• Published 16th Nov 2011
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My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring - JohnBiles



The Mane Six. Typical D&D Adventurer Hijinx. As told by an adventurer rescued by them.

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Book Two: Dragons of Swamp Glooming

My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring
A D&D (Mystara) / My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crossover

Book 2: Dragons of Swamp Glooming

By John Biles

***************

We got teleported back to the rock by the Duchess and several of her ponies. Rarity, Spike, and I all wanted to dig down and get the gems, but we got outvoted, since there was the whole Dragon problem still not dealt with. They promised we could come back afterward.

I wish, I think we can be sure that this will probably end with us falling from the sky into the Broken Lands. Though being there with Twilight and Dash would probably let us finally find that damn tower again, break back into it, and FINALLY get that crown.

Assuming the crown actually exists, anyway.

Long story.

Rarity and Twilight went off to one side and talked about... something. They were excited about it, anyway. I decided it best to assume 'girl talk' and just move on.

Ivan and Applejack were talking about fertilizer. FERTILIZER. What is with him?

I was just ambling along, listening to Dash and Soarin' clumsily flirt, while Spitfire scouted ahead. "So, you're like a unicorn human, right?" Soarin' asked me.

Close enough. "Yes," I told him.

"Aaah," he said sagely.

"And Ivan is like an Earth pony," Dash said.

Soarin' looked at him and nodded in agreement.

Oddly enough, there are three major groups of humans on this world, though they all have the same aptitudes and skills. It's all superficial. Ivan and I are both of Neathar descent; they're the dominant group on this continent, Brun. If Carlan of the Five Veils is right, humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and all other mammalian bipeds come from a common ancestor, though. Lizardmen seem to have been created by the Carnifex as a slave race; the Carnifex were basically... really huge lizard-men. All we know of them is myths and rumors.

Mind you, some Elves claim to be related to Dragons but I am VERY dubious.

Seriously, look at Spike. You get an Elf from that? No. Nothing against Spike, but he's no proto-Elf.

Suddenly, I wondered why Spike had no wings. Do they grow in later?

Very strange.

Curiosity suddenly hit me. "So where did Ponies come from?" I asked.

Soarin' stared at me in confusion.

Dash blinked, cocked her head, and said, "When one pony loves another pony..."

"No, I know what sex is," I said, feeling a little aggravated. "Where did the very FIRST ponies come from?" I asked.

Rainbow Dash scrunched up her face. "Dammit, all I remember is something about chickens and eggs, but there's no way a chicken gave birth to the first ponies."

"I don't know about origins. I know we first came to Equestria when Orcs enslaved our ancestors and forced us to help them wipe out the humans who originally lived there." Soarin' shivered. "It must have been terrible then, but eventually, Celestia led us to freedom. I'm sorry, I never studied history much; I was always thinking about flying when we were supposed to learn things." That's pretty much what I knew about it.

Fluttershy now dropped down and made an odd noise. "Hello," I said to her. "Going to weigh in on this?"

"Like humans, the influence of the powerful magics of Mystara gradually turned some Ponies sentient," Fluttershy said. "This gave them a huge advantage in surviving the monsters which were everywhere and still are. They had more kids than ordinary ponies and horses. The Blackmoorians sped this up with their magic, and created Unicorns and Pegasi from Earth Ponies. There are various other kinds of Ponies around the world as well, like the Sea Ponies who live underwater." She sounded oddly like Twilight to me. "And the deadly Shadow Ponies, corrupted by Entropy." She shivered and studied the woods.

We were slogging along muddy ground as we went through the woods. There were lots of rivulets of water and patches of rocky, dry ground, higher than the rest.

We then got into a discussion of the Elf-Dragon question which drew in Spike and Twilight and went on for a long time. I found it fascinating, but I will spare you the details beyond noting that Spike couldn't make up his mind if he wanted to be related to Elves or not.

And we kind of drove off Dash and Soarin', who went to go help scout, which I felt a little bad about afterwards.

Not bad enough to stop the discussion, though, which I greatly enjoyed.

"I think we're all descended from cupcakes," Pinkie finally said.

"You do not actually think that," Twilight said, a little chidingly.

Of course she believes that. I'm sure she has a chart which shows how cookies developed from gumdrops, then some of them turned into cupcakes, which led to cakes and so on.

"I know but I felt I had to contribute something," Pinkie said cheerfully. "We need to argue geology."

I was initially unclear WHY we needed to argue geology, but hey, why not? So we switched to discussing the question of what created the plateau which is at the heart of Equestria. To my surprise, Pinkie knew all about that and in fact basically was able to school myself and Twilight on the issue, to Twilight's embarrassment. Rarity pitched into this conversation, also knowing more than I would have expected, though in retrospect, I would think her talent with gems inspired her to study the issue.

"In conclusion, I'm pretty sure some Immortal intervened, because if you study the strata, the rock was pushed straight up in an unnatural way," Pinkie said very seriously. "There were earthquakes in the period of plateau formation, but the rocks should either be folded or one set of strata thrust upwards over another. There's no slopes and it's not due to erosion of weaker rocks, the way you'd expect with normal buttes or mesas. Normal buttes and mesas don't thrust up, rather, the ground level around them was worn *down*. But this plateau was clearly thrust up on a huge scale."

How does a baker and dancer know so much about rocks, anyway?

"But not Celestia," I said.

"Oh no, the plateau was around for hundreds of years before Ponies arrived and Celestia didn't show up for hundreds more," Pinkie said. "Today, Earth Ponies work hard to keep the plateau intact, because otherwise it will slowly erode away and that would get *messy*." Her voice returned to normal on the last word and her whole stance changed. She'd been a little tense the whole time, I now realized. But now she let herself go.

"Are your parents geologists?" I asked.

"Rock farmers," Pinkie said. "Hideously boring, though necessary. I left the farm in search of something more fun. My parents are Kagyar-worshipers and you know how that is."

Kagyar is the Immortal patron of craftsmen and workaholics and dwarves. He's solid, dependable, honest, hard-working, stern, and the polar opposite of fun. I can see why rock farmers would worship him, though.

There was a huge rumble of thunder and a massive wave of clouds came our way from the north; we were heading slowly into it, going northeastwards. Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire now flew back to us. "Want us to drive this storm off?" Dash asked.

"Let's camp and take refuge," Twilight said. "Trying to shape weather outside Equestria can have unpredictable side-effects, right?"

"Yeah," Dash said.

"Let's find a rock outcropping and camp on it. Time to break out our tents," Twilight said.

It was coming down in sheets by the time we found an outcropping. Then we had to carve some drainage lines so the water didn't puddle where our tents were meant to go. These tents held four, so we ended up with myself, Rarity, Spike, and Twilight in one, Fluttershy, the Wonderbolts, and Dash in another, and Ivan, Pinkie, and Applejack in a third. Dinner had to be fruit and dried meat. Twilight and I did some reading, Rarity did some sewing, and Spike half-helped her and half-helped Twilight and half-glared at me.

He was busy, but happy. Even the glaring seemed to make him happy.

"It's weird," Twilight said. "This reminds me of home. I mean when I lived with my parents. They'd be working on things they brought home and I'd either be working on homework or helping them like Spike helps me." She made a happy sigh. "Isn't it nice to work with those you care about?"

"Yes, it is," Rarity said. "Spike, thank you very much for helping me."

He smiled so brightly, the way little kids can. Adults like the rest of us get too old and too worn to be that happy. I remember too many bad times to ever fully accept anything good.

"I always helped Mother," Rarity said, pausing in her work. "Father worked with me and taught me archery, but I didn't want to be a warpony, so we never spent as much time together as I think he wanted." She sighed, clearly feeling guilty. "I also learned to sing from Father and so did Sweetie."

The rain hammered even harder, hitting irregularly in waves at random intervals. It was distracting and I could see Twilight had read the same passage twice.

"How about you, Marcus?" Twilight asked.

Hadn't I... oh, that was Pinkie and Applejack. "I was one son too many and got booted out the door as fast as I could be thrown out discreetly in the street and could defend myself," I told them. "I think I met Ivan shortly after that." It's hard to put it all together coherently, though.

They both sagged a little.

"My parents messed with the wrong red dragon," Spike said. "Which is how I ended up in Twilight's care. When I was really little, her parents helped Twilight take care of me, but now I can take care of myself."

Okay, 'my parents are dead' always wins.

I should go back and see my folks some time but I'm afraid of what they'll think of me. And... sometimes I'm not sure that's even the right history of me.

I tend to live in the present as my past is confusing.

Twilight put a fond hoof on Spike's shoulder and he smiled, then she said to me, "That's too bad. I was an only child because my parents realized they were too busy for more." She sighed. "But they loved me very much."

"I'm used to it," I said. "Probably their house would fall off a cliff if I did go visit them anyway." Rain always makes me kind of somber. Like it's trying to remind me of something I'd rather forget.

Rarity put a comforting hoof on my knee; I was seated on the floor, as was everyone else. "I'm sure it would go fine," she said. "I'm sure they'd be proud of you."

I hope so, but sometimes I'm not proud of me. Twilight...

I like being around her but every moment I do this adds to the DOOM CLOCK which is ticking.

"I'm sure too," Twilight said. "You're a good wizard and a good swordsman and you always stand by your friends."

I started... okay, I admit it, I was crying. The amount of trust they have on me is so... I can't stand to hurt Twilight again or Rarity or any of them, but when they find out the truth, they're going to hate me.

And I don't want them to hate me.

Spike made a noise at me which probably means 'CRY YOU EVIL BASTARD'.

Being hugged by two unicorns just made me cry more. It felt weirdly good to let it all out.

After a bit, Twilight let go, but Rarity held me until I stopped crying. Then Twilight said, "Spike, we have to go renew the wards."

"Can't I stay where it's dry?" he said.

"Spike, I can't do this without you," Twilight said very seriously.

He looked at Rarity, looked at me, then grimaced, then said, "Okay," reluctantly.

I heard Twilight say, "Blood of Odin!" as the rain hit her, and I laughed. I'd said that every time something went bad when I was pretending to be a Vestlander.

Then the depression hit me again. I am a homeless wanderer, apparently doomed to drift through the world forever. It seems like everything I touch ends up destroyed. And eventually, everyone I care about, I have to leave them or I panic and run or they settle down without me like Helga did.

Mind you, she's happy, and... well, I'm a little unhappy but mostly I'm happy for her. She got a happy ending.

All I get are unhappy endings.

I could hear Ivan busy laughing and Pinkie whooping it up about something. His life is as rootless and messy as mine, but he's happy and I'm here moping even though I'm with people I like.

People who all have other lives and would be there, safe and sound, but go out into this hellhole anyway in order that their other friends can stay in nice, safe lives. And if they didn't, I'd be dead. I owe them. But if I stay around them they'll be dragged down with me.

And if I go, the swamp will eat me.

The rain hammered the tent harder, making it shake. Damn, this is powerful rain. You could see the southern wall of the tent shake hard every time a wave hit it. "Marcus," Rarity said softly. "We have to go reinforce all the tents."

Bloody hell. "Okay," I said wearily, rising.

I was soaked to the bone by the time I finished helping to further secure and reinforce the tents. Rarity now summoned sheets from her shop with the ritual which Dona Carlotta had given her. I had to help her with it, as she's not used to using rituals; she's mostly stuck to honing her specialty of sewing and fashion and her other skills are related to artificing. Like her arrowheads.

Once we'd reinforced everything, we were both hideously wet. I was soaked to the bone, one big drippy mess. Dash came out and forced a microbubble of dry, though it was clearly hard, enough for Rarity to shake herself mostly dry.

"Hey, you okay?" Dash asked me softly.

"I'm fine," I told her. I was lying, of course. "I'm going to have to hang these up to dry and switch into... I guess I could put on my formal clothing." Having multiple outfits feels strange.

We went back in the tent and Rarity closed her eyes, smiling a little, while I changed into the formal clothing. I put a warming spell on the clothing, hoping it wouldn't catch fire. If I left it like that too long, it would.

Then I sat back down with Rarity next to me. Twilight had made some excuse about needing to give Pinkie a math quiz. I could hear Pinkie making sounds of horror in the distance while Ivan and Applejack were laughing and chanting something about plowing a field.

Don't know.

Don't tell me.

"The math, it burns, it burns!" I heard Pinkie shout.

Rarity laughed softly.

"You want to talk about it?" she asked softly.

I don't know how so many women can talk about it so easily. I mean if... I dunno. I wouldn't have a heart-felt talk with Dona Carlotta's new boyfriend about her. Especially since he's weaselly looking.

"Tell me about your sister."

"I have two. Snow Belle is the town doctor," Rarity said. "Sweetie is my younger sister; we take care of her while my father is stationed at one of the border forts. He's a warpony and mother is a weaver. Snow Belle is very hard working and kind; she loves to take care of people. Sweetie is also very kind and musically talented and loves to sew too. But she's... She often doesn't think things through. She and her two best friends are a little obsessed with growing up as fast as they can," Rarity said, speaking with strong affection, though at the end, she sounded regretful. "She runs with Applejack's sister Apple Bloom and with Scootaloo, who is a pegasus. You know about Cutie Marks, right?"

"Yes," I told her.

"It's not the only sign of moving to adulthood, but it's a transformational moment for Ponies. I don't even know what would be equivalent for humans." She sounded thoughtful.

"Humans never have that clarity," I told her. We sat next to each other on the floor; her presence was comforting and I could feel myself calming down. "A human never knows their place in the universe for sure."

"Never?" she said, sounding surprised.

"Never. Lots of people never figure out who they should be or where they are going or why they are doing it," I said. Like me. I just kind of drift, then run when the next explosion happens. Sometimes I like that, but seeing... they all know what they want and where they are going and who they are, and I kind of envy that. They all have a lot of naiveté, and I don't want to be naive, but they have a kind of certainty, a REAL certainty I don't have.

Well, maybe using the word 'certain' with Pinkie isn't wise.

Rarity knows her place in the universe and she's happy with it.

I can hardly even imagine... no, I know. The few times things held together a while, I felt that. But then it blew up anyway.

