• Published 31st Aug 2019
  • 2,841 Views, 384 Comments

Magic of the Heart - Pegasus Rescue Brigade

In the final installment of the "Shipping and Handling" trilogy, Ditzy and Dinky once again wind up in the center of one of the greatest trials Equestria has ever faced.

  • ...

Chapter 14

Pipsqueak stood on the highest deck of the ship, telescope in hoof. For now, all was quiet; there was no sign of anything but the rolling waves in all directions. This was a relief, as there was no telling what one would encounter in waters this close to the griffon kingdom.

"Heya Pip!"

The colt jumped, and very nearly dropped the telescope, fumbling with it for a few seconds before securing a firm grip. "Must you sneak up on me like that?" he sighed, turning to the grinning batpony hovering in the air behind him.

"I mean... yeah, probably," Scoville answered, alighting on the platform and shrugging. "Lack of entertainment is bad for my health. And staring at water loses its entertainment value after the first couple months."

Pip casually shoved his bunkmate off the side of the deck. Scoville proceeded to dramatically pretend to fall to his death before slowing the plummet with his wings and lazily floating back up to Pip's level.

"So, did you need something, or are you just killing time?" Pipsqueak asked. "Because I'm sure Ensign Briny can find a way to occupy your spare time."

"Oh, right, I'm supposed to tell you your watch is just about over," Scoville remembered. "Somepony will be up here to take over at 1600 hours, which is in like... five minutes. Ensign Briny wants us both to report below deck after that. Ugh, I hope that pain-in-the-flank isn't gonna make us chart the expected course of that griffon vessel we passed yesterday. Maps give me a headache and griffons aren't much better and... oi, are you even listening to me?"

Pip stood very still, staring off into the sea with an alarmed look on his face. Scoville looked him over carefully and eventually noticed a soft, light purple glow emanating from the earth pony's pendant.

"Oh hey, look at that!" he announced. "That little necklace-type doodad is glowing. Guess your fillyfriend finally decided to say hi, huh?"

Pipsqueak raised a shaky hoof, clenching it around the diamond pendant. "This isn't Dinky's magic," he said breathlessly. "I've felt this energy once before, years ago. It's a spell that was placed on the pendants by a pony named Sparkler."

"Sparkler, eh?" Scoville said slyly. "So who's she, the side chick? I didn't take you for that type of pony, Pip."

"Scoville, this is serious!" Pip snapped. "Sparkler is an acquaintance of Dinky's. She placed a spell of her own on our pendants years ago that alerted me when Dinky was in terrible mortal danger. Now that enchantment has activated again."

Scoville raised an eyebrow. "So what, Dinky's in trouble?" he asked skeptically. "Ain't she still at the Academy? Shouldn't be much that can happen to her there."

"I wish that were true," Pip grumbled as he started down the ladder to the lower deck. "Unfortunately, trouble has a way of following Dinky around. But she hasn't been in trouble like this since..."

He trailed off. Scoville cocked his head.


"Since a long time ago," Pipsqueak finished. "The point is, I have to help her."

Scoville nervously ran his tongue over his fangs. "I hate to tell ya this, buddy, but we're in the middle of the ocean," he pointed out. "Even if you wanted to send a letter, you'd have to wait for the pegasus courier to arrive tomorrow morning; it's not like we have a mail dragon on board. So if the situation's really that urgent, you better hope she can get it sorted on her own, 'cause you can do precisely jack squat about it from here."

The pendant glowed brighter, and Pip felt a wave of nausea wash over him that had nothing to do with the motion of the ship. "This mission's almost over. We'll be in port in a week," he said. "The moment we make landfall, I'm taking the first train back to Ponyville. I just hope there's still somepony to come back to when I get there."

Scoville frowned, and patted Pip's side gently. "Hey, everything you've told me about Dinky has made it clear that she's about as strong and smart as they come," he said softly. "Whoever or whatever is threatening her, I'm sure she'll kick its ass and be waiting for you when you get back."

Pipsqueak stared out at the waves, holding tightly to the pendant as if keeping it secure would keep Dinky safe as well. "I hope you're right, Scoville," he sighed. "I really hope you're right..."

Stifling silence filled the main hall of Celestia's Academy for Gifted Unicorns. Dinky's took the quickest of glances at her friends as her horn continued to pulse with dark magic. Scuffle was on his hooves, ready for the chaos that was about to break loose. Honeydew looked positively distraught, her cheeks stained with tears as she looked on in horror. Tango Trot, who until this moment knew nothing of Dinky's true identity, wore a mixed expression of terror and betrayal.

Only Clarity seemed to have the presence of mind to try to act. She looked desperately at Dinky and silently mouthed a single, frantic word.


"Don't just gawk at her!" Bright Spark bellowed, shattering the sudden silence. "Attack! We must subdue that monster this instant!"

Dinky watched in disbelief as hundreds and hundreds of horns lit in unison. The air was filled with the hum of magic building on an unprecedented scale. Taking Clarity's suggestion, she turned tail and bolted toward the back of the stage.

An instant later, the air was full of yelling voices, frantic hoofsteps, and dozens of multicolored blasts of magic. The professors made an attempt to contain the chaos, but it was utterly fruitless; there were barely a dozen of them, and nearly a thousand panicked students. And with the stage surrounded on all sides, Dinky had no doorway to escape through. In seconds, she realized, she'd be cornered and potentially blown to bits by hundreds of spells.

A huge fireball whizzed past her, missing her by inches, and struck the great arched window on the wall behind the stage. The tremendous sound of shattering glass joined the clamor, but even as it did so, Dinky recognized her one chance of escape. With all her strength, and with dozens of attack spells only inches behind her, she bounded through the jagged hole, dissolving into smoke in midair and surging away from the Academy and into the late afternoon sky.

"She's gone!" Clarity cried, as students clambered onto the stage to fruitlessly fire spells at the rapidly receding black blotch.

"What do we do?" Honeydew wailed, ducking low to the floor as a flurry of shuffling bodies flowed like a living river around the group of friends. "It'll take hours to quell this chaos!"

"And what of the real Dinky?" Tango Trot asked. "Was there even a real Dinky at all, or has that monstrosity been playing the part of our friend all this time while it was planning something sinister?"

"We'll explain later, Tango!" Clarity cried. "Do what you can to try to bring some order to the students. The quicker we can get the pandemonium under control, the better."

"And what about you?" Tango asked. "We're both Overseers. Aren't you going to do the same?"

"I'm going to do something even more important," Clarity announced. "Honeydew and Scuffle can come with me, but please, Tango, just trust me and try to calm things here. I'm sure the professors are already working on it too."

Tango looked skeptical. "Very well, my friend, I trust you," he said finally. "You three do what you need to do. I'll meet up with you later."

"Right, let's go!" Clarity said, pushing her way into the crowd.

"Thanks, Tango!" Honeydew called as she followed the other filly.

"Yeah, we owe you one dude," Scuffle added.

Tango watched them go, then looked at the sea of terrified and angry ponies swirling around him.

"Well, I suppose I'd better get started."

In a flash of cinnamon red, Clarity, Honeydew, and Scuffle appeared on the Academy grounds near the edge of the forest, keeping their distance from the dozens of students running to or from various campus buildings, or huddling together to discuss what they'd just seen in hushed voices.

"Ok, quick question now that we're out of earshot of the crowds," Scuffle began. "What in Equestria just happened!?"

"I don't know," Clarity answered, biting her lip. "Dinky's never lost control of her dark magic since she lost her unicorn body, not even once. She's always said that wraiths are physically built to wield it, so they can keep it in check. But back there in the main hall, it reminded me of when she was still a unicorn, struggling to hold it back as it tried to break free and cause damage."

Honeydew shivered. "Do... do you think that maybe those fears Dinky's had the last few months were correct?" she squeaked. "Maybe dark magic really has been slowly swallowing up what's left of the unicorn's heart inside her, and now it's gone completely?"

"No!" Clarity insisted, stamping a forehoof. "Dinky's friendship has always been unwavering. I could never believe that my best friend is fading away just because her spirit's housed inside a dark creature now. You two have never felt like she's been growing more distant, have you?"

Scuffle shook his head fiercely. "Dinks always has my back," he affirmed. "Whether it's schoolwork related or—"

He paused for just an instant and cast the tiniest of glances at Honeydew. "—Or something more personal, she's never left me hanging. Tough, but loyal, and that didn't change when she became a wraith."

"And Dinky knows I'm... you know, not quite as adventurous as you two," Honeydew added. "Even though her personality is probably closer to Scuffle's than mine, she knows how to dial it back when the situation is calmer or more delicate. If the wraith side of her was winning out over the pony side, I don't think she'd have that much self-control."

"Exactly," Clarity said, nodding. "There's no way to know what just happened exactly, but I know it wasn't the darkness winning out over her heart. But now's not the time to figure that out."

A great, lumbering shape cast a huge shadow over much of the grounds. The Academy's massive mail dragon, Twinkletoes, who generally stayed confined to the old post office at the edge of Academy grounds, was seated on the grass next to the castle. Dozens and dozens of students clustered around him, as he sent their messages in flash after flash of magical green fire."

"See that?" Clarity asked. "Even once the professors finally get control of the horde of students and tell them not to fear Dinky, it won't matter; they're already informing their relatives of what happened, who will inform their friends and neighbors, who will inform town guards and news outlets everywhere. In a matter of hours, word's going to get out all around Equestria that there's a wraith on the loose, and until Princess Luna and Princess Twilight can intervene on a nationwide scale to calm the masses... Dinky's gonna be public enemy number one."

"Which means, even though Dinky escaped the Academy, she's going to be in very real danger by the end of the day?" Honeydew asked, rubbing her notched horn nervously.

"Right," said Scuffle, nodding. "So, rescue time, yeah? What's the plan, Clarity?"

Clarity raised an eyebrow. "What, no quips about how the three of us ditching the Academy to track down a fugitive is a bad idea?" she asked with a wry grin.

"Oh, it's a bad idea," said Honeydew dully. "But that's never stopped you two before, and I'm sure not staying here by myself."

"Well, fortunately for us, we don't have to disappear without a trace this time," Clarity continued, conjuring a scroll and quill and jotting down a short note. "Dean Script obviously can't leave the Academy to go after Dinky, so I'm going to let her know we did. At least that way somepony will know where we went. She'll get the message by dragon mail though, after we're already gone, so if she objects—"

"When she objects," Honeydew corrected.

