A rainy day, Rarity reflected, was just what the little bell over her boutique door needed. The rush of new custom following from her designs for the Royal Wedding had been quite working the poor bell to exhaustion, and fraying its silver nerves. With the rain keeping ponies at home, the bell could take a well-deserved break; in its silence, Rarity herself could find time to finish taking care of business and accomplish some work.
With the sky outside dark and the lamps inside lit, the day passed in a timeless trance of full-steam creativity. It wasn't until her stomach began to complain of missing both lunch and dinner that she looked up and realized it wasn't only the door bell being silent, but Sweetie Belle as well.
Rarity frowned. Sweetie was supposed to be staying with her tonight, yes? The wall calendar confirmed it; their parents were to be out of town for another two days. So her little sister should have been filling the Boutique with noise and calamity for hours now.
"Sweetie Belle?" she called twice, moving up the staircase toward the guest bedroom. Sweetie could have come in quietly, uncharacteristic as that would be, but Rarity knew already that it wasn't so; the Boutique felt empty. There was no sign of her sister anywhere.
She returned downstairs and looked out the window at the clouds hanging low and ominous outside, though the rain itself had subsided to a moderate sprinkle. Her dramatic side helpfully presented a half-baked array of dreadful misfortunes that could befall a lone filly out in foul weather, and she decided that positive action would be the best way to avert panic.
"I'll just have to brave the elements and go looking for her!" she declared aloud, squaring her shoulders courageously. A snap of thunder replied, making her jump and give a high-pitched whinny of surprise.
Her shoulders and courage slumped a bit. "I do wish she could have chosen a day when the elements didn't need quite so much braving."
While she was looking through her rainwear wardrobe, trying to decide which coat best complemented the hues of the evening, there came a sudden noise as of a tambourine slapping a harp. A globe of vivid magenta light popped into being above the dais at the center of her work floor. Again she jumped, but only slightly, recognizing at once the color and feel of Twilight Sparkle's magic.
The light winked out, leaving in its place a scroll, which bounced off the back of the half-dressed ponnequin on the dais and rolled toward Rarity's hooves. With a soft hum of curiosity, she picked it up and untied the ribbon.
Sweetie Belle and her friends were caught out in the rain after school and ended up here in the Library. They're safe, dry, and welcome to wait out the rain with us. If it gets dark before the storm clears, I'll walk her home — it's no trouble at all.
As Ever, Your Friend,
P.S., Sweetie wants to be sure I tell you that she's sorry if you were worried.
P.P.S., Pinkie Pie also wants to add a P.S.
Rarity let out a deep breath of tension relieved, feeling suddenly much lighter, and blinked away a little tingle of tears.
"Oh, Twilight Sparkle! Such a sweet and thoughtful pony! When you're not lost in a book or going absolutely mad in pursuit of a theory, at least. And such perfect timing, too!"
Again she faced the window and dared the stormy heavens to stand in her way. "Well! I'm certainly not going to make Twilight go out of her way to bring Sweetie Belle home. I must go out and fetch her myself before they leave the Library!" Another rumble of thunder put a pensive frown on her face. "Surely they won't go until the rain dies down just a teensy bit more, though..."
A moment later, her eyes lit up with a fine idea. "Aha-ha! I can use the time to whip up a thank-you gift for Twilight! Now... what can I put together on such short notice...?"
She pursed her lips and sought inspiration among the tools and scraps littering the workshop.
Chapter Three: The Most Adorable Tea Party Ever
Twilight Sparkle smiled across the table, feeling more relaxed than she had for days. Much to her own surprise, the tea party was turning out quite a success.
"Oh, I simply adore the Royal Fillyharmonic!" Princess Cadance declared, dipping forward to take a dainty sip from the gigantic teacup in front of her. "Major Key truly is one of the most brilliant conductors ever to grace Canterlot."
"I agree absolutely," replied Rarity, bouncing slightly in excitement. "I haven't yet had the pleasure of personally attending a performance, but I do have so many of their records."
"You haven't? My word, you simply must join us when next they play at the Palace!"
Spike and Sweetie Belle were both enjoying the game on its own merits. Spike had donned his tuxedo jacket and top hat for the occasion, and was happy for a chance to show off the refined manners learned in his Canterlot upbringing. Sweetie had chosen, from the array of dress-up clothes Pinkie Pie had inexplicably produced, a lovely dress of pale raspberry that complemented both hues of her mane, and did a fine job imitating her sister's elegant mannerisms. She seemed delighted to be doing something so decorous and basically non-threatening to life and limb with her rambunctious friends.
"That would be positively marvelous, Your Highness!" Rarity exclaimed. "Music is one of the finer pleasures in life — even life on the farm, wouldn't you say, Big Macintosh?"
Big Mac shrugged complacently. "Eeyup," he said, before plunging back into a cinnamon bun nearly as tall as himself.
Apple Bloom visibly couldn't care less about the tea party itself, but it suited her fine as a venue for Spike's cooking. Choosing her brother as her party 'companion' let her get away with not talking much, and she'd been amiable enough about donning a yellow dress and letting Pinkie replace her customary hairbow with a big lacy confection decked in feathers and silk flowers. Twilight frankly thought it made the filly look like she'd backed into a wedding cake, but at least it wasn't as silly as the hat Pinkie had foisted on Rainbow Dash.
"More tea, Miss Finish?" asked Fancy Pants, hovering a teapot the size of a carriage over the giant cup in front of the photographer.
