• 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 Three (White Plume Mountain): Part 1: I Have a Mouth But Never Speak

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

Book 3: White Plume Mountain
Part 1: I Have a Mouth But Never Speak

By John Biles

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

Have you ever wondered if Rainbow Dash could break a tree with her head?

The answer is yes. I can't actually prove it was her head, but that's where she had the bruise.

We found her knocked out next to a tree snapped in half. Soarin' was floating on top of quicksand on his back. Spitfire lay in a pile of broken rocks, mumbling about bad breath.

Ivan and I helped Fluttershy get them onto secure, dry land, then we helped her treat their injuries, with Spike also helping. Twilight began paging through several books frantically. Dash had something in her mouth... some of her own hair?

"Got her," Dash moaned. "Stupid fake me."

"You did well, you should rest."

"Give Twilight... hair..." she moaned.

G... OH. "It's from fake Dash?"

"Stupid Rainbow Crash," Dash said, then laughed weakly, making noises I didn't like. "Yes, give... Twi..."

"I will," I said, bringing it to her and explaining.

"Ahah! Perfect! Thank you, Rainbow Dash!" Twilight said.

"Tell Soarin', he can have my memorabilia," Rainbow Dash mumbled.

"You are not going to die," Fluttershy said firmly. "It just may feel like it."

Soarin' mumbled about how tall the cloud was.

"With this, I can make a tracking spell," Twilight said, triumphantly.

"Fluttershy, can you get them good to travel?" I asked.

"They're going to need rest," she said. "If we wait until tomorrow..."

"That ain't gonna work," Applejack said. "They're bookin' it. We've got to go NOW, storm or not."

The storm had actually moved north; I suspect they're using it as a shield, centered on themselves. It was only drizzling here now.

"Twilight, enlarge me. I can carry Rainbow Dash," I said. "We can make a travois and Applejack and Pinkie should be able to pull the Wonderbolts."

"'m good, I can fly," Dash said, flapping her wings weakly.

"Make a what?" Applejack said. "That sounds like that hoity-toity stuff they have in Prance."

Prance is the most pretentious of the provinces of Equestria, though Big Apple Province tries hard. Mareis is the capital of the Province of Prance; among other things, it's the center for fashion or even just ordinary clothing. Their wine is also excellent.

"Hoity-Toity is a very important designer!," Rarity said defensively. "And a travois is a kind of sledge for hauling things. I will make us one. Marcus, I need you to assist me. Spike, you too."

"Okay," I said. "You can enlarge me once we finish," I told Twilight. "I will carry Dash."

"I'm fine," Dash said stubbornly, but moved only weakly.

"You carried me," I told her. "Now I am going to carry you and that is that. Let me help you."

"Okay, fine, if you insist," Dash said, then went to sleep.

Ivan and Pinkie helped Fluttershy, while Twilight consulted her books and Spike and I helped Rarity make a travois. She looked VERY proud when she used the ritual which Dona Carlotta told her to summon some canvas to make it with. Being Rarity, of course, it got a nice soft down lining with silk topping it on the side they'd lay on.

"Spike," I told him. "Good job, man. You saved our bacon."

"Bacon...," he said, drooling for a moment. Then he gave me an odd look. "Uh, thanks." We were each basically holding the layers in place so that Rarity could stitch them telekinetically, since she didn't have her sewing machine and we had to hold it all up out of the muck. Though here, the land was dryer, thankfully.

Twilight borrowed one of Rarity's gems and somehow put the hairs inside it and enchanted it, then tried to wear it on a thread; Rarity forced her to make a proper necklace that would look nicer.

Soon, we were ready to roll. Twilight enlarged me and I hefted Rainbow Dash over one shoulder. "You sleep and get better," I told her.

"'m fine," she mumbled.

Fluttershy sung a lullaby that put her to sleep and nearly put me to sleep too.

"We could probably put her on the travois," Applejack said. "Pinkie and I could probably haul most of the group if it was big enough."

"I'm fine," I said. "I owe her a ride." Favor currying for the win and it makes me look better. Soon, she was asleep and mumbling about winning some race into my chest, which amused me.

Fortunately for us, our foes kept up their storm or at least, the storm, our foes, and us were all headed in the same direction. This took us for a while across thankfully dry land, but then everything sloped down and we had to slog through muck with a travois. The storm moved out of sight but we kept on following 'Rainbow Crash' and her friends, hoping they hadn't split up.

Unfortunately, the river we now came to was broad and about ten feet deep. Pushed up to nearly twelve feet high by Twilight's magic, I had to carry each of the sleeping ponies across while everyone else swam. Then we set our travois up again and made our way across the filthy mire.

We kept going relentlessly, stopping briefly for lunch and dinner, pushing on until exhaustion was too much. We found a higher spot and fell down on it. Probably something should have eaten us for not posting watches, though Twilight did put up wards.

We were filthy and still tired in the morning but we couldn't stop, much as Rarity and I clearly both were unhappy with being covered with filth. No one else looked too happy with it, but we pushed on. Fortunately, our three Pegasi were now recovered and took to the air to scout.

My shoulders ached from carrying a Pegasus all day. Ponies are MUCH heavier than you'd think. Rainbow Dash weighs more than me for all that I'm much taller.

I sat down kind of hard at lunch time and just flopped down. Never carrying a Pony again EVER.

"C'mon, Marcus, it's just walking," Applejack said, a little chidingly.

"My shoulders ache," I said.

"Lie down on your stomach," Fluttershy said.

I did so; I was already so filthy, I couldn't get more filthy. Applejack, Pinkie and Ivan began making lunch.

I felt very gentle pressure on my shoulders. I also could see Rainbow Dash lurking nearby. "Fluttershy, you can't massage him if you just gently tap his shoulders."

"But if I put my full weight on it, it'll hurt," Fluttershy said softly.

"Let me do this," Rainbow Dash said.

She took a deep breath... and then began battering my back and I began howling fit to wake the dead. Fluttershy said, "I don't think that's how it works," and looked horrified.

"It felt like that," Dash said hesitantly and kept pounding. I don't think you even can massage someone's butt. And it wasn't the problem here.

"Stop," Spitfire said to Rainbow Dash. "I'll do this."

"But..." Dash protested.

"I know what I'm doing. Assuming he isn't dead," Spitfire said.

"I just wanted to help," Dash mumbled. Fluttershy led her away and I laid there moaning as Spitfire worked on me.

"It doesn't hurt that much," Spitfire told me chidingly.

Kiss my ass.

"Easy for you to say," I mumbled.

Dash winced and Fluttershy continued to talk to her softly.

Rarity settled down next to me and began carefully cleaning my face as Spitfire worked on me and I made noises. "Thank you," I mumbled. "I'll do you when Spitfire is done."

"You're welcome, Marcus," she said warmly and I started to feel a little more human. "We have a wonderful spa in Ponyville," she continued, the cloth working my face with her power behind it. "I will take you and Fluttershy there when we get back."

"I might go with you if I have time," Spitfire said. "I love a good massage."

She was, in fact, good at it; my pain was gradually fading and now I felt a blessed lassitude.

I gradually sank into slumber.

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

I felt much more alive when I woke up at dinner time; we were at the very verge of the swamp and the land was rising into drier hills. Off a little to the northwest of us rose the fearsome sight of White Plume Mountain.

FUCK. "We have to go there, right?" I said weakly.

"That about sums it up," Twilight said.

White Plume Mountain is about three-fifths of a mile across and eight hundred or so feet tall; a geyser shoots out of the top creating a stream that flows down the south face and then down into the swamp, yellow with sulfur and other effluvia. The slopes are home to scrub brush and strange fungi, and at places, there are cracks through which steam continually vents. There's a huge crevice on the south slope. I could see someone had erected a sign over it, but it was too far away to read.

"It says 'Evil Lair of Evil Pinkamena, Inquire Within. No Halflings with Hats Allowed,' on the sign," Dash told me.

"I am NOT a halfling," I said. Unless you count the time I drank that stupid shrinking potion.

"You, uh, feeling better?" Dash said.

"Yes," I told her. "Thanks for helping me."

"It didn't go so well," Dash said to a nearby bush.

"Yes, but it's the thought that counts," I told her. "I wouldn't even start to know where or how to massage a pony beyond the shoulders." I had to help Twilight out a few times back in the day. It seemed to help. "You're a good friend."

That made her smile. SCORE.

Which reminds me, gotta work on Applejack some on this trip too. Some ponies are easier to curry favor with than others.

Dinner was served. Fish again, but fish is good. They had stew and we had stew with fish added. Oh yes, this was tasty.

"This is pretty obviously a trap," I said. "We should circle the volcano, make sure they are actually inside."

"I'll take Twilight," Dash said. "Once my stomach settles."

"Hmm, if this one is named Pinkamena instead of Pinkie," I began.

"My full name is Pinkamena Diane Pie," Pinkie said, pausing from slurping stew. Watching Ponies eat is a weird thing. Rarity and Twilight eat with a spoon but the rest just slurp it out of the bowl. Of course, with no hands, what else are they going to do? They could use a spoon with their hooves, but it's a lot easier to do it this way. It's one of those reminders they are Ponies, though.

"We can probably assume they've activated the old traps and things, but haven't had much time to install new ones," I said. "Unless their boss has been setting this up a long time, but then..." I scratched my head. "I don't know. I've never visited the place but from the stories I've heard, it's pretty dangerous."

"Didn't someone kill Keraptis a few years ago?" Twilight said, frowning and trying to remember. "The Company of the Silver Spear?"

"They're Ponies, right?" I said. I'd heard of them vaguely. "I think Keraptis has been reported dead at least eight times."

"Yes," Twilight said. "Largely retired now."

"Or dead," Spitfire said flatly. "We're going to have to do better this time or we'll join them." She looked at Pinkie. "No going off to play tag with Iron Golems."

"Sorry!," Pinkie said, clearly not at all sorry.

"She's right," I said. "Keraptis is your classic insane wizard who does things like build giant clocks that turn people into cheese."

"Why cheese?" Applejack asked, frowning.

"Too much staring into other dimensions and trying to replace every inch of his body with shadow-stuff. Why shadow-stuff? Because no one's done it yet," I said. "Really powerful wizards tend to either become immortals, become insane dungeon lords, or turn into something freaky. Or a combination of two or more of the above."

Twilight licked her lips nervously. "Any idea what's in it?"

"Weapons," Ivan said. "Keraptis liked stealing weapons, then watching people who tried to recover them die in his traps."

"The dragon's...we did get an actual LIST... no, we didn't," I said, facepalming. "Spike, can you mail Vermicoritax and ask him for a list of stolen items?"

We got the list before bedtime. He had listed EVERY coin separately with a TWO LINE DESCRIPTION. Things like 'Darokinian Double Crown, minted 983 AC, three scratches on the rim, rare error means both faces are the same, showing the Chancellor'. Or 'Bronze coin, unknown origin, over 1500 years old, shows pyramid on one side, man with two staves and ugly hat on the other face'.

"Wow, it's a Nithian coin," Twilight said excitedly.

"What's that?" Applejack said.

"They were an ancient civilization destroyed by the Immortals for some unknown reason, about fifteen hundred years ago," Twilight said excitedly.

"Blackmoor?" Spike asked.

"Blackmoor blew itself up," Twilight said. "I wish he'd included the inscription. I could probably... no wait, my book's back home." She sighed. "This was before the forging of iron became commonplace."

"So this coin could blow the mountain up?" Spike asked.

I certainly hope not.

"The Immortals destroyed them because they were entire deficient in fun," Pinkie said. "They were just trying to drop a giant pie on them for a nation-wide 'pie to the face' gag, but it got out of hand."

Sadly, it is not clear if Pinkie is right or wrong.

I *hope* she is wrong, though.

"Maybe we could use the Polymorph potion to psych them out by turning into doubles of them," Rainbow Dash mused.

"How would anyone tell?" Applejack said. "They're doubles of US."

"Maybe we're their GOOD twins," Pinkie mused. "And we've just imagined our pasts and none of us existed until we encountered Marcus and Ivan in the swamp."

"I really doubt it, sugarcube," Applejack said. "Why would someone go to these lengths?"

"Just guessing," Pinkie said.

We continued to speculate into the night as the moon came out and the stars. It was a half moon, fading towards the new moon, but the stars shine very brightly here.

Rarity and I went to the river and engaged in futile acts of cleaning. It felt good to be even a little cleaner. Fluttershy joined us and we both helped clean her up. "I will be so happy when this is done," Rarity said, sitting in the sphinx position as fish danced to a tune sung by Fluttershy.

"Me too," I said, brushing her coat. This takes FOREVER. An advantage to not having body hair all over... well, not so much you have to brush it. I'm not as hairy as I was when I was 'Erik' but I have a fair amount.

"And I," Fluttershy said softly. "But it's nice to be with friends."

"It is," I said, looking up at the stars. I pointed to one combination of stars. "There's the Sail," I said. "It's the symbol of adventurers like us, because it's connected to Sinbad." Who is the Immortal of sailors and adventurers.

"In Karameikos, it's known as the Northern Triad," Twilight said, and we all started. She was lurking behind us, looking up at the stars. "Representing Halav, Petra, and Zirchev." The three patron Immortals of Karameikos. When hordes of gnolls invaded two thousand years ago, they stopped the invasion and eventually went on to become immortals. Halav was a mighty warrior, Petra was a wise priestess, and Zirchev was a cunning hunter and wizard, friend to the fae folk of the forest. "The Ethengars see it as the Sacred Yurt, symbol of Cretia the Trickster, Tubak the Lawgiver, and Yamurga the Tentkeeper. The Northmen see it as the Shield, which represents Frey, Freya, and Thor."

"Not Odin?" I asked, surprised.

"Odin is a remote figure to be placated more than loved," Twilight said. "In the Northlands. Or so my books say. I've never been there, but Erik would talk about it, so I read up on it."

Twitch. Of course you did.

"It also can symbolize Vestland, Ostland, and the Soderfjord Jarldoms," Twilight said. "Or sometimes it stands for Freya, Sif, and Frigga."

"My goodness, it must be very busy," Rarity said. I think this was a joke, so I laughed and she smiled and I relaxed; if she'd been serious... well, Pinkie would probably say it represents pie, cake, and cupcakes or something.

"Maybe it stands for Sleipnir, Celestia, and Luna," Fluttershy said softly.

"I must admit I hadn't heard of Princess Luna before I met you," I said.

"She's... been on a trip," Fluttershy said weakly, scuffing the dirt with her hooves.

"Come to steal Marcus before he finishes?" Rarity said softly to Twilight.

"I hate to interrupt," Twilight said, sounding guilty. "We should practice some magic, though."

"I'll brush you," Fluttershy said.

"You are a lifesaver and a true friend," Rarity said. "I will brush you when you're done."

"Thank you," Fluttershy said.

"You two have fun," Rarity said to me.

I'll have fun; I'll just be wondering if I am going to die the whole time.

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

I ended up on first watch with Twilight, Spike, and Rainbow Dash. Spike went to sleep immediately after saying, "Don't worry, I can stay up if I want to."

Twilight put him on a blanket and the two of us practiced spells together, while Rainbow Dash bobbed about, keeping watch.

"This could really get ugly, you know," I said to her.

"I know," Twilight said, sighing. "But with no map and no idea what's inside, we can't even plan. All I can do is be ready and work on improving how many spells I know." She sounded frustrated.

We were both juggling lightning balls, trying to work on control. Well, control for Twilight, power for me. She has huge raw power but lacks control. I am the opposite way around. I think Rarity is the same way. As me, that is. VERY high control, more so than me.

Spike now coughed up a letter in his sleep. This reminded me. "Have we in fact told Celestia what's going on?"

"Oh no, I totally forgot, she's going to be so unhappy and... Spike's asleep!," Twilight said.

