• 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 5: Whiskey Fueled Violence Here I Come

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

Book 5: Whiskey Fueled Violence Here I Come

By John Biles

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

Sometimes you have to be pushed into something. This is why I had made this arrangement. Rarity pushed me gently with her head. "She's there and waiting, I will block any escape on your part."

I laughed nervously. "I should have worn something less flammable."

"All clothing is flammable, dear," she said, clearly a little amused.

I told myself to go in; my legs did not move.

"Marcus, is that you?" Twilight said. I'd sent a message to ask her to wait in her room for me after breakfast.

Urrrrgh. "It's me," I finally forced myself to say.

Rarity head-butted me.

I breathed in and out, then went in. Twilight was drinking coffee and reading a book about Trollhattan; the region of the Broken Lands in which Marquetta has her lair. Or so we think, anyway. She was sprawled out on the bed.

"There's a ruins near there that you know about, right?" she asked me as I came in.

I sat down on the edge of the bed, turning to face her; no chairs, unfortunately.

Spike now entered with a plate of donuts, then ate one. "Here's the snack," he said, then frowned at me.

Oh man, I really, really should have chosen something LESS FLAMMABLE.

This is going to suck.

I took one. "Thanks, Spike."

"Why's Rarity lurking in the hallway?" Spike asked.

"You could ask her," I told him. Dammit, no one was supposed to notice my running-away-stopper. I wasn't thinking at all.

"YES!" he said and ran outside.

Twilight laughed softly. "That was kind of you," she said.

"Spike's a good guy," I said, then worked on a donut. Once I finished chewing, I said, "Yes. I would LOVE to explore that place with your team. Helga, Ivan, and I used to have a map to it but only the Immortals know what happened to it." I sighed. I also lost my pipe and my tobacco somewhere in White Plume Mountain. And I probably shouldn't replace it, since I am staying with an impressionable child. If I smoke for 2 seconds, the whole CMC will be trying to smoke within minutes.

Dammit.

That was a GREAT pipe.

"See, I'm thinking maybe we could lure her forces out to try to compete with us to get the old Blackmoorian treasures," Twilight said.

"I like how you think," I said, smiling.

She smiled back, which made my gut scream, knowing I was going to erase that smile.

Dammit.

I like that smile.

Then she paused and looked nervous. "Last night..."

Fuck fuck fuck. I came here to do this but now I want to run but Spike is outside and will BURN ME ALIVE.

There IS the window, though.

No, no, dammit, be honest with her.

"I am actually Erik of Vestland, reincarnated," I said.

"I think Celestia may actually have a thing for Big Macintosh," Twilight said. "But I may be imag... what?" Her eyes widened. "I thought you were bluffing!"

OH FUCK ME.

I had to tell her but this was totally NOT SMOOTH AT ALL.

"I ran away from you because you totally caught me off guard," I told her. "And drunk. Back when you... when I was still Erik. And I assumed Celestia would kill me, you would kill me, Spike... well, Spike tried to kill me before I escaped."

I could hear him laughing in the hallway. Fuck me.

"She would have blessed us," Twilight said painfully. "I wanted... I was ready... I loved you very much," she said, pained.

"I'm sorry," I told her. "When you rescued me, I was too afraid, then I was afraid I'd hurt you and you'd kill me for lying to you and..."

She started crying and I crumpled in on myself. DAMMIT.

"But when I saw that people around me would get hurt even if my identity was hidden, I had to tell you. Tell everyone. I confessed to Rarity last night. We're together now, and she knows about this. Only you and her know. I don't know if I should tell everyone but... I think I have to. In case someone tries to pull this shit to get to me again." I turned angry on the last sentence. "Seeing you there, willing to risk yourself like that... I was so angry." My hands clenched and unclenched. "I'm sorry. I'll do whatever you want to atone. I should have come clean, but I'm not very brave." I studied the floor. "I've died too many times. It's kind of ground me down."

I took a deep breath and looked up at her; she was crying and I forced myself not to look away. "I won't lie to you any more," I said, not knowing what else to say. I wanted to cheer her up but knew I couldn't do that.

"How am I supposed to know that's true?" she shouted at me.

I winced. I had that coming. Dammit. "You saw what I did last night," I told her. I heard her make a noise; I couldn't look at her face. "I'll do whatever you want for me to atone. I know I have to make it up to you and earn your trust again." I want to earn her trust.

"GET OUT!" she shouted.

"I will," I told her. "We can talk again later. I'm sorry."

I headed for the door quickly, wishing I had been able to handle it better.

"What's going on?" Spike said angrily to me as I came out. Rarity looked worried.

"I'm Erik," I told him. "And I had to tell her the truth and she's not happy with me and I deserve it."

He head-butted me in the groin and would have done worse if Rarity hadn't stopped him.

"Damn you, Erik, you just screw up everything!" he shouted at me, then ran in and slammed the door.

Yeah, I know.

I felt both doom and relief at once. One burden gone, another in its place. But she would... hopefully... get over it.

I said something incoherent about Fluttershy while lying there clutching myself. Eventually, I recovered. "You should probably get Fluttershy and talk to her... assuming she isn't mad at you." I winced. "Which is possible."

Rarity nodded. "I will."

"I'm going to rest, then I will go tell everyone." Hopefully I will not be dead by dinner.

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

I got yelled at some, but Ponies tend to be pretty forgiving. I piled up a large number of penances, but that's okay. Some of them maybe hard to survive, but... that's my life.

Dash was the hard one. Because she didn't get mad.

She got hurt.

She stared at the floor. "Why didn't you tell me before?" she said, pained. "I wouldn't have told anyone."

"I was too scared to tell anyone," I said.

She looked at me, just for a second. "You were scared of me?"

"No, I didn't mean that," I said.

"Don't you trust me?" she said, now very pained, and pacing around her room.

"Of course I trust you," I told her. "I've put my life in your hands."

"Yes, but I told you secrets. I put my trust in you," she said, then glared at me. "Why wouldn't you in me?"

"I know, I'm sorry." I hung my head. "I'll make it up to you. However you want."

She just made an unhappy noise, jumped out the window and flew off.

FUCK.

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

I moped under a tree. I'm good at that.

Eventually Sweetie found me. "What's wrong? Everyone looks unhappy and is whispering about things."

I patted the ground next to me and she sat.

I told her everything as she stared, eyes wide.

"Welcome to adulthood," I told her. "Complicated, messy, full of mistakes."

She scrunched up her face. "It's not supposed to be."

I wish, Sweetie, I wish.

"Anyway, I am Rarity's official boyfriend now," I told her. "Assuming your Dad doesn't kill me."

"He will love you very much," she said firmly.

I know better.

"You still..." she said hesitantly.

"I still like you very much," I told her. "I'm happy to be your big brother."

She smiled brightly at that. "Can you teach me some more card magic?"

"I'll work with you. Oh yes..." I drew in the dirt. "This is what my Cutie Mark looks like," I told her.

Her eyes widened. "That's like mine."

"Probably because of our little adventure together."

"YOU HAVE TO TAKE US ON AN ADVENTURE," Apple Bloom said, dropping on me from the tree. OWW.

"Yeah, we want to do something COOL and get all Cutie-d up!" Scootaloo said.

"Weren't you two going to lessons with Ivan?"

"He's still getting set up," Scootaloo said.

"I will help him with teaching you if I am free," I told her.

"Yaay!"

I felt a little better, at least; their good cheer was infectious.

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

Telling Dona Carlotta didn't get me set on fire.

This is because Herr Otto uses ACID.

I ran around like a maniac, dodging his acid arrows and parrying with my sword. "I said I'd make it up to you both for getting you into my trouble!"

"I don't care about your stupid lies, I care about you being a self-centered cowardly ASSHOLE!" Herr Otto said.

"Otto, that's enough," Dona Carlotta said. "I'm not happy with him either, but I can't let you kill him either!"

"He ran away and abandoned you! Everything I hear about him, he's a criminal bastard! And then he got us attacked and you in DANGER," Herr Otto said, frowning intensely.

"We AGREED to do it. Come on, Otto, you're better than this," she pleaded.

"If you won't kill him, I WILL," Otto shouted, though I suspect... hope... he just really wants to beat me up some.

So I ran like a maniac with him chasing me. My clothing was going to be destroyed by the end of this. Falling down a staircase didn't help either.

Then Dash descended from the sky and interposed herself. "That's ENOUGH," she said.

"Get out of my way!"

Carlotta caught up and grabbed him.

"That's ENOUGH," she said. "See you later, Marcus," she said. Probably much later. But it's okay, I have it coming.

"See you, Carlotta," I said. Dammit, just seeing her... No, it's over, I have a girlfriend and she has an asshole... a boyfriend. "I'm sorry, Dash," I said to her.

"You have to tell me a secret NO one else knows," she said hotly. "Just between us. Show you trust me."

"Okay," I said. "Here's the story..."

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

EXCLUSIVE FLASHBACK FOR DASH:

My name was Aristobolus then. I was tooling around Alphatia, pretending... Actually, I may have thought I was Alphatian. It's hard for me to remember a lot of when I was him.

Alphatia...Alphatians are obsessed with freedom. It's part of why I went there. Even the slightest amount of magic makes you part of the aristocracy. I wasn't a great mage, but having even one spell makes you noble. About twenty percent of Alphatians are aristocrats; the rest have no ability to cast spells.

But the problem is that their freedom is based on slavery. One out of every three Alphatians is a slave; one of every four free Alphatians owns one or more slaves. Some own hundreds, or even thousands.

I was able to ignore that for a while. I grew up... I think I grew up somewhere with no slavery, but it wasn't rabidly anti-slavery either. Really, I'm not sure any more. And the fun of being part of the elite in Alphatia, running around and getting in trouble... it kept me from thinking about it.

I associated with various adventurers, some spell-casters, but most were not. Eventually, I ran into three of them I had known before; they had been enslaved after being caught... okay, they basically were crazy enough to rob a wizard without bringing a wizard along to deal with his wards.

So they ended up his slave.

THAT got to me. It's easy to ignore slaves you don't know, to just walk past someone you don't know who is suffering. Without feeling the urge to act.

But they were friends and I couldn't just ignore it. It ate at me. I tried to buy them but their owner was the guy they had robbed and he wouldn't let them go.

So I stole them. And his magic boat. And his magic hat. And, well, basically everything.

The wizard tried to kill me three times. The second time, we got scattered. I hope they're still free. Eventually, I foolishly joined a group trying to raid the Temple of Elemental Evil. We got locked in a segment of the dungeon due to this idiot Shadow Elf renegade who freed a demon by causing it to possess one of our dead party members. By stupidly putting said dead party member inside a summoning circle. Jakus was a moron.

That's when the Gorgon killed me, I think. I still don't know how I got out of turning to stone. Beyond the sword, but it's all a blur after that until I met Ivan.

I don't think anyone else from that foolish party survived, so no one's looking for Aristobolus.

But I can't favor Alphatia like I once did.

And I hate slavery.

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

"You really can't go very long without getting in trouble," Dash said.

"That's me," I told her.

She grinned a little. "Okay, that's a good secret." She sighed. "I'm still disappointed you didn't tell me."

"Well, you would have had to hide it from everyone," I said apologetically. "Better not to force you into that choice."

Dash had the look of someone boxed in who feels there must be a hole in the logic but they can't SEE it.

"So that's why you freed that harem," Dash said.

It being a bevy of beautiful women didn't hurt either. "Yes," I said.

She smiled a little. "And now you're part of Rarity's harem."

"The only member," I said. I'm not suprised she's popular with guys, though.

Dash just grinned at me, then said, "So what are you going to do about Herr Otto?"

"Let him cool off. Try and avoid him and Carlotta. She's not happy with me either."

"Want to go flying?" Dash said. "It always clears my head."

"We'll need an enlarge spell," I said. "Let's go to the library and I'll see if I can find us one."

Soon we were soaring over the city and the fortress, the sun streaming down.

It really does clear your head.

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

"Oooh, the Broken Lands," Dash said to me as we flew. "There's some really cool places to fly there," she told me.

We dropped down and zoomed over a city street, bustling with people and ponies and business. Pegasi darted about, hauling goods and delivering messages.

I held on tight; it was exhilarating; kind of scary but the excitement was more than the fear and it was a good feeling. "I was thinking you're just the pony to find the tower for us again."

"Oh yeah, I can find ANYTHING from the air," Dash said proudly. "At least if I know what to look for."

I told her about the place, until it was time for lunch and then we went and met most of the others for lunch. Fluttershy, Applejack, Spike, and Twilight were in Twilight's quarters, which made me feel guilty. Rarity looked somewhat shaken up.

"You okay?" I asked.

"I am fine, darling," she said, then sipped her tea. "I had to play punching bag. Verbally, of course."

I winced. "Dammit."

"She needed to let it out. She'll be... better in a day or two."

I hoped there would be no crises.

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

COUNTERPOINT: Twilight's Point of View

You know, how there are times when you know why you are feeling an emotion and you don't actually WANT to feel it but you can't help it?

I completely hate those times.

"Just one bite," Fluttershy said, then spooned the soup and held it up close to my mouth, the other end of the spoon between her teeth.

"I'm not hungry," I told the ceiling. "Also, not a small child."

She put it back in the soup. "If you don't eat, you'll get weak and feel bad and it will be worse." Her voice was very gently chiding.

"Don't be a drama queen, eat some lunch," Applejack said bluntly, then worked on her soup; she didn't bother with a spoon.

Spike said something incoherent through his mouthful of soup. No doubt pledging death to Erik... Marcus... again.

It's so obvious now that I feel like a buffoon for not seeing it. Though he has changed. Erik... he was a little nervous when I met him but then he relaxed. We were so comfortable together; it felt like it had to be right.

It still feels comfortable. Right now, I half want to kill him and half want to hide under my bed until I die, but before that... right up to when he told me everything... it felt like old times.

He was afraid of me. Not just Celestia. ME. I don't even understand why. "I don't scare people do I?"

"This soup would scare Marcus," Applejack said. "He'd see the tomatos and think they were floating severed heads or something." She snorted and ate more soup.

"Marcus is sensitive like me," Fluttershy said, then held out the soup to me.

I sighed, sat up and ate it, then took the spoon with my magic and started making myself eat, though I wasn't hungry. "He thought I would do something terrible to him and I don't even understand why," I said. Then I started working on my food.

"If you keep chewing yer cud, you'll just go nuts," Applejack said. "We've gotta get you out of this room and DOING something. Before you drive yourself crazy with what ifs and then try to go back in time or something."

There are ways to go back in time.

But I am not that crazy or hurt.

We all ate quietly while I tried not to brood.

"I'm going to kill him," Spike said.

"No, no," I told him wearily. "He confessed, he wants to atone, so no killing."

"I want his left arm as atonement," Spike grumbled.

"No maimin'," Applejack said firmly. She sipped her carrot juice. "What are these purple things?" she said, studying a slice of something purple.

"It's elven," Spike said. "They get weird in Alfheim."

"Elven radish," I said. "They grow near the Trees of Life and take on a strong woody flavor with a hint of mint. The elven name is Rathelos."

"Any connection to Ranathos?" Fluttershy asked curiously.

"They were native to the area before Alfheim was planted." The main Elven kingdom in this region was grown with climate magic by Elves and Ponies working together centuries ago in what used to be fairly dry hills. Powerful permanent redirection of weather drew in moisture from other places and helped rapid growth.

I recommend Meister Alphonse the Wise's book on the subject, The Creation of Alfheim, if you want to know more. It's a good read.

"There are also spicy red ones, but they're hard to prepare properly," I continued, feeling a little better. Knowing things makes me feel better.

He'd risk his life for mine but he didn't trust me enough to tell me the truth. He was...

That's enough. I am moping so much.

They let me ramble on about the uses and cooking of Elven turnips while we ate. Once we were done, Applejack said, "Let's go shopping."

I stared at her. Applejack wanting to go shopping? "Really?"

"You tell us what you want for dinner and we'll borrow some kitchen space and make it for you," Applejack said.

I was going to point out that there are professional chefs, the kitchen is well-stocked, and our time would be better used elsewhere.

I then realized three things.

One, I wanted to do something beyond mope in my room even more.

Two, she wants to do something nice for me, and I will admit I would like to have something nice and hand-made.

Third, I was not, in fact, going to do anything useful whatsoever if we didn't do this.

I checked off the list in my mind. "Spike, take a message. Tell Princess Celestia we're going shopping and invite her to eat with us tonight." Assuming she can spare the time, anyway.

I know she's very busy but I could use a hug.

Not that my friends don't give good hugs but no one hugs like Celestia.

Spike did so. "Can we also get some sausage for me?"

"Gonna have to tell me how to cook it," Applejack said to him. "Winona likes her meat raw."

"I can eat it raw, my fire will cook it, but it's better cooked properly," Spike said.

Spike's inner fire lets him digest almost anything he can chew. And he can chew almost anything. Given months or years to work at it, he could eat this entire castle eventually.

But he won't.

"Don't worry," I said. "I know just where to go."

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

STILL TWILIGHT'S POINT OF VIEW:

Except the place was closed and had been replaced by a harness and leather goods shop.

"Angry enough to eat a bridle?" Applejack said curiously.

"This used to be a wonderful grocery store named Eastern Star! It was run by this really gentle mare named Sea Salt," I said frantically. "Why is it gone?"

"When were you last here?" Fluttershy asked me.

"When we moved into the tower," Spike said. "Right before we moved in, Twilight's mother took us there."

"Well, let's go in and ask," Applejack said. "Seems the sensible way to find out."

I moved into the tower once I finished my basic degree and began working on my advanced studies. So it's been several years.

Applejack strode right up to one of the clerks. "Can you tell me when you opened?"

"Around nine am," the young stallion said; he was a palomino. Not bad looking. Too young, though, at that awkward age where you aren't a colt but you're not really fully a stallion either.

"I mean, when did this become a leather shop?" Applejack asked.

He studied her. "I'll tell you for a kiss."

Fluttershy's eyes widened.

"Didn't your mama teach you when to flirt with a customer and when not?" Applejack said a little sternly.

I stepped in. "There used to be a grocery store here. Do you know what happened to it?"

"Moved to a newer, bigger facility over by the Fillydelphia gate," he said. "Hey, are you Twilight Sparkle?"

I felt a little embarrassed. "Yes, I am. This is my friend Applejack and my friend Fluttershy."

"Hi," Fluttershy said shyly. She was wearing the hat and sunglasses again.

"You don't look like the famous model," he said, studying her.

"I was named after her," Fluttershy said.

I blinked. What... OH.

"I think you're prettier than Fluttershy, Fluttershy," Spike said. "She's a stuck up model and very reclusive, unlike you." He seemed very amused.

"But I... oh yes, I am VERY outgoing," Fluttershy said, laughing nervously.

"And now we must be outgoing," Applejack said, laughing. "Thanks, kid."

"I am a BIG PONY," he said offended.

Applejack kept laughing all the way out.

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

Eastern Star was now Western Star, as it was on the southwest side of the city by the various ways you can descend down to Lower Canterlot and then head to Fillydelphia. There's a very long switchbank ramp, stairs, and giant elevators, including one the trainline uses.

We found everything I wanted, and we got Spike some sausage; there was more human food here than I remembered, more human customers too. One odd fellow was wearing some sort of badge he'd covered over with a handkerchief, which seemed odd to me. He was human, short dark hair. He looked a little furtive, but though we watched him, he didn't steal anything.

He just bought a lot of chicken.

Spike also got some peppers and onions and tomatos. "Going to make the BEST soup ever," he said firmly. "And pretend every tomato is Marcus' fat head."

The new place was nice, but it was... something just wasn't quite right and I didn't know what.

"It's just nostalgia, dear," Sea Salt said as she calculated our sale.

I said it aloud? Oh no! "I didn't mean..."

"It's okay," she said. "My old store, it's tied up with your childhood, but that's over now. I remember you, Twilight Sparkle." Her silver eyes twinkled; there was silver in her black mane now, long strands of it. Somehow I didn't even notice until now. "I feel some of it myself. But a business woman either moves forward or dies. The same for you." She looked at my friends. "Good to see you have friends now."

I winced. "Was it that obvious?"

"Very," Spike said.

I winced again and Fluttershy said, "Twilight is a very good friend."

I listened to the swishing and clicking of Sea Salt's abacus. There's gray in her white coat but it's harder to see.

"Good," Sea Salt said. "I used to worry but it wasn't my place to say anything to your parents."

Do other people normally bring their friends to the store with them?

Please tell me I didn't say that out loud.

No one responded.

Whew.

"So what's the special occassion?" Sea Salt asked.

"We're eatin' with Celestia," Applejack said.

Sea Salt's eyes widened. "Seriously?"

"Yes," I said. If she says yes. She hasn't replied yet.

I guess she must be pretty busy.

She licked her lips nervously, then said, "Hold on. Rock Salt!"

A brown maned, grey-coated stallion, about my age, came running out of the back. "Yes, grandma?"

"Handle sales. I'll be right back."

She ran into the back and I blinked.

She returned with three things. A box of tea, a jar with about two inches of mixed spices, and something labelled in Ochelean. I only know enough Ochelean to know it IS, to my embarrassment. I just have not had enough time because my efforts to learn Blackmoor-era Elven eat up all my free language time.

"On the house," she said kindly. "For her highness."

"I couldn't just take it," I said, feeling a little guilty at getting special treatment.

"I met Princess Celestia once; she shopped here, thinking she was in disguise, but it was a terrible disguise," Sea Salt said. "She wanted advice on making something for her sister to welcome her back from her long trip. It was very sweet of her."

I smiled; we all did. That's Celestia all over.

"Well, that was right nice of her," Applejack said approvingly.

"She is very loving to her sister," Fluttershy said, smiling.

"Anyway, that is how I know she is fond of all these," Sea Salt said. "The spices are my special mix; you can just bring back the jar when you're done. And this is... are you familiar with kufo?"

"OH," I said. "Basically blocks of bean...paste? It's too solid for paste. It's made from beans and it absorbs the flavor of what you soak it in. The commoners there use it to share the flavor of something they can't afford much of among everyone, such as buying a nice cut of meat and then letting it absorb juices so it turns that flavor."

She nodded. "And it has a nice texture to it," Sea Salt said. "Anyway, these are on the house for our hard-working Princess."

I smiled. "Thank you so much. I'll find some way to repay you."

"You'd best go before my son recognizes who you are, Fluttershy," Sea Salt whispered to us now. "I'll keep him distracted."

Fluttershy looked flummoxed, then nodded and ran.

A Fluttershy run, which is like walking briskly for the rest of us.

I am so lucky to live in such a wonderful country with dear friends, where even... well, she's not a stranger, but now...

She's a friend now. I will find a way to repay her.

But what exactly am I going to do with this kufo? It's not in the recipe!

I mulled on that all the way back to the castle.

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

TWILIGHT VIEWPOINT 3: THE REVENGE:

Ivan looked somewhat battered when he came to consult with me in the kitchen. "Kufo absorbs the taste of what it cooks in, but it also can be a meat substitute," he told us. "Humans need a certain amount of meat, but kufo makes a good substitute. Beans, peanuts, and the like, too."

"Oh, it has protein," Fluttershy said.

"I don't know what that is," Ivan confessed. "But I have cooked a lot of kufo in my time, as I tend to have a boom-bust finance cycle. It should be fine for ponies, though."

He showed us how to work with it; I wondered if.. of course he knew about it. Erik... Marcus trusts him more than anyone else. And Helga. I wonder what she's like.

Don't think about him, I told myself. Focus on cooking and having fun.

"Hmm, I bet I could soak these in apple juice," Applejack said.

"Hmm, we could probably add some cinnamon and sugar, give it an apple flavor, make it a desert," Ivan said.

The cooks did their work but kept an eye on us, clearly not trusting us too much to not wreck the place. I was determined to *not* wreck everything.

I cooked slowly and methodically with my friends, following my recipe carefully. No disasters, no spilling flour everywhere, nothing on fire. So there.

Okay, Applejack did have to stop the frying pan from flipping, but otherwise, it all went *well*.

Spike's soup smelled so good. He looked quite proud. I took a sip of the non-sausage parts and my mouth caught fire. In a good way.

"Where's Pinkie?" Applejack asked as we got ready to haul everything to the private dining room. Celestia was going to meet us there.

"She and Luna had to 'do something, tee hee'," Ivan said.

Oh dear.

We got everything set up; it all smelled so good. I took a sip of the peach brandy. Perfect.

Then Ivan took off, once we were set up and we all settled in to wait for Celestia.

She soon arrived, regally garbed and gave each of us a friendly nuzzle. "Thank you all, my dear friends," she said brightly, then sat down with us. "You are very kind to cook for me."

"We made this for Twilight, but she kinda ended up helping us cook it," Applejack said. "We also have a special dessert Ivan helped us make."

We had a wonderful dinner and Celestia chatted with us about our day. It's the first time I've gotten to really just spend time with her in a long while and I greatly enjoyed it. We got into a discussion of a magical problem which I think bored the others, but they indulged me.

Thanks, friends.

"Do you know where Pinkie is?" Celestia asked me. "I haven't seen her all day."

Oh dear.

"That doesn't bode well," Applejack said.

I have to agree.

But I trust Pinkie, so I won't go prying.

But maybe she *wants* me to pry, in order to distract me.

"Whatever it is, you're overthinking it, Twilight," Spike said, working on his soup.

I glared for a second, but then I laughed. "You're right." Let's just relax and enjoy some time with my friends.

Distantly, something blew up.

"..."

"Don't worry, they'll call me if we're needed," Celestia said. "Luna is on it."

Distantly, I heard Apple Bloom wail.

Applejack leaped to her feet.

"It's okay," Celestia said. "Luna will call me if we are needed. Let's just enjoy..." She was cut off by the sound of that strange music you hear in the castle for some reason at odd intervals. "The distant music and friends."

I felt I ought to be running to the sounds, but they died down after a bit and gradually I relaxed.

I can't just get over this instantly, but with my friends, I'll be fine. It'll be awkward, but it will be okay. And I'd decided long ago to move on from him, anyway.

He's part of my life, but not the center. He and Rarity... I want them to be happy together.

"MY PANTS!" I heard him howl distantly.

Celestia smiled and ate more of the kufo. "What an excellent meal. Thank you all."

"Thank you for coming," I told her.

It's going to be okay. I'm not alone any more.

Not while I have friends.

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

BACK TO MARCUS POINT OF VIEW:

"Repeat after me," I said to Apple Bloom as we all laid in the gardens, somewhat stunned.

"After me," she mumbled.

"I will not mix acids and bases."

"I will not mix acids and bases," she said. "What's a base?"

"It's a kind of instrument," Sweetie said to a tree root.

"Oh, yeah, it would wreck the instrument," Apple Bloom said.

Teaching them about breaking into things is not going to be easy or safe.

But that's my life in a nutshell, really.

Time to get Rarity out of the tree.

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

"The truth can hurt, but it's better than lies," Luna told me; we were meeting in her office; the kids had been packed off to bed, which is much, much harder than you'd... okay, I'm sure you know how hard it is.

Especially since the three with Cutie Marks think they ought to be full-blown adults now.

"It's nice to have that burden removed," I told her. "Much as I hate having to hurt them with the truth, I was getting pretty weighed down by it all."

"I know," Luna said. "I know." She sighed, staring off, probably at cosmic vistas we mortals can't see. "While we continue to gather intelligence and plan, Celestia and I would like you to begin teaching the children how not to get themselves killed, since they seem quite set on a life of adventure."

I laughed nervously. "They're really too young to get into the kinds of things they do."

"Yes, but they won't stop short of us locking them up. Sometimes, you can't fight fate, you can just try to guide it. You have experience teaching pony children, so you're the natural choice. I've asked Ivan to help as well."

Ahahaha. "Okay. I'm going to be doing a lot of things for people, but I'll take all the time I can to work with them."

She nodded. "Good luck."

Going to NEED IT.

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

"I don't know if we're going to have time for a musical," I told Lyra. She wants me to be in her musical she's apparently been working on FOREVER.

"We can work on it now," she told me. "And then really get it rolling once your big quest is over."

Bon-Bon was busy reading a glossy pamphlet while sprawled out on some pillows. 'A guide to Canterlot celebrities'. "I'm sure he's very busy."

"Doesn't matter, he owes us," Lyra said. Which I do. "And I know he loves to sing."

"I do not love to sing," I told her firmly. My voice isn't that great for it.

"Which is why we always had to manuever you into it."

I remember. I remember very much.

So no flashback is needed AT ALL.

"Anyway, we can even make it somewhat educational; that way, we can rope Twilight into it."

I winced. Oh, that won't be awkward AT ALL.

"That's likely to end with your set on fire," Bon-Bon observed.

"I can handle Twilight," Lyra said confidently. "I can play her like a violin."

Lyra looked quite aggravated when Bon-Bon began rolling around laughing.

"So what's the plot?" I asked.

"Depends on the day of the week," Bon-Bon said, turning back to her pamphlet.

Lyra twitched. "See, that's the hard part. I have all these GREAT songs, but I'm not so good at the plotting part."

"Well, hit me with the music, then we can figure out the plot."

Bon-Bon's laughter did not make this easy.

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

"Ghost story," Scootaloo told me. "A soldier goes off to war and his wife dies, but she becomes a ghost and possesses someone, then they fall in love again, but her jealous old boyfriend exorcises her, and then the soldier is killed by the woman who got possessed and then their souls go off to the planes together!"

"Wow, that's grim," Sweetie said weakly.

It was the next day and Ivan and I had assembled everyone who was going to be studying the joy of traps and how not to be killed by them with us. This meant Rarity, Applejack (to my surprise), and the CMC.

"The best romance stories end in fights to the death and apocalyptic destruction," Scootaloo said. "Otherwise, they're all disgustingly mushy. This would get to START with doom and destruction and only go up from there!"

We'd gotten sidetracked into the musical.

"Sweetie, you should help out Lyra," Apple Bloom said to her. "You're good at singing and music."

"Well..." Sweetie said hesitantly.

"I'm sure she'd love to have your help," I told her.

Dinky whispered to Sweetie and her eyes crossed. "Okay, I'll do it." Sweetie said determinedly.

"You should do a play which exposes the menace of the Oards," Dinky said firmly.

No.

Though apparently there's more reason to think they're real, even if those were fake.

Then it hit me. Has anyone actually interrogated all those prisoners? Best to check on it after this.

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

"Marquetta and her agents were in contact with all three groups and basically pointed out the connection between you, Twilight, and Lyra," Celestia told me in her office. "She has a price on you and so does Thyatis. Minrothad, I think, plans to collect directly."

Ahahaha.

"Can you get Thyatis to back off? I can do things for them later once this is resolved if we need me to do that."

"I have let them know that if any bounty hunters tear up my lands looking for you, they will have cause to regret it," Celestia said. "We will have to offer them something in the longer term as you said, though."

"Are we going to Sind?" I said. "Or maybe try to use that tower as bait?"

"You will be going to Sind first to carry a warning from me to the Radhirajah. I have other agents who will investigate there," Celestia said. "Your group is not well adapted for subtle infiltration and spying."

Yes, I can't and won't argue that.

"Since I do not wish to simply wait for them to make a big move, I think your idea of investigating that tower is a good one," Celestia continued. "It may draw them out and if it does not, we'll have some useful items to work with."

And TREASURE. Treasure makes everything better. "I'll talk to everyone about that."

"You should do some research with Twilight, if you think you can work together closely," Celestia said. "I know it will be awkward." She sounded and looked sad. "But with time, I think you will be able to be good friends again."

I need to get her a boyfriend. Then she won't care about the past, I thought. Unfortunately, I seem to mostly know women in this city. Though if we're still here, there's those guys who she danced with at the club.

We'll have to see, I thought.

"And then there's the final item on the agenda," Celestia said.

"Yes?"

"Those babies you agreed to make with me," she said, grinning.

Never going to live that down ever.

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

I went to see Fluttershy to take care of some unfinished business. There's a druid grove in Canterlot, but it's not what you'd expect. You have to go to the north face and enter a cave. The north face, for those unfamiliar with Canterlot, is the cliff wall the city sticks out from. The plateau's walls run roughly west and eastward, with the top of the plateau north of the city. Halfway up the plateau, a huge spur of land juts outward from the plateau; Canterlot is built atop that spur. There is also 'Upper Canterlot' and 'Lower Canterlot' at the top and bottom of the plateau respectively, connected by stairs, ramps, and elevators.

There is also 'Deep Canterlot', the part of the city which is actually underground. Various caves and tunnels extend under the plateau from the city; the one controlled by the druids runs from the western end of the city northwards.

Rather than being disguised in her usual way, Fluttershy had put on a brightly colored hooded cloak with grape vines embroidered all over it and donned a golden torc, studded with jewels. She had long bracers on her forelegs, made of silver with a rabbit engraved onto each of them. I had to help her put them on.

She greeted the ponies on guard and they bowed to her; I get the impression she's a good way up the ladder of druidism. I don't know a lot about it, but I have heard high ranking druids have to fight each other for their jobs, which seems like a weird way to ensure the person with the most harmony with nature gets the job.

The druid grove here turned out to be a giant mushroom forest; mushrooms ranging from a few inches to dozens of feet tall grew in a huge cavern, maybe four or five hundred feet tall; there were crystals studded in the ceiling which gave off a soft light and the air was very humid. A half-dozen pegasi druids flitted about overhead, manipulating the air currents to keep everything moist (I think).

There were hardly any unicorns here, but a roughly even mix of pegasi and earth ponies. "Oh, unicorns usually tend to get into arcane magic if they want more than their basic powers," Fluttershy told me. "The bond pegasi have to the sky and earth ponies to things of the earth draw us to druidic studies. In the past, when we all lived in herds, druids were very important to survival."

She paused to help a lizard out of a hole it had fallen into. I carefuly filled in the hole with dirt to avoid a recurrance. Our progress was slow as we had to stop and tend to various fungi, then help various animals: bats and lizards mostly.

"Do many ponies live underground?" I asked.

"Mostly earth ponies, but not many of those," Fluttershy said. "There are some dwarven colonies on the north side of the plateau. Most of the population of North Marech is actually dwarves, because most of the surface belongs to the Buffalo."

The ground squished under my feet; this whole cave is pretty moist and wet, the ground oddly spongey, depressing when you step on it and then springing back up as you walk. Fluttershy seemed to hardly disturb the soil, even though she weighs as much as I do, maybe more. I, on the other hand, had to listen to a weird suction noise every time I pulled a foot up.

It would, in fact, be creepy if there weren't happy, brightly colored ponies everywhere.

Though some of them gave me the evil eye. Given druids typically wear leather if they don't run around naked or shapeshifted... Hey...

"Don't druids of your power normally learn some shapeshifting?" I asked Fluttershy.

"I'm too good at it," she said embarrassed.

"*Too* good at it?" I asked.

"I sort of tend to start thinking I am whatever I turn into," she said, laughing nervously. "Until it wears off. Angel tells me I made a good bunny, though."

"Angel?" I asked.

"My dear cute little rabbit friend," she said brightly. "He's a good boy. I'm very proud of him."

"What are we looking for?" I asked.

She paused, then laughed nervously.

She totally forgot. AAAAAAAAAAAAA.

"We just need a quiet corner," she said.

An hour later, when there were no lizards left to help, no bat left behind, we found a little nook where a bunch of huge twenty foot mushrooms grew skyward in a crescent moon pattern. We settled down on some moss. Which promptly stained my pants. Really, I'm a mess of mushroom bits and moss stains. Good thing I have a lot of treasure.

"Okay, what do I have to do?" I asked her.

"First, lay out your sword here," she said.

I did so, laying it out on a large, roughly circular rock which sat in the middle of this little shrine. The rock had runes carved around the outside, but it was otherwise basically unshaped. Which is likely why they like it.

"Now, put your arm down on the altar," Fluttershy said. "I am going to have to cut you just a tiny bit."

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

No, no, be calm, don't panic, it's Fluttershy, she wouldn't hurt anyone.

I imagined Dragonfly and twitched.

She patted me gently. "I know. I had to go through this for each of my initiations. They had to chase me for an hour the first time."

DO NOT RUN AWAY.

I pulled my sleeve back and laid my arm down and she took my sword with her mouth. I tried to control my breathing. The sword wobbled a moment and Fluttershy switched grips. Horse and pony mouths are strangely nimble. I closed my eyes; if I watch, I will kill myself with a heart attack.

I felt the sword very gently tap my flesh and couldn't help but smile. Then it dug in and I winched but clenched my mouth shut. It's just a little cut. I couldn't tell if I felt myself bleed or I just hallucinated it out of expectations.

Then Fluttershy put my sword down and began to chant; I peeked and saw blood float in the air between my sword and the small cut on my hand, which throbbed gently. I began to sing along, the song dictating the words to me, and our voices intertwined; I could hear a faint chorus now, as if the mushrooms had joined in and now other druids began to appear, singing as well.

Memories flickered through my mind, threatening me with a damn flashback. I could remember a woman, carefully braiding my beard. I remembered my foot caught in rigging, dangling from a mast as someone laughed. The platform shook under my foot as I chased the bully who had stolen the belt mother gave me. A hat, a glorious hat and it was ALL MINE... until I got thrown in jail. A cow, a cow the size of a castle, and its moo shook the heavens... wait, that was real? Was someone messing with me?

I was standing in a great cloud city, trying to hide, Jade Tips had been harrassing me all day, mocking me because I wasn't any good at flying. I've never really been into flying.

Also, for some reason I was female. And a pony. And...

I could see Fluttershy's eyes widen with horror. Flashes of her life flickered before me and she clearly saw bits of mine. She started crying and now I felt guilty and my eyes were watering in sympathy to her tears. The memories of being kicked and mocked didn't help either.

How can she be so kind when she was treated so badly?

There was a smile, the gentle comforting wings of her father, who flew so high and so far; he was gone a lot but when he was here, he would always hold her and comfort her and protect her.

Her mother, who often nagged her tremendously but also loved her greatly. Whatever might go wrong outside her home, when she was home, she was loved.

And then her one true friend, hard as she might be to deal with, Rainbow Dash, who stood up for her.

And then I saw her moment of rebirth; she fell from the sky and butterflies saved her. She saw an entire world that she had not known and it awoke things in her she had not known existed.

I could feel the love in her heart for all the things of this world, a deep and powerful love that when roused by dangers to them could be fierce, but normally burned with a warm, gentle glow.

I couldn't help but smile, but then I realized things were not going well for Fluttershy, who looked utterly horrified by whatever she was seeing. I don't even know what she was remembering. Well, I'm not sure if it's 'remembering' when it is her seeing my memories.

She slumped for a few seconds, then looked determined and rose up. The song now rose to its crescendo, and I got a flash of her staring down a dragon until it apologized. I suddenly wondered what her and the beholder in a staring contest would have been like.

