Cultural Artifacts

by Dan_s Comments

5) Succor in Perfidy

Dan's Comments

Cultural Artifacts - Succor in Perfidy

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 11

        Twilight paced the library floor. "What kind of pony or dragon makes a material that makes using magic on somepony dangerous?" she asked the open air. Spike having retired hours earlier, and Owlicious being incapable of answering beyond the obvious 'whoo'.

        "Go to sleep, Twilight Sparkle," Luna said as she entered the library, "Take it as advice from a friend. Take it as a royal command. Either way do it." She walked over to Twilight. "Thoughts racing to no purpose distract us from what we do have." She lifted the pages of the Monster-Equestrian dictionary. "That is what should consume your thoughts. He is beyond our help at the moment. Nurse Redheart and her staff are safer for him that either of us. They have projected 12 days until it is flushed from his system. Fewer, if he regains consciousness and can be convinced to ingest large cisterns of water or tea. And the answer to 'why' is to punish any intruders and to destroy them when they left. If you teleported into such a defense, you would try to leave immediately. The multiple stakes in your body would consume you completely. For a raiding dragon, the spikes and the vengeance would be worse." She nuzzled the agitated mare. "Go to sleep, tomorrow will be better."

        "Yes, Highness." She smirked. "Beep," she said as she touched Luna's nose.

        "Beep to you too, Twilight Sparkle," Luna replied and left.

        Twilight trudged up the stairs towards her bed. Owlicious had already arrived on his quiet wings and turned down the bed for her. "Thank you," she said and settled in for what she hoped was a dreamless sleep.

Day 12

        Slightly past midnight, Luna walked into the command post where Celestia waited. Stacked around the outside of the command post were numerous large chests.

        "Queen Tiamat 'Thanks us for bringing this to her attention'," Celestia said to Luna as she arrived. "She sent this as recompense for the trouble of enslaving two ponies, and inflicting harm on our visitor."

        "That certainly stifles any concern about bits for supplies. Properly invested, that's enough to live on forever," Luna said.

        "There's also a number of magic items included. I suggest we keep those out of the settlement, until we can determine what they are," Celestia said.


        "Then Queen Tiamat asked if either of us wanted a rug," Celestia offered deadpan, "I think she was joking. And I think she was joking because they hadn't located Tear Twirler."

        "Where does such a mad unicorn come from?" Luna asked, "King Sombra I could understand. He enslaved his subjects to build his empire. Only Discord inflicted pain for his own amusement."

        "Bullying is not unknown, and physical violence is the ultimate expression," Celestia said, "It is the description that worries me. I know of only one unicorn that fits that description. A young researcher from Baltimare. He was always delving into the darker magics. Supposedly to find ways to redeem them. He left Equestria after too many investigations into his dark dealings that found nothing. But he headed away from the dragon lands."

        "And you have not tracked someone who never understood that the dark magics were avoided because of their dangers and side-effects?"

        "Despite what my critics think, neither you nor I can see everyone and everything on Equestria and catalog it. Besides, what I do remember is he never found anything of any use. He was a bungler, to put it mildly, who went looking where wiser heads wouldn't, to prove he was different."

        "And by extension, better," Luna agreed. "That sounds far too much like our prisoner, rather than the mad unicorn she described. But even she wouldn't mistake a stallion for a mare." Luna paused and weighed breaching the next problem. "Sister. Have you ever dreamt of Nightmare Moon? Recently?"

        "I rarely sleep, so I rarely dream," Celestia said thoughtfully, "But after that horrible vision of the stairs, I dreamt of her once. She was coming after me, she was coming after you, and she was coming after all of my, our ponies."

        "What happened?" Luna asked.

        "I remembered my sister's training. I turned her into a cupcake and fed her to a dragon I had in my saddlebags."

        "You had a full-sized dragon in your saddle bags, you don't wear saddle bags," Luna exclaimed, "Your staff would all have apoplexy if you seriously considered wearing saddle bags."

        "Not commenting on the dragon?" Celestia teased.

        "It was a dream, I'm surprised you didn't pull out the Element Bearers with the Elements." Luna considered. "I have been bothered by her showing up in all my dreams. I fear that I may encounter her while dealing with a more mundane nightmare."

        "I think you'd have an ally who could frighten even Nightmare Moon," Celestia said, "And since you need to exorcize his demons, let them expend themselves against Nightmare Moon."

        "What if they are stronger?" Luna asked.

        "Then invite them for tea and muffins. They should be as mannerly as their master," Celestia said. "Beep." She touched Luna's nose. "I can't wait to get back to court."

        Luna grumbled at that, but couldn't keep from laughing.

        Trixie was not expecting to see her Majesty, especially not at this hour. Trixie was aware that while the pink one was feigning sleep, that mare was awake and watching.

        "Your Majesty." Trixie bowed low. "How may Trixie be of service?"

        "It seems that Queen Tiamat counts Trixie among the victims, rather than the perpetrators of the actions of your tutor." Celestia seemed to look through the unicorn into her very heart and soul. "That leaves us the problem of what to do with Trixie," Celestia said primly. "Trixie told us that Trixie gave him his weapon, and then injured him. Yet he took no action."

        "That is correct, Majesty. Tear Twirler sought to hurt him, and he fired his rocket against her horn. Tri - I think she was very surprised."

        "I am surprised she isn't dead," Celestia replied, "He has used similar weapons against Diamond Dogs, and they died. At the very least he would have destroyed her horn."

        Trixie gasped at that.

        "Do not think you did anything other than escape a most horrific death at his hands," Celestia said, "But that is the use I have for you. Nurse Redheart was in here earlier. She had a sample which had the solvent in it. Evidently, your magic is not strong enough to cause a reaction."

        "If my lack of strength will serve her Majesty, Trixie is ready to serve." The unicorn bowed.

        "Since the injuries will deny him the use of his legs for at least two weeks. You will be them," Celestia said.

        "WHAT!" the pinkie mare shouted as she practically threw herself against the bars. "She kidnaps him! She hurts him! I only played a game with him! And she gets to be his helper?!" She sniffled and burst into tears.

        "Pinkie Pie, Trixie is being punished, not rewarded," Celestia said.

        The pinkie mare stopped crying. "Okay. Down with Queen Celestia! All hail Luna's New Lunar Republic!" the pink mare shouted and waved NLR banners.

        "Luna and I started that organization to let ponies express themselves," Celestia said in a bored tone. "And I'm not going to make your punishment working with him. You still worry him. Trixie does not. Besides. My sister will be watching her very closely."

        "Yes, watch her like a griffon!" the pink one exclaimed, "And if she steps one hoof out of line! Straight into the freezer!"

        "Freezer?" Trixie asked.

        "It eats meat," Celestia said, "And she's supposing that it would eat you."

        "Trixie doubts he would take that step," Trixie said carefully.

        "You are rather taken by him?" Celestia asked.

        "He trusted me," Trixie said, unable to keep up her usual facade with Celestia's gaze falling on her. "For so long I have been either a joke, despised, or both. I gave him a little proof of my intentions, and he trusted me. Maybe you can take ponies' trust for grafted. But I cannot. It was pleasant to be trusted. And to be able to be worthy of that trust."

        Her Majesty nodded. "In the morning you'll be released from your cell, report to the Captain of the Guard. You will be assigned your duties at the moment by the presiding physician. Once he is able to make himself understood, you will take direction from the monster." Celestia noted Trixie's faint disapproval. "Monster is the technical term for a creature of abnormal shape or size, and this one has both. It does not have to be something horrifying."

        "It seems inappropriate for someone who has done little harm to Equestria," Trixie said carefully.

        "It is what everyone has called it. If you can make a different name stick, then by all means attempt it. If you can discover the creature's actual name, even if it cannot be pronounced in Equestrian, then share it with us," Celestia said.

        Trixie bowed. Her Majesty Celestia left. The pink mare still stared at Trixie.

        "I haven't forgotten you," the mare said.

        "Trixie was hoping her fame would last," she replied and returned to her bunk.

        The briefing, and the stern warnings by the captain of the guard, Shining Armor, were what Trixie was prepared for. The purple unicorn who 'happened by' the command post before the sun had risen, and immediately after the lecture was delivered, Trixie had been hoping to avoid.

        "Hello Trixie," Twilight Sparkle said nervously.

        Trixie had dreaded the expression. Trixie does not desire to be pitied, Trixie thought.

        "You know, Trixie, if you needed help. . . . There, ah, were other ways," Twilight stammered, blushing the entire time.

        "Twilight Sparkle. I would not be you for all the world," Trixie said calmly. The purple unicorn stared in shock. Even the captain of the guard watched. "Magical powers to rival any living unicorn, trained by her Majesty Celestia herself, and one of the key Elements of Harmony. Battles and victories that would make you a legend thrice over before you've had your first foal. And Trixie is merely a strolling player, living on the margins, with no roots, no home and few who would miss her when she goes. Yet I would not trade places for all the world. For you have seen only the love of a goddess, I have seen only her anger, and still you fear her. You could command even the captain of Celestia's Guard, yet you fear the world. You read and study more about magic than any has in living memory, yet your mentor and now your friends must drag you kicking and screaming to face the world. Something Trixie has done without fear, without world-shaking powers and without friends, for years."

        Twilight stared at her in stunned amazement.

        Trixie shook her head and continued. "No, I would not be the great force that the goddess Celestia trusts and dispatches to face demons and monsters galore. I will never cross your path, unless some trinket of fell and mighty magic falls into my hands. Even then my chances of victory would be slim. I will never be even a shadow of what you are, yet I am happier being me, than you are being you. There is peace in that, and I will take the punishments for my actions and still be Trixie. You seem most frightened of being consumed alive and screaming by Twilight Sparkle. Is she really somepony to be so feared? Or is her power what you fear? She has a good heart, she has friends who love and trust her. If you cannot trust her, then trust them, they will keep her from harming you." She turned to the guard captain. "Trixie is ready to begin serving her sentence."

        The captain led Trixie away. The traveling player felt the eyes of Celestia's favored student on her for quite a while.

        "I've never heard it put quite that way before," the captain said.

        "Trixie does not desire to be pitied, by one so afraid. Trixie does not know why she fears, but somepony had to tell her that her fears were there."

        "Well, thank you in any case. That's her big brother saying that."

        Trixie almost choked. "You are Twilight Sparkle's elder sibling?"

        "To quote one of the locals, 'Yep'."

        They walked in silence for a while. "What are my duties?"

        "Initially, don't cast any magic. Beyond that, whatever the nurses tell you to do," the captain said. "I have never spent much time in hospitals, so I don't know the routine."

        Trixie nodded.

        Luna hadn't expected to see Glorious Sunrise in the command post. The griffin waited patiently for Luna to acknowledge him. "Colonel-General, I thought you would have returned home with the rest."

        He placed a parchment on the writing desk. "The agreement needs your signet as well," the Colonel-General said, "The basic stipulations are an increase in certain imports and exports between the Griffon Lands and Equestria. An exchange of foods he'll need to remain healthy as well as cheeses. A few restrictions on imports that will be quickly reversed when our 'Prince Bluebloods' realize they have been improved by what you discover. And, one griffon observer. As a spy for the griffon lands, you'll find my nephew quite useful. He's one of our finest codebreakers. Note, I said codes, not ciphers. For an alien language, you'll need a codebreaker, not a deciphering expert."

        "Most generous," Luna said quietly as she noted the griffon's signature alongside Celestia's official mark. Two copies of the document. One for the griffons and one for Equestria. Luna scanned the entire document, verified the copies were exact, then added her own mark to both, making the document binding.

