• 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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42) Axions and Ganglia versus Ligaments and Sinews

Cultural Artifacts - Axions and Ganglia versus Ligaments and Sinews

Dan's Comments

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

Day 86

The day dawned bright and clear over the Crystal Republic. Luna and Celly had insisted everyone get their rest, Discord backed up that request in regards the staff. The assumption was the day would dawn and they would know how much time they had for the drills, and how much time before the enemy arrived. Exhausting themselves would help no one. Fragrance had arrived with the Inventor Corps' top members. The embassy staffs and chief legislators were here for the early breakfast meeting. Little if anything would be held back. There were grumblings that politics was a poor seasoning for breakfast, but most understood hours were precious and there was likely to be no rancor.

"The Constitution is as ready to fly as we can make her. And she's only got a couple of weeks left. The cloud spell they used was all brute force, and every pegasus in the force has told us that clouds don't work if they are constrained the way they are for the Constitution," Fragrance reported. Indicating points on a board that had every pegasus nodding, but most others just stared and smiled politely.

"So they could duplicate her with the salvaged engines?" the Big Guy asked.

"On a smaller scale, say 2/3'd the length, width, breadth, and thus 8/27th the mass, or about 30%. Not the leviathan the Constitution is, but still plenty big," Fragrance said and glanced at the diplomats, "And certain persons within the Inventor Corps are already forwarding their findings to their respective governments." She smiled at them, as some of them looked a tad guilty. "Exactly as we planned," she said, relieving some, confusing others, "Every nation will get the tech at the same time."

The Big Guy nodded. Fragrance sat down to get to her breakfast. Hotaru trotted to 'the stage', her wolf a bit closer than normal, and the she-wolf a bit more peeved with him.

"Molly B has 'ripened' a large force," Hotaru said, "And they will be ready to strike on 'The Day'. I doubt she'll get another harvest off before we deal with the other monster, and it's unlikely they'll be at acceptable strength before that time."

"Was your tampering detected?" Vladimir asked.

The she-wolf tried to be the very essence of innocence, then saw no one was buying it. "They'll suffer periodic combat paralysis, enough to make them easy meat for our fighters, and . . . they aren't too bright."

"I'd love to know how you did that," Fragrance said.

"Trade secret," Hotaru said and glared at her wolf friend, who did the innocent bit better than Hotaru did. She headed back to her breakfast, and Tom hovered into position. He projected a short film to accent his points.

"Evidently, our friend can get bored," Tom added, "It stopped throwing itself at the same spot, although it had thinned the distance by a quarter. It is now moving in both directions along the wall, throwing itself at the wall a few times, then moving farther. The first half will outflank the wall in a day and a half, and add about half a day to its travel time. If nothing changes, it will be on the field of battle in four days' time, early afternoon."

"A hearty breakfast for the condemned," Derpy said, "Which I hope will be it, not us."

"Equestria has trains ready to evacuate people: ponies and non, beyond the southern border," Glory said, and glanced at Sir Eagle Bell who sat beside her. The older unicorn nodded to urge her on. "All of Equestria's military and other assets are available should you need them."

"Short of their Highnesses blasting it with the sun, even the Diarchy lacks the resources we need," Vladimir said and nodded, "But the thought is appreciated."

"We will take advantage of the Equestrian trains to evacuate all our elderly and infirm. Some are too stubborn to go, and they will view our success or failure from close up," Will o' Wisp said, "As for their military, I don't think that there is anything more to do. But we do thank you."

Glory nodded.

Glorious Sunrise rose and took center stage. "We also have resources, scouts and warriors. While the Schmooze is beyond our ability, the machinations of Molybdenum Blossom are within our capabilities, and we offer all that we can spare to ward your city, and your warriors, from her treachery in the air," the grim, old griffon said, "I offer my personal services to assist your plans. I doubt there are many who have fought flying bandits as much as I have."

"Thank you," Will o' Wisp said, "How soon can they be here?"

The old griffon preened a wing nervously. "They'll be arriving in an hour," Glorious Sunrise said and shrugged, "A senile, old bird could get away with calling them early. But I thought you'd agree. Needs matters much."

Will o' Wisp shrugged. "I sometimes feel a bit of flotsam in a maelstrom. When I, we, have a firmer grasp of things, we may object more strongly to unasked for help arriving on our doorstep unannounced, but for this, with the fire at our threshold, every hoof and paw that can dig a fire break or carry a bucket of water is welcome."

"I suggest that any Equestrian 'volunteers' be seconded to the griffon corps and Glorious Sunrise," Discord said, "I'm all for chaos, but it isn't a suicide pact."

"Seconded," Will o' Wisp said, then looked around sheepishly, "Sorry, still getting used to this."

"Good to hear. The plant dragons who came over to us also wanted to help," Selene said as she took the stage, "So Dinky suggested 'D-Day stripes.'" They appeared over an image of the dragons. "Alternating black and white stripes on their wings, to differentiate them from Molly B's dragons. We have a team mixing up some nontoxic paint to make the stripes with."

Vladimir nodded as Selene left in favor of Holly Hock, who set up an easel with several charts on it.

"Food for the troops isn't a problem," Holly Hock said and indicated the potential sources for each recipient species, "Not with me here at least. While nominally in Equestria's service, I won't turn aside a hungry mouth, it's not in me to do so."

Will O' Wisp nodded.

"We few, we happy few," Discord said, "We band of brothers; for on that day they that sweats and strives with me shall be my brother. Be her species mine or not, the day shall render it moot. And doughty warriors safe at home, shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, and hold their valor and vain-glorying cheap while any speaks that fought with us upon the fated day."

No one found it funny, and accepted Discord hadn't meant it to be.

------------------------------

"Four days," Celestia said as she paced the 'Sun Room', Woona, the Elements and their Bearers arrayed around her in her private office. "We haven't been asked, but they have not exactly turned away any offers of help."

"We can be up there, kick that thing's flank and be back for dinner!" Rainbow announced as she jumped in the air, she gestured to her Element, "Let's go get it."

"The Elements might not be the simple solution to this creature," Woona said, "And as for kicking its flank, imagine bucking every tree of Sweet Apple Acres, five times, in one day."

Even Rainbow blanched at that and settled to the ground. "We'll never know if we don't try," she offered, although without a lot of her former enthusiasm.

"That's a lot of bucking even fer you," Applejack said, "That would be a lot of apple-buckin' fer the whole Apple family."

"We will go," Celestia assured them, "And we will use the Elements, but at an opportune time. But that opportune time is not today, I just wanted to warn you all to be ready."

"Hmm, if we used my Party Cannon Mark 3, we can get there lickety-split," Pinkie said.

"How about we just fire something at the Schmooze?" Twilight said, then frowned, "Those librarians for a start."

"Easy Sugarcube, down girl," Applejack said.

Celestia paused, her hoof in her chin. "Oh, Pinkie Pie, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind stopping by those librarians to discuss planning a wake," Celestia said.

" 'A wake'? I've got some notes from another job, but why a wake?" Pinkie asked, "And why're they so popular all of a sudden?"

"They want to go back home," Celestia said, "I told them I would send them back."

"The ones we rescued from that inferno," Applejack said, "Why in tarnation would they wanna go back, ta git roasted."

"I don't think they thoroughly thought it through," Celestia said, "But one thing I have learned from Discord and the Big Guy is that sometimes, the worst thing you can do to a pony, is give them everything they say they want. When they stop wishing, then they start thinking."

"A wake will surely get them thinking," Pinkie said, then grinned evilly as she rubbed her hooves together, "So, lots of blackened veggies, and candles and well, so on."

"That sounds awfully mean," Fluttershy said.

Pinkie nodded. "It is, but sometimes the nicest thing you can give somepony, is a buck in the head."

"By George, I think she's got it!" Discord said and patted Rainbow on the head, then licked his hand. "Doesn't taste like much."

Celestia steeled herself for Discord's usual bannanange. Instead he turned to Twilight. "So, have you finished reading it?"

Twilight blushed and nodded. "It seems, oddly disjointed."

"Please don't do that," Fluttershy muttered, "Limbs aren't supposed to bend that way."

"Sorry, just trying to be illustrative, or illustrious," Discord said as he straightened his arms and legs, "Or both. Any part you want discussed in detail, at a grand sourie - "

"Soiree," Twilight said.

"We were discussing the Canterlot literary elite. Sourie is correct." He wrapped an arm around Pinkie's neck and described, "Imagine a wonderful party they can all snub and cast their grand sneers at, as I achieve literally brilliance among the masses. Like Wingstorm Chirphill, Bludyard Cripwing, and Fang the Insegrevious."

Pinkie 'bleched' and slipped out of his grasp.

"I've never heard of those," Twilight said.

"Oh course not, they don't publish in Equestria. You must really expand your literary horizons," Discord said as he got eye to eye with Twilight, "There's so many thoughts and scholars beyond ponydom."

He nearly had Twilight trembling with excitement again. Her grin matching his own.

"Oh, sorry, I forgot, they haven't published yet. Keeping your head in the future can make things so confusing some times," Discord said as he pulled back out of bite range. "Oh, I forgot," he said and hastily assembled a door frame, "I heard you might need this." He briefly opened the door to an inferno, then shut it just as quickly. "It's a prop, unless they really want to go through with it."

"That looked like the Golden Oaks Library!" Twilight exclaimed, "My home!"

"Alternate universe, but one library inferno is pretty much like any other," Discord said.

Twilight stared at him. "There's universes where my home burns down?! What about the rest of Ponyville?"

