“Whoa…” Rainbow Dash boggled at the gray Earth Pony − for now they knew that this was no Unicorn − and shook her head vigorously to be sure that her mind was not playing tricks on her. “Pinkie Pie, you really altered your looks.”
“I’m not saying that the flat-mane look isn’t in right now, dearie,” Rarity said softly, reaching a hoof out to Pinkie’s exceptionally long pale mane, “But… I think that this is overdoing it.”
Pinkie’s mane withdrew of its own volition, the sullen Earth Pony shifting slightly in her seat so as not to face the fashionista.
“Pinkie Pie,” Applejack began steadily, “from one Earth Pony to another, Ah’m tellin’ ya not ta shut anypony out. It ain’ healthy.”
A slate-gray hoof raised itself sharply and pointed straight at Applejack’s muzzle. The message was clear: Talk to my hoof, because my face doesn’t want to hear it.
Applejack began to growl irritatedly.
“Applejack, please,” Twilight said sympathetically. “She’s not mad at any of you, really. She’s mad at me. So… I have to be the one to talk to her.”
Pinkie’s eye settled on Twilight as the lavender Unicorn lowered onto her haunches in front of her. Twilight took a deep breath in, and started slowly, “It really was out of line to get on your case about your… well… your Pinkie-ness. I was horrible to you, after you saved all of our lives, and… I’m sorry. I’m really truly deeply sorry.”
Pinkie said nothing. She may have been a statue for all the movement that she showed. It was beginning to unnerve Twilight how Pinkie Pie was just not blinking, nor was the one eye Twilight could see even moving. Saccades were perfectly normal in a pony’s eye, as it was never truly at rest, taking in every minute detail with miniscule darts here and there to gather a fuller picture. But Pinkie’s eye was just staring so intensely at one singular point on Twilight’s face that Twilight felt as though she was under the eye of the Unmaker himself, her continued existence only a matter of the willpower of some obscure figure of awe and dread.
“Pinkie…? Why aren’t you saying anything…?”
Pinkie did not reply, but pantomimed toward Twilight: with a spiteful glare she pointed at herself with her right hoof, cupped her colorless hooves on either side of her open mouth (allowing Twilight to see that even her insides had gone gray), then pointed at Twilight with her left hoof.
“You… want to say something… to me?” Twilight asked.
The monochrome Earth Pony took in a deep breath with closed eyes, her eyelids black. Twilight could see faded teeth set in ebony gums…
Then Pinkie blew a long and loud raspberry less than an inch from Twilight’s face, her eyes slightly askew. Twilight’s view filled with pale-white hair and black spirals in white eyes.
Her pale-gray tongue retracting into her mouth, Pinkie resumed her previous stance of slack misery, her curtain of lanky white hair closing over her face.
“Please, Pinkie… let me talk to you…” Twilight tried to pry open Pinkie’s mane, but somehow the strands adhered to each other like they were a solid piece.
Twilight sighed, her eyes burning, “Pinkie, please… I’m sorry…”
Desperately, Twilight took the slate-gray party cap in her dwimmer shimmer and placed it on Pinkie’s head. “See, Pinkie? It’s your party hat! You love parties! You love being happy, making other ponies happy, making them laugh!”
Pinkie’s mane slid open, letting Twilight see her spite-filled eye once more. Twilight offered a nervous smile…
Then a colorless dwimmer shimmer illuminated the party hat and Twilight found herself being hoisted off the ground in a cold pale light and dumped roughly on her head facing the wall. Pinkie swung around on her seat, choosing to face the wall herself. As she turned round, everypony saw that even her cutie mark had changed: the popped remains of three black balloons and their strings.
Rainbow Dash arched an eyebrow, “Well, that could’ve gone better, Purple Smart.”
“Bite me,” came the sharp reply.
Fluttershy reached out towards Pinkie plaintively, “Pinkie… please don’t be mad at Twilight… She really is sorry…”
Pinkie’s head spun around so fast that everypony thought that they could hear bones cracking as the gray Earth Pony’s head turned past the ten-dozen-and-ten-degree mark, her eye widening madly at the yellow Pegasus, her nostrils flaring and her teeth grinding together. Fluttershy yelped and shrunk back into her seat.
“Or stay mad at her, whatever makes you happy!” Fluttershy squeaked fearfully.
“Hey!” Rainbow Dash bellowed, leaning in towards Pinkie with gnashing teeth. “You leave her alone! She didn’t do anything to you!”
“Rainbow Dash, leave her be,” came Twilight’s voice, the lavender Unicorn having righted herself, rubbing her head sorely. “We can’t force her to be happy again. We have to let her come to her senses on her own.”
“So we’re gonna let her stew like this?” Rainbow Dash snapped. “She bound to bite somepony’s head off at this rate!”
“We can’t force her hoof, Rainbow Dash. I apologized to her. Now I have to wait for her to bounce back out of this funk.” Twilight watched as Pinkie’s head finished its full rotation, leaving the gray Earth Pony facing the wall again. She gulped, “If she even does snap back out of it.”
Hoofsteps atop the caravan caught everypony’s attention save Pinkie’s, and soon Zecora’s face appeared behind one of the grates in the ceiling.
‘My pony friends, is there trouble about? Methinks that I may have heard a shout,’ she asked of them.
Twilight waved a hoof at the gray mare huddled in the corner, “Remember that Pinkie Pie we told you about? This isn’t a Unicorn; it’s her.”
Zecora arched an eyebrow, ‘But such a revelation cannot be; she used Unicorn magic, my friends did see.’
“Well, I did say that she does weird things,” Twilight replied, before looking sadly at Pinkie’s back, “but right now, I couldn’t care less. I don’t care if her weird powers are just part and parcel of her special talent, or if she’s a liminal being of some sort. She’s my friend, and I made her angry at me, and at the world.”
‘Perhaps, to alleviate some remorse, you could open the window and view our course,’ Zecora offered, gesturing a hoof to the sliding panels between the tapestries on the walls.
Rainbow Dash bolted up to each panel in turn, sliding them open at lightning speed. She was back at Fluttershy’s side in a literal heartbeat, peering out the grated window at passing flora and fauna.
“Whoa, check that thing out!” she said brightly, pointing at a large reptilian creature in a marsh. It had a neck as long as a Giraffe’s, and a tail just as long. It was currently feeding off of the leaves on the top branches of a tree.
“A mokèlé-mbèmbé…” Twilight gasped in awe, watching it plod from one tree to the next.
“A whatnow?” Applejack replied.
“Equestrian herpetologists call it the apatosaurus. One of the largest reptiles on Harmonia. I never thought I’d see one so close…!”
It was obvious that Twilight’s friends were overcome with wonder at the mokèlé-mbèmbé, or the apatosaurus, or whatever name they preferred to call it. Fluttershy in particular looked in awe of the beast as it took a large branch in its teeth and bent it down to level with its knees, where…
“Look!” the yellow Pegasus gasped happily. “Babies!”
Some hatchling mokèlé-mbèmbé were cawing up at their parental figure, which had apparently lowered the branch to its children’s level so that they could feed on the dewy leaves of the tree’s highest branches.
Looking over her shoulder, Twilight’s smile faltered at the sight of Pinkie. She was seated in front of a closed panel. Maybe seeing some of the natural wonders of Pundamilia would do her some good…
Pinkie spun around in a flash before Twilight had even halfway crossed the caravan’s breadth, her forelegs miming the act of being trapped inside of a large box. Her mane completely covered her face; Twilight could not begin to guess what Pinkie’s facial expression was, though she had a shrewd idea. Almost as quickly as Pinkie had spun around, she was facing the wall again.