        "Our peoples have not been enemies for centuries." The griffon collected one of the papers. "But as rivals, we have made each other better. This is too large for even the alicorn-sisters to carry alone. The dragons will allow us to do the hard work. While they stay out of our way. The chick knows what is expected, and will answer to me only. Both through the chain of command, and the ties of blood. We have crawled forward on these." He held up his claw and closed it. "We cared nothing for the boring teachings that would let us truly use them. Your people too often look to others to lead. And suddenly, here someone else has paid in time, and tears and probably blood to enable us both to leap ahead a thousand years. Only while he lives will we have full access and expertise. Even if they are walking, breathing examples of what not to do, we can still profit by seeing those mistakes and the first steps on the paths that led to them."

        Luna nodded. "My thanks. This cost you, personally."

        The old griffon shrugged. "There are things we both do for our nations, and our world. Prices we pay. I will let history decide if I am a shallow opportunist, or a visionary." The griffon gave a brief, wintery smile. "I have the advantage of not having to listen to all the picklocks of historians who seek to open my long-dead heart and fill it with their own prejudices. I sympathize with you that you have not this buffer."

        "Most kind," Luna said and watched the old griffon depart.

        Derpy hovered outside the window of the hospital, looking in. Dinky rode her back as she often did. The figure took up two, normal, hospital beds, and the tubes that ran from both his forelegs indicated just how dire his condition was.

        "He'll be all right, in a few days," Derpy said, "You'll see. And in a few weeks, they'll be able to get him back to normal."

        "He's alone," Dinky said quietly, holding back the tears. "I had Dinky Doo with me that day. He can't know he has friends around. We can't tell him."

        Derpy noted the azure unicorn who entered and stared at them hovering outside. "The unicorn who brought him back is there. He knows she's there," Derpy said, "We should trust in that."

        "When he gets better. Pinkie will want to throw him a party," Dinky said with a touch of dread.

        "Well, I think Princess Luna will have something to say about that," Derpy said as she watched the unicorn mare open his shirt and begin washing him. She smiled at that, knowing how important having Dinky close was to her and that this simple act would tell him there were others there for him. "We just have to trust them."

        Trixie accepted the menial chores foisted off on her by the nurses. They were her penalty, but being the one who watched him most closely was worth it. So, the monster slayer, and when I was at your mercy, you stayed your hand. Despite me injuring you, by all accounts worse than any others have, the thought made her stomach knot up. If I have proven unworthy of that trust, forgive me, she thought as she watched and listened. If this is the role Trixie must play, she thought, She shall play it with all her skill and abilities.

        The doctors and nurses came and went, while they looked at her with vague disdain, but she never failed to carry out their instructions. And she watched, closely. It was mid-afternoon before anything interesting happened.

        "Doctor, I think he's waking," Trixie called out the door as she heard the faint noises.

        His speech is little more than noises, she thought as the doctor and two nurses raced in past her. She moved to the other side of the bed. Her heart skipped as he opened his eyes, let them rove across the unfamiliar scene, then locked onto her face.

        He smiled and made a soft, interrogative noise.

        "We got out, we're back in Ponyville," she told him and stepped close enough he could touch her.

        Moment of truth, Trixie thought as the trained, medical ponies chattered, she placed her head next to his hand. He'll either crush my skull, or . . .

        The feeling of those fingers digging through her fur until the soft nails reached her skin, and the feeble scratching behind her ears. It's almost better than the applause of an audience, she thought as she forced herself to hold where he could reach her. Too soon he tapered off and stopped. She nuzzled his hand in return.

        "So I'm forgiven," she said, "I do apologize."

        His eye lids were drooping, and he laid his head back on the pillow. He let out a long breath and faded back to sleep.

        Trixie returned her attention to the conferring medical ponies. "Is there anything I should do?" Trixie asked.

        "Stay with him, and keep an eye on him," Nurse Redheart said, "We weren't expecting him to awaken for several days."

        "The chemical is still in him?" Trixie asked.

        "Yes," the doctor said, "If he remains awake, push fluids. If he drinks more, he'll flush the chemical out of his blood much faster."

        "I understand, fill and empty," Trixie said. She ignored the looks from the nurses, and considered her next task.

        How do you convince someone of something, who doesn't speak your language? Trixie considered. Pictures will have to do, she thought.

        "I need some paper and a pencil."

        "No horn magic," Nurse Redheart admonished.

        "Yes, do it Earth Pony style," Trixie said, "Understood." She considered the images to draw. "The pegasus who was outside this morning. Would it be safe? Having her and her foal closer?"

        Luna dreaded this. Nightmare Moon is only my own anxieties, she told herself as she delved into the realm where she held sole sway over Equestria.

        "And of course I go tramping straight to the one dream space I have neither control nor understanding." She stepped into the monster's dreams, and was instantly face to face with her dread.

        All right, so it's my anxiety, powered by the effect of his fears, she thought, So if I don't touch his dreams, I won't face it again.

        "So the little one comes again to face the big, bad shadows you thought you'd buried," Nightmare Moon told her, taking the form of a horse half-again taller than Luna's form.

        "I have buried you, unless you are now claiming to be prophesy," Luna said, "I should warn you, that he is even less tolerant of your intrusions that I."

        "You have so little sway here, and are wrong about so many things," Nightmare Moon said as she approached, and laughed as Luna stepped back. "So afraid. I will rule here and nothing you do can stop me. From here, all of Equestria."

        "Oh, I don't know. That metal lump over there might be some indication of his preferences," Luna said of the oversized, metal wagon using some kind of metal bands encompassing all the wheels, instead of tires. The huge upturned sauce pan topping the metal wagon swung its 'handle' around aimed clearly at Nightmare Moon.

        That almost looks like a tank, Luna thought, What would they need a tank that size for? What it sprayed was very disappointing to Luna.

        "My eyes!" the Nightmare shouted as the sticky liquid that smelled of lamp oil covered the evil mare.

        As Luna's private shame became a miasma again, the machine spat a bolt of fire that completely consumed the cloud that was Nightmare Moon's natural form. Luna noted that there were several much smaller weapons that dotted the wagon's body. One had started pointing at her during the destruction of Nightmare Moon.

        Oh wonderful, now is really the time to realize you don't know the gesture for 'I surrender'. It's changed often enough over the centuries I wouldn't even hope to guess right with an alien.

        The machine backed away over a ridge, then sprayed an arc of the foul-smelling liquid at the top of the ridge, and set it aflame. The resulting wall of flame blocked the way between Luna and the path the tank had taken to withdraw.

        In a pony's dream I could will this way. Here, that is very dangerous, Luna thought as she trotted up to the wall that burned fiercely, But why that machine, and not put the monsters to use? She prepared to step through the wall when she realized, That may only be a sentinel. A piece of dream stuff set to a specific task. He may not be operating it himself. If that's the case, it may attack anything that crosses the perimeter, rather than react with judgement. Luna drew back and considered.

        "Who are you?" Luna shouted over the noise of the flames, "What do you want? What do you want of us?"

        Trixie heard the faint whimpering as her charge rolled from side to side. Outside the window and the door were only darkness, the faint conversations at the nurses' station had long ago faded away. She smirked as she threaded herself through the sideboards where his arms were restrained to prevent him from pulling the tubes out. She carefully slid her head and neck under his neck before telling him. "It's all right. Trixie is here. Trixie will protect you," she'd said it like a mother to a foal, and his agitation diminished. She pulled the covers back over both of them with her hooves then wrapped her legs around him. "Trixie is here. Trixie will protect you."

        Luna watched in amazement as the flames faded. They didn't burn out, they slowly vanished. I thought only Celestia dreamed that way, she considered as she approached where she could look over the crest of the ridge. She concentrated every sense she had as she moved the last few paces. This could be a trap that metal flame thrower could be laying. Get me close and incinerate me, she worried, No, that 'beep' seems to be more his style of trap. Something you either play along with, or you can look small and petty by fighting it. Those cookie mines would be his way of setting a trap.

        She crawled the last few dozen steps on her belly with her head down and peeked over the ridge. The dark gray-violet eyes of the azure unicorn stared back at her. The grim determination of the strolling player gave Luna a moment's pause.

        That's who is . . . no, that's the avatar of what I'm facing. I'm still facing that metal monster, and its cousins. This Trixie is a projection, Luna thought, then inwardly seethed, He drives me off, and accepts that, that, that! Pony who rescued him from being kidnaped. She's a symbol, nothing more. Luna stood and faced the apparition. So she doesn't know anything more than he knows.

        She formed the saddle, bit and bridle that Rarity hadn't yet delivered in the waking world, put them on and followed the humbug down the ridge. The look of absolute confusion on his face was worth any bit of humiliation.

        So, you wouldn't expect us to know about this? she wanted to ask, You'll never guess what this gear is supposedly for, but all you'd care about is what it implies in your world. She looked at the blanket spread on the ground, the basket and the collection of mason jars, wrapped trays and other picnic paraphernalia.

        The only clue to his real feelings was the huge, metal hill moving far in the distance. It threw blots and bolts of pure light at the diminishing purple miasma that tried to get past it. Luna could see that each time a shot clipped Nightmare Moon's miasma form, it was diminished.

        "Couldn't happen to a nicer horror," Luna commented. She paused at the edge of the blanket. Trixie backed across it, never taking her eyes off of Luna. Neither did the monster. Neither showed any hostility, but neither smiled or seemed in any way welcoming. The performer knelt down beside him.

        Luna looked rather pointedly at the edge of the blanket, then at the monster. "Are you going to give me permission, or not?" Luna asked, then shook her head. "I don't even know why I am bothering." She turned and cantered away, vanishing into the dreams of other ponies.

Day 13

        Luna trudged out of her bed and towards her wash stand. I believe Twilight's statement that the ponies of this town are all crazy, she thought as she looked in the mirror, There was not one who was not having nightmares of one sort or another.

        She hadn't realized the cause of all the dreams until she'd watched Cheerilee dreaming of having scalding water poured on her back as she shielded her students beneath her. A drop of water had hit a filly and she screamed, mockingly similar to the monster's cries on returning in front of Ponyville General. "It was the scream," Luna told her reflection, "It sounded like a foal's shriek. Wrong timbre, but the pattern of sound was correct. That's probably why he reacted to those fillies, they made a sound similar to his own people's young."

        "So they all heard that horrible sound generated by an adult," Emerald Light said as he entered with a sheaf of communications, "And it gave them all nightmares. Reasonable."

        "What is all that?' Luna asked, "As if I didn't know."

        "Various protests from the staffs of -"

        "I can't simply tell all of them to stick their heads in a bucket and yell real loud?" Luna asked.

        "The echos would be detrimental," Emerald Light suggested. "There are a few communiques from her Majesty, and some from your sister."

        Luna nodded at the subtle difference those two sets of messages conveyed.

        "And three dossiers on our griffon codebreaker. One from our intelligence, one from the griffons, and the last from Queen Tiamat's intelligence troops. That should make interesting reading." Emerald paused to consider his words carefully. "Why are the dragons, who've never taken a serious interest in we 'lesser beings' suddenly so interested in this situation? It can't be that they feel the least remorse that an outcast of their own was doing something despicable."

        "Queen Tiamat is nearly as old as Celestia," Luna explained, "I suspect that she is simply planning ahead."

        Emerald Light accepted the answer. But his eyes told Luna he wasn't satisfied with it.

