Cultural Artifacts

by Dan_s Comments

24)  Descending and Armed

Dan's Comments

Cultural Artifacts - Descending and Armed

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

Day 39

        Discord watched the Big Guy walk through the darkness, directly behind the human in the gray uniform. The human in gray carrying a machinegun. A quick grab and a jerk, and when the Big Guy released him, the machine gunner slid to the ground. Despite the darkness, and the trees, the Big Guy moved with purpose while others fumbled around. A second soldier in gray approached. He hissed something and walked warily as the Big Guy waited behind a tree, his rifle poised. The rifle butt lashed out, then the Big Guy reversed and the bayonet finished the man.

        The Big Guy shook himself and seemed to notice Discord and Tom watching. "That was how we did it," he admitted, looking at the dead soldiers with a bit of shame. "They would have wiped out my entire company. Over sixty years ago, I saved maybe 200 lives, why do I still feel guilty about it?"

        "Because you are decent," Tom said, "Because it wasn't a 'fair' fight."

        The Big Guy snorted at that.

        "Because you went on to have a wife, raise your kids," Tom continued.

        The scene shifted around them.

        "I do not want to be here," the Big Guy said before the image had even stabilized.

        "No choice," Discord said, "You've been stepping through it, you have to step through." Discord clawed through the barbed wire between the fence posts and advanced. "Besides, there's something here. Something you need to take care of."

        The Big Guy shouldered his rifle and looked at the buildings around him with an undisguised hatred. "I'm glad we burned this place to the ground. I just wish we'd locked up the guard and the locals inside before we started. Let them have the same chances as the poor beggars they sent here."

        Discord walked through the buildings. Corpsmen and others were dealing with the sick and the dying. He could feel the hatred radiating off the human. Soon, he thought then entered one of the barracks.

        "Here," Discord said and indicated the figure in the corner.

        The Big Guy stared at him a moment then walked into the darkened room. Discord braced himself for the explosion. Tom maneuvered to separated them if necessary.

        The Big Guy gasped and retreated a few steps. Then he turned and marched towards Discord, all the anger he had about this place was directed at the Draconequus. "What the Hell's the matter with you," the Big Guy said in eerily calm tones. He still had his rifle, loaded and with the bayonet fixed, even if it was slung. He had no reason to scream.

        Discord was equally controlled. "I'm immortal, so is Nightmare, not merely long-lived like the Alicorns. I don't want to see her destroyed. But that's exactly what's going to happen, unless she can be brought to heel somehow." He shrugged. "Like I was."

        The Big Guy stared at him in horror.

        "What, do you think I like understanding what loss is like?" Discord raged, "Knowing I could do something to save her, but realizing you'd destroy her the instant you met her?" He towered above the Big Guy and thundered, "Do you have any idea what regret is like for a being who is eternal? YOU did that to me. Now deal with the consequences, as I have to."

        Discord resumed a more rational size but paced nervously. "So I sent her here. The one place in all of Equestria that is guaranteed to evoke your pity. So yes, I sent her here. I broke her spirit and showed her the depth of human callousness, perfidy, and that for every devil, there's a saint. You have your rifle, and you're more 'real' here than she is. You hate what she's done, shoot her." He gestured at the cowering figure fearfully retreating deeper into the corner.

        The rifle came up, but it wasn't aimed at Nightmare.

        "That's why I brought her here," Discord said, "You shoot me, the rest of me will go on. And I accept that as the price of my actions."

        "Get out," the Big Guy said.

        Discord departed.

        Tom watched the man visibly struggle to calm himself down. Tom didn't move, didn't speak. He wanted Discord to be right, but had a sneaking suspicious Nightmare would queer the deal. I hope to all, that Nightmare keeps her big, fat mouth shut, he thought quietly.

        The rhythmic tap, tap, tapping stopped the Big Guy's pacing as he looked at the corner, where Nightmare cringed. The Big Guy pointed at Tom and indicated he should move to cover her. The Big Guy moved the bunks out of the way to open the area where Nightmare hid.

        "Come out," the Big Guy said, then squatted, slung his rifle and raised the pitch of his voice, "Come out, we won't hurt you."

        The creature that came out of the darkness was big, the size of a full-grown stallion with coloration that marked her as Nightmare as clearly as anything could. But the skittishness, head down, tail between her legs posture was subservience and hopelessness personified. Without raising her head, she stole a glance at Tom.

        "It's April 15th?" she asked as if dreading the answer.

        "It's April 15th. The 21st Army Group is liberating the camp. But you don't have to stay. I doubt lice or typhus is a problem for you," the Big Guy said extending a hand.

        Tom still had the HESH round loaded and ready. He tracked the Nightmare-dog as she came out of the shadows. Despite being a beautiful animal of dark cerulean with Persian blue highlights, she gave every indication of being a badly beaten stray. The faint tail wag caused her to look back at it with a bit of disgust. Cyan eyes looked worriedly into the Big Guy's, but he held his position. She eventually placed her head beside his leg. She froze when he gently scratched her behind the ears, and she cringed as he stood.

        "Let's go," he said.

        Nightmare, Tom thought as he followed, watching, The great power is broken, will you stay broken when you regain your powers. Or will the lessons you learned here stay with you?

        Once they were out of the camp and Discord had rejoined them, the Big Guy sat on the hood of a jeep and looked at the trio. "There's something you all need to understand, about me, and about humans in general. I apologize for the history lesson, but it's the quickest way."

        The scenes changed to a painting of a city in flames.

        "October 8, 1871 the city of Chicago was consumed by a wind driven fire that burned even buildings of stone to ashes." He pointed to a small building that looked like a castle's tower. "The water tower, the main pumping station, the only building in the path of the fire to survive did so because it was stone, and it was essentially being water-cooled as it pumped water to the many teams fighting the fire."

        The scene changed to a black and white photograph taken from the air of a city on fire.

        "May 14, 1940, the Nazis using aerial bombardment, duplicated this event in the city of Rotterdam. In the United States, the Army Chief of Staff directed the use of the most powerful computers of the time to discover how this could be done on purpose." A montage of cities aflame and the utter devastation that followed played as he explained. "As a result, nearly a dozen enemy cities were reduced to ashes and millions of workers killed or made homeless. During the time of that campaign, the Army oversaw the development of a bomb that allowed one plane to create a similar effect of incinerating an entire city."

        The picture was of a mushroom-shaped cloud, followed by another series of photos of the utter devastation.

        "After the unconditional surrender of the enemy, the Army Chief of Staff oversaw a plan to rebuild the enemy, to raise them up from where the war had brought them." Scenes now were of bustling cities, happy humans going about their work and play. "One man, George C. Marshall, oversaw arguably the most ruthless and destructive campaign in the history of humanity's long and bloody history, and the most generous peace in the history of Christian charity. That he kept both of these plans active in his mind, at the same time, and championed both with equal vigor indicates what one human can do."

        Neither Discord nor Nightmare looked pleased with the revelation. In the distance, the images of the devastation still stood, as if underscoring the rebuilding that images nearer showed. The contrast was striking and neither Nightmare nor Discord seemed able to take it all in. Eyes moved from image to image, trying and failing to compare their own power against what they saw so clearly displayed.

        The Big Guy wasn't finished, "What can several billion of them do? Any word in the language can be applied to the appropriate individual at nearly any time. Saint or sinner, monster, martyr or messiah. Some can apply equally to the same person at the same time," the Big Guy warned, "Discord, you stepped over the line. I can appreciate your motives, but there has to have been a better way to have accomplished your goal."

        "There wasn't," Discord said, he wouldn't look directly at the Big Guy, "While these are horrible." Images of cities buried under ice, their populace frozen in place in some instances appeared. "That's what the ponies do, that's what I had to compare with. Your people slew cities with fire, the ponies slew a continent with ice. Your people did this to break the enemy's will to fight, however hollow that was, it was attempting to end the war more quickly. The ponies refused to even acknowledge their part in the destruction. It wasn't destructiveness I was highlighting, it was that your people are calculating. They do without thinking, but they also do with motive and planning."

        "Not the wisest thing to point out while making me extremely angry," the Big Guy said.

