• 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 3: Princess Marjorie, I Presume?

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 3: Princess Marjorie, I Presume?

By John Biles

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


We had returned to the center section to start the third part of the dungeon. Etrusca was waiting for us. "Ready for the next riddle?"

"Ready," Twilight said.

"It's probably a hug from Marcus," Ivan said, amused.

I had to give him a manly whack for that. He just laughed.

"It's a coffin. No one wants to end up in one and the dead, of course, don't know they need it," Twilight said.

"You win," Etrusca said, then sighed. "You enjoy your trip. I'll sit here for the rest of my decades to go."

Fluttershy looked thoughtful, then went over to the century flower. She began to sing and the plant stirred.

But then nothing happened. Pinkie began providing musical backing.

And then Fluttershy's element flared to life and suddenly the plant flowered. "Go see your grandchildren," she said, smiling.

I jumped in surprise at the sudden burst of power, but seeing it was just a plant flowering, I managed to calm my fit of panic. I'd seen the Elements in action before, but this was a dungeon and anything here could kill you. Even nice things.

Etrusca stared, eyes wide. "You... thank you!"

Being hugged by a sphinx made Fluttershy very happy, though she also looked to be in danger of being squished.

Etrusca then said, "Thank you all! Enjoy the rest of the dungeon!"

I'll enjoy the treasure, anyway.

She took off and we headed off down the undefended hallway.

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

I patted Rarity's back. "Calm down, you'll make yourself sick," I told her.

We were headed down the tunnel into the third area, which I suspected would have wall to wall undead.

"I am fine," she insisted, but I could tell otherwise. It was kind of nice to have someone angry on my behalf, but anger leads to impulsive action which leads to PAIN and DEATH.

That being said, as the man who threw himself in front of rock monsters for her, I can't complain about impulsiveness.

"Wait, WHAT?" Dash said to Spitfire, who buried her face in her hooves. Then she glanced at me, eyes wide, then back at Spitfire.

If that's her telling Dash I was Erik, the whole world would soon know and then I will DIE HORRIBLY. Dammit, I do not need more things to...

Ivan stopped me. "Keep your foot in the air before you hit the trigger."

He and Rarity disarmed the pressure plate my foot was an inch above, and then we moved on; I determined to pay attention more. I have to make sure Rarity doesn't get hurt trying to keep me from getting hurt. I couldn't stand that.

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

The next trap was pretty slick. Basic pit trap goes off. Applejack, of course, easily dodged it, then jumped over it. Landing on ANOTHER pit trap and then she slid down a greased slide into a tank full of sharks.

Pinkie, of course, deliberately jumped in and not just to help Applejack, but because it was a greased slide. "WOOHOO!"

The floor turned transparent, so we could watch them. The Wonderbolts and Dash flew down and rioting ensued, water churning wildly. Fluttershy carefully flew down and began trying to ask the sharks to stop but they were apparently too mean to care.

Ivan and I wouldn't be much use, so we worked our way down the hallway, removing traps or disarming them. Twilight began using her power to grab sharks so her friends could slug them, while Rarity watched warily and worked with Ivan and I.

Finally, Fluttershy said, "Turn them upside down."

To my surprise, this knocked them out quickly. Dang.

We then helped them all clamber up, using ropes and telekinesis. Rainbow Dash soon dried everyone off. "That was easy," Dash said. "How does that work?"

"They can't get air if they are upside down as moving forces their gill slits shut," Fluttershy said. "And sharks have to always keep moving to breathe. Anyway, they should recover now."

I expect earth ponies on their own either wouldn't fall in if careful or could fight them all off enough to escape.

Maybe.

That's the thing about dungeons. You have a CHANCE, but it's not guaranteed. And sometimes requires you to more or less guess what the creator of it is thinking.

I'm kind of surprised the sharks weren't undead, really.

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

We moved through a series of twisty, bendy hallways which took us up and down ramps and around and around until our sense of direction was utterly gone.

Which is why Twilight carries a compass.

Things went slowly as she insisted on carefully mapping out the mess of hallways so we could return more easily. This meant, at times, having Ivan or myself lie down so we could be used as a measuring stick. Our hands got used a lot too.

Pinkie sighed. "This rock reminds me of Gummy. I hope he's okay."

Unless Gummy is an irregular ovoid of brown rock with flecks of silver, I am not sure how this works.

Maybe he is.

"I hope Opalescence is okay," Rarity said. "Given we took Ponyville's town vet with us."

"I'm sure Apple Bloom and her friends will make sure they get fed," Applejack said. "They won't get distracted." Everyone looked at her dubiously. "Okay, I can't lie. It's a good thing Winona can hunt her own food if she has to." She sighed. "Big Mac and Granny will take care of Winona, but he's got double work with me gone."

"You should hire a hand or two, darlin," Rarity said. "Until you or Big Mac or eventually Apple Bloom get married, you could really use some help."

"I got Snails handlin' the weeding," Applejack said a little stubbornly. "And Apple Bloom is supposed to help."

"Like when she tried to help turn the grain silo into an airship," Rarity pointed out.

"Sweetie Belle helped too, you know," Applejack said, sounding frustrated.

"I know some handsome fellows, they would be glad to help you out," Rarity continued.

"I don't need no boyfriend," Applejack said. "Not everyone thinks about romance."

"If someone in your family doesn't, the Apple family ends here with your generation," Rarity said flatly.

"We can argue over who gets bred together to produce the ultimate cosmic pony messiah later," Pinkie said. "Less talking, MORE MAPPING."

Rarity produces incredibly beautiful maps, but it takes forever, as she wants to put each room in a 3-d cutaway with all the details. Twilight finds this so great, she tends to encourage her.

As we slowly picked our way through, distantly, we heard, "Dammit, I know those ponies are around here somewhere. I can smell them!" The voices were rough and growly in tone.

"I know, but we just went round the same loop TWICE," another one growled.

"Dammit, we're supposed to be the wandering monsters, not THEM. Why can't they stand still so we can eat them?" a third complained.

I had to put my hand over my mouth not to laugh.

Twilight quickly wrote on paper, 'Let's hide and ambush. Dash, Soarin', you're designated bait.'

We tried to hide around corners; Pinkie put on her Boots of Spider-Pinkie and clung to the ceiling with Spitfire hidden next to her and Fluttershy lurking by her. Dash and Soarin' floated in the middle of a five-way intersection. "Oh, Dash, we're finally alone," Soarin' said, trying to be smooth. "We can do anything we want."

Rainbow Dash turned beet red. "Anything? Like... anything anything?"

"Anything you like," he said. "Even upside down."

"You wouldn't rather I was a pie, right?" she said, then clearly wanted to die.

"You're much better than pie," he said, "Fair lady Rainbow Dash." He took her hoof and kissed it. "Your beautiful hair... reminds me of the dawn. Your skin is... the sky on a fair spring morning."

Holy shit, he CAN be smooth. He...

Then I noticed Twilight had out her copy of _Tales of Forbidden Pony Love_ and was concentrating, horn glowing, hoof moving along the page and at times jumping around.

...

Dash was blushing furiously, and she tried to speak and it just came out squeaky.

"When you soar across the sky, there is nothing more I want than... to see you fly forever, to fly with you..." His voice wobbled, then became more smooth. Something about how he was hovering...

I could hear our foes creeping closer but my hearing wasn't good enough to tell exactly how many. I got ready to throw lightning balls or fire, depending on what these are.

PLEASE BE HURT BY LIGHTNING OR FIRE.

Rainbow Dash looked overwhelmed, and then I realized, she's about to RUN. No, don't run! You'll run RIGHT INTO OUR FOES. I just know it.

"Rarity, she's about to panic and run," I whispered.

Rarity had this goofy smile that surprised me and didn't even reply.

...

Then he kissed her and her hair tried to explode and then she grabbed him and then...

Down three tunnels, six half-man, half-wolf creatures armed with golden blades erupted into sight. They howled and I felt my blood chill. The urge to run for my life was very strong. I'd seen this really good place to hide a ways back.

But then Rarity fired a silver arrow at one of them, hitting him in the hand so he dropped his blade, and Twilight hurled lightning and Pinkie hit one of them in the face with a pie and Applejack and Ivan flanked one of them and began battering him and Rainbow Dash and Soarin' each back kicked one, then released the kiss and CHARGED, sending foes flying, even as Spitfire came down on them.

One of them rushed at us, howling and I moved to block him and guard Rarity, cursing my legs for moving me there, and we clashed sword against sword. He slowly pushed me back with his superior strength, until Ivan suddenly came up behind him and stabbed him in the back. Unfortunately, the wound immediately began to close up to Ivan's frustration. Applejack's magical horseshoes, on the other hand, left their mark on every foe.

"We need to get you a magic weapon," I told him.

"One that I can hold onto, yeah," he said, frustrated. Then he got slammed down by the werewolf, but now I stabbed it in the back and Rarity shot it in the leg. It fled, bleeding and she recovered her arrow.

I helped Ivan back up. "I hope you didn't get cut," I told him.

"I think Fluttershy should be able to treat it in time," he said nervously.

I hope so, as the last thing we need is Ivan going mad and trying to eat us in the middle of the night.

I suddenly wondered if Princess Luna sets off lycanthropes. That could get awkward.

The werewolves finally fled after some more beating and Fluttershy carefully treated us all; you can get infected if a werewolf hurts you, though the swords, hopefully, would not convey it.

We took the three they dropped; they looked valuable and weren't on the dragon's treasure list, thankfully. Then we headed on.

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

We finally got out of the maze, but the next room made me very nervous. It was rough and irregular in shape with a series of hexagonal platforms hanging down on huge chains from the ceiling, over bubbling boiling hot mud, twenty feet down. You clearly had to jump from platform to platform in order to get across, while not falling in the boiling mud.

"Hah, this one is easy. If you're a PEGASUS," Rainbow Dash said, grinning.

Too easy. "Be careful."

"I'll just..."

Spitfire looked at her.

"Wait quietly for orders," Dash grumbled, then looked at Soarin' and got googly eyed. "Hahaha."

"What are you thinking?" Twilight asked me.

"If this is the Earth Pony route, I'd expect them to make it hard to just fly past things," I told her.

"The Unicorn route didn't," Twilight said thoughtfully.

"It will," Applejack said. "Assuming evil-me had a race with evil-Dash like I did, and that evil-Dash cheats as much or more as the real one..."

"HEY! You started cheating too!," Rainbow Dash protested.

"No cheating," Not-Applejack said with a remarkably... elegant... voice. "A lady does not cheat or break the rules and though my evil twin is a churlish boor, I know she plays by the rules."

Rarity made a happy sigh. "You sound quite delightful. What is your name, madam?"

"I am Apple Blossom, the Element of Elegance," she said with a voice like silk.

Applejack's mouth was wide open.

So was mine. ELEGANCE? Okay, I like Elegance, but you'd expect... what? Then I remembered what she'd told me... this version of her must have stuck it out and become a true Manehattanite lady of sophistication.

"What kind of POWER is Elegance, anyway?" Applejack said, still kind of stunned.

"Marcus darling, would you be kind enough to explain to Applejack, in words of one or two syllables?" Apple Blossom said sweetly.

Rarity snickered and Applejack glared at her.

"Is it Elegance specifically, or the whole complex of behaviors and wealth which gives the upper crust of society power?" I asked Apple Blossom.

"The latter, but I think Elegance is a more beautiful way to put it, and I appreciate beauty, unlike my poor hick clone."

"I am not a HICK! I take care of my family and live NATURALLY," Applejack said angrily. "And don't talk all frou-frou like you! You're living a lie!"

"You simply had no patience and no persistence You hit the slightest obstacles and gave up on your dream. I held to mine and grew into it as time passed. The lie is what you told yourself to convince yourself it was acceptable to give up," Apple Blossom said. "If you were real, anyway. As it stands, you just have implanted memories, sad shadow of me." She sounded very pitying. Then we heard drinking noises. "Glantrian peach wine. Not quite as good as what we make at home but you can't take your best wines to a dungeon."

"I agree completely," Pinkamena said with a Prance accent. "Ze smell of dung and sulfur and mud would ruin ze fine bouquet of your orange brandies. In zat case, zere is no point to opening them in the first place."

"I agree, Madam LeFlour," Apple Blossom said. "Still, if you all make it across this alive, there are two bottles of fine peach wine waiting for you, and glasses. Try not to break them, Applejack, they're expensive."

"I ain't no clumsy filly no more! I ain't spilled wine on myself in YEARS," Applejack said angrily.

"She's trying to rile you so you screw up," I said softly to Applejack. "Don't let her play you."

"You spilled wine on yourself? AHAHAHA!" Rainbow Dash began laughing.

DAMMIT, DASH.

"Be nice," Fluttershy said, then stepped back a step. "If you don't mind."

"I'll show you I can do this!" Applejack said. "And I don't need no damned Elegance to do it!"

"No, wait!" I said.

Too late, Applejack leaped onto the first platform, which swung forward, then onto the next. But soon they were crashing into each other and further, the platforms LEANED when you landed on them, so you started to slide off them. Applejack was crazily good enough to keep leaping around but now she was stuck and had to keep running to avoid falling.

"Spitfire, get under the one she's on, Dash, you and I will stabilize the chain," Soarin' said, and they took off together.

"I believe I said there would be no flying. You had fair warning," Apple Blossom said, then sipped more wine.

Huge spouts of boiling hot mud erupted up, forcing the flying ponies back; they were good enough to dodge it but had to retreat.

Spike now curiously held his hand out over the mud, looking thoughtful. It jetted up and hit his hand but he resisted it and then wiped his hand off. "I can take the heat." He began studying the situation.

"I'm fine! I can do this!" Applejack said, jumping again. "I can beat any test of athletics!"

"I'm surprised you didn't have a test of elegance," Rarity said hopefully.

"The machine does not allow no-win scenarios; there must always be a sliver of hope and Applejack would have no hope there," Appleblossom said, then sipped her wine again. "And it would be unlady-like and gauche to hit someone on their weakest point. Besides intelligence, anyway."

"I HEARD THAT!"

The clanging of the platforms was enough to make me nearly go crazy. I could tell Twilight found it hard to think and Ivan was covering his ears and studying the situation. He looked pretty pissed off.

Pinkie was studying the chains thoughtfully, while the Pegasi all looked frustrated, except for Fluttershy, who was studying the moss and fungi growing on the walls. Rarity kept studying the mud as if it might rise up and render her tainted forever.

"Applejack," Ivan shouted. "Buck the chains! This is just another herd, made of metal! Pinkie, if both of you are on the same platform, you can level it out."

Applejack got a grim smile on her face and now began kicking chains as she leaped around, beginning to impose order on the cacophony and chaos around her. Pinkie leaped out to join her, Spider-Pinkie boots deployed, and they worked on herding the platforms.

"I see your common attunement to foul-smelling farm animals enabled you to help her," Not-Ivan said. He had a bit of a Thyatian accent, which surprised me.

"Would you like some wine, my dear friend Niccolo?" Apple Blossom said gracefully.

"Niccolo?" I said in disbelief. That's a Caurenzian name. They're basically 'budget Thyatis' up in Glantri. Also, MORE crazy.

"Niccolo Aurelianus, at your service, 'Marcus'," he said, making my name wobble in his mouth. You could hear the quote marks. "Baron Niccolo Aurelianus to be precise."

Ivan stared like the world was now ENDING and he had to watch.

"Baron?" I said. Then I remembered the ship.

I wonder if 'Sammy' is a Count.

"Of Novgorod," Niccolo said. "Grand Duke Stefan is always willing to reward service to the realm." I heard an oddly liquid noise, then the sound of him drinking. "As always, your concoctions are superb, my fair lady Apple Blossom."

"Tres magnifique," Pinkamena said with the fake Prance accent. Or maybe it's meant to be New Averoignean. They're similar.

"And you became a Thyatian how?" I asked.

"I think you know all about that," Niccolo said.

FUCK ME.

TRIPLE FUCK ME.

Rarity now looked very thoughtful. Oh bloody hell.

"You can tell me," Spike said, frowning.

Was Twilight listening? She seemed to be watching Applejack carefully, but surely she's not deaf.

"Blood doesn't matter," Niccolo said. "Each person makes themself, whoever their ancestors were. What matters is who you choose to be and what you do with what you have." His voice was smooth and confident; he was clearly a man who had made himself into what he wanted to be and knew what that was. I had to envy him a little. I've remade myself a thousand times, it seems but it never sticks. And it doesn't... I have to always live in fear of being found out. Or those times I don't, it all blows up.

Twilight's breath caught. She's listening. And I remember it too.

"Precisely," Apple Blossom said. There was a bit of an odd liquid noise, then she said, "We looked in the mirror and saw we could be something better and made it so. You both looked in the mirror and ran away. Which is why you're sweating in a room full of boiling mud and we're enjoying mixed drinks and sitting in comfort, enjoying the fruits of our labor."

Ivan looked ready to choke someone. "Because you're parasites! You make me SICK!"

"We are high society. What you think of us does not matter," Pinkamena said with an effort at a deep male voice. There was just a trace of a Prance accent. "It is what we think of you which will shape your reputation and influence. Not that you have any, Ivan, son of Pieter. No one will remember your name." 'He' sounded sad, really.

"We'll remember," Pinkie shouted as she worked on helping Applejack to herd everything. "And I'll tell everyone else and they'll remember! Who cares if some rich snobs remember? They're all stick-in-the muds who wouldn't know fun if it BIT them. Come help us, Ivan! They're not worth it."

I'm not sure what exactly Ivan can do to help them, but he ran and joined them, leaping chain to chain at Applejack's command.

"True elegance exalts, it does not tear down," Rarity said firmly. "You should not look down on others if..."

"You hardly have any right to say that and you know it," Apple Blossom said and took another sip of her wine. "You think the same about Applejack as I do, and you've said it."

Rarity looked rather uncomfortable.

"Don't let her rile you," I said softly to Rarity, hands on her back.

"Perhaps I have," Rarity said softly. "But I can apologize and I know you will not." She now turned and went to try to help Applejack out, though Ivan was soon having to try to keep her from falling in.

So I went to help as well, and so did the pegasi, jumping instead of flying. Eventually, we calmed the swinging platforms and got everyone across.

Despite my irritation with them, I took the wine and passed it to Applejack. "You earned this."

"I am a mite curious," she confessed. "I was too young for alcohol when I was in Manehattan but some of the drinks sounded interesting." She sighed. "I'm glad I didn't grow up and turn into that."

Rarity gently nuzzled Applejack. "I hope I don't make you feel like that," she said. "I am very disappointed in their bad manners."

"Manners ain't about what kind of straw you use or how you do your hair, it's about takin' care of your own and being honest with yourself and others," Applejack said to her. She smiled at Rarity. "We fight sometimes, but you ain't like that. C'mon, we've got to finish this path so we can get the dragon's treasure and get our peace treaty, so we can head back home before Big Mac dies of overwork."

"Agreed," Rarity said, then looked at the hot mud and sighed. "Not a proper mud bath at..." Then she looked at herself. "I am utterly filthy." She sighed. "I could hide it but I would just FEEL filthy."

They all were, hot mud was wafting up in the steam and had stuck to them. To all of us. Ugh, I am going to feel nasty forever now.

Forever!

"Well, we have to press on," Twilight said. "Sorry, Rarity."

"Sometimes, a lady must get a little dirty," Rarity said. "I wonder who these other people with them are, though."

...

"It's Pinkie doing voices," I said. "Evil Pinkie."

"From some game she plays sometimes," Rainbow Dash said. "Damn that Rocky punk."

"You wanna piece of me?" Pinkamena said with a deeper voice and a Bucklynn accent.

Pinkie looked embarrassed for a moment, then said, "I think someone's been playing the game so long she can't stop," she whispered.

"As if you can," Pinkamena said in her normal voice.

Pinkie winced, but then she looked determined. Then her eyes widened. "Ooh, I bet I'll have to make a rock monster laugh or something next! Come on, I want to see what I'm going to do!"

As if she was 'discovering' it. But I laughed. "Let's go!"

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

I stared at the slope. UGH. It was like climbing a mountain INSIDE a mountain. The slope went up into steamy mists which did not look fun either. Further, I could hear movement inside the fog.

"Man, I wish I hadn't lost my climbing gear," Ivan said, then sighed.

"We'll have enough after this to restock," I said.

Twilight looked thoughtful. "Describe it to me."

He listed off his equipment and then she closed her eyes, horn glowing, sweat running down her brow. And then suddenly...

BEAR.

A huge bear appeared, rearing over Ivan and myself and Twilight, with dark black fur with streaks of blue, and with huge claws.

"Climbing gear, not climbing BEAR," Rainbow Dash said, laughing.

"Wait!" Fluttershy said and interposed herself between the bear and Ivan, though she looked scared. But then she collected herself and talked gently to the bear, which now agreed to let Ivan ride it, in return for Pinkie's three jars of honey. Pinkie waved goodbye to the honey sadly, then found a shiny rock and forgot the honey ever existed. "So shiney!"

Twilight looked at me.