        "My friend, I don't know what she's planning. But dragons don't do favors for no reason, and they let you know there are strings attached very early on. If she hasn't let us know by now, then there are no strings later."

        "Giving more weight to the idea that there is something not quite right about this entire scenario," the unicorn said.

        "I'm more worried about where our elusive unicorn has gone. I tried to locate her, and I'll bet so has Celestia," Luna said, "If we can't, then there's something seriously wrong. She shouldn't be able to hide this effectively."

        "Unless she isn't hiding," Emerald Light said, "What are the chances that Miss Trixie was mistaken, and so possibly was her mentor?"

        "That 'Tear Twirler' was really a dragon?" Luna asked.

        "Or, that our friend here really was chasing something. Something able to take a pony's form. Those monsters could shape-change, and there are legends about shape-changing monsters in our history as well," Emerald Light said.

        The Lunar Diarch shook her head. "You always know exactly what to say to make my day infinitely worse," Luna said and smiled.

        "With respect, Highness, my job is to make your life more organized. Not easier," Emerald Light admitted.

        Luna nodded. "Then what is waiting for me out there? Success, failure, just the unknown, or something none of us can even conceive of?"

        "Yes," her chamberlain told her. "The important thing is telling one from another."

        Nurse Redheart entered the monster's room to let in the morning light, and nearly facehooved. Trixie replacing the pillows she could almost understand. Derpy Hooves cuddled up beside him and Dinky Hooves' horn peeking out of the covers around the monster's feet was almost unbelievable. The monster's put-upon expression made the whole things so funny she raced back to the nurses' station so none of them would hear her laughing like a madmare.

        She managed to get her mirth under control as she reentered his room and opened the curtains. He stared at her with vague irritation as she carefully took a blood sample and made certain nothing had disturbed the IVs going into his forelegs. She left, prim and proper, and only gave into the giggles after she was back at the nurses' station.

        As the day continued on, he watched the entire medical staff troop through his hospital room. First they gave him a battery of shots, with three of the burliest guards they could find standing by. All the while, the azure and cornflower unicorn trying to be placating. Then was a full range of motion test on every joint he had, except his feet.

        I hope they don't take me as a baseline, he thought, Nobody my age should be flexible enough to look at the top of their own foot close up.

        As a joke, he'd let them bend his pinkie until they'd dislocated it. It had hurt like Hell and still did, but the utter panic and chaos of the reaction from the doctors at that little but completely recognizable pop had been hilarious.

        The unicorn reacted by launching into a blistering lecture on his little joke.

        What's with the tears? he wondered.

        The tone of the lecture hadn't changed, but she now had tears streaming down her cheeks. Her voice cracked as she shouted at him and stamped her hooves. The doctors and the nurses were sheepishly slipping out.

        Okay, I'd better apologize, he thought and moved over in the bed, then patted empty space beside him. A moment later, he had a lapful of shivering unicorn.

        She continued her lecture, but more quietly. She wrapped her forelegs around him and her tears soaked through his shirt. A nurse slipped in, popped the joint back into place, and attached a splint. Her expression screamed 'I know something I won't tell'.

        I just wish I knew whether she was sharing a secret with me, he wondered, Or if she was telling me that she agrees with what the unicorn is saying. The unicorn eventually ran out of steam and fell asleep lying on his stomach, her forelegs wrapped around his waist.

Day 14

        "The tests still show a dangerous amount of the material in his system. We've been monitoring for blood in his urine which should be an early warning that the poison is again causing damage," Nurse Redheart reported to her Highness and several of the Element Bearers. "And I think if Trixie urges more water or tea on him than she has been, we're going to have an insurrection on our hands."

        Twilight and Pinkie giggled at that. Even Applejack smiled. Her Highness seemed the grim note to the place.

        "Are you all right, your Highness?" the nurse pony asked.

        Luna focused on her. "Another night of bad dreams. Both my own and the Ponyvillians," she replied, "Your own you well know, and they are not atypical."

        The nurse shook herself to free her memory of last night's nightmares. She'd let her romantic feelings for another pony be known. Rather than accepting, she'd been ridiculed and eventually hounded first out of Ponyville, then the entire medical community. Then it had happened in her next dream, with a 'safer' choice. And again with a pony who actually helped the hounders. The nurse had been quite shaken when she'd managed to wake up.

        She saw that Twilight, Pinkie and Applejack had similar expressions to her own. The Princess just looked more tired. "Looks like I wasn't the only one."

        "It's as if his scream gave you all license to be consumed by your fears," Luna said, "Containing them has been exhausting."

        "Think happy thoughts!" Pinkie insisted.

        "Yours have been particularly disturbing," Luna replied sharply. " 'Giggle at the Ghosties' does have its limits, does it not?"

        "Yeah," Pinkie admitted quietly.

        "We'll soon have the source located, and under control," Luna assured them. "Until then, your Princess will guard your dreams."

        "Question, Princess. Last night, Ah had a couple where this big, metal hill came through and sorta dealt with them afore you showed up. Coulda used it the night before. Rarity started makin' dresses outta apple slices."

        "Why in the world would that be a nightmare?" Rarity asked.

        "Parasprites?" Twilight offered.

        "More like folks not stoppin' at the apple layer," Applejack replied, "Yer Highness, is that new?"

        Luna smiled. "It is an attempt to extend myself further. It was not too disturbing I hope."

        "Only in how big it was," Applejack answered.

        "Thank you, nurse, please return to the patient," Luna said, her demeanor more friendly.

        Redheart nodded and left.

        "No, Applejack, that was not me. The previous night, I attempted to enter his dream, and that creature, and Trixie were his chosen defenders against a manifestation of Nightmare Moon. Whether the hill is a manifestation of my role as protector, or his fear of me, I do not know. That last night it was able to enter other dreams is a concern, but you were not harmed by it?"

        "Seemed polite, even respectful," Applejack admitted, "Apologized for shakin' all the apples loose as it drove down the road. Saved me a ton a work, and the road ain't never been so smooth."

        Luna smiled at that. "I am concerned that all these nightmares, and all the associated problems are not as detached as I hope. Both Celestia and I have received bad dreams. You were all caught up in one, and with Miss Rarity's help I broke out of the cycle of waking from one nightmare into another."

        "Princess," Applejack said, "What if those movies weren't real? I mean documentaries. What if they were like vaccine?"

        "Vaccines?" Twilight asked.

        Applejack seemed to be struggling with the thought. "Ah know that vaccines are weak versions of the disease. Ta build up immunity. What if those cinemas are the same? Little bit a nightmares so the kids don't get scared a other things."

        "So, they aren't real, but the dreams we've all been having are?" Luna asked.

        "Yeah. So y'all show foals those cinemas, git them used ta fears, and so they don't look at nightmares like we do." Applejack shook her head. "That hill woulda been a real nightmare, 'cept I kinda knew the monster wouldn't hurt nopony. No offense Princess, you and Princess Celestia don't think that big."

        "The idea that those were to train children not to be afraid of their own dreams is in some ways a more frightening idea than them being documentaries," Luna said, "Or did you mean it got them used to fear. To be made afraid in small, controllable doses, so when they were adults, fewer things would frighten them?"

        "No, but they'd work fer that too," Applejack said.

        "The more we think about that creature, the more I wish we could just send it home," Luna admitted.

        "I've got the going away party planned!" Pinkie offered.

        Luna rolled her eyes. "Why does that not surprise me?" Luna asked.

        The tea had collected all that it could of the poison the ponies were concerned about, and it wanted to leave. NOW! He cleared his throat and swung his legs out of the hospital bed. The first time I tried this yesterday, she nearly killed herself getting over here before my feet could touch the floor, he thought sardonically, I don't think I'll die if I touch the ground, but somebody is not willing to take the chance.

        The careful process of getting on the back of an animal whose eye-level was below his waist, to keep his feet off the ground was a delicate one. It would have been impossible with the IVs. This was is going better than the first time. I thought I'd break my neck, he thought as the unicorn solicitously let him fumble around, trying to keep his balance, while she moved as if carrying a delicate object. The two most obvious 'handles', her horn and tail were out. She'd tolerate him grabbing them, but she clearly wasn't happy with him yanking on either to prevent a fall.

        "Sorry about this," he told her, "Maybe, if I knew how, I should tell the docs to let me get back to my house. At least the toilet there is human-sized."

        She still maneuvered with a care and precision he doubted he could have reciprocated. Then came the embarrassing part.

        "You know, an alien female, with eye-line just under waist level, having this great an interest in a male peeing is a bit on the creepy side," he said.

        She proved immune to his bitterness, and when he was done, she happily carried him back to the hospital bed.

        "I wish I understood you better," he said, as he sat back, and looked at the urn of tea, and the flask of reddish liquid that tasted like a sports drink. "More electrolytes to balance, and more tea to flush my system. I swear a chelation treatment might be a better idea." He drank a fair amount of each and settled in to go back to sleep.

        Her response was to put her chin on the bed and smile at him.

        "You know a creepy grin would be less unsettling," he remarked. She still looked at him like a happy cocker spaniel.

        "What do you want?" he asked quietly. "Every one of you critters has some goal or need. Some want what I know. Some just want me to play their games. Some I can't figure out for the life of me and I just have to go with their behavior. Which are you? Or are you something different?"

        Her response was to smile more and put her head where he could scratch behind her ears. She loved it, and he found it remarkably soothing. Especially her utterly contented expression.

        "I don't believe you're only interested in my fingers."

        Trixie felt his grip slacken as he relaxed back to sleep. She enjoyed the aftereffects of the contact, and the feeling of mutual needs being satisfied. It nearly broke my heart to hear you speaking that way. I wish I could have answered your questions. I wish I could have understood them. Are you like me, so separated that you look on others, as the 'other'? Or were you afraid of me? I hope not.

        She looked over the medical arrangements and found he was not in danger of harming himself. I'm glad he's making a recovery, she thought as she laid down on a blanket on the floor. They warned me of the danger of blood in his urine. And to alert them immediately. So far, none seen, she thought as she settled and dozed. In her dreams Twilight Sparkle received the accolades for discovering an entirely new civilization, rules of physics and energy sources undreamed of and then cowered in her room weeping, while Trixie knocked audiences all over Equestria flat with escapes and magic tricks that none of them could explain. She smiled happily at the images.

        Big Mac carefully unlocked the front door. Behind him, Derpy and Rarity followed. "I don't feel right about this," he said.

        "He needs something to do," Derpy said, "And he trusted you with the key. So if you help deliver the clothes and books. It should be okay."

        "Sweet Celestia," Rarity gasped as she saw the book case in the living room, "Twilight mentioned it, but . . . "

        "There's another one in here, and a third in the bedroom," Derpy supplied from the family room, "It's really amazing. He's got almost as many books as the library."

        "No wonder poor Twilight wanted to get in here," Rarity said and shook her head. "We have a job, and if we do it well, we can be invited back later."

        "Yep," Big Mac said.

        "Why hasn't Shining Armor and the team swept through here?" Derpy asked, "If they are worried."

        "A bit of courtesy," Rarity said, "That and they suspect there may be more 'Pinkie' traps. I don't think we need to be afraid though."

        "Big, little or medium-sized?" Derpy asked as she examined the book shelves.

        "I'd look for a couple small and a medium-sized," Rarity offered, "Look for the more worn ones. He's probably reread those."

        "What about the book shelf in the office?" Big Mac said from down the hall. "More books in here, and if it were my office, I'd keep the ones I'd read and reread in there."

