Octavia let out a slow sigh as she folded one of her forelegs over her face. For several long seconds, she simply lay still. Her ears flattened, eyes shielded from the flickering light that had disturbed her. She desperately wanted to just drift back to sleep and to the pleasant concert that had been filling her dreams.
A task which was proving remarkably difficult as she rolled onto her side. An ache was running all down her back, and the unpleasant chill that accompanied it certainly wasn’t helping. With a rueful snort, the musician uncovered her eyes and allowed them to open.
… Oh. Right.
A wall of iron bars greeted her, with nothing beyond them but the torchlit dungeon hallway and Ditzy Doo’s cell. Loathe as she was to admit it, Octavia had lost track of just how long they’d been imprisoned. The lack of any change in the sky beyond their windows simply made time impossibly to track. It had certainly been long enough for each of them to take Orange Sherbet’s advice, and then some. She could see Ditzy laying on her own cot, her wings fluttering slightly as her hooves groped out, almost as if reaching for something.
“Wish I could rest so easy…” Octavia grumbled softly to herself.
She pushed the frustrated thoughts away with another sigh. None of the others had even heard her, judging by the sounds of deep breathing and the occasionally dozy mumble that filled the air. Despite her discomfort, Octavia could feel one ear beginning to slowly twitch, picking out a rhythm from her companion’s various sleeping noises.
The bars in front of her cell were starting to blur. The dark gray steel contrasted with the lighter colored stone that made up the walls. Octavia allowed herself a smile as she squinted, just able to make out the treble clef at the beginning of the music staff. One hoof lifted, softly drawing itself across invisible cello strings to join the ensemble--
Octavia let her hoof drop as the groan shook her from her musical meditation. Her brow furrowed as she focused her eyes past the bars again. Ditzy Doo’s wings still fluttered peacefully, and she could hear the light mix of giggling and snoring coming from Pinkie Pie’s cell. Slowly, she drifted her gaze to the other side as another short groan sounded. One a bit too deep to belong to a mare.
“Spike?” She asked softly, rolling from her cot and walking up to the bars. “Spike, was that you?”
Nopony answered for a moment. Then, a few slow hoofsteps sounded from the stallion’s cell. Octavia tilted her head, trying to get a better look at their source. She could just make out the start of a purple hoof before they stopped.
“S-sorry.” The stallion’s voice was a croak. Octavia did her best not to flatten her ears at the sound of it. “Didn’t mean to wake anypony up.”
“I was already awake,” Octavia said, waving her hoof dismissively before remembering Spike probably couldn’t see it. “So… er, how are you feeling?”
Octavia immediately wished she’d asked anything else. Spike let out a snort, followed by a low grumble. She didn’t need to see the stallion’s face to guess what look he was probably giving her. Gently, she bit down on her lip, silently hoping the question would just slip by.
“I… I don’t know.”
Octavia’s ears both twitched. That had not been the answer she expected. She simply stayed silent as Spike finally walked up to the bars.
In truth, he didn’t look as bad as she’d expected. Octavia still flinched in sympathy at the sight, however. His normally spiky mane was limp and matted, especially the spot his hat had covered. The baggy, slightly bloodshot eyes he turned to her suddenly made Octavia wonder just how long she’d been dozing.
“I just… It’s confusing is all!” Spike said, falling to his rump as he shook his head. “I thought no matter what this world was like, the important stuff would be the same, you know? Same Canterlot, same newspaper, same… same families...”
Octavia just nodded. Spike barely seemed to notice as he pressed his head between his forehooves. His eyes were squeezed shut as he took ragged breaths.
“B-but nothing here is like my home! And apparently none of those other worlds are either?” Spike was growing louder. Octavia couldn’t help glancing towards the others, wondering how they were still asleep. “Shining isn’t my brother? I’m not even a pony? I just…”
With surprisingly little noise, Spike let both his hooves fall to his side. His face pressed against the bars, his eyes still shut tight, and his voice so quiet Octavia couldn’t even tell if he was still speaking to her.
“I don’t know,” he repeated. “I can’t even imagine it… How am I supposed to feel about it?”
“... I… er…”
Octavia snapped her mouth close. Not fast enough, as Spike was already looking at her. The musician resisted the urge to curse, managing to let out a sigh instead as she met his gaze.
“I suppose I don’t know either,” she admitted. “When you put it that way, it does sound quite unnerving…”
Spike’s head drooped as he let out another groan.
And I’m not helping.
Octavia flinched over how hard she’d just kicked herself.
“For what it’s worth, I am sorry you found out this way,” she added, casting her eyes to the still dozing Pinkie Pie. “There were... preferable times this could have come to light.”
“It’s not your fault,” Spike grumbled in answer. “It’s not anypony’s fault, really. I guess… Urgh…”
The musician wasn’t sure she wanted to look back to Spike when she heard him grunt. She did anyway, biting down on her lip as she did. His back was to the bars now, but she could still imagine the forlorn look he probably had on his face.
“I guess that’s why Discord picked me for this team.” The stallion was grumbling as he ground one hoof against the ground. “I’m the odd Spike out.”
Octavia blinked slowly, tilting her head as Spike fell silent.
“Um… I’m afraid I don’t--” Octavia started.
Her ears fell flat as Spike stamped his hoof.
“‘Oooh, you know what’ll be fun? Let’s have the guy who’s a sidekick in every other Equestria try and save this one!’” Octavia could almost see the heat rolling off of Spike as he continued with (what she assumed to be) his impersonation of Discord’s voice. “‘That’ll be hilarious! And the best part will be when he finds out the truth!’”
Octavia nearly jumped back as he struck the ground again. Spike was panting heavily, scraping at the ground as though preparing to charge…
The rush never came, however. The stallion let out one final, exhausted sigh and slumped onto his stomach, his short tail drooping almost to the floor.
“I’ll bet Discord is having a real good laugh right about now,” Spike grumbled, one of his forelegs folding over his eyes.
“I’d say, more the fool him, then. And you as well for even thinking like that!”
Spike lifted his head, his eyes wide. Octavia just snorted as she stood back up. She’d never quite felt the same mix of sympathy and frustration that she did now, but that didn’t change the rush of energy it gave her. The need to speak up.
And if the truth is all I can offer…
“I won’t pretend to know you as well as I should,” Octavia admitted, wishing she could step closer to emphasize her point. “But, and correct me if I’m wrong, didn’t you earn the Element of Magic and save your own Equestria?”
“Well… yeah, but--” Spike started to answer.
“Then what’s wrong? You’re a hero in your world!” Octavia interrupted, giving him a smile as she did. “I’d think that makes you plenty qualified to help save this one, whether every other Spike out there is a pony or not.”
The dungeon was quiet for a moment. Spike just stared at Octavia, and she found some solace in the fact that he wasn’t groaning again.
Octavia’s own smile brightened a bit as Spike let out a small laugh. The stallion stood up, wearing a smirk of his own as he shook his head.
“Why is it always Honesty that kicks me in the flank when I need it?” He asked, trying and failing to fix his mane with one hoof.
“There’s an old saying I heard once,” Octavia said as she rubbed her chin. “Something like ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same?’”
That brought another laugh from the both of them. Octavia let out a satisfied sigh, sitting back down and closing her eyes as she felt the tension and anger slowly fade away.
“So, speaking of, what’s it like for… uh, the me that’s working with Twilight?” Spike’s voice broke in.
“Hmm?” Octavia shook herself back to attention, looking over to the reporter’s expectant smile.
“Well, I might as well know if he’s happy, right?” Spike said with a shrug. “I mean I love working with my Twilight so it’s gotta be the same with your versions of us, right?”
Octavia’s brow furrowed. Slowly, her eyes rolled up as she tried to recall. The picture quickly came together. One of the little purple dragon, accompanied by his caretaker--
The musician put a hoof over mouth, but the exclamation had already slipped out. Spike was leaning closer, motioning for her to speak. Inwardly, she was doing her best not to bite her tongue.
“I’m not really sure it’s that important, Spike,” she said, forcing a smile and a short laugh out.
“Hey, not like it’s gonna hurt anything now right?” Spike pointed out. “Come on, I work with Twilight don’t I?”
… Somedays I truly despise my element
“You are acquainted with her… though that was more recent.” Octavia flattened her ears and let out a small sigh. She could already guess what was about to come. “I’m not sure you’ll like this but… well when I first met you…”
“I’M A WHAT FOR WHO!?!”
Rainbow Dash let out a short cry of alarm as the sudden noise sent her tumbling from her cot. Her wings flapped a second too late to keep her from hitting the floor with a thud. A groan of pain slipped out as she stumbled back to her hooves, struggling to blink the sleep from her eyes.
