Lyonesse of Aquastria was still as beautiful and as awe-inspiring after a week as it was immediately after Twilight Sparkle had arrived. The sights, the sounds, the smells; every time she turned around, she saw or heard or smelt something else that astonished her. Statues of solid coral molded into the shapes of ancient Aquastrian heroes − not just Cap’n Nemo, but also Surf Dancer and Sand Dollar and even (to Twilight’s bemusement) Sea Shimmer − were erected at regularly placed squares where mermares and Sea Ponies and other Aquastrians could stop and rest their fins. The smells of all sorts of mermare cuisine came from every building and cart that Twilight passed; not just Kelp Forest Cake, but also seaweed salad, lilypad lasagna and many others that she could not even name. Large schools of Sea Ponies swam about and raised their voices in song, their choral serenades filling the streets with cheer.
“Sea Ponies are different from mermares,” Twilight remembered explaining to Spike when he first asked (on behalf of the others), “in that mermares are ponies that evolved to live underwater several megagross years ago, and Sea Ponies are highly evolved pipefish that have evolved pony-level intellect and very pony-like facial structures.”
Though Spike seemed a little bit perplexed by this explanation (being only a baby dragon, after all), he seemed to accept it. His equine companions definitely appeared to grasp it far better than he had, though Rainbow Dash did chuckle a little at Twilight’s “egghead-ness” showing.
There was one very astonishing moment the day after she and her friends had arrived in Lyonesse. She had been outside browsing the streets of Lyonesse − King Leo insisted that she not lock herself away in the palace of Morse, but to mingle with the populace of the sea-capital and to assuage their fears of the Sun’s disappearance − and meeting and greeting scores of mermares, Sea Ponies, Narwhals, Dolphins and Manatees…
When she spotted Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy together, sitting side-by-side in front of a choir of Sea Ponies singing a slow and haunting love song. They were resting their heads against one another, and Rainbow Dash was talking far lower than Twilight had ever heard. Twilight’s ears twitched as she tried to make out what was being said.
“…really been letting my nerves get to me,” she was saying softly to Fluttershy, “and I’ve been taking it out on you. I really shouldn’t be letting all this nighttime eternal and Elements of Harmony junk get to me. And I really shouldn’t be using you as my vent. I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you, Dashie,” Fluttershy breathed, and Twilight was floored by the affection she heard in that voice.
Rainbow Dash turned her head toward Fluttershy and kissed her under the ear. “Besides, I shouldn’t need to use you as an outlet. That’s what Twilight’s for.”
Twilight’s hooves flew over her mouth as soon as the word was out of her mouth. The Sea Pony choir continued to serenade, but Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash turned on the spot and (respectively) hid her face behind her hooves and mane, and crossed her forelegs crossly.
“Anypony teach you not to eavesdrop, TS?” Rainbow Dash said with a crooked grin.
“W… W…” Twilight stammered slightly, not quite anticipating her having been caught flathoofed like this. Recovering with a shaking head, Twilight narrowed her eyes slightly at the cyan Pegasus, “When exactly were you planning to let me know?”
“Know what?” Rainbow Dash asked in mock obliviousness.
“That you two were dating,” Twilight said simply. “I mean, it’s been plain as day that you two have a thing going on, but…”
Rainbow Dash shrugged, before throwing a foreleg around Fluttershy’s shoulder. Immediately the timid Pegasus slackened slightly, resting a forehoof on Rainbow Dash’s, the pair blushing pink.
“We’re not dating, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash began.
Fluttershy smiled brightly, wider than Twilight had ever seen on her face, “We’re engaged.”
“That’s even more reason to let me know!” Twilight blurted out.
“Sorry if we don’t keep you up to date on our entire life stories, TS, geez!” Rainbow Dash drawled with a flippant hoof waving.
“I don’t know if I’m quite ready to let Ponyville know,” Fluttershy said softly. “Could you please keep it to yourself when we get back?”
Twilight offered a slight smile, “Of course. Take your time with it. It’s just… surprising, is all. You two are just so… different from one another.”
“Well,” Rainbow Dash gave Fluttershy a short little tightening of her hug, prompting a tiny squeak! from the timid Pegasus, “maybe we just have a lot to offer each other.”
“And… well, if you don’t mind me saying,” Twilight pressed on, “you’ve been… well, you’re very impatient with Fluttershy at the best of times.”
Fluttershy hid behind her mane, and Rainbow Dash’s face darkened, “I’m not proud of it. This whole adventure’s been getting to me. I can’t fly about like I want, free as an Everfree cloud; I have to lay low and take it slow.” She gave a sad grin. “And you know all too well that that ain’t me, TS.”
“Yeah, that has been abundantly clear,” Twilight said shortly, before smiling again. “Anyway, I’m really happy for you two. Congratulations! Did you two have a date set for the wedding?”
Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy both shook their heads.
“And get dolled up in some frilly doohicky that would make Rarity blush? I don’t have the time for it.”
“And I just can’t stand large crowds of ponies…”
Rainbow Dash smirked, “So the day for the wedding is basically whenever I can get enough Pegasi to move my house over Fluttershy’s.”
“Well… of course!” Twilight replied. “It’s your prerogative to let ponies know when you’re ready. And… well… this journey might help you get together some nerve to let everypony know.”
“I guess…” Fluttershy said softly, tugging at her mane with a pair of finny forehooves.
“What about the others?”
Rainbow Dash looked down at Fluttershy, and their eyes met. Fluttershy smiled and nodded lightly.
“We’ll tell ‘em,” Rainbow Dash said with a smile. “We’ll tell ‘em before we leave for Zebra-land. Gotcha?”
True to her word, Twilight did not breathe a word of the unexpected arrangement to any of her companions. For her part, it was not difficult; she was no gossip, unlike so many hooflickers whom she had become acquainted with back in Canterlot. She merely took in the sights around Lyonesse and acquainted herself with everyone around the capital.
It turned out that the oceans themselves were becoming incredibly unbalanced because of the sheer cold on one half of Harmonia and the sweltering heat on the other. Sea creatures acclimated to certain water conditions began to migrate in search of new seas to call home, and battles would break out between schools which met in the same spot. The sun-seared side of the planet was producing powerful storms above the warming ocean waters, threatening coastal civilizations on every continent. King Leo was doing his best to even out the temperatures worldwide with his inborn control over the tides, but there was only so much that he could handle on his own.
And this was just what Twilight gathered from mingling with the Aquastrians and all ocean-folk who called Lyonesse a home, permanently or otherwise. She and her band continued to keep updated on the events transpiring through Pinkie’s gumball-radio.
“Pinkie…” Twilight asked hesitatingly. “How… how has that not dissolved in this sea-water…?”
Pinkie shushed Twilight loudly. “Don’t notice it! Don’t question it! Otherwise it won’t work!”
Twilight stammered somewhat as she tried to compose a rebuttal, but when the gumball-radio sparked to life in the sea-water anyway, she decided to put it on the shelf in the library she kept in her mind of all the nonsense things Pinkie seemed capable of, and resolved to worry about this later.
Through the radio, Twilight learned that migrations were unfolding on the surface world as well. Entire cities of folks of all races on both hemispheres of the planet were emigrating from their homes and attempting to establish homes as close to the twilit border of day and night. The hosts of Daydreams with a DJ colloquially referred to it as “The Twilight Zone”. Unfortunately, there were very few landmasses on Harmonia that intersected this Twilight Zone, one of them Pundamilia, and they were apparently becoming very densely populated.
Most disturbingly, though, on the last day before they would depart from Lyonesse through the Aquastrian Narbacular System, they heard from various radio stations that many cities throughout Equestria had become locked down under martial law by NightMare Moon’s Nightmare Guard. These cities included Manehattan, Los Pegasus, Cloudsdale (Rainbow Dash swore at the sound of her hometown’s name), Vanhoover and − Twilight and Applejack gasped sharply at this last − Ponyville.