"Hoh jess, zat vood be most excellent," replied Photo Finish in a tar-thick but scrupulously polite accent.
Dash... well, Dash was playing along, with a certain grim determination. She had accepted the lacy white frock and ludicrously fruited sunhat as a rightful, if slightly sadistic, payback for spying. Told that she had to pick a doll companion, with her obvious first choice taken already by Scootaloo and Pinkie apologetically explaining that she hadn't got any Wonderbolts yet, Dash had drawn Photo Finish at random from the sack, and proceeded to mangle her Germaneic accent so badly it had to be criminally actionable somehow.
With honor allowing her no escape, Dash had evidently decided to take the tea party as a challenge. If anypony was going to disrupt the decorum of the affair, it wouldn't be her.
Twilight chuckled to herself. She'd never seen anypony play make-believe to win.
"And may I say that you look positively smashing today, my dear," Fancy Pants continued as he poured the tea. "Whoever made your dress is quite talented, even if she's no Rarity."
"Err... jess, jess, she iss... a mare of many surprises," Photo Finish answered, with a certain caution in her voice.
"And your dinner companion is just stunning in that frock, as well."
"... ah, jess, I'm sure she is." Photo Finish seemed somehow put off by the compliment. "But zen, she makes anysing look goot, naturally."
Pinkie, of course, could find entertainment in a visit to the National Museum of Boring Things, and was just as enthusiastic about a tea party as any other kind. She'd chosen Fancy Pants with a passing remark about ponies other than the 'Mane Six' deserving attention — evidently that was what she privately called their little clique of friends, and Twilight kind of liked the sound of it. Not as formal as 'Bearers of the Elements' and much better than the only other group name she'd heard proposed, 'The Dash Commandos'.
Pinkie was either entirely oblivious to Dash's barely-concealed discomfort with the lace-and-manners atmosphere of the party, or else taking a very subtle delight in tormenting her. Twilight wasn't sure which, but that hardly bothered her; having a clear idea of Pinkie Pie's motivations would strike her more as a symptom than an insight.
"I'm sure Miss Rarity has dozens of designs she'd be glad to have your friend model," Fancy went on with limitless cheer.
Photo Finish gave him a long, motionless stare. "Of ziss, I am certain, vissout un shadow off a doubt. Unfortunately she iss far too busy doink anysink else in ze vorld."
Rainbow Dash sat on a plate of assorted baked goods nearby and glared at the rest of the party in truculent silence.
The final member of the party didn't have much to say and neither did the Dash doll on the table in front of her. Scootaloo looked as merry as a wet cat in the rose-pink sundress and bonnet into which she'd been coerced, and her participation had been limited to a few terse comments from 'Dashie' and sullen attention to the refreshments, while watching the proceedings with a look of surly disgust worthy of a full-blown adolescent. It was entirely clear that she was bothering with the motions only under the example of her personal hero, but she wasn't making an active fuss.
Idly considering small rewards she might be able to offer Scootaloo if the filly continued to behave herself until the ordeal was over, Twilight drew a deep, gentle sigh and relaxed back on her cushion. Dress-up games like this still weren't her... well, cup of tea, but anything that could get Dash, Pinkie and all three Crusaders to stay quiet and undestructive for so long had to be a sort of magic in itself.
Rarity stepped out into the crisp evening, the rain fallen to no more than a drift of mist. The sky, gradually being cleared by diligent pegasi, had darkened to a teal-fringed blue, perfectly matching her choice of raincoat and parasol. Satisfied, she trotted smartly toward the center of town, a round violet box floating at her side.
On the stone bridge ahead, she saw a familiar orange-and-yellow color combination. Increasing her pace, stepping high to minimize contact with the muddy road, she called musically, "Oh, Appleja~ack!"
The orange pony turned her head. In her teeth she held a bow of twine, from which dangled a flat pink bakery box.
"Oh heyya, Rar'ty." she mumbled amiably, slowing her steps to let the unicorn catch up. Ribbons of steam furling from Applejack's cargo, thick and white in the cool air, teased Rarity's nose with delightful warm cinnamon-spice aroma.
"Mmm... let me guess, would that be a fresh-baked apple pie you're taking to Twilight Sparkle?"
"Eeyuph! How'd'ja know?" Applejack quirked her brow in puzzlement, then got it and nodded. "Oh, righk. Shveetie Velle."
Rarity suppressed a smirk at the twine-induced speech impediment. She knew better than to offer proud Applejack help with carrying things, and taunting an earth pony about holding items in her mouth would simply be vulgar. She did, perhaps, enunciate her own words with a certain playful precision. "Indeed, Sweetie Belle ended up at the Library too. I don't know about you, but Twilight's letter came just in time to spare me a full-blown panic attack over my wayward little sister!"
Applejack spoke volumes about Rarity and panic with a silent roll of her eyes. Rarity replied with a petulant little hoof-bop to her shoulder.
"Oh, you were worried sick too, admit it," she said waspishly. Applejack's smug twitch of a smile agreed, but only with the notation that she hadn't been panicking about it.
"Fine, have your self-control," Rarity sniffed. She swung her hatbox around in front of Applejack. "Anyway, I've also got a little gift for Twilight, would you like to see it?"
