• Published 20th Dec 2012
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Cultural Artifacts - Dan_s Comments



A little piece of Earth arrives in Equestria, a human and it's home. The citizens of Ponyville and Princess Luna struggle with this newcomer, as it struggles with them.

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29) What Shall the Darkness See?

Dan's Comments
Cultural Artifacts - What Shall the Darkness See?

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 50

The arrival of the dawn received no clue, other than the house's clocks and the wake/sleep cycles of the ponies themselves. Sapphire woke and grimaced at the dark blue alicorn cuddling her.

"Don't you ever stop?" she asked, and received an ear scratch from the Big Guy.

"After all, think of what alchemy she could do with concentrated love," the Big Guy explained as Woona pouted adorably.

"You could just have her shapechange, and get it herself," Sapphire said and glared at the little alicorn, "Her sister could get her more than she could ever need."

"That's not as much fun as loading down the sneak-thief with so much treasure her bones creak with moving," he told her. That Woona and Celly also laughed was jarring, until she realized she could understand his speech, not theirs.

"So what do we have to expect?" he asked.

"Are we handing over everything?" she asked, and looked at the others. Despite being in her 'bug-pony' form, their affection was just as strong as it had been last night. It felt both wonderful, and terrifying. All the teaching to infiltrators to remain in the shadows, a 'sneak thief', but exposed and herself, she could have supported a significant hive on just what she was receiving alone. The implications worried her, as did the implication that the Big Guy already knew about the effect and was merrily driving it on.

Sapphire looked at Derpy and Dinky, they radiated food at her. She doubted any of them could understand what dread she was feeling at this moment. "Let's get the rest of you some breakfast, and then we shall see."

"Pancakes!" Dinky proclaimed.

"Steak!" the Big Guy said.

And they wonder why I laugh so much, she thought as she did exactly that.
------------------------------

Celestia had arrived as the celebrations were winding down in Canterlot. The news of her arrival seemed to fan the flames and they sprang to life again. Rumor and impetus outrunning the column of soldiers escorting the bandits to the gaol.

Soon, despite the late hour, the banners were being waved with even greater enthusiasm. The dawn was only a hint on the horizon as the column split. Celestia and a few guards headed to the throne room, and the bulk of the guards and the prisoners headed off for processing.

The court seemed to be running early, or Luna's Night Court was running late. Ponies cheered her as she walked through the corridors. Like the well-wishers in Ponyville and the revelers out in the streets, those celebrating the defeat of the bandits outnumbered those celebrating the banishment of 'the Ponyville Monster', but not decisively, and by numbers far too few for Celestia's liking. They also made up for their reduced numbers with vehemence, ignorance and a degree of irrationality. Discussions on simply burning down his home and all within it, to prevent the spread of chaos, were a common theme.

It certainly explains the siege of Twilight, Celestia thought as she walked and occasionally waved, The preservationists went after Twilight, the 'clean-slate' types stayed here.

The approach to the throne room contained the usually huge crowd that accompanied the 'after celebration' day at Canterlot. Some were desiring to find lost things or ponies, some to swear out or answer complaints, some to offer congratulations, and the last, smallest segment to request permission to serve. Oddly, there were lines, instead of the usual cloud of ponies. Going from odd to outright weird, a group of nobles were collecting the members of the two smaller lines and issuing them inside in small groups.

Celestia continued to her throne, passing among the groups of three to five nobles who were listening carefully to the complainant. Three nobles for 'commoner' problems, and five for problems among the nobles. The small reserve of the most level-headed stood off a short way to oversee and intervene. The nobles would discuss among themselves, with the complainants, and occasionally call over one of the level-heads, but rarely.

Celestia briefly considered putting an end to the rather bizarre alteration that kept her from hearing the complaints of the ponies of her realm, when a collection approached her.

"Highness," the gray-maned oldster said and bowed as much as she could, "Red Feather and Warbler have a complaint that each, in the heat of the celebration, did damage the other's instrument beyond immediate or feasible repair."

"Yes?" Celestia said, not certain where this was going.

"We proposed that considering the mutual extent of the loss, that Warbler replace Red Feather's, and Red Feather replaces Warbler's."

"Yes," Celestia said feeling more confused by the rational solution, and the deference with which the nobles who'd so ably arrived at the solution presented their fait accompli to her. "Excellent."

The gray-mane turned to Warbler, a unicorn with the songbird on his flank. "There, as promised, her Highness has heard and reviewed your complaint."

"But Red Feather plays the tuba! I only play the musical saw!" Warbler protested.

"I think that your effort in putting the tuba out of action clearly shows intent more clearly than the damage to your saw," one of the other nobles said, then turned to Celestia, "That was our thinking, Highness."

She nodded, to prevent the feeling that the world had slipped away from her. The nobles drew off, and another group approached, again merely asking for her approval of their solution. She gave it. And the day progressed. Every claimant was brought before her for final judgement, a few of the judgements the nobles had arrived at she overturned. She noted that the level-heads would disperse that group and reform a replacement.

She looked over the claimants that always took until well after sundown to process, and had dropped off to a trickle by early afternoon. The efficiency of the processing, and the well-thought out solutions stunned her.

It's like they don't need me, she thought briefly, and felt a stab of fear and betrayal, He set this up in only a few days? And the nobles accepted? How? And they embrace the task with, not eagerness, but diligence? What sorcery did he cast over them all to put this in place in only days?

The feeling of concern cut through her confusion. Or did he just push them into something they were ready to accomplish? How long? Have I been holding them back? Is that what he did? Is that his revenge? Showing that I am superfluous, a final rubber stamp for those well able to govern themselves?

She noted Luna's arrival and Selene trailing her mother. Both mother and daughter wore troubled expressions. Selene was fixed in childlike concentration, and her mother's dread was obvious.

"Are you, you?" Luna asked quietly.

"Yes," Celestia said, "What is happening here?"

"You would hardly believe it if I told you."

"Try me," Celestia said.

"Over supper," Luna said, "It looks like all the petitioners save those asking to serve will be done before we return."

"Yes," Celestia said, and called for a break for the court.
------------------------------

It had taken until the evening for the changelings to appear. Three groups in front, and one holding back behind.

"That will be the queen," Sapphire explained, "Although the idea of a queen with three nearly mature princesses is worrying."

"Why?" Derpy asked.

"Because there can only be one queen, and unless they are planning to split the hive into multiples, the new queen is going to stay here."

"So?" Derpy asked.

"You can't get demoted back to infiltrator from princess," Sapphire said, "There's only one demotion a queen or princess can get, and that's to mulch."

"Oh," Derpy said. Her ears as downcast as the rest of her expression. Then she brightened. "Maybe we can change that."

Sapphire was about to tell her the impossibility of that, when she surveyed the group around her. Maybe it is possible, she thought, but only shrugged to Derpy.

Two of the princesses were obviously in ascendance. The third, the one she recognized from their encounter, was not. The queen seemed neutral to the jockeying for prestige, and only showed a slight irritation that the third princess was not making a bigger show.

"These offer to buy us as if we were toys?" the largest of the princesses said, as Woona and Hotaru placed one of the 5-quart buckets in front of her group. Celly was placing a second 5-quart bucket in front of the second. It gained Celly only a sneer.

Then they saw what the princess they'd met earlier was getting and they were aghast. The Big Guy, with Hotaru in support, lugged a five-gallon bucket over to her.

No changeling alive couldn't smell that stuff right through the container, Sapphire thought as the third princess got even more bugeyed as the container was set down, clearly for her. Sapphire smiled outwardly, but fumed at memory of how Hotaru had commented how painful dispensing the nectar looked, and how it must hurt and drain a changeling princess so, especially with how much she was making. Of course that had turned the torrent on again, and intensified the worry they had for her, an endless spiral. Then she'd started in on how lonely Sapphire must be without a nest of her own, and since changelings fed on love they couldn't really feel it for themselves, and on and on. Every time I'd think I was finished, she'd make some crack and it all started again. With what I just set before that princess, I could have my mother delivered on a silver platter. And I think Hotaru knows that.

The dog just trotted back and grinned at her, as they reassembled and waited for the changelings, especially the royalty, to recover from the magnitude of the gift. Fortunately, there was always a spoilsport. The first princess marched over to the third, and glared at her. The third bowed to show subservience.

"Do you think we could be bought? Cheap dross camouflaged to seem like true nectar, hmm," the first said.

Sapphire was about to offer to let them test it, when the first princess kicked the drum, hard.

The clang and the first princess limping and howling gave all but her followers a smile. Celly grinned as the protective field faded back to invisibility.

" 'If you think I'm going to let you waste that food and wealth, you're crazy.' And I agree," the Big Guy whispered to her, "That one is trouble because she's winning the royal race, and she's stupid. The mother favors number three, but she has to make a better showing of herself."

Sapphire nodded, glad his words could not be understood by the others. "Perhaps you could try some of yours on your foot," Sapphire said, and there was an odd buzzing laughter from many of the changelings.

That earned Sapphire a haughty look, and the first marched towards her. The Big Guy stepped between them, no grin, no challenge, just an implacable wall.

"You allow your drone to fight your battles for you?" the first princess asked. Now the second princess ambled forward.

"First, he is my king, not my drone; and second, I don't 'make' him fight, he seems to enjoy it. As for fighting you, he's just there to give you a warning," Sapphire said and noted Hotaru had ambled up and lay down at his side.

"Oh I'm so scared of your 'king' and his little dog too," the second princess said. Her voice had a buzz that most infiltrators eliminated before their first mission.

Either she's never been out on a mission, or the prey here is extremely stupid, Sapphire thought as she watched the two princesses approach and circle.

The Big Guy watched one hemisphere, Hotaru the other, and the two princesses looked just smart enough to coordinate their attacks.

They jumped at the same time. And at the same time, both fell back screaming and thrashing as if they'd been set afire. Neither Sapphire nor the third princess were the direct recipient of the 'Bergen-Belson' that Hotaru and the Big Guy were unleashing, neither would even hint what had engendered it, but she understood the effect of such pure and unadulterated loathing and horror directed at a changeling.

The instant the attacking princesses hit the ground, the Big Guy and Hotaru ceased. From the third princess' coterie, a quartet of changelings approached. They bowed slightly and took the two fallen princesses back to their followers. Said followers seemed unwilling to approach Hotaru and the Big Guy. Sapphire recognized the subtle political theater being carried out. One of the drones vying for a spot as king was likely an old infiltrator. Too old to compete for the princess spot or actually win the kingship, but well able to guide the inexperienced princess. By rescuing the other two claimants, they were displaying both their unshakable loyalty to their princess, and that if they won, there would be few if any purges.

They're also showing that while the third has fewer followers, they are considerable braver and more loyal, Sapphire realized, And more cunning. The quartet had formed up in a line near the Big Guy and Hotaru, and their leader was making a 'bring it to us' gesture. Neither the human nor the semi-reformed Nightmare wanted to harm people who'd done them no harm. But when they glanced at Sapphire, she nodded.

The other two princesses took the blow and fell. I doubt this part will have anything like the force if they are merely displaying, rather than defending themselves. Making the third princess' followers look even more elite, Sapphire thought. She was aware of the belief that since changelings fed on love, they had no way to feel it themselves. While somewhat true, they could feel fond of things, and people. Friendship was not unknown to them. So the drone who would be king has her younger protege as potential queen. Does she understand what the fate of a king is? Or does she care?

The quartet were instantly reduced to mewing, squirming bugs by what had hit them. The Big Guy, Derpy and Dinky broke ranks and closed on the disoriented and squealing changelings. As soon as they touched the bugs, the cries stopped and the changelings relaxed.

Sapphire watched the queen as she reacted to probably her senior-most infiltrator, collecting a treasure trove for the hive as the attackers banished the negative effects of their own attack. Sapphire merely watched as all four of the drones headed back towards their princess.

They look like they're drunk, I guess the transition from nadir to zenith was a dizzying one, Sapphire thought as her 'troops' pulled back. In the distance, the queen herself approached. She tasted some of the nectar left for the third princess, and advanced with a few guards to stop a few yards from the strange group.

"And what do we have to thank, for such a bounty," the queen asked.

"My king desires to explore the city, it was appropriate to give a gift to those who live here, and then negotiate the privilege," Sapphire said.

"Not simply buy us?" the queen asked as the third princess and her four drones took a flanking position on the queen. Tellingly, her other flank remained open until the third moved up more forces to cover that flank as well.

So, you extend the offer, and they refuse to show deference and loyalty, Sapphire thought, Do you have any idea how low your stock has fallen with this little drama?

"No, you may keep the nectar, even if you refuse us," Sapphire said.

Not that you would, Sapphire thought, but kept her entire mien as emotionless as possible.

"You could brush us aside if we refused, or even if we came in force," the queen said, noting the two recovering princesses.

"There is a great lesson my king taught me, and I have taken it to heart," Sapphire said.

"Would you care to share his wisdom?" the queen asked.

