by Gabriel LaVedier

First published

Sweet, sometimes turbulent, vigniettes about two couples: Twilight and Pinkie; and Trixie and Gilda.

"Twixinkilda," the chapter of "Contra the Heresies" was generally well-liked, but the main subject, the Serpent Crown, was seen as an interruption of the romantic action.

This is that chapter, purified. These are the stories of two very sweet, very odd couples, going about their lives as very weird and unique folks. An abdicated former princess, a Cannonite ex-rock-farmer; an Egg Grabber Bald griffiness, a Roani stage magician. So much oddness, so much love.

Twinkie- Minty Fresh

View Online

Another typical day in Ponyville was passing by. Birds sang, clouds drifted, Opal and her kittens strolled the main boulevard with Angel at the back watching over his offspring. Pinkie Pie was also up to her usual shenanigans, zipping rapidly back and forth between different points in town.

With each zooming pass she whipped by Twilight Sparkle, who was watching the spastic activity with a look of resigned bemusement. She was not normally wont to delve into the strange actions of her marefriend but it seemed like a good time to do so. “Uhh, Pinkie..?”

“Oh my gosh, Twilight! This is so great! So great! I am so super nervocited!” Pinkie squealed, pausing only long enough to squeeze Twilight in a crushing hug before running off again, leaving the unicorn gasping and quivering after a dose of earth pony strength.

“Th-that seems apparent,” Twilight groaned out, shaking off the effects of the squeeze and brushing off her coat. She waited for Pinkie to come within earshot again before she asked, “But just what has you so nervocited?”

“Didn't I tell you? I thought I left you a note, or a cake, or a notecake,” Pinkie mused, while still on the move.

“That explains the half-eaten cake in the fridge with the incomplete message on it. Spike needs to learn not to eat other folks' mail... I'll add that to the list of things I never thought I would say,” Twilight said, pulling out a note card and scribbling down a quick note. “Since Spike ate your... notecake... can you tell me what has you so charged up, besides the usual hot-sauce-laced cupcakes?”

“Minty's coming! Minty's coming!” Pinkie squealed, bouncing on her bottom as she made her way to another part of town.

“Minty's coming? That sounds exciting. Or would if I knew just who this Minty is. Is she another baker or some kind of party planner?” Twilight asked.

“No, silly! Minty was my bestest, bestest, super-bestest friend back in the Cannonite community. Her family owned another rock farm near ours. I haven't seen her since dad sent me off for my wilding and I never came back. She's decided to come visit me because she said she was sorry that she never came when hers was happening,” Pinkie gushed, pausing to remember her friend fondly before resuming her frenzy of activity.

“Wow... that's a lost of 'bestests.' And that's not even a real word, which is especially impressive,” Twilight said. “You're really putting in a lot of effort for her, aren't you?”

“She's only going to be here two days. She'll stay overnight and leave late the next day so we can spend lots and lots of time together. I need to put in a lot of effort to make it an amazing, super-fun time!” Pinkie shouted, pulling on a rope to unroll a tremendous banner that read, 'Welcome Minty!'

“She must be special,” Twilight said, smiling a little bit as an uncomfortably familiar feeling moved through her chest. The sensation passed in an instant, almost not there. But Twilight knew what she had felt.

“She's really special. She was my only friend back then. Even my sisters weren't as nice and special as Minty was. I want to make sure she knows it,” Pinkie said, slowing down and smiling with full sincerity as she recalled those days.

“Do you need any help? I can be a really big help. And I always want to be involved with what you're doing. I'm your marefriend after all,” Twilight said, a touch too eagerly, throwing a leg around Pinkie's shoulders and hugging her close, not coming anywhere near Pinkie's natural strength.

“Nopenopenopenope!” Pinkie insisted, returning the hug with another crushing one of her own, then zipping away. “I've got it all planned out and it's almost ready. But you can join us if you like!”

“N-no, that's alright,” Twilight insisted, as the feeling ran through her again. It was slower to vanish the second time.”I don't want to be a bother to the two of you. You're the friends after all. I'd just be a third wheel.”

“Ooooh! Like a tricycle! That sounds like fun. Come on, Twilight, join us! You'll have a good time,” Pinkie said, rubbing her puffy mane up against Twilight's side.

“It's fine, it's fine,” Twilight said, giving a loving smile but waving Pinkie off. “I... I have you all the time. She's not here like I am. I'll keep on being here,” she said, with a certain desperate implication.

“Alright. If you want I'll just bring her by the library so you can at least meet her. I think she'd like to meet you and get to know you. You're really important to me,” Pinkie said, planting a peck on Twilight's cheek.

A blush crossed over Twilight's features and the familiar feeling vanished from within her. She was still special, still important to Pinkie. That was what mattered the most in the end. “I'll look forward to that. Maybe I should tidy up a little. I don't want your super-best friend...”

“My bestest, bestest, super-bestest friend,” Pinkie corrected.

“R-right, yes, your... that, to get the wrong impression of me through seeing a dirty library,” Twilight said with a soft chuckle. “I want to look good and really impress her. It's important.”

“Thanks, Twilight,” Pinkie said, giving Twilight another kiss and zooming away.

Twilight rubbed the kissed spot and watched Pinkie go. “I love you...” Twilight whispered, staring at Pinkie's vanishing form.

- - -

Twilight's magic had been in motion for hours, holding multiple rags, spray bottles, brooms, and other tools of cleaning. When a tendril of mana was unoccupied by a tool it was filled with as many books as possible, being shuffled from space to space according to many different display schemes with proper decimal order. Spike had been regarding the flurry with a sort of awe. “Wow Twilight... do I need to find a new place to work? I hear that the cafe is hiring.”

“Oh Spike! I'm not trying to take your job. But this needed a horn-on approach. This has to be absolutely perfect,” Twilight commented, scrutinizing a small speck of floor that didn't shine quite as bright as the rest. Polish was applied and furiously rubbed in.

“So... is Princess Celestia coming to... live here or something? You haven't been this crazy since... uh-oh,” Spike said, his eyes going wide. “Are you going to Paddock Fifty-One again?”

“I didn't go to Paddock Fifty-One the last time,” Twilight grumbled as the recalcitrant spot refused to shine properly. A blast of magic scraped down a few layers and more polish brought out the proper shimmer. “And this is totally different.”

“Right... right... on a completely unrelated note, I'm going to go see Rainbow Dash. No special reason, I just need to see her,” Spike said, as casually as possible, sliding his way along the smooth floor.

Twilight put a magical aura over the door and shook her head. “Spike... it's not about Rainbow Dash. Pinkie has a guest coming to Ponyville today. An old friend. A good friend. Her... 'bestest, bestest, super-bestest friend', and that's a direct quote,” she said.

“Oh. Neat,” Spike said, giving a shrug. “So... why are you going crazy on the library?”

“Didn't you hear me? She used a made-up word three times. This is serious. She really, really thinks a lot of this friend. I need to... make a good impression. Show that I'm special,” Twilight said, the various products and tools being put carefully away in the closet.

“Do you really think that Pinkie's going to stop loving you? Seriously? You two are always together. Nothing's going to change that. Trust me,” Spike said, sliding over to give Twilight a reassuring pat on the back.

A small smile spread across Twilight's face. “Thanks, Spike. I really needed to hear that. I guess you're right. I really shouldn't be nervous. Pinkie's my marefriend and we really love each other. An old friend visiting isn't going to do anything to change that.”

The door to the library burst open suddenly and there came the boom of Pinkie's party cannon, scattering long streamers and great clouds of confetti. The carefully cleaning of the library had nearly been for naught, save that the floor maintained its shine and the books were still arranged properly. Pinkie stepped into the room beside her cannon and cleared her throat. “And now presented, the bestest friend a filly on a rock far could have hoped for, the one and only Minty Tea!”

Minty stepped through the door next, head down and a shy blush on her features. She looked about as old as Pinkie, with a pale green coat and a mane and tail that were two tones of pink. On her flank her Cutie Mark was three green-and-pink circular peppermint candies. She was mostly undressed, though she wore long socks on all four legs that reached nearly to the top of each leg, plain black shoes, and a small black vest. “Um... hello there... I'm... not quite used to this.”

Twilight regarded Minty for a moment, unsure of what to think of her. She finally settled on thinking nothing, and merely held out a hoof with a lopsided smile. “Pinkie takes some getting used to. I'm surprised, you were her friend for so long, you should be in tune with her.”

“It's been a while since we last met, I don't really know much about her life outside of the community,” Minty confessed, still blushing. “She said that you were her... marefriend? Is that right?”

“Yes! Twilight Sparkle, of Canterlot, graduate of Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, with a Master's in General Thaumatology, in the graduate program in the new discipline of Emotional Psychothaumaturgy,” Twilight said proudly, standing up tall and placing a hoof on her chest.

“Wow...” Minty said, shuffling awkwardly in place.

“And she's cute!” Pinkie said, breaking Twilight's look by planting a kiss on her cheek. “Looks like you were busy in here.”

“Yes, I did a little tidying and arranging. Not that the library is usually a mess but I wanted everything to be just so for a visit. It was... very clean...” Twilight looked around at all the mess while hooking a foreleg around Pinkie.

“Don't worry. She's done this to every other place. That white unicorn really yelled about it. We didn't even have a chance to get introduced...” Minty said, idly looking around the library.

“That's Rarity. She's... passionate about cleanliness,” Twilight said with a small chuckle. “So... this is Golden Oaks Library. Though smaller than, say, the Grand Archive of Canterlot, where I also once worked, it is still a wonderful collection of thought-provoking treatises, edifying books on science, an assortment of archival accounts for the region, with biographies, and the place to find all the newest Daring Do books and related materials, as well as a full archive of the entire series,” Twilight reported, voice turning from a docent-like moderate tone to a higher-pitched squeak of fannishness.

Minty regarded her oddly for a moment before asking, “What's 'Daring Do'?”

“You've never read the Daring Do books?” Twilight asked with a gasp.

“The Cannonites don't really read popular books. They prefer educational books and a few traditional tales,” Pinkie said. “I told you it was boring. Oh! Sorry Minty...”

“No, that's perfectly natural. I expected such a position because you left the community. It was right for you to do so,” Minty said.

“That's a little mean, isn't it? She was right to leave? Well that's their loss then,” Twilight said strongly, hugging Pinkie a little tighter.

“I meant that as a fact. If a Cannonite finds the community contrary to the life they feel is right, if their inner spirit yearns to trot the world beyond, they must go. It would be wrong to keep them held where they cannot grow. We Cannonites know a lot about growing,” Minty explained.

“Oh. Right. Her nature,” Twilight said, blushing a bit and clearing her throat. “In any case, would you like to hang around here and explore this library? It's really a wonderful place.”

“Nope! Sorry, Twilight, we can't stay. There are more places I wanted to show her, then we have dinner plans,” Pinkie said, rolling the party cannon out of the library.

“Dinner... plans..?” Twilight asked with a flat and distant tone.

“Yes. She is going to take me to a cafe, a unique experience I have not had since I went out to the world. Then she will hoof-make what she says will be the most amazing dessert. It sounds decadent, but in the world we may be a bit more free,” Minty noted with a soft laugh.

“Decadent and free,” Twilight echoed with a slight grind of her teeth. A tiny surge of mostly unintentional magic slipped from her, and a small whirl of wind stirred the fallen streamers and bits of confetti.

Spike, who had been hiding after the party cannon had gone off, emerged just in time to see the small breeze die away. “Should I ask for the dispensation now or will you be walking straight up to Professor Sliver?”

“I'm not going to see Professor Sliver. I'm fine,” Twilight said, putting a hoof down on the last bit of paper still in the air. “I'll be out for the day but I promise, nothing's going to happen.”

- - -

Applejack whistled happily to herself as she stacked barrels in the barn. The cooper had just delivered a load to replace the few that had broken or become otherwise unsuitable over the prior year. Cider season was always the best time to get and use new barrels, and the time was approaching. The small sound of the barn door squeaking turned her head, and she smiled when she saw the source of the sound. “Well howdy there, Twilight. What can ah do fer ya?”

“Applejack... I have a serious question to ask you. But I'm... worried about how it might make you feel,” Twilight admitted, slowly making her way into the barn.

“Ya know ya can ask me anythin' ya like. Bein' the element of honesty means ah'll give it to ya straight on, so there's no need ta dance around anythin',” Applejack said, standing up tall and proud.

“Alright. If you say so... umm... how did you deal with... I mean, you say you saw her again and... I, um... I need to know how you dealt with... Gilda...” Twilight said, almost whispering the last word.

A crack ran through Applejack's confident facade. Her mouth quirked and her eyes got a bit narrower. “Never thought ah'd be hearin' that critter's name. What about her?”

“Well you know she and Dash...” Twilight deflated slightly under Applejack's sudden withering gaze and she looked away. “I'm just saying they used to have meaning to one another. Significant meaning. There was something... special there...”

Applejack maintained the gaze for a moment longer before a different thought entered her head. “This... ain't really 'bout Gilda, is it?”

Twilight sighed softly and scraped a hoof on the ground. “How do you deal with the old feelings, the old emotions and connections that happen between ponies?”

“Come on, quitcher dancin' 'round the subject and tell me what it's all about,” Applejack said, in what she hoped was a warm and encouraging tone.

“Pinkie has a visitor. A friend. A good friend. Her very best friend, described in words she made up just to express how good,” Twilight related, a sad smile on her face. “She's so excited, so happy, so... Pinkie over her visit. She's more animated and active than usual, so much more... more. I know I love her. She does love me. But... does she still... feel... for this mare too?”

Applejack considered the problem for a moment then went back to her barrels. “Yer right, Twi. Pinkie don't love ya anymore an' she's gonna run off with this here new gal.”

“Wh-what? Applejack...” Twilight ran around in front of Applejack and put a hoof on her shoulder. “I never thought of you as such a... defeatist.”

“Well ah ain't, sugarcube but consarnit, Twi, ya have yer own ways about ya when ya get jealous. Ah was near tempted ta run off an' warn mah Dashie that she's gonna be in trouble again.”

“Why does everyone assume..? Okay...” Twilight shook her head and turned aside. “I know you're a straight-talker, and direct and blunt and... I know you think it's that simple. But I promise you it is anything but that easy.”

“Then tell me why, an' maybe ah can give ya some decent advice. Right now ah feel like ah'm talkin' ta a wall,” Applejack said with a hint of exasperation.

“You know me. Yes, I don't do very well with jealousy. And, again, I'm sorry to both you and Dash. But I'm no good at love either. Sure, I look perfectly competent, hugging her, kissing her, going on dates and enjoying a bit of snuggling on a park bench at sunset. But I can't explain why she likes me! I don't know the whys and wherefores of love, not in the slightest. It's why I need to write a thesis on it, maybe study will tell me the secrets I can't explain. That's the whole thing, Applejack,” Twilight said, hanging her head and looking close to tears.

“Ah don't understand, sugarcube. So ya don't 'get' love. Ah 'spect none of us does. Ain't stopped me 'n' Dash from getting' engaged, 'r Rarity an' Fluttershy. You 'n' Pinkie 'r still gonna... ain't ya?” Applejack asked, with a worried tone.

“Yes. I want to. I have to think she does, she hasn't said anything. But that's what I mean. I don't understand what made her love me, I don't understand what keeps her loving me. The standard explanations don't work for me. 'It's who I am inside' or 'it's all about the happenstance' or 'affections are just a mystery.' I'm not good with mysteries either!” Twilight shouted, stomping a hoof down hard. After a short bit of panting she said, “I can't live on a mystery. I can't not know what drives Pinkie's affections. If I don't know what keeps her... I can't keep doing it and stop her from drifting away. I gave up an honorarium for her, and the form of an alicorn. But in the end, I still don't know what makes her want to keep sitting by my side, at sunset, huddled under a blanket drinking a root beer with two straws...”

Applejack waited until Twilight's words had faded away and she had started to cry before going over to give the other mare a soft pat on the back. “Let it out. It ain't none too easy when ya finally see yer love's like fallin' off a cliff. Ain't no control, ain't no sense, ain't nothing ta do but fall. Fall an' enjoy th' ride.”

“But how can you?!” Twilight shouted, turning teary eyes on Applejack. “No control, no hoofholds, no way of understanding! You can't live like that.”

“No. Ya can't. Ya can't keep fallin', that don't end too well. So ya grab onta somethin', somethin' strong, sure, solid. And ya don't let go, not fer one second. Next thing ya know yer hooves 're back on the ground and yer doin' fine,” Applejack said sagely.

“How? How do you get there from being completely unsure?” Twilight asked.

“Because what ya said was right. She loves ya fer who ya are, 'cause somewhere in her deepest heart somethin' was always waitin' fer ya. A gal jus' like you, that had all that ya got, that filled a hole in her life shaped jes like you,” Applejack said, slowly leading Twilight out of the barn. “And ah think if ya really look... you'll find there's a pink baker curled up in a little spot shaped jes like her in yer own heart.”

