• Published 13th Dec 2012
  • 1,629 Views, 47 Comments

Kickin' Flanks - Xtralife

You see them saving Equestria. You watch them learning about friendship. You might even worship one as your immortal royal sun goddess. You think they're ponies just like you. You're wrong. Dead wrong!

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4 - The Weakest Link

The second of frozen terror boiled over fast. Patrons scattered as they saw Dash fire off a shot at a businesspony, but the vigilante smiled as she saw its bug-like eyes widen in shock from behind her sunglasses. With a snap of her neck and a twirl, the shotgun ejected a shell. Her tail drifted behind her as a lazy counterpoint to her assault. Rainbow planted her hooves hard as she saw another changeling dive for a large fake potted plant. Another round shattered the ceramic vessel and the impostor was sprawled flat against the wall, just as the alarm began to ring out through the bank.

An officer-changeling behind the teller’s counter peeked over, pistol floating beside his head via magic. Rainbow pushed herself to the right as a bullet whizzed through her mane, and she slid into the safety of the check-writing desk. The pegasus grunted and reinserted the shotgun into her satchel. When Rainbow attempted to sneak a look from the left, the officer-changeling fired again, then two more times. It didn’t see when Dash slid out from the right with her revolver in her mouth, and it didn’t know it had been shot until it was too late.

“Blue pegasus! Rainbow hair, female, armed!” Another suited changeling was huddled in a corner, speaking into his watch and glancing up at Rainbow. The vigilante snarled and lifted her revolver right at its forehead.

“Drop the watch or eat lead!”

The changeling stayed still.

“I said drop the watch, motherbucker!”

The wall behind the changeling was peppered with buckshot as it vanished in a flash of light. Rainbow Dash barely noticed her voice turn raw as she screamed in fury. Her stomping hooves cracked the marble tiles, and she flew up to the ceiling for a better vantage point. While most of the patrons had evacuated and left their personal effects behind, there were still a few cowering behind the teller’s counter, yet Dash was unable to tell whether they were changelings from that distance. Some gasped, some muttered prayers, and a couple ran for their lives.

Sirens screamed out over the alarm bells. Dash could see a pair of black and white police carriages screech to a halt outside the glass doors. She snorted, dropped to the ground, and darted back through the emergency exit she came from, just as a group of officers burst inside.

Rainbow ripped off her sunglasses and clipped them to the strap of the satchel. Her eyes did not immediately adjust to the dark, but she knew that the path was straight for a while. The way back was still quicker than she expected, and she soon found herself at the three-way fork. The pegasus scratched her head for a moment until she heard the sound of hoofbeats coming from along the green-lined hallway. There was no time to deliberate over which way to turn, so she arbitrarily picked the right corridor with the blue line.

It was a shorter passage than the green path, and Rainbow exhaled in relief when she came to the door. Gently she pushed it open, and she peeked around the side. It was an alleyway outside, full of trashbins and graffiti. Daring to expose herself further, she stuck her head out, seeing the mall in the distance far to the left and more of Manehattan to the right. With no cops in view, Rainbow strode out and dropped herself onto an abandoned couch. It was dirty and a few springs were poking through the tattered cloth upholstery, but she didn’t mind at all. Lying back, she stared at the sky, an unobstructed view for the first time since she had entered the city.

“Hey, I still don’t know where Manehattan Correctional Facility is!” she shouted out, kicking at the armrest of the couch. Her hooves thrust through the fabric, and the pony groaned as she tried to remove them.

“Great! Just freaking great! I can’t believe this!”

“I can’t believe this!” said Rarity, stamping a hoof on the wooden platform.

The three friends had felt the same panic and adrenaline-filled determination the moment they had seen the feather. There was a moment of deliberation as to what to do next, but the general consensus was that Rainbow Dash was most likely about to escape Ponyville. No time was wasted after that. It was a brutal and extensive run to the train station at the edge of town, punctuated by brief glances at the clock tower. But by the time they reached the station, nine o’clock had come and gone, and so had the train. They spent a few minutes there, shuffling awkwardly and inwardly brooding.

“Maybe she went back to the cottage,” Fluttershy offered, but with the waver in her voice, it was clear she had no strong conviction in the possibility.