        "True," Discord admitted, then examined his paws, "But for all the force of the blow, it will be to correct my thinking. To make me avoid that mistake in the future."

        "While Nightmare might not appreciate the political subtleties. The Marshall Plan had the effect of giving the Germans and Japanese exactly what they ostensibly started the wars for in the first place," Tom said, "A seat at the international table as equals, and even first among equals."

        "Is that what you're hoping for?" the Big Guy asked. "Twilight redeemed Luna, are you hoping for a place for redeeming Nightmare."

        "No," Discord said, "For redeeming myself."

        The Big Guy stared at the embarrassed Draconequus for a while.

        Rarity had been having the most amazing dream, about a princely stallion who was madly in love with her. Then he turned into Pinkie Pie. "Ahhhh!" she screamed as she clawed her way back to consciousness.

        "Quit fooling around, Rarity," Pinkie told her, "He'll be awake soon. We need to be ready."

        Rarity pulled the sleep mask from her eyes and blinked several times before she looked around. She saw no evidence of Pinkie. I closed the doors last night, she thought, I know I did. A particularly unpleasant ending to a pleasant dream. She put her sleep mask back over her eyes and settled back in.

        "Rarity!" Pinkie pulled the mask off. "No time for fooling around."

        "How do you know he's waking up?" Rarity asked, then watched Pinkie go through her 'doozy' dance. "That's a doozy."

        "I can't think of anything doozier," Pinkie admitted.

        Rarity sighed and climbed out of bed. Again, Pinkie was gone. "It was my plan after all. It's my own fault that the others supported it so enthusiastically." She looked around again, to avoid possibly stepping on Opal. "Coffee," she decided and headed downstairs.

        Not surprisingly, Celly, Woona, Johnnie Cake and Johnny Appleseed soon arrived. Although in an odd reverse, they were more help to Rarity than vice versa.

        Lyra arrived. "Bonbon headed over to the hospital to help Dinky and Pinky, Derpy went to get Fluttershy."

        "Sveti?" Rarity asked.

        Lyra shrugged, "I think she may be taking things too far," Lyra said.

        Rarity verified that what she'd made for Sveti was gone, including the package of silk roses she hadn't had during the fitting. "At least she's properly kitted out," Rarity admitted as the group headed for the hospital. The stares from the local Ponyvillians didn't bother Rarity one bit.

        The racks of tube-based electronics slowly heated up, the box marked 'consciousness' hadn't been switched on yet. The large room filled with the racks with only narrow corridors between them was already stifling.

        "Look," the Big Guy said to Discord, "I understand I'm not the latest, shiniest model, but this is insulting." He gestured at the huge mass of outmoded electronics.

        "Well, it actually is more a representation of the battering you've taken," Discord explained, "You 'pop' into consciousness, then couldn't hold it."

        "I thought those dreams where Trixie showed up were just that, dreams," the Big Guy replied.

        "Nope, you were conscious for a while," Discord said, "I wonder why she didn't tell the doctors."

        The Big Guy considered while Discord and Tom checked over the condition of the system.

        "Are you going to tell him or should I?" Discord asked Tom.

        "Tell me what?" the Big Guy asked.

        "That what happened was partly your fault," Tom said, "While your fear of Celestia is justified, if you'd beaten bloody the first one through the door, none of the rest would have happened. Ponies are usually cowards. If the first one through paid too high a price, the rest would have backed off. You keep playing 'nice' it encourages them to play less 'nice' with you. Now if you'd dug up that Diamond Dog's skull and put it on a post in your backyard, that also would have had the necessary effect."

        "Walking through the Everfree blasting Nistag's trap monsters doesn't count?" the Big Guy asked.

        "Not unless you dragged one of the corpses into town and dismantled it there. Ponies are like the Romans, they don't care about what the 3rd Legion is doing in Germania, they care about the pebble in their shoe," Tom said, "If you don't make it immediate to them, they aren't going to acknowledge it happened."

        "Terrific," the Big Guy answered, "I can risk getting fried, or should I just burn the place to the ground and leave?"

        "With you apparently in it," Tom said, "Unless you act, that's your best option. Otherwise, you're going to offend someone. Is what these people think of you really that important, or is the good you can do more important?"

        The Big Guy glanced at Nightmare, who looked up worriedly, and wagged her tail. She noticed the action and stared back at it.

        "Let's just say that's a mighty fine line you're asking me to walk," the Big Guy said, "And I'm not too sure it's a good idea to try. There's historical precedent that ignoring the details for the big picture has very bad effects."

        "Just pointing out that there are options you could have taken," Tom said, "And that you did your cost-benefit analysis at the time to lead you to the position you find yourself in. It didn't just happen to you, you played a part in it as well."

        "I'm well-aware of the part I played," the Big Guy reminded them.

        "Not, just all," Tom said, "Just some. Evidently your Cutie mark, and power was to appear as their most enticing stallion, and your friend added the part where what they really were got dredged up and put on display."

        "Speaking of that," the Big Guy said and looked at Nightmare.

        The tail stopped wagging, she cringed and backing into the corner.

        "Your coloration is evocative, as is your name. But some distance is needed," the Big Guy said, not looking at or closing in on Nightmare.

        "How so?" Nightmare asked.

        "The coloring, evokes Nightmare, and I don't think you'd like another run in with the Elements of Harmony. So, a bit of a disguise. Change it from cerulean to a lighter purple, with a maroon tail and a white collar."

        Nightmare seemed ready to protest, then cowered again. "So, they won't hurt me?"

        "While you desperately enjoyed your encounter with the Element," Tom said, "To more magical and spiritual beings, it is vastly less pleasant. Discord was able to detach our friend over there because he was being fragmented at the time."

        "Yes, and you should start answering to Hotaru. It means Butterfly, but it sounds enough like 'Nightmare Moon' that if someone calls you that, you can explain it away," the Big Guy said, then turned to Discord, "I assume she can speak Equestrian, and English?"

        "Oh course, just like me," Discord said, "But she can't write it."

        "Why would I need to learn to write?" Hotaru, nee Nightmare, asked.

        "Just lovely," the Big Guy said, and looked over the changes to Hotaru. "How do we get her out there?"

        "Swift enough kick," Discord offered.

        The Big Guy looked down into the pleading eyes of Hotaru.

        "Okay Discord, stand still I want to do this right," the Big Guy answered without looking away from Hotaru.

        "Okay, put her on the platform under the consciousness box, that's how we're sending you off too," Discord answered as he shied away from the Big Guy.

        The Big Guy stooped and carefully lifted the large dog, carrying her cautiously to the metal shelf under the 'consciousness' box. He made sure he didn't hit her on any of the racks metal sections and made sure her tail didn't get trapped. "Now what?" he asked as he stepped away.

        "That," Discord said and the dog was gone. "Now we wait for the rest of this to warm up. And time doesn't go at normal speed here. It's either faster or slower, and sometimes changes, never pausing at 'it's the same'."

        "Terrific," the Big Guy said, and took a deep breath to calm himself.

        Nurse Redheart noted the purple dog suddenly appearing in the corner of the room. The beast was as large as a full-grown stallion, but seemed remarkably tame at the same time. She rolled her eyes. "Let me guess, you're Nightmare Moon reformed and changed to his bodyguard."

        She missed the dog's jaw drop as she saw to her patient. Cleaning him up and checking on his vitals. "And ponies wonder why we're scared of him. I'm getting to the point nothing about him would surprise me," she stopped and considered before resuming, "Given that, I'd better brush up on the artificial insemination techniques." She let the stunned animal alone in the room after alerting the orderlies. She noted that they received a rather fearsome growl when they approached the dog or the Big Guy. The smarter one simply pulled up a chair in the opposite corner, sat down and waited.

        Dinky watched him move, acting more like he did when awakening from a sleep than he had the last few times she'd seen him. He was lying so still before, she thought as she pronked happily, she smiled as she saw she wasn't alone in being excited and intent on his movements. Everyone was, even the nurse and the big dog they said was his. That's going to take some explaining, she thought as she waited with less and less patience and more and more excitement.