Twilight put a hoof over her heart and used magic to wipe her tears away. She gave a sincere smile back to her friend and said, “Thanks, AJ. It really helped.”

“It's what ah do, sugarcube. Now go on ta yer mare, she's probably been wantin' ta share some good times since her friend arrived.”

“Of course. Thanks again. I promise I'll find some way to repay you for this help,” Twilight said, giving a smile and then galloping down the path from the barn.

“Is she gone?” Rainbow Dash asked, popping out from the only sealed barrel in the entire bunch, set slightly aside and in the shadows.

“Yer safe, sugarcube, she wasn't mad atcha, she was more mad at herself fer not knowin' all about love. So come on out an' help me,”Applejack said casually.

“Sure, sure... not that I was worried or anything. I got through it last time I could totally manage it again,” Dash said confidently, polishing a hoof on her chest.

“Ah know, sugarcube, ah know... there's a whirlwind!” Applejack shouted, pointing out the barn doors.

Dash went stiff and flopped onto her back to the sound of a goat bleating. She crossed her forelegs across her chest on hearing Applejack's laughter and blushed, trying her best to look mad. “Not funny...”

- - -

It was late in the day when Twilight arrived at Sugarcube Corner. “Hello? Pinkie?” She called out on entering the shop.

“She left for an early dinner but she should be back soon,” Mrs. Cake said, trotting to the front room from the back. “How are you dear? I'm surprised you didn't go with them.”

“I'm surprised too. I guess it took me a while to get my head on right,” Twilight said with a laugh and a slight rubbing of the back of her head.

After only twenty minutes of waiting the door opened wide and Pinkie burst in, followed by the more sedate and reserved Minty. “That was great! I wish we could have dinner tomorrow but you have to leave early enough to get back to the community,” Pinkie said with a touch of disappointment at the end.

“I wish I could stretch it to an extra night but I don't want to be away too long,” Minty said, contritely.

“Pinkie... are you two going to do anything else? I'd love to join you if you think I won't be in the way,” Twilight said with a hopeful smile.

“So you wanted to be a tricycle after all,” Pinkie said, confused looks passing between Mrs. Cake and Minty. “We were just going to head up to the room and talk, but I'd love you to join us. You can hear all kinds of great stories about when we were fillies.”

“I'd really love that,” Twilight said.

“Then let's get this party started!” Pinkie shouted, heading up the stairs with Minty.

“P-pinkie? Can I talk to you down here for a minute, just you and me?” Twilight asked, directing herself to the private party space.

“Okie-dokie-lokie!” Pinkie cried out, bouncing down to the room. “Go on ahead and get comfortable, Minty, we'll be there soon.”

“Alright Pinkie,” Minty said, disappearing up the stairs.

The two mares looked to one another, Pinkie smiling, Twilight looking down with slight embarrassment, Finally, Pinkie asked, “What did you need to talk about?”

“R-right... Pinkie... I was... well I was worried. Not now, not after I talked with AJ but I was worried before. I was... Well you and Minty you were... I didn't know what to think, and since I don't know how our love... works...” Twilight's statement tapered off as Pinkie began to laugh.

“Oh Twilight. My silly filly...Minty isn't a Filly Fooler, not even half of one like AJ or Rarity. She's a Cannonite and the ones that stay aren't like that. She likes stallions,” Pinkie's laughter ceased and she looked seriously at Twilight. “Were you... jealous?”

Twilight looked even more embarrassed. She should have known that. She had made a serious study of Cannonite tradition after starting her relationship. Her own jealousy and inexperience with love had blinded her to her own knowledge. But even given how she felt she did not hide it. “I can't help it. She was your best friend. She knew you, deeply, for many years. She still knows everything about you, everything that shaped and formed you, that made you you. I just couldn't help thinking...”

Pinkie wrapped Twilight in a warm embrace and kissed her just below the horn. “But you know what really matters. You know I love you. You know you love me. And that's all we need to know,” Pinkie said, kissing Twilight again. “Now let's go upstairs. She's really, really clumsy and I don't want her to break anything.”

Twilight smiled brightly and kissed Pinkie on the lips. “Sounds like a good idea.”

Trixda- Pisha Pasha

View Online

On the outskirts of the little Kleinpferd-designed town of Schwarzwald sat the cozy house of Gilda and Trixie, with its found-object obstacle and training course outside, vast collection of wind-chimes hanging from the roof eaves and rather eclectic exterior painting job. It was no longer the griffin-approved shack it had been, it had become a properly Roani structure, with all the color and accent which that implied.

Gilda was perfectly fine with that. In most segments of her life there existed a subtle or not-so-subtle resentment for the nation of her family origin, for a variety of reasons. The overbearing patriarchy, the clan dominance hierarchy (even if she was at the top), the polygyny, the contempt for those who loved members of the same gender. She might have learned to appreciate the inoffensive parts of what she was but there was lots of offensive stuff to hate.

By contrast, the Roa were born and bred Equestrian to the core, Principality stalwarts who embraced love and equality. She had been promised the moon and stars, because the Roa venerated Princess Luna slightly more than her sister, but never with an exclusive eye. They wanted her to marry Trixie, for love, when her own family would have wanted her to marry some pre-arranged jerk for status. They wanted her to be a Filly Fooler, while her own kind spat the term 'Egg Grabber' at her if they thought the Equestrians wouldn't hear.

Gilda was a high-energy creature, in the bursts required by performance, but the other side of that was the need to rest and recreate when she wasn't training or working. She had come to feel slightly guilty about that, as the Roani penchant for wandering made them a constantly-active folk that worked on themselves and their environment to make it better and more beautiful. She wasn't going to actually stop relaxing, she just resolved to feel slightly guilty about it.

As she snuggled in her large, central nest on the pile of second-hoof pillows in a riot of colors she was content and cheerful, feeling that all was right with the world. The day was warm, the house was quiet, her belly was full of fake steaks and pine cones, in all it was a treat.

The peace was shattered by Trixie crying out from the spare room down the hall, the guest room that had never held a guest. “I've already repainted this twice since the incident,” she shouted, strolling out into the main room and setting herself down by the nest. “It's starting to get foolish. I thought having a large property would reduce boredom. There's more to decorate than there is on a caravan.”

“But it's anchored in the ground,” Gilda mumbled, used to the histrionics her marefriend would occasionally toss about. “You don't have a new town to gush over every day.”

“This is very true. It falls upon you, then, to keep me entertained. As long as you don't seem to be suffering from boredom, it's your place to do the same for me,” Trixie said succinctly.

“Explain to me how that one works,” Gilda said, opening one eye, pupil focusing sharply on Trixie.

“It's very simple. If two Roa are bored they will entertain one another and thus relieve both. If two are not bored they need do nothing, they have found ways to keep the mind occupied. If one is bored and the other not it falls on the other to share the secret of their fixed interest or to entertain the other. It is only kind and maintains peace, and nothing is more important than that.”

“Not even letting your relaxed and happy hen rest?” Gilda asked, rolling over on the pillow pile and sprawling out a bit.

“Not even that,” Trixie said, with some playfulness in her voice. She carefully crawled into the nest and settled herself on Gilda's back, dipping her head down to nibble and kiss at the griffiness' feathery neck. “Now come along, entertain and indulge your sweet, beautiful mare, who lines up jobs and massages your paws, even though you fly.”

“You also massage my wings because I need it...” Gilda noted, laughing as a pillow softly hit her on the head.

“Come on, get up. We have games we can play,” Trixie said, getting off of Gilda and hopping out of the nest.

“Ugh... it's too nice a day to get into all that rolling around. Besides, I don't feel like playing the High Queen right now, no matter how good you look dressed as a Canterlot ambassador...” Gilda said, slowly rising and stretching herself out.

“Not those kinds of games, lascivious creature! Not right now, anyway,” Trixie said with a flick of her tail, which flipped her shimmering ribbon about. “I mean that we have board games, dice games, games with lots of books that were donated to the second-hoof store...”

Gilda watched as Trixie set out their collection of games, considering each one as it was set down. She noticed an oblong block of cards and pointed at them. “Hey, aren't those the cards... the tarot cards? The ones with the pictures on them?”

Trixie levitated the deck up and gave it a quick shuffle. “Ahh yes, the great legacy of the Roa. The means of prognostication! It adds wonderful color to a carnival,” she said, looking over the images on the cards.

“Why don't you try using that around town, or at our shows? Might be a few more bits,”” Gilda suggested.

Trixie bobbled the deck in her magical grip and coughed into her hoof. “Ah, yes... well... while the great and powerful Trixie is a grand mistress of magic and so many other talents... she is not... skilled with the cards.”

Gilda laughed softly and grinned at her marefriend. “Really? There's something you can't do? I've never heard you say that before. Why not just give it a go?”

“Confession of limitation is a sign of the truly superior!” Trixie insisted, sticking her snout in the air. She then looked down at the cards again and shuffled them slowly. “But... in our culture it is greatly preferred that only a trained and skilled drabani use the cards for fortunetelling. It helps to keep from diluting the power of the cards in the minds of the Gadje. I do not wish to break tradition.”

“Huh. I guess that makes sense. So... is there some kind of multiple-choice test for all this stuff when I try to join your clan?” Gilda asked.

Trixie stuck out her tongue and smiled. “You make fun of it but you wish to be one with us. In truth, the Roa Baro will judge you and see if you can demonstrate enough understanding. You will pass, because I have been your tutor and that guarantees success.”

Gilda traced a talon slowly along Trixie's chin and grinned. “With my amazing intelligence I'm sure you're right.”

Trixie blushed softly, and looked at the deck once more. “You know... there is something we can do. Have you ever played the card game Pisha Pasha?”

“'Pisha Pasha'? That sounds more like some kind of dessert or an outfit,” Gilda said, stroking at her chin.

“Oh you impudent griffin,” Trixie said with a scolding tone. “The game is highly traditional, one of the more popular games among my kind. And there are two ways to play, the normal way and the way that takes much longer. But when playing a game taking longer does not harm anything, it only allows time to pass more freely.”

“I'm guessing you want to play the long one. Sounds good. From what you say I've gotta learn this too,” Gilda said with a nod.

“The only difference is cards. The regular game uses the regular cards, but the longer version uses these,” Trixie said, indicating the tarot deck. “That is an extra challenge, as it adds what amounts to a nearly double-sized extra suit. It makes for a most interesting experience.”

“Wanna clear off one of the tables and play there, or just have a laying down game in the nest?” Gilda asked, looking at the small collection of mismatched small tables in the main room, most piled with small objects or second-hoof books.

Trixie used her magic to move the pillows around in the nest, creating a soft ring around the edge and a bare space in the center. “Let's get comfortable. The rules sound simple, but the strategy comes from knowing best how they work and remembering what you've held.”

“I'll be picking this thing up in a snap. One step closer to marriage,” Gilda said with great confidence, flopping heavily into the pillow ring.

“We'll see...” Trixie said, shuffling up the tarot deck and beginning to deal out the cards, two at first and then three at a time after. “This is your stock. The way to win is simple, just get rid of it.”

“This should be easier than I thought...” Gilda said, picking up her stock pile. She dropped it into Trixie's magical grip as Trixie swatted her talon with a hoof. “Ow! Hey!”

“Leave the pile down there. You flip it one card at a time. If you find an ace, or The Fool, you must place it between us and turn again. Otherwise you start a discard pile and it's my turn. There's more but that will start you for now.”

Gilda flipped her first card and squawked happily, setting the Ace of Swords down between herself and Trixie. “How's that? Even luck wants me to be good at this.”

“Don't get too ahead of yourself. There's four more to lay down,” Trixie noted. “After this if you find the next card up you must put it down on a center pile. And your discards must also be played on the center when it becomes possible. Violating the rules and getting caught ends your turn.”

“I'm too talented to need to cheat,” Gilda said with a puff of her feathers. She turned over The Magus, number one in the Major Arcana. “Fine, guess it's your turn.”

“There's one other thing, you can play your discard card on the other discard pile if it's one above or one below. A good way to empty your own cards and lay extra headaches on your opponent,” Trixie said, turning over the Queen of Swords.

They went back and forth, flipping cards and trading turns, noting with some romantic pleasure that the first few rounds of trading turns they both turned over the same suits. It was deep into the first stock turning when Trixie called a halt to the game.

“What? What? I was just turning a card,” Gilda said. She had laid the two of Staves down, not noticing the three was in her discard pile.

Trixie flipped over the turned card to show the error. “It's my right to make you skip your turn. Now it's buried until you turn your discard pile over and start again. That should teach you to pay attention,” she said with a wink.

Gilda huffed and turned up her beak. “I'll catch you at something. Just you wait.”

Play proceeded for a long while, both of them trading discard pile drops, and Gilda actually catching Trixie dropping a card into her discard pile rather than onto an open central pile. After a lot of concentration and silence they began to talk, as Gilda got into the flow of things.

“Now do you see the appeal of this game?” Trixie asked as she flipped a card and nodded to Gilda.

“I'll admit, it's better than the griffin games I know. They're fast, and kinda dumb. There's not much need for thinking in the Kingdom most of the time,” Gilda confessed, turning a card, laying it in the center and turning again.

“This is what you will see all the time in Roani communities, the settled ones or the caravan-riding clans. The old bibis, the phuri dajs, the daki dajs, they all like to spend days playing Pisha Pasha. Younger folks have more options and they work hard but once an age has been reached where working is done... there is this.”

Gilda took a few turns of turning and placing to mull over the information. She finally said, “This is for those old seanmháthairs I used to see sitting in around with the other hens their age, or near enough to it. This is for old folk, isn't it?”

“You figured out the secret,” Trixie said, with a small smile on her face.

“It's not a bad thing, it's kinda fun but... is the only reason we're playing this because I have to know about it?” Gilda asked with a raptorish tilt of her head.

“It's because old mares play it. The old wives who have been together for decades sit down after their day of watching over grandchildren and great-grandchildren sit down and play it for hours and hours,” Trixie replied, with a somewhat dreamy tone. “I want you to be good at it.”

Realization struck Gilda. This was a game for old folks, and Trixie was expecting them to be playing it when they were old enough to be great-grandmothers. She saw herself wizened and faded in color, her feathers drooping, her wings arthritic, her eyes rheumy. She was sitting in a rocking chair outside of the very house she was in, playing the game against a similarly shriveled and grayed Trixie, while little hippogriffs gamboled on the lawn or flapped awkwardly in the air. She turned her card, set it down in a center pile and turned another one. “Tá grá agam duit, a chroi... I mean, lachhi tjiri rat...”

“Lachhi tjiri rat, my love...” Trixie said, laying a card from her discard pile onto Gilda's discard pile with a small grin.

Twinkie- Algebraic Love

View Online

“Welcome to your first supplemental course in mathematics,” Twilight Sparkle chirped, giving a broad, sincere smile. She was in her element, wearing a pair of purple-rimmed half-glasses on a chain and a blue-and-purple plaid skirt and jacket combo, with a plain white blouse on her upper body. She stood before a blackboard covered in various simple equations, along with her name, which was written in the upper right corner.

“Umm, Twilight. I know your name. You didn't need to write it on the board,” Pinkie said, with a bemused expression. She was in her work apron, still stained with flour and fruit juices, and sitting on the floor of her bedroom, which had been turned into a small, makeshift schoolhouse.

“Sorry, I wanted the whole experience. I guess I got a bit carried away,” Twilight said with a blush, her magic lifting the blackboard eraser and slowly wiping her name off. “But still, this is something just for you. I know you never went to university, or college. I'm certain your education was complete but you're not required to learn mathematics past a certain level. This is a supplement to help that.”

“This is really neat! I never knew I needed to know really advanced math. How did I get along without it all this time?” Pinkie asked.

“Err... well... you don't... don't quite need it, really. I mean, you won't need the math that a Diamond Dog scout does or that a thaumatic engineer does. But I... I like teaching, you know that. And I figured... we have fun doing what you like. Maybe we could have fun doing... this too?” Twilight said, growing more and more nervous.

Pinkie considered the question for a moment then broke out in another giant smile. “Sounds good! You know how much I love it when we play those dice-rolling games. Maybe learning something might be fun too!”

“Yes, yes it is! Didactic play is the best kind of play, though I hope we can maintain seriousness and not get too playful. N-not that I don't intend for us to try and have some fun!” Twilight said quickly. “Math is fun. You can do fun little tricks with it, and find that it helps you out in your life. I think even the Cakes will like you doing this.”

“Oh? Why would the Cakes be so happy about this?” Pinkie inquired, tilting her head.

“You do well enough on the register, and in the back. But imagine if you could help them out with the accounting, or with more complicated ordering of raw material or shipping of things. You'd really be taking the pressure off of them,” Twilight replied.

