Horizontal Lines

by horizon

First published

Stories and poems too short for individual publication (including some award-winning minifics).

An ongoing collection of stories and poems too short for standalone FIMFic publication. NOT a scraps file — there are some contest winners in here! Contents, newest first:

Retirees [Drama] – Celestia and Luna have a plan for their post-princess days. Fifth place, "Through A Mirror Brightly" Writeoff! (3/2019)
The Shipper Is: IN [Random] [Romance] – Discord takes advantage of Cadance's metaromantic powers.
The Illusion Of Choice, Or Vice Versa [Drama] – A prodigious filly struggles with the burden of high expectations. Finalist, "Illusion of Choice" Writeoff! (10/2015)
Moon Bright [Slice of Life] – Two isolated farmers try to figure out how to react to Princess Luna's return. Third place, "The Morning After" Writeoff! (12/2016)
We Only Live Twice [Slice of Life] – When Bon Bon walked into her own funeral, that didn't shock us nearly so much as Lyra walking in alongside her. Tenth place, "It's Your Funeral" Writeoff (3/2016)
Charlotte's Goop [AU] [Crossover] [Comedy] – A changeling queen is leaving messages on Applejack's barn about her farm animals.
F=MC^2 [Alternate Universe] – The great and terrible road to the Manehattan Project.
Through The Fire And Flames [Random] [Comedy] [Equestria Girls] – Blue Oyster has a fever, and the only cure is a brainless minific.
The Slow Fall of an Unfamiliar Star [Sad] [Romance] [Human] – Sunset watches a sunset, alone with her memories. Eighth place, "Just Over The Horizon" writeoff (10/2014)
Eponalepsis [Slice of Life] [Far Future] – The immortals gather at Celestia's end, and debate forgiveness. 22nd place, "Famous Last Words" writeoff. "Highly Recommended" by Present Perfect! (8/2014)
Why I Left [Human] – A chance encounter at a failed pony convention. Eighth place, "Long Way Home" writeoff (6/2014)
Torn, Discarded Pages From An Old Notebook [Romance] [Adventure] – A young Twilight Sparkle writes about the adventures of a pony who is completely made up and imaginary. First place winner in the Twilight Sparkle's Secret Shipfic Folder badfic contest! "Highly Recommended" by Present Perfect! (6/2014)
You, Ms. Harshwhinny, And A Pair Of Cougars Go On A Double Date [Random] – what
Night Mare's Party [Filk] – Luna's transformation vs. Oingo Boingo.
Alicornication [Filk] – Twilight Sparkle's ascension vs. the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
On Alicorn Fiction [Slice of Life] – Twilight has found plenty of nonfiction for her collection of Celestia's writings, but she's having a hard time finding any novels.
Deleted Scenes [Comedy] – Celestia introduces Luna to movies.
War Averted [Alternate Universe] – Cadence solves a problem.
From The Stars [Adventure] [Poem] – When a star falls upon ancient Equestria, a filly journeys to save what remains of her tribe.
Breaking The News [Comedy] – Ponyville prepares for disaster. (Published in the Everfree NW 2013 conbook!)

Breaking The News

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Damage, Chaos Planned In Flood
By Horizon
Ponyville Gazette staff writer

Disaster will strike the town of Ponyville on Wingsday afternoon, when a massive storm is scheduled to flood low-lying areas, leaving several families dispossessed and causing tens of thousands of bits of property damage.

"It's going to be tragic," said Broken Mirror, a soon-to-be-homeless earth pony, as she cradled her peacefully sleeping foal. "We've been in this house for almost a month. I was starting to get used to it."

Every step through the future wreckage of her still-cozy cottage — the seventh she will have lost this year — brought tough decisions.

"I'm not sure it's worth saving the drapes," she said. "They probably won't match our next house's trim."

"I tried to box up the family heirlooms so we could store them on higher ground," her husband Snake Eyes added, "but I tripped and broke them carrying them outside."

Other ponies expressed concern for the impending safety of their loved ones.

"It will be the Worst. Possible. THING!" said local businessmare Rarity Belle, as she staggered backward and collapsed onto a nearby chaise longue. "When the flooding reaches us, my poor Opalescence is going to climb a tree while I'm distracted with keeping my sister safe. It's going to be so horrible, isn't it, snoogums? Yes, you poor baby. Oh, don't give me that look. It's for a good cause."

Mayor Millicent M. Mare said that the exemplary actions of several local heroes will ensure the safety of the town's residents.

"As the four-cubit-high wall of water sweeps toward the outskirts, our beloved Princess [Twilight Sparkle] is going to magically lift a cottage from its foundations, saving a family who slept through the storm warning," she said. "Then Ponyville's most dependable pony, Applejack, will lasso a mare from the floodwaters. As comic relief, Rainbow Dash is scheduled to save a panicked cat from a tree. Finally, for the grand finale, I'll point out a crack in the dam, and the magic of friendship will save the entire town just in the nick of time. It's all going to be very thrilling."

Meanwhile, dozens of ponies will gallop around, dodging floodwaters and screaming in panic.

"I know the entire troupe will turn in a top-notch performance," said Dress Rehearsal, manager of the Ponyville Theatre. "The 'Unfolding Catastrophe' is one of our most popular improv pieces."

Sheltered grandstands are being set up atop Telescope Hill for those who wish to get the best possible view of the calamity. Tickets are available through the Theater's box office, starting at ฿15 per seat, and all profits will be donated to the Ponyville Schoolhouse for the purchase of new playground equipment.

Victims' losses will, as usual, be covered by the Fund to Rebuild Equestria's Shattered Homes, and fund administrator Triplicate said via scroll from Canterlot that he anticipates no difficulty in disbursement.

"Due to unusually light villain activity this spring, fund reserves are at 137 percent of our July 1 historical average," Triplicate said.

Some ponies were more pessimistic.

"It's like pulling teeth getting our FRESH payments," Broken Mirror said. "Literally. They sent us the wrong form once and we had to go visit the dentist before getting our new house built."

One of the victims-to-be even questioned the need for the disaster.

"All I'm saying is, we picked a place our real estate agent guaranteed us was safe from falling trees, lightning bolts, stampedes, runaway carts, and earthquakes caused by magical explosions in the basement of the library," Snake Eyes said. "I was hoping we'd get at least six weeks out of this one."

In the line for grandstand tickets, though, spirits were high.

"We're really looking forward to it," said a grey mare, who asked not to be identified, as she bought tickets for herself and her foal. "There's so much suspense! You just don't know what will go wrong."

Archives of Horizon's reportage can be found at http://www.fimfiction.net/user/horizon.

From The Stars

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On harvest-turn, a star fell from the sky.
The white flame of its falling lit the night,
Glowing was the tent-wall like a lamp,
The world outside a light-moth in its cage.

The sky-priest dashed outside to see it drop,
And bright indeed the flare of impact was
When into White-Plume Mountain slammed the star,
In eerie silence for a frozen breath,
Quick-followed by a roar that shook the earth
As if the Eldest Dragon bellowed out
In wounded cry at spear-pierce from the night.

The wind that followed set ablaze the tents
And flung them as a hoof-sling flings a stone
A half-day's journey down the valley floor,
The drying sweetgrass also all ablaze.

Our tribe of fliers bold and shamans wise
Was blasted by the cruel and scouring winds,
And of the two-score sleeping in our tents,
Just six would reach the muddy river's edge
To soak our pelts and salve the burning wind.
We breathed through moistened reeds to guard our lungs
From searing sky-ash, as the water turned
To black with grass-char from the roasted plains.

Morning dawned as silent as the grave,
And weakened by the horror of the night,
We spoke of where to flee, and looked about,
To see a star-touched world laid to waste,
A barren land of cinders and still forms,
With not a stalk unburned on which to feed.
The sky-priest named us victims of a curse,
Our tribe laid low by vengeance from above,
And said our only hope of clemency
Was travel to the mountain where it fell
To supplicate our hostile visitor.

We salvaged from our camp what feed we could
And limped on swollen legs up barren slopes,
Until the sky-priest faltered and then fell,
Unable to pick up his wings or hooves.
He asked that we would leave him where he lay
And press on with our journey to the star,
To beg forgiveness for our ruined earth.
My clanmates held their tears and trudged along,
But I refused to leave the sky-priest's side,
And sobbed into his chest and clasped his hoof.

He smiled at me, and whispered in my ear,
"My little moon, your soul I see aglow,
The purest light a foal has ever cast.
If anypony ever is to glean
Our mercy from this vengeful fallen star,
It will be you to draw the heavens' tears.
So you must dry your own and move along,
And be for us the hope I cannot be."
With that, he closed his eyes and sighed aloud,
And when he moved no more, I dried my eyes
And looked up at the remnants of my tribe,
The ponies who had once seemed proud and strong
All waiting in dull silence for my gaze,
And when I staggered to my hooves and walked,
The other four fell into step behind.

