• 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 6: Ponies Against Deviltry

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

Book 6: Ponies Against Deviltry

By John Biles

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

PINKIE-VISION, SO PINK:

Oh my Celestia, I can't believe it. I ran around my family in a circle, unable to stop shouting "Oh my Celestia" over and over, until Blinky tripped me and I somehow ended up face down in a pie.

So I ate it, of course.

"Dear, you're getting all worked up beyond what it's worth. The way you'd get obsessed with lining up the rocks JUST right and then you'd collapse from exhaustion before you finished," Mom said. She helped me up. "Also, your table manners are still terrible."

"None of you have the proper refinement that I do as an elf," Inky said a little haughtily.

So I hugged her and rubbed bits of pie on her face to get clean. "Now we're even!" I said.

She stared, mouth wide open.

"What is going ON?" I said. "Since when did you all go have ADVENTURES?" And why wasn't I invited?

"We're retired, dear," Mom said, settling down on her haunches. "Everyone, sit."

We sat in a circle, just like the old days, except this time Mom wasn't preaching. And Inky didn't used to have elf ears and green and black clothing. And Blinky... is somehow much older than she used to be.

I don't know how that happened.

AND DAD IS A PEGASUS!

I wouldn't mind being able to fly but I might not be so good at parties and that would be TERRIBLE, though I could totally throw a FLYING party and oooh... we could go really high, when Dash gets married and then we'd all parachute down and have the wedding as we all drift gently to the ground!

I began frantically scribbling notes, pen in mouth.

"... And that's how I created Equestria with my strong right hoof," Mom finished.

"Very interesting," I said as I scribbled frantically. I wish I was a better artist, but I had to label Twilight as Twilight or else you might think she was Marcus in pony form. Or Rarity, as the curly hair didn't come out right at all. Wait, her hair is WAVY, not curly.

I crumpled it up.

"Pinkamena Diane Pie, PAY ATTENTION," Mother snapped.

I came to attention and dropped the pen. "I didn't do it!"

Blinky and Inky laughed and I laughed too.

"Let's try this again," Mom said.

"I'll start," Dad said. "I left home in search of adventure and because I didn't want to bake for a living. Your mother was singing in a saloon on the frontier when I met her, while I was looking for work."

I tried to imagine mother singing in a saloon. It was COMPLETELY impossible and the mere effort caused smoke to come out of my ears and my left foreknee to shake.

"I can sing you know. You got it from me," Mom said flatly.

Inky now launched into some song in Elvish for no apparent reason. Focus, Inky, it's story time! Don't get distracted.

I felt this odd sensation as if Gummy had latched onto my right flank, but a quick check showed that he was, in fact, not there at all.

"I know," I said. "But you only sing hymns."

She got up and shut the door; we were in her and father's room on the ship. Then she got into this odd stance, leaning on the bed with her hind legs on the floor and began to belt out Twist Your Tail For Me, My Darling, which is a somewhat raunchy song. Blinky turned red and Inky stared, eyes wide. Father got this... grin. I have never seen such a grin on his face, but he was smiling very appreciatively at Mom and I had this weird twitch in my left hindleg that I have never had before, yet it makes me nervous.

Few things make me nervous.

"We get the point," Blinky squeaked out.

"Anyway, one thing led to another, and we ended up heavily in debt and had to rob a train in order to pay it off. After that, we were on the run," Dad said. "It's a long story and mostly involves a lot of stupidity and buying jewelry I couldn't afford. So the Apples, some other friends of ours, and us ended up becoming the Ghostly Gang."

My nose twitched. "The Apples?"

"They were from Whinneychester," Dad said. "Your friend Applejack might be related to them, in fact."

"Where did the masks come from?" I asked.

"We rescued a Glantrian wizard from some bulettes," Dad said. "He made us the masks in gratitude."

"So we all had adventures for a while," Mom said. "Until eventually, we went to the wrong dungeon and unleashed this hideous yellow beholder. It chased us through the dungeon, trying to eat us all while we ran for our lives. We escaped but we had to go into hiding. Eventually, we helped some of Celestia's troops defeat it but it caused so much damage that we ended up retiring and getting religion and becoming rock farmers. We felt pretty guilty. Then we finally got married and had you all," she finished, sighing. "We did some good, we did some bad, but in the end, we felt the need to repent and atone and be honest citizens."

"But I bet you enjoyed having an adventure!" I said to her.

She smiled a little. "Yes. And it looks like it's not over yet."

"So what exactly is going on?" Inky asked me.

"Okay, everyone settle in," I told them. "It's going to take a while, but I LOVE telling stories."

I love pie more, but that's in the blood. So I got started explaining everything to them.

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

MARCUS-O-VISION RETURNS:

I was eventually summoned by Scootaloo. "Aye, aye, Navigator Scootaloo," I said to her. "How may I assist the Dread Pirate Scootaloo?" Rule one, always curry favor, even with kids. They will grow up one day.

"You have to stand here and cause trouble to happen so I can get my cutie mark," she said, studying the open skies. We were flying above the clouds to hide our passage. And making our own clouds, thanks to Equestrian soldier ponies.

Oh yeah, the only way to fly.

I laughed nervously. "Disaster doesn't just follow me everywhere," I said, lying.

Damn you, universe.

"Hmm, nothing bad is happening yet. Maybe if Rarity kisses you, you'll get happy and the universe will wreck it," Scootaloo mused.

"Wraah, I'm so unhappy, miserable and alone!" I fake-wailed. I couldn't help it; a man must fire back or no longer call himself a man.

"No, I need you happy so everything will go to hell, dammit!" Scootaloo said, turning around.

"Fillies shouldn't curse AND you need to keep your eyes on the wheel!" I said.

She sighed and turned back around. "Stop being selfish and get happy so I can get my cutie mark, dammit!"

Several of the crew were laughing; this did not help her mood.

So I called for Sweetie and we sat in the corner of the bridge with me trying to teach her some magic. I'm pretty sure the universe will not respond to this with a disaster which gives Scootaloo her Cutie Mark, but the lesson is good for her.

I have a very minor fire making spell, not my combat one, this one is just for lighting candles and the like. So I got some candles and Sweetie began studying the spell with her horn as I lit a candle with it. It took her a half dozen tries to get it right, but she smiled so brightly that I ruffled her hair and we both smiled brightly at each other.

I felt very happy.

That's when the alarms went off.

Damn you, universe.

It was a pair of green and purple dragons, with scales like shimmering gemstones, a good seventy feet or so long (with sixty foot tails); they moved swiftly with powerful wings and their eyes glowed softly. "Don't fire," I said. "It's a pair of Amethyst dragons! Someone get Spike!"

We must be over North Marech; there's a clan of dragons here from which Spike comes. They're likely relatives.

"Wait, they're friendly?" Scootaloo said, hoof above a button that said 'Fire the Giant Death Ray'. DEATH RAY?

"They're like Spike," I said. "Get your hoof away from that!"

"It doesn't actually work," Sweetie said, sounding disappointed.

That's probably for the best. "Why?"

"We need the skull of a demi-lich, according to the manual," she said. "I'm not even sure what a demi-lich is."

Let's hope you NEVER find out. Brrrr.

"Is it just a floating front half of a lich?" she asked. "I know a demi-quaver is half a quaver."

"Holy shit, did you just deduce something by logic?" Scootaloo said, shocked.

"You shouldn't curse," she said primly. "And I am PERFECTLY able to do logic. You're the illogical one!"

"I am NOT," Scootaloo said hotly, turning to face her.

"No arguing while you are DRIVING," I said. "How do we hail them?"

One of the officers now handed me... a cup with a string attached, running into the wall.

"..."

"You just speak into it," he said confidently.

"Hail, dragons well met, of the clan of Shining Amethyst, wardens of the North Marech," I said. "We are the..." I paused. "What's our ship name?" I asked Sweetie.

"Scootaloo's House of Awesome," Scootaloo said.

"PSS Flying Tree House," Sweetie said.

"Moonraker, sir," one of the soldiers said.

"Ooh, I like that," I said. "This is the ESS Moonraker," I announced to the Dragon. "I am Samus Marcus, Agent of the Crown of Equestria. Do you wish to board?"

"I am Blue Wing and this is my mate, Shining Star," one of the Amethysts said. I couldn't tell, even by his voice, that he was male and not female except he said so.

"Boarding Deck two, OPEN," Scootaloo said, hitting a button on the wheel; I heard groaning noises.

Time to organize a meeting party.

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

Rarity had gone to see Twilight but now they and Fluttershy and Spike and the Dread Pirate Lunette joined us all on the Flight Deck, which I noticed had a bunch of hang-gliders in it. The two dragons landed and turned into forms... kind of like lizardmen. Humanoid, but scaled, like Spike. They immediately gave Spike a hug. "This is my aunt and uncle!" he said proudly. "I haven't seen them in a while!"

"It's good to see you," Shining Star said. "We were patrolling and saw this ship and had to find out what it was and if it was a threat."

"It's good to see you again," Twilight said, bowing to them. I guess they've met.

"And you as well," Shining Star said. "I hope Spike hasn't caused you too much trouble."

"He's a huge help to me," Twilight said. "I am fortunate to have him." She nuzzled him affectionately while he looked embarrassed.

"Aww geez, Twilight," he said.

Lunette now explained everything to them, then introduced everyone.

They got a tour of the ship, then went to talk to Spike in private. I felt good for him that he got a chance to see some of his kin even if he was likely going to be trying to convince them to eat me.

Ahahaha.

I went off to go get some sleep as I was utterly exhausted. Rarity was off with Twilight again, so I just fell down and crashed out after changing into my nightrobe.

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

I woke up groggily to the sound of Rarity making panic noises in the hallway; she'd gotten caught in a net trap, which I got her out of. "Good talk?" I asked groggily.

"I'm going to have to chew out Apple Bloom later," she said, yawning, then changed into a nightrobe. "We had a good talk," she said. "We did some planning, which soothed her."

"Good," I said. "Let's sleep."

We cuddled up together, both in human form and I dreamed of us looting Talitha's treasure palace together; she's an immortal dedicated to greed and hoarding and taking other people's stuff. Trust me, she'd have it coming or at the very least, it would be worth the risk.

Now I wish I had a pile of treasure we could roll around on together.

Of course, then I dreamed of her hunting us to the ends of Mystara and that was less cool.

But to be expected.

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

Through Spike's Eyes:

I was very excited to see my aunt and uncle, though this wasn't our first meeting. They had woken from the dragon slumber shortly after Eric had run for the hills (like the cowardly, backstabbing bastard that he is), and come to Canterlot, where I got to meet them. They live in the North Marech, north of the Buffalo. It's the most thinly settled part of Equestria and home to a fair number of gemstone dragons allied to Equestria.

"And this was all designed by a filly?" Uncle Blue Wing said, quite stunned. He was my father's brother. Grandfather is still in the dragon slumber; grandmother was banished to another plane three centuries ago and never seen again. (My aunt Shining Star's parents are on the distant continent of Skothar. Neither she nor I is sure if they're alive or dead.) My other aunts and uncles are scattered across the continent. Dragon families are often not big on keeping in touch, really. I think it's because they have to eat so much that they need to spread out. Once a child gets very old, they have to leave home or they and their parent will starve to death.

"She's marked for a high destiny, Twilight thinks," I told them. "I'm boggled myself."

We were up on an observation deck, near the top of the tree; most everyone was asleep now and I would have been asleep but I was too excited. I like my friends and living in Ponyville is nice, but it's just cool to be around some other dragons for once. People who will get me.

"How are your studies with your mother coming?" Aunt Shining Star asked, affectionately ruffling my spines.

"Pretty well," I told her. "Right now, we're too busy saving Equestria again to study much, though." I like action, though. I'm the man of action to Twilight's thoughtfulness. Makes us a good team. "She's not my mother, though."

"She's effectively your mother," Uncle Blue Wing said firmly. "One day, you will leave the nest, but for now, you must obey her and help her and she will protect you and help you to grow stronger and wiser." He studied me thoughtfully and I tried to read his expression. Calm? Curious? With ponies, you have to be blind and have no nose not to know how they feel, but my Aunt and Uncle smell the same regardless of mood.

"You share a great destiny," Aunt Shining Star said. She said that last time but wouldn't talk about it and I wish I knew why. Was her voice sad? I can't tell. That really frustrates me. I know my voice is easy to read, at least for alert people. But while they're both kind and affectionate to me, I struggle to tell what they feel behind their words.

But this time, I'm going to ask them the question I wanted to ask last time but was afraid to. "Why do I have a different breath weapon than other Amethyst dragons?" I said, breathing a little fire to show off.

They looked at each other, which made me nervous. "Did you read the book I pointed out to you last time?" Uncle Blue Wing said, turning and studying me.

"Mostly. A year ago," I told him. "It was very confusing and philosophical." Which is to say, boring beyond belief. Tedious. Long-winded. It used twenty words when three would be enough.

He blinked. "It was?"

"I would think a young dragon would find Marlo Toney's Guide to Young Dragon Development to be interesting," Aunt Shining Star said, clearly confused. Oddly, her confusion was comforting because I could tell how she felt.

I READ THE WRONG BOOK.

Which I can't admit.

Uncle Blue Wing sighed. "Spike, you should have read it."

"I forgot and tried to read another book," I told them, embarrassed.

"It can help you to understand these matters. Also, Twilight has read it and can discuss it with you," Aunt Shining Star said a little sternly.

"She was very well educated in your needs," Uncle Blue Wing said. "When we last met."

"But why do I breathe fire?" I asked.

"There are several possibilities," Uncle Blue Wing said, looking out across the clouds. "But I cannot, you must understand, speak definitively on these matters."

I nodded.

"The most likely one is that you have developed a unique magical talent due to the influence of Twilight's magic on hatching you," he said sonorously. "The second possibility is that your parents were conducting some sort of experiment before they died, which transformed you in the egg. The third is that it is literally a shadow of your destiny, though this remains disputed as to whether it is possible."

"That is mere speculation and it is unclear how such a thing is compatible with Quein's Exclusion Theorem Number Two," Aunt Shining Star said lecturingly.

Don't ask me what that is.

I got nothing.

They had an argument for ten minutes of which I understood almost nothing.

I don't know if all my kind are like this or my aunt and uncle are just special. They fight a lot, though generally one of them apologizes in the end. Amethysts don't mate for love, they find someone with the right qualities to produce the 'best' offspring. This seems crazy to me.

Which makes me wonder why I think that, given all the other Amethysts I've met agree on that.

But I've also noticed I'm more bipedal than other dragons.

"It remains unsolved," Aunt Shining Star finally said. Clearly this was going to have to pass for an apology.

Uncle Blue Wing looked triumphant. "Have you been able to manifest any psionic abilities yet?"

Amethyst dragons eventually become psionic. But I can't even do the right breath weapon yet. "My only special ability is my teleporting fire."

"And I envy you that," my aunt said; she really did sound envious. "It's a very useful, potent ability. I expect it's because fire is the element of magic, and your birth was tied to the element of magic."

"His hatching," Uncle Blue Wing said pedantically.

Aunt Shining Star frowned, then sighed. "His hatching, yes. Amethyst dragons are normally attuned to the Sphere of Thought. I suspect you have been attuned to the Sphere of Fire. You should get Twilight to try teaching you some spells."

That would be pretty cool. "But I don't have a horn," I told her. "I'm not sure if her style can work with me."

"I know she uses spellbooks written for humans and the like," Uncle Blue Wing said. "So it should be fine. Dragons who do learn wizardry normally can share spells with humans, elves, and the like as well."

"Could you teach me a spell?" I asked hopefully.

"Well, we didn't bring our books," he said, frowning. "I didn't even think of it."

"Nor I, since I did not know Spike would be here," Aunt Shining Star confessed. She looked thoughtful. "You can breathe water, right?"

"I breathe fire," I said, then realized what she meant. "Yes. That's because I'm an Amethyst, right?"

"Yes," she said, looking relieved. "Can you walk on water yet?"

"No," I said dolefully. I am not old enough; you generally have to be around fifteen or so before you can do that as an Amethyst dragon.

"He's not old enough yet," Uncle Blue Wing said. "As we both know."

"You never know," Aunt Shining Star said, frowning. "Well, we could borrow one of Twilight's books and try to teach you something before we have to go. We can't stay too long."

I sighed. "It's okay. I will ask Twilight about it." It just would have been nice to learn something from them. Something dragony.

"I am very sorry," Aunt Shining Star said. "Next time we visit you, we will bring a book and teach you some spells."

"Thanks," I said. But that may be a while. As I mentioned, Dragons tend to stick to their own territory. The nicer ones have some social instincts which clash with that, but dragons tend to be solitary.

Unlike me.

I love being around people and I don't really want to go live off by myself one day. That seems kind of lonely and depressing.

But dragons shouldn't think like that.

I am working myself up for no reason when I ought to be happy like one of those stupid stories Twilight reads when she's depressed. Which thankfully isn't often.

"How old will I be when I learn to shapeshift?" I asked.

"At least a hundred or so," Aunt Shining Star said. "You shouldn't even worry about it. You'll undergo dragon slumber many times before that." She paused. "You've only been through it once, right?"

"Yes," I told her. "I still have to sleep a lot, though. I can't wait for that to be over." My body now tried to make me go to sleep but I fought it. Once I wake, they'll be gone. "Twilight totally panicked when I went through it," I said, grinning. I shouldn't enjoy that but she is so funny when she's frantic.

They both laughed, but then Uncle Blue Wing got serious. "I take it this is about the white unicorn, Rarity."

"I... no... I mean... yes," I squeaked.

They both looked worried, which made ME worried. Then Uncle Blue Wing said uncomfortably, "You will have to undergo the dragon slumber again before you are old enough for mating, you know."

"I'm surprised he even thinks about it," Aunt Shining Star said to Uncle Blue Wing.

"I just want to be her hero," I said to my feet. "Instead of that BASTARD Erik of Vestland."

"Who?" Uncle Blue Wing said.

"Wait, wasn't he the one who dated Twilight for a while?" Aunt Shining Star said, making a furrowed face of trying to remember. "Isn't he a human?"

"He's a unicorn human," I said bitterly. "He's a hat-obsessed thief and a coward and I can't see what Rarity sees in him AT ALL."

To my surprise, my aunt now turned into a human; she had long purple hair and green fingernails and wore a purple and green dress; her skin was about the same color as Marcus. She stared off at the clouds and the stars, then said, "Hmm, yes, I can see that."

What?

"See what?" Uncle said, looking where she was looking.

I just saw stars.

"Can he shapeshift?" my aunt asked curiously.

"We have magic candy for it now," I told her.

"I can see why they would wish to breed," she said. "Most creatures do not choose mates rationally, unlike our kind. However, if he can take a pony form and her a human form, I think they'd actually make a good breeding pair. The children would be strong in magic and intelligent. I'd have to study their bio-tapestries to be sure, though."

Aunt Shining Star has psionic powers that let her read people's biological patterns; among other things, it lets her tell who is compatible for mating, which is how she and my Uncle ended up a mating pair. She calls it 'reading the bio-tapestry'. Something about threads which make up how your body works or something. She tried to tell me and my brain died.

"Intelligent," I said, grumbling. "He uses his intelligence to make people like him, then he stabs them in the back and runs away laughing! He's going to make her cry!"

My aunt now picked me up and hugged me tightly. I turned a little red and my uncle looked a little embarrassed and turned and studied the stars. "The body shapes the mind," she said softly.

I do not understand what this has to do with Erik being EVIL and needing to be destroyed, or at least encouraged to do what he does best.

Running away like a little bitch.

"I don't understand."

"As a human, I feel a stronger bond to you," she said. "The body and the mind influence each other. You can make yourself sick by worrying about being sick; your body influences your thoughts." She sighed. "I wish I could stay longer. I would love to talk to some of your friends who have done shapeshifting about their experiences."

"Well, you're welcome to stay," I said hopefully.

"We both have experiments to get back to and since we didn't plan this in advance, we only have basic security on our lair," Uncle Blue Wing said. "By the time we made arrangements, you'd be long gone."

"I'll get them to send you some letters," I told her.

"You are such a sweet, sweet boy," she said, kissing my forehead.

I was stunned. They're not usually this affectionate. Indeed, I could see my Uncle was very embarrassed. He mumbled something.

"I wish you had hair to ruffle," she said, so I ruffled hers and she laughed. Then she put me down. "Spike, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you need to give up on Rarity. She seems like a fine young lady but you are too young for mating and she clearly has chosen someone else. I could see how they were."

"Irrational as it is," Uncle Blue Wing said disapprovingly.

"While it likely IS motivated by raw emotion, I think they will have suitable children," Aunt Shining Star said. "I am the expert on such things, you know."

Now Uncle Blue Wing grumbled but gave in.

"Well, who am I compatible with?" I said in frustration. "It seems like... He's BAD for her."

"I think you should consider the pony who designed this place. You could have the most AMAZING lair if she can design this at this age. By the time you're old enough to lair on your own, she likely will be able to build something incredible." My aunt clearly sounded kind of jealous.

"She's a student of that crazy wizard Keraptis," I said. "Which seems dangerous to me." I frowned. I guess with her parents dead, there's no one to really tell her... well, there is Granny Smith and her siblings, but they don't seem to care.

I mean, they care about her, but they aren't stopping her corresponding with... wait, how IS she contacting him?

"My goodness. I wouldn't want to risk one of my hatchlings in his hands, but on the other hand, he is a genius," my aunt said.

"He's a crazed builder of deathtraps," my uncle said, frowning. "This woman might be too crazy herself for Spike."

"She seemed like a sweet young filly and I think she IS the same age as Spike. More or less equivalent, anyway," Aunt Shining Star said firmly. "You should try spending some time with her. I should have taken a bio-tapestry scan but I didn't even think about it."

"You couldn't know," Uncle Blue Wing said. "Her name is Apple Bloom, right?"

"Yes," I told him. "She's Applejack's little sister."

They looked at each other. I know this look. It is the look of adults who know things they are not going to tell you.

"I agree. She would make a good friend for you and be suitable for relief of your instincts if you need to do that," he said.

"I am not just looking to... what does relieving instincts mean, anyway?" It sounds like bedwetting which I have not done in YEARS.

"You'll understand when you're older," my uncle said.

"We think she would make a good fillyfriend for you," my aunt said.

See, THAT I understand. "But she's so rustic and I'm a city boy," I said.

My uncle's eyes crossed a moment, then he said, "We live in the countryside too, you know." He sounded irritated.

"Yes, but you... I mean..." DAMMIT. "I'm sorry," I told him. "You're not farmers, though."

"I'm sure someone who could build this and you would find interesting things to do," my aunt said with that kind of tone of voice which I know means someone is trying to persuade me. It's odd, I can read her much better like this than as her... is that a lizardman form? It's not quite the same. It's more like my body, really.

"Anyway, I can't just change how I feel like that," I said.

"This is why our kind abandoned such instincts long ago," Uncle Blue Wing said. "Remaining in pursuit of a mate who has already chosen someone else is a waste of time. You should move on." He was quite insistent.

"I don't even know how," I said. "I want to get rid of that punk Erik! I thought..." He betrayed me and Twilight and he WILL betray Rarity.

Seeing Spikey makes it worse, really. He's older than me, I think. Or maybe just... he seems older.

Dammit.

My aunt picked me up and I turned red again. She stroked my head. "My dear little nephew," she said with a warmth she wasn't used to. "While vengeance is a draconic tradition, you shouldn't bite anything you can't actually swallow. You'll be happier if you let him go, hard as it is."

"Think about it clearly," Uncle Blue Wing said. "He is older and more powerful with strong allies. While Twilight would defend you to the death, these are her friends. You can't go it alone and really, succumbing to irrationality is not the Amethyst way."

I tensed up in frustration, though being held by my aunt was nice. I could tell that he was also directing that to my aunt, who was wallowing in 'irrationality'. But I felt better now, so I wasn't going to stop her. Embarrassing as it is.

She put me down and studied the sky. "I fear we need to go," she said. "And you should sleep."

I yawned. "I am too excited to sleep."

She picked me up one more time and carried me down to Twilight's room. "I am going to be so embarrassed when I change back," she said gleefully.

My uncle grumbled and I couldn't help but laugh a little. "You could just ride home on my uncle's back."

"I'll be fine, but thank you," she said, and kissed my forehead.

My uncle patted my shoulder. "Good luck on your quest. Come see us some time."

"Okay," I told them, then yawned. "Thanks for dropping by."

"Well, we were afraid we'd have to destroy this thing," my uncle said. "Or send for help. You may have trouble with Sind or Darokin."

"We'll be fine," I told him. "My friends and I, we can defeat ANY foe! We're really tough," I said proudly.

"Good," Uncle Blue Wing said. "Be strong. Show them the power of dragons. And let your enemies flee before you once you show them who is the true master." He sounded proud and urgent at once.

"Of course," I told them. "I showed that stupid owl who is boss in our house!"

My aunt put her hand over her mouth, but my uncle said, "Exactly. See you later, Spike."

Twilight stuck her head out. "Spike, come to bed or you will be a..." YAWN. "Zombie tomrororoow."

What on earth was that last word?

"Sorry to wake you," my aunt said to her. "We're about to go."

"Already?" Twilight said disappointed. "I was hoping we could talk some matters arcane."

I could feel this odd thing. "My skin is crawling," I said.

My aunt paused, then looked proud. "Spike, that's good."

"It's all itchy and I don't like it," I said, scratching all over.

"It means you can feel my mental power being used," she said.

"Well, well, very good, Spike," my uncle said.

"Oh wow. I've never felt it before," I said.

"Very few ponies have any sort of psionics," Twilight said, yawning. "Though I do have that psionic testing kit Shining Star gave me. We should probably try it again when we get home."

"I think Apple Bloom and her friends still have it," I told her.

"You could get her to run the tests on you," my aunt said, winking at me.

Twilight rubbed her eyes. "What?"

"Later, Twi," I told her. Then I nearly fell down. "I guess maybe I slee..."

Then I fell asleep, right there. How embarrassing!

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

Back to Marcus-O-Vision:

I was somewhat confused when, instead of being in bed with Rarity, I was floating in a starry void. Each star, when I looked at it, grew a little and I got a glimpse of someone I know: Ivan, Helga, Rarity, Twilight, Sweetie, and so on. Someone was knocking on something but I couldn't tell what, given I was floating in my nightrobe in a void. "Hello?" I asked.

"May we come in?" It was Blue Wing, though his voice echoed distantly.

"Sure, but... where am I and how do you 'come in'?"

The air rippled and two huge dragons stepped in, Blue Wing and Shining Star. They rippled and turned into human forms. Blue Wing was nearly seven feet tall, which I will say is just a little intimidating. And hugely muscled. Shining Star was only about five foot ten, looking like a Thyatian, except for long purple hair and green fingernails. He, on the other hand, was a blue haired northman, complete with beard.

She looked around. "Not very versed in telepathic affairs, I take it."

"Is that what this is?" I said, now rather nervous, realizing I'd invited Spike's kin INSIDE MY MIND.

"May I?" Blue Wing said, gesturing.

"Sure," I said, then regretted it. What had I just agreed to?

Bing, instead comfortable living room with chairs. Just the way I like it.

"We've heard the Spike version of your story but now we'd like to hear it form you," Blue Wing said solemnly.

I am very lucky they asked and didn't just eat me. I told them everything I could.

"You owe Spike," Blue Wing said flatly.

"I know but he hates me too much for me to try to make it up to him," I said, frustrated.

Shining Star said to her husband. "I was right. They will have strong children."

"..." I stared mindlessly.

"Honey, you should ask him first," Blue Wing said. "He invited us to talk, not to rifle through everything we might find." His voice was stern.

"It's best you know you and Rarity will have powerful, intelligent children one day," Shining Star said cheerfully. "And it's easier to get forgiveness than permission."

Ahahaha.

"Please, no more rifling," I said urgently.

"I told you," Blue Wing said, shaking his head. "We've tried to encourage Spike to reorient towards young Miss Apple Bloom if he must chose his mates on the whims of the flesh instead of rational mate selection." He sounded annoyed this was even necessary. "Is she actually old enough to have any interest in men yet?"

"I think she's actually still at the 'boys are icky and stupid' phase, but I expect she'll now have her growth surge and change her mind on that," I told them.

"Oh, you are versed in pony biology?" Shining Star said hopefully.

"Somewhat," I told her. "Most specifically, I taught Unicorn children for a year. If I guess her age right, she's going to first grow taller, then fill out and in the middle of that, she'll start taking an interest in boys. Or girls."

"What would the point be with a girl?" Blue Wing asked.

Another reminder that dragons don't think like us. At least not Amethysts. "Many sentients develop an interest in romance without actually seeking to bear children," I told him. "Most seek out the opposite sex but some don't."

He looked very confused. "I have heard of this before but it seems to me like trying to mate with a rock."

Let's not even get into humanity's crazier impulses. "It's why Rarity and I, or maybe Spike and Apple Bloom could have a romance, whether we sought children or not."

He paused, looking thoughtful.

"Anyway, please be kind to Spike. He's a good boy and I hope you can reconcile with him," Shining Star said. "We should go and let you sleep."

"Thanks for talking to me and not just eating me on Spike's say-so," I said. I had meant to be somewhat more slick.

"We are friends of Equestria and humans, to be honest, taste lousy," Shining Star said. They rose and said farewell.

Only when I slipped back into slumber did I wonder how she actually knew.

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

For some reason, Spike was staring at my head during all of breakfast. I tried to ignore it and just eat. We were somewhere over Sind now, heading towards the Darokinian border.

I think. As we had a solid cloud bank under us. Hopefully, Scootaloo knows what she's doing.

AHHAHAHAHAHA.

I was quite surprised when a pink and yellow-furred and winged wolf joined us for breakfast, wearing a golden torc. Then I realized it was Fluttershy. "Hi, Fluttershy, that's new," I said.

"Oooh," Applejack said. "Now I've got an idea."

What?

Wolf-Fluttershy cocked her head. "An idea?"

Twilight passed her some pancakes and fruit with magic. "Thinking about cooperative fighting?" Twilight said.

"Hey, how you'd know?" Applejack asked.

"Well, you and Winona work together, so I would think Flutterwolf and you could do the same," Twilight said.

Good thinking, I thought.

"That would be nice," Flutterwolf said, trying to sound friendly. However, her voice came out rough.

She was about to eat when I said, "Can you actually eat that in wolf form?" I asked.

"She has a mouth, sugarcube," Applejack said. "Oh wait, you're right. I dunno if she can."

Flutterwolf paused and looked embarrassed. "You're right. I'm going to need meat."

"Well, it's a sign you're still in control, right?" I told her.

She blinked, then smiled. "You're right!"

Flutterwolf ended up having a steak. Sweetie had thought ahead and stocked up some meat, which I thanked her for when I found out.

Then she and Applejack went off to practice some combined tactics. I don't know if she'll be able to be aggressive enough for it, though.

But I wish them luck.

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

Twilight took me to her room after breakfast; the ship ran without us, so we all got ready for the trouble to come in our own way; Rarity got dragged off by Sweetie for something or another.

Spike sat to assist us, glaring at me intently, apparently trying to make me explode with his mind or something. I suppose some Amethyst dragons could.

Ivan joined us and Twilight picked our brains for every bit of information on the Broken Lands we could remember. She sent some questions to Helga too.

"Hmm, do you think our doubles would know about the tower?" Ivan said.

"Even if they know, can they find it?" I asked. "Though I suppose they have the same resources I hoped maybe to use to find it again," I said to Ivan.

Ivan nodded. "I'm thinking maybe we could either loot it and arm ourselves with any nifty Blackmoorian devices or even lure them into it. I think breaking into their fortress is likely to be counter-productive. They won't be limited at home the way they were in White Plume Mountain."

Twilight looked thoughtful.

"Maybe one team could draw them to the dungeon, while another infiltrates and rescues the Radhirajah, who I bet they will leave in their fortress," Spike said.

"I like that idea," Twilight said. "Luna and Ivan and the most stealthy soldiers could break into the fortress while the rest of us announce we've heard of a weapon that can destroy Marjorie that is inside the tower, you can't stop us now, and so on."

We called in Lunette and she and Twilight now worked out a plan. I threw in one observation, though. "If we don't do something, the Cutie Mark Crusaders WILL try to help by breaking into one of the places or tagging alone in someone's saddlebags or attacking the fortress headon with this flying treehouse or something. They have to feel they are contributing, or they will 'contribute'."

They shouldn't be here; it's too dangerous for kids. But I fear they'll show up anyway.

"They have to stay and hold the ship in reserve, of course," Twilight said. "Ready to come rescue us if we fall. That will keep them here."

I hope.

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

We were crossing Lake Amsorak now. Fluttershy and Applejack showed up for lunch, all sweaty but cheerful. "How did it go?" I asked.

"Great!" Applejack said.

"Woof!" Flutterwolf said, then stood there panting with her tongue hanging out.

Oh bloody hell.

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

Rarity had to take her food to her as Fluttershy hid under her bed in frustration. Lunette took her aside for a long talk.

"Poor dear," Rarity said. "I don't feel like I am acting differently. Am I?"

I kissed her softly and she smiled. "Feels good, right?"

"Yes," she said.

"You are, but it's more subtle because you are closer to a human in personality than Fluttershy. Well, there are shy humans but she takes it further," I told her. "And humans and ponies are closer than ponies and wolves."

"If I turned into Twilight, would I act bookish?" she said, looking thoughtful.

"Probably not," I told her. "You'd just manifest the usual pony traits and physical needs."

We kissed again; we were in a... I don't know what this room is for; it has lots of chairs that ponies can't actually sit in, they're designed for humans and tables at human heights. But it's good for us.

Then Captain Keen Eyes snorted. Hello, bite me, Captain.

"Hello, father, how are you?" Rarity asked cheerfully, clearly determined to ignore his bad mood.

"So you can't even accept her as she is," he said darkly, looking tired and sounding crabby.

"Father, Marcus spent a week, over a week as a pony with me. The least I can do is reciprocate," Rarity said, frowning. "You are going to have to accept that sometimes I am going to be a human. And he will be a pony. And sometimes not." She closed her eyes, then opened them, more determined. "But it doesn't mean I don't love you." She strode over and embraced him, scratching his right side gently. "You're my father, but I left home a long time ago, you know."

"The more I know about his background, the less I like him," Captain Keen Eyes said.

"Celestia and Luna know more than you and they trust me," I said. THAT made him wince. "If you won't trust your own daughter's judgement, though, I doubt I can persuade you."

"Captain Lunette wishes to see you two," he said. Then he nuzzled Rarity. "I love you too. That's why I don't like him."

Rarity sighed and kissed his forehead, then took my hand and we went and eventually found Lunette and Fluttershy in a room cleared of furniture. Applejack was here, busy practicing with a lasso and looking confused.

"Hello, princess," I said; I bowed and Rarity curtseyed.

"We're going to help Fluttershy," Lunette said kindly. "You two have some experience shapeshifting, and Applejack needs to learn as well."

"I'd be glad... wait, what?" Applejack said, stunned.

"Now now, you think everyone needs to be naked, right?" Lunette said, amused. "Well, you're not really naked with all that fur."

"It ain't fur, it's hair," Applejack said frantically.

"Now, now, you got to see me naked," I told her. "Lots of naked." I was probably enjoying this too much.

"I won't make you, but it will help Fluttershy if you work through these exercises with her," Lunette said.