" 'Home', 'my'," Discord said to Celestia, "You've made progress with her." He turned to Twilight. "Yes, there are even universes where Applejack and I are happily married and Celestia is jealous. Many things are possible in the multiverse."

"Multiverse sounds gross," Applejack said.

"Oh dear, you disapprove." He waved a fan to cool the vapors, then turned to Applejack. "But was I telling the truth?" Discord asked and grinned.

Applejack closed her eyes. "Yes."

"See, some truth is not worth knowing," Discord said.

"Are you here for a reason?" Celestia asked, a bit more politely than she had in the past.

"Not a reason, no. A rhyme yes, but not a reason. Well, to deliver the door, to ask if you have any fancy mustard," Discord said, accepted the jar from Pinkie Pie. He unscrewed the lid. The fumes set his head on fire. He screwed the lid back on. "Needs to be 20% stronger," Discord said as the flames went out, "And I need a 55-gallon drum of it. Maybe several."

Rarity politely cleared her throat and pointed to the burning ember at the tip of Discord's horn. He extinguished it between two fingers.

"None of that rhymes," Rainbow said.

"Then I'm without reason or rhyme," Discord said. Everypony groaned.

Pinkie set the drum beside him.

Discord stared at it. "Well, someone's an overachiever," Discord said.

"Derpy delivered your request letter just after sunup," Pinkie said, "Had an idea about some hot sauce I brewed up once. It was even spicier than pure rainbow juice."

"What's in that stuff?" Rainbow asked as she tapped the drum, when it rumbled back, Applejack had a Rainbow shadow. Applejack glared at the pegasus.

"Rainbows, peppers, mustard, a few secret herbs and spices, and a punch of rocks that really hate to be squeezed," Pinkie said.

"You mean 'bunch'," Twilight said.

"No, punch," Pinkie said and did a little shadow boxing. Her shadow won by knockdown.

"You brought that on the train?" Applejack exclaimed.

"Naw," Pinkie said as her shadow helped her up, "I mixed it up in the kitchen here."

"What are you gonna do with that stuff?" Rainbow said as she circled the drum, careful not to touch it. "Feed it to the Schmooze to give it a tummy ache?" Rainbow glanced around. "Or the other problem with really spicy food?"

"Nope!" Pinkie said brightly, "We intend to give it an existential crisis."

"A what?" Rarity asked, "And how is this supposed to do that?"

Discord whispered to Rarity, but the subtitles in Equestrian and Saddle Arabian read, ' "Believe me," Discord said, "You taste this stuff, and all you can think about is 'why am I alive?'"'

Everypony took a step back from the drum.

------------------------------

"Are? You? Kidding me?" the Big Guy exclaimed.

Half the Inventor Corps took cover behind benches, pillars and tables in the Inventors' Hall. Flim and Flam stood before him, their knees knocking.

"It's the most obvious thing in the world!" the Big Guy said in a much more controlled tone. Blast gear was hastily donned and sandbags appeared in low revetments.

"Wee!" Selene shouted as she and Dinky zipped past.

"You guys could've made a fortune on this, and you flat out didn't think of it?" the Big Guy said as he pulled his 'wand' from its holster, sat down on the throw rug and levitated it into the air, "Every unicorn can move small objects, some aren't good with certain materials, but you just make sure all the carpets have a metal mesh in the normal weave, so those bad with cloth but good with metal aren't left out." He hovered over the ground, circling the pair like a tide-locked moon. "They'd sell like hot cakes, and you could even install seat belts."

"Seat belts?" Flam asked as he uncoiled from his brother. He was realizing they weren't going to die together, at least not today.

"Straps to keep ponies, passengers and cargo from falling off," the Big Guy said.

"This is fun!" Dinky said as she circled the Big Guy on her own carpet, "Now I can travel with momma and she doesn't have to carry me!"

"I think she likes carrying you, but you could get a big enough carpet and let her ride while you fly. You can trade off on long trips."

"Momma! Momma!" Dinky shouted as she zipped out of the room with Selene on her own carpet, in hot pursuit.

"I guess humans automatically think of riding - facilities," the Big Guy said, and patted Flim on the shoulder, "Either trained, unintelligent animals, or mechanical contrivances." He landed gently.

"That's covered unicorns," a large minotaur said as she stepped out from the cowering crowd, "What about Minotaurs and Diamond Dogs?"

"And Earth ponies?" Flim added hastily.

"Pinkamena Diana Pie of Ponyville already has that covered," the Big Guy said, "Now let's see about getting some of these made or converted to add unicorns to the mix, and whatever others are brave enough to serve as gunners, bombardiers and navigators."

------------------------------

The monks watched the ponies set down the section of track, and finish rolling the railcar up to the doors of the monastery.

The eldest monk went out to greet them. Wondering what else Celestia's sense of humor would reveal about their new guests. The abbot normally met newcomers, but he was busily unlocking the door marked 'In Case of Stupids'. With eighty-seven locks, three magic riddles and a simple, common-sense test, to prevent accidental/dumb luck entry, it might take a while.

------------------------------

Vladimir had no idea what the fuss was about, but the Changeling guards seemed to think it was funny, rather than terrifying, so Vladimir didn't order them to tell him. A small security force accompanied him, and they too were all smirking. That needed to be addressed. "Sergeant, you've been hanging around the Big Guy and Discord too much."

Slightly chagrined, the sergeant began taking whatever it was seriously as they entered the railroad marshaling yard where Equestrian trains were arriving, and a few, filled with the sick, wounded and displaced, were leaving for Equestria.

He couldn't really see what they were heading for, but the bits and pieces filled him with dread, for two reasons. First, it seemed a large group of large, rather burly ponies of all types, and second, he had a flicker of recognition that he couldn't quite come to grips with. When he spotted Marigold and Railroad Tie among the crowd, it all fell into place.

The enthusiastic hug from his niece twice-removed surprised him. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!" Marigold told him as Railroad Tie patted him on the shoulder, the stallion's grin was infectious.

"So I take it that was one thing Celestia didn't reverse from my 'tantrum'," Vladimir said.

Marigold released him and shook her head. "Cadence wouldn't let her," she said, "And Sir Eagle Belle also 'banished' us to the far-reaches of Equestria. We were married on the train." She positively beamed at Railroad Tie.

"You had me fooled," Railroad Tie said to Vladimir and hugged Marigold.

"So you aren't here for revenge," Vladimir said, letting his relief show, then his curiosity, "Why are you here? It isn't exactly safe."

"To join up."

Vladimir wasn't sure which of several voices had said that. He shook his head. "One at a time, I am sure I'm hearing things."

"We want to join up," Railroad Tie said, he looked at the others, "We may be 'ruffians', but we know about moving things. If you don't win here, we'll be facing it in Equestria, at our doorstep. Better to fight it alongside you and face it together."

Vladimir glanced over his shoulder at the approaching griffon force. "I'm beginning to understand why Princess Celestia was afraid of him." He turned back to the group. "Let's go see Discord and Derpy."

"Who would have thought you'd say that?" Marigold said.

"We have changed," Vladimir said as he led over a hundred ponies to the practice grounds.

------------------------------

The Big Guy looked up, and saw Pinkie entering. "I'm glad you could make it." He slid the tic-tac-toe board over to her. "Just something I was curious about."

Pinkie grinned. "I'll let you know, I never lose."

"Then you won't mind giving me the first move?" he asked.

"Go ahead."

He took the center square. Pinkie took the top right corner. He put one in the top center. Pinkie put one bottom center. He put one in the bottom right corner. She answered with the top left corner. He added the left center. She put one in the bottom right and completed her diagonal.

"Told you," she said and grinned.

He smiled back, as he kept smiling, Pinkie's ears drooped.

"Oops," she said.

"Yeah, oops," he said, feeling not much satisfaction.

Pinkie looked around worriedly. "You aren't going to tell anypony - anybody, are you?" she asked and smiled hopefully.

"Can you do anything about the Schmooze?" he asked.

Pinkie sighed. "Yes."

"But you won't? Why not? Everybody, everything now hangs in the balance. My plan is the best plan, but there's still a chance it might not work," the Big Guy said, trying not to shout, "If you have a solution, you should be using it."

"You don't understand!" Pinkie shouted as she paced. She got control of herself and faced him. "The cure will be worse than the disease," she admitted. Her smile was still there, but she was struggling to keep it. "I can tell you that you and the others are on the right track. Despair will draw it into the killing ground you have planned. The Elements cannot affect it. You'd need continent-affecting powers. That means the Sun or Moon, or . . . what you are planning to do." She looked worried now. "Does that mean you're going to tell them?"

"No, but I will urge you to tell them. Tom's already figured it out. So has Selene. So the irony there is writ large. I got a big lecture on balance from the both of them. But balance doesn't forgive keeping secrets like that. Your friends are going to need to know the truth. And you are going to need to tell them." He held up a hand to silence her protest. "Not all at once, and maybe not all together. But you have to lay out all the pieces for them to put together. That way it isn't so much a 'how could you have lied to us', it is a 'how did we never make the connections'. People don't feel so bad when you are trying to make them think outside the box and they didn't, rather than being lied to."

"Yeah, I have sort of 'become the mask'," Pinkie admitted, "But, all my friends, all the ponies I know." She shyly scuffed a hoof on the floor while she looked down. "All the people I love. I can't give that up. You weren't here when I thought I lost them all."

