• Published 20th Jun 2015
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The Next Generation: Superheroes Continued - Accordant Author



It's a brilliant idea, enchanted comics. Prince Illusion certainly thought so, when he decided to prank his friends with it. But comics aren’t always fun and games, and chaos magic isn't known for being predictable...

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Welcome to Maretropolis

Welcome to Maretropolis

Prism Bolt grinned. The town of Ponyville was a tiny speck below him, and he could feel the cold air moving past his coat and feathers. Here, far above the world, a pony would ordinarily feel inspired, or terrified. Prism felt neither. He simply continued to lazily turn and bank in the air, unconcerned with his fantastic surroundings.

Prism sighed in contentment. Here, above the world, he could see for miles, and nothing and nopony could bring him down. He spun into a loop-de-loop, then turned it into a flying square just for the heck of it, laughing and whooping, turning with such speed he seemed to be bouncing off of invisible walls.

Prism’s trail extending out from behind him as he flew faster. He rarely exerted himself, flew to his full potential, but when he did it felt great. Today it was almost liberating: Prism’s muscles were unstressed despite his exertion, and the way the wind blew in the high atmosphere was–

Wake up.

–odd, strong but more energizing than it was pushing. Even as Prism banked directly into the headwinds, it felt easy, more similar to pushing against a spring than fighting a gale.

Wake up.

He closed his eyes and coasted as he reversed directions and let the wind take him. With it at his back, flight became all but effortless, and Prism knew that this was where he ruled. Nopony else could ride the currents so easily, defy them so easily, as he could. He was one of the greatest fliers in Equestria, and

WAKE UP!

Prism jumped, leaping forward and disrupting his covers. He blinked a few times, trying to process the sudden juxtaposition of his fading dream and the scene in front of him.

His room was unchanged from how he last remembered it. Prism’s floor was cluttered, with a combination of prizes, medals, posters, and other effects strewn about without much care. Prism’s bed sat opposite to the door, covered in blue and yellow Wonderbolts sheets he had never gotten around to changing. And Prism’s little brother, Icy Storm, was frowning at him. Judging from the fact that he was the only other pony in the room, he was the one who had been yelling.

Prism took all this in for a moment, then smirked. “What’s up, squirt?”

“You, finally.” Icy’s frown remained unchanged. Prism’s grin only grew larger at his sibling’s severe expression. “It’s afternoon.”

Prism glanced at his clock, which did, indeed, read twelve forty-five. “Yeah. So? It’s a Sunday. No weather patrol. Why do you care?”

Icy’s frown got even more severe for a moment, before he closed his eyes and groaned. When he reopened them, his annoyance had been replaced with a more fatigued tone. “You promised that you and I would go meet Whirlwind at two, to help her with her new flying trick. You said you’d be ready so she could impress the Wonderbolts who’re coming for the air show a week from now.”

Prism grumbled as he thought back. Whirlwind had asked him to help her with the trick, a particularly elaborate spin that she couldn’t seem to get down. From what she had told Prism yesterday, she and Icy had been trying the maneuver for days without success, and in the end, she had grown so frustrated and frightened she wouldn’t master it in time to wow the Wonderbolts that she had asked Prism for help.

A request, that serious and from Whirlwind, was something he couldn’t refuse. Prism started to get out of bed, but he continued talking as he freed himself from the covers. “That isn’t for another hour. She shouldn’t be so stressed over it, either. The Wonderbolts are a waste of time. She could be having fun, instead!”

“She normally is, thanks to you.” Icy rolled his eyes, starting to leave. “Dad made lunch. Oh, and somepony sent you a package, it just arrived.”

At this, Prism perked up, throwing of the covers and flying after Icy. “A package? What was it? Who sent it?”

“It wasn’t the Wonderbolts, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Icy replied sarcastically as he entered the large cloud-house’s dining room. He gestured to a manila envelope on the table. “There wasn’t any return address.”

Prism snorted as he picked up the letter. “You wish you got stuff from the Wonderbolts...” He trailed off as he looked more closely at the package. The envelope was thick, and felt like it had paper inside. Even if it wasn’t from the Wonderbolts, it still might have been some official document, which given Prism’s pranking history could have been good or bad. Prism ripped it open with slight trepidation.

When the contents of the package came out, though, Prism was bemused. Instead of a lengthy packet of legalese, or even a promotional booklet, the wrapping had held a comic book, with a depiction of a white-clad pegasus stallion flying on the front cover. The title read The Deviants Issue 41.

“Did you order that?” Icy asked, looking over at the book from the hallway entrance. “I didn’t know you read comics.”

“I don’t. Don’t need to read a book about people dressing up and doing cool tricks when I could do that anytime I wanted.”

“Sure. And I think they fight crime, actually.” Icy turned and walked towards the downstairs bathroom.

Prism huffed as he looked over the glossily-covered book. He had picked up comics a few times when he was younger. Cotton Candy had given him some when he was younger, but he had never really gotten into them.

As he considered the comic, he noticed a small slip of paper stuck into the inside cover. Hoping for answers, he pulled it out. It was a short letter, written in neat, tidy script.

Prism Bolt,
Consider this a gift for services rendered. Though I know you probably aren’t a big comics fan, I nonetheless hope you can find the time to read this book. The ending is more complex than you think, and I’m certain you’ll appreciate it once you solve the puzzle.

Sincerely,
A friend

Prism read over the brief message again, flummoxed. Who sent this? Who'd just sign it as some mystery “friend”? And who did I help who'd send me a comic book? This isn't like Candy or Whirlwind...

Prism considered the letter, and then the comic again, but couldn’t make head or tails of it. Eventually, he tucked the paper back into the book, then placed it back on the table, before sitting down to eat a belated breakfast.

He was only midway through some left-over hay and cheese sandwiches when Icy walked out of the bathroom, hair combed and teeth brushed.. He looked at the comic, back where it had started, before turning to Prism. “Did you find out who sent it?”

Prism looked up from his sandwich. “No. It was weird. It had a letter in it, but it didn’t say who it was from. Just that the ending was special or something.”

“Are you going to read it? Maybe whoever sent it was trying to surprise you.” Icy flew over and picked up the glossy volume.

“Yeah, maybe. I thought you wanted me to help out Whirlwind, though?” Prism asked

“I do,” Icy replied, flipping through a few of the beginning pages. They mostly dealt with the white-clad stallion from the front, along with a few other pegasi.

Prism took another bit from his sandwich, clearly unconcerned. “Then I’ll read it when I want to. That’s what you’re supposed to do with comics, they aren’t schoolbooks. If you’re so curious, anyway, why don’t you read it?”

“Maybe I will.” Icy said challengingly as he flipped the comic closed. Holding it in his hoof, he moved towards the house’s anteroom, where his saddlebags were hung.

He turned before he went through the door. “Just... try not to be late, okay, Prism? I don’t want to have to push you out the door and then race after you when you blitz over there. I don’t want to be late for Whirlwind.” With that, he turned and made his way out of the room.

Prism Bolt looked curiously after him for a moment, then huffed and returned to his meal.

...

Cotton Candy had already finished cleaning Ponyville Park, repairing Cranky Doodle’s favorite lawn chair, helping Aloe and Lotus with the spa, and babysitting Silver Spoon’s daughter by the time the mail arrived at Sugarcube Corner. It was pure luck Candy was even there to witness it; she was nearly finished with a late lunch and was getting ready to meet up with Claire and Anthea for one of their regular “girl talks”.

By the time the blue-clad mailpony dropped the letters into the extra-large mailbox (a necessity for an establishment routinely bombarded by party R.S.V.P.s), the Corner was already reacting.

“I’ll get it!” Cloudy Skies shouted. She practically rocketed out the door, narrowly avoiding crashing into the counter, the doorframe, and the mailbox itself as her twin, Sugar Rush, came after her. When the duo arrived at the mailbox, however, they found it already empty, and turned just in time to see a distinctive pink blur moving back into the Corner.

Pinkie Pie was already flipping through the assortment of letters when the twins reentered the shop. “ –invitation reply, invitation reply, invitation reply, oooh a bill! Invitation reply, invitation reply, magic comic for Candy, invitation reply. Okay, eight more ponies are coming for the ‘Hurray the Wonderbolts Came’ party, so we’ll need eight more chairs, eight more cupcakes, eight more Wonderbolts replica flying goggles, eight more bottles of sarsaparilla …” Pinkie’s party planning monologue continued as she bounced up the stairs to arrange for the additional ponies.

Pumpkin Cake, chuckling as he dodged around Pinkie, levitated the remaining letters to himself. Keeping them floating in front of his muzzle, he stepped over Cloudy Skies as she shot off to another part of the store, navigating effortlessly towards the counter. When he reached, it, he set the letters down one by one, before stopping at a large envelope on the bottom. “Candy!”

