Pumpkin Cake snuck out of her room, letting Patty snooze through the morning. She tied her saddlebags tight and stuffed Chewie into the bottom of the left sack. She walked down the hall, passing the room Pound and Rice shared. Both her brothers slept soundly.
Once she reached the ground floor, she poked her head into the kitchen. Her mother was pulling doughnuts out of the oven for the breakfast rush. “Mom, I’m heading out.”
Cup Cake hid her mouth with a hoof and yawned. “Sorry, dearie. I didn’t hear you. It was… the meeting went long.”
“I’m gonna spend the day at the park. I’ll be home for lunch.” The dim sky shone purple through the window as dawn approached. “I want to draw the sunrise. So, I’ll see you later.”
“Sounds fun, sugarplum.” Cup Cake bit back another yawn. “Mind you don’t talk to any strangers. And stay out of dark alleys.”
Pumpkin trotted through the town. The misty air tickled her skin. The smell of coffee stung her nose as ponies brewed their main source of energy. The purple sky shifted to red, then orange, as the day reached its true beginning.
Pumpkin smiled. She pulled a pad of paper out of her bags and lifted a cloud of colored pencils. She drew as she walked, each color moving independently, each shape taking form from the depths of her mind. When she was done, she pulled it back from her face.
It was… passable. Almost fridge-worthy. Almost. The sun was more of an egg yolk, and the sky was a complex garble of reds, yellows, and a little lavender. Not her best work.
She looked over her squadron of hovering pens. Try as she might, they refused to paint the picture she saw in her mind. ‘But I’m practicing,’ she thought, ‘and that’s the important part. I just gotta build up my magic and refine my control. That’s what Mrs. Cheerilee says.’
She flipped the pad. On the other side of the page, she scribbled out a few magical equations she’d found in one of Princess Twilight’s spell books. Being written in colored pencil meant they didn’t exactly look academic, but even without casting them, she could feel the power behind them. ‘Even if it’s gonna take me a few years before I can transmogrify a frog into an orange…’
Ahead, she could see her ultimate destination: Discord’s windmill. A grin crossed her face. ‘Maybe I can guilt him into playing a game. Or showing off his chaos magic. Or maybe make some more cookies. Those are some darn good cookies. Maybe he knows what sort of awesome things Princess Twilight is doing around Equestria…’
She stopped short. She wasn’t the only pony headed for the windmill. Fluttershy was walking up to the door, her wings spread and shaking.
Pumpkin hid behind a tree and glowered. ‘Fluttershy doesn’t visit on Saturday. She has animals and cleaning and stuff. Now she’s just gonna want a dumb tea party or… or… What is she doing?’
Fluttershy didn’t move. She just stared up at the windmill, her knees knocking. On closer inspection, Pumpkin could see damp tracks running down her cheeks. Her eyes were red as cherries and puffy as marshmallows.
Pumpkin Cake crouched. She waited for Fluttershy to make a move, but the pegasus seemed rooted to the spot. Just when Pumpkin’s patience wore thin, Fluttershy reached up to knock.
“Discord!” Fluttershy knocked again. “Discord!”
She lifted herself up a few inches. She hit the door with more force than before, her voice a touch louder. “Discord, open up!”
No answer came. Pumpkin edged closer, keeping out of sight in the long grass. A change took over Fluttershy; her teeth clenched, her back arched, and her ears lay back. She flew back and slammed her hooves against the door. “Discord, you open up right now!”
Pumpkin winced. This wasn’t like Fluttershy. Fluttershy was quiet, and boring, and nice, not scary.
The door swung open, and Fluttershy slammed it behind her.
Pumpkin hopped up from her hiding spot. She scampered to the door and pressed her ear against it. As usual, no sound came from the mill aside from the ancient gears creaking. She lit her horn, cast her spell over her whole body, and slipped through the wood.
Fluttershy was shouting, downright screeching. Pumpkin could barely make out any words, but she suspected the words weren’t important. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
There weren’t any plates dancing in the kitchen. The coat rack didn’t move to take her bags. There wasn’t any music coming from the fireplace, or lamps spouting free verse poetry. Discord sat in the middle of an empty living room, his face turned downward, his hands clutched.
Pumpkin knew that expression; it was the one she wore when she found out she was grounded. Like the time she pinched Patty, only worse.
