Moondancer smiled broadly at Twilight, showing perfectly white teeth. She was an off-white mare with a swishing pale-pink mane and tail, each marked by a single pale-purple streak. Her cutie mark was magenta, a crescent moon and two five-pointed stars on each flank. One cloven pale-purple hoof was curled under a raised foreleg.
“Salutations, Twilight Sparkle,” said Moondancer in her cultured mid-Pasturic accent not unlike Rarity’s. Her pale-blue eyes sparkled with something resembling joy, framed by long eyelashes. “Did you like my present?”
“Not particularly,” Twilight replied curtly. “I’m not the sort to accept bribes, and I wouldn’t have expected you to sink so low.”
“Well…” Moondancer shrugged. “It was a cute teddy bear.”
“Maybe, but I’m not going to accept bribery. I don’t want to be friends with somepony just because she gives me gifts, or because she wants to use me to get into Queen Celestia’s inner circle.”
Moondancer flicked her mane, scowling slightly, “Come on now, Twilight Sparkle. Give me some credit. Every time I’ve ever seen you, you’ve had your muzzle shoved into a book in the East or West Castle Courtyards, ignoring or outright pushing away other ponies. And that’s even if you come down from your ivory tower. I only want to get you out and about, talk to ponies instead of reading about them.”
She turned her pale eyes on the mares who were with Twilight, appraising them as her eyes scanned them each from fetlock to poll.
“So, these are those ponies from down in Saddle Valley? The ones on the wanted posters with you and Spikey?”
“You don’t get to call me that!” Spike growled, folding his forearms.
“Twilight,” Applejack asked as she pointed at Moondancer, “who in sam-hill is this?”
“She’s a wannabe social climber from back in Canterlot. She’s been trying to draw me away from my studies ever since I became Celestia’s student.” Twilight’s ears flattened as a sour look crossed her face. “As if being well-read is less important than kissing up to the well-connected.”
Moondancer’s carefully composed look did not falter save perhaps for a slight pursing of the lips.
“There is more to life than being studious, dear Twilight. One does not get by in this world solely by one’s own potential. It takes connections to become the greatest one can be.”
“A pony can’t just get by by her connections alone, or she’ll not be able to do something by herself!” Twilight retaliated.
“Please, let us not argue, Twilight Sparkle. If we must raise our voices, let us take it outside.”
A sob from Zecora brought Twilight back into the audience chamber of the Mrahaba, and she felt a dark and horrible feeling welling up in her stomach. This was neither the time nor place to be having a tense discussion with a kiss-up from her past life in Canterlot.
Her past life… Was she really so disconnected from that time already?
“I agree. Can we… take this outside, Moondancer?”
Moondancer trotted a good five paces ahead of Twilight and her comrades, once more passing down the grand hallway. Numbers of zebras − royal guards and other Kwato, Abada and Mbawa who must have been other children or descendants of Malkia from prior unions − proceeded to the audience chamber with terrorful looks of foreboding on their faces. No mind did they pay to the seven mares and drake who passed them by, the only ones to be heading away from the Queen’s throne room.
Emerging from the palace and onto the promenade, Twilight faced Moondancer.
“Now, how in the name of Queen Celestia did you get here? Isn’t Equestria supposed to be under lockdown?”
Moondancer’s face darkened. “It is. Even I’m not entirely sure how I got out without alerting the Nightmare Guard. I had to leave my family and friends behind. I wanted to get them out, too, but…” She looked pained, and Twilight felt an aching twinge at one of her heartstrings.
“I’m sorry, Moondancer,” Twilight said sincerely.
The Unicorn socialite gave Twilight a small and sad smile, “Thank you, Twilight. It’s nice to know that your heart has grown since NightMare Moon’s return. How did it happen?”
Twilight looked around at her friends, who each smiled at her, each in their own way. She beamed back at them, and turned her eyes back to Moondancer.
“Queen Celestia told me to make friends, but I…” Twilight let out a sheepish smile. “I really wanted to focus on taking down NightMare Moon by looking in books. I let these ponies come along because I thought that there was safety in numbers, and that it would make looking for a solution in a book that much faster. But… it looks like the Elements of Harmony don’t work that way. It looks like…” She gazed fondly upon her friends again. “It looks like friendship is magic.”
Rainbow Dash made a fake retching sound and smirked, “Way to sound completely sappy, TS!”
Moondancer let out a giggle like crystal bells.
“I suppose we will have to be introduced, won’t we?”
As each pony in question made her introductions to Moondancer, the Canterlotian gave a deep tilt of the head and a broad grin. After everypony knew each other’s name, Moondancer approached the band and slowly batted her eyes.
“So, Pinkie Pie, you’re the type of pony whom I would speak with if I wanted a party to end all parties?”
Twilight palmed her face in her hoof, but Pinkie pronked gleefully and squealed, “Absotively posilutely! But who would want a party to end all other parties? Wouldn’t that be a party so bad that nopony would ever want to party again because of how bad it was…?”
Choosing to ignore Pinkie’s continuing rambling about how a really bad party could leave a bad taste in ponies’ mouths for parties forevermore, Moondancer turned to give an endearing grin to Rarity, “And I suppose that you, Rarity, are the type of pony to know if I would want, say, a fancy new dress for a Pinkie Pie party?”
Rarity laughed nervously, “Well, I don’t like to brag, but I suppose my dress-saddles are fine enough for a party amid the upper crust. Not a Pinkie Pie party, though; those can be rather more… informal.”
Twilight cleared her throat testily.
“Moondancer, aren’t there more pressing matters than getting more ponies for your window dressing?”
Moondancer’s eyes widened marginally, before she began to scratch at the back of her head ruefully.
“Forgive me, Twilight Sparkle. I rather lost my head with all of the perks I could see from… well, from your friends. No wonder you were drawn to them. Or was it because Queen Celestia told you to?”
“Mooondancer, you wound me,” Twilight retorted. “I’ll have you know…” Slowing down, Twilight looked to her friends standing by the railing overlooking the square in the middle of the royal ring, and she felt herself calming slightly at the sight of them. “I’ll have you know… that I was admittedly furious to be so disposable… that’s how I thought at the time. I wondered, how can making friends possibly be the key to throwing down NightMare Moon? But… I didn’t know a thing about the Elements of Harmony − admittedly, I still don’t know very much − so I couldn’t know that they were powered by…”
Twilight paused, waving a cloven hoof nonchalantly.
“Listen to me. I’m getting sidetracked by sentimentality. I mean, it’s not like the Elements of Harmony are really powered by the magic of friendship.”
“But it has to be, Twilight!” Pinkie piped in. “Isn’t that what Queenie Celestia told you about in that letter when her fiery birdie flew in just before we all went into the Everfree Forest?”
Twilight scratched her stubbly chin, “I suppose…”
“Then it’s true, all of it?” Moondancer pressed, a look on her face bordering on horrified and impressed. “You’ve actually been into the Everfree Forest?”
“For all that it was worth,” Twilight explained. “We managed to acquire the Elements, but… not before NightMare shattered them.”
“Really?” Moondancer asked, sounding immensely intrigued. There was an impish sparkle in her eyes. “Can I see them?”
Twilight glanced around nervously, “Not here, I don’t think. Maybe somewhere more private.”
“Perhaps a dining establishment in the inner ring?” Rarity asked tentatively.
“Works fer me,” Applejack said brightly.
