• Published 4th May 2012
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Secrets and Lies - SaddlesoapOpera



A gripping and emotional tale continuing the story started in the Pony Psychology Series.

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Not Even Ashes

SECRETS AND LIES
By Saddlesoap Opera
Part One: Not Even Ashes


In the blink of an eye, it was over. She was alone.

The glow in Twilight Sparkle’s eyes faded at pace with the glow surrounding her horn, and soon the library’s basement was as dim as it had been a moment before.

She stood in the shadows for a long time, her face locked in a savage scowl and her breath hissing between her clenched teeth.

An eerie, eye-of-the-storm calm slowly settled over her, bringing with it a nauseous chill in the pit of her stomach.

“N-No,” she whispered. “I-I didn’t, I…”

She swallowed hard and numbly headed over to the spot on the far side of the basement where her spell had detonated. Her hooves dragged on the dusty floor.

A two-yard-wide circle of the back wall’s rough-hewn rock was shattered and dimly glowing like half-cooled magma. Black, sooty streaks marred the floor, wall and ceiling around the blast site.

Twilight’s purple eyes scoured the gloom for any sign – even the smallest vestige – of the Pony she’d been facing only a moment before.

There was nothing but a smoky, acrid scent in the air and a slightly-singed stuffed toy on the blackened floor. With nothing else to draw her focus, Twilight looked down at the toy.

The likeness was uncanny.

The serpentine body was brown corduroy, and each mismatched limb was stitched from a different brightly-coloured fabric. The antler was driftwood. The horn was twisted glass. The eyes were wide polished-brass buttons, sewn onto the sand-coloured felt head with vivid red thread. Despite its dusting of soot, the doll lay on the floor in a relaxed pose, its button eyes looking up at her as though in a playful but accusing stare.

Twilight sat down in front of the doll and magicked it up to face her.

She scowled at it. “You. You planned this from the start. Didn’t you?”

“Ho-hum, am I that predictable?” Twilight said in answer to herself, bobbing the doll’s head in time with her words and mimicking its model’s snide, mocking tone. “Oh well. It still worked. You’ve done a ba-a-a-ad thing, Miss Sparkle.” Twilight’s magic made the doll raise its leonine paw and wave a finger back and forth in a tsk-tsk-tsk gesture.

“This was NOT my fault!” she snarled at the doll. Her outrage burned back the sickening tide of guilt rising up inside her. It felt good. “She PROVOKED me! She knew just what to do! What to say! She knew everything! Sh-She knew…she knew about…” Twilight gritted her teeth, fiercely determined not to shed even a single tear in front of the little effigy. “You did this!”

“Oh, really?” Twilight said to herself in the doll’s voice as she cocked its head at an angle. “Was I the one who chased her down? Was I the one who lost my temper? Was I the one who cast that nasty battle magic?”

The tide of guilt was rising once more. Twilight magicked the doll closer and slid its finger down her cheek in a gesture that made her skin crawl in spite of herself. “You can’t pin this one on poor little ‘Discorduroy,’ Twilight Sparkle,” she said, “this one’s all you. Face it…”

She sagged, let the doll drop, and then finished the thought in her own small, hollow, horrified voice:

“…you’re a murderer.”

• • • • • • •

TWO DAYS EARLIER

“Just wait’ll you see what I have planned for the BACHELOR PARTY!”

The Ponyville Ponies shared a kind-hearted laugh at Spike’s expense as enchanted fireworks brightened the night sky. The wedding – and all of Equestria, for that matter – had teetered on the precipice of disaster, but true love and friendship had won out in the end. All was well.

With the breaking of the next dawn the seven of them said their farewells to the Princesses and to their Canterlot friends and boarded the Friendship Express back to Ponyville.

While Spike snoozed in a sunbeam and Twilight Sparkle wrote in her journal, several of her companions discussed the way their confrontation with the sinister Changelings had turned out.

“I still say we shoulda just rushed them in the Cathedral!” said Rainbow Dash, hopping out of her seat in the train car and kicking the air with her front hooves. “Those freaky bugs were pushovers once Twilight got them outta their disguises!”

“An’ just how many were ya fixin’ ta ‘push over,’ huh?” Applejack asked. “There musta been HUNDREDS o’ the lil’ varmints!”

“I agree,” said Rarity. “When you’re hopelessly outnumbered, there is no shame in surrendering.” She adjusted a coiled purple forelock with her hoof. “I strive for dignity in all things – even defeat!”

Applejack cast a sidelong glance at the slightly-rumpled bridal bouquet next to Rarity. “Uh-huh.”

“Aw, come on!” Dash swept her front hooves outward in denial. “There is NO way to make losing cool! Back me up here, Pinkie!”

Pinkie Pie was studying her faint reflection in one of the train’s windows. “Mmmyep…they definitely coulda done better on the mane,” she mused. “This thing’s one of a kind!” She shook her head; her frizzy pink mane bounced in all directions. “I mean, if you’re gonna copy somepony, don’t do it halfway!”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and then snorted in annoyance.

“Um, well, I’m just happy that nopony got hurt too badly,” offered Fluttershy. “When Princess Celestia got knocked down I was just, I m-mean I thought we were all…” She trailed off and squeaked.