“Well, don’ that beat all!” Applejack snarled, her fins thrashing about and stirring up a storm of bubbles. “Ah’ve got half a mind ta march straight on back ta Ponyville an’ learnin’ them Nightmare Guards a lesson or two in messin’ with Apples!”
“Applejack, please, keep a level head on your shoulders,” Twilight pleaded, attempting to sound less affected than she was. “NightMare Moon’s just trying to distract us from what we have to do. You’re a strong Earth Pony, but we need you here with us, to help us through whatever obstacles stand in our way.”
Applejack rubbed the top of her head, feeling for a Stetson that she’d left in Ponyville, and snorted bubbles out of her nose.
“That darn snake-in-tha-grass NightMare Moon. She an’ her Guards better not lay a hoof on Apple Bloom…”
She gave Twilight a determined look.
“Twilight, Ah’m with ya all th’ way.”
“But, Applejack!” implored Rarity of all ponies. “Your little sister! You must be worried sick about her! I know that I am!” She sniffled, the only sign that she was crying. “Sweetie Belle…!”
“Ah know, Rares. Ah know yer worried ‘boutcher li’l sis. It ain’t easy t’ turn mah back on mah kin, neither. But Ah gotta. If’n Ah were ta turn back now, an’ go back ta Ponyville, Ah’d only be helpin’ out NightMare Moon, wouldn’ Ah? It breaks mah heart ta leave her ta fend fer herself ‘gainst them ne’er-do-wells, but Ah wouldn’ be doin’ th’ whole cycle a day-’n’-night any favors bah quittin’ now.”
Rainbow Dash’s cerise eyes boggled at Applejack. “Thank the Maker you didn’t show guts like that at our last Iron Pony Competition. You’d be holding the title of Iron Pony right now!”
“You said it!” Pinkie Pie piped in, flapping about around the algae-lights in Twilight’s ceiling. “AJ’s got nerves of steel! And a heart of steel! And a skeleton of steel! And a liver of steel! And tendons of steel! And hooves of steel! And―…”
“Thank you, Pinkie,” Twilight said shortly, before facing Applejack again. Meeting the Earth Pony’s green eyes was harder than she’d thought it would be; the willpower she saw in those eyes was far stronger than she had ever seen in anypony else’s eyes at any point in her life. She felt herself quailing slightly; was this what Fluttershy’s Stare was like? “Applejack… You understand what this means, right? You might never see your family again. We might end up dying trying to take down NightMare Moon. If you want to turn back, now is the time. I won’t fault you.”
Applejack did not blink, or even stir from her position. “Ah know. An’ if Ah cin go t’ mah grave knowin’ that mah fam’ly will be able ta live under the Sun an’ Moon, then Ah’ll have no regrets. We Apples pride ourselves on bein’ loyal ta th’ core, an’ Ah’m not gonna let mahself falter in mah duty fer even an instant. Mah place right now an’ until NightMare Moon is thrown down is right at yer side, Twilight.”
Twilight’s lips quivered, salty tears joining the salty sea-water around them as she threw her finned forelegs around Applejack’s neck.
“Applejack… You’re such a brave friend…”
Applejack patted Twilight’s back with a sad smile, “Ah wouldn’ be mah Pa’s li’l girl if Ah turned back b’fore th’ job was done, Twi.”
As Twilight’s friends crowded around the scene with teary smiles (Rainbow Dash trying to hide her teariness), they missed the crimson light glimmering through the seam of Applejack’s saddle-shells…
The morning of their seventh day in Lyonesse came to pass, and each of Twilight and Spike and each of their five companions were gathered from their rooms in the guest wing of Morse. Curiously, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were found to be sharing a room together, and that was what prompted the revelation that floored everypony in the band… except Twilight.
“Goodness gracious, darlings! Congratulations!” Rarity said with obvious joy. “I simply must design your wedding saddles when the day comes!”
“Oh, you really don’t have to, Rarity,” Fluttershy replied softly, rubbing a finny foreleg with her other forehoof. “We’re… not really planning anything…”
“What?” Pinkie shouted in dismay. “Not even a wedding party?”
“You mean a reception?” Applejack quipped.
“That too! But getting married!” PInkie squished her face between her forehooves. “Two of my best friends are getting married!♥”
Rainbow Dash tightened her foreleg’s hold on her fiancée’s torso. “Uhh, Pinkie Pie… we’re not exactly bosom buddies with you. You’re a good pranker, I get it, but… you’re pretty weird.”
Pinkie made upside-down eye-contact with Rainbow Dash… which was weird, because she was standing on the floor. She beamed, “Oh silly Dashie. I’m best friends with everypony in Ponyville~”
“We ain’t in Ponyville, though, sugarcube,” replied Applejack before facing the Pegasus pair with a broad smile. “Well, RD, Ah’m happy fer the both a’ y’all, but Ah gotta say that Ah’m kinda surprised.”
Rainbow Dash gave Applejack a thin smile, “Leave it to the second most honest pony in Ponyville to be my buzzkill.”
“No no no, Rainbow, Ah couldn’ be happier. It’s jus’ that… Ah never saw y’all courtin’ each other all that much.”
“Who are you, my mom? Maybe we’re just too fast for you to catch up to us, Applesnack…!”
Applejack looked down at her hooves, “Ah s’ppose…”
“But can we pretty please throw you a wedding party when you’ve decided to tie the knot?”
“Well…” Fluttershy looked conflicted.
“Please? With alfalfa and whipped cream on top?”
Rainbow Dash sighed and slowly nodded, looking down at Fluttershy. The timid yellow Pegasus brought her cyan eyes up to meet her fiancée’s cerise eyes. She bobbed her head yes, and Pinkie immediately put a hoof in the air with a loud cheer.
To her credit, though, Applejack insisted that most everypony in their band not badger Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy about their relationship, because it could make them become too self-conscious about themselves, especially Fluttershy. Twilight admired this in Applejack, but she herself could not help but wonder about her two Pegasus compatriots’ relationship herself.
How can two ponies be friends if they’re affianced? she thought. I mean, my parents were very close from when Vati first came over from Germaney, but… did they stay friends after they got married? Does friendship end when two ponies marry? Or is friendship just another part of marriage?
She shook her head vigorously.
No, Twilight. Stop thinking like that. Queen Celestia tells you that making friends is very important. I still don’t see why, but… I guess facing this struggle alone would be far worse. I’m not in this fight to find a marriage partner out of my comrades in hooves; I’m just trying to work together, keep the peace, so that we can take down NightMare Moon as best friends!
This last thought, and the smile it brought to her face and the warmth to her heart, gave Twilight Sparkle pause.
Wait… Are these ponies my best friends? I… don’t have any friends back home in Canterlot, so… I guess they’re my best friends. They’re my only friends, granted, but… they’re still my best friends.
Soon enough, the band of seven stood before King Leo’s throne once more, and the sea-lion smiled warmly upon them.
“My little ponies,” he began lowly, “In just a few hours’ time, the sirenomelon’s effects should wear off, and you six will return to being normal ponies once more.”
“And I can get this bubble off of my head!” Spike said brightly. Though he took to the bubble initially, he now found the distorting effect it had on his voice grating.
King Leo chuckled shortly, “Yes. Quite. Now, my aides have provided you surface-foods to each of your likings. They have been packed into your saddle-shells along with your other belongings, and should keep even in the great heat of Pundamilia under perpetual morning sun.”
“Thank you, King Leo,” Twilight said happily with a bow.
“Now, time is pressing. You shall join me in my personal chariot as I escort you to the Lyonesse Narbacular Station. I shall front your pay to get to Pundamilia’s eastern coast. I should expect you will find breakfast foods of your choice at the local shops, but do not dawdle. I would be remiss if one of you drowned.”