" 'Don't fight a battle you don't have to win'," Sapphire said, quoting Sun Tzu. "We would therefore off er gifts and ask permission."

The queen nodded and gestured for her to follow. It surprised no one that their entire entourages formed up and followed. The queen's servants collected the nectar from the princesses and moved on ahead of the group. "As it happens, there have been some circumstances that such nectar is most welcome. Queen Chrysalis has been 'recruiting' among the outlier hives to add numbers for her assault on Canterlot. Unlike you, refusal was never an option, unless we made it so."

"I am aware of Chrysalis' plans and the belief that they are unnecessary," Sapphire said, "What she hopes to achieve can be gotten in any of a number of other methods. An attack on Canterlot depends on her taking and holding the city, and would turn every Equestrians' hooves against the Changelings. She and her hive would feed, the rest of us would spend our time dodging vengeful ponies and starving."

"Her plan all along? Join or die?" the queen asked, "Foolishness. We will not be dictated to in our own hive. Nor will we be drawn into a conflict that we do not need to win."

Sapphire smiled at that.

"How came by you such a strange pack of drones?" the Queen asked.

"That is a story several hours in the telling," Sapphire said.

"I believe we have the time," the queen replied, "And it might explain why you'd be foolish enough to let your king anywhere near that accursed city."
------------------------------

The small chamber was called the Sun Room, and was one of Celestia's favorites. That Luna had chosen it, spoke volumes. As they let the tea and supper set before them slowly grow cold, Celestia heard the entire litany of the actions the Big Guy had taken while in her body. "The temple, is a fake?" she asked Luna as her mind recoiled at the idea of the Seekers being nothing more than smoke and mirrors. "You wanted to say more?" she asked Luna who seemed strangely reticent after this equanimity-shattering revelation.

"He, explained, 'considering how manipulative you all are, did you believe the trait began with you?' Implying our actions should have led us to the conclusion he reached."

Implying as well that we do naught but manipulate. Considering the shocks he's delivered to the Equestrian culture in but a few days, he's one to talk, Celestia thought.

"If he was so interested in changing things, why did he stop at all?" Celestia asked.

"I think he meant to travel to the ancient pony homelands, and do something there. I know the legend as well as thee, that the end of the Solar Diarch will come there. You dare not pursue," Luna said.

There is far more to not going there than the Seekers' pronouncement. If the Seekers are a lie, then no such pronouncement would hold me, Celestia considered, So is it a trap? Lure me out of Canterlot, and deal with me a safe distance away from the ponies he does care about? And would he show such contempt to assume with Luna surviving, the Sun and Moon wold continue in their orbits? Or that he would find the ways the unicorns of old controlled the heavens?

"According to the archives, there has never been an expedition to the pony homeland, not an unsuccessful one that never returned, none at all. He may have fled to the one place we cannot pursue," Luna suggested.

"Or he may know it is a dreadful trap and is luring us into an ambush," Celestia said.

"When has he ever raised his hand against us?" Luna asked. Her tone made her sound more like a court petitioner than her sister and equal.

"What are you saying?" Celestia asked.

Luna considered the question, then found the only thing she could say distasteful. "You are being paranoid. Looking back on our actions, all of them have been driven by your fear, and everyone following your lead. He killed one Diamond Dog, and many of those plant monsters. All the injuries inflicted by him on ponies are less than you could expect from a VanHoover hoofball match." Celestia tried to speak, but Luna overrode her protest, "He delivered all of your enemies to you in a beribboned box. Even Discord sided with him to be reimprisoned. I have seen the banners and heard the terrors contained within his house. While he was the guardian, they feared to even speak of it. With your student as the guardian, they will hound her until she cracks. In all the disasters, he has placed himself squarely between us and the threat, and we have repaid his service with mistrust and attacks on all but the fabric of his soul. It is no wonder he thinks Equestria is no different from Tartarus, and the rulers: Dukes of Hell to torment the denizens. He even told me that there is an attack to fall on Canterlot itself, soon, and he was prophesied to slay the queen who led it. But after our treatment, he cares nothing for us, our fate, or our city. We will face the onslaught without him, as we wish. I suspect we will be as ill-prepared as we were against Nightmare Moon, Discord, and Tear Twister."

Celestia pursed her lips and fought down the bile at the idea of yet another attack on her ponies. "You are assuming he could do anything about it. How do you come by this confidence?"

"Save in dealing with the Pony Sisters, and your student, name one foe he has failed against," Luna asked, "And if Celly and Woona, and Selene Dreamer are any indication, he faced something able to defeat the Pony Sisters, by being something that could defeat the Pony Sisters."

Celestia felt only dread that such a creature still walked Equestria, and now hid in one of the few places she feared to go.
------------------------------

"Momma momma!" Dinky called as she carefully 'pounced' several of the nymphs, gathering them in and hugging them.

Derpy looked up from one of the more elderly changelings that she stroked gently as the old one sighed and breathed more steadily. She smiled at her daughter and the others scattered in the 'infirmary' tending to the very young, and the very old.

"Why?" the queen said as she watched the ponies, and the odd one tending to her most vulnerable. "When we refused Queen Chrysalis' most generous offer to be cannon fodder for her attack, she laid this curse on us. Why would your people ignore that and help us?"

"Because all of them have seen too much darkness," Sapphire said as she watched them and felt proud, "They welcome the chance to show others the light."

The Queen nodded. "I cannot imagine why any of these would risk the ancient city. There are creatures of shadows, forms unknowable, and screams given substance that prey on anything that walks in there."

"You would not believe why they are not concerned. It would leave you unable to sleep soundly," Sapphire replied.

The Queen chuckled at that. "After what you've already done, I will not gainsay your access. I doubt any here will try to stop you, but I would like to do my best to warn him off."

"If you have a persuasive way," Sapphire said, "I'd love to hear it. He seems determined and unshakeable."
------------------------------
Day 51

He had slipped away from the others. I don't think they realize why the Changelings never come in here, and neither does anything else, he thought as he kicked a small glowing ball ahead of him. It was a cheap toy, but when it suddenly went dark, it had served its purpose.

He reached out his hand towards the area where the ball had faded suddenly. There was no tingling, no feeling of heat or cold. He stepped through the theoretical limit of the barrier, and continued on. He opened his coat and let the warmth surrounding the city drive off the cold that the half-hour trek had driven into his bones. He knelt to set the inert ball half in and half out of the barrier. It proved impossible as the barrier had some thickness to it. The ball either lit, or remained drained and dark. He left it darkened, then made a chalk mark on the pavement to indicate the direction he was heading.

Now, where's the likely source of the preservation spell? he thought as he looked at the construction that approximated a steam-punk/gaslamp-fantasy version of London more than any architecture he's seen in Equestria. So, how much did they lose when they abandoned their homeland? And where the heck are the Windingos? You don't go from exterminating a civilization to poof gone in a thousand or so years. The Hearth's Warming crew may have destroyed the Windingos who chased them into Equestria, but the rest of them just stayed here and starved to death? I don't buy it. Even after all the time abandoned, the place was clean. Not 'well-maintained city' clean, but Disney-theme park clean. I hope the chalk marks I'm making to chart my progress won't be removed too quickly, or constitute a capital crime by whatever remained in the city, he thought as he charted his progress for the compulsory rescue party to follow.

So, do they have cleaner robots/golems, and that's why no one comes in here? Or is any contamination dealt with by some other means? he wondered and spotted a widow's walk with an external stairway. I should be able to see what's what from up there. And then I should be able to at least make some educated guesses.

He checked the battery level on the digital camera. It had been fully charged when he'd left the house, and it was still fully charged. So it doesn't feed on electricity, maybe the ambient magic of this place was so high it could run the spell and all their wonders without taxing the casters, he thought as he climbed the stairs, But no one has ever come here before. Not the ponies, not the dragons, not Discord or Nightmare, they all stayed away from it. There are no bodies around, no heaps of decaying bones despite the buildings' paint still being in good condition. So either something collected them, or they evacuated and no one's come back.

He reached the railed in platform and looked around. No obvious ack-ack, so what protected the place from the pegasi just dropping incendiaries from beyond visual range? he wondered as he took a series of pictures of the buildings, and the ice ceiling. It touched a few buildings near the periphery, but at the city center, it was dozens of yards above.

"Okay, enough sightseeing," he told himself, "Where is what I'm looking for? In the big impressive temple, or that large office complex? Let's try the temple first."

Discord, you're awfully quiet, he thought, then paused, Discord, Tom, anybody home? Oh, terrific.
------------------------------

Twilight looked at the collection of small packages assembled outside the library. Every one of them had a business card attached to it. "This is worse than the gala ticket insanity," she said.

"As long as you don't decide anything, you can keep all this, right?" Spike asked. The little dragon backed away from the very bloodshot eyes of Ponyville's librarian, and presumed keeper of the biggest white elephant in Equestrian history.

"Get rid of them," Twilight said.

"How?" Spike looked at the piles that taken together would have filled the Crusaders' club house.

"Quickly. It's not my problem." Twilight walked past him and back into the library.

Spike shrugged, and took a deep breath. With an exhale of flame, the entire assembly was swept away. "Okay, now it's her Highness' problem," he said quietly and walked back into the library.

Once the doors were closed, a pony darted out, and set down a small token of esteem, and raced away. Within several, incredibly furtive seconds, it had grown to three.
------------------------------

Celestia breeched the pile of small packages. She took a moment to look at the cards adorning several of the packages. She lit her horn to reach into the mess, and started hauling when she hit bureaucrat. "Golden Pencil, what exactly were you saying about 'ponies trying to influence the decision'? Oh yes, that it wouldn't happen." She rotated the bureaucrat so she could see what had nearly buried both of them alive. "Do you wish to amend that statement, or should I let go and you can dig yourself out of this pile of 'never happens'?"

"I was perhaps too hasty in my assessment. After all, the elimination of the place will greatly benefit the continuity of pony civilization," the old, gray mare said.

"How exactly will the resulting civil war among the artistic and intellectual elites benefit Equestria?" Celestia asked as she broke free of the pile, the bureaucrat still firmly held in her magic.

"There will eventually be a consensus," the bureaucrat said.

"I can get three of you in a room with a question, and get eighteen well-argued answers at the end of an hour. And you believe that a consensus can be reached on this subject?" Celestia asked.

"Well, it is sincerely wished," the mare said and looked plaintively at the ground.

Celestia returned her to the ground far more gently than she deserved. "I am beginning to understand why he enthralls Discord and Nightmare so totally. Golden Pencil, we are not putting the house to the torch, as long as there is any alternative."

"We could always burn the books separately. No reason to destroy a perfectly good dwelling," the mare said, as if that would make the decision more palatable.

Celestia briefly considered launching an all-out attack on the ancient, pony homelands, capturing the Big Guy and chaining him to the damn house. It would only confirm all the things he said about me, she considered, Who cares? came the equally swift reply, What's really stopping you, is you'll never find him in time, and return with him in chains to a pile of charcoal and that infuriating expression of his.

She walked away from the pile of gift boxes, and the maids who were arriving to deal with them. Unfortunately, they were singing 'Yesterday'. The tune kept cropping up so she couldn't even have breakfast without a servant or functionary humming the insidiously catchy tune. The budget committee breaking out in a spontaneous chorus and then reminiscing about lost loves had been nearly the last straw.

I need him alive to take over his house, but I need to kill whomever taught the entire populace of Canterlot that song, Celestia thought, Decisions, decisions.

She walked to the sanitation meeting, and wondered how the day could go any worse.
------------------------------

Twilight heard the cry of 'Ooo pretty!' once too often, and opened the front door of the library to a horror undreamt of. "PINKIE!" she squealed as the pink mare opened another in the huge pile of packages, "What are you doing!?"

Pinkie cocked her head, then looked at the pile of opened boxes, the equally huge pile of trinkets, and the much diminished but still mammoth pile of still sealed packages. She looked at the panting unicorn, then surveyed the piles again. "Is this a trick question?"

"Why are you opening those?" the agitated unicorn asked.

"They're presents, and presents get sad if you don't open them," Pinkie said, "And you're so busy figuring out what to do about the Big Guy's house, they were just piling up out here," Pinkie said as she opened another box, "Ooo pretty! We got one of those, it always sticks the drawer closed," she said as she turned it over in her hooves, "Ooo instruction manual! I always wondered what it was really for! Who builds something just to stick drawers closed?" Her ears drooped. "Hmm, that's what it is for."

"Pinkie, stop that. Stop opening them. I don't want them," Twilight said, a feeling of total panic rising in her, "I was going to give them all back."

Pinkie giggled. "That silly. Spike got rid of the first batch, and a lot of people just built the pile back up."

Twilight stared at Spike. "How, did you get rid of them?"

Spike took a step back. "I, ah, sent them all to Princess Celestia. She'll know who to give them back to. Most of those ponies have a headquarters in Canterlot."

"You sent that whole, huge pile of," Twilight stopped when she focused on Spike, then on Pinkie, then on the growing crowd of ponies looking at the scene, so she said carefully, "Unwanted stuff, to the Princess?"