"I can guess, from what I heard about Twilight's actions after Discord, or Fluttershy at the Gala, or Applejack trying to buck all of Sweet Apple Acres," he told her, "I was here for all that Celestia has been going through in regards to me, and facing Celly, Luna and Woona's actions. To say nothing of Discord's and Hotaru's change of heart and new methods. But I'll say again, you have to lay down a trail of breadcrumbs for them. You don't have to lead them to the truth, in fact it might serve you better if they each thought something different. Then they can sneak up on the idea together."

Pinkie nodded. She looked worried. "What about Maud? And my folks?"

"What about them? Maud seems content. I assume the rest of your family are living happy, healthy lives. They are people, real people, just like Applejack, Twilight, Celestia and Discord. Maud seems to be level-headed. She'll deal with what is, rather than angst about it." He sighed. "Besides, with Discord and Tom running around, you don't think I didn't go talk to her first did you?"

------------------------------

Cadence, Shining and Tom stood and watched the griffon force approach. The flying warriors looked at the circle of ponies, who marked out landing zone, with undisguised contempt. The leader was a tough, old bird.

"Girl," Tom said, "That means Cadence goes."

"I'm hardly a fearless leader," Cadence said.

"Being a hero isn't about not being afraid," Shining said, "It's about putting the fear aside and doing your job. Besides, you did fight in the battle of Canterlot. You're no ingenue."

Cadence nodded as the griffons began landing. Cadence approached and noted that the leader started when the ponies began stamping out a complicated rhythm. She felt herself falling into step.

The crowd snarled out a short, inarticulate bark, the griffons grew nervous, but the leader's gaze fixed on Cadence calmly marching towards her. The additional 'drumming' and shouts by the ponies were recognized for what they were, and the griffons began relaxing.

"The Boast is an honorable greeting among griffon war-leaders," Tom whispered to Armor.

"You are strong, but we are strong too," Armor whispered back, "I wish we'd do that in Equestria, it would make dealing with them easier."

"Too few ponies could carry it off," Tom said as Cadence approached the leader, "And song is a pony-motif, not a griffon practice."

"Using it seems to have intimidated them somewhat," Shining said as Cadence confronted the griffon who was as tall as she, and burlier.

The pink alicorn of love stared at the she-griffon. " 'Look in these eyes, these eyes don't lie. And they say if you don't blink, then you don't die.'"

"Def Leppard helps in that regard," Tom said.

------------------------------

The Royal Express Coach seemed awfully small when both rulers, five of the Bearers and Philomena were all packed in.

"Are you sure some vitamins wouldn't help?" Fluttershy asked as she stared as Philomena. The poor bird coughed and more of her feathers fell to the floor. Fluttershy cringed at the sight.

Celestia tried to sound sympathetic, and not troll the poor mare mercilessly. "It's a natural part of a phoenix's life-cycle. She'll soon complete her cycle and rise renewed," Celestia explained, grateful that Philomena's notorious sense of humor didn't cause her to give a death rattle at that point.

Celestia looked over at Twilight, who had her nose buried in several books, and Spike was making sure the stack of books Twilight had reviewed didn't grow too tall and fall over and hurt somepony.

It was Applejack staring pensively at Celestia and Woona that drew Celestia's attention. "Are you all right, Applejack?" Celestia asked as she carefully stepped over and among the ponies to keep her mane and tail from swatting somepony.

I know speed is important, but there has to be something between this and a regular railcar, she thought briefly.

"Oh, beg pardon fer starin', but I was thinkin' about something Applebloom said that made me particular uncomfortable," Applejack said as she fidgeted with her hat.

Celestia briefly wished she could tell Applejack to put it back on her head, but that would make the mare more uncomfortable, not less. "Would you like to share it?"

"Yes'm, ya see, Applebloom called me a 'great warrior'. Now Shining Armor might take it as a big compliment, but fer me . . . I can't get comfortable with that," Applejack said, "I just want ta be a good apple farmer."

Celestia nodded.

"But I was thinkin' about you and Woona, versus Celly and Luna. I think they'd be like Shining Armor, take that as a compliment, but you and Woona would be like me, kind of uncomfortable about it all. It's true, but you'd really rather it wasn't, or that nopony thought about you that way."

Celestia nodded. "A difficult problem," Celestia admitted, "And a good observation. Any conclusions yet?"

Applejack looked briefly crestfallen, but shook her head 'no'.

------------------------------

Pinkie pulled back into the cupboard and stifled a giggle as she watched Jackpot Venture and Smoky Bolt whispering furiously to each other. You both deserve it, she thought as she overheard the pair discussing snippets of the conversation she'd had with the Big Guy, while the pair of miscreants had been 'detained' in the outer office. She almost laughed as they fearfully made the incredibly obvious conclusions she and the Big Guy had hoped they'd jump to. And then wondered whether Derpy, or they, were the same as Maud and the rest of Pinkie's family, or if they were 'real' ponies.

Best prank ever, she thought happily, As if even he'd figure out the real truth.

Pinkie briefly considered the rumors that would spread. She shook her head. Naw, let them spread, I can explain the whole thing to Maud, she'll think it's funny, and she'll tell the others. Maybe dad will even smile at the joke. She turned around and happily trotted away.

------------------------------

Celestia was nearly at her wit's end as she entered Sombra's study with the Bearers and a hoofful of others. Then a whole new realm and level of outre evil appeared before her and the others, and she looked around in horror. The conversations died the instant they laid eyes on the place. No one dared whimper. The place seemed at once utterly alien, and utterly comprehensible. That was the really, horribly disturbing thing. It would be all too easy for any 'divine' ruler to fall into this madness. Or to be consumed by the trappings and your own worries, she thought as she looked at Discord and the Big Guy seemingly immune to what affected all the ponies who looked around as if besieged by biting flies they couldn't see, Or is it just a pony thing? To concentrate on what we think we are and what our problems are and force us to act on those problems with our inherent nature, unwilling to step outside ourselves.

She glanced at Philomena, who was looking around nervously as if affected by what afflicted the ponies. Celestia dreaded another friendly suggestion from Fluttershy about the phoenix's present condition. She really does look bad, but Fluttershy can't let go of the idea of 'curing' her. Then she looked at the terrified pegasus, whose wild-eyed fear had gone beyond running away shrieking to mute acceptance of whatever would happen. Okay, a question would be better than dull, brain-numbed terror, Celestia thought. She looked over the others, and saw even Twilight was subdued, no questions bubbled in her active mind. The miasma of the room and what it represented had beaten even her.

That the Crystal Ponies and the Equestrian ex-patriots stood within it with little obvious effect worried her. Have they already fallen to Sombra's spell, that this . . . this place has so little effect on them?

Her dread increased as the Big Guy approached the stand the phoenix was perching on.

"I wish to register a complaint," the Big Guy said as he looked over Philomena, "Hello, Miss?"

"What do you mean 'miss'?" Celestia asked as Discord and Tom approached.

"I'm sorry, I have a cold," the Big Guy said as he looked at Discord, "I wish to make a complaint about this phoenix and its incredibly obvious state."

Celestia cringed inwardly. We've never gotten along, but I really don't want to explain this here and now, not in this place, not again.

Discord looked at Philomena then at the Big Guy. "Oh yes, the Equestrian Phoenix. What's wrong with it?"

The Big Guy stared at Discord. "It's dead, that's what's wrong with it!"

Celestia ignored the gasp from the others, and briefly focused on Fluttershy's silent tears.

Discord shook his head. "No, no, she's just resting."

The Big Guy stared at Philomena who was standing stock still, eyes closed with her tongue hanging out. "Look, kiddo, I know a dead phoenix when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now."

Discord tried to lead him away. "No, no she's not dead. She's resting! Remarkable bird, the Equestrian Phoenix." Discord scooped up a pawful of Philomena's fallen feathers. "Beautiful plumage!"

The Big Guy stared from bird to feathers. "The plumage don't enter into it. It's still dead."

Discord blocked the Big Guy's approach to Philomena. "Nononono, she's resting!"

The Big Guy looked at Discord's rather desperate smile and smiled back. "All right then, if 'she's resting', I'll wake her up!"

Celestia hadn't heard such a noise in a long time.

"Hello, Dear Phoenix! I've got a lovely, fresh Molotov for you if you wake up Phoenix!"

Everypony jumped at that, even Philomena jerked at that noise.

"There," Discord announced happily, "She moved!"

"No, she didn't, that was you hitting the stand!" the Big Guy accused.

Discord's outraged innocence was no act this time. "I didn't!!"

This time he shouted right at Philomena. "HELLO PHOENIX!!!!! I've got a lovely kerosene salad if you wake up Phoenix! Phoenix!"

Philomena swung down and dangled upside down from her perch, eyes closed and tongue hanging out. There was a snort from Applejack and Pinkie Pie had a look of revelation rather than horror.

"Now that's what I call a dead phoenix," the Big Guy told Discord.

Discord looked very peeved in response. "She's stunned!"

"STUNNED?!?"

"Yeah!" Discord said getting nose-to-nose with the Big Guy, "You stunned her, just as she was wakin' up!" Discord leaned back with a dismissive air. "Equestrian Phoenixes stun easily."

"Now look here, you, I've definitely had enough of this." The Big Guy pointed at Philomena. "That phoenix is definitely deceased, and when you warned me about this, you assured me that her total lack of movement was due to her being tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk."

"Well, I couldn't tell you the real reason," Discord said, "You would have laughed at me."

" 'Real reason'?" the Big Guy asked, in worryingly calm tones.

"Yeah, she's . . . " Discord scratched the back of his head. "She's, ah . . . probably pining for the fjords. Silly isn't it?" He grinned, and looked at the Big Guy's absolutely neutral expression.