"So you're still trying to find your place," she said softly.

"Yeah," I said.

"Well, you should come to Ponyville when this is over. I would hate to see you go after this and never see you again." She smiled and said in a sing-song way, "I could make you more hats."

I laughed, smiling. "Twilight suggested that too," I said to her. If I didn't have this looming death apocalypse hanging over me... The longer I stay, the more chances to reveal too much. And then I will die. But I can't come clean or I will DIE.

I can think of a half-dozen things... more really, I'd like to try that they'd be such a big help with.

Like that damn tower in the Broken Lands.

Wherever exactly it is.

She studied my outfit. "I bet I could make these more cheaply than they do." I could see a calculating look in her eye which made me smile. I like crafty people when they're not crafting on me.

So to speak.

"I think you definitely could. With fine Equestrian materials. And, of course, there will soon be a new trade agreement," I told her.

She smiled broadly. "There's also that huge market for Pony styles in Glantri, even fancier than what we wear." She began sketching out some ideas and I made a few suggestions and watched her work.

She'd come up with six outfits when she suddenly looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, you need company and here I am working on my own projects."

"Watching you work cheers me up," I told her. She has drive, and I like that. I'd liked the way Twilight had drive too. I feel like I have drive just by being near her and helping her a little. It's faking drive, but I am good at faking things. "I like your ambition."

Rarity gave a kind of happy sigh. "You are a good friend, Marcus."

"You're a good friend too," I told her. "Did you have a good time at the party?"

"I had a grand time before it all turned into a food fight and..." She looked around, then whispered, "Even that was kind of fun."

I grinned. "I'll have you wearing lots of clothing soon," I said, then laughed. "Corrupt you completely."

"I hate getting messy but that was something exhilarating about an all out battle that couldn't actually lead to any killing," she said.

"I prefer cool elegance myself as well," I said to her. "But yes, some excitement sometimes is nice."

She patted my knee. "Feeling any better?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "Enough we could probably call Twilight back from torturing Pinkie."

"I CAN'T BAKE A QUADRATIC EQUATION!" Pinkie shouted and we both laughed.

"Well, give her a few more minutes," Rarity said. "I think..." She paused and looked thoughtful, then glanced at the door.

Yet another wave of rain and distant thunder now hit us.

And then the ground shook. I fell on Rarity. "I am so sorry!" I said.

"It's fine," she said. "No damage done."

The ground shook again and Pinkie shouted, "MEGA TAIL TWITCH WITH HALLUCINATIONS OF CHEESE!"

...

Rarity leaped to her feet. "That's bad, even if I'm not sure how."

"What?"

"Pinkie... has magical detection abilities which cause her body to convulse," Rarity said. "She can predict certain future events, though I fear that it isn't too far in the future."

Rarity now switched into a water-resistant cloak with hood and passed me another one. It didn't fit well but would provide at least a little protection.

Pinkie was out in the rain, bouncing around. "There's a problem... in the ground... I think... Owww...."

Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire took to the air and generated a small dry pocket for us with some effort, so we could all confer. Looking around, the marshy ground east of us was shaking and convulsing; it was a mixture of muddy 'ridges' (a few feet above water level) and rivulets of water.

And now, suddenly, it collapsed into a fifty foot across sinkhole.

There was a great gurgling blast and water exploded upwards in a huge muddy geyser, though our Pegasi managed to blow it around us.

The geyser quickly died down but now the area around our outcropping started to turn into a lake, water rising up out of the ground.

"That isn't natural, is it?" I asked.

"It's not impossible that the water that burst up has been eating away the limestone," Pinkie said. "And now has formed a cenote. But the water being under so much pressure seems unnatural." She frowned.

"Are we going to have to abandon this place while we still can?" I asked.

"I think we should," Twilight said. "Miserable as these conditions are." She grimaced.

This is how I ended up wading through waist-deep water, surrounded by swimming ponies. The water was oddly cold despite the time of year, even for night.

"I'm freezing," Rarity said, clearly feeling irritable.

"We're all freezing, sugarcube. This wouldn't happen in Equestria," Applejack grumbled as she swam along.

"It wouldn't?" Ivan said.

"Not without warning and the water would be the RIGHT temperature instead of this weird random unpredictable weather and whatnot you have out here," Applejack said. "How do you even farm with random rainstorms and suddenly cold water exploding out of the ground?"

"I've never seen that happen before," Ivan said.

"There's limited conditions where you can get cenote formation," Pinkie said. "That geyser was really too large, though, I think."

"Maybe we should go back and investigate," Soarin' said.

"I do have a waterbreathing spell, but we need our rest," Twilight said. "Also, we have to stay focused; there's too many distractions in this swamp."

"I agree with Twilight," I said. "Best way to die on an adventure is to treat everything you see as something to stick your head in."

What followed was FOUR MILES of wading through high water until we found high ground, a nice solid hill which rose a hundred feet above the water and sprawled over lots of space for us to set up tents. Trees helped soak up rain and the Pegasi kept it off us long enough to all get dry. We started a fire to warm up with, as Fluttershy was worried we'd all get sick.

"I really don't like this swamp," Applejack said.

"No one on this planet likes this swamp," I said.

"It's not that bad," Fluttershy said. "It's full of nice animals."

Disease, tainted water, miasma, STUPIDLY HUGE rainstorms, and me having to freeze myself to death. I shivered and Rarity threw another blanket on me and we pressed together for warmth.

Twilight was doing the same thing with Spike; I bet she is nice and warm.

Admittedly, Rarity is pretty warm too.

"I wish we could ask Luna to delay the night ending a few hours. We're going to be zombies tomorrow," Dash said. She was pressing close to Fluttershy and Soarin', who had Spitfire on the other side of him.

"Yeah, tomorrow is going to be lousy," I said.

****************

Can you say hail in the middle of summer at 3 AM?

I can now. Hail began hammering and puncturing our tents, LETTING THE COLD RAIN IN.

Fuck you, hail. Fuck you forever.

"Okay, this has to be magic," I said as I stumbled out exhausted and freezing to help reinforce the tents; our Pegasi flew skyward to attack the cloud; they destroyed it but now the other clouds began closing in to fill the gap.

"This frost doesn't go with my cloak at all," a tired and grumpy Rarity said.

"I don't even HAVE a cloak," Ivan said, shivering.

Then Rarity knocked herself out summoning more cloth to reinforce the tents with, so Ivan and I had to drag her inside one and Twilight tried to use her magic to help us reinforce the tents. But she's better at BIG than fine control.

Eventually, our shelters could take it; I stung all over from hail and I was exhausted.

Twilight flooded power into Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire with a great howl of irritation and they blew up all the clouds. And we all finally got some sleep.

*****************

Until a stampede of snakes ran over everything, waking us up early and forcing us to deal with snakes. Fluttershy eventually convinced them to go; their homes had all flooded. They went to the next hill over.

Temperatures soared when the sun rose and we all felt kind of sick and groggy. This was going to be a terrible day.

"More magic," Twilight said frowning. "And I think someone may have scried us. I think someone is trying to soften us up."

This made way too much sense.

We had a cold breakfast and slogged onwards with Twilight doing her best to back up our Pegasi Fluttershy was becoming more and more frantic as more and more animals displaced by the crazy fits of weather showed up. Soarin' seemed frustrated, Spitfire was increasingly jumpy and Dash just got more and more tired, not used to having to constantly work at weather control like this. It was a lot harder here.

At lunch, I said, "We should teleport and come at him from another direction. I don't think we can keep this up. What we really need is a dry cave."

"If I try to teleport this many people, I'll have to sleep," Twilight said.

I think we need sleep anyway. We found a place to pitch the tents and let our Pegasi scout for caves. Once we found one, the Elements all pooled their power to help Twilight, then we clonked out in a nice, dry cave.

************

Either the cave shielded us from his scrying or our foe needed a break too, as our rest was unmolested except for finding blind moles rooting through our tents for food when we woke up.

You know you're tired when you set up tents inside a cave before bed.

"It's drizzling," Dash said when we got ready to go. "We need a plan."

"Can you turn us invisible, Twilight?" I asked.

"I didn't bring anything for invisibility," Twilight said. "Spike, Dragons don't normally control weather, right?"

"He's using a spell or item. I think Blacks can breathe underwater, but that won't help us," Spike said.

"Could we go underwater at least some of the way?" Soarin' asked thoughtfully.

"Actually, that might be a good idea. Harder to scry and we'd be protected from weather fluctuation," Twilight said.

And so we ended up underwater. Some of the group had underwater gear, and Twilight put a spell on the rest of us. For much of the day, other than having to eat soggy food, things went pretty well. Unfortunately, towards the end of the day, we had to come out and find shelter for the night. Also, the river deep enough to hide us turned a direction not useful to us.

Our scouts found us a cave and we headed for it; it was hideously humid but there was no rain, hail or other dooms.

As we slogged along a stream through muddy fields and patches of rock or at least higher, dryer dirt, I felt the tingle of scrying. "Dammit, they found us again."

We reached the cave, but now I was worried that our foe would find the cave. At least he or she hadn't been watching when we went into it.

Fluttershy talked the bear who lived there into sharing with us. Druids are GREAT.

Except when they decide you're an abomination of nature and must be destroyed. The scars eventually faded.

We slept like rocks and got mail in the morning via Spike. A letter to Rarity from Sweetie Belle, one to Applejack from Apple Bloom, and one from Scootaloo to Rainbow Dash. There was also a letter from Celestia to Twilight.

I felt a little stupidly sad that I didn't get a letter. Of course, ironically, no one who isn't here... or on the ship I guess... knows this identity to send me one.

Then Spike fell over, coughing and choking. I grabbed him and gave him the anti-choking move. Everyone stared, but he coughed up a big gout of fire. It turned into FIVE letters. Another one from Celestia to Twilight Sparkle, one from Luna to Twilight Sparkle, one from Luna to Rarity, one from Celestia to ME and one from Celestia to Ivan. Ivan blinked, Twilight blinked and I tried not to panic and flee into the night.

My letter turned out to be diplomatic credentials marking me as an official part of the delegation. Not a hint of any indication that she knows who I really am, which relieved me a little. Ivan's letter was the same thing.

There was a short personal note with it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Samus Marcus,

At the recommendation of my dear student Twilight Sparkle, I have added you to this diplomatic mission. Twilight has said many nice things about you and Ivan in her letters. I am so glad to see her making a new friend. I am looking forward to meeting you after this mission is over; please come with everyone to Canterlot for a nice success party once you deal with Vermicoritax. Luna and I wish to welcome you personally; Luna will be organizing the party. Luna has asked Rarity to ensure suitable formal attire for you and Ivan.

I am very sad I missed the party on Duchess Sapphire's yacht; I can only hope you return before she departs, so we can give her a proper Equestrian reception in the traditional style.

Looking forwards to meeting you,

Princess Celestia of Equestria, Sister of Princess Luna and Jarl Sleipnir

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Huh, I'd never heard she was related to Odin's horse, though it would make sense, I thought.

I tried to figure out if 'Luna and I wish to welcome you personally' meant 'we wish to meet you' as one might think or if it really meant 'Luna will hold you down while I practice my back kicks'. The letter seemed to show she had no idea who I really was, but could I trust that?

"A party for our success," Ivan said. "Cool. I wish I was that certain myself." He laughed nervously.

"I know," I told him.

"C'mon, don't both be nervous nellies," Applejack said. "We'll handle Vermicoritax like we handled the other dragon, easy."

"Applejack, Grand Wyrms are the most dangerous dragons which exist," I said. "Except the four immortal dragons." The Great One, who rules the four, then there is one for Lawful (Metallic), one for Neutral (Gemstone), and one for Chaotic (Color) dragons. "Who are, thankfully, unlikely to show up." Strict rules restrict the Immortals from direct meddling in Mystara, except through a 'mortal identity', which is restricted to the power level of mortals. Or by giving orders to their priests but that's indirect meddling.

"Ain't nothing we can't handle, 'cept maybe this crazy Malpheggi weather," Applejack said.

"I think Vermicoritax or someone else is using magic to control the weather," I said. "Even for the Malpheggi, this isn't natural."

Rarity finished her two letters and put them in her pack, then started measuring me while we all discussed what to do next.

"Shouldn't we see them if they're controlling it?" Rainbow Dash said. "Pushing the clouds around and everything? I haven't seen a trace of any weatherponies or weatherdragons or whatever is doing this."

"Maybe one of Helga's in-laws is mad at us for some reason? The Aendyrs do weather magic, right?" Ivan asked.

"They do air magics, which can include weather control," I said. "This might be someone at that party's revenge too." I tapped my cheek. "Spike, do you have to know the person you're sending a letter to?"

"I need an accurate name," he said.

Well, Helga Aendyr should be accurate, I think.

I dashed her off a quick note and we made breakfast and discussed options while Rarity took measurements of Ivan and myself.

I was a little nervous; I'd put my real name... I think it's my real name... inside the letter but told her to address it to 'Samus Marcus, care of Spike'. That should get it to Spike to hand to me.

"I've got an idea," Rainbow Dash said. "Twilight, bulk me up and I'll carry Marcus up into the storm so he can look around with his magic eyes."

"Bulk you up?" Soarin' asked, confused.

It's probably a good idea, but I REALLY do not want to go out in that.

"Make me BIGGER," Dash said excitedly. "Big enough to carry a human! Anyway, all three of us can go, but someone's got to be big enough to carry Marcus."

I couldn't protest without looking like a loser, but I can't say the idea excited me.

Try the OPPOSITE.

But I had to outvote myself in order to retain some vestige of not being called nervous nellie every five minutes. (I can handle ten.)

I hate outvoting myself.

**************

Soarin' was kind enough to loan me his spare goggles, which Twilight made big enough for my head. Then we left the cave and took off into the roaring thunderstorm now raging outside. A thought hit me. "Tell me about how you make it rain," I said.

"I don't think ponies did this," Dash said. "It's too freakishly random and damn, it's cold again." She frowned.