Twilight was too canny regarding Pinkie’s unusual abilities to write off the monochrome mare’s antics as fruitless. Sure enough, when she reached a cloven hoof out to the exact spot where Pinkie had placed her hooves, it met a completely invisible wall that would not yield at her force.
A clown when she’s happy, a mime when she’s sad… What have I done to you, Pinkie…?
Underneath Pinkie’s curtain of lanky white hair, ink-black tears leaked from the helical black markings on her blank white eyes, her teeth constricted and her lips quivering in misery…
The journey to Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe was not necessarily a slow one, but it was definitely a leisurely one. The creatures of Pundamilia were most certainly less agitated by the perpetual morning than Equestria’s were by eternal night. There were many that were not terribly unlike the sorts that ponies would see in zoos, such as primates swinging about through the trees and eating various types of fruit, hippopotamuses wallowing about in the shallows and the crocodiles that they steered clear of. However, there were many others that were obviously either too big or too dangerous to be kept in any zoo.
Fluttershy squeaked in terror and hid from the window. “I… I think I just saw a dragon!”
“No way!” Spike cried gleefully, looking eagerly out the grated slots. “Where is it? Where’s the dragon?”
Twilight looked out curiously, before shaking her head at the long-necked beast in the broad swamp to the left of their path, “That’s not a dragon, Fluttershy. That’s a ninki nanka.”
“Is that Zebra fer ‘dragon’?” Applejack asked pointedly.
“I’m afraid not,” Twilight replied. “It’s a brachiosaurus. It’s very territorial; notice there aren’t any other creatures in the swamp with it? And it will overturn any boats that stray too close to it.”
Fluttershy sighed happily, “Thank goodness it wasn’t a dragon.”
“Hey!” Spike interjected. “What’s wrong with dragons?”
“Well, it’s just… I’m scared of dragons.”
“But… I’m a dragon,” Spike continued, looking and sounding more than a little hurt.
Rainbow Dash wrapped a wing around Fluttershy, “I think what ‘Shy means is that she’s scared of full-grown, fire-breathing, eat-a-pony-in-one-swallow dragons. You’re just a baby dragon, Spike; cute and harmless.”
“Hey! Who said I’m harmless?” Spike growled, before Twilight rested a hoof on his shoulder.
“Don’t listen to Rainbow Dash, Spike,” she said softly. “You’re the toughest, bravest dragon that I know. What other dragon could have held back the Nightmare Guard like you did?”
Spike smiled broadly and warmly at the nuzzle that Twilight gave him, and the sight of his joy kindled a new warmth in her heart. How could she have lived without this happiness…?
Noticing the looks that her friends were giving her, Twilight pulled Spike a little closer and said brightly, “I have accepted Spike’s feelings for me as a son… and give him my feelings as a mother.”
Rarity let out a high squeal of delight, Applejack gave a joyful cheer, Fluttershy gave a nod with a smile and Rainbow Dash…
Rainbow Dash gave a genuinely warm smirk.
“Word to you for being honest to yourself, TS.”
Twilight blinked, but made no other show of surprise at the rather reserved reply from the rainbow-maned Pegasus. “Well… thank you, Rainbow Dash.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Fluttershy squeaked in fear as she looked back out the window, “Is that a dragon, Twilight?”
Twilight took a look at the winged shape between the treetops.
“That’s a kongamato − or a pteranodon, if you like.”
Rainbow Dash pointed out the window herself.
“And that. You can’t tell me that that’s not a dragon? That thing has to be a dragon!”
“That’s a gbahali,” Twilight scoffed at the crocodilian creature basking in the sunlight, its long legs hidden by the swamp water.
“Really?” Rainbow Dash replied nervously. “Coulda sworn that that was Spike’s fourth cousin twice removed. Oh hey, is anypony else hungry? ‘Cause I am!”
Bald-faced attempts to steer the subject away from her faux pas aside, most everypony agreed that they were indeed rather peckish. Their attention switched to opening their saddle-shells and digging into the provisions that King Leo’s cooks had provided. Only Applejack seemed to hesitate at opening her saddle-shells.
“Applejack?” Rarity queried, purple light shining at her face from inside her saddle-shells. “Are you not hungry?”
Applejack waved a hoof dismissively, “‘Fraid not, Rarity. Ah specially requested ta King Leo’s cooks ta only bake me nonperishables. Ah’m savin’ mah food fer emergencies, in case we run out.”
Her stomach began to growl furiously almost immediately after she finished. The palomino offered a nervous grin.
“Well… mah Granny Smith always did say Ah have th’ appetite of a full-grown stallion.”
“Well, you could share my food,” Twilight offered, levitating a hayburger out of its paper wrap.
“Aww, no, Ah couldn’, Twi. It’s th’ food that yer honorary uncle had made fer ya.”
Rainbow Dash snorted, “What is it with you Earth Ponies going on hunger strikes today?”
Applejack glared, “Excuse me?”
“Well, don’t look at me; look at her!” She pointed at Pinkie Pie. The monochrome Earth Pony had not so much as moved, her ears not even having twitched; she might as well have not heard Rainbow Dash.
Twilight hesitated; she had told her friends that leaving Pinkie alone right now as probably the best idea now that she’d apologized. However, Pinkie going on a hunger strike was only likely to exacerbate any irritation that she was holding onto. Swallowing her nervousness, Twilight set down onto all four hooves and took slow steps towards the desaturated Earth Pony.
“Pinkie…” Twilight levitated a small daisy-oat sandwich from her saddle-shells. “Please… you have to eat something.”
“Twilight?” Applejack asked with a nervous edge. “Are ya sure that’s a good idea Ah mean, ya did say―”
“I know what I said, Applejack,” Twilight replied shortly, before facing Pinkie once more. The gray Earth Pony had not budged at all; she was stiller than a statue.
“Please, Pinkie, you have to eat. I’m not asking this for me; this is for you. We have to keep up our strength.”
Pinkie turned slowly towards Twilight, a part opening in her mane to allow the sullen mare a glance at the sandwich in Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer.
Twilight felt her eyes burn, “Please, Pinkie…?”
Pinkie blinked, looking from Twilight to the sandwich and back again. Finally, slowly, her hoof drew itself upwards and held itself out beneath Twilight’s floating sandwich.
Twilight smiled, “Thank you, Pinkie,” and lowered the sandwich into Pinkie’s waiting hoof. The monochrome mare slowly drew the sandwich back towards herself, pushing her mane back behind her head as she held the daisy-oats sandwich between her hooves. Her spiraled eyes focused singularly on the sandwich, as though she’d never seen one before. She seemed to pay no mind to the anxiously expectant looks that Twilight and her friends were giving her.
Her mouth slowly opened, the sandwich drawing towards her mouth, her teeth sank into the bread, and she drew back as she chewed.
Twilight could see the microscopic flash of enjoyment on Pinkie Pie’s face, the minor widening of the eyes, the slackening of the jaw, the loosening of the cheeks as she apparently caught the taste of the daisy and oats mixed together with the bread and some special seasonings of Aquastrian origin that evidently magnified the flavor of all the parts. It was past in less than a moment, though, and she was chewing more slowly and scowling as though to pretend that she was not enjoying the sandwich one bit.
Smiling encouragingly at the sullen mare, Twilight returned to her seat to face her other friends’ mildly perplexed looks. She shrugged.
“It’s the best we can hope for for now,” she said lowly in the hopes that Pinkie was too absorbed with eating the sandwich to hear her. “Even eating a sandwich that I offered her must have been a big step for her.”
“Ah hope yer right,” Applejack whispered, glancing over at the gray Earth Pony across the aisle. “Ah ain’ never seen Pinkie so glum b’fore.”
Twilight nodded, her heart lightening at the sight of Pinkie absentmindedly licking bread crumbs off of her hooves with a gray tongue.