King Leo’s personal chariot was crafted from numerous seashells of several different types of sea creatures now long extinct. It had been his transport of choice since before NightMare Moon’s banishment, and was partly a gift from the two Equestrian Queens. It was large enough to seat King Leo and ten guests comfortably, and was usually drawn by six mermares or six Sea Ponies.
Twilight and her pony companions looked up at the passing seascrapers of Lyonesse as the chariot crossed the sandy streets, the leviathan silhouette of Cap’n Nemo visible beyond the buildings as she patrolled the perimeter of the capital. It seemed as though everypony and everyone in Lyonesse had turned out to see Queen Celestia’s heroes off. Sea Pony choruses rose up and sang songs of encouragement and victory; Dolphins gave great leaps over the chariot as it passed by and gave cheers of joy; Manatees waved fins brightly at those in the chariot with the King; Narwhals pointed their horns straight toward the surface as a show of solidarity; Narwhal Ponies shot streams of boiling water above them; Sailfins twirled into the air with vigor…
Gazing back at Morse, Twilight cocked an eyebrow. She distinctly recalled that only two of the five auger spires about the edges of the castle had been alit when they had arrived in Lyonesse. Now a third was peaked with a glimmer of light, this one a bright-red. The lavender Unicorn screwed up her mind in perplexity; what did this entail? Had three of them been lit up when they’d arrived, but Twilight had not noticed the red light? And if not, what brought it forward?
“Hey Mom! Look!” Spike said, peering over the railing at the mermares drawing the chariot. “It’s the mermares who brought us down here!”
Pushing her ruminations aside, Twilight took a second look at the mermares pulling King Leo’s chariot, and she was pleasantly pleased to recognize Wavebreaker and his band. Taking a moment to turn his head, he flashed a knowing smile at Twilight and her friends before he returned his attention to drawing the chariot.
Seeing such joy in the face of crushing darkness gave Twilight a fiery shoot of courage through her heart. NightMare Moon was a dreadful foe; only Queen Celestia and the Elements of Harmony could stand against her. But with such large numbers dissenting her bitter heart, there could only be victory!
In what seemed like no time at all, they arrived at a rather large, broad building of coral. The molded coral words over the great archway spelled out GRAND LYONESSE TRANSPORTATION CENTER. Every so often, a large transport of seashells emerged from the rooftop and departed for parts beyond Lyonesse.
Wavebreaker and his band slid to a halt with a whinny apiece, and King Leo disembarked along with Twilight and her friends.
“I thank you, my friends,” King Leo said as he passed Wavebreaker and his band.
“You are very welcome, Your Highness,” replied Wavebreaker.
King Leo addressed Twilight and her band, “Follow me.”
Passing through the archway into the Grand Lyonesse Transportation Center, Twilight and her friends found themselves in a great space filled with fronds wide enough to allow mermares to trot along with their forelimbs in a queue, leading up to numerous chariots and transports lined up along the far walls. A large ticker sign stood erect over the kiosk in the middle of the grand chamber, a good three- or four-dozen different arrivals and departures passing by in rapid sequence upon the board.
“Goodness gracious…!” Rarity gasped.
“It’s like it’s smaller on the outside!” Pinkie gaped.
“It seems that way, does it not?” King Leo replied. “Now, there are refreshment stands along the way to the narbacular terminal at the back. Take what you want, but do not dally. I want to make sure you are on your way to the Pundamilia shoreline before your time is up.”
King Leo drew the eyes of scores of awed Aquastrians as he led the band through the milling schools. Passing by each food stand, the band was offered whatever food that was stocked, free of charge by reason of accompanying the King. Twilight turned down most that were offered to her, but she found that she could not turn down a waterlily-and-kelp sandwich. Her friends were a bit more accepting of the free foodstuffs being offered them; Pinkie Pie in particular gladly took anything that anyone put in front of her, swallowing it without chewing before taking the next food item.
In a matter of minutes, they had crossed the Transportation Center floor, reaching a broad entryway through which small schools of Aquastrians of all sorts were passing into and out of. A sign reading Narbacular Arrivals and Departures hung over the entryway, formed from orange-and-blue algae inlaid in etched stone.
King Leo approached the Dolphin manning the booth under the sign and said, “Seven tickets for the western Pundamilia coast, please. I shall cover the cost.”
The Dolphin nervously saluted with a fin and replied, “T-think nothing of it, Your Majesty!” He quickly rifled around in a shelf behind his booth and produced seven hoof-sized pearls (Rarity’s eyes boggled), which King Leo passed back to each of his seven escortees. “No charge, s-sir.”
“Ahh, but I insist,” King Leo pressed, producing a small purse from under his cape with his dwimmer-shimmer and levitating a small number of tooth-sized seashells onto the Dolphin’s booth. “What sort of King would I be if I did not help keep the wheels of the economy spinning, international crisis or otherwise?”
The Dolphin smiled nervously at his King as he passed by into the narbacular terminal with Twilight Sparkle and company at his tail.
“These pearls are simply gorgeous!” Rarity squealed, twisting her pearl back and forth in her dwimmer-shimmer. “It’s such a shame that we’ll have to give them back at the other end. That’s how it will work, right?”
“You would be right indeed, ma’am,” replied a Manatee waiting ahead of them. He floated in the middle of a great circular room, with squared-off alcoves in the stone walls. On the facing walls of each alcove was a glowing circle, tall enough for NightMare Moon to stride through with room to spare and just as wide. On the left-hoof side the circles glowed blue, and on the right orange. Various Aquastrians passed through the blue-glowing circles or emerged from the orange-glowing circles, apparently vanishing into the other space on the other end or appearing from out of nowhere.
“This, fillies and gentlecolts,” the Manatee explained, “is the Aquastrian Narbacular System. These special portals, developed from the unique magical capabilities of a surface-beast known as the narbaculus, enable anytee − err, anyone, to pass from one point to another a megagross of knots away in an instant, without swimming the distance at all.”
“Wow~” gaped Pinkie Pie, before squealing loudly enough to shatter glass, “Now you’re thinking with por―…”
“Please, Pinkie!” Twilight interrupted. “This could be very important.”
The Manatee gave Twilight a mildly thankful look before continuing, occasionally gesturing at the narbacular system, “You see, the magic is rather steady, so the narbacular tunnel has no chance of closing while you are partway through it. However, I would not advise dilly-dallying; this is a public transportation system. Is this their first time using the narbacular system…” He gulped slightly at the sight of his king. “Your Highness?”
“It is, so far as I am aware,” King Leo explained. “Their destination is eastern Pundamilia, posthaste.”
“Pundamilia… err, right… That would be…” The Manatee was not so neurotic as the Dolphin, but he was definitely flustered with having to deal with King Leo rather directly. His fin passed along the row of alcoves, scanning the departure and arrival titles along the top of each one. “There!” he said, his fin settling on one alcove that, to Twilight’s memory, had not received a single departure or arrival since they had entered the chamber. “That narbacular aperture connects each Aquastrian narbacular terminal to Pundamilia. If memory serves correctly, you should have to pass through a dozen-and-five narbacular portals to reach Bahari, a mermare colony off of the eastern Pundamilia shores.”
“Thank you very much, sir,” Twilight said brightly. “We really appreciate your unflappable service in this endeavor.”
“Ummm… You’re welcome…?” he replied. “May I ask… Why you need to get to Pundamilia so quickly that you would need to pay top sand-dollar to get there?”
“We’re going to stop NightMare Moon!” Rainbow Dash said boldly before Twilight could so much as open her mouth, “And we need to figure out how these Elements of Harmony work so we can kick her sorry flank back to the Moon!”
“NightMare Moon?” the Manatee replied with wide eyes and a mortified expression. “You mean the Devil of the Lunar Maria? You’re going to stop her? How?”
