with it should be the easy part."

"I've actually already enchanted things with dark magic," Dinky admitted. "But enchantments are simply putting magic into an object, so I figured putting dark magic into one was no different. It never occurred to me that other fields of magic might work that way too."

Scorpio once again rolled her eyes, more dramatically this time. "Yes, well, now that we've gotten that earth-shattering revelation out of the way, I think we're more than ready to get on with it," she said impatiently. "You know how to improvise spell combinations, and you know how to twist your magic into forms befitting a wraith."

Dinky nodded. "So now... we duel?"

Scorpio smiled darkly. "Indeed, Dinky. I know you can do those things, but can you do them well enough to win your ticket out of here?"

Dinky led Trouble slowly to the edge of the wide room. She patted the fox gently on the head, coaxed him to lie down, and smiled when he obediently stayed put. Turning away, she trotted to her end of the battlefield and turned to face Scorpio.

"It's been eons since I've had a proper duel," Scorpio chuckled as her tail began to pulse with dark magic. "I propose only two rules: all spells used must be dark magic only, and the fight ends when one of us destroys the other's vessel of stardust that passes for a body in this place."

"Fine with me," Dinky replied. "If I win, you'll give me a piece of your tail so I can get out of this place."

"And if you lose, you'll remain sealed here, a prisoner of the stars alongside the Zodiac," Scorpio said with poorly-hidden glee. "My, I never thought getting my revenge on you would be this easy! Go on, you traitor, make the first move, and prepare to have your fate sealed."

Dinky lit her horn, letting it fill with powerful darkness. Scorpio has me outmatched in strength by a huge margin, she thought. But I only have to hit her with one lethal attack. I'm just going to need to be more clever than she is.

"Stop stalling!" Scorpio barked. "Come on, let's see if Celestia's pitiful school has given you an impressive aptitude for magic."

Alright, I'll need to hide myself or Scorpio's gonna beat me in seconds, Dinky realized. Now, if a normal illumination spell casts light, then tainting that same kind of spell with dark magic will probably...

She cast her spell, and immediately, the billions of tiny stars floating all around the combatants seemed to be extinguished, plunging the battlefield into total darkness. In the blackness, she heard Scorpio snort.

"Well, at least you understand how to modify unicorn spells into dark ones," the mare called out. "But how are you planning to fight without giving away your location? Even dark magic produces a faint purplish glow."

Dinky let magic explode out of her horn like a firecracker, creating a scattershot series of sparkling spells that moved at different speeds and angles. She continued with new volleys of this as she hurried through the darkness, hoping the randomness of the attacks bursting in midair would conceal her actual location until one of her attacks connected.

It did not.

One of the most powerful, concentrated bursts of magic Dinky had ever seen whizzed through the veil of darkness, missing her head by an inch and painlessly taking off half of her ear as it grazed her. Startled, her concentration broke long enough for the shroud concealing the arena to fade enough that her opponent could once again see her.

"A childish combination of spells," Scorpio said boredly. "You can do better than that. Celestia's little scholars usually have more nuance to their strategies."

Her tail began to pulse with darkness, and she pointed the tip at Dinky threateningly. "Now it's my turn. I hope your first defensive move is better than that offensive one."

The mare's tail slashed through the air several times. Each time it did, a blade of darkness was created along the path it took. Half a dozen scythe-like blades were hurled toward Dinky in seconds.

There was no time to physically evade the attack, and Dinky knew she wasn't allowed to use a normal shield spell, since unicorn magic was forbidden. And if her practice sessions with Professor Surge had taught her anything, it was that shield spells would be utterly useless in this situation anyway. In a split-second decision, the young wraith decided her best defense was a good offense.

Perhaps her surprisingly dead-on accuracy was a result of adrenaline, but she doubted it; she was pretty sure lacking a physical body meant she lacked adrenaline as well. Whatever the reason, she managed to throw out six bolts of darkness, smaller but much more concentrated than the wide scythe-blades, and shatter each of Scorpio's attacks apart just before they sliced her starlit form to shreds.

Not waiting for opponent to plan another attack, Dinky rushed forward, surrounding herself with a spherical dark energy field as she did so. If there's one thing Scuffle has taught me, she thought as she sprinted toward her surprised foe, it's that not only can I use attacks as part of my defense, I can also use defensive moves to attack!

Dinky's energy field has reduced boulders to ash when they passed through it, so it stood to reason that simply barreling headlong into Scorpio with one such field active would quickly destroy the mare. So it really took her by surprise when Scorpio's tail, once again glinting with dark magic running along its length, whipped forward and stopped her energy field in its tracks as easily as one might hold back a regular shield with their hooves.

"H-how are you doing that?" Dinky asked as she struggled to push forward to no avail. "This spell ate through everything in touched back in Equestria."

"Of course it did," Scorpio laughed. "Have you learned nothing about dark magic yet, child? Pitiful unicorn spells can't stem its destructive force. The only thing that can keep dark magic at bay is stronger dark magic!"