“You and me both!” said Twilight Sparkle, looking up from her journaling. “I’m so relieved things turned out the way they did. And I’m DEFINITELY looking forward to a break from all this excitement!”

Twilight’s friends had no trouble at all agreeing with that sentiment.

• • • • • • •

Upon returning to Ponyville the Ponies went their separate ways for some well-deserved rest.

Applejack trotted back to Sweet Apple Acres, Fluttershy went to check on the animals surrounding her rural cottage, Rainbow Dash flew off to her cloud-home on the outskirts of town, Pinkie Pie bounded away to Sugarcube Corner, Rarity returned to the Carousel Boutique, and Twilight Sparkle and Spike headed for home: the Golden Oaks Library.

Twilight magicked the door open, trotted inside, and then gasped in shock.

The library had been vandalized.

Cruel, hateful, offensive slurs rendered in garish purple paint covered the walls – even spreading across the spines of the books on the crowded shelves – and somepony had painted a long, snaking body with mismatched limbs for the wooden Pony-head centerpiece in the middle of the room.

Spike popped his head in through the door and stared. “Whoa!” he said. “Uhh, Twilight? What does ‘Screwhead’ mea–”

Before the little Dragon could finish his sentence Twilight Sparkle ignited her horn and magically jerked every book off the shelves, rendering the majority of the graffiti unreadable.

Twilight closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath. When she spoke her voice was rigid and cold:

“Spike, fetch a mop and bucket. We’ve got to get this place cleaned up.”

Spike nervously wrung his tail in his claws. “Twilight, what’s going on?”

Twilight turned to stare him down and stomped a front hoof. “NOW, Spike!”

“Yes’m!” he said and hastily scampered off.

Twilight knew that Ponyville had been founded by Earth Ponies, but she was far from the only Unicorn in town. Reluctance to use magic to change the seasons was one thing; out-and-out prejudice was another. Who could have done this?

She looked up at one of the few still-readable slurs staining her home: FREAK, scrawled above the south shelf-row. She frowned. She was still staring at the word when Spike returned with cleaning supplies.

While she and her Dragon assistant scrubbed the walls, floor and books, Twilight found her thoughts drifting back to her foalhood. That period of her life was now mostly a blur of study and stories, intercut with the protective presences of her foalsitter and older brother and the mean-spirited jeers of her fellow schoolfillies.

In Magic Kindergarten they had simply mocked her awkwardness and bookishness, but once she’d gotten her Cutie Mark and Princess Celestia had chosen her as Her favoured student, their mockery had turned to mistrust and rumours.

“I heard that there was a tremor and a thunderclap when she got her Cutie Mark.”

“Well, I heard she turned half the faculty into potted plants, and threatened to feed them to her Dragon familiar unless the rest gave her a scholarship!”

“I heard that too! What a FREAK! No wonder nopony but the Princess could handle teaching her!”

The trio of Unicorn fillies shared a laugh. Around the corner, unseen in the shade of the school’s soaring white marble wall, young Twilight Sparkle sat shaking in silent fury. A fallen tear left a dark spot on the topmost of the pile of books next to her.

“…Freak?”

Twilight snapped out of her reverie. “What? What was that?”

Spike set down his purple-stained washcloth. “I said can we take a break? We’ve been at this for an hour!”

“Oh. Sure, Spike. We’re just about done, anyway.”

As Spike scampered up the stairs to fetch a choice rhodochrosite he’d set aside for a snack, Twilight’s gaze strayed back to the faint violet smear above the south shelf-row.

• • • • • • •

Later that afternoon, Twilight sat helping Rarity magick the contents of a wicker picnic basket out onto a red-and-white checkered cloth spread on the grass in Ponyville’s largest park.

“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice,” said Rarity as she arranged carrot sticks in an overlapping fan pattern around the diagonal-cut sandwich on her plate. “The wedding left me with quite a backlog of orders, you see, and–” Rarity paused. “–Are you all right, Twilight?”

Twilight looked up from aimlessly stirring the chopped vegetables on her plate. “…Huh? Oh. I’m fine, Rarity, thanks.”

Rarity looked down her nose at her fellow Unicorn with a highly unconvinced stare.

Twilight swallowed. “It’s just… H-Has anypony ever called you names?” She looked away. “Bad ones, I mean? Really bad?”

Rarity’s eyes widened. “Oh, darling! What happened? Did somepony impugn your character?” She stood and fixed her stance, one front hoof raised defiantly. “Such GALL! This will not stand! NOPONY insults my friends!” Rarity’s dramatic bellowing drew the attention of a few passersby.

Twilight waved her hooves in dismay. “No! No, it’s not like that! Somepony just…” The thought of explaining what she’d seen written on her walls – and why it had stung her so badly – brought an ashamed flush to Twilight’s cheeks. “…It’s nothing. Really, Rarity. It’s okay. Can you just forget I said anything? Please?”

Rarity sat back down. “All right. But you know I’m always here for you, don’t you? We all are.”

Twilight gave a half-smile. “I know. Thank you.”

She magicked her thermos out of the basket and poured herself some tea. She levitated the cup and took a sip.

Rarity dived out of the line of fire as Twilight spat out the mouthful of tea.