With no sunset, it was difficult to judge when was the correct time to fall asleep. It was the opposite problem that they had faced on so many days’ journeys back in Equestria, where the sheer lack of sunlight led to more than a few false stops on any given day. Here, in a Pundamilian caravan traveling through foreign wilderness surrounded by foreign creatures, the constant morning sunshine continually tricked the band into a state of wakefulness.
Zecora evidently seemed to be rather aware of this, as she drew the caravan to a halt and entered the caravan itself, facing the band with sympathetic eyes.
‘The journey is still long, I realise,’ she said slowly, ‘so we will stop for now and rest our eyes.’
There was no contesting this; if anything, the fact that the caravan and grootslang had stopped was as good a way to induce sleepiness as they could acquire out here in a state of perpetual morning. Zecora’s fellow Zebra attendants provided blankets for the entire group, though it proved difficult to drape Pinkie Pie in a blanket when she continued to sit upright in her statuesque posture. These blankets were specially enchanted by an Abada named Kitanda, who made the blankets cool to the touch, to aid in sleeping through the eternally baking morning.
Falling asleep was hardly restful for Twilight, and she assumed that the same held true for Pony and Zebra alike. It had nothing to do with the beasts which lived in the thinning forest around them; the grootslang was the mightiest beast in the continent of Aspicia, feared even by the kingly lion and the deadly manticore. Despite their security because of the great beast drawing their caravan, the ever-present daylight kept many restless. Even the stoic Pinkie Pie was shuddering mildly, though perhaps she was just trying to wiggle herself deeper under her blanket. Taking one last sad look at the mess that she’d made of that funny little mare, Twilight threw herself under her blanket and forced her eyes shut.
Sleep did not come easily just because she kept her eyes tightly shut, but Twilight refused to yield to insomnia, and a quick sleep spell cast upon herself soon brought her into the land of rest.
Her dreams were filled with falling stone spheres which crumbled at the sound of devilish laughter… Pinkie Pie elongating into a long rope and giggling madly… Rarity giving away all that she possessed including her very skin and bones… Applejack fusing into her body and following her everywhere… Fluttershy nursing her with a milk bottle… Rainbow Dash being Rainbow Dash… Spike burping up a letter from NightMare Moon that detailed the greater significance of dust in a world of perpetual darkness…
Her parents were back to normal! But… her father Nachtlicht still had a cactus for half of his head, and one of his legs was extremely prickly. He collapsed, and Twilight reached down to him in horror, before she heard a wretched gagging noise above her. Twilight Velvet, her mother, had a cluster of agave leaves emerging from out of her mouth, nostrils and ears… She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t scream, but ripping out the leaves caused her even greater pain! What had gone wrong? Was it bad to try to turn them back…? How would they last in this world in this state…? Why was this life such a nightmare?
Twilight sat bolt upright, almost bumping into a pair of bright-blue eyes.
“Woo-ee, Twilight! You gotta let some ponies know when you’re gonna wake up from a really really bad dream, ‘cause you almost knocked my block off with that head-butt~”
Twilight blinked; was she still dreaming? Bouncing about the room with gleeful abandon and rubbery legs was Pinkie Pie, as bright and pink and gleeful as the day Twilight had met her. Her party hat had even returned to its bright blue hue.
“Pinkie…?” Twilight gasped. “You’re… you again?”
Pinkie giggled, “Silly Twilight. I’m never not me~ It’s just…” The normally exuberant mare’s ears drooped slightly, and the corners of her mouth fell. “Sometimes… when I think that other ponies don’t like me… I turn gray. And when I’m gray, I’m… not fun anymore. I’m just angry at everypony, and I just want to be alone. I…” She sniffled. “If I get to be Not-Fun Pinkie again, I’m sorry.”
“I know, Pinkie,” Twilight said with a sad smile, putting a hoof on Pinkie’s feathery shoulder. “I know. I’m sorry I had to put you through that. But right now, I’m just glad that my friend’s back.”
Pinkie wiped away a single tear. “I’m glad I’m back too.”
Rainbow Dash let out a long whinnying yawn, stretching out from under the blanket she was sharing with Fluttershy. The cyan Pegasus’s wings flexed slowly as she rubbed at her eyes with a feathery hoof. Blinking, Rainbow Dash squinted at the ruffled feathers of her fetlocks, digging her teeth into the downy fetlock and pulling out a split orange feather which she spat out on the floor. Slowly shaking her head, she began to bend one of her wings around to preen when she noticed that Twilight and Pinkie were awake and watching. She glowered with half-sleepy eyes.
“Preening’s a private business, guys,” she slurred. “Do ya mind not starin’?”
“Oops! Sorry, Dashie~” Pinkie squealed as she pulled her tail around her eyes… Then her eyes poked out through her tail. “But I preen my fetlocks in public, Dashie, and nopony complains about that~”
“Well, you’re you, Pinkie Pie,” Rainbow Dash drawled before returning to nose at her secondaries.
Her eyes popped out of her head, and she double-taked at the pink Earth Pony, who batted her eyelids innocently at Rainbow.
“Pinkie Pie? You’re… you? You’re back to normal…? Well, I mean, normal for you, but…”
“Yupper-wupper!” Pinkie squeaked with a broad grin. “Twilight here said she was sorry, and I could tell that she really really really really really really meant it, so I decided that it was wrong to be a grumpy meanie-pants about the whole situation and go back to being normal bouncy happy Pinkamena Diane Pie again~! And let me tell you, it feels good to be able to talk again, ‘cause earlier when I was being a grumpy-wumpster I didn’t talk and it felt so terrible not talking about my problems and not being able to tell you how tasty that hayburger was, Twilight, and I‘m just so so so so glad that I‘m glad to talk again~!”
Rainbow Dash chuckled, “You’ve definitely got your head back on straight, Pinks.”
“Really? I never thought that my head had ever gotten back on backwards before,” Pinkie wondered with a hoof to her chin and flicking an ear in thought.
“It’s a figure of speech, Pinkie,” Twilight explained with a mild grin, trying not to imagine the prospect of Pinkie taking her own head off and putting it back on with no intervening period of death.
Others began to stir around them, Zecora being the first to fully draw herself to the waking world. The rhyming Zebra scanned the room slowly, blinking slowly at the sight of Pinkie Pie before turning her head towards Twilight.
‘Do I spy with my very own eye,’ she said sleepily, ‘the pink mare whom you called Pinkie Pie?’
“Yes indeedy that’s me all over! It is I, Pinkie Pie~” Pinkie Pie shouted gleefully and somewhat dramatically, the others rousing more fitfully as a result of her exuberance. Spike jolted awake and began to stammer blearily about some sort of attack, Fluttershy let out a fearful squeak and glanced about anxiously, Applejack clamped her hooves over her ears and clenched her eyes shut, and Rarity actually shot bolt upright and sent her blanket flying up to the ceiling. The zebras around them, to their credit, made virtually no noise as they quickly rose to all fours and began to paw the ground in readiness for combat.
“Worry not my friends, the mare is no danger,” Zecora said in Idube. “Though there is now no need for our rangers. For this pony you see before your eyes, is the very selfsame Pinkie Pie.”
The zebras looked at Zecora with slightly bemused expressions, but the fact that they had lowered their raised hooves to the ground was a sign to Twilight that they no longer thought of this pink Earth Pony as potentially hostile.
Once the crabbiness had been successfully averted, Twilight explained as best as she could (with the occasional interjection from Pinkie herself) what exactly had unfolded to make Pinke temporarily turn gray and bitter. Her audience simply nodded and accepted her explanation (as translated by Zecora), but it was clear that they were just as baffled as the one explaining it to them.
