11.1 (Stainless Steel Fox)
The three Crusaders eagerly awaited the arrival of 'Nightmare Moon'. Twilight had agreed to let them handle her appearance this loop. Luna wasn't awake, but that would be part of the fun.
Ah, here she was.
"Oh, my beloved subjects. It's been so long since I've seen your precious, little, sun-loving faces."
Rainbow Dash wasn't awake, and did her usual non-awake attack run on Nightmare Moon, and was as usual stopped by the unawakened Applejack. "What did you do to our princess?"
Nightmare Moon chuckled. "Why, am I not royal enough for you? Don't you know who I am?"
Before Pinkie could guess, Applebloom stepped forward, and called out, "You're Nightmare Moon! But you shouldn't be here for a couple of months yet!"
"I am gratified that at least some-pony remembers the legend, but I have returned on the longest day of the thousandth year, as prophesied."
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo stepped up beside Applebloom as she continued. "So… you're not here for Nightmare Night?"
The Nightmare looked honestly confused. "No, silly foal, I am here to bring the Night Eternal!"
"Whoa!" Applebloom exclaimed, "Isn't that a bit steep for not getting enough candy?"
"Candy? What is this 'Nightmare Night' you speakest of?"
The trio inwardly grinned. They'd seen Luna restored by talking before, and starting to speak ye olde butchered equestrian was one of the signs of her breaking through the Nightmare persona.
"It's a night where we dress up and collect candy to offer to you so you don't eat pony fillies and colts,” Applebloom rattled off, with just a hint of nervousness.
Nightmare Moon actually looked disgusted. "Eat ponies? What calumnies hath my sister foisted on this world in my absence?"
"Told ya!" Scootaloo nudged Applebloom as they'd rehearsed.
Sweetie Belle added, "Well, nobody actually believes that bit, but it's a good scary story, and you're an awesome, scary pony!"
"Thou wantest to be scared?" Nightmare Moon was clearly all at sea… so they kept pushing out the boat.
"Oh yeah! Scary can be fun when it's all just a game! Nightmare Night is one of my favourite days of the year,” Applebloom explained. “We get to dress up and stay up late and party all night, and get lots and lots of candy. And Nightmare Night wouldn't be Nightmare Night without Nightmare Moon."
The Nightmare turned to smoke and flew down to the three pony fillies, appearing right in front of them, a black aura and lightning crackling around her. "Doth thou still think me a figure of fun?"
"Whoo!" "Cool!" "Do it again!" The three fillies, rather than being intimidated, applauded her. A few other ponies started joining in, Pinkie chief among them.
The Nightmare was taken aback. "Thou art not terrified? Why doth no-pony get it? I am here to imprison my sister Princess Celestia, as she once imprisoned me in the moon, and bring eternal night! I know nothing of this Nightmare night you speak of!"
Sweetie Belle's lip quivered. "Does that mean Nightmare Night is cancelled?"
Applebloom asked, "Your sister? Why would any-pony do something like that? Especially a sister. My sister Applejack and I are the closest of friends. She'd never banish me to the moon for a thousand years, not even if i was really naughty. Well I guess she couldn't in the first place, not being an alicorn and all, but even if she could, she wouldn't."
Nightmare Moon huffed. "Very well, since it is clear no-pony understands how I was wronged, I shall have to explain. A thousand years ago, my sister and did work together as princesses of Equestria, she raising the sun and bringing the day, while I did raise the moon and brought the night as Princess Luna. But while ponies enjoyed my sister's day, they feared and shunned my beautiful night, sleeping through it. I ultimately resolved that I would make the night last forever, so they would have to appreciate it. But my sister managed to defeat me and locked me away in the moon for a thousand years."
"That was really mean!" Applebloom commented.
"It was the only way for ponies to see my night..."
"No, I mean ponies ignoring your night. Nights are cool too." Applebloom decided not to mention the whole ‘diurnal biology’ thing.
Scootaloo continued, getting excited. "Yeah, there are all kind of things you can do at night, like have sleepovers, or bonfires, or watch the stars... we even study them in school, and pegasi and ships use them to navigate by."
"Or have a long romantic stroll and snuggle up together under the moon..." Sweetie Belle sighed, eyes distant.
Nightmare Moon shook her head from side to side as if trying to dislodge a fly, her mane wavering in colour. "You no longer fear the night? But..."
Applebloom pressed on. "Of course, making it night forever was a bit of an over-reaction. I mean we need day too, to grow crops and stuff. Eternal night would mean every-pony would die of starvation, and then who'd appreciate your night?"
The Nightmare's mane turned darker, then lighter, so Sweetie Belle added, "But banishing you for a thousand years? That's kind of over-reacting too. My sister and I sometimes argue, but she's never given me a thousand year time out. But even though we argue sometimes, we're still sisters, and we still love each other. You should have been able to talk it through, work out some way that to get ponies to appreciate you more."
"Maybe they were just too mad at each other," Applebloom said, "Even Applejack and I get mad at one another sometimes, and we say and do things we don't really mean. I'm sure princess Celestia is sorry about what happened."
The three ponies put their heads together and whispered, then pulled some sacks from under the table. Applebloom said, "These were our special Summer Sun Celebration candy stashes, they took weeks to put together. If we give them to you, could you bring back Princess Celestia, and not do the whole eternal night thing, just talk with her and make up, maybe?"
Nightmare Moon looked incredulous and rose up on her hind hooves, mane flaring. "You're kidding, right? Thou doth have the temerity to bargain with an alicorn princess, and more so you do offer sweetmeats as your prize?"
Scootaloo started looking through the bags. "We don't have any temerity or sweetmeats, but we do have hard candy and chocolate and gummies and boiled sweets and even some cloud cupcakes...."
That utterly wrong footed her. She landed back on all fours, face scrunched up, and then bust out laughing. Not evil laughter, but a good honest belly laugh. The darkness in her mane flared and was blasted away, and her armour shattered. Her eyes turned from green and slitted to regular irises of a cyan blue, and after a few moments she recovered enough to speak.