The Big Guy's tone was so quiet, it was hard to hear, " 'Pining for the fjords'?"

He became very audible next, "WHAT KIND OF TALK IS THAT?!?!?!?"

Discord backed away, hands raised as if to surrender, the Big Guy advanced. "Why did she fall flat on her back the moment she arrived?"

"The Equestrian Phoenix prefers kipping on it's back!" Discord said soothingly, "Remarkable bird, isn't she? Beautiful plumage!"

"Look, I took the liberty of examining that phoenix a moment ago, and I discovered that the only reason that she had been sitting on her perch in the first place, was that she had been NAILED there."

Philomena glanced at her feet and nodded vigorously. When Twilight snorted while covering her muzzle, the oppressive clouds parted for Celestia. She suddenly realized this was a skit. They're doing it to relieve us! she thought as her horror ebbed and the desire to laugh grew.

"Well, of course she was nailed there!" Discord explained, "If they hadn't nailed that bird to the perch, she would have nuzzled up to those bars, bent 'em apart with her little pecker, and VOOM!" He indicated the phoenix sailing into the sky.

" 'VOOM'?!? That bird wouldn't 'voom' if you strapped a rocket to it! She's bleedin' demised!"

"No, no! She's pining!"

"She's not pinin'! She's passed on! This phoenix is no more! She has ceased to be! She's expired and gone to meet her maker! She's a stiff! Bereft of life, she rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed her to the perch, she'd be pushing up the daisies!"

Philomena kept nodding, until the Big Guy glanced in her direction, then she instantly resumed being 'dead'.

"Her metabolic processes are now history! She's off the twig! She's kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible!!"

When he extended a pointed finger towards the phoenix, Philomena latched onto his finger and hung upside down from it.

The Big Guy held the dangling bird in front of Discord's face. It was clear now Philomena was struggling to contain her laughter, trying to hide her head under her featherless wing. "THIS! IS! AN! EX! PHOENIX!!"

That was it for Philomena, she, unlike the others who were ready to burst out laughing, burst into flames and her ashes showered to the ground. Both the Big Guy, whose arm was still covered with phoenix fire without ill-effect, and Discord stared at the pile of ashes. As did everypony in the room.

"Well, I'd better replace it, then," Discord said.

------------------------------

Derpy pulled out of the dive and watched the package sail straight into the target. She smirked briefly as the griffons hovering over the target range stared at the accuracy of the drop. "That's how it's done," she told the smirking collection of griffons. The changelings snickered at the griffons. Derpy's accuracy was approaching the legendary among both groups.

"It certainly is," Derpy heard from almost behind her.

She spun around and tried to yank her hat from her head, before she remembered she wasn't wearing one. "Postmaster Right Wing!" she stammered, nearly falling over in surprise at seeing the leader of the entire Equestrian Postal Service, as well as dozens of the instructors and 'special agents' who investigated mail fraud and theft of mail. Rough and ready ponies all.

"At ease," Right Wing said, "We aren't in Equestria, and as I understand it, you are the Head Postmaster here."

"No, sir, I'd never, that is -" she stammered as she settled nervously to the ground.

The 'Empress' of the changelings reached over and firmly closed Derpy's mouth. "You don't have to defend yourself, and he is right, you've extended the postal service here." The old changeling looked Derpy in both eyes, and Derpy felt calmer. "I think he and the others are more interested in the special deliveries you've been teaching the griffons to make."

"Oh." Derpy perked up. "These are just weighted containers, the real stuff is being brewed over there." She gestured to an area in the distance surrounded by what looked like a grounded thunderstorm, except the occasional bolt shot skyward, and the thunder preceded the lightning. "The key thing is mass, accurate delivery. The griffons have the synchronized mass part down, but the accuracy, well, it isn't up to our standards."

"That's putting it mildly. She could drop that through a thunderstorm and still hit a pickle barrel," one of the griffons said.

"A lot of that is experience, but training helps a lot," Right Wing replied, "That's what we're here to help with." Right Wing saluted. "By your leave, Postmaster."

Derpy tried to answer three times, before she gave up and just nodded.

------------------------------

Dinky hovering over the Big Guy on a carpet, roasting marshmallows on the phoenix fire still dancing on his head, had been enough for the more 'serious' as well as the more laughter-prone to have to run from the room, formerly 'Sombra's office'. Philomena, restored and healthy, had fallen off her perch in rib-splitting laughter twice, and looked on the verge of doing it again. Celestia glanced about the room before thinking, The moment of insanity among Philomena, Discord and the Big Guy has broken the terror of Sombra's office.

She looked around, and found she couldn't keep from smiling within this horrible place as she thought, Now and forever it will be known as the place they did the phoenix bit. She looked at Twilight and Rarity hovering over the sand table on their own carpets, and Rainbow's rather mulish expression in regards 'flying unicorns'. Another blow against Sombra's shadow, she thought and smiled.

The map and battle plan laid out now looked like a mighty practical joke, rather than the act of desperation Celestia would have regarded it as a few hours ago. But it is militarily sound as well, Celestia thought as she looked it over, But I also understand the hidden purpose as well.

"I wish I could convince you to take Molybdenum Blossom's base now, and then deal with the Schmooze when it arrives," Twilight said as she moved over the critical locations.

"No, the plan requires a balance of forces and actions," Shining Armor said, "While it seems counterintuitive, the creature does have enough sentience to have a morale. We can't destroy it, but we can force its retreat. If it retreats of its own accord, because of a morale question, it'll stay in a retreat mode for far longer."

Twilight and the others accepted this.

"My question is: what are you going to do with the massive forces that you've assembled?" the griffon general asked, "It would seem nothing would be beyond you."

"If we drive back the Schmooze, all this land will become available, and it was all part of the Crystal Empire," Vladimir said, "If we have territorial ambitions, those are obvious and open to us, without conflict with our neighbors. Administration of them and their resettlement will preclude having the resources, or the need, to direct our attention elsewhere."

Celestia was amazed at how much Blue . . . Vladimir had changed. Instead of a whining denial or protest of his innocence, he acknowledges the concern and points out the logical relief valve to the impulse. She regretted her assumption that his clumsy attempts at friendship in his youth were his mother's typical ham-handedness, instead of a child's honest albeit ingenuous attempt. The best I can hope for is to be tolerated. Otherwise, anything I do is part of the 'Great Game' between me and his mother.

"There is some disbelief that the Crystals will stand against this foe. Unlike the Equestrians, the griffons have a history about the Schmooze," Glorious Sunrise said, "The griffons have to screw up their courage and are able to function, while ponies tend to freeze."

"Not all of them," the Big Guy said, "The ponies need to really believe in what they are doing, and care about the people around them. As Derpy said, as long as you know you're loved, the Schmooze doesn't matter."

"While they were impressed by Cadence, we'll still need something to convince them the once-Equestrians are fierce," Glorious Sunrise said.

"I'll do something tomorrow," the Big Guy said, "I've got something that would be perfect."

At his expression, and the griffon's retreat, Celestia laughed again.

------------------------------

Fluttershy had left the group, and was walking through the corridors of the castle. She knew the guards, as well as the 'civilians who happened to be around her' were all changelings. They are friends now, she thought as she trotted up to look out over the city from a balcony high up in the tower. She remembered her charge across the fields with the army. The poor Crystal Ponies who'd watched them with such trepidation, now she saw them walking, selling, and generally being ponies. But no foals, no fillies or colts, she thought, Is it just taking this long, or can't they have any?

She put her chin on the railing and just watched, as she often just watched her animals. Trying to see the simple patterns of their lives. A few days is too little time to birth a new generation, but they might have had them in hiding. No, they would have brought them out by now, to proudly show them, or get them safely south to Equestrian. Her mood dropped a bit. There aren't any, she thought as she watched.

Why does that make me so sad? she considered herself, and her friends, Maybe because that's our fate. Cadence found a soul-mate, but only before she became a princess. As long as we are the Bearers, our lives, our families and our own dreams and hopes are secondary. Is that why I instantly liked the Big Guy, because as long as he was around, I'd have less chance to be called away to act as a Bearer?

I love my friends, and I understand why we have to go on all these scary adventures. But when will we be free of them? Twilight was Celestia's student. But the rest of us have, had, hopes and dreams of our own, lives we now treat as a necessary sacrifice. Did Celestia know, is that why she gave up the Elements? At the moment she used them against Nightmare, did they reject her, or did she reject them? Does she even know? Or are we to be 'The Bearers' until we set down all our responsibilities in this life? If that's true, it's cruel. She watched the Crystal Ponies go about their lives, and thought.

------------------------------

"That's horrible!" Celestia said, her outrage more pro forma than felt, she wasn't alone with struggling not to laugh or smile.

"Derpy's working on mass delivery, and we already have several hundred gallons ready to go," the Big Guy said.

"Not premixed I hope!" Pinkie said with alarm. The idea of Pinkie being afraid of something was more frightening than even the idea of the Schmooze.

"Good Lord no," Discord said, "The ginger and ground rainbows go in the day of, preflight." Then he turned to a certain blue pegasus.

"Nowhere near spicy enough," Hotaru said dismissively.

Rainbow face hoofed at the joke.

"I know it's risky," Vladimir said, "But it's all set up. The real blow will come down other avenues."

"We've got the Elements," Rainbow said as she orbited above the former Blueblood, "Why don't we just use them now?"