The fallen star was glowing in the night
When first we cast our eyes upon its form,
A strange and sleek conglomerate of lines
Of substance I had never seen before.
Spider-Eyes, our scout, whose wings had flown
To valleys far beyond our fertile plains,
Picked up a tiny scrap of fallen star
And named it "metal", saying that the points
Of spears used by the furthest northern tribes
Were fashioned of the same celestial gift.
Upon the star glowed many foreign runes
Whose purpose none could glean, but Laughs-Out-Loud,
Who bartered with the tribes far to the east,
Suspected that they were a naming-spell,
And that the name resembled "canters-far".

We camped upon the crater's-edge three nights,
Unable to proceed into the heat,
Our feed-stores dwindling while we slept and prayed
To Canters-Far, that she might hear our voice.
Until a storm swept through the autumn sky
And mighty rains blew down the mountainside.
The star released a mighty serpent's hiss
That lasted through the night and through the storm,
And morning found its glow had faded down.
I gave my final oats to Spider-Eyes,
And asked her to approach the quiet star
To see if she had offered any sign.
So Spider-Eyes flew up to Canters-Far,
And on returning said she spied a cave
Of pony's size into its darkened heart.

I bid the others wait for me, and pray,
And staggered to the star with trembling hooves,
To find the jagged edge where metal ripped
And clashed upon the White-Plume Mountain rock.
Into the star I trod, where cool winds blew,
And ghostly lighting flickered deep within
Through straight-edged caves of metal lined with doors.

I listened as I crept through Canters-Far
And heard a hollow, flattened distant voice
Speak words which no mare's ears had ever heard.
I froze, then raised my voice to speak my pleas,
That she might offer mercy to our world
And open up her heart to hear my plea.
Upon my words, a serpent's-hiss burst forth,
And for a moment I knew I was done,
Until a door behind me rolled away,
Revealing a square cavern holding eggs.

I entered, and approached the central one,
Where through its shell a star-light softly shone.
Within the egg, a lovely sleeping mare,
With hair afire like all the northern lights.
Another serpent's-hiss, an icy breeze,
And then I saw the mare open her eyes.

"Sister," said I, "Sister from the stars,
Let us heal this world from its fire.
Let us heal the scars of Canters-Far,
Let our tribe renew their nights in peace."

Then the mare reached out a hoof to mine,
Pressing to the inside of the shell.
Gazing straight into my tearful eyes,
A gentle, lonely smile crossed her face.
"Sister," whispered from her silent lips.

War Averted

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"You WHAT?" Clover asked.

"I just made them love each other," Cadence said. "I mean, the problem is, Luna's jealous and Celestia's too proud to fix it, right? Equestria doesn't need a war —"

"You made," Clover said, voice tight, "the sun and the moon love each other."

"No. Just two sisters about to tear the world apart."

Clover pointed. "You made the sun and the moon love each other."

The moon hurtled into the morning sky, impacting the sun with a curious silence. The sun expanded, glow intensifying. Then the atmosphere flashed white, and —

Deleted Scenes

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The music swelled. The credits rolled. The lights in the theater brightened. Luna blinked, and turned to her sister.

"Tia," she said, "what happened next?"

Celestia smiled her usual inscrutable smile. "That's all there is. The movie is over."

"But the documentary merely showed us a portion of those ponies' lives."

Celestia cleared her throat. Dragging Luna to her first-ever movie had already been a surreal enough experience. The idea that tales could be told of fictional characters — an idea merely eight hundred years old — could wait until later. "That was long ago. The, ah … 'documentary' is all we know of them."

Luna nodded. "Unfortunate," she said, projecting disappointment in her tone, standing up and walking away.

Celestia didn't notice the gleam in her eye.

* * *

"Oh yes, a little bit lower …" Establishing Shot groaned, as the pink and blue spa ponies dug their hooves into his back.

"Of course, master," the pink one giggled. "And maybe … lower still …"

"We just want to be good ponies," her sister added, rubbing a hoof over his sensitive mark.

"Oh, you are, you are …" Shot said, caressing the pink one's face as he rolled over onto his back, staring up straight into the face of the Princess of the Night. "BWAAAAH!"

"Salutations!" she said cheerfully.

He shot bolt upright, hooves shooting between his hind legs to cover himself up. "Who are you what is this it's not what it looks like don't tell my wife I —"

"Tis alright!" the princess said brightly. "Thou art dreaming, Establishing Shot. We did not wish to disturb thee, but we have an inquiry which simply could not be delayed."

He scooted off the table and threw a towel around his flanks. "Um, okay, sure, yes, your majesty, um … seriously what are you doing here?"

"Thou recorded a historical documentary titled To Serve The Night, regarding one of our faithful servants in the era after our departure."

His eyes widened at the title. "I … ah … yes?"

"What happened to Dark Tail and Light Flanks after the end of the documentary?"

"They, um, they …" He swallowed. "Well, your majesty, I mean, it's a romance, certain things can be implied that we can't show on the screen …"

She tilted her head. "Whyever not?"

"Um. Film ratings?"

Her eyebrows lifted. "Are modern audiences truly so different? The missing scenes would have vastly increased the popularity of thy documentary, in times before."

"Well, yes, but, um, there might have been foals watching."

She stared back blankly. "How else will they be educated in the realities of lovemaking?"

This wasn't working. Muzzle beet red, he lunged for a lie. "Um … we ran out of film?"

The princess' face brightened. "Oh! It is quite fortunate, Establishing Shot, that that is a difficulty readily remedied, here in the world beyond the veil of sleep." Her horn shimmered. A camera appeared in his forehooves. "We shall use our magic to transfer thy recordings back to the waking world!"

"Recordings of …" He stared uncomprehendingly.

Her horn shimmered. A night-blue unicorn mare and cream-white pegasus stallion appeared in the spa room, disoriented, blinking.

Shot swallowed through a dry throat. "Um. Your highness, a film requires a crew of hundreds. Makeup artists —" Luna's horn shimmered, and the actor and actress instantly looked like they did in the film — "and set designers —" and they were on the windswept moors of the Trottish Haylands — "and … and …"

Luna smiled, almost predatorially. She cantered around behind Establishing Shot, gesturing to the dark-and-light pair.

"Restart thy recording of thy documentary, Establishing Shot." She leaned forward. "Now kiss."

* * *

Twilight stared at the screen, open-mouthed.

"And that," Celestia said evenly, "was why the Director's Cut of To Serve The Night was put in the restricted wing of the Archives."

On Alicorn Fiction

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"Oh, well, you see," Celestia said, punctuating the statement with a sip of tea, "alicorns don't write novels."

Twilight Sparkle — who had been nattering about the editing she was doing for the Daring Do fanfic that Rainbow Dash was so proud of, and how Dash's enthusiasm was inspiring her to pen some adventure stories of her own that were thinly fictionalized versions of their exploits, because they say that you should write what you know, and now that Ponyville had multiple aspiring authors she was thinking of starting up a writer's group, and given that there was an entire bookshelf devoted to Celestia in the library she figured that the princess would have some outstanding advice to pass along, and would Celestia consider being a guest speaker even though it might not be quite her area of expertise because Twilight was having a strangely difficult time finding any works of fiction attributed to Equestria's solar diarch — blinked, her brain slamming to a halt.

Then the unicorn simply stared, as if Celestia had sprouted a second horn.

"That's not to say that you shouldn't," Celestia added. "I quite enjoy reading fiction, in fact."

"But."

"Come now," Celestia teased. "Surely this can't be a surprise. You run a library, and you've searched quite hard for my works. The political discourses you stocked my bookshelf with are horrible, by the way. I can't imagine anyone would willingly read them."

"But," Twilight tried again. "Why?"

"They outline hypothetical benefits of a maddeningly vague theory of governance mediated through several levels of bureaucracy that if genuinely implemented would result —"

"I meant —" Twilight blurted out, then snapped her mouth shut, unwilling to interrupt.

"— in institutional paralysis and the complete collapse of …" Celestia trailed off, giggling in that delicate way that always made Twilight feel like she was somehow in on the joke. "Oh, Twilight. I know what you meant. The answer is, we don't need to."

"But," Twilight repeated, as if the word were jammed in the gears of her brain. Her muzzle curled into an unfocused intensity, and the jam worked itself loose with an almost physical crunch. "You're literary. You spend at least an hour each day writing letters. You love puns and wordplay. You gave me amazing worldbuilding advice when I was writing that fantasy history about the Diamond Dog Kingdom. You even made up a lullaby for me, once. I've still got it memorized. How can you not write novels?" She stared earnestly into Celestia's eyes, and added, "Not need to write novels?"

"To write a novel is to be born out of time," Celestia said. "An author can't be satisfied with the world as it is, and must fight with words to describe the world as it could be."

"That's true of all art. You've just described creativity. Surely you're not saying that alicorns aren't creative?"