In short order, they were able to locate a plaza not too far from the royal ring, with a canopy of wicker overhead to shield them from the morning sun’s unrelenting rays. Twilight and her companions sat in a semicircle facing Moondancer, who turned a curious eye on Twilight’s foreleg around Spike’s midsection.
“You and your little Dragon cub have… bonded, I see.”
Twilight nuzzled the drake warmly.
“We have. We almost drowned on our way out of Aquastria, and I realized… that I could never leave Spike alone in this world. I mean, I always cared for him, but when the thought came into my head that he might lose me…” Twilight closed her eyes. “I just couldn’t stand it.”
“Y’all sure have gotten mighty close,” Applejack commented with a faint smile.
“A little too close, maybe?” Moondancer interjected. She continued despite Twilight and Spike’s glowers, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for you two. Really. But… do you not think that Twilight may be overcompensating for her relative distance from Spike since she hatched him?”
Twilight and Spike looked at each other uncertainly. His claws clenched and unclenched as he prepared to place his arms around Twilight’s nearest leg. Looking into Spike’s eyes, Twilight could see the sheer adoration that he felt for her, and…
In her own heart of hearts, Twilight realized that she truly did love the little drake sitting in the crook of her forelegs. Perhaps not as obsessively as she had made it out to be, but…
She nuzzled the drake nonetheless.
“I do love Spike,” Twilight said with resolve. “Maybe I have come across as overly touchy-feely, and maybe that will come to pass with time, but what I do know is that I don’t want to go back to what I was. Making friends has…” She shook her head with a sad smile. “What can I say? As cliché as sounds, making friends has unlocked my heart. I didn’t think that there could be so many ponies who would like me for me, instead of just… well, you.”
Moondancer raised a pale-pink eyebrow at Twilight’s comment and pointed stare.
“What about me, Twilight Sparkle? Don’t be shy; let it all out for everypony to hear.”
Twilight took in a deep breath.
“For years now you’ve been trying to kiss up to me, talk me down from my position as Queen Celestia’s pupil, all in some vague outlandish hopes of climbing the social ladder in Canterlot? And not just you, but so many others in the capital tried to woo me.”
Twilight tapped her hoof against the hard soil for each name she listed.
“Blue Belle. Upper Crust. Glory. Starshine. Forgive me, Moondancer, but I’ve just been too jaded by other ponies’ trying to rub elbows with Queen Celestia’s protégée to even consider adding another to the list.”
Moondancer snorted lightly, “Well, then. What makes these ponies any different? These ponies are from the sticks. What could they possibly offer you?”
“Hey!” Rainbow Dash bolted into Moondancer’s face so fast that she might have winked out without Unicorn magic. “Don’t talk about Twilight like that! She’s not some hooflicker like you are!”
“I prefer to think of myself as ‘well-connected’,” Moondancer replied with disdain. “I like having friends in powerful places. It means that if my own abilities don’t cut it, then I can fall back on ponies who I know and trust.”
“But what about Centaurs?” Pinkie cut in. “And Zebras? And Giraffes? And Deers? And Hippapapapallies?”
“What?” Moondancer narrowed her eyes in confusion.
Twilight faced the pink Earth Pony, “Pinkie, are you trying to say Hippalectryons?”
“Yeah, them too!” Pinkie continued. “You’re saying that you should fall back on ponies you trust. Well, what about all the other races out there in the world?”
“It’s a figure of speech,” Moondancer replied dryly, apparently putting great effort into ignoring the giggles of the ponies around her. “And I fail to see the humor in this situation.”
Twilight waved a hoof, “You get used to it.”
The tension dissipating before it could take firm root, Twilight pressed a firm hoof deeply into the earth, trailing two grooves back towards herself.
“So, Moondancer, how did you get out of Equestria?”
Moondancer’s ears fell limp, her own delicate hoof tracing circles in the dirt.
“It was all I could do to get out of Canterlot − no, sorry, it’s called Endymion now,” she interrupted herself acidly. “But anyway, I wanted to get my family, my friends, everypony I care about out of the capital, but…” Tears began to run down her muzzle. “Mother told me to leave alone, save myself. My brothers and sisters…”
She sniffled, before clenching her eyes shut and letting out a dreadful wail. Twilight found herself putting a sympathetic hoof on Moondancer’s own, letting the socialite mare let her sobs out, and she kept her sympathetic smile upon Moondancer until she collected herself.
Wiping her eyes on a pristine white foreleg, Moondancer continued, “After I left Canterlot − this must have been just before you showed up there, now that I think about it − I wandered along these empty roads, looking for somewhere, anywhere to go. I settled down for a while in Baltimare − I have some old family friends living there − and I laid low there, listening for some news about the resistance to NightMare Moon.”
“We’ve been listening in as well,” Rarity added. “Pinkie Pie here has a most… unusual radio.”
Pinkie proudly produced her gumball-radio from a saddle-shell. Moondancer took it in her pale-blue dwimmer shimmer and examined it closely with narrow eyes.
“Is it… made out of candy?”
Pinkie nodded with such extreme vigor that Twilight thought that her head would roll off. Given Pinkie Pie’s track record, that would have been par for the course.
“Well…” Moondancer blinked. “That’s not the oddest thing I’ve seen. And I’ve seen some oddities, let me tell you.”
She returned the gumball-radio to its gleeful owner.
“So anyway, may I see your Elements of Harmony?”
In a matter of moments, the shards of the five Elements were deposited in the center of the circle of seven ponies and one Dragon cub. Beams of purple, blue and red light danced in eight pairs of eyes.
Moondancer’s mouth fell open at the shards of stone laying before her.
“So... these are what banished her…?”
“Yes,” Twilight replied lowly. “And they’re what can apparently free her from the Miasma.”
Moondancer’s eyes widened, “You know of the Miasma?”
“Wait, you know about it too?”
Moondancer nodded. “I have many connections in the Night Guard, and we have had our share of conversations about the Mare in the Moon. I truly do pity the mare who became NightMare Moon. Yet… sometimes I wonder… what was her name? Did she really want to freeze us all in everlasting night, or was that the Miasma’s doing? And how tight is the Miasma’s hold on her? Is there even a distinction between the two anymore?”
Twilight stared at Moondancer dumbfoundedly. This was not the sort of impression that she had gotten from her admittedly scarce meetings with the other Canterlotian. The Moondancer of Canterlot was superficial and flippant, but with an eagle’s eye for talented folk. This Moondancer, however, was pensive and remorseful, even aggrieved. Now that Twilight got a deeper look, the lights in Moondancer’s eyes were dimmed, perhaps because of the troubles that she had faced because of the advent of NightMare Moon.
“Moondancer…” Twilight began slowly, reaching a hoof out. “I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, and I really wish that I did. But right now, those questions don’t matter. What’s really important right now is figuring out how to get the two remaining Elements activated. Based off of what Queen Malkia told us, that should reveal the sixth Element.”
“‘Should’?” echoed Moondancer.
“She said something about the five Elements ‘synchronizing’, but I don’t have any idea what that could mean. And I have no idea if there’s a book that could offer some sort of help for synchronizing these five ancient Elements…”
Twilight’s ear twitched.
“But maybe there is,” she said in a high voice. “Maybe Queen Malkia’s got a book in her library that’s all about the Elements. Yes, heehee! That’s right! We just need to make a trip to the royal Mrahaba library and see what books and reference guides they have on the Elements of Harmony! There has to be something that not even Queen Malkia knew!”
“Twilight, yer scarin’ us,” Applejack said lowly.
