“Did I hear someone say my name?” Ditzy asked, flapping through the entrance of the copper cavern to hover by Rainbow Dash.
The alicorn below rose to his hind legs with a thunderous whinny. “Ditzy Doo, my dearest friend!” he cried. Every feature in the chamber glowed as he lifted into the air on hawk-like wings. Rainbow leaned away as Ditzy dove into his embrace, expecting the regal stallion to explode into globs of clay. Instead, Ditzy nuzzled the soft, bronze fur of his chest; his slender hooves knocked aside her helmet and ran through her golden mane. “What a delight to see you again, my dear!”
“Sweet emergency edible boots!” Daring yelled as her head popped into the chamber. “Who the heck are you and why are you cuddling my sister?”
The alicorn’s bright grey eyes studied Daring for a moment. His brow lifted in realization and he gave the pony in his embrace a questioning look. Ditzy only had to nod for the stallion’s long, scarlet mane to whip around his face like fire.
“You,” he breathed in a voice like molten lava. “What purpose do you have here? For your sake, I hope it is a very, very good one.”
Lifting an eyebrow, Daring relaxed in the miniature tunnel and stretched her wings. “Dude, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing here. All I know is we’d be more than halfway to Haissan by now if somepony didn’t make us stop and visit creepy hermits.”
“You insufferable maggot!” he thundered, reaching a hoof in Daring’s direction. A number of thin stalactites extended from the dome to wrap around Daring’s body, yanking her into the chamber. She yelped and squirmed in their stony grasp as they carried her, upside-down, to dangle before Piedra’s twitching face.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! What’s going on?” Her helmet slipped from her mane, landing beside her sister’s in between two thick stalagmites. Spotting Rainbow Dash, Daring yelled, “Kid! Kid, get me outta here!”
With another flick of his hoof, Piedra caused the wiry rocks above Rainbow to stretch to the ground, creating an effective cage that kept the blue pony in place. “Hey!”
Piedra snorted steam into Daring’s wincing eyes as his own pair glowed with a silvery malice.
“What do you want!?” she shrieked.
“What I want cannot be captured, you slimy, selfish sack of sinew.”
“Ditzy! Tell him to quit it!” Rainbow shouted from her cage.
“Quit?” Piedra sneered. “Now there’s a word you should be familiar with, Daring,” he spat, tightening the stalactites’ grip around her ribs.
“What are you—hckkt!—talking about!?”
He snarled. “You left her. Your selfish, jealous rage drove you to leave your beautiful sister in the hooves of a dangerous tyrant.”
“What? I didn’t know he—kkk-gooaaahh-hng-hnnnnng…”
“You knew better than anypony what he was capable of, and don’t you dare pretend otherwise.”
“She was fine!” Daring kicked and gnashed her teeth. “Everything turned out fine! All of that happened eight years ago!”
The alicorn gasped. His grip on Daring loosened enough for her to suck in a deep breath.
“Eight… years?” he said, blinking. “By the Wabe… has it really been that long?” He looked at Ditzy’s face pressed against the warmth of his chest. She nodded, rubbing her cheek on his fur.
The stalactites around both Daring and Rainbow retreated. Unable to fly, Daring dropped to the bottom of the sphere onto a fat, hard rock where she flopped to her side and groaned in pain as the others conversed overhead.
“I’m sorry, Piedra,” Ditzy breathed. “I know I told you I’d be back sooner than that, but I couldn’t find a way to—”
“Shhh….” The alicorn stroked the back of Ditzy’s neck and descended to the concave ground, sitting on his haunches while he held her close. “I did not expect you to return soon, child. I am simply surprised that so much time has passed. I have not left the cave since we were last together.”
Ditzy gasped and pounded his sternum with her good forehoof. “Piedra! You promised me you would fly at least once a month!”
The alicorn chuckled. “I suppose I did. I apologize, dear friend.”
“What’s going on?” Rainbow interrupted, diving to hover in front of the pair. “What’s with torturing my partner?”
Piedra’s eyes narrowed. “I am not done with her,” he said, peering around Rainbow at the moaning pony. At Piedra’s beckon, the fat rock beneath her slid over the ground and dropped Daring at his hooves. Rainbow landed in front of her and glared up at the alicorn.
He smirked. “I admire your loyalty, pegasus, but you do not know this pathetic pony’s crimes.”
“I was right here while you were yelling about ‘em,” Rainbow said. “So she left Haissan when Ditzy got the guy. What’s so bad about that?”
“When Ditzy… got the guy?” Piedra hissed. His mane began to flare again. “You misunderstand, little pony. Alula’s love was not a reward this poor adventuress sought. She was—”
“Mrrmmh,” Ditzy said into the alicorn’s chest.
His eyes softened and looked down to her. “What was that, child?”
Ditzy peeled herself from his hide, eyes shut tightly. “Lying,” she whispered. “I was lying when I told you he… forced his love on me.”
Piedra blinked. “You were?”
Ditzy’s ears flattened against her head as tears leaked from the inner corners of her eyes. “I-I didn’t know how else to get your help if you didn’t feel sorry for me and—”
Piedra grabbed the little pegasus by her shoulders and set her on the ground several ponylengths away from Daring. He lifted her chin and swept her bangs out of her face, gazing into her eyes with his solemn, silver pair. “Please explain, my friend. I want to know the whole truth before I change any opinions.”