"But it's not true of all art equally," Celestia said, staring at her teacup in a manner that promised elaboration. Twilight waited patiently as her teacher took a long sip, swirling the liquid around in her muzzle and downing it in first a dainty swallow then a deep one. "Music is a product of its time; I'd be rather surprised if you've ever heard a song older than a few hundred years. Visual art is fragile; it survives despite the ages, not because of them. But words? Stories? They're for those who seek immortality. When you live long enough, Twilight, you learn to take joy in creating as a response to the life that unfolds in front of you. Creating as an act of celebration, not as an act of escape."

"But you've never written a novel?" Twilight sounded horrified. "I refuse to believe it. Refuse!"

Celestia laughed, sweet and throaty. "Such confidence you have in me, my faithful student. May I share a deep and private secret, which you must never repeat to anypony else?"

Twilight's fire sputtered away all at once, a torch carried out into a blizzard of sudden emotion. "O-of course," she said, voice hushed, eyes wide.

Celestia glanced around, then leaned in and whispered conspiratorially: "1837."

Twilight blinked several times. "You … wrote a novel that year?" Her face lit up. "Wait, don't tell me the title! I bet I can discover it on my own." Her smile spread. "I can cross-reference the Royal Canterlot Archive annual publication records with the compiled bibliographies by author to find ponies with only one novel. This is going to be so exciting!" Her eyes flicked around animatedly as she ran her tongue around the inside of her teeth, lost in thought. "Of course, since it was written under a pseudonym —"

"They were."

Twilight's tongue halted mid-lick.

"Every last one," Celestia added, struggling to keep her expression level.

"Every …" Twilight said. "Every." She swallowed. "One thousand eight hundred novels?!"

"And thirty-seven. Under a total of 152 names." Celestia took a measured sip of tea and recomposed herself. "Partially to help me keep straight the various writing styles I've toyed with over the millennia, but mostly for the guilty pleasure of hearing academics hold passionate arguments over which of me wrote the best book of all time." She smiled immodestly. "Depending on the fashions of the age, I'm usually around half of the top ten."

"How … how could you hide that from everyone? Ponykind should know."

"No, Twilight, they really shouldn't," Celestia said with gentle reproach. "Wholly aside from the undesirable effects it would have on my ego, it would be a disservice to them. I am not only ponykind's princess, but their sun; my role must not be to outshine them, but to illuminate them. What would happen if it were to be revealed that I had written several thousand books, and many of Equestria's best-known? At a single stroke, I would destroy the discipline of literature. It would deter many ponies from writing, as they concluded that even a full lifetime's worth of the most magnificent work would only ever be a pale shadow of my own. Then there would be the ponies who would feel obligated to waste their best decades in reading and analyzing my corpus, searching for wisdom they could better find in living their lives. In truth, I ought not dare write at all."

Twilight nodded numbly. "Oh. I … I'm sorry."

Celestia sighed, looking wryly down into her teacup. "But you're right. I'm afflicted with the curse of the literary soul. Each and every one of those novels was a guilty pleasure — a release not unlike a colt exploring himself at night before sleep, hoping his sire and dam don't walk in. At least the ponies whose identities I overtook got some profit and fame out of it — an escape out of a destroyed life." Her face fell. "Though I wonder, often, how much of a blessing it really was. As much as they thanked me, as glad as they were for our deal, to have to go to sleep every night knowing that none of their success was their own, and knowing that they couldn't ever write anything of their own without exposing the scheme …"

Twilight gave Celestia a hopeful smile. "I'd do that. For you, I mean."

"One hundred and fifty-two ponies did." Celestia sipped her tea. "I'd rather you not be one of them."

"I'm serious," Twilight said, stung. "It would be worth it, to see something I knew you'd written. And I can't think of a greater honor than to have such amazing stories written in my name."

"I have never offered my deal to anypony with either literary talent or ambition. I would much rather burn manuscript #1838 than deny the world a single Twilight Sparkle novel." Celestia grinned. "Even if her hero's mentor is so perfect as to make all her scenes excruciating."

Twilight blushed. "Well, I'm hardly going to start inventing flaws."

Celestia gave Twilight a laugh that she didn't quite know how to interpret, and said, "Then I look forward to you finding some."

Alicornication

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(To the tune of.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlUKcNNmywk

ALICORNICATION

Sent to Everfree's edge
For a friend-finding vacation
Find the spark in endless dark
For rainbow reclamation
The Nightmare queen once had the dream
Of alicornication

Fight the pain of chocolate rain
With repetrification
Changelings with wedding rings
Try to steal your mind's elation
And all the while Celestia's smile
Sings alicornication

Cast your eyes out to the skies

You might soon be engaging

They're only wings, such simple things,

And yet your mind is raging

Born a unicorn

Yet something more

Dream of Alicornication

Dream of Alicornication

Travel through snow into crystalline glow
To feel dark transformations
Night and Day wait, watch, and pray
You will pass examinations
You understand they've someday planned
Your alicornication

No surprise your name implies
A third celestial station
Rainbows boomed and you were groomed
For alicornication

Cast your eyes out to the skies

You might soon be engaging

They're only wings, such simple things,

And yet your mind is raging

Born a unicorn

Yet something more

Dream of Alicornication

Dream of Alicornication …

Night Mare's Party

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(To the tune of.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iypUpv9xelg

NIGHT MARE'S PARTY

I'm armored up with nowhere to go
Stars are in the sky, moon on the horizon
I'm armored up with nowhere to go
Stars are in the sky, moon on the horizon

Waiting for my dear Celestia to concede
Planning out a party Equestria now needs
Waiting for my dear Celestia to concede
Planning out a party Equestria now needs

(CHORUS)
I embraced the darkness
Flowing in my veins
I was wronged, and now you all shall feel my pain
It's a Night Mare's party
Let them scream and pray
Remember well the sunlight, for this will be your last day
For this will have been the world's last day

Don't beg for mercy, turn and flee (turn and flee)

I'm armored up with nowhere to go
Moon on the horizon … (moon on the horizon …)
Waiting for my dear Celestia to concede
Moon on the horizon … (moon on the horizon …)

Start again in the Everfree
One face on the bits in my monarchy
Hear my sister coming to the door
Says she's found a way to stop the war

(CHORUS)

Don't beg for mercy, turn and flee
No light can stop the fear you cannot see
Don't beg for mercy, turn and flee
No light can stop the fear you caaaaaan't see

Turn and flee …

(REPEAT CHORUS AND BRIDGE, OUT)

You, Ms. Harshwhinny, And A Pair Of Cougars Go On A Double Date

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The hymn of cicadas in the nearby fields. The timid glow of stars in the darkening sky. The delicate fragrance of a distant ocean breeze. The fanciest restaurant in the Seychelles. An intimate table in a dark alcove.

Harshwhinny turns her withering gaze upon the unlit candle until it spontaneously bursts into flames out of sheer terror.

The waiter scrambles over. 0.3 seconds late. Harshwhinny renders judgment! This restaurant is imperfect and unacceptable. You're crushed for a moment, until she consoles you that it's the least imperfect restaurant she's seen this month, and really, you made a good try of it, and she'll give you a chance to continue, out of a mixture of abject pity and the dark amusement of watching yet another trainwreck of a first date unfold.

Meanwhile, the cougars have snuck away, brought down one of the other patrons, and retreated under the table of a nearby booth to tear apart their bloody repast in peace and solitude.


The waiter returns, humbly crawling back to your table with a drink tray on his back. He sobs at Harshwhinny's hooves, begging for forgiveness, and hesitantly suggests that the restaurant has authorized him to bring over some cocktails on the house. Harshwhinny checks the Official IERC List of Approved Material Compensation and nods curtly. He leaps to his feet and slides a White Russian across the table to her, bowing at the perfect fifty-six degree angle that maximizes the multiplicative product of obeisance and dignity.

Harshwhinny stands, a magnificent rage darkening her features. She braces her hooves under the table and effortlessly upends it. Silverware flies everywhere, killing two other patrons. The cougars' night has now gone from entrée to buffet line.

You behold the full glory of her wrath. Her luscious lips are pulled back, exposing perfectly aligned teeth, whiter than Celestia's coat and glistening with a thin sheen of saliva. One corner of her muzzle is curled slightly further downward than the other. Her pupils have shrank, and the whites of her eyes reflect the candlelight, now a cheerful blaze as the carelessly lofted candle lands upon one of the heavy velvet curtains and sets it instantly afire.

"WERE YOU NOT AWARE," she thunders, and the heavens themselves echo with her voice, "THAT I AM LACTOSE INTOLERANT?"

Her voice is even more beautiful in the slightly accented Seychellois Creole she effortlessly switches to in order to berate the hapless staff. You had no idea she even spoke it, but how could she not? Of course she learns every single language of every unnamed corner of every continent; how else to approach perfect comprehension and ranking of the world she so disdains?

At that moment, the infatuation you were stricken with long before your birth blazes out into the fiery passion of love; a love, alas, doomed to remain forever unrequited, for she could only love perfection itself, but in that perfection you have found a new goal worthy of lifelong aspiration. To be the very best. Like no one ever was. And suddenly, you know what you must do.