“Scary? You want to know something scary? Not reading a proper book in weeks. My only proper reading for the past month has been my notes from Queen Celestia and random bits of Chapter 25 of Studies on Pundamilia Culture! That’s it! I need to read something! Don’t you want to read something? Any of you?”
Twilight suddenly felt the corners of her strained mouth being tugged up to some point on either side of her nose, her teeth gritting together nervously. The culprit was none other than Pinkie Pie, who was beaming brightly at Twilight with shining blue eyes.
“C’mon, Twilight! Don’t be so grumpy~! If you want to read, you got a whole joke-book in your heart!”
Twilight murmured in confusion, but with her lips pulled apart in a rictus grin she could no more speak than sing.
Pinkie grinned and continued, “I know that you like reading a super-duper lot, Twilight, but reading the same things over and over and over again is just gonna make you go a wee bit loopy! So you gotta laugh about something! Think of something funny to snap out of it!”
Trying not to concentrate on the fact that her cheeks were aching at the super-stretched smile, Twilight closed her eyes…
And when she opened them, she was facing herself. A dusty thin book was lying between them on an endless expanse of parchment around which numerous lavender quills were endlessly writing.
Sliding open the book, Twilight noticed that the words on the right-hoof pages were all upside-down. Looking down at the small passage at the top of the left-hoof page, Twilight read aloud the muzzle-scratch, How does a mathematician induce good behavior in her children?
The other Twilight in her mind gave a very sharp smirk and read the facing page, I've told you n times, I've told you n+1 times…
Twilight burst out laughing, almost rolling on the ground as Pinkie leapt back in astonishment. The lavender Unicorn had her hooves to her belly as tears of mirth rolled down her muzzle.
“What sort of a joke would Twilight Sparkle find funny?” Moondancer asked in a hushed tone.
“n… +1 times…” Twilight choked out between fits of wheezing laughs.
Rainbow Dash looked at the Canterlotian Unicorn with low-lidded eyes, “Apparently, an egghead joke.”
Taking in a deep breath and still letting out an intermittent chuckle now and again, Twilight sat up, her posture looser and her mane losing its raggedy edge.
“Thanks, Pinkie,” she said with a soft smile. “After everything that we’ve been through − from Aquastria to those bultungin to Queen Malkia succumbing to her geis − on top of not having read anything really new recently, I think I was beginning to lose my nerve.”
“All in a day’s play, Twilight~!” Pinkie smiled back.
“Wait,” Moondancer interjected. “Queen Malkia was subject to a geis?”
Twilight nodded darkly, “To tell an apprentice of Queen Celestia’s everything she knew of the Elements of Harmony. If she didn’t, she would never have died.”
Moondancer’s eyes dimmed.
“That explains her longevity all this time. To think that Celestia had placed such safeguards to ensure the corrupted Queen of the Night’s eventual downfall. But is it not callous of her to throw away the life of another sovereign so casually?”
“How would you know?” Rainbow Dash sneered. “You weren’t there a dozen-gross years ago.”
Moondancer gave Rainbow Dash a defiant look.
“I may place my bets on horses other than myself, but I still fancy myself as being reasonably well-read. As I understand it, the decision was made by Celestia only a day or so after having first met the then-Princess Malkia.”
“But, speaking as a pony who has had to foalsit her own little sister while her parents went on yearly celebrations of their wedding,” Rarity cut in, “even a single day can be tediously long.”
“Days pass in a blink to me, personally,” Moondancer shrugged. “If I may wax introspective briefly, that may be why I like to make all sorts of connections to other ponies: to prove that those days really happened.”
“Moondancer…” Twilight blinked. “I’m starting to see more facets to you than I could have ever imagined.”
“Really, Twilight?” Moondancer said, switching on a dime from contemplative and introverted to an altogether more familiar magnetic expression, wearing the same ingratiating smile as she had when she first entered Queen Malkia’s audience chamber. “Would you be all the more willing to call me a friend and come to my parties when NightMare Moon is defeated?”
Twilight sighed. It was just too good to be true, wasn’t it?
“We’ll see. Maybe if I see some reason that doesn’t just involve perks for you.”
Moondancer’s eyes narrowed imperceptibly, “I suppose that’s the best I can hope for.”
“Umm… excuse me, Miss Moondancer,” Fluttershy said softly, “but would it be okay if you told us what happened after Baltimare?”
“Yes, it is very okay,” Moondancer replied with a renewed sense of urgency, her eyes shining with a light that did not come from the Elements at their hooves. “Now, this is a matter that must be dealt with in utmost haste after we’ve finished talking here.
“While I was at Baltimare, I was approached by an old family friend: Sparkler. She told me the most peculiar thing about how Minotaur mazes work…”
“Minotaur mazes?” Applejack echoed. “What the hay do Minotaurs got ta do with this?”
“I’m getting to it, wise-apple,” Moondancer said shortly. “Now, she told me that there is a reason that Minotaurs have allowed themselves to become so spread out across the world, into all of their little city-states seized on snatches of land that nobody wants anymore, in abandoned Changeling hives and the like, right?”
Most everypony nodded, either because they knew the information or because they (this latter ‘they’ consisting solely of Rainbow Dash) trusted that everypony else had their facts straight. Unlike most of the rest of the world, Minotaurs chose not to have a centralized kingdom or country. Rather, dotted around the globe along the edges of virtually every country or kingdom or principality on Harmonia were the labyrinthine city-states of Minotaurs. Despite this incoherency, the Minotaurs still saw representation on the Cosmic Council alongside other great nations like Equestria, Magnesia, Saddle Arabia and Neighpon.
“Well,” Moondancer continued, “these Minotaurs have actually enchanted each of the mazes in each of their cities to allow for clever navigators to travel from one city to another within these mazes.”
“For reals?” asked Rainbow Dash.
“Technically, it’s ‘for real’, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied curtly.
Moondancer nodded shortly, “Yes, it’s ‘for real’, as your rube of a friend said so adequately.”
“Don’t call her a rube,” hissed Twilight hotly.
Moondancer cleared her throat, a slight glare crossing her features. But before she could continue, Rarity cut in.
“Hold on. I was under the impression that we were attempting to not repeat the same forms of magical travel. This is sounding uncannily like the narbacular tunnel system.”
“So far as I know,” Moondancer replied, “that’s actually not the case. Narbacular tunnels were first devised by a Unicorn who was… well, who was a few punch bowls short of a shindig. These connecting maze paths are apparently Minotaur magic, having existed long before Bitter Pineapple’s insane mind formulated the notion of using narbaculi’s means of capturing prey for… shower curtains.” Moondancer shook her head bemusedly. “Even I can’t see the connection between portals and shower curtains.
“Anyway, I had this information, but no reason to make use of it… until I caught wind of the fact that you had probable cause to appear in Pundamilia. Now, if I remember correctly, there is a Minotaur establishment not too far from the Giraffe nation Twiga. It’s called… Mzingile, if I remember right.”
“And if we take this maze,” Twilight said with rising joy, “then we can slip in through Labyrinth in southeastern Equestria!”
“Exactly!” Moondancer said brightly. “And we should make for Mzingile immediately!”
Within this rising joy, though, Twilight felt a dark presentiment, and she gave voice to it.
“But wait. I think I heard on the radio; some Giraffes have gotten together and are rallying to claim the land around Mzingile. That could be a problem…”
“Yes, it really could. But we must set out immediately!”
‘Though not before you accept some aid,’ came a very familiar voice, ‘in the hopes that you will not be waylaid.’