Ditzy nodded and brushed her tears away, training one eye on her grounded sister. “I’ll need Daring’s help, I think.”
Piedra reached over and smacked the yellow pony between her ears. “Youch!” she said, trying to roll onto her hooves. Rainbow helped and led her to Ditzy’s side where all three ponies sat with a copper-coated alicorn twice their size.
Ditzy took a deep breath and nodded to herself. “Most of the story I told you was true. I went to Haissan with Daring on commission to find the fabled Magic Carpet, capable of permanent enchantment. Our anonymous informant turned out to be Alula himself. He claimed to be an admirer of ours and invited us to stay with him in the palace for a time as his guests, to learn of Haissanic culture and ask us about Equestria’s.” She turned her head toward her sister. “Isn’t that right, Daring?”
With a wary glance at Piedra’s stoic face, Daring said, “Yeah, as far I can remember. I didn’t wanna stay at first; thought it was gonna be boring. But then…”
She clamped her mouth shut and looked at the ground. Ditzy reached over with a wing and nudged her sister in the side, whispering, “Go on.”
Daring sighed. “Then I fell in love with him. So did Ditzy. He was so charming and clever and thoughtful and… I dunno, mysterious, I guess.”
“Hmm,” was all Piedra said, unmoving.
“We stayed with him for a long time,” Daring said. “I think it was more than a week before we even mentioned leaving.”
“Two weeks,” Ditzy corrected, “and then there was the banquet.”
“During the festivities, there was a lion tamer cracking his whip,” Ditzy said. “It made us think of our dying father, and how we were forsaking the search for his cure by staying with Alula. He stopped the show and asked for an explanation of our distress. Daring decided to—”
“I made the mistake of telling him everything,” Daring interrupted. “I opened up to him, and that only made things worse. He comforted me, and that’s when I fell mane over tail for him.” She opened her mouth to continue, but dropped her head in silent shame.
“We couldn’t leave,” Ditzy said. “Neither of us could tear ourselves away from him. And even though we never talked about it, we knew there was a competition. We knew he was struggling to decide which of us he loved back. Two whole months we were there, until…”
“He kissed me,” Daring breathed. A knot formed in Rainbow’s stomach as she watched a tear fall from Daring’s hanging head. “On the night of the ball, he… he brought me to his room. He kissed me on the balcony.” She laughed harshly, lifting her face to reveal reddened eyes. “I thought I won. I thought he’d chosen me. He whispered in my ear, and he kissed me…”
Even Piedra leaned away as Daring’s face screwed into a fuming scowl.
“But that kiss—and that whisper—were laced with poison.”
Rainbow gasped. “The poison whispered kiss…”
Daring nodded. “As you can imagine, I didn’t keep it a secret. You’ve seen firsthoof how excited I get when I win, kid, whether or not I deserve to. I found Ditzy as soon as I could and rubbed it in her face.” She snorted, shaking her head. “She got mad and… we started to fight.”
“Our tempers went up,” Ditzy said with the ghost of a smile, “and we went up.”
“Hahaa!” Daring laughed, rolling her achy shoulders. “Exactly. We were screaming and kicking and flying, higher and higher and higher, until… gosh, we were probably duking it out at half the height of this mountain, right over the palace. Everypony was watching.”
“Daring always does better with an audience,” Ditzy said. “One good punch at that altitude—” She tapped herself between the eyes. “—and I was out cold. I fell all the way to the central garden.”
“And I didn’t do anything to help her,” Daring muttered. “I just… watched her fall.”
Piedra shifted, but stayed silent.
“My head hit a rock or a stump or something. I can’t remember anymore.” Ditzy let out a joyless chuckle. “I guess my skull split open and—”
“It was so gross!” Daring jumped to her hooves, pacing behind the other pegasi and tossing her mane several times. “Once it hit me up there, what I had done, I dove down and found her in the garden and… gah, it was nasty. I almost threw up. I mean, her brain was, like… right there! I could see it! And the blood, oh Celestia, there was so much blood…”
“Thank you, Daring, that’s quite enough,” Piedra said in a very low tone. Daring dropped to her rear and pursed her lips.
“Alula saved me,” Ditzy said. “He used his magic to heal me, and probably brought me back to life. Of course there were side effects… heheh… but I was alive and healthy. I couldn’t believe he cared about me enough to use that much power.”
Piedra was stunned. “I cannot even imagine healing such a wound. Even with the love I have for you, I doubt my magic would be enough.”
“It was a miracle,” Ditzy said in an airy voice. “That same night, he asked me to stay in his chambers. I assumed it was part of my recovery.” Her ears squeezed her head until strands of blonde hair stuck out in all directions. Rainbow felt her cheeks flush just by staring at Ditzy’s glow. “We… also kissed,” she mumbled.
Daring grunted, scraping the stone under hoof.
“I never told Daring,” Ditzy continued.
“I didn’t give you the chance to,” the yellow pony said, resuming her spot between Ditzy and Rainbow. “When I saw how much he loved you, I realized I didn’t stand a chance.” Her snout wrinkled. “So I left. I gave up, not only on Alula, but on my family, and my promise to Dad, and… everything but myself.”
Ditzy’s eyes narrowed at her sister. “You’re… admitting that?”
