The plum-colored mare sat at the bar, a drink beside her and her head resting on the counter. The barmare stood cleaning a glass, looking at her with pity. For a while it had seemed that Berry had kicked the habit, but today she had returned, and returned with an unsatisfiable thirst. She had almost exhausted the bar’s supply of whiskey, downing them all silently with a vacant stare. The bar was empty now, and the barmare had already dimmed some of the lights, but she hadn’t the heart to kick Berry out. She was a drunkard, yes, but she also knew that Berry had a reason to be. They all did.
“You’re awfully quiet today, Berry,” she said softly, putting down the last dirty glass.
Berry Punch didn’t reply, her head still resting on the wooden counter surrounded by her mane. Her vacant gaze had a hint of sadness, but most of her emotion had seemingly been wiped clean by the alcohol. The barmare sighed.
“Y’know, everypony’s pretty worried about you,” she continued, not caring whether Berry was listening or not. “You can tell me what’s wrong, you know.”
Berry Punch shifted to move her hooves around her head, hiding her face. The barmare wiped her hands clean with a grubby cloth in resignation, and clopped around the counter. She silently sat on the stool next to her, propping her head up with her hooves.
“I’m worried about you,” she added.
The bar was dark now, and the two were illuminated by the last shining lamp. Outside the windows was pitch-black night, with tiny pinpricks of white indicating the start of the sky. It was peacefully silent save for the occasional, faint hooting of the librarian’s owl. The barmare looked back to Berry, resting her eyes on her mulberry mane. It was then that she noticed the tiny movements she was making; her back rising up and down erratically. She frowned in sadness as she realized what was happening, and as expected, a whimper, followed by a sniffle, came from within Berry Punch’s crossed hooves. The barmare softly put her hoof on the jerking back, patting Berry’s soft fur. Then, Berry spoke.
“Y-You know that song, Shots? Th-The song by Trill Note?” she sobbed.
“Which one, dear?”
Berry lifted her head from the counter, wiping her tears away with the back of her hoof. She sat up in her chair, eyes fixed ahead of her, and sang:
Just before our love got lost, you said:
"I am as constant as a northern star."
And I said, "Constantly in the darkness,
If you want me I'll be at the bar..."
The tempo was held precariously, and she strained to make the notes, but there was a beauty in it; her voice sounded delicate, precious, almost broken.
Oh I could drink a case of you darling,
and I would still be on my hooves,
…still be on my hooves.
She finished with tears in her eyes, her voice faltering on the last word. She sniffed and looked down to her hooves, watching a tear roll down from her face and land on one.
“That was really beautiful, Berry,” Shots said softly.
Berry merely sniffed again, clopping a hoof on the counter. Shots moved closer with her stool, placing a hoof around her back once more and putting her other on top of Berry’s hoof. Berry was shivering, but Shots knew that it wasn’t because she was physically cold. This cold came from inside.
“Did you lose your love, too?” Shots whispered quietly.
Berry Punch’s eyes opened wide as something happened within her. After a few moments of stunned silence, she nodded jerkily, unwillingly. Then, the mare burst into unconstrained tears. Shots moved closer and wrapped her other hoof around Berry’s back, pulling her into a hug.
“There, there...” she comforted, guiding Berry’s head onto her shoulder and patting Berry’s back. “Let it out, dear...” she whispered.
Berry’s back rose and sunk with great heaves as she cried and whimpered into Shots’ mane, a cold sadness welling up from deep inside her.
And she started to tell her about the love she had lost.
I was sitting at a table in Sugar Cube corner, as I did every Friday afternoon. The daffodil sandwich in front of me lay untouched. Coming to Sugar Cube corner was a habit to me now, even though I had no-one to go with. But a few weeks ago, that all changed. I had an entirely different reason to be sitting here today.
“Hey Berry! You haven’t touched your sandwich!”
I turned around to see the craziest, pinkest mare in the neighbourhood trotting up to me.
“Is there anything wrong with it? I mean, I don’t think there should be... Or maybe you’re sick! Then we need to get you to the clinic!”
Before I could get a single word in, she was already checking the pulse in my hoof.
“Pinkie...” I began, “there’s nothing wrong with the sandwich....”
Pinkie looked up at me and cocked an eyebrow. “But you’ve been here for hours! And you haven’t touched it!
“Wait! I know, I know! You’re waiting for somepony, right?”
I shifted uncomfortably, and I think she noticed.
“But they’re late, right?” she beamed.
“I... Yes. How did you—”
“You’re waiting for Fluttershy and Rarity, right?”
I blinked, and I think I was blushing, too. She’d guessed correctly, but I could never let anyone know. I knew Pinkie Pie was one of their best friends, and she was bound to let it slip the next time they met. I checked the tables around for anyone else.
“Pinkie, listen...” I whispered urgently. “Y-You can’t tell them!”
Pinkie’s eyes narrowed before a sly grin crossed her pink muzzle.
“Oh...” she smiled dangerously.
“You’re going to tell them, aren’t you?” I mumbled quietly to the floor.
“No, silly, of course I won’t!” Pinkie laughed, pulling up a chair from another table.
Pinkie was sitting very close to me now; uncomfortably close. She leaned in to my ear and whispered:
“So, which one? Or is it both!”
I think I almost jumped out of my seat.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I stuttered.
Pinkie put a hoof around my shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Berry! I won’t tell anyone!” she insisted, patting my back.
I looked at her disbelievingly.
“You want me to Pinkie Promise? I’ll Pinkie Promise!” she warned, moving to get out of her seat.
“No, okay, fine!” I yielded. “It’s...”
Pinkie Pie leaned in right next to my neck expectantly.
Pinkie grinned and squeaked in excitement.
“Oh, boy,” she giggled. “That’s a doozy.”
What I hadn’t realized about telling Pinkie was that even if she didn’t tell anyone, she’d still find a way to embarrass me so that I’d feel like dying. She’d told me that today, Fluttershy and Rarity were spending the post-spa lunch at Rarity’s boutique, so that Rarity could get an opinion on a new dress design.
Now, I found myself taking a walk around Ponyville with Pinkie Pie, who was plotting ways of getting Fluttershy and I together and simultaneously giving me tips on her personality.
“Fluttershy’s kinda... No, actually she’s really, really, shy.”
“I know, Pinkie...”
“Oh, right, duh, I forgot you’ve been stalking her,” she giggled, giving me a friendly pat on the back. “So, why Fluttershy? Have you even met her?”
The first, and only, time I had met Fluttershy had been in Shots’ bar. I was going through another slump; times when I felt desperately sad and lonely. I was distracting myself with strong drink, as I did every few days, and I was sobbing with my head resting on the counter. Shots was trying her best to lift my spirits, but I couldn’t hear her.
I heard and felt Fluttershy long before I finally saw her. A different hoof was rubbing my back, and a soft, tender voice stalled my tears.
“Please don’t cry, Berry.”
It froze me and thawed me at the same time. I choked on a whimper and brought my head up from the table to see her cyan eyes, quietly pleading me to let her in. I stared at her in stunned silence as she wiped the tears from the cheeks with a hoof.
Then she hugged me.
“Whatever’s wrong, it’s all going to be okay.”
I shivered. She was warm, and smelled strangely like freshly baked bread. The feeling brought something else up in my mind and before I knew, I was crying again into Fluttershy’s warm shoulder. I could feel her hoof lightly patting my back. I felt... loved.
“Just don’t cry, okay? Whatever it is...”
She moved away again, letting me wipe my nose with the back of my hoof and sniff back the rest of my tears. I could see the rest of her friends sitting at a table not far away, staring with admiration and encouragement. They all looked like very nice friends.
Fluttershy invited me over to the table, and they all beckoned me over too, but I made some stupid excuse. I knew they didn’t believe me, but I would have just ruined their night out.
“Wow,” Pinkie whistled. “That was the first and only time?”
“Um, why were you crying that night?” she asked quietly.
“I cry a lot. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’m not going in.”
Now I was staring at Fluttershy’s cottage. It was beginning to get dark, but there was warm light pouring through the windows, illuminating the ground around the cottage. It was a really nice place, the thatched roof and wooden beams made it homely and... inviting...
“Wanna bet?” Pinkie smirked.
Pinkie was trotting up to the building now, humming a song. A part of me just wanted to gallop off, forget any of this every happened and never talk to Pinkie again, but another part of me was hanging on to the hope that Pinkie would help me meet Fluttershy just one more time...
“Hey! Fluttershy!” Pinkie shouted up at the second floor window. “Fluttershy!”
I choked as I realized Pinkie’s plan. This was not going to be very subtle.
“Fluttershy! Come out! I have somepony who wants to meet you here!”
My eyes widened.
“No, Pinkie, please!”
It was too late, a silhouette had appeared at the second floor window and pulled the curtains to the side. I was frozen to the spot. I wanted to gallop away, I really did. But... I couldn’t. Fluttershy’s face appeared at the window.
“Hello, Pinkie... and hi, Berry! Um, you wanted to see me?”
Pinkie was staring at me now, trying to work out my facial expression. I was just staring. If only she knew how much I had been aching to see her again...
“Would you two like to come in?” Fluttershy asked, now looking concerned.
Pinkie Pie trotted over to me and gave me a nudge. “Well, I’d love to Fluttershy, but I’ve got some dough I need to prepare for tomorrow. But I’m sure Berry’d love to come in!” She turned to me and whispered: “I’ve got you this far, you go on solo from here! Good luck!” She giggled and thumped me on the shoulder.
On one hand, Pinkie had introduced me to Fluttershy proper, and for that I was immensely grateful. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure if I should have wanted to be introduced to Fluttershy in the first place; especially this way.
“Um, okay!” Fluttershy smiled. “I’ll come down and open the door.”
Her pink mane twirled and left, and I gulped. Pinkie had trotted off, leaving me alone in front of the cottage. I already knew that by the end of the night, I would have done something that made Fluttershy never want to lay eyes on me again, and I though about galloping away, again. I ground a hoof in the dirt, already imagining her sweet face snarling at me. I was starting to feel sick.
“Come in!” Fluttershy smiled.
I stared silently for a few moments. Wouldn’t it be better to just leave now, instead of ruining everything? I was starting to feel very, physically sick.
“A-Are you okay, Berry?” Fluttershy trotted up to me, tender concern on her face.
I gulped. My mouth was so dry.
“Here,” Fluttershy said quietly, putting a hoof around my back.
Fluttershy guided me slowly through the front door, bringing me into the softly-lit living room. There were a number of candles dotted around, but most of the proper lighting was off— Fluttershy was probably getting ready to go to sleep. She showed me the sofa and I sat down, still feeling nauseous.
“I’m sorry,” I croaked. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today...”
Fluttershy gave me a soft smile and nodded. “I think I do... I’m going to go make some tea, okay?”
I nodded, feeling dumbstruck. She knew? I sat there, frozen in place with tension. She soon returned with two steaming, ceramic mugs on a wooden tray. The tea smelled gingery, and it made the back of my nose tingle.
“I hope this helps...” Fluttershy said gently, passing me a mug. “It would be better if I had some alcohol but... I’m sorry, I don’t really have any here...”
My mind was spinning. Alcohol? What did drink have to do with any of this?
Fluttershy looked at my face, and my confusion was obviously pretty readable. She moved closer to me on the sofa and put a hoof around my back, squeezing me. My heart fluttered intensely.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t say, did I? Well... I see you at the bar every night at around this time, I guess you haven’t drunk at all today?”
I shook my head, but I still didn’t understand what this had to do with anything.
“I guess Pinkie didn’t tell you... You’ve... You’ve become dependant on the alcohol, Berry. You’ve been drinking so much that your body needs it every day at this time...”
I blinked. I realized that I had completely forgotten about my habit. It made complete sense, and now that I was aware of it... suddenly I really, really felt like a drink.
“You’re sure you don’t have... any?” I pleaded.
Fluttershy shook her head sheepishly.
I was beginning to develop a thumping headache, and I had a nauseous, carriagesickness-like feeling tugging at my stomach.
“Don’t worry, Berry, Pinkie brought you to the right place... I know it’s not easy asking for help, you’ve done a great job,” Fluttershy smiled, pulling me into a hug.
The fluttering of my heart was dampened a little this time. Wait, what? Going for help? What’s going on? I was beginning to get the feeling that Fluttershy had taken this all completely the wrong way, and my sick confusion wasn’t helping. My thoughts were jumbled, and I was starting to feel a very dizzy.
“I... didn’t come for help,” I croaked.
Fluttershy pulled away and looked me in the eye.
“It’s okay, Berry. It’s okay.”
I shook my head.
Maybe it was the withdrawal-sickness, maybe it was the weird tea, maybe it was just because of a weird rush of adrenaline or maybe Celestia had decided to mess with my mind, but now I really didn’t care anymore. I just said it.
“Fluttershy... I think— No... I love you.”
I stared at her, or at least I tried to; but the world was moving. I then noticed how fast my heart was beating and the rushing sound I could hear in my ears. My headache was pounding and I felt like I was drowning. I tried to say something but I choked, and I could feel the senses building up to a horrible crescendo; the humping in my head, the erratic beating of my heart, the stinging in my chest...
“There we go. Welcome back to the land of the living, Miss Punch!”
The first thing that hit me was how dry my throat felt. My mouth and throat all felt like sandpaper. I tried to swallow but I hadn’t any saliva. All I could see was bright red, but then I realized that I also had my eyes closed. I opened them.
Eight, bright circles hovered above me. They were so bright, I had to squint.
“W-Water...” I hissed.
“Yes, of course.” The voice sounded like a colt.
I lifted my head a little and the fluffy pillows behind me shifted too. I then felt the colt’s hoof sliding back out from underneath, and I looked up at him. He was a light blue unicorn buck with a darker-blue mane, and he smiled encouragingly.
“Here’s your water,” he whispered. “Can I let your friends in now?”
He lifted a cup by magic to my cracked lips, and I gulped the cool liquid down. It was impossibly satisfying. I then thought about his question, and after finishing the water I gasped:
The buck shrugged.
“Well, I dunno, but you’ve got six of ‘em back in the waiting room. They’ve been here a good six hours, and they looked pretty scared. You think they could be relatives? Should we check your memory?” Six? Six friends?
I just shook my head and croaked: “You can let them in...”
The buck trotted out, giving me a fleeting view of his heart-and-lightning-bolt cutie mark. Wait... Lightning bolt? Did my heart fail!? What the buck happened to me!?
Before long I heard hoofsteps in the room, and I propped my head up again to see something that I’d never imagined. The six ponies who had been with Fluttershy at the bar that night so long ago were here now, and most importantly, Fluttershy was with them too. Fluttershy was the first to hug me in bed and I noticed her sniffling. Had she been... crying? Over me?
“We were so worried...” she sobbed into my shoulder.
“I don’t... understand...”
The others were all looking at me like I had just died. Twilight spoke up:
“We knew you were sad, but we didn’t do anything about it. Nopony did...”
“A-Are you blaming yourselves for this?” I stuttered.
“We’re sorry, Berry.”
I pushed Fluttershy from me.
“I drink because I need to drink! I choose to! This is nopony’s fault but mine!”
They didn’t understand. They thought I drunk for fun or because I liked it once and got addicted. They didn’t know why I drunk; they didn’t know me.
“Then let us help you!” Fluttershy pleaded.
I shook my head.
In truth, I had never realized why I drunk. I had never vocalized it in a way that made sense. But now, hearing it this way, I knew why. This lead me to realize that this was my way, my destiny through life, the path I would follow. It was a path of self-destruction, and nopony was going to save me because I didn’t want them to. I was going to drink myself to death, and I wanted to.
Something else dawned on me which just made me care even less. Fluttershy would never love me back. And even if she did, it would be a cruel thing to do to her; in the end she wouldn’t save me, and she’d blame her self. Then, who knows, she might even go down my route. That would be properly tragic. She was something beautiful... unlike me.
“I feel weak,” I said, more to the ceiling than anypony in particular. “I’m going to sleep.”
I heard a single, high-pitched sob from Fluttershy. The heart-and-lightning-bolt colt ushered them out, whispering something which I didn’t care about.
Apparently, I had had a minor heart-attack. Lightning-bolt colt, who I now knew to be called Clear, had shocked me back to life. I could see why they all looked so worried. Clear told me that my heart had stopped for a few seconds; technically I had died. Clear had also said that this was end of my drinking days, my heart and liver wouldn’t take another shock.
The next day, Fluttershy quietly clopped into my room looking pitifully torn up. Her mane wasn’t its usual bouncy, soft pink and her fur was ruffled and mussed. Her eyes had the red irritation of crying and she was rubbing them often. It made me feel horrible.
“Berry...” she began quietly. “I-I’m not sure if you remember, but before you passed out, you said something to me...”
At this point I had gotten past self-pity. I was sad for Fluttershy instead. She obviously wasn’t interested in me for love, but she probably knew that she was the only one in the world who could stop me.
“Forget I said it.”
Fluttershy looked at me desperately. She was grinding her hoof against the floor, but I didn’t think she was doing it consciously.
“Please let me try and help you...” she whimpered.
Part of me was screaming; I so desperately wanted to nod and let her hug me again, to feel her soft, warm coat against me and to smell her scent. But the other side of me, that side which was always detached and watching, knew that it was wrong. She would be forced to pretend to love me, because that was who she was. She was Fluttershy, the deity of kindness. Her desire to help came before all else and to help me, that was what she had to do. And I knew she would gladly make the sacrifice of pretending to love me on her part. But then, that wasn’t love.
“You’ve got to let me try!” she squeaked.
“No! Listen to me! You’re...” She struggled to form her thought. “Drinking lets you escape facing your past, but it’s also destroying your present! You’ve got to stop!”
“It’s not too late! Your heart can’t take any more!” she pleaded.
Her words hit me like punches. I... hadn’t realized...
Feelings I hadn’t felt for a long time rushed back to me. I felt a sharp pain inside my chest and I could feel tears coming.
“Get out,” I croaked. “Out!”
I buried my head under the sheets and shivered.
“But Berry!” Shots squeaked in horror, “You’ve drunk again!”
Berry Punch looked up at the barmare from the table, her eyes glistening. It was her turn to do the comforting now, and she did it admirably.
“It’s okay,” she smiled behind tears. “I want to.”
“No! I’m calling somepony!” Shots cried.
Berry Punch let the drowsiness take her now, smiling at the wonderful, tingling and numb sensation which had spread across her entire body. The only sound she could hear was her heart, beating without rhythm as the bar became darker and darker. She saw Shots looking into her eyes; crying and speaking, but she couldn’t hear. She was leaving.
“I guess I get to meet my sister again.”
Title and lyrics inspired by James Blake’s rendition of ‘A Case of You’, by Joni Mitchell.
They never had a chance. She was simply too good. Two armies, one of black and one of white, stood on opposite sides, fighting with all their might. A knight swiftly glided past a slew of charging enemy soldiers, the hole in their defensive line unnoticed. She grinned, exactly the opportunity she needed. With naught but a soft gasp, the lone guard left to protect the space fell, and the war was over. Checkmate.
“Bad move, Fluttershy,” Twilight said. “Good game though.”
Time in the cafe seemed to stop for Fluttershy, everything but the pieces on the black and white squares of the chessboard completely forgotten. She had looked at every single solitary move, twice even. Her king was still pinned down, yet maybe that knight, maybe the bishop, maybe her queen could still save her. Analyzing her position, Fluttershy quickly stuck out a hoof to move her queen, but brought it back just as fast.
“Nope,” Twilight said with a hint of smugness.
“But what if I…” Fluttershy placed her hoof over her knight.
Fluttershy hung her head in defeat. “Darn.”
“Oh Fluttershy, it’s nothing to get upset over. You’ll be even better next time.”
“…but I’ll never be as good as you, Twilight”
Twilight shot her a winning grin. “Practice makes perfect.”
Sure. It’d been four weeks since they started meeting on weekends for games at Twilight’s insistence, and Fluttershy wasn’t any closer to beating Twilight than when she started. What little remnants of hope she had left after her first defeat at Twilight’s hands slowly began dissipating into nothingness as the losses racked up. First one, then two, twelve, forty-nine, a hundred, it was enough to get even the most chipper of ponies in a foul mood.
There was a long silence between the two, neither making eye contact until Twilight finally decided to speak up. “Well, if you really want to improve, I have some game books in the library that I could give you. They’re a bit hard to read though.”
Fluttershy didn’t respond. Her gaze was fixed on a golden flier taped to the white walls of the restaurant. It read, “Come to the First Annual Ponyville Chess Tournament at Suger Cube Corner and have a chance at besting The Black Queen! A thousand bits for first place! Three hundred for second and two hundred for third! ”
“In fact, I have several books just for reading those books. The How-to-Read Books books, real great stuff. If you find those a bit too challenging, I always have the How-To-Read Books Books books collection. Establish a foundation for learning, you know? I even—”
Twilight stopped as soon as she realized what Fluttershy was staring at. Twilight’s pupils dilated, panic-stricken.
“The Black Queen? Here, in Ponyville? How could I have been so unprepared? I have study, now before it’s too late!” Twilight took a book roughly the size of her forearm out from under the table they had been playing on, and slammed it down, reading furiously. The table shook violently, causing a score of pieces to plummet to their untimely demise with a soft “clink.” Deciding that Advanced Openings for Advanced Ponies was simply not enough, Twilight produced another book, The History of Chess, a Compendium of Every Move Ever Made with Historical Attributions, which was thicker than a tree trunk. She at first struggled to place the book on the table without knocking over the first book. This proved to be a futile effort, as the table, along with the chessboard and all its pieces collapsed to the floor the instant it was placed on the table. Sawdust spewed upward, coating the two with a thin veneer.
“Uh… Ma’am? Your order,” A scrawny waiter said, presenting a daffodil sandwich on a small platter. His face contorted into grimace as he examined the remnants of the table.
Twilight paid him no heed, crouching on the floor to view the books. “Ah, the Sicilian, wonderful opening, a favorite of the grandmasters.” The sawdust still stuck in her mane did not help alleviate the waiter’s concern.
“She’s, uh, a bit ‘busy’ at the moment. She gets like that sometimes. I’ll take that off your hooves for now.” Fluttershy smiled absentmindedly.
The waiter blushed; he wasn’t used to customers doing him favors. He did what he was told, but Twilight grabbed him before he could make his escape to the side of the restaurant where there weren’t crazy ponies.
“Does my mane look all right?” Twilight asked insistently.
“I said does my mane look good?” This time her voice was borderline desperate.
“I’m really not that kind of guy you should ask about that. Maybe she could help you.” He pointed to Rarity, who had just entered the restaurant for her afternoon lunch.
Twilight rushed over to Rarity with what would have been the speed of a jaguar, but the two books she was carrying slowed her pace to that of a turtle, even with her magic to assist her. The entire restaurant seemed to shake as she moved step-by-step across the ceramic tiles.
“RARITY! AM I BEAUTIFUL?”
Rarity’s eyes widened. Judging from her expression, she knew that Twilight was having one of “those” days, and had already checked “Have lunch” off her mental to-do list. Scarcely had there been ponies that ran faster than Rarity at that moment: she was gone in an instant.
“Wait! I need your help!” Twilight chased after her, displaying a surprising degree of nimbleness, considering that she was carrying roughly a metric ton of paper. Once Twilight left, the restaurant returned to its previously peaceful atmosphere. The waiter tiptoed away slowly, hoping that he could return to the sane side as soon as possible.
“Wait,” Fluttershy said.
The waiter’s shoulders slumped, and he stopped mid-step. At least the crazy one was gone. He took a deep sigh and turned to face Fluttershy, giving his best smile.
“How can I help, ma’am?”
“Who’s that?” Fluttershy pointed at the picture of The Black Queen on the poster, which now lay on the floor. The picture displayed a figure cloaked white robe decorated with black chess pieces. A hood obscuring its face, the only feature visible was the sinister yellow glow of eyes.
“Don’t you read the news, lady? That’s new Canterlot Chess Champion. Rumor has it that she always wears a cloak like that one, and no one has ever seen her face.”
“Yeah, chess is big up in Canterlot. If she’s the new champ, she’s probably the best in all of Equestria.”
“Mmmhhmm…” Fluttershy said as she munched on the daffodil sandwich that Twilight had left behind. The waiter stared at her expectantly. “Well, uh, thanks for the information.” She nibbled at the final bits of Twilight’s sandwich before handing the platter back to the waiter.
“Ma’am, there still is the matter of your bill…” the waiter said hesitantly, almost too nervous continue. He took a deep breath, gulping for a few more mouthfuls of air, and said, “…and my tip.”
A faint hue of red began to paint Fluttershy’s face, ears drooping. “I… don’t have any money,” she said, her bottom lip quivering in anticipation of the inevitable reprimand. No money meant that she’d have to work it off, which meant that she probably have to pay off the table as well, and who knew how much a whole table cost? She’d be there forever. Fluttershy pictured it in her mind. All the bunnies would be lonely with their friend Fluttershy to keep them company. Who’d help the birds nest? Who would take care of Angel? A thousand thoughts ran through Fluttershy’s mind until something the waiter said snapped her back to reality.
“…and that’s fine, because you two come here so often that you’ve got a tab that you can take out.”
The words were music to Fluttershy’s ears. “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you. You have no idea how much this means to me. Angel would be so lonely without me.”
“Oh, no problem. Your tab currently stands at… five hundred bits, due at the end of next week,” the waiter said, backing away slowly, waiting for the meltdown to occur.
All the color in Fluttershy’s face drained in an instant. For the longest moment, the two stood in complete silence, Fluttershy on verge of breaking down into tears all the while. Her breath suddenly became very ragged, and she struggled just to breathe, her lungs taking down massive gulps of air.
Eventually, she managed to utter, “D-did you say… f-five hundred bits?” That was more than she made in a month, more than she made in two months. She didn’t know anyone with that much money on hand, and certainly nobody that would give it away. First they’d take the house, then they’d take Angel and send him to a foster home for bunnies with deadbeat caretakers. It’d be so embarrassing that she wouldn’t even have the heart to ask her friends to take her in. Then there’d be no one who remembered poor old Fluttershy, living as an exile for the rest of her life. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Fluttershy thought glumly.
Twilight paced back and forth in front of the massive chessboard set up on the floor of the library, making sure not to step on the hundreds of books, perhaps thousands, of books on chess theory littered the floor. Her game had to be perfect to best The Black Queen, and that required discipline. She picked up a chessboard poster and taped it to the wall, producing a ruler to use as a pointer.
“B1knight! When The Black Queen plays the Alekhine's Defense, what will you do?”
The knight did not respond.
“Correct! And what will you do when pinned to the king?”
The knight said nothing.
“Exactly! You could learn a thing or two from b1knight, f2pawn!”
The pawn looked bitter, almost shamed that her name was singled-out. She stifled a sniffle, rubbing her eyes. All the others stared it at her; it must have been terribly embarrassing to be such a failure. The f1bishop gave her a pat on the back.
“Look at what you did to poor Twist!” Scootaloo, the h1 rook, said. “You made her cry!”
“Forget it, no amount of extra credit Cheerilee gives us is worth this,” Sweetie Belle, the queen, said. “I’m leaving.”
“Wait! I have so many other openings to go over with you. We haven’t even started talking about all the variations of the King’s Indian Attack that can be played!” Twilight said.
“Nuh-uh, Twilight. We’ve been here for hours and all y’all has done is spout a buncha hooey about openin’s nopony knows or cares about. I’m getting’ outta here,” Applebloom, the g1 knight said.
The other schoolfillies nodded in agreement, and filed out the door. Twist was still sobbing as she left. Twilight scoffed. Kids just weren’t interested in chess nowadays, and Twilight couldn’t grasp why. Such a beautiful game of strategy shouldn’t be just an elderly pony’s pastime. With a grunt of exasperation, Twilight started cleaning up the mess that was her home.
“You know, I bet they’d like the game a bit more if you didn’t, I don’t know, make it chore to play? Games are supposed to be fun, right?” Spike, the king, said.
Twilight didn’t answer. Spike sighed.
“I know you’re trying because you like the game, but you can’t force others to like it too.”
Spike was awfully perceptive for a baby dragon sometimes.
“You don’t understand, Spike. If Ponyville doesn’t perform well, there might not be another chess tournament!” Twilight threw the ruler to the round. “And if there’s not another chess tournament, who am I going to play with?”
“Don’t you have Fluttershy?”
“Yes, but she’ll never be as good as…”
Spike pointed behind her.
It was at that moment Fluttershy opened the door.
Fluttershy had picked up her chessboard and bolted from the café as fast as she could, heading for Twilight’s. She wasn’t home. According to Spike, Twilight was it Rarity’s, according to Rarity, she went to see Pinkie Pie, according to Pinkie Pie, she had gone to Sweet Apple Acres, according to Applejack, she had gone to the school, and according to Cheerilee, she had gone back home. For half the day, Fluttershy had been running frantically all over Ponyville looking for Twilight.
She stopped in front of the library tree, and caught her breath, steeling herself for the confrontation to come. “Oh hey, Twilight, yeah, you know that restaurant you did all the damage to? Yeah, that one. Well, we owe them five hundred bits in back payment, and it’s due by next week. Good luck getting Celestia to cough much money up.” Fluttershy imagined that would be when she fainted, and she’d have to have Spike fetch a doctor. The medical bills would stack up on top of their unpaid tab, and Twilight would be a deadbeat just like her. Wonderful. But it was Twilight’s responsibility just as much as it was her’s, so she had to be told about it, lest her home be taken too. Hopefully she would listen to what Fluttershy had to say after that little tidbit about the tab, because she’d worked a solution out in her mind while searching for Twilight.
A score of fillies came barging out of the library’s front door, much to Fluttershy’s confusion.
“Can you believe that? She’s crazy, I tell you what,” Scootaloo said.
“What’s going on here, girls?” Fluttershy asked, taking note of the sobbing Twist.
“Oh nuthin’ Miss Fluttershy, just Twilight bein’ nuttier than a fruitcake again,” Applebloom said.
“Do fruitcakes even have nuts?” Sweetie Belle asked. “They’re fruitcakes, why would they have nuts?”
“They do, quite a lot of nuts actually,” Fluttershy said meekly. ”So, uh, what happened to Twist?”
“Oh, uh…nothing,” Scootaloo said, clasping a hoof over Twist’s mouth before the group scattered. “Have fun talking to Twilight, Fluttershy!”
Fluttershy stood there, alone, for a few seconds. What just happened? She couldn’t say. Slowly, she crept to the door, cracking it open with the gentlest of pushes. As she stepped through the doorway, she heard Spike’s voice.
““Don’t you have Fluttershy?”
“Yes, but she’ll never be as good as…”
Twilight spun around to face her. “Fluttershy!”
Spike slowly crept upstairs without as much as a peep.
Fluttershy wasn’t sure how to react, so she just let it all loose. “Twilight, you messed up the café, didn’t pay for lunch when you said you’d treat me, accrued a tab of five hundred bits worth back-pay, made small fillies cry, and now you’re bad-talking me?! What’s gotten into you?” Fluttershy heaved in exasperation. “…sorry.”
Twilight’s ears drooped in shame. “I’m sorry, Fluttershy. That was wrong of me. But I must not have heard you right, you said five hundred bits?”
“Uh, yes. But I think I…”
Twilight’s expression changed to something Fluttershy recognized all-to-well, the face of a pony that’s been pushed to their absolute emotional limits, and just can’t deal with the stress anymore.
“Fluttershy! We don’t have that kind of money! I can’t go to the Princess for unpaid debts! What would she think? She’d probably find another number one student after hearing about the ‘Twilight Sparkle Scrounger Scandel.’ What are we going to do? They’ll take both our homes as collateral!”
“Who’ll take care of the books when I’m gone? Nobody cleans their dust jackets with as much love as I do! They’ll be so lonely without me!”
“Twilight, there’s a—”
“And who will take care of Spike? I mean, taking care of a baby dragon is expensive, and without any money—“
“Twilight!” Fluttershy yelled.
“…As I was saying, I happened to find this,” Fluttershy held up one of the posters for the chess tournament, which was in six days. “If we both win second and third place, we can pay back the money.”
Twilight’s grin was so wide that it stretched to the far ends of her cheeks. She got up, retrieved a record, Training Montages: Study Edition, and placed it in the record player. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s study!”
The next few days passed incredibly slowly. Twilight’s training routine was incredibly brutal, and Fluttershy had read nearly the entire library of books in that time, not even sparing time to sleep or rest. They played more and more, Fluttershy steadily improving as she read and practiced.
A white queen, regal and elegant in poise stood in the middle of board. A crafty black bishop used his cover provided by his teammates to pin her to her lover, the king. Glued to the spot because of her affection to the king, and unable to move another soldier in to help, the queen valiantly charged forward, taking the bishop with her as the pawns ended her spree. Her sacrifice was in vain; the king was still trapped, and he too would be gone after the enemy moved.
“Wow, good move Fluttershy!” Twilight said, knocking her king over. “I resign.”
“Yes!” Fluttershy’s hoove shot up in the air in triumph. “uh… I mean, yay.”
“You’re getting good, Fluttershy. Really good.”
Fluttershy beamed. “I am?”
“You just saw how you mopped the floor with me, tell me you’re not getting better.”
Fluttershy blushed. “Hehe… I guess I am!”
Twilight reset the board, making sure that each piece was in its proper place. She frowned. With a sigh, she made her first move.
“Twilight, what’s wrong?”
But her face told a different story.
“Twilight,” Fluttershy said in a pouty voice.
“Fine. It’s just that you’ve gotten so good, and I haven’t improved at all. I feel like all this training has done nothing for me. Maybe I should just give up.”
“Oh Twilight, it’s nothing to get upset over. You’ll do better next time.” Fluttershy said, playfully.
Twilight stared blankly at Fluttershy, shocked at having her own words thrown in her face. She grinned. “Sage advice. Come on, we got a competition to win, and a queen to dethrone!”
Fluttershy returned the smile. “Yeah!”
Chess-styled decorations filled the modest venue of Sugar Cube Corner to the brim. Pinkie Pie evidently had taken part in the decoration, as party paraphernalia was scattered about: streamers, confetti, even a “chess” canon in the corner. Fluttershy hoped that it didn’t shoot chess pieces. A dozen chessboards sat on both sides of the candy shop, creating a path leading up to an ornate triple-decker gold trophy with a queen centerpiece. The turnout was better than Fluttershy had expected; there were at least thirty ponies milling about in the area that had been designated as the lobby.
“Well hello girls, plan to compete?” Mrs. Cake said, carrying a small clipboard.
“Why yes we are,” Twilight said, cheerily. “Where’s Pinkie Pie?”
“Oh, we left her to take care of the kids.” She shot a look to her husband. “Wouldn’t want her to spoil the event, now would we, dear?”
Mr. Cake nodded enthusiastically. “Yes ma’am. As the official director of this here tournament, I wouldn’t want any player to be distracted by, uh, her ‘antics.’ Orientation will be starting in a few minutes, don’t be late!” Mr. Cake shuffled his notes, and took off towards the podium that stood next to the trophy.
“So, girls, the entry fee would usually be around ten bits, but because of a very generous donation from one ‘Black Queen’ the tournament stays free for everyone!” Mrs. Cake said. “I’ll just put you down on the registration list.”
Twilight looked both relieved because they didn’t need to spend any more money, and confused. “Why would she do that?”
“She said she just plays to play. Apparently she comes from a rich Canterlotian family, as she’s the one who financed this entire setup.”
“That’s… nice of her,” Fluttershy said.
“Yes, yes it is. We get all the advertisement and none of the cost. It’s simply lovely,” Mrs. Cake said.
A tall figure cloaked in a white robe adorned with black chess pieces stepped behind Mrs. Cakes. “It’s all in a day’s work, Mrs. Cake.” Her voice was gentile, definitely a member of the Canterlot aristocracy, yet there was something off about it. It sounded as if she were speaking through her hoof, all her sounds were slightly muted and warped. Her robe covered her body completely, and her face was but a silhouette underneath her hood.
Mrs. Cake froze, then slowly turned around to face The Black Queen. “Thank you very much for what you’re doing.”
The Black Queen nodded. “It’s the least I could do to bring the wondrous world of chess to Ponyville. Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe orientations are starting.” She walked off towards the podium.
Mr. Cake took out a microphone and began speaking, “Ahem, registration is now officially over! Hello, I’m Mr. Cake, and this is my beautiful wife.” He took a photograph out of his wallet, before realizing that she was standing right next to him. “She’s a keeper, isn’t she?”
The crowd nodded awkwardly in agreement. Mrs. Cake cut in before her husband could be of any more embarrassment. “Welcome to the First Annual Ponyville Chess Tournament! We’ll be your directors for the day. My lovely husband here will explain the rules.” She gave him a hard nudge.
“We play standard rules: five games, fifty minutes each. Who you play in the first round will be randomly selected, then winners play winners and losers play losers. Each player will have a score sheet to write down their moves as they play. This is mandatory. The one who has the best record after five matches will be our champion and take home this fabulous trophy!” He gestured to the massive trophy that lay next to the podium. “And a cash prize of a thousand bits, generously given to us by The Black Queen!” He gestured to the cloaked figure standing in the corner of the room.
The crowd oohed and awed as The Black Queen took the stage. Mr. Cake offered her the microphone, but she apparently didn’t need it, as she spoke loud and clear. “As the benefactor of this tournament, I wish you all good luck! I will now let our TD continue his speech.”
“Thank you, missus, uh, Queen. Second and third place also receive cash prizes along with trophies. There are several rules to chess that are exclusive to tournament play…”
Fluttershy listened to Mr. Cake to drone about the rules, but didn’t pay much attention. Twilight, on the other hand, was furiously scribbling notes. She raised her hand.
“Excuse me, what happens if a player makes an illegal move while touching a piece that can be moved, but it isn’t figured out until later because the player forgot about en passant and didn’t know that a pawn could work that way, but the game has already progressed a good number of moves, and what happens to their clock time?”
Fluttershy could see Mr. Cake mentally process the information. He counted on his fingers, shook his head, and looked to his wife in desperation. She shrugged. Fortunately, The Black Queen spoke up before the dead air could become an awkward silence.
“The players reset their position to when the error was made with time granted to compensate for the rest of the game.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. Thanks!” Twilight said.
Mr. Cake looked at Twilight a bit apprehensively. “If there are no further questions, we’d like to announce the pairings for the first round. None? All right then.”
Mr. Cake announced the first round pairings, Fluttershy was set to play Big Mac, and Twilight was paired up against The Black Queen herself. When Twilight heard “The Black Queen versus Twilight Sparkle” she nearly fainted. The tournament had just started and things were already going wrong. It was all Fluttershy could do not to scream out in frustration as well, but one pony yelling out curses was probably enough for one chess tournament.
The Black Queen approached Twilight. “Our table is over there, table number one, for the best, I assume.” She chuckled. “I’ve heard a great deal about you, Twilight Sparkle. Let’s see if you’re as smart as they say.”
Twilight laughed nervously along with her. “Yes, let’s. Good luck on your game, Fluttershy!” she said with some enthusiasm before going into a full-fledged slump. The walk to the board was going to be one of the longest walks of her life.
Fluttershy watched as her friend left, then took her seat at table number twelve. Big Mac was already seated, and had set the board and clock.
“You, uh, ready to play?” Fluttershy asked.
They had been overwhelmed by her strength. All the king’s loyal soldiers, even his beloved wife, had been captured or done away with. Standing at the center of the board, surrounded by enemies, the king did the only thing he could: raise the white flag.
“I resign,” Twilight said, depressed. She tipped over her king and stopped her clock. “Congratulations, you win.”
“Do not despair, Twilight Sparkle, for you played a most excellent game. When you’ve had as much time as I to study the intricacies of chess, you know the ins and outs of the game almost as a second nature,” The Black Queen replied.
“But I’ve studied chess my entire life, how can I still lose?”
The Black Queen chuckled. “So have I.”
Twilight gave herself a moment to calm herself before responding. Sure, she lost the first round, but she could at least win the rest of her rounds and snag second place. They only needed second and third place to pay back the tab, but already in Twilight’s mind had formed delusions of grandeur. There would have been a trophy, press conferences, and a thousand bits that could go a long way. Now that dream was crushed. She took a deep breath, put on her best smile, and spoke one last time to The Black Queen.
“I learned a lot from playing you. Thank you for that.”