Very well, young fillies, we have a bargain." She raised her head and her horn flashed. The sun rose, and from its centre came a ball of light, which landed by her and resolved itself into Princess Celestia.
Every-pony bowed. The elder alicorn blinked, looking around, and saw her sister standing in front of three fillies with a bag of sweets.
"Well, I… did not expect that…" Celestia said, trying to work out how that had just happened. "It seems I owe you three fillies a great debt of gratitude for freeing me and restoring my sister."
"Aw, it was nothing..." Applebloom blushed.
Sweetie Belle piped up. "Yes, we know how sometimes things get out of hoof between sisters."
"I don't..." Scootaloo sighed and looked meaningfully over at Rainbow Dash. "I wish I did..."
Princess Celestia gave all three of them a gentle smile. "My deepest thanks to all of you anyway. I wouldn't have considered it possible if I hadn't seen it myself."
"Indeed sister." Princess Luna added. She rubbed her forehead. "They bargained for your freedom with words of wisdom and bags of candy. Now I do consider the matter, bringing eternal night just so ponies could appreciate my night sky was possibly the most idiotic idea since Romane Numerals. In truth, I can not imagine what I was thinking!"
Princess Celestia teared up. "Oh Luna, it's been centuries since I've seen you like this. I would have done anything to spare you your exile, but there was a taint of darkness in you, something foreign, and it twisted you. Working alone, I could not use the full power of the Elements and free you from it, so I had to freeze you in the moon until I could find a way to separate you from it. I thought only the full power of the Elements of Harmony could do it, and using them the way i did even at lower power would ruin them for centuries, so I gave myself a millenium to find an answer and for the Elements to recover. If I had known the answer was so simple..."
She moved in and hugged the startled Luna. "I have been so lonely these past thousand years! We were meant to rule together little sister. Will you accept my apology, and my friendship?"
Luna hesitated for a moment, then returned the hug. "Only if you will accept mine."
Many joyful tears were shed, then Pinkie Pie exclaimed, "This calls for a party!"
The three fillies gave each other a big grin and high hooved. "Cutie Mark Crusader Diarchy Restorers! Yeah!"
Mufasa, ruler of the Pride Lands, turned. “What is it, Twilight?”
The shaman (well, this Loop anyway) spread her hooves. “I do not have anything definite, but I suspect that your brother may be planning something.”
“Scar?” Mufasa frowned. “Why do you suspect that?”
“A number of reasons, some of them too arcane to be understood.” Well, yeah, Twilight thought, as in, I’ve watched the film. “But I think there are things that could be done to mitigate what might happen.”
The lion began pacing down the side of Pride Rock, following his zebra shaman. (Twilight had been intrigued to discover that the Loop had made her into a horned zebra, and that her cutie mark was more… tribal in design, for some reason.) “What do you suggest? I strike first?”
“No.” Twilight shook her head emphatically. “I suggest that you begin a phased plan of increasing the opportunities available to hyena.”
“The lions, aside from Scar, are content with your rule. Most other predators on the plains are too small to pose a threat. It seems that the most likely source of power for any coup – not just one from Scar, if such is possible, but any – is the hyena, since they’re angry.” Twilight took some powder from a pouch – that Loop she’d spent learning from Zecora was coming in very useful – and cast it into the air.
She manipulated the bound spell in the powder to show what she wanted it to show. Shanzi, Banzai and Ed, prowling through the Elephant Graveyard.
“See, my liege?” she said, pointing. “They are gaunt with hunger – not starving, certainly, but nor are they able to eat their fill.”
“This bears consideration.” Mufasa frowned. “Thank you, my shaman. Continue your work.”
It was as good as a dismissal.
“You know, there’s only one thing I wanna know,” a boar said, pausing in his meal.
“What’s that?” his companion asked.
“Why are you a meerkat?”
Angel frowned. “Why not?”
Spike shrugged. “I dunno. Just seemed like you’d be... well, something more rabbity. And how come you’re Looping anyway?”
Angel copied the shrug. “Like I care. Pity Fluttershy isn’t around, though.”
“So, what you’re saying is…” Shanzi paced, her two packmates circling further out, “…that if we do what Mufasa says, he’ll let us have his scraps?”
“Rather more than scraps,” Twilight replied. “Anyway, why are you following Scar? Doesn’t he offer basically the same thing but with more effort?”
She blinked. “For that matter, aren’t you matriarchal?”
“Eh.” Banzai padded closer. “She doesn’t tell me what to-awp!”
Shanzi lowered her paw from the cuff that had sent him sprawling. “Yes. I. Do. Anyway, it is an interesting offer, but there’s one problem.”
“And that is?” Twilight asked politely.
“We could just eat you, right now.” Shanzi nodded sharply, and Ed leapt at Twilight from behind.
There was a pop, and he landed on Shanzi’s face.
“Argh! Gerrof, idiot! I said gerrof, I’m not a zebra, oow!”
“I’ll speak to you later,” Twilight told Banzai (the only one currently listening) and vanished in a magical flare.
“Right, here we go!” Applebloom said. “You ready, Scoots?”
Scootaloo nodded from the cockpit of a credible imitation of a Sopwith Camel. “Ready!”
“Okay!” Applebloom bucked the propeller, and the engine sputtered once or twice before catching and starting to run properly.
Scootaloo waited a moment, then nodded again. “Looks good.”
Applebloom ran back to the left wheel, took a string attached to the left chock in her mouth and hurried over to the outer edge of the lower left wing. Once there, she fitted herself under it. “Mfree, Twmmf, Mmne…”
Sweetie pulled the right chock out at the same time Applebloom pulled on the string attached to the left one. They both started running forwards, holding up the wings as the biplane got moving. Once it was faster than they could run, they slowed down and watched.
The biplane bumped over the ground, accelerating, and began to jounce as it hit slight irregularities in the field. Once, twice… then it didn’t come down again.