I smiled a little at that.

And then there was a wrenching and I felt power EVERYWHERE, swirling around us in a great storm; the moss below us suddenly turned into grass and the mushrooms changed colors and Fluttershy's eyes glowed green and now I felt something more, something higher, the power of Djaea, the power behind Druids, Mother Nature herself, who I had met briefly.

She was pleased by Fluttershy but by Dragonshy as well, for she was kind with one hand and cruel with the other, for she was nature in all its glories and shames, the gentle heat of spring and the boiling heat of summer, the howling storm and the gentle rain.

I felt her touch upon me and the sword glowed and then I sagged, vines sprouting around me, fat with grapes as I stared at them. Then I tried one.

Delicious!

The sword pulsed gently and I could feel the power settle into it.

And then it all faded and the singing ended. Fluttershy licked my cut and it vanished; I felt a tiny trickle of power when it happened.

Then she hugged me tightly; most of the observing druids left, but one old earth pony stallion with grey mane and coat and a platinum torc waited patiently, watching and leaning on a staff.

"Oh Marcus, how could you even live like that?" she said, horrified.

"Humans are tough and I forgot most of it," I told her.

She held me for a long time and I started crying because she was crying. When the storm passed, the old pony was still watching us and I wondered why. I gently brushed back Fluttershy's mane. "Thanks," I told her. "It's strange, I can feel the power in it, now."

She adjusted my hat, then let go. "I need to talk to Bitter Leaf before we go."

"We can stay a while if you want to finish exploring," I said, then bowed to Bitter Leaf, who nodded to me.

Bitter Leaf approached us. "Who are you?" he said bluntly to me.

"I am Special Agent Samus Marcus, agent of Celestia and Luna. And this is the Sword of Minroth." I brandished it, then sheathed it. "I... umm... sorry about the sudden redecoration."

"The will of Djaea is not to be denied by us," Bitter Leaf said, then frowned. "You bear a whiff of ill omen," he said flatly.

"I have had a rough life," I said apologetically.

He studied me; his piercing green eyes seemed to look right through me.

I stared back, studying him. My body shivered; he didn't seem too friendly, and I am guessing his torc designates higher rank than Fluttershy. He's probably the boss here. His body was covered with scars, I could see now, though his coat tended to hide them. But you could see them if you looked for a while. He had seen many fights.

He looked at Fluttershy briefly, then at me. "Will you drag her down to disaster as well, stormcrow?"

"Which one of us will actually be there when she needs help and which one of us won't?" I asked him, irritated by his accusation.

Even if it's probably true, dammit.

"Marcus is a gentle soul and my friend," Fluttershy said. "I... I will take my chances." She shuffled back and forth on her feet, but now struck a pose that I could tell was her imitating the way Rainbow Dash stands when she says something bold.

Bitter Leaf frowned at me and I smiled back. SCORE.

I shouldn't gloat, but I am totally gloating.

"We shall see, stormcrow, we shall see," he said irritably and walked away.

"Is he always such an ass?" I asked her as we started to head out.

"I don't see him much," Fluttershy said. "But he's basically my boss in the druidic order. He oversees all the druids of Equestria."

Urgh. Great, the Grand Druid of Equestria is on my case. That can't be good.

"He's kind of disappointed I haven't challenged him for his job yet," Fluttershy said. "But I'm happy overseeing the Ponyville area."

"Could you win?" I asked.

"Probably not but most druids my rank would have tried by now. But I'm not really ambitious," Fluttershy said. "And I'd have to leave my friends."

Like Helga did us to follow her dream and her love. I shouldn't begrudge her that. Usually, I don't, but sometimes I miss her very much. "I know how that goes," I told her.

"Anyway, umm..." She looked at me as we walked through the moss and the fungi. Squelch, squelch, squelch. She still moved lightly and I still made noises and self-fixing holes.

"I get the impression you saw some things," I said softly.

"You too," she said, turning a little red.

"You had a rough childhood," I told her sympathetically, patting her back.

"You had a rough adulthood," she said, eyes wide. "You lost your herd so many times. How could you bear it?" she said, pained.

"Humans are tough. We're not as dependent on each other as you. And we have a strong, strong urge to survive. And I tended to forget a lot of it. I expect I'd just be crumpled in a ball if I didn't." My voice wobbled a bit, remembering past disasters. "We fall down a lot, get up, dust ourselves off and go on."

She reared up and gave me a pony hug, holding me silently while I relaxed against her. I didn't cry, though she did. Pain fades with time but it was fresh for her. "Thank you," I said softly.

"Let's go see everyone," she said. "That will cheer you up."

That's true. It's strange, being in a fairly stable situation.

But it's nice. To have people I can rely on.

And who would never, ever try to trade me for a really big hunk of cheese.

Don't ask.

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

"And the man didn't even think Marcus was worth as much as the cheese!" Fluttershy said, having regaled everyone at dinner with YET ANOTHER story I would rather forget.

Ack.

"What kind of cheese?" Scootaloo asked. "If it was, say, a good blue cheese, I'd agree, but if it was just something like cheddar, no way."

Thanks, Scootaloo.

"Alphatian green and black cheese," I said. "You have to milk basilisks to make it and it has little flecks that look like onyx but taste like chocolate in it. I have to say it is really good."

Scootaloo drooled onto her salad.

We were all in the royal dining hall; Celestia was dining with the ambassadors from the three kingdoms of the Northlands and their families; they were all close to killing each other. Celestia had the kind of smile I suspected meant 'I have to do this but I would actually rather be running for my life on fire than be here'.

Or it would mean that on me.

"Oh that is SO good," Twilight said. "Mother gave me a small box of it for the Sun's Ebb celebration one time." Sun's Ebb is the shortest day of the year; it's a big party and everyone gives each other presents. Then she glanced at me and looked away.

We hadn't talked to each other; she's not ready, I think. This was the first time we'd actually dined together since my big reveal.

I could see Herr Otto glaring daggers at me from the table he was at; Dona Carlotta looked at me, frowned, and looked away.

Dammit.

"I learned a new spell," Dinky said proudly. "It's really cool."

"What does it do?" Apple Bloom asked curiously.

"It lets anypony walk on clouds! So now I could make a cloud and we could all ride around on it!" Dinky said excitedly.

"Sweet, we won't need the balloon to go to the South Pole!" Scootaloo said.

Well, this is going to make running herd on them harder.

"So where have you been, Pinkie?" Twilight asked her. "You keep vanishing all day."

She put a hoof to her lips. "It's a secret between me and Princess Luna."

What on Mystara could they be up to?

"We'll need the unicorns once we perfect it," Pinkie said.

Twilight got her curious face, and now I did too. "What is it?" Twilight said.

"It's a secret," Pinkie sing-songed, then dug into her linguini in marinara sauce. "Mmm, good."

Dinner was Caurenzian style, which meant lots of noodles, tomatos, sauces, broccoli, and cauliflower.

"Brains," Scootaloo moaned as she ate her cauliflower, then laughed.

Soon all the kids were doing it and all the other tables were staring.

At least it kept Fluttershy from telling horror stories about my life.

Fluttershy paused and studied her food, looking worried. "Didn't you get poisoned by a meal like this one time?" she said nervously.

"Celestia's cooks would not poison us, and yes," I said, wincing as it now came rushing back to me. "I wouldn't recommend eating with any Caurenzian nobles, though."

"You ever encountered anything that didn't try to kill you?" Applejack asked me, amused.

Thanks, Applejack.

"Well, none of you," I said. "Or Helga. Or Ivan. Or Dona Carlotta, though her relatives tried a few times. Some other friends. But I have lived a dangerous life."

"Well, you're safe with us," Rainbow Dash said.

"Thanks," I said and immediately a soup bowl flew through the air and landed on me.

"..."

The staff person, a yellow coated, green maned mare with a cutie mark of a soup bowl said, "I am so sorry," in a manner clearly not sorry at all. "I'll have someone come clean you up."

What was THAT about?

"Don't ever take up prophecy, Dashie," Pinkie said cheerfully.

Rarity began picking tomatos and mushrooms and carrots off me, while Dash began yelling at the maid, who didn't seem to care. Dash followed her as she headed out. I tried to dry myself off. Not much luck there.

"I'm going to have to change," I said. "I am just a disaster."

"I'll help you," Rarity said.

"Thanks, dear," I told her and we headed out.

"She did that deliberately," Rarity said, frowning.

"I know," I said. "I don't even know her."

"I will get to the bottom of this," Rarity said. "I promise you that."

"Thanks," I told her. Then we went and got clean and I sent my poor suit to be drycleaned.

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

Fluttershy asked me to watch the moon raising ceremony with her, so I did. She rambled on about the two moons of Mystara, their influence on tides and weather, and the continuing contest for influence over the visible moon by various Immortals. "Isn't it neutral ground, since the Immortals have a city there?" I said to her.

"Yes, but the whole idea of the moon has power," she said.

I could feel the power of the moon raising. It can't actually be raising the moon but it does something. That produces a lot of power. Maybe it draws on belief and stores it for future use?

"So what's really on your mind?" I asked her. Fluttershy is not the type to give lectures.

"Well, I thought..." She licked her lips nervously. "If you don't mind."

I waited a few seconds, but she just looked at me expectantly and I wondered if somehow I had blanked out thirty seconds or so very, very quickly.

"You didn't actually say what you thought," I said hesitantly.

"You want to talk about it?" she said.

And I understood. "Okay, we can go to the gardens and talk," I told her. Rarity had said she would be 'busy' tonight. Number one rule of relationships, you need time together, but you also need some space. Dating doesn't mean being glued to each other's flesh every second.

We headed to the gardens after the ceremony and found a tree. "What is it like to be human?" she asked as we settled down under it.

"You could try it, you know," I told her.

She looked very nervous. "It seems very sad."

"It isn't all bad," I told her. "Human dynamics are different. It often causes us to go astray but it can lead us to greatness too. There's a longing in our soul not easily satisfied; some achieve greatness trying to fill it and some sink into darkness."

"A longing for what?" Fluttershy asked.

"I don't know. There's a hole and we all try to find things to fill it. It's why I have wandered so long," I told her, then looked up at the sky; weather ponies were busy shaping the weather, while Dash floated on a cloud, watching them.

"I'm very content," Fluttershy said. "I have found my place and I like it."

"Humans never get to be like that. We're always looking," I told her.

"But now you have a cutie mark," she said, tapping my butt gently. "But you're still looking?"

"It's the nature of my cutie mark to be a searcher," I told her. "That being said, I aim to set down some roots here. Even though... it always ends badly for me. But, umm... you heard the song."

"I was just a little jealous, wishing someone would sing that for me," Fluttershy confessed, then squeaked, "I'm sorry."

"It's strange, like I tapped into music that already existed," I told her. "And it sang me. I had to give it permission but we had... It was like I was part of a greater whole."

"That's how I feel when I use my druidic magic," Fluttershy said. "I become part of nature in all its glory and terror." Only Fluttershy could make nature's terror sound 'cute'.

"Being a pony felt a little like that, but not as much," I told her.

"Being with your herd strengthens you," Fluttershy said. "We can feel each other's emotions through scent, which is why panic or joy can be infectious within a herd. By smelling us, our smelling you, you became fully part of our herd while you were a pony."

That made sense. "Humans have friends, but our smell is poor and you can never be entirely sure how people feel. It makes building trust very important and makes us slower to give trust. I trust you, Fluttershy. But normally, it takes me a lot longer to give people my trust. But you all showed you were very trustworthy." And I knew ponies are generally trustworthy. Mind you, this makes the ones that are not much, MUCH more effective at conning people.

She smiled. "Thank you. How do you even... So you have to guess how people feel?" She paused. "Ponies get fooled too sometimes, but we're usually pretty accurate."

"Look at body language, how they speak, if they look in your eyes or not, but yes. You know how I am feeling right now better than any other human could," I said. I remembered her smell, though. Butter.

How does she know how tasty ponies are???

Fluttershy took a deep sniff suddenly and looked worried. "Do you sme... no, you can't," she said, then frowned. "I smell Celestia but also something strange."

"Strange?"

"Like a pony but not," she said.

"A deer? A gazelle? Elk, maybe?" I guessed.

Celestia, a knot of courtiers, and a huge stallion, as big as Celestia, with a glossy black mane and coat came into view, moving across the gardens as Celestia and her guest spoke. He was not an Alicorn, but he was as big as Celestia. Fluttershy frowned and moved back, then forced herself to move forward, to where she was between me and them. I now noticed, he had draconic ears, though covered with hair; he was probably Vermicoritax.

I could see someone else, hidden in a tree. Herr Ukvarth, who I do not trust. If he was armed, he hid it, wearing raggedy looking brown and green clothing, well suited for tree hiding. I pointed him out to Fluttershy.

She frowned at him, and we kept our eyes on him until Celestia and Vermicoritax passed out of sight. He didn't do anything, just watched them, then quietly vanished. So he's a mage of substantial strength; I felt him teleport.

"Should we tell Princess Luna?" Fluttershy said.

"Best to make sure," I told her.

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

"We know. I have someone keeping him under watch," Princess Luna said. "But thank you for telling me." She was busy pouring over endless rows of figures.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Trade reports. Celly handles diplomacy, I give her the ammunition," Princess Luna said. She spread her hooves expansively over the reports. "This is just a summary, of course. The Minister of Trade's staff compiles all these, then I use the master report to arm Celly and our diplomats from the Foreign Office with the info needed for negotiations. We're going to need to import more grease and cranes from Aalbaan, the question is how much."

"Equestria imports cranes?" Fluttershy said with interest. "Cranes live in wetlands and we're short on wetlands; the main one is in North Marech. Has something happened to the local cranes?"

The area around the Hoof Lakes in the northwestern part of the plateau is a mix of wetlands and wet forest. The Buffalo retreat there in winter to camp, then roam the plains and hills during the summer. In return for trade goods, they allow the ponies of North Marech to fish on the lakes, since the Buffalo can't eat meat. (The ponies can't either, but they trade it to Sind for the hay and grains that don't grow so well in the area. Though they do grow some rice in the wetlands, I think.)

I couldn't tell you about the cranes beyond 'long legs, flies'. Biology is not my specialty.

"Construction. The Aalbaneese build a lot of machinery, like us, and have a tremendous talent for it," Luna said. "We import a lot of enchanted and mechanical machinery from them. And Herr Sigisimund and Pinkie and I have been working on a project together."

One of those things is NOT like the others, I thought. "Pinkie?"

"It will be revolutionary if it works, but it has problems," Princess Luna said.

"We'll let you finish your work," Fluttershy said.

"See you later," Princess Luna said warmly. We bowed and departed.

***********

Fluttershy and I talked for a while, but then I had to do my next duty. Try to keep the Cutie Mark Crusaders from being a threat to themselves and others.

Ahaha.

Ivan and I rounded them up and Ditzy helped keep them trapped in the room; like a gas, they expand to fill all available space. I have to admit I envy them their endless energy.

We'd set up 2 simple door lock and needle traps (each on its own door). Except the needle was replaced with a bolt that would give a bit of a whack if you set it off. Enough to be something to avoid, but not something to get young fillies badly hurt, resulting in angry parents KILLING US.

Dinky studied the lock suspiciously. "This is too simple."

"Too simple?" Ivan said, confused. So was I.

Apple Bloom removed the bottom hinges on the door, then tried to get at the top but couldn't reach it. "Clever," I said. "But one, you're not tall enough and secondly, the hinges should be on the side of the door you are NOT on."

"You put me here!" she protested.

"Put the hinges on. Thinking outside the box is good but you need to learn the direct approach too," I said.

She has to work the lockpicks with her mouth. We made them bigger picks as otherwise, she couldn't see the picks to work them. She's actually pretty good at this; the door was soon unlocked and the trap didn't go off.

"The trap is right here," Dinky said, pointing to it. "Which is far too obvious. If I can find this, anyone can." Given she's not googly-eyed like her mother, I am not sure why she thinks just 'anyone' could find it. We didn't make it impossible but it wasn't trivial, either.

"The real challenge is picking the lock without setting the trap off," Ivan said, trying to be patient.

"That's what I'm SUPPOSED to think, yes," Dinky said.

"Stop acting like Marcus and PICK THE LOCK," Ivan said. You can tell he's never been a teacher.

Sweetie now stepped up to my door. She studied the lock carefully, then laid a spread of cards and studied it; I felt magic flowing and then she mumbled to herself and laid another spread, then carefully selected pick number three and with some effort picked the lock. "Good job," I said, ruffling her hair and smiling.

She smiled back brightly. "Thanks, Marcus."

Dinky began to work the lock but eyed the door dubiously and kept stopping and jumping back. Is she normally this paranoid and I didn't notice?

"Come on, I'm dying of old age here!" Scootaloo said.

Rarity was waiting for her chance at the door; right now she was busy sewing an outfit and watching the kids work. I think she rather enjoys the challenge of this sort of thing.

"Wishing you could go back to your shop?" Sweetie asked her sympathetically.

"Yes," Rarity said. "Or that we had a way to move forwards." She sighed. "Canterlot is wonderful but I keep worrying about my store."

"What ARE we waiting for? We should just go root the dragon and the evil twins out of their evil fortress of evil, KAPOW," Scootaloo said. "If that didn't get us our cutie marks, NOTHING would!"

"Dear, I know you would expect the Oards or the Giff to put backup traps, but this really is just a simple trap," Ditzy said patiently to her daughter.

"You always think that and then you end up on fire, Mom," Dinky said. Slowly, ever so slowly, she unlocked the door.

Scootaloo was rocking back and forth, side to side on her hooves, looking frustrated and bored. "Get on with it before I have to unlock the door with your horn," Scootaloo said.

Twist stepped up on my end, then put some candy in her mouth, chewing until it became a disgusting mess; then she crammed it into the lock.

"..." I stared. What on earth?

Then she breathed on it and it hardened with a clump sticking out. She turned it, having made a key and pulled it out, then ate it.

"Lock defeated," Twist said cheerfully.

"Scootaloo, you come take a shot at mine," I told her.

"Dinky, you should be done by now," Ivan said. "You can do this. If you stop being so overly cautious."

Well, it's good to be cautious. But she is overdoing it. Even by my standards.

Scootaloo took the picks in her mouth. She tried to finish as quickly as Apple Bloom, but the trap went off on her. This happened three more times.

"You have to go slowly," I told her. "Patience is everything."

"Apple Bloom got it QUICKLY," she said, frustrated.

"And Dinky is still trying," I told her.

Sweetie and Rarity were talking quietly about Ponyville and people they knew, but Rarity now looked up. "Patience is crucial to any sort of delicate work; with practice, you can achieve mastery. Impatience leads to ruined cloth and torn seams."

"Failing SUCKS," Scootaloo said, frustrated.

"Not everyone can do everything well," Rarity said. "You have to find what you're good at it."

"I am TRYING!"

"What you do is you try for five minutes, then give up," Rarity said sharply. "I spent years learning to sew before I got my cutie mark; I studied with mother from the moment I could lift a needle."

"Sweetie got hers BAM, just like that!" Scootaloo said angrily. "She'd never even tried it!"

"I kind of like trying new things myself," I said. "Being able to do a little of everything makes me flexible," I continued.

"Don't you regret not studying harder to be a better wizard?" Rarity said to me questioningly.

Sweetie started to look worried. Every time Rarity and I have a disagreement, she starts to come unglued.

"Yes," I confessed, frowning. Being hoist by your own words is never fun.

Ditzy stepped up. "Come on, let me do this," she said to Dinky.

"No, no, I have it, I just need time!" Dinky said. I heard another tumbler tumble. "I'm almost done."

Ditzy and Dinky began fumbling at the lockpick. "We can't make the others wait," Ditzy said urgently.

"Mom, I have it! I have it!" Dinky said.

"Umm..." Ivan began then decided to just stay out of it.

Scootaloo was still working on her lock when Ditzy tripped, banged the door with her head, the lockpick slipped and the lock clicked open.

"Good enough," Ivan said quickly.

"Damn this lock," Scootaloo grumbled.

This really is unlikely to ever be her strong point. Scootaloo looked thoughtful. She backed up and then flexed.

"Don't headbutt the door," I told her.

"Oh man!"

"Success!" Dinky said.

"And there was no other trap," Ditzy said triumphantly. "Now you have to buy me muffins!"

Dinky grumbled and retreated to let someone else try as Ivan reset it.

Scootaloo grimaced. She was still working on the door when Rarity easily picked the other one and Ivan sent her to work on a complicated one; she's good at this and improving swiftly. She's got patience and precision, just what you need.

Apple Bloom isn't very patient, but she's got a natural knack for this. Ivan put her on a puzzle box we'd made and worked with her, while I tried to coach Scootaloo through this. Sweetie started to come over but I shook my head at her.

"I can do this!" Scootaloo said fiercely.

She has drive, just not focus. I know how that is.

It's how I kept going forward without thinking about where I was going or what I left behind me.

"What happens if we fail on this one?" Apple Bloom asked.

"Traps don't come with a warning label," Ivan said.

Scootaloo finally got it to work. "HAH!" She looked at her flank. "Dammit!"

Before I could say anything, she stormed out.

"Scootaloo!" I shouted.

Ditzy went after her, to my surprise and I decided to let her handle it.

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

Scootaloo Point-of-Viewaloo:

I heard someone coming up behind me as I stormed off, so I started running. Stupid Marcus the lousy teacher with only TWO LEGS can't keep up with me.

Except I could hear him keeping up, so I ran faster.

FASTER.

Nothing stopped him, nothing! "Shouldn't you be busy smiling at Sweetie like she was your girlfriend or something?" I shouted angrily at him.

I'm not jealous but a teacher shouldn't play favorites.

"I'm not Marcus," Ditzy said.

I looked back, saw Ditzy and crashed into a wall.

Ditzy helped me up. "Want to go flying?"

I was nervous about this. Ditzy is very kind and loving and basically a dimwit. And how can she steer with those eyes? Dinky's not too bright either, but she's kinda... she grows on you, I guess.

She doesn't drop anvils on people either.

On the other hand... flying... My stupid stubby wings flapped with anticipation. Stupid body.

They keep doing things I don't want lately. It's really hard to deal with. "Sure, I can help you out," I said, playing it cool.

My wings fluttered more.

STOP THAT.

I hopped on her back and rode as she rose into the air, zooming down the hallway; she cut a corner into a room and then out a window and into the sky. YEAH!

We zoomed around, wobbling and moving in weird arcs and turns; I kept thinking she should crash but somehow we never hit anything. My wings were flapping like crazy. STOP IT. I look like a little filly all excited by this.

I'm not a little filly.

I'm cool.

Rainbow Dash is cool, so I have to be cool.

"Why do you fly like this?" I asked Ditzy.

"Every pegasus flies with her wings," Ditzy said, now flying sideways as I clung on. We zoomed through the trees of the garden, nearly hitting all of them but somehow dodging them all. I could feel my heart pound with excitement but I kept my stupid wings under control.

"Harder! Push harder!" I heard Pinkie shout.

"I am pushing as hard as I can!" Some guy... Hairy Sigbloom. Something like that. He has a stupid name, which fits being a stupid human. He can't... wait, what are they doing?

"Oh dear," Ditzy said. "You're too young to listen to this."

"I am a big pony!" Now I have to know. But jumping off when Ditzy is spiralling upwards and off towards the hedge maze is probably dangerous.

Hey, I am not crazy and I don't just go 'hey, danger, I will stick my head in it', whatever some people think.

Only if it's cool.

Falling to my injury or death is not cool.

I could hear this weird whirring noise off where Pinkie and Hairy were.

"Hey, Ditzy, is that you? We could use an extra hand... hoof... you know what I mean!" Pinkie shouted.

Ditzy turned beet red. "Are you sure that's wise? I have Scootaloo with me!"

"The more the merrier!" Pinkie said.

Ditzy wobbled and did a kind of inverted drunken figure eight.

"Just go! I'm curious!" I said.

"But you're so young," she mumbled. But she turned and flew over.

We found Hairy, Pinkie, and a bunch of humans whose names I don't know or care about, busy fiddling with a flying machine. It was kind of like a bicycle with a spinny thing on top with blades.

There were two of them, one scaled for Pinkie, one scaled for a human. Hairy sat in the human one, looking aggravated.

"Here, I need to make sure mine actually works for someone who isn't me," Pinkie said to me.

"Why would it only work for you? It's a machine. They work for everyone, right?" We spent a lot of time on the difference between 'technology' and 'magic'. Pony inventions sometimes only work for the pony who made them because of their cutie mark, you see.

Given Pinkie has balloons on her flank, I can see why she's worried it won't work for humans. "Aren't you all wizards?" I said. "You just wave a wand and say bibbety bobbety boo and then, wham, magic flight? " CHEATERS. Damn cheating wizards cheat.

I'm a pegasus! WHY CAN'T I FLY?

I love my scooter but I want my wings to do more than... and there they go again.

"Like Pinkie, I like creating ingenious things," Hairy said. "And many of my people are not wizards. Shouldn't everyone have the chance to fly?" he said.

I felt the urge to cry with frustration.

I didn't, because I am cool.

I just had my stupid wings shake their shaking shake thing.

"Anyway, I want you to try it," Pinkie said to me.

I got into it and started pedalling. It shook and then...

I rose slowly skyward.

YES!

Ditzy flew up with me. "You're doing great," she said, her eye studying every inch of the machine. And everything else as it wandered around.

Pinkie shouted instructions and soon I was zooming around. Wow, it's REALLY easy to use this. I was soon flying all over the gardens with Ditzy following me, offering a steady stream of encouragement.

I could see Dash up on a cloud, so I flew up to her. "Hey, look!" I said excitedly.

She snored.

"Rainbow Dash, Scootaloo wants to show you something," Ditzy said gently.

"Mmm, beer," Dash said to one of her legs as she rolled over.

"WAKE UP!" I shouted at her.

She started and fell off the cloud. I started down but Ditzy dove and caught her. "Are you okay?" Ditzy said.

"I'm fine," Dash said. "I meant to do that." She sounded so confident, so strong. I want to sound like that, but I...

Wings, stop it.

"Look at me fly!" I commanded and circled them, angling it for a tight turn. So easy to use this.

I can fly!

Pinkie is the best pony ever!

She was jumping and shouting about something.

Dash looked down. "Why isn't the other one working?"

"Not a clue," I told her.

We dove down and landed by the humans. "Herr Ziggy," Dash began.

"Herr Sigismund, son of Prince Jaggar," Herr Sigismund said. "A pleasure to see you again, Countess Dash."

I never knew she was a countess! That's SO COOL.

Flap, flap, flap. DAMMIT.

Stupid body.

"Scootaloo, would you like to help us with testing? We're trying to figure out why it isn't working for them," Pinkie said.

"Probably they weigh too much," I said. "And their legs are too weak."

Pinkie blinked. "But I weigh more than he does," Pinkie said.

"Yes, but you're an earth pony," I said, feeling very smart.

"That was my fear too," Herr Sigismund said. "You being a pegasus probably helps too, Scootaloo."

Him knowing my name when I didn't know his before was embarrassing. Oh wait, Pinkie just said it.

Okay, not embarrassed.

Wings stopped flapping, thankfully.

"I have an idea, but I don't know how to make it work," I said.

Dash laughed at me and I wanted to DIE. Die, die, die.

But I am stubborn. "Do we know if it can lift a human with something strong enough pedaling?" I said.

"It can lift Pinkie with enough force behind it, but that might be her Cutie Mark at work," Herr Sigismund said thoughtfully.

"Is there some way to make an engine for it?" I said. "Then the human could just steer. Or somehow make the human weigh less."

"That would be more magic," Dash said. She circled the machine, studying it. "Also, you need some stronger humans. Some earth humans. You're all unicorn humans and not very strong."

Herr Sigismund frowned, then sighed. "You're right," he said.

"Perhaps an air elemental could be bound into it to provide lift," one of the other wizards said; they'd been standing around uselessly, staring and whispering to each other. Wizards are good at standing around uselessly, I've noticed.

"That would be expensive," Herr Sigismund said.

"Make the frame out of liftwood; that would help," Ditzy said. "You'd have to mount an expedition to the Flying Forest of Davicor III, but with enough of that, I think a human could get enough lift."

"Ooh, a forest that flies?" I said.

"Never heard of it," Dash said, stretching out on the grass. "Where's that?"

"In the elemental plane of wood," Ditzy said.

"I don't think wood is an element," I said.

Ditzy looked at me intently. "It most certainly is a real place." She paused, then looked nervous. "I'm not sure if I should talk about it."

"Too late," I told her.

We were soon knee deep in one of Ditzy's confusing stories. The gist is that there is another plane and it has flying trees and soon everyone was very excited and they're going to go to another plane and get some.

Without me because I am too young! I never get to do ANYTHING cool!

But Pinkie promised I could help them test things once they have the wood. And I get to practice using this gyrocopter. With Dash supervising me!

Now THAT is going to be cool!

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

Back to Marcus-O-Vision:

"We're going to send you all to Sind to deliver some messages to the Radirajah," Celestia said to us. "It's possible this may lead to trouble if that vision came true, so prepare yourself. It's best to warn him and I want Twilight to get a look at him and make sure he hasn't been replaced by a shapeshifter himself."

We were in a private meeting room; the CMC were off with Ditzy, Lyra, and Bon-Bon and were working on some big plan.

"I need to go to another plane that may be real or imaginary to get liftwood," Pinkie said. "But it should go quick."

"As soon as you're back, then," Celestia said. "Luna is very excited about this project, and it will give us leverage with Aalban. One of my diplomats will work on training you all in the proper protocols. Tidy Manners is very good at what he does."

Do not laugh at the diplomat, I told myself.

"Also, Marcus, I want you to go as a pony. If there are shifters around, they may mistake you for one of them and this will draw them out," Celestia said.

I laughed nervously. I get to be bait. "Yes, your highness."

"It'll be good for you," Applejack said. "Practice being naked like civilized folk."

I couldn't help but smile at that.

"Oh, I intend to dress us all up," Rarity said. "Ambassadors must look official and regal, not casual and relaxed."

"I ain't wearing nothing frou-frou," Applejack said firmly. "And my hat stays."

After my own heart.

"Don't you trust me? You liked your gala outfit, right?"

"Yeah," she said, softening a little. "Just nothing too fancy."

"Oh, THIS will be a test of my talents," Rarity said. "Pinkie, take your time inside Ditzy's head or wherever you are going. Genius cannot be rushed. This will be magnificent!"

"I will need to practice looking at shapeshifting and detecting it," Twilight said.

"Marcus can change form for your amusement," Celestia said grandly.

I am going to be VERY sore.

"I'll do it," Fluttershy said.

"Didn't you..." I began.

"I will do it," Fluttershy said firmly.

"Are you sure?" Twilight said.

"I can handle it," Fluttershy said, though her tail was shaking.

Celestia smiled warmly. "You can both do it. I have faith in you, Fluttershy."

She smiled brightly. "I have faith in you too, Princess Celestia."

I have faith I am going to ache all over.

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

I could see Scootaloo zooming around and laughing through the window as I worked on getting sore. I felt my body wrench again and now I was a cat. I rubbed against Twilight's leg, then realized what I was doing as she turned red. "Mrowr," I said, unable to speak.

Fluttershy, on the other hand, did the same thing shamelessly, until Twilight petted her with a hoof. Unfortunately, this clearly indicated Fluttershy had lost herself again.

Twilight turned us both back to normal.

I flopped out on the floor, aching, while Fluttershy looked frustrated. "I did it again," she said softly.

"You love them so much, you join with them perfectly," Twilight said kindly.

"I'm too weak willed to keep control," Fluttershy said, frustrated. "I lose track of what I'm doing. A druid shouldn't lose control during a shift."

She could turn into all sorts of things, but she kept losing herself. That would scare me shitless.

"You can do it," I told her, trying to be supportive. I suspect she can't do it. She's too gentle and kind and her will only comes out in a really deep crisis.

"If I can stare down things, I ought to be able to do this. I bet Dragonfly can shapeshift all she wants," Fluttershy said, frustrated.

"We'll keep practicing," Twilight said. I could tell she thought the same as me, though. But she's too kind to slap Fluttershy down.

And Twilight's very much the 'keep trying until you succeed or die' type.

So I won't give up either, much as I want to.

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

Raven-Fluttershy flew off after something shiny.

"Come back!" Twilight said.

I hopped on her back and we teleported out and started chasing her around. I touched Twilight's mind. 'We should take a break after this.'

'Not giving up,' she said stubbornly. 'You can give up,' she said irritably. 'You're good at that.'

OWW. We'd gotten on okay if awkward, but...

'Not giving up,' I said and launched myself, flying after her. She had the shiny but I TOOK it.

She stared at me, then made unhappy raven noises. I waved it around in her face and she watched it move. Then, suddenly, she lunged for it. I flew and she chased me with Twilight watching us; she started to get dizzy as we bobbed and weaved.

Finally, she got it from me, then waved it in the air and flew up into a tree, made a nest and crouched over it protectively.

Finally, she fell asleep and turned back and Twilight took her down.

"Well, it's a start," I said when she turned me back.

Twilight sighed. "I'm sorry I snapped at you."

"It's okay, I do give up too easily. But I am not giving up this time," I said. "You don't have to worry."

We looked at each other uncomfortably.

Dammit. I hate this.

"Take good care of Rarity," she said softly. "I'll take Fluttershy to her room. See you later, okay?"

"Okay," I said and headed off to go make sure the kids weren't burning the world.

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

I had to drag the kids to take a bath before dinner; they were messes. It was a 'secret' but would be 'really cool'. Lyra assured me it would be fine. I hope she's right. Pinkie and Dash and Ditzy were all gone with the expedition to get the liftwood. I hope that goes well. I felt bad they were going without the rest of us, but Celestia wanted most of us to stay here.

I dragged Fluttershy into coming with me that night to help out Bon-Bon and Twist with some candy making. Twist was getting a lesson, while Lyra and I were being grunts and Fluttershy was helping to cook, though candy is not her expertise.

Equestria candymaking is really a form of alchemy, I concluded. All sorts of odd chemicals and making things with weird properties. The candy stretching machine was almost hypnotic. In fact, Lyra had to drag me away from staring at it.

"You should have invited Rarity," Lyra told me.

"This is my atonement, not hers," I told her. "She's busy making the dresses and suits and everything."

"So you're going to be a pony for the trip?" Bon-Bon said to me as she used her tail to shake a blue powder into the pot Twist was stirring.

Distantly, I heard odd grinding noises from the garden where the rest of the kids were working.

Wait, who is supervising them???

"Yes, I am," I said. "I'm not used to staying shifted that long."

Bon-Bon said, "Before you all go, how about... since Lyra wants to try it... we could have a human form quadruple date," she said. "Just since Lyra's so curious."

"Sure," I said. "I'll ask Rarity."

"Excellent, Prof," Lyra said, rubbing her hooves together excitedly.

"Who is supervising the kids?" I asked, worried.

"Applejack," Lyra said.

Oh, that'll be fine.

Bon-Bon put me to work rolling and flattening and stretching and rolling a kind of striped candy which would eventualy end up a pinwheel candy. Very tasty.

Fluttershy was stirring another pot and whistling a happy tune, enjoying herself.

"I hear you're practicing shapeshifting?" Lyra asked her.

"Yes," Fluttershy said nervously. "It's a druidic power."

"That's really cool," Lyra said. "I would love that. But my talent is music. Which I love, but man, that's a great power."

"Thank you," Fluttershy said kindly, but I could tell she was hiding frustration.

There has to be some way to help her. I just don't know how. It seems like it would take a personality shift. And those aren't something you can just DO.

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

"Sure," Rarity said to me when I told her of Lyra's idea. "I will want a break from work by tomorrow evening. I have been VERY busy." She told me all about it while we got ready for bed. "Don't forget, we meet with Tidy Manners in the morning."

I put a hand over my mouth to avoid laughing at the name again.

"And if you laugh at him, it won't be good manners at all."

I nodded.

"It's going to be cool in Sind," Sweetie said.

"Honey, we may have to fight our way out. You all are going to have to stay here in Canterlot with Lyra and Bon-Bon where you're safe," Rarity said firmly to her.

"Sorry. We'll bring you a souvenier," I said to her patting her head.

"I'm ready! I'm learning more stuff every day! And I did a good job on the locks, right?" she said hopefully.

"You were great, Sweetie," I told her. "But this is for the grownups."

"I am a grownup," she said, pouting.

Getting her to bed was, to say the least, difficult.

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

Nothing like being groggy at a MANNERS meeting. Rarity and I took a while to rally, to our embarrassment. Most of the others getting yelled at for eating right out of the bowl made us both feel a little better, though.

Applejack was the worst; I got the feeling she COULD do much better, but deliberately did not. Feeling it to be 'fake'. Dash, on the other hand, was hopelessly incompetent.

Mind you, there were other issues... "I can't hold a spoon in my mouth AND eat from it at the same time!" Dash protested.

"If you eat from the bowl, the Sindhi will see you as a beast of burden," Tidy Manners said. He was a well dressed stallion in a grey suit; he wore glasses and had a blue mane and a black coat. "They are hard to deal with and I feel sorry for you all that you have to go. It will require strict self-control."

Applejack grumbled, then gripped the spoon with her hooves and wiggled around to sip from it.

"I suppose feeding each other would feel too childish," I said.

"Yeah," Applejack said, then sighed. "How big are the portions?"

"Anyone who is not a mystic eats heartily," Tidy Manners said. "Many try to restrict their eating of meat, and sentient ponies do dwell among them, so you will not go hungry. Just make sure you are clearly foreign so they will not treat you as il-jaya."

The Sindhi religion asserts Ponies (il-jaya) are humans who screwed up and were born again as a lesser sentient. This has led to a LOT of conflict with Equestria. Elephants, on the other hand, are treated as members of the warrior caste. This tends to give them a big head.

Basically, there is a caste system; if you follow your caste's rules, you're reborn in a higher caste (they think); screw up and you drop down the ladder. Drop down enough you become a pony. Orcs, goblins, etc, are the next level down.

Sind wobbles between periods where religion is very serious business and life sucks for the Ponies there and then war with Equestria usually happens and periods where the merchants are in the ascendent and basically are nice to anyone with MONEY.

A fair number of Sindhi Ponies flee to Equestria whenever the heat is on; this sometimes itself has led to wars.

I'm frankly baffled why any of them stay, but apparently, they've internalized it and believe they can't escape their fate, blah, blah.

And the state doesn't want them to leave, as they do lots of valuable work.

Sindh is too powerful for Equestria to conquer and vice-versa, so they wobble between friendly and hostile relations. Friendly of late, but I suspect Marquetta hopes to induce a flip and a war like the vision Sweetie and I had.

I hope this goes smoothly.

Applejack pursed her lips, then closed her eyes.

