There was a flash of light and suddenly a mismatched group of ponies and something else appeared where previously there had been only empty space. Around them, several locals looked up in interest for a moment before slumping back into lethargy despite the unusual sight.
“Ta-da!” exclaimed Discord, turning around on the spot. “Well don’t all cheer at once, I only bent the laws of reality so you wouldn’t have to walk.”
“Where are we?” asked Spike, he glanced around his companions. “Where’s Ink Blot?”
“Oh I put Blotchy in storage for the moment,” explained Discord, “No need to have him cluttering up the place until we need him.”
“This isn’t Canterlot,” said Spike looking around. They had been moved outside and the buildings were no longer the classical architecture of the capital, the buildings around them had a more modern, and much less cared for style. The only similarity were the thick vines that lay scattered around the scene, and rubble remaining from buildings destroyed by their progress. The young unicorn shuddered thinking of their previous adventure.
“What city is this?” asked Dash rising into the air for a better look. “Is it another part of Manehatten?”
“I don’t think so,” said Auntie Orange, looking around, it certainly didn’t seem like her home town, none of the buildings were over two stories.
Octavia turned to Discord. “Well? Where have you brought us?”
“Why are you asking me?” he asked, shrugging his mismatched shoulders.
“Well you brought us here, you should know where ‘here’ is.”
“Oh you ponies and your quaint habit of naming things. All I know is that one of the potential element bearers is nearby. When in doubt wander about randomly I say. You might not find what you’re looking for but at least you’ll find something interesting.”
“How do we know we can trust you anyway?” asked Dash suspiciously, “You might turn all those vines against us at any moment.”
“My dear Rainbow,” said Discord looking up at the pegasus, “As I said that was a mere coincidence, and,” he yawned widely, showing far more and sharper teeth than anything even remotely equine should possess. “It took more out of me than I thought it would,” he smacked his lips together, “Maybe another nap would be in order? So Dashie, keen to get your hooves on my rock hard form again?” he teased.
The blue pegasus stuck out her tongue in disgust. “As if!”
“Oh, no,” cried Pinkie pushing Rainbow aside and glaring at Discord, “You’re not going to get near Dashie! I’m not going to give you a chance to use your personality switching, friendship destroying tricks on her. This time I’m going to be keeping an eye on you,” she said seriously, “Not just one eye but two, maybe even three. So no funny business!”
“But Dash is a sporty number,” complained the Dracoequis, “Just the right method of travel for something of my position.” Rainbow looked like she wasn’t sure if she should be flattered or not. “You...” he gestured at Pinkie, “Well you’re more of a clown cart, I’d expect to see dozens of brightly coloured ponies coming out of you.”
“Yup,” said Pinkie nodding with such force her head seemed to blur. Then she suddenly became serious again. “But it’s either me or you can walk, or even better we can just leave you here.”
“Fine,” muttered the tatterdamon, “But at least I’ll get into character first.” As he spoke his skin turned rubbery and he folded in upon himself collapsing bonelessly to the ground. Pinkie trotted over to where he stood and poked his form curiously with her muzzle. Where once stood the spirit of chaos now there was a slightly Discord-shaped rubber chicken. She prodded it again with her hoof this time, it gave out a mooing sound, a second prod resulted in the sound of thunder. Shrugging, Pinkie flipped the Discord chicken onto her back and twisted her head through almost one hundred-eighty degrees to gaze unblinkingly at it.
Ditzy launched herself into the air alongside Dash hoping to get a better idea of where they were. She flew round in a tight circle with only a slight wobble to get a panoramic view, there was something that was very familiar about this city. They had apparently arrived in the outer part of the city which seemed most affected by the vines. The center of the city seemed less affected but many of the neighbourhoods were surrounded by walls and gates, some even looked guarded, apparently the inhabitants were trying to keep something out. Then she spotted it, a statue set in the middle of a park. Both were choked with vines but the statue’s shape could just about be made out. Four letters, two on top, L O with the O at an angle, below were two others, V E. For a moment she felt sick, she knew where they were, and the state of the dreary city around her became so much more personal. She dropped back to the ground, landing heavily and staggering to one side before righting herself.
“We’re in Fillydelphia, my home town,” she gasped.
“Are you sure?” asked Spike. He’d only ever seen pictures of the city and they hadn’t looked like this.
“Yes, I saw a landmark I recognised. Now that I know what to look for I think I know this area as well.” She looked around, really taking in the detail this time. In her universe this was one of the better parts of the city, rather more high class than the one where she had grown up in. Not that her childhood home had been substandard, she and her parents had lived in a rather nice cloud house her father had built, which they usually tethered up in the suburbs. It was just that this district was more exclusive. Only in this world it wasn’t, the vines were nowhere near as dense as they had been in Manehattan but they had still overwhelmed several buildings which now stood abandoned. Other buildings were locked up like fortresses with bars over their windows and large locks visible on their doors. However, the biggest difference between the city before her and her childhood home were the street ponies. Everywhere she looked there seemed to be rough, malnourished looking ponies, there a group was gathered around a makeshift fire, here one was huddled under a sheet of cardboard to keep out the cold as she tried to sleep. Most kept their gazes down avoiding eye contact but a few looked up at the arrivals looks of either hope or malice in their eyes.
“Oh,” cried Ditzy stepping back towards her friends and almost tripping, “This is terrible!”
“Now you know how I felt seeing my own home in such a poor state,” said Orange Sherbet. “It really does seem that the whole of this world is like this.”
“This must be very upsetting for you, to see your home like this,” said Octavia letting the distressed pegasus lean on her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so off balance, you normally have excellent poise.”
“Really?” said Ditzy in surprise, trying to focus both eyes on the grey mare. “The version of me in your universe must really be different, I’ve always been so clumsy.”
Octavia coloured slightly. “I am sorry, in my universe you are trying to join the Wonderbolts. You are a very acrobatic flyer.”
“Wow!” exclaimed Dash. “Ditzy in the Wonderbolts? No offence but either your universe has a far lower bar or your Ditzy is a much better flyer than the one I know.”