“Woo!” Applebloom shouted, jumping up and down, as the Crusader I climbed steadily into the air. Once it was a couple of hundred yards up, it banked slightly and began to circle as Scootaloo carefully gained height.
“Well, it worked,” Sweetie said, watching with a grin on her face. “What next?”
“Next, ah think we try for an improved version that don’t need two sets of wings.” Applebloom frowned, already thinking of other ways to make the Crusader II better. “Or we could try makin’ the wings outta wood, instead of bein’ fabric.”
“Sounds like a good idea.” Sweetie nodded. “I know Rarity is going to be amazed when she sees what we did with her waste bolts of cloth, though.”
The airplane overhead waggled its wings, then dove gently. They could hear Scootaloo’s voice, faint over the engine.
“This is so cool! I…”
Applebloom didn’t catch the next bit. “What did she say, Sweets?”
Sweetie Belle lit her horn. “Sec… rewind… oh.”
“That’s what she said.” Sweetie deadpanned. “She said ‘oh.’”
The buzzing drone of the engine above cut out.
“Ah, horsefeathers…” Applebloom muttered. “Must be the carburettor.”
A large parasail opened overhead as Scootaloo bailed out. The Crusader I kept going without her in a gradually steepening dive, which ended as it hit the nearby lake with a huge splash.
Sweetie slowed Scootaloo’s landing with telekinesis, and the pegasus stomped over to Applebloom.
“I’ve got some issues with the design.” Scootaloo shook her hooves, which seemed to be wet. “The engine leaks.”
Applebloom bent down and sniffed. “…yeah, that’s fuel alright. Guess a combustion engine wasn’t a good idea.”
“You’re telling me?” Scootaloo pointed to the plume of smoke. “The fuel leaked into the cockpit, and then the engine cut out! That was not fun!”
Sweetie looked smug.
“Alright, alright, you win Sweets.” Applebloom kicked the ground. “We’ll build a crystal engine for the second one. Now, er… how do we explain this to Steven Magnet? I think the Crusader I hit his summer home.”
“We have a long way to go before we can build a Mareitech…” Scootaloo shook her head.
“…okay,” Fluttershy said timidly. “I know I can become an alicorn now, but… I don’t really feel up to this…”
Twilight finished establishing her stability bubble, pushing back the chaos of Discord-controlled Equestria with a variant failsafe spell. “Well, it seems to happen every time somepony ascends. Well, except me… I did have a Loop where I replaced Luna, but that wasn’t straight after my ascension… anyway. We have to deal with Discord.”
“Okay.” Fluttershy’s face set. “I can handle this, Twilight.”
“Good.” Twilight tapped a hoof. “I get Magic, you get Kindness… which two other Elements do you feel up to?”
“No, I can handle this.” Fluttershy flew off.
“…huh.” Twilight said. “That’s unusually bold for Fluttershy.”
“…so, anyway, the point is, I just don’t see the upside of harmony for me.” Discord lay back on the couch he’d conjured. “I mean, I’m a being of chaos and disharmony. Harmony is sort of opposite of me.”
“Perhaps you just haven’t had the right examples,” Fluttershy replied. “I mean, take as an example what happened with the Windigoes. Alone, the three tribes were completely unable to resist their effects – but together, they were much more powerful. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, you see…”
“Fair point,” Discord allowed. “What do you suggest I would enjoy, then?”
“Well, my –sister,” Fluttershy said, remembering just in time what was going on this Loop, “is quite an expert with magic. I’m sure she’d love to work with you. And I can tell that you’re quite a fun draconequus to be around – if you can resist turning ponies into things they’d rather not be, at any rate.”
“A difficult challenge,” Discord said airily. “I’d much rather do a bit of… discordianism.” He snapped his fingers, and tapped Fluttershy on the forehead just below her horn. “Let’s see what you think now!”
Fluttershy blinked, and frowned. There was a burst of magic which bowled Discord over.
“You have been a very naughty boy!”
“…this feels like Karma,” Discord said. “I don’t like it.”
“…I said I was sorry,” Discord muttered.
Next to him, Fluttershy’s wings twitched. She could have been shrugging slightly – it was hard to tell.
“Though I am impressed with your sister,” the draconequus continued. “I mean, she tried working with you instead of against you for nearly a year after you kicked me up here.” He pointed to the crater he’d left when he hit the moon. “Nice shot, by the way. Anyway, what finally got too much for her?”
“Pardon?” Discord bent down.
“I set Canis Major on the castle!” Fluttershy shouted. Discord went flying backwards from the sheer force.
“I don’t know what you did to me,” Fluttershy continued, shaking her head. “I keep getting angry so easily, and for no reason! I… I thought she wasn’t putting enough effort into zoological funding, and so I decided to use my part of the gardens to take care of a few animals, and by the time I’d finished putting all the rest of them in there it filled the Everfree forest, and I didn’t have anywhere to put the Canis Major, so… I got them to invade Twilight’s part of the castle, to show her why she should respect our little friends.” By this point, Fluttershy was hiding herself almost entirely inside her wings. Only her horn and eyes were poking out.
Discord whistled. “That’s actually quite impressive.”
The two divine entities sat awkwardly for a bit.
“…can you make a sauna?” Fluttershy asked tentatively.
“That sounds like a good idea,” Discord replied. “Water, grape juice, or key lime pie?”
“Water, please.” Fluttershy paused. “Can it be lemon scented?”
“I can make it fizzy, too!” Discord replied with a grin.
“Stupid things!” Twilight said, barely restraining the urge to kick the Element of Loyalty. “I wanted to undo whatever Discord did to destabilize her moods, not send her up there for a thousand years!”
She sighed. “Oh, well. Looks like it’s going to be waiting until our friends turn up again…”
“You want me to organize a welcome home party?” Pinkie Pie, special student of (a very tired) Princess Twilight asked with glee.