Her stance shifted and now her eyes didn't quite open as fully as usual. "Very good," she said, her accent gone. "Thank you very much for the food, Tidy Manners." She bowed smoothly, then took the spoon and began to feed herself in something as close to elegance as you can manage with hooves.

"Hah, she remembers!" Pinkie said, then began trying to eat with her spoon.

"Thanks, Applejack," Twilight said. "I know you don't like doing that."

"It ain... It is not honest, and I don't like it, but I will do my best for Equestria," Applejack said, shifting accents to the polished sounding Manehattanite. "Rarity, you can give me the full frou-frou, but I get to dress YOU up after this for a while."

"Fair enough," Rarity said. "I look forward to unleashing your full potential, darling."

Fluttershy studied Applejack, looking thoughtful, then got a determined look and ate as smoothly as she could.

At least if I have to do this as a horse, I will be a unicorn and will have magical hands.

We stumbled along and by the end, Rainbow Dash was rather a mess from her efforts to not end up being a mess and be polite. Definitely going to take some work. Or maybe dress her up to pretend to be fasting in public, anyway.

Ugh, if it was anywhere else, I'd be less frustrated. But the deck will be stacked against us there and I'll be part of the weak suit.

Twilight paused. "They'll tend to think Ivan is in charge, right?"

"Yes," Tidy Manners said. "You may wish to play up making him look a warrior so they don't assume he's of the servant caste."

Ivan grimaced. "Yes, let's do that."

"Don't worry, Ivan, I can handle that too," Rarity said. She sounded quite excited.

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

The time before our trip was full of me either running herd on kids, helping Rarity work, helping Bon-Bon work, or practicing being a pony. And the date, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Applejack got me that afternoon before the date and after the manners lesson. She studied my Cutie Mark. "So what exactly does this mean?"

"Jack of all trades, more or less. Or my reincarnating. And my love of card games. And maybe a little card magic." I got my deck of cards and made it fly around like a flock of birds.

"Ever done any gardening?" she asked. I could smell her curiosity.

"Not much. I rarely manage to settle long enough for anything to grow," I told her.

She shook her head. "That's a pity. No way to live."

"I like the adventuring life," I told her.

She raised an eyebrow. "And all the screaming?"

"Relieves tension," I said, and laughed. "I know, I know. Anyway, I expect I'll have times where I'm off doing things for Celestia and times where I'm settled down peacefully. Like in our song." I could hear it when I thought about it.

She studied me. "You're a lucky man. You know that, right?"

"If I was really lucky, we'd both be human or pony to make it simple," I told her. "But we are both too stubborn to let such things get in the way."

She looked thoughtful, then said, "Well, the gardeners have agreed to let us help, so I'm gonna put you to work. Get ready to sweat."

"You know, I would think all this hair would make it hard for you to get rid of sweat," I said as we trotted off towards the gardens. There were smells everywhere, some familiar, some not. I didn't panic this time, though the unknown ones made me nervous.

"Never had no trouble with it," Applejack. Her accent was thicker than usual and I wondered if it was natural or if it was itself an affectation. Was the 'Country Girl' really any more natural than the Manehattanite? How much of it was performance?

It's the kind of thing I like to puzzle out as I want to know how people tick. So I know how to deal with them. But I'm not trying to play Applejack, so I said nothing and just listened to her ramble on.

I'd been digging things up, pulling weeds, and planting things for an hour with magic, hooves, and shovel, when she leaned on her shovel and said, "What's it like?"

I blinked at the bushes I was planting. "I think I'm following your instructions."

"All this dying, coming back to life, being someone else... how much of it is..." She struggled. "I mean, do you really think you're someone else or are you acting or what?"

"Some of both," I told her, which made her raise an eyebrow.

"Actin' and real at once?" she said, confused.

"People change over time, but I'm not sure how much of it is just me changing and how much is because of the reincarnation. Thinking about how I feel different like this, I'm not sure how much is me and how much is my body." I frowned at the thought, pawing the ground idly.

"You feel different right now?" Applejack said curiously. She began digging another hole with a shovel held by her tail.

I began digging as well. I can't do much with my tail, beyond twitch it around. But I can manipulate a shovel telekinetically, which is better anyway. I could feel magic flowing all around; this country or at least this castle is LADEN with it. The sphere of Energy loves unicorns and ponies, I'm sure.

"I do," I told her. Smelling Applejack was oddly steadying. She had a sturdy strength to her and I could feel it in a way human me can't. "Remember me panicking at the club, when before I was perfectly fine?"

She frowned at that, continuing to shovel. "Seems odd to me you'd get more scared."

"I can't smell predators when I'm human," I told her. "And, well, humans are predators. They scare us less. We kill predators." My hole was ready and I lifted the bush into it.

"A lot of humans seem pretty comfortable with killing," Applejack said, frowning. She finished her hole and now lassooed her bush and brought it around to drop in. "You should practice using your tail."

Ugh. I tried gripping my shovel with it, but the hairs would not cohere like I needed. Rarity could do this but the polymorph didn't bring this particular skill set.

Applejack looked amused as she watched me fumble. "Man, just like a little filly."

"I suspect if you turned human, I'd outdo you in fluency with my fingers," I said a little irritably. I could drape my tail around the handle but it flailed around. Finding a hole in the spell's instruction set annoyed me and made me worry what else might be wrong.

One of the things which lets me cope with this radical a shift of shape is that I don't feel powerless.

Now I did. "Dammit."

Naturally, the worst possible twist of this situation happened.

Apple Bloom wandered up. "Have you seen... Marcus, is that you?"

"Yes," I said. She studied my cutie mark, looking a little jealous, then said, "What on Mystara are you doing, Marcus?"

"Trying to pick this up," I said irritably.

"Unicorns have a harder time with their tail than their horn," Apple Bloom said.

Wait for it...

And then she easily picked it up, brandished it and dug the hole. "Just like this," she said.

Damnit!!!!!

In that moment, I understood the Crusaders better than ever before.

I'm going to have to test the limits of this so I don't count on something and hose myself.

With Apple Bloom patiently (but excitedly) teaching me how to use my tail, I managed to get it to where I could use it clumsily. This took a really long time. But probably that's pretty fast by the normal scale.

Applejack looking amused THE WHOLE TIME did not help.

"Don't give up, you're doing great," Apple Bloom assured me. She looked SO happy, I couldn't help but smile myself.

Then she checked her flank, probably for a teaching cutie mark.

"So who were you looking for?" I asked her.

"Dinky was supposed to get more nails."

"Probably got distracted," I told her. "Nails for what?"

"It's a secret," she said. "See you later!"

She ran off.

"That was right nice of you," Applejack said. "I think she liked that."

"I needed the help," I said, embarrassed.

"Well, you got a lot to learn, but I reckon Rarity will too," Applejack said.

I reckon so.

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

Later, as I was working, I realized I smelled something familar. Rarity! My tail perked up and I said, "Hello, Rarity."

"Don't mind me, darling," she said. "I'm just going to watch for a little while," she purred.

Watch me dig up dirt and plant bushes? Then it hit me. "Why are we planting these?" I asked Applejack. "Did the summer heat kill them?"

"We don't turn up the heat enough to kill off the plants," Applejack said. "Why would we do that?"

I winced a little. Of course. I know that. But my brain is used to the rest of the world, where you take the weather you get. "Most of us don't have a choice."

Then it hit me. The sun and moon raising likely maintain the weather control systems. The moon affects tides, the sun pumps in heat... you'd want to moderate their influence.

Oooh.

"Why would... OH," Applejack said, then looked a little embarrassed. "Ivan's told me about it, but it seems kinda crazy to grow food where you can't control the weather."

"Something for both of you to remember. It's going to be REALLY hot in Sind. There's no weather control and they're naturally very hot this time of year. And Sayr Ulan will be very, very humid because of the springs." Wizards, clerics and Earth Ponies heavily terraformed the area around the capital but I don't think they have full-blown weather control.

Another thing hit me. I know the Ylari want to try to make their homeland green again... I'm surprised they haven't cut a deal with Equestria.

On the other hand, without enough pegasi... damn, now I'm curious.

"See, when you're *naked* it doesn't matter so much," Applejack said.

Rarity strode over to me. She's so beautiful when we're the same. EEEE. Especially with a lovely hat on. "We must be elegant, dear Applejack," she said grandly and then we nuzzled each other. "And wearing clothing will distinguish us from the local ponies."

Applejack frowned. "How they treat Ponies just ain't right. I don't know why they put up with it."

"Right now's one of their better periods," Rarity said. "But I agree. Hopefully, we can keep it this way. I expect Marjorie hopes to install those who support conquering us in charge." She frowned.

"Like the Rajah of Sindrastan," I said, frowning. He still enforces the caste rules very strictly in his territories and emphasizes warrior honor, blah, blah, blah. You know the type.

"Who?" Applejack said.

"One of the sub-kings of Sind," I told her. "His people ride Ponies into battle who they've bred to a larger size and very much treat Ponies as servants only."

"There was a really giant pony around here the other day," Applejack said. "He wasn't an Alicorn, just an Earth Pony but he had dragon ears."

"I think it was Vermicoritax," I said. Who must still be negotiating. Probably holding out for a bigger bribe.

Rarity and I snuggled a little longer until Applejack put me back to work.

Then the spell suddenly wore off, dumping me naked and human in the garden.

Bloody hell.

Immediate panic set in and I began calculating the least observable path to my room.

"Glory be, Marcus, you were just fine naked a minute ago."

"I was a PONY, it did not matter," I said. So totally vulnerable like this.

Rarity threw a towel around me. "Come, darling, time to get you clean before our date."

Applejack kicked some dirt onto her. "Now you have an excuse to join him. You can thank me later."

"I don't need an excuse," Rarity said grandly. Then she kicked some dirt on Applejack to my surprise. "But I always return a gift."

Soon they were both going wild while I stared in confusion; they were both laughing and finally, a now rather filthy Rarity said ruefully, "I should not have done that. But I couldn't help myself."

"Hah! I'll teach you to love dirt yet," Applejack said. "A little dirt shows you worked hard."

"The fruits of my labor show I worked hard," Rarity said. "The same for you."

"The..." Applejack now realized she'd been outflanked. "Uh, thanks," she grumbled.

"Without you, we'd starve," Rarity said graciously. "I know we fight sometimes, but I appreciate your work."

"Thanks," Applejack said more warmly.

"I'd just rather die than do it myself," Rarity continued.

Mud TO THE FACE.

Slowly, it dripped down from her face.

"It. Is. ON!" Rarity shouted and now... well, there went a LOT of our work.

Ahahahah.

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

As I was getting ready for the date in Ivan's room (Rarity insisted I change there, why it suddenly matters NOW, I have NO CLUE. But hey, I can be flexible.), Sweetie rushed in. "You should have asked me!" she said urgently.

"Asked you what?" I said, totally clueless.

"Apple Bloom keeps bragging about teaching you to use your tail." She swished hers around. "I mean, I'm not that great with my tail, but I would love to teach you about being a pony since you keep teaching me magic stuff."

"You can help me next time," I told her kindly. "Want to help me get dressed up?"

"Sure!" she said, brightening.

I had gotten mostly suited up when there was a knock. Sweetie got it; it was a delivery pony with a package; I signed for it curiously and when I opened it... spring loaded pie to the face.

Okay, now I am getting annoyed.

"Oh no, your suit!" Sweetie said, then she glared at the box which crumpled up into a cardboard ball. "This means WAR."

Ack.

"Don't do anything foalish, Sweetie," I said, then realized I'd used Luna's favorite pun.

"A pie to one is a pie to us all!" She rushed out.

"Sweetie, WAIT!"

Too late.

I decided to send a message to Luna just in case. Pies may be flowing in this castle tonight.

I know Rarity was going to look into it; I'd best ask her.

Twilight stuck her head in, looking nervous. "Fluttershy and I are going down to the city; if you need us, Spike can send us a letter."

"Quadruple date tonight," I told her. "Rarity, Lyra, Bon-Bon, and I are going out. You two have fun on your date."

"It's not a date! We're not into each other!" Twilight said frantically. "It's not.. it's a... we're going to... ahahaha."

I blinked. What?

"Nothing unusual at all!" She bolted.

I took a moment to detect magic and make sure I wasn't radiating fear into others.

Ivan finished his shower. "Luna, Twilight, Fluttershy, and I are going down to the city. With Luna undercover, of course, so we don't get mobbed."

I grinned at him. "Uh huh."

"What?" he said as he put on some nice clothing.

I grinned more. "Have fun, Mr. Pot."

"What are you talking about?" he said suspiciously.

"Oh, nothing," I said cheerfully. "You might take a cloak; I fear the castle will be covered in pie by the time we come back."

He buried his face in his hands. "What is it this time?" he asked.

"Sweetie is going to avenge me getting pie-ed again," I told him.

He finished putting on the nice shirt that goes over his nice shirt. It was black with lace collar and cuffs. "Gift from Don Diego?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "Too fancy?"

"Since Twilight ran away in panic instead of explaining, I don't know."

"Uh... okay, now I'm confused," he said.

"It will pass," I told him. "Have fun."

He frowned. "You too."

I was about to go when he said, "I'm going to need to take an apprentice eventually, as part of my quest."

"And you think Scootaloo has the temperment, but not the patience to learn the skills?" I said.

"I... yes," he said. "I'm a little boggled I'm even thinking of it, but she has a passion that I want my apprentice to have. But I don't know how to get her to actually focus on studying the arts long enough to get good at them." He frowned and flopped down on the bed. "I expect that half the reason those three spent so long was they always gave up after a half-assed try."

"See, I kind of admire them for trying so many things," I told him. "I have kind of the same problem as her."

"How did you solve it?" he asked.

"I can't remember," I confessed, embarrassed. "I'm not as good as you at thieving or as Twilight at being a wizard or as Rarity at being fashionable."

"You're good, though. She gives up so fast. Which I guess comes with the territory," he said. "Of being a kid."

"I'll think about it," I told him. "I think, though, what she wants most, is to be Rainbow Dash's apprentice."

"I can't even tell if Dash likes her or not," Ivan said.

"She likes Scootaloo, but doesn't take her seriously," I said. But that's just a guess.

Time to get out of this castle before I end up covered in more pie.

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

Human-Rarity looked exquisite. A long sea green dress with long sleeves and a long skirt with a second dress over it, deep blue with a short skirt, and sleeves, cut low in front to show off the embroidery of the top of the inner dress. With a matching hat and shoes.

Lyra was looking good in a brown suit; she had tanned skin and the same hair as her mane, cut short; her body was slender and boyish; from a distance, you could probably mistake her for a man.

Bon-Bon wore a simple blue dress, knee length with a short-sleeved top, middling in build with long hair much like her mane. Her skin was paler than Lyra's. She looked somewhat uncomfortable and wobbled a bit. Not surprising; I know she is mainly doing this to accomodate Lyra.

"Dear, your bra is upside down, I think," Rarity said kindly. "Hold on, we'll fix this." She dragged Bon-Bon back into Lyra and Bon-Bon's room.

"Did you deliberately dress as a guy?" I asked.

"Oh wait, you're right, this is a guy outfit. Well, it fits," she said, looking a little embarrassed. "It looks good, right?" She studied her hands, opening and closing them.

"Yes," I said. "You look great."

She spun around on her feet. "I have done this before but not much. Back when I was plotting with Twilight. Pity that didn't work out, Prof."

"Best not to call me that, Lyra," I told her. "It's a secret."

She nodded.

She spun around, laughing. "Feels so good."

"So what interests you about this?" I asked her.

"It's hard to say," she said, pausing. "When I was little, Father gave a concert with some humans, who told me these wonderous stories of things I'd never seen, places I'd never been. But I wanted to. Places full of humans. It's strange, I guess," she said, studying her hands. "But to me, humans are strange and magical creatures. They cause wonder in me." She leaped up and gripped the top of the door frame and pulled herself up, smiling. "I guess it's the appeal of the exotic, like you called it in class, way back then." She tried to turn and dropped down.

That's a weird feeling. "I guess I feel... okay, my life isn't that mundane, but you know what it is."

"I like Equestria, but I know it too well," Lyra said. "I want to see all those places you told me about, that Father's friends told me about. I want to see the Northmen raid a town, ride an Alphatian skyship, dig for Nithian ruins, see the Glantrian Parliament meet... but Bon-Bon's very settled down. I hope to get her to do some travelling with me, but I know she can't just roam like I want." She sighed. "I don't know. I love her, but it's going to be hard to make both our dreams work. I just... that song was beautiful but making it real is harder."

I started to wonder if the bra was killing them in there or something. What is taking so long?

"Oh I know. You at least are both ponies," I told her.

She winced. "Yeah." She put a hand on my shoulder. "Oh wow, I can feel things with this!"

...

"You didn't know?"

She carefully touched her suit, feeling the texture, then that of her shirt and then her shoes. "Incredible," she said. "They're so sensitive!"

She ran her fingers through her hair; she was still doing so when the ladies came out. Bon-Bon wobbled again and caught onto Lyra, then stared at her fingers.

Lyra took Bon-Bon's hand and ran it up and down her jacket. "Isn't it cool?"

Bon-Bon's eyes widened. "They're so sensitive."

I took Rarity's hand and kissed it and she shivered, turning a little red. Lyra did the same and Bon-Bon jumped.

I then kissed Rarity on the lips and took her arm again. "Let's go before the Pie Apocalypse breaks out."

"Yes," Bon-Bon said urgently and I wondered if she knew something.

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

I paid for a carriage; we got some odd looks from the ponies pulling it; probably the fact that three of the four of us have pony-style hair colors was key. I just paid a touch extra and acted like everything was TOTALLY normal.

Then I remembered... Lyra still has her horn. And it's not invisible like mine.

Well, at least the carriage Ponies care more about money than making fun of us.

We went to a mixed species restaurant, Borderlands, for dinner; I knew Lyra was curious to try a steak, but I didn't know if Bon-Bon or Rarity would want meat.

There was a knot of Belcadizians at one table and Aalbanese at another and some Darokinians at a third. Several others had mixed groups and two had all-pony groups.

I was somewhat surprised to see crocodile on the menu. It was very expensive. Lyra stared. "Humans eat crocodile?"

"We can but it's unusual," I said.

"I HAVE to try it," she said excitedly. "It says it was caught in the Malpheggi!"

"A dreadful place," Rarity said. "Shrimp... those are sea creatures, right?"

"Yes," I told her. I decided to get the pork, rice, and vegetable dish.

Bon-Bon studied the menu, studied us, and looked hesitant.

"I believe there's several vegetable and grain only dishes if you don't want to try any meat," I said to her.

"I won't make you do it," Lyra said to her, studying the menu.

"It's... actually quite good," Rarity said, sounding stunned. "Meat, that is. I can see why humans like it."

"I don't see anything meat-like in this tomato gumbo, I think," Lyra said.

"I could get the larger pork plate and you could try some of it without having to commit to a full meal's worth," I told Bon-Bon.

"Thank you," she said, licking her lips. "I'll try the tomato gumbo and sample yours," she said.

"Man, alligator. One of Father's friends claimed he would wrestle alligators," Lyra said. She sounded amazed.

"Was he missing a hand?" I asked, amused.

Her eyes widened. "How did you know?"

"Well, that makes his stories more likely to be true," I said, amused. Lyra laughed.

Rarity and Bon-Bon looked horrified. "How can you laugh?" Bon-Bon demanded of Lyra.

"Oh, he just laughed about it," Lyra said. "Corwin One-Hand was a good guy. From Darokin. Grew up around Port Tenobar."

Which is one of the ports on the south fringe of the Malpheggi.

We all got some wine; Rarity, Lyra, and Bon-Bon looked confused when they drank it and I blinked. "What is it?" I asked.

"It tastes different," Lyra said. "Better."

"Humans have stronger senses of taste and touch," I told them. "A wine expert can do incredible things like know which winery made a wine just with a sip or two."

"But less smell," Bon-Bon said.

"And since smell and taste have links, it likely changes your experience also," I said. I sipped my own white wine. "Be careful, your alcohol tolerance is likely much less than your pony body. For one thing, you both probably have close to half as much body mass."

Bon-Bon looked down at herself, touched her breasts and then her cheek and around her head. "Really?"

One of the Belcadizians stared at us. Ahahaha. "Yes," I told her.

They brought us some nice wheat bread with butter and honey and jam. We soon were enjoying that.

"Are you from Ponyville originally?" I asked Bon-Bon.

"A native," she said between bites of bread. Nice, WARM bread. Mmm, tasty. "During the summer, I stayed with my kin in Hoofington, though."

"Mother is from Ponyville," Rarity said. "Father's from a military family. They met after a battle near Ponyville with creatures coming out of the Everfree. Mother stayed in Ponyville until I was old enough to take over the boutique; Sweetie went with them until they got sent somewhere not very suitable for kids, so my other sister and I take care of Sweetie."

"Is Grand Stalls that bad for kids?" Lyra asked.

"It's a pretty rough border fort," Rarity said. "Father had been posted to safer places like Fillydelphia before that."

"What does he think of you two?" Lyra asked curiously.

"I sent him a long letter when we came to Canterlot," Rarity said. "I'm sure he and Mother will like Marcus very much." She was clearly trying to force her will on the universe.

The waitress came and took our orders, then we chatted until the food came. It smelled so good. I had just started to dig in when Rarity made a noise. Looking, I saw Bon-Bon was trying to eat straight from the bowl without use of hands or silverware. Lyra whispered urgently to her, "Use your spoon. With your hands."

"Ha..." Bon-Bon looked at her hands, glanced at other diners, then turned red.

I wanted to laugh but I stifled it; I'm sure I screw up pony things. Like my damn tail.

I HAD TO BE SAVED BY A KID!

At least she was an older filly, I thought.

Bon-Bon wiped her face, then fumblingly began to eat with silverware; Rarity showed her what to do. I think she must be studying this, as her manners were quite good.

But then, it would be important to her to do it well.

Lyra was actually more nimble than I would have expected.

"It's all very strange," Bon-Bon said.

"I know. Being a pony is strange to me when I do it," I told her.

"Yeah, I heard Apple Bloom had to teach you what to do," Lyra said, grinning.

I buried my face in my hands. "Yes."

"Now, now, don't mock," Rarity said. "We all have much to learn."

"It's so much easier to walk on two legs like this," Bon-Bon said, then sipped her wine. She sounded amazed.

"It has something to do with how the bones are aligned," Rarity said. "Twilight became very technical when I asked her."

"Humans are meant to walk upright. We can go on all fours, but only clumsily, though it is traditional to play horsey with your kids if you have any," I said.

"Play 'horsey'?" Bon-Bon asked curiously.

"Pretend to be a horse and let your kids ride you," I said. "They generally love it."

"Riding something else seems kind of lazy to me," Bon-Bon said.

"We'll have to see if we can hire someone to let you see what it's like, then," I told her. "It's fun. Though you can get pretty sore if you have to do it all day."

This should be entertaining.

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

Dancing was fun. I love dancing and we showed Lyra and Bon-Bon various dances. We were all pretty relaxed when someone came through the mob and threw a pie at me. Rarity caught it and then GLARED at the blue-uniformed delivery pony who threw it. He ran and we gave chase, but in the short run he was too fast for us.

Dammit.

"We could have caught him if we'd been normal," Bon-Bon grumbled.

"Rarity, did you ever find out what is going on?" I asked.

"Various admirers of Blueblood are getting their revenge, I think," Rarity said.

I sighed. No real way to stop it, which is very annoying.

We went back to dancing.

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

We found four stallions willing to give us a ride home for a small fee. I helped Bon-Bon and Rarity and Lyra mount. Then helped them not fall off.

It was a nice smooth ride and soon we were enjoying ourselves. One of the Ponies, a black Earth Pony stallion named Midnight Run, said, "I've never seen humans with horns before."

Rarity floated a rock. "There are several kinds of humans too," she said, amused.

"Well, dang," Midnight Run said. "Never met a unicorn human before. Nice to meet you."

"So what's it like, being a pony?" Lyra said, trying not to laugh.

You're a terrible person, Lyra.

Hehe.

Midnight Run began rambling on the rest of the way, while Bon-Bon looked like she clearly would be giving Lyra a talking-to later.

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

As we approached the castle, I could see crews cleaning up a big mess. I knew that was going to happen.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders were busy stacking underwear and pulling it off various bits of the arena where the sun and moon raising ceremonies take place. We all stopped and stared. "What happened?" I asked. I wouldn't even think this castle had all this underwear, given that even noble ponies don't wear much of it.

"Don't ask," Scootaloo said mournfully.

"We got even but then they got even and then EVERYONE got even and I think I had better sleep under the bed where no one can find me," Sweetie said frantically.

Rarity sighed. "Let us help. Tomorrow, we pack, and the day after, we head to Sind."

"Oooh, I bet I can fold those quick," Lyra said, excitedly seizing some of the underwear and folding excitedly.

"I have to practically head butt you to get you to fold the laundry normally," Bon-Bon said, though she joined in. She sounded aggravated.

"Doing it this way, though, is COOL," Lyra said.

I laughed and joined in and we got it all folded; by the time we finished the candy wore off and everyone but me turned back to normal; I was already as normal as I get.

"We want to go to Sind," Scootaloo said to us.

"We can't take you; it's going to be dangerous," I told her.

She frowned and her wings began to flap frantically. "I can fly a gyrocopter!" she said proudly. "I'm a GREAT pilot."

"Keep practicing," I told her. "If that's your talent, you have to work on it. And then you may get your cutie mark. Good luck."

She grimaced. "I don't want to listen to Sweetie worrying about you the whole time."

"I won't be worrying ALL the time," Sweetie said. Clearly there'd already been a fight over this.

"Worrying all the time about what?" A unicorn said. He was white coated with a storm of arrows for a cutie mark, but his hair matched the pink part of Sweetie's hair. Another unicorn, white coated with purple hair like Rarity's, stood next to him; she had a silver bell for a cutie mark.

We all jumped and Sweetie said, "FATHER!" excitedly and ran over to him.

Captain Keen Eyes kneeled down, nuzzling his daughter. "It's nice to see you," he said, oddly sternly, though he smiled.

Rarity looked very nervous, but now her mother came over and nuzzled her. "Hello, dear," she said warmly. "Why don't you introduce me to your..." She paused, saw me, and blinked in surprise.

Sweetie said, "Look, Father, I got my Cutie Mark!"

Captain Keen Eyes started, then frowned just for a moment, but then he smiled. "Congratulations, Sweetie. You have passed a very important landmark in your life. The road to adulthood begins now." He paused. "What exactly does it mean?" he asked curiously.

I bowed to Silver Belle. "Fair lady unicorn, I am Samus Marcus, a unicorn human wizard and a special agent of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna." Rule one of meeting parents, NEVER MENTION THIEVING SKILLS.

Unless they're thieves.

I could conjure a rose, except it would dissolve in a few minutes when the spell wore off. I need to find some way to get a few preserved flowers I could hide on myself for times like this. Oh wait, gardens nearby. I borrowed a rose and presented it to her as I finished bowing. "For the fair lady of the needles." I know she likes to sew.

She lifted it and tucked it behind one ear. "He's as charming as you said, Rarity," she said, smiling.

"Big Brother Marcus helped me get it," Sweetie said excitedly. Her father started. "Watch!"

She drew her deck and sent it flying into the air in a swarm around her father, then it circled her like a line of swimming ducks and then seven cards flew down into a layout, face down. She tapped one and they all flipped over. "You will win your next great battle, Father!," she said proudly, pointing to the Ten of Winds and the Jack of Winds. "This is you," she said, pointing to the Jack. "And ten is the number of victory."

"Well, well, very good," he said, looking relieved.

He probably feared she had a gambling mark. Hah!

"Very good, Sweetie," Rarity said, ruffling her hair and smiling proudly.

Scootaloo looked cranky, Dinky was busy arranging the stacks of underwear into some sort of sigil, Twist studied the cards, and Apple Bloom said, "Hey, maybe you can predict how we'll get our cutie marks!"

Scootaloo IMMEDIATELY perked up. "Ooooh."

"Oh, Father, these are my friends Lyra and Bon-Bon. Lyra is our bard-in-residence in Ponyville and Bon-Bon is one of our gardeners," Rarity said, then moved to stand by me. "And as I mentioned in my letters, Marcus is my special prince." Her voice turned mushy on the main clause and I smiled.

I put a hand on her back, trying not to crinkle her dress. Then I slightly adjusted her hat. It wasn't at a good angle. Then the hand moved back.

He turned now and frowned at me deeply. Rarity frowned a moment, then made herself smile. "How was your trip, Father?"

"Your father decided it was a good idea to see a Traladaran Soothsayer and of course he believed it all," Silver Belle said, gently chiding.

"It only reinforced what I already knew! Humans will try to bed ANYTHING and then they lose interest and move on!" he said angrily. "They wouldn't know monogamy if it bit them!"

That made me angry. "You don't even know me!" I shouted angrily.

"What's a monogamy?" Scootaloo asked.

"It's a creature which only owns one game," Dinky said sagely. "Hmm, no, wait, this rune needs a slash." She began dragging piles again.

"Why would it bite someone?" Scootaloo said dubiously.

"The person took its one game," Dinky said, then summoned a mass of bubbles, hopped on them and began to float upwards over the stacks of underwear.

"Marcus is faithful to me," Rarity said angrily. "Don't judge him before you know him."

Lyra and Bon-Bon quietly retreated to study what Dinky was doing and being ready to hustle the kids.

"Dear, just because a Traladaran fortuneteller said it doesn't make it true," Silver Belle said, trying to calm him.

The Traladarans are the main inhabitants of Karameikos. They have an elaborate system of divining the future through omens and superstitions and tea leaves. I incline to think it's crap, though a few get results.

He took an aggressive step towards me; I shivered in place; I couldn't run, not with my girlfriend here, but he was starting to trigger my powerful 'scream like a bitch and run' instincts.

In fact, I probably would have broken after the second step, except now Sweetie rushed and interposed herself, rearing up. "No," she said firmly. "I'm sure you'll like Big Brother Marcus if you just give him a chance." Her legs were shaking but she didn't run.

Scootaloo made an odd hoof gesture, but I think it means roughly 'hot damn, you're being cool, Sweetie'. I'm only guessing, though.

He paused and Rarity looked worried, but then relaxed.

"You must admit it is odd," Silver Belle said. "People will say strange things." This clearly worried her.

"I know," I told her. "I hid from it myself, but in the end, I couldn't deny how I felt." I'm kind of stunned, really.

"I will be a laughingstock," Captain Keen Eyes said, frowning. "What am I supposed to tell my fellow soldiers?"

"You could try caring more about me than your fellow soldiers," Rarity said angrily.

Bon-Bon began trying to persuade Dinky to clean up the 'rune' and trying to herd the rest of the kids off with Lyra's help but they wanted to watch.

Distantly, I heard Applejack shout about her hat and I heard galloping hooves.

Something happened to her wonderful hat?

SHIT.

"Look at me, I'm a COWGIRL!" Pinkie shouted distantly, voice wobbling.

...

Bon-Bon now began hustling all the kids along, with Lyra's help as best she could. I think she knows doom is coming.

Doom.

Doom.

Doom.

"I do care about you! If I didn't, I'd leave you to this parasite's blandishments!" Captain Keen Eyes said. "Can't you smell his fear? How can you stand someone like that?"

"Marcus would NEVER abandon me," Rarity said angrily, eyes flashing.

Legs shaking, urge to run RISING. But I stood my ground. Can't disappoint Rarity no matter how nervous he makes me. If he knows the 'lancer' spell.... AAAAA.

"Back down, father," Sweetie said, though she looked as scared as me. But also determined. "He hasn't done anything wrong!"

"Honey, we can fight later. The kids should go to bed and I'm tired," Silver Belle said, nudging her husband.

"Did you come all this way to bite my face off?" I said angrily.

"I am commanding the guards going with you," he said, frowning. "Stupid Sind. Full of idiot humans."

"Like the soothsayer," Silver Belle said chidingly.

"She's very reliable," he said. "Her predictions have never steered me wrong." He turned his head and stared at me with one eye.

"Sweetie, would you like to sleep with us tonight?" Silver Belle said to her daughter, smiling at her.

"Only if Father promises to stop saying BAD THINGS." Her voice was very determined.

I could see Pinkie coming our way in Applejack's boots and hat. "Look at me, I'm Applejack!" she shouted, clearly drunk.

"Bring my stuff back!" Applejack shouted. They were coming right at us.

Captain Keen Eyes said, "Oh not AGAIN," then ushered his wife backwards and Rarity and Sweetie and I backed up and the two ran right between us and kept going.

"Hey, it's my favorite stallion!" Pinkie said, turning.

"NOT AGAIN!" Captain Keen Eyes shouted, then fled with Pinkie chasing him and Applejack chasing her.

Rarity smiled, then said, "We must." To my surprise, she cast a spell and grew large enough for me to ride. I mounted up and then we took off after them with Sweetie running alongside us and Rarity's mother chasing us.

This kept us all busy until bedtime.

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

Sweetie ended up sleeping with her parents. Rarity and I passed out FAST, as we were quite blown.

The next morning, we would dine with Celestia and Luna and be briefed on the mission, then we'd get ready all day, go to bed early and take off the next morning.

I arrived at the breakfast with Rarity, both of us dressed to impress, only to find Captain Keen Eyes there, having a cheerful conversation with Spike about how horrible I am.

Ack.

"He is NOT terrible," Twilight said, though she was frowning. I still have to make things up to her, but she needs some space right now, I think.

"I'm not half as great as you, though," I told her. "Hello, everyone."

Lots of hellos followed along with the ceremonial 'die in a fire' from Spike and Captain Keen Eyes. They were politer than that... in theory. But I knew their meaning.

"Did you and Fluttershy have a good time?" I asked Twilight.

"Wonderful," she said, smiling. "It went well."

"Yeah, we had a good time," Ivan said. "Shouldn't Fluttershy be here by now?"

"She may be sleeping in, though normally she goes to bed early and rises early," Rarity said, rising. "I can go check."

The door opened and Fluttershy walked in. To my suprise, she was in human form, wearing a yellow blouse and a green skirt with her druidic robes, recut for a human, hanging open over them, her hood pulled down. Her golden torc had resized itself to form a belt at her waist. The whole outfit had been cut to allow her large yellow wings to come out of the outfit. She wore a green hat with... a yellow duck on it. Hat, good. Hat with duck... I can't say a hat is BAD, but... she does realize you can NEVER put a duck on your head and have any dignity, right?

Obviously not.

Everyone stared for a moment, then Rarity said, "You look wonderful, darling."

Surely she does not like the DUCK on Fluttershy's HEAD.

SHE HAS A DUCK ON HER HEAD!

It's a stuffed doll duck, but that's only one step away from live duck on head.

DUCK.

Okay, I'm getting far too worked up and she's happy.

Luna and Celestia whispered softly for a few seconds, then Celestia said, "You look wonderful, Fluttershy." Her voice was warm and supportive.

Duck.

I rubbed the side of my head, trying to stop thinking about the duck as it stared at me with cold, lifeless eyes, mocking all my attempts to be serious and sober and calm.

It hated me.

I focused on thinking about our mission and Rarity and how her father is likely to forget to protect me on this mission, leading to my horrible death.

Dammit, I'm nervous.

Twilight looked proud. "How's it going, Fluttershy?"

"It was hard to sleep like this but otherwise well. I don't think I've lost control," Fluttershy said. "But I am not sure how I could tell," she said hesitantly.

You know, I'm not sure how you would tell. Given that when I turn into a pony, there's so many changes... "I've been a human and a pony and you seem to be doing fine," I told her.

Luna telekinesed a box onto the table. "You should wear these circlets; they denote rank and will ensure you are treated better by the Sindhi, who can be rather snobbish about rank."

They were made of gold and silver, one designed for each of us and very valuable. Mine was mostly silver with the five card suit symbols rendered in gold with inset gems. Wow. I had to take my hat off; all of us with hats did, though Rarity's magic hat became a thin veil over her mane now, under the circlet. "Thank you, Princess," she said warmly.

Twilight had something special, a kind of head-medallion which dangled down over her forehead and could be worn with her Element. The medallion showed Luna and Celestia rearing towards each other with her (Twilight) in the 'arch' underneath them.

"I feel vain," she squeaked.

"It's fine, it shows our confidence in you," Celestia said to her and she smiled brightly. "This will either go very smoothly or you may have to fight the infiltrators, if they exist." She slid a report to Twilight. "This is what we know from our agents. Your job is simply to deliver the message and assist the Radhirajah if he asks. If anything attacks you, deal with it and investigate. We need to avoid a war with Sind if possible." Celestia's voice was very serious. "I'm counting on you all."

I wondered why Fluttershy was... oh, right. I expect she wants to ensure they take her seriously. The fact it has to come to that... made me frown.

But you can't change the world, just the bits close to you.

Dammit.

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

Twilight pulled me aside after the meeting; we stood awkwardly in the hallway, unable to look at each other's face. "Watch over Fluttershy," Twilight asked me. "She isn't used to being human and... well, I'm sure there's problems that I don't even know to anticipate."

"Of course," I told her. "You can count on me."

She grimaced and I sighed. "I swear, no more lies," I told her.

She studied my feet and I studied her headpiece. "I want to be friends but every time I see you I have to tell myself not to set you on fire," she said, frustrated.

Ahahaha. "You have the right," I told her. "Anyway, I owe you service as atonement, whenever you're ready for me to do it."

"Later," she said. "We need to focus on our mission."

I nodded. "Of course."

"Have you ever been to Sind?" she asked, looking up at me.

"A few times, in the past. I only remember it dimly," I told her, trying to remember. "I think we raided some old ruins in the desert when I was a dwarf."

"How much do you remember from being Erik?" she asked softly.

I could lie, claim I hardly remember. She'd likely get less angry.

But I promised no more lies.

Dammit.

I like the easy way out!

"Erik is pretty clear. Anything before that is increasingly blurry," I told her.

"Did you...," she said but couldn't finish her sentence.

"I always enjoyed the time I spent with you," I told her. "And I regretted it ended like that. I liked living here. I just was terrified. You know how I am."

"You didn't seem like that when I knew you as Erik," she told my knees.

"I tend to calm down in safe places," I told her. "I can be pretty mellow when I feel safe and have little stress. Being with you, I felt safe, so I could be calm and happy." I studied her back, not because it was interesting but because I couldn't bear to look at her face.

She made a gloomy noise, then shook her head. "I don't have time to feel sorry for myself. I have to get organized. Make sure you're ready in time, Marcus."

"I will, ambassador Twilight," I told her, then touched my new circlet. I had my hat on also. So it won't get jealous.

"It feels weird to have a high title," she said.

"This is only the start. One day, you will be Princess Twilight," I told her. "And every pony will bow."