The Wonderbolts were clearly plenty warm in their outfits. I applied my warming spell to Dash, though I was surprised she felt it more than me. I'm pretty sure Pegasi usually have good cold resistance.

"Indulge me," I said as I tried to study the clouds; we were flying just below cloud level, dodging lightning bolts. "Also, are those bolts random or is it aiming at us?"

"I think it's random," Spitfire said, but now she frowned at the clouds.

"Many clouds are manufactured at Cloudsdale," Rainbow Dash began. "Oooh, that feels nice, Marcus."

Easily distracted, check. Didn't want to distract her, check. But I kept up the warming spell, trying to make sure I didn't overdo it.

"They're usually small and we push and blow them together to make bigger rain. It's important, though, to be careful or you will rain out the cloud and then you either have to go back and get more or else make one by hand, which is harder. Either you have to consolidate rain particles in the air or else use a river or lake to draw up moisture," Dash continued as we soared through a low cloud. Lightning arced towards us and the Wonderbolts kicked it aside to hit another cloud.

"So these clouds must be pulling moisture from somewhere," I said slowly, trying to be sure. "Pulling it up out of the swamp or pulling in clouds from adjacent areas, right? However this works?"

"I guess maybe there's some way to make water from nothing, but normally, ponies push water together to make clouds, then froth it up," Soarin' said. "I'm more an acrobat than a weather specialist, though."

"I think Minrothad has human magic for this kind of thing," Spitfire said. "I talked to... well, maybe Elf magic, given an Elf told me about it when were recovered that stolen artifact for the Water Elves."

FUCK ME.

"Careful, Marcus," Dash said. She sounded worried.

Spitfire frowned. "I was thinking we should tie him on. If he falls, we can catch him but if we all get hit by lightning or something, we might not react in time."

DO NOT CRY.

Fortunately blinding rain hides tears VERY well.

"I'm good," I said, continuing to cling to Rainbow Dash for dear life. I know she won't drop me. I know I can rely on her.

But I also have to rely on my 'holding onto Rainbow Dash as she loops around in a blinding storm while dodging lightning' skills.

Which are not so hot.

I could see great ropy threads of magic through the clouds, pushing them around. Unfortunately, I haven't studied much weather magic.

"Are your eyes normally purple?" Soarin' hesitantly asked me.

"No, I'm using a detection spell," I told him. "I'm hoping Twilight can decipher what I'm seeing." I kept trying to puzzle it out. "So with the amount of rain we're getting, this must be sucking up water..." I don't want to say this AT ALL. "We need to find the edge of the storm."

This meant LOTS of flying through howling wind and rain and dodging lightning and at one point, dodging unhappy frogs too.

Eventually, the rain slacked and we found the edge of the clouds. They formed an irregular circle twenty-four miles across by Soarin's estimate. Water was being sucked skywards in a thick ropy cord of water from one of the many Malpheggi rivers.

"So if we cut this, it should eventually run out of water," Soarin' said.

"If they can't re-establish it," I said, then frowned. "No sign of whoever or however they're controlling it."

An alligator got sucked up the 'cord', which was about ten feet across. Poor thing. I felt bad for it.

Not bad enough to get near an angry alligator, mind you.

"Maybe it tracks us," Spitfire said, circling it.

"It's not tracking us three," I said. "Or the clouds would have moved when we did. It may be tagged to Twilight or it may be moved manually."

"Let's break it," Soarin' said.

"Yeah, time to kick its ASS," Rainbow Dash said.

"We shouldn't rush into things," I said.

"Let's see if someone's hidden down by the ground," Spitfire said.

A quick dive revealed that unless some fish or the riverbank was controlling it, it wasn't being controlled here. The threads of magic reached down from the cloud to here. Maybe I can trace them.

The three of them attacked and disrupted the suction chute, destroying it with their hooves. The water fell back down; the clouds continued but now they would eventually run out of liquid. Or so I hoped.

Then we wandered around for what was likely hours as I tried to trace through this to figure out how it was being controlled. We finally went back for lunch, wet and tired. The rain was starting to slack some, the clouds looked less potent. Go Pegasi! AND ME!

***************

Lunch was soup. Fluttershy had gone and caught us some fish with Ivan. It was so warming and filling and good and it had carrots in it.

"Thank you, Fluttershy," I told her as I tried to dry off.

"You need your protein," she said.

I nodded and ate vigorously.

To my surprise, in my absence, I got letters from Helga, Darien Aendyr (her husband), Samantha (their daughter), and someone named Lorban who I had never heard of but uses the Aendyr seal. Everyone was looking at them, clearly curious but unwilling to violate my privacy by opening them without me.

Ivan also got a letter from Helga, which he'd already read.

Spike sat by Twilight, making grumbling noises and holding his stomach. Too many letters too fast, I guess; Fluttershy mixed up a little brew and fed it to him. I expect he could do it himself but he let her do it anyway. Twilight patted his shoulder comfortingly.