Even through the blurriness, she could tell the pink blob talking to her was Pinkie Pie. Though for a split-second Dash would swear the mare was inside the cell with her. Another blink pulled her vision back together, and Pinkie was smiling and waving from her own cell.
“Wha’s all the noise for?” Dash flinched a bit as she spoke, trying to work the stiffness out of her jaw.
“Oh it’s just Spike,” Pinkie explained with her usual cheerful smile. “I think he’s feeling better!”
“That is one way to put it…” Octavia chimed in.
Rainbow Dash looked towards the stallion’s cell and raised an eyebrow. Somehow the heavy, and rather angry-sounding, breathing coming from it didn’t bring the word “better” to mind.
“I did say you might not like it,” Octavia said after a brief clearing of her throat. “Though for what it’s worth, the Spike I know is quite happy.”
“That’s… I’m… he’s Trixie’s…” Spike’s voice faded in and out, before trailing into a long, deep breath. “You know what? That’s fine.”
Dash warily took a step forward. The stallion’s voice was certainly much more confident than she last heard it. Leaning against the bars, she could almost make out an edge of purple hoof, probably running over his mane as he took another deep breath.
“Well, it’s a relief to see you’re feeling okay,” Orange Sherbet said, the smile obvious even in her voice.
“I’m feeling better,” Spike corrected, tapping one hoof against his bars. “I’ll be feeling ‘okay’ once we get out of here and explain things to Shining Armor.”
Cyan wings shot straight out as Rainbow Dash froze mid-yawn.
“Um, wow, are you sure Spike?” Ditzy asked, staring in disbelief at the wall between her and the stallion. “‘Cuz, no offense, but you really sounded like you took the whole, uh, ‘not your brother’ thing kinda hard…”
Dash was trying very hard not to imagine the look Octavia was probably giving her. Though she had the odd feeling that the earth pony’s eyes were elsewhere as Spike let out a some strange mix of a sigh and chuckle.
“Yeah, let’s just say somepony helped me realize moping around about it isn’t gonna do a lot of good,” Spike answered. “So who’s with me?”
Rainbow Dash still wasn’t sure just what had happened while she was napping. That hardly mattered anymore as an eager smile crossed her face. Suddenly she was awake and alert as she shot into the air.
“Alright! That’s what I’ve been waiting to hear!” Dash cheered, taking a couple practice jabs with her forehooves. “In fact, what are we still talking for? Let’s bust outta here!”
“Um… how?” Ditzy Doo asked.
The gray pegasus had one of her hooves raised, waving it a bit for attention. Rainbow Dash started to scowl in response. Right before the weight behind the question hit.
“Spike’s magic is still sealed at the moment.” Octavia was doing a rather good job of voicing what Dash herself had just realized. “And while I’m not eager to stay imprisoned, I somehow doubt anypony here can break these bars.”
“Well… I mean we could…” Dash’s wings stopped, and she dropped back to the ground as she gave the door of her cell a long, hard look. “Uh…”
“... Right, guess I didn’t think that far ahead,” Spike’s sheepish voice admitted. “Ugh, if I could just get this ring off--”
“Maybe patience is the better option,” Orange Sherbet spoke up. “Shining Armor did seem pretty interested in us, I’m sure he’ll come down--”
The suggestion was cut off by Pinkie’s scream. Rainbow Dash felt her heart jump to throat, her eyes shooting back to the party pony’s cell. Its occupant was gone, replaced by a pink tornado of flailing limbs and shocked expressions, producing enough wind that even the iron bars in front of Dash began to rattle.
The whirlwind vanished in the same instant that Dash shouted. Pinkie stood stock-still in the center of her cell, just staring out at the pegasus as the last few curls of her mane stopped bouncing.
“Wowza…” Pinkie said as she rubbed her head. “Now that was a doozy of a doozy!”
“Are… are you alright, Miss Pie?” Octavia asked, even as her hoofsteps slowly moved towards the back of her cell.
“Oh yeah, that was just my Pinkie Sense!” Pinkie answered, her cheerful smile dropping to a confused frown. “No clue what it was trying to warn us about though.”
“Wait, what?” Spike asked, waving one hoof between his bars. “Pinkie sense? What the hay is a--”
For a second, Rainbow Dash was sure she’d gone deaf. The massive noise that cut off Spike was almost like glass breaking. Every pane of glass in Canterlot Castle, all at once from what she could guess. And judging from the pained way Pinkie and Ditzy Doo were covering their ears, she knew she wasn’t the only one that had heard it.
“Oooh! I think I figured out what that doozy was for!” Pinkie cheered.
Dash wasn’t listening as a distant scream grabbed her attention. One that unmistakably had come from outside. Before any of the others could speak up, Dash shot into the air again. Her forehooves hooked through bars of the small window over her cot, her curious eyes peering through it...
“Oh my gosh.”
Her breath vanished with those three words. She almost fell, her wings barely restarting in time to keep her in the air.
“Dashy?” Pinkie’s voice floated from below.
“What’s going on?” Spike shouted.
“Uh…” Rainbow Dash swallowed hard, dearly wishing she didn’t have to answer. For a moment, all she could do was stare up at the barrier covering the city.
Staying silent wouldn’t do any good, however. She knew that much. Especially as a loud gasp sounded, indicating Ditzy Doo had probably just looked out her own window.
“I don’t think waiting is an option anymore!” Dash called down.
The entire world had exploded.
Nothing could be heard but screams and cacophonous crashing from all around. Blinding light and eye-searing color were everywhere. There was no way to shut any of it out. Trying to close his eyes or cover his ears just sent the ground spinning, flipping end over end over end--
Shining Armor drew in a deep, shuddering breath as he dropped his hoof back to the floor. His muzzle hurt more than he ever thought possible, he could already feel the bruise forming, but he refused to shut the feeling out. The pain from smashing his own face was like a beacon. Something for his confused senses to focus on, forcing the world to piece itself back together around it.
“Wha--” He winced at the ache running through his mouth. At the very least nothing felt broken as he ran his tongue around his mouth. “What was that?!”
His surroundings were becoming clear. High ceilings. Banners displaying his own face and “OBEY” message placed between the windows that lined the walls. A golden seat meant for a pony at least twice his height.
The castle throne room, there was no mistaking it. He remembered being seated in the throne. Right before his senses had exploded into chaos after--
Another burst of pain lanced through Shining Armor’s skull. He barely registered that, however, as he spun towards the window that the massive noise had come through. He ran, each hoof beat causing his head to throb anew, his eyes going wide as he saw what awaited outside.
Suddenly the splitting headache and incredible noise had an explanation. One that didn’t care for his whispered protests.
The shield, his massive barrier spell, was crumbling. Massive cracks covered its surface, spreading and widening with each passing second under the pressure of countless Plunder Vines. With a final CRACK that Shining felt ring through his head, a large portion of the magenta bubble broke away and dissolved into a cloud of sparks.
As if waiting for that moment, the vines shifted. They dove through the opening like a mass of monstrous snakes. Screams rose across the city as the vines headed straight for the streets of Canterlot.
“NO!” Shining shouted, his horn blazing to life.
Agony threatened to burst from his head. He forced the feeling down as a glitter of gold flew from next to the throne. The white unicorn’s breath came in shallow, desperate gulps as he forced open the window and levitated the gold-banded fedora he’d been studying overhead.
“Come… Come on…” He panted, glaring at the bejeweled head gear.
His magic crackled harshly over it. Shining grit his teeth, his head pounding even harder as he forced more power onto it. Even as each rune, facet, and crease of the hat only seemed to repel every spark.
“All… that… power…” Shining growled, his own voice ringing in his ears. “You have to be good for something more than giving me a headache!”
Even as the barrier continued to creak and crack, more and more of it falling away, the hat simply hovered in place.
Shining roared, his head snapping to the side. The hat flew, landing somewhere behind him. He didn’t bother to follow it. His eyes narrowed instead on the largest breach he could see in the shield.
“Fine!” He spat out, magic gathering in his horn once more. “I’ll do it myself!”
Everything was starting to grow dark. Shining Armor tried to convince himself it was the blanket of thorns blocking out the sun and moon. Even as his legs quivered under the weight of another migraine, threatening to drop him to the floor.
It was something he tried not to picture as the burst of magic finally fired, sailing up into the sky.
“Th-there…” Shining slurred out as he struggled to breathe. “That should--AAAAAAAAH!”
His panting breaths cut out in a scream as the pain running through his head suddenly doubled. Even with his vision fading, he could see the cause. The shield spell flashed, temporarily growing brighter. The glow began to fade just as quickly, however. He could feel more vines pushing through, widening the cracks faster than his spell could close them. Each new opening sending a fresh shudder of agony through his body.