HAMMER THE GUILT AND FRIENDSHIP BUTTONS, I thought. Hammer them wildly. Nicely done, Luna.

"It's okay, I understand," Fluttershy said. "It's not your job to do this," she said to Applejack.

I could almost taste the guilt settling in. "Fine. Whammy me with candy or whatever."

"Fluttershy, you will work with Rarity, Applejack, you with Marcus," Lunette said.

Ivan would probably be better, but I'll do my best.

She touched Applejack, who now turned into a tabby cat. Fluttershy was pink and yellow in her cat form. Her torc shrank with her. "Dammit, Marcus, why do you smell so tasty?" Applecat said, making a frowny kitty face. SO CUTE.

"You smell nice, Rarity," Fluttercat said, rubbing against Rarity's leg.

"Don't take a bite to find out," I told Applecat warily.

"You smell good but I am not sure what you smell like," Applecat said, strutting towards me.

Rarity picked up Fluttercat and scritched her behind the ears, smiling, while Fluttercat made happy kitty noises.

"Don't enjoy it so much or you'll start losing yourself. You have to focus and seal away part of yourself beyond the instincts," Lunette said.

"How?" Applecat said. "My stupid nose keeps telling me Marcus smells very good."

"Hey, I do smell good."

"Marcus has a wonderful smell," Rarity said. "I just wish he smelled the same in both forms." She sniffed Fluttercat. "Or that I could smell much in this form."

"No cuddling," Lunette said firmly to Fluttercat.

"But I LIKE cuddling," Fluttercat mumbled.

Applecat circled my legs and reared up, putting her forepaws on my leg. Claws out. "OWW," I said.

"Sorry, pardner," she said. Her claws flicked in and out twice.

"Stop that!" I said.

"Tryin' to get the hang of it," she said. "It's hard to think clearly."

"Think about something you love," Lunette said. "Focus on that and only that."

"Okay, this is weird," Applecat said after a bit. "I ain't got no hankerin' for apples. Seems like they're kinda... Okay, being a cat is just WRONG."

"Bunnies, so tasty...," Fluttercat said dreamily. "No wait, NO, no eating bunnies!" She began batting herself with her paws.

"Remember why you like apples," Lunette said urgently. "Why you like hugging bunnies," she said to Fluttercat. "You have to take some important pieces of you and nail them in place, let the rest of you rally around them."

"Apples, apples, red delicious, granny smith, akane, alfriston, arlet, fish, king luscious, rats... RATS ARE NOT APPLES. Knobbed russet, kinsei... fi... fi... florina, foxwhelp," Applecat paced around me.

"Fireside, fiesta and Caurenzian Blue," I told her.

"Wait, a blue apple?" she said in confusion.

"Angel, my dear little bunny, I miss you," Fluttercat said softly. "You can be stubborn but you love me and I love you and you watch over me and I watch over you."

"I always love our time together," Rarity said soothingly, petting her.

"Put her down, or it will get too comfortable and she'll slip," Lunette said.

We kept on working with them until they got some control. Whether that could be kept in a stress situation, I wasn't so sure and they were both pretty drained afterwards.

"Thanks for helping," Fluttershy said to Applejack. They were back to normal.

"Ain't no thing," she said.

"You owe Ivan to try human form some time," I told her.

"Rarity would dress me up," she said as if this was an objection.

"I would love to try some fashions on you, darling," Rarity said.

"Another time," Applejack said. "I'm gonna take a bath and get some rest. Tomorrow, we arrive at our target, right?"

"Yes," I told her.

"I pray this is gonna be over," Applejack said. "Big Mac's probably working himself to death right now. Grannie can't help him much and even Apple Bloom ain't home."

"I am sure he is just fine," Rarity said.

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

Big Macintosh Speaks:

"WYAAAAA!!!!" I heard Lily shout. What the hay is going on? I had been busy checking apple trees on the east side for this nasty rot that's been going around; she and Daisy and Roseluck had volunteered to plow the corn field for me, as the corn's come in and we're planting a second crop. I was slow to agree ta it, but really, I needed their help and they were taking the day off.

I felt bad taking their day off, but they insisted for some reason.

Well, at least we'd all have a nice bath together afterwards. Company makes it feel better. Even if Granny kept snickerin' during lunch for some reason. She claimed her embargo was actin' up.

Been a long time since my schoolin', but I don't think you can get an embargo in your body.

Not a pony body, anyway.

Roseluck ran up as I ran towards the yelping. "Big Mac, your friend and Daisy are being dragged down the hill by the plow!"

WHAT?

"Wait, who?" I said as we ran.

"Her name is Vanilla Surprise," Roseluck said. "She said her afternoon work got cancelled so she came to Ponyville to help you out for a few hours before she has to work in the evening." For some reason, she frowned about this.

It should, in theory, be impossible for a plow to pull two Earth Ponies down a hill. Lily was running around, crashing into trees and shouting that the world was ending. About what I'd expect her to do if she dropped food off her plate at dinner. Daisy and Vanilla Surprise, also known as Princess Celestia, were tangled up in the hauling ropes and clobbering each other as they tried to get free. While the plow pulled them down the hill at a good clip.

Somehow. I can't actually see magic or nothing but I have a feeling someone either was trying to be funny and got caught in her own joke or maybe was trying to make the plow go faster or something.

I ran up and seized the lines and Roseluck helped me while her sister freaked out.

"Oh, Big Mac, you saved me!" Daisy said, then nuzzled me warmly.

"Oh Big Mac, you saved me!" Vanilla Surprise said in a flawless imitation of her tone and nuzzled me also on the other side.

Daisy blinked and Roseluck frowned. Lily said, "Wait, are we done already?"

Dammit, somethin's going on here. "What happened?" I asked.

"The plow, it was too heavy, and we got pulled back and, and..." Daisy began.

"I hope you don't mind me butting in; I wanted to repay you for your help to me in Canterlot," Vanilla Surprise said warmly. "Since my employer took your sister away, I felt it only right I ensure you didn't have to work alone, though I see you have many admirers."

"I'm not a mud-maker!" Daisy protested.

"I'm just helping a friend!" Lily said frantically.

"I know, he is totally hot," Roseluck said.

I blinked.

"Ever since our date, I keep thinking about you," Vanilla Surprise purred.

I wish I could tell if she actually likes me or if she's just messing with me. But it is right nice of her. "Well, let's get you all set up and I'll show you how not to get tangled. Then we can all take a nice bath and have dinner, Granny style."

"And one of her stories, I hope," Vanilla Surprise said. "I am ready to work, Big Macintosh," she said more seriously. "I do owe you."

How can she possibly have time for this? And I'm just one pony. Should I really be eating up the princess' time? What about all the ponies who don't have this kind of connection?

I felt right guilty.

Not guilty enough to say no given how behind I am. "Eyup, you do. Let's get y'all workin', as there is a ton to do before dinner."

How did I get into this?

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

Back to Marcus' Viewpoint:

The plan was set. We'd approach the area, find the tower, and then the flying tree fortress would threaten Marjorie's base and drop hints we were here. By that time, our team should be positioned with control of the site. Or would have run for the hills. Ideally, we can cook up a proper ambush. At worst, we can at least fight them on neutral ground.

I got sent down with the scouting party, myself, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and five of the pegasi pony soldiers. The other pegasi looked a little jealous of the enlarging spell Twilight put on Dash.

"I think they want you," I whispered in her ear and she laughed nervously.

"I am a one-pony mare," she said firmly. "Just like my boyfriend despite all the mares who want him." Her voice wobbled a little.

"He knows you're the best pony," I said assuringly. "Feels like old times," I said as we soared along.

"We'd be solo," Dash said. "And I could open up. These ponies can't keep up with me."

We were soaring over the Broken Lands; this whole region was blown to bits by Elves who lived in the region after the fall of Blackmoor but long before modern Glantri. I'm not sure how and it's probably best I never find out.

As I would likely learn by exploding.

This part of the Broken Lands is mountainous but it's damaged mountains. All the mountains have cracks like someone raked them with giant claws and huge chunks of mountain lie in the valleys or even are wedged between slopes and peaks. They gradually slope down to the northeast, where there is a high plateau / depression which is very swampy with a large lake. I said it's a plateau and a depression because it's surrounded by cliffs down into it, but yet it's high above sea level in the middle of mountains. I really don't know how to describe it. But the depression is where we think Marjorie's base is carved into a cliff face on the northeastern side.

Southish of us, the mountains rise into very high yet busted peaks, covered with snow and a strange black ice which can be burned. That's right, flammable ice.

Hardy mountain goats picked their way through this mess below us, feeding on the scrub brush, patches of grass and the lush regions immediately around the rivers and springs which flow towards the lush, wet, cold depression.

As we flew, a troll threw itself off a cliff at a goat down below on a ledge. It grabbed the goat as it fell into the chasm below. The goat will die and the troll will live, recovering and eat it.

We all looked up even though we knew trolls can't fly.

I hope.

There was a gust of wind, scattering us, but the group came back together. "Still not seeing a tower," Dash told me.

"That's why we are scouting. I was last here on foot, so I know how it looks and the little valley it's next to, but I don't know the area clearly from above," I said.

We fanned out a bit but made sure to keep everyone in sight of each other. I hummed a little tune and Dash hummed along. "Feels so good to be out and about," she said. "The treehouse is cool but I have been cooped up so long that I want to MOVE."

"Don't go too fast, we might miss it," I said.

"I don't miss a THING," Dash said proudly. "As I speed like a speeding thing."

And articulate like an articulating thing. Heh.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"Way, way back when we first met, I started thinking about how much easier you'd make it to find this place again, but at the time, I assumed things would end with me running away for my life. But here we are, just like I hoped but even better." I patted her shoulder. "I'm lucky to have met you all."

She looked kind of embarrassed. "Me too," she mumbled.

It's weird to me to put my trust in people, but I know I can rely on them. It scares me because that's usually when people start dying. I imagined Dash dying and my gut clenched. No way. I am not going to be the one who lives while everyone else dies.

Not again.

"I dunno if Fluttershy did the right thing," Dash said, still studying the land as we flew over it. "I mean, I would have done it but it probably meant we failed. But I couldn't just walk away from that."

"She did the tactically wrong but morally right thing," I said. "But many may die because we helped one family."

Dash grimaced at that.

This is why I hate comparative ethics. "But this is our chance to avoid that. If we succeed, then we'll have done the right thing and saved Equestria. This will give Equestria some leverage once we save the Radhirajah." Or so I hope.

"Doing the right thing shouldn't lead to the wrong thing," Dash grumbled.

Welcome to the real world, my friend.

"This mountain looks familiar," I said, studying a jagged triple peak whose east face was deeply riven; it was close to becoming two peaks. "Can we swing around the south side?"

"Hell yeah," Dash said and we climbed high and flew through the great gap which rent the mountain for nigh a thousand feet of its height. The others followed us at various heights and we passed through the chasm, dozens of feet across.

We emerged over a small valley where grass and trees grew, though they were purple and pink. A pleasant stream flowed out of the crack into the valley and there was a ruins of a nicely made castle in the NE corner of the valley; goats grazed among the trees. And there were statues.

Further, on the west side on a hill, the tower we sought squatted atop a cracked hill from which steam slowly wafted upwards, shrouding the sky in a great conidal shape. The tower was made of silvery metal and great slabs of glassy black stone and windows of clear crystal with shutters closed tight on the inside. Ancient Blackmoorian runes surrounded the top, large enough to see for hundreds of feet, and there was a battered sign of black metal with the same runes and some more, near the front door.

I carefully copied down the runes; I'd seen them before but forgotten them all from last time.

"So you couldn't get the door open?" Dash said.

"Yes. It has some super-complex set of wards on it," I told her.

She flew down to the door, pegasi following and studied the huge double doors, made of white metal with golden runes.

"It doesn't look locked," she said.

"Well, it totally defeated my magic, Ivan's skills and Helga's strength. I am hoping the lockpicks can open it."

She hooked a hoof into the door handles and pulled the door open. "No, wait, I..." I began.

I paused.

"WHAT?" I said in confusion.

"Man, I bet we could loot this place right now," Rainbow Dash said.

If Rarity wasn't the best pony, Rainbow Dash would definitely be.

"I think we'd best get the others, as they won't appreciate not getting a cut," I told her. "Also, there may be things that opening a door won't stop inside."

HOW THE HELL DID SHE JUST OPEN THE DOOR?

"Good point. We do have the other pegasi, though," she said, clearly reluctant to turn back.

"I think we should report in, having accomplished the mission," one of the pegasi said. His name was Arcing Turn and he was green coated and pink maned. He had a big earring on his left ear which I could tell was magical. But not what it did.

Dash sighed. "Okay, then let's take off."

We headed back to the ship to see the others and I prayed the rest of this would go so smoothly. (And I had Dash close the door and open it twice to make sure she could keep doing it. Since she could, we left it closed. Might as well not make our foes' life easier.)

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

"Okay, if I am translating this right, the first repeating motif is 'Shadrakal Biological Research Corporation'," Twilight said. "The second motif is 'Better Living Through Techno-Magical Biology' and the third is 'Equine Research Facility'."

Lunette made a noise and we all turned to look. She licked her lips. "This is one of the facilities where the Blackmoorians made us what we are today," she said softly.

An utter silence descended on the room.

"I had thought them all destroyed. I don't even know how this one got here as they were, I thought, all buried under the ice at the poles." When the Blackmoorians blew themselves up, the planetary axis shifted and now the heartland of Blackmoor is under the polar ice.

"That must be why I could open it," Dash said hesitantly.

"I would think they'd want to keep the ponies under control," I said, frowning.

"Perhaps the Element of Harmony you have enabled you to open it, Dash," Twilight said.

"That makes sense," Dash said.

"Okay, we'll hide and watch Marquetta's base," Lunetta said. "Your group will enter this place and check it out. If the Elements of Power come there, we'll break in and rescue the Radhirajah. If you finish exploring before they notice us, then we'll work out a way to lure them to the place."

"They have to know this place exists if 'Sammy' has my memories and 'Niccolo' has Ivan's," I said. "They may already have looted it."

"We'll approach cautiously," Twilight said.

"Hold on, I have an idea," Sweetie said, getting her cards. "Let me try a card divination."

Twilight nodded and Sweetie's friends crowded around her to watch.

She shuffled the deck with her magic, looking proud of herself. Then Sweetie had Dash put a hoof on the deck while she concentrated. Then Sweetie waved her forehooves over it and tapped the deck with her horn.

Seven cards dealt themselves out and Sweetie concentrated. They were a mixture of Stones and Flames with one Waves card. Sweetie studied them. "A wizard of great power moved it," she said. "Many years ago. He wanted to use it as a base. But I don't know what happened to him."

Great, we're likely to have some MAD WIZARD. Or his lich. Or some other crazy thing.

"Ooh, maybe he's a demi-lich and we can use him to power the death ray!" Scootaloo said.

` PLEASE NO.

"Good job, Sweetie," Captain Keen Eyes said proudly to her. "You will be a great diviner one day."

"Thanks, Daddy," she said, snuggling up to him happily.

Well, at least we have a little more to work with. And please, no more MAD WIZARDS.

We now laid our plans and headed out.

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

Captain Keen Eyes spread his men out to guard the entrance. I fear the Elements of Power will roll them over if they come but he insisted. He glared at me, then said to Rarity, "Be careful."

She embraced him around his neck. "I will, father. I will go, knowing I am safe with you guarding me."

He looked a little embarrassed.

As we approached the building, Twilight's eyes widened. "An Immortal of Matter touched this building."

"To keep out non-Ponies?" Ivan said. "I get the same reading."

They both had the amulet and ring Luna had given them respectively.

A little experimenting showed Ivan and any of the ponies could open it except Rarity, who frowned. And I couldn't open it. "But Ivan couldn't open it last time," I said. "I'm thinking it must be because Rarity and I are human right now, but you're human too."

Fluttershy tried turning into a human; she could not open it either. So she then turned back. "Ivan doesn't even have a Cutie Mark or anything," she said, confused.

"Well, I'm not arguing," Ivan said.

"Asterius! He's a friend to our kind and he helped ponykind escape the fall of Blackmoor," Twilight said. "I bet he eventually learned of this place and sealed it. But since Ivan is chosen of Asterius, he can get in."

Ivan nodded. "That makes sense."

And into the place we went; the front area had crude paintings all over it of the glorious adventures of some wizard, showing his birth in a city of stone by a great river; he had darker skin than mine, though not as dark as a Tanagoro and black hair in long braids with beads woven into it. Black eye makeup exaggerated his eyes and he wore only rune tattoos, sandals, two golden forearm bracers and a short skirt of blue linen.

"Nithian!" Twilight said excitedly. "He is..." She got a book and consulted it. "Rathanhotep. Which means..." Page, page. "He Who Gives Praise to Rathanos," she said. "Who was a Nithian immortal of fire."

"So we can expect a hot time in the old town tonight?" Pinkie said.

Twilight and I cringed; no one else got it. It's really for the best that way.

"With great balls of fire!" Spike said, laughing. Then he breathed fire into the air.

The art showed Rathanhotep busy doing things like exploring frozen wastelands, fighting monsters, looting ancient ruined temples, battling other wizards and rebuilding this place. It was not very well executed except for the writing, which was all very precise and well done. It covered over art of humans in white coats and shirts and dark pants and ponies.

"Much as I hate to destroy a site of historical interest," I said, "We probably should erase this if we can to see what's under it."

Applejack studied the wall. "Dunno how we'd get the paint off without destroying the paint under it."

Rainbow Dash tried scraping with her hoof and both layers came off. "Yep."

Pinkie now got into an odd pose, sitting on her buttocks with her legs folded oddly in front of her, left foreleg outstretched and the other bent around to touch the side of her head. She began a strange chant.

"Pinkie, Ochelean meditation is unlikely to help us here," Twilight said. "Also, you are getting the chant wrong. It's 'long shal caro megu dashan', for the first verse, and then..."

"Shhh, meditating," Pinkie said, so we let her meditate. "I am the lotus, I demand caffieine and sugar, open the way of sweet enlightenment..."

Rarity ran her fingers across one of the crude paintings, then the original paintings. "I think I can carefully chisel down to the original art. But it will be tiring and so we should pick carefully."

We all wandered around, trying to figure out where to chisel. But then Applejack found something. A human hand holding an apple and you could see a pony's muzzle reaching out for it. The pony was red in color, probably female. "How about here?" she said.

A battle between Rathanhotep and a wizard named Menes was painted over the scene. Rarity got her needles and began slowly, delicately chipping away. I lent her my strength, feeling the incredible facility with which she worked. Bit by bit, the upper layer of paint flaked off, though she began to sweat.

The pony emerged from under it, colored like a modern pony, red with an apple green mane, and oddly familiar, though I couldn't tell why; the pony didn't look too much like any of my companions. There was writing in Blackmoorian. "Test Subject X45-C8: 'Jorla'," Twilight read off. "Class: Matter. Strength: Rank 3. Can pull 2.25 tons of weight. Intellect: Class Eight. Speech capable. Prehensile Tail. Understands Time and Consequences. Capable of Basic Abstract Thought. Farming Trained. Hard working and dependable. Comfortable with clothing and gear, but cannot dress self. Cost: 212 Decar."

A smiling human in a labcoat offered an apple to the eager pony Jorla; she was hitched to a plow with runes carved into it, glowing softly. She wore pony boots and a conical hat with brim; the company logo was on it.

"It's an advertisement, or maybe bragging about their success," Rarity said softly.

"Darnit, I have seen this pony before," Applejack said.

"It is by beans alone that I put my nose in motion," Pinkie chanted, nose twitching.

"Pinkie, are you doing something useful or just bored?" Rainbow Dash asked curiously.

"I am trying to remember if I know anything about this wizard from stories and legends," Pinkie said. "Also, trying to be funny."

"No one is getting the joke," Dash said ruefully.

"Not even Twilight?" Pinkie said, disappointed.

Twilight was busy translating more. "This man is named Doctor Devan Malekish."

Fluttershy began singing a little song, but nothing happened. "Oh dear, there's no mice or anything like that here."

"Probably nothing to eat," I said. "And how would they get in and out?"

"Unless they're undead mice, who starved to death here and their hunger turned them into the hungry dead, roaming and waiting for tasty, tasty ponies," Dash said with a spooky voice, advancing on Fluttershy. "Then they close in on her, and then they POUNCE!" She jumped on Fluttershy and they both rolled around laughing.

Ivan hit his forehead. "Ahah!"

Dash paused. "What?"

"Part of the Path of the Paragon is that you have to defeat seven wizards or similar types who live around your base. The greatest wizards. Note, only six paintings," Ivan said.

"So he probably died taking on the seventh," I said.

"I don't sense any immortal energies here, though," Twilight said.

"Well, anything he'd built up likely dissipated long ago," Ivan said. "But I bet he moved this here and hoped to transform the area to his vision, defeat his rivals, make a unique magic items and all that."

"The crown," I said. "Maybe that's what the crown was!"

"Crown?" Rarity said curiously, then leaned on me, tired.

I put an arm around her. "There was a magic crown. The map we lost said it was very powerful, but I don't know the details."

"That's Applejack's ancestor," Pinkie said, opening her eyes.

Applejack said, "Don't see much resemblance, even if she likes apples."

"Well, it's distant but remember in White Plume Mountain? Where we saw all those generations?" Pinkie said. "I think that's one of your ancestors."

Applejack shifted uncomfortably, and I can't blame her. "So she was an experiment," Applejack said, frowning. She put a hoof to the painting. It was so fresh looking; Rarity's work had been so precise. I'd felt her element working hard.

"Well, all your ancestors were," Ivan said. "Lizardmen were the same way, I think. And it wouldn't surprise me if someone monkeyed around with our ancestors."

Pinkie and Twilight and I all laughed and he sighed. "I'm serious!" Ivan said. "Don't laugh at me." He frowned.

"No, no, it's just humans are related to monkeys," Twilight said. "Wait, you didn't mean to make that joke?"

Ivan facepalmed and I laughed more until he put me in a headlock and we wrestled around.

"No, no, this is not a good time to fight for mating dominance!" Fluttershy said, trying to break us up.

"What?" Ivan said.

I started laughing again. Pinkie started laughing and Twilight fell down and just rolled around on the floor.

"Wait... oh," Applejack said, then laughed loudly.

"I do not get it," Dash said.

"Nor I," Rarity confessed. "Given Ivan and Marcus are unlikely to mate."

"I can tell what's on Fluttershy's mind," Applejack said, grinning.

"No, no it's just when men fight, it's usually over access to mates or hunting grounds," Fluttershy said.

"I'm not after Marcus' girlfriend, I'm just out to show him the error of his ways," Ivan said.

"Don't mind us," I said as we wrestled around. "You can finish checking things out in this room while we have this fight."

This fight Ivan was winning, dammit.

"So... are there paintings of all our ancestors here?" Dash said curiously.

"I would be surprised," Pinkie said. "But hey, I LIKE surprises."

"I had best conserve my strength; we can come back and try more if nothing turns out dangerous," Rarity said.

We were rolling around on the floor; I was trying to get my legs around Ivan's head, but he had me mostly pinned. This was not going well.

Erik would have won this, dammit.

Only one way to win.

CHEAT.

"Hey, look, it's Lunette naked," I whispered in his ear.

"I am not stupid enough to fall for that," he said and now definitely had me pinned.

Damnit, you fell for something equivalent the last time we did this.

Ivan triumphed and we now moved to begin exploring the rest of this floor.

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

The rest of the ground floor had been used as lab space and had a crude sleeping area, all of it dusty and long ago rusted, busted and worn out. There were stairs up and down and an elevator which relied on long ago faded magic. So we took the stairs.

The doors at the top had a ward. But it was old and frayed and Twilight easily took it apart. Beyond was... a library. A huge library of Blackmoorian books. Twilight and I stared at it all as if we'd just found a mountain of gold.

There was an enchantment of book preservation here. "This is INCREDIBLE," Twilight said. "Look at all this! LOOK AT IT!"

"Books I can't read," Dash said, "Big whoop." She looked bored.

"Spike, we have to catalog this!" Twilight said, sounding like a junkie who just found a pile of opium the size of the Thyatian empire.

"Later, sugarcube, once we're sure everything is safe," Applejack said.

"This is the perfect bait. One HINT of these books and Sammy and Dawn Gleaming will come running if they have to wade through all the armies of the Five Fiends," I said. The Church of Karameikos identifies five immortals of Entropy, the Five Fiends, as its greatest foes.

"I'll take just one... how can I take JUST ONE?" Twilight said, staring at them.

Dash grabbed a book and threw it to her. "Here you go."

It flopped open to a picture of a grand gleaming metal bird made of silver with blue metal runes. It flew against... no, it WAS in space. You could see Mystara down below it in one corner. "The Beagle II, modelled on the crashed ship found near Blackmoor City in the reign of the blessed Uther I," Twilight translated the caption. "Shown on its first voyage to the Hashalta star system."

Now Dash looked at it enviously. "Wow, that would be awesome. I wonder how fast I could fly in space."

"There's no air, so it would be a problem for you," Twilight said.

"No air? How do stars burn?" Dash asked.

"They are six major theories," Twilight began.

"And you can explain them later, when we don't have to worry about the Elements of Power showin' up," Applejack said.

"The form is good but it needs decoration," Rarity said. "Hmm, though the lighting in space could change as you moved around." She drifted into a reverie.

"There are more important things than the paint job on a spaceship," Twilight said, waggling a hoof at her.

"If you can afford that much metal, you can afford a little decoration, darling," Rarity said. She looked at me.

I know that look.

"Style AND substance is better than just substance," I told Twilight. I put an arm around Rarity. "A perfect example," I said and she put an arm around me.

"Hey, guys, I found a trap!" Pinkie shouted from the next room.

Oh bloody hell.

We all started running but Ivan led the pack. Herd. Whatever.

"Man, look at those blades!" she shouted. "They're so clean and shiny!"

There was an odd squelching noise. "It cut my pie perfectly! Sweet! But I can't eat while it's trying to kill me!"

I felt my gut clench and we found a pie (on the floor) and a Pinkie Pie (bouncing around as six blades try to ginsu her in a small grey room with a pair of doors with some sort of odd rune-pad lock). She couldn't quite get out due to being in the middle of the blades and if she wasn't so nimble, she'd have been mincemeat pie by now.

Rarity fired an arrow, jamming the mechanism on one of the blades and Ivan jammed a spike into the swingtrack of another. Twilight bent three of them with her magic and Spike fried the last one.

"Pinkie, don't go wanderin' off on your own!" Applejack dressed her down. "You could get hurt!"

The thought of that made my gut curdle. Pinkie drives me crazy sometimes but seeing her die... mangled... I couldn't take that.

It's okay. We'll be okay. No panicking now. Not in front of my girlfriend. I have some pride.

Sometimes.

Shut up.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't get in enough to see the book so I took a look around," Pinkie said apologetically. "What's it guarding?"

Twilight studied the door. "Records room." Her eyes widened. "Ooooh."

"That's a crazy ass trap to put guarding your records," Applejack said, frowning.

"Well, this place has been moved and messed with," I said. I was kind of eager to see what was in the records room too.

Twilight, Ivan, Rarity and I studied the lock. "There must be a code which opens it," Twilight said.

"Just randomly jamming buttons won't get you a lucky right guess, by the way," Pinkie said. "In case you were wondering."

That explains that.

"It could be anything," Twilight said, frustrated.

Ivan took the Lockpicks of Asterius. "Let's see if this works," he said, then touched it to them and concentrated.

Buttons depressed themselves and one of the lockpick's jewels stopped glowing. He had five more jewels.

And then the door swung open and we stepped into the vault.

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

The room was full of crystal balls on shelves, labelled. If you looked carefully, letters spilled around inside the ball. There were a half dozen stands on a table with chairs in the middle of the room. The air was very fresh and there was no dust at all, unlike everywhere else. Pinkie took great deep breaths and so did Applejack, then they both made happy noises.

Twilight studied the labels, then moved one onto the stand; it began to glow and images formed in the air over it.

A woman appeared with long blonde hair and brown eyes, her skin deeply tanned but probably naturally pale; she looked Anatalian to me. (The Anatalians live in Norwold, the Heldaan Freeholds, and the Northern Reaches. Tall, pale skinned and haired, strong, drunken, violent, fractious. When I was Erik, I looked Anatalian.) She wore a long white coat over a green shirt and black pants and brown boots. "Begin report 789-CA-81," Twilight said as the woman spoke. "I am Dr. Iricia Vals," she continued. "Something something pony something experiment."

I couldn't help but giggle and Twilight frowned.

"Shut up, Marcus," Spike said, frowning at me. "You can't do better."

"This generation demonstrates a great something of affection, at the price of a smaller size," Twilight said. "Something something growth something baby something watch."

A red coated pegasus with blond hair now flew down, and landed next to Dr. Iricia. It spoke in Blackmoorian.

"My name is Barrel Roll, and I love to fly," Twilight said for the pony. "Something something Dr. Iricia is my friend." The pony now hugged her and she looked embarrassed.

"Awwww," Dash and Fluttershy both said, then looked at each other. Fluttershy smiled brightly and Dash looked embarrassed.

"She ain't got no cutie mark but she must be as old as us. Or close," Applejack said, frowning.

"Ponies didn't get Cutie Marks until Celestia and Luna led them in revolt against the Orcs," Twilight said. "Aaargh, how do I rewind, we just missed some..."

Rarity, who had been silent to this point, now spoke, pointing to several glowing nodes on the stand. "One of these, I think."

The first one sent the record zooming forwards, but the next one sent it back. Twilight got back to the hug.

"Barrel Roll," Twilight said. The actual Blackmoorian word was 'Mante Kirish'. "Would you do some flying for us?"

Barrel Roll now went up and the view followed her as she flew high, then did a barrel roll and then flew down, then around the tower and back to Dr. Iricia. The landscape was totally different, a grassy field with corn growing in the distance and forest beyond that, the land gently rolling instead of a torn up wilderness tumbled by the ancient folly of Glantrian elves.

"Wow, this place has changed," Dash said. "Not bad, but clearly an amateur."

"Barrel Roll is of the first generation able to fly something without magical something; previous generations could only glide," Twilight said. "We hope to breed larger wings, allowing her descendents to carry more weight and something something something. Future Type Thought ponies will something something something."

"Her wings are the same size as mine," Dash said. "Did they fail?"

"I don't know. There may have been drawbacks," Twilight said.

The record continued with some more data and analysis of Barrel Roll flying and discussion of possible mates for her.

Then came discussion of another pegasus pony, a stallion named Hot Air who was a skilled weather manipulator and the possibilities this would open up for weather control and agriculture. I noted he was on the possibly mate list for Barrel Roll.

Then the record ended.

"They don't seem like bad people," Fluttershy said. "Or at least she isn't, and the other one was giving Jorla an apple."

Ivan had the not commenting face. I suspect I did too. I expect it's a case of where you can't help but love those you raise and yet the goal was to make ponies work for them. I don't know exactly how free they were.

"You know somethin'," Applejack said to Ivan flatly. "Spit it out or swallow."

Dash laughed and Ivan glared at her; she shut up. He sighed. "I expect some were nice and some were not. Raising these ponies probably triggered some paternal and maternal instinct. But in the end, they intended to sell them. Or at least their descendents," Ivan said. "Humans breed and sell animals all the time but they normally don't talk." He grimaced. "It bothers me."

"But without their wanting to do that, we wouldn't be here," Pinkie said softly, looking somber.

We all stood around uncomfortably, but then Pinkie said, "Sometimes life gives you lemons. That's when you have to go buy some sugar and flour and other stuff so you can make a lemon meringue pie!" She sounded determined to be cheerful.

"That's right," Fluttershy said. "Ponies breed some animals too. Like pigs. And we knew this all already." She spoke softly but firmly, then turned it up a notch. "Let's be grateful for the good, and forget the bad."

"You can't just forget the past," Twilight said. She sighed. "But dwelling on it too much isn't good either."

"We should check the last record," Spike said.

Twilight nodded. I was a little nervous about it.

I can smell incipient tragedy.

The sphere came out of its storage and into a reader.

"This is Dr. Iricia Morin," she said, but now she was an old woman with long gray hair in a pony-tail. She held a long carven staff in one hand, with gently pulsing runes. A staff of thunder and lightning. "This is my final report, if there's anyone left to report to. We have lost all communications with the rest of the province and snow has been falling for four days in the middle of summer. The pegasi have kept us snow-free but it's getting harder and harder. Worse, something something something beast-men something something coming. Dr. Moon's divinations show that the capital has been destroyed and fires burn across much of Blackmoor. Something something axis something shifted something something."

Dr. Moon came into sight. It was Asterius in a labcoat wearing glasses and a big black moustache. And a nice soft hat. When he spoke, we could understand him without translation. "Dr. Iricia, you have to go. The wards should hold the vault intact but it may be a very long time if ever before anyone watches this."

"Something something not be forgotten, something Barrel Roll."

Barrel Roll, also old with a mane turned grey and moving more slowly, now came into sight. She wore a crude spear rig. The spear was, in fact, clearly a sharpened table leg. "I'm ready," she said simply.

"Barrel Roll, you have to go," Dr. Moon said. "Your children and grandchildren need you."

"If you're not going, I am not going," Barrel Roll said stubbornly.

"Dr. Iricia," Dr. Moon began.

"My children are dead," she said softly. "Not that I ever paid them enough attention. Something something capital something dead."

"Dammit, Twilight, everytime you say something it is making me crazy," Dash said tensely.

"I can fight," Barrel Roll said. "I know what you all are going to do. Those of us too old to run are going with you."

"You will die," Dr. Iricia said, sounding guilty.

"If we slow the others down, they will die. I've had a long life," Barrel Roll said. "A good one with all my friends."

Dr. Moon looked quite pained. "Look, Dr. Iricia..."

"No," she said. "You must go with them and guide them. I am too old for this. I will sell my life for a very dear price," she said, looking at him and emphasizing sell and price. "They will find they cannot afford it."

"Do not be afraid," Dr. Moon said softly. "It is my principle that the worker is worthy of his hire. Your sacrifice will be rewarded. I will ensure they find a place of refuge."

"I... am I missing something?" Barrel Roll said.

"It's a human thing," Dr. Iricia said to her. "Let's go, then. Record out."

And it ended.

I was crying. We had a whole room of people openly crying (Fluttershy, Pinkie), trying to hide or suppress it (Dash, Applejack, Ivan, Spike), leaning on me and crying (Rarity), and looking somber (Twilight, me). I stroked Rarity's hair and held her close, until we all recovered.

"So what exactly were those two talking about?" Dash asked me.

"That was Asterius," I said. "Dr. Moon."

"No way," Dash said.

Applejack opened her mouth, shut it, sighed, then said, "It was Asterius. He helped our ancestors escape, remember?"

"But what about her?" Dash said. "Or whoever else they were going out with?"

"Forgotten," I told her. "Over time, details tend to be lost and forgotten."

"She died for them," Dash said urgently. "And they forgot her?" she sounded outraged.

Rarity now fumbled with the controls and called up Dr. Iricia. She fumbled some more and the image zoomed in; she was wearing a necklace. It shimmered and looked rather like Barrel Roll in tiny necklace form, flying. "It's the element of loyalty," she said softly.