Zecora, her eyes still somewhat red, stood at the edge of the plaza with retainers around her. She carried herself with a greater purpose than Twilight had seen in the forest when they’d first met, though it was all too easy to see the grief in her face.
‘Follow me back into the castle, so that you can avoid further hassle.’
Queen Malkia’s body had been placed upon a white marble plinth in the center of the audience chamber, covered by a silken cloth. The benches along the walls were occupied by scores of zebras, each turned towards the Queen’s final resting place. Zecora stood before the throne, giving Twilight and her companions a strong gaze.
‘You plan to leave soon, you cannot deny,’ Zecora said to Twilight with slow, deliberate fortitude. ‘I can see it by the look in your eye.’
Twilight found herself nodding to the crown-princess − or was Zecora the new Queen now? − and raised a hoof in entreaty, “We do. I apologize on behalf of my entire party for having…”
“For having brought your Queen’s reign to a sudden end.”
Zecora’s eye glimmered with unshed tears, but she remained standing firm and nodded slowly. ‘No harm was meant, though it was unexpected. Long has our Queen kept that secret protected. Though it causes our nation much sorrow...’ Zecora fought back the gritted-teeth look of pain, and resumed her stately stature. ‘We know that this will be all the better for tomorrow.’
Twilight bowed lowly, “We thank you, Princess Zecora.”
‘No such formalities are needed, friends of mine,’ Zecora smiled. ‘Addressing me as Zecora is just fine.’
“Alright then, Zecora,” Twilight continued. “For what purpose did you call us to your audience chamber today?”
Zecora raised a forehoof, ‘We will all of us aid you in your quest. To defeat NightMare Moon, we must all walk abreast. We shall refit you with fresh supplies, and will give you time to rest your eyes.’
“Thank ye kindly, Zecora,” Applejack said with an inclined head.
Zecora replied, ‘But now the question lies with you: Where will you go, and what will you do?’
Screwing up her face and gathering her composure, Twilight ignored Moondancer behind her attempting to crane her head curiously past Twilight, and addressed Zecora.
“We mean to make for the Minotaur city of Mzingile, where we will be able to find safe passage back into Equestria. This eternal stalemate between day and night has gone on long enough!”
‘Mzingile? Is that what you say?’ Zecora replied, sounding apprehensive now. ‘Are you certain there is no other way?’
“It’s the only one we’re willing to risk. We’re aware of the issues at hoof with Giraffe rebel cells along the border, but… we’re not entirely certain how to evade them if they are too close to the Minotaur city.”
“So we avoid Giraffes and pretend we hate Zebras if we do run into them!” Moondancer said impatiently.
‘That will not be easy, for war may come soon, and the Minotaurs are close by, you dancer of the Moon. In the middle of the conflict will the Minotaurs be, and I fear that long will not be such neutrality. The Zebra Queen’s death will embolden the tower, for they’ll feel that our zeal has been depowered.’
Rainbow Dash growled in frustration, her wings flapping her into the air as numerous zebras collectively gave her a cold indignant glare.
“Stupid long-necks! Are we gonna have to be, like, invisible to sneak up to this Mizzingilly place?”
Twilight’s eyes sparkled, and an idea shot through her mind.
“Rainbow, you’re a genius!”
Rainbow Dash puffed out her chest and smirked, pounding a hoof on her chest as she said, “Well, of course I am. I am awesome, after all.”
The cerulean Pegasus’s chest deflated, her ears flattening uncertainly as she continued, “So, how exactly am I a genius?”
Twilight beamed around at her friends, at Spike, at Zecora and at Moondancer, each of them wearing expressions that were rather befuddled. Her lips parting to show a grin, Twilight stamped a hoof decisively on the marble floor.
“Take a good look in the mirror, girls, because we’re going to disappear!”
Upon hearing of Twilight’s declaration that the lot of them would be subjected to a chameleon spell cast by Twilight herself, Zecora had begun to protest, saying that it was simply too dangerous for them to place all of their hopes on a single enchantment. Twilight began to raise her voice in turn, but another voice cut in that only mildly surprised the lavender Unicorn at this point.
“Miss Zecora, Twilight is no ordinary Unicorn,” Fluttershy had said with conviction as she trotted up towards the Zebra princess. “She is not Queen Celestia’s star pupil for nothing. She once lifted an ursa minor up with her magic and gave it back to its mother.”
‘An ursa minor? I do not understand. I know little of the creatures of your land.’
Twilight had quietly uttered two words in Idube, “Nyota kubeba.”
Zecora’s eyes had widened, her jaw gaping as she declaimed in her native tongue… before quickly uttering a nonsense word that rhymed with it. All about the audience chamber, numerous Zebras began to stir and converse amongst one another in rapid clicking Idube. By their tone, they seemed similarly astonished at the implications of Twilight’s status as a thaumaturgical prodigy. Shaking her head lightly, Zecora had then turned her gaze back to Twilight Sparkle, a new light in her eyes and a new smile on her muzzle.
“To think that you have tamed a star-bear,” Zecora said to Twilight in Idube, “it brings some fresh hope into the air. Though great I knew you to be, clearly your true greatness was unknown to me. With our blessings and our provisions will you go, and with the hopes that your prospects will grow.”
Twilight bowed lowly, “You honor us, Your Eminence.”
Zecora had then seen to it that her handlers supplied the band with dried herbs and corked gourds filled with fresh water to be kept in their saddle-shells with the rest of their supplies and only eaten when necessary.
“How are our saddle-shells holding so much, anyway?” Rainbow Dash asked with furrowed rainbow eyebrows, reaching a cerulean foreleg deep into her own saddle-shell, watching it seem to disappear deeper than the shell appeared to be.
“It must be an undetectable extension enchantment by a Narwhal Pony,” Twilight pondered aloud as she placed her gourd between her old saddle-bag and the copy of Studies on Pundamilia Culture inside her shell. “It seems like the inside’s been getting bigger the more we’ve been putting into them, but I’m sure there’s a limit to how much we can carry in these. We’ll have to get rid of things we don’t need at some point.”
“Unfortunately,” Moondancer cut in, “I didn’t go to Aquastria, so I have no such saddle-shell. Would you kindly carry my supplies, Twilight? Oh, don’t worry yourself, Twilight,” she added with a slight giggle at the sour look on Twilight’s face. “I’ll mark my supplies as mine so that I have no excuse to make off with yours.” With a twinkle of her alicorn, Moondancer’s dried herbs and water-gourd each became marked with a half-moon emblem.
Twilight narrowed her eyes at the marks.
“Well… I suppose,” she replied cautiously. “But do try to get a saddle-bag of your own at the earliest convenience, bitte.”
“Wouldn’t dream of inconveniencing you, Twilight Sparkle,” Moondancer said with a sly grin that made Twilight wonder if she could trust the pink-maned Unicorn at her word.
Zecora bade them farewell at the edge of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe, with crowds of Zebras standing around in pale-yellow cloaks, somber expressions upon their faces.
“The best of goodness and fortune to you and your people, Zecora,” Twilight said, tears running down her muzzle.
‘My mother has reigned for nigh on a megagross years,’ replied the royal Kwato, ‘but do not allow yourself these tears. Her time to pass on was always to come, as it is for each of us, everyone. My time has come to take her place, and with hope I will match her pace.’
“I know you can, umngani,” Twilight smiled, raising a foreleg to embrace Zecora, who returned the gesture.
Passing back out of the Kupigwa into the savannah, Twilight and her band convened to discuss their immediate plan of action.
“So, where exactly is this here Mzingile place?” Applejack queried.