“Yes, Pinkie.” Twilight massaged her temples with her forehooves. “There are two deities up on the moon who are going to be coming back down in a month or so. Neither of them is actually evil, or nasty, they were just… put in time out. I’d like you to make it clear to them that they’re welcome in Equestria.”
“Okay!” Pinkie said, bouncing. “Who are they?”
“One of them is Discord.” Twilight paused. “Just design a party for yourself, for him, only more so. The other one is my sister, Princess Fluttershy. She’s very sweet, and likes things subdued… but she does have a bit of a temper, so make sure things are done well.”
“Okie Dokie!” Pinkie bounced off.
Twilight let out a heartfelt sigh of relief. Pinkie Pie was a true friend, but not to be taken in extended doses.
“Okay, Spike!” Pinkie said. “How’s things going on the Discord side?”
“Well, we’ve got all the local ponies who are into intensive partying lined up.” Spike turned a page on the clipboard. “One ‘Rainbow Dash’ has said she’ll do her speciality piece to open the disco, and there’s a DJ who’s going to keep it going.” The young dragon frowned at the paper. “DJ Lunacy? Whatever. Anyway, that was the last thing left to handle.”
“They sound fun!” Pinkie nodded to herself. “I’ll go see them in a moment! What about the other side?”
“One Octavia is going to do the music for that one. All classical, nothing too startling. There’s also a pegasus dance troupe who’ve volunteered to help… Cirque du Celestia? Sounds interesting. They’re supposed to be very good. Anyway, a very nice – very, very nice – unicorn called Rarity is helping to outfit everypony for that, all in period dresses and suits to add a touch of the familiar for her.” Spike looked a bit distracted by the subject of said unicorn, but rallied quite well. “And the catering’s lined up too.”
“Good!” Pinkie said. “Now to let Princess Twilight know! Get that flame ready, Spike!”
“…huh.” Twilight muttered, reading the letter. “Luna’s a DJ this time? I have to admit, given nightclubs, it makes a certain amount of sense…”
“It started well!” Pinkie said brightly, looking over the smoking ruins of Ponyville.
“I believe you,” Princess Twilight replied. “I was there. But I didn’t see where it went wrong.”
“Oh.” Pinkie thought. “I think it was about when Luna overloaded the spell that was maintaining a sound barrier between the two parties, deafened everypony at the soiree, and startled Princess Fluttershy.”
“Okay.” Twilight spread her wings. “I’ll go look for my sister, she’s probably in the Everfree somewhere. You try and find Discord.”
“Don’t worry, Fluttershy,” Twilight said. “Nopony actually got hurt.”
“I just feel like I keep breaking things!” Fluttershy wailed. “I’m not cut out for being an alicorn!”
“No, you’re doing better than almost anypony else has…” Twilight said critically, thinking back on ‘Danger Dash’. “You coped with the moon very well. Besides, it seems like being an alicorn actually makes emotional extremes stronger. You weren’t ready for it – that’s all.”
She stretched out a wing, and laid it over Fluttershy’s back. “Come on. Besides, Luna and Dash both had their episodes last a thousand years. Yours tend to be a lot shorter.” Twilight pondered for a moment, trying to think of something to say.
“…I found Angel Bunny.”
Fluttershy’s eye peeked out of her wings. “You did?”
“Yep. He actually runs the griffin empire, for some reason. Strangest trade agreement signing I’ve done yet.” Twilight considered that statement. “Well, apart from the one from last Loop, where we agreed to trade love to the Changelings. Actually, speaking of them, I normalized relations five hundred years ago. Want to see if Chrysalis can help you with that emotions problem? There’s a state visit next month.”
“…alright, then,” Fluttershy whispered.
“THE NIGHT WILL LAST FOREVER!” Nightmare Moon shouted, glorying in her own return.
“Really?” A suspiciously familiar voice asked. “Hello? So consistent.”
“How did you know, lulu?” Discord raised an empty glass, then quaffed the air in it. Mead flowed in from nowhere to fill it up from the top, and when he finished the glass was completely full with liquid that didn’t spill. Picking up an empty bottle on the table, he ‘emptied’ his glass from it. “But I don’t like the idea of the night lasting forever. I mean, it’d get boring inside three minutes.”
“Night and day are irrelevant!” The mayor shimmered, and turned into a large, insectoid creature. “Changelings! Sieze them!”
Almost every other pony in the room also dropped shapeshifts.
“We cannot allow them to jeapordize our infiltration!” Chrysalis said.
There was a knocking on the door. All three divine entities paused, looking towards it.
After almost a full twenty seconds of staring, Discord sighed and snapped his fingers. The door opened.
A large, armoured unicorn stepped through. “Crystals?”
“Ooooh…” several dozen ponies said, watching the fountain of magical backlash as four immensely powerful beings battled hammer-and-tongs.
A Changeling went soaring into the air, clinging grimly to a large firework labelled ‘Komodo 3000.’
“Hey, Pinkie…” Twilight began slowly. “Is that the one that-”
“Duck and cover!” Pinkie overrode her, diving to the ground.
There was an enormously bright flash, and night became day for about five seconds.
“I told you not to store that in the town hall!” Twilight said, once the firework had finally burnt out. “Actually, I told you to store it in your pocket dimension inside a water-jacketed box.”
“Eh.” Pinkie shrugged. “I wanted to see what Dissy would do with it!”
A smouldering changeling landed next to them, stumbled upright and promptly collapsed again. “I can’t see!”
“Don’t worry,” Twilight replied. “The box said your eyesight comes back in two days.”
“Are you sure this will solve all our problems, Twilight?” Princess Celestia asked, looking dubious.
“Oh, yeah,” Twilight reassured her. “I mean, once they’re all tired enough we could probably actually talk them through things.”
She winced as a bolt of pure night removed the top half of her library. “Granted, that could take a while…”
Discord panted on the floor, utterly exhausted. There were three hundred changelings surrounding him, covered with various flavours of pie or jam, and one duct-taped expertly to the remains of the wall behind him.