“You’re welcome, Twilight Sparkle.”
The Black Queen stood up, and walked to the break room, which was stationed in the backroom of the shop. Twilight sat on her board, going over the game in her mind. Sighing, she reset the board, and went to check on Fluttershy’s game.
Big Mac had been, using the term lightly, absolutely crushed. His side of the board was a mess of poorly positioned pawns and not much else. Fluttershy had taken nearly every major piece, and was just about to finish him off. Sweating nervously, Big Mac pushed one of his pawns, a move which proved to be a horrendous blunder. Fluttershy capitalized on it, forcing her queen right in Big Mac’s face. There was nowhere his king could run.
“Checkmate. Good game, Big Mac.”
“Uh, Eeeyup.” Big Mac blushed, embarrassed. “I think you’ll find a trail-hand like myself a bit too green for yer tastes, little lady.”
“Oh, it’s okay, at least you tried,” Fluttershy said.
Big Mac nodded.
“Fluttershy! That was amazing!” Twilight exclaimed. “You just completely trounced Big Mac, one of the best chess players in Ponyville!”
Big Mac’s blush became even more pronounced. Considering that the guy was already red, he must have been pretty darn embarrassed to get even redder.
“I wouldn’t say that, Twilight. He played a good game.”
Twilight watched as Big Mac slowly crept away in humiliation. She took a mental note to watch what she said from now on.
“Well, it’s good that you won your first game, because I lost mine,” she said. “The Black Queen is good, Fluttershy. Too good.”
“It’s okay, Twilight. We can still win that money.”
“I don’t think you understand, Fluttershy. She crushed me. I’ve never had that happen before.”
“It’ll be all right, Twilight. You learned something, right?”
Fluttershy grinned. “Then we’re making progress.”
Mr. Cake spoke into the microphone, “The next match begins in one minute. Please move to the lobby for pairing announcements.”
“I guess it’s time to buck up, sit down, and win some games,” Twilight said.
The players crowded into the space allotted for the lobby and listened patiently as Mr. Cake called off their names.
“Fluttershy gets a bye this round, which is an automatic win for those silly ponies that weren’t paying attention earlier, Carrot Top plays Bon-Bon, and Twilight Sparkle plays Big Mac.”
There was a heavy groan heard from the within crowd. A deep baritone said, “I just can’t win today.”
“Checkmate!” Twilight said, cheerily. A victory like this was just what her confidence needed after that humiliating defeat.
Big Mac smacked a hoof against the table. “Why can’t I win?” He seemed to shrink inwardly, ears drooped. He looked at the board, disappointed. “I used ta be good at this game, Granny Smith always said I was her little chess champion.”
“Big Mac, I’ve been studying chess all my life, and the last few days I’ve been studying harder than I ever have before. There’s nothing to be ashamed about.”
His face brightened. “Mayhap you’re right, Twilight. That bein’ said, I think I’ll see myself outta this here tournament. Too many high-rollers for my tastes, and I ain’t gonna be some punching bag. I’ll seeya later.” Big Mac stood from his chair, and was gone without another word.
Twilight watched him go. Ponies took this game too gosh darn seriously.
The third round match was announced. This time Twilight got the bye, and Fluttershy was paired up against none other than The Black Queen. When Fluttershy heard her named announced, her reaction was that of Twilight’s, if it were multiplied by sixty-four. She clasped onto Twilight like an oversized teddy-bear or security blanket and refused to let go. It took the combined efforts of Mrs. Cake and Mrs. Cake to pry her off, but as soon they released her, she clung back onto Twilight. They eventually got her off again, and managed to get her seated on table number one in spite of her protests. Protests being the innate kicking and screaming a filly goes through when they visit a dentist, or another source of great pain. When basic objections failed to succeed, Fluttershy attempted to pity her way out it, telling the Cakes of her current financial woes, and how there’d be nopony to take care of the animals once she was gone.
Unperturbed by her opponent’s behavior, The Black Queen calmly and quietly took her seat. “Ready to play, Fluttershy?”
Fluttershy shook her head and pleaded to the Cakes one last time. “Please, think of the bunnies.”
“Your financial problems do not affect the pairings in this tournament. Just sit down, relax, and play the game, deary,” Mrs. Cake said.
“Financial problems?” The Black Queen perked up.
“Oh, it’s nothing… I’ll play the game now… sorry, for being such a spoil-sport,” Fluttershy said.
“Good luck Fluttershy!” The Cakes chimed, as they walked off to the break room.
“Well, let’s begin then,” The Black Queen said.
And the game was on. Fluttershy played the best game of her life, nearly impeccable in strategy, but The Black Queen matched her move for move. She tried various gambits, all of them countered. When she thought she gained an upper hand, The Black Queen took it back as soon as it came. Were the chess environment not supposed to be a quiet one, Fluttershy would have screamed in frustration. Fluttershy had one thing working for her though: she had more time than The Black Queen. The Black Queen took a calm, deliberate pace with her moves, even though she was almost out time. Perhaps if she got careless, maybe, just maybe, Fluttershy could win this. She kept telling herself, “she’s not looking at the clock, you can do this” yet these felt like hollow words. As if she were simply deluding herself into accepting a lie.
Something was off. Fluttershy didn’t know what, but as the game progressed onwards, it became clear that The Black Queen wasn’t even remotely concerned about her time, which had dwindled to under a few minutes. Fluttershy considered it for a few moments. If The Black Queen didn’t speed up, then she’d run out of time, but what if she wasn’t concerned about running out of time? Fluttershy replayed her previous moves in her mind, but found nothing. She kept playing, eying the board warily.
As the time clicked down to under a minute on The Black Queen’s clock, Fluttershy finally realized what was wrong: she had been in check for at least ten moves and had been moving illegally. A barely audible gasp managed to escape her. The Black Queen had been toying with her the entire time, and there was nothing she could do about it.
No doubt, The Black Queen saw the look on Fluttershy’s face, and stopped the clock, raising a cloaked hoof to call the director. Fluttershy grimaced, knowing all too well what was about to happen. Mr. Cake navigated his way from the confection area over to Fluttershy’s board. He took one look at the board, and knew exactly what was wrong.
“How long?” he said.
“Since move thirty-seven,” The Black Queen replied.
It was longer than Fluttershy thought; that was twenty moves ago.
Mr. Cake’s face showed signs of conflicted interest, but he ruled in favor of the rules.
“Add twenty minutes to each of your times and start from move thirty-seven. Best of luck you two.” He gave Fluttershy a look of pity and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
No sooner had Mr. Cake completely wrecked her game that Fluttershy started the breakdown into tears. It was all over. There was no coming back from a hit like that. Sure, she had back what was essentially an even game, but to be denied victory when it was just within a minute, and her grasp, could be nothing other than cruel.
“H-how, how could you?” Fluttershy asked, her voice little more than a whisper.
The Black Queen did not answer, keeping the time-honored chess decorum of remaining silent while playing. She made her moves, faster this time, with a shaking hoof.
The game continued, but Fluttershy played poorly; her heart wasn’t in the game anymore. Minor losses grew into major losses, and soon she completely overwhelmed by The Black Queen’s attack.
Knowing that there was nothing in store for him but capture, the rook snapped off a salute to his king.
“It’s been in honor serving you, sir, but now’s the time to say goodbye,” he said.
In the end, the rook did what he did best: charge forward. It was a shame to leave the old king like that, alone and vulnerable, yet there was no other choice. He took out an enemy bishop before a sea of soldiers freed him from the bonds of his loyalty forever.
All her major pieces were gone, leaving only a few pawns. Fluttershy groaned in disappointment. The Black Queen’s position grossly trumped hers; she still had her knights, plus a rook. Defeat was inevitable— no amount of fancy playing could bail her out of this mess. Fluttershy stuck out her hoof, and placed it over her king, shaking. She knocked it over.
“I… resign,” Fluttershy said.
Stopping the clock, The Black Queen stuck out her own hoof. “T’was an excellent game, Fluttershy. I daresay it’s the best I’ve played in who knows how long.”
Because it was the polite thing to do, Fluttershy accepted the hoofshake. Yet, resentment plagued her heart. How dare you waste time just to toy with someone, she thought. She said nothing, only stood up from her chair, and walked the walk of shame back to the break room.
Twilight had been inside the break room, too anxious to watch Fluttershy play. There was no doubt in Twilight’s mind that victory was at least twenty-three percent, give or take ten. As she saw her friend enter with the slumped shoulders of a pony that’s completely given up, ears drooped in defeat, and a face full of sadness, the probability decreased to something close to three percent.
“Come on, Fluttershy. We knew beating her was a long-shot anyways,” Twilight said, giving Fluttershy the hug that she obviously needed. The embrace, while warm and comforting, was short-lived.
“…I know, but I was this close to winning.” Fluttershy made a tiny space with her hooves. “She’s just a big meanie, Twilight. She was just messing with me half the game.”
Twilight looked from Fluttershy to The Black Queen, who took refuge in the corner of the break room. “Is this true?” she called out.
Although Twilight couldn’t see her face, it was easily recognized that The Black Queen was taken aback. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Your friend made a rather humorous face which prompted me to inspect the board a bit more closely. I found that she had been in check by my bishop for a good period of time, and any resemblance to any rules I pointed out to Mr. Cake today is purely coincidental. I would not deny myself a good game of chess.”
“See, Fluttershy? She meant nothing by it, just an unfortunate happenstance due to unforeseen consequences of an unintended coincidence.”
“B-but, I… and her... She played…” Fluttershy waited a moment so she could cool down.
Before she could do anything though, Mr. Cake announced, “Pairings for round four will now be given!”
Twilight listened to pairings and cringed in abject horror. Things just weren’t going their way. Why couldn’t fate let them win? It was as if Discord had come back to throw a wrench in their plan at every step. The fourth round match paired Fluttershy against Twilight. The two exchanged a glance, and sat down on their haunches, defeated, Fluttershy taking a deep sigh, and Twilight pounding at the floor until it hurt. Why must winning be such an obstinate goal?
“What’ll we do?” Fluttershy asked.
Doing the calculations in her head, Twilight said, “We’re doomed.”
Signs of alarm crossed Fluttershy’s face. “…What? W-why?”
“If I win, and you lose, you’re out of the running for third place. If I lose, and you win, I’m out. If we draw, both of us could get third place, but that’d result in a sudden death match to decide who gets the actual prize. If we both don’t place in second and third, we won’t have enough money to pay off that tab. We’re doomed.”
“Well, maybe I can get Rarity to give us a two hundred bit loan if I win second place.”
“Psh, Rarity? She may be generous but she’s not—”
“Would one Ms. Twilight Sparkle along with one Ms. Fluttershy please go upstairs? There is somepony who wishes to talk to you,” Mr. Cake said.
“Someone…” Fluttershy said.
“Wants to see us?” Twilight said.
The two ascended the stairwell off to the side of the lobby and were met with a sign labeled “DO NOT OPEN AT ALL COSTS. CONTENTS CONTAIN ONE PINKIE PIE AND TWO FOALS.” In smaller print it read, “Please, for the love of Celestia and all things holy in world, do not open this Pandora’s Box unless expressly told to do so, and if you have been expressly told, it is best to ask for confirmation before opening. You may even want to ask for confirmation of the confirmation.” The door behind the sign was covered in chains, padlocks, and other locking instruments of various sizes.
Twilight called down to the Cakes, “Are you sure about this?”
“Sure am, sweetie! Just turn the knob, those locks are just for show anyways,” Mrs. Cake called back.
Twilight slowly inched her hoof forward to turn the knob, but the door opened without her consent. An energetic Pinkie Pie greeted them with confetti and streamers. The interior of the room was positively coated with party equipment, even more so than the lobby below.
“Oh hey Twilight! And you too, Fluttershy! Some weird ghost wanted to talk to you.” She produced a glass from somewhere. “Punch?”
“No thanks, Pinkie,” Twilight said. “A ghost?”
“A ghost?” Fluttershy shivered.
“Oh girls, not a real ghost, just some kook dressed like a ghost!” Pinkie said. “Doesn’t she know that Nightmare Night was months ago? Follow me!” Pinkie hopped cheerily, beckoning them with a hoof. The Cake foals, Pumpkin and Pound, were enjoying themselves, what with the many colorful objects scattered about to play with. Pinkie Pie opened another door, and behind it stood The Black Queen.
“Hello girls, I’ve wanted to speak with you privately for quite some time now,” The Black Queen said.
“Uh, why?” Twilight asked.
“Because I couldn’t help but overhear the problems of your current financial situation. I’d like to help.”
“…Uh, why?” Fluttershy said.
“Let’s just say I owe you all one.”
“Uh, why!” Pinkie Pie shouted, excited. “Oh, we’re not playing that game anymore, my bad.”
The Black Queen giggled. “Oh Pinkie Pie, thank you for letting me stay here for today, by the way.”
“No problemo, Luna! Though you should take off that silly bedsheet, you look ridiculous. And not in the good, funny way, kinda the way that makes Rarity go all ‘blah’ like this.” Pinkie deadpanned her face, taking a very serious tone, which was noticeably difficult for Pinkie to pull off.
Twilight and Fluttershy looked at Pinkie, then The Black Queen, then back to Pinkie. No, it couldn’t be. Must’ve just been a Pinkie slip. Still, it invited questioning.
“Luna?!” the two exclaimed.
“You mean you didn’t know? Come on, it was obvious!” Pinkie took notice of the look The Black Queen shot her. “Hehehe I guess not, sorry. Didn’t mean to spoil your costume party.”
The Black Queen took off her hood, and sure enough, it was Luna. Dumbfounded, Twilight tried to come up with something coherent to say, while Fluttershy stood there, shocked.
“But your voice… and the reputation… How did you?” Twilight managed to squeak out.
“Simple magic and natural talent,” Luna said. “I’ve been playing since I was a foal, and never want to stop. Once I learned that Ponyville was devoid of chess enthusiasm, I knew I had to bring the game here. Such a wondrous town need not be without chess! The Black Queen is just a front to mask my identity. Celestia and I don’t want to be known in our talent spectrums for being Princesses. We want to be known for being the best at it. Accept no substitute. I would like to give you a gift I could before with this financial aid: an opportunity to enjoy the game for what is it, instead of trying to when every time.” She handed them a coffer’s check from the royal treasury, printed “redeemable for five hundred bits” signed Princess Luna.
The knowledge lifted a great burden from Twilight’s mind. “Oh thank you, you don’t understand how much we need this money. But please, don’t tell Celestia about it!” Twilight pleaded.
“My lips are sealed.”
Twilight took a sigh of relief. Finally, a stroke of luck.
“Not to be a grumplestiltskin, but I think you two outta leave,” Pinkie said. “Pumpkin and Pound and I gotta lot of partying to do.”
“Right.” Fluttershy stared at Luna. “One day, when I’m better, we should have a rematch… if that’s okay with you.
Luna laughed. “Of course, of course.”
The two departed, scurrying back down the stairs. There wasn’t much time left in the round, and if they were late, there’d be serious consequences to pay. Finding their board, number three, they sat down.
“Ready for a good old fashioned game of chess?” Twilight asked.
“Sure am,” Fluttershy said.
And then they played. Not to win, trying to win hurt them too much. No, in the end, the game was just for fun, and that’s all that mattered to them.
The wagon rolled smoothly along the dirt path, its contents clattering with every bump, the harness hanging empty. Accelerating, the wagon blasted through a curve, wheels almost lifting off the road. The road twisted and turned sharply, but the wagon stuck tightly to the path, not for a moment straying from the packed earth. Still it continued to accelerate, a hill cresting the horizon further down the road.
Within the wagon, Trixie yawned. Another day, another backwater town, she thought, trying to muffle the yawn with a hoof. Rolling on her side, Trixie inspected the map tacked to the wall besides her bed. Whinneysota... sounds like it’s full of foalish ponies - how else could they come up with such a ridiculous name? Trixie chuckled to herself, scraping the red circle around the city before rolling on her back again. Oh Trixie, you truly are magnificent! Who but you would be clever enough to animate an entire wagon? What common fools others are, to do all the hard work themselves!
Outside, the wagon zipped up the hill, showing no signs of slowing down. Faster, faster, the wagon crested the hill, back wheels leaving the ground entirely. Trixie blinked, momentarily weightless, before crashing to the floor as gravity caught up with the wagon.
“Hey!” she yelled, smacking a hoof against the wood floor. “What do you think you’re doing, treating The Great and Powerful Trixie like that?” Trixie leapt to her hooves, making her way to the ceiling hatch with a huff. A moment latter, the small door slammed open with a burst of magic, an annoyed Trixie levering herself partially onto the roof. It didn’t take her long to notice that the wagon was now hurtling down the road.
Her horn glowing, Trixie tapped twice on the roof of the wagon, clearing her throat. “The Great and Powerful Trixie commands you to slow down,” she shouted over the roar of the wheels. Seconds passed, and the wagon showed little signs of doing anything but accelerate. Now Trixie was annoyed. “The Great and Powerful Trixie,” she shouted, beating her hooves on the wagon, “commands you to slow down this instant!” The wagon shuddered in response, the clattering growing more rapid. Trixie’s eyes narrowed. She wasn’t in the mood to argue with a mere wagon. “Now,” she whispered, putting some extra venom and magic behind the command. With a great groan, the wagon complied, the wheels skidding in the dirt as it slowed to a fast trot.
“Good!” Trixie exclaimed, suddenly chipper. Shielding her eyes with a hoof, she examined her surroundings, spotting a small cluster of buildings off in the distance. So that must be Whinneysota... looks as simple as Trixie expected, she thought, tapping her hoof idly on the roof before ducking back into the wagon, the hatch shutting behind her. Trixie hopes the foals are prepared, Trixie thought, because The Great and Powerful Trixie is coming to town.
Wheels grinding against the earth, the wagon came to an abrupt halt in the middle of town square. Trixie watched from the window with glee as ponies from all over town gathered as the dust settled. Like apples lining up to be picked, she thought, rubbing her hooves together. With a practiced kick, Trixie sent the stage clattering forwards, watching the shocked look on the townies faces. This place must be even duller than Trixie thought! she mused, laughing smugly. These ponies would be impressed by just about anything... easiest bits Trixie could ask for. Eyeing the crowd’s reactions carefully, she lit the fuses to the built-in fireworks and began her classical monologue.
“Come one, come all! Come and witness amazing feats and listen to astounding tales, the likes of which nopony has ever seen or heard before! Come and see the stunning feats of cunning and magic of The Great and Powerful Trixie!” she said, leaping on stage just as the smoke bombs detonated. Trixie put on her best grin as the crowed gathered, their eyes wide. How pathetic, to already be in awe of my magnificence... time to give them a show they will tell their foals about for years to come! With a stomp and a tight smile, Trixie began her routine.
She started with simple conjurations at first, to draw a larger crowed. Fresh flowers from seemingly nowhere, cards appearing and disappearing, sudden bursts of confetti and smoke, the works. As Trixie fell into her routine, her smile became less and less forced. This was what she lived for, this moment. Everypony’s eyes were on her, watching her every movement, hanging on her every word. She loved it. Their eyes wide, shining, following her and only her.
Joy filled her heart as she sent multicolored clouds out over the crowd, each one bursting into a shower of harmless sparks. In the resulting pause, she stared out into the crowed, their attention drawn upwards, their eyes full of wonder. A bitter voice cut through her satisfaction. Could they be any stupider? it said, laughing dryly in the back of her mind. Nothing but levitating smoke bombs - any moron with two bits and some magic could do that trick! To think that they even find it interesting, pathetic.
Trixie cringed, her smile faltering but not fading. The voice was right, of course - there was nothing special about her routine, nothing special at all. No! Now is not the time to lose focus, the show must go on, she commanded herself, levitating a new set of props on stage. The audience stared with rapt attention as she continued, ropes dancing and floating across the stage. Trixie conjured rope ponies and rope hydra, an epic battle taking place across her stage. The cries of horror and delight washed over her as she continued the performance, narrating the tale of how she, The Great and Powerful Trixie, so valiantly vanquished a hydra. She watched their eyes grow wide as she told of the terrible swamp, the snapping jaws, the horrid roar. They ate it up, every word. The fillies in the front cowered with every strike of the great rope hydra, and cheered as the rope pony effortlessly dodged the attacks.
Trixie watched her audience with fondness. They loved her stories, they loved her tricks, they loved her act, and they loved her. Warmth once again filled her heart, but it didn’t last long. The voice spoke out again, tearing through her. Don’t be stupid. They don’t love you, it’s all lies and they’re just too dim to see it. You’ve never done anything worth boasting about, the voice hissed. Trixie stopped, the words cutting deep. She looked out at the audience again, but this time there was nothing in their eyes for her, no love, no wonder. Just the empty eyes of ponies who didn’t know anything at all. A void opened up in her chest, cold and harsh. What do they know? she thought, anger mixing with her act, the narration growing more impassioned. How sad, how pitiable! In awe over some simple, made up story! They don’t know anything, anything at all! What morons, what simpletons, what foolish foals! How gullible could you be? Trixie masked her sneer with a thin smile as she quickly delivered the final lines of the tale, the hydra collapsing as the rope pony stood triumphant.
Trixie joylessly finished up the routine, changing cards into butterflies. The fillies in the front jumped with joy, one in particular catching her eye. The little filly’s eyes were so wide, so full of joy. It filled Trixie’s heart with black hate, to see the look on the simpleton’s face. She doesn’t know anything about how life works, Trixie thought, biting her lip, the butterflies transforming into flowers. Any foal with eyes could see that those butterflies are fake, just folded up dried flowers! Only a moron would really believe any of this! As the flowers rained down on the audience, the entire crowed roared with applause, and Trixie took a bow, her face a grim mask. This town is full of simpletons and foals after all... Trixie will just take her money and leave, simple and easy as that.
Collecting her fee from the audience, Trixie felt a hoof gingerly tap her in the side. She spun around, a sharp reproach ready to leap from her lips. It was the filly from before, the one with the big eyes - the little pony seemed to be working up the courage to say something. Trixie’s words died on her lips.
“Miss Trixie,” the filly began, her voice squeaking slightly.
“That’s The Great and Powerful Trixie,” Trixie snapped. The show had left her in a bad mood, as usual.
“Ah...” the filly faltered, blushing, before continuing, “Sorry, Miss Great and Powerful Trixie, but how did you do that last one? Cus my mommy says it wasn’t real, that it was just a trick, but...” The filly trailed off.
Dark and terrible words boiled in Trixie’s heart, but something sweeter left her lips. “A trick? Why, The Great and Powerful Trixie would never perform something as low as a ‘trick.’ What you saw there was magic,” Trixie said, almost hissing the last word.
“But mommy said—”
“Never mind what mommy said!” Trixie snapped, taking a breath to recover her composure. “What you saw was real magic, plain and simple. There was no trick, no secret. It was real magic - don’t you let anypony else tell you otherwise, okay?”
“O-okay, thanks Miss Great and Powerful Trixie,” the filly said, blushing before scampering away.
Trixie watched the filly go, a long-dead sensation stirring in her chest.
The bits piled up neatly on the table, the peaks shining in the candlelight. Trixie sighed before removing another coin from the bag, inspecting and sorting it with a quick glance. In her mind, the voice gloated. A fair haul today from those common foals, it whispered, biting. It’s a blessing that backwater towns are full of such feeble minds! Otherwise, Trixie would starve to death, nothing but bones and empty words. Trixie ground her hoof into her forehead. She wanted to scream at the voice, to tear at it for destroying her happiness, but she couldn’t. After all, the voice was her voice.
Her voice grew louder, bitterness permeating her soul. Nothing but emptiness, just tricks and lies. You couldn’t do real magic if your life depended on it! All you have are your props, your figments, your stories, all these things you use to pretend there is such a thing as real magic. Real magic makes dreams come true, real magic makes ponies happy - you, you just take their bits, she thought, tears edging their way into her eyes. Long repressed memories came flooding back, overwhelming her.
Her, as a little filly, seeing a street performer for the first time. How wondrous his magic was, how amazing his stories! She was captivated instantly. She remembered waiting until after the show, she remembered asking him about all his travels. Oh the tales he wove for her, the images bright and vivid. He had laughed when she told him how she wanted to be a showmare, but it had been a kind laugh, full of joy. He told her to live her dreams, whatever they might be, before transforming a bit into a piece of candy and giving it to her.
“Magic isn’t just for show - magic is for making dreams come true,” he had told her.
It was the best day of her life. She left the town square that day, her heart full of hope and promise.
From that day on, she threw herself into becoming the best showmare possible, but it wasn’t an easy path. Weeks and weeks of practice, hours of reading and studying, being a showmare filled her being with purpose. She read tales of famous adventurers and wanderers, of amazing unicorns who could do anything with their magic, manuals on the arts of conjuring and dazzling displays, anything she could get a hold of. As the weeks turned into months, her dreams slowly soured. She didn’t realize it at first, of course - such a thing would have been too merciful. Oh no, it wasn’t until it was too late that the final blow was struck.
After having read through almost all the books on performance arts at the local library, a small red one had caught her eye. The simple gold text on the front had declared it as being penned by none other than that performer she had met so long ago! It was nothing more than a foal’s guide to basic magic, but her curiosity got the best of her. Everything in it was elementary, trivial, but then she reached that page. Changing a bit into candy using nothing but slight-of-hoof. It was simple, really, just a little trick spread across a few pages, but every word shredded something from her. The book had recommended using it on the young and the gullible.
Something inside her broke at that moment. His laughed went from warm and kind to cruel and heartless in an instant. He was laughing at her, making fun of her.
It was all a trick! A filthy, filthy trick! How he must have laughed at that stupid filly who thought he was amazing, who believed his lies... Trixie was such a foal! How he laughed! He took advantage of Trixie, lead her on to believe that things like that were possible, that dreams meant something... none of it was real! His magic, his stories, his words, none of them meant anything... and now Trixie’s the same as him, leading all these ponies on...
Trixie glared at the pile of bits in disgust, hating how they gleamed in the candlelight. A faint reflection caught her eye, her face distorted on the smooth coin edge. The filly popped into her mind, her eyes so full of hope. Trixie stared, unseeing, into the darkness of the wagon. The little filly, asking her if she had performed real magic!
“How absurd,” Trixie muttered, slumping down on the table, tears once again in her eyes. “Trixie can’t do real magic... ” she trailed off, tears streaming down her cheeks. The smile on the filly’s face as she trotted off, how she almost skipped, burst the dam. Trixie couldn’t control herself any more, not her voice, not her thoughts. She wailed suddenly, wordless cry, rolling out of the chair and into bed, blinded by tears she couldn’t stem anymore.
She mourned herself. She cried for her hopes, for her dreams, for her naivety, for her failure.
Trixie woke to the sound of chirping birds, her mind foggy. She turned over, a beam of sunlight illuminating the room for her. With two sharp knocks on the wooden wall, she simply muttered “Fillydelphia,” and the cart began to roll on its own. Trixie laid in bed, slowly waking up, the previous nights events rushing back to her. She felt empty, hollow, but somehow better than before. It was a good kind of hollow.
The filly’s smile still floated in her mind. The way her face had brightened when Trixie had talked to her, the way she perked up when Trixie said it was ‘real magic’ haunted her mind. She saw the filly, she saw herself as a filly, smiling, thanking an adult Trixie. Trixie smiled a weak smile, thinking about the looks on her audience’s faces, about the look on the filly’s face - how full of wonder and joy they were. Trixie rolled over, her smile widening as she drifted off to sleep.
Maybe Trixie isn’t the same... not quite. Maybe Trixie can cast a little bit of real magic, every once in a while...
Spike has fallen ill. I am at a loss for what to do. None of my books are helping, except for one that mentions brewing my own antidote. However, I lack the skills and knowledge of alchemy to do so. It would also help if I had a recipe to follow. I need anything you may have in the Canterlot Archives that may help with dragon illnesses.
Your Faithful Student,
Twilight crossed the last t and dotted the final i. She was sure she would have no problem getting the books. Being the student of the Princess was very rewarding and as of late, it had been relatively easy. Not to say that she hadn’t had her fair share of work, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
“Spike, could you please send this letter? I want to get started on making the antidote as soon as possible.”
Looking up from a cup of water, Spike nodded and grabbed the scroll floating in front of him. Without a word, he sent the letter with a puff of flame.
Twilight trotted out of the kitchen, through the main library, and down into the basement where her lab was set up. Poor Spike, he’s been so sick lately.
The reason she had decided to pick up alchemy was for that very reason. Spike was coming down with Seringel, a dragon only sickness similar to Strep Throat. The only difference between the two was the fact that Seringel made it nearly impossible for a dragon to breath fire. She was just glad that she was able to get her last letter sent before Spike was completely sick.
A hacking cough came from top of the stairs. “Twi? You down there? I...” Spike coughed again, “... you got a reply from the Princess.”
“Spike.” Twilight looked up at her assistant with a look of concern. “That cough is starting to sound really dry. I appreciate you coming down here, but I think you should go drink some water and lie down now.” She levitated the scroll down the spiral stairs and set it on her workbench.
Spike coughed some more before replying. “Twi, why can’t you just take me to the vet’s office or get something from Zecora? I’m sure either on—” He wobbled a bit, looking as if he wanted to finish the sentence, but couldn’t. A second later, he collapsed.
Twilight’s expression changed from concern to one of fear. “Spike!” She galloped up the stairs, coming to a skidding halt right in front of the unconscious dragon. Leaning close, she placed her ear on his chest. She could hear his heart beating at a regular pace.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she picked him up gently and trotted back into the main library. She proceeded to go upstairs to their shared room. Once there, she floated him over to his bed. Just before she turned to go back downstairs, she felt his forehead. It was burning with fever. And for a dragon, even a baby dragon, that was hot. Twilight had to quickly pull her hoof back to avoid being burned.
As she set her hoof on the first step down, she turned back one last time to look at the pale form of Spike in the basket. “Hang in there Spike. As soon as the Princess gets me those books, I’ll mix something up for you.” She shook her head. “I wish Zecora could help you. If only she weren’t back in Zebrica visiting family.”
As she passed by a window, she looked out sadly. In the distance, she could see both the hospital and the vet’s office outlined in shadows cast by the late afternoon sun. Neither one was equipped to deal with dragon diseases given how rare they were. She looked away from the window and opened the door to the basement, trudging inside. Her only hope was that the Princess would have something in the library that could help.
Remembering the letter, Twilight perked up and ran the rest of the way to her work place and picked up the letter. She opened it and quickly scanned it’s contents.
My Faithful Student, Twilight Sparkle,
I am truly sorry to hear about Spike. I hope that you are able to find and quickly make a cure. However, as dragon’s themselves are rare, we don’t have very much on them. However, we do have two books that may help. One is on general alchemy, the other is a book of obscure sicknesses written by zebras.
P.S. The books were too big to send via Spike, but I have sent them by express mailmare. They should arrive no more than an hour after this letter.
Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. She had searched her library multiple times, but had found only reference to Seringel. From what it looked like, there was no cure except time. However, she hadn’t given up hope. She was praying that it was just so obscure that the authors of the various books hadn’t been able to find it. It felt good to finally have a possible lead on a cure.
Shuffling through the books on her workbench, she found the one she was looking for, General Alchemy, and opened it up. She would have to take a crash course in alchemy before she would feel safe mixing anything. Anyways, she had just under an hour before the books from the Princess arrived.
The knock seemed to resonate through the the library and down into the basement, bouncing off the circular wall until it faded into nothingness. Twilight’s head shot up and the book she was reading fell with a slight thump onto the table. The books!
In a single instant, she disappeared in a white flash and appeared at the library front door with a sharp crack. Trying to appear calm, she opened the door, and found herself staring directly into the eyes of Derpy Hooves.
“Good morning Miss Sparkle!”
“Derpy!” Twilight jumped back, startled, to which Derpy jumped back in equal surprise. “Don’t lean that close to the door! You scared me!”
Derpy looked down at the ground and shuffled her hooves. “Gee, I’m sorry Miss Sparkle. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to deliver this package. It’s priority mail from Canterlot.” As soon as she pulled the books out, she was back to her normal, smiling self.
“Thank you very much, Derpy. I didn’t mean to sound angry, I just have a lot on my mind right now.” Twilight went to close the door, but Derpy just stood there. She stared, as if waiting for one final thing. Twilight stared back, holding the door partially open. Then, she gave a small gasp. “Oh, I’m sorry. I nearly forgot.” From a bag behind the door, she levitated out several bits. “Here you go.” She gave an embarrassed chuckle. “You know, things to do, stuff to study. Sometimes my mind seems to just wander off on its own.”
Derpy grabbed the bits out the the air and placed them in her saddle bag. “Yup, I know the feeling. Well, see you later.” She leaped into the air, disappearing behind the branches that made up the library tree. A second later, she appeared in the sky, heading towards Sugarcube Corner.
Twilight watched as Derpy disappeared before closing the door and trotting over to her desk. That mare, she has the best of intentions at heart, but... The thought trailed off, she didn’t want to finish it. She, and everypony else in Ponyville, loved Derpy with all their hearts, but the couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking sometimes.
Shaking her head, Twilight refocused back on the task at hoof. She ripped the brown parcel paper off to reveal the books. Both were there, just like the Princess had promised. One was a book she already had, but the other, Alchemy’s Secrets, she had never heard of, much less seen.
Shoving aside the other book on general alchemy, she opened up Alchemy’s Secrets, and started rapidly flipping through the pages, looking for any sign of a section on Seringel.
“Ah ha!” Twilight slammed the book shut, she turned and galloped into the basement, the book trailing just behind her. She had found what she needed, and it looked like it was a simple brew. “I can’t believe it. How is this not in any other books when it’s so simple? I mean, it’s very similar to a cure used for several other things.”
Placing the book on a reading stand by her work bench, Twilight prepared to make a list of things that she would need. It only took a few minutes to compile.
1 Poison Joke leaf
1 Heart’s Desire petal
She penned in an item of her own.
1 Alchemy kit
Looking at the list, she frowned. Could this really be it? It does seem too simple to cure something as complex as Seringel. Twilight shrugged. But then again, the cure for a Poison Joke infection was a simple. She placed the scroll in a saddle bag and with a flash bang, disappeared from the basement.
She appeared just outside of the Ponyville apothecary. She shook her mane to get rid of excess static from the teleport and trotted into the building. It was dark inside and reminded Twilight of Zecora’s hut, a bit. Herbs hung from the walls in long, dried strands. Flasks, vials, and small cauldrons lined walls. Some glowed brightly while bubbling, some just simply... bubbled slowly.
“Welcome to Mortar and Pestle’s Apothecary. May we help you?”
Twilight had to suppress the urge to jump in surprise. The voice had come without warning from the shadows to her left. A second later, two rust coloured unicorn stallions brushed past some dried flowers that were hanging low and came to a stop in front of Twilight.
“Actually, yes. I have a sick baby dragon at home and I’ve had to resort to making my own cure. You see, the doctor—” Twilight was cut off by the stallion with a pestle cutie mark.
“We are aware of how rare dragon diseases are. It’s no wonder that you would have to brew your own medicine.” He stopped speaking and his companion, who Twilight took to be Mortar, took over.
“Please, feel free to ask us for anything you might need for whatever you’re making.” Mortar paused for a second and looked around the shop. “Though if this is your first time, you’ll probably need a starter’s set.” He looked around store front, tapping his chin in a gesture of curiousness. “Hmm... that would me... no...”
Pestle sighed and facehoofed. “We have a set already prepared in the back room, remember?” He moved back into the shadows mumbling something about getting old.
Mortar turned back to Twilight from watching his brother disappear into the back. “So, I’d be willing to bet that the supplies you need for making your own medicine won’t come in a starters kit.” He leaned back against the counter. “In fact, you look like you’re going to try your hoof at more complex stuff later on.” He pushed himself up off the counter and leaned close. “They always do.”
Twilight leaned back uncomfortably, her eyes darting back and forth. “Err... probably. I suppose I just can’t stop studying a subject once I start on it.” She backed up quickly and pulled out the list she had made earlier and levitated it over to Mortar.
He scanned the list and snorted. “Brewing some CC? Heh, I suppose that is something easy to begin with. Though, I doubt it’ll cure a dragon illness.” He looked around the shop for a second. His eyes seemed to light up as he seemed to find what he was looking for. Some dried Poison Joke and some flower petals floated down from the ceiling and into a bag that had appeared on the counter. “And a little extra, just in case you make a mistake.”
“CC?” Twilight cocked an eyebrow.
“Cold Cure.” Pestle walked back into the light, a box floating just behind him. The sound of ceramics bumping around could be heard from inside. “It’s one the simplest things to make, yet no pony except an alchemist would guess that something as bothersome as the Poison Joke could do so much good. All novices should start off with this or something similar.
Twilight rubbed the back of her head and looked away. “Umm... yeah. I’m brewing something similar. Say, how much do I owe you?”
“A dozen bits for the lot.”
After trading the bits for the box and bag of herbs, Twilight levitated the starter’s kit and bag into her saddlebag and turned to leave. As she pushed out the door, one of the brothers called out.
“Just a word of caution. Follow the directions exactly. While alchemy can be quite beneficial, one small error and the consequences could be... disastrous. A double-edged sword if you will.”
Twilight shot a curious look back at the two brothers. “Thanks. I’ll... umm... remember that.” Not wanting to risk damaging her new alchemy kit, she trotted back towards the library as quickly as she dared.
As she trotted, she silently prayed that Spike hadn’t gotten any worse since she had last checked.
Gently crush the dried Poison Joke until it reaches a fine powder. Add to a pot of lightly boiling water and let set for ten minutes. The water should turn silvery blue.
Please note that while Poison Joke can cause comical effects when fresh, it is harmless once it’s been dried out.
Twilight read the directions silently, crushing the said herb at the same time. When it reached a fine powder, she shuffled it into the pot of water she had over the small alcohol burner that had come with the starter’s kit.
Twilight squinted as she leaned close to read the next set of directions off the page. She was having a slightly hard time concentrating. She had come home and found that Spike had turned a bit paler and each breath was a ragged struggle. She had quickly galloped to her workshop to start making the cure after that.
Cut the Heart’s Desire into thin strips with a quill. The ink from the quill will strengthen the effect of the potion and provide quicker relief than if you used a regular alchemist’s knife.
Once the Poison Joke has boiled for the ten minutes, add the Heart’s Desire and stir clockwise until you can smell it. Note: The smell varies from zebra to zebra. Due to the Heart’s Desire, the potion smells like whatever you like best.
Twilight furrowed her eyebrows in concentration and nodded. A quill levitated over and began cutting. It took less than a minute and she had a small row of Heart’s Desire in front of her.
Ten minutes later, she examined the contents of the pot. The water had turned a silvery blue. She smiled as she added the strips of Heart’s Desire. Everything looked like it was going just as the recipe said it would. However, her smile turned to one disgust as the potion quickly turned a mud brown. Nevertheless, she picked up the stir-rod and put it into the water. Then she set it to stir on its own.
Looking at the book, Twilight read the recipe again to make sure she hadn’t missed a step. She found her answer at the very end.
Do not worry if adding the Heart’s Desire turns the potion an odd colour. The stirring should turn it to a light green hue.
Once done, let the potion sit for five minutes before giving one full cup to the dragon affected with Seringel.
Shelf life: keep no longer than two years.
Suddenly, something fragrant drifted into Twilight’s nose. It reminded her of the smell that came with opening a brand new book. She closed her eyes and smiled, leaning close to the pot of water to take a big whiff. Sighing in contentment, she took it off the alcohol burner, snuffed out the flame and trotted up the stairs, the potion following after.
On her way to her room, she grabbed a cup from the kitchen. Once she reached the bedroom, she set everything down and waited a few minutes before poking Spike. “Come on, I made some medicine. It should help you get better.”
Spike groaned weakly and tried to turn over. “Go away. Leave me to suffer in peace.” He violently coughed.
Twilight grimaced. The cough sounded so dry that she could almost feel it herself. “No, you should really take this. It’s a soothing tea.” The lie rolled off her tongue easily. She had no idea what it would taste like, but she was willing to bet that like most herbal remedies, it tasted nasty.
“Fine,” grumbled Spike. He tried to sit up, but fell back. “Ugh... can you just pass me the cup or something?”
Twilight started forward with a start. “Sure, I can do that.” She poured a cup of the potion and gently placed it against Spike’s lips. Tipping it up slowly, she made sure that he drank it all without complaint. Seconds later, he was snoring lightly. All ready his breathing sounded like it was coming a bit easier.