Cotton Candy looked over from where she has been finishing her salad. She sat at a small table far from most of the other residents of the Corner, quiet as she worked her way through the leafy greens. Only a few scraps of salad remained, and these Candy hastily ate before getting up.

As she approached the counter, Pumpkin Cake levitated the manila envelope over to her. “It was addressed to you. Guess whoever sent it knew you normally help out here. Or knew Pinkie does, at any rate.”

“Thanks, Mr. Cake!” Candy replied, taking the envelope. As she did, Pumpkin Cake picked up the rest of the mail and levitated it behind the counter in a rough stack.

Candy looked over the manila package as the usual controlled chaos of Sugarcube Corner carried on around her. The package had her name written on it, but bore no mark of a sender. The address was written plainly but neatly in black ink.

*Crash!* Cloudy!

Candy jumped as the noise jolted the Corner into brief stillness. Looking for the source of the disturbance, Candy found Pound Cake, Pumpkin’s twin, admonishing Cloudy Skies and Sugar Rush, both of whom were surrounded by dropped baking pans and the contents of an overturned bookshelf. The twins looked contrite, but Pound Cake seemed unusually concerned about the books. “Those were gifts from Princess Twilight herself!”

Pumpkin sighed. “Those two. It sometimes amazes me they aren’t even the worst in town... Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be insulting your sisters.”

Candy nodded in understanding. “It’s okay, I know they can be a bit of a hoofull sometimes. They always mean well, though.”

“Yes, they always do…” Pumpkin Cake looked away from where Pound was setting the bookshelf back upright, back to Candy. “I probably should go help with that. Is there anything else you need?”

“Nope! I’m good, but I could help too if you need it.”

“Thanks, Candy, but I thought you were meeting Fluttershy’s daughter now.” Pumpkin motioned to the clock.

When Candy followed his hoof, she jumped, then rushed back towards her table, words trailing behind her. “Oh, you’re right, and I’m gonna be late! Thanks, Mr. Cake, I’ve got to go, I’m sorry I couldn’t help, thanks for the meal–”

“It’s fine, Candy. Don’t forget your mail!” Pumpkin levitated the package, which Candy had dropped while galloping away, after her. Candy caught it sheepishly and stowed it in her saddlebags, then made for the door.

She kept running for about a minute before she realized she needed to slow down. Her sense of direction was notoriously poor, and Candy knew that running away from her friends was only going to guarantee she’d be late. Instead, Candy slowed to a brisk trot and looked around, trying to remember if she was on the right route.

It seemed so. There was Quills and Sofas… And a few places down was Claire’s shop, Hearthfire Jewelry. Definitely on the right track. All I need to do now is go straight ahead!

Which she did. As Candy continued forward, however, her thoughts returned to the package she had received. It wasn’t rare for her to get mail, but it was rare for the mail to be a thick envelope with no mention of a sender. It’s like something out of a mystery novel. Who would have sent it?

As Candy continued to trot down the street, occasionally glancing about to make certain she was going the right way, she continued to ruminate on the package. Finally, in an impressive display of hoof coordination only a child of Pinkie Pie could have achieved, she brought the envelope out of her saddlebags and ripped it open, still trotting forward.

Inside the manila envelope was a small volume with bright illustrations, titled Young Harmony Issue 98. Candy started to look over the cover, but then paused as she caught sight of a small slip of paper tucked into the book. When Candy pulled it out, she discovered it was a short letter.

Dear Cotton Candy,
Thanks for always being cheerful! You’ve always brightened up my day when you could, and I know you’ve done the same with all your friends. I hope you enjoy this comic book; please feel free to share it with somepony. With luck, it will bring you both a little bit of the joy you’ve always brought me.

Sincerely,A friend

Candy’s face scrunched up in concentration as she read over the letter once again. I may not have Mom’s Pinkie Sense, but I know there’s something off about this. None of my friends could’ve written this. Starburst definitely wouldn’t go on about how I always cheered her up, she always acts all stern and practical. Del wouldn’t have sent me a mystery letter, and neither would T! I don’t think Claire would have, either, or Prism. Unless this is a prank. How would you play a prank with a comic book? Maybe Annie sent this. Yeah, she might have sent this sort of letter, if she got someone else to write for her, but then why wouldn’t she tell me? And why a comic?

Abruptly, Candy remembered why she was trotting through the streets. I’ll ask Annie about it right now! Then she saw Barnyard Bargains and realized she had overshot her meeting place. But only if I’m not late!

...

*Thunk* The solidly built tree rattled under the impact, but it refused to yield its red fruits; they stayed firmly attached to the branches that swung above Sweet Apple Acres. As the echo of the impact faded, the branches returned to their slow waving, making a slow but constant susurration.

Princess Starburst frowned up at the apples. Despite years of work on the farm, she could never match its owners when it came to bucking the trees. Del had assured her this wasn’t her fault: half of apple bucking relied on earth pony magic instead of raw strength, and earth ponies hardly lacked for strength, either. Nonetheless, it still galled Star that she needed to buck trees three times or more to achieve what Golden Delicious or Red June could accomplish with a single, powerful impact.

Starburst shook her head to clear out the dejected thoughts, then gathered herself up again and bucked the tree again. This time, a few apples fell into the arranged baskets. On the third strike, more joined them; the fourth saw all but a few apples fall into the containers.

As Starburst readied herself to buck the tree for the fifth time, Golden Delicious trotted into the orchard. He had been working just as long as Star had, and was slightly sweaty for it, but unlike the smaller mare his breathing was easy, and his bearing calm and collected.

Del looked at Starburst as she finished bucking the tree free of apples. They both had been up since early in the morning, working hard, but Starburst had only been bucking for about an hour. Del had been reluctant to let her, as she almost invariably burnt out bucking trees, far faster than doing any other task.

It was a fear still reflected in Del's face; he looked worriedly after Star as she moved on to the next tree. She was perspiring heavily, and her small frame shook occasionally with the early stages of exhaustion.

“You know, you could have jus’ moved the baskets over to the barn while I bucked. Or picked the apples. No need to go off an’ work this hard all on yer own.” Starburst turned to look at him, breathing heavily.

“I wanted to… I need… to get stronger… and bucking… apples… helps out. A lot.” Starburst’s small chest was heaving like a pair of bellows.

Del nodded slowly, but Starburst could tell he still had qualms. “What… Are you doing here… anyway? If you wanted to check on me… I’m fine.” Starburst straightened herself, slowly recovering her breath. She adjusted her ribbon slightly, to move her bangs out of her eyes.

“No, I came to get you, actually. Red June wanted us to help her sorting her cherries, and Ah thought it would be a nice change of pace.”

Star blinked a little at that. Red June was the first Apple in many years to grow something other than the family’s namesake produce. It was rare that she asked anypony for help, even for something as simple as sorting. Maybe concerned her family wouldn’t respect her work enough, a situation Star was unfortunately familiar with. She refocused on Del. “Why did she need help? Not that I don’t want to, but I thought June normally likes to handle her cherries on her own.”

“Eeyup. Api pulled her away from them. She got her chores done early today and since then she’s sorta been all over the place with her friends. Which wouldn’t be that much of a problem, except now they’re all missing, along with two bales of hay, some of Aunt Bloom’s tools, six sackcloth bags, Api's wagon, and all of our mail.”

Star blinked.

“That’s what June said. She’s hunting them down right now, but we don’t even know what Api’s off doing, so it might take a while.

“Okay. So we’re going to take over for her today?”

“Eeyup. Jus’ until she gets back. Hopefully with our mail in one piece.” Star didn’t laugh. “Nothing very big, jus’ sorting out the cherries and packing them.”

Starburst looked up at the trees, still ripe with fruit. She wanted to keep bucking, keep working on her strength, but she knew June would be relying on them to keep her cherry farm running while she dealt with Api. Starburst shuddered a little: she didn’t know any of the founding members of the Cutie Mark Crusaders that well, but she had heard both her and Del’s mother’s stories. As far as Starburst could tell, Api was the entire trio’s energy, stubbornness, and boundless determination reincarnated into a single, pint-sized form. Star admired Api, in a lot of ways, but…

“Okay,” Star said, resolved to at least ensure that Red June wouldn’t have to deal with farm work after being covered in tree sap. “I’ll just get these over to the barn. Then we can go and sort cherries.”

“Ah’ll help.” Del moved to gather up some of the baskets. Starburst looked like she wanted to protest, but she swallowed it and moved to assist him.

...

“Great! Just like that!” Prism called. He was lounging on a cloud, but his eyes were trained on Whirlwind, who was flying above him. She pulled a loop-de-loop, apparently pleased with her success.