"Just write it now. We probably won't die overnight," I told her." I curiously examined the letter, which was from Princess Luna to me. I blinked. Well, time to read, I guess.

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

Dear Samus Marcus,

My dear sister Celly tells me that you are a dear friend of hers, though I must confess I don't remember her ever mentioning you. She said, however, that I should write you and warn you that the notorious criminal Erik of Vestland is believed to be in the northern Malpheggi swamp and that Thyatian and Minrothadi hit squads are in the area, trying to find him and capture or kill him. So keep your eyes open. He is wanted for the theft of the Water Elves' Pearl, an affair with a Minrothadi ambassador, wearing an Augrist high priest's hat when unqualified to do so, stealing the harem of a Thyatian Ambassador, mocking the Thyatian Emperor, wearing the Sacred Hat of Valerias inappropriately, misleading youth, mocking the gods, failing to pay for 8 sandwiches, and 3 moving violations. Among other crimes.

Also, apparently, he broke Twilight's heart and for that, he will suffer tremendously. The heart of a young filly is NOT to be trifled with!

NOT to be trifled with.

Sorry, I normally don't get so angry with people, but Twilight and her friends are important to me, and I don't like to see someone I care about get hurt.

It makes me angry.

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

I don't like me when I'm angry.

Sorry, I got off topic. You must make sure everyone in the group knows about this. I'm not sure why Celly didn't have me also alert Twilight, but I trust her judgment

I suppose she fears Twilight will do something foalish.

Hehe.

Anyway, also tell everyone the Glantrians are here and things are going well, though I think several of them will have to be taught to stop looking covetously at everyone's horns.

Please inform us as soon as you reach the dragon; we haven't heard anything for several days and we're worried.

Anyway, a pleasure to meet you,

Your new friend,

Princess Luna of Equestria, sister to Princess Celestia.

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

Twilight was reading over my shoulder; I was sitting on the ground. "He's NOT A CRIMINAL," she said fervently.

TWITCH.

I'd like you to know, I would have paid for those sandwiches, except someone tried to kill me and I had to run for my life!

I hope those hit squads can't just zoom in on me; the last thing this mission needs is interruption by people trying to kill me.

Of course they will. Though...

AHAHAHAHA. If I can manipulate them into thinking the fake me is 'Erik'... oh hoh hoh.

They might make off with some of the dragon's treasure, though. Dammit.

"I'm still surprised you don't hate him," I said nervously to her. Flames were licking along her tail, which can't be a good sign.

She closed her eyes and counted to ten. The fire went out. "I understand why he ran away. I'm sure if I hadn't been too drunk to chase him, it would have been okay." She sighed. "There were times, I thought... It's just, when we were studying or working on things, even when we just were doing our own projects near each other, it was like when I watched my parents when I was a filly. That simple comfort from just being around someone you care about, even if you're both busy, it just..." She sighed. "I guess it sounds crazy."

I would kill myself but probably I would spontaneously rise from the dead because they don't want me in the afterlife. I should probably try; it would be easier than waiting for the truth to out. "No, I understand," I told her. "It looks like Celestia and Luna plan to kill him for hurting you, though."

"I'm sure they'll understand once I explain it to them. I can put it in the next letter," Twilight said. She sighed. "He probably has someone else by now, and I shouldn't keep thinking about him."

"You're better off moving on," I told her. "I doubt we'll encounter him." LIE LIE LIE.

She sighed. "I have to focus on important things," she said, then shook her head. "Let's focus on blowing things up. I'm going to have to face evil-me, so I need a counter-spell."

"Water," I said. "You need a water attack to turn her lightning back on her."

"Oooh, yes," Twilight said.

In three minutes, she found a water generating spell and started practicing it, while I stood in for evil Twilight, using an illusion of lightning so I wouldn't hurt myself for real. It was very cheesy looking; I can only do simple illusions.

We kept working on tactics, until, finally, it was time to get some sleep, for which I was grateful.

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

I woke up in a nice soft bed, which was confusing to say the least. It had dark blue sheets with white stars on it, a Winter Solstice present from Twilight; the stars were, in fact, accurately placed, though many stars were missing; this was only the most prominent ones.

I got as far as taking a shower, making breakfast and starting to eat it when I suddenly realized I was somehow back in my old quarters at Celestia's School, which were apparently totally unchanged after more than a year, and wearing clothing I'd abandoned when I fled.

Nervously, I went back to the bathroom and this time paid actual attention to my body. Looking in the mirror, I saw Erik's face looking at me. I was taller, paler, more muscular, definitely blonder with longer hair.

I have to admit, I regret losing this body's good looks. 'Samus Marcus' isn't hideously ugly, but I'm not beauty contest winner either.

However, I can see why Ivan arranged for me to be shapeshifted; with so many lunatics after me, what else could I do?

"So long as you run without a patron, you'll always be hunted and it will only grow worse over time," a woman said to me. She was deep voiced but very smooth.

And I couldn't see her anywhere.

"Okay, voice in my head, who are you?" I said.

There was a gentle laughter, but something about it disturbed me.

And then it was gone.

I must be dreaming, I decided. It would make NO sense for me to be back in Canterlot and Erik otherwise.

Might as well see what happens if it's a dream. I checked the calendar. I should be teaching classes today; in fact, I'd better run.

Class went smoothly despite me only recognizing half the ponies present. Oddly, one of them looked somewhat like Applejack, except for the red mane and, well, the horn, and one of them... was she an Alicorn? She had an orange coat and purple mane and had a horn AND wings.

They and their friend, a white unicorn with a pink and purple mane were all VERY hyper and hard to keep in line. Also, the redhead kept touching her horn every few minutes for some reason.

The rest of my classes went well, I handed back homework and took more homework to grade and headed home. I could see Twilight's tower distantly; Spike was busy cleaning the windows.

I sighed, feeling that familiar clutch of guilt. After what I did to her, I can't, even in a dream. She deserves better. I enjoy her company. I like her. If she'd been human...

But I can't rewrite the past, even in a dream.

Okay, I could in a dream, but it doesn't feel right.

I don't have the right to go dream about happy times with Twilight as if I never messed anything up for her.

"She would forgive you, you know," the voice said. "She understands you better now."

I need... I don't want us to be enemies or hostile, but I don't... It wouldn't be healthy for her to just forgive me everything.

I'd be taking advantage of her good nature.

I remembered my fight with Rarity. She got mad at me; I didn't mean to make her feel that way but weirdly, it felt... I don't want to fight with people, but having an honest fight and then making up, that felt right. Overly easy forgiveness cheapens forgiveness.

But I guess that reflects me not thinking like a Pony.

She ought to get angry with me before we make up.

Much as that likely means turning me into a turnip.

"You really have learned nothing about the dangers of displeasing those of vast power," the woman said softly. "Do you intend to drag them down in the wreck of your ship? If you really thought what you just thought, you'd tell her the truth."

I'm too scared to. As usual, I'm following the path of least resistance. What keeps me alive five more minutes.

"Serve me and you won't have to be afraid. You will have whatever woman you want, and wealth and power too. I could make you the great wizard you've always dreamed of. Or you can keep on running, like a rat in a maze. Is that what you want?" the woman asked with her deep, smooth voice. Was this Luna? No, I don't think so. Nyx? No, she'd want me to be undead.

"I don't serve anyone," I said. "I have friends and I work with them, because we're friends, but I am no one's servant." Okay, I do work for hire a lot but this is clearly a 'swear to the glorious night or whatever and get power, wealth, etc' situation. NEVER swear to mysterious voices.

"Friends you lie to," she said. "Is there anyone in this group you've been honest with? You're just using them for your own benefit. I'll use you, but I'll pay you to do it. And protect you from your enemies. You have too many enemies to survive without a patron."

That's probably true. But I'm certainly not selling myself to a mysterious voice. "Why me?" I asked.

"You made your choices, not me," she said, amused.

"No, I mean, why do YOU want me," I asked.

"I need someone sneaky who has no one else to turn to. No one else to rely on."

The setting had shifted and now I was in the swamp. I could see the assassins creeping towards our camp and I was 'Samus Marcus' again. "Do you really think a bunch of ponies can stop the Thyatians? The Minrothadi?" she asked me.

Could they? The Minrothadi don't mess around and neither do the Thyatians. On the other hand, this group is a lot tougher than it looks.

They shouldn't have to. But I can't leave them now. I want to run. But I can't leave an evil clone of myself running around loose, getting me into even MORE trouble.

And leaving reduces my odds of surviving those hit squads, assuming they can find and recognize me. Which I have to assume the worst.

But if I stay, the truth will eventually out and I will be KILLED.

Can't run. Can't not run.

Dammit!

I hate this.

"I put my trust in them," I said. "They're tougher than you think."

Her voice turned harsh. "Then you are a fool and with them, you will DIE."

The air turned solid and I couldn't breathe. Literally.

I began choking; I couldn't even fall down because the solid air froze me in place.

"This time, you will stay dead," the woman said harshly. "You are a failure, discarded by your master as a failed experiment and now that experiment ends."

What the hell is she talking about?

Mind you, I now suddenly remembered meeting this dragon before. She had been named... Marquetta? She had a Belcadizian name? Maybe this is a shapeshifted Belcadizian? But I don't remember any Dona Marquettas.

But I do remember going into this dragon's lair for some reason and then Annika began casting a spell and the dragon spat fire at her and I shoved her out of the way and...

Something about being killed by an owlbear while carrying the dragon's treasure.

I survived dragonfire, then got killed by an owlbear???

Also, I was alone when I got killed by the owlbear, so how did I not stay dead?

Dammit, I need to find someone to catalog and sort my brain.

At least I am going to die with a hat on, so my corpse will have some dignity.

And better I be killed by someone I hate than someone I like.

I could feel myself getting weak from lack of air.

I'm going to regret this, because the last... of course, she already knows where I am.

CELESTIA! HELP!!!!! I'll do anything! Don't let me get eaten!!!!

There was a crackle of lightning behind me and a whirring noise and then to my utter shock, Pinkie went shooting past me at high speed and crashed into Marquetta's nose. She looked utterly stunned, especially when another Pinkie crashed into her cheek. And another one into her right shoulder.

What the hell?

She rose up and breathed fire, but her own spell around me deflected the fire. Further, the solidity of the air melted and though now I felt steamed, I could breathe.

I turned and saw Pinkie with a giant metal tube over one shoulder. Lightning crackled inside it as it rotated and as I watched, another Pinkie formed inside it and was fired at Marquetta at high speed.

WHAT THE HELL?

Nothing I have ever seen blew my mind more than this.

A veritable army of Pinkies was all over Marquetta, hitting her with pies, trying to sell her insurance, pulling back scales and trying to stick her head behind them, singing songs and dancing, kicking her, biting her, reciting poetry and staging stand up comedy routines.

When the hell did Pinkie get the ability to do THIS?

I started laughing. How could I not?

That really made Marquetta angry.

She gave a tremendous shriek and spread her wings, sending Pinkies flying everywhere. "I WILL NOT BE MOCKED!"

"Those who cannot take a joke will have to have one given to them," Pinkie said very seriously. "That's what Uncle Korotiku always says."

UNCLE Korotiku???

He's one of the high ranking Immortals of Thought. Basically a spider who turns into a man (or maybe vice versa), a trickster Immortal. Worshiped more on Skothar than here on Brun, though the Pearl Islanders worship him.

Surely he's not actually Pinkie's uncle.

Though it would explain a few things.

All of the Pinkies now imitated Marquetta's stance as best they could. "I WILL NOT BE MOCKED!" they shouted, then giggled and ran as she tried to fry them with fire.

"Thanks, Pinkie," I said. "Am I asleep?"

"Of course you are, silly. I couldn't do this if we were awake," she said as the chaos continued nearby. "She tried tempting me but I already have plenty of pie." She produced one from her saddlebags. "Pie?"

"Yes, it is," I said to her.

She blinked, then laughed. "Anyway, we need to all wake up to kick her out of our dreams."

The last thing I need is another player in this mess.

"How about a thin mint!," one of the Pinkies shouted as I woke up.

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

Everyone, apparently, had dreamed of her trying to subvert them, which creeped us all out.

"Marquetta was a ~red dragon~ who laired in the Malpheggi for about fifteen years," Spike said. He said 'red dragon' the way one might normally refer to dung or urine or some other very nasty thing. Multiplied by about five. "She relocated for some reason about forty years ago from the Cruth Mountains to the Malpheggi; she beat up the other dragons and asserted her dominance but they resented her. Twenty five years or so ago, the Blue Eagle Company raided her lair and stole a bunch of her treasure. She hunted them down, killed them all, then vanished. Her fate is unknown but most people assume she relocated to some more remote location with less treasure thieves."

I would think I was in the Blue Eagle Company except that would make me a LOT older than I think I am. I'm pretty sure I am somewhere in my early thirties.

"My uncle Pieter worked for one of the Blue Eagles when he was young," Ivan said. "During his Shearing. He went back home before they all got killed off, though. The way he told it, the Dragon ate all of them but one who got away somehow. They were all Karameikan."

"Who was the one who got away?" I asked.

"Dmitri Ilyanovich," Ivan said. "He was from Kelvin and had to leave when Baron Kelvin took it over and renamed it from... whatever it was before. Because of the ban on magic users."

Baron Kelvin is a cleric of the Church of Karameikos and for some reason has a really inane law against arcane magic in his barony.

Ivan is from Novgorod, a little village about halfway between Kelvin and Penhaligon, about twenty five or so miles from each. Kelvin, with its mighty five thousand people, is 'the big city' to anyone from Novgorod, which has about eight hundred. Even though Kelvin only has about a city block worth of people in a real metropolis like Thyatis City.

Dmitri... dammit, that name sounds familiar and makes me think of death by owlbear.

I can't possibly be that old unless someone is feeding me longevity potions, though. When I'm not looking.

"How did you know to help me, Pinkie?" I asked.

"I got this weird twitch in my leg so I just started wandering around until I found you," she said.

So she just wanders through people's dreams because of leg twitches. ACK.

"The weird thing is that the other dragon didn't give me that twitch, so I guess this one means 'red dragon', though that other red dragon, I got a *different* twitch."

Twilight now twitched visibly. "We'll worry about that later."

"Maybe it is pretending to be Marquetta to confuse us," Applejack said. "Just 'cause a dragon claims one name doesn't mean it's true. It might actually be a blue or a green or something, in disguise."

"Given reds don't normally invade dreams..." Why did it call me an experiment discarded by my master? I felt all weird in my own body now.

"Ahah!" Twilight said, then did the hoof of triumph. "I found her! Marquetta has a FIVE PAGE entry in Jagger's Catalog of Dragons, Volume four!"

Oh man, I didn't even think about how Twilight had brought her dragon books.

"It says that after she ate a group of adventurers who tried to steal her treasure and got their artifact, she moved to the Malpheggi and took over White Plume Mountain as her lair."

We all paused and looked at the mountain and I twitched.

What's worse than a Grand Wyrm Black Dragon?

A GRAND WYRM RED DRAGON!!!

Damn you White Plume Mountain

"That was 959 AC. In 975 AC, the Blue Eagle Company raided her lair, forced her to flee, and stole her treasure. She survived, then picked them off one by one but the party's scout, Dmitri Ilyanovich, managed to hide from her. He hasn't been seen since and neither has she; her hoard vanished and it's assumed she's still trying to hunt him down."

"What was the artifact?" Rarity asked curiously.

I knew in my gut it would be the Lockpicks of Asterius and Marquetta and Vermicoritax would somehow be the same dragon and we all would DIE.

"The Falchion of Minroth," Twilight said.

"The what?" Applejack asked.

"I... don't know," Twilight said, then turned red.

"I think it's some kind of bird," Pinkie said.

"That's a falcon, and a falchion is not a bird," Fluttershy said.