"I think it best not to press our luck," I told her. "If I borrow some of Applejack's rope, I can rig something up."

In fact, Applejack was kind enough to let me rig a halter on her and basically secure myself to her with it. She'd help pull me and I'd pull myself as much as I could. "Thanks, Applejack."

"Hey," she said softly. "You were right to worry about Dash earlier. And everything. I guess you have good instincts for this kind of place."

"I know dungeons like you know apples," I told her. "I suppose if humans had cutie marks, I'd have a trap on my leg."

She laughed. "But then you'd have to go naked for us to see it."

"Yeah," I told her. "Okay, I'm ready."

Slowly, we picked our way up the slope. It was very tiring, though Pinkie, Applejack, Dash, and the Wonderbolts had no trouble with it, even on foot.

So we kept going, sweat pouring down us; it got hotter and muggier as we rose. I could not have done it without Applejack. At least not without a lot of stopping.

Once we were halfway up, Fluttershy flopped over. "Tired," she squeaked.

"Okay, five minute break," Applejack said. She'd taken the lead on this.

Twilight stumbled over to me. "So tired."

"Me too," I said to her.

Ivan, to my surprise, was doing stretches next to his bear, which was busy eating up the honey.

"You need more exercise, girl. You can't always book-learn your way through it," Applejack said, though she was breathing a little hard herself.

"I know," Twilight said. "I just have too much to do."

"OOOOOKKKK!!!!" something shouted in the mist. Then barrels began rolling down the slope at us.

...

Twilight fired a lightning barrage, and half of them blew up, then blew up again.

...

We all began dodging wildly and blasting at barrels with fire and arrows and apples and rocks and pies and really, just about anything. When something hit them, they exploded. The ooking noises continued. Stupid gorillas.

"I have a plan," Spike said. "I ride at the front of our group; any barrels that come our way, I mail them to our evil twins. Keep tight behind me and we press up."

"Good idea, Spike, but won't it wear you out?" Twilight asked.

"I can nap in your saddlebags," he said.

Ivan mounted his bear. "Let's go!"

With Spike clearing the way for us with gouts of flame, we rushed up the mountain and into the mists, which Fluttershy parted with a song. Go druids!

Gorillas. Dozens of angry gorillas and a huge stock of barrels.

"LIGHTNING STORM!" Twilight shouted and blasted them and that set off the rest and now there were howling gorillas raining from the sky and the mountainside shook.

Dash, Spitfire, and Soarin' took to the air, whipping up winds to toss the gorillas aside to tumble down the mountainside, then realized they'd broken the rules. But apparently, our foes were too busy snarking or something, and nothing happened.

Until we were nearly at the top; we could see the cave to go into.

And then a purple worm erupted from it. He was huge, maybe twenty feet across and dozens of feet long and he basically swallowed Dash, Spitfire and Soarin' in one gulp, then tried to tunnel away. Applejack lassoed his tail end and Pinkie hitched herself to it, preventing him tunneling back into the rock. Fluttershy tried talking to him but he didn't seem to care.

"The wine! Throw it down to them and Spitfire can use it to augment her trick," Twilight said, looking satisfied.

The wine went down its gullet, then smoke poured out and it now coughed them up and fled.

We now stumbled into the cave for a rest.

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

It was impossible to get Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire fully clean, though they rolled around on the walls and Rarity sacrificed some cloth to wipe them up. We all had an apple for a snack and eventually managed to muster the energy to rise and continue. Spike was now napping inside Twilight's saddlebags.

Filthy and bedraggled as we were. We emerged into a great bowl, open to the sky. It couldn't be the main caldera or maybe something extradimensional was going on. But there was a huge cool lake of water and on the other side, the exit back into the mountain.

Fluttershy talked to the fish. "They say it's safe, just don't eat their plankton."

No danger of that. We all plunged gratefully into the water to swim.

And swim and swim and swim.

By halfway, the earth ponies were fine, the pegasi were getting by, but the rest of us were exhausted, though Ivan was doing better than I would have thought.

I wanted to sleep forever, but I pressed on, Rarity swimming alongside me.

"I wish I had my diving gear," Applejack said. "It looks interesting down there."

"We're on a time budget," Twilight said.

"What if some of the dragon's treasure is hidden down there?" Dash asked.

"I can let us breath water," Fluttershy said. She smiled brightly. "It helps me visit my fishy friends."

She cast the spell and we dove down and began searching underwater. Eventually, Rarity spotted a gold coin and then some silver and soon we found a patch of earth which had been recently disturbed. Applejack and Pinkie easily dug up THREE chests of treasure. Oh yeah, Dash, you are the best pony!

As we loaded them into saddlebags, the sharks came back for round two.

In freshwater?

Unfortunately for the sharks, the Wonderbolts and Dash are quite mobile in water, and while we all got more tired, it was not too hard to incapacitate this group as well. We climbed out of the water and flopped down, exhausted, on the far shore of the lake and by a group decision, took a group nap.

A decision which consisted of lying there until we fell asleep.

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

In our sleep, someone installed a nice wooden platform overlooking the lake and three nice soft chairs with attached fishing rods, so you could sit and fish in comfort.

"Why three if only two of us can sit?" Spitfire asked.

"Ivan has enough potion we could all sit!" Pinkie said. "Or we could turn into monkeys, then sit. Hmm... I wonder if I would still have a pink bottom?"

...

"Much as I'd like more fish, it's probably a trap," Ivan said. "I'm too tired to fish."

THAT is tired.

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

Eventually, we got our butts in motion into the cave, heading downwards gradually. Slowly, it got cooler, which helped and we were a little less filthy from the lake, though I would have liked a full bath. But not an option yet.

I had this horrible feeling we were going to have to schmooze someone while utterly filthy and disgusting.

We stopped in a cave of fungus for lunch, and Rarity, Spike, Twilight, and I ran inventory on the treasure from the lake floor. ALL OF IT belonged to the dragon. If we hadn't gone looking for it, we couldn't have returned it.

"Dash, how did you think to look?" I asked her.

"Just a gut hunch," she said.

"Did your gut wiggle or squiggle?" Pinkie asked.

"We are not going to start looking for twitches in my gut," Dash said flatly.

"But it worked," Pinkie said.

"Yes, but only I can feel my gut anyway," Dash said. "Also, what the hell is going on with Pinkamena and her voices and your game thing?"

Pinkie said, "Pie," and got out a pie and stuffed it all in her mouth.

"Come on, Pinkie, we need to know," I told her.

She licked her lips nervously. "When I was a kid, I didn't have any friends, just my sisters. Sometimes, I'd make up friends to play with. When I get lonely, they come back." She licked her lips nervously. "I don't know if Pinkamena's ever left."

"So it's just ventriloquism," I said.

"And puppetting," Pinkie said, embarrassed. "It's just..."

"She's good with people, though," I said. "I wouldn't think she'd need the imaginary friends."

"She uses them to help her move people," Rarity said, startling me. She'd been busy eating and I'd forgotten she was there. "Like the way 'Rocky' can make Dash get angry."

"He's a CHUMP," Dash said, then slapped her forehead. "Aaargh!"

"Rocky is a teamster from Bucklynn," Pinkie said. "Mr. Turnip sells cabbages city to city."

Why cabbages?

"Madam LeFlour is from Mareis in Prance and she's a high society lady. Sir Lintsalot is a warpony and minor noble from Prance. He has pledged to defend all women," she continued.

Pinkie rambled on; her imaginary friends had long detailed histories, and an idea hit me. "You should write a book, Pinkie."

"Me?" she said, stunned by the idea.

"It could star your imaginary friends and then they'd be busy and happy with promoting themselves and making new friends every time someone reads about them." Rule one, find out how people think.

"Oh that would be wonderful for them. They're good people but don't make friends easily," Pinkie said.

Rarity blinked.

Dash buried her face in her hooves.

"I'm sure Twilight can help you with getting it published," I told her. I know Darokin sells printing presses to Equestria and they probably make their own but I don't know how the printing business is organized. But Twilight either knows or can easily find out. "It would make a great birthday present for Twilight too, if you can get it written in time."

Pinkie squealed happily. I smiled. Favor, curried, check. Info useful for dealing with Pinkamena, check. Now to eat and let my brain begin brewing.

I feel the first throes of a plan coming on.

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

"You sure that's wise?" Dash asked me once we got going again.

"Maybe," I told her. "Some people write stories so the story will get out of their head and onto the paper. If nothing else, she'll make some bits off it which she can use to throw better parties."

Dash looked at Spitfire, who was upfront with Ivan. "She's a bit of a hardcase, you know."

"I know," I said. "But the Wonderbolts need hardcases too. People who make sure things get done. It's why they're so effective."

"I..." She paused. "You weren't telling Soarin' what to say, right? 'Cause it was kind of the way you talk."

"I promise it wasn't me, though I would have done it if he asked." I put my hand over my heart. "He's a good guy and really likes you. He's just not smooth like I am."

"I'd rather it be his own words, but the smooth language... he thinks I'm beautiful." Her eyes glazed over and she flew gently into the wall. "Oww."

"It's a man's duty to make his woman feel special," I told her. "If you love someone, you use every tool you have to make sure they know how your heart sings when you are with them, how you catch your breath when they walk by, how touching them makes you feel all shivery inside."

Dash was red and shivering a bit herself. "You really are a smooth talker." She paused. "So it wasn't you."

"It wasn't me," I told her. "I swear I am telling the truth. I'd confess if it was me."

"But no one else in this group is smooth like that. I guess Rarity is but she's... elegant instead of poetic." Dash frowned. "Is that right?"

"I'm sure she could be poetic," I told Dash as we still tromped along, slowly descending. Thankfully, there were few traps so far on the downhill run.

Dash nodded, then looked a little nervous. "You're not trying to romance Twilight, right?"

...

"Does Spitfire think that?" I asked.

"I... no, of course not," Dash said frantically.

So yes, she does.

"I am not trying to romance Twilight," I told her. If she was human... though there is the whole possibility of shapeshifting...

But I'd have to tell her the truth and then I would DIE.

"I... umm..." Dash laughed nervously. "You had many girlfriends?"

"Yes," I told her. "Some of them want me dead, some of them... well, family and other things got in the way. Anyway, I hope you and Soarin' will be happy together. Good luck."

"Thanks. That's pretty big of you," she said.

Because you think I have a crush on you.

My brain suddenly clicked. Spitfire must have thought I was trying to chase Dash AND Twilight at the same time. Ahah! Well, this should relieve her fears.

Which reminded me of something. "Dash..." I made a 'come hither' gesture.

Dash hovered close to my head. "What's up?"

"At some point, there will almost certainly be a fake Erik who will try to take advantage of Twilight but will actually be a doppleganger or incubus or some other horrible thing. We have to be ready to stop it."

"What if it's the real thing?" Dash said.

"If we beat up the real Erik, we can apologize. I'm sure he'll understand why we did it."

I hope there's not a Dona Carlotta. I don't want to play the fool but I probably would.

Which means we'll probably find 'Erik' and 'Dona Carlotta' busy making out or something.

Then Twilight and I will rush forward and die together.

Dammit.

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

We now came round several bends and reached a bridge over a chasm. A single pony in full plate armor with lance rig, stood on the bridge, wearing livery which was golden with a black lance on it. You couldn't be sure if it was male or female, and it spoke with a hollow, echoing voice. "I am the Black Knight. One of your number must joust with me if you are to pass."

"Oh come on, this kind of thing has been old-hat in Equestria since hundreds of years ago!" Applejack protested.

"Nonetheless, none shall pass until one of your number defeats me," he said. "Whoever I defeat will become my servant."

"We don't even have any lances," I said.

"You certainly do not by pony standards," the Black Knight said.

...

Ivan began laughing, even though he's human too.

Most of the ponies just looked confused, but Soarin' and Rainbow Dash both began laughing hysterically and Rarity and Twilight both looked at each other's heads... oh, horn, right.

"Do any of us know how to build a lance rig?" I asked.

"I could do it if I had a hammer and nails and wood and everything," Applejack said, frowning. "Ain't exactly fair with him being all armored up."

"Well, if we had an actual LANCE, we could enlarge someone and Marcus or I could ride them and carry the lance," Ivan said.

I really do not want to face a warpony when wearing leather armor. REALLY. I shivered at the thought.

"Maybe the potion could turn one of us into a lance," Pinkie said.

"It can only make you into something alive," I said. "Unless it's a lot more potent than normal ones."

"What exactly are the terms of this joust?" Rarity asked the Black Knight. "How do you win?"

"We joust on the bridge. Whoever falls off the bridge loses."

"How exactly does the loser survive to serve the winner?" I asked, looking down into the chasm, which plunged into steaming mist.

"The..." The Black Knight paused and looked down into the chasm.

"I can catch the loser," Dash said.

Dammit, Dash, I was going to try and maneuver him into some other kind of contest!

The Black Knight relaxed a little.

"Enlarge this," Rarity said determinedly to Twilight, presenting an arrow to her.

"Wait, you're going to joust him?" I said in surprise.

"I am going to equip Applejack, since she's our best pony for this," Rarity said.

Twilight enlarged the arrow to the size of a lance.

Rarity then took Applejack off around the corner and a lot of clanking noises ensued. When they returned, Applejack was clad in a suit of plate armor which she moved awkwardly in, complete with lance rig.

Where did Rarity get a suit of plate armor? Surely she doesn't carry material to make plate armor. Then again, those saddlebags can hold a LOT of stuff.

It suddenly struck me that you could set up a really nice little bedroom inside one of those things, for camping on the road.

I'll stash that idea for later, I thought.

The Black Knight saluted her, and she saluted back, then they both pawed the ground. I shifted back and forth nervously on my feet. I don't know what we'll do if Applejack fails, though if any of us can take down a warpony in a joust, it's her.

Then it hit me. Rarity wasn't wearing her hat. THAT was where the armor came from. But would it be good enough for a real fight?

It even had Applejack's cutie mark inscribed on the flanks with cut crystal. Nice.

I really hope that armor can take it, or Applejack is going to get badly hurt. And I can tell she knows it but is trying not to show it. I'm pretty good at reading people, though ponies are harder, because only some of their body language is the same. Thankfully, they tend to have fairly human facial expressions. But I can see the tension in how she is moving.

"Everyone sing!" Pinkie shouted.

o/~ Applejack the Fair stood bravely before the Black Knight.

o/~ Applejack the Fair knew it was time for a fight!

o/~ She would strive with all of her might!

o/~ For in her heart, she knew her cause was right!

We all tried to sing along; given Pinkie was making this up as she went along... it wasn't easy.

Applejack pawed the ground, but she seemed to draw strength from our show of support. "You'd better keep your promise," she said to the Black Knight.

"I always keep my promises," he said. Or she. It was hard to tell.

Pinkie suddenly faltered in her song. She stared at him intently. "Show your face."

"I never take off my helmet when battle is immanent," he said firmly.

"Are you Sir Lintsalot?" Pinkie asked, hand on her hips.

Rainbow Dash made a strangled noise and I said, "Isn't he someone you made up?"

"Just because I made him up doesn't mean he's not real," Pinkie said patiently.

...

"Yes, it is, the brave Sir Lintsalot. I've come to save you from those horrible ponies who mistreat you, Pinkie," he said boldly.

...

"You look so dashing in your armor," Pinkie said, smiling.

"Thank you, Pinkie," Sir Lintsalot said boldly.

"So... there's nothing but lint inside that armor," Dash said hesitantly.

What? Okay, the name is connected, but surely Pinkie wouldn't imagine a knight who was made of lint.

Not even Pinkie.

"I AM NOT MADE OF LINT!," Sir Lintsalot said angrily.

However, I now could see that someone had engraved a pile of lint with a lance on it on the flank of his armor.

...

Maybe he's the weirdest golem ever. And I have seen a golem made out of children's toys and squirrel bones.

Damn Glantrian child wizards.

NEVER EVER agree to babysit in Glantri. Not pets, not children, not ANYTHING.

Darien laughed at me for three hours after that.

Bastard!

"C'mon, Sir Lintsalot, you can let us pass for old time's sake, right?" Pinkie asked, with big puppy eyes.

He shuffled his feet nervously. "I'm sorry, but the Princess has ordered me on my honor to defend this bridge."

"What Princess?" I asked curiously.

"Princess Marjorie the Wise," he said.

"You're supposed to serve Princess Celestia!" Pinkie said, clearly outraged.

Sir Lintsalot shrank back a bit. "I serve Countess Pinkamena and through her, Princess Marjorie the Wise, who the Elements of Power serve."

I have never heard of a 'Princess Marjorie'. The name sounds vaguely Glantrian. Isn't it an herb or something?

Then again, if Sir Lintsalot is made of lint, maybe she's made of herbs.

Maybe they're ALL golems. We've only actually seen Cruisin' with our own two eyes.

"Princess Marjoram?" Twilight asked in confusion.

Marjoram! That's the herb.

"MarjorIE," Sir Lintsalot said firmly. "She is beautiful and wise and strong. Now, Sir Applejack, we must joust."

"But... I can't stand to see two of my friends fight each other," Pinkie said, agonized.

The showdown with the Elements of Power is really going to be ugly for her, I see.

"I cannot break my oath," Sir Lintsalot said, pained.

Pinkie began vibrating and her tail shaking and her hair going crazy. This didn't bode well.

"He's just a pile of lint, Pinkie," Rainbow Dash said.

"Piles of lint are people too!" Pinkie shouted.

...

We're all going to be in trouble if piles of lint have the rights of people.

Spitfire said, "Pinkie, if we don't get past him, we can't recover the dragon's treasure. Then we break our promise to him and he will start raiding Equestria again. What do you expect us to do?"

"I am honor-bound to joust anyone who uses this bridge," Sir Lintsalot said firmly.

"Do we have to use the bridge to cross this chasm?" I asked. Always think outside the box.

Because the box is full of scorpions.

"DUH," Rainbow Dash said, slapping her face. "We can just fly across it."

"There will be no flying anywhere," Pinkamena said. "You do this the Earth Pony way or you fail. Namely, you fail, because you're a failure, Dash."

"I won the Junior Flyer competition! I AM NOT A FAILURE!" Rainbow Dash shouted.

Pinkamena's failure to reply made Dash and Soarin' grin broadly.

Pinkie studied the chasm. "I think we can jump it."

"I'd have to take the armor off, but yes," Applejack said.

"I can jump it," Dash said.

"Me too," Soarin' said.

"Ivan and I are unlikely to make that jump," I said, frowning.

"Or me," Fluttershy said weakly.

"I think I can do it," Twilight said. "But I'm not sure."

"If Rarity shot arrows across and... I guess rope bridges wouldn't work well for ponies, though," I said, frowning.

"Or Pinkie could walk on the ceiling with her boots to carry rope across," Applejack said. "But yes, some of us couldn't handle a rope bridge any more than they could handle jumpin' it."

"We could maybe rig a winch and swing people across," I said.

"You all are even more a pack of cowards than I thought," Pinkamena said. "Running away from one pony."

"I am not runnin' away," Applejack protested. "I just ain't getting in a fight if I don't have to."

Pinkamena began making chicken noises; Pinkie began making chicken noises, until she saw Dash glaring at her and stopped, laughing nervously. "But it's fun," Pinkie mumbled.

Applejack frowned. "I ain't no chicken!"

Suddenly it hit me. There's some way to make monsters with this place. Pinkamena made her imaginary friends into REAL beings. But they're shaped by her imagination which is why they sound like her doing funny voices. Or in this case, sound weird and hollow. Or maybe they're shadow creatures, half-real, half-illusion. That would fit quite well.

I sidled over to Pinkie. "Who is Sir Lintsalot's greatest enemy?" I whispered to her.

"Sir Malfeasance the Sockasen," she whispered. "He once kidnapped me and tried to force me to marry him, but Sir Lintsalot rescued me and he swore revenge on Sir Lintsalot."

"What does he look like?" I whispered.

"He's a black stallion with eyes of flame and he laughs evilly all the time. And he wears dull red socks like Father likes to wear when he has boots on."

"With his boots?" I asked.

"Sir Malfeasance just wears the socks because Father got mad if I played with his boots," Pinkie whispered.

"I have a plan," I told her.

I got everyone to huddle, then told them about Sir Malfeasance. "So Twilight disguises herself as Malfeasance with the hat, lures him away, the rest of us cross the bridge, she teleports to us," I said.

"That's pretty dangerous for Twilight," Spike said, frowning. "Let me do it."

"The hat won't turn you into a pony and you can't teleport yourself," I said.

"I could try and mail myself," he said stubbornly.

"I can probably disguise myself better, I know Sir Malfeasance the best," Pinkie said.

"But you can't teleport," I told her.

"I can run on the ceiling where he can't reach me to get back," she said.

"I can just joust him," Applejack said. "Pinkamena is likely to see through any clever tricks, anyway."

I slapped my forehead. "Twilight, you need to send Celestia a letter to send HIM a letter saying she needs his help defending Canterlot. He's pledged to the defense of all ladies, right?"

"Oooh," Twilight said. "Spike, take a letter."

We came out of the huddle once it was sent and Applejack got in position.