It had taken them some time, between Prism’s reluctance to teach and Whirlwind’s difficulty in learning, but they had finally started to make progress with Whirlwind’s trick. The maneuver had been deceptively difficult – it was fortunate neither of them had crashed – but Prism, once he mustered the effort, had mastered it. After that, he had started to teach Whirlwind, and in the end had retired to his cloud once she had learned enough to finish memorizing the trick on her own.

Whirlwind was preparing to try again as Prism watched. Flying straight across their impromptu training field, she rolled, flipping over in midair. For a brief moment, she flew upside down and backwards; then she rolled again, returning to her former position.

“Nice one, Dubz!” Prism called again. He smirked– the trick didn’t look easy, but he had mastered it quickly and still had managed to teach Whirlwind. The Whirligig Roll, as a she had called it, fit well into his natural talent for high speed agility and turns. The trick didn’t look easy, but to him, it had been.

Prism watched Whirlwind for a little longer, then looked down, towards a cloud floating twenty meters or so below him. Icy sat there, looking slightly morose and reading the comic book Prism had received. He had tried to master the trick too, but had failed. Not really his fault, given his age, but Icy had grown steadily more dejected as Prism easily got the hang of the Whirligig Roll and then coached Whirlwind through it. Eventually, he had given up on helping the two and had moved to the lower cloud, where he stole glances at Whirlwind while skimming through the comic.

Prism’s attention shifted as Whirlwind came in to land in front of him. He didn’t get up, but raised himself slightly from the cloud and shot her a grin.

“So, you think you’ve got it down?” Prism asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.

“Yeah,” Whirlwind replied. She saw Prism’s smirk and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Ah, stop it! I would’ve figured it out without your help eventually. No need to praise your skills as a teacher.”

“How about I praise my skills as a flyer, then? Cause I totally nailed that trick in ten seconds flat!” Prism responded cockily.

Whirlwind punched him again. “Yeah, I know, you’re brilliant. Thanks for helping, really. I want to go and fly a little more to cool off, but then we could go to Sugarcube Corner or something.”

“Okay, sounds cool.” Prism settled back onto his cloud. Whirlwind prepared to take off, then spoke.

“You want to come flying, or…?”

“Naah,” Prism replied easily, waving a hoof. “I’m just gonna chill for a while. Maybe Icy’ll come, though.” Whirlwind nodded, then moved over to look at Icy’s cloud. She frowned and pivoted her head searchingly, then started when Icy dropped down from above her.

“Do either of you have a magnifying glass?” Icy asked. He realized he was standing close to Whirlwind, and stepped back a little, turning his face away from her.

“No,” Prism said, plainly flummoxed. “Why would we have a magnifying glass? Why would you want a magnifying glass?

Icy frowned slightly as Whirlwind looked on in silence. He took out the comic Prism had been mailed and flipped to the end, holding it out towards both of the older ponies.

“There’s something weird at the end of this. The comic just stops all of a sudden, right in the middle of the story. There’s a blank page in the back, with a little message written on it, except it’s too small for me to read.” Icy stopped as Prism took the comic out of his hooves, looking over the ending page. Prism couldn’t tell much about the story, but he could see the writing, slightly above the bottom left of the blank page at the back. It was miniscule– even squinting, he couldn’t make out what it said.

“Maybe it’s just the copyright and stuff. Where do they normally put that in comics?” Prism asked, holding the volume loosely. Whirlwind moved closer to look at it.

“In the front cover. They wouldn’t make it so small you couldn’t read it, either.” Icy folded his hooves, then Whirlwind abruptly grabbed the comic out of Prism’s.

“Hey!”

Whirlwind ignored the outburst. “Oh, be quiet, I’ve got this.” She leaned in to look at the small text. “I’ve got the best eyes out of any pegasus in town. It says… ‘You may return to the place you’ve known when Spectrum is lost to his own.”

“What the heck does that mean?” Prism looked confusedly at Icy.

He appeared equally baffled. “Spectrum was the main character in the comic, but–"

“Shush! There’s more.” Whirlwind leaned in closer to the book. “‘Take a closer look... to join the adventure in this book?”

The trio looked at each other. “Does is say anything else?” Prism asked.

“Erm…” Whirlwind peered at the comic, her eyes practically slits. “Yeah. ‘Prism, you’re a dunce.’ That’s… wait, how the hay is your name–” Before she could finish, the comic glowed with a bright white light.

Whirlwind, whose face was literally inches from the back page, was sucked in before she could cry out. Both Icy and Prism made plenty of noise, though, as they launched themselves forward. For once in their lives, the two siblings acted in perfect unison.

“Whirlwind!”

“Dubz!”

Prism only just missed Whirlwind’s disappearing leg, but it wouldn’t have mattered. He fell in after her, caught up in the comic’s spell, and Icy followed a moment later.

...

“Yes, this should be enough. Thank you both, it’s been wonderful.” Claire returned her bit pouch to her saddlebags, before using her magic to lift them over her barrel. With a final faint tweak, they sat in perfect alignment.

“Oh, you’re welcome, Claire,” Anthea smiled. “I really enjoy these talks. I loved hearing about how you helped T learn to fly!”

Cotton Candy giggled a little. When she was young, she’d had a small crush on T, and though Candy didn’t begrudge Annie her relationship with him, she still liked hearing Claire’s childhood stories about the gentle dracony. Especially if they were cute and adorable.

“It’s my pleasure. I’ve been up to my horns recently, between the usual orders and all my new designs. This has been just what I needed.”

“We’re happy to talk whenever,” Candy said, smile undiminished. “We could do this again tomorrow, if you wanted.”

“Oh, you’re both too kind. But I can’t; my new line needs to be finished by autumn, and it won’t come along if I don’t work on it. I really have enjoyed today, though. Goodbye!” Claire got to her hooves.

“Bye!” Cotton said, waving a little.

“Bye!” Anthea said, as Claire padded away from the outdoor café.

When she had gone some distance, Candy turned to Anthea. “Well that was fun! You want me to walk with you anywhere?”

“Oh, thanks! I’m just going home right now. T was out looking for gems today, and he said he’d meet me there when he was done.” The two mares both got up, and Annie moved to brush against Candy’s shoulder. Candy led the way down the wide street, towards the edge of town and the hoofpath that wound slowly off to Fluttershy’s small cottage.

The two mares walked in companionable silence for a while, then Anthea stirred. “Oh, I’m sorry! I got so caught up in Claire’s story, I forgot to ask you if anything interesting had happened? Has it? Any new jobs, good books…” Annie exaggeratedly looked around, then leaned in and whispered conspiratorially. “Handsome stallions?”

Candy laughed at that. “Nope, no stallions! I did help out Aloe and Lotus with their spa today, though. You’d never imagine how strong they both are! I’ve also been wanting to write another story, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Actually, wait a second!”

Anthea turned as Candy suddenly stopped and started rooting around in her saddlebags. She scrunched up her face, plainly baffled by Candy’s sudden halt. “Is something wrong, Candy?”

“No, but I’m sure I put it… Did I leave it around when I was walking over? Oh, here it is.” Grinning in triumph, Candy pulled out Young Harmony Issue 98.

Annie’s expression remained confused as Candy held the book out to her. Unable to properly see the text or illustrations, she must have only seen a large, ungainly blotch.

“Is that… a comic book?” Anthea hedged.

“Yep! It was really weird; I got it in the mail and there was a note attached – I’ve got it here – that said it was from a friend, except whoever it was didn’t sign it. I couldn’t think of anypony who’d send me a comic without telling me. I know Del, Star, T, and Claire don’t read comics, and Prism never really liked them either.”

“But you thought I might have sent it?” Anthea asked. “I didn’t. I would have said it was from me. I can’t really read comics, either, the pictures all just sorta blur together.”

“Okay, but then who did send it? Who else in Ponyville would send a comic book anonymously?”

“Hmm.” Anthea leaned closer now, a new interest showing in her face. “Maybe one of your friends from Canterlot? Didn’t you and Prince Illusion play a bunch of pranks together when he came to see Claire a while ago?”

“Yeah, he did!” Cotton Candy exclaimed. “Hmmm… But why wouldn’t he have signed it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s something in the comic that explains it? We don’t actually know if it was Illusion.”

“Wait! Maybe the comic book is an illusion!” Candy said, eyes widening. She pressed closer to the comic book herself, forcing Anthea to lean over slightly.

She soon recovered. “It might be. Can I feel it? Prince Illusion hasn’t fooled me yet!” Candy hoofed the novel over to her. Anthea started flipping through the volume, feeling its pages with her hooves and horn. She went through it front to back, then stopped, levitating the book in her magic. “Hmm. I don’t feel anything weird on it, like I would if it had a hidden page or pouch. Sorry.”

Anthea returned the book to Candy, who flipped through it herself. “Maybe there isn’t a hidden page. What if there’s a secret message, written in invisible ink, or underneath a fake picture? Ohh, what’s this?!” Candy had arrived on the last page of the comic, and was now staring at a few lines of tiny, illegible text on the back cover.