Salt! thought Twilight as the bitter flavor made her grimace. But as the bitterness turned to heat – which quickly turned to burning – she reconsidered. No…LYE!

Her mind racing, Twilight scrambled over to the basket and dug through it with her hooves, gritting her teeth against the rising pain of the chemical burns in her mouth. She found what she needed, and acted.

Rarity had seen Twilight Sparkle do a great many unusual things, but she had never before seen her rinse her mouth out with the vinegar from a jar of sour pickles.

“Too hot?” she asked, once Twilight had finished swishing and spitting.

“G-Guess I should have been more careful!” Twilight forced a chuckle.

She could already feel the burns fading from severe to simply irritating; they’d be all but gone in minutes. Twilight felt a twinge of guilt about lying, but she knew she had no choice. Explaining the graffiti would have been awkward, but explaining what the Element of Magic had done to her? Well, that would be impossible. What would they say if they knew?

“…Freak?”

Twilight met Rarity’s gaze. “What?”

“I was asking – is Spike free? To come help me dig up some gems? With all these orders my supply’s running out. I wanted to check with you first in case you needed him – it would be just cruel to get the little dear’s hopes up only to dash them!”

Twilight shook her head in a vain attempt to clear it. “Sh-Sure. Yes, it’s fine. I’m sure he’ll help. He’s always willing to make time for you, Rarity!”

Rarity giggled demurely. “Oh, go on!” She magicked up the thermos.

Twilight’s horn flared; the thermos hurled itself away and smashed against a tree.

Rarity gawked in confusion.

“Uh-oops!” said Twilight. “Guess I don’t know my own strength! I was – the tea, I mean, it – the, uh, THE MILK!” Twilight nodded emphatically. “Yes, the milk was off! Too hot, and the milk was off! Can’t have tea with bad milk in it!” She cleared her throat and smiled nervously.

Rarity said nothing for what seemed like an eternity.

“Thank you, I suppose?” she managed at last.

Twilight let out the breath she suddenly realized she had been holding.

As the pair continued their somewhat-awkward lunch, a frizzy-maned pink Earth Pony watched them from behind a nearby row of thick bushes. She giggled softly, punctuating the sound with a small snort.

• • • • • • •

Once the picnic ended, Rarity went ahead to the library to fetch Spike while Twilight Sparkle headed for the market square.

She trotted through the bustling crowds, racking her brain for a list of enemies and coming up short.

Every foe she’d faced was gone, and nearly all of them had composed far grander schemes than racial slurs and dangerous pranks.

Every face in the crowd and in the market stalls was cheerful and welcoming, and more often than not paired with a hoof raised in a friendly wave.

There wasn’t the tiniest hint that any of them held her any ill will at all – let alone defiled her home and poisoned her tea.

If not for the lingering taste of blood and vinegar in her mouth, Twilight might have worried she’d imagined the whole thing.

“Hey Twilight! Watcha doin’?”

Twilight Sparkle shrieked.

Pinkie Pie hopped back from her spot right next to Twilight. “Hee hee! Woopsie! You seem kinda antsy, Twilight – is everything okay?”

Twilight took a deep breath and let it out shakily. “Yes, Pinkie. Everything’s fine. I was just…looking for somepony.”

Pinkie Pie tilted her head in curiosity. “Yeah? Is it Rainbow Dash? Cause if it’s Rainbow Dash she’s probably up in the clouds – cause she’s a Pegasus, you know – and so you probably wanna–”

“It isn’t Rainbow Dash!” said Twilight, cutting Pinkie off. “It’s somepony else. Somepony I don’t know.”

Pinkie’s bright expression grew brighter. She hopped up and down in excitement. “OOH! Lemme help lemme help! I know EVERYPONY in town! And I just LOVE helpin’ Ponies make new friends!”

She reached into the crowd and jerked a random Pony off her hooves.

“This is Rose!” Pinkie Pie said. “Isn’t she nice?”

“What’s happening?” asked the beige Earth Pony as she struggled in Pinkie’s grasp.

Twilight frowned. “Pinkie, I–”

“No? Okay!” Pinkie tossed Rose back among the passersby and fished out a second Pony. “What about Davenport?”

The dun-coloured Earth Pony stallion raised an eyebrow. “Twilight? Is this about your shipment of quills? Because I–WAAHH!” Pinkie threw him back into the crowd.

She giggled. “Woops! That’s right, you already knew him! Okay, well there’s always–”

Twilight stomped a front hoof. “PINKIE! I am NOT looking for a friend!”

Pinkie paused. “What do you mean?”

Twilight looked around; as they often did, Pinkie’s antics had drawn a fair-sized crowd. Twilight wished she knew an invisibility spell.

“Pinkie, I was looking for – I mean, I need to know who…” Twilight could feel a dozen gazes boring into her. She cringed. “…Never mind. Let’s just go find Rose. I’m sure she’s wonderful.”

Pinkie jumped for joy. “Woo-HOO! She IS wonderful! She grows the yummiest flowers EVER! I’m sure you two will be SUPER good friends! C’mon!”

Pinkie reared up, tucked Twilight under one of her front legs like a parcel, and hopped away down the street.

• • • • • • •

By the time Twilight finally returned to her library home the sun was just beginning to sink behind the tallest rooftops in Ponyville.