“Oh... of course! Mister Cake hates doing all the accounting, it's boring. I don't like boring stuff either but I can take it because I know how to have fun,” Pinkie said eagerly.

“There are elements that you likely heard about but never used in the math you already learned,” Twilight said, lifting a piece of chalk and tapping on the board.

“Like Laughter and Magic?” Pinkie asked with a smile and pucker of her lips.

“Oh you...” Twilight said with a blush, clearing her throat and tapping the board again. “You know the normal operations and I see you use them all the time. Addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. You also work with fractions, quite a lot. I'm honestly impressed the way you can perform all the fractional equivalent calculation for recipe modifications and for changes between different scales.”

“Thanks! I used to use a lot of that for the rock growth calculating and for getting the right timing on turning the rocks and moving the harvest around the fields,” Pinkie said, with a bit of pride.

“I already love you, you don't need to keep trying,” Twilight said, blushing a bit. “Did I do that right? I saw it in a book and I thought I'd try...”

“It was cute. I like when you try things like that,” Pinkie said, sitting back a bit. “So what other elements are there?”

“Right! Elements! The use of parentheses to segregate arithmetic functions, exponents, and the various mathematical properties, including the order of operations. Plus algebraic use of unknown quantities,” Twilight said, tapping the board with the chalk pointing to examples of all the things she mentioned.

“I saw a lot of that. I used to think someone sneezed while they were using a keyboard, or something. Can you really teach me all that?” Pinkie asked.

“Of course! I'm an excellent teacher. But remember, if you ever need supplemental help you can get tutoring from Smarty Pants. She knows about as much about math as I do,” Twilight noted.

“Okie-dokie-okie!” Pinkie cried cheerfully. “But I totally won't need Miss Smarty Pants to help me. I'll be able to get all my education from you. This'll be easy.”

- - -

“This isn't easy. This isn't easy at all!” Pinkie wailed, looking over her 'completely not homework' homework. Her marks on the in-class work weren't that great, and her homework tended to be more graphite smudges than right answers by the time she turned it in.

She was trying. She was really, really trying hard. But Twilight... she wasn't quite the teacher she imagined herself to be. She was very good about relaying information and demonstrating the hard technical theories behind the concepts but she couldn't seem to express examples well or break down the theories into simpler ideas.

Despite her distress, Pinkie had to laugh at that. Her sweetie-sweet sweetie pie was so super-smart she couldn't figure out how to be not-smart. She wasn't being mean about things. She was just better at being a teacher for big-time eggheads.

It wasn't that she couldn't teach if she tried. Twilight had been the one to teach Pinkie how to play roleplaying games, and they both found that the best thing ever. She could be educational but she molded herself to the... feeling of the subject. Roleplaying games were not that smarty, so she could explain it easily, even if Pinkie had to read through the book a few times to understand what Twilight was saying, and get more examples than just the first few. But math was something super-smarty, and Twilight had studied the highest levels of it. She had to give it all her brains.

Looking at her homework again, Pinkie decided to do what she had said would not be necessary. She had intended to let Twilight's teaching carry the day, but the realization that Twilight's methods were above her level sent her out of Sugarcube Corner and out past the edge of town to Sweet Apple Acres.

Her knock at the door was answered by the winkled and pleasant face of Granny Smith, who gave a smile to Pinkie. “Well hello there, young'un. Ya here ta see Applejack fer some matter?”

“No ma'am, Granny Smith. I need to see Miss Smarty Pants,” Pinkie chirped.

A dark cast passed over Granny Smith's face at the sound of the name, followed by a sudden shifting of her eyes and a pointed look towards a side-table. She increased the size of her smile, without adding to the sincerity and replied, “Y-yes, mah new... future granddaughter-in-law. She's out with Big Macintosh checkin' trees an' buckin' fruit. You'll find 'em in the east orchard. Be a dear and make sure they ain't makin' mu-” Her eyes darted around again and she cleared her throat, “M-makin' music together, as we old folks sometimes say. Ain't right ta do 'til they is hitched, ya unnerstand.”

Pinkie tilted her head a little bit. That was an unusual way of saying 'playing procreation', which Twilight often said. But she just smiled and nodded. Old folks were weird. “Okie-dokie-lokie! I'll make sure they're being good.” With that she hopped happily away, never seeing the smile drop from Granny's face, replaced with a look of nervous paranoia.

It took some hopping through the orchard but Pinkie eventually followed the sounds of grunting and thumping to the pair. Both strong-bodied figures were engaged in a vigorous session of apple-bucking. Big Mac's considerable strength was brought to bear against the largest and heaviest of the trees, while Smarty Pants chose those that were slightly thinner. She was an intellectual, after all, not a farmer. But her natural donkey strength did not put her much below a well-muscled earth pony.

Smarty Pants still looked as she had the day she had been brought to flesh and blood life by The Granter. She was a thin, light gray donkey with her long ears both half-flopped forward. Her mane and tail tip were still a mess of tightly-bound hair bundles and she still wore her polka dot pants. Her eyes, too, remained as they had been, a heterochromatic red and blue.

Neither Mac nor Smarty noticed that Pinkie had arrived. They simply moved buckets of apples onto a cart and sat down beside one another wide a sigh, unashamedly leaning their bodies together, both shining with sweat. Big Mac leaned over and gave Smarty a kiss on the cheek. “Mm, ya taste like apples an' hard work. Yer gonna be a boon ta the family, darlin'.”

Smarty blushed lightly and nuzzled at Big Mac's neck. “Thank you. I want to do all I can to prove it and keep proving it. I enjoy all of you. But, of course, some more than others...” She giggled softly and lipped at Big Mac's throat.

“Eeyup, ah know ya do,” Big Mac Said, standing a little more proudly and lifting his chin just a bit.

Pinkie suddenly leaped into view and blew a whistle she kept hidden in her mane. “Hold it! Granny Smith told me to make sure you two weren't out here 'making music.' Looks like you were just getting warmed up.”

Big Mac and Smarty both pulled away, blushes burning on their cheeks while guilty looks rested on their features. “I-it weren't nothin' like that!” Big mac insisted.

“I promise you, we are loving but chaste, very much so,” Smarty stated.

Pinkie peered at the two for a moment and broke into a smile. “Just doing a favor. I really just needed to find you, Smarty.”

“Me? Does Twilight wish to have tea again?” Smarty asked. “It's always lovely to have some more reminiscing time. My memories always benefit from repetition. I can apply my new senses to what I recall and make them richer.”

“Oh, maybe! She always likes that. But I need your help first,” Pinkie said.

“My help? Well now, what sort of help do you need?” Smarty inquired.

“Well, Twilight says you're really good at math. She's been trying to teach me math and... she's a really, really good teacher sometimes. But, um, I still don't...” Pinkie said, her words fading to a whispered mumble.

Smarty regarded Pinkie with a slight smile and slowly nodded her head. “I understand. I've known Twilight for years. She loves learning, and wants to know the deepest, most basic ideas, the theoretical underpinnings of a subject. This is great for a researcher like her... but bad for imparting learning to a neophyte. She tries to jump right in and build, not from the ground up, but from the bedrock up, little realizing that there is actually a process of learning both up and down.”

“That's what I thought. I think,” Pinkie said, softly scratching her head. “She tries to teach me like a super-duper super-smarty but I don't understand what she's talking about when she tries to tell me about all the math-y things. I tried to understand but...”

“It's understandable,” Smarty said. “She's not a Doctor of Mathematics but she certainly had enough research time to get a degree if she wanted. Being an autodidact allows situations like that. But the tragedy is she can no longer think on the level of one who does not understand.”

Pinkie slumped a little bit. “So does that mean... I'm not going to learn math from her?”

“No, you will. I can help you learn some of the basic facts that you need in order to do well with her lessons. But eventually, you have to tell her right out that she can't teach the way you need to be taught,” Smarty said, cutting off a comment from Pinkie with a soft bray and the wave of a hoof. “I know what you're going to say, you don't want to hurt her feelings. But this is essential information. She must be told that her methods need tweaking. You'll be teaching her, which she should appreciate.”

Pinkie brightened a little bit. “Oh! I like the sound of that. She loves learning, so she'll love me even more! When can we get to learning?”

“In a moment. Once we haul these apples back to the farmhouse I'll wash off and start your supplemental lessons,” Smarty said, gently nudging Big Mac. “Come along, Mac.”

“Eeyup,” Big Mac said, attaching himself and Smarty to the cart and walking placidly off with her, Pinkie bounding happily in the lead.

- - -

“Twilight?” Pinkie inquired softly, lifting her hoof as was proper in a school setting.

“Yes? What is it Pinkie?” Twilight inquired back, halting in her explanation of how to derive the quadratic formula.

Pinkie hesitated a bit, tapping on her desk and looking shiftily around the room. “I... I talked to Miss Smarty pants, and got a little help with some of my work.”

“I noticed that your independent assignments had gotten a lot more polished. I told you she could help if you needed it,” Twilight said with a smile.

“Yeah... well... she gave me some advice...” Pinkie said, trailing her words off.

“Practice constantly? Work on your long division? Constantly complete the square?” Twilight guessed.

“No, she told me to tell you... you're not a good teacher,” Pinkie admitted, with her head turned to the side.

Twilight looked stunned by the statement, dropping the chalk from her magical grip. “O-oh... I... I don't... that doesn't seem like Smarty. She's been so nice since she came to life and got engaged...”

“Oh! I don't mean that you're not trying hard! You are, and you're really, really super smart and know everything,” Pinkie said.

“Not everything, but I hold my own in mathematics...” Twilight said with some humility.

“But Smarty told me you know so much everything that you don't know how to not know anything. You don't know how to teach somepony like me, who didn't learn all this before,” Pinkie said.

“Don't know... how to not know...” Twilight repeated, feeling the statement over her tongue for a moment and looking thoughtful. “She said that?”

“Mm-hmm,” Pinkie replied with a nod. “She said something about bedrocks, and the ground. I understood that part a little, I know the difference. That you build from the bedrock and somepony like me builds from the-”

“Ground,” Twilight said, finishing the statement, comprehension crossing her features. She glanced a side at the incomplete derivation and smirked a little. “Here I am... trying to teach you like a graduate student, when you're still on your undergrad path. I'm so sorry, Pinkie...” She trotted up and gave Pinkie a warm, soft hug.

Pinkie returned the hug with a little extra strength, squeezing her unicorn lover so tight she forced out a puff of breath. “It's okay, Twilight. You didn't know. Now you do. So I got to teach you something! I'm a teacher too!”

Twilight chuckled breathlessly, and nodded her head. “Yes Pinkie, you are. You teach me something new almost every day. I never knew love could be such a didactic experience until I met you.”

Pinkie blushed a touch, though she was largely unclear on what that meant. She nuzzled softly at Twilight's chin and planted a soft kiss on her lips. “So... maybe Smarty should teach me. She said that she wouldn't mind because it would probably take too much of your time from big research...”

Twilight winced a bit, kissing Pinkie back. “I never intended for it to seem like I saw this as a burden. I had a problem with teaching you because I never took courses in proper pedagogy. I was always destined to be a researcher, not an educator. But, if Professor Sliver taught me anything it was how to reach a student, to draw out their potential by touching their level of skill, not arrogantly displaying my own. I can teach you. I will teach you. Exactly as you need.”

Pinkie squeezed Twilight again, then moved back to her seat. “Great!”

Twilight quickly erased the board and picked up a piece of chalk. “So... did Smarty teach you elementary issues like the standard order of operations?”

“'Proper Education Makes Dreams Awake Sooner!'” Pinkie recited from memory. She took a moment to think about it and added, “Parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction.”

Twilight nodded and smiled. “Great. And you know about working with both sides of an equation?”

“It was a little tricky. But she said I could do anything as long as I did it to both sides. I'm supposed to get all the letters on one side,” Pinkie said.

“Getting the same letters on the same side is generally the idea if there's more than one. And you remember about these?” Twilight asked, drawing on the symbols for inequalities and variants.

“Yup! They remind me of Gummy going after cake. So I know that they go to the bigger side, even the ones that could be bigger or equal,” Pinkie said.

Twilight thought for a moment, her chalk softly tapping the board. A sudden idea came to her and she began scrawling an inequality on the board. “Come up here and reduce this inequality. If you need help I'll be right here. I'll always be right here to support you...”

9x-7i < 3(3x-7u)

Trixda- ...You don't look Roani

View Online

The ever-timely train, The Friendship Express, ran along its usual course. The brightly colored conveyance chugged away along the flat landscape outside of Ponyville, having just left the whistle-stop station of Heliotrope, a Diamond Dog colonial outlet with attached small surface town, recently renamed in honor of the famous former resident of the region that became nearby Ponyville.

The proud little train steamed along aimed towards the rise of Canterlot mountain, laden with the usual crop of slow-travel commuters, tourists and vacationers returning home. Those passengers were arrayed within in different levels of opulence. The first class passengers of low nobles and wealthy ponies enjoyed live music and fancy, free meals near the locomotive. Slightly below that was the second class, generally kindly listed as business class, for the more moderate budgets, who were provided with more common fare, for a fee, coffee and slightly smaller seats. At the back, the third class, which was generally know as coach for the sake of appearances and to keep folks happy. Padded benches were the norm there. It was not unpleasant, nothing in Equestria was, but it was a bit bare.

“I can't believe this!” Gilda seethed, stalking up and down the central aisle of the coach car in agitation, her tail lashing about wildly. “Third class! Third class. And just to make it worse it looks like a bloody griffin creation!”

She was attracting a lot of notice, most of the passengers having moved off to the front or rear of the car, save for one. Gilda's marefriend Trixie sat, unperturbed, on the bench they had selected when they first arrived. Much as Gilda had learned to deal with Trixie's histrionics, Trixie had learned to managed Gilda's attacks of pique. She was slowly letting a tea strainer steep, contemplatively inhaling the heady scent of black tea, cardamom and pine. After a short time she took a sip and smiled. Then she turned a stern look on Gilda and called, “Hold! You are making a poor showing of yourself. Have you no pride?”

“Oh I've got pride and lots of it! Deserved pride! I deserve better than this third-class bench-riding!” Gilda squawked at Trixie.

Trixie took another slow, contemplative sip of her tea. “How much did this passage cost us?”

Gilda ground her beak and grumbled a bit, but finally said, “It was free. But they wanted us to perform! They could have sprung for better passage!”

“Are they paying us as well as giving us this free trip?” Trixie inquired.

“Yes,” Gilda huffed, blowing her bang feathers up in annoyance. “But still...”

“You wish to be one of my kind, do you not? You say that you study faithfully, you say that you have learned, but you have forgotten the most vital lesson of all,” Trixie said, in a modestly chastising tone.

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn't,” Gilda said, suddenly defensive.

“Free is free. For your clan everything is good as free, with all your wealth and power. But we must remember the kindness we receive and savor each thing we are given when we have so little. Baxt may be good or ill; we must praise and savor each bit of the good,” Trixie stated, taking another sip of her tea and offering the cup to Gilda.

Gilda stared at the steaming cup for a moment before taking it out of Trixie's magical grip and sipping at it, from the same spot Trixie had been sipping. After a second, soothing sip she sighed and took a seat beside Trixie, snuggling up against her. “Squawk me flying, a thaisce... I've become a miserable deileadóir, like the jabbering little claitseach hens that pressed around me and complained about the free things they got.”

“But you require respect. I know your moods. You feel slighted when you are not given your proper treatment. It is a good quality when you need to protect me,” Trixie said with a grin, taking back her tea and giving it a sip. “But I... we are sometimes shown the lowest point of the Equestrian citizen. Learn to bite back your comments. Others will love and respect us. Our Phuri Daj sits on her throne again, and our land is clean again.”

“Anyone talks scat about you my comments won't be what's getting bitten,” Gilda said, taking the tea and sipping from it. “It's not fair.”

“It is what life is, for now,” Trixie said, playfully licking the tea from Gilda's beak. “Now calm yourself, hot-blooded hen. Let me soothe myself with meditation and rest. When our lot is travel, relaxation is good.” She laid her head against Gilda's solid form and relaxed herself.

“Fine, mo chroí, I'll let you get your head on right. I just wish I could stretch my wings, get ready for my...” Gilda halted in her speech at the sound of a light snort. She turned her head to see that Trixie's 'meditation and rest' meant 'falling asleep with her mouth open and a little drool running down her cheek.' Right onto Gilda's fur. A little smile pulled at her beak and she leaned down to kiss Trixie. “That's my treasure...” She sipped at the tea again, savoring the comforting taste and scent.

The train chugged along to Canterlot mountain, and the stations at the base and partway up, ending at the main feeder station and turnaround point at the lowest occupied terrace. It was there that Trixie and Gilda disembarked, claiming several large cases filled with their performance equipment. The collection of cases and boxes were piled into a hired hansom and carted off to a fifth terrace theater space called The Velvet Lounge.