Daring cracked her neck and shrugged. “It’s pretty obvious by now. And it’s not like I had much of a choice.” A deep growl from the alicorn encouraged her to add, “Well, okay, I guess I had a choice, but… what I did was… easier.”
“And it was wrong,” Piedra said, turning to Ditzy. “Continue, friend.”
Comforted by the title, the grey mare breathed through her nose. “I didn’t know what to do. My sister disappeared without a trace and I didn’t know where she was or what she was doing. I realized all of my stupid mistakes and wanted to get back to my life and save my dad… but Alula would have none of it. He wanted to marry me and keep me in the palace. I kept putting it off, but I couldn’t see a permanent way out. I didn’t want to offend him, but I needed to go home. I felt trapped there for a long time. I was sick and confused and moody… and then I felt the kicks.”
A distant smile appeared on Piedra’s face.
“I realized I was pregnant,” Ditzy said, “with the child of an alicorn, likely an alicorn itself. That’s what sent me over the edge, I think. I realized that, if I stayed there, my lover and my child would live forever, and I would age and die and be forgotten. So I followed Daring’s lead: in the dead of night, I ran. I tried to fly away, but the guards apprehended me and brought me to Alula. I hadn’t told him about the pregnancy, but it didn’t take long for him to figure it out.
“I pled with him to let me go back to Equestria and raise my child with my own family, but he refused. He… locked me away. He said it was for my own good. It was a comfortable chamber deep underground, and he sent me company and food and tried to make me happy, but I was too distraught. I cried all the time and prayed for help.” She laughed briefly. “I didn’t even know what I was praying to at the time, but… something answered.”
A warm smile brightened her face as she looked into the copper alicorn’s silver eyes. “Piedra, the Alicorn of the Earth, came to my rescue.” She glanced over at four wide, ruby eyes. “He opened a tunnel that led to this mountain where he let me tell my story.” She cringed. “I bent the truth, eager for his help… and he gave it.”
“I am disappointed that you lied to me,” Piedra said in an even tone, “but I understand why you did it, and I am glad for your honesty now. Know that I would have helped you even with the truth.”
Ditzy said nothing and shuffled her hooves.
“What did he do?” Rainbow asked Ditzy. Before the mailmare answered, Rainbow rolled her eyes at herself and looked instead at Piedra. “What did you do?”
“What she asked me to do.” His tone was solemn and sent shivers up Rainbow’s spine. “I used my magic to divide the alicorn child in her womb into one pegasus and one unicorn, and helped her escape to the shore where she sailed a ship home to Equestria.”
“I was lucky,” Ditzy said. “Alula hadn’t realized I was missing yet. The winds stopped the day after I reached Equestrian soil, probably in an attempt to keep me from leaving Haissan.”
Daring’s jaw had dropped to her chest. “You… you split your kid in half?”
One of Ditzy’s eyes twitched. “I was going home, and the last thing I wanted was to foal an alicorn. Can you imagine the repercussions?”
Rainbow blinked. “Not really. I think it’d be cool.”
“And it would make it very easy for Alula if he was ever to come looking for his child,” Ditzy said with misty, skewed eyes. “N-not to mention the social alienation, and the possibility of attracting government attention… no, I-I couldn’t risk it.”
Daring’s expression hadn’t changed. “You split your freaking kid in half!?”
“We divided one extraordinary infant into two, less shocking foals,” Piedra said, narrowing his eyes. “If it serves as any comfort to you, it was extremely difficult and very dangerous.” His chest lifted in a silent gasp and he whipped his head toward Ditzy. “Oh, my. Did… did it work, child?”
Though she tried to keep her composure, Ditzy’s back crumpled and she burst into tears. The light emanating from the rocks in the chamber dimmed as Piedra’s posture fell. He scooted forward and wrapped his hooves around the crying pony, tucking her into his warm embrace. Nopony made a sound over the mailmare’s echoing sobs for a long time.
“I’m sorry,” Piedra whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Ponyfeathers, Ditz…” Daring whimpered. “That kid of yours, the unicorn... was she a twin?”
Rainbow reeled. “Whoa… Dinky’s your actual daughter? I thought you adopted her!”
“That’s what I told everypony,” Ditzy said between heavy sniffs, “but it was just another lie. When I got home, I almost wished I had stayed in Haissan. D-Daring was off on her own writing books, and my father…” She sucked a breath through her teeth and her voice raised in pitch. “My d-daddy was gone. He died while we were… while we were fighting over a sultan!”
She buried her face into Piedra’s shoulder and wailed.
“Oh, gosh, Ditzy!” Rainbow’s voice cracked as she pulled at her own face. “I-I had no idea! That’s so sad....”
Daring ran her hoof up and down a dark lock of her hair. “How long did you stay with Mom?”
“Um…” Ditzy sniffed and repositioned herself, taking control of her breaths. “I-It must have been a few months,” she said, rubbing her good hoof over her eyes as Piedra stroked her wings. “She took me to the hospital when it was time to have the… hckt, the babies.”
“And only one survived, my darling?” Piedra carefully asked. The tremor of his voice reminded Rainbow of a cat’s purr.
Ditzy nodded. “The p-pegasus was stillborn.”
Rainbow gasped. Daring’s head sunk even lower.