"It looks totally different," Dash said, then touched her element and concentrated. It suddenly turned into a necklace of Barrel Roll for a few seconds, then back to normal. "No, you're right," she said softly. "So humans had them originally?"

"They're very ancient," Twilight said. "Possibly pre-dating humans."

And that is old.

"Older than the Carnifex?" Spike asked. The Carnifex were a race of huge reptillian humanoids who predate humanity; they lived at the time of the dinosaurs and fell in whatever catastrophe wiped out most of the dinosaurs. (Some dinosaurs survived somehow in odd corners of the world like the Thanegioth Archepelago.)

"I don't know," Twilight said. "But I guess she saw Barrel Roll as loyalty incarnate." She touched the turned off sphere for a moment. "Well, we could be here forever and I wouldn't mind spending a few days in here but we should make sure everything else is okay before we get locked in or something."

There were three more floors above ground and who knows what waits to eat us below.

Hopefully something with treasure, anyway.

"We should secure the library and records as much as we can; if this goes the way things usually do, this place is going to be on fire or turning into a volcano or flung into the Elemental Plane of Water by the time we are done," I said. "Keep enough bait for our foes but save most of it."

"I can't send all these books," Spike said.

"Load the bags, send the ones we can," I said. "Keep some as bait, but the rest, if we don't get them now, we won't have another chance, most likely."

So we all got to work.

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

Dash was supposed to be storing the memory spheres, but I found her watching them instead. "You can't even understand what they're saying," I told her.

"I can sort of get it if I focus hard," she said.

"Oh come on, you can't speak Ancient Blackmoorian by pure force of will," I told her.

She started another one up. A brown haired man in a labcoat was trying to teach a brown coated, starry maned pony colt how to hammer nails into boards to build... a chair. I think. "This is Dr. Birei," Dash said. "He works with the earth ponies. His son was killed recently in one of the Davanian colonies, so he's thrown himself into his work to compensate."

The pony was trying to imitate him but it had to hold the hammer in its mouth and it was having a hard time hitting the board. "No, no, you have to hit it from the top down," Dash said as Dr. Birei spoke. "Stuff I can't get you need leverage."

She pointed to the colt. "His name is Mifka. I think it means 'Jumper'."

I could feel power SURGING through her element and into her brain. Damn, that's a lot of power.

"Mifka can't ever admit he's wrong," Dash said. I could see Mifka protesting and then he and Dr. Birei began yelling at each other and someone we couldn't see was telling them to calm down (or so Dash said).

Another pony came in, a stallion with a brown coat and a black mane. He looked like an older version of Mifka, but without the glittering stars in his mane. He began telling his son to do what Dr. Birei said, while his son protested he knows what to do. The father was named Midnight.

"Okay, you can but we have to get these stored. Spike doesn't think it's safe to teleport them, so we have to take as many as we can."

"I'm trying to figure out which ones are most essential," Dash said. "But there's so many. I could be here for days."

I thought about her element. "Close your eyes and let your element guide you," I told her. "This is in line with your element, so it should help you."

She closed her eyes and then drew upon her element. "I have to preserve these so they won't be forgotten. So their sacrifice won't be forgotten." She shimmered and... something. Dammit, I felt power and something was different and I couldn't tell what.

And then she guided me to find the most important ones, which she loaded onto a cloud she made. The power of her element was woven into it, strengthening it and it comfortably held many of the spheres.

"But where do we put this?"

"I will pass it to the pegasi and they can tow it back to the ship," Dash said. "We can load up the books on it too."

Soon it was on its way and we were ready to check out the higher levels of this place.

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

The rest of the top of the tower had offices, long ago stripped of anything interesting, unfortunately. I did acquire something abandoned in a desk, a translucent card of blue crystal with runes; Twilight identified it as a personal identification item for a 'Dr. Yashti'; he was a middle aged man with a thin moustache but no beard.

One office was, for some reason, full of orc bones, stacked according to bone shape. They should have crumbled long ago and many did crumble when touched.

Now this meant going down underground. This was laboratory space; much of it long ago looted or converted to other purposes. Some of it had paintings slathered over the walls of Rathanhotep.

One room had a table with very fancy looking equipment arching over it, now utterly powerless, but clearly once a powerful magical device. Twilight studied it carefully. "You inserted fuel here," she said, pointing to a drawer. "Then it drew energy and let you manipulate the traits of unborn children in the womb to some degree, I think." She shivered. "Hugely abusable."

They all stared at it silently. Machines like this had helped make their kind what it is today. I can't even imagine how I would react to something like this. It kind of creeps me out even now.

Then Pinkie jumped into it and laid down on the table. "Make my future babies even cooler than me!" she said excitedly.

For a second, we all stared mindlessly, then Ivan made a gurgly noise and Twilight's eyes crossed and Spike's jaw dropped. Applejack grimaced and turned away and Fluttershy said, "Probably not wise."

Pinkie began hitting buttons and Rainbow Dash said softly, "Those are the scanner controls. It puts a picture of the baby on the wall over there. The manipulation controls are out of your reach on the other side."

How did she know that?

"You watched it used?" Twilight squeaked.

"Pinky, darling, you shouldn't make fun of it," Rarity said frowning. "It's... too serious."

"That's exactly WHY," Pinkie said. "Don't be afraid of it." Her voice was urgent. "This isn't something to be sad about. These people made us who we are. They're our fathers and mothers. And those aren't for sadness." Beat. "I wish they had told me they were hiding coolness from me a long time ago, though."

"They wanted to buy and sell us," Rarity said, frowning. "How could anyone do something like that? People aren't for sale."

"Slavery is a filthy thing," Ivan said. "We ought to just smash this thing up before someone can use it again."

"It has good uses too," Twilight said. "I doubt it even works after all this time."

"Slavers wouldn't die for their slaves," Dash said softly. "But the whole purpose of this place was to make ponies for sale." She stared at the floor. "I don't even... I'm not good at this kind of thing."

Pinkie looked frustrated. "Being gloomy doesn't help."

Fluttershy hugged Rainbow Dash, folding Dash in her wings. Now her serpent crawled out of her bag and 'hugged' Dash too, which I suspect may not have been as comforting as Slither hoped. "I love you, Dashie," she said softly. "Trust your heart."

"They didn't even get buried," Dash said, still staring at the floor, voice wobbling. "They just fell and the world changed and the ice buried them and they're all just lying there dead." Her voice was haunted. "And forgotten. Why were they forgotten?"

"It's been a very long time, and until Equestria was founded, Ponies didn't have any many chances to write things down and hold onto it," Twilight said, putting a hoof on Dash's shoulder. "Though I expect it's all in a book somewhere."

"Not unless Asterius wrote it," Ivan said. "He may not even remember, given it's been so long." He frowned. They're likely buried under snow pretty deep at this point, though. On the other hand, Rathanhotep dug this out of the ice and moved it here. A VERY long time ago, so likely the hole closed up.

"I have to find them, bury them, ensure they're not forgotten. Somehow," Dash said. "Am I going to be forgotten one day?" she said pained.

"I'm sure no one will ever forget your bravery and strength," Fluttershy said comfortingly.

We'll all be forgotten one day, I thought somberly, taking Rarity's hand. She comforted me by existing. "You saved the records, that will help," I told her. "Maybe you and Twilight could write a book together."

"No one could read a book Dash wrote," Spike said. "But she could dictate to me."

"I can write," Dash said angrily. "They need a monument. And a book. And... something. Something that will last." She paced in place agitatedly as Fluttershy embraced her.

"It's all so cold and unnatural," Applejack suddenly said gloomily. "Don't seem right that ponies got changed by a buncha machines and machine operators."

Pinkie pounced on her and began to tickle her, but Applejack didn't laugh and now Pinkie looked frustrated.

"Something that will last forever," Dash said agitatedly.

"Nothing lasts forever except the Immortals and sometimes not even then."

"Then I will have to become an Immortal," Dash said determinedly. "So that I can remember them. So that things... that people's sacrifices won't be forgotten. So they won't have lived in vain!"

Twilight's breath caught. Her lips moved wordlessly.

"It's not a thing easily embarked on. You've seen what it's done to me," I said somberly to Dash. Celestia will be pleased, though. "I don't want you to end up the mess I have."

"You're not a mess any more," Rarity said firmly. "That is a big commitment though, Dash."

"I need to know, who has worn this," Dash said, touching her Element. "What they did, who they helped, their great deeds, who they loved..." Her voice was urgent and she stopped shaking. She turned and looked intently at the machine. "We have to take this to Celestia. She'll know how to use it responsibly and not abuse its power."

"I think we ought to smash the damn thing up before someone tries to misuse it," Applejack said. "I trust Celestia but if ponies have this, eventually everyone will."

"I don't know if it can even be made to work anymore," I said.

"I think Dash is right," Twilight said.

"I'm with Applejack. Too much potential for abuse," Ivan said.

Rarity ran her fingers across it. "Such fine workmanship," she said softly. "Look how smooth these surfaces are, how well everything fits together. Our craftponies could learn lots of perfectly safe, unabusable things just from the metalworking, I think."

"I... I don't like it," Fluttershy said. "I think the Earth Mother would want me to get rid of it. It's not the natural way of breeding."

"I just want people to smile," Pinkie said. "I vote for whatever makes everyone happy." She sounded kind of lost.

"Moving this thing is going to be a pain," I said thoughtfully. If we leave it here long, I expect it will blow up.

"Is that a yes or a no vote?" Twilight asked me.

Oh fuck me, with Pinkie being depressed, I have the deciding vote.

I don't WANT to take sides on something I am not strongly convinced of either way.

"Can we actually take this thing?" I asked. "It's too big to fit through the mouth of a saddlebag."

"It'll fit real good if I kick it to bits," Applejack said, frowning at it.

"I bet Twilight and Rarity can disssemble it into smaller parts and make a... a chart to show how to fix it," Dash said. "They're smart like that."

"Thank you, Rainbow Dash," Rarity said proudly. "I was at the top of my class in school."

"Me too!" Twilight said excitedly. Spike laughed softly. Oh wait, he hasn't voted.

"What do you think, Spike?"

"That my aunt should never, ever be allowed to touch this thing."

I won't argue that.

He paused. "She's right behind me, isn't she," he said nervously.

"It's just me, Spike," Pinkie said quietly.

He now hugged her. "Cheer up," he said to her.

"Thanks, Spike," she said softly, embracing him clumsily.

"I don't like it. It's not natural," Applejack said.

"Because it means you're not natural," I said softly.

Applejack grimaced. "I kinda knew about this sort of thing but seein' it is different."

I know how she feels. I've been running from uncomfortable truths all my life. Hiding from my own past. My memories. Trying to just live in the now.

I can't let them do that. "If you destroy it, it would be a lie," I said and Applejack jumped. "You're the element of Honesty. Lie to yourself about this and you'll just spiral down into the pit like I did, running from my past. Because even if you pretend otherwise, the past is still there," I said. "Dash, are you really serious about this?"

"Yes," Dash said firmly. "I never... The past never seemed to matter to me. But seeing them... They were people. People. And people matter. They have to be remembered. This thing kind of creeps me out but it helped make us what we are today. All this stuff." She looked at Ivan. "That's why Asterius saved it for us, right?" she said.

"I... I'm not in constant contact," Ivan said. He grimaced at the machine. "We're all going to end up mutated or something, but..."

"You're not one to talk about lies, Marcus," Applejack said hotly.

"I know all about lies," I said. "I'm too good at them and I don't want you to end up like I did. If you destroy this, you're trying to lie to yourself about the past. You know the past can't be changed. We just remember it or run from it." I squeezed Rarity's hand. "No more running for me. Don't be like I was."

"You still owe me more service you know," she said.

"I know," I told her. "I'll be a long time making it up to you."

"Save it," Applejack said softly. "Marcus is right. I don't like it, but he's right." She looked at Dash. "Big ambition you've got there."

"I know," Dash said seriously.

"Gloom levels... stifling... can't speak... talking like...," Pinkie began.

Spike reached in her bag, got a pie and hit her in the face with it.

"Delicious sugar," she said urgently, then smiled a little. She swiped it up with her tongue while I stared at how long her tongue was, then she said, "Spike, you are the BEST dragon that ever was."

He laughed. "It was nothing you wouldn't do for me."

So she hit him in the face with a pie and they began rolling around, making a mess and laughing.

"Dash, did you see how to disassemble it?" Rarity asked Dash.

"No, just how to use it," Dash said. "This model has a thirty percent increase over the one they used on Barrel Roll's generation, though. In effectiveness. But it cost them an arm and a leg." She ambled over. "I'll help."

We got to work trying to quickly take the thing apart. There's a LOT more to be done here.

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

Twilight sent Luna a letter and we stored the pieces in Dash's saddlebags. She normally doesn't carry much in them beyond food and one of those Belcadizian air mattresses, which she really likes.

Slither began to hiss as we headed towards a security door, massively coated in dust. It had another code lock.

"What is it, Slither?" Fluttershy asked him.

Snakey noises ensued.

"Oh dear, he's hungry and I didn't bring any mice," she said.

"He has to eat live meat, right?" Twilight said.

"Yes, or I could give him some of the fish jerky I brought for Marcus and Ivan," Fluttershy said.

"We'll probably find him something soon," I said. I hope.

The door was labelled in dusty hieroglyphs of Nithian style. Twilight studied them and consulted a book. 'TOO DANGEROUS FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION,' she read off the door.

"Well, next door," Fluttershy said quickly.

"Surely there ain't nothing alive after all this time," Applejack said. "On the other hand, ain't no point in shoving our head in a lion's mouth, neither."

"We'll come back to it," Twilight said. "We need to check this whole place out."

I am wondering if someone has stolen that crown.

"We haven't found the crown yet," Rarity said.

This is why we are a good pair.

Rarity paused.

"Ahah!" She concentrated and her horn glowed softly.

She led us through the mess of rooms and down a level to where the air was cool and moist. This was actually pony quarters, long ago looted of anything even comfortable, let alone valuable.

Until...

One of the rooms had a well-executed wall painting of twenty or so ponies of all three kinds, including the one's we'd seen and many others. Each was posed doing something distinctive, from farming to carpentry to message delivery. There was even a pony with a magical wand in her mouth, despite being a unicorn.

Applejack studied the farmer, still looking kind of somber. "And there's Barrel Roll," Dash said approvingly, studying her; she was carrying messages in pouches.

One of them actually appeared to be doctoring a human, which made Fluttershy blink, but now she studied that green and purple pony carefully.

Twilight touched the wand-bearer and now the painting began to move and talk, making Fluttershy jump in surprise. "She's talking about she knows ten spells and hopes to learn more," Twilight said softly. "Something about learning to make potions and powders. And how she can make a magic... something."

"Sandwich," Dash said.

"It can't be sandwich," Twilight said.

"I could totally go for a spell to make magic sandwiches," Spike said.

Me too.

Each of the ponies, a mix of mares and stallions, spoke with their own voice when touched and delivered a little spiel about what they liked to do and things they hoped to do in the future. They mentioned lots of names of people not present as well.

"I wonder what this was for," Spike said.

"Clients," I said. "Likely part of showing how well the project was going and the prospects for useful results."

Another reminder of why this place was made. Dash carefully touched each painting and listened intently, her Element glowing, murmering to herself, and then we moved on.

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

"Wards, don't touch them," Twilight said when Pinkie reached for a door covered with runes and shapes. She slowly, carefully picked them apart, letting us into a laboratory room, covered with dust and full of reagents long ago dried up and gone bad, though some things were still good, like the bag of powdered amber or the small bag of rubies.

Spell books lined one wall on a bookshelf, and one stood open on a stand next to a summoning circle, a star inside a circle inside a square inside a circle. Candles, half melted and covered in dust, stood on electrum candlesticks which put them five feet off the ground.

"Don't touch the circle, Pinkie," Twilight said.

"I haven't even tried," she said.

"Yes, but you will, so don't," Twilight said.

"I can see a summoning circle and not touch it!" Pinkie said.

"Uh huh," Twilight said. "Not this time. Applejack, sit on Pinkie."

POUNCE!

I laughed and studied the books. Unfortunately, I am not very familiar with Nithian notation of spells.

Twilight busted out a book. "Hmm, he summoned a bone devil," she said. "Or was going to."

Bone devils are mid-ranking devils, which resemble a human skeleton with a scorpion tail. It's poisonous and they can terrify foes magically and tend to stab them with spears too.

I hope there's not one roaming around, especially since he would have been trapped in here A VERY LONG TIME and would likely be batshit insane.

"Wouldn't it have gone home by now?" Dash said.

"I hope so," Twilight said. "No one touch ANYTHING, until I say okay. Marcus, do you know much about summoning?"

"Not really," I said. "Fire is my best thing."

She sighed and nodded. "Spike, keep Pinkie off the summoning circle."

Pinkie and Applejack were rolling around, wrestling. Dash moved between them and the circle and Twilight now checked out everything carefully, removing wards. "This is a GREAT haul," she said excitedly. "There's a copy of the Menethoth Codex!"

"What, intact?" I said, stunned.

She made it fly around. "The whole thing! This is a great day for knowledge."

Rarity kneeled down by the summoning circle. "Twilight," she said.

"Yes?" Twilight said.

"This paint is fairly fresh."

Bloody hell.

"But there's dust on everything," Twilight said, frowning.

"Look at what good shape it's in," Rarity said, pointing. "No sign of lingering magic but it's been used."

Twilight frowned. "That's not good."

"So maybe there is a bone devil," Ivan said frowning.

"We haven't seen any sign of inhabitants, though," I said, frowning. "Maybe it's magical paint."

"I sense no magic," Rarity said.

"It could be hidden magic," I insisted.

She sighed. "I am a Unicorn, I can tell such things."

"The whole point of hiding the magic is so wizards and unicorns don't sense your hidden magic," I said. "Why else is there fresh paint with old dust on it?"

"Someone could put dust in the room to make it look unused," Dash said.

That's a paranoid person, I thought.

Rarity said, intently, "I am quite sure the paint is fresh and non-magical."

"You can't be sure of that," I said firmly back and we both stared at each other while everyone else shifted uncomfortably.

Finally, Twilight said, "There's no way to tell. We'll keep our eyes open. So let it go."

We both sagged a little and then she looked surprised at something. I said, "I do trust your judgement, dear, but something weird is going on here."

"I... yes," she said hesitantly, then pulled herself together. She took my hand and squeezed it. "I know you have reason to be paranoid about this kind of thing."

We continued on with me holding her right hand with my left and a sword in my right. That's dungeoneering with your ladyfriend for you.

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

We found a room full of tattered, crumbling strips of cloth. It had once held endless racks of uniforms but now they were all falling apart and covered with dust. Rarity mourned their death.

She then touched her hat and disguised her outfit as the usual labcoat, blouse, skirt combination the female researchers favored. "In memory of the fallen," she said. "A pity we can't save any of the fabric. Being able to use some in a special outfit would be quite intriguing to scholars."

"I would love that," Twilight said. "Hmm, I wonder if I can maybe save some of this somehow..." She began studying it and consulting several of her books.

"I love costumes," Pinkie said, bouncing over and touching a strip of cloth, which crumbled. "I suppose there's no way to reverse time."

"There's a spell to stop time but it's so powerful it really wipes you out. We'd have to use time travel," Twilight said.

Pinkie began digging in her saddlebags. "I have something here..."

We all froze, staring at her.

She pulled out a small snowglobe and shook it with enthusiasm. A voice sang, o/~ if I could turn back time o/~.

We all watched and...

Nothing.

"This used to work when I was little," Pinkie mumbled, a touch embarrassed.

When you probably imagined it, I thought.

"I have an idea, but I don't know if it would work," Spike said.

Curiously, Twilight turned to Spike. "Go on?"

"My fire, I can burn something and then it is teleported and put back together at the target. Maybe you could somehow modify my flame so I could burn some of this and then reconstitute it all fixed?" he said hopefully, then glanced at Rarity.

"We can try to create a spell to modify your flame," Twilight said. "Rarity, I will need your help since I am not knowledgeable in fabrics."

They destroyed about half the cloth remains but soon, Rarity had a pile of cloth by the time they finished, though she now needed a break.

We sat down and ate; fruit and sandwiches and jerky for the humans. Watching Applejack eat an apple in a lazy, disinterested way was kind of disturbing. I wanted to do something to cheer her up. But how?

I would have to think about that, though I could see Fluttershy trying gently to cheer her up and Pinkie more boisterously. Pinkie looked worried. Given Pinkie's talents of making people laugh, I can see why.

We spent another hour poking around several levels of mostly trashed, empty rooms. Some of them had little clues about the past, but I had a feeling that other than the crown... if it is here... we'd hit the jackpot. At least it wasn't full of traps and death.

And then I heard something. "Down the stairs," I said as we approached more stairs down. "There's something down there." The stairs in this place all had adjacent ramps. Probably for the benefit of the ponies.

"I'll check it out," Ivan said, fading into the shadows.

A few minutes later, we heard him running up the stairs. "UNDEAD," he shouted.

Bloody hell. We could hear the stamp of heavy feet. Mummies. With Nithians, you know mummies are somehow involved.

We got into formation and Dash moved over the stairs, while Fluttershy tossed seeds and grew vines. When Ivan came into sight, Dash grabbed him, carrying him over the vines, which tangled the mummies as they came into sight. "There were three rooms full of them standing at attention," Ivan said.

THREE ROOMS OF MUMMIES.

Spike, Applejack, Ivan, Dash, and I formed the front line, fighting the lead wave as they got tangled up. Rarity and Pinkie shelled them with missile fire while Fluttershy tangled them with vines and Slither hid inside her bags. Touching a mummy can infect you with mummy rot, so Applejack was wearing her fighting boots and Dash... had to make do with some knit bags of Rarity's stuck over her hooves which I hoped would be enough. My sword easily hacked them open and Ivan did his best to hold his foes while Spike burned them. Twilight threw the fire spell I'd taught her, burning mummies several at a time.

And then behind us, there was moaning and chanting.

MORE MUMMIES; they'd come up the stairs!

Fluttershy turned and threw more seeds and more vines to slow them down and Twilight hurled fire while the rest of us meleed our foes. Pinkie now switched, getting out her giant foam hand and singing an improvised song to empower us.

o/~ You're not my mummy.

o/~ So don't get too chummy.

o/~ You may think you're hot,

o/~ But I don't like mummy rot!

I could feel her bardic magic at work, strengthening my arm, guiding Dash's kicks, speeding Ivan's dodging and heating up Spike's firey breath.

We were going to win this. Probably a few of us were going to need Fluttershy to do cure disease rites on us, but we could do it. I felt a confidence in my companions which was almost confusing.

I ought to be scared shitless, but I knew I could rely on them.

A mummy hit my sword hard, disarming me, but Rarity pierced both his eyes at once and he stumbled back; I dropped, took my sword, and gutted him, then gave her a thumbs up before I returned to stab another one as it came at Applejack. She nailed it in the stomach and it fell and I beheaded it.

We fought and fought and fought until we were all tired, and our foes fell in droves. Dash kept scratching herself... we need some boots for her like Applejack's. Or something. She's going to need a cure and I think my foot is itching.

Finally, we all sat down and Fluttershy did first aid on everyone, while Dash blew all the mummy dust away. "Why the hay were there all these mummies down there?" Applejack asked as Fluttershy worked on her.

"Probably his mummy army," Twilight said. "Once we get down, we can check the rooms."

Spike and Rarity gathered all the mummy jewelry. They'd all had rings or necklaces or tiaras or bracers. It was a pretty sweet haul, I have to say.

But maybe a little too easy.

"Any sign of a crown?" I asked hopefully.

"That map may have lied to us," Ivan said. "Wouldn't old man whatever his name is have worn his crown to go kill his enemies?"

"Well, maybe he was saving it for his ascension," I said. I don't know why I care about that crown, I guess... it's been something that has kept preying on my mind for years now.

I gave a happy sigh nonetheless. "It's like a dream come true," I said softly.

"Not finding the crown?" Dash said, confused.

"I've wanted into this place for years and here I am with a good group I can rely on," I told her. "I am the luckiest man in the world."

"By saying that, you ensure something is going to turn us all into dogs or something," Ivan said. "I'm just hoping this guy had a magic sword."

"He was a wizard. I wouldn't bank on it," I told him.

"I will make you a magic sword," Twilight said. "I have books on it. If Hammer Fall and I work together, we can do it. Once we go home."

"I feel weird," Dash said, scratching herself again.

"Come here, you probably have the first stages of mummy rot," Fluttershy said, worried.

"That's why we need you to clear the dust, so we don't all get it," Twilight said.

Fluttershy got Dash to lay down and prayed over her and sang. Pinkie now hugged Applejack. "Come on, brighten up."

Applejack stared at her boots. "Just dunno what to think."

"Thinking isn't your strong suit," Dash said.

Applejack did not take the bait and Dash sighed.

"I think if I dress you up pretty, it will cheer you up," Rarity said, sitting down by her.

Applejack looked up at her, looking haunted. Geez, it is not that big a deal, is it? Just about every species has been monkeyed with at some point in the past.

"I dunno what's fake and what's not," Applejack said. "Maybe you should."

"What's natural is you being happy, brave, and strong," Pinkie said firmly. "It doesn't matter what happened long ago, it's who you are right now."

Flutterhugs did not avail, either. She'd finished treating Dash and moved on to Applejack.

"Ugh, I am sore all over," Dash said.

"Better stretch out some, loosen your muscles," Applejack said to Fluttershy's leg as Fluttershy worked on her.

"I ca... oh, you mean Applejack," Fluttershy said.

Dash began doing stretches.

"Fluttershy, you're a druid. What is natural and what is not?" I asked her, hoping she would have sage words of wisdom for Applejack.

"Acting according to your nature," Fluttershy said. "Humans make tools, beavers build dams, wolves eat cute bunnies because they are MEAN," she said. "Bad, bad wolves who will have to be punished," she said firmly.

There was a hint of thunder in her eyes. But then she relaxed. "You being a farmer is your nature, Applejack."

"Yeah, but it seems like our nature wasn't very natural," Applejack said gloomily. "Like I was made to be a farmer."

"You were, it was your destiny," Dash said. "Like I was born to be the greatest racer ever and... that's it!" she said with sudden excitement.

What?" Twilight said to her.

"I'm going to build a... thing. A museum. For all of them. A giant monument, museum, monolith thing that will last forever and all those who were forgotten will be honored there." She kicked the wall in a series of blows, carving a letter into it. "Maybe carve it into the side of a mountain. Mountains endure, right?"

"If properly maintained," Pinkie said. "You'd need some earth ponies to keep it from eventually being worn away by water."

"Magic rock," Dash said. "I'll figure out something." She squirmed. "Damn, why am I so sore?"

"We did a lot of fighting, Dash. I'm kinda sore too," Applejack said. "It'll be fine." She sighed.

Applejack continued to be mopetastic, which frankly, felt rather unnatural. Finally, we got cleaned up and everyone was cured and aching-complaint edition Dash led the way down the stairs and ramp.

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

"Normally, you build the monument to yourself," Ivan said. "But I think you'd make a great epic hero path person like me."

Ivan the epic hero just seems wrong to me not that I really have any room to complain.

Dash and Ivan were talking Immortality as we walked down a long hallway past a series of rooms which used to have mummies and unfortunately lacked an explanation of why. Two more rooms had bones and mummification equipment, along with a big book on making mummies.

However...

"Ooh, magic robes," Twilight said, as she and Rarity studied a set of golden and black robes hanging on a peg in the mummification room. Twilight picked them up with her magic and they changed into a form suitable for ponies.

Before anyone could stop her, Pinkie donned them and then reared. "I am the mighty Piehotep, Priestess of Isis! All shall worship me and DESPAIR!"

Even gloomy Applejack laughed at that.

"Some kind of protective magic," Twilight said.

"Maybe it protects you from mummy rot?" I suggested. "It would be logical to wear something like that when making monster mummies."

Dash made discomfort noises and stomped around the room, looking at the tools. "This looks like the stuff we used to dissect frogs in school."

Rarity made a face. "Do NOT remind me."

Applejack said, "It's just frogs. It's... okay, it's probably not natural for a pony to dissect a frog," she mumbled.

"Well, to make a mummy, you had to cut them open, remove the internal organs that rot easily, stuff them with spices and mystical ungents, then sew them back up and wrap them in the prepared bandages. Things like removing the brain through the nose," Twilight said.

Most of our group made noises at that and Fluttershy hid behind Ivan.

"Did they eat the organs?" Dash asked.

I grimaced. "Humans don't eat other humans. They put them in jars, right?"

"Yes," Twilight said.

Dash looked around. "Where did the organs go for all those mummies we fought?"

"Good question," I said.

Ivan began studying the room carefully with Fluttershy trailing along behind him.

Nothing.

Twilight said, "I think this is a robe of protection."

"I need a staff," Pinkie Pie said. "And an army of undead slaves!"

"Dr. Iricia had a staff," Dash said. "It's probably frozen under the ice with her." Streeeetch. "Going to have to make sure she got buried and the others too."

"We should probably give Dash the robes," Twilight said.

"Pinkie can have them," Dash said. "They'd get in the way of my wings."

"They should change to accomodate your body," Twilight told her. "And it will keep off mummy rot, among other things."

"Oh man," Dash said, but she let us dress her in the robes, which shifted shape to fit her. "Way too girly."

"It was originally worn by a man," I said.

"Well, he needed to dress more manly, like Soarin'," Dash said.

"Soarin' wears a unisex outfit also worn by female Wonderbolts," Twilight pointed out.

"He's a man's man!," Dash protested.

"He is quite manly, just not as manly as my Marcus," Rarity said, accomodatingly.

I put an arm around her. "And you are quite womanly my dear."

Kiss.

Applejack's sighing would have made me punch her if not for my own copious past whining, which inclined me to at least moderate my complaints.

So I kept my mouth shut and focused instead on exploration.

And listening to Dash complain about the robe. At least Fluttershy won't whine.

"Oh no, I stepped in something!" she said.

Ack.

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

The next room down was full of organ jars, organized on shelves and bookcases with labels. There were a lot of empty shelves. "We'll come back for these and bury them so their souls can rest, later," Twilight said. "Leave them be for now."

The next door, Fluttershy said, "Stop," before anyone could open it.

"It's just another work lab," Twilight said, pointing to the inscription.

"Something TERRIBLE is inside," Fluttershy said. "A horribly unnatural creature."

"We have to neutralize it BEFORE we lure our foes in and we've checked everywhere else except the 'danger' area," Twilight said.

I wasn't getting any danger pings beyond the usual but I sometimes get blindsided.

"There's jewels inside," Rarity said. "Just mentioning it."

"Jewels," Spike said, drooling a little.

"I think it's a bad idea," Fluttershy said.

"Well, we ain't natural either. Might as well say hello to the freak of nature," Applejack muttered.

"I'm nervous but I don't want to leave this behind us," Twilight said.

"I am sure we can handle it," Rarity said firmly.

Or maybe you just want the treasure you can sense in there.

Not that I have ANY room to talk at all.

"Maybe it's the bone devil," Ivan said. "It may have been summoned and then used to guard the man's treasure."

"It must be bored as hay by now," Dash said. "Sitting in the same room for thousands of years? Man." She sounded horrified.

"Bone devils can summon more bone devils," I said. "So we would need to kill it hard and fast."

"Can the ones it summons summon more?" Dash asked.

"Yes," Twilight said.

"And then those summon more," Dash continued.

"Like Parasprites if they were six feet tall with a spear and a poison tail," Twilight said.

Dash grimaced. "Pinkie, get the music ready."

Pinkie's music rig was... huge. A bunch of instruments rigged together to play all at once. I don't know what it does, but I assume it's for disrupting summons. Can't argue with that.

What was inside was another trashed laboratory area, but at the far end of it was a huge metal cylinder with gems set into it. It was about the size of three kegs of alcohol stacked on top of each other. A half dozen wands stuck out of it and a WALL of magic hit us from it. Further, there was a crate next to it full of bricks of a shiny black stone, reminscent of obsidian except that iridescent rainbows of light bounced back and forth across the surfaces of each one. They felt like a WALL OF MAGIC too. Something was howling inside the cylinder; howling fit to wake the dead, though the door had somehow stopped this. Or maybe it sensed our arrival. Runes had been slathered all over it and it had a slot, clearly to insert the bricks, also covered with runes. There was a book open on the lab table.

Twilight studied the book and blanched. "He summoned the bone devil, trapped it in this device and drained off its magic, then let it refill, then drained it again... Eventually it makes a brick, which then gets stored in the box."

"It hasn't made many bricks," Pinkie said, frowning.

"It probably takes an awful lot of power," I said. "It may use a lot of the power keeping it contained."

"Or the brick making bit broke," Spike said.

Applejack said, "We need to let the poor thing out." She grimaced. "THIS is unnatural. I know that much."

"It is a BONE DEVIL," I said. "It will try to kill us all."

"It don't matter, nothing deserves that much torment," Applejack said.

Rarity grimaced as she listened to it. "I can't stand to leave something in pain like that."

Ivan said, "I'm with Marcus. This thing is going to blame us and try to kill us."

Pinkie shivered. "We have to try. Even if it does try to kill us, it's surely atoned for its sins by now."

I thought about how long this thing has been stuck in here and I grimaced myself. "I..."

Dash looked torn, but Fluttershy clearly didn't like the idea of leaving it in.

Spike opened his mouth, looked at me, grimaced, then said, "Marcus is right. This thing is pure evil and if we free it, it may kill a bunch of people."

"I can at least try to banish it," Twilight said. "But I can't bear to leave it in pain. AND," she said, now looking right at me determinedly. "If we leave it, you know it will somehow break free and take us from behind when we confront the Elements of Power. Right, Marcus?"

Hoist on my own damn petard.

"I owe you," I said. "So I will yield to you. You are our leader, Twilight." But I know this is going to be bad. But she's right about it breaking loose, dammit.

I know how this goes.

"Let's move the magic," Twilight said. "So it doesn't suck it all back up and become a Roaring Demon or something."

YES, let's get it somewhere SAFE.

We hauled it WAY upstairs to the library where there was hopefully no chance that the bone devil would somehow get it back during the inevitable fight. Twilight carefully put up anti-scrying and anti-teleport wards to try and keep it from teleporting up and snagging the stuff. I was wary about not keeping it closer, but closer meant the bone devil would INEVITABLY get hold of it. We also got Keen Eyes and his men to stand guard on it with just two Pegasi hidden outside to watch for trouble.

Okay, let us hope things go well.

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

Really, we ought to be able to take down a bone devil. I'm just paranoid it will somehow be all-powerful and destroy us all.

Or that it will blow up.

We were all in the hallway with the door open and Twilight had put up protective wards to contain any big booms. Then she reached in and poked a hole in the thing with magic.

At that very moment, a letter fell onto Twilight.

The thing inside howled with triumph. Energy surged out of it and formed into a Bone Devil, a nine foot tall humanoid skeleton with a bony scorpion tail and a spear made of bone. A wash of energy flooded out of the machine, tearing apart the teleport wards Twilight had put in the room. DAMMIT.

He reared up and...

Teleported away.

Twilight cursed in Nithian.

"Well, that was anti-climactic," Pinkie said.

"We had best make for the library and defend it," I said. "It may have just left but it may be able to sense all that magic somehow."

As we ran, Twilight read the letter. She said the Elements of Power were on their way here by flying carpet. We had maybe ten minutes by her estimate. She and the Ghostly Gang were going in for the rescue.