Applejack shrugged, enough of a cue for Rarity to flip open the box and lift out her newest creation. It was a soft, floppy Reinaissance cap of dark purple velvet, with a clever furl in its brim to accommodate a horn. Placed to frame the wearer's horn-tip was a pouf of pink lace studded with small star-shaped gems, trailing an elegantly curled comet-tail of pink and lavender ribbon.
The farmer's eyebrows rose in appreciation. "'Ell thack's righk nishe, Rar'ty. Sh'nock all... fancksy." She waved her hoof vaguely, trying to convey the understatement of the cap's design, in contrast to the unicorn's typical extravagance. Rarity favored her with an indulgent smile.
"Oh yes, I know you and Twilight share a taste for... less complicated styles. I'm glad you like it!" She allowed herself a prideful giggle as she repackaged the hat. "I had the basic hat already made, actually, because I saw that velvet and just had to find a way to display it alongside Twilight's natural violet shades, so really, I'm happy for the excuse to finish it."
Applejack nodded again, just as if any part of that were interesting to her, and plodded along complacently letting Rarity's tales of haberdashery roll past her ears.
Spike lifted the teapot to refill Pinkie's cup, but only a thin dribble came out.
"Whup, out of tea. Anypony still want some more?"
"Yes, please, if you wouldn't mind," Twilight said.
"Not at all. Back in just a minute..." Spike rose from his cushion and took the teapot toward the kitchen.
"Oo-ooh, could you make some more of these little cucumber sandwiches too, please? These things are soooo good!" Pinkie called, voice muffled by the last of said sandwiches in her mouth.
"Sure thing." Spike nodded agreeably. "They're easy."
"I'll help!" Sweetie Belle piped, hopping up to follow the dragon.
Apple Bloom's eyes widened as she watched Sweetie go. She looked uneasily toward the grown-ups, who didn't seem at all concerned about the conjunction of Sweetie Belle and a kitchen, then got to her hooves.
"Uh, reckon I'll go help..." she said, carefully, giving Scootaloo a significant look. "You wanna come too, Scootaloo?"
Scootaloo looked back as though Bloom had asked whether she'd like some extra homework. "Uh, no... you go right ahead."
"You sure you don't want to help Sweetie Belle with the cooking?" Apple Bloom's head jerked urgently toward the kitchen, like she had a flea in her ear.
Scootaloo's level gaze in response indicated that she'd got the message, but hadn't yet forgiven anypony for the bonnet. She folded her forelegs and sat up straight with great dignity. "Nope. I'm havin' a crumpet." She grabbed a pastry that she probably thought was a crumpet, and took a slow deliberate bite.
Apple Bloom tcha'd in annoyance and hurried off.
"I do hope the girls aren't giving Twilight too much trouble. They can be such a hoof-full."
"Ahh, they'll be fine. Probly playin' with Spike, he's got a level head about him," said Applejack. One tiny hint of a giggle from Rarity had led her to rearrange the twine bow of the pie box so she could talk more clearly. "An' her letter said Pinkie was there too, so Twi's not the only grown-up."
Rarity's hoofsteps slowed and a thoughtful frown settled onto her features. "Yes, she did mention Pinkie."
"Yeah." Applejack's own gaze grew distant, her voice slow and careful, as though reasoning her way out across a thinly iced lake. "So it's not just Twilight tryin' to handle the fillies all... by..."
"... herself, no. She has..."
"... Pinkie Pie with her..."
"... along with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, stuck inside on a rainy day..."
"... in a library, full of wood and paper..."
"... and a wide array of magical and scientific paraphernalia."
Without any overt signal, both began to walk a little faster. A few steps later they were trotting. By the time they passed Sugarcube Corner, both were galloping as fast as they could.
With half the party out of the room, Pinkie leaned over toward Twilight and nudged her side.
"Sooooo..." she said in a leading voice, wiggling her eyebrows. Twilight blinked at her.
"So, you got any more cool magic tricks to show us?" Pinkie grinned like a sunbeam.
Rainbow Dash let out a soft triumphant, "Hah!", convinced that she had just won the tea party, and leaned in on Twilight from the other side. "Yeah, you must have something up your sleeve we haven't seen before, right?"
Scootaloo perked up and looked eagerly across the table. Enormous filly eyes were difficult to resist.
"I don't do tricks," Twilight said with a shade of professional indignation. She made a half-conscious gesture as of adjusting a broad-brimmed hat on her head, making it clear what sort of unicorn she associated with 'tricks'.
"Oh, well, you know what I mean..." Pinkie answered, mildly apologetic. "I guess I should say, would you demonstrate a spell for us?"
"Pleeeeeeeze?" chimed the other two.
"Well... I'm not sure," Twilight said. "It's a new spell, and I don't think it would really be responsible to —"
"So there is a new spell!" Dash interjected.
"Well, yeah. I haven't practiced it yet, though."
"Is it dangerous?" asked Dash, even more interested.
Twilight paused to consider. Was it? She'd never actually performed the spell before, but it wasn't complicated. She understood the general class of magic it belonged to well enough to avoid any fundamental errors. And the targets would be inanimate, so even if she had completely misunderstood the documentation — which, with no false modesty, was highly unlikely — no living thing would be at risk.
What's the worst that could happen? she asked herself, not as a dismissal, but as a question to address seriously. She riffled through the mental cardfile labeled 'Potential Hazards of Spell Failure'. None of the serious ones seemed likely with this particular procedure. The structure of the spell was such that nearly every mistake she could imagine making would just cause it not to go off at all, risking no more than a waste of energy.