Rarity turned on Fluttershy swiftly, mane whipping around inches in front of the startled pegasus’ face. “Rainbow Dash wouldn’t do something as level-headed as that!”

“Girls, calm down!” yelled Pinkie, a few feet ahead of them. “Sure, we’re behind, but the race isn’t over yet! Look!” She pointed a hoof at the ticket booth, where a graying pony was opening the shutters over the window. In seconds, the mares had lined up, with Pinkie first in line.

“One ticket for the soonest train you’ve got, mister!” said Pinkie enthusiastically as she plunked down some bits. “We’re on a rescue mission, and there’s no time to spare!”

“How can she say that so spryly?” wondered Fluttershy aloud. Rarity nodded, one eyebrow raised in wonder of yet another new way Pinkie Pie could surprise them. However, the ticket pony’s expression remained flat and unchanged.

“You’ll have to wait, miss. The next train’s at eleven. Next, please.”

“You think we’ll catch up to her at all?” asked Fluttershy, with a slight sense of renewed hope.

Rarity paused a moment. “Well, I don’t want to be negative about our chance here…” she mused.

Pinkie Pie walked back on the other side of the line, ticket clutched firmly in her mouth. “I think we can– ” she said, but the ticket fell out of her mouth, and she bent down to pick it up. “We can do it if—pony feathers—” She went to grab it again, but stopped herself. “We can do it if we try!” Pinkie grinned as she retrieved the ticket successfully, and then bounded over to a nearby bench. She was soon joined by the others once they had bought their own tickets, and they plopped down beside her in relief. Rarity gently removed the tickets from Fluttershy & Pinkie’s mouths with her telekinetic skills and gathered them together.

There was a brief minute of silence. Pinkie Pie stared at the tracks with anticipation. “Does anypony know what time it is?” she asked.

Rarity scanned her eyes over her hooves and then exhaled sharply in irritation. “The one day I forget to bring a watch with me and somepony asks what time it is.” She stretched out her legs and attempted to get up, but immediately collapsed back onto the bench.

“Girls,” said Rarity, “I’m too tired to get up right now.”

“Me too,” whispered Fluttershy. “My wings ache and I haven’t flown at all today.”

“Can I say ‘me three,’ or is that gag played out?” asked Pinkie.

Time wore on. The station, usually bustling with ponies, was mostly quiet, with the exception of the occasional passing Canterlot guard. The mares initially talked about them and the recent happenings for a while, but when the conversation grew stale and depressing, they moved on to general water-cooler chat. Eventually they just fell silent and closed their eyes to rest. A few whistling sounds echoed in the stillness, but all three of the mares barely noticed it.

“Mmmf.” Fluttershy batted her hoof in front of her face. “Please stop poking me.”

“I would, sugarcube, but I really wanted to say ‘hi’ to y’all,” said a voice.

Rarity looked up, blurry-eyed. “I’m sorry, did you just say—“

“APPLEJACK!” screamed Pinkie Pie, leaping from the bench and tackling the orange pony standing in front of them. Rarity and Fluttershy followed suit with equal enthusiasm, and the four mares giggled, caught in a hug long overdue.

“Where have you been?” asked Rarity, attempting to catch her breath. “I’m sure you told us, but I mean, you know what’s happened to Twilight, right?”

Applejack frowned, and everybody backed away slightly. “I’ve been at an orchard farming convention in Manehattan for the last couple days. It’s alright, though; I wouldn’t expect y’all to remember under such duress. When I heard the news I went right to the train station, but they halted all the trains comin’ into Ponyville. This was the earliest one I could take.”

“And we’re going to take it right back!” said Pinkie, bouncing past the rest of the group and onto the train.

Applejack made a noise of annoyance and turned to grab her tail, but Fluttershy held out a hoof. The orange earth pony raised an eyebrow at her friend’s sudden relative brashness and then looked to Rarity, who was already boarding the train. The unicorn turned around.

“No, no, she’s right.” Rarity hesitated for a moment. “Fluttershy, would you kindly buy AJ a ticket back to Manehattan? I’ll go find our seats.”