"I don't want them to bow to me," she said, pained.

"We both know it's your future," I told her softly. "I know you won't fail on your quest."

She laughed nervously. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"I'm nervous too," I told her. "I'm always nervous, but I'm keenly aware of how this could all go to hell. Especially if the shifters are alread taking over."

"We will stand together," she said firmly. "I have made three escape plans and several battle plans. We'll be ready."

I felt better, knowing she'd planned ahead. "Thanks, Twilight. I feel better already."

"Glad to help you," she said. She smiled, then sighed, then shook her head.

"So did you and Fluttershy go out with two of those guys from the club or did you practice being human last night?" I told her.

"Some of both," Twilight said, blushing a little.

"Did it go well?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, then sighed. "Who knows when we'll see either of them again, though."

I was going to ask more but then suddenly I felt a wall of hate. "Hello, Captain Keen Eyes," I said cheerfully.

"Hello, Samus," he said coldly. "Do you normally hit on every pony in sight?"

"He was not hitting on me!" Twilight said.

Thanks, Twilight. You are the best pony.

After Rarity.

"We are on the team together and we were, in fact, consulting about our upcoming mission together," I said firmly, trying not to shake.

Captain Keen Eyes snorted, then said to Twilight, "We should discuss security. In private."

"Okay," Twilight said. "See you later, Marcus," she said without looking at me directly.

"See you later, Twilight," I told her and went to go get ready.

***********

I had the bad feeling I was being played, but I couldn't stop. I'd been giving the job of running herd on the kids for the afternoon, as all my possessions (which were few) were packed and ready to go. So I was busy teaching them about adventuring. They hung on my every word in a way that gave me the distinct feeling I was being played like a violin.

But I couldn't figure out HOW. It couldn't be a distraction with *all* of them here. Unless they cloned themselves.

I pray NOT.

It may have been so they could build up credit with me for when they inevitably begged to go with us. If so, I commend them. It didn't work, but it shows they are thinking about how to use your social skills to do what they want.

I respect that.

But I had to tell them no. This may turn ugly.

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

Conveniently, one of the few rail lines which leaves Equestria runs to Sayr Ulan; it's a huge benefit to trade. So the next morning, we got up and I got turned into a Pony. This would be a longer-term polymorph which made me nervous, though Twilight could dispel it if I needed human form and we brought some candy. Useful stuff.

Sweetie hugged me at the station and said, "I'm going to miss you, Big Brother Marcus."

"I'll miss you too, my dear little neice," I said warmly to her.

Scootaloo glared at me and Apple Bloom looked frustrated. Sorry, guys. But it's TOO DANGEROUS.

My big worry, though, is that the Elements of Power will try a raid to get the kids while we're gone. But it's too dangerous to take them.

We had to practically peel Dash and Soarin' off each other in order to go. She looked kind of worried and he looked sad she was going. She'll be back soon, Soarin', don't worry.

We had a special train car, complete with three lances (squads of ten) of warponies as guards. One lance of lancers (Earth Ponies with a spear mount), one lance of skylancers (Pegasus Ponies with a spear mount), and one lance of archers (Unicorn Ponies with arrows). The archers had been hand-picked by Captain Keen Eyes from his company of a hundred archers; the rest of his unit were back at Grand Stalls.

This seemed a little excessive to me but I have little experience in this sort of thing.

Rarity was very excited; she'd designed an outfit around her new tiara. I'd packed my special hat away for now, as it fit my human head better anyway and wearing my circlet and the hat at the same time looked silly even to me.

One of the things you notice... at least as a Pony, is that Equestria gets drier as you move west. The southern region remains pretty wet and good for agriculture, but having seen points east of here, you can tell that even here it's a little drier. We went southwest to Fillydelphia because it's a huge rail hub. That took about 4 hours, then we stopped for a half hour, things were loaded and unloaded and then we headed to Mareis, going northwest, for three hours. After another half hour loading and unloading, the train took off for four hours, reaching Fort Mont-Mare. By this time we were deep in thick forest; settlement is sparse here in the West Marech, which is often raided by the Elephants of Southeastern Sind. These raids are, theoretically, 'bandits' and 'rogue elephants'.

Sure they are.

The Elephants of Sind have an inflated head because unlike other four legged sentients in Sind, they are treated as part of the Warrior Caste, who form the second highest stratum of Sind society. (The highest caste is the Magical Caste of priests and wizards. In practice, the warriors rule and the Magical Caste try to boss them around with mixed results.) In theory, they owe fealty to the Rajahdom of Jalawar, one of the major sub-kingdoms. In practice, they do whatever they want.

It was night by the time we reached Fort Mont-Mare; a lot of goods were unloaded here and the train camped here for the night for safety. Our special car was practically a hotel on wheels.

Rarity and I were about to go to bed when I heard movement outside the door; someone was listening in. I slid over to Rarity and touched my horn to hers. 'Someone's listening in.'

"Oh, oh, OH YES MARCUS," Rarity shouted.

"..." I stared mindlessly. WHAT?

Her father now burst in and found us just standing there. "You fiendish... what?" He stared at us.

"Father, what we do is none of your business," Rarity said to him angrily. "I am a grown woman."

"He's just a conman," Captain Keen Eyes said angrily.

I tried to restrain my temper. "I am not. I would not do that to her."

"Father, go to bed," Rarity said wearily.

He grimaced. "I'm watching you," he said to me and left.

We got into bed; it was cramped, especially for, well, Ponies. I spent quite a while trying to figure out how to sleep like this without killing Rarity.

Eventually, I slid into dreams of being hunted by Captain Keen Eyes all night.

Delightful.

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

The next day was a long day. The train pulled out at seven in the morning and we quickly entered the steppes which lie between the Equestrian plateau and the rocky lands south of Sayr Ulan. Here, the plateau cuts off the rains which come off the ocean and the land dries out, so only grass and scrub brush grows here. Sometimes you can see the plateau looming to the east, sometimes not. Buffalo roam here until you reach the rocky desert which surrounds the giant magical oasis of Sayr Ulan.

We spent long hours watching grass go by, reading, playing cards, and slowly going stir crazy and getting more nervous. There were no stopping points here once we passed our single stop, the train junction where a spur ran to Fort Overlook.

Dash was going especially crazy with being cooped up and I took her aside at one point. "You okay?" I asked.

"Bored, bored, BORED," she said. "Also, just... I shouldn't worry."

"About Soarin'? Is he going on a mission?" I asked.

"I never actually thought about how we'll likely spend a lot of time away from each other until now," she confessed, looking longingly out the window.

OH.

"I'm sure it'll be fine," I told her. "But it does come with dating a Wonderbolt."

"I'd like to be one, but then I wouldn't be able to be with my friends much either." She frowned. "I don't like that choice."

I wanted to put a comforting hand on her shoulder but I knew Captain Keen Eyes would appear like magic and accuse me of infidelity, dammit. "I know, I know," I told her. "It's..." I stopped. Probably being an Element of Harmony means she'll never be a Wonderbolt; Celestia wouldn't want to split the Elements up and it's likely to keep her from being able to do both. But I can't tell her that.

"What?" she said. "Say it."

She was wearing her necklace. I studied it. "It's more likely to depress you than help," I said.

"Yes, but now I will go *more* crazy wondering," she said.

I laughed nervously. "I expect that Celestia hopes you all will join her as Immortals one day. Being a Wonderbolt is nice but it's not the road to Immortality."

"That's how you became the way you are, right?" she said softly.

"Well, things went badly for me, but I think it will go better with my new patrons." Even if Celestia will probably send me on a gag quest at some point where I will get to the end and discover I moved heaven and earth to find a backscratcher. "I'd like to have my courage back. I was brave, once." It makes me feel so old thinking about it.

"I remember that," she said thoughtfully. "I... fuck it. Let's just... dammit, as a pony, you're so damn big... though I did carry several Wonderbolts at once..."

I laughed nervously. "Without hands, it would be hard for me to hold on, if you're thinking of going flying."

"Oooh, I could get Twilight to shrink you." She gestured. "Come on, we're gonna blow this joint and have a little excitement and work on burning the fear out of you. Even if Captain Tight Ass says we can't go outside. Someone should scout, anyway, right?" She looked at me.

Can't say no.

Going to die if she is going to try to scare me deliberately.

"Right," I said, signing my death warrant.

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

There's nothing like clinging to the back of a Pegasus flying at HIGH SPEED while you have NO HANDS to make a person freak out.

I think I screamed the first dozen miles; this just made Rainbow Dash fly faster and laugh.

"C'mon, Marcus, you know it's cool," Rainbow Dash said.

It is cool, but the chances of me becoming a smear are HIGH right now. "It's cool but dangerous," I said.

"Yeah, but facing and overcoming danger is how you become braver, so..." She grinned and turned, rushing towards the plateau.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!" Repeated times several hundred.

Faster.

Faster.

FASTER.

We rushed towards the cliff face at VERY high speeds. Below us, Buffalo tried to look up and their fur ruffled in the wind we generated.

And then, as I ran out of screaming, the cliff face closing in, Rainbow Dash turned ninety degrees and flew along the cliff face at very high speed, following its curves and bends and juttings. It's a mile high here, rough and craggy; I could see, part way along the face, a group of earth ponies busy tending the rock face, singing to it, chipping off a few bits, and somehow making the rock grow in other places. They used elaborate rigs to hang in place and a few pegasi and unicorns assisted them.

We arched wide around them to avoid wrecking their work or endangering them and they tried to signal us, so Rainbow Dash looped around. This meant I was now UPSIDE DOWN, trying to cling with my magic and limbs and ready to just drop dead, when we flew up to them. "Hey, guys, I'm Rainbow Dash. How's it hanging? She grinned and I tried to laugh but was too busy trying to avoid ABJECT TERROR. "This is my buddy, Five Jacks High."

Wait, why is she hiding my name? Okay, I am in Pony form but it's not like 'Marcus' is wanted by anyone. "Nice to meet you all." When a friend lies to strangers, you cover them. This is one of my fundamental principles.

One of the Earth Ponies, who was a green stallion with a red mane and a single ruby as his Cutie Mark, said, "I am Ruby Mane. You're one of the Elements of Harmony, right?"

"Yeah, we're on our way to Sind," Rainbow Dash began.

"To go deal with some rampaging undead," I lied.

Dash blinked, then said, "Yeah, I'm gonna kick their ASS." She mimed this, nearly bucking me off; my cries of terror quickly got her to stop. "Sorry, Five Jack High," she said.

"Hey, cool. We sometimes get undead around here. There was a dwarven colony, something went wrong and somehow they all ended up as hungry dead. No matter how many we kill, there always seems to be more and we have to keep sealing off routes to their old colony," Ruby Mane explained.

"Sounds to me like they're only being banished, not killed," I said.

One of the pegasi, cyan with yellow mane, frowned. "How do you get them to stay dead?"

"I'd suggest sending for some clerics," I said.

"I AM a cleric," the pegasi said and only NOW did I notice his sunburst necklace.

Great.

"We only have a druid and they don't do undead," Dash said. "Maybe you have to bury their bodies so they can rest?"

The cleric pegasi looked thoughtful. "Hmm, that could be it. Any chance we could get you to go look around?"

Before Dash could volunteer us, I said, "We're under strict orders," I told him.

"It wouldn't hurt to just LOOK," Rainbow Dash said.

"Captain Keen Eyes will get mad," I told her.

"Good. We'll pop in, take a look, then let you know," Rainbow Dash said.

Oh bloody hell.

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

One advantage of being a unicorn: you always have a light source. When you're descending down an ancient tunnel towards a dwarven colony now teaming with hungry undead because Dash is BORED... you need every advantage you can get, right?

"If we die, I am going to haunt you," I told Dash.

"Hey, you owe me. After this, we'll be even," Dash said.

Hah.

Ahaha.

AHAHAHAHA.

"Laughing nervously won't stop me. You must FACE YOUR FEARS! When I am done with you, Five Jack Guy, you will be the BRAVEST OF ALL PONIES!" Dash cackled as we zoomed down the tunnel.

"Five Jacks High," I told her. If you are going to give me a fake name, you have to use the SAME ONE.

"Yeah, yeah, Five Jacks Sigh. It's what I MEANT," she said dismissively.

Bleargh.

At first, it was rough stone; limestone stalagmites and stalactites stuck down and up from the floor. Everything was slick with moisture that gleamed in the shine of my horn. The air smelled wet and heavy and kind of musty. At times, there were glowing crystals in the ceiling; under them, fungus grew in dark blue and purple patches.

It did not help my nerves that Dash LOVES zig-zagging between stalactites and stalagmites at high speed.

But then I saw a line of red mushrooms, the height of a pony, roughly shaped like the classic 'umbrella' shaped ones. But I know these. "Dash, don't get too close to those," I said.

So she arched upwards, flipped upside down so she could nearly but not quite scrape the ceiling without killing me, then flew over them.

Unfortunately, the ceiling wasn't high enough and the shriekers, mushrooms who respond to vibrations by screaming, began howling, thus alerting the entire UNIVERSE that we were here.

"Dammit, shut up, you stupid mushrooms!" Dash shouted at them.

Shriekers grow in two places: near monsters who eat things and leave behind fleshy bits they use as spore fertilizer or where people plant them to use as sentries.

Either way, TROUBLE.

"Dash, something is going to attack us!"

"Don't be a scaredy-cat, it's just screaming mush...HEY!" Dash was interrupted by tentacles erupting out of a hole in the wall and grabbing us.

I magicked my sword and hacked off two of them and the rest pulled back, then tried to beat us to death; I could see a wall niche inside which a blobby mass of flesh lurked, protecting itself with stone while it extruded tentacles to eat passersby, like us.

Dash dodged the tentacles while I hacked away until it gave up and pulled back deep into the wall.

"Hah! SO THERE!" Dash shouted at it and moved on. "See, Live Jacks High? We can handle it. No fear. We can do it and we WILL!"

Dash's confidence in our abilities both made me smile and made me nervous. The world likes to PUNISH confidence.

"Remember, this is a cave, not a dungeon. It doesn't have to play fair; anything we meet may want to eat us and you can easily get in too deep," I told her. Also, the loot is more likely to SUCK. That thing probably only has dung and a few bones for treasure.

"Right. If it moves, kick its ASS," she said.

Ahahaha.

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

We dodged two more wall-tentacle-blob monsters. They no doubt have a name but I don't care as long as they don't EAT ME.

Oh look, it's floating brains with beaks and tentacles.

I begin to sense a theme and I HATE IT.

I know these things. Grells. I think they have something to do with mind flayers.

This had better not be the usual 'undead turn out to be slaves of mindflayers in disguise who take you to be eaten' scam. I've seen it WAY too many times.

Once.

That's too many times.

I can still feel the slime.

"Hah, I have a clever idea," Dash said as they came our way, two of them trying to move to flank us. She slowed down and let them come up to where we'd fly right between them.

This plan seems like a plan to get us EATEN to me.

"La, la, I'm an overloaded pegasus and I can't fly very fast so I'll sing a song about how slow I fly, la, la," Dash sang badly.

We crept towards the trap; it was only then I realized... these things have no eyes. They think we can't sense them, so they have no reason to suspect we have a trap.

A trap for OURSELVES, I think.

At the last moment, as they reached for us, Dash ZOOMED forward. The tentacles reached for us and missed, each grell hitting the other and grappling it. They now began to fight each other and Dash laughed as we flew off.

Well done, Dash, well done!

I laughed as we flew. "Very clever! Good job, Rainbow Dash!"

Dash grinned. "I am the best flyer in Equestria!"

Given how fast we may have to run, I suspect we'll find out if this is true.

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

We now reached a large cavern with several stagnant pools of water. There were glowing crystals in the ceiling and fungus and mold grew on every surface; halfway across there was a long, empty moat and a broken bridge over it; beyond it was a Dwarven city, carved smoothly out of the rough water-flow-shaped stone of the cavern. Skeletal and zombie goats roamed the cavern, feeding on the fungus. Which I now realized was UNDEAD fungus.

Several dwarf ghosts kept running to the bridge, running up onto the broken length, then falling into the chasm; they would then climb back up and do it again.

"That looks fun," Dash said. She peered into the darkness of the chasm. "I wonder what they land on."

"Don't. They're ghosts and we're not. It's why they don't die," I said firmly.

We got closer; there were acid marks at the edge of the broken segments. A black dragon, maybe?

There were spectral dwarves all over the ruins, lost in the madness of the undead. Many were busy etching the same engraving on every surface they could find; when they came close to each other, they fought to see who got to engrave. Slowly they were wearing away the buildings by erasing old engravings and shaving surfaces flat for more engraving.

What a waste. Twilight would cry.

The images involved a mix of elephants, gargoyles, cheese, and some sort of... things that aren't gargoyles but were reminiscent. These other things had glowy energy around their claws and some of them flung evil energy at cheese.

Maybe it's not actually cheese.

There were also a lot of images of dwarves either on fire, being stomped by elephants or being stomped by elephants who were on fire.

We zoomed around over the city, watching freaked out dwarven ghosts repeating themselves endlessly. Ghosts tend to be like that. Zombie and ghost and skeletal goats roamed around, clearly looking for food and not finding any.

As we flew over a plaza, we spotted a lever stuck into the wall of a house for no apparent reason. I could smell it was clearly a TRAP.

Or at least a strange design decision.

"Ooh, I bet that does something cool," Dash said.

"DO NOT PULL THE UNMARKED, UNEXPLAINED LEVER," I said.

"A mystery? Sweet! Lever, here I come!" Dash said.

"No, don't pull the..."

Pull.

Silence.

"Dammit, I wanted it to do something cool!" Dash said.

Alarms began to blare and every undead in the place turned, eyes glowing, towards us. Dash began to rise up, and they rose into the air after us. The wraiths howled and Dash fled deeper into the city as they gave chase. More wraiths rose and soon we were looping and bobbing around a half dozen knots of wraiths, hungry for our life force.

I used my horn and began looking for sources of magic. One of the buildings looked like a craft shop and it radiated power. We should ignore it and get the hell out.

But I bet it has the answer to this place.

DAMMIT.

I should just ignore it. Dash would never know; she can't sense the source of all this.

But I'll know and somehow she'll know I know and didn't tell her. And I owe her.

"Dash, down in that building, there's something evil. Get me in there and keep the wraiths busy."

She nodded, trusting my judgement. Probably not wise, but it's her nature.

We zoomed down and she flew me in, then moved to the doorway and began flying around the street, keeping the wraiths distracted. Her element glowed, enabling her to see.

There was a huge purple gemstone, the size and shape of an elephant's head. Holy SHIT.

I WANTED IT SO MUCH. But I could feel its power. It was what had brought doom to this place; it was full of evil.

Very pretty, shiny evil, carefully, precisely cut. Possibly the biggest gem on the planet.

I could feel more of the dead coming to its call, felt it claw at my soul.

SO PRETTY.

Damn you, greed. I levelled my sword. "It's time to end your reign of terror even if I could sell you for a million gold!"

How on Mystara did Ditzy get such a huge price on her head?

I'm kind of jealous.

FOCUS.

Don't kill me, it whispered. We could have grand adventures together. I am so tired of these tedious dwarves. Join with me and we can destroy your enemies and enjoy all the pleasures that wealth can bring. I will make you rich and powerful and a great wizard.

I twitched. I wish I was a great wizard. Money comes and goes but all powerful magic, that's forever.

I had this sudden weird feeling someone was hitting on Rarity. She would LOVE this gem. So much.

I would make a lovely gift to the woman you love, it whispered.

The one thing worse than being played is KNOWING you are being played, then having to struggle not to let yourself be played.

"Marcus, you alive in there?" Dash shouted. The moans of the dead were getting louder. "Things are getting thick out here!"

I can't dither; the longer I wait, the more danger Dash is in. She's out there, protecting me by drawing away this thing's army.

She just wants me for herself, the gem whispered.

No, she wouldn't. Not Dash's style at all.

I raised my sword. If it hadn't lied about Dash, I might have succumbed.

Dammit and damn my stupid habits.

But I know she'd never betray me. She's the element of Loyalty.

And I will be loyal to her. "DIE!" And then I destroyed the biggest, most valuable gem I've ever seen, crying the whole time as my sword hacked it into shards and I set the shards on fire and energy swirled around me and I was shouting, "DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE!"

I think it wanted my Rarity, anyway. Bastard. Probably working for her father.

I smashed it into chunks, then burned the chunks, crying. So much wealth, destroyed.

At least it wasn't a hat or I'd probably be its mindless slave now.

And then the dead poured in through the other doors. This left me only one way out... which wasn't the way Dash was. "The dead are after me! I have to run!" I shouted to her. "Follow the sound of my screaming in fear and we can reunite!"

And then I fled with howling angry ghosts on my heels. I had destroyed THEIR PRETTY. And they would have my soul for it.

Fortunately, I can run like a maniac in this body and their stubby evil legs soon fell behind. Unfortunately, there were MORE of them ahead of me.

And then I heard the sound of angry elephants.

FUCK ME.

Hordes of skeletal, zombie, and FLAMING SKELETAL elephants joined the horde of undead dwarves chasing me through the streets. I could see Rainbow Dash busy bobbing and weaving and dodging and kicking her foes when she could.

I heard the distinctive twang of a dwarven catapult. Once dwarves have shelled you with cannisters of flaming liquid, you never forget that sound.

These dwarves fired a huge hunk of flaming, spectral cheese at me.

The cheese is UNDEAD???

This place smells SO BAD. Running meant experiencing more of those smells faster and it both was hard to breathe and fed my panic. So many hostile, nasty smells, bones crunching under my feet, skulls rolling around... then breathing fire...

I was screaming continuously; I expect even if my horn went out, Dash could just follow my howling to see me.

"I think they LIKE hearing you scream!" Dash shouted distantly, kicking a howling, flaming dwarf ghost in the face and darting upwards, then downwards to dodge ceiling ghost, who popped unexpectedly out of a niche in the ceiling.

I kept running and running as crossbow bolts twanged and pillars tried to fall on me and the dead howled and then I started just throwing fire everywhere, great spirals of flame that set ghosts on fire and buildings and everything was burning but I ran too fast for it to touch me.

One of the ghosts nearly got me but then he howled and ran over to a wall and began chiseling a picture of me on fire being trampled by elephants.

...

I dodged the elephant's kick just in time, but now I got touched by a ghost and it burned and my suit got damaged and I howled.

Then Dash got nailed by one and she howled and I felt a wrenching of guilt in my gut. My side was aching and I kicked one and THAT hurt too. My sword began hacking wildly and I screamed and then...

Then I remembered that huge trench that blocks entrance and how the bridge is broken and how you can only cross if a flying Pony carries you.

FUCK.

Unless I can jump.

The other choice is to stand and fight.

But I can't jump that far, not even as a pony.

DAMMIT.

I flung another one away from me with magic and tried to figure out some way to blind them. They probably are tracking my life force. And maybe my magic.

But I need to SEE.

"Dash, I am running out of room to run!" I shouted.

At this point, a letter appeared, falling on my head. I snagged it and read it.

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

Dear Samus Marcus,

Is everything okay? We can't see you two in the sky and haven't heard anything from you. If you write your reply on the bottom of this letter and burn it, it will return to me.

Rarity is very worried.

Please reply soon,

Your friend,

Twilight Sparkle.

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

I couldn't focus enough to write a reply, but I saved the letter. Jab. Another burn. OWWW!!!

Dammit, I didn't even get any treasure from this raid!

I was crying and screaming and running. Dash got free and more wraiths descended on her and she howled.

I hurled flame at the ones around her, burning and driving off some of them and she got free. "Dash, going to need a pickup!"

"Run up the bridge and jump!" she shouted as she fought off more of them.

Oh FUCK ME.

But I could trust her and risk falling to my death or I could try to fight these guys.

Trust is a leap in the dark.

Literally.

I put my trust in her and I ran up the bridge, dodging and burning the dead, then leaped upwards. I arched through the air, knowing I would fall short. Indeed, I started to fall and then I heard Dash shout and I was screaming and wind whistled around me and the dead rushed off the bridge after me, raining down like an insane cloud of flaming, flesh-craving death.

Oh hey, there's magma at the bottom of this chasm.

Of course there is.

Well, at least my sword is recharged.

And then, suddenly, Dash.

She grabbed me and flying at blazing speed, trailing light, she rushed up with me, dodging the falling dead, and roaring off down cave tunnel.

Looking back, we could see dwarven ghosts, now on fire and dripping magma, emerging from the chasm. If we just kept running, we'd lead the undead dwarves and elephants to our friends.

"Damn, they just don't give up," Rainbow Dash said.

They were moaning, chanting in dwarf, and then I realized what it was. As I listened, I could remember when I had been a dwarf and slowly meaningless gabble turned into words.

'The ones who slew our master must perish. The ones who destroyed our city must perish.'

Their greed had ensnared them but in time their service to the gem had turned into a deep loyalty and we had impinged upon it by destroying their 'master'. Even though it had forced loyalty upon them, tempted and destroyed them, they couldn't let go.

I told Dash everything and she looked horrified. "How can you be loyal to a ROCK?" she asked. "Okay, maybe Rarity could, but not anyone else."

It would have gotten me if not for you, I thought, embarrassed. "You have to free them," I told her. "You're the element of loyalty. Your element has been corrupted here and you have to purify it."

It was only now that I suddenly wondered... how on Mystara did ELEPHANTS get up to this ruins? It's half a mile up a cliff!!!

On the other hand, the dwarves probably originally had some way down.

WHY DID I GO SOMEWHERE WITH NO TREASURE????

I touched my tiara and felt slightly reassured.

Slightly.

"Me? I'm not a cleric! I don't have holy powers," Rainbow Dash said in a panic. The flying wraiths were coming towards us now.

"You will," I told her softly. "One day, you will shine like the sun and guide the lost like the moon at night. You can feel it, right? Their tense, twisted loyalty to that rock?"

"It's just a stupid gemstone. They're like... as common as DIRT!" Dash said, staring at the onrushing horde as we fled before it, looking back over her shoulder. "Why do they even care?"

"Dwarves love beauty, love the things which grow in the ground, the veins of metal and the arteries of crystal," I said, letting my old self rise up inside me, dim memories stirring of ancient dwarven catchecisms. "It was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen and they shaped it into a form even more beautiful and terrible. It terrified them and it enchanted them, and for it, they would do anything. It destroyed them and they loved it for it, for to do its will was bliss and madness, but even the madness was sweet. They served it and it served them, preserving them for eternity in the beauty of madness, twisted to nightmare, but nightmare is still a dream and the darkness has a beauty of its own. With it, they could create nightmare together forever." My voice was haunted by the end. As I remembered the dwarf I once had been, I could feel their pain.

I could see them for a moment, my past selves, stretching far back, far far back. There are bits of each of them in the me who is me, and I understood how the dwarves of this place sank slowly into madness and darkness, as I had been sinking.

I had let life strip away more and more of me, until only the panicked core remained. Memories gone, capacities gone, strengths lost because they seemed to lead to failure and death. I went on as they went on, a creature of habit and repetition, making the same mistakes over and over.

I ached for them, suddenly, in a burst of empathy. They had gone so far down the road I walked that nothing was left of them but habit and service.

We had stripped them of the opportunity for service. So now they raged against us.

For with it gone, they would sink further, their last shreds of anything but empty habit and repetition gone. But the rage... they could give one last service.

"I can see the chains on them," Rainbow Dash said softly. Her eyes glowed with the light of the rainbow and her element shone brighter. "The veins of darkness twisted through their light. It's terrible," she said, sounding pained.

We kept going and now there were many stalagmites and stalactites; Dash dodged them and kept going but she kept looking back at them.

"You have to do something," I told her.

"Do what? I don't know anything about mystic shit!" she shouted, but her eyes, they ached when she looked at them. She could see what loyalty twisted to slavery had done to them.

Unfortunately, I make a shitty wise old sage or talking animal who tells the hero(ine) what to do. And loyalty is not one of my strongpoints. Running away and saving my skin is my strong point.

But I won't do that here.

Not that I could; my hope of escape is much higher with Dash than without.

But it's the principle of the thing!

Dammit, why did these dwarves put so much CHEESE in their engravings?

"They put cheese in their engravings?" Rainbow Dash said.

"Um, yes. Some sort of gargoyle-like creatures who fired dark energy somehow attacked and destroyed their cheese, I think." They've carved engravings over engravings for so long, it's hard to follow.

"I... dammit, I've heard stories of creatures like that who come from inside the plateau. They probably dug down, freed some of those creatures, and the things destroyed their food supply, then they all went mad and the elephants... how the hell did elephants get in here?" she asked.

"Damned if I know," I told her. "That gem was carved to resemble one, though."

"Hmm... the goats eat fungus, goats give milk, milk somehow gets turned into cheese..."

"You add rennet to it," I told her. "Which comes from cows somehow."

"Isn't there mold or something?" she asked. "And some kind of cloth?"

Dammit, I know cheesecloth exists, yet, I have no idea if it connects to cheese or not. "There is such a thing as cheesecloth."

"Okay, we need cloth, milk, fungus, rennet... what the hell is rennet?"

"I just know it comes from cows."

"Buffalo are gonna have to do," Dash said. "I'm going to have to speed up. HOLD ON TIGHT!"

FUCK.

She BLAZED out of the tunnel and up the cliff face, then up and down along the hills until we came to a tree. "Make this into a bucket," she said. "Two buckets. One for milk and one for rennet."

Ahaha.

Chopping down the tree with my sword wasn't too hard; I hacked it up, hollowed it out quickly and made two buckets. "Now what?"

"Now we find Buffalo," she said.

I don't know if we can bribe them with cheese. On the other hand, we have to do SOMETHING.

Further searching found us some Buffalo; they wanted apples. So then we had to fly across the plains until we found a settlement and I traded some gems for apples. We flew back and traded the buffalo for milk and rennet. Mind you, rennet appears to be buffalo vomit and if they conned us...

Okay, they do get credit but they conned ME which means I will have to con THEM.

Then we went back to the town and got some cheese cloth and then we flew back and I carved a bigger tub out of the remains of the tree. Then we flew back, past the undead, who had nearly reached the mouth of the cave and forced them to follow us back to where the goats and the fungus were. Dash zoomed around and we milked the undead goats...

SOMETHING I AM NEVER DOING AGAIN PERIOD.

And threw some fungus in on general principles of REALLY not knowing AT ALL what we were doing. We mixed everything in the tub, then Dash flew upwards with the cheese cloth, letting liquids drain out. She tied one end around a stalagtite, then we went round and round it like she was making a tornado.

In fact, she made a glowing tornado and I wanted to puke but my body was so shaken up... I couldn't.

Even Dash was starting to look dizzy. But the huge cheesecloth began to glow and as the undead caught back up with us, it shone brightly. With Dash's power. She lowered it and opened it and the most perfect cheese you have ever seen shone forth. It smelled wonderful and I couldn't help but salivate.

But this wasn't for us, it was for them. "Let your hunger be sated!" Dash shouted proudly over the huge wheel of cheese. It was shot through with irregular tunnels in which a fine blue mold grew, like the caverns they dwelt in. But it was TASTY mold. Dwarves like weird stuff that grows underground, anyway.

Dwarven whiskey is great as long as you NEVER ask what it was made from.

Another letter appeared. I now realizd I never answered the old one.

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

Dear Samus Marcus,

What's wrong? We haven't heard back from you and everyone is worried. Please write back.

Rarity is VERY VERY worried about you.

Your worried friend,

Twilight Sparkle.

PS: As before, you can send a reply by burning this letter.

PPS: Rarity is EXTREMELY WORRIED.

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

The dead stared at the cheese, then rushed at it, tearing off chunks and eating it. As they ate it, Dash's power entered into them and the darkness in them burned away. Their eyes widened and they relaxed, then faded away (if unsubstantial) or fell over (if embodied.)

"Oh shit, it's killing them!" Dash said in a panic.

"It's freeing them," I told her. "They're undead. They need to become regular dead, so they can move on instead of being trapped in their rut for eternity."

I quickly sent Twilight a note so she wouldn't worry.

When all the dead were gone, a small wheel of cheese remained. Enough to take home and share with everyone on the train.

"Let's go back to the train," I told Dash. "That's enough adventure for one day."

She snagged the wheel. "I bet everyone will LOVE this! Hah, I did awesome magic! ROCK ON!"

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

"How can this possibly taste so good?" Rarity said, stunned after having a slice.

We were in a lounge car, eating the freaky miracle cheese. It was amazingly good given its origins.

"This tastes great," Fluttershy said, eating quickly and enthusiastically.

"It tastes GREAT," Spike said. "Thanks a ton, Dash."

"You're welcome," Dash said, grinning confidently.

Finishing it, I got this sudden, incredible rush that made me jump. "Wow!"

"What?" Dash said.

"I don't know, I got a kind of kick from finishing it," I told her. I don't know how to describe it but it was a good feeling.

"If you want a kick, I'd be happy to oblige, you idiot!" Captain Keen Eyes snapped at me.

We were eating in the lounge car, crammed around a table, and he'd come up behind us. "You two idiots ran off ON YOUR OWN and roused a city of undead! How am I supposed to protect people who leave the safe zone for NO REASON?" he shouted angrily. "Don't pull this shit again, kids!"

"I am not a KID," Dash said angrily. "And no harm came of it!"

"I know you both got injured!" he said.

The fact we were both sporting bandages did not help our case.

"They won't do it again," Twilight said, then LOOKED at us as if to burn this into our brains.

"I can't trust them not to do something stupid!" Captain Keen Eyes said angrily. "I'd have you scrubbing toilets if you were one of my stallions! They're trained not to pull this kind of shit!"

I backed up as he advanced on me. The urge to run was very strong; he's rather intimidating.

"Your stallions spent the time Marcus was gone hitting on Rarity," Pinkie said. "Did you train them in that too?" She frowned.

For a moment Captain Keen Eyes looked shot in the face, but he recovered. "They're all hard-working, disciplined and brave! They'd make fine husbands for my daughter, but that's not important right now! What's important is that you two idiots nearly brought down an undead dwarven army on us and could have gotten yourself killed! When you are SUPPOSED to stay on the train! And don't flap your pie holes about scouting at me! I SENT OUT SCOUTS! I didn't bring ten pegasi so each of you could get in trouble!"

His stupid warponies have been hitting on Rarity.

"You're not the boss of me!" Dash said angrily, wings up and trying to look big. Captain Keen Eyes towered over her anyway.

"Father, did you entirely pick your men by who you think I ought to marry?" Rarity said angrily.

I could feel myself getting angry. We'd helped a bunch of poor undead finally escape their misery. And his stupid men had been using this as an excuse to HIT ON MY GIRLFRIEND!

"I picked good men who know their place and do their jobs and fight hard and bravely! Anything else is merely a coincidence!" he protested, though he took a moment to GLARE at Pinkie, who now was trying to eat the rest of her cheese and making distorted faces. "And none of my men have put this mission in DANGER!"

Applejack frowned. "Well, he's right, you two shouldna done that. But it ain't worth throwing a hissyfit over, either."

"I am in charge of this train and protecting you and if any of you pull this sort of childish behavior, the pegasi WILL stop you," he said. "It is my duty to protect you and I will do my duty even if you wouldn't know duty if it bit you," Captain Keen Eyes said angrily to Dash and I.

I was pawing the ground and snorting. Not deliberately, it just seemed the way to express how pissed off I was. I could hardly think I was so angry with this bastard.

"Hey, I helped stop Nightmare Moon! I helped stop a dragon from devasting Equestria! SEVERAL TIMES!" Dash said angrily. "I do my duty! I do things YOU CAN NEVER DO," she shouted back.

"MEATY! That's it!" Spike suddenly said. "It tastes totally MEATY. Yumm!"

"You're right," Fluttershy said. "It is meaty." She licked her lips. "We should stop shouting and discuss this like adults."

"You think you can take ME, boy? I could kick three of you's ass," Captain Keen Eyes said flatly.

I could smell how much he despises me and it made me even angrier. Fluttershy and Twilight were worried, Dash was pissed off, Pinkie smelled amused but was busy eating everyone's unfinished cheese, and Rarity smelled VERY worried and angry at once.

"Marcus, let it go," Rarity said to me. She turned to her father and spoke firmly. "Father, stop spitting on my coltfriend. I am quite vexed with you! And tell your men to stop trying to flirt with me. I have a coltfriend." Though she sounded flattered by it, which aggravated me more.

"Your coltfriend is trash," Captain Keen Eyes said. "A lily-livered maggot who doesn't have the GUTS to make me shut up."

I haven't been this angry in forever. My nostrils flared and my eyes were wide and my blood was pounding and I wanted to rush him so much. But kicking Rarity's father's ass is unlikely to go over well with her, much as he deserves it. So I pawed the ground and breathed hard and fought the urge to attack.

"That is ENOUGH," Twilight said. "Captain Keen Eyes, one more word from you trying to provoke Marcus into attacking you and I will send Celestia a letter and ask her to have you removed from this mission." Her voice was very firm and I could smell her anger.

His mouth widened. I could smell his shock.

"Marcus, he's right and you two shouldn't have done that," Twilight said firmly to us. "You both got hurt. What if you were left unable to go on? You could have died and we wouldn't have even known WHY."

"But..." Dash began.

"Go to your rooms and stay there until you calm down. And don't go running off again when we're supposed to stick to our guards," Twilight said determinedly.

"But..."

"Come on, Dashie," Fluttershy said firmly, hustling her along. Dash protested, but Fluttershy simply overwhelmed her, firmly herding her along with her hands. I stared in shock.

That's not normal.

"Marcus, you go too. I am going to talk to the Captain in private," Twilight said firmly.

I bowed to her. "Yes, Duchess Sparkle." I emphasized Duchess, reminding Keen Eyes she outranked him.

Rarity came with me, grumbling under her breath. I paced in our room, unable to sit still as she flopped down on the bed, launching into a long list of her past troubles with her father.

I half-listened and half tried to calm down but I couldn't calm down. I wanted to wipe that smug look off his face. Bastard!

I hate that bastard so much.

I hadn't hated anything this much in a long time.

Dash... okay, Dash and I shouldn't have gone in there on our own but they needed our help! And we helped even the undead! Dash was awesome but now we're in trouble.

"And then I rode the giant cheese off into the sunset," Rarity said, frowning.

"That's nice," I said, not really listening. Until now it sank in. What?

"Pay attention when I'm whining!" she said angrily.

"I've been sent to my room like a five year old!" I said angrily. "I can hardly think!"

"Which is probably why you ran off without even telling me!" she said angrily. "You got HURT! I was worried about you, you know! You wouldn't even write me back and let me know what happened." She pointed a leg at me accusingly.

That hurt and I cringed. "I'm sorry, dear, we did it all the time on the trip and I totally didn't think about it, then I got the first letter when we were in deep trouble and I couldn't answer." I hung my head in frustration.