“I feared that would be the case,” Piedra admitted. “I could create two bodies, but no magic can divide a soul.” He breathed through his nose and squeezed the trembling pony closer. “I am so sorry, Ditzy.”
There was nothing else to say. Piedra wrapped his wings around Ditzy and carried her to a far bend of the cavern to cry in peace. Rainbow and Daring moved in the opposite direction, searching for Daring’s pith helmet among the rocks sprouting from the bottom of the sphere.
“How many alicorns are there?” Rainbow whispered to Daring.
“How the heck would I know?” she grumbled, spotting her hat between two cones of caramel stone.
Rainbow raised her head enough to see the large pony. “What the heck is an ‘alicorn of the earth’? Is that, like, an earth pony alicorn? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Uh, duh,” Daring said, rolling her eyes. “Y’know how Princess Celestia controls the Sun and Alula makes the wind blow? This guy must have power over dirt and rocks and stuff.” She pointed at the pencil-thin stalactites overhead. “How else do you think he was directing those pricks?”
Rainbow’s brow furrowed. “So… is there an alicorn for everything?”
Daring blew a strand of hair out of her face and replaced her helmet. “I’unno.”
“Why hasn’t Twilight told me about this?”
“Well, obviously she doesn’t know.” Daring sat up and stretched her wings with a hiss. “I never knew about this guy. Doesn’t seem like Ditzy even knew about him until she, uh… prayed, or whatever.”
“So, what, there are secret alicorns just hiding out all over Equus?”
“I have no idea, kid! I’m more concerned about my sister right now, if you don’t mind.”
Rainbow grit her teeth and pulled on her ears. “Ugh. It’s hard for me to think about. I had no idea she was so… sad.”
“Pfff. How do you think I feel?”
“Like a piece of crap.”
“Hey, thanks, kid.”
“You kinda deserve it,” Rainbow said without looking at Daring. “You did some pretty stupid stuff.”
Though her face reddened, Daring only snorted.
“So what do you think we’re gonna do now?” Rainbow asked, dropping to her belly and pattering her hooves on the base of a thick stalagmite. “I think Ditzy’s leg is pretty hurt, and you can barely fly. Am I gonna have to get the foals by myself?”
“I will make a path for you.” Piedra’s voice carried throughout the chamber, startling the pegasi despite its softness. “Ditzy will stay here with me and nurse her ankle. You two must retrieve the foalnapped children from the palace and bring them back here as swiftly as possible, without detection.”
Daring scoffed. “What? Are you kidding me, Ditz? I thought you said the whole point of coming to Haissan was to talk face to face with Alula and clean up this whole mess.”
“I’ll speak with him when I can,” Ditzy said. “For now, we need to focus on getting those foals home.”
Rainbow jumped up and saluted. “Can do, cap’n.”
Daring shoulders drooped. “If that’s what’ll help, I’ll do my best.”
“I sincerely hope you will,” Piedra said with a stern glare at the adventuress. Then, with a wave of his hoof, a pony-sized hole opened at the trough of the cave. Rainbow and Daring approached it, peering into the endless black within.
“Good luck, girls,” Ditzy called out.
Rainbow smiled in her direction. “Don’t need it,” she said, diving into the magical tunnel.
Daring clicked her tongue. “I sure do,” she mumbled, and jumped.
“Uugghhh! How much farther do you think it is?”
“You just asked me that two minutes ago!”
“I can’t remember what you said.”
“I didn’t say anything!”
“Nyyeeehh… I’m bored.”
“Just keep walking.”
“But I’m tiiired and my knee hurts!”
“…My wing hurts, and I have to go to the bathroom!”
Two pairs of scarlet eyes glimmered in the distant light of an overhead opening. Rainbow beamed and picked up her pace, trotting down the narrow tunnel on quiet hooves. Daring was far slower and far less quiet.
“Tell me if you can see the palace!” she whisper-yelled to Rainbow.
The blue pony pulled her legs closer to her body and flapped twice, rocketing down the path like a bullet. She skidded to a stop just under the bright hole and poked her head through it. With a sharp gasp, she ducked back into the tunnel and flattened herself against its wall.
Daring froze. “What? What is it? Where are we?”
Rainbow’s eyes darted to her yellow companion. “I think we’re in the palace.”
“What!?” Daring tip-hoofed forward as fast as she could, squeezing past Rainbow Dash to peer aboveground. “Oh, crap… you’re right.”
Rainbow wheezed. “What the heck was that guy thinking? I thought he wanted us to be all sneaky!”
“Well, depending on what room we’re in,” Daring said, lifting her forehooves out of the hole, “he made our job a lot easier.”
Daring grunted, pulling herself out of the tight, dark tunnel and into a well-lit chamber. “Come on, kid, there’s nopony in here.”
After shaking out her mane, Rainbow used her wings to follow Daring into the palace. Blinking her eyes rapidly, she took note of the chamber’s impressive features. “Whoa… is this a ballroom?”
“Sure is, kid,” Daring said, running her eyes over the gold-plated entablature high above their heads. Her hooves echoed off the granite floor as she approached the center, trotting away from the corner where their tunnel ended. “Wow. I forgot how big this place was.”
“This is crazy,” Rainbow breathed, her eyes bouncing from one enormous chandelier to the next. “Why would Piedra send us here?”