Chrysalis wasn’t much better. She was still standing, but visibly supporting herself with a table.
Sombra had discovered that the goblets in the room were made with crystal glass and was busily trying to chew his way through some, mainly to get up the energy to move.
And Nightmare Moon still had a spell sizzling on the end of her horn. Granted, it was a low grade stun spell, but it was more than the others could manage. “Hah! You, you… fools, you… foals, couldn’t defeat the true might of… Equestria’s true ruler. Who’s the winner now?”
Celestia stepped through a hole in the wall. “Me, actually.”
Discord rolled his eyes. Chrysalis finally collapsed to the floor, her last two conscious changelings standing guard over her. Nightmare Moon’s spell fizzled out, and she wobbled on her hooves.
Sombra started snoring. “Cryyyys… taaaaals…”
“Right.” Celestia decided to ignore him for now. “Anyway. Who wants some tea?”
“This is stupid…” Chrysalis muttered, finishing off the paperwork and passing it to Princess Cadence.
“Oh, sorry…” Cadence replied, after checking the date. “I’m afraid that Sombra has booked that month to attempt a hostile takeover of Equestria. You’ll have to reschedule.”
“What?” Chrysalis stamped on the floor. “That’s not fair! You’ve only got one wedding!”
“Sorry.” Cadence shrugged. “At least it’s better than another double booking, right?”
"3... 2... 1... Get ready..." Twilight said, as the moment of Nightmare Moon’s return came closer. Her latest plan to speed up the whole collecting Elements of Harmony had worked well. Too bad the others weren't Awake in this loop.
Right on time, Nightmare Moon appeared on the stage.
Wearing a top hat and wearing a monocle.
"I say, this is the most joyous time indeed! For I have returned from my enforced leave of this word, as decreed by my sister!" the dark alicorn said, in an affected accent.
"What," Twilight said, echoing the feelings of everyone else.
"Gotcha! How's it going, Twilight?" Luna said, shifting away from her Nightmare Moon appearance and dropping her disguise.
"..." Twilight had the sinking feeling that she’d just been punk’d.
"Oh, come on! Don't look at me like that. You pulled all kinds of tricks on me in numerous loops, for once it's my turn," Luna said with a smile. "Now, how shall we trick my sister? I assume she is not Awake, seeing how your friends there are very confused."
Twilight pondered. “Hmmm… Pinkie, do you have a clown wig available?”
“Of course!” Pinkie reached behind a bush… no, on second glance she picked up the bush, and pulled a cord to turn it from green to rainbow coloured. “I have them all around Ponyville!”
Luna developed a grin. “I like where this is going.”
“Can somepony explain what’s goin’ on?” Applejack asked.
11.7 (Stainless Steel Fox)
"Sweetie Belle? Where are Scootaloo and Applebloom? And where is your project for the Science fair?" Cheerilee looked around, in case she’d missed two fillies and a project.
"They're bringing it here right now, Miss Cherrilee. We did ask if we could do a combined project and you did agree." Sweetie gave a nice smile.
"Yes, I did, but I expect something that reflects a high level of effort from all three of you." The teacher frowned; it would be a hard one to mark, in truth, but they worked so much better together she didn’t have the heart to say no.
"Ha!” As usual, Diamond Tiara cut in. “I bet those three blank flanks produced a big fat nothing, just like the cutie-marks they don't have! My daddy brought me the finest model airship kit money could buy!"
"Oh really, Diamond Tiara? I thought you said you built it yourself." Sweetie looked sly for a moment.
"I did, I built it all myself! I even read the explanation of how it works…” Diamond tailed off, realizing she’d just be digging herself a hole if she kept going, and changed tack. “At least I have a project; Sweetie Belle doesn't even have a paper airplane!"
"Not a paper one, no..." Sweetie Belle heard the howl of jet engines and grinned.
A shadow fell across the school yard as a winged shape swept over it on jets of flame.
"Ahh! It's a dragon!"
"Call for help!"
The blocky, angular shape of a Mareitech space fighter did a vertical landing in the field beside the school, and the whine of its engines died down. It was painted white with burgundy trim and tail fins, on which was emblazoned the blue and white Cutie-mark Crusaders logo. The twin canopy lifted up, revealing Scootaloo in the front seat and Applebloom sitting behind her and to the side. There was an empty space beside the earth-pony filly.
"What is it?" Cheerilee finally stuttered.
"It's our flying machine, the Cutie Mark Crusader Mark VIII. Applebloom did the primary design and engineering, Scootaloo developed the flight control systems and aerodynamics, and I worked on the thaumic power core and avionics, though I did get Twilight Sparkle to help me with the power core design. But that's allowed; you did say we should get an adult pony to help us if we were doing anything dangerous." Sweetie looked earnest. “That’s okay, right?”
The three of them had been hiding their looped abilities until now, specifically for the fun of the reveal, but now she could show off a bit. Her horn glowed and she started showing a slide show of illusion images showing the design and construction of the CMC8 in the workshop/hangar they'd created under the tree-house.
11.3 additional (Madfish)
The Crusaders’ attention was drawn from the pyre of their first biplane by a small herd of four unfamiliar ponies racing in their direction.
None of them were much out of colthood from their looks, and one shouting, "I say, are you three alright?" revealed at least one of them had a strong and unusual accent.
"We're fine. We remembered to make parachutes… this time." Applebloom blushed.
Sweetie winced, remembering what had happened when they’d tried making their own balloon. It had taken a very alert Rainbow Dash to catch them when the thing caught fire…
"Well, jolly good, I suppose…" the speaker was a slightly overweight pale green pegasus. Having said his piece, he trailed off in confusion.
Scootaloo broke the silence by asking, "So who are you anyway?"
"Oh. Yes, how rude of us," clearly now they had ascertained that the fillies were safe the pegasus had other things on his mind. Refocusing, he started introductions, "I am Algae- Algy, my friend here I think is Jams," he wiped a frustrated hoof across his brow as he nodded to the other pegasus with him, a tan stallion with his mane tucked into a flight cap. "Sorry- James," clearly wanting to finish he sped up, "Smyth and Ginger," he finished with a gesture to a grey earthpony with black mane and mustache, and an appropriately coloured unicorn who was clearly the youngest there.