        Woona in her purple and maroon, and Celly in her green and pink stood together near the back. Rarity in her party dress of black and garnet, Lyra in blue and yellow and Bonbon in matching blue and green stood together behind him. Pinkie in pink dress and 'carrot ears' hat and Fluttershy with her party dress and pearls stood at the foot of the bed. Facing him, Jonathan in blue on blue and Johnnie in red with orange, stood beside Dinky and Derpy, with Sveti in the jet black suit and tall, cylindrical hat on the other side.

        I like what Rarity did with the ideas from the party dresses, Dinky thought, Momma's blue with red makes her look like a real hero, like Mare-Do-Well. And my purple and red, well I look like her sidekick, but that's okay. She gasped as he opened his eyes and then rubbed them one handed. He looked at the bound arm with the IVs in it and glared at it.

        They all held their breath, waiting for him to focus on them. The raised eyebrow and confused half-smile was the signal. Everypony raised a left foreleg and pointed it at the Big Guy.

        "Attacking our friend is gauche," Rarity said. Others used their own term. Dinky used 'mean.' "But we shall protect you."

        The Big Guy snorted, and started to laugh at the display. The ponies smiled. But Dinky watched, Shining Armor's warning rang in her head, Miss Rarity wanted to put something big in there. Something happy and silly. We'll have to deal with the slosh.

        She hated seeing it, but she and her mama were ready. The Big Guy's laughter and smile seemed to crack, as if the machinery making it had failed. The smile froze and the tears formed. He seemed to sense this would disturb the ponies if they saw it, so he covered his face. But he couldn't stop, and curled into a ball and began to sob and laugh at the same time.

        Her mama pulled the side rail of the bed down and wrapped her hooves and wings around him while he cried. "It's all right, it's all right," she soothed, "We're here. We're here."

        Dinky saw that Pinkie was more distraught than the others. She nudged her and pushed her outside the hospital room as Celly and Woona moved up to add their wings and words.

        "But, what happened?" Pinkie asked, near tears herself at the odd reaction. Even her hair was trembling.

        "Captain Armor told me that he's got so much emotion inside him, from when they hurt him, it filled him up with it, and Miss Rarity specifically tried to put something new in there, some of the bad stuff sloshed out. He isn't sad because we made him sad. He's sad because that's what splashed out."

        Pinkie nodded, not completely convinced, but thinking deeply.

        "Let's go back inside," Dinky said, "I think we all need to see him."

        "If we can for the covering of ponies," Pinkie said in better spirits.

        He was still crying. Mama, Celly and Woona were still hugging him. The others were nuzzling his free hand or the arm still bound to the bed to support the tubes running to needles in his arm. Only Bonbon and Sveti weren't, they were staring at the very large, pretty dog cowering in the corner. The dog looked from one impassive face to the other and tentatively wagged her tail.

        "She looks like Woona's monster mare," Dinky pointed out as she looked at the dog, "She almost looks big enough for the Big Guy to ride."

        I swear the dog looked shocked when I suggested it, Dinky thought.

        Then the nurse came in. "I'm afraid I'll need you all to clear out so we can get him ready to go home," the nurse said, "And somebody needs to take that dog out of here."

        "I will," Dinky said, "She seems like what he needs." Dinky turned to the big dog. "Come on, you can come with us and check out the Big Guy's house." Dinky spotted the collar and applied a little telekinesis. "Come on, we won't hurt you. He'll like having a dog around the house."

        The massive creature stood and allowed Dinky to guide her out of the room. Outside the door she stopped and steadfastly refused to move any farther. Even a push from Bonbon was ignored, the dog seemed rooted to a spot where she could watch the nurse tending to the Big Guy.

        The entire collection waited in the hallway for the nurse to make the Big Guy ready to travel.

        Dinky saw how agitated the dog was. "It's okay, they won't hurt him," she told the huge dog, and petted her with her hoof. "You'll see. Nurse Redheart has known him since he came here. When I got hurt, that's who he took me to see." Dinky cocked her head a bit. "She did scream a bit when he left, but then everybody at the hospital except me and Dinky Doo did." Dinky thought it was strange the way the dog seemed to listen to her.

        It was a very long, few minutes, but the Big Guy came out in a wheelchair. The dog leapt forward and immediately took up position on the right. The Big Guy laid his hand on her head and they proceeded out of the hospital. He spoke quietly to the dog, who for all her size and power, seemed a very timid animal, until she perceived a threat to him.

        "I think that lady would eat a hydra who looked at him wrong," Rarity said as she examined the dog, who seemed very nervous at the attention, until the Big Guy began scratching behind her ears. The dog relaxed in a nearly comical manner.

        "Uh, how are we going to get him home?" Derpy asked, "Carry him on our backs?"

        "Magic carpet," Lyra said as Celly undid the bow from her costume and unfolded it. It wasn't much bigger than a large throw rug, but it was large enough he could easily sit on it. Celly grinned as he floated alongside her.

        "Why didn't you tell me?" Twilight shouted to the group as she charged towards them.

        Dinky noted the Big Guy tapped Celly and gestured for her to continue. As politely as she could, Dinky and her momma placed themselves between Twilight and the Big Guy. The dog dropped back to add to the length of their line.

        "Momma, I think that dog is as smart as Winona, or smarter," Dinky said.

        Her momma nodded.

        "Why Twilight," Rarity said, "I didn't think I should pry you away from your studies." She chuckled. "After all, with that translation page, you have that entire art book to translate."

        "I finished that last night," Twilight said, and tried to get around Rarity, only to have the other mare step nonchalantly in her way.

        "Now Twilight, then you should be getting some rest, dear. After all, a lady must make a good impression."

        "Rarity," Twilight chuckled and tried to sidestep Rarity again, only to find Lyra extending the block, and the two Apples extending it the other way. "There's no time for this."

        "Uh, Twilight," Fluttershy said and smiled, "I think you should make time."

        Rarity nearly heard the Stare charging in Fluttershy's tone. Twilight's folded back ears told her that the scholar had heard it too.

        "The books aren't going anywhere," Fluttershy said, "After all, there's all those medical books on his current condition that you could read first."

        "Okay," Twilight said as she backed away from the group and sidestepped towards the hospital entrance. The line adjusted to stay between Twilight and the Big Guy.

        Woona stepped up in front of Fluttershy and Rarity and gave a formal, if adorable bow. Fluttershy blushed at the compliment.

        "Very well, handled," Rarity said, "I think that should give him a bit of time to stabilize, before dealing with 'determined to know' Twilight."

        Rarity suddenly stared at Pinkie Pie. "Are you all right?"

        "Hmm," Pinkie asked as she looked up. On anypony else, the expression would have been pensive. It was utterly alien on Pinkie. "I realized that I could solve a lot of the problems. But it might cause some complications. So I was thinking about socks."

        "Socks?" Rarity asked, "Whatever for?"

        "Well, Luna asked for a bit and bridle. I was thinking who might need socks," Pinkie said, then shrugged, "I also have some - other things to work on. Now that he's back." Pinkie wandered off, walking and seemingly deep in thought.

        "Socks?" Bonbon said.

        "That's what she said," Rarity offered. She sighed. "I think we all have things we need to do. We can let Celly and Derpy get him settled. The door locks, so they can limit the people bothering him."

        The group dispersed. The Apples heading back to the house to change to work clothes presumably. Lyra and Bonbon to their home to do the same. Parity looked around for Sveti, then realized the griffon might be taking her costumed role a little too seriously. Rarity walked back to her boutique to open for business. Socks? Rarity considered, What in Celestia's name is Pinkie thinking of? I have some very nice ones in stock, and could order more, but what is she thinking of? Joining his herd? They didn't seem to get on very well.

        It took Rarity most of the way back to her boutique to realize that Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie had been following her the entire time. "Oh, I'm dreadfully sorry," Rarity apologized, "If I had realized you were there, I wouldn't have drifted off into my own world."

        "It's okay, I was kind of drifting myself," Fluttershy admitted, then blushed, "What did you think of him? When he was an alicorn, I mean?"