“Because nopony comes in the ballroom unless there’s a ball,” Daring answered, grinning. “Heh… that’s actually pretty cool.”
Rainbow’s wings ruffled at her sides. “So… we’re just supposed to search the whole palace for the Cake’s kids and bring them back to this giant room without anypony noticing?”
“Shouldn’t be that hard,” Daring said, cracking her neck and shuddering. “In fact, I’d go so far as to call it… a piece of cake.”
Rainbow blinked. “What?”
“Never mind,” Daring said, waving a hoof. “High comedy.”
They moved to the double ivory doors of the ballroom’s entrance. Rainbow noticed carvings of elephants, snakes, and bizarre creatures she had never seen before etched into their surfaces. The heavy silence of the room was punctuated by Daring as she reached to open the door with one hoof, covering her mouth with the other while she squinted at Rainbow. The blue pegasus nodded, arching her back into a stealthy crouch.
It opened with a low thunk. As fast as they dared, the duo dove through the crack between the doors and left it barely open for their return. Rainbow followed Daring through the hallway they had entered, slinking along the wall and keeping their ears perked for incoming hoofsteps.
“What are we up against here?” Rainbow whispered. “How many ponies guard this place?”
“Hundreds, usually,” Daring said, pausing at a corner, “but it’s the middle of the night. The only ponies out and about now are servants keeping things clean and orderly. The actual armored guards are outside the palace and around Alula’s throne room.”
“Not close,” Daring said, drawing an invisible rectangle on the wall. “The palace is built around a huge central garden. We’re right here—” She pointed to the northeast corner. “—and the throne room’s over here.” Tapping the center of the right side, Daring used her other hoof to gesture in the actual direction of the throne room. “We’ve got a whole garden between us.”
Rainbow nodded. “Okay, then… where do you think the foals are?”
“No freakin’ idea,” Daring answered, peeking around the corner into a perpendicular hallway, “so we better keep moving.”
The mustard mare led them down a hall to their left where a grand staircase brought them up to another level. Rainbow grinned at the wide, polished steps and the decorative banister leading up the middle. “Wow!” she said. “What a mansion!”
At the top of the stairs, a huge, clear window gave Rainbow a view of the expansive central garden, filled with a beautiful variety of plant life swaying in a warm night wind and riddled with curving paths shining silver in the Moonlight. “Hey!” she said, tugging Daring’s tail. “You wrote about that place!”
Daring slapped the other mare’s hoof. “Obviously!” she hissed, pulling Rainbow’s gaze away from the garden by her chin. “Focus, kid!”
Startled, Rainbow nodded and watched Daring zip down the hallway. A smile tugged at one corner of her mouth to see Daring so serious about something. No more complaining, no more jokes. It was finally time to find the foals. She was in her element, Rainbow realized. This was the Daring Do of the adventure novels. This was the hero Rainbow had expected to meet.
Rainbow let out a quiet laugh. “You got it, Doc,” she whispered, and bolted after the helmeted pegasus.
Daring led them to one significant room after another, her grunts of frustration increasing in volume with each empty chamber. They had to hide from a number of Haissanic servants making their rounds, but Daring’s keen ear and attention to their surroundings kept them from being detected. Rainbow’s adrenaline soared to new heights as she wrapped her mind around her situation. Every twitch of Daring’s head or silent roll around a corner sent jitters through her bones.
“Dang it!” Daring growled, slamming her hoof against the doorframe of yet another empty room. “I thought for sure they’d be in the nursery.”
Rainbow tried to stifle her excited grin by clearing her throat. “Do you think maybe they’re with Alula?”
Daring sighed and dragged her hat over her face. “Yeah, I do,” she said, muffled by the helmet.
Rainbow bit her lip. “Where is he this time of night?”
“Either up in his chambers or in the throne room.”
“Which should we try first?”
Daring snorted, dropping the pith helmet over her mane. “We can check the throne room if you want, but there’s no way I’m going into his tower. You read my new book. I’ve tried to sneak in there before. It doesn’t work.”
Rainbow nodded. “Okay, fine… where’s the throne room, again?”
Daring led the way—north, east, south, avoiding the stray servant or sleepy guard roaming the long halls—until they peeked around a corner at a pair of slender doors shaped together like a stalk of asparagus. Two long-snouted guards brandishing spears stood before the entryway with threatening stillness.
“How do we get past ‘em?” Rainbow whispered, hovering above Daring at the corner.
The mustard mare shrugged. “Take ‘em out, I guess.”
Rainbow blinked. “Uh… like, distract them?”
Daring smirked. “Yeah, you could call it that.”
Pushing Rainbow out of the way by her snout, Daring stealthily took to the air. The hallway’s ceilings were high enough for her to fly unnoticed above the guards staring straight ahead. After climbing to a predatory height, Daring grit her teeth and angled her wings, diving into the side of one of the sentries. His hooves gave way to the pressure and he slammed into his partner. As both tumbled to the ground, Daring delivered swift kicks to the bridges of their snouts, leaving them unconscious.
“Wow!” Rainbow cheered, pumping a hoof above her head. Daring grimaced and swung her hooves, making preventive gestures at Rainbow. She tilted her head to one side, prismatic bangs sweeping over her forehead. “What is it?”