“These fillies and this drake represent Queen Celestia of the surface realm of Equestria,” King Leo explained calmly. “My cousin Celestia has entrusted them with the only sure way to neutralize NightMare Moon, but Queen Malkia of Pundamilia is the only one on Harmonia who holds the deeper secrets of the Elements of Harmony who will divulge them. It is of vital importance that they reach the Pundamilian capital as soon as possible.”
The Manatee saluted, a new resolve apparent in his eyes and body language. “Your will is my action, Your Highness! Now, after me!” He swam briskly towards the alcove he’d previously pointed out, with King Leo and Twilight, Spike and their friends behind him.
“Seems kinda edgy, doesn’t he?” Rainbow Dash replied, balancing her pearl between two of her back-fins.
“His nerves are likely because of being so close to his king,” Rarity explained. “I can only imagine any one of us would be in such shape around Queen Celestia.”
“I doubt I would be that nervous, Rarity,” Twilight said with a wary smile.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Rainbow Dash interjected, and Twilight did not like the smirk she was wearing. “You’d be even worse.”
Twilight sighed frustratedly, “I’ll not dignify that insinuation with a response.”
Reaching the narbacular tunnel connecting Aquastria to Pundamilia, Twilight heard Rainbow Dash being shushed by Fluttershy. The Manatee and King Leo faced the band of six mares and one drake on either side of the alcove.
“Well… This is it,” said the Manatee with a slight gesture of his fin.
“Go now, my little ponies,” King Leo said in a low growl, his paws outstretched. “Hurry, and learn the secrets of the Elements of Harmony, so that this night will not last forever.”
Twilight smiled with a bow to the King of Aquastria, “Thank you, King Leo. It’s been all too brief to stay here in this kingdom of yours.”
“What’s the hold-up?” Rainbow Dash interjected. “Let’s go already!”
Twilight looked back to the King and the Manatee. “As blunt as she is, she’s right. Take care, Uncle Leo!”
And so Twilight Sparkle cantered briskly through the blue narbacular portal with Spike on her back and her saddle-shells at her sides, with the other five mares in her band hot on her tail.
Passing through the portal, Twilight did not feel any change in the water’s pressure around her as she left Lyonesse and immediately entered the alcove of another transportation center elsewhere in Aquastria. The narbacular quantum tunnel was infinitely thin; it was a direct opening into another space, blue light shining out in front of Twilight, and orange behind.
One down. A dozen-and-four to go.
“‘Uncle Leo’?” Pinkie Pie asked gleefully. “You didn’t tell us you were part-sea-lion, Twilight!”
“I’m not, Pinkie. It’s… kind of an honorary title. Like how Queen Celestia was my honorary mother after…”
“Oh. Sorry I asked, Twilight.”
“Don’t be, Pinkie,” Twilight smiled. “I try not to let it bother me anymore.”
“I just hope that they’re alright with NightMare Moon cracking down on Ponyville.”
“Darn-tootin’ they better be! Mah big brother Big Mac’s got a bit of a fondness fer plants an’ such. He’ll keep watch over ‘em…”
Twilight smiled back at Applejack, “Thanks, Applejack.”
Rainbow Dash stuck out her tongue, “Don’t get all sappy on us, you two!”
“Says one of only two of us who’s engaged,” Applejack retorted.
“Hey, Fluttershy needs a little bit of help with assertiveness, and I got it covered for her in spades!” Rainbow Dash finished with a grin.
“Oh Dashie…” Fluttershy nuzzled against Rainbow’s neck. “You don’t have to push yourself for me. I’ll just slow you down…”
“Well, somepony’s gotta make sure you don’t fall behind the herd, and who better than somepony as awesome as me?”
“I daresay this is quite the discombobulating system, Twilight,” Rarity said softly. “Who in Equestria came up with this ‘narbacular’ system?”
“Bitter Pineapple, a maniac Unicorn who thought time was flowing backwards and tried to get himself banished to the Moon on his deathbed,” Twilight explained darkly.
Rainbow Dash burst out laughing.
“It’s a shame, really,” Twilight continued over the Pegasus’s guffawing. “Not every pony invention was because of ingenuity. Some were born of insanity. I mean, the narbaculus is a terrible beast. What madness would drive a pony to study its means of capturing prey so closely?”
“No wonder it never caught on in Equestria,” Applejack mused.
Twilight nodded slowly, “Narbacular tunnels are stigmatized back home because of their creator.”
“Not back in Cloudsdale,” Rainbow Dash cut in. “There’s this amusement park ride where they drop you over and over and over in these types of tunnels. They call it the Narbacular Drop!”
“Well, we’ll have to try it out sometime, now won’t we, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight said sharply. “But for now…”
“We’re here at Bahari.”
“Whoa, really?” Rainbow Dash’s eyes popped out at the circular chamber of alcoves, browner and smaller than Lyonesse’s. “That was barely anything. I mean, seriously, we’ve only been trotting for, like, a minute and a half. I swear, I can still kinda see that sea-lion King back down these tunnels!” She pointed a cyan hoof back down the rings of orange light at a faint glimmer of gold and blue.
“I myself must admit to skepticism as well, darling,” Rarity added. “These narbacular portal rings are just so… off… but I would like to step outside.”
Twilight felt a slight gagging at the back of her throat, and she felt her fins twitching violently at her fetlocks. Their time was running short.
“Well, we’re gonna have to find out the hard way, girls,” Twilight said brusquely. “Give your pearls to the nearest attendant and get to the surface, fast!”
Galloping across the stony floor with all the speed that she could gather in the deep water, Twilight swiftly deposited her pearlescent proof of purchase in the fins of a mildly flustered Narwhal, as did Spike from her back. Twilight heard him swearing after them in a local Pundamilian dialect, proof enough for her where they were…
But time was wasting.
They only had minutes to reach the surface before their gills and fins disappeared!
Emerging out of the Bahari Narbacular Terminal into the streets of the mermare colony off of Pundamilia’s eastern coast, Twilight blinked back at the beams of light shooting down from the surface. Spike cried out in astonishment at the brightness.
“This place is so much… brighter than Lyonesse,” Fluttershy commented.
“Because Pundamilia is cut in half by the Twilight Zone,” Twilight explained, already flapping her fins rapidly to try to swim to the surface. “It’s perpetual morning in the capital!” She swore in Germane. “Why can’t I swim faster?”
She looked down at her hooves, at the fins that the sirenomelon leaf had given her. The fins were sloughing off of her fetlocks, her lightness in the water fading away. A burning cut across either side of her throat, and Twilight’s lungs screamed in protest at the volumes of saltwater in them.
No… she thought in feeble despair, barely recognizing the sounds of her friends behind her as they too began to feel the effects expire. It can’t end like this… We didn’t come so far, just to drown out here…
She drew Spike off of her back with her dwimmer shimmer, smiling sadly at the horrified little drake. The bubble cast around his head held firmly, outlasting their sirenomelon transformations. At least he would live…
Twilight scooped him up in her forelegs, hugging her close as her eyes slid shut. In the cold ocean water, the coldblooded drake felt uncannily warm against her fur.
Oh Spike… she thought, not daring to speak or breathe, for that would only hasten her expiration. I only wish that it wasn’t this gruesome end that made me realize… just how much you really mean to me… Oh Spike… Oh my son…
Her eyes shot open at the sound of Pinkie’s voice. Spinning around to face the Earth Pony, she saw everypony clutching onto each of her hooves. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy’s fin-wings had transformed back into their ordinary feathered wings. Pinkie was waving her tail back and forth, and beckoning Twilight towards her with flicks of her head.
“C’mon, Twilight! Stop gettin’ all sappy with Spike and grab my tail!”