With a single bound, you leap across the room to where the cougars are now chasing stampeding herds of restaurant patrons, indiscriminately killing with vicious bites to the neck. You grab the female. She yowls and spits, vicious claws blading through the trembling air, teeth lashing and snapping. She thrashes in your grip. The moment of your doom approaches. Right up until, with a Herculean heave inspired by your newfound dedication, you suplex the beast straight through a nearby table.

While the cougar lies stunned for a moment, you grab an empty glass with one hand, and the teats on her belly with another. With two mighty pulls, rich, life-giving fluid bursts forth. You seize a boomerang decorating a nearby wall and hurl it into the night with all your strength. Moments later, having warped time and space at your behest, it returns to you, rotating around an upended bottle of Grey Goose Magnum, the last of which sloshes into your glass before the bottle smashes against a wall, further stoking the now-roaring blaze which six fire departments are straining ineffectually to quench. You snatch some coffee beans spilled across a nearby table, and squeeze them in one trembling fist, screaming to the heavens as you summon all of your might, until the beans themselves weep in agony and a thin dark liquid courses from your hand to complete the drink.

You prostrate yourself before Harshwhinny's imperious form, all thoughts of the dignity/obeisance balance gone, for does the attempt at perfection not carry its own dignity far surpassing any mortal vanity? "No mere cattle byproduct," you declare, "could ever hope to fuel your elegance. I ask only that you consider my humble offering; and, in the consideration, that you may temper the steel of my imperfect adoration."

She takes a sip. "Hm," she says. Then, again, "Hm."

You tremble, not daring to look at her, eyes fixed on a spot on the ground just shy of her hooves.

The corners of her lips slowly crinkle upward. "Your suplex form was abominable."

You weep. To merely be the object of her attention is so transcendent that there are no sufficient words.

"I shall practice it for years," you say, "just on the off chance that I might one day demonstrate it again for you."

"I have a better idea," she says. Before you realize what's happening, her hooves are wrapped around you. "I think you might benefit from some personal training."

She drags you into a back room.

Five minutes later, you are so spent that you can barely crawl back out into the towering inferno of the restaurant. Her mane is slightly mussed.

The cougars hold up number cards.

She, of course, scores a 10.

Torn, Discarded Pages From An Old Notebook

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Blood and Darkness, Chapter 22
By Twilight Sparkle (Age 16)

Kefentse crept through the caves, her green eyes glowing in the darkness and allowing her to locate the cultists' deadly traps with ease, as her consummate hearing pinpointed their distant chants. She crept up on their blasphemous ceremony — using her mechanical wings to levitate over the traps, her innate zebra stealth to approach in perfect silence, and her sharp claws to dispatch a guard who wandered too close.

Finally, after such a long journey to clear her name of the murder she didn't commit, the moment of her exoneration was close at hoof!


(*Here, the hornwriting skips a few lines and gets hurried and shaky)


So she leapt into the hooded ponies with a draconic roar, sending all of them scattering, their evil laughter fading into terrified screams at her righteous vengeance. Hornbolt after hornbolt from the metal tip of her reconstructed horn transformed all the ponies into the mindless lemmings they truly were in their hearts, weak-willed creatures that had simply been following their leader and mocking that which they could not understand. They ran away yipping piteously, forever sorry that they had not stopped to think before treating Kefentse so badly.

Then, in the rose-red crimson glow of the burning torches, it was just the dracozebris and the evillest pony of them all.

"You may have neutralized the greatest weapon of my popularity," the cult leader laughed, "but I don't need my followers, because the darkness gives me strength!" She produced a wicked dagger from under her robes and took a swing at Kefentse. But this time Kefentse would not back down. With a graceful leap she dodged away from the scything blade. Then she fought back with her greatest and most powerful weapon — knowledge. Using martial arts techniques long thought lost, which she had researched in her many hours in the library after her secret agent classes, Kefentse planted a hoof right in the leader's stupid insufferable muzzle. It took her out with a single blow. THAT'S the power of research, you smug timberwolf.

The cult leader fell to the ground with a cry of defeat. "No, how could this be — you're still so strong, after all I did to destroy your life?"

"Maybe you should spend more time studying and less time picking on innocent ponies," Kefentse said, graciously offering advice in victory, because she was no bully like this poor pathetic creature.

The cult leader nodded sadly and sat up, her hood falling away to reveal an all-too-familiar midnight coat and cream-and-blue mane. She was one of the fellow students that, many years ago, had been in classes with Kefentse at Princess Celestia's Secret Agent School, except she had failed after falling behind in her studies, and then fallen to darkness and corruption. Kefentse gasped. "Moondanc- Dark Pirouette! I should have known."

"You may have beaten me, but you'll never convince the princess of your innocence," the dark young mare said.

"I would revise your probability estimate of that statement," a voice said. A large white form stepped from behind a nearby pillar, the perfect spiral of her horn glowing amid the radiance of her ethereal mane.

"Princess Celestia!" they chorused.

"Thank you for disrupting the cult's spell and saving me, my most faithful secret agent," the princess said. "I should have known Dark Pirouette would be trouble, way back when she told me that you broke into her locker and I believed her and her friends over you. Then when she stole your homework to get you in trouble for missing an assignment. Then when I encouraged you to be more social with your classmates and she spent all afternoon making fun of you. Then today she pushed you around between classes and all I said was that you should try working out your differences. Well, I was wrong. It was so clear she was evil, and I don't know how I failed to see it. I'm so sorry I doubted you for even a second."

(Also it led to Kefentse being framed for murder and getting her horn broken and her wings removed, which was of course the important thing)

Kefentse felt her cheeks heat and her emotions stir as Celestia apologized. Everything was going to be alright. She could take her place as an alicorn again. Yet there were some secrets which still had to remain hidden.

Celestia turned to the sniveling cultist, the glow of the princess' horn intensifying and then winking out as her enchantment took hold. "And now that I've cast a truth spell, it's time for some answers."

"Yeah," Kefentse said. "Like, why would you do such a thing?"

Dark Pirouette burst into tears, since she couldn't rely any more upon the lies that had fooled her flock of sycophants and misled Princess Celestia. "I was jealous of you, Kefentse," she said. "You're better than me. You're smarter, and you get better grades, and you're more talented at magic."

"Don't forget prettier," Princess Celestia added, and then her cheeks flushed. "Oh dear," she murmured.

"You're right," Dark Pirouette said, color creeping into her own muzzle. "She's prettier. Actually, she's naturally hot, in a way I could never hope to be, and that's why I mock her fashion sense all the time."

Kefentse blushed too. "I … uh … Princess, what did you mean by 'oh dear'?" she said, modestly trying to change the subject.

"I must still be a little disoriented from what the cult did to me," Princess Celestia said. "I meant to cast the truth spell on Dark Pirouette, but it appears to be affecting all of us."

Kefentse gasped, feeling her chest tighten and her heart begin to pound. She stumbled backward on trembling hooves.

"Are you alright, Kefentse?" Princess Celestia asked, worried.

"No," Kefentse replied, helplessly listening to herself speak as the truth was ripped from her lips. "I'm terrified that you'll learn my deepest, darkest secret, of how passionately in love with you I am, and you'll hate me because you're so perfect and amazing and wonderful and wise and I'm just a stupid little filly who tries so hard to be worthy of your attention but nothing she ever does is good enough."

An awkward silence filled the cave.

Hot tears of shame pooled in Kefentse's eyes. But as she was whirling to flee, Celestia cleared her throat. The sound pinned Kefentse to the spot, as if she were a Danaus plexippus in the displays of the Academy biological studies building, Lepidoptera wing.

"Well," Celestia said, "that certainly makes this a great deal simpler, because I was also terrified that you'd discover I felt the same way about you."

Kefentse's eyes widened. "What?!"

"It's true," Celestia said, placing a hoof on Kefentse's shoulder, lowering her muzzle and blushing hotly. "I'm so hard on you because it's the only way to cover up my true feelings. I thought if I expected perfection from you, and you slipped up, it would give me an excuse to keep you at wing's length. But I can't lie about my desires now, thanks to the truth spell."

"Neither can I. I'm secretly in love with you too, Kefentse," Dark Pirouette cried. "I thought the only way I could ever get you to notice me was if I made myself look like I was better than you. It was really dumb and I regret everything."

"Not yet you don't," Kefentse said. "You're creepy and stupid and I hope you cry yourself to sleep for the rest of your life for being such a jerk." She turned to Princess Celestia. "What should we do to punish her for her crimes?"

"We should make out in front of her," Celestia said, "so that she can get a good look at what she'll never, ever have."

Kefentse smiled. "That sounds like an excellent idea, Princess."

So they did.

Why I Left

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A pony site talking about a "long way home"? Jesus. Now I remember why I haven't clicked on "I'm Feeling Lucky" in sixteen months.

Well, I'm already here … might as well register a throwaway account. I know this is a bad idea, but maybe … maybe … this means it's time to explain why I vanished from the fandom after Las Pegasus Unicon.

Anonymously. You won't believe it anyway.

