No Heroes Part II - The Journey Home

by PaulAsaran

First published

Fine Crime and Princess Luna have chosen their team. Now there's just the minor problem of bringing them together. Every team needs a base of operations, and what place better than Ponyville?

Our six not-so-heroic figures have been selected, but they aren't a team just yet. The first thing they need is a headquarters, and there can be no place better than Ponyville. But not all are so willing to make such a move; Upper Crust is determined to stay in Canterlot, Fine Crime fears his demons may terrorize the local ponies, and Lightning Dust is nowhere to be found. Will Luna's plans come together, or will this team disintegrate before it even gets formed?

Kudos to Eosphorite for the awesome commissioned cover!

The No Heroes Series
Chronological from Top to Bottom:
Shadow Pony
Reddux the Tyrant
No Heroes Part I - The Roster
No Heroes Part II - The Journey Home
Lightning's Bolt
No Heroes Part III - For Dreams
No Heroes Part IV - The Crystal Empress
No Heroes: Beyond the Everfree
No Heroes: Life of Pie
No Heroes: Hot Chocolate at the Isekai

The Fleur-Verse
Chronologically from Top to Bottom:
Shadow Pony
Reddux the Tyrant
No Heroes Part I - The Roster
No Heroes Part II - The Journey Home
Lightning's Bolt
The Weed
The Challenge of Fleur
Ordinary World
A Challenge for Fleur
Sweet to Eat: Tales of Nightmare Night

First Impressions

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Nye was bored. Phenomenally so. Only so many trains were scheduled today, and those that had come so far had almost no passengers. So he just sat there in the ticket booth and stared blankly at the tracks, his mind revolving around the topics of Rarity’s latest shoe design, the napping he could be doing, and plot. At the moment he was on plot, his mind roving towards his mare-of-the-moment, Lyra Heartsrings (so aptly named!).

His admittedly campy fantasy was interrupted, to his annoyance, by the arrival of the early afternoon train. Grumbling, he sat up straight and waited for the thing to stop and deposit its undoubtedly tiny number of passengers, assuming it had any at all.

It had one, and the sight of her put Lyra out of the hot-blooded stallion’s mind instantly. “Hellooooooooo mare,” he muttered with a grin, checking his reflection in the window and adjusting his hat and mane before going out to see her.


She turned to him, uncertain at first but then recognizing him. “Ah it’s you. Mister…” She had to think for a moment. “Stone, was it?”

Sweet Celestia that voice was sexy!

“Yeah, Nye Stone!” He removed his hat to attempt a charming bow. “It’s been what, three months?”

“Indeed,” she replied with that ridiculously pretty smile. “How is your brother, Jimmy? Did his wing heal properly?”

“Oh, Jim’s fine,” Nye declared. “Couldn’t fly for almost two weeks, but that didn't stop him from working. He’d die otherwise. So,” he asked as they began to walk to the baggage car, “what brings you this way from Canterlot?”

“I’m moving to Ponyville.”

His hooves tripped him up as his mind froze, and he was unable to keep from falling. She helped him up with a frown that was both bemused and critical, but the only thing going through his mind was YESYESYESYESYES…!

“What for?” Play it cool, big boy, play it cool…YES!

“Just felt like a change of scenery.” Her beautiful mulberry eyes studied him. “Are you okay?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes. Why?”

“Your face seems to be locked in a disturbing expression.”

He realized he was grinning like an idiot and shook his head violently to get rid of the expression. “What, oh that? It’s nothing, just a…err…umm…”

Play it cool!

“You need help with your things?” He struggled to slide open the big cargo doors of the train car. Octavia raised an eyebrow and kicked her hoof against the bottom corner, dropping the locking latch, and the door jerked open so quick he fell on his face in the dirt. He was up in an instant, giggling and trying to strike an image-recovering pose. “I’ll be happy to help!”

Octavia gave him a look combining exasperation and amusement, patting dirt off his cap before offering it to him. “Aren’t you on duty?” She climbed into the cargo car.

“Assisting passengers is my duty,” he reminded her confidently, following. He was surprised to see that she didn’t have a lot of things. “Wow, light traveler.” Had he been paying attention he might have noted her self-conscious blush.

“Really,” she told him after an awkward moment that he missed entirely, “I can handle it.”

“Nonsense! Let me just get the wagon, won’t take me but a second.”

“But…” Too late, he was outside. He hitched himself to one of the smaller cargo wagons and came back grinning.

“Aren’t you supposed to be watching the ticket booth?” Octavia asked as they began unloading her things.

“Nah, it’s a slow day,” he declared, struggling to push a large chest into the wagon. “I mean really, really slow. Besides, All Aboard should be back in about thirty minutes to take over.”

“I see.” They were already almost finished. “Would you get those last things while I fetch my cello?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

YesyesyesYES. He couldn’t believe a beauty like her was moving to Ponyville! There were some attractive mares around here, but Octavia’s very presence drastically changed the equation. He was the first stallion to welcome her, too; no way he was missing this opportunity. Best of all? They had history. Had they not saved the Crystal Empire together? True, she’d worked with Jim during that whole ordeal and not him, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was they were both heroes!

Well, not really. Heroes were recognized, and nopony in the Crystal Empire had any idea who they were. All they knew was that Rainbow Dash defeated King Sombra with a sonic rainboom, Applejack had rescued the Crystal Heart (from hordes of brainwashed guardian ponies, or so the popular rumors had it), and Princess Cadance broke the curse on the Heart with the help of Twilight Sparkle and Shining Armor. Special credit had also been given to the vast number of unicorn soldier ponies from the Equestrian Reserve who’d weakened the barrier around the Empire enough for Rainbow to break through.

There was nopony who recalled how he had been there with Applejack the whole time. And what about Upper Crust, the highly unlikely pony who’d shown Rainbow Dash where she could break into the shield in the first place? Not to mention Octavia and Jim, who’d acted as a distraction and fought the real horde of brainwashed crystal ponies so the rest of them could get to the castle unnoticed. Nopony thought of Lightning Dust either, and she’d taken a direct hit from Sombra himself while helping Rainbow conserve her energies for a second rainboom! But worst of all – at least in Nye’s mind – was that nopony recalled Fine Crime, who’d nearly been killed in a duel with Sombra just to wear him down for the final blow.

Of course, the Element Bearers had been nothing but grateful for the help, especially those who’d been trapped in Sombra’s crystal prisons, and Princess Cadance had made a pronouncement of the Empire’s gratitude. But it hadn’t helped; nopony cared about them. They cared about the Element Bearers. Nye had been upset, but most of the others didn’t seem to care too much. Didn’t they want the recognition?

“Alright,” Octavia called from the door of the car, “is that everything?”

“Just one more box,” he claimed, not mentioning how he’d moved so slow because he’d been lost in thought. “Do you know where your new home’s going to be?”

“I was given a general description and directions,” she declared, head held high. “I was told it had a nice view of the countryside.”

“Ah. What realtor did you use? Perhaps I could—”

“No realtor,” she interrupted, “Fine Crime.”

He nearly fell again. “That guy? Why would he have a house in Ponyville? I’ve never seen him in town, and I’ve been living here for close to two years now!” And what kind of a relationship had she developed with him in the past few months since the Crystal Empire? Dammit, had that strange jerk beat him to the buck?

“I honestly couldn’t tell you,” she admitted as they walked out of the station, Nye blatantly ignoring the two customers waiting at the ticket window. “All I know is he offered me the place and made the arrangements.”

Nye didn’t like the sound of that. “So…how’s he been lately?”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve not seen him in almost two months.”

Score! Also, confusing. “Wait a minute, he sold you a house in Ponyville – which to my recollection he’s never been to – and then just disappeared?” She nodded, but by her expression she knew it sounded weird. He gave her a very serious look. “Are you sure the sell was legitimate?”

“It’s legal,” she answered. “I checked.”

“Oh, that’s good then.” He really wasn’t sure what else could be said about it, save that Fine Crime’s actions were…odd.

“My goodness,” Octavia whispered (why did her voice seem so sultry in his head just then?), pausing to look around at the open, green town. “This is so different from Canterlot. Last time I was here was when that dragon attacked. That was what, two years ago?”

He paused, recalling the disaster, and stared at her for a couple seconds. Something was clicking in his head. “Say… do you remember working with a guy to help ponies out of the train cars?”

She blinked, caught off guard by the question. “What? It was so long ago, but…” She set a hoof to her chin in careful thought. “Yes, I vaguely recall something like that.”

“I thought so. I think that’s when we first met.” He remembered now. “Yeah…yeah! You were with that crazy picture pony, whatever her name was.”

Octavia glowered at the memory. “I made a conscious effort to forget all about her.”

“Do you remember me from back then?”

“Umm…” She studied him for a few seconds, then smiled in embarrassment. “Sorry…”

Ouch. “That’s okay,” he mumbled even as he drooped. “I probably didn’t put on much of a show.”

“I’m sure you were very…ummm…brave, I just don’t remember. This way, I think.”

He struggled to find safer waters. “So…eh…have any plans for life in Ponyville?”

“I’m a musician, Nye,” she noted, tone pretentious. “What else am I going to do?”

“I dunno.” He was floundering, he knew it. “I just thought maybe…well… Oh, Rarity!” Thank Celestia’s multi-hued mane, a distraction!

The white unicorn was just exiting a small, frilly café. She turned at the sound of his voice and smiled in her ladylike manner. “Ah, Nye. A pleasure as always! And who’s this?”

He gestured at the mares and announced proudly, “Octavia, this is Rarity. She holds the Element of Generosity. Rarity, Octavia Melody, musician and brand-new Ponyvillian!”

“Charmed.” Octavia’s voice was the epitome of polite, and not anywhere near as excited as he’d hoped from meeting somepony so important as an Element Bearer.


“Octavia?” Rarity considered the name for a moment. “Why, I think I know of you! You play at many popular events in Canterlot, yes? Quite an accomplishment, I am most happy to meet you.”

Octavia was clearly taken aback. “Really?”

“But of course, darling,” Rarity declared. “Anypony good enough to get invited to perform at the Grand Galloping Gala deserves a fan or two.”

Octavia glanced at Nye in a manner combining confusion and anxiety. “I…never thought of myself as having fans.”

Nor had Nye expected Rarity to take up his spotlight. Time to move on! “Well Rarity, it was—”

“Not having any fans?” Her words bowled his right over. “But surely a talented pony such as yourself must know the attention that comes from such grandeur! You really should be proud.”

“I am,” Octavia admitted, then added in a whisper so low Nye almost didn’t hear it, “Not exactly what I was trying to achieve, but—” she spoke up again, “—thank you very much!”

“Oh, you’re welcome most sincerely. You know, you should come by the Carousel Boutique! I’m sure you’d make for a marvelous guest compared to some ponies I know.” She said that last part as if she had somepony specific in mind. Her eyes fell on the wagon Nye was tied to, prompting her to smile knowingly. “Nye, are you being a gentlecolt and helping Miss Melody move her things?”

“It’s the least I could do,” he answered, glad to finally have a place in the conversation again. “After all, Octavia and I have history.”

That earned a skeptical glance from the musician. “We do?”

He coughed self-consciously, well aware of Rarity’s amused expression. “Well, anyway, we better get going! See you around, Rarity.”

“You too, Mr. Stone,” the unicorn declared pleasantly, adding in a whisper as he walked past, “and good luck.” She clearly thought he needed it. “I look forward to seeing you again, Octavia. Welcome to Ponyville!”

“She seemed nice,” Octavia ventured as the unicorn wandered off.

“She’s alright,” Nye grumbled.

Her first morning in her new home. Octavia hadn’t slept too well the night before; a different bed, a different room, different night time sounds. She knew she would get used to it, though, so she didn’t let a bad night’s sleep bother her any.

She was sitting on the balcony of her new second-floor bedroom, staring out over a grassy meadow. She had to give Fine Crime credit, it really was a nice view. It almost reminded her of home, albeit a touch warmer and much more sunny. And that’s why she knew she’d come to like it here: Ponyville was not all that different from Trottingham.

And yet she was still just a little uncomfortable about all this.

Nye – who had insisted on helping her unpack – had been curious as to how she’d come upon the large, pre-furnished house. Admitting Fine Crime’s involvement had been a foolish mistake, but she’d recovered effectively. Bought the house… She wished she could afford a place as nice as this. It was certainly larger than any she’d been in before, including her parents’ place. But she’d not bought the house, not at all. It had been a gift.

A gift from Princess Luna.

It was not as if moving to Ponyville was a problem. She was still easily capable of reaching any job she earned as a musician, and she actually enjoyed the traveling. The problem was that she didn’t think she’d earned the place yet. Oh yes, she’d done her part and helped defeat King Sombra, but her role had been only minor.

Yet she knew what the Princess – and her right-hoof-pony, Fine Crime – were trying to do. The Element-Bearers lived in Ponyville. The team Luna was trying to form was meant to support the Elements of Harmony. It only made sense that they be centered in Ponyville, too.

Except that they weren’t a team, not yet. They’d all helped in the Crystal Empire, but they weren’t even resembling a team. Apart from Fine, who had a direct hoof in choosing the players, Octavia was the only one aware of what was really going on. Nye and his brother Jimmy didn’t know, and at this moment she suspected they wouldn’t be interested anyway. That elite pony – Upper Crust, if she recalled correctly – had no self confidence and seemed comfortable with letting others handle Equestria’s protection. And Lightning Dust? Nopony knew where she even was, and she didn’t strike Octavia as a team player.

So this wasn’t a team, and Octavia wasn’t sure it ever would be. She’d agreed to come and live in Ponyville because it really was a nice change of scenery, and besides, how could she say no to a princess?

But that wasn’t the reason she’d agreed to answer the call, should it ever come. In truth she didn’t know why she’d done it. She was fine with the concept of helping others and perhaps protecting Equestria, but the way the princess had described her role sounded too large. It certainly did not fit in with her own life goals. So why had she said yes?

She shook her head, getting rid of the thoughts that had been plaguing her for much of the past three months. She kept coming back to them, knowing it did no good to do so. After all, ‘the call’ probably wouldn’t come for a long time, and if the team couldn’t be properly formed it may not come at all. Better to focus on her own goals than worry about the princess’ plans.

And so, after a light breakfast that required much stumbling around her new, unfamiliar kitchen, Octavia found herself in what she intended to be her music room, cello and bow set for some practice.

She got only six notes in before there was a knock at her door.

Grumbling to herself, Octavia set her instrument aside and went to see who her visitor was.

“It’s her!”

“I told you!”

“You’re here, you’re here!”

“This is the greatest day ever!”

Octavia stared, bewildered by the four excited foals at her door. At first she didn’t recognize them, but then she saw the colt with the yale-blue mane and green coat and felt her memory coming back.

He caught her eye and asked hopefully, “Do you remember me?”

Octavia gave him a warm smile. “Why of course I remember you, Green Daze.”

“Yeah!” He hopped almost three feet. “I knew you’d remember!”

Octavia cast a glance at each of the fillies. “And I remember you too: Apple Bytes, Dinky Hooves, and… err…”

The last filly grinned and posed in a manner that showcased her wings and horn at the same time. “Princess Animatia Erroria!”

Ah yes, the one with the hard name.

“For the unktillionth time Ani, you’re not a princess,” Apple Bytes declared with a roll of her eyes.

“Am too,” her friend declared. “I’ve got a horn and wings. That makes me a princess!”

“Getting a horn that doesn’t work because you got into some poison joke doesn’t make you a princess.”

“Does too.”

“Does not!”

“You’re just jealous.”

“Am not!”

“Are too.”

“Girls,” Dinky interrupted, “why are we here?” They stared at her, and she gestured to Octavia with a frustrated frown.

“You know you’re still my hero?” Green Daze fired off now that he actually had an opening, rushing forward to hug Octavia.

She patted him on the head with a bemused smile. “Really? I thought you’d have forgotten all about me by now.”

“No way!” he declared, looking up at her with determination.

“You bucked a dragon!” Apple Bytes reminder her.

“You got us out of that carriage,” Ani added.

“You saved Green’s life,” Dinky threw in.

“You bucked a dragon!” Green and Apple repeated with glee.

“You’re my hero,” he reaffirmed, “and I’ll never forget it.”

“You know Rainbow Dash bucked a dragon, too,” Dinky noted, earning annoyed looks from her friends. “What? She did.”

“Did you see her buck a dragon?” Ani shot.

“Well no,” Dinky admitted, “but Pinkie said she did!”

“And you believe what Pinkie tells you?” Green asked skeptically.

Octavia interrupted quickly, though she couldn’t keep from smiling at their banter. “Excuse me, kids, but was there something specific you wanted?”

“Oh yeah!” Ani turned to gesture to the town behind them. “You just moved in yesterday, right? We wanted to give you a tour of Ponyville!”

“Right,” Green added with a grin. “We can show you the sights!”

“What sights?” Dinky asked.

“Like the school and the town hall,” Ani suggested.

“I don’t know if she—” Dinky started.

“The arcade!” Apple cried, then added at their bland looks a “What?”

Green finally released Octavia from his hug and stepped back. “We just thought you might like to see all the important places—” with a sour glance at Apple, “—around Ponyville, help you get your bearings.”

“Yeah, it’s a small town but a big place,” Dinky noted with authority. “This way you can find whatever you need later, no problem!”

“And we get to spend time with our favorite hero,” Ani added with a self-confident nod.

Octavia stared down at the four beaming, wide-eyed faces. Goddess, did they know how to wield the power of cute! She glanced back in the direction of her new music room. Well… “Why not?”

The foals cheered so loud she felt her mane flutter from the wind.

It seemed the foals were in a bit of a disagreement about what places were certified as ‘important.’ Even so, they did what they’d said they’d do – more or less – and Octavia soon really did know the lay of the town.

The first stop had been Sugarcube Corner, which was apparently the town’s premier baked goods and catering shop. (Princess!) Animatia and Apple insisted it was a very important locale. Green and Dinky didn’t think so, but agreed it was a fun place to go, especially if Pinkie Pie was around. She was, and she treated Octavia to a welcome song, fireworks and a cake, albeit not necessarily in that order or – as easily noted by the icing still in Octavia’s mane – correctly prepared.

After came the town hall and the school, both of which were generally agreed to be very important. Octavia was pleased to see that the repairs of the dragon attack had been expertly done so that nopony would know that a carriage had crashed through its roof.

Because Apple insisted, they next brought her to the Arcade, though she was the only one to think there was anything ‘important’ about it. Octavia was tempted to agree, but it made Apple happy. The elder filly tried to encourage Octavia to try a game, but the other three foals came to her rescue and convinced Apple it was time to move on.

One undoubtedly embarrassing fiasco avoided.

Then they brought her to the Carousel Boutique. Octavia recalled it as Rarity’s home and place of business. Animatia – whom Octavia was learning to call ‘Ani’ like the others – seemed the most interested in it, noting with excessive pomp that Rarity was a successful fashionista and a very Important Pony of both Ponyville and Canterlot. Rarity acknowledged the complements with great…modesty. Ani’s friends? Less impressed.

The one place that all the foals immediately agreed upon as super important was the library, where lived the Bearer of the Element of Magic, Twilight Sparkle (not home, unfortunately). It seemed that Twilight was the unofficial ‘leader’ of the Element Bearers and the pony to go to when there was a major problem of any sort in or around town. Octavia stored this information in the back of her mind, realizing that if Luna’s team ever did come together Twilight would be an important pony to know.

The tour went beyond Ponyville’s center and into the surrounding areas. The first stop was the home of Fluttershy, Bearer of the Element of Kindness. They found her in the back trying to help a meercat and warthog come up with a theme song for their motto, ‘no worries’ (Octavia had low expectations). Why this was an important place was in question, as Octavia had no pets and didn’t want any. Even so, the foals seemed to think that Fluttershy being an Element-Bearer and very popular around town – especially to stallions – was enough to warrant adding her home to the tour.

They then showed her the outskirts of the infamous Everfree Forest, though they insisted on not entering. They had brought the forest to her attention for one reason: to warn her not to go in. Ever. Unless she wanted to meet the zebra, Zecora, who lived out there, who they confirmed was nice and even fun. Octavia was intrigued; she’d never met a zebra before. Perhaps at a later time.

Next they brought her to the home of Rainbow Dash, captain of Ponyville’s weather team and town hero (“But not as heroic as you,” Green was sure to remind her). Octavia remembered Rainbow well from the events in the Crystal Empire and had actually been interested in meeting her again, but sadly the pegasus wasn’t home.

Her small companions had been beside themselves with glee to find that she knew the town hero.

“You guys could team up!” Green cried.

“You’d be like a superteam,” Ani agreed.

“Going on adventures,” Apple added.

“Beating the bad guys,” Dinky suggested.

“Outshining even Princess Celestia!” Animatia declared, adding “But not outshining Princess me, of course.”

“You can be Rainbow’s sidekick,” Apple said.

“What? No way,” Green shot. “Rainbow would be the sidekick.”

“Rainbow?” Ani laughed. “She’d rather go a year without naps!”

“I think it’s time we moved on,” Dinky suggested with an apologetic glance at Octavia.

The last place to visit was Sweet Apple Acres, owned by the well-known Apple Family. There they met Applejack, who recognized Octavia instantly and heartily welcomed her to Ponyville.

“I’m sorry everypony went and gave us all the credit for the Crystal Empire thing,” Applejack noted after the introductions were over.

Octavia gave her a tilted look. “I appreciate the apology, but it’s not all that important to me.”

“Ya sure? ‘Cause Nye was all frustrated about it three months ago, and I thought you and the others who helped would feel a mite burned too.”

“Really, Miss Applejack, it’s nothing,” Octavia insisted. “I have my own intentions regarding fame. Being a hero is not one of them.”

“But she’s still a hero!” Green insisted with a bounce.

“She sure is,” Applejack agreed, ruffling the colt’s mane with a grin. “If you foals only knew.”

Octavia was eager to leave before the friendly mare could start regaling them with tales of the cellist’s ‘exploits’ in the Crystal Empire. It was well into the afternoon anyway and she still needed to get some practice in. The foals were sad that the tour was over (“Aww, already?”), but relented...after agreeing to walk her home.

It was while they were passing through the town’s central park that Octavia heard the singing. She paused, caught off guard by the nice voice and pleasant tune. Where was it coming from? Unable to stop her own curiosity, she began to follow. The foals had been distracted by another of their brief but frequent arguments (something about a SlenderPony) and were well ahead by the time they realized her change in course.

“Hey, where ya goin?” Ani asked as they caught back up.

“I’m trying to find the source of the singing,” Octavia explained distractedly. The four foals followed and listened.

“That sounds like Sweetie Belle,” Apple Bytes declared.


“Sweetie Belle,” Dinky replied, “Rarity’s kid sister.”

“She’s one of the CMC.” Green threw in.

“And what is the CMC?”

“The Cutie Mark Crusaders,” Ani explained. “That’s what they call themselves, anyway.”

“Hmmm…” Octavia finally spotted the filly in question. She was humming to herself while helping two others work on a homemade…catapult?!

“Oh, no,” Dinky muttered. “They’re on one of their ‘crusades’ again.”

“Better let them be, Octy,” Apple suggested, earning a curious look from the mare for the nickname.

“Yeah, let’s get out of here,” Green asked almost pleadingly. “When they get an idea in their heads it’s usually safer to be as far away as possible.”

“Oh, alright,” Octavia agreed, casting a worried glance at the three fillies and their potentially dangerous work. “Will they be okay?”

“Sure they will,” Ani assured her, “it’s everypony else who’s in danger!”

That little tune had been stuck in her head all day and night, and this afternoon Octavia found herself at her desk, struggling to put it down to sheet music. She wondered where Sweetie had found it, for it didn’t sound like anything she could recall.

That was precisely what bothered Octavia; she had studied music intensely all her life, to such a degree that when she heard a tune she could almost always identify the song, its writer and even the year of publishing after as few as four notes! But this one song – too fine to belong to any of the modern junk that was so popular among the classless masses – eluded her memory. Was it some composer she’d never heard of before? A foreign one?

Wherever it had come from, she liked it and was really hoping it might inspire her own writing. It took her some time to estimate the notes, but once that was done she set the sheet music aside and began to try writing something new, something inspired from the original. After a couple hours she found herself woefully lacking in results. She was frustrated, to say the least. If only she could identify the song, maybe get an idea of its origins and themes and—

Her work was interrupted by a knock at the door, but this time Octavia was glad for the break.

“I’ll be a horse’s rear, Nye, you were telling the truth!”

It was the twins Jimmy and Nye Stone, both looking pleased with themselves. And behind them Octavia was further surprised to see two more visitors: Applejack and Rainbow Dash.

“Well hello everypony,” she declared, genuinely happy to see them. She pushed her unbrushed mane back with a blush. “I wasn’t expecting company…”

“It is so very good to see you,” Jimmy declared with a charming smile. “How’s the leg? Nothing permanent?”

“I’m just fine, thank you Jimmy,” she answered politely. “Come on in, all of you! Applejack, Rainbow Dash, I didn’t expect to see the two of you, either.”

“What are you talking about?” Rainbow demanded as they all entered the house. “You didn’t think we’d forgotten how you helped out, did you?”

“We just wanted ta come by an’ welcome ya ta Ponyville proper!” Applejack said, revealing a bucket full of apples. “These’re fer you, a little welcomin’ present.”

“Why, thank you.” Octavia looked inside and couldn’t help thinking these apples looked very ‘high quality’ compared to what she was used to in Canterlot.

“Hey, nice digs,” Rainbow noted, flying slowly around the room. “You must make good money at those concerts to have a place as nice as this.”

“Umm, yes…” Octavia blushed and decided not to correct the pegasus.

The afternoon was spent pleasantly enough. In truth, Octavia hadn’t considered these ponies to be ‘friends.’ She’d helped out in a crisis and that was the extent of it; they were acquaintances. But they all seemed to think that their brief time together in the Crystal Empire qualified her for bonafide friendship material. It was a little surprising; in Octavia’s mind becoming friends required a bit more than a day and a half of obligated teamwork.

It was a good feeling, to be welcomed so quickly and accepted so readily. At some point Octavia came to realize that this was the true difference between urban ponies and country ponies: there was no need to prove oneself for acceptance. All the posturing of Canterlot, the rush and bustle of Manehattan, the showcasing and flash of Las Pegasus, the scheming and plotting of Coltcago, none of that mattered here. A pony could make friends just by offering.

And that was when the nostalgia of home hit her, and hit her hard. She’d given up the simple life for a shot at her dream, but now she was staring all the familiar elements of that life in the face again. It made her feel so…happy.

“Are you okay, sugarcube?” Applejack asked as Octavia attempted to discreetly wipe a tear away.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she agreed, beaming at her new friends. “It’s just… I think I’m really going to like living in Ponyville.”

“Is it true you’re a cello player?”

Octavia was visiting Rarity – one of the very few ponies in this town to share her appreciation of high class topics – and enjoying a nice cup of tea. She was surprised to find Sweetie Belle watching her, tiny hooves barely visible over the table’s edge. “Why yes, I am.”

Rarity smiled in her polite-but-proud fashion. “Ah, there you are, Sweetie. Octavia, my dear little sister, Sweetie Bell. Octavia is a renowned musician,” she added to her sister as if showcasing a trophy. “Be a dear and don’t cause her any trouble, okay?”

“I’m not gonna cause any trouble,” Sweetie snapped back with a huff. “You act like I’m gonna embarrass you or something.”

“With you around, Sweetie, that’s a very real possibility.”

Sweetie only glowered.

“Sweetie Belle,” Octavia tried the name out pleasantly. “You’re part of the… What is it called? Cutie Mark Crusaders?”

The filly cheered up instantly. “You know about the Crusaders?”

Octavia nodded warmly. “My friend Green Daze and his filly friends told me about you.” She cast a knowing glance at Sweetie’s flank. “No cutie mark yet, I see.”

Sweetie sat and covered her flank with her tail. “Well, no…” And she was up again! “But that’s why I’m here! I was looking for you.”

Octavia blinked, just stopping herself from taking a sip of her tea as she raised an eyebrow. “For me?”

“Oh, no,” Rarity snapped. “Don’t even think about it, little sister! You’re not getting Octavia caught up in one of your crusades.” She spoke the word as if it tasted of burned toast. “She’s barely been in Ponyville for a week! Give her time to settle in before trying to scare her away.”

Sweetie ignored her sister entirely, giving a small bounce as she explained, “My friends and I wanted to try our hands at being musicians!”

“Musicians?” Rarity gave her sister a high-browed, dubious look. “Sweetie, have you forgotten the talent show?”

The filly made a sick face. “Ugh, don’t remind me. But this is different. We want to try starting an orchestra!”

“An orchestra, really?” Octavia asked. How perfectly adorable! “Are you going to sing, then?”

“What? No!” Another disgusted look. “Singing in front of an audience? Don’t think so. I was going to play the harpsichord.”

Octavia stared, then cast a glance at Rarity. The unicorn shrugged and made a ‘don’t bother’ gesture with her hoof. “Well, harpsichords are a bit out of style, but can still function in a modern orchestration. Haymakin von Stirrup proved that.”

The filly blinked and rubbed her chin. “Who?”

Octavia face-hooved with an accepting smile. “Don’t worry about it.”

Sweetie let the comment slide. “Anyway, Rarity was going on earlier about how you’re this super big time musician—” a blushing, embarrassed grin from Rarity “—and we thought maybe you could give us some pointers on what it takes to make an orchestra! We’re…kinda clueless about it.” She scuffed her hoof on the floor and drooped.

Octavia considered this proposal. She glanced over the table at Rarity, who was shaking her head violently with a panicked expression.

But this was an opportunity. Sweetie Belle was the source of the tune Octavia was still trying to use as the basis for a new orchestral piece. Perhaps in this way she could find out where the music had come from without being obtuse in her interest.

“Do you have instruments?”

Of course they don’t,” Rarity answered before her sister could get a word in.

Sweetie shot her sister a burning look. “But we can borrow the instruments from school.”

“Then come to my place after school tomorrow,” Octavia instructed with a pleased smile.

The filly leapt into the air with a “Yay!” and was out the door within seconds. An instant later the entire house resounded with a chorus of “THE CUTIE MARK CRUSADER ORCHESTRA!”

“You mean the other two were waiting just outside?” the cellist asked while rubbing her ears.

“I don’t think you understand what you’re getting yourself into,” Rarity announced, alarm on her face. “Those three are a serious hoof-full.”

“I’ve been warned before,” Octavia declared with a dismissive wave, nose upturned as she sipped her tea. “If they’re anything like Green Daze and his friends, I think I can handle them.”

Rarity made a fretful sound but said nothing.

A disaster. Complete and total.

Harpsichord, harmonica and drums. Those instruments did not an orchestra make.

Octavia had tried to explain to the Crusaders the basic concepts – particularly the fact that one couldn’t have an orchestra with only three fillies – but she learned quickly that there was no reasoning with the Cutie Mark Crusaders. The afternoon was one big roller coaster ride. Between Scootaloo trying her hand at writing music (for the second time, she learned) and Apple Bloom insisting that the music required a ‘jammin’ harmonica solo, nothing really seemed to go right. Even Sweetie Belle, who displayed significant musical talent, couldn't grasp why things were going so horribly wrong.

And messy; the music room was rapidly becoming a wreck.

There was one respite, which came when Octavia had taken up her cello and shown them through her music how different sounds could blend to form musical harmony. It was a brief lapse in the chaos that, for some reason, the Crusaders had watched attentively.

After that? More chaos.

Despite it all, Octavia had managed to keep her temper. She put up with every horrible note, each brief argument and all the rapid shifts in goals. The fillies just couldn’t seem to stay focused on one topic for too long before deciding that their destinies lay in some other direction.

There was only one time when Octavia truly got angry, and that was when she’d caught Scootaloo preparing to try out her cello.

“I have been using this cello ever since I was just a little older than you. It was a gift from a relative I will never see again. It has been with me all my life, has earned me my bread and butter. I polish it nightly, practice on it four times a day. It is more important to me than the world and you will not touch it.”

They didn’t dare try again.

Near sunset the three fillies finally came to the sad conclusion that their cutie marks probably wouldn’t come from forming an orchestra and left for home. Relieved and worn out, Octavia was left to clean up the mess.

It had been an interesting day, to say the least. More frustrating than anything. She was glad, though, to have gotten this particular urge out of the girls’ system. She wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of trouble again anytime soon, and for that she was especially grateful.

But Octavia’s ulterior motive – getting a chance to ask Sweetie about her tune – had gone untouched. There simply hadn’t been any time in all the hustle and bustle and noise to bring it up.

Even so, the Crusaders weren’t quite as terrible as everypony in town claimed. Close, but not quite.

Octavia was surprised and just a little alarmed when she heard a knock and found Sweetie Belle at her door once again. “Sorry, Miss Melody,” she said with a blush, head hanging low. “I kinda forgot my saddlebag.”

“That’s quite alright, Sweetie,” Octavia answered with no small relief. “Come on in, I’m sure it’s somewhere under the mess.”

An opportunity! Octavia, busying herself with putting away the piles of sheet music that had been strewn about the room, wondered how to ask the filly about her little tune.

Turned out it wasn’t necessary.

“Hey, this is my song.”

The cellist looked up to see Sweetie studying some sheet music that had fallen atop her saddle bag. The filly hummed the notes for a few seconds, then looked up at Octavia with an uncertain frown. “Where did you get this?”

Octavia blushed, thinking carefully on her reply. How much of the truth should she tell? Just the basics, enough to get by? Or…

She stared at Sweetie’s blank flank. Something about seeing it and knowing from the day’s events how badly she wanted her cutie mark told Octavia that now was not the time for half-truths. So, feeling a little self-conscious, she approached and sat before the filly.

“I heard you humming that song the day after I arrived in Ponyville,” she confessed. “I liked it, so I tried to recreate it on paper.”

“Really?” Sweetie Belle beamed. “You really liked it?”

“I liked it very much,” the cellist declared with a smile. “So much in fact that I’ve been using it as inspiration for a new song…though I’m having a lot of trouble.”

At that Sweetie lowered her head. “Yeah, well I guess it’s not all that great.”

“You misunderstand, Sweetie. It’s not the song that’s the problem, it’s me.” She could see the filly was confused, so she leaned forward as if to convey a secret. “Do you know what my special talent is?”

Sweetie Belle blinked and tilted her head before casting a thoughtful glance at the cello in the corner.

Octavia smiled knowingly. “It’s singing.”

“What?” The filly stood and gestured at the instrument. “But… But you’re a renowned cellist, not a singer.”

“Take a look at my cutie mark,” Octavia offered, shifting so that her flank was readily visible. “What do you see?”

Sweetie didn’t seem to understand at first. She studied the musical note for a few careful seconds, then her eyes lit up. An instant later she was clearly confused again. “It’s a treble clef…but that doesn’t make sense. Not for a cello.”

“I’m a soprano,” Octavia declared, returning to a proper sitting position. “The clef is representative of my voice, not my instrument.”

Sweetie seemed even less certain. “But if you’re special talent is singing, why don’t you?”

Octavia smiled and playfully nudged the filly. “Because, like you, I don’t care to sing in public. Besides, I might be a good singer, but I like the sound of my cello more.”

Sweetie tilted her head, eyes crossing as she tried to make sense of what she was learning. “But wasn’t it hard to learn the cello, since it wasn’t your talent?”

Octavia shook her head. “It’s still musical, Sweetie. Playing an instrument and singing are related enough that it wasn’t all that big a jump.”

“I see…I think.” But then Sweetie Belle set a hoof on the sheet music between them. “But what does that have to do with my music?”

“Well Sweetie…” Octavia hesitated; she didn’t share this particular bit of information with many ponies. But she’d started, after all. “You see, I want to be a songwriter. I can sing and play the cello, but it seems I’m not so good at writing new music.”

She bowed her head, ears flat as she sighed. “It’s nice that people like my playing, but I want to create something new. The tune you were humming the other day inspired me, and so I hoped that by having my own copy I could finally create something.”

Sweetie sat back on her haunches, thinking with a hoof to her head. “So…your talent is singing, but you play cello. You’re great at cello, but you really want to write songs? But aren’t you happy being a musician?”

Octavia offered a weak smile. “I’m happy, but I’m not satisfied. It’s your dream to gain a cutie mark. It’s mine to be a great, renowned songwriter.”

Sweetie looked astonished. “And you think my music is inspiring? That’s amazing!”

“It is indeed,” the cellist declared. “If you don’t mind my asking, where did you hear it from?”

The filly tilted her head, confusion once again plastered on her face. “Hear it from?”

“Yes, hear it from,” Octavia repeated. She sat up straight and gestured to herself with great pomp. “I know the music of composers from all over Equestria, but I can’t place that tune. I simply must know where it came from, Sweetie, it’s been on my mind all week!”

“Umm…” Sweetie waved a hoof at the sheet music, eyes averted and cheeks red. “I just…came up with it on my own.”

Octavia blinked, her posh veneer cracking just a smidgen as she stared at the filly. “Really?” Sweetie nodded, eyes downcast. “You’re sure you didn’t…umm…hear it once and just can’t recall?” Another nod.

Oh, sweet merciful Celestia. This little filly had a gift that made Octavia feel both humbled and humiliated at the same time. She was tempted to pick the foal up and shake her silly; why didn’t she have a cutie mark yet?! To think, all this time she’d been searching the back of her mind for a composer, when the source of her daily frustrations for the past week was nothing more than a child. A child who didn’t even understand what she had!

Absolutely. Humiliating.

“M-maybe I should go now,” Sweetie Belle muttered, clearly aware of Octavia’s frustration. She slipped on her saddlebag and headed for the door, body slunk low in trepidation.

No. Octavia refused to let this get to her. It was unfair to Sweetie Belle, who’d done nothing wrong. “Wait.”

The filly winced but paused. Octavia took the sheet music in her mouth and approached, setting the paper down beside Sweetie. “This music is yours, Sweetie. True it’s not even a page long, but that doesn’t change the fact. It’s yours, and I can’t use it without permission.”

Sweetie looked up at her with big, surprised eyes. Octavia smiled and asked, “So? Can I use your music to make my own?”

The filly was in high spirits almost instantly. “Of course you can! I thought you were mad at me.”

“No Sweetie,” Octavia declared with face-saving regality. “A little flustered, I’ll admit, but one can’t let another pony’s talents be a burden. And if you’d like,” she added smartly, “you can come over from time to time and help me develop my music.”

Sweetie’s eyes shined like stars. “That’d be great! Can Scootaloo and Apple Bloom come, too?”

Octavia’s grin cracked, but only slightly. “Err… Yes. Of course.”

“Woohoo!” The filly was out the door. “Thanks, Octavia. See you later!”

She watched the filly depart in the fading twilight, feeling not just a little bemused. She took another long look at the sheet music before her. It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning. Maybe with a little push from a little friend she could finally get to where she wanted to be. It was encouraging.

Yes, she was really going to enjoy living in Ponyville.

Then she recalled the mess in the music room, and her agreement with Sweetie Belle.

She wilted just a little at the thought of more chaotic days to come. May they be few and far between.

Fine Crime stood amongst the trees of the mighty Everfree Forest, gazing up at the moon through the canopy. It was a warm night, the familiar sounds of a living, wild forest assaulting his ears. He found it quite pleasant...or at least he would have if he weren’t anxious about the very real threat that lay hidden somewhere nearby.

He’d been there for some time, just waiting. But then he heard soft hoofsteps over the quiet night noises. He turned in time to see somepony emerging through the thick woods, a zebra mare who appeared not just a little nervous to be there.

“There you are,” he noted, standing and bowing politely. “Zecora, master of the wood.”

Her eyes met his, revealing her hesitancy. “A master of these woods I hardly be,” she answered, shifting from hoof to hoof. “No master of the woods we’ll ever see.” Her eyes roamed the woods as if seeking out something familiar, but dreaded. “This is the place you wish to grace?”

“It is,” Fine confirmed, glancing around with equal uncertainty. “But I wanted your acceptance. You know this area better than anypony else.”

“This part of the wood often I am seeing, I may know more than any pony living,” Zecora confessed, turning her attention to him once more. “But why at this place where evil looms so soon after little Apple Bloom?”

“It is precisely because of Apple Bloom’s close encounter here that we chose this place,” he explained, waving a hoof at the surrounding area. “Nopony believes her story, but my ponies are aware. Both Celestia and Luna have expressed concerns of the dangers lurking here, but we know better than to try and do anything about it. Besides,” he added with a mischievous grin, “it’s dark and creepy and oh so me.”

But Zecora wasn’t distracted by his manner. Instead she watched him with an expression of utmost seriousness. “Do not taunt the curse of that place, lest you vanish without a trace.”

“We’re not fools, Zecora,” he countered, her directness knocking him back into solemnity. “We don’t intend to disturb the area beyond this place. We only want to distract.”

She raised an eyebrow even as her eyes darted amongst the trees again. “You wish to distract? What way would you act?”

“I will be here,” he declared simply, gesturing to the immediate area. “Ponies who come will see me, and have no reason to travel beyond. Should they try, we will have certain – let’s call them precautions – to stop them. Put simply, we want to protect the ponies of Ponyville by keeping up the illusion that there is nothing out here but…well, me.”

The zebra considered this for a long time, her expression deathly serious. At last she leveled him with a solemn frown. “Your cause I see may be for good, but still too close is the dark wood.”

“Which is exactly why we asked you to come out here,” he said. He turned to the woods, in the direction that he knew he couldn’t go. “We know it’s there...somewhere. But we just can’t tell where the border is – spiritual, magical, whatever. Our best mages are flummoxed. I’d like your help determining what would qualify as a safe distance.”

Zecora stood at his side, nodding her approval as she followed his gaze. “You are utilizing precaution. I am relieved at this notion.”

“Then you’ll help us?”

“If this will help more ponies to live, then my help I shall willingly give,” she answered. “Yet a question must I ask: why keep so secret this task?”

He grinned. “That’s just the way we work.”

And so they began their long and arduous work of choosing a proper location. Zecora guided him through the woods, providing her cryptic warnings as he sought the best location for his plans. Their talking went throughout the night, though neither of them enjoyed the dark environment they’d found themselves in. More than once they found themselves doing their best to ignore the gleaming, golden eyes that occasionally peered through the woods...

Old Roads

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Jimmy was busy triple-checking his saddlebag, making sure he had every minute piece of information he might need. The objective sheet, the pre-design checks, the drafts, the environmental image set, everything. His employers weren’t going to ask for most of it, he knew. It didn’t matter; he never went to them unprepared.

At last sure that he had everything, he went to the kitchen and prepared a big breakfast. As he did his brother Nye stumbled into the room, looking downright miserable.

“Morning Sunshine,” Jimmy announced with a grin. “Waffles?”

Nye only grumbled in response. Jimmy could tell from years of experience that this meant yes. While he worked his twin approached the cooler and slowly pulled out some milk and hot cocoa mix. “Lunar Metropolis?” Nye’s grumbled response indicated something different, perhaps involving coffee. “Well while you’re at it see if you can whip up that Rising Dawn of yours.”