"Yeah, it was easy. I've been practicing," Spike said, his chest puffed out with pride.

"Aheh," Twilight laughed, a forlorn little sound in an increasingly deranged world, "Heh heh." Her ears began twitching asynchronously. Lot of the ponies started leaving the area hurriedly.

"Um, why don't I just sort of, spread these around Ponyville. Okay?" Pinkie asked, then leaned back as far as she could when Twilight stared at her.

"Heh, aheh, heh," Twilight told her. Her ears flopping like semaphore flags that any longtime resident could read.

Pinkie stared at Twilight's ears for a moment. " 'Cupcakes'? Oh." The pink speedlines and the sudden decrease in clutter around the library marked Pinkie's departure.

"Heh, heh," Twilight commented sagely, before backing into the library and closing the door.

Spike sighed, "Where can I borrow a wheelbarrow?" A moment later a pony slipped out of the crowd and left a small package behind. "Or a freight wagon."
------------------------------

"I am going to kill him," Celly said as she trudged through the snow, the line of footprints clearly visible.

"But if it's so dangerous, why are we going to save him?" Hotaru translated the question Dinky asked as the little unicorn ran along beside the cantering Celly.

"Because I was to kill him myself," Celly replied.

Dinky glanced back to her mother who had already translated the message without Hotaru's word. The pegasus only rolled her eyes and made a winding motion near her head with a wing. Woona and Hotaru both giggled. The snow and ice were fading leaving patches of weathered roadway behind. Some dozen or so paces ahead, a ball sat in the middle of the road.

"Hold up," Derpy said, and when Celly didn't on hearing the translation, she, Woona, and Hotaru grabbed her tail and hauled. "I said 'hold up'," Derpy shouted, "That ball should be glowing, it isn't. Something's wrong." Hotaru translated, then tried to get the hair out of her teeth.

Celly looked at the pegasus, she snorted, but quit trying to march. "Your point."

"He never does anything crazy without a plan. If he went in there, and left that right there, it was for a reason," Derpy said, and Hotaru translated.

"And that reason is?" Celly asked.

Hotaru laughed before she could translate the impassioned pegasus' exclamation of, "How am I supposed to know? I'm not a crazy, space-alien genius from another world. But stopping to think about it might be a good idea." Hotaru laughed some more at the statement and Celly's expression.

Dinky threw a snowball at the wall. It vanished before it reached the ball.

"Momma, momma, momma!" translated as Dinky pronked excitedly. "That's where this snow came from," Dinky said through Hotaru, and hugged Derpy, "Ice falls on the barrier and gets turned into clouds, and it snows out here!" As soon as Hotaru finished, the little unicorn seemed to realize the implications. She stopped bouncing and backed away from the unseen barrier. "Like the Everfree Forest," Hotaru managed to keep Dinky's tremulous tone in her translation.

Hotaru stepped over the little filly and sat down, surrounding her with her bulk and cutting off the wind and the cold. "I think that's a real good idea, not to go traipsing in there. Just before he met you, he went after something somepony left in the Everfree. Something that ate pony magic, and then pony bodies. Even the Ruling Diarchs had trouble dealing with it, and it was right outside their castle. Heck, I never felt it when I possessed this world's Luna." She repeated herself for the others. "This language barrier thing is a pain in the haunches."

"More reason to - " Celly began

"Stay put!" Sapphire said as she and the Changeling Queen approached. Hotaru put a bit of theatrics in her translation. Neither of the changelings seemed to notice.

The Queen stared at Celly, then became a duplicate of her. The Queen reeled for a moment, then steaded herself. "Relax, I can take your form well enough to communicate, but not match your power."

Sapphire was presumably delivering the message to the others that the Queen would tell Celly and Woona.

"That place will strip a changeling of disguises, then the ability to fly, then even the ability to walk. The stronger the changeling, the faster it happens. If your friend is as non-magical as Sapphire says, then he's safer in there than you would be. You stick your horn in there, and we'll be dragging your sorry carcass out of there by your suddenly non-ethereal tail."

The sudden laughter by the others, and their glances at Celly and more laughter made it seem that the speech was practiced and being delivered word for word to both sides.

"So quit trying to be a hero that doesn't need to be. There's telescopes that will let you see into the city from a safe distance. Use those first."

"What lives in there?" Celly asked.

"Nothing 'lives' in there. There's tales a sleeping god is in there, but whether it's alive is up for debate," the Queen said. She faded to her changeling state. Celly and Woona caught her as she nearly collapsed. The Queen said something which Hotaru translated as, "Quite a task."

"I think you're as difficult to duplicate as he is," Hotaru added, and did not translate that.
------------------------------

The huge temple complex had been a bust. It was more like a sports museum, dedicated to all things long and pointy. Mostly that meant horns, but I am not bringing Dinky in there until she's fifty with grandkids of her own, he thought and shuddered at what he'd seen, I can't wait to tell Twilight she used the 'Want it, Need it' spell exactly as it was supposed to be used. But she didn't give the Ponyvillians enough sharp weapons to kill each other over the doll. Or that she didn't extort Big Macintosh of half his crop to let him keep the doll. He shuddered again as he erased the 'X' he'd placed beside the museum doors and replaced it with an arrow pointing towards his next destination. I couldn't read any of that, put I could understand the pictures. I thought the Waffen-SS were crazy. No wonder Discord didn't think he was doing anything wrong.

"I'd rather not live through that again," Discord told him.

I was wondering where you'd gotten to, he thought.

"Just like you didn't want to go and pick up Nightmare from where I put her, I didn't want to come here," Discord said, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you think the pony dominance games that disgust you are new, here's proof they weren't. The Windingos didn't show up because of a few stolen harvests and racial slurs. Unicorn uber alles, or Pegasi uber alles."

Were the earth ponies saints then? he asked.

"The earth ponies were more like the resistance, the Viet Cong, and the followers of Hassan. They'd think nothing of poisoning an entire school, as long as they could get away with it. Brewing potions was their magic. A little of the right fungal infection in the grain they delivered and the unicorns would go mad, or if lucky die. You don't want to know what they did to the pegasi they caught alone."

I can easily imagine it, he replied.

"No, even you can't. Think about that for a second," Discord scolded.

Okay, library or office complex? he thought as he looked at the narrow, empty streets.

"Think like Sparkle, library," Discord said.

He headed for the building that looked like an immense Greek temple. Say, that collapsed structure behind the door. The one I found when I was Celestia. It was a copy of this place, wasn't it? he thought.

"Yes, but that temple was smaller. The pony civilization is old, and contiguous. There were no great falls and rises. There were changes of which tribe was on top, but the pegasi and unicorns didn't usually destroy each other's cities and towns. So the records continued to be amassed. And there was only one language," Discord said.

I get the feeling this is a bigger bomb than the one I left for the Bobsey twins to untangle, he thought as he chalk marked an 'X' on the building beside the entry doors.

"You'd win that bet," Discord told him.
------------------------------

"Why don't we play a game while we wait?" Dinky asked as she carried the box for the game to the dining room table. The group, including all the Queen's daughters had assembled together in the Big Guy's house. And seemed as stunned as the ponies had been at the size, scale and furnishing.

"What's the game?" the Queen asked.

"It should be lots of fun, it's called, ah, Di - Dipl -oma - Dipolomacy. That's like talking and making friends, right?" Dinky said.

"You can read the rules?" the Queen asked.

"Yep. His language is kind of funny, but it's kind of easy," Dinky said, "It says right here, two to seven players, but he has this other board, and a note that adds some rules and a couple of maps so more ponies can play."

"I think I would like to play," the Queen said and glanced at Celly and Woona as Hotaru translated.

"Sorry, I'm out," Hotaru said, "Diplomacy has never been my strong suit."

"I wonder, these maps look like the big one of his home world," Dinky said. She got out the rules and started reading aloud.
------------------------------

The library was bigger than he'd expected. There were no internal floors, only the bookshelves wedged between the floor and the roof, the ladders leading up, and the scaffolding around the shelves.

OSHA would have a field day with this place, he thought, I'm going to invent guard rails and make a mint.

"They'd never use them," Discord told him, "Nothing bad can happen to them, remember?"

There has to be something better than this, he thought and gestured at the huge, self-contained safety violation, Unless assassination by defenestration was an accepted part of their culture.

"Probably not, it might damage the books. Some arrogant lardbucket falling from the top would splash all over them."

Good point, he thought in reply, Is Tom still hiding?

"Yes," Discord said, "He actually holds to some of your silly ideas that people, and ponies should be decent. This place has the misery of the downtrodden ground into the fiber of its being."

The central light well had an open area that he could guess dozens of reasons for. But none for the small cenotaph off to one side. A glass case with a nearly mummified unicorn within.

"She looks only a little older than Dinky, Solomon Seal cutie-mark," he said as he knelt beside it to peer in, "But I don't recognize the thing going through the middle of it."

Then it blinked.

He was scrambling back as fast as he could.

"It's for terrifying the nosey," Discord told him as he chuckled.

The huge fire and lightning figure of a unicorn's head filled nearly the entire open area. "You have trespassed on unicorn territory. State your business and be gone!"

"I have come to investigate the rumors of a Seeker living here, and to determine the fate of the unicorn capital," he called as he stood up.

"You actually told the giant, flaming head the truth?" Discord asked, and probably facepalmed.

I thought you were an advocate of doing the unexpected, he thought.

"Unexpected, yes, stupidly suicidal, no."

Did you feel like you were being looked at, looked through, shortly after we passed through the barrier? he asked.

"No, I was hiding with Tom," Discord said, "You think this is a set up?"

I think that most likely, he replied, Remember where we are. These ponies thought nothing of elaborate sorcerous deceptions. They never outfought their opponents, they outclevered them. From what you and Tom have said, and from what I've observed, Rainbow Dash isn't the only horribly competitive pony. If something doesn't fit her world view, Twilight gets downright mean. 'There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy' would get a buck in the face from Celestia's protege, and Celestia herself falls into the same trap. She's so used to being able to bounce the locals in whatever direction, she never even considers stopping, trying something and observing the effect. She already 'knows' what the effect is.

"This is the opposite, somepony is trying to see how you'll react against a known baseline," Discord said, "Clever, and very dangerous."

That's why I'm going by the mantra of WWPPD, he said, What would Pinkie Pie do?

"And here I thought you had developed some intelligence," Discord said, "I'll be over here planning your funeral. Do you want to be buried in a paper cup or is plastic okay?"

"Three days march to the east lies the temple of the greatest sage who yet lives. Get from him the secret of life, and you may return. Upon delivery you shall have the information that you seek," the flaming unicorn head of lightning intoned.

"The secret of life?" he asked.

"Don't you dare!" Discord warned.

Spoil sport, he replied, Besides, letting them know the rules now will make the game so much less interesting.

"Why do I love you?" Discord asked as they headed out of the library and back out onto the street. On a hunch, he left the 'X' where it was.
------------------------------

Woona looked at Celly with tear-filled eyes and said something the queen had no trouble translating as 'Celly how could you?'

The alicorn could give no answer. The queen frowned at their gambit having failed rather spectacularly. The pegasus had launched a completely suicidal set of spoiling attacks that prevented the Queen and her ally Celly from knocking Luna clear out of the game. In fact, Dinky had captured a huge amount of Derpy's territory due to her weakness.

I have to admit, I'm disgusted with my daughters, she thought. Her two eldest having ground each other to nothing, allowing her third and Sapphire to knock them out of the game.

"Ah, Sapphire and I just won," Dinky said.

Even the two alicorns caught the tone and the giggling from the pair. Everyone was rapidly counting the territory held by the pair.

"You certainly did," Derpy said and nuzzled her daughter, giggling with the pair.

"You surrendered all that territory to her?" the Queen asked.

"So she'd win, yes," Derpy said.

Celly was facehoofing, while Woona was laughing herself sick. The laughter from Hotaru sealed the fate of the 'more mature' players' ambitions.

"How did you communicate?" the Queen wanted to know.

"Oh a gesture here and there," Dinky said, "While you were talking down to us." The little unicorn's grin was positively malevolent.

Woona and Derpy were giggling. Dinky and Sapphire were just smiling. While everyone else around the table was facehoofing.

"Friendship is magic," Derpy said as she hugged her daughter.

The Queen looked at Celly and shrugged. The alicorn nodded.
------------------------------

"That's one thing I hope is real," the Big Guy said as he lowered the binoculars. The ridge was high above the city, almost to the ice roof itself, but it gave them their first real look at the sweeping size of the unicorn city.

"How are you going to get it out of the ice?" Discord asked of the airship that looked to be the size of a battleship, and had the smooth curves of a lifting body. It was no zeppelin of filled gasbags. It looked to be as solid as a warship. The ice hadn't crushed it, but it had immobilized it.

"With a lot of magic," he said. He turned to survey the road, it traveled across the plain and up into the mountains.

"The curve of the ice roof is wrong," Tom added as the Big Guy headed down the road.