(Names changed, etc.)

It wasn't the beating I took on the "Unicon Bits" they made dealers accept. Sure, that's what my last post said, but it would have been easy to get reimbursed later from LasPegAssist. No — when the con fell apart, my big problem was getting home. 1,733 road miles to New Orleans.

Getting to Las Vegas was no problem — I caught a ride with my friend "Bill," who was moving to San Jose. I didn't think getting back would be an issue — I'd arranged with some NOLA bronies to jump in their van when they left Monday morning. When the con cratered, though, everyone's communications went haywire. "Ted" asked "Jim" if I still needed their ride, Jim thought Ted said I'd caught another ride, "David" heard from Jim I was okay, Ted assumed David had talked to me, and so they bailed midday Sunday while I was arguing with the hotel about the double-billing on my room.

Come Sunday night, my cell phone's dead, I can't find my fellow yats anywhere, and I'm wandering the empty halls of the Riviera convention center with no room, no cash, and no plan.

I'd turned to glance at something when I literally bumped into him. Sharp grey suit, mismatching horns, one leather glove and one latex claw-thing. The first thing I saw was the eyes — one ice-blue pupil, one wide red one. I remember thinking that was an awfully cool contact lens.

"I'm sorry," I said.

He looked me up and down, then lifted his hands and tugged at his lapel with an enigmatic smile. "Are you? I'm Discord."

I chuckled; it was just strange enough to be in character. "Nice cosplay," I said. "Too bad nobody else is around to see it."

He leaned in conspiratorially. "Nobody else needed to be. Listen, Sorry: Red 23." Then he straightened up, clapped his glove on my shoulder (which made me jump), and shook my hand vigorously with that weird claw. It was disgustingly clammy, and for a moment I thought I had gotten a latex sweat bath, until I looked down and realized that there was a wad of damp green paper in my palm.

He was already strolling away as I unfolded the wad into a grimy $20 bill. "Hey, wait," I said, looking back up, and he was gone.

What would you have done? $20 would have bought me dinner; $700 meant enough cash for a hotel room and a plane ticket home, and I wasn't technically out anything if I lost. So I checked my luggage at the concierge desk and walked into the casino.

Took me a bit to find the roulette tables (way in the back, past the slots and the video poker). I bought a $20 chip and watched. One of the tables hit 00, which seemed like as good a time as any to test my luck, so I leaned in and slid the chip straight into the middle of 23.

It lost. Black 11.

But there he was, standing right behind me as I turned to leave. "You listened to me!" he crowed. "Nobody ever does that. You're special, Sorry, I can tell. So let's do each other a little favor — what do you say?" He sipped the muddy drink he was holding and winked at me.

At that moment, I had the most incredible urge to pee I've ever had in my life. I stammered something I don't remember and literally sprinted for the bathroom. It felt like I was emptying my bladder for minutes.

Then I walked out … into a different casino.

Harrah's New Orleans.

My luggage was on my front porch when I walked home. It was Wednesday the 27th.

So, either some maniac drugged me for three days and drove me home, or else I owe a favor to the last being in the universe you want to owe a favor to. Either way, I'm too scared of pony to return.

Just, listen … if you meet him at a con, for God's sake don't apologize.

Eponalepsis

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In the time of shadow, long after the last days of her children, she called her siblings to her bedside. They came, sisters, brothers, they came; past dust-fields night-bleached, past ice-sheets summer-frozen, they came; from beyond stars and beneath stone, from the hidden lands, they came.

On a day of shadow, under a sun's languid pulse and thin, they came, and her sunken eyes had no smile to greet them.

Luna Void-Born, first-redeemed, returned first. Though her journey spanned the dream-wastes, always had she been closest to Celestia's heart. The pair sat in silence, watching the frost of morning arc onward into the chill of day. One by one they trickled in, then, and two by two. Cadance Jewel-Heart, never-fallen, with Stalwart Oath-Bound, twice-tempted, he who was once called Sombra. Discord Many-Faced, far-seeker, the eternal prodigal, holding appendages with Monarch Echo-Heart, long since emerged from chrysalis. Tirek Ever-Hungry. Scorpan Ever-True. Starswirl Age-Lost and Grendel Hoard-King and Sunset Mirror-Bound, all in all they came; with one seat left unclaimed.

Celestia beheld it.

"Sister," they said. "World-light, Invictus, Mother-of-All, first among equals. We are here."

Celestia said: "Not all."

"All who will," they said.

Celestia looked outside. The sky trembled. Celestia closed her eyes.

Celestia said: "She knows she must."

They waited, then, as the sun sank to kiss the horizon, then limned the sky anew into saffron semblance of day. They waited, until "I will go to her," Starswirl said, and they waited, until the rocks had worn into sand and the stars had winked out one by one, and two returned at the moment he had left.

The Nightbringer took her seat, stonily staring into the pale marble of Celestia's eyelids.

Celestia said: "My ages end."

There was no rending of garments, nor beating of chests. The days of mourning had occupied the Last Age. The world had outlived history.

"Sister," they said, all but one. "Whose world is next to come?"

Celestia said: "Hers."

"You bless the Unredeemed?" they protested. "The Destroyer? The Furthest-Fallen?"

Celestia raised a hoof, and harmony's dissent silenced.

Celestia said: "She is our sister," and their hearts were jewel-hard.

Celestia said: "She brought each of you to the Light," and their hearts cracked open.

Celestia said: "In the end, there is nothing but forgiveness," and they bowed their heads.

The Nightbringer did not smile. Staring only at Celestia — "very well" — she turned to leave.

Celestia said: "Twilight."

She stopped.

Celestia said: "A final word."

"I owe you nothing."

And Celestia said: "Please."

The Nightbringer's jaw quivered. She approached Celestia's bed.

"You, alone, will die unforgiven."

Celestia said: "Then so must it be."

"No apology is sufficient."

Celestia said: "And yet I am sorry."

For an age, they stared at each other, and the sun sank, sputtering and silent.

The world ended.

The Nightbringer said: "It is my time now," and her siblings trembled.

"A request," Celestia said, "for your children, when they come."

The Nightbringer hesitated, and she spoke.

"Let there be Light," Celestia whispered, and closed her eyes for the last time.

Twilight lowered her head, for an age and an age.

Then, she raised the sun.

The Slow Fall of an Unfamiliar Star

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It's a beautiful sunset, layering on the irony. The sky's full of fading clouds, heavy with an unwelcome and awkward purple but limned on the underside with a warmer and more familiar red. A bright yellow ball hangs just above the ground, bleeding its color across the horizon into the haze of distant Horseburg's agricultural dust. I hold up one hand, curling in my fingers to examine the brightly painted nails, and in the light of dying day, my skin is an old familiar orange that makes my heart ache with might-have-beens.

I'm in the school bell tower, alone. I'm not crying. I'm not.

The ghost of his memory walks up behind me. He rests his head on my shoulder, and we stare at the sun together. His hands are cold on my shoulders in the bite of the autumn air, but the outer shell of his jacket shares its borrowed sun-heat with my back. I can smell his — what's that word again? — aftershave, a sweet musk that would have curled my nose hairs Before The Portal, but which merely lingers at the edge of my faded senses, registering almost subconsciously.

If I block out the tower walls at the corners of my vision, it's just like we're on his rooftop, that first week after he found me unconscious.

"It's so strange," I mumble at him like I did then, crossing my arms over my chest where his should go, feeling the words slide out where once they stumbled through my lack of muzzle. "To watch this."

"Why?" his memory murmurs into my ear.

This time, I answer. "Sunset is so different from Equestria's. It takes so long to fall. And the shimmer I was named for is missing." Celestia's shimmer, the grip of her horn. My gut twists for a moment. Her counterpart has never been anything but polite and disinterested, but the way she looks at me sometimes, I wonder what she knows.

He's silent. We stare into the sun. Why didn't you tell me about your world?, he doesn't say.

Would you have stayed if I did?, I don't answer.

He holds me while the tiniest sliver of light sinks into the earth. The silence grows awkward.

"You could have been my king, you know," I say. I'm not bitter. I'm disappointed. "You only hurt yourself."

He still isn't speaking. Why isn't he speaking? "I wasn't asking you for much," I say. "Just to do my homework for a week or two while I researched how to break back through. To keep the principal off my tail while I located the portal. To help me steal the grounds key. Which I've got, no thanks to you." I lean back into his chest, the warm patina of the oversized bell. "I'm going to make this world into the paradise it was meant to be." An unwelcome gust of chilly wind, never touched by a pegasus, ruffles my hair. "Bring the magic back."

"Do you believe in magic?" the memory of his voice faintly echoes.

I don't have to believe, I told him once upon a time. I can look at the sunset with you, and know. That's when I first leaned into him, cheek to neck, and heard in his chest the quickening of his heart.

"Being with you," another distant memory whispers. "It's just so … magical."

I close my eyes and lean into his cheek. The metal of the bell is moist.

"The magic's gone," a third memory says, sharp and clear. "I … just don't know you any more."