Wink the letter appeared by Sir Lintsalot, who read it. "Oh no! I must immediately go to the defense of Canterlot!" He charged off the way we came. "Celestia, I am coming!"

"What are you doing? Come back here!" Pinkamena shouted.

We ran across the bridge before she could summon him back, and headed off hurriedly down the hallway, Applejack changing back to normal. I carried Rarity's giant arrow for her until the spell on it wore off.

Trick won't work twice, but we'll probably have to fight him again later anyway, which worries me.

If Pinkie's four friends are real, or even just strong shadow creatures, then they will give our foes an edge I'm not sure how to counter.

Dammit.

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

"I could have taken him," Applejack said.

"Maybe. He's a stallion and an Earth Pony, so he is likely so strong it makes me feel pain just to think about it," I told her. Four, just FOUR Earth Ponies is enough to pull a train that must weigh tons. "And we don't know how strong that armor was."

I imagined Applejack getting impaled and felt my lunch try to come up. I took a swig from my waterskin and my stomach settled. Dammit, caring about people sucks.

It just makes you worry endlessly, as if I didn't have enough to worry about, like how Celestia is probably going to turn me into a new star for the heavens.

"Twilight, you'd know this. Has anyone verified whether the Procopian or Vellustian theories of stellar origin are true?" I asked her. Procopius, a Thyatian philosopher believed stars were giant burning lumps of what he called 'Procopian matter', a substance which burns forever for poorly explained reasons. Still, his flawed theory can explain planetary motion. Vellustia argued that ALL stars are like the 'sun' of the Hollow World, namely tiny gateways to the Elemental Plane of Fire, through which fire and light spill out. Pure fire, however, cannot exert enough gravity to keep planets from just flying off in a straight line. It would, however, explain why they normally don't go out, except for unusual things like supernova, which are when the gate blows up.

"You left out Thyrsus of Millenia's theory," Twilight said pedantically.

"I didn't know that one," I told her.

"He believed they were monuments erected by the Immortals to honor those who strove for Immortality and either succeeded or failed. This led him to speculate that the destruction of Blackmoor happened due to a failed attempt at Immortality, as a star appeared in the heavens as the Great Rain of Fire began," she continued. "Since no known Immortal exalted at that time, he concluded it a sign of a failed immortal, who was honored anyway."

"Honored for setting the planet ON FIRE?" I said in disbelief.

The Great Rain of Fire is poorly understood. The Blackmoorians found some sort of 'ship of space' which had secret technology they combined with magic to create a really powerful civilization. Then one day fire rained from the sky and the planetary axis shifted, burying them under the polar ice cap. This is the Great Rain of Fire.

"Also, didn't Anibaxus of Haven establish that it was the detonation of Utherite near the surface or in storage which caused the Great Rain?" I said. Or at least, it's the leading theory. Utherite was a shiny black rock which contained magic. Once you took all the magic, it turned into Sablestone, a dull black rock you can burn; it's a very powerful fuel. Dream Valley has a lot of Sablestone which they extract and sell. They also pick out small bits of Utherite that didn't detonate; it sells for REALLY big money.

"And it could be treated as a subset of the Vellustian theory, explaining why the gates are created," Twilight said. "But I did spend a while trying to line up stellar data and Immortals. But I couldn't get enough data." She sounded very disappointed.

"I would think you'd know where stars came from, Twilight," Rarity said, sounding surprised. "Given your interest."

"Celestia is not allowed to talk about it, and nopony has ever gone out to see for themselves," Twilight said. "We do know they have planets and that some of those planets have green humans."

"Really?" I said. "I thought the Blackmoorians found a non-human ship."

We continued to banter as we made our way down the hallway as Ivan looked out for trouble up ahead with Rarity and as I kept distracting myself.

The tunnel opened up into a huge greenhouse, probably several acres across. Holy cow, this is big. It was full of orange trees. Big, juicy oranges. I felt my mouth water. High above us, there were several dozen tiny crystal spheres, hanging on chains from the ceiling; they glowed with sunlight, enabling the trees to grow here.

At the far end of the room was a huge gate of stone with an elaborate mechanism connected to huge empty buckets high in the air. If you filled them up, the gate would open. Classic pony engineering. Or dwarven.

By the entryway, there were two dozen large baskets, suitable for fruit carrying.

"So we have to buck the oranges and fill the buckets in order to go on? That's EASY," Applejack said.

"Even for an unlettered country hick, it would be easy," Apple Blossom said.

'Would', she says. I smell trouble.

"Of course, La Cosa Nostradamus also wants your oranges, and they won't take no for an answer," she said sorrowfully.

Two dozen bulldog-like humanoids now entered from the north entrance, armed with bats, chains, silver knuckles, and maces. "Youse ponies had better move along, see, these oranges are ourses and we're gonna take 'em and sell 'em for BIG BUCKS," the biggest said.

"You're going to buy deer with them?" Pinkie said.

...

"He means bits," Applejack said to Pinkie. "It's Bucklynn slang."

"They're gonna murderize you all!" 'Rocky' shouted over the intercom. I noticed he was not among the... well, maybe he IS a Bucklynn Bulldog.

"Rocky!" Pinkie shouted. "You're not supposed to cheer for criminals! You're a good boy!"

"Sorry, Pinkie, they're old pals from the old days, see, and seeing them, I just kinda got overwhelmed and all." 'Rocky' sounded apologetic.

"Don't feel bad," Pinkamena said to him. "Pinkie's not your real friend, I am. I won't abandon you to go run around with mares." Her voice was soothing and 'Rocky' made happy noises. This was not as creepy as it would have been if I wasn't sure 'Rocky' wasn't ENTIRELY her talking to herself.

Still creepy.

"I am your friend, Rocky!" Pinkie said. "You should come to my parties! You know you're welcome!"

Rainbow Dash buried her face in her hooves.

"Sorry, ma'am, we have to rough up your friends," the big bulldog said to Pinkie. "I'm Barky Bark and these are my boyz, the Munchy Bunch. Boyz, leave the lady alone. We're here for the hillbilly, anyway."

"I am not a HILLBILLY," Applejack said angrily. "I am a farmer!"

"She's a GREAT farmer," Pinkie said.

"Applejack, Pinkie, Ivan, you three buck oranges," Twilight said. "The rest of us will keep the Yancy Street Gang off you."

Apple Blossom laughed very softly. "This should be entertaining, Madame LaFlour."

"Thugs versus thugs? It is beneath us, really," Madame LaFlour said. "But this is your soirée, so I bow to you."

"Cabbages are better than oranges OR apples," Mr. Turnip said.

"So many tasty cabbage recipes," Pinkie said, then got a basket and she and Applejack started bucking.

Ivan got some rope, made a sling for a basket and began climbing a tree.

"What?" Apple Blossom said, sounding surprised. "What on earth are you doing, Ivan?"

...

"Picking oranges! You think I'm up here for fun?" he said irritably.

"But..."

We could hear whispers but not what was said clearly.

"Oh. Carry on. Humans are strange."

"Says the half-assed fake Applejack," Ivan said as he started picking oranges.

"She is the fake!"

While they bickered over who was fake, the rest of us formed up to defend them. Fluttershy began a song and I positioned myself to cover her, then detonated my flame spell, sending several scurrying. Twilight hurled lightning balls at them, and they got blasted, tumbling across the grass.

Spike jumped up, kicked a gangster in the face, then grabbed his chain and swung him around with it and threw him. I remembered the chair. Oh help me, the CHAIR.

Rarity arced an arrow around to nail one of our foes in the ass and he now ran away yelping like a puppy.

The grass now grew up, grabbing several of the gang in place and holding them fast as they struggled. "Be nice," Fluttershy said to them. "Violence is bad."

Pinkie and Applejack were working hard, kicking oranges into baskets. To my surprise, Applejack wasn't any faster than Pinkie and it seemed to anger her a lot.

"Apples and oranges as they say, my evil twin? Of course, you probably can't read to know that," Apple Blossom said cheerfully.

"I can READ, dammit! I went to school same as everyone else!"

"I didn't get to go to a school," Ivan mumbled.

Applejack and Pinkie both faltered at that, staring.

"So you're actually stupider than my evil twin, how sad," Apple Blossom said. "I am versed in fine literature and the classics, thanks to graduating with honors from Madame Silver Fountain's School For Young Fillies of Distinction."

"Madame Silver Fountain is a stuck up old bat," Applejack said angrily. "And that school was boring."

"Because you didn't take it seriously like I did. But then, you ran away without even hardly trying," Apple Blossom said. "Better buck faster, it's all you can do."

Applejack and Pinkie had to kick their oranges up into the big weight baskets; the gate now opened just a little bit. Ivan was still trying to fill his basket. "Dammit, this is taking forever," Ivan said.

"Just do your best, Ivan," Applejack said. "I know you'll do your best for us." Then she ran back to bucking.

Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire swooped through the enemy ranks. Thankfully, there was no 'no flying' rule for this fight. Or if there was, our foes forgot to enforce it.

Two Bulldogs rushed at us and Rarity leaped up and kicked him in the chest, knocking him down, then hit him in the ass with an arrow and he ran away, yelping. She looked satisfied.

I was less satisfied because I was being attacked by Barky Bark. Worse, he was chanting some song about how awesome he was.

o/~ Bad Vibrations is what youse guys gonna feel,

o/~ When I kicks youse with my heel!

I cannot deny it felt bad when he kicked me in the face, but I cannot deny that he felt bad when I turned my sword into a mace and smacked him in HIS face. I would have just hacked him up but, you know, sentients, ponies, you know the drill.

Plus, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing him howl.

There was much less when he pushed my mace aside with his own, then knocked me down, then hefted me and threw me at a tree.

However, I had a certain satisfaction in then literally setting his ass on fire. Unlike the others, he knew to stop, drop, and roll, or maybe he just fell down in pain.

Ivan grimaced, then said, "Well, fuck, desperate times, desperate measures. If Asterius can do it..."

What?

Ivan dropped out of the tree, then closed his eyes for a few seconds, while fumbling in his pocket. "Please don't let me regret this," he mumbled.

"Live life without regrets!" Pinkie said, though she managed to buck two oranges onto her head. "But with better aim!"

Ivan muttered something, then poured some of the polymorph potion into his palm and stoppered the bottle and stashed it in his pocket. Okay, that's a weird way to drink it. Then he drank it clumsily; a little of it got on his shirt. He howled, stumbled, and then turned into a pony stallion.

...

He was a palomino: golden coat and a white mane and tail. I would have expected him to have brown hair, though his white mane was as curly as his hair normally is. His eyes were still brown. He was noticeably bigger than the mares present, though still within the range you'd call 'pony'.

Applejack stared at him in surprise. Pinkie said, "EARTH PONIES FOREVER!" and ran to hurl oranges into the buckets.

Pony-Ivan tried to give Applejack a thumbs up but managed to knock himself down instead. He got up, laughing ruefully, then turned and KICKED the tree.

The good news: he harvested the whole tree at once.

The bad news: oranges went EVERYWHERE and only about a third fell in his basket.

"Damn, nice power, poor control," Applejack said.

"I doubt the potion understands the finer aspects of bucking," he said.

Twilight said, "I'll come help you if we can ever get these dogs to give up!" She blasted more with lightning. They fled, but after a bit, they came back stubbornly.

"Once a bulldog sinks his teeth in something, he never lets go!" Barky Bark said. "Pulverize 'em, boyz!"

"Marcus, WHY DO YOU SMELL LIKE BACON?" Ivan asked me as he tried kicking the oranges back to his basket.

"I do not smell like bacon!" I protested.

"Oh, is that what he smells like?" Rarity said. "That's... It's some kind of meat thing humans eat, right?" she said. Then she shot another Bulldog in the butt, sending HIM scampering.

And yet they come back for more. Amazingly stubborn creatures.

"Yes, it is; it's typically eaten with breakfast," I told her. Barky Bark and I bashed each other with maces AGAIN and both fell down, though he got up faster, until I whacked his foot.

"What do I smell like?" Fluttershy asked. She now came over to Pony-Ivan and the grass began herding his oranges, helping him recover them.

Pony-Ivan sniffed. "You smell gentle, but I'm not sure how I know what gentleness smells like."

She smiled brightly and continued urging the grass to herd oranges.

Applejack ran over to Pony-Ivan. "Here, watch." She bucked a tree. "Try it like that."

He got a little better on the next one but this clearly was not something easily picked up. He also struggled to get the oranges up into the basket, though Fluttershy helped him.

Barky kicked me into a tree, though now he was limping, and was about to brain me when WHAM, Rainbow Dash hit him from behind and sent him flying. "Thanks, Dash," I said warmly.

"You're welcome!" Then she charged two more.

Rarity clearly wanted to help me but basically, as fast as she sent one running, another would come at her. Damn, these things are persistent.

Spike was busy defending Twilight, and doing a good job of it, punching and kicking any of them that got too close.

Pony-Ivan and Fluttershy were busy herding oranges, Applejack was making good progress, and Pinkie was doing well too. Things were looking up.

Pinkie sang cheerfully as she worked, about sending the oranges to see the king. I am not sure WHAT king. But if it works, it works.

"Barky, Barky, Barky, you have to do better than this, or Uncle will not be very happy at all," Apple Blossom said with her sweet, silky voice. "And you know what happens then."

Sweat now poured down his face. "I am trying to murderize this stupid human, but he ain't dying so easy as you said he would."

"He does seem tougher than Princess Marjorie thought," Apple Blossom said. "I suppose beating a pile of garbage to death with a blunt instrument is not ideal."

"I am NOT garbage!" I shouted.

"I will have to upgrade you to trash," Apple Blossom said. I heard drinking noises. "I can't see what she sees in you."

What who sees in me?

"What I see is a loudmouth with pretensions of grandeur who sends others to do her work for her, while she sits around getting drunk," Rarity said angrily. "You may have an elegant exterior, but there are worms inside your core."

Angry Rarity has such a lovely turn of phrase. I couldn't help but grin broadly, while Barky tried to figure out what Rarity meant. This let me bash him in the shoulder, though he now backhanded me into a tree. Dozens of oranges now fell down.

"Thanks, Barky!" Pinkie said.

He took his bowler hat off and bowed to her. "Yer welcome, Lady Pinkie."

Then he tried to beat me to death but I threw myself at his knees and knocked him down.

"I am not drunk; ladies do not get drunk," Apple Blossom said tightly. "Neither do I roll around in the hay with people I just met, unlike you."

What on earth is she talking about? No one has had sex on this mission.

Or if they have, I didn't notice and I am GLAD.

"They just hide like cowards while others fight for them," I shouted at her. "But then, you've always been good at running away. You ran away from working on the farm so you could be a lazy parasite in the city, living off other people's work! And now you're too lazy to come down here and fight your own fight!"

Apple Blossom made a noise, but then she cleared her throat. "Ladies do not get into brawls unless they have no choice." But it was clear my words had stung.

"And it's easy to cook up an excuse when you're a fake lady. You might muss your hair, you might chip your horseshoe, you might scuff your dress. Rarity is a real lady who stands by her friends instead of sending them off to get a beating without her! She's more of a lady than you will EVER be."

Rarity smiled brightly and kicked down a dog who charged her, then punted him across the field. She can be elegant and hand out a beating. I appreciate that.

I could hear Apple Blossom's teeth grind. Oh yes. Barky hit me again; I couldn't fight on two fronts at once well, but it was worth it.

"Sammy!" Apple Blossom shouted. "I need you."

"Sorry, I'm busy helping Dawn Gleaming compare star births with the raising or failure of Immortals! We'll be done in an hour or so, though! But I can't let my cuddle-huggums down by running off!" Sammy shouted.

Twilight twitched and nailed more Bulldogs with lightning balls.

'Cuddle-huggums'? Is he brain-damaged? If I was dating Twilight, I would call her something smooth, like 'maiden of the night sky' or 'genius of ancient lore' or 'regal as...' Okay, dammit, you can't call her regal, even though her coat color totally sets her up to be compared to imperial purple. Though in Alphatia...

ANYTHING other than 'Cuddle-huggums'. If anyone is a bad copy, he is.

I got smacked by Barky again. I can't focus because of that idiot and his terrible, terrible terms of endearment!

I finally understand why there are so many stories where clones can't stand each other.

A chime went off. Oh bloody hell.

The ground began to tear open and now shambling human corpses began to rise from their graves.

OH FUCK ME. I was starting to wonder why this path wasn't 'marathon' or 'get filthy and exhausted' as its theme.

There is, however, one good thing about the undead. No one is going to get mad if I go apeshit on them.

"Take him apart, Barky!" Rocky shouted.

"You want some? Come down and GET SOME," Rainbow Dash shouted.

"Dash, cover me so I can use a spell on the dead!" I shouted.

She powerdived Barky; they crashed into a tree which broke in half, dropping all its oranges, then on across the room; she peeled out, letting him slam into the wall. WHAM.

He feel down, then put his hat back on. I applaud that. "The little girl wants to rumble? Barky Bark is happy to oblige you, girly! But these claws are sharp!" he said, swinging his mace.

"It's BLUNT," Rainbow Dash said, oddly pedantically.

"Whuteva!" he said and began trying to smack her as she dodged him.

"Rarity, join your abilities with Twilight," I told her. "Twilight, the fire spell!" I now engaged the bulldog which was attacking Rarity, giving her cover to join Twilight.

Vanderhoven's Spiraling Fiery Burst causes fire to spiral outwards from the blast point you choose, dodging you but not necessarily your friends. Unless you combine someone with huge precision (Rarity) and power (Twilight). Together, they sent fire snaking through the ranks of our foes, dodging allies and trees and spiraling out to set all the undead on fire.

Fire with a pattern oddly like pretty lace.

Oh yeah.

That was enough for the dogs, who could see they escaped burning by Twilight and Rarity's grace only. Throwing that much fire tired Twilight but with the undead burning and the bulldogs fleeing, we were victorious.

"As always, ladies, you were magnificent," I said to them.

Why is Spitfire giving me funny looks? Going to have to figure that woman out.

"Nice job for a first timer," Applejack said to Pony-Ivan, cantering over to him. She sniffed his nose for some reason. "Like everything, it's practice, practice, practice."

"Thanks," he said. "I just didn't have time to do it the human way." Pony-Ivan sighed.

So much for asking me if I want to make centaurs, I see. Hah!

"So humans smell like bacon," Applejack said thoughtfully.

"Well, he specifically smells like it to me. I can hardly smell him at all normally. I can smell your confidence."

Applejack grinned. "That's me all over."

"Dash smells like that too," Pony-Ivan said, pointing at her with his head.

"Because I AM confident!" she said, grinning.

Pinkie now jumped on Pony-Ivan, knocking him down. He staggered to his feet and she said, "Now we must sing our song!"

"We never FINISHED our song," Pony-Ivan said.

"Improvisation is best!"

They soon began all singing a different version of the same song, which I had to laugh at.

Rarity sniffed my hand. "So that's bacon," she said, as if recording the idea.

"I haven't had bacon since the ship," I mumbled, then scritched her behind the ears as she made little happy noises. "I must admit I like seeing you can be elegant and hold your own in a scrap," I told her. "Don't listen to those fools."

"You look good in a fight too, Marcus," she said. "I wish I could take a bath and a nap, though." She sagged just a little, and leaned on me.

I worked behind her other ear. "Yes, so could I, but there is no rest for us until we finish this."

I hope Twilight will have enough strength for the last throwdown. As I am... dog-tired. Heh.

She was smiling at us, though she turned to Spike when she noticed me noticing her noticing us.

Spike, on the other hand, glare of death.

I'd better guard my hands tonight.

"So how long until you turn back?" Applejack asked.

"I'm not sure. I drank about a palm-full... Hey, Twilight, you have any idea?"

"Depends on the power of the wizard who made it," Twilight said.

Which we don't know because we found it in the dungeon.

"I expect Keraptis made it, so it would be strong," Pony-Ivan said.

Twilight nodded. "Though it may have been made by someone who raided this place and lost it or died here."

We all frowned at that thought.

Pony-Ivan thought for a moment, then said, "Marcus, you're going to have to take point. I can't do anything about traps except look at them with no hands."

"I will be your hands," Rarity said. "Twilight, isn't there some trick for magnetizing a needle?"

"I have a compass if you need one."

"I need you to magnetize a couple of my needles for use with trap disarming."

"Sure," Twilight said. It's a very easy spell.

Rarity soon had her kit assembled and we got going.

***********

"You all have a distinct smell in addition to your temporary ones," Pony-Ivan announced as we made our way down the next tunnel. He now closed his eyes. "I can tell where you are, even like..." Bump. "But not the wall."

This got many laughs and Applejack said, "Eyes open, Ivan," though she laughed.

"And I have a broader field of vision, I think," he said.

It's like he's driven to comment on everything he does now.

There is probably going to be a party where we will have to liven it up or something, for one of the challenges. And given we haven't had an evil thing pretending innocence yet, that's definitely going to be happening.

We came around a corner and came to where the hallway ceiling soared up to sixty feet. And then it deadended, with the hallway continuing fifty feet up. "Oh bloody hell," Pony-Ivan said, looking at his hooves. "I hope we don't have to retreat quickly."