The letter from Darien was quite brief:

~~~~~~~~~~~~

To the Dishonorable 'Samus Marcus',

If you drag my wife into another one of your insane schemes, I will feed your entrails to the undying souls of the Wind Dukes of Aaqa. If it somehow involves my daughter, I will scatter bits of you from Borea to the Tanagoro lands. You are a blight on everything which has ever existed or will exist. I feel sorry for whoever you've dragged into this, but they will have to learn the hard way. Please, die horribly and never darken my door again.

Your obedient Servant,

Lord Darien Aendyr

P.S.: You are a lousy excuse for a wizard.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He's not very fond of me, but really, this was more cheerful than usual.

Helga's letter was ten pages long and most of it was a long account of our mutual friends and acquaintances, what is going on in her life, asking if I will be around this 'Spike' long term, nagging me for not writing more often, asking if I am still teaching Humanics in Equestria, gushing about how wonderful her daughter is and how much she loves her husband, asking if that was me who stole that harem in Thyatis, and asking for a picture so she can recognize me next time she sees me.

It also included a two page discourse on weather magic and that she'd asked a friend to write me.

I then read Lorban's letter. It was very technical and I had to get Twilight to help me decipher it; as I have mentioned, my 'training' was pretty informal once I finished my Glantrian school primer.

With his notes and some discussion with the Pegasi, we determined this was likely a ritual Lorban had noted. As there had been no sign of air elementals or other active maintainers of the storm. We could knock it out entirely by hitting certain key points in the lines of magical energy holding it together.

My worry was that whoever did this would, in fact just do the damn ritual again, though apparently it's expensive in components.

I then turned curiously to the letter from Samantha, who I haven't seen since she was a baby. I'm not even sure what she looks like now.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Uncle Sammy,

I hope you are okay. Mommy says you get in trouble a lot, and she worries about you. Daddy doesn't like you for some reason, but he's kind of mean anyway. I want to be a great wizard like you and Mommy and Daddy one day.

I have a talking Pony friend named Sugar Sparkle. She has a wand stuck to her head. We both like candy. Mommy says you live in the land of the talking Ponies. I hope they are nicer than Daddy. My butt still hurts.

I didn't even do it!

I blame the Jinn.

He's always stealing things and blaming me. It's so unfair.

Daddy says to tell you there is candy inside the Dragon but he didn't say which kind. Do you like peppermints or licorice more? I like peppermints like Daddy.

Could you send Sugar Sparkle a brother? She is jealous because Tina has one.

It's nice to meet you. I drew a picture on the other side.

Your daughter,

Samantha Aendyr, Future Queen of Glantri.

P.S: Daddy says I am not your daughter, so I don't know how to end the letter. What am I?

P.P.S: Mommy says she's not your daughter either.

P.P.P.S: You didn't actually kill Prince Etienne, right? He isn't dead, so I don't understand what Daddy is saying.

P.P.P.P.S: Mommy wants to know if you have a girlfriend.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The other side had a crude picture of a blonde little girl holding hands with a tall, dark haired man in white robes and a tall blonde woman in white and green robes. Helga was also holding hands with a question mark, labeled 'I don't know what you look like but Mommy likes you'. A crudely drawn green pony with a white mane was standing on Darien's head for some reason, and was labeled 'Sugar Sparkle'. I don't think she was to scale.

I showed everyone the picture feeling an odd mix of sad and happy. Everything seems to be going well for Helga. Darien hates me but that's a given. And Samantha is doing well. But I felt kind of melancholy she had the kind of thing I didn't have. Couldn't have.

"Hey, Ivan, can you draw me?" I asked him.

"Sure. Hey, Dash, can you pose too?"

I sat astride giant-sized-Dash; pretty soon everyone wanted in and Ivan drew himself into the picture from memory, then carefully labeled everyone. This took a while but I needed a break from rain anyway.

I sent Helga a thank you with the picture for Samantha.

We all laid our plans and I went over some sketches for formal attire with Rarity, then stretched. "Much as I hate rain, I think it's time to... get wet again."

Pinkie studied the picture. "So she's never seen you?"

"I haven't been back since she was a baby," I told her. "I'm going to have to send Helga a big catchup letter later." Once I know how I'm going to get out of this alive.

I touched my hat and felt better. "Okay, Dash. Time for us to SAVE THE DAY!"

Dash cheered, Spitfire laughed and Soarin' grinned, then we took off.

****************

These goggles are a blessing. I don't think they're magic but they keep the rain out of my eyes, which is a big help. On the other hand, this means seeing exactly how many lightning strikes Dash has dodged in the last five minutes.

We took out two nodes... okay, more like I pointed it out, then clung desperately as ponies struck at it and broke it up.

At the third, though, a Dragonfly dropped out of the clouds, opening fire on us with fire and lightning. The Wonderbolts dodged off in two directions, Dash in a third. Dragonflies are Glantrian flying vehicles which look like giant dragonflies, complete with transparent wings. They're very maneuverable and usually armed with wands and staves. This one was a six-man one, used for scouting, so it had extra speed. The most powerful ones, you can take on several dragons at once and win.

Unfortunately for the Dragonfly, Pegasi.. are damn fast. They came down in a weaving formation and as it tried to rise to meet them, the Pegasi (and me, clinging for dear life) split and came it from three directions, dodging lighting and fire. Then we crashed right through the wings, sending it spiraling out of control. Spitfire, Soarin', and Rainbow Dash whipped up winds and guided it to crash into into a bunch of trees and bushes.

My contribution was to scream like a child being beaten the entire time.

Once it crashed, though, I fried one of the wand mounts with fire and Soarin' simply bit onto one of the others and ripped it off. Then I fried a third mount and Spitfire drove a tree down on the other, snapping it off. Rainbow Dash circled, dodging their counterfire.

Six battered wizards piled out of it, then Soarin' and Spitfire came down on them, grabbed one and sent the others flying with their wake. Then we headed back towards our cave, with our captive's head inside a tiny cloud so he couldn't see the way.

His name was Luigi Verrazno. He was from Caurenze, one of the Principalities of Glantri. "We serve the Dread Vermicoritax," he said firmly. "He sent us to trap you with bad weather so he could swoop in and eat you all once you were weak and sick. 'Cause that's how he rolls."

"Hah! Well, he blew it and we're gonna KICK HIS ASS!" Rainbow Dash said. "No storm's gonna bring US down."

I frowned. Not impossible but would a Grand Wyrm really employ a group of thugs from Caurenze? Even a really well equipped group of... dammit, that thing was valuable! We could have hauled the whole group in it! Dammit! "Is there more than one of you?" I asked.

Now that I think about it, the ponies would have had a hard time sitting in chairs. I've only met one pony who could actually sit like a human... I suppose Pinkie probably could do it too.

"Well, we weren't expecting you'd find us before the weather softened you up," he said, frowning. "Only we lost you for a while; you aren't easy to find."

"Looks like talkin' ain't gonna work," Applejack said, sighing. "If he's already trying to kill us."

"I don't want to fight a dragon head on if I can help it," Ivan said, frowning.

"Some dragons only respond to violence," Soarin' said, then sighed. "I've never fought anything as big as a Grand Wyrm, though. And usually it's with the full Wonderbolt squad."

Fluttershy shivered a little and cuddled up to Rarity, who put a comforting hoof on her leg. I see through your fear act now, Fluttershy. I've seen you go berserk. I bet you covered that other dragon in angry, yappy dogs, like that one poor Aalbanese guy.

I can still hear him screaming in my dreams.

I can see better why they think she can take out a Grand Wyrm, though I don't think we'll have enough animals around even in the swamp for something that big.

"We fight only if we must. We still may be able to talk him around."

Luigi frowned at that. "He's determined to DESTROY you."

"Why?" I said.

"Who knows, I just do what I'm told and get PAID," he said. Luigi shrugged.

So I turned him upside down until a bag of gold coins fell out. Glantrian money.

"So he paid you in Glantrian coins," I said, frowning. I smell a TRICK.

Hey, TREASURE! Sweet!

Dammit, we can't shake the other ones down for money if they're lost in the jungle!

"Hey, Glantrian money's as good as pony money!" he said.

Rarity looked at me. I looked at Rarity.

She slinked forward and as he sat surrounded by all of us, he stared at her warily. Soarin' was staring at her, eyes wide, until Dash frowned and elbowed him, which made Spitfire laugh softly.

"Good sir," Rarity said, fluttering her eyelids at him. I could see him getting nervous. I, on the other hand, grinned broadly, knowing some sort of impressive social maneuvering was about to ensue.

For some reason, Twilight was staring at Rarity, eyes wide. What was she worried about?

Hmm. I put up magical detection but I couldn't find any failsafe bombs or the like on him. What's Twilight worried about?

Rarity began to circle him, swaying gently, her voice a purr. Soarin' was covering his eyes for some reason. Dash kept rubbing her forehead. "I know, times are hard, and you take whatever jobs you can to get by. I'm sure you have nothing personal against us," she said.

"Nothing personal," he said, eyes crossing, trying to not look at her.

She kept moving to intercept his gaze. "And we have nothing personal against you."

"He tried to zap me with lightning!," Rainbow Dash said, but Spitfire put a hoof on her shoulder and whispered to her.

"Well, Rainbow Dash might," Rarity said, "But I just see a hard working man trying to keep him and his together in a difficult world." She put a hoof on his shoulder briefly, patting it.

"Uh, yeah," Luigi said weakly. He looked slightly dazed.

Now Twilight was staring at me, looking worried. I don't know why.

"And I'm sure that will be much harder if we have to hand you over to Celestia to be banished to the Moon," I said.

Twilight jumped. Okay, I wasn't thinking about that, but at least this time I know why she got jumpy.

"The moon?" Luigi said nervously.

"The invisible one, full of cat-people," I said sadly. They're known as Rakasta and they're all bat-shit insane. Blah blah, honor, now I must kill you because you looked at my sushi, blah. Also, eating raw fish is a good way to GET SICK YOU KNOW.

Sorry, I'm still bitter.

I leaned forward and began batting something invisible back and forth between my hands, back and forth, back and forth. "It's a long way from home."

Good cop, bad cop, oldest trick in the book.

Rarity smiled. "I'd hate to see you cut off from your family and friends, your favorite bar. Celestia is very merciful to the repentant, everyone knows that. Can't you be a dear and tell us what is really going on?" She patted his leg now and he jumped.

"The moon is very cold and dark," Twilight squeaked, shivering. "You're all alone and in the night, the ice weasels come."

...

Spike patted Twilight sympathetically.

"We, uh..." Luigi said nervously.

Rarity dropped down before him in that weird pose thing I don't know the name of, hindquarters down, front up... dogs do it sometimes too. "Go on," she said encouragingly, stretching her legs.

"We got hired by a guy from the Guild of Spokesmen to do this and to drive you off from seeing the Dragon and to tell you we worked for him," Luigi said frantically. "Don't banish me to the moon!"

Rarity patted his knee. "That wasn't so hard, was it?" Then she returned back to sit down by me and Fluttershy, still doing that swaying walk, while Luigi continued to look both panicked and dazed.

"Who at the Guild hired you?" Spike asked, frowning.

"It won't matter," I told Spike. "Guild members are conditioned with magic; they can't give up an employer's secrets no matter what. Even if it would save their life." I stroked my chin. "Whoever it was, though, they wanted us to capture him and 'find out' he worked for Vermicoritax. This was not an adequate attack to take this group out. Unless they under-estimated us." Admittedly commonplace in the world of adventure.

"Hey, we're pretty good," Luigi protested.

"A third of the group took you down by themselves," I said flatly.

"Hell yeah!" Dash said and high-hoofed the two Wonderbolts.

"You didn't even fight us! You just grabbed me and ran!," Luigi said, sounding angry. Too bad.

"Why fight you when the Malpheggi will do it for us?" I said. "Frankly, you're the lucky one, Luigi."

"It's best to avoid unnecessary violence," Fluttershy said with an almost normal tone of voice. "I mean, if you don't mind," she squeaked and retreated.

"What do we do with him?" Applejack said. "We can't just haul him around with us and we can't just turn him loose."

"I dunno, why not?" Rainbow Dash said. "No one got hurt and I think trying to get home alone through this place is punishment enough."

"But what if something eats him?" Fluttershy said, worried.

Only Ponies would worry about that. And a well-fed halfling, I suppose. The thin ones are the DANGEROUS ones.

"He's a mage, he can take care of himself," I said.

"We could dump him with his friends; they can eventually make their way out," Soarin' said.

"Yeah, that works," Dash said.

Of course, dumping him with his friends increases the risk they'll take another crack at us.

Twilight put down a book she consulted. "We can't take him back to Equestria because this is Darokin; we'd have to turn him over to the authorities. Elstrich or Fort Nar would be closest."

"That's way out of our way," Spitfire said, studying Twilight's map.

"Probably the best solution, though," Applejack said.

"Unless the Pegasi haul him there, it's something like five days there, then five back, if I read the map right," I said, looking at it.

"*We* could do it lickety-split," Rainbow Dash said.

"We can do it in three hours," Spitfire said. "Since we have to carry him, maybe a little longer."

I frowned. Rule 1. NEVER SPLIT THE PARTY. I made my uncomfortable zone noises.

"If the dragon finds us while they're gone, we'd be down a third of our fighting strength," Ivan said, clearly thinking like me.

"I think it's the best idea," Rarity said. "We don't have a prison and the Pegasi can do it quickly."

"But what if something happens to them?" I said to her, frowning.

Pinkie Pie, for some reason, smiled very brightly. Hopefully not hoping they'd die.

"They're not children, Marcus," Rarity said carefully. "They can take care of themselves."

"I'd rather go back to my friends," Luigi said.

"You don't get a vote, sugarcube," Applejack said to him flatly. She turned back to the rest of us. "Much as I am kinda worried that something will happen, I know how fast Dash is and the Wonderbolts are just as fast. You three think you can do this?"

"No problem AT ALL," Dash said confidently.

I could not shake the image of them being eaten by a dragon. I'd known too many confident people who rushed off to a beating or worse.

I'd been those people a few times.

I have no idea if Vermicoritax actually has even a clue we are coming. I suspect whoever scried us hired the Glantrians, but it could be someone on the boat.

The Wonderbolts nodded confidently. "We haul prisoners sometimes. We should be fine. There's hardly anything other than air elementals that can keep up with us," Spitfire said.

"I say we go with airmailing the prisoner to Fort Nar or... the other place," Applejack said.

"I agree," Rarity said.

"I'm worried they'll get picked off somehow," I said, frowning. We can't afford to lose three people when we haven't even reached Vermicoritax's lair yet. "We don't even have a way to be sure if they're okay or not."

"I'll go with them," Spike said. "If something goes wrong, I can send a help message." He looked at me defiantly.

Great, now I'm sending Spike off to his death. Twilight is going to hate me forever EVEN MORE now.

"I kind of agree with Marcus, divide and GET conquered," Ivan said. "Better to just dump him with his friends and move on."

Fluttershy hesitated, looking at Dash and company, at Luigi, then at me and the others. "I...umm... abstain."

"C'mon, you gotta vote yes or no," Dash said chidingly and Fluttershy shrank in on herself a little.

"It's okay," Rarity said to Fluttershy. She looked at me. "Don't you believe in Rainbow Dash?" Being chided over my effort to keep someone ALIVE did not sit well with me.

"I wouldn't go whipping around through storms with her if I didn't believe in her skills!," I said hotly, trying not to lose it. Why am I even getting so angry?

"Then why can't you believe in her NOW?" she asked, doing something I assume is equivalent to a woman crossing her arms across her chest but which looks awkward and kind of uncomfortable on a pony. There's balance issues, even sitting down. "We can take care of ourselves, you know."

I'm the one who can't take care of himself. Or anyone else, it seems sometimes. "I didn't say she couldn't!," I said, trying to push my voice down as it fought me. "But there's a DRAGON out there and I don't even know if all of us together can deal with a Grand Wyrm, let alone three of us!"