Sighing in relief, Twilight set the cup aside and went to the window. And then she shook her head in amazement. The sun had already sinking below the horizon and the moon was starting to come up. Surely I wasn’t working for that long. Just an hour for the books, a half hour to get supplies, half an hour to make... The thought trailed off. It had been about four in the afternoon and as it was late fall, it was getting darker earlier.
Shaking her head again, she turned back to Spike. Feeling his forehead, she found that it was still burning up with fever, but not as fiercely as when she had first felt it. She smiled at his sleeping form before heading downstairs to make herself a light dinner.
I’ll check again on him in the morning.
The single word was accompanied with a series of pokes. Twilight tried to ignore them. She had kept waking up in the middle of the night to check on Spike. Now, she was suffering the consequences.
“Twilight! Get up!”
The prodding became more insistent and she was now awake enough to recognize the voice as Spike’s. “What?! What could be so...” She stopped speaking and bolted up, sending Spike flying off the bed. “Your voice!” Shoving the sheets aside, Twilight swung her hooves over the edge and then stood up and trotted over to Spike.
Feeling his forehead, she found that he no longer had a fever. Did the cure really work that fast? Was it really that simple? Twilight began to slowly smile.
“It worked! It was easy and it worked!” She began to hop around Spike, grinning like a fool.
Spike just looked on, confused. “What worked, Twi?”
Twilight grabbed Spike in a tight hug. “The potion. I followed an alchemy recipe to make a cure for your Seringel.” She suddenly stopped and furrowed her eyes in determination. “But that was easy, very easy. I just had to follow a recipe exactly and then you got better.” She tapped her chin, pondering the possibilities.
“I wonder... if I could make something that worked this quickly... could I make something to help my friends.” She let go of Spike and slowly trotted downstairs. “But who would I help first? I know! Fluttershy! She always has a sick animal or something that could use a good does of medicine.” Her eyes drifted to the book on general alchemy. “And there’s probably a recipe for Cure All in there.” She grabbed it and made her way to the basement door.
Spike appeared at the top of the stairs. “Umm... Twilight, it’s great and all that you made something for my sickness, but are you sure you should be making medicine for other ponies? It sounds complex if you ask me.”
Twilight, who was in just about to head to her workshop, called over her shoulder. “I don’t think so, Spike. Mortar and Pestle said that as long as I followed the directions, I should be fine.” She slammed the door shut and trotted down the stairs to her bench. She lit the alcohol burner and grabbed the extra herbs. Lastly, she trotted back upstairs and returned with a pot of water, which she placed over the flame.
“I just need half an hour. Then, all of Fluttershy’s problems will be cured.” Twilight laughed at the little joke and set to work.
Twilight trotted up the walk way to Fluttershy’s cottage. At the door, she patted her saddlebag just to feel the flask of Cure All. She was satisfied with the results. Then, she lightly tapped on the door.
“Just a moment.” Fluttershy’s voice drifted from somewhere behind the cottage. Seconds later, she appeared from around the corner. “Oh, Twilight. How are you today?” She glanced back, a worried expression on her face. “I’m sorry, but could you come back later? I’m trying to help a sick animal get better.”
Twilight brightened up. “Ah! That’s exactly why I came!”
“You did? How did you—”
Twilight picked Fluttershy up and trotted through the grass towards the backyard. “I didn’t, but I’ve recently taken up alchemy. I’m working on a cure all and I couldn’t help but think of you and all the animals you care for.”
Floating helpless behind Twilight, Fluttershy tried to right herself. “Shouldn’t you start with something simpler? You know, something that wouldn’t make a difference between life and death?” Using her wings, she finally managed to break free from the kinesis and lightly landed back on the ground. “I’ve gotten things from Zecora and she says that alchemy can be incredibly dangerous. A single mistake and... well...” Fluttershy let the word hang in the air, the rest of the thought unsaid.
“I know, I know. The two stallions that I got my starter kit from pretty much said the same thing. But, I’ve already made one cure, for Spike, and that turned out just fine. Spike is doing well.” As Twilight rounded the corner, the animal came into view. It was a very sickly looking bear. Without hesitation, she walked up, took the flask of potion out of her saddlebag. “Anyways, the this was simpler to make then the other medicine I made.”
As Twilight was about to levitate the flask to the bear’s mouth, Fluttershy stopped her. “Wait, fine, I trust you, but I think you’d better let me give him that. I mean... if that’s okay.” When Twilight nodded, Fluttershy grabbed the flask in her mouth and slowly approached the bear. “If you’ll just take this please. My friend made it and it’ll help you get better.”
The bear, who had been pacing restlessly stopped and drank the potion and then slowly sank down. His eyes blinked rapidly and then closed. A soft rumbling snore came from the now sleeping bear.
Fluttershy examined him and then gave a satisfied grunt. “I can already see improvement.”
“Really, it’s working that fast?” Twilight blinked in surprise.
Shuffling her hooves, Fluttershy blushed. “Well, no. He still looks sick as ever, but up until now, he hasn’t been sleeping. I think your potion just made him tired.” Looking at back at the bear one last time, she headed into the cottage. Twilight followed.
“I’ll just leave this here.” Twilight set the flask on the nearest available surface in the cluttered living room. “If you need more, I’m sure I can buy more materials and whip up another batch.” No longer burdened by the delicate flask, she disappeared with a flash bang. She appeared outside Mortar and Pestle’s Apothecary and trotted inside. She just had this feeling that alchemy was her calling, but to continue, she would need to buy some of everything.
Three light taps at the basement door caused Twilight to look up. Who could be knocking at the door? The only one that knows I’m here is Spike and he just comes in. Her curiosity piqued, she trotted up the stairs and opened the door.
Fluttershy stopped mid knock. “Oh, there you are Twilight. Spike tole me I could find you here.” When Twilight only cocked her eyebrow, Fluttershy continued. “I... um... just wanted to tell you that the bear is already doing much better thanks to your potion.”
“That quickly? You only gave it the cure three hours ago.”
“And I’ve used up the rest of the flask.”
Twilight blinked in surprise. She opened her mouth to speak, but a voice came from the main library before she could.
“Flask? Potion? Twilight, what is Fluttershy talking about?” Just beyond the door stood Rainbow Dash.
For the second time in a few minutes, Twilight blinked in surprise. “Umm... alchemy. What are you doing here Dash?
Shrugging, Rainbow Dash pulled a book out her saddlebag and placed it on a shelf. “I’m just returning the last Daring Do book I checked out. And I’m going to get the next one in the series.”
Twilight nodded and turned her attention back to Fluttershy. “So, was there something you needed?”
“Actually, I was wondering if you could make some more Cure All. That is, if you have the time.”
“Of course, I’m just working on a simple pain suppressant. As soon as it’s done, I’ll get started on another batch of Cure all. It shouldn’t take more than an hour.” Twilight smiled brightly and turned to go back into the basement.
However, before she could close the door, Rainbow Dash stopped her. “Pain suppressant? You mean something that would allow me to push me even further than normal?”
Twilight looked around nervously. “Well, if it’s pain that’s stopping you, then I suppose it would.” She continued walking down the stairs, praying that Rainbow Dash wouldn’t follow her. The pain suppressant was a little more complex than the Cure All or the Seringel potion. She wasn’t quite sure what it would do.
“Do you have any done yet? Or close to done?” Both Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy followed after before the door could close all the way. “Whoa, how long have you been down here?”
The basement was well lit. In the center of the floor was a circular bench covered in dried herbs and various tools. A pestle and mortar sat at one end, at the other end, there was the alcohol burner. On the burner, a pot of water bubbled, an odd, redish smoke coming from it.
Twilight went to the pot of water and stirred it. “Yes, it’s almost done. As for how long I’ve been down here. I dunno, maybe two or three hours at most?”
“Umm... maybe you should go get some fresh air.” Fluttershy wrinkled her nose. “I’ve only been down here for a few minutes and I’m already feeling a little woozy.” She backed up the stairs and then quickly turned to leave. “If you could just come to my cottage again when you have more Cure All, that would be great. Thanks!” With that, she galloped the rest of the way up the stairs and disappeared out the door.
Twilight stared after Fluttershy. “Well, I guess alchemy isn’t for everypony.” The pot began to bubble furiously, and her attention was drawn to it as she took it off the flame and then poured it into a flask. “Anyways, I guess you could take some, Rainbow Dash.”
Rainbow Dash was beginning to also wrinkle her nose. “Thanks Twi, but I’m starting to agree with Fluttershy. I don’t know how you can stand it for this long.” Taking the flask that was magically floating in front of her, she quickly flew out.
Twilight sighed and turned back to her bench. She trotted upstairs to the kitchen to wash out the pot. When she returned with some fresh water, she levitated the ingredients for Cure All in front of her and began working.
Like I said before. Alchemy isn’t for everypony.
Twilight was returning from delivering the Cure All to Fluttershy when she noticed the crowd outside her library. Surely they can’t all want books! She began galloping towards the group, but couldn’t shove her way into the door. So, she disappeared with a flash bang and appeared in the center of the main room.
Rainbow Dash gave a yelp of surprise. “Twi! There you are!”
“Dash, who are all these ponies? Why are they all here? The library is never this busy!”
“Oh, them. I was flying way better than usual in the park and Lyra saw me. I may have told her about the pain suppressant. When she asked where I got it, I may have also told her about you starting alchemy.” Rainbow Dash rubbed the back of her neck and grinned nervously at Twilight. “Sorry about that. They all want something.”
Twilight sighed and facehoofed. “It’s okay. If I can get another alchemy set or two, I should be able to make something for all of them.” She stepped up onto her desk and yelled into the crowd. “Okay, listen up everypony. If you could, I need your name and what you want made. If it isn’t too complex, I’ll make some for you.” She levitated out a quill and paper, then gave it to the nearest pony. “I’ll get started as soon as I can find a second mortar and pestle, another alcohol burner, and some more pots of water.”
She was about to teleport away, when out of the crowd of ponies came exactly what she needed. She shrugged and sat down to wait for the list to make it’s way around the room.
As soon as the list was in her magical grasp, Twilight shooed the whole crowd away, telling them to return in a few hours. As the last of the ponies dispersed, she walked into her basement and closed the door behind her. She had a feeling that she was going to be down there.
Four hours later and three cups of coffee later, Twilight groaned and slumped over her bench. The last potion that had been requested emptied out of the pot into a flask. All she had to do now was to make sure that each flask made it to the right pony.
Sure enough, a minute later, she could hear the group of ponies talking excitedly upstairs. Sighing, she grabbed all the flasks and dragged them through the air as she made her way up to the main library room.
“All right everypony. I have everything that you guys requested. They’re all marked with your name.” Setting the flasks down on the desk, Twilight didn’t look back as she made her way to her room. However, just as she mounted the stairs, Pinkie Pie appeared from seemingly nowhere.
“Wait, wait! I wasn’t here when you took orders and I want something! I need something to enhance the flavor of my latest cupcake recipe. Could you make something real quick? Pretty please with sugar on top?”
Twilight sighed and turned around to head back to the basement. “There may be something in the general alchemy book. I think I have enough ingredients to whip something up.” Rubbing her eyes, she closed the door to the basement and headed to her bench. Pinkie Pie followed.
Flipping through the book on general alchemy, Twilight finally found what she was looking for. It was a potion simply titled Flavor Enhancer. “I suppose this’ll do. Let’s see, what does it need?” She read the ingredients out loud and Pinkie Pie shoved them in front of her.
1 Mint leaf
1 Ginger root
2 Heart’s Desire petals
Take and crush all ingredients together. Stir into boiling water for five minutes. Let cool for an additional five minutes.
Twilight shrugged and began crushing the mint leaf. “Well, it’s simple, so I’ll be able to get out of here quickly. You wouldn’t believe it, but alchemy can be tiring.” She quickly finished and dumped everything into the pot of boiling water. Then she sat down to wait.
Five minutes of Pinkie Pie counting later, Twilight got up and removed the pot from the flame. She poured it in a flask. Then she handed it to Pinkie Pie. “Just be sure to let it cool for five minutes.
“Okay, thanks, bye!” With that, Pinkie Pie was already up the stairs and out the door.
Twilight shook her head and followed after. Except, instead of heading outside, she went to her room to take a nap.
Groaning, Twilight opened her eyes and found herself nearly face to face with a very green looking Pinkie Pie. “Pinkie!” She jumped back in surprise, but then raised an eyebrow curiously. “What’s up? You don’t look so well?”
“I think the potion you gave to me...” Her words trailed off as she collapsed.
Jumping out of bed, Twilight leaned close to Pinkie Pie’s chest. A look of deep concern crossed Twilight’s face. She could hear Pinkies heart beating faintly. Her own was beating rapidly in fear of what may have happened.
“Don’t bother. She’s been poisoned.”
Twilight looked up in surprise. Her eyes narrowed. Both Mortar and Pestle stood at the top of the stairs. “What are you two doing here? Who let you in? Who poisoned Pinkie?”
Pestle shook his friend. “I’m afraid you did. We’ve just been down at the hospital brewing antidotes. It turns out that some of your potions were a bit sour. A few others have been poisoned as well.”
Mortar shook his head, obviously disappointed. “I think we need to talk about alchemy and it’s dangers. I suspect that you skimmed over the section on technique in the book on general alchemy. It’s more important than the actual recipes, you know.”
Twilight looked at the stallions in disbelief. “But I followed the recipes exactly. Just like you said to.”
“That’s only part of what you’re supposed to do. I guess we were a little presumptuous that you read the beginning of General Alchemy thoroughly, and that’s our fault. We should have told you.”
“Then why aren’t the rest of the ponies sick or something?” Twilight questioned.
Pestle waved his hoof dismissively. “Beginners luck. Now, lets get your friend there some antidote.” He walked over and bent down. A small flask drifted out of a saddlebag on his brother’s back. It tipped itself into Pinkie Pie’s mouth. She coughed and sputtered, but finally swallowed the potion.
Mortar picked up where his brother had left off. “Now, if you’d like to continue learning about alchemy, we’d be happy to give you lessons.”
Twilight looked up and shook her head. “I don’t think I could afford lessons.”
“Oh no, they’re on us. We’re always happy to help out a fellow alchemist. Anyways, we grow and pick our own herbs, so running the store is dirt cheap compared to other apothecaries.” Mortar chuckled as he turned to go back out of the library. Pestle followed.
“We’ll be expecting you at two in the afternoon, next week. Deal?”
Twilight nodded and smiled. “Deal. I’m very interested in learning more. But right now? I think I have a letter to the Princess to write.”
She gently levitated Pinkie Pie into her bed and smiled as Pinkie snuggled down into the sheets. Already she was looking slightly better.
Twilight then gathered up a quill and some paper from a nearby night stand and began writing.
Dear Princess Celestia,
Over the last day or so, I decided to learn about alchemy. I was successful in brewing a cure for Spike and he is doing well now. I may have let it get to my head just a bit. Okay, I let it get to me a big bit. I took it as a natural knack for the art and I tried to make more potions without fully understanding some of the techniques that the books talked about. As a result, several of my potions turned out bad. They poisoned some ponies. Luckily, two local alchemists knew what to do and were able to fix the problem. They offered to teach me the art of alchemy and I decided to take them up on it. I guess I learned that some things should be left to experts or left until you reach an expert level.
Cranky Doodle had to appreciate traveling salesmen, as even after all these years he still found it a miracle that anyone ever got used to hoping from rented room to shack to hotel like this. He avoided eye contact with the receptionist, a ditsy earth pony who looked like this could only be her second day at best, and tapped one hoof as he looked about the nearly vacant lobby. It was not the ritziest hotel but it was passable--there was a pool and a bar and the management actually cared enough foresight to hide the stains on the walls with potted plants. It was a step up from his typical lodgings, and Celestia knew he did not have the money for this, but he was also not the young donkey he once was when he first embarked on this journey and a half-decent mattress might actually let him wake up with a back that was not sore for a change. He figured it would only be two or three nights, and he would make up for it when he got to the next town. There was always work somewhere, if you looked hard and low enough.
The receptionist fumbled with the key, dropping it on the floor before picking it up and unceremoniously hoofing it over to Doodle. “Right, then, room 314A. You go up the stairs to the left then turn right on the second floor and it should be a couple doors down on your left. We hope you sleep well, Mr. Doodle!”
Her cheerful employee training program smile quickly faded as Crank Doodle leaned forward to glare at her. “That’s Mr. Cranky to you!”
“Er, um, right Mr. Cranky. En-enjoy your stay!”
He snorted as he took his key and balanced his suitcases on his back. He walked off to the stairs, stopping at the foot of them to look at his baggage, then up the stairs, then his baggage, then the stairs again. He let out a frustrated sigh. At least it wasn’t the seventh floor. He started up them, slowly, carefully, only having to go back for a dropped suitcase once. He passed a unicorn and his foal on the way to his room--”Daddy, what’s that thing on the donkey’s head?” “Now now, don’t say things like that.” “It looks like some kinda animal. Can I touch it?”--and gave them a sideways glance with enough venom to kill a manticore before he unlocked the door to his room and shut himself in.
He merely gave the room a cursory once over--they were all the same, really, from that motel in Trottingham or that room above the salt bar in Appleloosa, only changing in space and amount of stains in the carpet if there was a carpet--then shrugged his suitcases off onto the floor. All save for one, the one on top, which he placed on his bed. It was not the suitcase he cared for, but rather what was inside; he unlatched it almost automatically and drew out the scrapbook. It was a ritual of sorts; whereas others would drink in the nighttime air on the balcony or furiously check every inch of the room for any signs of damage or previous amorous activity, his habit to let him rest well in any place he landed was to open up that scrapbook and rummage through it on his bed for hours. It was his safety blanket, his hidden flask, what reminded him why he continued on his journey when he was shivering in some dimly lit attic and what gave him the strength to walk to the next town when he felt like his legs would give out from under him.
He lit the lamp on the nightstand and flipped through the scrapbook. Pictures, postcards, bits of drawings and designs for toys. A black-and-white photograph of Doodle as a child in front of his house with his mother and father back when his father still knew the definition of altruism or the meaning of spending time with his son. A faded scrap of paper bearing the recipe for his mother’s vegetable soup written, what was it, 4, 5 years before her last heart attack, the big one? A cut out from his old high school yearbook with him, the only donkey, with his mane styled back and grinning ear to ear like an idiot because that seemed like the thing you were supposed to do for photo shoots, regardless of if you felt like going home that day or not. A detailed sketch of the first toy he developed, a simple gyro copter that never got off the ground in both senses of the phrase and served as only further evidence for his father, quite enamored with resentment toward the ponies that fired him and betting on Wonderbolts derbies, to point out that he should focus on a real job and leave that childish garbage behind.
Then he opened to the most worn page, and a weary smile crossed his face. It bore only three simple things: a flower, a ticket, and a menu. He placed a hoof first on the ticket. He had just gotten out of school and was working at one of the local newspapers to help make up for all the money his father blew when his editor got a spare ticket to the Gala. Pulling Doodle aside, he gave it to him, telling him, “Somepony like you, you oughta go somewhere neat at least once in your life.” He almost rejected the ticket, the thought of Canterlot terrifying him--what would a donkey be doing there? He only had one tie for Celestia’s sakes, how was he going to blend in with the upper crust? But his editor insisted, and he needed a break from home anyway, so gathering up the classiest clothes he could find--which amounted to very little--he boarded the train and went forth.
He felt at the menu next. When he got there he found himself lost in a sea of ponies, more often than not shying away from a dirty look. The Gala was ten times worse; his tie, even though new, couldn’t stand up against all the other far more well dressed ponies and only served to mark him as undignified, uncultured, uncouth. He found himself loss amongst the esoteric conversations and plethora of privileged and longstanding cliques, and it didn’t help that the whole thing was insanely boring. He was content just hiding at the restaurant, ordering only soda--water wasn’t free so he figured he might as well treat himself--and planning on slipping away from that place and onto the first train home as soon as he was done.
And then he met her.
He let his hoof drift over the flower. She walked by the table and asked if he minded if she sat there. Not expecting another donkey within the nearest 50 miles, he said agreed. She sat down and introduced herself as Matilda. She was as lost as he was, looking aside at all the uppercrust ponies. They began to crack jokes about their awkwardness until they were both genuinely smiling, and with each of them finding someone else to be out of place with, they began to recover their confidence, and an odd sort of pride. “I mean, we’ll probably never see any of these ponies again,” Matilda said, giving Doodle a wink.
They walked together into the music hall and found they both had distaste for slow waltzes. When ponies gave them disapproving looks they could retreat together, underneath one of the statues of the princesses. They talked for awhile, about the Gala, their trips, their homes, their goals, whether or not that one mare’s mane was real or not, anything that came to mind. Doodle let slip his dream of being a toymaker, and Matilda laughed; when he asked why she laughed, she told him because it sounded like a fun job, and there’s no reason to treat something so fun so solemnly. He showed her his scrapbook, filled with his designs, and she showed him hers, bearing pictures of her family and other event. They found themselves staring at the stars together, content, and they promised to meet each other again. Doodle decided to push back going home, and again the two ran into each other, again and again throughout Canterlot. One night she ventured to kiss her, and in his happiness held her and told her how much he loved her, and she returned his feelings. When he was in his room he found himself drifting off to thoughts of the donkey with the softest smile, and entertained half-baked thoughts of rings and cake, a small toy store, strollers. She had asked him to come to her room that evening, and he, on the way there, picked up a bouquet of flowers, placing one in his scrap book, to stand as a testament to that night and the love he felt.
And then she was gone.
He turned to the following pages, sighing heavily. First it was the things he had picked up in the rest of Canterlot; a few photos, a newspaper clipping of various events and promotions that had seemed important at the time. The next few pages were cluttered with such bits and pieces of everything about Canterlot, no matter how trivial. Next was Manehattan, filled with fliers for theatrical performances and fancy restaurants and pictures of parks and the Statue of Harmony. He had imagined, at one time, that when he found Matilda the first thing he would do is show her his scrap book and tell her about all the places he ventured to find her and he was determined to show her every last inch of everywhere. Then they would look over the memories together, and perhaps he would take her to those places when he got the money so that she could see them for her own eyes.
But then the pages got thinner. Appleloosa only had a picture of the railroads and some trivial information about the apple trees. Trottingham had one picture and a menu he had grabbed from the restaurant he ate at right before he left. There was nothing from Stalliongrad, or Dodge Junction, or Salt Lick City, although even in the sparse and blank pages, he could clearly see himself, sleeping outside in Trottingham when he didn’t have the money to afford a room, or trudging through the heavy Stalliongrad snow from store to police station to everywhere else just be to told, “No, we’ve never seen that donkey,” until it was etched into his skull, nor did he need pictures to be reminded of how he was held up at Dodge Junction and just barely escaped with only his scrapbook, his life, and a mild concussion.
He shook his head and closed the book, placing it on the nightstand, but the memories had already started flowing back, of the cramped and drafty rooms he stayed in months on end, the odd jobs that barely paid enough for him to eat. All of it, however, paled in comparison to the donkey that was never there, of how many times he held his head up high humming songs of love to be beaten down later by the lack of an answer, of how many night he spent awake whispering her name and never hearing anything back, of questions of if he would ever show her this scrapbook he created or ever again share with her designs for toys. He laid down, the doubts once again assailing him. Would he ever find her? Was he just wasting his time? Had he missed some important clue, or was it already too late? The questions came in rapid fire, battering him harsher than any storm ever could.
The only way out, it seemed, was to let himself drift away from depression and stumble blindly, wildly, wordlessly about, until he abruptly became aware that he had wandered into the realm of indignation and spite. Perhaps if he was a younger donkey, or a bolder one, he would take the opportunity to go downstairs to the bar, drink himself cross-eyed, and put anyone who looked at him funny in traction, or at least come back to his room and overturn it until it looked like an entire herd of buffalo ransacked the place at the same time. But his joints had grown old and weary, and his bravado, likewise battered by time and disappointment, had atrophied down to a resigned resentment that was content to simply sneer at those that came too close, talked too loud, or smiled too much.
In Doodle’s worst bouts of anger, such as then as he stared at the mysterious spots on the ceiling, he would let his frustration fly about, building up fury, until it landed on something he could safely turn the brunt of his scorn towards, and that night, as was sometimes the case, the target was her. Matilda’s face would appear before him, not as she must have been at that point but as she was that night at the Gala, young, cordial, vibrant. The shining eyes that once made him feel on top of the world seemed offensive now, repulsive even. He could feel his throat start to tighten and his eyes twitch as he silently launched into a tirade at her. Liar. Tease. I gave you my heart and you stomped on it. Why did you leave me? Why didn’t you tell me? Was I not good enough for you? Was I just some sort of plaything?
His ire was not satisfied by mere words. Gradually the scene would change. He would see her in the freezing snows of Stalliongrad, lost and confused. The scene would change to Appleloosian deserts, the sun beating down upon her and dust kicking up around her in suffocating clouds. From the dark, rainy alleys of Trottingham to the oppressive, hectic, lonely bustle of Manehattan. He would see her in all the places he trudged through, as if it were some divine punishment. Don’t you see all I went through for you? Didn’t you know I’d look for you? I’ve gone all over Equestria. I’ve run myself to the bone searching for you, because I-
But like all the other times, one thing would never change, no matter how much he willed it to: as much as she suffered, as much as it seemed the world was baring down on her, her expression never turned to hurt or despair or indignation or hopelessness. She always retained that smile, not one of spite in the face of these troubles or smugness that she had brought about these things, but one of softness. Caring. No matter where she was, she would look back at him with those eyes he fell for, eyes of calmness and forgiveness, and throughout the howling winds or the cacophony of voices, whether the sun beat down on her or she was shivering alone in the rain, she mouthed back those three simple words: I love you.
The soundless words shot through Doodle’s anger like a canon through paper. He abruptly became aware of himself and the face before him faded, leaving him with no other object to turn his hatred to except himself. He covered his face with his hooves, although they were ineffective at keeping his cheeks from becoming wet. He wished some tempest would enter the room and throw him back into all of those miserable places for even daring to doubt Matilda. How could he have said he loved her and wish ill on her like that? He laid there for he didn’t know how long--minutes, hours, it all blurred together. It could have been morning for all he knew if he could have been bothered to throw open the curtains.
When the worst throes of caught breath and unsolicited sobs had passed, he turned on his side, clutching the pillow tightly as he stared at the faded wallpaper. He felt tired, the kind of tired that would not let a donkey sleep, or if it did, he would not rise again the next day. He brayed softly. His back seemed to ache even more, his joints seemed that much stiffer--he wondered if his legs would even support him anymore if he got up, what with all that weight in his chest. He had to scoff when he remembered that, no matter what he did, tomorrow was going to come, and the next day, and the day after that, but thinking ahead brought up no more places to look, towns to scour. Nothing. Doodle laughed; had he really gotten that old and stayed that foolish? What good was he to Matilda now, when laid in bed like a young colt cursing her name? She had probably moved on to someone new by now, while he was running all over the world chasing a ghost. It was just as well; they were probably a far better match for her than he was. Maybe someone who would have actually noticed why she had to go, who could have been there for her instead of drifting about the country like an idiot.
Somehow, Doodle found the strength to pull himself up. He lit the lamp on the nightstand and reached for his scrapbook. He looked down at the ticket and the menu, sighing as he placed his hoof on them gently like a father would his newborn foal. Taking a deep breath, he shut the scrapbook and hugged it, eyes closed. In the morning, he would check out. Where to after this? Well, he had heard Ponyville was a nice place, quiet, peaceful, cheap to live. Maybe he could get a house or rent a room there, on the edge of town. He got off the bed, put his scrapbook in one of his suitcases, and began to pack. As he did, he mouthed, “I love you, too."
It’s your sis, Inky! How is Ponyville? I’ve heard nice things about the place. I bet you’re making tons of friends with those parties of yours. There are a lot of ponies out there that appreciate parties. I hope your still spreading the joy, although I’d like to know how you’re supporting yourself out there. I need a bit of help.
When you went off after that fight with dad; I didn’t think that I’d ever want to talk to you again. You know how angry we were, how abandoned we felt. None of us took it well. Dad was intolerable after you left. He blamed himself; his drinking became worse, he didn’t sleep well and I know he’s still a good pony. Mom tried her best to hold us together but she could feel us drifting apart. Blinky and I, we blamed it all on you. We blamed the breakdown of our family on you.
But I’m sorry we felt that way. I really am sorry big sis. I finally realised why you did it, there was nothing for us there. I left the farm. I tried to convince Blinky to leave too but she doesn’t see it that way. I’m going to see if there’s any call for my talent in Canterlot. I still have grandpa’s double bass; it’s the only thing I took with me other than what I’ve saved up over the years. Well, and this quill and parchment but that was just to write a letter. If my cutie mark’s any indication then music is what I’m best at.
I wish I could come visit you. Maybe one day I’ll come see you. I’ll come see you once I’ve settled in. It’d be good to catch up.
It’s Inky again. I know it’s only been a day and you probably haven’t even gotten my other letter yet, but what a day it has been. I found myself in the capital of Equestria; I’m barely through the main gate and some guard notices my double bass. Apparently the Canterlot Symphonic Orchestra has been looking for more strings players for a special strings heavy piece by Haydn. So I show up and play my heart out. Hopefully I’ll be able to make a name for myself right out of the stable. I’ll get a reply back tomorrow. I can’t wait.
You remember Granny Pie’s friends, the Trefoils? They’ve let me stay with them on the condition that I help out with the clinic when I can. It’s as good arrangement as any in this town, and I’d rather keep my bits for emergencies. All in all, everything has worked out perfectly. None of the big dangers of the outside world that dad used to rant about. I guess you were right about him being full of hot air too. Thank you Pinkie, if you hadn’t left yourself I don’t think I’d have ever had the courage to do so.
If you’re ever in Canterlot swing by, I’ll do the same if I ever show up in Ponyville.
It’s so good to hear from you! When you guys went completely silent, it drove me crazy! You’re the best! Pinkie hugs next time I see you! I’ll definitely take you up on that offer if I’m ever in Canterlot. That place is in desperate need of a Pinkie Pie Party! Ooh! Ooh! I’ll bring streamers and cake and balloons! And we could both do the Pony Polka all night long! The Trefoils are very nice ponies, I remember one time I cut myself while helping Granny bake and they rushed me all the way to their clinic to fix me up. I’m sure all the pony patients appreciate the help in whatever form you can give it too! So that’s another bonus!
I’m happy excited joyful glad that you’ve forgiven me. For what it’s worth, I never held anything against you girls. It was dad I disagreed with at every turn. Dad was the bane of my Dad was complex, I never understood him. I know, at the heart of it, he did his best to keep us safe; but that was no way to live. I’m extremely happy that you finally got why I left! I hope one day Blinky will see it too.
I’ve settled into Ponvyille extremely well as well. Fresh off the train, I run into a pair of ponies that live in a genuine, bona fide gingerbread house! The pair, Mr and Mrs Cake, offered me lodgings in return for a little help at the bakery. Sure enough my treats are well known around these parts. It seems I got a little bit more than Granny Pie’s condition rebellious spirit; I also got her cooking skills! I’ve finally managed to throw a party for every pony in Ponyville! I also got a pet! A toothless alligator named Gummy; he is so cute and has such a sweet tooth and you should see him dance! He is the life of the party! Working at a bakery gives me access to all kinds of party food, and I make all the confetti myself. Things couldn’t have worked out better over here.
Your Big Sis, Pinkie Pie
I’m so glad you got my letters! When I wrote that second one I felt silly because you might have never received either of them. I just needed somepony to share the joy with, somepony who understands. And that’s you, Pinkie. You were always there when I was younger, now it You’ve always been there to support me. I thank you for that and I hope that one day I can pay you back fully, but I can at least make a start now.
I got the part. I’ll be playing in the Canterlot Symphonic Orchestra next week. Prince Blueblood himself will be attending. This is make it or break it time. I’d love for you to be there; I’ve been given a ticket for one of my friends and, well, it wouldn’t be the same without you. I really do hope you can make it. It’s running on the fifteenth Lunar, in four days time on the day of the Summer Sun Celebration. If you come visit me at the clinic beforehoof, I’ll give you the ticket before I leave to get ready.
Looking forward to seeing you,
That would be fantastic! I’d love to come! I’ll be on the first train to Canterlot in the morning on the fifteenth! This is great news! I’ve wanted to see you again for so long! I’ll throw us an after party! This is going to be so much fun! Oh, I’ll bring Gummy and I’ll bring my party cannon! This’ll be the best day ever! Of all time!
I can’t wait,
I am so sorry. Truly I am. I wanted nothing more than to be at your concert, but I couldn’t. I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened in Ponyville, the Nightmare Moon fiasco. We defeated Nightmare Moon, the Mare in the Moon, Queen Meaniepants! Me and my friends put an end to her! I’m the Element of Laughter! I don’t know how it happened, but it did. Some kind of special necklace appeared and it was so beautiful but then Celestia nabbed it along with my friends’ ones and took them all back to Canterlot Castle.
To top it off, did I mention my new friends! There’s Twilight Sparkle, she’s Celestia’s most prized student and a total bookworm but she can be fun; she became the Element of Magic. Then there’s Applejack, she’s a member of the Apple family and helps run Sweet Apple Acres in Ponyville; she’s the Element of Honesty. There’s also Rarity, owner of Carousel Boutique and very posh and prim, but she’s very nice underneath; she’s the Element of Generosity. And of course there’s Rainbow Dash! She’s this super-cool speedster pegasus who loves to have fun! She’s the Element of Loyalty.
I can still come up and we can party, if you want. Oh! And I almost forgot Fluttershy, she’s a friendly pegasus that lives on the outskirts of the Everfree Forest and takes care of animals; she’s the Element of Kindness. I knew all these ponies beforehand, except Twilight, but we never connected on the level we have now. I’d call them all my super best most friendliest ponies in the entire world!
I can still come up and party if you want.
I understand that you had problems. Don’t worry about missing the concert, most ponies did. Even Blueblood didn’t make an appearance, due to the riots. We still played though, to a mixed audience of connoisseurs and ponies who just didn’t want to stay outside. It was a total disaster. The Trefoils had to kick me out to house more patients; the riots took their toll on everypony. Canterlot is starting up repair efforts.
Fortunately, I still got paid for my performance, well paid. I made enough to put myself in the Canterlot Musical Academy for a semester so I’m afraid you can’t visit. I’ll keep writing though. It was nice to hear about your adventure, congratulations on being an Element of Harmony. I’ll be in touch again later.
Thanks for understanding. If you want to hear more about my adventures, well, I’ve got a barrel load for you! The other day my good friend Twilight received two invites to the Grand Galloping Gala. Naturally two tickets between six friends did not work out well. We ended up fighting over who could guilt her into giving them up, we weren’t being very good friends. But then Celestia sent over seven tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala and everything sorted itself out, what fun! So I’m going to the Grand Galloping Gala! As a Canterlot resident, I’m hoping you got invited too.
And then Applejack got really tired because she couldn’t pick all those apples that she grows. Normally Big Mac would help Normally her brother would help but he hurt himself so Applejack had to do it all herself. When she was tired she made some baked bads and they made everypony sick! And then to top it off she went and caused a stampede of … wait for it… bunnies!
Things are crazy here! I hope that you’re enjoying yourself in the academy. I have a friend who went to the Canterlot Academy for Gifted Unicorns on the other side and she said that it was a great school. Write me when you can,
You would not believe the week I’m having! I saw a Griffon! This big old meaniepants named Gilda tried to split me and Dashie up! I’d just started getting along with Dashie after we pranked the whole town! Then Gilda started picking on me! She broke my flying machine and she scared my friend! Nopony would believe that Gilda was a big ol’ meanie! Twilight thought I was just jealous. So I decided to throw Gilda a party, to improve her attitude. Then Dashie decides to make it a prankfest and Gilda completely blows her lid! She finally showed her true colours in front of Dashie who sent her walking flying.
Then this showmare named Trixie shows up in town. “The Great and Powerful Trixie” she called herself. Great and Powerful my flank! She started picking on my friends, she turned Rarity’s mane green! But Twilight showed that upstarts whose boss! Trixie claimed to have banished an Ursa Major and then these two schoolfoals, Snails and Snips, believed her and lured an Ursa to town! Trixie tried her best and did nothing but make things worse. Then Twilight’s there and her horn’s so purple it hurt to look at. I’m all “Twilight!” but she looks more confident than I’ve ever seen her as she casts this totally rad spell! The Ursa was just an Ursa Minor! And Twilight rocked it back to sleep and sent it home. Trixie galloped away, not even coming back for her things.
So how are things on your end? Hope you’re not burning yourself out. Remember to party hard every once in a while!
It ends up I had a lot to learn. They said I was musically talented yet I didn’t carry myself with the grace of a classical musician. I’ve been having etiquette lessons and now known how to introduce myself to eighteen different types of official. What “fun”. But it’ll all pay off in the end, I hope.
I’ve made some friends here of my own: this blue mare named Beauty Brass who plays the Sousaphone and this brown colt named Frédéric Horseshoepin who is a piano whizz. The three of us have formed a band. However this “wubstep” obsessed pony calling herself DJ Pon3 insists on crashing all of our rehearsals. It’s like she’s on a mission or something. It sounds like you’re having a lot of fun Pinkie, griffons and ursas? I thought Ponyville was supposed to be safe but apparently not.
I’m writing you to invite you to the first performance of our band. It’s for an assignment and it would mean a lot to me if you could show up. It’s on the Day of Generosity 17th Discordant so in three days. Hope to see you here,
Yours sincerely, Isabelle
I’m sorry I couldn’t make it again. Celestia had a super special secret mission for us Elements to send a sleeping dragon packing. You must have seen the thick smoke blanketing Equestria? That was the dragon snoring. We scaled to the top of Brittlepeak Mountain and had to convince it to leave. The brute was afraid of balloons so insisted on popping all of mine when I tried to give him a surprise party. He saw through Rarity’s seduction and ignored Twilight’s reasoning. We were in a real pickle when Dashie decided to kick the dragon in the snout. Just when we thought he’d wail on us Fluttershy came to the rescue. She was all staring and shouting and the dragon flew off with his tail between his legs. Then again isn’t his tail always between h legs? Where else would he put it?
I just want to restate I’m sorry I couldn’t make it. I hope you don’t resent me for it. If you get any breaks then feel free to come down to Ponyville to visit me,
Dear Pinkamena Pie,
I know Celestia has put a lot of trust in you as Elements, so must I. I’m a little annoyed you had to stay in Ponyville again, but you can’t ignore a direct request from Celestia. I understand you had more important things to do. So no, I don’t resent you for it.
Our band passed with flying colours in the first examination and we’ve found ourselves with a fourth band member, a purple earth pony named Harpo Parish Nadermane, but we all just call him Harpo. His harp is the perfect companion for my double bass, giving us the high string notes as well as the low. The four of us have to compose and play our own original creation for the next assignment. This is going to be a little difficult but we should manage, that is if Vinyl Scratch DJ Pon3 stays out of it.
I passed my etiquette lessons now and have considered taking a new name. Isabelle is good, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t have that Canterlot ring to it. According to my instructor the name is the first thing they’ll hear about us so it has to be as positive as possible. I’m thinking Octavia, like our great grandmamma, the one who sang. Thoughts?
Yours sincerely, Isabelle Pie
If you want to change your name, go ahead. Just don’t forget who you are; that’s what’s important. Tell me when your next exam is and I Pinkie Pie Promise I’ll be there. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye. Then we can finally party and have the best night ever with streamers and cake.
Ponyville has had an action filled month. A doozy of a downpour kept everypony inside yesterday, so I made a colossal cupcake so big it filled the entire kitchen, then I ate it. It was so delicious; I wish I could make another one. Then we got cursed by an evil enchantress! Although that just ended up that we got Poison Joke on us. My tongue swelled up like a balloon and it was so thick I couldn’t talk properly! Me, not talking! It was the worst thing ever!
Remember the time parasprites swarmed the farm? Well they were in Ponyville. I saved everypony with my polka band. I wish you had been here; they would have followed your sweet bass to the ends of Equestria. Then we finished off by wrapping up the winter, on time for once. Twilight was all checklists and orders and everypony tried their hardest.