Not even bothering to question how Pinkie could possibly be talking underwater after losing the sirenomelon leaf’s effects, Twilight floundered over with Spike clutching his claws around her barrel. She sank her teeth into Pinkie’s tail, and she caught the taste of wet cotton candy…
“Okay, everypony! Fasten your seatbelts~”
And just like it had with the udoroot, Pinkie’s forelock curled around itself in a helical shape, spinning around rapidly and leaving a torrent of bubbles that swirled into Twilight’s face. Suddenly, Pinkie took off, Twilight tightening her toothhold on Pinkie’s tail for fear of slipping free and being lost in the ocean forever. She blinked as the lights in the water above her began to grow brighter and brighter… Somehow, someway, they were going to make it…! They were going to Pundamilia…!
Gasping deeply as they broke out of the salty water into the salty air, Twilight heard Rainbow Dash whooping up ahead as she clutched Pinkie’s right forehoof. They soared through the air over the shallows, the wind blasting them icily after a week’s chill under the sea. The water flew out of her ears, and it was as if she could hear for the first time in her life. Twilight thought that they would sail forever and land in the Elysian Fields…
But her face filled with even more of Pinkie’s sugar-scented tail as she felt gravelly sand at her hooves and cannons.
Coughing out the water from her lungs, Twilight collapsed to her barrel…
And simply relished being alive.
“We made it,” Applejack gasped, coughing raggedly as she finished. “Ah don’ know how, but we made it.”
Rarity make a sobbing choke as she held her mane limply, “My manestyle didn’t, though… I really hope that Zebras have hair-gel.”
“Ah don’ rightly know much ‘bout Zebras, but Ah doubt we’ll find much in the way of yer hair-stylin’ products way out here.”
Fluttershy wrung out her mane, “I really hope that somepony finds us soon… It’s a miracle we made it out here as it is…”
Spike unfurled one of his claws and pricked the bubble around his head, bursting it in an instant, “But how did we even get out of there, anyhow?”
Rainbow Dash shook herself vigorously, her mane, tail and feathers puffing out comically as the water flew off of her body, Rarity crying out in protest as the droplets came her way. “We really gotta thank Pinks for being a complete goofball in the face of physics!”
“Oh, I just march to the beat of my own drum,” Pinkie Pie said in a feeble attempt at sounding casual. Her mane and tail were completely slack because the dampness. The entire right half of her smiling face was covered by a mane that easily reached her hooves, her lanky tail curling almost in a complete circle around her body.
Then she put one of her forehooves in her mouth and blew into it, all of the ocean dampness shooting off in an instant and her mane and tail returning to their previous frizziness.
A thought of That shouldn’t be possible flashed through Twilight’s mind just as Pinkie pulled a baby-blue party hat from out of nowhere and plunked it on her own now-dry head, and Twilight’s self-enforced acedia found itself pushed rudely to the side as she bolted straight to her hooves and faced the pink party pony with a furious snort, trying to ignore the wet mane in her eyes.
“No!” Twilight shouted at Pinkie.
Pinkie arched her eyebrows at Twilight, offering a faint smile, “What no, Twilight?”
“Just… no! You… you shouldn’t be able to do half the things that you do! You can move your mane around like it’s a whole other limb! You hug me with more legs than you have! You change color when you get upset about things! You even doing it right now!” Twilight angrily added as she witnessed Pinkie wilting on the spot and shifting from pink to purple to pale-blue, her mane and tail once more going slack. “It’s just…!” Twilight exclaimed angrily. “It’s not something that ponies can do!”
“But you do magic too, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash cut in shortly, “and you do weird things, too.”
“No!” Twilight replied. “My magic is nothing like what Pinkie does! My magic is something that I’ve studied for years, something that I’ve spent sleepless nights trying to figure out. It’s something tangible that I’ve been working on. But what Pinkie does is… it just doesn’t make sense! How does she do it?”
“I don’t know!” cried Pinkie, tears sliding down her blue cheeks. “I’ve just always been like this since the pretty rainbow!”
“Rainbows don’t randomly give ponies special powers!” Twilight growled. “That’s just a load of Pferdeäpfel from comic books! I don’t know what you are, but it doesn’t make sense, and I don’t like things that don’t make sense!”
“Twilight, stop!” Applejack snapped, stepping between Twilight and Pinkie. “Look. Ev’ry single one a’ us has been questionin’ the state a’ things an’ why Pinkie can do what she does. But if Pinkie can’ rightly explain it, then Ah don’ see why anypony should be causin’ a hullabaloo over it.” Applejack gave her fellow Earth Pony a sad smile. “We mostly jus’ think of it as Pinkie bein’ Pinkie.”
“But… that’s so unscientific!” Twilight blurted out. “There’s no basis for anything that Pinkie does in science, and you just write it off as ‘Pinkie being Pinkie’? Aren’t you interested at all in the root cause of anything she does differently?”
“So, what? Pinkie’s just a science experiment to you, then?” Rainbow Dash cut in darkly.
“No!” Twilight replied, feeling genuinely hurt. “I don’t think that at all! I just want answers about what my friend can do! And we can’t wait for answers to just…”
Twilight trailed off in horror, not at the looks of mingled anger and fear on her friends’ faces, but at the shadows that stretched up over them, blotting out the perpetual morning Sun. The seven stalks rose up into the sky behind the mares giving her such bitter looks.
“Uhh, guys…?” Twilight gasped, recognizing the beast.
“What’s wrong, sugarcube?” Applejack asked quizzically, catching the new look of distress on the lavender Unicorn’s face.
Noticing the shadows at their hooves, the other mares looked up at the creature now looming up and out of the ocean which retreated behind the beast.
Seven mouths opened on seven heads at the end of seven long necks, dripping with saliva at the sight of the band of six mares and one drake…
Pinkie Pie shrieked in abject horror and bolted down the beach towards a broad forest some distance from the beach.
“RUN!” Twilight screeched.
They needed no telling twice. Spike hopped onto Twilight’s back, and the five mares galloped with full abandon after the fleeing Pinkie.
The trees were most certainly not Equestrian trees; far more exotic were they than any that any of them had seen before. Tall and thin, but with wide sweeping canopies to make up for the broad spaces between them. The sounds of the forest were peculiar as well to any Equestrian, for many birds and primates and the like could not be found outside of the forests of Pundamilia. Many of them, however, were fleeing deeper inland at the sound of the seven roars.
Twilight and her band came to a halt just behind the sullen blue Pinkie Pie, not a minute’s gallop from the shoreline. The beast seemed to have not pursued them, though, which was all for the best.
Twilight gasped for breath, reaching out to the blue Pinkie, “Are you okay, Pinkie?”
Pinkie, looking rather dark, squeaked at the sound of Twilight’s voice before charging deeper into the brush and out of sight.
“Pinkie, wait!” Twilight pleaded, before sighing. “This is all my fault. If I hadn’t snapped at her, none of this would have happened.”
“Rainbow!” Applejack snarled. “If y’all talk outta turn one more time, Ah swear Ah’ll buck ya so hard that yer pa back in Cloudsdale’ll feel it!”
Rainbow Dash crossed her forelegs sulkily as Applejack approached Twilight with narrowed eyes.
“Don’ let Rainbow getcha down, Twi. Raisin’ hob between friends is jus’ like tryin’ ta rattle a hornet’s nest. It don’ end pretty.”
“That’s the thing,” Twilight said, getting back to her hooves and trotting after Pinkie’s trail. “I was shouting at Pinkie about something that I knew nothing about. I made one of my only friends cry, and I almost got us all eaten by a waterlord!”
“A ‘waterlord’?” Rarity inquired. “I thought that that was a hydra back there!”
“A waterlord is a Pundamilian ocean-dwelling hydra,” Twilight explained, moving from a trot to a canter. “It uses its magic powers to cast a drought on nearby foliage to smoke its prey out. They hate going inland, though, so we should be safe.” She looked back ahead, deeper into the forest. “But we still need to find Pinkie, fast. Before something else finds her.”
“Something else?” Spike asked fearfully from Twilight’s back. “What else is there in these forests?”