Judging from the scattered books still covering the floor, Spike had yet to return.

She stole one more glance up at the smear on the south wall; she let out an exhausted sigh.

“They couldn’t have known,” she told the empty room. “It was probably just some misbehaving foals trying to be outrageous.”

She slowly nodded, as if encouraging herself to accept the notion. “And they must have thought that lye was like soap. They wanted me to spit out bubbles or something!”

She nodded again. “Just some ill-conceived, foalish pranks. They couldn’t have known. It’s the only logical explanation.”

Twilight trotted up the stairs and through the doorway to her bedroom.

WELCOME HOME, FREAK

The thick purple letters ran all the way across the front edge of the balcony holding her bed.

Twilight’s left eyelid twitched.

She stiffly trotted over to the cupboard, magicked up the bowl of tainted sugar, and tossed its contents into the fireplace.

She magicked up a rag, soaked it in the wash basin, and approached the fresh graffiti.

With every ounce of composure she could muster, Twilight repeated:

“It’s the only logical explanation.”

• • • • • • •

Twilight Sparkle floated in a blood-warm green sea.

She became aware of walls surrounding her, and she realized that she was encased in a fleshy cocoon. She kicked and struggled, and eventually her prison ruptured.

She spilled out onto smooth black stone, sliding on her belly on a wave of slime. When she came to a stop, several shadows fell on her.

“She made it out,” said a resonant feminine voice.

“Of course she made it out!” snapped a sneering male. “She’s no mortal Pony! She’s one of us!”

“Yes, that explains everything,” added a second female. “How else could she have defeated me?”

Twilight rubbed the ooze out of her eyes and then turned to look in the direction of the voices.

The needle-toothed Queen of the Changelings and a starry-maned Alicorn as black as deep space flanked a coiling Draconequus. The three were looking down at her with something not unlike pride.

Behind them, dozens of green pods like the one she’d escaped held piles of bare bones.

The Draconequus grabbed her on either side of her ribcage and lifted her up to his eye level.

“Hello, Miss Sparkle,” said Discord with a cheery grin. “Happy birthday.”

Twilight looked down at herself; her four mismatched wings flapped convulsively as she opened her mandibles to scream.

• • • • • • •

Spike smashed through the pot of flowers with a startled “OOF!”

On the other side of the bedroom-balcony Twilight Sparkle was sitting up in bed and gasping for breath. Her pupils were pinpoints, her horn was glowing, and she was covered in a cold sweat.

“Sheesh, Twilight! That hurt!” Spike crawled out from the pile of pottery shards and broken stems and dusted himself off. “I was just waking you up like you wanted – nine o’clock sharp!”

Twilight came to her senses. “Oh! Spike! I’m so sorry!” She leaped out of bed and cantered over to the little Dragon. “I was having this terrible dream, and then you grabbed me, and I…” She bit her lip anxiously. “Are you okay?” She craned her neck to look him over.

“Aww, I’m fine,” he said. “Thick scales, you know.” He rapped on his chest with a fist.

Twilight sighed in relief and pulled her assistant into a hug. Spike happily hugged back.

“I could never forgive myself if I hurt you!” she said and squeezed him tighter. She shuddered, holding back a sudden sob.

“Twilight…?” Spike pulled back a bit and looked up at her.

Twilight shook her head. “I–I’m fine, Spike,” she insisted. “That bad dream just put me in a weird mood.”

Spike shrugged. “All right. Oh! Don’t forget you’ve got that event at the school today. Rainbow Dash wants you there with your wind-thingy before ten!”

Twilight sagged. The nightmare had erased whatever rest her night’s sleep had provided, and she wanted nothing more than to drop right back into bed. She rubbed the back of her neck with a front hoof. “Can’t we reschedule?”

“Uh-uh! No way!” Spike reached behind himself and retrieved a spooled scroll. The paper reached the lower floor of the room once he’d unrolled it. “You kept me up half the night last week helping you make room for your big bro’s wedding, remember? You are booked solid until WINTER!”

Twilight groaned. “Fine. My anemometer and I will be there.”

While Twilight trotted over to her mirror and magicked a brush through her tangled mane, she mulled over the past day’s events. Somepony had come into her home while it was unguarded. They’d poisoned her food. They’d defaced her books. And they knew things she thought she’d left behind in Canterlot. Perhaps even, a nagging, splinter-like stray thought added, things about the way her Element had changed her. A knot of tension twisted her guts.

“Hey, uh, Twilight? Do you mind if I spend the day at Rarity’s while you’re out?” Spike blushed and twiddled his claws. “She’s got all these orders to catch up on, and I kinda said I’d help her out yesterday. I know the books aren’t all re-shelved yet, but I’ll get right on that as soon as I get back – I promise!”

The knot tightened.

Twilight looked away from her reflection. “No, Spike.”

“No?” he asked. “No you don’t mind, or no I can’t go?”

Twilight turned and ducked down to meet the little Dragon’s gaze. “No, Spike! No you can’t go! We can’t keep leaving this place empty all day! Owlowiscious can’t keep watch while the sun’s up – he’s nocturnal!” Twilight started pacing. “We let our guard down when we went to the wedding, and somepony came in here and wrote on the walls and put–” She caught herself. “–put me in a bad mood. I can’t keep a shield on this place all the way from the school, so if I’m going out, you’re staying here!”