"Well, it doesn't matter, then," Ivan said. "Though if we find something weird, we should check it out."

"Maybe Marquetta made the clones in order to trigger a war between Equestria and the dragons of the Malpheggi, so she could reassert her rule over the area in the aftermath," I said.

"And hired the thugs to maybe slow us down long enough for the dopplegangers to do their work and start the war since we would try to be peaceful?" Spitfire said, frowning.

"You know, it's possible that Herr Ukvarth was a shapeshifted Marquetta, infiltrating to urge us to trigger this war," I said, frowning.

Everyone grimaced at that.

"You mentioned a red dragon killed your parents, Spike? Any connection to Marquetta?" I said, frowning.

"Probably not; it happened up by North Marech Castle. A red tried to settle in after leaving the Adri Varna Plateau," Spike said sadly. "Celestia had to take the field herself in the end."

Twilight patted him comfortingly as he leaned on her. "I will send Owlicious a letter; he can look up what a 'falchion' is."

Spike quickly took dictation and burned the letter.

A thought hit me. "Keraptis used to steal weapons, right? And put them in the mountain to draw people to their doom?"

"So probably the Falchion was some weapon that Keraptis stole and then Marquetta added it to her hoard? Hell, Keraptis may have recruited Marquetta to come live here while he took a vacation and once he came back, she had to move out or something," Ivan said thoughtfully.

"Well, I think it's time for us to go in," Applejack said. "Ain't much we can do to get ready we ain't already done."

Unfortunately.

Time for victory or death, and I hope not death. Though I suppose Fluttershy can probably reincarnate us if we die.

With my luck, I'll end up a goldfish.

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

Here's the problem. We climbed up the mountainside to the only entrance big enough for ponies, kindly labeled by our enemies. Now the problem is that we can be SURE it's a trap. The tunnel was hot and humid with a narrow crack at the far end; every few minutes, a gout of steam erupted, trying to roast everyone in the rough wedge-shaped tunnel. Ivan and I took the lead because we know how to find and eliminate traps. Fortunately, Ivan's keen hearing detected the oncoming steam buildup and so we hit the floor and avoided boiling.

We had to dodge it three times before we found the cunningly hidden trap door which opened onto a staircase, down into a long twenty foot wide tunnel. Everyone ran in and down the stairs and we headed up the tunnel, lined with cut, dressed granite with no decoration.

Hornglow and mage light lit our way. Applejack, Dash, Ivan, and myself took the lead, two ready to fight, two searching for the inevitable DEATH TRAPS.

Death Trap number one involved a marble ceiling panel, carved with runes and a trap door under it. Ivan triggered the trap and we looked down. Matching marble flooring sixty feet down. You fall, WHAM, then you teleport to the top and fall again WHAM. AGAIN. AGAIN. And so on.

Simple, elegant, stolen from second century Thyatian tomb designs, which they likely stole from the Nithians. If you've ever died in a horrible trap, the odds are good the Nithians or Blackmoor invented it first.

This one, though, was clearly a warning; the marble ceiling panel made it OBVIOUS.

The second one was a classic dart trap. If you don't follow the correct zig-zag pattern on the floor, which was marked with black and white titles, you got shot with darts. Again, the sudden decor switch said 'Hey kids, TRAP!'

Ivan and I carefully chalked the tiles they needed to step on. "Don't step on any other tiles," I said. "But honestly, this is easy."

"Hah!" Rainbow Dash flew to the other side. "Even EASIER!"

"Uhh, sugarcube, it ain't so easy as you say," Applejack said.

I demonstrated. "See, it's really not that hard if you go slow."

"You're forgetting a fundamental difference 'tween us, Marcus," Applejack said.

"Being a woman doesn't matter," I said.

Ivan punched me. "She has four legs."

I buried my face in my hands. "Okay, I feel stupid," I said.

"We could put boards across it," Pinkie said.

"If we had boards," Spike pointed out.

"We'll just fly everyone," Spitfire said.


Twilight teleported herself and Spike across. "That's one less pony to haul."

"I bet you could jump it," Dash said to Applejack.

Fluttershy flew herself across. Applejack backed up, nearly fell in the pit trap, then made a running jump and crossed it, looking proud of herself. "Yeehaw!" She reared triumphantly.

Pinkie now produced weird looking shoes and put them on and walked on the wall. "Spider-Pinkie, Spider-Pinkie," she sang. "Does whatever a spider can!"

Then she tossed them to Rarity; the shoes were red with black webbing and looked rather silly. Rarity licked her lips nervously, then walked on the wall quickly, now looking a little tired. "It's hard to fight off gravity," she said.

I helped her take them off and Pinkie put them back on, though now she made a really annoying popping sound every time she moved.

I was a little jealous, though the shoes were made for ponies, not humans and thus had no space for feet. They were like tubes, basically.

The third trap was more subtle. Classic mashing-wall trap. No tells, no obvious signs of trouble. You had to find a switch to shut it off, very subtly hidden. Fortunately, Ivan knows his stuff.

Then we reached an intersection. Tunnels ran left and right at angles and straight forwards. There was a semi-circular room here and in it squatted a disheveled, unhappy sphinx. Rarity made a cry of horror, then rushed up to her as she squatted on a pile of furs. "Oh, you poor darling. Let me guess, you have to guard this place and can't leave at all to visit a nice spa, right?"

The Sphinx blinked, ruffling her feathers. "I... oh yes. It's terrible! It's nothing but dirty adven... wait, didn't you already come through here?"

"Those were our evil twins," I said. "I take it you're a longer-term resident?"

"I was bound here for a century by Keraptis, and I have fifty-three years to go," she said mournfully. "I thought I got a good deal when the terms were until this flower bloomed again," she said, pointing to a potted plant which had a barren trunk and barren branches. "Only, it's a CENTURY plant."

This is why you NEVER bargain with mad wizards. "Did he keep his end of the deal?"

"Oh yes, he found my missing child. Who now has GRANDCHILDREN I HAVE NEVER SEEN," she said angrily. "Does Democritus ever visit? NO, he's too busy running around like a tramp."

Twenty minutes of bitching about her ungrateful children ensued. Rarity and Fluttershy made sympathetic noises, while the rest of us slowly went mad.

"I assume we have to answer a riddle to pass?" Twilight said hopefully.

"Oh yes. One for each tunnel. Fail and I have to devour you, which will only make me more of a filthy mess," the sphinx said mournfully.

I am very, very dubious this sphinx can actually eat us.

"Here, let us clean you up some," Rarity said. "I cannot allow a lady and a mother to remain in this condition. It would be dishonorable."

This is how I ended up assisting in giving a sphinx a makeover. We worked hard on grooming her, while Twilight did the riddle thing.

"Okay, left tunnel riddle," Twilight said.

"I have a mouth but never speak. I have a bed but never sleep. I run smoother than any rhyme. I love to fall but cannot climb," the sphinx said, sounding bored of even saying it.

"River," Twilight said.

The sphinx blinked. "Okay, you got that one but the next one is harder. Round she is, yet flat as a board, Altar of the Lupine Lords..." She didn't actually get to finish before Twilight spoke.

"The Moon," Twilight said.

"I didn't even finish it!," the sphinx said, clearly disappointed.

"Also, the phrase 'Altar of the Lupine Lords' comes right out of Mother Wyvern's Book of Poetry for Children, Volume Three," Twilight said.

"..."

"Third riddle?" she asked eagerly.

As I brushed fluff and dirt off one of her wings and Fluttershy followed up with a soapy brush, the sphinx licked her lips. "The other version of you had a hard time with this one."

"Evil is always weaker than good," Twilight said confidently.

If that was true, then evil wouldn't cause so much trouble. She's still kind of naive at heart. I've seen too much evil to expect good will always win. So I licked my lips nervously.

Pinkie climbed up with a broom in her mouth, and began twisting around unnaturally to dust off the sphinx's head. "My creator wants me not, And much in dread will I be bought. My cold embrace is fiercely fought, Most all who need me know it not."

This has to be some kind of death thing.

Pinkie looked down at me thoughtfully.

I am not the answer to this riddle. I hope.

How much did she hear?

Twilight rubbed her forehead. "Okay, hard one. Time limit?"

"Take your time; you can go north and northwest now since you answered the riddles for those, then come back and tell me," she said.

"What is your name?" Pinkie asked.

"Etrusca," the sphinx said.

"Okay, Etrusca," Pinkie said and finished sweeping.

Twilight was STILL trying to figure it out when we finished cleaning up Etrusca, who was now a nice golden-brown and gleamed. She cried with joy when Rarity showed her herself in the mirror. "Oh, it's wonderful," she said. "If only my boy would come visit."

"I can mail him a letter if you like," Spike said.

"PLEASE," she said, so she wrote out a letter and Spike sent it.

Then we headed northwest.

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

The hallway descended and now had a foot of murky water covering the floor. Rarity stared at it in horror. The Wonderbolts and Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy simply flew over it. Twilight grimaced too, while Applejack just splashed out into it.

"Sorry, Rarity, but we have to press on," I told her.

She sighed. "The things a lady must do." She shook her head and waded into the water. We were used to this by now, though Applejack looked rather amused.

There was a hidden pit trap, though I am not sure how effective it really would be given you'd gently float down a bit instead of plummeting. But we shut that down easily.

The hallway now bent north and had six ten foot long copper plates on each wall before opening up into a bigger room ahead. Ivan and I held up a hand. "What the hell is this?" Ivan said. "Is it magic?"

I studied it. "Yes."

"Is it a giant still?" Pinkie asked.

"There's probably a floor trigger," Ivan said. "But this murky water hides the floor so I can't look for it."

"I could scout past it," Rainbow Dash said.

"That could cut you off," Ivan said, frowning.

"We could try sucking up all the water into clouds, but there's not really room to disperse it and I think we'd end up shrouded in fog, never mind," Soarin' said. He sighed.

Twilight studied the wall panels. "They cause heat, I think."

"It IS a still," Pinkie said excitedly.

I do not wish to become brandy.

"Maybe the riddle for this tunnel has some kind of clue," Twilight said thoughtfully.

"We are standing in a kind of stagnant river, which was the answer," Spike said.

"The middle one, the moon, could also mean 'air'," Ivan said. "It may have air defenses, and then the last one is either fire or earth related."

"Hey, it could be earth and then this one has magic challenges for unicorns," Applejack said. "So unicorns go this way, pegasi the middle way, earth ponies the other one."

"I would hope unicorns are NOT expected to wade in filthy water," Rarity said, frowning.

"And someone trying to fend you off would make the route as filthy as possible," I told her. "Or fend me off. Remember, mad wizards want to see you flail, but always provide some sort of out if you are clever or determined enough. It's how they get their jollies."

Twilight thought hard. "Wouldn't it be easier to beat the challenges if you have another kind of pony's abilities?"

"Maybe," Ivan said. "We can expect a couple of things this way that only magic can beat, if the theory is correct. Given this place wasn't made just for pony-thwarting, there may be other thematic things going on. Mad wizards LOVE their themes."

"These traps are usually triggered by pressure, right?" Applejack said.

"Yes," Ivan said. "Unless they have magic sensors built in."

"I'm thinking Rainbow Dash should try to move through, see if she can get by," Applejack said.

"Hold on," I said and cast Saint Tarastia's fire on her. "Now she can see once she gets there."

Rainbow Dash said, "FORWARDS!"

She zoomed down the corridor, then said, "There's a big square room with a watery floor, but stairs go up out of the water!" Then she winced. "And my hooves hurt. My horseshoes feel hot."

A second later. "And...uh... really ugly, dirty humans are coming at me! Time to kick some ass!"

The Wonderbolts launched down the hallway to aid her, though both of them gave a yelp at the end.

"Forward," Applejack shouted.

"No, wait, it may not be..." I began.

Applejack and Pinkie rushed down the hallway; by the end, they were yelping about hot horseshoes too.

Rarity said, "Try and lure them to where I can shoot them from here."

"And the same for me!" Twilight shouted.

"I think maybe it's heating up metal like Fluttershy's spell. Fluttershy, do you think maybe you could turn this off?"

"I can try," Fluttershy said and she began singing a song, while Spike helped Rarity stow all her jewelry in her saddlebags. Ivan and I stowed our weapons in Twilight's saddlebags so she could pass them back to us.

Fluttershy began to glow. "Stand close by me," she said and she led us down the hallway, protecting us. We reached the far end, a large square room; there was a concealed door open in one wall and nine ill-kempt humans with sallow skin and dirty fangs and clawed fingers were rampaging. Three more had collapsed in the water, dead or unconscious. They were starting to crumble into dust. Applejack and Pinkie were both paralyzed and fallen down in the water. Dash was busy dodging them and looking frustrated. Spitfire and Soarin' kicked another one into the wall and then fell on him, battering him until he collapsed; their suits seemed to let them touch the creatures safely.

The first wave fell back when Twilight and I hammered them with lightning balls. Rarity shot three of them with arrows, piercing their hearts and they fell, crumbling to dust. Spike breathed fire on them; to my surprise, they didn't vanish but they DID burn, and two of them now stumbled away and threw themselves in the water, though they were now badly hurt. Twilight then passed Ivan and I our weapons.

Fluttershy said something I couldn't hear over all the shouting, then began flapping her wings like it was some sort of signal.

Dash flew over to us. "If you touch them or they claw you, you get paralyzed. I need a magic protection whammy."

Fluttershy laid her hooves on Dash and sang; Dash now glowed green as well as having yellow and red St. Tarastia's Fire. "This should protect you."

The Wonderbolts nailed another ghoul and beat him down, working together, even as Dash rushed into the fray and pushed another one through the concealed door and back into the room they came from. I heard a 'WHAM'.

Ivan darted at one, stabbed him, parried the counter-stroke with a dagger, stabbed him again, parried another blow and then finished him off.

Applejack made a muffled noise probably indicating her irritation with being paralyzed. Pinkie made gurgly noises and Ivan turned her head to get the water out.

Fluttershy now came over to Applejack and began praying and singing and laying on of hooves. Applejack suddenly snapped into action. "Hold on while I protect you," Fluttershy said, while Applejack waited impatiently.

By the time she was ready, the rest of us had blasted, burned, stabbed, and beaten our foes to death.

"Well, that was a fight," Twilight said.

"Warmup act," I said.

"..."

"Likely all these paths we'll get keys or something to reach the sanctum where our doubles will be waiting, rested up while we are battered and worn down."

Ivan began rooting through the dust piles. He didn't find much, but there was a chest in the secret room. Careful examination showed that it was linked to a trap to close the door and flood the room, so the Wonderbolts, Dash, and Applejack positioned themselves to hold the door open while Ivan disabled the trap with help from me. Several hundred each of silver, gold, and electrum coins, but the really valuable thing was a silver statuette of Nyx. It was beautifully made with tiny gemstone eyes and she held a little crystal goblet of 'blood' (actually ruby, according to Rarity). It went into Rarity's bags.

Rule 2 of dungeons, always look for hidden treasure. I checked for a false bottom but there wasn't one. Tsk, someone is slipping.

Time to go up the stairs and die.

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

The stairs bent around up to a rather unusual room. It was very tall, maybe 120 or more feet tall in height; about five feet above ground level, a waterway flowed through the air, about ten feet deep with ten foot high above water level openings in the walls that it flowed in and out of. There were three more similar rivers above it. I suspect it's all one big river which flows up and down using magic and bent space. Eight rectangular rafts sat against the wall, each about five feet long and two feet wide; you could see the flow of the current and fish swam in the water. Probably they eat flesh.

I threw a small wad of paper; it didn't dissolve, so not acid.

"I guess we just raft to the end," Applejack said.

"It's going to be trickier than that," I said. "Soarin', try flying straight down the tunnel until you see us again. If you have to make a choice, go left."