The twins worked on their respective morning routines, Jimmy whistling happily as he flipped the waffles over and Nye looking like a zombie by the coffee machine. The elder brother watched Nye quietly as he began mixing ingredients, feeling just a touch envious. He could cook, but only with known recipes. Nye, on the other hand, couldn’t cook, but he had a knack for making weird and tasty drinks off the top of his head… even when in his usual morning doldrums.

Nye poured some lime in a mixer, sprinkled in a bunch of pecans, threw in milk. A few more ingredients and Jimmy recognized the combination. What was Nye’s name for it? Monkey Buck, or something like that. Once the cappuccino mixture was finished his brother set it aside to cool and started working on Jimmy’s: some strange formula of orange juice with milk and hot chocolate that had the peculiar effect of having the bottom appear a milky orange and the top black. Like a Rising Dawn.

Really, his brother’s creativity was something else.

Breakfast ready, the two sat at the table and began to dine. Nye took a sip of his drink and almost instantly began to wake up, though he still had a dour expression. “Canterlot today?” he asked.

“Yeap,” Jimmy confirmed between bites. “Gone two days, you know the drill.”

There was a long silence, save for a moment where the grumpy Nye muttered something about Jimmy being a ‘cheery bastard’ that he probably wasn’t supposed to overhear. He let the comment slide; his brother had been this way in the mornings since before he could remember. When the big breakfast was over he asked, “Wanna join me on the walk to the station?”

Nye, not even half finished with his own meal, shook his head slowly. “Got ‘nother hour,” he mumbled almost incoherently. “Still an ass.”

“So be it,” Jimmy declared, heading back to his room, “but try not to be late again.” More incoherent grumblings followed him through the door. He chuckled and put on his saddlebag, making just one more check that he had everything. Confident and happy, he waved to his brother on the way out – “See you in a few!” – and didn’t bother trying to decipher the gloomy response as he made his way outside.

The sun had only just begun peeking over the trees in the east. Fresh dew chilled his hooves as he trotted through the grass, taking in the pleasant morning air. Most of Ponyville was still asleep, save for a few fellow early birds getting ready for business. Some familiar faces greeted him on the way, faces he was always happy to see.

He liked living in Ponyville. People here were so much friendlier than in the cities. The air was clear, he wasn’t being crushed under a mass of ponies trying to get to work, and the only noise was the chirping of the birds and the occasional breeze. Truly this was heaven in comparison.

But he was an engineer, and engineers worked in the cities.

When he reached the train station he was surprised to see a welcome face: Octavia, standing beside a luggage bag and her cello case.

“Mornin’,” he called, trotting up to her with a grin.

She turned to him with a sleepy yawn, though she seemed pleased enough to see him. “Oh, Jimmy. What brings you here so early?”

“Work. You?”

“The same.”



“Me too.” He took a quick look at her luggage. “Planning on sticking around for a few days, then?”

She nodded, taking a moment to rub her eyes free of sleepiness. “It’s a week-long deal. Not paying much, but it’s important to keep busy.”

The train was pulling up, right on time. He waited politely while she spoke to an attendant who took her luggage to the baggage car, and they got on together. He noticed where she was going and followed. “Want to ride together? These trips are always better with a friend.”

She paused and gave him an uncertain look. “Well… I would, Jimmy. But… umm…”

She looked not just a little embarrassed, but he caught on. “Gonna sleep some more?” She nodded with an apologetic, relieved expression. “No worries. Maybe we’ll see one another in Canterlot.”

“Y-yeah… maybe.”

He watched as she entered a private cabin, the kind a pony could only get via reservation, and whistled to himself; that kind of traveling didn’t come cheap. He could have afforded one himself, but he didn’t mind economy, unlike many ponies he knew.

As he found himself a spot to sit he considered Octavia’s behavior. Why had she seemed so… nervous? After a long meditation he came to the only obvious conclusion: she must not have wanted to offend him by rejecting his offer. He’d have to reassure her later.

He leaned against the window as the train began to move, ready for a pleasant day.

Canterlot. Jimmy could never get used to it. He’d been to plenty of big cities before, but none of them really matched this one. It wasn’t bustling with activity like Manehattan, or intensely crowded, or dirty with age. It was always pristine, beautiful and calm.

And that was disturbing, because it defied all his common knowledge for what a city should be.

He didn’t care for most Canterlotians, either; they were snobby and self-righteous at the best of times. But they needed engineers, they paid well and conducted flawless business ethics. This was the kind of clientele he wanted and needed to form his own identity. So when he’d first moved to Ponyville it was here, in the beating heart of Equestria’s governance, that he’d come to make a name for himself.

And a name he was making; within short order he’d been hired as a freelance designer for one of Canterlot’s rising star firms. It was good money and honest work. Best of all his designs were a hit! His wasn’t the most popular building designs in Canterlot, but they were still drawing eyes, and eyes meant more business. More business meant more work, and Jimmy practically lived on work.

In summation: he was very happy.

“Mr. Marble will see you now,” the pink-coated secretary declared. Jimmy thanked her and walked into the meeting room.

Black Marble, white-coated and black-maned, was alone. This struck Jimmy as strange; there’d always been a group of ponies with him to help with the decisions of the company’s owner. He knew better than to ask about it; far safer to act as if nothing were wrong.

“Mr. Marble,” he began pleasantly, pausing next to the meeting table and a respectable distance from the unicorn, “how nice to see you again. I have the new designs you requested and…”

He paused when the unicorn turned his head to look at him. He had hard, focused eyes. They reminded him of his father’s eyes. He had to shake off that terrible sensation…

“…and… I just know you’re going to like them.”

Black Marble said nothing, but approached as Jimmy nervously set his documents on the table for display. He made sure the building’s most aesthetic image was prominent, just in case. He didn’t know why he was so nervous – how was meeting this pony alone any more intimidating than meeting him with his retinue of advisers? But somehow it was.

Those hard eyes were still on him when the unicorn got close. Jimmy resisted the urge to swallow the lump in his throat and stepped back to give the business owner a respectable amount of room. But Black Marble didn’t look at the portfolio. He kept looking at Jimmy.

“You’ve done good work for us,” he said after what seemed like an eternity.

Wooo, that was a relief! “I’m grateful you think so.”

Black looked down thoughtfully, as if considering something entirely unrelated in his mind. Only then, finally, did he look at Jimmy’s work. He said nothing, asked nothing, only shuffled through the papers slowly. Jimmy stood like a soldier awaiting orders, not really sure what to expect. He’d never had a review of his work go quite like this…

At last the unicorn nodded. “This is all fine work, Mr. Stone. It would have made a fine contender for the company’s bid.”

Would have?

“I am sorry, Mr. Stone, but the Marble Company can no longer accept your designs.”

Jimmy was shocked. He stood there, mouth agape, trying to process what he’d just heard. “You… you mean you’d like me to make some changes… I can do that. Just tell me…”

“No, Mr. Stone,” Black corrected seriously. He turned to give Jimmy that hard gaze again. “I mean we can no longer accept your designs. At all. The Marble Company is ending your contract.”

Jimmy opened his mouth, tried to speak, couldn’t find any words. He glanced around in search of something to explain this, but of course there was nothing, so he looked back at Black Marble. He tried to speak again. “I… don’t understand. Why would the company… why would you do that?”

Black Marble sighed and turned away, walking once more to stare out the window. “Mr. Stone, this company is still very young. We’ve earned enough money to be capable of standing on our own hooves, and you’ve had a hand in that. It is appreciated. But we have investors on whom our very existence depends even now. If enough of our investment money is pulled away, we flounder.”

Jimmy shook his head. “I don’t see what that has to do with my employment.”

Black Marble didn’t look at him, but his words were such that he might as well have been staring those daggers at him once more. “You’ve been building a name through us, Mr. Stone. That alone can rub people the wrong way. One of our biggest investors doesn’t like your rising success. If that investor pulls out, the future of the Marble Company will be in question.”

Jimmy felt his blood run cold. It couldn’t be… “W-what is the investor’s… name…?”

Black Marble sighed, shook his head. “Listen, you really have done excellent work for us, Mr. Stone. I want to keep you in this company. But this is a threat I cannot answer, nor will I try. You are a freelancer, which means we can cut off the contract at our discretion and without giving a reason. That said…” he gave Jimmy a look that was as close to apologetic the stallion could probably have mustered without quite being there, “…I know how wrong this is for you. I’m going to accept your design and even pay you quadruple our agreed fee. But after this, we can do no more business with you. I am sorry.”

It was enough. Jimmy knew who had stood in his way. He didn’t know whether to be infuriated or miserable or both. And yet… he didn’t blame the pony for this decision. “I… understand…” he muttered. “I guess… I guess I can find work at another company.”

Black Marble approached him, shook his head. “You can try, Mr. Stone, but I am afraid the pressure is on. My investor is very well connected, and holds much power in this business. If he doesn’t want you to succeed, you almost certainly won’t.”

Now Jimmy was truly alarmed. “Are you saying that nopony will hire me after this?”

Black Marble glanced away for just a brief moment, which the pegasus could only take as a tiny sign of anxiety. “What I’m saying, Mr. Stone, is that you may have to seek employment in an entirely different field.”

Jimmy had enough bits to live the royal life in Canterlot for years. But, as they say, money can’t buy happiness.

He trudged the nighttime streets, bitter and cursing his family name. To think, once there had been a time when he was proud of that name and the legacy it entitled him to. Now the only thing he really wanted was to meet his father again so he could buck his teeth out! To think the stallion would go this far. He knew Stikin would be furious about his leaving, but this kind of devious malpractice required a true devotion of hate.

And at this moment he was definitely getting some in return. It was the first time Jimmy really understood how his brother must have felt during all those years in their youth. How had their mother ever put up with that monster, how!? His entire life devoted to his practice, and just like that the old stallion had reduced it to trash.

He didn’t know what he was going to do. Take his bits and live a carefree life? No; he was a producer. He needed to work. He needed a job.

For a brief moment he imagined himself working beside his brother at the train station. It was the most humiliating thought he’d ever had. He refused to throw all his hard work and studies away like that! His brother might be fine with such a modest life, but Jimmy never would be. He had to find something else, something that put his talents to good use.

He paused at the sound of music and laughing. He glanced around and saw that he was in the food district; classy restaurants, expensive cafes and members-only clubs. He was thirsty, and depressed; why not?

He found a lounge, paid the ridiculous entry fee. It was a quiet atmosphere, the establishment only half-full with self-important, rich and elite ponies. None tried to talk to him. Most ignored him. He wasn’t known, and for once he was glad for it. He started to make his way to the bar… but then paused.

There, sitting at a booth on her own, was Upper Crust. She was adorned in a very fine, expensive looking gown… and seemed absolutely miserable. She was leaning heavily against the table, tall glass of wine half-gone, cheek in a hoof and eyes downcast.

Perhaps misery loved company.


She reacted slowly, staring at him with eyes red from tears. She didn’t seem to recognize him at first, but then she wiped her face and asked, “You’re… I’m sorry… Mr… Mr. Stone? Nye, wasn’t it?”

“Jimmy,” he confirmed softly. “Nye’s the other Stone.”

“…I see…”

He nodded at the spot opposite her. “This seat taken?”

She didn’t respond, so he sat. There was a long silence; she clearly was in no mood for conversation. He didn’t know what was wrong. He wasn’t sure if it mattered; he was in enough trouble himself. Even if he knew what the problem was, he probably couldn’t help.

A server came by, and Jimmy ordered something he recalled as being ridiculously alcoholic. Tonight seemed the right time for that kind of drink.

“I’m guessing the last three months haven’t been treating you well,” he ventured slowly, just to break the silence between them.

She sniffed, shook her head, sipped her wine.

He sighed, leaned against the table forlornly. “I remember us leaving the Empire three months ago and thinking how everything was going so wonderfully. Heh, if only I had known…”

Her eyes finally went to him. She spoke slowly, as if uncertain of her words. “Do you still feel it?”

“Feel what?”

“The excitement. The joy.” Her eyes fell again. “Three months ago I felt on top of the world, like I could do anything. I mattered. For once in my life, I really mattered.”

His drink came, he took a sip. It was almost too alcoholic to choke down. Perfect: he took another, longer sip.

“I guess,” he answered at last, “that kind of feeling fades with time.”

She said nothing, just stared at her wine glass as if there were some infinite truth hidden within.

Perhaps it was his turn. “Have you ever tried to challenge somepony?”

She blinked, gave him an uncertain look. “…like who?”

Another sip. “Somepony powerful. Somepony you were scared of. Somepony who held your life in his hooves, and knew it.”

She sighed dejectedly. “Like challenging fate.”

Her answer perplexed him, but then it made a kind of sense. Challenging his father really was life challenging fate, wasn’t it?

“I felt like I’d challenged fate that day,” she confessed. “Challenged it and won. Now I wonder if it wasn’t just a fluke.”

A fluke? “No.” Her frown deepened, but he reached a hoof over the table to touch hers. The contact surprised her; she looked up. “No, Upper Crust, it was not a fluke. You had something to offer, and you offered it.”

“I didn’t offer it,” she corrected, dropping her hooves under the table and away from his touch. “I was volunteered by Fine Crime.”

“Does it matter? He saw that there was something in you, something that mattered.”

She turned her head away dejectedly. “Then why does nopony else see it?”

He leaned back, slowly pulling his hoof to his side. Another sip of his drink. “What about you?”

“I don’t know anymore… but I long to have somepony, anypony see it again.”

“Well,” he ventured, “if it makes you feel any better, I just found that I’m pretty useless myself.” He could see that it didn’t.

She gave him a long look, as if her hopes had been crushed. “I… should be getting home. My husband will start wondering where I am.”

Jimmy blinked, glanced around the lounge. Why would she come to such a social place alone? “Will you be alright?”

“Good night, Mr. Stone,” she said, tone morose as she slipped off the booth and walked to the door.

She forgot to pay her bill. Jimmy paid for it, finished his drink and ordered another.

He had the bits, after all.

He couldn’t bring himself to go home early. His return ticket was set for tomorrow, and he didn’t want to face his brother so soon. Not yet, anyway.

So instead Jimmy spent his day wandering Canterlot, sunk in his own doldrums. He considered applying at the various firms in the area, actually tried twice. In both cases his last name came up and he was immediately sent away. He wouldn’t try anymore; the ponies hadn’t said as much, but it was obvious why they wouldn’t hire him. With nothing left to do he just explored.

He was disgusted with all the posh ponies of the city’s upper levels, the ones that lived near the castle. The sight of them in their fine coats and livery and gowns reminded him far too much of his old life and of his father. So he went down, into the lower levels. Every city had to have a common class, the ponies hired to keep things clean and pretty and organized. The types the elites didn’t want to see or associate with, but needed for their very existence. Canterlot was no exception, no matter how it tried to disguise itself with its demanding residential laws, registration requirements and zone curfews.

The rules made it clear that the lower class ponies couldn’t go up save for work, but there was no rule saying an upper class pony like him couldn’t go down.

The place was more crowded than the upper levels, but not as much as he’d expected. Certainly not on the same level as Manehattan. It wasn’t so dirty or dull, either. But it still felt more like a proper city in Jimmy’s mind, so he found he liked it. This was what he was used to.

He wandered the place, not looking for anything in particular. It was a good place to get lost in. It wasn’t what Jimmy had been trying to do… but it’s what happened. He didn’t let it worry him; if he needed to get back to his hotel he needed only to go uphill and he’d find a gate eventually. He stopped to eat at a small café where he was certain the hay was the leftovers of the bale that had gone to the upper levels. He felt out of place there, but nopony seemed to mind.

It was early in the afternoon when he came upon the shop. Perhaps ‘junkyard’ would have been a better title, for the building was surrounded by scraps of old items probably thrown out years ago; wagon wheels, rusting doors, piles of bolts, even a worn and vine-covered steam engine that had to have come from a train. He wandered the area curiously, the entire shop dark beneath the vast shadow cast by Canterlot’s upper levels.

‘Two Bits’ was emblazoned in worn gold letters on the dusty window of the shop. Well, mostly; the ‘o’ in two was only a pale shadow where the letter had once been, and most of the others letters were peeling. He glanced inside to discover all sorts of things, from a carriage chassis to shelves of makeshift, possibly home-made toys. And, interestingly, a pony struggling with something big and blocky in the background.

Jimmy was curious, so he went in.

What he found was an old, short, yellow-coated and purple-maned unicorn struggling with his hoof, which seemed to have been caught in the inner workings of a massive grandfather clock.

“Umm, are you okay?”

The unicorn glared at him. “Nay, I’m naut!” His accent made it clear he was from Trotland. “Give me a han’ wif this infernal thin’, woodya nau?”

Jimmy, just a little uncertain, stepped forward to get a better look. “Stop jerking, you’re making it worse,” he noted sympathetically. The hoof was caught within three different gears! “By Celestia, how’d you get it that far in?”

“Well I had ta put the friggen’ lever back somhau!” The gears glowed for a moment, but wouldn’t shift to the unicorn’s magic. “I keep tryin’ ta get ‘em ta le’ go, but is like they determine’ ta take me hoof!”

“Alright, alright, just hold still and let me study this…”

“Hurts a wee much fer holdin’ still, lad.”

Jimmy ignored his grumbling and focused on the clock’s inner workings. After a few seconds he was able to see how all the small pieces worked together. “I’ll need a screwdriver.”

“Wha? You knau hau lon’ it took me ta put this thin’ back together?” But after a moment’s consideration the old pony sighed. “Check me saddleba’, lef’ side, secon’ from de back.”

Jimmy did as he was told and found what he was looking for. Keeping the screwdriver in his teeth, he shifted and worked until he was at last able to get the tool into the tight fit. A few quick turns and a lever loosened. This had a rapid domino effect on many of the other components, and suddenly the old stallion’s hoof slipped out.

The unicorn let out a long, relieved sigh and rubbed his bruised hoof tenderly. “Thank ya lad, I though’ I’d never get me hoof out!”

Jimmy took a moment to re-tighten the screw before turning to check the stallion’s hoof. “That looks pretty bad, old timer.”

“Bah, I’ve ha’ worse,” the stallion muttered. “Quick bandagin’ an’ it’s back ta work. Thanks again, lad, I owe ya. Wha’ can I do ya fer in the meantime?”

“Oh, not much,” Jimmy confessed, glancing around as the pony went to a cabinet and pulled out a first aid kit. “Just exploring Canterlot.”

“Then you’re in the wron’ place, lad,” the unicorn declared gruffly. “this may be Canterlau, bu’ all the sigh’seein’s up there. You los’?”

“Not really,” Jimmy answered. “Well, yes, I am, but I can figure out how to get back. And I don’t feel like being up there. What is this place?”

“Two Bits,” the stallion announced as if this were obvious – which perhaps it was. “Repairs. Toymaker. I’m Two Bits. Junior.”

“And what’s with all the junk outside?”

“Parts, o‘course.”

“Of course.” Jimmy watched as the old stallion began to study the clock again. “Shouldn’t you… I dunno, take a break? You won’t be using that hoof today, I hope.”

“Nau, I think it’s broke,” Two Bits Jr. confessed, but kept right on. “Can’ stop workin’, though. Go’ a schedule to keep.”

Jimmy was amazed. Back when he’d worked for his father he’d learned that safety was of the utmost importance; even a minor injury was warrant for a day off. To see this old stallion working right on when he was most certainly in a lot of pain was rather surprising.

“Here, let me help.”

“Ya done helpe’ me enough, lad,” Two Bits Jr. argued. “Ya shoul’ go back to ya explorin’.”

“You’re hurt,” Jimmy argued, “and I’m bored. I need to do something constructive or my day’s a waste. Besides,” he turned and tapped his cutie mark, “this kind of thing’s my special talent.”

The unicorn raised an suspecting eyebrow. “Ya’d jus’ go an’ help an ol pony, jus’ like tha? I can’ pay ya nothin’.”

“Forget payment,” Jimmy said, “give me something to do! That’s payment enough.”

“I’ll be damne'.” Two Bits shrugged and stepped back. “If ya wanna work, who am I ta stop ya? Where ya from, lad?”

He almost said Manehattan, but stopped himself. He considered the question, and what the answer really meant to him.

“Ponyville,” he said at last. “I’m from Ponyville.”

Jimmy’s mood had shot up so much since the day before it was downright extraordinary. He’d spent the entire day in that tinkerer’s shop, helping with repairs and modifications and upgrades and designs. He’d been using his special talent, something he’d not done in years. He’d forgotten how much pleasure it gave him, to work on things with his hooves. Not like drafting a building or setting up blueprints: this was him working on something physical, something he could touch and examine up close. An entirely different experience.

He’d enjoyed himself so much he actually regretted leaving the shop that evening. Two Bits had been nothing but impressed with his work, and despite his earlier declaration of not being able to pay he’d gone and offered Jimmy a job.

But he’d turned the offer down. He’d spent his life training to be a structural engineer. Somehow taking on a job like that seemed… wrong. Like it flew in the face of everything he’d worked for. Besides, he lived in Ponyville; he had to stay there to take care of his brother. Nye liked to act independent, but Jimmy knew he’d never even get out of bed on time if not for the knowledge that big brother as watching over his shoulder.

But even if his future was uncertain and he still had no job, Jimmy was happy, at least for tonight. This called for something special, something he used only very rarely, but first he’d have to find a place that offered it.

He found one, a grungy looking bar not far from the gates to the upper levels. He went on in and was met with loud talking, jazzy music and the occasional bout of raucous laughter. Nye’s kind of place, or so he imagined. Smoke filled the air, which was for Jimmy an encouraging sign.

He sat before the bar and waited for the bartender to approach. “What’ll ya have?”

“I saw on the sign you offer extract,” Jimmy replied. “What’s your best quality?”

The bartender raised an eyebrow, studied Jimmy for a moment. “Blue Buck. Twenty bits a stick.”

Ooh, surprisingly high quality stuff for a place like this. “Gimme three.”

The mare stared at him dumbly for a moment. “Three? You sure? This is some tough stuff.”

“I can handle it,” Jimmy declared, setting his card on the counter. The bartender glanced at the card, then back at Jimmy. Finally she took the card and nodded, heading into the back. A few minutes later she returned with three long, purple-colored sticks on a pan. They looked like incense sticks. On one side of the pan was a small burning coal.

Jimmy took his card back, then picked up a stick in his mouth and pushed the other end into the coal. It began to smoke, a small constant stream that swam its way up to join the rest of its kind in the air. The pegasus sucked in, could taste the refined poison joke extract within, and relaxed.

He turned back to scan the bar, puffing pleasantly on his extract. Nothing special about the place; it certainly wasn’t winning in points for tidiness and beauty. A dump, really. However they got their hooves on Blue Buck he couldn’t fathom. He ignored the ponies all around him and turned to watch the band.

His extract stick nearly fell out of his mouth.

There, wearing a purple silk dress, was Octavia. She had her eyes closed as she played her cello with the band, and Jimmy was stunned. This was her week-long job? He took another look around, expecting to see something that might justify such an elegant pony as her being here, but there was nothing. So he stared some more, and was mystified.

He nearly burned his lips on his extract stick, he’d been watching so long. He put it out and lit another. Once it was set he tapped the counter and informed the bartender he’d be right back, then approached the stage. He sat and listened intently in the corner near the stairs. He noted that Octavia had no sheet music, unlike the other members of the band. He was no music pony, but as he watched her gently swaying form and calm, quiet face he was almost sure she was a league above the others.

The music stopped, and the drummer announced a break. Octavia set her instrument aside and turned to leave the stage, but when her mulberry eyes caught sight of Jimmy she froze, eyes wide.

Jimmy gestured to the bar politely and did his best Nye impression. “Hey there, little filly. Buy you a drink?”

She glanced around, at first in alarm, but then with a guilty, bashful expression. “I… I don’t know…” she said quietly as she slowly came down the stairs.

He was caught off guard by her manner. “What’s wrong?”

She glanced at him, then lowered her eyes once more. “How did you know where I was…?”

“I didn’t,” he confessed reassuringly. “Just a coincidence. Honest.”

She eyed him as if trying to determine his sincerity. “I… Jimmy, it might look…”

He smiled. “Octavia, it’s not like I’m asking you out on a date. I’m offering to buy a friend a drink.”

She glanced around yet again, considered nervously. “Well… alright, I guess…”

“Don’t act too thrilled,” he noted sourly as they made their way back to the bar.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered, “I just… didn’t want anypony to know I was here. Besides, most stallions who offer to buy a mare a drink have only one thing on their mind.”

“You’re confusing me for my brother,” Jimmy said with a chuckle, “although I admit it was a good impression.” He sat back at his old spot, and Octavia joined him.

“Pink Sparkle,” she ordered while Jimmy scanned the previously untouched beverage menu.

“Do you use apples or apple juice for your cider?” he asked the barkeep.

She glowered darkly. “Apple juice. Not fancy enough for you?”

“Good,” he announced smartly, “I’ll take just the juice.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Apple juice only.”

The bartender wandered off, grumbling to herself.

Octavia was watching him with a raised eyebrow. “You’re buying me a beverage but getting yourself apple juice? Really, Jimmy?”

“I only drink when I’m in a bad mood,” he declared, taking a long puff of his extract.

She waved the smoke away from her face. “I didn’t know you smoked.” It didn’t seem to appeal to her.

“Only when I’m in a really good mood,” he said, grinning. “I’ll try to blow the smoke away from you.”

“Don’t bother,” she muttered, turning to the counter as her drink was delivered, “there’s so much in here it wouldn’t matter.”

Catching her unhappy tone, he glanced around. “I have to admit I was surprised to see an elite pony like you in a place like this.”

She bowed her head and closed her eyes. For a few seconds she said nothing. “I’m not an elite pony, Jimmy.”

He had been in the middle of a drag and started coughing fitfully. It took him almost half a minute to recover. “…seriously?”

She nodded, still not looking at him. When she next spoke he was surprised to note that her posh accent was gone entirely. “I can fake the tone, and I’ve got the look, but the truth is I’m just a regular mare from little old Trottingham.”

“But… didn’t you get a gig at the Grand Galloping Gala? That’s not something just anypony can obtain.”

“That was a one-time offer,” she declared. “Things like that come around, sometimes. They pay well and I’m always thrilled to go. But most of my work is… well… this." She said the word as if disgusted. "I’m a musician, Jimmy. Musicians have to work almost constantly to make ends meet, especially if they haven’t been trained in the elite schools. I’m self trained, and not endorsed.”

“I see…” It was all he could think of to say. “…I guess… I guess things are bad all around.”

She eyed him uncertainly. “I thought you were happy?”

He chuckled, turned back to the counter. “For the moment. I had a really productive day. Days like that make me happy.” Another long puff of extract. “I lost my job yesterday.”

“Lost your job?” She seemed astonished. “Why?”

“Stikin Stone,” he answered. “My old stallion caught wind of my recent success, decided to stamp it out.”

“But you can find a job elsewhere, right?”

He shook his head. “He’s apparently found a way to end my career. I’ve got nothing left, Octavia. Nothing but money and time. Some ponies dream of being in my situation, but I need a job. I need to feel like I’m being productive. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

She sighed, set a hoof to his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Jim.”

“Me too,” he muttered, putting out the stick and lighting his third.

A long silence passed between them, a deep and uncomfortable one. Looking for something else to touch upon, he finally said, “I ran into Upper Crust yesterday.”

“And how is she?” Octavia asked with little interest.

“Miserable,” he admitted.

The cellist sighed. “Well… you were right. Things are bad all around.”

“It’s not all that bad,” he noted, eyeing her for a moment. “You’ve still got your looks. I won’t be telling anypony what I’ve learned today, if that’s what you’d prefer.”

“Very much so,” she confessed meekly. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” He smiled weakly. “You’re lucky I’m not Nye. I can just imagine his reaction to seeing you in that dress in a place like this.”

She blushed. “The dress is… expected… in a place like this. I didn’t think it was racy…”

“It’s not,” he corrected. “Really, it’s not. It just looks good on you is all.”

She raised an eyebrow and gave him a suspecting smile. “Are you sure Nye’s not rubbing off on you? At least a little?”

“By Celestia, I hope not,” he laughed.

She chuckled and shook her head. “Poor Nye, he does seem to have an eye for the mares. He should learn not to bother with me; I’m just not interested in stallions.”

Jimmy blinked, stared at her, rubbed his head with his hoof uncertainly. “I’m going to sound like Nye when I ask this… but did you just confess to being a fooling filly?”

At that Octavia burst out laughing. It was an amazing sight; he was absolutely certain he’d never seen her laugh, much less laugh like this. She leaned against the counter and fought to control herself, grinning and giggling uncontrollably. “You… you’re right,” she said between breaths, “that sounded… just like Nye!”

He considered, grinned, laughed as well. They were laughing so much the other ponies at the bar were giving them bemused looks. Finally they calmed down, and Octavia said between huffs, “No… N-no, Jim… I’m not… not interested in mares…”

“Oh,” he chuckled, tried to keep from bursting into laughter again. “…okay… Nye mistake.” He chuckled some more at his wit.

She let out a long, deep breath and grinned. “I haven’t laughed like that in ages.”

“I didn’t know I could laugh like that,” he confessed.

“Anyway,” she declared, finally recovering her breathing, “what I meant was that I’m not searching right now. No time for romance. Not interested.”

“Ah,” he nodded, took another puff of extract to calm his own breathing. “That’ll break a lot of stallions’ hearts.”

She eyed him. “What about you?”

“Me?” He shook his head. “I’m in the same boat. I’m too busy to go chasing after mares like my brother.”

She giggled. “So he’s the tailchaser and you’re the breadwinner.”

“More or less.”

Another long pause came between them. He spent the time puffing on his extract and sipping his juice. She used her hoof to spin the straw in her untouched drink. The silence was just on the verge of becoming awkward when she spoke again.

“Jimmy… do you ever think about the others?”

He glanced at her apprehensively. “The others?”

“You know; Upper Crust, Lightning Dust, even Fine Crime.”

“Every now and again,” he confessed. “Not much, though.” She nodded. He had the distinct impression he’d just confirmed an old suspicion.

“I think about them – about us – a lot,” she claimed. “What were we then? Just a bunch of ponies who stumbled upon one another?”

“I don’t know about you,” he muttered, “but I was just trying to get a look at the Wonderbolts.”

She leaned her cheek into her hoof, staring at her drink quietly for several seconds. “What if we were meant to be a team?”

“A team?” He studied her inquisitively. “What do you mean? What kind of team?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Just… a team. What if somepony out there, somepony powerful, had planned for us to work together all along?”

“That sounds like a conspiracy theory to me,” he answered dully. “I didn’t know you were the type.”

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “What if I told you I met somepony after Sombra was defeated, somepony with big plans in store for us?”

"Like who?" he asked uncertainly. "Like what?"

She thought about the questions for a long time, bu finally shook her head. “I’m sorry, Jimmy. I don’t think it’s my place to talk about it. I probably shouldn’t have brought it up at all.” She glanced towards the stage, stood. “I need to get back to work. Thanks for the drink.”

“Oh… okay.” He watched her go, feeling a little disturbed by what she’d just said. Her manner was always so serious, he couldn’t simply dismiss it. Them, a team? Even Nye and Jimmy? It sounded ridiculous. But her entire manner when she’d spoken of it…

He looked down at her glass. She’d not had a single sip. The bartender picked it up.

“Better luck next time, pal,” she told him sympathetically.

“Huh? Oh… uh… yeah. Next time…”

He found Nye with Rainbow Dash. She was napping on a cloud. Nye couldn’t get up there, so he was napping on a park bench just below her. Jimmy watched his brother for some time, wondering what it must be like to be so… easy going. After a while he sat on the bench next to his brothers’ and waited. He had plenty of time, after all.

His mind flitted around all the same subjects that had subdued him on the train ride home. What was he going to do now? How would he get past his father’s career blockade? How would Nye take the news? Was there anything else he could do that was half as fulfilling? How would he ever build up his own legacy?

What? Where? Why? How? When?

A team.

The one out-of-place thought. It kept popping up, over and over again. Could they be a team? Was somepony out there really so deluded as to think he and his brother were meant to join something bigger? Nye, a lazy tailchaser, and Jimmy, who had no future? It made no sense.

So why did he like the thought so much?


Nye stirred, sat up slowly and blinked against the bright sun. He nodded to Jimmy, cast a grumpy glance at Rainbow Dash’s cloud. “Lost my shade,” he muttered. Jimmy realized the cloud must have been set just so to block the sun for his brother. But the sun had moved, of course, so Nye was awake again.

The younger twin yawned, stretched, and turned around so his head was on the other side of the bench, back in the shade. “So… another thrillingly successful trip to Canterlot, I take it?”

“Not exactly,” Jimmy muttered, earning him a surprised look. “Father’s put his hoof down, Nye.”

Nye sat up, stared at him without understanding. “What do you mean?”

“I lost the contract,” Jimmy admitted miserably, slumping. “Father’s put the vice on the companies in Canterlot. I’ve been completely blocked off.”

Nye’s face was slack, but then it slowly turned to an expression of rage. He let out a vicious snarl. “Celestia damn that fucker!”

“Hey hey,” Rainbow mumbled from her cloud, “not so loud…”

The twins looked up at the cloud dully for a moment, then Nye continued. “You’ve got to have a way to fight it.”

“No, Nye,” Jimmy replied, “I don’t. I tried two new companies yesterday, and six more before I got on the train home. Nopony will hire me.”

“This is ridiculous,” his brother declared venomously. “I understood he hated me, but to slam you like that…”

“Daddy issues again?”

They looked up to find Rainbow Dash’s surprisingly awake and aware face peering at them upside-down through the cloud.

“Something like that,” Jimmy muttered, lowering his head once more.

“No,” Nye snapped at him, “not ‘something like that.’ ‘Daddy issues’ are the only issues we ever have in this family!”

“I know it’s not my business,” Rainbow noted apologetically, “but why don’t you two just confront the guy?”

Nye raised his hoof dismissively. “I’m not even going to dignify that suggestion with a response.”

The blue pegasus dropped from the cloud to land in front of Nye. “What’s wrong with my suggestion?” she demanded angrily.

“Rainbow,” Jimmy answered, “if you grew up with this stallion, you’d understand. He’s not somepony we can just stand up to.”

“Why?” she demanded angrily, “because he’s your father?”

“Yes,” the twins replied in grim unison.

Their response caught her entirely off guard. “He can’t be that bad,” she suggested a little more timidly. “I mean, I stood up to my father when I had to.”

“You’re father probably didn’t treat you like scum all your life,” Nye noted darkly.

“Or own a multinational company,” Jimmy added.

“Or treat your house like his own private castle,” Nye went on.

“Or look down on his sons expecting them to carry his legacy,” Jimmy concluded. “Like pair of ants trying to carry a Big Mac-sized stallion all on their own.”

She sat and looked at each of them with mild surprise. “Wow… yeah, my dad was nothing like yours.”

“We can’t let him get away with this,” Nye grumbled.

“I don’t think we have much choice, bro,” Jimmy said.

There was a long, miserable silence between the two, with Rainbow glancing between them worriedly. But then she floated in the air triumphantly. “I know! Why don’t you go into business for yourself?”

The twins gave her curious looks.

“No,” Jimmy said after a moment’s consideration, “nopony would go to me for a job.”

“In structural design,” Nye noted thoughtfully, earning him a questioning look from his brother. “Jim… you’re not a structural, remember? You used to whine about it to me all the time.”


“You’re a mechanical, that’s your talent,” the younger twin declared. “If you can’t work making buildings, why not start a company offering something relating to that?”

“Like what?” Jimmy asked. “I’m not… really…”

An idea came to mind. He remembered his work the day before, with the old codger in the repair shop. He recalled the joy it have given him, even despite his job loss. He’d never considered it before, because it had never been an option before. But now?

“Rainbow,” he said, giving her a light smile, “you’re a genius.”

She did a flashy flip and posed in midair. “But of course!”

Nye frowned and gestured to himself. “What about me?”

“You?” Jimmy grinned teasingly. “You’re just Nye.”

The seas were raging all around the island. A lone unicorn stood near the ocean’s edge, grey-coated and silver-maned, his horn glowing a fierce white as he struggled for control. At his neck was a necklace, on which hung a big black box of a design unlike any in Equestria.

The sea would not calm. It resisted him, struggled, refused to obey. It was getting angry. It didn’t like the control he was trying to force upon it.

At last he accepted defeat, his horn dimming and his body sweating terribly. It was either that or be destroyed himself. Slowly, like a calming beast, the seas stilled.

How many times do you intend to try?

“Until I get it right,” he muttered unhappily.

Why would you bring it here if you didn’t know how to control it?

“Why do you keep asking me that question?”

Because it is one in need of an answer.

He glowered at the sky, as if it were the source of the voice in his head. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”

So you say.

He grimaced and turned away from the oceans. “It doesn’t matter. It’s here. But I’ve used countless alien magics and weapons; this should be no different.”

All we ask is that you let us help. Together we can control it.

“I’ve been trying for twenty years,” he snapped angrily. “What makes you think you’re so powerful?”

Mane, you can’t control it on your own. Neither can we. But together we can bend it to our will.

“You just want it to find the Shades of Night,” he snarled angrily. “Don’t think I’m not on to your game! You’ll use me and throw me away.”

We do want the Shades of Night. In that you are correct, Mane Archon.

Mane snarled and looked away from… well, from nothing, really. He hated having that voice in his head. “I won’t be used by you, Silma. Take your slave and cook up your own schemes. Leave me to my own.”

You are renowned for your scheming, Mane. Which is why it puzzled us that you don’t see the obvious.

He glared at nothing in particular. “The obvious?”

Yes: if we must use our powers together to control it, then how could we possibly get rid of you once we have done so? Losing control once it has been gained would be… cataclysmic.

He considered her words, but shook his head. “Once you have the gemstones, you may be powerful enough to do it on your own.”

We doubt it. The stones grant power, true, but without the Elements we will never be what we once were.

“The Elements…” Mane turned to stare into the ocean once more. “The Elements are nothing against this.”

We know.

He stood there in silence for several long seconds, watching the waters roll onto the beach ominously. Twenty years he’d been at it, trying every trick and artifact and tool at his disposal. Nothing would work. He knew this now. But returning to the world outright was not an option, not since the incident. He needed a weapon. He needed this.

“Alright, Silma,” he muttered unhappily, “we’ll try it your way. But not now; it is already angry enough as it is, and I am weary.”

We are a patient pony, Mane. We have waited an eternity. A few months more – even a few years more – are nothing to us.

“I would hope it doesn’t take that long,” he admitted. “Even without our plans, this thing is too dangerous to leave alone.”

Patience, my friend. Good things come to those who wait.

Mane stared at the oceans, imagining what was awaiting below.

“There’s no way this is a good thing, Silma. No way at all.”

Nye's Nights

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Princess Luna

Good news! My brother’s new business is going smoothly. Who would have thought a combination repair business and mechanical engineering firm would be so necessary in a little place like Ponyville? He does more repairs than engineering, but he seems happy and that’s what matters.

But honestly? I envy him. He’s finally moving away from our father’s shadow, and I still feel like I’m drowning in it. I never could find something I was particularly enthusiastic about, as you know, which is why I accepted work at the station. It pays, keeps me busy. But I’m just not… happy.

I wish I could find something to be enthusiastic about. I’m a lazy pony, I admit, but if I just found something interesting that might change.

Sorry. I wanted this to be a happy letter, and here I am being all depressing. Don’t worry about me, Princess.

But what’s going on with you? Haven’t heard from you in a while, ever since that eclipse festival. They say you went to the Everfree Sea to investigate something. One of those hush-hush things you can’t share, I imagine. But you have to tell me something; I worry.

Your friend,



He blinked, shifted, sat up from his spot in the shade of the shrubs. Just down the hill was Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy, the former levitating a picnic basket just above her head and Spike riding her back.

“Ladies,” he waved with a smooth grin.

They glanced at one another. Twilight's expression was unpleasant, Fluttershy's worried.

“Aren’t you supposed to be at the station?” Fluttershy asked.

He glowered and flopped onto his back once more. “Yeah… I suppose.”

“Skipping work again?” the purple unicorn demanded critically. “You’re going to get fired.”

“I’m not sure I care anymore,” he confessed, staring up at the leaves.

Twilight let out an annoyed sigh. “You have got to be one of the most irresponsible ponies I know.”

He waved a dismissive hoof. “Yeah, well my brother’s the responsible one.”

“I understand you have plenty of bits to survive on,” Fluttershy noted in her usual quiet voice, “but surely you don’t intend to spend your life lazing about all the time.”

“What I do with my life is my own business,” he grumbled, turning to lie on his side.

“I’m sorry to say it, Nye,” the Twilight declared harshly, “but that’s truly pathetic. Come on, Fluttershy, let’s find somewhere else to eat.”

He tilted his head to watch them leave out of the corner of his eye, noting with particular satisfaction the swaying of the yellow mare’s flanks. But no amount of equine beauty could keep his mind off their words; he slumped back down and basked in his own boredom.

Pathetic. He was pathetic, wasn’t he?

But the thing that really bothered him was that he didn’t know what to do about it.

He didn’t want to work at the station anymore. Not at all. It was boring and unrewarding. Yet he remembered his old attempts at other jobs. Disasters, every last one. Even the jobs he could do he recalled as being no less dull. There just wasn’t anything out there that excited him anymore.

And then there was Jimmy. He was working, had his own business even. It was small, but it was successful. Nye was glad for his brother, but even so the envy gnawed at him constantly. Why couldn’t he have that? Why did he always linger behind while Jim surged ahead? If he could find one thing, just one good thing…

He sat with his chin on the counter, his eyes roaming his brother’s workshop. It was very clean, very organized. He couldn’t see his brother; the pegasus was on the floor, working to fix the broken axle of a taxi carriage.

“So All Aboard finally fired you, eh?”


“No offense, bro,” Jimmy declared, “but I’m surprised it took so long.”

“Me too,” he confessed.

His brother sat up, wiping his hooves of grease with a towel. “If you didn’t like working there, why didn’t you save him the grief and just quit?”

“I dunno,” he mumbled.

“There,” his older twin said with a pleased look at the axle, “that should do it.” He went to put the towel in a collection bin, then went to his brother. “So what are you going to do now?”

“I dunno.”

Jimmy raised an eyebrow. “Is that all you can say?”

“I dunno.”

The pegasus sighed, patted his brother on the shoulder. “I get it, Nye; you’re depressed. But you have to find a way through it.”

“Easy for you to say,” the younger brother grumbled. “You’re doing something you like.”

“You could, too.”

“No,” he countered quietly, “no I can’t.”

Jimmy raised his hooves in exasperation. “But why!?”

Nye cast his eyes up at his brother sourly, but then relaxed his expression once more. “Don’t you get it, bro? This entire mess is because of my cutie mark. We’d be with dad right now, perhaps even as a happy family, if not for that. Our entire lives got screwed over because of it. I don’t want anything to do with cobbling, not anymore.”

Jimmy stared at him quietly for several long seconds. “Having a different cutie mark wouldn’t change who Pops is, Nye. Things wouldn’t have been any different.”

But Nye shrugged. “I’m not sure I can believe that.”

Jimmy considered this, opened his mouth to speak… and was interrupted by a bang from the wall. Somewhere near the door.

Two seconds later the door opened and Rainbow Dash walked in, her pet tortoise Tank riding on her back. “Pinkie Pie, you are so random.” The pink pony appeared behind her, looking just a little dizzy but giggling anyway.