“It’s almost directly to the north from here,” Twilight replied, pointing off to the north at their left. “The border to Twiga is actually really close to the capital of Pundamilia, only about three days‘ trot from here. But… the desert is very sparse, with little shade. And in this perpetual daylight…”
The realization of what was to come fell heavily upon everypony in the band, even Spike. Though the extremes of high heat and deep cold meant nothing to the cold-blooded little drake, he knew that the other ponies around him had been badly affected by the long treks through the increasingly chilled Wide Plains. Already were the seven mares beginning to perspire, the dry heat of the relentless Sun pounding upon them all.
“Really makes one appreciate the night more, doesn’t it?” mused Moondancer, and Twilight had to admit that the pink-maned Unicorn had a point. She recalled the beauty of the stars under the cool black-blue sky, the Moon rotating from its light face to its dark face… the reprieve from sunlight that was a veritable oven in the summer months…
“Good thing I still have some little rainclouds left,” Rainbow Dash muttered, wiping at matted fur on her forehead to clear away excess sweat.
“I do believe that we will need to ensure that they are not hoarded by a single mare,” Rarity added. “We must only drink from our gourds if absolutely necessary, so it is imperative that said rainclouds be used first.”
Twilight blinked at Rarity; the alabaster Unicorn looked somehow different, but she could not place her hoof on it straight away. Then she realized, Rarity was not wearing her makeup. Her blue eyeshadow was absent, as were her mascara and her false eyelashes. Indigo stubble showed around her muzzle. Had Rarity’s commitment to this endeavor to take down NightMare Moon really superseded her desire to look glamorous?
“So, when are we going to be subject to this chameleon spell of yours, Twilight?” Moondancer asked as she brought a hoof over her eyes to shield them from the Sun’s rays.
“I don’t think that we should utilize the spell until we’re at least a day out from here,” Twilight replied levelly in spite of the heat. “We should be fine until we’ve gotten so far. Then… we’ll have to blend into the desert.”
Pinkie Pie bounced from one pony to another, a wide smile on her face despite the brightness and hotness of the stagnant morning. “Come on, everypony! Turn those frowns upside-down! Moping about how hot and sweaty we’re gonna get isn’t gonna make it any easier! So let’s all just smile and laugh the Sun away as we make our way~!”
Nodding with a slightly nervous smile at the bouncy pink pony, Twilight took a first trepidatious step into the Pundamilian wild, Spike on her back and six mares behind.
The savannah stretched on northwards from Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe for a small stretch of about five miles, the grass providing some miniscule form of nourishment in spite of its dryness under six weeks of uninterrupted sunlight. The flatlands stretched onwards into seeming eternity, the wavering air giving the impression that Harmonia dropped off sharply before one could even reach the horizon, a band of royal-blue sky stretching between them and their destination.
Before the first hour had passed, the savannah grass shrunk away and gave way to hard soil, which only yielded hard and tough plants which were unappetizing and unsatisfying. They passed these up, instead drawing upon the dried herbs which Zecora and her retainers had provided.
“This stuff’s actually really good!” Rainbow Dash smiled through a half-chewed mouthful. “What’s this stuff called?”
“This stuff is called an amandla, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied. “It is purported to have properties that boost energy and increase metabolism. Just what we need for crossing this desert.”
“Desert is right,” Applejack said ruefully, grinding her hooves fruitlessly against the rough earth. “Ah can’ feel a lick a‘ Earth-energy in this here soil. It’s dry in every sense a‘ th’ word.”
“It’s been six weeks with terrible sunlight and very little shade and water,” Rarity interjected. “I sincerely believe that this land will not see proper plant or animal life for a good long while after we’ve brought the Sun back.”
“If you bring the Sun back,” Moondancer added with a sullen voice and expression.
“Aww, come on, don’t be a grumpy little grumbler~” Pinkie squealed as she dropped onto Moondancer’s back and began to ruffle her mane.
“Get off of my back, would you kindly?” asked Moondancer testily.
“Nope~! I’m not gettin’ off your back till you smile, or my name isn’t Pinkamena Diane Pie!”
“Wait… Your name is Pinkamena?” Moondancer started to snicker. “Isn’t a pinkamena a type of gemstone?”
Pinkie giggled, a musical sound, “It is indeedy! Mommy and Daddy run a rock farm, and they take it super-duper-seriously! I’ve got two sweet little sisters named Marble and Limestone, and a real awesome big sister named Maud! We trade rock-candy necklaces~”
“Pinkamenas are really rare, though,” Twilight commented. “Do your parents mine them? Are you from a rich family, Pinkie?”
“Oh no, I don’t think so,” Pinkie replied with a flippant flop of a hoof. “I mean, I paid out of pocket to go to engineering school so I could build all my party contraptions.”
Twilight’s jaw dropped.
Pinkie smiled sheepishly, “Though maybe that deposit of rock molasses Daddy hit that one day the year after I got my cutie mark might have gotten us a teensy-weensy bit of a windfall.”
“Wait. You mean you’re related to the Pie Rock Molasses fortune, Pinkie?” Twilight gaped, before smacking a hoof against her own forehead. “Pinkie Pie, why didn’t I see it earlier?”
Pinkie tittered, “I guess I am! Have you heard of me before, Twilight? Isn’t our rock molasses just the best?”
“It is indeed, Pinkamena,” replied Moondancer in a honeyed tone. “I do believe my chefs have used Pie Rock Molasses in our cakes and pies and gingerbread ponies.”
“Gingerbread ponies?” Pinkie squeaked, licking her lips eagerly. “I haven’t baked gingerbread ponies in ages! We oughta bake ‘em together back in Ponyville!”
“Or perhaps in Canterlot, where you can find more baking supplies for more treats than you could possibly imagine. And who knows? Perhaps our friendship will lead to discounts in the future!”
Twilight cleared her throat sharply, and Moondancer smiled nervously, her ears flattening.
“Or… perhaps not?”
“Wait. Rock molasses?” Rainbow Dash interjected. “What sort of molasses is that?”
“The sort that comes outta rocks, silly Dashie~” Pinkie beamed. “I thought anypony would know that!”
“I’m from Cloudsdale, a city in the clouds.”
“Oh, right!” Pinkie giggled with a hoof to her mouth. “Silly me!”
“Off of the subject of rock molasses,” Twilight added with a sharp tone, “perhaps we should think about what we’re going to do about sleep in this desert?”
“Twilight’s right,” Applejack commented. “There ain’t no shade fer miles an’ miles an’ miles. An’ that Sun sure is beatin’ down on us like beatin’ eggs.” She looked up into the sky with a hoof over her eyes. “Ah’m startin’ ta wish Ah’d kept mah hat with me instead a‘ passin’ it off ta Apple Bloom.”
“Probably would have gotten all moldy under the sea, though, AJ,” Rainbow Dash commented.
“Umm… Twilight?” Fluttershy ventured cautiously.
“Umm… You don’t happen to know any… shadow magic, do you? You know, to keep us from getting hit by so much sunlight? But… if you don’t… I’m sorry I asked.”
“Don’t be sorry, Fluttershy. It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask me right now. But no. I actually don’t know any shadow magic. Queen Celestia was actually planning to get into that after the Summer Sun Celebration, but… Sorry, but I don’t know it.”
“Hey, no sweat, TS,” Rainbow Dash smirked. “…Well, figuratively speaking. ‘Cause we’re sweating all over. But hey, if you don’t know it, you don’t know it. No biggie. Not gonna lie, though; it could stand to be a little cooler out here. And not cool like me, that’d be impossible. I meant chillier.”