He flew into the north wall and after three minutes, emerged from the west wall at the top level. "I passed through four other rooms but I stuck with my stream. There was a triangle shaped room, a pentagon, a hexagon, and...uh... a room with seven sides," he shouted down.

This room was a square. Bloody hell, this is some damn math-geometry puzzle bullshit.

"Simple progression of sides," Twilight said. "Spike, notes."

Spike began taking notes as Soarin' reported what he'd seen; he'd gone through the pentagon, then the triangle, then the septagon, then the hexagon. Each room had as many streams flowing through it as the number of sides.

"It's entirely possible this changes alignment based on something we're supposed to predict," I said.

"I hate this kind of thing," Ivan grumbled.

"I'm intrigued," Twilight said. "Rarity, take a look at this. This is supposed to be a challenge for unicorns, we think, so we should work together."

"If I was going to challenge me, it would involve making clothing," Rarity said, but she came over and began studying Twilight's notes. They began sending our pegasi through the tunnels, trying to map out more of it and find the pattern. I frowned. There has to be more to this than just a really complicated water maze.

We were all a little surprised when Rainbow Dash suddenly came flying back out of one of the tunnels at ground level. It looked like there was also an octagon, a nonagon AND a decagon, and then you ended up back here. Further, only about a third of the identified water roads were the one which ran at the ground floor here. In other words, you'd have to switch levels at least once in order to get through this, and I suspect, a bunch of times.

WE ARE GOING TO BE IN HERE FOREVER.

"How is anypony supposed to jump these rafts from one level to another?" Applejack said. "For that matter, without oars, how do we steer?"

"Teleport," I said. "Hmm, let me test something, much as I'd rather stay dry."

I leaped up into the water and stood in it; you could feel a kind of membrane, and though it swayed a bit under my weight, it held me up. "Depending on how far the distance is, we could throw rafts up to someone or down, then climb up and down with ropes or using those crazy jumping skills of yours," I said. "Probably something will try to kill us while we're in the middle of it."

"So it's intended to make us use lots of magic and get too worn out when we reach the next danger?" Rarity said.

"Most likely, yes," I said. "There may be re-directs and the like intended to split us up which the pegasi aren't triggering because they're not in the water."

"These rafts are so ugly," Rarity said, frowning. "I bet our evil twins cheated with their flying carpet."

That made sense. "Maybe there's some way to exploit your arrows."

"Maybe the fact we start in the square is some kind of hint," Pinkie mused. "Instead of the triangle; it's the logical starting point, right?"

"Yes," Twilight said. She studied our crude map, looking for a numerical pattern. "Three through ten. Eight rooms. Maybe they stand for something," Twilight mused.

"They stand for me hating math puzzles," Ivan said, leaning on the wall.

Fluttershy paused, then blinked and went over and began talking to the fish.

I slapped my forehead. SO DAMN OBVIOUS.

"They say there's an eleven sided room which has frost giants in it and a twelve-sided room with a trapdoor in the ceiling over the topmost river," Fluttershy said. "But they're not smart enough to know the room orders."

"Some of the others may do things when a unicorn enters, if it's keyed to unicorns," I said.

"And if you come in low enough, the frost giants don't notice you because they rarely look at their feet, but you likely have to make complicated moves to REACH that low-running one in their room," Twilight said.

That made sense.

"I hate to ask but we have to map the rest of this and you three can get around easiest," Twilight said to the pegasi.

"It's cool, threading the needle here is pretty fun, see how fast you can do in confined space," Dash said.

Rarity twitched. Pinkie said, "Oooh, I don't know that one. What does your Rarity twitch tell you?"

"Marcus, darling, can you try getting under the water and pushing up on it?" Rarity said, studying the water intently.

...

I tried doing so and the water actually rose; you could grasp the 'membrane' and push it. If you were careful, with slow and steady pressure, you could push the water down too without breaking through the membrane and entering the water. It required, however, delicacy.

"This is a test for both of us," Rarity said. "Your keen mind for geometry and my mind for sewing. Your power and my finesse. This is like a badly sewn garment with threads going wildly everywhere. What we have to do is to pick apart the tangle and rethread it so it moves smoothly through the rooms in an orderly way, and then we can get past here."

Twilight rubbed her forehead. "That's going to drain us both a lot."

"We shall all have to pool our strength," Rarity said. "With you and I leading the way, I think we can do it."

It was a lot of work; the rest of us did a lot of climbing around, mapping, guiding, and sometimes just hefting rivers and pushing them around slowly at Rarity and Twilight's guidance, while they moved others themselves; Twilight summoned her Element and everyone was busy using theirs. Fluttershy even got the fish to help us.

You could actually feel the rooms move as Rarity and Twilight wove them into a new configuration; we could push the rooms around, which Applejack was very good at it. Pinkie assisted Applejack and made us lunch and dinner; it was dinner time by the time we'd rearranged them all and rafted to the biggest room, then climbed up through the trapdoor, but we all felt pretty proud of ourselves. Even better, the room at the top had three spindles of thread: cloth of gold, cloth of silver, and cloth of *platinum*. We were going to have some fancy formal attire, I could tell.

"Twilight," I told her. "There is almost certainly going to be an evil trapped book which will try to kill you and will be whatever book you MOST WANT. I tell you this, knowing you will blow yourself up anyway, but I have to try."

Twilight frowned. "I'm not stupid enough to fall for that trap," she said, glaring at me.

I speak from painful experience, of course.

"I hope the other routes don't have anything that complicated," Applejack said. "Though pushing rooms around was kind of fun."

"There's going to be an evil library. I know this in my heart," I said apologetically to Twilight. "And there will likely be something to make me do something foolish."

"Not hard," Spike said.

"Spike, be nice," Twilight said firmly. Fortunately, she doesn't stay mad for long.

"Also, Spike, don't eat any gems. They'll probably be poison or acid or something," I said.

"We should probably sleep soon," Pinkie said, yawning.

"Let's try and finish this branch, then we can hit the others tomorrow," Twilight said. "And we need to make sure none of our treasure so far is on the dragon's list."

We set off down a hallway as I tried to contemplate my weaknesses.

Which would take a while to go through *all* of them.

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

The next room was large, maybe seventy feet long and forty feet wide with a door in the far wall; everything was painted with historical scenes. To the left of the entrance was the primitive semi-human Brute-men, hunting mammoths in the snow. To the right was a picture of us coming into the room. Various major events were painted across the walls and the far door. The door itself showed the crowning of the first Thyatian emperor; in the sky above him, Celestia and a black coated, armor wearing alicorn did battle as the moon eclipsed the sun. I had known about...

BING BING BING.

This must be Nightmare Moon. The fact that every pony in the place's breath caught made me realize I was right.

My brain whirred several clicks. This fight had caused an eclipse. We just had an eclipse around the same time they got the Elements of Harmony. Princess 'Luna' shows up after that. Holy shit, did they some how get one of the Entropics to switch sides?

I thought about how Entropy had once been Joy... and might be again, Twilight hoped.

Celestia aims big, I see.

I suddenly wondered if there had been an eclipse around 1000 BC when the gnolls laid waste to Karameikos and the Alphatians arrived on Mystara.

Twilight said something garbled, and I said to her, "Celestia dreams big."

"Yes," Twilight said softly.

Pinkie made incoherent noises with her hooves over her mouth.

"It's okay," I told her. "I can pretty much figure it out now."

"Figure what out?" Ivan asked.

"Don't worry about it," I told him. "I think we can assume this is some sort of 'push the right historical events to unlock the door' puzzle.

"Shouldn't we try the door before we just assume it's a trap?" Applejack said.

"It's ALWAYS a trap or a puzzle," I said. "Mad Wizards love this sort of thing."

"If there's even one block puzzle in this place, I am going to kill someone," Ivan said.

We all fanned out to study the murals, while Ivan and Twilight and I studied the door. It had no key lock but was locked. No obvious traps.

Then suddenly the door in filled with glowy light. And now we heard a voice. Twilight's voice. "Welcome to White Plume Mountain, evil twins of us."

"We are not EVIL," Applejack said. "And who are you ponies?"

"We are the Elements of Power," the not-Twilight said. "I am Dawn Gleaming, and I represent Knowledge. For Knowledge is a form of Power."

"Know..." Twilight stopped. Knowledge IS power. There is no way Twilight could possibly assert it is not. She looked utterly stymied.

"So is CANDY," Pinkie said. "Sugar is the ultimate power."

"Sugar doesn't even come close to Dawn Gleaming's power," a man said. He was somewhat higher pitched than me in tone but not actually into the high pitched registers (for a man).

"Sammy, is that you?" Pinkie asked.

"It's me, yes," Sammy said.

"I don't sound like that," I said.

"You sound exactly like that, sugarcube," Applejack said to me.

What? But I have a deeper voice than that, though not as deep as Erik had. When I was Erik, that is.

I heard distant laughter, which then stopped and now Rarity's voice echoed into the room. "Hello, everyone, I am Clarity, the Element of Industry."

"You are INCREDIBLY undignified," Rarity said condemningly.

"I just do what you do inside your head and I make it look good, don't I, Spikey?" Her voice purred.

"You always look good, Clarity," Spikey, the other-Spike said cheerfully.

Spike buried his face in his hands.

I guess Applejack is Farming, Dash is Athletics, Pinkie is... Partying? Social Affairs? And Fluttershy is something like Nature or Druidism or something.

"Anyway, my snuggle-wuggums and I designed this room for you," Dawn Gleaming began, her voice so laden with sugar, you could almost get a rush off it.

Pinkie, in fact, began bouncing about and shaking, probably having successfully gotten a rush off it.

"You have a snuggle-wuggums?" Twilight squeaked out.

"It's pretty much inevitable that two wizards working together will fall in love," Dawn Gleaming said with her voice full of even *more* sugar. "Touching minds, weaving spells together, sharing books, long evenings of studying together." Her voice kept getting ever more dreamy.

Rarity made a grumbly noise. Spike made a grumbling noise and looked at Rarity, then we could hear Clarity and Spikey making happy noises at each other. Spike looked ready to die and it hit me.

SPIKE HAS A CRUSH ON RARITY. I feel like an idiot for not seeing this before.

"Uhhh...," Applejack said. "So you two looking to make centaur babies?" She sounded boggled.

"Don't be silly, we use shapeshifting for such things. We're not looking for kids, anyway," Dawn Gleaming said. "We're both very busy and killing you all is eating up a lot of time we could be spending on finally finishing going over Edalsam's gloss of Meister Arkhe's commentary on Darius IV's history of Early Alphatia."

"I still think he made a huge mistake summarizing chapter 28 down to just three sentences. You can't just dismiss economic history that easily," Sammy said.

"Well, he had to get it down to 128 pages so it would fit in that printing size. Otherwise, he would have had to go up to 256, pushing the price too high, really, and making it harder to get through in the usual time alloted," Dawn Gleaming said.

"That isn't true, is it?" Rarity asked me, her voice oddly casual.

"I'm not familiar with the gloss in question, but the basic laws of printing apply," I said. "Alphatian presses would print giant pages which would be folded and cut into 128 pages. This made multiples of 128 the ideal size for books printed that way. Smaller presses could print 32 or 64 pages. So you wanted 32, 64, 128, or 256, usually. Beyond that, you probably wanted multiple volumes. Mind you, if we get into the issue of folios, then the math changes."

Dawn Gleaming and Sammy continued to debate history loudly, while Clarity and Spikey made happy noises at each other and our Spike clearly contemplated just burning EVERYTHING. Twilight, of course, began arguing the topic with Dawn Gleaming and Sammy.

Everyone else listened and milled around, waiting for someone who knew what to do.

"I meant about wizards, darling," Rarity said to me.

"Actually, wizards are more likely to set each other on fire over some stupid argument than to fall in love," I told her. "Though I have a friend in Glantri who became a wizard and married a wizard. And I suppose a lot of Glantrians and Alphatians do marry other wizards. But it's not what you'd consider automatic the way those two think."

"It IS inevitable," Dawn Gleaming said firmly to me. "We were *destined* by the stars!"

Twilight mumbled to herself.

Rarity started. "The mice," she said.

"Mice?" I asked.

"Long story," Rarity said.

"Twilight turned mice into horses to pull us to the Grand Gala, but Rarity's cat chased them off before we could go!" Pinkie said. "It was HILARIOUS." She began laughing.

"You shouldn't embarrass Rarity like that," I told Pinkie.

"If I don't, who will?" Pinkie said very seriously. "Everyone needs their chains rattled every so often."

Rarity looked at me, opened her mouth, glanced around, then shut it. "Enough of debating love and history," she said. "Let's get through this, I have things to do and places to go." Her voice was very businesslike. "What do we have to do?"

"Well, ideally, I would have just set you all on fire, but Keraptis liked to play with his food, so I have to give you a chance," Dawn Gleaming said regretfully. "I could be working with my snugglewuggums if you all would just die and leave us be. Or even just go away and never come back."

"We promised Vermicoritax to get ALL of his treasure back," Rainbow Dash said firmly. "I keep my promises."

"Me too," Applejack said and they high-hoofed. "Come on, let's get this done."

"There are ten historical errors in the paintings," Dawn Gleaming said. "Touch them all and the door opens. Each time you fail, a trap goes off."

"Is there a unique trap for each possible mistake?" Twilight asked.

"Do you think I could accept anything less?" Clarity asked. "A job worth doing is worth doing right, down to the smallest detail. That's how you get rich!"

"You robbed a dragon to get rich!" Rarity said angrily.

"Yes, and the robbery was carried out with an eye for detail. Wealth is the fruit of industry and it doesn't matter how you work as long as you work hard." Clarity sounded quite cheerful about this.

"And wealth is power," I said.

"Exactly, darling," Clarity said.

"I don't do it just for the money!" Rarity said angrily.

"We all know how you act when you see pretty things for the taking, dearie," Clarity said to her. "Men, jewelry, fine cloth... I saw how you coveted those rolls of cloth you found earlier. It pleased me, even if you have to die."

Rarity cringed at that and I got mad, putting a hand on her back. "Everyone likes pretty things, but Rarity doesn't hoard them for herself! She gets them so she can make something even MORE beautiful for others! She uses her love of beauty to help others, and you just keep it all for yourself!"

"Because I am the most beautiful thing of all," Clarity purred. "Aren't I, Spikey?"

"Lady Clarity, there is nothing in this whole world which can match your beauty, the fine smoothness of your white coat, the gentle perfect curls of your purple mane, the very color of royalty itself," Spikey said warmly.

"This is what happens when you bathe too often," Applejack said, shaking her head.

"Yeah, exactly," Rainbow Dash said. "No wonder she's so full of herself."

I cannot understand any mindset which exalts being filthy.

I heard Rarity's teeth grind, and then she said, "Marcus, darling, I think it's time to get this show under way so we can shove their words back in their mouths, though it may be hard as they're clearly full of themselves." She sounded quite angry and it was kind of thrilling, really.

"Okay," Twilight said. "Everyone look for weird things to point out to us, but I guess Marcus and I will have to do the identifying."

Given I'd been little use on the previous one, I was eager to take the lead here. Though Twilight likely knows more than I do.

"Got one," Pinkie said cheerfully, four seconds later, pointing to a painting of a pony busy baking a cake in an oven. Pony ovens involve heating coals in compartments above and below the main body of the oven, the heat diffuses inside the oven, allowing for nice even cooking and the smoke rises out through a pipe, keeping smoke off your food.

Twilight and I studied it. "Looks fine to me," Twilight said. "I really don't know baking." She paused, then looked around. "Wait, this is a modern oven and if these are in order, this would be... a long, long time ago."

"Exactly," Pinkie said, feeling satisfied. "That cake looks so tasty, though." She poked the oven and it began to glow softly. We did not die, so that's ONE.

Ugh, nine more to go with a trap for each one wrong.

"Ooh, this one has to be wrong," Rainbow Dash said, pointing to another one.