        "He was." Rarity took a deep breath. "Very striking." She saw both Pinkie and Fluttershy nodding. "You cuddled with him," Rarity pointed out, "How was that?" She gave a saucy wink.

        Fluttershy concentrated on rubbing her forehooves together for a while before speaking, "It was, nice. I told him he could . . . " the rest was lost in unintelligible squeaks and Fluttershy blushing.

        "A true gentleman wouldn't take such advantage of a lady," Rarity told her, "And I nearly told him the same. It was quite embarrassing to lose oneself so completely and utterly."

        "So, if he became an alicorn again, would you, uh, I mean," Fluttershy stammered, then glanced back and flipped her tail up, and immediate brought it down. She looked fearfully at Rarity. Pinkie Pie was likewise deep in thought.

        "I would be tempted," Rarity admitted.

        "No Poison Joak," Pinkie said sternly, "We aren't going through that again."

        "NO," Fluttershy nearly shouted. "It just that, he has the it," she said and gestured to her biceps. "So he could change into one, for real, if he wanted."

        The Alicorn Amulet, Rarity realized, Yes, he could.

        "I think he's not interested in mares," Pinkie said, shocking both Rarity and Fluttershy out of their considerations. "I mean, he's got Celly, Lyra and Derpy are both nice, Luna is gorgeous, and phah, nothing. If what Celestia said was true, he's only interested in mares as friends, and you'd have to be a human female to get that kind of attention."

        "While they are interesting," Rarity admitted, "I wouldn't want to be one." She noted both Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie were deep in thought. "You aren't considering, that? Please tell me you aren't."

        "Just thinking," Fluttershy said, "I wouldn't want to give up my wings. But a nice stallion, that would be nice."

        Oh Fluttershy, if you only knew, Rarity thought.

        "I ruined any chance I had when I threw that party in his house," Pinkie said, "But I was thinking how Derpy could get the foals she wants. Other than what he suggested, how they breed horses I mean."

        Rarity nodded.

        They floated him in the door, but rather than heading for the bedroom, he caught the corner of the hallway and pointed to the recliners that looked at the cinema machine's screen, and also looked out the French doors to the cavern that contained the house. Once he was settled, he seemed to relax. The ponies filed away, but the dog remained behind. Woona left her sister working on some of the scientific books in the office and returned to the living room.

        For a while she watched him idly scratching behind the dog's ears, until he drifted off.

        She caught the dog's attention and signaled her to follow her outside. Sveti, still in her dark suit and tall hat stepped out of the shadows to remain as a close guard. Once the French doors were closed, Woona confronted her. "I recognize Nightmare when I see her. So you are this planet's Nightmare?"

        The dog looked at her fearfully, wagged her tail nervously, and whined once, then face pawed.

        "You really are a dog aren't you," Woona said, trying to keep from laughing.

        "And what are you?" the dog asked, "Ah, he named me Hotaru by the way. I don't understand why being named for an alien butterfly is so funny, but they both think it's hilarious."

        "You speak both Equestrian and English?" Woona asked.

        "When I bother to speak at all, yes," Hotaru answered.

        "Then I want to know something, something even my contact with Nightmare couldn't answer. What was the point?" Woona asked.

        Hotaru stared at her. Her disdain for the conversation obvious.

        "What would you have done, after you achieved everlasting night?" Woona asked, "When Nightmare Moon and Sombra finally wrenched control of the sun and the moon from Celestia and the Elements, they turned on each other, setting the planet on fire to drive off the Windingos and basically ending all life on the planet. What was the point? Sombra wanted rulership, that I could understand. Nightmare Moon wanted eternal night, but everything would have died."

        "That is the point," Hotaru said.

        "So, walking around on a dead, frozen-over planet, with the moon shining overhead was the point?" Woona asked.

        Hotaru nodded, then stopped.

        Woona could practically hear the long-unused, mental gears creaking and groaning as they turned. "Wouldn't letting the Windingos win in the Classical period have pretty much the same effect. So, you would have hated them, feeding them and letting them survive while everything else died, and ruled over a giant ice cube. Moving to the lost pony lands would seem to have the same effect. A few dozen feet down in the ice would be total darkness. Or would you want something to boss around?" She could almost see the agony of Hotaru nee Nightmare's mental processes.

        "Why should I care about what happens to lesser beings? Let them all die!" Hotaru insisted.

        "I was asking about what would happen to you," Woona replied, "What would you do, after you'd accomplished your goal? What was your plan for after you established eternal night?"

        "To rule, of course," Hotaru replied.

        "With everything dead, except possibly the Windingos and the Seekers, rule over whom?" Woona asked.

        I'm not doing this to torture her, I'm not doing this to torture her, Woona thought, then enjoyed the absolutely horrified expression on the dog's face as Hotaru tried to reason through the simple question. The heck I'm not, I'm not doing this just to torture her.

        "Back so soon?" Discord asked worriedly.

        "Asleep," the Big Guy explained, "I just needed to check on something and tell you both something I need you to think about."

        "Certainly," Tom offered.

        "You, and everyone else, mistakenly thinks I was off doing nothing in the period I was out of contact. I was . . . do you know of the legend of the dreaming god. That reality is merely the dreams of something greater, and when it wakes, all of this will disappear?" the Big Guy asked, then dove to the next point, "Only it isn't the dreams of one, but the dreams of thousands, millions, overlapping, conflicting, and ever-changing because of this. The ultimate chaos because there are ten thousand different 'orders' vying for supremacy and each one cannot concentrate on the totality of their belief at any one time. Yet, if one were to overwhelm the others, the world would become a single crystal, as perfect and consistent as the mind who created it, which may not be much of either at all."

        "I - see," Discord said, glancing nervously at Tom.

        "Also as the minds directing it drift away, to other worlds, other lands that hold their attention, how does that affect us here?" the Big Guy said as he stared at his hand, opening it, closing it, turning it over and repeating the process, "I just wanted to know what legends, stories, myths and hidden history of Equestria you two knew about on that subject. Say that's the reason why the Elements worked for two, then one, then had to be six. Or how the unicorns learned they had to control the sun and the moon, who taught them they even had control over them. Didn't they operate on their own originally? It's just something I need to clear up."

        "I'm certain we can brainstorm a bit on that," Tom said when Discord continued staring into the middle distance.

        "Thanks," the Big Guy departed.

        "What are you doing?" Tom asked in irritation.

        "Wondering if I can lock the door to the sanctum and turn on all the lights," Discord answered.

        "I'll help," Tom replied.

        For the first couple minutes, it had been fun. Then it became pathetic. "Hotaru," Woona said to the Nightmare turned dog, "That's why Discord changed you. You don't know what you'd do after that, do you?"

        "Of course I do," Hotaru shot back. "It's just that I never achieve my goal, so I never had to refine my plans."

        "And those half-worked out plans were?" Woona asked, again reducing her former nemesis to indecisiveness. "Discord broke and remade you so you wouldn't destroy yourself," Woona told her, "Because the thing you can't face is with no one else to turn on, you'd turn on yourself."

        "That's not true," Hotaru insisted.

        "I was in Nightmare Moon's head for a millennium, and never found anything except hatred for everything and everyone, including herself. Face it, Discord saved your life, and all he demanded was you swallow your pride and depend on another to direct you at targets."

        Hotaru tried to stand to tower over the little pony, but Woona took on the master's posture, and Hotaru couldn't sustain the challenge.

        "He also is using you to put a leash on the Big Guy. Think, whatever so terrified you in the Big Guy's mind, he could easily release on Equestria. But he has to look after your safety, so he won't."

        "What do you mean 'look after my safety'?" Hotaru replied in imperious tones, "I am to guard . . . him."

        "And you think he won't take responsibility for you?" Woona asked, and laughed, "That's the leash, and it goes both ways. He keeps Celestia and Luna from blasting you, and you deal with more mundane threats. Welcome to symbiosis." Woona nearly laughed at Hotaru's horrified expression.

        "Come on, you look like you could use some tea," Woona said and led the appalled dog alongside her back into the house.

        He was awake, and looked at her suspiciously. Sveti stood back a ways and just watched.