"How did they know?" Ivan said, frustrated.

"Possibly they somehow noticed us going in and waited a while to let us get worn down," I said.

There was an explosion. From the area which was sealed off. FUCK.

"Keep going! To the library! And we need to get the soldiers!" Twilight said.

"I will round them up!" Dash said, pouring on the speed and blazing ahead of us.

I could hear monsters rampaging; what the hell was in that sealed area? FUCK.

We reached the ground floor; Keen Eyes and his men were there. We began making plans for a stand as the clock kept ticking down.

AND I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND THE DAMN CROWN.

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

Captain Keen Eyes and his men would have to hold the staircase / ramp up from the lower levels. The rest of us were going to go outside and deal with the Elements of Power, hiding ourselves. Magic and druid power quickly dug us a pit to hide in and grew plants over the top; we had collected the shielded magic bars and stashed some in everyone's saddlebags; something in my gut told me that SOMEONE would otherwise somehow get hold of them however we hid them.

At least the bone devil had not been able to find them.

We sent a message and waited for our foes to approach the place, while Fluttershy's new earthworm friends watched for our foes.

The good news was that our trap worked perfectly in terms of the Elements of Power not noticing us.

The bad news was that they cruised into the building at high speed, going by before we could pop out and say 'SURPRISE'.

Then we heard them crash and then the ROAR of monsters on the loose.

ACK.

We rose from our pit and rushed in. I prayed for no more disasters.

I know, I know, a foolish hope.

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

It is the way my brain works that I suddenly realized we'd put the dissassembled gene splicer in the same bag as some of the bricks of magic.

FUCK.

Too late to do anything about it. Except scream.

We arrived just in time to see Keen Eyes and Clarity facing off, even as his men fought a tide of... is that a giant mobile broccoli with arms and firing lighting from its upper head?

The other Elements of Power stood ready but Keen Eyes and Clarity faced each other, him looking angry, her looking determined, arrows hovering in the air but not advancing. "Father, you can't win this fight!" she said.

"It doesn't matter. I have sworn to Celestia and Luna and I will do my duty to the end," he said somberly. "I am a man of honor. Much as I would rather flush Samus Marcus down a toilet, I have stayed my hand for that reason."

Bring it, I thought angrily.

One of the earth pony soldiers went down and I winced. The soldiers were good but not up to our level. The staircase constricting the flow of monsters was hurting the ability of foes to deploy but it also reduced the number of them who could fight too.

"The carpet," Twilight whispered to me and I nodded.

"You shouldn't resist the urge to flush him," Spikey said. "He's a loser."

"He's not nearly so cool as my dear Sammy," Dawn Gleaming said dreamily.

Applejack stared at Apple Blossom uncertainly. "She looks so relaxed, so comfortable with who she is," Applejack said softly.

"She's embraced what she is," Pinkie said. "I don't know how you'll talk her around. Pinkamena wishes she could be different, but doesn't believe she can. But I WILL get through to her."

She had her invisible friends with her, which is NOT going to help. On the other hand, hopefully, we actually outpower them as the originals.

Captain Keen Eyes twitched. Loudly, he said, "Samus Marcus is a worthless piece of dung, but I nonetheless must hold with my loyalty to the princesses. You've all been suckered by an evil dragon immortal." He held out a hoof to Clarity.

"Hey, it's our evil twins!" Niccolo said, pointing us out and laughing.

Then there was a HUGE surge of power and Marjorie appeared. DAMMIT. "I am not an evil dragon immortal, mortal fool," she said angrily. "Bow to me or be destroyed!"

Apple Blossom studied Applejack, then said, "Not so sure now of your own rightness? To be aware of your own limitations is the beginning of wisdom, Mistress Golden Glove always said."

"She was such a stuck-up bitch," Applejack said, frowning at a memory.

"Only to fillies who couldn't be bothered to work on good manners and philosophy," Apple Blossom said. "We eventually became good friends."

Applejack winced at that. "And what about the farm?"

"We have a ton of relatives who wanted it and it's not like Big Mac wanted to leave. He is happy with it and I am happy for him," Apple Blossom said. "So you know the truth of our origins. Which if you hadn't skipped so much school, you would have known already."

"I knew, it just was meaningless word gumbo until I had to see it," Applejack said, frowning and not able to look Apple Blossom in the eye.

"Which one of us is running from the truth now?" Apple Blossom said, now producing a glass and filling it with a pitcher held with her tail.

Applejack stared at the ground, grimacing.

"You ready for your beating?" Rainbow Crash said to Dash.

"BRING IT," Dash said confidently.

"I refuse," Captain Keen Eyes said, staring Marjorie in the eyes. He is either the bravest or the most crazy pony alive.

Or both. It can be both.

The one good thing? If she is HERE, she can't be in her base stopping Luna and the Ghostly Gang rescuing the Radhirajah. Which means even if we all die horribly, they can escape with him and prevent the war and then when I reincarnate, I can haul everyone's remains back to Celestia for raising from the dead.

Or at least reincarnating.

I had better not end up a carp or something.

Fluttershy was rocking on her hooves, eyes closed, concentrating on something. But I felt only very small amounts of magic. I left her alone; best not to ruin her plan by distracting her.

Rarity watched Clarity and Marjorie intently. "Father!" she said urgently. She started to move towards him but now Clarity confronted her, though Clarity looked very nervous.

"Stay back," Clarity said.

The battle continued; some monsters were down but the soldier ponies couldn't keep these things down forever, dammit.

And now I remembered... our foes have Fire Swallow and Cruisin'! DAMMIT.

Aaargh, we should have... well, Lyra, Bon-Bon and Ditzy aren't really warriors and the others are kids and... dammit.

This was SUPPOSED to involve us having all those soldiers as help.

"Come with me," Pinkie said urgently to Pinkamena, as she stood, her allies clustered around her. "We love you and want you to come home."

Pinkamena grimaced. "If Father cared about me, he'd be here, but I see he's left me to my own devices again."

Pinkie winced, but said, "He has duties you know."

"And they were always more important than me," she lashed out at Pinkie.

But Pinkie didn't give up easily. "Father loves you. He TOLD you," she said urgently, sounding a little jealous. "And Mother too."

Pinkamena looked pained, though her friends chimed in that Pinkie was lying. Why create imaginary friends who tell you that everyone else is terrible? You'd just isolate yourself more.

But I guess she couldn't help it.

Spike closed his eyes and looked determined.

I pointed at Sammy. "Stop looking at my girlfriend's chest! You have a girlfriend, dammit!"

"HEY," Dawn Gleaming said. "Don't look at her when you have me!"

Heh.

They began arguing and I felt stupidly good.

Everything was about to explode, though.

"I can do it," Fluttershy whispered to herself. "Just think of who I care for and I can keep control. Slither, guide me. Angel Bunny, give me your strength. Rarity, give me your grace. Dashie, give me your speed."

What is she going to do? Turn into... I tried to imagine an amalgam of all those and my imagination melted, even as Slither now coiled around her and whispered into her ear.

Spike now ran over and kissed Clarity, whose eyes widened and then Spikey got mad and then all three of them yelled at each other.

GO SPIKE!

Rarity now ran over to her father. Crap. I can't let her go alone but shoving myself in front of Marjorie for that stuck-up arrogant bastard's sake...

She wants me most of all. He pissed her off but she's after my sword and my head. He's only here because...

Dammit, I lived longer between deaths when my conscience spent all its time sleeping off hangovers like a conscience is supposed to!

I ran over and stood in front of Keen Eyes. Damn my legs. "I can't let you kill him," I said. Damn him for drawing her fire.

With me in the room so I have to do something about it.

"YOU," she said angrily. "Clarity!"

Clarity turned from her argument. "I am BUSY settling this little domestic spat! Can't it wait?"

For one moment, Marjorie stared in disbelief. "No! We are going to kill these two idiots. I will give you the honor of killing Samus Marcus and I will dispose of Keen Eyes so you don't have to fight him."

"I can't just let Father die! He didn't understand! Give him another chance!" Clarity said desperately.

"I..." Marjorie got an odd look on her face and seemed to be struggling. "I am a..." She mumbled, "Why do I feel like this?"

Rarity made a little noise. She gets it.

I could see Dawn Gleaming and Twilight busy arguing over something and smiled a little. Then I looked back at Marjorie. She may be Immortal, but I bet this is her first substantial venture as anything but a dragon body. She isn't used to what it does to your mind. She is in an Alicorn body and it's influencing how she thinks. She doesn't want to hurt her follower, Clarity. Not just because it would make Clarity harder to control but BECAUSE it would hurt her.

I think it scares her.

But I also think she's likely strong willed enough to over come it. Possibly by just focusing on eating me.

"THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!" she shouted at me.

Bingo.

FUCK ME.

"You stole what was mine and I am TAKING IT BACK!" she shouted.

Rarity readied her arrows, as did Captain Keen Eye, knowing what was coming. Horrified, Clarity readied hers.

And then Marjorie's horn grew much longer and she began to lunge at me.

And that's when a gold dragon pounced on her, wrapping her in its coils. She was big but it was much bigger and it had a pink ridge of scales down its back. Gold dragons have no wings, just many legs and a snakey body and a weirdly horsey head.

Where the hell did a gold dragon come from?

Okay, I really should NOT look a gold dragon in the mouth. HELL YEAH GOLD DRAGON!

They're basically the most powerful dragons in the world. It was about thirty five feet long with a thirty foot tail and it... was wearing a golden torc and the Element of Kindness.

FLUTTERDRAGON.

I didn't know druids could turn into DRAGONS.

Her element was pumping power so maybe it let her step across the line. "I won't let you hurt my friends!" Flutterdragon rumbled. It began chanting everyone's names over and over, very loudly.

This, however, was the cue for the riot to commence.

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

"You can't impress me that easily you know," Captain Keen Eyes said to me now.

I could probably die writhing on a pike and you wouldn't be impressed, yes.

"But I am putting my trust in you to protect Rarity while I help my men," he continued.

"Of course," I told him. And then we had to part because all hell had broken loose.

Hordes of freaky plant-men were coming up the stairs and Keen Eyes sent a barrage of arrows into them, taking a dozen of them down at once. Then he began collecting fallen arrows to rearm.

Sammy came at me now with his sword and we began to clash blade to blade; I tried to stick close to Rarity but this made it harder to fend off his attacks. Fortunately, he wasn't being backed up, and Twilight was now taking on Dawn Gleaming, forcing her to dodge lighting balls coming from all directions.

Rarity, meanwhile, was arrow duelling Clarity while Spike and Spikey rolled around, punching and wrestling and shouting about who saw Rarity / Clarity first.

"Man, you look SO GIRLY in that outfit," Crash mocked Dash, who looked quite irritated.

Dash pointed at the three enemy pegasi (who were not Dragonfly). "I am faster than ALL of you combined!"

"Bullshit! I am the Power of EXCELLENCE," Rainbow Crash said.

"I am the Power of SEXINESS," Cruisin' said and struck a pose.

For a moment, Dash stared, then she slapped herself and Fire Swallow laughed. "You want a race? We will kick your MISERABLE ASS."

"Hah! To the cloud over your base and back!" Dash said.

To the... ahahahah! Go get 'em, Dash!

"Fine! OFF WE GO!"

They zoomed off and I blessed Dash for showing some cunning. That's the way to do it.

HAVE FUN WITH THE GIANT BATTLESHIP, SUCKERS!!!!!

Pinkie was still wearing her musical instrument rig, not having had time to take it off. She now began setting a beat with her drum. "There is only one way to settle this! DANCEOFF!"

"Fine! We'll see who is the REAL bard around here!" Pinkamena grimly put on clogs, then began clog dancing as her four flunkies produced a cello, two violins and a viola and began playing. Pinkie played her drum and accompanied them as Pinkamena began to... sort of get down loudly.

"Behold the beauty of the sacred clog dance of Kagyar!," Sir Lintsalot proclaimed.

AHAHAHA.

Pinkie began to clog dance as well AND play her drum at the same time. No small feat. Her element glowed brightly as she laughed, dancing in unison with Pinkamena.

"You can't hide from me forever," Niccolo said, stalking around. "But you always were better at running than standing up to people."

Ivan slid out of the shadows and kicked Niccolo in the nuts.

"Except maybe for a sneaky..."

Ivan kicked Niccolo down and grappled him, not speaking.

"Hah! You have no ans...urrrrrggh!" Niccolo began getting twisted around.

HAH.

"Natural is a useless concept," Apple Blossom said to Applejack. "You can become whatever you want to be, if you stick to it. Elegance is not something you are born with, it is something acquired through hard work, patience, and practice. I have to constantly acquire new skills and learn the latest news and fashions. I look good through dedication and hard work. The secret is that I make it LOOK effortless and easy." She sipped her drink delicately. "But because I studied hard and didn't give up the first time I got homesick, I became the very avatar of Elegance."

Now Applejack looked even more lost and confused. Someone needed to step in and reinforce her, but I was too busy trying to not be stabbed to death, a necessary endeavour if I was to help anyone ever again.

Sorry, Applejack. As it stood, we were lucky Flutterdragon was keeping our foe busy.

Hopefully, she could hold off Majorie long enough to... oh crap, no one is fighting Dragonshy!

Lightning rained down on the soldiers; they scattered and the monsters erupted into the room.

FUCK!

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

DITZY-VISION:

How do I always end up in the middle of all this kind of thing? And Dinky too!

I'm a bad mother.

That made me feel depressed.

Plus, everyone on the bridge of the Moonraker kept staring at me for some reason. They were all working very hard, but every so often, someone would glance at me, look embarrassed and turn away.

I'm used to it. It used to make me sad a lot but I finally got to where I accept that I just look different because of my eye problem and that's just the way it is. For my little girl, I can accept anything.

Carrot Top tells me it's not a good idea to put so many eggs in one basket, but I can't help it. She's my everything. For her, I can face anything and do anything.

I mean, there's other people dear to me too. Doctor Whooves, Carrot Top, my co-workers, and so on. But she has to be my main focus.

I don't focus easily, unfortunately. My brain is as wandering as my eyes, it seems like.

Lyra strode around the bridge like she owned it; she'd taken some of that candy and turned herself into a human again and was now busy touching things and swinging swords around DANGEROUSLY despite me reminding her that if she loses her grip, they're going to hit somepony.

If Lyra had a daughter, she'd probably trade her child for magic beans then forget and cook them into a stew. I don't get what Bon-Bon finds so attractive about her. But then, I used to go for guys like that.

The artistic types seem attractive when you're young and naive, always having adventures and making beautiful things.

And when they get bored of you, they move and you never see them again.

Stupid Ponet and his stupid paintings. I should never have been stupid enough to be his lady.

But then, I wouldn't have Dinky.

Aaargh.

Dinky was busy operating one of the monitor consoles. "Wind from the northwest, four knots," she announced. I felt so proud of her, helping to pilot this boat. Tree. Treehouse. Whatever it is.

Scootaloo proudly turned the wheel slightly, adjusting for wind changes to keep our position. Distantly, you could hear the rumble of earth ponies running in huge wheels to turn the propellers used for navigation and manuevering when the wind isn't suitable. The sails rumbled and adjusted.

I feel bad for her; you'd think all this would get her a cutie mark by now, but I guess that moment hasn't come. I won a bubble blowing contest, but I'm sure you've heard THAT story a thousand times from Dinky.

Or me.

Okay, I do still brag about it.

Sitting at another monitor station, trying to sound deep and serious, Twist said, "Rainbow Dash approaching."

"What do you mean Rainbow Dash approaching? She's in a dungeon miles away!" Apple Bloom said at her station. She was monitoring internal systems.

"It's her, but she's being chased by Rainbow Crash, Cruisin' and Fire Swallow," Twist said.

"Dinky, you stay here and DO NOT LEAVE THE BRIDGE," I said. I have to help Rainbow Dash, even though I'm not very good at fighting.

"Yes, mom," Dinky said on auto-pilot.

Scootaloo hit the death ray button but it still, thankfully, doesn't do anything.

"Sweetie, arm the wave motion cannon," Lyra said.

Sweetie nodded and hit several buttons. Huge noises of building power began to pulse; I could feel them and I don't even have a horn.

At least, I hope it's not indigestion.

"God Hand, Blue Spike, Carrot Muncher, bring the wave motion gun into position. Aim at them; I will sigal Dash to rise out of the shot," Lyra said, then began playing her harp and singing.

Bon-Bon now began putting on some sort of elaborate rig apparently intended to put a giant candycane on her back, poking over one shoulder.

I don't get it.

The crew all looked somewhat nervous. Given most of the weapons on this thing have not been properly tested, I really, really can't blame them.

"Don't worry," I said to God Hand, a muscular Earth pony in a pirate outfit. "I have confidence in Apple Bloom's work. She's a good kid." Actually, I am scared out of my mind but telling people to panic is unlikely to help.

For some reason, everyone relaxed at that.

I decided it best not to question things; Apple Bloom was smiling brightly.

I'd donned a pirate outfit myself. I now adjusted it carefully so it wouldn't snare me or the kerchief fall down over my eyes. That happened last Nightmare Night and I accidentally spiked the pumpkin juice and then half the kids in town got drunk and I was in trouble FOREVER.

I felt guilty too; Mothers have to be EXTRA responsible.

A timer binged. "The Wave Motion Gun is ready."

"Message sent," Lyra announced.

Dash suddenly cut upwards and Scootaloo hit the death ray button. This STILL did nothing but now the firing officers actually hit the fire controls for it.

WHOOM

WOOM WHOOM

WHOOM WHOOM WHOOM

WHHHOOOOMMMM WWWWHHHHOOOOMMMM WWWWWWHHHHHOOOOMMMMMM

And then the sound of waves hitting the shore echoed powerfully through the ship, the endless crash of waves on the shore. It was so comfortable and relaxing and we all made a happy sigh for three seconds.

Then Scootaloo said, "THAT WAS NOT A BIG BOOM!!!!"

"Look, there's not a major difference between naiads and dryads, right?" Apple Bloom said weakly.

"..." I derped even more than usual in shock.

Our foes rose, chasing Rainbow Dash.

"All gun positions, fire when ready," Lyra said. "Fire at will."

The lightning wands, fireball wands, fire hoses, arrow rigs and others opened up, forcing our foes to scatter. Rainbow Crash stayed on Dash's tail but now Dash bobbed and weaved through the hail of fire, trying to lure Crash into the shots. WOW, she is good.

"GO RAINBOW DASH! TRY TO KILL HER HARDER SO SHE CAN SHOW WE CAN'T!" Scootaloo shouted.

I think she's getting too worked up.

Fire Swallow dove for the engine room, while Cruisin' arched around to charge the bridge.

Lyra now jumped onto Bon-Bon's back. "The engine room!" she said. "Ditzy, I leave you in high command! We will save the engines!"

Bon-Bon took off with Lyra trying to share her back with the candy-cane rig. What actually happened was that Lyra's legs dragged on the ground and she barely stayed on and kept banging into the walls. "OWWW!!!!" she shouted as she reverberated out of sight.

"Twist, you drive! I have to help Rainbow Dash!" Scootaloo shouted and bolted.

"No, come back!" I shouted but she was gone on her scooter.

Twist ran over and took the wheel, then wrenched us around so that the bridge now faced west, staving off Cruising for a short time as he circled. I began shouting orders as the men moved the weapons to fire at Cruisin'. Everyone kept calling me 'General Hooves'. I don't even know how the whole nickname got started. I think I must have been mistaken for someone else.

I wish the Doctor was here; he'd know what to do. But he went back to Ponyville to pout over being called my sidekick. He said it was to work on repairs and an invention but I know pouting when I see it.

I am a mother.

"Sweetie, I need you to predict his movements," I told her.

"He's coming to the bridge," she said soon after.

I KNEW THAT.

"What's his plan?"

Shuffle shuffle, cut deal.

"To seduce whoever is in charge," she said, then turned red.

"Hah," God Hand said. "He picked the wrong general to seduce."

I adjusted my kerchief and parrot. Stupid dead parrot keeps falling down but it's traditional.

I wish I was as confident as God Hand is for some reason. I mean, I don't know why he's so confident. I mainly have remained unseduced due to lack of attempts. I'd never had many boyfriends before Ponet and then he... he...

I hate him so much and I wish all his milk would GO BAD.

So there, I said it.

"Seal the hatches, raise the shields," I said.

Buttons where hit and metal shields slid into place. Apple Bloom clicked on the scrying panel so we could see out by scrying.

But then there was a polite knock on the hatch and I nearly opened it before I remembered it was CRUISIN'.

Stupid manners.

But then Dinky opened the hatch, having been trained by me too well to be polite and answer the door when I'm busy.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

Cruisin' stepped in; four marines rushed him and he laid them out with a spinning storm. I moved between him and the children. "I can't let you pass." I said firmly. "Dinky, always ask who is there before you let strangers in the flying tree!"

"Sorry, mom," Dinky said, embarrassed.

"Young man, you are not invited and I am going to have to ask you to leave," I said sternly to him.

He flew over to me and hovered, showing off his fine body. I couldn't help but look at him. I'm still a woman, you know. He was so handsome. And he wanted me and we both knew it and it made me shiver.

"Fair lady, I could not stay away," he said, reaching out to me.

I tapped the side of my nose and Apple Bloom nodded. I hoped she remembered what that means.

"Yes, let's get... ice cream," I said, nodding meaningfully at Cruisin' as I took his hoof.

Apple Bloom began hitting buttons.

"Hey, I want ice cream!" Sweetie said.

"Later, dear, you're on bridge duty, but I have to see to our... guest." I tried to sound sultry but I suspect I sounded squeaky.

Then I led him out, down a staircase and out to wing C, Room PT. I led him in and struck a pose by the bed. He advanced eagerly.

Once I get him on the bed.

He pounced, I panicked and fell on the bed; it spun upside down and then right side back up, rotating over a pit trap with both of us on it and we both yelled as we flopped in and out of the pit trap, until finally we both fell into the pit. I threw up a haze of bubbles to blind him, knowing that I could see and he could not; he tried to fly out and I grappled his wings and let us fall down the chute, bouncing off the walls as he tried to get me off his back.

We hit a pile of mattresses at the bottom and bounced into a cage. He got free, tried to escape, hit the cage walls and the cage began moving along a track as blunted arrows shot at us; he couldn't dodge as he couldn't SEE and I could. So I flailed around dodging while he kept getting clobbered.

One of my hooves got stuck in the cage mesh somehow and I hung there like meat with him bouncing around, hitting the walls, hitting me and yelping, while I screamed instinctively.

Usually this causes the Doctor to come and save the day or somehow my screaming triggers events which save me. But this time I just banged around as the cage herked and jerked and now the firehoses opened up on us. I turned the ones coming at me into bubbles as much as I could. HAH!

Cruisin' couldn't focus enough to use his own pegasus powers over weather to try and manipulate the water, thankfully, and Apple Bloom kept him off balance. I assume she's running this, anyway.

I hope he passes out before I do or this is going to get uncomfortable.

Then I realized... I am CLEAN. I am getting a GREAT bath out of this.

My brain drifted away to imagine an automated bathhouse. Oooh, I bet we could reconfigure part of ELSIE to do this...

I let my brain begin drawing up plans while my body tried to avoid the usual beating.

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

MARCUS-O-VISION:

There was a kind of low-budget beholder among our foes; it only had five eye stalks and was kind of slow. Captain Keen Eyes blinded all its eyes at once and then it exploded for no reason, raining down red and green dust on many of the monsters, who began to writhe angrily.

What the hell?

I was too busy fighting round and round the floor with Sammy. He was good. Better than me, which should NOT be the case for a COPY. I had a better blade but with the whole 'no killing' thing, that didn't help much.

Dammit.

Nature may be red of fang and claw but ponies are not.

Also, killing another version of me would kind of creep me out, really. He, on the other hand, doesn't seem worried, which REALLY annoys me.

"So what's your secret origin, anyway?" I asked him.

"I exploded from the head of Ixion, because I was that awesome," he lied.

I hope.

"Oh come on, we both know that only worked once and only because everyone was drunk off their ass," I said.

"I left Belcadiz and met Dawn Gleaming, we fell in love, I settled down. Nothing really secret. I wish you'd stop stabbing me so I could set you on fire, though." He kept anticipating my attacks, dammit. Then he would counter-attack and force me back.

"Weren't you worried about Celestia killing you?"

"Only an idiot would think that," he said.

DAMN YOU.

I got aggressive, nailed his side, but he got me in return. Dammit. I do not need a wound.

Flutterdragon and Marjorie parted us by rolling right over our position as we both ran for cover; they crashed into a wall, dented it, and kept writhing around.

"I am the greatest wizard ever to... my hat!" Dawn Gleaming said as Twilight pulled her hat down over her face, then teleported next to her and kicked her. "Wizards do not kick!"

"I learned bucking from the best bucker in Equestria!" Twilight said.

Then a bunch of black tentacles grabbed her. "HEY!"

"While I was busy learning spells. Typical," Dawn Gleaming said. "You can't actually beat me with wizardry, so you resort to violence." She shook her head. "Sad."

"This IS violence!," Twilight said writhing. I wanted to help her, but I couldn't get to her. Being caught in your own spell has to be embarrassing, though.

"This. Is. WIZARDRY! AHAHAHAHAH!" Dawn Gleaming cackled.

"Twilight!" Applejack said, but Apple Blossom cut her off.

"We haven't finished our tea party," Apple Blossom said to Applejack. "And magic isn't natural, right? So why should you help a magician?"

"It's natural for unicorns," Applejack said, frowning.

"Because humans made it that way," Apple Blossom said, sipping her drink. "Would you like something to drink?"

"No thanks," Applejack said, though she sniffed the air and liked the smell of it. "I always did like Aunt Orange's Speculares, though." The Speculares is an orange-based drink from Specularum in Karameikos. It's become quite popular there and in Thyatis.

"Anyway, no farmer can afford to revere nature," Apple Blossom continued.

"Say what? You have to be in sync with nature," Applejack protested.

"The Everfree Forest and the rest of the world is nature. Don't you find that creepy?" she asked.

"Uhh, yeah," Applejack says. "What pony doesn't?"

"THAT is nature. You have hardly known nature at all. Everything in Equestria is managed, not natural. We determine the weather, the soil, everything. Why do you think your yields are so high? Some of it is natural to you as an Earth Pony. But if you lived in Karameikos, you'd have smaller yields. Nature is meant to be controlled, not surrendered to," Apple Blossom said. "You don't want to be natural, you want to control it, to make it feed you and yours and your friends and neighbors."

"Ain't nothing wrong with that!" Applejack said angrily. "What I do helps people!"

"I agree. My family sells food, after all. But it isn't natural. To be civilized, intelligent, that is the antithesis of nature. Nature is the dragon eating ponies because it is hungry, the wolf at the throat of the sheep, the poisonous plants trying to fend off predators. Predators like US. Remember, you may not eat meat but plants are alive too." Apple Blossom swirled her drink and finished it. "Nature is chaos, wild and untamed and dangerous and unlivable by civilized folk like us for long unless we tame it and change its nature. You aren't natural any more than I am."

Applejack clearly had no idea how to answer that.

"RELEASE ME, MORTAL!" Marjorie shouted; she and Flutterdragon sent the clogdancers scampering, though I noticed Pinkamena and Pinkie both worked the disruption into their routine. But poor Mr. Turnip...

"MY CABBAGES!" he shouted as his cart was crushed and his cabbages scattered. He began to cry and Pinkamena tried to comfort him by drawing him into the clog dance with her.

"I will get you more," she promised him urgently. "I know they matter so much to you."

As Pinkamena comforted Mr. Turnip, Spike and Spikey continued their brawl and Rarity and Clarity their arrow duel. Unfortunately, Dragonfly was now chasing Keen Eyes and the remaining soldiers around the room and here came the tide of angry monsters who just wanted to eat everyone.

Worse, Rarity was oblivious to the coming onslaught of a half dozen giant fungal puffballs bouncing along towards her, tossing spores every time they hit the ground; they were green and pink but I suspected they would do far worse than mess up her dress' dye job.

I turned and set them on fire, but this let Sammy knock me down and now he cast a spell and I got grabbed by those damn black tentacles. The burning fungi went crashing into everything and now the place began to catch fire.

Of course it caught fire.

Damn me.

I writhed and Rarity yelled angrily but she was too busy trading shots with Clarity to be able to help me and... okay, Keen Eyes was never going to actually come help me but if the whim had struck him, he was busy anyway. And Twilight was caught in the same damn spell as me.

How the hell does this copy get to be a better wizard than me AND a better swordsman, anyway?

Hopefully, this is where Don Diego bursts in and saves me.

A few screams from me later, it was clear that Don Diego was NOT coming to the rescue this time.

The tentacles got tighter and I cursed everything ever.

But not Rarity, as this isn't her fault.

DAMMIT.

And where the hell is IVAN? Stupid shadow tricks, thinks he's so big, GET ME OUT OF THIS.

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

LYRA-O-VISION:

You know, this whole riding thing looks a lot easier than it is, though really the spear rig is in the way. I banged into a wall again.

"If you'd stayed a pony, you wouldn't keep hitting the wall," Bon-Bon said irritably.

She has me there, but I have a plan and I need HANDS for it.

It is a simple plan that simply MUST have hands.

However, my difficulties with riding are making me worry.

We reached the engine room before Fire Swallow; it consisted of a lot of complex machinery hooked to giant hamster wheels with earth ponies running to drive the engines. We now concealed ourselves and waited for Fire Swallow.

She now flew in and took a swig from a flask. Fire Swallow was about to spit fire on everything when I strummed my harp and cast Tasha's Irresistible Dance on her.

She is strong of flesh and weak of spirit and began to dance wildly. This is why I stayed in Bardic school despite my sometimes lazy nature.

BECAUSE I LOVE BEING A BARD.

"CHARGE!" I shouted.

As Fire Swallow did the Manehattan Shuffle, Bon-Bon knocked her down with her massive candycane spear; it struck hard as I knew it would, for she commands candy. Then I jumped on Fire Swallow and put my hands over her eyes, wrapping myself around her. When the spell wore off and she tried to rise, she couldn't see, and inside here, she had little room to maneuver.

The two of us grappled her over to where Apple Bloom told us to, then shoved her through a sliding panel into a chute down into trap city.

This is why I need a spell that creates magic hands. This form does have its uses.

Still, victory! I hugged Bon-Bon tightly. "You are the best girlfriend ever," I told her.

She blushed. "You too," she mumbled.

I also need to learn that enlarging spell before I ever try riding Bon-Bon again. Having my legs drag on the ground... not fun.

I hope Dash can... hah, of course Dash can handle Crash. Easy wins for us, I think.

Other than my aching butt.

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

Marcus-O-Vision:

So... I was getting my ass kicked by Twilight's tentacle spell which apparently Dawn Gleaming had taught Sammy but which I have been unable to master. He was busy laughing at me which really pissed me off.

Unfortunately, a surge of fighting spirit does not, in fact, make me more powerful. If anything, it just makes me more frustrated that I am getting my ass kicked by a clone. Or an alternate universe me or whatever exactly the Elements of Power and hangers-on are.

Wait a second. I have an artifact sword. It must do things beyond just hack people and shapeshift, right? I couldn't swing it with my arms pinned but I still had it.

"SWORD! DO SOMETHING! ANYTHING!" I shouted.

Sammy kept laughing as I got crushed.

I got flashes of past lives. Mining for gems deep beneath the earth with my friends. Kissing Dona Carlotta. Sailing off to the Isle of Dread with my party. Freeing my friends in Alphatia. Ivan, Helga, and I drunk off our ass in Glantri City and tearing up a bar for no good reason. Man, that bartender flung so much lightning at us.

However, heartwarming images of good times with those I care about was NOT going to get me out of these tentacles. I don't gain miraculous power from being reminded of my friends, unlike some people. And I can flashback under my own power, anyway. Even when I don't want to.

Of course, I now had a COMPLETE FLASHBACK. Dammit, I need lightning or fire, not MEMORIES!

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

FLASHBACK-O-VISION:

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

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

"..."

It was pretty obvious, really.

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

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

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

"I..."

Okay, she has me there.

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

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

BACK TO REALITY FOR MARCUS:

Dammit, that's not even something that happened very long ago! If I have to waste time while being crushed on that...

I saw Captain Keen Eyes get smacked by a huge red-furred bear with vines growing all around it. The vines now grabbed him, raising him up.

And of course his daughters are too busy fighting each other to save him.

I felt my brain smack itself. "Clarity!" I shouted. "Are you going to waste time while your father gets eaten on a duel you know you can't win?" Actually, I couldn't tell who was going to win.

Rarity and Clarity both saw their father now and they both got very angry looking. Then arrows rained down on the bear, which crumbled into a mass of vines. WHAT?

Then they both ran over to him and began shelling the various monsters who were busy whipping the soldier pegasi.

This was good for them...

BUT I WAS STILL BEING CRUSHED.

DAMMIT!

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

Rainbow Dash's 20% Cooler Point of View:

I'm faster, but I have to say that Rainbow Crash manuevers like crazy. We zigged and zagged through the branches of the tree, trying to get the upper hand on each other, while various weapons tried to shoot her and sometimes nearly hit me. We both crashed into bits of tree; somehow she'd shrunk a little relative to me, giving her more room to manuever, but it wasn't enough.

Distantly, I could hear Ditzy yelling about how that stain would never come out and Cruisin' making pained noises.

Don't know.

Don't WANT to know.

And then I saw Scootaloo come rushing out onto a branch on her scooter; she no doubt wants to help me. Now I have to fight this idiot and protect her at the same time.

"Scootaloo, you are supposed to be driving the ship!" I shouted.

"How am I supposed to drive this thing if the death ray doesn't work and the wave motion cannon only makes ocean noises?" she shouted.

Okay, those are problems, but I still need her out of here.

I whacked my head on a branch. I'm too big... we're both too big to manuever well at much speed in these branches. I could see Crash ram headfirst into a tangle of branches and now was covered in sap and bits of wood.

"Hah, you suck!" I shouted back at her.

Then *I* hit a tangle and now we were both a mess.

Scootaloo was zipping around, positioning herself ahead of us. Because she is crazy. I know how she feels but courting suicide is not a way to get a cutie mark.

Shut up!

*I* knew what I was doing.

"Pass me to port!" Scootaloo shouted.

What the hell does that mean? Isn't a port where ships dock and dump their passengers and goods and take on passengers and goods? Like Manehattan or Baltimare.

Her pirate costume must be warping her mind or something.

But I could certainly pass her. "Take cover! This is a fight for adults!" I shouted.

My Element began to pulse, trying to tell me something.

But I had no clue how to interpret it. It was getting stronger and stronger as I got closer to Scootaloo. The signal, that is. She was glowing. But seemed unaware of it. Crash either couldn't tell or couldn't care or possibly is just too stupid to realize a glow might MEAN something.

She's going to do something insane because she wants to help me.

I suddenly was keenly aware as never before of how much she admires me and looks up to me and wishes she WAS me. I was like that with the Wonderbolts as a kid.

But I didn't get to be around my heroines and heroes when I was a kid. So it never got this intense.

She annoys me sometimes; she wants to hang out but she can't actually DO any of the things I do for fun. But despite me blowing her off all the time, she admires me anyway.