It was, in fact a red-coated pony with an orange mane, carrying King Halav into battle against the gnolls. You could see Zirchev by his side riding... is that Twilight's father? You could sort of make out some sort of blue pony being ridden in the background by Petra, but they were up on a hill casting a spell.

"Trixie?" Twilight said in disbelief. "DAD?"

"That's your father?" Rainbow Dash said. "I just noticed Big Mac."

"Who?" I asked.

"My brother. He isn't actually that big, though he is big for a Pony," Applejack said. "I think he'd like this, though." She sounded pleased herself.

"Well, this is definitely a historical error," Twilight said.

"Wait, this is SO blatant, there must be a trick," I said, stopping her hoof.

"Unfortunately, I didn't bring my histories," Twilight said in frustration. "This trip has gone VERY off the plan."

"If you had a real power like Knowledge," Dawn Gleaming said, a little tauntingly, "You would have known to, like I did, which is why I'm in the control room and you're going to die. Or you could just turn back."

"Ain't no turning back," Applejack said. "We made a promise."

Spitfire tried to crowd in. "It's two Unicorns and an Earth Pony," she said. "If this is the Unicorn route, maybe they should all be Unicorns?"

"I don't think Halav, Petra, or Zirchev rode any sentient Ponies," I said. "Applejack, you know Big Mac. Anything wrong with him here?"

She peered at it closely while Twilight illuminated it with her horn. "His cutie mark is wrong."

She pushed him and he glowed softly. "Score," Applejack said proudly.

"Dammit, that was MINE!" Rainbow Dash said. She sounded frustrated.

"Yeah, but I had to finish the job," Applejack said teasingly.

"Come look up near the top with me," Soarin' said to her.

She zoomed up where the rest of us couldn't see well. Spitfire did the same on the other side.

"Of course, if you had my power, you'd already know," Dawn Gleaming taunted Twilight. "You haven't gotten any of these yourself. So much for your studies."

Twilight fumed, pawing the ground.

"Don't let her goad you," I told Twilight. "It's a common trick."

Rarity now sidled up to her and began whispering to Twilight.

Meanwhile, Soarin' now announced, "Hah! Look, Spitfire!"

Spitfire said, "That's an easy one."

We all turned; they were looking at a hidden grotto where a pearl sat on an altar with Water Elves chanting and pouring sea water on it. Twilight came over. "That's the relic of the Water Elves, right? Specially created for them by the Immortal Calista Starbrow?"

"Yes, but it's actually much bigger," Soarin' said. "It's three feet across and they allowed us to witness it being returned to where it is kept in a giant oyster shell, not on an altar," he said. "No one but the keepers and we, the Wonderbolts, know this." He paused. "And, umm... you now."

Spitfire said, "We saw other things too but we won't talk about them, right, Soarin'?" There was just a little edge in her voice.

"Uh, yeah, we won't talk about them," he mumbled. "But it was the only way to get this one, right?"

Twilight rubbed her forehead. "So if you weren't here, we might not have ever gotten this. All the books made it sound like a normal pearl if they mentioned it at all."

Soarin' now touched the pearl with his hoof. It glowed softly.

"Unless, of course, like me, you read Oran Meditor's diaries!," Dawn Gleaming cackled. "Acquired for me by my wonderful little Sammy."

He now laughed and I ground my teeth.

"I wouldn't steal someone else's BOYFRIEND!" Twilight shouted angrily.

Boyfriend? She said diaries. I don't think Oran Meditor has a boyfriend, I think he's married. To a woman, just to be clear. He's the head of the Minrothad Guilds, by the way. IE, he's out to kill me, but not for stealing his diaries.

At least, I don't remember stealing them.

Wait, does she think I have a girlfriend? Who? Surely she doesn't think I'm involved with Helga when she's married or...Dammit, I am missing something.

Rarity mumbled something.

"I didn't steal someone else's boyfriend!" Dawn Gleaming said angrily; I heard a punching noise. "Come on, you stupid machine, punish them!"

No punishment happened.

"As long as we play by the rules, you have to as well!," Pinkie said. "It's the first part of a fun game like this one! I'm just hoping my game will be this cool when we get to it!" She hopped around excitedly.

Keraptis must have some sort of arcane machine, probably tapping the plane of shadows, given his reputation, which controls and reconfigures White Plume Mountain. Interesting.

I could hear a distant laughter.

"Shut up, Keraptis!" Sammy said.

I hear a noise like someone being hit with a pie.

"Pinkamena Diane Pie, you clean up that mess right this minute!" Pinkie barked with a suddenly serious voice.

"Yes, mother," we heard very faintly. After a few seconds of cleaning noises, we heard, "Aargh, you're not my mother!" Whoever it was sounded like a cranky Pinkie.

Pinkie rolled around, laughing.

We all started laughing.

"Shut up, you stupid constructs! You're not even supposed to exist!" Pinkamena shouted.

I frowned. That's what the dragon in my dreams... Marquetta... said to me. Dammit. Though they seem to think we are all fakes and they're the real ones.

"Hmm, could be clone hatred syndrome," Twilight said.

"What's that?" Applejack asked curiously.

"Many wizards clone themselves and put the clone on ice; if they die, it comes out of cold storage and then takes up their life. But if you and your clone are out roaming around at once, eventually, the clone goes mad and wants to kill the original."

"You're the clones!" Pinkamena shouted.

"You wait your turn, this is our trap!" Clarity said.

I now realized Fluttershy had been trying to get our attention the whole time. "Fluttershy?"

"Desert Willow," she said, pointing to a tree in the picture of Brute-men trying to hunt a mammoth, which was standing protectively between them and a baby mammoth. Fluttershy said, "It grows in hot, dry climates. Not ones with huge amounts of snow."

"I agree," Twilight said, sounding relieved.

Fluttershy smiled and touched the tree, which glowed.

"Twilight," Rarity said to her. "Can you date this?" She pointed to a picture of Ponies and humans fighting a huge epic battle by a riverbank. Flags were flying and armies of humans in chain with shield, spear, and shortbows were fighting angry unicorns, earth ponies with spear rigs, and pegasi. It was going badly for the human army, though the carnage was immense on both sides.

"This is the Battle of the East River, 126 AC, in which Duke Swift Hoof Blueblood II led the forces of Whinneychester and the Big Apple province to thwart an invasion by Corin II Anselwind," Twilight said. "Yes, he is the ancestor of the current Duke," she said regretfully to Rarity.

Blueblood. I'd give him a piece of my mind if he was present and if it wasn't probably suicide. Well, I might do it anyway; I've survived worse than an angry noble.

"What about Prance, the Dacoatas, and Mane?" Applejack asked. "I can see why the West and North Marechs would have to guard their own frontiers, but if Darokin was invading..."

"The Duke of Prance was pouting because Celestia would not marry him, so he invaded Sindh to 'avenge an insult'. The Dacoatas each sent only a handful of men," Twilight continued, "arguing they needed the strength to defend against the Buffalo. And the Duke of Mane launched his own invasion of Darokin, hoping to seize Akorros while Darokin's forces were in Equestria." Twilight sounded rather unhappy about the whole mess.

"They INVADED DAROKIN? Why?" Applejack asked, shocked.

"More land meant you could support more Lances of warponies," Twilight said. "And beat up your rivals, take their mares, the usual feudal insanity." She shook her head. "Remember, this is the Dark Age of Equestria. In the aftermath of... that..." she said, pointing to the Alicorn vs. Alicorn battle on the door, "the warponies ruled Equestria, while Celestia was struggling to deal with both the Sun AND the Moon."

"She suffered a Stroke," Ivan said softly. You could hear the capital letter.

"I am not aware of any medical problems," Twilight said hesitantly.

"When one Immortal delivers a heavy blow to another Immortal's followers or to the Immortal's plans, they often suffer a 'Stroke', which robs them of some of their power. Some petty immortals, especially those of Entropy, invest a lot of effort into delivering Strokes to each other," Ivan said. "Everyone assumed it was Nyx trying to deliver a Stroke to Ixion when the sun vanished at the Thyatian Emperor's coronation, but it was that," he said, pointing at the exit door. "Celestia's power dwindled and likely she got censured for something connected to this and had to reduce her involvement in the mortal world."

I stared. It made good sense, but I didn't expect it to come from Ivan of all people. He's not... he's VERY smart about some things, but... oh wait, I guess he's been studying Immortality because he hopes to be one.

Everyone looked at Ivan and each other uncomfortably.

"So the warponies ran the place to suit themselves," Ivan said.

"My father is a warpony and he does not just run riot," Rarity said somewhat tensely to Ivan.

"Your father grew up in a peaceful society which taught him that he is a defender of the innocent and a champion of justice and that he serves the state and the common good," Ivan said. "Duke Blueblood II grew up in a time in which you learned to kick people's ass so you could have a big herd of mares. Young colts either became warponies and served one of the noble stallions in hopes of rising to have their own followers or else became a servant or got driven into the wilderness to die because the family had too many children, right, Twilight?"

She stared at the ground. "Yes."

Now all the other ponies really shifted uncomfortably and avoided looking at Ivan or each other.

"Don't feel bad," Ivan said kindly. "Karameikos was just like that until thirty years ago and even now it's still kind of like that. I could have stayed and been my brother's servant all my life, or I could have joined the army and hoped to rise in the ranks, or I could go out and seek my fortune, like many young colts did then and still do. There's a thousand Duke Bluebloods and Dukes of Prance and Dukes of Mane in my nation's history. Halav, and Petra, and Zirchev may have founded us, but they basically left us to rot while they did... whatever they're doing." He sounded rather bitter. "Wolves on horseback have ruled Karameikos for millenia and what have 'our' immortals done about it? Nothing. We had to be conquered by the Thyatians to get our act together. For all that Duke Stefan is too naive for his own good, he is trying to be a good leader, trying to help everyone. He fails sometimes, because he trusts the wrong people. But he is still better than just about every leader we've had for two thousand years. I don't think any of you realize at all how lucky you are." Okay, VERY bitter.

"Hey, man, I'm sorry," I said. I didn't even realize how frustrated Ivan was about all this. I clapped his shoulder, not knowing what to do.

Ivan basically went down in a tide of ponies trying to comfort him. I nearly got trampled, being in the way. Soarin' and Spitfire both stayed up in the air, but everyone else basically mobbed him.

"I'm sorry," Fluttershy said to him softly, hovering by his head.

"You're not the ones who have been grinding Karameikos underfoot all these years. We did it to ourselves. We fought off the gnolls but our leaders just went on to either ravage everything or fail, over and over and over," he said, sounding frustrated. Then he stopped talking, possibly because he couldn't actually breathe with that many ponies trying to comfort him. Then he started crying, which I could tell embarrassed him intensely.

"I guess I never paid no attention to history, really," Applejack said. "The turnin' of the seasons was all the history I needed, and I do know a few things about agriculture. Seems like history's pretty depressin'."

"It's not all bad," Twilight said. "But some of it can be."

For a while, everyone worked on cheering Ivan up, while I tried to think of something I could do to cheer Ivan up. He's not normally so bitter.

"How did you get out of it?" he finally asked Twilight when the storm of hugs and nuzzles died down.

"Wait... get out of what?"

"Less hugs, more dying!" Dawn Gleaming said. "I can't get back to my studies so long as you're all roaming around loose."

"Dammit, the pie turned into a monster!" I heard evil-Applejack shout. "A shadow monster!"

Keraptis was laughing and I laughed too. I heard an odd noise and we couldn't hear them any more. "There's reasons Keraptis is still around to screw with people after all these centuries," I said, feeling an odd satisfaction from it.

"How did the end of feudalism come in Equestria?" Ivan asked.

"As time passed, the cities grew more prosperous. They attracted those excess young men to work and become craftponies, merchants, and traders. They developed machines which made it much easier for them to do a variety of tasks. While the feudal nobility spent their strength fighting each other, they grew strong. Then, when better outside armies showed up, the disorganized feudal forces could no longer win wars. Peace with the buffalo also reduced the need for decentralized military forces which could respond quickly to buffalo stampedes. They would eventually be replaced by our modern army and the nobility now dwindled in power and became courtiers, waiting on Princess Celestia," Twilight said.

Now that, I basically knew. Though now I wonder how much of it was Princess Celestia's maneuvers and how much was shifts in economic power. Farm yields are harder to increase than industry in the cities if you have someone to sell to. I suspect craftponies like Rarity did as much to end feudalism as Celestia did.

I now realized I was patting Rarity's back, as if she herself had ended feudalism. She looked at me and smiled and I smiled back at her. I think we'd been thinking the same thoughts.

"Rarity, why did you ask about the date?" I asked. Best we get back to the puzzle before monsters get unleashed to up the stakes.

Rarity turned to the picture NEXT to it, which showed a human woman busy operating a sewing machine. If you looked carefully, she was making the banner which was flown by the human leader in the next scene. "The sewing machine was invented MUCH later than this, and few humans have them even now; they were invented to help earth ponies and pegasi sew, since they can't use magic for it like I do. And even I find some sewing easier with one." Some sewing machines are magical but most are operated by a foot pump. (Magical ones are becoming pretty common in Glantri.) Earth ponies especially love them because they can operate a foot pump until the cows come home without getting tired. Equestria is more mechanized than a lot of countries because it's hard for ponies to do a lot of things without hands. The Darokinians and Minrothad Guilds have bought up or copied a lot of Pony tech, though. And sometimes invented things useful for the Ponies. They both go where the money is.

Rarity touched the sewing machine and it glowed. She smiled proudly.

"Good job," Twilight said, though one of her eyes twitched a little. Ponies often handle being outdone in their specialty or having it fail... badly.

"I couldn't have done it without your help," Rarity said graciously. "I did not know when this might be."

"Is the battle laid out correctly? It may have something too," I told Twilight.

She began studying it intently.

Spike burped and coughed up a letter. He passed it to Twilight. It was from 'Owlicious', who seems to be another assistant of Twilight. I wonder how he and Spike get on.

"The Falchion of Minroth is a Nithian style weapon," Twilight said. "It's a kind of sword with a curve at the end of the blade. Minroth was a mighty warrior and he lead the colonization of what is now the Minrothad Guilds by the Nithians. He later became the Immortal patron of the Isles, encouraging the five races to cooperate: human, elf, halfling, dwarf, and pony."

"Sphere of Matter," Ivan said. "He watches over his people." Ivan sounded rather frustrated about this.

Man, it's like Halav stole his girlfriend or something. I patted his shoulder. "We can jack Halav's chariot one day, man."

"I'm surprised we haven't already," he mumbled and we both laughed.

"What does it mean to 'jack' something?" Applejack asked curiously. "In that sense? My name indicates I'm really good with apples, but you seem to use it different."

"Differently," Rarity said a little pedantically just before Twilight could say it.

"Short for 'hijack'," I said. "Halav has a sacred chariot from the gnoll wars."

Rainbow Dash laughed loudly and we all stared at her. "I'm just imagining Ivan cruising around in a holy chariot with Applejack pulling it at high speed while Halav tries to chase you on foot."

"He'd never catch us," Applejack said proudly. "Not that stealin' someone's chariot is a good idea. Living well is the best revenge, Ivan."

Ivan's thoughtful look made me suspect Applejack would end up helping him to steal Halav's chariot one way or another.

Damn, I bet she could make that thing... "Hey, they should have been in chariots in that picture."

"Maybe it has two flaws in it?" Ivan said.

"You can't touch the absence of something," Twilight said. "I think."

"We can come back to it if we can't find the others," I said.

Searching now resumed.

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

Spike found a problem with a dragon's head. Spitfire touched something and couldn't explain why but she was right. I wondered how many secrets the Wonderbolts have. Ivan found an Asterius with a duck on his head. (Don't ask.)