Yeah, I noticed that the bubble the city was in had a pretty uniform curvature, this indicates the bubble is far vaster than our original observations indicated, he thought, That plays to my theory.

"The city is real," Tom said, "I can assure you of that." The rock seemed to grumble. "I don't like the idea that this is either real, a dream or a hallucination and none of the three of us can tell which."

There's another possibility, the Big Guy told him, That whoever is doing this is a reality warper. I could be wrong about the Seekers being fakes. Although the idea that there are ancient gods even stronger than you hanging around should give you the willies.

"Brr. And I was wondering how I was going to manage to have nightmares the rest of my life," Discord said. "I think you've left out one last possibility."

I'm not going to think about that one, the Big Guy replied.

"Was getting knocked to the ground part of your master plan?" Discord asked as what the Big Guy thought was a really big snake forced his face to the grass off the path.

"You cannot escape," the female voice whispered in his ear, "But you may yet live, if you prevail in a contest of riddles."

He realized that what he'd taken for snake coils were limbs, a few too many for a human or unicorn.

"No, don't do it!" Discord was screaming a warning.

Coward, he replied.

"Sure, what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at twilight?" he asked.

"Uh." Her grip slackened enough he could turn to face her.

Okay, human torso, wings, tiger's body, that's a sphinx, and I never got compared to a sphinx. Interesting considering they had one 2-hours walk away from the center of the unicorns' capital city, he thought, Don't you think?

"You really are going to do something stupid, aren't you?" Discord said.

Unexpected. Something Pinkie Pie, he replied, and heard Discord beating his head on the walls of his mind. The sphinx was still nonplused at clearly having her riddle stolen right out from under her. More proof that this was being staged.

"Me!" he told her, "Okay, that was a hard one. Let's try an easy one. What's soft and fuzzy and really, really lonely?"

The poor girl seems completely overwhelmed, he thought, A common trait for those facing Pinkie Pie.

"Why do I even bother warning you that this will end badly?" Discord asked, "Wait, why am I complaining about that? Tom."

"Popcorn's coming right up," Tom informed them.

The Big Guy blew a mental raspberry at both of them.

"Give up?" he asked as the girl stared at him. "You, silly!" He hugged her tight, somewhat reversing who was wrapped around whom.

She sprang to her feet and backed up, which did nothing to dislodge him or open the distance. "Uh, uh," she said as he rubbed his cheek on her shoulder and purred. "You do know I'm supposed to eat you?"

"Well, you're so pretty, maybe I'll eat you too," he replied, and let go enough so he could stand next to the furiously blushing sphinx. "So is it we trade riddles until one of us misses?"

"No, I ask you a riddle, and if you don't answer it, I eat you," she said, shaking herself and trying to get a handle on the new situation.

He poked her in the side, which made her shy aside and let out a giggle. "If that's the case, that explains why you're skinny. Not too many riddlers lately I bet."

"I am not skinny!" she shouted back.

"But I could feel your ribs," he said.

She blushed even more.

"Okay, what's your riddle?" he asked.

She got a smug look, then it faded to puzzlement. "Ah," she said as she sat down and began biting her claws. The furious growl brought their attention around. The black and gray wolf standing a handful of yards away was nearly as big as she was. The instant she saw him, she sprang. The Big Guy watched her put herself between the two. "Don't hurt him."

To which him is she referring? he wondered, then realized she was glancing at the pistol on his hip, Another thing she shouldn't recognize. Because if they had gunpowder weapons, they wouldn't have had the overwhelming power of magic. The girl's emotions are all over the place, I don't think she's had a happy life.

"She eats people," Discord said.

Oh, in the last thousand years? he replied, Good luck, even the Changelings would have noticed the predations.

"When we aren't being 'observed' we have to talk," Discord said, "And I don't think we're being spied on."

Later, he told him.

"That's okay, I have one. 'As I was going to Saint Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Every wife had seven sacks,
Every sack had seven cats,
Every cat had seven kittens,
Kittens, cats, sacks, wives,
How many were going to Saint Ives?'" he said.

The sphinx just looked more miserable.

"You keep that up, she's going to kill you on principle," Discord said, "You do realize that, right?"
------------------------------

Dinky ran after the Changeling Queen. The idea burning in her mind was driving her on. It seemed the perfect solution, and she wanted to share it. "Your Majesty, your Majesty?" she asked.

The Queen gestured to her guards and allowed the little unicorn to approach. She could feel the foal's emotions and perceived no malice, only boundless enthusiasm. "Yes, Dinky?"

"I think, I have a solution," she gasped between breaths. "To your problem. From the game."

"The game you and Sapphire won so handily?" she asked and smiled. She was still smarting by being out maneuvered by a pair of children.

"Yes, but I don't think you really understand what happened and how you could use it," Dinky said. She took a deep breath, and steadied herself. "Celestia, our ruler, is a princess, but Queens are higher than Princesses."

"The power of the ruler has more to do with the nation than the title," the Queen explained, then was hit with a staggering emotional force, of real joy radiating from the foal.

"Exactly, the words don't mean anything. Do your people love and respect you, that's what really matters." Dinky grinned, and the Queen found the sheer exuberance of this little one, and the heady power of love directed at her and not her seeming, was an exhilarating tonic. "You don't think you can be Queen anymore."

"I can no longer lay eggs, I must step down," she explained, hoping not to have to explain what a tragedy this was.

"Right, and for one of your daughters to become queen, they have to get all the challengers out of the way, right?" Dinky said, grinning as she explained what amounted to the murder of three people. "And some of the changelings won't follow anyone but one daughter."

"Very cogent analysis," the queen said, and saw the child's confusion, "You are right, and very clever for guessing that."

"Well, momma, and some of the others got rid of the lead mailmare where they worked. They 'kicked her upstairs'. You stop being Queen, you become Empress, Queen of Queens. Your daughter who met us the first day."

"Whirlwind," the Queen said.

"Okay, Whirlwind, she was playing the game to keep your other two daughters from attacking you," Dinky said.

"Dandelion and Snowflower."

"Right, well Dandelion and Snowflower were busy trying to keep the other, or Whirlwind from winning. But Whirlwind wanted to protect you. So Sapphire made a deal that she'd grab territories, and I'd grab momma's, and the two of us would win, without attacking you."

"You're suggesting I name Sapphire as Queen, she can't lay eggs either," the Queen said.

"But Whirlwind can, and her 'king' is your oldest friend. With enough nectar, she'd even survive." Dinky's enthusiasm briefly flagged. "I hope." I roared back to life as she continued, "So Sapphire gets made Queen, Whirlwind goes on to make eggs for your hive, as your assistant, with your advisor advising her. You talked about other hives not liking Queen Chrysalis, some of them might want to work with you, to prevent the attack on Canterlot. Sapphire knows some in Chrysalis' own hive don't agree, so that's more changelings that Whirlwind can be queen of. You become Empress, Queen of Queens, what you do with Dandelion and Snowflower is your choice, but you all get what you really want. That was how we won the game. Whirlwind wanted to protect you, momma wanted me to win, Sapphire wanted to win, and I wanted to win. So we comprised, uh, compromised." The little unicorn seemed to sag a bit after getting her entire speech out and nearly one word. She looked at the Queen with such open hope that the Queen couldn't tell her it was a ridiculous idea.

Why is it ridiculous? Because it's never been done? Because the other Queens would laugh? Because of tradition? she asked herself.

She gave Dinky the best answer she could. "I'll think about it," the Queen said, and suddenly had the little unicorn fasten herself on, and pour loving into her. She knew enough from her early days as an infiltrator to hug the little unicorn back. But she found herself actually feeling fond of the little one with her ingenious ideas.

It will never work, but if we try, it will move the real decision until after Chrysalis' attack. Then my daughters won't be so eager to throw the entire hive away as expendable troops. I might even allow them to be Queens and send them to Chrysalis with their die-hards.

"Thank you," she told Dinky, "I have much to consider."

"Okay," the little unicorn released her and walked back down the corridor, radiating joy that she'd helped.

These creatures are insane. Maybe that's how this will work, she thought and considered her own plans.
------------------------------

They sat around the camp fire, several rabbits roasting on sticks. Fortunately, these rabbits seemed to be the unintelligent variety, and none could solve the riddle 'Who is going to be my dinner?' both he and the sphinx asked them. He'd noticed that the sphinx he'd begun the hunt with looked like a 12-14 year-old atop the body of a tiger-striped mountain lion or puma. She'd slowly changed during the hunt, so what sat beside him by the fire was an early-20's woman atop a full-grown tiger. She also wore a skirt around her human waist that seemed mainly there to ask the riddle 'where does the woman stop and the tiger start'? Discord had been pouting since Tom had noted the difference. The Big Guy had decided not to kick him when he was down.

The sphinx brightened. "One."

"Wrong, if you think I couldn't catch up to that cavalcade and overtake them, you've never seen me walk," he said, "I didn't give you enough information to solve it. There's also the 'kittens, cats, sacks, wives how many were going to St. Ives'? So even if you answered one or 2802, you'd still be wrong, because I specified just the kittens, cats, sacks and wives. So it could be any number between one and 2802."

"You cheated," she accused and got up to check on the wolf, making sure he had gotten his fill.

"So I 'cannot pass without solving' your riddle," he said, "That means I can settle down right here for the night?"

The sphinx stared at him. "I suppose so," she replied, "Aren't you afraid I'll eat you in your sleep?"

"No, you said you'd eat me if I failed to answer your riddle. Besides, you and your friend have a cave or a hollow you sleep in, don't you?" When she didn't answer, he continued, "If you eat me while I slept, you'd be cheating. I suspect you want to ask your riddle, more than you want to eat me."

"You're taking an awful risk," she told him.

"Oh, I don't think so," he replied, "For example, do you know why a raven is like a writing desk?" He laid down the ground cover and began unpacking the sleeping bag.

"Huh?" the sphinx asked.

"Okay, I'll let you think on that one, if you wanted a house with all southern exposures, where would you build it? Or one with an all northern exposures?" He unrolled the bag and watched the sphinx move from her spot and amble towards him.

"I, hmm," she said, almost purring.

"Okay, here's one, in an ancient far away kingdom, a barbarian king had a problem, the son of an ambassador had fallen in love with his daughter."

"Wait, the son had fallen in love with the king's daughter, or his own?" she asked as grinned.

"Touche, the son of an ambassador had fallen in love with the king's daughter. The idea of the son of his greatest enemy wedding and bedding his child and the apple of his eye infuriated him. He could not simply strike him down, but he conceived a plan. The young man was arrested and taken to a pit for trial by ordeal. There were two doors, behind one was a tiger, a being of fierce claws and sharp teeth." He reached out and stroked the sphinx's foot. She yanked it back and seemed more embarrassed than offended. "Behind the other was the most beautiful and passionate maiden in the court, well suited for a young and lusty prince." He touched the sphinx's chin, and she blushed and turned away. Her hands pulled the skirt around her human waist lower. "The king, and the ambassador sat in the royal box with the princess. They accepted this as a legitimate solution to the problem."

"Ah, but the princess had discovered the identity of this maiden, and her barbarian blood boiled. It was her greatest rival, and her one triumph, catching the ambassador's son, was about to be snatched away and given to her rival. But in her passion she knew that part of her jealousy was they would be perfect for each other, and she would never see her rival ever again, her rival's string of victories over her would be unbroken. She had brooded through the night and into the morning, and was brooding still, did she hate her rival more, or love her first lover more. Would she dash her rival's hopes for a noble marriage, or accept that her lover would find joy far away in another's arms? So when he looked up at her from the pit, proving he knew her well enough to know that despite her father's safeguard, she would know the answer. She made a quick gesture, and watched her lover advance to the door she'd indicated."

"That's not a riddle," the sphinx said as he climbed into the sleeping bag.

"Yes it is," he said and he settled at her feet, "Did she indicate the lady, or the tiger?"

The sphinx snorted. "The tiger . . . no, the lady. The tiger, no the lady. The lady, uh, she was a barbarian right?"

"And she loved the ambassador's son with all the fury and passion of her soul."

"The tiger. Loved, the lady. Uhm, can I think about that one?" she asked as she sat down beside him.

"I told you it so you would," he said and stroked her paw. "The lady." He touched her hand. "Or the tiger."

She laughed and laid down beside him, staring at him.

"When I answer your riddle, what then, for you I mean. Are you stuck here waiting for travelers?" he asked.

"You seem awfully certain of the outcome," she replied, a slight growl in her voice.

"I will give you an answer in the morning. Right or wrong I didn't specify. It's just that, we have a similar legend, and when Oedipus answered the sphinx's riddle, she committed suicide." He reached out and ran a finger over her paw, and ignored when she extended all the claws. "That seems a waste. As barbaric as the customs were back then, having a sphinx by your side would have been an advantage. Having someone to talk to is always nice. So I was just wondering 'what happens next'? Isn't that the greatest riddle of them all?" He stopped ruffling then smoothing her fur and looked up at her.