"—When she objects to the plan, she won't be able to stop us," Clarity finished.

Scuffle scraped a hoof through the dirt in anticipation. "Well thought out as usual, Clarity," he said with a grin. "I'm guessing you also know how we're going to find Dinks before an angry mob does?"

Clarity rolled her eyes. "Scuffle, it's been years. How do you still manage to forget that my hair clip can pinpoint Dinky and Honeydew at any time?" she asked.

Scuffle pouted. "Right, the hair clip," he grumbled. "Okay, so are we going or what?"

Clarity teleported her note across the campus. It appeared in midair over Twinkletoes' head and was swept up with a dozen other students' letters in his next breath of green fire. "Now we can go," she declared. "Brace for group teleportation, you two."


Clarity's horn fizzled out an instant before her spell activated. The three friends looked toward the agitated crowd still bustling near the castle and spotted three foals sprinting toward them. Leading the group, of course, was Inkwell, her braids trailing in the wind behind her as she galloped toward them. Portabella and Top Percentile trailed close behind.

"Clarity, what's going on?" Inkwell cried, digging her hooves into the dirt to skid to a halt before she bowled into the older students. "Is Dinky's dark magic out of control?"

Clarity sucked in her breath. "Um... I'm not sure Inkwell," she admitted. "I've never seen her transform like that by accident before..."

"Wait, so normally she really can do that on purpose then, like Inkwell said?" Portabella asked.

Inkwell fidgeted nervously. "Oh and... I told Bella and Top the truth about Dinky a minute ago," she confessed. "But only because they found out anyway! I just told them the truth so they wouldn't be angry or scared like everypony else is."

"I must profess, had Inkwell imparted the particulars of Dinky's clandestine nature prior to its neoteric widespread reveal, I would have interpreted such a bulletin as dubious, if not outright fabricated," Top Percentile admitted, adjusting his thick glasses nervously.

"That was good thinking," Clarity replied, nodding. "Dinky's not trying to hurt anypony... but we don't know why she lost control of her powers like that. We're going to find her before she ends up in more danger."

"Then we'll come too!" Inkwell announced. "Maybe we can help!"

"Woo! Adventure!" Portabella, casually scooping up her scrawny coltfriend with one foreleg like one might grab a saddlebag.

"No, you won't," said Clarity sternly. "We don't know what's going to happen now. I'm not putting you three in unnecessary danger. Besides, despite the situation, you're not allowed to leave the Academy."

"Neither are you!" Inkwell argued. "Dinky's always been really nice to us! We want to help too. And what if you three go alone and get hurt?"

"Uh, Clarity," Scuffle cut in. "The dean's gonna be gettin' that note you sent right about now. We gotta get the heck out or she'll come lookin' for us."

"See? There's no time to argue," Inkwell reasoned, latching onto Clarity's foreleg. "Come on, teleport us!"

"Inkwell, I said no," Clarity scolded, raising her voice a bit. "Listen... the only reason Dinky is a wraith now is because she did the same thing when she was your age; she went out thinking she could stop something bad from happening and ended up in over her head because of it. If you want to help, go tell Overseer Tango what's going on, and help him calm ponies down."

"Inkwell, I recommend we hearken to the Overseer's directive," Top Percentile suggested. "I acknowledge you care profoundly for her, but her familiarity with Dinky's idiosyncratic circumstances substantially outweighs ours."

Inkwell teared up a bit. "B-but..."

"Clarity, there's no more time!" Honeydew urged. "We have to go! Now!"

Looking almost as upset as Inkwell, Clarity cast a small shield and wedged it between their bodies, using it to pry Inkwell off her like a spatula. With a little gasp, the pinto filly tumbled backwards into her friends.

"No, wait!"

Clarity's horn was already alight again. Inkwell bounded forward, but too late; she landed on an empty patch of grass an instant after the three older students vanished in a flash of reddish light.

Ditzy stood before the gleaming crystal tree that functioned both as the home of Princess Twilight Sparkle and the meeting place for the rest of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. For a moment, she thought back to a time not so terribly long ago, when Twilight had been just a unicorn, albeit an extremely powerful one. She'd been Dinky's magic tutor at one time, though her princess duties kept her much busier these days, especially with Celestia and Cadance's extended absence. She had been present at the resurrection of Scorpio, though, so Ditzy knew it was likely she'd prioritize Dinky-related affairs, even if her schedule was full.

She raised a hoof to knock, but before she could, the great door swung open, and the small dragon on the other side jumped a bit as the unexpected sight of four ponies standing there.

"Oh, hey Ditzy Doo," Spike greeted, quickly shaking off the surprise. "Looking for Twilight?"

"Yeah, and it's kind of important," said Ditzy worriedly.

"Well, you're in luck," Spike replied, gesturing for her and her companions to enter. "Classes just let out for the day at the School of Friendship, so she just got back a few minutes ago. Follow me!"

He took to the air, which surprised Ditzy for just a moment; Spike's wings were a relatively recent development and she hadn't quite gotten used to seeing the normally land-bound dragon in flight yet. Quickly, the four matchmakers followed him through the winding halls of the crystal castle.

"I don't think I've ever been in here," Watt mused. "I guess the princess uses magical lighting, so there's not much need for an electrician."

"You're lucky that's only accessible to unicorns, or you'd be out of a job," Breeze teased.

Watt shrugged. "Eh, that's why I'm also a shipper. And a co-deity of a realm contained entirely within Pinkie Pie's imagination. That last one doesn't really pay the bills though."

Spike pushed open another huge door, revealing a large, roughly circular room, with seven crystal thrones situated around a central table. An immense chandelier dangled overhead, built from the root system of what was once the Golden Oaks library. Dozens of multicolored crystals danged from it, casting glimmers of color all over the room.

And all alone in the cavernous hall was Princess Twilight Sparkle, leafing through a large stack of papers that appeared to be student-submitted essays. The sound of the door closing caught her attention, and she looked up.

"Oh, well if it isn't Ditzy and the rest of Equestria Speedy Shipping Services," she said, smiling warmly and beckoning them to join her. "Come sit over here. The girls won't mind if you borrow their thrones."

The four ponies seated themselves around the table, and Spike hopped into a much smaller throne beside Twilight's. "Thank you, princess," Cloudcover said politely. "I'm sure you're quite busy, so please pardon our intrusion."

Twilight waved a hoof. "I can spare a few minutes," she promised. "So Ditzy, how's Dinky doing at the Academy?"

"Fine, last I heard," Ditzy admitted. "She just sent me a letter less than an hour ago. But she mentioned something in there that has me... concerned. I was hoping you could help."

Twilight's smile faded just a bit. "We're not talking about something dark magic related here, I hope?" she asked.

"No, no, nothing like that," Ditzy replied quickly. "She mentioned that there was a new counselor at the school this year, and this was the first I'd heard about it."

"Oh, you mean Wishing Star!" Twilight realized, her smile returning. "She's a sweet mare. Not as versed in magic as the rest of the Academy's staff, but she seems to have quite a talent for counseling. My school's counselor, Starlight Glimmer, has been meaning to get together with her to trade stories and ideas."

"So you have met her then?" Ditzy asked. "What's she look like?"

Twilight tapped her hoof to her chin for a moment. "I've only spoken to her in person once or twice," she confessed. "She definitely had bright colors that match her bright attitude, though. I think her coat was... pink? No, orange. The thing that stood out though was this cute bejeweled headband she wore; Rarity thought it was quite a standout accessory."

"It is her!" all four of Twilight's guests yelled in unison, almost causing her to jump out of her chair.

"W-what? What about her?" Twilight asked.

"Well, this needs a bit of context..." Cloudcover began. "Princess, you may have heard, earlier this year, of the tragic passing of our CEO, the late Dr. Candyfloss."

Twilight nodded somberly. "I was really sorry to hear that, yes," she said softly. "Although I was happy to see that Equestria Speedy Shipping Services didn't close up shop once he was gone."

"Not long after that, we hired a new office manager," Watt explained. "She seemed like a good fit at the time."

"And that new office manager was Wishing Star!" Ditzy finished.

Hastily, over the next few minutes, the four matchmakers recounted the story of Wishing Star's scheme, and eventual betrayal. Twilight listened in silence, the disbelief on her face slowly growing.

"Anyway, if what she did to us is any indication, Wishing Star could very well be secretly stirring up trouble at Celestia's Academy," Ditzy said urgently. "You know the dean, right? She needs to be made aware her counselor is not what she seems."

"I agree completely," Twilight affirmed, nodding. "Spike? Take a letter please. We need to get in contact with Spiral Script right away."

"Right!" Spike answered, grabbing a scroll and a quill from beneath his tiny throne. "What do you need me to... to..."

He paused, looked quite uncomfortable for a moment, and then with a tremendous belch, spit up a tongue of green fire that materialized into a scroll. He caught it as it fell from the air and looked at it, confused.

"The Academy's seal?" he asked. "Looks like Dean Script might be the one contacting you, Twilight."

Twilight grabbed the note with magic and opened it up. Even though she couldn't see the contents from her position, Ditzy could see the message was very short. It couldn't have been more than a few sentences. Twilight read through it in a second or two, gasped softly, and turned her gaze to Ditzy immediately. Something in her eyes made the grey mare's stomach churn.

"Is... everything alright princess?"

Twilight winced. "Well, the good news is, the message has nothing to do with Wishing Star," she said nervously. "The bad news is... it's about Dinky."

"Wait, what!?" Ditzy gasped, jumping from her chair. "Is she okay?"

"I... don't know," Twilight managed, cringing. "The note's very short, like Dean Script had only seconds to write it. I can only imagine the chaos at the Academy right now."

"Princess, what chaos?" Breeze pressed. "What's happening over there?"

"Somehow, Dinky's secret has been exposed," Twilight explained. "Hundreds of ponies just learned she's a wraith."

"What? How!?" Ditzy cried.

"There's no explanation in the letter," Twilight said sheepishly, "but I suspect this means Dinky's in danger, possibly at the hooves of some of her own peers. Princess Luna's apparently already en route, but we should still leave for the Academy right away."

"Ditzy, you and Breeze go," Cloudcover instructed. "Watt and I will wait here and try to keep Ponyville calm. News is bound to reach here sooner or later, and considering many of the townsfolk know Dinky, there are sure to be rumors flying in no time."