“The latter I believe.”
“Oh, that’s where I’ve seen you before dear,” said Auntie tapping her head with a hoof, “It has been bothering me all day. I saw you at the young flyers competition, your um, unique, flying style caused rather a stir.”
“Oooh yes,” said Pinkie not turning away from staring at Discords immobile form on her back. “My Ditzy went to the flying competition as well, and she was all whoosh and zoom and ‘for the love of Celestia get out of my way!’ The Doc even managed to grow some wings to go with her. He never did totally explain it to me how he did it, something about partial regeneration via possible alternative universe twin.”
“Um, I’ve never been in any flying competitions, it’s not really my thing. I’m busy enough just raising Dinky.” She felt a little overwhelmed, all of her other universe duplicates seemed more adventurous than her.
“I’m sure you’ve done a wonderful job of raising your daughter,” reassured Auntie.
“If you’re even the slightest like the Ditzy in my world, you’re an amazing mom,” said Dash.
“Mine too,” said Spike. “We better find out what happened here.” He scanned the area. “There are enough ponies around that someone should be willing to talk to us.”
“Hey look Ditzy,” called Pinkie. “There’s somepony with the same outfit as you had, maybe you’re fashionable here, we should talk to them.”
Ditzy turned to look in the direction Pinkie was gesturing, there was a small group of mares clustered at the side of a road and indeed they were wearing outfits as outlandish as the one Trixie had had her wear before she’d been summoned to this world, socks or tights covered their legs and tight colourful outfits just about covered the rest of them. Many had their tails cut scandalously short. As she watched a stallion sidled nervously over and the mares gathered around looking attentive and brushing up against him. Ditzy’s eyes widened as she realised what was going on. She was very glad she’d gotten rid of the outfit during the time they’d spent waiting for Auntie to recover. “I don’t think we should interrupt them Pinkie, I think they’re, um working.”
Spike looked about and saw a unicorn stallion in his late middle age lying by himself wrapped in a filthy blanket. His coat, by nature or lack of cleanliness, was a dirty grey and his mane a rapidly greying pale red. He looked harmless enough so the green maned-stallion trotted over. “Hey, old timer. We’re, um, new in town what can you tell us about Fillydelphia?”
The pony slowly looked up blinking his bleary eyes, “Well ‘sonny’, talk, like everything else isn’t cheap. I know a lot about this city, but it’s gonna cost you.”
Thinking for a moment Spike gestured for the rest of the team to come over, they knelt by the old pony. “I think I have a source,” he whispered to his companions, “but he want’s something in exchange for information.”
Octavia brought out a small coin pouch and tipped out a few bits before passing them to the destitute pony. “Will this be enough?” she asked.
The stallion’s eyes widened and he snatched the coins away glancing at a group of tough looking ponies loitering nearby. “You should be careful,” he hissed, “there’s some who would kill you for these.” He glanced down at the coins turning them over. “Hey! What gives, these are fakes!”
“I assure you they are not!” said Octavia, sounding offended. “What do you take me for, a criminal?”
“Princess Cadence,” he read from the coin. “Who’s she? Real money has the two princesses on it, Luna and Celestia. I’ve never heard of a ‘Cadence’.”
“This could be a problem,” noted Spike. “I don’t think any of our money will be good here. Anypony got anything else we can give him?”
“Oh, I know!” said Pinkie reaching into her mane. She rummaged around for a second before withdrawing a multicoloured cupcake. The homeless stallion’s eyes grew wide as she offered him the confection. He grabbed it from her hoof and swallowed it down in two bites.
“Yummm!” he moaned. “It’s been so long since I tasted anything like that,” he sighed. “So sweet, and a bit spicy too.”
Pinkie moved her head closer to him. “The secret,” she whispered, “Is just a dash of rainbow.” Her eyes flickered towards her blue pegasus friend for a second.
“Anyway, we’ve fed you, now you can tell us about the city, mister...” said Spike wishing he had his notepad or Twilight with him, he was out of practice at having to remember what people actually told him. He briefly wondered if that made him a bad journalist or not.
“Name’s Nails, Iron Nails. Well no doubt you heard that Fillydelphia’s been affected by these vines less than other cities, probably why you’re here in the first place.” He gestured at a nearby spiky shoot. “Well that’s right as far as these things go, problem is that everypony else heard the same thing. Not long after the Day of Disharmony everypony and his dog, me included, fled here where it’s ‘safe’. Most of us gave up everything we had to get get passage. It wasn’t too bad at the start, the locals were good folks, gave us what help they could. They built some camps out on the suburbs, not much but the tents were warm and they provided us with food. But the vines started to overrun them and everyday there were more and more refugees and less and less space. Soon enough there weren't enough room, or homes, or jobs, or food.” His eyes glazed over in remembrance. “Some of the locals kept trying to help us but there were few enough of them and even they’ve given up by now, barricaded themselves into the heart of the city. We’ve been abandoned, left to try and fend for ourselves and it gets harder and harder each day. Parts of the city, like this one are no go areas, the guard don’t even come here in groups. Many of us have turned to crime to make ends meet, some make their way into the better parts of the city when they can and steal whatever they can find. Others prey on each other, or whatever locals can’t afford to move. The rest of us, well we do what we can to survive but it’s rarely enough. Now you seem nice enough folks, if you still got money I suggest you try to get lodgings in a better area, or even better go back to where ever you came from while you still can. There ain’t room for any more in Fillydephia.” He lead back seemingly exhausted by his rant.
“Wow,” mumbled Dash sounding shocked, “ I thought Manehattan and Canterlot had it bad.”
“We’ve got to do something to help these poor ponies,” said Ditzy, looking around.
“I agree, but we can’t help the whole city. The best we can do is to stop these vines, that should allow things to go back to normal, then the refugees can go home” said Auntie. Inside she knew that the solution wouldn’t be so easy, in most cases the homes wouldn’t exist any more. This probably would last for generations, still they had to do what they could. “We will need to find which pony is destined to be the Element of Kindness and ensure they take their rightful position. Do you have any idea who it could be, Ditzy? Discord said it would be somepony close to you.”