Rainbow Dash flew up and secured a piton for me and a rope. I climbed up, then the Pegasi began ferrying everyone. We were able to head on, but now I was nervous. More nervous, okay? This clearly meant we'd have to run from something but wouldn't be able to.

Distantly, a bell chimed five times. FIVE TIMES? If once is a horde of wandering monsters... EEEEE!!!!!

"It's just a bell," Applejack said. "If you turn into a pony at some point, your name is definitely going to be Nervous Nellie."

"Once is a horde of wandering monsters. Now multiply by FIVE," I said.

Applejack grimaced. "Okay, good reason for nerves."

We pushed down the hallway to a four way intersection. "Another maze, I suspect," I told them.

We went left. Always go left. This went fifty feet, hooked another left, then widened out into a forty foot wide room with pictures of Ivan dying horribly on the walls. Human-Ivan, that is. Pony-Ivan grimaced.

There was a staircase up in the middle of the far wall, ten feet wide, which climbed forty feet to double doors. To the right of the staircase, there was a pile of miscellaneous garbage tucked into the corner, about eight feet across and two feet high. On the ceiling over it was a set of arcane runes.

"Okay, no one move," Pony-Ivan said. "Marcus, creep up and check the stairs. Twilight, check the rune. Rarity, stand by me. Spitfire, can you fly up by the doors but don't touch them?"

"Of course," she said, flying up and hovering.

Twilight said, "It's a teleportation receiver You teleport to it. But of course, you'd fall unless you can stick to it, which makes it seem weird. Maybe it's for pegasi?"

"On the Earth Pony path? I doubt it," Pony-Ivan said.

I moved up carefully. "The stairs turn into a slide, there's a pit-trap at the base." I triggered it and it dropped sixty feet onto a teleport sigil. Twilight carefully moved up. "It links to the one on the ceiling."

She lifted the garbage with her magic. "And that has another teleporter which ALSO connects to the one over it, so you fall, hit, teleport, fall, hit, teleport, ad infinitum." Twilight rubbed her forehead. "Vicious."

Twilight said, "Spitfire, I will catch you if something makes you fall. Open the doors."

Huge winds now tried to slam Spitfire down but with Twilight's help, she made a controlled descent. The wind erupting out of the tunnel beyond also would have pushed people down the stairs, which now turned into a slide.

"Marcus, you're going to have to climb up and disarm it, given I can't climb these smooth walls," Pony-Ivan said, frowning.

"Twilight, you'd best be ready to catch me," I told her.

She nodded and I clambered up. I got blown out three times before I disarmed the trap. Then the Pegasi helped everyone up, though Applejack was able to just trot up the slide.

What followed: pit trap, dart trap, pit trap with arrow trap, spear trap, fire trap, acid jets trap, and then...

Applejack had to simply kick open a door to get us through it. Beyond was a thirty foot cube of a room; there was a staircase which rose ten feet to the middle of the right wall, and a tunnel exiting the room in the middle of the far wall, ten feet off the ground. A shimmering violet curtain hung down in front of it from the top of the room. Violet fungi, hideous stuff, it rots your flesh when you touch it. At ground level, under this, there was an archway but it only went a short distance before hitting solid stone.

In the center of the room was a ten foot circle of stone with a series of poles four feet high sticking up along the edge. A similar set projected down from the ceiling.

Twilight saw the fungi. "That is VERY dangerous, do not get near it. Marcus, help me burn it."

Burning didn't work to my annoyance. Neither did lightning or even Twilight's water blast spell.

"Gotta solve this the Earth Pony way," Applejack said. "Ivan, got any idea?"

Pony-Ivan paced around the poles. "Oh, I get it. We rotate the room with the poles. Top tier with the top poles, bottom tier with the bottom poles."

"How would earth ponies get to the top tier to rotate it?" Applejack asked.

"Lasso them and pull?" he said. "Let's try that first as it's probably the hard one."

With a lot of effort, they slowly rotated the top into place. With the ropes, we could all help. This moved the violet fungi away from our exit. Then we did the ground level.

It was easier, but it also meant the alcove on the bottom now opened into a tunnel. A tunnel full of hungry spectral undead, who now charged out to meet us.

Pony-Ivan, unfortunately, had to fight with his hooves, which left him vulnerable to their powers. He quickly ended up paralyzed to his frustration.

I changed my sword to an axe and began hewing undead, sending spectral body parts flying. It was quite satisfying.

Twilight chewed through their ranks with lightning and Spike with fire. Applejack began lassoing them and throwing them around to people who could safely hit them.

Pinkie now began a song and soon had a dozen of them dancing with her. She then led them off into the traps, which we now heard going off on them.

Soarin' and Spitfire's uniforms let them safely attack the undead and they began kicking them around. Dash had to be more cautious, whipping up winds to fling them around into each other and break up any groups which threatened the rest of us.

Fluttershy slowly dragged Pony-Ivan to safety and cast a spell to unparalyze him.

Finally, we carved down the last of them; they had no hope of beating us, but now we were all more tired and worn down. Which is what our foes are hoping for.

I am NOT looking forwards to encountering the Elements of Power when we're all tired and exhausted.

The good news: A large chunk of the dragon's hoard was tucked into a room behind here. We now had half of it. Half of the stolen part of the hoard; I expect he has a lot more at home.

I just hope we didn't miss some earlier in the dungeon.

***********

We now passed down a staircase and through a door labeled 'Servants' entrance'. Now the hallway was tiled in elaborate geometric patterns of the kind they like in Ylarum and in parts of Thyatis. Everything was very clean and indeed, it was like we'd wandered into the back areas of some Thyatian villa.

I could smell rose-scented perfume. The ponies all paused and looked overwhelmed. If I can smell it, it must be really strong for them.

Then Pony-Ivan made a noise and said, "And now the potion is wearing off." He yelled loudly, stumbled, fell down and turned into himself on the floor. His human self. "Well, that was a lot different than I expected," he said, then rose, wobbling.

"You made a good pony, Ivan," Applejack said warmly.

"How do you focus with all those smells?"

"You get used to it," she said, then looked around. "You were thinking we might have to go to a party, Marcus?"

"Something social, as I expect Pinkamena will want us to look like idiots in a social situation."

"Sounds fun!," Pinkie said cheerfully.

We now came to three doors, though the hallway went on. One was labeled 'humans', the second 'ponies' and the third 'dragons'. They turned out to be bathing areas with fluffy towels, bathrobes, soap, and a series of rooms for bathing.

"Dammit, this has to be a trap with sea monsters in the soaking tub," I said. "But I want a bath SO MUCH."

"A little dirt never hurt anyone and we can't trust it," Ivan said.

Rarity stared longingly at the pony bathhouse.

"Well, if we all bath together, instead of some people HIDING," Applejack said, "It ought to be safe."

"I smell donuts in the dragon baths," Spike said.

Ivan looked at me. He doesn't care if they see him naked, but I will DIE.

"Well, at the very least, we ought to snag those donuts for Spike," I said, stalling for time.

Spike looked at me, clearly suspecting I was up to something, yet wanting *donuts*.

"Look, you can just wrap a towel around yer groin and join us," Applejack said. "As if we'd never seen someone's groin before."

Twitch, twitch, twitch. If it falls off... DEATH DEATH DEATH.

Spitfire was giving me the eye and my heart considered whether to just explode and get it over with.

"Look, Spike and I can bathe with them," Soarin' said. "Then there won't be any need to panic, right?"

There was no excuse I could give which would not end in fire.

Soarin' may or may not know about Erik's tattoo. I do not know for absolute sure Celestia knew and Twilight would have no reason to tell the Wonderbolts.

But he's likely to say 'Hey, guys, Marcus has a sweet tattoo.' But if I use a little caution...

"Really, they should be with us, just to be sure," Rarity said. "Not to denigrate you of course, Soarin', Spike."

Applejack looked at Rarity, then snickered for some reason. "Well, well, I see someone can change their opinion when it suits them."

"What?" Rarity said, a little flustered. "It's for safety's sake. I greatly appreciate Marcus' desire for propriety but given we heard five wandering monster bells and none of them have shown up, and well, when are we more vulnerable than when taking a bath?"

"I'm thinking maybe we should skip the bath, tempting as it is even for me right now," Applejack said.

"I could really use a bath," Fluttershy said. She sounded quite worn out.

"How about if we search all three for traps, monsters, death, and so on together," I said. "Because these might be full of DEATH."

We did the 'dragons' one first. It was HUGE. Big enough to hold even a grand wyrm. In fact, I was disturbed by evidence of recent use; wet towels, used soap, turned over buckets, water splashed on the floor. The soaking tub was practically an artificial pond.

"There's a dragon around," I said.

"Probably Marquetta," Spike said angrily.

"No bath," Applejack said. "We search them for anything else we need to know but no bathing if there are dragons about."

We found a box in the corner with Sablestone in it. There was a hidden dumbwaiter next to it and a secret door to stairs down. "Ain't no dragon bigger than Spike gonna fit down this," Applejack said.

A little bigger. Anything ogre sized or smaller could use this tunnel. We carefully descended and found that there was a set of furnaces; you could burn sablestone and heat the water in the giant tub above. Further, we found a chest down here; once Ivan disarmed it, it had more of Vermicoritax's treasure, including his complete collection of Darokinian Chancellor coins; the Darokinians issue a new gold coin design each time a new Chancellor is elected; he had every single one plus all the major weird variants, like the one which was half copper and half gold and ended up kind of orange.

"I'm wondering how the dragons get down here to turn their hot water on," Applejack said.

"Probably servants," Twilight said.

Spike nodded. "Or any children."

And then I felt a powerful pulse of magic. "Erik of Vestland, now you di... no one is here," a man said loudly; we could hear him only dimly.

...

"Nice accuracy on that teleport, now we're stuck in the middle of White Plume Mountain and there is no sign of our target!" another said angrily.

Six bells now chimed in quick succession.

A woman said, "What the hell is that?"

"Erik? They're looking for Erik? He's here?" Twilight said frantically.

I put a finger to my lips, pointing up, then making a throat slitting gesture.

"We can't kill them," she said, stunned.

I gave up. "No, I mean they may kill us, depending on if they want witnesses," I whispered. "And don't talk loudly, or they'll hear us."

She looked relieved. "I'm sorry, Marcus, I know you wouldn't advocate that, I just misunderstood." She sounded very embarrassed.

"If they're looking for Erik of Vestland, Soarin' and I should talk to them, given he is the one who stole the Pearl of the Water Elves of Minrothad."

"Is Celestia looking for him?" I said nervously.

Twilight frowned.

"We're under orders to bring him to her alive if we encounter him," Spitfire said, studying me in a way that made me want to immolate myself.

Which she could help with, I now knew.

"Anyway, we can talk to them, find out who it is, and since we're not Erik, either it will be fine or we can outrun them," Soarin' said.

"I could...," Dash began.

"You're too recognizable," Spitfire said. "Stay here, we'll talk to them."

We waited nervously, while they went up.

"Hey, I met you at the embassy. Corporal Cufen, right?" I heard Spitfire say.

Ivan and I both goggled.

"You know him?" Twilight asked.

"I knew a Cufen," I lied. It was the name I had when I met Ivan and Helga. A long time ago.

"Everyone, this is Spitfire and Soarin' of the Wonderbolts," Cufen said. "You guys looking for Erik again too?"

"We never did find him. But we got reports he was here."

"We had a tracking spell but it malfunctioned and told me he was in two places at once, so I tried to land on one of them and missed both," another man said. "What's down the stairs?"

"Just the access for heating this tub up. By the way, this is a baths for dragons."

"Well, shit," the woman said. "Doran, can you teleport us out?"

"Not unless you want me utterly exhausted," the second man, Doran, said.

"I don't want to waste time trying to search the dungeon," Cufen said. "Teleport us."

I felt magic build and...

"OH SHIT," Doran shouted and then there was silence and a feeling of something messing with the spell.

"Damn, they're not dead, right?" Soarin' said weakly.

"I hope not," Spitfire said, grimacing.

They reunited and Twilight said, "They got intercepted. I don't think teleporting out is an option." She scratched her head. "There is two of Erik?"

AHAHAHAHAHAHAH.

"You can be sure there is some trap here with a fake Erik," I said. "And likely anyone else any of us have ever liked, loved, hated, etc."

I am SO FUCKED. But I can't confess now, though I should.

DAMMIT.

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

We found two more hidden, trapped chests. Ivan and worked with Rarity, showing her how to disarm them; her fine motor control of her telekinesis makes her well suited to this. And I think she enjoyed it as a puzzle exercise.

"I bet you boys would make marvelous tailors," Rarity said with a wink. "Your fingers are very nimble."

"I have no experience," Ivan said. "But I will take your word for it. You have a definite knack here."

I really ought to learn to make hats, but then I would probably do nothing else BUT make hats.

Combined with our other wind, we now had seventy-five percent of Vermicoritax's treasure. Excellent. Hopefully, we'd find the rest soon, though I suspect a fair chunk of what's left is all over Clarity.

There had been six people and six chimes. Which led us to the theory five people had entered White Plume Mountain the previous time. This was rather a relief.

Though I feared the five were the Thyatians sending a group for me. Also, Twilight kept trying to figure out the two Eriks thing, which worried me. I fear the man detected myself and 'Sammy'.

Dammit.

We now took off down the hallway and came to a small room with two doors, each with a mask etched into it from the Thyatian theater On the left was a comedy mask, on the right, a tragedy mask. Over them was carved 'The Talking Gates. One always lies. One tells the truth. Down one path is a howling army of undead, down the other your fortune. You may ask only one question of each.'

"A logic puzzle? What the hay is a logic puzzle doing on this path?" Applejack asked, frowning.

"This one is EASY," Pinkie said. "So easy it must have a hidden trap."

"It's easy?" Applejack said dubiously.

"Oh come on, the Lay of Marethian has this one, and so do roughly twenty or so other old lays," Pinkie said. "It could be treasure or your girlfriend or boyfriend or your child or a Celestia-in-a-box, but it's always 'DEATH' or 'TREASURE'."

"Ooh, bardic test, then," I said.

"Yes, but anyone who knows this would know I would know it," Pinkie said. "Therefore, there has to be a trick. The howling undead army actually wants to give us pie and the fortune is 'bad fortune'."

"So we reverse it," I said.

"But then, they'd anticipate that I would think that, so they would double reverse it, counting on me psyching myself into the wrong path," Pinkie continued.

"Or it could all be a lie and they both lead to death," Spitfire said.

"This is a mad wizard's dungeon. There's always an out but we have to be cunning," I said.

Pinkie stared at her tail. "Pinkie sense... ACTIVATE!" Nothing happened at all.

Pinkie grimaced. "Pinkie sense SUPER ACTIVATE."

Nothing.

"Search for a third door," Twilight said. Careful study showed that if there was another door, we couldn't find it.

"It could be that the howling undead army is guarding some of the dragon's treasure, so we have to face it. Whereas, treasure for *us* is down the other route," Ivan said.

I find this theory plausible.

"Well, I choose comedy," Pinkie said. "In which case... Doors! Tell me where the rest of Vermicoritax's treasure is!"

The masks moved slightly and looked at each other. "But... we don't know about that," the Comedy mask said. "We're supposed to answer questions about things around here."

"Wrong! The rules don't say that. They say to ask one question and each of you will answer it. It lays NO restriction on the question!" Pinkie said. "Are you CHEATERS?"

"But I can't lie if I don't know the truth!" the Comedy mask said.

HAH!

"I'm going to have to report you to the Better Dungeon Bureau for cheating," Pinkie said. "Spike, take a letter."

He produced pen and ink.

"Dear Princess Bureaucracia, I have encountered two doors who are NOT doing their jobs," Pinkie began.

"I'd do it if I could!," the Tragedy door said.

"I would... wait, no, I... aaargh...," the Comedy door said. "I think I'm supposed to say that I don't want to do my job? That I won't do it? Damn, lying about everything is hard."

"You should say it's easy, I think," the Tragedy door said. "To lie about it."

"Dammit!"

"I need your names, so I can turn you in," Pinkie said sternly.

"We don't have names," the Comedy mask said. "No, wait, I have to say we do have names." He paused. "Right?"

"Yes, while I say we don't have names," the Tragedy mask said reassuringly.

"You're not very good at this," Applejack said to the Comedy mask.

"I can't seem to think clearly for some reason," the Comedy mask grumbled. "Dammit, I needed to say I can think clearly for no reason. Some reason. Urgh, you handle this... no, wait, I have to tell you not to handle it. AAAAAA!!!!"

Applejack paused, then suddenly buried her face in a hoof for a few seconds. "OH."

I blinked. "Wh... OH."

"Element of Honesty, that's me," Applejack said, feeling embarrassed. She concentrated, studying the sign. "It's all a lie. Both paths lead to death."

Man, that's a sweet power, except insofar as it might reveal the truth about me, leading to my death. DAMMIT.

"How do we move forward, then?" Dash asked.

"It's a dead end," I said. "We got the dragon's treasure, though."

Careful searching revealed we'd missed a secret door, which we now opened and headed down this new tunnel.

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

As we headed down the new tunnel, Spike coughed up a letter. Twilight read it and frowned. "Two pieces of bad news."

"Go on," Spitfire said.

"One, someone stole my balloon from Ponyville," Twilight said.

"Oh man, that was such a fun thing to ride in!" Pinkie said, frowning.

"What's the other news?," Applejack asked.

"The Cutie Mark Crusaders are missing," Twilight said. "The only clue is that they tied a note to Opalescence and she ate all of it except for their names."

"Great, they've decided to become balloon riders," Applejack groaned. "Probably going to try to circle Mystara or something, like in that book." She looked accusingly at Twilight.

"I loved that book as a child! It's why I have a balloon!"

"The Forbidden Island?" I asked. "Where the guy crashes on the island of strange creatures and becomes their king?"

"That's the sequel," she said. "I gave them the first one where he visits the South Pole."

"So now they're Cutie Mark Crusader Polar Explorers," Rarity said flatly.

"It... seems plausible," Twilight said, laughing nervously.

"Do they do this often?" I asked.

"They've never gone this far," Rarity said, sighing. "Scootaloo gets some crazy idea, Apple Bloom convinces herself it's a good idea, and then Sweetie Belle goes along for the ride."

"Except when it's HER idea," Applejack said flatly.

"Spike, take a letter for the Cutie Mark Crusaders," Twilight said. She dictated a long letter basically telling them to go home. Then she sent Celestia a progress report.

"Really, though, they can't go to the South Pole unless they had a pegasus, an adult one, to blow the balloon there or some other kind of magic, right?" Rarity said.

"You need adult level magic to power its magical steering," Twilight said. "Fillies should be stuck just drifting with the wind. Which means they probably would actually head towards Canterlot or Fillydelphia or maybe Mareis."

Everyone relaxed a little with that.

We then came to a door. Ivan disarmed it with Rarity watching. A classic poison needle trap. Also, the door was designed so if you broke it open, blades would try to chop your leg off.

No bucking this door.

It opened into a long line of crypts. Huge niches held coffins big enough for ponies. "Even though this place is probably full of pony undead, we have to check every coffin," I said.

I could tell the idea of tomb robbing did not enchant the ponies.

The coffins were full of ponies, preserved to a degree which was likely a sign they were undead. However, Twilight didn't want to just blow them up unless they did threaten us. This was probably a mistake.

The first ponies looked like normal, non-sentient ponies. As we moved along, they changed, taking on features more like modern ponies. Then suddenly, they started having pony-coloration and totally modern features, but no cutie marks. Then there were ones with cutie marks.

This place was huge and seeing all these dead ponies was pretty morbid. Also, if they are all undead, we are going to be screwed. But none of them had the treasure we wanted.

The coloration of the ponies on one side began to trend towards dark colors: blacks, grays, dark purples. On the other side, it trended to reds, greens, and oranges. And then Applejack's breath caught. "Great-Grandma Apple!"

"Great-Grandma Pie!" Pinkie said, mood suddenly deflating; she'd already been kind of grim, but now her hair wobbled and she stared with sadness. "She died trying to help prevent an earthquake, but it was too much for her."

Spike patted her shoulder. "Your parents and grandmother are still alive, right?"

"I have one Grandpa and one Grandma left," Pinkie said sadly, staring at her.

"Trying to prevent an earthquake?" I said.

"This rock monster caused an earthquake that wasn't scheduled and it threatened to take out the rockface over a town built at the base of the plateau. Her team of Maintainers saved the town but the stress was too much and she was too old. I was born three years after she died, so I never met her." Pinkie shivered. "It's what caused Father and Mother to become Mane-ionites. They felt they'd been wasting their lives, so they settled down and got married."

"Great-Grandma Apple just lived a quiet life, working hard. She had lots of kids and eventually, she got old and died. It's one of the things you learn on a farm. Everything dies and returns to the soil, so new life may be born of it. But what's her body doing here?" Applejack asked, then frowned. "Someone dug up all our ancestors? Is that it?"