My eyes snap open.

I'm in the school bell tower, alone. Why am I crying?

"I don't care about you," I force myself to say out loud. I wipe my tears on my sleeves and stand up straight. I point an accusing finger at the sun. "And I don't care about you!" I fling myself forward to the railing, and scream out at the world, "I DON'T CARE ABOUT ANY OF YOU!"

I don't, I repeat to nobody in particular, certainly not to the one who walked away, as I curl up in a tight little ball with the last rays of sunlight ascending the top of the tower. I don't. It doesn't matter. Just so long as I get my magic back.

Just one more week until the portal reopens. One week without him.

I stand up, with one final glance at the red of the horizon, and stumble down the stairs, closing the trapdoor behind me. I don't care. I really don't.

I'll keep saying that.

By the time I succeed, it might even be true.

Through The Fire And Flames

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"I can't go to school, ma," Blue Oyster mumbled from underneath the covers. "I've got a fever."

Her mother gripped the comforter in one hand — for the sole purpose of demonstrating that this was an Equestria Girls fic — then threw it back and tut-tutted maternally. "You're just feeling that way that's because you're on fire, dear."

Blue walked over to the bathroom mirror and looked at her blue skin and her poofy purple hair. The latter was unaffected both by gravity and bed-head. The former was a fetching shade of teal. Her birth name was actually Mossy Clam, and with every day she was appreciating more and more having renamed herself as an act of teenage rebellion.

Also, her mom was right. She was burning, burning like a flame.

The fire didn't hurt her, though. They were old friends.

"Get dressed, dear," Mom said. "The school cannon fires in four seconds."

"But what if I'm contagious? I don't want to burn any bridges —"

There was a loud thump. Blue screamed as she hurtled through the air, then crashed and burned into the roof of the schoolmansion. Morissette-ironically, it was already aflame.

Her phone dinged. "If you're that worried, dear, go see the school nurse," Mom texted.

Blue walked to Vice-Princess Luna's office. Luna doubled as the school nurse whenever she was feeling sexy enough to play dress-up in her long stockings, short skirt, and skin-hugging white top. She was also a real doctor, and had graduated at the top of her class. She had merely made career choices that allowed her to combine her dual loves of intellectual stimulation and gratuitous fanservice. Blue told herself, not for the first time, that that made her fantasies okay.

"Luna?" Blue asked.

"One moment," Luna said, her attention on Snips and Snails, who were tied to the operating table in front of her, which definitely didn't double as anything else during off hours. "What am I going to do with you two troublemakers? The roof is on fire, there's smoke on the swimming pool, and the inferno's spreading to the disco."

"We didn't start the fire!" Snails protested.

"Luna!"

"What?"

"Oohhh," Blue moaned. "I'm on fire."

The three of them stopped and looked at Blue.

"Well, there's a hunka burning love," Snails whispered to Snips.

"Yeah, I'd fall into her ring of fire, if you know what I mean," Snips whispered back.

Luna frowned. "Blue Oyster, so help me, if you're about to tell me that you're burnin', you're burnin' for me —"

"No, ma'am. I woke up this morning like this."

"Oh," Luna said, relaxing. "Well, that's different then." She put on a pair of sexy reading glasses, crossed her legs, and flipped through her copy of the script. "That's just Sudden Incomprehensible Protagonist Syndrome."

"What's the best medicine for it?" Blue prompted, with subtle emphasis.

"The best medicine?" Luna said in the trademark voice she sporadically used. "Well, if you want to not be a protagonist any more, the best thing to do is to fall into a plot hole."

"Where do I find one of those?"

"Oh, it should be easy. Just check the Meghan McCarthy wing."

Blue made her way there, in a grand adventure that spanned weeks and earned her the enduring friendship of all of the Elements of Harmony and taught her valuable life lessons and turned her into a princess, all of which was cut to fit this story into 750 words.

"Blue, look!" Rainbow Dash pointed as they entered the hall. "It's the Cowbell of Destiny!"

Blue gasped. She sprinted past the traps, dodged the assassins, and redirected the fanboys toward Vice-Princess Luna. She reached out for the instrument with a trembling hand.

"You can do it!" Pinkie Pie cheered.

She did it. The other students, plus Twilight Sparkle and Spike, cheered. They threw a parade in her honor. She banged the cowbell over her head, and the flames were extinguished like the plot device they were.

"Well, I'm glad that's over with," Blue sighed. "I mean, really, I've been on fire for weeks now."

Twilight Sparkle raised an eyebrow. "Seriously? Because scientifically speaking, spontaneous human combustion is fatal in less than a minute."

Blue Oyster fell into the plot hole, screaming.

Twilight Sparkle blinked and looked around. "Where are we, girls, and how come I feel like we just pointlessly wasted a whole bunch of time we're never getting back?"

Applejack shrugged. "I dunno."

"Me, either," Rarity said. "Fro-yo?"

"Sounds good to me," Fluttershy whispered.

So they all went out for dessert.

F=MC^2

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Friendship equals Magic times Celestia squared.

With the quillstrokes recording that fateful equation into a sun-embossed, sticker-plastered diary, the young Tweinstein dragged Equestria hoofing and screaming into the Atomic Age.

The intangible force binding ponies into communities, and the solid thaumic masses bound in flesh and bone and blood, were in reality just two sides of the same coin.

Friendship was magic.

Magic was friendship.

All things were one.

⚛ ⚛ ⚛

Two decades later, as Nightmare Moon's second Great War wracked the continent and the moon hung still in the midday sky …

A team of six metaphysicists, huddled in a small bunker outside Alamadiscordo, bombarded an isotope of Harmony with elemental Generosity. The stone scintillated.

They had not so much as spoken to each other, yet the room suddenly felt more welcoming. Incrementally more intimate. Indeed, when they raced to their instruments, the readouts had measured a sudden Spike.

The sleeping dragon had stirred.

"We have become Dash," Appleheimer whispered, "Destroyer of worlds."

Charlotte's Goop

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"Charlotte," Applejack trotted in and said, "we need ta talk."

The changeling queen — sprawled lazily on her throne — twirled a holey appendage through her mane and smiled at the ceiling. "Yes?"

Applejack wasn't smiling. "About the message ya left."

"Oh, good," Charlotte purred, then glanced up at AJ's expression and tilted her head. "… Is there a problem? It was a straightforward request."

One of Applejack's eyebrow arched up. "Request? Bessie volunteered to visit yer hive fer our weekly emotion tribute, and ya left her hanging in one of them goop pods on the side of my barn!"

"Yes," Charlotte said, examining her hooftip, "that I did."

"She's been curled up sobbin' in her stall for the past 24 hours, eatin' tub after tub of ice cream!"

Charlotte rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. I returned her uninjured, and we fed responsibly. As her emotional display clearly demonstrates. If she wants to put on a drama-queen act over being a suboptimal tribute, that's hardly my problem."

"Suboptimal?! The goop-splatter letters ya painted called her 'SOME PIG'!" Applejack threw her hooves wide. "Now every doggone animal in the barnyard's teasin' her about her weight!"

"I wait wha WHAT?" Charlotte bolted upright, her full attention on Applejack. "I most certainly did not!"

Applejack nearly flung a photo at the queen. "Don't you lie! I got evidence!"

Charlotte snatched it out of the air in her horngrip, scrutinizing the picture and frowning. "Why are the shutters on the second-story window open?"

"Huh?" Applejack said. "Apple Bloom was airing out the barn this mornin', but don't you change the subject —"

"I'm NOT!" Charlotte yelled, flinging the photo down. "The message was TWO LINES! The line across the shutters said 'I WANT', as in, 'I WANT SOME PIG!' I'm trying to go on a diet, and porcine love isn't nearly as rich as bovine!"

"Oh," Applejack said, and then, grimacing, "oh."

"Oh what?"

"Oh," Applejack said, "as in, 'maybe I'd better go explain that to the cattle mob outside.'"

We Only Live Twice

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As strange as it was to see Bon Bon walking into her own funeral, the real shock was when Lyra stepped into the doorway after her.

The unicorn's mouth dropped open and stayed there. The room full of Bon Bons, who had swiveled to face her as one, stared back with the same wide-eyed horror. The Bon Bon at Lyra's side was the only one smiling, but she was a coiled spring beneath that gentle mask.

I was the first to react — I had been facing the back of the basement as I spoke at the lectern by Bon Bon's coffin, so I had a fraction of a second longer than the others to process the scene. I cleared my throat, which didn't break the tension so much as sharpen it. "Number One," I said, "what's she doing here?"

The noise seemed to galvanize Lyra, and her head swung to the Bon Bon at her side. "Bonnie," she said to Number One, "what's going on?"

"Please carry on, Seventeen," Number One said, gently pushing Lyra with her shoulder toward a seat at the back. "It's important that she sees this."