Ditzy say back and tried to think. “Well there are my family and friends, I suppose. They’re all nice ponies but I can’t think of anyone who really stands out as the bearer of kindness, but then I still don’t know why I was chosen in my world. Oh! Carrot Top used to live here as well, although I didn’t meet her until we both moved to Ponyville. She’s the Element of Generosity in my universe. Maybe she could be Kindness in this universe?”
“Do you know where in the city Carrot Top lived?” asked Spike, he’d not heard that the orange maned pony had ever lived outside of Ponyville in his universe.
“Then it might be a good idea to start in your home neighbourhood then,” suggested Spike. “Presumably that’s where most of the ponies you know would live and we might be able to find out about Carrot Top while we’re there.”
“A good suggestion,” said Octavia, picking herself up from the ground and dusting herself down. “Maybe Ditzy’s element will react in some way if we get close to the rightful element bearer?”
“It’s a plan I suppose,” said Dash leaping into the air eager to be doing something, sitting around planning didn’t suit her temperament.
“This is your city, so you better lead on,” said Spike.
The grey pegasus looked around and tried to orientate herself, but it had been several years since she had lived in the city and this was a different universe. Still, she had a good idea of where her parents home could normally be found. “This way,” she, said pointing down the street before floating in that direction bobbing up and down gently. The rest of the group followed her.
Dash spun around to see Pinkie rubbing a large bump on her head. Next to her was a rather dented lamp post. “Pinkie, maybe you should only keep one eye on Discord, so you can see where you’re going?” she suggested.
“Oh, good plan Dashie,” said Pinkie with a smile as the rest of the group moved off again. “Don’t get any ideas,” she muttered to Discord’s boneless form as she followed the rest of the element bearers.
“Can you at least show the common decency to tune your instrument?” asked Octavia staring daggers at a street performer.
The busker looked up at her with an angry expression. “Look lady, if you keep harassing me I’ll show you where you can stick that cello, you’d probably enjoy it,” he snarled.
The group had been wandering the streets of Fillydelphia for over an hour without any sign of anypony who could be the missing element and their tempers were starting to wear thin. Ditzy wondered if it was some side effect of the vines, or just the situation they were in. She was sorry for the homeless ponies around them, but there were just so many of them. She felt overloaded and helpless. What could she, just one mare, do to relieve such misery?
Auntie Orange gently pulled Octavia away from the busker before things could escalate. “I don’t think we want to cause any more trouble,” she said.
“If he didn’t want criticism he should not be playing in public,” said Octavia, sticking her snout in the air.
Auntie stared for a moment.
“Sorry, it’s just that you look the same as my Octavia but you’re not like her, she’s Kindness and you’re Honesty. It’s a bit of a shock.”
Octavia didn’t seem to know if she should be offended at this comparison or not.
“Which way now Ditzy?” asked Spike.
“I’m not sure, the city’s a bit different to the one I knew,” said Ditzy, partially truthly. She had been deliberately delaying their progress through the city. Although it had seemed a good idea to visit her home she was worried what she would find there, if it even existed in this world. Would her parents be there? Would she? Who would she be in this universe, what decisions would she have made? What was this universe’s Dinky like? At that thought her heart ached, when would she see her muffin again? Discord had promised her that her daughter would not even notice she was gone, but could she trust him? What if Dinky tried to follow her like the elements had followed Trixie when she had been transported to another universe, what would happen to her daughter if she found her way to such a dark world?
“Help!” came a mare’s cry, breaking into Ditzy’s thoughts. She spun around to try and pinpoint the source of the scream; it was an alley further down the street. Several street ponies were hurrying away from it, apparently attempting to avoid whatever was going on.
“We better...” started Spike, addressing the rest of the team. But before he could get any further Rainbow Dash was already away.
Moving so fast she left a glowing trail behind her, Dash flashed around the corner just in time to see a tough looking red coated pegasus mare, her face a mass of scars and one eye a milky white, drive her hoof into the muzzle of a young unicorn stallion. Blood splattered on his blue coat and white mane and he collapsed to the ground. “Pokey!” cried a young pink mare with a purple and pink mane as she rushed to the fallen stallion’s side.
“You better give us all you got unless you want the same treatment,” snarled the mare raising her hoof again. Around her a dozen or so tough-looking mares and stallions chuckled menacingly. The stunned blue stallion weakly struggled to push the pink mare behind him, but instead she interposed herself between him and his attacker.
“Take what you want, just don’t hurt him any more,” she cried
“How sweet!” jeered the thug, reaching towards a pair of bulging saddlebags lying on the floor, they were open and various jars and packages could be seen within.
“You aren’t taking anything,” cried Dash. She barreled down the alley and knocked several gang members aside before landing heavily between the scarred mare and her victim, three hooves on the pavement and the fourth raised ready to fight back. To her surprise her opponent wasn’t any older than she was, possibly even younger. Her intimidating presence was somewhat countered by her cutie mark, a smiley face stamped on some kind of biscuit.
“Who in Tartarus are you?” cried the thug, stepping back in surprise.
“I’m the mare who’s going to kick all of your flanks,” said Dash, looking at the gang members. There were a few street ponies still in the alley but they were all keeping their eyes down. It didn’t look like she was going to get any help from them.
“You alone against all of us?” sneered the lead mare as she recovered her bravado.
“Yeah, you better go get some more friends, to make it a fair fight,” boasted Rainbow taking a step towards her.
“She is not alone,” came a cultured voice. The whole gang turned to see the element bearers gallop into the alley. “I suggest you ruffians leave, now!” continued Octavia stamping a foreleg on the ground.
“Yeah! No big meanies allowed!” cried Pinkie.
Behind them Ditzy and Auntie looked less enthused. Spike lit his horn and stepped forwards, trying to look intimidating. “I think you should do as the lady suggests,” he said gruffly, trying to stop his fear showing through; he really missed Big Mac or Thunderlane, they were far better at this sort of thing than he was.