"They're likely shadow creations," I said. "Your ancestors would all... be dust by now." I shivered at the sight of them.

There were three empty coffins in Pinkie's line but Applejack's side had her mother in the middle of two empty coffins. Applejack shivered. "Mom," she whispered.

Ivan put a hand on her shoulder, but didn't say anything.

Pinkie shivered, her hair wobbling, and Fluttershy nuzzled her silently.

"What happened?" I asked Applejack, unsure if I should ask.

"They died protecting fillies from the school from a monster that escaped from the Everfree," Applejack said. "This giant puddle of black slime."

I winced. Black Pudding. Dangerous, dangerous, mindless, but dangerous.

So why this? Unless it's an effort to make us so morose we kill ourselves or something... but that seems unlikely.

The crypts ended in double doors with an inscription. "To be an adventurer is to laugh in the face of death." No handle, no latch, no way to open them. Except, I am guessing, to laugh.

"I can't laugh at my dead great-grandmother," Pinkie said weakly, shivering. "I don't like this room."

Who would?

"We'll find another way," Twilight said. Going back, though, the door we came in through was gone.

We were sealed in.

"What, no ha ha now?" Pinkamena said harshly to Pinkie. "It's easy if you don't think about the future, but every story ends the same. With death."

Except mine, maybe.

Pinkie leaned on Fluttershy, twitching.

"Of course, your parents could be dead right now, and you wouldn't know, since you abandoned them," Pinkamena continued.

"So did you or you wouldn't be here," I told her.

She made teeth grinding noises instead of replying.

Dash licked her lips nervously. "I suppose it doesn't help if I laugh."

"You're not smart enough to know what death is," Pinkamena said.

I've defied death, but I don't think I can laugh at it. I never WANT to end up on fire and slowly sliding down a greased rope into a sea of broken glass.

It just happens somehow.

"When I was a filly, Mom used to tell Apple jokes. She married into the Apple Family. So she tried to be more an Apple than anyone else," Applejack said. "One of her favorites was this. What do you get if you cross an apple with a shellfish?"

"You can't cross an apple with a shellfish unless you're some kind of mad wizard," Twilight said, sounding confused.

Spike sidled up to Twilight and whispered loudly to her, "It's a JOKE."

"A crabapple," Ivan said, smiling a little.

Pinkie's ears twitched. "Even I don't make fun of the dead," she mumbled.

"I'm not making fun of the dead," Applejack said somberly. "I'm making fun with the dead. Here's another one. Silver Lining came rushing in to see his dad, Copper Lining. 'Dad,' he said, breathing hard. 'Is it true that an apple a day keeps the doctor away?' Copper Lining angled his head, a mite worried about his son. "Yes, it is, son. That's what they say.' His son looked relieved. 'Give me an apple quick! I've just broken the doctor's window!'" She smiled now, remembering her mother, no doubt, and Rainbow Dash began laughing and laughing and laughing. Soarin' chuckled and I couldn't help but smile. Rarity giggled, then put her hand over her mouth.

Twilight blinked twice, then laughed, then looked embarrassed. Pinkie smiled, then frowned at herself.

"C'mon, Pinkie, let it out," Applejack said. "You told us to laugh at our fears, right? Ain't no bigger fear than this. Here's another one. Two colts were eating lunch at school. One had an apple and the other told him to watch out for worms in it. The first one said, 'Why should I? They can watch out for themselves without my help.'" She grinned at that, and Pinkie laughed.

Rainbow Dash was STILL laughing, and now Spitfire laughed too, then looked a little embarrassed and Soarin' gave a great guffaw.

"How do you make an apple puff?" Applejack said, grinning.

"You chase it around the garden," Apple Blossom said, surprising us. "What can a whole apple do that half an apple can’t do?"

"It can look round," Applejack said, and Pinkie laughed, then tried to stop herself, though it was hard. She glanced over at the body and sighed.

"How do you make an apple turnover?" Applejack asked.

"Push it down the hill," Apple Blossom said, laughing. "A colt asked his father, 'Do you liked baked apples, Dad?' He blinked and replied, 'Everyone likes baked apples, son.' The son gave a sigh of relief. 'Good, because now the orchard is on fire.'"

They kept going relentlessly, Pinkamena trying to stop Apple Blossom, but nothing could stop them. Joke after joke, a barrage of jokes about apples and farming. Ivan threw in a few as well.

Everyone was laughing but Pinkie, who was struggling and twitching and trying not to laugh. "I can't, I can't," she said over and over.

"Wouldn't your great-grandmother want you to laugh? She died so people could be happy. You should be happy to honor her," Fluttershy said very seriously.

"Go ahead, mock death too," Pinkamena said grimly. "We both know there's nothing you consider sacred."

Fluttershy stood up, staring at the ceiling. "That is enough."

"She thinks life is a joke, but the only joke is the one on her. So much potential, but she wastes it all on being silly and trying to make people like her. So she gets used and she doesn't even know it. What a sad, sad pony," Pinkamena said bitterly. "But she's just faking it."

"That's enough," Fluttershy said more firmly and took to the air, staring at the ceiling. Can she see how they see us? "Pinkie is my friend. I don't care who you are. You think she's a fake. If she's fake and you're real, I would rather have the fake."

BURN.

"You don't really like her. You just want someone to laugh at," Pinkamena said bitterly. "No one really likes us."

"Pinkie is my friend," Fluttershy said firmly, trying to stand taller.

"Ahh, yes, the tender love of a coward. That's really useful," Pinkamena said.

Pinkie struggled to her feet. "Fluttershy is not a coward. She's kind and gentle."

"Sometimes I'm jealous of her because Pinkie isn't afraid of anything," Fluttershy said. "But I admire her because she overcomes her fears."

"Yes, you see how well that's going," Pinkamena said harshly.

"Death is very scary," Fluttershy said. "I take care of animals. Do you know how long a mouse lives? I've taken care of the great-great-grandparents of some of the mice I care for right now," she said softly. "But from death, new life comes. Death is not the end, only a change. We will always be reborn in new forms. And our families will continue. Death scares me, but I face it and I will face it in the future. I... will not let it rule me." She sank down and stood by Pinkie Pie. "Laugh with me. Laugh for your great-grandmother."

"I need something to laugh at," Pinkie Pie mumbled.

I jumped up and down making faces and waggling my arms. "BERUEIWLUEREL!"

Pinkie Pie stared, then tried to imitate me. Soon, she, Fluttershy, and I were jumping around, acting ludicrous.

Goodbye, dignity.

And then slowly, with creaky voices, the dead began to laugh. They laughed and laughed and everyone was laughing and jumping around and the gates swung open.

"You are hopeless," Pinkamena said bitterly.

"No, I have hope," Pinkie said. "If even the dead can laugh, then I have hope." She smiled brightly. "Come on, I want to meet Princess Marjorie and see if she likes cookies!"

I have a bad feeling what she likes is us getting an asskicking.

But we'll see.

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

The next room had the final key. When we took it, a door appeared with three keyholes. Convenient. We took a short rest break, but much as I would have liked more rest, we were pretty sure our foes wouldn't just let us rest. And we had a time limit.

But we took a short break to relax. Pinkie Pie and Applejack traded jokes the whole time, which was pretty entertaining.

"I wish we could have bathed," Rarity complained. It was just a little whiney. But not a lot whiney.

"Me too," I said. "But probably some wandering monster would have shown up for Ivan and I."

"I'm sure we could have worked out something for you to bathe with us," Rarity said.

"We could blindfold you," Dash began, sitting sphinx style next to Soarin'.

"The problem is me being seen, not me seeing ponies naked, when I already see you naked," I said.

"It seems silly," Dash said.

"It's just a human thing," I mumbled.

"I'm surprised Ivan didn't have a cutie mark," Dash mused. "I thought he has a pretty strong purpose."

"Yes, but it was just a potion. I don't think it could grant a true cutie mark," I said. "Any more than I would gain Twilight's magic if I drank it and turned into Twilight."

"You could turn into a woman?" Dash said, surprised.

"Yes," I said. "I have no reason to but I could."

"I prefer you as a man," Rarity said.

"I prefer me as a man too," I told her, then scritched her behind her ears; she was sitting Sphinx style next to me. She pulled several thimbles out of her bags and began manipulating them to scratch my back gently. Ooh, that felt good.

"Damn, that looks good," Rainbow Dash said.

I was a little embarrassed now. "Yes," I squeaked.

Soarin' looked at me and I tried to hint to him to do that for Dash.

He clearly didn't quite get it, and Dash said, again, "That looks really nice."

Now Rarity and I were BOTH trying to signal him and he looked really confused.

Spitfire now whispered something to Soarin', who now said, "Want a back rub, Dash?"

"Yes," she said firmly, sounding a little aggravated.

He began working on her; pony hooves are really not hugely well suited for this but he did his best and she soon was quite happy.

Why am I so embarrassed? Damn, this feels good, though.

"We should think about how not to just walk into a giant trap," I said. "They know we're coming. We need something to catch them by surprise."

"We could all take a little sip of the potion and turn the ponies into humans and the humans into ponies," Pinkie said. "That would confuse them!"

"None of us would be fighting the way we're used to," Twilight said.

"Also, we need something to clearly mark our evil twins," Rainbow Dash said.

"Oh, THAT, I am ready for," Twilight said, smiling impishly.

"I smell a praaaank," Pinkie Pie said cheerfully.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I can't say yet. A joke is funniest the first time, according to my primer on jokes," Twilight said. "But you *will* laugh *and* it will clearly identify them as our evil twins." She giggled. "I can hardly wait to do it."

"That's the spirit!" Pinkie said. "I'm proud of you, Twilight. You normally never pull pranks!"

"Oh man, I am TOTALLY curious now," Spike said. "Are you going to give them all duck heads?"

"If I thought that would work, I would turn them all into cactus," Twilight said. She looked thoughtful. "We could use reinforcements. If we knew some way to find Erik, I'm sure he'd help us."

"I have orders to take him to Celestia," Spitfire said and Soarin' nodded.

"C'mon, surely you could wait until we got out of the dungeon," Pinkie said. "What are you going to do, lock him up in your saddlebags?"

"Celestia wants very much to see him," Spitfire said stiffly. "I know you like him, Twilight, but I can't let him roam free once I'm sure where he is."

FUCK ME.

"I'm sure she'll understand once I explain everything!," Twilight said frantically.

There's going to be a fake Erik somehow and everything will GO TO HELL.

"Relax," Rarity said softly to me. "You're getting tense again."

Her ministrations did make it easier to relax and I suddenly wondered if she suspected. But surely she wouldn't be this nice to me if she did. But there is the other thing, which they all have to suspect...

As if on cue, Dash said, "Marcus, I have to ask you something."

Fuck me. Can't be good. "Go on?"

"Why are you so scared all the time?" Dash asked. "You know you're safe with us."

I relaxed a little, which I could tell confused her. "I have had a long and turbulent life, full of adventure but also danger. Often, running for my life was either the best or the only solution," I told her. "Right now, here, I feel fairly safe. With all of you around me. But dungeons, they especially require paranoia."

"Yeah, but you ran right into the quicksand," Dash pointed out.

I laughed ruefully. "Built up instincts don't always work."

"I... don't know if I should ask," Dash said, suddenly studying the ground.

Soarin' continued to work her back silently, though now he looked curious.

I had a feeling I didn't want her to ask.

"Is it urgent?" Rarity asked, sounding a little nervous herself.

"Maybe I shouldn't ask," Dash told Rarity's foot.

Now I'm curious AND scared at the same time, a combination which usually ends in FIRE.

"Just ask," I said. Dammit, why did I say that? "You're a good friend. I know you wouldn't ask if you didn't think it was important."

Dash said, "I'll be right back, Soarin'."

What?

He blinked and nodded and we went off to the corner. Very softly, she said, "Did something... bad... ever happen to you when bathing with others?"

...

"Because you totally know we wouldn't do anything... you know... to hurt you." Dash sounded very worried.

"I've had people try to kill me when I was naked or at least come at with intent to do me harm," I told her.

Her eyes widened and she grimaced. "We wouldn't... you can trust us," she said urgently.

"But everything I said about humans generally not bathing with the opposite sex also applies. I didn't make that up. I know you won't do anything to me," I told Dash. "I trust you. But you're a woman. It's just not done, generally. Even in Thyatis we segregate our baths by gender." And I have to avoid being KILLED.

"But I'm naked all the time," she mumbled.

"It's a human thing," I told her.

"Most of the human things seem to suck," Dash said. "Though hands seem pretty useful."

"Very," I told her. "A human without hands is pretty much helpless, though you can still walk, at least."

"I..." Dash licked her lips. "Okay. You just have to know you're safe with us."

"I know," I told her. "Thank you."

We came back and settled in where we had been before, though now Dash tried to give Soarin' a backrub. "You two good?" he asked.

"We're good," she said, though she sounded a little sad.

Sorry, Dash, it isn't you, but I have to hide my naked ass.

Or I will surely die.

I now took Rarity's thimbles and worked on her back, while she made happy noises. Always repay a favor.

It now hit me there had been a distinct lag of magical weapon swag. Though apparently Keraptis isn't running the show, so maybe they all took his weapons and are doing it their way.

Though I have this shapechanging sword which may well be the Falchion of Minroth.

Even though this is going to unlock uncomfortable questions, I have to know. So I asked Twilight to come over; she did so with Spike tagging along. He sat down on the other side of Rarity from me.

"Did Owlicious say anything about the Falchion of Minroth's powers?" I asked her. "If Marquetta is behind all this... and I suspect 'Marjorie' is actually her... then she may be after my sword. Though on the other hand, when she invaded my dreams, she didn't actually say anything about my sword."

"Well, I think it hides from her when it is not in falchion form," Twilight said. "Which is also probably why Minroth hasn't reclaimed it."

"Making a weapon that can hide from you seems foolish to me," Spike said.

Twilight licked her lips. "I didn't want to raise this in the middle of a mission but since we're on the topic... Dmitri was you, right?"

"I think," I said. "I'm not sure what's going on. I have bits of memory relating to him... I recognized that death... but it's like he died. And there's other times I thought I was dead and then I wasn't, but... my memories are full of holes and I can't even remember where I was born or who I was at the time." Just thinking about it creeps me out. I stared at the floor. "I might have even been an elf at one point," I told her. "And it's like... That thing when I freaked out and grabbed Dash, I think I was a dwarf."

"Maybe the sword reincarnates you when you die?" Spike speculated thoughtfully.

Rarity nuzzled me comfortingly and I ruffled her mane. "It's okay," she said softly.

"Thank you," I said softly.

Spike resumed Marcus-hate-o-vision. Sorry, man. But everyone needs a hug sometimes.

I got a pony hug from Twilight as well, and then Dash too. I felt better if crushed after that. Ponies are not as lightweight as you'd think.

"I think Spike's theory has merit," Twilight said. "It's as good a guess as any. You've had the sword ever since, right?"

"Yes," I told her. It was an axe when I was Erik, I now realized.

Twilight tapped her cheek. "Any memory of being a pony, a gnome, or a halfling?"

I was afraid to find out but I cleared my mind and asked it for a damn flashback.

Glimmers of thought. Twilight trotted over again and touched her horn to my forehead. Oh crap. And then there was light.

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

TWILIGHT-INDUCED FLASHBACK:

Boats make me nervous despite living on an island. Open Isle was originally barren, but our ancestors made it suitable for halflings like us and now it's a mixture of grains, vegetables, and orchards. We live in nice burrows, though we keep some surface buildings for the tall folk and on the fringes of the island where the water table is too close to the surface.

We were on our way to a very dangerous place. The Isle of Dread. Home to crazed monsters extinct everywhere else. Mostly various kinds of homicidal lizards. But we can handle them, I think.

Once I am no longer on a boat.

I may be a halfling, but I can kick anything bigger's ass, so long as I have something stable to stand on. If this boat sinks, I will die in the ocean, as even I can't swim 300 miles back to Minrothad.

But I'm sure it'll be fine. I've got a good group of companions.

I glanced over at Sildil, who was staring at her hands for some reason. She's our break-in expert and a little flighty sometimes. She also seems rather confused. "Sildil, what's wrong?"

"I have hands," she said.

This is going to be a long trip, I see.

"And they're exactly where you left them," I said.

"What?" Delune asked; she was seated in the captain's chair on the upper deck; she's trained in the secret Minrothad arts of weather and sailing wizardry. With her, we don't need a big crew for this ship, or even winds. She can MAKE our winds. Her curly black hair whipped about in the wind; she has a single pink stripe for some reason down one side of her hair. "Did Sildil forget her tools? Dammit, I told her to pack them! I made a list of all of my supplies! Sildil, if you don't plan, you can't complain when you don't have something. Am I going to have to turn this boat around?" She put her hands on her hips. "Jacob!"

The hold door soon opened and Jacob stuck his head up; he's our token human, big and strong and smarter than he looks, with short brown hair and a thick mustache Like me, he's in charge of stabbing things. Though he uses a claymore; they're a kind of giant two-handed sword from his homeland in Glantri, Klantyre. "Some things got loose, I was tying them down, Delune," he said.

"Sildil forgot some of her equipment," Delune said, frustrated. "Tell me you packed it for her."

"I've got it all!" Maela said, startling us all. Wasn't she back on Open Isle? Her boyfriend had wanted her to perform for some of his clients; Joam is involved in selling oranges to the Thyatian navy, which uses them to fight scurvy. You can't trust Thyatians but you CAN profit off them. She had her weird instrument; it's half bellows, half piano, half... something. However, she now threw a backpack at Sildil's feet. "Here's all her stuff she forgot! Good thing I remembered! I finished helping out Joam, so I borrowed a boat and came after you." She smiled, making her long brown hair flop about in its fancy style she favors.

We were now towing a small sailing boat. Well, that could be useful, though our failure to notice her arrival doesn't bode well for any pirate encounters we may have.

I patted my short sword. It's enchanted, but not very impressive. However, if all goes well and the map is accurate, then soon I'll have a much better one.

"Hey, Spiira," I shouted up to the crow's nest. Spiira was, in fact, busy mending and improving our sails instead of keeping watch. She had her long red hair pulled back in a white kerchief decorated with embroidered blue gems.

"Can't talk, working," Spiira said. "Be with you in a minute."

"Thanks, Maela," Delune said to her. "Sildil, are you okay?"

Sildil wobbled slightly, then looked at Jacob. "Big!"

"Yes, I am," he said amiably. "Booga wooga!" He faked being a ghost and she jumped, then got mad.

"Don't make fun of me!"

"Is Rafe down with you?" I asked Jacob. Rafe is our cleric; he worships Minroth and has been a big help to me in our adventures.

"Rafe is busy purifying the food and water again, just to be sure," Jacob said. "I don't think doing it every day is necessary."

"I am taking no chances," I told him. I'd rather be careful than rush into disaster.

But really, with this group backing me, I can't go wrong.

"Why are we all barefoot?" Sildil asked me.

"Because we have hairy feet that keep us warm and we're more sure-footed and silent without shoes," I said.

"Technically, since Rafe and I have boots on, we're not all barefoot," Jacob said cheerfully.

Delune now launched into a lecture on why halflings are normally barefoot which really was more than we needed to know, given we're all halflings except for Jacob and he's been around us so long, he already knows.

I dunno what is up with Sildil.

"Time for oompa-dancing," Maela said, starting up her thing... I need to find out what it is one of these days.

Spiira begged off due to the 'need' to make the sails 'better'. Somehow.

The rest of us were soon whiling the hours away with a dance.

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

We all stared mindlessly at each other, then Dash stared at her hooves. "I have hooves," she mumbled.

"Okay, that answers one question," Twilight mumbled.

"I hope you don't mind I cut in," Pinkie said from behind me, making me jump. "But you said I could come to the next flashback."

...

"I used to be tiny with hairy feet?" Dash said, confused.

"I think Twilight's spell kind of inserted you into people from the memory; I don't think those people were you," I said. Though now I wasn't sure. "I think in the actual events, Maela was not able to just suddenly catch up to us."

"Being bigger than Twilight was kind of cool," Spike said. "And I had a GREAT mustache"

I felt a lot braver than I normally do, though. That one must have been a long time ago. Now I felt kind of jealous of him for not being so worried and having a good group of friends to rely on.

Though this group is pretty good.

"Now I'm going to worry about those sails," Rarity said, sighing.

Soarin' laughed. "Being a cleric was kind of cool. So what happened to them?"

"I guess we succeeded," I said. "But I don't remember clearly."

"We could try again," Twilight said.

"It's probably better not to probe too deep right now as if something attacked while we were all locked in a flashback, then the others would be without our help," I said. "And knocking us out of the spell might cause trouble."

"Ho, ho, Pinkie to the rescue!" Pinkie said cheerfully. "That was Odo the Quick and his friends. They had a bunch of adventures around seventy five years ago," she said.

"But that would be before I was Dmitri," I said hesitantly.

"Yes," Pinkie said. "Unless you time-traveled! I could tell you all about how Khoronus became his own grandfather and his own sponsor for immortality! Thanks to time-travel!"