Twilight was vibrating, clearly frustrated that she didn't have the books she needed and people kept finding things before she could. I suddenly wondered if the real goal of this puzzle was to make her explode and make us all ducks on Asterius' head.

Dash suddenly darted over and touched a picture of a triumphant pegasus winning a race. "Midnight Clear never actually won a race, he always came second! It made him CRAZY," she said.

This resulted in a herd of shadowy horses and ponies suddenly conducting their race across the room. I got trampled. Ivan leaped onto the back of one and managed to ride it. Fluttershy, Pinkie, and Twilight all joined me on the floor. Applejack instinctively joined the race and... slammed into the wall when they trampled off into another painting. The Wonderbolts and Rainbow Dash all darted up out of the mob's way.

Damn you, Dash! If you set off a trap, have the decency to get crushed with the rest of us!

Twilight began to titter disturbingly. "You could have ASKED someone, you know! I could have told you that Midnight Clear DID win a single race, in 857! But the prize was lost in a storm, to her frustration."

"But I thought..."

"Thinking is not your strong point!," Twilight said angrily. "Of course, I read up on Midnight Clear because I knew you admired her, but you never read the book I got you about her! I spent a lot of time trying to find a good book for you!"

"I read most of it," Rainbow Dash mumbled. "But the last part was all words in tiny print."

"Hey, I would have already gotten mine, but Applejack STOLE MY... thing. Whatever we'd call it!" Rainbow Dash said angrily.

"Hey, I had to find the problem, you just pointed me the right way," Applejack protested.

"Ask someone before you jump in!," Twilight shouted at her.

"Twilight, dear, fighting each other won't help, even if it is practice for when we have to fight our evil twins," Rarity said.

"We're not evil, we're BETTER," Dawn Gleaming said. "Of course, a Twilight Sparkle is the sign the day is dying and on its last legs," she said gleefully. "You're too busy helping other people to keep up on your studies. Which you are GETTING IN THE WAY OF MINE."

I had to do something terrible.

And possibly suicidal.

Twilight mumbled something about helping people, eyes starting to glow. Everyone backed up and got nervous, though I could see Pinkie steeling herself to step in.

I am definitely going to die if Pinkie is worried about intervening.

I dropped to my knees next to Twilight as she gathered breath and I whispered to her, "I'm sure Erik loved it when you took time away from your studies to help him, and he loved helping you. Didn't you enjoy that? I know I enjoy studying with you too."

Playing on a young woman's feelings is a terrible thing.

But the alternative is blowing up.

She was still breathing hard, but she was listening.

"Remember, pony magic is about Friendship," I told her softly. "It's when you work with your friends that you are strongest. You have a right to be proud of your mind. But you're our leader. You have to be strong. You know how Celestia governs. She doesn't thrust herself forward and do it all. She knows when she has to lead, like you and the water. And when to find the right pony for the job. You want to be like Celestia, right?" THAT sunk home. Celestia rules with a delicate touch. I admire that.

Spike now simply silently hugged Twilight and I felt her relax.

She then did an odd thing with her tongue, like... she was using her teeth to count something off? I guess with no fingers, you have to do that. Her eyes widened, and then suddenly she looked triumphant.

"Dash, look at the picture again. Study who is in the race," she said. "Marcus..." She began studying the pictures.

And then I saw it. The owlbear killing a man who I dimly remembered being. Somehow. Thick beard, dark hair, olive skin. Dmitri Ilyanovich. You could see him, his legs tangled in vines in the Malpheggi as he stumbled out of quicksand, and now an owlbear flew down silently and attacked him from behind. I remembered that and I don't know how it could be me, but I cringed at the sight. Most owlbears can't fly but this one also had wings. Damn, that's ugly. Silent, deadly flight. He had hardly any gear and what he had was charred.

Twilight's gaze followed mine. Dash was now carefully studying the race picture very carefully.

"You know him?" Twilight asked softly.

It was me. I don't understand how, this man was not some kind of construct, but... right? He doesn't look like a flesh golem or anything.

To my surprise, Rarity was now at my side and I put a hand on her back. I felt my nerves unclench a little. "Shouldn't it not have wings?" Rarity asked.

"Certain rare ones have more owl in them and have wings," I said. "They're extremely dangerous because they can fly utterly silently."

"Yeah," Spike said. "You never hear Owlicious coming." He shivered.

"He's an Owl?"

"Would anyone not an owl name themselves that?" Spike asked me.

Okay, probably not. I studied it. This must be the one for me.

Twilight's shift of attitude was surprising. She'd gone from two inches from a nervous breakdown to a sudden confidence. She believed I would find the answer. Which, if Dash did her thing right, would mean all of us BUT her had solved one, though she'd helped many of us.

It's a Friendship test, I realized. I'd just been trying to calm her down, but, in fact, this was a test to put pressure on her to see if she snapped and had a freak out. With her power... that could be ugly.

And because I know how to manipulate people, I had been able to save her from herself. And because I wanted to help her, because she is my friend. None of the others study with her, except Spike. They know how important her learning is to her, but they don't share that love of it, except as it touches their own lives. Because they all have their own specialized knowledge. Twilight can't know everything, much as she'd like to.

Much as I would like to.

I understand her frustration. It's not easy to rely on others. But she is the Element of Magic which means the Element of Friendship. Which is why Celestia has her 'studying' it. The stronger her bonds to others, the stronger she is. She probably can't compete with Dawn Gleaming, if Gleaming really is tied to 'Knowledge' somehow. Not directly.

But then, only fools take people on in their strength. You find their weakness and then you hit them in it.

I can see what Celestia is doing; I just hope Twilight can handle it. That she likes it. I think she does, but...

Of course, I have no right to judge at all, after what I just did. Pushing her feelings around for my own benefit. Mind you, I think I have the right not to die horribly.

I tried to push away the angst. To remember this. Most of the group was watching me, though Applejack was studying the race with Rainbow Dash, talking to her quietly. They seem like good friends to me. Soarin' was trying to help her too.

"You might as well give up, you sad copy," evil me said. "You're just a construct. You're all just copies. Your minds full of holes. But you're more like a twentieth generation copy. It's all wearing out. Hard to remember, right?"

"Be silent, prattler," Rarity said angrily. "You are the copy, and you will be silent and leave Marcus alone."

"Ahah! Bluebonnet wasn't even BORN yet, let alone racing when Midnight Clear was at the top of her game!" Dash said and tapped. Nine glows now.

I tried to remember but my mind didn't want to remember, the claws, the screaming, Yalla screaming...

Yalla?

Someone else was there?

Someone... I could remember a hat. A very nice double-layered hat made from that manticore's hide. She'd feared the dragon's treasure was cursed and by that point, it was just us left.

But she had refused to take any of the treasure. I had finally, reluctantly discarded the last of the treasure and the two of us were trying to make our way down to Port Tenobar. We'd take ship to Thyatis; that would give us enough space.

And then the owlbear showed up. It would have caught her, but I attacked it and... I must have killed it or wounded it enough to drive it off and Yalla must have dragged me to Tenobar to have me raised or reincarnated or something. Had there been a druid?

Maybe. Yalla liked druids.

"He didn't die like this, he died saving his companion, a halfling named Yalla from the owlbear," I said firmly, then pushed the painting where she SHOULD have been. Her outline glowed and now there was a humming noise.

"How could you even know that? I didn't even know that one, the machine picked it out!," Dawn Gleaming said angrily.

"I knew that one," Sammy said.

Clarity laughed softly. "Well done," she said. "Hard work is rewarded."

"Don't CONGRATULATE them," Dawn Gleaming said angrily.

"But he knew exactly where to touch. That is precision, and I admire deftness and precision," Clarity said.

Spikey made a growling noise.

"You know you're my favorite dragon, yes you are," Clarity said and now they cooed at each other.

Spike's eyes crossed.

"Now you just open the door and come through," Dawn Gleaming said wearily.

"Once I disarm it," Twilight said. "I studied both of these incidents," she continued. "This is something I am an expert on." She touched Nightmare Moon's head. "Her helmet is wrong." Then she touched the priest behind the Emperor. "He's dressed in a sixth century style."

Now the door swung open. "Knowledge is power... but Friendship means I have access to the knowledge of everyone I know, not just my own," Twilight said. "Come on, everyone. This dungeon isn't going to defeat itself."

The sound of Dawn Gleaming pouting and Sammy trying to comfort her ushered us out of the room and off down a hallway towards our next doom... room.

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

Rainbow Dash pulled me back and whispered to me, "What did you say to her? Whatever it was, it calmed her right down."

"I just reminded her about how her element is Friendship," I said. "And how trying to go head to head with someone when they're better by definition isn't wise. Better to find a way where YOU are stronger."

Rainbow Dash said, "Yeah, but what if they're better at your strong point?"

"Everyone has weaknesses," I said. "Obviously, if you're playing a sport or something, you may not be able to exploit those weaknesses." This is why I don't play sports. "But the rest of the time, it's best to be like water and flow around obstacles." That was my favorite saying from my brief attempt to be a monk.

Hitting gongs with my head did not bring me to enlightenment, however.

I thought about Dmitri. How old am I? I don't seem to be getting any older, whatever is happening to me. Dammit, what IS going on?

"See, I know someone who is a really good athlete," Rainbow Dash began.

"I'm sure Applejack would be happy to help you improve your skills," I told her.

"..."

It was pretty obvious, really.

"See, she c..." Rainbow Dash looked at me, then sighed. "We never did quite settle which one of us is the better athlete."

"A good rivalry helps you both improve," I told her. "Anyway, I'm not a specialist like you ponies, so I have to be flexible and find ways to turn weaknesses on people because I never win head-to-head. Even at cards, which I'm good at, I have to outthink people to win."

"Doesn't that mean you're a specialist at out-thinking people?" Rainbow Dash said, grinning.

"I..."

Okay, she has me there.

"I never thought of it like that. Thanks, Rainbow Dash." I couldn't help smiling a little.

For some reason, Rainbow Dash looked at her Cutie Mark, then cracked up. "Is it really true humans never get any kind of sign what their place in life is?"

"Totally true," I told her.

"That must make deciding what to do with your life once you're not a kid hard," Rainbow Dash said.

"A lot of people just do what their parents did," I told her. "But some of us, like Ivan and I, spend our lives searching for it, and we may or may not ever find it."

"Well, I hope you do," Rainbow Dash said, patting my shoulder.

"Me too," I told her.

Right now, though, I'm going to worry about NOT DYING.

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

I touched my hat, reminding me of how I now have the most awesome hat in the party, though Applejack's remains a work of simple elegance, well suited for her. I will not stare at it lest my hat grow jealous, of course.

Rarity made a happy noise as we went up the stairs together. I smiled at her. "Thank you again. It brings me peace of mind."

I heard Soarin' say to Rainbow Dash, "I think the hat is his girlfriend." My love for hats is PURE, not carnal, I will tell you!

But I just laughed and so did Rarity. She made a come hither gesture and I leaned down and she said softly, "I think they make a good couple, don't you?"

"Marcus can be a little weird, but I think he has a crush on me, actually," Rainbow Dash said to Soarin', thinking no one would hear, but I heard. "But we're not, you know, an item," she said very quickly. "I dunno what Twilight was thinking."

"Yes," I said softly to Rarity. Evenly matched in not understanding the universe, anyway.

What was Twilight thinking? Or maybe it was just because... I don't know.

Does she think...

I could see Spike glaring at me. I can see why, given he has a crush on Rarity. I can't believe I took so long to notice.

Rarity looked thoughtful.

"What's on your mind?" I said to her.

"We should talk, when this is over and we can get some privacy," she said to me.

"Okay," I told her. "Your company is quite delightful to me, fair lady Rarity."

She smiled a small smile. "You are a flatterer, Marcus."

"It's my nature," I said. "I think Marquetta must have told them we are constructs. She called me a failed experiment when she invaded my dreams."

"She didn't call me that but she did try to bribe me," Rarity said, frowning. "As if I was for sale. Admittedly, it was a very pretty pile of treasure." A single drop of sweat rolled down her cheek. "But I am not so easily bought," she said firmly.

I frowned. Why me? Dammit, what is going on? I'd just kind of settled into my rut of chaos, but now, I have the feeling I've been missing something. Like how I keep not dying.

"Anyway, I don't think you are an experiment, and if you are, I'd consider it a successful one," she said, then patted my leg.

"Thanks, Rarity," I told her. "You flatterer, you."

We smiled at each other. It's nice to know someone who knows how to play the game.

My brain chose NOW to suddenly put various pieces together. Twilight has shapeshifting magic. Dawn Gleaming and Sammy apparently use it when they want to bump rump, as Pinkie would put it. Twilight learned a rite which summons human clothing and probably others.

...

My brain then chose this moment for a DAMN FLASHBACK.

I still hate them.

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

Lyra was one of my students, who had a turquoise coat and cyan mane. She was about to graduate from the school; she was a bardic specialist but she was also my best student. I'd noticed the bardics tended to have the most interest in Humanics, in part because I used a lot of music for my teaching. I'm terrible, but my students love to sing. And things like epic lays really seemed to hook them.

Lyra also was more bipedal than most ponies. Though she'd wander around on all fours out of class, in class, she went around bipedally and used an actual chair with her desk, which got a lot of stares.

"So how are things with you and Octavia, Lyra?" I asked her after class; I was about to head over to Twilight's place for the usual evening of work. Lyra was seeing one of the royal musicians, Octavia, an Earth Pony double-bass player.

"We're pals, Professor Erik," she said cheerfully.

"Just pals?" I asked; it was pretty clear Octavia wanted more than that. And I'd certainly seen them kissing, though Octavia got very embarrassed over such things in public.

"Yeah, it's nothing serious," Lyra said.

"I think Octavia thinks it's serious."

"We both know how it goes," Lyra said sagely, ambling along beside me. She began playing her harp as we walked, a marching song from Darokin.

"The Ballad of the Far Sellers," I told her.

"Yeah! I have a cousin, works for the Darokin Diplomatic Corps. He gets to see EVERYTHING." Lyra had a dreamy look in her eyes.

I knew where this was going. I'm sorry, Octavia. I think you're in love with someone who has the wandering bug. I was like that for a long time, but I think... I may actually stick around here a good while.

Having roots felt weird, and I missed seeing Helga and Ivan. But Helga was married now and Ivan was off on some 'secret important thing'. Also, Princess Carnelia can't kill me here when I am under Princess Celestia's protection.

I hope.

"Well, you should make sure Octavia understands, so you don't end up finding out how hard an Earth pony can kick."

Really damn hard, that's how hard.

There was a sudden glimmering around us and sparkles of light flew through the air. It was Moondancer, one of the advanced bardic students. Like Twilight, she hadn't been satisfied with the basic degree, but had stayed on to do advanced studies. She sometimes does... something or another with Princess Celestia which is top secret but which she cannot resist bragging about obliquely. Moondancer had a white coat with a black mane and the crescent moon on her flank. Her mane, however, had star-like flecks of silver in it.

Moondancer was dancing to the Ballad of the Far Sellers, leaping around us; her magic makes her as nimble as an Earth Pony and seems to produce star dust and moonglow when she dances. That's what she says, anyway.

"Hello, Moondancer," I said to her.

"Hello, Professor Erik," she said. "Don't mind me, I was inspired by Lyra's performance."

Lyra grinned. "Come on, Professor, sing."

"I might drive you deaf," I warned them.

I know a fair number of songs. BADLY. But for some reason, my students want me to sing.

I guess everyone needs something to laugh at.

o/~ Another day, another city,

o/~ Another horizon beckons to me.

o/~ Though home calls to me,

o/~ I must leave it behind.

Lyra sang softly, but I doubt even Moondancer could hear it; I had to carry it.

Unfortunately, given Lyra's singing voice is maybe ten times better than mine. But for some reason, Lyra wanted me to lead.