“I got it, Rainbow Dash,” said Twilight testily, before giving her own sly grin. “But I do know some basic temperature modification spells. If I can modify a cooling spell so that it stays around our group, we should be in business!”
“Allow me, Twilight Sparkle,” cut in Moondancer, her alicorn lighting up in her pale-blue dwimmer shimmer. A ten-hoof high translucent bubble matching the color of her magic sparkled into being around them before dimming into the nothing it came from. She gave her fellow Canterlotian a slight smirk, “Well, if you please, dear Twilight.”
A sapphire eyebrow arched, Twilight nonetheless arranged the spell matrices in her alicorn to allow for a drop in the temperature in the surrounding area, and fairly soon a small flurry of pink snowflake-shaped sparks shot out into the air around them. Within moments, the hot dry desert air suddenly dropped to that of a modest day of spring. Even the dryness had abated.
Rainbow Dash let out a great sigh.
“Now that is some quality coolness!” She did a small loop-de-loop before fanning her wings at those who walked on the ground, sending cool gusts in their direction. “Now my drinking clouds won’t evaporate as soon as I take ‘em out of my bigger-on-the-inside saddle-shells!”
“Yer startin’ ta sound one a’ them radio infomercial types, Rainbow,” Applejack snarked.
Twilight smiled at the looks of relief and joy on the ponies’ faces around her. Even seeing Moondancer’s smile made Twilight’s heart sing.
“Still, we’ll have to pace ourselves, girls,” Twilight warned. “This cooling spell only lasts so long, and if we get too hot and sweaty we’ll only cut the spell shorter. It will need to be recast at a certain point to make sure that we don’t pass out in this desert. Because if we do… nopony will ever find us.”
Despite Twilight’s concerns, the presence of a cooling spell and an invisible bubble shield around them to hold the cool air in allowed for much easier travel across the Indlulamithi Desert. They sweated far less than they otherwise would have, which meant that their water rations lasted far longer. Rainbow Dash’s drinking clouds, which had thus far lasted her a surprising month and a half, finally saw their expenditure by the end of their first day northwards from Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe; though the coolness definitely allowed for less water-drinking, the clouds were very bereft of drinking rain by this point. Thusly did Twilight and her companions switch to drinking from their water-gourds. The water-gourds themselves were hollowed out from adkeysi gourds, which also carried nutrients that aided in stamina to the drinker.
The end of the first day brought the eight to the edge of sandy dunes. Circling around, they found a shaded spot on the western side of one of the dunes, surprisingly unoccupied by any sorts of runabout creatures.
“Maybe this area is just too dry for anything to try and make a living,” Twilight murmured.
“Maybe,” Moondancer replied. “But we’ll have to make do here.”
Pinkie Pie squeed, “We leave at first light?”
Most everypony snorted at the absurdity of the notion, with only Moondancer not responding.
“You didn’t laugh, so you take first watch, Moondancer~” Pinkie giggled with a pointing hoof.
In spite of Moondancer’s grumblings, the first “night” in the Indlulamithi Desert proved to be rather uneventful. Taking second watch herself to give the crabby socialite a bit of beauty rest, Twilight recast the cooling spell as she felt the boiling desert air start to overtake the magically chilled bubble.
Once everypony had awakened, a small breakfast was had of an amandla and a swig of adkeysi gourd water each before Twilight cleared her throat for everypony’s attention.
“Okay, everypony. We should be coming up on the disputed territory pretty soon.”
“Why in tarnation is this land of all land bein’ disputed? It’s all sand.”
“I’m not entirely sure myself, Applejack. I didn’t realize until recently that the Minotaur city near the borders of Twiga and Pundamilia was near… well, this disputed territory. If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s some old ruins buried under these dunes that hold value to the Zebras and to certain Giraffes as well.”
“I’m waiting for the movie,” Rainbow Dash commented dryly.
“Well, it’ll probably be a talkie by the time they get around to making it. But in any case, this land is definitely in dispute, so we don’t want to cross paths with any Giraffes we see. Some may be friendly, but we can’t take that risk, and we can’t chance it that they might not see us because of a mirage. So, I’ll be casting a chameleon charm on each of us.”
“How long should it last us?” Rarity questioned.
“A day. Maybe. But I can’t guarantee that. Now who’s first?”
Applejack raised a hoof, and she strode forward to Twilight whose alicorn already began to glow pink…
“Whoa, wait a minute! Hold everything!” Rainbow Dash blurted out. “Why do we even need to do this? Can’t Moondancer, like, wink us all out to get there right away?”
Moondancer rubbed a foreleg ruefully. “I didn’t wink out from Mzingile. I walked.”
“Yes. It took me three days, but I made it. We must have gotten here about the same time. I would have presented myself before Queen Malkia’s… expiration, but I simply had to spruce up. A mare must look her best in the domiciles of others.” She gave Rarity a pointed glance, taking in her unruly amethyst mane and grubbly stubble.
Rarity flushed. “I beg your pardon? The situation is far too grave to place great worry about one’s appearance. And also, I’ll have you know that I am ordinarily the most gorgeous pony in all of Ponyville!”
“It’s true, she is,” Rainbow Dash concurred, before blinking and smirking at Fluttershy with half-lidded eyes. “Well, except for you, babe.”
Fluttershy smiled sweetly and blushed pink.
Moondancer wrinkled her nose at Rarity, “I’ll take your word for it.”
“Girls, can we please stop dilly-dallying?” Twilight said shortly. “Applejack, if you please.”
Bowing her head, Applejack felt Twilight gently rap her glowing alicorn upon her forehead. She heard gasps and ooh!s and ahh!s around her, in addition to feeling the feeling of cold water running down her head and up her barrel. Opening her eyes, she looked down at her hooves… or rather, at the sandy curve of the gap between dunes. She could still faintly make out the shape of her own hooves, but only if she squinted slightly. She was not truly invisible, but it was as though the palomino had become a large pony-shaped chameleon, as the spell’s name implied.
Beside Applejack, Twilight had already done her job at chameleonizing Spike and Rarity. Spike’s eyes glimmered fearfully as he watched Rarity’s body seemingly fade away into nothing, but her bell-like voice brought the lights of joy back into his slitted eyes. Next came Pinkie Pie, who barely seemed able to sit still long enough for Twilight to cast the spell on her, such was the party pony’s excitement at being as near to invisible as she’d ever be. Last came Fluttershy, Moondancer and Rainbow Dash, the latter of whom looked distinctly ruffled at the notion of becoming unseen.
“This is, like, the opposite of a rainbow,” grumbled a certain cerulean Pegasus as she examined her nearly-unseeable tail.
“Well, we’ll have to deal with not being able to see ourselves or each other for now, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied curtly. “Now Pinkie Pie, we―”
Twilight blinked. Pinkie Pie was nowhere to be seen. Her trained eyes could make out the faint outlines of everypony around her, including Spike. But Pinkie… it was as though she’d vanished into thin air.
A great weight flumped straight onto Twilight’s back and a pair of feathery fuzzy somethings dropped over her eyes, blocking the sunlight.
“Guess who~” came Pinkie Pie’s singsong intonations.
“Gee, let me guess,” Twilight said with a falsely inquisitive tone and a barely concealed smile. “Is it… Spitfire?”
“Is it… Fluttershy?”
“Not even close~!”