"You didn't have the sword either, right?" Dash said.

"Yes, I was off on a quest to find some weapon."

"The sword, maybe?" Spike said.

"But Dmitri got the sword from Marquetta," I said.

"Yes, but maybe you were in the group she took it from. Then you reincarnated and came back for it," Twilight said. "Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Human... I bet you were a Pony at some point too."

"I'm sure Marcus would be a very handsome stallion," Rarity said, smiling.

Probably but it means NAKED ASS and that means DEATH TO MARCUS.

Really, this whole conversation is treading on dangerous ground. If they had seen me since... when did I get the tattoo? Dmitri did NOT have it, I know that. I think I got it when I was Cufen, after I stopped being Aristobolus. Then I became Erik, then Marcus.

Hey wait, that guy was named Cufen? Well, it is a common Minrothadi name, I think.

If he turns out to have the face I had...

I stupidly didn't even ASK. And I'm not sure how I can subtly ask.

"You would be a very beautiful human, I'm sure," I told her. Get off topic of me as pony and on topic of complimenting her and not the topic of how I might be Erik because I AM.

"You've known Ivan for years, right?" Twilight said.

"Yes," I said. "At least a decade, I think. He was on his Shearing when we met."

"Do you know how Odo died, Pinkie?" Twilight asked.

"He went on a quest and never came back," Pinkie said. "Beyond that, I don't know."

"We should probably get going and worry about this later," I said. Much as I want to know. "As the longer we wait, the more time our foes have to get ready."

Twilight nodded, though I could tell her curiosity was up. Aaaargh. She's probably the only one who can solve this but...

We got everyone together, then headed through the door.

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

We passed down a hallway and into a large room. It was tiled with geometric art and paintings of swirling voids of shadow and creepy red and dark blue points of light. Someone had improvised chains made of adamantine... okay, no one just 'improvises' chains made of adamantine, but it was clear the actual tying of Keraptis to the wall with mithril stakes and adamantine chains had been improvised and showed signs of melting things into place. Probably thanks to Spikey.

One wall was covered with levers and crystal panels and buttons and switches and shining lights and little crystal balls which held various messages. You could see the mouth of the volcano in one of the crystal panels, though nothing interesting was happening unless you happened to really like steam.

Keraptis was human-sized but hidden inside his purple and black robes, and seven stars shone inside his hood, which was kind of creepy. You could see his hands; he had pale flesh with black veins. UGH. However, he had a guest we had not anticipated.

A god-pony.

She was off-white, a kind of creamy, shiny color, not the same as Celestia's white coat, but not that far removed. Buff? No, that's totally not it. There's something more precise than off-white, I think.

Anyway, her oddly shiny coat was matched by a black mane, elaborately coiffed into curls and piled up on her head, under her fancy crown, designed to work around the hair, made of gold and set with opals. She wore... it was like her hoof-guard-things were made of a smoothly polished solid version of her coat. Like jade, but the color of her coat. Something like that.

Probably enchanted, the way I assume Celestia's are.

Her eyes were green like fine jade and she was an alicorn like Celestia. Could this be Luna? Though if that pony in that one picture had been Luna, she'd changed appearance a lot as Nightmare Moon. The alicorn's cutie mark was three smaller stars orbiting a larger one. One of the three smaller ones shone a little brighter than the other two, though not on the level of the larger star.

Then I remembered who Sir Lintsalot served. 'Princess Marjorie the Wise'. Who is probably Marquetta transformed into a god-Pony.

She was accompanied by the Elements of Power but also by three Ponies we had not met yet. One of them was an Earth pony with a gray mane and a coat which was an odd grayish purple, hitched to a cart of cabbages. His cutie mark, however, was a turnip. The second was an elegant unicorn pony with a coat which was a grayish blue and a mane of grayish dark-green. Her hair was elaborately coiffed and she wore golden glasses hooked to her ears by delicate gold chains and a fancy black and white dress. Her cutie mark was a very elegant bag of flour. The last one was a young pegasus stallion, wearing a leather jacket and brass fittings on his hooves for fighting, grey-coated with a black mane. He had a pile of rocks for a cutie mark.

Pinkie stared at them, mouth wide open, unable to actually speak. Applejack gave them an odd look and frowned.

Twilight bowed, so we all bowed to the god-pony. Was she really a god-pony? But we would have heard of her. This was likely Marquetta. But we'd have to see.

"Princess Marjorie, these are the Elements of Harmony, the evil clones of your servants the Elements of Power," Mr. Turnip said. He sounded just like Pinkamena trying to sound male.

Madam LeFlour, on the other hand, sounded like Pinkamena trying to fake a Prance accent. "Zey are a gang of unlettered barbarians with no fashion sense, who steal ze oranges from poor, hard-working dogs and rob and pillage everything in sight."

Ivan gave a thumbs up, grinning.

I now noticed Rarity had donned her fancy dress, thanks to the power of HAT. This is why hats rule.

I touched my hat, reveling in its benevolence. And its toting of an emergency escape spell. I quickly checked for exits. Four tunnels led out of here; none had obvious wards or traps or even doors.

"We have hats, and thus cannot fail to be in fashion," I said. "And Rarity is an expert fashion designer."

"And Fluttershy is a famous model," Twilight said quickly.

Fluttershy said, "I retired from modeling though, to pursue hugging bunnies and feeding ferrets." She paused. "But I can model if you really want me to." She licked her lips nervously.

"I am Princess Marjorie the Wise," Princess Marjorie said with her very smooth, gracious voice. It reminded me of Apple Blossom or Rarity, except she took it to the next level up. Utterly smooth and charming and calm and collected. "I command the stars themselves."

That does make sense. I think the Draconic immortals also line up to a sun/moon/stars triad, with the Great One as the boss. The Sun Dragon commands the metallic dragons, the Moon Dragon commands colored dragons, and the Star Dragon commands gemstone dragons. Which I assume Spike hails from that line, though I'm not sure.

But I've never heard of this 'Princess Marjorie' either. She is probably Marquetta.

Twilight studied her a few seconds, then smiled a little. "I am Twilight Sparkle, Princess, a student of the stars and disciple of Princess Celestia."

"You believe that," she said sadly, "But actually you were made through the wicked magics of this fool Keraptis, mere shadows of my Elements of Power," she continued. Her words held so much conviction, you wanted to believe them, though I knew this wasn't true.

"We are NOT shadows," Applejack said firmly. "Sorry, Princess, but somepony's garbled something somewhere, 'cause that ain't true. We got born in the natural way, and we grew up the natural way and I guess one day we'll die the natural way and go back to the soil. I think that Pinkamena's pulled a fast one on you."

"I would never lie to Princess Marjorie," Pinkamena said. "I am her faithful servant." She sounded angelic but her eyes were angry.

I could see Pinkie's eyes taking in her imaginary friends made real and putting it all together for herself. Her eyes widened, and then she looked worried.

Keraptis tried to speak but nothing came out of his mouth. Yeah, he knows the truth, so she silenced him.

"They're the ones who robbed Vermicoritax, Princess," I said, bowing. "I am Samus Marcus of Thyatis."

"You believe that, but you are just another shadow of the real thing," she said sadly with such conviction, I could almost believe it. But I remembered what Twilight had shown me. I find it hard to believe I was once a Halfling but it feels right.

Unfortunately.

I prefer being a human, but then, I likely thought the same of being a halfling then.

Sammy looked at me and had the GALL to look sad. Bastard.

"You all have stolen items which belong to my servants. But I am merciful as a princess should be," Marjorie said. "Bow to me and swear fealty and I will allow you to live. Any who will not swear must be destroyed."

"Hell no," Spike said.

Twilight looked at the odds against us. Not good at all. A god-Pony who may be a red dragon, our evil twins AND Pinkie's imaginary friends, short one who is on his way to Canterlot.

Pinkie turned to her imaginary friends, "You wouldn't really attack us, would you?"

They all looked intensely uncomfortable. "I could never attack you, Pinkie," Rocky said. "But these other ponies, you know they don't care about you. We're your real friends. You should join us."

Madam LeFlour nodded. "We love you, Pinkie, but we don't like these rude, vulgar ponies who just come around when they feel like it and leave you alone too much."

"That's not true," Fluttershy protested. "We care about Pinkie."

"We have cabbages," Mr. Turnip said with a sing-song voice and I could not help but laugh. So did Rainbow Dash.

Pinkie said, "They are my friends. But you're my friends too. Do we really have to fight?" She winced.

"If you swear fealty to me, you won't have to fight your old friends," Marjorie said smoothly.

"But I can't fight my new friends either," Pinkie said frantically, looking back and forth.

"We'd be happy to have you," Twilight said warmly to Pinkie's imaginary friends.

"You can't leave me," Pinkamena said urgently. "You know they're bad ponies, anyway. You know how badly they treat Pinkie."

"They don't treat me badly!" Pinkie protested.

"Pinkie's our friend, we don't mistreat her," Applejack protested. "We even threw her a surprise party for her birthday!"

"It was fun too!," Pinkie said. "We're going to have a big victory party in Canterlot after this! You should all come," she said hopefully to her imaginary but now semi-real friends.

"A party with Princess Celestia, zat would be wonderful," Madam LeFlour said.

"Oooh, I bet there will be some fine grub," Rocky said gleefully.

"I bet I could sell a lot of cabbages," Mr. Turnip said. He sounded elated.

"I... uh... I don't know how much they go for cabbages," Applejack said to Mr. Turnip. "They can be kinda snooty."

Applejack, don't undercut Pinkie's effort to sway them!

"You should all come!" Pinkie said to the Elements. "We can settle this better with a party!"

"I like parties," Keraptis said with his creepy, creaky voice. Just listening to him made my skin crawl.

Soarin' now whispered to Dash, who looked utterly shocked, but he, to my surprise, looked firm and she nodded, though she didn't seem happy.

"Later," Princess Marjorie said. "All of you must bow to me and swear fealty or you will be destroyed and there will be no parties at all." Her voice held a tone of impatient command. "KNEEL."

"No," Twilight said. "We bow only to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, not to you. Your servants have stolen items we must recover. We are willing to negotiate but we will not swear fealty."

"Then you will DIE," Princess Marjorie said.

Well, shit. I may end up using that feather, only I doubt I can escape here on my own.

Princess Marjorie spread her wings and shouted angrily at us. Then she shone in a great aura of sparkling stars. It hit us and we all stumbled, the force of her mind hammering at us. Pinkie and Fluttershy fell down and Ivan and I collapsed onto our hands and knees before her power. Rarity stumbled back, as did Soarin', and Spike fell down like Ivan and I. But Twilight stood among the stars as if born to do so, and Applejack planted her hooves, driving them into the stone, and Spitfire, though she was pushed back, now managed to push back to her starting point.

And Dash?

To my utter shock, she flew off down one of the hallways, vanishing from sight. I couldn't believe it.

"We will not kneel," Twilight said determinedly.

Pinkie and Fluttershy both rolled away from Marjorie, then recovered and tried to stop rolling more. Soarin' ended up pressed to the wall. Spitfire tried to advance, but couldn't do it. I fell onto my back like a turtle, tumbled, and caught myself. Damnation.

Ivan cursed like a sailor, catching himself, even as Rarity now stumbled over to me and tried to roll me over.

"Anyone who relies only on their strength to get their way is no princess, nothing more than a bully," Twilight said calmly, as if whatever the hell this is happened all the time.

I tried to focus, but I could feel memories flipping through my mind. I remembered the dragonfear, so powerful, tearing apart our plans. We got some of the dragon's treasure but we fled, possessed by fear and died, screaming, afraid.

I was so afraid. I could see my deaths. Too many of them. Not as many as I had feared, but it held me down, paralyzed me. This was Marquetta and she was going to kill me again and there was nothing I could do. I envied Twilight so much, her certainty and strength.

I always afraid, always torn, always running away. When I do try to commit to something, it blows up. All I wanted to do was to flee again and it made me sick.

Not sick enough to stop wanting to run.

Marjorie turned the full strength of her gaze on Twilight, who gritted her teeth and made her horn glow and stood defiantly.

Applejack got her lasso and snagged Fluttershy, starting to pull her back up by herself and Twilight.

"Marcus, come on, get up," Rarity said, wobbling herself. "You can do it."

I clutched her leg. It helped a little, though she nearly fell on me.

She was shaking, but she stood and I felt even more embarrassed.

Keraptis' eyes were moving around, disturbing me more. The Elements of Power and Pinkie's imaginary friends just watched, waiting for a command. The aura didn't touch them, somehow, though it shone around them.

"I am divine," Marquetta insisted. I hope she's lying and she's just faking being a god-Pony, but who knows. She's got a hell of an aura, just a dragon or an Immortal in mortal form. "You are mortal and you will BOW to the one who is better than you."

"You might be stronger," Twilight said, concentrating, "But you are not better. You misuse your strength instead of using it to defend others. I will not bow. None of us will bow."

Ivan stumbled and then he rose, stumbling forward a step. "I will not bow!" he shouted. "I am sick and tired of wolves like you!" He swept his arm across all our foes as if to somehow smite them with his hand. Slowly, he stumbled over to Pinkie and began trying to help her up.

For some reason, Soarin' started smiling, though he was still pinned to the wall.

Slowly, I climbed up, with Rarity's help, using her to stabilize me, though I had to cling to her to do so. I felt the strength of her mind twine with mine, calming my fears and enabling me to hold out against Marjorie's incredible amount of power.

But I doubt I looked very impressive leaning down and clinging to her like a life preserver.

Fluttershy began rolling forwards; it was stupidly cute to watch her go, and I actually smiled a little. Seeing her trying helped me to try harder.

Spitfire was stuck, unwilling to retreat, unable to advance, Soarin' still stuck to the wall, but Spike crawled over and we stood together, except for the missing Dash, though some of us (Applejack, Twilight) were rather more impressive than the others.

I cannot believe Dash ran away!

On the other hand, I would have run if I hadn't been too scared to run. I'd be on the floor without Rarity.

"You can't break us," Twilight said confidently. I think she's so thrilled to take on Marjorie and hold her own in an aura battle that she hasn't thought about us being severely outnumbered. "We can still discuss this like rational adults."

"Do not talk down to ME, mortal," Princess Marjorie hissed angrily. "You will KNEEL."

The aura came on stronger and we wobbled. Especially me. It was growing unbearable.

And then Soarin' surprised everyone by flailing, shouting and generally carrying on ridiculously. Everyone turned to stare at him, wondering what was going on, even Marjorie.

"He's finally snapped, which you'd expect of anyone crazy enough to kiss a coward like Rainbow Dash," Pinkamena said sadly.

"What a zad fate for a Wonderbolt," Madam LeFlour said.

"You are pathetic," Princess Marjorie said harshly.

This is when I learned something important.

If you fly fast enough, you can actually fly faster than sound. This means no one can hear you coming because you outrace the sound you make.

Which means, crazily enough, that you can sneak up on someone at EXTREMELY high speed.

None of us saw it coming until suddenly, BOOM, a giant rainbow exploded through the room, shredding Marjorie's aura like a knife driven through toilet paper. THEN we heard it. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and at the heart of it was Rainbow Dash. My face got wet somehow as I stared at it, feeling the strength finally come back into my limbs. She came back.

I should have known she wouldn't run away.

She came back for us.

I nearly fell down from the removal of the pressure. Princess Marjorie went tumbling past Keraptis, who began laughing. "Marvelous, marvelous," he said, his light dots forming into a huge inhuman grin.

"BOO YAH!" Rainbow Dash shouted. "Like a dream, Soarin', like a DREAM."

Soarin' began laughing and I realized... he'd planned this.

I had to give him a thumbs up for that. Nicely played, Soarin'.

I should have known she'd never abandon us.

The Elements of Power stared, eyes wide, as tiny fragments of rainbow fell down on everything. They looked utterly stunned. I'm sure I did too.

When Marjorie rose back up, she was the angriest thing I have seen in a very long time. Smoke came out of her mouth and her eyes burned with rage. "You dare. YOU DARE!"

"I always dare," Rainbow Dash said, striking a cocky pose. "You ready to stop talking smack?"

Princess Marjorie's wings stirred dust as she rose and now her horn grew into a long spear. "Let's try that again. KILL THEM ALL!" she shouted and charged at Dash, who fled before her.

"Dash!" Twilight shouted, but she now had to counter Dawn Gleaming's lightning barrage with a burst of water. She then cast a spell and...

Goatees appeared on our evil twins. Their onrushing attack was briefly stalled by sheer shock at what Twilight had done.

Pinkie fell down and rolled around. "HAHAHAHAH! Good one, Twilight!" She crashed right into her evil twin and now they were both rolling around, Pinkamena yelling angrily.

I expected Sammy to come at me, but he charged at Twilight, then had to dodge when Spike breathed fire at him. He kept trying to come at her, but Spike held him off. "I won't let you hurt her!" Spike shouted.

Apple Blossom now slid on gloves from under her dress. Or boots. Whatever is right for a cloth covering of her forehooves. Then she slinked towards Applejack, who said, "Don't make me ruin your frou-frou dress, fake me."

Applejack was quite surprised when a glowing cord appeared between Apple Blossom's forehooves and then she moved to tangle it around one of Applejack's legs and throw her. "Even a lady must learn to defend herself," she said to Applejack. "Have at thee!" And now the fight really started.

Rocky looked off towards the missing Dash, then at Fluttershy, then at Soarin' and then nodded. He and Cruisin' both came at Soarin', who whipped through the middle of them, tossing them aside; he began dodging them both, keeping them busy.

Spitfire drank more of her potion and she and Fire Swallow began circling each other in the air, spitting fire at each other and dodging each other's shots.

Mr. Turnip rushed over and helped Pinkie and Pinkamena get up. "You okay, Pinkie?" he asked, worried.

"I'm fine! You okay?" she asked Pinkamena.

"I'm fine." Beat. "Mr. Turnip, you have to capture her for her own good! She has to learn these other ponies don't care about her!"

Mr. Turnip laughed nervously, clearly not wanting to do this but also clearly not much of a fighter.

Spikey rushed at me; he wore a red cape and was armed with a golden sword. I parried the blow, but then he breathed fire on me; my sword parted the flames and Spikey's eyes widened. I grinned a little at that. "Do we have to fight?" I asked him. "Surely you wouldn't attack fair Rarity, would you?" I asked.

He faltered, staring at Rarity.

Rarity was locked in an arrow duel with Clarity, arrows arcing around wildly and knocking each other out of the air. I couldn't tell who was better, though I don't think either was going all out yet.

Ivan tried to run over to free Keraptis but was intercepted by Niccolo; the two of them began to fight, sword to sword, but Niccolo began to be forced back. The Elements of Power are copies, but they're clearly strong copies... but Niccolo was just a copy of Ivan. He had no metaphysical weight behind him.

Unfortunately, Rainbow Crash now charged at Spitfire, nailing her and sending her tumbling and she and Fire Swallow began driving her back.

Dragonfly was busy cackling and hurling lightning at Fluttershy, who dodged desperately, trying to avoid being blasted. Without any animals or plants to work with, her powers wouldn't be much use. I felt terrible for her, but I was pinned down.

Twilight now hurled fire at Dawn Gleaming, but Madame LeFlour dumped a huge cloud of flour on her, and now she was inside her own fire storm and she ran around yelping. Spike wanted to help her but was busy with my evil twin. "Sorry, Spike," Sammy said, "But once I set my mind on something I cannot be stopped and I never give up!"

I winced at that.

"I love Dawn Gleaming with all my heart and I won't let her evil twin hurt her!" Sammy said, dodging and weaving, trying to get past Spike's fire blasts.

All your heart. That's a good way to get your heart broken. I fought the urge to flashback to when I was with Dona Carlotta. Too dangerous under the circumstances.

"I won't let you hurt Twilight! Now stand still and BURN UP!" Spike shouted.

I wanted to do something to help Twilight but what could I do? Dammit! I tried to remember how the water spell went.

But I couldn't remember while fighting Spikey, even with him stroking his goatee and being pleased by it. I slowly pushed him back, feeling quite pleased I could at least handle someone. Arrows whizzed around us as Clarity and Rarity continued their arrow duel.

I had to do something; we were outnumbered, many of our people were on the run or getting clobbered. Though seeing Applejack lasso her evil twin and throw her at Rocky did cheer me up a little.

"Boys! Get her!" Apple Blossom shouted and now a squad of ten Bulldogs ran in. Oh bloody hell! They all rushed at Applejack and started chasing her, while Apple Blossom looked satisfied.

I had an idea. It was dangerous. "Rarity, you could manipulate a lot of levers and switches at the same time, right?" I asked her.

Twilight had washed herself off and was now chasing Dawn Gleaming angrily, hurling lightning at her, but now she got a faceful of flour again, leading to her getting zapped.

DAMMIT.

"If I wasn't being shot at," she said.

"I will guard; you need to hit every button, flip every switch on the controls. It doesn't matter how, we just need a source of chaos," I told her.

"I can't let you do that!" Spikey said, rushing at me.

Rarity nodded, parrying another shot; they were firing each other's arrows at each other now, an intricate, beautiful dance of arrows. I would have enjoyed watching it if I hadn't been fighting so hard.