"It's gonna eat you all," Luigi said cheerfully. "Grand Wyrms kick the shit out of anything short of a Prince."

"Shut up," Ivan snapped at Luigi, who looked amused.

"C'mon, it's a Grand Wyrm. Even Jagger is careful with Grand Wyrms," Luigi said. "You think it's gonna play nice? If it notices the three of you, you're gonna get eaten. And so will I." He shivered. "You'd be better off taking me to Fort Nar all together, then going back to Equestria. Where it's SAFE."

"We may be small but we are not children," Rarity said firmly to him, sounding irritated. "I am sure the three of them can handle themselves."

"I've seen lots of people who could 'handle it' get in over their heads," I said urgently. If more people die... I just can't take it.

"We'll be fine," Dash said to me. "Come on, trust me, I know what I can do." She sounded confident and pleading at once.

"We'll be fine," Spitfire said. "We're professionals."

"Yeah, we only got singed a little on Honor Island," Soarin' said proudly.

"Not helping," Spitfire whispered a little too loudly to him.

"Look, I can't stop you," I said. "But I'm going to be sitting here panicking until you come back."

Applejack made a noise I think means 'ack'.

"Hah! We'll show you, Mr. Nervous Nellie!," Spike said defiantly. "I'll kick that dragon's ass if it shows up!" He began miming punches and kicks.

"Don't take any excessive chances, Spike," Rarity said, then took out a blue and gold scarf, which showed a sunny sky, and wrapped it around his neck. "You may get cold in the wind."

"Thanks, Rarity!" he said, looking like KING OF THE WORLD.

Twilight looked at Pinkie. "What do you think?"

Pinkie started. "I'm not sure if that scarf goes with the color of Spike's scales."

Twilight now fell down in surprise. I buried my face in my hands.

"I could bust out my... well, I'd have to rebuild my gyrocopter. Herr Sigismund and I figured out how to make it better," Pinkie said, pulling out the blueprints. She now began pontificating to Twilight, who now totally forgot what we were discussing and began talking about how to make it work better with Pinkie.

...

"Look, Marcus, it's gonna be okay," Dash said. "We'll take Spike, and we'll be back lickety-split." She came over and patted my shoulder. "Don't worry, we are the GREATEST."

Everyone thinks that until they get EATEN.

I sighed and sagged a little. "Be careful." I told her. Dammit, I really hate CARING. It mostly is useful for bringing you pain.

"It's gonna be fine," Dash said to me.

Fluttershy looked at me, looked at Dash, then said softly, "Good luck, Dash."

"Thanks. Uh... we'll just go before Pinkie tries to come with us," Dash said. "Come on, Luigi."

Rarity got Twilight to throw the enlarging spell again and they tied Luigi onto Dash while I pouted. Twilight went back to helping Pinkie with her engineering.

Soon, they took off and I lurked by the wall, worrying and feeling my gut churn as the rain slowly slackened outside.

Ivan and Applejack hung out, drawing maps of a farm on the floor and talking shop. Rarity lurked near Twilight and Pinkie, working on some clothing and calling Ivan over at times. And I sat by the wall, shuffling my deck of cards over and over and drifting off into a frustrated, worried haze.

At some point, Fluttershy sat down next to me and said softly, "You can pet me if it makes you feel better."

...

It did, in fact. I don't know why.

"It triggers buried instincts from the days when your ancestors groomed each other. It's the same reason your pets like it," she said. "Ponies like nuzzling and hugging too."

"You're not a pet," I said, trying not to remember how Corin got eaten by that damn dragon-turtle. Which isn't really a dragon but it's way too evil and friend-eating to be a true turtle either.

I've seen a lot of people die. Most of the time, the pain's gone... too many competing for time in my head. But now I can't help but imagine Dash dying and I don't like that image.

But caring means it hurts MORE if you lose someone. It's easier to not care if it just means pain.

"People like touching each other too," she said, touching my knee just for a moment. She glanced at Rarity, who did not seem to be paying attention.

"I've seen a lot of people die, Fluttershy," I told her softly. "I don't... I don't want Dash to think I think she can't handle it, but even the best get hurt," I said. Every time I let myself care, I get burned. Or I have to leave.

At least Helga is happy and Twilight is pretty happy and Dona Carlotta is pretty happy too. That makes me feel better even if Twilight is remembering me...old me too much. And Ivan's alive and on his way to getting suckered by a fake immortal, which reminds me, I have to steal those lock picks to keep him out of the trap.

"I know," Fluttershy said softly, patting my foot as I sat cross-legged next to her, back to the wall. "Animals die, faster than us," she said, and sighed. "It's sad, but we have to go on. I'm kind of hoping to be a tree in my next life." She smiled brightly at the idea.

A tree?

"I don't know what I'd want to be if I wasn't human," I told her. "Something that could fly, maybe." EASY to run away with wings.

She smiled brightly at that; I hadn't actually PLANNED currying favor, but hey, take all the curried favor you can get. "Anyway, I know it's not easy," she said kindly to me. "But Rainbow Dash is very strong and so are her friends and it's mainly just flying."

I probably would have freaked out without her comforting presence. Ivan seemed totally relaxed after a little while and I felt very annoyed with his casual palling around with Applejack when a third of the group was off risking their life for a dimwitted Glantrian we should have just dumped in the Malpheggi.

Risking their life for someone who had specifically tried to KILL them or at least injure them. For reasons which still remain unclear. And which we don't have time to investigate.

And I had a fight with Rarity. At least it was a fight over something of substance; Dona Carlotta and I once had a fight over... I'm still not sure but apparently I didn't like her dress enough or something and we had a three hour argument over everything humans and elves ever did to each other, then eventually we made up and had mad sex.

I'm not looking for mad sex with Rarity, she is a Pony, after all, but I don't like fighting with her. Does she think I don't trust HER to carry her weight? What did I even say?

Fluttershy was kind enough to lurk comfortingly while I brooded, which was a big help. Of course, it just illustrates that Ponies are nicer than people. They can meet someone and pretty quickly, they'll go to great lengths for them. I can't bond to people that quickly.

Dammit, Dash, if you get killed I'm going to throw up.

I can just see the dragon diving out of the sky and just... a dragon that size can bite a pony in half with one chomp. Damn my imagination.

I forced myself not to curl up in a ball, and Fluttershy now began a wordless song, sung very softly. I felt it more than I heard it. I began humming it as well, and we continued for what felt like forever.

I could see Rarity and Twilight talking quietly, while Pinkie was busy trying to make a model of some weird machine that looked gnomish in style to me. They build really crazy devices. She was using modeling clay, I think.

Eventually, my nerves kept jacking up higher and I wanted to DO something but I had nothing to do. I was about ready to explode when suddenly, I started choking, apparently just for fun.

Everyone's head swung around as I keeled over, trying to cough it up, and now Fluttershy began trying to thump my back, but her blows... were way too gentle.

Applejack, on the other hand, and Ivan grabbed me, pushing in front somehow and I suddenly coughed up green flame and spat a letter into Applejack's face. "Sorry," I mumbled.

"I guess his aim is off," Twilight said, catching it and opening it. "He says they made it to Fort Nar and they handed over Luigi."

'His aim is off'. I doubt that was an accident. Spike wouldn't try to kill me, but make me sick, yeah. "I will make you some tea," Fluttershy said.

"Thank you," I said and just kind of laid there, letting her take care of me and feeling fairly frustrated. I'll be... well, better once I know they're okay.

I hate caring about people. It makes it a lot easier to hurt.

****************

Twilight eventually pulled me aside. "You okay?"

"Do I look okay?" I said miserably. I had reached the point of being sick of my own shit, which meant that now I was worrying about worrying. As well as worrying. Given an hour or two more, I would reach the point where I would worry about how much I was worrying about worrying and either become all-powerful or go mad from recursion.

She touched her forehead with a hoof. "I never know what to say." She glanced at Pinkie, who was still working on her gyrocopter model and had made a tiny clay Pinkie to pilot it. "Normally, Pinkie handles cheering people up but she's kind of distracted, I guess." She sounded surprised.

She probably senses my fear. No, wait, predators LIKE fear.

How can she be so happy in a world like this?

Twilight, at least, knows what sorrow is. I felt a sudden sense of kinship there. "Me neither," I confessed. "I am good at being gracious and courtly but not good at talking about my feelings."

"I've noticed," she said. "But I'm not good at it either. I spent a lot of time trying not to have any because they got in the way of my studies." She settled down into that sphinx-like position, next to me.

I kept shuffling my cards nervously. I suddenly wondered if she'd recognize the deck, but clearly she didn't. I didn't get much use for it when I knew her. "Have you read Didymus' Machina Explicata?" I asked.

"Of course," she said. "His chapter on organizing was a big help to me."

"Chapter twelve is my favorite. 'Never Split the Party'. It's why I'm so worried. Dividing force in the face of danger is dangerous itself," I said.

"It's where he said, 'The best friends are different from you; their strengths cover your weaknesses, their weaknesses, you cover with your strengths. Everyone can't be good at everything, but the sum is more than the whole of its parts.', right?" she said softly.

"Yes," I told her. "It's key to a good adventuring party."

"Or friendship," she said, looking fondly at her friends.

"Well, that's the same thing," I said. "A really good group will become friends. The stress of battle either forges you together or you fail and..." I couldn't bring myself to say 'die'.

"You really should come back to Ponyville with us for a while, at least, after this. You don't have any big plans, right?" Twilight said hopefully.

"I didn't know where I would be going once the dragon was gone," I told her. "I'd love to see Ponyville," I told her. I will die if I go to Ponyville. If I stick around. Only now it's quite obvious to me I won't be too happy if I just leave, either.

DAMMIT.

"Good," she said warmly, then got nervous. "I... look..." She looked at Rarity, then at me. "There's... I read a book. About... Umm..." She grew steadily more agitated.

I blinked, wondering what was going on. "What book?"

"I... it..." Her face was red. "I mean... she... thing..."

Weirdly, watching her disintegrate helped me to integrate. "It's okay, new topic, so you don't have to be embarrassed."

Does she have a thing for Rarity? Rarity has a great deal of charm, so I'm sure she has many admirers and Twilight is the type, I think, to get swept along by charm under the right circumstances. Or maybe Rarity just gave her some advice on pursuing boys she finds embarrassing? Or teased her, maybe?

"Having a fight with a friend is terrible, right?" she finally squeaked out.

"Yes," I said, and sighed. "I didn't mean to come off as if I didn't think Dash can do her thing. But no one but me seems to take this dragon seriously."

"I'm not even sure why Rarity is so jumpy. She's hiding something," Twilight said, then looked at Pinkie and mumbled for a few seconds. "Well, see... we..." She sighed. "I can't talk about it. But basically, we've faced something stronger than this dragon and won."

...

"Seriously?" I said, amazed.

"I swear I am telling the truth," she said, hoof over her heart. At least I assume Ponies have their heart on the same side as us.

But Twilight wouldn't lie. "Okay, then," I said, though I wondered what on Mystara they'd faced down. A really elder beholder? Some Immortal's super-potent mortal form that only barely qualifies as 'mortal'? A demon?

"Don't worry, it's going to be okay," she said comfortingly. "Can I get you to help me with an experiment?"

"Of course," I told her. It beat sitting around slowly going mad.

Soon, we were knee deep in balls of lightning and laughing as they zipped around. Sometimes, all you need is a good distraction, I guess.

**************

We were still manipulating ball lightning together when Dash suddenly shouted, "It's a lightning storm! I'll save you!"

"No wait!" I said, and then got swept away along with Twilight and now the Wonderbolts were kicking the balls of lightning into non-existence

"There went that experiment," Twilight said weakly and I was on the ground with Dash standing over me.

"See, I'm totally okay," Dash said. "Touch me."

Confused, I touched her shoulder.

"Not undead or anything. But... umm... You okay?" she said, trailing off.

"I'm fine; we were studying how to manipulate ball lightning with magic. Twilight was trying to teach me."

"..."

"It's fine," I told her. We can start over. "So it went okay?"

"It went okay AND we bought you some salt beef from a guy hauling shipments of it down the Arbandrine River to Port Tenobar," Dash said. "Soarin' has it."

"It's very beefy," Soarin' said and Spitfire snickered. "What?" he said and Spitfire snickered more.

I got up once Dash got to where she wasn't in the way. "I'm glad you're okay," I told her.

She laughed nervously. "I told you I'd be fine." She smacked my shoulder. "No reason to worry, Marcus."

"Okay," Twilight said, and got them to report on the trip. They encountered a bunch of merchants going up and down the Arbandrine in fortified barges. Tenobar has gotten a lot more trade since the Equestrians ran a train line to it. Darokin keeps talking about building train lines, but a train to Tenobar would have to run pretty close to the Malpheggi.

And the Everfree Forest too.

They successfully handed over Luigi and came back. No problems at all.

This clearly meant the universe was saving up for a BIG problem.

We decided to scout our route forwards today but make our next move tomorrow, when it should be done raining and safe to go forwards.

Pinkie, having finished her model making, put it away and threw a 'cave people' party in which we all pretended to be primitive rock chuckers and ate pastries which resembled rocks. I felt somewhat better by the end, though still a little melancholy. My worries wouldn't stay away, though Twilight seemed to have reason to feel competent.

I laid down to sleep, hoping everything would go well tomorrow.

*****************

We set out into the muck and the heat of the very humid swamp, though right now we were passing through relatively high land which was fairly dry and solid, densely forested with fungus everywhere. This made me nervous, especially anything purplish in color.

Our goal was to cross the range of hills, cross a river, cross a large marsh, then reach the fringe of the next range and camp there. The next morning we'd have a short trip to where Vermicoritax is thought to dwell. Twilight and I talked shop, while Rarity and I glanced at each other, but neither of us could quite muster the strength to breach the silence.

For me, it was my natural cowardice. I don't know what held her back. She doesn't seem the type to be afraid to talk to someone. I just didn't want another fight. I still owed her too much.

The day was pretty miserable; lots of long walking and my legs were stiff. Then we had to cross a river, which meant tying ourselves together and swimming. For some of us, like Applejack or Dash, this was easy. For me or for Rarity, it didn't go as well.

Then we had to cross a marsh; by the end, I was a filthy, stinky mess and so was Rarity and well, everyone else.

When the land finally rose, we soon found something interesting; there was a crumbling, vine-covered complex of buildings, probably hundreds of years old. We cleared off some vines and found a holy symbol. For some crazy reason, Ixion (Immortal of the Sun) had apparently commanded his followers to build a monastery here.

There was no clear sign of what happened, though one of the walls of the main building was blown inward in three locations with blackened, pitted bricks. And there was a ten foot wide staircase descending into the darkness; cool air rose up from it.

"We should see if it's safe, then camp down in the nice cool air," I said.

There was a well, so we drew some water and took a little rest in the ruins, then descended down the stairs; the walls were lined with devotional images of Ixion doing things like raising the sun and smiting undead and making out with Valerias (Immortal of love and war). "Hey, Celestia raises the sun," Dash said, frowning.

Actually the rotation of the planet raises it, though I expect Ixion or Celestia does have influence over it. But I only argue with believers when there is a point. "Pine Cone argued in his fourth book, Comparative Theology, that Ixion was an effort to humanify Celestia. Notice the similarity of many of these images to the ones found at l'caveurn d'Poni," Twilight pointed out.

I have no idea what l'caveurn d'Poni is. Sounds vaguely like the weird language they use in New Averoigne, though. Apparently the Averoigneans in Glantri came from another plane and brought their own weird language.