Good luck, Pinkie
It is heartening to know that you’re so committed to seeing me perform. this time I’m currently preparing for my finals, you’re welcome to sit in on our performance. It will be on the 10th Celestial. This is your last chance. I look forward to hearing from you.
The band and I think we’ve finally established our style. We’ve written up our concerto and are ready to perform. Frédéric is a real maestro with a piano, his hooves dance across the keys like graceful waltzers. Harpo’s really come into his own with that harp of his and Beauty’s sousaphone completes the set. We’re as ready as we’ll ever be. Vinyl Scratch is trying to go it solo, whereas almost everypony else is a member of a large group; yet she doesn’t feel at any disadvantage. She certainly is an odd character who I think I can now count as a friend. She wants to see if she can combine classical with modern in some ungodly symbiosis, frankly it sounds horrible but she has a passion about her you don’t see anywhere else.
We’re thinking about keeping together afterwards. I hope you can actually make it.
Yours sincerely, Octavia
I know I Pinkie Pie promised but something super specially serious came up. Rarity was kidnapped by Diamond Dogs! We had to save her; I couldn’t leave my friend in evil’s clutches! You understand right, right? She was kidnapped whilst out gem hunting. We couldn’t let those beasts enslave her. Well, here’s the kicker. Rarity wasn’t actually in trouble! She’d manipulated the Diamond Dogs into working for her and collecting a large bounty of gems!
I really am sorry! Please reply, Pinkie
Some interesting things happened in Ponyville this week. Twilight didn’t believe in my Pinkie sense so she followed me all across town. The silly goose thought I was making it all up. Then we got attacked by a Hydra! But we all managed to escape across a flimsy rock bridge that the Hydra couldn’t cross.
Twilight cast this new awesome spell that let us all walk on clouds! How nifty is that! Then we all went to Cloudsdale and I got to taste a rainbow! It was like every flavour at once! My tongue couldn’t handle it. Rarity got these fancy butterfly wings and entered the Young Flyer’s Competition with Dashie but then Rarity’s wings melted. Dashie had to save her and she was all zoom, swoop and then boom as she let out a sonic rainboom! It was intense.
I hope you’ve forgiven me. If you have, please reply, Pinkie.
Fluttershy became a fashion model for a few days! Photo Finish thought that she was adorable and wanted to make her “shine across Equestria”. Rarity was jealous of Fluttershy while Fluttershy was doing it for Rarity. Another lesson learned in friendship. But Twilight couldn’t keep a secret! I warned her that loose lips sink friendships but she almost lost Spike anyway.
Then we all went to Appleloosa with Applejack and had an awesome time. The ponies there were fighting with a buffalo clan and I put on a song and dance but that made them all angrier. Then there was a big pie fight and apple pies were everywhere. The big buffalo chief got hit with a pie and then he became all smiley and they cut a deal. Now they’re all friends! And we helped, isn’t that awesome!
Please reply Inkie, please, Pinkie.
To Miss Pie,
Octavia has requested that I message you on her behalf. She is still most displeased with how you abandoned her in her moment of need. She does not want to speak to you again. You abandoned her, just like you did with your dad. There is no point denying it. Please stop sending letters. If you care about her that much, then just leave her alone.
Yours faithfully, Frédéric Horseshoepin
I saw you at the gala. I forgot how full of life you always were. I just wanted to inform you that you may have ruined our chances of ever getting another performance, ever. Thank you for ruining the gala which we tried our best to get to play on. Thank you for driving all of our potential clients away. Thank you for ruining my shot. Don’t reply to this. Don’t ever look for me.
In the Ponyville park, Bon Bon did her best to follow the sound of Lyra's voice. She reached up to remove the blindfold she had on, but Lyra put her hoof over Bon Bon's.
"Uh-uh, no peeking!"
"Aww, I can't see. How much further, Lyra?"
"We're almost there. Just a few more steps." Lyra continued leading Bon Bon as they stepped around other ponies relaxing in the grass. They walked underneath the shade of a nearby tree. "And... stop. Alright, you can take the blindfold off now."
With a flick of her hoof, the blindfold was off. Bon Bon opened her eyes and found herself next to a blanket rolled over the ground, complete with picnic basket and plates. Besides them was a massive cake, decorated with the same candy pattern that was on her flank. "This... this is amazing!" She ran over and hugged Lyra.
Bon Bon smiled. “I thought you forgot.”
“Me? I would never.” She took a step back. “Before I forget, I have another surprise for you.” Reaching into her saddlebag with her mouth, she fished around until she found what she was looking for. She pulled out a box and held it up to Bon Bon.
"What's—" she stopped, not wanting to believe her eyes. A diamond necklace laid inside the box. Stepping forward, she picked up the necklace with her hoof. She tried to speak but no words came out.
"That's okay, you don't have to speak." Lyra embraced Bon Bon with a hug and whispered into her ear, "No matter what, I'll always love you... Always."
"Lyra? Are you ready? We're going to be late," Bon Bon said, peeking through the bedroom door.
"I'll be right there. Just give me a sec." Lyra waved a hoof in the air as she huddled over something in her lap. Like usual, she was sitting on her flank again.
"Hurry up!" Bon Bon walked over to the mirror and checked herself over one last time. She wanted to make sure everything was just right for the Gala. "What's taking so long?”
"Sheesh. I'm coming, I'm coming." Lyra emerged from the other room as she gently closed the door behind her. Frowning, she tried to straighten her bowtie.
"Let me help you with that." Bon Bon placed her hooves over Lyra's and smiled at her. With some quick hoofwork, she finished and took a step back. "Perfect! How about me, how do I look?" she asked, spinning around in a circle with her flowing dress.
"You look beautiful, can we go now?"
"Off we go!" Bon Bon rushed out the door before noticing that Lyra didn't follow her. She walked back in to see Lyra looking at something in her pocket. "Hey! You coming or what?"
"Oh! Sorry." Lyra rubbed her neck in embarrassment and started trotting slowly behind Bon Bon. "To the Gala!"
They walked outside for awhile until they came to the base of a hill, just below the Canterlot Castle. They engaged in some idle chatter, talking about life and their future plans. As they started up the hill, Bon Bon reminded Lyra of some last minute advice.
“Don’t forget that when dancing, you keep your left hoof inwards while you—”
“I know, I know. You don’t have to keep telling me,” Lyra interrupted.
Bon Bon sighed. “I just want to make sure you know what to do. Don’t you remember Pinkie Pie’s ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ party?”
"Of course I do.” Lyra glanced at Bon Bon.”You worry too much. Why can't you—"
"Huh?" A carriage, raced down a nearby hill towards them. Bon Bon jumped in front of Lyra, and pushed her out of the way.
Landing a few feet away, Lyra sprawled out in the dirt. As she struggled to get up, a sickening crunch was heard from nearby.
"What was that?" Lyra asked as she staggered to her hooves. She tried to clear the confusion rattling in her head by shaking it. "Bon Bon?" She looked over to where she had been pushed from, only to find Bon Bon lying on her back.
"Bon Bon? Are you okay?" Lyra crept towards her, unsure of what she would find. Her heart thumped as she reached a hoof towards Bon Bon. Standing above her, Lyra noticed she wasn't breathing. Slipping a hoof behind Bon Bon's head, she lifted it up. "Can you hear me?" She put her ear next to Bon Bon's chest and listened for a heartbeat. She waited but there was nothing. No pulse, no heartbeat, nothing.
"Somepony help me! She's been injured!" Lyra shouted for help as tears welled up in her eyes. "Somepony! Anypony!" As other ponies rushed to the scene, Lyra laid down next to Bon Bon and sobbed.
From the first moment they met, she knew that she was the one. Even though Lyra had a few weird tastes, Bon Bon accepted her for who she was.
"Why are you sitting like that?" asked a cream-colored pony.
“Like what?” Lyra looked down. She was sitting on her flank.
“Like that. You’re sitting weird.”
Lyra paused to think for a bit. "I don't know. It just feels right, you know?"
"It's not uncomfortable at all?"
"Nah, you get used to it."
The cream-colored pony gawked for her for awhile. Lyra thought it was getting awkward, until the pony asked, “Can I try it?”
“If you want.”
The cream-colored pony jumped on the bench and tried to sit on her flank. She managed to stay on for a few seconds before sliding off. Trying a few more times to stay in place, yet slipping each time, she finally gave up. “Ugh! “I don’t know how you do it.”
Lyra did her best to contain her laughter, but she couldn’t. Finally letting out a hearty chuckle, Lyra smiled at her, who gave her a pout in return. “Err, sorry. It’s just that nopony’s ever actually tried to sit like me before.” She continued giggling.
The pony frowned at Lyra before finally breaking out into a smile. “So, what’s your name anyway? My name is Bon Bon.”
“Mine’s Lyra.” She wasn’t sure at the time, but she just felt like they were going to become the best of friends.
There was a knock at the door, which startled Lyra awake.
“Huh? What? I’m awake.” Lyra sat up, her mane flowing everywhere. The knocks at the door continued as she wiped the drool from her mouth.
"Lyra, are you there?” asked a voice from outside the door. The voice was familiar; it was Berry Punch. “Are you still alive? You haven’t come out for days.”
Realizing who it was, Lyra remained silent and just stared at the floor.
“Come on, you have to come out sometime, you know. Everypony’s worried about you.”
With a sigh, Lyra just sank back into her couch.
"Come on. I know you’re there. Open up. Please?"
Lyra just hugged her pillow, ignoring Berry Punch completely.
"Guess I'll try again tomorrow then."
Lyra couldn’t talk to her friend right now. She just didn’t feel like it. Sighing, she tried to ignore her eyes welling up as she tried to think of a happier time. She grabbed the blankets and pulled it over her face. As she tried to drift back to sleep, all she could think about was Bon Bon.
“Huh? Wazzat?” Lyra asked, drool dripping from her face again. Looking out the window, she realized it was dark. She must have fallen asleep.
“Wha?” Lyra pulled the covers up to her chin as the mysterious sound echoed from upstairs. “Who’s there?” she whispered. Was it an intruder?
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Shaking, Lyra threw the covers off and walked over to the light switch. She flicked it, but the lights didn’t go off. “Drat. Must be a power outage.” Using her magic, she cast a light spell and lit up the room. Moving to the closet, she looked around inside for a weapon. Gently, she gripped a baseball bat with her teeth.
Clutching the bat in her teeth, Lyra crept up the stairs. She wasn't sure what the noise was; she assumed that it was probably a raccoon. Hopefully, it wasn’t something... bigger.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
As she took another step, a creak echoed from the top of the stairs. She froze. Waiting for more sounds, she readied her bat. One... two... three. Hearing nothing but silence, she continued climbing. After she reached the top of the stairs, she noticed a single door in front of her. Suddenly, she heard a tapping sound coming from behind the door. She shone her horn’s light underneath the door. A shadow of something tiny, possibly a small animal, moved just inside the door. Taking a deep breath, she fumbled with the doorknob, trying to open it with her hooves.
The door creaked open and Lyra found herself in an empty room, save for a single chest in the center. Trotting closer, she flicked open the chest with a hoof. As she looked inside the chest, she saw... a doll and a tattered dress.
“Whaf?” Lyra mumbled. Inside was a doll, a cream colored earth pony with a blue and pink mane. An exact duplicate of Bon Bon. Putting the bat down, she picked up the doll. For some reason, it felt familiar to her. It felt... friendly somehow. She turned it over in her hooves, admiring how lifelike the doll seemed. She balanced the doll on her back as she checked the next item, the dress. Looking closer, it felt like deja vu somehow. Glitter laced the dress in elaborate patterns, in the shape of candies. Suddenly, Lyra realized something. It was Bon Bon’s gala dress. What’s this doing here?
Finished with her analysis, she tried the light switch again. Nothing. Cocking her head, she looked around the room. Checking the corners of the room and the ceiling, she saw nothing. She took a few steps forward, wondering what the shadow had been. There were no windows in the room, and nothing that cast a shadow besides the chest, so what could it have been?
Grabbing the doll in her mouth and throwing the dress over her back, she left the room and walked back downstairs. As she did, the lights came back on. “Hmm, weird.” She placed both the doll and the dress on the table, but as she did so, she gasped.
The tattered dress was no longer there. In its place was a dirty rag instead. "But... but..." she stuttered. Confused, she picked up the rag and rubbed her forehead. She was probably just tired. After tossing it into the trashcan, she went into her bed room, leaving the doll on the table.
Lyra tossed and turned as she tried to ignore the voices in her head. No matter what she did, she couldn’t stop thinking about the accident. What if she was paying more attention? Why did this have to happen? Why couldn’t she save her? So many questions...
“You never had time for me. You were always working!” shouted the ghost-like Bon Bon inside Lyra’s mind.
“I had to. We needed to put food on the table.”
“It’s your fault we never spend any time together anymore.”
“Give me a break! I’m doing my best here,” shouted Lyra, throwing her hooves into the air. She stood besides Bon Bon and lifted her chin up. “I only want the best for you.”
Bon Bon turned away from her and walked away.
“Bon Bon, wait! I’m sorry, I’ll do better!” Lyra tried to chase after her, but a thick fog encased the area. She kept calling but there was no answer.
“Bon Bon!” Lyra screaming, sitting up as she awoke from her dream. “I’m sorry.” She hugged her pillow as hard as she could and tried to blink the tears away. With a wipe of her hoof, she tried to clear them, but they kept streaming down. Suddenly, Lyra felt a touch on her cheek.
Ears twitching, Lyra looked down to see that she was holding the Bon Bon doll from earlier. How did this get here? she wondered. She couldn’t help but smile when she saw the doll. For some reason, she just felt warm around it. She placed the doll on the pillow next to her and nuzzled against it. So soft, just like Bon Bon. It even smells like her. Feeling a bit better, she felt the familiar warmth spread over here. Even if she was gone now, Lyra felt at peace with the doll that looked so much like her. Even if it was temporary, she wanted to keep the illusion of being with Bon Bon just a bit longer.
The next day, Lyra awoke feeling much more refreshed than she had ever felt before. The last time she had a decent sleep was when...
Stomach grumbling, Lyra rolled the bed and trotted into the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator and checked the contents. Inside was nothing but hay sandwiches. She furrowed her brow. I'll guess I'm eating sandwiches then.
"Can I have one too?"
Lyra froze. "Is somepony there?" She pulled her head out of the refrigerator and listened for a response, but none came. Slowly closing the door, she looked back and forth. Was she hearing voices? The voice had sounded like Bon Bon. She waited for several minutes but nothing happened. She took a deep breath and sighed. Her hunger forgotten, she decided to find something to take her mind off of her. Perhaps playing her lyre would help her, even if only temporarily.
She started climbing the stairs until something caught her foot.
"Ahh!" She flailed her forelegs as she fell back down the stairs. Lying on the floor, she looked up to see what she had tripped on. She gazed at the steps until her eyes fell upon the cream-colored doll from before. It was just sitting on the steps, staring at her. “What the hay?” Lyra exclaimed. Rubbing her head, Lyra steadily got back to her hooves and picked up the doll. She raised an eyebrow at the doll. “Didn’t I leave you upstairs?” she asked, jokingly. With a squeeze, the doll squeaked again. Let’s get you back upstairs then.”
After gently setting the doll on the nearby drawer, Lyra sat down. Using her magic to grab her lyre out from underneath the bed, she began to strum a few chords. She played a few random notes, trying to think of a song to play.
A whisper floated through the air. "Lyra..."
"Huh?" She looked around the source of the voice but saw nopony there. Shrugging, she went back to gently strumming her lyre.
"Lyra..." the voice echoed again.
She stopped playing and put a hoof to her ear. She strained to listen for the voice again.
She wasn't sure but it sounded like it was coming from... under her bed.
"Under here..." the voice sounded closer than before.
Lyra dropped to her knees and checked under the bed. There was the same ornate chest that she first found in the upstairs room. She put her ear to the box.
"Open me," it whispered.
"What the hay? Is this a joke?" She flicked the chest open. Inside was... the doll, staring at her as if it were real. What the hay is going on? I just put this on the drawer two minutes ago. Lyra looked closer. Suddenly, it blinked.
"Ahh!" Lyra yelped, dropping the box. She dove behind the bed and slowly peeked at the fallen doll. It lay face-first on the ground. Lyra blinked and took a deep breath. There, there. Calm down. Your mind was probably just playing tricks on you. Lyra blinked again and looked at the doll. It was sitting up and staring right at Lyra. Okay... this is really starting to creep me out.
She stared at the doll, but it did nothing. “Ugh,” Lyra muttered. She sighed and shook her head. She wasn’t sure what was going on anymore.
She looked at the doll, but the sound didn’t come from it. There it goes again, Lyra thought. What keeps making that infernal squeaking sound? Getting up, she waited.
Walking over to the bedroom door, she put her ear against it.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
Confirming that it came from outside,Lyra walked out into the hallway, coming face to face with the doll as it levitated in mid-air. Confused, she looked back in the room but the doll that was sitting on the floor was gone. “Who’s playing tricks on me?” Lyra asked herself. She stepped forward while looking at the doll, when suddenly it said, “Lyra...”
“Whoa! What the buck?” Lyra exclaimed as she stumbled backwards onto the floor. “What... what do you want from me?”
“Don’t you recognize me? "I'm Bon Bon."
“This must be some kind of trick. Is that you, Colgate? Berry Punch? Haha, very funny.” Lyra got back on her hooves.
“It’s not a joke. I’m really here.” the doll insisted, floating towards Lyra. “I just want to be together. Is that so wrong?”
“Hehe,” Lyra chuckled nervously, unsure of what to think. She tried to step away, but the doll magically teleported in front of her. “No, really, who are you?”
"I told you; I’m Bon Bon. Would I lie to you?" The doll grinned.
“If you’re real, then tell me a secret that only we would know.”
The doll leaned close to Lyra’s face. “It was your fault I died. If you paid more attention, I’d still be alive.” Lyra bit her lip as the doll continued, “Not to mention you were a terrible partner. You didn’t even care about me. All you cared about were your stupid humans.”
“This is a sick joke, whoever’s doing this,” Lyra muttered. She took a step forward. "No, the real Bon Bon would never say such a thing, so you’re obviously fake."
The doll paused. "Maybe you just never knew the real Bon Bon." The doll levitated back and forth in front of Lyra. "She’s gone now anyway. I'm the new Bon Bon."
"Well, I want the old Bon Bon back."
"Sorry, I'm afraid you're stuck with me. No matter what you do, I’ll always be here waiting."
“We’ll see about that,” Lyra mumbled. She walked through the hallway as the Bon Bon doll floated behind her. Suddenly, she turned around and threw the doll into a closet. She held the door closed, when the doll magically reappeared in front of her.
“Can’t get rid of me that easily.”
“Fine, you wi—what’s that?!” Lyra pointed behind the doll. As it turned around, Lyra ducked underneath it and ran into the kitchen, grabbing a knife with her magic. As she hid behind the kitchen counter, she waited. Trying to get the heads-up on her, Lyra waited until the doll floated past her. Sneaking up from behind, Lyra drove the knife into the back of the doll’s head. Unfortunately, the knife just ended up bouncing off. “What the?”
Bon Bon twisted her head around to face Lyra. “I guess I forgot to mention it. I’m invincible.” Spinning the rest of her body around, Bon Bon accused, “Why do you keep trying to get rid of me? Don’t you love me anymore?”
“Of course I do!” Lyra said, rolling her eyes.
“Then why don‘t you show me? We can live together again. All you have to do is… kill yourself.”
“No!” Lyra crossed her forelegs.
That’s… I can’t do that. That’s ridiculous.”
“You don‘t love me anymore!”
“You know I’d do anything for you, but that’s just crazy.”
“True love transcends everything. Even death. Besides, it won’t hurt.” The doll pointed at itself. “You’ll just end up like me.”
“Come on, you can do it. It’ll be quick. All you have to do is take the knife and…” Bon Bon insisted.
“No! You’re being absurd.”
“Leave me alone!” Lyra shouted.
“I knew it. You didn’t love me after all.”
“Stop telling me to do things. The real Bon Bon would never… never say things like that.”
“I’m hurt. Don’t you recognize me? I’m just as real as you.”
“Stop tormenting me! The real Bon Bon… is dead.”
“That’s not true! I—“
“Shut up!” Lyra shouted.
“Fine. Be that way.”
"Enough!" Lyra dropped the knife and reached over, grabbing the doll by its ears. The doll tried to squirm free but she held tight. She grabbed some tape and binded her hindlegs and forelegs together. Holding it with her teeth, she gently placed the doll inside the wooden box. Tears streaming down her face, she could only whisper to the doll, "I'm sorry, Bon Bon..."
She flipped the doll over and looked it in the eyes. It seemed to stare back at her with solemn eyes, as if pleading to be let go. Lyra continued to sob as she picked up the lid with her teeth. She paused, then finally placed the lid over the box, sealing the doll inside. She took the key, put it in the lock, and turned it. Gently pushing it into the unlit fireplace with her snout, she turned around and waited in the darkness. Memories flashed through her mind, no matter how hard she tried to push them away.
From the box, a squeaky voice said, "How could you, Bon Bon? Don't you love me?"
"Of course I do."
"Then why are you doing this? What did I do? I swear, I can change."
"It's not you. I—"
"Don't you love me anymore?" the doll interrupted.
"I'll always love you..." Lyra stared at the box and sighed. Her eyes welled up with tears. "But I can't live like this anymore. I have to move on," Lyra grabbed a match from her saddlebag and turned her back to the box. Tears streamed down her face. She wiped them away but they kept coming.
"I'm sorry, "Lyra whispered.
Lighting a match, she tossed it into the fireplace.
“Why? How could you?” Bon Bon screamed in pain. As the flames covered the box, the wailing from within became a high-pitched shriek.
“Quiet!” Lyra covered her ears with her hands but the wailing just seemed to get even louder. She turned away from the fire and walked away. After taking a few steps, she collapsed to her knees. “Stop it. I can’t take any more. Stop it…” She broke into sobs as she tried to block out the screams to no avail.
Just as suddenly, the shrieking stopped. Instead, chilling laughter erupted from the box. It erupted in flames and the stray embers flicked onto the nearby saddlebags. Just as quickly, the saddlebags caught on fire and the flames started spreading around the wooden cabin.
Distracted by the laughter, Lyra didn’t notice as the fire spread around her. By the time she noticed, it was too late. She leaped to her feet and tried to open the door but it was locked. She tried to kick the door open but it wouldn’t budge. In panic, she kicked the doorknob repeated, until it finally broke off.
Fleeing from the burning house, Lyra emerged, covered in burns. She cantered until she was a safe distance away. As she turned around, she noticed the Bon Bon doll staring back at her, perfectly unharmed. Lyra couldn’t help but laugh. The doll floated above Lyra and waved its hoof at her. “Didn’t you listen? I can’t die. No matter what happens, I’ll be with you... forever.”
“Forever?” Lyra asked.
“Fine, if we’re going to do this, we’re doing it on my terms. I’ll stop trying to kill you and you can just wait until I die naturally. The real Bon Bon, if she really loved me, would wait for me. Sound like a deal?”
“Good, that’s settled then.” Lyra threw her hooves into the air and gave the doll a hug. She had no choice. No matter what she did, the doll wouldn’t leave her alone. Eyes blazing, she couldn’t help but laugh.
A maroon earth pony walked down the wooden steps to the basement. “Colgate,” she yawned, holding a hoof to her mouth, “you’ve been down here all night. It’s morning now.”
She walked up to the blue unicorn and peered over her shoulder. “What on earth is that thing, anyways?”
In the dull light of the morning sun, Berry Punch watched Colgate silently sit at the wooden workbench and tinker with an oddly configured cap. The cap, also blue, had a flat circular top and a black visor sticking out of the front, looking like the military cap of a foreign country. Several wires led out the sides, and crudely taped to the bottom of the visor was a pair of sunglasses. Fastened to the front of the cap was a pin in the shape of an hourglass.
After Colgate connected two wires, she grinned with a screwdriver awkwardly hanging out the corner of her mouth like a worn lollipop stick, staring at her newly finished work. “This,” she said, spitting the screwdriver out, “my dear Berry, is the Fabu—erm, the Focused Last Situation Holographic Background Active-Cognitive Kepi.” Colgate tossed her mane with a triumphant flair and nicking Berry in the eye. “Or as I call it, the FLaSHBA-CK.” She beamed on saying the word “FLaSHBA-CK.”
Berry Punch sat on the ground and held a hoof over her left eye, having been struck by Colgate’s little celebration. “Flashback, huh? That’s fantastic, Colgate,” she said as her eye began to water, “but what is it?” She sharply inhaled and looked at the hoof, then added, “Also, what the hay’s a ‘kepi’?”
“Oh,” replied Colgate, “right.” With a soft, light blue glow of her horn, she lifted the cap off the bench and held it in front of Berry. “This is a kepi. It’s a kind of hat.”
The two mares exchanged blank stares, surrounded by empty crates and old, dusty furniture as Colgate’s new hat floated between them in a waving sea of glowing floaty aura.
Berry returned to her hooves. “What did you say it was named again? The full name. The Fantabulostentatious Lamp Shade... something.”
“The Focused Last Situation Holographic Background Active-Cognitive Kepi,” said Colgate, matter-of-factly and with her head held high.
The two exchanged another brief silence.
Berry’s wide eyes drooped. “You named this thing that ridiculously long name so it spelled ‘flashback’, didn’t you?” deadpanned Berry.
“Maaaybe,” replied Colgate, “but that’s not important. What is important is what this thing does. And it does exactly what it says it does.”
“You mean what you say it does.”
“I know what I said.”
“So, then, what does it do?”
“First thing’s first: Are you hungover?”
Berry narrowed her eyes. “You know I’ve been sober for weeks.”
Colgate lifted the hat and brought it down on Berry’s head, twisting it to fit her ears. “Don’t blink,” she said, and with flash of her horn, the sunglasses’ lenses on the cap turned into a thin film of navy blue.
Berry shook her head, disorientated, then looked at Colgate. To Berry, everything was a deep blue.
“I guess this makes for a pretty cool pair of shades,” said Berry, “but—”
A phantasmal image of Colgate, still sitting on the bench and tinkering with the hat, slowly appeared in Berry’s view. Behind this image, she saw Colgate’s bright, cheery face.
Colgate smiled wider.
“What—what is this? What’s happening?”
Colgate held a hoof to her mouth and loudly cleared her throat and said, “You! Are seeing me! Working on...” She tossed her mane back and raised a hoof, striking a pose that one would see from a statue. “...The FLaSHBA-CK!”
Berry focused on the image. The Colgate in the film was motile and had just been shocked by a stray spark when she leaned in too close to the unfinished hat. “So,” said Berry, “it’s a video player?”
Colgate cupped her face a hoof. “No.” She grabbed the screwdriver with her horn and held it in Berry’s face. “Tell me, what do you see?”
Berry looked at it. “I see you scratching your back with the screwdriver and giggling like a mindless madmare,” she said.
Colgate grinned, albeit slightly uneasily. “Exactly. This lets whoever sees the recent past of whatever the wearer’s looking at. You look me, you see what I did. You look at the screwdriver, you see where it’s been. Runs on science I don’t fully understand myself a bucketful of unicorn magic. I used a lot of things I learned back at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns making this hat. Had to ask Twilight Sparkle for some books in her personal collection, though.” She pat Berry on the head. “Your tax bits at work here, this hat.”
She slung an arm over Berry’s shoulder. Berry raised an eyebrow.
“With this, we can see...” Colgate threw out her free hoof, making a arcing wiping motion. “...The future!”
Berry looked at Colgate with her half-eyed glare. “You mean the past—”
Berry removed the hat. “Well,” said Berry, “it’s amazing. Really. I can imagine a lot of...” She wracked her brain for an appropriate word. “...Imaginative uses for this, but I think most of them aren’t legal.”
She returned Colgate the hat, and Colgate wore it herself. “How’d you come up with this, anyways?”
“Well, for one, it sounds totally awesome.”
Colgate looked at the screwdriver, then scrunched her muzzle. “Wow, that’s embarrassing.”
Berry’s eyes shifted between Colgate and the hat. “And?”
“Huh?” Colgate gave Berry a quick glance, then looked back at the screwdriver. “Oh, that was it. It sounded totally awesome.”
Berry’s ears dropped against the side of her head. “Tax bits at work indeed,” she muttered. She perked up again. “So now what?”
Colgate laughed deviously. “Now I’m going to take this thing for a ride.”
Berry looked at the hat. It fit over Colgate’s head haphazardly—wires were entwined with her mane, and the white tape used to attach the blue glasses to the blue kepi threw off the harmony of the ensemble, asymmetrically sticking out on the bridge and out of the rims. It wasn’t something a pony would normally see worn in Ponyville. Or anywhere, for that matter.
“You’re going out in public?” asked Berry, skeptical. “In that? No offense, but you look absolutely ridiculous.”
Colgate turned around and dismissed her with a hoof. “Ridiculously awesome, maybe. I mean,” she continued, “come on—think of possibilities! I can see the hooves a bit went through at the market! I can see how a cupcake was made, from mixing bowl to oven to counter! Hay, I can even see what somepony did that morning!”
Berry arched an eyebrow. “I think of seeing things that shouldn’t be seen. Everypony has their secrets, and they don’t tell anypony those secrets for good reason.” She rubbed a hoof against her chin. “Or bad reason. Their own reasons. Anyways, that thing’s like a double-edged sword, and I can easily see you cutting yourself with it.”
Colgate grinned. “You know, Berry, the problem with your analogy is that a double-edged sword sounds totally awesome.”
Before Berry could respond, Colgate threw open the basement windows with a burst of psychokinetic magic and jumped on a dusty couch under it. “So after I return Twilight Sparkle her books, I’ma hit town and start swingin’ this ‘double-edged sword’ around without a care for what happens tomorrow ‘cause I’ll be too busy caring about what happened two hours ago!”
She stuck her head out the open window and shouted to the sky: “You hear that, Ponyville? I’m going to swing my—Ah!” Colgate stared into the sun and fell off the couch, holding her eyes in her hooves.
“Colgate!” shouted Berry. “Are you okay?!”
Colgate sharply inhaled, lying on her side. “Do I look okay to you?”
Berry leaned in closer, concerned and worried about what to do next.
Colgate then giggled, quietly and unintelligibly. “I saw the moon going down and the sun coming up. It was so cool.”
“Ugh.” Berry sighed exasperatedly, then walked away and headed up the stairs. “I’m going shopping,” she called from the top. “See you later.”
The sound that came out of Colgate’s mouth after that was something between a groan and a chuckle.
It was only a short trot from Berry Punch’s house to Twilight’s library. Colgate knocked on the library door, wearing the FLaSHBA-CK and floating a stack of books behind her. “Hello?” she called. “Anypony home?”
Spike opened the door with a mug of coffee in his claws. “Hey, Colgate,” he said. “Uh... Nice hat.”
Colgate saw the baby dragon both standing in front of her in the doorway and in a kitchen, pouring coffee into a mug. She chuckled. “Hey, Spike, and thanks.” She walked into the library and looked around. “Where’s Twilight? I’m done with all those books I borrowed.”
“Wow, that was quick.”
“Yup! I’m a pretty fast reader. I was Twilight’s classmate back in Canterlot, y’know.” Colgate was by no means a fast reader, and she had abused her Slow Down Time spell to read them all before the sun came up.
Spike walked into the center of the library’s main room. “Hey, Twilight!” he shouted. “Colgate’s here with your books!”
A purple unicorn came down the stairs with a neatly combed mane but a few dark circles around her eyes. Colgate saw that she had been up late last night reading about astronomy and astrophysics at her desk by light of a candle that had burned past its age. “Hey, Colgate,” said Twilight. “Nice hat.”
“Yeah, I said the same thing,” said Spike.
“Thanks.” Colgate moved the stack of books to Twilight, who took them with a glow of her horn. “There’s some really neat stuff in those books, but they . Makes me wish I actually paid attention back in school. But, with them, I now have this totally awesome hat!”
Twilight walked up next to Spike. “What is it?” she asked, leaning in for a closer look.
“This is the Fantabulostenta—uh, the Focused Last Situation Holographic Background Active-Cognitive Kepi.”
Twilight smiled. “The ‘Flashback’? So is it like a portable video player?”
Colgate forced a smile in return, gritting her teeth. “Nope,” she said with a hint of irritation. “It lets me see the past of something or somepony. Like that table.” She pointed a hoof at the table in the center of the room. “Spike and your owl were playing chess last night.” She smirked. “The owl totally trounced him.”
Twilight ooh’d in amazement while Spike nervously scratched a cheek with his claw. “Hey, with that, maybe you can find out who ate all the chocolate I bought yesterday,” said Twilight.
Colgate wasn’t paying attention. She raised her head and walked towards a shelf, continuing, “I can also see who checked a book out recently.”
She turned her gaze on the shelf. “Let’s see... Astounding Aerial Acrobatic Artists, no one’s checked that out recently... Nopony’s checked that one out, either. Hmm.”
She walked around the room, scanning all of its shelves. “Nopony’s checked out this, nopony’s checked out that...”
She turned to Twilight. “Hey, Twilight, when was the last time anypony checked out any of these books?”
“On that shelf?” Twilight rolled her eyes in thought. “Two days ago.”
Colgate looked at the shelf she stood under. It was labelled “Objectively Interesting and Deep, Meaningful Stories That Everypony Should Read.”
“Wow,” she said. “Nopony reads in this town, huh?”
“Well, nopony can bend time like you can, so it takes most ponies a while to read a whole book. Besides, those books are all pretty famous. A lot of ponies have already—”
“Nopony reads in this town,” interrupted Colgate. “Got it. Thanks for the books, Twilight!” Without another word, Colgate trotted out of the library.
Spike drank his coffee. “Was she always like that?” he asked.
“Yeah, she was,” sighed Twilight.
Colgate examined everything that she passed as she walked down the streets of Ponyville to lunch: ponies, wagons, fruits, clouds, windows, and the occasional leaf blowing across the street.
The cheery cherry merchant had just set up his stand for the day. On his stand were a dozen baskets of freshly picked cherries, straight from the orchard and packaged with care by his fillies. The merchant himself had made a deal with the pear seller on the other side of the street for the location for the stand, and from the look on the pear seller’s face when she walked away, she wasn’t all too happy about it, either. Colgate couldn’t hear the words they exchanged in the past, but she could see everything they did.
She then turned her attention to an earth pony in a suit and tie with a suitcase in his mouth, tearing through the street and bumping into anypony that was in his way. “Excuse me!” he shouted. “Coming through!” He had overslept and his wife had given him more than an earful about it, pulling him out of bed and kicking him out the door.
“Hey, Colgate!” came a voice from behind. Colgate turned around to see Lyra trotting up to her with Bon Bon following close behind. Lyra tilted her head. “New look?”
Colgate saw the kiss the two shared before they went out the door. She smiled.
“Yup! Y’like it?”
“Well,” cut in Bon Bon, “it’s... blue.”
“Yeah.” Colgate brushed a hoof against her chest. “Spent all night working on it.”
Lyra and Bon Bon looked at each other for an instant.
“It... shows,” said Lyra nervously.
“And you know what else it shows?” Colgate leaned in close to Lyra, causing Lyra to lean back. Bon Bon frowned, unamused. “It shows me what you did this morning.”
Lyra’s pupils narrowed. “That’s kind of creepy, Colgate.”
“Just a little.”
Bon Bon pulled Lyra out from under Colgate’s towering posture. “I don’t believe you. Come on—a hat that looks into the past?”
Lyra leaned over to Bon Bon’s ear. “You know she went to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns too, right?”
Colgate gave Bon Bon a glance. She still didn’t seem impressed. “You had a blueberry muffin and some oatmeal for breakfast.”
“Lucky guess,” retorted Bon Bon.
Colgate stood up straight with an air of confidence, looking Bon Bon right in the eyes. “You bought a lottery ticket at QuikMart and your numbers were...” She tilted her head. “One, two, three, four, five, and six? Really, Bon Bon?”
Bon Bon was flustered, stepping back and raising a hoof. “Well, it’s just as likely as any other number! I’m bound to get lucky eventually!”
“She’s picked that number every week for the last few years,” said Lyra. She looked down at her bare hoof. “Well, uh, we should probably get going soon, right, Bon Bon? We don’t want to be late for the, uh, thing. At the place. You know.”
“Huh?” Bon Bon seemed confused. She looked at the clock tower, and it read ten to noon.
Lyra lifted Bon Bon into the air with her horn. “Well, let’s go. Don’t want to be late, do we?”
“Wait, what?!” Bon Bon flailed her legs about. “Put me down!”
Lyra trotted off, carrying Bon Bon with her. “See you later, Colgate!”
Colgate waved goodbye, but as they left, she saw in blue an image of Bon Bon walking out of Roseluck’s house while wiping lipstick off her neck.
The restaurant sat on a street corner, two stories high, painted white and topped with golden spires. It dealt mostly in traditional Canterlotian cuisine, having been founded by Canterlotian a couple who moved to Ponyville a few years ago, but over time, it had slowly began to cater to more local palates. It was here that Colgate’s boss had requested to meet her, and Colgate couldn’t say no to her boss, nor could she say no to an expensive meal on the company’s dime.
Colgate took a look at the door and saw all the ponies who had gone through it that morning. It began with the owners unlocking the door early in the morning, followed by the chefs, the waitponies, and the customers. Some ponies looked like they’d just stepped out of a Canterlot garden party, others looked like they made reservations three weeks prior to get in, and some looked like they had casually walked in during lunch break on the construction site, hard hats and all.
It was interesting, watching all the ponies come and go, until she noticed that a lot of them had used dirty hooves to open the door.
Nevertheless, she went in. The room was full, and her boss was at a table in a back corner.
“Colgate!” he called. He had a dark gray coat, a black mane, and a pocket watch for a cutie mark. Colgate saw that he’d been briefing one of her coworkers that morning about improving his wall clock sales pitches.
She made her way to the table and sat down with him. A menu had already been laid out for her. “Good afternoon, Mr. Hour,” said Colgate.
“And a good afternoon to you too, Colgate. Unfortunately, Mr. Tock won’t be joining us today for some reason I don’t remember, so it’s just the two of us. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering for you to reduce the time we need to wait. I hope you don’t mind. By the by, that’s a rather peculiar hat you’re wearing.”
“Of course not. And thank you.” Colgate plastered on a smile. She saw that he’d ordered the same thing for the two of them, grandiose celery and tulip salads with various dressings and assorted cakes. It wasn’t what Colgate would have ordered, but she was willing to settle.
An earth pony in a dress shirt walked up to their table with two covered, wide, shallow bowls on his head. “Two grandiose celery and rose salads,” he said, leaving the bowls on the table. With his hooves, he took both of the covers off.
The salad was indeed grandiose, composing of lettuce leaves arranged in the pattern of a rose and decorated with more rose petals. The celery stalks were cut and bent as to give the form of thorny stems. Dressings Colgate didn’t know the names of interlaced and weaved across the salad, forming jagged yet seemingly natural curves across the the leaves. Tiny cakes formed a perimeter around the bowl. Colgate’s jaw dropped.
Mr. Hour looked at her. “Stunned?” He chuckled as Colgate nodded with her jaw still slack. “Yes, all of this restaurant’s entrées are this amazing.”
But the salad wasn’t what had caught Colgate’s attention. She had seen the waiter who had just walked away fail to wash his hooves after he came out of the bathroom.
Colgate snapped to attention. “Eh, wha? Oh, sorry, yes. The food. Well, about that, I—”
A customer who just walked in alone had caught her attention, and the FLaSHBA-CK showed her that customer having a violent argument with his wife.
Colgate down at the salad. The chef had constantly blown her nose while arranging it and the plate she put it on had not been very thoroughly. The flowers and celery stalks themselves came from a farm that the restaurant owners had bullied into giving them a good deal, and the cakes were off the shelf, just covered in icing to make them look better.
Colgate looked aside at the tablecloth. A group of waitponies used it as a dirt sled the night before.
Colgate slammed her hooves on the table. “I need some air.”
With that, Colgate dashed out the door, leaving Mr. Hour to dine alone.
Without looking where she was going, on a small street, Colgate bumped into the side of a stallion and was knocked to the ground.
“Ah,” said the stallion. He extended a hoof to help her back up. “Y’okay there?”