"Good plan," Breeze agreed.

"We all have wings, and flying will be faster than the train," Twilight pointed out. "Are you two ready to go?"

"Yes! And please, let's hurry!" Ditzy urged. "Get us outside now. We have to get to Dinky before the situation gets any more out of control!"

Ditzy and Breeze found themselves surrounded in Twilight's aura, and Watt and Cloudcover watched as the princess and her two passengers vanished in a flash of light.

Wishing Star poked her head into the office and grinned.

Bright Spark was tied to a lone chair in the middle of the empty room, with a magic-suppression ring affixed to the base of her horn. Despite her situation, she didn't seem the least bit concerned.

"Princess Luna's talking with the dean now," Wishing Star reported as she slipped into the room and closed the door. "I'd brace yourself if I were you; Luna's gonna give you an earful to say the least."

"I figured as much," the ex-dean said casually. "Not that it will make any difference. Dinky's been exposed; by now, dozens if not hundreds of ponies have been informed of the dangerous wraith loose in Equestria, and the news will continue to spread."

"And I wouldn't worry about yourself, either," Wishing Star giggled. "Luna and Dean Script have no idea that I'm on your side. Let Luna do her thing and then give me a minute; I'll distract her and get you out of here."

Bright Spark nodded, but before she could reply, the sound of heavy hoofsteps echoed from outside the door. Wishing Star quickly backed off, standing in the corner out of the way as the door burst open and a very, very angry Princess Luna strode in. She slammed the door behind her so hard that cracks ran through the wood.

"Explain yourself!" she barked, towering over the aging unicorn in the chair. "How did you learn of young miss Doo's secret, and more importantly, what trickery did you employ to force her to change form?"

Bright Spark smiled and respectfully bowed her head. "Princess Luna, the secret wasn't as airtight as you may have believed," she said calmly. "Who can say where I learned it, really? Whispers of dark magic hidden at the Academy have persisted for years. Dinky wasn't exactly subtle during her first term."

"Using dark magic and actually being a wraith are vastly different things," Luna growled. "Until a short time ago, only the Academy's current staff, as well as a specific four students and an additional four civilians from Ponyville, knew the truth. Did you somehow gain this information from one of them?"

"It's quite possible," Bright Spark replied, almost tauntingly. "You never know what ponies might let slip, perhaps without even realizing it."

Luna grit her teeth. "It doesn't matter," she said finally. "I'm far more concerned with your means of exposing Dinky. I know of no spell that can manipulate the dark magic in another being that isn't dark magic itself. You realize that if you used dark magic to accomplish this, it is an immense violation of Equestrian law, for which you could be imprisoned for the rest of your years?"

"I assure you, Princess Luna, my actions ended with my accusation," Bright Spark said. "Dinky's transformation in front of all those ponies happened entirely under her power, not mine."

"I don't believe you," Luna replied flatly. "Remain still while I test you for telltale traces of dark magic."

Bright Spark did as she was told as Luna touched the tips of their horns together. A few seconds passed, in which the only sound was the gentle hum of Luna's aura, and then she drew her head away again, looking both confused and even angrier than before.

"Nothing," she spat. "There's no trace of dark magic tainting you. But how can that be?"

"Because I used none!" Bright Spark snapped. "I showed up here with a noble purpose: informing the good citizens of Equestria that a deadly monster was in their midst. How Dinky responded was no fault of mine, but it was a blessing. The staff here were clearly conspiring to cover up the truth, but not even Dean Script can convince anypony that Dinky is a normal unicorn now!"

Wishing Star watched silently from the corner as Luna loomed over the complacent old unicorn. For a moment, she was convinced the princess was going to lose her temper and attack. Instead, she simply turned away.

"I see now why my sister loathed you so," she said darkly as she slowly made for the exit. "Your arrogance is unlike any I've ever seen. Both in the past, and again today, it seems when you're convinced that you're right, you will oppose anypony, at any expense, to get your way. And now an innocent student is in danger because of you."

"Innocent student?" Bright Spark laughed. "No wraith will ever be innocent, Princess Luna. Dinky nearly killed dozens of ponies in her first term, and I'm sure if left alone she would have done so again."

Luna snorted. "My sister was content to banish you from this place for your inexcusable behavior. I will not be so lenient.
Even if you didn't magically manipulate Dinky, your actions are clearly what brought on this episode. You will remain here while I discuss what I have learned from you with Dean Script and..."

The princess turned her head and finally seemed to notice Wishing Star standing nearby. "Counselor, you were on stage with Dinky during the incident, were you not?" she asked. "Do you have any ideas as to what triggered her transformation?"

"Well, I can tell you what I saw, princess," Wishing Star replied, loading her voice with fake uncertainty and concern. "Let's go somewhere private though, away from—" she cast a nervous glance at Bright Spark, "—her."

Luna nodded. "Lead the way."

Wishing Star trotted out of the room and pushed open the door to an unused classroom across the hall. She stepped back and gestured politely for Luna to enter. Barely holding back a malicious giggle, she watched the princess enter the room before following behind her and closing the door.

"Now," Luna began, "please, counselor, tell me all you know about—"

She stopped mid-sentence, and Wishing Star knew exactly why. Grinning ear to ear, she lit the classroom's illumination orbs, brightening the dark chamber.

Luna stood at the center of a very intricate runic circle that had been painstakingly drawn on the floor with chalk. She moved her head slightly, but every inch of the rest of her remained completely still, fixed in place by magic.

"W-what is this?" she cried, her voice a mix of anger and confusion. "

"Well, it's about time!" Wishing Star laughed as she paced around to the front of the princess. "Celestia and Cadance were easy to lure into a trap, but boy, you sure have been watching your step, Princess Luna. It took me months to find a way to catch you alone and corner you somewhere like this."

"Wait... you?" Luna gasped. "You're responsible for the disappearing princesses?"

"You got it!" Wishing Star sang as she charged up a spell. "Now hold still for a sec. Not that you have a choice, of course."

The unicorn flooded the circle with pink light, which spiraled around Princess Luna for a second before solidifying into an enormous pink crystal, identical to the ones holding the other princesses. Freed from the immobilization spell now that she was no longer in contact with the runes on the floor, Luna immediately blasted at the walls with magic, but didn't leave even the faintest scratch.

"Now I'm sure you're very angry and shocked and maybe even a little frightened," Wishing Star cooed. "But don't worry; we'll have plenty of time to talk about it once you join the others in my little secret lair."

She trotted right up to the crystal, her nose just inches from that of her captive. "But, I just thought you'd like to know before I send you off..." she continued. "Bright Spark was telling the truth. She didn't force Dinky to transform in front of everypony, oh no. That was me."

Luna cried out for help, presumably in the Royal Canterlot voice if the vibrating of the crystal was any indication, but not even the faintest sound made it past the shimmering prison's walls. Wishing Star gave the princess a final, playful wave, and then cast another spell. The runic circle suddenly flashed, becoming a portal to a dark, underground room. With silent cries and fruitless attacks, Luna's crystal sank through the portal and into the chamber, where it came to rest beside two others. The magical gateway snapped shut a second later, and it only took a few flicks of Wishing Star's tail to wipe away the chalk dust, leaving no indication that anything had ever been amiss.

With a satisfied smirk, she trotted back across the hall. Bright Spark remained bound to her chair, unaware of what had just transpired.

"She's distracted!" Wishing Star whispered, quickly yanking the magic-suppression ring off the ex-dean's horn. "Get out now before they realize anything's wrong. I'll meet you at the usual place tonight."

Bright Spark wasted no time. With access to her magic restored, she teleported away immediately. Wishing Star giggled as she found herself alone again.

"Three down, one to go," she mumbled to herself as she trotted back into the hall. "I guess I better inform the dean that our suspect has escaped and poor Princess Luna seems to have vanished without a trace. And as for Bright Spark... she'll realize what her true role in all this is as well, very soon..."

"Where the heck are we, Clarity?"

"Oh, that's right, you haven't been here before," Clarity answered, noticing Scuffle's frustrated look as he pushed through the thick underbrush. "I'm not surprised that Dinky went this way. We're in the forest not far from the town of Hollow Shades."

Honeydew stepped daintily up next to the others, the shrubs and roots around her responding to her Lifesense spell and politely bending themselves out of her way. In contrast to Scuffle, this allowed her to wander the thick forest with little effort. "Hollow Shades?" she asked nervously. "So we're near the place where... where Scorpio was reborn, and Dinky became a wraith in the first place?"

"That's right," Clarity replied grimly. "And my enchantment tells me she's close. I don't know what state she's going to be in, though. Let's be cautious."

Honeydew inched a little closer to Scuffle. "You think Dinky is dangerous?" she squeaked.

"I didn't say that," Clarity pointed out. "But she did just lose control of her dark powers for the first time in years, and then had many of her classmates turn on her. A traumatized wraith doesn't sound like the most... uh, stable of creatures, so we need to treat this delicately."

"You can hang back a bit once we find her," Scuffle added. "Me and Clarity will make sure it's safe."

A clearing appeared in the trees up ahead. Clarity squinted, and spotted a few regularly spaced structures. "Headstones," she whispered. "This is the cemetery where that poor colt Sunbeam is buried. The one that Scorpio's minion Antares was impersonating."

Cautiously, the three unicorns approached the edge of the clearing. Clarity got her first unobstructed view, and sucked in her breath.

The graveyard had always been a run-down place, at least in Clarity's memory, but much more of it lay in ruins now. Piles of charred stone were all that remained of many of the old markers. Patches of tall grass were burnt and withered, and great swathes were cut through the soil, as if somepony had tried to tear the earth itself apart. At the far end of the site, gnarled trees were mostly devoid of leaves, with their branches blackened and warped as if they'd tried in desperation to turn away from some horrible, poisonous force that was quickly killing them.

And sitting in the dead grass at the base of the biggest remaining headstone was Dinky. Her wraith form was still in full view, and dark magic swirled and crackled around her curved horn. She sat with her head bowed, her whole body emanating a baneful sort of smoke that crept outward, gradually continuing to twist and blacken everything around her.

For several seconds, the three unicorns stood in silence. Finally, Clarity took a single step forward.


Dinky's head turned sharply in Clarity's direction, her glowing yellow eyes casting long shadows in the evening light.

"Hey Dinks, it's us," Scuffle called. "Good thing we found you."