“I’d rather not talk about them,” Twilight said softly. “I just want to find Pinkie and apologize to her as much as I can. She saved our lives, and how do I repay her? By snapping at her. I’m a horrible friend!” Twilight wailed, her voice echoing off of each tree trunk.
Behind Twilight, Fluttershy put a hoof to Rainbow Dash’s mouth to hold back the inevitable retort.
“Some friendships are rougher than others, darling,” Rarity interjected sagely. “Why, take Applejack and myself for instance. I would not say that we are terribly close, but I would be loath to sell her out for any reason at all! What sort of mare would I be to rat out a fellow Ponyvillager?”
Applejack smiled warmly back at the alabaster Unicorn, “Ah feel th’ same way, Rarity.”
Spike sighed, looking dreamily back at Rarity, “Isn’t she just wonderful?”
“Girls, wait!” Twilight stopped, putting out a hoof to the side and motioning ahead. “I see light. There must be a village!”
“And a village means…” Fluttershy said in a rising voice.
“Food!” Rainbow Dash cried.
“Folks!” shouted Applejack.
“Mane braids!” Rarity called.
The five mares went forth at a full gallop with whoops of joy, the trees on either side thinning out as the path that they followed began to broaden and the brush became less dense. The sounds of wildlife around them also began to dwindle, but they cared not, for soon they would meet Zebras…!
The trees stretched out to either side as they entered a wide red-earthed plain, and about this plain were scattered many straw-roofed adobes lined up in rows and columns for at least a mile in each direction. Vines and creepers grew up along each building’s façade, even across some empty doorways, and the general atmosphere was of desolation.
Fluttershy’s ears flattened, “I don’t like the looks of this place…”
Rainbow Dash unfurled one of her wings and laid it across her fiancée’s back, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”
Twilight looked about anxiously, “This isn’t right. This village looks like nozebra’s lived here for weeks.”
“I would only hope that this place was not so ill-kept while Zebras still lived here,” Rarity shuddered.
Applejack leaned close to Twilight, “Do ya reckon that some Zebras still live here?”
Twilight shook her head, “I doubt it, but we still need to find Pinkie. It’s my fault she ran off, and…” She wiped away a tear. “And we have to stick together and find her!”
With this goal clear in their minds, the band trotted cautiously into the old Zebra village. Twilight’s earlier assessment of the village being unlived in seemed to be more accurate the further they trekked into it; there were upturned water-basins and ragged bits of saddle here and there in the streets, as though the Zebras who had called this village home had vacated it very quickly.
“Where do ya think Pinkie coulda gone?” Applejack asked quietly.
“I have no idea…” Twilight replied in a hushed tone.
“HEY PINKIE!” screamed Rainbow Dash with her hooves cupping her muzzle. “GET YOUR BALLOONY BUTT BACK HERE!”
Applejack yanked the Pegasus down by the tail and covered her mouth with a hoof, but silence greeted them. Each of the mares braced themselves for some inevitable threat descending on them from the surrounding streets, but… Nothing.
“As cliché as it sounds,” Rarity cut in, “this village is entirely too quiet.”
“Rarity’s right,” Twilight said, lining up spell matrices for defensive spellwork within her alicorn. “You’d think that there would be something that would have been roused by Rainbow Dash’s shout, but…”
Rainbow Dash flew straight up into the sky, hovering at least four-dozen hooves over the nearest building. She put a hoof above her eyes to block out the Sun as she scanned the village from on high, looking for something, anything that would point them in the direction of Pinkie Pie or some Zebras.
“See anything up there, Rainbow?” Applejack called up.
“Negatory on that, AJ,” she said when she flew back down. “I didn’t see anything around town, Pinkie Pie or not Pinkie Pie. She’s probably crying in some corner somewhere and…”
“Wait!” Fluttershy squeaked, her ears flapping like mad. “Do you hear that?”
Everypony else swiveled their ears about, Spike looking around in confusion, cupping his claws around his auditory spines.
“I hear it, too,” Twilight breathed.
A faint chorus of high laughter was emanating from every building around them, as though there was some great private joke being shared by a great many someponies… or somezebras…!
But the laughter came to an abrupt halt as several wretched bird squawks emanated from various points around the village. But, they were not bird-calls; rather, more like someponies mimicking bird-calls.
The village remained silent for several moments, but then the laughter resumed in earnest, and shapes began to move in the doorways and windows of the seemingly empty houses.
“Guard yourselves, girls!” Twilight hissed, her alicorn openly glowing now. Rarity followed suit with a periwinkle twinkle, Applejack dug her hooves into the earth, Spike bared his claws and Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy fluttered up into the air with their forelegs bared for combat.
The shapes that emerged from the doorways were of equine shape, with black-and-white stripes along their bodies. Their manes were exceptionally straight, like mohawks, and their tails were long and leonine like Unicorns. Some had two alicorns in the middle of their foreheads, and other had feathered wings and a pair of antlers.
“Zebras…” Twilight gasped. “So this village was populated after all…”
She turned to face her party, the tension in the air lessening at the meeting of Zebras.
“Okay girls. I’ll try to talk to them, see if they can take us to Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe.”
“You speak Zebra?” asked Rarity, looking warily out at the chortling herd gathering around them.
“Well,” Twilight explained, “there are actually a lot of languages that Zebras speak. Scores of languages, actually. The way I understand it, Queen Malkia has a very loose monarchy in place, letting various city-states handle their own affairs. As such, there is a lot of linguistic and cultural diversity throughout Pundamilia.” She turned to face the herd of Zebras. “I happen to be rather learned in the common Zebra tongue, Idube. I just hope this villagers know what I’m saying.”
Twilight cleared her throat, approaching the Zebras with a low-bowed head and a humble smile.
“Hello, my fellow equines,” she began in stilted Idube. The Zebras’ ears swiveled slightly at her words and she felt a surge of hope. They understand me! “We are emissaries from Equestria, and we have just arrived from the care of Aquastria’s King Leo.”
To Twilight’s astonishment, the Zebras began to stir dramatically at her mention of the kingly sea-lion. They began to chatter back and forth at each other in a laughing tone that was nothing like any Zebra language Twilight had ever heard or heard of.
“Twilight…?” Rainbow Dash said uneasily. “I don’t think these guys are Zebras.”
Twilight was beginning to think the same as well. The “Zebras” were drawing in closer and closer, their laughs becoming shriller and bone-chillingly bloodthirsty. Their zebrine appearances melted away to reveal the feral shapes of hyenas, closing in around them…
A fierce lion’s roar erupted from beyond the village entrance, behind the band. The hyenas instinctively huddled to the ground, whimpering. Twilight and her friends also squirmed closer together; though they never had encountered a wild lion before, the roar of the king of the jungle was something that instilled fear in anything which heard it. Spike clutched at one of Twilight’s legs, seeking her protection. She leaned down and nuzzled her little ward, yearning to protect him from anything that crossed her path.
The lion’s roar belted out again, closer than before. Several hyenas lost their nerve and bolted deeper into the village, leaving their prey behind. Fewer than a dozen hyenas remained around them now, but they no longer had their entire attention on the five mares in the middle of their village. Moreso even than the ponies they surrounded and outnumbered, the hyenas feared the lion above all other creatures. It was only the scarcity of food in the village that kept the bulk of them in a circle around the mares and drake.
Steeling itself, one of the hyenas lunged at Twilight, its jaws agape and its saliva dripping to the ground. Instinctively, Twilight spun in place and thrust her hind legs out in a buck. Though she did not rank very high at all in the annals of bucking mares, it caught the hyena by surprise and it fell with a cackling yelp.
The lion’s roar echoed out a third time, closer than ever, and even more hyenas yelped in fear and fled away.