Scorpio's tail, it seemed, was protected from harm by its own aura. Dinky watched helplessly as she villain dug the pointed tip of her tail into the wall of the energy field, and then gave it a mighty flick, throwing both the field and its surprised occupant high into the air.

Dinky let her spell fizzle out and managed to land on her hooves, though with several staggering steps to keep her balance. By the time she got her bearings, the aura around Scorpio's tail had grown into an intense purple glow, much like it had looked when she'd tried to destroy Dinky and her friends during her resurrection years earlier.

Dinky prepared to run, or defend, or do whatever was needed to endure the incoming attack, but curiously, none came. A loud, threatening hum started to fill the air, growing louder by the second until it seemed to be echoing inside Dinky's head.

Dinky didn't know or care what was coming next, only that she needed to stop it. She charged up an attack and prepared to hurl it at Scorpio. An instant before she did, she caught sight of a tiny smirk on her opponent's face.

And then, all at once, she was overcome with almost unbelievable agony. The pain was so intense that it not only erased the spell she had been preparing, but almost all rational thoughts as well. She collapsed in a heap before taking a single step, struggling not to simply start screaming.

"H-how.... w-w-what..." she sputtered as she contorted on the ground. "I thought... y-you can't hurt me w-without a b-b-body..."

Scorpio sauntered slowly over to her victim, wearing a satisfied smile. "Correct," she chuckled. "Since you have no body, nothing is physically wrong with you. What is here is your mind, which can be easily reprogrammed with a bit of dark magic so it's convinced that you're in incredible pain. But don't worry, it'll fade in a moment; specifically, just after I blast this bit of Dinky-shaped starlight you're inhabiting to smithereens."

An obviously lethal spell coursed through Scorpio's tail. Dinky fought against the pain, struggling for just a moment of focus.

I can still avoid this! I just have to use my powers!

An instant before Scorpio unleashed her attack, Dinky used her magic to dissolve into smoke and fly across the battlefield, relieved that that particular power still worked, even when it was starlight instead of flesh that was able to turn to smoky darkness. Still under the effects of Scorpio's relentless pain spell, but safe for the precious few seconds it would take for her opponent to charge another attack, she desperately searched for a way to negate the clawing agony inflicted on her.

Think, Dinky! Negating magic... protective spells... but they have to be dark spells, or I'll be disqualified! If only I had something to enchant! Sagittarius said he made his bow from starlight, so can I...?

Shaking and wobbling from the unrelenting pain, Dinky swept a hoof through the billions of pinpricks of light hanging in the air and pressed them together into a little round charm, with a thin, glowing chain she could place around her neck. Desperately, she scrawled Scorpio's symbol on it with the tip of a hoof, and then poured as much dark magic into it as she could muster.

Shield me from the mental effects of dark magic!

She didn't even see Scorpio throw her next spell, but she heard the thunderous sound of magic being let loose. In desperation, she hurled the charm into the air, instantly turned to smoke right before impact so the spell passed harmlessly through her, and then reformed... just as the charm she'd fashioned fell back down, its chain slipping over her head and landing neatly around her neck.

The pain vanished instantly, as did the blur in Dinky's vision and the shaking of her legs. Scorpio's mental assault was rendered totally useless.

Scorpio blinked twice, her strange tail swaying slightly as it dangled over her back. "I admit, that was clever," she said finally. "I can't access your mind with my spells anymore. Putting something like that together on the fly isn't that impressive... but I didn't expect you to be able to do so while in so much pain you could barely think."

Dinky smirked. "Enchantments have always been my specialty. Wanna see what else I can do with 'em?"

Scorpio's tail was already glowing again. "I'm afraid you won't get the chance," she said icily.

A spell struck the ground in front of Dinky's hooves, and the ground, or whatever it was that inhabitants of the Realm of Stars stood on, began to buckle and shift as the energy coursed through it. Soon, the area where the spell had hit began smoking as it melted into black slag. Dinky backed off from the slowly-growing hazard.

"Better think quick," Scorpio recommended as she struck two more locations between Dinky and herself, which instantly began to melt. "Either you fall in the molten pools, and are destroyed that way, or you run out of room to evade my attacks. Either way, this will be over soon."

Dinky leapt aside as the area where she had been standing a moment before was reduced to scalding black goo. I don't think I have an enchantment to undo this.

A crazy thought crossed her mind, and her eyes widened. Unless... unless I can combine dark magic with self-enchantment. A unicorn would probably destroy themselves if they tried to infuse their body with dark magic, but I'm made of dark magic, so... maybe it'll work?

Scorpio's next blast wiped out most of her remaining room to stand, which was more than enough to make her decision for her. She engulfed her body in her own dark magic, pouring it out of her horn and into her form. A hot, electric rush shot through her, tingling at her extremities. It wasn't pain; it felt more like a layer of something moving was added to her whole figure, vibrating just under her skin. She wondered if it would feel the same once she was back in her physical body instead of this starlit one.

I sure hope this works how I want it to!

Scorpio either didn't notice or didn't care about the spell Dinky had just cast, considering another spell was already coming her way, about to melt the last bit of solid ground to fiery black sludge.