        "Just checking on Discord's work," Woona told him, "He was very thorough. We're done."

        His suspicious expression didn't relax a bit as Woona got some tea and filled a soup mug for Hotaru.

        The dog tentatively lapped at the tea with milk and sugar.

        Woona heard his chuckle, then he stood, stretched and headed for the bedroom. Woona tried desperately not to laugh as there was a skittering of claws paws on the wood floor as Hotaru raced after him and fell in formation with him. Sveti covered her beak with both hands to stifle her laughter.

        Once they were safely out of earshot, Woona walked behind the stove and cabinets, before she fell over laughing.

        Glory smiled as she and Holly Hock entered the home. They looked at the bookshelves that seemed to draw everypony's eyes the first time they entered. "I thought he couldn't fly," Holly Hock said.

        "There's a ladder," Glory said, as they headed in. "There's another on the other side of the wall."

        "Is there a cookbook in there?" Holly Hock asked as she stared at it with wide eyes.

        "No," Lyra said, "The cookbooks are over there." She pointed to the shelves at the end of the dining room. Bonbon sat at the dining room table with one of the books open and taking notes.

        "How's she dealing with all the recipes for, ulp, meat?" Glory asked.

        Lyra rolled her eyes. "I don't think she's aware there's any recipes in there except for candy. And she calls Twilight obsessive."

        Glory and Holly chuckled at that. As they walked in towards the bedroom, they saw Celly, Dinky and Derpy cooking something in the kitchen.

        The bedroom was also an example of large scale. The ceiling high enough a pegasus could flutter around without hitting the walls or ceiling. The Big Guy was seemingly asleep in the bed. The large dog stood and stared at them as they entered. A word from the Big Guy calmed the animal. Glory stayed where she was as Holly Hock set down the meal they had brought, a simple tomato soup. They withdrew, feeling his eyes track them as they left the room.

        "Okay, now we see how he likes the recipe," Glory said.

        "It's a simple mix, there should be no problem," Holly Hock replied.

        Neither heard the bedroom door open. The first clue they had he was there, was when the bowl of soup flew over their heads and shattered against the wall. As they cringed, the door quietly closed. Glory and Holly Hock stood there unmoving for a little while. They unwound enough to glance from the door, to the spreading stain on the wall and floor.

        Lyra walked into the corridor. She looked at them, then at the stain on the wall and the carpet. "At least he didn't throw it at you," she said.

        Glory looked back at the door. "I don't think that we have a decent recipe."

        "Let's let you actually taste some of his food," Lyra said, "Come on."

        The ponies in the home looked at them with a mixture of worry and irritation. Jonathan and Johnnie glared at them as they walked into the hall with a bucket of hot soapy water and several scrub brushes.

        The smell in the kitchen was rather bland, mushrooms and some seasonings. Celly stirred it placidly. Dinky stared at them as if they were idiots.

        "Try this," the little unicorn said, levitating a spoon to Holly Hock.

        The chef tasted the soup. Her face screwed up as she moved the soup around in her mouth.

        "Trouble?" Glory asked.

        Holly Hock swallowed. "It's bland, but not tasteless. It's like . . . ," Holly Hock said as she searched for the words.

        "It came out of a can," Dinky told them, and hooved over the empty red and white can with the gold medallion at the interface of the two halves.

        "That's kind of pretty," Glory said.

        Holly Hock turned the can around in her hooves. "I wonder if this has a list of ingredients?" she said.

        Bonbon had entered the kitchen and peered at the can. "That's the list of ingredients." She pointed. "I recognize the word, that's 'water'. It's in a lot of the recipes I've been researching. It makes sense for a can of mushroom gel that makes soup."

        Holly hock blew out a breath. "So, what do we do now?"

        "Figure out how he actually seasons his food. It might have been too spicy," Glory said, "You said this stuff is bland, but all these ponies like it."

        "It's not bland, it's just gentle," Dinky said defensively. "I like it."

        "I think what she's saying is the flavors are delicate, but they're also complex. So they aren't the same as bland," Bonbon said. "I looked at a simple candy recipe. It has five seasonings in it. That's for home cooking for a few pounds of candy. A commercial product might have two or three times that many."

        "Something to think about," Holly Hock said and looked at the can, "Can I take this with me?"

        "Sure," Derpy said, "You'll probably have to fight Twilight about it. She ambushed me when I was delivering mail. She found out he's been throwing stuff away that had writing on it. She wants all of it."

        "I'll deal with Twilight," Glory said, "Thanks."

        The pair walked towards the front door. Woona and the Apples had removed the stains and were not happy about it. The pair left through the front door.

        Lyra watched them leave and shook her head. "Do you think they'll listen this time?" she called back to the others after she'd closed the door.

        "I think getting their work thrown in their face probably got their attention," Bonbon said, hard at work again.

        "Don't steal everything all at once," Derpy teased.

        Bonbon frowned at that. "I want to learn his recipes, so I don't make the same mistake they did," Bonbon said, "Hack from Canterlot probably thinks carrots and cabbage are best pickled with lye. Luteslaw!" Bonbon shuddered. "I swear they tell you it's high-class, then serve it to rubes to see how fast they puke."

        Lyra had scarcely turned around when there was a knock on the door. Lyra opened it. "Trixie?" she asked as she let the pony in, "I thought you were in Dodge Junction."

        "I've been checking up on him," the show pony said, and looked around worriedly, "How is he?"

        "He just threw some food at the local restauranteurs," Bonbon said, looked over at Derpy as the mailmare slid a postcard onto the page of the cookbook. It showed a picture of Trixie, and gave her itinerary for the next weeks. Bonbon glanced at Derpy, and nodded back to where Celly was cooking.

        Derpy nodded and collected the postcard.

        "So, how's the tour going?" Bonbon asked as she dropped to the floor and approached. Woona was sitting nonchalantly at the entrance to the hallway. As nonchalantly as a dragon watching someone approaching his hoard. Trixie noted the sudden change in atmosphere.

        Celly and Derpy walked in from the living room, all smiles, but Trixie picked up on their cues as well. She looked from pony to pony. "What's going on?"

        "We had a slight problem," Bonbon said.

        "I heard," Trixie said and seemed to relax, "That's why I showed up in his room, after visiting hours."

        "Huh?" Derpy asked, "How'd you do that? Dodge Junction's a good distance even by train."

        Trixie tensed up again. She looked at the nervous to suspicious faces. She suddenly looked at her hooves and blushed. "I, I, I wanted," she stammered, then whispered, "I couldn't stand the thought of him being alone." She stood up suddenly and confronted Bonbon. "All right, I love him, is that what you want to drag out of me? I fell for the alien." Tears formed. "He was nice to me, when he had no reason to be. He figured out what my dreams were, and he helped me get them." She looked defiantly at Bonbon. "Why shouldn't I want to be with him when nopony was there for him in the dark of the night?"

        "Easy," Derpy said, "Sorry, things have been, tense lately."

        "Not so fast," Lyra said, "Your confession still leaves how did you get here? It's too far to take the train, and a sky chariot would have been seen."

        Trixie backed into the corner, her hooves raising and lowering in nervous, little mincing movements. She sighed and explained, "I love him. And this place is very strongly attached to him. I love my wagon, and he's strongly attached to it, and it to me." She raised her head. "That makes it a lot easier to go from one to the other. I couldn't teleport across the room like Sparkle. But between those two foci, I can just manage it."

        Everyone looked at Lyra, who was considering. "That's usually limited to, oh, we are sorry," Lyra exclaimed.

        "Limited to what?" Derpy asked before Bonbon could demand the same.

        "Husband and wife," Lyra said. She bowed her head. "Sorry Trixie. Like she said, things have been kind of tense around here."

        "I remember the 'Monster Go Home' signs," Trixie said, "I just never thought it would go this far, or I wouldn't have left."

        "If you'd been here, you would have been part of the problem," Bonbon grumped. "Sorry. We failed, evidently your little appearances did him a world of good. It might be good to go see him again."

        "Wait!" Dinky called from the kitchen. "Let's not all barge in a half-dozen times. Wait a bit, and the soup will be ready to take in. That way we disturb him just once."