Shining couldn’t even get the words out. All he could do was continue to stare up at the sky as his legs collapsed.
“Hey, Spike?” Rainbow Dash was shouting from her cell. “No pressure or anything, but do you think you could GET THE LEAD OUT?!”
Spike rolled his eyes and muttered a curse through his clenched teeth. The purple stallion pulled himself upright again, leaving Orange Sherbet’s golden hairpin hanging from the lock of his cell so he could glare in the pegasus pony’s direction.
“This isn’t as easy as it looks, you know!” Spike shouted, scraping one hoof in frustration. “Sheesh, it’s hard enough when I can use my magic!”
“... I’m almost afraid to ask,” Octavia spoke up, one hoof on her chin. “But why do you know how to pick locks?”
Spike winced at the question. As well as the suspicious stare that the musician was giving him as she crossed her forelegs.
“Uh… you remember how I’m a reporter?” Spike cleared his throat, trying to put on a sly smirk. “Let’s just say there’s certain nobles and business ponies around my Canterlot that learned to stop keeping their dirty documents in their office desks.”
He relaxed a bit as Octavia’s glare eased slightly. Orange Sherbet had also ceased her disapproving head shaking and now had one hoof to her chin, her eyes turned up in thought.
“Well… at least we can say you’re dedicated to your profession,” Orange finally commented.
“Hey! Guess who doesn’t care right now?” Rainbow Dash was shouting again, drawing Spike away from wondering whether the socialite was being sarcastic or not. “The Plunder Vines that are breaking in to eat the city! Will you quit chatting and get those doors open!?!”
Spike didn’t bother yelling anything back, mostly because he knew the impatient mare had an excellent point. He clenched the hairpin between his teeth once more, grunting as his neck began to ache from the strange angle. Ignoring the feeling, he carefully turned his head, ears straining at the gentle clicks coming from the lock. He could feel the vibrations in his jaw as the tiny mechanisms slid in and out of place…
Pinkie’s voice caused his head to jerk upward. Spike gasped, his heart stopping for a second before managing to assure himself that he hadn’t bent his makeshift tool. He couldn’t return to the task, however, as a series of hoof clacks and… stranger sounds echoed from the pink pony’s cell.
“Knee bendy… tail flicky… tummy gurgle…” Pinkie gasped again, her hooves clanging against the bars. “Somepony’s coming!”
“Okay, seriously?” Spike asked, looking to Octavia. “Do you have any clue how this ‘Pinkie Sense’ thing works?”
“I’m afraid not,” Octavia responded, one of her ears twitching. “But… I think she’s right, listen…”
Spike held his breath as his own ears pricked up. The noises coming from outside were easy to make out, mostly the crashing of the shield breaking and distant screams. Something was starting to build under them though. The steady, rapid clack of hooves on stone drawing closer and closer.
“Uh oh... “ Ditzy piped up, her voice trembling. “Do you think it’s the guards?”
“I can’t imagine who else,” Octavia answered. “And given what we’ve seen, I don’t think they’d be amused with us attempting to break out. Even given the circumstances.”
Spike’s thoughts were a step ahead of the musician’s. The pin was already in his mouth, and with a soft ptoo it was flying back to its owner. Sherbert had a slight grimace as she caught the golden trinket on one hoof, before quickly tucking it back into her mane.
Just in time, as a gray stallion ran screaming into view. Spike barely had time to jump back as the newly arrived earth pony skidded to a halt in front of his cell, panting for breath and wiping strands of his black mane from a face Spike knew quite well.
The other stallion didn’t even seem to notice him. His hooves fumbled with something before jamming it into the lock and twisting. Spike’s eyes went wide as a soft click sounded, and the door swung open.
“Yes!” Ink Blot cheered, right before snatching up a ring of keys in his mouth.
Spike didn’t even have a chance to react. By the time he’d realized escape was possible, the earth pony had barrelled into the cell and pulled the door shut with a deafening CLANG. A manic grin spread across his face as Ink let out one final, relieved sigh, his rump slumping to the floor and his head drooping.
Spike blinked a few times before looking up towards the others. Judging by the way Octavia and Orange Sherbet were staring, they obviously saw his new cellmate too. Warily, the unicorn took a step closer to the exhausted stallion.
“Uh… Ink?” He asked, lowering his head a bit to try and catch his eye.
He didn’t have to bother. The second the name left Spike’s mouth, Ink Blot’s head jolted straight up, the key ring clattering to the ground.
“Huh?! What… Oh, are you kidding me?!” His smile vanished in an instant, replaced by an angry glare. “All the cells in this place, and I wind up in yours? Just my luck, I tell ya!”
“Nice seeing you again too.” Spike couldn’t bite down fast enough to stop the quip. He took a deep breath, trying to think of something else to say as Ink’s forelegs crossed, his glare sharpening. “What are you doing down here?”
“More importantly: Are those the keys to our cells?” Octavia cut in, one hoof pointing at the ring lying by Ink Blot’s hooves. “How in Equestria did--”
Octavia’s words did a much better job of getting the news-stallion’s attention. He hurriedly grabbed the ring between his forehooves, pulling it close to his chest as he shot an ugly sneer over his shoulder.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but the guards have a lot of other stuff to worry about right now.” Ink spun back to Spike, his glare locking the unicorn in place. “And in case you didn’t notice, it’s kinda the end of the world out there!”
Spike’s ears fell flat. Even with his boss’s yelling and his eyes locked on the literal keys to his freedom, it was impossible to ignore the din of terrified screams and shattering glass filtering down from his window. Ink, by contrast, seemed to be doing just that as he stomped forward, roughly shoving Spike aside as he made his way to the cot.
“So what? You just came down here to hide?” Spike asked as he spun to follow the earth pony.
“You make that sound like a bad thing,” Ink replied as he climbed onto the crude bed.
Spike’s jaw started to drop. It froze half-way before he eased it shut again. Somehow, even as his pulse quickened, the truth of the situation stung far less than he thought it should. Ink must have noticed the hesitation, given the smug grin he shot Spike.
“There, you see? You know I’ve got the right idea.” Ink Blot stretched out on the cot, tucking the keys firmly under his chest. “And trust me, if the rest of you saw what was going on out there you’d be glad you got the thickest walls in Canterlot around you!”
Somewhere behind him, Spike could hear Rainbow Dash shouting something. He couldn’t tell what, however, as his own admonishments died out before they could reach his mouth.
His heart was pounding harder than ever, especially as he looked up at the window again. He could just barely make out the barrier, a feeble wall of sparks straining to hold back a massive tide of thorns. The very sight of it was enough to freeze his breath, filling his body with a cold dread.
He has a poi--
The thought didn’t even have a chance to finish. Spike’s hoof came down, cracking off the stone and stomping it into silence. Eyes narrowing, the journalist turned his gaze back to the cot and the pony that looked like his longtime employer and friend.
“We already know what’s going on, Ink,” Spike declared, marching up to the cot. “That’s the whole reason we’re here! We want to help stop this!”
Ink Blot’s head snapped back up so fast, it was a wonder it stayed attached. Spike didn’t flinch, however. Not even as the gray stallion stared slack-jawed at him. For some reason, the sight caused Spike to smile. He didn’t even have to look to feel the same determined grin spread to his companions in the other cells.
“What-you wanna--You. Are. CRAZY!” Ink shouted, throwing his forehooves into the air. “News flash: Those vines ripped through Shining Armor’s magic like it was toilet paper! Canterlot is done for! What the hay do ya think you can do?!”
“I… have absolutely no idea,” Spike admitted, taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders. “But I’m not about to let that stop me!”
Ink Blot continued to stare, slowly shaking his head. Somewhere behind Spike, one (or possibly several) of the others let out a cheer. He didn’t pay attention to that, however. All his focus was on the other stallion as he knelt down so they were eye-to-eye.
“Ink, please. Those keys might be our only way out,” Spike pleaded, one hoof over his chest. “I might not understand why things are the way they are in this world, but could letting us try really make things any worse?”
This time, Ink’s jaw was the one snapping shut. Slowly, the earth stallion looked up towards the window.
“Fine,” he muttered. “You’ve made your point.”
Spike breathed out a sigh of relief as the earth pony looked back down, and pulled the keys out.
“But first…” Ink’s hoof hooked over Spike’s neck and pulled him closer. “Maybe explain what ya mean by ‘this world’?”
“I take it back. I take it all back! If anypony--” Ink Blot could barely talk as he gasped for breath, but somehow the words were still coming. “If anypony around here… is crazy… it’s gotta be me for listening to this!”
His chest burned as he finally stumbled to a halt. It was a slight relief to find the six prisoners he’d just released had stopped running also. Though his teeth did grind as he noticed only Spike was looking at him.