"Be my guest," Vladimir said, "If you can overcome the paralysis, and stay true enough to your element, then go ahead. Just consider you are talking about something the size of a small country. The Elements are effective against point targets, who happened to be inharmonious. You didn't use them on the dragon you challenged. Because they wouldn't have worked there either."

"I still say we should try!" Rainbow said.

"It isn't me, or any Crystal Pony you need permission from, you already have it," Vladimir said, "It's your friends and rulers."

Celestia felt every eye on her again. She shook her head. "The Schmooze is not unharmonic enough for the Elements to have a bite. It has to be more awake . . . " She trailed off. "That's what you're doing! Waking it up, to put it back."

"Precisely," Discord said, "While I and the other statues were and are aware, at differing levels, the Schmooze is acting on reflex from its last conscious thought. And even when it was awake, it wasn't evil, any more than one animal eating another is evil. It's just so big, it doesn't notice anything smaller than Celly after a cake-feast."

Applejack ignored Celestia and Celly's grimaces. "So y'all are converting it from Rainbow Dash ta Fluttershy?"

Discord materialized a mortarboard and placed it on Applejack's head, moving the tassel to indicate a doctoral graduate. "Very well put, better than anyone else," Discord said and grinned at the Big Guy. Applejack blushed at the praise, and approval of her friends, and former foes.

"Hey, I'm not that bad!" Rainbow insisted.

"I've talked with Tank," Discord said.

The Equestrians looked uncomfortable.

Twilight glanced around. "Where's Spike?"

"Charming the mane off a young lady who really could use the company," Rarity said and sighed, "It seems I've lost the second place in his heart."

Twilight's expression twisted to deeply thought out confusion. "Who has first?" Twilight asked.

The she wolf looked at the Big Guy. "You want to explain philios, eros and agape, again?" Hotaru asked him.

------------------------------

Day 87

"No rest for the wicked," Tom said as the group assembled for breakfast, "It's advancing on schedule, the dragons are rounding up a force to send, but they won't be here until two days after we need them. Celestia and her group arrived home safely." Tom glanced at Discord's empty place. "I think someone is having breakfast at the palace."

"Good for him," Cadence said.

"I think we should pull you," Tom said and looked at Luna, "And you, from the battle-lines, and move Celly from the command post."

"Why?" Cadence asked, "I've proved myself."

"Let us just say you're more valuable as a mother than a warrior."

Cadence touched her belly, her eyes wide. Luna was similarly thunderstruck.

"Oh boy!" Dinky announced, "Selene's gonna be a cousin and a sister!"

The shoe dropped for everypony else and the breakfast was set aside for the congratulations to the pair, and to Shining Armor and the Big Guy.

"Proof that life goes on," Vladimir said as he resumed his seat, "At this rate, Celestia is going to have to raise Twilight to an alicorn just to keep up."

Everyone had a good laugh about that.

A pair of slightly singed and still smoldering unicorns arrived. Flim and Flam waved off the concerns. "Pinkie's Brew is not usable in cannons," Flim said.

"As powder, or projectile," Flam added.

"I didn't see a cloud," the Big Guy said, "What happened?"

"The cannon sort of dissolved," Flim said.

"The projectile sort of sprung a leak, and where it burned . . . " He gestured vaguely skyward. "Maybe it hit the moon," Flam said.

"Well you can still raise and lower a puddle of goo, can't you?" Hotaru asked Luna.

"Sound like a 'Chief Redcloud'," the Big Guy said, then explained, "Red fuming nitric acid, an early propellant, would appear as a dark, red cloud if it leaked out of a tank or line. The joke was, 'Chief Redcloud is sending smoke signals.'"

"What was the message?" Celly asked.

"Run!" the Big Guy and Derpy said together.

------------------------------

Cadence watched the Big Guy pacing in front of the griffon force. Despite Glorious Sunrise's assertion that the Crystals and their allies were warriors, the griffons still weren't convinced.

"Deja vu," Luna said as she sat beside Cadence, that the griffons instantly accepted that she was warlike was a tad unsettling for both of them, and Celestia.

" 'Now I want you to remember, that no bastard ever won a war, by dying for his country,'" the Big Guy announced. The griffons' wings rustled as they revved up to disagree with that, perhaps loudly. " 'He won it, by making the other, poor, dumb bastard die for his country." Now the griffons began glancing at each other.

"They wanted warlike," Luna said as the griffons grew uneasy, "Be careful what you wish for." Luna started at the gentle rub of her belly.

"Speaking from personal experience?" Cadence asked. Luna nuzzled the other expectant mother.

"Yes, I wanted foals, another difference between the Pony Sisters, Celestia denied herself, but I was not willing to," Luna said, and her own hoof touched her belly, "Selene has been enlightening, but I still want a brood of my own. My personality and history seemed to preclude that."

"Until now," Cadence said.

"Until now," Luna agreed.

" 'We're going to hold on to him by the nose, and we're gonna kick him in the ass,'" the Big Guy said, " 'We're gonna kick the Hell out of him all the time! And we're gonna go through him, like crap through a goose!'"

"Somep - some griffons are getting a lot more than they bargained for," Luna said as the griffons glanced at each other nervously.

"Maybe," Cadence said, "I just wish I knew where I'd heard this before."

"Shining Armor, some old, griffon warlord, or you're imagining it," Luna said.

Cadence nodded and stared.

------------------------------

The iridescent goo was carefully loaded into drums and would be added to the Schmooze later, as a dessert. A short distance away on the firing range Vladimir and Cadence stood ready to intervene, in case this was the origin of the Schmooze and they now had two of them to deal with. "Why does that stuff remind me of dear Sunset?" Vladimir asked Cadence.

The alicorn laughed. "Bright, active, and very volatile?" Then Cadence frowned. "I think she was good for Celestia, a tad ruthless, but Celestia needed a bit of ruthlessness. But poor Sunset needed more impulse control."

Vladimir nodded. "You don't believe the rumors, that Celestia had her 'disappeared'?"

"Everyone she's disappeared is in the statue garden, or in a crypt in the caves, and there aren't that many," Cadence replied.

Vladimir nodded. "I was just thinking of the other legend, that she went to another world."

"Wondering if Celestia had that available, why she didn't offer it to the Big Guy?" Cadence asked.

"Yes, so that's why I think it's just a legend," Vladimir said, "Otherwise, somepony would have mentioned it. Just to get rid of him, if for no other reason."

Cadence nodded, then stared at herself.

"Worried about motherhood?" Vladimir said, "That's better than worrying about our immediate future."

"That, and wondering . . . you chased after anything, but not me. Why?" Cadence asked.

"Part of my act was that I was clueless and oblivious, remember?" Vladimir said, "I couldn't possibly have noticed that Shining Armor was very obviously interested, and seemed a decent sort. So I was apparently disinterested. On a practical note, you also could never have played the game I had to. Trixie is the first who could keep up the act, Fragrance is one of the few who is quick witted enough to keep up with me, and you . . . were too nice."

Cadence frowned at that. "And that Celestia would have wrung your neck if you made me cry," Cadence said.

Vladimir nodded. "Considering my mother can make Celestia want to cry . . . . You are also older than me. It doesn't matter much now, but when I was a colt, you seemed as ancient as Celestia."

"I was still a filly," Cadence said in aggrieved tones.

"With a cutie mark, and nearly twice my height, that's close enough to being an adult as a foal needs. While all the adults loved or were jealous of you, to me and my age group, you were intimidating."

"So you didn't pick on Twilight because her brother and foal sitter intimidated you?" Cadence asked and chuckled at Vladimir's sardonic expression.

"I didn't pick on Celestia's Protege because I knew the road she was on, and I pitied her. I also was aware of the path Celestia and my mother had for me, and Twilight Sparkle was the only one who treated me as she did every other pony." He shrugged. "As a piece of mobile furniture distracting her from her studies with Celestia, but in an odd fashion, being treated as 'normal' by her was endearing in a way."

Cadence stared at him long and hard. He withstood it, while most would be shying uncomfortably. "You were why she never got bullied?"

"I was why the bullying never got noticed. Rearranging her pencil drawer was always good for a laugh, but short of damaging her books or messing up her experiments in lab class, she'd never notice." Vladimir put a hoof to his chin. "Although a few, well-placed smoke bombs did convince others she'd take revenge in seemingly impossible ways. Her being a prodigy, and me seeming an idiot had its advantages. And before you attribute any white-knighting to me, I did it to keep Celestia at bay, not to claim the moral high ground for myself. If anything had happened, I knew who would be instantly suspected, and guilty or not, who would be punished. For doing it, or failing to prevent it from happening." He tapped his chest. "Another lesson in friendship from her Highness, that those with powerful friends are above being annoyed, and that enlightened self-interest is an excellent motivator."

"She doesn't hate you, you know," Cadence said as she drew close to him.

"But I hate her," Vladimir said, "Enough to want to escape the cloying 'protection', and the need to be her jester. You were luckily on the periphery. Other than the Crystal Empire, you weren't one of her 'projects'. I could take over from Sir Eagle Bell tomorrow, with no change in government. I know the people, I know the laws, and the reasons behind them. But she'd never let me be even a clerk. Because despite the monumental incompetence of many around her and throughout the bureaucracy, I'm the only idiot she sees."

"Because you made yourself that way," Cadence reminded him.

"Because being a disappointment was infinitely better than being a project," Vladimir said, "There's a corrosive factor about being around her, wanting her happy, and wanting her loving you. I could never make her indifferent, so I settled on what I could manage. Being exiled was exactly what I wanted, and after fifteen years of patient, careful scheming, I finally got it. I tricked Celestia into giving it to me. She could withdraw it at any time, but I'd still never have to go back."