Fluttershy finally stopped to take a breath, but Discord didn’t hurry to fill the silence. He sat still, sighing quietly.
“Why?” Fluttershy shouted. “Why would you lie to me for so long? What did you hope to do? What were you even thinking? I thought I was helping you!”
Pumpkin ducked into the kitchen. A flash of magic brought Chewie’s foot to her mouth. She gnawed away at him, shaking under the force of Fluttershy’s voice.
“Everything I did, everything I worked for, was in the hopes that I was making you better!” Tears poured from Fluttershy’s eyes. “Did I do anything that mattered? Do you even remember the things I did?”
“Yes,” Discord said. “I do. You know I always look forward to spending time with you.”
“But why?” Fluttershy held her hooves to her chest. “Why would you hide this from me? Why wouldn’t you tell me you were losing your memory? I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong!”
Discord rubbed the bridge of his nose. His hand slid down his face, stretching it out a few extra inches. “Because if you knew, you’d think there was hope to cure it. I didn’t want to do that to you.”
Fluttershy’s jaw dropped. A vein bulged on her neck. “Are you kidding me? You didn’t want me to know because I’d try to cure you? That’s the stupidest, most brain-dead thing I’ve ever heard!”
“No, I didn’t tell you because you would think that you could cure me.” He wrapped a roll of duct tape around his wrist, but it slid uselessly to the floor. “It would be cruel because you can’t. It’s… it’s not a sickness, Fluttershy. I can’t be fixed.”
Pumpkin gasped, then snapped her mouth shut. She held her breath for a long moment, but it didn’t seem like they heard her. She sat down and rested her cheek against the wall.
Discord brought his hands together. He pulled them apart, revealing a cloud of shifting colors and muted sounds. “It’s my magic. I’m imbalanced. I’m holding in all this chaos, all this confusion, and it has nowhere else to go.”
“But…” Fluttershy drifted to the ground. “You do let it loose. Your windmill. Your silly little jokes. You use magic all the time.”
Discord waved his paw through the magic and transformed it into a flower. He held it by its delicate stem. “This? This is nothing. This is a sneeze compared to my full power. You’ve seen what I can really do.”
Fluttershy shuddered. She looked at anything but the draconequus before her. “Couldn’t you do it somewhere else? Just for a moment?”
“No.” Discord shook his head. “With the sort of chaos I can create? It would be awful. It wouldn’t go away when I was done with it. I’d have to pull it back, and it would just create the same problem all over again. I couldn’t do that to my friends, Fluttershy. I love you guys too much.”
Fluttershy sniffed hard. She stomped a hoof. “What’s going to happen? What are you going to do?”
“The chaos is building up inside of me, a little at a time.” The flower’s petals fell off. They drifted to the floor, where they melted like ice cream in the sun. “I’m trying to hold myself together, but it’s not working. I’m falling apart from the inside out.”
Fluttershy gulped, resting a hoof on his knee. “Are you dying?”
Pumpkin pressed a hoof over her mouth and slid back. Her legs gave out. Her chest felt numb.
“I don’t actually think I can.” Discord cupped his chin. “My body will weaken, and my mind will be gone, but then the magic will just… escape to somewhere else. Harming nopony.”
He slumped into a roll of snake-like coils and rubbery limbs. “And I guess that’s the important part. Nopony will get hurt. My friends will be safe. You’ll be safe.”
Fluttershy shook her head. She rose into the air and flew for the door. “I’m going to help you.”
Discord reached out a stretchy talon and snagged her rear leg. “Fluttershy, I’ve looked into it. There’s nothing that can save me. Not Zecora, not Twilight, and not you. Don’t waste your—”
“It’s not a waste of time!” Fluttershy crossed her forelegs and lowered her eyebrows. “And you should be ashamed of yourself for thinking so. You’re my friend, and I’m going to do everything possible to keep you safe and well.”
With a deceptively powerful flap, she yanked her leg away from Discord and returned to the door. She opened it and stepped into the early morning light. “I mean it, Discord. We’re going to help you.”
She shut the door, and quiet returned to Discord’s home. He stared after her, his fists clenched. “This is exactly why I didn’t tell you! Ugh!”