I don't even understand why. Okay, I am cool, but none of the other pegasi kids in town like me THIS much. I'd think it was a crush but she's too young and I can tell it's not. It's loyalty and I don't even know why.

I ought to know why.

I suddenly felt guilty. Which I *hate*. Guilt sucks.

Okay, I'll do this for her. Guide me, Element.

Port is her left. Why? Why not just say left?

I flew close by her to her left. Rainbow Crash chased after me, intent on catching up. And then Scootaloo jumped on her.

"..."

"You crazy kid, what are you doing?" Rainbow Crash yelled.

Scootaloo wrapped herself around Rainbow Crash and leaned. The weight forced Rainbow Crash to arc leftwards and downwards and pretty soon, Scootaloo steered her right out of the tree and across the line of fire of the tree's weapons. Crash dodged them but she got clipped several times and Scootaloo was laughing like a maniac.

I followed after them, worried that Scootaloo was going to get herself fried; she was in the zone, that state of mind where nothing exists but you and your immediate surroundings and actions. I go into the zone all the time and it usually ends with me stuck into a tree or buried under a house.

What used to be a house, anyway.

We plunged through the clouds as Rainbow Crash spun, trying to throw Scootaloo off. But stubbornly, she clung and with a pony body, you can't actually reach someone on your back with your legs. All you can do is buck them. But Scootaloo would not be bucked. Instead, she chivvied Rainbow Crash down and down, faster and faster, until she was zooming at blazing speed towards... the front gates of Marjorie's fortress, set into the cliff surrounding the huge swampy troll-riddled depression known as Trollhattan (according to Marcus and Twilight).

Trolls were watching us, in fact, as we blazed towards the fortress. They looked confused. I'd be confused too if I didn't know Scootaloo. I flew up alongside them. "Scootaloo, you're going to be squashed flat if you keep riding this fool!"

"I'm going to make her go fast enough to do a Sonic Rainboom and blow it open, so we can storm the place!" Scootaloo shouted. "Don't worry! I know what I'm doing!"

"Sonic Rainbooms are MYTHS," Rainbow Crash said. "I tried so hard and I could never do it! Grow up, kid! I'm the fastest flyer in Equestria and I can't do it!" She tried to pull up but Scootaloo forced her to stay on course. "We're both going to die if you don't let me pull up!"

"Wow, you're a really bad copy of Rainbow Dash if you don't have any confidence in yourself," Scootaloo said. She sounded pretty disappointed. "And you SAW Rainbow Dash do one!"

"It had to be a trick!" Rainbow Crash said stubbornly.

Wow, evil-me is a real blockhead. "It's TOTALLY real," I told her. "I kicked your god's ass with it!"

"If by kicked her ass, you mean she's off kicking your friends' ass right now," Rainbow Crash said angrily. "Kid, get off me!"

We were running out of time as the front wall got ever closer. People were shooting arrows at us through slits in the walls but the winds around us deflected the arrows.

Scootaloo got this look.

It's hard to describe but basically, it scared me. A lot. It was an evil schemer look.

She pushed and suddenly, instead of heading for the fortress, Crash plunged downwards towards the swamp. "You idiot!" she said, struggling to pull upwards

I tried to force her up. "Scootaloo, don't be crazy!" I shouted.

"I HAVE A PLAN!" she said, laughing maniacally.

Ack.

We nearly slammed into the ground but suddenly, just before we would have hit, Scootaloo stopped pushing; we now arched upwards but the shifts in air pressure sucked a bunch of trolls off the ground and up into the air, tumbling them along in our wake.

Further, Crash now went EVEN FASTER as Scootaloo kicked her. "I can't do it! We are going to DIE!" Crash shouted.

"You can do it! A copy of Rainbow Dash is STILL Rainbow Dash! You just have to WANT IT," Scootaloo said.

"I'm a master of manuevers but you won't let me manuever!" Rainbow Crash shouted.

"If you don't do it, you'll be crushed and your Princess Marjorie will go down before Rainbow Dash and her friends and you'll have failed her! Do you want that?" Scootaloo shouted. "Do you want to be the one who can't keep up with the others?" She sounded pretty pained. Her wings were flapping like crazy. "Who they can't count on to carry their own weight?"

Scootaloo... I suddenly felt terrible for her. All her friends have cutie marks and are doing incredible things and she can't even fly unless she rides on someone.

"Scootaloo," I said. "Two evil Wonderbolts are attacking the ship. We have to finish this fast or all your friends will be in grave danger if we don't help them. They're counting on you to deal with this. I'm counting on you."

I'm about to take a huge risk. All three of us may well be crushed flat if Scootaloo doesn't rise to the occassion. But she believes in me. And I'm going to believe in her.

I felt a surge of power from my Element and I grew more confident.

"I can do it!" Scootaloo said, smiling brightly and looking utterly determined. Her wings began to beat with an absolutely ferocious speed. That has got to hurt, but she didn't care.

"If I do this, I'm going to level Princess Marjorie's fortress and she'll be pissed even if I do survive to save her!" Rainbow Crash shouted at me as the wind rushed around us.

And that's when I saw the Dragonflies coming in from the North, across the mountains and badlands of the brokenlands. Not the fake Fluttershy. Those insectile flying ships that the Glantrians use. Coming to rob Marjorie's fortress while she's distracted, no doubt. They're flying... some flag. Which has NO significance to me whatsoever, but I assume is Glantrian.

But then they arced upwards towards the clouds.

Towards the Moonraker.

They must want it for themselves.

Which I can understand. It's pretty awesome and they could probably beat the hell out of their enemies with it.

And who's it got to defend it? Lyra, Bon-Bon, Ditzy, some kids, and a handful of soldiers.

And a death ray that doesn't work.

"Crash! The Glantrians are after the kids!"

"What?" she said, then looked. Scootaloo made a noise. "Why did you idiots let the kids come out on this mission, anyway?"

"It wasn't MY idea!" I shouted. "Pull up! We have to stop them!"

"I can't pull up because this kid wants me to..."

It was, in fact, too late to pull up. Even I wasn't going to be able to pull up. Too much yakking, too much accelerating, our only choice is for me to push it and to try to level the fortress enough they could fly through the wreckage.

Except Pinkie's family, Luna, and the Radhirajah may be in there.

FUCK.

"You can do it! Trust me!" Scootaloo practically begged Rainbow Crash. "We can do it together!"

No time to think.

"Do it," Rainbow Crash said, surprising me with the urgency of her voice.

"Grab on and help!" Scootaloo said and I tangled my legs with Crash, effectively turning us into a triple-winged pegasus.

And then the power of my Element flowed through us all.

Here's the thing. With one set of wings, you can only do so much to pull out of a dive.

But with THREE sets, that's another story. I pushed up, Crash pulled up, and Scootaloo threw her weight back and realigned her wings, giving the final push that tipped us from 'DEATH' to 'AWESOME SAVE'. At the last minute, we pulled up and shot up the wall of the fortress, trailing a rainbow. We also flung all those trolls into the front gates, which collapsed. The trolls were squashed flat, but being TROLLS, they began to heal and soon peeled themselves off the doors and ran amok.

Because this is what trolls do best.

"Sweet Heavens," Rainbow Crash said. Rainbow light was whipping around us, forming into a great spinning cone, a giant drill of multi-colored energy, not just my usual colors but with Scootaloo's colors worked into it as well. She stared, eyes wide and then she laughed for joy.

"Good job, Scootaloo," I told her. "You saved us. Like I knew you would."

As we zoomed up towards the dragonflies, Scootaloo began to glow, and her wings suddenly grew larger and stronger and her flank shone like the sun and on it was a ship's wheel made out of rainbow. She flapped them more powerfully and we sped up and the rainbow spun faster around us.

The ships opened fire on us, though many of them were vanishing into the clouds. Dammit. But we hit the rest of them, rushing through their midst and flinging them like tenpins, our rainbow wake smashing them apart.

Some of the crews took to the air with magic or even sprouted wings and a few were pegasi who then saved others.

But a bunch of them were falling to their deaths now.

DAMMIT.

"Split up and save them!" Scootaloo shouted.

"They're going to try and kill your friends!" Crash said, baffled.

"We can't let people die!" she said. "Even if they need a spanking!"

So we split, blazing off to save them and Scootaloo took flight and as she flew, she laughed and so did I.

I hope the kids can handle the rest, though, as this is going to take us a while.

Even at my speeds.

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

Marcus-O-Vision:

Pinkamena, Pinkie, Sir Lintsalot, Madame LeFlour, Mr. Turnip and Rocky went clog-dancing past me, having forgotten it was a contest and just enjoying themselves.

All well and good EXCEPT I AM BEING CRUSHED.

Admittedly, I will reincarnate, but then Sammy may well kill me again.

At least we won't look like each other then.

OH HOH HOH.

Twilight was being crushed too, while Dawn Gleaming taunted her with... a vocabulary quiz of her knowledge of Nithian?

This is not the time to see who knows what the undeadperfect tense is for!

They'd lost track of us and... oh hoh hoh...

"DAWN GLEAMING!" I shouted, making my sword look just like Sammy's. "Save me, that bastard Marcus has overpowered me!"

"No, I'm Sammy and HE is Samus Marcus!" Sammy protested. He made the tentacles squeeze. "Stop lying!"

I tossed my sword as best I could, making it look like I dropped it. "Oh no, now I can't cut myself loose! He's trying to kill me! Save me Dawn Gleaming! PLEASE!"

Rarity now saw the condition I was in; her father was out of danger, and she was about to come to my rescue when this hideous giant brain with tentacles grabbed her and she had to start fighting it.

GET OFF MY GIRLFRIEND, YOU OVERGROWN GRELL!

Being super-pissed off meant now I could...

Run my blood pressure really high.

Dammit.

Keen Eyes looked right at us and pointed at...

Sammy. "Get over here and save Rarity, you coward! I've always hated you and now I hate you MORE for leaving her here in trouble while you play sex-games with your evil twin!" Keen Eyes roared.

One, for instantly cluing in and helping me like that, I would tip my hat if my limbs were not pinned.

Secondly, phrasing it that way means now I feel incredibly creeped out by this spell and not just crushed by it.

"Sammy! I'm coming!" Dawn Gleaming said, running over.

Which left Twilight free to grab my sword with her magic and cut herself loose. Cue giant lightning swarm blowing Sammy and Dawn Gleaming across the room, OH YEAH.

Rarity now flicked an arrow out of her bags and shot it down the grell's beaked mouth. Huge amounts of foam began to froth and it began to make gurgly noises; it dropped her and began trying to dig the foam out of its mouth.

"Fire-retardant arrow," she told me, smiling.

HAH.

Then she shot me loose and Twilight and I rallied to her side.

I could see Dragonfly; she was trying to do something which seemed to involve hovering in the air, making weird noises and grunting a lot. "Mistress, help me! I want to help you but I can't turn into a dragon!" She looked utterly embarrassed.

"BLAST HER!!!" Marjorie shouted, trying to get loose.

So Dragonshy unleashed a wave of lightning onto Flutterdragon, who yelped and fell off her. Flutterdragon turned and said, "That wasn't nice at all!"

Marjorie flew up to Flutterdragon as Flutterdragon coiled around, readying for a pounce. "My dear little Dragonfly, your loyalty touches my heart." She gently nuzzled Dragonfly, who turned a little red. "I will give you my power and we will blast this FAKE DRAGON to bits." She seemed quite bent out of shape over the impersonation.

"I won't let you hurt my friends!" Flutterdragon said. "If you care about your followers, why aren't you helping them!"

Monsters were, in fact, coming at both our side and theirs and now everyone was running around wildly, trying to avoid being eaten by the seemingly endless tide. Applejack and Apple Blossom were STILL arguing over what it means to be 'natural', I will note.

I'd be pleased she was deeper than I thought if not for the likelihood it will get them eaten while they debate.

"You were trying to CRUSH ME," Marjorie said. "Why were you attacking me instead of helping them?"

"Because you were attacking my friends!" Flutterdragon roared. "I won't let ANYTHING hurt them!"

"We'll see about that!" Marjorie said. "BLAST HER! Then we'll deal with the monsters!"

Dragonfly hurled lightning and now Flutterdragon breathed fire. They met in the air in a giant storm, neutralizing each other. Except that dragons have limited breath and druids...

Can do lightning for a long time.

I had to do something but now Sammy was coming at me again and some kind of freaky devils with beards were after me too.

DAMMIT.

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

Sweetie's Point of View:

Dinky's mom looked kind of clobbered when she stumbled back onto the bridge, then gave everyone a hoof up. "Cruisin' is down for the count," she said.

Everyone cheered and she smiled. Dinky ran over and hugged her, then ran back to her station.

That's when the Dragonfly Ships flew up out of the clouds and called on us to surrender or be destroyed.

ACK.

"General Hooves, what should I tell them?" the conn officer asked Dinky's mom.

I wondered when she had become a general. But adults often don't tell fillies everything.

Or ANYTHING important, really.

I did a spread of cards. There's a dragon about to attack us. I didn't SEE a dragon but maybe it's invisible. A very powerful dragon. And it's friends.

"Do we have any functional weapons?" Dinky's mom asked, looking panicked.

"All weapons functional except the two main guns, one of which does nothing, while the other makes soothing ocean noises," one of the soldiers said, looking irritated.

"You'd think the store that says it sells EVERYTHING would have demi-liches, but NO, they yelled at me for even ASKING," Apple Bloom said bitterly.

"Dear, you will get ripped off if you believe advertising slogans," Dinky's mom said kindly to her. "Do we have any fighters?"

"We have hanglider troops but they'll be shot down before they can reach the Dragonflies, unless they get a distraction."

Dinky's mother closed her eyes for a few seconds.

"I could make a fog and hide the troops!" Dinky said excitedly.

"If I do a full dive, they would have to follow us into the clouds, and then we'd have cover to launch the gliders!" Twist said.

"The gliders would get lost in the clouds," one of the soldiers said. "Otherwise, that would be great."

"I can lead them," Dinky's mom said. "I am a mailpony and the mail MUST GO THROUGH, in wind and weather, in storm and drang, in pomp *and* circumstance!"

I wonder what 'drang' is.

The marines saluted and followed her as they ran to the glider bays. "Sweetie! Keep our foes distracted until we're ready to dive and launch!"

I ran over to the comm officer. "This is Divination Officer Sweetie Belle of the Moon Raker," I said. "Captain Lunette is busy looting and pillaging. Please repeat your demands in the form of a bulleted list."

"In the form of a what?" a confused, angry man said through the comm line.

"A bulleted list," I told him. Father likes to say that, but I'm not sure what it is. "We can wait if you need to collect enough male cows."

"First of all, there is no such thing as a male cow," the man said to me. "Cows are female BY DEFINITION. Secondly, male cattle are called bulls. I know you all drink milk, so you have no excuse not to know the difference between male and female cattle. Thirdly, I see no point in attaching sling bullets to our demands."

"That's a bulleted list," I told him, trying to be helpful. "Do it like that."

I could hear Twist laughing as she reoriented the propellers for rapid descent when Dinky's mom gives the signal.

"That's a NUMERAL list," he said pedantically, reminding me of Twilight. "Each list item has a number, not a sling bullet. What would even be the point of using a sling bullet?"

"The Equestrian military makes extensive use of bulleted lists," I told him. "Obviously they're more advanced in list technology than a backwater like Glantri. I guess you're just falling behind because you spent all your time making flying machines when pegasi can fly with their wings."

I shouldn't be so mean to the poor man but I have to keep him from thinking about how he could be blowing us up instead of arguing with me.

The pegasi on the bridge all snickered and high-hoofed.

"I will have you know that Glantri has the FINEST military in this region of the Known World!" the man said angrily.

"Don't you always complain they won't give you enough money for the military, sir?" I heard someone say distantly behind him.

I heard the human say something about staying in character; it sounded muffled. He probably put his hand over the speaker.

I did a quick divination draw. The King of Flames. He's some kind of powerful wizard.

"What is your name?" I asked.

"Herr Ukvarth, Dragon Hunter," he said.

"We're not dragons, sir," I said.

"We're ready," Twist said softly.

But Dinky's mother wasn't ready yet.

Or forgot to signal. She can be kind of forgetful.

"You serve a dragon," he said angrily.

"No, no, we're not servants of a dragon!" I said.

"You were just anchored over a major dragon's lair for fun," he said dubiously. "I was not born yesterday." He paused. "Wait, you're Equestrians?"

Are we supposed to be?

"We're dread pirates!" I said. "Completely not affiliated with the Equestrian government AT ALL, and thus it did not send us here, AT ALL." That should cover our tracks.

Why is Twist making the 'you screwed up' face at me?

"Buy us five more minutes, almost ready," came in over the comm line from the glider decks.

"I see," he said. "They'll have no reason to complain when we take your ship, then." He had that moderately obssessed / angry sound Spike gets when you try to keep food away from him when he really wants it. "Certainly you're not putting it to any useful use and I would."

Uh oh.

Umm...umm... CELESTIA'S MOTHER, IF YOU ARE LISTENING, HELP ME! I THINK WE'RE GOING TO DIE!

Flames roared up in a pillar next to the empty Captain's chair and now a red coated Unicorn mare appeared. It was Cunning Thought, Celestia's mother!

"Dear child," she said kindly, nuzzling me. "I never got to give you your present."

"Please, do something! The Glantrians are about to blow us up!"

I could see weapons arming as we spoke.

"Well, I don't have any demi-liches on tap. They're so hard to keep from eating your other pets," she said. She made a bag appear. "But I DO have a Slaad, so it will have to do."

She and Apple Bloom shoved the giant frog monster down a chute into the death-ray engine as it howled and cursed and invoked someone named 'Timrek the Uneasy'. Then we couldn't hear it any more.

The death ray button pinged. "Deathray fully charged," the earth pony now manning Twist's old station said.

"One minute!" Dinky's mom told us remotely.

"This ship is now FULLY ARMED. Surrender or be destroyed!" Apple Bloom said over the com line.

"You would have used it already if you had anything," the man said dismissively. "You surrender."

"Uncle K would be very disappointed if I gave up my treasure without a fight!" Apple Bloom said.

Man, Scootaloo's going to be disappointed she missed this.

"Ready!" Dinky's mom shouted.

"FIRE!" I shouted.

Apple Bloom hit the Death Ray Button with her tail.

For a moment, nothing happened, but then....

A huge rainbow wave of ever changing rays of light erupted from the death ray cannon. Trees began to rain from the sky. Dogs and cats were living together on the wings of the Dragonflies. One of the Dragonflies turned into a winged sheep. One of them began firing brightly colored streamers at us.

"Oh god, I'm a TURTLE!" someone shouted.

"I can see the blank spaces between the lines!" someone shouted distantly. "When you speak!"

"What have you done? WHAT IS THIS?" Herr Ukvarth shouted. I heard someone meowing behind him. He took his pet cat on the mission?

"DIVE!" I shouted.

"THIS IS CHAOS!" Cunning Thought shouted over the comm line, laughing and laughing and laughing.

And then we dove into the clouds and the gliders launched as the Dragonflies tried to descend after us. We could hear the battle but not see it.

"Sensors indicate it will take one day to fully recharge the Chaos Gun," the officer at Twist's station said.

"Thank you," I said to Celestia's mother. "You saved us."

"You all saved yourselves. You had a good plan, I just made it easier. You should all be proud of yourself. I know my daughter will be pleased with you all." Cunning Thought said grandly.

"Are you really Princess Celestia's mother?" Twist said, shocked.

"I am indeed," she said and now everypony bowed to her.

I started to bow, but she said, "You need not bow, dear little one. Look at your cutie mark."

It had CHANGED. I was stunned. Now each of the cards was a Queen of one of the suits. At the scale, it was hard to tell, but the Queen of Stones had red hair and the Queen of Winds had purple hair like Scootaloo and the Queen of Waters had blonde hair and the Queen of Flames had pink-purple mixed hair like me and the Queen of Shadows had hair like Twist's.

"Cutie marks can CHANGE?" Twist said, stunned.

"Not so much a change as a revelation. Your destiny is chosen and set now. Scootaloo got her cutie mark," Cunning Thought said kindly. "The five of you, one day, will be great. You shouldn't count on me to always be there, for I am very busy helping many others, but I will always be your friend and helper."

Lyra and Bon-Bon now reached the bridge. "What's going on?" Lyra asked. "Why did..." She saw Cunning Thought and her jaw dropped. "I... you..."

Bon-Bon said, "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am. Are you one of Big Macintosh's relatives?" She paused. "Oh, you're a unicorn," she said and sounded VERY embarrassed.

"Well, if he and my daughter get married one day, I will be," she said, smiling. "I wish Celestia luck. Men can be hard to deal with."

Bon-Bon looked stunned.

"She is CUNNING THOUGHT," Lyra said urgently. "She's Celestia's mother!"

"I know, I met her before," I said. "Don't worry, she's very nice."

Lyra flailed her arms in the air, then grabbed her own head with her hands. I do not understand why.

"I could make you a human if you like, forever," Cunning Thought said kindly to Lyra. "Your lady friend too, of course."

Lyra looked very tempted, which seems weird to me. Though I admit I am kind of curious what it would be like. Rarity seems to like it.

Bon-Bon, though, looked crushed.

"Bon-Bon isn't interested in being a human all the time, thank you," Lyra said weakly. "And I won't leave her behind. This is fun for me, but it has to be a part-time thing. I love her and I won't leave her behind, even for... " Her voice trailed off. "Not for anything." She ruffled Bon-Bon's mane and Bon-Bon smiled.

And then there was a swirl of shadows and Lunette, the Ghostly Gang, and the Radhirajah stepped out of the shadows.

"Okay, what's going on here? We secured... MOTHER?" Lunette said, staring, mouth open wide.

"Darling, I am enjoying this glorious mess you have made," Cunning Thought said. "Come and give your mother a hug. I love you so much, Luna." Her voice was very warm and kind.

"Mother, get away from that filly," Lunette said angrily, striding towards us. "Clyde, take the Radhirajah to a secure room and keep him safe. I will deal with mother."

The Ghostly Gang grabbed the hapless looking Radhirajah and vanished through the floor.

"It's okay! She's very nice, really!" I guess Princess Luna and Princess Celestia must have had a big fight with their mother and never made up.

I have to help them!

"Mother says you should never go to bed angry with each other," I told them. "You should hug and make up."

Cunning Thought dropped down to squat on her hind legs and held her forelegs out for a hug. "Come and get a hug, dear. Everyone else forgave you for trying to create Eternal Night, so I forgive you too."

This just seemed to make Lunette even ANGRIER.

"Don't mock me, mother," Lunette said angrily.

"Sir... ma'am, General Hooves is leading a glider attack on the Glantrian dragonflies right now," one of the soliders said. "She could probably use your support."

"GO," Lunette said, pointing at her mother.

"You should at least give her a hug before she goes," I said solemnly to Lunette.

"Mommy and I love to hug all the time!" Dinky said proudly.

"It's okay," Cunning Thought said, nuzzling me. "I'll see you later, Sweetie. You need to feed the Slaad a bushel of garbage a day or it'll try to eat its way out of the Chaos Gun Engine."

"Okay," I told her. I know how important feeding pets is. One time, I had to take care of Opalescence and...

Umm...

Well, I don't have pet fish any more because I forgot to feed her.

Let's leave it at that.

"You gave Sweetie a SLAAD for a pet?" Lunette said, mouth open wide.

"It's not for Sweetie, it's for your ship, dear," Cunning Thought said. "Though I should get you a pet, my darling daughter. And tell Celestia it's traditional to date someone who resembles your FATHER, not your mother." She nuzzled me, then stepped back and vanished into a pillar of fire which soon vanished. As she faded, she shouted to Apple Bloom, "You can tell Keraptis that I'm impressed by how much he taught you! Good job, Apple Bloom!"

She beamed brightly.

Oh man, she didn't get to give me a present again!

But I shouldn't be greedy, so I won't nag.

Also, I think I may have to keep Princess Luna... Dread Pirate Lunette... from exploding.

But I'm good with people. That's what Mother and Father both always tell me!

I hope this will make them proud.

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

Applejack-O-Vision:

I looked around gloomily at the chaos; everypony was running around, zapping monsters or trying to avoid being eaten, while Fluttershy the Dragon duelled determinedly with Dragonfly and Marjorie. It wasn't going well for her but the rest of us were trying to avoid being killed.

I myself was being chased by this huge yellow puffball fungus creature which bounced around off the walls like an animate cue ball (painted yellow) from a game of pool.

Apple Blossom ran alongside me, continuing to hammer away at me with words. "If you really wanted to be natural, you'd stop talking and go live in a wild herd where some male pony ran the show and chased off any rival males and you had to compete with a bunch of other women for his affections. Like our totally natural ancestors did."

I grimaced at that. It ain't that I don't like stallions; I like me a good strong hard-working man. But finding one who wants to farm apples who ain't already my kin ain't easy. Seems like they either just want to bump rump and run or they DO like me but they can't see buckin' apples the rest of their life.

Dammit. I really liked Coltson too.

I guess I'm married to my farm.

The farm I OUGHT to be at right now.

But life keeps pulling me away from it.

"I should just buck the hell out of that damn puffball," I grumbled.

"It will spew spores onto us and tiny puffballs will eat their way out of our flesh," Apple Blossom said to me.

Which is why I haven't done it. "If yer so great, why don't YOU do something about it?"

"If I try and use my fighting skills, they require contact like yours, even if they are more graceful. And I fear my superior social skills do not, in fact, work on giant fungus bouncing balls," she said ruefully.

"So much for your superior city education," I said, frustrated.

"And I don't see YOU doing anything either," Apple Blossom said irritably.

The building being ON FIRE did not make me any happier, either. It was hot and I was sweating. Not honest work sweat but 'Applejack is overheating and about to get heat exhaustion due to fire' sweat.

"Drink," Apple Blossom said, flinging a bottle into my mouth.

I drank. It was orange brandy, I think, in a small snack-sized bottle. I felt better, though, refreshing my fluids.

Or maybe I was too drunk to care now. "Thanks," I said. I do have manners, you know.

I was suddenly keenly aware my ancestors would have been killed by this thing before they got changed by humans. They were a lot closer to those non-sentient ponies and horses a lot of human communities have. They're a little creepy but also endearing. I guess for us it's like with humans and monkeys. Close and yet so far.

I ain't natural. That cuts to the quick. Whether I am a country girl or a city girl, either way, I got changed from what nature intended, a long time ago.

But being like those pet ponies... that ain't natural for me. I dunno what is natural or not.

I do know my friends are in trouble and need me to act, not to just whine and feel sorry for myself like that fool I dated in high school. I dunno WHAT I was thinking.

He was cute, I was young, I got urges, everyone does, right?

Watchin' this thing bounce after us, it had a very predictable bouncin' pattern. I could exploit that.

"I gotta plan," I told my evil twin. "You gotta stick by my side, follow me exactly." This was gonna be kinda risky.

We raced around the room, dodging monsters and shouts and chaos, while Fluttershy the Dragon and her evil twin and Marjorie flew around zapping each other above us. I spotted a fire and ran for it.

"We can't run through that fire!," Apple Blossom said in a panic.

"Gonna have to jump it at just the right time, so our new friend lands in it," I told her.

"I'm not good at jumping," she confessed.

"You'd better learn fast," I said. "Don't worry, I'll help you."

In fact, I scooped her up and we LEAPED over it. It wasn't natural. But there's more important things than what's natural, like helping kin and friends and folks and fighting for those you love. Each and every one of my friends would help me with this thing if they could and I'd do the same for them.

And really, Apple Blossom ain't evil, she's just kinda vain and stuck up. I just clash with her because she's a low-budget version of Rarity.

My element surged, I could feel it, and we cleared the fire by a mile. Which is good, as it made me pretty nervous. Something in a pony's gut knows to stay away from fire.

The puffball, runnin' on instinct, couldn't think to avoid the fire and it burned up, obeying its nature and dying.

I'm a pony. I have instincts. Natural or not, they guide me. But I'm also a thinking animal. And I can overcome those instincts, like fear of fire, when I have to. I am what I am, wherever that am came from, so to speak.

"Look, if we all keep fighting each other, these crazy things are gonna eat us all," I told Apple Blossom. "We gotta talk your boss down. At least for now. Deal?"

We shook hooves. "Deal," she said. "So, I wasn't able to shake you," she said, disappointed.

"You shook me pretty good," I told her. "I needed a good mental bucking, knock some rotted branches down. I've got a clearer head, thanks to you, sister," I told her. "Now, let's see about settlin' this riot."

How we're gonna get Marjorie's attention... that's another question.

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

Ivan's Point of View:

I would like to say that Niccolo and I had a graceful, elegant battle full of barbed wit and clever sayings.

What we actually had was a brutal knockdown drag-out brawl up the stairs in the library, where we'd basically adjourned from the chaos to get down to mauling each other.

Hopefully no one really wanted the remaining items here as we were busy throwing them at each other, hitting each other with chairs, etc. He'd tried to psych me out, he'd failed, and now he was slowly getting his ass kicked because he couldn't get the mental edge on me.

He probably would have, if I hadn't met Luna. I've never been very strong willed. That's how I let Cufen... Marcus... whatever he is now... drag me into all these things. He'd have some crazy idea and I'd tag along because that's what I do.

It was fun, he was a good pal, and I was young enough to do crazy things just to show how badass I was.

Until I tried to go home. I wasn't going to stay; I just wanted to show off.

I never got there because I saw too many things which reminded me what a mess my homeland is. It's getting better but there's still a lot of bad things going down and it isn't just Thyatians oppressing Traladarans. We do it to each other too.

I had to decide, if I was going to do something about it or not.

After seeing a village starving because its lord wouldn't let them grow food because he wanted to grow expensive crops for export, I made my choice. Lord Valescu probably still wonders where all his money went. Assuming he's actually made it back from Norwold, yet.

Damn, shipping rates are HIGH.

I'm guessing that 'Niccolo' decided to see about taking his wealth and wiggling into the aristocracy. Not me. I'm going to bring them DOWN.

Marcus would probably try to find out Niccolo's backstory, work his mind, bring him around. He'll probably end this by stealing Dawn Gleaming from Sammy and run off with all the ponies he can find.

Then they'll kick his ass for doing something stupid.

That's Marcus for you. He's crazy but he's my best friend, so that's why I'm here fighting my evil twin in a library. Well, also because I want to help Luna.

I find it odd that I feel a kinship to a divine pony who is Loki's daughter, but we both sought immortality for exactly the same reason. Our people were being crushed by wolves (metaphorically) and we wanted the power to help them.

For all that Sind deserves a huge shaking up, I won't let Marjorie pit them against Equestria. It's not perfect, but it's a good country. Stupid dragon. I do not know how we're going to stop her, though. If she's an Immortal, and she likely is, she's beyond mortal power. Though hopefully Luna can neutralize her.

Marcus will probably try to get her to date him.

He is the definition of inability to keep it in your pants.

Though seeing Rarity as a human, I can see why. Or Lunette.

Focus.

My musing got me hit in the head with some sort of encyclopedia, but I knocked him down with a chair and then jumped on him, rolling around, until he threw me into a bookcase. It fell on me and I slipped into the shadows as Luna taught me. It feels creepy when I do this, flickering from shadow to shadow. I about screamed when she first showed me this.

I'm not even sure how it works. Something to do with the plane of shadow or something... I'm going to have to ask for metaphysics lessons once this is over. I know some things, I've been trying to study but it doesn't come easily to me.

"Running away? Not surprising," Niccolo said. But while his words were light, he stayed wary. Smart man.

I jumped him from behind and pinned his arms, then banged his head on the table. "Give up. I don't want to kill you."

"I never give up," he said stubbornly.

We have one thing in common.

So I beat him down until he passed out, then dragged him down the stairs. I am going to have to stash him in someone's bag. Not a very elegant victory but I need to pitch in and help with the real fight. I expect Marcus has accidentally married Marjorie AND the bone devil by now.

And it'll be my job to get him out of it.

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

Marcus-O-Vision:

I was riding Twilight and Rarity was riding her father, Captain Keen Eyes, both of them enlarged, of course, while Spikey AND Spike rode on Clarity, breathing fire everywhere. We were plowing through eldritch horrors. How many of these damn things are there?

That being said, if I have to fight endless tides of fungus, extraplanars, plant monsters and giant insects, this is a pretty good squad for it.

But I have to do something to help Flutterdragon. She's basically being overwhelmed but none of the rest of us can get up there to help her. "Twilight, we have to help Fluttershy," I said as I cut down a giant tiger beetle and Spike burned the remains.

"Cover us," Twilight said to the others. "I am going to get Marjorie's attention." She enlarged herself further, until she was as big as Celestia. I licked my lips nervously as she did so; I could feel the power throbbing through her.

But then Applejack shouted up at Marjorie. "Hey, your highness, we gotta make a truce or we're all gonna get 'et!"

"She's right," Apple Blossom shouted. "We can settle our differences later when we're not in danger of being eaten!"

"I won't let you trick me!" Marjorie shouted. "Or let this FAKE dragon challenge me!" She sounded quite angry over that.

Applejack closed her eyes and then when she opened them, they glowed. "I am the Element of Honesty and I swear by my Element and by the power of Harmony itself that we will not betray or backstab you if you help us stop this menace before it destroys us and your servants, the Elements of Power. Don't you care about them?" I could feel the truth of her words, her honesty. You couldn't deny it. There was no room to hide from it.

"I... I..." Marjorie's voice wobbled and she looked down at how battered and torn everyone was, how her own followers were scattered while she obsessively focused on destroying Flutterdragon, who was a mess herself. She looked at herself and said to Dragonfly, "These things can't be natural, can they?"

"I haven't seen where they came from, but I am wondering why they hadn't already killed each other off and why they're cooperating," Dragonfly said.

"I THINK WE NEED TO FIND OUT," Applejack said, her voice echoing oddly. Twilight stared at her and I got this odd shivery feeling. "ISN'T IT THE JOB OF DRUIDS TO PUT AN END TO THREATS TO NATURE?" she said.

Dragonfly gulped as if a student being dressed down by the headmaster. "Yes," she said weakly.

"AND OF IMMORTALS TO DEAL WITH THREATS TO THIS DIMENSION?" Applejack said.

"Yes," Marjorie said. "But I didn't do it!"

"I DID NOT SAY YOU DID. THEY WOULD NOT BE ATTACKING BOTH SIDES. WHICH MEANS WE HAVE A MUTUAL FOE," Applejack said. "CAN WE NOT MAKE A DEAL?"

"My little ponies," Marjorie mumbled, then looked stunned.

Spend too much time in a form and it starts getting into your brain, I thought. I've seen that.

"YOU DON'T LIKE SEEING THEM HURT."

Marjorie looked mortified, but then she looked down at Dawn Gleaming, Clarity, Pinkamena, everypony one by one. "AGREED," she said, her voice booming to match Applejack's. "WE WILL DEFEAT THIS THREAT AND THEN SETTLE OUR DISAGREEMENTS AFTERWARDS. ELEMENTS OF POWER! RALLY TO ME!"

Apple Blossom's nostils flared. "Well done, sister," she said, sounding honestly congratulatory.

And then we rallied all our forces. Ivan appeared from whereever the hell he's been goofing off and handed a potion to Flutterdragon. She downed it all and some of her wounds healed up. "I didn't mean to take it all," she said. "Now you don't have any!"