"Pay attention when I'm pontificating," she said strongly, but she patted the bed next to her. I came and laid down, feeling my whole body still doing the nervous energy thing. "I want to run," I mumbled. "Not away, just run. To MOVE."

Ponies find it harder to hug than people, but we embraced clumsily. I could smell her frustration and mine and we laid there together for a while.

I suddenly wondered if the duck on Fluttershy's hat had somehow made her stronger willed.

What if it's controlling her mind? Soon, there will be nothing left but a quack with a human face.

Dammit.

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

Rainbow Dash's 20% Cooler Viewpoint:

I flopped down on the bed. "You might as well tie my wings down, so Captain Tight Ass doesn't freak out."

Fluttershy sat down on the edge, then clasped one of my hooves between her hands. It feels so weird. Her wings flapped excitedly. "It sounds to me like you did a really kind thing, going so far for those poor ghosts."

I smiled weakly. "Thanks, Fluttershy," I told her, stretching out. "I think... I don't even know how I did it, but there was this thing."

"Thing?" she said curiously, pulling back her hood and letting her long pink hair spill down. She turned to face me, trying to find a way to sit comfortably on the bed.

"It was like... The totally coolest thing ever. Like the first time I did a Sonic Rainboom, the first time we all joined together and stopped Nightmare Moon. It's like... I touched something bigger. Something powerful." I don't even know how to describe it. "Something holy," I said softly. "You know that feeling, right?" I think druids are holy.

"I know exactly how you felt," Fluttershy said. Her voice is weird like this; it has all the cadences, but it's deeper. Not man-deep, but closer to, say, Rarity. Or Sapphire Shores. And when she gets excited those stupidly large breasts humans have start shaking. I don't see the point, though the way Marcus looks at Rarity's chest when she's human, I guess they're for hypnotizing men.

I hope Soarin's not... he wouldn't forget me just like that. I shouldn't worry but all the women wink at him and shake their flanks and...

I really have a small butt. But he says he likes that.

Don't think about Soarin', or I'll just go crazy. I am totally sexy and he will NOT think of anyone else, period.

I'm sure he's probably just thinking about pie and not other women.

Stupid pie.

"I remember the first time I changed shape. I totally lost myself in being a deer, but that moment, where I felt my body start to shiver and then I could feel Mother Nature's power flowing into me, like I could feel every living thing. Like I *was* every living thing," she said excitedly. She leaned forward; that was unusual. Fluttershy never leans towards people she's speaking to unless it's some small cute creature, where she's clearly the boss.

"That's how I got my silver torc, when I showed I could shapeshift. Though it quickly became apparent I couldn't control it," she said, then sighed and sank back on her haunches. "But I think I'm doing okay. I remember I'm Fluttershy, I'm a pony, a druid..."

"Well, humans are sentient," I told her. "It's not like turning into a ferret or something where they don't even have names."

"They have names," Fluttershy said urgently. "I name them all."

But do they actually USE those names? They can't even speak in a lot of cases.

"Anyway, I feel very proud of you," Fluttershy said warmly.

"I could see their loyalty to the stupid elephant-head gem thing," I told her thoughtfully. "Can you see kindness?"

"I can see it in you," she said, smiling.

I turned a little red. "I can be kind of mean sometimes."

"I'm a little jealous I wasn't there. I would have liked to help them too," she confessed. "But what you did was very kind."

I could feel her loyalties. To Angel Bunny, to us, to her Order, to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, to her parents... I felt like something's changed in me. It's kind of exciting but scary too.

Is this how unicorns feel with magic? I should talk to Twilight.

As if I had summoned her, she now knocked and we let her come in.

"Hi, Twilight," I said. "Welcome to Cell Fifty-Eight. Prisoner Dash reporting." I saluted her.

She sighed. "Dash, you really shouldn't have rushed off without even asking the rest of us. Captain Keen Eyes was very rude but he did have a point. I'm sure he was very worried about you."

"Frankly, I think he's just worried about who Rarity is sleeping with. Speaking of which, I think Rarity and Mar... Five Jack Smile totally did it. Yesterday, that is."

Twilight and Fluttershy turned beet red. Twilight said, "I don't know and I never WANT to know."

Oh wait, her ex... damn me. "I'm sorry, I totally forgot about you and him."

"Also, what did you call him?"

Wait, dammit... oh yeah. "See, there's no point in him being a pony if we call him 'Marcus'. That wouldn't even fool Sweetie," I said, sitting up. Well, it wouldn't fool Sweetie forever, anyway. I rolled around to get in a comfortable position. Fluttershy was oddly scrunched up, trying to find something to do with her legs.

"So I named him..." Wait... what was it...

"Five Jacks High?" Fluttershy said.

"Yeah, that's it," I said.

Twilight blinked. "Hmm, not bad. Good thinking, Dash."

"Of course. I am a genius," I said modestly.

"But running off like that was NOT wise," Twilight said. "Please don't do it again; it took me forever to talk Captain Keen Eyes down."

"Hey, we got to help some people and I was TOTALLY BORED," I told her.

"We have to be careful! The Sindhi have very different customs and we have a huge duty," Twilight said, because she is overly serious about everything.

Blah blah, sindhi customs, blah, ambassador, blah. You know how it is.

"Dash, pay attention," Fluttershy said, shaking my shoulder gently.

I blinked and stared at her. Had she actually... I probably hallucinated that too in my boredom. "Sorry, Fluttershy, I was remembering how I made magical CHEESE. Cheese so good it saved the soul of dwarves! YEAH!"

"I want to ask you about that in a minute," Twilight said. "But I need you to understand, we have to be careful and please, please don't antagonize Captain Keen Eyes any more."

"He's a rude asshole with an inflated head," I said, frowning. "He's probably going to try and steal my boyfriend too."

Half the Won... no, focus, trust Soarin', do not worry!

"He's trying to steal Ma... Five Jacks High for himself? But he's married!" Fluttershy said, worried.

I blinked in confusion. What?

"She didn't mean that," Twilight said. "Please, Dash, promise me you won't cause any more trouble. It's really important this go well so we don't have a war. Please, I'm asking you as a friend."

How can I say no to that? Saying yes to her felt right. The same way it feels right when I pull off a fancy move. "Okay, I promise, no more wandering off, no matter how bored I get."

She relaxed. "Thanks, Dash. So tell me about how you made the cheese."

She got Spike to come and take notes; only now did I realize, she hadn't brought Spike in before. Probably so as to make it more private. Thanks, Twilight.

I told her about the whole adventure. She looked quite intrigued by my cheese-making. "Amazing," she said, studying my Element.

"I can feel it," I told her softly. "Like... Tell me what it's like when you feel magic."

"Oooh, that's hard to express in words." Twilight swayed gently back and forth, thinking. "It's kind of like with smell. I can smell magic, where it's been used, where it's being used. Well... it has more... like smell plus sight. So I can see it far away too. Whereas, you know with smells, you have to get close or have a favorable wind."

I nodded. "I can see how loyal you both are." It was comforting. "How you're trying to take care of us," I said softly.

"Let me try something," she said, reaching a hoof over to touch my element and then hers began to glow and I felt a spell reach into me and...

I could feel it. Magic, everywhere. In the train, in Fluttershy, in Twilight, in me. There was a powerful knot of magic at the core of each of us. Fluttershy's whole body was flush with it, due to her shapeshift.

Twilight's eyes widened. "Amazing," she said. "Congratulations," she said softly. "That's really special."

I grinned. "Yeah. Well, I am very special," I said; it wasn't pride, just honesty.

She let go and the spell faded. "I have to go see Rarity and Ma... Five Jacks High. Wish me luck," she said.

"Wait, we have to... oh wait, never mind." Can't gossip about Rarity and Five Man Band with Twilight. "Good luck."

"I'm sure it will be just fine," Fluttershy said.

Listening to the death should entertain me.

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

BACK TO MARCUS-O-VISION:

Rarity and I were half-asleep when there was a knock on the door. "Come in," I mumbled.

Twilight strode in; I could see Spike lurking in the hallway. She closed the door. "We need to talk about... EEE!"

"No, we're just snoozing," I said and tried to sit up. This is much harder in this pony body. Rarity and I flailed about, then somehow got around to sit sphinx-style, which is way more comfortable than you'd think at a casual glance.

Rarity carefully adjusted her tiara. "How are you, darling?" she said groggily.

"I talked down your father," Twilight said. "He still hates Five Jacks High with all the hate in the world, but there won't be any more of his men hitting on you." She sighed.

"Good," I said firmly.

"Of course, it would help if you didn't stupidly run off on your own with Dash and get yourself and her hurt!" Twilight said angrily.

I grimaced. "I didn't realize it would get so ugly," I said defensively. Yeah, we came close to getting totally screwed and I now had fresh scars to prove it.

Rarity frowned. "I am going to have to lecture Dash on not putting you in danger."

"Don't bite her head off. I'm a big boy, I made my own mistakes." I sighed. "We decided together."

Rarity frowned and Twilight said, "Well, you need to decide to NOT do it again. Because we have to be very careful. I would have thought you of all people would understand that." She sounded disappointed.

I try to be bold once and it gets me in trouble. This is why I'm not bold. "I'll be more careful," I told her. "But I couldn't let Dash go alone."

"You should have come and told us," Twilight said firmly.

"I was *very* worried," Rarity said to me, idly playing with my mane.

"I'm sorry," I told her, now feeling guilty.

"And you got hurt," Twilight said, sounding guilty herself. "Were you trying to prove to Rarity's father you could be brave?"

"I'm tired of being so afraid," I told the mattress.

"You are not a coward," Rarity said fiercely. "When it matters, you are a lion. A LION. Do not let anyone else tell you otherwise." She kissed my cheek. "Father is going to be an ass, but he'll come around. He just hasn't gotten to see you at your best."

I nuzzled Rarity and relaxed a little. "Is he always like this with your boyfriends?"

"I've never had a coltfriend he could stand," Rarity said, sighing. "But he'll come around. This time."

'This Time'. ACK.

"If Five Jacks High doesn't get himself KILLED," Twilight said firmly.

"I won't do it again," I told her mournfully.

"Wanting to be braver is good. But one can be too brave too," Twilight said.

"I remembered some more about one of my past lives, when I was a dwarf," I told her. "I was able to call up knowledge from him when I needed it most."

"Oooh, tell me about that," Twilight said excitedly, so I told her everything. Rarity began working on repairing my damaged suit, though she listened.

I told her the whole thing as well as I could remember.

"You'll need to learn to tap that knowledge, I think, as part of your path," Twilight said to me. "I think you'd gotten pretty close to finishing before it all went to hell."

"Yes," I said. "Once this whole business with Marjorie is done, I am going to talk to Celestia and Luna about it. But I think they hope that all of you will walk those roads together."

I hope I'm not saying too much. But they should know.

Rarity looked surprised but also intrigued. "All of the Elements?"

"Being guided to an artifact by an Immortal is often part of the start of a path. We'll be a powerful bloc," I said. "Most immortals start out alone with no allies or just a friend or two." But given some of Celestia's big plans... we'll need them.

Twilight looked lost in thought.

"Twilight, dear, are you okay?" Rarity asked.

"Wondering what it will be like," Twilight said softly.

"We'll spend our days jacking Halav's chariot, no doubt," I said and they all laughed. "I'm ready to have a purpose again," I said firmly. "I've let the world shave me down almost to nothing, but I want to push back. To be free of the chains I've wrapped myself with. It's weird... being angry at Captain Keen Eyes... I normally never let myself care that much, but that was a mistake. I want to care even if it scares me." IT SCARES ME.

But I had no fear, and that... was wonderful.

"I never... okay, I did want to be special," Twilight said, talking to the bed instead of to us. "But this goes beyond that."

"I know," I told her. "But there are very few pony immortals; your nation needs you. Celestia needs you."

"I will do my best," she said with determination.

"Of course you will," Rarity said. "I put my trust in you."

"Thanks," Twilight said, embarrassed. "Anyway, Five Jacks High, I need you to try to avoid angering Captain Keen Eyes or running off on your own or with Dash or anyone else. We have to stick together and be careful so this mission succeeds. I know you don't like him; you haven't seen him at his best, though. And he is trying to do his job. So please be patient."

"I will try," I told her. But he really gets my goat.

"Okay, you two can... finish snuggling...," she squeaked out. "I'll go plan my speech."

"I'd be happy to go over it with you," I told her. "Persuading people is one of my talents. And Rarity could likely punch up the elegance of it."

"I would be happy to help you of course," Rarity said to Twilight.

"Thanks," she said. "I'll see you later!"

She fled and we went back to snuggling and dozing.

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

We were into the desert by dinner time. There's a strip of rocky desert between the grasslands and the great magical oasis of Sayr Ulan. The border and the climate zone shift are the same thing and you can FEEL it. While we had pegasi on the train, it moves too fast for them to engage in effective weather control and pretty quickly, the train heated up; we had sweat with our dinner.

The coming of night was a relief, and moreso when we entered Sayr Ulan's massive magical oasis, another climate controlled area. The last twenty miles or so ran through lush grass and rich farms, orchards, and gardens. Exotic animals grazed and roamed about; Fluttershy waved at them all.

The city itself is large and powerful, home to thirty thousand people. It would likely be much larger if so much of Sind wasn't wasteland. A thousand springs created by clerics and maintained by high-caste Sindhi and Ponies keeps this whole region green and fertile and the city is full of water to a degree many outsiders (and the Ylari) envy.

The train station sticks out like a sore thumb, made of wood in a city of stone, brick, and adobe. We arrived at night and were greeted by a small party led by a grey-coated, black maned stallion in exquisite clothing with a FOUR TIERED HAT. I was struck dumb with utter jealousy, especially when three tiny clockwork ponies could be seen circling the three lower tiers.

"I am Baron Golden Star," he said; his cutie-mark was a golden six pointed star. "We of the embassy here are quite pleased to be graced with your presence, lords and ladies in the service of Celestia. Let it be henceforth known that we shall endeavour in all things to further your delicate diplomatic mission and to maintain the secrecy urged upon us by Celestia. You can be sure of the discretion of my staff and your safety under our protection." A stack of papers floated next to his head, for he was a unicorn. An Earth Pony mare stood next to him in a somewhat less magnificent suit and a simple black conical hat with a narrow brim. She had two boxes in a mount on her back; as Baron Golden Star read his speech, each page floated into the empty box closer to her flanks.

"Thank you," Twilight began.

"And Luna," Ivan said. "You need to mention her too." His voice was firm.

The mare twitched, while Baron Golden Star showed no sign of noticing Ivan existed, let alone responding to him.

"On such a solemn occasion as the arrival of special envoys of Princess Celestia to bear an important, secret message which can be revealed to no one but the Radirajah himself, it is, of course, customary to offer a few remarks," Baron Golden Star continued. "Let us begin by remembering the many blessings which have been rained down upon us every day by Princess Celestia, who raises the sun and the moon each day and ensures they bless our fair land of Equestria, a realm so great that even those of other species flock to our flag." He nodded briefly at Fluttershy and Ivan.

"Princess Luna is in charge of the moon, you know," Ivan said, now clearly more aggravated.

The mare twitched again. Another page was disposed of and Baron Golden Star turned to the next.

Captain Keen Eyes flashed a series of short and bright pulses of light from his horn; his men began to fan out, the Pegasi spreading out over the station, the Earth Ponies forming a loose perimeter and the Unicorns clustering near us. Dash started to rise and Captain Keen Eyes grunted at her and she grimaced and landed.

"Hail Celestia Invictus, who blesses our land with the sun and the moon and the stars, by whose power, night and day are divided and the seasons turn regularly. Hail Celestia Invictus, who defeated the Feathered Serpent of Shadow and drove him into the depths beneath the world and imprisoned him. Hail Celestia Invictus, who drove the servants of Karaash from this land. Hail Celestia Invictus who defeated the Mare of the Moon. Hail..."

This went on and on while Ivan grew more and more irritated. Applejack looked bored out of her mind. Rarity took some measurements on Fluttershy and began modifying some dress patterns she had. Dash rocked on her feet like a metronome, looking ready to die. Twilight stood as if frozen JUST before she intended to speak. At times, she started to try to override the Baron.

Nothing could stop this man from talking.

He had two Earth Pony lancers, two Unicorn magi, and two Pegasi guards, all of whom looked as bored as us and lurked where he could not see this. His assistant looked apologetic.

Around page seven, Twilight said quickly, "Can we finish this at the embassy? We've come a long ways and this place is harder to secure."

"Fear not, Sayr Ulan is a city which is very safe! The Radirajah's guards protect it ably and unlike some human cities, there are no sewer monsters nor shambling undead hiding in closets or other places which might reasonably conceal shambling undead," Baron Golden Star said cheerfully. "Fear not, you will have plenty of time to sleep before delivering your secret message, by which I mean a message whose very existence must be concealed from the world at large. It is best we wait for the streets to finish cooling, as this station has a nice breeze."

Captain Keen Eyes flashed another signal to his men.

"Now, as I was saying... oh yes. Hail to the Elements of Harmony, whose mighty deeds are so mighty that they are also a secret, which cannot be revealed and shall not be revealed in this speech. Nonetheless, it is entirely meet and just that they might be chosen as special envoys for a message which is so secret that even it existing as a secret is itself information not to be generally revealed," he continued. "Next page," he said, discarding that one and calling up the next.

I let his hat hypnotize me, watching the little clockworks circle it while Rarity made her happy work noises and the cool night breezes began to blow. Pinkie was staring at Baron Golden Star as if he was beating her to death with a hammer and she made small whimpering noises in face of the onslaught. Twilight had a frozen smile and clearly was doing calculations of some spell in her head to avoid madness.

Hat... blah, blah, secret.... blah, blah, Hat, hospitality of the Radhirajah, caste, blah, priests, blah blah, Hat...

I only came out of it when I found myself in a room at the embassy. Rarity was asleep on the bed and I found myself next to it, just standing there, for no reason. So I changed into a night robe and went to bed, hoping this was NOT like the time I got mind controlled by mind flayers and ended up their slave for three months.

I soon fell asleep.

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

Breakfast was a mix of fruit and these incredibly tasty stuffed rolls. They were were full of cauliflower, chillies, and coriander with ginger and red chili powder mixed in. They set your mouth on fire but they were really good.

"The speech did end, right?" I said.

"I don't know, I passed out from boredom," Rainbow Dash said. "Man, that guy just TALKS AND TALKS."

"It is the job of an ambassador," Baron Golden Star said behind her and she jumped. If he was offended, he showed no sign of it as he joined us. "I hope the food is to your taste."

"It's great," I said. "Kind of hot, but great."

Rarity carefully peeled an orange and seperated it into segments, giving me half. "Thank you for this meal," she said graciously.

"I merely do my duty," he said humbly, then began eating himself, lifting the food with his magic.

Twilight made the 'manners' gesture at everyone and everyone began fumbling around trying to be elegant, though Ivan and Fluttershy simply ate with their hands, causing Baron Golden Star to stare.

"What?" Ivan said irritably.

"You would be well advised to know that the inhabitants of this country regard eating with your hands as a sign of being low caste." He nodded at the knife and fork and spoon by the plate. "Even something like this."

Ivan showed Fluttershy how to do it, though he looked more irritable now. "You left Princess Luna out of your speech."

"Diplomacy is Princess Celestia's concern," Baron Golden Star said smoothly between bites. "She is also best not mentioned while you are here."

Ivan narrowed his eyes. "Why?"

"Some self-proclaimed prophet of Luna has been making the rounds urging the Ponies here to revolt and subject the humans to their will," he said. "Saying Ponies are a higher form of life than humans and ought to be at the top of the caste ladder. There's always some sort of lunatic like this, but this one has some of the humans rather agitated, and they'll be watching you closely."

"Frankly, this screwed up caste system deserves someone to toss a match and let it burn," Ivan said, frowning.

"M'lord Ivan, you are, of course, free to say what you like, but you might wish to consider the expression of such sentiments is likely to be conducive to the failure of your mission, though I can, of course, only speculate," Baron Golden Star said, turning his head to study Ivan with a single eye. "I take it you are a devotee of the Princess."

"You could say that," Ivan said, then carefully ate another of the cauliflower rolls.

"They went dancing together! She's a really good dancer!" Pinkie said excitedly.

Baron Golden Star's nostrils flared a moment and he ate quietly.

"We do have to be careful," Twilight said. "Have the arrangements been made to see the Radhirajah?"

"In one week," he said.

"One WEEK?" Dash squeaked out.

We are going to go crazy cooped up in here.

"It is not easy to secure a private audience with the Radhirajah when one cannot explain the nature or purpose of the message to be delivered," Baron Golden Star said regretfully, then poured himself more orange juice.

I can't tell if he's being obstructionist or it's just his nature. I think he's annoyed he doesn't know the message.

Twilight frowned at her food, continuing to eat.

"I could have gone back to my farm for a while if I'd known about this," Applejack grumbled. "I hate leaving Big Mac to do all the work at the farm."

"Spike, darling, can I ask you to send a few letters for me?" Rarity said to him. "I need to get information from some clients so I can work on their projects while I am here."

"I'd love to!" he said, pausing from wolfing down food. "Hey, where do dragons fit into this system, anyway?"

"Generally the warrior caste," Baron Golden Star said unusually succinctly. "You'd have to have a few more magical skills to be treated as part of the magical caste. Duchess Twilight, on the other hand, would, in theory, be part of that, but she is a Pony, and thus of the lowest caste. Being foreigners, however, you all will be treated as higher than a tradesman but lower than a warrior. Except for the humans. Count Ivan will be viewed as a warrior if he dresses appropriately and Countess Fluttershy as a member of the magical caste."

"Oh, I should take a cover name too," Fluttershy said.

"Filippa. It means 'lover of horses'," Ivan said. "We could pretend to be siblings."

"Oh, that's very kind of you," Fluttershy said, smiling. "Filippa it is! Do you have a family name?" she asked.

Ivan paused a moment. "I am Ivan, son of Gorya, making me Ivan Goryaov. You would be Filippa Goryaova."

She smiled and took his hand for a moment and squeezed it. "I always wanted a brother," she said, looking very happy.

The pink hair is a bit of a give away, though. On the other hand, druids do weird things to their appearance all the time.

A week.

I looked at Dash; she looked trapped like a rat in a cage.

Oh yeah, this is going to be a pain.

***********

We couldn't wait for a week. But the need to avoid trouble mostly confined us. But only mostly.

Ivan and Fluttershy slipped out together that night to gather intelligence, her to talk to animals and him to poke around with his mad sneaking skills. Which I could have joined him but I'm not very sneaky in this body, dammit.

Dammit, if that duck betrays them, I will be very angry.

Instead, I teamed up with Spike and Twilight to work on scrying for our evil twins. Unfortunately, something (MARJORIE or the duck) was protecting them, dammit. So we worked on magics for detecting shifters.

Somehow, I woke up in bed after... Did I fall asleep on Twilight's floor? That's nostalgic.

"Next time, come to bed," Rarity told me.

"It was just like old times," I mumbled.

She cuddled up to me. "We are going to get very lazy like this," she said regretfully.

"A little vacation doesn't hurt," I told her. "If we don't find something for Dash to do, she's going to DIE."

"Is everything good?" Lt. Far Sight asked. He's a pegasus stallion, the second in command, and he is after my Rarity.

FAT CHANCE, Far Sight!

"We're fine, Lieutenant," Rarity said. "Just like fifteen minutes ago."

"The one time I didn't ask would be the time someone's hurt or on fire," he said. "Carry on." He headed off.

"While I do have my work, I am going to go crazy," Rarity said. "Father was never this bad with my past boyfriends."

"You should see if there is a spa we could go to. We could probably do with extra grooming before the ceremony, anyway. Surely we can't get in trouble at the spa, right?" I said.

"That is a wonderful idea, darling," she said enthusiastically. "Let's go find out."

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

"You won't find one which services Ponies. There are places to get a trim and so on but they're very pedestrian," Baron Golden Star said. "I'm sorry."

Dammit, I thought.

Checking in with Ivan and Fluttershy was, at least, more interesting. "There's several prophets," Fluttershy said. "It's hard to be sure with animals, but she's been seen around the city by several animals at the same time. They always describe her as black with blue mane, wearing a moon amulet."

Twilight frowned. "Could be illusions or shapeshifting. Or maybe teleporting since the animals can't give precise times."

"It's probably the Elements of Power stirring trouble. Or the shapeshifters," Applejack said, frowning.

"Or both," Spike pointed out.

We'd all rendezvoused in Twilight and Spike's room to discuss what we knew.

"We know Clarity eventually... helps to lead an army against Equestria," I said, frowning.

Rarity looked quite angry. "It's not going to come to that. I can't even imagine how any version of me could betray Equestria like that."

"Someone probably waved enough gold under her nose," Spike said, then sighed and grumbled about Spikey.

"You're a better man than him," Fluttershy said firmly to Spike, patting his hand.

"Thanks, Fluttershy," he said, smiling.

"Call me Filippa while I am in human form," Fluttershy told her.

"Filippa," he said, then looked thoughtful. "We need some treasure. We can probably bait her with it if she's out there."

"Ooh," I said. "Good thinking, Spike. We all have some treasure left from the adventure, right?" I said.

"I sent mine to the farm with Big Mac and just kept enough for personal expenses," Applejack said.

"I put mine in my account for when I have to commission a platinum torc," Fluttershy said. "And I bought a lot of socks for some mice friends who are having cold feet at night."

Where do you buy socks for mice?

"I put mine in my savings account, of course," Twilight said.

"I ate my share, except for the ones I put in my vault at Twilight's tower to eat later," Spike said.

"I put the coins in my savings account but I have my gems," Rarity said.

"Mine's mostly hidden in my house at home," Dash said.

"I spent most of mine on more potion and some other little tricks," Ivan said.

"And..." Pinkie began, but Ivan put a hand over her mouth and they started wrestling around. "Mine's in the bank too except for the big sack of astral sugar I had shipped home from Canterlot for later!"

'Astral' Sugar? Now I'm intrigued. "I have all of mine except what I spent on clothing or Rarity," I said. "I guess Rarity and I will have to put up the bait loot," I continued reluctantly. My precious treasure. But ideally it won't be lost.

"I have a perfect idea!" Pinkie said. "Hold on, I have to take Ivan down first, though."

"I'll help!" Dash said, jumping into the melee.

"No, I can't let you doubleteam my brother!" Fluttershy shouted and...

Jumped in.

We all stared, unable to believe what we were seeing.

"Oh no!" Fluttershy said as what she'd done sank in, but soon she was laughing as Rainbow Dash tickled her and they rolled around on the ground.

"Stop before something breaks!" Twilight said urgently.

They all sat up, laughing, and Rainbow Dash said, "Thanks, Fluttershy."

"Filippa," she said.

"Philip," Rainbow Dash said. "I mean Flipper. Filippa!" She rubbed her head. "Wow, you actually tackled me. But then you gave up."

"I should have asked if it was okay, first," Fluttershy said, embarrassed.

"It was fine," Rainbow Dash said. She relaxed. "I needed that."

"Are you all okay?" one of Keen Eyes' stallions said.

"We're fine!" Twilight said. "No one was wrestling at all!"

Silence.

"Okay, Duchess Sparkle," the stallion said hesitantly.

"We're fine," Fluttershy said. "Don't worry, we're okay."

"Yes, ma'am," he said. I could hear faint noises, probably a salute, and then he left.

"I could find us some more gems with my magic," Rarity said.

"But all the gems inside this city are likely already claimed," Applejack said. "I guess we could head out and dig some out of the plateau, then come back. Beats sittin' around here for a week."

"I have an idea," Pinkie said. "It'll take us several days but with Twilight's super magic, we can MAKE some fake gems. It takes a lot longer to make real ones but these just have to look shiny long enough to distract her. Applejack, we get to FARM TOGETHER!"

Applejack's head came around excitedly. "Really?"

"I will teach you all the ANCIENT ART OF ROCK FARMING!" Pinkie said. She paused, then said, "Wow, I'm actually wanting to do this. I always hated rock farming."

I laughed. "Because this time you feel a purpose to it, right?"

"Yeah," Pinkie said, still stunned. "Hmm, I wonder if I could get one of my sisters to come help. Or even Father. He would be so proud."

"We can bill it to the Crown for our mission," Twilight said. "Setting a trap for Clarity is an appropriate use of our expense account. We could announce that 'rare jewels' will be on display, tempt her to steal it."

This is where I expected the CMC to pop up and offer to build a trap but they were still in Canterlot... or better at resisting exposing themselves.

Man, they could be watching us ALL THE TIME and with those cloaks we might never know.

That duck...

Okay, TOO PARANOID now.

I can see it has its beady left eye on me all the time, though.

Relax. "So how do we grow gems?"

"Spike, get ready to take a letter. It's time to summon Pinkie's father," Twilight said.

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

We spent the rest of the day and into the next getting things ready. The embassy had a garden, which we were going to have to destroy, quickgrow rocks in it, then restore to normal.

I hope we have time for it.

Pinkie was bouncing around, directing everyone. It was good to actually DO something, hard as the work was. Rarity and I both watched our gems get planted as seeds and felt rather... nervous.

Pinkie had somehow gotten a hat like Applejack's; Applejack was... so happy. I mean, she's not normally grim or anything but as we shovelled and dug and moved plants and took care of them in the pots we put them in, she was... in her element. Seeing her and Pinkie do this had... you had a feeling the world approved of it. I don't know how to describe it.

Singing work songs made the work easier; I don't understand that, but though I was exhausted by the end of our first day, it was a good kind of exhausted. Rarity was utterly filthy and so was I. We all took a very long bath; Captain Keen Eyes' men had to drag half of us (including me) out of the hot soaking tub afterwards. I fell asleep in it.

Then Rarity, Twilight, and I got to play power pump on the second day; by the time Pinkie's father arrived in the evening (he'd left his home southeast of East Point the day before.), we were all utterly exhausted. I prayed he'd say 'eyup, you're good' and not 'you all totally blew it, blow up this farm and start over'.

I'm also hoping we actually have time to LAY A TRAP before the meeting.

It didn't help that Captain Keen Eyes would watch me work and make grunty noises of disapproval. Bite me!

However, he also had several of the earth ponies help us and that was a big help.

Pinkie's father, who turned out to be named Clyde Pie, was a stern looking dark coated and maned pony with... a HAT. Seeing that made me know he could not be all bad, whatever might happen. His saddlebags were so full that tools actually stuck out of them.

He studied my hat for a moment and nodded approvingly. I was quite pleased. "Pleasure to meet you all," he said sternly, studying us. "And thank you for inviting me to assist you in this mission for the Queen. I'm glad to do my duty to Equestria." He bowed, pony-style, then turned to Pinkie. "Good to see you are well," he said sternly.

Pinkie pounced on him and hugged him. "Hi, Daddy!"

"Hello, daughter," he said weakly, looking a little embarassed.

Blinky Pie was slightly younger than Pinkie, greyish-purple coated with a long gray mane pulled into a pony-tail and a dark blue kerchief. Her mane in front had much the same style as Twilight, right down to a pink stripe in the same place as Twilight's streak. She also wore a bright pink scarf with grey rocks on it; I bet Pinkie gave her that. "Nice to meet you all," she said seriously. "Hello, sister."

Pinkie pounced on her now, hugging her tightly. "This is going to be wonderful. We only have a few days to make enough gems to draw in Rarity's evil twin sister!"

"We can't make very good gems at all in so short a time. They take a long time to mature," Clyde said. "It's why we focus on granite, limestone, and iron ore. Though we should get our decennial gem harvest from the northeast forty in about two years. Just in time for Mother's sixtieth, like I planned."

"We have a plan to hyperstimulate growth, but we needed to consult an expert rock farmer, sir," Twilight said seriously. "I'm Twilight Sparkle."

"Duchess Twilight Sparkle," Pinkie said.

Twilight turned a little red.

"And I'm her faithful companion Spike. I'm a baby Amethyst dragon," Spike said.

Clyde raised an eyebrow. "Don't you eat gems?"

"Yes, but I promise not to eat them until AFTER we trap the evil twin," Spike said; his drooling did not help his case.

Clyde looked worried, then studied all of us. "Well, we have quite the herd to work with. So tell me about your theory," he said to Twilight.

As we headed back to the embassy, Twilight rambled on while Clyde listened or made a grunt for emphasis. Then he began barraging her with technical questions about heat and soil conditions and the weather and acidity of the local water and a lot of things which went WAY over my head.

Rarity and Pinkie, in fact, had to help Twilight, who clearly was outgunned in this area. Which I suppose makes sense. Applejack also pitched in.

Blinky didn't talk much, just looked at things and listened. Her cutie mark was a drum. Curiously, I asked, "So what does your cutie mark mean?"

"I can feel out the ground by playing my drum; it tells me many things about the soil from how the ground shakes and my beats echo. I can break things too if I have to," Blinky said, then studied mine. "What does yours mean, Five Jacks High?''

"I am a jack-of-all-trades," I told her. "I do many things modestly well, instead of the normal being very focused on one thing. And I am a wizard."

She studied my legs and I looked down at them. "Is something wrong?"

"You look unusually strong for a unicorn," she said.

"Well, I'm not a soldier but the soldier unicorns are certainly strong," I told her.

"They all glare at you," she observed.

I laughed nervously.

"It's going to require a large amount of fire in order to get the proper shine on the rubies," Rarity said up ahead, continuing her conversation.

"FIRE," Spike said urgently, then breathed it.

"It will take a lot more fire than that," Clyde said.

"I can augment his fire," Twilight said, then launched into a long technical discussion of it.

"I'm not on the best of terms with Captain Keen Eyes, because I am seeing his daughter, Rarity."

"You... oh," she said. "He's not pleased by how well you 'know' his daughter," she said, smiling a little.

Dammit, this is probably some Kagyarite joke I don't know. "Yes," I said, hoping she wouldn't now condemn me as a heretic or something.

"Fathers are never happy when their daughters 'know' a stallion too well," she said amiably.

AHH.

Ahahaha.

"So this is to catch a copy of your fillyfriend?" she said.

"Yes," I told her. "Named 'Clarity'. She's very hard-working but also rather greedy and addicted to gems."

"Is there a copy of Pinkie?" she said softly, studying her sister, who was rattling on about crystal structure formation and bouncing around her stolid father as he ambled along.

"Named Pinkamena," I said. "She's a very skilled manipulator of people and her imaginary friends are real. And kind of grim and lonely."

Pinkie rose up between us somehow. She put a hoof over each of us, walking along on two legs. "She is our sister, Blinky, and I am going to save her and her friends." She was very serious to a degree unusual for her. "It's going to be long and hard but I don't care. So how are you, Blinky?"

"I am fine," Blinky said. "I have become a very good drummer and I continue to study hard so I can inherit the farm. And I've been going trotting with Rising Horizon."

"What, the colt with the glasses and the buck teeth and the big nose?" Pinkie said in surprise.

"His nose is quite pleasing, I like his glasses and he had his teeth corrected after you ran away from home," Blinky said irritably. "And he's a stallion now. We're not kids any more. Are you trotting with someone?"

I wondered idly if that was a colloquiallism of their area or a general one I hadn't heard.

"Well, I did kiss one of the unicorns to see what it's like, but he's afraid the Captain will kill him if we do it again," Pinkie said.

"You just kissed some soldier to see what it was like?" Blinky said, horrified.

"What?" Clyde said. His gaze fixed on Pinkie.

Pinkie jumped into the middle of our group and spun on her hindlegs, forelegs extended.

o/~ I kissed a boy and I liked it,

o/~ The taste of his minty cologne

o/~ I kissed a boy just to try it

o/~ I hope my friends don't mind it.

The length of hay that Clyde had been chewing fell out of his mouth.

"Why would we care?" Rainbow Dash asked, confused. You and me both.

o/~ It felt oblong, it tasted right

o/~ Don't mean I'm in love tonight!

o/~ I kissed a boy

o/~ And I liked it, I liked it!

Clyde stopped moving and stared, mouth open wide.

Blinky stopped moving, crouched down and hid her face, mumbling about having to move to the moon.

"Oblong? What on earth did you kiss?" Ivan said, confused.

"Pinkie doesn't know what oblong means," Blinky said through her hooves, still crouched. "She just likes the sound of it. It's a rectangle which isn't a square, by the way."

I thought a rectangle was not a square by definition.

"Obbbbblloooong," Pinkie said. "It's GREAT."

"Pinkie, you can't just go kissing random soldiers!" Clyde protested. "What will people think? People will TALK."

"Ponies all talk, you know," Rainbow Dash said to him slowly and confused. "Whether or not Pinkie kisses a soldier. Was he good, Pinkie?"

"Pretty good," she said. "His name has been concealed to protect the innocent, though."

Except there's only ten possible targets and if Captain Keen Eyes hears of this... there will be death.

Clyde looked at the soldiers escorting us, who ALL tried to pretend none of this had ever happened. Captain Keen Eyes was back at the embassy, thankfully. Clyde then looked at Dash. "I am, in fact, a talking pony, in case my hat confused you."

"She probably was confused by its high quality and the fineness of the felt," I said. "And the stitching."

"It is nicely assembled," Rarity said, smiling.

"Rarity made my hat for me," I said. "For which I am quite grateful."

"Is it one of them?" Clyde said, looking at the soldiers.

"We're not deaf, you know," one of the earth pony lancers said irritably.

"Your mother is going to fret about this forever, Pinkie," Clyde said mournfully.

"It's no big deal," I told him. "Whoever it was, he and Pinkie had a little fun, no one got hurt or pregnant, so what does it matter?"

Twilight mumbled, but then said, "Five Jacks High is right. As long as he wasn't slacking on duty or anything, it doesn't matter."

Pinkie sang about sweet boy kisses under a summer night of stars.

"Amen to that," Applejack said sagely. "T'aint nothing wrong with kissing a boy or three," she said to Clyde.

Clyde mumbled about the wild, high life of Ponyville and Manehattan.

"C'mon, silly sister," Pinkie said, nudging Blinky. "It's time to go. I know you kissed a boy too."

"It's different with him," Blinky mumbled and finally rose back up.

Clyde shook his head. "Being a parent is never easy." He sighed, then turned to Twilight. "Was we discussing rubies?"

"Rubies," Rarity said musically. "One of the most beautiful of gems."

"I fancy opals m'self," Clyde said.

"Opals do have their place, but they don't glitter and shine enough," Rarity said.

"A man can't have shine in his face when he's workin'," Clyde said.

"Amen to that," Applejack said.

We ambled on as they discussed the beauty of gems and I enjoyed a break from the work before, no doubt, yet more work.

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

We worked until dinner, then into the night. Earth ponies can be kind of relentless and we had to redo a lot of work; it's clear Pinkie hasn't done this in a while. Her father seemed pleased by her effort, though.