The interior space was of modest size, with rows of cushions arranged around low tables and facing towards the sort of general-purpose stage that could be used for a comedian, a dance troupe, a band or anything else that might come along. The floor was covered in a dark blue carpet while the walls were, in keeping with the name, covered in crushed blue velvet. Light came from both muted electric sconces on the walls and a few dimmed electric chandeliers.

Trixie immediately set about checking the stage, ensuring the trap door worked, setting up the muted pyrotechnics and getting all of her usual props prepared. Gilda did her usual security check, fiddled with some of the set-up and glowered at the ceiling and walls.

“I know this is a step up and all that scat, but... I can't get good clearance here! I'm never gonna do my tricks. Sorry to say, babe, but we need to get booked into outdoor places, like a stadium,” Gilda said, spreading her wings out and giving them an experimental flap.

“I am meant to be the one with stars in her eyes and a swollen ego,” Trixie said with a small laugh. “But you are correct, we cannot thrive in these small spaces. We need to increase the palaver and set off as many fireworks as we legally can. These Dog-made ones have more spark and less heat thanks to the infused gems. That should keep the gadje stomping and hollering.”

“Works for me, dude. I'm always up for keepin' the rubes and yokels gawkin' and grinning like idiots. Keeps me fed. Keeps us fed. And keeps you lookin' hot in fancy capes and ribbons,” Gilda said with a saucy wink.

“And never you forget it... my love,” Trixie cooed, using her magic to levitate over her wizard hat, her starry cape and a silken ribbon in dark blue with lavender streaks. She tied on the ribbon to set it hanging under her tail, swinging her flank around to make sure it swayed and flowed properly, and was always visible from some angle.

“Is it to your liking, Miss Lulamoon?” Asked the stage director, a silver-colored unicorn mare wearing a microphone headset, which matched her Cutie Mark.

“It needs vertical clearance and some extra space to the sides, and maybe some more fireproofing. But... it's free and in Canterlot, so it works,” Gilda answered, nodding her head and giving a thumbs-up.

“Forgive my fiancee, she thinks only of herself when on the stage,” Trixie said, grinning at Gilda's incredulous look. “I would make mention of problems but I agree. More room and fireproofing would be best, but free is free, and this city is where we may make a name.”

“Right, I'll make a note. I hope you enjoy performing here at The Velvet Lounge,” the stage director said with a certain tired quality in her voice. She looked back at the pair as she walked away and rolled her eyes. “Performers...”

Trixie, Gilda, and a small group of stage workers set things up, with some difficulty. Between Gilda's screaming and Trixie's severe micromanaging the workers often had to bite their tongues and wait for the teapot tempest to end. Despite all the troubles everything managed to come together well before showtime, allowing Trixie and Gilda time to preen in the provided dressing room.

“Do you have any complaints regarding this free dressing room?” Trixie asked, as she adjusted her attire in a full-length mirror.

“No. It's fine. Air shows usually stuff you in a tent with a broken mirror and no lights,” Gilda said, making certain her bang feathers looked just right.

“You're learning,” Trixie said with a grin. She settled her wizard hat on her head and adjusted it carefully. She tied on her cape with as much care and considered her look from several angles. “Perfect.”

“Yes I am,” Gilda said proudly, chest feathers puffed up proudly, one talon lightly brushing her neck in a casual gesture. “Thanks for noticing, dude.”

Trixie let out a shouting laugh, quite caught off guard by the statement. Her magic flared, a pillow lightly hitting Gilda on the side of the head. “Impudent griffin.”

“You love it. You adore it. You want it,” Gilda said with a saucy pop of her brows, laughing as the pillow hit her again. “Nah, it's true. You're perfect.”

Trixie leaned up to brush her lips against Gilda's beak, softly sighing. “Let us go... before we are occupied with things other than our promised performance.”

Gilda cleared her crop and stepped back a short way. “Right! Right... but I so totally would- you're right, let's get to the stage and get to it. The crowd wants entertainment.”

“And we shall deliver! Then we could get more jobs, in larger places. Ever upwards!” Trixie cried, leading Gilda out of the dressing room and to the stage.

The main room had been filled up with an audience, primarily unicorns. A few royal guards, in armor or civvies, sat near the back, while more notable ponies were seated in an area up front closed off with a velvet rope. Among the VIPs was Photo Finish, absent her usual entourage. The famed photographer watched the closed curtains intently, inscrutable eyes as ever hidden by her huge sunglasses.

The curtains parted, magically controlled trumpets blaring as spotlights popped on to illuminate Trixie and Gilda. “Grrreetings, Canterlotians! Welcome to the amazing, astounding, awe-inspiring performance of I, the Grrrrrrreat and Powerful Trrrrrrixie!” Trixie shouted, rolling her 'R's with all the exaggerated force she could muster. Small explosions popped off behind her, pebbles overloaded with magic, the force contained in small plastic globes.

“Ahem! Mo chroi...” Gilda said, looking with a quirked brow across at Trixie.

“And!” Trixie shouted, not missing a beat, “Prrrresenting Gilda sen Electra O'Bald! Aerialist, acrobat and fiancee!” More pebbles were overloaded with magic, popping grandly at the announcement. The audience applauded and Trixie bowed. She then gave a spin, cape billowing and tail ribbon fluttering. Down in the audience Photo's brow quirked just a bit.

Gilda's previous complaint about the limited clearance of the stage was put aside as she flew out over the audience, 'pursued' by colorful magical streaks that faded slowly, creating beautiful patterns over the heads of the appreciative and entranced audience. She made sure to show off with barrel rolls and tight loops, just barely able to pull those off. She was willing to take the chance, to make herself, and Trixie, look good.

Trixie was doing her usual suite of tricks and illusions, with Gilda's help and enhancement, along with distractions and charging of the crowd through the use of the fireworks she had set up. The audience looked to be responding well, save for Photo Finish. She was looking, she was intent, but she wasn't reacting with cheers and excited stomping. All she gave was her attention.

Midway through the performance Gilda happened to hear a near-front-row member of the audience speaking loudly to his table mate, making it audible to many of those near him, Photo included. “Look at that under her tail! I knew it, she's one of those dirty ribbontails. They don't belong here in Canterlot...”

Gilda swooped in suddenly and landed heavily before him, raising a fist over her head, security running in immediately. “Say it again! Say it! Say what you did loud enough for everyone! I'll break every bone in your face, then break 'em again just for fun! And I'll get away with it. All I need to say is 'Prince Blueblood' and the shades will pretend they never heard you and tell everyone you tripped and fell on your face a dozen times.”

“Sir, we'll need to ask you to leave,” one of the security ponies said, coming up to the stallion's side and urging him to his hooves. “Don't make us call the constables.”

“There's guards back there. You don't need to call anything,” Gilda said, pointing to the guards who looked ready to leap up.

The stallion began to protest but gave up in the end, meekly rising and following the security ponies out, while Photo watched. Though the interruption had halted the flow of the show, Trixie managed to pull it back in line.

The performance finally ended with a fog-filled teleportation illusion, some place-switching with Gilda that took split-second timing and the distracting power of the last of her fireworks. The lovers took a bow for the stomping, cheering crowd, as the curtains pulled closed. Gilda winked at Trixie and clicked her tongue. “We're a hit, dude. Next stop, the palace.”

“I have stars in my eyes as well, but I know that there are many trots on a road that long,” Trixie said, snuggling against Gilda's side. “Come, then, let us go back to the dressing room.”

A few minutes after getting to the dressing room, while they were lounging around, a knock came on the door. “Who is it? We were told we had until tomorrow to clear our accessories,” Trixie said with some annoyance.

“Please excuse me, but I vanted to shpeak vith you. I vas curious about certain things,” said Photo from the other side of the door.

Trixie used her magic to open the door and reveal Photo. “Well, this is an unusual pleasure! It's not often that we have a VIP in our dressing room. N-not that it never happens! We know many famous ponies and other creatures,” she said, a little sweat appearing on her forehead as she desperately self-promoted.

Photo stepped into the room with a quiet energy, looking at both Gilda, who had an arm around Trixie, and Trixie, who was showing her tail ribbon as she had on stage. “I must ask you a qvestion, und I vould like to know zee honest answer,” she said.

Trixie looked to Gilda, unsure of what to think. “Yes, Miss Finish? What is it?”

Photo indicated Trixie's ribbon. “Is it a shtyle, or is it for real?”

Trixie looked at her ribbon and flicked her tail to make it flow. “Real. As real as it gets. I saw you watching, but you didn't applaud. Is there something wrong with the performance?”

“Nein. It vas vonderful. It vas very exciting, very entertaining. But I vas more interested in wondering if you were true in vearing that. It is bold to be so open,” Photo said.

“Something wrong with her wearing it? You saw how I dealt with that dweeb in the audience. I'm not intimidated by a celebrity,” Gilda said, shaking a fist at Photo.

“Things haf changed, in so short a time,” Photo said softly, looking down and away. She looked back up, still inscrutable behind her dark glasses. “I haf a beautiful tochter. She is about your age now. Schmart, talented, vell-liked. She has a beautiful vife, und she makes me und meine hushband happy. But... sometimes I vish she had done it proud and open about who she is. Vhat she is...” she reached into a pocket of her attire and pulled out a colorful ribbon, which she tied beneath her tail, over the dress.

Trixie and Gilda were both struck dumb by the action. They could only stare for a time, Gilda finally able to point to Photo's head and say, “Uh, you... you don't look Roani...”

Photo felt her forehead and gave a soft laugh. “I undershtand your confusion. Ve are not all unicorns, just most. Meine hushband is an earth pony too. Meine tochter is a unicorn, thank our Phuri Daj, und zee unicorn traces in our blut.”

“Is your husband also..?” Trixie started to ask.

“Ja. Hoity, too, is not inclined to advertise but he is. Not born but he vas glad to convert. He vas never bothered by it, un zee Roa Baro of meine clan gladly brought him to zee family,” Photo said, a smile finally crossing her lips.

“This is a familiar story. Sounds like the future, doesn't it?” Trixie asked across to Gilda.

“I can only hope,” Gilda said with a laugh.

“You vish to be vith her, blut of her blut, herz of her herz? Body, soul und culture?” Photo asked, staring at Gilda with her mysterious gaze, speaking in a serious tone.

“Yeah! I want it. Maybe you don't know how Griffin culture is but it's nothing like Equestria. The Roani want me, they want me to marry her and they'll throw me a party when I do it,” Gilda said, pumping her fist.

Photo continued to regard Gilda from behind her dark, expressionless glasses. “It vill be a sharp learning curve for you, Katzevogel, to go from ruler to... vell... you vould almost be Booted in our lands. Ve are kinder here but... you vill still be zee outcast. It gets better, ja, year by year. Und mit die Prinzessen im Canterlot it is near complete. But you vill still need shtrength. Shtrength und your vife.”

Gilda pulled Trixie up against her and looked more determined than ever. “I've been an outcast already. A hen Primus, an egg-grabber, and a raging jerk among ponies. After all that if all I have to deal with is about one in a hundred or a thousand ponies calling me names behind my back then it's a screeching vacation. And I'll have her with me. That's way more than worth it.”

Trixie laughed and patted Gilda's cheek with a hoof. “She means it. She's already put up with more than most might. She's strong and smart. She will make an excellent Roa.”

Photo nodded and smiled again. “Sehr gut. I can see that you vill be vonderful together. Und perhaps I can help you to find your place in zee vorld of entertainment. A few photographs, some friends in zee smaller newspapers talking about my experience mit zee show, und you may play higher on zee mountain. Perhaps not so far, but higher.”

Trixie grinned aside at Gilda. “Will you complain? It's not so much, but it is-”

“Free,” Gilda Gilda finished, grinning back at Trixie. “I get it. And I love it.”

Twinkie- Attacking the Darkness

View Online

Sugarcube Corner was quiet, and dark. All the areas were clean, all the equipment was put away, and all the staples were measured and ready for the next day's activities. The Cakes, all four, were up in their own living areas, parents reading bedtime stories to the twins. Cup and Carrot shared the duties of telling the giggling twins the tale of a gutsy jenny and a foppish unicorn.

Pinkie, however, was not up in her garret. She was in the shop's private party space, setting up a surprisingly small number of treats. She had bottles of soda sweating in tubs of ice, small trays of mini cupcakes, sandwiches cut on the diagonal, and even a pizza. It was a pizza Equestria, a thin and crisp crust topped with pure white cheese evoking a moon, sunflower petals in the shape of a sun, and orange peppers as the rays of the sun.

A medium-sized round table had been set up in the middle with two cushions on either side. The table was covered in papers, dice of various facets and a big paper screen, covered with pictures of fantastic landscapes, odd creatures and lurid, but clean, depictions of stallions in brief armor.

Twilight was sitting placidly behind the screen, smiling as she watching Pinkie setting up the room. “Please thank the Cakes again for letting us use this room for our regular Catacombs and Creatures games. It's so nice of them.”

“Oh they know we need the space and the peace, and we always clean up,” Pinkie said, zipping a pizza cutter through the pizza, cutting it into eight large slices.

“I should pay something, some kind of small fee or the like just to show my gratitude. I should start leaving a tip,” Twilight said, levitating over a slice of pizza on a paper plate and bringing along a bottle of apple soda, popping the top in transit.

“They don't need it, but they'll be happy about it,” Pinkie came over with several paper plates, mostly of cupcakes, but also with two slices of pizza. She pulled a gigantic, and complex, crazy straw out of her mane and deftly slid it into Twilight's bottle of soda.

“At least I remember to pay for the food. You always outdo yourself. This pizza Equestria smells delicious!” Twilight said, taking a hearty bite out of the pizza and using her magic to slowly pull it back, the cheese pulling out in long, stringy strands.

“I've gotta do good, it's for my marefriend! And it's for our super fun games of Catacombs and Creatures,” Pinkie cheered, gobbling up a few cupcakes, then taking a long sip on her straw.

Rather than complain, Twilight brought over another soda and took a dainty sip. “I have all the scenarios here. Pick one of your characters and we'll start from where they last left off.”

Pinkie shuffled through the papers and gathered up a few of them, arranging the rest into a neat pile by her side. “Here we go. The earth pony sorceress.”

“Mmm, a challenge indeed. But worth it if you can pull it off. We'll get right to it,” Twilight said, pulling out a book containing the adventure from a knapsack. She then hit the room with a spell to muffle any potential noise, so as not to disturb the Cakes.

- - -

“You are still along the road out in the dusty wilds. You attempted to track the Arch-Magus Gloaming after her capture but lost the trail long before. You followed the most promising traces as far as you could, but the trail has, at last, gone cold. What are you going to do?” Twilight asked.

“I'll put on my robe and wizard hat!” Pinkie loudly declared.

“Good, now you're properly attired with the enchanted items and have a slight bonus to your magic rolls, which you can really use,” Twilight said.

Gâteau the Pink stood proudly on the long road, peering at the crossroad that passed through it and out into the flat, featureless, dusty distance. She was a robust earth pony, dark pink in color with a very bright, neon pink mane made of millions of fluffy curls. She stood taller and more broadly muscled than the average pony, yet she was not decked out like a standard burly warrior. She wore a pink wizard hat with bright yellow stars, and a similarly colored robe. She also had small bags attached to her robe, and a large knapsack on her back. Also sitting on her back was a small, glassy-eyed and toothless cragodile, her familiar, Chewy.

“Remember, your mission remains the same. Arch-Magus Gloaming has been kidnapped by the mysterious and mythic Blood Prince. There's no indication what the Blood Prince plans to do with the Arch-Magus but the rumors that have risen are quite terrible,” Twilight noted.

“Umm, why is the bad guy a prince?” Pinkie asked. “There's only one prince out there, Prince Blueblood, and we all know he's a really great stallion. Shouldn't it be a Marquise? That Morning Star was pure evil.”

“This was made a while ago, and in Canterlot. There were no actual indications that Blueblood was anything but annoying. But, exaggeration is sometimes part and parcel of creativity,” Twilight explained. “I've seen a newer remake of this module, and the villain has been changed to the Marquise of Madness. I should probably buy the new version sometime.”

“Yay! More fun times!” Pinkie cheered.

“Well, Chewy, looks like the trail ends here at the crossroad,” Gâteau said to her familiar, who just blinked, one eye closing a bit before the other and opening before it as well. “Looks like I'll need to use some of my amazing powers of observations and magic. Time... to look for traps, hidden compartments and miscellaneous hidden objects!”

“Pinkie! I know I shouldn't be interrupting like this but... that's for inside structures. And you're not a rogue, so you're trying to use just the magic portion. Not only would it be improbable, there's simply no use for it,” Twilight said.

“A-ha! You've forgotten,” Pinkie said, rustling her character sheet and pointing out an element. “Here! I spent almost all of my really cool background points on being Fortuna-touched. Now I'm more resistant to chaos magic and I get to have improbable things happen now and then. Plus I have those random wild magic mishaps but that's not important right now.”