Spike frowned. “B-But you don’t know if anything else will even happen! It was just some prank! It could have happened to anypony! You don’t have to freak ou–”

“STAY HERE!”

Twilight’s shout shook the rafters and sent her assistant tumbling back into the pile of flowerpot debris.

When his head popped back up, Spike’s tear-rimmed eyes seemed wider than his head. His lower lip quivered. “Yes, ma’am!” he squeaked.

Twilight caught a glimpse of her enraged expression in the mirror; the sight melted her anger into a fresh layer of shame.

“Spike, I…I’m sorry!”

Twilight leaped down from the balcony and galloped down the stairs. Her horn glowed, and the anemometer hovered off a shelf and bobbed along in her wake.

Spike sat in the pile of soil and broken pottery until he heard the front door close.

He wiped his eyes with his claws, heaved a dejected sigh, and then shuffled over to the closet to fetch a dustpan and broom.

He had just finished sweeping up the last of the mess when he heard Twilight’s voice calling out from outside.

“Spike? Spi-i-i-ike!”

He plodded down the stairs, raising his voice to answer as he did:

“Yeah, what is it?”

Twilight didn’t open the door. “Spike, I wanted to apologize. I overreacted. It was wrong of me to shout at you just because I’m having a bad day.”

Spike stood in the middle of the library’s main floor, rolled his eyes and folded his arms. “You can say that again.” He huffed sulkily; a small curl of greenish-black smoke puffed out of his nostrils.

“I mean it, Spike. I’m running late so I have to go, but you should go too. Go do what you wanted to. Take your time. I’ll use magic to check up on the library now and then.”

Spike’s sullen expression snapped into an achingly-wide grin. “R-Really? I can go see Rarity?”

“Yes. Rarity. Right. You’ve earned it, kiddo! See you tonight.”

Kiddo?

Spike raised an eyebrow, but a single odd turn of phrase couldn’t deflate his excitement. He shrugged, wrenched open the door and then bounded off in the direction of Carousel Boutique, failing miserably at suppressing his lovestruck guffawing.

A pink hoof thrust into the closing door’s path. The hoof’s owner spoke as she trotted into the library, her voice shifting from Twilight’s friendly tone to a high-pitched sneer:

“You run along, now! Run off to your vapid Screwhead!”

The Earth Pony giggled a sinister giggle.

• • • • • • •

“It’s perfect! It couldn’t BE more perfect!” Scootaloo punctuated her statement with a hop and an excited flap of her wings.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders were standing in the field outside the schoolhouse. All around them, foals were stretching, trotting in place, doing pushups, and otherwise warming up.

“I dunno, Scootaloo,” said Apple Bloom warily. “I tried a whole BUNCH o’ athletic per-soots tryin’ to get ma Cutie Mark, and they didn’t go so well.”

“And I loved the Sisterhooves Social,” added Sweetie Belle, “but it didn’t get me OR Apple Bloom our Cutie Marks!”

“But that’s the beauty of this one – we can ALL go for it at once!” Scootaloo pointed a hoof at the poster hanging on the school’s outside wall:

TRIPLE TIARA TOURNAMENT
TEAM TRYOUTS THIS TUESDAY

“We qualify as a team, we all do the events we’re best at, we run the team relay at the end, and BAM! Tiaras and Cutie Marks all around!” Scootaloo’s grin shone in the sunlight.

“Yeah, I guess that could work!” replied Apple Bloom, tapping her chin with a hoof.

Sweetie Belle nodded. “Maybe our special talents are each different events?”

“YEAH!” Scootaloo hoof-pumped. “Now you’re talkin’! We are TOTALLY gonna win this one!”

The three foals shared a high hoof, and:

“CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS, TRIPLE TIARA TRIUMPH!”

“Pfft! More like Triple Tiara TRAGEDY!”

The Crusaders turned around to face Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. Silver was sniggering over Diamond’s barb.

Scootaloo flitted over to stare the Earth Pony down. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom flanked her and added a “Yeah!”

Diamond rolled her eyes. “It means you three are a huge joke! Every time you pull some ridiculous new stunt, the only thing that happens is everypony else ends up paying for it! And huh! Would you look at that! STILL no Cutie Marks!”

Scootaloo advanced until her forehead pressed into Diamond’s. “Oh, well sorry we aren’t quitters like you!”

Diamond scowled. “That printing press is a health hazard! I had every right to quit the paper!”

Scootaloo pushed, driving Diamond backward. “You just can’t take it when you don’t get to be a spoiled BRAT!”

Diamond Tiara shoved the little Pegasus back. “I am NOT a spoiled brat! I deserve everything Daddy gives me!”

Scootaloo scoffed. “Like being grounded half the time?”

Diamond narrowed her eyes. “You’re one to talk. You’re grounded ALL the time!” She flicked one of Scootaloo’s wings with a hoof.

Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom and Silver Spoon gasped and backed away from the pair.

Scootaloo’s jaw dropped, but her expression quickly turned from shock to rage. She lunged for Diamond with an anguished cry.

“Diamond Tiara!” Silver Spoon leaped into the fray.