After all was said and done, Pinkie Pie’s Ponyville friends rose to their hooves and, one by one, gave her a firm hug.
“Ah cin rightly say that Ah ain’ never been happier ta see ya, Pinkie Pie,” Applejack said softly.
“Aww, I’m happy to see you too, Appley-jack~”
“You’re really spooky when you’re gray, you know that, right?” Rainbow Dash said with a broad grin.
“I know, right? I mean, I turned gray!” Pinkie giggled emphatically, earning her several odd looks.
“I must say, as unbecoming as it is for a mare of your age to be so exuberant,” Rarity said smilingly, “it is most relieving to see you rather than… that.”
“Who wouldn’t want to see me? I’m the partiest pony in Ponyville~!”
Fluttershy hesitated a little in approaching the pink party pony; she clearly recalled the deathly stare Pinkie had given her in her more hostile condition. But the hug that she gave to Pinkie was just as firm as her other friends’.
“Please don’t scare us like that again,” Fluttershy said in a low breath.
“Pinkie Promise!” Pinkie said brightly, crossing her heart with a forehoof.
With all business relating to Earth Ponies who could change color behind them (hopefully), Zecora and her band of zebras returned to their positions atop the caravan to man the grootslang. Twilight and her band prepared to open their saddle-shells and have some breakfast…
When a great hissing trumpet broke the morning air, echoing out for miles.
Fluttershy screamed in terror, hiding underneath her blanket. “What in the world was that?”
She was not the only one to show alarm, just the one to show it most timidly. Rainbow Dash and Applejack tensed up, preparing for combat. Pinkie Pie reached into her mane and pulled out a large blue cannon, wrapping the fuse around a hoof. Twilight and Rarity alit their respective alicorns, each cycling through spells in their minds that would be adequate for subduing some foe. Spike put up his claws, balled into fists, trying to put on a brave face.
Zecora’s face appeared in one of the grates overhead, ‘Worry not about that sound, which echoed forth through air and ground. The grootslang’s call we did send out, so as to call back our patrolling scouts. These forests they know, from treetop to root, and the speed that they travel will leave you quite mute. They will join us in time, with the speed of the wind, with news that surely will make them grin: The pink one is found, and our journey commences; by this week’s end, we’ll see the capital’s fences!’
Settling down once more, the band sat down to have their breakfasts, Fluttershy snuggling up to Rainbow Dash for comfort. Applejack once more abstained from opening her saddle-shells, choosing to subsist only on her own internal stores of Earth Pony magic.
“Ah actually got a lot a’ excess energy from when Ah saved Twilight from that hyena feller,” she explained. “Ah cin take in energy from soil when Ah’m standin’ firmlike, an’ Ah did that ta ward off a bite from that nasty critter. It’s how an apple-farmer can work in the field all day without needin’ so much as a salt lick! Ah like the feel a’ the soil out here in Zebra country; feels right fertile!”
Twilight did not quite understand Applejack’s talk of the “feel” of Pundamilian soil, but put it down to Earth Pony magic’s uniqueness.
The last legs of the journey to the Pundamilian capital took the caravan out of the forest and into the savannah, the trees and swamps settled with wildlife replaced with wide plains of grass and intermittent herds. The occasional spark of lightning in the sky initially brought Rainbow Dash glee, thinking that the Wonderbolts had come out to aid them, but it turned out to be an impundulu, or a lightning-bird as Twilight translated.
Of course, not all of the sights and sounds were unpleasant. Herds of wildebeest could occasionally be seen grazing, giving the grootslang and its towed caravan a wide berth. Magnificent birds of all sorts, even the majestic bennu, alighted upon the occasional rock and pecked away at moss or bugs upon the rocks’ surfaces.
The zebra scouts who had been searching for Pinkie Pie under the assumption that she was lost, and not gray, had joined up with the caravan a mere two days after the grootslang had sounded its call. Twilight was astonished at the speed with which zebras could travel, but recalled Applejack’s “standing firm”, and reasoned that perhaps the Kwato zebras had implemented the opposite kind of magic: repulsion as opposed to attraction.
Pinkie’s gumball-radio let them know that NightMare Moon was cracking down even harder upon Equestria than she had before, coercing the greatest Unicorns in the land to erect an anti-winking ward around the entirety of the queendom. Nopony could wink into or out of Equestria, and if they tried, then the Nightmare Guard and the Shadowbolts would know immediately.
“But where are the Wonderbolts?” Rainbow Dash asked anxiously.
As it transpired, the Wonderbolts themselves had forfeited combat operations against the Shadowbolts, instead taking to the sky and raining down their sun-bolts over cities, towns and villages without heliogenesis suns, using their high speed to evade pursuit and capture. Rainbow Dash scoffed at the notion of them “backing down from a fight”, but conceded that perhaps this was the smarter option.
On the seventh day since they entered the caravan (days measured only by the duration of sleep cycles), the savannah around them began to thin out, the grass becoming shorter and more sparse. The rocks were smaller, but more frequent. More unsightly kinds of plants made their homes here, and few animals dared to cross this way willfully.
“Look!” Twilight pointed out the window, at a patch of deep-blue flowers off in the distance. But it was not simply their petals that were blue. Their stems were blue, their leaves were blue, even their pollen was blue. Twilight had a shrewd idea as to the genus of those plants. “Poison Joke.”
“That’s it?” Rainbow Dash commented, a rainbow eyebrow raised. “Doesn’t look so bad. It’s just… blue.”
“While I do find it a most pleasant shade of azure,” Rarity cut in, “blue can be a rather dismaying color.”
“Excuse me?” the cyan Pegasus replied, furrowing her brow. “I happen to be very blue!”
“Rather more a very light cerulean,” Rarity corrected, “but that patch of Poison Joke is, based off of Zecora’s own recollection, capable of pulling some rather mean practical jokes.”
Rainbow Dash snorted, “I betcha you’d look like one of them mop dogs.”
Rarity butted her forehead against Rainbow Dash’s, her eyes flaring, “You take that back!”
“Why should I?”
“Because some ponies happen to take great pride in their appearances!”
“You got that right!” grinned Rainbow Dash, flicking a few locks of green, blue and purple mane with a sweep of her hoof. “See this, baby? All natural. I just let the wind brush my mane out!”
“Well, I suppose that does work for some mares, but…” Rarity suddenly stammered, rearranging her pensive look into a rather perturbed one. “But I still do not appreciate the snide remark about my potential resemblance to a puli dog!”
“Okay okay, fine, I’m sorry, princess,” Rainbow Dash drawled. “End of the chapter, close the book.”
“But we’re not over!” Pinkie Pie interjected, looking madly about at… well, nothing in particular. “This chapter’s not over yet! …Is it? Is someone still writing out my words? Am I about to go mute? Is the whole world about to go mute?”
Laughter began to brim from each of those sitting around Pinkie. Her madcap declamation had effectively defused the tension in the caravan more effectively than anything that any of them could have planned or suggested.
Rainbow Dash beamed, “Man, Pinkie sure is a laugh and a half, isn’t she?”
Rarity nodded with a light smile, “She appears to be in top form at the moment.”
Rainbow Dash’s eyes met Rarity’s, “No hard feelings?”
Rarity’s eyes met Rainbow Dash’s, “None.”
“Right, then. Let’s hoof-bump on it!”
Rainbow Dash spat in her hoof and held it out towards Rarity.
Rarity recoiled with a shriek of horror, her ears going flat and her hooves drawn up over her face instinctively. Applejack bust out a great guffawing laugh at the sight, and Rarity glared daggers at the palomino.
‘My pony friends, do not glower,’ Zecora’s voice interjected from one of the ceiling grates, drawing the attention of all, ‘for we’ll approach the capital within the hour. Collect yourselves, and keep your manners clean, for you shall soon be meeting the Zebra Queen!’