A bulldog now flew overhead, thanks to Applejack. Even better. I reached out and PUSHED with magic, dropping him on Clarity, whose arrows fell as she fell. "Thanks, Applejack!" I shouted. Unfortunately, this got me knocked down by Spikey, who then kicked me in the groin. OWWW!!!!

Rarity reached out with her power and hit every kind of control she could. Keraptis began laughing and we could see the walls moving and pits opening in the floor and rooms realigning and rebuilding. The ceiling now opened, there was a flash of light, and a half-dozen... no, just five... fillies fell on me.

OWWW!!!

Rarity said, "Sweetie Belle, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?"

"Thanks for breaking our fall, mister!," the yellow and red filly said to me; she, like all the others, wore a maroon cloak with a golden lining. Three of them (including her) had a blue shield on it with a pony rampant. The other two (a purple and blond unicorn and a grey and red (curly) earth pony) had a white shield with a blue ice cube on it.

"You're welcome," I mumbled as the rest hopped off me. The third one with a rampant pony cloak was an orange pegasus with a purple mane.

"Holy cow, it's a human!" the pegasus said. "Two! THREE! FOUR!"

"And look, two of Spike!" the red-maned yellow filly said.

This must be the Cutie Mark Crusaders, but what are they doing HERE?

BAD BAD BAD BAD.

"Sweetie Belle!" Clarity said, getting up. "This place is dangerous!"

"I... I am seeing double!" Sweetie Belle said, panicked

"And me," the curly haired redhead said, looking around frantically. "My glasses aren't helping!"

"We're all seeing double!," the blonde unicorn said. "All the adults have split in two!"

Keraptis maniacal laughter didn't help. Neither did having a half dozen trolls drop into the room out of another ceiling panel. Madam LeFlour turned and dumped flour on them, blinding them, but now we had blinded trolls roaming around, trying to claw anything they could hear. Fortunately, this meant two of them started trying to eat each other.

Another troll rushed at Pinkie; Mr. Turnip began firing cabbages at him, and he began eating them. "I am going to run out! Think of something!" he said frantically to Pinkie.

Pinkie pulled out a hideous twisted monstrosity of a cupcake; worms were crawling around in it, it smelled like vomit and it was grey and puke green. "Distract him," she said to Pinkamena as she balanced it on one hoof.

Pinkamena drew herself up, mimicking a troll, then began roaring at him and shaking her butt.

...

He stopped and began doing the same thing.

...

As they did this, Pinkie crept up and shoved the cupcake of doom in his mouth. He turned purple, fell over and began vomiting, then she, Pinkamena, and Mr. Turnip fled his presence. "Great job, sister!" Pinkie said as they ran.

"I am not your sister!" Pinkamena protested, while Mr. Turnip laughed. "And if I was, I'd be the ELDER sister!"

Spikey clutched his head. "Kids, what are you doing here?"

"Hey, you're a BABY," the yellow and red foal said irritably. "Don't call me a kid! I'm a BIG pony!"

If Applejack hadn't been so nimble, the dogs would have pulled her down by now, but as it stood, she was barely keeping free. "Apple Bloom, you are in all the trouble in the WORLD!"

"Princess Luna sent us to rescue you!" Apple Bloom said. "And get our cutie marks!"

Unless she's crazy or they are more badass than they look... no, they got conned by something or someone.

"Can any of you make a distraction?" I asked.

"Young lady, what are you doing?" Clarity asked Sweetie Belle.

"Sweetie, you were supposed to stay home!" Rarity said.

Sweetie swung back and forth like she was mounted on a pivot and was clearly overwhelmed by events.

A ceiling panel opened up, sucking up Soarin' and Cruisin' and Rocky; you could hear chaos in progress as they got sucked out of sight.

Distantly, I heard Rainbow Dash shout something about raisins.

I don't know either.

A Troll now rushed towards us and the Cutie Mark Crusaders.

SHIT.

Lightning crackled from a painting at Ivan and Niccolo, but they both dodged and Keraptis kept laughing, clearly pleased by the utter anarchy.

I am starting to think my idea was not the best one I have ever had.

Rainbow Dash now came zooming into sight. "Hah! I lost her! Hey, get off Spitfire!" ZOOM. WHAM. Rainbow Crash and Dash tumbled, locked in combat, and Spitfire exploited the surprise to knock Fire Swallow into a Troll. Who she promptly set on fire and he fled screaming, dropped into a pit trap, which flung him into the ceiling; he fell down in the pit, bounced up and continued bouncing, while on fire.

"If any of you fillies can make flame, BURN THE TROLL," I said and stepped up to fight it.

Good news, my sword took its left arm off.

Bad news one, the arm began crawling towards Apple Bloom.

Bad news two, it cut me on the chest despite my armor. OWW. Fortunately, it wasn't deep but I screamed like a child being beaten.

Low pain threshold is me.

"I can make bubbles and mist!" the purple and blond unicorn filly said. Mist now shrouded the entire hall, hiding most of the chaos from us. I don't know if this was good or bad.

The curly haired redhead threw licorice whips at the troll; it stupidly bent over to grab them and I turned my sword to an axe and took its head off. OH YEAH.

Mind you, troll, this meant the head began rolling around trying to find its body.

Rarity shot the crawling arm, then fired the arm off across the room into the mist.

Clarity said, "Spikey, BURN IT."

He set the Troll on fire and I hacked it up while trying to tell my chest to not bleed too much. Then Apple Bloom pulled out a bottle and hurled it at it; it went up in more flames. "Lantern oil! HAH!"

The troll collapsed, burning; we could still hear, but not see, the chaos still going on.

"Marcus, hold on," Rarity said and very quickly bandaged my wound, while Clarity and Spikey moved to defend the fillies.

"My dear sister," Clarity said to Sweetie Belle, "Stay behind me, I will protect you."

Damn, they... I remembered Apple Blossom. They must have some memories and bonds.

Probably more like neutral twins, then.

A thought hit me. "You two have Cutie Marks already?" I said to the blond unicorn and the curly redhead. That's why they have polar expedition patches instead.

"Yes," the curly redhead said. "I'm Twist and this is Dinky Doo. I'm an expert candymaker and Dinky is the mistress of fog and mist magic!"

They brought an expert candymaker to try to rescue the Elements of Harmony from something.

Filly logic all over.

Children... just a little crazy. In every species.

"Clarity, is there somewhere safe we can take the children?"

"My quarters WERE safe," she said. "But now everything's going berserk." She frowned.

"I could go check," Spikey said.

"Please," she said and he ran into the mist.

Fluttershy now ran up to us. She was breathing hard. "She's so relentless," she said. "S... Scootaloo? Sweetie? What are you all doing here?"

"They came to rescue us," I said deadpan.

Fluttershy blinked in surprise, then took a licorice stick from Twist and began munching on it.

Distantly, I heard Dragonfly cackling maniacally and shouting about lightning, then thunder boomed.

"MY CABBAGES!" Mr. Turnip shouted somewhere.

"Who are you, Mr. Human?" Sweetie asked me.

"My name is Samus Marcus, and I am a diplomatic envoy for your Princess Celestia, among other things," I told her, smiling.

"Marcus is a unicorn human. We are close friends," Rarity said to Sweetie warmly.

Sweetie Belle blinked and looked at my clearly hornless forehead. "Do you have a cutie mark?" Sweetie Belle asked.

I knelt down by her, then ruffled her hair with my magic. Her eyes widened. "Humans usually don't have cutie marks. We spend our whole lives searching for our special purpose and some of us never find it before we die."

She looked stunned, then started crying and I felt horrible for making her cry. "I'm sorry," she said.

"It's not your fault," I told her, then stood back up.

Fluttershy was busy fussing over the other kids and trying to help keep them from wandering off into the mist and into the chaos around us.

Rainbow Dash flew by over us, Rainbow Crash by her side; only the goatee on Rainbow Crash let you tell the difference.

"Hi, Dash!" Scootaloo shouted, but Dash just kept going and vanished into the mist again.

And Keraptis KEPT ON LAUGHING.

"Don't cry, little sister," Clarity said kindly to Sweetie Belle.

"Why are there two of you? And why do you have a goatee?" Sweetie Belle asked, confused.

"Twilight put a spell on me," Clarity said, clearly irritated. "And someone made these clones of myself and the rest of our group."

"Made clones of US," Rarity said firmly.

I was starting to worry something picked off Spikey.

Now Sammy lunged out of the fog. "I have you... oh, it's you, my evil twin." He stroked his goatee, clearly pleased by it.

I will note the real sign of his evil, though was that he had NO HAT AT ALL.

"Kids," I said urgently as he got ready to charge me.

"Oh, hi, kids, how's the crusade for cutie marks coming?" he asked them cheerfully.

"Does everyone who comes here get an evil twin?" Scootaloo said hopefully.

"He's the one who made the evil twins," Sammy said, pointing at me.

"We still don't have our cutie marks and we had to postpone our polar expedition to come rescue people but now everyone wants us to just SIT HERE," Apple Bloom said.

Clarity grabbed Dinky, who was about to wander into the mists, and pushed her back gently into the child mob.

"It's extremely dangerous," I told her. "It's our first priority to keep you safe."

"No battle to the death, then," Sammy said.

"Later, when kids aren't in danger," I told him, hoping he'd go for that.

"Damn, I had a big speech and everything," he said. "Well, I expect Dawn Gleaming needs me right now."

Dammit, I can't let him reinforce the attack on Twilight but I have to protect these kids in case any more...

"ROAR!"

"Was that a lion?" I asked.

"I think so," he said, frowning.

Distantly, we heard lightning crackle and then a lot of howling about tentacles.

...

"So why aren't you dating Twilight?" he asked me. "We've been together several years."

...

"We just met a few days ago," I told him.

"Well, true, you just came into existence recently," he said.

Sweetie Belle was looking more and more confused.

"You just came into existence," I said firmly. Or had he? For all I know, they have all been around, but why is he Samus Marcus now if that's the case? I wish I could find out the history he thinks he has.

Fluttershy said, "Sammy, you are the clone. I can tell, as a druid."

Sammy frowned at that. "My druid says otherwise."

"ROAR!"

"But I had best go protect Dawn Gleaming." Sammy then cast a spell and FLEW off into the mists.

...

I guess he's picked up more wizardry from Dawn Gleaming.

Dammit.

"C'mon, we can help!" Apple Bloom said urgently.

"Clarity, can you contact Spikey? I think something's happened to him."

She frowned deeply. "I will be quite wroth with anyone who hurts my cuddly little Spikey." She began concentrating with her horn, which glowed.

Rarity was gently nuzzling Sweetie Belle, who finally calmed down.

"Face me you coward!" Dragonshy shouted out in the mists. "I can't blast you if you hide in the fog!"

All five Cutie Mark Crusaders stared, then looked at Fluttershy.

"I'm sorry," Fluttershy said to their hooves.

The floor suddenly began to move, a crack opening with Fluttershy, Clarity, Dinky, Scootaloo on one side, and myself, Rarity, Apple Bloom, Twist, and Sweetie Belle on the other. I could hear grinding noises and saw the ceiling moving and something coming down.

"Everyone regroup!" I shouted and we all got on one side as a platform rose up with two vaguely humanoid figures; they were made of black rock, obsidian, I think, glowing from the inside at times, eyes shining red. Rockfire Dreadnoughts. I hate Elementals.

Dinky hid behind Clarity, while Scootaloo stood defiant, rearing up. "Bring it!" she shouted.

Crazy pony.

Apple Bloom stood next to me. "Cutie Mark Crusader Elemental Tamers, STRIKE!" She reared up defiantly.

Twist looked rather more nervous but stood her ground, legs shaking.

Sweetie Belle started to hide behind Rarity, then saw her friends and stood by them. SWEETIE BELLE, YOU FOOL! "We're ready!"

One of them lunged at Scootaloo, but Fluttershy suddenly reared up, eyes widening. "No! You won't hurt these children! Bad elemental, BAD!"

It stumbled back, confused and she advanced on it, berating it for scaring the children.

The other one, though, now rushed at me, only to get shot by Rarity and Clarity in the eyes. It howled and I stabbed it; it bled magma, though the magma on my blade burned away. Oh yeah, magic artifact sword is the best sword.

Apple Bloom ran around behind it and headbutted it in the back of the knee. Sweetie Belle did the same.

"No, stay behind us!" I shouted, but now it fell backwards.

ON THEM.

"OWW!!!"

I quickly attacked it as they got loose.

"Get behind us!" Rarity said urgently to them.

Dinky concentrated and a stream of bubbles hit where my foe was 'bleeding' and now ice spread through the hardening magma into it and it howled. Dinky now curled up in a ball behind Clarity and tried to hide. "If I can't see them, they can't see me!" Dinky announced.

I wish.

SO MUCH.

I struck the frozen spot and it shattered and now it was howling and I pressed my advantage, while Fluttershy now forced the Elemental to back into the mists, blubbering before her wrath.

That must be 'the Stare'.

My foe cupped some of its magma and got ready to throw it at the ponies; I managed to parry most of it but got some on me. OWW!! I stumbled, yelping. DAMMIT.

It got shot again, but got ready to attack me again. Sweetie now threw a roll of cloth in its face and as it stumbled, I stabbed it and it fell apart into rocks.

I'm going to need a new leather jacket. "Oww, oww, oww, oww!"

Spikey came up. "The bedrooms have reconfigured into some sort of elaborate puzzle where you have to move rings between towers."

"But I had a lot of things in there!" Clarity said frantically.

"Marcus!" Rarity said, and then took my jacket off and started bandaging me. "Sweetie, get the burn cream. Apple Bloom, get him a drink. Dinky, can you make an ice pack? Twist, get him some candy. Scootaloo, keep watch but do NOT go very far."

They all sprang into action and I was soon topless and being treated, trying not to cry and whimper in front of the fillies. Those burns did not look nice AT ALL.

By the time Fluttershy returned, they had me bandaged up. We have to get these kids somewhere safe so we can help our friends. Dammit.

At least I have licorice.

Tasty.

"I think at this point, we'd best try and get things under control, assuming we can even find the controls in this anarchy," Rarity said.

"That sounds reasonable, since we have no haven to retreat to," Clarity said, frowning.

We began to slowly... advance? Retreat? Move, anyway, with Scootaloo keeping watch.

"This is the best trip ever," Scootaloo said excitedly.

Because you are INSANE.

"You said Princess Luna sent you?" Rarity said, frowning.

"We all dreamed she came to us and since we all dreamed the same, it had to be true," Dinky said.

I buried my face in my hands for a few seconds. Then I wondered WHO and WHY. Marjorie? I could see her luring them in.

"There you all... MY FACE!" Marjorie shouted distantly and I laughed softly.

"Marcus," Rarity said. "Spikey and I will guard, you and Clarity can support me."

"I'm not that hurt," I said. "And you're a better archer than you are a melee fighter."

"Yes, but I don't want to see you get hurt like that again," she said urgently.

"I'll be fine," I said.

She licked her lips nervously, then nodded. "If you're sure."

I'm more likely to come back from the dead for no reason than you are, but saying that will worry her more.

"Who is taking care of our pets?" Rarity asked Sweetie sternly.

"They're all here in my saddlebag!" Sweetie said. "Playing together nicely!"

A dog, a cat, an alligator, and a bunny.

I'm sure that is going well.

A bunny now stuck his head out of Sweetie's saddle bag and made bunny noises. Fluttershy nuzzled him. "Have you been a good boy?"

Bunny noises.

"You've been chosen king of the saddlebag? That's nice."

....

"I'm going to need you all to help, so come out," Fluttershy said.

"Is that wise?" I said.

Fluttershy nodded and now the four animals clambered out. The alligator was... smaller than I expected. The dog was nearly the size of the fillies. It now began herding them, keeping them from wandering off. The cat was a white Alphatian, right down to being dressed up a little; she licked her paws. Angel Bunny, the rabbit, was a little white rabbit with a stern expression.

Fluttershy now began singing and they began GROWING.

...

Soon, they were the size of adult ponies and glowed a soft gold and pink. "Guard the fillies," Fluttershy said and Angel Bunny nodded and made animal noises at them. The alligator, now the size of a real one, promptly ran off into the fog, but the rest helped us herd the kids. Fluttershy also introduced them all to me.

Keraptis, by the way... STILL LAUGHING.

"My sword! I sense it!" Marjorie shouted.

I looked down and saw that at some point I had transformed it to falchion mode. I quickly turned it back into a gladius.

"NO!!!!!"

Hehe.

"Magic sword?" Twist asked me.

"Yes," I told her.

"No, Gummy, don't eat Mr. Turnip's cabbages!" Pinkie shouted distantly.

"MY CABBAGES!"

"I know they make you big and strong, but he needs them to support his family and his dog!" Pinkie shouted urgently.

"Do you have a boutique?" Rarity asked Clarity curiously as we tried to find where the controls had run off to.

"Darling, I have a line of twelve boutiques, including branches in Dream Valley, Darokin City, and Shireton," she said. "Running them all from Canterlot isn't easy, but it keeps Spikey and I busy and of course, he can communicate with any of my managers with just one cute firey breath."

She began buffing some of his scales with a cloth, which caused Spikey to make happy noises. "I'll get this soot off you," she told him.

"Thanks, dear."

"Stupid fog, Dinky, you're stopping me seeing Rainbow Dash being cool," Scootaloo grumbled.

"But it hides us from our enemies and from the Oards," Dinky said urgently.

"Oards are a myth," Rarity said wearily. "How do you have time to design things for all your customers with twelve boutiques?"

What is an Oard? Beyond something Rarity is clearly tired of hearing about.

"Oh, darling, that's only for the small circle of platinum circle customers," Clarity said. "Who can afford my personal services. I spend some time on them, some on managing and the rest on periodic updates of my four seasonal lines. Gold circle get to have adjustments made on their off-the-rack and get one outfit a year personally designed for them. Silver circle get discounts."

"And copper?" I asked.

"They are allowed to browse without someone watching to make sure they don't steal anything," Clarity said.

...

"You would not believe how many parasprites there are in Pony society, darling," Clarity said, hoof to her face and striking a pose of anguish. "Some ponies do all the work and the rest just feed on their labors without wanting to work themselves. Outrageous."

"They're just so greedy and selfish," Spikey said, frowning.

"Exactly," Clarity said.

"That sounds like something from Atlas Hugged or the Fountainhoof," Rarity said, frowning.

Works I am not familiar with.

"But of course, marvelous books, changed my life for the better when I was a young filly. Everyone should read them," Clarity said.

"They're MEAN," Fluttershy said condemningly. "Mean, mean, mean."

Twist sang, o/~ mean, mean, mean o/~

Pretty soon, all the fillies were singing that and Clarity looked first embarrassed, then annoyed. "It is not mean, merely realistic. A pony must EARN what she gets. That's why I work so hard instead of relying on others to just give me what I need. And I expect the same of them. Of course, you have to reward hard work. My Spikey works very hard and I reward him with my love and vice versa." She smiled goofily and he hugged her.

"Love isn't a reward for work," I said. "It's a burning passion inside you for someone, the willingness to give up anything for them if you have to, in order to help and protect them. The need to be with them, the need to help them, to be part of their life and you part of theirs. Love is giving without asking in return." I was getting heated up. "Even if they don't love you back. Though of course, it's better if they do."

"That just gets you taken advantage of," Clarity said, then held up a hoof and pointed.

Pit trap! Rarity and I began disarming it while Clarity and Spikey stood guard. Apple Bloom watched the two of us intently. "Can I help?" she asked.

"Stand here," I told her; she put her weight at a key point, keeping the trap shut while we disarmed its trigger.

"You have to risk that in love," Rarity said. "And love can die, will die eventually if it is one way. But you can only find love by risking getting hurt, by giving without asking, in the hope the other will give without you asking as well. It's anticipating what your loved one needs, so you can act as one without need to plan your cooperation." I pried open a floor segment and she reached in and worked the mechanisms with some guidance from me, feeling it out and then sliding in the safety pins.

"Exactly. Love, like trust, is a leap in the dark to an unknown shore," I said. "But if you don't make that jump, you'll always be alone."

"People often fail you," Clarity said softly.

"I know," Rarity said, sighing. "And it's hard to keep trying, but you have to persevere to become good at what you do, right?"

There was a click. The trap was disarmed and we could advance.

"I agree completely," Clarity said.

"That's how I got Clarity's love; I kept trying and never gave up," Spikey said, smiling.

Rarity paused. "Ahah!" She began concentrating and her horn glowed. "It works, and I wish I had thought of this sooner."

Clarity studied her. "How is gem detection going to help us now?"

"Detecting the direction the controls are in," Rarity said. "They include gemstones."

A swarm of stirges flew at us and then vanished in Spikey's flames. Heh.

We reached the controls just in time for the mist to suddenly vanish in a wave of power. Worse, Marjorie was coming our way.

Shit.