Pumpkin Cake walked towards the entrance. She kept her eyes on Discord, but he never so much as noticed her. He lifted his arms and burst forth magic, transforming the inside of the windmill to a large, open auditorium, filled with big band instruments bellowing out a cacophony of sounds. Frogs tap-danced onto the stage, waving their top hats.
She ran into something soft. She found herself staring into two large, yellowed eyes.
“Where do you think you’re going, Little Miss Cake?” Discord said.
She released Chewie’s foot and let it snap somewhere inside of her bag. “I dunno. I just don’t feel like I should stay here.”
“Oh really?” Discord’s voice became bouncy. Mocking. “You must need something. You only come here when you need something.”
Pumpkin frowned. “How would you know? It sounds like you don’t remember anything.”
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong.” A cloud of sparkles poofed into existence. Discord’s scrapbook lay open; the page held several moving pictures, all showing Pumpkin’s visits. “I don’t remember very well, no, but that’s why I have my book to remember for me.”
Pumpkin Cake blinked, partially in surprise, and partially to clear the dampness from her eyes. She saw dozens of variations on her face, all looking directly at her, all speaking at the same time.
“Hay, can you fix Chewie’s squeaker?”
“My roller skate lost a wheel.”
“I broke my brother’s kite.”
“You need to fix my rubber chicken.”
“So I kinda dropped my dad’s pocket watch in the lake.”
“Chewie can’t squeak anymore!”
Discord slammed the book shut. He lowered his eyebrows and gave her a fake grin. “So what’ll it be? What’s your all-important request this time?”
Pumpkin couldn’t hold it in. Tears ran down her face. Her nose dribbled. She let out a sob. “I want you to get better!”
Discord’s mouth popped open. He stumbled for something to say, but all that came out was a weak “Oh, uh—”
Pumpkin covered herself with her special spell and ran through his body. She kept running until she had gone through his door and into the field. The wooded pathways of the park lay ahead; quiet, and warm, remote and still.
Fluttershy saw her destination drawing close: the Seeds of Friendship Public Library. After the battle with Tirek ten years ago had demolished the original tree, and Twilight’s friends had moved the dead root system to the throne room, the town had set about rebuilding. Earth pony magic modified the tree, carving out rooms and shelves without harming the plant itself. Before long, a library to rival the original had been grown from the ground up.
Twilight Sparkle was grateful that her private collection of first editions was once again private.
Fluttershy pushed the door open, nearly unaware of the jingling little bell announcing her presence. Her heart pounded. ‘Where do I even start? Super Naturals? Would that have something in it about curing memory loss? Maybe I should look at the history of draconequuses and find a clue there? There’s so much that could go wrong!’
Spike lumbered into the foyer, rubbing his eyes. His large, strong frame sat a head taller than Fluttershy, even on all fours. He yawned and peered at her. “Fluttershy? I didn’t expect you to be around after… you know. What can I help you with?”
Fluttershy sniffed, wiping the edge of her eyes. “I… I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.”
Spike’s brow furrowed. He drummed his fingers against the floor. His eyes lit up as an idea sparked behind them. “Tell you what: Why don’t you have a seat in front of the fire? I’ll brew up some tea and you can tell me what’s wrong. Does that sound nice?”
Fluttershy nodded and limped over to the sitting area. The fire crackled in a merry, lively way. She slumped, doing the best she could to relax, even a little bit. It was slow coming.
A hoof thumped against the door. “Come in!” Spike hollered. “The library’s open!”
The door jingled as the pony stepped over the threshold. Fluttershy peered around the chair to see who it was. It was a pony that she’d never met before.
‘Wait, no, haven’t I?’ He had a gray coat, and was wearing a red tie. There wasn’t much noticeable about his features, but there was something about him—‘Oh, the pony that sat next to me during the meeting. I hope he doesn’t recognize me.’
“I’ll be with you in just a second, sir,” Spike called from the kitchen.
“Yes, yes. Thank you.” The pony glanced her way.
She hid herself in the folds of the cushions. ‘Who am I kidding? Everypony in town knows me after last night. I was so stupid.’ She turned her eyes upwards. She had stuck her neck out for Discord, and now the guillotine was coming down. ‘Yay.’
Fluttershy opened her eyes. She hadn’t noticed that they were shut, but she supposed it made sense. “Yes?”