Fluttershy nodded, and trotted off to the ticket booth with one very confused Applejack in tow. Now there was a slight line, and it seemed there were fewer guards around as well. The pair slid in at the back of the queue and awaited their turn.
Applejack whistled low. “There sure are a lot of Canterlot soldiers around here, aren’t they?”

“Oh, it’s not that bad. There were more here earlier, really,” said Fluttershy.

“You’re kidding? They stuck around this long after…” Applejack brought her voice down to a whisper. “…After Twilight was arrested?”

“Well, a little more happened,” said Fluttershy, also quieting down. “There’s a teensy-weensy chance that…” Fluttershy turned away. “I don’t think I want to talk about this right now, Applejack.”

“Come on, sugarcube, you can say it. You know you can tell me anything, right?”

“There’s an itty-bitty likelihood that Rainbow Dash went after Twilight.”

“’Scuse me?” Applejack perked up an ear.

"Rainbow Dash went after Twilight.”

“Shy, you gotta speak up so I can hear you.”

“Rainbow Dash went after Twilight!”

“WHAT?” yelled out Applejack. Most of the train station turned to look towards her, but Fluttershy turned the opposite direction, her face reddening in embarrassment.

“AJ, ponies are looking,” she whispered.

The earth pony whinnied and snorted, stamping the ground irritably. “And ah just don’t care! How could she have done something like that? We’ve gotta get her back, right now!”

“That’s what we’re doing, Applejack.” Fluttershy pawed at the ground and shrunk behind her friend. “Now, please, please stop. It’s not good for anypony to hear about this.”

“Excuse me?” a gravelly voice asked from behind. The pegasus froze up and emitted a barely audible squeal, but Applejack turned around immediately. The voice had come from a gruff-looking earth stallion standing along with them. He was clad in a brown tweed suit, and his reddish mane was swept to one side as if he had only taken a single brush at it. The stallion opened up a thin black wallet in his mouth to reveal a badge and identification card.

“My name’s Inspector Callahoof, and I’m in charge of investigations in Ponyville. Do you mind—“

“Howdy, Inspector! Boy, it’s one heckuva rush hour, isn’t it?” Applejack grabbed ahold of Callahoof’s hoof and shook it vigorously as she grinned wide. “Nice ta meet’cha, you bet’cha!”

Callahoof’s face was an absolute blank slate as his hoof was waved about forcefully. “Do you have the time for a few questions?”

Applejack’s grip on the officer’s hoof tightened, and so did her smile. Disarming ponies with openness was something that came naturally to her, but it had yet to affect the inspector. She dropped his hoof and adopted a casual stance, with both right legs crossed over the left ones. “Shoot, Inspector! We’ve got the time,” she asserted.

Callahoof made a strange jerking motion with his hoof towards the inside of his coat pocket but stopped himself. “Wait, we? Who’s ‘we’?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Fluttershy involuntarily squealed a little louder. She whipped her head forward, covering her face with her extra-long mane. Applejack gently rubbed the top of the pegasus’ head. “Sorry, you mustn’t have noticed her. She’s real timid, sir. Don’t worry about it.”

The line began to move but Fluttershy stayed in place. Callahoof looked on as the cowpony tugged gently on her friend’s mane, dragging her forwards bit by bit. Fluttershy’s hooves did not move at all, but she made a faint high-pitched noise with every pull.

Applejack spat pink hairs out. “My stars, I really didn’t think that would be difficult. Again, I’m mighty sorry.”
“I frequently have that effect on the fillies,” said Callahoof, brushing his mane back.

“No way in Tartarus, you nut.” Applejack dug out one more hair from between her teeth. “So what didja wanna know? Like I said, we’re in no hurry.”

Callahoof cleared his throat. “For starters, the two of you are part of the Elements of Harmony, am I right?”

“Seems like it,” said Applejack. “I’m Honesty and she’s Kindness.”

“Then you could probably tell me a few things about Twilight Sparkle.” Callahoof’s voice was a little terser than before.

“Purple unicorn, ridiculously brainy, Element of Magic- gimme a second—” Applejack dragged Fluttershy up again much the same as before. They were now at the front of the line and the ticket pony stared through the glass at them.