"You needed it," he said to her, then stuffed Niccolo in her bags. "You'd better take a form which will fit downstairs.

Flutterdragon became Fluttershy and now we all began pushing against the tide; we had to get to its source. Before it was too late.

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

Ditzy-Vision-Redux:

They really need to install proper safety glass on these Dragonflies. When I kicked the window in, it flew everywhere in jagged shards! Somepony could get hurt!

Mind you, one of the crew was now a highly armored turtle, another one had turned two-dimensional and a third was now a tree.

Fluttershy will be very jealous.

Herr Ukvarth now had a duck on his head. In fact, I think he was wearing Fluttershy's duck hat. But how could he have even stolen it?

For a few seconds, we stared at each other through the broken window. Then he grimaced. "YOU," he said. "I know you! You're the infamous extradimensional criminal Derpy Hooves!"

"I am not a criminal and that is not my name and I don't even know how this got started! Also, your vehicle is TOTALLY unsafe for children. Look at that broken glass!" I said. "Someone could cut themselves!"

For a moment, there was a deep and terrible silence.

Then the two surviving allies of Herr Ukvarth drew wands on me. "Waste her?" one of them said.

"YES," he said and pulled out a black metal rod, shaped like an L, which spat lightning. Another one shot a stream of acid and the third shot glowing arrows at me.

So I whipped the cloud into a bubble shield and listened to them burst as I rose up to one side, then landed on one of the wings. The whole vehicle rolled over now and I heard yelping and something about roots.

Now it began to plummet, unable to fly upside down, unlike me.

Which means they're going to fall to their death.

This kind of forgetfulness is why my pay gets docked half the time at work.

Frantic jumping got it righted, much lower down in th cloud, before they could all die.

Herr Ukvarth now gave a cry like a man who has seen the end of time and space.

I know this because I've been there and watched someone see it.

I nearly fell in too but the Doctor saved me.

"ENOUGH!" he shouted. "NO MORE SUBTLETY!"

If this was subtlety... oh dear.

First I saw a bunch of bright flashes inside the Dragonfly. Then a huge dragon with crystalline blue scales erupted out of it, breaking it to bits. Two men rode it, the ones from before; one had a sling bag over one shoulder with a tree branch sticking out of it.

It was HUGE and ANGRY and I guess Herr Ukvarth summoned it, except I don't see him anywhere. Did he turn into it?

"HOOVES! YOU WILL FINALLY PERISH FOR YOUR MANY CRIMES AGAINST LAW AND ORDER."

"No pony will ever kneel to tyrants again!" I shouted defiantly, my knees knocking. I am going to be eaten and Dinky is going to have to go live with her father, who will probably sell her to buy paint and then I will be punished in the afterlife forever for being a BAD MOTHER.

He sounded crazed, like someone pushed too far. "YOU WON'T BE ABLE TO KNEEL BECAUSE YOU WON'T HAVE ANY LEGS." And then he spat lightning at me. I got clipped as I fled and then the thunderclap which followed sent me tumbling through the mist, to where he couldn't see me.

So I bolted upwards, hoping I could warn everyone in time.

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

Marcus-O-Vision:

Fighting through the endless hordes of monsters would have taken us forever, but Twilight had a clever plan. She teleported us all; I would have expected this to tire her out, but she was only a little winded by it. Her eyes were glowing and she looked determined.

We landed just outside the door into the restricted area. Creatures were being herded out by humanoid figures covered in chains; chain devils. Beyond, you could see a sickly purple glow and labs crowded with monsters.

For a second, they stared at us in shock, then one of them said, "Agents of law AND chaos? Working together? The Daydream Dimension is even more insane than Master Baalzebul said!"

"SERVANTS OF NIGHTMARE," Marjorie bellowed in an echoing voice. "LAW AND CHAOS STAND TOGETHER TO DEFEND THIS DIMENSION AGAINST THE INTRUSION OF YOUR KIND INTO IT. THIS IS WHY THE IMMORTALS EXIST. DEPART IMMEDIATELY OR BE DESTROYED!"

"This world will belong to Master Baalzebul! Your own kind opened the way!" the chain devil shouted.

As I understand it, devils serve the Masters of the Nightmare Dimension. The Masters are to them as the Immortals are to us. But in the Nightmare Dimension, there is only one Sphere aligned with law instead of four, known as the sphere of Order. And they're the troublemakers of the system, instead of Entropy and Chaos, which is divided into four spheres. Devils serve the Masters of the Sphere of Order, mostly. (Demons mainly serve the Immortals of Entropy in our dimension.)

That explains why all these monsters are fighting together; they're under the influence of Nightmare Order. The way sometimes in your dreams, everyone is out to get you.

At least in my dreams.

Who the hell could have opened the way except the Bone Devil, though?

The guy who summoned it and probably blew a hole into the Nightmare Dimension, then tried to seal it off.

ACK.

YOU STUPID NITHIAN MORON!

I think I know what ACTUALLY happened to Rathanhotep. He got eaten by the Nightmare Dimension, that's what.

From inside the chamber beyond, Pinkie now said, "Hey, if I throw a muffin into this huge glowing hole, it turns back into the stuff I made it from!"

The chain devil monster chivviers froze up.

"WHAT AM I DOING IN HERE?" Mr. Turnip shouted from the room in a panic. "No, you can't have my cabbages, you crazed howler monkey!"

Wild ululating now echoed through the air.

Pinkamena, Pinkie, and the half-real gang had somehow all gotten ahead of us into the room.

"KEEP HER AWAY FROM THE GATE!" Someone shouted in the room and now all hell, of course, broke loose.

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

Luna-O-Vision:

As I tensely tried to monitor the battle within the limits of this mortal identity and the ship's capacities, I felt a growing confidence at first. Our forces were taking out the Dragonflies and the attack was going well. For us, that is.

Then Ditzy emerged from the fog shouting about how she's sorry and she'll never be late to work again and something about flowers. This couldn't bode well.

In fact, it boded the arrival of a massive Sapphire Dragon. THAT didn't bode well, especially because it had Glantrians riding on it and... is that a tree? Does he have a sling bag of holding with a tree in it?

This really shouldn't surprise me, given what the ESS Moonraker is.

"We need to use the Chaos Ray!" Dinky said urgently. "We have to save Mom!"

"It won't recharge for hours," Apple Bloom said. "And the Wave Motion Cannon... doesn't work like I thought it would. And he's kind of big for most of my traps... Maybe we could feed him that cake Scootaloo tried to make."

"I already disposed of it as a health hazard," I told them. "Lyra, any chance you could charm a dragon?"

"Ahahahaha," she said nervously. "I could try. It beats just being eaten."

I am restricted in the power I can deploy in this form, or even my Luna body. Under the rule of the Immortals. And Celestia and I prefer to encourage ponies to take the lead when possible. It is our duty to help them to raise themselves up, not to simply protect them as you do children.

"AHAH," Apple Bloom said. "I have a PLAN. Dinky, you can carry something light inside your bubbles, right?"

"Yes," Dinky said.

"We can feed him some of the candy, then trick him into shapeshifting into something else!" Apple Bloom said.

"Put it inside a hunk of meat," Lyra said.

"He'll suspect it's poisoned if we just offer him meat," I told them.

"Oooh, if he sticks his head into a glider bay, I can shut the door on him and someone can throw it down his throat while his head is stuck," Apple Bloom said.

Rainbow Dash is nearby, but I don't know if she's free.

"I have hands," Lyra said. "I can do it."

"You will distract him as best you can with music," I told her. "Then I will throw the candy; I can sneak in close to him like this."

We rushed down, with me casting a spell to link me to Apple Bloom so she could trigger on my command and telling Ditzy to make for the hanger.

Lyra began playing a tune as the dragon and Ditzy came into sight. I slinked into the shadows.

o/~ You're going to love me

o/~ With all of your heart,

o/~ Love forever will bind us

o/~ Never will we part.

The dragon's eyes flickered but he threw off the spell with ease.

Ditzy, however, got hearts in her eyes! "Oh yes, my love!" she shouted and bee-lined for Lyra.

Lyra froze up.

"Fools! This ship will be mine and the ETHENGARIANS WILL BE DESTROYED!" the dragon shouted.

Oh hoh hoh. This dragon must work for Jagger. I'd heard rumors he studied Dracology. It's a secret art where you gain dragon-like powers and eventually can turn into a dragon.

In fact, this might be Jagger.

Someone's not used to controlling his transformation, I think.

Lyra and Ditzy wildly dodged acid but the one with the glowing arrow wand, the arrows chased them, nailing them both in the posterior. They stumbled around shouting.

The hangar door came down CRUNCH. It won't hold him more than a few seconds. But that's enough.

I darted in and threw the candy down his throat. Then he blew me across the room with lightning.

"PRINCESS LUNA!" Ditzy said in a panic.

I haven't actually been really hurt in a long time, not counting when I was Nightmare Moon and the Elements blasted me. That felt strangely good.

This did not.

Now Apple Bloom said, "Surrender or I will turn you into a cute fluffy kitten!" over the loudspeakers.

"A cute fluffy kitten?" he said.

Blink, cute fluffy kitten.

The two guys on his back now plunged down the side of the Moonraker, though Applebloom caught them with a net.

"You probably think this is funny," the dragon-kitty squeaked. He had dark blue fur and black ears.

"SO CUTE," Ditzy said and started to run over.

Then he turned back into a dragon.

"CHEATER!" Apple Bloom said as he tore the hangar apart. Ditzy saved Lyra and I leaped onto his back.

"Are you dragon or dracologist?" I asked him.

"I am Storm Front the Mighty!" he shouted.

Never heard of him but that could mean a bluff or that he's just a Sapphire I don't know.

Ditzy hugged Lyra tightly. "My dear sweet love!"

"Aargh, Ditzy, it wasn't supposed to affect you!" Lyra said. "I have a girlfriend!"

"It's okay! I can share!" Ditzy said. "Dinky will be happy to have three mommies!"

Lyra laughed nervously.

"Storm Front, this is an Equestrian Ship. Do you wish to experience the wrath of Equestria?" I said.

"It's a ship with Equestrians in it. It's not on the official registry," he said. "And you've violated several countries' airspace if this IS an official ship."

He tried to buck me off and I clung to him.

And then Rainbow Dash, Rainbow Crash, and Scootaloo flew up together to us. "Hey, dragon," Rainbow Dash said.

"My divination tells me that he likes cheese!" Sweetie Belle said, sounding frustrated. "Cards, I need a better answer." I had a tap running to the bridge as well. Magic has its benefits.

"One of the Elements of Harmony," Storm Front said, then frowned. He blinked. "There are two of you."

"And me!" Scootaloo said proudly.

"You are irrelevant compared to them," Storm Front said.

Scootaloo frowned. "I have a cutie mark and I WILL KICK YOUR ASS!"

One of the Rainbows held her back. Dash, I think.

"There's two of us because we move so fast we are always in two places at once," Rainbow Crash said.

"Oh Lyra, let's go make a love nest!" Ditzy said.

"Take me somewhere stable so I can dispel this!" Lyra said frantically.

Ditzy flew off with Lyra, no doubt looking for a stable.

He eyed their necklaces. I wondered again if Crash's necklace does anything or if it's just jewelry. We're still not fully sure of their nature.

"We dumped off all the falling guys," Dash said to me. "So they won't go splat."

"SPLAT," Scootaloo said enthusiastically.

"Mercy in war is the Equestrian way," I said to Storm Front as he opened his mouth.

"Thank you," he said roughly. "But I must have your ship."

"Do you really think you can take this without destroying it?" Bon-Bon said from the wreckage of the hangar. What is she doing here? She advanced as close as she could, candy-cane spear rig on her back. "We will fight with all our strength. Maybe you can take us, but even if you do take it, the rest of the Elements of Harmony will return."

He frowned at that.

"And we both know they defeated an Immortal. Are you immortal?" she asked Storm Front. "Is this place really worth leaving your men in a monster-infested swamp next to a dragon's fortress so you can destroy this place trying to capture it?"

He peered down through the mists, frowning.

"Of course, you might think clearer if you went back to your natural body instead of letting your dragon form think for you," she continued. "It's seductive, I know. I've been there." She shivered a little.

"I would fall to my death," Storm Front said, but now he frowned more.

"Then land and change," she said. "I promise you won't be attacked."

I nodded. "We are willing to negotiate. It is the Equestrian way."

He studied her curiously. "You are a shapeshifter?"

Nervously, she pulled a candy out of her pack and ate it, then turned into a human.

A naked human, since she wasn't wearing any clothing, except a necklace. Okay, a mostly naked human wearing a candy cane rig. It was rather silly looking but she was, of course, utterly shameless, being a pony and used to nudity.

"Come here," she said softly. "We can talk this out, I'm sure."

He put his paws over his eyes, which was the cutest thing I have seen in a long time. "Young lady, you are naked."

"I was naked before," she said.

He cast a spell and she was now clad in an elegant Aalbanese style military uniform.

Then he flew over and turned into Herr Ukvarth. He stumbled, then grimaced. "I see," he said, sounding calmer now.

"I know. This body tells me all sorts of things, but I don't have to listen and neither do you," she said to him.

He sighed and looked at me. "Let us forget this ever happened," he said. "I will say nothing if you will not."

"I will say nothing," I told him, shaking hands with him. Thank you, Bon-Bon, I thought.

Bon-Bon now began talking quietly to him about her experiences. This is a sight I'd never have thought I would see today.

Now I need to find out how everyone is doing at the tower. And decide on a response.

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

Pinkie-O-Vision:

"Man, this is the best toy ever," I said, throwing a rubber chicken through the portal just to see what would happen.

I never found out because Pinkamena suddenly shrieked. So did our mutual friends, as they suddenly flickered into being shadows instead of people, then back, then into shadows again.

For a few seconds, I stared at them in horror. Then I realized that devils and monsters were both rushing towards the portal from the other side AND from our side.

I could hear fighting outside the large laboratory, where the air was torn by a roughly circular gash in the air; beyond it was a huge city of iron and stone buildings; a perpetual drizzle fell and the streets teemed with monsters being herded by devils.

But I couldn't try to do anything about that yet, because my first priority had to be to keep my friends and Pinkamena from evaporating.

Somehow.

I had NO CLUE what to do.

ELEMENT, DO SOMETHING! I shouted at it. Normally, I just do my thing and it helps. But all I know is bardic magic and half the time I even forget I have that.

I began playing a wake up song and singing about not evaporating. It really was NOT my best work. But I felt power surge and everyone solidified. I could hear shouting in the hallway and Marjorie sounding really angry. But I ignored that and focused on keeping my friends from evaporating. And my sister.

"Pinkamena, you have to stop them while I keep you alive," I told her.

She nodded and turned to the portal, while Sir Lintsalot, Rocky, Mr. Turnip, and Madame LeFlour formed a perimeter. They began clobbering monsters while I sang and played and Pinkamena studied the onrushing forces.

"If you kill him," she said to one devil, who was on fire, "Your bosses will write him off as a casualty of fighting us and you can take his power."

He didn't jump the other, but now they eyed each other warily and began herding their monsters to accidentally collide, leading to them accidentally eating each other. Soon, a giant monster brawl was clogging traffic, at least for the moment.

"That was kind of a mean thing to say," I said to Pinkamena. VERY mean.

"These are Devils. They would hang our souls up and torture us for a thousand years," Pinkamena said flatly. "I do what I must to hold this line until we are reinforced."

"Yes, but there is such a thing as going too far," I told her. "Egging people on to fight each other is BAD, sister." I continued playing frantically. "It's why I didn't want to have to fight you."

"You fight your way, I will fight mine," she said. More softly, she said, "Thank you, sister."

"For what?" I said and now she began to cry and I don't even know why.

Fire rushed around us, frying several fungi and a giant beetle, but a devil with huge horns and a pitchfork didn't care and rushed right at Marcus and Twilight as Twilight blew the doorway in and made her own highway into the room. She's so huge like that, nearly as big as Celestia and far angrier.

Celestia's big, though, is comforting, whereas Twilight's big was kind of scary, though I know she'd never hurt me.

She grabbed the devil with magic and held him in place, then Marcus stabbed him and he began to burn from the blow. Marcus looked surprised, then pleased. The devil fled and I let him escape through the portal. Better they run away, right? He was still burning, though.

"Don't worry, I will dispel this," Twilight said. She concentrated and even I, the Earth Pony, could feel the wave of magic.

And I saw the portal get bigger.

Twilight's jaw dropped and so did Marcus'.

A flock of winged devils with spears flew down from the other side of the portal, but arrows punctured their wings, causing them to crash, then returned to Rarity and Captain Keen Eyes. The rest of our friends were breaking in and now Marjorie stormed towards the portal, studying it.

"It ate my power and got bigger," Twilight said, frustrated.

Marjorie reached out at it and it grew again. She looked extremely frustrated. Devils rushed at her and she hurled acid at them; they ran screaming as it ate away at them. OWW. Man, she can be mean.

We held the line for a few minutes; with our forces here, we could repel the attacks, but more and more kept coming forwards. Some of our people were rearguard against the monsters we'd bypassed and Marjorie sent a message to Rainbow Crash and Twilight to Rainbow Dash, hoping they were both still conscious.

They soon joined us; Marjorie took over sustaining Pinkamena and friends, freeing me up, though I didn't know what to do, beyond introduce more monsters and devils to the joy of pie.

"I think this is Maladomini," Twilight said. It's one of the realm of the Masters of the Devils of the Nightmare Dimension. I haven't studied the planes a lot. "An endless city of evil which Baalzebul constantly rebuilds and destroys, an ever growing mound of cities piled on the ruins of cities which he destroyed for their flaws. Each time, he hopes the new city will live up to his standards, but it never is. And so he levels it, and builds on the rubble."

"But a city built on rubble can never be perfect. He does not clear the ground in his impatience. Instead, he makes the same mistake over and over, for he is a creature of Order," Dawn Gleaming said. Then she flicked lightning at an onrushing puddle of slime which now blew up. "As with all devils, he is driven to repeat himself, locked tight within the bonds he has forged for himself. In Gashpodel's Bestiary, Volume XI, he identifies the central trait of Order creatures as this binding to certain habits they cannot discard even at the risk of their life."

A whole lot of blah blah academic I am so smart me too and me and me too followed with Sammy, Dawn Gleaming, Marcus, and Twilight competing to show how much they know it all. It slid off my brain as I contemplated the real problem here.

These devils and their monsters are the biggest frowny-faces I have EVER seen. None of them were happy, not even when they scored a hit on one of us.

They were also awfully vulnerable to Pinkamena playing with their heads, when she guessed their bents. That's what I call it; they were bent; I could see this now, like someone had reached into them and grabbed their hearts and twisted it into evil balloon animals.

I felt terrible for them and wondered who had done it. Pinkamena could see it too; it's how she could reach into their hearts, grab the jaggedy bits and twist.

I could see her heart too; someone had reached into it and bent it around too. But there were some soft spots; it wasn't all hardened like with the devils. For her friends. For Marjorie. For me. That made me smile.

I didn't know how I knew this. I can usually intuitively sense what makes people happy, but I could see deeper now. Was it my Element?

I looked at Twilight and I could see her love of knowledge, her desire to prove the strength and skill of that love, her affection for Spike, her... what a mess that is. She had a wound, from the whole business with Marcus. It's healing but it's still there. But for now, she had forgotten it, the current crisis taking priority. She loves us; we are all in her heart, and seeing the tiny me inside her made me smile.

I was tempted to look at everyone, but even I knew I had to focus. Thoughtfully, I began misplaying my instruments. Many of my friends looked annoyed but the devils REALLY hated it, plugging ears or trying to kill me harder. I dodged fire and ice, plunking random notes and playing different tunes on different instruments.

Now they were REALLY mad and I had to kick a few of them back into play. Marjorie's eyes derped for a few seconds and Twilight's teeth were chittering. Dawn Gleaming too.

"Can you please get in tune?" Captain Keen Eyes asked urgently.

This is going to be tricky, I realized.

Marjorie seized an on-rushing tide of beetles and flung them into a pack of howling monkeys (on fire) who devoured them. "Dawn Gleaming, study the gate. We need a way to close it, or eventually, they will overwhelm us."

"If you're really an Immortal, can't you just close it?" Spike said.

Now she looked quite irritated. "I am not part of the Council of Intrusion. I have never seen a portal to the Nightmare Dimension. And your mistress didn't do any better."

"We don't have time to fight each other," I said quickly. "We can have a pillow fight later to resolve this. Can you call this council?"

For some reason, Applejack looked at me oddly. I studied myself, but I am not covered in eggs this time.

I'd tell you, but it would take far too long.

"I would have to depart and by the time I rousted them out, you might all die and they'd break through," Marjorie said. "And the Elements of Power would be vulnerable to whatever is affecting them." She grimaced. "I will not let what is mine be taken away from me," she said fiercely. "Not by devils, not by the Nightmare Dimension, not by ANYONE."

I could feel her heart throb with determination and her followers all smiled, clearly pleased by her devotion to them, though really, being that possessive never ends well.

"I suppose Spike's spell wouldn't work all the way to the Moon," Marcus said, cutting off a devil's head; it dissolved away, which was rather creepy.

"There are protections against surprise visitors which would stop him and stop me going straight to them," Marjorie said tensely.

"Ahah!" Dawn Gleaming said. "I have an idea! If all the unicorns pool their strength, we can shake up the rubble which underlays this part of the city, cause a massive sinkhole and create a physical barrier to buy us some time!"

This worked quite well, though soon our foes began herding monsters to fall into the pit so as to plug it up.

That's one of the most horrible things I've ever seen and I felt determined to close this hole before anyone else got hurt.

"Maybe the Applejacks and Pinkamena and I could hitch ourselves to the edges, pull it tight, and then the Rarities could sew it shut," I said, trying to be helpful.

"How exactly would you hitch yourself to the edge?" Dawn Gleaming asked. "It's an energy field, type III."

"Maybe the Elements of Harmony together can do what I could not," Twilight mused.

Dragonfly and Fluttershy were talking some kind of druid tree plant talk thing. It went WOOSH over my head, circled around, went WOOSH again, then when I wasn't looking it tapped me on the shoulder.

And when I turned?

WWWWWOOOOOSSSSHHHH!!!!!

"We need chaos," Dragonfly said. "Chaotic energies on a large scale to cancel the Nightmare Law. Twilight is strongly aligned to Law, therefore she only fed its power."

"But I am of a Sphere aligned to Law," Marjorie said, frustrated. "Where are we going to get enough Chaos?"

"Pinkie," Twilight and Marcus said in unison. "And my sword and I," Marcus said. "Which by extension would mean Sammy too."

"We have a whole chaos firing cannon but the Slaad got too tired from the first shot," Scootaloo said, frustrated. Her head was sticking out of Dash's saddlebags.

"HEY, I told you to GO IN THE SHIP," Rainbow Dash said frantically, staring at her in shock.

"You didn't seriously think I'd do that, did you? I HAVE A CUTIE MARK NOW. I CAN FLY! This is going to ROCK!" she crowed.

"Get back in the bag until this is over or your mother will KILL ME," Dash said, trying to shove her down.

"I hate to say it," Marcus said slowly, "But the Cutie Mark Crusaders are one of the biggest sources of Chaos we have."

"I can't put my sister in this kind of danger!" Clarity and Rarity both said, then looked at each other.

"I bet if we did a double rainbow, THAT would close this gate," Scootaloo said.

"BACK IN THE BAG," Dash said; she and Crash both tried to cram Scootaloo back down but she kept popping up.

I was about to help them as it looked fun, but then I remembered, I have to close this gate.

"Pinkamena, you have to help me," I told her.

"I am not very chaotic as you may have noticed," she said, frowning as the pit slowly filled up.

Marjorie's nostrils flared. "Baalzebul is coming. I will have to engage him."

Marcus made a strangled noise and Sammy buried his face in his hands.

"It doesn't matter," I told her. "Marcus, turn your sword into a needle. You too, Sammy."

He blinked, concentrated, then stared in surprise at his sword as it turned into a giant needle. Sammy did the same.

"Applejack, make a rope out of honesty. Apple Blossom, make one out of elegance," I said. "Rarity, Clarity, use your powers to make thread. First you're going to sew the pull lines to the edge of the portal, then we'll pull it shut and you will sew it in place. Then Dragonfly and Fluttershy will grow a trellis of vines in a grid to hold it together and Dash and Crash will warp the woof with rainbows," I said.

"We'll do WHAT?" Crash said. "That sounds kind of obscene," she said. "I have a boyfriend!"

Rarity crossed her arms in a t shape. "Warp and woof are the two kinds of threads in a weaving. You'll wiggle the rainbows through her frame."

"And Dawn Gleaming and I?" Twilight asked me.

"How the hay do I make a rope out of honesty?" Applejack asked.

A good question to which I do not actually have an answer. "Improvise," I told her. It's what I do best, after PARTY party PARTY.

"You two and Marjorie and Sammy and Spike and Spikey and Marcus will have to fend off our foes while they try to kill us, and then kind of capstone what we do," I said. "I think you'll know what to do when the time comes."

"And me?" Scootaloo asked.

"I need a substitute rubber chicken," I teased her.

She kicked me and I had it coming so I didn't mind. "You will need to defend Marjorie from incoming monsters," I said.

Scootaloo hopped onto Marjorie's back. "Let's kick some ASS!" she said.

Marjorie tensed, then said, "You are an enthusiastic young filly," softly.

"HELL YEAH!"

"This is very dangerous, you know."

"I know. But that means winning is more AWESOME when I beat the odds."

Majorie got an odd look on her face, then said, "Well, let's roll the dice, then." She drew herself up, then opened fire on the devils trying to fill the pit with monsters.

And so we began.

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

Marcus-O-Vision:

Standing in the breach, I could feel the difference between the world beyond and our world. Here, law is on the defensive against chaos, its worst tendencies less well represented while chaos has fallen prey to its worst tendencies and is less about freedom and more about selfishness and destruction. Law and good are not synonomous, but law is more inclined towards good.

In the Nightmare Dimension, Law is corrupted into Order, as our world's Chaos has become Entropy. Chaos are the heroic rebels against evil authority. And we stand before that authority unleashed. I can feel the Chaos in me responding to it. It HATED it. I could feel my contrary side, the part of me that wouldn't let me bow to Marquetta when it would have made me less likely to die, rising up in defiance.

But it wasn't easy. The strength of Law, doubly of Order, is its monomaniacal focus, its utter certainty, its lack of doubt, its focusing of its entire resources on what it chooses to do. Thus, though Chaos may drive Order back, though Entropy may drive Law back, in the end, neither Chaos nor Entropy can focus or cooperate enough to finish the job. Whereas, outside pressure causes Law and Order to cooperate even more intensely to push back.

When Chaos is too strong, it becomes a thug, destroying without creating. But when Law becomes too strong, it becomes a bully, pushing others around and remolding them to its vision. I remembered Twilight's words to Marjorie. "Anyone who relies only on their strength to get their way is no princess, nothing more than a bully," she had said. "You might be stronger," Twilight had continued. "But you are not better. You misuse your strength instead of using it to defend others. I will not bow. None of us will bow."

I had not been strong enough to stand on my own against Marjorie's will, but Twilight had. But her strength, it was the strength of Law. It was born of patience and hard work, a keen mind honed to perfection by long practice, through specialization and finding her place. And through her network of friends, who always strengthened her, present or not. Personal strength knotted together with that of others to form the collective strength of Law. So long as her connections to her friends hold, Twilight can not be broken by Immortal or mortal alike. Beaten, slain, yes, for she is not invincible. But she will not be broken. You cannot force her to bow to you.

Rarity's strength came from Law as well. She is precise, deft, orderly in word and deed. Like Twilight, she has honed her skills to a fine edge and they give her strength. Where Pinkie, our little bundle of kindly Chaos, cannot stand formal occassions, Rarity thrives in them. They reward her fine qualities. And on top of all of that, she is a generous soul, free and helpful with her gifts, and I love her more than I have loved in a long time.

But sometimes we clash, for I am Chaos and she is Order, I have been a free spirit and she turns always to the habits of work and discipline and the rewards of industry that her father gave her. While I have always had rather an eye for the main chance. The adventuring life is high risk but the rewards are huge for short term, though dangerous work. I would rather be wealthy than work to get it. This is why I always went back in the dungeon rather than settle down.

And Chaos cannot stand before the tide. That is not its strength. To take on the enemy head on, holding always firm and stable, that is the way of Law. But like Pinkie, I feel that call of Chaos, if not so dramatically as her. My strength is my flexibility, my inventiveness, to find people's levers and push them.

Even Baalzebul has levers. As a creature of Order, he ESPECIALLY has levers, because he can't escape his nature. "What do we know about Baalzebul?" I asked.

Twilight called forth a small army of tentacles which began grabbing monsters and devils and crushing them. "He's the enemy of Mephistopheles and Dispater, and he's married to Baftis and Lilith," she said. "He looks roughly human and he's obssessed with perfect creation. He wants to build the perfect city, but it's never good enough."

"He's coming. I can feel him," Marjorie said, grabbing creatures with magic and hurling them out of the pit across the city.

"Baftis is very subservient but is rumored to have been imprisoned by Baalzebul for defying him when he lost patience with yet another city and destroyed it. He fights a lot with his current consort, Lilith, who used to be Moloch's consort before Moloch foolishly defied Asmodeus, the Lord of the Devils. She's beautiful and strong-willed and is worshipped by a lot of witches and people seeking magic, beauty, or both," Dawn Gleaming said, hurling lightning through a mob of green chitinous insectoid monsters being herded towards the pit.

I glanced back and saw Pinkie and Pinkamena rolling around in strands of taffy as Sir Lintsalot, Rocky, and Mr. Turnip tried to disentangle them and Madame LeFlour cast spells into the taffy, which got more plentiful as a result. It throbbed with the power of Chaos. Pinkie was laughing and Pinkamena looked... overwhelmed, really.

Dash and Rainbow Crash were throwing rainbows back and forth, while Scootaloo... I won't pretend I understand what exactly she was doing but she kept running between them as more and more rainbow formed between them. She was supposed to stick close to Marjorie, but being Scootaloo, so much for following orders.

Rarity and Clarity were busy tentatively testing how to thread the sword-needles through the edge of the portal, while Captain Keen Eyes stood protectively between them and the onrushing hordes of Deviltry, shelling them with arrows.

Applejack and Apple Blossom were drinking orange brandy and looking somewhat frustrated; I'll say I have no more idea how to make a rope out of honesty or elegance than they do.

"Rarity," I said to her. "I think they need help."

Rarity nodded and she and Clarity turned to Applejack and Apple Blossom while Dawn Gleaming and Twilight continued to brief me on Baalzebul and we all blew things up with magic.

Rarity went to Apple Blossom to my surprise, Clarity to Applejack. "It is so nice to see another pony who appreciates fashion," Rarity said to Apple Blossom, who smiled.

"Clarity means well, but she is all work and no play, except with Spikey," Apple Blossom said. "But we understand that elegance is *fun*, that to look good and be stylish is something to enjoy. It requires work but in the sense being good at sports is work. Work to achieve better enjoyment." Her Element began to shine.

"A hard working pony like you is someone I can admire," Clarity said, and now Applejack looked first surprised, but then pleased.

"I hafta say you're a pony of great skill," Applejack said to Clarity. "Industry's a virtue I respect." Her Element began to shine softly.

"Your lasso can snare things like ghosts and clouds, which a normal rope would pass through, right?" Clarity said to Applejack.

Applejack nodded. "My mother passed it on to me," she said. "It once got used to snare four ghosts at once and throw them into a river. Story's too long to tell right now with wolves at the door, to speak, though."

"You can tell me later," Clarity said warmly. "Then this will be our basis. We will weave hard work and honesty into it, and I will use it as my rope and Rarity can use Apple Blossom's. Show me."

Soon Applejack was spinning her rope around and doing tricks at Clarity's command.

Meanwhile, Rarity said to Apple Blossom, "What is your favorite item of clothing?"

Apple Blossom produced a supremely fancy dress, clearly unsuitable for use in the field or any sort of fighting, eight layered and I honestly have no idea how an Earth Pony could even get it on.

"We will have to unravel this and make an elegant thread with it," Rarity said. "I promise you, I will make you another to whatever specifications you like, but you will have to give this up in order for us to make it."

Apple Blossom stared at the dress, horrified by the idea. "It's so beautiful," she said softly. "Aunt Orange gave it to me." Her voice trembled.

"I know it is not easy," Rarity said. She now pulled out the dress she wore the night we danced together. I couldn't help but stare and then remember that. "I wore this the first time Marcus and I danced together. The first time we kissed. When he became a pony for my sake. Because he loved me. It is precious to me."

Apple Blossom stared at it, eyes wide.

"I will unravel it and weave it together with your precious dress. Together we will make a thread so strong that no force can sever it, and our sacrifice will enable you to pull this gateway shut," Rarity said, shivering a little.

I touched my hat, which Rarity gave me, and now I felt guilty I still had it.

She noticed and shook her head at me. I would contribute otherwise. This was her gift, of her essence, for she is the Element of Generosity. "Elegance and Generosity must go together, for to those who have been given much, to them is the duty to give generously of what they have received. I give up this dress, but the memory of that night, I will forever treasure in my heart. You remember when she gave it to you, right?"

That memory, though is a lie. She is a creation. A shadow of possibility made flesh by Marjorie's power and Keraptis' arts. In the face of stern Order, she and the others would dissolve if Marjorie did not sustain them.

But to her, it is real and the sacrifice... How can we know that WE are not but shadows to beings more real than ourselves? Called forth by their will and dispersed as easily?

And they must know now, they are shadows. That they could evaporate at any time. But they do not despair. I could see Fluttershy and Dragonfly together, singing songs and growing plants. Dragonfly's clearly not good at it; she's more in tune with weather than animals, I think. But together, Fluttershy could call them forth and Dragonfly nurture them with the light and water they need; her hoofs struck rock and it became soil in which they grew.

If anyone had reason for despair, it is them, but they will not give up.

And if shadows can fight, so much harder must we.

And then, as I glanced at Sammy, I understood. He is a being of law. He is focused and disciplined and steady by contrast to myself. There has to be a way for us to use that.

Apple Blossom let out a great sigh. "Together," she said. "Let it be done before I lose the will to say yes."

And then Rarity began to unravel the two dresses and twine them together into a great cord.

Meanwhile, Clarity now took threads from her bag and with Spikey and Spike both helping her, she began weaving them into the rope, while Applejack twirled it around like some sort of weaving machine. Studying it, I could see she was using Applejack's tail like a needle, the tricks were like operating a sewing machine or maybe a loom with Applejack as the bobbin. As Applejack expressed her true self, she fed power into the rope, and as Clarity's hard work paid off, the rope became ever more powerful from her as well.

I now came up with a plan. Whether I would survive it...

That's another question.

***********

Twilight's Letter to the Reader:

Marcus' plan made sense, but really, it should be Rarity doing this with him. However, she has to sew the gate shut while we attempt psychological warfare on an Immortal. Hopefully this will be a mortal identity but we may well have bored into his home plane.

Well, not US but the gate maker.

In which case... No, I will be brave. I could smell Marcus' terror and I hoped that Baalzebul does not have pony level senses. He didn't show it, but I could smell it.