Cadence frowned. "It seems a sad life," Cadence said.

Vladimir shrugged. "It was, but not for the reasons you think. You were allowed to earn your keep. Everything was thrust upon me, whether I wanted it or not, and I was expected to be absurdly grateful over things I neither earned nor wanted. Every day was like Hearths-Warming Day, and you'd get ugly, itchy sweaters, and all those 'don't you love it' faces. Asking for a hat next time was an affront to all and sundry. Earning the money to go and buy that hat you wanted and above all needed, oh the horror. Maybe I should have donned a cape and stalked the dark as a night terror."

"Except you're a physical coward," Cadence pointed out, "So getting into a fight would have put paid to you."

He nodded. "There is that," Vladimir admitted, "But if I really was as brave as I am making myself out to be, what I should have done was get my diploma and disappear." He made a 'poof' gesture. "Then join the Griffon Foreign Legion as an apothecary. They are well respected, and even the bandits tend to avoid targeting them. I'm a very good apothecary, and wounds not my own are a call to action rather than a source of revulsion. After a few years, I could have come back to Equestria, and set up shop somewhere outside the major cities and just lived my life."

Cadence shook her head. "So why come here? They're one step away from just proclaiming you king and washing their hooves of this whole parliament business."

"Because I'd rather be the father of democracy, than Vladimir the Third," he replied, "I'm enough of an egotist that I like being part of something no one has ever done before. And as for their political maneuverings, I was trained by the best. I can give them a bit of hope I might take the crown, or you will, just long enough to get them over the hump. We've got the training wheels off, and all we need now is a gentle touch to convince them they can ride without us. Don't forget, I'm a physical coward, but no one in eight centuries has withstood as many and as fierce of Celestia's rages. And her methods have probably improved over the decades. I am brave enough to be the political leader they need, and stand against whatever foolish traditionalism they try to thrust back on us. Good things stay, bad things go."

"True. Some of the utterly ridiculous royal customs . . . have you seen the mane-style you have to wear to receive visitors?" Cadence asked, and both of them cringed.

"I can almost see you in it, but I'd shave myself bald to avoid that particular look."

The pair laughed at that vision.

------------------------------

Derpy frowned as the plant-dragon dropped four practice bombs in four separate targets. "Now you're just showing off."

The other plant-dragon nuzzled her. "We had a good teacher," she told the pegasus.

Derpy smiled at that, and watched the other postal officers dropping a synchronized impact: fifty ponies hitting fifty targets landing within seconds of each other. The griffons were, of course, standing or hovering with their beaks hanging open. As good as their synchronization had gotten, it was a pale shadow of that precision.

Derpy didn't tell them that the real targets were three times the diameter of the practice barrels. You practice harder than reality, so what comes up in reality doesn't overcome you, she remembered the chief instructor telling her. She then understood why the training was so incredibly hard, yet normal mail delivery was so easy. She turned to the griffons. "We still have more time to train. We'll get you this good, then we'll fight the enemy."

The griffons, professional, experienced soldiers all, stared at the grinning mare with disbelief.

------------------------------

The former soldiers, victims of bandits, and train car pushers approached the head abbot as the monks around them meditated. "Look you said we had to learn patience, how long is that going to take?"

"Long enough to learn that time is not as important as enlightenment, and that whatever goals you have outside these walls will be better achieved, or willingly set aside, once you have obtained it. As for time, a month, perhaps a year," the abbot explained patiently.

"A year! Isn't there a way to learn it faster?" the former officer asked, and looked to his fellow 'prisoner-acolytes'.

"There is a way, one Celestia would never approve," the abbot said, "And one rarely used."

"Let's have it then!" the pony said.

The abbot sighed, and ignored the stifled sniggering of many of the more senior monks. The junior monks looked on with interest, it had been quite some time since the Abbot had to give this lesson. "Approach me that you might see."

The former-officer smiled. "Finally some progress." He approached the abbot.

------------------------------

Derpy walked the halls of the tower, head down, exhausted beyond any measure. She simply managed to put one hoof in front of another without tripping or counting the steps before she could rest. All she wanted was a hot bath and sleep. The sudden, firm rubbing of her wing roots and back had her wing wearily 'poof' and her feel like melting all at once. She turned to watch the Big Guy giving her a massage, and froze as she saw Celly and Luna working on her instead. She suddenly wasn't tired anymore.

"Shh, don't tell anyone," Celly whispered as she carefully worked Derpy's aching muscles.

"We used to be pretty good at this, long ago," Luna added, "I see we haven't lost the touch."

Derpy only nodded. She tried to simply relax and let them work, but who they were worked against that. Stop it, she told herself, They're here as your herd-mates, not your sovereigns. She relaxed a bit, but it remained an uphill struggle to give in and relax completely, but neither Celly nor Luna complained as they worked on her.

------------------------------

The abbot looked down at the four, battered heaps lying against the back wall, their gentle moaning disturbing him not a whit. "Few are so privileged to learn so much forbidden mystery so soon," the abbot said, "Should the next lesson begin immediately, or are you content not to tip the vessel of knowledge?"

"I think we need to consider the need for another lesson, for a proper period of meditation." The heap groaned in agreement. "In the meantime, can we just lie here a while?"

"You learn patience, and manners, with time will come wisdom," the abbot said, and heard the faint groans, "Join our meditations on this, from where you are." The groans switched off, and the abbot didn't hear any of the carping and blame-throwing he'd heard among the group previously, proving they were becoming wiser.

One of the elder monks nodded. "Why must we always fall back to this lesson?" he sighed.

"First, you have to get their attention," the abbot explained.

------------------------------

Day 88

The puddle formerly known as Derpy rose with the sun, feeling refreshed and relaxed. She'd slept solo, and was rather glad. She loved her herd-mates, but sometimes, all the other bodies jostled her sleep, or she jostled theirs. An undisturbed night was what she really needed. The others seem to have agreed as they weren't all pressed into a 'pony-pile', but spread out across the floor with small gaps. More like a sleepover than our usual, she thought, then noted the two exceptions: Selene snuggled against her mother, and Dinky covering the Big Guy's feet. She smiled at that. I wish the world outside would just leave us alone for the day, she thought, then shook her head, No weekends, no vacations. Not a life I want to live.

She fluttered over them, and once outside and down the corridor, she headed off to see what was ready for breakfast.

Vladimir and Fragrance had a 'vacation' of sorts: they were cooking breakfast together.

"Good morning," she said far enough away not to scare them or seem to. She'd learned that from her jumpier herd mates.

"Morning. We gave the crew the day off. Tomorrow and the next day will be busy enough," Vladimir said, "Besides, the griffons are mostly on sick call. You really wore them out."

"Train harder than you work," Derpy said.

Vladimir nodded, "Green Grass and your teachers must have learned at the same school."

Derpy chuckled at that. "They just told me," she said and selected a large amount of oatmeal.

"So delivery practice is going well. The lightning practice went well," Fragrance said, "The evacuations have been running all night. We're as ready as we can be." She looked around with concern. "Why do I keep thinking we're missing something?"

"Because you're so used to being outfoxed by your ma, that you can't imagine people would have everything covered," Derpy said between bites, "But keep looking, even Celly, the Big Guy and Tom can't cover everything."

"Oh, thank you very much!" Hotaru said as she entered, grimaced at the wolf trailing her, who seemed to be grinning.

A grin Derpy recognized. "He didn't!"

"Silence!" Hotaru hissed right in Derpy's face, "Or you'll find out the nightmares Luna, Tom and I have been befuddling that one's dame with."

Derpy made a 'zip the lip' gesture and nodded.

"But they are going to figure it out," Vladimir said, and shied as Hotaru glared at him, "It's the truth."

Hotaru sighed. "It is bad enough that stupid bag of bones and fur knows. I could not accept the coddling that awaits Cadence. I am still Nightmare Moon!"

"Soon to be Nightmare Mom," Fragrance said, "Don't worry. If they couldn't figure out Cadence and Luna, we won't give you away. Other than arrange a very discreet vet."

Hotaru prepared to growl, but then realized they were serious. "I think I should adjust my plans for 'The Day'."

"The Constitution has a lot of hiding places," Derpy said, "And you are welcome." She kissed Hotaru's head and scratched her behind the ears.

The sullen look from the former Nightmare Moon stifled any further levity at her expense.

------------------------------

"She's what?!" Pinkie exclaimed as Tom looked over her plans for the biggest, royalest baby shower in Equestrian History!

"Make it a three-way shower," Tom told her as Pinkie began refiguring the guest list and the decorations. Such a party took far more meticulous planning that most people recognized.

"And, I have it on . . . moderately good authority, that a fourth may also be in the offing," Tom said, "And it isn't Fragrance."

"I've already got Lyra and Bonbon's planned out," Pinkie said, and then her eyes got REALLY big, "No."

"Chaos finds a way. I'll admit, after the battle with Nightmare, Discord, and others -" Tom looked not at Pinkie. "Twilight may be confused by her condition."

Pinkie giggled. "You're awful. You know what the comment section is going to look like after the ones who don't read close enough take you at your word."

"Like what you did earlier this chapter?" Tom asked, "Pot, kettle."

"Touche," Pinkie admitted. Then grew serious. "I've got the makings for a Party Cannon Mark 30. I just need a small moon."

"I'll see what can be arranged," Tom said, "I think you mean bigger than me."