“C’mon, Shy, you gotta move now.” AJ smiled. “This Callahoof character can’t be good news, but we can deal with him.”

Fluttershy nodded gently and plinked a small stack of coins onto the ticket window’s ledge. A ticket was passed under the glass. She grabbed it in her mouth, and the two friends made their way to the train with Callahoof close behind.

“Right, right, that matches her description. She lives in town, right?” Callahoof trotted ahead of the mares, blocking their path.

Fluttershy strode forward. “Excuse me, sir… can I ask you something first?”

Callahoof was taken aback. “Well, I-I suppose—“

“Are we being detained?” The pegasus inhaled and looked Callahoof directly in his eyes. Applejack raised a hoof in protest but Fluttershy brushed it away.

“Now see here, pal,” said Callahoof, stepping closer. “I’m just trying to get to the bottom—“

“Are we being detained, sir?” Fluttershy did not back off, but Applejack saw her wing twitch.

Callahoof snorted loudly. “I just want to know if you know who Twilight Sparkle is.”

Suddenly, a loud and dramatic gasp emanated from the train car. A conductor stallion was flung out the doors and Rarity burst through. Holding a handkerchief to her muzzle, she darted towards Callahoof, weeping openly and at a high volume. Applejack and Fluttershy’s ensuing eye rolls went unnoticed.

“Twilight? Twilight?” sobbed Rarity as streams of eyeliner ran down her face. “We’ve been absolutely devastated! Have you seen her, sir? Is she alright, sir?” She blew into the handkerchief again, raised her hoof high into the air, and daintily flicked it into a nearby trash can. It landed with a gushy splat.

Callahoof bit his lip forcefully and stared down at the ground. Rarity sniffled audibly, and the inspector made what sounded like a muffled scream. Finally he looked back up at the unicorn. “Thank you very much for your concern,” he said blandly, as if reading off a form letter. “As per department regulations, I must question you in regards to this investigation. Your cooperation is appreciated.”

“We’re glad to be of service, mister.” Applejack put on her widest smile. “So what were you saying?”
Callahoof coughed. “Well, I’ve been in Ponyville since this morning, and we had something of an incident happen. Looks like somepony tried to rob the local library. I’m told that Twilight Sparkle was staying there by order of the Princess herself, up until last night of course.”

“Twi-Twi-hi-hi-light’s home was ra-hai-hai-aided?” Rarity blubbered, and more tears welled up in her eyes as she pouted. Callahoof didn’t see her kick at Fluttershy, who winced, then turned it into a pained and concerned expression. Applejack shook her head and covered her face with her hat.

“Need another, Rarity?” Pinkie Pie was standing next to the unicorn with a box of tissues. Rarity barely acknowledged her as she pulled one out with her magic and dabbed at her eyes. It was soaked in seconds.

“Wait a moment, pal!” shouted Callahoof. “Who’re you and how’d you get here?”

“I’m Pinkie Pie! And well, I guess it all started when my parents decided they wanted to have another child. You see, when a stallion and a mare love each other very much, they—“

“I think we can spare him that story, Pinkie.” AJ had lifted her hat off again. “So was anything taken or damaged at the library?”

“That’s classified information, sorry. But seeing as how you’re all her friends, I thought somepony would know a thing or two.” Callahoof looked over them all quizzically. The friends shook their heads.

“Not me!” said Pinkie, just a tad too bubbly for the occasion.

“Gosh, it’s so awful,” said Fluttershy, scratching at the dirt with a hoof.

“Let us know when you catch the creep that did it!” Applejack snorted. “That low-down, dirty sneak thief can’t run from the law.”

Rarity just bawled again, and buried her face in the entire box of tissues.

The stallion stood up straight with an officious manner. “Of course, I’ll keep you all very well informed. But, you know, something’s felt off this whole time.” Suddenly Callahoof grinned wide. “Oh, I know what it is! Where’s Rainbow Dash?”

Rarity inhaled sharply and her lower lip quivered. “Rainbow Dash?”

“No! No you don’t!” barked the inspector. The unicorn shrunk back, more than a little perturbed.