“Well, roll your dice for that skill and...” Twilight used her magic to rolls dice behind the screen. “Try to beat the imposed improbability.”

Pinkie shook her dice and tossed them with a sharp cry. “Did I do it?”

Twilight shook her head in disbelief. “Amazingly, you did. There was no real scripted resolution for this. Wait, I know...”

Gâteau brushed the dust from an unassuming-looking lump by the side of the tail, mostly in a ditch. It was a small metal-banded wooden box that jangled faintly as she lifted it. Opening the lid revealed a small pile of coins and a folded bit of paper. “I knew it, Chewy! Searching for things always works. It's how I keep finding my missing shoes.”

Unfolding the paper showed it to be a map of the area. Some quick thought resolved the landmarks and towns, and gave her a location of the crossroad. The Blood Prince's keep was clearly marked as not unbearably far away. On the back was some writing, in an overly formal script. “Here is your payment for this act and a map to my keep. Memorize it and for Chaos' sake destroy it. I don't need visitors. Tell nopony of what you have done or you will regret it.”

“Chewy... this might be important,” Gâteau said to her mostly idle cragodile. “According to this map, all we need to do is keep going, turn a few times, and we're there.” She galloped off on the indicated road, head held high and eyes fixed on the horizon.

With the suddenness of lightning, Gâteau's path was interrupted by a roaring, hissing and bleating blur of fangs and horns. The sorceress managed to roll out of the way of the ambushing beast, who set herself up as a deadly roadblock. She was a chimera, her tiger head and front body having white rather than orange parts, the goat rear body and head having a creamy color and cashmere coat, and the snake tail having a cobra hood. The tripartite being glared at Gâteau with all three sets of eyes.

“You will not pass us,” the tiger head growled, snapping its saber-toothed maw.

“We have been charged to stop all interlopers,” the goat added.

“My sisters and I will defend the Blood Prince to the end. You must slay us to pass,” the cobra head hissed, lashing forward and snapping at Gâteau.

Gâteau seemed wary, but not overly worried by the intimidating creature. She looked on it with some serious interest then perked up considerably. “Oh! So you work for him. When do you get off work? I'll come back then.”

The three heads looked to one another in confusion, shoulders shrugging where applicable. “We... don't get off work. We are bound by duty and his power to defend the path to the keep from those not allowed to go,” the tiger head explained in an intimidating snarl.

“Oh, I see. No break time or anything like that? Well, can I hire you for a while?” Gâteau asked with a pleading blinking of her eyes.

“H-hire us? We told you, we are the loyal servants of the Blood Prince! We dare not defy his will and his word,” the snake said.

“Well what's he paying? I'll pay you so if he docks your pay you don't lose out,” Gâteau said cheerfully.

The trio of heads looked to one another, seeming baffled. “Dock our pay?” The tiger asked.

“How does one dock pay? Like a ship?” The goat asked.

“Wow. He doesn't give you regular pay per hour on a competitive basis?” Gâteau asked.

“We have no idea what any of that means,” the cobra asked. “We are not given pay in the sense you may mean. We serve because of his great power and control. He commands and we obey. What else is there?”

“I could pay you with real money! I found a big box of it. And I don't want to carry it around. Plus I can give you a big cheesecake,” Gâteau said cheerfully, digging around in her pack.

“Cheesecake?” Twilight asked.

“I stopped at that suspiciously familiar bakery and looked around. I could have bought a cheesecake,” Pinkie said.

“But I don't remember you doing it,” Twilight noted.

“Right here in my equipment. 'Baked good',” Pinkie said, pointing to her sheet.

“That could be anything from a cake to a cookie to bread,” Twilight said.

“Then time to roll the dice and collapse the waveform,” Pinkie chirped.

“That's... that's entirely right. Wow. I'm impressed Pinkie. That's exactly the way to explain how you resolve this uncertainty,” Twilight said, rolling up some dice.

“You talk in your sleep. It's really dorky. And cute!” Pinkie said happily, rolling up her own dice.

“Wait... you have a cheesecake?” the goat asked, skeptically.

“A cheesecake? You would betray the great and terrible Blood Prince for a cheesecake? I knew you were fixated on cheese but really...” The tiger grumbled.

“Come on,” the cobra insisted. “We're starving out here. That crazy fool often fails to feed us like he promised. A cheesecake and box of money is better than nothing. We're not actually loyal to him. Are we? I'm just here to be with family.”

“I feel no loyalty to him. But I'm afraid of him,” the goat noted.

“Grrr... fine,” the tiger finally said, swiping at the ground. “Present us with your cheesecake.”

Gâteau finally finished digging through her pack and pulled out a simple cheesecake. It was just the cake and a crust, with no decoration. She passed it along to the sisters, along with the box of money. “Here you go! Think you could take me to the keep?”

The three sisters attacked the cheesecake with a hungry passion, gobbling up huge mouthfuls of the delicious pastry. They polished it off very quickly, all three of them giving a satisfied, simultaneous belch. The tiger patted their stomach gingerly and nodded. “Alright. It seems like a bad reward. You give us this cake and we take you to your doom. But you wanted it.”

Gâteau leaped onto the chimera's back, whooping loudly and pumping her hoof in the air. “Then let's go go go!”

The chimera looked stunned for a moment, then shrugged and dashed off along the dusty trail. They covered the distance extremely quickly, ending up in front of a very anomalous location. After passing a subtle magic barrier there suddenly appeared a huge, imposing keep.

The high walls of the outer bulwark were made of a strange black stone shot through with veins of rusty red. It was high and imperious. So far as it could be seen it was all angular and unfriendly. Spikes of dark metal studded the top of the walls, and fierce statues of unknown monsters leered from the ramparts. Around one corner there appeared a huge gatehouse, a set of dark wooden doors banded with iron stood closed and imposing. Before them was some huge, ax-wielding armored figure.

The chimera skidded to a halt and motioned with her head. “Here we are. The keep. I really hope you escape intact, you're very nice,” the tiger said.

“But if you don't, thank you very much for the cake, and a big box of money,” the goat added, bleating happily.

“Farewell!” the cobra called out as the three of them dashed off into the distance.

“Well she was nice, wasn't she, Chewy?” Gâteau asked of her blank-faced cragodile, getting another odd, off-timed blink. She casually hopped up to the front gate, and observed the strange figure.

It appeared to be a giant suit of armor built for a griffin, with front hands and bare rear toes for claws. However, there did not appear to be anyone within. The impersonal visor showed only darkness, and the small gaps around the limbs showed the same darkness. It was made of dark-toned metal, with strange designs carved into it. It was studded with glowing gems, which seemed to pulse in a heartbeat rhythm. The ax was tremendous, on a long pole, made of black metal shot through with red veins, the face of it wickedly sharp, the back a single large, pointed hook.

“Oh wow! Is there anyone in there?” Gâteau asked, knocking on the armor's chest.

The armor moved suddenly, bringing the ax down in a warming motion. “No,” the armor intoned hollowly.

Gâteau peered at the huge thing. “So does that mean you're magical?”

“Yes,” the armor replied, slamming the butt of his ax down solidly.

“So can I get in there, foil the Blood Prince and rescue the adorable Arch-Magus?” Gâteau asked.

“No,” the armor answered.

“Can you say anything other than 'yes' and 'no'?” Gâteau queried.

“No,” the armor said, adding an emphatic shake of its head.

“Do you always have to answer?” Gâteau asked.

“Yes,” the armor replied.

“What color is the sky?” Gâteau asked quickly. No response seemed forthcoming. “You only have to answer yes-or-no questions, right?”

“Yes,” the armor rumbled.

Gâteau tapped at her chin, thinking for a moment. She finally snapped her head up and looked to the armor. “This statement is false. Yes?”

The armor at first seemed to not respond to the question. Then a small whine started to shriek from inside the depths of the metal. The glowing gems started to throb faster and fast, flashing wildly as the whine increased in volume. There finally came a tremendous screech, as stressed metal reaching the breaking point. The gems all shattered with a huge flash, and the head of the thing literally blew off its shoulders, launched high into the air to land with a clatter beside the deactivated armor a moment later.

“That's amazing, the Liar's Paradox!” Twilight squealed. “Did you read that book on formal logic that I gave you?”

“Nope! It was hard, and there weren't any pictures showing examples. Miss Smarty Pants gave me some help in logic, because she said that you might like it if I had some logical background. And it was fun to see all the examples like all ducks are birds but not all birds are ducks. Hehehe. Ducks,” Pinkie said.

“Oh, I forgot. You need a basis and examples to learn the fundamentals. Sorry,” Twilight said sheepishly.

“It's okay! You do it because you love me and that makes me so happy,” Pinkie said with a smile.

Gâteau pushed her shoulder against the huge doors and started chanting ominously. Magical power surged through her body and her muscles briefly pulsed. Her strength magically pumped for the moment she pushed herself up against the doors again, and slowly forced the giant things open, allowing her entrance to the keep.

The gatehouse loomed over Gâteau's head as she passed through, swallowing her up in a strange, magical blackness. She made her way confidently through the dark, with a straight and sure step, each clop sounding once and then being lost in what sounded like an infinite emptiness.

One step saw her leg disappear past an indistinct barrier, and she threw herself forward, casting herself back into the harsh light of the wasteland, but inside the massive outer wall. She was inside a huge courtyard, with the main keep proper at the far end of the space. The ground was bare dirt covered in scraggly weeds and tufts of dead grass. Likely it had once been a lawn but neglect and indifference had turned it into a waste like that outside the walls.

There was, however, a great deal of greenery between Gâteau and the keep. A huge hedge stood before her, with an opening in it showing off more green within. From the looks of it, it was a hedge maze, and it extended quite a ways. “Well, Chewy... looks like it's going to be another giant hedge maze. That's the third one this year...”

Gâteau boldly galloped into the maze and pressed her left shoulder against the leafy wall. She dashed on and maintained her position, turning left over and over again. She noted that it wasn't a normal, solid-walled hedge maze, but had numerous breaks, where the leaves were gone and showed the bare, twisted trunks of the shrubs like prison bars, revealing other parts of the maze. There looked to be a central area with a kind of patio.

There were also topiary creations, giant representations of various animals that were depicted in various positions. Gâteau continued to dash along the maze, her strategy slowly but surely leading her towards the heart of the maze. “Looks like we're gonna...” Gâteau started to say, looking back at Chewy when she noticed one of the topiary rabbits shuddering and seeming to turn towards her.

There came a grumbling and a roar, all the topiary creations pulling their roots from the ground and turning on Gâteau, a wicked red light shining where their eyes would be. While rabbits, ducks and mice made out of shrubbery wouldn't normally be intimidating, but they were roaring wildly with wicked claws that looks like the claws of timberwolves, and leafy mouths full of thorny teeth.

Gâteau skidded to a halt and turned on the collection of animated topiary. She adjusted her wizard hat over her determined features and pointed a hoof at the running creatures. Mystical energy coursed through her body as she drew a magical sigil in the air and drew in a tremendous breath. The magical energy coursed through her and into her chest, glowing brightly for a moment. Her mouth opened and a wave for force rushed out as she screamed, “Ni!

The front-line topiary monsters screeched in shock and distress as the magical wave washed across them. They were instantly defoliated, branches and trunks standing like skeletons and trembling in the air. All the stricken figures slowly tilted over and fell heavily to the ground. Those that had not been affected continued to come forward, undeterred as they stepped over the leafy remains of their compatriots.

“Looks like we've gotta do this the hard way...” Gâteau said to Chewy, snorting and scraping the ground with a hoof. She charged over to the approaching deciduous beasts, charging a spell under her breath. Yellowish swirls of magical energy wrapped around her body, growing darker and darker as she ran.

Just a small distance from the nearest creature she dropped down and slid along on her wizard robe. She reached a hoof out and touched the root of each topiary monster, the dark yellow energy jolting off into the creatures. The roots withered, growing wizened and sere. The withering moved up each creature, the wood pulling tight, creaking and crackling as it pulled in and the leaves fell off. They shrieked mightily and the magical light went out in their eye-analogs as they fell, withered and twisted.

Gâteau huffed and leaped back up to her hooves, brushing the dust off of her wizard robe. “Earth pony magic. Growing good food and drying up bad plants, all at once. Guess it should be good from here on out, Chewy,” she said to her cragodile, returning to the path towards the center.

She finally found her way to the center of the maze, finding a large central space with a patio-like area made of the expected black stones shot with rusty red, filled with deep gouges and nicks, as well as numerous flaky, rusty stains. There were several ornate stone seats facing the patio, including one that was especially ornate, full of metal spikes, metal rings and inlaid dark gemstones. Chains hung off of it and a down pillow was laid on the seat.

Behind the patio and seating area was another cleared space of black stone. It went up in several tiers, forming a circle of steps onto what almost looked like a dais, topped with a simple, white wooden gazebo. The very sight of it sent Gâteau into a defensive stance, reaching into her pack to extract a staff that was a bit longer than the pack itself. The staff was made of what looked like wood and stone grown together, the head having a hook from which dangled a glowing magical gem.

Pinkie rolled a die and smiled brightly. “I did it! Surprise preparation!”

Twilight rolled herself and chuckled. “Well, your initiative was certainly good enough. But would Gâteau know to get herself ready like that?”

“Gâteau knows better than to be caught off guard. She knows there are enemies, thanks to the topiary monsters. So she'd be prepared,” Pinkie said.

“But this monster?” Twilight asked.

“She's heard the legends. Her background said she had learned about all kids of monsters,” Pinkie explained.

“Very well. You're on the defensive, and won't be taken by surprise, and can get in the first strike if you want. Decide what you'll do and then either roll for attack or move to a better position,” Twilight said.

Gâteau touched her chest and scribed a sigil on the ground, a glowing field spreading over her flesh. “I know you're there! Face me you coward!”

At first there was only a kind of heavy silence, then a low, rumbling growl shook the ground. A tremendous roar followed, the wooden beams of the gazebo groaning and whining as they trembled and moved. They pulled themselves out, the wooden railing around the thing stretching out to form rudimentary legs and arms, while two brass embellishments on the roof opened to reveal two evil eyes which glared down. The wooden floor split open to reveal nails that looked like a row of deadly teeth.

“This guy is nuts! He keeps a wild gazebo in his hedge maze patio! And he never bothered to clean up all that spilled punch on the floor over there. He'll attract insects. Wait... insects...” Gâteau mused. She barely managed to roll out of the way of a rapid attack by the gazebo, which made the magical field around her waver lightly.

The gazebo was slow and lumbering, attacking with its wooden arms and gnashing its nail teeth. The brass eyes also crackled with electricity, sending off lighting bolts every few strikes. Each attack missed, mostly, either hitting very near Gâteau or glancing off the magical field, which started to show cracks along the magical surface.

Through the assault Gâteau never retaliated. She merely spent her time dodging and digging through her enormous pack. She finally extracted what she had been seeking, a wooden plaque with a single, unassuming-looking bronze termite on it. She held the plaque aloft and gave an inarticulate shout, which caused the bronze termite to glow and vibrate. The power within it surged and crackled until it, and the plaque, exploded in a flash of magical light.

The gazebo shielded its eyes from the flash of light and resumed its attack, scoring a tremendous hit that cracked Gâteau's magical shield. Before another blow could be delivered there came the buzzing of thousands of wings. The sound reached something deep in the Gazebo and it turned suddenly, something like fear on its wooden features.

The sky was alive, nearly darkened by a swarm of termites. The winged terrors zipped down into the center of the hedge maze, drawn by the summoning and the sights of the gazebo's tasty wooden body. The limbs flailed and thrashed around, swatting dozens of termites at a time but missing more. The voracious little beasts chewed the body of the gazebo with a famished hunger.

The gazebo screamed and thrashed around, brushing its limbs over its body to try and sweep the vicious creatures off of its form. One particularly hard sweep cracked the weakened wood, the limb falling to the ground and falling victim to the jaws of the termites. The rest of the gazebo collapsed shortly after, the screams growing fainter and more stuttering until it finally went silent.

A short time later the termites flew off once again, leaving nothing by the brass eyes and the nail teeth. Gâteau picked up a brass eye and one of the nail teeth, stuffing them into her pack. “You never know when that might come in handy, or when we might need to trade for stuff,” she said to Chewy, before making her way out through into the other half of the maze.

She continued to use her technique of keeping her left shoulder to the maze wall, and emerged from it a moment later, fazing the high doors to the keep itself. The main building was as darkly imposing as the outer walls, looming like a black cloud over Gâteau's head. The doors were dark wood banded in rusted iron with small spikes protruding from the metal rivets holding the bands on. She pushed open the creaky doors and stepped into the keep.