"Yes," the sphinx said softly, "I am free of the geas once the riddle is answered, but my purpose would be at an end."

"Then I offer another riddle, what happens next? A riddle that unfolds anew every moment, and I promise, it won't be boring."

"I will ponder your riddles," the sphinx said as he drifted off to sleep.
------------------------------

He woke to a surface less smooth, much softer, and very much fuzzier than the ground. His 'pillow' was the rolled up bedroll, and his blanket was a great deal more feathery than he remembered.

Time to do a little careful teasing, he thought as he snuggled against the soft surface.

The short catch of breath told him he'd hit his mark. He 'woke' and raised his head up to look the sphinx straight in the eyes. "You know, the tiger isn't all that bad," he said and snuggled against her.

The heat radiating off her body and wings increased considerably. "Don't you have a quest or something?" she asked, nearly choking on the words.

"First, you have to answer my riddle. Will you come with me if I succeed?"

"Yes."

He sat up and took a few moments to let the cobwebs leave his brain. "Ask your riddle."

"What do you have, that the more you give, the more you have,
those who try to steal it can never find it,
it has no weight or measure, yet is prized more than wealth,
some who get it most never know it, but all will know it's missing when it's gone,
with it you can face death alone, without it yourself, you can never find it in a crowd."
------------------------------

Twilight looked out the balcony window, and just caught somepony adding another little box to the wall surrounding the library. The Crusaders were rearranging the boxes to give the wall crenelations and a stairway up to the battlement. Spike was doing his own rearranging to build a gated arch so ponies actually interested in using the library, instead of persuading the librarian, could do so.

Twilight quietly closed the window, put a pillow over her face, and began sobbing.
------------------------------

"I can't believe she thought that was hard!" Discord raged in the Big Guy's mind.

"Says the one who tried to steal and could never find it," Tom said.

"Has anyone told you that you're just a big rock?" Discord said, "It wasn't the answer, it was the goo-goo eyes from the way he answered it."

"More tiger than lady?" Tom asked.

Discord sighed. "No one understands art anymore." Discord suddenly perked up. "This place was magic dead, I'm feeling a lot of magic now, I mean in here."

"You know what they say about friendship," Tom said.

"Oh boo."

"But you are right, enough to test his theory?" Tom asked.

"Maybe, maybe," Discord said, "What's it like, out there, unattached." He looked around. "I'm kind of getting used to the place."

"It's empty, but you'll have a mission, and you'll have a place to come back to," Tom said, "What if this feeling is an illusion too? Can you survive outside?"

"No, but I'll just reintegrate with the rest of me. A bit early, but I have nothing really to fear."

"There is that," Tom said, "Fear. You never felt it before, because you never had anything to lose before."

"I doubt that was the lesson he's been trying to teach me all this time," Discord said.

"Maybe he failed to mention it because he didn't want to scare you away from the lessons you did need," Tom said.

Discord nodded. "If that's a polite way of calling me a coward, I accept." He chuckled. "Terrible master of all I surveyed, limitless power, and through it all, I was afraid."

"Look at all his people did without power," Tom said, "Perhaps your fears were justified."

Discord nodded. "I'm glad you're me, or I'd be very jealous of someone so clever."

"We, had good teachers, I just learned faster," Tom said, and waited for Discord to start to protest, "As you wanted me to."

"Has anyone told you how irritating that is?"

"Has anyone told you how irritating that is?" Tom asked.

Discord grimaced and then relaxed, opening himself to the power that seemed to be suffusing the place. When he opened his eyes, he thought briefly he was in the Everfree. "No, the trees are too gardeny," he said as he walked forward. There was a path of gold bricks. He walked along it for a while. The emptiness of the place began to bother him. He would never have admitted it, but being alone was the most terrifying thing he could think of. Probably why I created Tom. I'd take a snarky would-be butler over no one at all. 'Batman's batman', I must remember to torture the Big Guy to make him explain why that's funny.

After a while he broke through into a clearing. There was a playground with swings, and climbing bars, and other pony-powered rides. He also saw the unicorn not much older than the Crusaders or Dinky on the swing set, she had a cutie-mark, a pair of interlocked triangles and what looked like a cross between and egg and an alembic. She froze when she saw him.

Carefully, he told himself, Act like nothing's wrong, and ponies will assume the same. He got on the merry-go-round and soon had it spinning at a decent speed. It let him scan the entire park without appearing to.

The little unicorn went back to swinging. She wasn't doing it with much enthusiasm, just enough to keep going.

She's killing time, not really having fun, he thought, the urge to spice things up ceased when he considered he might be up against an even more powerful being than his current self. Instead, he let the merry-go-round spin down, and went to the teeter-totter. He balanced himself on the centerpoint and shifted his weight to get it to go up and down. He had a decent rhythm going when he noticed the unicorn had abandoned the swings and wandered over to watch.

"You, you aren't supposed to be here. I'm not supposed to have po - ah, people here," she said and looked around.

Discord looked at her, especially the eyes. What had made him so dangerous, was he could see the cleavage planes of ponies' personalities, so he could do the little things to send them over the edge. Celestia was so full of them, they were actually a defense, a crack would propagate so far, and stop at another crack. The Big Guy was a pile of sand, nothing Discord did would break him more than his own people had. But this girl had one that was fairly aching to shatter. A stiff wind would break her, he thought, then considered, And where's the challenge in that?

"Well, I'll tell her I snuck in and used my mind control powers on you," he told her.

"She won't believe you," the unicorn said.

"She will if I use my mind control powers on her," Discord retorted, "Watch." He pulled his brain out of his ear, unscrewed his horn and threw the horn as hard as he could. "Fetch!" The brain raced off in pursuit.

He turned to see the frightened unicorn hiding behind the merry-go-round. "See, if it affects you, it'll affect her."

The unicorn only quit staring at him when his brain dropped the horn behind her and barked. She stared at the brain, and the horn and picked the horn up with a hoof. "OOO! It's covered in slobber!"

"That's part of the game," Discord said.
------------------------------

Luna alighted from her air chariot with Selene Dreamer. The trip had been as much to assess the Ponyville situation as to escape the increasingly tetchy Celestia. The massive fortification drew her eye. 'Fort Twicornagogo' read the banner hung from the battlements.

"It's made of boxes?" Selene Dreamer said. She looked at her mother and both facehooved. "Everypony in this town is crazy."

"Unfortunately, we're here now," Luna reminded her.

"HA!" Pinkie Pie shouted from the battlements, and shook the helmet that looked like a coal scuttle, "You shall never take our fortress, we have oatmeal and confetti enough to last a thousand years!" She fired a blast of confetti into the air that rained down gently on Luna, Selene and the crew of Night Guards they'd brought with them.

"I can wait," Luna called back, "Remember?"

"Oh, yeah," Pinkie said.

"Besides, you can't fight us, we surrender," Selene called.

Pinkie was before them, her helmet held over her heart. "You can't do that!"

Selene looked indignant. "I'm a Princess, I can surrender whenever I want."

"But, the epic battle. The courageous last stand," Pinkie said gesturing at the sky, "The victory party!"

"Cancel the first two, but take us to Twilight Sparkle," Selene said, "You've no doubt thrown her in the dungeon at the center of your fortress."

Pinkie frowned. "Yeah, okay, come on."

As soon as they were inside the walls, Luna pounced on Pinkie and began tickling her mercilessly. "Beware the Trojan Pony!"

"No fair! No fair!" Pinkie squealed, "You surrendered!"

"Selene surrendered, I never did," Luna said, "TASTE THE FULL FURY OF THE PONY SISTERS' VENGEANCE!" She eased up and let Pinkie breathe. Luna facehoofed. "Now you've got me doing it."

"Okay," Pinkie announced to her 'troops' on the battlement, "To the victory party!"

"You have to take this down," Luna insisted, pointing a hoof at the fortress.

Pinkie yanked out a small box, seemingly at random. Then she tried to put it back. "Ooopsie."

A moment later Luna surfaced from the drift of little boxes that had buried the entire group. She had Selene in her teeth and set the filly atop the piles. Moments later, Applejack, Rarity and Rainbow Dash dove into the piles and returned with Scootaloo, Applebloom and Sweetie Belle. Crusaders were exchanged and the sisters aimed their siblings in the direction of home and punishment. Pinkie surfaced with Spike in her teeth. She set him next to Selene.

"Heh, heh, all done," Pinkie said.

Luna turned to the newly-surfaced commander of the force she'd brought. "Get these sorted, and ready to return to their owners. And shoot anypony who drops off any more."

"Shoot, Highness?" the officer asked.

"Yes, a pony should fit in those cannons. Give them a free ride out of town," Luna said and collected Selene, Spike and Pinkie, and headed inside the library. It was bare, no books to be seen anywhere. "She's downstairs in a book fort, isn't she?" Luna asked.

"That's where we got the idea from," Pinkie admitted.

Luna forgave Selene's giggling at that juncture.
------------------------------

The Big Guy considered singing 'Walk like a Lippizan,' But I'd have to explain Walk Like an Egyptian and Lippizaners, which would ruin the joke. He noted the happy canter by his new friend as he rode along. I never knew tigers cantered.

She was humming and playing with her hair as they crossed the distance to the sage. The gait just screamed 'happy and carefree'. That he was leaning against her back with his arms around her waist just added to her joy. "We should probably stop short of the mountains and start climbing at dawn."

"I'm glad you can see that far," he said, "All I see is the clouds."

She laughed happily and kept cantering. The wolf trotting alongside them kept looking at him with confusion on its face.
------------------------------

Discord pushed the pony on the swing higher. It was simplistic and somewhat silly activity, yet he was enjoying it. She laughed happily as she went higher than she had managed herself. Discord contented himself by pushing from the rear some times, pulling from the front or sides others.

The frightened squeal from the pony, Discord stopped her and watched as she tried to push and pull him into concealment. "She is coming, you aren't safe if she finds you!"

Discord found the idea of anypony protecting him both touching and a tad irritating. He let the little pony guide him to a place of imagined safety. Then he watched her return to the swing and her dispirited 'enjoyment' of it.

The flaming head of lightning returned, and now that he was paying attention, recognition began to dawn.

"I have sensed another," the head said, the faint growl was dangerous, "YOU HAVE BEEN FORBIDDEN TO SOIL YOURSELF WITH THE PRESENCE OF LESSORS!" The force of the voice pushed the filly back.

"What about greaters?" Discord said as recognition bloomed and he stepped out into the open, "I know you, Molybdenum Blossom, I know all your little hates and jealousies, all the pride you took in your vindictive little actions, and I know the joy you took in slaying your own son when he defied you."

The filly looked at the head for the first time. "You killed Star Swirl?" she asked, showing real emotion, rage, sorrow, and remorse. "You promised!"

"LIES! THIS IS WHY YOU MUST BE KEPT AWAY!" the pony head thundered.

"The unicorn nation," the filly said to Discord, ignoring the head, "It survives?"

"The pony nation survives. The three tribes living as one for the past thousand years," Discord said, "Despite your best efforts, Molybdenum Blossom. You aren't even remembered, but Star-Swirl and Clover the Clever are. Even that fool Princess Platinum is, but not even historians have recorded your name."

The head briefly flickered out of existence.

" 'Lies, all lies'," Discord predicted to the little unicorn and took on a bored posture.

The head remanifested twice the size, and three times the loudness, "LIES! SCURRILOUS LIES!"

"Close enough," Discord said and caught a brief smile from the filly.

"Do you remember what you really are? And why you must be kept from them?" the head asked.

Discord watched the pleasant surroundings writhe and twist into a pony's nightmare of a forest, worse than the Everfree. "That's great!" Discord said, "There'd be people who pay money to play here."

The head's horrified expression did Discord a lot of good, but the filly had collapsed and was whimpering and squirming as if someone had broken her legs and thrown her onto a slowly warming skillet. Discord felt an odd disquiet in his heart, he wasn't angry, but he strongly disapproved of this. He'd hurt plenty of ponies in his 'career' and even enjoyed it. He enjoyed watching them tear each other to pieces even more. But there's a difference between what I am, and someone who'd murder a child to keep a position of power, he thought, and massed the bit of power he'd been carefully husbanding, Let's see who's the biggest lion on the hill.

"BEGONE!" he called and dispersed the head. He braced for its return. The filly whimpered again, she looked like she'd been sick a long time. Her eyes were sunken and her flesh thin over her bones.

"She'll be back," the filly gasped.

Discord watched the forest return to its Everfree-like condition. He smiled. "I'll be waiting," he said as he gathered her in, "And I've got a few friends who'll make an interesting addition, or a legendary subtraction."
------------------------------

Through a combination of tea, soft words, and the swift and efficient disassembly of her fortress, Twilight was back in the kitchen and somewhat cogent. "Boxes," she said as if haunted, then she crept to the window and peeked out, "They're waiting, out there, for me."

Somewhat cogent, Luna thought, she spotted Selene trying to cut some eye holes in a box large enough to conceal herself inside. Luna stared at the filly until she felt her mother's disapproving gaze on her, she turned, and then put away the scissors and the box before returning to the table.