“Uh, which part were you having trouble with?” Spike asked, wiping some sweat from his forehead.
“Where do I even start? Maybe with the other Equestrias where none of this crud ever happened?” Ink snorted, though he wasn’t sure if it was due to frustration or barely restrained sarcastic laughter. “How about the fact that you guys are superheroes or something from those worlds? Oh no, I’ve got it: It’s that DISCORD of all things wants to help save us!”
“You know, nopony is making you follow us!” Rainbow Dash shouted from the front of the group. “And if you didn’t believe us, you could have just left us in the dungeon!”
Ink Blot quickly shut his mouth.
That’s gratitude for ya…
The thought was slightly more comforting than admitting the pegasus had a point. He didn’t even bother paying attention to Spike or his sympathetic flinch. At the very least, the marble hallways of the castle proper were a bit nicer to look at than the dungeon walls. Much better lit too, with all the large windows.
No guards either, he noticed. Likely still as scattered and panicky as he’d seen them before, and far too occupied to search for him or six escaped prisoners.
“Alright, now let me think.” Octavia’s voice forced his attention back to the group and the main reason they’d all stopped. The gray mare was trotting up a split in the hallway, giving a firm nod as she pointed down the left path. “I’m certain the guard quarters are this way, so--”
“Hey hey hey! Which of us actually lived in this castle?” Rainbow Dash interrupted, landing and jabbing a hoof down the other hall. “The guards bunk in the other wing!”
“Is now really a good time to argue?” Ditzy Doo cut in, pushing her way between the other two mares.
All three of them fell silent as the entire hallway shook. Ink’s eyes went wide as a huge split suddenly formed in the marble wall next to him, running from floor to ceiling. Almost as though an entire section of the castle was about to pull away from the rest. Swallowing hard, he glanced out one of the windows he’d just been admiring.
Just in time to see a black vine rearing back for another swing.
“Watch out!” Spike shouted.
Ink didn’t have a chance to respond. The other stallion tackled him to the ground, right before a thunderous crashing of stone filled the hallway. A dome of green light flared up around them as they hit the floor, flashing erratically as chunks of masonry bounced off it.
“Ink…” Spike’s voice was strained. His face was pulled into a grimace as his horn flickered, barely holding up the shield through the punishment. “Ink, are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine--” Ink’s voice caught in his throat as something moved in the cloud of dust that surrounded them. Something far larger than a pony. “B-but not for long!”
The vine was in the hallway. He could only guess that meant there was a hole in the wall now. That thought didn’t matter nearly as much as the Plunder Vine lashed down towards Spike’s flimsy bubble of magic.
A prismatic streak cut through the air. The vine reared back, almost as though in pain, as Rainbow Dash bounced off of it with a flying kick. A shrill screech sounded from the plant, right before she looped back and delivered another blow.
“Yeah! How do you like that?” she challenged, darting aside as the vine launched itself at her. “Try and keep up!”
Ink Blot certainly couldn’t as the mare turned into a rainbow-colored contrail. The vine swung and thrashed in every direction, kicked up more dust and bits of debris to ricochet off Spike’s flickering shield.
Then, suddenly, it lurched to a halt. Rainbow Dash landed, a smug grin on her face as the dust began to clear. Ink wasn’t sure whether to join the others in cheering, or drop his jaw as he finally got a clear look at the vine and the multitude of tangled knots the chase had tied it into. The vine seemed to have made its decision, screeching one last time before withdrawing back through the hole.
“Awww yeah!” Rainbow Dash cheered, trotting over to the two stallion as the shield faded away. “Who’s the best?”
“I wouldn’t celebrate too soon!” Orange Sherbet shouted before either of them could answer. “Take a look at this!”
Spike was already moving by the time Ink rolled to his hooves. The other six were gathered silently at the hole the vine had smashed through. The herald hesitated for a second, before walking up behind them.
“Oh crud…” he muttered, eyes going wide.
He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but somehow the view outside was even worse.
The skies above Canterlot were completely covered with a blanket of Plunder Vines. A thin mesh of magenta sparkles barely held them back, though plenty were already poking through. Even through his fading senses, Ink Blot could still make out the endless screaming and the distant rumble of buildings being attacked floating from the distant streets.
“We’ve gotta do something.”
Everypony was looking at Spike. Ink mechanically followed their example. The unicorn didn’t seem to notice as he climbed up on the rubble, crouching as if to jump out into the gardens beyond.
“Spike, hang on! What about Shining Armor?” Dash darted in front of him, hooves spread to bar his path. “If the shield’s that bad, then he’s probably in even worse shape!”
“I-I know that!” Spike shouted back, jabbing one hoof. “But the rest of the city needs help--”
“What’s it matter?” Ink finally asked.
The others were all staring at him now. He didn’t care as he shook his head. A short bark of laughter escaped his throat, as more vines began to snake their way down from the sky…
“The shield is gone! Gone!” Ink pressed his hooves over his ears, trying to shut out the screaming as he fell to his rear. “The vines are through! We’re finished! There’s nothin’ that’ll stop this--”
A stinging slap of blue feathers shocked him to silence. Ink just stared wide-eyed at Rainbow Dash as she scowled at him, before looking back over her shoulder at Spike.
“Leave helping the city to me!” She shouted, wings lifting her back into the air. “You gotta get to Shining! He’s still got your element after all!”
“I…” Spike took a deep breath before hopping down from the rubble. “Yeah, you’re right.”
“I’m coming with you, Dashy!” Pinkie Pie sprang up next to the flier, her tail quivering. “Those vines won’t see us coming! Because I’ll see them coming! Which means that maybe they will see us coming but--”
“I’ll go with you too,” Ditzy Doo interrupted as she stepped up. “I’m the only other pegasus here, so…”
Ink just stared as she trailed off. Rainbow Dash wasn’t paying him any attention as she smiled and nodded. Without another word, the three took off through the busted wall. Slowly, the former news-stallion turned to look at the three remaining ponies.
“Oh, I hope they’ll be okay,” Orange Sherbet muttered with one hoof over her mouth.
“They’re right, though,” Octavia said, pointing back to the fork. “We need to get to Shining Armor if we want to stop this.”
“So, which way were the barracks again?” Spike asked.
“He’s not in the barracks.”
Ink blinked a few times, before realizing it was his own voice that had spoken. The other three ponies turned to look at him, Orange and Octavia exchanging worried glances. Spike, however, trotted over to his side.
“I… I don’t get you guys…” the words kept coming out as Ink Blot slowly shook his head. “You’re seein’ the same stuff as me, ain’t ya? It’s like I said: It’s hopeless.”
A purple hoof fell onto his shoulder. His gaze stopped wavering, settling on Spike’s face.
“I don’t believe that. And I don’t think you really do either." Ink Blot wanted to cringe. To look away from the reassuring smile that the other stallion gave him. Something in those green eyes, however, kept pulling him back in. “Ink, you stuck it out at The Sun, you stayed with Shining all this time, you’re helping us right now… something in you hasn’t given up yet…”
Ink’s breath caught in his throat. For a second, something flashed in Spike’s eyes. He could almost feel it himself, something warm glowing in his chest…
Whatever it was, it helped him stand back up.
“Your friend’s right about the guard quarters, but if Shining is anywhere it’s the throne room,” Ink said, before pointing down the path to the right. “He never leaves the place unless it’s to interrogate prisoners.”
His breath flew out in a long whoosh as Spike grabbed him in a hug. Surprising even himself, Ink didn’t even attempt to struggle against it. He simply smiled a bit, letting the other stallion lead him back to the group.
“What’d I say?” Spike asked, flashing a grin to Orange Sherbet. “If anypony knows what’s going on here--”
“It’s Ink Blot,” Orange finished with a smile and a nod of her own.
“Wonderful, shall we get moving?” Octavia asked, already starting down the right hall.
Spike and Orange went after her. Ink Blot’s hooves started to follow, before he stumbled to halt after three steps. None of the other three seemed to noticed as they continued to race ahead.
Ink stood in place for a moment, taking a deep breath as he glanced outside again. The vines were still spreading. Ponies still crying out in terror. All without so much as a glimpse of even a single guard…
“Ink?” Spike’s voice was coming from somewhere behind him as he broke into a run. “Ink, where are you going?!”
“You guys just get to Shining!” Ink Blot shouted over his shoulder.
As he raced away from the others he added quietly, “Maybe there’s something I can do.”
“Just what do you suppose Ink Blot is planning?” Octavia shouted as she ran.
“N-no… clue…” Spike panted back.
Orange Sherbet just tried to focus on her own hooves, unsure whether she wanted to join the conversation. Or if she could, given how hard she was breathing.