Nye perked up instantly at the sight of the blue pegasus. “Hey Dashie, what’s up?”

“And what the heck was that bang?” Jimmy added, turning to greet the two mares.

“Hey guys,” Rainbow said, “Pinkie’s just being Pinkie Pie again.”

“I see,” the elder twin declared as if this were all the explanation he needed. He eyed the tortoise on her back, then saw the propellers. “Did Tank get his blades caught in your tail again?”

She blushed with a smile. “Nah, not this time. Altitude problems; he just suddenly went straight up and smacked a tree limb.”

“Yeah, I saw it,” Pinkie announced cheerily. “One minute he’s going bzzrbzzrbzzr,” she hopped sideways a few times as if to imitate the tortoise’s flying, “and then suddenly whooop!” she stretched as tall as she could, a feat that made the twins wonder how her bones were still connected, “and bang! Right into the tree!”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Uhh, yeah, thanks for the graphic explanation.”

“No problem,” the earth pony replied, leaning against the counter with a satisfied smile.

“Hmmm,” Jimmy picked the tortoise up and set him on the counter before removing the harness that held his propeller. “These blades have got to be replaced.”

Rainbow winced. “Again? How long is it gonna take this time?”

“Fortunately for you,” he replied smartly, “I learned my lesson from your last five visits and went through the trouble of making a whole bunch of spares. Five minutes and Tank’ll be in the air again, promise.”

“Whew, that’s a relief,” the Pegasus declared happily. “I think the problem’s in the magic guidance, so I’m gonna take him to Twilight after this to see if she can tweak the spell.” She eyed Nye. “Wanna come with me? I was gonna visit the pond later.”

Ah, nap time. But Nye ducked his head meekly. “I think I should avoid Twilight for today. I saw her a couple days ago and we didn’t exactly have a friendly conversation. Might still be mad at me.”

“Mad at you?” Pinkie asked, “Why would she be mad?”

“’Cause I’m lazy,” he admitted unhappily, “and, as she said, irresponsible.”

“Is it because you got fired?” she asked.

“What?” Rainbow hopped into the air. “Fired? When!?”

He wanted to disappear into the floorboards. “Umm, this morning. How’d you find out so fast?”

“Well I was as at Sugarcube Corner when Miss Cake asked me to go looking for you and I knew you worked at the station so it’s the first place I went but All Aboard said you weren’t working there anymore so then I went searching for you at your house but you weren’t there either and so then I went walking all over Ponyville and found Octavia because I know you like watching her…”

Rainbow set a hoof to the pink mare’s mouth, which kept moving despite being muffled. “I think you get the picture.”

“Eeyyyeah,” he admitted with a blush.

“So what are you gonna do now?” she asked seriously.

“I dunno,” the twins said in unison, Jimmy earning an annoyed look from his brother.

The blue pegasus seemed genuinely concerned, so Nye added, “I’ll think of something. Don’t worry about it, Rainbow.”

She sighed, glanced at Pinkie, removed her hoof.

“…but you weren’t there either so I left Zecora’s and trotted all the way back through the Everfree Forest and that’s when I bumped into Fluttershy and I know how much you like her flank so I thought…”

The hoof was replaced.

“…anyway,” Rainbow muttered, “you can’t ask me not to worry. It’s what friends do.”

“There, shiny new propellers,” Jimmy declared, displaying the finished device with a smile before attaching it back to Tank. The tortoise almost immediately floated into the air, a slow smile coming to his face as he began to fly circles around Rainbow.

“Thanks Jim,” the pegasus said, “give me a sec; it’s hard to get the bits when I’m keeping this thing dammed up.” She motioned with her head to Pinkie, whose mouth was still moving under her hoof.

“Two bits this time,” the elder twin announced.

“Only two?” she asked I surprise, “that’s a lot less than the last few times.”

“I didn’t have to spend an hour making the blades this time,” he announced kindly. “Besides, at the regular price and how often you come in that turtle’s going to cost every bit you earn, and then some.”

“Tortoise,” Nye corrected.


Rainbow paused, gave another curious glance at Pinkie, removed her hoof.

“…and finally I found Rainbow Dash ‘cause you two are such good friends and she said she was coming here and I realized I hadn’t tried here yet so here we are!” She grinned at them all, caught there bemused looks. “Did you get all that? Need me to explain again?”

“No no, we got it,” Jimmy insisted.

“Yeah, thanks for clearing it up,” Nye agreed.

“Oh, kay then.”

Rainbow let out a relieved sigh and grabbed the coins from a pouch on Tank’s harness.

“So anyway,” Pinkie added, “I was looking for you, Nye.”

Oh yeah, she’d said that hadn’t she? “What for?”

“The Cakes have a problem,” she admitted. “We get customers in every day looking for Lunar Metropolises and Sonic Rainbooms and Moonlight Specials and Rising Dawns, but the Cakes don’t know how to make them. They were hoping you’d come by and give them a recipe or two.”

Nye stared at her in surprise. “They want to sell my drinks?”

“Everypony wants to order your drinks,” she replied with a hectic nod. “They’re super popular, ever since you started making them for my parties everypony wants more!”

“Oooh.” Rainbow gained a hungry expression, “I could really go for one of your Rainbooms right now.”

Nye grinned. “For you? No problem! Uhh, Jimmy?”

“Go ahead,” his brother insisted, gesturing to the break room and kitchen at the back of the building, “I should have everything you need. While you’re at it why not whip me up something. Surprise me.”

So he did, leaving the three up front to work his magic. There was a certain pleasure in this little activity, a chance to be creative and think up new things. Over the last two years he’d practiced and found out how to juggle the bottles – a minor fortune lost in broken ones, but money well spent he thought. It was fun.

And now he knew that ponies really liked his creations. It was rather thrilling! Maybe he could go work at Sugarcube Corner as a flair bartender. Well no, not a bartender, that didn’t really suit Sugarcube Corner. But something like that. Maybe he’d ask the Cakes about it when they got there; it would be nice to have a clientele to try his creations whenever he came up with them.

Speaking of which…

“Hey, this isn’t a Sonic Rainboom,” Rainbow noted at the colorful drink he set before her.

“Nope,” he admitted with a grin, handing Pinky a Sweet and Elite and Jimmy a Moondancer. “I thought of it while I was back there. I hereby dub it: Cider Rainboom!”

She blinked, grinned. “Did you say… Cider Rainboom?”

“Yeap,” he nodded, “I know how much you love cider, so I thought I’d put a twist on one of my older drinks.”

“Hey!” Jimmy looked as if he were going to accuse him of something, paused, reconsidered. “Where… where’d you get the cider…?”

“From the stash under the floor closet you thought I didn’t know about.”

“I knew it!”

You drink cider?” Rainbow asked him with an amused, mockingly critical grin.

“Oh he’s a total alcoholic,” Nye declared with a grin.

“I am not!” Jimmy glanced at the mares in horror. “I just… every now and again… well… you know… It’s Apple brand…”

They laughed, and Jimmy only sat there looking flustered.

“Ooooh yeah,” Rainbow groaned after taking her first glug of the Cider Rainboom, “good stuff. You’ve outdone yourself this time, Nye.”

“I want another,” Pinkie announced energetically, her oversized glass already empty.

“That’s enough sugar for you,” Rainbow informed her gravely.


“Nye… this is it.” He glanced at his brother inquisitively, and Jimmy gestured with his hoof to the glass. “This is what you can do.”

He smiled. “I thought that, too. Maybe when me and Pinkie get to Sugarcube Corner…”

“No no,” Jimmy interrupted with a shake of his head, “this is it. You can start your own business with this. You love mixing drinks!”

Nye stared at his brother. “A business built around mixing drinks? I dunno…”

“He’s right,” Rainbow added encouragingly, “that could really work. I mean come on, think of BuckStars!”

He laughed at the thought. “Me, run a business? Come on guys, I’m too lazy!”

“You sure I can’t have another?”


“You’re not sure?”

“Nye,” Jimmy ignored the mares, “if you like it you’ll want to do it. Trust me on this.”

“Well,” he admitted, “I’d like to give it a shot…”

“Then try it,” Rainbow ordered before turning on Pinkie. “Bad Pinkie Pie, no!”

The pink pony slunk low, eyes big and sad and moist with faked tears.

Nye sighed with a smile. “Why don’t I go ahead and make her another? Won’t take but a second.”

Rainbow pointed a threatening hoof at Pinkie before she could properly explode in excitement, causing the earth pony to deflate and sulk a little. Then she turned that same hoof on Nye. “You wait until the sugar rush hits, then tell me you want to give her another!”

“Nye’s Nights?” Twilight asked at the new counter.

“Catchy, no?” he asked with a grin, bottles flying through the air as he made her a drink on the house.

It was opening night, just thirty minute before the doors would open. There was already a small line of excited ponies outside. They’d built the small coffee shop adjoining Jimmy’s workshop, so that his brother’s quick-fix clients could have a drink while they waited.

Twilight glanced around curiously. “Why is it so darkly decorated? Love the starscape ceiling, by the way.”

“The entire place is themed on Princess Luna,” he announced happily. At her questioning look he added, “I thought she deserved some extra attention. There are places all over Equestria paying tribute to Princess Celestia, so why not Princess Luna?

“She knows I’m opening a shop,” he added, setting the completed, sparkling Starscape before her. “I didn’t tell her about the theme. At least I assume she knows; I’ve not heard from her in about two weeks.”

The unicorn rolled her eyes - like most she doubted his claims of knowing the Princess personally - and gave the glittery violet drink a suspecting look; she’d never had one of Nye’s creations before. She took a careful sip through the straw and her eyes went cross. “Whoooaaaa…” And then she sucked down a big gulp. “…yeah, you might make this work.”

“Glad you like it!”

“But why’d you invite me to the opening?” she asked uncertainly.

“Well,” he answered, leaning against the counter, “I remember our last conversation, which didn’t go so well. Think of it as an apology.”

“And Fluttershy?”

“I went to apologize to her at her cabin,” he admitted. “I didn’t think this was her kind of thing, though I did invite her.”

“What about the treats?” she asked, gesturing to the row of baked goods on display.

“It’s thanks to Sugarcube Corner that this idea came about,” he explained. “We worked out a deal; I sell some of their treats here for a share of the profits, that way ponies can have something to go with their drinks. In return the Cakes get a portion of the profits from their goods, which is great for them because Nye’s Nights will be open later than Sugarcube Corner.”

“Ah, savvy.”

“It was Pinkie’s idea.”

Twilight choked on her drink. “Pinkie? Seriously?”

“Yes indeedy,” the pink mare declared, entering the room from the door leading to Jimmy’s shop. Rainbow Dash and Jimmy were right behind. “I thought it would be great if ponies could have some sugary baked deliciousness to go with the drinks!”

“You ready for this?” Jimmy asked his brother.

“I really am,” he admitted, casting a pleased look at the slowly-growing crowd. “This is going to be great!”

Rainbow leaned leisurely against the counter and formed what had to have been her most charming grin. “And with a super awesome star like moi present at the grand opening, it’s sure to be a success.”

Twilight giggled and took another sip of her drink. “I have to say, Nye, I’m impressed. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Neither did I at first,” he admitted, “but now I’m totally psyched!”

“So what are we waiting for?” Rainbow asked, flying her way to the doors. She opened them wide and cried out “Come on in, everypony! Nye’s Nights is open for business!”

Princess Luna,

Where are you? If you don’t want me to worry, send me a note or something! The silence is starting to make me nervous.

Anyway, Nye’s Nights is a smashing success! I’ve got so many customers I had to hire some extra help. Can you imagine me being somepony’s boss? A week ago I’d have laughed at the thought. But here I am, running a business of my own. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. Of course Jimmy takes care of most of the legal stuff and accounting. I just don’t have a head for numbers. He doesn’t mind, though. He’s just happy we’re both doing something with our lives.

Someday I’ll have to show you this place. Maybe if business keeps up I’ll open a second store in Canterlot, just so you can try my signature drinks.

Drop me a line, would you? Before I start thinking your cheating on me with another stallion.

Your friend,


Jimmy was busy. Very busy. He was in his office, methodically planning out his design for a custom air conditioning unit. It was his first major client outside of Ponyville, an architect needing something to heat and cool his newest design. He was happy for the work, it meant his name was getting out there. He’d become more of a repairpony than a designer in the past two months, but he found getting back on the drafting table was like riding a bike.

Nye’s coffee and cocoa shop had been open barely a week and was making more money than the repair shop. Jimmy was proud of his brother for finally finding something to apply himself to. Together they were earning a tidy profit that was already beginning to pad their childhood accounts.

The bell above his head chimed, signaling a customer’s arrival. He took careful stock of his work, finished a few lines, then set his drafting tools aside. It had been a slow day for repairs, which wasn’t a big deal. This new design, if successful, would more than make up for the lost income.

He exited the office and froze. There, standing before the counter in that impeccable brown suit, was Stikin Stone.

His father.

“Jimmy.” The white-coated, silver-maned stallion glanced around the shop mildly. “You’ve been hard at work, as always.”

“P-pops…” he answered feebly, approaching him from behind the counter. “W… what are you doing here?”

Stikin smiled in his smug manner. “Does a father need a reason to come visit his son?”

At that Jimmy grimaced. “After what you did? Yes, yes you do.”

The big stallion sighed, shook his head. “I am sorry about that, Jimmy. Really, I am. But I thought you should see how hard the world can be.”

“I was doing fine before you interfered,” Jimmy snarled.

“Were you?” Stikin’s expression was hard. As always. And Jimmy was intimidated. As always. “Were you really doing fine, son? Look at you. I threw one little roadblock down and this is what you’ve become. A repair pony.”

“I’m a mechanical engineer,” Jimmy corrected darkly. “I’m finally working with my special talent, like I was always meant to.”

Stikin huffed a mocking, short laugh. “Mechanical engineer, of course. Face it son, you’ll never build a legacy on this.” He waved a hoof at their surroundings in disdain. “You used to want my legacy. You still do, don’t you?”

Jimmy sneered and turned away from him. “What do you want, Pops?”

“For you to come home.”

That made the pegasus pause. He gave his father an alarmed look. “Come home? After all that’s happened?”

“You still have a weakness for your mother’s desires,” Stikin declared sympathetically. “I understand that. I admit, I was angry when you left. But I can forgive you, son. Come home, and be part of the Stone family once more.”

“You selfish prick,” the younger stallion snapped, turning away. “You actually think I’m the one in need of forgiveness? Leave.”

But Stikin would not be deterred. “Don’t be ungrateful, Jimmy.” His tone was harsh. “I am your father, and I know what is best.”

“Erasing Nye from your life was the best thing?” Jimmy countered, turning on his father angrily. “Blocking my path so I couldn’t get a job anymore, after you demanded I spend all those years studying in the field?”

But then he paused; the look on his father’s face was cold as ice. That look, that horrible look. He fell back, suddenly as intimidated as he’d been as a child.

And then Nye entered the room from his shop. He’d been in the middle of saying something, but then he caught sight of Stikin and his words froze.

Stikin gazed at Nye, jaw locked and face hard. Jimmy was still cowering before him, but the elder brother was no longer the target of that menacing glare.

And Nye wasn’t bothered by it at all. He calmly closed the door behind him and approached. “What are you doing here, old stallion?”

“Family business,” Stikin answered ominously. “It doesn’t concern you. Get out.”

“No.” Nye stood before the taller stallion and, to Jimmy’s shock, matched him glare for glare. “This is our establishment. You get out.”

Stikin’s eyebrows raised, but it didn’t soften his expression. “So you’ve grown a backbone.”

Nye took another firm step forward, so that he was in Stikin’s face. “I finally found something you wouldn’t even let me look for: a life of my own. I have friends, my brother, a new career, happiness. I found it all because I got away from you, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let you try and steal it away from me.”

But Stikin only sniffed derogatorily at his solidarity. “As if you could do anything to me. Jimmy, we’re going home.”

But Nye stood between his brother and his father. “He’s not going anywhere with you.”

Stikin glared, those hard green eyes sending shivers down Jimmy’s spine. “No?”

Nye stood his ground. “I used to hate you. Now I’m just ashamed of you. Go and screw with somepony else’s life. Take your legacy and forget we ever existed.”

“I already forgot about you,” their father declared menacingly.

And then Nye did something that rendered Jimmy’s mind blank: he turned around and bucked their father.

Stikin let out a surprised cry, rearing back and covering his bloodied face. When he landed he could only stare at his sons in shock. “You… you actually…”

“OUT.” Nye landed another hard kick against the stallion’s chest.

All his life Jimmy had thought of his father as a great beast of a stallion. He was huge, he was sturdy, he was ominous. To see Nye – lazy, unathletic, laid-back Nye – chasing the him out of the shop like that was a monumental moment. Stikin Stone had actually appeared scared of his life, and judging by Nye’s expression that was probably a good thing.

Jimmy’s brother stood at the door, huffing angrily. After several seconds he returned, letting the door slam closed behind him. Jimmy stared up at his twin, completely speechless.

“Sorry…” Nye muttered.

Sorry? “No…” Jimmy stood and gave his brother a hug. “No, Nye, that was amazing! I didn’t know you had the guts. I sure didn’t.”

Nye held him at arms’ length, face hard. “What did he want?”

Jimmy sighed. “To rescue his legacy. He wanted me to come home.”

Nye turned his head away, expression menacing. “Bastard wants to ruin everything we’ve managed to do here. We can’t let him.”

And then Jimmy laughed, and it surprised him. “I think after what you just did he won’t be bothering us again anytime soon!”

“Don’t be so sure,” Nye grumbled. “This is our father we’re talking about. To him, this means war.”

“What’s he gonna do?” Jimmy asked, setting a calming hoof on his brother’s shoulder. “Thank you, Nye. You’ve helped me realize something about our father: under all that soldier-like posing he’s just another stallion, and he can bleed like the rest of us.”

At that Nye’s stern expression finally cracked into a smile. “You make him sound like he was a god or something.”

“I guess in my mind he sorta was,” Jimmy admitted. “But he’s been deposed, you might say. I think I won’t have any more trouble dealing with him.”

Nye laughed and knuckled his brother’s head. “Good, ‘cause I can’t be here all the time to rescue you from him!”

Jimmy escaped and whacked his brother on the head playfully in retaliation. But then he sobered and glanced at the door. “Do you think we’ll be seeing him again?”

“If we do,” Jimmy answered darkly, “he’ll be going back to Manehattan in an ambulance. Now come on, I’ll make you a drink. I think we could both use one.”

Stikin’s face hadn’t recovered all that much when he was shown into the mayor’s office; it was covered in blue bruises with stitches running down the left side of his muzzle. Mayor Mare was not just a little alarmed at the sight of him. “My goodness, Mr. Stone, what happened to you?”

He sighed, worked his mouth experimentally, grimaced; it still hurt to speak. But speak he must, so he did. “It’s… just a little accident. Thank you… for seeing me on such… short notice.”

“Must have been some accident,” she muttered, studying his face with scrutiny. “Please, take a seat, try to make yourself comfortable.”

He did so, moving slowly so as not to put undue pain in his chest. Once he’d relaxed she spoke again. “Can I get you anything? Water, juice, cider, perhaps some wine?”

He shook his head tenderly. “No… thanks.”

“Well,” she went on, hooves on her desk, “when I heard that the great Stikin Stone wanted an audience with me first thing in the morning, I was rather astounded. Tell me sir, what can Ponyville do for an elite pony such as yourself?”

He tried to smile, winced in pain, gave up. “I’ve been… paying attention, Mayor Mare,” he said slowly, painfully. “Ponyville is a fine town, very… fine indeed.”

“You’re too kind,” she said, but by her expression he could see that she wasn’t lulled by the praise.

“I… I like what you’ve… done here, but… but I’ve noted that… you’re barely holding on to… to the budget. One little… little mistake and Po-Ponyville… will be in the red…”

She frowned, removed her glasses to stare at him hawkishly. “The fact that we aren’t in the red is a testament to this town, Mr. Stone. So many towns as small as our own have to survive on government funding.”

“I can… I can help you with that…” he wheezed. “I am inter… interested in donating… to Ponyville’s treasury.” Her eyes lit up at this offer; he had her. “You can… can remodel the school… build a bi… bigger town hall… whatever you want…”

She leaned back, amazed. “You would do that? Why?”

“Because… because I respect… this place…” he began.

“Mr. Stone,” she interrupted, eyes going sharp, “do not take me for a fool. You want something, something you think I can offer. So cut to the chase and tell me what it is.”

She was smarter than she looked. Fine; he struggled to lean forward, holding a hoof to his bandaged chest as he did. Once he was in position he looked her straight in the eyes. “Are you aware of the… of the brothers Stone?”

“Your sons,” she answered simply, nodding.

“Get rid of their business licenses.”

Her eyebrows rose in alarm. “I beg your pardon?”

“Use… whatever legal j-jargon you… you want,” he breathed. “Crush them. Crush them and… and the money is yours.”

The mayor stared at him, face expressionless, for nearly a full minute. Finally she put her glasses back on and spoke, her tone formal. “Mr. Stone, I understand that you’re a big city pony, accustomed to doing business in places like Manehattan and Las Pegasus, so let me tell you about how we do things in a small town like Ponyville.

“In a town like this, everpony knows everypony else, and their business. We have our differences, but in times of trouble we come together to solve our problems. Perhaps we don’t have the finest school, or the nicest town hall, or the most modern roads. But we make do with what we have, through hard work and companionship.

“Jimmy Stone has been a hard-working, devoted citizen of Ponyville for over a year now. His brother might not be so hard-working, but he is well liked and helps when it matters the most. They are both law-abiding, good ponies, and their presence here signifies good things for this town.

“There is a thing called loyalty, Mr. Stone. It might not mean much to you, but here it means a great deal. Now you want me to put the twins in the oven and burn them to a crisp, but if you think I’m going to destroy two decent, beloved members of this town for your money you are sadly mistaken.”

He stared at her, unable to believe his ears. She only stared back. She wasn’t glaring, or grimacing or angry in any way. She looked more like a very patient teacher. And he was astonished.

“Name your price.”

She shook her head. “This isn’t Manehattan, Mr. Stone. This is Ponyville, and here we have morals. I will not agree to any such deal, no matter what.”

He stood, slowly, painfully, to give her the full effect of his glare. “Oh yes… you will,” he breathed. “You have… have no idea… what I can do to… to this town. In a month… you’ll be… run out of town. In a… in a year this place… will…”

But the mayor stood and interrupted his ragged sentence. “Clearly you aren’t understanding me. This is Ponyville: we stand by our own, and your sons are most certainly our own. And I know what the laws entitle me to: I have powers at my disposal as well just like you. If anything bad happens regarding this town or those boys, and I get so much as the tiniest sniff of your involvement, I will go straight to Princess Celestia. The Stone Company will be marred in legal injunctions and government investigations for years. A ruined reputation, assuming you even survive.”

He gaped at her, saw that she was dead serious. For the first time in his life he found himself before a wall he didn’t know how to blow up.

“Now, Mr. Stone,” she said, sitting down calmly, “kindly remove yourself from my office and town. Immediately.”

A long silence fell between them. Stikin's amazement was slowly relaced with fury. "T-this... isn't over..."

The Mayor smiled pleasantly. "We shall see, Mr. Stone. Now please, don't make me call security."

It was a busy night, and Nye was having a blast. He mixed drinks with practiced speed, sliding them down the counter to waiting ponies. His four servers were darting to and fro, delivering cakes and drinks and collecting tips. Jimmy, his shop closed for the night, sat next to Rainbow Dash before him. Big Macintosh and Applejack were at a table in the corner, laughing along with Rarity, Pinkie and Spike. Twilight was in a quiet corner, reading and enjoying her Starscape. Even Fluttershy was present, sitting between Rainbow Dash and Octavia with a bemused look on her face as she tried Jimmy’s latest creation, the Staremaster.

A busy night. Dozens of guests, music beating in the air just below the bustling noise of the patrons. Nye was certain he couldn’t have been happier.

He was proven wrong.

The front doors opened, somepony gasped. For a moment the entire place went silent. Nye waited to finish making Rainbow’s third round before looking up… and almost dropped the glass.

His latest guest was Princess Luna.

She stared at them all regally, the music bumping overhead in stark contrast to the silent stares.

And then she smiled. “I hope there’s room for one more.”

Cheers of welcome erupted through the crowd. Nye was over the counter and standing before her in an instant. “You came! Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“It’s called a surprise, Nye,” she declared happily.

“Princess Luna!” Twilight was beside Nye, beaming. “Welcome! Whatever brings you here?”

“I wanted to show my support to my good friend,” she announced, gesturing to Nye.

That earned him a shocked stare from Twilight, not to mention a few others. “You mean… you... know… one… another?”

“Come on, Princess,” the earth pony offered, leading her away from a paralytically-speechless Twilight, “welcome to Nye’s Nights. I can’t believe you’re actually here!”

“As part of my apology for the long silence,” she told him, sitting before the counter happily next to a gaping Jimmy Stone. “Besides, I haven’t had a break from my Royal duties in some time, and I owed you a visit.” She cast a knowing glance around the place. “I think I recognize a theme.”

Nye blushed as he returned to his spot behind the counter. “Yeah, well… I just thought it’d be nice. Y’know, if people would appreciate you more. Got tired of all the praise going to your sister.”

She laughed pleasantly. “I am honored.” Then she noted Jimmy, who was still staring at her. “Umm… is this pegasus alright?”

Nye laughed and tapped on his brother’s head. “Hey, Jimmy, wake up! You’re not dreaming, bro.”

Jimmy shook himself as if coming out of a trance. “You’re really… I mean… I always thought Nye was just… How did you two…”

Nye grinned. “Princess Luna, my brother Jimmy. I don’t think he ever really believed I knew you.”

She smiled and nodded to Jimmy politely. “I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Stone. Nye has told me much about you in his letters.”

The elder brother made a weak sound, nodded with wide eyes, then turned to the counter. “Jimmy, I think I need another drink…”

“Yeah yeah, stay with me,” Nye agreed, grabbing all the necessary bottles. He felt the need to show off and put on a complicated display of flair bartending for the Rising Dawn. It earned him some applauds from all around, including from the Princess.

The drink in his brother’s hooves, he turned to Luna. “Might I make a recommendation?” She nodded, and a moment later he was putting on another, albeit more brief, show. “Luna in the Stars,” he announced, setting the black drink before her. Before she could touch it he dropped a tiny sprinkling of something over it, and a second later the entire drink was glistening in the dark light of the shop as if filled with stars, a frothy purple foam forming at the top.

She watched it for a moment with wide eyes, then sighed appreciatively. “Continue things like this, Mr. Stone, and you’ll start to embarrass me.”

“Try it.”

She did, and when her lips left the glass she had violet foam all around her mouth. She licked it off with a pleased smile – Jimmy averted his wide eyes as if he were seeing something not meant for public display. “Delicious! You truly have a gift, Nye.”

He bowed flamboyantly. “You’re too kind.”

She set the glass down. “This is all appreciated, Nye. I am so very pleased that I came to show my support – and my endorsement.” She winked knowingly. “Imagine what that will do for business.”

He blinked, realized what she said, grinned. He’d not thought of that. Suddenly her visit was a lot more welcome, which he’d not thought possible a moment ago.

“And… I have a special gift for you.” Her horn glowed, and a moment later a plaque appeared between them.

It landed on the counter gently, and he took a moment to study it. He blinked, not comprehending. “What is this?”

“Mayor Mare contacted my sister,” the Princess explained. “It seems your father tried to squeeze her into interfering with your business.” He glowered, but before he could really process this information Luna continued. “Celestia knows of our friendship, so she brought the situation to my attention. This,” she set her hoof on the plaque between them, “is a seal proving that this establishment – and its neighbor – are under the official protection of the Princess Luna.”

Nye only stared uncomprehendingly. She had Jimmy attention, too.

She smiled at their matching expressions. “The legal jargon is rather tedious. Simply put, it means both your businesses are secure from economic threats. Threats like your father.”

“You mean Pops can’t touch us?” Jimmy asked in amazement.

She nodded. “You are both free to expand and develop as you desire – within the boundaries of law, of course.”

Nye and Jimmy gave one another long, shocked stares… and then hugged from across the bar. “You hear that?” Nye cried happily, “we’re out of his shadow!”

Jimmy turned to the Princess and bowed his head to her, the best he could do with the limited space. “Thank you thank you thank you! You have no idea what this means to us!”

She laughed at their excitement. “Oh I have an idea, Mr. Stone.

“Believe me, I have an idea.”

Lightning Dust let out a long yawn, stretched, rolled over on her cloud. She wasn’t ready to greet the day yet. It would just be another disappointment. But the morning sun was in her eyes, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to stay asleep.

Finally she pushed herself up into a sitting position, smacking her lips to get rid of the dryness and stretching one more time. In the distance she saw a small town atop a hill. She tried to recall where she was in her drowsiness, but couldn’t. It didn’t really matter anyway; another day to earn a few bits for her daily bread and move on to the next place. She would just keep travelling, searching for some place that might give her some purpose again.

She started to stand, felt something crumble under her hoof. Startled, she took a look and was surprised to see a scroll. She glanced around the sky, but she was alone. How had it made it up here?

Cautiously, she picked it up… and dropped it again; it bore Princess Luna’s crest.

No. No no no, she wasn’t falling for that again!

She considered leaving the damn thing where it lay, flying off and forgetting it ever existed. But then she thought about it a little more, and found herself curious. It couldn’t hurt to at least see what it said, right?

Lightning Dust,

I wish I could come to you in person to explain the importance of this, but I have no time. Something is very wrong, and despite the best work of my agency we can’t seem to figure out exactly what is happening. All we know for certain is that foals are disappearing in the night. It is my hope that you can solve this mystery.

Lightning Dust, Foal Mountains is in danger. Your friends, your cousin. You must go home before anypony else disappears. And hurry: I don’t think there is much time.

Fine Crime

She stared at the scroll for several long seconds. Fine Crime. A name she didn’t trust in the slightest.

But Foal Mountains, in danger? The orphanage kids, her cousin?

She crumbled the scroll, a horrible anxiety coming over her. This might be a trick, some sort of gamble set up to try and convince her to work with him again.

But what if it wasn’t?

She let out an infuriated scream and darted into the sky, a streak of lightning in her wake; she just couldn’t ignore it. She had to go home.

But first she had to find out where she was.

One Night in Everfree

View Online

It was an overcast day, chilled by the steady approach of winter. A perfect day for a nap, or so Nye thought. Of course naps were always better when he had them with a fellow expert, so he was on his way to see Rainbow Dash. She would undoubtedly be finished with her weather duties for the afternoon, and she almost always took a snooze afterwards, so it was the perfect timing! He just hoped she was home…

She was home, but she wasn’t napping. And she wasn’t alone.

As he cleared the hill he saw the pegasus pony standing tall before her friend Applejack… and neither of them looked very happy. Behind her sat a very worried-looking Scootaloo, hiding her face with her mane timidly. Between them, casting her eyes back and forth like a referee searching for fouls, was Twilight Sparkle.

“…shouldn’t go, RD,” Applejack was saying as he approached. “You should see her! Why I’ve never seen Apple Bloom cry so much.”

“That’s exactly why we want to go,” Rainbow countered firmly. “She has to see that there’s nothing out there, that it was just some dream she had or something like that.”

Twilight tried to intervene. “Maybe you should go to her, Rainbow, explain why you’re doing it.”

“What’s going on?” Nye asked curiously when he was finally close enough to be noticed.

Rainbow, her attention still focused on the orange pony, answered. “Me and Scoots were going to spend a night or two in the Everfree Forest.”

“No, ya’ll aren’t,” Applejack countered warningly.

“The forest?” Nye glanced between the two mares. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

The pegasus stood on her hind legs and struck a confident pose. “You kidding? I can take on a few timberwolves! Nothing to it.”

At that comment Twilight gave her a bland look. “That’s not what it looked like the last time we ran into them.”

Rainbow wilted just a little and cast a nervous smile towards Scootaloo. “Hehe… yeah… well they just surprised me that time, that’s all.”

“I’m not worried about you, Rainbow,” Applejack confessed, “I know ya can take care of yerself, and Scoots too. It’s Apple Bloom that bothers me.”

“I didn’t want her to find out…” Scootaloo admitted miserably.

“Wait, I’m lost,” Nye confessed. “Why are you going into the Ever Free forest? And why does it bother Apple Bloom?”

“She’s been having these nightmares,” Scootaloo explained. “She says they started when she saw something terrible in the forest.”

Twilight blushed. “It’s my fault, actually. She went with me to Zecora’s a couple weeks ago and got lost in the woods.”

“And now me and Scoots want to spend some time out there, just to show her it’s not that dangerous,” Rainbow concluded before casting a grumpy look at Applejack, “but somepony thinks that’s a bad idea.”

“It is a bad idea,” the earth pony snapped, stomping her hoof. “I know you mean well, RD, but now my sister’s in a panic because she thinks you two won’t come out of the forest!”

“Really?” Scootaloo asked unhappily, “is it that bad?”

Rainbow let out an angry groan. “So what, we’re just gonna ban ponies from the entire forest from now on just because one filly got scared?”

“She has a point,” Twilight admitted nervously.

Applejack set a hoof to her face tenderly and sat on her haunches. “I get it, ya’ll, but think about my sister. I can’t stand seeing her all terrified like that. There has to be some other way.”

The ponies fell into a contemplative silence, Nye casting a look at each mare thoughtfully. He finally cast his eye on Scootaloo, who appeared so miserable with worry for her friend he felt his heart might crack.

“I have an idea,” he offered at last. They all shot doubting expressions his way, which made him shrink back. But he had their attention; might as well go on. “What if you could contact Apple Bloom while you were out, report to her that everything was okay?”

“Well that might help,” Applejack admitted uncertainly, “but how would they do that?”

“I use a potion to send letters to Princess Luna,” he answered. “Maybe Twilight can reproduce it so that Scootaloo can send letters to Apple Bloom.”

All eyes turned to Twilight, who considered the proposal. “I dunno, that’s some complicated magic. I’m not sure I could make it work.”

“But if you could,” Rainbow pressed, turning to Applejack, “would you let me do this?”

“Please?” Scootaloo added from behind her.

The orange mare rubbed her chin for a few seconds. “I’d have to talk to Apple Bloom about it,” she answered at last, “but it’s a heck of a lot better than her trembling like a leaf for a couple days.”

Twilight nodded. “Come on, Nye, let’s get some of that potion.”

Twilight Sparkle had been at it for three days trying to replicate Princess Luna’s potion. Nye had suggested writing to the alicorn for some help, but the purple unicorn refused; she wanted to solve this puzzle on her own. He realized she saw it as a challenge, and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. He didn’t stick around for the work – he didn’t understand magic hardly at all and imagined he’d just get in the way. Besides, he had a coffee and cocoa shop to run.

On the evening of the third day he went to check on her progress. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were in the basement (or ‘lab’ as Twilight preferred to call it) already.

“Anything?” he asked, though he suspected he knew the answer from their frustrated faces.

Twilight, sitting before a table with safety goggles on, looked as if she wanted to pull her mane out. “I was so certain it would work this time!”

“Alright, last one,” Rainbow muttered, clearly having low expectations. She dropped a piece of paper with something written on it in a purple potion that looked exactingly like the ones he used. The paper merely floated in the liquid. No go.

“I just don’t get it,” Twilight explained to them. “I just know I’ve got the basics worked out of this. The note should be going to Apple Bloom.”

“It’s alright, Twilight,” the yellow-coated filly told her with a sad expression.

“No, it’s not alright,” Rainbow said, though without enthusiasm.

“It was a good idea and all,” Applejack admitted with a nod to Nye, “but I’m not sure it’s gonna work.”

Nye approached the three potions, set side-by-side, and studied them for a moment. They really did look just like the ones he used all the time. Maybe looks weren’t everything when it came to potions.

“I’m sorry, Scootaloo,” Twilight said after a long silence, “but I’m not sure I can do this without help.”

“I could still write Princess Luna,” he ventured.

She sighed and waved a hoof. “You might as well. I so wanted to get this one right, though…”

He glanced at the three bottles again, and on impulse pulled a sheet of parchment from the table. He wrote a couple random words.

“What are you doing?” Scootaloo asked.

“It doesn’t work,” Rainbow added unhappily.

“Just humor me,” he replied, folding the scrap of paper until it was small enough to fit in the bottle. He lifted it in his teeth and dropped it in the middle bottle. It sank down to the bottom and began to dissolve until, at last, the whole thing was gone.

A moment of silence filled the room.

POOF: the folded parchment appeared in a puff of cobalt blue feathers and landed between Apple Bloom’s hooves.


Twilight flew from her spot at the table, knocking Nye off his hooves in her excitement, and was holding the bottle in front of her face with wide eyes. “But we tried that one and it didn’t work!”

“Maybe because we didn’t have it sink like Nye’s,” Applejack suggested as she helped him up. “Try it, Rainbow.”

The pegasus nodded, took a piece of parchment and folded it just as he did before dropping it into the potion, held before her by Twilight’s magic. The paper sank to the bottom… and stayed there.

“But.. but this doesn’t make any sense!” Twilight cried, shaking the bottle to no effect.

“Maybe it only works for Nye,” Apple Bloom offered.

They all shared surprised looks, then turned to him. He blushed under the scrutiny; he wasn’t sure he’d ever had three attractive mares watching him so closely. But he did what he knew they were waiting for, this time ripping off a small piece of parchment and just scribbling on it before dropping it into the bottle. The piece of paper floated on top… then began to disappear where the liquid touched it.

A second after the paper was completely gone it POOFed into existence again, once more between Apple Bloom’s hooves and joined by those dark feathers.

“Huh,” the purple unicorn peered at the bottle. “I had no idea this stuff was designed to only work for you. This is even more complicated than I imagined.”

“Hey, I didn’t know it either,” he confessed. He secretly felt honored: Luna had gone through the trouble to make something unique for him! He’d have to say something about it in his next letter.

“Well that settles it,” Rainbow declared, floating over and poking him in the head playfully, “you’re coming with us.”

“Whawhowait, me?” She nodded. “Oh, er… I dunno…”

She smirked. “What, you’re not scared of a little camping trip, are you Nye?”

“Well… no,” he answered. “I just… well… I’ve got to watch my shop and… umm…”

“I still don’t think I want ya’ll to go,” Apple Bloom said nervously.

“Don’t worry,” Scootaloo reassured her with a comforting nudge of her muzzle, “we’ll be able to contact you, and then you’ll know everything’s fine.”

Nye wanted to say something, but the miserable look on the yellow filly’s face made him hold his tongue. “Come on, Nye,” Rainbow whispered, “help me out, here.”

He glanced at her and was surprised to see her usual confidence replaced with genuine worry. He glanced at everypony in the room, felt his resolve shaking. “Fine,” he muttered with a sigh, “I’ll go.”

“Really?” Scootaloo asked, hopping to her feet.

He smiled weakly, “Yeah, really.”

Applejack went to her sister and gave her a light nudge with her hoof. The filly looked up at her encouraging face, then glanced at Scootaloo, who nodded. She stood up, trotted to Nye, reared up so she had her front hooves on his chest and could look him in the eye. “You have to promise to write every hour.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Every hour? Really?”

She nodded, big eyes full of worry. “Every. Hour.”

Well, what was he supposed to say? “Alright Apple Bloom, every hour. I promise.”

She didn’t appear satisfied, not at all, but she accepted his promise anyway.

“Sorry you got dragged into this,” Rainbow told him as they slipped under the forest canopy, waving to Twilight, Applejack and a very worried-looking Apple Bloom. “I know you weren’t exactly thrilled at the idea.”

“No no,” Nye replied nervously, stepping carefully through the tall grasses and roots, “it’s no problem. I did spend a year traveling on my own, after all. Well, I wasn’t in wild country, but…”

“No worries,” Scootaloo told him cheerily, carrying her scooter over the rough terrain, “we’ll find a place to hunker down for a couple nights, come right back. Nothing to it.”

Nye tripped on a tall root, fell on his face. “And why are we going through the thick part when there’s a perfectly functional path to Zecora’s?”

“Because,” Rainbow replied as she helped him up, “Apple Bloom didn’t encounter her ‘ghost town’ on the path to Zecora’s. According to her it was deep in the untamed wilds.”

“I think the path crosses ahead of us anyway,” Scootaloo told him from up ahead. “We just entered there to make Apple Bloom think we were gonna rough it all the way.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Here, I’ll fly up high and spot the path,” the pegasus declared, and proceeded to disappear through the canopy.

“Man she’s awesome,” Scootaloo announced to nopony in particular. “Thanks for coming, Nye. Really. Apple Bloom’s been having a lot of trouble lately; Sweetie Belle and me were starting to get really worried.”

“And why isn’t she along for the fun?” he asked, pulling a tangle of branches from his mane.

“Sweetie Belle? I asked her to stay behind and keep Apple Bloom occupied while we were gone.”


“Come on, guys,” Rainbow called, suddenly appearing through the leaves above, “I found the path this way.”

It took nearly an hour to cross the thick forest and get to the path proper, but once they did the going was much smoother. Scootaloo switched to her scooter and rode ahead, every now and then coming back to report on what she’d found, which was usually nothing of interest. Nye was sure to keep track of the time, dutifully writing letters to Apple Bloom every hour as promised. He made sure to write a lot of complaints about the thick underbrush they were supposed to be in, just to keep up the illusion. Once they were about halfway to Zecora’s place, however, they turned back off the path. Why there?

“Dunno,” Rainbow confessed, “this place is as good as any other.”

“But why are we going back into that mess?” Nye asked seriously, hesitating at the path’s edge.

“We’ve got to do this right,” Rainbow declared. “It’s the principal of the thing. Just pretend I’m Daring Do guiding you on a jungle adventure.”

“That sounds awesome,” Scootaloo announced. “Then I get to be Daring Do’s resourceful sidekick!”

“Never read ‘em,” Nye noted sourly, at last following.

“Guess that means you get to be the bumbling hanger-on,” Rainbow countered wryly.

He jerked his tail from a thicket in annoyance. “Is he the one she falls for because of his persistence?”

She blinked, hovered in midair, gave him a surprised look.


She blushed, laughing weakly and scratching the back of her head. “Oh, nothing. I just… don’t remember that part.”

“That’s because it never happens,” Scootaloo declared with a roll of her eyes.

“It would in my version,” Nye announced dully, trudging along after the filly. “Even Daring Do has to have a stallion in her life, right?”

“No way,” Scootaloo countered as if he were speaking blasphemy. “Daring Do wouldn’t be Daring Do if she were crushing on some guy!”

“Okay,” he ventured with a joking grin, “how about a mare?”


Rainbow laughed hysterically, though he didn’t know if it was because of his words or Scootaloo’s reaction.

“While we’re on fiction,” he added after they were silent for a few minutes, “what’s the deal with this ‘ghost town’ or whatever it is Apple Bloom’s so afraid of?”

“Well,” Scootaloo answered, “she seems to think that she came upon a cursed village in the woods.”

“Cursed how?”

“I dunno,” she admitted, accepting his help up a large incline. “She won’t go into detail. Something about the cutie pox and zombies.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Zombie ponies? Seriously?”