"See what you've got here? The beryl's angled wrong, so if it keeps growing, it's going to spike right through the topaz and disrupt it entirely," he pointed out as I lit up the hole they were peering down.

Blinky was busy banging on her drum; the ground vibrated constantly and she would announce things, leading us to drill more holes down to make changes. Or dig them.

Rainbow Dash liked the drill as she could tie herself to it, then fly in a circle at high speed and operate it. I could see several of the pegasi soldiers watching her work. Too bad, boys, she's taken.

Good luck competing with a Wonderbolt.

Pinkie suddenly turned to her father. "Where's Inkie?"

He sighed. "Decided she's an elf," he said mournfully.

"An elf?" I asked.

"Blah, blah, I was born to frolic and play in the forest and sing and dance and not move rocks around, my true elven soul revolts at these chains, blah blah, blah." Clyde sighed. "She dyed her coat green, renamed herself Arwen Moonshadow, then hopped the train to Darokin City to go to Alfheim and 'join her people'. I expect they'll ship her back in a few months with a note asking us to not let her do it again." He looked at Pinkie and they both looked rather uncomfortable, then he sighed. "What's done is done. The Cakes write us every week to let us know how you're doing since you usually forget."

Pinkie cringed. "I never know what to say. Parties never sound so cool on paper as they are in reality." She sounded guilty.

"You could, at least, *try* to convey it," he said. "What's next, Blinky?"

"I expect Pinkie will cry to try to make you feel guilty," Blinky said, frowning.

"I mean with the rock work," Clyde said patiently.

Pinkie made a gurgly noise, trying not to cry.

"There is something suspiciously like rock candy intermixed with the emeralds," Blinky said. "I can't imagine why."

"It's so delicious," Spike mumbled.

"Show me where to drill!" Dash said excitedly and soon dirt was flying everywhere.

"You shouldn't rag on your sister so much," Applejack said to Blinky.

"I work hard and no one cares I exist, she goofs off and gluts herself and is a great heroine of Equestria," Blinky said irritably, continuing to bang her drums and at times, kick a cymbal. She kicked one drum and banged the other with a stick held in her tail.

Applejack opened her mouth, then shut it for a few seconds. Then she said, "Farming isn't something you do for glory and recognition. But without us, people would die. You gotta have food. I'm proudest of my farm, but no one cares about that." She watched Dash work. "You're gonna get the farm eventually, right?"

"Yes. And I'll need to find someone to marry. I hope things work out with Rising Horizon, but he's not the first stallion I've gone trotting with," Blinky said.

I listened curiously while I carefully churned a patch of soil with a kind of rake thing. I'm not sure why I am doing this but Clyde and Blinky seem to know what they're doing, so I kept it up, moving the rake with my magic, though I was getting worn out.

Blinky switched beats and cocked her head. "There's a snake at point 28, 23, depth twenty feet."

"Twenty feet?" Clyde said. "How the hay is a snake digging that deep? WHY?"

"It's slowly heading towards 28, 22," she said. This is some sort of coordinate system they understand intuitively and I just follow orders to follow it.

Fluttershy, who had been directing the embassy pets in digging said, "Show me where."

Blinky blinked, then pointed. Fluttershy ambled over and began to sing. The snake soon rose out of the dirt, then coiled itself around her gently; it was a huge constricter with golden and black scales; she caressed its head and spoke to it with sibilant whispers.

Blinky stared, eyes wide.

"Don't tell me you've never seen a druid," Applejack said, surprised.

"I thought she was some sort of trainer. There aren't many druids in the Big Apple Province," Blinky said. "Don't those things normally crush people? Or do they like humans?"

Fluttershy now caressed the serpent with her wings and it made happy noises. I had a very odd feeling and tried to figure out why.

Ivan made odd noises and went to help Twilight with... something big and magical that I couldn't tell what it was but it stuck down in the ground a lot. I'm not sure how he could help but it was suddenly urgent.

"Sssississis says he was sent to spy on us by my sister," Fluttershy said, stroking the serpent gently. "But he got lost tunneling his way in. He's got a little spell or three on him. But he's going to stay with me now."

"Is she the prophet?" I asked.

"He's never seen her look like the Prophet or preach about Luna," Fluttershy said.

"He's probably a plant," I told her.

Fluttershy blinked. "Five Jacks High, he's an animal."

"Yeah, Five Jacks High, he's a snake. They're not plants, you know," Pinkie said a little chidingly.

"Yeah, plants don't move under their own power," Dash said, shaking her head. "Ergo, not a plant."

Twilight made a noise. "Homonyms, it's a homonym, everyone."

"How do you even tell what gender a snake is, anyway?" Dash asked.

"..." What?

"He certainly..." Ivan trailed off into an odd noise.

"I mean, he meant 'plant' as in 'spy'," Twilight said a little lecturingly.

"Why not just say spy?" Dash asked.

Damn you, Thyatian and your homonyms. Thyatian is the most commonly spoken language in this region. When Darokin adopted it as their official language, it gave it a further boost. Thyatians like to absorb foreign words and integrate them into Thyatian. The result is that it is full of words which sound the same but mean different things, homonyms.

"Because... I don't know," I said irritably. "It was just the first word that came to mind."

I could smell everyone get worried. I am not going to totally freak out. Just aggravated.

Fluttershy looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Five Jacks High," she said apologetically. "I should have realized that."

I relaxed a little. "It's okay," I told her. I could feel everyone relax... smell them relaxing... as I relaxed. I can see how stampedes get started.

Pinkie suddenly said, "I guess Mom is home tending the farm?"

"Someone's got to ensure the rocks gather no moss," Clyde said. "I expect Five... what is your name again?"

"Five Jacks High," I told him.

He studied me with one eye. "Five Jacks High is right, I reckon. Likely he's the spy meant to be caught so we don't notice the REAL spy." He looked up at the air. "Blinky, any chance..."

"Not unless it's really big," she said. "My talent doesn't go that way."

"Two of my unicorns are experts in ECM," Captain Keen Eyes said.

I jumped, having not noticed him coming.

"They'll find any invisible or phasing spies," Captain Keen Eyes continued.

"ECM?" Dash asked, confused.

"Espionage Counter-Measures," Captain Keen Eyes said. "I knew something like this would happen, if not the details. We put anti-scrying wards over the embassy; the ones it had weren't very good. But they won't stop a physical, well hidden spy."

"It's not impossible someone on the staff has been charmed or possessed or just bribed," Twilight said, frowning.

"None of the staff are watching us, though," I said. "Right now, anyway."

"Well, we should get back to work, let the experts handle it," Clyde said, then looked at Twilight. "But you're the boss, ma'am."

"Captain, would you like me to help your men?" Twilight said to him.

"I'm sure they'd be glad to have your assistance," Captain Keen Eyes said.

Twilight went off with him and the rest of us went to work.

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

If there was another spy, we didn't catch him, but Fluttershy adopted the snake as her pet, naming him Slither. There's something just odd about someone walking around with a constrictor on them which is being cuddly instead of murderous.

I slept like a rock and the next morning, we all had breakfast and went to work. Twilight, Rarity and I were fairly zonked by lunchtime from the amount of magic we had to pour in; some of the military unicorns helped. Clyde was amazed by the results; Applejack looked like she felt it was cheating. Necessary cheating but cheating.

At lunch, we were joined by the ambassador, Baron Golden Star. "How is the project coming?" he asked us.

"Well," Twilight said. "We should be able to lay our trap and clean it all up before we see the Radhirajah."

"That's good," he said. "We're going to have to... do something to reinforce the embassy vault. There's been a robbery at the Thyatian Embassy."

Fluttershy's duck was watching me, but I ignored him. Stupid duck. I blinked. "Really?"

"Someone tunneled up under the embassy and lowered the vault down into their tunnel and them made off with everything in it," Baron Golden Star said. "I have of course assured them that no one involved with our embassy would do such a thing," he said, gaze sweeping across us meaningfully.

"After all the work we did yesterday, I don't think any of us could steal another biscuit," Dash said.

"I wouldn't go robbin' an embassy, tired or not," Applejack said, frowning at Baron Golden Star.

"Of course not, Countess," he said smoothly. "I merely informed you of my course of action. Hopefully, there will be no more incidents."

"Any clue who did it?" I asked. "It could be Clarity. Or one of the other Elements of Power."

"The only clue is four beads of rhodolite strung on a string," Baron Golden Star said. "And a silver Minrothad coin but I expect it was just planted to throw suspicion on them."

I snorted. HAH!

He looked at me, and I said, "Long story, sir."

"I don't think it was the Elements," Ivan said.

"Why?" Twilight said curiously.

"They'd frame us," Ivan said. "They likely know we're here," he continued. "And they might well frame us even if they didn't know. Someone would get enough of a look at Clarity or whoever that they'd recognize us if we showed up, so as to wreck our mission."

"Whatever exactly it is," Baron Golden Star said. "Beyond tearing up my garden."

"It's a secret," Twilight said apologetically.

"I'm surprised they haven't tried to frame us yet if they do know we're here," Applejack said, frowning. She poked at her rice with a spoon gripped clumsily between hooves. It was not easy to eat that way, but manners dictated it and Applejack struck me as someone too stubborn not to keep trying once she'd committed to something.

I bit down on a pepper. So tasty even if now my mouth will burn forever.

"It's a good question," Twilight said. "I suppose the Thyatians are unlikely to let us take a look around."

"I only know about the clues because I have connections," Baron Golden Star said.

"I will go poke around a bit," Ivan said. "I can do more good than with the rock farming."

"I'll come with you, brother," Fluttershy said. "Slither can help us."

I wish I knew if she is good at keeping a cover or has basically lost it.

"I'll candy up and come too," Dash said. "Much as I like the drill I NEED TO GET OUT OF THIS PLACE!" She paused. "Nothing personal, Baron Golden Star, but I am a Pegasus."

"Do we have anything for you to wear?" I asked.

"I DID bring formal clothing. The candy will convert that, right?"

"Yes," I said.

"We're good, then."

"I can't let you all roam around without any protection," Captain Keen Eyes said, frowning.

He had AGAIN slipped up on us. Or at least ME.

"Three is the most. We can't sneak with an army. Trust me, we'll be fine," Ivan said to him. "And if we aren't, I'll apologize later."

"If you get in trouble, I will be in trouble, whether you apologize or not," Captain Keen Eyes said. "I have to send SOMEONE with you."

"They're going to need to fake being human," Ivan said. "Got anyone who can handle that?"

"Me!" Pinkie said. "But I have to help farm."

"One of my Earth ponies, so he won't stand out," Captain Keen Eyes said. "You'll need to hide Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash's wings unless you want to stand out, though."

"I can fold them in close and put clothing over them, right?" Dash said.

"You really want to go, I see," Applejack said, amused.

"Even just walking around will be nice," Dash said.

"I'll find a suitable man to go with you," Captain Keen Eyes said.

Ivan frowned but nodded. "I'll come with you. Dash, get suited up."

The rest of us finished lunch and got back to work.

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

Humanified Dash looked, in fact, like a Thyatian who fell into a pile of buckets of paint. She had olive skin and her usual short rainbow colored hair, with a golden laurel wreath and a rainbow-colored stola with golden sandals. Her stola was pinned with a golden storm and lightning bolt on her left shoulder. She was short and athletic of build.

She twirled nimbly on one foot. "How do I look?"

"You look great," I told her.

"You look like you could be Marcus' sister," Pinkie said.

"Hmm, that's true," Rarity said thoughtfully.

Dash did a little dance, swinging her arms around. "Not bad at all. So when does the soldier show up?"

"I'm right here," he said; like Dash, he looked Thyatian. Unlike Dash, he looked like an explosion in a clothing factory had caught him by surprise; his shirt was, in fact, on backwards. "I'm Private High Dive," he said, saluting. "My specialty is high altitude operations but I'm also a skilled scout."

"Darling, your outfit is a disaster," Rarity said. "Let me get you fixed up."

She dragged him away. Dash watched them go, then glanced at me.

I glanced back. What?

She blinked, then grabbed Ivan by the hands. "Come on, let's dance while we wait."

They were soon spinning around with a nimble grace I know I can't match in this form. I can handle moving around, thanks to the magic, but I can't do THAT.

Then again, she is an athlete.

I hope this mission goes smoothly.

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

Ivan-O-Vision:

I hope High Dive knows his stuff. Him coming out with the shirt on backwards... let's hope it was a joke.

Really, this would be better with just Fluttershy and I, since she can shift and I can do it with my potion if I need to.

I hope Dash doesn't get impatient and screw this up for us.

"Dash, cartwheeling down the street isn't very sneaky," I told her.

"Sorry, I just need to move around," she said. "And call me Samus Julia! It's my cover name!"

"We need a cover name?" High Dive asked, then combed his unruly black hair again.

"You are now Antonius Pius, cousin of Samus Julia," Ivan said.

"Right," he said very seriously. Unlike Dash, who is rather a ham and rather... it's like she's always just drunk a pot of coffee. He was very sober and serious, which I guess is how Captain Keen Eyes likes it. He began looking around as we walked; he was dressed much like me, but without any weapons.

"So what's the plan?" Dash asked.

I have an idea but it's rather risky.

"Well, this will probably blow up in our face, but I am thinking we can drop by, you two can fake being Thyatian long enough to make inquiries about what's cool and what isn't in this town, if there is anywhere Thyatians should avoid and the like. Fillipa and I will be your Karameikan companions and while you two ask questions, Slither can spy and I can sneak around a bit."

"So we're the diversion," High Dive said carefully.

"Yes," I said. "Basically, your job is just to blather." I licked my lips nervously. While I see if what Luna taught me works without Luna around.

Having succeeded in part of my quest for Immortality, I've gained a new trick she taught me, which she learned from Asterius long ago. It worked in the fight, but...

Be confident.

I wish she was here, though. I'd feel more confident. At least I know they can all fight if everything goes to hell but let's pray it does not.

I fingered my ring; I spent some of my money on it; it's a silver ring with Asterius' holy symbol on it. Which is the moon.

I can do this. If I am going to be an immortal one day, I'll never get there by being worried. Trust my allies. Dash fights very well, but is too rash. Fluttershy is a great druid but not very assertive. High Dive is a trained soldier. Even if he can't use his biggest talent right now.

No freaking out, I told myself.

I feel in over my head sometimes.

A lot.

But I have to do this. Karameikos needs someone who will actually care about it. Asterius has told me to help Celestia and Luna for the moment, so I'm doing that. And I want to do it well. I tend to let others take the lead on things, so I'm not used to being in command.

But I have to get used to it, if I'm going to become an Immortal.

They're all looking at me. Hopefully, I am not showing panic.

Lead!

I led them off down the street; the embassies are all in the same district, along with businesses which cater to foreigners, like a very nice looking Karameikan style restaurant. In fact, Karameikos has an embassy here, next to the Thyatian.

"Okay, the first part of our cover," I told them, "is that we'll go into the Karmeikan embassy, do our 'wandering tourist' routine, but no spying. It'll just let us practice using our fake names."

"What's your fake name?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"I don't need one, I'm not in disguise."

She shook her head. "You are now Petrov."

"Okay, I'm Petrov," I said, hoping I remember it.

The Karameikan embassy was small and simple. Sind has some trade with Karameikos but I suspect the consulate in Jahore, the main port, is much larger and more important. The reception desk had a single bored clerk who was busy writing a report. Short and dark haired, he studied us, then his eyes widened.

Hopefully, he thinks we are generic adventurers and is not an agent of some foe or thinks I am Erik or something.

Erik's one of my two oldest friends but sometimes I just want to beat him to death for being an idiot. He gets us in so much trouble, it is hard to believe. Honestly, the only reason he's still alive is the reincarnation thing. I'm stunned I've survived being around him so much.

"Hello, welcome, travellers," the clerk said nervously. "I am Vassily. A pleasure to meet you."

"A blessing on you and all your kin," I said, bowing. Fluttershy bowed as well; Rainbow Dash and High Dive bowed a few seconds later. "I am Petrov and this is my sister Fillipa. We are from Specularum; these are our friends Samus Julia and Antonius Pius from Kerendas in Thyatis." Kerandas is a major horse breeding region. I had a horse from there for a while until a chimera ate him.

"Nice to meet you, fellow human," Rainbow Dash said.

Dash, no human ever would say 'fellow human' to another. At least not when it's nothing but humans.

Vassily studied her hair with his dark eyes, blinking. "It's a pleasure to meet you, fair lady."

"I have a boyfriend!," Rainbow Dash squeaked.

"It's okay," High Dive said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I'm not jealous that easy."

Okay, he was a good choice for this mission.

"A pity," Vassily said.

Interesting, I thought. "We just arrived and must confess we know little of how best to obtain lodging here suitable for outsiders like ourself."

What followed was a thirty minute lecture on Sind, cultures, lodging and how to avoid getting killed by touchy high-caste people. Very useful and I wish Baron Golden Star had bothered to tell us all this, though some of it we knew from Celestia.

I frankly think he's up to something but I don't know what. Or maybe he's just annoyed he hasn't been told the whole story.

Fluttershy petted her serpent the whole time while I tried to tell my body and brain to stop thinking things which could only lead to trouble.

Vassily every so often glanced nervously at the snake, but kept up his routine.

Dash didn't blow our cover and asked some useful questions. So maybe this will go well.

This really would have been better with less people but we use what we have.

Okay, time to hit the Thyatians.

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

STILL IVAN-O-VISION:

There is a poster of Erik of Vestland with the fifty thousand gold reward just outside the front door of the Thyatian embassy. Which, by the way, Baron Golden Star DID NOT MENTION.

On the other hand, he doesn't know we have Erik with us.

Still, dammit.

Breathe, I told myself, and we went inside.

Another round of introductions; in the middle of the lecture from this embassy's clerk, Fluttershy and I 'went to the bathroom'. I cloaked us both in shadows and she sent her serpent to slip around while we snuck around unseen. As long as we don't touch anyone, this is a really powerful trick and I am pretty sure it involves magical cheating and my path of Immortality. I care more about it working than how.

I can't keep it up nearly as long as Luna can, though. And I need people to not be looking.

Fluttershy naturally moves softly and quietly, so we easily snuck around, listening to conversations and her using her druidic magic to look for shapeshifters.

We found one. The records clerk is actually a doppleganger. Marcus is going to totally freak over this.

Then Slither came back and Fluttershy spoke to him. Her breath caught. "Apple Blossom is in the Ambassador's office."

Oh great, now I have to come up with some kind of plan very, very fast.

"Just her?" I asked.

I want to sneak in and spy but if this wears off and we're in his office... crap.

"And Pinkamena," Fluttershy said softly.

Dammit. "And her friends?"

"No sign of them," she said.

Distantly, I heard Rainbow Dash say, "I have a great love of riding stallions!" She sounded rather dreamy.

The clerk made an odd noise.

Oh Marcus, you just can't resist any kind of woman, I thought.

We crept up to where I could try and listen through the wall from another office.

"My understanding is that the four rhodolites are a sign of the now disbanded Older Gang," Pinkamena said smoothly with her usual grimness. "As you'd expect, they're all in an old age home in East Point now. Each of the rhodolites symbolized one of the gang members. Fire, Earth, Air, Water. The four elements, of course."

"Of course," the ambassador said. "Could it be their descendents?"

"It's possible but if so, this is their first job that anyone noticed their bragging symbol," Pinkamena said.

She was lying about something. I could recognize the signs. But I don't know why. Well, possibly some of her friends robbed the place. She does have four imaginary friends who aren't imaginary.

"I assure you, the Bronze Shanti will find out who did this," Apple Blossom said with her oddly elegant voice. "We do not appreciate unauthorized crime in our city." I have no idea what a Bronze Shanti is; some sort of gang she must control. "We will adhere to all past agreements, of course."

Oh hoh, so it has an alliance with Thyatis but now Apple Blossom and her allies have taken it over. Probably as part of their overall takeover plan.

I wonder if the doppleganger is hers. But none of us can... "Can you read minds?" I whispered to Fluttershy.

She shook her head. "Only non-sentients," she said softly.

I licked my lips thoughtfully, then rubbed my forehead.

Best to just listen and see what we can find out.

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

Still IVAN-O-VISION:

Unfortunately, we'd missed most of the conversation and Fluttershy and I had to come back before people thought we'd died in the bathroom or something. To my utter surprise, Dash hadn't blown our cover yet.

Thanks be to Asterius. And Luna. And anyone else who may have helped.

We slipped out and I told them what we'd learned. "The Bronze Shanti are based in the Ward of the Shell, wherever that is," I told them. "I expect I'll be sneaking around there tonight."

"Oooh, fighting Sindhi gangsters. Never done that, but it should be COOL," Rainbow Dash said.

"We shouldn't provoke them until your message is delivered, or it might cause an incident," High Dive said very seriously.

"Come on, don't you want to cut loose?" she said to him, gesticulating wildly as she talked.

"I am a soldier. We only cut loose off duty for fun," he said. "And I know you are dating Soarin'." He sounded kind of jealous.

"I hope he's okay and thinking of me," Dash said. "I think about him all the time." She sounded embarrassed.

Fluttershy patted her shoulder. "Love feels wonderful, I know."

"Have you ever had a boyfriend?" Dash said curiously.

"I dated one of my fellow druids during my training for a while," Fluttershy said. "Dancing Elk was very kind and gentle." She smiled brightly. "But he went to North Marech and I was sent to Ponyville." She sighed. "But it's better to love and lose than not love at all." She glanced at me for some reason. Not a secret crush reason but it must be something love related.

I don't know why.

An ornate carriage pulled by an Earth Pony wearing blue and red livery trundled down the street; an irritated man with coppery skin kept cracking a whip over the pony's head, but the blue and yellow pony just trundled along slowly, looking tired and bored. And a little jumpy. "Faster!" the man shouted.

"This street is too rough to go fast," the Pony protested. You couldn't see his cutie mark, unless it matched the glimmering silver sword embossed on the livery. I doubted it.

Rainbow Dash frowned as did High Dive. Fluttershy frowned even more and Slither hissed at the man, while I frowned deeply. Dammit. We can't afford to intervene but I hate watching this.

"If we have to stop and Kal-iya Ajith gets out, you'll regret being so picky," the man on the driving bench said. "You should be glad to have this job, Corn Husker."

The pony made a nervous noise. "Please, don't fire me. My wife is sick and my children too young to work."

I could hear Dash breathing hard. High Dive grimaced, but put a hand on her shoulder. Slither was wildly climbing all over Fluttershy as if trying to hide from it. And Fluttershy stared in horror, mouth wide open.

"Then MOVE FASTER," the man said, then looked at us. "What are you all staring at? This is none of your business."

"Are you trying to make him break his leg?" Rainbow Dash said. She pointed at the cobblestone road. "It looks pretty but it's irregular and not safe for high speeds. How's he supposed to pull the carriage if he hurts himself?"

Corn Husker stared at her in surprise, mouth wide open.

"Speed up!" a man shouted from inside the carriage. Kal-iya Ajith no doubt. Dammit.

"Don't worry, I'll be okay," Corn Husker said to Dash, making a gesture with his hoof which I think means 'don't press your luck', though I am only guessing. "Kal-iya Ajith will be very angry if I delay him any longer." He sounded rather drained and defeated.

Fluttershy started to speak, looked at her hands, then fell silent, still horrified.

I suddenly wondered how much that carriage weighs if an Earth Pony is actually tired from hauling it; it's not even dinner time so unless he's been pulling it since before dawn... Unless they made him skip lunch, maybe. Ponies who are working hard have to eat more, I think.

The carriage looked like ornate woods with silver and golden trim, shaped kind of like the top half of a pumpkin if you then put it on a board and put wheels under it. The silver sword motif was repeated.

This is where I wish I had the magic to make that thing break. But I have no talent for it, beyond the shadow trick Luna showed me.

I should steal the damn thing tonight but what would I do with it?

The driver said to Rainbow Dash, "Go back to Thyatis if you think you're in charge here, foreigner. With your stupid hair."

She stepped forward and High Dive pulled her back. "Pardon," he said. "My girlfriend is a little high strung. We'll just be moving on now."

"You'd best be moving on before Kal-iya Ajith decides to step out and make an example of you," the driver sneered at Rainbow Dash.

High Dive had to grapple her now and I decided we had best go before I snapped myself. This is the kind of thing I hate very much and I know I shouldn't do anything but I so want to rob this idiot and leave his carriage in flames.

A noble is a wolf on a horse, and wolves have to be shot to protect the farm.

Dammit.

"Kal-iya Ajith, you mean, mean person, come out of your carriage RIGHT THIS MINUTE," Fluttershy said, storming over.

Oh fuck. From what I've heard, if she gets this mad, it's basically apocalypse time.

The driver stared at her, mouth open wide.

Corn Husker stopped moving and stared at her, matching his expression.

"Who are you who dares to order ME, Kal-iya Ajith, to come forth?" the man inside shouted.

"I am Fillipa of Karameikos, a Druid of the Golden Ring!," Fluttershy said loudly. "Come forth and face divine judgement!"

"Fillipa," I said urgently. "We can't afford to get in trouble." Much as it hurts to let this bastard go.

"Yeah, Flipper, we have to avoid... avoid... dammit. GIVE THEM HELL!" Dash shouted.

The driver stopped the carriage. Corn Husker said, "No, no, no." He looked quite terrified.

Kal-iya Ajith came forth, a formidable looking man, tall and strong with tanned skin a little darker than mine, a thick moustache, shaped with butter or something like it, wearing expensive satin and silk robes in yellow and black. At his waist hung the silver sword he'd slapped on everything. It looked powerful, though not artifact level and I could probably buy my hometown if I had it.

"You have no right to challenge me," he said to Fluttershy. "Nor right to claim rank over me, for you do not follow our ways. And putting a snake around yourself hardly makes you a druid."

She began to sing and a cloud formed over his head. I pointed up and he looked, frowning and then lightning jabbed down all around him. Now he jumped.

Dammit, every whatever the magic people caste is called in the city probably felt that. We're going to have people swarming all over us in no time. But... I'm not getting near her when she's like this.

"I am a Druid of the Golden Circle and I will not stand by while you are cruel to one of your servants! You are a BAD, BAD boy," Fluttershy said, stepping closer and looking up into his eyes.

"You dare not pass... dare..." They locked gazes and the air crackled between them as Slither hissed angrily at him, curled around her arm and torso.

High Dive pulled Dash over by me. "Does this happen often?" he whispered urgently.

"No," Dash said. "But she's going to make him piss his pants." She sounded pleased by this.

I would be but now I'm worried we're going to get in more trouble.

People were starting to gather and stare and I could see someone run inside the Thyatian embassy.

Where Pinkamena and Apple Blossom are.

"FINISH HIM!" Dash shouted enthusiastically.

And then he broke and fell to his hands and knees, crying. "Enlightened master, I am sorry I dared to challenge you," he told her feet.

She patted his head. "It's okay. Now you're going to take poor Corn Husker home and pay to have his wife helped and make sure that his kids don't go hungry. It's a warrior's duty to protect the weak, not to exploit them."

"Yes, mistress," he mumbled.

Dash gave it a double thumbs up, then stared at her thumbs and laughed.

Once they were underway, I grabbed Fluttershy and we ran before anyone official showed up or the Elements came out.

But I expect they can figure out the rest if they don't already know.

Ack.

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

Marcus-O-Vision Once More:

Baron Golden Star twitched at the news, then ran to his office. Oh boy.

Captain Keen Eyes said, frowning, "That was very noble and brave of you, Fluttershy."

She looked quite proud of herself. "I saved that poor hard-working pony and his family and taught him a lesson."

"But you may have caused a diplomatic incident which could get us thrown out of the country before you complete your mission, if they trace it to us," he continued, frowning.

Dammit. I agree with what Fluttershy did but also with the Captain... despite him being an asshole... about it risking blowing everything.

"Time for Ivan to be ponified and everyone else back to normal," Twilight said. "I..." She hesitated. "I would have done the same thing," she said softly. "But this does put us at more risk of mission failure, which could mean war. We can't afford to take any more chances like that."

"Well, only the lightning might be illegal, right?" Clyde said hesitantly. "Just mouthing off and staring is fair, I'd think."

"Mouthing off to a high caste person is a crime," Twilight said. "I will study the details later, or the Baron may know."

We were all milling around in the work zone.

High Dive said, "I'm sorry, sir." He saluted Captain Keen Eyes.

"You acted professionally," Captain Keen Eyes said. "Dash, never write checks with your mouth that you can't cash."

"I didn't write any checks!" she protested.

"You could have totally blown the mission," he said sternly.

"I didn't even DO anything," Dash protested. "Umm... how do I turn back to a pony?"

"It wears off after a few hours," I said.

Twilight concentrated and Dash and High Dive turned back to normal.

Fluttershy sighed. "I was starting to get good at this," she said mournfully, then turned back to pony form.

Her eyes widened.

"Eeeeee!!!!" She bolted off towards the part of the compound where our rooms are.

Rarity galloped after her. "I'll take care of her," she said.

"Well," Clyde said. "I guess we'd better hurry up before the law comes for us."

"I'm going to go see the ambassador," Twilight said. "I'll be right back."

Ivan got his potion out. "I only have a limited amount of this," he said.

"Save it until we're sure you'll need it," Captain Keen Eyes said, eyeing the bottle warily. "You ever been a pony before?"

"He went on a date with Princess Luna," Pinkie said cheerfully. "Does she kiss well?"

"It wasn't like that!," Ivan protested.

"Uh huh," I said. "You both even shapeshifted into the same race, you know."

"I was helping her cover!" Ivan protested.

And you made fun of me. HAH!

Captain Keen Eyes stared at Ivan in surprise, then said, "Alright then." His ears twitched. "Well, at least you didn't have the idiot with you."

"I'm right HERE," I said, annoyed.

"I trust Five Jacks High very much," Ivan said. "Even if he needs to remember the glass house he lives in. He would have kept out of trouble."

"Because he was scared," Captain Keen Eyes grumbled.

"Enough," Clyde said. "You can butt heads later. There's work to do. Now either get off my rocks or start digging," he said to both of us.

Captain Keen Eyes went to see the ambassador and I got down to digging.

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

Eventually, it was time for dinner. The apocalypse hadn't happened yet, but this only made me more nervous. Clyde took me aside before dinner. "I understand you're some sort of shapeshifter?"

"I have been shapeshifted into this form as a disguise," I said ambiguously.

"Captain Keen Eyes, when not busy saying you are the source of all evil in this world, said you are a human," he continued, chewing on a piece of hay.

Dammit. Don't just tell everyone! Not that Clyde's likely to sell us out but the more who know the harder it is to hide. "Yes," I said. "My identity is a state secret."

He raised an eyebrow, then said, "Can you change people's shape?"

"If you really want to try being something else, we have candy but it only causes physical changes," I told him. "You don't gain that form's magic."

He looked at my horn and I said, "I'm a unicorn human when human. I have magic then too."

He sighed. "That's too bad."

Now I was curious. "What did you want to be?"

"My mother was a Pegasus. Surprise Pie," he said a little wistfully. "But father was an Earth Pony and I came out like him."

"Did she bomb dive people with pies?" I asked.

He blinked, looking surprised. "Yes, how did you know?"

Isn't it REALLY OBVIOUS? What sort of person names their pegasus child 'Surprise Pie' without teaching them to drop pies on people? Or them learning it themselves out of pure instinct?

"Just intuition," I told him. "So you'd like to see what being a pegasus is like?"

He looked around as if expecting someone to stop him. "Yes," he said softly.

"Well, you're in luck. Because if you want to fly, Twilight can hook you up. It's kind of tiring, but we're pretty much done for the day," I told him. "We'll have to make sure Captain Keen Eyes doesn't piss himself over it, though."

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

Captain Keen Eyes insisted on Dash and five of the Pegasi going up. And posting Unicorn snipers. I don't think the air over the embassy is that dangerous but it was the price of him agreeing to it.

I helped Twilight cast it; we both then fell down on the grass and had to just watch what ensued. It wasn't quite what we expected. As we finished the spell, the energy suddenly changed, reconfiguring itself and energy shot through him. He howled and Twilight said, "No, stop, stop!" I could tell this wasn't right.

Him falling down howling wasn't part of it either and now we both tried to cancel the spell but it had a will of its own. On the sides of his torso, energy surged and then formed into wings which turned solid in the style of a pegasus. You could still see the magic inside them, inside him, his innate magics twisting around, and now winds kicked up around him, throwing dirt everywhere.

"Calm down, calm down!" Dash said, running over to him. The winds were picking up. "It's okay, it's just a spell," she said, then shot a worried look at us.

"I just wanted to put some extra juice in it to give him some extra time," Twilight mumbled, then stumbled into me. I felt weak myself.

Another of the Pegasi, Cloud Strider, who was off-white with a silver mane, rushed over, and Pinkie and Blinky both ran over as well, though the winds battered them.

Captain Keen Eyes said, "Can I assist you, Twilight?"

"And I, of course," Rarity said.

She drew on them for strength and recovered and the spell stabilized. Pinkie and Blinky soon calmed their father. His wings were brown like his coat, but tinged with purple at the tips of the feathers. His grey mane and tail had turned silver. He flapped his wings and rose off the ground, looked stunned, then smiled brighter than the sun at dawn. "Amazing. Don't go telling your mother, though."

Pinky laughed. "I'm sure she'd understand."

"She'd get pissed," Blinky said. "You know how she is."

"Mother loves us very much, even if she is strict. And there's nothing in the Works of Kagyar which forbids flight!" Pinkie said. "I read them ALL," she said proudly. The Works of Kagyar are the holy text of Kagyar worship.

As you probably guessed.

Blinky said, "You skimmed the chapter titles, maybe." She sounded very dubious.

"There's nothing," Clyde said. "But the wise man doesn't get in fights with his wife unless there's a point." He stretched his wings. "Lead me on, Dash."

"Oh yeah!" She took him soaring up into the air and the other Pegasi rose up and danced together in the sky. I was exhausted, lying on the grass with Twilight. Keen Eyes and Rarity plopped down next to us to watch, sitting sphinx style; we were just sprawled.

"Copter time!" Pinkie said; she'd taken her copter out of storage and assembled it. It doesn't fit through the opening of her saddlebags in one piece. "Come on, Blinky!"

"There isn't really room," Blinky said.

"We will SNUGGLE," Pinkie said and pulled her on, then took off into the sky to fly with them.

Blinky was soon screaming and setting a beat for the dance at the same time.

"Is Fluttershy okay?" I asked Rarity.

"She's okay," Rarity said. "Just a little embarrassed."

Captain Keen Eyes sighed. "She did a good thing but there are likely to be consequences."

There was a distant banging on the gate; the embassy had closed its doors for the night, but someone wanted in. Captain Keen Eyes sighed and cantered over to the gate where two of his Earth Ponies were having a conversation we couldn't hear; a Pegasus went in search of the Ambassador.

"I should do something," Twilight said.

"I advise you to lie here uselessly like me. We can pretend to be the Useless siblings," I told her.

"You made Mr. Pie very happy," Rarity said. "And Pinkie too. How long will it last?"

"I have to monitor it; I don't know. I'm not even sure why it did that instead of... It must be because he has pegasus ancestry," Twilight said. "I should consult the spell book. Spiiike."

Spike dug in her saddlebags and she started studying the book once he found it. "You need anything, Rarity?" he asked her.

"Could you be a dear and fetch us a small plate of those lettuce wraps?" she said. "I expect that Five Jacks High and Twilight need some food."

I just had dinner but I am RAVENOUS. "Oh PLEASE, Spike," I said urgently. "I would be grateful forever."

He snorted, but when Twilight said, "I could definitely go for Rarity's idea," Spike took off like a rocket.

The lettuce wraps had shredded vegetables, rice, and lettuce with garlic and a hint of saffron. So GOOD. I had to force myself not to just shovel them down my throat as fast as this pony mouth will eat them.

Which is fast.

One of the things I've noted is that ponies eat smaller meals than humans but more often. Smaller stomachs which digest slowly. So I have to be careful not to eat too much and make myself sick.

Captain Keen Eyes returned with an angry human druid with a golden torc and Baron Golden Star. The human had pale skin with a hint of red to it, dark brown eyes and long blond hair; he looked strong and he also looked ready to smack someone.

"I am Ral-iya Devdas," he said, arms folded across his chest. "Some of your ponies ravaged my grove."

He stared right at me.

"But I don't have any ponies," I said, confused. "Nor would I send any ponies to ravage your shrine. I don't even know where the druidic grove is in this city."

"You know I am a druid without me saying it!" he said angrily.

I managed to flop up to a sort of upright position and clumsily pointed at his belt. "Torc means druid," I said.

Fluttershy now peeked out of the building we sleep in. She saw Ral-iya Devdas and her eyes got wide.

Baron Golden Star said, "I am quite sure he was here the whole time; we have a lot of witnesses."

"I swear, I have no reason to wreck your shrine."

"You and your people painted moons all over it and proclaimed the glories of Princess Luna, whoever she is!" Ral-iya Devdas said angrily.

Fluttershy tried to hide but her snake began dragging her along as she yelped.

Ral-iya Devdas turned, saw her, and frowned. She looked like she wanted to die and hid her face with her wings. "She is a druid of the Golden Circle?" he said, displeased.

"She is a very fine druid but she is shy," Rarity said, then rose and cantered over to Fluttershy, talking to her quietly.

Crap; he may put two and two together... "Can't you do a truth ritual or something? I'll happily let you check my answer."

"We could do that," he said reluctantly. Clearly he fears to be proven wrong.

"Oooh, I'd like to see that," Twilight said, sitting up. "I'm sure Fluttershy could assist you."

I touched her mind with a spell. 'Twilight, this probably means that evil-me has been ponified and is busy leading Luna cultist raiders. They must be behind the cult. Maybe trying to convince the Sindhi that they have to invade Equestria before Luna finishes her 'plan of conquest' or some such rot.'

I could see Ivan coming. I did the spell again. 'Ivan, please don't rant about Luna's innocence to the man we're trying to mollify.'

Ivan grimaced but stayed back for now. Thanks, Ivan.

Fluttershy now came over, her snake marching alongside her through the grass and dirt. "Hail, Ral-iya Devdas, Druid of the Golden Circle. I am Fluttershy, Equestrian Druid of the Golden Circle. Rarity said someone wrecked your grove?" She frowned.

"Yes, and he was the leader," he said, pointing at me.

"He's never been out of the sight of one of us all day, except in the bathroom," Fluttershy said. She couldn't quite look Ral-iya Devdas in the eyes. "We should do the Rite of Truth if you will not accept my word."

"Let it be done," he said.

Ahaha. I laughed nervously. Let's hope this doesn't shapeshift me or set me on fire or something.