"Nnnooo... it shouldn't be dangerous..." she said thoughtfully. "It's just a general principle that if you're sure nothing can go wrong with a new spell, you need to think again. There is a reason why I normally try things out the first time with only an armored, fireproof assistant present, after all."
"Ooh, is it a fire spell?" Dash's eyes positively twinkled.
"Well, no, there's no fire involved..." Again she ran through her catalog of hazards. No fire, no corrosive or explosive materials, no electrical discharges... it didn't bend the fabric of space and time, nor invoke entities... and it really was a simple spell, useful primarily for entertainment, at least in the basic first-level form she'd been studying. Overall, the only reason she could think of not to try it out was that it went against her standard practice protocol.
"Oh, what the hay," she finally concluded. "Just keep in mind that there's a chance nothing interesting will happen. I might not get it right the first time."
"Ahh, come on! You're only, like, the best wizard ever!" Dash gave Twilight a cheery shoulder-punch. Twilight couldn't help but giggle.
"Okay, let's see..." She looked down to the floor and picked up the dolls of herself and Pinkie, then plucked the Dash doll from the table. Carefully moving all the plates and cups aside, she lined up the three toys and crouched down to bring her eyes level with them, horn softly glowing as she charged up. "Everypony stand back a bit."
Pinkie, Dash and Scootaloo got up and moved a short distance from the table, exchanging excited grins and bouncing with anticipation.
"I'm sure they're doing just fine," Rarity remarked casually, slightly winded, still at a full gallop.
Applejack nodded confidently. "Yeah, they're gettin' along like apples and cinnamon, no doubt." She wasn't slowing down in the slightest either.
"Nothing's on fire, certainly."
"Nahh. 'Course not."
They rounded the last corner and had a clear view of the Library.
"See? It's still there."
"Yup, everything's just —"
( ( ( WHUD ) ) )
It was a massive, flat wall of a sound, as of the world's largest book being slammed down onto the world's second or third largest table. The Library shuddered, throwing off a tidy sphere of leaves that expanded toward Applejack and Rarity. Before they were even able to jump in surprise at the noise, the shockwave of air and foliage slapped past them, lifting them briefly off their hooves; a thin-shaved instant later, they were forced to leap aside as a disembuildinged wooden door flew toward them with lethal speed.
Farmer and fashionista turned their heads to watch the door keep on flying, still upright, with a certain regal dignity in its passage. Their eyes met.
"EVERYTHING'S FINE!" they shouted at each other, and sped toward the Library.
The door being out on sabbatical saved them a couple of seconds, at least. Applejack burst in first, Rarity close on her heels, so worried as to be heedless of the mud she tracked in. They got only a couple of steps in before halting and staring in horrified confusion.
The interior of the Library was a madhouse on its way to becoming a shambles.
Furniture was tossed hither and yon, books scattered across the floor, sheets of paper blowing about in the wind through the absent door. A mass of monstrous black tentacles flailed and squirmed through the doorway that led to the kitchen, barely constrained by Twilight's magical shield bubble. Pinkie Pie was rolling about the floor braying laughter and kicking her hooves, apparently being tickled without mercy by some unseen force.
All around the room, a horde of tiny ponies, no more than three inches high, charged back and forth in panic, and the air was filled with similarly wild miniature pegasi. Rainbow Dash was spinning and rolling furiously in midair, tormented by the looping blue streak of her own diminutive duplicate. Just to top off the weirdness, all the normal-sized ponies were wearing fancy party dresses and hats.
"What in tarnation!?" Rarity burst out, leaving Applejack speechless.
For a moment, everything paused. Ponies big and small stopped in their tracks and stared at the interruption. Even the black tentacles paused, curling up away from Twilight as though waiting also to see what would happen next.
Then Applejack's pie box dropped from her gawping mouth, landing flat on the floor with a slapping sound, and the madness resumed.
"Applejack! Over here!" Twilight called. The urgency in her voice had Applejack across the room in a couple of long strides.
Sweat gleamed on Twilight’s forehead as she maintained a steady beam of energy to the shield, while at the same time using her glow to reach beyond it and grab up bundles of writhing tentacles. Through gritted teeth, she said, “If I let one through, think you can stomp it without getting snared?”
“I’ll give it somethin’ to think about, all right,” Applejack replied, with a curious blend of determination and anticipation. She turned to face away from the door and braced her forehooves, watching back over her shoulder.
Twilight separated one tentacle from the squirming bundle in her magical grasp and pulled it down toward the corner of the door. Her eyes flickered white as she stretched her power further to created a small glowing aperture in the shield, through which the tentacle surged, released from her grip.
Applejack hiked her hindquarters up high and slammed her hooves down onto the loathsome appendage. The muscular squishing texture of it twisted her lip in a grimace, but the metallic roar of pain from within the kitchen and the rapid slick retreat of the tentacle was a fine payoff. Applejack grinned.
“Hah! These suckers ain’t so tough, nor so fast! Reckon you can send a few more at a time, see how many I have to squash before whatever’s attached to ‘em in there gets the message.”
Twilight gave a tight nod. The nearly solid stream of energy from her horn to the shield seemed to be restricting the movement of her head. The opening widened and a thicker bunch of tentacles were tugged down to shoot through it, meeting with sledgehammer pounding from Applejack's hooves.
"What about me, what can I do?" Rarity fluttered helplessly behind Twilight. Through the crashing and roars, she could hear a familiar voice shrieking inside the kitchen, and it wasn't helping her composure at all. "Oh my goodness, Sweetie Belle!"