“Khalas!” a foreign voice shouted from behind. Rainbow winced and threw her gaze over her shoulder. Another guard galloped toward her, shouting in a language Rainbow didn’t understand.
“Uh oh,” she squeaked, lifting off with a multicolored streak. Following Daring’s antics, she dove at the Haissanic stallion, thrusting out one of her shoulders and curving her path to ram his ribcage. His horseshoes screeched as they ground across the marble floor, echoing with his yelp before his jaw smashed into the wall. Though he slumped into the corner, Rainbow punctuated her attack with a sharp punch between his ears.
Taking to the air, she rounded the corner to the throne room’s hallway. “Sorry, Daring, I didn’t know there were other guards in the—”
She froze and gaped at the scene below. Daring was crouched between four Haissanic guards, bouncing her eyes from one to the next in quick succession. Two more armored ponies thundered toward the confrontation from the other end of the hall. Rainbow soared to the approaching ponies with a battle cry. Holding a hoof in front of her, she flattened a cream-colored stallion’s snout and threw him down by his neck, whirling to deflect the other’s spear with the back of her hoof.
Twenty yards away, directly in front of the throne room, Daring lashed out with a hind leg, catching one guard of the guards in the knee. His neighbor lunged at her extended leg with a spear. She wrapped around its point with her tail, pulling it from the nervous stallion’s grip and using its blunt end to whack him under the jaw.
A third guard jumped forward and punched Daring in neck. Grunting, she spread her sore wings, startling the stallion with a feathery slap to the face. Knocking his metal helmet from his skull, Daring grabbed him by the ears and threw him into the fourth stallion.
The first guard had recovered, charging at her with his head held low. Daring sidestepped and coiled a foreleg around his neck, using his momentum to steer him toward the grounded guards struggling to rise. His collision sent all three scattering, giving her time to focus on the older, skinny stallion rubbing his bruised jawbone.
“You should not be here, Daring Doo,” he said in Haissanic. “The Sultan will not be pleased.”
“I’ve never been especially pleasant,” Daring spat, pushing herself forward with a pump of her wings. Twisting in midair, she aimed her hind hooves and bucked the stallion in his sternum. Something cracked under the force, sending him coughing and stumbling into the double doors.
Down the hall, Rainbow dodged lunge after lunge of her apt opponent’s spear. As its point narrowly missed her head, slicing a few green strands of hair, she turned and bit the middle of the pole in time to see Daring kick a thin guard into the throne room doors. His weight was enough to push them open. Unable to see inside from her angle, Rainbow spat out the spear and dashed to Daring’s side, ready to face the foalnapping ruler of Haissan.
She didn’t get a good look before a big hoof clapped her in the ear from behind. “Graaaugh!” she shouted, trying to shake the ring out of her head. A goldenrod streak passed in front of her blurry vision, followed by the sounds of merciless hooves and the helpless whimpers of a stallion.
“Keep your hooves—” Daring’s voice rang out as she bounced from guard to wobbly guard. “—off—” She smacked one in the temple, using her wing to push his face into the marble while kicking the next one in the shins. “—my—” With a dramatic leap into the air, Daring brought her hoof down like a hammer on the exposed mane of the de-helmeted guard, sending his eyes into a swirl. “—partner!”
“Enough!” A deep voice, rich and clear, burst and echoed from the throne room, grating against Rainbow’s sensitive eardrum.
A twinkling, periwinkle aura surrounded every fighting pony. The guards were arranged into a line and set on their damaged hooves while the adventuresses floated into the highly ornamented chamber. “Leave us,” the smooth voice washed over the guards. Limping and bleeding, they immediately complied. The asparagus-shaped entry closed once more by the same magic, and the rosy-eyed pegasi were carried to the golden throne at the other wall.
As Rainbow’s eyes uncrossed, an impressive pony came into view. His long, thick mane was of a hue not far from that of her coat, streaked with silver locks. His narrowed eyes glistened with the softest of violet, glowing against his dark blue coat, much like that of Princess Luna’s. His muzzle, though angular and quite long, was not Haissanic, a detail that, for some reason, troubled Rainbow Dash. His spiraling horn and hawk-like wings reminded her of his power, but not enough to stop her from shouting, “Hey! Put us down, chump!”
He paid her no mind, his eyes locked on the yellow pony looking at the ground. The room’s only noises came from Rainbow’s struggling grunts and shouts. “Come on, lemme go!” Her voice cracked and beads of sweat dripped from her hairline.
The alicorn’s jaw moved to one side as he eyed the mustard mare. “Daring Doo,” he finally said, exhaling amicably. “I can honestly say that I never expected to see you again in this life.”
“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t have,” Daring grunted, glaring at Rainbow, “if it weren’t for Cheerfest over here.”
“Hey! You coulda warned me, y’know!”
“Warned you about all the guards we snuck past together?”
“Puh-lease! We only saw, like, three! It’s the middle of the night!”
“So you think the palace is just free reign after dark?”
Alula’s magic clamped over both pony’s snouts, silencing their banter. He chuckled and set them both on their hindquarters, rising from his throne to join them on the polished floor. “I see that these eight years have not drained you of your spunk, Miss Doo.”
Daring snorted as the magic disappeared. “Nor you of your charm, Alula,” she said, straight-faced.
Her terseness did nothing to quell his soft smile. “What forces have carried you back to my country?”