With some concern Sweetie asked, "Are you feeling all right?"
Chuckling the tan pegasus added, "Just a bit under the weather. I don't think any of us have ridden the dragon quite as hard as this before. I don’t even remember getting the cig…"
"You were riding a dragon? That's kind of cool, most ponies just run scared of them,” Scootaloo said. “So… you're Loopers, right?"
"You know, repeating the same things over and over?" Applebloom tried, wondering what a cig was.
More blank looks.
"Your first loop and it's a Crossed Loop? How's that even work?" Sweetie gestured in the air, trying to show how strange that was.
"We can't even get Twilight to explain this stuff to them… she's gone to set something up for Sombra and we're the only other ones Awake," Scootaloo sighed.
James blinked, "I think it would be best if we saw a doctor. I don't think we're hearing what you're actually saying.”
11.8 (Stainless Steel Fox)
"Are you okay?" Applebloom still found it hard to see the lack of recognition in her best friends’ eyes. This was the hardest part about looping, everything you'd done and seen with your friends just… wiped away.
At least she knew, thanks to Twilight in their first – and joint – Loop, that there was a Looping Sweetie out there, and a Looping Scootaloo. Fillies who remembered trying to beat up Chrysalis, and accidentally causing a major invasion of Equestria…
Still, these were versions of her friends too. She owed it to them to give them the best time she could.
Sweetie Belle shivered slightly, but looked over gratefully at the earth pony. "I think so, but she was really scary!"
"Aw... Rainbow Dash could have taken her!" The pegasus on the other side of the unicorn exclaimed.
Applebloom grinned, having seen the previous loop where Dash had gone full alicorn and done exactly that. "I'm sure she could. My sister just wanted to make sure she didn't take her on before any-pony else was ready to help."
That had to be done carefully. Implying Dash couldn't, or calling her reckless, was an easy way to make Scootaloo hostile.
"That was your sister?" Scootaloo asked.
"Yep! Mah sister Applejack, and I'm Applebloom. Pleased to meetcha."
"Scootaloo... and I wish Rainbow Dash was my sister."
The unicorn had moved back slightly, looking down, but Applebloom quickly turned her attention to her. "How about you? We've shared the underneath-of-a-table-hiding from the real life Nightmare Moon. Am I ever going to up my offering on Nightmare Night!” That got a chuckle. “But that makes us 'hiding under a table' buddies. We should know each others names, at least."
"Sweetie Belle." She looked more confident. "And Rarity is my sister, the white unicorn with the three diamond cutie-mark. Ooh! That Nightmare Moon isn't getting any of my candy, not after the way she treated Rarity!"
Applebloom hauled herself from under the table, very deliberately trying to hide her flank with a fold of cloth. "Well if she tries to eat you, I'll help stop her! I know kung fu! She'll have trouble eating any-pony with no teeth!"
"I can help too!" Scootaloo exclaimed. "I'll run rings around her!"
"You can fly that fast?" Applebloom felt a rush of warmth, as Sweetie started engaging in the conversation again and it began to move from ‘her talking to the others’ to ‘all three of them talking together’.
Scootaloo slumped. "I can't fly, not yet, but I'm the fastest on a scooter in all of Ponyville. And I will fly one day, just as awesomely as Rainbow Dash!"
"Don't doubt it." Applebloom finally let the cloth slip, making it look like an accident as she helped the other two out from under the table. She glanced back and then hung her head. "No! It's okay, you don't have to hang around with a blank-flank if you don't want to. In class, it's only Twist and me."
"You got a problem with blank-flanks?" Scootaloo sounded half annoyed, half amused. She presented her own bare flank. "I thought I was the only one."
"Oh! I thought I was!" Sweetie Belle exclaimed. "Let's be friends!"
Applebloom still teared up slightly at that. "I'd like that."
"Yeah, that'd be great!" Scootaloo bounced, fluttering her wings to get some hang time. "The three of us are totally alike! No cutie-marks, lots of awesome..."
"Maybe we can do something about that, the first thing I mean." Applebloom suggested. Without the common cause of cutie-mark hunting, their friendship grew more slowly and she wanted every moment before it was snatched away. Despite the fact that she'd pretty much given up, she still held out hope she could help her friends. "We could work together to find out who we are and what we're supposed to be."
"Oh oh! I know, we could form our own secret society!"
"I'm liking this idea!"
"How about we call ourselves, the Cutie Mark Crusaders!"
Applebloom grinned with the others, feeling at home again, but part of her was still wistful. Well, maybe this time it would be different. After all, these loops were endless, maybe in eternity even she'd be able to find her cutie-mark.
11.9 (Stainless Steel Fox)
Calling out the Cutie
Applebloom had experienced about a dozen loops by now, and was fed up. Neither Sweetie Belle nor Scootaloo was looping with any regularity yet, and while she had loopers like her sister and Twilight Sparkle to help, having to make friends with her cutie mark compadres over and over again was frustrating. But worst of all was having to deal with the ever increasing nastiness of Diamond Tiara, over and over again. It wasn't that it hurt so much any more, after you'd been called Blank Flank enough times, you developed scar tissue over your sense of self esteem.
No, it was just annoying, and dull. It wasn't even as if the two stooges were particularly inventive. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were so shallow, you could use them as a ford. They delighted in making ponies' lives miserable, though Applebloom was ashamed to admit that she hadn't really noticed until she'd become one of their primary targets. The endless stream of 'blank flank' and 'loser' comments was more like Neighponese water torture. Well, it was time to do something about that, for this loop at least.
This was the critical point. Cheerilee followed the script for her lesson on cutie-marks to the letter, and when Diamond Tiara hissed to her and tried to get her to take the blank note, she went along with it. As per usual Cheerilee didn’t notice anything when the evil minded brat started messing around, but as soon as the note was in Applebloom’s hooves, she homed in on the earth pony like a stooping hawk.