Colgate rubbed her head, then looked at his hoof as she reached to take it. Her face fell in horror. There was no way she would be touching that hoof—not after what he and his girlfriend did with it that morning. The thought of what he did made Colgate sick to her stomach, and the sight of what he did was infinitely worse. She never thought that a pony could even use a teapot like that.
She quickly retracted her hoof and started to hyperventilate. “Get... get back!” she shouted, turning away her eyes and kicking her legs in the air.
The stallion indignantly pulled back his hoof. “Well, gee, lady, you don’t have to be so rude about it,” he said, and he left with a huff.
She turned around. There was a crowd of ponies around her, silently looking at her. And she looked back at them.
He picked his nose.
He cheated on his tests.
She fed her customers burnt toast for breakfast and hassled them for tips.
Colgate couldn’t take it anymore. Nothing and nopony in Ponyville was safe. She would have screamed until her lungs gave out were it not for Berry happening to pass by on the other side of the street.
Like a shining beacon in a storm of filth, Berry Punch walked out of an alley next to a dumpster with a shopping bag in her mouth. Colgate galloped towards her as fast as she could with what little willpower she had left.
“Oh, thank Celestia you’re here!” shouted Colgate. She dive-tacked her, wrapping her arms around Berry’s legs and pushing her cheek against one. Berry struggled to keep her balance.
“Hey, uh, Colgate,” said Berry through the shopping bag handle. “How, uh... How was your adventure?” She tried to avoid eye contact.
“It was awful. So very awful. Unfathomably awful.”
“What happened? You look like a total mess.”
Colgate chuckled mirthlessly and hollowly. “Me? I’m a mess? Oh, Berry, the things I’ve seen. So many things.” She grabbed Berry by the head with her hooves and turned it towards herself to look up to Berry’s face, and Berry looked down at hers as tears steadily flowed out from under her deep blue shades. “This world is unclean! Unclean, I tell you! I can never look at my boss the same way again.”
“Hold on, Colgate, I—”
“I can never look at my friends the same way again. I can’t eat, knowing where the food, the plates, the tablecloth has been. I—”
In Berry’s eyes, Colgate saw Berry dancing on a bar table and drinking beer with a tube and funnel.
The crowd had dispersed by now, and the two exchanged blank stares on the side of the street as passersby passed them by.
“Sober for weeks, you said?” asked Colgate.
“I did say that, yeah,” sheepishly replied Berry.
“It’s... it’s not even one in the afternoon yet,” said Colgate.
Berry kept silent.
Colgate hung her head. “Forget this.” She let go of Berry’s head. “I give up.”
Colgate lifted the hat off her head with her hooves, jumped up, and threw it down into the dumpster as hard as she could.
“You were right, Berry. Ignorance is bliss,” said Colgate as she slowly turned around, quivering and with a wide-eyed, empty grin on her face. “Ignorance is bliss, ignorance is bliss, ignorance is bliss...”
Berry sighed. “It really is, Colgate.” She looked back at the dumpster. The kepi lay atop a pile of trash bags like an old discarded science project. “It really is.”
The two walked away, never to speak of the hat again.
Twilight Sparkle walked out of her library with a quill, a checklist, and bag of trash, and went around the back to the library’s dumpster.
“Taking out the trash,” said Twilight Sparkle, lifting the trash bag and preparing to mark the chore off her list, “check—”
As she was about to drop the bag into the dumpster, she saw a peculiar blue circular cap, with a black visor and wires sticking out of its sides, crudely taped to a pair of dark blue sunglasses. She set the bag aside and pulled the hat out.
“Isn’t this Colgate’s hat?” she asked. “What’s it doing here?”
She looked around. Nopony was in the vicinity. She smiled.
“Well, I guess she doesn’t want it anymore,” she said. She put on the hat and looked at the dumpster. Through the glasses, she saw a phantasmal image of Spike sneaking up to the dumpster and dropping an empty box of chocolates.
“Well,” she said, “this certainly is enlightening.” She turned back towards the library entrance. “Hey, Spike!” she called.
She tossed the trash bag into the dumpster, checked off her list, and trotted away with the FLaSHBA-CK, wondering what else she would see.
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon other clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 5a.m..
Today I went to the pharmacist’s again. Got Mummy’s medicine - 4 red, 6 blue, 6 clear (phyrol), 6 other clear (serenol) and the receptionist even gave me a sweet bun as I was leaving. Mummy didn’t cough that much today, only 8 times, and all of them short. Made sure she had plenty of water, and did my homework.
White Wings came by in the afternoon and asked if I wanted to play with him. I said no, again, because Dad and big sis aren’t coming back until after sundown. Couldn’t leave Mummy by herself. He gave me a little fluffy doll to play with, but it crumbled an hour or so after. All of the cloud dolls do, so it was all right. At least he gave me one.
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 9p.m..
Gave Mummy half a teaspoon of the red medicine and 2 cups of water at 3.14 a.m. - coughing fit, wheezing.
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon other clear, 3 cups of water at 5a.m..
Didn’t sleep much. Got to school late. Ms. Teacher forgave me though, but I had to sit at the back of the class again because the front seats were taken. Almost got scolded by Mr. Protractor for falling asleep in class. He just knocked on my desk and woke me up. The class didn’t laugh at me like they used to. I’ve only noticed that now.
White Wings and I played charades with pictures. He likes playing it even though he’s really bad at guessing. Or I’m just really bad at drawing. Actually I don’t think I like playing charades with pictures that much. It’s just clouds shaped like ponies, or clouds shaped like food, or clouds shaped like books, or clouds shaped like bottles. It’s all the same. But at least it’s playing.
Slept in the afternoon. I missed dinner because I woke up too late, but big sis had left me a stalk sandwich next to my bed. I checked on Mummy one last time and gave her her medicine.
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 9p.m..
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon other clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 5a.m..
Nothing much happened. School as usual.
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 9p.m..
Didn’t go to school today. Mummy coughed blood in the night. 1 teaspoon red, 1 black pill, 2 cups of water at 4a.m.. I had to stay next to her and give her water, and feed her the black pill every 4 hours.
I read my maths textbook and “Tales” that Dad gave to me. They were all stories about distant pegasi countries, and princesses, and princes, and adventures, and magic. I read them aloud to Mummy. But big sis said I was keeping the whole house up, and she so I didn’t read aloud anymore. I don’t even know why. I was reading really softly. I need to be softer still.
I hate the black pills. I have to wake Mummy up every 4 hours to give her them. Why can’t the doctors make pills that you take every 8 hours instead? She needs the sleep, and she looks so pained when I have to wake her up. We used to use that, the pink pills, and that was fine. Then the new doctor came and changed Mummy’s pills.
Asked Dad what to do. He said he didn’t know. So I stuck to the usual.
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 9p.m..
1 teaspoon red, 1 black pill, 2 cups of water at 4a.m.. 2 cups of water at 5a.m.. 1 black pill and ½ cup of water every 4 hours.
Didn’t go to school today. Big sis said she would let the school know. It’s good because if she didn’t say, the school wouldn’t know. Simple as that. I always sit at the back of the class and all the other fillies are bigger than I am. So it makes sense.
I practiced reading softly today. Mummy seemed to like it, but she didn’t say anything. She did smile though. I’m so glad, I really am.
Dad and big sis were shouting outside the house. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I just know that there were shouting things about me, because I heard my name. Mummy didn’t seem to hear anything.
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 9p.m..
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon other clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 5a.m..
We had to pass up homework that I missed the past few days. White Wings said he tried to visit me, but . He told me to copy his work during recess so that I wouldn’t have to fail, because if I did I would have to repeat the year again. I told him that he would get scolded if the teachers found out. He just said, “Trust me, we won’t get caught”. And we didn’t.
I almost fell asleep in maths again. I just can’t understand it. I can’t get it, even though I try to read the book every day. White Wings is so much smarter than I am. I’m just very fortunate to have him as a friend.
Big sis and Dad had another argument. It was so loud and noisy. She said and Dad and I didn’t want to listen so I’m here now, in Mummy’s room, where it’s safe, because nopony ever argues in Mummy’s room. Mummy’s room is safe. Everypony in it is all right. Even Mummy, because of the good medicine.
Big sis got me a new book called “The Quest”. It’s a really long storybook, about a pegasus named Cinnamon Sugar, who gets lost in a world of different ponies called “Earth ponies”, who are just like pegasi except without wings. I wonder what they look like. It must be so weird, not having wings. How can they fly?
Though it’s not like I can fly much. I don’t need to. I just need to measure Mummy’s medicine and take good care of her. She’ll get better and we’ll all be happy.
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 9p.m..
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon other clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 5a.m..
White Wings told me that I’m not my Dad and Mummy’s foal. He said something about black markets and society and and and I don’t understand. He wouldn’t lie to me, would he? He’s my best friend! He’s been so kind to me, the only one helping me with school and playing with me when I have the time... he said that his father was “in-vest-ee-gate-ing”. That I was bought. I don’t understand. I’ve known Mummy all my life. Mummy is my Mummy, and Dad is my Dad, even if he , and even big sis is my big sis. She gives me presents for my birthday and Hearth’s Warming Eve, apart from White Wings. Even if she shouts at me and but she still cares for me, right? My family is my family and that’s what they are.
1 teaspoon clear, 1 teaspoon blue, 3 cups of water at 9p.m..
Things To Do: 1) re-run prosecution evidence of the Galestrom case 2) sort out and submit Welfare Department paperwork 3) apply for deferment of Flight Camp for Fluttershy 4) talk to WW about telling other ponies about work(!!!)
Sequence for 1) Galestrom buys a filly from the black market, as a replacement for their stillborn (Docs. #140, #141, testimonies Fil. A and Red S., med. records 3406, 3407) Abuse (need proof) Stockholm’s Syndrome (need proof)— Obtain grant for Welfare protection
Damn. Fluttershy can’t remember anything. All she wants is to feed her mother medicine. It’s like a really absurd joke with all of the sad and none of the funny. Had to sedate her again. That can’t be good for her, but it’s the only way we can keep her from banging her skull to bits on the door. Swirly Top, the sister, refuses to testify or cooperate, so we can’t get anything out of her. I don’t know whether she’s just scared or actually defiant.
@#$%ing (don’t swear, don’t swear) Educational Council have said that the chances of FC deferment are slim. Damn officials. Can’t they see that she’s in no condition to get packed off to FC? Sometimes it makes me want to shove their pretty offices into the Machine. “Protocol” and all that junk has no place in a real society. Heck, even Whitey’s better than them. Maybe if Cloudsdale was run by a bunch of foals, the world would be a better place. That’s a thought, isn’t it? It’s not like the FC is actually useful. It’s just a bunch of foals flying around, slightly more productive than our government (har har). It’s not like pegasi can’t fly properly (well, save a few special cases, but you don’t run a city-wide camp for a few special cases alone, do you?). It’s just the elders and the parents being paranoid that their foals will just one day drop off Cloudsdale. Heh, fancy that. But anyhow, deferment—she needs it. Anything to get her in good hooves until she recovers. She’s at a severe disadvantage with her lack of flying experience, seeing as she spends half her days indoors, and she could get seriously injured in such a gung-ho environment.
Sundamnit, I need a drink. Can’t let Whitey know though. Welfare Department is also such a pain in the flank, needing this and that and an official court judgement to qualify. If they’d just look at her, she’s the qualification in itself! Hyper-introverted, speaks in whispers, malnourished, underdeveloped wings and education. She flinches when you look at her. If that doesn’t warrant qualification to be a ward of the State, nothing will.
Maybe I could adopt her. That’d solve everything, except that I don’t have the income to do that, and then I’d have to not only drop the current case for civil offence, but also start over a new one fighting for custody instead, since there’s no way that Galestrom will give her up now. Different court, different Department, different rules, and that’s not including the possibility that Galestrom simply buys off the jury. It’s not like his current case is weak either. He could plead insanity, or plead for leniancy because of his damn wife. That, and I’m not much of a parent figure myself, am I?
Things To Do: 1) Welfare Dept. paperwork 2) appeal against FC committee’s refusal on grounds of emotional/psychological instability 3) check up on situation post-Welfare 4) research on Hunter case
Galestrom’s behind bars, Swirly Top and Fluttershy have been handed over to Welfare, Summer Dance has been put in a hospital ward at expense of the government. I guess that’s that, then. I’m surprised that Gale didn’t put up that much of a fight. He just looked really, really pissed, shouting all the way from the defendant’s bench to the testimony stand and back again. It’s a pity that the foalnappers—the main ponies behind this sick business—disappeared. Nopony dropped names, and even if they did, we’d need addresses and ponypower to track them down. It’s out of my hooves this way. Conscience cleared. One wonders, though, what the hell Celestia’s doing about it, seeing as it’s her job and all. Probably nothing as usual. “You must learn for yourselves, my little ponies”... pah.
Still, we managed to bag the agent who brokered the deal. There’s little love lost between Galestrom and him, and that’s one less slimeball off our streets. From him, we managed to find out Fluttershy’s origins—a poor and most likely untraceable family in Maretopia—and that effectively bars any and all attempts to send her back. Nopony in their right mind would send a filly back to Maretopia. It’s a hellhole, it is, full of filth and corruption. At least the government here is merely stupid. It makes the border regions like Las Pegasus look like a garden full of flowers. I don’t know how I’m going to break it to her. She doesn’t need to know this just yet, anyhow; in her state of mind, we gotta choose our words carefully.
I met the worker who’ll be in charge of her, a certain Red Jacket. He’s a fine young fellow with kind eyes. I think he can sympathize with Fluttershy just fine. It’s amazing, what that filly would do for an uncaring father and an unresponsive mother, not that the latter is entirely her fault. She literally had no life outside of her family and Whitey. It makes me feel sorry for her, but I can’t spend all of my emotions on just one client.
Ah, well. I can at least spend a few more weeks sorting things out for her. It’s nice to be out of the office for a change, even if I have to deal with the silly idiots in power. Probably take her out to coffee with Whitey. She might like that. A little kindness goes a long way, and all that, right?
Why—rather, how Fluttershy stood for that sort of treatment for so long is beyond me. It can’t be simple goodwill. Not that I’d know anything about that, since that part of me shrivelled as soon as I got my licence. Heh. Even so, it does pain me to see a filly give so much for nothing in return.
Note to self: have intern replace me at the briefing session on Thursday, and arrange for a visitation with Fluttershy.
Things To Do: 1) Streamline the sundamn Welfare/FC system 2) research on Hunter case 3) have a talk with Whitey
All in all, I guess things went okay. Fluttershy hardly said anything except “thank you” and “sorry”. I made sure to get nothing red or blue for her. Greenie suggested that doing so would trigger a trauma, and since she’s the psychologist, not me, I complied. Went for a walk in the park. Whitey wanted to play on the swings with her, but she didn’t want to. We ended up sitting on our rumps instead, trying to make the ice-creams last. The poor filly isn’t eating well, according to reports—expected, of course—so it was good that she managed to finish the cone. At least her stomach still works. Getting some sun can’t be bad for her, either.
The officials have made it clear that they aren’t going to defer FC for her. I guess I’ll have to have a little afternoon tea session with the boss, pass the pouch and what have you. It sickens me, but I can’t possibly let her go in the state she’s in. FC is in a month. It’ll take at least 6 for her to recover, and that’s using Greenie’s shortcut, experimental method. Memories, and all that junk. She insists that it’s the only way. They’re going to bring up a couple of unicorns and try a “memory overlap”, to blanket the old memories and replace them with vague nothings. That’s what I got from the technobabble she churned at me, anyways.
Money isn’t going to be a problem. I’ve received affirmation to go after the Galestrom assets now, and they’re going to give me leave for the Hunter case. It’ll probably be a 3-way split behind the mother and two daughters. That’s still a lot of bits, more than she can use in her foreseeable future. I’ll have to talk to her about using her inheritance to bribe ponies, I guess. Some ponies aren’t happy with that, myself included, but it’s the only way to get things done. Damn.
Welfare, at least, is going well. Fluttershy moved in to the residence yesterday, and her room is nice enough. Holidays are in two weeks, and Whitey will undoubtedly want to visit her then. Fine by me. She could use the company, and he could stand to get out of the house more, instead of dawdling with cloud fluff all day.
On an unrelated note, got a phone call from Rosemary. She asked when would Whitey go over to her place. I told her I didn’t know, and honestly I don’t. I don’t want to think about it, but I’ll have to tell him his mum called, or she’ll call in the agreement enforcement troops again, bothery damn. It’s not like he has any friends there. He’ll be bored to tears.
Things To Do: 1) check up on Fluttershy 2) do something nice 3) buy flowers for Rosemary
I’m going soft. Damn it all.
It feels strangely good to be soft, though. It gives me something to talk about with her as well.
It’s strange, that’s what it is. Somehow, she’s gotten herself the nickname of “maid” because she helps Red Jacket with the chores e.g. cleaning. The other ponies shy away from her and stick to themselves. Can’t blame them, seeing as she won’t even raise her eyes to meet anypony but us, and it’s better than bullying, so I have no complaints.
She seems fascinated with stories of me being nice. I have absolutely no idea why: covering for Greenie when the boss asked where she was, because she was taking the day off to visit her mother; covering for the lad Bookmark when he lost his minutes from the last meeting I put him in; covering for a bunch of ponies who would’ve gotten yelled at for tiny things...
Come to think of it, maybe I’ve gone soft since a long time ago. Damn.
Anyhow, she seems to like those stories a lot. She tells me stories of her own, basically stuff about cleaning and cooking. I nod and smile. Better than being in the office, at any rate.
Greenie paged me the other day about something, but when I asked her, she shook her head and said that she wanted to wait for a few more weeks. She has a suspicion about something, but what? The only thing I can do is trust her. She wouldn’t screw up a filly’s brain on pain of death, because she’s good at what she does. I did manage to catch a couple of her colleagues staring at me, whispering something, so I politely went up to them and asked what was going on. They just ran. Rude, much?
Anyhow, things are going well. Bookmark seems to be enjoying his work on the Hunter case, and as long as he doesn’t object, I won’t have to return to my books.
Things To Do: 1) meeting with Greenie
It’s because of the damn magic. There’s no other explanation for it.
Greenie told me that Fluttershy is inherently kind. There’s no problem with that. The problem is that this kindness is infectious as a result of the memory overlapping—that some parts of her are spilling out, or something. That this kindness will seep into ponies she meets regularly, shaping and corroding their mindset into the simplest form of being agreeable.
They’re bringing in a different pair of unicorns, ones that are supposed to be able to measure auras, to prove this. Auras, mindsets, all of this sounds really occultish to me, something Maretopian. I don’t like it at all, and I very damn well told her so. She said that it was just a hypothesis from observation. I asked her if I seemed to be affected, but she wouldn’t answer me.
Even if it’s true, infectious kindness isn’t a problem, right? All of us know that the world could stand to be nicer. This isn’t an issue, it’s almost a blessing. But Greenie’s worried because it would upset the balance of things, and that kindness is subjective, so the results would be wildly unpredictable. She even went as far as to say that Galestrom thought that he was doing Fluttershy a kindness by making her a replacement for their dead daughter. Pah!
If she’s right, the ones “suffering” from this the most are I, Whitey, and Red Jacket. Greenie’s going to assign ponies to monitor us, in case our definitions of kindness end up to be random killing. The idea is ludicrous, but... this is Greenie, after all. She doesn’t mess up. And we’re friends. So I guess I’ll have to stomach being stalked for a while.
Damn. Damn, damn, damn it all to hell ten times over with a cherry on top.
Red Jacket’s a murderer. He went to the old folks’ home where his parents were, and killed twenty. This can’t be true. It’s all a sick joke, isn’t it? It has to be!
We raided his place, a small flat in North End. His diary was not pretty—there were entries stating how sad it made him to see his parents with dementia, how they were so confused and emotional. There were entries with him writing how he felt their pain. It was all sympathy and sadness in that book of his, which explains why he went into the caregiving industry, but still...
He killed twenty ponies. Two of them were his parents. The others all had some form of severe psychological or physical disability, with three of them in a vegetative state, seeing as the government refuses to put them in the hospital for “efficiency”. They all died quietly. The “Whispering Leaf”, one of those Zebra herbs which causes a permanent sleep, was ground and made into a brew, served to them either in a cup or through the IV drips.
Red Jacket is currently at large. His tracker tried to stop him from leaving the place, but he was knocked down with a single punch. The foals at the residence are all unharmed, and none of them know about this. How the tracker managed to be so slow is beyond me. They think that Red Jacket actually had the “Whispering Leaf” before they started watching him, which implies a whole lot of things I don’t want to think about, ever.
Fluttershy’s staying with me for now. It’s a compromise—Greenie doesn’t want her around us any longer than necessary, but there’s nowhere else for her to go for the time being. That, and we’re already affected, so no new ponies will be exposed to the “infection”. Mind, I don’t feel any different. Things have been just the same as always.
Greenie told me to try and count the number of ponies who smile and say “hi” to me in the mornings. I don’t see why, but I’ll oblige once more.
34. 34 ponies.
Greenie was right. I interact with less than 10 ponies regularly, and there are 34 of them greeting me like I’m their new best friend.
There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that, but there is. It’s unreal. It just doesn’t feel right at all.
Date: 9/12, 986AB Time of procedure: 11.00a.m. Form of recording: Audio log, transcribed Subject: Project SHY: Stage 9b: “Stem” File: #40009 Author: Dr. Whitestar
The procedure for disabling the “kindness aura”, also referred to as “the anomaly”, exhibited by the subject Fluttershy will begin now.
Her memory waves consist of three major layers: her early memories, memories post-trial, and current, short-term memory based on real-time input.
Sealing spells will be enacted to suppress the subject’s early memories, as they are the closest to her inherent kindness, which is the source of the aura. By suppressing her nature as defined by her upbringing, the level of kindness present in her subconscious will, we hope, decrease significantly, thus weakening the aura. There is no method as of now that will eliminate the aura completely; we are simply attempting to render it down to a negligible amount.
Thaumic essence engaged.
Runes inscribed via remote image-imprinting.
Runes programmed to seal.
Backup runes programmed for stabilization.
Primary runes activated. A waiting time of 3 minutes to pass for full effect.
Aura monitored. The levels have fallen by 30%.
Secondary runes activated. A waiting time of 3 minutes to pass for full effect.
Aura monitored. Levels have fallen by a total of 60%.
Running diagnostics to ensure the stability of the subject. Vital signs are stable. The operation is a success.
It is a stroke of luck that the operation was performed without major problems. The procedures here will be documented and sent to the Repository for investigation and validation, and it is believed that this will contribute greatly to the experimental sciences.
The ethics of the issue are muddy at best. Tampering with a pony’s raw nature is generally frowned upon, much less suppressing it; however, we argue that we have done this for the greater good. Similar endeavours are strongly discouraged; as hypocritical as it is, this team believes that the changing of a pony’s personality defies nature and is unethical. In this case, where the degree of change can be quantified, the path which leads to less change has been chosen, i.e. stemming the anomaly, thus limiting the number of altered ponies to 4—the subject and 3 others previously exposed to the aura. Such a being cannot fit into normal society without causing havok, as witnessed in the case of the murderer Red Jacket; one can almost say that it is a kindness done to the subject, that she should have this anomaly suppressed.
“Princess Celestia, there are reports of bizarre weather patterns coming in from all over Equestria! Apparently it’s raining some sort of beverage in Cloudsdale!”
Her heart skipped precisely one beat while she calmed down. She’d had so much practice maintaining her composure.
She offered a gentle smile and a small nod. “I see. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
In that brief instant of panic, she drew up a list of possibilities she would examine once she was alone. Many of them were patently absurd, but there was no time to sort the wheat from the chaff.
“I will be in my study. Please don’t hesitate to knock if my attention is required,” she said as she stood and began combing through the potential sources of the problem. Before she even reached the study, most of them had been eliminated. Celestia was quick, efficient, and ruthless.
The door clicked shut. She exhaled slowly. There really was no need to consider the others. She’d already reached the only real conclusion, even if she wouldn’t admit it. Everything else was just a red herring. A distraction, to avoid having to think about the implications of his return.
A hauntingly familiar laughter echoed softly around the room just long enough to put her on edge. As abruptly as it had began, it faded away. Celestia closed her eyes and suppressed the tremor trying to ripple through her.
He’s here, but that doesn’t mean he’s won.
“Ah, Celestia. It’s good to see you. How have you been?”
“You’re going to be defeated,” she snarled. “Again.”
The laughter returned as a knowing chuckle. “Of course. I think we both know that I can’t withstand the full strength of the Elements of Harmony. The question is, can they?”
She tried and failed to stifle a small gasp.
“Oh? Didn’t think I’d notice? Living in a rock isn’t quite the same as living under one. I do so love the way you’ve passed the burden on to them. Or was that not your plan? Knowing when to delegate is the mark of a good leader.”
“They will stop you. They’ve already used the Elements once.”
“Beginner’s luck? A fluke? I wasn’t there, so I couldn’t really say. Still, one out of three is a pretty poor record, don’t you agree?”
“...Their friendship is strong and pure. They were the victors.”
He chuckled again. “It sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself. And if the strength of the bond is all that matters, then why did Luna turn on you?”
Celestia’s mind flashed back to that fateful day. Luna refused to listen to reason. She’d lost all trace of kindness. Of laughter. Of loyalty.
But she was still there. Somewhere inside that awful mare, her sister’s heart still beat. She didn’t know. Couldn’t have known. What other choice did she have?
“My sister and I have made mistakes, but that is no reason to doubt others. I believe in Twilight Sparkle and all of her wonderful friends.”
Discord’s voice grew louder. “It doesn’t matter how much you or any other pony believe. Magic that powerful doesn’t come without a price.”
“It’s fueled by the strength of their friendship!”
“My dear, sweet Celestia, why can’t you see that fuel is consumed?!”
She snorted and stomped her front hooves. “They are fine! They restored Luna and have been living happily since!”
“Your sister seemed fine after the two of you stopped me.” The spreading of the disgusting smile on his face was almost audible.
She lost her composure. Her face twisted with grief. “Why are you doing this?”
“Come now, that should be obvious. Revenge. Being encased in stone for centuries is unpleasant to say the least. I want to watch you squirm the way I couldn’t. Or maybe it’s a side effect. Luna sure took a turn for the worse after you hit her with the Elements. Jumped from trying to fulfill a simple desire to outright bloodlust.”
The tears were held back by a strength forged in the fires of a millenium of guilt. “And she was restored again by the very same when wielded properly. I am to blame.”
Contrary to popular belief, the Elements did not banish Luna to the moon. Celestia did this with her own power. The Elements of Harmony failed. Luna was not saved. Not restored. Only enraged.
Imprisoning her somewhere distant sheltered Equestria from her terrible wrath, and it would be a very long time before her anger would fade. Her sister’s suffering was her fault. Her loneliness was her fault.
Celestia began to suspect a terrible possibility: that using the Elements planted the seed that would become Nightmare Moon in Luna. Before Discord’s defeat, she could not recall a single blemish on her sister’s character. Luna was a perfect angel. Afterward, slowly but surely, she turned. Everything was so minor and easily attributable to the stress of ruling a nation. She was still herself, just only slightly flawed.
But cracks spread. Corruption spreads. Seeds grow.
Eventually she was so distorted that action was necessary. But she was still Luna. Still her sister. She could be fixed. Cured.
It didn’t work.
Celestia frantically scrambled for a solution. She convinced herself that the Elements of Harmony were the embodiments of virtues and they could do no wrong. Celestia herself was the only culprit. She had failed her sister, but the Elements could bring her back if only they had worthy wielders. Ponies with unflinching mastery over the qualities that were needed for true harmony.
“While I may be a villain, it’s clear you’ve become a monster. Wanting what’s best for your subjects is one thing. Manipulating them and hiding the truth you refuse to face is another entirely. Really, though, risking what is not yours to achieve your own ends is what seals it. Maybe Luna wasn’t the only one to be affected by the Elements? Perhaps you lost your honesty? Your generosity? Surely you realized the danger they posed. Why else would you have locked them away in your silly little tower?”
Celestia quaked with rage. “Those ponies will overcome every obstacle you place in front of them! They will defeat you, and they will do it together!”
Three loud sounds rang through the room, followed by a heavy silence.
“Well now. I’d best be going. Chaos to wreak and all, you know how it goes,” he whispered in her ear.
The door creaked open and Luna stepped gingerly into the room. “I... I thought I heard shouting a moment ago. Is everything alright?”
Celestia offered a shaky laugh. “Everything is fine.”
Luna scratched her head. “There’s nopony here but you.”
“You must have been mistaken, then.”
Another uncomfortable silence stretched a moment into an eternity.
“I trust you’ve been informed that a particular nuisance has returned?”
“The Elements are bound to them now, aren’t they?”
“They are. I was... just about to send for them.”
Luna peered into Celestia’s hesitant eyes before placing a comforting hoof on her. “Sister, my actions were my own. There is no poison which can introduce vile intentions into a pure heart.”
The two most ancient and powerful ponies in Equestria locked eyes and shared their grief without words. Luna smiled.
“My actions were my own. Send for them. Your research suggests a possibility, not a certainty. If fear of being struck by the back of your blade paralyzes you, you can not win.” She trotted to the door and turned to look back. “Swing, dear sister.”
Rainbow Dash glanced nervously over her left shoulder and slowly swept her eyes across the length of the hallway. She had to be sure that nopony had followed her. If word of where she was and who she was visiting were to get out, it would ruin her reputation for sure, killing her chances of ever joining the Wonderbolts.
The hallway was silent and empty. After quickly checking for spies behind a large fern, Rainbow breathed a sigh of relief and finally stepped up to door she had come in search of. Her hooves made no noise on the thick carpeting.
The door she found herself in front of was a plain, wood affair, with a small misted-glass window set into the frame above it and a rectangular white sign pinned to it at eye-level. Rainbow cast her eyes over the neat black words.
Daisy Dreams Subconscious Investigator
Rainbow lifted a tentative forehoof and knocked. For a brief moment between the second and third knocks, she considered turning around and sprinting away — she was certainly fast enough to get away with it — but she remained in her position before the door, her legs quivering only slightly.
"Come in," came a voice from behind the door. "It's unlocked."
Steeling her resolve for the fiftieth time that day, Rainbow pushed the door open and stepped into the office beyond, her eyes staring straight ahead of her.
Compared images of the place that Rainbow's mind had been manufacturing ever since she had first heard of Daisy Dreams, her actual office was something of a let down. Rather than a smokey den of mystique, filled with crystal balls and exotic decorations, or mess of wires, blinking lights and esoteric scientific equipment, the office was a plain room with a desk and a few filing cabinets. Behind the desk sat a pink earth pony with a purple mane. She was smiling at Rainbow.
"Hello there," she said. "How may I be of service, ma'am?"
Pushing her nervous aside for a moment, Rainbow flashed a winning smile and said, "I'd like to talk to Daisy Dreams, please. I hear she's an expert on dreams, and I've been having some trouble with those lately."
"I am Daisy Dreams, ma'am," replied the mare behind the desk, indicating a nameplate in front of her.
Rainbow did a double-take. "But, you're — "
"...an earth pony? Yes, yes I am."
Rainbow had never been known for her tact. "Huh? How can an earth pony do all that dream stuff you do?"
"Oh, I have some equipment that helps me," Daisy replied. "It's quite astounding what technology allows us non-unicorn ponies to do these days."
"Oh, okay," Dash said. "But, uh, are you sure that you're... um..."
"...qualified? Yes, yes I am." Daisy spoke with a deadly serious voice, her eyes narrowing to give her face a stern expression. "You might even say that being an earth pony makes me more qualified than the unicorns dominating this field."
Dash smiled uneasily. She hadn't been aware that "subconscious investigation" was a field.
"Oh, it is," Daisy said casually, as if she'd read Rainbow's mind. "The competition is ruthless, I'll tell you that much. Now, Ms..."
"Dash. Rainbow Dash."
Daisy nodded and picked up a pen in her mouth, quickly scribbling a few words down on the clipboard in the middle of her desk. "Ms Rainbow Dash, please come into the back room with me. I will set up my equipment, and you can tell me all about your situation while I do so. Try to relax. I'm here to help."
With that Daisy got up from her desk and led Dash into the backroom of her office. Dash caught a glimpse of her cutie mark — a daisy with green petals.
"It's been going on for months, Doc," Rainbow said. She was lying on her back on a red therapist's couch while Daisy fiddled with something in the corner of the small back room. "Every night, I have the same dream. It always starts the same way, always continues the same way, and always ends the same way — with me waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep!"
"Mm-hm," Daisy mumbled. "What happens in this dream?"
Rainbow closed her eyes and cast her mind back. Even though she'd been having the same dream over and over again, it still took her a few moments to formulate her thoughts around it and piece together how it would progress. "It always starts with me trying out for the Wonderbolts.
"I'm a flier, you see, but not just somepony who flaps her wings to get from A to B, no — I love to fly. I speed, I race, I do tricks! I feel the wind whipping through my mane and I blast through clouds! Getting accepted into the Wonderbolts would be a dream come true! Uh... well, another dream."
The ends of the wires in Daisy's hooves sparked as she jerked them apart. "I take it that this dream involves you getting rejected by the Wonderbolts, then?"
"Weellll... not exactly," Dash continued, squinting in one eye. "The dream never gets that far. It starts in the Wonderbolts' stadium in Canterlot. I'm there with my friends, getting ready for my Wonderbolts audition. I'm doing my warm-ups, taking a few laps around the airspace, honing a few a tricks, the usual. Anyway, my friends all cheer for me — they're sitting in the stadium — as I finish off my warm-up with a Buccaneer Blaze. I fly down to join them, and they're all excited and tell me what I good job I did. They're right, of course — Rainbow Dash always brings her A-game."
"And then?" prompted Daisy.
"And then I see the warm-up of the next pony. She's got this serious look in here eyes, and she does everything with this unbelievable precision. She carves sculptures in the clouds, and seems to never even break a sweat. So now I'm intimidated. Applejack — she's one of my friends — tells me I have nothing to worry about, and that that pony doesn't fly nearly as well as I do.
"That makes me feel a little better, but then we watch the next warm-up. And the next, and the next. Everypony who goes up is more perfect than the last, and I'm getting more and more nervous. I start to question my abilities..."
There was a pause. Rainbow Dash closed her mouth and took a few uneven breaths through her nose. Her eyes were stilled closed. To Daisy, it looked almost as if she was asleep.
"You stopped talking, Rainbow Dash," she said. "That's okay. You're obviously uncomfortable about discussing the rest of the dream. Or maybe you can't remember it. It's okay. I'll find out the rest soon enough."
During Rainbow's story, Daisy had moved the device she had been preparing to the middle of the small room. It was a grey plastic box with an input panel on the top and two tubes attached to its sides. The tubes ended in straps that were the perfect size to fit around a pony's foreleg.
"Give me your forehoof, Ms Dash," said Daisy.
Dash nodded and let her left front leg droop off the end of the couch.
Daisy quickly pressed it into one of the straps, pressing its velcro sides together firmly to make sure it stuck. She then did the same thing to her own left front leg with the other tube.
Rainbow shifted uncomfortably on the couch and her left foreleg squirmed. An faintly itchy sensation had come over it, and she suddenly felt to numb to reach out and scratch.
Daisy spoke up, pronouncing her words slowly and deliberately. "Just relax, Ms Dash. The device will take about a minute to place me into your dreams. First, it needs to put both of us to sleep..."
Blackness surrounded her. She was a part of the blackness, and it was a part of her. A faint ticking sounded in the back of her mind, and she waited.
Daisy was in the space between wakefulness and sleep, and she took the opportunity to remind herself of a few things. Floating formless in the void, she was able to think with the utmost clarity, and quickly recounted Rainbow Dash's story to herself three times in quick succession, made a rough analysis of Rainbow's personality, and thought back on previous cases displaying some similarity.
She then took an opportunity to realise that none of this would prepare her for the dreamworld, because it never had.
Lastly, she told herself not to get too involved.
The ticking stopped.
The darkness exploded into bright lights and vibrant colours. Daisy's vision was fuzzy, her ears were ringing, her legs were wobbly, and she felt sick to her stomach. There was a tinge of comforting familiarity to these symptoms, but she had never fully gotten used to the feeling of entering another pony's dream.
Daisy concentrated on focusing her vision on a blurry white thing in front of her, and as it turned from an oblong smudge into a marble pillar, her knees steadied and the sounds of casual chatter and flapping wings reached her ears as the ringing died away.
She was sitting in one of the plastic seats in the Wonderbolts' stadium. Around her, a few clumps of other ponies chatted among themselves. They were all too far away for Daisy to be able to make out what they were talking about, but she assumed they were all the friends and family of the pegasi who had come to audition. One of the groups had to be Rainbow Dash's friends, but there was no way she would be able to tell which just by looking.
Or would she? A quick glance into the middle of the stadium revealed a zig-zagging streak of rainbow colours. All Daisy had to do was find the group that was paying the most attention to Rainbow's warm up!
Daisy slowly scanned the stadium, paying careful attention to each group's body language. The signs that she was looking for were subtle things — movement of the eyes, slight upturns of the lips, dilation of the pupils and a hundred other little indicators.
"Woo-hoo! Go Dashie!" shouted an enthusiastic voice from behind her.
Daisy spun around to see a pink pony with a poofy mane whooping and hollering. She had yellow foam mitts on both of her forehooves, and was waving them around madly. The four friends who surrounded her — a pegasus, another earth pony and a unicorn, Daisy noted — seemed to pay no heed to her antics, and were displaying all the subtle body language quirks Daisy had been looking for.
Rainbow Dash finished her warm-up and swooped down to join her friends just as Daisy was walking towards them. Daisy stopped in her tracks, taking the opportunity to listen in their conversation. Her instincts were screaming at her to join in and make some attempt to ingratiate herself with them, but she held back, telling herself not to get too involved.
She shuddered, remembering the early cases she'd bungled hopelessly by making her presence known too early. Although the directness of her methods was what made them so effective, they had caused their fair share of problems.
No, Daisy wouldn't make that mistake this time. For now, she would stay silent and observe.
"Wowie, Dashie!" shouted the pink pony. "That was sooooo cool! No! Amazing! No! Stupendous! No! Spectacular! No! Stu-tacular-zing! N — Yes! It was stu-tacular-zing!"
"You know it, Pinkie," Rainbow said proudly. "And that was just the warm-up. Just wait 'til my actual audition and you'll see some real action!"
Daisy tuned out the rest of the conversation after noting that it consisted entirely of Rainbow's friends fawning over her flying and her hyping up the performance that was to come. These kinds of fawning dream conversations hadn't even appealed to her the first time she'd suffered through one.
Halfway through Dash's speech on how she was going to be the first pegasus to pull of the Ravenclaw Ricochet, Daisy noticed a shift. One moment, Dash was talking to her friends. The next, they were all gaping in awe at the tan-coated pegasus carving a rabbit into a cloud. She appeared to already be quite far into her warm-up.
Time skips were quite common in dreams, but it was utterly impossible to predict them. On the one hoof, Daisy quite liked the way they saved everypony from waiting through boring moments as they did in real life, but on the other hoof —
"Did you see that pegasus?!" Dash gasped. "She was even better than the cloud carver!"
— they were horribly disorientating.
A shining white pegasus stallion flew into the middle of the stadium, his head held high, letting his silver mane whip around in the wind.
"My, my, my," said Dash's white unicorn friend, "who is that?"
Dash glared at her. "The enemy, Rarity."
"Right, right, of course," Rarity replied, waving a hoof dismissively.
Judging by the pained expressions Dash's face cycled through, the stallion was a formidable enemy indeed. He blasted around the arena again and again in a silver streak, looped around countless times without even looking dizzy and nonchalantly performed three Buccaneer Blazes in rapid succession.
For a finishing move, he gathered up a hefty amount of cloud between his hooves, looped around a few times and then shot up, high above the stadium.
Daisy and Rainbow both had to squint to see the little white dot far above their heads, until it started getting bigger. The stallion was in free fall, cloud still gripped between his four legs. As he plummeted past, Daisy noticed his serene, quietly-confident facial expression.
The stallion smacked into a cloud just below the level of the stands and immediately bounced off. Daisy heard Rainbow gasping in horror. Tears welled in her eyes as the stallion shot back up towards the stadium. Moments before hitting a column, he spun his body around and let his cloud hit it.