Callahoof stroked the stubble on his chin. “That’s better. Now then, I know you know where Dash is. You were all seen with her last night, and she has been gone since the morning. What do you say to that?” He looked over their faces, taut and unchanging. There wasn’t a response this time.

“I see. I get it. That’s touching, really. But I already know where she is, where she was, and where she’s going, okay? Even though none of you are piping up, my guess is that all of you do too.” Callahoof pointed to Fluttershy. “You saw the letter from the Princess, correct? Don’t answer, that was rhetorical. It was on your door, of course you saw. I hope you read it carefully, because it was very clear about the consequences for defying Her Majesty.”

The inspector shrugged. “Sure, none of you have done anything wrong. But if I have to detain Equestria’s heroes until they spill the beans, that’s fine by me. I shouldn’t have to, of course. You’re all fine and upstanding citizens, and the Princess rewards cooperation.” He turned around and trotted off in the direction of town, but paused and looked back. “You can find me at the library if you change your minds. Of course, you still can’t actually enter.”

All of the friends watched the stallion leave, tense and silent. They stayed that way for some time until suddenly the train’s whistle blew, and the ponies calmly filed into the open car. Wordlessly they found their seats and dropped into them. The car rumbled, a bell clanged, and the train began to slowly chug forwards.

Applejack leaned forward in her seat. “This is just too much, y’all. I know the Princess said we could visit, but shucks! Now that Rainbow Dash has gone M.I.A., I think we’re in for some trouble.”

“You can say that again,” said Fluttershy, who was looking out the window as trees rolled by. “I was doing my best to be brave, but if that inspector said we were being arrested, I don’t know what I would have done.”

“You had me convinced!” Pinkie looked over at Fluttershy and offered a high-hoof, which Fluttershy gladly returned.

“Did any of you know that Rainbow busted into Twilight’s house?” asked Applejack.

Rarity nodded. “We all did. When we noticed Rainbow was gone, we went over there to check. It seems the police have found one of her feathers, too.”

Applejack fell back into the seat cushion and closed her eyes. The hat slid over her face. “Girls, what are we going to do? I care about Dash as much as anypony here, and we’ve got to do this. But everything about this is just so strange.”

Pinkie’s ears perked up. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” said Applejack, looking up at the ceiling in thought, “We’re all Celestia’s pupils, right? We’ve sent letters of our own to her for quite some time now, and we’ve been invited to Canterlot for the Grand Galloping Gala.” The mare leaned forward again. “So why is the Princess being heavy-hoofed about this instead of trying to talk with us and hash things out properly?”

Rarity’s eyebrows rose. “She should have spoken with Twilight in person before arresting her, too! This is the second time that she’s acted strange.”

“I don’t think that Twilight would have wanted to talk in the first place,” mentioned Fluttershy, now focused fully on the group. “It didn’t sound like she trusted the Princess at all anymore.”

Pinkie dropped one hoof into another with decisiveness. “Twilight must have seen Princess Celestia do something even stranger! She might even have noticed some kind of pattern in this!”

“Exactly, but now this makes everything complicated.” Applejack cocked her head to the side. “We’re not just going to have to talk with Twilight Sparkle. In fact, I think she’s been right all along, and somehow I don’t see the Princess letting her walk away from this.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Rarity pointedly.

“That maybe you should part your hair to the other side, just to see how it looks?” responded Pinkie. The group of friends shared in a brief giggle.

“Well, besides that, Pinkie. But how are we going to help Twilight escape, find Rainbow Dash, and get to the bottom of all this?” said Rarity.

“Well, Twilight should know everything that’s going on. In fact, I would be really surprised if she didn’t have a plan.” Fluttershy stretched out a leg. “We’ll know what to do next when we find her.”

Applejack spoke up. “I think I know where the prison is, too. I took a sight-seeing tour around the city before the convention opened up, and they passed right by it. Wasn’t mentioned in the tour, of course, but I was looking out the window.”

“And you know what? We’ll probably find Rainbow Dash on the way there. I mean, it’s why she’s in Manehattan and all.” Pinkie nodded spryly.

“Then it’s settled!” said Applejack with a determined grin. “We can’t stand by and let our friends be put through all this!”