“Don’t play dumb, Alula!” Rainbow Dash shouted, pointing a scrutinizing hoof in his direction. “We know you took the foals!”
The hint of a frown twitched at the Sultan’s lips as his eyes slowly shifted to meet the brash pony’s. “I am afraid I do not recognize you, young one. Before we speak about the foals, may I be made aware of your name and purpose here?”
“So you admit you have the foals!” Rainbow exclaimed with a victorious grin.
“Indeed I do,” Alula answered calmly. “Your name?”
Surprised, Rainbow’s accusing hoof dropped to the ground with a resounding clop. “Uh… Rainbow Dash.”
“And your purpose?”
“She’s with me,” Daring piped up. “My new partner.”
The alicorn’s brow lifted. “Ah… I see. You replaced your sister.” With a single nod, he added, “How wise of you.”
Rainbow narrowed her eyes. “Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“We will get to each of your questions in turn, Miss Dash,” Alula promised. “For now, let us focus our conversation on the foals you seek.”
“Where are they?” Rainbow growled, spreading her wings.
Alula’s horn glowed as a reminder of his restrictive power. “They are here in the palace, safe and warm.”
Daring reeled. “Where?”
“In the guest loft, of course,” Alula said, “where I keep everything of value.”
Daring blushed as his eyes lingered on her. Rainbow slammed a hoof into her face. “You didn’t think to check the guest loft?”
“I wasn’t exactly thinking of the foals as guests, was I?”
Rainbow’s face scrunched up. “Wait a minute… yeah! Why are they in guest loft? You keeping ‘em over for breakfast or something?”
“I have kept them well fed, if that is the purpose of your question,” Alula said. “I will gladly allow you to return with them, as I assure you this was all a deplorable mistake.”
Rainbow and Daring leaned back in surprise. “What!?”
Daring’s shoulders dropped with relief, but Rainbow immediately took the air, hovering in front of the Sultan. “You want us to believe you accidentally sent your boys to Ponyville and they just happened to pick up a couple o’ baby ponies as souvenirs?”
Alula laughed. “No, I certainly do not want you to believe that. I only wish for you to believe the truth.”
“Which is what, exactly?” Rainbow asked.
The alicorn politely cleared his throat and invited Rainbow to resume her seat with a wave of his hoof. She complied, crossing her forelegs.
“I did send ponies into your country—over a dozen of them—to search for a single foal, nearly three years ago. Their instructions were to find an alicorn infant in proximity to a grey pegasus with whom I assume you are both well familiar. She was eventually located in the town you mentioned, Ponyville, by two of my…” He paused, tonguing the inside of his cheek for a moment. “…less qualified seekers. According to their report, the only infants they found in the town lived in a bakery, which Ditzy visited at least once a day. They came to the conclusion that the alicorn infant they sought did not exist, and that the mare had instead foaled multi-racial twins who she placed in the care of—”
“Alula, it’s been eight years,” Daring interrupted. “Why were they searching for a baby?”
“Alicorns age very slowly,” the large pony explained, “reaching adulthood well after the first century of their lives, where they stay for the remainder of time.”
Rainbow’s eye twitched. “Okay, so… you were trying to find your kid, but they made an assumption and took the wrong ponies. That makes sense, I guess.” She rubbed the back of her head. “But… why were you trying to foalnap your own kid in the first place?”
“Not to foalnap, Miss Dash,” Alula said with a serious glare. “To rescue.”
Rainbow guffawed. “Rescue? From what, Ditzy?”
“What the heck, dude?” Rainbow scowled. “Ditzy’s, like, the best mom ever. That’s what Fluttershy says, at least.”
“And for that I am grateful,” Alula said with a nod. “Let us count ourselves lucky that no harm has befallen either of them.”
“Lucky? Luck’s got nothin’ to do with it! Ditzy works super hard for her daughter. Everypony knows that!”
Alula’s breath left him. “Her… daughter,” he repeated, blinking rapidly. “She bore a filly.” His eyes moistened above a shocked smile.
Rainbow Dash was having none of it. “Cut the crap, Alula! What’s so dangerous about Ditzy that you had to ‘rescue’ your kid?”
Daring stayed silent, though her eyes begged the same question.
Alula sighed and ruffled his wings. “She was a victim of a terrible accident here in the palace,” he began. “I was able to save her life, but not without repercussions. Her eyes are not the only side-affect to magically reversing brain damage.”
“What else happened?” Daring asked.
“The trauma took its psychological toll,” Alula explained in a steady voice. “During particular episodes brought on by extreme stress, Ditzy is prone to act without reason, sacrificing the welfare of those around her in exchange for her own immediate gratification.” His brow tilted sadly. “It is not a matter of spite, but exists as a handicap out of her control. She may not even realize when she slips in and out of that state.”
“This is ridiculous!” Rainbow yelled. “You must be thinking of a different mare or something. Ditzy always does the right thing!”
“Does she?” Alula questioned, tilting his head forward. “Have you never once witnessed her lose focus? Have there been no strange accidents a mare of her integrity could normally prevent? Has she not, in your presence, become a different pony?”
Rainbow blinked as memories passed through her mind: Winter Wrap Up, Town Hall reconstruction, Twilight’s debilitating accident with Hoover’s Movers…
“No!” Rainbow blurted, shaking her head. “No way! Everypony makes mistakes. No one’s perfect all the time. Besides, she’s got that whole—” She circled her hoof in front of her face. “—eye… thing. Sure, she messes up, but she’s not crazy!”