Anthea leaned in again. “Is something written there? Is it from Illusion?”

Candy squinted at the tiny type, but then frowned. “I don’t know, I can’t read it. It’s really small. Umm… Do you have a magnifying glass? ”

Anthea tapped her chin thoughtfully. “No, but I might have something that would help. Princess Twilight and I made a magnification spell in one of my lessons. Twilight thought I might be able to make out more details with it, since I normally have trouble seeing outlines. It didn’t really work, but Twilight said the magnification was actually really strong…” Anthea’s horn glowed. Candy watched as her friend concentrated, and before long, a faint green light illuminated the comic book’s back page.

Candy looked at the short paragraph again. Sure enough, the green light had blotted it out and replaced it with an enlarged and now readable version of the first line.

“Did it work?” Annie asked, horn still glowing brightly. “I actually can’t really see the spell when it’s this small…”

“No, it worked! I can read it now!” Candy leaned and started reading “It says ‘You may return to home and family when you have cured the dreadful Malady.’”

“… That… doesn’t sound very good. What does ‘you may return mean? It doesn't sound like it was written to you...”

Candy blinked as she read over the short rhyme again. “I don’t know. There’s more writing, though. Can you move the spell down?”

Anthea still looked concerned, but she obliged, moving the green glow so the next line came into focus.

“‘Take a closer look to join the adventure in this book.’” Anthea’s ears perked up at this, and she suddenly looked at the comic book as if it had become a live snake. “And wait, it also says–”

“Candy, wait–”

“‘–Candy, have a blast!’ Okay, so we know it was sent to me.” Candy turned to look at Anthea, then snapped back as the comic flared white.

“What in Celest- waaaaaaahhhh!” Candy cried out as she was pulled towards the book, which fell to the path as she frantically backpedaled. Her face visibly stretching, Candy’s retreat was arrested even as Anthea used magic to pull on her tail.

“Candy! Hold on! I’ll-woooaah!” The dynamic shifted– Anthea suddenly found herself helpless to pull Candy back from the glowing book, and now she was getting sucked in as well.

Candy tried to turn to look at Anthea before the comic drew them both in, words of reassurement on her lips, but it was futile. Candy’s body collapsed into the flaring book, and her last sight was of Anthea being yanked in after her.

...

Red June walked into her small patch of Sweet Apple Acres with the weary demeanor of a pony thrice her age. She was dejected, battered, had bags under her eyes, and was, as expected, covered in tree sap.

Golden Delicious looked up at her from where he had been sealing a box of cherries. “Should Ah ask?”

June sighed. “She didn’t destroy the town, and she didn’t destroy our mail. Api’s taking a shower with her ma back at the house. I was going ta join them as soon as I made sure you’re all okay.”

“We’re fine,” Starburst piped up. She was returning from moving one of the cherry boxes to Red June’s small barn, flapping a few feet off the ground. “We’re nearly done, these are the last two boxes.”

Red June sighed again, but this time it bespoke relief. “Thanks. Ah’m sorry to have to ask you two to take over for me. Ah know you’ve both got other things you’d have rather been doing.”

“It’s fine, cuz,” Del said as he finished the box. Starburst nodded in affirmation.

“Reminds me. Both of you had mail. Del, here you go. Star–”

“I got mail?” Star asked, flying in closer to look at the envelope Red June was proffering. “I don’t even live here.”

“You’re here practically every day you’re in Ponyville.” Del didn’t look up from his own letter as he spoke. “You almost do live here, and maybe somepony caught on to that an’ wanted to send you something so you’d get it fast.”

Starburst raised an eyebrow at this, but took the offered envelope. It was manila, slightly sticky from residual sap, and had no return address. Slightly baffled, she looked to Del, who was frowning at his letter own letter in consternation, not opening it.

Red June looked between the two of them, then cautiously spoke up. “Something wrong? You can still read ‘em, right? Api might’ve gotten to them when Ah wasn’t looking.”

Del shook his head slowly. His frown remained on his face. “Ah can read it jus’ fine.”

Both the mares waited to see if he’d elaborate. When he didn’t, June looked to Star.

Star showed her the envelope. “No return address. I don’t know who sent it.”

“Why not open it and find out?” Red June asked.

“Sure. Just need to move these last few boxes. Del?” Golden Delicious looked up, but then stole another glance at his letter. Reluctantly, he put it down and moved to pack the final box, while Starburst moved the one he had finished towards the barn.

Starburst, as ever, moved fast, pushing herself. She stacked the box atop the five dozen or so they had already completed, then winged her way back to where Del and Red June were standing.

Star arrived to an awkward silence. Del was sealing the final box, his face slightly downturned, while Red June bore an expression of both with both annoyance and sisterly concern. Starburst looked between them, taking in how their eyes wouldn’t meet the other’s, before speaking.

“Is something wrong?” Star asked. Del stirred slightly, looking to Red June, then returned to packing, apparently wanting her to answer.

Red June leveled her gaze at Del for several moments, apparently thinking things over. Then she turned to Starburst. “It’s a bit complicated. Del got a letter from Canterlot. There’s a noblepony there, Del catered to one of his parties. The letter’s from his daughter, Creme De La Creme.”

The name rung a bell. “I think I know her. Her dad is Fancy Pants, right?” Del nodded in affirmation. “Does she want you to cater again?”

Del waited until he had finished sealing the cherry box, then responded with a terse “Eeyup.”

Starburst looked between the two Apples again. “That’s… good, right? You’re a great chef, Del, and it’s good that you’ve got ponies who recognize it.”

“Eeyup.”

Starburst looked at him. Del’s face wasn’t very expressive, save when expressing sarcasm, but Star had known him long enough to tell that his pinched eyebrows and slightly downturned mouth meant he was upset. She had been on the receiving end of that look often, when he lectured her after her burnouts.

Which made it odd that Del’swas so sour now, when she was in perfect health. Star looked at him seriously for a while, then turned to Red June again. “Am I missing something?”

Red June kept looking at Del. She shook her head slightly, then walked forward and hefted the cherry box onto her back. When Del moved to help she waved him off. “You need to tell her, Del. If not her, then somepony else besides me. Ah keep saying you ought to bring this up with Aunt Applejack. You’re not doing anypony a favor by keeping it all bottled up.”

Del looked at her for a while, then frowned at the ground again. “Okay.”

“Good. You two talk while Ah get this over to the barn.” With that, June turned and walked away, carrying the heavy box as though it weren’t there.

Starburst looked enviously after Red June’s large frame as it moved away, then stepped closer to Del.

Del looked at her for a moment, then returned his gaze to his letter, which sat on the ground beside him. Unopened.

Star looked a bit miffed at that. “You didn’t open it? How do you know what it’s about if you never touched it?”

Del looked slightly spooked at Star’s annoyance. Then he sighed. “Because it wasn’t the first letter Creme sent me. Ah turned two other offers like this, jus’ last month.”

Star frowned. “Why? I know Fancy Pants– he’s a good guy, and he’s rich! Her daughter would have paid you really well. She was, right?”

“Yeah, she was. It wasn’t about the money. Ah… Ah would’ve had to leave the farm. For a while, maybe even as long as a week, to plan and make all the food.”

“Yeah, but it’s a great opportunity! You would’ve gotten to meet with a lot of the nobleponies, and if your food was good, you might get more contracts…” Star watched as Del’s expression grew even more conflicted, becoming torn. Star opened her mouth, but Del beat her to it.

“Ah know all that. But I would’ve had to leave the farm, and mah family. Ah know that if Ah want to get noticed, and learn how to be a good chef, Ah’ll need to cater to lots of different events and learn from lots of different ponies and places. But Ah can’t. Ah can’t leave my family.”

Starburst looked at Del’s pained expression. He was breathing more heavily than he had been bucking apples. “Erm…” I’m not good at this “Del, has this been going on for a long time? You… you’re talking about it like it’s been eating at you for a while.”

Del nodded slowly. “Eeyup. Ah’ve been… well, ever since Ah got my cutie mark, and learned that I could cook things besides apples, I’ve wanted to learn how to get better, make new dishes, learn new styles. Except, Ah can’t really do that here. So, Ah’ve gone elsewhere to learn. Except every time… Ah had to come back. Ah couldn’t leave my family, Ah… they’re too important.”

“Okay… Well, Del, if you just wanted to stay at Sweet Apple Acres, your family would be fine with that. They really love you, and I… it’s good that you’ve learned so much from them… ” Starburst trailed off lamely. She wasn’t used to dispensing advice; her relationship with Del normally consisted of the reverse. Now I almost wish Mom were here. She’s the Princess of Friendship, she’d probably have this all wrapped up and written down inside a Friendship Report by now.