“Mm-hmm!” went Pinkie Pie in a high tone, and her mane bobbed in unison. “We have to keep our chins up! Sure, it’s harder right now, but that makes it even more important!”

The unicorn sat up straighter. “Don’t forget, darling, we’re taking a huge risk with this. We’ve been given an ultimatum, and we’re choosing to ignore it. But Rainbow Dash is putting herself in danger for Twilight, and I know both of them would do the same for any of us!”

“We’re doing the right thing, I’m sure of it.” said Fluttershy. “If we backed off because we were being bullied around by that Inspector, we’d be ashamed of ourselves.”

The four friends each stuck a hoof out and placed them one by one on top of each other as a stack. They smiled at each other, full of confidence and renewed resolve.

“One, two, three… friendship!”

“Twilight Sparkle, there is no sleeping in class.”

The unicorn opened her eyes ever so slowly. She was lying flat on a solid, dark green surface, and there was a prickling sensation where her muzzle was squished against it. With much effort, the unicorn turned her head to the right, where she perceived the voice was coming from. The movement made her head pound and she closed her eyes, wincing.

“I’m assigning you a research paper on gravity. First, have a practical demonstration.”

The unicorn felt herself leave the surface in a jerking motion and she opened her eyes with shock. It was a large, floating, translucent cube, and outside the walls of the cube was a cobblestone room. She noted a few items: a small barred window on the wall, a large control panel covered with lights and buttons, and a white pony behind the controls. Twilight sparked her horn in preparation to teleport, but it fizzled out immediately and she slammed down into the cube’s wall. The impact stung harder than before, and Twilight got up on her hooves immediately, rubbing her snout with a foreleg.

“Princess... wait, no.” Twilight shook her head vigorously, attempting to clear the throbbing in her head and the burning on her face. “I know who you are.”

“Very good, my little pony!” Not-Celestia’s mane waved dramatically, as if on cue. “That’s worth five extra credit points. It’s a shame it won’t help you, though, as your behavior in class has been reprehensible and your baking soda volcano science project is overdue. Perhaps you’ll think twice before talking back to your teacher or slacking off.”
Twilight stepped forward. “Let me guess. I’m in Manehattan Correctional Facility.”

“It’s just one question after another with you, isn’t it? Geographical knowledge notwithstanding, I’ll make you wear a dunce cap if you interrupt my lesson again.”

Twilight felt herself recoil internally at the insult, but she held her composure. “Just change already. I’m sure you have a long, gloating monologue for me.”

“If you insist, but I’ll be seeing you after class.” The counterfeit Celestia strode out from behind the control panel majestically, blew on a hoof, and polished it on her coat. With a grin, she leaped into the air and slammed back down again on all fours. Upon impact, a circle of green flames spread around her, starting from the front and working its way behind from both sides. As the small fire walls touched, a pillar of energy erupted and shot up to the ceiling. Gossamer wings sprouted, and a jagged horn rose high from her skull as her body faded to black, starting from her hooves. The tail and mane darkened to blue, and gaping holes grew in her forelegs. Her eyes went from blue to green with a dramatic closing and re-opening of her eyes.

The pillar and the flames dissipated. Queen Chrysalis stood erect and proud.

“It’s not as striking when you’ve seen it before,” mused Twilight.

“Hmpf. Aren’t you special,” cried Chrysalis. Her voice echoed and filled the room. “But look who’s imprisoned, and who’s on top! I’m queen of the changelings and queen of Equestria!”

Twilight groaned and rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, yes, I know and I get it. Can we skip to the part where I ask you questions and you answer because you’re secure in your belief that I can’t escape?”

“Very well.” Chrysalis flourished a hoof around in circles. A pair of changelings came out from a side room with a red chaise lounge on their backs. They slid it forwards onto the floor, and with a smart salute, left the way they came. The queen smirked and gracefully laid herself on her side. She kicked her legs out and around for a moment, and then stretched them out along the length of the sofa.