The prospect of soon meeting the Queen of Pundamilia shot bolts of eagerness and anxiety through Twilight and her friends. Finally, some answers! The secrets of the Elements of Harmony would be revealed, and the downfall of NightMare Moon would soon follow!
With the approach to Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe imminent, Twilight found herself getting rather giddy at the prospect of meeting somebody who had known Queen Celestia for so long.
“This is really exciting!” she said fervently. “Queen Malkia has a long history with Queen Celestia! They’ve been on the Cosmic Council together for grossenturies!”
“The Cosmic Council?” Rainbow Dash remarked. “What’s that?”
“It’s a council of the heads of state of the greatest countries in Harmonia,” Twilight explained patiently. “Equestria is represented, of course, as are the Crystal Empire of the Crystal Ponies, Aquastria of the Mermares, Magnesia the land of Centaurs, Saddle Arabia the home of Horses, the Minotaurs, Qín the country of Qílín, Orlalvov the empire of Griffons, and a fair few others. Honestly, Rainbow Dash, you’d think you never read a book in your life.”
The cerulean Pegasus scoffed, “Reading, schmeading. I couldn’t possibly think of very many books that would be awesome enough for me to read.”
Twilight let out a snorting chuckle, “I can think of at least ten.”
Rainbow Dash promptly scrunched her muzzle up and darted wide cerise eyes about nervously, prompting a high giggle from Pinkie Pie.
Their saddle-shells replaced upon their backs, Twilight and her friends took to their seats and anxiously anticipated their arrival at the capital. Spike cuddled himself in between Twilight’s forelegs, the lavender mare wrapping her hooves around his belly. He rested his claws on her forelocks and smiled up at her, Twilight smiling in return.
Barely dozen-and-eight minutes had passed before Zecora appeared once more in the ceiling windows, with a kindly smile.
‘The capital nears; join me on the roof,’ she explained, ‘for soon we shall have to enter by hoof. The capital allows no grootslang entry, for they await at the gates as sentries.’
Acquiescing to the zebra’s request, Twilight took Spike onto her back and led her friends out of the caravan, scaling a small wooden staircase that Kitanda the Abada had set down for them. Seated at the top of the caravan, behind the great back of the grootslang, Twilight could see far into the distance of the savannah. Squinting slightly, she thought that she could make out the wavering shapes of sand-colored buildings, along with a white building topped with black bulbs and a large central black dome.
“We’re almost there…!” Twilight breathed.
Spike placed a claw over his eyes to block out the light bouncing off of wild clouds above. “That’s the zebra capital? Doesn’t look all that big.”
‘A large capital does not a good capital make,’ Zecora explained. ‘If invaded, we’ve not many lives at stake. Also… the Queen can foresee a time, when her funeral bells will surely chime.’
Twilight found herself wincing slightly; Queen Malkia, dying? “Wh-what do you mean?”
Zecora closed her eyes in bereavement, ‘She allows her subjects some laissez-faire, with all of her compassion beyond compare. She gives us time to think and grow, so that her passing will not be such a blow. One day, she will die, and I fear it’s soon. She may not even see the defeat of NightMare Moon.’
“That’s heavy stuff, man,” Rainbow Dash replied soberly.
In a matter of minutes, the grootslang had reached the walls of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe. Tall and built of sandstone they were, but enchantments of Abada and Kwato alike lay upon the walls to prevent erosion; these same walls had been erected over two-dozen-gross years prior when Malkia Mrahaba’s great ancestor founded the metropolis. The great gates into Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe, Kupigwa, were forged from alternating rows of dark and light stone, and they were also fortified with powerful defensive magic, only opening when the guardszebras allowed passage into the city. On either side of the great gates were two lion’s heads carved into the stone, the left one snarling.
A pair of zebra guards, one Mbawa and one Abada, crossed a pair of spears in front of the Kupigwa, blocking the passage into the city. They spoke with Zecora in their native Idube, and the rhyming zebra responded in kind to them. Though Twilight blocked most of their speech out of her mind as a matter of privacy, she caught the general gist of the conversation: Zecora had been sent out to retrieve a party of mares dispatched from Lyonesse, and confirmation of their retrieval was made. The Mbawa and Abada guards nodded smilingly, Zecora leaping down to join them. Each of them placed a hoof upon the Kupigwa gate, and the dark and light stones sank into the ground as if it were quicksand.
“Whoa…” Rainbow Dash gasped.
“That’s some magic,” commented Applejack with wide eyes.
‘Come on down, my pony friends,’ Zecora beckoned. ‘Your travel has now reached its end.’
Leaping down from the caravan and trotting alongside the grootslang as it slid its eyelids shut, Twilight and her band joined Zecora as she welcomed them into the Pundamilian capital of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe.
Gasps and exclamations of awe and wonder broke out. After the gradually deteriorating conditions of the outside leading up to this arrival, they had every one of them grown to fear that the capital of the zebra nation had fallen into dilapidation. Such worries proved to be unfounded; though by no means in prime condition, it withstood well the ill conditions that a perpetual early morning sunrise would bring after over a month’s time.
All around were buildings of sandstone, as Twilight had seen from atop the caravan, and these were workshops of blacksmiths, store-owners, carpenters, weavers, all sorts of different working zebra-folk. Streets branched off into each different direction from this main thoroughfare, leading directly towards the capitol castle, the residence of Queen Malkia and the royal family.
Rarity’s jaw was agape at all of the fine tapestries and cloths that she saw zebras of all shapes and sizes selling at their places of business. “I… I do not think that I have ever seen such beautiful garments before. I think that I’ve found the inspiration for my next fashion line!”
“That’s great, Rarity, really it is,” Twilight said with a bright but firm tone, “but we really need to get to Queen Malkia quickly.”
‘That will not be necessary, my dear little pony,’ came a low and melodious voice from up on high, prompting the eyes and heads of Twilight and her band to crane upwards. Floating above the main street of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe was an Mbawa, the grandest and most magnificent that anypony present had ever seen. Her colors and stripes were almost more like a tiger’s than a zebra’s, and as she descended to the street her regalia could be easily made out: a nemes, striped blue and white across her head with holes for her horns, a golden collar emblazoned with a shining white diamond ankh identical to the mark on her flanks, six golden bands on each leg and three binding her tail. Alighting upon the thoroughfare, everyzebra in the plaza immediately sank to her or his knees and began to susurrate reverently.
“Queen Malkia…” Twilight said in awe, preparing to sink to her own knees.
‘Stand, Unicorn,’ said the Zebra Queen sternly, before craning her head down to meet Twilight’s eye level. Twilight leaned back slightly, the compulsion to blink rising as those dark eyes burrowed into hers.
‘We require proof of your passage, little pony,’ pressed Malkia.
Spike gasped, “Mom! The cipher!”
“Oh! Right…” Twilight used her pink dwimmer shimmer to open her saddle-shells, producing the cipher that Queen Celestia had originally left for her. The Queen took it in between two primaries, scrutinizing the piece of ancient parchment. Twilight found herself sweating, even though she was in the shadow of the walls of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe; what if Queen Malkia did not understand the purpose of this cipher…?
‘“I, Queen Celestia, have hidden the secret to the sixth Element with the royal bloodline of Pundamilia”,’ read Queen Malkia aloud. ‘“Go to the capital, Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe, and present this cipher to Queen Malkia. She will trust you.”’ She then passed the missive back to Twilight, who placed it back in her saddle-shell. A new twinkle was in the Queen’s eyes.
“You can read the Bookworm Cipher?” Twilight gasped.