“Ah know.” Starburst refocused on Del when he spoke. He sounded at least somewhat more collected than earlier. “Ah know that Ah’ve got a lot that’s good here. Ah’m sorry to trouble you like this, Star. You’re here to train, not to listen to me talk about mah troubles.” He said the last sentence with a quiet finality, clearly wanting to end the topic.

Yeah, I definitely wish Mom were here. Shifting a little, Star said “Okay. It’s fine, though. I’m happy to talk, if you’ve ever got anything you need to say.”

“Okay.” The pair stood silently for a few moments. Just when Star was starting to feel awkward, Del spoke up again. “So, what about you? You get anything vast and life changing in the mail?”

Starburst pulled out her own letter. A second examination revealed nothing new: it was large, manila, and had only her name and the address of Sweet Apple Acres written on the upper right corner in neat hoofwriting. Starburst showed it to Del. “I don’t know. It doesn’t say who sent it.”

“Well, you should open it, then.” Del cut off as Red June reappeared trotting slowly, the cherries presumably safe in her barn.

“Sorry for taking so long. Ah saw your work, it all looked great. Thanks again for helping me.” Red June looked between Star and Del, apparently searching for signs of Del’s earlier conflict. “…You two talked?”

“Eeyup. We talked. Starburst was just about to open her letter. It’s a bit odd, doesn’t say who it’s from.” Del’s face was expressionless, but the deflection was blatant enough even Star could see it.

Red June certainly had, but Star spoke before she could respond. “Uh– yeah. But we should probably start heading back to your house, June, if you want to get a shower before supper.”

Red June stopped, then looked between the two reticent ponies with visible annoyance. She didn’t push the conversation, however, and,with apparent reluctance, turned to walk back towards the Apple Family’s sizeable farmhouse. Del and Star trailed after, Star occasionally breaking into flight to keep up with the two larger ponies.

Red June allowed the two time to catch up, moving stiffly. Del filled the silence. “So, are you gonna open your letter, Star? Actually, come to think of it, it might be important. You don’t typically get top secret Princess orders, do you? Confidential stuff, and all that?”

Starburst snorted. “I wish. I’m not technically an official Princess yet, just the daughter of one. I get the title and the fancy jewelry, but I don’t actually do anything.” Despite her proclaimed skepticism, though, Star eyed the enveloped with new interest. It did feel like it had paper in it, just like the files Star had sometimes come across in her father’s office.

Del grinned at Star’s expression. “Well, maybe that’s changing. You won’t know if you don’t open it.”

Starburst looked at the letter for another moment, then tore it open. When its contents slid out, however, her eager expression immediately turned to one of confusion.

Instead of secret documents, the envelope had held a comic book. Gaudy, glossy, and bright, it was about as different from the neatly written manuscripts Star had hoped for as was possible. The title was white on red: Marvel Mare Issue 34. Star didn’t look at much else before she looked away in disgust.

“Great. A comic.”

“A comic?” Del looked at the brightly colored volume with a quirked eyebrow. “Who sent you a comic?”

“You got a comic?” Red June interrupted, looking back at the pair.

Starburst answered both of the questions without looking at their askers. “Yeah. But I don’t read comics. And I have no idea who sent this.” She stared at the offending novel as if it had personally insulted her, finding the small note stuck into its front cover largely by accident.

As Del and Red June looked on with slight concern, Starburst took out the note and quickly scanned it. When she failed to find a signature, she went back and read it more slowly.

Dear Starburst,
I know you’re not one for reading, or comics, but I nonetheless hope that you will take the time to go through this particular volume. I know how seriously you take your free time, but I assure you this comic will be both more worthwhile and more immersive than you might expect at first glance. Please enjoy it to the fullest.

Sincerely,A friend

“Star?” Looking up, Star saw Del looking at her with mild fear.

“Yes?”

“Uhh, is it bad? Ah mean, what’s the note say? You’re looking a mite angry.”

Starburst realized she had been scowling, and tried to adopt a less hostile expression before replying. “Oh, no, it’s just sort of weird. The note still doesn’t say who sent it, but it said it was from a friend.”

“Can Ah see it?” June asked. Starburst gave her the note, then examined the comic once more.

Red June handed the note to Del when she had finished. “Seems pretty innocent to me. Except the mystery friend thing. Ah’m sorry, Ah don’t know you’re friends very well; can you think of anypony who’d send a you comic? Without telling you?”

Starburst thought for a moment, during which Del finished the note and looked at her expectantly. “Yeah, I guess. It probably wasn’t Mom or Dad, but maybe Uncle Spike. Or, if it was a friend, then… hmm. Do you know if Annie or Candy like comics?” Star directed the last query to Del.

“Ah think Candy does.”

“Maybe she sent this, then. She’s always trying to get me to do silly ‘fun’ stuff with her and Prism.”

“Letter doesn’t really sound like her, through.” Del looked over the note again. “Ah could see her playing the mystery friend, but the rest of it sounds like somepony else.”

“This all sounds pretty interesting, but Ah’d like to get moving again. It’s sort of a long walk.” June turned back towards the farmhouse. Del and Star quickly followed, and the group resumed its earlier trot.

Del, once again, broke the silence. “Ah really don’t think Candy sent that comic. What sort of story is it?”

Star looked down at the comic once more, changing to a low hover to keep her balance. “Just a normal superhero vs. the villain story, I think. I don’t really know much about ‘Marvel Mare’. Or ‘Earthshaker’.”

“Who?” Del inquired. Starburst responded by handing him the comic and pointing to the subheading.

“Ah. He’s a sidekick? Okay. Hmm… If somepony other than Candy sent this, do you think they would have signed somewhere inside the comic?” Del flipped it open.

“Like, on the back page? Maybe. Sounds like something my brother would do. Or Prince Illusi–”

“Hah! Here!” Del triumphantly pointed to the last page of the comic, which was blank. Except, Star saw, for a tiny blot of black letters in the bottom right corner.

“What is it?” Red June asked. The group had stopped once again when Del made his discovery.

“Ah found something in Star’s book. Might be from whoever sent it.” Del squinted. “Except it’s really tiny. June, do ya know if we have a magnifying glass back at the house?”

Star looked over Del’s shoulder. “It’s okay, I think I can read it.” Squinting hard, she started. “It says… ‘You may… return... to the place… you started… when the… Beast’s… Quest... is… ended.”

Red Gala looked skeptical, but Star pressed on. “‘Take… a closer… look…. To join… the adventure… in … this book’… Huh. That sounds sort of weird.”

“Ah think we should head back and a magnifying glass, Star. At this rate you’re gonna strain your eyes.” Red June turned around and resumed walking.

Starburst followed, Del beside her, both still considering the comic.

“That sounded a lot stranger than the letter. Ya have any idea who sent it now? Anything in there stand out?” Del asked.

Starburst thought about it. “Umm… It sounds like something Illusion or Lance would write. Or they both would write. Let me check again.” Starburst squinted once more, looking over the note. “… ‘join the adventure.. in… this.. book’… wait! There’s something after that…” Del leaned in, intrigued. “‘Star… have a blast!’” Star looked up.

Del looked a little disappointed. “Hm. Well, Ah gotta admit, Ah can’t really think of anypony who’d– what the!” Del leapt back as the comic started glowing brilliantly, Star flying straight up in similar fright. Both of them gazed in astonishment as the comic surged with white light. Ahead of them, Red June turned around with eyes wide and yelled something Star couldn’t hear.

Starburst briefly wondered if her brother had sent the envelope and had tried to enchant it to get back at her for eating all of his desert last week, but that thought turned to panic as she felt herself being drawn down, towards the comic book. Frantically, Star flapped her wings, trying to maintain lift, but whatever force was yanking her from the sky only got stronger. Night Light couldn’t use a gravity spell! Who the heck did this? Is somepony trying to assassinate me?

Del abruptly lost his footing. As Star watched, he tumbled forward, and then was sucked into the comic in a warp of limbs and stretching features.

“DEL!” Red June leaped forwards, trying unsuccessfully to grab her cousin, and then fell in after him. As she vanished, Star felt the pull from the book strengthen.

Star tried, desperately, to escape, to pull herself out of the comic’s range, but it was futile. Even her huge wings couldn’t move enough air to counteract the growing pull of the comic. She simply wasn’t strong enough.

This can’t be it, Starburst thought wildly. I still need to become a guard! I can’t, can’t die! It can’t just end!

The comic didn’t stop, and Starburst lost consciousness as the world warped around her and her vision was filled with bright white light.

“Uhhh…” Prism groaned. He slowly gathered himself and opened his eyes, blinking to clear them of spots. What the hay happened?