Twilight thought for a moment. She had not expected Chrysalis to actually agree to speak. The statement was meant to be insulting and a general jab at cliché villains in media, thereby implying that the queen was no better than a fictional character. The unicorn reasoned that either Chrysalis had some ulterior motive or she was denser than she looked. The simpler possibility couldn’t be reached logically following Occam’s razor, as the queen had shown many signs of intelligence before.

“I’m waiting,” said Chrysalis impatiently.

“Well, alright then. So,” began Twilight as she tapped a hoof at the inside of the cube, “What’s this prison for? Don’t you usually use those…?” The unicorn paused and shuddered slightly. “Those cocoon things? Why am I in this instead?”

Chrysalis rolled onto her back. “Can’t have too many precautions, you know. This magical cube is more resistant to magic than my usual chrysalises. They might be something of a trademark for me, but hey, look what I can do now!” Her horn glowed and a lever was pulled on the console. The cube spun around, and Twilight ran to try to stay on the bottom. Suddenly the queen released her magical hold on the lever, and Twilight bounced about inside the cube like a ball of rubber bands. Chrysalis shook with mirth, wiping away involuntary tears.

Twilight stopped recoiling off the walls and came to a hard stop at the bottom. She struggled to lift herself up again, and winced as she accidentally touched a bruise. “Will you stop it?!” she yelled. “This isn’t funny!”

“Of course it is! It’s even better than Canterlot’s crystal caves! You just don’t have a sense of humor, Night-light.” The changeling leader pouted at the unicorn. “Think of it from my perspective, can’t you? I’ve finally beaten my greatest adversary! Sure, I can beat that high and mighty sun goddess with ease. But why couldn’t I take care of you?” She looked over at Twilight, who was shaking her head in disbelief.

“I hope that question was rhetorical.”

Chrysalis pointed a hoof with gusto. “Of course it was! The answer is in your elements. If one is gone, the rest are utterly useless. A puzzle requires all the pieces.”

Twilight mulled over the last few sentences from her jailor. It had led her to two more inquiries. “Well, you just said that you can defeat Celestia. If you’re in power, then that must mean you’ve done it again. How’d you do it a second time?” Twilight raised an eyebrow.

“Ah,” went Chrysalis, and she stroked her chin thoughtfully. “A great magician never reveals her secrets. But I suppose I can tell you this: it wasn’t done twice.”

Twilight grumbled. The changeling queen was not about to give up all of her secrets. This was just a way to rub the failure in harder. She made a mental note to herself to trust Occam’s razor more faithfully in the future.

“Fine. I suppose you won’t tell me where my tiara is, either.” The unicorn turned away.

Chrysalis gasped, and her eyes widened in shock. “Now why would you think that?” The queen sneered. “Oh, right. You figure I’m just here to lower your morale.”

“You’d be correct.” Twilight rolled her eyes. “Looks like you’re a victim of all the standard antagonist tropes.”

Chrysalis clapped her front hooves together. The changelings from before (or so Twilight guessed, as they all looked the same to her) re-entered the room. The queen didn’t get up from the couch, though. Undaunted, the changelings attempted to push, lift, and drag the sofa anyway. Chrysalis snickered mockingly when they soon gave up, panting and sweating. She pointed to the door and her subordinates trotted off slowly. Once they were gone, Chrysalis removed herself from the furniture, and without looking back, gave it a zap from her horn. The chaise lounge detonated with a small mushroom cloud, which startled Twilight enough to spin around.

“Well, that’s enough fun for me. Pleasure may come before business, but you can’t let work stay incomplete. I’m definitely here to make your life miserable, but I’m also here to uncover who your fellow conspirators are. By force, if I have to.” The queen blew a stray mane strand out of her face. “Well, with force, because I want to.”

Twilight felt like dancing but she kept herself still and poised. This was precisely the best case scenario she was hoping for. It was now all in the delivery. With the right words she could turn the tables on Chrysalis and take the fight out of her. She knew that the queen would retaliate, but Twilight felt strangely glad about the possibility. It was better her than anypony else, she rationalized.

“Very well, you overgrown beetle! But it’s a waste of your time, Queen Viciousness!” The unicorn braced for another spin of the cube, but nothing happened. Instead, Chrysalis merely stared and raised an eyebrow.