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

This involved going to a corner of the torn up gardens and drawing a fancy rune in the dirt. He and Fluttershy sang and white chrysanthemums flowered at the corners of it. I stood in the middle nervously, feeling the magic flow around me.

The pegasi were still in the air with Clyde, Pinkie, and Blinky, but everyone else was watching this either curiously or nervously. Rarity had the sort of calm which always hides nervousness. Captain Keen Eyes, on the other hand, clearly enjoyed my discomfort.

Fluttershy and Ral-iya Devdas sang in unison, voices perfectly matched, and his usual glower faded as he lost himself in what he was doing. He doesn't look bad at all when he's not pissed off.

I felt the magic settle into me and he said, "I am Ral-iya Devdas." Green light flowed out of him into the rune and it lit up.

"I am Fluttershy," Fluttershy said and more light flowed from her into it. The light shone up around me, forming a tracery of power.

And then it lanced into my brain and I jumped.

"Identify yourself," Ral-iya Devdas said somberly.

"I am Five Jacks High, agent of Celestia," I said. That part I intended. "I walk the road of the Polymath under hers and Luna's guidance," I continued. THAT WAS NOT EVEN NECESSARY. Ack!

He started, then stared at me. "That certainly can't be true."

Captain Keen Eyes whispered to Twilight, who whispered back, then he frowned.

"I have lived many lives and been reborn many times," I continued.

"Did you raid his grove?" Fluttershy asked me.

"No, I did not raid his grove. I have never seen or heard of him before tonight," I told them.

"You may ask a question," Ral-iya Devdas said reluctantly.

"Do you always rush off to judgement without thinking it through?" I said irritably.

He grimaced and then said, "It is a frequent problem of mine." Now he looked VERY aggravated.

Oh hoh ho, it binds us all. But he probably doesn't know anything useful.

"Have you committed any crimes in Sind at all?" Ral-iya Devdas asked, frowning.

"I am innocent of all but malice," I told him. I love that line. I got it from a book.

Fluttershy said, "Have you caused any trouble at all for Ral-iya Devdas?"

"No, other than making him embarrass himself," I said. "Devdas," I began.

"Ral-iya Devdas," he insisted.

"Ral-iya Devdas, did you have any other reasons to come looking for me beyond thinking I trashed your shrine?" I asked.

"No. Do you know anything about the attack on the shrine?" he asked.

I wonder how many questions we all get. And dammit, I didn't want that question.

"I have an evil twin named Sammy who probably impersonated me," I told him. "But that's only a guess."

"Umm... do you like Slither?" Fluttershy said, clearly out of good ideas.

"Snakes make me nervous ever since the incident on the Isle of Dread. Stupid Yuan-ti," I said, laughing nervously.

Fluttershy looked disappointed. Dammit! Telling people what they want to hear is IMPORTANT.

"Ral-iya Devdas, what is it going to take for me to get you to go away and stop bothering me?" I asked him.

He grimaced. "The ritual is over. I neither like nor trust you, but the rite was true. I will go."

Thank the Immortals.

The energy faded.

"But I will have my eye on you. You reek of deceit," he told me angrily. "Where did this clone come from?"

"I don't trust you enough to tell you that," I told him as the energy faded. "And that's no lie."

Now he looked really offended. "We shall see which one of us proves true. I will have my eye on you." And then he stormed off.

"Well, he's not a shifter," Twilight said.

"Just an ass in the form of a man," I muttered.

"He had good reason to worry," Fluttershy said. "But he was very rude." She sighed.

"Why not tell him about the Elements?" Applejack said, frowning.

"Because we don't know who he is connected to. I should have thought to ask useful things but he pissed me off and I wasted my questions snarking." I sighed. "Sorry."

"His ill manners were enough to make anyone unhappy," Rarity said. "Feeling better, Fluttershy?"

"A little," she said, cuddling Slither, who now calmed down. "I wish Angel was here too, though. And my other friends. There's no animals here and you can't cuddle plants." She sighed.

So Rarity cuddled her until she smiled and I flopped down in the grass wondering what was going to blow up next.

Still, that could have been MUCH worse.

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

Fluttershy took me aside before bed. We sat on a patch of grass which was one of the bits of greenery not destroyed for the improvised rock farm. "I... was I acting strange? Fillipa me, that is?" she said hesitantly.

"Well, you were bolder, but you still had the same interests and... you did kind of slap down that warrior, which surprised me a lot," I told her.

She sighed. "I lost myself again." She buried her face in her hooves. "I really like Slither but... now I'm so embarrassed. Why can't I turn into other things and still be me like other druids?" She looked really frustrated.

"Is it easier for you to change than other druids?" I said with a vague idea.

"Yes," she said.

"Well, I think maybe your tie to animals means you don't hold back as much as other druids," I told her. "Now I wonder if maybe you could actually use the special abilities of things because of that."

"It's risky to test, since I might lose myself and go on a rampage," she said, then studied an ant slowly making its way through the grass.

"You probably could actually challenge the head druid in human form, though," I mused.

"I have to be able to do it as me," she said. "I'm mostly content with my rank. I just want to shapeshift properly." She sighed. "It wasn't as bad because humans aren't as different from us as I thought. Some parts were really strange," she said. "But I guess being a pony is strange to you too, right?" she said hesitantly.

"It's very strange," I told her. "The way I can smell people, the way my body moves, what I want to eat, all that."

"Have... ahaha..." She turned red. "I shouldn't get so embarrassed," she told the ant.

"No, not yet. I'm not that comfortable," I told her. Plus, I know her father would walk in and kill me dead.

"I'm sure he wouldn't... kill you much," she said quickly.

Dammit, externalizing my monologue AGAIN.

"When I was human, I missed being able to smell everyone; it's so much harder to tell how everyone feels when you're human," she said, sighing.

"I'm good at telling," I told her. "When I don't get all bitchy. Like with that idiot druid."

"He just wanted to protect his grove," she said a little chidingly.

Slither encircled her and she stroked his head gently as he made happy snake noises. "Everyone looked at me oddly when I was cuddling Slither while human," she said hesitantly.

"There's something about female snake-charmers which makes a man's brain spin," I told her. "Especially because you were so utterly fearless."

"Fearless? Me?" she said, stunned.

"I know the feeling," I mumbled.

"You're brave, you just complain about having to be brave," she said kindly. "So are you enjoying being a pony?"

"I wouldn't want to do it all the time, but I think that a person can get used to anything," I told her. "I can handle it the rest of this trip, though if someone is impersonating me, this identity isn't going to be much use either." I frowned.

"Well, if you ever have any questions, I'll be glad to help," she told me, then sighed. "I don't know if I should try it again for the meeting."

"Fall down seven times, get up eight," I told her. "They say that in Ochelea, I think. If you keep trying, you will learn how to do it."

"Ahahahah!" I heard Clyde laughing. He was still flying with Dash and two other pegasi.

I was too tired and too far to tell if the spell was wearing off or not. Surely Twilight couldn't permanently turn him into a pegasus. Even to do it temporarily... She is the Element of Magic.

She rose. "I'm going to go fly with them for a while."

"Keep an eye on him. Assuming Twilight hasn't changed him forever, then he will eventually lose those wings," I told her. I yawned. "I have to sleep. And probably he should come down soon and sleep anyway."

"More sugar, Blinky, to fuel my legs!" Pinkie shouted in the darkness above.

"Dammit, Pinkie, you already ate enough for three people!" Blinky shouted.

"Bang a drum, give me the sugar gum!" Pinkie commanded.

What?

Definitely time for bed. "Goodnight, Fluttershy."

"Goodnight, Five Jacks High."

I went to bed.

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

Clyde was still a pegasus in the morning and everyone was boggling. Twilight looked a little spooked all morning but by lunch, was back to normal. We just worked like dogs all day.

By evening, it was clear we were getting results, though Twilight, Rarity, and I were practically zombies. I stumbled into bed and slept deeply.

"I did some more poking around," Ivan announced at breakfast. "There's dopplegangers hidden in the Darokin, Five Shires, and Karameikan embassies but none of the others."

"You went on your own?" I said. "That's dangerous."

"I am very sneaky now," he said. "And I have these." He jangled the lockpicks.

Captain Keen Eyes said, "You could have at least told us."

"You might have stopped me," he said, grinning.

Ahahah.

"I'll try poking around the Radhirajah's place tonight," Ivan said. "See if he's got any surprise fun on his staff."

"I can't let you go alone," Captain Keen Eyes said.

I can't deny he takes guarding us seriously.

"I can sneak MUCH easier on my own," Ivan said.

"He'll just sneak away from your guards," I told Captain Keen Eyes, who grimaced at me. "But really, you should take someone," I told Ivan. "I don't think I can sneak well like this or I'd go with you."

The magical instincts don't cover hiding, unfortunately.

"I will go," Twilight said. "I can shrink myself and ride in your pocket. And I can spot shapeshifters. We need to know in advance."

"Celestia will not be happy if I let you go into danger without a guard," Captain Keen Eyes said urgently.

"I trust Ivan to protect me and I can teleport us out," Twilight continued.

o/~ My little pocket pony

o/~ Whever I go, she goes.

o/~ My little pocket pony

o/~ Helps me with what she knows.

o/~ My little pocket pony

o/~ Has a cute little nose.

It was, of course, Pinky.

"I don't need a theme song," Twilight said to her urgently, looking a little embarrassed.

"Sure you do! Oh man, I have to write one for Dad now that he can fly!," Pinkie said. She got paper and began scribbling furiously with a quill pen in her mouth.

"Take High Dive with you. He's good at stealth," Captain Keen Eyes said to Ivan. "And he can fly you two out if teleports are blocked, which I know I would do if I had a palace and ruled an entire country and there were thousands of potential assassins with teleport spells. Which there are."

"True," Twilight said, then looked at Ivan.

"Fine," Ivan said. "You don't trust me to handle myself. He can come." He looked pretty irritated.

"I'm sure Ivan will be fine with just him and Twilight," I said. I do think that AND I need to back up Ivan.

Twilight looked rather uncomfortable being caught in the middle of this.

"Rocket Dad, taking off at the speed of light... no, doesn't work," Pinkie mumbled as she kept writing.

"Going solo is rarely wise," Blinky said very seriously to Ivan. "One should always work with at least one partner. It means that ideally, you'll cover each other's back and counter each other's worst ideas while covering each other's weaknesses. The quest for individual glory ends always in disaster. Teamwork is the key to success, Kagyar teaches. Plus, Twilight can shrink him too, so he won't make much noise."

Ivan blinked, then looked at Blinky.

"Yeah, going solo's for arrogant pegasi, not that I know any," Applejack said.

"Hey!" Dash said. "I'm not arrogant! I'm just THE BEST."

Ivan and Blinky looked at each other in a way that I'd almost think was a mind-touch spell, but since neither of them can cast spells, I doubt it. Though Ivan might have some trinket. I tend to love gold, jewels, jewelry and other things I can spend on luxuries. Ivan loves magical widgets.

"So you're saying you want to come too," he said softly to Blinky.

What?

Blinky's eyes got wide. "I just...Well, I mean... if you want me to." She laughed nervously.

"No, it's too dangerous!" Pinkie said, pouncing on Blinky to my surprise. "I couldn't stand it if you got hurt." She sounded quite worried.

"I am an adult pony and I can take care of myself," Blinky said fiercely to her sister. "Do you think I like watching you do the insane things you do?"

"Yes, but I can only hurt me if I do something crazy," Pinky said. "I'm going to worry about you all night now."

"Now you know how it feels," Blinky muttered, but hugged her.

Captain Keen Eyes looked over at Clyde. "You're going to let her do this?" he said in surprise.

"She's a grown pony. I'd go myself, but they already got a pegasus. HAH!" He flapped his wings and looked pleased with himself. "Eventually, kids leave the nest and you have to let them fly free." He looked at Dash.

Dash nodded.

What?

Rarity made a happy noise and pushed her hair back, looking pleased.

"Rarity, I'm going to need more pockets," Ivan said to her.

Rarity smiled. "Of course, darling. Come with me and we'll get you suited up properly."

"Be careful," Pinkie said to Blinky.

Blinky fell down and began rolling around, laughing.

"I'm serious! Be careful!" Pinkie said.

Blinky crashed into her father's legs, bounced off and rolled into Pinkie. "AHAHAHAHAHAH!"

"Don't pick the one time I can't laugh to start laughing more than me!" Pinkie said frantically.

Now I laughed and soon everyone was laughing.

Pinkie finally gave into the mood and laughed herself. "I just want you to be safe. You're not used to a life of adventure, Blinky. You always worked hard so you could run the farm one day. You'll be a very good farm boss one day." She patted her sister's side as her sister lay at her feet. "I am proud of you."

"Thanks, sister," Blinky said and rose. "Hmm, maybe we should wear masks or something."

"We can make disguises later," Twilight said.

They'd better be REAL disguises and not the kind of cheesy thing Don Diego does.

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

Rarity helped make the disguises, along with Spike. What did this mean?

It meant all four of them had full body black clothing, a top hat, a moustache, and a comedy mask in gold. (With the moustache on the mask, yes.) And black capes with a red lining.

Then Twilight shrank herself and the other two going on the raid: Twilight rode in Ivan's shirt pocket, High Dive got put into a jacket pocket and Blinky into the other jacket pocket. (The jacket used to have no pockets.)

Twilight looked ridiculously cute sticking up out of the shirt pocket, forelegs over the edge of it and dangling down. Blinky had to struggle for a bit to get herself positioned the same way but High Dive did it easily. He saluted Captain Keen Eyes, who saluted back. "Good luck," Captain Keen Eyes said.

"Thanks," Ivan said. "Don't worry, it will be fine." Then he looked thoughtful. "Dash."

Dash saluted, then laughed. "Yes?"

"I need you to stage a fake drunken brawl with someone in the sky over the city near the palace. Just enough to draw attention," he said. "Captain, she'll need one of your men to brawl with. Keep it in the sky so there's no damage and we don't get in trouble."

"You are asking me to get drunk and get in a fight with someone," Dash said slowly.

"Well, umm, yes, but you only need to fake getting drunk," Ivan said.

"WHISKEY FUELED VIOLENCE HERE I COME!" Dash shouted, heading for the wine cellar.

Ahahah.

"Fake it!" Captain Keen Eyes shouted, running after her.

"The best lie is the TRUTH!" Dash shouted and vanished out of sight into one of the buildings.

Ahahahahahaha.

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

Right as they left, all the pegasi jumped, except Clyde who looked confused, THEN jumped when he saw the others do it. I couldn't help but laugh a little. "What was that?" he said.

"Storm's coming," one of the soldier Pegasi said.

"Storms only happen when rain is scheduled, here in Sayr Ulan. The oasis can make only modest amounts of rain by itself, so they deliberately shape storms and haul them here every so often," Baron Golden Star said. "Most of Sind has freaky random weather, but one nice thing about being posted here is the controlled climate inside the oasis."

It reminds me of Ylarum City; Ylarum City is inside an oasis surrounded by desert and has climate control. The Ylari want to terraform their country green and the oases are the start of this. A lot of pegasi get paid very well to come help them. Most of Ylarum is very pony-friendly, though Abbashan in the east tends to try to force any resident ponies to convert to the Eternal Truth, the state religion.

"And there's not one scheduled?" Applejack said, frowning.

"I would be... or at least SHOULD be notified," Baron Golden Star said.

Captain Keen Eyes frowned. "Sandwich."

What kind of cruel parent names their child Sandwich?

Sandwich was dark grey with a neon green mane; his cutie mark was a six layered sandwich. "Yes, sir!" he said eagerly.

"Take your five men and check out the storm," he said. "Baron, how do we consult the authorities?"

"I'll send a runner," he said.

"Fluttershy, could this be Dragonfly's work?" I asked her.

"Entirely possible," Fluttershy said. "I'll go with them."

The rest of us got ready for any trouble.

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

The storm hit, dumping huge amounts of rain as we all took shelter inside, played cards and watched the rain while fretting. I had just tossed the Six of Stones and the Five of Flames (I still had the Three of Stones, Three of Flames, and Three of Shadows), when Baron Golden Star entered the lounge we were in, just as Clyde carefully tossed out the Ten of Flames and the Jack of Waves. Does he have a three of a kind too?

"The storm is unscheduled and Fluttershy and my men will assist the Radhirajah's people in moderating it. It's been decided a little extra rain would not hurt as long as it is less intense," Baron Golden Star told us. "I am pleased by this shining example of cooperation between our people and Sind, and I hope your visit to him will go as smoothly." HIIIINNNNT.

We get it.

"Sir, outside, look!" an aide said, running in.

We all went out to look, huddling on the porch where we had a roof.

Through the rain, you could see the moon. Luna's face looked down from it, though now it began to fade.

Was she scrying or was this a trick of the cult?

I assume a trick as it does kind of give the game away.

"Spike, send Luna a letter about this," Rarity said.

She dictated a letter and he sent it. "I hope Twilight is okay," he said.

I felt a sudden large spike of magic and everypony... every unicorn pony... turned their head towards the palace. Oh bloody hell.

"Okay, we're on alert," Captain Keen Eyes said and began disposing everyone to battle positions. I followed along; this IS his kind of situation. Best we be ready.

And then nothing but rain happened as we all became more and more jumpy. Clyde watched the rain stolidly, looking bored if anything.

The wind shifted and for a moment, I smelled something... it made me feel a burst of panic. I didn't even know why. "Rarity, can you smell it?" I asked.

She sniffed the wind. "Something dangerous but I don't know it. I just..." She frowned. "It smells of predator."

Spike sniffed the air. "And garlic."

Thanks, Spike, I'm sure evil garlic comes for us now.

Pinkie paced around her stack of battle-ready pies agitatedly. "Blinky," she mumbled.

"Blinky's fine. Have some trust in your sister," Clyde said. "She is an Earth Pony and Earth Ponies endure. I trust each and every one of my daughters to make their own choices and do the right thing." He chewed on his usual piece of hay. "It didn't come easy to me, but I've learned you have to do that or go crazy."

We heard the sound of a stampede on the street. One of the sniper unicorns, holed up in a crow's nest the soldiers had built on the roof of one of the buildings, reported, "Sir, the squad of cavalry which normally guards the custom house is bolting towards the palace."

"We have to do something!" Pinkie said.

"We hold our ground," Clyde said to her. "We don't know if this is any of our business."

"But Father, she could be hurt! She could be..."

"Dig in your hooves," he said sternly.

"But..."

"Dig in your hooves," he barked.

She jumped and then got into a kind of stance where she dug in her hooves and braced herself.

He sighed. "I'm sorry. Just calm down, Pinkie. Don't go finding things to worry about that haven't happened yet like your mother does."

"Blinky's just a..."

"She's grown up now," her father said, then sighed. "Of course, we don't see you enough for it to really sink in."

HIIIIINTTTTT.

"Oh wait, I bet the 'drunken brawl' is what drew those cavalry," I said. "Maybe it's just the diversion."

"Well, they had bows, but I would hope they wouldn't respond to two people having a drunken fist fight with three lances of cavalry," Captain Keen Eyes said, frowning.

"Sir, a pair of Elves have hijacked a wagon and are being chased by two more wagons of..." Magical darkness now rushed over everything.

Bloody hell.

I made my horn glow; I could see the region around me but not any of the other unicorns.

I could hear Clyde banging his hoof on the ground. "Everyone tap your hoof," he said.

Hooves tapped all over. We began regrouping more tightly in the darkness and then the darkness faded away. The chase was gone and now the cavalry went past us.

By the time we were all ready to go crazy, Ivan and company suddenly stepped out from behind one of the buildings inside the compound. "Hey guys, any idea what the big magic spike was?"

"It wasn't you?" I said.

Tiny-Twilight said, "It came from the area where the organized crime group is. I think they got robbed."

Man, those two elves were either very brave or very insane.

Maybe both.

"What did you find out?" Captain Keen Eyes asked.

"We fingered seven dopplegangers inside the palace staff," Twilight said. "One of them was talking to Niccolo Aurelianus," she continued.

Ivan grimaced. "Sell out," he said grimly.

"Did you see the giant Luna face on the moon?" I asked.

Ivan stared. "What?"

Twilight's mouth dropped open.

"Blinky!" Pinkie said, snatching her up and hugging her tiny-sister.

"I'm just FINE," Blinky said. "Except Ivan's pockets smell like leather."

"They're made of leather, darling," Rarity said. "It is somewhat inevitable they will, in fact, smell like leather." She sounded a little offended.

"I'm not a cat, I don't need to be petted," Blinky grumbled as Pinkie petted her.

"You're so CUTE like this," Pinkie said excitedly. "My little pony sister!"

High Dive flew out of the pocket and over to report to Captain Keen Eyes.

Twilight smiled at Pinkie and Blinky, then said, "Tell me about this Luna on the Moon thing."

We told her what little we knew.

Someone was at the gate; it turned out to be the Darokinian ambassador, Madeline Umbarth. She was a stout woman, well dressed with dark black hair and vivid orange eyes, which surprised me. Humans don't normally have orange eyes. She and Baron Golden Star went off to talk, while her guards lounged about, talking to the staff; clearly they came here often.

A letter now appeared by Spike, from Luna.

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

Dear Spike and Friends,

That was not me and it was a local effect. I have alerted certain authorities just to be sure. But my current evidence indicates it was a localized illusion. I have included a second letter for you to give to the Radhirajah's with Celestia's letter.

If anyone knows who is powering the 'Luna cult' here, they are not talking but I suspect it's Marjorie. Keep your eyes open. I have included an amulet I would like Twilight to wear; it will indicate if any other Immortal's power is being used near her and transmit the information to me. I have also included a ring I would like Ivan to wear of a similar nature.

Please give my best wishes to Pinkie's father and sister and thank them for assisting you. Celestia and I are always pleased by the kind and generous nature of our Ponies. They are an inspiration to all Equestrians.

Should I learn anything else of relevance, I will inform you.

Your friend and monarch,

Princess Luna of Equestria

PS: Tell Applejack and Rarity that their sisters and their friends are building a truly magnificient tree house which makes me regret I am too old to play in it. It may well be the best treehouse ever.

PPS: Lyra asked me to tell Marcus that she will soon have the script ready for him to start memorizing.

PPPS: Sweetie says she misses her sister and big brother and father, but having her mother here is very nice.

PPPPS: Celestia said things I am not going to repeat; she can send her own letter if she wants to tease someone. I love you all and good luck.

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

Ahaha.

A letter fell on my head.

AHAHAHAHA.

Everyone turned and looked at me. "I'll read it later," I mumbled.

Rarity said, "You don't have to read it out loud, darling. I'm sure she only teases you because she likes you." She now pulled out her thimbles and gave me a gentle back rub. Oh yes that feels good.

I licked my lips nervously. "Okay."

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

Dear Five Jacks High,

Please laugh nervously and twitch so Luna never finds out I didn't actually tease you in this letter.

Please tell Twilight I will be sending her a copy of Moon Magics, once the librarians track it down.

That is all; good luck on your mission and please fake freaking out a little so I can keep my cover up. You are such a dear.

Your friend and mentor,

Princess Celestia.