Prism slowly stood up, looking around as he did so. His vision was distorted, somehow: the shadows around him were thin and flat, the colors too bright. It made his head hurt, but Prism could still see where he was. Slowly, and slightly painfully, Prism’s gaze drifted from the file-filled shelves lining one wall of the rectangular room to a large table dominating half of it. It had a three-dimensional model on it, of a city filled with skyscrapers, standing on metal legs above a red carpeted floor. Maybe it was the dark grey walls or the fluorescent lighting, but the entire arrangement reminded Prism of a fire station for some reason.

“Prism? Icy?” Prism’s head snapped up when he heard Whirlwind’s voice. He searched for her, but his vision hadn’t improved, and he soon abandoned his efforts as his vision exploded with painfully bright spots.

“Dubz?” Prism asked hesitantly, blinking to get the spots out of his eyes.

“Prism? Are you– oh Luna what are you wearing?”

Prism turned towards Whirlwind’s voice. As he did, the spots abruptly grew worse, and Prism closed his eyes to block them out. “What do you mean? Where are we?”

“Priz, you look like you’re trying to impersonate Princess Celestia! What happened?” Prism shook his head, then reopened his eyes.

The spots immediately returned. Prism didn’t care. He was too busy staring.

“Prism!? That is you, right?” Whirlwind stepped forward. Prism nodded absentmindedly. “Okay, seriously, what the hay is going on? Am I hallucinating? Is this a prank? Prism? Prism, are you listening to anyth–”

Prism just barely managed not to scream. “Dubz. You’re wearing a ninja costume!”

“Wha–” Whirlwind looked down at her hooves, then felt her face.

She was wearing a purple bodysuit a few shades brighter than her coat, which covered everything except her head and wings. In design, it was similar to a Wonderbolts Cadet uniform like the ones Prism had worn during his flight camps, but the material Whirlwind’s costume was made from was much thicker, much more so than a typical flightsuit. This bulk was added to by the black panels of armor that ran along the front of Whirlwind’s legs, chest, and back, the latter of which was subdivided into three interlocking plates. Both the armor panels and the purple bodysuit were accented by flowing silver lines, which spiraled into shapes reminiscent of Whirlwind’s cutie mark on her chest and hooves. Completing the entire ensemble was a mask, purple and silver like the flightsuit but plainly made out of some metal. It left Whirlwind’s mane free and had a large gap over her mouth, curving around her face like a hoofball helmet’s guard. Only her upper muzzle and eyes were totally hidden behind the mask, which had glass lenses that matched Whirlwind’s eye color.

Prism noticed the last fact as Whirlwind attempted to rip the mask off of her face. She succeeded in unclipping the eyepiece, which she held in her hoof. After staring at it for a moment, Whirlwind looked up at Prism.

“…Just, what? Seriously, what the hay!?” Whirlwind looked at Prism completely flabbergasted.

“I don’t know. You said I was wearing a costume too?” Prism started hesitantly, still trying to clear away the spots.

Whirlwind nodded, walking towards the wall with the bookshelves on it in a half-conscious,vaguely shell-shocked manner. “Yeah, you’ve got a fancy white… something-or-other. I guess you don’t really look like Princess Celestia. You’ve got… greaves? Greaves with big lights on them and a visor.”

“A visor?” Prism started to reach up to fell his face, but then stopped. He felt like he had just forgotten something important. Something to do with… he kept reaching up and brushed his hoof over his eyes; sure enough, there was a bar of hard material covering them.

“Yeah, a visor,” Whirlwind continued, “and all of it’s white. Everything except for you mane, that’s normal. Actually, wait a minute.” Prism dropped his hoof from his eyes as Whirlwind cut off, only to find she had moved out of his field of view. When he tried to search for her, the spots returned with a vengeance.

“Okay, that’s even weirder.” Whirlwind’s voice came from somewhere to Prism’s left. He turned in that direction.

“What?”

“You’re wings are all white, too, but I can still see the feathers. It looks like somepony dyed them.”

Not dye, overlaid animathaumic photosolids, Prism thought. Wait, what?

Whirlwind’s tone was growing uncollected again. “Why would anypony want to dye your wings? How would anypony have dyed your wings? How long were we asleep for!? Or is there some kinda crazy unicorn spell to dye stuff super fast!?”

Prism stood still as Whirlwind’s questions grew increasingly louder and more frenetic. …What’s a photosolid? Prism didn’t know. But I know a photosolid is… something. It’s a substance. Well, not exactly, but photosolids at equilibrium behave like substances, and animathaumic ones can have fluctuating equilibrium states based on the magical flow of their projector. Oh my gosh, how do I know that?

“Nopony tried to dye my wings, did they?” There was a brief flapping noise followed by a thump. Prism jerked out of his reverie as Whirlwind cried out.

Prism heard a faint shuffling as he tried to focus past the spots. When he finally succeeded, he followed the shuffling to its source, and found Whirlwind with wings outstretched and a look of numb horror on her face.

Because Whirlwind didn’t have wings outstretched. She had only one. Where her left wing would extend there was only a stump, jutting out like a worn, ugly stick.

Prism stared for a few more seconds before Whirlwind started screaming.

Cotton Candy awoke to a loud, slightly panicky voice. Her eyes snapped open, and she blinked a little as her vision came back into focus.

“Candy! Candy, can you hear me? Are you there?” Anthea’s voice, the same that had woken Candy up.

Candy struggled to her hooves, still trying to get her bearings as she called back. “I’m over here, Annie!” She stopped and shook her head a little. Okay, what happened?

“Candy? Where’s ‘over here’?”

I’ll tell you when I figure it out myself. Candy turned about, trying to find the source of Anthea’s voice, and inadvertently taking in the current locale.

Candy was standing on the ground floor of a medium-sized processing plant, between two lines of decrepit conveyor belts. Judging from the absence of any other ponies, the plastic sheets hung over the large machines in the middle of the lines, and the cobwebs criss-crossing the rafters a floor above her, the plant had been abandoned for some time. Despite this, a pungent odor remained in the air, powerfully salty.

Candy would have examined her surroundings further had she not caught sight of another pony stepping around a plastic-sheathed machine a few aisles down. The pony scrunched up her nose and asked “Candy? Is that you?”

“...Yeah, its me. Umm, Annie, what are you wearing?”

Anthea, who was recognizable by her eyes and braid, in addition to her voice, was wearing a snug purple uniform and a similarly colored domino mask that did a good job of breaking up the shape of her face. Her uniform covered her from the neck down, flaring into a skirt at her barrel that hung over her flanks and covered her cutie mark. Ribbons were woven through Anthea’s tail and mane, including one that wrapped neatly through her braid.

Most impressively, Anthea’s entire uniform was sparkling, tiny spots of light dancing across her mask and the sides of her barrel and spiralling down her hooves. The spots moved in whimsical patterns, and they occasionally created splashes of rainbow color. It reminded Candy of pictures she had seen of the Aurora Borealis at nighttime, but Anthea’s costume was softer, with more motion and an even greater variety of colors.

The suit was so eye-catching Candy almost missed Anthea’s reply to her absentminded question. “I… don’t really know. I could feel it when I woke up, but I couldn’t really tell what it was. But is that really important right now? Do you know where we are?”

Candy looked around again. “We’re in some old factory, I think. There’s an odd smell.”

“Seaweed.” Candy looked at Anthea in askance. “The smell is seaweed; T and his family have it sometimes.”

“So we’re in an old seaweed processing plant? That’s abandoned? That’s kind of creepy.”

Anthea shivered. “Yeah. There isn’t anyplace like this in Ponyville, is there? We must be someplace else… Oh, wait. Do you remember how we got here? The comic book?”

At Anthea’s words, Candy did recall the comic book, and its role in her brief spell of unconsciousness. “Yeah! That was what brought us here, I remember! It must have been a portal or something!”

“It might have been. Twilight told me about portals once, she said they normally open holes between dimensions…” Anthea trailed off with a look of fear on her face. “Umm… Candy?”

“You think we might have been sent to another dimension!?” Candy could only begin to imagine the disaster that would be. It might take days to get back, or weeks, or mon–

“I don’t! Portal spells normally don’t behave like the comic did, but that’s not important! Candy, you’re green!”

“Green?” Candy looked down at her hooves.

Well, they aren’t green, but why are they pink? Candy was wearing leggings with alternating pink, rose, and white squares, in a checkerboard pattern. On her hooves were bright pink boots, decorated with white fluff poms.

“Now you’ve turned back to normal! Well, almost back to normal. You’re still a little darker blue than you usually are.”

“But I’m not normal!” Candy tore her gaze from the boots and looked concernedly Anthea. “I’m wearing a costume like yours, except mine’s pink!”

“Now you’re green again!”

Finally!” A loud, male voice echoed through the factory, carrying the tone of an exasperated store owner whose late shipment had at long last arrived. Both Candy and Anthea jumped at the voice, and turned to search for its source.