Luna turned her attention back to Twilight. "You were never given charge of the disposition of the Big Guy's estate. That remains in the hands of the Diarchy. That is for us to weather. You and the Apples residing there are to simply see to it that nopony steals from the place until the Royal Judgement is made. Understood?"

Twilight nodded. "I guess I didn't do a very good job," Twilight said.

"Like your mentor, you did a rotten job of befriending him," Luna said harshly, "Or in leaving well enough alone."

Twilight wilted at Luna's displeasure.

I wish I could get my dear sister to acknowledge her authorship of this debacle, she thought and sipped her tea, But that would require her, like Sparkle, to acknowledge that there might be something beyond her faintest understanding. Unlikely. But it does indicate pursuit is out of the question. Too many other traps laid in the path. She sipped the tea again to calm herself. And what of your part, the desire to 'improve' and 'do things right', can you overcome your own impulses when he grates on you so? she asked herself the question and loathed the uncertainty that answered.
------------------------------

The small village clearly marked the entryway into the mountains and the path that they'd been told about was visible running out of the village on the far side.

"Diamond Dogs," he said quietly, "I hope these are smarter than the ones I ran into in Equestria."

"What made you think the ones in Equestria were - weren't smart?" the Sphinx asked.

"Because they never realized that attacking me was a bad idea," he said as he slipped off her back and stretched his legs, "They had to have someone explain it to them in detail."

The Sphinx giggled as they walked towards the edge of the village.

He peered through the binoculars. "Those aren't humans, or Diamond Dogs, they look like the podlings," he told her, "A creature whose design was based on potatoes."

Tom, have you seen anything like those? he asked as he lowered the binoculars.

"Only in The Dark Crystal," Tom replied.

Gee, that's recursive, he thought, So nothing on Equestria. He was yanked sideways as the sphinx grabbed the binoculars. She kissed his ear before she looked through them.

"This is magic!" she called, "They look so tiny!"

"Ah, turn it around," he said as he slipped the strap off before he was strangled.

"This is magic!" she called, "They look so huge!"

The chuckling of the normally stoic Tom did nothing for the Big Guy's equanimity. "Science, not magic," he said, "And I think we can slip past them, and get to the bridge."

"Why don't I just carry you over the river?" she asked, "Bypass the bridge entirely."

"I didn't want to presume," he replied, "We could have flown to the mountain top."

She double facepalmed. "Yeah, we could have," she said. She looked up at him. "So you thought I couldn't or didn't want to?"

He collected some dried dung for a fire, even a couple of pieces of driftwood. "I thought you had reasons," he replied, "And I wasn't going to pry into them the first day. Besides, you seemed so happy just walking along, and it won't take us all that long to reach the mountain, even if we have to climb."

"You must think I'm an idiot," she said.

"Big difference between an ingenue and an idiot. You had no reason to believe you could trust me," he told her, patted her shoulder. She nuzzled his hand while it was there. She blushed when she looked and he was grinning at her.

"Now you think I'm a pervert," she said.

He finished building a makeshift ring of stones around the fuel, then set it alight. "No, I think you're very lonely, and having another person around who doesn't run away screaming makes you bolder. You want to see just how far you can go, but are afraid of going too far." He yawned and shook his head. "And I'm going to fall asleep in a bit." He rubbed his arms and looked at the setting sun. "This place is going to get cold." He looked at her. "Are you going to be okay?"

She smiled. "Fur coat, and I'm used to it." She watched him set out the bedroll and she laid down on her side. "I wouldn't mind sharing some warmth, and I can stay up and keep watch." She grinned nervously. And she actually looked like she was sweating as he continued to stare at her.

"No."

She looked positively crushed.

"You sit like that, all night, you'll get a terrible crick in your back," he told her. He ran a finger down her tiger's spine and smiled as she shivered. "Much better."

She stared at him as she rolled into the typical 'sphinx' position. He unzipped the sleeping bag, and laid it over her back like a blanket. "Is that acceptable?" he asked and grinned as she numbly nodded.

This is almost too easy, he thought, If this is some kind of test of character, whoever shouldn't have made the test subject with Wolverine's powers and reputation, Shadowcat's intellect and a lonely Fluttershy's personality. All that's required is absolute trust, and I win. Other than her wanting to marry me and have my kids. What is it about these creatures? A little authentic TLC and they melt like butter. He stripped off his coat and handed it to the sphinx.

"You're going to need this tonight more than I will." He shivered at the icy wind that was picking up as the sun set. A moment later he was under the sleeping bag. He heard her slip into the heavy coat, and then take a sniff. He felt more heat radiating out of her as she no doubt blushed at the idea of her own excitement as his scent. Although her tail was giving her away completely. She was wagging it like a happy dog, rather than a contented cat.
------------------------------

Discord watched the flaming head as it floated over the sigil that they'd burned into the grass of the playground. Combined with the rearranged jungle-gym, it wasn't quite an obscene gesture, but it was an insulting one. It was also part of his plan.

I should hate having a 'plan', Discord thought as he made sure the chin strap on his helmet was tight, and then checked on Molybdenum's daughter. The old witch had been a favorite partner/victim of Discord's. Like the Big Guy, she had a terrifyingly twisted mind. Unlike the Big Guy, she was small and petty and endlessly wanted vengeance against the smallest insults. I guess I shouldn't be surprised she'd do this to her own daughter. Lock her up to keep the city intact while 'Molly-be-damned' schemed to take over Equestria. I'll have to ask Celestia who finally offed the little tyrant, or if them putting me in stone canceled the spell to make her immortal. Too bad she didn't ask to stop aging as well.

He'd realized that the head was a parasite, stuck to the kid to keep her in line. Every time he blew it up, the kid became weaker. So, let us make the thing a laughing stock, rather than assaulting it. He glanced at the preparations and nodded to the little unicorn. Besides, a plan is only a framework on which to make changes, not an absolute requirement.

The head moved to where the scratchings on the ground, and the jungle-gym lined up and revealed all.

"Shoot," Discord called into the telephone handset. No cord of course, but there was a certain requirement to actions.

Ein Fest das Kanonenfutter fired. As well as einen Dachschaden haben, die Arschbombe unklares Denken, and Fred. Four 87 cm muffins converged on the target as dozens of smaller Discords and Toms reloaded the mammoth cannons. And high above, two full squadrons of B-1B's dropped their payloads and 'egressed aggressively'.

"You dare?!" the head intoned.

"Promising Hell, death and increased taxes to all within earshot," Discord said, and the little unicorn giggled, "Speaking of which."

He wasn't sure which cannon fired the muffin which hit the head in the side, but it hit the ear perfectly. More laughter from the unicorn as the other three rounds impacted. Smoldering chucks of fried or burning muffin fell to the ground around the head.

"You dare assault me, and with cupcakes?" it shouted.

"Muffins actually, but if you want cupcakes, the only one difference between cupcakes and muffins," Discord said and began humming 'Dem Bones'.

"Frosting!" he and the unicorn said together.

Discord pulled out a typewriter and began explaining. "Each B-1B carries a rotary launcher with spots for 84 500lb bombs, and six, external, wing-mounted pods for 20 more in each pod, for a grand totla, total, of, uh, hmm, carry the three."

"Five million, eighty-two thousand lebles," the unicorn said.

"I like your answer much better, I came up with one-hundred and two thousand lbs.," Discord said and snapped his fingers. "Each of the ten thousand, eighty-one bombs carried a lightning-head-seeking fuze with an interweaved, interflexing grommet of purest neutron-flow-reversed unobtanium and held together with cotterpins."

"Mister Discord?"

"Unfortuantely, un-fortu-nate-ly, on seven of the bombs, they had run out of the specified mil-spec-gbgk-004/bs/wtf/007/349J cotterpins and because they couldn't go to the local Office Depot and buy paperclips to do the job, so a brave commando raid was made across Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, detailed on the next 73 pages, were, where cotterpins were used to hold the tracks of the new, so secret even their crews didn't know they were driving them, Soviet T-82 & 3/4's tanks. Specs and how inferior they actually were detaining the reader on the next fifty pages, oh when I'm hot, I'm hot!"

"Mister Discord."

"Ironically, after the deaths of dozens of agents and the successful installation of the refitted Soviet cotterpins, they discovered that the Soviets, out of money and spares had been shoplifting paperclips from the very Office Depot that had been considered and discarded."

"Mister Discord?" the unicorn said.

"Don't bug me, I'm on a roll. Submunitions, submunitions." He riffled the telephone book-sized manuscript.

"But all the frosting bombs hit her about two minutes ago," she said, "Then she left."

Discord looked at the manuscript. "I missed it?" The vaguely smoldering typewriter. "The hilarious carnage?" The completely lack of frosting-covered, angry head. "The expression of utter outrage?" And began to sob, "By Eris Protector! I've become Twilight Sparkle!"

The unicorn comforted the sobbing draconequus.
------------------------------

Being roughly shaken awake was an unpleasant throwback to his days as a soldier. Being able to come instantly awake, and prepared to face the enemy, or beat the prankster black and blue was a talent he'd never lost. So when he realized the frightened sphinx was standing beside the small fire pit, with the wolf on the other side, and instead of darkness and stars a hemisphere of red eyes on a black background surrounded them, he decided to forgive the unorthodox wake up.

"I will consume your souls and leave the husks behind," the darkness informed them, "You shall scream eternally in the belly of the infinite darkness."

Guess which word you shouldn't have said? he though as he made sure the sleeping bag hadn't brushed the fire, and that his pack was still clear of the creature.

"Don't look at the light," he told the sphinx as he passed her a portable floodlight and demonstrated how it worked on the one he'd kept for himself.

The two floodlights came on and the creature screamed. The two moved out to corral the creature and drove it into a small pile of stones where their lights couldn't get at it.

"You shall pay dearly for this indignity!" the creature squalled as the Big Guy and the sphinx built a fire pit around the small cairn of stones.

"Yeah, yeah, checks in the mail," he told it as it cursed and with the fire merrily burning, he doused the two flood lamps and let them cool before he packed them away.

"Will that hold it?" the sphinx asked, after grabbing him and crushing him against her. Despite his jacket, she was shivering.

"Keep the fire going, and not discuss the future and we should be gone and away," he told her chest as he spoke into it.

"Sorry, I just never saw anything like that before," she admitted and set him back down.

"Oh, we got thousands of them back home, common as roof rats," he said.

"WHAT!" the cairn screamed, "I am unique! An ancient terror! None are like me! None can withstand me!"

"Tell that to the cretins in Washington, or in Ottawa for that matter. Little, red-tape worms who only feed on the lifeblood of the host they've latched on to," he said, "We call them bureaucrats, and they can bring down the mightiest entity."

"They sound fierce," the sphinx said.

"I've been fighting them since I was a boy, from swivel chair hussars in the army, to Congressional Staffers. No brains, but a vampire's instincts on how to suck the life out of anything to feed themselves."

"Why don't you kill them?" the sphinx asked.

"I can never get a hunting license for them," he replied.
------------------------------

"You did your best," the little unicorn said as she pushed Discord on the swing.

"I completely missed the point of the exercise," Discord grumped, "They've been accusing me of losing sight of the big picture, even when I'm the one who planned it, I lost sight of it."

"But you won," she countered.

He glanced back at her as she pushed him. "But if it might not have worked out." He jumped off the swing, caught it and turned around to face her. It finally got through to him that she'd been trying to comfort him. This little magic nothing, trying to ease the pain of mighty Discord, he thought, I should laugh right in her face. But I can't. Why is that?

He sat down in front of her and scratched her behind the ears. She eagerly leaned into his hands. "The whole point of the fight, was to protect you," he told her, "If you'd gotten hurt, that would have spoiled everything. I wouldn't have liked it, and I'm sure you wouldn't have liked it."

"But your plan was good enough that didn't happen. You didn't even react when she screamed at you. She thought you were ignoring her because she was unimportant, inutile."

Wonderful, I don't lose because someone else has a bigger sense of self-important entitlement than I do, yay me, Discord thought, What was that he said? 'You lose because you're convinced you don't deserve to win.' Maybe, but when winning does matter. He looked at the sickly little filly and thought, Then I'd better learn how to win, rather than just making the other side lose.
------------------------------

They alighted on the far side of the river. The wolf had not been happy about being carried across on the sphinx's back. And been even less so about the Big Guy holding him. He now lay on the ground and seemed to be trying to get reacquainted with the feeling of an unmoving surface.

The other two continued their 'discussion', "I still say I don't need a name. If I know who I am, and there are no others like me, then 'Sphinx' or 'the Sphinx' is an adequate description and designation."

"Now you haven't said that before," the Big Guy said, "You just decided that it is your choice. That's what I've been arguing. You can chose what you are called."

"I've just been arguing because I like the byplay of ideas, I really don't care what others call me," she replied and grinned as he face-palmed.