"No it's not!" Dinky growled, causing her friends to wince. Her voice, already normally a malicious hiss when in wraith form, seemed to have a deeper, even more unsettling sound to it. "Get away! You'll end up getting hurt!"

"Dinky, we just want to help," Clarity said gently. "Please, just stay calm and we can—"

"If you try to help, you'll just get yourself killed," Dinky replied bluntly. "You'll get incinerated or something because I can't hold this damned magic back!"

The black and purple aura around Dinky's horn grew more intense as she spoke. Above her, a few tree branches recoiled with such force that one or two of them snapped off completely. The dead grass immediately surrounding Dinky shriveled further, until it looked like the lightest touch would make it simply crumble to dust.

"What do we do?" Honeydew whispered, shivering and backing slowly into the cover of the trees.

"Stay here," Clarity instructed. "If something happens to me, you two can go get help."

"Wait, huh?" Scuffle whispered back. "Clarity, look at her! Equestria itself is trying to shy away from her right now."

"Yes, because she's distraught," Clarity explained. "It's making her dark magic run wild. Before she stands a chance of controlling her magic, she needs to control her emotions. I'm gonna try to help her with that."

Honeydew clung nervously to Scuffle. "B-b-be careful..."

Determined, Clarity stepped out of the cover of the trees and slowly began to make her way across the cemetery. She never broke eye contact with Dinky as she approached.

"Clarity!" Dinky yelled, the deep, monstrous reverberation in her voice growing louder. "Stay back! I'm warning you!"

Clarity shook her head and continued at the same steady pace. Dinky pressed her back against the headstone like a cornered animal, her horn sparking and crackling.

"I can't hold my power back!" she screamed. "I'll... I'll hurt you! I'll kill you! Do you really want me to kill you, Clarity!?"

Clarity slowed her pace just a bit. "Do you want to kill me, Dinky?" she asked softly.

Black tears rolled down Dinky's face. "Of c-course not!" she sobbed. "B-but I can't help it! I can't suppress the wraith part of me. And wraiths kill ponies!"

"Wraiths enjoy killing ponies," Clarity corrected, now more than halfway across the graveyard. "I don't care what your powers are doing. If you don't want to hurt me, then the wraith hasn't won."

Clarity reached the edge of the zone affected by dark magic. She took a breath and stepped carefully across the threshold, her hoof touching down on dead, crumbling grass. She winced a bit, and although she continued to move forward, it was obvious that the proximity to such strong dark magic was now causing her pain.

"Please..." Dinky whimpered, more softly than before. "I'm hurting you. T-turn around..."

The tips of Clarity's fur began to darken slightly, and the smell of smoldering hair filled the air. She squinted in the way one would when approaching something especially hot or bright. But finally, she stood just a pony-length away from Dinky, just barely outside the range of the black sparks raining down from the wraith's horn. Dinky sat, frozen in place, sniffling and shaking her head helplessly.

"It's gonna be okay," Clarity whispered. "The darkness is doing something strange to your body, but I know you're not trying to hurt me. That means your heart is still in charge."

"Heart?" Dinky croaked. "I don't have a heart anymore, Clarity. Don't you see? I can't hide my wraith form anymore because the darkness finally swallowed it up completely..."

"Dinky," said Clarity gently, "I know you remember the night you and I met Scorpio like it was yesterday, right?"

Dinky nodded slowly, warily watching the scorch marks in Clarity's fur grow larger.

"That night, when you were still a unicorn, but at the height of your corruption, something not all that different from this happened," Clarity continued. "You couldn't stem the flow of dark magic, and you wanted me to leave before I got hurt. But there was something stronger than dark magic: something you used to keep it in check. Do you remember?"

Dinky's lip quivered, showing her fangs for a moment. "I... reminded myself, over and over..." she whispered, "th-that Clarity is my friend... and... friendship is stronger than the darkness..."

"That's right," Clarity replied. "Maybe you can't stop the dark magic right now, but it's only doing damage because you're afraid of it. You're letting it control what it's doing to the world around you. Please just try to channel it the way you always do, and I know you can use it safely."

Dinky took a shuddering breath and tried to relax. The dark aura coursing around her horn didn't cease, but the energy field killing the surrounding plants and slowly eating away at Clarity gradually faded until it was gone completely. "I'm sorry," she mewled, her voice returning to its normal, quiet rasp. "I'm just so scared. This body's never struggled to hold back my dark magic before..."

Clarity turned her head and beckoned to Honeydew and Scuffle, who finally emerged from the trees and hurried across the cemetery. "Clarity! You good?" Scuffle asked, skidding to a halt and looking the grey filly over. "You look a little... cooked."

"I'm fine," Clarity dismissed. "Let's focus on Dinky, not me."

"I still don't know what you're planning to do about this," Dinky grumbled, a black-stained tear dripping off her cheek and sizzling as it hit the ground. "No offense, but the three of you don't really know any more than I do about the workings of dark magic..."

Honeydew gingerly stepped closer, taking care to stay away from Dinky's sparking horn. She didn't say anything, but observed Dinky carefully.

"I mean, it'd help if we knew what changed," Scuffle admitted. "When we walked into that assembly, you were acting totally normal. Then as soon as Bright Spark burst in and accused you, it was like you lost it all at once. Could she have cast some spell on you or something?"

"I didn't see anything like that," Dinky mumbled, wiping away some more tears as her horn gave off a particularly violent burst of black sparks. "Dean Script and Wishing Star started to defend me and then... then it just felt like my magic suddenly took over. Like it tripled its aggressiveness to be set free, way beyond my capacity to keep it in check."

Honeydew tilted her head slightly. "Hang on, what's that?" she asked, breaking her long silence and pointing to Dinky's smoky tail.

Dinky looked. Her tail was jet black as always, but tucked into it, in the part near her body that was still at least relatively solid, was a tiny swatch of something pale purple. She gave her tail a flick, and while the motion sent some shreds of darkness floating off into the air, the off-colored part remained secure.

"I'm not sure," she said finally. "Can you get it? I can't use levitation magic right now. My horn's a bit... occupied."

Honeydew lit her horn and gently pulled on the purple swatch. It remained in place, so she gave a slightly harder tug, prying it loose. A tiny metal clip, less than half an inch long, came with it, which had previously been obscured by the blackness of Dinky's tail.

Instantaneously, Dinky's dark magic quieted. She glanced up at her own horn in shock.

"It... it stopped."

"Just like that?" Clarity asked, shocked. "You have control of it again?"

Dinky willed her inner darkness to do as she wanted, and this time, it complied without hesitation. Her body melted into smoke and reformed into a normal teen unicorn in just seconds. "The magic's dormant now," she said, stunned. "How can that be? It faded just as quickly as it came on."

"Thank Celestia," Clarity sighed as she leaned forward and hugged her friend. "Are you okay?"

"I think so," Dinky replied. "I was scared; nothing like that's happened to me in a long time. And then, you know, out of control dark magic amplifies those feelings so I was... a little hysterical. Anger, fear, despair... those feelings grew and grew in me when I was still a corrupted unicorn, and whatever just happened now made them run wild again. Before you three got here, I got really mad when I couldn't get it under control by myself, and I kinda..."

She glanced out at the ruined cemetery. Most of the old forgotten headstones were now heaps of rubble, and little plumes of smoke rose up from burned grass and charred stumps.

"...Blew stuff up?" Scuffle asked, smirking.

Dinky smiled weakly. "Yeah..." she admitted. "But what about you, Clarity? How bad did that field I was giving off hurt you? Do you need medical help?"

Clarity glanced at her singed coat. "It's a weird combination of things," she confessed. "I feel like somepony put me in an oven and then asked me to run a marathon. I'm a little burnt and kinda sore, but it doesn't feel like anything that a bath and a good night's sleep won't fix."

Dinky looked relieved. "At least it stopped before I seriously injured somepony," she breathed. "I'm just not sure why. Is... is whatever was in my tail connected to this?"

"What was in her tail, anyway?" Scuffle asked, turning to Honeydew.

The pink filly examined the little purple tuft danging in her aura. "It's... just fur," she said finally. "Purple fur on a little clip."

Dinky leaned in, peering at the offending lock of hair closely. "That's not my fur," she insisted. "It's not the same shade: too dark to be part of my disguise, and too light to be wraith fur."

"If it's just fur, that can't be the cause of the dark magic surge, can it?" Honeydew asked.

Dinky reached out with the tip of a hoof and touched the little tuft. Her horn immediately sparked, and Honeydew squealed and jumped back.

"Sorry!" Dinky squeaked. "But to answer your question, yes, that's definitely the cause of the surge. That little thing is loaded with more dark magic than I've ever felt contained in an object before!"

"So why the heck would fur be full of dark magic?" Scuffle asked. "Unicorns and wraiths channel magic through their horns, not their fur."

Clarity's eyes widened suddenly. "Except... except for Scorpio," she muttered. "She was an earth pony who somehow had the power to channel magic through her purple tail."

Honeydew dropped the tuft of fur and scrambled backward several pony lengths. "Th-then is Scorpio back!?" she gasped.

"She can't be," Dinky said. "We sealed her in the Realm of Stars. More likely somepony just got a hold of a bit of her tail that was left behind in Equestria. I didn't realize it would still contain this much dark magic years later though."

"Then how did it wind up in your tail?" Clarity asked. "Bright Spark seems like the prime suspect, but she didn't get anywhere near you."

"Exactly," Dinky replied, nodding. "At the time my dark magic kicked in, the only pony anywhere near me was—"

She paused. A look of surprise and confusion came over her features.

"...was Wishing Star," she breathed. "Wishing Star grabbed me by the tail and pulled be back, supposedly to get me further from Bright Spark. She could easily have clipped Scorpio's fur in at that moment."

"But why would Wishing Star do that?" Honeydew whimpered. "She's never treated any of us badly before; in fact, she was really helpful at Professor Surge's dark magic counterspell sessions with Dinky."

"I don't get it either, but let's worry about what is happening before we worry about why," Clarity suggested, sealing the tuft of Scorpio's tail securely in a small box in her saddlebag. "We're in a really delicate situation now; it's been about three hours since that incident, so by now, word has probably spread quite far that there's a wraith on the loose. Even if things are under control at the Academy now, it's at the top of that cliff on the mountainside. It's too far to teleport, and the only other way there is the train from Canterlot. Obviously we can't risk that."