The pony pulled his black boater hat off and held it over his heart. “I couldn’t help but be most very impressed by your speech last night. It’s clear that Discord means a lot to you. How is he? Any better since you saw him last?”
Her cheeks burned. She looked into the fire, trying not to let her exhaustion show. She couldn’t help the tremor running through her legs. “No. He’s not.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so terribly sorry.” He cleared his throat and popped his hat back on his head. “And how rude of me; I know your name but you do not know mine. You may call me Jeuk.”
Fluttershy resigned herself to a conversation, at least until Spike got done. “Yolk as in the egg, or Yoke as in the farm tool?”
“Oh, neither, neither. It’s a foreign word.” Jeuk sat in the seat beside hers, a book tucked under his foreleg. “I’m just visiting Ponyville on business. I’m something of a lawyer, or… Oh dear, I am boring you.”
‘I wouldn’t say this is boring so much as it’s just uncomfortable.’ “Oh, no, of course not. I’m sure you’re very good at what you do.”
“Of course, of course.” Jeuk set the book on his lap and chuckled quietly to himself. “I ought to be after how long I’ve been at it, oh yes.”
He tipped his hat back, a thoughtful look on his face. “You know, Discord has always been a point of interest to me. All draconequuses, really. An odd little hobby I indulge myself in. Have you read much of their history?”
“Um, no actually.” Fluttershy brushed a lock of mane behind her ear. “I can’t say I know much about them, except what I’ve learned from Discord.”
Jeuk smiled. It was a friendly sort of smile, but its presence still caused a prickle to spider up Fluttershy’s spine. She resisted the urge to scratch an itch under her left wing.
“There’s not much to tell, really,” Jeuk said, his head tilted back. “No real effort has been made to… compile their history, and nopony’s bothered to ask Discord himself. Most just assume that he’s the last. They’ve passed into legend. Myth. Most very mysterious. Yes, most very mysterious.”
He showed her the cover of his book, which depicted a detailed sketch of an apple tree. It wasn’t quite the same as those on Applejack’s farm; the roots were more pronounced, the midsection was made of a series of smaller trunks, and the leaves were shaped more like hearts. “The only thing any scholars can agree on is that they had their start in the Garden of Elysium.”
He sighed and set the book on a small wooden table between them. His ear turned at the sound of Spike carrying a tea tray. “But I suppose it’s all nothing more than a fairy tale as far as the present day is concerned. A shame he’s ill; there’s so much we could learn from the Spirit of Chaos.”
Spike cleared his throat, subtlety interrupting Jeuk. He flashed Fluttershy a tiny wink. “Excuse me, sir, was there anything I could help you with?”
“Yes, yes indeed.” Jeuk giggled as he stood up and faced the dragon. He loosened his tie and gestured to the bookshelves. “You wouldn’t by chance have any books about fairies, would you? Such strange creatures.”
Spike’s cheek twitched. He plastered a smile onto his face and nodded. “Sure. We’ve got just about everything you need to know. Are you looking for fiction or nonfiction?”
“A little of both.” Jeuk turned back to Fluttershy. He tapped his hoof against the cover of the book with the strange tree. “I hope you find what you’re looking for, ma’am.”
Fluttershy sat alone in the reading room, staring at the steaming tea pot. She hoped Spike wouldn’t take long to help Jeuk; she wanted to talk to somepony. Do something besides fret about things she didn’t know. Do something besides angst about things she did know.
She filled her teacup and sniffed deep. It was a simple, light brew. Effective at calming the nerves and easing the muscles. Barely any flavor besides “chill out.”
She glanced at the book. On a second look, the apples among the branches were a shiny yellow, much brighter than the same color would be in Golden Delicious apples. ‘I wonder if it’s an artist’s interpretation. It makes sense, since it’s all mythical. At least, that’s what… Mister Jeuk said.’
Fluttershy lifted an ear. She could hear Spike and Jeuk going back and forth in the other room. ‘My, but that stallion could talk the ears off a rabbit.’ She stuck her tongue in her cheek. ‘If Angel were with me, he’d probably say to stop moping around and do something. But what? Where do I start?’
She scratched an itch on the tip of her right ear. Her eyes trailed back down to the same darn book. She read the title: Elysium and the Tree of Life.