The angry scream from the bridge Doppler-shifted as it approached them, sailing through the air and crashing into the ground before rolling a short ways into a black and blue heap. The trio jogged or trotted over towards the moaning figure in the small trench its passage had created. A teal eye opened and regarded them with loathing.

"Thou hast no comprehension of the breadth and depth of my repugnance for thee and this dream of thine," the black and blue, formerly only grayish-blue alicorn said as she surveyed them. "What in the name of Celestia's intangible moustache are you?"

"What am I? What are you?" the sphinx asked, "You look like an earth pony's worst nightmare."

The Big Guy snickered. As Luna grimaced at the sphinx.

"At least I do not look like something assembled out of Discord's spares bin," Luna said as she tried to rise, and failed. Durable as she was, gravity was still stronger than she.

"Daddy! Daddy!" came the warning cry of an incoming second alicorn. This one small enough the sphinx and Big Guy caught her. "Let's do it again!" she called and waved back to the bridge. She looked down at Luna. "You have to sort of glide most of the way until you slow down enough for your wings to work." She flew/crawled until she was seated on his shoulders with her head resting on top of his. Her foray into being the world's cutest hat seemed to work especially well on the sphinx, and the wolf.

Luna glared at the universe as a whole.

The Big Guy gestured at Luna. "This is what you get when you can't learn to leave well enough alone."

Luna was on her hooves and staring into his face. "You understand my words? We can communicate? We can . . . ?" she said, then drifted off as tears ran down her face and she slowly crumbled into a whimpering, fetal position.

"Like assuming your durability will allow you to shrug off injuries because your royal constitution is higher," the Big Guy said.

Luna let out a whimper filled with hauteur and derision.

"We could kill her and put her out of her misery," the sphinx offered.

"Naw," the Big Guy said, "I wouldn't deprive Selene of what a wonderful negative example her mother has been."

"You and she, then," the sphinx asked and gestured at the three of them, "Ignoring how. Why?"

"I was spare parts," Selene said, "And he wanted to play Doctor Hoovenstein."

"I am afraid you might not get a better upbringing," the Big Guy replied.

"I suggest you tell the story," the sphinx said, "This is one riddle I have to hear."

"And it'll let mommy recover," Selene said.

"You weren't supposed to notice that," he whispered to her. The little alicorn giggled.
------------------------------

"Two sugars please," Discord said to the little unicorn, "Cucumber sandwich?" he offered.

"I don't think a cucumber sandwich is a sliced open cucumber with radishes inside," the little unicorn said.

"They aren't radishes, they're parsnips," Discord corrected as he sipped his tea.

The unicorn rolled her eyes. "Well, that's all right then," she said. She took a bite, chewed thoughtfully. "They are rather good," she admitted.

"Always be willing to try new things," he said.

"What if the new things might hurt people?" she asked.

Oh dear, the sad, soulful eyes again, Discord thought, I am so glad most ponies can't do that.

"Then you must trust in your friends to see you through," he said.

Egad, I'm glad Tom and the Big Guy aren't here to listen to me spout this tripe, he thought, Even if she needs to hear it, actually saying it aloud is revolting. Despite his initial abhorrence over the whole idea, he was rather enjoying himself. Introducing new taste treats to someone who simply accepted them was very pleasant. Well, you have been staying to the boring side of things, he admitted, No horseradish cookies, or radish quiche. Now wait a second.

He pulled a chef's hat on and conjured up the ingredients, put in a third as many radishes as he normally did, and let his magic do the rest. The unicorn stared at his efforts with an endearing mixture of wonderment and studiousness. Oh, my heart should go pitter-patter, if I had one. He finished and served it onto a plate.

"Radish quiche, I can make it stronger if you like."

She took some and her ears stood up straight. "I think you discovered the cure for the common cold," she said taking a deep breath, "I haven't been this clear in years."

Discord took a bite, and turned red, then yellow, then white. "Strong radishes you have around here," he gave a strangled cry.

She nodded. "More tea?" she asked and let out a cloud of steam from her mouth.
------------------------------

"And then Twilight was like 'woo, woo, woo, boxes are coming to get me!'" Selene said as she rode atop the sphinx's shoulders.

"You are truly evil," the sphinx said to the Big Guy, "Poor Celestia. Poor Twilight."

"Hey, they'll live," he replied, "If I have to hit them with a plank between the eyes to get their attention, then that's what I'll do."

"It's still unconscionable," Luna said as she tottered along behind them, "What you did."

"Now the peanut gallery has been heard from," the Big Guy said.

Selene and the Sphinx giggled.

"Old training technique, you take the biggest screw-ups and make an example out of them, the rest fall into line themselves," the Big Guy explained.

"And just how did my sister and her student 'screw-up'?" Luna tried to totter faster, but the wolf 'just happened' to be in the way, and Luna's wings were not sufficiently recovered to lift her over him.

"Like you, they never learned to leave things alone," the Big Guy replied, "They had to hammer everything into an acceptable shape, no matter how detrimental it is." He turned to the sphinx. "That's why I think I'm in Hell. Rulers so clueless and glutted on adoration, they don't see what hypocrites they are, and that they're killing the very thing they claim to love."

That stunned Luna, and the group drew away from her as they walked up the path. She made her best speed to catch up to them. "Thou canst believe that true!" she said as she caught up with them.

Selene stared at him. "I think he does," she said, and nodded.

The tunnel brought them to a halt. Dozens of red eyes peered out of the darkness. "Your trick was inventive, but I have ways of moving from shadow to shadow."

"Okay, up the side," the Big Guy pointed at the switchback several hundred feet above them. He took Selene off the sphinx. "You can fly," he told her.

"I can't!" Luna said.

"Momma, just blast him and catch up," Selene said as she accompanied the sphinx on her flight to the path.

The Big Guy grinned at Luna. "I think she meant the eyes, but either way works." He started climbing, the wolf was already picking his way up the slope.

Luna grumbled as she picked her way up the slope after them.

"That's cheating!" the creature in the cave shouted, setting off a small rock slide and sending Luna tumbling back onto the road.

"That is ENOUGH!" Luna shouted and marched into the cave.

"Should we help?" the sphinx asked.

"Naw, momma can beat people up as well as anyone," Selene said.

"I think she meant Luna's victim," the Big Guy said.

Selene stared at them. "Now I know you're teasing me!"

"Of course," he told her. He began singing Gordon Lightfoot's The Pony Man as a marching cadence. Selene fell into step and into tune almost instantly.

Luna paused in the midst of battle and facehooved. "Celestia is going to kill me when Selene brings that back." She rejoined the battle in a hurry, so she could ameliorate the damage.
------------------------------

Celly watched the ball suddenly glow with light. She turned to Woona, "Get the others."

When her sister just stared at her, she added, "I will stay right here until at least Derpy and Hotaru arrive, and you come back. We'll follow the trail he left."

Woona nodded and raced down the path back to the house and the Changeling hive.

Celly tossed a snowball, and watched it fade as the one Dinky had thrown earlier did.

Patience, patience, she thought, What was that irritating statement, 'There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy'. Or it is 'but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age'? I fear the second may apply better than the first.

She sat and waited for the others to arrive.
------------------------------

"So how come in here you can understand us, but outside we are mutually unintelligible?" Luna asked as she trotted along beside them. No one commented on how her mood had improved since she'd 'passed' through the cave.

"Because this is a mental construct," the Big Guy explained, "None of us are really here."

"Wait," the sphinx asked in alarm, "You're saying, I'm fake. But my memories, my senses . . . my feelings."

"None of us are 'real' here, all of us are projections of something else. You are as real as I am. But you didn't exist until a little while before you saw me. Your memories of a thousand plus years are constructs. They didn't actually happen. But they feel real, don't they, they hurt as much as if they were real?" he asked as he put a hand on the sphinx's cheek, and she nuzzled it, "Don't they?"

They walked along a bit like that. Luna glancing at then, and her head drooping as she did.

"So it's real to me," the sphinx said, "But if you knew, then your offer?" She looked at him, her eyes filled with worry.

"I have a reality warper of my own, who owes me a few, very big favors. Don't worry, the offer still stands," he said, "For creatures like us, the integrity of the mind and memories is the real reality." He turned and glared at Luna. The alicorn's neck and head drooped further.

"That's what Aunt Celestia and momma kept messing with, right?" Selene said.

"Exactly," he replied, "And they wouldn't listen when I asked them to stop."

"But ponies don't mind," Selene said. Her mother was practically digging a furrow with her nose now.

"Ponies don't complain, they're too afraid of the consequences," he said.

"So why all of this?" the sphinx asked.

"Someone detected my hostility to ponies, and decided to see what I'd do starting from scratch," he said, "It's the reason I knew I could trust you. You were never going to hurt me, at least not first, or intentionally."

"That's not 'why'?" the sphinx asked, "Why would someone set all this up, create me, this landscape, this journey, and then let us all march through it?"

"Because someone is terribly lonely, and has been convinced they are a monster. That no one could possibly love them."

"That's so sad," Selene said, and sniffled.

"Well, I think Discord will take care of that," the Big Guy said.

"WHAT?" Luna shouted, then all of them dodged the resulting avalanche.
------------------------------

Discord sat in a duplicate of his chair, the little unicorn asleep on his stomach. He continued to scratch her gently behind the ears without thinking, as if his hands had a mind of their own. They hadn't, he'd checked. She'd grown weaker as they had played, and partied, and ate, and sang, and change bugs into bats and birds into lizards, and then changed them back.

During it all, some of Discord's thoughts had grown steadily darker. Vengeance was a fools' game, but he always claimed to be vengeful when he started a new game. It was an excellent distraction, and lying to the fools was always fun. Now, he was seriously considering it.

Molybdenum Blossom must be dead, a thousand years in an aging body, she should be so fragile a contrary wind would kill her, he thought, And conjuring her up, that would be useless. Especially to just slowly take her to bits.

He continued scratching, enjoying the peaceful slumbers of the little unicorn snuggling on his stomach. He smiled at that, but the sight only heightened his desire to find Molybdenum Blossom's bones and grind them to powder.

No, I want revenge, I want to destroy her legacy, and prove all that she planned and hoped for was for naught, Discord thought, If she is still in any condition to acknowledge my victory.

The filly turned slightly in her sleep and snuggled against him.

Then Discord smiled, had the filly been awake, she would have screamed in terror at that smile.
------------------------------

"Why are all these barriers easy for me to fly over?" the sphinx asked as she looked at the canyon with the rope bridge crossing it. Below was a cataract that would be death for anyone who survived the fall into it.

"I wasn't supposed to recruit you. I was supposed to answer your riddle rather than fight you, and continue on," the Big Guy said as he looked down. "We could use the water through." He shook the empty canteen and bags that the travelers had emptied.

Selene grabbed the canteen out of his hands and dove into the canyon. Half way down she ran into something that had her trapped. A huge spider walked out onto the web.

Luna gasped, "I'll - "

"Stay!" the Big Guy said, and nodded to the sphinx. She took off and headed down the canyon. "We apologize for intruding, and we are willing to pay for the water, but please remember, webs are extremely inflammable!"

"It didn't pay any attention," Luna said as she peered down the canyon and danced with nervousness at her daughter's peril.

"I wasn't just talking to the spider," he replied, and the web around Selene burst into flames. The trailers racing along the web. The sphinx swooped in and caught the little alicorn as she fell. They landed on a rock upstream and watched the race between the spider and the fire. The spider made it into its cave before the fire cut the last of the support lines of the web. Then the fire raced into the cave.

The Big Guy grabbed Luna and the wolf and drove them back from the edge of the cliff.

WHOOMPF!

In the distance, a pillar of smoke appeared. As the trio looked over the edge, a similar pillar issued from the cave mouth.

"Cave like that has to have constant ventilation. Like a chimney." He glanced at the wolf. "You up for fried spider? Tastes like crab."

The wolf merely stared at him. An expression Luna nearly mirrored.

"That was fun!" Selene said as she and the sphinx, and all the now filled water bags and his canteen returned to the canyon top.

"We were just thinking about going to that other pillar, and having lunch. Fried spider."

Luna leaned over the edge and emptied her stomach over the edge.

"Is momma making room so she can eat more?" Selene asked.

"BLEARGTH!" Luna made sure she had lots of room.
------------------------------

"I cannot believe you actually ate it," Luna said, and staggered as a wave of nausea gripped her. "You are everything we were afraid of."

"I gave a clear warning. Considering that everything here speaks the same language, despite what it spoke before, if it could have understood, it did, and Selene clearly heard me."

"I don't think I like anrthods," Selene said.

"Arthropods," the Big Guy corrected, "You aren't an omnivore either."

"Watching mommy barf again was lots of fun," Selene said.

"Is this universe specifically designed to pick on me?" Luna complained.

"No, just everyone in it," the Big Guy said, "You can leave any time you like. That you haven't is on your head."

"I've seen unicorns eat meat," the sphinx said, "Why does it bother her so?"

"In Equestria, most food sources are intelligent, even borderline sapient. So eating an animal is like eating a person."