"She's all right! She's stuck in the corner with Spike and Apple Bloom but I've got a barrier between them and the monster." Twilight's voice, terse and certain, seized hold of Rarity's rising panic and forced it down. "You can help Dash and Pinkie corral all these toy ponies."
"Oh, right, yes!" Rarity looked around in perplexity. Of course she'd seen them upon entering, but it began to truly dawn on her that there really was a herd of animate toy ponies running around the Library. A certain glassiness in her eyes indicated difficulty reconciling this with the realm of things she'd ever expected to happen. "Twilight, why are there —"
“No time! Can you copy my shield spell?”
“I — not really, I've never done any better than the last time you tried to show me.” Rarity lacked Twilight’s talent for fine shaping of magic, and was no better at forming the high-precision geometry of a shield spell than Twilight would be at assembling a chic summer line.
She was quite adept in handling several things at once with her normal, blobby magic glow, however, and she hardly needed an impermeable sphere just to seize hold of the tiny ponies. Though they struggled with greater strength than she expected, she was swiftly able to gather a dozen or so from the floor around her, and floated them up to Twilight’s view.
“I can do this,” she said, a little defensive. However they kicked and squirmed, the living dolls were no harder to keep hold of than a bushel of frogs, a comparison Rarity dearly wished she'd never had the experience to make.
“Great, round up as many as you can!” said Twilight.
"Bloom's in there?" Applejack asked sharply. Twilight didn't answer in words, but the quick sidelong look she gave the earth pony was clear enough.
Applejack rocked her head back and forth, crackling her neck. Her expression hardened, grim as a tombstone. "Gimme more of them tentacles."
Rarity trotted toward the center of the main room, where Scootaloo was running back and forth swinging a canvas bookbag like a butterfly net, climbing up furniture and making wing-fluttering long hops, trying to catch flitting toy pegasi.
Up near the ceiling, Rainbow Dash's biggest problem was Rainbow Dash, in a manner more literal than usual. Her toy doppelganger had a lot more room to maneuver in the Library atrium than she did, and made good use of it, zipping in dizzying loops around the full-sized pegasus and flicking in to deliver small but sharply-targeted kicks and headbutts every few seconds. The little creature was obviously convinced that Dash was some kind of giant monster, and wasn't inclined to listen to reason, which would have mattered more if the real Dash were inclined to use any.
The flesh-and-blood pegasus was getting woozy from trying to keep track of her antagonist's mad swirling motion, and it didn't help that her eyes were watering from too many stinging kicks to the nose. Swinging her forehooves wildly, she managed to catch the toy with a solid swat, sending it zipping toward Scootaloo, who had climbed one of the bookshelf ladders and was ready with the bag.
The next few moments were complicated.
Scootaloo, perched on the very top step of the ladder — the step labeled clearly not to stand on — swung the canvas sack out in a wide sweep and, to her own surprise, successfully netted the miniature Dash. The toy pegasus was disproportionately powerful, however, and instead of going down, the sack yanked upward, pulling Scootaloo's hooves from the ladder, which tipped over and fell clattering down, coming to rest against an overturned chair.
Squealing, Scootaloo was dragged out into the air, hanging from the sack like a very poorly designed hot air baloon and swinging crazily as the flying toy zigged and spun. One flailing hind hoof clipped the real Dash a smart blow right behind the ear, knocking loose the last fragment of wits. Eyes swirling and a wiggly lopsided grin on her lips, Dash stopped flapping and dropped, landing sprawled across the foot of the fallen ladder.
The toy Dash put on a final burst of speed and the filly's grip broke. Little wings buzzing fruitlessly, Scootaloo tumbled in an arc which ended, inevitably, on the longer end of the ladder that jutted upward over the chair.
Rarity closed her eyes. Scootaloo couldn't weigh more than a third as much as Dash, if that, but Rarity didn't need to see to know — just know — that the ladder would of course be balanced with just enough lever length on its upward end to combine with the filly's partial forward momentum and Dash's lingering aura of mass-countering flight magic, and...
Sure enough, she heard, in quick succession, the thud and groan of Scootaloo hitting the ladder, the clack of the ladder's top hitting the floor, the shocked half-vocal whuff from Dash, the flutter of a feather-winged body being launched at high speed, and the wince-inducing splat of that same body smacking against the ceiling.
Rarity drew a deep breath and let it out, then opened her eyes with a flat, exasperated expression. The absurd hat Dash had been wearing drifted serenely down in front of her like an oversized, fruit-bearing snowflake. Overhead, the canvas sack still circling around randomly with mini Dash caught inside, and Rarity grabbed it with a swift petulant snap of her magic. She was less annoyed with the toy pegasus than with the universe itself, which sometimes seemed to be run by beings more similar in mentality to Pinkie Pie than anypony else; but of the two, only one was small and localized enough to take it out on. Impatiently, she jammed the bundle of toy ponies she was already holding into the sack and twisted its mouth shut, then went over to check on Scootaloo.
Dash bounced off the ceiling and fell in a spin, twirling like a windblown leaf as she stuck her wings out in a punch-drunk effort to catch herself. She tumbled more sideways than down, and finally crashed to a landing in Twilight's astronomy loft, quickly discovering how heavy and unpillowlike a telescope could be.