“SCATTER!” Twilight shouted to her friends, and the four other mares bolted back the way they came, making for cover in various alleyways. Seeing that only one mare now remained, and with a lion doubtlessly on its way, what hyenas there were facing Twilight decided to cut their losses and abandon the cause, fleeing back after the bulk of their group.
All but one had gone now, and the straggler let out a low feline growl at Twilight. Spike clambered up onto his surrogate mother’s back, putting his claws around her barrel.
“I should’ve guessed that this was a bultungin nesting ground,” Twilight mused lowly to herself.
“A bultungin?” Spike echoed.
“A hyena that can make itself look like a Zebra, to lure its prey in. Some ponies call them merehyenas, even though…”
The bultungin made another lunge at Twilight and Spike, prompting the lavender Unicorn to fire a blast of pink lightning at it. It flew back into the wall of a mudbrick house, the wall cracking behind it as it slid off. It gave Twilight a pitiful look as she snarled at it, “You leave my son alone, or you’ll get worse.”
The hyena whimpered and limped off.
Spike gaped at Twilight, “M… Mom?”
Twilight turned her head to smile at the darling drake on her back, “Yes, Spike. You’re my son. My precious, beautiful little boy. I don’t ever want us to be apart again.”
Spike’s jaw fell open in a smile, tears sliding down his scaly face…
And he pointed past Twilight’s head in horror.
“TWILIGHT, LOOK OUT!”
Twilight spun quickly, seeing the oncoming jaws of a bultungin. It was too close to cast a spell at or to buck and getting closer… Twilight instinctively closed her eyes…
Twilight dared to peek, and what she saw astonished her.
Applejack stood before her at a perpendicular, the hyena’s jaws clenched deep into her spine.
Tears spilled afresh from Twilight’s eyes, “APPLEJACK!”
Applejack gritted her teeth in a grimacing smile, “Hey there, Twilight. Do ya reckon this looks like it hurts?”
Twilight nodded numbly.
Applejack furrowed her brow, her irises glowing a deep earthy-green, “Well, compared ta leavin’ ya ta die, this don’ hurt at all!”
The spots where the bultungin’s teeth had dug into Applejack’s fur began to glow green themselves, and the hyena found itself being pushed off of the palomino by some unseen force. Irked, it tried to bite Applejack on the barrel, the cannon, the forearm, but none of its bites made the slightest nick in the Earth Pony’s fur or hide.
“Ah’m warnin’ ya jus’ once, ya crazed varmint,” Applejack growled lowly. “If ya don’ leave now an’ leave Twilight an’ mah other friends alone, y’all’ll be facin’ down the single most stubborn Earth Pony in all of Equestria.”
Applejack pulled one hind leg out of the dirt, and Twilight could swear that she saw blonde fetlock strands as glowing-green roots before the orange Earth Pony brought that leg around and gave the bultungin a sharp solid kick to the belly. The hyena-creature flew down the streets and tumbled along the red earth, before it scrambled back to its paws and tore off yelping into the distance.
With a grunt, Applejack withdrew her other three hooves from the earth, pale-blonde fetlock roots returning to their natural hair state.
“That was awesome, Applejack!” Spike called out with a bright fangy smile. “How’d you do that stuff?”
Applejack shook her head with a smile of her own, “T’weren’ nuthin’, Spike. Ah jus’ had ta give that rascal the ol’ whatfor fer tryin’ ta pull a fas’ one on one a’ mah friends.”
“But Applejack,” Twilight said softly, “you’re hurt.” She inspected Applejack’s back more closely, but was astonished to see no blood, no torn skin, not even any hair that was any more rough-and-tumble than Applejack’s coat normally was. It was even still somewhat damp from their week-long sojourn in Aquastria.
“How is this possible…?”
Applejack smirked, “Not so learned on Earth Pony magic, are ya? Well, s’long as an Earth Pony’s touchin’ some Earth, there ain’t a beast or weapon in the world that cin hurt her.”
“But… those bites there…?” Twilight asked, indicating the bite marks across Applejack’s spine.
Applejack’s face darkened, “That was a lucky shot. Th’ varmint caught me off mah guard. Ah was outta commission fer a week. Ah was dozen-an’-two.” She smiled. “But it was worth it. Ah kept Apple Bloom safe from that chimera.”
“Eeyup. An’ Ah like ta think it don’ walk right on that leg anymore. Even bleedin’ outta mah spine, Ah’ll fight ta protect th’ ones Ah love an’ cherish.” Applejack’s eyes went dark. ‘’Cause Ah know… that losin’ ‘em’d hurt a lot more.”
“And that’s why you saved me and Spike from that hyena…?”
“Yer mah friend, Twilight. Ah couldn’ jus’ letcha handle all them nasty critters all on yer lonesome. Ah’ll always be there ta lend ya a helpin’ hoof, take mah word fer it.”
Twilight smiled, tears sliding down her muzzle. “Applejack…”
“The lion! The others! Applejack! We’ve gotta find them!”
Applejack looked to the edge of the village they’d come from, narrowing her eyes, “Ah don’ think that was a lion, Twilight. Remember them queer-soundin’ bird-calls just as them snake-in-th’-grass hyenas came out on us? Ah think that those weren’ rightly birds, either.”
“You’re right!” Twilight said, scratching her stubbled chin with a cloven hoof. “But if those weren’t bird-calls or a lion’s roar, then what were they?”
‘Perhaps they came from a friendlier face,’ came a voice with a heavy Received Pronunciation accent from a street on their left, ‘than one you’ve yet seen in this place.’
Emerging from the street came a group of at least ten, led by a Zebra at least as tall as Applejack. And a true Zebra she was, for she had a longer muzzle and a cutie mark: a black spiral surrounded by black triangles symbolizing the Sun. She had large golden earrings in her ears, and five golden rings around an elongated neck marching those on her left foreleg. Her deep-blue eyes shone with kindness and deep wisdom. Along with her were a number of other Zebras, some with twin alicorns, some wings and antlers, and with them were…
“Twilight, darling! Applejack! You’re alright!” Rarity called out, galloping over and giving her Unicorn friend a nuzzle. (Spike leaned forward hopefully.)
‘I see that we have reunited you with friends,’ continued the Zebra at the head of her group. ‘I should hope that we can soon make amends.’
Twilight beamed at the Zebra mare, “Thank you so much, Miss…”
‘Zecora is the name I have carried since birth. It is a pleasant name that I carry with mirth.’
“Excuse me,” Rainbow Dash cut in, “but do all Zebras talk in rhyme?”
Some of the Zebras around Rainbow Dash began to exclaim angrily in their native tongue, and Rainbow Dash sank down miserably.
Zecora cleared her throat and explained, ‘You will have to forgive me for my prose, but I’ve an affliction of which I cannot dispose. It is an embarrassing tale, one of which I am not proud, but I feel that I serve a lesson by speaking aloud.’
“What happened to you, Zecora?” Twilight asked.
‘I am much learned in bushel and in branch, and of plants so dreadful that you would blanch. But there was one day that came to pass, when I neglected the lessons of agriculture class. In a bushel which I did foolishly poke, I touched a plant that you ponies call… Poison Joke?’
Rarity gasped, “Oh my…! And… you’ve rhymed ever since…?”
‘The deal is not big, I have learned how to cope. I have learned not to be a linguistical dope. If a rhyme for my speeches evades my brain, I am forced to suffer greatest pain.’
“That sounds… awful…” Fluttershy breathed.
Zecora laughed, a bright sound like tinkling bells, ‘Be not fearful, my pony friend. A simple rhyme brings the pain to an end. But no cure can be found for my condition, not even by our greatest academicians. Though at first difficult by my admission, I’ve learned to speak more cleverly than any politician.’
Every pony and Zebra present broke out into laughter at this statement of Zecora’s.
“Well, looks like some jokes cross cultural boundaries!” Rarity choked out between laughs.