‘Elysium.’ She blew a breath through her nostrils. ‘Maybe I should start at the beginning.’
She picked the book up and turned to the first page.
Pumpkin threw a pebble into the small lake in the center of the park. She wiped snot from her nose and selected her next victim. It was a sparkly rock, with little veins of color running through it. It was gorgeous.
She threw it as hard as she could. It made an unsatisfying plink against the water’s surface. She dragged her hoof through the dirt and heaved a scoop into the drink. The shoof that resulted was even lamer.
She let her chin thump to the ground. The scattered stones scraped against her skin. “Ouch.”
Pumpkin looked at the saddlebags she’d dropped a few feet away. She lit her horn and dragged Chewie to her forelegs. She squeezed the rubber chicken tight.
Chewie rose on a current of magic. Pumpkin prodded his core, feeling past the little foam/bead thingies that made up his stuffing. She found the squeaker and gave it a squeeze.
In a flash of power, she pulled the squeaker out with her special spell. She turned it around and looked it over.
“You only come here when you need something.”
Her eyes stung. She returned the squeaker to its place in Chewie’s chest. “Yeah. That’s the only reason.”
Her teeth closed around Chewie’s neck. She sneered at the lake and kicked a rock into it. “Well… Well screw you, Discord.”
“If Mom heard you, she’d wash your mouth out with soap.”
Pumpkin jumped. She squinted at her brother and flicked her tail. “What do you want?”
Pound lowered his eyebrows. He hefted a rock in his hoof. “I wanted to make sure you’re okay. When I didn’t see you hanging around the windmill, I went here.”
He flicked the stone. It skipped three times before it sank. “I guess it didn’t go so good.”
“No, really?” Pumpkin rolled her eyes. “Me and Discord are just such great pals! I can’t wait to see him again! It’s like we’re two peas in a pod, sharing brainwaves.”
She spat Chewie into his usual spot in her saddlebags. “Discord’s nothing but a big, fat butt!”
She marched past her brother and headed for the center of town. She heard Pound’s wings flap as he took to the air and followed her. ‘Please don’t say anything,’ she thought. ‘Please don’t ask—’
“What happened?” he said. “Yesterday you were all ‘I want him to get better,’ and today you’re all ‘He’s a total moron!’”
Pumpkin stopped in her tracks and whirled. “I don’t want to talk about it, Pound! That’s why I’m walking away from you!”
Pound’s lip curled back as he raised himself a few inches. He crossed his forelegs with a huff. “Sorry. I just want to help.”
‘And I want you to go away,’ Pumpkin thought. ‘Best way to do that… Get you mad at me.’
“You’re not helping!” she snapped. “You’re just being a dummy sticking your nose in places it doesn’t belong! So leave me alone!”
Her brother flinched. ‘Bingo.’ Tears pooled at the corner of his eyes. With barely a mumble, he fluttered away to wherever.
Pumpkin felt a cold jab in her heart. She watched her brother until he disappeared behind the branches of a nearby tree, then continued on her way. The park was even quieter than before; her screams had probably scared away the woodland creatures.
‘Just one more thing I did wrong.’ She plucked a wildflower and chewed on its stem. ‘I probably deserve to be grounded. But Pound never tattles on me.’
The further she walked, the heavier her hooves became. She plodded on until she reached the edge of the wooded path. The western half of the park was open and sunny, with just a few trees dotted around for shade. A bench sat a short distance away—Lyra Heartstrings the street musician was already there, setting up shop.
Pumpkin slumped against a birch tree. She sat on her saddlebags, eliciting a small, wheezy squeaka.
She sighed, tilting her ears to catch the first few notes from Lyra’s lyre. “Yeah, Chewie. I know how you feel.”
Fluttershy flipped the page. Most of the book was recounting tales passed down through the generations, hearsay and bedtime stories. All the stories revolved around Elysium, and all had something to do with a certain tree at the very center.
A tree that grew golden apples.
There was a story of a pony being forced to choose between his love and the fruit. There was a tale of three ponies discovering the tree and tricking the local draconequus out of a bushel. There was a half-finished parable about how the draconequuses had been banished from the garden and scattered by some unknown force.
It always came back to the Tree of Life and its apples. A niggling little itch tickled the tips of her ears every time they were mentioned.