        "Okay," Trixie said and grinned, "You heard the boss."

        "I'd like to know why you haven't kept us up to date on your triumphs," Derpy said as she led Trixie to the dining room table.

        "I've been too busy working," Trixie said, "A regular show, and matinees. It's exhausting. I originally had a day or two between towns that I could have used to write letters, but the play dates have been extended to let more ponies goggle at the Great and Powerful Trixie! The cost of success."

        The ponies giggled at that. After a few more moments, Dinky had assembled the tray to take in to the Big Guy.

        "Ready?" Dinky asked.

        "Let's go," Trixie said and gestured for Dinky to go first. She watched the filly hold up the tray with her horn magic. "You've been practicing."

        "Uhh," Dinky said as the tray floated ahead of her. "He's got a dog now," Dinky said, "But you'll like her. Her name's Hotaru. It means 'Butterfly'. Why they couldn't just call her Butterfly, I don't know."

        "Ponies do weird things," Trixie said as they walked down the hallway.

        "Discord and the Big Guy named her," Dinky said.

        "They're worse," Trixie said. The closing of the bedroom door cut off the rest of the conversation.

        Celly put the postcard in front of Bonbon and stared at it.

        Bonbon smirked and pointed at Woona. "She's Princess Luna, she took Trixie's form because that's the one pony who'd be universally safe," Bonbon explained, while Lyra wrote it down, "So she raises the moon, comes here for a couple of hours, as Trixie, and cuddles with him. Then back to Canterlot. There's a door to her quarters, it's easy."

        Lyra hooved over the paper. Celly and Woona read and nodded.

        "I'm not going to spoil the illusion," Bonbon said, "And nobody else should either. We'll brief Sveti when she comes back."

        "Agreed," Derpy said, "He needs safe ponies. Dinky, Woona and Trixie are the only ones he knows."

        "He's not in the bed," Dinky said with alarm.

        "Keep the tray steady," Trixie said. "This way." Trixie pushed open the door to the bathroom, and was suddenly facing a dog the size of a stallion. Hotaru seemed to be wondering if she could eat Trixie, or just maul her a little.

        "It's okay Hotaru," Dinky told her, "Trixie's a friend. Hold out your hoof, and let her smell it."

        "I'll want it back afterwards," Trixie said, her voice trembling as she jerkily raised her hoof over her head.

        Hotaru sniffed it, then sniffed the bowl, before backing up to clear the doorway. She whined a little and looked at the door leading to the walk-in closet.

        "Why would he be in there?" Dinky whispered.

        "Most secure place in the house," Trixie said as they walked forward. A small witch light formed. Not enough to damage Hotaru's night sight, but enough for them to see the door knob.

        Inside, he was curled up on the floor facing the wall, several blankets partial unfolded covered him. Dinky looked worriedly at Trixie and Hotaru, who seemed as stunned as she was. Dinky set the food on the bathroom counter and carefully unfolded and rearranged the blankets from his haphazard job to cover him better. She curled up around his feet, and waved for Trixie to snuggle up next to him.

        Trixie waited until Hotaru curled up outside the closet before she closed the door.

        I won't cry, I won't cry, Dinky thought silently as he shivered, then slowly seemed to relax at their presence.

Day 40

        Dinky felt awful. He'd woken enough to eat something, long after it had gone cold. Then he'd immediately gone back to sleep. The others had collected on the bed, but Dinky had stayed with him when Trixie left. Just she and Hotaru had been there when the nightmares started. Nothing I said or did kept them away, she thought unhappily, But I was there for him. That's what Captain Armor said was important. She sighed and considered all of what happened. I guess I shouldn't expect him to just be back to normal. When Discord attacked Ponyville, it was a while before everyone got back to normal, she thought and stifled a chuckle, Twilight went crazy after everything was normal for a while.

        "Well, if it -" Diamond froze in midsentence as Dinky glared at her, then slowly smiled. The 'queen bee' squealed and raced off towards the school with Silver Spoon in tow.

        Dinky smiled happily at that. I don't need her attitude today, or ever, she thought as she walked.

        The Crusaders were there, still searching for their Cutie Marks.

        "How is he?" Sweetie Belle asked, "And how are you?"

        "I wish I could get my teeth on the problem, and drag it out where everypony could deal with it," Dinky admitted, "I hate the idea that he's helpless."

        "Have you talked to the counselors at the clinic?" Applebloom said.

        "They're busy translating the medical books he had," Dinky said, "I think if he gets better, I'll feel better."

        "Y'all can't help him if you get run down," Applebloom said, she glanced to see that Diamond was well out of range, "Johnnie and Applejack have been talking a lot. I think Applejack feels jist awful about what happened."

        "Everypony feels awful about it," Dinky said quietly, then looked at Diamond, "Everypony with a heart. But I really want it fixed, rather than people feeling bad about it. He cried over soup, what sense does that make?"

        "Maybe he was happy you kept with him," Scootaloo offered.

        "I know what!" Applebloom said happily.

        "No," Dinky said automatically.

        "You haven't heard what I was going to say," Applebloom countered.

        "Two words: tree sap," Dinky replied, "I don't need him stuck to the ceiling as well as all his other problems. We're trying to make him feel safe. That's not a word your crusading makes me think of."

        "Just trying to help," Sweetie Belle said.

        "Thank you, but we have to help to help," Dinky said, "We know the problem. But the obvious solutions won't work. There aren't ponies who could directly help him. Woona and Celly are getting trained, but that's days away."

        "What about magic?" Applebloom said.

        "You mean like what Celestia did when Twilight really started going crazy?" Dinky said, "She's the best magician we have, and if Twilight went crazy and Celestia couldn't really fix her, I don't think you can magic somebody's brain healthy. I mean, weekly means once a week. She had until Friday, and she still went crazy."

        The Crusaders nodded, then the bell rang and they raced inside the school house.

        Hotaru wasn't sure if she should be glad, or offended at being put on a leash and walked. She was glad to do things this body required, but the idea of being tethered to a pony bothered her. Worse, unlike the fool holding the leash, I actually understand the drivel these ponies are spouting, Hotaru thought as Jonathan led her on the shopping trip with his wife.

        Johnnie, despite not speaking the language, seemed to have no problem getting the best of most of the Ponyville merchants.

        If I hear another pony call me a 'puppy' I shall certainly scream, Hotaru thought quietly as she fumed. She also noted the small group of ponies who were following at a short distance. I should approve of their intolerance and hatred, she considered, then thought again, I should make it clear it should be directed elsewhere. She stopped and jerked on the leash, forcing Jonathan to turn and confront the group he'd been patently ignoring. Neither group was pleased by having the veil swept aside.

        Hotaru sat down, every inch the happy dog, even to the tongue lolling out of her mouth. She began visualizing the ponies advancing, and simply to defend her charges, crushing their throats as they sought to harm the Apples.

        Discord is right, she was thunderstruck, It is more satisfying using their own stupidity and selfishness against them! Her grin widened and kept broadening of its own accord. How could I have I have denied myself this for so long? No, it's right here! And as the Big Guy's pet, they will come to me without me having to do anything! It's so . . . what are they running away for?

        The ponies had abruptly started screaming, dropped the axe handles and other lumber they'd been concealing and fled. The other ponies, save the Apples, seemed to be more than a little shell shocked themselves.

        Damn, overplayed it, Hotaru thought, But, their fear is delicious. She picked up one of the larger chucks of wood, and with nearly every eye in the market on her, sat, tail wagging, and slowly bit clean through it. The only sound to be heard was the two sections of the heavy pole falling to the ground. Then she spit out the remaining piece. She began walking, tugging on the leash to indicate the Apples should continue their shopping.

        The looks of half-hidden fear at the oh-so friendly, happy dog raised her spirits. Yes, this is fun, Hotaru thought, Not what reducing the world to darkness would have been, but more enjoyable than disembodied fuming. Hmm, and the sun doesn't hurt at all. Maybe there is something to this.