“Scootaloo!” Apple Bloom joined in as well.

“Miss Cheerilee!” Sweetie Belle looked up and past the melee in front of her.

“All of you! Stop this at ONCE!” The burgundy school-mare reached into the swirling mass of fillies and forced them to part.

Diamond Tiara’s namesake headwear was bent and off-kilter, her mane was in tangles, and a spot of blood marked her lower lip. Scootaloo’s feathers were ruffled and a faint bruise was already visible above her right eye. Apple Bloom and Silver Spoon were only slightly less disheveled. All of them were covered in schoolyard dust.

“That filly should be locked up!” Diamond Tiara pointed an accusing front hoof over Cheerliee’s outstretched leg.

“Go ahead and try it!” shouted Scootaloo, similarly reaching around Cheerliee’s other front leg.

“That’s ENOUGH!” Cheerilee barked. The foals cringed. “One more outburst from either of you, and you’ll BOTH be cleaning the blackboard erasers until next Winter Wrap-up. Is that clear?” Cheerilee eyed Scootaloo and Diamond in turn.

They both muttered a sullen “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. Now, all of you go get cleaned up and go back to practicing – in peace!”

On the other side of the field, Twilight Sparkle plodded up with the anemometer hovering along behind her. Her eyes were downcast, focused on nothing in particular.

Rainbow Dash swooped down off of a low-hanging cloud and alighted in front of her friend.

“Hey, Twi! Glad you made it. Oh – and you remembered that machine! Awesome!”

Twilight set down the anemometer. “Yeah,” she muttered anemically, “happy to help.” She sighed.

Applejack came trotting over to join the pair.

“Howdy, Twilight!” Applejack smiled warmly. “All set to help tell the lightnin’ bugs from the garden slugs?” She trotted in place, full of energy.

“You can count on me…” Twilight trailed off and then flopped down on her belly, frowning.

Applejack’s eyebrows knitted in concern. “Aww, hey now Sugarcube – what’s got ya so glum?”

“Yeah, Twilight!” added Rainbow Dash. “You gotta perk up a little – don’t forget, we’re today’s celebrity judges!” She buffed a front hoof on her chest.

Twilight struggled her way back onto her hooves. “I know, I know – Ponyville’s top Earth Pony, Pegasus and Unicorn athletes.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure if I feel very athletic, though. I was in a bad mood this morning, and I shouted at Spike. He must be so mad at me…” Twilight hung her head.

Applejack shrugged. “If yer so worried, why doncha go apologize?”

“But I said I’d help out with the tryouts! I can’t just run off and–”

“RAINBOW DASH!”

Scootaloo’s excited cry drowned Twilight out completely. The foal raced up and hugged Dash’s left hind leg.

“Whoa! Hey there squirt! Lookin’ forward to the tryouts?” Rainbow Dash chuckled.

Scootaloo let go and started hopping up and down. “Ooh! Ooh! Yes-yes-yes! I can’t wait to show you what I can do!” She posed proudly, wings spread; a loose feather fell to the grass.

Dash eyed the tiny Pegasus with suspicion. “Say…you look a little banged up. Did you get in a fight?”

Scootaloo blushed and swallowed hard. “M-Maybe. But it wasn’t my fault! Diamond Tiara started it!”

Dash frowned, pulled Scootaloo in close and then ducked down to whisper to her. “So…did you win?”

Scootaloo grinned as she whispered back. “Miss Cheerilee broke it up, but I was TOTALLY going to!”

Dash giggled and mussed the foal’s mane. “Atta girl! Good to see you fillies standing up for yourselves! Why don’t you meet me at the smoothie shop tomorrow after school? I’ll give you a few pointers about fighting – and flying!”

Scootaloo’s eyes shone, and her grin threatened to split her head. She nodded vigorously.

The older Pegasus straightened, her features returning to a serious frown. “…And don’t let it happen again!” she said firmly.

Scootaloo struggled to conceal her smile and then winked conspiratorially. “Yes, Ma’am!”

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle cantered over to the group.

“Heya sis!” said Apple Bloom.

“Hi everypony!” added Sweetie Belle.

Twilight sagged as the two other foals’ worse-for-wear state sparked a conversation about the evils of brawling, techniques for avoiding conflict…and how best to take a kick.

“Maybe I will go talk to Spike after all,” she mused, half to herself.

“Good timing!” said Sweetie Belle. “He’s right over there!” She pointed a hoof and then started waving.

Rarity was sashaying her way through the crowds of schoolfoals, carefully avoiding the dustiest patches of ground. Her horn was aglow, and a hoof-stitched purple satin lunch-bag emblazoned with a needlepoint portrait of Sweetie Belle hovered along next to her. Spike was sitting on her back, waving to Sweetie Belle.

Twilight stared. “S-Spike?”

Spike hopped down off Rarity’s back. “Hey Twilight! Thanks again for changing your mind.” He looked over at Rarity with hearts in his eyes.

“Changing my…?” Twilight’s features twisted in confusion.

Rarity magicked the lunch-bag over to her sister and then fixed Twilight with a concerned look. “Twilight, are you quite all right? You look a little pale.” Her eyes widened in worry. “Oh, dear! Did that spoiled milk the other day make you ill?”