        Rarity headed towards the office Big Mac was talking about. "The color scheme could use some sprucing up."

        "What's wrong with white and dark wood? Looks like mosta our buildings." Big Mac had selected a thick, medium-sized book whose dust jacket was very worn. "This book must be important, else you'd throw away the cover. And all the bookmarks."

        "Yes, we'll take that one." Rarity looked around. "I was rather hoping to find the collection of sheets for the dictionary. Put I don't know if it's locked in one of those boxes, or if it's somewhere else."

        "Best not mess with those," Derpy said from out in the corridor, "One of them was where the microscope was hooked up. Who knows what they can do."

        "Undergarments," Rarity said firmly, "I suspect that some clean, familiar clothes will help his morale." She trotted into the master bedroom. "You weren't joking," she said of yet another large bookshelf, "Once Twilight has an adequate dictionary and understands the language, she'll be harder to pry out of here than a barnacle."

        "Clothes," Big Mac reminded Rarity.

        "Yes, of course, just wondering what other wonders lurk in here," she said and laughed nervously.

        The underwear was found in a very Equestrian chest of drawers.

        Big Mac had been looking around, now he had to ask, "Why does all this look like it could be Equestrian-made. It's only a little different from what we have at home."

        "I have been wondering that myself," Rarity admitted, "So much of their devices are similar. But for them some of the items make sense. Door handles better suited to hands not hooves, tools that are not designed for the best use by ponies. Odd that an alien would have tools, which are designed for them, that look so much like ours."

        "We got our tools from them?" Derpy asked.

        "I think we would have heard about creatures like these dropping their tools all over the place," Rarity said, "They are rather hard to hide."

        "Not from Discord's time," Derpy pointed out, "From what I saw in Ponyville, he could have arrived and no one would have even noticed. But that was a thousand years ago."

        "Twilight would be the expert on time travel, and Discord," Rarity said and shuddered. "She could tell you if Discord could pluck someone from this monster's 'present' and take it back to our past. Although I suspect that the disruptions would be considerable." She considered, then added, "That would be a bonus for Discord."

        "Ah don't want ta know," Big Mac said and looked around nervously, "Are we done?"

        "Problems?" Rarity asked.

        "Feels like it does before the timberwolves start howlin'. Like something's watching we'd rather not face," he admitted.

        "We've got a week's worth of clothes," Rarity said.

        "I've got about fifteen books," Derpy added.

        "That's enough," Big Mac said as he glanced around nervously, "Let's go."

        "You don't normally spook that way," Rarity said as they headed back to the front door, "Bad dreams about this house?"

        "No, just a bad feeling in general. Like the house knows we ain't supposed ta be in here," Big Mac replied as they left. He carefully locked the door and tested it to make sure he'd done a proper job. Once outside, he relaxed. "Sorry about that."

        "After dealing with Pinkie's 'Pinkie Sense' and enjoying your family's Zap Apple jam," Rarity offered, "I am willing to leave others to their hunches. But I didn't feel anything, except wonderment."

        Big Mac nodded and they headed towards the hospital.

        The monster seemed overjoyed at the addition of reading material and clean clothes to its hospital stay. When the ponies stood around waiting for it to change, the enthusiasm drained away.

        "Trixie thinks he'd be more comfortable if left alone," Trixie explained somewhat apologetically.

        "What's the problem?" Derpy asked, while Big Mac headed towards the door.

        "I think it's uncomfortable with being stared at."

        "We're his friends," Derpy replied.

        "Then understand that someponies are frightened of things that make no sense to us," Rarity explained from outside the room and waved for the others to join her, "Like you being away from Dinky. I'm quite happy when Sweetie Belle is off playing with her friends," Rarity said and closed the door behind her.

        Trixie looked at him. He pointedly looked at the door and she shook her head. She marched around proudly, gesticulating and giving orders. "Peasant do this, flunky do that." She took her own demeanor and pointed to herself, and then him. "I have to keep an eye on you. Besides, they've got a tub for you to wash up in, while they change the sheets so you'll feel much better."

        I'm sorry for getting you into this, she thought, You try and show how in control and strong you are to the others. She hopped up on the bed, and rubbed her cheek on his chest. But thank you for showing me your apprehension. Thank you for trusting me.

        She didn't press. I know it's just a matter of you getting comfortable with this. You know you have to do it as well as I do. After a little while he sighed, and slid towards the edge of the bed. She was under him in an instant.

        "Trixie wishes she were taller," Trixie admitted, "This side to side business is comfortable for neither of us." She made certain he was settled, and his feet were off the ground before she started out. As they entered the bathing room, he placed one set of the fresh clothes on a shelf where he could reach them from the rim of the tub. Then Trixie maneuvered so he could slip off her back and onto the rim of the tub. With that done, Trixie locked the door to the room and let him strip off the white, short-sleeved shirt he's been wearing. The short, tight pants of similar material were all that was left and he seemed very embarrassed about removing them.

        "Trixie has seen what's underneath," she told him, then looked at him more closely, "It isn't the bits and pieces that bother you so much as the whole thing?" She snickered and turned her back. A moment later the last garment hit the floor beside the other and the water for the tub came on. She turned around and selected a second wash cloth. He was mostly in the tub, with his long legs dangling outside over the rim, keeping his bandaged feet dry. The moment she stepped into the tub behind him, he tensed up.

        Someone needs to lighten up, and if the pranks played at the party a few days ago are any indication, he can take a joke, Trixie thought as she moved up directly behind him, which oddly relaxed his anxiety. She grinned as she ran her tongue across his back.

        He yelped and turned his head to gobble what was probably a protest. She was deep in thought, 'deciding' if she liked the taste or not. Kind of a salty, smoky flavor, she thought, then licked him again and considered. That brought another protest, louder and more strident. Trixie pinned back her ears and tried to look as guilty as possible. Then she shrugged, pushed him forward so his chest was against his legs, and she began washing his back with the cloth. She smiled at the grumble rumble he made. Complaining about 'crazy ponies' no doubt, Trixie thought as she worked. He soon relaxed again as she finished with his back and signaled him to extend his arms to let her clean them. She also looked for any telltale signs of bruising. You always resist initially, then come around, she thought as she rinsed the cloth and continued her work, I guess it's not in your nature to give in easily. Or you dig in when it is safe to. Considering the ponies you're facing here, I can understand why you'd be leery of everything.

        When she'd finished with his arms, she stepped out of the tub and worked on his lower legs while he washed his front and upper legs. Something else to report, besides the clothing need. A great deal of privacy about certain areas. I wonder if its cultural shame, or a more practical reason. Probably both.

        He drained the tub as he toweled off, but it was clear he had something in mind. Once he had the fresh clothes on, he patted the side of the tub and crooked a finger towards her. Trixie froze for a moment. This is it Trixie, the demand made that he accept Trixie meant him no harm. Now the situation reverses. 'Anything you can do, Trixie can do better.' Accept the kindness and ministrations of an alien you can barely communicate with. This was not an expected challenge. But Trixie will meet your challenge.

        She stepped into the tub and let him sluice her down. Then he began working the shampoo into her coat and she nearly dissolved. That feels so good, she thought as she felt her legs quivering as his fingers worked the shampoo into her coat, and he used the warm water and slipperiness of the shampoo to work away tension she hadn't realizes she'd been carrying. She was lying on the bottom of the tub when he finally started working on her mane and tail.

        Interesting, Trixie thought sleepily, He was as reticent about washing some parts of me, as he is about letting anyone touch corresponding parts of him. I think it is a cultural thing.

        He opened the door and looked out. "I think I need a bucket or the nurse's aide," he called. He'd stayed on his knees to keep from getting yelled at incoherently by the medics.

        The familiar nurse with the red cross and hearts mark on her rear hip entered, her face a mask of curiosity. The azure unicorn mumbled something, which set the nurse giggling. She called for a gurney to carry her back to the room. He got a four-wheeled furniture dolly.

        "Suits me," he said as he knelt on the dolly and pushed himself along with his hands on the floor. The orderlies stared worriedly at him. "Oh, was I supposed to be offended at your little joke? I'm a bit too pragmatic for that. I'd walk, but you'd sedate me," he replied to their stares.

        They arrived back in his room and he made sure that the unicorn was properly bedded down before he climbed back into the bed.

        "Enjoy," he said as he pulled the covers over himself and went back to sleep.

Day 15

        Nurse Redheart was in the command post giving the morning report to her Highness, the observer corps cadre and the Element Bearers. "Our analysis indicates the chemical's concentration is low enough to risk close proximity to magic users. If that goes well, we might consider the use of the healing spell. It should be able to counteract any damage from the chemical, and remove the chemical completely."

        "I've researched the spells we'll need," Twilight replied, "It should be easy with the number of unicorns with experience we have."

        Luna nodded. "There is the first experiment," Luna said, "And frankly, I think we should start smaller. An earth pony."

        "But Highness, all the staff who've have contact with him are earth ponies," Nurse Redheart said.

        "As well as a unicorn filly and pegasus mare who spent the night with him early on to no ill-effect. I have one rather more magical pony in mind," Luna said as she smiled at Pinkie Pie. "And a test of her restraint."

        "Actually Highness," Applejack said, "It should be two ponies, with Pinkie havin' to make some otherpony hoove the mark."

        Pinkie's eyes widened at Applejack's grin. "Ah, Applejack, not a good idea," Pinkie said desperately.

        "Please explain," Luna said.

        "Y'all need strong unicorns for the spell," Applejack said, "But if Twi's right, if all you are is helpin' the spell, wanting to help is a good way to make the power really flow." Applejack smiled. "There's one unicorn, aside from Trixie, who'd desperately want to make this critter all better."

        Pinkie was shaking her head so hard it sounded like a cow bell. "Bad idea. Bad idea."

        "Applejack," Rarity exclaimed, "You're a genius."

        "Pinkie, are you all right?" Sweetie Drops asked the normally irrepressible, pink mare as she disheartenedly carried a tray of muffins, cupcakes, breads and cheeses atop her head through the corridors of the hospital.

        "Just nervous," Pinkie said, and laughed apprehensively, "Now Lyra, remember, calm. It's easily frightened, and if you scare it too much, it can get - dangerous."

        "But it's so wonderful," Lyra said dreamily.

        "Focus, Lyra," Pinkie gently insisted. "If we scare it, Luna will take it somewhere 'safe', and we'll never see it again." She growled as the green unicorn ignored her.

        "Now you know how most of us feel," Sweetie Drops complained quietly.

        Pinkie growled at that too.

        "Do not distress yourselves," Trixie said as she stepped out into the corridor. She wore her hat and cape this time. "Long before you have a chance to cause permanent harm, Trixie will fling you through an open window."

        "And how did you get so privileged?" Lyra replied heatedly.

        Trixie scoffed. "Their Highnesses' intervention," Trixie said and tossed her mane.

        "They arrested and sentenced her," Pinkie replied and got in the mare's face, "You weren't rewarded."

        Unperturbed Trixie replied, "Believe what you wish." She stepped aside to let them in. Still she watched them very closely and seemed more a predator ready to pounce than the monster ever did.

        Lyra gasped. Pinkie didn't even need her Pinkie sense to predict that. The monster looked at them all very suspiciously. Pinkie smiled, forced it not to become a grin and carefully slid the tray of goodies onto a table where the monster could reach them. Then she stepped back, where she could help Trixie tackle Lyra if needed. Fortunately, Lyra was still paralyzed with amazement. Sweetie Drops closed her friend's open mouth and looked at the monster.