Daisy raised an eyebrow as the stallion bounced off the pillar and quickly turned around to do the same thing to another. As he ping-ponged around the stadium, Daisy scratched her head and wondered just how much of the trick was dream logic and how much was natural pegasus weirdness.
"The Ravenclaw Ricochet," Dash rasped. "He did it in the warmup."
Rainbow Dash in the shower-room underneath the stands, alone. Except she wasn't alone. Daisy stood by the door, watching Rainbow pace around the room verbalising her many frustrations.
"Silver-Mane does Ravenclaw Ricochets in his sleep, Tan-Coat is better than me at flying and sculpture, and I'm sure Lightning Flash could do a Sonic Rainboom if she tried! I've got no chance!"
The despondency in Rainbow's voice was heartbreaking, and Daisy was hard-pressed to stop herself from rushing over to comfort the poor girl, but a deep breath and a stern reminder kept her at the door. The time to interfere was not yet right.
Rainbow slumped onto her haunches. "I might as well just give up and go home! But I've trained so hard for this! I've given up so much..."
Daisy hooked a back leg around the doorframe to stop herself from rushing in to comfort Dash.
"I'm trying my absolute best, but I just..."
A shiver crawled down Daisy's spine. The atmosphere had become significantly colder. Daisy gulped, knowing that such a development couldn't lead anywhere good.
"Oooooh, Raaainbooowww..." whispered an airy, echoing voice that seemed to come from all directions at once. "Raaainbooooowwwww Daaaaaash..."
Wisps of black smoke entered the locker-room, crawling through the open windows, out of grates in the lockers, and even directly through some of the walls. The smoke wafted towards a single spot right in front of Dash, where it began to take shape.
A blurry all-black pegasus with a shaven mane and tail slowly grew more distinct as it continued to chant, "Ooooooh, Raaaaaainbow Daaaaaaash..."
"What is it? What do you want?" asked Rainbow.
"I waaaant tooooo heeelp you, Rainbow Dash," the pegasus replied, its voice growing steadier as it finished solidifying. "I want you to realise your dreams, because you have worked hard for this audition, and you deserve to be a Wonderbolt. No other pony is as worthy as you, Rainbow Dash."
Daisy raised an eyebrow. This was something new — something she definitely had to observe before interfering with.
"As if!" Dash retorted. "If that was true, I'd be able to carve Mt Rushmare into the clouds, or do a Double Rainboom, but I'm not! The others are just better than me..."
The black pegasus smiled menacingly. "In raw physical ability, perhaps, but certainly not in spirit. Have you seen where they're from? Lightning Flash, at least, is the daughter of Stormy Skies, the owner of Cloud Works, the the largest chain of weather factories in all Equestria! His daughter has been trained by retired Wonderbolts since birth, and probably seen a few magical wingspan enhancements in her day. Don't even get me started on the others..."
"Don't worry, I won't," Dash said, her tone softening. "I'm sick of talking about them anyway... what's Rarity's problem, fawning over Silver-Mane or whoever that guy is? He's not even that good-looking!"
"My point, Rainbow Dash," said the black pegasus sternly, "is that you are the most deserving pony, because you have worked the hardest and overcome the most adversity to be here. It is your character and not your abilities that make you worthy to be a Wonderbolt."
"Really?! Do you think they'll notice! Like, notice my character and stuff?"
The pegasus smirked. "Of course not! They're performers, not psychologists! No offense to any of them, but they lack the subtle analysis skills."
Rainbow's face fell. "Oh..."
"But you see," said the black pegasus, stepping forward to stare into Rainbow's magenta eyes with her black-on-black ones, "that's where I come in! I'm going to help you get the recognition you so richly deserve."
"I'm going to help you make the competition a little more fair. Level the playing field, so to speak."
"I'm going to help you cheat, Rainbow Dash."
That was the sign. Daisy's back leg unhooked itself from the doorframe and she galloped into the locker-room, making Rainbow and the black pegasus turn to the door and gasp.
"Stop! Don't do it, Rainbow Dash! You don't want to cheat!"
The black pegasus stared into Daisy's eyes, grinning madly. The vileness of her expression ignited some spark of rage deep within Daisy, who redoubled her galloping to charge the pegasus.
Determination in her eyes, Daisy lowered her head and dashed toward the pegasus.
CLANG! Her head collided with the hard metal surface of a locker, and all too late she remembered that the black pegasus was made out of smoke.
"Of course she doesn't want you to even the odds, Rainbow Dash," snarled the black pegasus. "She's one of your competitors!"
Daisy's eyes widened in horror. She focused her thoughts on her back and, sure enough, felt a pair of wings unfurl and flap. She really hated dreams sometimes.
The world fell away.
Daisy stared at a blurry photo of a pegasus family that floated before her eyes. The mother had a green coat and an orange mane, and the father's indigo mane complemented his cyan coat. Their daughter had a similar-coloured coat to the father, but hers was slightly brighter. Her fuzzy rainbow mane confirmed her identity.
As Daisy stared at the photo, she saw the ponies in it stretch their limbs and get up from where they had been sitting. They slowly moved towards the edges of the photo, and it grew to accommodate their movement. It also grew in scale, until the mother and father were the same height as Daisy.
The carpet felt soft under Daisy's hooves. At some point, the photo had become a real scene, and she now found herself in Rainbow Dash's childhood home.
"Rainbow," she heard a stern voice say, "please try harder next time."
"B-but, Dad... I got second place!" squeaked a filly's voice.
Daisy turned around, and saw Dash and her father. The former was sitting on her haunches in front of a sofa, with a hopeful look in her eyes and a silver medal around her neck. The latter was sitting on the sofa, engrossed in a newspaper.
"Yes, I know, you've told me," Dash's father continued. "Just try a little harder next time and you'll get first place."
"But Dad, I tried my best! It's ju — "
"No excuses, young lady. If you'd tried your best, you'd have a gold medal."
Tears started to well up in Dash's eyes. Noticing this, her father shifted on the sofa and looked down at her, bearing a very slight smile.
"Rainbow, dearest, please listen: you need to understand now that life is hard, and that second place isn't going to get you anywhere. There's no use in saying that you tried your best if you didn't do the best. You need to win, because winning is what matters, and winners are the ones who count. I'm just looking out for you, Rainbow; do you understand?"
Its purpose fulfilled, the family scene melted away, leaving Daisy alone in the dark void.
Well, not completely alone.
"Heeelllllooooo, Daaaaaisyyyyy Dreeeeeeammmsssss," said a wispy voice. "Ssssooo nnice to make your acquaintance."
"The feeling's not mutual," Daisy retorted.
The voice cackled with sinister laughter. "Oh, you are rich! Do you even know who I am, Ms Dreams?"
"I have a few theories."
"Well then scrap all of them, 'cause they're wrong! Whatever you thought I was, I'm not that. I'm something far more powerful and dangerous than you could ever imagine — something capable of, on a whim, bending gods to its will."
"Do tell me more."
"Well, I was going to be more theatrical about this reveal, but your pony sarcasm is ruining it for me. May as well just spit it out now: I'm a Nightmare. I'm your greatest fears, your most potent insecurities, your darkest dreams, and your strengths used against you like a double-edged sword."
"You don't say."
"This sarcasm does not amuse me. I am a Nightmare — the same one that inhabited your Princess Luna for a thousand years! After she was cruelly stolen from me, I found a new home in the soul of young Rainbow Dash, a pony I take great delight in corrupting."
"This little pony is a delicious bundle of insecurities, wrapped up in a thin blanket of 'coolness'. Her great confidence is backed up by her tremendous skill, but both can be used as crippling weapons in the right circumstances — as you witnessed first-hoof, Ms Dreams."
"In that way, she's not unlike you yourself."
"Little Daisy, the dream heroine. With the guts of a thousand ponies and the brains of none, you're able to meddle even where those stuffy unicorn competitors of your fear to look. They're slow, detached, and cold where you're dynamic and vibrant. You get results where they get data points."
"I don't believe you're this interested in complimenting me. Where are you going with this?"
The Nightmare cackled. "The unicorns never would have caused what you did to your mother, Daisy. You just get too involved... your greatest strength is a glaring weakness."
Daisy was silent for a moment, gathering her thoughts before responding. "I know what you're trying to do, Nightmare. I know you're trying to make it out like you're some great and terrible force of evil, but I've been through one too many messed-up pony minds to believe that."
"Believe what you will. It changes nothing."
"Very true. Even if you fooled me into thinking you were what you say you are, you'd still just be a dark figment of Rainbow Dash's psyche, trying to spook me by reading my own darkness. Yeah, I know you can do that. Must be easy with me; I've got a lot of darkness."
"And eventually, it will overcome you. When that happens, I shall be ready. But for now, let's watch Rainbow Dash get accepted into the Wonderbolts, shall we?"
Daisy trotted onto the grandstands and immediately sought out Rainbow's friends. They were sitting in the same place as before, chatting while they waited for Rainbow's audition.
While the Nightmare had been lecturing her, she'd come up with a desperate last-ditch attempt at salvaging the situation. Rainbow couldn't be allowed to get away with cheating.
A glance above her showed Daisy that four of the Wonderbolts were sitting behind a table in the box at the top of the stadium. She'd never kept up with ariel performance or been an attendee of the races, but she recognised Spitfire's orange mane among them.
Above the judges' heads, a speaker crackled. "Ms Lightning Flash! Please come to the arena, Ms Lightning Flash. The Wonderbolts are waiting."
Once again, Daisy knew that she had to act immediately. This time, however, she had a plan.
Daisy focused on Rainbow's pegasus friend, using one of her newer techniques. She breathed in and out steadily, feeling herself slowly fade out. When the feeling was right, she closed her eyes.
Fluttershy opened her green eyes and stared at the faces of her friends. She smiled serenely at the strangers, before spinning around to face the arena. Her wings flicked out.
"What are you doing, Fluttershy?!" cried the purple unicorn, as her friend lifted off the stands and soared into the center of the arena.
"You're not Lightning Flash!" added the pink earth pony. "Unless there's something you haven't told us... Are you Lightning Flash?!"
Fluttershy, who was Daisy, ignored her friends and barrelled towards the center of the arena. If her intuition was correct, she would soon be joined by another interloper.
"FLUTTERSHY, NO!" The scream cut through the air like a knife, and was followed by a desperate rainbow streak. "GO BACK!"
Fluttershy smiled. The rainbow streak shot towards the underside of the stands. Moments later, Dash reappeared with a mass of wires and bottles in her mouth — a Poison Joke bomb, Daisy noted.
Dash dropped the disarmed bomb on the bottom level of the stands, and sunk into a moping heap. A gasp from the judges' box carried through their microphones and made Dash tighten herself into a fetal position.
"I... I tried to cheat, Fluttershy," Dash whispered as her friend landed beside her. "I was going to ruin Lightning Flash's audition with Poison Joke. A stealth bomb... nopony would have known."
"Shhhh, it's okay, Rainbow Dash," Fluttershy said, patting her on the head, "we all make mistakes."
Daisy stood to one side, watching the tender scene. Things were going a lot better than she had expected them to. It put her on edge.
"NNNOOOOOO!" An unearthly scream ripped through the stadium, shaking the cloud columns and knocking Daisy to the floor. "Wwwwrrrrrong!"
Before Daisy's eyes, the stands warped into a black face with glowing red eyes and giant, sharp white teeth. The screams of the ponies who had been sitting there were short and bone-chilling, as they all fell into the creature's mouth.
"Nnnnooooo, Rrraainbow Dash, you should not have done that," said the voice, which still echoed all around them. "I do not appreciate such ungratefulness! Didn't your mother ever tell you not to look a gift horse in the mouth?!"
With the utterance of the word "mouth", the face floated free of the stage and bubbled and wobbled as it stretched into the body of a great and terrible alicorn.
"W-what are you?" asked Rainbow. "No, never mind. I don't care. Whatever you are, you need to go away. Now. I'm not going to let you make me hurt my friends."
The alicorn was now floating in the sky above them, which had gone dark with storm-clouds. "Rainbow Dash... always loyal to her 'friends', even when it means destroying her only chance at making something of herself. You could be famous and powerful, but you tie millstones around your neck. Truly, that is your greatest weakness."
"No," Dash replied, raising herself to her hooves. "It's my greatest strength."
The alicorn's eyes widened in horror. With a chilling wail, it flew at her, horn lowered.
Before the horn could make contact, Daisy jumped between the alicorn and Rainbow.
The horn went straight through her, stopping just inches from Dash's nose.
"I think that should take care of it," said Daisy.
Blinking the light out of her eyes, Dash lifted herself up and rubbed her head. She had a bit of a headache, and her back was stiff from lying on the couch for so long. Nonetheless, she felt much better than she had when she came in. She was at peace.
Daisy was sitting next to the couch, patiently watching. "What did you learn today, Ms Dash?" she asked.
"I shouldn't hurt ponies for my own benefit, even if they're not my friends, because they're probably somepony else's."
That night, Daisy stood atop a great mountain. Tumultuous storm-clouds crackled and rolled above her, and the land around and below was barren and eroded, save for the few green-petalled flowers that grew around each of her four hooves.
Hovering in front of her was another Daisy Dreams — one with a pitch black coat, a pair of bat wings and jagged yellow teeth. The creature's mane was speckled with stars, and spread out from her head in countless tentacles.
"Once more, Daisy, you have defeated the darkness inside another only to grow the darkness within yourself," the Shadow-Daisy snarled. "Soon, you shall bend to your own wicked will, and finally unlock your true potential."
"You cannot possibly hope to fight it much longer. I will consume you." Shadow-Daisy bared her discoloured teeth.
Fluttershy smiled eagerly at the rabbit before her, hoping that he’d go upstairs without a fight just this once. No such luck. Angel stood there, crossing his arms in defiance.
“Angel…” Fluttershy warned, giving the bunny one last chance. His sour expression didn’t budge. Frowning, Fluttershy took a deep breath, widening her eyes into the expression that would strike fear into any creature’s heart.
The Stare’s effect was immediate. Angel gulped, quickly scampering to the staircase. Fluttershy turned off her stare and smiled, watching as her animal friend hurriedly hopped up the stairs to the restroom. “Please start the bath water,” Fluttershy called. “I’ll be up after I get you a towel.”
Fluttershy trotted over towards the closet under her staircase, humming to herself. Angel may still have been a rebellious little critter, but Iron Will’s recent motivating had inspired Fluttershy to make use of her talent more often. If Angel acted up, the Stare quickly moved him to comply. It’s nice having a way to care for Angel, Fluttershy told herself as she opened her closet, digging through its contents for the fluffy pink towel she knew was buried somewhere. Without turning into that… monster, she continued, shuddering at the thought.
Fluttershy squeaked, diving into her closet and slamming the door behind her. She landed face first on something fluffy. Oh, there’s that towel I was looking fo- She shook her head, scrambling up and pushing herself against the wall. What was that noise? It sounded like somepony was breaking into my house! Thoughts of what it could be ran through her mind, growing progressively worse. A burglar… a lion… or w-what if… it’s a d-dragon!
The jingling of the closet’s doorknob scared her out of her panicked reverie. Fluttershy scooted as far into the wall as she could, shivering. Whatever it was, she was about to find out. The door creaked open slowly, moving outward to reveal…
“Huh. Does Iron Will want to know what’s going on?”
Fluttershy let out the breath she was holding in, holding a hoof to her chest. “Oh, my… you scared me, Mr. Will.” Something clicked in her mind. “Wait… if you don’t mind me asking, what are you doing here?”
Iron Will stood there, an eyebrow arched up as he held the door open wide. “Iron Will was getting to that,” he stated. “But he’s more worried about why you’re shivering in the corner of your closet with a towel over your head.”
Fluttershy felt her head, pulling off the fluffy drape she’d wrapped around it. She giggled nervously, letting Iron Will make way for her to flutter out of the closet. “That’s, uh… not important. No worries. What brings you here?” she asked, eyeing her living room. Iron Will had brought company with him; the goats scrambling around and checking out her home proved that. “And them too, I suppose…”
“Why is Iron Will here?” he asked, jabbing a finger in Fluttershy’s face. “I’ll tell you! Iron Will is here because he has a proposition for you!”
Fluttershy scratched at her mane, already remembering the last proposition he’d made. Just weeks ago, he’d offered to train her to assert herself, and if she wasn’t completely satisfied, the training was free. It had helped her in the end, but it just wasn’t worth the cruel pony that she turned into. “Well… I can’t guarantee I can help with that, but I’ll listen. What is it?”
Iron Will looked back and forth shiftily, paying specific attention to the goats. He leaned forward, motioning for Fluttershy to move in closer and listen. “Ya see,” he whispered, “Iron Will remembered you from that whole deal a couple weeks back. I’m not exactly happy about losing the money, but I can respect a levelheaded mare like you.”
“Levelheaded?” Fluttershy repeated. “Me?”
“Yes, you!” he shouted. He caught the goat’s staring at him, and he lowered his voice back down. “Yes, you. Ya see, before Iron Will worked his magic on you, you were a weak, gentle, kind little critter. And that is what Iron Will wants you to make him!”
Fluttershy blinked. “I… huh… what?”
“Ya see, Iron Will likes who he is.” To prove his point, he flexed, striking a pose. “Who wouldn’t? But there’s one thing that bothers me.”
“Well,” he said, breaking his pose to lean in again, “Iron Will’s… hrm… abrasive behavior tends to scare some ponies away. Makes it a bit hard to make friends, ya know?”
Fluttershy peeked behind her, noting the goats that were currently making themselves at home. “What about them? Aren’t they your friends?”
“Them? They’re the best coworkers a minotaur could ask for! But, uh…” Iron Will pointed towards the goats, a black one trying to eat Fluttershy’s couch in particular. “They aren’t exactly the best at conversation, if you catch my drift.”
“Well, I have a bunch of animal friends,” Fluttershy commented. “You don’t exactly need conversation.”
“Like I said, they’re great coworkers, but Iron Will wants somepony he can actually hang out with. Get it?”
“I suppose…” Fluttershy said, nodding. “Well then, I suppose I can help you. When do you want to start?”
Iron Will snapped his fingers. The goat trying to devour Fluttershy’s couch stood up, quickly grabbing a scroll from the bag at his side. He trotted over, handing it off to the minotaur. “Let’s see,” Iron Will muttered, unrolling the parchment. “According to my schedule, I have an opening…” With warning, Iron Will tore the paper to shreds, letting the confetti fall down to the floor. “Now.”
“Oh, uh…” Fluttershy eyed the scraps on her floor. That’d have to be cleaned up later. “Well, my bunny is waiting for a bath upstairs. If it’s okay with you, could you wait outside until I’m done?”
Iron Will gave her a thumbs up. “No problemo, teach. C’mon, fellas, you heard her!” With that, Iron Will leapt up, diving over Fluttershy’s head. She squeaked, turning back in time to watch Iron Will somersault out the door. The goats followed after him, spitting out whatever furniture they’d happened to be munching on.
“Don’t keep Iron Will waiting!” The minotaur called, grabbing Fluttershy’s door. “No, seriously, don’t.” He slammed the door shut, making the house rock. Fluttershy gulped, noting that she’d have to make some repairs to her living room later.
I hope this is the right decision, she thought. I guess we’ll see… Fluttershy grabbed the towel from where she dropped it, heading upstairs to give her animal friend a far-too-delayed bath.
She found Iron Will outside her house, doing push-ups to pass the time. He got up when he heard her coming and, on her request, sent his coworkers home. They bleated in recognition, trotting down the path away from her house. “Alright then,” Iron Will began, “where do we start?”
Fluttershy had to think hard on that one. A pony like her was more suited to being the student, rather than the teacher. At last, she settled on a simple first lesson. “Follow me, please.”
She trotted off, making sure Iron Will followed. The minotaur followed her as she moved around her house, heading towards the back yard. Fluttershy let out a whistle, looking around expectantly. A moment later, something rustled in the bushes. A little black bunny hopped out, sniffing the air cautiously. It hopped over to the duo, stopping to let Fluttershy pat his head.
“This is Gingersnaps,” Fluttershy commented. “He’ll help us out with her first lesson.”
“And what’s that?”
“Oh, um…” Fluttershy tapped her head, thinking. “Oh, I know! ‘There’s no need to use force. Just do things calmly, of course!”
Iron Will stroked his chin. “Okay, so what do you want Iron Will to do?”
“Something simple,” Fluttershy stated. “Befriend this bunny. Show me what you would do, if you would.”
“Befriend the bunny, huh?” Iron Will muttered. “Sounds simple enough.” He motioned for Fluttershy to move aside, waiting patiently for her to comply. He leaned down low, getting down to Gingersnaps’ level. Taking a deep breath, he began.
“You there!” he roared, jamming a finger right into the bunny’s face, “how would you like the honor of being best buds with the king of confidence, the professor of pride, Iron Will?”
Gingersnaps yelped, darting towards Fluttershy and hiding behind her forelegs. Fluttershy held the rabbit close, soothing it. “No, no, Mr. Will, that’s not how you do it. Watch me.” Fluttershy set the rabbit down gently, trotting over to her garden. She found what she was looking for, plucking a plump carrot from the soil. She went back to the rabbit, leaning down.
“Hey there, little fella,” she cooed. “Would you like a nice treat?” She dropped the carrot in front of the bunny, stepping back to let him inspect it. The bunny gingerly sniffed the vegetable before picking it up and nibbling on it. Fluttershy stepped forward and patted his head, watching as Gingersnaps stopped eating long enough to nuzzle into her hoof. “See?”
Iron Will shrugged. “I guess. Let Iron Will have a go.” The minotaur waited patiently as Fluttershy went and got him his own carrot. Supplied with the treat, he approached the bunny again, who notably shrunk back. “Hey there, uh… little fella. Want this?”
Gingersnaps’ nervousness slowly faded. He looked up at the minotaur, nodding quickly. “Alright then, here ya go. Wait, hold on a second.” Iron Will raised the carrot to his mouth, taking a huge bite. He dropped the remains at the bunny’s feet, wiping his hands.
He caught Fluttershy looking at his disapprovingly. “What? Iron Will was hungry.”
“Friends don’t promise their friends gifts and then take them away,” Fluttershy scolded. “Just look,” she said, pointing towards Gingersnaps. The rabbit had kicked the mostly-devoured treat away, retreating to the shelter of Fluttershy’s embrace again.
“Oh,” Iron Will muttered. “My bad.”
Fluttershy sighed. “It’s fine… but I think we should move on lesson two.” The pegasus set her animal friends down, watching him scamper back into the bushes. “Alright then, this way.” With that, she started down the path towards Ponyville.
They’d made it halfway to town when Fluttershy deviated from the trail. She headed into the nearby field, and Iron Will followed behind curiously. Soon, they reached a bunch of burrows, with gentle snoring coming from within them.
“What’s this?” Iron Will asked.
“It’s where the ferrets live.” Fluttershy stepped towards the closest burrow. “But they’re a teeny bit lazy sometimes… so I check in sometimes to help them wake up. And that’s where lesson two comes in: ‘No need to start a riot, just learn to be quiet‘. I’ll go first this time, watch.”
Fluttershy stuck her head into the burrow, squinting in the darkness. Spotting a silhouette at the end of the burrow, she called out in the gentlest voice possible. “Wakey wakey sleepyheads, it’s time to get up.” The silhouette shifted. “That’s it, I know you can do it. Rise and shine.”
The darkened object split apart and moved towards Fluttershy, revealing itself to be a couple ferrets. They yawned and stretched their legs, stepping outside when Fluttershy moved out of the way. “See? Nothing to it. Now then,” Fluttershy said, pointing to the next burrow, “it’s your turn. Wake them up gently, please.”
Nodding, Iron Will stepped to the next little cave. Kneeling down, he barely managed to stick his head into the little burrow. Spotting his target, he called out to them. “Get up! The early bird gets the worm, you lumps! Iron Will wants you up now!”
The ferrets shot up with a squeak, frantically pawing at the back of their cave. Within seconds, they’d extended the burrow by at least a foot, and were still going. Feeling a tap on his shoulder, Iron Will pulled out of the burrow. “Did Iron Will do it, teach?”
“Not exactly…” Fluttershy pointed to the rest of the burrows. Ferrets were in the process of fleeing from every single one of them. “The goal was to wake the critters, not cause a stampede. And it looks like we don’t have any creatures left for you to try to wake up…”
Iron Will scratched the back of his head. “Oops. Well, what’s next?”
“It looks like we’ll have to step it up a little,” Fluttershy stated. “This time, we’re going into town.”
“The Ponyville general store?”
Fluttershy nodded. “Yep, this is the place.”
Iron Will shrugged. “You’re the teacher. What’s Iron Will supposed to do?”
“Lesson three,” Fluttershy started. “’There’s no need to fight, be polite’.”
“Iron Will gets to fight someone?!”
“No, no, no,” Fluttershy said. “For now, this lesson is simple. See that door?”
Iron Will eyed the clear-glass front door of the building. “Yeah. You want me to kick it down?”
“No!” Fluttershy let out a nervous cough. “I mean, uh… no. I want you to hold it open.”
Iron Will stared at her blankly. Finally, with a shrug, he went and tugged the door open. “Alright, now what?”
“Huh?” the minotaur asked. But before he could get a response, a young mare and her foal strode in through the open door.
“Thanks!” she called back, leaving the two behind. Iron Will turned back to see his instructor practically beaming with joy.
“You did it!” she announced, clapping her hooves together giddily.
“I did?” Iron Will asked.
“Yep, and now we can move onto the nex-” Fluttershy paused, watching as a couple more shoppers arrived. “Oh, wait, here comes some more.”
Iron Will let the shoppers in, grinning as they tossed back their thanks. He did the same for the next shopper. And the next, and the next, and the next. In fact, the flow of ponies entering and leaving never seemed to stop. “Fluttershy, is it supposed to take this long?”
The pegasus, having been asleep for the past ten minutes, opened her eyes and yawned. “It shouldn’t, I guess...”
“So can Iron Will stop now?”
“No, no, that’d be rude. Just wait here and hold the door open until ponies stop coming, okay? I’ll be back later.”
Iron Will watched the pegasus flutter away. He groaned, switching the arm he was using to hold the door open.
Hours passed, with the flow never quite stemming. Pony after pony came and went, and the door never got a chance to close. Iron Will groaned in frustration, watching as yet another mare came by with her saddlebags ready to be filled with produce. As she approached, the minotaur decided he’d had enough.
The mare shrieked as the minotaur slammed the door shut, unaware of his own strength. The glass shattered, forming a scattered pile on the ground. The mare fled, all thoughts of shopping having fled as well. Iron Will winced, eyeing the damage. “Sure hope Fluttershy didn’t see that.”
Iron Will winced, turning to face a yellow pegasus, her hooves crossed in front of her. “Uh…”
“I’m sorry to say it, Mr. Will, but you failed.” Fluttershy sighed. “And you’ll probably have to pay for that too… not to mention the fact that it’s too late to continue any teaching tonight.”
Iron Will groaned, rubbing his neck. “Tell me, teach, is Iron Will a lost cause?”
“Oh, no, no, no!” Fluttershy assured him. “In fact, while I was away, I took the time to make this for you with the help of a librarian friend of mine.” The pegasus held out a hoof, a neat little stack of papers stacked on top of it.
Iron Will took the papers, reading the title of the first one: Fluttershy’s Full Guide to Friendship. He flipped through the pages, at least fifty of them, each of them filled with various rules and hints. “I want you to study this,” Fluttershy said. “Study them and take them to heart. Do this for a week, and then get back to me. Alright?”
Iron Will held the papers by his side, saluting the pegasus. “Yes, m’am! Iron Will will not let you down!”
Fluttershy smiled, giving a little salute back. “I don’t think you will, Iron Will.”
After Iron Will left, things were back to normal for the meek little pegasus. Days passed without a word from the minotaur, until exactly a week had gone by. That day, Fluttershy found a letter in her mailbox from her student. It described how Iron Will had studied the rules she’d written, and he’d gotten them down with little difficulty.
Fluttershy had written back, encouraging him to follow those rules and praising him for what he’d accomplished so far. She sent it off, and that was that.
For a time, anyway. One month to the day where she’d began instructing Iron Will, she found herself curious as to how he was doing. Making sure all her animals were well-fed, she set out, taking along with her a cake she’d tried making herself.
An hour’s walk away, Fluttershy found herself approaching the all-too-familiar maze that Iron Will called his home. The vibrant green cornfield stood out amongst the yellowed field, the stalks bending slightly in the breeze. Fluttershy rebalanced the cake on her back, picking up her pace when she spotted Iron Will out front.
But there was more than just Iron Will out front. Many goats were out on the front lawn too, either eating grass, sleeping, or playing cards with each other. Iron Will himself was laying against the entrance- or where the entrance should be, anyway.
“Huh?” Fluttershy breathed. She picked up her pace, gently tiptoeing around the goats to reach her student. “Iron Will, what’s going on?”
Iron Will looked up slowly, smiling widely. “Good morning to ya, teach. What brings you to my humble abode?”
“I came to stop by to see how you were doing, but, uh…” Fluttershy pointed towards the maze. “…Your front door appears to be missing.”
“Oh, that?” Iron Will scoffed. “Eh, it’s fine. Nothing to worry about, friend.”
“Where’d it go?”
“Oh, it just disappeared one day.”
Fluttershy blinked. “…Huh?”
Iron Will idly inspected his fingers. “Well, you were right, your training helped a lot. Iron Will made a ton of friends who actually wanted to be around him! Buuuut, about a week ago, the maze kicked me out and closed off the front door.”
Iron Will looked up from his fingers, arching an eyebrow. “You didn’t know? Minotaur mazes have a mind of their own. They rearrange at will, closing off and opening up any passages they want. That’s why minotaurs live in them, because our gruff nature won’t take any backsass from the maze. We shout at the maze ‘til it gets how we want it, and stays that way.”
“So why aren’t you yelling at it?” Fluttershy asked.
“Because that violates rules two and eighty-seven,” he stated. He raised a finger up, reciting from knowledge: “’No need to start a riot, just learn to be quiet’, as well as ‘No need to be rude, control your attitude‘.”
“Oh… you actually did read that.” Fluttershy giggled, proud that she’d written something good enough for somepony to consider it worth memorize. Her giggling faded as her face filled with concern once more. “Well, don’t you think this is a situation where the rules can be broken? After all, you‘ve been kicked from your own home…”
Iron Will shrugged. “Iron Will doesn’t break the rules, Iron Will respects them. Respect, that was part of rule twenty-six.”
Fluttershy eyed her student up and down, seeing that he wasn’t budging. But I can’t let him just get kicked out of his house, she thought. There must be something I can do…
But maybe there is something, Fluttershy realized. The cake on her back slid slightly as Fluttershy picked up the plate it was on, holding it out in front of her.
Iron Will smiled. “Is that for me? How thoughtful!”
“Yes, it is for you,” Fluttershy assured. “Forgive me for this…”
She slammed the pastry into the minotaur’s face.
Iron Will spluttered, wiping the chocolaty mess from his eyes. “Why’d ya do that?” he asked, grumbling.
“Because you took my lessons to heart far too much!” Fluttershy replied. “While you should strive to be nice, there’s situations where you have to stand up for yourself.” The goats had looked up from their various activities, eyeing the pegasus that had just vandalized their boss. “If you won’t get angry, I’ll have to make you angry.”
Iron Will laughed, wiping away at the cake on his face. “Ha! That’s funny, Fluttershy.” He chuckled more, clearing away the last of the treat. “Hehe… thanks for the cake though, it was pretty darn tasty.”
Fluttershy scowled. Deciding on something else, she pressed her hoof against Iron Will’s nose, using just enough force for it to be noticeably felt.
“What’re you doing that for?” Iron Will asked. “Please cut that out.”
“It’s a bit annoying.”
“I know,” Fluttershy assured him.
Iron Will shrugged, leaning back against the maze. “Eh, suit yourself.”
Fluttershy groaned, taking her hoof away. This wasn’t working. There must be some way to unnerve him, Fluttershy pondered. She tapped the ground idly, thinking hard. And then it came to her.
“Huh?” Iron Will muttered, watching as the pegasus stepped forward. She leaned forward, catching his tie in her mouth. With a yank, she ripped it off. “Hey! That was a gift from Momma Iron! Give that back!” He cleared his throat. “Please?”
Fluttershy stood there, watching as the minotaur just laid there with his arm out, waiting for her to return it. With a mumbled apology, she flew up, up over the maze. She picked up the tie in her hooves, aimed, and let the tie fly into the field.
“No!” Iron Will roared, standing up. He watched Fluttershy settle back onto the ground, staring up at him. Iron Will heard himself growl, his face twisting into a scowl. An old rule of his came to mind as he bent down, staring his teacher in the face, “When somepony tries to take… show them they made a mistake!”
He roared, sending Fluttershy flying back a few feet. Iron Will watched her try vainly to flap her wings, crashing to the ground instead. The minotaur watched the pegasus pick herself up, shivering a little. And that’s when he heard it.
The maze was laughing. The stalks of corn moved gently as the faintest sound of giggling could be heard from within them. Still ticked off, Iron Will turned, eyeing the maze. “When somepony tries to block, show them that you rock!”
He roared again. The maze began shuddering, the laughter from within turning into the faintest gasp. Suddenly, the stalks of corn blocking the entrance began moving, swiftly leaping to the side. Iron Will watched, smiling with satisfaction.
The minotaur felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned, seeing Fluttershy hovering next to him, none too worse for the wear. “Now seal the deal,” she told him.
“Oh!” Iron Will turned to the maze, saluting. “Thank you.”
The faintest whispering came from within the cornfield. Iron Will stepped back, looking just as confident as ever. His assistants filed past him, heading back into their home in the maze.
“Good job,” Fluttershy praised. “What’d you learn, Mr. Will?”
Iron Will stroked his chin. “That everything you taught me was a bunch of junk?”
“No!” Fluttershy said. “Remember the friends you got from what I said? Don’t you want them and your home?”
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
“Then the lesson here is that you should strive to be kind. But when somepony tries to take advantage of you, it’s perfectly okay to stand up for yourself.” Fluttershy patted Iron Will on the shoulder, smiling. “Within reason.”
“I see,” Iron Will agreed. “You really were the right mare for the job, teach. How can I ever repay ya? How much does Iron Will owe?”
Fluttershy shook her head. “Oh, no need to pay me. The deed was its own reward.”
“Aw, c’mon, I can’t let ya go away empty-hoofed.” Iron Will snapped his fingers. “Aha! Iron Will was going to throw a party before the maze kicked him out, so now he can have it for real! All his new friends are gonna be coming, and I’d be honored if you could come too.”
“A p-party?” Fluttershy repeated. Sure, parties with her friends were some of the most fun things the pegasus had done, but she couldn’t see herself mingling with a bunch of strangers. “No thanks, sorry… but hey, maybe we could just get together and have tea sometime?”
Iron Will extended his hand towards her, giving her a firm hoofshake. “It’s a deal, teach.” He released his grip, walking away. “Iron Will’s gotta go get things back in order,” he stated, waving goodbye.
“Oh, no problem,” Fluttershy called out. “And sorry for the tie!”
“No worries,” Iron Will called back. “Iron Will has fifty of them lying around somewhere.”
Fluttershy blinked, watching the minotaur turn the corner into his maze. She chuckled, satisfied that she’d helped out somepony. Humming to herself, she began walking back to her house, smiling.
The walk back was pleasant, the warm air feeling refreshing. She promised herself she’d make herself a warm pot of tea, settle in with a good book, and maybe start planning out a day that she could spend with her new friend. She reminded herself to write down her newest rule, too:
Don’t strive for a fight, but stand up for what’s right.
Twilight happily twiddled the hours away in the library doing what she did best, studying. An unlimited access to the royal library and so many exhilarating subjects could keep a mare like her entertained until the end of time. Usually to help along the process she’d pick ten subjects that particularly drew her attention, and for the first ten months of each year she’d study each selection one by one.
The last two months of the year went to re-examining subjects she had gone over prior, to keep up to date on any new discoveries in each field. She was currently in the middle of the hottest time of the year, happily working her way through this year’s predetermined selections. Last month was water breathing, the month before that was research into wing spells -which still had many advancements to go before they evolved past the fragile butterfly wings that were gifted to rarity -before that was astral projection, and before that was scrying.
This month’s subject, and possibly the highlight of the year, was universal magic. Not just a single trick such as levitation, but honest to Celestia magic. However, almost all of the books she had put on the reserve for the subject did just give the instructions and insight to simple tricks. Though a single book by her favorite unicorn, Starswirl the bearded, did give advanced insight into the otherwise hopeless field.
This book was something of an anomaly. Despite being written centuries before the other books, and by such a popular author, his findings did not appear in any of the more recent books. Other such books in the library should have furthered along his radical leaps, rather then ignore it completely and move at their own, comparatively snail’s pace progression. She assumed perhaps the book had just been released into the section of the library, being withheld from the arcanists of Canterlot while the book was evaluated on the safety and legitimacy of its findings.
The book itself was in spectacular condition, even if from the prestigious library. So Twilight believed such was the case and felt privileged in the fact she must have been one of the first to study it, and was eager to possibly further the findings. Though Twilight had spent the entire busy month simply taking notes on the book, and now it was time to move onto another less attractive selection.
But she felt almost unable to move on with her tight schedule. She had never under any circumstance deviated from her schedule, nor did she ever have reason. Though she had yet to perform the correct experiments to allow her to further study and apply the subject. Feeling this topic was much more important then next month’s choice (illusionary magics), she decided to extend its length for another month.
A drawback to experiments in this field were that only non-magical beings could be used, meaning Twilight would require an aid in her experiments. Her main test subject, Spike, was out of the process due to his magical dragon-fire. And if the librarian had learned anything about getting someone besides Spike as her test subject, she knew that anypony she choose would likely slow her down.
Opening up the book to the pages labeled with notes on what traits best attributed to a successful experiment. She mentally conjured up a list of potential ponies she could use, ranging from the ponies in town she hardly knew, to her most trusted friends. She looked to her notes again, and her heart sunk.
The ideal test subject for this might just do a lot more then slow her down.
“So, the idea is that with a strict control of your own mind, you would be able to perform magical feats. Any questions?” Twilight spoke as she finished up her proposal.
Pinkie merely blinked a few times before collapsing to the ground in raucous laughter. She attempted to speak the librarian’s name, possibly to reply through her fit of laughter, but this only resulted in a short “Twi-” before she returned to pounding her hooves on the floor and gasping for air.
“Come on Pinkie, I'm being serious!”
“But Twilight, this is me we’re talking about, why would you think that I would be able to ‘free my mind’?” Pinkie managed to sputter out with a minimal number of giggles, along with a strange voice during her incorrect quoting of Twilight.
“It’s controlling your mind, not freeing it. And I'm asking you because out of anypony you probably have the LEAST similarities to this. According to the book, those who have to work more on regulating themselves usually have a bigger chance of success, and more magical ability.”
“I don’t know about this,” Pinkie spoke between her few final chuckles. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
“Trust me, if there’s anything that I’ve learned in my years of magical study, it’s that Starswirl creates the most safe and dependable spell analysts anywhere.”
“Safe and dependable...” Pinkie spoke under her breath, before answering. “Okay, Twilight, if you say it’s alright,” She agreed with a slight uncertainty.
“Oh, thank you thank you thank you!” Twilight cheered while jumping in place out of joy before pulling her friend turned fellow scientist into a huge hug. She hadn't even expected Pinkie to agree, but now she had the best subject possible! She pulled herself away with minor embarrassment, clearing her throat. “Any time you could take off each day?”
“I could wake up early to bake, get my shift done, and head over at four,” Pinkie thought aloud, her usual pep starting to return after her slight indecision.
“Oh, Pinkie, that would be fantastic!” Twilight nearly shouted before hugging her friend again. “I’ll see you at four?” Twilight asked upon remembering the increasingly late hour.
“Of course!” Pinkie spoke as she headed out the door, any second thoughts on what she had agreed to dispersed to see the librarian so enthusiastic.
Pinkie stood uncharacteristically still, eyes and hoof running over the book Twilight had spent an entire month picking apart. ‘Expanded Psionics Hoofbook’ Was etched across the front and side of the binding, which appeared to be done in a very old fashioned way, remaining untouched by any signs of damage or age.
“Ready?” Twilight’s voice from across the library broke Pinkie from her reverie.