PS: Our first boy should be named Far Runner, I think. I know you'll train him well.

~~~~~~~~~~~

I laughed nervously, then said, "Celestia is going to have a book sent to you, Twilight. Which may help with the crisis. On Moon Magic."

"Ooooh," Tiny-Twilight said, then turned herself and the other two back to normal. "Let's get some sleep. Tomorrow, we SPRING OUR TRAP!"

Let's hope it works.

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

We cleaned up the garden, and we'd sent announcements everywhere stating that 'fine Equestrian Jewels' would be on display today. Hopefully, Clarity will walk into our trap.

Then we all hid and/or disguised ourselves. Twilight and I were up with some of the unicorns in a large hunting blind we'd set up on the roof, designed to look like a tower... okay, it basically WAS a tower.

She glanced at me, then said, "I... Five Jacks High..."

I tried to subtly point to the other unicorns up here. Two of whom were eyeing her when they were SUPPOSED to be watching for trouble. This vastly annoyed me.

She touched her horn to mine. This makes mind-touch spells much easier, not that she really needs 'easier'. 'I want to be friends,' she said firmly. 'Like we used to be before I messed it up.'

'It was MY fault, not yours,' I told her. 'You tried to be honest with your feelings and I ran screaming. I want to make it up to you. However you feel is right.'

One of the unicorns was giving me the evil eye and I don't even know why. He has a name... dammit, I should know all their names by now.

'I will figure something out. Anything like that has to wait until we are done here,' she said.

'Agreed,' I said. 'Maybe I could do some research for you when we are done here.'

'Hmm, we could finish that project we started together before... then,' she said thoughtfully.

'Sure. But which one?'

We both laughed nervously. We'd started a half dozen projects and then I'd run for the hills. We kept seeing things that hadn't been figured out yet and then we'd see another one and...

Stupid beholder.

'I really have to find some way to get Spike to unhate me,' I told her. 'It's not healthy for him to hang on forever to his crush on Rarity.'

'I know,' she said. 'We can figure it out later.'

Spike was downstairs with Rarity, watching over the gems. So was Applejack. I had insisted that since we two were apparently the only people on this planet not easily fooled by disguises, she would watch the gems on display and I would watch guests come in.

"We have more people, or are you two busy making out?" one of the unicorns, brown coated and blue maned with a silver star in a circle as his cutie mark, said irritably. His name is Far Caller and he summons things.

"I totally would never, ever, ever steal Rarity's coltfriend however... AT ALL," Twilight said frantically.

"I would not cheat on my girlfriend, the best unicorn in the world!" I said angrily.

"Then PAY ATTENTION," he said. The other unicorns seemed to agree with him.

Bastards.

That being said, I now turned to watch. It was a group of Sindhi nobles. I sighed.

"Look at her," Twilight said, pointing to a brunette with long hair up in a bun, fanning herself with a fan painted with yellow crysanthemums. "She's shapeshifted, but is not a doppleganger."

"It could be Clarity," I said. She had three strong men with her of the warrior caste; she had the caste mark of the warriors as well, but that could just mean she was the daughter of one or married to one.

"No horn," one of the Unicorns said. "Doesn't the horn of a unicorn usually persist?"

I looked at Twilight.

"Not universally but in many cases, yes," Twilight said. "If my evil twin did this, the horn would show. But Clarity's hair may be another color if she thought to change it."

"Hmm, you could probably design a hat which would fit over a horn and hide it, right?" I said. "Given the sparse number of wealthy Ponies here, she might well get Dawn Gleaming to turn her human and put on a hat to hide her horn. Assuming she doesn't just sneak in. As we don't know if she's very stealthy."

"Or she may be shrunken and hidden in a pocket," Twilight said.

"Unless she uses magic, we couldn't likely find her then," one of the unicorns said, frowning.

I peered out the window; more Sindhi coming in. Too many with various kinds of hats. Bah.

I mean, I like hats, but... Aaargh, hats have turned against me!

This made me feel kind of depressed, though touching my own hat made me feel a little better.

Then I spotted a surprise. Corn Husker and his family. I'm surprised he got the day off. I hope this doesn't mean he got fired. But they seemed too... they were all VERY nervous but not unhappy like you'd expect if he lost his job.

A lot of the Sindhi coming in frowned at them and we all frowned down at them. This IS the Equestrian embassy you know. Punks.

I wish I could do something for them. They deserve better than the kind of life they have to live. But I don't really know what I could do; I can't exactly change how this country works just by wanting it.

Dammit. I felt very frustrated.

Several Glantrians now came in; you could tell because they were all from New Averoigne; there's a distinctive style of dress, and they all favored the kind of flat, floppy hat popular there. One of them could pull off a beret, but most of them... no.

I'd talk to them about buying Rarity one but you need MUCH flatter hair than hers for it to work... Dash or Twilight might be able to pull it, though.

Or Applejack but it wouldn't suit her.

She came out now, all frou-froued up as she put it, wearing a fancy dress and her hair piled up. I wondered again why the Glantrians were talking to Corn Husker and looking at his young daughter; like him, the whole family were Earth Ponies. The daughter had a blue coat and short yellow mane like her father. She also had the caste marks on her cheeks, which made me grimace. They all did.

One of the Glantrians kneeled by her and held out a gem. She put her hoof on it, closed her eyes, and concentrated hard. The gem began to fitfully pulse with light and her whole family stared, eyes wide.

Then there was a flash of light and a book appeared on her previous blank flank. Applejack had joined them now and she was staring. The daughter was clearly stunned.

The Glantrian shook her hoof, then put the gem in his pocket and began speaking excitedly with Corn Husker.

There are a few Earth Ponies who get into Wizardry, since that or being a Bard is the only way they can weild Arcane Magic to my knowledge. But it's very hard for them. Like Dwarves, they don't take to it easily and their innate magic flows other directions.

"I have to talk to her," Twilight said.

I put a paw... hoof. A hoof on her. "We have to stay in our stations."

"But she..."

"Applejack's talking to her. None of us can recognize incoming shifters but you," I told her.

She sighed.

"Duty comes first," one of the Unicorns said. "Even when it isn't easy."

Corn Husker and his family now went inside with the Glantrians and Applejack all talking to them at once; Captain Keen Eyes now came out and joined the conversation; he looked a little stunned.

Whatever her name is, she's found her ticket out of this town and her family's fate.

An Earth Pony with a wizardry Cutie Mark. Hopefully a good sign and not one that unlikely yet disastrous things will soon happen.

Ahahaha.

Then it hit me. "Did we ever find out what made the storm?" I asked.

"Arcane magic and weatherpony power," Twilight said, frowning.

"Maybe it was a diversion for something the Elements of Power got up to?" I said. "We never did find an answer for what the magic surge was."

"Makes sense," Twilight said, then frowned. "Doppleganger," she said, pointing to a halfling who entered with a half dozen others.

One of the Unicorns grimaced. "Why bother turning into a halfling?"

"Halflings are hard working people who don't go bad-mouthing other people for existing," I snapped at him. Having BEEN one, I felt the urge to defend them. "Do you want to act like the snotty people here who think Ponies are inherently inferior?"

That shut his mouth. Punk.

We kept watching; if Clarity was here, she was being subtle. Though she might come back tonight; too many witnesses.

The shapeshifted woman... she worried me.

"Twilight, this will sound stupid, probably but do you have a spell to detect gangsters?" I said.

"Why would I... OH," she said. "Except for mind-reading, I don't think there's a good magical way to determine profession like that. Or at least, I don't have a spell for it with me."

"There's probably some sort of gang mark or sign," one of the Unicorns said. "Right?"

"Yes," I said. "But we have no clue what it is."

"Wait, we do have a clue. The group is the 'Bronze Shanti'. Ergo, something bronze will be their sign," Twilight said. "Shanti..." She frowned. "I... oh wait, I should have a dictionary!"

She dug through it, then said, "Inner Peace? That can't be right."

"Maybe it's sarcasm," one of the Unicorns said.

"Maybe it's a reference to some philosophy where you rise through ranks known as Shanti? With Bronze as one of the lower ones?" another speculated.

We continued speculating as we watched the guests come in.

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

If Clarity was there, she didn't show herself, but I came down to check in with those below and to keep an eye on the shapeshifted woman. Ivan was talking excitedly with Corn Husker and his family, at the same time the Glantrians were talking to them also. Understandably, he looked a little overwhelmed.

Ivan looked like a Northman; he'd taken some of his potion to disguise himself since someone might come in who would recognize him from the duel incident. A wise precaution, I see.

"Any news, Ivan?" I asked him.

He subtly gestured at the shapeshifted woman. I nodded to him.

"I was telling them about having met Princess Luna and Celestia," he said to me.

Corn Husker said, "Is she as kind as they say?" He sounded nervous which I suspect is his natural state.

"Yes," Ivan said. "She is kind and gentle. And very hard working, as you'd expect of an Earth Pony."

"She's not an Earth Pony," Corn Husker said. "She is higher, she is an alicorn, a goddess. An Immortal."

"She is," Ivan said. "Earth Pony, Pegasus and Unicorn all at once. And the Immortals were hu... mortals once," he continued.

I grinned a little.

Corn Husker started to say something, then sagged; his wife and daughter were talking to the Glantrians; his daughter looked THRILLED by her good luck.

"It's weird, I got this... thrill when I stepped inside. I could feel something, from up above," the daughter said. "I'd always hoped, but I knew Earth Ponies couldn't do magic. Not so easily as Unicorns, anyway. And I'd never get a chance to study and learn here." She sighed. But then she smiled. "But now I can! I'm going to be a wizard!"

"You should talk to Twilight before you go," I told her. "Oh, I'm Five Jacks High, one of Celestia's agents. Ivan here is my usual partner in getting in trouble."

"They're good at it," Applejack said, then laughed.

I laughed nervously. "Well, yes."

Everyone laughed now, even Corn Husker.

"You are very fortunate," Corn Husker said to Ivan softly.

"Here, let me show y'a... you all the jewels," Applejack said. She took them to see the jewels and I got Ivan to brief me, which was that suspicious woman was going around, studying the jewels somewhat covetously, but she seemed unlike to be a Unicorn, whatever her true nature. No sign of spells or anything.

Could be one of the other Elements.

She's either very brave, insane, or both to try slipping in here when... But does she know we're here? We don't know.

On the other hand, she must have seen Applejack; even in the outfit Applejack's wearing, she'd recognize Applejack.

We can't start a fight with all these people unless we have to. Hmm, on the other hand, if we let her go, we can follow her back to her base. Which would be good to find.

I went round and round in my head, then decided to just go find Captain Keen Eyes and tell him what we know, much as I don't like him.

I told him everything and he looked thoughtful. "I'll have one of my men follow her," he said. "She may or may not actually be connected to any of our foes."

I went back up to the watchtower to fret.

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

Clarity did not appear clearly as herself but we identified more dopplegangers. Twilight compiled a list of people to inform; we would time it so the messages were delivered to relevant leaders at the same time as our audience; ideally this would avoid tipping them off that we were onto them too early.

That night, we stayed up, watching and waiting to see if Clarity made her raid for the jewels. We left a deliberate hole in the defenses; ideally this would let her in, then we could seal it and trap her. And Twilight had put up wards against teleportation to ensure no easy escape.

Blinky now said, "Something's under us. It's digging up into the embassy."

Clyde's eyes widened. "What?"

"Towards the jewels?" I asked.

"Towards the jewels," she confirmed.

We ringed the area and waited tensely.

Then the giant purple worm erupted upwards, swallowing the jewels. Purple worms are giant worm like creatures, about twenty feet across, which tunnel under ground and eat rock.

Strangely, Clyde looked relieved it was a giant worm and not... whatever he'd been worried about.

"It's made of shadow magic!" Twilight said. "This must have been made by Dawn Gleaming! I'm going to try to dispel it!" She concentrated, horn blazing and Rarity, Captain Keen Eyes, and I aided her as much as we could.

Blink, it vanished and the jewels fell down the shaft.

"Pegasi, CHARGE," Captain Keen Eyes shouted and they rushed down the tunnel, including Rainbow Dash and Clyde.

"Fluttershy, carry me down," Twilight said, hopping onto her and she began to descend, carrying Twilight.

Pinkie slipped on her magical boot/sock/slippers and ran down the tunnel's walls.

"Rarity, if we can light the tunnel, maybe the archers can help," I told her.

We tried projecting light but the tunnel was too deep for us to our frustration; we could just listen to the chaos and shouting below.

"Dammit," one of the Unicorns said and I agreed. Having to listen to a fight you can't even SEE is very annoying.

And then I felt a pulse of magic and a letter appeared by Captain Keen Eyes. It had Rarity's cutie mark as a seal.

His eyes widened and warily he read it silently, then put it in his pack, now looking confused.

"What did it say, Father?" Rarity asked.

"She hoped to rescue me," he said softly. "And apologized that my captors drove them off before she could." He looked very confused.

"The clones have a somewhat warped view of the world and past events," I told him. "But it makes sense she thinks you are her father."

He stared at the ground, frowning and I remembered the vision I'd seen. My gut churned. Could he fight her, if it came down to it?

Rarity came over and nuzzled him. "I'm sure we can bring her around if we can only get the chance," she said.

The sounds of chaos were dying down.

Pretty soon they returned, battered but triumphant. "Well, we drove them off," Twilight said, then sighed. "But they collapsed the tunnel and got away."

"I couldn't dig fast enough," Clyde said, frustrated. "And my best digging tools were in my room because I didn't think I'd be digging tonight."

"The good news is that they took the jewels, so ideally, I can use my tracking spell and we can find their base," Twilight said.

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

Ideal, except that it turned out Dawn Gleaming knew that trick and was able to ward off Twilight's efforts. Dammit.

On the other hand, we had been able to track that shapeshifted woman and she went back to the Bronze Shanti's base earlier in the day.

We decided to deliver our message to the Radirajah first; we have no legal authority here to break into the Bronze Shanti's base and it would be just my luck to capture the Elements of Power, but then get thrown in jail for it.

We HAD to get the message to him without more delays, given how many dopplegangers were around.

Though in my heart, I knew the meeting was somehow going to go totally to hell.

But we all got suited up and ready and set Applejack to maximum frou-frou mode. She and Rarity had been up very late, reviewing etiquette with the ambassador. To my surprise, Fluttershy was in human form again, looking very determined. By Fluttershy standards, anyway. She and Ivan were our only humans and I hoped no one would see them and cause a scene. Ivan was wearing a holy symbol of Asterius and had hidden his weapons in his clothing. I suddenly wondered if he was going to try to pass as a cleric.

Then we set out to be elegant, diplomatic, and sneaky.

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

Rarity had made Clyde a nice suit and Blinky a nice dress for the meeting. We didn't want to leave them behind in case Pinkamena came for THEM. Clyde had been a little disappointed she hadn't tried to kidnap him.

We marched with our escorts through the streets and through the guards; being hailed by the door wardens and heralds was rather nice, really. Respect is a good thing.

I glanced at Fluttershy, worried she'd lose herself again. I wish I could help her. I'm fine with being in this form; I don't think it's affected my mind at all beyond the obvious stuff caused by the magic.

But how would I tell? On the other hand, no one is saying I'm acting weird.

I was going to nuzzle Rarity, my beautiful girlfriend, but then I decided the interests of dignity, unfortunately, would have to trump the interests of showing her how I feel. So I just whispered, "I love you," in her ear and watched her turn a little red and smile brightly.

"I love you too," she whispered and smiled at me. But again, dignity.

Damn you, dignity.

Much to Captain Keen Eyes frustration, most of his guards had to wait outside the palace. However, High Dive and an Earth Pony named Iron Smith had donned civilian clothing along with Captain Keen Eyes, hidden their weapons in saddlebags, and were pretending to be our servants, doing things like opening doors for us.

Clyde and Blinky both looked very nervous. Pinkie stuck close by them, whispering encouraging words. Fluttershy also spoke to them quietly, which seemed to help.

Ivan had the carefully neutral look of a man who wished he could light a match and watch this all burn but had to restrain himself. Patience, Ivan. One day, you'll be in place to start getting rid of the fire ants.

Besides, you KNOW a good con... diplomatic mission... requires subtlety and patience. Let's not have a repetition of what happened in Wendar.

At least everyone in Wendar is sure we're dead.

We encountered Corn Husker and his master; Corn Husker was hauling a small wagon piled with goods down a hallway as his master and his master's wife (I assume) walked ahead of him. Kal-iya Ajith and his wife turned and saw us and stared, then Kal-iya Ajith paled and bowed to Fluttershy.

She touched his forehead lightly. "Do good, not ill, and you will never taste my wrath again, Kal-iya Ajith. You were given this rank to help and protect others, not to abuse it. Show yourself worthy."

"Hey, Corn Husker, ho... Hello, good sir," Applejack said, correcting herself. "I hope you and your family are well."

"Thank you very much again," he said, sounding grateful. "We are quite well. Our daughter, Nimble Tongue, is at the Glantrian Embassy right now, starting her studies. I am very proud of her."

"Congratulations," I told her. "The study of wizardry is very rewarding. I had to teach myself from a book I bought." Stole, actually, but you can't say that when you're dignified.

"She's always loved to read, even though it was forbidden," Corn Husker said.

FORBIDDEN?

Twilight stared, mouth open wide.

Kal-iya Ajith's wife frowned. "It causes people to get ideas they shouldn't have."

"Dear, it is not wise to taunt the friends of a Ral-iya," Kal-iya Ajith said frantically.

Ivan made the gurgly noises of a man who wishes SO MUCH to unload verbal guns but can't.

Slither hissed at Kal-iya Ajith's wife, who said, "I know you're not really human," to Fluttershy.

"And I know your status was not earned by your karma in a past life, but merely was inherited by birth," Ivan said. "What does her body matter when she has spiritual power? Further, she is a druid. Her flesh is whatever is convenient to her."

Fluttershy licked her lips nervously, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a seed. She whispered to it and sang and it sprouted somehow into a daisy without having proper roots or a bush or... I can't remember how daisies grow at all, really. She then offered it to Kal-iya's Ajith's wife. "I can tell you love your husband very much and you just wish to defend his honor. That is commendable," she said softly.

Kal-iya Ajith's wife looked confused, but took the flower, staring at it as if it might bite her.

"Forbidden?" Twilight finally squeaked.

"But she can do what she likes there. One day, she says she will take us to Glantri, where things are different. It is hard to imagine," Corn Husker said with a certain awe. "The Immortals have smiled on us."

"Glantri has its flaws too," Ivan said to him. "But I think you'll be happier there."

"Glantrian wizards abuse their power," Kal-iya Ajith's wife said bitterly.

"Enough," Kal-iya Ajith said. "Wear the flower, dear."

"But..."

"Wear it," he said more firmly and she tucked it into her hair frowning.

He bowed to Fluttershy. "Good luck with whatever brings you here, enlightened one. Corn Husker, we must go. We must see the Minister of Trade."

"Good luck," I said, trying to be diplomatic. "Immortals shine their blessing on you." It's important in diplomacy to wish everyone well until it's time to slide in the knife.

They soon moved on and so did we.

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

We were escorted to a room, where we waited two hours, then got moved to another for thirty minutes, then BACK to the first for an hour, then we had lunch in ANOTHER room, then we were taken to the gardens and musicians entertained us. Applejack was starting to look somewhat overwhelmed by maintaining decorum. Rarity, on the other hand, enjoyed the various entertainments. Clyde and Blinky, oddly, took it best, eating what was given to them, listening to music or watching juggling, as if this happened every day. Compared to earlier nerves, it confused me.

It began to rain hard, pounding down, so they took us inside to another room as the rain hit like an ocean falling from the sky.

As we were watching a group of very skilled acrobats, Fluttershy began talking quietly to Spike, who looked intrigued. Meanwhile, Twilight now began scribbling on a piece of paper; it seemed to be a crude map of the palace. I looked at it. "What's that for?"

"I am suddenly wondering if someone in the Radhirajah's staff has either been charmed or bribed or replaced by someone working for our enemies and is trying to shuffle us around so we never see the Radhirajah," Twilight said.

"I'll find him," Ivan said, then faked having to go to the bathroom; he got directions and slipped off.

Pinkie began humming the pocket pony song, which was now much longer and more elaborate.

Blinky closed her eyes and seemed to focus on something. What, she didn't say.

Could the shifters be planning a strike? Or do they hope we'll freak out and get thrown out? Ooh, I... okay, I don't actually LIKE that plan but I appreciate the cunning, especially with Applejack getting ever more uncomfortable.

Captain Keen Eyes refilled my glass. His voice oozed politeness. "Some wine for the noble Count Five Jacks High." His eyes said 'choke on it'.

I smiled back. "Thank you, good sir." My eyes said, 'You can't stop me, ha ha'.

Thus the cycle of hate was preserved.

Soon, Ivan returned. "No one on our shifter list is involved, BUT I convinced a servant to talk and he has heard the Radhirajah is annoyed because of the various incidents with our people, and is snubbing us in response. He'll talk to us eventually, but this is a kind of 'know your place' snub."

Delightful.

**********

We got shuffled more. We had dinner. Applejack had glazed over and turned into a stiff, formal zombie who Rarity had to carefully guide around. We were all getting jumpy and nervous with tension. Blinky kept napping wherever we went. Or maybe she was just concentrating on something.

I finally asked her.

"Keeping an eye out for purple worms. Just in case they try that again," she said.

"I fully support what you're doing." Ahahah. Fixing the embassy is going to take forever. Fortunately, it only damaged one building and dug a huge tunnel.

We got moved to ANOTHER room and this time I smelled a smell that gave me intense paranoia. Everyone else was sniffing the air and looking a little worried.

"What is that?" I said.

"I don't know," Applejack said, frowning and snapping out of her funk. Then she sighed. "A refined young lady such as myself does not cavort with creatures which smell like this."

I smiled. "And a fine refined young lady you are, fair Countess Applejack."

Rarity took a deep breath. "It's mixed with perfume. They tried to hide their scent with a kind of lemon-scented oil. But it wasn't enough to fool us."

"I can't smell it," Ivan said. "I only pick up the hint of lemon."

Twilight cast a quick spell to reveal anything invisible but there was nothing invisible. A Sindhi bard sat on cushions, played a sitar and related a heroic tale about an earlier Radhirajah who battled a great evil dragon and slew it. It was a pretty good story but even Rarity was starting to go a little stir crazy by now.

And then another servant entered. Lemon-scented. With just a hint of the other smell. Carefully, we followed him, knowing this might be a trap.

The next room had a group of trained roosters, who began performing the Equestrian National Anthem as two tamers, both not shifters, urged them on. I started laughing; the soldiers and Keen Eyes glared at me but Dash joined in and then Pinkie and soon everyone else, even Keen Eyes was laughing.

Shifter boy stood by the door.

Suddenly, I realized Ivan was not here. I hoped that boded well, not ill.

Then Ivan returned, shoving his way in. "The Radhirajah is meeting with 'us'. Which means it has to be the Elements of Power impersonating us."

FUCK ME RAW.

"To the rescue!" Twilight shouted, and then the shifter in the doorway turned into a huge ten foot tall green humanoid with elven style ears and that damn elven smirk but with the claws of a troll and the fashion sense of a murder hobo.

DOPPLEGANGER-ELF-TROLL!!!!!!!

"You BASTARD! You all fell into the Elemental Plane of FIRE, DAMMIT!"

He was about to give his evil speech but now he said, "What the..." His eyes narrowed. "YOU BASTARD! Cufen the Magnificent, we have sworn to DESTROY YOU ABOVE ALL THINGS!!!! Princess Marjorie promised us our revenge but we never dreamed you would throw yourself INTO OUR CLAWS!"

"Well, you were certain humble in that life," Clyde observed, amused.

"In your dreams," Rarity said and fired an arrow right into his arm. He bled a little but the wound closed itself with the arrow in it. "Twilight, you said that rune would make shapeshifters revert to normal!"

"This IS normal for a doppleganger-elf-troll!" I said. "SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!" And then I hurled fire at him; he dodged and a tapestry caught fire. Ivan drew his sword and clipped him and he took a Pinkie-Pie to the face as he stumbled into the hallway but he shouted, "The light purple pony is CUFEN THE MAGNIFICENT REBORN!"

What irks me most? Only these damn things ever actually used my title from that life! And the town that awarded it to me, but knowing my life, I wasn't able to stay in Tameronikas for very long.

This is probably why Tameronikas is still standing.

And now distantly, a voice shouted with magic-amplification, "The Equestrians have kidnapped the Radhirajah and are trying to escape! STOP THEM!"

BLOODY HELL!!!!!

Applejack leaped at the doppleganger-elf-troll, knocked him down, then casually punted him off down the hallway. Rarity retrieved her arrow, looking annoyed. Then we began rushing towards where Ivan said our evil twins were. Unfortunately, we now encountered a group of guards. "Halt!" they said.

This posed a difficult problem. If we halted, it's likely our foes would escape. But if we attacked them, the odds of this ending well would plummet.

"Ivan," Twilight said and he came over to her. She looked into his eyes, and then BAMF, we all teleported. Twilight was panting hard now and then Ivan had to catch her. But we landed where the Radhirajah had been.

HAD been.

Now there was a distant brawl and the sound of a shouting. We ran towards it. More guards and Twilight was basically too tired to teleport us again. We dodged around them, trying to follow the sounds, but we kept having to evade guards and ending more lost and further away.

"Roof," Twilight mumbled. "Easiest escape is to have something to fly away on. We need to go up." Clyde was carrying her; he was strong and she was, as ponies go, light. IE, heavier than me.

We made for a staircase and ran for the roof. Unfortunately, it didn't actually GO to the roof.

"TIME TO MAKE A HOLE!" Dash shouted and smashed the roof open. This was enough for Clyde, High Dive, Dash, and Fluttershy to fly up. Fluttershy began using Slither like a fishing pole to reel people up while the others hauled folk with ropes.

The good news was we made it onto the roof before our evil twins escaped.

The bad news was that they had a Glantri-style flying ship STAFFED BY DOPPLEGANGER-ELF-TROLLS. WHERE DID THEY GET SO MANY OF THE DAMN THINGS?

And they had SIX of them on the roof with them. Dawn Gleaming concentrated and the Radhirajah flew up onto the ship with her telekinetic powers. AND they had Pinkamena's shadow friend squad, including Sir Lintsalot, who they must have recovered from... wherever he went when we conned him.

Then there was a distant explosion and I felt a wash of magic.

"There went the teleport wards," Twilight mumbled.

"Wait, they didn't stop you teleporting inside the castle," I said.

"I was too strong for them but now I'm pretty wiped out." She touched her crown, the Element of Magic. Oh hoh.

Dragonshy said, "Now you all... Fluttershy, what are you DOING?" she said, staring at Fluttershy.

Fluttershy blinked as she petted Slither's head. "Just rewarding him for being such a good, good boy. He was so helpful!" She smiled. "I'm going to give you some tasty mice later, yes, I will."

Dragonshy said, "But you... I mean... Ahahaha." She looked stunned.

"Do NOT tell me you are afraid of snakes," Rainbow Crash said to Dragonshy, half mocking and half stunned.

Ivan said, "You're a pony, you wouldn't get it."

"SHE is a pony too!" Rainbow Crash said, pointing at Dragonfly.

I studied Fluttershy. Is she... probably she is losing it. Dammit. I think she may be vamping but it's hard to tell for some reason. But I don't think she's doing it deliberately.

"Hand over the Radhirajah now! Do you realize what you're doing?" Captain Keen Eyes demanded. "This could start a war!"

"It will start a war and Sind will lose. Its filthy oppressive system of government will fall and Ponies will no longer be oppressed here. Isn't that what you want?" Niccolo said back.

Ivan grimaced. He opened his mouth, shut it, then stared at the roof, clearly now feeling instinctively that this isn't the way to do it, but unable to argue with that goal.

"Marjorie wants her own kingdom," I said. "Not to free it but to rule it. If you erect freedom for Ponies on a stack of corpses, won't it just mean that one day the humans will rise up and take revenge? That's not how Equestria became freer than it was under noble rule. You've read history, Dawn Gleaming," I said. "Tell me how Equestria became how it is today."

She gulped, then grew more confident. "As Equestria's neighbors entered periods of weakness and peace with the Buffalo came to pass, the military class became less necessary. Gradually, merchants and craftsmen, rather than farmers who were peasants controlled by knightly war-ponies, became the main generators of wealth. Wealth is a form of power," she continued, and Apple Blossom nodded.

"My kind of people became the true rulers of Equestria. Cultured, literate, hard-working, and wealthy. Celestia recovered from her illness and allied herself to our people and gradually we eased the nobility into their current status as singing canaries for the glory of the court," Apple Blossom said. "Clarity and I represent the true nobility of Equestria now."

"Exactly, darling," Clarity said. "Father, you should come with us. I don't want to fight you and there is much good you could do with us. This land will need strong, honest men like you as we begin to make it a fit place for Pony and beast alike." She paused, then looking a little embarrassed, she said, "I have missed you, Father."

I could see the vision burning in my eyes like a brand. Saw him put in the position of fighting his daughter. For all that I hate him, my heart suddenly went out to him. DAMN YOU, HEART. How could a man have to fight his own child?

We'd told him about Clarity but only now did it really sink in, as Spikey stood by her, one hand on her back, and Spike carefully didn't look at them.

He licked his lips and then he said, "You should join us. You know your mother misses you. You can come back to Equestria and see her. And Sweetie misses her sister so very much." His voice was rough and wobbled. He's not a practiced liar. He's a very honest man.

An honest asshole, but an honest man.

It would be easier to hate him without remorse if he would stop having some good qualities, DAMMIT.

Rarity made a noise, and I touched her mind with a spell. 'We should play along. He's taking the right approach.'

'I know. It's just my nerves, darling.' She pressed to me and we stood close, keeping our mouths shut.

Slowly, though, the boat was moving away. Leaving them behind? Why?

Clyde started, then turned to Pinkamena, staring at her. She glared back at him.

"Go ahead, condemn me. You always do. You always did. You had to have it your way or the highway, so I chose the highway and you hate me for it. But I don't need you. I'm old enough to make my own choices." She sounded very angry. "Hello, Blinky. I see you're going to inherit the farm now that you've let Father grind and polish you down to the shape and size he wants, everything extraneous rubbed away by water and words."

"So, Dawn Gleaming. You think you can rush that here? Sind is still ruled by nobles who lord it over peasants, though the merchants and craftsmen are waxing in strength. Does your study really show that Sind is ready for this sort of revolution to actually work? To actually last? Or is it more likely to lead to the warriors resuming control and cracking down on those you sought to free?" I said.

"I..." She hesitated. "But I can't just do nothing! It's better to take a chance on failure than to do nothing and guarantee it!"

Aaargh, I'm not so good at this kind of big social question. "I think the Sindhi have to make this revolution for themselves for it to work," I told her. But that's easy for me to say; I don't have to live with the system as it is.

Dammit, this country probably should be overthrown but Marjorie is an evil bastard and can't be trusted with it and if we don't stop them, she'll attack Equestria and even if Equestria wins, a lot of people will die.

And most people don't get to reincarnate like me.

Dammit.

While we launched into a four way debate between myself, Twilight, Dawn Gleaming, and Sammy (who I will note, does not look as good as a pony as I do), Clarity wobbled for a moment. "Father, I can't go back until these evil twins are dealt with. Please, join us." Her voice was urgent.

"Clarity and I need your help," Spikey said urgently. "Don't let these fakes fool you. Don't you want to get rid of that punk, Five Jacks High?"

Captain Keen Eyes glanced at me and grimaced.

Bloody hell. Damn you, Spikey.

"I lur... I lar..." Clyde coughed and spat out his hay. "I love you and I'm sorry," he said, sounding pained to say it. "I never told you that enough. I was so worried you all would have my bad habits from my youth that I crushed you all trying to restrain you and didn't do a good job of showing you the light I'd found. But I just buried you with it, instead."

"We love you, please come home," Pinkie said, holding out a hoof to Pinkamena.

Pinkamena's eyes widened, clearly not expecting this. The flaw of having totally false memories.

"I... Father..." she squeaked.

"He's probably just trying to trick you like that bastard tricked me," Sir Lintsalot said urgently.

"You know how he always treated you, as just a slave to work all day," Madame LeFlour said. "Never a moment of fun."

"And he'd get mad and yell at you if you did anything wild at all," Rocky said. "Anything not covered in the book of Kagyar."

"And the food was terribly bland. Even the food didn't get to be exciting!" Mr. Turnip said.

"I know, we overdid it," Clyde said. "But I'm sorry." He kept his hoof extended and Pinkamena stared at it uncertainly.

Apple Blossom and Applejack stared at each other, and Apple Blossom grinned. "So you have to be me to beat me, dearie? Shows which one of us is the original."

"Even being elegant means you're copying my grace and dignity," Applejack said calmly. "There's only one way to settle this, you know."

"I know," Apple Blossom said. "Tea Party of death. Anton!"

One of the doppleganger-elf-trolls began setting up a table, putting out tea and tea gear and laying out snacks.

"..." I stared for a moment.

"Given a free choice, I would fling him into the sun. But I lost that choice when I swore allegiance to Celestia," Captain Keen Eyes said firmly. "She has ordered me to protect him and I will die for his worthless hide if I must, though I would rather not." He licked his lips. "I will fight you if I must, but I would rather not. Come Clarity, join us, and we will let bygones be bygones, daughter." His voice was soft but firm.

"First event," Anton said. "Tea pouring."

Applejack and Apple Blossom spun delicately, each took a pot with their tail and carefully poured out tea. I could see Rarity concentrating, probably giving advice by magic to Applejack. Apple Blossom's tea sloshed slightly but she gently tapped the cup and it stabilized.

Pinkamena and Clarity both wobbled, clearly torn.

Applejack and Apple Blossom now each carefully took the glass with two hooves. Slowly, every so slowly, they lifted it to their lips and took a sip, just a small one. Applejack's tongue started to come out to lick her lips dry but she made herself stop. Apple Blossom smiled. "That would have been quite gauche. But flawed instincts will tell."

"I'll sho... I will show you whose instincts are best," Applejack said. She and Apple Blossom each took a small cake, balanced it on one hoof and took a bite. While Apple Blossom had better fine control on keeping her cake stable, the rest of her body wobbled a bit. Applejack balanced flawlessly on three legs but wobbled a touch with the cake.

"So, you going to try to tempt me to switch sides?" Rainbow Crash said to Rainbow Dash.

"Naah, I know me. You'll only learn to stop being a punk when I KICK YOUR ASS," Rainbow Dash said. "I'm just waiting for the full brawl to start."

"HAH! We'll see!" Rainbow Crash said.

"We can't fight until I win this argument!" Dawn Gleaming said.

"Given you just tried to cite an imaginary book, that could be a long time," Twilight said weakly.

"The Hiearcopolis scroll is AUTHENTIC," Dawn Gleaming insisted. "It records the first labor strike for which we have a record, after Blackmoor!"

"It was made up in Corunglain in 783 AC in order to justify a labor strike by morticians," Twilight said.

"Well, that's the argument in Decius Mobalus' history of Corunglain," I said.

"Mobalus was the little bitch of Corun House, who told him what to write. It was a strike against their rivals, Toney House, who they wanted to make look bad," Sammy insisted.

"You should not refer to a historian as a 'little bitch," Twilight said weakly.

And then Fire Swallow and Cruisin' came up over the edge of the roof. FUCK. "They're almost here. Time to GO," Fire Swallow said.

"But I haven't won yet!" Dawn Gleaming said. "We haven't even pinned down what the acceptable standards for sources are!"

"Father, come with us, please," Clarity said, starting to cry.

As you'd expect, now Captain Keen Eyes looked intensely uncomfortable. "I know you're just crying to try and get me to give in to what you want."

"I didn't do that all the time," Rarity mumbled.

"Is it working?" Clarity said hopefully.

"If they see both groups, they will know the TRUTH," Fire Swallow said urgently.

"This is NOT a concession, it's just a rescheduling! We'll finish this later!" Dawn Gleaming said, frustrating. "I am NOT running away because I would lose this argument! Not at all!"

"It's because Twilight is smarter than you," I said, grinning a little.

"NO!"

Applejack and Apple Blossom were now taking another cup of tea; they both set it down, grinning at each other. "I fear, dear friend, that our fine tea party is about to be cut short," Applejack said.

"I must regretfully depart," Apple Blossom said. "But I am sure we will meet again in the Broken Lands or elsewhere. Farewell, old chum."

"Isn't that what sharks eat?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"Yeah, makes a great put down!" Crash said enthusiastically.

Not actually the point.

"Come on, Pinkamena, it's not too late," Pinkie said urgently. "Father and Blinky and I all want you to come with us."

"If you really wanted me, Mother would be here too. She never liked how I looked and always thought Father cheated on her somehow to make me," Pinkamena said.

"Honey, that's impossible, given she gave birth to you," Clyde said.

Pinkamena, for a moment, paused with mouth open wide. "I... How did I... yes, it makes no sense, but..." She suddenly looked utterly panicked.

"You tricked her!" Sir Lintsalot said angrily. "Liars!"

And then there was a flash and Dawn Gleaming teleported them. Unfortunately, our Twilight was too exhausted to stop them.

The ship rose into the clouds even as our pegasi launched towards it.

"So close, DAMMIT," Captain Keen Eyes said angrily.

"Pinkamena," Clyde said sadly. "Blinky, how long do we have?"

"About two seconds," Blinky said, and then the first wave of guards broke onto the roof.

"Surrender!" they shouted.

"No... no... Celestia is going to banish me to the Moon..." Twilight wailed, utterly depressed.

Rarity licked her lips. "Pegasi, return!" she shouted. "Break for the hole and jump down!"

She took command as we all retreated, jumping down through the hole; Ivan was carried down by Fluttershy. Then we ran through the palace but ever more guards wer closing in on us. Blinky whispered to Clyde, who nodded.

"We need to get to the basement," Clyde said.

"Why?" I asked.

"We can get us out of here if we can get down to good solid rock," he said.

"This way!" Rarity shouted and we followed her lead as Twilight continued to wail in despair.

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

She didn't actually know which way we were going, it turned out. We finally were brought to bay in a large dining room, which we barred the door and tried to think of a plan. Busting the floor revealed... troops under us. Someone thought of that. Dammit, the noose was tightening.

"I guess we fight," I said.

And then a door we hadn't seen before opened. What came in was a stallion in dark blue robes with the moon on them in white. He looked like a male version of Luna and he had a necklace around his neck of Luna's cutie mark. Given he ALSO had the same cutie mark, this looked odd. "I am the Prophet of Luna," he announced. "Come to bring freedom to this land. Follow me, servants of the holy Luna. I will lead you to freedom."

"It won't matter if they capture us, Celestia will send the whole prison to the moon," Twilight wailed.

This is not a good time for her to have a breakdown.

"We need to get to the basement," Rarity said.

I hope she's right to trust Clyde. Though with that cutie mark, I expect he can dig pretty fast.

"You know, Luna..." Ivan began.

"We know Luna has blessed you, human," he said. "And I know of your kindness to our kind. Remember us when you walk among the stars."

Ivan started, then looked guilty.

We followed him; I hoped it was not a mistake. The passage was narrow and forked many times. "What is this?" I asked.

"For servants to travel without being seen. Especially lowly ponies, who might 'taint' high caste folk by their presence," he said bitterly. "This land groans with long sorrows."

We reached an intersection and another identical pony waited there. "I am the Prophet of Luna," the second one said. "I will guide you."

"I will fade our passage," the first one said. "Then return home. Luna's blessing on you."

They even smelled the same.

"Are you all priests, I take it?" I said.

"We are many fingers of one hand," he said. "United by our common purpose. We will shield you, for Luna's sake."

"We have to go to the basement," Rarity said.

Luna's second prophet hesistated. "But if they figure it out, you will be trapped."

"I have a few tricks of my own," Clyde said.

"Then let us go swiftly."

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

Something about this pony... We followed him down to the basement, which was full of stores. And a few servant ponies, who bowed to the Prophet. "They will go and tell everyone they saw you heading for the Radhirajah's boat," the Prophet said. "I must go before I am missed."

"The Radhirajah really has been skimping on counter-intelligence work," Captain Keen Eyes said, shaking his head.

"No one pays attention to lowly ponies or considers them worth spying on," the Prophet said. "And we take a great risk for you that some of our brethren will be exposed."

"Thank you," Clyde said. "You're good people. Go before they find you with us."

The prophet left and he and Blinky kicked one of the walls in a complex pattern.

A few seconds of nothing ensued.

And then two huge weird ghostly creatures came through the wall. One was blue and one was orange. They were shaped roughly like a hemisphere connected to a tube with a cartoony face painted on one side. Then they somehow pulled off... They turned into two ponies, each holding a full head mask like the shape they'd had a moment ago; one was an older mare with her hair in a bun and fake elf ears and wearing an elven outfit adapted for ponies in orange and blue; the other was a younger mare, also in an elven style outfit in blue and gold. She was wearing fake elf ears and a hat like mine. Her mane had been very obviously dyed green.

"Mother?" Pinkie squeaked.

She had a wry smile. "Hello, dear. Inky and I have come to save you."

"I am Arwen Moonshadow now!" Inky insisted.

"Of course you are, dear," Mrs. Pie said. She and Clyde nuzzled each other. "We'd best start funneling people. Masks on, everyone."

Blinky and Clyde turned out to have hidden masks which also let them do... whatever exactly those things did. Let them phase, I think. They took us through the wall into a tunnel, taking each of us one at a time.

"I fear we will soon have to go into the nasty sewer," Bonnie Pie (I think that's her name) said.

"It's the GHOSTLY GANG," Twilight suddenly said. "I thought they all got eaten by a dragon twenty five years ago!"

"It's what we wanted everyone to think," Clyde Pie said.

"And the Older Gang's running around here too," Spike said. "Wow. It's old crime week here in Sind."

My brain put the pieces together. Those two robbed the Thyatians and left the necklace to throw off suspicion. VERY clever.

Not clever enough to fool me, though.

HAH!

"Anyway, ho..." Bonnie paused.

She stared at her husband.

Her eyes widened.

So did Inky's.

"What?" Bonnie said, mouth open wide.

"Umm... Twilight... ahahaha." He laughed nervously, one hoof behind his head.

"Man, that looks just like you," Ivan whispered to me, then laughed.

Ahahaha.

"Honey..." Bonnie said warningly.

"It's my fault," Twilight mumbled. "I'm sorry. I can't do anything right."

"No, it's okay," Clyde said to her, then turned back to his wife. "I still love you as much as ever. I'm not going to fly away and leave you behind like Five Stars did." He nuzzled her gently. "We'll fly into the future together."

He glanced at Dash, who gave him the hoofs up.

"Honey, you ALWAYS get us in over our head," Bonnie said, shaking her head.

"I rely on you to get us out. And you'd be bored if I didn't," he said to her.

Bonnie laughed ruefully. "We couldn't even manage to stay boring."

"WHAT IS GOING ON?" Pinkie said, flailing.

"We'll explain everything later," Clyde said. "We have to go."

We ran through the tunnels. "We have to get back to the embassy," Rarity said.

"Conveniently, there's now a 'secret tunnel' into it," Clyde said, laughing.

Ahahaha.

Fluttershy now spread some seeds as she flew and sang, tangling up the path behind us with vines and brambles as we ran. "This will stop any pursuit."

Baron Golden Star is going to kill us.

So dead.

Maybe Celestia WILL banish us to the moon.

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

"We get you out of the country," Baron Golden Star said. "If we hurry, we can get you on the train which is about to leave."

"Too obvious," Clyde said. "And puts the other passengers in danger," he continued.

Baron Golden Star grimaced. "It wouldn't have come to this if you hadn't annoyed the Radhirajah enough to make him make you wait."

Captain Keen Eyes grimaced and we all mumbled apologetically. DAMMIT.

A letter now appeared, landing on Twilight.

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

My dear little ponies and humans,

Spike has sent me a letter informing me of your plight. Baron Golden Star, I need you to tell them the truth. They won't believe it but with the Radhirajah gone, the government will be paralyzed at least for a little while. I need you to buy as much time as you can. I put my trust in you, Baron Golden Star. Do your very best and I will be satisfied. Every moment you can buy us is a moment more for the Elements to recover the Radhirajah and prevent open war.

Twilight, I know you feel guilty. We can discuss this later, but I need you to pull yourself together and study hard and plan how to rescue the Radhirajah. I need you, Twilight. And I trust in you. Everyone makes mistakes. But it's not too late to fix this one.

Everyone, you should escape through the south gate and head south into the desert down the road. I will arrange for you to be picked up there.

Luna will have further instructions for you soon. Be swift and fierce and wise, my friends. Do not look to the past or chew the cud of your regrets. What is done is done. Look to the future and we will make it shine together.

I still put my trust in you all.

Your Princess, Friend, and Mentor,

Princess Celestia of Equestria.

PS: Buy Spike some ice cream when you get the chance. He deserves it.

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

"Celestia, I'm sorry," Twilight said, shivering, then tried to pull herself together. "Baron, do you have any ice cream for Spike?"

"We don't have..." He looked at the letter again. "I'll send a servant."

Twilight closed her eyes and shook for a few seconds, then got up. Her eyes opened and she looked weak but determined. "Okay. Grab anything you left here at the embassy. We ship out in ten minutes. Spike, eat quickly."

"I'm good at that!" Spike said excitedly and ran for the kitchens.

Ahh, feels like old days.

THE TIMES I RAN FOR MY LIFE WITH EVERYTHING ON FIRE.

Except now I have someone to run for my life with.

I took a moment to nuzzle Rarity as we grabbed things in our room and she now kissed me. "Nice job taking charge and leading us," I told her.

"Well, I knew Twilight would snap out of it after a while but someone had to take charge," she said.

"You did well, daughter. I'm proud of you," Captain Keen Eyes said to Rarity.

"Shouldn't you be packing?" I told him.

"I kept everything in my saddlebags in case something like this happened," he said.

Ahaha.

"Thank you, Father. I just wish Clarity had listened to you."

"If I had a little more time..." He sighed. "No regrets. Celestia is right. We have to move forwards. See you all in five." He galloped off, shouting orders to his men.

She licked her lips nervously. "I guess..." She stopped.

"Guess?" I asked.

"I've kind of enjoyed having you as a pony all this time but no reason to stay this way now," she said. "I'll owe you a good long run." She sighed. "It would have been nicer without Father hanging over us the whole time, though."

"We'll have plenty of time in the future," I told her.

If we're alive.

"Anyway, I'm staying this way until I'm sure I won't need to run," I told her.

Then I can have my freakout in safety.

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

Stage one of the plan was simple. We quickly bought wagons and hitched our earth ponies to them, then put everyone else in the wagons and then the earth ponies put hoof to cobblestone, hauling us through the city at high speed as alarms sounded and watchmen began heading our way. We soon had a mob of soldiers chasing us as we headed for the south gate.

Fluttershy, still in human form, now rose up, even as the soldiers frantically closed the gate. She chanted and lightning stabbed down from the clouds above the city as rain poured down. Strike after strike battered the gates and then the pegasi formed into a v formation and charged it, smashing it apart as the unicorns worked to divert incoming arrow fire. We rushed out the gates and away down the road at high speed.

Ivan was laughing. "Remember Oceansend?"

"I wish I could forget," I told him, but I was laughing too, mane flapping in the wind. There's something about running from the law which is just exhilarating.

A catapult was about to fire at us and Rarity fired an arrow; it exploded, blowing up the catapult and I high-hooved her and we both laughed. More arrows disabled the rest of the gate artillery as Keen Eyes men proved their worth.

A squad of cavalry tried to block us and Keen Eyes reared up. Arrows FLOODED out of his packs and fell like rain from the sky, scattering the cavalry, then came back to him and stashed themselves.

Holy shit.

He grinned at me and I resolved never to piss him off.

Umm...

Never to... ummm...

AHAHAHAHA.

"I normally don't do that because if they actually hit anything, I'm out of arrows," he said. "But it has its uses."

Like making ME a pincushion. Ahaha.

Faster, Earth Ponies, FASTER!

He wobbled a bit; I suspect it takes a lot out of him too.

Hippogriffs with riders came after us now, but the pegasi took to the air, battling them. Pretty soon, the formation was scattered and they rejoined us.

And we roared off down the road in our wagons.

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

Our foes gave chase, but regular horses can't keep up with Earth Ponies. Suckers.

We soon were deep into the desert and night was upon us; the storm was dumping down rain and heat rose up from the rocky terrain, creating a kind of steam bath. It made me feel annoyingly filthy.

And then something loomed down out of the clouds. A flying tree. A huge tree and around it was a veritable fortress of interlinked buildings connected by ramps and elevators. It was a liftwood tree, in fact, stuck in a giant pot. And from the top two flags flew. One of them was the skull and crossbones of pirates. And the other was flag of... Ierendi? What on earth was this and why were Ierendi pirates flying around in it?

A letter dropped onto Twilight.

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

Har, Maties!,

This do be the Dread Pirate Lunette. Are ye ready to be brought aboard this fine vessel?

Your friend,

The Dread Pirate Lunette.

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

"The... OH," Twilight said. "I wonder who built this."

"Oh, I think I know," Applejack said proudly.

"Umm, how do we get up there?" Fluttershy said hesitantly.

I blinked and touched her wings.

"OH."

Having an entire lance of pegasi meant we all got swiftly ferried up to the vessel, and soon joined the Dread Pirate Lunette and her crew.

The Dread Pirate Lunette was Luna in her Belcadizian elf form. It also included the Cutie Mark Crusaders (in pirate outfits), Lyra, Bon-Bon, and Ditzy. And a bunch of Equestrian soldiers now in pirate outfits.

Scootaloo was, in fact, driving the craft / tree, which had huge sails to catch the wind. And with pegasi onboard, they had whatever winds they needed. Scootaloo wore a black hat and a black jacket and black pants and had a parrot on her shoulder.

"And look!" Apple Bloom said proudly, pointing to her flank. A hammer stood next to a treehouse in an apple tree; the shield of the Cutie Mark Crusaders hung on the treehouse. "Now we just have to get Scootaloo hers! I bet when we have our first aerial battle, she'll get it!" She wore a black buccaneer's hat and a blue miliary jacket with gold trim.

"I'd better!" Scootaloo said.

"Nice job," Applejack said to Apple Bloom. "Granny and Big Mac will be proud of you. Then they'll kill me for letting you into this situation."

Lunette hugged Ivan then came round and hugged everyone. "Twilight, we will need to develop a plan before we reach Marjorie's base. We have to rescue the Radhirajah as fast as we can."

"If we hurry, we may be able to intercept them before they get to her base," Twilight said.

"Aye, Aye, Captain Twilight," Scootaloo said, saluting.

Sweetie now ran up to her father and embraced him. She wore a striped white and blue shirt and had a bandana around her hair. She also had an eyepatch on and a fake wooden leg. "Har!" she said and her father laughed and nuzzled her.

She then ran over to Rarity and I and we snuggled up to her. "What a fearsome pirate you are," I said, grinning.

"Nothing can stop me now!" Apple Bloom said excitedly, tail waggling.

A dangerous sentiment.

We now got stowed away in our quarters. Apple Bloom gleefully pointed out all the traps in the place, intended to deter boarders. Snares, counterweights to fling you off the tree, pit traps (especially bad given how high this thing flies), crashing walls, falling ceilings, the works.

If this stuff goes off in the middle of the night, I will be PISSED.

"Did you really have to make this place so deadly?" Rarity said just a little nervously.

"Well, originally I was planning for a smaller crew. But Uncle K had some suggestions and then things kind of got out of hand," Apple Bloom said.

Ahhaha. Yes.

I heard Fluttershy shriek distantly. Back to normal. Which means... eeee.

And then I realized... I can't actually turn back because Celestia did this. Maybe Twilight could dispel it. But... dammit.

I need HANDS.

Oh, LUNA.

I rounded up Luna once our stuff was stowed. Well, 'Lunette'. We went back to my room and I got Rarity to grapple me, just in case I freak out. "Change me as well," Rarity said to Lunette. "Marcus was kind enough to give me a week; I will give him one now."

She nodded and changed us, while Sweetie watched curiously.

I felt utterly disoriented. I couldn't smell anyone any more. I felt weirdly isolated and I couldn't hear as well and my field of vision had changed and everything looked subtly different somehow.

I panicked and would have run but Rarity held me until my nerves unjangled and Lunette held my hand and Sweetie took my other one with her hooves.

"I love you," Rarity said softly.

I mumbled incoherently, fighting panic. Stupid fear.

"Don't be afraid," Sweetie said. "You're safe here, since Scootaloo isn't allowed to touch the trap controls any more."

Ahahaha.

I AM INSIDE A GIANT FLYING DEATH TRAP DESIGNED BY A CHILD!!!!!!

Rarity's grip tightened and I felt her body pressed against mine and now I thought about how I had thought and... and she... eeeeeeeee.

Scootaloo is piloting this. Ahahaha.

BREATHE.

Rarity licked my neck and my eyes widened and I jumped, then said, "That feels very good," tightly. I had been so... It had excited and scared me at once.

Is it going to be like this every time?

"You will get used to it, but it takes time," Lunette said.

Once again, I cannot keep my own thoughts in my own damn head.

"It's not so bad for me," Rarity said, frowning.

"You haven't just spent a week as a human and then changed back to normal. And you're not as jumpy as Marcus," Lunette said.

She let go of my hand. "Anyway, I'm sure you two will want some privacy," Lunette said. "Come on, Sweetie, let's go make sure everyone is okay."

"But..."

"You can catch up with them a little later," Lunette said, hustling her out.

Thanks, Luna.

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

"This must be hard on you," I said to her as we sat next to each other on the bed in our cabin, holding hands.

"I miss smelling everyone," she said softly. "How can humans stand to feel so isolated?"

"You get used to it. But now I'm kind of keenly aware of it," I said, raising her hand and kissing the back of it. "Was I tasty?"

She laughed. "Yes," she said softly. "Not in an eatable way but I enjoyed it and I could tell you did."

"You made a good leader," I told her.

"Thank you, darling. I should go see Twilight later, see how she's doing." She sounded worried.

"I think Sweetie wants some of my time later, so you can see how she's doing then," I told her. "While I herd Sweetie."

"I wish we'd gotten to have a proper audience," Rarity said. She sighed. "A chance to show off my wares and my skills, lost."

"I know," I told her. I turned her and kissed her softly, embracing her.

At least this corner of my life is going well, even if the mission fell off a cliff.

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