        "Hasn't he been here for a couple weeks, and hasn't he been through town a couple dozen times?" Sweetie Drops asked, then gently shook Lyra.

        "Of. Course. I'll. Help. Him. Get. Well," Lyra said, and started shivering. Then she jumped out the open window.

        The monster rushed to the window to see if she was all right. He reeled back, as if from a bad smell, at the sight of Lyra dancing like a madmare shouting 'they're real!', 'I was right!', and 'FINGERS!'

        "Good thing we're on the second floor," Sweetie Drops commented as the monster heel-walked back to the bed.

        Pinkie couldn't stand it anymore. She raced back to the nurse's station and began shouting all the questions she had for the monster before they burned a hole in her brain. As her tirade wore down and the world came back into focus, she saw the frightened nurses. More importantly, she saw the glass of ice water. "Excuse me," she said, and dumped the water over her head. As the ice cubes sizzled away to nothing, she squared her shoulders. "Pinkie Pie, you can do this. You have to do this." She determinedly marched back towards the hospital room.

        Inside, she saw Trixie carefully guarding, one of the two of them, the monster or Sweetie Drops. The monster seemed to be digging its fingers into Sweetie Drops' skull, while Sweetie Drops ear-flattened, knees-shaking pose showed she was loving every instant of it.

        "No wonder she was so obsessed with fingers," Sweetie Drops said, "That's wonderful!"

        "Imagine having your coat shampooed with those," Trixie said. She lifted a thick slice of bread adorned with several pieces of cheese to the creature's mouth. Her magic touched only part of the bread she levitated. It frowned at her.

        "It lets you feed it?" Pinkie asked as she approached.

        "He hates it," Trixie replied, then grinned, "That's half the fun." The monster snapped at the bread like a timberwolf, biting through it easily. The action in no way distracted him from scratching behind Sweetie Drops' ears, which threatening to reduce the mare to a blissful bag of mush.

        That's it in a nutshell, Pinkie realized, Violence on one hoof, gentleness on the other, and more a mirror of what it sees in us, than a plan of its own. The Princess was right, it is very dangerous, because it magnifies what it sees in us. She walked over very carefully, and while the monster took notice of her, it was Trixie's eyes that filled with malice and warning.

        When Sweetie Drops rear haunches collapsed like an old barn, the monster stopped. Then the mare collapsed completely. "I'm dead," the mare moaned happily, "I've gone to the promised land."

        "Trixie, would it be all right if he sent me there too?" Pinkie asked, looking from one to the other. He'd obviously enjoyed pleasing the stranger, and after a short exchange of glances with Trixie, he motioned Pinkie over.

        The place he'd been scratching Sweetie Drops didn't have much effect on Pinkie. So he changed. Pinkie felt her face slacken and her back legs collapse, but she didn't care!

        "This isn't as good as a party, but it's okay," she said happily. She focused on Trixie who'd moved to sit in front of her.

        "That's why he likes the quiet," the mare explained to Pinkie. "A friend or two, not a thousand things flying in all directions. Remember that, and you'll get along. Forget it, and he will make a polite round of the guests, and slip away. That 'welcome' party for the upper crust of Equestria exhausted him. Yet he found the energy to be with a few select friends afterwards. You feel the power of being the pony he concentrates on. Divide that too thin, and nobody smiles."

        "Yep," Pinkie said, not wanting to nod. "How do you know?" Pinkie asked, her rapturous feeling preventing the venom she'd wanted to put in the question.

        "I watched him soon after he arrived. I don't know how Tear Twirler knew he'd come. And before you ask, I told Princess Luna."

        Lyra pushed the gurney carrying a half-asleep Sweetie Drops and Pinkie back down the corridor. The mint unicorn was happily skipping, and the two 'cargo' seemed to be 50-percent grins by weight.

        "I am going to have to declare 'fingers' a restricted substance if this continues," Luna said as she entered the hospital room with most of the rest of the magical team.

        "I am wondering why you don't have any more problems with Pinkie Pie," Twilight asked as she brought out the papers she'd assembled on the Equestria language. She held up a drawing of Pinkie Pie to the monster.

        It considered and carefully sketched out a drawing of it's own. He handed it to Twilight, and the near triptych made no sense whatsoever.

        "I think that's a misconception we're going to let him keep," Shining Armor said and stepped aside to let Mile Stone see the explanation.

        "I'm glad you understand it," Twilight said with some irritation, "Care to explain it?"

        "He thinks she's a new lieutenant," Mile Stone said as if it were patently obvious.

        "I get the lieutenant's insignia on the second Pinkie Pie, but what about the commode?" Twilight asked.

        "Simple, lass. First drawing: Pinkie, second: Pinkie's got her lieutenant's commission yesterday that's what the single sun symbol over the arrow means. Third, we should have her toilet trained in twenty-one suns or three weeks," Mile Stone explained. "He assumes she's a new, very junior officer. New officers tend to be a bit . . . "

        "They act like Pinkie Pie?" Twilight asked. Shining Armor and Mile Stone nodded.

        "A bit," Mile Stone added, "Very, enthusiastic."

        "About everything," Armor added and rolled his eyes.

        Twilight carefully folded the paper and placed it in her saddlebags.

        "Very well, how do we explain about the healing spell?" Luna asked as she stepped close.

        "Why not a simple demonstration?" Trixie offered, "A slight cut, and you heal it. He will understand the greater spell is to heal him."

        "Trixie, I don't think he really trusts us," Twilight pointed out.

        Trixie gave her a bored stare. "Whatever your relationship, he trusts Trixie. Once she has explained it, and given her approval, then he may only require the muffin maven to also pronounce it acceptable."

        "Derpy?" Twilight asked incredulously.

        "Yes," Trixie said haughtily, "Or are you uncertain your fellow Ponyvillian trusts you and your magic sufficiently to risk her friend's well-being in your hooves?"

        The purple unicorn's furious expression made her look like she was ready to chew diamonds. "Fine," she said.

        The chalkboard was filled with complicated mystic formulae and a simplified anatomical diagram of the monster's circulatory system.

        "So with the flux vector in resonance, the auto-chelation function will separate the invasive species from the native substrate by binding all active sites, and inducing a homolytic cleavage instead of the hetrolytic cleavage, creating a temporary free-radical intermediate changing to neutral, multimeric subchains instead of acid-base monomers, which do not truly become amphoteric in vitro, because they function as electron pair receivers and donors, rather than exchanging protons. The chains are easily removed through the various excretory systems." Twilight turned to the assembled audience in the library's main hall. She looked to the monster, Derpy, Luna and Trixie. "So, what do you think?"

        The monster had been examining the diagrams and scribbling down notes hastily.

        "I won't let you," Derpy replied.

        "Very good, now I think, wait, you won't let us?" Twilight asked.

        "If my vote says you don't do this, then I vote no," Derpy said firmly.

        "But," Twilight stammered and gestured at the chalkboard and diagrams.

        "I asked if it was safe for him, and you talked about what the spell does. For an hour and a half. I know enough to know if someone can't make it simple, they don't really know what they are talking about," Derpy said, "I wouldn't risk Dinky's life on that explanation, I won't risk his." She nodded to the monster and smiled.

        Twilight stared at Derpy in stunned silence. She turned to Luna and Trixie.

        "Twilight Sparkle, I would be hard pressed to synthesize an answer to Derpy's question from your explanation. Other than 'maybe'," Luna admitted, "It is perhaps too ambitious and makes too many assumptions into its biochemistry."

        "But, this spell will do everything we need, all at once," Twilight said, "It's perfect."

        "Trixie suggests a simple purgative and emetic spell," Trixie said, "Then concentrate on the healing. Electrolyte balance can be restored orally."

        "Uh," Derpy began.

        "Vomiting and laxatives, then putting back the minerals he needs to stay healthy with sports drinks," Trixie explained.

        Derpy looked apologetically at the monster, then nodded. "Yes, that sounds fine."

        Twilight's jaw hung open.

        "Never forget your audience," Trixie told the stunned, purple unicorn. She then drew a diagram of what the spell would do. The monster rolled his eyes and hung his head, then nodded his agreement.

        The green, hornless unicorn nearly laughed with joy as she stepped through the barriers and befuddlements that had driven her back the few other times she had tried to make this pilgrimage through the depths of the Everfree. Perhaps I should thank that fool for blasting off my horn. And my so trusting mirror duplicates for believing what I was seeking could be shared, she thought of the fading wisps of magic the mirror pond now recovered after she had driven her doubled, redoubled, and reredoubled shadows over the defenses. Only a few remained, and their doubled, redoubled and reredoubled eagerness for the prize had erased any idea of self-preservation.

        The last two were erased by the magical dampening field that opening the ancient doors had released. She'd never made it this far, but there were stories of fools trying to use Earth ponies for the task. Even Earth pony magic would leave the user weakened, terrorized and disoriented, she thought of the faint, shimmering aura around the ragged remnant of her horn that brought only the barest of headaches. Legends tell that this would drive ponies mad, as if they weren't already thought mad for seeking it.

        She stepped into the temple proper. The roof had caved in from the last Equestrian to have left this place. She caught her saddle bags in her teeth and set them on the ground. She was aware of the pressure on her mind, but without magic to resist it, it passed through her without affecting her.

        "So, now I know what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, they don't interact. The force isn't resisted so it proceeds, and the object isn't touched, so it doesn't move. Brilliant." She drew the chalk from her pack and held it in her teeth as she began filling the temple floor with sigils.

        And to think, Tear Twirler thought, I kept worrying how Nightmare's horn would replace mine. She glanced at the jagged stub jutting out of her skull. Problem solved, she thought and chuckled.

        "Trixie will clean him up," Trixie told Nurse Redheart, "Please prepare the electrolytes." She grimaced as he moved clumsily away from the filth the spell had spewed from his body. Derpy flew over the noisome pools and lifted him directly. He seemed very fatigued by his body's efforts to expel the caustic poison. The room in the hospital had both steam hoses and open grates to dispose of what was expected to happen in this room. And to resterilize it after it had.

        "You can use magic," Twilight said quietly, "And we should heal his wounds as soon as possible." She took a step towards the recipient of her magical efforts, then drew back in shame.

        Lyra, Luna, Glory and several other unicorns of the observer corps were trying not to look at the effects of the spells they had cast, or the person they had cast them on. Derpy and Trixie moved up to steady him. Trixie's horn magic ran a cloth over his face. He rinsed his mouth with a cup of water, before gulping down the drink the nurse gave him.

        "Slowly, slowly," the nurse urged.

        "Smaller doses," Trixie said, "He only knows he hurts." The nurse nodded.

        While Twilight and Luna prepared for the next spell and several others hosed down the floor, Trixie and Derpy washed the filth off him.

        "Would Twilight's spell have worked better?" Derpy asked quietly.

        "If it worked, it might have been cleaner. Doubtful it would have been easier," Trixie said. She looked at his face. He grinned tiredly.

        "The next one will be easier," she assured him as he eagerly drank the small sips the nurse provided him now. "Soon you'll be well." She nuzzled his face and drew a faint smile from him.

        "We're ready," Twilight said, sounding none too enthusiastic.

        "Medical magic is never as neat and tidy as a classroom," Nurse Redheart warned. "Hurt ponies are always messy. It's when they walk out ready to return to their life that you judge your actions and success."

        Twilight gulped and nodded.

        Alarms of mystical portent blazed in the brains of both alicorn-sisters. Even Cadence and Twilight felt the stirrings.