"So where can we go?" Scuffle asked, frustrated. "If we head for any town, there's a good chance somepony will recognize Dinky, even in unicorn form."

"That's the tricky part," Clarity sighed. "We need to find somewhere to go while we try to get in contact with Dean Script or Princess Luna or Twilight or something. Preferably somewhere with access to at least some kind of lodging and food, but yet wouldn't know or care about Dinky."

"You mean... a town where news doesn't travel fast?" Honeydew asked softly.

"Right," Dinky said. "But short of trekking all the way to the territories owned by the non-pony races, I can't think of any place like that."

"...I can, but you're not gonna like it," Honeydew sighed, staring down as she softly kicked the dead grass. "Um... how does a fruit farm in a tiny town of earth ponies sound?"

"Do you mean... your family's farm?" Dinky gasped.

"They definitely wouldn't be receiving dragon mail there," Honeydew pointed out. "Especially not from the Academy, since I'm the only pony in the town's known history that has ever attended."

"But Dewey, don't your parents kinda... hate unicorns?" Scuffle asked. "I can't imagine they'd be happy to see you show up with three more of us."

"They won't be, but what choice do we have?" Honeydew lamented. "They don't hate unicorns as much as the rest of Equestria hates wraiths. And it's such a secluded town with little connection to the rest of Equestria other than fruit sales. There's no way any news will arrive there about some big magic-related drama in Canterlot for at least a few days. At least we'll have food and a place to sleep while we figure out what to do."

"Honeydew has a point," Clarity pointed out. "I hate to say it, but for Dinky's sake, the farm might be our only option."

Scuffle growled. "Fine, but I won't stand for it if those folks of yours treat you bad, Dewey," he grumbled. "You don't deserve that."

Honeydew chewed her lip. "It'll... probably be fine," she muttered, turning to go. "Now come on, if we walk through the night, we can be there by tomorrow."

The sun was setting when Twilight threw open the huge, ornate doors of Celestia's Academy and galloped inside, with Ditzy and Breeze in tow. The three ponies looked around in horror.

The main hall was in shambles. Many of the windows were broken, tapestries were ripped and burned, and in a few places, even the stone of the walls and columns had been damaged. The room was empty though, save for a single dark green unicorn surveying the damage. He turned his head and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Oh, Princess Twilight, thank goodness."

"Professor Morningstar!" Twilight gasped, rushing over to him. "I came as fast as I could. What happened here?"

"A riot," the stallion deadpanned. "There was mass panic. We only just got the last of the students calmed down and returned to their dorms ten minutes ago."

"And what about Dinky?" Ditzy asked urgently.

"Honestly... I don't know," the professor said. "The dean will be the most informed about the situation. She's in her office. Princess Twilight knows the way."

"Thank you, professor," said Twilight quickly as she led the two pegasi into a hallway to the left. She led the way confidently through a maze of corridors that Ditzy felt certain she would get lost in without a guide. After a moment, they arrived at the dean's office. Ditzy got a peek at the two ponies inside as Twilight opened the door; one was a middle-aged mare with a blue-grey coat, and the other was a painfully familiar, brightly-colored pony with a bejeweled headband.

"You!" Ditzy cried before anypony could even begin to speak.

Wishing Star squeaked and immediately teleported away. The dean blinked in confusion for a moment.

"Princess Twilight," she greeted finally. "Does uh... your guest know my counselor?"

"We have reason to believe Counselor Wishing Star may not have the best interests of the Academy and its students in mind," Twilight explained. "But that will have to wait; according to your letter, something much more urgent has happened."

Dean Script looked quite flustered by the sudden accusation of one of her staff members, but as it had come from a princess, she did as Twilight suggested and switched topics. "Y-yes. As I mentioned in my letter, Princess Twilight, a few hours ago, young Dinky Doo suddenly—"

She paused, and slowly leaned to the left, staring at the two pegasi behind the princess. "Erm, are your guests aware of Miss Doo's special circumstances?" she asked uncertainly.

"This is Ditzy Doo, Dinky's mother, and her fiance, Autumn Breeze," Twilight introduced. "So yes, they're fully aware of Dinky's wraith status. Now please, tell us what actually happened."

Spiral Script bit her lip as she looked at Ditzy. "Very well," she said finally. "We were holding an assembly for the whole school this afternoon, when out of nowhere, ex-dean Bright Spark burst in and accused Dinky of being a wraith. We have no idea how she came by this knowledge, but naturally we denied everything. Bright Spark's reputation here is poor, so most students weren't inclined to believe her. That is... until Dinky suddenly lost control of her powers and transformed in front of everypony."

"What?" Twilight gasped. "Even if Bright Spark learned the truth about Dinky, what could she have done to force her to change? I doubt even ponies who do know dark magic would be able to use it to manipulate a wraith."

"That's exactly what we are... well, were trying to determine," Dean Script continued.

"Were?" Twilight asked, tilting her head quizzically.

"That's the second bit of bad news," Dean Script continued morosely. "Princess Luna arrived a few hours ago to interrogate Bright Spark. Naturally, we gave her some privacy to do so, but an hour or so later we discovered that neither Bright Spark nor Luna were present anymore! Our suspect appears to have somehow escaped, and we're still trying to determine Luna's whereabouts; dragon mail and multiple other means of magical contact have gone unanswered. It's as if she simply..."

"...Disappeared..." Twilight finished, swallowing nervously. "Do you think she vanished, just like Celestia and Cadance?"

"I certainly hope not," the dean replied, sighing. "But if we don't hear from her soon, we may have to assume something similar has happened. That would of course make you the current temporary ruler of Equestria, by virtue of being the only remaining princess."

Twilight twitched nervously at the prospect. "You don't think Bright Spark is somehow connected to the disappearing princesses, do you?" she asked.

"Despite the situation, I sincerely doubt it," Spiral Script confessed. "We were coworkers for many years; she's quite intelligent, obviously, considering she was the dean here for decades, but she simply doesn't have the magical strength to overpower a princess, especially at her age."

"Hey, um, pardon the interruption," Ditzy cut in, unable to stand by while the others talked for any longer, "but there's still the matter of my daughter being in danger! Where is Dinky?"

Dean Script winced. "That, erm, is the third bit of bad news," she said hesitantly. "Dinky was attacked by many of her fellow students, as I'm sure you could tell by the state of the main hall. To the best of our knowledge, she appears to have escaped... but her location is currently unknown."

Ditzy's heart dropped into her stomach. "So she's just out there somewhere, alone, with half the nation ready to employ everything at their disposal to kill the 'monster' they think she is?"

"She's out there, Mrs. Doo, but she's not alone," Spiral Script. "We have three other absent students, and evidence that they left the Academy to rush to her aid."

Ditzy and Breeze exchanged a glance. "Let me take a wild guess," Breeze ventured. "Clarity, Honeydew, and Scuffle?"

"Anyone who knows young Miss Doo well knows that she's rarely apart from those three," Spiral Script said, nodding as she passed a small scroll to Ditzy and Breeze. "I received this note from Overseer Clarity by dragon mail a few hours ago. Take a look."

Ditzy unfurled the scroll and hastily read through the contents.

Dean Script,

I'll keep it short. Honeydew, Scuffle, and I are going after Dinky.

Yes, leaving the Academy during school hours is against the rules. But it's my responsibility as an Overseer to help and protect the other students, and it's all our responsibility to be there when our friends need us most. And right now, Dinky needs our help.

We'll try to contact the Academy as soon as we can safely do so.

~Overseer Clarity

"So, let me make sure I've got this straight," Twilight said slowly, reading the letter over Ditzy's shoulder. "In the span of the last few hours, Dinky became public enemy number one, ex-dean Bright Spark escaped the Academy, Princess Luna abruptly vanished, and three additional students are unaccounted for?"

Spiral Script sighed and put her head in her hooves. "That would be correct, Princess Twilight. It's been a difficult day."

"Then we shouldn't waste any time," Breeze declared. "Come on, let's go start working out what to do next."

The group of ponies turned to go, but Dean Script spoke up. "Actually, I'd like to have the briefest of words with Mrs. Doo in private, if you'll allow it, Princess," she requested.

"Of course," Twilight replied as she and Breeze headed for the main hall.

The door closed, and Ditzy turned back to Spiral Script curiously. The dean looked at her somberly.

"Mrs. Doo, I am... I'm so sorry about what you must be going through," she said finally. "My duty is, above all else, to ensure my students have a safe and comfortable space in which to learn the incredible things this academy has to offer. And I feel that I have failed in that today."

"It... it didn't sound like you were the one to blame, Dean Script," Ditzy answered, a bit taken aback by the sudden apology. "Even you don't know anything about how Dinky's dark magic works or how she controls it. Even if you knew what was about to happen, I don't see how you could've stopped it."

The dean was quiet for a moment. She turned her head, gazing at the mural of Canterlot that decorated the walls of her office.

"Canterlot," she said, rising from her chair and trotting slowly to the huge painting. "Without question, the grandest city in our fair nation. My family has lived there for many generations, and has always had ties to both the city and to Celestia's Academy. The ceremonial robe I wear bears the city's colors, and I wear it proudly every day to show my pride for my home, and my appreciation of Princess Celestia's decision to allow me to stand at the helm of Equestria's finest magical education establishment."

Ditzy, who honestly wasn't sure where the dean was going with this, nodded slowly.

"You may not feel I am at fault for what has happened here today, and perhaps you're right," Dean Script continued. "But I recognize the near-utopia our princesses have built for us, and feel a sense of duty to further build it up. My place is here, at this hallowed place of learning, and I care deeply for every one of my students... even the one who happens to be a wraith. So I don't care if I'm the pony to blame or not; I will still pour every ounce of my being into the effort to make sure my student, and your daughter, makes it through this unharmed."

In spite of her fears about her daughter's fate, Ditzy smiled sincerely. "Thank you, Dean Script. You're exactly the kind of pony I'd want to be in charge of something as important as my daughter's education."

"Now, I need to meet with the professors to begin the process of properly explaining the situation to our students," the dean announced. "If Wishing Star shows herself here again, her position will be suspended until we can conduct a proper investigation. After the students are taken care of, then we will begin contacting friends of the Academy all across Equestria, and enlist their aid in slowing the spread of the panic regarding the wraith sighting. If I hear anything regarding Dinky's actual whereabouts from any of them, I'll contact you immediately. And I wish you luck in your search for Dinky, Mrs. Doo. I really do."