They’d paused for barely two seconds when they noticed Ink Blot running away. Spike hadn’t even tried to question it further, he just immediately took off again at the earth stallion’s insistence leaving herself and Octavia to follow. Even knowing that Canterlot was being torn apart outside, however, her body still ached as though trying to remind her of the recent punishment she’d put it through.
“At least... he’s on our side... now,” Spike pointed out between gasps of air.
Whatever Octavia might have been trying to add was lost as they rounded a corner at the end of the hall. The musician instead pointed quickly with one hoof before she began to run even faster.
“There!” she shouted as she took the lead. “The throne chamber!”
Orange Sherbet didn’t need to be told to believe it. A huge set of double doors waited at the end of the hall. Though all the shaking and rampaging vines had apparently taken their toll. Fragments of what were once probably grand statues were strewn about the floor. Spike and Octavia were pulling further and further ahead, though, jumping and dipping around the mess with ease.
The Manehattenite scowled a bit as the thought crossed her mind. Defiantly, she pushed herself harder, quickly closing the gap between her and the two younger ponies. Even as she kept her eyes locked on their goal, Orange felt a proud smirk cross her face.
Her joy vanished the second they burst through the swaying doors of the throne room, and her legs froze in shock.
One set of hooves didn’t stop. Spike was a purple blur as he continued to run toward the steel-armored lump on the floor. Orange’s hoof shot to her mouth as she realized just what that lump was.
“Shining!” Spike was shouting, shaking the fallen unicorn’s shoulders. “Come on, bro, get up!”
Her legs were moving without thought. The white stallion’s chest was rising and falling with feeble breaths as Spike pulled away. Cautiously, Orange kneeled next to him. One hoof reached out, pressing to Shining’s forehead.
She pulled it back almost instantly, inhaling sharply through her teeth.
“He’s burning up…” she gasped, shaking her hoof in an attempt to cool it. “What in the world happened to him?”
“I think I know,” Octavia said, pointing to the prone unicorn’s horn. “Look at that!”
Orange had to squint before she noticed it. A thin thread of magenta light, extending from Shining Armor’s horn out the window. Her eyes followed it as it disappeared into the sky above, where the remnants of the forcefield remained.
“He must be using everything he has on the shield.” Octavia’s voice was wavering slightly, and one hoof was pressed over her mouth. “And… and it doesn’t look like he can keep it up much longer…”
“Alright, stay calm and think.” Orange scrambled back to her hooves, straining to sound like she was following her own advice. “There must be something we can do to help!”
“There is something we can do,” Spike broke in, a soft green glow suddenly radiating from his horn. “Help.”
She didn’t get the chance to ask what he meant. By the time Orange had turned back toward him, a beam of green light had shot from Spike to Shining Armor.
The effect was immediate. The white stallion’s breathing eased a bit. Some of the sweat on his forehead began to dry. Neither Orange Sherbet or Octavia celebrated, however, as Spike’s legs buckled and nearly dumped him to the floor.
“Spike!” Orange was the first to move, leaning against the young stallion’s side to support him. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“T-trying to… b-back up the sh-shield…” Spike was gritting his teeth as the tether of light connecting him to his brother shone brighter. “I’m not as good as Shining, b-but if I give it… enough power… maybe he can do the rest!”
“Are you certain that’s a good idea?” Octavia asked, her eyes wide.
Another distant CRASH of vines breaking through magic served as the answer. Spike’s entire body shuddered as the green energy sparked wildly, his teeth clenching as he struggled to stay standing.
“It b-buys us time!” Spike managed to shout, his face a mask of concentration as the glow stabilized.
Orange’s breath caught in her throat, and her eyes shot back to the window. She could just make out a few flimsy bits of green mixing with the damaged shield. Her heartbeat eased a bit, trying to convince her some of the vines were moving a bit more sluggishly.
Then another one broke its way through, and Spike’s nearly collapsed into convulsions again.
“It’s not enough!” Orange shouted, shifting as she tried to better support Spike’s weight. “We need more unicorns!”
“I think we’re about to get them…” Octavia said nervously, one hoof pointing back towards the door.
Following the trembling limb, Orange Sherbet’s eyes went wide. She could see a trio of unicorns coming around the corner. Armored ones, unmistakably members of the guard. They stopped for a moment at the far end of the hall, their eyes locking on hers for a brief second.
Then one of them shouted and pointed straight at her.
“There they are!”
Rainbow Dash twisted out of the way just time. She could feel the wind on her fetlocks as another Plunder Vine let out a horrific screech. Glancing back over her shoulder, she smiled as she saw it completely immobilized, tied to a lamppost with a mess of streamers and confetti. A sight so satisfying, she didn’t even question just when Pinkie Pie had recovered that pastel-blue cannon of hers.
“Nice shot, Pinkie!” Dash cheered as she banked into a hard u-turn.
If the party planner heard the compliment, she didn’t acknowledge it. All her attention as on rolling her “Party Cannon” further ahead, keeping it pointed at the sky. Dash’s enthusiasm was tempered somewhat as she looked back up, reminding her that hundreds more of the black vines still swarmed above Canterlot.
“Alright, this way!” Ditzy Doo’s voice pulled Dash’s attention back to where it needed to be. “Hurry!”
The cyan mare’s eyes shot back down the street. Ditzy was at the head of a small group of ponies chasing after Pinkie. Just some of the many citizens they’d found trying to escape the Plunder Vines. Dash felt her heart stop for a second as she noticed something clinging tight to Ditzy’s back. A small unicorn filly, holding on for dear life--
She’d only just realized the filly’s coat was pink rather than purple when the noise hit, accompanied by glittering trails of broken magic showering from above. Screams rose from the group below as another vine lashed down from the sky, aiming right at them.
“Oh no you don’t!” Dash shouted.
The air itself trembled as she rocketed forward. With a furious cry, she rammed into the black tendril shoulder first.
“Stay! Out! Of! The! Way!” Dash punctuated each word with a sharp blow from her hooves, snarling as she felt the wicked plant pull back from her assault.
It stopped just outside her hoof reach, trembling. The tip of it lifted up, pointing straight at Dash. For a disturbing second, she almost felt like it was looking at her.
That feeling was quickly forgotten as two more vines suddenly descended next to it.
Three black blurs slammed into her, sending her sailing backwards. Dash was briefly thankful that none of them had sprouted their thorns.
A low groan was all she could get as the last of the shock coursed through her body. Her vision swam, hearing fading in and out, her entire body aching from the cobblestone streets she’d just been roughly introduced to.
Somepony was shouting for her. Probably the one that had come running to her side. She could just make out something gray trying to help her back to her hooves. Fresh pain raced through her body as they did. Dash grit her teeth against it, trying not to cry out. Instead, she shook her head, forcing her vision back together. Her eyes narrowed on the vines that had struck her, already racing out into the streets, almost as if they were ignoring her.
Something blazed inside her at the thought.
“Lemme at ‘em,” she growled out, wings flaring. “Lemme at ‘em!”
“Dash, stop!” the gray shaped next to her yelled.
Soft hooves pressed against her chest, holding her back. It took Rainbow Dash a second to realize why they were so familiar. Her head turned, looking into the worried gaze of Ditzy Doo. Just past those yellow eyes, she could see the ponies they’d been leading huddling together, trembling in fear.
“It’s okay, they’re all fine,” Ditzy Doo assured her, gently patting her back. “Come on, we need to keep moving!”
“R-right.” Dash winced and drew in a deep breath, feeling her entire back throb. “The market square isn’t far.”
The other ponies must have heard them, seeing as they were already running. Rainbow Dash spread her wings, giving them a hard flap--
“Gah!” she screamed.
Her hooves barely rose an inch before clattering down again. Both her wing joints burned from the effort of moving. She forced in a deep breath, wincing as she slowly extended both feathery appendages.
“Are you alright?” Ditzy Doo was still at her side, worriedly looking from Dash’s face back to her wings.
“I don’t think anything’s broken,” Rainbow grumbled in response, still flinching at the pain as she folded her wings once more. “Ugh, looks like I’m hoofing it for now though.”
She didn’t give Ditzy Doo the chance to offer her a shoulder. The young racer broke into a gallop, doing her best to ignore the dull pulse running along her back with each hoofbeat. At the very least the pain didn’t last long, nearly fading as Ditzy caught up.
“Dash, I hate to say it, but this really doesn’t look good!” she fretted, her bad eye rolling slightly as she ran. “Those vines are everywhere, and we can’t keep fighting them forever!”
“Tell me about it!” Pinkie Pie was somehow right beside them, actually sweating a bit as she rolled her party cannon along. “I’m almost out of confetti here!”