“That’s what I said,” Rainbow threw in from just below the canopy.

“She probably just had a nightmare or something,” Scootaloo admitted. “Still, what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t try to help her get over it?”

“It’s good of you to try,” he told her sincerely, “but do you really think spending a couple days in the woods is going to help?”

“What else can I do?” the filly asked. “Besides, this way I get to spend some time with Rainbow Dash!”

“And that makes it all worth it,” the blue pegasus declared confidently. “Right Scoots?”

“You bet!”

“You could have just come to me,” he noted as they passed into a less densely-wooded area.

“You?” Rainbow landed next to him with a critical expression. “What could you do, Nye?”

He returned her challenging expression with a raised head. “I can contact Princess Luna.”


But Scootaloo blushed, clearly recognizing his meaning. “Oh, well, yeah… I guess you could have asked her to visit Apple Bloom in her dreams…”

“Eggs. Act. Ly.”

He smirked at Rainbow Dash, who facehoofed. “That might have been easier,” she admitted.

“But not better,” Scootaloo insisted with a grin. “Your answer doesn’t involve me spending time with Rainbow Dash!”

“Yeah,” the mare told him with a playful shove, “get with the program, Nye!”

He rolled his eyes but grinned. “Ah well. You two dragged me into this; guess I might as well enjoy it. Hold up, I need to write to Apple Bloom.”

“Already?” Scootaloo asked in frustration.

Rainbow seemed just as annoyed. “Man, we’ll never get anywhere at this rate!”

“I made a promise,” he told them both, settling down to write. “You don’t want her to worry because I missed an appointment, would you?”

Rainbow sighed and jumped into the air. “Oh, alright. I’m gonna go scout ahead. Back in a sec!”

The house was huge, filling almost the entire clearing in which it was sitting. Three stories tall, four in some places, it was like a great slumbering giant amongst the trees. The three ponies sat at the edge of the clearing, staring at the thing in complete disbelief.

“There’s a house out here,” Nye noted obviously.

“Uhh… yeah,” Rainbow agreed.

“That’s not normal, is it?”

“Don’t think so,” Scootaloo said.

“Ah. Okay then.”

They stared for a little more, encased in the house’s long twilight shadow.

Then Rainbow was in the air and flying slowly to the building.

“W-where are you going?” Scootaloo called after her without moving.

“To get a better look,” the pegasus called back, “what’s it look like?” Nye and Scootaloo exchanged uncertain looks and followed.

“Maybe it’s just some old, abandoned… I dunno,” Scootaloo said.

They reached the door, big and ornate and made of a light oak. “Don’t think it’s old, Scoots. This place looks brand new.”

“I think it is,” Rainbow told them from where she was peering through a window, hooves on either side of her face. “There’s nothing in there. No furniture, nothing. Not dusty, either.”

Nye went to a ground-floor window to follow her example. “It looks like they haven’t finished the walls and whatnot on the inside,” he claimed.

“So… somepony’s still building it?” Scootaloo suggested.

“But why build something like this all the way out here?” Rainbow asked, landing between her companions.

Nye stepped back to look up at the thing seriously. “But they can’t be building something! Where are the raw materials? Where are the work crews?”

“Maybe they quit before sundown,” Scootaloo offered.

But Nye shook his head. “I studied engineering for four years, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that this building is brand new. We should have seen work crews moving through Ponyville with materials and construction equipment, or at least somewhere nearby. This doesn’t make any sense!”

Rainbow went to the front door and tried opening it. “Locked.”

Now Scootaloo looked scared, ducking her head glancing around worriedly. “M-maybe it’s… a ghost town?”

Rainbow Dash face-faulted and turned to her protégé. “First, it’s just one house. You have to have a bunch of houses for it to qualify as a ‘town.’ And I don’t see any ghosts, either.”

“Or zombies,” Nye added helpfully.

“Oh, heheh, right.” Scootaloo breathed a sigh of relief, then took on a confident pose. “I knew better. Just wanted to see if I could get Nye worked up!”

Rainbow sighed and cast a knowing glance at Nye, who shrugged with a bemused smile. “It’s getting dark,” she noted, “why don’t we make camp behind this place. Maybe in the morning somepony will show up to explain this.”

“Works for me,” Nye agreed, and Scootaloo nodded her acceptance.

He chose not to mention the house in his note to Apple Bloom, though. Just in case.

He was woken from a peaceful sleep by something pushing gently against his shoulder.

“Nye. Nye…”

He grumbled, shifted, rubbed his eyes.

“Nye, get up, please.”

He sat up slowly, glumly noting Scootaloo standing on his belly. “Wha…? That time already…?” She shushed him, eyes worried, and hopped off to let him stretch. It was still night – really late by the looks of things. “What’s the big deal, Scoots?” he grumbled.

She gestured with her head towards the woods beyond the house. “Do you see that?”

“See what?” he mumbled, standing and following her gaze into the woods. “I don’t see anything…”

“Are you sure?” she asked fretfully. “Really, really sure?”

He took a moment to rub the sleep from his eyes, shook his head. His vision cleared some, he looked out again, and this time he did see something.

It was a pony. A young mare, barely old enough to be called an adult. She had a light-grey coat and a golden, curled mane. Only her head and shoulders where visible; the rest was hidden behind underbrush.

“You see her, don’t you?” He nodded, slowly waking up. “She’s been watching us for nearly an hour. Won’t talk or anything.” The filly looked not just a little frightened. “I… wanted to wake you up first, just in case I was imagining her.”

Nye glanced at Rainbow Dash, who was snoring loudly a few feet away. It was probably a good thing she hadn’t been woken up; why bother her over such a simple thing? He left the edge of the house and gestured to the mare in a friendly manner. She didn’t respond at all.

“Where are you going?” Scootaloo whispered fearfully as he walked closer to the strange mare. “What if she’s a ghost or… or a zombie…?”

Nye shook his head and leveled an annoyed look at the filly. “Come on, Scoots, you don’t really believe in those things, do you? She’s probably just lost… and if she’s this far out that’s pretty lost.” She didn’t seem convinced, but he approached the mare anyway.

It was when he was just before the bushes that he got a good look at her golden eyes. He couldn’t help staring; the pony’s eyes were glowing in the night. How was she doing that? “Hey,” he called, waving. “What are you doing way out here?”

She didn’t answer, but turned and disappeared into the woods, a giggle following in her wake. The sound echoed eerily through the forest… or was it just in his head?

“Nye,” Scootaloo called as he started to follow, “don’t go!”

He gave her a sour look, took a step…

And the entire world transformed.

Suddenly they weren’t in the Everfree Forest anymore, but standing at the entrance to a town. Nye stared in complete awe at the change, glanced back to see that the house was gone. But Scootaloo was still there, frantically trying to wake Rainbow Dash.

“What the heck?” he muttered, turning back to the town before him. It was still night – that was a strange relief – but the entire place appeared to be ready for some sort of festival. Except there were no ponies.

“Whoa, where did all this come from?” Rainbow asked, suddenly hovering next to him.

“You guys, come back,” Scootaloo called from the edge of the clearing, her voice shaky. “Don’t go in there!”

The stallion and mare exchanged uncertain looks.

“Maybe we should actually listen to her this time…” Nye suggested tentatively.

Rainbow considered, glancing back at Scootaloo. Then her expression hardened.

“Maybe this is a ghost town,” she admitted, turning back to the buildings, “but there has to be more to this. We came out here for Apple Bloom, and I’m gonna find some way to explain this to her!” She started walking towards the big, doorless gate.

“Rainbow Dash, please!” Scootaloo sounded terrified.

Nye gestured to the filly to have patience and followed the pegasus. “Are you sure that’s wise?” he asked her, “If this is what Apple Bloom saw, it might be dangerous.”

“Don’t worry,” she told him with a confident grin, “if anything happens I’ll just fly back to the entrance. Why don’t you stick with Scootaloo?”

He cast around warily at the place. “I can’t let you go through this alone!”

“But Scootaloo needs someone to…” she began, but they were interrupted by the sound of the filly’s approach.

They both looked down at her as she leaned against the handles of her scooter, breathing heavily. “You... you… can’t leave me… alone back there…” she huffed. It was clear her lack of breath had nothing to do with the sprint.

“Stick with her,” Rainbow ordered, taking a few steps forward. Just when her hoof went past the gate, however, the entire town erupted with noise; ponies began to appear all over the place! Ponies chatting, dancing, laughing.

Rainbow took an alarmed step back. “Whoa, what the…?”

“Hey!” A big green earth pony stallion spotted them and approached, waving a friendly hoof. “Visitors!”

The trio moved close in alarm, which made the stallion laugh. “What’s the matter? We don’t bite.”

“What’s going on?” Nye asked fearfully, shoving Scootaloo behind himself protectively.

The stallion grinned. “It’s called a festival. You know, drinks, dancing, music?”

“His flank,” Scootaloo noted in surprise. Nye blinked, took a closer look. Then he saw what she had; the stallion had no cutie mark.

“Hey!” Rainbow darted forward to examine the stallion a bit closer, “where’s your cutie mark?”

“Cutie mark?” The stallion asked, noticing where she was looking. “I don’t know what you’re…” His words faded as he took a look at her more closely. Suddenly his eyes went wide; he fell back with a shout, pointing his hoof at her in terror. “Curse, curse! This one’s cursed!”

The noise of the festival died. For a moment nopony said anything as the stallion fled into the crowds. Then a pony cried out, and another.


“She’s got the mark.”

“It’s come, it’s come to find us.”

“What are we going to do?”

“She’s got a curse!”

“He’s got one too!”

Suddenly the three found themselves surrounded by ponies.

“G-g-guys…” Scootaloo whimpered from beneath Rainbow’s legs.

“Hey, what are you talking about?” Nye demanded, feeling not just a little worried himself.

“A foal, they’re holding a foal hostage!”

“What are we going to do!?”

“Let her go you monsters!”

“I think we’ve outlasted our welcome,” Rainbow noted worriedly, trying to push Nye and Scootaloo back.

“Stop them!”

“Protect the foal!”

“Let’s go!” Rainbow shouted, turning from the crowd and getting ready to fly.

Too late: Nye didn’t have time to shout before one of the ponies cracked the pegasus over the back of the head with his hoof. Rainbow let out a cry of pain, stumbled forward and spread her wings, but before she could get off the ground a half-dozen ponies were on her.

“Rainbow!” Nye took a step forward to help and was rewarded with a hoof cracking against his chin. As he fell he saw Scootaloo getting snatched up by the crowd, screaming in terror.

“Protect the foal!”

“Get them, take them!”

“Don’t let them curse the town!”

“Nye… Nye, help!”

Rainbow was unconscious, and Scootaloo was nowhere to be seen. Nye scrambled to his feet, just barely escaping as a pair of hooves smashed the ground where his head at been. He dodged left, then right, leapt backwards as a small army of ponies fought to catch him!

He’d never be able to help them at this rate. He had to run, recoup, figure things out. Terror filling him, he turned and fled the scene.

“No, Nye! Nye don’t go!”

“Stop him, don’t let him escape!”

He ran, ran for all he was worth, heart hammering in his chest. He wouldn’t be caught, not here, not…

Suddenly he was back in the forest. Back at the house. Too close to the house: he crashed right into it. Head aching, he jumped back to his feet as fast as he could and turned to face his followers…

…nothing. The ponies were gone. No sounds filled the air, no cries for help. He was totally alone.

For a few seconds he stood there, eyes wide. Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo…

His mind working frantically, he sat down and pulled out his potion. He’d send a letter to Apple Bloom, tell her to get help. He wrote the note shakily, fear fueling his words as he thought about what might be happening to his best friend and the filly. He jerked out his potion and pulled the cork out with his teeth.

And then he paused, staring at the letter on the ground. He read it, realized how panicked it was, how panicked he was. And then he thought of Apple Bloom getting that letter, and how she might react. When he envisioned her inevitable terror he felt a deep pang within him.

What was wrong with him? He was going to call for help? It would take all night for anypony to get there. He was there, right now, and there might not be time.

But he wasn't a hero. He was just lazy, tail-chasing Nye. What could he do? Rainbow was the hero of this group, and she was gone. What was he? The incident with the Crystal Empire was enough to make it clear that he was no pony for heroics. He wasn’t brave, or resourceful, or capable.

He shook his head, silently furious at himself. Maybe he wasn’t any of those things. Maybe he wouldn’t stand a chance. But his mother would never forgive him if he sat in a corner waiting for the cavalry, nor would he forgive himself. Maybe he was a coward, but even cowards had limits: he was not going to abandon his friend!

He crumbled the letter, tosses it aside, wrote a new one. Something about the forest noises keeping him awake, and how annoyed it made him. He folded the note up and dropped it into the potion, watching it dissolve away into nothingness. Let Apple Bloom sleep in comfort: he had work to do.

He found Scootaloo at the corner of the largest building in town, crying with her head under her hooves.

“Scoots. Hey, Scoots!” he called in a hushed whisper from his hiding spot just within the trees.

She shifted, raised her head, caught sight of him. Her eyes went wide as he gestured to her cautiously. She glanced around to make sure nopony was watching before going over to him.

“You came back,” she whispered, tears in her eyes as she jumped up to hug his neck.

“Of course I did,” he answered with a charming grin. “You didn’t think I’d ran all the way back to Ponyville with my tail between my legs, did you?”

She let go and blushed guiltily. “Umm… yeah, I kinda did.”

Ouch. Well, he didn’t blame her; it was close to the same as what he’d almost done.

“Where’s Rainbow Dash?”

Scootaloo pointed to the big building. “They took her inside, said something about a pony called The Matriarch deciding her fate.”

“And they just let you go?” he asked, bewildered.

“Yeah,” she nodded, looking a little confused herself. “I think it’s because I don’t have a cutie mark. Nye, none of the ponies in this town have cutie marks! They seemed to think you and Rainbow were threatening me.”

He rubbed his chin in thought for a few moments before nodding. “Don’t worry, Scootaloo. We’ll get your hero out of there.”

“But how?”

“I dunno,” he admitted, “but it’ll come to me.”

“Hello?” Rainbow called for the thousandth time, squirming against the shackles that held her front hooves up, “anypony out there? Come on, somepony talk to me!”

She had no idea how long she’d been stuck in the cell. An hour, maybe. She knew there was a pony right beside her cell, even if she couldn’t see him, and she was determined to keep making a racket until he responded. “You wanna tell me why I’m here? No? Don’t matter, you’re gonna tell me anyway!” Silence. “Hey, rockhead, stop sleeping on the job and talk to me. I know you’re there. Hellloooooo?”

There was the sound of a door unlocking, and she heaved a deep sigh. “Finally, somepony to talk to! Now what’s the big…”

But her heart sank as a big brown mare appeared, Scootaloo walking along behind her. So the filly hadn’t been able to escape after all…

“Five minutes,” the mare noted, unlocking Rainbow’s cell. The pegasus gazed in amazement as Scootaloo nodded to the mare and entered the cell, which was closed behind her. The mare gestured to the guard just beyond Rainbow’s sight, and she heard them both leave.

As soon as the unseen door closed Scootaloo was hugging her hero around the waist. “You’re alive! Oh thank Luna, I was so worried…” The filly was on the verge of tears.

“Oh come on, Scoots,” Rainbow told her reassuringly, “you should know a bump on the head’s not enough to do me in.” The filly grinned happily and nodded, rubbing her muzzle against Rainbow’s stomach. “But what are you doing here? Why’d they just let you in?”

Scootaloo didn’t answer for a moment, but finally recovered enough to step back and speak. “They all think I’m the victim and you and Nye are the bad guys.”

Rainbow stared in astonishment. “Where did they get an idea like that?”

“There’s no time to explain,” the filly said quickly. “I told them I wanted to see you, ‘make you feel guilty for what you’ve done’ or something like that, but I’m here to get you out.”


Right at that moment the sound of the door opening came to them once more. They watched, and Rainbow sagged when she saw Nye being guided forward by a pair of stallions. He paused by the cell, giving her a hard look. That made her think; it was a very un-Nye-like expression.

“Keep moving,” one of the guards snapped, nudging Nye in the back with a hoof. “We’re not giving you two a chance to work together on an escape plan.”

The white stallion glanced back at the guards and smiled. “Too late for that.”

And suddenly he bucked, cracking one of the guards in the face and the other in the chest. The two stallion cried out, tried to fight back; one cracked a hoof against Nye’s jaw, the other tried to press him against Rainbow’s cell.

And that’s when she noticed Scootaloo. She had darted to the bars and, tucking her hoof through, managed to snatch the keys from the guard holding Nye down. She was back just as fast, climbing up Rainbow to start freeing her hooves.

With nothing better to do Rainbow cheered Nye on. He glanced at her, made a grunting sound and shoved the stallion on his back off. He bucked once more, knocking the guard against the back wall, then turned to crack his hoof against the side of the other guard’s muzzle as he was rising.

And the guard’s head spun backwards on his neck with a snap.

Nye stared.

Rainbow stared.

Scootaloo stared.

Rainbow felt real fear this time. The entire world seemed to go ten shades darker, as if some ominous shadow had come upon her eyes. The ugly yellow paint on the cell walls started to shrivel upwards like burning paper, revealing rotten wood that oozed with some hideous, black fungus. The guard’s fur and mane began to shrivel, clumps began to drop off of him. His hairless skin slowly rotted, some of it sloughing off onto the floor in a nauseating slop.

“Scoots, get me free,” Rainbow whispered. The filly only stared in horror.

The stallion twitched, leaned sideways as one of its legs twisted back on itself. Its head slowly began to turn forward again in a jerky, snapping motion.

“Scoots, now.”

The head locked into place, shook, tried to reposition. She watched through bars growing blood-red with rust as he reached up with a lone hoof and pushed against a muzzle that was now little more than loose flesh and muscle hanging off of bone.


A sharp jerk, a hideous cracking sound, and the guard’s head was facing forward again, though tilted at an odd angle. And then what was left of its rotten, flimsy mouth grinned at Nye horribly. The mouth opened, and a whisper came out, barely audible over Rainbow’s thundering heartbeat.

“Ssssecret’sss ouuuuutttt…..”


The filly snapped back into motion, frantically struggling with the shackles, tears streaming down her face. “Oh Luna oh Luna oh Luna oh Luna…”

The hideous undead thing reared back on its hind legs at Nye, who shook off his own horror just in time to smash his head against its chest. The zombie stallion fell onto its back with a hiss and clatter, one of its front legs snapping off and sliding away.

Come on, Scoots,” Rainbow whispered as she watched Nye get tackled from behind by the other guard, now a hideous mass of flesh and muscle. But Nye fought him off with a grunt and smashed the ugly thing’s skull against the cell; it left a gooey, sickening mess against the bars that made the stallion vomit. And then he jumped back; the corpse was getting up again!

At last one of Rainbow’s hooves came loose. With her new freedom of movement she snatched the keys from Scootaloo and worked on the shackles herself. Scootaloo was holding on to her hero’s neck in mortal terror. “IswearI’llneverdoubtmyfriendsagainandI’llneverentertheEverfreeForestohpleasedon’tletthemeatmeohpleaseohpleaseoplease…”

“Come on!” Nye cried to them as he kicked the corpse back to the ground and began bucking the cell bars. They snapped and bent, too rotten to handle the hit. Encouraged, he kept on.

Rainbow’s other hoof was free! A little extra work and soon she was completely loose. She tossed the keys aside, spitting out the nasty rust that had been all over them, and swung the paralytic Scootaloo onto her back. Just as she was about to rush the gate, however, she saw Nye get tackled by not one but four guards!

“Nye!” She opened her wings and flew, slamming into the ancient bars at full speed and smashing right through to the other side. She turned to see her friend struggling to escape the hideous creatures.

“Go,” he shouted over the zombie’s heads, “take Scootaloo and go! Don’t worry about me!”

Rainbow wanted to help, but the way to the stairs was wide open thanks to him. She couldn’t fight with Scootaloo on her back, and wasn’t about to leave the terrified filly alone.

“I’ll be right back,” she shouted, jumping into the air and flying up the stairs. “I promise Nye, I’ll be back!”

He had never, ever been so terrified in all his life! Zombie ponies, for fuck’s sake, real live zombie ponies!

Even in his terror his mind made the correction: real not live zombie ponies. He stepped back fearfully as the four things approached, shambling on broken legs and decaying bodies.

“Thee cuurrsse…”

“Ssaavve tthhee toowwnn…”


Damn him for choosing today to not be a coward! He let out a vicious snarl and charged, shoving against the things with everything he had. They fought back, but their decomposed bodies were no match even for his feeble strength; he broke through and was up the stairs, his hooves slipping and sliding on moist fungus. Grinding his teeth, thanking Luna he’d not been hurt or bitten or any of a thousand other possibilities, he made his way for the exit, trying to remember the path they’d brought him along to get him there.

He skidded to a halt on the rotten wood floor; his path was being blocked by more of the monstrosities! He darted down a hall and up some stairs, knowing that it was a mistake.

“Nnoo eesscaaaaaapppe…”

“Nnoowwheerre tooo rrruunn…”

He threw himself into the first door he could find and slammed it shut behind him. There was a big rotting bookshelf nearby; he shoved it against the door just in time for the rusted knob to start turning.

The younger Stone brother stepped back and gave himself a moment to recover his breathing. How had all of this happened? He was scared almost out of his wits! But no… he would find a way out of this. He’d finally found a home, some real friends. He’d finally escaped his father’s shadow. He was finally happy. He refused to die now!

“Wwhoo iiss thiiss?”

He jerked about, ready for a fight. He could see he was in a big room, but it was pitch black within. There were four large windows nearby, but outside the dim light they offered he could see nopony else in the room.

“Wwhoo iiss thiiss?” the feminine voice repeated.

"I am Nye,” he answered fiercely, “who are you!?”

“Ffoorrgootteenn mmyy nnaammee…”

He took a step back, noted that the doorknob behind him had stopped rattling. He didn’t like how that voice sounded. “Are you… are you one of them…?”

A dim red light shined in the darkness, a light in the shape of a unicorn’s horn. “Yyoouu aarre oonne ooff thhee cuurrssed oonnesssss?”

“We aren’t cursed!” he snapped defensively. “What do you want from us!?”

And then the thing stepped forward, and Nye’s jaw dropped. It was an alicorn, tall and grim and rotting, her wings nothing but sinew and muscle over bone, horn glistening with that red glow. She stared at him through eyeless sockets, grinned at him through a lipless mouth.

“Wwee mmuusstt prrooteect thhee vviillaaggee…”

He shook his head, pressed his back against the bookshelf in horror as she approached, her cracked hooves clopping loud against the mildewed and fungus-covered floor. “W-w-we are n-no threat to y-your village… J-just let u-u-us leave…”

The muscles of her formerly-massive wings creaked as they spread out to their full span. That hideous grin leered at him from the darkness, teeth red from the glow of the horn. Her hollow eyes glimmered from that same glow, like the eyes of hell itself.


He cried out in terror and flung himself sideways just as a thin red beam sliced through the air and cut a charred line through the bookshelf behind him. He fled to one of the windows, sliding to the ground just in time to avoid a swinging swipe of laser aimed at his neck! As he fought to get back up he saw the undead alicorn Matriarch approaching, her hideous wings reshaping themselves into dangerously sharp-looking spikes, almost like a pair of scorpions’ tails.

“Doooonnnnn’tttt ffffllllleeeeee…”

He let out another terrified shout and leapt for all he was worth, front hooves smashing through the tall window. He landed on his belly on the second-floor roof. He started to rise and let out a terrible scream as searing pain tore through one of his hind legs. He looked back to see one of those sharp wings had gone through the window and into his leg just above the knee.

He clawed against the roof tiles, struggled to find something to hold on to. He had tears in his eyes as the pain intensified, the wing slowly dragging him back to the window. “Help me… save me! Rainbow, Jimmy, Luna, anypony, help me!”

He tried to jerk his leg free, was rewarded with more agony. He bucked at the wing with his good back leg, but couldn’t land a proper hit. He scrambled for some sort of purchase but was dragged back even more. “No no, nononono…” He lifted himself up, looked back.

The only thing he could see in the window was hollow eye sockets and grinning teeth, masked in a blood red light by that terrible horn.


Something blue filled his vision. There was a loud snap, a hollow screech of fury and agony, and he was in the air!

“I’ve got ya Nye!”

“Rainbow!” He gripped her in a tight hug and wept. “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!”

He clung to her even after they landed next to the house in the woods. He was still weeping, too. Rainbow rubbed his mane tenderly. “You’re okay, Nye. You’re okay…”

“Is he alright?” Scootaloo asked, approaching slowly and gesturing to his bleeding leg. “That doesn’t look too good…”

“He’ll be fine,” Rainbow insisted. “You’ll be fine, Nye.”

Finally recovering his senses, he leaned back and gave her a menacing glare through his tears. “Don’t ever make me have to come and save you like that again!”He rubbed his eyes and sobbed some more. “I’m gonna have nightmares for months!”

“Me too,” Scootaloo noted miserably.

Rainbow smiled weakly. “If you do, come talk to me, okay?” The filly looked up at her mentor and smiled weakly. “That goes for you too, Nye.” He sniffed and nodded dejectedly, anger washed away in his relief at being alive.

Scootaloo, head low, glanced towards the woods beyond the house. “I guess I owe Apple Bloom an apology…”

Rainbow nodded, following her gaze with obvious fear. “We can’t let anypony else fall into that place. It’s way too dangerous.”

But Nye shook his head. “No, no we can’t tell anypony what we just saw.”

The two pegasi gave him an alarmed look. Nye took a moment to wipe his face one more time before explaining. “Nopony’s going to believe this. We didn’t, that’s why we came out here! If we tell other ponies they might do the same thing we did.”

Rainbow considered this for a few seconds, then nodded slowly. “Yeah… that makes sense. Maybe we shouldn’t tell anypony, after all.”

“But how do we explain that?” Scootaloo asked, gesturing to Nye’s leg again.

“Umm…” The blue Pegasus shrugged.

“I’m the bumbling hanger-on,” he reminded them with a weak smile. “I tripped and fell on something sharp. A snapped tree or something. That’s why we’re coming back early.”

The other two considered this, gestured their acceptance. “And Apple Bloom?” Scootaloo asked tentatively.

Nye dropped to his stomach slowly, cringing at the pain in his leg. “I… I think we should at least tell her the truth.”

“Yeah,” Rainbow agreed. “And now we know where the ‘ghost town,’ or whatever it is, can be found, so we know how to avoid it.”

Scootaloo nodded, hiding her face under her purple mane. “Can we go home, now? I really don’t want to stay here any longer.”

“Me either,” Nye said, slowly trying to get up. He let out a pained sound, blood dripping from his wound.

“Yeah, come on,” Rainbow said, helping him up. She stayed close, letting him lean on her for support as they began to make their way back. They didn't even bother to pick up their sleeping bags.

“This is gonna take forever,” he noted sourly as he limped along.

“I don’t mind,” she whispered kindly. “And thanks, Nye. Thanks for coming back for me.”

He stared at her, saw the sincerity in her expression and sighed in resignation.

“Any time.”

Fine Crime watched the trio leave from one of the fourth-floor windows solemnly. At his side was an exceptionally tall, slender unicorn with a near white coat with just a shade of pink.

“I don’t know about you,” he announced solemnly, “but I’d say that was a very successful test-run. You’re truly a master at illusions, Fleur.”

Fleur Dis Lee frowned sadly, shook her head. “I pray to Celestia you never ask me to do something like this again.”

“I know,” he told her sincerely, “and I’m sorry. But until the illusion is set to function on its own I need you here to keep it going. We can’t risk anypony finding the real cursed village.”

“You are right, of course,” she admitted with regret, “but was it really necessary for me to hurt the stallion?”

“He’ll recover,” Fine noted without remorse. “It had to seem real, Fleur. They had to really think their lives were in jeopardy. You know better than I that the illusions can’t really harm anypony.” She pursed her lips unpleasantly but said nothing. “How long will it be before you’re done putting the finishing touches on the distraction town?”

“Another week,” she confessed tartly, “give or take a day or two.”

He nodded and gave her a deeply apologetic look. “I’m sorry, Fleur. I really am. I promise, after this is done I’ll never assign you a job like this again.”

But she flicked her mane and raised her head snobbishly. “Don’t make a promise you might not be able to keep, Mane Archon. Even if I don’t like this kind of mission, I knew what I was agreeing to when I signed up. Don’t suggest otherwise; it’s insulting.”

“Fair enough,” he answered with a smile. Then, abruptly, he grimaced and turned away from her, rubbing his head with both hooves.

“The headaches?” she asked ominously. He nodded. “How long has it been?”

“Four weeks.”

She considered him darkly. “You should do something about it before the time comes.”

“No,” he whispered, “…no. I must test myself. If I am to live here, I must be able to control myself when necessary.”

“That’s too dangerous,” she declared firmly. “What if you lose it, go after somepony important?”

“I won’t,” he answered.

“Are you certain?”

He didn’t turn to face her. His expression was locked in an angry sneer.

“I won’t.”

The Canterlot Problem

View Online

The ponies were all around. Stallions in ties and suits and uniforms. Mares in expensive dresses and the latest manestyles. Servants moving to and fro offering drinks and tiny delectables. Classical music by some once-popular conductor who’d been dead two hundred years or so. And there, among it all, was Upper Crust.

And she felt entirely out of place.

They’d been at this party for nearly two hours. By now she wasn’t recognizing faces anymore; they were all just shapes and figures milling about. She wasn’t even listening anymore; they’d talk to her and she’d nod her head, knowing that nopony here had anything to say worth listening to. Just uppity opinions without background, self-confident criticisms without merit. They all thought they knew everything; wealth meant they were perfect.

Important Ponies.

But the worst part about all of it? She used to be just like them.

She felt somepony nudge her side, trying to get her attention. She shook her head, focused her mind so that the faces no longer blurred together, saw it was her husband.

“Uppity?” he asked, “You okay?”

She tried to put on a warm smile. “Of course, Jet, I’m fine.”

He studied her worriedly for a moment, cast a glance around. “I’m not really feeling it tonight,” he lied. He was a terrible liar. “Why don’t we head home early?”

She wanted to say no, to tell him they should stay. She knew he would have preferred it, that it was the ‘Important Pony’ thing to do. But, as she looked around at all the narcissists around her, she found she just couldn’t argue. “Alright.”

The two made their way through the crowds to Fancy Pants, host of the party, to apologize for going early. “I say,” the big unicorn asked, “is everything quite all right?”

“Oh we’re fine,” Jet Set reassured him with a smile. “It’s just that we both have some busy days tomorrow at our jobs. Have to pay the bills, you know.”

“Quite,” he agreed with a friendly smile. “Very well then. Thank you both for coming!”

“It was delightful,” Upper Crust claimed with another forced smile as they left.

Canterlot was quiet in the night, most ponies either being asleep or at some event or other. Upper Crust was coming to like the city at night, if only because there was less of a chance of bumping into some sycophantic old ‘friend.’

“Uppity, what’s the matter?”

She paused to look back, not realizing that her husband had stopped. “Whatever do you mean?”

He lowered his head unhappily. “You put on a brave face, dear, but you think I haven’t noticed?”

She stared at him for a few seconds, not knowing what to say. “Jet… I’m fine. Really.”

He approached to stand right in front of her. It was clear he didn’t believe her words. The pained expression he held was breaking her heart. But finally he nodded. “Okay. If you say nothing’s wrong, nothing’s wrong.” He set a hoof to her shoulder endearingly. “But… you can talk to me. You know that, don’t you?”

She smiled, touched at his genuine worry. “I know, Jet. It’s nothing, honest. Just work catching up to me, that’s all.”

She gave him a huge and a peck on the cheek before they resumed their walk. “If that’s the case,” he told her with relief, “maybe you should take a few days off.”

“We’ll see,” she answered.

“Upper Crust?”

She shivered, as if coming out of a trance. She’d been lost in deep contemplation, but now she recalled where she was: in the Canterlot Royal Museum. At work. Nick Nack, a short unicorn with a mottled blue-and-white coat and a cerulean mane, was watching her inquisitively through his thin glasses. “Oh… uh, yes?”

“How long have you been zoned out like that?” he asked her. There was no anger in his voice, only curiosity.

“Ummm…” she glanced around from her spot behind the desk, eyes landing on the clock above her door. When she saw it she drooped a little. The answer to the question was: too long.

Nick Nack understood by her expression. He tapped the pile of papers on her desk. “I take it you won’t have the catalogue finished by tomorrow evening, then?”

She sank in her chair a little more. “Sorry, Nick.”

He waved a dismissive hoof. “Don’t worry about it, my dear. If the catalogue’s a little late, so be it. It’s not like it was all that important.”

She stared, but then realized she shouldn’t be surprised. Nick Nack never got worked up over anything. Still, she felt as if she’d disappointed somepony. Perhaps it was herself. “I’ll have it done by morning,” she declared.

Nick Nack, already at her door, paused to give her an uncertain look. “Really? You’d have to stay up all night to do that. Just let it be.”

She sighed. “If it’s not important, what is?”

He shook his head. “It’s just for archives. Nopony’s ever going to look at that catalogue once it’s finished, you know that.”

What he said was true, but that wasn’t the point. “All part of the process,” she told him simply. “It needs to be done.”

“Not by morning,” he countered without enthusiasm. “If you want to go at it, be my guest, but I’m telling you it’s a waste of time.”

She attacked the project with a fervor. It was tedious work, but she felt it was important. Nopony in the museum ever really cared about what she’d done. A few acquisitions now and again, but nothing anypony ever considered worth talking about beyond suppertime. The paperwork was hardly rewarding, either. Nothing she ever did seemed important. Maybe if she could do this, show them how hard a worker she could be, they’d give her something real to do for a change. She was tired of all this boring, slow, unappreciated work.

She asked a co-worker to tell her husband why she wouldn’t be home, and left the museum only to get a bite to eat. She was at it all through the night, just as Nick Nack had claimed. She drank lots of hot dark chocolate. Other ponies might use caffeine to burn the midnight oil, but not her: cocoa was what kept her engines running. And not that sugary, smooth stuff. She needed it dark, 70% minimum.

But even with that help she had difficulty staying awake through the night. Completing an inventory catalogue was hardly engaging, and more than once she barely caught herself about to nod off. She tried listening to music once, but all the museum had was classical. She had nothing against that kind of music, but it was the opposite of helpful in keeping her awake. So she abandoned musical distractions and just let the cocoa keep her running.

Nick Nack walked in the next morning just as she was ready to hand the catalogue in. She did so proudly, and he accepted it with a startled look. “I didn’t really think you were serious,” he admitted.

“Well I was.”

He looked through the catalogue for a few seconds, nodding occasionally to himself. “Well alright then,” he said at last, “go ahead and put it in archives. And take the day off; no doubt you’re miserably tired.”

She stared as he walked out the door of her office. That was it? No praise? No thank you? Nothing at all about how hard she’d worked? Just ‘take the day off?’

The unicorn sighed and leaned over the night’s work. She couldn’t believed she’d gone through all that expecting him to be appreciative. What had she been thinking? In the end it would get stuffed into some dusty filing cabinet in the basement, unnoticed and unwanted save for the exceptionally unlikely event that something purchased in the past three months needed to be located.

Feeling under-appreciated and quite foolish, she grabbed her purse and trudged out of the museum. Back home. Back to more of her lackluster, unfulfilling life.

Another week gone by, another elite party gone sour. This one was being held at the palace ballroom, put on by some self-important noble she hadn’t really cared about. Jet Set had been enthusiastic, though, so she went along. For the image, if nothing else.

And so, with a feeling of dissatisfaction, she slipped out of the ball room and wandered the halls of the castle the minute nopony was paying any attention. Let Jet chatter with the self-stylized Important Ponies. He didn’t understand what was bothering her. Maybe he never would.

She gazed at the tall halls, not really knowing what she was looking for. But in the end she did find something. Somepony, actually.

He was standing at the entrance to the gardens, white-coated and blonde-maned. He wasn’t a servant, nor a party guest. He looked like an ordinary pony. A very familiar ordinary pony…

He spotted her from a distance and approached, a smile on his lips. She paused, letting his slow approach give her time to think. Who was he? Where had she seen him before?

And then it clicked: he was one of the ponies that had helped during the Crystal Empire event months ago.

“You’re Upper Crust, right?” he asked as he finally got close enough to address her without shouting.

“Umm… yes.” She nodded, studying him quietly. “You’re… one of the Stones, if I recall.”

“Nye,” he answered, happy she remembered. She almost hadn’t.

He wasn’t an ‘Important Pony,’ so… “What are you doing at the palace?”

He gestured above them, undoubtedly to the upper floors where the Princesses lived. “Visiting Princess Luna. We’re gonna have dinner together.”

The unicorn’s jaw dropped. “You… really?”

He nodded, caught her expression. “What? Did you forget about how I knew her? Oh of course you did, the whole thing happened ages ago.”

She blushed. “…sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he reassured her. “We met one time. Hardly makes for a relationship, does it?”

They approached the gardens again and sat in the grass quietly. “So,” he asked after a few awkward seconds passed, “how have things been?”

She glanced at him thoughtfully. Would he understand? Would he even care? She hadn’t been telling anypony about her true feelings. Nopony in Canterlot could possibly understand. Nye wasn’t from Canterlot. Maybe…

“Hey, if you don’t wanna tell me...” he added at her sad expression.

“I’m miserable,” she confessed, head low. “Absolutely, completely miserable.”

He waited for a few seconds, then glanced around as if looking for clues. Finally he asked, “What’s wrong?”

She didn’t know if it was the right thing to do, but she was going to tell him. “I live here amongst all these ponies who think they’re so special and great. Some have earned the right – like Fancy Pants. I have so much respect for him. But most haven’t done anything with their lives except be born into wealth and nobility. Just like me.”

“Go on,” he pressed gently at her pause.

“I just… I just want to feel like I’ve earned it. I go to these parties and act all friendly, but all I really want to do is scream at them!” She pawed the grass in frustration. “How can they live with themselves? How can I?”

He considered her with a confused expression. “But… you did do something. You helped deal with Sombra, right?”

She gave a derogatory huff. “I sat on some hill and said ‘go.’ It was everypony else – you and the others – who did all the real work.”

At that he laughed, earning him a surprised look. “What’s so funny about that?”

“Let me tell you what I did inside that dome,” he told her with a grin and a nudge of his hoof. “I carried the Crystal Heart.”

There was a long silence. “…and?”

“And that’s it,” he replied. “I got into one fight, and I did terribly. I was so bad I nearly got skewered on a lance – four times! – and had to be rescued by Applejack. After that the lump sum of my contributions was to have the Crystal Heart shoved onto my back so I could carry it to the museum. That’s it.” He dropped to his side in a leisurely fashion. “So you see, Upper Crust, I wasn’t exactly a hero in there.”

She turned her head away, not at all put at ease by his laid-back manner. “At least you were there,” she muttered. “Once you were in, all I did was sit around and wait.”

Nye gained an annoyed expression. “What’s wrong with you? Without you Rainbow wouldn’t have known where to hit the dome and we never would have made it in the first place! Just because you didn’t do anything afterwards doesn’t mean your contribution was any less critical.”

“You seem to be the only pony who thinks that,” she declared sadly.

“Well,” he admitted, “I was a little burned when everypony paid so little attention to our contributions. I got over it, though; I was never meant for the spotlight.”

“I don’t want to be in the spotlight,” she muttered. “I just want to be… appreciated.”

“I’m sure your husband appreciates you,” he noted. “After all, by helping us you rescued him.”

“It felt good,” she agreed. “I was happy, at the time. But…” she shook her head dejectedly. “…all my life I’ve been telling myself how great I am. I realized a couple years ago how I was deluding myself, how everypony in Canterlot’s deluding themselves. When I say I’m an Important Pony, I want everypony to know why. I want…” her train of thought hit something that surprised her. “…I want… to see Fine Crime again.”

Him?” Nye gave her a skeptical look. “Out of all the ponies you could possibly meet, him?”

She blushed. “I’ve only met him twice, but in both instances I ended up doing something that made me feel proud. I want to feel proud of myself again.”

He studied her with a strange expression on his face, as if he were trying to understand a very odd riddle. “Umm… aren’t you… married?”

She laughed. Despite everything, she laughed. “I didn’t mean it like that, Mr. Stone!”

“Oh.” He seemed even more confused than before. “…okay…?”

“Things tend to happen when Fine Crime shows up,” she explained, “and for reasons beyond me he seems to like having me help with the solution. I don’t know why, and I’m not sure I care. All I know is if I can do something again, something ponies will recognize forever, then I would welcome another chance encounter with him.”

Nye scratched the back of his head uncertainly. “Well, can’t help you there. As far as I know nopony’s seen him since the Crystal Empire. Except Octavia, and she last saw him two months ago.”

“You know Octavia?” she asked, mildly surprised.

“Of course. We both live in Ponyville.”

“Ponyville?” She almost could swear the name left a bad taste in her mouth. “I thought she was a Canterlot pony.”

“She moved,” he replied with a shrug, clearly not understanding her reaction.

“Why in Equestria would a pony like her move to a dump like Ponyville?”

He didn’t seem offended at all by her words. “Hey, maybe you should ask her yourself.”

“Me? Go to Ponyville?”

He nodded. “From the sound of it, you don’t feel like you belong in Canterlot anymore. Why not visit, see how the ‘other half’ lives?”

She shook her head forcefully. “No no no, not a chance! I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“There you are, my friend.”

The two sat up and looked towards the castle. Upper Crust’s heart leapt to her throat at the sight of Princess Luna – the Princess Luna! – approaching them. The Princess, regal and beautiful, paused before them, and Upper Crust was dropped to a bow before she could even register the need.

Nye took a bow as well, but only briefly. “Hey, Luna! Sorry I wasn’t at the doors like we agreed, but I got just a little distracted.” Upper Crust was floored by his informal behavior.

“It’s quite alright, Nye,” the Princess replied as Upper Crust finally rose from her bow, legs weak. She jumped a little when that regal face turned its attention on her. “A friend of yours?”

“Sure is,” he agreed, which made Upper Crust pause; they were friends? But she didn’t speak – she was too afraid to try – as he gestured to her with a dynamic motion. “Allow me to introduce Upper Crust. She’s a local.”

The Princess’s eyebrows rose as she studied the trembling unicorn. There was something… odd about her expression, and Upper Crust had no idea whether it was a good look or a bad one. “So you are Upper Crust,” she said at last. “I am pleased to finally meet you.”

The unicorn blanched, took a startled step back. “You… y-you know of me, your majesty?”

Princess Luna nodded politely. “Of course. You assisted in the defeat of King Sombra three months ago. You performed impressively: only a mage of great power could read the Crystal Heart’s magic as you did.”

Upper Crust stuttered dumbly for a moment before finally regaining control of her lips. “I… I didn’t think anypony remembered that…”

“I remember,” the Princess claimed firmly, “and I am very appreciative.” She cast a regal eye to Nye, as if thinking of something serious, then asked, “Would you be interested in joining us this evening, Upper Crust?”

The unicorn let out a squeak and dropped to a bow. “I-I-I am n-not worthy, your e-eminence!”

There was a long, terrible pause. Upper Crust was shaking all over! But it was the truth; she had no right to be with somepony so phenomenally important!