Ditzy nodded gravely, and with a few more quick words of thanks, she left the office to meet up with Breeze and Twilight in the main hall. She found the latter of them looking rather frazzled.

"Okay, don't panic Twilight," the princess told herself in a voice that seemed more than a little panicked. "A friend is in danger, Bright Spark's on the loose, and you may be the only princess left governing Equestria at the moment. No big deal, right? You got this!"

The alicorn closed her eyes and placed a hoof to her chest, taking a long, slow breath. When she opened them again, she looked much more determined. "Alright, here's the plan," she announced. "Ditzy, Breeze, you two need to head back to Ponyville and start working on your own efforts to track down Dinky. I need to go to Canterlot and confirm Luna's absence. If she's really gone, I'll need to take all the royal duties, and I'll get my friends' help to spread information about Dinky's situation to try to lessen the danger she's in. And same as the dean, if anything comes up about her actual location, I'll get in touch right away."

"That's all we can ask," Ditzy replied. "Thanks for your help, Princess Twilight."

"Oh, and Ditzy?" Twilight continued. "This is a bad situation, sure, but Dinky's got her friends with her, and working as a team, they're extremely powerful. They're gonna be okay, you'll see."

Ditzy glanced out the great arched window, watching the last hints of sunlight fading on the horizon. "Even so, we need to get started," she said. "The sooner we find Dinky, the better."

She and Breeze spread their wings in unison, and gave one another a determined nod. Twilight watched from the ground as the pegasus partners took to the air and soon disappeared into the night sky.

Clouds rolled in that night. Bright Spark was grateful for the dim light from her horn; without it, she doubted she'd be able to see her own hoof in front of her face. In the cover of darkness, she arrived at the old, run-down house.

"We did it!" she practically sang as she let herself into the dusty parlor. "It took years, but that good for nothing filly finally got what's coming to her! There's no way in Tartarus ponies will tolerate a wraith among them; we'll let the good citizens of Equestria take it from here."

There was no reply. The house was silent.

"Wishing Star?" Bright Spark asked, brightening her light spell and adjusting her glasses. "How odd. She said she'd be here. I hope that poser Spiral Script didn't manage to detain her..."

The old mare wandered a bit deeper into the house, peeking into each abandoned room, but there was nopony to be found.

"I guess she isn't here..." the old mare grumbled. "Spiral Script has no reason to suspect her, though, so I'm sure she'll be— oof!"

Bright Spark nearly lost her balance as she tripped over a fold in the rug. The loose carpet folded back a bit, revealing the corner of a trapdoor. The mare paused, examining it. "I didn't know this place had a cellar," she muttered. "Maybe she's down there?"

She wrenched open the trapdoor and gingerly crept down the narrow stairway, entering into a pitch-black space below. Something, or rather several somethings, glimmered at the edge of her vision.

"What is—"

Her horn flared brighter, illuminating the room, and her breath caught in her throat as the glittering objects came into view. Three enormous pink crystals stood at the far end of the room, each one containing a despondent alicorn princess. Celestia, Luna, and Cadance all met Bright Spark's gaze at once. She stood there blankly, trying to process what she was seeing.

"Th-the... the princesses?" she gasped. "Then... then is Wishing Star responsible for their disappearance? But what sort of magic could create such a prison? In all my years in magical education, I've never seen anything like it!"

Celestia's eyes widened, and she attempted to say something to Bright Spark, but no sound reached her ears. "Yes, yes, I know, Princess Celestia, we certainly aren't on good terms, but this goes so far beyond such pettiness. I'll try to find a way to free you all immediately."

Now Luna and Cadance joined in on the silent urging. All three princesses desperately emoted, pointing to something. Bright Spark finally realized that they were indicating something behind her. Before she even fully turned around, a tiny pink crystal rocketed out of the darkness, striking the old mare in the chest and passing through the skin without breaking it. With a strangled cry, she immediately collapsed, her glasses cracking on impact with the stone floor. She lay on her side, clutching her chest, as a set of orange-furred hooves appeared in her blurred vision.

"Now, how'd you get down here?" Wishing Star cooed. "Looks like you stumbled upon something you shouldn't have, but I suppose it doesn't matter now."

"What... what is—" Bright Spark gurgled. Try as she might, she couldn't get any more words out. Ferocious pain was quickly making her dizzy and disoriented.

"What did I do to you?" Wishing Star asked innocently. "Oh, just took the opportunity to benefit from that unbridled hatred you hold for Dinky Doo. Anypony who would show no remorse when dooming a teenager to the dangers of life as a fugitive clearly harbors a hate like no other. You might be even more twisted than Cosmic Glow, and I can use that. You were a perfect candidate for my other crystal of hate."

Bright Spark struggled to remain conscious and reached feebly for the horrified princesses. Alas, from within their prisons, there was nothing they could do.

"Don't bother," Wishing Star said almost boredly. "Every step of my plan over these past few months has gone perfectly. The princesses are mine, Cosmic Glow is mine, and now... you're mine too."

Bright Spark lit her horn, hoping to attack, or teleport, or perhaps somehow wrench the malignant crystal back out of her body, but she simply didn't have the clarity of mind to form a spell. With a defeated sigh, she fell limp, both her horn and her vision going dark.

Dawn arrived in a sparsely populated area of Equestria. Four exhausted unicorns trudged down an old dirt road, passing an occasional tidy little cottage or plot of fields surrounded by a picket fence.

"Are we there yet?" asked Scuffle for what seemed like at least the twentieth time.

Dinky sighed wearily. "Scuffle, we'll get there when we get there," she mumbled, fighting back a yawn. "Just keep walking."

"But, uh, to answer your question, yes, we're there," Honeydew cut in.

Scuffle perked up slightly. "Wait, really?"

The group of travelers crested a grassy hill and got their first look at the sprawling homestead that lay beyond. At its center, a few more minutes walk away, was a quaint farmhouse, painted white and surrounded by neatly-trimmed ivy and bright flowering bushes that still had a bit of color, even in the mid-October conditions. A larger building stood in the distance; a barn, Dinky realized, but meant just for crop-storage rather than housing animals.

Extending out from the central farmhouse in almost every direction were expertly tilled fields. A few were bare, but most were full of vibrant autumnal crops. One was simply loaded with great orange pumpkins, and another contained what looked like squash and peppers. Dinky recognized familiar leaves poking up from the soil nearby of a number of vegetables like carrots and turnips. A small grove of apple trees even stood at the edge of the property.

"Well... here we are," Honeydew said, frowning. "Home."

"It's really pretty," Clarity commented. "It looks like your family keeps a pretty successful farm here."

Honeydew nodded. "I really do love the farm itself," she explained. "I'm more worried about the ponies who run it."

The four students stood at the hilltop for a moment longer. "So, should we go introduce ourselves?" Dinky asked finally.

Honeydew turned to face her friends, a grim expression on her face. "I need the three of you to listen carefully, please," she began. "This is probably not going to be a pleasant experience for any of us. My parents are going to insult and distrust you three simply for being unicorns, and expect you not to talk back. If we're going to use this place as a temporary base, we have to stay on their good side. So please, watch your manners, even when my parents fail to do the same, okay?"

Scuffle snorted. "I'll do it, but I won't like it," he grumbled.

"And there's something else that's even more important," Honeydew continued. "No matter what happens, no matter what task you're asked to do, you absolutely can't use magic. I used magic while on this property exactly once in my life; I almost lost my horn for it, and my parents still complain about that single incident years later. After years at the Academy, using magic for simple tasks is automatic for all of us, so we need to break that habit really, really fast."

Dinky nodded. "Understood," she confirmed. "No magic, no matter what."

"I've got one last spell for us though before we go down there," Honeydew said, lighting her horn. "It's a simple healing spell usually just called Refresh. I think all of us could use it."

Dinky felt Honeydew's magic wash over her, and smiled as the aches and fatigue of a long night of walking faded away. She still felt pretty sleepy, but at least she wasn't so exhausted anymore.

"Nice one, Honeydew," Clarity complimented. "You really know an awful lot of spells that we don't."

Honeydew ignored the praise. "Alright then," she sighed, turning back toward the farmhouse. "Let's go."

She took a few steps forward. Scuffle gasped softly and galloped to her side.

"Dewey, hang on," he called, skidding to a halt beside her and pointing to her long mane. "Don't your parents have a thing about fillies tying their hair back?"

Honeydew paled. "Oh Celestia, Scuffle, thank you for remembering that," she squeaked, immediately pulling several hair ties from her bag and tying her mane into a pair of tight, matching buns in a matter of seconds. "Mother and Father would've had a fit if they saw me like that. Dinky, Clarity, do you want any hair ties? I won't force you, but be ready for some awful comments if you don't."

Dinky jerked her head, swinging her mane over her shoulder. "Is my ponytail not good enough?" she asked.

"Not really," Honeydew admitted shyly. "I can braid it quickly though, if you like."

Dinky shrugged. "Sure, go ahead."

Making sure no ponies were visible down by the farmhouse, Honeydew quickly lit her horn and Dinky felt her mane tied into an intricate pattern almost unbelievably fast. The pink filly smiled at her handiwork. "And you, Clarity?" she asked.

Clarity scrunched up her nose. "I'm not a fan of that kind of stuff," she admitted. "My mane's a lot shorter than yours and Dinky's anyway. I'll take my chances."

"Alright, then I guess we can't put it off any longer," Honeydew sighed. "Let's go."

The four unicorns followed another narrow dirt path down the hillside and between a few of the fields of crops. When they arrived at the farmhouse, Honeydew lifted a hoof, hesitated for a few seconds, and then knocked. There were a few heavy hoofsteps from somewhere within, and then the door opened.

The pony that answered Honeydew's knock was not the biggest or strongest pony Dinky had ever seen, but he was absolutely one of the most imposing. The stallion had an ashy grey-white coat, and his features were so sharply defined, she could've sworn the corners of his muzzle were almost right angles. He wore a starched white shirt on his upper body, and a wide hat sat atop his greenish mane. Even in the shadow of the hat's brim, the severe expression in his deep grey eyes made Dinky shudder.

"...Honeydew," he said finally.

"Hello, Father," Honeydew greeted, forcing a small smile.

The stallion did not return the expression. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "I thought that school of yours ran until after the harvest season."