Applebloom had considered replacing the blank paper with a vicious note from Diamond Tiara to Applebloom, written in disappearing reappearing ink so it would make sense when she jumped up and made her smart remark about Applebloom’s blank flank being like the blank paper. She’d even found a discarded report by the other pony and practised her hoof-writing style to add authenticity, but ultimately she’d decided that was the sort of thing Diamond Tiara would do, and she wasn’t going to let the mean spirited brat turn her into something similar.
No, this was better. She’d fight the bully honestly and directly, not by sneaky tricks. The whole thing with Babs Seed had taught her that sometimes the only way to deal with bullying was openly, not by becoming what you hated, much as you’d get some temporary pleasure out of turning the tables. She’d also have a chance to talk about something that she’d been thinking about more and more as loop after loop had ended as it started, without a cutie-mark.
She’d talked it over with Twilight Sparkle and Zecora, as well as her big sister. They’d helped her to get her thoughts in order, and prepare for this. Two of them were loopers with literally millennia of experience, as well as being the smartest and most sensible ponies she knew, and while Zecora wasn’t a looper, she had a vast reserve of wisdom.
Cheerilee took the note, as usual. “What could be so important that it couldn't wait until after class? It’s blank!”
“Remind you of any-pony?” As usual Diamond ‘witted’ Tiara made her snarky remark and got the entire class laughing at her oh so hysterical comment. She must have spent hours coming up with that one.
Time to change the script, the farm pony thought. Applebloom let the laughter die down a bit, then asked; “Miss Cheerilee? Do you believe Diamond Tiara is right?”
The teacher looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, apart from the fact that you let her just stand up and make what was clearly meant to be an insult about blank flanks in general and me in particular, you’ve been saying how wonderful it is to get your cutie mark. So that it means if you don’t yet have your cutie mark, you’re an object to be pitied at best and ridiculed and laughed at at worst, at least that's the way Diamond Tiara reckons it…”
That cut off any remaining laughter like a knife.
“Of course not! Just because you haven’t found what makes you special, doesn’t mean you aren’t. As I said before, your cutie-mark comes in its own time.” Cheerilee seemed genuinely shocked, and Applebloom gave a relieved grin. However, there was still another point to be made.
“I’m right glad to hear that, but it still leaves a problem. You tried to make me feel better by talking about me finding a cutie-mark talent, which is kind of saying that it’s your cutie-mark based talent that makes you special. Is that the only way a pony can feel worthwhile?”
She sighed. “Take me for example. Yes, I’ve never found that one talent I’m really good at, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have useful skills. I can do lots of different things, I can cook up to the level of a short order chef, balance a ledger, and not just on top of my head, clean a house, field repair a plough or a cart or build one given the tools and materials, then pull it fully loaded over 2 miles of rough ground in 15 minutes – and that takes more than strength and endurance, you have to be able to pick your route or you’ll end up axle deep in the ground – care for and feed most domestic and farm animals, herd many of them, change a baby, sew a dress, change a wound dressing, care for most minor ailments and trauma injuries up to setting a bone or sewing up a wound, speak Zebra – though I’ll admit I’m only conversation level, not fully fluent – make a speech,” she grinned, “identify dozens of common and uncommon herbs and magical plants, brew 32 different herbal medicines and 3 actual magical potions, have a brown belt in Northern Shire-lin Karate and will test for my black next month, navigate the Everfree, abseil, free dive, find my way by the stars, and name a good chunk of the constellations.”
She took a deep breath. “… and that’s all I can think of at the moment. But if one of them is my particular talent, my flank hasn’t gotten the message, so by cutie-mark based thinking, I’m second rate, to be told, not to worry, ’your cutie-mark will appear in time’. I’m not saying you’re doing it to be nasty, Miss Cheerilee, I’m just trying to show that your cutie-mark and your cutie-mark talent might not the only way of judging a pony’s worth.”
She’d started connecting with Zecora and Temple Fortress, her martial arts sensei, from the moment she awoke each loop, and done her best to start off from where she'd left the previous loop each time. While she still worked with the other Crusaders, trying out many things, she'd found skills she'd liked, and done her best to learn them the long way round. Add to that some of Twilight’s training on how to organise the memories of many loops so they didn’t drive you insane, and she'd become a lot better at retaining knowledge.
It wasn't perfect, the muscle memories didn’t carry over from loop to loop, but even there the effort to get them back was purely re-training, as if she'd slacked off her training for a few months and had to get back into shape. She'd had subjective decades to train, so she was a lot better than she admitted. Plus she'd had those same decades to learn all the skills that ran a farm, of which there were a lot. Helping Fluttershy, Rarity and Twilight out out, and learning what they could teach in return, had added to her broad base of skills and knowledge.
Of course, Diamond Tiara couldn’t let her litany pass. “Ha! As if you could really do all those things! Where would you even find out about Zebras, or learn how to make magic potions? Only unicorns can do alchemy!”
“Some potions don’t need a unicorn to enchant them. If you use innately magical ingredients any-pony can create one. And I was taught by Zecora. She’s the zebra that lives in the Everfree forest.”
That got shocked gasps and a few small screams. “But she’s a monster.” “Evil witch!”
Even Miss Cheeerilee looked horrified. Applebloom rounded on her classmates.
“She's not some kind of monster just because she lives in the Everfree! She’s really cool, a shaman, a healer and student of magic and herbalism. She came all the way from her homeland to the Everfree because it has so many unique magical plants and herbs and she wanted to study them. Can you imagine the courage that took, to leave everything – everyone – she ever knew?
“It doesn’t help that the inhabitants of the only nearby town have only avoided driving her away or worse because they’re too scared of what she’d do to them if they tried. I guess us colts and fillies could be forgiven, after all, we just believe what our parents tell us.” She turned to face Cheerilee. “But I’d have thought at least you’d… I don’t know, be willing to find out the truth. That’s what you’ve always taught us, to learn and understand, find out for ourselves.”