        Applejack watched her kinfolk continue with their shopping and dog walking. She went out to retrieve the fence post that was nearly as big around as her foreleg. "Bit splintery, but a saw wouldn't do much better," she said barely aloud. "I think if Discord had a hand in getting the Big Guy that dog, he was not fooling around."

        "Yup," Big Mac said as he looked over Applejack's shoulder at the timber, and ran a hoof over the cloven face.

        "He just nibbled a little bit," Dinky said as she returned the mostly uneaten meal to the kitchen. She smiled at the hug she had gotten, brief as it had been. "Maybe we make a smaller portion and if he eats all that, take more."

        "Maybe," Derpy said and looked at the equally shell-shocked pair of mini-Diarchs. "They had a hard day too."

        The two alicorns had eaten some of their food, but all in all they had been just staring straight ahead.

        "I guess translating those books is hard work," Dinky said.

        Derpy nodded. "I guess it is." She began clearing the dishes. Celly put her hooves on the edge of her plate, and started making a more determined effort to eat what was before her. Woona did the same.

        "Can I take Hotaru out for a walk?" Dinky asked happily.

        "Yes, but take a few bags to clean up after her," Derpy called from the kitchen as she put the dishes in the machine.

        Dinky smiled at that. I never understood why people called momma clumsy. She was always so careful at home, or when she was delivering mail, the little unicorn thought, That means here is 'home' too.

        As soon as she had the leash off the peg it hung by, Hotaru was there with her tail wagging. For some reason, this was always followed by a look of utter shock and chagrin, and Hotaru looking at her tail as if it had betrayed her. Then the dog seemed to get over it and return to the expectant look.

        Dinky let the dog go through the cycle she'd seen a half-dozen times, and clipped the leash on her. Then she opened the door. In the hall way, Trixie had a hoof raised to knock.

        "He didn't eat much," Dinky said, "Maybe he'll get hungry again later. Momma, Trixie's here."

        "It's not food he's hungry for. When you get back, you can snuggle on his feet," Trixie said and nuzzled Dinky, before heading down the hall.

        Dinky led Hotaru down the corridor and out to Ponyville. The dog seemed to want to pull her along, and it took a surprising effort to keep the dog under control. The dog would dash forward, then take a huge amount of time sniffing at one spot, then dash off to the next. Or try to as Dinky slowed her down to a fast walk the filly could barely keep up with. Soon they were standing under a tree. This time rather than sniffing, Hotaru was looking up, and Dinky swore, laughing.

        "Uh, hi Dinky," Applebloom said, "Can you help us?"

        Applebloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo had managed to get themselves, several bolts of cloth, quite a lot of rope, and a picture frame, all tangled together in the tree, and most predictably, covered in tree sap.

        And they wonder why I don't want to join, Dinky thought as she facehooved.

        "I can get Rarity or Applejack," Dinky offered.

        "NO!" came the unified response.

        "I mean, it was supposed to be a surprise," Applebloom offered, and grinned nervously.

        A happy bark from Hotaru gave Dinky a thought. She released the dog from the leash, and watched her jump to the lowest branch, then climb up until she was near a knot of ropes and cloth that didn't look any different than any other.

        "Hold on!" Dinky shouted. Then Hotaru's bite sheared through the entire mess, leaving the Crusaders hanging from their perches with a minimum of debris still stuck to them.

        "Thanks Dinky," Sweetie Belle called as she began climbing down. "Thanks doggy."

        "Hotaru," Dinky called.

        The dog looked particularly proud of herself, until she tried to bark and the result was a closed-mouthed 'merffle'. Hotaru seemed stunned by the event, then she tried to open her mouth and found she couldn't. Dinky closed her eyes and knew this was going to be another late night.

        "When rescuing the Crusaders," Celly said to the dog with her head over the bathtub as Celly alternately brushed and rinsed Hotaru's teeth, "Always watch out for the tree sap or other adhesive stuff."

        Hotaru growled, but let the alicorn continue cleaning.

        "I swear, if they ever decided to start 'prospecting for maple syrup', Ponyville would be glued up as tightly as your jaws," Celly said as she continued brushing the dog's teeth.

        The grumble from Hotaru was all the answer Celly needed as she continued to clean the hardened, sticky matter out of the dog's mouth.

Day 41

        Princess Buttercup glared at Grass Lights as their captors closed the door to the cell. "Military genius, huh?" she asked.

        "Oh shut up," the stallion answered. Most of the rest of the force was in the holding pen, or another one a short distance away. "So, is your family going to pay your ransom?"

        "I can only hope," the unicorn mare stared at the camp and concentrated as hard as she could. Her magic would not come.

        Dead zone, she thought, I've heard of these. Places a pegasus can't fly, and a unicorn has no powers. Perfect hiding place for a band of Earth pony thugs. The high palisade was too high to jump, and the forest canopy hid the camp from above. The gates were not strong. But they'd need a battering ram or siege engine to pierce, she thought, Good luck sneaking one of those into the forest without them seeing. It does explain why no team has ever cleared out the forest. There are too many of these brigands, and if there are dead zones, they could hide from all comers. She looked around the camp. More than the 20 we thought there were. Closer to a hundred, and that's with all the patrols out. All told, there could be 200.

        She looked back at Grass Lights who was checking on one of the wounded. He's not the only 'military genius' in here, she thought unhappily, That mental hospital doesn't look too bad right now. Will my family pay? Maybe, for just me. And only if they can bargain the amount down, no matter how low it starts. Not that a 'princess' is going to start low.

        "But, it hurts when I do this," Igor said as he raised his foreleg over his head, wincing as he did it.

        "I have a cure," The Great and Powerful Trixie said, and gestured. The smoke enveloped Igor and faded away. There was a bronze statue, the sign held in his foreleg read 'Cure Worst than Disease.' The Great and Powerful Trixie gestured again, and Igor was restored.

        "At least you didn't turn me to stone," Igor said.

        "I already take you for granite," Trixie replied, The small audience of fillies and colts in their hospital beds laughed.

        "Okay!" Igor said, "Time for card trick."

        "Not again," the Great and Powerful Trixie complained, "The last time you did a card trick, you turned into a chicken."

        "Dis is a new deck," Igor promised, "Vhy you take zo long change me back?"

        "Do you know how hard it was to get good eggs on the road?" Trixie asked. "Okay, just one card trick."

        "Hokay!" Igor fanned the deck and held it out.

        Trixie reached out and braced for an explosion. She picked one card, and pulled it back like she was pulling the detonator to a bomb. Once it was clear, she held the card to her chest and sighed.

        Igor was shuffling the cards.

        Trixie looked at the card in her hoof. Her hat flew off her head, rotated 360 and revolved 180, to landed back on her head backwards.

        Igor held the deck, pulled three cards, seemingly at random, and looked at them. "Your card is the 10 of spades," he said and showed the 10 of clubs, hearts and diamonds to the audience.

        "No," Trixie said in a strangled voice.

        Igor drew three more cards. He showed three aces, spades, clubs and diamond. "Ace of hearts."


        Three more cards. "Eight of Diamonds."

        "The 203 of green circles," Trixie said as she held up the card. "Where did you get this deck?"

        "Is the one you won all the money playing poker," Igor said innocently.

        The audience laughed. Trixie and Igor bowed and noted the nurse signaling that the show was over.

        "I know Trixie could entertain you all day, but some of you have therapy," the nurse told them.

        There were complaints, but Trixie and Igor bowed and moved off to a chorus of 'thank yous'.

        The ward's chief doctors waited for them. "I want to thank you for coming. I thought you didn't do 'private audiences'."

        "One is a private audience. Eighteen is not a private audience. It also lets us do tricks that are a bit more intimate than standard," Trixie said.

        "Well, thank you very much for entertaining the young ones, sometimes it isn't so fun," the doctor said.

        "It was the least we could do," Trixie said.

        "And I'm sorry about your friend," the doctor said, "If there's anything I could do . . . "

        Trixie stopped. "Yes, you can tell me about my friend. Which one," Trixie said.

        "The Ponyville - person. He evidently fell in some Poison Joak and had a rather rough time of it. I heard he turned into an alicorn and got beaten up," the doctor said.