“We just have to trust Spike and the others,” Dash said, her eyes darting back towards the castle. “I’m sure they can fix this once they reach Shining! Until then, we save as many ponies as we--”
It wasn’t so much the horrified screams that gave her pause as the direction they’d come from. Dash’s face blanched as her ears pointed straight ahead. Right in the same direction the ponies they’d just rescued had run.
Now a chorus of voices was approaching from there, along with countless galloping hooves. She pulled to a halt as dozens of ponies suddenly charged from around a bend in the road up ahead.
“What the--” Dash didn’t even have a chance to finish her question as the herd reached them. Ponies shoved their way past her and her companions, nearly knocking her to the ground. “Hey! Wait, what’s--AARRGH!”
Dash’s hooves lashed out. Only somewhat to her satisfaction, she managed to grab a unicorn stallion by his shoulders as he ran past. He yelped in alarm, nearly pitching to the ground as he jerked to a halt.
“What’s going on?!” Dash yelled, almost regretting her volume as the unicorn cringed in response.
“Th-those vines…” he stammered, pointing back the way he’d come from. “They’re everywhere! They started attacking the market square--”
The stallion had started running again before Dash even realized she’d let him go. Her breath caught in her throat as his story was confirmed. At least a half-dozen vines were coming from around the corner, slamming into buildings as they turned to chase after their prey.
“I got ‘em!” Pinkie Pie shouted, taking aim and yanking on the firing cord of her cannon.
A pathetic whine emitted from the device, followed by a weak puff of air and small dusting of glitter.
“Uh oh…” Pinkie muttered.
The party pony’s eyes darted from her cannon back to the vines. Her face was suddenly a perfect mirror of the same horror Dash felt. The pegasus was doing her best to ignore that feeling as she turned around, legs racing after the rest of the ponies.
“Keep moving!” she shouted ahead to the herd. “Head for the castle!”
More screams from up ahead confirmed what she had already started to fear, however. The ponies were crowding together, backing towards Rainbow Dash and her friends as more vines crawled slowly towards them. The cyan mare’s wings tried to flare out as her eyes darted up, freezing both in shock and pain as she saw even more of the black things knitting into a web overhead.
“They’ve boxed us in!” Ditzy Doo shouted, giving voice to what Dash herself had just realized.
Come on, Dash! Think!
Ponies were crowding all around them. Rainbow Dash’s chest was burning as she struggled to breathe. The vines reared up on every side, preparing to to strike--
The loud, long blast of a trumpet suddenly rose above everything else. Dash didn’t even have a chance to figure out where it came from before the vines suddenly began to writhe and screech. The mass of plant life suddenly lifted away, and Rainbow Dash felt her jaw hit the ground.
At least a half-dozen pegasus ponies in full armor were darting after the fleeing Plunder Vines. Flecks of the wicked plants were still trailing from the blades on their wings. One remained however, motioning frantically the formerly-trapped group.
“Hurry!” he shouted. “Everypony, this way!”
Another call from the trumpet accompanied the order, one that nopony seemed willing to refuse. Before she was even sure what was happening, her hooves were pounding against the streets once again. A smile came to her face as she looked up, however. More pegasus ponies were darting across the skies, fighting off the encroaching vines, and she could see more sparkling colors starting to paint themselves across the broken barrier.
“Alright!” Dash couldn’t hold back the cheer. Her wings snapped out as she leapt, her pain forgotten as she started soaring once more. “We are back in action!”
“And I think I see why!” Ditzy Doo responded, a huge smile on her face. “Look up ahead!”
Doing as she was asked, Dash’s eyes went wide with shock one last time.
“No-ho-ho waay…” she chuckled out.
With a hard flap, she was soaring ahead of the rest of the crowd. Straight towards what looked like a stage with at least a dozen guards around it. None of whom moved to stop her as she landed at the edge of it, staring in disbelief at the figure standing in the center.
Her ears fell flat against a third trumpet cry. Which did nothing to wipe the smile from her face.
“Ink Blot!” She shouted, waving one hoof for attention.
Finally, the gray earth pony lowered his trumpet and turned towards her. A smirk of his own appeared as he set the instrument down and trotted over.
“Well, figures I’d find you guys sooner or later,” he said as Pinkie Pie and Ditzy Doo managed to get up to Dash’s side.
“Did you bring all these guards?” Ditzy Doo asked, her eyes drifting in every direction as she spoke. “Where were they?”
“Most of these chuckleheads? Arguing in the barracks over what to do since ol’ Shiney-hiney wasn’t bossin’ ‘em around.” Ink cleared his throat and glanced back over his shoulder. “Now if you’ll excuse me, ladies, it’s looking like we got a fair crowd and I have an important announcement to make.”
Rainbow Dash glanced to the other two mares. Although they were smiling, she could tell from their eyes that they didn’t quite understand the stallion’s statement either. All together, the three of them followed behind Ink as he walked to the front of the stage.
He wasn’t kidding
Dash needed a moment just to take in the size of the gathering crowd. If she hadn’t known better, she would have guessed all of Canterlot was present. She could still see more ponies being escorted to the crowd by guards. Ink didn’t seem fazed, however, as he looked out over the massive herd.
“Alright, Steel. Hit me,” he said, drawing in a deep breath.
“Yes, Chief Herald!” The armored unicorn next to him snapped a quick salute, before a beam of silver magic shot from his horn to the earth pony’s throat.
“ATTENTION, CITIZENS OF CANTERLOT!!”
Ink Blot’s voice, magnified to almost painful levels, drowned out every other sound in the city. Rainbow Dash had to brace her hooves to avoid being thrown back by the force of it.
“EVERYPONY WHO CAN HEAR MY VOICE, LOOK UP!”
Most of the gathered crowd was already doing so. Something Ink Blot didn’t seem to mind as he began pacing back and forth in front of them.
“YOU ALL KNOW HOW LONG SHINING’S BEEN KEEPING US SAFE! AND YEAH, WE AIN’T ALWAYS ENJOYED IT! BUT NOW, WE HIT ONE LITTLE SNAG WITH THE SHIELD AND SUDDENLY IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD!”
Even Ink Blot’s stomping hoof was magnified. Rainbow Dash was just staring in stunned silence. Somehow, she couldn’t connect the stallion before her to the one she’d slapped back in the castle.
“EVERYPONY HERE THINKS WE’VE BEEN HIDING ALL THIS TIME! BUT WE’VE BEEN SURVIVING! WE ALL HOPED THINGS WOULD GET BETTER, DIDN’T WE?”
Ponies in the crowd were mumbling to each other. Quite a few were nodding, only to go quiet again as Ink jabbed his hoof at them.
“WELL SHINING’S DOWN, AND IT’S UP TO US TO DO SOMETHING NOW! AND I DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE REST OF YOU, BUT I AIN’T GONNA JUST GONNA ROLL OVER AND GET MULCHED! NOW WHO’S WITH ME!?!”
Not even Ink Blot’s magically amplified voice could drown out the collective cheers from the crowd. Rainbow Dash even caught herself joining in, along with Pinkie Pie and Ditzy Doo, as a massive smile spread across the herald’s face.
“THAT’S WHAT I WANNA HEAR! NOW, ALL YOU EARTH PONIES! START SPREADING OUT AND CLEARING SOME OF THAT RUBBLE! PEGASI? I WANNA SEE YOU SKYWARD LOOKING FOR PONIES THAT NEED HELP GETTING TO SAFETY. THE GUARDS WILL TAKE CARE OF THE VINES!”
There were no arguments. Ponies were flying and running out of the crowd in droves. Rainbow Dash’s wings snapped out as she kicked into the air. Even with her wings already starting to ache again, she pushed her way upwards towards a nearby flock of pegasi.
But there was no way she could miss Ink Blot’s last order.
“AND EVERY UNICORN OUT THERE! DISH OUT AS MUCH MAGIC AS YOU CAN AND AIM IT STRAIGHT! UP!”
Dash paused for a second in her ascent, just staring out at the city as countless lights of every color imaginable began to spread across it.
Shining Armor let out a low groan, his foreleg feebly twitching a bit. Something damp and cool was pressed against his forehead, matting down his forelock, and he wanted to wipe it away. His body could barely obey the order though. All he could do was let his eyes slowly drift open.
“He’s waking up!” a distant, but surprisingly loud, voice shouted.
The damp thing was pulled away, and Shining blinked a few times. Everything around him was too bright, forcing him to squint as his eyes adjusted. He could just make out something getting closer though. A fuzzy blob of purple with a green light flickering on top of it.
His vision finally sharpened as the thing knelt down next to him. A purple unicorn with a green mane. The same one he’d left in the dungeon.