“As you wish,” the Princess said softly, and Upper Crust looked up to find the alicorn’s head startlingly close to her own. Princess Luna's cyan eyes were locked with hers, but they weren’t frightening or angry. They were… soothing. Amazingly soothing. “But remember that the only pony who can decide your worthiness is you. Nopony else, Upper Crust.”

And just like that she was heading back to the castle. “Good evening, savior of the Crystal Empire. Coming, Nye?”

“Coming,” he answered happily, though he paused to give Upper Crust an encouraging look before following.

She stood slowly, watching in amazement as the Princess and the earth pony disappeared within the castle. The Princess considered her a savior? And Nye… Nye really had been the Princess’ friend. The unicorn was so astounded that she could only stand there dumbly for several minutes, trying to wrap her head around these ideas.

She approached her home at a slow pace, not just a little weary. It had been a solid two weeks since she’d met the Princess. She hadn’t bothered to tell anypony about what had happened; they wouldn’t have believed her. So she’d harbored the event in the back of her mind, nursing it in hopes that she might hold on the exhilarating feeling it had given her. But it was no use; the buzz was gone.

She entered the house, setting her purse aside and yawning. Two of her coworkers had fallen ill, one with the feather flu and the other with pony pox, so her workload had gone up considerably. She didn’t nurse any hopes that the extra work might earn her some real recognition, though.

She found Jet Set in the kitchen, preparing what looked to be a fantastic meal. “What’s all this?”

“Just celebrating,” he declared happily

She stared at the meal in amazement; knowing his lack of cooking skills, this had to have required an all-day effort. “Celebrating what?”

He nuzzled her affectionately. “Why, having the best wife in Canterlot, of course.”

She smiled at his touch, nuzzled him back. “Oh Jet, you didn’t have to go through all this.”

“Yes, yes I did,” he countered smartly. “Aaaand, looky what I got hold of.” Something floated up from the kitchen counter to hover before he eyes. “Tickets to this year’s Gala!”

She stared at him with wide eyes. “You mean the Grand Galloping Gala? That Gala?”

“That’s the one!” He was so pleased with himself he was grinning – a rare expression for him as he deemed it ‘unseemly.’ “Just think, you and me at the Gala, meeting Princess Celestia among the finest ponies in Equestria!”

She kissed him, genuinely thrilled at the concept.

But that night, as she lay in bed next to him, Upper Crust couldn’t help but be troubled. They’d never been invited to the Gala before, and it was supposed to be such a great treat. And yet she couldn’t escape the nagging worry that it would be just a larger version of everything she was already so tired of. If that were the case, why would she even want to go?

But one only got tickets to the Gala by invitation from Princess Celestia herself. You didn’t refuse such a prestigious pony’s invitation! She was beside herself with anxiety, and wished she’d never been invited at all.

But what about Jet Set? She stared at his sleeping form. She loved her husband… but he simply didn’t understand. For the past two weeks he’d been doing a lot for her. He’d adjusted his schedule so they would have more time together, made surprise visits at the museum, bought her gifts, taken her to the most exquisite restaurants in Canterlot. He’d been pulling out all the stops. And now this.

It was obvious he knew something was wrong. He wanted her to be happy. He cared, he really did, and she loved him all the more for it. But he was a stallion of material pleasures, and he thought she was a mare of the same tastes. She had been once. Not anymore. Now all the jewelry and clothes and deliciousness in the world couldn’t make her happy, and that was not something he could comprehend. In his mind if material possessions and living among the elite didn’t equate to happiness then nothing did.

He was trying, and trying hard, but it wasn’t working. He had probably been so frustrated with himself. This night – and it had been a delightful night – was no doubt another desperate attempt. Maybe he believed he’d finally succeeded. He probably thought the Gala tickets were his reward for a lifetime of working on being the perfect ‘Important Pony,’ and perhaps he thought this sign of his dedication to the life would please her.

But those tickets were dangerously close to backfiring in his face.

And then she realized that he was part of the problem. He was just like all those other ponies she was coming to disapprove of. He claimed to be special, even superior, just because of his upbringing. What had he done with his life? Sold a few expensive yachts, gone to a few fancy parties, been given some tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala? There was nothing of value there. Not a thing.

Was their marriage in trouble? The thought chilled her. She snuggled up to him, taking in his warmth and wishing he could understand her feelings. She didn’t want to hurt him, so she would try to at least pretend to be happy. For his sake.

If only she didn’t feel like crying…

Another party, and this time they were meant to be the hosts. It wasn’t much of a party, though, not in her mind. It was more like a business venture; all the guests were Jet’s clients, potential clients and business associates. She understood why he was doing it, and helped to show her support. After all, it was all part of his job. So she didn’t blame any of her boredom and disinterest on him.

But an hour into the event she found she could hardly stomach his sycophantic behavior. She bowed out, explaining her departure away by claiming she needed some fresh air and a walk.

The night was still young, and many of the city’s establishments were still open, so Upper Crust did something she’d never done before: she visited a lounge. She didn’t know what told her to go in, but before long she was sitting at a booth, sipping some wine. She must have been quite the sight in her expensive party dress – another of Jet’s gifts – all alone in a place like this. She didn’t really care; she just sat there feeling miserable, worries flitting around in her head. She thought about her life, about her future. But what really brought tears to her eyes was when she thought about her husband.


It took her a few seconds to realize the voice had been aimed at her. She wiped the moisture from her cheeks and looked up to find somepony very familiar before her. He looked like the pony she’d met before in the castle, especially in the face. But he was a little taller, leaner, a touch more muscular. His mane was silver, not blonde, with streaks of purple in it. And he had wings.

The brother, perhaps? She couldn’t recall which one she’d met two weeks ago, which was a little embarrassing. “You’re… I’m sorry… Mr… Mr. Stone? Nye, wasn’t it?” It was the only name she could recall in her sorry state.

“Jimmy,” he confirmed softly. “Nye’s the other Stone.”

Oops. “…I see…”

“This seat taken?” he asked, nodding to the seat across her table.

She thought about him for a moment, wondering if she shouldn’t fake being here with her husband. After all, how would it look to be seen in a place like this with a different stallion? A handsome one?

He apparently took her silence as acceptance, for he sat before her quietly. Now that she had a better look at him in the light of the lamp above, she saw that he didn’t look very good. He seemed about as depressed as she felt. She almost thought the severely alcoholic beverage he ordered a moment later was a confirmation of her suspicions.

He finally broke the silence, his expression forlorn. “I’m guessing the last three months haven’t been treating you well.”

She gave a sad sniff, took a sip of wine. Such a massive understatement. He seemed so very different from his brother.

The pegasus sighed, leaned forward solemnly. “I remember us leaving the Empire three months ago and thinking how everything was going so wonderfully. Heh, if only I had known…”

And that was when she looked at him, really looked. His words matched her feelings on the matter so perfectly it was haunting. Maybe there could be some form of comfort in this chance meeting. There was no way to know for certain, but if she’d just been discovered by a kindred spirit…

“Do you still feel it?”

His eyes remained downcast. “Feel what?”

“The excitement. The joy.” She let her eyes focus back on her wine glass. “Three months ago I felt on top of the world, like I could do anything. I mattered. For once in my life, I really mattered.”

There was a quiet pause, punctuated by the arrival of the server with Jimmy’s drink. He took a careful test-sip, grimaced. Apparently it suited him though, for he took another, longer drink. “I guess… that kind of feeling fades with time.”

His answer wasn’t at all satisfying. She was disappointed. Truly. So she let the matter drop miserably, staring at her glass without much interest.

“Have you ever tried to challenge somepony?”

She blinked. What did he mean by that? She looked up at him thoughtfully. “…like who?”

He took another slow sip of his drink before answering. “Somepony powerful. Somepony you were scared of. Somepony who held your life in his hooves, and knew it.”

It seemed as though his problems were more… physical… than her own. Even so, she could see the resemblance. “Like challenging fate,” she suggested with a sigh. In his case, the fate of being involved with somepony he couldn’t defeat no matter what efforts he might show. In hers, the fate of having nothing to show for her efforts in the first place.

Her mind drifted to that day in the Crystal Empire. She could still see it in her mind’s eye, the dome shattering beautifully against the blue sky as a rainbow flashed across the atmosphere. The supreme thrill of knowing she’d achieved something so great, so unique, so monumentally her own. “I felt like I’d challenged fate that day,” she confessed. “Challenged it and won. Now I wonder if it wasn’t just a fluke.”

“No.” She grimaced, but jerked in surprise when he reached over to touch her hoof supportively. She looked up and was caught off guard at the sight of concern on his face. “No, Upper Crust, it was not a fluke. You had something to offer, and you offered it.”

He had no idea. “I didn’t offer it.” She pulled her hoof away from his touch. “I was volunteered by Fine Crime.”

“Does it matter?” he asked seriously. “He saw that there was something in you, something that mattered.”

Mattered? Did it really? She turned away from him sadly. “Then why does nopony else see it?”

Jimmy sat back, perhaps giving her more space, and took another quiet sip of his drink. “What about you?”

She shook her head miserably. “I don’t know anymore… but I long to have somepony, anypony see it again.”

He frowned, let out a miserable sigh. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I just found that I’m pretty useless myself.”

No. No that didn’t help at all. She stared at him, truly grasping how different he was from his brother. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just that his brother had been in a good mood, while Jimmy clearly wasn’t. Whatever the case, this entire conversation was turning out to be nothing like she’d come to hope. Hope. That’s exactly what she’d been looking for. She’d find none of that in Mr. Stone; he was too busy with his own problems to be of any help to her right now.

“I… should be getting home. My husband will start wondering where I am.”

“Will you be alright?” he asked with concern.

She had no idea. She couldn’t give him a real answer, so instead she didn’t offer one at all. She just slipped off the booth and made her way to the door. “Good night, Mr. Stone.”

She made her way home, realizing she’d been gone from the party for far too long. Jet really would be worrying about her by now. She should have known better… but it was too late now.

Her mind was swimming with explanations when she realized that she was being followed. She was just over halfway home, on an empty street with fine houses all around. She wondered if it might be Jimmy, making sure she was okay. Probably. She turned about, ready to inform him that no such caution was necessary.

It wasn’t Jimmy. It was Jet Set. And he didn’t look very happy.

Surprised at his presence, she trotted to him quickly. His pained expression made her wonder if something hadn’t happened. “Honey, what are you doing out here?”

His head drooped low to the ground as she approached. For several seconds he said nothing. At last he answered. “I knew there was something wrong. I worked so hard to do something about it…”

She paused, not understanding. “Jet… what are you…?”

“Who is he?”

Realization slowly crept up on her mind. “Jet, were you following me all that time?”

“Who is he?” he repeated. “The stallion you were with.”

Somehow, she thought she should be more upset. But she wasn’t. She didn’t blame him in the least. “His name is Jimmy. He’s one of the ponies who helped us back in the Crystal Empire.”

Jet nodded, glanced away unhappily. “Is he… an Important Pony? Rich?”

She blinked, caught off guard. “What… what does that have to do with anything?”

“It matters to me,” he whispered. “If you’re going to have an affair, I’d at least like to know that he’s important enough for you.”

“Aff…” She was stunned into silence for several seconds. “Jet! I would never cheat on you!”

He waved a quieting hoof at her miserably. “You don’t have to defend yourself, Uppity. I saw everything.”

She knelt before him, tried to get him to look her in the eyes. “Jet, you’re my husband! It was just a coincidence that he was there. I swear!”

But he turned away roughly. “Two well-dressed ponies meeting in a lounge, sharing a private conversation, touching hooves? I’m not an idiot, Uppity.”

She was on the verge of tears. She galloped about and set her hooves to his cheeks, forcing him to look at her. But he wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Jet, I love you! Please, don’t be like this. I admit there’s something wrong. You’re right, I haven’t been happy. But it has nothing to do with Jimmy Stone. This is the first time I’ve seen him since the Crystal Empire!”

“I wish I could believe you,” he muttered. “I really do.”

“Then believe it!” She kissed him, held him close. “Believe it, because it’s true!”

He held her for a tender moment, and she thought she could feel tears on his cheeks. Yet after a few heartwrenching seconds he pushed her away. “Go on, Uppity. If you think this will make you happy, just go.”

“B-but… but Jet…”

He turned away, began to walk home.

“Jet… please… don’t be like this.”

He was gone, taken away by the shadows of a Canterlot night. She fell on her haunches and stared, unable to believe what had just happened. Her husband, her beloved, doting husband thought she’d been cheating all this time! How had she not seen this coming, how!? And now he’d given up hope. He was gone, and she had no idea what to do about it.

So she just sat there in the middle of the street and wept.

Days later and there she was, leaning over the railing of a hotel walkway with front hooves hanging loosely, watching the city go by her eyes. She hadn’t been to work since that night. She’d tried to go home, once, to try and explain things to her husband. What had begun as a heartfelt plea ultimately turned into a fight. There was no convincing him that her meeting with Jimmy had been a coincidence, and in her frustration she finally told him – in very unkind words – exactly what had been bothering her.

So now here she was, wasting away at some hotel and wondering how her life could have gone so far south. By now she was probably fired too, not that it mattered much. Despite it all she still loved him, and all she could really feel was empty and pathetic. She didn’t dare go back to try and smooth things over. She didn’t have the guts.

“Upper Crust?”

A familiar voice. She’d had enough of those; she was in the spot she was in because she’d listened to a familiar voice. So she just huffed a deep breath and kept watching the cityscape.

“Are you okay?”

She turned her head away in annoyance. Whoever it was should just take a hint and go away.

She didn’t. A pair of hooves touched her shoulders gently, and mulberry eyes filled her vision. “What’s the matter? What are you doing here?”


Of all the ponies it could have been, it was Octavia. At the sight of the kind pony Upper Crust felt her defense slipping, and before she knew it she was crying on the mare’s shoulder. She wept and wept, so hard and violently she lost track of where she was or what she was doing. She just wanted to cry and let the world know her sadness.

When she at last came to her senses she was in one of the hotel’s many identical rooms, lying belly-down on a bed with her chin in Octavia’s silken lap. The cellist was stroking her mane and humming a calm, quiet, comforting tune.

Upper Crust sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes and trying to fight down any more sobs. “I-I’m so sorry…” she managed to choke out, “I… I d-don’t know w… what came over m-me…”

“It’s alright,” Octavia told her with a pleasant smile, “sometimes it helps to just let it out.”

Upper Crust sat for several long minutes, fighting to regain control of herself. While she did the cellist went to the closet and got out of her delicate-looking evening gown. She came back with a glass of water, which the unicorn took gratefully.

Octavia sat back on the bed again, her face concerned. “Jimmy told me you seemed a bit down, but I never imagined…”

“Don’t talk to me about Jimmy,” Upper Crust snarled, earning her an alarmed look. “It’s because of him that I’m in this situation!”

Octavia gained a dubious, confused look. “Jimmy?”

Upper Crust told her what had happened that night, and the night she’d tried to come home. The cellist listened intently, never saying a word. Upper Crust was glad for that; it let her get it all out in one go. By the time she was finished she felt like crying all over again. She did, but only a little.

“But Upper Crust,” Octavia noted when the story was over, “Jim couldn’t have known. It was an accident, that’s all.”

“I know!” she snapped back, but she had no energy for anger. “I know…” she whispered again, “…but it helps to blame somepony, and I choose to blame him.”

“That hardly seems fair,” Octavia pointed out, though her tone was kind. “Are you going to try again?”

The unicorn shook her head miserably. “I can’t face Jet again. It breaks my heart, and his. I don’t want to fight him again…”

“But you still love him.”

“He’s my husband. Of course I love him.”

“Then why won’t you face him again?”

But Upper Crust shook her head again and turned away from the earth pony. “I’m not a brave pony, Octavia. I can’t just face things like you do. I’m so scared that if I go and see him it will result in another fight. And then… what if we go too far?” She lay down on the bed, clutching the pillow as if it might protect her from her fears.

A long, miserable quiet filled the room. At last Octavia let out an accepting sigh. “There’s no convincing you to confront him.” The unicorn didn’t bother to answer. “What will you do, then?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know what I can do.”

She spent the night there with Octavia, glad to have somepony willing to deal with her uselessness for a while. There was only one bed, but it was easily large enough for the two of them. All that night she wondered about the cellist’s questions, and when morning came she had a few of her own.

“Octavia… why did you move to Ponyville?”

The inquiry over breakfast caught her new companion by surprise. Octavia considered her answer for a long while, which Upper Crust hadn’t expected. Finally, the cellist spoke. “Somepony asked me to.”

Upper Crust stared. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“But… but…” Upper Crust couldn’t think of a better way to put it, “…it’s Ponyville.”

“What’s wrong with Ponyville?”

She opened her mouth to response, but caught herself. Indeed, what was wrong with Ponyville? She realized, with great regret, that she’d been sinking back into that elite society pony culture. Even so, she had to ask. “You’re such an Important Pony… and Important Ponies don’t live in places like Ponyville,” she concluded uncertainly. “I mean… I never thought so…”

The cellist raised a curious eyebrow. “You sound confused.”

“I am,” she muttered, dropping her chin to the table unhappily. “I really am. All my life I’ve been taught that things go in a certain way. But then one little incident occurred, and I found myself questioning my very existence. I don’t know what to think anymore, what’s right or wrong, and now I am so very, very confused.”

“And what incident brought all this up?”

She sighed and said the name with distaste. “Fine Crime.”

Octavia shrugged. “I don’t understand.”

“He confronted my very life,” Upper Crust explained unhappily, “and his words hit hard. It was over two years ago, and ever since I’ve been asking more and more questions, and I haven’t been liking any of the answers.” She covered her head in her hooves. “My separation from Jet is the culmination of all of those questions.”

“So now it’s Fine Crime’s fault,” Octavia noted critically.

“No,” the unicorn sat up and shook her head. “It’s not his fault, not really. But I have so many questions about who I am, who I could be, and it all stems from that one brief encounter.”

“What kind of questions?”

Upper Crust thought for a moment, trying to pick out something important, something that really defined it all. It didn’t take long. “What does it really mean to be an Important Pony? Being born rich? Shouldn’t it be something… I don’t know. Shouldn’t it be earned? And if so, what have I ever done in my life to warrant such a title?” She nudged her food dejectedly with a hoof. “I feel like my entire existence, and the existence of all my so-called ‘friends,’ has been a big ugly lie. But I’m the only one who realizes it, and nopony else is even remotely concerned.”

There was a long silence as Octavia considered these words. She seemed to be fighting a serious internal struggle. Finally she asked, “Upper Crust… why don’t you come with me to Ponyville?”

She blinked, gave the cellist a surprised look. “You… you’d let me come along?”

Octavia nodded seriously. “It sounds like you have a lot of thinking to do. I really think that it would be good for you. Besides, I can think of a few ponies who might be glad you did.”

The unicorn was overcome with an unexpected wave of relief and appreciation. “I… I don’t know what to say. I don’t know of any ponies in Canterlot who would have made such a generous offer.”

“Including yourself?” Octavia asked with a knowing smile.

“Including myself,” she admitted guiltily.

The cellist nodded her understanding. “That’s just one more reason I think you should come.”


View Online

WARNING: This Episode has some very graphic gory imagery. If that bothers you, skip the paragraphs in red.

It was done. At long last everything was in place, from the furniture to the treasury. It had seemed like ages; it had actually only been about a month. It was amazing what one could do with a little magical assistance. Fine Crime was pleased with the place, truly and absolutely. He’d never had a home of his own before; too busy traveling around. But now he had a place to call his own, and it suited his interests wonderfully; a perk of being the Mane Archon was his seemingly limitless resources, and since a portion of the Archon’s archival collection was now stored here it fell into the category of ‘business expenses.’

Not that he hadn’t paid for the house. He’d paid for certain elements of it, particularly the residential portion. But this wasn’t just his house; it was also the first distraction.

He was in his new office, at his brand-new desk that he loved so very very much, going over reports and fighting hard to ignore the pain. There were five different stacks, organized by importance. The lower-priority stacks of course had more scrolls and letters. Every now and again one would puff into existence, white smoke rising in the air as the scroll dropped onto its proper pile. Being the Mane Archon was a full-time job.

In truth he didn’t have to read everything that came to him. The two lowest-priority stacks were technically below him, things that lower-ranked Archon officials dealt with. Some of these occasionally puffed out of existence, proof that the situation had already been dealt with and didn’t need his attention. The only reason he had those stacks was so that he could occasionally grab a random note and see what was happening below ranks – a sort of quality check on his agents.

All morning he’d been at it, reading letters and scrolls, scribbling responses and sending them via transmittal potion. He was very careful with the potion; it was exquisitely hard to make, a modern magical marvel, and his chief alchemist Creed Tome would throw a fit if he spilled it. Fine Crime wouldn’t blame him; the stuff required almost a month to brew.

Abruptly his work was interrupted by a new scroll. Unlike the others, it appeared in a flash of red light – signifying its importance – and dropped on a spot in front of the other piles. He paused, set his ink jar and notes aside and grabbed the scroll. Its manner of arrival could only mean one thing: it was a top-priority message. And right now there was only one top priority in all of Equestria for the Archons.

He read the note quietly, took in its short and precise message. He sighed, rubbed his aching head and set the scroll aside; he was out of time.

Outside he found Fleur Dis Lee, hard at work perfecting the secondary distraction. He made sure not to look at her directly. “The word is in,” he announced to her quietly.

She looked up from her work, horn glowing brightly and appearing annoyed at the interruption. “Then you’ll be going soon?”

“Tomorrow,” he acknowledged. “I was going to wait until after you were finished, but I can’t. So today I’ll take the plunge and visit the town.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” she asked, turning back to her work intently. “You’re approaching week five.”

“I’ll be careful,” he claimed solemnly, cringing at the sudden pang that hit his chest. “See you when I get back.”

And so Fine Crime left, traveling along the brand new dirt path that lead to the nearest town: Ponyville.

It was a bright morning, the occasional cloud rolling through the skies above and a slight chill in the air. All in all it seemed a fairly normal day. Fine Crime could only imagine what the citizens of Ponyville would think if they knew that a serial killer was in their midst. Any other day and he might have been amused at the thought, but he didn’t have the luxury of amusement this time. He was almost five weeks without a kill, and he had to focus very carefully to keep from succumbing to the visions.

For he was indeed having them. Every pony he looked at was a homicide in his eyes. It had always been one of the most horrifying elements of being a Bloodmane; gazing upon crowds and seeing every stallion, every mare, even the foals dying in some fashion or another, always by his hoof. But by necessity he’d learned how to resist these temptations. He’d found that if he actually paid attention to the visions and their details he could hold himself back… so long as he remained calm and kept his mind clear.

His longest record for going without a kill was eight weeks. He knew he could do this, but he wouldn’t feel comfortable living so close to these ponies until he’d proven it. There could be no mistakes.

Out of habit and to keep things easier, he avoided being seen. He stayed out of the crowds, slipped through back ways, hid when anypony was coming too close. Even after all these years, he still liked to play hide and seek, and by now he’d mastered the game entirely. He was but a shadow, even in the light of day.

He found the wide building near the center of town. Nye’s Nights and Jimmy’s Days, as the two business had come to be known. Fine went to the front doors of the coffee shop, watched the interior for a few minutes. It was a slow day, or so it seemed. Nye was nowhere to be seen. He might be in the back… but Fine didn’t like the idea of using the front door. It just wasn’t him; too obvious, too easy, not sneaky enough.

So instead he slipped around to the back. There he found a back door next to some trash bins. Was it really necessary to sneak in like this? Not at all. But it was more entertaining. He tested the lock for a few minutes with his magic and eventually found a way to open it.

He was glad to be inside again, away from all those ponies and the gory visions associated with them. He stood still for a few minutes, making sure his mind was focused and letting the pain subside. Finally confident of himself, he began to explore. He soon realized that he was in Jimmy’s workshop. Hiding next to the lounge’s shop entrance he listened intently. He could hear voices… Jimmy’s for one. He didn’t recognize the other two; a filly and a mare who spoke with a certain upper-class accent. Who could that be?

“Oh thank you, Jimmy,” the mare was saying pleasantly, “this means so much to me. You honestly have no idea what it’s been like trying to sew with that old dragon of a machine I had to pull out of storage.”

“Yeah,” the filly threw in with some sarcasm, “you wouldn’t wanna visit her while she was using it. Trust me on this.”

The mare’s voice became accusing. “You are the entire reason I had to use that thing in the first place! I’m still upset with you.” And she concluded with a self-important ‘hmmph!’ sound.

“Well it should work fine now.” Jimmy’s voice. “Provided you can keep it away from the Crusaders it should last you a few more years yet.”

“It’s not our fault,” the filly insisted.

Well, he’d heard enough to deduce who the visitors were. Smiling even as a sting in his back made him wince, Fine opened the door and stepped out to observe. As expected, he found Jimmy at his counter, offering a shiny-looking sewing machine to the town’s local fashionista, Rarity. Her sister Sweetie Belle was next to her, looking a touch guilty.

The three turned to observe him, and Jimmy’s eyes went wide. “Fine Crime?”

“Hey, Jim,” Fine replied with a wave, as if they were best friends.

But the pegasus didn’t seem all that happy to see him. “How did you get back there? Did Nye let you in?”

“Door was unlocked,” Fine lied easily, which made Jimmy glower. The expression was clearly meant for his brother, though.

“You could have come through the front,” the pegasus noted, eyeing him with suspicion.

“Could I?”

“Fine Crime?” Rarity studied him with a raised eyebrow. “Weren’t you at the Crystal Empire? One of the ones who helped?” He nodded, pleased that she remembered him. She perked up immediately. “Well then it’s a pleasure to see you again!”

“I’d appreciate it more,” Jimmy added, “if I knew why you were sneaking around my shop.”

“Well I’m sorry, Jimmy,” Fine replied smugly, “but I just thought I’d come by and say ‘hi’ and, while I was at it, let you know that your security measures are just a bit lax.”

Jimmy sighed and shrugged. “Alright, Fine, whatever. I guess it’s no big deal. But I am surprised to see you here; as far as I know you just disappeared. I assumed you went back home, wherever home is.”

“I was just working,” Fine claimed honestly.

Rarity took a step forward with curiosity on her face. “And where pray tell do you work, Mr. Crime?”

“Fine, if you please,” he told her. “And it’s not that interesting, really. Just a Host Stallion from Canterlot.”

Sweetie Belle tilted her head at him. “What’s a…?” But she got shushed by Rarity, who was blushing wildly.

Jimmy facehoofed. “Whatever happened to the dragon dating thing?” he asked mockingly.

“Gave it up,” Fine replied with a grin. “Thought I’d try something else.”


“Dragon dating thing?” Sweetie Belle asked, escaping from around her sister’s legs with an annoyed expression. Rarity was still blushing too much to say anything.

Fine Crime nodded to her happily. “Oh yes, you see what I did was…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jimmy interrupted, tossing a lecturing glance Fine’s way. “So what brings you to Ponyville, Fine? Really?”

“I live here now.”

Jimmy’ eyes went wide. “Seriously?”

“Well, the Everfree Forest,” he corrected truthfully, “but close enough to Ponyville to warrant it. I knew you and some of the others lived here already and thought I’d come by.”

The pegasus clearly didn’t know how to take this news. “I… uh… well… okay…”

Fine glanced at the door leading to Nye’s Nights. “Is your brother here? I’d like to say hello to him as well.”

“Nye? He’s at the Apple Farm,” Sweetie Belle declared, not noticing Jimmy’s annoyed expression.

“Umm… Fine…” Rarity was finally able to speak. “…you weren’t… serious about… err…”

He grinned at her wickedly. “Why? You interested?”

Her eyes went wide and she fell back, shaking her head wildly. “No no, that’s not what I…”

He didn’t hear anything else; the pain was too intense. He almost fell to his knees, cringing at the stab of agony in his head. When he opened his eyes again he saw the vision and he latched onto it fiercely. He could see in his mind eye the white mare, hooves pinned to the wall by nails, horn sawn off her head. Heart beating a mile a minute, a twisted joy coming over him, he found he was holding a blow torch. Its blue flame shone in the unicorn’s wet eyes as he clicked it off, then on, then off, then on. Off once more, and as she struggled he slowly brought the tool up. She tried to look away; he struck her, forced the torch into her mouth.

Her teary azure eyes stared at him, begging for mercy. Such beautiful eyes. He loved it when they stared at him like that. It made the lingering so much more… delectable.


He fell to the ground, snarling at the pain running through his entire body.

“Fine!” It was Jimmy’s voice. “Fine, what’s wrong?”

“I’m okay,” he snapped, waving the pegasus away. The pain began to fade as he climbed to his hooves. He glanced up to see Sweetie Belle and Rarity watching him worriedly. “I’m okay… I just… I better go. I’ll see you around, Jimmy.”

He cast his spell, his horn glistening as he was covered in dark clouds. A moment later he was on the roof of the building, rubbing his head miserably.

It had been a very strong vision. Typical, considering how long it had been since his last kill. But he’d managed to resist, which gave him some confidence. He wouldn’t go home just yet. No… not yet.

This was a home he wouldn’t sneak around. The pony that lived here was aware, and that was good enough. So instead he went to the front door and knocked.

The pony that answered was Upper Crust, and he hadn’t been expecting that. Not at all.

Apparently she hadn’t been expecting him, either. Her jaw dropped, her eyes widened, and for a few seconds she could only stare dumbly at him. His reaction wasn’t so pronounced, but he still had to take a moment to respond. “What are you doing here?”

“I… I was going to ask you the same thing,” she admitted dumbly. She cast her eyes around the outside warily. “You’re not here to… to ask me to do something, are you?”

He laughed. “No, Upper Crust, I’m not here on business!” He could hear Octavia’s cello playing in the background. Practice time, apparently. “Can I come in?”

“Well… I… ummm…” she stumbled around her words for a few more seconds. “It’s not my house… but… but I guess…”

“So you’re… visiting Octavia?” he asked curiously as he entered.

“…something like that,” she muttered.

The song ended abruptly. “Who was it, Upper…” Octavia let the sentence hang upon coming out of the music room and spotting Fine. “…oh. Well hello, Fine.”

“A pleasure, as always,” he told her, bowing flamboyantly.

She smiled with an exasperated expression. “So, have you finally made the move too?”

“I have.”

“Move?” Upper Crust was beside them with an uncertain expression. “What move?”

“I live in the Everfree Forest now,” he explained to the both of them at once.

“Oh…” Upper Crust looked a touch disappointed. “…I see.”

Octavia cast an understanding look towards her guest before asking, “Why the Everfree Forest? Why not in Ponyville proper?”

“That’s…” he considered his excuse carefully, “…something I can’t explain. Yet. Once all the pieces are in place, maybe then.”

“Pieces?” Upper Crust looked no less confused than before. “What are you two talking about? And how is it you know one another?”

“Octavia and I came to a little agreement a while ago,” Fine explained to her. “We’ve kind of become… umm…” He raised an eyebrow at Octavia.

“Teammates?” she suggested.

He smiled at her word choice. “…teammates. That should do.” The yellow-coated unicorn appeared no less confused. Well things would be cleared up… eventually. “I’m glad to see you’re here, Crustie.”

The mare leaned back, eyebrows raised in an offended manner. “’Crustie’?”

Octavia set a hoof to her lips, perhaps to avoid a giggle at her friend’s expense. “So… does this mean everypony’s here?”

At that he frowned and shook his head. “No… Lightning’s still in the wind.”

“And what if she doesn’t come at all?”

“She’ll come,” he reassured her seriously. “Don’t worry; if I can single-hoofedly stop a parasprite infestation, I can get Lightning here.”

The mares shared a suspecting expression. “When did you stop a parasprite infestation?” Upper Crust asked.

“And how?” Octavia threw in.

“Oh that’s easy,” he countered as if his answer was obvious, “I ate them.” At their dumbfounded looks he added, “Best when grilled.”

“Forget I asked,” the cellist muttered while Upper Crust facehoofed.

“Why are we talking about Lightning Dust, anyway?” Upper Crust asked in an attempt to steer the conversation back to normalcy. Octavia looked as if she wanted to answer, but stopped herself and gave Fine a questioning look.

He grinned and set a hoof on the cellist’s shoulder. “That’s something just for us teammates, I’m afraid…”

The vision hit, and it hit hard.

Upper Crust was tied to the floor, Octavia’s cello resting inside her opened stomach. As for Octavia herself, she had no hooves; her legs ended only in bleeding bone. Her eyes were gone, but she was alive. Alive and flailing as he used one of the strings from her own cello to strangle her. She kicked, she tried to break free, she gaped hoarsely through a throat with no air. He held the cord tight, so tight it was cutting into her neck. He watched her squirm, took almost erotic pleasure in feeling her life slowly ebbing away. He glanced down to see Upper Crust watching him, tears of horror and agony in her eyes.

Yes. Yes… that’s it. He wanted those eyes, he craved them. It was all he ever…

Too far: he jerked himself out of the vision with a gasp, realized he was leaning heavily against Octavia’s shoulder. His body was on fire! He shivered and shook and focused, struggling against the agony. Slowly, so very slowly, it began to dissipate.

“…ng with him?”

“I don’t know… I… I…”

The ringing in his ears, which he hadn’t noticed before, was gone. He still felt like there were hammers smacking his head, but he was back and in control. He’d resisted the vision once again… but sweet Luna had this one been strong!

“Fine, are you alright?” the cellist asked, setting a hoof to his chin so he could look her in the eyes. “You really scared us for a moment there.”

He let out a deep breath and pushed her hoof away. “Octavia, you have no idea what it means to be scared. You don’t want to. I have to go.”

“Go?” Upper Crust asked as he made for the door, “But what was that?”

“Not now,” he called back worriedly. “Not yet.”

He lay hidden amongst some trees and shrubs in a local park, taking deep calming breaths. He was in control. That last vision had been powerful, but it was a good sign. Visions were to be expected; they were as common in his life as walking by now. He’d resisted it, and that showed he could handle this. He could live near these ponies, perhaps even among them, as long as he was cautious. He still didn’t like the risk, but Luna was right; the team needed to be together, preferably near the Elements of Harmony.

And it seemed it was coming together on its own. Jimmy and Nye had established themselves as permanent members of the town without any encouragement. Octavia had agreed readily to come, and now, for some reason, Upper Crust was sharing the home with her. He would have to check up on what had happened.

All that was left was to get Lightning Dust to come. Despite what he’d said to Octavia, he wasn’t certain he could convince her. In that case what would Luna want to do? Find somepony else? He hoped not; selecting these ponies had taken long enough, and he certainly didn’t relish the idea of going through it again.

He was satisfied. He knew he could live around Ponyville. It was time to head back.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

He let out a surprised shut and jumped up. He glanced around, but didn’t see anypony.

“You should leave.”

He pushed his way between two bushes, back out into the open. When he did he was surprised to find himself facing an earth pony. A very pink earth pony, with a very poofy mane. She was watching him with a serious expression that didn’t really go with her appearance.

He was astounded; this pony had managed to sneak up on him. It was certainly something for the record books. “Are… you the one saying that?”

She lowered her head slightly, her eyes sharp. “You should leave,” she repeated solemnly. “Things may go badly otherwise.”

He studied her critically for a moment. “And who are you to tell me what to do?” She didn’t answer, only kept him locked in that harsh glare. “I think I can handle myself.”

She clearly didn’t believe him. After a few tense seconds she turned and began to walk off. “Good luck with that.”

He watched her go, not just a little confused. After a few seconds he gaped as she abruptly stopped walking and started bouncing instead, singing a playful tune and waving to a passer-by.

He sat, shook his head, tried to make sense of what he’d just seen. “Who in Equestria was that?”

Somehow, he felt as if he’d been challenged by that pink pony. Common sense and his usual caution told him to ignore that feeling… but for once he shook them aside. He could handle one more encounter. He still hadn’t visited Nye, after all.

So he made his way to the edge of town, and Sweet Apple Acres.

Nye wasn’t the only one visiting the farm. He found them at a large picnic table, sharing a significantly-sized meal with copious apple pies as the centerpiece. He recognized some of them. Most prominent was Applejack and ponies he presumed were her family: a big red stallion, a little yellow filly, and an elderly green mare. At the other side of the table was Celestia’s protégé, Twilight Sparkle, and her assistant Spike (who Fine recalled with mild amusement), and beside them sat Nye (with a notably large bandage on his leg from the wound he’d received two days ago) and Rainbow Dash.

A full house. He was annoyed… and just a little worried. Still, he approached. He could do this, he knew it from experience.

“Hey!” It was Rainbow who first spotted him. “Look who it is.”

They all turned to him, which made him pause nervously. So many faces…

“Well I’ll be, Fine Crime!” Applejack called, waving him over with a friendly smile. “Why I haven’t seen ya since the whole Crystal Empire thing. What’s up?”

“Not much,” he replied, nervous at being the center of so much attention. “Just thought I’d stop by.”

“You.” Spike huffed unpleasantly. “There aren’t any dragon eggs around here for you to steal, y’know.”

Fine laughed at that. “You just won’t let that go, will you?”

Nye proved much more friendly than his brother. “Welcome to Ponyville! Where the heck have you been?”

“Working,” he replied simply, grinning as he waited for the question he knew was coming.

“Working where?” It was Twilight who bit. “What do you do?”

He loved answering that question. “I’m a weapon’s dealer.”

There were a lot of different reactions. Most were of disbelief.

“Will ya ever answer that question honestly?” Applejack asked critically.

“The truth is simply an excuse for those who lack imagination,” he countered wryly, earning him a scowl. “But really, I’m a florist.”

“You used that one already,” Spike pointed out.

He gave the dragon a confused look, remembered. “Oh yeah, I did, didn’t I?”

“Is this a friend of yours, Applejack?” the elderly mare asked with a smile.

Applejack nodded. “He helped us out back in the Crystal Empire. He can be a bit dishonest…” throwing a lecturing look his way, “…but he’s alright otherwise.”

“Hey, why don’t you join us?” Rainbow suggested with a wave at an empty spot on the bench. “There’s plenty to go around.”

He glanced at all of them uncomfortably. “Umm… I’d love to, really… but there’s just too many ponies around. Makes me nervous…”

“We don’t bite,” Nye noted even as he took a big chunk out of some pie.

“Yeah, join us,” Applejack offered.

“No no,” he took a step back; way too many ponies. He had to think up a fresh lie, quick. “I should be getting back home, finish unpacking and all.”

“Unpacking?” Rainbow Dash asked, “You mean you’re living here now?”

“In the Everfree Forest, actually,” he replied with a grin, recalling their recent ‘visit.’ Nye made a whimpering sound at the name, prompting Rainbow to pat him on the back.

Twilight rubbed her chin, studying him curiously. “Why would you want to live out there instead of in town?”

“Zecora does,” he noted pointedly.

Twilight’s eyes flashed suspectingly. “If you’ve only just moved here, how do you know Zecora?”

Crap. She was as quick as the rumors claimed. “We’re neighbors now,” he declared smoothly, glad for his quick thinking. “I of course had to meet her.”

“Ya sure ya don’t wanna hang around and have some…” Applejack started, but her sentence went incomplete as he was struck by another vision.

It was indescribable. Blood everywhere, agony and terror and pain and sorrow. Too many ponies, all suffering, all at the same time. Mass homicide. And it filled him so much… joy.

“Damn it all to hell!”

He jerked out of it within seconds, terror rippling through him. It hadn’t been such a strong vision as the ones before, there had been no risk of losing control. But the sheer amount of input, the horrific scene of torturous slaughter, the splitting volume of the screams… it had been overwhelming.

“Fine, what’s wrong!?”

“Give him room, let him breathe!”

“Come on, Fine, stay with us…”

He realized he’d been convulsing on the ground. The searing pain wasn’t fading, but at least he had control again. It hurt so much… with every resistance, the pain would get worse. He couldn’t keep this up. There was simply no way.

They were all too close. Some were right in his face. Not good, if he had another vision hit him now… “Get away from me!” He kicked, scaring them back, and was on his feet. His horn flashed brightly, smoke surrounded him, and he was gone.

He hadn’t paid any attention to direction or distance this time. There hadn’t been time; he just needed to get out of there, before somepony got hurt.

He was somewhere in the apple orchard. He stood there, legs shaking and breath coming in gasps. Focus. Focus. Focus. Don’t be controlled. Control it.

A bright flash of purple appeared behind him.

“Fine Crime! What was that all about?”


“How the fuck did you follow me!?” he snapped over his shoulder, though he stopped just short of looking at Twilight. “Stay back. Just… just keep away.” Focus.

“I can’t just ignore what we all saw,” she countered worriedly. He could hear her approaching. “It looked so severe! Talk to me, what’s going on?”

“Why should you care?” he barked, “It’s not like we’re friends. We met one time, and that was three months ago!”

She sounded offended. “I can’t just ignore a pony so obviously in trouble!”

This was too dangerous. He wouldn’t be able to hold back if another vision hit him now. “I don’t want you help, or your concern. I want to be left alone!” He heard her come closer and took a few steps away in frustration. “Damn it Sparkle, keep the hell away from me before somepony gets hurt!”

“No! I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what the problem is!”

He turned on her. “The problem is you chasing after me and trying to be nice to me! I don’t need your pathetic concerns, I don’t care about your Luna-be-damned feelings, and I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about your friendship! Keep the fuck away from me, because if you don’t I. WILL. KILL. YOU!”

Another puff of smoke, and he was gone.

Twilight didn’t follow this time.

It took him almost an hour to get over the pain. He lay on his back in the grass, not knowing precisely where he was. In a field with lots of hills near town, that was about it. He just lay there, breathing in the cool country air and trying to relax.

Ponies. It was one thing dealing with one or two, but a group of them? He’d never liked being in crowds, even before he’d become a bloodmane. At least now his nervousness served the purpose of protecting others. Usually. Had he known that so many ponies would be at the farm he wouldn’t have bothered to go at all.

And now he’d uneased them all, and probably offended Twilight Sparkle. He felt like an idiot; he was supposed to lead this rag-tag group of misfits in helping the Element Bearers fight against the stars – whatever those were – and here he’d gone and insulted the Bearer of Magic! Worse, threatened to kill her. He’d done it for her safety, granted, but that didn’t change the fact. He would have to find some way to make amends.

He respected Luna immensely, but this was insane. She wanted the group together, that made sense, but to have a bloodmane live in such close proximity to a town full of innocent ponies was inviting disaster. He could do it – he would just have to take a ‘business trip’ every month – but what if something serious happened, something that forced him to stick around too long? His mind could play out a million terrible scenarios.

By Luna’s starlit mane, he hated what he was.

But that wasn’t the same as hating himself. Being with the Archons had taught him the difference. He worked hard every day to show that being a bloodmane didn’t define who he was. It was a hard mental war he waged with himself, and today was just another skirmish. No, more like a major battle. That was the whole point of coming into town today: to prove that he wasn’t a monster. He’d won… but at what cost?

His ears twitched as a sound filled the air. He let it drag him out of his solemn meditations, just in case. He was glad he did; it was singing. A very light, bright humming.

Of course that meant somepony was nearby. He might have to move.

He stretched, his back creaking from having been in the same position so long, and pulled himself to his hooves. He listened for a moment for direction. Whoever it was had a very nice voice. He thought he recognized it.