"Who are they? Are they changelings? Are you …" Lyra's eyes slid toward the coffin as if rolling down a rain-slicked hill. "Wait, is she …"

"Number Eight," One said, her voice carefully controlled but her emotions bleeding out. "The Bon Bon who brought you breakfast in bed on the day of the attack, while I was in Canterlot delivering a report. When the bugbear showed up, she tried to lead it away from Ponyville, but it killed her." One's voice wavered. "Then it realized she wasn't a pony, and went on a rampage to look for the real me."

Lyra's eyes widened again. "So the rumor about you dying in the woods that freaked me out until you showed up to reassure me —"

"Was true. Was her." One sighed. "Please, Seventeen. I don't mean to interrupt."

I swallowed, trying to reassemble my speech from the fragments of the moment. "I, ah … was just reminiscing about how brave Eight was. How she was one of the only drones to fight our queen alongside you to rescue the rest of us from the hive. How she set an example every day that the rest of us are still struggling to live up to." Panic crept in as I sensed Lyra's shock swirling into fear; I had no idea what to do about it, but unlike One, at least I could sense the pending storm. "And," I ventured, "I think she loved Lyra nearly as much as you did, Number One."

Lyra's eyes whipped back and forth between me and One, and both her voice and emotions frosted over. "Bonnie —"

"We're changelings, but Number One's a real pony," I frantically clarified, and felt the ice fractionally recede as Lyra latched onto my words.

One turned to Lyra and looked her in the eyes. "I am, and I'll do whatever you want to prove it," she said firmly, and then her voice softened. "Listen, Lyra … I love you more than anything, but once you do undercover work, you can't ever leave. I can't always be here with you, and I was scared to explain why, so when I stumbled on a way for you to have me 24 hours a day … it was the only way to give you what you deserved, and it was both kinder and easier than being honest. But when you asked for the whole truth today, and promised me you'd try to love me no matter what … I had to come clean."

Doubt crept into Lyra's indignation, so I jumped back in. "We never fed from you," I said. "That was the first promise One had us make, before we ever laid eyes on you. But we wouldn't have, anyway. We owed her so much, and when we saw how happy you made her … we would have starved ourselves to death to keep you two together."

I saw Lyra's neck muscles shift as she clenched her teeth, and doubt raged inside her. "How much of you was the real you?" she finally asked One.

"About half," One immediately said. "That's the most my job will allow, but I spent every moment here that I could." She squeezed her eyes shut. "I never should have lied, Lyra … but I only ever wanted you to be happy."

Lyra chewed her lip, and her emotions were too roiled to read, and I could feel One bracing herself against an even murkier terror. My stomach twisted in knots. This was beyond my ability to help.

"I …" Lyra finally whispered. "I'm going to have to think about this." Then a thin sunbeam broke through the clouds of her emotion, and I could feel the whole room clinging to that tiny lifeline of hope. "All I know is that I want you, Bonnie. You." She leaned in and curled her neck against One's.

Simultaneously, fifteen Bon Bons bowed their heads and dissolved into green flame, leaving two ponies hugging each other amid a sea of black chitin.

I reached over and silently closed the lid of the casket. Eight would have wanted it that way.

Moon Bright

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The chickens were nervous. Pistachio understood. The moon was too bright.

That was all it was. The moon was too bright.

He stared up at its smooth white face, squinting a bit. Despite its terrifyingly blank look, any minute now it would yield to the sun. Of course it would. It already had, once.

There was no reason for it to remain in the sky again, not with Princess Celestia back in charge. The moon — and its former dark prisoner — had set like clockwork every morning for his whole life, and countless generations before him. And according to the royal proclamation that a Wonderbolt had posted in the town square after the long night ended, the Princess said everything was back to normal. That was all there was to it. He trusted Princess Celestia like he trusted the sun to ri…

No, bad analogy.

Pistachio thought for a moment. Like he trusted the seasons to turn.

… But that came back to her, too, didn't it? Changing temperatures followed the shifting of the solar schedule as days were lengthened and shortened.

Like he trusted trees to grow, then? But that was guided by earth pony magic, and the blessings of magic came from friendship, which came from a nation united under Princess Celestia.

Pistachio stepped back from the edge of the porch and turned his back on the orchard. He didn't want to think about analogies any more.

He shifted his gaze through the farmhouse window at the grandfather clock in the living room. Five fifty-seven a.m. on the nose. Exactly three more minutes.

Some hens trilled. A rooster clucked. Pistachio stared as the second hand sank to the bottom of the clock face. Then the languid sway of the pendulum propelled it upward. Then across. Two minutes.

Pistachio turned at the clip-clop of hooves on packed earth — his son plodding back from the orchard. Pecan's head was turned, staring back over his shoulder at the too-bright moon suspended over the horizon.

"Chickens are nervous," Pecan said, slowing as he neared the porch.

Pistachio took a long and silent breath, and tried to ignore the birds' spreading trilling. "Two minutes now."

Pecan glanced at his sire and languidly walked up onto the porch next to him. "I was just gonna say the moon's too bright."

" 'Course," Pistachio said, turning away as his muzzle flushed. "Sun's gonna rise, you mark the Princess' words."

Pecan returned to staring at the moon.

" 'Course it will," he slowly said. "That sister o' hers has been reformed."

"That's what she says," Pistachio said. And then, as he realized that hadn't come out with nearly the note of finality he had intended, he clarified, "What Celestia says." Even that seemed insufficient, so he coughed and continued: "That settles that."

They stared at the moon. Pistachio snuck another glance at the clock. One minute.

"Let's say it didn't set," Pecan said. "It will, o' course, but if it didn't … I reckon the Royal Guard might need some good, strong earth pony volunteers."

Pistachio frowned. "Hypothetically," he said, "if the moon didn't set, yer military career would last exactly as long as it takes to charge at the lunatic."

"Proclamation asked us not to say that no more," Pecan said, with a note of acid at the edge of his tone.

"Well, we're speakin' hypothetically," Pistachio said. "If the sun didn't rise, I reckon that's what she'd be. But it will, so she ain't."

Pecan was silent for a moment. "True."

A breeze stirred leaves in the orchard. A poor, confused rooster crowed — a sound as sad and half-hearted as the pale light of the not-a-sun.

The ponies stared at the sky, squinting a bit. Was the moon moving? It was. Maybe. No? It kept looking like it was moving, but it wasn't changing position against the few nearby stars it hadn't washed out.

"Any second now," Pistachio said, his heart pounding against his ribs.

"Sun'll rise," Pecan said tightly.

Pistachio glanced back at the clock. Six o-clock and eight seconds, and his heart stopped. He opened his mouth, turning toward his son —

Shadows shifted. The moon shivered, and lurched, and visibly, unmistakeably sank.

The horizon brightened. The rooster crowed again, full-throated. Sunlight kissed the wall of the farmhouse. Pistachio let out a long, shuddering breath, closed his eyes, and felt the light warm his skin.

He'd have to go talk to the local pegasi. The night had to have been unseasonably cold for him to be shivering like this.

There was a snort next to him. "Clock's a few seconds fast, pa."

"Reckon so," Pistachio said. "We oughta fix it. But there's chores that need doin'."

Pistachio heard the sound of Pecan plodding back out to the orchard. "Reckon so."

The Illusion Of Choice, Or Vice Versa

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"Well, she's not an average unicorn, is she?"

The filly could see them in her mind's eye. Father, stalking in ever-shrinking spirals like one of the tigers from the animated pictures in her adventure books. The grey-jacketed stallion — beard quivering at the end of his muzzle — waiting, cringing, for the pounce, like the goat who the intrepid heroine swooped in to save.

"No foal is, sir." The stallion's voice was muffled through the heavy door, but she thought she caught a hint of the same tone she used when Mother refused her an after-dinner sweet. "But she's only eleven, and it's very rare for ponies to develop adult levels of control until their teens. With training and nurturing, she's going to make exemplary contributions to thaumaturgy, but everypony will be much happier if we allow that to happen at its own pace."

"She is a prodigy, Meister." Father's voice shifted from fang to frost. "Like her brother is. Like her parents before her. Six generations of mages will not settle for 'average'. Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns will not settle for 'average'. And if you won't help her reach that potential …" Father's voice dropped, almost too soft to hear. "We'll find somepony who will."


The filly's mouth began to water as the butler lifted the lids from the trays. Buttered carrots and fried potatoes! Both of her favorites! And then he reached her own … only to reveal a single bowl of broth, and a spoon so broad and shallow that it more closely resembled a spatula.

"Finish your soup, dearest," Mother said before she could protest. "Good fillies who eat what they're served get to have the rest of their dinner."

Confused, she leaned down to drink it, only to be sharply rapped on the nose with the spoon. "Manners."

She glanced down at it, then back to Mother, and her objection died on her lips at Mother's expression. Swallowing through a dry throat, she pushed energy into her horn, fighting through the feedback as it sputtered weakly to life, wrestling to wrap the inertial link around the utensil's handle as the spell's energy spasmed and wriggled.

As the spoon danced around her side of the table, caroming off the salt shaker and Father's plate, the skin around her horn grew hot. She felt a trickle of sweat drip down her forehead. She didn't dare reach up to wipe it away.