‘I’m sure a golden apple would be very pretty,’ Fluttershy thought. ‘But I’ll bet the gold makes the fruit taste terrible.’
Spike lowered himself into the couch. He poured himself a small bit of tea and took a sip. “Sorry about that. I didn’t expect him to stay so long. He must’ve walked away with every book on fairies we own.”
Fluttershy shrugged and set the book aside. “You can’t help what you love.”
“I know that for a fact.” Spike let out a huff of laughter. He rubbed the scales on his upper arm. “So what’s the matter? Is there something I can do about it?”
“I hope so.” Fluttershy fiddled with her teacup, staring at the tiny little dribble that she hadn’t managed to slurp up. “Somepony… somepony is losing their memory.”
“Who?” Spike leaned forward, his eyes widening. “Is it like… amnesia?”
“No. Not amnesia. It’s worse. It’s—” Fluttershy clicked her tongue. ‘I might as well just get it out. Beating around the bush is what got us here in the first place.’ “Discord. He’s losing his memory because of his chaos magic. I need to find a way to cure him.”
Spike pressed his lips together, forming a tight line. “You might’ve come to the wrong library. I think Twilight would be better at dealing with something like this.”
“I—well—maybe.” Fluttershy kicked herself mentally. “I just, um, oh…” Her hoof came down on the tea tray with a force that shocked her to the core. “I just wanted help, and I didn’t want to bother Twilight if I didn’t have something to bring her! I don’t even know where to start! I just came here, and I still don’t know what’s wrong, and there’s nothing I can do to fix it!”
She brought her hooves to her cheeks to find them dripping. ‘Look at me. I’m such a wimp. I’m always so weak—’
“Fluttershy.” Spike reached out and touched the joint of her wing. “You’re not alone, alright? You’ve got friends who can help you through this. Discord’s sick? Fine. We’ll look for a cure. As a matter of fact—”
Spike stood up and shuffled his way over to a shelf beside the fireplace. He thumbed through the books until he found one in particular. “—I can think of several places to start. First, whenever there’s some sort of magical malady, I always take a look at Super Naturals. Just in case. Next, there’s dozens of medical books here and there. Nothing in-depth, but a good place for a general look. Then, I’ll shoot Twilight a quick message. She’ll pop down here, say hi, and we can really get to work.”
Spike stood proud and placed his hands on his hips. “Trust me. We’ve got this.”
“Thank you. So much.” Fluttershy fluffed out her wings. She tapped her hooves together before rising to her feet. “Are you sure Twilight will have time to help? She’s been awfully busy lately.”
“She’s got the whole next week free, actually. She was mostly planning on researching a project she’s been working on.” Spike waved a hand and tossed another book onto the table. “Barring something really catastrophic happening, you’ll have her full attention.”
Tirek snarled at the guardsponies, all assigned to escort him back to his cell. They paraded in full armor. Magic laced throughout the metal glinted with every movement. They leveled spears and crossbows at his heart, leaving him with no question as to who was in charge.
Stonewall, Shining Armor’s successor as Captain of the Royal Guard, took point as they made their way through the bowels of Tartarus. Monsters leered at them, their fangs dripping, their stomachs rumbling, their tentacles and/or other disgusting appendages squirming.
“I see Celestia spared no expense this time,” Tirek said. “I suppose I should be honored at the sheer terror you all seem to feel in my presence.”
“We are not afraid of you, prisoner.” Stonewall sent a steely glare his way, accompanied by a glimmer from the sharp claws attached to her boots. “In fact, I would say we welcome any attempt to escape, brief as it will be.”
Tirek favored her with a rictus of a smile. His thin arms flexed as he pulled against the cuffs around his wrists. “If I still had the ability to eat magic, you would not be nearly as flippant.”
“But you do not.” Stonewall faced forward and took the right fork of the tunnel. “You have been stripped of magic completely. Devoid of offensive capabilities. Lacking strength or intimidation.”
Each of Tirek’s steps was cut in half by the bonds tying his four legs together. He shuffled along, his eyes flicking from side to side, seeking the faintest hint of an opportunity. “Devoid, you say?”
‘Continue believing that, you pompous thickhead.’ He had but a few minutes until they reached his cell and the magic-suppressing bars that kept him locked up for centuries at a time. He had one chance, and one chance only, before he was once again sealed away and forgotten.