Dazed, she lay beneath a tumble of Twilight's books and apparati for a moment, groaning softly and listening to the happy chirping birdies in her head. Gradually the fog lifted from her thoughts and she pushed herself up on her forelegs, clutter tumbling off her back.
Halfway to standing, she froze, suddenly aware of eyes upon her.
Owloysius and the hatchling phoenix Pee-Wee, steadfastly ignoring the fuss downstairs, were playing their own little game with the toy ponies the owl had stolen earlier, flying them around in a blue box making whooshy flight noises. They stopped to give Dash the same kind of blank, awkward stare that she would give if somepony crashed into her bedroom.
She rose all the way to her hooves, shook her head to blow off the remaining dizziness, and flexed her wings. The birds were still staring at her.
She cleared her throat. “Uh, yeah, so... carry on.”
They just kept staring. “Who?” suggested the owl.
“You guys could be trying to help or something, you know,” Dash snapped, before leaping from the balcony and letting herself fall in a reasonably controlled glide to the floor. She really was glad to have chosen Tank as a pet. Honestly, sometimes birds just creeped her out.
Her landing was a little wobbly, but her chin was high, her eyes bright and confident.
"Omigosh, omigosh, Rainbow Dash, I'm soooo sorry!" Scootaloo hopped anxiously around Dash. "Are you okay?"
The filly looked so miserable over the accident that Dash was moved to reach over and scruff her mane affectionately. "Don't sweat it, squirt. You know me, I crash into solid objects for breakfast! And anyway, I blame these little creeps, not you."
Rarity gave a little laugh. "Well then, you can help me get the rest of the 'little creeps'."
"On it!" Not quite ready to take to the air again, Dash set about prowling the room, pouncing catlike on each toy pony she saw, and knocking them toward Rarity's magical grasp like hockey pucks.
"Scootaloo dear, this bookbag won't hold much more. Could you find something more appropriate to keep these ruffians in?"
Scootaloo hopped up and snapped a salute. "You betcha!"
She returned soon with an owl-sized birdcage of brass wire that had fallen from the loft after Dash's tumble. Rarity gave the cage a close inspection. The bars looked sturdy, and spaced close enough to prevent the toys from escaping, possibly. If they had been real live ponies of the same size, she'd suspect they might be able to squeeze through, but she could feel with her magical grip that the toys were made of more solid material than flesh, not at all squishy. She doubted they could even fold back their ears like real ponies.
"It should do," she concluded, flipping open the door and carefully funneling the toys from sack to cage.
The Princesses of Equestria peered out from beneath the lid of a giant box, surveying the lunatic scene playing out before them with expressions of stoic calm, despite the inner turmoil both felt.
Moments prior, they had found themselves suddenly awakening inside the box, lying on their sides, nestled in form-fitting indentations of a soft spongy material. Pulling free of the peculiar padding had been an awkward struggle, and even for ponies of their natural grace and poise, walking on the squishy stuff was a challenge, but they managed to explore the bleak confines of their cell without too much damage to the royal dignity. There were no windows or doors, no furnishings, nothing at all but themselves and the sponge. Before long, though, they discovered that the roof itself was loose and could be lifted without much effort.
The view that greeted them outside was without parallel in the long, long memories of either Princess. They appeared to be tucked under a coffee table the size of a desert plateau, and beyond that was a room Celestia recognized as the Golden Oaks Library, recreated on the scale of titans. What little they could see of the Library was in complete turmoil; ponies that appeared normal-sized to the Princesses running around in pell-mell panic, and thundering among them, the hooves of ponies taller than mountains. Thuds and screams and deep, earth-shaking bellows filled the air.
Celestia kept her rising alarm in check by telling herself firmly that there were many possible explanations, and that it was only a matter of seeking more information, to eliminate possibilities until only the truth remained.
"What madness now has overcome our land?" Luna demanded. Her plans for dealing with the situation were more simple: find out who was responsible and deal them a quick, sharp lesson.
"I wish I had a ready answer for that, but I fear it may be we, not the land, who are affected. I fear, also, that I might already know who we'll find at the bottom of this."
"Your student, Twilight Sparkle, do you mean?" Luna stomped her hoof, to little effect on the soft flooring, and gave a warrior snort. "Fond as I am of Twilight and her band, too often does she overreach, it seems. If this is some experiment gone wrong, I'm sorry, but she's gone too far this time."
Celestia shook her head, lips pressed to a tight line. "You're not wrong there. I can't say yet what she's done, but pulling us into it is unacceptable." Her frown deepened as she gazed into empty air, a crease of worry appearing between her brows. "Hmm. I really can't say... whatever has happened, it's put a damper on my senses — I can't read the magic. And I'm finding distressing gaps in my knowledge, as well. I've — I! — have been robbed of memories!"
Luna gave her a look of shock. "No accidental spell could be so strong! Not even... she could ever breach your mind!" Her eyes dipped in a shadow of pain, making it clear that the name she wouldn't speak was not that of Twilight Sparkle.
"To affect me in such a way, without a trace and without a fight... no, I just don't believe that could be an accident. I could almost believe Twilight might somehow, accidentally or by some peculiar chain of reasoning, shrink us and maybe even stick us in a box, but that theory can only stretch so far. We've been too hasty blaming her, even if it does appear we've been hidden in her home. Some greater danger is at hoof."
"Then what should we do next, do you suppose?" Luna sidled almost unconsciously closer to Celestia, who recognized what most would miss, the well-controlled traces of fear in her younger sister's carriage and voice. Protectively she spread her wing across Luna's back.