        "Guards!" Celestia called in the middle of a day at court, "Assemble plan 'R' immediately." She scribbled a quick note to Twilight and Luna to return with Captain Armor to Canterlot, then she raced to the vault where the Elements awaited.

        Nightmare Moon? Celestia thought of the trace she had detected, Impossible, I destroyed the temple and the fool would hardly return to the place of her first imprisonment.

        The guard had formed, along with members of the Academy, and they were already at the statuary 'guard'-ens. Discord's statue remained untouched. Even as she deployed the wizards and troops, a young guard raced up to her.

        "Majesty, a winged unicorn appeared, freed Tirek and Nistag, and the three left with several other statues!" he shouted as he halted, only then did he salute.

        Celestia felt her stomach clench, while she gave no outward sign. I'd almost prefer Discord, those two have no such need to announce themselves at every turn, she thought as Armor, Twilight and Luna appeared. All three sets of eyes locked on the Discord statue.

        "Your Majesty?" Armor asked.

        "Someone has found the Nightmare, Nightmare Moon lives again," Celestia told them, "But she does not hold my sister in thrall. So her power is much weakened."

        Celestia caught Luna's frown. The only real expert on the Nightmare is the one most loathe to talk about it, Celestia thought, Forgive me my sister, but we must know.

        "Other than this, how did the spell casting go?" Celestia asked trying to lighten the dark mood.

        "Other than the mess, it all went well. He's home recovering," Twilight said, and shuddered. "The actual side-effects of Healing spells aren't accurately described in most text books."

        Luna and Celestia shared a nod.

        We can kill him? whispered in Tear Twirler's mind. A voice that had once been Nistag, now was part of her.

        And his knowledge, Tear Twirler thought as she ran her mental hooves over the huge knowledge of magic and potions that were now hers. And the fool doesn't know it, yet.

        No, the voice of their sovereign rang through her head and Tear Twirler stifled a wince. Nightmare was not pleased at having to repeat herself. Luna wants him, so we must take him away from her.

        Foolishness, Tirek said inside their shared mind, We had Celestia alone and afraid, we should have struck.

        You are the fool, the Nightmare replied, then whispered to Tear Twirler alone,We shall strike unexpectedly, force them to protect too much and too weakly. And most important, we will grow strong. Strong enough that Discord's madness will not overwhelm us. For that, we need chaos of our own.

        Tear Twirler was beside herself with rage at the sight of this thing that had dared attack her.

        Be at ease my pet, her sovereign cooed, Without him, how would you have gained me? Do you think I had no hand in guiding his steps? Did you alone have the strength to do what you would have had to do?

        I had not thought of that, Tear Twirler worshiped as she glanced up at the long horn that grew from her forehead.

        Yes my pet, but when we are done, but only when we are done, you two may play together, Nightmare soothed.

        The monster stepped out the glass door and approached, apparently unarmed. The compulsion spell they'd laid on the area meant none of Celestia's guards seemed ready to deal with her or it. The only weakness in the spell occurred when he spared a glance back to the two who had tried to guard him. The unicorn and pegasus mares were unconscious. A side-effect of the disunited mind dissipating the force of the attack and their magic.

        So brave, I had hoped to drag it kicking and screaming from its bed, the Nightmare thought. Your first lesson in truly creating obedience, she added to Tear Twirler, who gave a little squeak that her goddess was taking such an active part in her education.

        Nightmare's got a boyfriend. Nightmare's got a boyfriend, Nistag chanted.

        What are you, three? Tirek asked, trying to maintain an illusion of aloofness.

        We also need an experienced foalsitter for our childlike friend, the Nightmare added. Both Tear Twirler and Tirek chuckled at that. Like a lamb to the slaughter, Nightmare told Tear Twirler, Let it come to you.

        Tear Twirler couldn't quite banish the image of the bright flash, the noise and the mind-splitting pain. She and Nightmare forced their body to remain still, and seemingly nonthreatening.

        The creature approached alone, and apparently more curious than fearful or mastered. The Nightmare touched her horn to his head far more gently that she wished. The body crumbled away to nothing. Tear Twirler froze at the sight of the much larger metal weapons it had been carrying to use against them. She willed the body to vanish and retreated within their shared mind.

        The monster stood before them in the mental amphitheater. "So, are you the welcome wagon?" the monster asked, unimpressed by all the trappings and staging of the mental amphitheater that would have had a pony trembling with fear.

        "We are your new masters!" Tear Twirler shouted, her voice breaking as she did.

        "Boo hoo, I shall never see my family and children again," it shouted, "Who do I have to kill to get a seat up there in the bleachers?"

        "I," Tirek said as he landed. His armor drank in the light, and his Rainbow of Darkness stood ready.

        The monster cocked his head and stared. "You're kidding, right?" the monster asked, "My kid sister made me watch this when I had to babysit her. She drooled through most of it. I already know how you go down like a chump. You might have had a chance in the real world." It gestured around. "But this is a dream, I can do anything I can think of. And I've got a lot more experience with 'darkness' than you do."

        Tear Twirler grinned at the lesson the monster was about to learn regarding the nature of this place.

        The monster continued, "As for your vulnerability to rainbows."

        Tirek screamed as he was surrounded by a rainbow of light. "Make it stop, make it stop!"

        Tear Twirler was stunned by the monster's control, as were the others. The rainbow faded. The monster picked the recumbent Tirek off the ground and set him back on his feet. "Look," the monster said, "Let's all be reasonable. I don't want to be here, this mind, this planet, and if I can get home, that's a win for me. What happens here, doesn't matter." He stepped away from Tirek and had the audacity to ignore the others and address the Nightmare directly, "But I've already learned Celestia cares only about 'her ponies' and ferociously so, everything else can go howl. Now, there's a whole other un-i-verse for you to play in. One without Rainbows of Light and Elements of Harmony. Full of people you wouldn't be able to corrupt because they're already past the point you'd put them at, and sheep for you to terrorize who'll expect the corrupt ones to save them. So, let's make a deal. You lay off the 'we are the big bads, fear us' and I'll show you pastures full and ripe for the picking. But I do think we're going to need more help."

        "You look at all those who Celestia and Luna imprisoned in stone in the Royal Gardens, save one," the Nightmare said.

        "Come on. You were in Luna's head for years," the monster said as Tirek leapt back into his throne in the amphitheater's seats. "They have to have stashed some ponies, demons, dragons or others somewhere else. We get them, and then we will be strong enough to convince Discord we're equal partners."

        The Nightmare nodded. "It is acceptable. There is one to start with, but you and Tirek will be hard pressed to deal with him."

        Tirek snorted.

        "With me backing Tirek here, there's nothing he can't beat, even Celestia," the monster said. He nodded to Tirek. Who begrudgingly, nodded back.

        "Talk!" Nistag shrieked, "Talk, talk and more talk!" The pony wizard jumped up and down. "He show nothing, he prove nothing, and he offer candy tomorrow! Let him prove hisself now. He stay his hand when he has Tirek's throat. He is not one of us!"

        "Nistag!" the Nightmare shouted, but the pony wizard was beyond calming.

        "Highness, he's right," the monster held up a hand and said, "I have not proven myself. He is wrong about why I stayed my hand. For my plan to work, I need all of you and more. But if proof he needs, I will show him, and all of you that I have what it takes. But I use it as a scalpel, not a club. The smile gets you close, and the sharp knife gets you what you want. You need to see how devastating subtlety can be."

        "Show us," Tirek said.

        "Can you send a letter to Celestia, and make it seem it came from Twilight Sparkle?" the monster asked.

        "Easily," the Nightmare said.

        The monster gave a feral smile as it materialized a pen, parchment and writing desk. "Time to prove the pen is mightier than the sword."

        The letter appeared.

        "From Twilight," Celestia said eagerly at the welcome distraction for the panic surrounding her. She opened the letter and found half the page covered in the strange runes the monster used, beside it was clear but stilted and archaic Equestrian.

Dear Princess Celestia,

        There are many who have worried what I would do, once I discovered what you and the others did to me on that rainy night. Your sister has been punished for it, and is forgiven. Cadence matters nothing to me. But you, I will endeavor to pierce your heart with a blade so sharp none will see the wound, and were your self-delusions true, you would bleed for an age from it. But do not worry, I suspect my thrust will miss its mark, or be dismissed with the morning coffee. Your callous disregard for my safety and even sanity has been proven many times. I doubt my opinion will carry any more weight than my life. But I owe the few benefactors I have had in this place an end to their worries. So for my part, this will be the end of it.
The stroke:

        I have been on your peaceful world for a short while, and have come to an inevitable deduction. I have seen only a handful with the moral courage to ignore 'what would Her Solar Radiance think' and live up to your supposed creed of reaching out to the other instead of wallowing happily in all-encompassing fear and groundless suspicions. Three are decried as too stupid or shallow to know any better. Three were the vaguely unacceptable 'rough men' who guard you all as you sleep. Two of respectable position only put on a seeming out of fear for their station or avarice for what they might gain. Only one was seen to do so out of love, and the whispers around her are filled with ridicule. That is your legacy, your Majesty. That honestly caring about someone 'uncomfortable' must be explained away.

        That is hardly your only legacy or your most destructive. When your people grow into adulthood, if they ever do, they will curse this thousand years as time wasted. With your blessings, they had peace, but few achievements. With your tolerance, they had harmony, because they lacked a great vision. And they will rightly lay that on your doorstep with all the maledictions that go with it, and you will deserve each and every one. Because all children want to please their parents, and all loving parents want their children to exceed them. And you did not love them enough to let them risk failing in that pursuit. If I were to die tomorrow, having lived among your people less than a month, I will have done more to inspire your people to walk the demanding and arduous road to the stars than your entire thousand-year reign.

        In this I am content. For you cannot comprehend the dreams I have dreamt, the worlds created in my mind. When your people outgrow you, they will. And you will become what you should be: a pablumized tale of virtues for the young, and a cautionary tale for those of maturity.

Fair ye well, and long life,

        Celestia bowed her head and began quietly weeping.

        From inside the mental construct, the others watched the scene.

        "Impossible," the Nightmare whispered.

        "Hardly," the monster said dismissively, "Just my skill. She will shake it off and soldier on, but we have a brief window of opportunity. Let us use it."

        "Agreed," Tirek said.

        "Now Nistag, you create potions," the monster approached the pony-wizard, "I have a very special one in mind."

        Celestia felt the presence of Nightmare withdraw, but still she wept.

        "Sister?" Luna asked as she entered her sister's 'sitting room'.

        Celestia dried her eyes and floated the paper over to Luna. "It seems we were right, about everything."

        "So, what next?" Luna asked.

        "Send out guards everywhere? Where will they strike next? Sombra, Niklojack, the Three Harpies, too many enemies lost to legend who bother us no more out of fear or the strength of their imprisonment. Nightmare is recruiting an army. One she hopes to be strong enough to add one last force to her side."

        "Discord," Luna breathed. "Then that is what we must guard. That one piece they must have to succeed."

        "Agreed, but they will seek to divert us, alarums and reports of tragedy. They will spread us thin, so we cannot guard everything." She sighed. "And 'Heartless' Celestia will ignore all the cries of her ponies, to guard the true goal."

        "They will forgive."

        She indicated the paper. "For some, the forgiveness hurts a great deal," Celestia said.

Day 16

        The one-time Unicorn king foamed and screamed and snapped at those around him. Tirek had his form pinned, while the monster conjured chains that held both smoke and matter. Tear Twirler blocked the spells of crystal the madthing cast about.