“Y-you!” Shining Armor started to jump to his hooves.
A wave of dizziness overcame him. Before he could topple back over, the younger stallion had darted to his side.
“Easy there! Magic exhaustion like that is rough,” Spike said as he leaned against Shining’s side. “Trust me. I’ve been there.”
“I-thanks-No! Wait!” Shining tried to pull away, but his legs refused to move. “What are you even doing here?”
“He’s been trying to help sir.”
Shining shook his head as the new voice spoke up. Turning, he found three guard unicorns standing nearby. Each of their horns was sparking with magic, as was Spike’s he finally noticed. Something which only added to the flurry of questions blowing around in his head.
“Helping…” Shining cleared his throat and drew his eyes into a glare as he pointed at the closest guard. “Scale Mail, report!”
“Of course, sir!” The indicated unicorn snapped a quick salute before his eyes darted to the side nervously. “Well, uh, the shield broke and you apparently passed out trying to repair it…”
That explains the headache
Shining flinched as the memories of the moment flooded back. Including his rather painful spill to the floor of the throne room. Pushing the thought aside, he motioned for Scale Mail to continue.
“The prison-eeeer… Spike here, escaped during the confusion,” Scale Mail explained. “He wanted to try and help you fix the shield.”
It was just as well that the guard had stopped talking. No further words could reach Shining Armor. His eyes slowly moved to the other two armored ponies, both of whom were nodding in confirmation. Two of the mares that had been in the dungeons were there as well, the orange one wringing out a damp washcloth while the gray just smiled and gestured to Shining’s side. Reluctantly, his eyes followed her advice.
They landed right on Spike, who was smiling up at him.
“Why… why would you help me?” The shock was too much. He couldn’t even begin to fit suspicion into anything he was thinking. “I threw you in the dungeon, in case you forgot.”
“It’s because… well, ‘cuz we’re family,” Spike answered, giving the older stallion a gentle, playful shove. “It’s a long, weird story, but that’s how it is to me. Even if you don’t think the same.”
Shining Armor just stared in silence. For the briefest instance, somehow, Spike’s words rang true. Something in the smile he was fixing him with, or the sympathetic look in his eyes, or perhaps even just the warmth of his body as he supported the Captain of the Royal Guards without trembling away or flinching…
“As much as I hate to break up the moment.” The sound of a throat clearing drew his eyes back to the gray mare, whose face had suddenly gone serious. “Things aren’t fixed just yet.”
Once more, his gaze followed her hoof, this time as she pointed out the window. Shining’s jaw finally loosened, dropping slack to his chest when he saw the outside.
The vines were still there, but far fewer than before. The ones that remained were straining against webs of multicolored light, as darting specks that must have been pegasus ponies harried them. The sky itself was still blanketed with vines, but thick ropes of the rainbow magic now held them at bay, despite the severe thrashing of the plants.
“The shield’s almost good as new,” Spike said, tapping his own horn for emphasis. “But… well, nopony knows this spell like you do.”
Shining Armor just gave the purple unicorn one last look, before turning his attention outside again.
“I think…” he drew in a deep breath as magic slowly gathered in his horn. “I think we’re going to need to have a long talk so you can explain things, Spike.”
Looking out the window, Spike almost couldn’t believe the same city was stretching out below him.
A few thin columns of smoke still rose to the sky here and there. Likely the huge portions of severed Plunder Vine being burned by the guards. Down each street he could see familiar buildings from his own Canterlot, most in various states of demolition thanks to the attack.
And yet, the unicorn still had a smile on his face as he took a sip from his coffee. The atmosphere coming from the city had undergone the most change. The once empty streets were now swarmed with ponies; And the sounds of them laughing, singing, and generally celebrating carried loud and clear up to the castle. Letting out a satisfied sigh, he looked up at the renewed, now multicolored barrier, taking in the odd split of day and night in the sky one last time before he turned away from the window.
“So… which part were you having trouble with?” he asked, finally breaking the silence that had let him enjoy the view. “The Discord thing, or the ‘from another universe’ one?”
He almost wanted to laugh at the look on Shining Armor’s face. His older brother’s jaw was practically resting on the table between them, his own coffee sitting untouched by his side. He didn’t even seem to notice the amused looks of the five mares also gathered in the throne chamber, though Spike caught the particularly smug grin Octavia wore.
“Uh… a little of both, I think…” Shining finally managed to answer as he shook his head. “I mean… I’m not sure I really believe any of it--”
“Well, there’s a shocker.”
Spike snorted a bit into his own coffee as Ink Blot spoke up. The gray stallion seemed far more vibrant somehow, a satisfied grin on his face as he drained the last of his own drink and banged the mug back down on the table.
“Face facts, Shining! Whatever ya think of their story, it’s pretty clear they’re here to help,” Ink said, sweeping a hoof to all six of the dimensional travellers. “And we’re darn lucky they showed up when they did!”
“I guess I can’t deny that,” Shining Armor admitted with a shrug before nodding to the others. “I owe all of you an apology, and then some, for the way you were treated.”
More smiles were going around the table. Pinkie Pie in particular looked as though she was about to bounce clear to the ceiling. Though Spike wasn’t sure whether that was due to what Shining Armor had said or the twice-emptied mug sitting in front of her. Either way, he felt a profound relief as Orange Sherbet pinned the mare down with a restraining hoof on her shoulder.
“I think we can all agree to let bygones be bygones,” Orange said with a patient smile.
“Besides, we don’t deserve all the credit.” Spike glanced to the others, and each nodded in agreement before he spoke again. “Ink Blot did the most to save the city after all.”
If Ink had had more coffee, Spike was sure he would have spat it out. Instead, the earth stallion put one hoof against his chest, his mouth silently repeating Spike’s words.
“I… what, me?” he shook his head and let out a nervous chuckle. “Aww, get outta town. I didn’t do that much.”
“Of course not, you only rallied the entirety of the royal guards whilst their leadership was indisposed,” Octavia said, pausing for a second to sip her own coffee. “Oh, and let’s not forget the rest of Canterlot as well. We could all hear your announcement, even up here.”
“Gotta say, that was pretty awesome,” Rainbow Dash added.
Spike chuckled a bit as Ink Blot lowered his head. It was a sight he’d never thought he’d ever see: The editor-in-chief of The Canterlot Sun blushing.
“Hey, I just did my job,” Ink said as he shoved his empty mug between his forehooves. “Tell everypony around town what somepony else said. They pretty much did the rest on their own--”
“Nevertheless, we might need to discuss your duties a bit, Chief Herald.” Shining Armor actually had a proud grin on his face, aimed squarely at the blushing stallion. “Something like a promotion might be in order, don’t you agree?”
“YEAH I DO!” Pinkie’s voice suddenly rattled every eardrum at the table as she sprang out from under Orange’s grip. “This’ll be great! I haven’t thrown a promotion party in ages!”
As the pink mare started rambling about… whatever sort of things Pinkie rambled about, Spike let out a chuckle. Letting out one last happy sigh, he levitated his coffee mug for one more gulp.
As the drink hit his lips however, his eyes went wide. Something was squirming on the surface of the brown liquid.
The mug went flying, Shining’s magic barely catching it before it landed on Pinkie’s head. Not fast enough to catch the liquid inside, however, as the party mare’s mane was suddenly soaked in the fresh-roasted brew.
“Eeeek! Hot!” Pinkie shouted as she leapt down from the table before smacking her lips. “Ooooh, but so aromatic…”
“S-sorry!” Spike quickly apologized. “There was something weird in it--”
“How rude! I was just starting to enjoy myself!”
Spike’s apology was quickly forgotten as a familiarly snide voice echoed around them. With a loud SNAP, a rabbit-sized draconequus wrapped in a coffee-stained towel appeared in the center of the table.
“DISCORD?!” Almost everypony in the room chorused.
“Wait, that was you swimming in my coffee?!” Spike shouted, his stomach clenching.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous, Spike,” Discord said as he whipped the towel away and it vanished into thin air. “I was taking a bath! I prefer tea, to be honest, but coffee works in a pinch to keep my coat’s natural color…”
Spike didn’t hear the rest. He was too busy trying not to be violently ill. Ditzy Doo was gently patting his back again when all the remaining mugs on the table suddenly jumped. Shining Armor had slammed both his forehooves against the table, and was glaring daggers at the miniaturized Discord.
“How did you get in here!” he shouted, his magic grabbing Discord and pulling the tiny prankster up to his face. “My shield was supposed to keep out you along with your vines!”
“And we both know what a great job it was doing!” Discord said with a snicker.
Before anypony could react, Discord’s eagle talon lashed out and flicked Shining’s horn. The magic flickered for a brief second, and in that second the miniature draconequus vanished. With another snap, he was floating by the window, jerking a thumb claw to the shield beyond it.