        "Doctor, perhaps we should discuss this in your office," Igor said, "Where there's a closed door and children can't hear."

        The doctor nodded and led them forward.

        "He's got a half-dozen ponies looking after him," Igor whispered to Trixie, "You might not have been able to do anything."

        "Your mind-reading trick has improved," Trixie said, "Now convince me of that."

        "Let's find out what happened," Igor said as they entered the doctor's office and closed the door.

        "Well," Woona said to a despondent Celly as she returned with the untouched lunch, "At least you aren't wearing it." She fluttered over her sister and gave her a hug. Celly nuzzled her back.

        "At least that would have been a reaction," Celly said as she opened the cabinet to select containers to put the food in, "He was asleep, and there didn't seem to be anything that would wake him."

        "That's one of the symptoms. If the nightmares he had last night are any indication, he's probably exhausted."

        "Did you look?" Celly asked Woona.

        "Yes," Woona said as she settled on the breakfast nook chairs and shuddered, "If what I saw was anything like what happened to Nightmare, I can fully understand why she's so quiescent. Some were totally bizarre. Some were utterly terrifying."

        "How bad could they be?" Celly asked, "I don't want to know, do I? Was I part of them?"

        "Oh yes. Sometimes as a stallion, sometimes as a mare." Woona grinned at her. "It was the places you had teeth, that most ponies don't, that was the most disturbing I think."

        "That's more than I wanted to know," Celly admitted. "I wish we could do more."

        "Getting people who've been through it together to talk about it, convincing him to talk about his symptoms, all those require he, you know, talk about it. He seems to be sleeping most of the time right now," Woona said, "And Luna tried to break in. She was treated with some of the most disturbing poetry she's ever heard."

        "Don't you mean treated to?" Celly asked.

        "No, she was tied down and forced to listen to it. It referenced and celebrated the very brutal love affair between Sombra and an extremely plastic entity of very different morals and biology," Woona said, "I didn't hang around for more than a stanza, although I cut Luna loose and let her run away. The poetry, followed her."

        Celly blinked. "I think I do not wish to know," she said, enunciating each word very clearly.

        "That's good, the rest is no where near as disturbing. If you don't mind picnics."

        "What's wrong with picnics?" Celly asked.

        "Think of the most disturbing foods you can, and then imagine being so hungry you'd eagerly eat them."

        "Yes. Picnics, disturbing, got it," Celly said and raised an eyebrow, "Symbolic of something?"

        "Yes, the food our restauranteurs tried to force on him," Woona either missed or ignored Celly's facehoof as she continued, "It's the concept of 'blandness that isn't' that's got me intrigued. I've been wondering if we should have a conversation with one of the others about details of when they were human. That may give us some clues."

        Celly was quiet for sometime as she transferred the food to the container she'd found. "Do you think they resent us, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna?" Celly asked.

        "Just because we're living a life with only a few ponies and their problems, instead of whole nations? Just because nopony instantly bows and scrapes to us on entering a room? Just because we can go out and get our hooves dirty in a problem, and nopony will accuse us of 'meddling'?" Woona said and shrugged, "Why would they be jealous? Have you heard that green is the new Imperial color this year? We must tell Rarity."

        "Jealous, that I can see. But I said 'resent'," Celly said as she put the food in the cold box, "If they think we'll try and take their position, the love of their ponies, or be used in a plot by the nobles?"

        "Plot's a good word to use in conjunction with the nobles," Woona said, "I think we're far enough out of their orbit to be safely ignored. And the last thing they would want is to remind us that if Celestia and Luna, and now Selene Dreamer were removed, our claim to the 'throne' would be stronger than any noble's. Bullies and schemers don't like being reminded how weak and foolish they are."

        The sound of music suddenly coming on disturbed both ponies.

        "The in-house speakers," Celly said, remembering that the living room and master bedroom were wired. "At least he's listening to some music."

        "Does it have to be so moody?" Woona said as she listened.

        "Better than nothing," Celly said, "And I think you're right, I don't think Celestia and Luna resent us."

        Trixie took a deep breath. "Tell me again how he's got a half-dozen ponies looking after him, and I probably wouldn't have been able to do anything."

        "Der Great and Powerfool Trixie canna be all places, and canna do all tings," Igor said, "He vant Trixie to perform for dose who not know how great, powerfool and tricksy is der Great and Powerfool Trixie."

        She gave her assistant a raised eyebrow.

        "I no break character after fife minute varning for curtain," Igor said.

        "I was commenting on your ever-changing accent," the Great and Powerful Trixie said, "And thank you. The show must go on."

        "Twenty seconds," the stage manager called.

        "Is vat he'd vant for you," Igor said.

        The curtain came up and the dazzling display of fireworks shown over the crowd. "Be prepared to see the most amazing magic ever witnessed by pony eyes. For I am the Great and Powerful Trixie!" She took a triumphant stance on back hooves.

        She let the applause rise and subside.

        "My assistant Igor," Trixie introduced him.

        He managed a bow.

        "Tonight, I have a special treat," Trixie said, "My assistant will do the first trick."

        There was a puff of smoke around Igor, that quickly cleared to reveal, no Igor. The audience applauded, then realized Trixie was tapping her foot angrily.

        "Gentles all, that wasn't the trick." She fired a burst, apparently at the ceiling, and down came Igor. Her magic halted him and he hovered over the stage, his feet still trying to run away.

        "Ah, trick not ready," Igor said desperately, "Moon's not right, I hear my momma calls me!" He smiled at Trixie, but she just stared back. "Vas so nervous, I ate de flowers."

        "You didn't eat the rabbit too, did you?" Trixie asked as she set him on the stage.

        "Da, Igor gots bunny. So Igor comb through hair and produce a hare!" Igor said as he ran his hoof through his mane. The trunk of an elephant stuck out of his mane. The elephant trumpeted. "Yep, still got Bunny."

        "You named the elephant 'Bunny'?" Trixie asked.

        "Da, elephant vorking for peanuts, rabbit want many carrots," Igor said.

        The audience groaned.

        "Even the Great and Powerful Trixie can't make his puns any better," Trixie admitted to the audience, "I've tried, I've tried."

        The audience laughed as Igor stuffed the elephant's trunk back in his mane.

        The clouds rang with a cry for: "Vengeance!" Rainbow Dash hissed and looked at her overall pinkness. "Okay Pinkie Pie, two can play at this game."

        She stood off the cloud she'd been napping on, and raced in pursuit of her quarry.

        "What is with ponies and weird color changes lately?" Twilight asked as she helped Pinkie scrub the blue body coloring, and the multicolored mane and tail. The chromatically challenged mare had come in after supper, with a new color scheme.

        "It was Rainbow Dash," Pinkie said as she scrubbed in the tub, "To get back for the button prank."

        "But you didn't do the button prank," Twilight said.

        "Yes, but she thinks I did," Pinkie said as the color started to run, leaving behind the green they hadn't been able to completely wash off. As the last of the new color washed away, they could see places where the green had worn away and left Pinkie's pink beneath.

        Twilight sighed. "We'd better tell her that you aren't doing this before -"

        "Where's Pinkie Pie?" came Rainbow's angry call from downstairs.

        Twilight sighed and headed to the library's main floor.

        "So that's where Pinkie's coloring went," Twilight said as she spotted the pegasus, "Somebody got you both good. Pinkie came in Rainbow-colored."

        Rainbow paused as she saw the still green Pinkie applying a potion that returned her to her usual pink. "Okay, so who did it?" Rainbow asked.

        "For all I know, with the Big Guy down, the Discord fragment may be getting restless," Twilight explained.

        "So how do we prank Discord?" Pinkie asked, fully pink again.

        "First let's get Dash back to being rainbow. Pink Dash doesn't seem appropriate," Twilight said.

        Pinkie giggled, then Rainbow caught it. "Speak for yourself," Rainbow said between chuckles.

        Twilight dashed to the bathroom to look over herself, she was her normal color. "Oh very funny," she told the pair as they exchanged hoofbumps. "You'd both be lovely in a nice, bright orange."

        The pair laughed at the idea, and of Twilight even attempting a prank.