If he was going to sneak away, it was best to see the pony first, plan the escape. With that in mind he crouched low to the ground and crawled to the hilltop in the direction of the singing.

It was a yellow-coated, pink-maned pegasus. She was lying in the grass among some blue and purple flowers, surrounded by birds and butterflies, swaying to her own gentle humming.

His first thought: sweet Luna the scene was sickeningly picturesque! All harmonious and sweet, like out of a children’s book. It was almost insulting, like a slap in the face of his entire life.

His second thought: she was the pegasus he’d seen at the Grand Galloping Gala two years ago. The one in the gardens that had caused such a ruckus at the end.

His third thought: she was still the single prettiest pony he’d ever laid eyes on. Which was a big deal: in all his life the only time he ever cast so much as a second glance at a mare was when he was searching for victims. Second glances didn’t bode well for any pony at times like those.

Fluttershy. The only one of the Element Bearers he’d bothered to recall, just because she was the only mare to have ever caught his eye.

He watched her for several seconds, puzzling over this curiosity. She was pretty, no doubt, but what made him notice her? He had no way of knowing, and that’s partially why it puzzled him so much. Funny how it seemed to matter at the moment; since the Gala he’d hardly thought of her at all.

What was he doing? He was going to have a vision at any moment, and then he’d have to resist and find himself in agonizing pain all over again. He needed to leave.

He told himself that… but he didn’t do it. Instead he waited, and watched. He was hardly one to be taken in by a beauty. Perhaps it was the picturesque scene that held him so, that image of harmony and happiness that had been denied him all his life. Was he envious? Was there something hidden deep down within him that longed to be a part of that lovely, children’s book scene?

He didn’t think himself that fanciful a dreamer. Or that naive, for that matter.

After some time he came to realize something; he’d been staring at Fluttershy for almost fifteen minutes without any vision. That didn’t make any sense.

He pulled himself back behind the hill, his mind suddenly frantic. How could he not be having a vision? He’d had them in less than five minutes when dealing with the other ponies! Something was wrong about this. Or right? He didn’t know. Should he investigate more? He definitely wanted to. If there was some clue here, some special trick he was using that he never knew about, he needed to figure it out!

But what if he was wrong? What if he took a closer look and ended up having a vision anyway? A strong one, so strong he couldn’t resist? It was a huge risk, almost too big a risk!

No, that was stupid: his visions didn’t have lapses, didn’t build up over time. He knew that from a lifetime of suffering through them. The vision just wasn’t coming. But why wasn’t it coming!?

Hoping he wasn’t making a terrible mistake, he looked over the hill again. Fluttershy was still there, though she’d stopped singing to speak to the animals. He watched her impatiently; where was the vision? Why hadn’t it come? It had to come, it always came!

But it never did. He lay there for another half hour, and there was nothing.

He could take it no longer: he had to get a closer look. He began to approach, moving slowly so as not to startle her. His instincts made him proceed in silence, and she didn’t even notice his approach. Before long he was standing just a few feet away. He took a deep breath, braced himself for something, anything to happen.

And still there was no vision.

“Yii!” She finally spotted him and leapt almost ten feet! Her alarmed reaction took him completely by surprise, and he fell back on his haunches in response. She took several swift steps back, eyes wide, and crouched low as if ready to flee. “I-I-I-I’m s-sorry,” she whispered in a terrified voice so low he almost didn’t hear her, “y-you s-s-startled m-me…”

For a moment they just watched one another silently. After a while he realized he must look like a fool and stood up properly. “Umm… sorry… I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

By now she’d calmed down and was standing up too. But she didn’t come any closer, and was hiding bashfully behind her long mane. Nor did she answer.

Wow, she was even more timid than he’d expected. “I’m Fine Crime,” he offered helpfully. Clearly the name didn’t register though, as she said nothing. “You have no idea who I am, do you?”

She cuffed the grass with a hoof nervously, shook her head. He facefaulted, feeling a little let down. “I was one of the ponies that helped your friends in the Crystal Empire.”

That caught her attention… a little. “…really?”

“Yeah, really.” He tried to keep his sarcasm to a minimum. “And you’re Fluttershy, yes?”

At last she flipped her mane back, which he felt was something of a point in his favor. “You know me…?”

“I know of you,” he corrected mildly. “I was on my way home and saw you. Just thought I should say hi.”

She cast around inquisitively. “Home? …but we’re far out from Ponyville.”

“Oh, I live in the forest,” he noted, gesturing in the direction he knew the woods to be in.

Fluttershy let out a squeak and took a few fearful steps back. “B-b-b-but isn’t that dangerous?”

Her fear caught him off guard. “But… Zecora lives there.”

The pegasus turned her head, her face becoming hidden by her mane again. “I couldn’t possibly live out there. I’m too scared to even go near the forest!”

Wow. She really was a scared little thing.

He realized he had absolutely no idea what to do or say right now. This was a situation he was entirely unaccustomed to. It was one think talking to ponies when on the job, it was another to just… talk. He had no idea how. Should he ask something? Should he wait for her to? For once he was actually annoyed by his loner lifestyle.

The silence had gone on too long; now they were both nervous.

“Umm…” she started at last, moving gradually away, “…I need to get home… it’s almost time for Angel Bunny’s lunch and he gets cranky… you know? Umm, it was nice meeting you…” She walked away at a slow trot. Something told him she was barely keeping herself from running at full gallop.

He watched her go, mind buzzing with questions. An entire conversation – well, something resembling a conversation, at least – and no vision? When he was so long without a killing?

He didn’t dare think it. It was an idea far too good to be true.

But he was thinking it anyway. He had to investigate this further. He had time, and talent; he could study her from afar, try to understand what was happening. Yes… if it meant what he hoped it meant, then it would be worth it.

So he followed, and prayed.

Fleur Dis Lee was in his new dining room enjoying a salad when he returned that evening. He entered the room on his way to the kitchen, mind preoccupied and hardly noticing her.

“You’re back awfully late,” she noted as he passed by her seat.

“Hmm? Oh… yeah, I guess.”

She eyed him as he moved on to the kitchen. “Did something happen? You didn’t go off and kill somepony I hope.”

He paused at the door, his mind still trying turn things over. “No… nothing happened. That’s what amazes me.”

His words made her pause, fork half to her mouth. “You mean you expected something to go wrong?”

He glanced at her, looked at her directly for the first time in a while. The directness made her shift nervously. At last he turned away, but he didn’t move any farther. “I think… I think I might have found somepony who is immune.”

“Immune to what?” she asked with a relieved sigh.


She stared at him, not believing him at all. “You’re joking.”

He turned on her, eyes ominous. “Don’t dare assume I’m joking when I speak of what I am, Fleur. Ever.”

She raised her hooves at him calmingly. “I’m sorry,” she said sincerely, “I meant no offense.” He said nothing, only turned away from her with a frustrated expression. “So… if it’s true, what then?”

“I need to investigate this further,” he declared without hesitation. “I spent half the day watching this pony, and not once did a vision occur. Not once! …I must find out why.”

She nodded, truly understanding his urgent desire. “And your work?”

He gave her a sour look, but before he could say anything he dropped to his knees and let out a pained cry. She didn’t go to him, didn’t offer to help; she knew better. She did feel a little nervous. A lot nervous, actually. She was ready to respond with violence, if necessary.

It wasn’t. After a few tense moments of grunting and huffing he finally seemed to shake off the vision. At last he got to his hooves, legs wobbling dangerously at first.

Knowing she was safe and that he wouldn’t want her help, she tried to eat some of her salad. She knew it would be several minutes before he would be fully recovered. But she was too busy fretting to enjoy the meal. Like so many agents, she didn’t like being near the Mane Archon. He was feared for what he was, and nopony liked working with him directly.

When he finally spoke there was a simmering anger in his tone. “How long before the project is completed?”

“Two days, maybe three.”

“It will take me at least two to get to Foal Mountains.”

“Then I will await your final inspection,” she declared with a touch of regret; the sooner she was back in Canterlot doing her usual work, the better.

“Inspection.” He practically spat the word. “How am I supposed to inspect the work of a master illusionist? Besides, I’ve been watching, and I trust from what I’ve seen that you did a proper, intensive job. Better you went home once the job was done.”

She nodded acceptingly, not offended by his manner.

“I’m going to bed,” he grumbled.

“Without eating?”

“Too much on my mind,” he answered as he walked away. “I’ll be leaving before sunup, so I guess we won’t be seeing one another for awhile. Thanks for the hard work.”

“Mane Archon?” He paused. “Good luck.”

He didn’t answer. She didn’t mind. It was just his way.

The Mane Archon rarely got along with anypony else.

Lightning Crashes Part I

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The familiar cold air of the highlands felt good on her wings. Lightning hadn’t felt it in some time. The moisture of the clouds, pressed thickly against the mighty wall of mountains, made droplets of water form and drip off her feathers to the thick pine forests below. There was a time, when she was little, that she would dance among the rains and create spectacular watery ripples in the sky for her fans. She missed those days.

She couldn’t believe she was back among these tall, forested hills. She’d not thought she would ever return, not after her disgraceful failure. She still didn’t want to. But the words in Fine’s letter kept coming back to her, over and over again. She didn’t like him, or trust him in the slightest. Yet she couldn’t ignore his warning; if the orphanage was in trouble, she had to answer. There was no other option.

It had been nearly a full week since she’d received that letter. She’d flown clear across Equestria to answer it. It wasn’t a record, but she knew it was close. She could only hope that things hadn’t become any worse.

The clouds cleared, just a little, and there it was: Foal Mountains. A small town, perhaps a little larger than Ponyville, nestled high on the side of one of the largest hills in the region. It wasn’t like other places; its buildings were made of hard grey stone and dark-stained pine logs. Everything there looked sturdy, heavy and rigid.

Staring at her hometown from above, Lightning felt as if her heart might shatter into pieces. It was so pristine, so beautiful. She’d missed it so much… and she wasn’t even sure if she could land there.

She needed a moment to recover. Her eyes scoured the familiar scenery and spotted the graveyard, nestled a ways downhill from the town. There… she dove through the moist air out of the clouds, into the woods, and landed as gently and respectfully as she could in the straw-covered grass.

She was entirely surrounded by graves… but she’d landed before the ones that really mattered. She knelt before her parents’ shared tombstone and let her mind calm.

This was her special place, where she could calm down and relieve the stress. She didn’t say anything – she never did. There was no need. Being in their presence always soothed her, in ways she could never quite grasp. When she was with them everything felt okay; the cords that held her mind tight with anger came loose. She was like an entirely different mare.

She reassured herself with a mind calmer than it had been in months. She considered her situation with clarity, and affirmed once more that her return was unavoidable. She should have come back months ago. But she was back now, and there was no more time to mope: her friends needed her.

If only she knew what she could possibly do to help.

She hovered just outside the second story window, tapping on its glass lightly with her hoof. Somepony within stirred, approached. It was a colt, red-coated and maned. When he stared at her through the window he didn’t seem to know what he was looking at; Lightning grinned and waved a hoof.

“Lightning!” he cried as the window came open. The little pegasus colt leapt through the window and into her hooves with glee. “You’re back!”

She snuggled him before knuckling his mane playfully. “Hey, Gulfie! How’s my favorite cousin?”

“I’m great now,” he exclaimed. He opened his small wings and pushed off of her. “Look, I can finally fly!” He demonstrated by doing a few rapid circles around her, laughing happily.

“Alright!” She pumped her front legs with genuine pride. “Look at you! Keep that up and you might fly as fast as me someday.”

“And that’s not all!” he declared, landing on the roof just above his window. He turned proudly to display his flank. On it was a small tornado. “Isn’t it awesome? I got it just last month!”

“Cool! My little colt’s finally growing up. Took you long enough, slow poke.”

He bounced excitedly, wings fluttering. “So what was training like? Did you meet Spitfire? Oh oh, what about Misty Fly? Did you get me any autographs? What’s it like being a Wonderbolt!?”

Lightning was able to hold her smile. Barely. “Calm down, Gulfstream; if your wings beat any faster you’ll end up in the stratosphere.”

“I can’t help it!” he cried, jumping up and flying more circles. “I’m soooooo excited! You have to tell me everything! Come on cuz, don’t leave me hangin’!”

She cringed, tried to think of something to stall with. She just couldn’t tell him the truth…

She flew up so that she was inside his blurry circle. “Yeah yeah, I get it. But first: let’s see what those little wings of yours can really do! Race ya to Bluegrass Falls!”

The ploy worked; they were moving across the sky in a blur. Gulfstream was so thrilled by his first race with his hero he completely forgot about the Wonderbolts.

Now if only she could think up more distractions.

“That was so awesome!” Gulfstream was hopping circles around Lightning, grinning from ear to ear as they made their way through town. “Did you see how I changed the waterfall for a whole minute? It was spectacular! I was like vroooooom!” He emphasized by flying a blurry circle around her.

She smiled, tried to be encouraging. It really had been impressive; he was definitely going to be Wonderbolt material when he grew up, and she couldn’t have been more proud. But right now she was more than just a little nervous. Going through the town of Foal Mountains, seeing all these familiar faces, knowing she was recognized and respected here… it was all she could do to keep her chin up and maintain the illusion. Nothing was wrong. Absolutely nothing.

“Mom and Dad are so happy, you should see it Lightning. They’re trying to get me enrolled in the advanced flight academy in Cloudsdale, just like you. I can’t wait!”

“That’s great, kid,” she answered honestly, casting a weak smile at a couple of mares who were waving to them.

“Oh oh, we’re almost there! I’m gonna fly ahead and tell everypony who’s coming!” And he was gone, a red blur through the streets.

She let out a relieved sigh; that foal’s energy seemed to have almost doubled since she’d left town! Probably just his excitement, of course. Lightning could remember back when she was his age, how excited she’d been at the thought of being a Wonderbolt. It made her feel so… happy. And now Gulfstream was going through all the same motions. She wanted to watch after him, to ensure he didn’t make her mistakes. He deserved a little help.

But first she had to tell him the truth, and that was proving difficult.

It came into view: home. The Foal Mountains Orphanage. It was a squat two-story nestled against the side of the hill, all hard wood. She paused, stared at it for some time. There were a lot of foals in there, all of them friends. Could she really face them?

She took a deep breath and kept going; this was inevitable, wasn’t it? She might as well get it over with. Head hung low, mind running over all the potential ways she might explain her failure, she opened the front door.

“Lightning Dust!!!”

In an instant she was on her back, tackled by a small army of laughing foals.

“You’re back, you’re back!”

“What took you so long?”

“You aced the academy, right?”

“What’s it like being a Wonderbolt?”

“I missed you so much!”

“Welcome home!”

“Lightning’s back, she’s back!”

The mare laughed at their excitement and managed to sit up despite their weight. “Hey, guys! The Queen of Awesome has returned.”

“See guys, told you!” Gulfstream declared, fluttering up from the crowd to sit on her shoulders with a proud expression.

The foals were all bouncing and cheering and laughing, and Lightning could only beam. “Come here you little rascals,” she ordered, snatching up the closest of them in a tight hug. “Man I missed you ponies!”

“So you’re a Wonderbolt now, right?”

“I bet you flew the tails offa the others!”

“Yeah, she probably impressed even Spitfire!”

She gazed at their excited, eager faces. She could just imagine how those faces would look when she told them the truth. She wanted to, she really did. She knew she shouldn’t lie about it. She opened her mouth to speak, saw how they all leaned forward in wide-eyed expectation…

“A…are you kidding?” She leapt into the air and did a few flips for emphasis. “I aced the academy! You’re looking at the second best flyer to graduate!”

There were cheers all around, but Gulfstream, still on her shoulders, tapped her on the head and asked, “Second best?”

“Yeah,” she waved a dismissive hoof, “some showoff blue pegasus from Ponyville got the better of me – but just barely!” This way she was telling at least a little bit of truth… right? “But you should have seen us; we tore the competition to pieces!”

“You’re still our hero, no matter what,” cried an older blue colt.

“Yeah,” a pink unicorn filly chimed in with an excited bounce, “nopony can replace our Lightning Dust!”

“That’s right!” Gulfstream zipped through the air to hover above the small crowd. “Who’s the best flyer in all of Foal Mountains?”

They all cheered at once. “Lightning Dust!!!”

She flew down to land hard on the grass behind them. “You bet I am! And boy, do I have some stories for you!” She looked at the two dozen or so ponies and what hit was a sobering realization. “Hey… we’re missing some ponies. Where’s Plum Drop and Hiccup? I want every pony here to know just how awesome I am!”

At her words the foals all went quiet. Some shared sad expressions. Lightning had been afraid of that. “Guys? What’s wrong?”

“Nopony knows where they are,” one filly noted, scuffing the ground with her hoof. “They just… weren’t here one morning.”

“We all searched,” another added unhappily, “but they're nowhere in town.”

“Some of the younger foals are getting scared,” Gulfstream noted, hovering by her side. “A colt on the west side of town disappeared just last week.”

So Fine’s letter had been telling the truth. Suddenly she was glad her instincts had kicked in as they always did. “Don’t you worry, guys. I was sent here to deal with it.”

Heads perked up. “Really?”

“Really.” She struck a gallant pose and grinned. “Lightning Dust, hero of Foal Mountains, is on the case!” While they cheered she quietly wondered: exactly what did Fine expect her to do?

The orphanage had two headmasters, and she found one precisely where she’d expected: sitting on the floor in his office, meditating.

“I thought I heard the children making a ruckus,” the big brown stallion announced with eyes still closed. He had no mane, but his unusually long tail was a dark red. “I imagined it was a sign you’d come home at last.”

“Hello to you too, Mountain Mantra,” she muttered grumpily. “It wasn’t a ruckus: it’s called ‘laughter.’ You should look into it.”

“You should recall, Dust: I do not blame youth for excessive emotion.” Still he remained sitting, eyes closed. She eyed him with annoyance; she’d never liked him, not since day one. “You, on the other hoof, are no longer so young.”

“I didn’t come here for a lecture on inner peace, old fart.”

His eyes opened at last, bright orange eyes that shined with intelligence. His face betrayed no emotion. “Yet you did come. You are very late, child.”

“They needed me for things,” she answered, trying to keep her voice steady.

Mountain studied her quietly. His gaze always made her nervous, like it was looking into her very soul. “When you asked me permission to leave this place and join that academy, I knew you would go whether I agreed or not. So I agreed: it was my hope that the Wonderbolts might instill in you a sense of self control. It seems I was mistaken.”

She stomped her hoof angrily. “I have plenty of self control!”

His bushy eyebrows lowered sharply. “Then why are you not a Wonderbolt?”

That stung. She should have known better than to try to lie to him. She lowered her head in defeat and didn’t bother with an answer.

The muscular stallion stood slowly and walked up to her, his massive size intimidating as always. “Do not worry, Dust. I will not open the curtains of your dishonesty to the children. A little hope can go a long way in trying times, and your deception offers them that. But remember: the truth will come out on its own eventually. You know this. Ensuring they learn it from the proper source is your responsibility.”

“I know,” she muttered, not bothering to look up.

Another one of those long, uncomfortable pauses he was so fond of. She trembled under his gaze. “You fear for the children.”

She stood up to glare at him. “Of course I do!”

Mountain nodded, solemn as always. “I do not know how you came to learn of our problems. But I can see that you wish to help. Do you have any idea how you can?”

She sighed and shook her head. “No sir. I was told by… by an acquaintance that I might be able to do something, but I don’t know where to start.”

“So you did the only thing you know how to do,” he concluded, “you came rushing in without a thought or a plan.”

“What else am I supposed to do!? Stand aside and let my friends disappear? I have to help somehow!”

“But will you help?” he asked critically, “or will you only make the situation worse?”

She wanted to lash out, to do something about his ever harsh words. But she couldn’t. Of all the ponies she’d known in her life, he was one she didn’t dare raise a hoof to. She was too scared. And somehow whenever he said something it always struck home. So many ponies had made such a statement of her in the past few months, but to hear it from him made it feel… real.

“I know what you’re saying,” she muttered, lowering her head miserably. “I’ve heard it so many times lately. I never mean to cause more trouble. I just… I just want to help.”

He nodded, patted her shoulder in his ineffectual way that never made things feel better. “Then help, Lightning Dust. It’s what we need. You run along; I’m sure you’ll find Peace Spring around here somewhere.”

That hadn’t gone at all like she’d planned in her head. Nothing ever did with Mountain; his directness and calm manner combined with his size always seemed to send her carefully prepared words into a death spiral. Someday she might tell him exactly what she thought of his damn ways… but apparently today wasn’t the day.

So even though she hated to think she was following orders she did as he suggested and went in search of the orphanage’s second headmaster.

Lightning found Peace Spring in the back yard, trying to play referee over a group of some of the rowdier colts. She was a unicorn with a light blue mane and a coat of such a faint pink color it bordered on white. The pegasus barely had time to say hello before being tackled by the colts. One brief but happily energetic reunion later and the two mares were finally able to talk properly.

“So you heard about the disappearances,” Peace noted sadly as they sat under a pair of pine trees.

“Yeah… I flew clear across Equestria as soon as I heard.”

The motherly pony tilted her head in mild surprise. “I didn’t think events in Foal Mountains would reach so far.”

“I was informed by a pony who… tends to know about these kinds of things,” Lightning replied uncertainly. “Don’t ask. I don’t really understand it myself.”

“Well I’m glad you came,” the unicorn insisted kindly. “It means so much to the foals.”

Lightning felt it was her turn to ask a question. “Didn’t they see anything? I mean, a foal goes to bed one night and just disappears? On two separate occasions? Surely one of them saw or heard something.”

But Peace shrugged apologetically. “I don’t know what to tell you, Lightning. The sheriff himself came and questioned all the foals – with me watching, of course – but there was nothing.”

The pegasus sighed dejectedly. “I don’t know if I’ll even be able to do anything…”

A moment’s silence followed, and then Peace turned to her with a serious expression. “Lightning, we all appreciate your concern… but maybe you shouldn’t get involved. Let Sheriff McGruff handle it.”

Lightning gaped. “How could you tell me that? This is my home! These are my friends!”

“Who you may not be able to help,” Peace countered in a soothing tone. “Lightning, we all care about you – even old Mountain, though I know you have doubts. What if there’s nothing you can do? Can you live with that kind of result?”

“I don’t know,” she replied honestly, “but I have to try. I couldn’t live with myself otherwise.”

“I know,” the unicorn whispered, concern etched on her face. “But… can you live with yourself if you can’t do anything?”

“Damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” Lightning said with a weak smile. “Don’t worry about me, Matron.”

Peace returned the smile. “You’re like a daughter to me. How can I not?”

The two shared a brief hug, but then Lightning was on her hooves. “All this emotional gunk isn’t getting me anywhere,” she noted with an embarrassed blush. “I’m gonna take a look around.”

Peace sighed in exasperation and waved a friendly hoof. “Good luck, Lightning Dust! Really…”

Lightning entered the orphanage, her first destination being Plum Drop’s room. It was surprisingly neat; Plum Drop had always been a pack rat. Where was everything? She scoured the room carefully, not knowing what she was looking for. After nearly an hour she’d turned up nothing of interest, so instead she went to Hiccup’s room and repeated the process. Another hour went by and in the end she was left with nothing but frustration.

She sat on the bunk bed and glowered out the window, cheeks in her hooves. What was she doing? She didn’t have a clue how to go about all of this. She wasn’t a detective. But Fine Crime… he’d said she might be able to solve the problem. How? Why her? What did he expect her to do?

She turned away from the window and just barely caught a glimpse of something white slipping past the door. She watched for several seconds, curious, and was rewarded: a tiny filly peeking around the doorframe. She was a soft blue color and looked tall and slender for her age, with a very long, pearly white mane that was covering half her tiny face.

Lightning didn’t recognize her. She’d probably arrived at the orphanage after the pegasus had left to attend the academy.

“Hey,” she gestured to the filly, but the foal disappeared behind the doorframe once more. “What’s wrong?” She hopped from the bed and approached, but could hear the filly’s tiny hooves clattering frantically away. “Hey, hold on a sec!”

She flew out the room and followed, easily catching up to the filly, who she could now see was a unicorn. The foal looked up to see Lightning flying above her; Lightning grinned. “What’s up?” The filly’s eyes went wide with alarm and she forgot her feet, falling face-first to the hard wood floor.

“Whoa,” Lightning landed and knelt before her, “are you okay?” The filly didn’t answer, only cowered in a trembling ball and cried silently. “Not very sturdy, are ya?”

“Keen!” A purple-coated colt appeared from one of the rooms and came to the filly’s rescue, nudging her comfortingly. “Sorry Lightning, she’s really shy. It’s okay, Keen, this is Lightning Dust. Remember, the hero of Foal Mountains we told you about?”

“You tell her, Roar!” Lightning declared proudly, standing to strike a heroic pose. “Ain’t nopony like me!”

She blinked in surprise when Roar gestured to her to keep quiet, his face alarmed. He turned his attention back to Keen, who was still whimpering on the floor, and petted her mane helpfully.

“Oh… uh… sorry,” Lightning said, realizing her boisterous manner might be what was frightening the poor filly. She knelt down again and smiled apologetically. “I didn’t mean to scare you. So you’re Keen, huh?”

The foal nodded, eyes lowered and face still hidden behind her mane.

“Keen Arrow,” Roar added helpfully. “She joined us a month ago. She’s been having trouble… adjusting.”

Lightning could understand that. She’d never met a pony so… timid. It had been hard for her to adjust to the death of her parents, and she was a real go-getter! She couldn’t imagine how somepony like Keen would respond. “Hey,” she whispered, nudging the filly’s chin with her hoof so she would look up, “don’t you worry. I know things seem bad right now, but you’re in good hooves. Trust me: I was your age when I came here.”

“Really?” she had the tiniest, most demure voice! Lightning was tempted to tell the little filly to get a backbone. She managed to hold it in… but only by a thread.

“Really,” she answered with a confident nod. “And look, now I’m a Wonderbolt. Things will improve, Keen. You just gotta hang in there.”

Keen didn’t seem convinced, but she nodded all the same. Seeing the little filly look so miserable was breaking Lightning’s heart all over again. How must it feel, to come to this strange place with all these other parentless foals just to find that it wasn’t even safe to go to bed anymore?

She had to resolve this. She just had to.

“Well well, if it isn’t the hero of Foal Mountains herself,” Sheriff Blue McGruff noted with a wry smile as he found her in his office. True to his name, he had a blue coat with a mane just slightly lighter in color. “Feels like ages since the last time I locked you up. What was the last one for, vandalism?”

She laughed at him good-naturedly. “Actually I think it was trespassing on Big Reach’s property. How ya doin’, ya old fart?”

“A little older,” he admitted, patting her on the shoulder, “but still sharp as a tack. So don’t go trying anything: I’ve still got your old room ready and waiting.” Of course it had been many years since her wilder days, but it was still fun to tease about it. “So, you a Wonderbolt now I take it?”

“Yeah.” She didn’t like how easily the lie was coming out of her mouth now. “But I came down as quick as I could when I heard the news.”

He eyed her thoughtfully as he went to his chair behind the desk. “Lightning, I hope you’re not planning on taking the law into your own hooves.”

“I just want to know where the investigation is at,” she replied hopefully. “I want to help in whatever way I can.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Lightning, you’ve been in here enough times to know how it works. I can’t just give out information on an ongoing investigation.”

“Come on, Blue,” she begged, “you know I won’t share! These are my friends in trouble here. I’ve got to know what’s been done to help them! Consider it a favor for an old friend.”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “I already did you lots of favors when you were a foal, LD. If I hadn’t you’d have been in my jail for a lot longer and you know it.”

“Then as a favor to my father,” she threw in.

That made him grow stern. “I owe your father my life, Lightning, and I’ll always remember it. But don’t you dare try to abuse his name.”

She jumped up to hover in the air, a sign of her frustration. “I’ll admit, that was crude. But come on, there has to be something you can give me. I’ll take anything! Please, just let me know you’re on to something.”

He sighed and rubbed his face with his hooves. “Alright, alright, I get it. But you won’t like it.”

“I can take it,” she claimed seriously.

“Then sit down.” She did, fidgeting impatiently as he watched. After what seemed like an eternity he nodded, as if finally confirming something to himself. “We don’t have anything, Lightning.”

She was in the air again. “What do you mean you don’t have anything!? I heard the first disappearance was three weeks ago!”

“And we don’t have anything,” he repeated solemnly. “All we know is one night the foals go to bed and are gone the next morning. No witnesses, no evidence, just gone.”

She growled furiously and started flying small, slow circles. “That makes no sense! You’re the sheriff, aren’t you? How could you find nothing? Come on, Blue, there has to be something. You can’t tell me you don’t at least have a suspicion!”

“I’m sorry, LD,” Blue responded patiently. “I know it’s frustrating. Believe me. But right now I can’t even find a motive for anypony to kidnap the foals! The entire town’s on alert, and I sent a letter to Cincipony for more hooves to patrol, but other than that I know and can do nothing.”

“What about Big Reach?” she demanded. “He owns the orphanage, maybe he knows something.”

Blue shook his head. “That’s really stretching it, Lightning. He’s the town’s most preeminent citizen, you know that. Heck, the stallion probably just built the place to shore up his image.”

“Have you spoken to him?”

“Of course!” Sheriff McGruff rolled his eyes. “He owns the place, how could we not talk to him? But I’m telling you, LD, he’s the last pony who’d know anything.”

“I wanna talk to him.”

The sheriff facehoofed. “Same old Lightning, gonna go charging in. He can’t tell you anything, LD, I guarantee it!” He gave her an exhausted look. “Fine. If you wanna go confront the big guy, be my guest. But be careful, LD! You’re not a foal anymore, and I can’t stretch the law for you like back then.”

“What do you think I’m gonna do, bash down his front door?”

“With you, Lightning, I can never be sure.”

Everypony in town knew the story of Big Reach. He’d been born in Foal Mountains and grew up there. Ever ambitious, the stallion had moved to Coltcago and become a businessman. Over the years his wealth and power grew, but he never forgot his origins. Over time he became a philanthropist, and after retiring early he came home to be the town’s star citizen.

At least that was the story. Lightning had only met the pony on three occasions, twice when he’d ventured out of his mansion to visit the orphanage and once when she'd got caught trespassing. He’d done a lot of good things for the town, and everypony loved him. She knew Blue was right; there was little to no chance that a pony like Big Reach would be involved. But she had no leads, and at least this would make her feel like she was doing something.

Big Reach’s mansion was on an entirely different hill from Foal Mountains, overlooking the nearby Curvintort River. It was imposing, to say the least. She stared up at its tall windows and great wooden pillars and felt a lot smaller. She never cared for wealthy ponies – too ignorant – but as far as everypony knew Big Reach was alright. With that in mind she approached and knocked on the massive (and prohibitively expensive, she suspected) stone door.

A mare answered the door, tall and slender and yellow, with a brown mane. The kind of mare that made young stallions drool. “Who might I ask is calling?”

“Lightning Dust,” she answered, feeling a little foolish compared to the taller mare’s formal manner. “I’m from the orphanage.”

“A moment, please.” The door closed with a bang.

Lightning ground her teeth in frustration; it took all her willpower not to pound on the door again. This was another reason she hated rich ponies. She paced unhappily, wondering what was taking the mare so long. All she wanted to do was talk to the guy!

At last the door opened again. “Big Reach will see you,” the mare announced properly.

Lightning was guided through the massive building, amazed at its size. What did a single pony need all this room for? It boggled the mind. Every now and again she noticed a servant going about the place. She noted with curiosity that they were all tall, slender mares. It seemed Big Reach preferred to surround himself with beauties.

Big Reach was in a great hall playing pool. True to his name he was big, a unicorn with a green coat and black mane, both going grey with age. With him were two more mares, a unicorn and a pegasus, both beauties. But they weren’t like the others; they had a threatening look to them, and Lightning had the distinct impression that they were more than just decorations. And they were playing pool with him. No, these definitely weren’t servants.

“Lightning Dust of Foal Mountains,” her guide announced.

“Aaah, the hero of the town,” Big Reach declared pleasantly. He waved a dismissing hoof at her guide. “You can go, Azalea.” She did without complaint. He tossed his pool stick aside – the unicorn mare caught it with her magic easily – and approached Lightning. “It’s a pleasure to meet you! Last time I saw you you’d only just started flying and had crashed through the South Tower.”

She took a step back, surprised. “You mean you actually remember me?”

“Of course I do!” He grinned. “I know the common perception, but I actually keep very close track of the foals at my orphanage. And look at you: Foal Mountains’ very own Wonderbolt! You’ve made this town proud, Lightning, very proud indeed!”

“Umm… thanks…” She was a little too surprised by his praise to say much else.

“So,” he continued, walking back to his pool table and gesturing for her to follow, “what brings you to my humble estate?”

Humble? “I was called home by… recent events.”

“Hmm, yes,” he said, shaking his head, “the recent kidnappings, you mean. Such a terrible thing. I understand the authorities are clueless.”

“I just wanted to ask you what you knew,” she pressed eagerly.

He paused, gave her a curious look. “Me, Lightning? Really? Why would I know anything?”

She struggled for a proper answer. “I dunno… you’re the owner of the orphanage, aren’t you? Maybe some old enemy’s out there trying to give you a bad name or something.”

He took his pool stick back, took a shot. “That’s an interesting theory,” he admitted over the cracking of the cue ball. “Rather original, compared to what the police have come up with, which is nothing. But you’re forgetting, Lightning: not all the foals who disappeared lived in my orphanage.”

Oh yeah, she’d forgotten about that. “But this is still your town, right?” she asked desperately.

“My town?” He laughed. “You make me sound like the mayor. I’m just another citizen.”

“But it’s your hometown,” she pressed. “That surely means something to somepony out there.”

He gave her a solemn, considerate look. “Lightning… you’re eager to help. I understand that. And I know you’re thinking that a pony as rich as I didn’t become so without making enemies. You’d be right. But the ponies who would like to come after me are more interested in bank accounts than foals.”

She sighed miserably. “Is there nothing you can offer me?”

He stepped forward slowly, his face distraught. “I am sorry, Lightning. Really, I am. I wish I could help you. But I don’t know anything. Being rich doesn’t give you the power to know everything that’s going on. It’d be nice, but that’s life. In the end it might be best if you just let the cops handle this.” She snarled and turned away, to which he added, “I take it I’m not the first to offer such advice.”

“I’m sorry,” she grumbled angrily. “I’m just so… so frustrated. My friends are disappearing, who knows what’s really going on. They’re all getting scared. I’m supposed to be the town hero and they’re all looking to me for help but I don’t know what to do!”

She heard him sigh. “You’re trying, Lightning. It’s all you can do.”

“That’s not good enough!” She turned to him, eyes flashing. “There has to be something everypony is missing, something small. It’s probably staring me right in the face. All my life I’ve worked to be the best, but this is far more important to me than that. It’s that important and I’m not even doing anything about it!”

He studied her quietly as she stood before him. Her breath came in long gasps, her anger simmering. At last he stepped forward and set booth hooves on her shoulders, his face apologetic. “Sometimes, Lightning, there’s nothing you can do. The hardest part is accepting that.”

She slapped his hooves away, leapt into the air. “I refuse!”

And she left, furious and hating herself as she streaked through the massive halls.

She landed among the trees of a nearby hill to simmer down. She was furious with herself, and wasn’t even sure why. Because she was proving so useless? Because even Big Reach knew nothing? Because everything she was doing to help wasn’t helping at all? She didn’t know, she just knew that she wanted to scream in frustration! She paced the hill, cursing to herself and wondering what to do from here.

She didn’t notice the stallion when he arrived.

“It’s difficult, isn’t it?”

She jerked around with a snarl, knowing who it was before she even laid eyes on him. “Leave me alone, Fine Crime.”

He stood a few feet away, face solemn. “I can’t, Lightning. I’m sorry.”

“Sure you can,” she snarled, waving a hoof at him. “All you gotta do is call up those stupid black clouds of yours and poof out of my life!”

“It’s not that simple,” he countered quietly. “We are very concerned about what’s going on here in Foal Mountains.”

“We? Like who, Princess Luna? Why should she care what happens in a tiny place like this? Why should she give a damn about any of us!?”

His expression grew hard. “I won’t bother to defend her, Lightning. There is no need, and you know better.”

But Lightning turned her head away with a jerk. “I’m not even sure you really work for her. For all I know it’s a ruse to keep me playing along, one more part in your damn scheme. I don’t want to play your little games!”

“If not for me you wouldn’t even know what was happening out here,” he declared angrily. “You think foals disappearing without a trace is a game to us? We’re trying to solve a potentially serious problem. I told you about it because I knew how important these ponies are to you. If I was wrong about that feel free to fly off into the sunset and stay miserable and alone forever.”

She snarled, but didn’t argue back. He was right, damn him; the foals were more important than her distrust. If he could help resolve the situation… then she would have to let him try. “Fine,” she grumbled, turning to him with a glare. “I’ll play along. But you promise me we can do something about this!”

He considered her statement for a few seconds darkly. “I can’t make any guarantees, Lightning. The truth is we don’t have any answers, either. But…” he interrupted just as she was about to snap at him, “…we do have leads.”

Leads. Oh thank Celestia, leads! “That’s better than anything I’ve got,” she admitted glumly. “Better than what anypony’s got, apparently. What do you know?”

He nodded towards the mansion still visible through the trees. “We need to investigate Big Reach.”

She sighed miserably. “Forget him, I already talked to him. He knows nothing.”

But Fine’s expression was dark. “Oh he knows something. Maybe not about the foals, but he knows something.”

“What do you mean?”

He stepped past her to cast his dark expression upon the mansion. “Big Reach is what those in my organization like to call a ‘Dark Element.’ He’s the kind of pony so terrible that he warrants constant scrutiny and caution.”

She stepped up beside him so he could see the disbelief plastered on her face. “Big Reach? The Saint of Foal Mountains?”

Fine grimaced. “Yes… he’s nestled himself nice and snug in the public view. But we know, Lightning. He’s got his hooves into everything from racketeering to pony trafficking.”

“You’re kidding. Pony trafficking?”

But the expression on his face when he turned to her was enough to make it clear: this was no joke. “There’s no way to bring in the evidence necessary to prove it in a court of law, but it’s true. Big Reach is one of the most prominent names on our hit list. If the powers that be didn’t want him dealt with in the most legal of fashions he’d already be dead, that I promise you.”

She gazed at him in stark amazement. “Fine… who the heck do you work for?”

He turned away to glare at the manor once more, ignoring the question entirely. “We don’t know that he’s involved in the recent disappearances, Lightning. But I promise you that if anypony knows anything, it’s him.”

She studied him for several minutes, trying to piece things together. She didn’t trust him, that went without saying. But she knew from the events in the Crystal Empire that he really did know things other ponies didn’t – or perhaps shouldn’t. He was connected, and he was smart. And his level of seriousness alone was enough to make it clear that he meant every word.

She had no other leads, and had exhausted all her options. That meant that this was the only path left open to her.

“Alright,” she said at last, turning to the mansion, “I’ll bite. I guess this means I’ve got to sneak back in.”

He blinked, turned his head to study her. “What, you are going to sneak into Big Reach’s place? Seriously?”

“You don’t think I can do it?”

“No offense, oh Hero of Foal Mountains, but you don’t exactly have a record for stealth.”

She sneered, but had to admit he was right. “I have to try. The foals are depending on me to do something.”

He studied her for several long seconds, but finally nodded. “I’m going with you.”

“I’d rather do it alone.”

“I don’t care,” he answered calmly. “You need help, Lightning, and I am a master at this kind of thing. Do you want to help this town or not?”

They stared at one another angrily, but Lightning knew he was right. “Fine,” she muttered. “Just don’t get in my way.”

He nodded. “We’ll meet tonight. I’ll stick around, do some scouting.”


“Observation,” he corrected himself. “If we’re going to sneak in, I want to know what we’re up against.”

Well she hadn’t expected to sneak in during the day, anyway. “What should I do in the meantime?”

He thought for a moment. “Go back to town. Visit the orphanage.”

“But I already…”

“Those foals need you, Lightning,” he interrupted gently. “Right now you’re the brightest part of their lives.”

She sighed, understanding what he meant. “Yeah… yeah I guess I can do that.”

When Lightning reached the orphanage she found everypony there searching for something. Or somepony.

“Lightning!” Peace saw her coming and met her as she landed. “Have you seen Gulfstream?”

The quick inquiry caught her entirely off guard. “He was here when I left. Why?”

“His parents came by an hour ago,” she declared, “said he’d disappeared!”

Lightning couldn’t resist a laugh. “Seriously, Matron? He flew out his window to go racing with me when I first got here!”

But the unicorn wasn’t amused. “It’s not funny, Lightning. You should have said something to them. But that’s beside the point: nopony knows where he is!”

Lightning, annoyed by her manner, hovered in the air. “He’s only been gone a few hours. Yeesh, you act as if something gobbled him up! The disappearances only happen at night, and it’s not even close to dark yet. He’s probably somewhere in town.”

“I hope you’re right,” Peace muttered. “Go check, would you? His mother is frantic.”

“Yeah yeah,” the pegasus muttered, “but I’m telling you you’re all over-reacting.”

But in the end she found that it was her who was in the wrong. She scoured the entire town. No Gulfstream. She came back to check if he’d returned home. He hadn’t. Starting to worry, she raced her way to Bluegrass Falls with the setting sun. He was nowhere to be seen.

Night fell, and still she searched, her agreement with Fine Crime all but forgotten in her rising worry. By then there were volunteers from the town scouring the forests.

They never found the colt.

Lightning Crashes Part II

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“Fine Crime!”

Lightning landed on the hill overlooking the mansion, searched frantically. “Fine Crime! Where are you!?”

She ran all over that hilltop in search of the unicorn, tears running down her eyes. She was already exhausted from a night with no sleep; the sun would be coming up within the hour. But she wouldn’t stop, she couldn’t! “Fine, answer me!”

“Would you keep it down?” She jerked about to see him just appearing out of black smoke, face annoyed. “Ponies aren’t supposed to know I’m here.”

She ran to him, shook him by the shoulders violently. “Where is he? Tell me you know where he is!”

He knocked her hooves away roughly. “Calm down! Where who is?”

“Gulfstream!” she shouted furiously. “My cousin! He’s gone, of all the foals in town, Gulfstream’s gone!”

“Your cousin?” he asked thoughtfully, rubbing his chin with his hoof, “now why would they take him?”

She caught his shoulders again. “They? Who’s they!?”

“It was a rhetorical question, Lightning.”

She let out an enraged shouted and hit him so hard he fell on his back. “Damn you, show some emotion! This is my cousin we’re talking about!”

He sat up, rubbing blood from his lips. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I didn’t mean to sound unsympathetic.”

She turned away and fell to her knees, sobbing. “My little colt… they took my little cousin colt… He just got his cutie mark! And he could fly… sweet Celestia that colt could fly… Why did they have to take him!?”

She wept and wept, damning herself for not coming home sooner, for not having figured everything out before now. She wasn’t good for anything, and now her cousin was paying the price for her uselessness. She wanted to die she was so miserable.

“You know,” Fine Crime offered quietly, “maybe he wasn’t taken. Maybe he just got lost, or…”

“Don’t patronize me!”