The whole place was very drear, but had a kind of 'savage opulence' to it. The angular designs and severe architecture were joined by grand portraits of the Blood Prince in many powerful situations, mostly battle but also posing with great treasures or over defeated foes. Armor suits of many kinds stood around the main hall, along with many racks of exotic weapons, some of them looking quite well-used. Furniture was restricted to things made of wood and metal, designed for the sake of appearance and intimidation rather than comfort. Several doors were in evidence around the hall, including one at the top of a set of stairs.

“And here's where the magic happens, Chewy. The magic of... thinking about where the Arch-Magus might be. Let me see...” Gâteau tapped her chin before she pointed a hoof at a door then moved to another, brightly saying, “Pinky, inky, tinky, food, bake a cake and frost it good, it it flops then try again, pinky, inky, tinky, den!” Her hoof pointed to a large opening in the left wall, which seemed to have a vaguely downward slope.

Her hooves echoed on the stone floor as she made her way down the gentle incline. As she went she passed numerous objects that seemed to have no real significance but were displayed as though they were important, with stands and some plaques that she didn't stop to read. Glass goblets, a hooded robe, a soup bowl that smelled really bad and looked really dirty, a dusty, broken barrel. “This guy really needs to hire a decorator. It's not that his keep's ugly, there are junkier places. But all this stuff is weird and boring. And that soup bowl needs a wash,” she commented to Chewy.

The bottom of the incline showed off one last object on display, a waterlogged, warped but probably still-usable one-pony wooden wagon. It would have sufficed as a traveling home for a single pony or a small family. She peered at it as though seeking some recognition, but then shrugged and walked on into a darker area.

The area above had been lit by sunlight and magic gems. The area into which she walked was illuminated by blazing torches, which cast wavering, insufficient light. There was not much to see, however, just cramped passages and barred rooms. It looked to be a dungeon, filled with cells that were empty. The only things within were piles of straw, old buckets, empty bottles of wine, and the occasional scattering of nondescript bones. In one she found an unbroken, and full, bottle of mead, which she slipped into her pack, looking shiftily around as she did so.

She had almost reached the far side of the dungeon when a pleading voice called out, “Help! Please! I see you there! Please help me!”

Gâteau ran towards the sound of the voice, finding herself facing a cell that was not empty. Inside was a unicorn, wearing nothing but a pair of gold-rimmed pince-nez spectacles. She was a brilliant light purple, like the horizon just a moment after the sun sets, when the night sky is still light, with a mane and tail of a much darker purple, more akin to the sky on a bright night. She was standing with her hooves pressing on the bars of the door, seeming dirty and scuffed but not badly injured.

“Arch-Magus Gloaming, I presume,” Gâteau said, casting a critical eye over the unicorn. “If not, you're in a lot of trouble.”

“N-no, I am the Arch-Magus,” Gloaming said, rattling the bars of the cell. “Who are you? I thought the Royal Palace would send guards.”

“I'm Gâteau! Gâteau the Pink, gentlemare sorceress, professional baker, one-mare band performer, adventurer, story collector and single. My favorite color is pink, I enjoy parties, sweets, magical things and long walks in the country. I'm free later on this week once I do this rescue thing. Oh, wait, you're the one I'm rescuing! Silly me. So once we're done with this rescue thing want to go to dinner?”

“A-are you... are you... hitting on me now?” Gloaming asked, giving Gâteau an incredulous look.

“Well, um...” Gâteau said, suddenly losing some of her confident swagger and scraping her hooves. “Is it... working?”

Gloaming blushed a little bit and looked away some. “Well... it's making me feel a little better, to think that a very beautiful sorceress would take a liking to a boring scholar. And I'm a mess, too!”

“I think you look really pretty,” Gâteau said with a bright smile. “We all get a little dusty when we fight topiary and gazebos.”

“But what about the royal guards?” Gloaming asked. “Shouldn't they be searching for me?”

“They're looking, but the Blood Prince created a lot of chaos when he took you. And he did it in secret before the big reveal. They had no clues and had to spread themselves out thin. They offered a reward and brought in adventurers like me to find you. I caught the trail, and followed it right here to you,” Gâteau said, with a smile and a small air-kiss towards Gloaming.

Gloaming blushed again and giggled softly. She then slipped down from the bars and stepped away. “You have to get me out of here, please! Pick the lock and help me get out.”

“Or...” Gâteau turned around and suddenly thew a powerful kick at the lock, her earth pony strength shattering the old, neglected metal and causing the door to loudly squeak open. “I could do that. So... why does the Blood Prince want you, anyhow?”

“He never explained it to me but... he... he said he'll keep me for one hundred and twenty days!” Gloaming wailed.

“Well that's not so bad at all, at least you know,” Gâteau said.

“And then... he will...” Gloaming leaned in to softly whisper to Gâteau, whose eyes started to go wide.

“Ummm... Twilight? You say you're supposed to whisper but... you're not whispering,” Pinkie said.

“Yes... well, see... the text says they want me to invent a long string of terrible happenings, and they even offer suggestions, then end it with, 'and wear my skin like a coat.' But... no. Just no. That's not happening,” Twilight said firmly.

“What kind of suggestions do they give you? I can figure out a reaction from that,” Pinkie said.

“They recommend something like, 'He will put me in a barrel of wine and seal off the opening' or 'He will lock me in a small room without sanitary facilities and feed me copious amounts of food,'” Twilight recited.

Pinkie gagged softly and nodded her head. “I can barely deal with having to use an outhouse, and I only do so in a real emergency. That sounds horrible. But now I know.”

Gâteau gagged a bit and turned away with a shudder. “That's terrible! And he took you just so he could do that? Well he sounds completely loco in the coco!”

“How dare you?!” A booming voice cried from the far side of the dungeon.

“Oh no! It's him!” Gloaming cried, grabbing onto Gâteau's flank and hiding herself. The action made the sorceress smile proudly and brush a hoof on her chest.

“A mere earth pony daring to speak to me in such a manner? How disgusting!” The owner of the voice came into view, a blood-red unicorn stallion with a black mane. He wore a tuxedo jacket that looked to be made of pony skin, and was covered in dried blood that stood out like rusty scales on his form.

“Really?” Pinkie asked in a deadpan tone.

“It's in the book, I didn't write it. I know we know that Prince Blueblood isn't a bigot or a killer. But think of it like this, this isn't Blueblood in any sense. He's an evil monster that is nothing at all like any pony we know, so don't keep comparing the two. It's pretty clear the Blood Prince wouldn't marry a donkey, least of all a palace maid, so... just keep that in mind,” Twilight said.

“You impudent little dirt pony! You date to presume to wear the trappings of a magic-user? Magic is for unicorns and none else!” the Prince screamed.

“That's not true at all! All creatures have magic, all can use it in some form, and all can be taught to use particular forms of magic,” Gloaming said from behind Gâteau.

Gâteau looked at the Prince for a moment before she broke out into a fit of high-pitched giggles. The look on the Prince's face, which had been sour before, turned downright curdled as he was laughed at. “You! Why are you laughing? How can you laugh at a model of pony perfection? I am mighty, and you will respect me!”

Gâteau laughed on for a bit longer before she wiped a tear from her eyes. “I'm sorry! But your face... your face is hilarious! And you're so serious! Look how grim you look and how much you're yelling.”

“You... you are not merely impudent but you are ignorant! You know nothing of the look and bearing of a superior, of perfection! That is I! It is why my word is law and my dictates always right. It is why I have taken the Arch-Magus. This treasonous mare betrayed all of unicorn-kind and must pay for her transgression in the manner I demand,” The Prince asserted strongly.

“Well... what did she do? She seems to pretty... I mean, too kind and sweet and adorable... I mean, too good to do something that bad,” Gâteau said, a blush coloring her cheeks.

“She has done evil against us all. She has collected spells that could be used by other races, and promised to teach them. She would be handing power to lessers, to inferiors, to nothings! Powerful magic, in the hold of pieces of dirt. Disgusting and contrary to nature,” The Prince snarled.

“Ummm... how is that?” Gâteau asked. “I've always had magic. It's how we grow food and stuff...”

“Bah! Petty tricks! Useful, fumbling club-hoofed outpouring of magical force that unicorns may exploit for glory! Real magic, powerful magic must be the domain of unicorns. If unicorns lose control of their exclusive magics they lose their hold on power. If they lose their hold on power the dirt-races and filthy lesser species will rise. If they have no awe of unicorns they have no need for the iron hoof of the absolute nobility,” The Prince explained.

Gâteau looked on the Prince with great incredulity, as though he had started speaking a foreign language. “Um... unicorns haven't ever ruled like that. And the nobility was always kind of overpowered. We have free elections for things, and nobles can have their titles taken away for being really mean.”

The Prince received the news with spluttering and stammering, his outrage robbing him of the ability to speak. Gloaming stood up and whispered to Gâteau, “One of his rages; he is known for fits of pique. We need to distract him and escape.”

Gâteau reached into her pack and dug around for a little bit. When she found what she wanted she gripped it firmly then pulled one of the small pouches from her attire. She flung the contents of the pouch at the Prince's face and then yanked a broom from her pack and rammed the sweeping end into the Prince's stunned features. “Tap sand! Broom in the face!”

The Prince's frustrated, pained and outraged screams formed the background sound for the escape of the two mares. “He sealed off much of my power but I can teach you one spell, a very advanced spell for your race! We need something to help us escape because...”

“You dare?!” The Prince roared. Magic surged through his horn and crackled over his body. His savage, blood-spattered form swelled and grew, pressing against the dungeon cages and the roof. He loomed grandly and released a tremendous roar.

Gâteau led Gloaming out of the dungeon and was about to get her up the incline when the wagon caught her eye. “Wait! If you get in there I can pull you! Being an earth pony has lots of advantages.”

“Then I know the spell,” Gloaming said, leaning down to touch her horn against Gâteau's head, a wave of powerful magic passing through to her. “The Iron Chariot spell. Immediate activation once you focus on the power. I'll teach you the process properly later on. Once you hitch yourself up you cast it and it will protect the wagon and you from many obstacles and give you increased stamina and pulling strength.”

Gâteau got herself into position and began to secure herself to the waterlogged wagon, first throwing her pack onto the wagon. She made sure the straps were tight, while giving Gloaming time to get in. “Everyone ready? Cute Arch-Magus? Chewy?” The Prince's angry roar got the attention of both mares and forced Gâteau to concentrate. “Hope so! Here we go!” Magic surged through her body, wrapping her and the wagon in a glowing field of crackling magic.

“No! That is a disgusting aberration against nature!” The Prince roared, crashing through the dungeon entrance, body grossly swollen and distorted, his face twisted in rage.

Gâteau threw herself into the straps and pulled, shocked by the ease with which she drew along the rather junky wagon. It seemed to weight nothing and she ran with magnificent ease, even though the wheels were warped and rusted. She still wobbled it as she went up the incline, knocking over every item on display and destroying them as she passed.

She pulled a hard and seamless turn at the top of the incline, aimed for the entrance to the keep. The doors slammed in her face but she had a full head of steam and couldn't stop. She rammed into the doors and bashed the iron-banded wood to pieces. “Whee! I love this spell!”

“Careful! The potency decreases the more obstacles you destroy and the farther you run!” Gloaming shouted. She then screamed as the keep practically exploded, the giant form of the Prince screaming in rage. “We need to stop him but my magic is still locked!”

“You will not flee from me!” The Prince screamed. His magic surged, the very land seeming to warp. The hedge maze pulled itself farther and farther, stretching higher and longer and wider, the walls of the keep similarly flowing out of sight. The shrubbery grew spinier, becoming wrapped with rose vines. “I will teach you the painful price of insolence!”

“Throw Chewy!” Gâteau yelled, crashing through the far side of the hedge maze, hammering her way through the walls.

“Throw what?” Gloaming asked.

“My familiar, Chewy!” Gâteau replied. The little cragodile was sitting on the wagon beside the pack, looking bland as things crashed around him.

“O-okay...” Gloaming said. She was uncertain what the placid thing could do but had some faith in her rescuer. She picked up the small, stony creature in her hoof and heaved him with all her might towards the huge form of the Prince.

Chewy slapped onto the Prince's face and clung. For a moment nothing seemed to happen, besides another out-of-synch blink. Then he turned into a furious whirlwind of stony vengeance. His rocky claws ripped at the giant stallion's face, while his heavy tail whipped around and battered at the flesh all around him, his rough and sandpapery skin grinding away at him.

The Prince roared tremendously, and shook his head, attempting to dislodge the angry, attacking creature. His magic flashed but he was too distracted to target him. A lot of his magic started to waver.

“I'm getting some power back!” Gloaming called.

“Reach into my pack and pull out the Herring of Doubt!” Gâteau called, gamely ramming her way through the walls of the expanded hedge maze, not even noticing.

“What?! You have the Herring of Doubt?! Where did you get the Herring of Doubt?!” Gloaming asked, while digging through the pack, which seemed a lot deeper than it should have been.

“I found it in a random store! The price was surprisingly reasonable for a legendary artifact. If you have enough magic back, use it!” Gâteau shouted.

Gloaming finally found the artifact and extracted it from the pack. It was a flat piece of red metal, in the shape of a herring and painted like one as well. She wrapped it in an aura of magic, which just barely seemed to hold the heavy-seeming metal. She let out a cry as she hurled the metal fish like a boomerang, guiding the spinning fish up towards the Prince's head.

The Herring of Doubt cleanly sheared through the base of the Prince's horn, doing the job the legends described. With a blast of magic and a rippling aftermath the horn fell to the ground and the Herring flew off towards the keep. “The Herring!” Gloaming cried.

“Leave it! How else to legendary magical artifacts get into random ruins and tombs? Someone has to use them and leave them behind!” Gâteau called back.

“No! My only source of pride and what made me special and mighty!” The Prince wailed. He threw his head one last time and cried out pitifully. His body crackled with dark magic as he shrank, twisting and writhing in agony. One flick of his head threw Chewy off and flung him back onto the wagon, right back in the place he had been before.

The shrinking prince was rapidly left behind as Gâteau pushed her way through the last of the hedge maze. She rushed her way into the gatehouse, finding only a dusty arch rather than the unnatural darkness she had found before. Once she was out the front gate the ground started to shake and there came a tremendous rumbling, like an avalanche.

Gâteau finally stopped running skidding to a halt as her Iron Chariot spell finally faltered and vanished with a flash. She turned to look at the imposing, evil keep which shuddered and trembled. The stones cracked, clouds of dust flying into the air. The loose stones fell to the ground in a rumbling cascade, leaving the imposing symbol of wickedness nothing more than a pathetic pile of black stone.

Gloaming came down from the wagon with a slow, trembling step, looking at the keep with disbelief. “Y-you did it! You saved me, and you rid the world of the Blood Prince! That was amazing!”

Gâteau detached herself from the wagon and posed rather proudly. “Thanks! I owe it all to Chewy, intensive study and being born with amazing powers.”

Gloaming laughed lightly and slowly approached Gâteau. “You know... umm, we don't need to go back right away...”

Gâteau smiled brightly, and nodded to Chewy. “Best death-keep ever!”

- - -

“And I think we should stop there!” Twilight cried suddenly. She knocked around a few bottles of soda as she slapped the book shut.

“Awww, but why? We were just going to get good. I'll bet that Arch-Magus knows a spell to turn the wagon into a bed!” Pinkie said happily.

“Y-yes... I would imagine so. That's why I think this would be more appropriate to continue in bed. We don't need to roll dice for... what Gloaming and Gâteau are going to do,” Twilight said with a blush.

“You mean have lots of yummy sex?” Pinkie ask, with characteristic bluntness.

“Er, yes. That. And really... it's more fun when we can lie down, and enjoy our... roleplaying,” Twilight said, with an attempt at a seductive tone and look.

Pinkie held up a paper with an '8' drawn on it. “You're trying too hard, but you're cute so I can't give you a low score.”

“Now now, I've been through school. I take the grades I earn and accept the scores on any test,” Twilight said.

“Awww, but I want you to be happy,” Pinkie said, getting up and snuggling with Twilight.

Twilight sighed happily and kissed at Pinkie's ear. “I'll let Spike have the library to himself. I like your room a lot, though the greatest portion of that is because you're there.”

Pinkie pulled up another paper, with a '10' drawn on it. “From the heart. Now that I can really love.”

Twilight used her horn to gather up the objects in the room, putting away dice, stacking books and papers, and arranging dirty dishes. “I shouldn't have started, we need to clean up. The Cakes are already being generous.”

Pinkie released Twilight and started zipping around the room, sweeping the crumbs and such from the food. “Two ponies make light work.”

Twilight smiled brightly, levitating the dirty dishes and empty bottles, while stuffing the trash into a trash bag she had brought with her. “I'll put these in the dish-washing area, then come back to help you.”

“I'll be done by then! You can take your books and things upstairs,” Pinkie said cheerfully, already done with most of the room.

“At least let me help you with the leftovers,” Twilight laughed. “I want to help.”

“And that's why you'll always be my special somepony,” Pinkie said with a smile.