"We should teleport back to Canterlot, assess the scope of this situation, and act from there," she said decisively. "Much as I'd like to find Twilight and see what she knows about all this, I think it would be more prudent to stay out of sight. Don't forget to adjust your 'port for scale, dear."
Even in the gravity of the circumstances, Luna chuckled and bumped Celestia's side in soft, playful reproach. "Perhaps you'd also like to wipe my nose?"
Celestia laughed. "Sorry, Lu. Old teacher's habits die hard."
The two of them closed their eyes and brought forth spheres of light that enveloped their bodies, Celestia in brilliant golden-white and Luna in gentle evening blue.
Unfortunately, in attempting the teleportation spells, the two toys expended entirely the stores of magical energy that had gone into their animation. Rather than going anywhere, the lights flickered and turned to glowing magenta, then simply winked out with soft, feeble popping sounds. The dolls fell, once again mere objects, to the sponge floor of their storage box.
In short order, Rarity, Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash had cleared the room of all the most visible dolls, and were scouting around carefully in bookshelves and under furniture for the more elusive ones. Fortunately, the animate toys didn't seem to be very bright, certainly nowhere near as difficult to catch as, say, mice or birds; a lot of the little beings were caught because they stopped to stare off blankly into space, or thought they could hide by covering their own eyes.
Of course, Rarity was pointedly aware that her impression of the toys as easy to catch was based, rather by definition, only on the segment that had, in fact, been caught. There could be any number of others successfully evading them.
She nudged the toy Fluttershy, who went along readily and squeaked an apology for all the trouble, into the cage and squatted down to examine the roundup thus far. The cage was slightly more than halfway full, with around forty to fifty of the mini-ponies, by Rarity's rough eyeball estimate.
"Do you have any idea how many there are?" she asked, more thinking out loud than really seeking an answer. "Hopefully this is at least half of them, or we'll need a bigger cage."
Dash shrugged. "Not sure. They belong to Pinkie — oh!"
She and Rarity locked startled glances. "Pinkie!" they shouted as one.
Now that she'd been brought to mind, they became aware of the ongoing squeals from the pink pony. She was laughing wildly, uncontrollably, and had been doing so for a long while now, with a rising hoarse note of distress in the sound. Dash and Rarity hurried over to where Pinkie had rolled, into an alcove near the foot of the stairs, where she was pinned on her back, legs flailing. "Make it stop! Make it sto-ha-ha-ha-hop!"
On closer approach, it became apparent that the thing tickling Pinkie was some kind of wiggly, sinuous being, resembling a short and very fast snake, slithering in rapid swirls around her body. Little clouds trailed up in the wake of the streaking creature, each puff solidifying and sprouting black legs to become part of a flock of tiny sheep that roamed all over Pinkie, grazing on her fur and making the tickling even worse. On the summit of her tummy, bouncing merrily in time to the rise and fall of her laughter, was the toy version of Pinkie herself, chanting, "Fun! Fun! Fun!"
Dash and Rarity exchanged glances of complete confusion, and then Rarity leaned in to snatch at the snake-thing with her magic. It deftly dodged her first attempt, leaving her holding only a clump of miniscule sheep, which she tossed hastily aside. On her second try she snagged the thing and pulled it away from Pinkie, whose helpless laughter subsided and allowed her to catch big, gulping breaths of relief. Dash seized the toy Pinkie with a fierce scowl, and gave it a rather harsh shaking, enraged by the edge of pain in the real Pinkie's gasping giggles.
Rarity held up the snake creature, and gave a cry of loathing as she recognized the misshapen serpentine form. She almost lost her grip on it, then tightened her magic firm enough to make the toy monster's eyes bug out.
"Eugh! Pinkie!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed, identifying the creature as well. "Why do you even have a Discord doll?"
Pinkie rolled onto her stomach, still breathing heavily, squishing miniature sheep which gave bleats of protest as they turned to puffs of mist and vanished. Between pants, she said, "Well duh... without the established existence of credible threats providing a tonal substrate of importance beyond the personal, even potentially poignant domestic and interpersonal conflicts would be reduced to mere anodyne sentimentality!"
Dash, Rarity, Scootaloo, and the Discord doll all froze and, in unison, blinked at her. Pinkie tutted irritably.
"You need bad guys for a good story, silly!" she clarified, before flopping down onto the floor again.
"Rrrright..." Rainbow Dash said.
Little Discord smirked at Rarity and snapped his leonine forepaw. Rarity jumped back in alarm as a pillow-sized cloud of tiny daisies pluffed into existence right in her face, hovering there however much she whipped her head about. Even flapping at them with her hooves only made the little flowers drift lazily away, giving the appearance that her head was stuck inside an invisible, spring-themed snow globe. With her magical hold faltering in the distraction, the Discord doll squiggled away through the air, slipping behind some books on a high shelf.
"Hey! Get him!" Dash shouted, following her own command and leaping up to clear the books from the shelf with one broad swing of her hoof. Discord was already gone, though. "Ahh, horsefeathers!"
"These actually smell quite pleasant," Rarity muttered distantly, dazed away from rationality for a moment as the flowers dissolved also into wisps of vapor. She blinked and shook her head, dispelling their traces. "Never mind, Dash, let's just catch all the ones we can find and worry about that horrid creature later."
"Right. C'mon, Scoots!" Dash dropped back down, and the four of them carried on the hunt for fugitive toys.