We gulped down the candy and he turned into Dispater and I turned into Lillith. Dispater is tall, 21 hands high, and Lillith fairly tall too; he looked mostly human, though not like Marcus, with a short beard and a shaved head and tiny horns. I, on the other hand, screamed 'DEVIL' with red skin and large horns and a tail and everything. I was also fairly naked and Marcus tried not to look at me. I put an illusion on my crown and made illusionary clothing just to avoid making him uncomfortable.

Which would give us away, too.

Having to pretend to be secret lovers bothered me, both from not wanting to hurt Rarity and from it reminding me of how I had loved him once. Part of me still did. Everyone says that never totally fades, but I need it to. How can I be a good friend to both of them when I feel things like this?

But there's no one else here to do this except Dawn Gleaming and she has a boyfriend.

They'd hitched the magical ropes already when Baalzebul came with his guard of pit fiends. Apple Blossom, Applejack, Pinkie, and Pinkamena were pulling the gateway shut as it tried to fight them, and Rarity and Clarity stood ready to sew. Dash, Crash, Dragonfly, and Fluttershy stood ready to further seal the gate. We'd rigged the taffy as a line of defense at the lip of the pit in front of us, though I'm not sure exactly how that works.

The hard part of this is that we have to hold the line until the gate is almost shut, then duck in and let it slam, but stay here long enough to prevent anyone getting in to wedge it open.

And Marcus doesn't have his sword. If something goes wrong...

No. Trust in my friends. That is my strength. Pinkie's plan is WORKING. I do not understand how but I don't... Okay, I really, really want to understand how it works. But I can find out later, once the world is safe.

Marjorie looked confident but I can't tell if that's arrogance or properly based in reality. She is an Immortal, though. Ideally, she'll cancel out Baalzebul and the rest of us will handle the enemy long enough.

I could feel Baalzebul's power before I saw him and... the amulet! I still had it. I checked it. He was at full strength. But he can't cross over into our world without alerting every Immortal, right? And Marjorie...

Is a lot weaker than him.

I winced, then made myself not wince. We can do this. Nightmare Moon was an immortal. The elements united, we can't be defeated and now, it's not just us, it's the Elements of Power too.

Working with them instead of against them feels so good. It's Harmony in action.

It's *right*.

We can do this.

Baalzebul was a tall man, only slightly devilish looking, wearing a suit of bronze armor over most of his body. He rode on a creature which resembled a giant fly. It buzzed constantly and he smelled TERRIBLE. This form doesn't smell well, but I could smell him.

"Dispater, your presence here is a violation of the laws of the Hells. Lillith, what are you doing here?" he said.

I was doing my best to draw power and feed it through us so we would 'smell' Immortal. With the Element of Magic, I could do it; Marjorie had advised us to do it.

I embraced Dispater. "Baalzebul, you fool," I told him. "I am going to take your plane as the Hag Countess took Moloch's," I said, hoping I got that right. It's a long sordid story of 'love' (what Devils call love) and betrayal and stupid revolts against Asmodeus. "You will die fighting these mortals and then we will turn on them and be rewarded for stopping their 'invasion' of this plane. And being ponies, they're so stupidly trusting that they'll walk right into it!" I was speaking in the language of the Hells thanks to a spell Marjorie cast. I hoped it came off convincing.

"Hi, I'm Twilight Sparkle, a very trusting pony," Dawn Gleaming said. "Not nearly as cool as Dawn Gleaming but she was busy mastering yet another spell I don't know yet, and couldn't come to the invasion. I wasn't doing anything useful, so here I am to smite you!"

My leg twitched but I pretended to ignore it, since Lillith wouldn't care.

'Dispater' (Marcus) fondled my shoulder and I shivered, feeling odd.

"Also, I advised Baftis to defy you, telling her you'd respect her more if she was stronger. Oh, what a foolishly trusting sucker she was. And now you've imprisoned her in the ruins you built over, where she will stay, since you're going to die here. Best of all, if we die, this isn't our home plane, so we won't stay dead," I told him. "I have bound myself to Malboge. But you never noticed."

"I noticed," he said. He pulled out a gem and crushed it. "And there goes your tie. If I die, you go with me, TRAITOR. Do you think I did not anticipate this? The only question was who you would spread your legs for, you whore!"

I suddenly wondered if we'd managed to somehow make up a real plot or if he was just that paranoid.

Baalzebul smiled angrily, dark blue eyes flashing. "I can see your surprise. Did you think me a fool? The Hag Countess has fallen and Glasya rules there now. She did not want you having influence over her plane. She was quite amenable to root out your anchor and pass it to me, and the power of the daughter of Asmodeus is not so easily noticed if she does not wish it to be."

Glasya... Asmodeus has a daughter? I think the Hag Countess got turned into a house or something... I forget why. Or how she got to be the boss when Moloch got overthrown.

Then he turned to Marjorie. "You are bold but foolish. Your Immortal allies cannot save you here. By entering this realm, you belong to me. I will enjoy tearing you down and rebuilding you."

She looked nervous, but then she said, "You are going to die. You tore a hole into our world and now you will pay for it."

Baalzebul waggled a finger. "Now, now, it was one of your people who opened the way. It always has to be, since the Compact."

The Compact is a poorly kept peace treaty between our dimension and the Nightmare dimension. Among other things, mortals on the other side have to open the way, though covert agents and accidents happen sometimes too.

The gateway was shrinking. If we are fortunate, he'll keep threatening us until we're ready to escape. I could feel Clarity and Rarity starting to work, felt the gate getting smaller. Not too much longer and we'll be able to retreat.

"I will not let you take what is mine!" Marjorie shouted, but this time, she meant the whole world. She is so fierce, and even Baalzebul was taken aback.

Now he gestured and the pit suddenly healed, sealing up, full of rubble but crossable. "I am the lord of the Seventh Layer of Hell! Those who would challenge me here are FOOLS."

Let's hope he's not right.

Then we got hit by a wave of his power. Our disguises were ripped away and we both turned back to normal. Sammy and Dawn Gleaming started to dissolve, but Marjorie managed to save them. She growled angrily and now breathed a huge gout of fire at Baalzebul and company.

This did nothing at all.

In fact, I think they enjoyed it.

"Retreat," Marjorie said to Dawn Gleaming and Sammy. Her voice brooked no denial.

"I can't just abandon you!" Dawn Gleaming said urgently as our foes rushed forwards.

"He can destroy you utterly beyond my power to remake you and I will NOT HAVE THAT," Marjorie said fiercely. "I did not make you so that some fool could destroy you with his conjuring tricks."

Conjuring tricks?

Baalzebul looked VERY unhappy, though he now pointed at Marcus and I. "I commend you on a good lie! Swear to me and I will spare you! I can use someone both clever and powerful!"

I suspect he's lying. "Ponies bow to no one!" I said proudly. I felt his aura rush at me but it skidded off my power. This both pleased me and scared me a little. I've grown so strong. But this road eventually leads away from everything I've known. I want to make Celestia proud, I want to protect ponykind. But this kind of power, it always cut me off from others. Though some of that was my own fault.

I could have had friends before this, but I let those who did hate me drive me away from those I could have been friends with. Lyra, Octavia, Moondancer and others.

I couldn't do this without everyone else. I can't walk this road without them. I hope they all will walk it with me. I need them. I'm not used to needing people. Except my parents and Celestia.

But I need them all. When they hurt, it hurts me. When they smile, I smile. The bond I have with them is so precious to me, I don't even have words for it.

I have *a* word. Friendship. But it's... it's more than that.

No, not in a bad love story sort of way.

We complete each other. Friendship makes us all more than we are. With them by my side, I can face anything. *For* them, I can face anything.

Baalzebul had a mace and now Marcus concentrated and it flopped around in his hand. "I serve Princess Celestia and Princess Luna and I love Rarity, the Element of Generosity!" Marcus shouted. "None of us will bend knee to you, Lord of the Flies!"

"Then, DIE," he said and his word of power reached out and grasped Marcus and tried to kill him but I shattered the spell with a thought, outraged, power flowing through me.

"Go," Marjorie said again to Dawn Gleaming and Sammy. "You would die before I could save you if he did that to you."

They retreated, but they looked very guilty about it. She looked relieved and then she hurled lightning; a half dozen pit fiends went flying; the power was incredible. She could cut loose here, not hold back as she must on Mystara to avoid getting in trouble.

But Baalzebul suddenly appeared right next to Marjorie, then smacked her with his mace and she went flying back through the gateway.

"..." I stared in shock as she cried out in surprise.

"Run, you fools!" Pinkamena shouted at the two of us.

He moved smoothly to cut us off, but now the taffy rose up and lashed at him like a snake, holding him for several seconds, burning him. He flailed and Marcus and I both got flung by massive amounts of power in opposite directions as the world began to ripple and buckle. The taffy burned away but now Baalzebul sort of... melted. He became this hideous giant slug monster, still clutching his mace with a pseudopod, but his beauty and grace were gone like the masks they were.

This was the form Asmodeus had punished him with for past rebellion. He must be able to take on a prettier form for a while but his concentration lapsed.

He turned his hideous multi-faceted eyes on us and his aura hit us like hammers, now fully unleashed. Captain Keen Eyes fired through the sliver of gate remaining but the arrows just bounced off his eyes. So did a half dozen apples and a hurled bottle of orange brandy, though the liquid briefly blinded him.

"Come on!" Pinkie shouted urgently.

"Baalzebul," Pinkamena said grimly. "I think you need to change your name to Lord of the Midden. You smell like yesterday's vomit. *Cat vomit*."

"Oooh, I think it's more like when you try freebasing sugar mixed with cinnamon and it BURNS IT BURNS and then you try to wash it out with vinegar and you accidentally drink it and you get GAS and you start drifting high into the sky until pegasi find you and then... it all comes out at once and they all nearly die." Pinkie made a face. "Never do that, by the way."

I see.

He gave a howl of rage and we tried to run but he just kind of arched over us, blocking our escape. But then Marjorie leaped on him, kicking and biting and howling and spewing fire everywhere.

Unfortunately, now his pit fiends were coming at us. Huge red-skinned and muscular, giant bat wings, horns, fangs, swords and whips. I flung one into another, driving back a third with lightning.

Marcus, on the other hand, wasn't strong enough to hurt them much with magic but kept trying to lure them away from me.

"Marcus, run," I told him. Without his sword, he can't defend himself; I'm sure it would hurt them but his magic isn't strong enough.

"I am not going to leave you here!," he shouted. "I can't make it up to you if you die!"

"You can't make it up to me if YOU die," I shouted, flinging back a pit fiend about to stab him. "Rarity, how is it coming?"

"We're ready to close it!" she shouted. "Get out of there!"

"Princess Marjorie, we need to retreat!"

Only we couldn't. She was tangled up with Baalzebul as they fought in hideous immortal slugfest. He was oozing acid on her and she was battering and chewing on him, lost in a fighting frenzy.

Marcus looked at her, looked at the gate.

We could leave her here. I can tell he's tempted. I'm a little tempted, to my embarrassment. She's caused us so much trouble... she was going to start a war between Equestria and Sind! Many innocents would have died.

I couldn't understand why she was made an immortal.

But I see why, now. Colored dragons value fiercess, strength of will, defending what is yours, and cunning. And she embodies all of those. But those values don't have to be used to hurt the innocent. They can be used to defend our world, to defend those important to you.

They're not the general virtues of ponies.

But this world isn't just ponies. If I am to be an immortal, I will have to deal with beings that don't share our values. To work with all the Spheres against the things that would come from outside to destroy us.

Even to work with enemies. Because we all have bigger enemies, and this world belongs to all of us.

Celestia's mother is Loki. He's a terrible person.

He's on our side when it comes to dealing with things like this.

Baalzebul would make our entire world into his city, then destroy it over and over when it failed to please him.

Marjorie... she's like a child with the power of a god. Did she even really understand what she was doing, trying to get even with us? Can she even help it? Other creatures don't think like we do, as I have become aware with Marcus, with Ivan, with Spike, though he's pretty close to a pony in all but body. Are all colored dragons like that?

But she's starting to change. She cares about the Elements of Power, even though she made them as tools. And they care about her. They were made to, but... do they have free will?

I glanced at Pinkamena, who looked horrified by Marjorie and Baalzebul's fight. She believes she grew up with a family who didn't care. But Marjorie cared, and she loves Marjorie.

Like I love Celestia.

I don't know if we'll ever be real friends. But we have to be able to work together one day, much as Immortals sometimes squabble and fight. And maybe this will turn her energies in more productive directions.

"We have to save her," I told Marcus.

"She wants me dead," he said softly.

"NEVER," I said hotly, then felt embarrassed. "I won't let her hurt you but she is an Immortal and we cannot abandon her when she fights for our friends and our world."

For a moment, he looked haunted, then looked back at everyone and then said softly, "I should come back if I die, but if I do not, take care of Rarity."

"You are NOT going to die," I told him.

Baalzebul slammed Marjorie down and began hammering her; I could barely keep his devils back, even with my Element going full tilt. But everyone was pinned down being ready to close the gate.

Baalzebul reared up to strike Marjorie down with a pseudopod. But as the blow came down, a lance stabbed into him and he howled. Sir Lintsalot and Rocky stood over her defiantly, and then Mr. Turnip hurled a cabbage at his face, and Madame LeFlour conjured salt and dumped it on him; he howled as it burned his slug-like flesh. Pinkamena said, "I will DIE BEFORE I LET YOU KILL HER! SHE CARES ABOUT ME!"

And then, grimly, she began to sing and dance and I felt magic; she was trying to trap him with the Irresistable Dance spell.

It bounced off him. He's an Immortal, not easily compelled, especially not by a construct.

Marcus stared at her; he looked at me, then looked determined. He took Pinkamena by the hands and wove his magic with hers. "Use us as your focus," he told me, and I understood.

I reached out to the others and we joined powers. The Elements of Power joined their power to ours as well and then our power flowed through Marcus and Pinkamena into the spell and Baalzebul began to dance to his utter horror and as he danced, he screamed, for Chaos was flowing into him.

Pinkamena and Marcus looked very strained by this. Neither of them was made for this much power. And then Baalzebul struck at them, hurling balls of fire at them.

And then there was a flash of light and Rarity interposed herself, firing a barrage of arrows which melted but stopped the attack. I could see she'd passed Marcus' sword to Fluttershy.

Why Fluttershy?

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

Fluttershy's Point of View:

"Dragonfly," I said. "If I die, you have to take care of Angel Bunny and Slither."

She blinked. "If you die, it probably means we will both die."

"I don't think our lives are linked," I told her. At least, if they are, my powers from Mother Nature aren't telling me any such thing.

"I mean, if you die, it likely means the entire group is going down," she said. "That being said, if you intend to kill our foe with that sword, I am in. His city is an abomination in the eyes of nature. Every tree is gone, the grass, the sky itself choked with smoke and flame... Nature groans in chains and howls for revenge." She got increasingly angry, which made me more nervous.

"If you're going to kick some ass, we're in," Rainbow Dash said.

"YEAH!" Scootaloo said, sticking her head out of the bag.

"GET IN THE BAG," Rainbow Dash said, trying to push her back down. "Your mother has very sharp teeth, you know!"

Dragonfly and I both stared, mouth open wide, for the first time united in common thought.

"What exactly have you been doing with my mom?" Scootaloo said suspiciously.

"Don't you have a boyfriend?" Rainbow Crash said suspiciously.

"Don't you all need to stay here and be ready to seal the gate?" Apple Blossom said. But she looked at Marjorie, who was writhing in pain on the ground, and looked very worried.

"Fluttershy, PLAN, NOW," Rainbow Dash said. "And I didn't do anything with your mom! She got mad at me and... forget I ever said anything!" She waved her hooves around frantically.

"Oh my," Dragonfly and I said in unison, then blinked.

"I need you to cover me while I heal Marjorie, then we're going to destroy the city," I said. "Or at least... some of it. A little of it." I felt very nervous about this. It was hideous and evil but even devils need a place to live. One set of instincts said to destroy it and another that I shouldn't and I wasn't sure which was right.

"I bet I could set the surrounding area on fire... but I think they like that," Dragonfly said excitedly, then deflated.

"Building levelling coming right..."

A giant buzzing fly had been wandering around confused after its master... got off it? Fell off? I hadn't noticed. But now it was about to dive bomb Rarity, who was too busy parrying attacks from Beelzebub to notice.

"Fly, now!" Rainbow Dash said and launched. Rainbow Crash and her charged into the fly, slammed into it and crashed off through buildings, sending bricks and rock and bolts flying everywhere.

Clarity looked indecisive, then turned to Spikey. "What do you think?"

"I think everyone on our team needs to stand ready to close the gate or else Beelzebub may erase you while Princess Marjorie is down, even though..." He grimaced. "She's hurt."

"You all throw supporting fire and be ready for more sealing, since the gate's mostly shut," Applejack said. "I'm gonna go plant some horseshoe marks in some devil butts. Dragonfly, you'd better stay here."

"I have to go," she said.

"We will hold the gate," Dawn Gleaming said. "Dragonfly, you can lay down supporting lightning from here. If we evaporate, we're no use to the Princess."

I couldn't wait any longer. I charged out with Applejack covering me. She kicked away a devil covered in chains and hooks and axes and spears, then grabbed one of his chains with her teeth, spun him around and tangled up a huge red devil thing and threw them both at a huge fat one with a massive spear and they all tumbled away.

I ran with a sword in my teeth and I jabbed it into the ground long enough to cast some healing on Marjorie, who now stared at me, eyes wide. "You healed me," she said softly.

"We're on the same side against deviltry," I told her. "And I cannot stand to see someone as hurt as you were." Her coat charred, her flesh torn and bleeding... it had been horrible.

"Even though I tried to kill you," she said softly.

"We're not enemies any more," I said.

She started at that, and then looked guilty. She rose now over me and said, "I see why you bear that." Then she pointed where I had stuck the sword.

A tiny vine was growing up through the rock where it had struck and the rocks and bricks around it were crumbling into soil. Applejack looked, then grinned and reached in her pack, throwing a bag of seeds to me. "Some of my finest, I carry 'em for emergencies."

Marjorie clearly didn't understand why Applejack does that, but I understand. "Applejack, you are a dear friend and I thank you," I told her. Sword in teeth, I carved the ground and as I moved, Applejack planted seeds. They were already sprouting a little, even as Marjorie turned and spat lightning at Baalzebul. Soon she, Twilight, and Rarity were having a huge magical / energy / missile battle as Marcus and Pinkamena continued to dance, distracting Baalzebul's concentration.

Then the Dashes and Scootaloo came back. "Scootaloo," I said. "Can you grip a sword in your mouth?"

"I can try!"

"Dashie, I need lots of rain." Maybe that was too demanding. "If you don't mind."

Rainbow Dash and Crash now went to work making rain, while the battle raged near us. Dawn Gleaming and Dragonfly had some sort of lightning throwing contest, I think, in fact.

It made me rather nervous, but I tried to focus myself and keep plowing the ground. As I worked, I noticed the tilled ground spread further the more I worked at it, so I worked harder and it spread even more.

Unfortunately, this drew the attention of some giant with a trident and two heads and four tails. He rushed right at me, though Dashie jumped on a cloud and made lightning hit him. He stumbled and I dodged his attack, then Applejack bucked the back of his leg; she couldn't actually reach his knee. He stumbled, his knee dipped and she hit it; he fell and Dragonfly now dropped more lightning on him and he passed out.

I took the sword, moved to the middle of my work, then jabbed it into the ground and began to pray, focusing my power through it and calling upon Mother Nature to bring her power to this cold, dead world. This sword came from her sphere, the sphere of Matter, my sphere, for it is not just the sphere of earth and rock but of all that lives and grows within that, the sphere of life in all its shapes and forms.

This world had been scourged of life and left only with death and despair.

It was up to me to return it to greater balance, if only for a little while. I am not so vain as to think my power can overthrow a Master of Devils.

But this is how I can fight him. Not by drawing blood or hitting people.

But by championing life in the face of death, for that is the call of the druid. Death has its place; but the death we embrace is part of the cycle of life. In time, I will die and my body will become food for worms who will return it to the soil and from that soil, beautiful trees will grow, to purify the air and turn soil into fruit for animals. They will scatter the seeds of the trees and more trees will grow.

But here, the cycle has been destroyed. There is nothing but endless city, stone piled on metal on stone. Everything that lives suffers at the whims of its hideous master, who cannot stand imperfection.

Life IS imperfection. Druids do not believe in perfection. There is always room to improve but change is constant. You cannot fix things at one point and stay that way forever.

I struggle with that. A part of me wishes the good times would last forever, fears that if they stop, everything will go downhill. I am nervous and change frightens me.

But Druids are bringers of change. We combine law and chaos, for nature is ever changing, yet it changes in predictable cycles. And slowly, those cycles change. The world grows warmer or colder. Species come and go. I mourn for the fallen, for creatures now long gone or dwindled only to remnants in hidden valleys and places time forgot like the Thanegioth Archepelago, where the Isle of Dread is found.

I am not chaotic by nature. I am lawful. In a shy way. Dragonfly rages with change and chaos. She'd do this better than me. But she can't; if she enters Baalzebul's realm, he may well unmake her before Marjorie can save her. Or Pinkie. I don't know how Pinkie did that, but I wish I knew how.

But I have to find that chaos inside me to do this. To force the wheel of time, frozen here to Baalzebul's will to change. The sword can do it a little. I can see the the seeds sprouting.

But it's not enough. I watched Dash and Crash jump from cloud to cloud, making rain and lightning come down, laughing as they go. They have no fear. Crash could be erased with a thought and she is not afraid.

I feel a certain empathy with Marcus, because he understands fear as I do, if for different reasons. And it's one of the reasons I can bond to many of my animal friends. They know fear. To be an herbivore, like many of them are, like ponies are mostly (though we can eat eggs and things made with them), is to know fear. When Blackmoor changed us, they removed a lot of our fear. We have more than humans but less than, say, my mice friends.

Fear is a survival instinct. It's what keeps us alive in a dangerous world. But ponies don't need it as much because, like humans, we're smart enough to make tools and use them, to think our way out of problems, to fight with less fear if we must fight.

Baalzebul rules by fear; I can smell it on his servants. Cunning, fear, lies. This sort of all out assault is only because he didn't have time to think of a good lie and Marcus and Twilight fooled him into becoming too angry to think. But this world is full of violence even if it is not his first choice. Pain. Suffering. Misery. Even the rocks cry out to me for mercy, for release.

I am a healer; when I see pain, I want to end it, to heal it. Even with someone like Marjorie. Who scares me. But her pain... I had to set her free.

This world is pain and I must end it, if only for a little while.

I rose into the air, enough to 'stand' on the sword, a hoof on each crossbar, and I spread my forelegs and wings as I hovered. I became like the trees which would now rise from the land.

And then I heard Dragonfly begin, haltingly, to sing the song I intended to sing, which speeds the growth of plants. She wasn't good at it, for where I am best at growth and healing, she is better at clearing the ground for new growth. But we need that here as well. Her destruction and my creation, together we would turn the wheel.

Her destruction and my creation, in harmony we find our union. My Element began to shine.

I have studied philosophy, I just don't feel the need to talk about it all the time like Twilight and Marcus and Dawn Gleaming and Sammy do. In part because I'm never so sure of being right as they are. Which can be just a little annoying sometimes.

Don't tell them I said that! I didn't...

Okay, I meant it but I don't like to criticize people because I spent too long being criticized all the time. I wasn't fast enough for Father or my uncles and all the boys liked to pick on me and some of the girls at school. Mother always comforted me but it wasn't enough.

Without Dashie, I probably would have gone completely insane. Having someone to stand up for me who wasn't...

I know Mother really loves me. I love her. I love Father. But... parents love their children by their nature. As a druid, I especially know about instincts.

Dashie had no instincts compelling her to be my friend, to love me. But she did anyway, and that was a great comfort to me, rude as she could be sometimes.

Please don't think I hate my parents or something! It's just my nature to fret.

Anyway, druids study nature and part of that is experienced and part of it is intuitive but part of it is learned and deduced too. It gives us a balanced approach instead of trying to learn everything from books.

Some things have to be felt, like the dirt on your hooves and the wind in your mane and the gentle smile of a squirrel whose leg you have just set in a cast. Without me, he would have suffered, maybe even died.

But I changed his life for the better and now he will have many children and hide many nuts.

Every day, I can make this world a better place.

I will make *this* world a better place. For the time that I can. For I know, as a druid, that all things come to an end.

But that end is also a beginning of something new.

And sometimes, something better.

"Applejack, drive your heels into the cracks and push," I said. I'm getting too bossy again. "Please, if you're not busy with anything else."

She nodded and dug in her heels, and now her Element began to glow.

I began to sing and the clouds swirled and lightning struck me but I rode the lightning.

My body changed and my mind as well; I felt Dash and Crash's swirling, wild joy and I felt Scootaloo laughing through my skin, for she had slipped out of the bag and was jumping from cloud to cloud, feeling amazingly grownup. Their joy flowed down through the lightning into me, into the sword, the well of chaos inside us all. I could feel Pinkie Pie's delight at the rain; she loves a good storm, to feel the water on her skin.

I normally run and hide under the bed, but now I felt her joy and I knew it and I changed.

The ground cracked and Baalzebul shouted with rage and turned to stare at me but now Ivan stepped out of the shadows. "He's right here, your highness!" he shouted, laughing, and then a huge red-skinned woman, remarkably naked for a human, though she did wear jewelry, appeared from flames and shouted, "Baalzebul, you have betrayed me and destroyed my anchor! Now you will PAY!"

And a horde of devils charged at him at her command.

I felt the lightning course through me and I welcomed it, drawing its power into the sword, and using it to drive the wheel of change. The seeds sprouted and grew, and the ground cracked and trees rose swiftly. Too swiftly, but the world hungered for them. I could not deny that hunger.

"When the fruit is ripe, you must buck the trees, Applejack," I said. "When she does this, Dash and Crash and Scootaloo, you must whip up winds and fling the fruit as far off across this world as you can in the time we have," I said.

They will take root, breaking up buildings, making soil and spreading themselves. Creatures will eat the fruit and spread the seeds. Perhaps in time, Baalzebul will root them all out.

But I don't think so. Seeds will be buried every time he levels his home, and they will wait, until conditions are right. And eventually, they will be. There will always be little seeds of chaos to disrupt his perfect order. And because he can not make perfection, nor accept anything less, he will be unable to turn his attention to hurt others.

Or so I hope.

And so I called down Mother Nature's power, my heritage as both a Pegasus Pony and a druid and prayed to her, that she might give her gift of life to this dead world.

And she heard me and soon Applejack was busy kicking down quick-grown apples and Rainbow Dash, Crash, and Scootaloo were busy spreading them as far as we could reach.

I could feel Dragonfly's song in the air, calling down power, spreading the roots; they ripped up brick and stone, tore down buildings and turned all around them into soil. She destroyed, but her destruction furthered the growth of life. More water reached the roots and the trees grew faster.

And some of the monsters stirred and stared at the trees and ran to them, their masters chasing them and raging, but the power which pulsed in the trees drove them back, for Chaos flowed through the trees and the devils were creatures of pure Order, unable to abide its touch.

I gave them all the love I had, for they would need it here.

Fly free, my children. Bring joy and healing to this world. Live while you can. Everything dies, but your death will bring new life.

One day, I too will be a tree who helps others. Show them what could be, that they might dream of something better, my friends.

I could feel Mother Nature's gentle embrace, her love and approval and it made me smile. I am part of something greater. We all are, pony and man and devil alike. But now, for once, I could fully feel it. And it felt wonderful.

But I would soon have to let it go. Everything changes in time, especially when channeling chaos.

This must be why Pinkie is always so happy.

And now, for a little while, I was very happy too.

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

Applejack Speaks:

Seeing the trees come up, it pleased me, even though trees shouldn't grow that fast. But this place needs trees. Every tree was different. They didn't look quite like normal apple trees. But then, normal ones couldn't live here.

Their nature had to change to thrive in new circumstances.

And seeing that, I understood.

Nature ain't a static thing. And what feels natural to me, growin' up in Equestria, ain't necessarily natural somewhere else. Places change. Ponies change. The whole set a' Pony species changed, both by natural causes and manmade. But humans are part a' nature too.

And it ain't like Ponies ain't remade Equestria. We didn't take it as it was, we made it the way we want to be. All the nature of my farm's only natural 'cause other Ponies and I made it that way.

'Cause that's our nature; I dunno if we got it from humans or it just comes with bein' able to think.

Apple Blossom and I both have a hankerin' to reshape our world, to build a little empire, even if mine is apples and pigs and hers is oranges and drinks and whatnot. I've been breedin' apples and my ancestors been breedin' apples for centuries. Maybe millenia. I think one of those wall ponies was the start of the Apple Clan.

What the humans did to us, we've done as well.

I wouldn't do it to nothing that could think; they got the right to decide their own future. But the impulse... the urge to change what happens if thinkin' critters don't intervene... the orchard would go wild and go downhill without me constantly changin' what nature wants.

What we've done is to harmonize it. Nature by itself makes a mess. That's what I've seen in places like the Malpheggi. We put our brains in and make it work for everyone's benefit.

My element shone as I finally understood what I've been doin' my whole life.

And I bucked like I'd never bucked before.

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

Marcus-O-Vision:

Pinkamena and I continued to dance, Pinkie's power flowing through us to assail Baalzebub, who was trying to fight off Lillith and her supporters, while his minions fought hers.

"I think this is our cue to RUN LIKE HELL," Ivan said urgently to me.

I spun Pinkamena around, then dipped her down low; she is as nimble as Pinkie, which helps this a lot. "I agree. Twilight?"

The ground rose up and formed a gate between us and our exit. In the air, there floated another Master of Devilkind, Dispater, who I had impersonated. "YOU WILL PAY!" he shouted at me.

Then his horde of flying devils went after Dash, Crash, and Scootaloo, while his ground forces rushed at us and he blasted me across the ground with his rod. Pinkamena went tumbling as well.

She rose with an insane grin, despite looking battered and bruised. "Lord Dispater, your plan to kill Beelzebub is going well," she said. "Strike him now and you can easily destroy him!"

"I am not so easily moved around the board by a *fake* Pony," he said and blasted us again, even as I tried to cast a spell.

Twilight sent him tumbling with a huge storm of lightning, but he then caught it with his staff and threw it back at her. She blocked most of it, went tumbling, then had to fight off some pit fiends.

Pinkie tried to charge to our aid but now she was under attack, her instruments getting smashed up.

Battle was raging everywhere and it was too much. We had to get out of here. "Fluttershy, I need my sword!"

She threw it into the air with her teeth, then turned into Flutterdragon, caught it, then crashed through everything in her path to get to me. "I'm so sorry. Oh no, your hat! Oh dear, I hope you didn't pay much for that trident. I'm sorry, that looked like nice armor." And so on.

Ivan had vanished again.

Dispater pointed at Pinkamena and she began to bend and twist and fade. Marjorie was in the throes of fighting a horde of devils and was being driven back.

And then Flutterdragon gave me the sword. I knew what I had to do.

If Pinkamena dissolved, Pinkie would never forgive herself. She'd be broken.

"Get us to Pinkie," I told Flutterdragon and we rode her with me trying to use my magic to keep Pinkamena from dissolving. I was going to lose that fight. I can't match Dispater's power.

But once we reached Pinkie, I handed her the sword. "Pinkie, you have to use the reincarnation spell to make Pinkamena into a real person," I told her. "Let her be reborn with true flesh."

"But what if you need it?" Pinkie said urgently.

"Do it before it's too late!" Pinkamena was down to two dimensions and I felt my power being pushed back.

Pinkie took the sword and hugged it between her and two dimensional Pinkamena, singing urgently. Her element began to glow as she sang of being alone and the friends she'd made for herself and how now she'd found new friends. And Pinkamena was one of them, her sister who she loved.

Pinkamena began to cry, but then she looked determined and she pointed at Dispater. "I do *not* forget or easily forgive. There will be a reckoning," and he laughed with a cruel laughter.

But then Flutterdragon pounced on him. "I'm so sorry to scuff up your nice clothing but you shouldn't be so mean!" she said urgently and I laughed for joy.

What a glorious mess this all was.

There had better be some treasure for this.

Pinkamena turned three dimensional again; she looked brighter. More vivid. Still cranky, but real. She stared at herself.

"Okay, let's get out of here," I said.

The wall burst as our friends on the other side of the gate smashed it open. "Come on!" Dawn Gleaming shouted.

We began a fighting retreat; Pinkie gave me my sword back once they didn't need it. Yet more devils were coming as the storm raged across the city and trees began to grow across it and the land shook with the throes of rebirth.

I then saw Dispater doing a spell which is quite famous and would be quite hideous for us.

Meteor swarm basically dumps a swarm of fireballs on people. Which was going to fry everyone as they withdrew.

Twilight and Dawn Gleaming began a dispel, but I feared it wouldn't be enough. "Flutterdragon, we're going to have to block it," I said. "If you augment yourself with your element, combined with being a gold dragon, we can block most of it."

"But what about you?" she said urgently.

This is going to hurt so much. My common sense chose this moment to reassert itself. I HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE BEFORE MY FIT OF INSANE HEROISM FRIES ME.

Then I saw Rarity withdrawing with the others, shelling arrows down on inrushing monsters.

I can't abandon her.

My safety net is gone. I could fry to ash here.

But this fire will be order-tainted. Which means my sword should help stop it.

If I want to be an Immortal, I can't leave Flutterdragon here alone.

"I won't abandon my friends," I told Flutterdragon and she smiled and then we rushed the fire with me focusing my own fire through the sword.

The good news was that we stopped the fire and everyone escaped.

The bad news was that I don't become more powerful from my determination to protect my friends and the woman I love, so, in fact, I fried.

I'll spare you the excruciating details, but I stopped too much of it with me instead of my sword.

And when I awoke, I was somewhere else.

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

I woke up in a nice, soft, fluffy bed, wearing a nice soft bathrobe and feeling oddly relaxed for someone who just burned up. "Hello?" I said.

"Hello, Marcus darling," Celestia said. "How daring of you, climbing into my bed." Her voice had her usual teasing tone.

Oh bloody hell. I tried to jump out of bed, but landed on MORE BED.

In fact the bed was HUGE, bigger than some rooms. I am not sure why Celestia needs a bed which is something like twenty by thirty feet. Especially given her human form is only six foot two.

Wow, she's as tall as Helga.

For a moment, I had to be sure this wasn't actually Helga messing with me, but Helga is not as tanned as Celestia, and doesn't have the same diaphanous rainbow hair. She wore not a princess outfit but sturdy black pants, a dark green blouse, a white and yellow vest over that, and she had a nice wide-brimmed hat on an end table nearby. Her feet, though, were bare; brown socks were tossed by the hat, black boots sat on the ground. She was closer to the edge of the bed than me.

"Are we in Canterlot?" I asked groggily, checking myself. I was, in fact, naked, but the second I thought about it, clothing appeared and I now wore a nice travelling outfit and Rarity's hat appeared on my head. More precisely, the one she made me.

"You are in my quarters within my home plane," she said. She reached over and put her socks and hat on, then got off the bed and put her boots on. "Come with me."

I followed her, donning my own boots with a thought. We went out into an ornate hallway, decorated with her mighty deeds, then into a side hallway, which showed my past lives. "We are being recursive," she said.

"What?" I said in confusion. Then I paused. "Hey, I was Maeglin Woodwalker?" I said in surprise.