        "He is insane," the Nightmare pronounced, "Of no use to us."

        "Oh, I wouldn't say that," the monster said as they finished the bindings and he drew Tirek away to see to the demon's many wounds. "You can always fling a mad dog into someone's backyard while you work elsewhere. My letters may disturb Celestia, but Luna is another matter."

        "So, we deliver him to Luna, while your missive disrupts Celestia," Tirek said. He laughed and ruffled the monster's hair. "With you, I could have conquered the world."

        "With respect, you would have had me killed, for fear I would take your position," the monster replied. "As one of a half-dozen, you tolerate me. I do not want your place. But as liege and servant, you would fear because you wouldn't believe that."

        "And what of you, do you fear nothing?" Tirek asked sharply.

        "The Princesses think nothing of going into my mind and twisting it their way. It is their right. Alone, stolen from my world, with even my mind open to their violation. What is real, what is an illusion they have placed there? I learned, and placed defenses." The monster faced Tear Twirler. "That is how I block you out. A maze of illusions and mirrors as bewildering as this world is to me. It works. Even if you or she found my innermost heart would you know it to be the true one? And I too have nightmare traps set up. You would not enjoy them. I have already been damaged enough by the 'good' side, there is little you could add that I do not already fear."

        "That does not answer my question," Tirek pointed out.

        "Do you think I tiptoe around Celestia for my health, you better believe I do it for my health," the monster said pointedly, "She controls the sun, do any of you understand what the really means?"

        None of the figures around him even hazarded a guess.

        "My people have weapons that can incinerate entire cities with a single blast. That is vaporize the people and the metal, burn the stone and wood to ashes, and winds to flatten anything left. Those weapons basically generate a very small sun, and drop it into the target city. Now Celestia doesn't have to limit herself to making them big enough to bust cities. She can make them as big or as small as she wants. If you think I'm staying where she can blast me with one of those, you are out of your mind."

        "She hasn't done that to us," the Nightmare said.

        "Because you were in her sister. Tear Twirler and even King Sombra have no worries. Because you are all ponies. I have no such defense. A small one, not even enough to rumble the windows in Ponyville, would kill me. Not instantly, but assuredly. That is why I have been urging caution, and suggesting a new path."

        "You are a coward," Tirek said.

        "When it comes to no defense against instantly getting my head blown off, I'm downright craven and proud of it. You think it's bad that she hates most of you? She doesn't, she hates what you've done. She wants all of you to be good, little ponies, then she can love you again. Me, I'm a tool she can plug in and make some pony's life better. If breaking part or most of me is needed, eh. That pony needed a tough jigsaw puzzle to put back together. Believe me, apathy and indifference are more dangerous than hatred."

        The others exchanged glances as the monster stalked away.

        "I think we will need Discord," Tirek said, "To deal with him, not the other way around."

        The others agreed.

        He'd managed to keep the others from probing his mind too deeply with the intricacies of the plan he'd laid out and had Nistag and Niklojack working on. A few wisps had tried to penetrate further, only to encounter a few tamer horrors of human/Earth history. Natural disasters and their aftereffects satisfied their curiosities, he thought, I'm keeping the purely human disasters in my back pocket. Stupid letting slip that the link goes both ways by mentioning Discord by name. The less they realize that they are transparent the less they'll be ready. Although I wish language was more accessible instead of the 'automatic' translation function of this link. And the history they know seems to be 'there's no beer in the fridge, the surfing was lousy, nobody loves me for the speshul person I am, my life is over, NO I'll take revenge on the world!' Time to meet the quieter neighbors. And find out their story.

        When they'd broken open Niklojack's statue, the madmare who would have made Twilight Sparkle look like Oscar Madison to Niklojack's Felix Unger, had immediately set to the logistical task of setting up the plan for the attack. The other eight statues yielded results which disappointed the maniacs. Three had simply faded to nothing. Three of the ghostly figures clustered together and muttered to each other, ignoring everything. The remaining two, ghostly as they were, could interact with the mental world, but refused to throw their lot in with the 'usurper'.

        "What do you wish of us?" the powerful, warrior mare stood, guarding the smaller, more bookish mare behind her.

        "You names, and perhaps a little intelligent conversation. I've been dealing with angsty teenagers, and would relish speaking with adults. Even if only to hear a better grade of insults," he told them.

        The smaller mare chuckled at that. "I am Shamrock Dancer, loyal servant to Princess Luna."

        "I am Celestial Dill, chief of her bodyguards," the warrior ghost-mare responded.

        "Then you have gathered that she is freed of Nightmare Moon?" he asked and waited for the nods, "And she is restored, again Diarch of Equestria, master of dreams and it seems de facto chief anthropologist."

        "She is restored?" the warrior asked, as if fearing a lie.

        "The Elements of Harmony wielded by six commoners healed her. She assists Princess Celestia in ruling, although lately, her job seems to be figuring me out. She seems well-adjusted though a bit out of place for the comparative paradise Equestria has become."

        "For that news, stranger, we will speak with thee," Celestial Dill said.

        "Or use only our most cunning insults," Shamrock Dancer added.

        "Then I ask you to tell me what you know of Discord. He is the ultimate goal, and I intend to drag him off planet, or stuff him back in his hole," he said.

        "You should see a doctor about that ego. They don't build doors that wide anymore," Shamrock Dasher offered and grinned.

        "Oh, I stay outside mostly, give it lots of fresh air and sunshine, make it grow," he replied, "Let's just say that my plans are grandiose, but I don't feel like shouting them on every street corner."

Day 17

        He was again tending Tirek's wounds after subduing the last of the 'great enemies' as Nightmare had begun calling them.

        "Why do you insist on playing servant, and why do you help me in our battles with these madthings?" Tirek asked.

        "You alone seem to have learned my lessons, that a mix of pain and kindness goes so much farther than either alone. Besides, if I'm in here, I don't have to listen to their scheming. Nightmare will tolerate them as long as she needs to get Discord. Once he is mastered, she will begin feeding him the threats to her. To appear harmless, I play servant, as do you playing the good soldier. Discord will be very entertained with what happens. Nightmare will overplay her hand and be smashed. Neither of us will have to do anything other than stay loyal, and switch our loyalty to the winning side."

        "You are a coward," Tirek said, "Your secret is safe. I too grow weary of Tear Twirler and her talk of tortures inflicted for little hurts. As if any justification is needed." The demon stared at him. "You disapprove?"

        "I prefer to let people be the instrument of their own destruction. To offer salvation and forgiveness at the key moment, and let them sweep it aside, is to truly damn them by their own hand," he replied as he checked his work, "Isn't damnation what you work for?"

        "It is."

        He nodded and descended into the alchemical pits to check on Nistag's and Niklojack's progress. I can feel his suspicion and betrayal oozing out of his pores, he thought, letting Tear Twirler see the thought, But when I side with Nightmare against him and Tear Twirler, then she will reward me. He felt the thread withdraw, but he kept his face stoic. In truth he was exhausted from showing a different face inside and out to each of these sophomoric schemers.

        He was quite surprised to him Nightmare in Nistag's lab.

        "This is a nightmare almost as great as I," Nightmare said, keeping her voice down as the mad pony-wizard puttered. "You would do this to your own people?"

        "Those who'd volunteer, are not my people and deserve what they get. I find it more satisfying to destroy by giving the weak their heart's desire, and forcing them to accept the consequences," he replied. "If you've checked up on Niklojack, I'd better not. 'Chaos, disruptions, to my beautiful plans!' I somehow think that banishing her to the moon wouldn't have been a punishment."

        Nightmare chuckled. "She would not welcome a close association with our new guest." The chuckled stopped. "How do we deal with the Elements of Harmony, oh schemer behind my back?"

        "I want to get home," he replied, "That's the depths of my scheming. If the others demand lip service to treachery to stay moving towards that goal, then I ante. As long as you stay on that goal, we are in full accord."

        "The question still stands unanswered," Nightmare said, a whisper for her.

        "I can give you them, and a show of loyalty at the same time. Are you willing to trust me with a little spell power?"

        "I can cast the spell," Nightmare replied.

        The pony-wizard watched, silently.

        He's probably the instigator, he thought, She would just dig through my mind and look.

        "No, if you cast it, then Celestia will see your strike as a threat to her ponies and move. If I cast it, she has hopes she can withdraw or unravel the bumblings of an amateur. A locked door, rather than a burial alive. She will concentrate her forces to guard Discord, and ignore anything she can fix later."

        Nightmare nodded.

        "Pinkie, what's this 'doozy' you've been feeling?" Twilight asked as all the Element Bearers stood in the monster's yard just outside its house.

        "I don't know," Pinkie admitted and adjusted her Element, "I just know it's gonna be a doozy of a doozy."

        Twilight shook her head. "There has to be a logical -"

        "Sugarcube, last time a hydra wasn't doozy enough," Applejack reminded her. "If the Princesses are worried about all kinds of monsters like Nightmare Moon, and the others, then that's probably it."

        "All right, was the monster's arrival a doozy?" Twilight asked.

        "Nope, just the twitchy tail for a falling object," Pinkie said, "That's why I knew it wasn't as dangerous as everybody thought it was."

        "You never considered we'd be the ones doing the endangering," Rarity commented.

        Pinkie turned to confront her, then her expression lost all its heat. "Yeah. I never meant to hurt anyone."

        "I never said you did," Rarity soothed, "Just that the first time someone new comes into town, a gentler approach might be warranted. You should find out a little about them, and don't assume one type of 'welcome to Ponyville' party is appropriate."

        Pinkie stared at Rarity. "Right," she said dismissively.

        Rarity shook her head. Fluttershy gave her a slight smile as she glanced around.

        "Who the hay was this 'Cassandra' the Princess mentioned?" Rainbow asked, "Do you suppose that's the monster's real name?"

        "No," Twilight said, "Cassandra would be Sand Castle in modern form. She was a prophet when Discord was spreading his power across all of Equestria. She was famous for never having her prophesies believed. Some ponies think Discord himself gave her the power of prophesying, and the curse that no one would believe her."

        "Gee, how could that happen," Pinkie said pointedly.

        Before Twilight could answer, the doozy appeared. The Element Bearers wordlessly agreed that was a good name for it.

        "Fie, they were waiting," Tirek commented.

        "So now you prove your loyalty to our cause and no other!" Nistag shrieked, "I demand -!"

        A blue glow surrounded the house and in an instant, it was utterly gone. As the Element Bearers stared in stunned amazement, a second glow of green-white enveloped them and turned them all to stone.

        "You were saying something?" the monster turned to Nistag.

        The pony-wizard stared back in stunned silence. The monster pounced, twisting the unicorn's head up and back, straining its neck to the breaking point. The wizard's back legs folded, but the monster only increased the pressure. His knee pressing hard against the pony's throat threatened to crush his windpipe.

        "Your horn glows I twist your head off," the monster threatened. "I have your throat, should I stay my hand? I have had enough of your little tests to distract us all from the fact you haven't delivered a damn thing. Now if you demand another test of my loyalty when you haven't produced, I'll knock all your teeth down your throat and break both your back legs. You can do your job from a wheelchair. And sucking all your meals through a straw for the rest of your life might give your mouth something to do beside whispering poison to everyone in earshot."

        The pony-wizard noted that not even Tear Twirler had risen to his defense, and that his vertebrae were making a most alarming noise.