"The students had to be sent home temporarily," Honeydew lied smoothly. "There was a... safety issue that's being resolved. It shouldn't last more than a few days, but it was kind of unexpected, and my friends weren't able to go to their usual residences, so I brought them here. Could they... stay here for a bit?"

The stallion's frown deepened. "Unicorns," he grumbled, looking each of them over. "Just what we need. More unicorns."

"Y-yes," Honeydew stuttered awkwardly. "Father, um, all the students at school are unicorns."

"And with four of them here, I suppose my farm will be looking like something out of a foal's tale by lunchtime," the stallion growled. "Things floating about willy-nilly or growing to the perfect size because of some twisted sorcery or another."

"No sir," Clarity piped up. "This is your property, and we'll respect the way you run it."

"Really?" the stallion asked skeptically. "Okay, rule number one: speak if you're spoken to. I don't appreciate having my conversation with my daughter interrupted."

Clarity winced and simply nodded.

"Well... fine, come on in then," Honeydew's father said gruffly, turning and disappearing into the house. Honeydew quickly followed. The other three ponies exchanged a glance.

"How charming," said Dinky flatly.

"Honeydew warned us," Clarity pointed out. "For her sake, let's grin and bear it."

They followed Honeydew into the farmhouse. The stallion leading them knocked twice on the ceiling. "Berry!" he called. "We have guests!"

Delicate hoofsteps sounded on the stairs, and a slim mare stepped into the room. Dinky immediately realized where most of Honeydew's genes must've come from; this pony had a similarly near-perfect figure. Her coat was a rosy pink, much more vibrant than Honeydew's pale one, and her white mane was tied into a series of interlocking strands so wildly complex, all of the styles Honeydew had produced over the years seemed simplistic by comparison. Atop her head was a bonnet, embroidered by hoof with dozens of little strawberries.

"Hello mother," Honeydew greeted.

"Honeydew and her little friends are off school for a few days," Honeydew's father said, with a tone that sounded a lot like one used to deliver bad news. "They've asked to stay here for a bit."

Honeydew's mother eyed the four of them with the same suspicion her father had. "They'd better be willing to work then," she announced. "Harvest season is starting. And I mean work like earth ponies, not, you know, unicorns."

The end of her sentence had such an acidic tone that Dinky's hair stood on end. She kept quiet and nodded.

"I suppose we should introduce ourselves," the stallion said. "I'm Melon Rind, owner of this farm, and this is my beautiful wife and business partner, Berry Basket. I do most of the growing, she does most of the selling, but around this time of year, there's a lot to be harvested, so we'll both be out in the fields. And if you four want to stay here, you will too."

"Why don't you three introduce yourselves," Honeydew suggested, giving Dinky and the others an indication that they were finally allowed to speak.

"I'm Honeydew's roommate, Clarity," Clarity said, forcing a polite smile.

"And I'm Scuffle," Scuffle added. "Me and Honeydew have been hangin' out for a couple years now."

Melon Rind and Berry Basket looked to Dinky next. She opened her mouth to speak.


In that instant, an alarming thought occurred to her, and judging by her friends' sudden stunned expressions, they were all realizing it too; if the goal was to hide here when the nation was in search of a pony named Dinky Doo, then she couldn't use her real name. With no time to think, she went with the classic unicorn fallback: a light-related name.

"I'm... Solar Gleam. Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise," Berry Basket replied, though she didn't sound very pleased. "I suppose if Honeydew insists you three are good ponies, we at least owe you a chance."

"Things are very busy around here this time of year, though," Melon Rind pointed out, "and we're getting older every day. We're going to need help with the harvest, so I suppose we can't really afford to turn you away."

"Put in a good, honest day's work, and we'll provide a few days of food and housing in exchange," Berry Basket finished. "Dinner's at sunset, and there's enough space in Honeydew's room for three, I think."

"But there's, uh, four of us," Scuffle pointed out.

Berry Basket froze, and cast a panicked glance at her husband. Melon Rind's look was one of outrage. "You? A colt? In Honeydew's room?" he asked gravely. "Honeydew, I hope you're not about to tell me that school of yours is so immoral that they house fillies and colts in the same room!"

"Of course not!" Honeydew replied. Truthfully, Dinky noted. "Scuffle has his own room in a separate tower at the Academy, and I'm sure we can find a place for him to sleep here too."

"Thank goodness," the stallion replied, visibly relieved.

"It wouldn't have surprised me, though," Berry Basket grumbled, casting a glare in Clarity's direction, "considering one of your 'friends' there is walking around with her mane down like some sort of harlot, I was beginning to think there was no moral low to which unicorn establishments wouldn't stoop."

"At least Honeydew still has the sense not to be so indecent in public," Melon Rind added.

Honeydew, whose mane had indeed been untied until just minutes earlier, blushed slightly and nodded.

"So... where will Scuffle sleep, exactly?" Dinky asked, trying to wrench the conversation away from the uncomfortable topic of filly decency.

"There's space in the loft in the barn," the stallion answered. "Not the most comfortable maybe, but then again, a young stallion like him shouldn't need pampering."

"That works, I guess," Scuffle replied, shrugging. "Anything else we should know, Mr. Rind?"

"There is, actually," the stallion replied, frowning once again. "I'm sure Honeydew has already mentioned this, but let me make one thing absolutely clear: magic is not welcome here. If you're Honeydew's friends, we'll give you a chance, but you'd do well to respect that rule. Understand?"

The four unicorns nodded in unison. For the moment, Honeydew's parents seemed satisfied.

"Good," Melon Rind said Now Berry, take the girls' things up to Honeydew's room. I'll escort Scuffle to the barn and show him where he'll be staying. And then meet me back at the fields; we've got to bring in half a field of butternut squash today, and we've only got nine more hours of daylight. Let's get started."

"Okay, this sucks," Dinky declared about five hours later.

It was mid-afternoon. Dinky and her friends took advantage of a brief lapse in activity while Honeydew's parents transported much of the harvested squash to the barn.

"It's pretty tough, isn't it?" Honeydew sighed, carefully bending her knees and letting a now-empty basket slide off her back. "This was my routine pretty much right up until I met you three."

"My whole body is killing me," Clarity commented, shaking one of her sore hind hooves a few times to work the stiff muscles. "You're not the most muscular pony, Honeydew; how do you even handle this?"

"It's mostly technique," Honeydew admitted. "There are ways to position your body and distribute weight to keep the effort to a minimum. I guess years of practice help."

"Y'know what would really keep the effort to a minimum?" Scuffle mumbled. "Picking a dozen of these things off the vine at a time with a levitation spell."

"Yes," Dinky deadpanned. "We're also not doing that. We need to keep our welcome here until we get in contact with somepony who can help us."

"I warned you you guys wouldn't like it here," Honeydew reminded them. "But I didn't see any other choice."

"I'm with you," Clarity agreed. "I'd rather be here doing manual labor than fleeing from an angry mob out for Dinky's blood."

"Okay but look," Scuffle insisted, "Dewey's clearly got some sway with her parents, even if we don't. Maybe if she just explains how magic could be useful in this situation in a calm, rational fashion, they'll agree to let her at least show them the—"

"Scuffle, that stallion literally tried to cut off Honeydew's horn when she was a filly," Dinky interrupted, stamping a hoof. "I don't think he's really the type to have a calm, rational conversation about something he disagrees with."

"Besides, I tried that a few years ago, after I got home from our first term," Honeydew added morosely. "They didn't want to hear it though. I guess they have every right; this is their property and they can run it how they choose. I respect the way they've chosen to live. I just kinda wish... they respected the way I chose..."

Forlorn, she turned away, looking across the acres of vegetation. After a moment of silence, Scuffle strode hesitantly over and placed a forehoof on her back.


"You know, I really do love the farm itself," Honeydew said suddenly, smiling a bit as she gazed at the vines surrounding them. "I may be a unicorn, but I guess some of that earth pony blood is flowing through me somewhere. Growing up, my favorite times were when my parents would let me work by myself, and it would be just me and the plants. Despite what my parents are like, I have fond memories of trotting slowly through these fields, feeling the summer sun on my back and picking strawberries or plums. The plants were really my only friends before you three, and watching them grow and flourish and then fade each year and start anew the next was a wonder that I never really stopped enjoying."

Her smile faltered, then faded away. "But those plants were indifferent to me," she mumbled. "I couldn't bond with them the way earth ponies can. Although mother and father don't want to admit it, earth ponies have their own magic— Leo's magic, according to what we learned at the Academy— and I couldn't experience it the way my earth pony parents could until I started learning spells. I just wish my parents could see that magic isn't the thing that makes me different from them. It's actually the opposite; magical biology spells are similar to the inherent abilities earth ponies already have, so magic's the one thing that can make me almost the same."

"Alright you four, break's over!" Melon Rind hollered as he and Berry Basket emerged from the barn. "We need to get another few rows harvested and stored tonight."

"Yes father!" Honeydew called, grabbing her basket with a hoof and swinging it up onto her back.

She set to work again immediately. Dinky, Clarity, and Scuffle hung back for a moment, thinking about the exchange a moment before.

"Come on you three, let's get moving," Berry Basket snapped, gesturing toward the fields. "I know you unicorns aren't used to an honest day's work, but you'll learn quickly after a day or two here."

With a small sigh, Dinky grabbed her basket, and she and her friends returned to work.

Dinky flopped down on an old sleeping bag, exhausted. In the dim light, she looked around Honeydew's bedroom. In daylight, she knew it was a welcoming, brightly colored space, with plush carpet and thick, warm blankets on the bed, but it was hard to see much of that detail when it was late at night, and the room was illuminated by just two faintly sputtering candles on the windowsill.

"Alright," Clarity declared, sounding determined even though she was clearly physically wiped out. "This is our chance to prepare some messages about where we are. Who should we send them to?"

"Dean Script and Princess Twilight both seem like good options," Dinky pointed out. "I'm sure the two of them are already working on finding us."

"And maybe we should send one directly to Mrs. Doo?" Honeydew suggested. "Let's be fair, Dinky, you know how your mom is; she's probably tearing Equestria apart piece by piece right now looking for you."

Dinky grinned. "To be fair, I've been in more than my share of danger compared to most fillies my age," she snickered. "Poor mom's mane is gonna start turning as grey as her coat any day now with all the worry I put her through."