“Sure, right!” Diamond Tiara sneered. “It’s convenient that you’re claiming to be taught by someone who no-one wants to go near, so no-body can ask her! As for you, how would you get to even talk to her without being turned into a toad? Though that might be an improvement!”
“”Uh… hello? Sweet Apple Acres is next to the Everfree Forest. We check the boundaries regularly to see nothing freaky comes out. Zecora was collecting some herbs near the boundary, and she didn’t seem to be turning any-pony into anything, any more than she does anything bad when she comes in to town. So I screwed up my courage and talked to her. She was really nice, and explained what she was doing, and…”
Applebloom shrugged. “We got to be friends. I could go on about how Applejack and Twilight Sparkle got involved, and how they eventually trusted her to see me safely to her place, and how she eventually let me start learning from her. Zebra magic is closest to earth pony magic, but they can do things with it Equestrian ponies never thought of.
“Our earth magic is focussed inwards, such as our magic strength and toughness, or passive like our connection with growing things. But they can project it like unicorn magic. It can’t do all the flashy spells unicorns can, but it can affect living and natural things. Some of Zecora’s brew are just non-magical herbs, some use magical ingredients, and some are use the magical herbs as a base to invest some of their own earth magic. You can get some really powerful healing and enhancement effects that way.”
“Oh, and I suppose you can do all that!” Diamond Tiara sniffed.
Applebloom gave an amused snort. “I already said I only know three real potions, and they’re all purely based on magical ingredients. I’m gonna need a lot more training before I can project earth magic like a zebra. Though I’m hoping my martial arts will help. Northern Shire-lin is based on drawing on the magic of the earth actively to enhance your attacks and toughness beyond what passive earth pony magic can do. If I can learn to draw on it, I should be able to learn to project it. Once again, it’s going to take a lot more practice and hard work, but it'll be worth it.”
“I still think you’re lying just to be the centre of attention!” Actually, that was probably a fairly sensible thing to assume. The list of skills she’d rattled off had taken decades to pick up… but it was also wrong, and she wasn’t going to let the accusation stand.
“Ask Twilight Sparkle or my big sis.” Applebloom gave a small smirk. “As for the rest of my skills… try me!”
Then she turned to Miss Cheerilee. “Sorry about going off like that, but I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, and hearing her act like that just set it off. I’ve worked hard for my skills, tried a lot of different things to see if they were my cutie-mark talent, then decided to continue them and learn them anyway.”
This was absolutely true, she was only omitting that she’d done so over a dozen or so time-loops.
“I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, and hearing it dismissed simply because I don’t have a, a… sticker, got me riled up. Which reminds me, we all know her cutie-mark is that diamond tiara she’s so proud of, but I don’t remember hearing what her actual talent is… Oh, and I’ve helped Applejack nurture and hoof pollinate plenty of apple tree seedlings, and my flanks still bare, so despite my name, my talent is not making apples bloom. So what about it, Diamond Tiara? This is a lesson about cutie-marks. What does yours mean?”
“I don't have to answer you!” Diamond Tiara exclaimed defensively.
“Nope, you don't. I just figured since your so all fired proud of that cutie-mark, your talent must be awesome. Strange you don't want anyone to know it; I'd have reckoned you'd shout it from the highest rooftops. I'm still looking for mine, despite what I said, and me and my friends are going to have fun doing it too.” She finished her little speech with a broad grin; it was true, too. Next up, surfing!
Diamond Tiara's face was furious, and Applebloom knew she'd won. This round, at least. She'd already made friends with the other Crusaders, so going to that cute-ceanera wasn't necessary, and having put Diamond Tiara in her place she intended to ignore her, possibly the worst possible thing she could do to an attention seeker like the pink earth pony.
Since Applebloom wasn't going to steal the Heart's Desire plant this time, there'd be no cutie-pox, and she thoroughly intended to get Sweetie Belle singing and Scootaloo dancing at the talent show. So the next time they'd cross horns wouldn't be until Family Appreciation day. She already had a plan for that, and the Gabby Gums episode, not to mention her cousin's visit. Yes, time-looping wasn't exactly fun, but it had compensations.
11.10 (Lord of Bones)
Hiding behind one of the potted plants along the hallway, Celestia watched and waited for her sis...no, for Nightmare Moon to take the bait. She didn't know what the dark alicorn was planning, but behind the pranks there had to be something… undoubtedly something nefarious. All the same, she'd gone to all the trouble of making her trap decidedly harmless, but more than potent enough to buy time for a follow-up binding spell.
So, she waited.
And, like Grogar himself, Nightmare Moon slipped out of the shadows and looked down at the trap. The elegant head looked to and fro, then bent down to eat the cake holding down the pressure plate.
Celestia bravely held back a sob as her prized cake; so prized that she could only have it once a year, was demolished by the moon princess. Still, it was for a good cause, and when the pressure plate was set off-
Nightmare Moon burped, and blushed. The empty plate vanished in a dark blue burst, leaving Nightmare Moon alone with nothing other than the crumbs around her muzzle and a conjured napkin.
And a conspicuously absent trap.
"Oh, come on!" snapped the Sun Princess. She sprung out of her hiding place and pushed the surprised night alicorn aside, before stomping on the plate to no effect. She struck it a few more times with her hoof, until she heard the 'click'. "Fina...oh, horseapples."
There was a decidedly uncouth 'SPLAT'. Nightmare Moon winced, and Celestia poked her head out of several hundred pounds' worth of cake batter and extra-thick whipped cream.
Stumbling and swearing, the Sun Princess tossed and turned in the mixture, before she saw Nightmare Moon's face; a face that was crinkled up in a smile so very Luna that it made Celestia's heart ache.
A silver-shod hoof bopped her playfully on the nose. "Beep beep," laughed Nightmare Moon, before zooming away in a burst of speed.