"Ixion is one of the oldest immortals," I replied. "He's one of the handful who predate humans and Ponies alike. Also, given that Celestia is sister to Sleipnir, she can't predate Ixion. Though she is pretty ancient if that's the case."

"Why the similarity of imagery?" Twilight asked. "This is much more sophisticated art, but the poses are the same, just better executed here."

"Why are you two standing on the stairs blocking me getting down them?" Applejack asked.

We both laughed nervously and Rarity made a noise. Now what? Then we moved down the stairs into the room at the bottom; it was thirty foot square with a fifteen foot high ceiling, the walls made of smooth stone painted with now long faded and damaged and often moldy devotional art of Ixion. Hallways ran off west, south, and east; we'd come down from the north.

Twilight ran a hoof along the wall. "Carved from the bedrock, rather than this being cut stone dressing."

"They probably hired dwarves," Pinkie said. She tapped the wall. "It's solid. Plain old reliable granite. Long ago, magma thrust up into weaker rocks, forming these hills; all this rain gradually eroded away the other rocks, leaving these hills."

She then hopped around the room. "Cold air is coming from the east and south. Stagnant from the west; it must lead to a dead end"

I had put a glowy spell on my hat and Rarity and Twilight were shining their horns. A quick check showed the hallway west ran twenty feet to a door, the eastern hallway ran thirty feet, then turned north, and the southern hallway ran south more than sixty feet, going beyond the light of my hat or the horns.

"I wonder how big this place is," Twilight mused.

"We should probably just make sure we're safe here and not go too deep," Rarity said. "We need to save our strength for the dragon."

"I have to open that door," Pinkie said. "I made a *promise*."

"To who?" Fluttershy asked.

"Myself! To leave no door unopened, no stone unmossed, no cake uneaten!" Pinkie said.

"Hold on," I said. "Twilight and I will make sure it isn't trapped with magic."

"And I'll look for any mundane traps," Ivan said.

"Why would there be a trap on the cellar door?" Applejack asked.

"There is ALWAYS a trap on the door underground," Ivan said.

"Trust us, we deal with this sort of thing all the time," I said.

This is probably some crazy twenty level dungeon run by a mad wizard and if we didn't have to deal with the dragon eating us soon, I'd want to explore it, because mad wizards give the best toys if you win.

But they also tend to think that it's a good idea to put a barrel in a room, mark it 'sugar', then fill it with BEES.

Bees which somehow spit up cockatrices.

Who are on fire.

First Twilight and I studied it. It had been crudely locked with magic, which intrigued me. Not a very good wizard, though. We easily broke the spell and let Ivan in.

He tinkered with the lock. "Classic poison needle in the lock trap," he said. "Now here's the interesting thing. Notice those hinges?" He pointed to the perfectly ordinary hinges.

"Do they spit fire or something?" Applejack said, frowning.

"No, they're on THIS side, and you know what that means," Ivan said as he tinkered with small tools and listened with a cup to the door; the cup had a fine mesh over the mouth; it stops ear burrowing worm monsters and the like.

"It means someone liked OAK leaves," Pinkie said.

"Maple," Fluttershy said softly.

They were made of brass and shaped like maple leaves, yes.

"It means the door opens towards us and was meant to keep something on the other side out of here, not those on this side from crossing over," Ivan said, pouring a little oil into the lock. Then he stuck his lock picks in. Click, clock, click and the door opened a tiny touch. "Okay, Applejack, swap with me; if something nasty is beyond the door, we need to kick its ass."

"Oh NOW you want me," Applejack grumbled.

"Hey, fingers are MADE for this job," Ivan said. "And hooves are made for kicking someone's ass."

"Kicking a don... oh," Twilight said. Most of the rest of us laughed, Fluttershy patted her comfortingly and now Applejack bucked the door open.

This room was rough, natural stone, about fifty feet long north to south and twenty five, east to west. By the west wall, a stream ran into the room, ran south, and formed a large pool by the wall; sacks with something yellow and purple spilling out stood near the pool, still neatly stacked, and the water rippled in a way that made me nervous. There was a large stone box against the north wall, lined with tile and half-full of stagnant water. The water in the stream was fresh and sparkling. "Be wary of that weird stuff over there," I said, pointing to the yellow and purple... I'm not sure what they are. Small hunks of yellow and purple planty kind of stuff.

"That's GRAIN, but it's moldy," Applejack said, frowning. "Hey, Fluttershy, got a face mask?"

Fluttershy passed her a kind of breathing mask thing and helped her strap it on. We all lurked just inside the room as Applejack slowly approached it.

"It may try to fire spores at you," I said.

"Only an idiot stores grain in a room with an underground river. It's like asking for it to rot," Applejack said, frowning "Either this is a mold trap or somethin' weird's going on." She studied the room warily.

"This may well be a dungeon now, with some mad wizard moved in and forcing everyone to dance for his amusement. Just remember, in a dungeon, everything is deadly. Rewards are high, but it's very dangerous."

"We should get out, then," Applejack said. She paused. "Something's in the water."

"Retreat!" I shouted.

It was too late as the giant crayfish rose out of the water and snapped at Applejack, who leaped up and landed on its head and began jumping up and down. It hit the sacks and moldy grain and spores went everywhere.

This thing had better be rich, or Fluttershy had better be loaded up on curing disease, I thought.

Fluttershy now began a song, and the spores began to change color. Some of the spores came towards us, but Pinkie batted them away with a giant spatula. The Wonderbolts and Dash sprung into action; they hit the spores and whipped them up with winds and dumped them into the water where the current took them away. Rarity now raised an arrow and shot the giant crayfish at the point where its right claws came together and it howled and now its claws were stuck open and she smiled.

"Anyone got butter?" I said, then dumped my flame spell on its tail; it howled at that and tried to turn around to face a non-extant foe as Applejack bounced on its head.

"I do!" Pinkie said, somehow producing a cauldron and a huge slab of butter. "You and Ivan will eat on this for WEEKS."

"I got this," Applejack said; leaping around, kicking and pushing, she drove it down the length of the pool and underwater to flee from us.

Twilight and I then set the grain on fire while the Wonderbolts and Dash kept the spores from escaping. Unfortunately, this filled the room with smoke, forcing us to escape.

"Dammit, there was probably treasure," Ivan grumbled.

"I got a mask on, I'll check," Applejack said "It had better be WORTH IT."

She returned with fifty gold coins, two hundred and twelve silver, and three large topazes. "Some crazy pony put all this in the grain." She shook her head. "And this." She carefully plucked a purple potion out of her pack. "Any idea what it is?"

"Ooh, potion of Polymorphing," Ivan said. "I like to carry some on me but I lost all of mine in the swamp when we got stuck in the river."

"What does that do?" Rarity asked, her voice a little tight.

"Basically, you take on the form of whatever you want of the same kingdom, so you can't be a tree or a fungus but you can be a dog or a pony or a elf. And you keep your own magical abilities if you have any but gain the physical abilities of your body. And if you stay changed too long, it kind of messes with your mind some. Usually, though, it wears off before *too* much of that. And you get the physical instincts to use your new form," Ivan said.

Rarity studied it curiously. "Do you drink the whole thing?"

"The more you take, the more it lasts," he said. "I guess you should take the gems since you can make something pretty with them."

Rarity nodded and took them, looking thoughtful. I wonder what she wants to turn into.

"Polymorphing can be fun but kind of scary if you're not used to it," I said.

Twilight said, "I didn't know you knew any shapeshifting magic, Marcus." She sounded curious.

"I don't but I've used it or been transformed by items in times past," I told her. "This could be a big help; we could turn Applejack or Dash into a dragon and have her kick some ass with it, if we need to."

"Hey, I already AM a dragon," Spike said.

"I'm not sure if it could change your age or you'd just turn into another kind of baby dragon," I told him.

"I'm not a BABY," he fumed. "I'm a young adult."

He's a baby. Or he wouldn't be shorter than me. Dragons are big.

"I'll carry the potion for now," Ivan said. "Who carries the party treasury?"

"That's Rarity," Twilight said. "Wow, a real dungeon. So you think this place has a mad wizard, Marcus?"

"Or something equivalent. Mad druid, mad cleric. They're all mad and they enjoy making us jump through hoops for their amusement," I told her. "But the pay's good."

"We should just make sure nothing's going to jump on us," Spitfire said. "I know the temptation but we need to save our strength."

"I like mad wizards," Pinkie said cheerfully.

Of course you do, Pinkie.

I wanted to explore this place so bad, even knowing it would be full of mad wizard crazy stuff. "Oh yes, the second rule of dungeons. If you see someone you love or who is really sexy or attractive, they're probably covertly a monster."

"What if you hate them?" Pinkie asked.

"Monster."

She circled me widdershins. "And if you don't care about them?"

"Monster. If it moves and isn't part of the party, it's probably a threat. Except when it isn't," I said. Too much paranoia will get you too. "Also, sometimes monsters will disguise themselves as members of the party, which is one of the MANY reasons to NEVER split the party."

I just want the mad loot, damn it.

"That sounds dangerous," Pinkie said thoughtfully.

"High risk, high yield," I told her. Weirdly, knowing everything is deadly makes me less nervous. It means no surprises. Oh, the mad wizard THINKS that making something that says 'drink me, totally safe' actually turn you into a turnip is a surprise, but if you're experienced like me, you already knew it was a TRAP.

Because everything is.

"Best we not take too many chances," Twilight said. "Let's just scout quickly. I would love to go through this place and study it, but I don't want to risk us getting hurt before the dragon."

Hopefully the mad wizard is taking his beauty rest and won't notice and lock us in.

Though at least I'd be locked in with a good group this time. Last time I got locked in a dungeon, the group was made up of all greedy, foolish people except me. I'm not even sure HOW I got out alive.

I must have, or I'd be dead, but my last clear memory is a giant metal cow breathing on me. Some kind of weird mist. I would think I turned to stone, but I am not, in fact, stone.

Ergo, somehow I got out of that. I'd ask Ivan but he wasn't there.

It all started going to hell when the idiot monk decided to MOON a line of hobgoblins who had formed a line of pikemen.

Yeah, it went downhill from there.

*************

The southern hallway was painted with pictures of Ixion blessing crops and priests and villages, all faded and sometimes defaced. One painting, someone had put a mustache on EVERY single person. In a giant crowd scene. Men AND woman alike.

Eighty feet long, leading to a fifty by fifty room with a high ceiling and crumbly bits of wood on the floor. There were more devotional paintings in faded, peeling stucco. One of them, however, caught our attention; at the far end of the room, Celestia was depicted kneeling before Ixion as he patted her head. He was also drawn to be maybe twice her size. Which would make him HUGE.

The ponies stared, eyes wide. "I think that's blasphemy," Applejack muttered.

"It's probably propaganda to assert Ixion's primacy," Twilight said, frowning.

"It's a super-cute picture of Celestia when she was younger! Look at how awkward she looks," Pinkie said, running over and touching it, stroking her wings.

The floor suddenly rotated under Pinkie, and the wall too and now she was on the other side of the wall and now you could see an image of a purple and blue pony who was an alicorn like Celestia. An eight-legged pony alicorn with dark blue coat and white star speckles and a grey mane was snuggling up to Celestia and the other pony. Ixion and Odin stood nearby, conversing. Was that Sleipnir? The eight-legged pony, that is.

"It's Luna!," Twilight said.

Wait, that's Luna? This place is so old... what is going on?

Dammit, did I somehow miss the existence of a second God-Pony the whole time I lived in Canterlot? Has someone erased some of my memories? DAMMIT.

"We've got to rescue Pinkie before she does something foolish," Applejack said. "We can study made up wall paintin's later."

Pinkie said something muffled through the wall; Ivan got his mesh cup. "I think she's moving away from the wall," he said.

I tried pushing the wall, but neither Ivan nor I could get the wall to move.

*Dammit*.

"Let me try," Applejack said. She moved to where she could aim at the right edge of the segment which must be on a pivot and she kicked. Nothing happened and she stumbled away from the wall, having pushed herself instead of it. "Dammit."

Twilight now used St. Tarastia's Fire to limn the edge of the wall segment. "Ivan, try touching Celestia's wings."

"I get a slight tingly feeling but nothing happens," Ivan said.

Twilight tried touching it with her horn. "There's definitely a triggering spell but for some reason, I can't make it go off." She sounded frustrated.

"Try Luna's wings," Dash said.

All three alicorns gave Ivan a slight tingly feeling when touched them.

"We'd all best get in close," Twilight said. "Then, Ivan, try touching Ixion and Odin."

We all crammed into the rotating segment, bumping and poking each other, then Ivan touched Ixion and suddenly the wall spun, depositing us in a ten foot wide corridor that ran south more than our sixty foot light radius. Distantly, Pinkie shouted, "Haha, you'll never catch me!" I heard galloping and the sound of loud clanking, like someone in armor chasing her.

We ran down the corridor, which ran a total of seventy feet, then opened into an east-west corridor that was twenty feet wide. Thirty feet west of us, it turned south and east of us, it turned north after fifty feet. Across the hallway and just a little east of us, another twenty foot hallway ran south.

Pinkie noises came from west and south of us, so we ran off that way past paintings of many of the immortals. Ivan stared at one of them, which showed Asterius riding on Luna across a... well, lunar landscape, both of them laughing.

"That's Princess Luna, right?" I asked Twilight as we ran.

"It looks like her, but..." Twilight looked confused. "Let's catch up to Pinkie first."

The hallway forked; one part went west, then shrank to a narrower corridor; another branch went south, doing the same and a broad corridor ran southeast, with the sound of Pinkie down it. We kept on running.

We could see Pinkie now, being chased by a fifteen foot tall humanoid in plate armor. Pinkie was laughing. "Hi, everyone, chasing is fun!"

Golem? Frost giant or Fire giant, maybe? Probably a golem as it didn't talk and it moved jerkily and it didn't dress like a giant.

Which would make it an iron golem. SHIT.

Those things breathe poison and sometimes pull other crazy tricks. "I think it's an iron golem! They breathe poison and I think... dammit, something about lightning," I said.

"I didn't bring my guide to golems!" Twilight said frantically. "I've got six books on DRAGONS and more on swamp monsters!"

"He doesn't like pie!" Pinkie said.

Well, that narrows it down.

"We'll take him down!" Dash said. "Pegasus CHARGE!"

A triple Pegasi charge sent him tumbling through the air, over Pinkie, who crashed into him and fell down dazed. The Pegasi vanished out of sight down the tunnel which narrowed to ten feet ahead. Ivan rushed up, picked up Pinkie, then collapsed under her weight. "So much for being the hero," he mumbled.

"Sorry, I'll start a diet tomorrow," Pinkie mumbled.

It's not that Pinkie weighs more than the average Pony, it's that ponies are, in fact, heavier than they look. I'm stronger than Ivan and I wouldn't want to carry a pony very far. Also, he picked her up badly so he had to sustain all the weight with his arms.

The golem started to rise and Applejack leaped over Ivan and Pinkie, spun and back kicked it, knocking it back down, then jumped onto it and began kicking it all over.

Fluttershy looked around, looked a little frustrated, then began a soft song; I soon heard the scurrying of rats.

The hallway turned straight east here and dwindled down to a ten foot hallway further east; the Wonderbolts and Dash had vanished down it; I expect once they get to high speed they can't stop easily. Another tunnel ran off northeast, but it was only ten feet wide. The walls here showed a great feast of the immortals. Celestia was flanked by Luna and Sleipnir, themselves flanked by Asterius and Odin. If there's some sort of Asterius-Luna connection, then why hadn't I ever heard of Luna before this? Not that I'm a great scholar of religion, but I expect the average kobold knows about Odin and Sleipnir.

Maybe Ivan knows something.

I tried dumping my fire spell on the golem but the fire skittered off his armor like I had thrown marshmallows at him. Spike breathed on him, but it didn't work any better for him. "No lightning... no fire..." Twilight began to sweat.