Moondancer circled us as we walked along, me singing, Lyra playing and singing faintly, wrapping a haze of moonglow and stardust around us. Other ponies turned and looked at us and I felt somewhat embarrassed.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me

o/~ And I cannot be late.

Several of Moondancer's friends ran up and joined us now, dancing along with her, some of them singing as well, counter-point to my point, their high pitches to my low.

o/~ I've got twenty miles to go by twilight's gleaming.

o/~ Those distances can be deceiving.

o/~ The wheels go round and round,

o/~ Hauling me from town to town

Several of Lyra's friends joined us now, adding a flute, drums, and a violin to the mix. This song is usually played on the flute, violin, and drums, so this was perfect.

Suspiciously perfect. I smell a plot.

We reached the central plaza of the school with a fountain; classroom buildings ring it and beyond it are various dorms. Including the faculty building I live in. Tons of students were here, but now about half of them joined us to sing, dance, or play the chorus.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me

o/~ And I cannot be late.

Then Octavia came out with the rest of the Royal Orchestra (which is remarkably small, consisting of a harpist, a double-bassist, a piano player, and a tuba player). Now we had everyone singing and dancing.

Okay, Lyra DEFINITELY planned this.

The next part was more complicated; the men would sing a line and then the women would carry the secondary chorus.

o/~ Rockhome makes machines

o/~ Haul them to Equestria

o/~ Equestria delves for silver

o/~ Haul them to Karameikos

o/~ Karameikos weaves the woolens

o/~ Haul them to the Northern Reaches

o/~ The Northern Reaches plunder some gold

o/~ Haul them to Rockhome

o/~ And then the circle starts again!

I half-expected to see Celestia come out and join us, but instead, Twilight confronted us all.

"STOP!" she shouted and we all fell silent.

"This is a school! People cannot study if they are singing and dancing! If other people are so loud no one can hear themselves THINK." Twilight was quite passionate about this. "Erik, what are you doing? Why are you encouraging this?"

"It's a lesson," I said, throwing myself on the bomb. "This is a classic human song which teaches all about trade routes and products in a fun way." And now Lyra owes me.

Twilight looked utterly flummoxed. "I... well..."

"Anyway, to continue the lesson..."

"You'd better come study with us," Lyra said deadpan to Twilight. "Or you might get behind."

Twilight yelped and leaped over to us, licking her lips nervously. "I will do my best," she mumbled.

"Of course you will," I told her. She always does.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me

o/~ And I cannot be late.

There are ten more verses. Suffice it to say, we were dancing a long time. Spike joined us around the time the caravan reached Wendar; he'd put on a top hat and suit and had a cane and did his own dance routine, which everyone forced me to join him in. I'm not too comfortable dancing in public, though I can at least handle a formal dance. It's a great place for hitting on women.

But this kind of show routine, it's not my strength.

Twilight has a good singing voice for someone who says she hates to sing, I will note.

Finally, I fell down and Spike fell onto my stomach. I hardly felt it. "I am so tired."

Worse, the ponies were not tired, though they were kind of sweaty. Except for Twilight, who flopped down next to me.

"Erik, this lesson nearly killed me," she mumbled.

"Me too, but you'll never forget those trade routes now," I told her.

"And neither will I," Celestia said.

....

Twilight leaped to her feet, wobbled and had to be propped up by Lyra, who was grinning. Octavia now helped prop me up and Moondancer helped Spike. Mind you, we then all fell down when we tried to bow to Celestia.

She simply sat down by us, so everyone sat down. "My little ponies, it pleases me greatly to see you all so happy. Erik, I greatly enjoyed your lesson. I am glad to see so many happy students as well. And Twilight, my dear student, you performed very well. You too, Spike."

"I did my best," Twilight said, smiling goofily.

Spike said to the grass, "Thanks, your highness."

"It was everyone together," I said, trying to fake humility. I couldn't help but smile, though.

"Can you do the Saga of Ottar the Just?" Celestia asked. "It being a song of your homeland, I'm sure you must know it."

I am going to DIE. Ottar the Just was the founder of Vestland, overthrowing the tyrannical rule of the Ostlanders about three hundred and seventy-five years ago. The Saga of Ottar the Just is SIX HOURS LONG.

"We can do a selection from it," I said. "The full thing is so long, we'd all miss dinner and you would have to leave for the moon rise ceremony."

"Where are we starting, Erik?" Twilight whispered to me. "Maybe with his big speech to King Finnbogi's representatives?" Finnbogi, of course, was the King of Ostland who Ottar revolted against.

"Okay, I will be Ottar, Spike, I want you to be King Finnbogi's men, Twilight, you will be Inga, Lyra, you are the narrator.." I began assigning roles. Inga, as I'm sure you know, was Ottar's wife the rune-crafter. She it was who forged his mighty sword Rettsvesen and carved upon it the runes of justice, strength, and victory. Most of the ponies would be the chorus, but there were a lot of roles. Octavia began organizing the musicians more coherently. Moondancer got the dancers ready.

I do not actually know how I stayed functional; the second we stopped for Celestia to go to the moon raising ceremony (taking Moondancer with her), even the bardic students had to sit down and rest. I sprawled out under the sky as the stars began to come out. Twilight identified them all, one by one. Well, not all, but the major ones. This got harder and harder as more came out and by the end, she was panting for breath.

"Lyra," she said. "I need to collaborate with you on our project for a while."

I didn't know they had a project together.

"Sorry, Professor," Lyra said to me. "We have to go make out."

"WE ARE NOT MAKING OUT!" Twilight shouted and everyone looked at her.

Octavia just laughed and kissed Lyra, then rolled to her hooves. She got her double-bass. "We have to perform again in an hour, but it was worth it. See you later, dear."

"See ya, Octavia! You're still the prettiest pony in Canterlot," Lyra said with that winning smile of hers.

Octavia turned red, said something incoherent, then summoned her dignity. "Thank you, Lyra," she said, then her group headed out.

"Spike, wanna just lie here until we die?" I said to him.

"Sounds like a plan, Professor," he said.

"I'll make sure he gets to bed," I told Twilight. "At the usual time."

"I don't need to be tucked in! I am not a baby any more!" Spike shouted.

Yes, you are, Spike. But you're a good guy.

"He can only have three donuts or he will take forever to get to sleep, Erik," Twilight told me.

"I know," I told her. "I remember last week." He ate an entire box of donuts. He didn't fall asleep until dawn, then he was cranky for two days.

"Okay, see you later, Erik," Twilight said to me.

"See you later, Twilight," I said to her.

"Thanks, Prof," Lyra whispered to me, then cantered over to Twilight. "Come, fair Twilight, I will show you the wonders of the night life. We will make a song they will remember forever!" She swept her arms grandly.

Lyra is a GIANT ham who over does everything.

"We're just STUDYING," Twilight said urgently, glancing back at us.

"Have fun! I'll see you when I remember how to stand up!" I shouted.

When they were gone, Spike said, "It's nice having a guy to hang out with."

"Yeah, I know," I told him. Spike's kind of... dragons mature weirdly. Sometimes he's like a little kid and sometimes he is rather grown up. But he's fun to be around. "Any chance you could send a letter to have food delivered to us?"

"Best idea ever," he said.

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

"Please tell me I didn't zone out for too long," I said to Rarity.

Rarity started. "I'm sorry, I was having a flashback," she said, embarrassed. "I think. Well, I'm not sure what that was."

Pinkie was freaking out for some reason, bouncing upside down on her head, I think. "Why am I sensing singing and dancing when I can't hear or see any?" she said, agitated. "And why wasn't I invited?"

"No, Pinkie, WAIT," Ivan said.

Then Pinkie bounced onto a pit trap and fell in.

The rush of wind from Rainbow Dash in action threw us all against the walls, but she saved Pinkie from plummeting down into very hot water, a hundred and fifty feet down. Steam rose until Ivan closed and locked the trap.

I stared in surprise. She... has really good reaction time, I see.

Rainbow Dash was grinning.

"I'm sorry, I was... I'm not sure what it was but it had singing and dancing," Rarity said, sounding a little embarrassed and frustrated.

"I was remembering singing and dancing too," I confessed.

"Me too," Twilight said.

We all looked at each other.

"Well, I think there were multiple layers of trap," Ivan said. "The unicorns all get entranced, then walk right into the pit trap you were all headed for until Pinkie freaked out."

"It was strange, I was watching you and some... that must have been Erik," Rarity said. "He was blond, right?"

"Yes, it was the time we all performed part of the Saga of Ottar the Just for Celestia," Twilight said, eyes wide. "I was soo tired and Erik and Spike couldn't even move." She rubbed her forehead. "Did you see it all?"

I felt a little better knowing it was a trap and not creeping senility. Then WORSE, knowing that Rarity had seen... well, okay, she saw nothing to indicate that was ME.

"I saw it too," I said. "But I didn't see you, Rarity."

"I was watching from an upstairs window in... some building," Rarity said.

"I was on the east side; I think I was in a lab." I think that building had labs.

"Stupid trap, TRAP ME TOO NEXT TIME!" Pinkie said, shaking her fist at the wall. "I missed something cool!"

"That was Lyra as the narrator, right?" Rarity said.

"Yes," Twilight said. "She was dating Octavia at the time. I'm not sure what happened but shortly after I moved to Ponyville, she did too and I guess she and Octavia must have broken up as I see her with Bon-Bon all the time now."

Do not comment, I told myself.

Still, I suspect I know what Twilight's 'secret project' was.

Dammit.

Well, I can't change the past. And we have to focus or we'll fall in the next trap.

Ivan grabbed me. "Focus, Marcus! Unless you enjoy stepping into traps."

It was a dart trap this time.

I felt quite embarrassed.

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

Applejack sat on me, smirking just a little. "No hat for you, sugarcube."

"It's so pretty," I mumbled, hating myself for wanting it so much, especially when I have this very fine hat Rarity made me.

The fact that Pinkie was sitting on Rarity helped. "It would look so nice on my head," she mumbled.

"Eight traps," Ivan said to Twilight. "Three magical."

They began slowly disarming the traps. "I think the hat is magical," Twilight said to Ivan.

"Oooh, can it make cakes?" Pinkie asked.

"The magic's probably a trap," Applejack said.

"It's bait," Ivan said, cutting open the pillar it stood on with my magic sword. He paused and studied it. It was not curved at the end; I'd thought about that too. But I am pretty sure I... got this... somewhere... DAMMIT.

"Hey, Twilight, any chance this thing is shapeshifted?" he asked Twilight.

"Command it to show it's true form," she said.

It shimmered and turned into a blade with a curved end. I could feel a flashback trying to come on. Damn you, flashbacks, I won't let you take me!

"I promise you, I won't go for the hat if you let me up," Rarity said to Pinkie.

"Can't take that chance," Pinkie said.

She tried to telekinese Pinkie and failed.

"Marcus, are you about to hallucinate singing and dancing?" Pinkie asked me.

"Not if I can help it," I said, gritting my teeth. Damn you, flashbacks!

"It might help to remember whatever your brain is trying to tell ya," Applejack said. "Lying to yourself isn't healthy."

I felt something... scrying... a moving eye...

"Turn it back," I said hastily to Ivan, who did so. "I think Marquetta might sense it if it isn't disguised."

He did so but he continued to use it to disarm the traps.

"So you were Dimitri," Ivan said to me as he worked.

"I guess I was, though I don't know how that's possible." I sighed. "Maybe I am some kind of construct."

"It doesn't matter," Rarity said. "To be the work of someone's hands is a good thing, not a bad one. And you are a fine work of craftsmanship." Her voice was firm. "Pinkie, PLEASE let me up," she said, starting to whine. Pinkie's eyes crossed. "I am scuffing up my coat and you're wrinkling my hair and I can smell the cupcakes on your breath."

Pinkie's eyes crossed.

"Hold on," Applejack said. "Don't let her buck you."

"I can smell the concrete and... achoo!" Now she sneezed.

"It's granite, actually," Pinkie said. "As you might expect. I'm hoping for some obsidian."

"So does this thing have any special tricks?" Ivan asked Twilight.

"If it can disguise itself as a mundane weapon, it probably can only use its powers when fully revealed, which would at the very least, draw Minroth's attention," Twilight said. "Which might not be a bad thing."

"I think we might get Marquetta in our face and on our case if we did that," I said.

"I'm surprised Minroth hasn't gone looking for it by now," Twilight said.

"Maybe he has but he can't find it," I said. "So what does the hat do, Twilight?"

"Hat of Disguise," Twilight said. "Limited shapeshifting, changes your clothing if you have any. I could look like any pony, you could look like any human."

"You should give it to Marcus," Rarity said. "He could..."

"You should give it to Rarity; I have a fine hat she made me," I said. I wanted that hat SO MUCH, but I didn't want to insult Rarity by rejecting the hat she made me by hand even if... dammit.

Rarity smiled. "Thank you, Marcus."

"Only once it's safe," Twilight said; I could see her picking the weaves apart around the hat, faster than I could follow or hope to accomplish. I am jealous of her skills, I have to admit.

It's easy to see why Celestia has chosen her for eventual immortality. I suppose she'll do the one where you have to convince all the other mages near you to kiss your ass. Or if Celestia is up to the crazy shit I think she is... something no one's ever seen before.

The Hat was soon carefully removed and placed on Rarity's head. "You can let me up now, Pinkie," Rarity said.

"What? I'm sorry, I was suffering song and dance deprival. Since no one invited me to their flashback!" Pinkie said, pouting.

"Fine, you can come to my next flashback," Twilight said.

"YAY!"

Hug time now.

I helped Rarity up and we adjusted the hat. Then she turned herself into Applejack. She laughed. "This is fun." Then she became... a sort of high society version of Applejack. Elaborately curled and coiffed hair, a fancy light blue ballgown and everything. "I can use this to test out dress designs!," she squealed, delighted.

"I bet that's what evil Applejack looks like," Rainbow Dash mused.

"I wasn't evil, just a naive kid," Applejack mumbled.

"You used to look like that?" I said, surprised.

"Well, like that but younger," Applejack said. "I tried the high society thing but... it wasn't me." She sighed. "It wasn't all bad, but there was a lot of faking that I didn't enjoy and I don't know how Manehattanites avoid starvin' to death."

"Hmm..." Rarity said. POOF. She now looked like Celestia. "Hello, my little ponies."

Everyone laughed and bowed.

"I will have to thank Keraptis, this is absolutely smashing," Rarity said. Her eyes widened. "I can look clean and tidy even when I am not!" Bling, instant clean.

"You look great, Rarity," Spike said. "Do your gala dress."

Bling, instant fancy red dress. "Thank you, Spike, an excellent choice. Hah. Hahaha!" Rarity began laughing happily and I couldn't help but laugh.

I just hope it isn't some kind of trap.

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

"I do not need to be sat on," Twilight said, irritated, as several ponies loomed over her, ready for sitting.

It was, in fact, a library, full of books, some of which I would have wanted for myself if I was sure they weren't all traps. Ivan and I were carefully checking everything. Twilight was as well.

"Oooh, chess puzzles," Soarin' said, studying several books.

"You're into chess?" I asked.

"It's a lot of fun and I like chess puzzles, though I'm not great at them."

"Chess puzzles?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"Yes, they usually involve deducing how the board got to its current state with a set of clues to help you," he said. "It's a lot of fun."

Rainbow Dash looked dubious. Spitfire bobbed about nervously. Spike was studying the books. "Ahah!" he said, pointing to one bookcase. "This is the most important one."

It turned out to have books about boating, rivers, waterways, and the like. "I agree," Twilight said. "Good job, Spike."

Spike smiled brightly.

The library had no exits; we suspected you had to do something with the books, which now appeared to be safe.

Safe if we solve the puzzle, anyway.

"Maybe they need to be in alphabetical order," Pinkie said.