‘Truth be told, I cannot,’ Queen Malkia confessed with an astonishing levity, ‘but I would not forget those numbers if I lived a dozen-giggrossiad more.’
She reached a wing over and draped it over Twilight’s back − Spike chuckling slightly as the feathers brushed against his ticklish spots − and drew the lavender Unicorn in close for a surprisingly warm hug.
Queen Malkia murmured to Twilight in Idube, “Where do the Sun and Moon shine together?”
Remembering the customary return to such a statement from her learnings on Pundamilian royalty, Twilight smiled as she replied, “In the sky of the hearts of all that live.”
Queen Malkia beamed brightly, ‘You are very knowledgeable of our customs, young one. May you and yours be ever blessed by Sun and Moon alike.’
Twilight’s heart ached for her broken family back in Equestria, but when Spike wrapped his claws around her neck, she smiled warmly back at him.
‘Now, perhaps as we proceed back to my audience chamber,’ Queen Malkia said with a flair of her wings and a great leap down the thoroughfare, ‘we can introduce ourselves to one another.’ She faced Zecora, “Zecora, you will accompany us.”
Zecora inclined her head, “You honor me, my Queen so kind, whose mind is brighter than the stars combined.”
“Quite,” replied Queen Malkia levelly, before addressing her pony companions in Equus, ‘Now then, shall we?’
“…and then I turned gray!” Pinkie Pie giggled. “Isn’t that so funny?”
Queen Malkia raised a quizzical eyebrow at the pink Earth Pony as they passed through the gate from Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe’s outer ring to its inner ring. For the city of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe was laid out in a circle of three rings, each of which could be locked down in case of an enemy assault. The outer ring was home to the merchants and their workplaces; the inner ring was where the bueraucrats and stateszebras of Pundamilia worked and lived while within the city’s walls; and the innermost ring, the “royal ring”, served as the home to Queen Malkia, her royal family and their attendants. Each ring was permeated with powerful defensive magic, bolstering one another to provide a solid protection to everyzebra inside.
‘Yes. Quite amusing,’ Queen Malkia offered hesitantly to Pinkie Pie, before leaning her head down to Twilight and speaking in sotto voce, ‘Does this mare speak figuratively, Twilight Sparkle, or is she possessed?’
Twilight merely shook her head, “It’s better just to laugh it off. That’s why she turned gray, because I didn’t.”
Queen Malkia blinked expectantly at Twilight Sparkle, before glancing back at the beaming Pinkie Pie who pronked gaily along, finally turning her gaze upon the two Pegasi, both hovering along side-by-side.
‘You two seem exceptionally close,’ she observed. ‘Perchance are you two… married?’
“No, we’re not sisters!” Rainbow Dash growled, before blushing red and hiding her cerulean face in her forehooves. “Agh… Sorry. I thought that you were… Forget I said anything.”
“Technically, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy are engaged,” Twilight interceded.
‘Ahh…’ nodded Queen Malkia, before smiling upon the Pegasi. ‘My greatest wishes of benefaction upon your union.’
“Umm… thank you… Your Highness,” stammered Fluttershy, withdrawing a little behind her mane.
“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash nonchalantly brought her hooves down, putting on a broad grin. “Yeah, what she said.”
Queen Malkia gave them one last nod before passing her eyes onto Applejack, whose eyes were passing along each passing noblezebra, each one dressed in robes of royal hue.
‘And what is your name, young Earth Pony?’
Applejack’s attention immediately returned to the Zebra Queen, a slight blush in her freckled cheeks, “Oh! Well, Ah beg yer pardon, Yer Highness, but Ah ain’ seen such high-livin’ since… well, since Ah was a little filly mahself. Anyway, name’s Applejack, an’ Ah’m of the Apple family!”
‘The Apple family…’ Queen Malkia pondered aloud. ‘Yes, I do recall Celestia speaking of a colony settling in the Untamed Vale.’
“More’n a colony now, it’s a whole village! An’ mah family sells all the apple wares anypony − or anyzebra − could ask for. Why, Ah have some apple treats right here in mah saddle-shells if’n ya’d fancy a bite.”
Queen Malkia politely shook her head with a smile, ‘I thank you, but I pass.’
Finally her eyes drifted to Rarity, who was admiring the Queen’s regalia with an almost hypnotized demeanor.
‘And you are…?’
Rarity blinked, and her entire posture went shocked and loose in a decidedly unRarity-like fashion, “Oh! Do forgive me, Your Eminence! I was just so… taken with your attire! It is simply divine! But oh, where are my manners? My name is Rarity, Rarity Belle! I am a humble yet talented fashionista mare, and my boutique is known as Carousel Couture. It would be my greatest pleasure to design an outfit for you… that is, when we can find the time. What is it that you would look for in a Carousel Couture dress-saddle?”
Queen Malkia lowered her head in rumination, before breathing darkly, ‘My funeral vestments.’
The formerly light and even jovial atmosphere became suddenly darker, as though a violin string had become exceptionally tightened while being played.
“Your… funeral vestments?” Twilight echoed. “Queen Malkia… is everything alright?”
Queen Malkia passed a sad smile on to Twilight, ‘I am fine, Twilight Sparkle. In fact, I could not be happier. Forgive me, but I found myself rejoicing at the Sun freezing in the sky that morning over one month ago. For it meant that my own long day was soon to be passed, and I could finally take a very long rest.’
“Your own long day…?” echoed Rarity.
“Is this to do with how you look like you’re in your prime, and yet you’re…” Twilight hesitated; she knew it was not polite to ask a lady two things: her age, or her weight. “You’re…”
“Like, a gigagross years old?” Rainbow Dash cut in.
Queen Malkia turned her dark eyes upon the cerulean Pegasus, her ears flattening.
“Rainbow Dash!” Applejack snapped. “There’s a time an’ place fer talkin’ bluntly! An’ this ain’ the time or the place!”
Feeling the pressure of the Queen’s gaze, and the force of Applejack’s shout, Rainbow Dash sank to the ground with her ears limp, her wings folding over her face in shame.
The band blinked.
“Ex… cuse me?” Twilight queried.
‘That is how many years have passed since Mother bore me. There was nothing entirely special about me; I was like every other royal zebra foaled with a noble. But I was in Equestria, on that day.’ Her eyes turned heavenward, looking past the clouds and the sky, perhaps trying to gaze past the Firmament itself. ‘The day when the Moon stopped in the sky. The day when Queen Celestia banished that Mwezi Shetani to the Moon and took up the mantle of sky-mover on her own.
‘I knew, that day, that I would harbour the secret of the Elements for Celestia. She protected my life from the NightMare; I would repay that debt by offering her my life.’
Twilight gaped, “What did you do?”
‘I agreed,’ Malkia explained, ‘to have a geis placed upon me.’
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Yer Majesty,” Applejack interjected, “but what in the name a th’ Sun an’ Moon is a ‘gesh’?”
“It’s a powerful thaumaturgical injunction, a contract binding two or more parties together,” Twilight explained. “But geasa are usually forbidden nowadays, and all of the spellbooks containing knowledge of how to cast them have been locked away. Too easy to cast, apparently, for fickle matters.”
“Why?” Fluttershy asked.
“Usually, if one breaks a geis, or fails to live up to the terms… they die.”
The ponies around her − and Spike − gave her shocked and astonished looks, and Queen Malkia nodded before continuing.
‘The terms, as Celestia and I agreed upon, were that I would not die until I shared with her student all that I knew of the Elements of Harmony, in the hopes of defeating NightMare Moon. And if I were to break my vow… I would never die.’
“What?” Twilight was horrified; this was nothing like the Queen Celestia she’d known.