It was not difficult to find. The speaker was a griffin, hovering well above the abandoned conveyer belts, in the approximately middle of the room. He wore a white chef's hat and apron, both heavily stained, that matched his white and equally dirtied feathers. Only the griffin’s mustache, a long but well-kempt black pencil line curling away from his beak, was free from grime.

“Do either of you ponies have any idea how long I have waited for you to fall into my trap!?” The griffin asked with a strong Prench accent. “You were supposed to have stumbled upon my magnificently malefic machinations by yourselves in the next room, but instead you lazily lollygagged, and I was forced to abandon my expertly engineered encampment and track you down myself. C’est terrible!”

“Uhhh… Okay. Who’re you?” Candy looked over to Anthea, whose head was cocked curiously, and then back at the griffin. “Because I’m pretty sure we’ve never seen you before.”

Never seen me bef– ahh ha ha ha, Jestress, zat joke was one you shall regret making!” The griffin flapped a few feet higher, his yellow eyes sparking with arrogance and aggression.“To jog your memories, I am Monsieur Maladie, the viral virtuoso, the patrician of plague! Voila, mon armèe!”

Monsieur Maladie swept a claw before himself, and at the end of every aisle, a pair of enormous beige creatures stepped forward. They had four legs and a blobby head with eyes, but otherwise they were just featureless masses of goo. As they moved, small globs of their substance dripped off, and their forms melted and shifted to account for the lost material. They were massive, horrifying, and clearly not equine.

Monsieur Maladie steepled his claws as Anthea and Candy recoiled in fright. “Now, Jestress, Cheerleader, mes copianes… Now we shall make up for lost time. Well, I will. Your times, I fear, will be brutally cut short. Muhahahahahaha!”

This can’t be it! I still need to become a guard! I can’t, can’t die! It can’t just end!

Golden Delicious awoke with a start and a horrible feeling that he had lost something. He got up so swiftly he nearly twisted a hoof, and then almost fell over again as he heard a faint rumble.

Del ignored the noise, too busy frantically searching for… for… what am Ah looking for, again?

Still tense, Del stopped for a brief moment, trying to recall what had happened. As he scoured his memories, he also took in his surroundings, his gaze charged with anxious energy.

Del stood on a street, under a starry sky. Streetlamps were lit at regular intervals, their illumination making small pools of brightness, one of which Del stood in. Otherwise there were just long stretches of shadow. He was surrounded by tall buildings, most five or six stories high; all were brick or painted plaster, completely different from the familiar Ponyville style Del was accustomed too and much drabber than the fancy Canterlot style he often saw when he catered for Fancy Pants’ or his daughter’s parties.

The street was completely abandoned, the only movement being pieces of paper and trash blowing around in the nighttime wind. Fearfully, Del realized that most of the buildings around him were not only dark: they were wrecked, old and mouldering, with broken glass in their windows and graffiti on their walls.

Okay. Ah ain’t in Ponyville anymore, that’s for sure. Where am Ah? What happened? Ahhh… Last thing Ah remember before this was being on the farm–

**ArfrRRf!*

Del spun around like a poked snake, his eyes wide and darting from point to point. The ground seemed unsteady beneath him, and adrenaline poured into his veins. None of this did anything to improve his fraying nerves.

A low, pained groan echoed through the dark night.

Del backed away a few steps, muscles tense, as he heard some quiet shuffling. Then there were a few seconds of silence, as Del’s heart palpitated, before a voice pierced the darkness.

“Hello?”

Del sighed with relief, the tension bleeding from his limbs. He trotted forward and called back.

“Ah’m over here, June. You mind stepping into the light?”

“Del?” Red June’s hooves clip-clopped in the dark stillness, and after a few moments her large frame became visible. “Del, is that you?”

Del relaxed even more upon seeing June enter the streetlamp’s small circle of illumination– but he tensed up again when he realized something was off.

Red June was easily recognizable, both by her face and by her sheer size – no other pony in Ponyville even approached her height – but from the neck down she was clad in a long-sleeved leotard. It covered everything except for her hooves; there were even red elastics that kept June’s tail in a neat rope. Colorwise, the leotard was fairly simple, red with white lines at the collar and hooves. The most bizarre thing about the uniform, in truth, was that it had June’s cutie mark, the cherry cluster, emblazoned on her chest and flanks.

“Uh, Del? That’s you, right?” Red June’s voice brought Del’s gaze back to her face, which looked baffled and more than a little concerned.

“What? Course it’s me, June.”

June’s expression relaxed fractionally. “Okay, but , uh, you’re wearing some… really weird armor, Del.”

“Ah am?” Del looked down at his hooves, then back over his shoulder.

Del was wearing a uniform far more elaborate than Red June’s. Its most basic layer consisted of a neutral brown fabric suit, but locked over it were pieces of gold armor, bulkier and more all-covering than that of a royal guard. Like a guardspony, Del had a chestplate, backplate and sideplates, but he also had a gorget made of flexible metal bands, additional protection on his undercarriage, and the armor’s most impressive feature: a quartet of armored greaves that completely encircled Del’s cannons and locked into a set of shoes that must have added half a foot to his height. The greaves were thick, solid metal, so large Del had no idea how he hadn’t noticed them earlier. They were also masterfully crafted and enameled; a row of three brown lines, oscillating like a heartbeat monitor or a seismograph, encircled each. At the apex of each line’s peak, it touched the trough of the line above it. The highest and lowest lines coming into contact with the armor’s edge.

“Eeyup,” Red June observed as Del looked over his new outfit, “you are. You couldn’t tell?”

“No, Ah didn’t notice it.” How in Equestria? Del looked down at his colossal greaves again, flummoxed, then back at Red June. “Wait. June, you’ve got a sort of uniform too. Did you notice?”

“Wha–?” Red June looked at her own hooves, then glanced over her shoulder, exactly mirroring Del a few seconds earlier. When she turned back, she had a nigh identical expression of bafflement on her face, too. “How–?”

“Ah don’t know.” Del frowned. “Ah don’t see… Do you remember what happened?”

*ArfrRRf!*

Both ponies’ ears flicked at the sound, but Del, having heard it before, got a slightly better impression of it. It reminded him a dog – or several dogs – barking at once.

Red June hissed “What was that!?”

Del breathed deeply, then replied “Ah don’t know. Ah heard it a while back, before you woke up. Sounded like some dogs.”

Red June scanned the darkness uneasily. “That’s an awful lot of dogs.”

“Yeah… But it’s more important that we figure out how we got here. I remember being on the farm last, but after that I’m blanking. Do you remember, June?”

“Not much. Ah know we were on the farm, me and you and Star–”

“Star!” Del looked at June as the ground shuddered again. “She was with us, and she… the comic! Star’s comic started glowing, and then Ah got sucked in, and you must have been pulled in after me… Did you see what happened to Star? Did she get away?”

Del realized he had taken several steps forward in his agitation. Red June, in turn, had moved several steps back, and she was looking at the ground warily as she replied. “Ah don’t remember, Del. Ah think… Ah think Ah tried to catch you, but Ah didn’t see what happened to Star.”

Del was breathing heavily, but, with apparent effort, he calmed down. “Okay. We need… First we’ve gotta find Star, if she also got sucked in. Then we need to figure out what happened, and how we got here… Actually, maybe if we knew where we were, we’d be able to find Star faster. You ever seen anyplace like this?”

Red June shook her head. “Looks like Manehatten, maybe. Aunt Applejack said they make buildings sorta like this. Must be the worst neighborhood in all of Manehatten, though; this place looks like it's been going to dust for years.”

*ArfrRRf!*

As Del’s heartbeat trebled yet again, Red June glanced around nervously. “Ah’m pretty sure that was closer.”

Del nodded, reluctantly. The noise did sound like dogs barking, but it wasn’t a happy bark: it was more the type of bark a dog made when they were tearing off after some poor chicken, or even a pony who had trespassed on the wrong farm.

*ArfrRRf!*

Red June and Del instinctively stepped closer together, both now scanning the darkness intensely.

“Okay, Ah’ve got a new plan,” Red June whispered. “First we find someplace not smack-dab in the middle of an abandoned neighborhood at night, then we figure out where we are, then we find Star and get home.”

Del nodded, and it happened as his head was rising up from its second dip.

Accompanied by yet another tremendous *ArfrRRf!*, a blur shot into the streetlamp’s radius, nearly five meters above ground , at an angle that could only have been achieved by leaping from one of the surrounding buildings. The creature didn’t slow as struck the pavement, but leapt forward, going so swiftly Del couldn’t get any idea of its shape. It’s speed dissolved it into a fragmented streak of scales and muscles bound with fur; a distorted impression of malicious yellow eyes and long, curved claws that sliced into Red June’s chest from shoulder to stomach.