For a moment the scarred mare wavered, looking between her own forces and the elements. It looked like she might retreat, but then, with a snort and a cry of “Get them!”, she charged towards Rainbow and the melee began. The one eyed mare spun around and struck out with her hind legs again and again, while Dash threw herself from side to side to avoid the blows before countering with several more-accurate jabs from her front hooves which forced her opponent back grunting in pain.
Two earth pony stallions tried to gang up on Octavia driving her back with a series of blows. “Hit them with your instrument thingy!” cried Dash, rising into the air to avoid another series of kicks.
“My cello is a work of art, not a weapon, and besides, I would not sully it on such as these. Certainly not when there are other options.” Octavia reared up and brought a hoof down on the head of one of her attackers, who staggered back, stunned. His partner tried to attack the grey mare while she was distracted but found himself body checked by Sherbet.
“Oh, no you don’t!” she cried, her cultured Manehattan accent momentarily breaking to reveal her Ponyville roots, “You no good sidewinder!”
Meanwhile, Pinkie was bounding around, slapping the gang members around the face with the rubber form of Discord. Each time her makeshift weapon landed a blow it produced a different sound. A pegasus mare tried to grapple the rapidly moving pink blur but to her surprise Pinkie literally bounced off the walls, making pinball noises as she cartwheeled over her attackers. She lashed out with her chicken and struck her attacker with a sound like a bathtub being pushed down some stairs.
Lights flashed this way and that as Spike dueled with three attacking unicorns. Grunting with the effort the Element of Magic managed to deflect one of the incoming spells into the face of another of his attackers causing the unicorn to fly back against a wall. “Ha, Shining taught me that one!”
Amongst the confusion the pink mare tried to heft the still-stunned stallion to his hooves while reaching out with her aura to retrieve her bags. The bags began to inch closer until they were stopped by the hoof of a large purple earth pony stallion. “You’re not going anywhere,” he rumbled. He grinned nastily and started to advance on the young mare.
Suddenly there was a grey blur and an angry pegasus was hovering between the stallion and the mare. “Stop right there!” cried Ditzy. “What ever would your mother think of you, terrorising an innocent filly?” she asked.
“My mother?” mumbled the stallion, blinking as he tried to follow his opponent’s mismatched gaze.
“Yes, you do have one, everypony does. Would she want you to spend your time picking on those weaker than yourself?”
“Umm, er. No Ma’am, no,” he stuttered.
“Well than I think you should go away and think about what you’re doing, don’t you?”
“Err, yeah. Ok,” said the stallion, wandering away in a daze.
Ditzy wiped her brow. That had been close, she knew that that tone of voice worked on Dinky the few times she was naughty but she didn’t think it would also work on a grown stallion.
“Oh, thank you!” cried the pink filly. “Thank you for helping me.”
“That’s alright...” said Ditzy turning around. She blinked her eyes trying to focus on the mare in front of her, “Sparkler!” she gasped.
The scarred pegasus was forced to back away again as Dash launched into another series of lightning quick blows. Retaliating, she swung a wild blow with her forehoof, catching Dash on the head and sending her tumbling to the ground. However, within seconds the blue pony recovered and was flying back towards her opponent. The gang leader looked around, things were not looking good for her troops, despite outnumbering their opponents two to one several were now lying in dazed heaps on the floor. “Let’s get out of here!” she cried, taking advantage of Dash’s stunned state to fly away down the alley. The remainder of the gang disengaged from the element bearers and retreated, taking their wounded with them.
“And don’t come back!” yelled Dash, shaking a hoof at their retreating backs. She turned back to Sparkler, “Are you alright kid?” she asked. Then she recognised the mare she had been protecting for the first time. She looked near identical to the Sparkler she knew from her own universe, maybe a touch older. Still, it was nice to see Ditzy’s adopted child and she was glad that she had managed to protect her. She wasn’t as close to her world’s Sparkler as she was to Dinky, her goddaughter, but she certainly wouldn’t want to see her hurt.
“Thank you! Thank you all!” cried Sparkler as she looked around at her saviours.
The blue stallion she had been protecting also got to his hooves and wiped away the blood that was still trickling down his face. “Yeah thanks, that was some sharp fighting. I’m sure I could have dealt with them all but they caught me by surprise,” he awkwardly said.
“Of course you could Pokey,” said Sparkler, hugging the stallion and giving him a quick kiss.
“I really could...” he muttered, nuzzling her back.
“Pokey Pierce?” exclaimed Ditzy. She remembered that the Pokey in her universe had gone to college in Fillydelphia but she hadn’t expected to see him here now. Maybe it was how he styled his mane but he looked a little younger than the Pokey she knew, was that possible in this universe? Sparkler also looked younger than the one living in her Ponyville although only by a few years at most.
“I’m sorry, do I know you Miss?” asked Pokey still gripping Sparkler tightly.
“And you know my name as well,” said Sparkler. “Do you go to college here?”
“Of course she knows you!” exclaimed Pinkie. “She’s your mommy!”
“What!” exclaimed both Sparkler and Ditzy. The grey pegasus looked at the pink mare who couldn’t be more than half a dozen years younger than her.
“She’s not...” said Sparkler.
“I’m not...” said Ditzy.
“You’re not...” said Pinkie looking confused, “Ooooh! Right Ixnay on the nlternativeway universeway.” She tapped her snout with her hoof. “Of course she is in no way your mother in another universe, I was just being a silly Pinkie. Ignore me,” she continued woodenly.
“Maybe we should move somewhere a bit safer,” said Ditzy, turning away from the eccentric mare. “We don’t know if those brutes might some back.”
Sparkler nodded and led the group out into the main street and then across the road into a small overgrown park.
“I’m Ditzy Doo,” continued Ditzy, “And these are my friends, Spike, Octavia, Orange Sherbet, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. We were just passing when we heard you. I’m just glad we could help. What were the two of you doing in this part of town? It doesn’t seem safe to be by yourself.”