Twilight blushed again and made her way into the kitchen area. It had been another brilliantly successful night of Catacombs and Creatures. She could hardly wait for the next game, since they tended to end in a similar fashion every time.

Trixda- Growing Up

View Online

Years before the 1000th year of Luna's exile the Mare in the Moon still loomed large over Equestria, looking down on the nation and world with a mix of malice and sorrow. The Princess was still remembered, of course; Equestria remained a Diarchic Principality, with her rule held in abeyance. It would remain so until Luna returned.

Some ponies barely thought of her, while others were consumed with the idea. Those who took the exiled princess most to heart were the descendants of her most stalwart supporters. The Roani. The wandering ponies. Near a thousand years of walking the roads, with a homeland a place of darkness and legends.

They were despised. Called gypsies and ribbontails and chased out of most towns, despite orders to treat them like any other pony group. Near Canterlot it was easy to enforce Celestia's decree. Her heart still ached for her lost sister and she saw protecting the Roani as protecting her sister's memory. But she was only one pony. Even with guards and constables as her eyes and ears she couldn't be everywhere.

The father from Canterlot a place was, the more likely it was that communities could get away with insults to the Roa. The royal sorts tried, but they could not do it. The Roa, for their part, took much of it in stride, because they had done so for a long time. They could survive good and bad fortune.

They were often painted as scoundrels. If not traitors (few dared accuse them of that; it risked a visit from the OCFG to investigate serious false accusations) they were regarded as still clinging to a pony that had tried to harm others. They noted it was Nightmare Moon, not Luna. The difference was largely ignored.

Jobs were few and hard, by and large. Few Roa could settle to get proper ones. They took any they could manage, building up a repertoire of abilities to function as generalists. Some managed to practice some settled craft as they went along, such as carving and carpentry. But most, by virtue of having to provide a bright life for their clans, chose entertainment. Singing, dancing, fortune telling, games of chance. It had become a stereotype, with some claim of truth.

The standard method of Roani travel was to remain in clans, or groups of clans, all of them living in single-room caravans. The caravans served as home, dressing room and occasionally stage or booth if they were the transformable type. The head of the family in the caravan drew it, unless they were too old, then the eldest child did it.

Children were educated together, when they couldn't enter Equestrian public schools. Roa were to be openly and freely accepted and not restricted in any fashion, but the nomadic lifestyle and general pressure often made that difficult. The government provided proper course materials, updated and distributed among the Roa bands for free at any town. All that was needed was an adult willing to teach.

The foals were taught Equestrian, and Roani, math, science, magic and other necessary academic skills. The traditions of the Roani were also emphasized, as well as some form of performance. Practical vocational skills could be taught, but many Roani accepted their lot. They knew what they were known for and they were genuinely good with performing, so they continued the family traditions.

Foals so raised tended to have a very strong bond. They were the best of friends. Given that non-Roa foals were often kept away by parents or held some vague family-induced prejudice, they were all that they could rely on. They studied together, played together and very often got into mischief together. With no set address and little danger of being remembered they could develop sticky, tricky hooves early on.

That may have been the origin of some of the rumors. All foals were mischievous, but the things Roa foals did was held to be 'typical of their kind.' So that mischievousness of youth was planted on the heads of older ponies, creating the impression that they were all thieves and tricksters. Not that some weren't. But the automatic assumption made it especially bad.

Several Roani clans had been going through a small forest town of mostly neutral folks, with some of the traditional epithets bandied about. Among them, the Lulamoon clan, a proud group of entertainers and mages. It was nighttime. Roani time. While they slept as any other pony, they had an affinity for the night. It was the time of their Phuri Daj, their mother's mother, the honored name of Luna in their tongue and traditions.

The clans had circled the wagons outside of town, with some singers and dancers providing entertainment for those there gathered. Most of the group was there. But many of the children were not. They were all in the age of bold, solitary exploration and boundary-pushing. They wanted to try their fortunes, and see what became of them.

Young Trixie Lulamoon had gone through the town earlier that day, wearing her most colorful cape and pointed hat, but without a tail ribbon. Her mother would have scolded her severely for failing to wear the sign of their loyalty to Luna and their heritage. But Trixie passed more easily when she looked non-Roani. She could freely walk around and see what there was to see.

The other children had told her to look through the place, to find any loose things they could take like colorful decorations or potted plants in nice pots or things like that. Though her clan was respected, she was not well-liked. The other children found her too timid and unwilling to do things. She didn't fit the mold of her family.

She had agreed to do it because she thought they would like her if she did. She really did want to be liked. She had the magical skill required of a Lulamoon, and showed it with her family. But she wasn't a natural performer. She didn't have the nerve to stand up. So she could easily be talked into things by those she wanted to like her.

With the night fallen and the children not missed they crept their way back into the slumbering town. Trixie took up the back of the group, still in her cape and hat. Flamboyantly dressed but silent. She crept along behind the procession of young unicorns, chancing a look at the sky. Clouds were scudding in, and gathering. “Hey, it looks... it looks like...”

“Sh! Quiet, Trixie! You did your job now just come on,” Moonglow whispered. Moonglow was the de facto leader of the foals. Pale greenish yellow with a white mane, she had long, graceful limbs that made her taller than the others, even if they were all the same age. She leveraged that and her strong personality into her leadership position.

“But... the clouds...” Trixie whispered.

“It'll be fine. Phuri Daj's light may not penetrate the clouds but the gadje have provided us with plenty,” Moonglow said, indicating the firefly lanterns and some lights still on in the houses.

“But...” Trixie began.

“Sh! We'll be in and out quickly. Now, everypony, go find the things Trixie told us of. And Trixie, stay here and look out for the gadje,” Moonglow insisted.

“O-okay, Moonglow...” Trixie said. She sat down on the cobblestone streets as the others spread out down the lanes. They munched on flowers as they passed, appreciating the fresh taste of buds they had never sampled before, and poked their heads up to look in windows at how the homes of the town ponies looked.

They found their little spoils, the takings that would make children proud. Colorful pebbles, yard signs with painted features, decorative flowerpots, watering cans. It was junk to most, or at least unimpressive utility items to most, but they were treasures to the little wanderers.

Trixie shifted her eyes around, glancing over the scene with great timidity. Every moment she expected some gruff constable to come charging up to ask her what she was doing. She also tracked the clouds as they rolled in. They were under the control of the town pegasi, set in motion before to create the weather they wanted.

Being mostly unicorns, most Roani did not have controlled weather. They took whatever weather the communities through which they passed offered. It worked out for them, as they had as an internal idea to bear the rise and fall of fortune, to endure the bad so they could savor the good. Weather was just another matter to endure.

Trixie recognized the signs in the clouds. She was quite well educated and understood that the town pegasi had essentially 'programmed' the clouds to roll together to form rain. She had suspected it when they began their excursion. Seeing how they moved finally confirmed it. There was going to be a storm, and a fair-sized one at that.

She sighed with relief when one of the foals returned. Drom. Moonglow's cousin. “Drom! Hurry! We need to leave!” Trixie insisted, practically prancing with nervous energy.

“Look at what I got!” Drom said, quite loudly, showing off a fair-sized painted flowerpot with a spray of celosia in it. “All the colors of a rainbow, in a pretty pot.”

“That's not important anymore! Find Moonglow and the rest and get them out,” Trixie insisted.

“What's your problem?” Drom asked, tilting his head in confusion.

“We're going to be trapped in-” Trixie began.

“Look at the great things we got!” Moonglow boasted suddenly, showing off some colorful lawn Breezies recently taken from a yard.

“Moonglow! We have to leave!” Trixie pleaded.

“Why? Did you see a constable?” Moonglow asked, suddenly looking paranoid. “They should not be out this late in a place this small.”

“No, we're going to be caught in the rain,” Trixie explained.

Moonglow snorted and shook her head. “'The rain'? Trixie, you had me worried it was something actually serious! Are you so timid that you fear a little rain?”

“It's not just a little, I can tell,” Trixie hissed, looking up at the gathering, thickening cloud cover.

“Don't get so presumptuous, it doesn't suit you,” Moonglow snorted. “We're still waiting for the rest.”

Trixie prepared to object, when things all seemed to happen at the same time. A cry emerged from down one of the roads, followed by the pounding of hooves on the stones of the street. The other foals came running, trailing colorful cloth while being chased by ponies that could be seen to be adults from the town. In that moment, the sky opened up and poured out a terrific deluge onto the heads of all who were outside, setting them to screaming and flailing.

“I told you! I told you!” Trixie cried, trying to hold up the brim of her hat to look at Moonglow.

“Never mind that! Run to the caravans! The adults will be moving out now!” Moonglow cried over the pounding of the rain on the stone streets.

The foals dropped what they had nicked and made a mad dash for the caravans, while the townsfolk sought shelter from the rain.

Trixie tried to keep pace with her fellow foals but the downpour drenched her body, soaking her cape and hat. She was greatly encumbered by the waterlogged garments, and flailed her way along, occasionally flopping desperately on the ground, as she well imagined the townsponies were hot on her hocks and ready to punish her for the crimes of her fellow foals.

She was so much slower than the other foals, never being close to them. She only heard their cries and calls as they ran ahead of her, which grew fainter and fainter as they outstripped her. She also heard the faint calls of the adults, and the groaning creaks of the caravans as they started to move away from the epicenter of the storm.

Weighed down by the hat and cape, scared out of her mind by the thought of pursuit and capture, and feeling almost betrayed by the other foals for leaving her behind Trixie cried out for help, an inarticulate, and properly foalish, wail of despair and fear. But with the occasional crash of thunder and the conversation of the adults her distant and small voice was lost in the environment.

She let her panic give her strength, as her magic lit the dark, cold and rainy night. She dragged her sodden cape through the muddy ground, through the place she knew the campsite had been. She could just see the wheel ruts in the hat-covered glow of her horn. She could have seen it better without the sagging hat, but it was a beautiful thing and she would never give it up, however heavy it became.

The tracks were practically melting as the rain rushed over them and slowly obliterated their trace. But with all the caravans moving in inclement weather they wouldn't be going that fast. Though slowed, she was using all her strength to move in their wake, and it paid off when she heard the calls of the others, and even caught her own name being cried.

“Daj! Here! I am here!” Trixie cried, pouring what dregs of strength she had left into her aching legs to propel her forward faster through the muddy mess she was slogging through.

“Trixie!” Her mother called, a sudden bright light piercing the darkness and cutting through the rain, as her magical force illuminated the sobbing, panting filly, lifted her up and pulled her to the caravan.

Trixie flailed in the air for a bit before she found herself wrapped in her mother's embrace. She pressed in against the large mare's chest and sobbed, neither one caring that mud was mussing and smearing over both of them. “Oh daj... it was terrible... I was left behind...”

“Yes. Moonglow told us...” Trixie's mother said softly. “She will be properly punished. Leaving you, to be captured by gadje or simply lost to us.”

Trixie really thought on the betrayal. The others had never respected her. They ignored her unless they wanted to appear to be in a good position with the Lulamoon clan. Moonglow especially. They had left her, like she was nothing. Abandoned her to save their own skins, after refusing to hear her warning.

She didn't need them. “I'm glad. They're all so terrible to me. I don't need them.”

“Trixie, my darling...” Her mother lifted her chin to look into her eyes. “We are ponies. And more, we are Roa. We need one another.”

“Not me, not if they treat me like this,” Trixie asserted.

“Someday you will see, you cannot live alone,” her mother said gently, hugging Trixie tight.

Trixie hugged her mother, drinking in the warmth and love. But in her mind she was certain and settled.

She didn't need anyone.

- - -

Gilda sen Electra O'Bald, Primus, occupied an enviable position among griffins. As a member of the powerful O'Bald clan she had the highest status in the Kingdom. As a Primus she was the firstborn of her father's first hen, and had the family honor. As the daughter of an ambassador to Equestria, she had a lot of status. And being in Equestria made her the envy of every hen that knew her.

It wasn't an unbearably intolerable existence, being a hen in the Kingdom. It was much, much better in the modern era, especially in the more liberal Duchies. But still, many a hen would have torn out their own crops just for the chance to live in the colorful, pastry-rich, female-slanted delight that Equestria represented.

Gilda had her own reasons for being so enthused about the opportunity her father's job offered. From her youngest days she had known she was different from the usual hen, who would gladly join with other hens all for one guy. She didn't want that, even if her mother tried to put a good face on it. She didn't want to be in a group, and she didn't want a male.

Gilda had been an Egg-Grabber as long as she could remember. She never claimed it, but she was called that a lot. That it was true made it no less annoying. She had some pride in being one, or at least did when she was in Equestria and she could enjoy it.

Being in Equestria afforded the young Gilda a chance to move about freely, especially when off the Griffin Kingdom embassy compound. She found the august and stately building just as stifling and repressive as the Kingdom itself. She took every opportunity to get out, such as being at an elite flight camp among elite Equestrian foals.

Junior Speedsters Flight Camp granted her something she never thought she could have had. A friend. A friend who seemed to be capable of lasting a lifetime. A friend who might even have been more than a friend.

That was why the contact had remained after Junior Speedsters Flight Camp was over. Why she was thrilled to know that Rainbow Dash lived in Cloudsdale, though far away from the sculpted cloud facility that housed the Griffin Embassy. She was thrilled because she could work the relationship, from friendship to more, especially as she grew older.

Grew older. But not matured.

“Gilda O'Bald you mind me, young hen!” In the embassy living quarters Ambassador Aurelio O'Bald was pounding on the cloud floors as he screeched at his daughter.

The teenage Gilda barely mustered the energy to show her contempt for her father, subtly scowling and blowing a puff of air up to move her long, hanging bang feathers from her eyes. “Good luck with that, da. It didn't work before and it sure as scat won't work now.”

Aurelio spluttered in a near-apoplectic fit of anger. “How dare you use words like that, and to your own father?!”

“Screech and squawk, da, they're just words, what's the problem with scat like that?” Gilda asked, giving a smug and defiant grin.

“Your perverse delight in being so improper only tells me I should never have taken you from the Kingdom,” Aurelio hissed, slowly trying to calm himself. He knew she was baiting him. He couldn't let himself rise to it.

“You'd have loved that. But you didn't know what bringing me here would do. Thanks for letting me out, da. It really means a lot,” Gilda said, smugly.

Aurelio seethed. “You... you really need to mind your tongue! You are my daughter, I am your father and I am...”

“An ambassador, a Bald, a bore, and a buaileam sciath... that about covers it,” Gilda snarked, with a smile on her beak.

Aurelio's neck feathers puffed up enormously and her turned a sharp, narrowed eye on his daughter. “Your mother is nothing like this, and your brother is much more agreeable! I'd rather have him as the Primus...”

“Do it, da,” Gilda demanded with a sudden fire. “The High King loves it when you try to shift a Primus, especially when a politician that Equestria knows tries to do it. One of the old ones made it hard to do, even when the Primus is a hen. Now King Padraigh would rather rip off his own dick than get Equestria to notice we're not as advanced as they'd like.”

Aurelio was being led in. His daughter knew how to push every button he had. “You... why can't you be more like Argentum? He knows his place in the world and works to make himself fit there properly!”

“I'm not going to grow a cock just because you want me to be like Arg,” Gilda spat. “You got a hen Primus. Deal with it.”

“Like you want me to 'deal with' you being an Egg Grabber? Oh I know. Your mother knows. I'd be amazed if the Kingdom didn't know!” Aurelio snarled, his eyes narrowing.

Gilda narrowed her own eyes right back. “This bunch of clouds may be the Kingdom but right outside in Equestria no one cares. That's the difference with Filly Foolers. In the Kingdom you say you're an Egg Grabber and every feic and báirseach flies over to tell you off. In Equestria if you call someone a Filly Fooler and they're not, they'll just say so. And if they are they'll agree and show you a picture of them and their wife and their kids, because they all have kids, which is dumb, but they do.”

Aurelio ground his beak and turned away from his daughter with a snort. “Their ways aren't ours and won't ever be. In fact... I don't want you meeting with that Egg Grabber pony. Whatever her name is, the blue one.”

“Her name's Rainbow Dash, da! You could at least remember it,” Gilda demanded.

“She's a terrible influence, destroying your connection to the proper things, making you spiteful and hard-headed and a drunk. You know it's only proper for men to have drop of the craythur,” Aurelio lectured.

“Sure da, Dash is the bad influence on me,” Gilda muttered, rolling her eyes and turned from her father. “Anyway, Dash and I have plans. I won't be home until... whenever. Tell the dorks at the gate not to give me a hard time or I'll make a big scene in front of the Equestrian news cameras.”

“Young lady we are not done here and you will mind me! I forbid you to go out!” Aurelio roared, hitting the cloud floor solidly.