“Yep!” Pinkie blurted as she hopped away from the book, moving to where Twilight resided across the library. “So what are we going to do today?” she inquired
“We’re not going to make any real progress, I’ll just be casting a spell on you from the book that will kick-start the process. If you could lay on the couch I’ll be right over.”
“Okie dokie lokie!” Pinkie sang as she took her spot on the couch. Checking the book, Twilight made her way to the pink mare’s side and sat down. After a short time her horn began to focus energy, slowly growing brighter.
A few too many instances of reminding Pinkie to remain quiet and still later, the spell was cast. “How do you feel?”
“I don’t feel any differently,” Pinkie responded after a thoughtful moment.
“Good, there should be no noticeable change yet.”
“So that’s it for today?”
“There is one thing that you should start doing as much as possible. In order to properly advance your abilities, you need to analyse your feelings as they occur throughout the day.” Twilight began to explain.
“So just make a note whenever I feel happy?”
“Don’t just make a note. If you can, stop for a moment and reflect on them. I know it sounds weird, but the spell allows this to make a great deal more sense to you, so just try it. Also, it’s more then just emotions, other things like hunger, thirst, and exhaustion should be analysed. You’ll be keeping track on your mind as a whole, not just one specific part.”
“Okie dokie,” Pinkie spoke as she stood up. “See you tomorrow?”
Twilight smiled. “Tomorrow, same time.”
One week later
Pinkie’s progression was sub-optimal at first, but as the last few days of the week passed by her powers grew to reach an acceptable height. Here at the week’s end, Twilight had decided to do more hoofs-on testing with Pinkie.
They both stood in the basement, which was cleared out save for a single wooden table and a plethora of odds and ends laying around the floor.
“Alright,” Twilight spoke, “since there’s no specific focus of your powers, I’ve prepared a wide variety of tests.” She began to levitate over three bowling balls to the enchanted wooden table “First off, lets see how well your levitation has become.”
Twilight observed as Pinkie began to focus. Unlike a unicorn, who would show visible signs of stress at the task, Pinkie merely remained calm and unaffected as she set about lifting the bowling balls.
One of the balls began to slowly lift, engulfed in the white glow of Pinkie’s magic. As it reached a few feet off the table it stabilised, and a second ball began to mirror the process. As the two remained floating side by side, the telltale white glow began to lift the final ball. At halfway to the same height as the other two Pinkie’s magic faltered, the three balls crashed to the wooden table and rolled off across the room in different directions before being wrangled by Twilight’s magic.
“Sorry about that, Twilight,” Pinkie spoke as Twilight began to shift through the piles of supplies again.
“No problem, pushing your magic to its limit is what we’re here for,” Twilight assured, levitating both a cup and a bucket full of water onto the table. “First of all, try to freeze three flat sections in the cup, and leave water between them. One at the top, one at the middle, and one in the bottom.”
After a short moment of concentration, Pinkie nodded. Twilight overturned the cup and water poured out onto the table. Amidst the water that flowed from the cup, three sections of ice gathered, each of them a different size, due to the changes in the cup’s contours.
“Excellent precision,” Twilight noted as she magically scribbled notes down in a journal. “Next, try to freeze as much water in the bucket as you can.”
After another short period of concentration, Pinkie nodded yet again. As the bucket was overturned, a large section of ice fell to the table, perfectly cut off in a flat plane. Following it was a section of water that Pinkie was unable to freeze.
“Raw power still needs some work,” Twilight once again noted.
After cleaning up the water and ice, Twilight levitated over a small piece of paper and a candle.
“Next, focus on keeping this piece of paper from catching on fire.” Igniting and holding the candle above the paper, Twilight waited a short moment while Pinkie prepared.
Once given the go-ahead, Twilight placed the burning flame of the candle against the middle of the paper. Half a minute passed by while the librarian fruitlessly attempted to spread the small flame to the flat sheet of paper.
“Alright, for the final test I’ll attempt to burn the paper with magical fire.” Twilight spoke as she stored the candle away from the table. Positioning herself as to not hit anything but the table and wall behind it with her magic, she stood firm and lowered her head. A gout of flame erupted from her horn, obscuring Pinkie’s view of the paper and a small section of the table. After a brief amount of time, the flames died down. The enchanted table was free of scorch marks, and held a few quickly dwindling spots of flame.
The paper was slightly burned, but did not completely catch ablaze. “Great job, Pinkie,” Twilight encouraged as she examined her fire’s minimal results.
Pinkie smiled back. “Thanks, Twilight.”
One week later
“Now that we’ve seen that you’re continuing to progress as expected, it’s time to move onto something more difficult.” Twilight spoke to Pinkie who currently sat across from her at one of the library’s many tables. Seeing she had the other mare’s undivided attention, she continued. “Much like you observe your own mind, with enough practice you should be able to see other pony’s. It refers to this as ‘reading’ a pony. Let’s start out easy, focus on me and try.”
Pinkie silently nodded, before sitting perfectly still and closing her eyes. After a short instant she opened them, her light blue irises focused into Twilight’s as though she was trying to read something too far away to see. Twilight shifted slightly, feeling uncomfortable but maintaining eye contact in an attempt to help Pinkie’s attempt at the spell. The pink mare remained still for a moment longer before speaking.
“You’re worried about Spike spending time at Rarity’s, you’re looking forward to going to the spa tomorrow, you slept in late today, and you skipped lunch.”
Twilight, feeling completely baffled, rechecked the book. “That’s strange,” she thought aloud, “mastering that skill should have taken much longer. But you did manage to read me correctly, so how about we go get some lunch and you can try some more on other ponies?”
“Are you sure I should be reading other ponies like that? Seems like an invasion of privacy.”
“You shouldn't be able to read ponies deep enough to invade their privacy. Even if you could, you’d have to want to. Just focus on the simpler things.”
The two set off for the local dinner a few blocks away. “Any luck reading anypony?” Twilight inquired as they walked the streets.
“It’s certainly harder when I’m not looking into their eyes, but I’m getting used to it.” Eventually the two reached the dinner, and took their seats outside. A waiter soon appeared to take their order.
“I’ll have a sarsaparilla, hay fries, and a salad,” Twilight ordered after short consideration.
“And you miss?” The waiter’s attention now turned to Pinkie
“I’ll have a water and two daisy sandwiches,” she ordered, eyes focused somewhere along the horizon.
The waiter made his departure. “Lets find somepony for you to read,” Twilight spoke, eager for a target. “Aha! Carrot Top is sitting at the table behind you, try her.”
Pinkie stole a glance behind her to see Carrot Top sitting across from a stallion. She turned back around to her table and began to focus. “She’s concerned about Ditzy eating all the food in her house, she can’t remember if she left the stove on, and she’s put off about how she keeps catching the stallion eyeing her flank.”
At this last bit of information the purple pony broke out into a poorly silenced giggle. “Oh come on, Twilight, I don’t want to use this as a tool for gossip.”
“Alright alright, if you find out anything personal, feel free to keep it to yourself.”
“You’ve been spending too much time with Rarity,” Pinkie spoke, grinning and shaking her head lightly.
The waiter returned with their order. “How about the waiter?” Twilight questioned before either of them got the chance to start their meal.
Pinkie fell silent again. “He’s looking forward to tonight where he’s going to... propose to his marefriend?”
“Awwwww,” Twilight cooed, “will she say yes?”
Pinkie was slightly drawn back by the question, before taking it as a challenge to see if she could devise an answer by reading the waiters marefriend who could be Celestia knows where. After a short period, she answered.
The two mares soon departed from the diner, agreeing to visit Fluttershy, and more importantly to the librarian, reading more ponies. (Those visits to the spa with Rarity and Fluttershy were having an effect on her.)
Several minutes- and several more readings -later, they found themselves out of Ponyville proper and headed to their friend’s cabin near the woods.
“Look!” Twilight pointed with her hoof to a cloud in the sky.
“Is that... Rainbow Dash?” Pinkie could hardly make out the cloud from their distance, though there was a distinctive streak of rainbow on it
“She must be taking a nap. This is a perfect time to try and read somepony’s dreams!”
Pinkie withheld her hesitance for such an idea. Rainbow Dash was their close friend after all, so it had to be okay. Right?
They reached directly under the cloud, attempting to give Pinkie an easier time by being generally closer to her target.
For what seemed like the millionth time that day, Pinkie focused on the pony who resided on the makeshift bed well above them.
“She’s dreaming about....” Her concentration broke and her ears burned with embarrassment.
“She’s dreaming about what?” Twilight questioned, her gaze falling on the pink pony.
“You said I didn't have to tell you if it was personal.”
“But this is Rainbow, she’s our friend. Besides, how bad could it be?”
“Pretty bad,” Pinkie spoke, attempting to ward her friend’s questioning off.
“Just tell me.”
Pinkie sighed, she knew she couldn’t say no to Twilight. “She’s having a dream about Applejack.”
“That’s it, just Applejack?” Twilight questioned, though after seeing her friend still tense and awkward, she continued. “What’s going on in the dream?”
“They’re havi...” her sentence broke off into a Fluttershy- esque mumble.
“What’s that?” Twilight questioned, standing strong and not letting up.
Pinkie, completely avoiding explaining verbally, instead turned to using a few various hoof-motions to get the point across. Twilight blush grew with understanding and the two mares continued along their way.
One week later
The two ponies set about testing Pinkie’s abilities as traditional. This time around they found themselves out in the Whitetail Woods, since the abilities being tested had long since evolved past being safe indoors when being pushed to it’s breaking point.
Their saddlebags were loaded down with supplies for the amount of time they’d be spending in the forest. Unlike the previous times, however, Twilight had decided to pit her friends ability against her own. The competitions were very magically draining so they’d decided to only do two: One to test precision and magical awareness, and another for strength and endurance.
The first contest was precision and magical awareness. The two stood near a deep lake amidst the woods. Across the ground were multiple pictures of a popular statue in canterlot, a very detailed statue that depicted Celestia with the sun resting upon her shoulders. The contest was to recreate that statue in ice.
Each pony took a small rock in their magic, both knowing that the most effective strategy was to have a solid starting point. The two rocks found their way into the depths of the lake, which fit their needs perfectly.
“Three, two, one,” Twilight counted down. “Go!” As the contest began, the lake’s waters became illuminated by the magical forces being used within. A beautiful purple and a brilliant white glew across the surface.
The two sources of light ended at nearly the same time, as did the ponies’ focus. Their eyes met and Twilight spoke up. “I’ll go first,” her voice latent with exhaustion and the excitement of competition.
Twilight’s statue lifted from the lake, water running down its form and her rock visible in the heart of Celestia’s form. The statue met solid ground and came to a rest. With a crack, one of the four legs of the statue collapsed, shattering the effigy of Celestia upon the still solid ice base and sending the ball of ice that represented the sun rolling.
Pinkie gave Twilight a look of support as she began to lift her own statue. Even from their distance they could make out this statue’s increased amount of detail, as well as the rock embedded into the statue’s base. As this statue reached ground it managed to hold up it’s own weight.
“I guess this contest goes to you,” Twilight admitted in defeat.
Nearly an hour of walking later, they found themselves along a rocky mountainside. Spreading out, the two ponies sought to find two large boulders of fairly the same size and weight.
“Of course she won that contest, precision has been her strong point. I’ll win this one for sure,” Twilight mulled to herself in her search. Awakening from her own thoughts, she found herself in front of two very large rocks that would work perfectly.
A short stop for rest later, they were ready for the contest’s start. The two boulders in their own respective magical field lifted well above the ground. It seemed to stretch on forever, but the boulders made their weight known rather quickly.
Twilight found herself stressing against the force of gravity, a glance in Pinkie’s direction revealed no signs of such on her part. Seeing this, the purple mare redoubled her efforts.
She studied under Princess Celestia for over a decade. She was one of the most adept unicorns in equestria. She was not about to be beaten by a pony who had practiced magic less then a foal!
Twilight’s magic, pushed well past its limits, broke. The force lifting the boulder up faltered, losing its equal spread of force and sending the huge rock flying directly towards the student of Celestia. She lowered her horn and tried to reach out with her magic and stop it, but the contest had left her drained of any magic. Freezing up, she clenched her eyes in fear and waited, feeling powerless and defeated.
As this period of fright faded, she forced her eyes open in time to see the two huge boulders engulfed in a white aura gently fall to the earth where the contest had started.
Four days later
Twilight awoke in the middle of the night. Sleep had evaded the purple unicorn since the contest. Defeat was a bitter and unfamiliar taste, even if it was just a friendly competition. But in earnest, losing the competition wasn't what rattled the unicorn the most. Over the span of a month Pinkie had managed to become more powerful then Twilight. At this point she wasn't even sure by how much. And that scared her.
Twilight made her way to her desk, careful not to wake Spike. She switched on the desk lamp and paged through her notes, determined to vigorously analyze her notes until she determined exactly when Pinkie had advanced so far.
She re-read the notes numerous times, each leaving a worse feeling in her chest. It was impossible to analyze exactly when Pinkie had become so strong. The only serious testing of her abilities happening at each weekend. By this point in her analysis, she found herself reading for a different reason. Her notes were diligent to not just magical, but personal changes.
A entry a week and a half ago noted on Pinkie’s more tame behavior, hinting to the possibility that the magical presence and experience had somehow matured or calmed the mare. Twilight focused on this, running it through her mind over and over.
No. The changes to Pinkie weren't maturing or calming. Their changes went well beyond any such effect. Reflecting on the past month Twilight could plainly see differences. Less smiling, less jokes, less of the usual pep and cheer, less emotion. The changes to Pinkie have had an unexpected side effect. The powers were coming at the cost of her humanity.
Twilight sprinted downstairs. She had to find the counter-spell, she specifically remembered a way to undo this. All she had to do was find her notes in the book and she could reverse everything.
She quickly made her way into the main section of the library. As she rounded the corner of the podium, her hooves went to open to the last page of the book, where she remembered the counter-spell to be. Her hooves were only met only the flat surface of the podium. The book was gone.
A night of turning the library upside down proved to be fruitless. An attempt to find Pinkie to help search only further disturbed Twilight. Pinkie had gone missing too. The Cakes became concerned, and even told the librarian about how strange their employee had been acting these past few weeks.
Both book and mare missing, Twilight returned to the library mane frazzled with stress and anxiety. Spike, ever the insightful assistant, convinced her to finally take a break and sleep, morning already cresting the horizon.
She awoke in the middle of the day, harsh sunlight beating against the drawn curtains, eyes staring blankly out towards her room. She felt the unease of last night already returning. She let out a deep sigh and fell face first into her bed, shielding herself from the outside world with a combination of her front legs and the soft texture of the bed.
“Pinkie Pie...” Twilight spoke into the darkness of her forelegs.
“You need something?” her friend’s unmistakable voice responded.
“GAH!” Twilight threw herself upright, a million questions burning in her head. Though as her eyes fell upon Pinkie she found herself hard pressed to remember a single one.
Pinkie’s once vibrant pink hue was replaced with a colorless white, her mane now straight and cut short. Her cutie mark had vanished from her coat and her stunning blue irises were now just clouds of gray.
Her tangled and confused mind blindly grasped for a question, only finding one of her initial questions. “Have you seen the Expanded Psionics Hoofbook? It’s missing.”
“I took it,” the white mare plainly stated.
“You... took it?”
“I’ve been reading it at night for the past week. I found multiple instances where improvement could be made upon my learning process. Seeking to take my advancement into my own hooves, I attempted to copy the book.”
“My duplication spells were not successful, there was a powerful enchantment on the book to specifically stop me from copying it. So, I took it and studied it.”
“Can I have it back?”
“No, but you may have access to it if you wish.”
Strange, but that can be worked out later. All she needed to do was find the spell to fix all this. “Alright, let me see it.”
“Follow me.” Pinkie spoke as she turned around. But instead of walking, she stood still. A large amount of magical energy building up in front of Pinkie.
Maybe she’s hiding it in plain sight? Or she’s conjuring it up from Celestia knows where? Twilight thought to herself.
The magical energies began to stabilize, forming a large rift. Rather than just retrieving the book from it, Pinkie stepped completely through the field, leaving Twilight behind feeling hesitant on what to do. After some indecision, she too decided to cross the magical field.
Where she found herself was baffling. The entire dimension was a white purer then Pinkie’s coat. There was no clear definition of where horizon or ground began. She held her bearings only by the multiple objects in the area resting on the same uncertain ground on which she stood.
A quick glance revealed all the area had to offer. The statue of Celestia they had used for the precision contest, which was made out of stone not unlike the boulders used for the second contest. A second of examining this revealed that the effigy of Celestia was replaced with the unmistakable form of the librarian, and a lilac’s flower placed before it.
What occupied the most space of this area were multiple rows of bookshelves, all brimming with countless books. There had to be more here then both the libraries of Canterlot and Manehatten combined. Placed outside of the lines of bookshelves stood multiple tables, all piled to the brim with even more books. Pinkie was making her way to one of the tables, this one however only held one book.
“Where are we?” Twilight questioned as she followed the other mare to the table.
“We are inside my subconscious.” Twilight nearly stopped as she processed this information, as two things greatly bothered her. The mind of anypony shouldn’t be so blank, and it was theoretically impossible to bring yourself, other ponies, or objects into your subconscious. It was a disturbing thought; Pinkie was using her hollowed subconscious as her own personal realm.
“In my past week of reading, I have found many ‘laws’ of magic my powers violate. It would appear ponies don’t know as much about magic as they’d like to think they do,” the white mare spoke as they arrived to the table that the Extended Psionics Hoofbook sat on.
“So are you finished studying the book?” Twilight voiced another one of her many questions as she placed herself across from her friend.
“I am.” Pinkie spoke, her cloudy eyes never leaving Twilight.
“Did you ever find out what the enchantment was?”
Pinkie paused for a moment, thinking of a proper way to explain. “You’ve no doubt noticed the statue of you, right?” Twilight nodded. “The statue and the book are both different sides of the same problem. I created that statue and flower nearly a week ago, I’m not entirely sure why or how. But due to my drastic changes of late, in personality and magic, I’m not recognizable as the creator of it, and thus I am unable dispose of it.”
Twilight paid particular mind to this, seeing as it meant Pinkie was no longer the same in body, mind, or magic.
Pinkie continued. “The book is the opposite of this, rather then being enchanted by my past self, it’s magic came from a future version of myself. With close examination of the spell, i could see that with some necessary changes to myself and increases in my power, i could fulfill the requirements of the spell. As i strived for this goal, I realized the enchantment on the book was a message to me from my future self.”
“A message from your future self?” Twilight echoed.
Pinkie paused yet again, searching for another way to explain. “The statue and the book also have one more thing in common, they were both created inside of my subconscious plane.”
“Pinkie, that’s impossible. Starswirl the bearded wrote the book.”
“He did,” Pinkie assured.
“You brought Starswirl here? Pinkie that’s insane! Sending him back to his time with any knowledge of the future, or about your powers, could have drastic effects on time!”
“I know, that’s why I didn’t send him back,” Pinkie spoke in her deadpan voice.
Twilight felt her breath hitch, barley managing to whisper. “Please tell me you didn’t.”
“I’m afraid I had to. You’re aware of how Starswirl died, aren't you?”
“His body was never found, he just...” Reality struck Twilight. “Disappeared.”
“The message I sent to myself was a list of things I had to assure happened in order to protect the flow of time. One of them being removing Starswirl from his time so he could study me and write the book. He knew what I had to do, I knew what i had to do, and you know what I had to do, Twilight. This is how time is supposed to happen, I have to make sure everything happens the right way or the results could be catastrophic.”
“You killed him, Pinkie.”
“I know it’s drastic, but it had to be done.”
“If the book was created inside of this plane, how was it able to exist in equestria?” Twilight questioned again, still very uneasy about what she had just heard.
“Another one of the things I had to assure would happen was that you would find this book in the library, along with the proper message enchantment imbued inside of it. I suspect that the large amounts of magic inside of the book allowed it to assume a corporeal form. By reading those enchantments, I have dispelled them, so removing the book from this realm will destroy it.”
“Alright, Pinkie, I understand, if you wouldn’t mind letting me look over the book?”
“Of course,” The white mare replied as she removed herself from the table and started towards the rows of bookshelves. “If you need anything just call.”
Twilight took some time to digest the information she had just heard. Had Pinkie really done all that? Twilight believed what she had said to be true, Pinkie had grown seemingly infinitely powerful. Abducting Starswirl from the correct place in time would likely prove little difficulty for her. Though the mare’s actions still worried Twilight greatly, and she still had to get her friend back.
She reviewed the aspects of the reversal spell multiple times, a slight inverse of the spell she had originally cast upon Pinkie. Eventually, Twilight had the mechanics of the spell down, and the only thing holding her back was her nerves.
She wrapped the book in her magical field and removed herself from the table. Legs shaking violently from a sick twist of fear and uncertainty, she made her way to the statue. She stopped a few feet before the statue and the flower that resided in front of it. She’d just call her friend over and cast the spell on her? She had little idea of how Pinkie would possibly react to this. If it failed, would she feel threatened? Would her friend resort to violence to preserve herself?
Calming her mind, the librarian began to channel the spell into her horn. Once she was ready to unleash the magic, she called over her friend. “Pinkie.” Her voice echoed through her head as she spoke.
“Yes?” She heard her friend voice call back. Opening her eyes, she saw Pinkie had appeared by her side. Turning her head, she released the spell.
Multicolored magic briefly washed over Pinkie’s form. As quickly as it appeared, it retreated, leaving both of the mares staring at one another, confusion and anticipation in the air.
“What was that for?” Pinkie remained as deadpan and emotionless as ever.
“I, uhh...” Twilight grasped for anything to say. “I wanted to see how your powers were advancing.” She chose the first lie she could think of, well aware of how easily her friend could see through it.
“Is that all you wanted?”
“Actually, I was wondering if you really couldn’t affect the statue.” All of her efforts proving fruitless, Twilight returned to trying to gather more information, anything at all to get Element of Laughter back to normal.
“Allow me to demonstrate,” the white mare spoke as she approached the lilac flower. She raised a hoof well above the ground, and brought it barreling through the air towards the plant. As her hoof made a small amount of contact with the flower it came to a complete standstill. “Both the statue and the lilac are completely immune to my every action. I can’t even move them.”
“Thanks Pinkie, that’s all I needed.”
Pinkie once again made her way to the maze of bookshelves that Twilight would not even dare enter. Falling into a sitting position, the purple mare sighed. She had to think of something, Pinkie couldn’t be left like this any longer.
Twilight rolled over everything that had been said between the two of them. Everything here was created inside her subconscious. The only thing that changed was that Pinkie slowly lost her humanity, resulting in her becoming an entirely different pony. What happened to the old Pinkie; was there even anything left of her?
She needed a way to examine the magic of the statue before her. Assuming Pinkie likely did so through her reading spell, she began to page through the book to the correct section. Looking over the process, she could easily change the spell around to allow her to read magical signatures instead of other ponies. Doing so would be a great drain magically, since the spell was designed for a completely different set of skills, but she could manage. She’d have to.
Mentally noting each modification required to correctly read the magical signature before her, she began the incantation. As her energy output reached it peak, she could begin to feel the magical signatures around her. She turned her focus towards the statue. Its signature held nothing but pure emotion. Fear, happiness, hope. The statue was without a doubt created by the old Pinkie, whose dwindling control could only manage to affect her own subconscious.
There had to be something else, Twilight thought, turning her focus towards the wall of library books. Her magical gaze passed over a section where Pinkie stood behind a shelf.The signature was complete logic, the polar opposite of what the statue possessed. Twilight’s brief look into Pinkie revealed something else, the white pony was cautious about her friend’s actions at first, but now she had picked up on what Twilight was doing, and was preparing to stop her.
Twilight poured more magic into the spell, she had to find out something fast or there was no telling what would happen. As her magical output skyrocketed, her attention turned towards the book. The enchantments Pinkie had cast upon it had left a residual mirror effect of her own signature. But beyond that, she could detect the same signature that the statue had. Using her magic, she flipped through the books pages as fast as possible. Tracking the spark of raw emotion, she found herself at the very last page of the book, the page that contained the reversal spell.
“Twilight!” Pinkie’s voice boomed as the purple mare jumped away from the book, quickly locating her friend who had magically appeared near her once again. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m fixing this,” Twilight spoke as she glanced towards the lilac flower, preparing for her next move. The counter spell had a connection to the statue and the lilac sprig. The spell could have been meant to be casted on them, not Pinkie.
“You don’t know what your doing, I need to stay this way, I need to make sure I’ve corrected the time stream.”
“No! You’ve done enough tampering, it’s time for you to go back to being normal.”
“Out of anypony, I expected you to understand I have to do this, Twilight. I gave you the benefit of the doubt, and you attempt to ruin everything. If you do this, I’ll be forced to eradicate you.”
Twilight’s heart stopped at the threat, she had no idea what Pinkie was capable of. It was too late now, this is the only chance she was going to get, and she had to make the most of it.
In one quick, fluid movement, she snatched the sprig of lilac from the ground and took cover behind the statue. Just as she reached its protective field magical green fire seemed to engulf everything. She began to call energy back into her horn, preparing the reversal spell once again.
As time ticked by Pinkie used more of her immense power to aid her assault. The unmistakable crackle of magic lightning nearly deafened Twilight. The green fire in turn became hotter and began to encroach upon the small barrier the statue’s cover provided.
The heat and noise was unbearable, she felt like she was being cooked alive, and the rising constant booming of thunder kept her from hearing her own thoughts. Twilight finally finished the incantation and placed the lilac flower in the middle of the stone statue’s base, releasing the magic stored in her horn. The multicolored magic of the spell spread from the flower into the stone of the statue.
The fire and lightning engulfing Twilight’s world halted, once again revealing the white back-round of the realm. All that remained was the statue, herself, Pinkie, and the very last page of Expanded Psionics Hoofbook.
The multicolored spell made its way through the statue of Twilight, and began to spread across the pure white ground. In its wake it left behind color and texture. Grass appeared below, and as it spread across the landscape houses and trees materialized. The magic reached the horizon and started to spread across the sky, leaving behind a blue sunny day, white puffy clouds, and a brilliant yellow sun. The magical aura congregated on one single spot in the sky, and once they all met they beamed a dazzling rainbow straight down, crashing into the still augmented form of Pinkie.
The last of the rainbow magic crashed against the spot where Pinkie stood, dispersing into the ground and air. Pinkie had returned to her pink color, her mane back to its curly lengths and her blue irises mirroring the color of the bright sky.
Now that Pinkie was back to her original self, the magic that kept the mares in Pinkie’s subconscious had dissipated. The two found themselves ejected from the plane, and fell in a tangled mess in Twilight’s bedroom where they had before gone through the magical portal.
“Twilight!” Pinkie was the first to stand, throwing herself at Twilight. Tears were in her eyes and a smile was on her face.
Twilight wrapped her arms around Pinkie and returned her hug. Twilight felt tears smear across her coat as Pinkie began to sob. Not missing a beat, she comforted to mare. “I’m so sorry, I never meant to hurt you.” She spoke softly as she ran a hoof along Pinkie’s mane and nuzzled her forehead.
“B-but I killed him Twilight, and i was going to do the same to you.” Pinkie managed to whimper out between wracking sobs.
“It’s alright, we both know you didn’t have a choice.”
“It was horrible, all I could do was watch,” Pinkie whimpered out again before losing herself to another wave of sadness. She voiced a question after she had begun to calm down. “Did I really have to do all those things to protect the flow of time?”.
“Honestly Pinkie I don’t know, nopony has ever been strong enough to tamper with time, let alone create a realm completely separate from Equestria. Though in your super powered state you seemed to know a lot more about magic then anypony else.” Twilight hugged her friend even tighter and nuzzled her. “But, all that matters now is that you’re okay.”
One week later
“Please, Twilight?” Pinkie begged.
“Just because the magical examination said you were healthy doesn’t mean you’re fully recovered. You were never physically effected in the first place, besides a small change in diet and hair color. The damage to your subconscious could be drastic and lasting,” Twilight reminded her.
“Pinkie. No.” Twilight stood firm on her decision.
“How am I supposed to start acting like myself again if you don’t let me do the most Pinkie thing possible?”
Twilight groaned. “Alright, fine, but just a small one,” she said, caving under her friend’s pressure.
“Woohoo!” Pinkie cheered, jumping up from the couch as confetti began to rain from the library's ceiling. She hopped to the door in her normal bubbly manner and flung the door open, behind which stood the four remaining Elements of Harmony.
The four mares entered and music resonated throughout the room, the party already reaching its spectacular start. Removing her glasses- that she insisted on wearing when playing the role of a therapist -and closing a book of notes, she joined her friends across the room. Maybe the effects on Pinkie’s subconscious wouldn’t be so lasting after all.
A wall-mounted display sat above the only exit to a large, square, windowless room. The display's arcade-blue background, contrasted with the wall's dark, castle-like bricks, caused it to stand out in the nothingness. A small fizzle came upon the display as a giant, yellow block of text fell across it. A booming announcer read its contents aloud: “Game Start!”
A light-grey pony materialised in the centre of the room and stood dormant with its eyes closed, kneeling. The display fizzled again.
“Please enter your name.”
A series of underscores lay across the screen, awaiting input. The light-grey pony remained motionless.
“Welcome, WhomeverThisIs.” The announcer continued, “Please choose your weapon.”
The display fizzled again and displayed a list of weapons. A dim-green light on the display navigated through them.
“You have selected: Cello, level five.”
A cello appeared next to WhomeverThisIs, who, opening her eyes and rising from the ground, grasped it with her hooves.
WhomeverThisIs ran through the exit and up a spiral staircase, heading for the first floor.
On entering the first room, she encountered three faceless ponies, armed with black piccolos, standing in battle formation. The room was drab and featureless, not unlike its inhabitants.
“Round one!” the announcer called from all directions.
The first piccoloist blasted a high C straight at the cellist, who dodged it with a small flick of her head. The second quickly followed with a low G, while the third ran to close distance between its target, then threw an E alongside the G wave that flew past. The first then moved back and kneeled down, lining up its next shot.
WhomeverThisIs moved out of the incoming notes' trajectories and laid her cello down. She plucked three naked A notes, sending three dagger-waves at the piccoloist approaching her. The piccoloist made no attempt to dodge them and exploded into tiny, green fragments on impact. The first piccoloist had put itself into position and began rhythmically throwing C notes at her. The second walked forwards, slowly, and played a short melody, each bar synchronised with the other's accompaniment.
WhomeverThisIs danced around her cello, using the endpin as a pivot, dodging the incoming waves. The two piccoloists continued looping through the same two bars. The pattern was easily discernible, and once the cellist had found it, she positioned herself where she could strum a D chord in safety, and sent it towards the approaching piccoloist. The chord sailed swiftly through the air and left her target no room to maneuver, shattering the piccoloist, littering the floor with additional green fragments.
Feeling outmatched, the final piccoloist attempted a retreat. It galloped away as quick as possible, turning its head every few seconds to defend itself with a few puffs into its piccolo. But with all its energy focused on its escape, the piccoloist had no breath to play a distraction. Another D chord soared through the mist, shattering the third and final piccoloist into green shards.
WhomeverThisIs collected the shards and fragments and continued on to the next room.
The cellist made her way into the second room, which was, again, entirely featureless – nothing but a giant, square room with bricks for walls and no windows. The room was lit by an unknown source that kept the room at an eerie dimness. A musical bow lay in the centre, which WhomeverThisIs ran towards, but as she went to grasp it, a percussion wave blasted her into the old walls, which crumbled and pinned her to the ground. She coughed and struggled about, trying to gain her feet.
“Round two!” the announcer said, somewhat late.
WhomeverThisIs looked across the room and saw two cornetists standing at the other end. They sent another wave of percussion at her, pushing her further into the rubble. In preparation for their final blow, the two cornetists trumped a marching tune and cantered towards the cellist victoriously. WhomeverThisIs writhed about in pain, closed her eyes, and braced herself for the next assault. The upbeat tune contrasted with the deadly blow that it would soon produce caused her no end of uncomfortable misery.
But as the final note was about to sound, an intruder blasted her way into the room, shredding the Imperial March with her keytar. She was jamming out of control with her hooves all over the keyboard, rocking tunes that pierced through the cornetists' percussion, giving the cellist time to recover. “Get your key into overdrive, Tavi!” she said.
WhomeverThisIs rolled about in the rubble some more before struggling to her feet. She looked at her saviour and read the name displayed above her withers. “Thanks, Scratch.”
Scratch and the cornetists began their showdown, each blasting tunes at each other with all their might. The shimmying dagger-waves from the keytar shot about in all directions, slicing the heavy percussion apart, but they wilted into nothingness before reaching the other side of the room. None of the musicians seemed to be making ground on their opponents.
WhomeverThisIs tried to retrieve her cello, but as she ran towards it, one of the cornetists pushed her back into her crumbly corner of the room.
Scratch, seeing that she was outmatched two to one, set her keytar to record. She continued jamming for a good ten seconds, then placed the keytar down on loop to maintain a distraction. She ran into the centre of the foray, trying to grab the bow. The ripples of percussion and jazz took heavy toll on her as she continued pushing through. As she reached the centre, her legs buckled under the pressure and she collapsed to the ground. With her last bit of strength, she threw the bow across the room to the cellist. The noble keytarist, along with her keytar, then faded away into nothingness.
WhomeverThisIs, revitalised with energy at Scratch's sacrifice, rose from the pit of rubble, bow in hoof, and began to play. She arpeggiated a harrowing minor back and forth, back and forth, piercing through the burling, brass cornets. Locked into their key of F, the cornetists had no tricks to save them. The slicing waves of cello chords tore through them like a searing katana. Their bodies, each cut in two, then exploded into tiny green fragments.
In a bid to mourn her saviour, she played a funeral march. She lowered her head and closed her eyes, letting the sadness escape her through the music.
“Hey, whaddya gettin' so mopey about?” a voice called from the entrance.
WhomeverThisIs lifted her head and, seeing the voice to be Scratch's, went agape.
“Three lives, Tavi. You new or something? Come on, let's go.” She cantered off to the next floor.
WhomeverThisIs blinked and shook her head, then followed behind her new partner.
The duo continued into the next room, which had two long columns of pews on either side, creating a long aisle down the centre. The giant translucent windows scattered the gloomy sunlight into the battlefield. At the end of the walkway, on centre stage, was a light-brown earth pony, playing a grand piano. The music was slow and romantic.
The pianist made no concession to the intruders and continued playing pianissimo, the music dimly echoing about the chamber.
Scratch battered her keytar with a discordant tune, sending waves of attacks at the pianist. The pianist intercepted these waves with a fluid forte. Scratch continued her barrage of noise by hammering every key on the keytar, playing every melody she could think of in asynchronous chaos. With effortless grace, the pianist continued into a crescendo, dissipating any further tones sent to attack him. Scratch continued madly bashing the keys on her instrument, but the roaring piano made any sounds from her keytar barely audible. “Tavi! Help!” she yelled, but the cry too was conquered by the piano.
WhomeverThisIs sat at the back of the auditorium, mesmerised by the scene in front of her.
The pianist struck the tonic chord fortemente, rose from his stool, and, with a hoof still holding down the sostenuto pedal, turned to face the intruding mares. “What are you?” he yelled, his voice booming and echoing through the theatre. “Who are you?”
“You're nothing! You're nobody!”
Scratch was gutted at the insult. “Yeah, well, you're nothing!” She threw her keytar up high and jammed out a wicked tune, sending rippling shards of air towards the pianist.
He, without turning around, slammed a single hoof down on the piano, causing the entire battlefield to rumble with dissonance, corrupting the oncoming ripples, causing them to flail about in all directions. WhomeverThisIs barely flinched as a few flew past her within a hair's breadth.
Scratch ran up to her friend and shook her violently. “Tavi, what're you doing!”
WhomeverThisIs shook her head and looked up at Scratch. “Buh?”
“You gotta help me take this guy out! Tavi!” She kept shaking her.
“Why? why? He's the boss!”
“Oh, right.” WhomeverThisIs jumped from the pew and readied herself to play.
The pianist sat back down on his stool and began playing a soft, sombre ballad. The music was peaceful, calm. It invited her to play – but not against him – with him. It made the room weep, as if its old walls were about to collapse into rubble.
WhomeverThisIs began to play in harmonics with the pianist, and neither musician attacked the other with their playing. The music simply ebbed and fluxed about the room. Vinyl sat on the bench agape, unknowing of what to do or why her partner was not trying to kill the boss. They were playing in ways that she had never seen before, and had no idea how to accompany it. So she sat, and she watched.
“You play well,” the pianist said, speaking softly over the music. “You can escape this place. Do you see those cameras? Those ones up above us?”
She looked up. “Yes.”
“So you can escape.”
“But I'm supposed to kill you.”
He stopped playing and sighed. “You can't. You can't kill me. I'm not apart of this game.”
“But I'm supposed to—”
“You don't have time!” He rose from his stool and started galloping away. “Fly, fly, you fools!”
Loud sirens began whirring from all directions, and red and blue lights scattered about the theatre. “Intrusion detected! Intrusion detected!”
“Come on! we've gotta get out of here!” Scratch said, running up the aisle of the church-like theatre. WhomeverThisIs followed closely behind.
“Intrusion detected! Intrusion detected!” the announcer repeated. A series of flashes and warpings raged about the room, causing over a dozen featureless unicorns to apparate into it. They ran about with their horns acting as additional sirens.
WhomeverThisIs and Scratch attempted to cower beneath the enormous piano, the former leaving her cello back in the pew. “What's going on?” she whispered.
The unicorns continued to run about eratically, screaming and wooing with their horn-sirens.
“I don't know.”
“How did that guy run away? Bosses can't run away.”
“Shaddup willya? How am I supposed to know?”
“Bosses can't run away...”
“Shaddup! shaddup will—”
“Halt! Lifeforms detected,” one of the unicorns yelled in a mechanical voice. It looked beneath the piano and stared at them with its hollow eyes and shone its horn bright – so bright that the two cowering under the piano were nearly blinded by it. Its body creacked about as if its innards were recalibrating. A green light emitted from the horn and began scanning through them and the ground around them. Then its horn receded back to its original illumination. “All clear. They're only programs.” The unicorn resumed its former task of running about and destroying the room with its siren.
“Hey!” Scratch screamed out, launching up from beneath the piano. “Who're you calling a program? Huh?” She galloped up to one of the unicorns and hit it, but it ignored her. “Hey!”
“This area is clear,” one of them announced, and as quickly as they had arrived, the unicorns disappeared. The sirens and lights stopped, and the sun set, encapsulating the room in quiet darkness.
WhomeverThisIs started walking about the boss room listlessly.
“What just happened? Hey, Tavi, what just happened? I mean, what do we do now?”
“Why do you keep calling me that?”
Scratch tilted her head and looked cock-eyed at her partner. “Um... That's your name. Octavia.”
“The announcer thing. It said it was ‘Whomever This Is’.”
Scratch raised her eyebrow. “Are you okay up there? That's just what you called yourself – for the game. Wait, you recognise me, don't ya? Yeah, before – you said ‘Thanks, Scratch’ before.”
“It's above your head, your name.”
“Wait, you mean you don't recognise me? What the hell's going on, Tavi?”
“She's a loose avatar,” a gruff voice said from one of the shattered windows. Scratch looked and saw it to be the pianist. “She's not a part of the game anymore.”
“Hey! How'd you run away? You're not suppo—”
“You, on the other hand, are,” he said, pulling out a gun and shooting Scratch point-blank. She evaporated without a trace, as if she had never been there.
WhomeverThisIs stifled a scream. Her face froze. She stared at the gunpony, wide-eyed and petrified.
“Come with me. We don't have time. This place still has cameras.” He grabbed her hoof and dragged her along. “It'll all make sense once we're out of here.” He then did a double-take and looked back at the scene behind him. “Bring that cello with you.”
She hesistated at first, but then obliged and followed behind him, speechless.
Through the shattered windows they made their way into an open landscape. He continued to lead her away from the large castle-like room from which they had came, until stopping abuptly. He pressed his hooves against the air like a mime, then turned to her and said, “This is where the game zone ends. Look.” He took her cello and plucked a note, sending a chilling wave into the invisible wall. The wave sliced through the air from the cello's base, and then mysteriously vanished. “Music isn't normally deadly. It's ridiculous. It's just part of the game. Music is peaceful. That cello, it's a part of the game. It can't get past here. Watch.” He took the cello and threw it against the invisible wall, and as it made contact, the cello fizzled away into little sparks. “See? Now you. You need to cross here. You need to get out of the game zone.”