“She wasn’t alone,” pointed out Pokey, nuzzling Sparkler again. “She had me. I warn her about this type of thing, but she doesn’t listen to me.”
“Where the streets are most dangerous is just where the homeless ponies need the most help,” said Sparkler, opening her saddlebag and bringing out a sandwich. “I’ve got so much and they’ve got so little.” She handed the snack to a one of the street ponies who were now gathering around them. The thin mare grabbed it and muttered a quick ‘thank you’ before scuttling away to enjoy her meal. “It’s only right I do what I can to help them, no matter how little it might be.” As she spoke a line of needy ponies started to form up.
“She’s a regular mare of mercy Miss,” said an old stallion as Sparkler poured a mug of soup from a flask and passed it to him. “Comes here most days giving out food and help. There’s some who wouldn’t be alive but for her.”
Smiling, Sparkler passed out packs of food to the element bearers and bade them to give them to the homeless. Ditzy took her pack and began to do what she could to help, soon she found herself allowing a giggling purple earth pony colt to grip onto her mane and she gently flew through the air as his mother looked on with a smile. Her small passenger loved the flight as much as Ditzy did. Looking around she saw that Dash was also allowing a pair of fillies to ride on her while she looped the loop, for all the blue pegasus’s talk of being so awesome she seemed such a softy around the foals. Beneath them Pinkie was surrounded by a herd of giggling foals as she bounded around tossing cupcakes here and there. To one side Spike was playing some game with a group of other unicorns, their horns sparking as they tossed a battered ball between each other while Sherbet Orange passed out more sandwiches. From an impromptu stage made from a partially collapsed building a group of street ponies looked on in silent awe as Octavia played for them, bringing at least temporary beauty to their dull lives. The busker she had lambasted earlier played at her side and she occasionally stopped to give him instructions. Elsewhere Sparkler and Pokey were helping to provide medical aid, fitting and changing bandages on injured ponies.
“I think we may have found our target,” muttered Auntie Orange as Ditzy returned the foal to its mother.
“What do you mean?”
“Look at her,” she said, gesturing at Sparkler as she bound a mare’s wound. “Do you really doubt she’s kindness?”
Ditzy sighed. “I don’t know. She is awfully young, and it’s a big responsibility. Shouldn’t my element react in some way to her presence?”
The orange mare frowned for a moment. “Mine didn’t but I could just sort of sense who the bearer of my element was, but who else could it be? Maybe we just need to stay near her for longer, so you get a better feel for her? Once we know she’s definitely the bearer of kindness we call tell her about her destiny.”
That seemed reasonable to Ditzy. Sparkler certainly seemed a better potential element bearer that she had thought she would be. All she’d ever done was to raise her daughter as well as she could, and any mother would do that. Sparkler seemed to be trying to care for an entire city full of homeless ponies almost single hoofed. Something Pinkie had said to her earlier suddenly caught in her mind. She turned to the pink pony who had let her pursuers capture her and was lying at the bottom of a pile of wiggling foals.
“Uh huh,” she said as she squirmed out from the pile of little pony flesh.
“I’m Sparkler’s mother in your universe? Really her mother, she’s not adopted or anything?”
“Nope, she’s your very own bouncing foal, you even showed me the video of her birth, all four hours of it and boy did you say some nasty things about the Doc. The whole thing was icky, I couldn’t eat for minutes after watching it.”
Ditzy briefly wondered what a video was, then something more important came to mind, “How old am I in your universe?”
“I don’t know, older than Mr and Mrs Cake, maybe as old as the Mayor, not as old as Mr Zippy.”
“And you still recognise me?” Ditzy tried to imagine herself in twenty years time, lined and bent by age, at least one of the advantages of a grey coat was that the years didn’t show as much. Still, her father’s mane was almost white by now, so would she look any better when she was his age?
“Of course I did, you don’t look any different in my world.”
“Not even a little?”
“Nope just the same!”
Ditzy shook her head. At least I have that to look forward to, she thought..
“I really must be going now, it’s getting late,” said Sparkler, checking her watch after finishing with her last patient. The element bearers started to gather around. “I’ll be back to help more tomorrow,” she announced.
Ditzy wasn’t sure what time it was or even if time still existed in the strange perpetual twilight that blanketed this world. None of the element bearers had a watch despite them seeming to be standard equipment in this world, but it did seem to be getting later to her. The thought then hit her, where were they going to spend the night? They didn’t have any local currency, it looked like they to would be spending the night sleeping rough. The thought did not appeal to her.
“I’ll walk you to your place,” offered Pokey.
“It might be better if we all help you,” said Spike. “These streets don’t seem safe.”
“Well as long as it’s not a problem,” said Sparkler
“Course not,” said Dash, “Where do you live?”
“Not that far away, maybe half an hour’s canter.”
“Then lead on and we will follow you,” said Octavia falling into step behind the younger mare along with the rest of the element bearers.
Ditzy felt a growing feeling of dread as the group made its way through the city. The streets continued to throng with the homeless, but none of them seemed to seriously wish harm on them, so it wasn’t that. If anything the area seemed to become nicer, it was even familiar for some reason but she couldn’t quite put her hoof on it.
“Well this is it,” Sparkler said, indicating a large house. It had obviously been a mansion when it was first constructed, built in an older style and probably quite attractive when first completed. Now, however, it looked like it had been crudely rebuilt into a fortress, or a prison. Many of the windows had been bricked up and those that hadn’t were covered with iron bars. The front door was clad in metal and half a dozen locks could clearly be seen on its surface.
Somewhat nervously Sparkler trotted up to the door and hammered on it, resulting in a hollow boom.
The team looked on in shock. “Wow!” gasped Rainbow.
“Your house is...” muttered Auntie.
“It certainly is a unique style,” said Octavia.
“Dad! It’s me!” cried Sparkler knocking on the door again.