"What do the animals eat?" the sphinx asked, "Is that why you had us asking the rabbits that riddle?"

"Exactly."

"I thought you were teasing me," the sphinx admitted, "Hmm, maybe I should have left the waistcoat on that big rabbit."

"Would have made skinning it a lot more difficult," the Big Guy said.

"You are doing this on purpose," Luna said.

"I said I was," the Big Guy replied, "Like you dragging the malevolent collection of eyes along with you in your mane."

"How?" Luna asked as she looked back at her mane and made soft sound to it.

"I know you," the Big Guy said, "I actually studied you and your sister, and dealt with Discord's rather amusing elaborations of you and your behavior. You wouldn't kill if you had an alternative. And you clearly did."

Luna frowned, but nodded. "I am not the relentless courser of foes that many portray me as," she said.

He stared at her with an upraised eyebrow until she looked away.

"You could forgive her you know," Selene suggested.

"But she and Celestia 'didn't do anything wrong'," he replied, "Besides, unless those are the royal guard, I think we have more trouble."

More trouble was a dozen suits of armor, all completely empty, and all starting to stand up. Each was modeled for a minotaur, and twelve feet tall. Most had axes that were more sharp protrusion than blade. The rest had morningstars of various types, with so many spikes they were practically maces or hammers. If they'd wanted the effect of a morningstar, they would have swung a fist, having a ridiculous amount of spikes on every joint.

Luna lost it first, she rolled on the ground laughing at someone's asinine idea of what looked formidable and scary. The Big Guy chuckled at the sight. The sphinx and Selene were a little confused.

"Are we going to fight them?" the sphinx asked.

"And let them hurt themselves," Luna said, "Absolutely not."

"We could throw firewood at them, cover them over as the logs stuck on the spikes," the Big Guy offered.

The suits of armor were looking at each other. Despite the lack of facial features, their despair was fairly clear. One even scuffed its toe on the ground.

The Big Guy took the opportunity to yank the 'wall of eyes' out of Luna's mane and threw it at the suits of armor.

"Hey!" Luna complained.

Red eyes gleamed out of the eye slits. "Ha, so you saw through my plan! Now you shall all pay dearly for, what's happening?"

One of the suits of armor proceeded the bash the nearest one. Within moments it was a twelve-way free for all.

"Stop! Stop I command you!" the wall of eyes called out from inside the armor.

The suits were as ineffectual in combat as predicted. Unless deafening their opponent was their goal.

"Another obstacle to fly over?" the sphinx shouted over the clamourous din.

The Big Guy nodded and slipped onto the sphinx's back, and then helped hold the wolf in place. While Luna and Selene took to the air.

"This is getting completely silly," Luna said.

"Quite agree, too silly, far too silly. Get some discipline into those chaps, Sergeant-Major," the Big Guy replied, "Next we'll be facing dead parrots."

Luna opened her mouth to ask, but on seeing her daughter shaking her head, decided not to rise to the bait.
------------------------------

"The sign says clearly: 'The secret of life back in five minutes'," the Big Guy pointed out, "Considering we've scoured this place for an hour and a half, for any sign that it has been inhabited in the last decade, I think five minutes is clearly over." The continuing clank and clatter of the armor still in battle was getting on everyone's nerves.

"That giant flaming head you described isn't going to accept this as an answer," Luna protested as she waved a hoof at the sign.

The Big Guy rolled his eyes. "The successful completion of this mission is totally irrelevant," he enunciated each word clearly, "How we react to each challenge is what is being weighed. If the big flaming head doesn't like the answer that the sage is no longer in residence and this is what the sage left as an answer, then let it assign a new requirement." He picked up the sign. "This is what I was sent to retrieve, even if it makes no sense whatsoever, this is what I deliver."

Luna put a hoof on his arm. "You can't deliver that. It isn't what they asked for."

"What they asked for isn't here. You do the best job you can, and you expect the bosses to change their minds as the situation develops." He held up the sign. "This is what we have, this is what we'll deliver, and we'll get new instructions."

"We have to search again, maybe ask the people in the village," Luna said.

"No." He stared at her. "I am not wasting any more time on a big 'maybe' when whoever sent me clearly didn't understand the situation. I don't understand what your problem is, this isn't even your mission. You wouldn't even know the details, if I hadn't mentioned them to you. Which is an error I do not intent to repeat."

Luna backed up a pace, her ears laid back against her head.

"You want to search, fine you search. I'm going back to get new instructions," he said, "This isn't a hero quest where you need the Elements of Harmony, or the One Ring, or the True King's Sword to slay the danger. This isn't even the Quest for the Grail where the questor gets made worthy to see the Grail everyone knows where it is. This is the Kobayashi Maru: an unwinnable scenario designed to test the character of the tested." He walked over and put an arm around the sphinx's waist. "Besides, I think I got the real prize in this scenario, now I have to make sure I keep her. You want to keep doing what you've been told, you can." He put the sign in his pack and sealed it up. "Stay in your rut and enjoy the security it gives you. But don't expect me to join in. I win, or I quit and go play something else. I don't care if someone else says I've won or lost. I'm keeping score for me."

The wolf hopped onto the sphinx's back, and looked at him expectantly. A moment later he adjusted his pack, and climbed on her back.

"He never wanted to fly with me before," the sphinx said as they took to the air.

"Like I said, change the rules. I think he was more afraid of leaving you alone if he fell off, than what would happen to him," the Big Guy said. He looked back, but couldn't see any pursuit.

"The big city, right?" the sphinx said, and looked at the ice roof.

"That's right. Big building near the center, lots of columns."

"You have a strange way of describing things. The only 'lots of columns' is huge," she replied.

"How soon?" he asked.

"About an hour," she replied, "Sorry, I should have suggested just flying up there."

"Live and learn," he replied.
------------------------------

Celly walked through the empty streets, guided by the chalk arrows on the buildings. Canterlot had been styled to exalt the senses and spirit, to be light and airy and open, and draw the eye upward to the sky. This place is the opposite, she thought, Gray, dull, confining and hiding the sky save for small patches.

Dinky whimpered and closed in with her mother. Hotaru trotted up to walk beside Celly, while Sapphire and Woona brought up the rear. None of the other changelings had accompanied them.

The whistle by Sapphire stopped everyone. The changeling pointed down a cross street. Celly rushed over and looked. There was another arrow the same as they'd been following, going the opposite direction.

"Follow that one?" Woona asked, "Assume he looped around and found another target?"

Celly sighed and glanced at Hotaru. She returned a canine shrug and translated the question for Derpy, Dinky and Sapphire.

Derpy nodded to Celly.

They passed through the alley between buildings and were soon on another street. Celly and Woona froze at sight of the building down the street. "The Temple of the Seekers?" Celly asked.

"It's too big," Woona replied, "But there's a cross on the door, and no arrows leading out."

Celly pointed at the building, and waited for the other three to nod. "You've been strangely quiet Hotaru," Celly said, "Any particular reason?"

"Most places are a mosaic of scents, dozens to hundreds who've passed through. Yet his scent is the only one here. No smell of machines, none of that acrid scent of lightning, no other ponies, changelings, minotaurs, griffons, dogs, cattle, mules, nothing, just his," Hotaru said, "It is intimidating that he walks this place as a conqueror, and we mighty few, skulk like mice who have heard a cat. You wonder how he broke me. He exposed me to one of the experiences that forged him into this, and Nightmare Moon did not survive. And he has seen dozens more. Is it any wonder that Celestia and Luna become stupid with fear when their heralds tell of his approach?"

"Except he wouldn't hurt them," Woona replied.

"He would make their ponies become him," Hotaru said, "That is horrifying enough."

Celly and Woona glanced at each other, shivered, and marched towards the building.

Inside, were bookshelves reaching up to the ceiling with scaffolds and ramps to allow non-fliers access.

"We don't mention this to Twilight," Celly said as she looked around, "Ever."

Hotaru translated for the other three. Their laughter was dampened, but they agreed. The Big Guy had not marked in here, they would walk a few steps, then freeze to listen. Then they walked a few more.

" 'That's Discord'," Derpy offered through Hotaru, referring to the soft melodic sounds that teased them from several directions.

Celly nodded and pointed to the huge transparent section of ceiling. "We'll start our search there." The others followed, tightening their formation. Derpy setting Dinky on her back. The little unicorn carefully turned around to 'check six' for the formation.

'There' turned out to be a light well, a hint of Canterlot's usual architecture. The large glass case drew their eye. The figures within stunned them. Discord, singing a lullaby to what first appeared to be a mummy, then it moved.

No, give him the benefit of the doubt, Celly urged herself, His time with the Big Guy has changed him.

"Discord," she said softly.

The draconequus looked at her and suddenly looked embarrassed. He quickly gestured them to be quiet, and set the mummy down, and he slipped out of the case. "She's tired, and I finally got her to sleep," he said.

Celly had heard the tone from recent parents talking about a newborn. He was looking back at the nearly mummified filly as a nervous parent would. I am not going to tease him about that, Celly thought, He has found someone else to care about, better to encourage that.

"What's wrong with her?" Celly said as Dinky and Derpy silently crept towards the figure in the case.

"Her power is destroying her, and her mother didn't help," Discord said, his agitation obvious.

"Her mother?" Woona asked.

"Molybdenum Blossom," Discord said, the hatred in his voice and on his face frightened the ponies.

"Molly be damned," Woona spat, "Did the apple fall far from the tree?"

"The apple fell into the tree's clutches, and became this," Discord gestured as he explained, "To preserve the capital for her triumphant return."

"Which never happened," Celly said.

Discord pointed to the extremely odd figure approaching. "Someone else beat her to it."

"I'd ask what did I miss, but I think that would fill a library," the Big Guy said as he slipped off the odd, almost human creature's back. "Discord, draconequus; Celly, alicorn; Woona, alicorn; Hotaru, loup garou; Derpy Hooves, pegasus; Dinky Hooves, unicorn; Sapphire, changeling. All, the sphinx, sphinx; the wolf with no name."

Said wolf was circling Hotaru. She waited as he orbited, until he was almost directly before her. She lunged, catching the surprised wolf by the throat, not with her jaws, but a punch with her paw. She stood over him her teeth bared and snarling. He took up a posture of canine submission, making high-pitched, squeaky, little barks.

Disgusted, Hotaru backed away from him and sat back down. She glared at all the smirking creatures of all races around her.

"Charmed," the sphinx said, as she looked over the group, "I take it Luna and Selene stayed behind?"

"I'm not even sure all of what's going on," the Big Guy said as he unpacked the sign, "I got the secret of life, as demanded. So what is the real situation."

Celly looked at the sign that he'd brought. "I almost hope Discord has a more cogent problem than this," she said.

"I do. The filly over there is dying. She's been dying a long time, but all this activity is putting the final nails in her coffin. Her mother 'adjusted' her, increased her powers above what any unicorn could handle. They are literally burning out her mind, body and spirit. And I have no idea how to stop it."

Discord looked around. "Oh, come on, that's the perfect place to end a chapter on a great cliffhanger."

"To whom and about what is he talking?" the sphinx asked.

"Do you like sleeping peacefully at night?" Woona asked.

"Yes."

"Then don't ask that question in earnest," Woona warned. They glanced over and Dinky was sitting with her noise pressed up against the glass, staring at the figure within. Derpy wasn't putting nose prints on the glass, but was staring just as intently through the top.

"Besides, if her power is so great that she can warp reality, can't she transfer some of that power? Celly and Woona aren't at their full Celestia/Luna capability, so they have to have some capacity. We've been looking for a way to make Tom sufficiently independent, and the young lady over there needs the same treatment."

"I appreciate your confidence in me," Discord said, he glanced around and lowered his voice, "But as I am right now, I am just not strong enough to pull it off."

"And the young lady might be strong enough, but it would tear her apart," the Big Guy said, and glanced at Celly, "Has alicorn, harmony magic ever been combined with draconequus, chaos magic?"

Celly nearly fell back on her haunches. "Not that I've ever heard of."

"I suggest you start," he said, then shook his head, "I'm sorry, I've been dealing with Her Moony Supremacy Princess Luna, and my temper is getting a bit frayed. Sphinx, please work with these two, they are the reality warpers I told you about. And the young lady over there might just give you everything you need, in order to save her life from the very power you need."

"Where are you going?" Woona asked as she approached.

"I apologize for being a party pooper, but I need some time alone to decompress. I had to deal with Luna barraging in, and then trying to take over. I am not good company right now."

"Should anyone go with?" Woona asked.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't. I'm about one step away from taking somebody's head off, and none of you deserve that," he said, "I should be back after a shower, lunch and a nap. By the way, is this the same day that I left?"

"Yes, late afternoon," Celly said.

"That's impossible!" Discord insisted, "I was here for at least six days."

"Bit over three here," the Big Guy said, "I think we need to be thinking about just how powerful the little lady is, and how to save her from that." He grinned at Discord. "Now that's a cliffhanger to end on."

"Oh, boo," Discord said and glanced around, "Hey! Wait a second!"

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