"Yes," she said, standing by me.

The picture showed a somewhat scarred Elf busy driving back a purple worm (the several hundred foot long kind) with blasts of fire as Elven children ran for cover. Another Elf lurked nearby behind a tree, paging through a book of spells.

"Not very pretty," I said. "But brave." I remember when that happened. My apprentice screwed up and managed to trigger a monster break through at the bad magic point; Alfheim has certain 'knots' in the magic which sustains it and the ones which cause trouble are 'bad magic points'.

"He was your first life," Celestia said, hand on my shoulder. Her presence was comforting. "You had many lives on your quest, all of them relatively brief, because once you grew strong enough to recover the sword again, you were reincarnated. Or if you died in the process."

I touched my sword.

"It will no longer reincarnate you," Celestia said. "But Mother Nature has agreed to waive any further need for reincarnation; the sword was only given that power by Bastet so she could bypass proper channels. You were not formally approved as a candidate due to her meddling."

I winced. "All of that was for nothing?" That really annoyed me.

"Not nothing," Celestia said firmly. She ushered me down to another painting. Bofur Shattershield of the Everrast clan. He was busy disarming a complicated trap on a door in a tunnel while other dwarves kept watch. One of them was Fundin; he was a Skyrlist but unlike most of them, a great warrior. Maybe too great, as he tended to run off and get in trouble.

I could remember more of his life as I looked. Marla. She was our cleric. Too vain about her beard, but kind and gentle and hardworking. I'd been saved by her many times.

"They are all inside you; when you return, you will remember their wisdom. Instead of the tight focus of my children, you will have a great deal of flexibility," Celestia said. "As Ivan has begun to master shadows, with time, you will master this ability as you continue your path to Immortality with the others."

That could be really useful. "And if I die?"

"Success or failure in the quest is not measured by death but rather whether you master the virtues of your sphere and succeed, in the end, in the tasks assigned. For people at the level you operate at, the real challenge becomes moral. Not 'can I succeed' so much as 'what are the consequences of my actions'," she said. "The Council of Intrusions... they're not happy you died, but they are happy with you for your willingness to die for our world. Thus, they have approved you for the path of Immortality in the Sphere of Matter. There will be more for you to do under Luna's and my guidance, but you will find us more helpful mentors than Bastet." She said the last word with sadness after previous joy. She sighed. "She has been punished by being assigned to spend a lifetime without her powers as a mortal to remind her that mortals are not toys."

"And Marquetta?" I said. I don't know what to think about her. She wants me dead, but she fought hard for our world and cooperated fully with us in the fight. But if she's going to go back to causing us trouble...

"Considers your death protecting her people to be a quitclaim between you," Celestia said. "And has been informed she is not allowed to claim your sword. Hopefully, we won't have more trouble with her for a while. And she's matured a little."

"I would think you would want someone a lot more mature before making them an immortal," I said, frowning as I studied the picture of Dmitri's death we were now studying.

"I would not want to be the Great One," Celestia said, shaking her head. "Chosing a Moon Dragon is difficult because Colored Dragons are difficult. But she will cause us no more trouble at least for now."

"So what is my next task?"

"You all will be given a rest, but part of your task will be learning to be comfortable as both Pony and Human. For Immortals are not Human or Pony or Dwarf or Troll. Even the draconic immortals must come to transcend the speciation of dragons. This is especially important for Polymaths, for the sphere of Matter is also the sphere of all living things," Celestia said.

We stood before Odo now; he was climbing the rigging of a ship and smiling. I envied him; he was so full of joy. He didn't know how hard life could be.

"It's not easy," I said softly.

"I know," she said. "Luna and I still tend to think of ourselves as Ponies. They are special to us. But an Immortal must cultivate a broader perspective. It is one of several difficult balancing acts. But the others will help you. And one day, you will help them, for they will have to learn that lesson as well." She stretched, adjusted her vest, and smiled. "This is how I am known on the Savage Coast to the west." She had repeating crossbows on her hips, I noticed. Those miniature ones they use, often with trick ammo.

It won't be easy, but I will do it. "So what all DOES my sword do?" I asked her.

"We can discuss it later. Luna has a report for you. But we must meet Twilight and Fluttershy and meet with the Council of Intrusion and get you back before Rarity has a heart attack."

I nodded. "Where is everyone else?"

"Fretting over your body until your soul comes back to it. Luna has restored your flesh but right now, your soul is here with me. So we must make this quick so you can return and relieve their worries," Celestia said.

I do not want Rarity to worry even MORE, so I agree. Let's get this show moving.

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

We found Twilight in Celestia's library. She looked... almost stoned, trying to read four books at once. "This is amazing! I thought every copy of the Amadil Engravings had been destroyed during the Boldavian Vespers!" she said frantically.

"I'm sorry, dear, but we have to go," Celestia said.

Something now sunk in. Twilight was substantially taller or I had shrunk. A quick check showed me that I seemed to be the same height and was still human.

"Hello, Twilight, I see you've grown," I said softly.

She ran over and pounced on me and without Celestia I would have fallen down. "Marcus!"

"I'm okay," I told her. "We have to make this quick; Rarity must be very worried." I wondered why Celestia hadn't brought her.

"Mother Nature wants to see Fluttershy and the council wanted to see Twilight," Celestia said to me.

Twilight said, "Should I take on a human form?"

"It's up to you," Celestia said. "As I told Marcus, part of Immortality is that you have to abandon being attached too much to any one kind of body. As our concerns are more than just any one species, dear as my ponies are to me." I suspect she's still struggling with that herself.

"Which is why you need us," Twilight said softly as we now walked along.

"Yes," Celestia said. She took us through a door and into a garden where we found Fluttershy feeding the birds. She had grown larger too and wore her druid robes. I got a gentle hug from her.

"Has everyone grown?" I asked.

"All six of us," Fluttershy said. "I am so sorry I couldn't protect you," she said, sounding guilty.

"It's okay," I told her. "I chose that risk so I could help you protect the others." It was only then that I realized I felt this strange relief. Peace, even. I wasn't afraid here.

I knew in my gut I was safe.

"The council is Nyx for Entropy, Ixion for Energy, Noumena for Thought, Father Time for Time and Mother Nature for Matter, correct?" Twilight said.

"Ixion and Nyx in the same group?" I said, stunned. She seems to alternate between trying to destroy the sun so her undead can flourish and trying to seduce him, from what I have heard.

"They can be professional and Nyx is still easier to deal with than many Entropics," Celestia said.

Ahahaha.

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

Father Time was a grey haired old human sitting on a throne, wearing blue robes with a golden hourglass woven into them. He looked very serious.

Four other thrones were here this time. A dusky-skinned man with red hair, clad in golden armor, sat to the left of Father Time. Ixion, I suspect. He had a flaming sword propped against his throne, burning merrily. Left of him was a brown haired man, short and brown skinned, mostly naked except for a fancy Nithian hat and a skirt and sandals. His eyes seemed unfocused as if he was paying attention to some distant vista. He must be Noumena, of whom I know little.

To the right of Father Time was his wife, Mother Nature, Djaea, black haired and brown skinned, with bright brown eyes; she was the darkest skinned of all those present. Laurel crowned her head. And to her right sat Nyx, a pale skinned, raven haired immortal, clad in a slinky black dress. She was smiling, showing her fangs.

A sixth immortal stood, but not in a throne. She was curled up off to the left of Noumena, a huge red dragon with eyes that resembled the moon. The Moon Dragon, Pearl, who I have known as Marquetta and Marjorie.

"Was this the meeting that had you confused about why I wasn't dead?" I asked him.

"It is complicated," he said. "Time is a very complex thing."

"Indeed," Noumena said.

"I was not yet aware of the full extent of what had happened with you," Father Time said. "And your time thread was ambiguous."

Fluttershy kneeled, pony-style, before Mother Nature.

"Rise, daughter," Mother Nature said. "You have pleased me greatly." She rose, walked over, and placed her hands on Fluttershy's head. "You followed my teachings well and at great risk to yourself." She touched Fluttershy's golden torc; it rippled and turned to platinum. Then she tucked a bag into Fluttershy's saddlebags. "You can give this to Applejack, who served us well as well."

"Thank you, Mother Nature," Fluttershy said humbly. I noticed she remained kneeling.

"Rise," Mother Nature said and she became a pony scaled to Fluttershy's size, chestnut coated and green maned.

Fluttershy looked her in the eye, then turned her head away.

Gently, Mother Nature guided it back and then looked her in the eye and smiled. "Be proud. I am proud of you."

Fluttershy turned red and then Mother Nature returned to her throne, turning back to human form.

Ixion raised his hand. "Let this meeting of the Council of Intrusion begin." He frowned. "Pearl, why did you not report this breach?"

"As I told you, there was no time. And originally, I thought it could be handled without any need to disturb the council. It is my duty as an Immortal to guard the walls of this world, is it not?" Pearl said sulkily, like a child who has been sent to her corner.

"Ixion, dear," Nyx said, fluttering her eyelids at Ixion, "She did her duty to the world, and even forsook a blood feud to do so." Is she flirting with him?

I decided to try to not notice.

"So what is the problem?" Nyx asked.

"The problem is that, with no experience in such things, she tried to handle it in a mortal identity without reporting to us. We have procedures for a reason," Ixion said.

Ixion is a god of law. Classic example.

"Well, we did it too," Fluttershy said, surprising me. "She just wanted to protect our world and so did we. So if you're going to punish her, you ought to punish us too."

DO NOT VOLUNTEER ME FOR SHARING PUNISHMENT WITH THE DRAGON WHICH WANTED TO KILL ME.

Ixion and Pearl seemed equally flummoxed by this.

"Truly the Element of Kindness," Nyx said. "I incline towards clemency, since she is inexperienced in such affairs. And she did her duty as an Immortal in the face of temptation to do otherwise."

Ixion frowned at her as well.

"She is new to her duties," Noumena said. "I see no need to punish her for success. If she had not reported in, we would not have even known this happened. Best not to discourage honesty."

"She wanted to go, but we all would have died by the time she came back," Twilight said. "Her staying kept us all alive."

That's ponies in a nutshell.

Too kind to enemies for their own good.

"We agree," Father Time said. "There is no need for any punishment. She did well in defense of the world and most Immortals would not have bothered to come running to us unless they thought they could not handle it or did not wish to. I think we can move on, since these mortals need to return to their flesh soon."

Ixion grimaced, then nodded. "Let it be recorded," he said and I felt a burst of magic. "Samus Marcus, the Council of Candidacy has ruled that you may continue your path to Immortality under the sponsorship of Celestia and Luna. I believe Celestia has briefed you on this?"

"Yes," I said, bowing.

"Very well. Good luck. Keep your nose clean and your past transgressions will be forgotten," Ixion said sternly. "And clean up your messes."

"Yes, sir," I said. Never argue with this type of person; look good and compliant and they will be more merciful.

He looked pleased. "Twilight, candidate for Immortality under Celestia and Luna as well. You have done well so far."

She cast a spell, became human and curtseyed. She was, however, still naked.

Ixion's eyes widened, Nyx laughed, Noumena closed his eyes, Father Time blinked, and Mother Nature smiled broadly.

Then she looked at herself. "Oh dear." She cast another spell. Sweatervest. And another gave her a skirt. "My apologies."

"Ixion may have to blind himself now for thinking dirty thoughts," Nyx said, laughing.

"I have seen women naked before," he grumbled.

"Is that a come-on?" Nyx asked, leaning forwards, which rather showed off her chest.

"Enough," Ixion said, making an odd hand gesture at Nyx. "Apology accepted. Twilight, please give our thanks to the bearers of the Elements of Harmony."

"Thank you," she said, and bowed.

"I advise you to consult with Marcus to avoid further breaches of etiquette like that, however," Ixion continued.

Noumena studied Twilight in a manner which made me a little nervous. Not a sexual or a hostile look, but something... She had his attention and I got the impression mortals rarely did.

Then again, he is of the sphere of Thought.

We now had a bit of a formal ceremony of thanks, and then they let us go. Celestia took us back to her castle and then, bamf, we woke up back in the Moonraker.

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

Rarity's Point of View:

Lunette sat on the bed, holding one of Marcus' hands; I was in human form, holding the other one. She was keeping him alive until his soul returned. I was holding on so I would not completely freak out; Sweetie was asleep next to him, Twilight on the other side of the bed and Fluttershy on the floor. The others were in the next room, playing cards and waiting.

Fluttershy stirred first, then Twilight, then Marcus, just as I was ready to die. He pulled me down and kissed me softly, holding me close.

I embraced him and felt my worries fade away. I'd been terrified that I'd lost him, that after everything, he was dead and gone forever.

I started crying as we kissed as everything I'd held tight until I was sure, absolutely sure, now burst forth. The others cleared out and left us alone; they had to pry Sweetie off him, mind you.

"Never do that again," I said urgently. "You have nothing to prove to me."

"It wasn't about proving, it was about me trying to help ensure everyone else got out okay," he said, holding me tightly. His voice was urgent. "Tell me you're okay."

"I'm wonderful," I told him. "We all got taller."

"I know," he said, kissing me one more time.

I feel very strange. It's a good strange, though. "Father wants to see you but it can wait."

He made a gurgly noise and I smiled. "Scarier than Devil Masters?" I teased him.

"Much," he mumbled, but then he leaned on me. "I love you," he said. "Whatever may come."

"I love you too," I told him and kissed him one more time.

We snuggled for a while and I began trying to decide if I should broach more intimate matters.

"I'm sorry about your dress," he said to me.

"I will make ten better ones," I told him. "If you cling to anything and try to hold it back for yourself forever, it will come to lose its glitter in time anyway. But now we will both remember it and what it stood for even more vividly."

He touched his hat, the one I made him, and then he touched mine. "You are the best of all women," he said. He gave a happy sigh. "I feel so good. Which probably means the Moonraker will now explode."

I laughed. "I think we'll have a peaceful trip back." But if it explodes, I don't mind so long as my shop doesn't explode. My poor customers are probably losing their minds by now, with me gone. I will have SO much work.

But that's okay. I like to work hard and to create under pressure.

And I can use Marcus as my model for a men's fashion line. I need to improve my skills there, anyway.

I was half snuggling and kissing and half musing on how Marcus and I would grow my fashion empire when Pinkie shouted through the door, "There's a cake waiting and it may well vanish forever if you don't come join us!"

"Coming," I said. I kissed him one more time. "Come on, my love."

We went out to join the others.

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

Spike's Point of View:

I could smell that bastard Marcus was coming. My fists clenched and I scarfed down three donuts at once in my frustration, then nearly choked.

Then I nearly fell down when Marjorie whacked my back gently with a hoof. I coughed up the stuck bits of donut. "Thanks," I said to her. So she's a dragon. But I guess her dragon body wouldn't fit here. We were on the Moonraker in what Pinkie had turned into a party room. All the traps were, in theory, turned off.

"It's hard to let go," she said softly to me.

I'm kind of stunned we're here, not killing each other. But all's well that ends well, right? "Yeah, I know," I told her.

"Dragons do not forgive easily, not even the lawful ones. Maybe even more so," she said. "Because some chaotic dragons will just get bored with revenge and never finish. Or get distracted."

"I want to kick his ass, but he's too tough for me," I told her, feeling frustrated. "I just know he's going to screw things up like he did with Twilight."

"I am the worst possible person to tell you this," Marjorie said hesitantly. "But you need to let it go. I don't like him either. Letting go of this feud doesn't come easily to me. Letting go of anything doesn't. It's not my nature," Marjorie said.

"Donut?" I said to her, holding one out to her.

She ate it quickly. "Thank you, young one," Marjorie continued. "But I am not a dragon any more. Not only a dragon, anyway." She sounded somewhat lost.

I don't know what I'd do if I stopped being a dragon. "What are you?"

"Immortal," she said softly. "As your master will be one day."

"She's not my master, she's..." I struggled to explain it. "She's Twilight. We work together. Sometimes she helps ME," I said. I don't know how to define it, exactly. She depends on me and I want her to. I love her. Not like I love Rarity but... maybe more like a cool big sister.

Yeah, like that.

"The bond of parent and child, sibling and sibling, is weak among our kind. We are so strong, we have little need for others," Marjorie said.

Which is why you made your own set of minions. I smell denial.

"I'm a lot more sociable than other dragons," I told her. "Sometimes I wonder if Twilight got a little pony in me."

"You are something new, Spike," Marjorie said.

My eyes widened.

"I will be curious to see how you develop," Marjorie continued.

I could see Rarity talking to everyone now, that damn punk Marcus by her side, being all, la la...

Marjorie patted my shoulder awkwardly. "It's okay. You are very young and will likely find many more... potential mates in the future. It's going to be okay." Her voice wobbled oddly; she clearly didn't know the right tone to strike.

But she was trying. Was it the instincts of her body? Because we're both dragons? "I hate him so much."

"So do I, but sometimes you have to let go of hate. Do you know how much time I spent contemplating his doom? Do you know how much he even remembered me?" She sounded very disappointed. "I was Tuesday to him. Just another encounter, just another death. He didn't hate me. He didn't even REMEMBER me."

I had not the slightest clue how you even reply to that, so I passed her a donut and ate one myself.

"Anyway, we have to forget them," Marquetta said to me.

Some part of my brain was screaming 'RUN AWAY', but I ignored it, not being a coward like Marcus. Bastard.

"Don't try anything," Sweetie said sternly and I jumped.

"Hello, young one," Marjorie said. "Are you enjoying the party?" she said after a pause, as if consulting a book of phrases in her head.

I glanced around but no sign of Dawn Gleaming feeding her lines from a book of etiquette.

"Very much, Princess," Sweetie said, curtseying to her as best a pony can (which is to say, it looked rather odd). "Spike, you have to let go. Marcus and Rarity are going to be together FOREVER." She had the emphasis on this that only a naive little filly can have.

I'm old enough to know better. Or maybe I've just read too much to not know better.

Though I kind of hoped Rarity and I would beat the odds.

"He's... I can't trust him," I told her. I wish I could. I remember the old days, when we were good buddies. I thought he and Twilight... that we...

Dammit, I got my drink on my eyes somehow or something.

Sweetie Belle suddenly looked mortified, while Marjorie studied me in confusion. I looked at myself. Okay, I do have a few crumbs but I look basically normal. Why is Marjorie confused?

Human-Rarity is so beautiful... It's weird. I can see the beauty in her both ways. "Do you think she's beautiful, Marjorie?" I asked her.

"Sweetie seems too young for mating but when she's a little older, she would likely be a good choice if you want a Pony," Marjorie said very hesitantly. "Her coat is clean and her mane well cared for, with no flaws in her teeth, hooves, or eyes. She possesses a strong Cutie Mark and is likely to be as or more potent than her sister some day. I don't know her ancestral tree well enough to study that, though," she continued.

"..." I stared at Marjorie in shock.

Sweetie stared, jaws wide open.

You know, she does have really clean, well-shaped teeth.

"I meant RARITY," I said urgently.

Rarity's head turned and now she began coming my way.

I panicked and ran, and she began chasing me, then Sweetie ran after me and then ALL HER FRIENDS joined the chase, laughing and shouting and now Ditzy chased after them. "Come back, fillies! This is an INDOOR party!"

I glanced back; EVERYONE was gaining on me. Dammit, why do Ponies have to be so fast? And humans so long-legged?

I thought about Rarity's legs and got my happy feeling, which stopped me long enough for everyone to crash into me and each other.

When the dust cleared, Ditzy herded the kids away and Rarity took me into a side room.

Then we nearly fell in a pit trap and she had to disarm swinging blades.

This place is DANGEROUS.

After that, we sat at a table. "Spike, I've avoided saying anything about this because I didn't want to hurt your feelings," Rarity said, looking nervous.

"Who told you? It was supposed to be a secret," I said urgently.

"Telling secrets is BAD," Pinkie said, stepping out of the closet.

"Pinkie, go," Rarity said firmly.

"Who blabbed?" Pinkie said urgently.

"I am not blind," Rarity said, slumping a little. "I just did not want to hurt Spike and I did not know how to handle it." She sighed.

"Okay," Pinkie said, then hugged me. "We all love you, you know," Pinkie said to me.

"Me too," I mumbled, embarrassed.

She let go and left.

"I don't know what to say," I said to Rarity's hands as they rested on the table.

"Neither do I," she said, sounding sad, which made my heart ache. "I like you, Spike. You're a dear friend and I would gladly fight to protect you. But I do not love you. And I'm sorry. I should have said something long ago, but I kept hoping you would give up and spare me having to do this."

"I forgive you," I said. How can I not? I love her.

"Spike, you shouldn't forgive me so easily," she told me. "I have taken advantage of your good nature too many times." She fingered her necklace. "It was unworthy of my role as the Element of Generosity. I would like to make it up to you. Within the limits of us being friends."

"He's going to hurt you," I said bitterly to her hands. I glanced at her and she looked so sad and guilty and now I felt horrible.

"This isn't about Marcus," she said. "It's about us. I suspected you had a crush on me and I did nothing about it. I liked it, even though I wasn't interested." She sounded very guilty now. "I can be vain if I am not careful."

"Only because you are so beautiful and kind and generous," I told her. "Sharing your beauty with us." For a moment, the pain faded.

She smiled, then made herself stop. "You are the generous one. You always helped me. Let me help you. I want to do something special for you as an apology."

"I want a moustache," I said, then forever regretted it.

"I am not sure if your kind of dragon can grow one except for a temporary magical one," she said. "Though Steven had a truly magnificent one." She tapped her cheek thoughtfully. "I will see what I can do for you there. But I should do more than that."

I can't decide if having her make me a suit would be the BEST or the WORST thing ever. Or both at once.

"Sweetie, stop spying on us and go play with your friends," Rarity suddenly said loudly, sounding irritated.

"I'm not spying!" Sweetie said in the hallway.

Now I REALLY wanted to die.

"Go back to the party!" Rarity said sharply. "This is between Spike and I."

Sweetie ran off. Stupid filly. Thinks she's so big. Worships stupid Marcus and the ground he walks on. Blah, blah, look what Marcus taught me, blah. He's probably going to make her into glue.

I suddenly realized I was curled up, somehow wetting my leg with my face, while Rarity patted my shoulder. I wanted to hug her but knew I couldn't.

DAMMIT.

"I'll think about it," I told her. "I have to go check my pet rock."

I ran and ran and then I ended up trapped inside a spinning crystal sphere somehow.

Twilight found me, got me out and took us back to her room, then held me while I shook and tried to pull myself together. "I know how you feel," she said softly.

"You should hate him," I said urgently. "What he did to you was WRONG. You cried so much and I just... I HATE HIM!" I shouted.

Her legs were so gentle around me, her body so warm. She looked very sad. "It will pass," she told me. "I know it feels like the end of the world, but it will pass. And one day, you and Rarity will be friends again without anything bad between you. And all you will remember is the good bits of this and not the bad." She kissed my forehead. "I'm here for you, Spike. I love you very much."

"Me too," I mumbled. "Do you think we can trust Marjorie? I want... She is a dragon but lots of dragons aren't very nice."

"We'll have to see," Twilight said to me. "She was quite worried about you, and confused. She's not very socially adept."

I was laughing and sad at the same time. "Hello, Mrs. Pot."

"Hey, I am the element of FRIENDSHIP," Twilight said defensively. "My studies of it are coming along VERY well."

Her 'studies'. I felt a little better. She's so cute when she tries to feign being as socially smooth as I am.

And I'm a *dragon*.

"Ready to face the party?"

"No, but now I'm hungry and thirsty," I said.

"No more donuts or you won't sleep before we reach Sind," Twilight said firmly to me.

"I'll have cake."

"No more sugar."

I got up. "You have to stop me."

"SPIKE!"

She chased me all the way to the party; I felt a little better by the time I got there.

Just a little.

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

Dash-Vision, 20% Cooler Than Yours:

It's strange. Looking at Marjorie and her flunkies, I can see their bond to her and hers to them. Our bonds to each other, the Cutie Mark Crusader's bonds to each other. When Marcus and Rarity came out, I could just look at him and see his firm loyalty to all of us.

And how much he believes in me, which is a little embarrassing. But then, I think he still kind of has a thing for me, even if he is pretty firmly loyal to Rarity. Which is only logical; if you're going to be into mares, I am pretty cool.

He looks like he's shrunk but I know he hasn't. We're all bigger. I am fourteen hands high now!

Oooh...

After Rarity took off running after Spike, I sidled over to Marcus. "Come on, we have to make you scream now."

Marcus stared, mouth open wide.

"Flying," I said, grinning. "I have a boyfriend, you know."

"Sure," he said. "I guess you don't need the spell any more."

"Hah! I bet I'd be as big as Celestia with that spell," I told him. I feel so strong. I'm even taller than Big Macintosh!

Pretty soon, we headed down to a hanger. I put on my magic goggles and we took off.

I think I am faster but it's hard to tell. I feel so vigorous. Like I could fly forever.

He wasn't shaking.

Much.

Just a little, but given he can't fly, that's reasonable, though of course, I'd never let him fall. The one bad thing is that we're flying over the clouds, so it's kind of cold (for him) and you can't see the landscape. I think we're over Darokin; we're on the way back to return the Radhirajah.

I zoomed upwards, then plummeted.

Now he screamed. It was oddly reassuring.

"So what's it like, coming back from the dead?" I asked him.

"You get used to it," he said. "Celestia has a nice palace on her home plane."

"Man, when I am an Immortal, I am going to build a cloud the size of a continent. It'll be nothing but sky forever and cloud islands," I told him. "I guess I'll need a few solid bits for visitors, though." Do all immortals fly? I guess they shapeshift into something that can fly.

"Better make an alarm so you don't nap away a few centuries," Marcus said and I laughed.

He laughed too, and he sounded so happy. He's usually kind of melancholy; it takes someone happy like me to buck some cheer into him.

"I wish I could see the land," I said.

"Nothing stopping us dropping down. I doubt it'll compromise the mission," Marcus said.

So I plummeted through the clouds and now I could see the landscape spread out before us, the great lake in western Darokin with a fancy name... called... something...

"Lake Amsorak," Marcus said. He began humming a tune; I dimly remembered singing it with everyone when we ballooned back to Ponyville after White Plume Mountain. I began humming it as well.

Ships were crossing the waters, some of them strung out along a long line of navigation, others scattered about, fishing. White and blue and yellow sails caught the wind, pulling the ships to the great cities on the eastern and western shores, far below us.

I dove lower and I could see the crews hard at work, hauling goods. I could tell who they owed allegiance to at a glance, even if I don't know much about Umbarth House or Toney House or Franich House or Corun House. I could see their rivalries and enmities and the bonds built by shared labor.

We learned about some of this in school but I forgot it all. It was all lines on paper and the teacher droning on about how they skillfully tan monster hides in Corunglain and ship it to the Ethengars, who steal porcelain from the Heldaan Freeholds and trade it for the hides.

But there weren't any people in it.

But now I can see the old man piloting that ship. He's done it for decades, and he would die to save his ship, for it has saved him many times. He's been hauling spices from Sind to Akorros since before my parents were born. And he plans to do it until he dies. It's what he loves, the feeling of the wheel in his hands and the water below his ship.

He serves Franich House and has grown a strong loyalty to it, and it's loyal to him for he has served it well. Franich House is made of people.

I guess that sounds kind of silly, but I can see that now.

I can sense, dimly, the huge web of loyalties which holds Darokin together, feel threads extending into other countries too, a giant web of interconnections.

It was a little overwhelming but somehow reassuring. All of them were part of something larger, and yet they were themselves.

I flew down low and buzzed the ships; some of them waved, others shook fists and some just stared. Marcus waved, clearly enjoying the attention, even the insults.

"Feels good doesn't it?" I asked him.

"It feels wonderful," he said, smiling.

A letter landed on us. 'Scootaloo tried to follow you but I think she's lost. Can you find her? Twilight'.

That kid is going to be the death of me. But I know how she feels. I smiled a little. Kid's got a very bright future ahead of her.

If she doesn't get killed for being so rash.

Stop laughing, Marcus!

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

Rarity's Tale:

I leaned on Father, embracing him around the neck. He looked slightly confused and I held him quietly. Poor Spike. He's a good guy, and he's been a great help to him but I've taken advantage of him too many times. He needs to move on and find someone his own age, like maybe Sweetie or Apple Bloom. Or Twist, who is a very sweet girl and needs someone bold and out-going like Spike.

Seeing Clarity and Spikey being all snuggly certainly can't help his state of mind. I could sense how much they share with each other; I can feel people's generosity or lack thereof. It started after I sewed the world back together, I think.

Clarity came over now and shyly nuzzled Father, who nuzzled her back. "We should send Mother a letter," she said to Father. Then she glanced at me.

I said nothing and just held onto Father. I could smell him at least a little like this and it comforted me. Father is always a pillar of strength.

"Yes. She'll be happy to have another daughter," he said warmly and she smiled brighter now. "Even if it's complicated to explain."

"So will you all be going back to Marjorie's base after this party?" I asked.

"Yes, though I plan to come down to Canterlot and see Mother soon," Clarity said. "We have a large mess to clean up and it's best we don't go back to Sind." She looked rather embarrassed.

What on Earth are we going to tell them? I know Luna told the Radhirajah some sort of story of what happened, but I'm not sure what it is.

And we need to contact the ambassador and make sure war hasn't already begun or civil war.

Fortunately, I am rather silver tongued. I should sit down with Twilight and do some cramming. She's a good leader, but she doesn't have my skills in this area. I really should have taken the lead more on it during our first visit but I was too busy being frustrated with father and snuggly with Marcus. I love him but I need to do my duty too.

We talked quietly for a while, until Marcus returned with Dash and Scootaloo. Ditzy now gave Scootaloo a lecture, while Dash and Marcus strode over. All the Elements of Harmony are taller now in pony form. My human form's taller too but it's not as noticable. "One boyfriend returned with virtue intact," Dash said cheerfully.

Clarity blinked and Spikey laughed loudly. Father snorted.

Ah, yes, this. I could feel his lack of generosity towards Marcus and it greatly annoyed me.

"Father, don't even say it," I told him. "Marcus is my boyfriend and I love him. So you can accept him or go crazy."

Marcus looked, understandably, tense.

Father sighed. "I do not like you but I am a wise enough man not to hit my head against a wall forever. If you hurt her, I will make you regret your own birth." I could feel how tense he was. "But you fought well and bravely. You can... have some cake," he trailed off lamely.

Dash laughed at that. "Oh, he'd do that anyway. Come on! CAKE TIME."

And with that, she dragged us away.

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

Pinkie's Pie-Laden Point of View:

We just about squished Pinkamena in a big family hug before she had to go. It's one of the things families are for. I was very sad to see them go but I'm sure I'll see them again soon.

"Know that I'll always love you," I told her firmly.

"Nothing is eternal, you know that," she told me softly. She looked sad. But I could tell a spark of joy had been lit in her heart by this. And I was sure she'd fan it into a bright flame with time.

I've always been able to see joy a little but I can see it brighter now; the happiness around me makes me feel so good.

Except for the Radhirajah, who I guess is a gloomy gus by nature, though ADMITTEDLY, being kidnapped is one of the better reasons to be sad.

I suppose he's not looking forward to catching up on work. I expect the grease trap has started hunting live prey by now without me to clean it. I'd better see if Twilight has any good mystic cleansers.

"What was that about grease?" Mother asked.

"I will likely have to clean the grease trap when we finally get back to Ponyville," I said. "If I die there, you can give my astral sugar to Pinkamena, Inky, and Blinky," I told her. "Oh man, I bet I could make demon and devil-smacking pies with it!"

"Here, come with me, I'll show you how," Mother said. This is how I ended up in the galley during a PARTY, cleaning grease traps.

But Mother was enjoying it so much, I couldn't say no. We scrubbed them together. It's been a very long time since we last did chores together.

Mother gave a happy sigh when we finished. "Nice and sparkly clean," she said. It gleamed like fine bronze now.

I hope it's supposed to be bronze colored.

Mother likes everything neat and tidy and just so.

"Remember, always clean the kitchen after you cook," she said sternly.

"Yes, mother," I said. It's so easy to slide into old habits; they're comfy like well worn boots.

"My little Pinky, out saving the world," she said softly.

"When I become Immortal, I can take Kagyar a message for you if you want," I told her.

Her eyes widened. "You shouldn't joke about such things."

"I'm not," I told her. "It won't be easy but I am going to do it. For Pinkamena and our friends and all the people of this world who need some joy. For everyone who lives in darkness and doesn't even know light exists. I've seen what happens in a world where joy is dead." I shuddered at the memory. "One day, even the devils will laugh." I squatted on my hindquarters and put a hoof to my heart. "Whatever it takes, wherever I must go, even if it involves... math..." Just saying 'math' is like dunking my head in acid. Not the tasty kind. "I will do. One day, I will make them all laugh at me and I will laugh too and then we'll probably all ascend to whatever the next rung of the ladder is."

"Do you remember the Book of Embers?," Mother said softly. It's the final book of the holy texts of Kagyar. It's a prophecy of the end times.

"Orcus laughs but only at pain," I said, frowning. He's Kagyar's greatest enemy, Orcus the destroyer, who tears down all things and ensures nothing endures. All the works of our hands, he reduces to ashes and then he laughs, cold, mocking laughter at the idea of permanence or eternity.

He's mean.

"'Then sounds the final trump, when naught is left but Embers, and a hand comes down and lifts it all up,'" she quoted. "'For then return the great makers, to make the world anew, stronger and better. Pray you will join them on that day, when Immortal and mortal alike come before them for judgement. Then shall be judged how well you crafted and to what end. Then shall be made something higher and better. Something so beautiful we cannot even imagine it yet. A new day is coming, for every end is a new beginning. Be ready.'"

"No one really understands what that means," I told her. "All our preachers always skipped over it."

"Long ago, your father and I stumbled on something in a dungeon. Five Immortals worshipping something higher still. Maybe it keeps going up," Mother said hesitantly, strangely afraid. "Or there is a peak, beyond our ken. But I suppose it doesn't matter for us here and now."

I guess I am going to find out. I'd like to hope there's always something new to find, new to explore, new goals to follow. I like new things. "We need to go while cookies remain," I told her. "Thank you, Mother."

She nuzzled me gently. "I love you. I am proud of you. Please be careful."

"Says the great SECRET heroine," I told her. "So tell me about your adventures."

That kept us busy as we went back to the party AND made her happy.

Double score!

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

Sweetie Belle's Lemon Scented Viewpoint:

As the ship headed for Sind to take the Radish-Rajah home, the five of us slipped off for a meeting before bedtime. "Well, we've come to the end of our first crusade," I said. "Everyone has their cutie marks now."

"FINALLY," Scootaloo said, sighing happily.

"But it's pretty clear this isn't the end for our club," Apple Bloom said, swishing her tail around, idly picking things up with it. "We never did get to go to the South Pole, for one thing."

"Or the north," Dinky pointed out. "Also, there's an OARD to be rooted out of Ponyville!"

If they're real, though it seems like they are.

"That should be our first order of business," Twist said. "Maybe I can make a candy to reveal them."

We began excitedly discussing plans for how to catch the evil time traveller.

TIME MONSTER BUSTING CRUSADERS GO!

Our first adventure is over, but our quests are just beginning. There's so many places to go and so many things to do. And I can do anywhere and do anything with my friends at my side.

Because this is where I belong.

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