“Wait… I think I know. But… it’s on the tip of my tongue…”
“Oh for the sake of the Moon and stars, Twilight!” Moondancer snapped. “We don’t have time for these games!”
“Is it… Pinkie Pie?”
“Ding-ding-ding-ding~!” Pinkie front-flipped off of Twilight’s back, seemingly hovering by dint of her Pegasus heritage and rearing up in joy upon landing. Twilight could still make out the joyful shimmer in Pinkie’s eyes despite their near-invisibility.
And on the subject of such…
“Okay, now onto more serious affairs, as Moondancer wants,” Twilight said with a snippy tone. Moondancer glowered at Twilight. Twilight continued, “This chameleon spell, as you can tell, does not really make you invisible. Instead, it just makes you appear to blend into the scenery around you. You still cast a shadow, as faint as it is, but you can still be seen if someone looks hard enough. Also, your saddle-shells might be camouflaged as well, but if you take them off, the chameleon spell will wear off on them, as with anything inside them. So we still have to be cautious.”
Twilight closed her eyes, focusing on the chameleon spell once more, and the feeling of cold water washing down over her entire body told her that it had worked. A quick once-over confirmed this feeling, and Twilight turned to face her band.
“Alright, everypony. Onwards and northwards.” She faced Spike who was standing beside Rarity. “Spike?”
“Okay, Mom!” he said brightly, climbing up Twilight’s tail and onto her back. And with a smile, they were off.
Without Moondancer’s bubble shield and Twilight’s cooling air, the chameleon spell would have proved to be an inhibitor to their progress. A slight shift in the temperature could be noticed as the Sun’s rays were more readily absorbed by the sandy coloration of their backs. It was not much of a difference, but it would have been utterly debilitating otherwise.
Per Twilight’s warnings, they took cautions when it came to removing anything from their saddle-shells. Any dried herbs that were removed were to be eaten completely, so any reservations that anypony had about sharing food with somepony else were to be withheld. Thankfully, the water-gourds would not show when placed back into a saddle-shell, as it was camouflaged by the exteriors of the shells showing the desert stretching off in either direction.
Rainbow Dash’s eyes lit up; a green bulb-shaped plant with yellow and pink flowers appeared in the distance.
“Sweet! A cactus! They store water in them! Now we don’t have to waste any herbs or gourds!”
She darted towards it… or would have if she were not caught in Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer.
“Rainbow Dash, wait! That’s a peyote cactus!”
Moondancer recoiled, but Rainbow Dash merely scowled.
“What about peyote cactuses?”
“Peyote cacti,” Twilight corrected, “are hallucinogenic. If you were to eat it, you’d see all sorts of weird things. It might make you think we’re out in the middle of the ocean, that we’re all on fire, or make you see giant friendly mushrooms. And believe me, mental impairment is not what any of us want right now.”
Rainbow Dash gave the suspect cactus another glance, much more wary this time. With flat ears, she flapped back from it and alighted beside Fluttershy.
“Well, at least it has good taste with its flower colors.”
Continuing on, they decided to avoid any further plantlife that they came upon in this otherwise desolate landscape. Overhead, some clouds appeared to taunt them by drifting close to the Sun but never quite obscuring it. The sand dunes occasionally gave way to patches of dry soil which Applejack found just as desolate and impotent as the earth beyond the savannah. It was long and tedious, though Pinkie Pie did take great enjoyment in taking tumbles down the sand dunes, and her friends sometimes joined her in such. Moondancer made a point to avoid such behavior, watching with disdain and impatience.
A dark pinnacle appeared on the horizon about two hours after the incident with the peyote cactus, wavering in the desert heat.
“That’s it!” declared Moondancer triumphantly. “That’s Mzingile the Pundamilian city of Minotaurs!”
“It looks pretty far,” Fluttershy breathed. “It’s… big.”
“That’s because it’s built inside of a derelict Changeling hive,” Twilight explained.
“Changelings…?” Rarity shuddered. “I didn’t think that there were still hives left in the world…”
“There aren’t. Changelings have gone extinct over 2000 years ago. Their hive mounds have been largely repurposed, if not outright demolished.”
“What the hay are Changelings, anyway?” asked Rainbow Dash. “I mean, I’ve heard about them… here and there.”
“Changelings,” interjected Moondancer, “were a race of pony-shaped insect creatures that could shapeshift and leech off of love. I can only imagine what life must have been like when they still lived: loved ones may or may not have been replaced by Changelings, feeding off of your love for them until you were left a dried-up husk, ready to be converted into another drone for the hive.” She shivered, even though the cooling spell needed to be recast.
“So, we’re almost there?” Applejack queried as Twilight’s horn emitted glowing pink snowflakes again.
“With any luck, we should reach it before the end of tomorrow,” replied the lavender Unicorn.
“And without running into any angry Giraffes?” Spike asked.
Twilight nodded forebodingly.
“Yes. Without running into any angry Giraffes, Spike.”
Coming to a rest atop a dune with a freshly cast cooling spell, Twilight decided to take first watch so that she could recast the spell again before switching out for second watch.
Twilight’s eyes slowly drifted back open after a relatively restful sleep, to find Applejack crouched tensely down to the ground, her ears flat against her skull. Before Twilight could ask what the problem was, she heard Applejack hissing with clenched jaws and teeth.
“Don’t… move… a muscle…”
Looking up with her eyes, Twilight’s heart tightened in her chest.
The pale-yellow shapes with dark-brown spots patrolled southwards mere hoofsteps to their east, spears held in holsters along their forelegs within easy reach of their long prehensile tongues. Their dark almond-shaped eyes darted about, looking for any sort of signs of activity. Twilight felt her stomach lurch at the black-and-white striped pelt worn by the Giraffe at the head of the tower.
Twilight and Applejack kept their eyes on the pack of Giraffes for several minutes, until they were certain that the tower would not turn around and note their positions. Then they quickly awakened their companions and told them to move quickly to the northern side of the dune in hushed tones.
“What’s the situation, TS, AJ?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“We almost got spotted by a tower a’ Giraffes,” explained Applejack. “If it weren’ fer this here camouflage, we wouldn’ta woken up. We’da been ponynapped, or worse.”
“Looks like you really saved our hay bacon, Twilight~!” Pinkie beamed with a tight hug around Twilight’s barrel. Twilight smiled at the pink pony cheek-to-cheek with her.
“I wouldn’t have thought of this if not for Rainbow Dash,” Twilight smiled, and Rainbow Dash thumped a forehoof against her chest with a fangy smirk. Pinkie reached out one of her forelegs to loop around Rainbow Dash’s barrel as well, hugging lavender Unicorn and cerulean Pegasus close to her with a bright grin.
Pressing on towards Mzingile after that near-miss with the Giraffe platoon proved to be of higher tension than the day before. More Giraffes could be hidden by the heat ripples in the distance and Twilight’s band would probably not know until it was already too late.
Twilight tried not to think about that pelt that that Giraffe was wearing. She tried not to think about what she and the others could find as they closed in on their destination. She tried not to think about the idea that something as gruesome and unthinkable as murder could still exist in this world…
Other Giraffe patrols did come within their peripherals, but off in the distance to either the east or west, some armed with spears and others with bows and arrows. There was always at least one Giraffe who wore a Zebra pelt on her or his back.
Twilight never personally met any Giraffes, but she knew that they were not typically given to violence, much like most sapient races on Harmonia. She took a modicum of solace in the fact that these Giraffes who skinned Zebras and wore their skins were the miniscule exception to the rule.