Twilight’s eyes darted from Spike, to Rarity, to the direction of the library, and back again.

She ignited her horn. “I have to go!”

Twilight disappeared in a reddish flash.

• • • • • • •

Twilight Sparkle flashed into being next to her bed on the Library’s second floor; an instant later, her world collapsed into an inferno of knee-buckling agony.

Twilight’s jaw dropped in a silent scream. Every breath felt like it threatened to tear something inside her. The sound of her racing pulse throbbed in her ears. Sweat shone on her forehead as she struggled to string together a coherent thought through the torturous pain.

“R-Rope?” she sputtered after a few endless seconds.

Several heavy hemp ropes had been strung across the room at various angles; one of them was now occupying the same space-time as her ribcage. The fibrous material was not so much impaling her as part of her.

“Rope!” Twilight repeated. A glimmer of realization shone through the anguish twisting her features. Years-old memories of her Thaumaturgical Principles and Practices lessons drifted back into focus. She could almost hear Princess Celestia’s noble timbre as she recited the instructions:

“This is a rare and unlikely eventuality to be sure, Twilight, but should such a sorry fate befall you, this lesson could well save your very life! To escape a teleportation matter-intrusion, use a ROPE.”

Twilight forced herself to stop hyperventilating. She put every ounce of her focus into following the lesson’s steps.

“R: Release the spell matrix…”

Twilight’s horn flickered like a guttering candle as she strained to concentrate.

“O: Open a new one…”

Her horn glowed brighter; the reddish-purple aura spread across her body and the intruding rope in slow, twitching pulses.

“P: Phase the intrusion…”

The rope gradually faded into translucence as Twilight magically separated its particles from hers. She whimpered gratefully as the pain went from burning and fierce to cold and aching. Mild internal bleeding felt like a relief after what she’d just endured.

“E: Escape the area!”

Twilight collapsed, and felt the ghostly rope slip clear of her body.

She ended the spell. The re-solidified rope, warm and damp, draped over her back. The power of the Element of Magic was already knitting the damage to her organs, and her pain was fading by the second. She let out a half-sob, half-chuckle.

As in in reply to the sound, a high, snorting giggle came from downstairs.

Twilight’s eyes widened; it couldn’t be.

“P-Pinkie?”

She shakily stood and trotted down the stairs. “Pinkie…is that you?”

The library’s main floor was in total disarray.

What few books Spike had gotten around to shelving had been tossed back onto the floor, and a large pile of tomes surrounded the room’s centerpiece like a witch-burning waiting to happen. Still-wet paint gave the wooden bust at the top of the pile a dark blue mane with a pink streak. More ropes were strung between the shelves.

“Pinkie?”

Twilight fought to stay calm. She breathed as slowly and deeply as the pain in her lungs would allow. She magicked up her second copy of the The Astronomical Astronomer’s Almanac to All Things Astronomy and hefted its weight. She turned in a slow circle, her eyes scanning every nook and cranny for signs of movement.

As insane as the notion seemed, Twilight’s analytical mind began considering the possibility. Pinkie Pie had been raised on an isolated rural farm, after all. And she had been dragged into all sorts of magical mayhem since Twilight had come to town. And Twilight had certainly glimpsed something darker lurking behind Pinkie’s cheery façade. If anypony could turn a room into a grim spectacle in the blink of an eye, Pinkie Pie could. But would she really? Did she really?

“Pinkie…?”

The silence in the room was absolute; Twilight could hear the tiny scrape of hoof-on-wood as she shifted her stance. And then:

“You called?”

Twilight shrieked, turned and swung the book in one smooth motion.

The frizzy pink party-Pony took the blow on her face and hit the book-strewn floor like a falling encyclopedia. She lay silent and still save for the subtle movement and whistle of her breathing.

Twilight let the Almanac drop.

“P-Pinkie! Why?” She stood over her unconscious friend; tears welled up in her eyes. “H-how COULD you? I thought we–”

Twilight’s dog-eared copy of Travelling without Moving: Essentials of Teleportation smashed into the tip of her horn like a hammer striking a nail. She cried out in pain and fell to her knees.

With no small effort, Twilight turned to face whoever had swung the book; for a moment, she almost thought Pinkie had been concealing yet another sister.

A bright pink Earth Pony with a frizzy purple-and-white-striped mane stood over her. The Pony’s flanks were marked with a screw next to a baseball, her dark purple eyes were swirled like pinwheel candies, and she wore a yellow propeller beanie as sunny as her expression.

“You silly filly!” said the Earth Pony. “You weren’t due home for a while, yet! I didn’t even have a chance to get the fire going! And then you call a friend over, too? Tsk tsk!”

Twilight squinted in an effort to focus her watering eyes. “Wh-Who…?”

“Woopsie! Where are my manners? Hello, Miss Sparkle!” The Earth Pony gave a cheery wave. “My name’s Topsy Turvy. I run the Joke Shop here in Ponyville, and this time…” Her tone turned low and menacing. “…the joke’s on you.”

“W-Why did you d-do this?” Twilight panted. Her horn felt like a railroad spike driven into her forehead.

Topsy chuckled. “Well, gee! It looked like so much fun when you walloped Pinkie Pie that I just HAD to give it a try!”