He heard the faint growl of Cerberus somewhere on the far side of the prison. The overgrown puppy had the annoying ability to move to anywhere in the prison nearly instantaneously. Even at full power, Tirek would have difficulty overcoming the mutt, but in his current state, it was impossible.
The faintest hint of the Smooze’s tune tore at the tips of Tirek’s ears.
One of the soldiers started humming along with the blasted song. Tirek’s fangs ground each other into points. Then, a thought hit him. ‘He’s humming. He’s comfortable.’
He glanced around at the other guards. Their spears were still at the ready, but not aimed his way. Their crossbows lay slack on their leg mounts. Even Stonewall herself stared ahead, more wary of the other prisoners than the horror that was Tirek.
“Pride has and always will be your downfall, ponies.”
Stonewall turned her head. “Are you speaking from experi—?”
The space between Tirek’s horns glowed a brilliant orange. A ball of pure, violent power conjured itself from thin air. An eruption of fire laced out to strike Stonewall between her wings, sending her flying.
Tirek kept the flame burning hot. He spun in a circle, pushing the other soldier back with his beam of heat and magic. Spears snapped in half, crossbow strings melted into ash, and armor plating became lumps of hot gold.
A blast tore his handcuffs apart. Another lance of flame removed his leg restraints. He squared his shoulders and stood over his foes, allowing a bellowing laugh to rise from his chest. “Powerless? You think Tirek the Demon King powerless? Foals! I have inborn power greater than that of the mightiest—!”
Stonewall flew through the air and tackled him to the ground. A rib in his upper chest protested with a cry of pain. “Take him down!”
The other soldiers leapt into the fray. Tirek saw dozens of hooves headed straight for his face. In a panic, he let loose a flurry of attacks, striking indiscriminately.
Some soldiers broke off, while others trampled him with metal-shod hooves. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Tirek realized that gloating wasn’t the most effective of strategies.
‘So why not try a different tactic?’
His next beam of hatred-given-form streaked towards the nearby cellblock, where an abomination of tentacles and mouths awaited its doomsday. The attack hit the lock dead-center and melted it into oblivion. A howl from beyond time and space rent the air.
Stonewall halted her assault for a critical instant. “Aw, horseapples.”
Tirek bucked with all four hooves. Stonewall tumbled, catching herself with a flap of her wings before she could crash into the wall. A tentacle grasped at her rear hooves. The other soldiers came to her aid. Magic flickered and blades clashed.
Tirek bolted down the hallway. He couldn’t escape in the same way as his last prison break—they’d know exactly where to look for him. He had to take a chance. Several portals led out of Tartarus, but most were under heavy guard and watched constantly. Canterlot’s exit was out, as was the one near the hated town of Ponyville.
He slid to a stop mere meters away from a massive, muscular, black-furred chest. Cerberus had found him. The three-headed dog growled at him, revealing teeth with the power to bite him into tiny little pieces.
‘It worked once before…’ Tirek swiveled his head. The orb of magic between his horns fired bolts at as many cages as he could see. Five, six, seven cells were unlocked before the dog knew what was happening. Mad laughter surrounded them on all sides as the greatest villains and darkest creatures in all of history were set free.
Tirek was forgotten as Cerberus entered the fight of his life. Prehistoric bugs, ghouls unwilling to die, and living shadows cackled and cried, itching for the chance to get revenge on their captor. Cerberus barked with nearly enough volume to stop Tirek’s heart.
The centaur scrambled past legs that could crush him underfoot. He charged down the hallways at a full gallop, his head tilted forward, his shoulders braced to knock obstacles aside. He knew from memory that there was a portal ahead, at the end of the corridor. To get there, he just had to outrun the violent melee that was spreading through the halls of the prison.
‘There!’ He reached the dead end; the wall was carved with a relief of a smaller town, half mountainous and half in the clouds. A pegasus town, then. And it was little—barely worthy of the attention of the Royal Guard. There was likely no more than a small outpost along the edge.
A hand wrapped itself around Tirek’s rear left hoof. He shrieked and kicked out.
A mangy, apelike creature held fast. “Munchy grateful! Munchy thank you always!”