“You are correct. ‘Crazy’ is a very poor term for our dear Ditzy.” Alula closed his eyes. “Rather, I submit she is confused and unbalanced. I recognized the symptoms within days of her recovery, even if she refused to address them herself. Whether we like it or not, Ditzy loses control, and I cannot trust her with my child any longer.”
“This is stupid! This is just stupid!” Rainbow jumped to her hooves and snarled. “You’re just trying to… to trick us into… I dunno, giving up her location or something!”
Alula raised an eyebrow. “Whose location, Miss Dash?”
Rainbow bit her lip.
Another kind of smile pulled at one corner of the alicorn’s mouth. “Aahhh… she’s here.”
“I didn’t say she was!” Rainbow snapped. “Urgh! Look, you can’t have Dinky, okay? Ditzy’s a great mom and I promise there’s nothing wrong with her. Your daughter is totally safe in Ponyville.” With a few flaps of her wings, she rose to a hover. “So if you’ll just give back the foals you accidentally took, Daring and I will get out of your mane and… Daring?”
The goldenrod pony was sitting stock still, staring into space with her dulled, ruby eyes.
“Daring, you okay?” Rainbow asked, landing beside her partner.
“It’s true,” the adventuress muttered.
Rainbow gulped. “Uh… what was that?”
“What he said about Ditzy,” Daring expounded, pressing a hoof over her eyes. “It’s true. It must be. Remember how she let the foals go at the docks?”
Guffawing, Rainbow took a step away. “What are you talking about? You had the foals in your hooves, and you gave them back for some cheap thrill! Isn’t Ditzy allowed to make a bad choice, too?”
“It’s different, kid,” Daring said. “My whole goal was to get a good scene for the book, but Ditzy was there to save the foals. And she didn’t. She… she sacrificed another’s welfare—”
“Are you frickin’ serious?”
“—in exchange for her own immediate gratification.”
“You’ve gotta be joshin’ me!” Rainbow groaned, pulling on the back of her mane. “Daring, listen to yourself? This is Ditzy we’re talking about. Your own sister! She’s not out to hurt anypony, ever! She just wants to help—”
“She was out to hurt me!” Daring bellowed, glaring at Rainbow. “She’s always been out to hurt me, just ‘cause Dad liked me more. I was always a little cooler, a little smarter, a little faster, a little better… until…” Her eyes darted to Alula for a fraction of a second. “She finally beat me, but at a huge cost. She’s always been the type to do crazy things to get what she wants, Rainbow. It makes sense that an accident as bad as hers would only make that habit worse!”
“You’re as bad as him!” Rainbow shouted, whipping a hoof at the alicorn. She gasped, flying away from the pair. “Oh my gosh… you’re just agreeing with him now because he’s against Ditzy. You want this to be true. You want her to be some kinda psycho.”
“Of course I don’t want that for her,” Daring rebuked, “but you have to admit it makes sense!”
“No! No, it doesn’t!” Rainbow Dash cracked her tail like a whip and glared daggers at the ponies sitting at the foot of the throne. “Ditzy Doo is a good, sweet pony. She hasn’t done anything wrong that she doesn’t feel terrible about, and she’s doing everything in her power to make it right.” Narrowing in on Daring, she added, “I can’t believe you’re just switching sides at the drop of a hat! How do you know we can trust this guy? He stole babies!”
“He just told us it was an accide—”
“And how do we know he’s tellin’ the truth, huh? How do we know he’s… he’s not…” Frustrated, Rainbow let out a final grunt and rocketed to the chamber’s exit. Alula reached out with a tendril of magic but underestimated Rainbow’s speed. Soon she had yanked one door open and disappeared down the hall.
“Goodness,” Alula said as her rainbow trail faded away. “I have not seen a pony like her for… hmm.” He shook his head, rubbing the muscles beneath his eyes with the edge of his hoof. “Where do you think she will go?”
Daring tore her eyes from the entryway. “Uhh… I dunno. Probably back to—”
She fell silent, dropping her head to the floor.
Alula leaned closer to her; his warm breath pushed at her exposed, grey bangs. “Miss Doo, I know you. You are not the type of pony to be blinded by that which you wish to be true like your colorful friend. You see the truth for what it is and incorporate it into the way you live. I admire that.” He stretched one of his wings forward, lifting her gaze by the chin to meet his. “Please, Daring. Tell me where they’ve gone, where Ditzy is hiding. Who can know how deeply she has fallen at this point? She is a danger to herself and those around her, especially my… my daughter.” He gulped, blinking fresh tears from his eyes. “Where are they, Daring? I cannot but keep my country and kin safe from madness, and you must help me. The poor foals in the guest room are yours to take back to their family. All I ask is that you help me reunite with mine. Do you know where she’s gone? Do you know where Ditzy is hiding?”
Daring’s eyes danced between his periwinkle pair. Timidly, she reached out with a hoof and stroked the azure feathers of his wing. Warm nostalgia filled her troubled mind like a steaming cup of tea on a cold winter’s day. Fighting chokes and sobs, she swallowed hard and finally nodded. “Yes. I know exactly where they are.”