Twilight’s brain snapped back to a more pressing issue than Zebra humor, Wait… jokes… laughter… Pinkie Pie!
“Zecora!” Twilight interjected. “Have you or your friends seen our friend Pinkie Pie?”
Zecora quirked an eyebrow, ‘I know of no pony to whom that name ascribes. Perhaps you could this ‘Pinkie Pie’ describe.’
“Well, you see,” Twilight began, “she’s normally very pink… and… bouncy… but I got mad at her and… she turned blue. It’s a long story, one that I don’t have all the answers to, but… she’s an Earth Pony who can do really weird things.”
‘An Earth Pony of blue? I cannot say… But my party did find a Unicorn of gray. Half of our number watches over her, to act as a protective chauffeur.’
“A Unicorn?” Rainbow Dash asked. “That can’t be Pinkie Pie… can it?”
“Ah don’ think so,” Applejack said with a hoof on her chin. “Pinkie’s never grown a horn b’fore, an’ Ah ain’ never seen her turn gray neither.”
“You don’t think those bultungin got her, do you?” Twilight asked Zecora fearfully.
Zecora closed her eyes slowly, before turning back to her compatriots and conversed with them in their native Idube. Tellingly, she still rhymed in her native tongue. Twilight flattened her ears, trying to not listen, in case there was some horrible fate that had befallen Pinkie that they were as yet not privy to.
Zecora faced Twilight once more, ‘Bultungin are savage, more or less. When they eat, they leave behind a bloody mess. But though we’ve searched, myself and my friends, we’ve found no proof of such a grisly end. It is possible your Pinkie Pie still survives, though we cannot wait until she arrives. A party shall patrol for her around this village, lest the bultungin return to pillage. You half-dozen shall accompany me, on the way back to the capital, see?’
“The capital?” Rarity gasped, a broad smile on her face. “The capital of Pundamilia itself? Why, I have heard such fabulous tales about the decor, the fashion, the je-ne-sais-quoi of the place!”
Zecora gave Rarity a slightly nervous smile, ‘It seems you are eager to make the trip. Very well, to the caravan with a hop, a jump and a skip!’
The village proved to be far more secure now that the bultungin had fled to the outskirts, though Twilight’s band still found themselves skittish about shadows inside the abandoned houses and shops on the path.
‘This village of Chekacheka was abandoned a month past,’ Zecora explained, ‘when the bultungin saw that the morning would ever last. They sought the shade of a Zebra home, for we are far from the place of gloam.’
“The Twilight Zone?” Twilight asked, to which Zecora nodded.
“So, if ya don’ mind me askin’, Zecora,” Applejack began, “how did y’all make that lion-roar t’ spook off all them hyena varmints?”
Zecora winked slyly at Applejack, ‘A trick of the trade of my Abada friends, to transform one’s vocal chords for many ends.’
‘What you ponies would call a Unicorn, though with two horns are they adorned. The Mbawa fly, with no magic in their horns; for theirs is a magic to be airborne. And my kind are called the Kwato, and ours is the talent to help plants grow.’
“So yer jus’ like us ponies!” Applejack smiled. “Well, don’ Ah feel like a mule’s uncle fer assumin’ some funny things ‘bout… well.”
Zecora nodded with an understanding smile, ‘We often find that our greatest foe, is merely what we believe that we know.’
A mere ten minutes later, they found themselves at the edge of Chekacheka, facing a large caravan of wood ornately carved with the snarling faces of Zebras. Rarity shuddered at the sight of it.
“Dear goodness…! That looks quite forbidding…!”
‘Tis merely a warning to fearsome beasts, who would see us all to be nothing but feasts. Now aboard, one and all, we have no time to lose. The Queen awaits us all, with no further time to schmooze!’
Passing towards the front of the caravan, where a door awaited its guests into the interior space, half of Twilight’s band let out fearful shrieks at the creature drawing it.
“What in tarnation is that thing…?” Applejack asked with a faint voice.
It looked like an elephant… but there was no elephant that was green and scaly across its entire body, with ears more like a cobra’s hood under its ram-like horns, or with a long serpentine tail, or with a snake’s head at the end of its trunk…
‘The creature which pulls our ride, though large, is an most excellent guide. A grootslang he is, a most intelligent beast, smarter than any you will find to the west or east!’
The grootslang’s slitted yellow eyes looked down at the band, who shivered in fright, but its gaze promptly returned to the front. Taking the moment to clear her throat, Twilight not-so-slowly sidled into the caravan, with her band of four close behind.
Oh Pinkie… I’m so sorry… I hope that wherever you are, you’re safe… As soon as we’re finished hearing Queen Malkia out, we’re winking back out here to come find you!
But any further thought of Pinkie was shifted to the side as Twilight took in the interior of the caravan. It was a single long space, dimly lit by grates in the ceiling. By the light did Twilight see tapestries depicting various Zebras of historical significance performing acts of heroism against beasts current or extinct, divided by panels that apparently slid aside and allowed views of the passing forest. Along either of the long walls of the caravan were raised seats for anyzebra to seat themselves upon.
And one of them was already taken.
In the back-left of the caravan was seated what looked to be the Unicorn whom Zecora was speaking of. She had an impossibly long white mane, though it did not look to be white from age but its own natural color. A fat slate-gray alicorn poked out from the top of her head. But her body language told Twilight that this was a more defeated mare than any she had ever seen or heard of. Her head hung low over the smooth wooden floor, her face completely covered by her mane and her ears completely flat against her skull. Her tail, almost as long as her mane, curled around her slate-gray haunches and covered her cutie mark from their view. A small band of Zebras stood apart from her, keeping watch over her but clearly giving her a wide berth. Upon sighting Twilight, they practically galloped towards the band at the exit.
“Thank Queen Malkia you’ve come!” he gasped in hasty Idube. “She uses her magic to throw us against the walls! She fills our heads with misery! She wants to be left alone! If you’re here, she’ll throw you against the walls and fill your heads with misery instead!”
And they not-so-politely pushed their way out of the caravan to join Zecora up on the grootslang.
“Pride of Queen Malkia, those Zebras are,” Twilight grumbled, before making her way down the aisle to sit across from the miserable Unicorn. Spike sat at Twilight’s left, beckoning for Rarity to seat herself next to him and finding himself once more disappointed by Applejack sitting next to him. Each of Twilight’s friends sat in a row to her left, opposite that miserable gray Unicorn.
“Little ray of sunshine, isn’t she?” Rainbow Dash muttered to Fluttershy, not bothering to keep her voice down. The gray Unicorn started at her voice, but made no other sign that she’d heard the Pegasus.
A shadow fell over one of the grates, and Zecora’s voice came down, ‘If you are all seated, it is time to depart. Do not be saddened, dear ponies; take heart! Your normally-pink friend our party will find, once her true location here has been divined. And the grootslang is as swift as he is loyal; we’ll soon be at the capital to meet someone royal!’
The shadow faded, and in moments the band heard a shout of Idube as the Zebras doubtlessly ordered the grootslang to move forward.
The caravan jolted into forward movement, and the entire band pitched out of their seats, Twilight pitching towards the gray Unicorn and knocking her off of her her seat as well.
Coughing slightly, Twilight pulled herself up, “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t expecting such a jolt. I…”
Her eyes drifted towards the slate-gray cone-shaped alicorn lying on the floor in front of her. It had a little silvery tuft of tinsel at the tip, like the tuft of bright-blue tinsel that had been on tip of a certain party hat Twilight had seen less than an hour ago…
That was no alicorn.
That, colored a miserable slate-gray, was a party hat!
She looked up at the slate-gray Earth Pony with the impossibly long white mane, a cutie mark of the popped remains of three jet-black balloons, and the saddle-shells around her barrel…
Lanky white hair parted seemingly of its own accord, and a blank-white eye focused on Twilight in resentment, a jet-black spiral radiating out from a pinprick pupil.