"Yeah, sorry," Pinkie said.

"Not a problem," Tom replied and returned to the Crystal Republic.

Pinkie glanced around then looked down, read, and began laughing.

------------------------------

The dull worry of the earlier days was lifted from Celestia's mind. The head of the librarians had deigned to wait in line for the Open Court and was virtually trembling as she approached the nobles who were filtering the complaints.

"Let her through," Celestia said, "This might be beyond your authority."

The mare stepped through the cordon and approached. Discord appeared, with the door frame, and opened it enough that the inferno beyond was clearly visible.

"Ready when you are," Discord said, and nodded eagerly to Celestia, who was a picture of radiant tranquility.

"You would speak with me?" Celestia asked, as aloof as the librarians had been haughty. Aside from food deliveries, and Pinkie arranging the wake, they had been ignored by staff and others of Equestria.

It seems to have had the desired effect, Celestia thought as Discord waited with barely restrained eagerness, Which is an act, he is no more eager to murder them than I am. But he can be the deranged monster and I the saint.

"There have been some harsh words exchanged," the librarian said.

More from than to, but essentially true, Celestia thought as she regarded the mare from the distant past.

"I believe that a time of acclimatization would be in order," the mare said, "So we might better understand the very alien cultural and societal norms of the place we have found ourselves in."

Celestia let her silence drag on as she considered. "Very well. A season or two is not unreasonable, my patience is not terribly limited. It should provide you time to get used to this new world."

"But -!" Discord protested and made a tossing gesture at the door.

"There is a band of monks who have an interesting way to teach patience," Celestia said, "Perhaps . . . "

"NO, I already learned that lesson!" Discord said as he folded the door frame into a suitcase and stomped off.

Celestia noted the librarian had taken advantage of the break in attention to flee the room. Celestia looked at ponies who were staring at her in a mix of admiration and horror. "Just letting Discord be himself, in the service of Equestria."

The ponies diligently returned to whatever they were working on, to better not think about whatever Celestia had meant by that comment.

Celestia presided over the court in her usual serene manner, asking an occasional pointed question about the solutions brought to her, but all in all, the nobles were doing an excellent job.

------------------------------

Trixie watched the movie again, and glanced over at Vladimir. "You think you can remember all the lines?"

Vladimir nodded. "But we need a third," he said.

"Oh, we have one, someone who needs the practice," Trixie said, "And a few changelings for the other parts." She nudged him. "Afraid being a thespian will reduce your stature in the eyes of the locals?"

"Not really," Vladimir said, "As for Celestia, I doubt I could be any lower in her eyes. No, it's that . . . it seems a bit autobiographical, scarily so."

"For you," Trixie said, "I am playing a role, nothing more."

"Yes, but I suspect there are elements of the role, and your life that correspond enough to give a truly inspired performance," Vladimir said, "It will also inspire the others, as we march forward on this impossible quest."

" 'The earth is full of anger, the seas are dark with wrath,'" Trixie said, " 'The Nations in their harness go up against our path:'"

" 'For those who kneel beside us at altars not Thine own, who lack the lights that guide us, Lord, let their faith atone!'" Vladimir replied, " 'If wrong we did to call them, by honour bound they came; let not Thy Wrath befall them, but deal to us the blame.'"

" 'E'en now their vanguard gathers, e'en now we face the fray - as Thou didst help our fathers, help Thou our host to-day,'" the pair turned as Luna continued the quote, " 'Fulfilled of signs and wonders, in life, in death made clear - Jehovah of the Thunders, Lord God of Battles, hear!'" She looked at the pair. "Even the 'goddess Luna' needs someone to pray to on such a day. And Kipling is as good a source as any."

------------------------------

The Big Guy wasn't sure what was wrong, but he felt uneasy. He'd checked everything, and didn't want to do it again, as it would imply that he didn't trust his partners. All the plans were not only ahead of schedule, but those that could be were already complete. There was more training, but that was in others' hands, hooves, claws, whatever.

It's not that I think we missed anything, he thought as he paced the Tower's many corridors, It's just that everything is going so well. That's usually when you get a kick in the head that you'd missed something. He briefly considered quadruple checking on the progress, but forcefully squelched that idea. No, don't be such a worry-wart, he told himself, Everyone is doing fine. He looked around. But I'd give half that dragon horde to know what Molly B is doing right now, he thought Plotting something no doubt.

------------------------------

Another of the myriad plant-clones of Tear Twirler watched the figure of her master cast about in terror.

"I know they are here!" she shouted, "Weed whackers, hiding!"

"How can a plant have a nightmare?" Tear Twirler asked herself as she watched the invincible Molybdenum Blossom look under stones too small to hide a rabbit, for whatever these 'weed-whackers' were.

"I just wish I knew what those idiots were planning," Tear Twirler lamented and then considered mixing up a relaxant and drugging her master senseless for a few hours of rest.

------------------------------

Day 89

"Another day older and deeper in debt," the Big Guy commented on the sunrise. Not one of Celestia's best, he thought, Heck, when I was Celestia I did better than that.

"What nefarious schemes are you plotting?" Luna asked as she approached.

"Wondering what your sister is going to bite off of me when she finds out and that we're not married," he joked. The specter of a royal wedding remained one of the few things that sent Luna into paroxysms of terror.

"We shall tell her we eloped and the Changelings fooled us into thinking she was attending."

"You'd lie to your sister?" he said, "I'm shocked, shocked I say."

"Considering the major components of her dreams lately," Luna said, "She has little room to complain. Your campaign to 'civilize' Discord appears to have paid significant dividends."

"And you manipulating her to be more open-minded about her own feelings?"

Luna sputtered and stammered, "I never - what are you implying, mine own sister?"

The Big Guy just knowingly smiled at her until the facade collapsed.

"You have learned her trick a tad too well," Luna complained.

"I had to be her, convincingly," he told her, "Remember. I'm no Trixie or Vladimir, but I do learn my parts."

Luna nodded. "One more day. Tomorrow evening, it will all be decided, one way or the other."

"We'll win," he told her and scratched her behind the ears.

As she leaned into it, she asked, "How can you be so certain. Some speak of butterflies, a flight of dragons cavorts throughout my innards."

"Once you've seen some of the things I have, you get a sense that even if the plan starts unwinding, your people can pull you out."

"How came you by this sense of surety?" Luna asked, and noted that Celly, Tom and Vladimir were approaching.

"Well, it's the wrong time for a bedtime story, but once upon a time, a mission to the moon ran into a little trouble, and systems never designed to return the crew safely from the moon were pressed into service. Since I'd helped build that engine, I got to interview the team of how we could do it, and whether what we build could stand the strain."

"Flight to the moon?" Celly asked, "How exactly did you do that?"

"Okay, this is going to be a longer story," the Big Guy said.

------------------------------

The griffons were now almost as good as the changelings, who were still well behind the Equestrian Postal officers.

"As long as they don't panic or freeze up," Derpy said as she watched, "The Schmooze's mouths are big enough, they'll still hit."

"I'm more worried about us," the Senior Postmaster said, "We've never seen it. We might be the ones who freeze."

Derpy felt very strange, wing-patting the Senior Postmaster's back. "That's why it's such a familiar task. Just drop the package and onto the next stop. Same as the lightning attack, just like the weather team does to discharge clouds harmlessly. Actions we take without thinking. So if thought falters, muscle memory takes up the slack."

The Senior Postmaster nodded and watched the griffons practice another round.

------------------------------

To call the pair of ponies mundane would have been loading the word with a weight it was never meant to bear. Militantly drab would have been better. Other than their size, which was not obvious as they stood side-by-side, there was literally nothing that marked these ponies as unusual. Even Applejack would have dismissed them as beneath her notice. But some ponies could see through such mundanity to see a pair of idle hooves.

"You there! This is a work area, why are you away from your project?" the sergeant trotted towards them.

"The last of the civilians who are willing to go are aboard the last train. We're out of a job," the stallion of the boring pair said and gave a warning glance to the mare.

"Great, grab a paint brush or a stir stick. The dew washed the paint off those two dragons, so we've got the whole job to do over again. Too bad we can't use regular paint, but it makes'em sick," the sergeant said, turning around and trotting away as if the pair wouldn't do anything but follow.

"Shanghooved," the mare whispered angrily.

"You go among, sometime you have to be among," the stallion replied, "I just hope this stuff washes off. If I know the inventors, this stuff may stain anything, even you."

"Just change it?" the mare replied.

"Where would the fun in that be?" he asked, "Watching you explain it will be hilarious." He ducked the hoof swipe. "Of course with my luck, you'd get the white paint."

The mare rolled her eyes, then froze as Dinky and Selene swooped over on carpets to stare at the pair. The mare looked like she was going to say something, when Dinky blurted out, "Quit lollygagging! This stuff takes hours to dry, and we need at least two good coats!" She flew off laughing, leaving Selene to smirk at the pair before she flew off as well.

"Flying carpets," the mare asked as she broke into a canter, "Why didn't we think of that?"

"I didn't need it, and you weren't exactly an inventor," the stallion said and he picked up a roller and a bucket of black paint. The mare picked up a roller and a bucket of white and approached the dragon waiting from the 'D-Day stripes' to be replaced.

------------------------------

The criers had been clear that the 'Great and Powerful Trixie' would be putting on a show beyond anything ever witnessed by pony eyes. Every Crystal Pony, griffon and changeling who could attend was there. With Cadence and Shining Armor, in the 'Royal Box', were Celestia, Celly, Woona and Luna. The Big Guy, and the inventor's corps were helping with the stage handling. The Bearers also attended.