Dad! The word flashed into Ditzy’s mind. Of course, Sparkler’s father, Castor Cut! She started to back away in shock as the door was flung open and a short, handsome, unicorn stallion with a light purple coat and a somewhat messy dark purple mane rushed out. He looked just like she remembered, like she had seen him that last day, just as upset.
“Sparkler!” he cried. “What are you doing here? You should be in your room!”
“I had to go out Daddy, I did leave you a note, me and Pokey...”
“POKEY!” roared the stallion swinging around to face the unfortunate stallion. “I told you to have nothing to do with that colt.” His blazing blue eyes alit on the object of his wrath, who nervously shuffled his hooves. “What have you been doing with my daughter?” he snarled.
“He protected me, Dad. We were helping the homeless when this gang attacked us...”
Quick as a shot the short stallion had barged past Pinkie and Dash and used his magic to lift the younger stallion into the air by his neck. “If you’ve gotten my daughter hurt!” he threatened.
“...” gasped the struggling stallion.
Sparkler grabbed onto her father and tried to pull him away from her choking coltfriend. “Stop it Daddy! You’re hurting him! Please!”
With visible effort, Castor controlled himself and let Pokey drop back to the ground. “What happened?” he asked.
“A gang tried to mug us, Pokey tried to protect me, then we were saved by these ponies.” She gestured at the bearers.
Castor’s shoulders slumped and he hugged his daughter, tears falling from his eyes. “Oh thank goodness, I... I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you. With your mother... away, you’re all I’ve got.”
“Don’t worry Daddy. I’ll always be here,” mumbled Sparkler into her father’s mane.
To Ditzy’s surprise she felt an electric tingle around her neck. It felt like the Element of Kindness bound around it was gently tugging her forwards. What did it mean, that Sparkler was the element bearer? If so, why hadn’t it reacted earlier? Or could it even mean Castor was the element? It seemed bizarre but he clearly loved his daughter, even if he didn’t show it well. She couldn’t just confront them now, she’d have to wait.
Castor’s voice hardened again. “Now go back to your room.”
“No buts, you know you’re not supposed to leave without my permission. I need to talk to these ponies.”
“Dad, I’m not a foal any more,” complainted the younger mare.
“You’ll always be my little filly Sparkler, and as long as you live in my house you’ll follow my rules. Do you understand?”
Sparkler slumped. “Yes Daddy,” she slouched towards the door.
“Hey, you can’t talk to her like that!” protested Dash.
“I am her father, I can talk to her however I want,” snarled Castor
“It’s alright,” said Sparkler, “I’ll be ok.” She gave Pokey a small wave before entering the house.
Castor turned back to the rest of the group and put on a slightly false smile. Ditzy staggered aside and hid behind Octavia, for if this universe’s Castor and her own twin had the same history then he wouldn’t want to see her. “I am sorry for that, family business,” he explained. “Now, let me introduce myself, I am Castor Cut. I understand I have you to thank for my daughter’s safety,” he said sincerely.
“It was our pleasure,” said Octavia, shaking herself out of the shock at seeing the stallion’s angry behaviour and recent mood swings.
“Please take this as a reward.” Castor brought out a bag of bits and levitated it to them.
“No reward is...” began the grey mare.
“Thanks!” said Spike, picking the purse out of the air in his own aura. “You never know when having some money might be useful,” he hissed at the musician, “such as having somewhere to sleep.”
“Oh, yes,” said Octavia blushing slightly, “We accept your kindness,” she continued with a bow.
“Good.” He turned away apparently considering his business done and stared coldly at Pokey. “Now how much for you to never see my daughter again?”
“What!” exclaimed Pokey, looking shocked.
“I know you only want one thing, with a thousand bits you could buy it on any street corner,” sneered Castor.
The blue unicorn’s face darkened, and for a moment it looked like he was going to slap the older stallion. “Sir,” she said pointedly. “I love your daughter, she is smart, beautiful and kind, she is worth more to me than the world. And if you think I could buy somepony like her on the street, what does that say about what you think of her?”
“Don’t you dare question my love for my daughter!” roared Castor. He advanced on Pokey again, who stood his ground. “She is everything to me, everything I do is for her own good. To protect her from blue coated scum like you!”
“Hey, buddy!” yelled Dash putting herself between Pokey and Caster. “You got a problem with ponies with blue coats?”
“Only those who are bad news for my family,” he hissed, continuing to stare at Pokey. “I don’t want to see you near my daughter ever again.” With that he turned and entered his house again, there was the sound of several locks being engaged.
“What a brute!” exclaimed Auntie Orange.
“Such a meanie meanie pants,” commented Pinkie.
“He really doesn’t like you kid,” said Dash to Pokey. “What’s the story there?”
Pokey sighed and winced a bit. Now that his fillyfriend was gone he’d stopped trying to hide the ache in his injured muzzle. “We’ve never been good friends. I’m dating his daughter, so it sort of goes with the territory, but he used to tolerate me for Sparkler’s sake. Then about a year ago he suddenly turned super paranoid, he pulled Sparkler out of college, and hardly ever even lets her out of the house any more. It's like he hates me now, like he thinks I’m going to hurt her or something. But I’d never do anything like that. I really do love her,” he said sincerely.
“You and she went to college?” asked Spike.
“Still do, I live on campus. We were both doing administration studies, it was how we met. She was late for one of her lessons and she sort of ran over me on the way there. She helped me up and apologised and I suggested we could study together and things sort of grew from there.” He smiled at the recollection. “On that note I better get back to my dorm before curfew. Thanks for saving me and Sparkler earlier.”
“Sure you’ll be ok?”
“I’m sure, it’s not that far and it’s a fairly safe area, the guards patrol quite frequently,” said Pokey as he started to gallop off.
“Maybe we should find somewhere to stay as well,” said Spike, hefting the purse Castor had given them. He looked up at the sky, the sun and moon were both visible as always in this strange dimension. “I have no idea what time it is, but I’m bushed.”
“I am somewhat fatigued as well,” noted Octavia.
“Ok, Ditzy have you any idea where we can stay?” asked Auntie.