Dinky took a running leap over the mire, and willed the dark magic she'd imbued herself with to be forced outward. She let out a little squeak of surprise as darkness burst from the base of her hooves like little thrusters, propelling her over the deadly trap her opponent had created. Scorpio stared at her, bewildered.

Dinky landed on safe ground and renewed the enchantment, shivering slightly as the layer of darkness writhing just under her skin grew more intense as she poured power into it.

"You're a strange one," Scorpio commented, shaking her head. "Enough of these weird tricks. I'm all out of patience for this."

Dinky felt the dark magic throbbing not just in her horn, but in her hooves and at the tip of her nose. Her mane and tail felt like they were full of static charge, but she knew it was yet more magic, waiting to be released. She prepared her strategy, waiting.

Scorpio gave an angry growl as she let loose a black laser from the end of her tail. Dinky jumped, expelled stored magic through her enchanted hooves to gain extra height, and then jabbed one of her forelegs forward in a punching motion. Dark magic exploded from the underside of her hoof, and Scorpio only just managed to bat the attack away with her tail before it would've struck her dead on.

Dinky didn't wait for her opponent to realize what was happening. She spun herself in midair, kicking out with her hind hooves to throw more spheres of dark energy, and even managing to fling a third from her own tail. As her midair momentum turned her forward again, she sent several more attacks flying with her horn and forehooves, showering Scorpio in a flurry of attacks far more numerous than she could've produced with her horn alone.

Unfortunately, Scorpio's deft control of the movement of her tail was nearly perfect. It darted between positions with almost impossible speed, batting away each and every one of the attacks before any of them could strike and dematerialize their target. Within a few seconds, the enchantment Dinky had stored within herself ran dry, and she had to return to the ground.

"A creative attack, and a noble effort, my little wraith," she said coldly. "But there is no victory awaiting you here. For all your clever spells, you lack the raw power to defeat me without the aid of all your little friends."

Something new began to happen to Scorpio. Black smoke, like the smoke that seeped off of Dinky whenever she was in wraith form, began to pour from the tip of the mare's tail, cloaking her in inky blackness. But rather than flow her body and away along the floor, it seemed to enrobe her, encircling her legs and barrel in a strange, moving vestment of shadows. The smoky layer conformed to the shape of her body perfectly, but extended out a few inches from her skin, making her appear a bit bigger and more imposing than she normally was.

In Dinky's experience, spells like this usually preceded a marked increase in power; Dinky recalled the crystal armor Sparkler had used in their duel years earlier. She decided the best thing to do was strike before Scorpio could finish whatever she was doing. Magic crackled loudly in her horn, and she lobbed a powerful blast of darkness at her opponent.

The attack hit, dead-on, and for a fraction of a second, Dinky believed she'd managed to catch her opponent off guard and win the duel. The feeling quickly faded when she noticed that, despite the direct hit, Scorpio was not reduced to a twinkling cloud of stardust.

"Wha... but you didn't dodge, or even defend!" she sputtered. "That attack would've been more than lethal enough to kill a pony back in Equestria."

Scorpio laughed sharply. "You know full well that I am no normal pony," she jeered. "I need you to understand, Dinky, that at no point during this duel did you ever stand a chance of besting me. You could train for millennia, but you'll never command the darkness the way I, its creator, can. This cloak I've just created absorbs all your attacks, no matter how strong. You cannot harm me."

Angry and desperate, Dinky loosed the most powerful beam of darkness she could muster. Scorpio stood completely still, letting the laser engulf her entirely. But when Dinky's power finally petered out, she still stood there, untouched.


"Ah, you want to play with beams, just as we did in the crystal cave years ago?" Scorpio asked playfully. "Very well. Shall we?"

A massive beam of darkness burst from her tail, and Dinky had no choice but to meet it with one of her own. The two attacks met in midair, producing a thundering sound as they fought to push each other back.

"Last time, this was a stalemate," Scorpio calmly pointed out. "But only because your friends and family were there to help you. This time though, you're alone... and alone, you can never overpower me."

Without any sign of visible effort, Scorpio redoubled the power of her spell. Dinky was only able to hold her back for a matter of seconds before her spell failed her. For one tiny fraction of a second, she stood helpless as the superior beam raced toward her.

And then there was nothing. The beam, and the villa, and Scorpio herself, vanished. The deafening sound of the magic was extinguished. All sensations ceased at once.

Dinky couldn't see, hear, move, or feel a thing, but still had no trouble thinking clearly. She realized what must have happened.

Reform. Bring the starlight together to give me a body again.

Gradually, all the sensations returned. A smug Scorpio came back into view. Dinky looked down at herself, watching the tiny stars slowly reform her body, legs, and hooves.

"I lost..."

"You lost," Scorpio confirmed, with a devilish smile. "Take any thoughts of ever again seeing your friends, your family, and the Equestria you know and love, and wipe them from your mind. Your window of opportunity to leave this place is about to expire, and without that critical teleport anchor, you must instead remain here, in this oblivion in the heavens. So welcome, little wraith, to your eternity; you are now the newest prisoner of the Realm of Stars!"