Much to their relief, no further Giraffe patrols came within a furlong of the band for the rest of the day, and when they came within a mile’s distance of the miles-high hive mound that contained Mzingile, Twilight brought them to a halt.
“We’re just about there. I have reservations about this, but I feel that we are near enough to the Minotaur city that I feel comfortable removing the chameleon charm.”
“Only do this if ya feel comfterble doin’ it, sugarcube,” Applejack replied.
Twilight paused, thinking twice.
Then she nodded, her horn glowing.
All at once, a warm trickling feeling ran down from the polls of each of the seven mares and drake down to the tips of their feet, and when their eyes opened, they could see each other clearly once more.
“Whoa, I never thought I’d be happier to see my rainbow mane again!” said Rainbow Dash as she tossed her head back and forth, her prismatic mane catching the sunlight and sending beams of spectral light into everypony’s eyes.
“Whoo-hoo-hoo! I’m pink again~!” Pinkie cried, confetti appearing seemingly out of nowhere and raining down around her.
Moondancer hissed to Twilight, “How in the name of Celestia does she do that?”
“It’s just Pinkie being Pinkie,” Twilight replied in a low voice. “Don’t try to question it.”
Within minutes they stood at the base of the old Changeling hive, but no entrance was readily apparent.
“So… how do we get in?” Rarity asked.
“Ordinarily, Minotaur doors are invisible when closed, indistinguishable from any wall,” said Moondancer levelly. “Even other Minotaurs will not be able to find a door if its location has been forgotten. But fear not. I told the gatemaster of Mzingile that I would return with a party of other ponies, so I was given a secret pass-phrase to speak when I came back.”
“What’s the pass-phrase?” Twilight asked.
“The pass-phrase,” Moondancer said in a raised voice, as though she were hoping that others would hear her voice, “is ‘by wings of wax and tar and tacks, open the gate, you lazy-lax’!”
Maintaining a neutral face despite the queer looks she was receiving for such an odd declamation, Moondancer swiveled her ears about, listening for the telltale signs of a Minotaur gate opening.
Any moment now…
“Over there!” Twilight called, pointing towards a cloud of dirt and dust off along the left edge of the mound. She galloped towards it, her friends on her tail and Moondancer taking up the rear.
Reaching the disturbance, it was easy to see what was happening. A large section of wall was receding in a perfect square wide enough for six ponies to walk abreast, revealing not crumbling earth but smooth stone. It then recessed into the floor, revealing a hall lit by many bright torches.
Standing in the middle of the hall into the mound was a Minotaur. Fluttershy hid timidly behind Rainbow Dash.
Like all Minotaurs, he had the torso of a gorilla, burly and formidable, and the hindquarters and head of a bull. He rested the great weight of his chiseled torso on his knuckles, breathing heavily through wide nostrils. His sharply pointed horns grazed the roof of the hall, but his eyes were surprisingly soft as he turned them upon the mares waiting at the doorstep.
“Well, you certainly get back here in a hurry,” he said in a thick Idube accent. “Welcome back to Mzingile, little Unicorn. And to your friends here, welcome. My name is Inkunzi, and I am going to be your guide in hereabouts.”
“I’m afraid,” Moondancer said, stepping abruptly to the front of the band, “that we have no time for pleasantries, Inkunzi. We simply must pass through the maze into Labyrinth immediately.”
Inkunzi gave a slow, solemn nod.
“I see. That’s good. You are wanting to get back home quickly. That’s good. Your own people need you. Perhaps you can visit after you’ve taken care of problem?”
Twilight gave a slow nod and a tentative smile, “We’ll see what we can do, Mister Inkunzi.”
Inkunzi offered a soft smile, turning halfway back down the tunnel, “You are following me.”
He pawed at the ground with a gray cloven hoof, before he started off down the torchlit corridor at a brisk but easy pace. The seven mares followed him as the wall slid back up into place behind them.
After such time in the neverending daylight, to be so abruptly thrust into an earthen environment such as this was darkening almost to the point of blindness. Their eyes adapted surprisingly quickly, though, perhaps because of some Minotaur magic in the air. All about there was a scent of earth, and not a speck of dust was in the air.
As they entered deeper into Mzingile, passing a large sign that surely named the city-state and its date of foundation, the torches on their brackets became flanked with walls of greenery. Shrubs, bushes, vines and leaves grew out from the walls. Coupled with the branching hallways breaking off to the left and right, it gave the impression of being inside of a subterranean hedge maze. Occasionally a wall would open up, and a Minotaur would emerge − bull, cow or calf − and would go about their business or (more likely) stop to gape at the eight outsiders being escorted by Inkunzi.
Soon they took one of the splinters in the path.
“They are expecting the straight path to lead to center of city. But it is a trick,” Inkunzi explained. “The paths in each Minotaur city-state are different. Each Minotaur city has own rules that only Minotaurs know. No outsider knows where center of city-state is, except for rulers on Cosmic Council. Only one Minotaur knows all secrets: Asterion, ruler of all Minotaurs.”
As Inkunzi spoke, he led them down a variety of paths in the labyrinthine corridors of Mzingile. Some were wider than others, and higher; some even having higher levels that had to be reached by Minotaurs climbing up the vines like simians. Sometimes they passed by what were apparently shops, or armories, or even restaurants. Minotaurs of every color passed by, some with nose-rings and some without. The females looked only marginally slimmer than their bull counterparts, and the calves were adorably petite.
Twilight Sparkle knew little about the secrets of Minotaurs − chief among the sapient races of Harmonia in terms of secrecy − but she was fairly certain that the paths had crossed through each other somehow. She was even pretty certain that they had looped behind the main entrance into Mzingile.
It’s just Minotaur magic, Twilight, she told herself. It’s not anything to be freaked out about.
It was clear that they were not in the same city-state as before, as there were large signs written in an unreadable script that were accompanied by a shift in the building material of the walls. Sometimes the walls were polished stone, sometimes wood or bark. Oftentimes the ceiling would open up completely and reveal a completely different sky than back in Pundamilia. Sometimes the sky was green and tropical, other times it was clear and blue and showed Qílín soaring overhead.
In a corridor of tree-trunks stacked side-by-side, Inkunzi came to a halt beneath a sunset sky, and Twilight nearly trod on his swishing tail as she herself stopped.
“Hmm…” Inkunzi scratched his chin. “Perhaps we should have been making left turn at Ō-no-Ushi.”
“What?” Rainbow Dash shouted. “Are you saying that we’re lost?”
But Inkunzi laughed heartily.
“Is just joke. Blue winged pony needs to laugh at joke.”
Already Pinkie was rolling on the ground laughing her guts out, which prompted another laugh from the ebony Minotaur at her emphatic laughter. Gradually, the remaining members of the band − once more excepting Moondancer − broke down into peals of laughter themselves.
The laughing slowed down awkwardly, leaving just empty sighs in the air.
“We are soon to be getting to Labyrinth,” Inkunzi said with a heavy air of seriousness. “You are all welcome back to Minotaur’s cities, wherever you find it. Just say word of Minotaur fellowship, and you will be welcomed back in:”
And he told them the secret word of Minotaur fellowship, and he told them that it was told to them only in good faith that they never share the language of Minotaurs with any outsiders. They were to not let anyone else know of this word who was not a Minotaur, or it would be a sign of broken trust.
And as they passed through an archway leading from a sunset corridor of tree-trunks into a familiar night-sky with an ominous decrescent moon hanging overhead, they knew that they were in Pundamilia no longer.
They were no more on the way back.
They were now back home in Equestria.