She felt his hoof brush her mane. It didn’t seem like something he would do, not at all… but it felt good. “…alright… how about this? The foals have disappeared, true. But there haven’t been any bodies. That means there’s a chance they’re still alive somewhere.”

She let that thought seep in for a few minutes. “Do you… do you really think there’s a chance?”

“There’s no evidence to say otherwise.”

She barked a weak laugh over her tears. “You’re really bad at this comforting thing, aren’t you?”

She glanced up and saw him smile sadly. “I’ve not had a lot of comfort in my life.”

Of all the things he might have told her, that she could believe. She finally looked up at him, rubbing tears from her eyes. “You… really don’t know anything?”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Lightning.”

She stood on shaking legs, took a few long breaths. “Sorry… that’s all I’ve been for some time now. I have to save him, Fine. That little colt’s more important to me than life itself.”

Fine Crime nodded firmly. “Then we’ll just have to get started.”


He turned and gestured to the mansion. “Yes, started. We’ve still got some time before dawn, and I know enough about the mansion. We can go right now, if you want.”

“I do,” she agreed, finally recovered from her breakdown. “And if I find out that Big Reach is behind this I swear to Celestia I’ll kill him with my own hooves.”

Lightning Dust hated being a wingpony, which was what she felt like during their search of the mansion. Even so, she had to acknowledge one thing: Fine Crime knew what he was doing. It was almost scary; through his guidance the two of them had scoured the mansion for clues without so much as drawing a second glance from the slowly-waking serving mares. Sometimes it seemed he would forget she was with him, disappearing entirely in a shadow and making her almost frantic with fear that he’d left her behind, only to pop up again from seemingly nowhere to help her along.

But they were coming up with nothing. She was getting frustrated; if Big Reach knew something he was doing an incredible job at hiding it. She was even more annoyed by Fine Crime, who kept pausing to take notes in a notebook. He did it in every room, every hallway, and he expected her to be patient about it. She didn’t understand how he could be so calm! Who knew what was happening to her little Gulfstream while he was wasting their time scribbling in that damn book?

“This is starting to feel like a waste of time,” she grumbled in his ear. “I thought we’d have found something by now.”

“If it were that easy,” Fine replied while putting away his notebook, “my ponies would have taken care of Big Reach ages ago. Come on, there’s still his office.”

She sighed impatiently but followed, knowing they were almost done with this pointless task. The sun had come up, and they had to move a lot more carefully around the servants who, by now, were fully awake and going about their business.

They were going through a hallway when Fine paused abruptly, ears twitching. He grabbed her and gestured for silence before moving into a room and closing the door.

“What’s the matter?” she asked seriously as he walked to a wall, eyeing it scrutinously.

Fine didn’t answer at first, slowly pacing about the wall. He stopped and gestured for her to approach. “Big Reach’s office is here,” he told her, gesturing to the wall. “He’s talking to somepony.”

She blinked, observed the wall dumbly. “How do you know?”

He shushed her, tapped his forehead lightly. “Keep quiet. Clear your head and focus on listening.”

She stared at him for a moment. Was he serious? He was starting to remind her a little of Mountain Mantra. But she kept her mouth closed and tried to do as he suggested.

A few seconds passed before she realized that, indeed, she could just barely hear the sound of voices beyond the wall. She was amazed; how had he noticed it so easily? She turned and saw his horn glowing dimly, his eyes focused on the wall. “What are you doing?”

He glanced at her, closed his eyes…

“…too much, too soon.” Lightning’s eyes went wide as she suddenly began to hear the conversation as if she were standing in the office herself. “Some ponies are starting to ask around.”

“There was no way to avoid it,” a strange voice announced sharply. “You know we have to get rid of witnesses.”

“The entire town was out searching the woods last night.” That was Big Reach, no doubt. “I thought you were supposed to be keeping a low profile.”

“The faster we take care of the orphanage, the more secure our position will be.”

“Taking care of it quickly is what’s raising suspicions! The whole plan won’t even bear fruit for another ten years or so. Your haste is jeopardizing everything.”

“Moving slowly is why the first foal found us out in the first place! The children must be silenced, Reach.”

“Why are you so worried? They’re just a bunch of fillies and colts. Nopony’s going to believe what they say. It’ll all get chalked down to over imagination, a bad bedtime story or something like that.”

“We can’t take that risk. What about that ‘hero,’ Lightning Dust?”

“Hero? She’s nothing. Dumber than a bag of bricks. She’s not a problem.”

“She’d best not be, Reach.”

“I looked into her. Trust me, she’s a nopony.”

“Then she can be dealt with?”

“Not a soul in Equestria would miss her.”

Lightning had heard enough; she reared back and started for the door.

“Where are you going?” Fine hissed, blocking her path. “We need to…”

“No.” She shook her head. “We have the culprits, Fine. Let’s get them!”

“Are you crazy? This isn’t how you solve the problem.”

“It works for me,” she snapped, “now let’s get in there.” She shoved past him.

“I won’t risk getting caught because of you,” he hissed, but she ignored him and flew to the office door.

“Big Reach!” She smashed through the door with little effort and hovered over the stallion’s desk, furious. “I’ve got you, you bastard! Where’s my…”

A sharp pain ran through her. She cried out and fell to the floor, and before she could stand she felt somepony stand on her wings, pinning her down.

“Hey, hey!” Big Reach called, “that’s no way to treat the Hero of Foal Mountains! Mandragora, let the mare up.”

The weight was lifted from her, and Lightning jerked herself up to glare at the stallion venomously. She cast a look around the room, but was amazed to find that, aside from his two guardian mares, he was alone. “Where is she!?”

Big Reach, sitting leisurely in the chair behind his desk, raised a questioning eyebrow. “Where is who?”

“Don’t play dumb with me! You were talking about the orphanage and the kidnappings with somepony, I heard it!”

The graying stallion smiled smartly and ignored the accusation. “Tell me, Lightning, how’s you get all the way to my office without so much as sounding an alarm? I’m impressed… assuming you didn’t have any help?”

She blinked, glanced behind her. Fine Crime was nowhere to be seen. The bastard had abandoned her! “I did it on my own,” she snarled, turning back to the stallion.

“Of course you did,” he countered smugly. “Scarlet, do a sweep of the building please, weed out whoever helped her.” The unicorn mare left without a word.

“Where’s my cousin?” Lightning snarled aggressively.

“How should I know?” he asked as if bored.

“Who were you talking to?” she demanded, slamming both front hooves on his desk. “Tell me everything, or I swear to Celestia…”

“What?” he stood, smirking. “What are you going to do, Wonderbolt? Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot: you got kicked out of the academy.” She shrank back in alarm. “Oh yes, I know lots about you now that I’ve taken an interest, Lightning Dust. You got booted out of the academy ages ago, but you didn’t bother to come home. Why, I wonder? Because you were too afraid to fess up to your failure?”

“W…what does…” Lightning shook her head angrily. “What does that have to do with anything!?”

He leaned forward leeringly. “It tells me that you’re a coward. It tells me that you don’t have what it takes to come after somepony like me. You’re toying with a dark and dangerous world, hero. I live in the filth and muck and shit that gets hidden under the charming paint of a sunny Equestria. And you think just because you flunked out of Wonderbolt Academy you’ve had it rough? Play in my game and I’ll show you just how low a pegasus can really go.”

“I don’t care who you are,” Lightning shouted, jumping into the air, “I want my cousin back! You think I’m scared of you? I might not be a Wonderbolt, but I can still take you on any day of the week! Now tell me what I want to know before I kick your…”

Something cracked hard against her head, and she fell to floor with a thud. Mandragora was on her once more, this time pinning her face down with a powerful hoof. She squirmed and struggled, but couldn’t move. “Damn you, get off!”

A few struggling seconds later and Big Reach was leaning down next to her, his face ominous. “You’re playing with fire, Lightning. Even if you were to take me down, it wouldn’t matter. I’m not kidnapping your foal friends, and I don’t know where they’re being taken. I do know the why… but I won’t be sharing. Killing me wouldn’t solve anything; the foals would still be disappearing. And you? You’d be hunted down for murdering a public servant. Won’t be much of a hero then, will you?”

“I don’t believe you!” She renewed her struggling, but Mandragora held her down easily. “Why should I believe anything that comes out of your filthy mouth?”

He stood and walked back behind his desk. “Because I’m going to let you go.”

“What?” A moment later and Mandragora was off her back, letting her stand. “Why would you do that?”

His horn glowed for a moment, and the tall window behind him opened. “Do you really think anypony would believe you over me?” he asked patiently. “Especially when word gets out about how you lied to everypony about being a Wonderbolt? Even with a lie as innocent as that, your word versus the word of the Saint of Foal Mountains? Good luck.”

She walked around the desk to the window, aware of Mandragora following closely. “Tell me who you were talking to.”


She shook with rage. “Do you know how easily I could kill you right now? Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t.”

He sighed in a bored manner. “Lightning Dust, ponies with far more experience and blood on their hooves than you have been trying to kill me for some thirty years now. What makes you think you would stand a chance?”

She jumped up, raised her hoof to strike…

And an instant later she was hurtling through the skies, sent sprawling out the window by a well-timed kick from Mandragora.

She found her horizon, adjusted her wings, righted herself. She turned back to see Big Reach already sitting at his desk, the window closing. Mandragora was watching her with a solemn, dangerous expression.

She wanted to crash through that window and beat the life out of the stallion. She wanted to teach that that damn long-legged mare a lesson. But for once in her life she held back – she knew deep down that there was really no point in trying. Big Reach was a monster… but somehow she knew he’d been telling the truth. Taking him out wouldn’t stop the disappearances.

And she was no use to anypony if she was on the run from the authorities for killing the Saint of Foal Mountains.

So she did the only thing she could: she let out a furious scream and flew away through the darkening skies.

The cemetery. Her parents graves. Lightning sat still, listening to the sound of distant thunder, trying to calm her mind. Even here, it wasn’t easy. Big Reach’s lecture. Fine Crime abandoning her. The breakdown on the hill. Losing Gulfstream…

She leaned back to stare up at the sky. There was a time when the world showed so much promise. Now she was just a screw up. She couldn’t even protect her cousin. Her darling little colt. She wanted so badly to see him again. She’d have given anything, even her wings, if it would mean watching him fly one more time.

She was exhausted. She’d not slept in well over twenty-four hours, and she’d been very active throughout. She had nothing else to do; all her leads had been used up and she was right back where she’d begun. There was nothing left. So she just fell to her belly, tears falling down her cheeks, and drifted into slumber, dreaming of her precious cousin flying circles around her in a pristine, moist sky…

She was awakened by the crack of thunder nearby. Struggling to her hooves, she glanced around to realize she was still in the cemetery. How long had she been out? She rubbed her eyes to clear them, tried to find the sun. It was impossible; storm clouds covered the entire sky, lightning streaking brightly across her vision. A hard wind made the trees sway wildly and whipped her mane about her face.

Foal Mountains was in wild country. There was no pegasus weather team here, for the weather was its own living entity… or so it seemed at times. Lightning had once dreamed of taming these skies. Now she knew better. Even so, she couldn’t help but bask in the delightful energy of a wild stormy sky.

And then, when the wind lulled and the lightning quieted for a few seconds, she heard it: crying. She was not alone in the cemetery.

Lightning pulled herself out of her reverie and looked around, wondering who else had come down here. She didn’t see anypony, and the sobbing had been lost with the rising wind. Still, she thought she knew where it had come from, so she trotted her way through the graves.

It was Keen Arrow. The little filly was curled into a tight ball atop a dirt grave, head tucked under her mane with only her horn barely poking out. Lightning saw her felt her heart crack a little; the grave was too big for one pony. Her parents, perhaps. Too poor to even afford a tombstone…

Lightning approached slowly, dropped to her stomach in the grass and listened for a few tender seconds. “Hey, kid…” she whispered unhappily.

Keen’s head rose sharply, she took a fearful step back… but then she recognized Lightning. The poor filly’s face and mane were covered in dirt and grass and leaves. For a moment she stared at Lightning, but then she lowered her face and just kept crying.

The pegasus looked up at the roiling sky. “Listen, Keen… I know you miss them. I know it hurts. But you can’t stay out here, it’s about to get dangerous.” She gestured with a hoof. “Come on, I’ll bring you back to the orphanage.”

But the filly’s eyes went wide and she shook her head so hard her mane swung around wildly. “N-n-no! I don’t w-want to g-go b-b-back there…!”

Lightning was taken aback by that reaction. “Why not?” She had a thought and took on a dark expression. “The foals there aren’t picking on you, are they?”

Keen bowed her head miserably, her entire body shaking. “It’s s-s-scary there…”

Scary? “What do you mean?”

The little unicorn looked up at her with terrified eyes, and suddenly ran up and hugged the pegasus tightly around the neck. “D-don’t make me g-g-go back, p-please! There a-are m-m-monsters…”

Lightning would have laughed if she weren’t so surprised at the hug. So instead she held the filly close and spoke with a kind tone. “Keen, there aren’t any monsters at the orphanage. I lived there most of my life, I should know.”

“Y-yes there are!” The tiny pony looked up at her and shook her. Or tried to; she was far too small to move somepony like Lightning Dust. “I s-s-saw them t-t-take M-Mountain away!”

It took Lightning several seconds to process that last sentence. “Mountain Mantra? What do you mean?”

“They h-hurt him…” Keen whispered, burying her head in Lightning’s chest again. “H-he fought b-b-back and t-they hurt him! T-they dragged h-him away and… and…”

Sweet Celestia… had this little filly seen the culprits in action? And who could possibly take down a stallion as powerful as Mountain!? Why would they even want to? Weren’t they just targeting foals? Possibilities were streaming through Lightning’s head almost too fast for her to process. She stared at the white-maned filly for several seconds. The little thing was timid beyond belief… but her fear was very real. Perhaps she’d simply had a nightmare.

But then she remembered what Big Reach had said when she and Fine had been spying: nopony would ever believe a foal.

“Keen,” she whispered, nuzzling the filly’s head gently, “did you see where they took Mountain?”

The filly didn’t look up, but Lightning could feel the nod against her chest.

“Can you take me there?”

The filly shook her head, tightening her grip against Lightning. The pegasus frowned, considered her options. Finally she reached down and pushed the filly away so she could look her in the eyes. “Keen, this is important. Please, if you know where Mountain is, you need to tell me. I might be able to help him.”

The unicorn rubbed her moist eyes and shook her head miserably. “I don’t want to… I’m scared…”

“I know, Keen,” she whispered, patting her gently on the head. “But if you show me where Mountain is, I might be able to help. And then he can help us stop the monsters from taking any more foals like Plum Drop and Hiccup. Please, Keen, you have to try.”

“But… b-but… what if the m-monsters are still there?”

Lightning stood tall in the swaying grass and gave the filly the most confident, comforting expression she could muster. “Then I’ll protect you.”

“…pr… promise…?”

“I promise.”

They flew through the thundering skies, Lightning holding keen protectively in her front hooves. The tiny unicorn was so small she could lay on a single arm. How old was she? She seemed to have the mentality of a eight or nine year old, but her diminutive form suggested she was only four or so. Lightning didn’t bother to ask; she was too busy trying to fly as carefully as possible through the storm clouds. It was one thing to go through them on her own, but another entirely to do it with a foal to watch over.

“…t-t-there…” the filly whispered in her ear, gesturing at the ground below.

Lightning flew low to a valley about a mile away from the town. There was an old, abandoned building crumbling by an overgrown dirt road. “I know this place,” she noted as she set Keen on her back. “It’s the old Stormskater place. They moved out when I was still a foal, though.” She walked up to the building curiously; it looked so ragged it was a wonder the thing was still standing.

“You followed them all the way out here?” Lightning asked, impressed. “You’re braver than you let on.”

Keen ducked self-consciously. “I j-just w-w-wanted to know M-Mountain would be o-okay…”

“So what did they do with him?” the pegasus asked, looking around the grounds inquisitively.

“I-in… in t-there…” The filly pointed to a small, half-fallen shack near the edge of the house. Lightning approached, Keen burying her head in the mares’ mane fearfully.

It was a well house. Lightning stood just inside the dilapidated door and saw the old stone well that had to have belonged to the family long ago. Clearly it hadn’t been used to get water in a long time. There was no sign of Mountain… no sign of anything, really. There wasn’t enough room to stash a body.

Then she realized that the well was unimpeded. None of the debris covered its wide mouth; there was plenty of room to fit a pony in, even one as big as Mountain.

Lightning hesitated. If she went in, what might she find? Mountains’ body? A bunch of bodies? Nothing at all? But she shook herself and ground her teeth; if Keen said there was something here, it need to be checked. She wasn’t going to let her fears get the better of her, not after all this time!

She set the filly on the ground next to the well and patted her gently on the head. “Keen, I want you to wait here for me, okay? I need to go inside.”

The tiny unicorn was afraid, but nodded after a moment’s indecision. “O-okay… be careful… please…”

Lightning smiled, nuzzled the filly’s cheek tenderly. “Don’t worry, I will. Be right back!”

She jumped and dove down into the well, wings stretched to carefully adjust her speed. It only took a few seconds to reach bottom; she landed on four hooves on dry dirt. So the well had run dry…

She was in total darkness. She glanced up to see a small circle of light above. It was a long ways down. She stood still and closed her eyes, giving herself a moment to let her vision adjust.

Breathing. She could hear somepony’s ragged breathing… to her right. She opened her eyes, found that she could see a little better. And what was more… she’d found a tunnel. A long, black cave beneath the well. Where in Equestria did it lead?

She turned to the sound of the breathing and felt her heart jump into her throat: it was Mountain Mantra. He was sitting against the well’s stone wall, head hung low and blood dripping slowly from a number of horrible looking wounds. She hurried to him, raised his head worriedly. “Mountain? Mountain! Talk to me, old fart…”

The stallion coughed, groaned. One eye fluttered open slowly, the other too swollen. “Whu… L… Lightning…? Is that… is that you…?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” she whispered. She never imagined seeing the old bastard like this would hurt her so much, but it did, and she found herself hugging him. “Stick with me, Mountain… I’ll get you out of here…”

“No…” he coughed, and blood dripped from his lips. “…no, Lightning. It’s too late…”

“Don’t say that!” She shook him, jerked away at the agonized sound he made from her touch. “…Mountain… what’s going on? Talk to me, please… Who did this to you…?”

He tried to raise a hoof, cried out and dropped it. “There’s… not much time…” he whispered painfully. “Y-you… you have… to get back… to the or…orphanage…”

"I won't," she whispered, "I can't just leave you here."

He chuckled feebly. “Y-you mean… you mean for once… once I’m telling you… to go… and you’re going… going to hold… back…?”

She barely registered the tears on her cheeks. “I can’t just leave you down here!”

“I’m dead… Lightning. I’m… I’m dead. You have to… to stop… Peace…”

“Peace.” Lightning helped him keep his head up. “Peace is in trouble? Come on Mountain, stay with me.”

The stallion shook his head slowly, looked her in the eyes. “N-no… no Lightning… it was… it was her. It was… Peace… all along… She’s doing it…”

His words were like a kick in the gut. “Mountain… you don’t mean that…”

He sniffed, coughed some more blood, then slowly turned his head and nodded towards the cave. She glanced into the darkness, gave him an inquisitive look. “See what… what she’s done…”

Lightning could sense his seriousness, even when hidden behind all that pain. She stepped back fearfully, not wanting to leave him… but even now she couldn’t ignore doing as he asked. Fearfully, heart hammering, she stepped into the tunnel… and tripped.

She coughed at the dust that covered her face, turned to see what she’d tripped on… and froze.

He was tiny, his purple coat shriveled and worn from having been down there too long. One of his wings was snapped backwards, his head was turned away from her. But she knew without checking: it was Plum Drop.


She turned away and was rewarded with the sight of two more bodies… a little filly unicorn she recognized from town… and Hiccup, the little brown Earth pony who had always been so clumsy.

Sweet Celestia no…

Her mind told her not to, but she did it anyway: she searched the rest of the tunnel.

She found him lying on his back atop some rocks, a horrible gash in his throat. His face was calm… so wonderfully calm.

She let out a scream of agony and fell atop Gulfstream, weeping as she’d never wept before. She held his limp body close, petted his dirty mane. Her colt, her precious little colt!

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He was supposed to have grown up to be an even better flyer than her. He was supposed to have become a Wonderbolt! She clutched him, rocked back and forth and begged to Celestia, to Luna, to anypony that might be listening to make this not be true. Her precious, precious little colt…

She set his body down slowly, folded his hooves and wings. She just kept crying, crying and wishing she could be put out of her misery…

But no… no this wasn’t over.

Tears still streaming down her cheeks she turned and ran back to the well. “Mountain! Mountain, you have to…”

She paused as she entered the well, studied the big stallion. She trembled and wept a little more, realizing that he was already gone.

Her misery began to subside, slowly being replaced by an overwhelming fury. Everything she loved was being destroyed. Her friends, her future, the only father figure she’d ever had… and now her beloved cousin. It was too much: she let out a long screech that released all the pent up rage that had been building in her and zoomed out of the well, smashing right through the roof of the shack. She didn’t even feel it.

She landed hard on the ground, trembling and huffing with fury.


She jerked about to find Keen, who jumped back and cowered in the drizzling rain at her anger. “Come on,” the pegasus snapped, whisking the fearful filly off the ground and blurring her way through the wet sky, “we’ve got a monster to kill!”

“No!” Keen struggled in Lightning’s arms. “I.. I don’t w-want to go t-there!”

“Too bad, we’re going in!”

Lightning didn’t even bother to use the door; she crashed right through the office window.

“What in Equestra!?” Peace Spring sprang back in surprise as the pegasus rolled across the floor and jumped to her hooves, glaring daggers at the headmaster. She set the terrified filly aside roughly before beginning.

“Why are you doing this, Matron!?” she screamed, going into an aggressive stance.

Peace glanced at the window in alarm, then back at Lightning. “What is all this about?”

“Shut up!” Lightning rose into the air. “I found the well! I talked to Mountain!”

The unicorn’s eyes went wide. “You… you did?”

“Yes!” She got in the headmaster’s face. “He told me this was all your fault. His dying words! You better start explaining right now before I rip you to fucking pieces!”

For a moment Peace only stared as if dumbstruck… but then her expression turned dour. A flash of green light and Lightning found herself sprawled on the floor, a small black mark smoking on her chest. Damn, did that hurt!

“Oh Lightning,” the headmaster answered slowly, “I told you not to get involved.”

The pegasus jumped to her hooves. “You mean it’s true!?”

“Oh it’s true,” Peace acknowledged with a sly smile. “Everything was going so perfect, too. Until that little colt Hiccup stumbled in on me.”

She stared, eyes wide in horror. “You… you killed them…”

“Of course I did,” Peace whispered, her voice gaining a strange husky quality. “They saw things they weren’t meant to, and they resisted.”

Lightning took up another aggressive stance. “Resisted what?”

Peace closed her eyes slowly… and when they opened again they were bright green with vertically-slit pupils. Like a cat’s. “Infestation.”

Keen let out a terrified squeak and clutched one of Lightning’s hind legs. “I-it’s the m-m-monster!”

The pegasus could only stare in horror as the headmaster reared back, laughing. Her pale coat began to wither and darken, her horn extended and bent in strange angles.

A changeling.

“I really must thank you,” the thing announced, standing atop the headmaster’s desk with a grin. “Gathering the souls of these foals was slow going until you came along.”

Lightning stood her ground, ready to attack. “What do you mean?”

“You mean you didn’t know? We feed on love, puny pony. And there’s nothing little foals love more than a local hero.”

The foals. Oh Celestia, the foals! Lightning turned to the door, fear gripping her, but before she could take off the door opened and she let out a horrified shout.

Changlings. Tiny, grinning, green-eyed changelings.

Her foals… all her foals…

“You monster!” She leapt at the creature on the desk; it dodged and she smacked right into the wall.

“Stupid Lightning Dust,” the Peace changeling hissed as Lightning landed hard on the floor, “always rushing into things. You never learned.”

“Shut up!” She turned on the creature with fury. “I’m going to kill you for this, Matron!”

A dozen tiny changelings jumped in her way, standing at the ready to stop her attack. The sight of them made her pause in terror. Her foals… all her friends…

“Can you?” Changeling Peace asked smugly. “Can you kill your precious children? That’s what you’ll have to do, Lightning.”

Lightning took a horrified step back as the black creatures approached, their hideous laughter filling her ears. “Why… why here?” she screamed. “Why these foals!?”

Changeling Peace sneered. “It was the perfect plan, endorsed by the Queen herself! Take the children, make them our own, spread them throughout Equestria! No pony would dare suspect the foals, oh no. Imagine the beautiful deception: a childlike changeling in every town and city across Equestria, ready to feed upon and infest the unsuspecting ponies who cared for them. And where better to begin than a sleepy little town like Foal Mountains, where nothing important ever happened?” Another wicked, triumphant laugh. “In a decade’s time we’d have changelings infesting their way into every walk of Equestrian life. The nation would be torn apart from within, and nopony would even know it!”

“No! I won’t let you use these children!”

“Too late for that,” Changeling Peace hissed in amusement. She waved a black hoof at the tiny changelings that had filled the room. “Look at them, Lightning. Every orphan in the place, all your friends, now belong to Queen Chrysalis!”

And she looked and she saw, and her heart broke. She had played a role in this, however unintended. The wicked things leered and laughed and taunted, and she felt her legs wobbling. By all that was holy… what had she done?

“That’s right, Lightning. Let the despair take you. Know that you helped create the first of the new Changling horde with these foals, who loved you so much it killed them!”

No… no no no…


The tiny voice cried out in terror. It caught her attention, snapped her out of her horror even as the changelings pounced.

It was Keen. She could see her amongst all the black grinning monsters, behind all those wicked green eyes, trembling in a corner of the room as more of the tiny things surrounded her.


She had to protect Keen. There was still one foal left untouched.

And Lightning would be damned if they got their dirty hooves on her!

She let out a furious scream and flung open her wings in a wide arch, sending the tiny changelings sprawling. A green beam of energy shot through the air from Changeling Peace’s horn, but Lightning dodged and dove, snatching up a squealing Keen in her arms.

“Don’t let them escape!”

“I’ve got you, Keen,” the pegasus declared, flying up just in time to avoid the lunge of a few changeling foals. She turned and saw Peace rearing back angrily, face filled with hate… and felt a fury like she’d never felt before.

Another green beam, a deft dodge, and Lightning had Keen on her back. A second later she’d spun a swift circle and caught the changeling from behind, lifting her up and flying right out the broken window with her.

Rain stung her face as she zoomed over the town. The changeling screeched and fired a shot straight up, burning Lightning in the chin painfully. The pegasus let out a shout and reeled from the intense pain, lost her balance and toppled. Keen screeched in terror, but Lightning recovered just in time to catch the filly in her hooves and roll, landing hard in the grass on her back.

The changeling hit the ground with a thud, bounced, came to rest on her stomach.

When the three stood up they were in the middle of town, surrounded by staring ponies.

“A changeling!”

“Call the cops!”

“Somepony get McGruff!”

“Grab it, don’t let it get away!”

“Oh shit…” Changeling Peace scrambled in the wet grass, trying to flee even as she worked to regain her disguise. She hardly got four steps before a flung rock cracked her on the head, hard. An instant later the ponies were on her, beating and pounding away. She was screaming, a terrible wailing grind that didn't last very long.

Lightning let out a roar that made many of them turn to her. “The orphanage, get to the orphanage! The orphans, they’re all changelings!”

They didn’t have to be told twice; within minutes a mob was storming the building.

It was a veritable battle. Lightning watched from atop a nearby roof, Keen trembling on her shoulders, as the citizens assaulted the place. The changelings within, some half-returned to their disguise, tried to escape, but were soon surrounded. They struggled, fought ferociously for their size. More than a few of the locals were seriously hurt. In the end the changelings were sealed within, and the building set on fire.

And Lightning just watched. Watched, and wept at the knowledge that all her little friends were dead. Dead because of her.

The cemetery again. Lightning was sitting before her parents’ tombstone for the third time, trying to take everything in. All she could feel was an emptiness within, like her heart had been torn out. All her friends… everything she’d ever cared for… gone. She was done crying… but there was no escaping the sheer misery that was now her life.

But there was one shining light left.

“What are we going to do now?” Keen asked, sitting before her in the gentle rain.

Lightning looked down at the tiny filly. This one was safe. This one, at the very least, she could do right by. “I don’t know yet.”

The filly bowed her head, her eyes disappearing behind her white mane. “I… I was so scared… There were so m-many of them…”

“They’re gone now,” Lightning whispered, a sharp pang in her heart at the true consequences of those words. “The monsters can’t get you anymore, Keen.”

The little unicorn rubbed water from her mane in a futile effort. “Are… are you sure? W-what if… what if there’s more of t-them…?”

The mare dropped to her belly and pulled the filly into a tight hug. “Then I’ll protect you. I promise, Keen, I’ll never let any monsters harm you. Ever.”

For a sweet, tender moment they held one another. This time Lightning was certain she would keep her promise.

“You should stop making promises.”

Lightning let out an agonized scream as something stabbed deep into her side. Before she even knew what was happening she was knocked aside, rolling in the grass in agony. She trembled, fought to stand, fell to the ground once more. Then she looked up… and saw Blue McGruff.

“Wh…what are you doing!?” she cried, seeing the knife in his mouth. And then she saw his eyes. “Oh no… Blue, not you too…”

He spat the weapon to the ground angrily. “I told you to stay out of it, but noooo, you had to go and charge right in! And now because of you everything has fallen apart!” He reared back and let out a furious shout. “Do you know how much work we put into that operation!? Peace wanted to turn you, but not me: I’m going to kill you. Nice and slow.”

She tried to stand, to face her new enemy, but couldn’t work through the pain. She tried to open her wings and nearly blacked out from the agony. “You… you were my father’s friend!” she cried, crawling away from him as he approached. “He died saving your life!”

“No, Lightning,” the changeling sneered, “your father died saving Blue’s life. I killed Blue years ago!”

“Keen,” she screamed at the trembling filly, “Keen run, get help!”

“Oh no,” the changeling whispered, turning to glare at Keen. His harsh look had the proper effect; the tiny unicorn dropped to the ground, head under her hooves, and wept in terror. He turned back to Lightning triumphantly. “This little one is going to be used to start over again. A new foal changeling, a new orphanage. You stopped us here, Lightning, but there are plenty of other places we can go to start up again!”

“No…” the mare struggled desperately to get up, but her muscles wouldn’t work. He’d cut her somewhere important. “…please, leave her alone!”

He leapt, landed on top of her, his blue, green-eyed face sneering down at her. “You saved me one foal. Thank you. You’ve provided the seed for the second chance.”

“Please…. No…”

“Now,” he whispered venomously, “if you can hold your screams long enough, try and say…”

His head snapped back, and something thin and black abruptly jutted out of his neck, dripping green blood. Fine Crime’s face peered from over his shoulder, dark and ominous. “Take it from a master,” the stallion snarled, “next time you want to kill somepony, don’t talk. Just do.”

The blade jerked out sideways, cutting through flesh with green spray flying through the air. The changeling squirmed and choked for a moment, then was sent soaring away to smack hard against a nearby tombstone. It didn’t move again.

Fine stood over her, face serious, and offered her a hoof. She accepted… and jerked him to the ground and rolled on top of him.

“YOU! Why didn’t you stop it!? Why didn’t you do something!? I should kill you!” Her fury subsided into sobs, and she slowly fell against his chest. “Why didn’t you? My colt, my precious little colt…”

He sat up and held her close. “I’m sorry, Lightning. I am so sorry…”

Keen came up to them slowly, nudged Lightning’s hoof tenderly. The mare grabbed her up in a tight hug and just kept crying.

At last she was in control enough to at least whisper. “You… you really didn’t know…?”

Fine sighed. It was a deep, miserable sound. “No pony is infallible, Lightning. No, we had no idea. Changelings… if only we’d known sooner. I am so very, very sorry.”

She sniffed wretchedly. “I’ve lost everything, Fine. My family, my friends, my precious Gulfstream. What am I supposed to do now?”

“Well, perhaps not everything,” he offered, nudging her and gesturing with his head to Keen.

She smiled feebly at the filly, who was still nuzzling into her chest comfortingly. “Yes… maybe I did do at least one thing right.”

Abruptly she shook herself and pulled away from him. She tried to sit up on her own and fell with a pained shout, blushing wildly. “Ahem… er… yes… well… umm…”

Keen, who had been knocked onto her back by the sudden movement, sat up and shook her head. “What’s wrong, Lightning?”

“Nothing,” the pegasus muttered. She rolled to her stomach, face still red. “Umm… thanks, Fine. You know… for saving me.”

“No problem,” he answered, smiling a little as Keen went to the mare and curled up beside her. “So… what’s next for you?”

Lightning considered the question solemnly for a few seconds, glanced at the filly at her side. She smiled. “I… want to be with this little one. I want to make sure this all at least served some purpose.”

He watched them for a moment seriously. “Why not come to Ponyville with me?”

She eyed him in annoyance. “Ponyville? Seriously, Fine, you’re still after that?”

He nodded. “You want to raise this filly, don’t you?”

She blushed. “… I didn’t say… raise…”

“But that’s what you implied,” he noted.

Keen raised her head, looked up at Lightning with big eyes. She saw those eyes and her heart melted. “I guess… I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try,” she admitted with a weak smile. Keen said nothing, only snuggled up closer to her happily.

“Then come to Ponyville,” he offered again. “Can you think of a nicer place to raise a foal? Unless, of course, you intend to do it here…”

“No.” Lightning turned her head away from him sadly, “not Foal Mountains. I never want to see this place again.” She considered what he’d said, thought on it long and hard. “I… guess I can try. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to work with you on… whatever it is your planning.”

He smiled. “Of course not.”

Just at that moment a puff of white smoke appeared next to Fine’s head. It was a small scroll, which his magic caught almost immediately. Lightning, surprised by the interruption, watched as he opened it and read. “What’s that?”

“Nothing,” he muttered solemnly, “just orders regarding our mutual friend, Big Reach.”

“Orders?” she asked as he smiled wickedly, “What kind of orders?”

He rolled up the scroll and let it drop to the grass. “Now that we know he’s in league with the changelings, we’ll be going in hard on every little activity he’s been involved in. This is a threat that my superiors consider far too big for legal concerns. It’s about damn time.”

She tilted her head curiously and grabbed the scroll from the grass. She unrolled it carefully, but was disappointed: it only had two words on it.

Operation: Approved.

Mini-Episode: Chalk

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Big Reach stomped his way up the hill to his mansion, glad the rain had finally ceased. Sometimes he hated the image he had to put on for all the ignorant ponies out there, even if it had kept him safe from the authorities all his life. Having to go out and make a public statement regarding the changeling infestation. Like he cared what happened to a bunch of foals. If the Matron had listened to him in the first place this entire disaster never would have happened! Curse that Lightning Dust…

He paused, realizing a stallion was in his way, and glared at him venomously.

“Oop, sorry,” the mottled brown unicorn announced with a grin. “Didn’t mean to get in your way there.”

“What are you doing here?” Big Reach demanded sharply. “There’s nothing up this road but the mansion.”

“Just making a delivery,” the unicorn declared, not bothered by Big’s demeanor.

Big glanced at Mandragora and Scarlet darkly. “What kind of delivery? I wasn’t expecting anything.”

“Oh, just a message,” the unicorn claimed with a shrug. “You’ll find it on your door.”

The stallion started to walk around, but Big stood in his way. “You know who I am?”

The unicorn stepped back, as if to give the big stallion room. “Of course, you’re Big Reach. Who doesn’t know who you are?”

Big studied him sinisterly for several seconds, judging. The unicorn just smiled. Big didn’t like it; anypony who could remain calm and comfortable under this kind of scrutiny was hiding something. But he wasn’t in any mood for dealing with nuisances like him right now; he walked past, his guards following.

“Have a nice night,” the unicorn called pleasantly.

“Do you want us to follow him?” Scarlet asked, having guessed his thoughts.

“No,” he muttered, “not yet. Let’s see what his message was first.”

It was impossible to miss. The stallion let out a furious curse when he got to his front door: it had been scrawled on with what looked like white chalk! Did that bastard have any idea how much that door cost?

Scarlet approached the door, studying it scrutinously. Her horn glowed, she focused for several seconds, but finally let her magic drop. “It’s chalk,” she acknowledged quietly, “but he’s protected it with some sort of magic I’ve never seen before.”

“Are you sure you don’t want us to get rid of him?” Mandragora asked, her big wings flapping eagerly.

Big rubbed his forehead to help with his headache and studied the crude picture on his door. It looked like a stick-figure pony, but one with no mane and three tails. What was that supposed to be, anyway? The stallion was clearly no artist. “Forget it,” he muttered grumpily, opening the door and entering the mansion. “If the worst he did was scrawl on my door in magic-protected chalk, why go through the effort?”

The mansion was quiet. Surprisingly so. Where were his servants? “Azalea!” They waited for several seconds. “Azalea!” he called again.

“Cooking supper, perhaps,” Mandragora offered patiently.

“Without asking what I wanted first?” he asked critically. “Go check on her.” The slender mare nodded and walked off towards the kitchens.

“I’m going to the lounge for a moment,” he told Scarlet dismissively. “Have them prepare a bath for me, would you?”

He started up the stairs, paused, stepped back. On the wall next to him was a large picture of his family, back before he’d become the monster that he now was. He studied it, having thought he’d seen something in it unusual. For just a second he thought he’d seen a strange pony in the picture… but it was gone.

Grumbling over changelings screwing with his head, he went upstairs and to his lounge. He sat next to the burning fireplace and pulled out an extract stick, used the fire to light it and indulged.

The rain had started up again outside, a steady downpour. He watched it fall quietly, puffs of smoke rising from his nostrils every few seconds as he chewed absent-mindedly on his stick. A little silence… a little calm to not have to fret over the details of a criminal underworld…

He sat up, staring at the window. For an instant, only an instant, he thought he’d seen something in the rain, but there was nothing.

Great, now he was seeing things. Working with the changelings had truly made him jumpy. He turned away from the windows self-consciously and instead focused on the flames. He studied them quietly, enjoying the heat from them…

He leapt up; again! This time in the flames!

He glowered, took the stick out of his mouth and studied it for a moment. It must have gone bad or something; he dropped it into the fire.

He sat back in the chair and closed his eyes. He had to clear his mind. Whatever that bad stick had done to him, he had to overcome it. Damn thing; served him right for trying a new brand, no matter how highly it had been recommended.

He relaxed, took comfort in the warmth of the fire and the darkness behind his eyes. Just relax… relax…

He opened his eyes and let out a startled shout; it was standing right next to him!

No… no it wasn’t. He stared at the empty spot next to his chair, confused and getting a bit frustrated. He wasn’t even sure what he’d imagined up, it had come and gone too quickly.

He needed a bath.

He left the lounge, grumbling and bitter and really regretting that one extract stick. He’d had a vision or two brought on by poison joke extract before, but this was just plain creepy. It didn’t matter. A nice warm bath would sooth him over.

He entered the massive bathroom and looked around. It seemed deserted. “Scarlet?” No answer. But the bath was filled with steaming water, so he closed the door and climbed in. The water was hot, and it felt good. He sat back and relaxed even as he wondered where his usual bathing mares were. What was he supposed to do, wash himself?

He breathed in deeply, took in the pleasing scents. His mind was clearing already. Why had he even bothered with that damn stick? This was what he should have been doing. He found he didn’t really mind that his bathing mares weren’t around; he needed to spend some time alone.

He had the abrupt feeling that something was floating between his lower legs. He looked down with a glower… it was Scarlet’s head, staring up at him with wide eyes. Just a head.

He let out a terrified scream, climbed out of the bath and fell on his face, hard. He jerked to his hooves and turned back… to nothing. The bath was just like before. No head.

“What… what the shit…?”

He looked around; he was himself. He didn’t know what was going on, but suddenly he didn’t want to be alone. “Scarlet? Scarlet where are you?” Nothing.

It was stress. That was it, just stress. Working with changelings was always stressful, he knew that. He’d just been working too hard, that was all. He turned away from the bath and made his way to the hallway. He glanced about, but there was nopony anywhere.

“Hello?” Nothing. “Azalea? Mandragora? Scarlet?” He looked around, feeling foolish. “Anypony?”

The kitchen. Mandragora had gone that way. Azalea was probably there, too. He trotted for the stairs, eager to see anypony else right about now.

He paused at the sight of a half-open door. Had he just? No… no there was nopony there. He went to it and pushed it open; it was a guest bedroom, and it was empty. He closed the door with a relieved sigh and trotted down the stairs. He refused to pause by that picture again, even as he thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye.

He had to make his way through the dining room to get to the kitchens. It was a big room, meant for entertaining a small army of guests. The walls were decorated with numerous suits of pony armor from many different time periods. He trotted past, ignoring the heavy rain pattering against the tall windows.

And then he paused, turned around.

One statue had changed. It wasn’t a suit of armor. It was… he didn’t know what it was. The closest description he could think of was that of a pure-white mannequin in a tight black business suit and red tie. And it was tall… tall and slender. So much so that it didn’t seem natural. No face, no ears, no mouth, no mane, but three thin, black tails.

Where had this thing come from?

He stepped up closer, trying to get a better view of it, but he couldn’t. He rubbed his eyes, thinking they were blurred, but the image was still there; the thing didn’t seem to have a finite edge. It was like… like it had been drawn in the air with chalk. And it kept... what kind of term could he use? Shifting? Like a scrambled image on a projector screen...

He remembered the stick figure drawn on his door. Why, it looked just like that!

And then that eyeless head turned to look right at him.

He let out a cry, jumped back… and stared at a perfectly intact 300-year-old suit of armor.

He stood there for several seconds, huffing heavily. Was he going crazy? Had that last puff of extract been one puff too many? Had the stress finally gotten to him?

He went to the kitchen, struggling to keep from running.

He was surprised to find Azalea in the kitchen, cowering under the servants’ table. He stared down at her, tried to catch her attention, but she didn’t respond; she only stared out from under her hooves with wide, terrified eyes. Her behavior was unnerving; he dropped to his knees and tried to listen.

“…coming for us always following always there can’t stop him we’re gonna die I don’t wanna die please please make him leave I don’t wanna die…”

She just kept rambling on like that. He tried to say her name, tapped her, shook her. Nothing. Frustrated, he grabbed her and tried to force her out… and she freaked. She screamed and cried and begged and fought, until finally he was forced to let go and drop to his rump on the tiled floor. She scrambled back under the table and just lay there, weeping.

What in the name of Celestia could have terrified her so?

He stood up, studied her helplessly for several seconds, looked over the table.

The white thing was there, staring eyelessly at him.

He jumped back, banged against the stove and knocked an iron pot full of steaming water all over the floor. He barely escaped a scalding, and when he looked up the pony-mannequin-thing was gone once more.

“Dammit all to Hell, I’m getting tired of that!” he shouted, glaring around the kitchen as if he might find what was causing these hallucinations. He wasn’t scared anymore; he was frustrated. “Mandragora! Scarlet! Somepony answer me!”