‘There must be a punishment in the terms of any geis, and since it is customary for one to die from breaking the injunction… In any case, it was not a common situation, even for a geis. But I have no intention of breaking the contract. I will tell you everything that I know about all six Elements.’
Twilight stopped, Spike’s head nearly colliding with the back of her skull.
“You know about all six Elements?”
‘Indeed I do,’ Queen Malkia replied coming to a halt before the gate leading to the royal ring. ‘I know not all of their secrets; I suppose Celestia had reason not to divulge the full nature of the Elements. But, when we reach my audience chamber, I, Queen Malkia Mrahaba of Pundamilia, shall give you as full a divulgence as you are to get without the Queens of Sun and Moon!’
The guardszebras at the gate placed their hooves to the stony barricade, which receded into the cobbled pathway. Queen Malkia passed through with great strides, Twilight and her party close behind.
If the inner ring was a step above the outer ring in terms of decor and care, then the royal ring was almost as if stepping into a grand painting by a Reneighssance artist. The paths were crafted from slabs of light and dark marble, flanked by pillars of alternating colors depicting coldly engraved figures of stately Zebras of all three races. Before them rose the great palace of the Mrahaba, the royal Pundamilia family. All in white sandstone was it forged, save for domes of black and the peaks of the minarets. And in the middle rose a grand black dome, from which arose a single spire of gold.
Queen Malkia beamed at the awed looks on her seven accompanying Equestrians, ‘I take it that you are find the view stunning? Sadly, to say that it still stuns me would be false.’
She gestured towards the grand staircase leading up to the Mrahaba’s great front doors.
The stairs themselves would appear gray from a distance, but as one got closer one could see that they too were made from alternating slabs of light and dark stone. The intent of the original construction was that one’s eye was dazzled as gray gave way to stripes of bright and dim colors.
Well, they’ve certainly done their job right, or I’m a Pegasus, Twilight thought to herself as they reached the top of the steps.
‘I suppose you Equestrians are enjoying Pundamilia thus far?’ Queen Malkia asked as they approached the great doors, one black and one white, each marked with a noble zebra’s face.
“I’ll say!” Pinkie Pie interjected. “It was pretty crazy at first with me going blue and then gray and then going missing and running away from big crazy cat-creatures and seeing that snaky elephant and getting tossed in that caravan and tossing zebras around who were getting too nosy and refusing to accept Twilight’s apology, but ever since I accepted it, it’s been sweet! So many different zebras to make friends with! So many party favors to hand out! So many different sweets to try out!”
“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash cut in. “Plus, you guys’ve got so many awesome Daring Do creatures here!”
Queen Malkia and Zecora each raised an eyebrow at Rainbow Dash, who was clearly struggling not to scrunch her muzzle up again.
“She’s a closeted bookworm,” Twilight explained taciturnly.
“I am not closeted,” Rainbow Dash grumbled.
Sparing a sympathetic smile for Rainbow Dash, Queen Malkia pushed open the soundless double doors into a grand hallway the likes of which Twilight had only seen in Canterlot, Lyonesse and in the Palace of the Two Alicorn Queens. Torches alight with pure-white fire hung from the walls, exposing grand bas-reliefs depicting ancient zebra conflicts and treatises. Even the pillars were richly carved with the history and culture of two-dozen-gross years of zebra society, many a Kwato and Adaba and Mbawa rendered in unambiguous glory. At the far end of the hall was another grand set of double-doors, flanked by two pairs of zebra guards.
‘There lies my audience chamber,’ said Queen Malkia softly. ‘Follow me, and speak not to the guards.’
Obeying her words, the seven from Equestria followed the Zebra Queen down the hall, each turning her or his eyes upon the bas-reliefs surrounding each archway leading elsewhere into the palace. Twilight saw Queen Celestia depicted numerous times, often coming to the aid of the Mrahaba royal family. In one frieze apparently depicting an ancient meeting of the Cosmic Council, Twilight did a double-take at the dark Alicorn mare at Queen Celestia’s side. Was that… NightMare Moon? Or rather, the mare who would become entrapped by a Miasma and transform into NightMare Moon?
Reaching the doors to her audience chamber in short order, Queen Malkia addressed the guards imperiously in Idube, and Twilight recalled King Leo’s words. Malkia was ordinarily very stern and humorless, but now that her last day had come upon her, she had lost any semblance of tension that she may have felt. Appearances, though, had to be maintained, and she maintained her cold poise quite well.
Slowly, though, she lowered her head down to her four guards and apparently began to whisper to them softly. Twilight, the only Equestrian present who could understand and translate Idube, flattened her ears; she did not need to know what was being said.
She had a very good idea.
And judging by the solemn looks in the faces of the guards, and the tears rolling down the face of one Abada mare, it seemed that Twilight’s idea was accurate.
But no further words were spared, and the four guardszebras allowed the Queen and her entourage to enter the throne room.
“Zecora!” cried a zebra stallion’s voice from the main doors into the Mrahaba palace. The addressed zebra turned, as did her six pony friends, her drake friend and her Queen.
It was Kitanda the Abada from the caravan. He beckoned Zecora towards the entryway where the double-doors were once more opened. Against the glare of the early morning Sun, Twilight made out the shape of another equine figure standing in the doorway. Who was it…?
Zecora traded some confused Idube words with Kitanda, before facing Queen Malkia and Twilight.
‘I apologize for this unexpected event,’ she said sorrowfully, ‘but this is a conundrum I must see unbent. Though I would rather be with you to the end, my Queen, I must break off and sort out this befuddling scene.’
Malkia bowed her head sadly, ‘Very well, child. See it done.’
Zecora’s eyes shone with unshed tears, but she quickly galloped up the hall, with Kitanda hot on her heels.
“What in tarnation was that all about?” Applejack asked.
Malkia let a single tear slide down her muzzle, but she did not answer as she pushed herself forward into the audience chamber.
Though narrower in width and lower in height than the entry hall, the audience chamber was far grander in the sense of its decor. Rich tapestries depicting every noble family in Pundamilia hung between narrow windows high on the walls that lit the white sandstone chamber with perpetual sunlight. Along the walls were long white benches, carven from solid white marble. At the far end of the chamber was a tall, high throne of black marble, with a smaller humbler throne to its right.
“Whose throne is that little one’s?” Rainbow Dash asked pointedly.
Queen Malkia lowered her gaze, her eyes going dark, ‘The crown-princess’s.’
“And…” Twilight began to ask, “who is the crown-princess…?”
Malkia’s eyes swam with tears, darting back towards the now-closed double-doors back into the grand foyer. Twilight’s eyes widened in horrified realization, and her heart broke at the prospect, hoping against hope that she was wrong…
But the Queen drew herself back up to her full height, seating herself upon her haunches.
‘But there is no time for grief,’ she said with a strong tone that nonetheless wavered. ‘You have come for questions regarding the Elements of Harmony, and I shall answer each one to the best of my ability.’
Twilight raised a hoof, “Your Highness, don’t you think that… this could wait a little for…?”
Malkia hung her head, closing her eyes, ‘I cannot bring it upon her. I don’t know how I will die, but I don’t want her to see this. Not now, when she can be spared of it.’
Fighting back her pained expression, Queen Malkia addressed Twilight more sternly, ‘Every moment spent idly is one more moment of victory for NightMare Moon. I will not hesitate, even in the face of my own death. If my life can be exchanged for every other life on this planet, I will gladly surrender it, here and now.’
Recoiling at the Queen’s resolve, Twilight hesitated to respond. This just wasn’t right, to deny her own blood a last moment. But… Twilight understood her reasoning. After all, she herself would not want Spike to see her go. She would want him to move onward, follow his own path his own way, unencumbered by grief. Drawing him into one of her forelegs, she nuzzled him and gave Queen Malkia a teary nod.