“Was that the only rhyme you could think of?” the gangly changeling asked. “That wasn’t even the slightest bit insulting. It was actually kind of cool.”

Twilight stammered. “N-n-no way, Queen… uh… Photosynthesis!”

Her adversary slapped a hoof over her own face. It would have been more effective if the queen didn’t have holes going through them. “That’s the best you can do? Your weird pink friend’s random humor is better by miles. Don’t quit your day job, alright?”

“Well, there are only two more words that rhyme, okay? One of them is ‘dissonance’ and that makes even less sense, and the last one’s a medical term, but I’m not mean-spirited enough to say it!” Twilight’s face was tinted bright red with embarrassment. “I’ll bet you’ve got it, though!”

Queen Chrysalis mused. Suddenly she sputtered. “Oh, you’ll get what’s coming to you for your disrespect, you little brat!” Her mouth foamed as she screamed. “Just you wait!”

“It doesn’t matter!” yelled Twilight defiantly. “You can’t make me talk, and you can’t figure this out on your own! I’ve run this rebellion without any of the Elements of Harmony involved. Didn’t you see the way they reacted during my arrest? They had absolutely no clue!”

Twilight took a deep breath. Chrysalis stayed silent and pensive. When it was apparent the queen wasn’t about to respond, the unicorn continued, a little slowly and thoughtfully. “Maybe I’ve done it single-hoofed, and maybe I haven’t. Maybe you have an idea, or the wrong idea about who to target next. I could have involved family members, or I’ve kept them out of the loop like my friends.” Twilight puffed up her chest with bravado. “You’ll never know until it’s too late, or you’ll wait forever and live out your life in paranoia.”

“On the contrary,” said Chrysalis, dripping with malice, “I know exactly how to find out.”
Twilight snorted. “I know you’ve got holes in your legs, but I didn’t expect you to have a hole in your head. Try me.”

Chrysalis’ horn burst a bolt of energy at the control panel. A wall of the green cube faded solid, and an image was splashed across it, suddenly spreading out from the center with a flash of white light. The image showed what looked like marble tile. A green triangle in the center pointing to the right blinked with a little beeping noise.

“Go on. Touch it.” Chrysalis grinned. “I know you want to.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow and tapped at the triangle. The triangle disappeared and the image of the tile began moving, and the unicorn could hear a faint noise. It sounded much like a crash or a door being slammed open.

The changeling queen strode toward Twilight a few paces. “Our surveillance cameras picked this up a few minutes ago. Care to guess what it is?”

The security video sped up, and the shot was suddenly angled over a group of ponies. Twilight saw a wall with gold lettering that spelled out “FIRST MANEHATTAN BANK”. Suddenly a voice rang out that chilled her to the bone. As the patrons of the bank scattered, Rainbow Dash came into view, disheveled and wild-eyed. Twilight stumbled backwards onto her flank, stuttering softly while she watched Dash unload shot after shot into the crowd.

“Maybe she wasn’t involved, but we now know she broke into your stupid tree library. Maybe you didn’t say a word to her for weeks, but Rainbow Dash wanted answers. Perhaps she found the truth, but discovered she just needed an excuse for revenge.” Chrysalis burst towards the magical cube in a flash and laughed mockingly. The unicorn gasped, scooting herself backward to the far wall of the cube.

“See, you little poindexter? You couldn’t keep your friends from nosing about in your little schemes!” Twilight could see the flames in her eyes burn, and she squinted to block out the sight but the changeling queen’s visage was etched into her mind. “I know there’s no way she found out on her own. That rainbow freak isn’t clever, just hard-headed and stubborn. Somepony ruined the riddle for her, and we’ll soon know who!”

Twilight thrust herself as close to her adversary as she could, and ignored the burning sensation from her face pushed against the cell wall as she screamed. “Don’t you dare touch a single hair on my friend, you witch! I'm the instigator! You’ve got what you wanted!”

“It doesn’t matter.” Chrysalis closed her eyes. “I don’t even have to lay a hoof on Rainbow Dash. Your precious Elements followed her into Manehattan, and according to my underlings, refused my generous plea bargain.” Chrysalis growled fiercely at the prisoner. “I’ll break them one by one until I find the weakest link!”