“Of course, it was a bit of a nuisance to get past,” he said, crossing his arms and pouting a bit. “I wasn’t sure the vines could do it even with the help I gave them--”
“You did WHAT!”
Spike’s queasiness had vanished in a second. Unsurprisingly, he hadn’t been the only one shouting at Discord. Though he was one of the few that remained seated, as Rainbow Dash and Pinkie darted over and flanked the chaos spirit.
“You let those vines in?!” Rainbow Dash shouted, spreading her wings between the window and Discord.
“I knew it!” Pinkie’s usual smile was gone, replaced with an accusatory glare. “I knew we couldn’t trust you!”
Despite the angry ponies to either side of him, as well as the others starting to move away from the table, Discord didn’t seemed worried. In fact, and Spike did a double-take to be sure, he seemed oddly at ease as he steepled his claws together.
“I’m sensing a bit of hostility here,” he said, giving everypony a calm smile. “I don’t suppose anypony would care to let me explain before jumping to conclusions?”
“I don’t see a lot of room for interpretation here,” Orange Sherbet said, her eyes narrowing on Discord.
“Oh come now, Orange my dear! If destroying Canterlot was my goal, don’t you think I could have popped Shining’s bubble anytime I wanted?” Discord countered as he pulled a nail file from nowhere and set to work on his claws. “Really, why would I wait until I had the lot of you inside?”
As if in answer, a sphere of magenta light suddenly popped into existence around Discord. Spike barely ducked in time as it sailed over his head, stopping right in front of Shining Armor.
“Discord, you’d better start explaining yourself!” he ordered, the bubble contracting slightly around its prisoner. “And I mean now!”
“Gladly! I’m the one that brought these six to look for an Element of Harmony in the first place after all.” If his prison bothered him, Discord didn’t show it. Spike had never seen a more relaxed creature in all his life. “I had to make sure they weren’t just goofing off, but unfortunately your bubble is just as good as you think it is against my weakened state.”
Discord blew on his lion claws before buffing them on his chest. He smiled as he held his paw out, admiring his work. Almost like he’d forgotten that Shining Armor was less than two inches away, his breath fogging up the prison shield.
“So… why the vines?” Spike asked, clearing his throat a bit.
“Well since I couldn’t slip through the shield, I had to brute force it instead,” Discord explained as he spun the nail file around one claw. “So I gave the vines a little pick me up and--”
The prison shield vanished as Discord jabbed it with his nail file. Before Shining could react, he’d flown back over to Spike’s side with a taunting chuckle.
“Of course, chaos is as chaos does! I couldn’t control anything the vines did after that,” Discord explained, snapping his claws again. “But you’re lucky that I got through when I did, or else nopony would have been around to catch this before Shiney-boy threw it out!”
Spike’s eyes went wide as something suddenly appeared right in front of him. A brown fedora with a golden band and emerald feather adorning it.
“My element!” he shouted.
“You can have it back.” Discord shuddered as he snapped his claws, the old hat flipping onto Spike’s head and tilting itself to his favorite angle. “Ugh, I feel tacky just touching that thing!”
The rest of the room had gone silent. Spike couldn’t blame them, his own ears falling flat as he just glared at Discord. It was suddenly so easy to understand all of Pinkie’s warnings. Especially as she rolled her party cannon out from under the table.
“You really think we’re gonna buy that?” Ink Blot shouted as he scraped one hoof against the ground. “Tha-that you nearly turned Canterlot into the world’s worst garden party by accident!?”
“And I’m apologizing for it, aren’t I? Yet I get the feeling none of you are taking me seriously,” Discord asked as he crossed his arms with a frown. “Well fine. If that’s the case you can go ahead and lock me up.”
Spike had been crouching, ready to pounce and pin Discord to the table. Now, he almost slipped and banged his chin against it instead. The same look of shock on his face was spreading to the others as they all just stared at the draconequus.
“Wait… you’re serious?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“Yup! Clap me in irons, toss me behind an unbreakable shield, seal me in stone if it makes you feel safer!” Discord’s face was twisted into the ugliest grin Spike had ever seen as he held his arms out. “I’m sure you six will do just fine finding the rest of the Elements of Harmony on your own!”
Spike could swear he felt something in his jaw crack as he clenched his teeth.
“I am… loathe to admit it,” Octavia said, drawing in a deep breath as her voice strained to remain calm. “But Discord raises something of a point…”
“I don’t like this,” Shining said with a snarl. “Are you sure there’s no other way for you guys to get around?”
“Even if we could, we don’t even know where to start searching…” Ditzy Doo admitted, her wings slumping a bit.
“So that’s settled then? ‘Let bygones be bygones’ as Orange Sherbet put it?” Discord was grinning like mad as Spike joined the chorus of reluctant head nodding. “Goody! Just one last thing to take care of before we get going!”
With another snap, the table floated to the side. Discord floated down in front of Spike, pointing one claw down the now clear path between him and Shining Armor.
“I’m afraid you’ll be saying goodbye to Canterlot for a while, Shiney my boy,” Discord explained as his paws began to glow. “The Elements of Harmony need somepony to represent Magic--”
“But I don’t think Shining is the one,” Spike said.
He smirked as Discord spun to face him. Now it was the chaos spirit’s turn to look surprised as Spike pointed a hoof of his own. Right at the only other stallion in the room. Ink Blot blinked, looking from Spike, down to himself, and then back up to Spike again as his jaw dropped.
“For the I-don’t-even-know-how-many-ith time: WHAAAAAAAAT?!?” Ink shouted, the remaining windows rattling.
“Um… yeah,” Discord said with a nod. “Pretty much that.”
“Whoa, didn’t see that coming…” Pinkie Pie’s voice whispered.
Neither had anypony else, judging from the looks on their faces. Spike was just smiling, however, as he walked over Shining Armor and Ink Blot. The white unicorn looked more confused than anyone else, just tilting his head as Spike looked at him.
“Shining, don’t get me wrong. You’re a great guy, and I know Canterlot will be fine with you around… long as you lighten up a bit.” Spike chuckled a bit, clearing his throat as he realized nopony was joining in. “But I just don’t think you’re ready for the Element of Magic.”
“Oh, and I am?!” Ink was taking a step back as Spike turned to him, sweat dripping down his face. “Spike, I don’t if you missed it, but I ain’t even a unicorn!”
“I don’t think that matters, Ink!” Spike insisted, one hoof reaching up and brushing against the golden band in his hat. “The Element of Magic came to me when I realized what my friends and I could accomplish by working together. You did the same thing today with an entire city! It can’t just be a coincidence!”
Ink Blot stopped in midstep. Slowly, his hoof lowered back to the floor. Spike just continued to smile, his magic sparking and lifting the old fedora from his head. Slowly, he sent it drifting forward to hover in front of his longtime friend.
“I… It’s been a long time… since I had anything to believe in…” Ink swallowed hard, reaching one hoof towards the Element of Magic. “You showed me there’s still some hope even in this tired old stallion. If you’re gonna believe in me now…”
Ink drew in a deep breath and nodded his head.
“Then I won’t be the one to let ya down,” he said.
A nearly blinding green light filled the room. Even so, Spike somehow didn’t need to shield his eyes. He could see perfectly well as something rattled against the wall before soaring towards them. Both his and Ink’s eyes went wide when they saw what it was.
Ink Blot’s trumpet.
The Element of Magic shimmered, green and golden runes floating from it to wrap around the instrument. The entire length of the trumpet shone, changing from brass to silver as the strange letters etched themselves along it. The two elements both sparked one last time before separating, Spike’s hat settling back atop his head while Ink Blot’s trumpet laid itself across his back.
“Well… that’s certainly interesting!” Discord said, hovering down between the two stallions. “And kudos, Spike. You even managed to surprise me.”
Spike wasn’t sure if Discord’s approval added or detracted from the moment. It didn’t do anything to change the smile on his face though. Especially when the other six charged up, cheering and slapping both him and Ink Blot on the back. The entire room was becoming a blur of smiles, Octavia making odd looks between Ink’s instrument and her own cello, Shining Armor snapping a salute to them both--
A loud clearing of throat broke in over the celebration, however.
“Alright, we’ve wasted enough time as it is,” Discord said, his paws starting to glow. “Say your goodbyes, everypony, because we have to get back on the road!”
Spike felt his throat tighten up. He quickly turned toward Shining Armor, a sad little smile on his face.
“Shining,” he said, “I--”
Whatever Spike wanted to say, he didn’t get to finish.
With a final snap of claws and a blinding flash of light, Shining Armor found himself alone in the throne room once more.