"Save Pinkie and Ivan," Applejack said, still pounding dents into the golem. When it tried to get up, she knocked it down again, grinning. "Stay down, buckaroo, you won't buck ME off," she said to the golem.

Twilight evacuated Pinkie and Ivan, who now stumbled to their feet.

I heard bashing and shouting noises to the east. Oh bloody hell, they ran into another monster!

I limned the golem with Saint Tarastia's Fire. THAT, at least worked and would hopefully help Applejack aim.

Fluttershy now began talking to some rats, who had tiny squeaky voices. Twilight began paging through a book frantically while Spike consulted another one for her.

The golem now rotated its head 180 degrees and spat fire at Applejack, who dodged out of the way, bounced off the wall, and landed between us and the golem. "Okay, didn't expect it could turn its head *that* much," Applejack said. She busted out her lasso. "Pinkie, Marcus, I need a distraction."

Why ME?

Pinkie took my hands... somehow... then began to sing and we began jitterbugging around, dodging golem fists and fiery blasts, while Applejack darted about, apparently waiting for the perfect moment.

Distantly, Rainbow Dash shouted something about her ass.

Twilight sketched a map of the room, overlaid a circle on it (it was too big for the room), frowned and then went back to her book. "This would be so much easier if I could use the lightning balls," she said grumpily.

"I know, this sucks, golems SUCK," Spike said angrily.

I suddenly realized I had totally lost track of Rarity in this mess. Where was she? Had she fallen into a pit trap while we were running or something?

Dammit.

I lifted Pinkie up high briefly (I could only do this briefly), then dipped her low to avoid a burst of flame.

"And now," Rarity said to my surprise. She'd snuck behind the golem and now she fired arrows into the back of his elbows and knees. They broke through his shell and hit hard enough that they came out the front. He struggled with his joints locked.

Applejack struck, lassoing around his head and sealing his mouth shut and pulling him down. "Pinkie, two pony pull!" Pinkie ran up and with Ivan and I helping, we quickly secured rope around them and they took off running, dragging the golem by his head after them, crashing and banging. He couldn't get Rarity's arrows out as he couldn't focus on trying to snap them or pull them out. So he careened around, smashing into the walls, as they ran along laughing.

"Remind me not to piss off Applejack," I said weakly, watching this.

"Thank you for the fire, Marcus," Rarity said. "It helped me aim."

"It's about all I could do," I told her, sighing. "Very well done, my fair lady."

"I... Marcus..." she said a little nervously.

"We've got to go help Dash and the others while they dispose of the golem," Twilight said, Spike leaping onto her back. "CHARGE!"

I wish they were a little larger. As it stood, they charged off ahead of us, with Ivan and I lagging behind, though now Fluttershy came flying after us, having been so busy talking to rats, she'd not noticed the order to charge at first.

"The rats told me that there's a clay statue that sometimes moves around that way," Fluttershy said. "And a bronze statue that also moves. And a big, beautiful female rat, but she eats anyone who tries to hit on her."

...

Ivan laughed. "A were-rat?"

"Just a rat, but big," Fluttershy said. "Probably a Dire Rat. They're awfully mean." She clearly did not approve of this.

I saw a distant flash of light and heard more shouting and a loud THUNK I hoped was not a Pony.

"And this goes into a maze of small tunnels and hallways," Fluttershy said. "Some of the tunnels are only for rats."

"The rats can have their privacy," I said and Fluttershy smiled. I had been joking but I think she took it as kindness to rats.

That's Fluttershy.

I heard distant crashing and shouting far behind us; hopefully it's an iron golem working on dying. Not... I need to be less morbid.

The maze was actually easy to follow; just head for the sound of chaos. We ended up in a dead-end room; it was painted to resemble a storehouse, though anything stored in it had vanished long ago. The north wall had Ixion on it and the south wall Valerias; both were toting boxes.

I must admit that is NOT a theme I have ever seen before in religious art. I now noticed Luna and Celestia were on the east and west walls respectively, also helping to store things.

However, the actual content of the room was a giant clay statue of a monk. Dash and Soarin' were trying to fight its left and right arms respectively and Spitfire kept circling it and kicking it in the back. It had more balance than the iron golem, or maybe the Pegasi just don't have the same strength in their back legs as Applejack. They couldn't move very far to build up charging speed in here.

Rarity had shot a few arrows into it, but apparently its joints couldn't be locked up; it just fluidly flowed around the arrows. The Wonderbolts' blows didn't really hurt it either; it would just undent itself.

Fluttershy studied it. I asked her, "Can you make seeds sprout in it, maybe?"

"It's clay, not good for growing most things by itself," Fluttershy said. "It's too wet."

"Could we bake the water out with heat?" I asked.

"Oooh," Twilight said. "Rarity, I hate to ask you to do this, but I'm going to need you to keep it busy while I explain my plan to the Wonderbolts and Dash."

Rarity's eyes widened. She looked at it, but then she suddenly set her stance and pawed the ground with her left hoof determinedly. "I will," she said.

Spike looked panicked. "Rarity, that's really dangerous!"

She's going to get squished. I started to open my mouth and she looked at Spike and I determinedly. Is she trying... I don't know what she's thinking. Beyond being determined to show her strength. "Make your father proud," I told her. If she gets squished, I am going to be very unhappy.

She smiled at that. "I will." She turned. "Avaunt ye! I am Rarity, the daughter of Captain Keen Eyes and Silver Belle! The wrath of a unicorn is not something to be jested at!" She shouted at it and it turned its head to stare at her, and then she shot it in the eyes and charged, even as Twilight called the Wonderbolts and Dash back to our support. It rushed at her and she slipped between its legs, darting about as it tried to punch and kick her. It was clear its maker expected it to fight human-sized things, though; it couldn't easily punch something that low-slung and she managed to dodge its kicks, though every near impact made me wince.

Distantly, I heard crashing noises coming this way and hoped they weren't going to drag the iron golem in here.

Twilight and I now wove a huge fire spell, mixing it with a gout of flame from Spike and raising it up over the golem as Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire began to whirl around it, stirring the air. Unfortunately, it chose this moment to successfully connect with Rarity. She howled and went crashing into the wall.

Spike and I both freaked out and Twilight now got glowy-eyed and the flame roared up in potency falling down on the golem and warmed the air, which the Wonderbolts and Dash managed by rushing around it, forming a column of hot air which baked it thoroughly. It yelped and now it was baked stiff.

Rarity rose, studied it on wobbly legs, then shot four arrows into it. Cracks ran through it and it wobbled more, and then the Wonderbolts and Dash hit it and it shattered. Spike breathed fire on it and all the pieces vanished like...

"Spike, tell me you didn't just dump all the pieces on Celestia," I said.

Twilight looked horrified.

"Naah, I..uh... actually, I'm not sure where I sent it," he confessed.

I went over to Rarity, with Fluttershy following me. The Wonderbolts went over to Twilight and Dash joined us.

"You okay?" I asked Rarity. A stupid question; she got hit and it must hurt.

"You can help me treat her," Fluttershy said to me.

"It was nothing," Rarity said dismissively, then made an unhappy grunting noise.

Dash hovered over us, apologizing, while Fluttershy and I, along with Spike, who now joined us, worked on Rarity. She clearly enjoyed all the attention, sending Spike to get her a snack and a drink and then to fan her, while we worked on her. I felt better; she must be in good spirits.

The distant crashing was now replaced by distant shouting and Soarin' flew off with Dash. Spitfire now joined us. "So your father's a warpony?" Spitfire asked Rarity as she sipped from a straw in a cup of wine.

"Yes," Rarity said. "He's stationed at Grand Stalls and spends a lot of time dealing with orcs and goblins that come up from inside the plateau and handling merchants from Darokin. Mother is with him." There are three points on the plateau where train lines and merchant roads descend down to Darokin and up to the Plateau, to facilitate trade. (There's also a fair number which connect southern Equestria to the Plateau.) Stalliongrad, Grand Stalls, and Castle Neigh guard those three points.

"My Dad's in the army too," Spitfire said. "He's on the Elephant frontier." This is in southwestern Equestria on the border with the Empire of Sind. The Royal Elephant Corps of Sind lives on the other side of the border and sometimes pretends to be 'bandits' to test the strength of Equestria's defenses and the Equestrian military then 'pretends' to beat them up. Or sometimes 'pretends' to get whipped, admittedly. There used to be dwarves living in that region a long time ago, but elephant raids wiped them out, or so I hear. I just know if you say 'Boatmurdered' to a Dwarf, he kicks you in the balls and then whips your ass.

The Sindhi wobble back and forth between 'let's be friends who trade' and 'quadrupeds exist to serve those of high caste, KNEEL BEFORE THE RADHIRAJAH'. Oh, and 'don't mind us, we're killing each other'.

"I'm guessing the Elephants really hate him," I told her. "Given they are low mobility and can't fly."

"They carry archers on their back," Spitfire said. "If the humans there weren't such asses about insisting quadrupeds are lower caste than those with two legs, I'd be impressed by them."

I laughed softly at that. Rarity was carefully studying my knees, which seemed to be fine. Well, I'd worry about that later.

"Have you ever shapechanged?" she asked me. "Oh wait, you mentioned you had."

"Yes," I told her. "I spent several hours as a cat as part of an infiltration. I was amazed by how nimble I was." I held down the bandage while Fluttershy applied a little bit of something sticky to the ends to hold it on. There was some padding under it and a salve for the bruise now starting to form on Rarity's side. I hated to see her hurt but adventuring is dangerous. Honestly, it could have been MUCH worse.

"I've seen cats fall. They twist around in the air to always land on their feet," Spitfire said.

"Actually, it depends on how far they fall whether they manage to twist in time," Fluttershy asked, now singing softly with her hooves glowing. She gently stroked Rarity's injuries, which made Rarity shiver, but I could see her slowly relaxing.

"Did you enjoy it?" Rarity asked me curiously.

"It was kind of fun until they turned the dogs on us," I told her. "I've been a bird too. I nearly got shot with a bow but that time I dodged all the attacks. Flying is very cool."

"You thinking of something clever to do with shifting?" Spitfire asked Rarity.

Rarity blinked, then said, "Fluttershy, would it be natural for rats to be inside a dragon's cave?"

"If he left bits of food, yes. Rats can't steal treasure, so the dragon would pay them no mind," Fluttershy said. "And they're too small to be worth eating, any more than you'd eat a beetle or an ant."

I won't mention some Sindhi make candied beetles. As I'd rather not actually know that.

"So you're thinking you and Marcus should turn into rats and sneak in and spy it out?" Spitfire said. "Hmm, not bad idea.

...

"Actually, I was thinking Fluttershy could talk to the local rats and see if they knew anything."

I gave a sigh of relief at that proposal.

Applejack and Pinkie returned, then Applejack pulled an odd thing out of her bag. It was three dozen gems wired together with gold, silver, copper, and platinum wire in a complex pattern. "Golem brain, I guess," she said. "I figger Rarity can pick it apart."

She smiled. "Thank you, Applejack, I will later." She tucked it into her bag. "If the clay golem had anything valuable, it vanished with the fire."

"I'm sorry," Spike said, hanging his head.

"You were protecting me and that was very kind of you," Rarity said to him. She reached in her bag and pulled the weird thing back out, pried out a gem, and let Spike eat it. "Thank you," she said.

He smiled brightly. "Mmm, that was good." Spike watched her put the rest of the gems and the frame away.

Rarity rose. "I think I'm ready. We should go get some rest; I think we've had enough trouble for one day."

We decided to head back, even though I was rather curious to poke around this place more. I love exploring; I just hate the inevitable beatings which come with it.

*************

We set up camp in the room at the base of the stairs, put up wards, made dinner and relaxed and rested. Rarity spent her time sketching outfits for stallions and working with her new gems. Twilight and Spike and I spent a lot of time fiddling with that secret door.

Study showed Pinkie could rotate it by touching Celestia, Twilight by touching Ixion, Fluttershy by touching Luna, Ivan, Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire by touching Sleipnir, myself and Rarity by touching Odin, which surprised me. Applejack could open the door by touching it anywhere gently but not by force.

"I must admit I do not see myself in a one-eyed man with a spear," Rarity confessed.

"Nor I," I confessed.

"I only vaguely know about Odin, beyond him being a really ancient immortal and he put out his eye for wisdom," Twilight said.

"Sounds more like you, Twilight," Pinkie said thoughtfully. "Did he put a cupcake in the empty socket?"

"Probably not," Ivan said. "So this Luna is Celestia's sister?"

"Yes," Twilight said very firmly. "Her dear younger sister, who raises and lowers the moon."

I know Twilight has to know better than that. I guess she toes the party line in public, though, which disappoints me a little.

Not that I'm going to start a fight over it; not worth it. Pick your fights to have a point to them.

"Are they related to Sleipnir?" Ivan asked.

"I hadn't heard him mentioned but it makes sense," Twilight said.

"She said she was his sister in her letter to me," I said.

Twilight blinked and I wondered why she'd let that out. Had she known we'd come here?

My brain started churning on conspiracy theories, which kept me busy a while.

***************

We all finished dinner and were now quite tired.

"We should sleep," Twilight said. "In the morning, it should only be a short trip to the river and the dragon's lair."

"He lives in the river?" Pinkie asked.

"By it, according to Celestia's intelligence report," Twilight said. "There's a lizardman village and an underground river; he lives in a cave up the river, underground with the lizardmen guarding the entrance."

And then we get eaten.

Though maybe... aaargh. Can't flee. Probably can't survive not fleeing. If we succeed, eventually the truth will out.

Then Twilight will use her secret technique to turn me into a potato.

"I wish I could take a bath," Twilight said.

"I know," Rarity said. "That boat was so nice to stay on," she said dreamily.

"Agreed," I told her. "Nice soft beds."

"Nice comfortable baths," Rarity said.

"Fresh lemon scented soap and nice soft towels," I said wistfully.

For some reason, Dash was just GRINNING at me, so I grinned back and got a hoof up.

I am not sure why, but I don't argue with compliments.

"I like pie," Soarin' said. "Good pies on that boat."

Spitfire, amused, patted his shoulder. "Yep."

"Okay, here's the watch order," Twilight said and we all got ready for bed.

************

You may have noticed we gave up before we checked out the eastern hallway from the main room. We didn't notice, we were all tired and ready for bed. I counted myself lucky to be on third watch, as it meant hours of uninterrupted sleep. YES.

Until I realized this meant it was me, Spitfire, and Pinkie. Spitfire's cool, but this meant HOURS with a VERY BORED Pinkie.

I sat back to back with Pinkie, her watching the west tunnel, me watching the east and Spitfire idly zipping around but basically watching the south. "So what do humans do for fun?" Pinkie asked me.

"Play cards, dance, sing, make things, have parties. A lot of the same things ponies do. We do a lot of things Ponies have a harder time doing, though, like climbing things or sleight of hand," I said.

"What's that?" Spitfire asked.

I got my cards out and shuffled. "Pick a card."

Pinkie drew with her teeth. "Mrphl."

"Okay, that's the Four of Stones. Put it back."

She put it back in and I shuffled, manipulating the cards, then flipped the top card over. The Four of Stones. "Ta da!" I said.

I did it three more times; they couldn't keep up, of course. Then I did some simple tricks with coins and rings. "And none of it is magic, just dexterity with my fingers," I told them. I doffed my hat and now pulled a cupcake out of it, which I'd snuck out of Pinkie's bags when she wasn't looking. "Here you go," I said, handing it back to her.

"Wow, this looks just like one I would make!"

"You did," I told her. "Sleight of hand at work."

"Why learn all that when you can do magic?" Spitfire asked.

"I had a knack, especially with card tricks, from when I was little," I told Spitfire. "And I loved gambling with cards too." I'm a pretty good card player.