Nothing. He glared down at Azalea, realized she was a lost cause. He turned and headed for the storage closet; maybe one of the servants was in there. He cracked his hoof against the door, knocking it open with a bang. He entered and looked around; rows of shelves filled the room. “Anypony in here?”

There was no answer, but he wasn’t convinced. He entered the room and began to pace, looking up and down the small aisles darkly.

And then he found Mandragora. She was sitting close to and staring at a corner of the room.

“There you are!” he snapped, approaching. “Why haven’t you been… Mandragora?” He paused, studied her. The mare, one of the bravest, most resolute individuals he’d ever met, was staring with wide, terrified eyes into the crack between the two corner shelves. She was visibly shaking!

“Mandragora, what’s wrong?” he asked, suddenly a touch worried; anything that could frighten her had to be serious. He waved a hoof before her eyes, but she didn’t respond. He tapped her on the shoulder and got nothing.

Just like Azalea.

“Mandragora… come on… talk to me…”

He heard the door of the room close with a bang, and suddenly the lights went off.

There was the sound of something crashing to the floor; somepony was in there with them. “Whoever you are, if you know what’s good for you…” he started, turning about… and froze.

There it was, standing at a distance that seemed much too far away for the small room. It was just a blur at first, shifting in and out of his vision as if he were seeing it through a fog. Slowly its features cleared – or at the very least became a little less blurry. Was it getting bigger? No… closer. But how, it wasn’t walking! It’s bald head, its featureless face, its unflinching attention… it scared him. He didn’t know why, but it scared him more than anything he could remember. It grew closer, began to loom in his vision.

“K-keep back…” He took a step away from it, bumped into something soft. He jerked about to see Mandragora, staring right at the… thing. Her eyes were huge, larger than he imagined possible, and her pupils had shrunk to reflect the terror within. Her mouth was open, and in the harsh silence he could hear a sound coming from within…

It was a scream. It was so quiet as to barely register to his ears, but he knew a scream when he heard one. Mandragora was screaming, a long, near-silent, horrible note.

The screaming shifted, twisted, became a terrible hissing sound. It was coming from behind him. He turned about and found himself staring face-to-face with the monster!

The lights came on, and it was gone with the darkness. He was back in the storage closet, free of blurry white mannequin things.

There was the thud of something falling. He turned around to see Mandragora on the floor, perfectly still.


He knelt down, listened. Nothing. No screaming. Not even breathing.

She was dead.

He scrambled to his feet, terror filling him. He didn’t know what was happening, but suddenly he knew that he wasn’t just imagining things: something evil had come to the mansion. He fled through the open door to the kitchen, past Azalea who was still trembling beneath the table. He practically flew through the dining room, not daring to peek at the suits of armor all around him! Into the entrance and right at the door, he slammed himself against it…

…and fell back on his side. The door hadn’t even budged.


He climbed to his feet and hit the door again, the bang echoing through the mansion eerily, but it didn’t budge. He worked it, pushed, pulled, fought it in every way he could, but it wouldn’t open for him. He was trapped in his own home. He considered trying the windows, but dismissed the idea; they had been magically reinforced. Without Mandragora he’d never break through them.

He took a moment to think, to clear his head. There had to be something he could do. Maybe if he could just study the door…

But when he turned to do so he fell away from it; there, drawn flat against the stone, was his ghostly tormentor. He stared at it, wondering silently how it had come to be there. He approached tentatively; perhaps it really was just a drawing? It certainly looked like one. Yes, a chalk drawing of…

The flat, two-dimensional head turned to look at him with a jerk.

“Scarlet!” He fled, tearing up the stairs in terror. “Scarlet, where the fuck are you!?”

He came to an abrupt stop at the top of the stairs; there, hanging from one of the hallway chandeliers, was three of his maids. They were suspended by three long, black ropes wrapped around their terribly stretched necks. No… not ropes.

That looked like hair. Tail hair.


He crashed into the bathroom, searched in terror to find another servant lying face down in the still-full bath.

“Sweet Celestia…”

He fled, horror gripping his mind. “Scarlet, where are you! Please, talk to me!”

He searched rooms, sometimes finding them empty, sometimes finding more bodies. His entire staff was gone, as far as he could tell. Why, what had caused this? There had to be some kind of excuse as to why this thing was in his home!

He crashed through the door into his lounge, slid to a stop. There was scarlet, standing before the fireplace. “Oh thank Celestia!” he cried, making to walk towards her. “Scarlet, we have got to… to…” He paused, realizing that she was staring with wide eyes at the flames. “Scarlet…?”

Her head shifted, turned slowly to gaze at him with wide eyes. Her mouth shifted, worked, managed to open.

“…help me…”

Her entire body jerked forward, as if pulled by some invisible force, and she was head-first in the flames. She screamed so loud, so horribly he dropped to the floor and covered his ears. He could see her struggling against something unseen, hear her begging and wailing in agony. He closed his eyes, tried to block out the noise, but it kept coming. When he opened them again he saw it standing over her flailing form. Quietly. Calmly. Empty face aimed directly at him.

He screamed and ran. Down the hall, down the stairs, back to the door. He crashed against it so hard he saw stars. He didn’t stop; he rammed it again, again, and again! His shoulder began to bleed from the impacts. “Let me out! Somepony please, for all that is merciful let me out!”

He jerked about at the sound of that hissing, but there was nothing. Everything was quiet, calm… normal. He fell with his back against the door, breathing fast and hard, tears streaming down his face. What was this thing, what!? Scarlet’s screams were still echoing in his mind. Why hadn’t it taken him, why? It was going to, it had to. He knew it, it was going to! He had to get out, somehow, someway, he just had to get out of this hell!

That deep hissing sound filled his ears. His breath caught in his throat, he shook in terror… he looked up.

That white, eyeless head dropped down from it flat place against the door to come so close they were practically touching. It blurred in his vision, faded, solidified again. Its edges held that faint not-quite real quality.

A chalk pony.

Big Reach’s screams echoed throughout the mansion. There was nopony left to hear it.

The operation was a success. BR will torment Equestria no longer.


Heart on his Hoof - The Founding

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He eyed himself in the mirror. Teeth clean? Tie straight? Mane combed? Tail combed? Coat groomed?

Jimmy stood in the doorway, looking amused. “You do know you don’t exactly cut a dashing figure, don’t you?”

Nye turned to his brother to strike an exaggeratedly proud pose. “You’re just jealous ‘cause you don’t have the mare’s beating down your door.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes with a smirk. “It’s our door, and there hasn’t been a mare banging on it in ever.”

“Well yeah,” the younger brother declared with an accusing gesture, “you keep scaring them off.”

The elder twin merely laughed as they went to the kitchen. “You’re not going to go after Fluttershy again, are you?”

“Oh no,” Nye shook his head before grabbing the heart-shaped box of chocolates he’d acquired and setting it in his saddlebag carefully. “I learned my lesson from the last two years. She’s probably not even in town.”

“Then who are you after now?”

“Octavia!” Jimmy facefaulted. “What?”

“Trust me on this, bro,” the elder twin answered, “she’s not interested.”

“How would you know?” Nye asked critically. “It’s not like you ever do anything with mares. You’ve got a libido comparable to a rock.”

Jimmy laughed again and shrugged, giving up. “Alright, ignore my advice. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

And so Nye left, trotting along happily in the bright sun. Hearts and Hooves Day. His favorite holiday of the year. Granted he’d never had much success getting a special somepony before, but he never let that stop him! Every year he went out to find a mare-friend, always confident that this would be his year. It never was, but so what? He couldn’t strike out forever.

A shadow flashed across him, and he glanced up curiously. A lightning bolt and a rainbow were darting through the skies, clouds disintegrating as they zipped past. He grinned and reared back. “Hey, Rainbow!”

An instant later and the pegasus was hovering overhead, grinning. “Hey Nye, what’s up?”

“Me!” he declared happily. “You’re working on a holiday?”

She shrugged indifferently. “Hey, the weather stops for nopony.” She eyed him with a knowing grin. “Look at you all spiffed up. You going to Fluttershy’s place again?”

He grimaced. “Geez, no. I want my gift to be one in a million, not one of the millions.” He glanced around as if expecting to see something. “Say, why don’t I ever see you with some stallion?”

She laughed nervously, flew a quick flip and posed. “Come on, Nye! I’m too busy maintaining my awesome reputation to worry about getting a special somepony! Besides,” she waved a dismissive hoof, “I’ve got to wait for the right guy to ask.”

“Hey Rainbow!” Lightning Dust appeared above the two of them, looking annoyed. “Stop talking to your stallion-friend and get up here! These clouds won’t bust themselves.”

The blue pegasus rolled her eyes and made a grumbling sound. “Yeah yeah, I’m coming. Good luck, Nye!”

“Don’t need it!” he shouted as the two darted into the sky once more.

Octavia stared at the box of candies, an expression of dull disbelief on her face. “I… appreciate the thought, Nye. But I can’t accept.”

He felt his heart sink a little. He tried to speak through the box, put it away and tried again. “But why not?”

She raised her head proudly but smiled all the same, patting him gently on the cheek. “You’re a good guy, Nye. A good friend.” He cringed; he hated that line. “But I’m just not interested in stallions right now.”

He tilted his head, blushed at the image in his mind. “Are you saying you’re a fooling filly?”

Her uncharacteristically raucous laughter took him aback. He stared uncertainly at her for several seconds while she fought to recover. “Oooh, I am so sorry,” she huffed between giggles, “it’s just… it’s just something Jimmy once told me…” And she broke into laughter once more.

Nye lowered his head a little, his happy mood deflated just a touch. And he’d had such high hopes regarding her…

“I…I’m sorry, Nye,” the cellist managed after she finally recovered. “I didn’t mean to… I’m not laughing at you, I promise.” She rubbed a tear from her eye and grinned. “And no, I’m not interested in mares. I’m just not looking for a relationship right now, that’s all.”

“Oh…” It was too late; the image in his mind wouldn’t go away, and it made him blush even more. “It’s alright, I understand.”

“Don’t worry about it, Nye,” she told him kindly, “I’m sure there’s a mare out there who’d love to be your special somepony.” And the door closed, her giggles echoing through the wood.

He sighed and turned away sadly. He had so wanted it to be Octavia; she was that rare kind of classy beauty. What he wouldn’t have given…

No! He raised his head and shook off this defeat. She might be the prettiest mare in Ponyville, but she was by no means the only mare in Ponyville! She was right; surely there was somepony out there who’d accept him.

And he knew exactly who to go for next…

Rarity took a step back from him in surprise. “Oh no no no, Nye! You're asking me to be your special somepony? Again?”

“Ummm… yes?” He said from around the box of chocolates in his mouth.

She batted her eyes prettily, “Oh I am honored that you would think of me, really,” she claimed with a winning smile, “but I told you last time that I simply must wait for a charming elite stallion of Canterlot! You know,” she added with a dainty touch of her mane, “the kind that would skyrocket me into the life of high society.”

“Yeah,” Spike snapped, grabbing Nye’s tie and jerking it so he could look the stallion in the eye, “and besides: she’s mine.”

Nye jerked himself free and put the chocolates away. “Really Spike?” he asked, “How are you going to land her into the land of the rich and famous?”

“Hey hey,” the little dragon countered, gesturing to himself proudly, “I know Fancy Pants!”

“So does she.”

Spike blushed, glowered, tried again. “Well I know Princess Celestia!”

“So does she.”

The dragon sagged, a dull grumpy expression on his face. “I’m just gonna, alright?”

“Aaaww, isn’t he a cute little Spikey-Wikey?” Rarity asked, patting Spike on the head playfully. “I’m sorry, Nye, but I already agreed to let Spike spend the entire day with me.” Spike perked right up and struck a gallant pose. “After all, somepony has to help me with my latest designs and my old pincushion’s just about had it.”


“Well alright,” Nye muttered with a sigh, ignoring the dragon’s gloat.

He set the chocolates aside so he could ask the question. “Wait a sec, you’re saying no because of what now?”

Twilight sighed as if he were asking the dumbest question in the world. “First of all, Nye, I’m just not interested. I mean you’re a good guy and all, and maybe if we spent some time together, but that would require that I completely readjust my plans for the foreseeable future. There’s just no way I could squeeze you in and do everything I’ve already got scheduled!”

He blinked, glanced around the library in mild confusion, rubbed his head. “You’re serious?”

“YES!” She trotted over to a large book and used her magic to lift it up and thrust it in his face. “Look at how ridiculously busy I already am!”

“Whoa…” he tried to process all the words and numbers and scribblings. “How do you fit this much stuff into a month?”

“A month?” she asked incredulously, “That’s just next week.”

“Oh.” He sat on his rump, stared at the book for a moment. “OH. Uhh… well, oookay, I guess that answers my question. Nice visiting with you and all but I think I’ll be moving on and… uh… bye!”

His conclusion: that mare was crazy.

Nye was rather annoyed with how his day had gone so far. He'd asked over a dozen ponies by now! But he wasn’t about to give up hope. Surely there was some mare in this town who might be interested – and not a little nutso at the same time. He knew it was pointless, but he decided to go ahead and visit Fluttershy’s cottage. It was more to just confirm his suspicions, of course.

And, as expected, he turned the corner to find her cottage surrounded by eager stallions.

“I wouldn’t bother if I were you.”

Nye was startled by the voice, turned and was surprised to see Fine Crime lying with his back against a tree, watching the scene. He trotted up to the unicorn uncertainly. “I wasn’t really going to… but what are you doing here?”

“Watching,” Fine declared with a smile. “It’s rather amusing to see them scramble for her attention.”

He glanced towards the cottage; stallions were at her door and her windows, vying for the opportunity to talk to the poor pegasus who, as far as he could tell, was nowhere to be seen. “They do look rather ridiculous, I must admit.” He sighed and sat next to the unicorn with a bemused expression. “It’s been like this every Heart and Hooves Day since she had that brief stint as a fashion model. Is she even home?”

“Oh she is,” Fine claimed confidently. “Somepony convinced her to stick around.”

“Like who?”

“I think you’ll find out before long,” the unicorn declared with a grin.

Nye studied him curiously. “Don’t you have something better to do today? I mean, like find a mare-friend?”

Fine waved a dismissive hoof. “I’ll get a date with royalty later.”


“No, really.” He grinned mischievously. “I do it every year. Two years ago I swatted Princess Cadance on the flank. Didn’t sleep a wink that night!” He sobered and added in a dry tone, “of course it was only afterwards I found out she was a fake… but hey, foreign royalty is still royalty, right?”

Nye rolled his eyes but decided he wanted to see where this was going. “And last year?”

“Princess Celestia,” he announced. “Swatted her on the flank, too. All I got for my trouble was a wink though. Damn tease.”

Nye gave him a dubious look. “Where do you come up with this stuff?”

Fine took on a high-browed, prissy pose. “I scoff at your disbelief.” Nye couldn’t resist laughing.

Abruptly their vision was obscured by a bright white light that made Nye shield his eyes in alarm. When he looked towards the cottage again he was shocked to find that all the stallions had disappeared. In their places, scattered all around the cottage, were potted plants.

“What the…?”

Another flash of light, and suddenly there was a creature the likes of which Nye had never seen floating above the plants, laughing hysterically. But even if he’d never seen it before, he knew what it was: a draconequus.

A moment later and Fluttershy emerged from the cottage with an alarmed expression. “Discord! This isn’t what I had in mind!”

“What?” The thing lazed back against her mailbox with a smug grin, “you wanted them gone, didn’t you? Besides, I thought you liked flowers.”

“Well yes, I do,” she acknowledged as she floated over the plants, “but I meant for you to just… send them away or something.”

“D’aww, but that’s so boring,” he declared with a friendly wave of his paw. “Besides, I promise I’ll turn them back later.” He rubbed his bearded chin for a moment deviously. “Actually, you know what? You’re right: this is boring! What was I thinking?”

“Oh it’s alright, Discord,” the pegasus announced pleasantly, “you just change them back and…”

The draconequus snapped his fingers, and suddenly all the flowers were transformed into tall vines with terrified pony faces for flowers. The vines squirmed and shook and twisted about frantically, making Discord laugh some more. “Now this is much better!”


“Oh look,” the creature cried, finally spotting Nye and Fine on the hill, “I missed some!” Nye was prepared to run, but before he could Discord snapped his fingers and was in front of them. He snatched up the terrified stallion and asked in a friendly fashion, “Well, since I had the terrible manners of leaving you out I’ll give you the choice. So what would you like? A turtle? A bat? Oh, I know: a cake! I’ll turn you into a cake and then gift-wrap you for Princess Celestia! Won’t that be fun?”

“I don’t think she’d fall for it,” Fine Crime noted, still lazing by his tree.

“Not helping!” Nye cried frantically.

But the draconequus forget his threat for the moment as he turned to the unicorn with a wicked grin. “You underestimate my powers of deception, boy-oh,” he announced, and raised his hand in preparation…

“Discord!” Fluttershy cried, floating between him and Fine before he could snap his fingers, “you put him down! Nye’s a friend.”

“Oh?” Discord eyed Nye so closely he thought their eyeballs might touch, “so they’re not here to annoy you like all those other stallions?”

“Of course not,” Nye cried, shaking his head violently. “Nope, not me, never dream of it!”

“Oh,” Fine Crime threw in playfully, “so you’re saying Fluttershy’s ugly?”

“Would you shut up!?” Nye caught sight of his box of chocolates that had floated out of his saddlebag to hover before Discord's face. “Hey, give those back!”

Discord smiled smugly as the box opened and the treats floated out. “But if you’re not here to bother Fluttershy then you won’t mind if I have a taste!” And he promptly ate the box. Not the chocolates: the box itself.

Nye stared, scratched his head in confusion. “Err… wasn’t expecting that.”

Fluttershy giggled. “I appreciate the help, Discord, really. But all I want is for them to leave me alone.”

“And they will,” he declared, spreading his hands as if to display wisdom – dropping Nye on the hard ground as he did. “Just think, once I turn them back they’ll think twice before coming to bother you again.”

She sighed, smiled. “I guess that’s true…”

Nye sat up, rubbing his aching head. “Hey, what about my chocolates? How am I supposed to… erm… I mean…”

“What?” The draconequus hovered over his head with a smarmy expression, “Did you need them for something?”

“Discord, give him back the box,” Fluttershy told him sweetly, “please?”

“Oh fine,” he grumbled, snapping his fingers; the box appeared in a flash of light before Nye, opened to show it still had all its candy, and landed gently on the grass. “These two aren’t that much fun, anyway.”

“Thank you,” she said proudly. “Now, if you could just…”

“Come on,” Discord cried, abruptly flying high up in the air, “I have this great idea. Meet me at the chicken coop!” And with a snap of his fingers and a flash of light he was gone again.

The yellow pegasus landed on the hill with a sigh and gave the two stallions an apologetic look. “I’m so sorry you two, but you should probably leave before he… umm… turns you into a pineapple or… or something.” And she was galloping down the hill, looking not just a little worried about whatever this ‘idea’ of Discord’s was.

“She doesn’t have to tell me twice,” Nye grumbled, closing his box of candies and putting it away. He glanced at Fine, who hadn’t moved from his spot by the tree. “You coming?”

“Are you kidding?” the unicorn asked with a grin, “I haven’t been this amused since I got Princess Luna drunk and convinced the moon was out to get her!”

Nye rolled his eyes and decided not to challenge that one.

It took some time to find Applejack. She was far out in the fields, knocking apples off of trees as usual. She was happy to take a break to chat with Nye… until he pulled out the box of chocolates.

“Now hold on, Sugarcube,” she told him sharply, “did ya come all the way out here just to ask what I think yer gonna ask?”

He set the box down and grinned. “Third time’s a charm?”

She sighed and shook her head with a smile. “Ya never give up, do ya?”

“Not when there’s still a pretty pony to ask,” he acknowledged happily.

“I told ya before, Nye: yer just…”

“…not your type, I know,” he concluded with a shrug. “I keep thinking you’ll change your mind after a year of seeing how awesome I am.”

She gave him a good-humored look and quipped, “Sorry Nye, but yer just not quite ‘awesome’ enough. Better luck next year.”

He laughed to hide his disappointment. “What is your type, anyway?”

“That’s none of yer business,” she answered with a blush. “Ya try Fluttershy yet?”

He nodded glumly. “She’s got Discord warding off potential suitors this year.”

That made the farm pony stare. “Discord? Really?” He nodded. “Well, I guess if anypony can help her escape the herds of stallions beatin’ down her door, it’s him. What about Rarity?”

He shook his head. “I’ve gone to every available mare in town already, Applejack. And to be truthful, I wasn’t expecting you to leap into my hooves.” He nudged the box towards her dejectedly. “I just thought I might offer ‘em, is all.”

“Hey, don’t sweat it, Sugarcube,” she offered kindly. “But ya know, I really think yer tryin' too hard.”

He blinked and tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

“I mean yer always so aggressive. I understand ya might feel a tad lonely and all-” He sagged a little at that. “-but seriously, Nye, yer goin’ after mares just because they’re mares. By now they all know yer just chasin’ tail.”

He shrugged. “Well what am I supposed to do?”

“Slow down,” she offered. “Stop goin' for the date and try gettin’ to know ‘em first. That way they can get ta know ya, in return.”

He considered this for a few seconds glumly, not really sure what to say. After a while the orange pony pushed the chocolates back to him with a sigh. “You keep this, Sugarcube. Seems ta me yer needin' it more than me.”

He trudged his way through town, heading back home. It was well past noon and he’d exhausted all his options. Another Hearts and Hooves Day without a special somepony, another year to go about repairing his confidence. How could a stallion strike out so often?

He kept running Applejack’s words through his head, feeling like a fool for not really getting how they were meant to help. Letting the mares get to know him? They already knew him, didn’t they? He was Nye, he ran a coffee and cocoa shop, lived with his twin brother. What more was there to know? And as for him knowing mares… wasn’t that the whole point of asking them out, to get to know them? Sure he had an eye for certain… ‘attributes,’ but how could he get beyond that if they didn’t give him a chance?

“Hey bro.”

He looked up to find Jimmy walking towards him from the grocery stalls, a big bag of ingredients strapped to both sides of his saddle. “Oh… hey Jim.”

His brother eyed him sympathetically. “Struck out again, did ya?”

“Well…” the younger twin muttered, “at least I tried… right?”

“You say that every year,” Jimmy noted. “Did it make you feel any better this time?”

“Never does,” he admitted glumly.

Jim looked at Nye’s saddlebag. “Hey, you still got the chocolates? Don’t you usually offer them to Applejack?”

“She said I needed ‘em more than her,” Nye grumped. “She’s right, I guess.”

Jimmy shrugged, and for a few seconds the two walked towards home in silence. “Kinda hard to believe. I thought you’d get Rainbow this year.”

“Rainbow?” Nye asked grumpily, “Why would I ask Rainbow?”

A moment’s pause.


Nye dropped to his knees and held his head tightly for a moment, cringing against the pain. Then he jumped up and turned on his brother. “What the hell was that for!?”

“What do you mean, ‘Why would I ask Rainbow’?” Jimmy snapped. “Are you seriously that dense?”

“What are you talking about?”

Jimmy facehoofed. “You mean you didn’t ask her? You really didn’t ask her?”

“Of course not,” Nye snapped. “She’s my best friend! You don’t ask your best friend to be your special somepony, it’s just weird.”


“Would you stop that!? It really hurts!”

“You have got to be the stupidest pony to have ever earned an engineer’s degree,” his brother declared angrily. “How could you not ask Rainbow Dash?”

“Because,” Nye countered angrily, sitting on his haunches. “I spend all my time with her! She’s friendly and fun and we love hanging out. Asking her to be… to be…”

Applejack’s words echoed in his head for a moment. “…she's my friend and makes me laugh… and I… I… I gotta go.”

He turned to run off, jerked to a stop, came back to bump Jimmy’s waiting hoof. “Thank you.”

And he was off again, galloping at full speed.

Jimmy rolled his eyes with an exasperated smile. “What an idiot.”


He found her napping at their favorite pond just outside of town. The pegasus jerked awake at his shout and looked down from her high limb to see him, sitting and out of breath. “Nye?” She flew down to land in front of him, studying him with a concerned look. “You okay, buddy? You look like you just ran half-across Equestria.”

He didn’t say anything; he just reached back and grabbed the chocolates, setting them down between the two of them.

She stared at them in surprise… and then her expression dropped to bland annoyance. She turned those eyes on him, and he lowered his head behind his blonde mane guiltily. “You’re offering me candy?”

He nodded.

“You spoke to me this morning about the whole thing.”


“You went to every mare in Ponyville, didn’t you?”


“And got rejected by every last one of them.”


“And now you’re coming to me…”


“…probably the very first mare you saw this morning.”

He winced, glanced down at the chocolates miserably, then back up at her.

“So give me one good reason I should accept ‘em.”

Here it goes. He took a deep breath…

“I’m sorry Rainbow I really am but I went all over town talking to all those mares and then Applejack talked to me about getting to know mares instead of just chasing tail and Jimmy kept hitting me on the head and telling me I was an idiot and then I realized I already know a mare and I am an idiot and you always make me laugh and I’m always so happy when you show up and we spend so much time together and I’m an idiot idiot idiot for not realizing it sooner that I was even willing to go fight ghost-zombie-things for you and then you rescued me too and now I get that all this time I was chasing after tails when I already liked you and should have been chasing you all this time but I’m not chasing your tail I just really really like you and I was so stupid for not even realizing it until when Jimmy whacked me over the head and Applejack told me to get to know somepony and I’m probably just making it worse and should stop talking now but will you please please please forgive me for being such an idiot and be my special somepony ‘cause you’re already my special somepony and I just didn’t know it and now I’m just repeating myself so I’m gonna stop talking right now and… and… and…”

He huffed and puffed, finally out of breath. Rainbow had leaned back during the hastily-produced speech, eyes wide in genuine surprise. He kept his head down and eyed her from behind his mane, feeling like a complete and utter fool. She wasn’t going to accept, there was no way, but at least he’d got it all out of his system.

Rainbow stared wide-eyed at him for some time, as if trying to take in everything he’d just said. But then, finally, she smiled. “Nye… you are without a doubt the dumbest stallion I’ve ever met.”

He sighed and sagged a little more, if it were possible.

And then she took the box, opened it, and popped a chocolate in her mouth.

He sat up with a jerk, eyes wide. “You… you mean you accept?”

She grinned and hit him lightly on the shoulder. “Only because that was one heck of an apology!”

He huffed a weak, shaky laugh. “Well… well that’s great…! I mean… as long as you don’t mind having a loser like me for a stallion-friend…”

She shrugged and jumped into the air to strike a confident pose. “Hey, even Daring Do needs a bumbling hanger-on!”

He chuckled, relief and happiness flowing through him. “You mean the one that eventually wins her over due to his persistence?”

She blushed and landed. “Y-yeah… that’s the one. Now… err… stop trying to get me all mushed up. It’s not good for my image. Come on, we’ve got candy to eat!”

Fine Crime sat atop the hill in the fields not far from Fluttershy’s cottage. He stared up at the waning moon quietly, waiting. It was a beautiful night, perfect for an occasion such as this. A gentle breeze was blowing, making the tall grasses sway majestically. The Everfree Forest, just on the edge of his vision, swished and flowed like a distant ocean. A peaceful, quiet night. Perfect. All the world asleep.

Well, not all the world.

A bolt of lightning streak across the moon, turned at a sharp angle and shot down towards him. Lightning Dust came to an abrupt stop, hovering just above him and looking very annoyed. “Alright, Fine, I came.”

“You’re later than I expected,” he admitted.

She glowered and landed on the soft grass. “I had to make sure Keen was actually asleep this time. She always wants to share the bed.”

He nodded understandingly. “Still having nightmares?”

“It’s only been a couple weeks,” she noted sadly. “The kind of stuff she’s seen will take a lifetime to get over.”

“Well maybe after tonight you can get her some professional help,” he offered gently.

She raised an eyebrow. “Uhh, yeah, whatever. Now why the heck am I out here? If you’re about to ask me to be your special somepony I’ll buck you clear across town!”

“Better him than us,” somepony called from the bottom of the hill. They both turned to see the twins Jimmy and Nye walking up to them – the younger brother with a noticeable spring in his step.

“Hey Lightning,” Jimmy said as they reached the top of the hill, “Fine call you out here, too?”

“Uh-huh,” she answered, giving the beaming Nye a questioning look. “What are you so cheery about?”

“Him?” Jimmy asked with a grin, hitting his brother on the shoulder lightly, “He finally asked Rainbow Dash to be his mare-friend.”

Lightning gawked. “And she said yes!?”

“She sure did,” Nye answered, face glowing.

Lightning turned away and muttered something to herself about somepony lacking taste, though the twins clearly didn’t hear it.

“We’re here,” came a new voice. All eyes turned to the bottom of the hill again, where Octavia walked up to them with a serious expression, a nervous Upper Crust following behind. “Looks like everyone showed up.”

“Everyone?” Lightning asked, “so you were in on this?”

“I’ve been ‘in’ on a lot of things,” the cellist answered. She turned her gaze upon Fine. “So I guess this means it’s finally time?” He nodded.

“Hey, Upper Crust,” Nye called to the unicorn happily, “didn’t expect to see you out here.”

“That makes two of us,” she admitted anxiously, “but Octavia said it was important… so here I am.”

“And I’m glad you all could come,” Fine Crime noted, having walked to stand apart from them. “It’s time to make things official.”

“Official?” Jimmy asked.

“Make what official?” Upper Crust added.

He turned to them, face solemn. “Some things need to be explained to all of you. I know you all have had a lot of questions about me.”

Lightning hovered in the air and huffed critically, hooves crossed. “What makes you think I care?”

“I do have a lot of things I’d like cleared up, actually,” Jimmy noted seriously.

“Me too,” Nye mentioned. “Like who you really work for, and why you seem to know so much about all of us.”

“Indeed,” Upper Crust declared. “We know so little about you, and yet you act as if you’ve known us for years.”

“In a way,” Octavia told them quietly, “he has.” She turned away nervously when they all turned their eyes on her.

“Octavia knows what I am going to tell you,” Fine Crime interrupted before any of them could say anything to her. “She knows because back in the Crystal Empire she chose to stick around and listen to what I had to say while all of you went your own ways.”

Lightning flew a little closer to give him an interrogating look. “And what exactly does Octavia know that we don’t, huh?”

He studied them all somberly as he answered. “She knows that for the past three years I have been traveling all across Equestria looking for a select group of ponies, ponies who would become members of a small team. I personally tested each qualifying candidate to see who would make the cut and who would be left alone. In the end, we chose the five of you.”

They all gave one another startled looks.

“Alright, Fine, seriously,” Jimmy said unpleasantly, “someday you’re going to shock us all and tell the truth.”

“This is no lie,” Fine snapped, and his tone made their dubious expressions fade. “Each and every one of you showed the qualities we wanted for this team. Octavia, who displayed devotion, integrity, determination, leadership and kindness, was the fourth candidate.

“Nye, you maintained your social, optimistic nature even when your own life was falling to pieces, and have the honor of being the first pony aside from her sister to befriend Princess Luna, a true indicator of your character. You were number two.

“Jimmy, you overcame your own life’s desire and your fear of your father to do what you knew was right. Number three.

“Lightning, no matter the situation, no matter how depressed or unprepared you ever were, no matter what you thought your personal reasons were, when the time came and somepony needed help you always answered the call, without hesitation or doubt. Number five.

“And you, Upper Crust,” he said, turning to her and smiling pleasantly, “when nopony else would help, when the situation was most dire, you overcame your lack of self-confidence and your personal fears to do what needed to be done. You were the first.”

She blushed, shifted nervously, turned her head away in embarrassment.

“Okay,” Lightning, noted seriously, landing in the grass once more, “okay, I’ll admit: that was a pretty good job buttering us up. I still don’t believe it.”

But the others didn’t seem so sure anymore.

Jimmy stepped forward and spoke hesitantly. “And… what exactly are we supposed to do in this… team?”

Fine Crime smiled. “For that, I think I’d best turn things over to my boss.”

They all looked around, as if expecting to find somepony they’d not noticed before, but of course there was no one. It was Upper Crust who spoke up. “What boss?”

Fine turned to face the moon, concentrated for a few seconds on his magic. His horn glowed brightly, shining like a star in the night. He let it shine for a few seconds, then let it fade.

“What was that supposed to do?” Nye asked uncertainly after a few moments passed in silence.

“It was a signal,” Fine answered patiently.

“A signal for what?” Lightning asked.

He saw the shadow cover the moon and grinned. Turning back to them, he answered. “A signal that the team is at last ready to meet her.”

The shadow soon covered the moon, catching every pony’s attention. They stared in wonder as it solidified, emerged, and floated down on vast dark sapphire wings that were almost invisible in the night sky. Princess Luna landed beside Fine, tall and proud and beautiful among the stars.

“Holy holies…” Jimmy muttered eve as all the ponies dropped to a rapid bow.

Nye was the first to get back up. “Princess Luna! You mean it’s true? Fine really works for… for you?”

“Yes my friend,” she answered calmly, smiling. “I asked him long ago to assist me in finding the perfect ponies for this little group of mine.” The rest of the ponies stood. With the exception of Octavia they were all staring at Fine or the Princess in complete shock. “I understand this comes as something of a surprise.”

“Just a little,” Nye declared. “Why didn’t you tell me!?”

“It was important that none of you know until we were certain you’d still be around for this moment,” Fine Crime explained helpfully.

Lightning, nervous but unable to resist, pointed a hoof at Octavia. “What about her? She knew before all of us, right?”

“I did,” the cellist admitted anxiously.

“Fine Crime and I had no doubts that Octavia would agree to work with us,” Princess Luna announced, giving Octavia a polite nod that made her blush in embarrassment. “And if the rest of you had come after the defeat of King Sombra, you would have known long ago.”

Jimmy stepped forward timidly. “Umm… Princess… my brother and I… we would willingly help you in any way we can. But… I don’t understand how the lot of us could really make a big difference in… well… anything! What exactly do you intend for us to do?”

Fine and the Princess gave one another calm looks, as if sharing some secret message, before the Princess stepped forward to answer. “You will assist the Elements of Harmony.”

“The Elements…?” Upper Crust lost her voice for a moment. “…how are we supposed to do that? Help them do what?”

“Whatever they need,” she replied. Her horn glowed for a brief moment, and then a book appeared before her. As it opened and pages began to flip she said, “There are things that I believe will soon happen. If I am correct, then Equestria will face something dangerous, and I fear that the Bearers of the Elements will not be ready. After my return I spent many months reviewing the lore surrounding my existence that were created over the last thousand years. There is one story that bothers me, which I shall quote now. This comes from the legend of the Mare in the Moon.”

The pages at last stopped turning, and the Princess read directly from an excerpt. “On the longest day of the thousandth year the stars will aid in her escape, and she will bring about nighttime eternal.” The booked closed quietly as she passed her regal gaze upon them all. “Does nopony find anything strange about this passage?”

They all gave one another uncertain looks. For several seconds none of them could think of anything. At last, Fine Crime stepped up to them, catching their attention. “The stars.”

“The stars?” Jimmy asked, glancing up at the sky uncertainly. “What about them?”

“When I was imprisoned on the moon,” the Princess explained, “I had lost all access to the skies. My sister, Celestia, controlled day and night alone. And if that is the case,” she concluded darkly, “how could the stars, which were entirely under her control, possibly have assisted in my escape?”

A moment of confused silence. “Umm… maybe it’s… just a phrase. I mean, who knows who wrote that passage,” Nye ventured uncertainly.

But Luna shook her head. “No Nye, I am confident that was not the case. I did not simply escape; somepony freed me. I know it, I could feel the magic. Four beings, all working their powers at once, rescued me from the confines of the moon. I don’t know who, or why; but if they sought my freedom, then surely they have ill intentions towards Equestria.”

“But… to break a seal created by Princess Celestia,” Upper Crust noted fearfully, “that would require powerful magic!”

The Princess nodded solemnly. “And I have found out who at least one of my ‘saviors’ was: King Sombra.” That earned some alarmed sounds from everypony present.

Fine Crime spoke up after giving them a few seconds to process this information. “We know Sombra was working with somepony, or many ponies. The creature Tazel Wyrm said as much to Nye when he and Applejack rescued the Crystal Heart. We are confident that these other individuals also helped to free Nightmare Moon three years ago.”

“But why?” Lightning demanded, “why would anypony want to do that?”

“We don’t have all the answers, Lightning Dust,” Luna answered. “Nor do we understand why it is these entities have not struck again. The only lead we have is the ‘stars’ reference of an old prophecy, which I believe is not a literal statement, nor an embellishment. Rather, I believe the ‘stars’ is an indirect reference to the secret enemies that now threaten Equestria. There are a lot of questions, a lot of pieces to this puzzle that haven’t been found. I felt the need to be prepared… and so I sought all of you.”

It was Nye’s turn to voice doubt. “Princess… us? We’re something of a mottled group, aren’t we? I mean, you’re asking a bunch of underachieving, unsuccessful misfits to back up the most capable and gifted ponies in Equestria. Who have the Elements of Harmony, no less! What can we possibly do that would help?”

“Whatever you can, Mr. Stone.”

“You don’t understand,” Fine Crime added eagerly. “It’s because you’re not the best that you were chosen! Sure, you’ve got problems. We all do. But it’s your ability to overcome those weaknesses that really gives you the strength we’re looking for!”

“All eyes are on the Elements of Harmony,” Luna told them, casting her gaze towards the distant Ponyville. “They are true heroes. But they can’t be everywhere, or be prepared for everything. They’re going to need help someday, whether they know it or not.”

“And what of Princess Celestia?” Upper Crust queried, “Does she know of what you’re doing?”

Luna nodded gravely. “She knows. She is unaware of who has been chosen for this team, but she knows a team is being formed. But she presides over the Elements of Harmony, and so I shall preside over you.”

“So wait,” Lightning interrupted excitedly, “does that mean we get to hold some sort of awesome power thing, too? Like the Elements of Darkness or something cool like that?”

Fine Crime laughed. “No, Lightning. We won’t have any such boon. It’s just us.”

“Us?” Jimmy asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Us,” he confirmed. “Luna requested that I be part of this team, as well.”

Lightning sagged. “Oh boy… you mean I’d have to work with you regularly?”

“So, if we’re a team…” Nye started, but then he paused and looked around at all the ponies present. “Wait… are we a team?”

The question was out. They all shared worried expressions, considered the choice very carefully. It was several long minutes before anypony answered.

In the end it was Upper Crust who first stepped forward. “I… I want to try.”

Her words seemed to have a cascading effect on all of them.

“I don’t know what good I’ll be,” Nye confessed. “If it were Celestia asking, I don't know. But for you, Princess? ...yeah, sign me up.”

“Then I will do what I can as well,” Jimmy declared. “If Nye is in, so am I.”

“I still think this is the craziest idea ever,” Lightning grumbled, “but I’m not about to argue with a Princess. Besides… I owe Fine. I’m in.”

“I said I would do this back in the Crystal Empire,” Octavia announced firmly, “and I meant it.”

“Good…” Fine smiled proudly at all of them. “…good. Princess Luna, you’ve got a team.”

“Thank you, my friends,” the Princess whispered happily. “You do me and all of Equestria a great honor this night.”

They were all gone, back to their homes to think on what they’d just learned and agreed to. Even Princess Luna. Fine was alone in the field once more, musing on his success darkly. He pondered, long and hard, on what he’d just gotten everypony into. Would he regret it later? This team had to work together, and something told him they were a long way from that. He doubted they understood the true importance of what was happening here. Maybe they had an inkling, maybe not.

But then again, he wasn’t even sure if Luna really understood the full implications of her actions.

He rose to his hooves and turned away from the presence. “You know, one of the benefits of having spent an entire lifetime hiding is that you come to recognize when others are sneaking around.”

He waited, listened. Nothing. After some time he sighed and turned his head to the hill behind him. “Fluttershy, come out.”

There was a squeaky, surprised sound. The pegasus peered up from behind the hill nervously and saw he was looking right at her. She disappeared… but a few seconds later came walking over the hill, slowly and with head hung low. She had a nervous, guilty expression on her face. “I… I’m so sorry,” she whispered, stopping a cautious distance from him. “I d-didn’t mean to pry…”

He turned to her, sat on the cool grass. “You heard it all, didn’t you?”

She nodded anxiously. “I’m s-sorry, I g-gathered this was s-supposed to be a private meeting… I just, I saw you all up here from my cottage and… and then I saw the Princess and I…”

He raised his hoof to silence her. “Fluttershy, you don’t have to explain. Truth is, I wanted you to see this. I picked this hill specifically hoping you would.”

She raised her head in perplexity. “You did? Why?”

He stood and walked closer to her, sitting back down when he was right in front of her. “I’ll be honest with you, Fluttershy: I have a problem. I think you can help me.”

“Me?” She glanced around as if thinking he might be intending somepony else. “What kind of problem? And why me?”

“I can’t tell you just yet,” he explained apologetically. “I’m afraid if I do you’ll refuse. I want to build some trust between us first. So to set the wheels in motion, I set this up so you’d know what’s really happening with me and the others and Princess Luna. You and your friends would never believe any of us if we simply told you; this way at least you know the truth.”

“I… I see…” she whispered, looking down with a blush and thinking quietly.

He leaned forward to emphasize his words. “I know most ponies don’t trust me. I tend to lie about some things. But let me make this clear, Fluttershy: from this point onwards, I will never lie to you.”


“I can’t earn your trust through lies,” he pointed out with a smile.

She studied him, thought for a moment. “Umm… in that case, what do you do?”

He blinked, caught off guard by her directness. “You mean… my job?”

She nodded, expression surprisingly firm. “I know you’ve lied about it to everypony who asks. You work for Princess Luna, but how? Just what are you?”

He sagged. “Oi… I really wish you hadn’t asked me that. You won’t believe me.”

“Then you won’t tell me?”

He gave her a stern look, set his hooves on her shoulders for emphasis. “I will tell you only if you promise me one thing: that you never tell another soul. I mean it, Fluttershy: not another soul.”

She stared at him with wide eyes. “Umm… why…?”

“Just promise.”

“…okay… I promise, I won’t tell anypony.”

He kept his eyes locked with hers for several seconds, just to make sure she understood how serious he was. At last he sat back and, with a sigh, said it. “I’m the Mane Archon, chief officer of the Dark Archons of Equestria.”

She blinked, gazed at him for a few more seconds, then gained a sad expression.

“It’s the truth,” he insisted. “The Archons aren’t just a myth, although we like to make sure everypony believes they are.”

“Then how am I supposed to believe you?” she asked uncertainly.

He considered her and the question for a while. “Come to my home, in the Everfree Forest. The proof is there.”

She jumped to her hooves and shook her head fretfully. “Oh no, I couldn’t! I told you, I’m too scared of the Everfree Forest!”

He stood up as well, focusing a serious expression on her. “If you want the truth, you’ll have to come. I’ll go with you, help you along. Think about it, Fluttershy, please. I want your trust, and your help.”

He began to walk past her, onwards to his home. As he did she turned to watch him go. “Why, Fine? Why is it so important that I help you? Surely there's somepony else?”

He paused at the top of the hill, turned his head to gaze down on her sadly. “It must be you. There is nopony else.”

And he was gone in a cloud of black smoke.