Starburst awoke feeling awful. She was dizzy, tired, and shaky. Her head was pounding, and her limbs felt weak and numb. Her her stomach was cramped and protesting, and her whole body was feverishly warm. In short, Star was completely, overwhelmingly exhausted.

Not that it concerned her. This was how she always felt, after her burnouts.

Groaning a little and shutting her eyes, Star considered, in the idle, dreamy mindset of the recently woken, whether she wanted to get up. She knew that she should, so she could find Del, listen to his lecture, and get food into her stomach, but moving about sounded understandably unappealing in her current state.

Eventually, Star tried to get to her feet and managed to flop onto her belly, eyes still closed. Del had probably dropped her in the Apple Family’s barn, if he was following form. The hay felt a little softer than normal, though, and it was sapping Star’s desire to move.

Again, Star tried to rise, rising a little off the bed, but failing to really make progress. She did manage to drive something cold into her chest, though. The hard-edged object was trapped squarely underneath Star’s barrel, irritatingly unyielding. She shifted around, trying to dislodge it, and failed.

Star lay still for a while, contemplating the irritant and pondering whether removing it was worth getting up. Finally, she sighed, and, in a rather undignified tangle of limbs, rolled onto the floor and got shakily to her hooves.

Annoyingly, the frigid object remained in contact with her fur. Star blinked, still muzzy from sleep, wondering why it hadn’t remained in the hay. Then her mind finally put a few thoughts together, and Star reached for her chest, eventually seizing the whatever-it-was and holding it up for inspection.

Star’s eyes widened when she finally managed to see what had driven her from sleep.

It was an amulet – it was far too elaborately and painstakingly wrought to merit any lesser title – circular and larger across than Star’s hoof. It was made of an odd material, dark red-bronze in color and very light. The amulet also was shaped unusually: it was concave, the face gently sloping down from the edge. Covering the depressed surface were at least a hundred incised lines that spiralled around the center, some once and some many times, crossing over each other randomly. Each line originated from a perfectly round gem that was set into the middle of the amulet: a black opal, filled with flecks of red in a pattern infinitely harder to follow than that of the lines surrounding it.

Star held the amulet dumbfoundedly as her brain, entirely jolted from its lethargy, struggled to make sense of it. What… What is this? I’ve never had anything like it… Claire couldn’t have made it, it looks… it doesn’t look like anything anypony from Ponyville or Canterlot would wear…

Starburst stared at the jewel in the center of the amulet. Its multitude of red flecks whorled and wound in knots and loops, creating long interwoven strands before breaking their self-imposed pattern and becoming an explosion of red. The flecks were of different sizes and intensities, and as Star kept looking, she started to see them move. They were like a river, some flying straight and swift and others slowly drifting along the fringes, scintillating outwards. The flecks melded with one another until the jewel seemed to be covered in a flower-like pattern of red cracks; then the opal started to unfold, the flecks gushing out like –

Star jerked back and dropped the amulet, stumbling a little in her weakened condition. It bounced on her chest, hanging by a thin chain Star hadn’t seen in her first examination.

Star collected herself and realized, to her surprise, that her breathing was even. This fact changed when she looked, for the first time since getting up, at her surroundings.

Star was not in the Apple family barn, as she had believed. Instead, she was in an attic. Admittedly a large attic, long and with a ceiling sufficently high that even a pony as large as Red June would have stood no chance of bumping it, but still an attic; the wood floor and mismatched slanted plank and straight plaster walls made that clear. Star had been resting on a stack of mattresses in the corner, surrounded by crumpled blankets, next to a small window that provided a nondescript view of a nighttime street. The room was devoid of adornment, but it stocked many necessities one would expect of an apartment or home, including a washbasin, a couch, a kitchenette, and a full-body mirror. Next to the kitchenette was a sizeable pile of groceries, enough to keep a family of five feed for a week, which the attic’s resident hadn’t bothered to put away.

Star took all of this in with widened eyes. I passed out bucking apples, right!? I should be in Del’s barn! Star took a step forward and stumbled: the symptoms of her burnout, if that was really what had happened, were undiminished. Star had forgotten about her numb and shaky legs while she had been eyeing the amulet – Did whoever put me here give me that!? – but she remembered them as she struggled to make her way towards the other end of the attic, where the line of groceries extended into another room Star hoped lead to a door. As she strove not to fall over, Star tried to think back.

I was on the farm, definitely… and then… and then…

Star struggled, mentally and physically, until she got about midway through the attic, parallel with the couch. Then she had a breakthrough, at least on one front.

The comic! I got the comic, and it had a spell or a trap on it… Star stopped. Oh Celestia, if I’m here then where are Del and Red June! And why did I have a burnout? What… Star looked around again, searching the room with new scrutiny. Even ignoring how she had gotten there, it looked like a rather shady place. Was the book enchanted with some sort of teleport spell? Can unicorn magic even do that? Or did it just knock all of us out, and then somepony else moved me here?

Star kept searching the room. Next to the mattresses she had been sleeping on, there was a nightstand with a shuttered lamp, currently lightless. What illumination there was came from the moon shining through the window, and from a few scattered candles that lay on the floor or on the kitchenette counter. In front of the couch was a brown rug, both arranged so they faced the mirror. The couch was beige and looked cheap but new; the rug was contrastingly well-worn and fraying. Star turned toward where she had seen the washbasin, and caught sight of her reflection in the mirror.

I… I… W-what happened to me?

Star looked at least as horrible as she felt, if not more so. Her fur was bleached and stiff; her mane was almost gone, and what remained was a ratty mess. Her normally penetrating purple eyes were dull and bloodshot, and the face beneath them was skull-like. But Star had suffered more than just aesthetically: she was skeleton thin, her ribcage visible and her legs shaking and sticklike. The hard muscles Star had won through countless workouts and almost as many burnouts had atrophied down to nothingness.

As Star staggered backwards, legs still quivering, her wings instinctively flared out. Her feathers were still preened, still in alignment, but every one of them was dead. They were bleached, white, and dry. As Star looked at the full-body mirror with mute horror, she saw a few of her primaries fall out.

W-what did that comic do!? Poison me? Or, or… Who… WHO DID THIS!? WHY!? I’m going to KILL them! I’ll… why would anypony?...

Starburst felt her legs give out, and her reflection dropped to the ground with an empty look in its eyes.

… I don’t want to be like this…

On Star’s chest, the amulet glowed.

For a brief instant Star’s world blurred, and sight and sound and balance all swirled into an incomprehensible mess. Then, before she even had time to react, Star’s senses returned to her with as little fanfare as accompanies waking up in the morning.

The entire process was so completely disorienting and yet had so little actual impact that Star didn’t react for several seconds. She simply stood still, unconsciously noting that her former exhaustion and feverishness seemed to have faded.

Eventually, the reflection in the mirror again caught Star’s attention, and brought her out of her daze

The mirror now showed a Star wildly different from the one it had displayed moments ago. Just as she no longer felt tired or weak, so too was her reflection straight and proud. Her eyes had regained their strong purple sheen and her fur was back to full luster. Her wings were still extended, still had every feather meticulously locked in place, but they were restored to their former glory. Even the odd amulet no longer remained on Star’s chest.

The problem was that the mirror did not show only one Star. The healthy, vigorous Star was transparent. Her muscled legs, her massive wings, and even her restored body didn’t block out the sight of the plank wall on the other side of the room. She floated a few feet off the ground, her wings unmoving, and beneath her was the old Star, the decrepit one, unchanged from her former appearance save that she lay on the floor with her eyes closed. The amulet remained on that Star’s chest, the red flecks in its opal now definitely moving.

Star turned from the mirror and looked beneath her with a disbelieving gaze. There, just as the mirror had shown, was her body. Its limbs were stick-like and its mane was ratty, but it was her, and when Star brought up her hoof to look at the form her mind now occupied, she could still see her bleached fur through her new, transparent orange pelt.

… What did that comic do?

Powered Comics Fun Fact: The Questing Beast is one of the more minor denizens of Tartarus, or at least of Powered Comic’s somewhat artistic interpretation of Tartarus. The purpose of the comic version is the same as in reality: the infernal prison exists to hold beings whose magic is either too resilient or too dangerous to risk lesser confinements. However, Powered Comics has added many fictitious flourishes to its Tartarus, including many new denizens, a far more lava-heavy environment, and an entirely imaginary race of Tartarian Demons to act as guards for the inmates. While in reality Cerberus is Tartarus’s only warden, in Powered Comics lore demons have mostly taken over the role. Of course, the demons are not necessarily heroes: their two most favored pastimes are holding grudges and inventing new torture methods, so an escaped Tartarian demon is in some ways worse than an escaped Tartarian prisoner.

Author's Note:

Because one cliff-hanger just isn't enough.

Author's Notes