"Eh," Rainbow said, "We've seen her act before."

"We were her act," Rarity said.

"Where's Vladimir?" Celestia asked, and looked askance at Shining Armor and Cadence tittering.

"He's part of the entertainment," Celly said, "He accompanied her on some of her travels."

Celestia's eyes crossed at that. "I can't imagine that."

"Well, your imagination needs some upgrades," Discord said as he popped in, and handed everyone in the box a bucket of popcorn. "Wish me luck!"

"Break a leg," Luna said.

"Aw, she sounds like she really means it," Discord said and vanished.

Lights illuminated the stage.

"Oh, it's a play!" Rarity said as she watched, looked over and pulled the book away from Twilight, "You can read later. The show shall go on!"

"Why didn't I ever do that?" Shining Armor asked.

"Because she knew where you slept," Cadence replied.

"Where's Spike?" Twilight asked.

"Keeping the source of all those spotlights company," Luna said, and looked at Rarity, "You may have let him slip through your fingers."

Rarity tossed her mane in feigned dismissal.

"There's Vladimir!" Applejack said, and was prevented from hollering to attract his attention.

"I shall impersonate a man," Vladimir said to the 'audience' on stage, "Alonzo Quijano, a country gentleman, no longer young."

"The play is about people putting on a play?" Applejack asked and was shushed.

"He lays down the melancholy burden of sanity. And conceives the strangest project ever imagined, to become a knight errant," Vladimir announced.

------------------------------

Glorious Sunrise knew he was missing a wonderful play, but some things took precedence. He had released all the others to go see it. He'd seen the movie in the Big Guy's home, with Dinky providing a translation.

What concerned him was the battle tomorrow.

The weapons stores had been slipped up to the clouds over the last few days. A handful at a time, so no one was the wiser. The Big Guy's plan against Molly B relied on deception. So one senile, old bird flitting about the clouds surrounded by his memories and long-lost dreams of glory was beneath notice. But one didn't live to become an old bird in his profession without being very, very good.

Weapons caches were well placed. Ammunition caches were scattered around the clouds. And the thunderhead that would provide so much of the critical cloud cover was content to hover over the mountains. Tomorrow, it would be disassembled to component parts to provide an ammunition dump for the ponies, griffons and changelings of the attack, and 'incidentally' conceal the griffon, changeling and dragon forces providing them high cover.

With luck, neither will know what hit them, Glorious Sunrise thought and moved to check the next cache, but in a roundabout fashion.

------------------------------

Trixie confronted Vladimir in the stage impression of a room in an inn. "You have showed me the sky, but what good is the sky, to a creature who'll never do better than crawl!"

Rainbow sniffled at that, unashamedly wiping away tears. She looked worriedly at Applejack and Rarity, but they were mesmerized by the play.

Celestia nudged Luna, who seemed more pensive than mesmerized by Trixie's song. "You were loved," Celestia said quietly, "And you could fly. As high as I could."

"I flew as high as you allowed yourself to," Luna said, "And we both know you could do more, that I could not. I have accepted that I will ever be the 'little' sister, and unless I stand a good distance from you, I will appear to be merely your shadow, whatever we might wish. The play's the thing." Luna gestured to the stage.

Trixie in righteous but impotent fury screamed at Vladimir as the curtain came down.

"I never knew she felt that way," Rarity said.

"It's just a play," Applejack reminded her.

Rarity shook her head. "Take a look down there, and tell me it is 'just a play'."

They peered at the audience filled with whispered conversations. Griffons, changelings and Crystal Ponies trying to make sense of the spectacle they had been watching. Each seeing something subtly different.

"They don't know, and neither do we," Rarity said, "That's a good play."

Applejack nodded. "Even got Rainbow to cry."

"Wha!" Rainbow exclaimed, as her friends laughed.

------------------------------

"Why are you poets so fascinated with mad man?" Green Grass asked, confronting Vladimir.

"We have much in common!" Vladimir countered.

"Have I missed much?" Glorious Sunrise asked as he arrived in the Royal Box.

Pinkie shook her head.

" 'Life as it is'," Vladimir answered quietly, "I've lived for over forty years, and I've seen, 'life as it is'. Pain. Misery. Cruelty beyond belief. I've heard all the voices of God's noblest creature." He indicated himself. "Moans from bundles of filth in the streets."

The old griffon had asked himself the same questions over and over again. He'd never seen this concern put into a play.

"These were men who saw 'life as it is'," Vladimir said, "But they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words. Only in their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning 'why?'"

Vladimir stood and paced the stage. "I do not think they were asking why they were dying, but why they had ever lived."

He turned back to Green Grass. "When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies. Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams, this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash!"

"Too much sanity may be madness!" he shouted at Green Grass. He turned to face the cast arrayed before him, and the audience, "And maddest of all! To see life as it IS and not as it SHOULD BE!"

------------------------------

Trixie approached the bedridden Vladimir. "Please try to remember!"

Vladimir looked over at her. "I spoke to you?" he said as if not remembering, and not believing.

"And you called me by another name, Dulcinea." It was if Trixie had transformed from just a player, just another unicorn. For a few brief instants it was as if she were an alicorn.

"That's . . . " Applejack said as she watched and was shushed.

Vladimir sat up. "Then perhaps . . . it was not a dream."

"You spoke of a dream and about the quest."

"Quest?"

"How you must fight," Trixie sounded pleading, "And it doesn't matter whether you win or lose, as long as you follow the Quest."

"What did I say to you?" Vladimir asked, as he groped for understanding, "Tell me the words."

"To dream the impossible dream," Trixie said, "But they are your own words. To fight the unbeatable foe." She looked at him deeply. "Don't you remember? To bear with unbearable sorrow." She pleaded, given strength from her own sorrow, "You must remember. To run where the brave dare not go."

Vladimir spoke as if groping through darkness. "To right the unrightable wrong."

Trixie nodded, encouraging him. "Yes."

"To love pure and chaste from afar," he looked deeply at Trixie.

"Yes."

"To try when your arms are too weary," Vladimir seemed to be gaining steam and clarity as he spoke, "To reach the unreachable star."

Cadence smiled as Shining sniffled and tried to hide he was crying.

"Sancho!"

"Here your grace!" the Sphinx called.

"My armor! My sword!" Vladimir ordered.

"More misadventures!" the Sphinx called as she approached with the items.

"Adventures old friend!" Vladimir called back.

Most of the crowd swelled with joy and sang along with the triumphant reprise. Griffons and Changelings along with the ponies.

Cadence was not the only one to gasp with horror as Vladimir 'died' on the verge of resuming the life he so desired.

"But, but, but," Rainbow stammered as she waved a leg at the stage, "He won." She looked around at her friends, and her sovereigns. "IT'S NOT FAIR!" she shouted at the stage. No one had the heart to rebuke her for her outburst.

The actors were back to the prison, with Cervantes being led away. Trixie's character sat quietly, and raised her eyes. "To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe."

The other actors began to sing, and some of the crowd tried to follow, although the lyrics of this reprise were different than the standard.

With the end of the play there was tepid applause. Not that the play hadn't been masterful, but the message had been confusing.

"It's not fair," Rainbow said to the others, "Tell me that was fair."

"Life isn't fair," Applejack told her, "Sometimes it isn't fair in your favor."

"But he was gonna be a knight again!" Rainbow said.

"He was a knight again," Glorious Sunrise told her, "He died as a knight among friends. There are far worse ways to die, as the playwright told us, despairing of who and why you were, is among them. Fighting may look glorious from the outside, but inside, Fluttershy at least is honest. It's the fear."

"I'm not afraid," Rainbow challenged.

"Then you haven't paid attention," the old griffon said quietly, "The play wasn't about not being afraid. It was accepting that you are afraid, even that you might lose, but you just keep trying."

"Better to dream big, and achieve only part of it," Rarity said, "Than never dream at all and achieve that completely."

"I thought it was about sometimes just going out and having fun adventures, no matter what 'reality' is," Pinkie Pie said.

"Remind me ta stock up on windmill repair kits," Applejack said to Twilight.

"I think the reason Trixie, and Vladimir, put on that play," Twilight said, "Was to dispel the notion that the battle is going to be glorious, but that it has to be done. I agree with Fluttershy. I don't like fighting, especially when it doesn't solve the problem. But we remember the adventures, because they showed we could be more than we usually let ourselves be."

"Don't assume you're gonna be a hero, but try and be one anyway?" Rainbow asked, "What kind of message is that?"

"Maybe the best kind," Cadence said, "Quit trying to be a particular thing, and just be."

"With respect to all your guesses," Celestia said, "My opinion is that all things have many layers: the play, the duality of Quijano/Quixote, Dulcinea/Aldonza. Sancho does seem to be 'living in the now', but everyone else is seeking to change their life to mean something."

"I disagree," Luna said, "Even Sancho felt the call of adventure, and accepting it improved his life, if only that his wife's beatings became ineffectual."

Fluttershy giggled, then looked around. "I think they put on the play, so that we'd have a common framework to argue these points, and stay friends. We aren't saying 'your way of living is wrong', we're saying 'I see the play this way'. I was watching the crowd, and the ponies and griffons were all discussing it as we are. Sometimes they were confused, but they weren't hostile."

"If you start arguing the analysis of that from inside the play," Rainbow said to Twilight, "I'm not going to listen."

The others chuckled.

"I was just going to consider the papers that could be written, analyzing the play," Twilight said and frowned at Rainbow.

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