“Whatever, da...” Gilda flippantly remarked, launching herself through the puffy floor and punching a huge hole in the cloud. She streaked down in a tight posture, talons forward, legs back, wings tucked. She gathered more and more speed from her free fall before suddenly opening her wings and pulling up with a slingshot motion, her gravity-assisted downward momentum pivoted by the resistance of her wings.

She winced a little as the gutsy move yanked brutally at the anchors of her wings. But she was a Junior Speedster, she could take it. She was the best of the best and could prove it. She had to keep in shape to keep impressing Dash after all.

She soared over the sculpted cloud homes and numerous cloud pillars of Cloudsdale, using her sharp gaze to scan for Dash. Dash tended to be a bit lazy, which she often called 'interested in conserving energy.' She would nap at any moment. She made up for it be being fast and talented when she had the inclination.

Gilda was scanning the tops of clouds for a blue blob when she was hit from behind by four hooves. She squawked loudly and rolled in her air, talons bared, lion claws unsheathed and beak parted to show her teeth. She was prepared to attack, but held back just long enough to recognize Dash's smug, scat-eating grin. “Dash! What the screech was that?”

“Chillax, Gilda,” Dash said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “I saw you checking out clouds. I had to show you you wouldn't catch me napping.”

Gilda gave a lopsided grin and chuckled. “Whatever. I found you. We can go out cruising, maybe slobber all over each other for a while, tick my da off.”

“I'll never get that. My pops loves you, mom too,” Dash said with a tilt of her head.

“It's griffin scat. Don't worry about it. Just keep being awesome,” Gilda said with a wave of a talon.

“Being awesome is what I do,” Dash said with a proud off of her chest. “Wanna race? Skies are clear today, nothing new coming outta the weather factory that's gonna be used locally.”

“Sure! I could totally take you, since you haven't had your twenty hours of sleep,” Gilda teased.

“Says someone who is literally half cat,” Dash countered.

“Oh, it's on now, Dash!” Gilda cried.

The two too up a basic hovering posture, wingtips just a hair from touching. They focused on a distant pillar, which looked like as good of a finish line as any.

Before the race could get underway, Dash and Gilda were distracted by a call of, “Check it out! Rainbow Crash and that cat-bird!”

Though Dash scowled at the nickname, Gilda bristled, puffed her neck feathers and flexed her lion claws. “Who said that? What stupid dweeb said that?”

The muscle-headed idiots Hoops and Dumbbell swooped up to Gilda and Dash, giving them mocking looks.

“I said it. You got a problem with that?” Hoops questioned sharply.

“I've gotta problem with your face!” Gilda screeched, shaking a fist at the arrogant stallion. “But I'll be glad to rearrange it for you, no charge!”

“Shut up, cat-bird!” Dumbbell shouted.

“You shut your face-hole, and quit word-vomiting, dorkus!” Dash screamed at Dumbbell.

“That does double for you, ya drúichtín! Dulamoo!” Gilda screeched at Hoops.

Both Hoops and Dumbbell laughed cruelly and pointed at Gilda. Hoops flicked his ears and asked, “What was that? Speak Equestrian, cat-bird!”

Gilda snarled, her talons curling and lion claws flexing. “You... dweebs! Dorks!”

“Yeah! Dweebs!” Dash echoed, quickly flicking a hoof at the two while rapidly circling them.

The pair snorted, some of the wind taken out of their sails bu the clear menace they could feel from Gilda. She seemed a hair from making her objections more than verbal.

“You're not even worth it,” Hoops mumbled lamely as he and Dumbbell flapped quickly away.

“That's right! Cowards! Come back and face me!” Gilda shrieked, turning away in disgust. “Ol' buaileam sciaths, the both...” she muttered, catching sight of Dash's quizzical look. “We going or what, Dash?”

Dash quickly shook her head and grinned. “You bet! Come on, I got just what you wanted...”

Gilda flapped her way into space with Dash and looked aside. “So did you get some good Griffin whiskey? My da has that but he keeps it locked up. Dumb as I may think he is he knows me too well.”

“Well... no,” Dash confessed, scoffing as Gilda shot her a sideways stink-eye. “Come on! I may be awesome and radical and cool, but I'm also just as underage as you. Getting good booze takes more than attitude. Until we get some fake IDs the best I can do is some beer, and it's gonna take serious bits just for that.”

Gilda rolled her eyes and snorted but nodded her head eventually. “Fine, I already traded that scat-pile of shillings da calls an allowance for bits outside the embassy. I've got us covered.”

“H-hey, I get an allowance too! I've got the cost... most of it... we'll use yours if we need it,” Dash said firmly, look moving from wounded to determined.

“Sure Dash, whatever you say,” Gilda said with a grin.

They zipped through the skies, around, over and under the various levels of huge and permanent clouds which formed the great industrial city of Cloudsdale. They challenged each other to short races from one arbitrary mark to another, losing and winning in turn and having a wonderful time of the flight.

Around behind one of the larger cloud processing facilities Dash called for quiet, and began looking shiftily around as she approached a dun-colored pegasus wearing the jumpsuit of a factory worker.

He, too, was looking very shifty as the two females alit beside him. “You're late.”

“I had... stuff...” Dash said, somewhat awkwardly, thinking of the brief encounter with the stallions and the time-eating impromptu races. “You got it, or not?”

The stallion lifted up a burlap bag which rattled lightly. “Got it here. Now... the price is up. Double.”

“Are you bucking with me?!” Dash cried, pulling a bit pouch from her waist. “I got the money that you wanted, and that's it. We had a deal!”

“Look, you want this booze, and you can't get it for yourself. The price goes up now and then,” the stallion noted. “I read it in a book once. It was boring but now I know how to make way, way more money by doing stuff like this.”

“Being a total tool?” Gilda bitterly asked.

“No, doing anything that it takes to make money, and then raising the prices if I think you'll pay it,” the stallion proudly said.

“Let me carve this feic a new scat-hole, Dash! He needs it. The dweeb's completely full of it,” Gilda snarled, holding up her talons to the stallion.

“That's not a very sensible interaction between intelligent whatevers. I, sort of skipped around. Never mind! Fine, then what we agreed plus half,” the stallion insisted.

Dash grumbled, shaking the bit-pouch in her hoof. She finally turned to Gilda and asked, “Can you chip in? You're right about him being a tool but he's got what we want.”

Gilda rolled her eyes and pulled out her own pouch, spilling a few bits into her talons. “This would be so much easier if you just let me punch a hole through his face, dude.”

“That's not how ponies work, Gilda. It's kind of a hassle but it works out in the end,” Dash said, collecting the additional bits into one pile with her own and passing them off. “Now give us the booze and get the buck out of here.”

“All yours. I'll see you later for more. You know you want it,” the stallion said with a smile, passing the bag over and taking off with a nasty laugh.

Gilda spat after him but turned to the bag. “Forget him, dude. Let's get at that stuff.”

Dash opened the bag to reveal bottles of beer, almost all of them without labels. The one which did have a label drew her attention. “Grimalkin's Grog? What the hay is that?”

Gilda grabbed the labeled bottle and fixed it with a piercing, hateful stare. “That scat-barfing bastard! This is Golden-brewed piss, just barely above the nettlebeer pub owners serve to the ones who are too drunk to care!”

Dash regarded the bottles for a moment and stroked her chin. “Will it get us drunk?”

Gilda popped the cap off of two bottles and passed one to Dash. “Oh yeah, dude. Good and drunk.”

After nightfall, when they had choked back enough of the low-grade griffin beer to get a buzz, both of them were looking up at the sky while laying out on clouds. “Th-think we should go home?” Dash asked, speech low and just a little slurred.

“I don't wanna go home...” Gilda huffed after a moment of thought.

“Guess you'll stay at my place again,” Dash said with a suggestive chuckle.

“At least your dad and mom are cool. They hate when they figure out we're smashed but at least they give a flying fling about you... and don't even notice I'm a screeching egg-grabber!” Gilda shrieked, smashing her fists into the cloud on which the two were laying. The thing shattered into puffy peaces, leaving them both drunkenly flapping.

“Now what?” Dash asked.

“Hey...” A devious look crossed Gilda's features, and she chuckled to herself. “Follow me...” She zipped off, cutting a wobbling way while Dash attempted to keep pace, wobbling even more than Gilda.

They eventually ended up over Dash's school, Cloudsdale Cumulostratus High. The grounds were still, dark, silent and empty. The classroom buildings hung in perfect position, the main building stood gray and imposing, and the athletic area stood out, with the cloud stands and field in perfectly sculpted shape.

“What? My school? Ugh, what are we doing here? We gonna... gonna mess with the classrooms? Bust it up a little?” Dash asked.

“Nah... something better than that...” Gilda said, flying over the administration building and lifting her tail up.

Dash watched, in numb surprise and shock, as Gilda defecated onto the cloud building. “Wh-whoa! What are you doing?”

“I thought you said you hated this place! That it was stupid! Made you feel all... closed up!” Gilda screeched, continuing to soil the imposing edifice.

“Well... kinda...” Dash mumbled, sliding her hoof through her mussed mane. “But... come on...”

Gilda started to tear up as her guts churned with cheap beer and her own emotions. “This is what should happen to places like that! Hear that, da?! You keep those stupid guards there but... but this is... is...” Further comment ceased as she added the largely watery contents of her stomach to her violation of the school building.

- - -

Trixie barely looked to be concentrating as she wound a rope sinuously around standing sticks, avoiding them as she wound the line along in a complex set of twists.

The Roani band was resting in the middle of a coniferous forest, not encamped formally but just taking a rest in the shade of the trees. Trixie's family caravan was at the back of the group, and had numerous magical practice areas set up, so that Trixie could work on her technique.

“Most excellent, my chej, you learn well and quickly,” Trixie mother said, with pride in her voice. She strolled over to her daughter and adjusted the mare's stance with soft touches of her hoof. “You use your hat well to hide the action of your horn. It looks more impressive without the glow of magic.”

Trixie grinned smugly and bowed a bit. “Nais tuke, daj. I know where the gadje want to look. When there is nothing there they will be all the more eager to watch what I have wrought!”

“Your skill is growing nicely, and soon you will be polished and perfect,” Trixie's mother noted.

“Ha! There is no need,” Trixie asserted, dropping her concentration and letting the rope fall down lifeless. The roll of the freed rope bumped the loosely-rooted sticks which fell over as they were touched. “I am already excellent. My skill as an entertainer is unrivaled. Even that miserable Moonglow said so.”

“But... but my chej...” Trixie's mother began.

“What? You have said I am powerful. The others already know I am great. What more could I need to work among the gadje on their terms?” Trixie asked.

“There is more to being a success than being powerful and great,” her mother insisted, using her magic to bear away the rope and set up the sticks again. “You must be disciplined, focused, and practiced to a smooth perfection, capable of performing your feats perfectly despite any distraction. And then there is the thought about attitude and presentation...”

“Ha!” Trixie laughed, waving a hoof. “For one as... as... great and powerful as I, Trrrixie Lulamoon, such thoughts are needless. They will watch me with awe and amazement! I know the tricks, I know the secrets, and my attitude will not matter when they stomp their hooves and cheer my name with all their might!”

Trixie's mother regarded her daughter with a mix of pity and distress. “If you act so coldly, and so arrogantly... what will you do my precious chej? Stalk the land of the gadje, be a chovexani casting hexes and darkness to all who dare to say you are not as good as you think?”

“And would you have me stay here? Have me moaning out brigaki djilia, enumerating all our woes as I pitifully perform tricks and beg for bits?” Trixie snorted, with more vehemence than she intended. “Besides, I will always be as good as I say I am. Who could ever surpass my power?”

“There are always others, chej. Always. Even I have that slim sliver of power over you, and all thanks to practice, to patience and polish,” Trixie's mother assured her.

“Who needs polish when I have fireworks?” Trixie asked, using her magic to touch off a small burst of sparkles. “I'll work on the size of the explosions later. The gadje will never know the difference between polish and flash.”

“Please Trixie... work on perfecting your technique,” her mother pleaded, using her magic to effortlessly wind the rope around the sticks.

“I only need to tell a good story and look the part,” Trixie sniffed. “How could I ever lose out to any average unicorn?”

“Baxt may be good or ill,” her mother said ominously. “When the wheel turns you may find you are not on the side of it you believed. It will lift or-”

“Crush. I know,” Trixie said flatly. “But I can beat fortune itself. I will always win, no matter what.”

Trixie's mother sadly regarded her daughter as she turned to a boiling pot of pine cones harvested from the local trees. She watched as Trixie ignored her rope practice and went on to trying to create clouds, like a pegasus. She showed the strain with wrangling with the unfamiliar magic, but gave it her brute force best. She could manage, but would never have the easy naturalness of someone with practiced skill.

She would always be in danger of a fall


“Dash!” Gilda swooped through the skies of Cloudsdale, screeching out Dash's name as she flew. She bulled her way through clouds and bumped pegasi that happened to get in her way, leaving puffy fragments and angry ponies in her wake. “Dash! Come on, quit joshin' me! Where are you?!”

Gilda hit all the places she could think of, within reason. She couldn't zip through to every place, especially not in the daylight. She sought out their usual hangouts and even tried to shake down the guy that sold them beer, but he knew nothing.

She had been grounded for a few weeks, after an incident with underage drinking and making out with three mares, none of whom were Dash. She'd been completely out of contact the whole time and was eager to return to Dash's company.

Her last stop was at Dash's home, an imposing cloud structure like all the rest. Since clouds were easy to build with and effectively free everyone in Cloudsdale could have a place of their design, modified only by the amount of airspace they could buy from the city. Dash's family home was a large, narrow thing with columns that abutted the other similarly sized and styled homes beside it.

Gilda knocked at the door and was confronted a moment later by Dash's father, Spectrum. The imposing stallion typically had a soft and warm look. He had one in the moment between opening the door and seeing who it was. “Hello, Gilda.”

Gilda had never seen such an expression before, not from him. He sometimes looked exasperated by their antics, or even bemused or vaguely understanding. He had never looked so hard and so cold. “Uh, h-hey, Mister Dash. Can, you know, Rainbow come and see me?”

“Rainy doesn't want to see you right now,” Spectrum gruffly intoned.

Gilda tilted her head in her raptorish way. “What? What are you talking about? She always wants to see me.”

“Things change. Sometimes very quickly, and for good reason,” Spectrum noted in a bitter tone.

Gilda did her best not to scoff as she looked aside. “Look... we're best friends. Better than best friends. Can't I just see her for a minute or leave her a message?”

“She left a message for you,” Spectrum said. He passed along a folded sheaf of notebook paper and sighed, his expression growing to one of pity. “Go back home to the embassy, Gilda. I don't... I don't think you'll be hanging around here anymore.” With that he closed the door slowly, but deliberately.

The folded note trembled in Gilda's talons as she considered the words. She quickly unfolded it and read the sloppily scrawled note.

Hey Gilda. You know I'm crap with this emotional junk. It's not me and it's not you. But I have to say something. This... I don't know what this is. But it's not good. I liked having fun with you. Getting into scraps, getting buzzed, fooling around. But it was just fooling around. I realized that when you got in trouble. You weren't making out with me. You never felt committed. I can't keep going like that. I want more than that. I want better. I'm sorry. Please just keep away. -Dash.

Gilda stared at the brief note, feeling as though she had been stabbed in the gut with a talon pike. Dash... she had lost Dash. Through a note.

“S-she just needs some time to cool off...” Gilda mumbled to herself as she blindly flew in the direction of the embassy. “Th-that's all it is. That's all... we'll get together again. Someday. Soon. Someday soon...”


Gilda and Trixie, at separate points in time, regarded themselves in the mirror as they examined what they were, what their attire and looks said about them.

Gilda tore her fancy clothes from her body, shredding the expensive fabric, destroying the oryx-leather straps and brass fittings. She even threw away the clasp that had been securing the cloak around her neck. But with all of that destruction leaving her bare, she still had to look at herself. She couldn't tear off her Bald hide. She was, and would remain, a powerful clan. And however she felt about it, she couldn't do anything about it.

Trixie loaded herself up with color. Spangles, sparkles, glitter and flash. She was out to make an impression, to make herself known. She shone on any stage, while pyrotechnics bust behind her, and clever patter shored up any weakness in her skill. But the one thing she had taken away was her tail ribbon. Her Roani heritage gave her the inclination towards color, sparkle and performance, her family had been important in nurturing her talent, but when the time came to shone, she hid it away, not for her sake, but for the audience.

The two also purchased their own residences. Trixie a flashy performance vardo that could hold all the pyrotechnics that made her performances special and unique when her elementary tricks and fancy patter didn't impress. Gilda bought a run-down house on the edge of a pony town, subconsciously choosing a cheap place that was very evocative of griffin design aesthetic. The only improvement she made was to put in a practice course to work on her moves, rather than making it look nice.

Vardo or home, both would help them pull themselves up to their place in the world. They were absolutely certain. However they stumbled and failed, and however different their experience, they had the same certainty. Nothing would ever keep them down.