When Applejack had mashed around twenty of the slimy tentacles, the beast they belonged to had enough; its roars of outrage gave way to a more whimpery sound, to the extent that such a house-shaking bass thunder could be called a whimper. All the free tentacles slithered back, and the ones Twilight still held started trying to pull away rather than push against her. She let them retreat, keeping them lashed with her magic but giving them slack to withdraw, and began shrinking the shield-bubble around them.
The smaller the sphere grew, the more leverage Twilight had to force the tentacular horror down. Within the dwindling bubble, the individual tentacles seemed to be shrinking, forced not just physically away but retreating along dimensions beyond the comprehension of ponies. Finally she had it crushed down to a sphere the size of a tangerine, contained within the monstrosity's point of origin, a black cast-iron kettle sitting on the counter by the stove.
A bolt of lightning-bright energy from Twilight's eyes and horn crimped the kettle's lid firmly to its lip with a squeal of twisting metal, and branded its rim with sigils of containment.
Twilight's head dropped and she gave a deep, weary sigh.
"Whuff... well... that much is taken care of," she said. Exhaustion slumped every line in her body, and Applejack could see that all that magic had really taken the stuffing out of her. The hard-working farmer could sympathize with that, for sure. She patted Twilight on the back.
"You done good, Twi," she said heartily. Spike, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom rushed over to hug Twilight's legs, chorusing agreement.
"Thanks, everypony. You were amazing yourself, Applejack." Twilight managed a smile, though she still looked like a pony who hadn't slept for days.
"Ah, weren't nothin'. Uh... you maybe wanna tell me what in the hay that thing was?"
Twilight looked toward the pot, from which a few thin trailers of steam still rose. She shook her head. "I will as soon as I figure that out," she said vaguely, then turned toward the door. "Right now, there's still more mess to take care of."
She trudged out of the kitchen with the others trailing behind her.
Pinkie knew her collection as well as she knew the actual population of Ponyville, and she estimated that only ten or so remained at large — she wasn't entirely sure because she didn't have the heart to shake up the cage to see who might be in the center of the heap. To Rarity's dismay, the list of possible fugitives included some of the town's most intelligent, adventurous, or just plain devious ponies — Time Turner, Filthy Rich, Bella Notte, Cloud Kicker, and the Mayor among them — along with Ditzy Doo, whose well-known capacity for inadvertent disaster was matched in town legend only by the astounding coincidences that often rose to get her out of scrapes.
Rarity wasn't sure whether there was any relation between the abilities of the real ponies and their doubles, but there did seem to be. The toy Rainbow Dash had been a notably better flier than the other pegasi, and Little Applejack had given Big Dash a fully Apple-worthy buck in the nose when the pegasus bent down to make a joke about the three-inch orange pony giving her a sense of deja vu. The miniature Twilight Sparkle put up a genuinely intimidating magical resistance, which Rarity had overcome only by acting on the hope that the toy possessed some of Twilight's weaknesses as well, and applying her highest-grade pleading pout. Even so, Rarity got the sense that the toy hadn't been defeated, but deliberately aquiesced, and as she tossed her into the cage, she worried that Little Twilight might have some clever plan in mind.
They still hadn't found Little Rarity, which she thought was obscurely flattering, but that was no worry at all compared to the fact that they hadn't spotted hide, hair, scale nor feather of Little Discord either.
The search was interrupted when Twilight and the rest emerged from the kitchen. By silent consensus the toy-catchers all greeted them with big shiny grins of confidence.
Twilight spotted the cage. "Ah, good. Did you get them all?"
"Well..." Rainbow Dash began, scratching the back of her head uneasily. Her eyes, along with those of Pinkie, Rarity and Scootaloo, scanned all around the bookshelves. "Maybe?"
"There's some!" Sweetie Belle shouted. Rarity jumped and gave an involuntary yip, seeing that Belle was pointing at the floor right next to her, but when she looked down it was only a pair of... well, herself. Nothing draconequine at all. The two Rarity dolls pushed and squabbled with each other in squeaking voices as they approached the real Rarity in tiny fury.
"This humongous creature is a base impostor!" squealed the smaller one, pointing an accusing hoof. "I am the only true Rarity!"
"Liar! Changeling!" shrilled the other, knocking the little one aside. "You're just a cheap knockoff! I'm the real thing!"
They leapt upon one another and rolled about in an entirely unladylike display of hoofticuffs. Rarity looked down on them, in more ways than one. She couldn't quite make out what they were saying, in their high-pitched, fast-paced voices, but the gist seemed clear enough and she hardly approved of it.
"All right, you peculiar little things, that's quite enough," she declared. Without turning away from her tiny duplicates, she reached behind her with magic to lift the hat she'd brought for Twilight, and floated it a short distance above the dolls. "I can assure you that I am the real Rarity. And I have a giant hat."
She dropped the hat, ending the squeaky debate and imprisoning the toys with a very final plop. "Your argument is invalid."
Silence filled the Library like invisible lead, broken only by the occasional thud and tinkle of falling books and bits of ceiling. Slowly, but inexorably, every eye turned toward Twilight Sparkle, who hunched down her head.
"Twilight, my dear," said Rarity, turning a lethally sharp raise of her eyebrow toward the blushing scholar. "Why do I have the feeling that it's you, in particular, who have a lot of explaining to do?"
Next: Twilight Uses Science Words!