They were rather jumbled up. Keyfus' Age of Sail sat next to Reynauld's Study of Nithian Canoes next to Anabaxius' History of Fourth Century Trade next to the The Little Big Book of Pretty Boats.

Unfortunately, without any clues, it was unclear what to do. "The theme is river," I said. "So there has to be some kind of clue in that."

"Build a raft out of the books," Applejack joked.

Fluttershy studied the books and made a hesitant noise.

"What is it?" Rarity asked her.

"There are no books on river or sea animals or plants. Maybe they have to be filled in from elsewhere?" she said.

We found twenty; adding them got us an audible click. Twilight also sent us looking for other river/water/sea books of which we found twenty two. Click.

Putting them all in alphabetical order got us a click but left some gaps.

A bell now chimed. "FINALLY," Dawn Gleaming said. "Have fun with the wandering monsters!"

Oh bloody hell.

"Say what?" Applejack said.

"Oh, I've never heard a chime announce they were coming but dungeons often have roaming monsters which show up for no good reason," I told her. "I guess this one has a timer."

It was... a giant flying brain with a huge beak and many tentacles. Holding lighting wands. Along with two huge shambling piles of leaves, vines, swamp muck, and for some reason, lightning. "Marcus, Spike, I want you two to finish looking for suitable books and solve this puzzle. We'll deal with the monsters," Twilight said.

Spike and I began searching, while Applejack charged one of the muck monsters. Unfortunately, kicking it got her legs snared inside it and she began getting electrozapped.

The Wonderbolts went for the brain, battering it around and dodging lightning; books began getting zapped but they had it in hand.

Rainbow Dash studied the muck monsters, then zoomed down and began flying around the one that had Applejack, twisting and bending the air. Its lightning began to bend in on itself.

Twilight lit the other one on fire with my spell. Which she'd clearly learned by watching me. I was jealous again. However, the muck monster was soggy enough not to burn well.

Rarity said, "Find what holds it together, and I will shoot it," she said, calling up arrows.

Pinkie now slammed a pie into the face of the other muck monster. It bumbled into a bookcase, knocking it down, then she kicked another bookcase down onto it.

Applejack now got loose and copied Pinkie, laughing she did so. "Sorry, Twilight but need does what needs must!"

What?

Dash now dove into a pile of books and whipped them into a whirlwind, chewing up the muck monster which had hurt Applejack. Including a book I was reaching for.

"Wait!" I said as the book came apart, slicing off the muck monster's limbs.

"Hah! Yes! Now it's time for the BONUS ROUND," Dawn Gleaming said.

The floor vanished and we plummeted towards an inverse step pyramid. Basically a terraced pit descending down to a small space with a door at the bottom. Half the terraces were water tanks full of giant crabs.

Dash grabbed me. Spitfire grabbed Ivan. Soarin' saved Spike. Twilight teleported onto a dry terrace. Pinkie formed into a diving formation and simply plunged laughing into the water. Rarity plunged into a tank, yelling loudly. Fluttershy saved herself and now began flying down to the rest of us. The great brain flying thing flew down after us. The swamp monsters fell into one of the tanks and began having an electrical punchout with some of the giant crabs. Applejack landed on her feet on one of the solid terraces to my surprise. She wobbled a little but was fine.

I wouldn't... well, I won't object.

The flyers deposited Ivan, me, and Spike by Twilight, then took to the sky after the flying brain. I could hear Pinkie thrashing in one of the tanks. Rarity was thrashing in another one, several tiers up from my position. Lightning crackled in another tank as the crab vs. muck monster fight continued.

"Fluttershy, can you take me to Rarity?" I asked.

She flew me over, though I could tell she wasn't great at carrying anyone this heavy. Then she sang a quick song and we both plunged into the water, where Rarity was trying to hold her breath and speargun oncoming crab monsters. I held off one of the creatures while Fluttershy enchanted Rarity. Go druids!

Then we drove back the crabs and clambered out of the tank. Fluttershy was a very fluid swimmer, I noticed, moving very freely and comfortably.

A crab was trying to climb out of its tank and down to Twilight, but she zapped it with a lightning ball and it fell back in its tank. Applejack now jumped down to my level. "Get on," she said.

"I don't think you're big enough," I began.

"Just curl up real tight," Applejack said.

"It was not comfortable but she easily leaped over the next tank and down to Twilight's level. Rarity nearly fell in and Twilight had to drive off a crab.

We actually had to force Pinkie out of the tank where she was trying to teach the crabs to dance. The Wonderbolts and Dash downed the floating brain.

I could hear Keraptis say something.

"This thing had better take pony agility and strength into account when it's time for the other paths or they'll finish in five minutes!" Clarity said, frustrated.

"I'll make it four minutes flat!" Rainbow Dash said.

"Oh really? It's ON," Clarity said to her. "This is going to be the best DEATHTRAP EVER!" She began to laugh.

Rainbow Dash high-hoofed Soarin'. "We are going to NAIL the next one."

I studied the setup. This would have been a pain in the ass for heavily armored humans and the like to get around. But I think our foes or more likely Keraptis' control devices under-estimated us.

That won't happen twice.

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

I picked up the key and passed it to Twilight. Key number one, two to go. But it's now time for sleeping.

On a stone cold floor in a room close to evil crab tanks; those things click their claws for no reason ALL THE DAMN TIME.

We needed to sleep but were too wired yet to do so, so we basically set up our camp as best we could, posted Applejack, Ivan, and Soarin' as the first guards, then hung out and talked quietly. Rarity kept changing her outfit and accessories with the hat gleefully, with Spike egging her on. Twilight and I both read quietly, though my brain was surging.

"Hey, I'm sorry about your country," Applejack said softly to Ivan, thinking no one would hear.

I heard.

"Not your fault," he said. "I probably made it sound worse than it is, but it could be so much better. It's why I want to become an Immortal, to be a REAL patron to our land. I dunno what Halav, Petra, and Zirchev are doing now, but they left us to rot. I don't know if I can do it, but I have to try."

"What happens if you fail?" Applejack asked.

"Usually, you die trying. In which case, I am going to find Halav and punch him in the nuts," Ivan said.

"So what's Karameikos like this time of year?" Applejack asked. I could tell she was trying to cheer him up. I'll talk to him later.

I suddenly realized Rarity was watching me read for some reason. "How are you, Rarity?" I asked.

"Greatly enjoying myself, darling Marcus," she said with that wonderful voice of hers. "This hat is a marvel."

I smiled. "I know it is."

Twilight nudged me. "Go talk to Rarity," she said. "I'll hold down the book fort."

"You made me disassemble the book fort," Spike grumbled.

I laughed softly. "Was it mighty and strong?"

"It was awesome."

"It was made of all the books on farming, just when Applejack had to come get some," Twilight said. "Anyway, Spike, you can come help me."

"But..."

"Come help me," she said firmly and he grumbled and came over, though I noticed he soon was content with assisting her.

Rarity and I chatted about places we'd been and she told me about Ponyville and more about her family. It was a strangely... not the sort of thing I normally chat about in dungeons. But relaxing.

Then she stood up, which put her head above mine. She looked slightly frustrated, so I got on my knees, which put us roughly level, then looked at her quizzically. She looked around, then whispered in my ear, "What do you know about this Erik, who Twilight had a thing for? That was him in the flashback, right?"

"I don't know any more than you do," I lied. I lied SO MUCH. "Maybe less if you talked to Dona Carlotta, who I think was his girlfriend at some point."

"He cast her as his character's wife in the song," she whispered to me.

OH FUCK ME.

I just picked Twilight because Inga was about as close as a Northwoman gets to being Twilight. But since I was Ottar...

AND she already was thinking about the logistics of dating a human by that point.

Given Celestia's ancestry, she may well have been thinking 'let's see if Twilight falls in love with someone who will get her to go out and make some friends' when she introduced me to her.

"I couldn't figure out if that was deliberate or not," Rarity whispered to me.

ACCIDENT.

"Given he didn't plan that ahead of time, I have to assume that it was an accident, whatever he might have thought in his head," I whispered to her, feeling VERY nervous.

"I was also surprised to see Lyra was there, though I admit I don't know her well," Rarity said. "I knew she was into mares, as she's seeing Bon-Bon. Who you wouldn't know either."

"Some sort of candymaking pony?" I guessed.

"She's from the Province of Prance, yes," Rarity whispered, smiling a little. "She's a candymaker, but she makes her living as one of the ponies who maintains the town's plants," she continued. "Anyway, Lyra..." Rarity searched for words.

"Is very interested in humans?" I said.

"Not romantically... I think...," Rarity said very hesitantly, seeming quite nervous. "But in terms of... culture, history, how they move... Lyra actually uses chairs."

I fought the urge to laugh. "I suppose those benches were for sitting the way you were a minute ago?"

"Yes," she said. "But Lyra sits on them like a human." She was definitely nervous.

How exactly Lyra can do this, I don't know. Ponies don't have the right structure for it, really.

"I got the impression he taught about humans at the school," I told her. I prayed I sounded as calm and looked as calm as I think I do, as I was busy flipping out on the inside. "Which I guess is why he wrote a song about trade routes."

"He seemed far too comfortable with Ponies to run away though," Rarity whispered hesitantly to me. "If he didn't like her romantically, couldn't he have just turned her down? The fact that he ran away when she kissed him makes me think there must have been more to it." She looked thoughtful. "Though Twilight thinks he was afraid that Celestia would get angry and do something terrible to him."

That was among my reasons for fleeing like a screaming maniac, yes. Being drunk pretty much meant all my fears came out and once I had run, I was even more worried about being killed.

It seemed too late to turn back.

In retrospect, if Celestia had really wanted to catch me, I don't think I could have escaped. I'm not sure why she didn't stop me, but Canterlot is deep into Equestria. If she'd wanted a manhunt, I couldn't have made it out of the country.

Mind you, she may have thought I'd go get myself killed and that would be punishment enough. I've certainly... possibly died and reincarnated...

"What exactly did happen?" I asked. If I am not careful, I will show off I know too much.

"I don't know the details, but they got drunk for some reason and she more or less came onto him and he ran way," she said very softly.

I was totally blind and it came out of nowhere for me and I totally panicked. Magnified by being drunk myself.

"I don't think she's normally into humans, as I've seen her staring at stallions some times that she didn't think anyone would notice," Rarity continued.

I suppose from her point of view, though, I was pretty much exactly what she wanted except for being a human. I thought about her comment about how the four of us working on things together in the tent reminded her of being with her parents.

"Are there a lot of unmarried stallions your age in Ponyville?" I asked.

"No, there's a strong tendency for them to either get married and go into business or farming or else to leave town to seek their fortune elsewhere. There's a lot more mares our age than stallions," Rarity said. "And there's a definite dearth of the kind of intellectual I think Twilight wants, though it doesn't stop her finding some men physically attractive, I suspect." Her voice was oddly satisfied about that.

"I suppose Applejack or Big Macintosh will need to marry someone to carry on the family farm," I told her. "Or both. Who actually owns it?"

"Granny Smith owns it but Applejack is the heir," Rarity said, then sighed. "I tried setting up Fluttershy and Big Macintosh one time, but all they did was stare at each other, then Fluttershy panicked and ran away." She sighed dramatically, putting a hoof to her forehead, and I laughed gently.

"He's the shy type too?" I asked.

"Not so much shy as quiet. Uses the fewest words possible," Rarity said. "But he is kind and gentle like Fluttershy. And likes animals." She looked thoughtful. "I should have arranged a picnic, perhaps." She shook her head.

"Fluttershy strikes me as someone who would need a lively boyfriend," I told Rarity. "Like a male version of Rainbow Dash or Applejack. Who would pull her out of her shell. And whose most overactive tendencies she could moderate."

"So you think opposites attract?" Rarity asked me.

"You need common interests or else there is nothing once the physical rush wears off," I told her. "But I... well, I may be projecting."

"Project away," she said to me.

"My experience is that people who are very good at something are attractive and people also like those who have qualities they admire but don't have themselves. But that may just be me universalizing my own preferences," I told her.

Rarity smiled at that, looking pleased. "Flatterer," she said.

"I speak only the truth," I told her. "I'm surprised you don't have stallions all over you." I paused. "Figuratively speaking."

"Oh, I have a fair number of gentleman admirers," she said, smiling even more. I can tell she enjoys that. "I just..." She sighed, then stared at the ground.

"You don't have to talk about it," I whispered. I don't want to make her uncomfortable.

"It is a little too easy to become intoxicated by your own good looks," she said softly. "I very much had this dream of fairytale romance with a prince."

I thought about Dona Carlotta and I. "Doesn't everyone?" I told her softly.

She stared into my eyes. Then her gaze softened. "Well, you know enough to put the pieces together," she said, turning and studying my shoulder.

I scritched her behind the ears, hoping Ponies like it as much as dogs and cats do. Her happy noise made it clear this was so. "I understand," I told her. "Fairy tales gloss over all the difficulties and the realities of it all. Ivan would probably laugh at you, given what he said, but I won't. I would expect there are Pony princes less wretched than Blueblood, though."

"I've tried to focus on my work," she said, still talking to my shoulder, though she looked happier now.

I suddenly felt this death stare of doom. Like someone was trying to destroy my head with their eyes.

Hi, Spike.

I can tell Rarity likes Spike, but doesn't 'like' Spike, if you know what I mean.

My first crush didn't like me either, but at least Rarity is unlikely to soak Spike's underwear in poison ivy. There was a TON of it near where I grew...

Dammit, my brain is trying to tell me I used to be an Elf again.

Though if I was reincarnated from being Dmitri...

"Marcus?" she said softly, worried. Then she super-whispered, "Spitfire is staring at us for some reason."

She'd been eying me that other time, too. I don't get it.

Unless she suspects I am Erik, which is certainly possible and likely means my life will be very short.

"Probably just bored, since Soarin' is busy flirting with Rainbow Dash," I said softly to Rarity.

She nodded, then yawned. "I think I had better sleep."

"Me too," I told her, yawning.

She got us each a pillow and we laid down on the stone floor as best we could, then threw a blanket over us and tried to sleep, which wasn't easy as in the next room, several tanks worth of giant crabs kept clicking their claws ALL THE TIME.

But eventually, I passed out.

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

I awoke from dreams of Celestia riding on Rarity's father trying to find me to kill me, when I heard footsteps near me. Only Spike can make actual footsteps or Ivan, but I could see Applejack, Ivan, and Soarin' at the door, keeping watch with a light spell in a box. Basically, you aim the open top the way you want the light to go, namely the door.

Enough of it reflected that I could see Spike had a top hat and a cape and a suit on, and was stalking towards me, vampire style, cape in front of his face, revealing only his eyes. And his stylish hat. He had something hidden behind the cape, so I let him get close to me. He kneeled down and produced a glass of water.

...

Then he began to slowly drag my hand towards it, glancing at the guards, who were oblivious to him and looked bored out of their skulls.

Oh, THAT trick. I assumed he was going to throw water on my face or something.

I turned, curling up facing the other way, forcing him to circle me. Then I rolled over, so he had to circle me AGAIN.

Pinkie's tail began twitching in her sleep.

This time, I cast a little spell and yanked his hat. He stumbled over me and... he's heavier than I thought. I oofed as he knocked the air out of me. The cup went flying and landed on Pinkie, waking her up with a wet face.

She began laughing as she wiped her face, while Rarity now started awake. The rest of the group now turned around and Applejack said, "Spike, what in tarnation are you doing?"

Spike mumbled incoherently.

I helped him up. "Better watch out when you walk around in a dark room," I told him.

Spike mumbled incoherently again.

"Go to sleep, Spike," Twilight mumbled. "I can sing you a lullaby if you need one."

"I don't need a lullaby!" he said, storming back over to Twilight while Pinkie cheerfully washed her face.

"Thanks for including me!" she said cheerfully.

Then we all got back to sleep.

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

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