"I then learned some magic, but I'm not a great wizard like Twilight," I told them. "But I do a lot of things moderately well instead of doing one thing really well the way Ponies usually do. I do a little sword fighting, I can break into things but not as well as Ivan, I can dance pretty well, but not as well as a pro, and so on."

"I noticed you work with Twilight a lot," Spitfire mused, while now Pinkie was trying to duplicate my card tricks; instead, cards flew everywhere. Ponies without TK really can't easily duplicate sleight of hand.

Spitfire and I couldn't help but laugh as Pinkie rolled around in a mess of cards, trying to get them all together. "Come back here! Get along little cardie!"

"Not too loud, we'll wake the others," I said.

"The essence of spell levels, used to determine thaum consumption, is based on the frequency at which the spell vibrates," Twilight mumbled, gesticulating in her sleep.

I remember seeing her deliver a twenty minute lecture in her sleep once, one time we both fell asleep on her floor and then I later woke up when she started telling her elbow about acids. I smiled fondly at the memory.

Spitfire gave me an odd look. I instinctively checked my pants. Tattoo not showing. Surely me smiling at Twilight didn't make her remember something about that PEARL.

I'd forgotten she and Soarin' have their own reasons to kill me.

"Aaargh, this isn't the Three of Flames," Pinkie said, staring at the Six of Winds and looking frustrated.

"How long have you known Twilight?" Spitfire asked.

"She and her friends saved me from horrible death just a few days ago, which is when I met them all," I told her. FUCK she suspects something!

Spitfire nodded, then stared off down the hallway. "Pinkie, forget the cards, we should keep watch." She looked lost in thought.

Damn me, I thought.

I looked down the hallway just in time to see a half dozen giant spiders on the ceiling coming our way. "SPIDERS!" I shouted and everyone stirred. Dash began swatting them in her sleep. Swatting imaginary ones in her sleep, that is.

Applejack and Ivan were up in a few seconds, even if they were swaying groggily. Spike and Twilight somehow slept through that, and Rarity and Soarin' groggily began to get up.

The wards now went off, waking Twilight and Spike. As the spiders came on, Twilight hurled lightning balls at them; two went tumbling out of sight and the rest scattered. I nailed one of them with a lightning ball, feeling VERY proud of myself. Then Rarity nailed it in the eye and it ran off, though she pulled her arrow back out.

Applejack quickly punted one off down the hallway, and Spitfire collided with another, sending him tumbling. Ivan got pounced on by a sixth one, but Pinkie threw jelly at its eyes, blinding it, then back kicked it off him.

Pretty soon, they all fled, and Applejack said, "Crazy spiders roaming around at three in the mornin'."

"Oh, dungeons are full of roaming monsters, intended to make it hard to rest," I told her.

"'Cause of the mad wizards," she said, frowning.

"Yes. They enjoy watching panicked parties wake up," I told her.

"I need my beauty sleep," Rarity complained.

"He probably likes seeing you bedraggled, unlike me. But I know you are a true lady, whatever the circumstances."

She smiled weakly. "And you are a true gentleman, Marcus." She yawned. "So tired."

"Sleep well, fair lady, knowing we are watching over you as you rest," I said grandiosely and she smiled.

"Goodnight, Marcus. Thank you." Rarity now curled up and I pulled her blanket over her and she went to sleep.

Spitfire was definitely watching me out of one eye. I let it slide; any discussion would just risk exposing secrets.

She kept eying me the rest of our watch, while Pinkie yammered on about spiders and kept trying helplessly to duplicate my card tricks until she got bored of that. THEN she wanted a sing-a-long (not a good idea when people are sleeping), and after that, she really started to spaz. Spitfire looked ready to just go axe crazy on her by the time we made breakfast for everyone and then woke everyone up.

Rarity and I helped each other assume some vague semblance of presentableness. I also got roped into brushing Fluttershy's mane by Rarity, and Applejack as well, though Applejack tried to resist it. But really, her hair needed a good brushing.

As I worked on it, Twilight came over to me. "Marcus, I need to talk to you."

"Fire away," I said.

She took me over to Ivan and sat us down.

"I have prepared something for you for an emergency, as I have a request to make," she said.

She handed me a shimmering red feather. "This is a phoenix feather," she said. "I've stored a flight spell inside it. When we actually approach the lair for real and try to negotiate, you, Ivan, Spitfire and Soarin' will remain concealed. If he attacks, they'll commit to the fight but you and Ivan will need to stay hidden. If it looks like he's going to capture us or... worse... You two will have to escape, then use the flight spell and go to Canterlot and tell Celestia we failed and need a rescue mission." She sounded nervous. "Ideally, it won't come to that, but I want to keep an 'ace in the hole', as I think you'd put it. And hopefully, he won't expect either of you two to exist or have reason to look for you."

Part of me said 'YES!'. I would have a Twilight-powered escape route and no need to risk battle. The other part knew that hiding the whole time would curry no favor and the third part didn't want to hide while my party was in danger.

CRAZY THIRD PART.

"I'd feel awful running off with the rest of you in danger," Ivan said, frowning.

Noble, yet suicidal.

"The same for me," I said. I'd actually feel awful (from fear) if I stayed, awful from worrying about them if I fled. Ugh.

"I know," she said. "But if all goes wrong, someone has to be positioned to escape."

I sighed. "I feel bad being the one but it's a good plan."

"Thank you," she said, smiling. "Hopefully, it won't come to violence, but we'll see." She rose. "Okay, let's get closer to them, then it's time to see if Fluttershy can get any rats to talk."

************

We all crept up to within half a mile of the lizardman village by the river. It was up on stilts, a town for maybe two, three hundred lizardmen, a total of eighty or so buildings on stilts connected by raised walkways with a large central plaza and docks for canoes on the river. It was pretty impressive for lizardmen, really.

There was a hill nearby the village. A stream flowed out of the cave, which was huge, maybe a hundred feet across with the stream filling about sixty of those feet. There were four lizardman guards, armed with spears on duty in front of the cave.

Fluttershy sang a song and some rats came. They paused and studied her, which made me wonder what was wrong. She kept singing, though, and they came up to her. "Hello, my little friends," she said, smiling cheerfully. Then she tossed each of them a scrap of fish and oohed and aahed over them as they ate.

"Can you tell us about the dragon and his cave?" Fluttershy said cheerfully.

"Squeak, squeaaaak, squeak."

"But I didn't go into the cave," Fluttershy said in confusion. "This is the first time I've been here."

"Squeak, squeeaaaakkkk, ssssqueaaak."

"But I don't have a flying carpet," Fluttershy said, then flapped her wings and flew. "See, I don't need one."

"Squeak, SQUeak, squeaaaak."

"Okay, yes, most of my friends don't fly, but I promise you, I haven't gone in the cave," she said in confusion.

"Can you find out if there were duplicates of Ivan and I?," I asked, frowning.

"Was it just me?" Fluttershy asked.

More squeaking ensued.

"They say it was all of us," Fluttershy said.

"It has to be dopplegangers," I said, frowning.

"It could be...," Ivan began.

If it is the infamous doppleganger-elf-trolls, I am going to cry but I am quite sure that acid and falling into the elemental plane of fire should have killed them ALL.

"Maybe the remaining Glantrians disguised themselves as us," Rainbow Dash mused.

"They'd have to be hell of disguise masters," Spitfire said. "I guess they could polymorph."

"They'd have to get reinforcements for five people to impersonate... ten," Ivan said.

"Thirteen if you count my extra personalities," Pinkie said.

Fluttershy continued talking to the rats.

Twilight, Spike, and I started consulting her books for anything on dopplegangers. Pinkie began rooting around in Twilight's saddlebags, then overbalanced and fell in. (Remember, dimensional space.)

Rarity stuck her head in and pulled her out. Pinkie now clutched a book. "This is it! This will solve our problems!"

Twilight twitched. "Pinkie, there's no way..." Then she STARED at the book.

It was _Tales of Forbidden Pony Love_ by someone named 'Passionate Heart'.

Spike buried his face in his hands.

"Oh my," Rarity said, grinning in exactly the same way Rainbow Dash and Applejack were. Fluttershy turned red and hid her face. Ivan stared, eyes wide. Pinkie said, "All you need is love, right?"

"PINKIE!" Twilight yanked it and shoved it back in her saddlebags. "That's... I hadn't cataloged that yet," she mumbled.

"At least it's not stuff she wrote herself," Rainbow Dash pointed out.

"That's enough teasing," I said. I didn't like seeing her so embarrassed. "We have to figure out what is going on here and mocking Twilight for enjoying a love story or two won't help."

"Thank you," Twilight said gratefully.

"We all have our little foibles, Marcus darling," Rarity said to me.

"I know," I said, sighing. I don't like seeing her hurt AND I don't want people to poke the magical volcano with a stick until it goes off.

Pinkie hugged Twilight. "You know I love you."

"I love you too," Twilight mumbled, smiling embarrassedly.

"Obviously, they are alternate universe versions of us where we never became friends and so all of us are twisted parodies of ourselves!" Pinkie said.

"But why would we be working together if we were not friends?" Applejack asked. "I'd be in Manehattan."

"I'd be on a rock farm," Pinkie said gloomily.

"Probably Nightmare Moon would rule the world and everyone would be dead or zombies or something," Rainbow Dash said.

"Nightmare Moon?" I asked.

"We can't talk about it, state secret," Twilight said, sounding very guilty.

"Does this have something to do with that eclipse?" I asked. The Summer Solstice of 1000 AC had been marked by a several day long lunar eclipse over Brun. It was completely unnatural and had triggered a massive panic. Then it just kind of stopped.

I'd heard a million crazy rumors about it.

"I... maybe...," Twilight mumbled.

Pinkie waved a hoof in front of her mouth, then shut it tight.

"It was Nyx, wasn't it?" Ivan said, frowning. "One of her crazy plots to snuff out the sun, right?" Nyx is a female Immortal of Entropy; she wants eternal night so her undead can flourish. From her perspective, turning everyone into undead would be GOOD for us.

"Something like that," Applejack said.

Twilight looked thoughtful, then shook her head. "We are going to have to confront them."

"Wait... how did they get past the guards?" I asked.

"The guards let them in," Fluttershy said after a rat consult.

We got all the rat clues we could. The group looked exactly like us, including Spike too. EXCEPT they flew up on a flying carpet, which other-Pinkie then stashed in her bags. The lizardmen just let them in after other-Fluttershy asked them nicely.

"Flying Carpets usually come from Ylarum or Alphatia, though the Ethengars also like them," I said thoughtfully.

"Maybe someone wants a Dragon-Equestria war," Ivan mused.

"Maybe it's us, time-traveling!" Pinkie said.

"Sugarcube, there ain't no such thing," Applejack said.

"Actually, people who quest for immortality in the Sphere of Time ALWAYS time travel as part of it," Ivan said. "And have to find a time travel artifact."

We all stared at him.

"Hey, I...uh... have an interest in that," Ivan said weakly. "I CAN read, you know."

"But why would we even time travel to now?" Twilight said.

"To stop ourselves doing something TERRIBLE," Pinkie said.

"But that would mean we would have no reason in the future to time travel back and so we would do something terrible," Spike said. "Then go back and stop ourselves. Lose motive, don't go back in time, so we DO something..." He was starting to wobble.

"Enough loopin'," Applejack said. "I think someone's planning to..."

KABOOM.

There was a huge explosion and the sound of chaos down the tunnel.

SHIT.

************

We took off running towards the cave entrance. The four lizardmen guards stared at us in confusion, and then I heard distant maniacal laughter; it sounded like Rarity if she was really drunk and gleeful.

And then people who looked JUST like us came zooming out of the cave, riding on a huge flying carpet piled with treasure. 'Pinkie' was driving the carpet, perched in front with her hooves on a golden eye shape woven into the front of the carpet which flickered with a spectrum of colors. 'Marcus' and 'Twilight' were gloating over a pile of books together. 'Rarity' was busy decking herself out in jewelry and laughing like a MANIAC. 'Spike' was busy helping her bedeck herself. 'Applejack' was chewing an apple; she spit the seeds like... something that spits seeds. Anyway, they hit the guards and 'Fluttershy' sang a song that caused the seeds to turn into vines... vines? From apples? Anyway, the vines tangled up the guards. 'Ivan' was twirling lock picks in his hands and grinning. The 'Wonderbolts' and 'Dash' were flying alongside instead of riding, executing fancy maneuvers and showing off.

"Stop! What are you doing?" Twilight shouted at them.

"I'm RICH!" 'Rarity' screamed at the top of her lungs. 'Spike' gave a double thumbs up and continued covering her in jewelry.

"Spike, I am not like that, right?" Rarity said weakly to Spike.

"I am totally like that," he mumbled.

"What?" she said.

"STOP!" Twilight shouted.

I could hear chaos and doom coming and now the Wonderbolts and Dash simply launched themselves at the carpet without waiting for orders.

They went flying off over the hill and across the swamp in pursuit as the rest of us now got to face AN ANGRY DRAGON which had just emerged. Vermicoritax was dozens of feet long and had a huge long tail and a black spiky head, with opalescent black scales and sharp, pointy claws. He is probably one of the most... no, actually, I think he IS the most hideously dangerous thing I've ever faced, not counting the Roaring Demon, since it was actually an illusion.

For which I am very grateful.

Okay, Celestia is actually more dangerous, but I ran for the hills, rather than 'faced' her.

And Brannart. I would expect Brannart could, at least if he planned ahead, take this. Possibly with the help of an army of undead and his weird glowy magic, but he'd do it.

The fact I wish Brannart was here is a sign of how BAD this is.

Vermicoritax was about to spit a huge gout of acid at us; Twilight had used her acid-protection ritual on us but I feared it might have been stretched too far protecting this many, though I'd helped her.

"WAIT!" Spike said. "That wasn't us! We've been impersonated! I swear on my honor as a dragon!" He put his hand over his heart.

"I am an envoy from Princess Celestia and Princess Luna!" Twilight said frantically, pulling out and displaying her credentials. "I am Twilight Sparkle, her disciple!"

"That's what the one who JUST ROBBED ME said," Vermicoritax said angrily.

Instead of killing us all.

I live five more minutes. YES!

"I assure you that it's true," Fluttershy said urgently. "My rat friends saw it all!"

"I can't be sure you're telling the truth about what they say," Vermicoritax said.

"Fluttershy ain't no liar," Applejack said hotly. "I am the Element of Honesty and I tell you, Fluttershy is tellin' the truth!" Her element flashed and Vermicoritax jumped slightly, then his eyes widened. His gaze flickered across...

Only now did it hit me that Twilight was not actually wearing a necklace like the others. What did her Element look like?

There was a distant rumble of thunder and now we could see a huge storm tossing down lightning and rain pouring down north of here, where our friends had gone to chase our evil twins or whatever they are.

"The Elements of Harmony," he said softly, then looked at Twilight.

She looked nervous, then concentrated and a tiara appeared on her forehead. I could feel the POWER. Twilight's stance shifted, growing more confident. I bet she could make him a potato with that. Though Dragons do tend to resist magic well.

"I am the Element of Magic," Twilight said, eyes glowing with white light. "We come not in war, but in peace."

"Then swear to recover what is stolen from me. And I will wait and see," he said. "If you recover it, ALL of it, then we can talk. I will wait one month, and then I will invade Equestria to make up my losses."

You know, there's no way these doubles have their own Elements... right? So once we catch them, there's gonna be a beating tonight.

"We will swear," Twilight said.

Because I am an idiot, I didn't think about how this oath would be MAGICALLY BINDING until I felt huge amounts of power course through me. SHIT.

Well, at least it's mainly an oath to clobber some people who are less powerful copies or dopplegangers or something of us. And not to, say, steal Vanya's underwear or something. (For those unfamiliar, she is an Immortal of War and Conquest. Robbing her would be dangerous to say the least.)

I hope they're less powerful.

"We WILL recover your stolen treasure," Spike said very seriously.

Or die. Or die recovering it.

But hey, I live MORE than five minutes! YES!

The storm continued to rage north of us. This isn't going to be fun at all.

We took off as fast as we could towards it, though we could no longer see the doppleganger-pony-trolls or whatever they are. Or our friends.

They'd better be okay.

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