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

The whole place had turned into a chaotic mass of traps, monsters, and people fighting each other. Rainbow Dash and Crash were flying around overhead, duking it out, while Rocky chased them, trying to catch up. Cruisin' and Fire Swallow were dueling with Soarin' and Spitfire as well, dodging flaming hoops which kept shooting at them all.

The alligator, Pinkie, Pinkamena, Mr. Turnip, and Madame LeFlour were making a stand around Mr. Turnip's cart against a swarm of angry giant crabs. The alligator had clamped onto the claw of one of them and was being waved around, while Pinkie shouted frantically.

Niccolo and Ivan were still dueling through a mess of traps: blade traps, dart traps, pit traps, falling block traps.

Dawn Gleaming and Twilight had both been caught by a mass of black tentacles; I recognized that spell; Spike and Sammy were trying to cut them free but now they got grabbed as well. "Dammit, that spell is dangerous!" Dawn Gleaming said. "You should have been shooting acid arrows at me!"

"I haven't learned that one," Twilight said, embarrassed.

"And this spell is so stupidly strong we're gonna be stuck until it finishes!" Dawn Gleaming said. "How are Sammy and I going to finish our new paper if we're stuck here forever?"

"We can at least discuss the problem of dating Nob Nar," Sammy pointed out.

Oh god, Nob Nar date debates. You fool, don't go there, you'll never escape the argument!

Nob Nar was one of the Halfling High Heroes, their patron immortals. He fell in love with a human woman from Halag, but the Baron of Halag wanted the woman, heroism, love, tragedy, blah blah, you know the drill. Nob Nar clearly existed, but it's hard to tell which stories are true and when he was alive, as some later tale-teller seems to have added aspects of other heroes' tales to his.

Anyway, I could go on about this until we die, but I need to FOCUS.

Or death will come soon.

Applejack and Apple Blossom were circling each other, but their fight kept getting interrupted by monsters attacking them. Then Apple Blossom saw Apple Bloom; her eyes widened and she began charging our way with Applejack chasing her.

"There you are!" Dragonfly shouted and charged towards us.

And then there was Marjorie, who was coming our way. She looked utterly enraged. "Dragonfly, blast them all!"

"But... there are fillies there," Dragonfly said hesitantly. "They've been foolish but not that foolish." Then she saw our giant animals and she blinked.

"That bastard has my sword," Marjorie said. "It was stolen from me and I will HAVE it."

Fluttershy began another song, adding another layer of glow to her animal friends.

The fillies stared at Marjorie. "She's like Princess Celestia," Twist said.

"If Princess Celestia was a thieving, arrogant bastard," I said. "This sword is mine, earned with my own blood," I told Marjorie. Very softly, I said to the fillies, "Run to the controls and reverse them all if this turns into a fight."

Apple Bloom nodded and Scootaloo now pulled a scooter out of her saddlebags.

...

"Then you ARE him," she hissed. "I don't know how you have eluded me all these years."

"Hello, Marquetta," I said. "I'll confess I don't know either. But if you really want this, give us back the treasure stolen from Vermicoritax and I'll give you the sword." I love this sword but if it can get us out of this mess, I'll give it up. Also, knowing a grand wyrm is hunting me for it means it paints a target on me too.

Clarity clutched at her jewelry. I don't know what she's going to do about that.

A giant snake fell onto Marjorie; she flung it across the room, horn glowing, and it landed on Keraptis and began crushing him as he howled. Oww.

"Boss, no, don't do that!" Pinkamena shouted. "He'll mutate it somehow!"

Marjorie quickly pulled it off him and Keraptis cursed.

"Pinkamena, you are a good and faithful servant," Marjorie said. She flapped her wings and the crabs were blown away from the group rallying around the wagon. This also sent the alligator tumbling.

"GUMMY!" Pinkie shouted, running after the alligator.

...

Pinkamena smiled a goofy smile for a few seconds before reverting to usual.

"You are the thief," Marjorie said. "Hand him over to me or you all will die."

"No, not the children," Clarity begged.

"They're innocent of any theft," Dragonfly said. "Let me kill the thief for you!"

"You want a piece of me, you fake Princess? BRING IT," Scootaloo said, making a come hither for a beating gesture with one hoof.

"I will NOT let you kill him," Rarity said angrily, then looked at the fillies and grimaced.

I know, I know.

"Let's not be hasty," Clarity said. "My sister is in the line of fire!" she said urgently.

Marjorie flapped her wings and the fillies tumbled away from us, over to the controls. "Clarity, Spikey, back up. Now you have a clear shot, Dragonfly."

"With pleasure! Especially against..."

Winona, now the size of a pony, pounced on Dragonfly, snatched her staff and ran towards Applejack, who was running towards us.

Opalescence now flashed her claws at Marjorie, clearly trying to scare her. Angel Bunny ran up and pulled Dragonfly's hood down over her face.

Clarity and Spikey now ran over to the fillies to check on them, even as Marjorie brushed Opalescence aside, even enlarged; she tumbled across the floor as Pegasi dueled above her.

Marjorie rose up over Rarity, Fluttershy, and I. "Flee, ponies, or die with the THIEF."

"No," Rarity said, arrows hovering by her head. "Back off now," she ordered.

"I won't let you hurt him or Rarity," Fluttershy said firmly, standing by my side. "You shouldn't be so mean."

I felt the urge to cry for a moment. I am not used to having people standing up for me, though Ivan and Helga always did. Also, I was scared shitless. Once again, I stood bravely because I could not muster the energy to actually RUN.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders began flipping switches and jamming buttons and now everything began changing more. Clarity said, "Don't just randomly hit buttons!"

A giant duck now leaped down and swallowed up Rainbow Dash and Rainbow Crash and ran off with them.

...

"Okay, maybe not THAT button," Apple Bloom said thoughtfully.

"Then, you all will..."

The floor opened under Marjorie and she dropped out of sight. "YES!" Scootaloo said, then pulled the lever back and it closed up. "I WIN!" She quickly checked her flank.

No cutie mark yet.

I stared. It couldn't be that easy.

We were all thrown back even as I saw Applejack and Winona playing keep-away with Dragonfly's staff as Apple Blossom tried to help her fellow Element of Power to recover it.

The ground began to shake.

"Rarity, you have to free Keraptis," I told her. "Before Marjorie breaks back out."

"But you..."

"We need reinforcements," I told her. "If he is in command, hopefully we can drive off Marjorie."

She closed her eyes, then nuzzled me quickly. "Fluttershy, protect him."

"Of course," she said, rallying Opalescence and Angel Bunny to our side.

Then Rarity galloped off and I prayed she could get him free before Fluttershy and I die horribly.

While we got ready to die, I looked up and saw Spitfire and Fire Swallow still sparring, so I yanked Fire Swallow's tail as much as I could with magic. Spitfire scored a hit, knocking Fire Swallow down into the middle of the crabs. I gave her a thumbs up.

Then Marjorie exploded up out of the pit trap, and then she hurled chunks of floor at the tentacles holding Sammy and Dawn Gleaming and pulled them over to her, even as the Cutie Mark Crusaders ran rampant on the controls while Spikey and Clarity futilely tried to stop them.

Sammy stroked his goatee again, smiling. I touched my hat. "Hello, evil twin," I said to him.

"You're the evil twin," he said. "Or you'd be with Twilight."

Uuuurgh. "Twilight has someone else on her mind," I told him, and he grinned at me. Dammit, he knows. DO NOT SAY IT. "Anyway, we're not here to talk romance," I said. "Marjorie, I don't even remember for sure why I wanted this sword, but it's mine now and even though I could give it up, I'm not going to let you kill me. You already slaughtered all my friends," I continued. "I'm not letting you do that again, Marquetta."

Spikey paused. "Wait, she's not Marquetta, she's Princess Marjorie." But he sounded unsure.

"I am not Marquetta," Marjorie said.

"Liar! You are Marquetta," Applejack said, her Element glowing. "I am the Element of Honesty! Now, tell the TRUTH!"

She planted her hooves and stared intently, even as Winona ran around trying to dodge Dragonfly and Apple Blossom.

Marjorie made gurgling noises and then simply spat lightning at Applejack, knocking her back into the tentacles, which tried to grab her; she began beating them around.

"FREEZE RAY!" Dinky shouted and now a wand came out of the ceiling and froze Marjorie in a block of ice, but she shattered it.

Marjorie now rose up over us and...

Twilight set her tail on fire. "I won't let you hurt them!" she shouted.

Winona now dodged everything and brought Dragonfly's staff to Fluttershy, who hooked a leg around it, then parried Marjorie's lightning when she spat it at us. "I am a druid," she said. "Do not abuse nature's power," she said urgently.

Apple Bloom said, "Hey..." She suddenly began fiddling with the controls and part of the room now began turning itself into a living room. "I think I'm getting the hang of this," she said excitedly.

Marjorie flapped her wings and put her tail out and now looked even angrier. "All of you will pay for this indignity!"

"If you think that's indignity," Pinkie said, "You haven't seen anything YET."

She popped up and hit herself in the face with a pie. "See, THAT is indignity!"

Marjorie stared at her in frank disbelief.

"And here's double indignity!" Now she hit Pinkamena in the face with a pie.

"Hey!"

"TRIPLE!" Madam LeFlour now was pie'd.

"Tasty punishment!" Twist shouted, running over and 'whipping' Pinkie with a licorice whip.

"Whip it good!" Pinkie shouted.

Pinkamena stared at Pinkie. "How can you stand to be so ridiculous?"

"Because it makes people laugh," Pinkie said. "Dignity is overrated."

"I am NOT laughing," Marjorie said angrily.

"Try it, it's fun!" Pinkie said to Pinkamena, handing her a pie.

Pinkamena hit Pinkie in the face with it and everyone except Marjorie began laughing. Pinkie laughed the loudest of all. "Well done!" Pinkie said to her.

Pinkamena stared at everyone looking at Pinkie. She seemed baffled. Even Opalescence was laughing a kitty laugh.

Apple Bloom now hit a button and a blade trap swung down and cut Applejack free. "YES!"

"Show me!" Scootaloo said. Fillies crowded around the cackling Apple Bloom.

"Come on, laugh, you can do it," Pinkie said to Pinkamena.

Pinkamena made an odd, dry noise.

Fluttershy laughed, a quiet little titter. "Like this!"

Pinkamena laughed weakly and Pinkie applauded; Pinkamena now looked embarrassed. "It wasn't very good," she said weakly.

"It's a good start. Now for my next trick..." Pinkie began.

"DIE!" Princess Marjorie shouted and now she spat fire at us. I grabbed Fluttershy and jumped, and then Fluttershy frowned at Marjorie.

"I was trying to help Pinkamena," Fluttershy said. "That wasn't very nice at all."

"I am not here for nice but for revenge! On Celestia and on HIM," Marjorie said. "Now DIE." She spoke a horrible syllable and I felt my body start to shut down, but Fluttershy began to sing and my body rallied; the air hung with power but Fluttershy's Element glowed. Slowly, though, she was losing ground.

"No!" Twilight shouted and power exploded out of her, shredding the tentacles. "I've tried to be nice but I won't let my friends get hurt!" She unleashed a barrage of glowing arrows, a veritable storm of magic missiles. Dawn Gleaming shot many of them out of the air with her own barrage but enough got through to hit Marjorie somewhat, making her howl in anger.

"Wrecking BALL," Apple Bloom said cheerfully and a huge ball on a chain swung down and hit Marjorie, tossing her across the room.

"Pinkamena, which side are we on?" Madame LeFlour asked Pinkamena urgently.

"I... don't know," she mumbled, studying everything and looking worried.

"I'm on your side," Mr. Turnip said firmly to her and she smiled a little. "I'll always be your friend."

Pinkamena looked embarrassed by that. "Your wagon is wrecked," she said sadly.

"I can get a new one but I can't get a new you."

Pinkamena began to cry with Pinkie comforting her.

Marjorie flapped her wings and Twilight went tumbling, then she tried turning back to us, with Opalescence and Winona and Angel Bunny all growling at her. I did my best to move to protect Fluttershy as best I could.

Then Keraptis shouted, "I AM FREE!"

I could see Ivan standing by him, while Rarity chased Niccolo around with arrows. GO RARITY AND IVAN!

"Apple Bloom, hit the green and red buttons together!" Keraptis shouted.

WHAM she hit those buttons like the wrath of an angry immortal.

A force cage sprung up around Marjorie.

"Take your people and go," he said, striding up to her. "You've given me a good show but I will not be used as a pawn in your games any longer, Marquetta. And if you try again, I will call the Council of Intrusion and see what they think."

...

"You wouldn't dare," Marjorie hissed.

"I am THE TRAP MASTER!" Apple Bloom said, then quickly checked her flank. Still no Cutie Mark. She cursed.

"Do you really want to find out? You are pushing things, 'Marquetta'," Keraptis said angrily.

"Celestia has been 'pushing things' for centuries, and who are you to judge, MORTAL?" Marjorie hissed at Keraptis.

"I'm the mortal whose home you invaded and whose machines you perverted! I have to say, though, I'm impressed by the results." He studied the Elements of Power. "But the best creations are those that take on a life of their own beyond what you intended. Now, go or I will make you regret staying."

"Fine, but this is not the end. Tell Celestia, she will regret this. And you, 'Samus Marcus', you will die your final death soon and I will have my sword BACK. There is no one who can protect you from me, Marcus. Your luck cannot protect you forever. I know you now and I will find you. Enjoy your final days, for soon, they will END!"

And then she vanished with the Elements of Power, though I noticed Clarity's jewelry was left behind.

"What a good girl you are," Keraptis said to Apple Bloom. He produced a silver necklace which showed an Earth Pony rampant, hanging it around her neck. "You'll be a great trap maker one day, I think."

"Thank you!" she said, then checked her flank. No Cutie Mark yet. "AAAAHHH!!!"

He now worked the controls to turn off the chaos. "I'll secure the remaining treasure for you. You had best go see Celestia; I expect Marquetta will try something."

"Her name isn't really Marquetta either," I said, frowning. "She talked like she was an Immortal, though maybe she was just arrogant."

"I leave that as an exercise for Twilight's powerful brain," Keraptis said. "I can see why Celestia favors her." He sounded like he was talking about an old girlfriend's daughter.

Surely not.

"Sir, I will probably regret asking, but do you know what I am?" I said. If he says 'Erik', I die, but if he knows...

"Isn't it obvious?" he said.

"You were a candidate for immortality on the Path of the Polymath," Ivan said, coming over. "I don't know what went wrong, but I think everyone getting killed by Marquetta caused you to fail but for some reason you keep coming back now."

"That fits what I know," Keraptis said. "I'm sure Celestia can tell you more if you want to know."

I don't know if I want to know. "Was I abandoned by my patron?"

"Well, you... oh hoh," he said. "You definitely should see Celestia," he said after studying me.

"... Why?" I asked weakly.

"Her mark's on you. Interesting."

...

"She gave him a Cutie Mark?" Scootaloo asked jealously.

"There's a kind of tag on your soul which says 'MINE' in Celestia's handwriting," he said. He finished operating the controls and the control room was all cleaned up now, monsters and traps gone.

How did...

Then I remembered my cry in the dream. 'CELESTIA! HELP!!!!! I'll do anything! Don't let me get eaten!!!!'

Ahahahah.

Rarity now came up by my side; I put a hand on her back and smiled nervously.

"I will make a tunnel back to the balloon," Keraptis said. "It will be crowded, but you can head to take Vermicoritax his treasure. Apple Bloom, when you are old enough to live on your own, if you would like to come study with me, I think you have talent."

"COOL," she said. Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle looked dubious.

Applejack looked dubious.

I can't blame her.

"We're going to go see a dragon? Cool!," Dinky said. "Can I drive again?"

"Oh, you operated it, Dinky?" Twilight said in surprise.

"Yes," Dinky said proudly. "I linked into the controls with my horn, just like you!"

"Well done, Dinky, but NEVER EVER take my balloon without asking!," Twilight said.

"Keraptis, did you somehow summon the Cutie Mark Crusaders?" Rarity asked him.

"I could not reach beyond the mountain while bound," Keraptis said. "Oh yes. My machines were used to make your evil twins. They need a patron of power in order to live beyond this mountain. If they lose Marjorie's favor, they may well evaporate unless they find another patron."

"Am I...," I began.

"You are real. You merely need a patron because many, many people want you dead," Keraptis said.

AHHAHAHAHAH.

"But Celly will take good care of you, I'm sure. As long as you like itching powder in your underwear." He laughed a little; Pinkie laughed a LOT.

"Wait," Pinkie said. "Is Marjorie patron to my old friends too?"

"Yes," Keraptis said.

Pinkie frowned, looking worried.

"I have gifts for a few of you," he said. "I wish I could reward you all but the Elements of Power and Marjorie looted most of my stock." Keraptis sighed. "Ivan, you freed me and I am grateful." He gestured and now he held a warhammer. "For you, the hammer Whelm. It will guide you to gold and silver and gems."

Rarity now studied it with interest.

"And it will help you to cast down evil humanoids," he continued."

Ivan took it; not his normal kind of weapon, but with those powers, likely quite useful.

"For Applejack..." He gestured and tiny shadows flowed from his hands along with purple sparkles into Applejack's horseshoes. "These horseshoes will never break or wear out and will let you safely kick anything, even things like lightning or fire."

"Thank you, sir," she said, smiling.

"For Twilight, two books of lore," Keraptis said. Twilight's eyes lit up. "They're an introduction to shadow magic."

"Oooh," she said, taking them.

"For the Cutie Mark Crusaders," Keraptis said. "And their friends..." He gestured and their cloaks flew off and floated over to him.

"Hey!" Scootaloo said.

Light and shadow fluttered across the cloaks. "Let these be your first steps on the road to glory," he said. He gestured and sent them back. "Now you have magical cloaks."

"AWESOME," Scootaloo said.

"For you, Fluttershy, a box of magical seeds. You need never be void of plant allies so long as these last." He whisked that over to her and she took it, smiling and thanking him.

"For you, Rainbow Dash, special goggles." He gestured and they flew onto her head. "They will protect your eyes and you will be able to see even in the darkest night."

"Sweet," she said. "Thanks, mr. Wizard!"

"For the rest of you, I'm afraid all I have left is these gems," Keraptis said apologetically. The rest of us got a bag of gems and coins. Which included ME, who needs money. So I was pretty happy. I have a magic sword, anyway.

A door opened. "Okay, there's a road to safety," Keraptis said. "I'll make sure you get all the treasure. Good luck with 'Marjorie'."

"Thank you sir," Twilight said, bowing.

"I suppose I have Asterius' mark on me," Ivan said thoughtfully.

"Oh yes, you do. Good luck with your quest."

Oh man, how are we going to get the lockpicks?

Ivan laughed nervously.

"Don't worry, we'll find a way to get you what you need, Ivan," Applejack said seriously to him.

"Man, I never got to show that idiot Crash I am the BEST," Dash grumbled.

"You are the best," I told her and she smiled brightly.

"Okay," Twilight said. "Round up the kids and let's go! We have a ton of things to do! First stop, the lair of Vermicoritax."

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

It took endless hours of Vermicoritax, Rarity, Applejack, and Twilight going over the hoard, item by item, to settle it all; the rest of us ran herd on the fillies to avoid trouble.

These children want to touch EVERYTHING, go EVERYWHERE, try EVERYTHING. I know human children are this hyper but they aren't as FAST.

Ivan was looking agitated. I can't blame him. We certainly can't rob Vermicoritax at this point; it would bring down retaliation on Equestria, not just us.

Finally, once the kids finally wore out and laid down by the pond which is inside Vermicoritax's underground lair (it's connected by a stream to the swamp and to underground rivers), we all could rest too. I flopped down next to Sweetie Belle and took a nap myself.

When I awoke, Applejack was standing over Ivan with something in her mouth which she dropped on him. "There you go," she said.

It was a set of platinum lockpicks, each inscribed with one of the phases of the moon. "We traded him the Cauldron of Blackflame for the lockpicks. He's the only one who isn't a halfling who has one now. He's quite proud of it."

Ivan's eyes were wide. "Thank you."

"Measure for measure," Applejack said. "You helped us out, so we helped you. So what happens next?"

"I don't know," he said, staring at them. "I guess Asterius will contact me when he's ready, as I just realized I don't know if I was supposed to take them somewhere or what. As I've been so focused on *getting* them."

Applejack laughed. "I know a few people more focused on the trip than the destination." She glanced at the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who thankfully were still asleep.

I didn't even have a destination, really. I just kind of survive. Part of me hopes Celestia knows more about what's going on with me and part is afraid she knows more.

Rarity nudged me gently. "Wake up, sleepyhead, it's time for us all to be massively overcrowded again." We'd had to have the CMC ride in Rarity's saddlebags when we ballooned here; it was just too crowded.

I sat up and now realized Sweetie Belle's head was on my legs. I patted her gently. "Wake up, little one."

"Five more minutes," she mumbled, but soon, she and her friends were up and we herded them along. The plan is to go to Ponyville, drop off the kids, rest, then go to Canterlot and see Celestia about all this.

The idea of a BATH and a NICE SOFT BED appeals to me more than you can imagine.

BED!!!

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