        "Enough," Nightmare said quietly for her, magically removing the monster from his grip on Nistag, "Nistag, get back to your lab and deliver on your promises and boasts. Monster, none now doubt you will sacrifice all for the cause."

        The pony-wizard coughed unmanageably as the monster glared at him.

        Nightmare motioned Tirek to stand by. "Do you have the letter?"

        The monster shook himself. "Right here," he said as he held up the parchment, "But we should let the baby dragon's letter precede ours. The effect will be more devastating."

        "Delivering Sombra to Luna will also distract them," Tirek said as he directed the monster away from the others. All the others were nervously glancing to one another and considering their 'allies'. Most realized that only Nightmare had allied herself with the two most dangerous of their company.

        Celestia reread Spike's brief note. The facts seemed unwilling to lodge in her mind.

'Princess Celestia,

        When the Nightmare appeared at the monster's home, they tried to fight it. They and the Elements were turned to stone, and the monster's home was destroyed. There's just a shallow pit there now.'

        She shook her head and considered, Where did it all go wrong, or has it? The second letter brought her out of her revery. It was the same two columns, one of alien text, the other of archaic, stilted Equestrian.

Dear Princess Celestia,

        I bring you glad tidings of great joy! Something I'm certain will render you stunned and speechless. I have managed to convince these fine people not to take their vengeance on you and your ponies. Isn't that wonderful? In fact, I've convinced them to increase the ranks of your kingdom. They couldn't imagine millions of people, so desperate for a benevolent dictator, or so full of hate for their own gender and species that they'd willingly give it up their lives, their homes and even their whole identities and go to another land. But new beginnings are what Equestria's all about, right?

        Nistag has developed a marvelous potion. It will free the humans of all the things about me that terrify you so: bipedalism, aggression, and physiognomy. They will become ponies, body and soul. And not run-of-the-mill ponies, they'll be kinder, gentler and incapable of violence in word or deed of any kind. Perfect ponies for your world, although I'd keep them away from the Everfree. We wouldn't want any of these lovely presents we've given you damaged unnecessarily. I suspect I needn't worry, you do love your ponies so. As their savior, they'll worship the ground you walk on. Willing to sacrifice anything they have to your greater glory. What better gift could we possibly give you?

        By the time you've read this far, we'll have gotten the last piece: Discord. With him, we can then destabilize the critical infrastructure on target worlds. With technology failing, and magic reliable, more people will willingly and eagerly become your subjects. Some holdouts will cling desperately to their species-integrity and failing technology. I have to give my new friends some interesting toys to play with. They aren't ponies, so don't worry your head about them. As soon as they are, we shall swiftly deliver them, and they'll be yours to protect and love.

        And yes I said 'worlds'. We'll proceed to other planets. Our science has discovered several dozen planets capable of supporting life. A suitably harsh but fruitful world will be the new home of the most deserving and determined hold outs. As for the others, if they already have sentient species on them, we can adjust the potion, and spread your wings of love across planets, then the entire galaxy. With more followers and greater magic, we can jump to the next galaxy and begin again. Worlds without end, venerating the solar goddess in pony form. Forever and ever.

        I know you'll love your new subjects and the limitless vistas opened up. It will also have the advantage of giving your more adventurous and scholarly subjects whole new worlds to explore, both in topography, and science, art and literature.

Congratulations, and you're welcome.

        "Highness!" Bulwark shouted, sounding like he'd been doing it for some time.

        "Yes," Celestia replied as she tore her attention away from the very concept of what she had been reading.

        "They've stolen Discord's statue. They didn't free him, but they have his statue," he said, "Are you all right?"

        "I think I've received a rather serious rebuke," she said as she focused. "Where is Luna?"

        "Someone delivered King Sombra into her chambers." The guard struggled to deliver the next message. "I think she was rather pleased to deal with him on her own. I don't think the screams disturbed too many outside the castle."

        "Destroyed," Celestia said, "Tell Luna they will perform the ritual to free Discord at the monster's home, it is not Equestrian soil, and she should be ready to confront them there."

        "Majesty?" he asked, then focused, "I can have the entire plan 'R' force in hand and ready to travel in a few minutes."

        "That will be fine. Assemble them there," Celestia said pensively. She looked at the letter, reread it, and cried.

        The lines drawn into the dirt brought from an alien world were sufficient to contain the power wielded, though nothing remaining on Equestria could still contain what the statue released.

        "Tada!" the draconequus announced as fireworks filled the air. "Oh dear," he said of the stone statues and the manticore-sized, royal-purple alicorn facing him. "Someone is certainly compensating for something."

        "Discord, we have a deal for you," the alicorn said in oddly stilted tones.

        "Wouldn't it be easier to come in there and talk face to face? It sounds like the committee is having trouble speaking with one voice, and I do so hate 'consensus'."

        "If you wouldn't mind," came a subtly different voice.

        "I'm sure I can squeeze inside." He jumped into the creature's eye, and the beast expanded to the size of a large shed. The unicorn horn moved to the creature's nose and Discord's horns adorned the area over its eyes. The tail became a scorpion's with a stinger.

        "I think we need a softer and fluffier image," came a voice and the tail grew long fur, concealing the stinger within.

        Discord looked around the amphitheater and the collection seated in the bleachers surrounding him. He snapped a finger and a throne appeared. He stuck a book under one leg and as he sat down, the book expanded until it was tall enough so he could look down on the collected ponies and a few other creatures.

        "So, what fun are we to have here today?" Discord asked, tapping his finger tips against each other.

        "A very simple plan." The monster said as he appeared to the Chaos spirit. "We leave Equestria, on this other world are hundreds of thousands if not millions who'd throw away their freedom and even their will to a benevolent dictator."

        "They'd want to serve under Missy Grimplot?" Discord asked incredulously as he craned his neck all the way down to face the strange creature.

        "I never said they were particularly bright," the monster responded, "But that's not the fun."

        "Didn't sound like fun," Discord said.

        "The first fun is knowing how Celestia will react to these new ponies who are so good, they can't be unkind, they can't use violence, even to protect themselves, and they will worship her ceaselessly."

        Discord laughed. "She'll hate the last part!" Then he sobered. "What's the second part?"

        "You sabotage the basic infrastructure. Make their machines go haywire. While the magic we use remains stable. More will flock to us to be converted to ponies simply to avoid the fate of others, and some will flock to be converted to ponies so they can preserve their people. We can spread rumors that magic comes from the worship of Celestia, and that will start religious riots, endless debates about 'giving up ones species to preserve their species' and so on. Not to mention the effect of having critical items many people depend on just randomly malfunction."

        Discord giggled at this. "Surely Celestia would step in to stop this."

        "Not with an influx of loyal, worshipful, perfect ponies coming out of it," the monster said. "While all the native Equestrians will have to deal with an influx of these new ponies, all willing to work and help in any way, all just amazed at living in peace and harmony, and all without the usual vices of the regular ponies. Ponies being ponies plenty of them will bully and take advantage of the newcomers when it's learned they can't really hit back in word or deed. So either Celestia steps in, or she lets a victimized underclass get abused on her watch. The amount of bullying that takes place will guarantee there will be problems."

        Discord was holding his sides laughing at the vision of two worlds in chaos from giving people what they thought they wanted. "But you have to leave some of these other people alone."

        "Of course, we let them develop space travel, and once the first world is either in total chaos or overrun by perfect ponies, we go to the next world. And the next, and so on. This new place has billions of stars and possibly millions of planets. The potential for chaos is literally astronomical."

        "I love the way you think," Discord said and patted his head.

        "Thank you."

        "Not that twaddle you spewed out to these morons," Discord said and gestured at those in the bleachers, "Celestia might relish more ponies, but Luna would chase you down and kill you for besmirching her sister's good name even second hand."

        The assembled scoundrels began shifting in their seats. Looking at one another.

        "What I love is how you lured all these reprobates here, and concealed the Elements right next door," Discord said, with tears running up his forehead to hit the ceiling, "Then trapped us all in here."

        "WHAT?!" Nightmare thundered.

        Twilight watched the ersatz triceratops wipe its tail over her and the other Bearers. The spell that held them as statues vanished. The creature seemed to be having something of a seizure. Dancing around as if dozens wrestled for control of it.

        "All that power and all the problems it could solve," the weird creature shouted, "Why don't you help someone with it? No, you want darkness, you want evil, you want people cowering before you. FINE! You want darkness, you want evil and suffering? HERE! You're gonna wear that filth! Eat that horror! Sleep in that misery! Drown yourselves in that despair! And you'll never escape so you'll die in it! You like that you puerile fakers? That's death, that's misery, that's atrocity! Kill dozens, how about millions!"

        The creature began 'dancing' randomly, as if trying to run away from itself.


        "Stop, stop, stop!"

        "Eternal night, how about burning whole cities to the ground?"

        "This isn't happening!"



        "Experiments, here's some experiments!"


        "Make it stop! Make it stop!"

        "Forgive me please!"

        "And here what the planet does! So much for pure and loving Nature!"

        "But, the Mother Goddess loves us."

        "Why are they doing that?"

        "TWILIGHT SPARKLE for the love of God open fire!"

        The six mares summoned their power and fired into the twitching creature. The rainbow surrounded the creatures. The screams from the unknown were replaced by cries as the Elements worked their magic against the creatures that composed the monstrosity. Dozens of statues rolled out of the mix. The most disturbing was Discord himself. He was hunched over, hands on his knees, and laughing uproariously.

        "Why do I think he went along with this, merely to change his pose?" Luna asked as she, Celestia and dozens of guards and wizards arrived at the battle site.

        "Princess Celestia!" Twilight ran over to greet her mentor.

        Luna looked at two wisps she'd mistaken for smoke that wrapped themselves around her head. Her combative expression went slack as she heard the whispers from the smoke before it disappeared. "Fair well, my old friends," she bowed her head and whispered.

        "Big guy!" Spike shouted as the smoke cleared somewhat.

        The two princesses' advance was blocked by the guards as Mile Stone and two troopers moved forward to investigate the battle site. The smoke continued to dissipate, revealing the monster's fallen form. Covered in small burns, cuts and scratches, and the foreleg-long unicorn horn jutting out of its head drew the gasps of the others. The Princesses and the Element Bearers pushed forward.

        He seemed to focus on Celestia. "You are fortunate that you are not truly a god," it said in clear Equestrian. From the horn came faint pleas for understanding and mercy, and promises of power and loyalty.

        The Princess' stoic expression could have been graven in stone like the Elements' multiple targets.

        "Not an inch, not even now," he said, then smiled, "Well played, well played." He turned to Luna. "I hope my tenure has not been too taxing for all of you. This one needs the final lesson." He gestured to the horn that still made pleas and promises.

        He grabbed the horn with both hands.

        "No wait!" Twilight shouted, but was restrained by Celestia and her brother.

        "I. Die." The last word was gibberish as the horn came free, leaving only a bloody spot on his forehead. The sizzling as the hot horn burned his hands ended when he broke the horn in half. The inhuman scream as the purple stream from the horn halves raced straight up and out of sight. Luna glared at the stream as it didn't arc back to the ground.

        When no one seemed to do it, Glory ordered, "Get him to the hospital." She looked around mulishly at the other officers who still seemed to be coming up to speed.

        Derpy looked around the room. "Trixie, where are we?" she asked. "There doesn't seem to be much outside. But it is pretty, like a geode."

        "I think we should stay inside," Trixie said as she lifted herself off the monster's bedroom floor. "I would like to know what hit us."

        "I just don't want to get hit again," Derpy said, "And to get back to my daughter."