Twilight frowned. “No! This! ALL of this! Why are you doing this to me?”

Topsy chuckled louder. “Why? Isn’t it obvious, Miss Sparkle?” She narrowed her eyes. “Because I hate you.”

The Earth Pony trotted around to face Twilight head-on and gently pulled her up into a crouch. She sat and cradled Twilight’s face between her front hooves.

“I hate you,” she repeated, her soft, tender tone deeply at odds with her words. “I’m IN hate with you.”

She brushed a lock of Twilight’s mane aside.

“This is the real deal. Hate. True hate. Hate at first sight.” She smiled. “Nopony else could ever hate you the way I do.”

Twilight’s brow knitted in confusion. “B-But I don’t even know you!”

Topsy pressed a hoof to Twilight’s mouth.

“Shh,” she whispered, “don’t spoil the moment.”

Fast as a colt-in-the-box, Topsy Turvy slapped Twilight across the face. The force of the blow sent the Unicorn sprawling.

While Twilight groaned and struggled to get back to her hooves, Topsy trotted in a wide circle around the room, kicking fallen books this way and that. She hopped over Pinkie’s unconscious body with a carefree bound. She came to the basement stairs and trotted down them, speaking over her shoulder as she descended:

“You know, I never really visited the Library much before, but now I see how much fun reading can be! Your old textbook gave me that awesome rope idea, and those reports to the Princess were a laugh riot.” Topsy mimicked Twilight’s voice: “Dear Princess Celestia, today I learned something most foals figure out in Kindergarten! Go me!”

Topsy’s amused sigh echoed up the floor below.

“That’s not funny!” Twilight rose and followed Topsy into the basement, magicking the door closed behind her. She raced to catch up, but the intruder had a head start.

“Week after week of mayhem and damage control – oh, sorry – ‘friendship lessons.’ You and your pals are some of the biggest losers I’ve ever seen! Really, now – how many different ways can six Ponies mess things up?” Topsy giggled.

Twilight caught a streak of pink out of the corner of her eye; when she turned, Topsy was nowhere to be found.

Just then, the Earth Pony’s mocking voice sounded from farther into the basement. “Your diary was a great read, too, by the way. I couldn’t stop laughing.” She smirked. “The thing reads like a textbook. I mean, who puts hoofnotes and citations in their own diary? What a SCREAM!”

Twilight scowled. “That book is private!” An edge of menace crept into her voice.

Topsy ignored her. “I especially liked the part where you had a dream about Princess Celestia adopting you as Her daughter once your parents die of old age. ‘Princess Sparkle’ – hee hee! That’s so cute I could just puke!”

Twilight winced. A hot blush coloured her cheeks. “Sh-Shut up..!”

Topsy giggled again, the high pitch and snort so very much like Pinkie Pie’s most irritating laugh. “Oh, but She’d never DO that, would She? Because She’s a Goddess…and you’re just an undead egghead.”

“SHUT UP!” Twilight gritted her teeth. She was all but galloping now, weaving between the magi-tech machinery and crates of unsorted books in search of her tormenter.

Twilight’s eyes finally met Topsy’s from across the basement as the Unicorn skidded out from behind a tall box. The Earth Pony was standing half-silhouetted in the shadows with her back to the far wall. A stuffed toy sat on the floor next to her.

Topsy grinned, but her gaze was pure venom.

“You know, Discord made it so anything was possible. He took magic away from you greedy Twinklers and put it into everything – the clouds, the buildings…even the ground! With Him in charge, Earth Ponies could FLY. But you couldn’t stand not being the Super-Special Screwhead Supreme, so you had to take Him down.” Topsy blew a disapproving raspberry.

Twilight grimaced in outrage. “That’s INSANE! You can’t possib–”

Topsy clopped her front hooves together like a pair of flapping jaws. “Blah-blah-blah! Oh no, Twily! Don’t do it! Not a speech! Don’t bore me into submission!” She cringed theatrically.

Twilight tensed. “Stop interrupting me! And DON’T call me that!”

Topsy smirked. “Oh, right. Only your big wonderful brother can call you that. How’d the wedding go, by the way? ‘Cause I hear there was more magical mayhem, courtesy of you and your fellow Twinklers. Even at a wedding? For shame!” She waved a front hoof in a chiding gesture.

Twilight stomped a hoof. “I helped my brother and his bride save all of Equestria at that wedding!”

Topsy scoffed. “Big deal! This Earth Pony town doesn’t NEED a stuck-up, magic-spewing, undead THING like you to keep it safe!”

She mimicked Princess Celestia’s stern tone: “You’ve been an utter waste of my valuable time, Twilight Sparkle. A total disappointment. I should have just gotten a cat.”

“Don’t you DARE–”

Topsy resumed her normal voice, drowning out Twilight’s furious shout with even higher volume: “Face facts, Twily: you’re a FREAK, you’re a FAILURE, you’re a SCREWHEAD, AND NOPONY WILL EVER LOVE YOU!”

Twilight Sparkle screamed in blind, unthinking rage. Her eyes and horn ignited blazing-bright as she unleashed a hellish explosion of battle magic. For a moment the basement was engulfed in a red flash brighter than the noonday sun.

And then, in the blink of an eye, it was over.

She was alone.

TO BE CONTINUED