‘Morlock.’ Tirek would have spat the word, but his throat constricted at the sight of the creature. “Be gone, foul one! I have no room for hangers-on!”
“Munchy will be your servant!” the morlock groveled. Its fur—sparse as it was—clung to its body in grimy clumps. Its tiny nose wrinkled with each simper. “Munchy do whatever you ask! Munchy good minion!”
Cerberus’ enraged barking struck a nerve in Tirek’s chest. The centaur hoisted the pitiful morlock to its clawed feet. “Congratulations, you’re hired. Now shut up and stay close!”
Energy flowed from the base of Tirek’s horns to the tips. An orb of magic, glowing like a miniature sun, sparked with shimmering waves of heat. He focused on the wall and the etched pathways within it. The portal resisted his spell, but was unable to hold back his awesome might. The wall caved in on itself, revealing a pathway made of a swirling, fiery whirlpool.
Munchy hopped on Tirek’s back and peeked over his shoulder. The weight of the morlock strained every muscle in Tirek’s body. “Is it safe?” the morlock asked.
“No,” Tirek said. “Of course not.”
He jumped through. The portal vanished behind him, leaving a pile of molten rubble in its wake.
Tirek regretted every decision he’d ever made up to that point.
He overlooked a sea of ponies buying, selling, betting, screaming, laughing, dancing, singing. Colorful clouds hovered overhead, constantly spitting multihued, attention-grabbing lightning. Neon signs depicted ponies winning games, or promised saucy shows, or advertised big-name stars. The constant cha-ching of slot machines jingled on, and on, and on, and on.
Munchy nodded from his perch. “Las Pegasus nice this time of year.”
Tirek gulped. ‘If I am discovered, it will likely start a stampede that would leave me a pancake.’
There was nowhere to hide, of course. Not in the loudest, most obnoxious city-state in Equestria. Even the darkest alleys had gangs of ponies marauding through them, picking fights with anypony who dared show up in their territory.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no way to fight. ‘Well, horseapples.’
“Look mommy!” a little pegasus filly chirped. “Look at the costumes!”
Tirek squinted. He glanced around, but unless the filly was referring to the hotel busboys, there weren’t any costumes—
“It’s a centaur in authentic Tirek-style garb!” The filly hopped towards him, much to her mother’s dismay. “And look on his back! A Lesser Lightning-Galian Yahoo, commonly mistaken for the ferocious morlock!”
Tirek looked at the earnest filly, who couldn’t possibly be older than five. He glanced at the mother, whose nose was turned up in disgust.
He ventured a smile. “I, um, do cuteceañeras.”
“Unlikely.” The mother scooped her daughter up and deposited her on her back. “Come on, honey. Let’s leave the nice… cosplayers alone for a while, okay?”
Tirek watched, his mouth agape, as the two ponies calmly walked away from him. He tilted his head, letting an ear droop.
Munchy rested his chin on Tirek’s shoulder. He slobbered as he licked his lips. “Both ponies look tasty. Lots of tasty ponies everywhere.”
“Get off me!” Tirek shook himself until Munchy tumbled from his back. “No eating ponies until we get to safety. It’s only a matter of moments until the guardsponies get here, and I don’t want to be around when they do!”
He drummed his fingers. “We must be crafty if we are to evade the authorities this time. Wise as serpents. We shall make our way down the mountain and hide ourselves away. Then, only when we are certain of our target, can we strike!”
A passing griffon gave him a bemused look. “Dude, who are you talking to?”
Tirek growled. “Can’t you see I’m conversing with my minion?” He gestured with a hand.
The hand met empty air.
He snapped his head around. Munchy was crawling through the crowds towards a savory-smelling hot-dog stand, run by a diamond dog. Tirek hustled to catch up with him and grasped the morlock by his cheek.
“Ouch!” Munchy squealed, drawing altogether too much attention. “Munchy hungry!”
“Munchy will eat later!” Tirek dragged the morlock down the street, his eyes scanning the heavens for soldiers in sparkling armor. “For now, we must get away from prying eyes. Only then can I have my revenge.”
“Revenge?” Munchy cackled. “Revenge is tasty! Who do we venge?”
“The pony most to blame for my problems, of course.” Tirek chuckled as he took a ramp to a lower portion of the city. “I will retrieve my Rainbow of Darkness from Fluttershy.”