Clarity suppressed a giggle. "While that's true, sending one to your mom would be redundant," she pointed out. "Princess Twilight and Spiral Script both have access to dragon mail, and you know either one of them will contact her the instant they get your letter."

Dinky nodded. "You're right. News would probably reach her from the princess or the dean before our direct letter would even get to her."

"Right, so let's get these written so we can get some sleep," she said, lighting her horn a bit to better see what she was writing.

"Clarity!" Honeydew gasped, grabbing a heavy blanket and promptly throwing it over her friend to block out the light. "No magic, remember? What if my parents catch you?"

"Your parents are asleep, aren't they?" Clarity asked, poking her head out from under the blanket. "And it's not like I'm using an actual spell, it's just a little light."

"A little light that definitely wouldn't look like candlelight if my parents happened to be out in the hall for any reason and saw it flickering from under our door," Honeydew said meekly. "I know it's silly but... just use the candles, please."

Clarity placed a candle from the windowsill on the desk and sat down again. For a moment she hesitated, and then looked at her friends sheepishly.

"What's wrong?" Dinky asked.

"I, uh... just realized I don't know how to write with a hoof or my mouth," Clarity admitted, blushing. "My family is all unicorns, remember? I was levitating stuff before I learned to write."

Honeydew nodded understandingly and offered to take Clarity's place at the table. "Dinky and I both did most tasks without magic as foals," she reminded her. "Just tell me what to write."

"I wonder how much magic was involved in Scuffle's upbringing?" Dinky wondered aloud. "He seemed pretty proficient at simple defensive spells when we met him, but that's always been his favorite subject."

Honeydew sighed and gazed out the window at the silhouette of the barn in the distance. "I hope Scuffle's alright all by himself out there," she whimpered. "I get why my parents don't want him in here with us, but it's not fair that he has to sleep in that drafty old loft just because he's a colt. I want to go check on him, but if my parents caught me sneaking out to the barn at night to talk to him, they'd be livid."

"Want me to check on him for you?" Dinky asked. "I don't see why your parents would care, even if they did find out."

"Could you please?" Honeydew asked, anxiously rubbing the notch in her horn. "I just want to make sure he doesn't need anything before we go to sleep."

"Go ahead Dinky," Clarity agreed, pointing to the window. "Honeydew and I will stay here and write the letters, and when you get back we can all hit the hay."

Dinky nodded and pulled open Honeydew's bedroom window, hopping out and using just the barest flicker of magic to slow her descent from the second story to the grass below. She shivered slightly at the nip in the autumn air and hurried across the dark, silent fields to the barn. The old wooden doors gave a faint creak as she pushed her way inside.

"Who's there?" called a drowsy male voice from somewhere above her head. "That you, Mr. Rind? I'm stayin' away from the girls like you said, don't worry."

"Actually, it's me," Dinky responded, grinning a little.

"Dinks? Hey, c'mon up. The ladder's to your right."

Dinky made her way into the loft. It was nearly pitch black, but she figured she was sufficiently far from the farmhouse to get away with casting a dim light. Scuffle came into view; the colt had his head resting on a small pile of hay and was partially covered with a ratty, moth-eaten quilt.

"Sup, Dinks?" he asked. "Crazy couple of days, huh?"

"That's putting it mildly," Dinky chuckled. "Literally a day and a half ago we were all gathered in the arena watching you duel Tango Trot. It seems like weeks ago now."

I figure that's 'cause we haven't slept in like two days," Scuffle pointed out. "Speaking of which, I thought you and the girls would be asleep by now. You know Honeydew's parents are gonna drag us out of bed at the crack of dawn."

"We've got to get those letters written first," Dinky explained. "If we slack off on those, we'll be here longer, and I don't think any of us want that."

"No kidding," Scuffle replied. "I'll put up with it, of course. It's watching Dewey deal with it that hurts."

"Honeydew's used to it, though," Dinky pointed out. "Her parents aren't quite as hard on her as they are on us, and she's surprisingly good at keeping up with the farm work."

"That's not the point, Dinks," Scuffle grumbled. "I'm not talking about putting up with being insulted all day, or dealing with the work. Did you hear that stuff Dewey was saying this afternoon?"

Dinky nodded slowly. "The stuff about how magical biology isn't so different from earth pony magic?"

Scuffle paused, repositioning himself beneath the old quilt and staring up at the ceiling listlessly. "Dinks, we use magic for convenience, and to solve problems, and even just for fun," he said. "But Honeydew? She uses it to... to experience the world the way she always wished she could when she was younger. She's not complete without her magic; you, me, and Clarity are inconvenienced, sure, but I feel like Dewey can't refrain from magic without locking away a whole part of what makes her... well, her. I've only had to watch it happen for like a day, and I already can't stand it anymore."

Dinky smiled. "You're really in tune with Honeydew's feelings," she admitted. "She really means the world to you, doesn't she?"

"I can't really explain it," Scuffle confessed. "I mean, naturally I want good things to happen to my friends, but with Dewey... she's been through so much growing up. She used to be miserable and afraid all the time, so any time she's excited, or interested, or heck, just happy about anything, I guess somehow that makes me happy too. I still don't know why she said no when Tango asked her out yesterday, but if she'd said yes... well, I woulda been disappointed of course, but I guess in the long run that would've been okay too, as long as he could offer her what she wanted from a coltfriend. Is it weird that that's how I feel?"

Dinky beamed. "Uh, it's called love, Scuffle," she chirped. "Love so genuine and unconditional that you're willing to overlook your own desires to help meet hers."

Scuffle rolled his eyes. "Alright, I think we've hit our quota for mushy stuff for this conversation," he muttered. "We're all fugitives right now, so all this 'love' stuff's gonna have to take a back seat for a bit."

"Well, I have no idea if Honeydew shares the kind of feelings you have, but she definitely cares about you," Dinky insisted. "In fact, the only reason I'm up here is because she was worried about you and wanted somepony to check on you."

Scuffle's expression softened. "Well, you tell Dewey that Scuffle's got a comfy bed of hay and a nice warm blanket and is perfectly content out in the barn," he said. "I'll be fine out here; put her mind at ease so she can get some sleep."

"I'll do that," Dinky affirmed, grinning and making her way back to the ladder. "See you in the morning, lover boy."

Scuffle scowled. "I don't know how you always manage to work that sort of stuff out of me," he complained. "Don't tell Clarity I'm out here sayin' mushy stuff, unless you want a fireball to the ass tomorrow."

Dinky just laughed as she made her way out of the barn and back toward the farmhouse.

In front of Wishing Star, three matching pink crystal prisons housed three alicorn princesses. Behind her, Cosmic Glow and Bright Spark, overcome by an unending, magically-induced hatred of everypony and everything, screamed at one another over some meaninglessly small disagreement.

She smiled. Everything was going according to plan.

"And is my newest guest enjoying her stay?" Wishing Star asked, grinning devilishly at Princess Luna. "Your sister and Cadance have been here for quite some time, but it took a lot of effort to finally pull a fast one on you. Stirring up that situation with Dinky at the Academy was just what I needed to do to get you agitated enough to let your guard down for just a moment. And that was all it took!"

She laughed as Luna glared at her. "And what timing!" she continued. "You've arrived just before I begin the final phase of my grand plan. The stage is set for disaster now."

Luna mouthed something in reply. Wishing Star read her lips and scoffed.

"What do I mean? Look around you!" she cried. "Each time I seal away another princess, the passive influence each of you has on Equestria begins to drain away. Peace and harmony in this land are now tenuous at best, with Celestia's latent power gone from the hearts of ponies for a full six months now. All but the deepest, truest love in ponies' hearts is fading as well, without Cadance's influence bolstering it. Both effects are just subtle enough that ponies aren't catching on. They've probably felt tension in some of their own personal relationships, but they can't see the bigger picture; they don't realize the things that make Equestria's communities almost utopian are gradually ebbing."

She trotted closer, her nose just inches from Luna's separated only by the transparent wall of the crystal. "You though, Luna, play an important role for them as well. Everypony knows the obvious one; you police ponies' dreams each night, chasing away nightmares and allowing for restful slumber. But what most ponies don't know is that your latent impact on Equestria extends a bit further than just dreams. You provide peace and stability to a pony's whole subconscious."

Luna's eyes widened, and for the very first time, she appeared intimidated for just a moment, taking a small step back. Wishing Star cackled with delight.

"That's right, Princess Luna!" she continued gleefully. "Without you, it's not just the dreams of ponies that will suffer; it's their subconscious perception of their world! Deep in ponies' hearts, distrust and paranoia will gradually begin to grow stronger, without your inherent magic keeping it dormant. Combine those heightened fears with the other two princesses' factors, and we're looking at a real recipe for disaster for that happy little society out there. There's just one last piece preventing everything from collapsing..."

Cadance spoke the answer, and though Wishing Star couldn't hear her, she nodded.

"That's right. As long as Princess Twilight Sparkle is still out there, the power of—" she paused, spitting on the stone floor in disgust, "—of friendship will still persist. And in times of trouble, when peace and prosperity seem distant while fear and suspicion loom overhead, the strength of friendship still wins out in the end. To push Equestria over the brink, I'll need a complete set of princesses, and it was imperative that I saved Twilight Sparkle for last, because when friendships aren't so easily maintained in Equestria, ponies will notice something is amiss."

She gestured to the two angry unicorns still bickering at the far end of the cellar. "And that brings us to these two," she continued smugly. "I helped them with their wildly complicated plans to get revenge on Ditzy and Dinky Doo just so that I could cultivate that hate in their hearts enough that my crystals of hate could lock them in that state. Thanks to the hostility those two are generating, and the ever-increasing unrest out there across the nation, I've grown so powerful that I won't even need to be sneaky next time! Barely six months ago, I could cast only the weakest of spells, but now I've got the strength to take on an alicorn, and win!"

A wicked grin spread across her face. "Celestia! Luna! Cadance! Brace yourselves!" she cried, puffing out her chest triumphantly as a powerful pink aura surged around her horn. "If I succeed in the last step of my plans, it will be impossible to stop the vicious cycle I've created. With peace, love, trust, and friendship all fading away, I'll continue to grow ever more powerful, until nopony could ever hope to stop me! And I'll use that power, of course, to stamp out any remnants of those things, until every corner of the nation knows only fear, aggression, and loathing! In just days, you'll have front row seats to the birth of my great creation: an Equestria ruled by hatred!"