Malkia returned the nod with a faint smile, ‘I thank you, Twilight Sparkle. Now, pay close attention, as I may not be able to repeat myself before I… expire. Please, present the Elements.’
Each of the six mares drew their saddle-shells off of their backs, opening them one at a time. Sure enough, Rarity’s Element shards still glowed purple, and Pinkie’s blue. But…
“What in Equestria…?” Applejack gasped at the shards aglow in her saddle-shells, an apple-red light shining out at her.
“Applejack’s Element’s… glowing?” Twilight gaped.
“Alright!” Rainbow Dash pumped a hoof in the air. “Three down, three to go! Halfway there!”
“But… how in the world did it become active now?” Rarity asked.
‘The answer to that question,’ Queen Malkia said, her eyes on the red-glowing shards of stone, ‘I do not know, but I can guess. I believe that the Element shards which Applejack carries were awoken by a realisation on her part and yours, Twilight Sparkle, of her compatibility with that Element.’
“My realization?” Twilight asked. “But… why me? What makes me so special?”
‘I shall come to that shortly,’ Malkia said patiently. ‘But I believe that each Element awakens when two friends realise that one of them has a personality consistent with that Element’s parameters.’
“So, what are the Elements of Harmony?” Twilight asked, trying to not sound impatient. “We need to know these parameters.”
‘There are five material Elements, and a sixth which is more… abstract. Elusive. The five more concrete Elements embody the traits of Loyalty, Honesty, Generosity, Kindness and Laughter. The sixth Element, the one which binds them all together, is the Element of Magic.’
Queen Malkia’s eyes met Twilight’s.
Twilight’s eyes met Queen Malkia’s.
‘Twilight Sparkle,’ the Zebra Queen said lowly, ‘I believe that you are the Bearer of the Element of Magic.’
Malkia nodded slowly, with eyes closed.
‘You have a powerful touch of destiny about you, Twilight Sparkle. All of you do. I strongly suspect that you seven have the strongest chance possible of defeating NightMare Moon and bringing our world back to order.’
“But…” Spike interceded. “I’m not a pony. I’m a dragon. And I don’t have an Element, either.”
Twilight squeezed him tight to her barrel once more, “You don’t need an Element, Spike. You’re perfect, just as you are.”
Spike smiled up at her.
‘I suspect, though,’ Queen Malkia cut in, ‘that your presence in her life has been a constant force for friendship. You have shown her the miracles that one can achieve with a simple act of kindness or charity. You are her oldest friend, are you not?’
“He is indeed,” Twilight affirmed, giving her son a warm maternal smile. “And there’s no reason that my oldest friend can’t also be my son.”
“So ya know that Twilight’s the Bearer a’ this here Element a’ Magic?” Applejack asked. “So, where is this Element a’ Magic? Twilight ain’t got no stones.”
‘As I have said, the Element of Magic is immaterial. It only manifests when all five other Elements are brought together and synchronise with one another. It will not appear on Twilight’s person until she has realised all five Elements with you five, and…’
Twilight blinked bemusedly at the regal Mbawa, “And what?”
‘My apologies, but your queen Celestia was vague on this point as well. She likened the Element of Magic to a “fire of friendship”, and would say no more. I fear she may want you to unlock its secrets on your own.’
“So this is some sorta big test?” Rainbow Dash cut in, slumping down onto her barrel. “Snoresville!”
“Hey!” Twilight snapped. “Tests are serious business! If you fail, you’re not going to pass! And the bigger the test, the bigger you fail! This isn’t any easier on me, but we’ve got to work together to solve this!”
‘I believe,’ Malkia added softly, ‘that that is exactly what is entailed here.’
“So Twilight is the Bearer of the Element of Magic,” Rarity said slowly, as though attempting to imprint this so that she could recall it later. “What other Elements do the rest of us carry?”
Pinkie let out a loud ringing laugh that echoed to the ceiling, “I bet I’m the Element of Laughter!”
Twilight put a hoof to her mouth to withhold a slight giggle of her own, “Really wouldn’t surprise me, Pinkie.”
“So we’re at two out of six,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “But what Elements do the rest of us hold?”
‘I am afraid I do not know,’ Malkia replied. ‘I know that each Element glows a distinct color, but I do not know which Element is which color. That is not a detail which Celestia was candid on. I…’
The Queen’s eyes bulged out of their sockets, her nemes slipping from her head and crumpling to the floor.
Along with clumps of her mane, now gray and stringy.
To everypony’s horror, Queen Malkia was aging before their very eyes. Her muzzle wrinkled, her legs shriveled and gave out beneath her, her coat and mane going gray and slowly falling out strand by strand.
Twilight bolted up to the deteriorating Queen, attempting to support her head in her hooves, “No! What’s happening?”
‘The…’ Malkia’s voice creaked, sounding half-a-dozen-gross years old now. ‘The geis… Is complete. I’ve shared with you all that I know of the Elements of Harmony.’
“But… no! This can’t be the way you die!” Twilight sobbed.
The decrepit zebra smiled, ‘Spare me your tears, child. This is not a sad moment. I want this.’
“No! No!” Twilight cried. “It’s not fair!”
Malkia now looked verily skeletal, her skin stretched taut over ancient bones. Breathing shallowly, she spoke in Idube, “Go now, pupil of Sekhmet, and make this a peaceful world for my own little ray of sunlight…”
Queen Malkia Mrahaba’s smile remained upon her withered features, her eyes focusing at some point beyond the ceiling, maybe even beyond the Firmament into the Elysian Fields.
Twilight drew shuddering breaths, slowly using her dwimmer shimmer to close both of Malkia’s eyes, before cradling the zebra monarch’s head in her forelegs. Each of the five mares behind her sat in repose, letting their tears flow silently down their cheeks.
The audience chamber doors burst open forcefully, Zecora galloping into the chamber with wide and fearful eyes.
‘My ponies, I thought I felt an omen while I was speaking with foreigner and yeoman!’
Her eyes fell upon the fallen body of Queen Malkia, Twilight shaking her head sadly at the new arrival.
Zecora’s eyes and jaw quivered as she took slow steps towards the body of her Queen, scarcely believing her eyes. Then she galloped towards the fallen Queen − Twilight stepping aside and gently lowering the Queen’s head to the cold floor − and knelt in sorrow over the deceased queen.
So did Zecora Mrahaba ascend the throne.
“I’m sorry, Zecora,” Twilight sighed softly. “Really, I am.”
Zecora gave no indication that she’d heard Twilight for all the tears and the wails that she gave off. Twilight backed towards her band, taking Spike gently in her foreleg.
Kitanda stood in the doorway, observing the scene with melancholy.
‘Arrangements shall be made for her funeral,’ he said in stilted Equus, ‘and for your return to Farasinchi.’
Twilight sniffled, rubbing away tears with her free foreleg, “But… how will we get back into Equestria without winking in or using cross-Pasturic transportation?”
“NightMare Moon’s sealed off Equestria from the rest a’ th’ world,” Applejack murmured through trails of tears. “An’ Ah don’ think some zeppelin’s gonna make it in with us aboard.”
‘I do not know,’ said Kitanda gravely, ‘but perhaps some friend can be helping you.’
“A friend?” Twilight asked. “But… how can my friends help me get back?”
‘I speak not of your friends here,’ Kitanda explained, ‘but I called Zecora over for her. She comes to Pundamilia on her own somehow. She says that she is a friend of yours, and that she has a way back to your home.’
Before Twilight could puzzle this out any further, Kitanda wordlessly gestured to one of the audience chamber’s guards, who silently ushered into the grand chamber another figure, svelte and purposeful. Not a Zebra, but a Pony.
Twilight’s eyes widened.