“Huh, what?” asked Ditzy, shaking herself from her thoughts she turned away from Castor’s house.
“Are you all right dear?” asked Orange Sherbet, noting Ditzy still looked shocked. “You look like you’ve see a ghost.”
Indeed the pegasus’s coat was a paler grey than usual. “I’m fine. I think my element reacted just then.”
“That must mean that Sparkler is the element,” said Orange with nod, “like I said you’ll just know who the new bearer is.”
Ditzy bit her lip. “I’m not sure, could... could Castor be the element bearer?”
“That beast? Surely you jest?”
“I... I don’t know, he did seem to care for his daughter.”
“If so, he does have a strange way of showing it.”
“Humm,” said Spike. “Well I was certain that Shining was going to be the Element of Magic, but it turned out I was wrong. The Element reacted to him as well, but not in a good way.” He shuddered a little, thinking back to yesterday's events. “Let's see if we can find a place to stay first, then we can discuss who the element could be and what we’ll do next. Can you think of anywhere we could go, Ditzy?”
“‘Scuse me,” came a familiar voice. hey all turned to see the old stallion they had talked to earlier.
“Hey, are you following us?” asked Dash suspiciously.
“A bit,” he said, looking embarrassed. “I saw you help that Sparkler girl, regular flutterpony of mercy she is, and I thought you might need some help.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“Ah, that’s the thing about this city. All us homeless ponies just become scenery after a bit, and regular folks don’t see us any more. Now I might know a few places you could stay, and good places at that, for a small fee.”
“That seems reasonable,” said Spike.
“Course, there was a time you could stay right here if you needed to,” he said gesturing, at the fortress-like building. “Everypony used to be welcome at Castor’s place.”
“Really! He doesn’t seem welcoming now,” said Auntie.
“He used to be a great friend of this city and everypony who lived in it, did Castor Cut. After the Day of Disharmony he was one of the few that tried to help the refugees, he might even be part of the reason why so many came to Fillydelphia in the first place. He made shelters for the homeless, even opened up his own house to them, formed soup kitchens, even gave some of us jobs. Oh it was a drop in the ocean compared to what was needed, but others copied him, and well it gave ponies hope that things could get better, and when you ain’t got nothing hope’s important to you.” The old pony sighed, thinking back. “But then, ‘bout a year ago he just changed overnight. He shut down the shelters, threw everypony out of his home, locked and bolted the doors. Turned it into a fortress he did, almost never leaves and he don’t let anyone in. Sparkler escapes every so often but no pony’s seen his missus. There’s some say that he killed her.”
“Killed her!” gasped Ditzy. “He’d never do that!”
Auntie Orange looked at Ditzy in interest, “Do you know him in your universe?”
“You might say that,” Ditzy mumbled nervously, “It was a long time ago. He and his wife had their problems but I don’t think it would go that far.”
“But this world is not yours,” pointed out Auntie.
Iron looked confused at the talk of other universes, but seemed to ignore it for the moment. “Now I don’t believe a word of it,” he said making reconciliatory gestures with his hooves, “but it’s what ponies say. What ever caused Castor to change, well it was the nail in the city’s coffin. The other shelters closed down and the homeless problem just got worse and worse, more and more ponies are turning to crime just to survive, like that gang that tried to rob Sparkler. It’s hardly safe to walk the streets of even the better parts of the city any more.”
“Another reason we should try to find somewhere to stay,” pointed out Spike. The others nodded in agreement. “So lead on Iron.”
The grey stallion took the group through the streets and true to his word led them to a rather shabby looking motel in a better part of town. Even so it looked almost as fortified as Castor’s house. A stern looking guard stood at the door and stared at them as they approached. Spike gave their guide a few coins. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay here with us?” he asked.
“No, I’ve got a nice enough space to sleep and these’ll last longer,” he indicated the money, “If I don’t waste them on luxuries like a bed.” He turned and hobbled away. Ditzy watched him go, wishing the old stallion would reconsider.
The party approached the hotel and after giving them a quick glance the guard seemed to decide they looked like paying customers and stood aside to let them by. Orange Sherbet looked around in distaste at the interior, She would never let her hotel get so shabby. Once inside they approached the desk.
“We’d like a room please,” asked Spike.
The stallion behind the desk looked dubiously over the five mares and one stallion in front of him. “This isn’t that kind of hotel,” he scowled. “We don’t want any funny business here.”
“Oh, rooms! I mean rooms!” stuttered the purple stallion blushing furiously. “One for each of us to sleep in. Alone. Food as well.”
“Very well, six rooms. The kitchen is closed for the night but you can have breakfast tomorrow. That will be three hundred bits.”
Spike blanched at the price but he guessed beggars couldn’t be choosers and counted out the money. There were only a few coins left when he was finished. “Ok, everybody get a good night's sleep,” he suggested while handing out the keys. “We’ll have a hard day saving the world tomorrow.”
Ditzy took her key, and along with the rest of the elements, walked off into the hotel to find her room.
“Are you all right, dear?” asked Orange Sherbet as Ditzy came to a stop outside her room. “Are you still worried about your daughter?”
“A little. I know it’s silly, she’s probably in less danger than I am, but I always worry about her. I guess I always will.”
“Oh, I feel the same about my Tangerine. I suppose she’d always have Mosley to look after her if something happened to me.”
“I don’t have anyone to look after Dinky if something happened to me, well my parent’s I suppose.”
“Let's not think about that sort of thing, raising a child is difficult as it is without worrying unduly.”
“I suppose so, it just that it must be much easier for you than me.”
Orange looked at Ditzy a little strangely. “Why do you say that?”
“Well you have so much more, you have a husband, money, everything. I can’t choose to spend a day playing with Dinky because that would mean I wouldn’t be able to make the rent. I can’t afford to buy her all the toys and things she needs either. If you wanted you could probably hire somepony to help you with her.”
“I would never expect somepony else to raise my child,” said Auntie sharply. “And I think you will find that just having money doesn’t make raising after a foal any easier.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t quite mean it like that. There’s just so much I think Dinky’s missing out on and I’m worried about her.”