Long minutes later, punctuated only by the clinks of colliding tableware and her brother's uneasy coughing, the spoon ricocheted off the side of her bowl and then hung in midair. She sucked in a breath and held it, eyes locked on the hovering metal. She slowly tilted her head to the side, watching the spoon rotate accordingly.

She lowered her head. The end of the spoon dipped in.

She raised it. The spoon rose, the extra weight of the soup unbalancing it. The soup dribbled out of the shallow depression, splashing onto her plate and tablecloth.

She went to bed hungry.


As Mother stepped out and closed the door, the filly stared at the heavy curtain — the same way she used to spend her study time staring through the window before Father caught her. Still, she could see the outside in her mind's eye: pegasi flying through the crisp Canterlot air; street vendors hauling their carts to the market, luring customers with the scents of exotic spices; foals laughing and shouting, galloping down the streets.

She stomped back to the desk and sat down, glancing at the door, wondering how long Mother would wait outside and listen. She glanced at the six spellbooks — one for each of the classical schools of thaumaturgy — and opened the translocation one at random, flipping loudly through a few pages and then waiting for the sound of receding hoofsteps from the hall.

The filly wrapped her hornfield around the books one by one, grunting only a little as they lifted from the desk, and floated them back to her empty bookshelf.

Her stomach grumbled. She'd mastered the soup spoon, but they'd added a second course of Qilinese fried rice and two simple eating-sticks. She ate so slowly these days that she never felt full.

All we want is to help you get your Cutie Mark, Mother had said. It's time you began using your magical talent to its fullest.

Well, she had thought this morning, perhaps it is.

She stood again — silently this time — and crept to the window, where the thaumigraphic projector she'd liberated from the observatory had been carefully tucked away behind the desk. Touching a hoof to it, she closed her eyes and summoned her focus, hornglow sputtering to uneasy life. The glow of its projector crystal shimmered and faded, and the heavy curtain nailed across the window vanished, to be replaced with evening sky. The bottom pane of glass similarly evaporated. She slipped through the window into the bushes outside.

"And now, for my first spell," she whispered as she crept across the lawn and vaulted the fence, "the great and powerful Trixie will disappear."

The Shipper Is: IN

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She has set up a simple wooden booth at one side of the Princess-Con Dealer's Hall. "METAROMANTIC HELP 5¢," the sign above Cadance's head reads, and beneath the counter: "THE SHIPPER IS: IN". As I wander over, Supreme Overprincess Raven Tulip Bloodswan, red-and-black ruler of all OCs, has just stepped up to the booth.

"What do you mean, metaromantic?" the zebralicorn asks dubiously.

Cadance smiles up. "It's simple, really. You pay me, I get two princesses to fall briefly in love, you get to vicariously live out your shipping dreams in real time."

A smirk creeps onto Raven's fanged maw, and a nickel flashes out from her bag. "Me and Princess Big Mac," she immediately says.

The smile on Cadance's muzzle wavers, but she holds it professionally. "Two other princesses," she clarifies. "I'm a fantasy enabler, not an escort service."

Raven is only briefly deterred. The creepy smirk returns, and she slaps the nickel down. "Celestia and Luna."

Cadance's smile falls away into an all-too-familiar disappointment, and she pushes the nickel away. "Sorry, no princest."

Raven scowls. "Well, what good ARE you then?"

"You'd be surprised how often I've heard that today," Cadance mutters wearily, then forces her smile back on. "I also sell that shipfic folder card game?"

"Bah," Raven says, snatching back her nickel and stomping away.

I step up to the booth, twirling a nickel on one eagle-claw like some sort of coin-based basketball virtuoso. "Well," I say, "this looks promising."

Cadance's eyes flick up and down my form appraisingly. She shudders, and forces her gaze upward. "Discord," she finally says politely. "The wings and horn look good on you. And I have to say I'm almost impressed with how aggressively that tutu fails to match any other clothing in existence."

"I know! Isn't it great?" I say with a happy little shimmy. Then I flick my claw, spinning the nickel down to land on the counter by her hoof. "But to business! I have shipping desires. You have magical love powers. This would seems to be the basis for a joyous and mutually profitable relationship."

"Let's hear it," she says, voice and eyes dead.

"Princess Potted Plant," I say — pointing across the room to where I've placed a tiara and a little set of clip-on wings on an azalea bush near the women's restroom — "and Princess Garbage Can," pointing to a similarly bedecked receptacle outside the other women's restroom.

Cadance blinks. I see the tiniest spark of hope rekindle in her eyes. She sits up straighter.

"I," she says slowly, "can do that. I can actually do that." She sweeps the nickel into her coin pouch, and her horn flashes to life. Shimmering auras encircle the inanimate objects. Then she turns to me with the first genuine smile I've seen on her all con. "I never dreamed I'd say this to you, but thank you for my first sale of the convention."

"You know me," I say with a wink, "always happy to bring a little excitement to your day." Then I bow and back away, just in time for Twilight Sparkle to approach the booth with a deranged grin and a mountain of nickels.

As much as I'd love to stay and enjoy that vicariously, I've got bigger fish to fry. I skip across the room, pushing the potted plant and garbage can together. The plant's leaves rustle in the light breeze from the air conditioning.

I shed a tear. It's beautiful. Perfect.

Then I set up my camera. I've got to be ready for when my shapeshifting spell on Celestia and Luna wears off.

Retirees

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"Lying doth not suit thee, Tia," Luna murmured over dinner salad.

Celestia let out a breath through her nose. She had figured this conversation was inevitable, but it didn't make it any easier.

She wing-gestured to her ponies-in-waiting for privacy, chewed while they silently left the room, and then swallowed her mouthful of greens and dabbed a napkin to the corner of her muzzle. "Telling Twilight that we'd be retiring wasn't really a lie."

Luna frowned, spearing another piece of asparagus. "Technicalities doth not suit thee, either. 'Twas true only in the narrowest sense of abdication. A lie of omission remains an untruth."

"Luna." Celestia set down her fork and looked Luna in the eyes. "How would she have taken the truth? 'We're no longer immortal now that the Elements of Harmony have found new bearers, we've got five years to live, and if you don't step up as ruler, Equestria will soon dissolve into anarchy'? I defy you to tell me that Twilight Sparkle would have reacted with anything less than a complete meltdown."

Luna rolled her eyes. "If you had put it that way, aye. But do not ask me to believe that you of all ponies would not have broken it to her in a gentler manner."

"Yes," Celestia said. "Which is what I'm doing."

Luna gave her a flat look. "No, you are lying."

"I'm doing exactly what I did for you."

Celestia steeled herself as Luna stiffened. It was a low blow—but also, if Luna was determined to stand on principle, a blow she had to strike.

"I know lying upsets you, but the truth sometimes is the worst liar of all," Celestia added softly, sipping some tea. "If ponies had remembered your actions a thousand years ago and recognized you on your return, they wouldn't have given Luna a chance after Nightmare Moon was cleansed. I won't apologize for privileging the truth of our reconciliation over the truth of our failure. Likewise, please don't ask me to apologize for manipulating Twilight's first impressions so she can approach the truth at an angle she can face without fear."

Luna's face twisted. Then her body sagged, and she let out a long breath. "Perhaps I deserved that. But, sister … my concern is for you, not solely Twilight. The memory left when a loved one departs is far more fragile than a first impression. If your last act is a deception, ponies cannot forgive you it, for you are no longer there to rebuild trust and bury the lie in happier memories."

"If that's your concern, then the idea of retirement is actually less misleading than the truth," Celestia said. "We're no longer immune to aging, but if we follow through on the plan, we'll still be there for her generations from now—and in a way we know she appreciates. Why panic her with talk of death? This will just be…" She waved a hoof vaguely. "Different."


Star Swirl squinted. "Celestia. Luna. You look… different."

"That's time magic for you," Celestia said drily. "Hello from the future."

To his credit, Star Swirl merely scowled. "You'd better not be here to tell me that the portal destabilizes something crucial." He gestured at a trio of stunned sirens to one side, just starting to stir. "You have no idea how much grief these three will cause for Equestria. It's an understatement to say things don't end well unless I banish them."

Celestia glanced at Luna, who simply sighed and nodded. She nodded back.

"Actually," Celestia said, "we'd like to go with them."

That got Star Swirl raising both eyebrows.

"Are you addle-brained?" he shouted. "It's a temporal trap! Even for an alicorn, it's a one-way trip! You'll spend the rest of your existence endlessly resetting and cycling through the same four years of your life as some sort of monkey-thing—" He paused for a moment. "Oh. That gets fixed at some point, doesn't it."

"For those entering in an age to come, yes—but not for us here, no," Luna said.

"But it's alright." Celestia smiled. "You'll understand someday. Drop us a line when you do."

"Speaking of which," Luna said, "you did explain everything in your final letter to Twilight, yes?"

"I did," Celestia said as she stepped up to the portal. "And I look forward to meeting her again for the first time."