“Of course, dear,” said Auntie, somewhat dubiously. “I’m sure things will look better in the light of day, of whatever they have in this world. Good night.” She turned and walked off, somewhat stiffly.
With a sigh, for she really shouldn’t have snapped at Orange like that, Ditzy opened the door to her room to reveal a space only slightly larger than her bedroom at home. Still it was certainly better than the cell she’d spent the last night in. Heavy curtains covered the windows to block out the ever present, if dull, sunlight. Thoughts of her cosy little house on top of the post office brought back further memories of Dinky, and she hoped she wouldn’t have to spend many more nights away from her little muffin. She flopped back onto the hard bed with its starchy sheets and tried to deal with the events of the day. Seeing Castor again had brought back a lot of memories she didn’t think she’d have to deal with, particularly not here. He seemed so different, had he met her in this universe? Did she exist in this universe? If she did and they had met then things had apparently worked out differently here, Sparkler was still with her father, but how differently? Should she tell the rest of the team about what happened between her and Castor? What would they think of her if she did? She leaned her head back on the pillows and tried to escape into sleep, but it did not come for quite some time.
“What were you thinking?” yelled Tough Cookie at the purple stallion cowering in front of her.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, looking down, “I got confused.”
“Confused! You need a brain to be confused, you cretin. You had the perfect chance to grab the bags and you run off because some grey featherhead asks you what your mommy would think of you.” Brick was usually one of the more reliable members of her crew, she thought. He didn’t have the imagination to do anything but follow her plans, but he had a soft streak which could get him in trouble, like now.
“Well it did seem a bit mean...”
“Mean? Mean? I’m sorry, I thought we were a gang, not a play school. Snowdrops and rainbows don’t keep you warm at night, or put food in your belly. In this gang we do what we have to. Everypony understand that?” She turned to the rest of the team and, with some effort, glared at them with her bad eye. She knew the white orb made her more intimidating, even if it stung like anything to open it. Unsurprisingly none of the ponies met her gaze. Amateurs, the lot of them, most had just joined Gambit for the scraps he threw them. She had to constantly stay on their tails or they’d just fall back in with the rest of the herd on the streets. Still, they were her responsibility, almost her family now. “Get out of here, all of you, I’ve got to explain to the boss how we managed to get beaten by half a dozen strangers and you won't want to be around me after that.”
The crew scattered before her wrath. With an angry sigh, Cookie made her way through their hideout towards the boss’s room. They were currently holed up in an abandoned hotel. The vines had demolished part of it, and most of the street ponies had been too scared to come near it. Bad luck to live near the vines they said, but Gambit had loved the somewhat faded luxury of the place.
For a moment she leaned against the double doors to the suite the boss had appropriated and tried to calm herself. She didn’t want to seem unprofessional in front of him. Taking a breath she pushed the doors open and entered. The boss had spread himself over a chaise longue surrounded by several of the working girls, one of whom was feeding him grapes. The blue stallion looked up and smiled as she approached. His coat was perfectly groomed and not a hair was out of place in his white and blue mane and mustache. “Ah mon chérie, good to see you,“ he said, taking a sip from a glass of wine held in his aura. As always the mere sound of his voice set a whole flock of butterflies loose in her stomach and made her legs feel rubbery. She’d been grateful when he had rescued her, but those feelings had long since grown into something much more. “You are looking as beautiful as always.” Several of the mare’s around him giggled. Cookie glared at them, the bitches were just jealous that she was Gambit’s favourite. “I was expecting you earlier.” He checked the mare’s watch he habitually wore, “Did you manage to carry out the petite task I asked of you?”
The butterflies suddenly turned to lead and her mouth went dry. “Um... there was a problem, Handsome.”
For a moment a look of annoyance passed over his face. “That is regrettable and you know that no matter how apt my first name is.” He preened for a moment. “I prefer my ‘employees’ to use my second name.” There was more steel in his voice now.
She flinched. “Sorry, Gambit.”
“Bon, now what went wrong?”
“Some strangers turned up and saved the girl, they were decent fighters.” She briefly considered blaming her minions but she had been in charge, so it was her responsibility, “I ordered a retreat.”
“étrange, spread the world, I’d like to know more about them. Still I expected more from you mon chérie. You know how I feel about you, but if you keep making mistakes like this, I will have to punish you.”
Cookie shuffled nervously from hoof to hoof. The other mares were loving this, she thought, they were always trying to find a way to get between me and Handsome, the harpies! Everyone else only saw her scars, but Gambit had seen the beauty within her. It had been her parent's last wish for him to look after her and he took that vow seriously. He’d told her that once they’d sucked the city dry they could retire somewhere far away from Equestria, just the two of them, but until then he had to keep his feelings for her hidden to avoid breaking up the gang.
“Still let's put all that caractère désagréable behind us for the moment and look towards the future. We do need to do something about that little pink catin, too many of our possible recruits are turning away from me because she’s given them hope. I think we need to make an example of her, and maybe turn a profit as well. Bring her to me.”
“But how are we going to get to her? You know what her house is like and she’s got a lot of friends on the street. We were lucky to get the drop on her this time.”
“Ah, Cookie, that is why I am le cerveau and you are the brawn, for the answer is simple her petit ami. Follow him and sooner or later she will come to him.”
“But he lives at the college, and that place is guarded.”
“I’m sure you can work out something, I have faith in you. There is nopony else I would trust to carry out this mission.” He gave another of his leg-weakening smiles and Cookie struggled to keep her tail from flagging. “Now off with you, there is no time like the present.”
Feeling buoyed, Tough Cookie marched off with a spring in her step.
“Why do you keep her around?” hissed one of Gambit’s companions as the scarred pegasus left.
“I find her amusant and she does good work, most of the time.” He leant over and kissed the mare. “Her little crush on me is so obvious. Maybe one day I’ll even give her what she wants, if she wears a bag over her ugly face.” He laughed.