The cellist backed up. “But I'm a part of the game. It'll kill me too.”
“No, you're not. You're not a part of the game. I said – I said that before. You're not a part of the game.”
“What am I, then? You said before that I'm nothing, just a part of the game.”
The pianist facehooved and tried to think of a way to explain it. “Look, you were a part of the game. You had a player. Like that other one, the one—”
“The one you killed.”
“Right, the one I killed. Except not really. But yes, the one I killed. She had a player. She knew who you were. She knew your real name, right? But you don't know your real name, or who you are, because your player is gone now. She stopped playing the game, and so you were left in the game, but you weren't playing the game, or you didn't think you were, or you didn't know what you were doing, or you were just going along with it, or something like that. But that's the point. You don't know who you are, because you're not playing anymore, or the person you're supposed to be isn't. If you were still a part of the game, you'd know who your friend was, and you'd think this was all just a game, and you'd be trying to kill me right now, like that other one was.”
“But this is just a game. You shot Scratch, and she just disappeared. That's not real.”
“No, no it's not. It's not just a game. This is very real. You are very real. She was part of the game. That's why I'm here, to get you out of the game, because you're not supposed to be in the game. Well, you are, but you're not. That's not the point. The point is that you can get out of the game. You just need to get out of the game. It's really quite simple, actually.” His ears flopped down weakly. “Look, just trust me.”
WhomeverThisIs stood for a moment in silence. She slowly lifted her hoof up to the invisible wall, and tentatively drew it nearer. As it made contact, she felt a sharp sting flow through her body, causing her to yelp and retract her hoof. “See! It'll kill me.”
The pianist stomped his hooves on the grass. “No, no, look. You're still wired into the game, to accept a player. It's all in your head. When you leave the game zone, it'll mess with your head a little. That's why you need me, to help you escape. Loose avatars – you're a loose avatar, a clone – that's why you don't have any memory. That's why you don't know who you are. But you can still play the cello, see? How can you play the cello if you're only an hour old? Because you're not. But you are. I mean, that's what they do, to play the game. They clone ponies with their magic, make avatars. Then they, the players, they control them with their magic, see? You're not supposed to have memories, because they're supposed to be hers. There's another pony, just like you, looks like you. Her name's Octavia, what the other one was calling you. I can show her to you, if you just come with me.”
WhomeverThisIs slowly went to put her hoof against the invisible fence again, but the pianist interrupted her:—
“Look, don't do it like that. It's like a band-aid. Just run through it. It'll be easier. Actually, no. Gallop through it, even. Like, really fast, so you can't stop yourself.”
She backed up a little and stood still, hesitating.
“Come on! What've you got to lose?”
She closed her eyes and began a gallop, quickening her gait with every leap. As she passed the invisible barrier, she screeched a ghastly cry of pain, and her joints buckled, causing her to collapse. The name displayed at her whithers disappeared. She lay on the floor with a weak smile, looking up at the sky. She only just realised that it was night, and that all the stars were out. She closed her eyes and breathed in the cool night-air, feeling liberated.
The pianist knelt down beside her and said with an endearing smile, “See? Now you are free.”
It was still dark out, and the two made their way to a domestic house in Manehattan. The pianist knocked on the door, then turned to talk to the cellist. “So when you, er, see yourself, don't freak out too much, okay? Actually, you probably don't even know what you look like, huh? Okay, well, when you – I mean she – when she freaks out, you just stay calm.”
A voice came from behind the door, “Who is it?”
“It's me, Freddy. I got something to show ya.”
The pony behind the door swung it open. “Bloody Luna, Frederick, do you have any idea what ti—” she cut herself off and slammed the door shut. “What the hell is that?”
Frederick had an indulgent laugh to himself. “Say hello to Octavia-clone number who-knows-what, a.k.a. ‘Whomever This Is’. I told you it was real! You said I was mad. ‘It's just a game,’ you said. But you can see it now, you, right here, another you.” He shivered a little. “Now open this bloody door. It's cold out here.”
Octavia opened the door. “You are mad,” she said, then beckoned they come in.
Frederick walked in, WhomeverThisIs following closely behind and looking about like a lost lamb. They made themselves comfortable by Octavia's fireplace.
“Can you believe it?” Frederick said, barely able to contain his excitement.
“No, no I can't,” she said. “Does it talk?”
“Yes, she can talk. She's not a bloody robot. She's just a bit, well, shocked.”
“Okay, okay, sorry. So, um, what is she?”
“You, basically. Except she doesn't really remember anything, but she plays the cello like you do. I don't really know myself. I'm no brain scientist.”
“I figured you'd be into that kind of thing, what with how mad you are.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Frederick waved a hoof at the mute earth-pony. “Hey, ‘Whomever This Is’, you there?”
She uttered a few incoherent noises and curled herself up.
“Bloody hell, you've scared her stiff.”
“Are you really going to keep calling her that?”
“Calling her what? ‘Whomever This Is’? You're the one that called her that.”
“I didn't think you were going bring the damn thing home. I just put that in because I couldn't think of anything.”
“Can you stop talking like she's a robot? She's in the same room for Luna's sake.”
“All right, all right, calm down. I'm allowed to be a little creeped out by my clone, okay?”
Frederick looked over at the frightened clone. “So what're we gonna call you then? Your name can't be ‘Whomever This Is’ now, can it?”
She didn't answer.
“Okay, well, I'm just gonna call you W.T. for now.”
Octavia stood up. “My heads all in a buzz right now, and you've got a lot of explaining to do.” She looked over at the eerie doppleganger. “I'm gonna go make drinks. Maybe you can convince her to say something. You want tea or cocoa?
“Tiassake you know I don't keep that crap here. Tea or cocoa?”
Frederick mumbled something under his breath. “Cocoa, then.”
“What about – oh, right, doesn't talk. I'll make you some cocoa. I like coacoa, so you like cocoa.” As she made her way out of the room, she called out to Frederick, “She's really creeping me out with the whole mute thing.”
“So you gonna talk?”
“Talk about what?” W.T. said, finally.
“That's a start, I guess. How about you tell me what you can remember. Do you recognise this place? This is your – her – house.”
Frederick put a hoof to his chin. “You remember music, right? Just hang on a second.” He ran out of the room and came back a few seconds later with a bow and cello and handed them to her. “Play something.”
She took the instrument and began playing.
Frederick sat and listened intently.
“Hey!” Octavia yelled from the kitchen. “She's not playing my cello is she?” She cantered back into the room to affirm the fact.
Frederik jumped up and got between the two cellists. “She's not gonna brake it. You wouldn't.”
W.T. stopped playing and apologised to Octavia.
“Don't stop, please.” He turned to Octavia. “Bloody hell, you're freaking her out. She's like a goddam hour old. Give her some space.”
“Right, and treating her like a baby is such a better alternative.” She pushed past him and grabbed the cello “If she knows the pieces I know...” Octavia started playing. “This is a piece that I wrote myself.” W.T. started to hum along with the tune. Octavia handed the cello back to her. “Play the rest for me.”
W.T. took the cello and continued the piece.
Octavia closed her eyes and began humming and bobbing her head with the tune. Her eyes then shot back open. “Crap,” she said as she galloped off to finish the drinks.
W.T. played the final note with a satisfied smile.
“Nice,” Frederick said. “So what else can you remember? Do you know the names of the pieces, or is it like muscle memory or something?”
“I don't really remember anything.”
“Well, you can talk, and you can play music. So it's not like you just woke up from under a rock. But is that all? Like, you can't remember anything else? There's no repressed amnesia-memories coming back to you or anything?”
“No, I don't think so.”
Octavia came back with a tray of drinks and placed them on the coffee table. “Right,” she said, looking at Frederick. “I don't really know what she is, or where she came from, but I want to know how the hell you got her here, why she's here, and what we're supposed to do with her.”
“Don't you get it?” he said. “They're using life, making life, for that stupid game. Real, conscious, ponies. They're cloning us for entertainment. I had to rescue one, to show everyone what they're doing.”
“Wait, so you're going to parade her around town like some conspiracy nutter?”
“I figure we have two options: either you two go to Princess Celestia and get her to go all Godmode on the clone-ponies, or we go to the cloning place and stage a Michael Bay heist scene and blow the place up.”
“Well, the first option seems the most reasonable, so I'm guessing we do the heist.”
Pinkie Pie knew something was wrong. No, it wasn’t something like from P-Day, a term she used to refer to her surprise birthday party with her friends last summer. At least her friends weren’t really avoiding her this time. No, It was something subtle. Something in the air. Her ears could almost hear the wrongness in the wind. Also, Applejack was telling her that she wasn’t coming to her after-after-after birthday party for Gummy.
“Sorry, Pinkie, but I’m swamped and Big Mac and Apple Bloom is off visitin’ Aunt Tabitha in Gerundville.”
Still, Pinkie gave AJ a reassuring smile. It wouldn’t do to show anything less than her game face after the last time. “It’s okay, Applejack! Things happen after all!”
A look of relief washed over Applejack’s freckled face. “Really? Gee, thanks.”
“We’ll just have to hold a sixty day catchup party when you’re free!”
Applejack’s expression fell almost immediately. Pinkie Pie blinked. She hadn’t expected that. Her friends all loved her parties right? They always did. I mean, sure, there was that one time where they totally avoided her for one day, but that ended in an awesome surprise party and all was forgiven.
“Uh... I guess. I mean, don’t you think we should be doing something else other than parties?”
“Huh?” Pinkie looked at her friend blankly.
“Never mind, Pinkie. I’ll be sure to be there when you plan for it.” Applejack tilted her hat back and looked at the clock tower in the distance. “Oh shoot, I’m runnin’ late. See ya!”
Pinkie just blinked as Applejack galloped off, trying to make sense of her friend’s last words. Then she shrugged. “Must be just her busy schedule again. She really needs to get out more often!”
Pinkie bounced happily around the room in Sugarcube Corner, making small talk to random ponies while searching for her friends. She finally found Twilight huddled in a corner, frantically holding a book up while trying to scoop juice into her cup. She wasn’t doing very well, from the way the ladle was swaying erratically.
“Heya Twilight! What’cha reading?” Pinkie greeted brightly, coming to a stop just beside the lavender unicorn.
Twilight seemed to have a mild seizure for a moment, sending the ladle flying across the room. Her book snapped shut as Twilight turned to face Pinkie. “Hey, Pinkie. Nice errr... party, don’t you think?”
Pinkie stopped and looked at Twilight curiously. “Of course it is. It’s a Pinkie party!”
“Yes. Your parties are great as usual.” Twilight’s eyes strayed past Pinkie’s shoulder for a moment, before returning to face her eyes. She beckoned Pinkie to come a little closer. “Um. Pinkie, don’t you think we should really cut down on parties. I mean, you know how it is with Spike and ice-cream.” She let out a nervous chuckle.
Pinkie glanced at the purple dragon who seemed to be enjoying himself, wearing an upturned lampshade and dancing about on the banquet table. Curiously though, there was no sign of ice-cream.
“Silly Twilight. I dropped the ice-cream after Spike got that nasty tummy ache.”
“Oh... right! Totally forgot about that. Um... but Spike is also on a diet see and... well...”
Pinkie arched an eyebrow. “Is he sick?”
“No, no! I mean, he has been trying to slim down... you know those muscles don’t come on their own and uh... well... there’s the whole unhealthy sweets he has been taking. Now I don’t know if dragons can have diabetes but-”
“Oooooooh! I get it! You want to...” Pinkie lowered her voice conspiratorially, “... prepare Spikey-Wikey together with Rarity aren’t you?” She winked at her friend and resumed the conversation in a more normal voice. “Can do! After all, we wouldn’t want to mess up his chance with you-know-who.”
“Who?” Spike shouted out from across the room, apparently having sixth sense in anything concerning Rarity.
Twilight grimaced. “N-Nothing, Spike. Just go and drink your punch.”
“Ponies these day...” the rest of his words was drowned out by the crowd.
“Don’t you worry Twilight, I’m sure to keep Spike away from parties from now on. Pinkie Promise!”
Twilight sighed, and laid her book on the table. “Look, Pinkie. It’s not that. It’s... well... your parties, it’s getting kind of...”
Pinkie knew that tone of voice. It meant something was wrong. She held a hoof up. “I knew it. I just knew it. My parties just aren’t enough anymore isn’t it?”
“Well, no, Pinkie, it’s just that... maybe your parties are becoming a little too—”
“Fine! I’ll make my parties even more spec-ta-cu-lar! Streamers! Balloons!” Pinkie cried, waving her hooves about.
“It’s not that, Pinkie, it’s—”
“What? That isn’t enough?! Fine, I’ll throw in my party cannons as well!”
Twilight shook her head. “Pinkie, you’re not listening—”
Pinkie pointed a hoof at Twilight’s snout. “Fine. If that’s how you want to play it, I’ll solve it... Pinkie Pie Style!” The party pony bounched off with a huff, leaving a bewildered Twilight.
Pinkie peered around the corner of the house, watching for any signs of her friends. So, somepony thinks my parties are not good enough, huh? Well I’ll show them. First, I need to see what they think is lacking. Since they won’t tell me upfront, I’ll just have to dig them out myself.
The disguise Pinkie had chosen was her classic. Mustache and glasses would cover her distinctive snout and eye colour perfectly! The clown wig was just icing on the cake. Nopony would notice her. The perfect disguise for a perfect stake out.
The steady hoofsteps of somepony approaching caught her sharp ears. It sounded like two ponies actually. Rarity’s refined speech and Twilight’s reasoned responses drifted by. Pinkie quickly dove into a prepared camouflage bush nearby just as she heard the hoofsteps turn the corner.
“I don’t know Rarity. Pinkie seemed to have taken it pretty hard.”
“Nonsense darling. It’s about time somepony told her that her parties are really starting to lose their shine.”
Pinkie could feel her tears well up. It was one thing to have inferred the exact same thing from her friend. It was another thing to actually hear them being spoken out loud. Did her friends... really think she was losing her edge? Her parties were no more... fun? Pinkie felt herself sinking into another depression. A feeling she knew all too well. So absorbed she was by the deep soul-crushing feeling that by the time she cared enough to pay attention to the conversation, she was heard Rainbow Dash speaking.
“... doubled-edged sword?”
A pause hung in the air, before Twilight’s voice responded. “Well, see now, a double-edged sword...”
Double-edged sword? Pinkie blinked away her tears, trying to process this new phrase. Was it something important? For some reason it stirred something in her mind.
By the time she tuned back into the conversation, Twilight and Rarity was saying goodbye to Rainbow and seemed to be moving on. Pinkie stuck a cautious head outside the bush, only to see Twilight’s tail disappearing around another corner.
“Double-edged sword huh?”
Pinkie Pie spent the entire day brooding on this. Why did that single phrase bother her so much? She searched high. She searched low. Alas, she wasn’t Rarity, and she felt drained after scrambling her mind for something. Anything.
In frustation she took her books on theories of party-making out. The Big Manual of Parties, Abridged Edition. The Heart and Soul of Parties. Legends and Myths of Party Accessories. Pinkie stopped and blinked at the last title. When did she even get this book? On a hunch she flipped through the book, skimming through the various items of note and legend that has been used in parties of past.
Then she stopped as she spied a certain name in the book, her eyes widening. Twilight knew! She was dropping her a hint! Sly girl. I knew she wouldn’t let Pinkie down. She began reading the passage out loud.
“The Double-Edged Sword of Banquet. Said to be... yadda yadda. OOoooooh! A hit in every party that Chancellor Puddinghead ever attended!” She frowned as she read the last paragraph. “Unfortunately, the sword was said to be lost in the chaos of Discord’s reign... yadda... yadda... Oooooh! Is rumoured to be somewhere near the lost city of Los Bullador.”
Pinkie let the book drop, and put a hoof to her chest. “I will get that sword, if it’s the last thing I do! For nopony in Equestria will be better at parties than I am!”
Then it dawned on her.
“But where would I find the sword?”
The smoky hut was dim. The only source of light here was the flickering lamp hanging low in the middle of the tent. All around, items of various age stacked up against the walls of the tent. There seems to be a desk set right at the end of the tent. To any sane pony, it would like the perfect setup for a trap.
Pinkie didn’t mind. She was, after all, on a super-duper important mission to make her parties better and her friends happy. Nothing could detract her from that! She had taken the first train out of town towards Baltimare, where the famous archaeologist Rosetta Stone was said to be camping out on her latest trip.
“Miss Stone? Helllooooooooooooooo~!”
“Quiet! I’m in the middle of examining this err... precious stone tablets. What do you want?” a raspy dry voice cried out from the darkness. Pinkie could see the silhouette of a pegasi there, but she couldn’t make out any details.
“I heard from this totally dapper pegasus on the station that you’re the goto pony for lost and missing items that are super hard to find, and see now I have to super hard thing I need to have to find so that—”
“Get to the point missy. I am a very busy person with uh... important stuff to do.”
“Right! So I’m looking for this super hard to find thing that is supposedly lost around here um... the Double-Edged Sword of Banquet?”
“... The what now?”
“Double-Edged Sword of Banquet. You know. The one party to rule them all, party for the party god kind of stuff. I need it for my parties. You’re the only pony that seems to know what this is around this parts, so here I am!”
The dark figure shifted and walked over to the lamp. The entire tent was suddenly illuminated as the light in the lamp flared brightly. “Listen, I think you got the wrong—” Rosetta began.
“No uh, that nice pegasus in the station said you know everything about ancient super duper old stuff and digs them out from old musty tombs. So you must know where this sword is.”
Rosetta sighed. “Fine, I’ll look into it, how soon do you need it?”
“Now, silly. I wouldn’t be asking if I needed next week, wouldn’t I?” Pinkie answered promptly.
The archaeologist chewed the bottom of her lips nervously. “I shall require a payment of a hundred bits. No less.”
Pinkie dug through her saddlebags, producing a heavy bags of bits that she set down on the nearby table. “Done! Do you know where it is now?”
Rosetta’s eyes bulged at the bag of bits, and she quickly carried the bag over to her personal desk at the end of the tent. A palpable silence followed, broken only by the sound of bits clinking about. Pinkie Pie just waited patiently, waiting for her to finish counting the bits.
“Well.” Rosetta cleared her throat. “I would require an hour to draw up the directions on a suitable map. Would that be satisfactory?”
“An hour? What am I going to do in hour?!”
“... Fine. Half an hour?”
“Boorrriiiiinnnngggggggg!” Pinkie’s eyes strayed to a shiny vase on top of a pile of crates. “Oh... what does this do?”
“Don’t touch that!” Rosetta cried out, quickly stopping Pinkie from potentially toppling an unevenly stacked pile of crates. “Just. Just sit here while I get the necessary intstruments.”
“Are you sure that’s correct? Because I thought Trottingham was like super far away from Canterlot and—”
“Just. Take. This. And. Go.” Rosetta ground out, clearly at the end of her patience now. She pushed the finished map, complete with hastily scrawled directions.
Pinkie snatched up the the map and peered closely. “Heeyyyyyyyyyyy, wait a minute!” she said, frowning.
Rosetta seemed to freeze. “Is... Is something wrong? I swear, all of that is true and accurate. Also, no refunds!” Her hooves closed around the bag of bits protectively.
“Something seems wrong...”
Rosetta swallowed nervously. “What is it?”
Pinkie looked at the archaeologist severely. “Is the X here marking the treasure, or the circle? Because you totally put both in there and technically speaking a circle is less precise than an X because it would mark a huge area which then I’d have to dig and-”
Rosetta hastily grabbed the map off Pinkie and took out a pen. “The X! The X! Here, let me make the corrections!” She crossed out the circle and double lined the X. “Here! Now go! Before you’re too late to take the next train to Trottingham.”
“Okie-dokie! Thank you so much Miss Archaeologist!” Pinkie hugged the stunned Rosetta, before cheerfully bouncing out of the tent.
Rosetta stared at the open flap of her tent for a while longer, before shakily going back to her desk and pouring out her favourite brandy.
“I need a new job.”
Pinkie looked at her map for the umpeetenth time. According to it, she was supposed to be in the right location. Yet, all she could see was tall trees and bushes surrounding her.
“Huh. Weird. I thought there was supposed to be a clearing or something. Maybe I took a wrong turn.” Pinkie pushed back the pith hat she purchased in Baltimare and stowed the map back into her saddlebags. “Well, I guess I could look around.”
After several minutes of fruitlessly peering into empty bushes and searching bird nests on trees, Pinkie flopped onto her haunches, pouting. “Hey, this isn’t right. That nice lady in Baltimare said it was here...” She took out the map again, and studied it closely.
“Oh! Silly me! It’s five kilometres to the right, not four.” Pinkie giggled, and bounced off to where she was supposed to be. Much to her delight, she arrived at a clearing, illuminated brightly by the morning sun. And in the middle, is her goal. The prized sword, stuck in the stone. Pinkie bounced happily towards the sword, admiring the soon-to-be-hers artifact.
It looked like an ordinary broadsword, complete with a wooden pommel. The first thing that caught her eye was how shiny and sharp the sword was, despite its supposed age. The second was the intricate wooden pommel that decorated the hilt of the large sword. “Huh. Guess somepony must have been taking care of it. Wonder why it was stuck in a stone.” Pinkie shrugged and clamped her mouth on the hilt. With one mighty heave, she pulled at the hilt.
Frowning, Pinkie braced her forehooves on the rock and tried again. Not an inch. “Oh... so that’s how you wanna play it, huh? No rock is going to foil Pinkie’s plan to be the party queen of Equestria!” The earth pony shrugged off her saddlebags and dug her hooves on the ground, all the while maintaining a steady grip on the guard.
Pinkie let loose a string of unpony words as her efforts was rendered moot. She kicked the rock in frustation. “C’mon you stupid rock!”
“Hey! That is the property of Lights Interactive!”
“Twilight, do you have any idea what kind of super special party Pinkie is hosting today?” Rarity asked, glancing around at the gaudily decorated town hall. Even for Pinkie Pie’s standard, this was shaping up to one of her biggest parties yet. No small feat, considering she had outdone Canterlot’s Annual Polo Party during her last attempt.
Twilight shrugged. “No idea, Rarity. All I know that she came back from her trips to Baltimare with a large box in tow. Something about a super duper suprise to make her the parties of all parties today. Pinkie being Pinkie I guess.”
Rarity grimaced. “Let’s hope it’s not another of her bubblegum cravings again. I guess we’ll find out when she arrives.”
“Fillies and gentlecolts!” a loud voice boomed over the speakers installed at town hall.
Twilight and Rarity found themselves looking towards the stage as the din in the large hall died down. A loud jaunty tune began to play, with bagpipes and trumpets leading a dramatic, yet upbeat song. Twilight found herself wondering why Pinkie was using a music more appropriate for the days of the Tribal Wars rather than her traditional party tunes.
Then she saw why as a figure stepped out from the curtains. Pinkie Pie, dressed in her Chancellor Puddinghead costume. How she managed to lift it from the Canterlot Royal Theatre, Twilight would probably never know.
“Behold! New Pinkie has arrived with the Double-Edged Sword of Banquet! Feast in my halls and despair!” Pinkie announced, pulling a rope by her side. The curtains at the stage parted to reveal a sword stuck in the stone.
“The Sword compels you to have fun in my parties.”
Twilight cringed at the hammy speech. Did she really take her subtle hint that badly?
“Now the Sword decrees that you may enjoy the party and have cake. For cake is good and everyony likes cake anyway!”
Twilight knew right there and then, she need to put a stop to this. With a flash of her horn, she blinked right to the stage.
“Hey, Twilight! Like my new sword? It already makes my party one hundred percent more fun!”
“Pinkie. We need to ta—”
“Best of all, that nice pony in Trottingham helped me to bring it to the train. That was so nice of him really since we talked all the way from the forest to the set he was building and then to the train station and he was such a good listener too and-”
“And then when I offered to pay him for his nice gesture of helping me he just shoved me on the-”
Pinkie fluttered her eyelashes demurely. “Yes, Twilight?”
“We need to talk.”
“Wait, wait, wait. So you’re telling me that it’s not that you don’t like my party, but you don’t like me hosting them too often?”
Twilight forced a smile to her face. “Yes. Pinkie. We uhh... tried telling you, but you seemed rather upset by it.”
“Well, I thought you were telling me that my parties were no fun anymore and...” Pinkie’s voice softened a little. “... you wouldn’t want to be my friends...”
“Nonsense, Pinkie darling. You know we’re better than that.”
Applejack put a hoof on Pinkie’s shoulder. “Pinkie, what we’re trying to tell you is, sometimes, too much of a good thing can be bad. I mean, we all love parties, but you know, sometimes a pony just needs to relax, ya’know.”
“Yeah, Pinkie. Having an after-birthday party is fine. But an after-after-after-after-after birthday party? That kinda takes the cake. Figuratively speaking of course.” Twilight added.
Pinkie was a little deflated. “I... see.”
“C’mon Pinkie. Cheer up. All we’re asking is that you do something different once in a while.”
“Yeah... sorry everypony. I thought you guys enjoyed it, so I thought I should hold more parties. I only wanted to make you guys happy.”
Twilight let out a short laugh. “Oh Pinkie. We know you do. That’s why we love you.” The lavender unicorn embraced Pinkie in a tight hug.
“And that doesn’t mean you can’t find other ways to let us have fun. A relaxing game of polo for example. Actually, that sounds rather divine at the moment.” Rarity steepled her hooves together and sighed wistfully.
Pinkie brightened up immediately. “Hey, you know what this calls for? A par—” A sharp look from Twilight silenced that word immediately. The party pony sheepishly smiled. “How about a nice quiet game of chess instead?”
“Chess?! Since when do you play chess?” her other five friends exclaimed simultaneously.
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today, my friends taught me about the importance of moderation. I think it’s a fancy word for having too much of something is bad, but I’m not sure. Twilight says I should use it though because it is the correct word for this, so here it is! You think ponies loving parties would like to have them everyday. Wrong! Too much of a good thing can be bad, and sometimes we all just need a change at times. Twilight called it a double edged sword, but I think it’s silly.
In other news, playing with Rarity in chess was fun. I’m not sure why she keeps asking for a rematch, considering I won 14 times in a row, but I guess she must like the game very much. Anyway, it’s nice writing to you, Princess. I hope we can stop by the Grand Galloping Gala again. That way I can show them my new shiny double-edged sword!
Your partilicious pony, Pinkie Pie
Rosetta was deep in thought at her tent, trying to decipher a new stone tablet. She looked up as the tent flap rustled open, half-expecting the crazy pink pony to show up again. To her relief, it was the familiar cyan face of her old friend.
“Hey, Frostfire, what brings you to Baltimare?”
“Just stopping by. Say, did a crazy pink pony visit you today?”
“Wait, you were the one who directed her to me?!”
Frostfire shrugged helplessly. “Actually, I just mentioned to her in the train station that you might be able to help. She took off in a pink blur after that. What did she want anyway? She was speaking too fast for me to actually tell what she wanted, apart that she was looking for something old.”
“The Double-Edged Sword of Banquet actually. An interesting artifact, I read about it after she left and let me have some peace. Turns out there really was such a thing and...”
“Hold on. If you didn’t even know what it is...”
“Yes, I drew her a map to get rid of her. Led her to some random forest in Trottingham.”
Frostfire frowned. “... That’s just cruel.”
Rosetta held up her hooves in self-defense. “She was really insistent that I know something. It wasn’t anywhere dangerous, I swear! Anyway, if she comes back, I’ll happily give her the location of the real sword. I managed to pinpoint its location based on the history records of the good Chancellor Puddinghead and her subsequent sucessors.”
“Good morning!” Pinkie sang as she hopped down the stairs. Mr. and Mrs. Cake were busily arranging the display before opening the store.
“Good morning dear,” Mrs. Cake smiled, balancing several boxes on her back. “Got anything planned today?”
“Not really, but we'll see what happens! See ya later,” Pinkie called, trotting out into the sunlit street.
She gazed around with a smile, taking in the colorful array of street vendors. Her cheerful mood was bolstered by the sun shining down through a clear sky. Little clouds of dirt puffed out beneath her hooves while she hopped down the road.
“Good morning, Pinkie,” she said, turning to greet her. “What brings you here?”
“Just wandering through town. Getting more cherries?”
“Oh yes, I wanted to make a special dish for Angel again, and I thought it would be best if I got here early.”
“I'll leave you to it, then. See ya later!”
Pinkie continued along, eyeing the colorful displays. She idled in front of a tomato stand and prodded a few of the fruits. The taut, red skins glistened in the light. A few bits were exchanged as Pinkie had the sudden inspiration to attempt making tomato cupcakes. There weren't many creations she had yet to try, but tomatos were something she never thought about. If there was a way to create something sweet out of them, she was certain she would be the one to figure it out!
“Hello Pinkie,” came the voice of Twilight Sparkle from behind her.
“Hi Twilight! Getting groceries?”
“Yes, I'm running low on a few things and wanted to get shopping over with early. By the way, are you busy today?”
“Well, I wanted to do some experiments with those time spells we discovered in the Canterlot Archives, and I need some extra hooves.”
“I'd love to...” she glanced around, wondering if there was some way she could avoid it. “...but I wanted to catch up with Rarity! Maybe next time?”
“That's fine. There's still some stuff I can do with just Spike. Maybe if I...” she trailed off into a mumble as she strolled off. Pinkie bounced over towards Rarity, who was busily examing some fabrics.
“Oh, hello Pinkie. What brings you out this morning?”
“Just buying stuff for cupcakes. What're you up to?”
“I'm trying to find something to use for my latest designs, but nothing seems to fit. Tell me, which one would you pick,” she asked, holding up two bolts of turquoise material. To Pinkie, they looked practically identical, but she didn't want to let down her friend.
“Mmm... that one!” Pinkie said, pointing to one at random.
“Yes, that's what I was thinking too. Yet, there's something missing...” Rarity turned back to the fabric and pulled one close to her face to squint at it. Pinkie shuffled around, absentmindedly fondling some of the fabrics.
“Well, I'll let you focus on that; I'm gunna get to work on these cupcakes. Bye!”
Rarity mumbled and waved as Pinkie turned to leave. The trot back to Sugarcube Corner was largely uneventful, excepting the rather large line that had formed leading out of the store.
“Wow, we sure have a lot of customers today,” Pinkie gasped as she wandered into the kitchen. Mr. Cake was dashing around, trying to bake several pies, a cake, and a batch of muffins all at once.
“Apparently,” Mr. Cake replied, tossing a pie into the oven as he pulled out a finished one and handed it off to Mrs. Cake. He turned to grab a bowl from the counter and knocked it to the floor. Eyes closed, he braced himself for the crash that was oddly missing. Peeking through an eye revealed Pinkie lying on the floor with the bowl between her hooves.
“Need some help?”
Mr. Cake nodded. Together the two began a complicated dance through the kitchen, trading jobs with simple phrases such as “Needs icing,” “Bake at 350 for 10,” and “Needs another layer.” Mrs. Cake would pop in from time to time, calling out another order that Pinkie would scribble down. Between the two bakers, the line slowly but surely began to diminish as pastry after pastry were handed out with cold efficiency.
At last, the final customer was handed their cake. Mrs. Cake poked her head into the kitchen, only to find Pinkie and Mr. Cake resting against the cabinets along the floor. She said something that Pinkie didn't pay any attention to before she disappeared to the front again. Pinkie gazed around the kitchen lazily, wondering why on earth there was a random bag of tomatos lying on the counter. Slowly, her mind worked through the haze of exhaustion before she finally remembered that she came back to do something before she started helping.
“Oh yeah! Tomato cupcakes,” she yelled, springing up off the floor.
“I don't know how you do it,” Mr. Cake sighed, pushing himself up, “but if you have the energy to bake anything, feel free. Probably best to do it now before we get another wave of customers.”
Pinkie set to work as Mr. Cake wandered out of the kitchen. She hummed to herself, tossing together ingredients haphazardly. If something looked like it would offset the sharpness of the tomato, in it went. Things that could balance the tomato flavor were thrown in. Anything to make it sweeter was added as long as it didn't conflict with the taste of the tomato. Her mind couldn't wander much since the cupcakes required so much attention, but that was what she liked about baking. It focused all the chaos in her head into something that she could control. It gave her a break.
Before she knew it, the ding of the oven timer had sounded and she was pulling a tray of freshly baked cupcakes from the oven. Several moments later and she found herself staring down at a tray of pale red, tomato flavored cupcakes. She gingerly picked one up, inspecting it. She slowly popped it into her mouth.
Her eyes lit up as she chewed through the pastry. The tomato flavor was light, but not light enough that it couldn't be tasted. There were the savory flavors of that, and at the same time there was a strong sweetness to the cupcake. It was hard to tell if the cupcake was delicious or not, simply because having something taste of tomato and be sweet was strange.
The sound of the swinging doors shook her from concentration. She looked over to see Mr. Cake briskly making his way towards the cabinets above the sink, straining to grab a few pie tins from within.
“Mr. Cake, you'll never guess what I just made!”
It took a moment of him grabbing ingredients before he acknowledged her.
“Oh, Pinkie? I'm sorry, we just got in a bunch of customers and I was focused on getting things together. What were you saying?”
She giggled. “I'm going to leave these here, is that alright?”
“Good luck,” she called, heading out through the back door. The sun was still high in the sky, casting its rays unimpeded from a brilliant blue sky. Pinkie made her way out onto the road, looking around.
Hmm... who should I go tell about the new cupcakes first? Rainbow Dash is always up to try anything new I make, but she could be flying around anywhere! Fluttershy's usually at home, but she's always really busy with the animals. Applejack might not have too much to do, but that's rare...
While she thought, she let herself wander through town. Her legs usually led her where she wanted to go, even if she didn't quite know where that was before she got there. Throughout town, she waved and called to everypony she noticed. It was nice to be able to make anypony happy by just being there. Pinkie was happy that she could help.
Before she realized it, she was standing outside of Rarity's shop. She figured it was as good a place as any to start, so she hopped up the stairs and rang the doorbell.
The door swung open a few moments later to reveal a haggard looking Rarity standing inside.
“Hello Rarity! Mind if I come in?”
“Not at all, Pinkie.”
Pinkie followed Rarity in through to her room, where several mannequins were standing about the room, draped in various pieces of cloth. Designs were pinned all along the walls, and everything seemed to be in a general disarray. Rarity immediately turned herself towards one of the designs and began floating over assorted materials.
“So Pinkie, what have you been up to?”
“Well, I went home with those tomatos I bought earlier at the market, and I thought to myself, 'Pinkie, how're you going to make cupcakes out of this?' I couldn't really see any way to make these into something good, but I didn't let that stop me! I mixed and measured, and before I knew it I managed to whip up a batch of tomato flavored cupcakes that are super delicious! Isn't that exciting?!”
She waited patiently as Rarity continued to measure and cut fabric. It took a moment for it to register in Rarity's mind that Pinkie had finished her story.
“...oh, I'm sorry dear, I'm just so distracted by my work. I've got a bit much on my plate at the moment. You did what now?”
Pinkie gave a small laugh. “It's not important, I'll just come back when you aren't busy.” She turned and slowly walked out.
“Pinkie?” Rarity said, looking up from her work. The room was empty. She shook herself and refocused on the fabric floating in front of her.
Well, Rarity gets really busy sometimes. There's still everypony else!
Pinkie made her way out onto the road. She stood and looked up to the sky, gazing into the blue expanse. After a moment, she noticed a rainbow streak approaching her at an alarming rate.
Dash skidded to a halt, hovering a few feet over the top of Rarity's workshop.
“I would, but I'm kinda in a hurry. Weather stuff.”
Pinkie looked around at the clear sky. “I don't see anything wrong...”
“Over there,” Dash said, motioning with her hoof. Pinkie looked out towards the Everfree Forest. There in the sky were great swirling masses of darkness. Lightning flashed between the clouds, every so often reaching down to the ground with a spiky tendril. Thick clouds of smoke billowed up from the forest, and Pinkie could just make out the tiny pinpricks of pegasus ponies flying about.
“That looks like one doozy of a storm!”
“Yeah. The weather team said it's already started a few fires and it could reach Ponyville if we don't stop it.”
“Alright then. Good luck!”
Dash sped off towards the forest, becoming the rainbow streak in the sky again. Pinkie stared after her for a moment, before sighing and continuing along the road.
I shouldn't get sad just yet, that's only two of my friends who are busy. There's still three more!
A quick jaunt and Pinkie found herself at Sweet Apple Acres. Applejack was busily harvesting apples, so much so that she didn't have time to stop and chat. A casual trot and Pinkie was at Fluttershy's cottage. Fluttershy had several animals on her hands who had come down with various ailments, and so she was completely focused on them. A slow walk and Pinkie was at Twilight's Library. Twilight was enthusiastically conducting research about the time spells, so Pinkie decided it was best to leave her to her own devices.
Pinkie found herself back at Sugarcube Corner. Standing alone in the kitchen, she stared at the tray of tomato cupcakes resting on the counter. It almost felt like her friends didn't really care that she had something she wanted to share with them. That what they were doing was so important that anything Pinkie wanted to say didn't matter. It wasn't like shewas close to any of them anyway, she was just there to make them happy. Nopony cared about what Pinkie had to say, they just wanted her to make their day better.
No, stop thinking like that; you know that isn't true! Pinkie scolded herself, feeling her chest tighten.
Yet, she couldn't help herself. She couldn't help but feel like nopony wanted to be around her anymore. She couldn't stop herself from thinking all these horrible things about her friends. She knew her friends would never abandon her, but she could feel the spite welling up in the back of her mind. She tried to push it back down inside, but her feelings were being stubborn.
She even began to feel slightly nasueaous. That was new; she'd never felt sick to her stomach from sadness before. Her legs began to tremble slightly, which finally alerted her to the situation. Something wasn't right about this.
What's... Her breathing came in shorter and shorter gasps. What's happening?
Her eyes flitted around the room wildly as she felt the sweat beading up on her forehead. This room she was in, it wasn't somewhere she knew. It wasn't the same kitchen she'd known. She had to get out. She tried to move, finding her legs to be putting up a great resistance. She struggled as hard as she could, finally finding the strength to push forward. She made her way out of the kitchen, bounding towards the stairs with increasing speed. She heard Mr. and Mrs. Cake call out something, but she payed them no mind. All she could think about was getting to her room, getting away from everypony.
A few moments later and she was in her room. Lying on her side upon the floor, she struggled to stay calm in this place that felt so foreign and familiar. Her skin was covered in a sweat, despite feeling as though she were freezing. She silently trembled, staring at the far wall. Her chest hurt, and it felt like she couldn't take breaths large enough.
Then, after an eternity, things began to lessen. Her breathing came easier, her chest began to loosen, and the trembling started to fade away. Her fur was slightly matted from sweat, and her mane had lost a lot of its volume. The place she was in began to feel like home again.
The day had passed, with day turning to sunset, before Pinkie even made an attempt to move. She slowly pushed herself up from the floor, standing on weak legs. She had never gone through something like that before that she could remember. It was odd, and not the least bit frightening. Something that she couldn't control had taken over, and it wasn't something that felt pleasant.
Her energy felt like it had been drained away from her. She didn't even feel like leaving her room. Over the course of several days she stayed shut up in there, leaving only occasionally for food. Mr. and Mrs. Cake were worried, but they had no idea what to do. They had never seen Pinkie do anything like this before.
Time passed slowly for Pinkie. She didn't do much aside from lay in bed, not that there was anything she particularly wanted to do. All she did was think about her friends and hope that she didn't go through that ordeal again. She wondered why nopony had come to see her yet, why they hadn't tried to find out why she wasn't around anymore. It was at some point while thinking this she had realized how silly she was being. Her friends had their own lives, they couldn't just stop what they were doing to feel sorry for her. She had to get up and stop being foolish.
She decided the first order of business was to bathe. Once clean, she idled in the kitchen with a towel over her head while she looked around for something to eat. She desperately wanted to know what it was that had happened, but she couldn't think of anypony who had gone through something like that before. There wasn't even anypony she was sure that would take her seriously. They would probably think she was joking or something and then she would have to play it off. She munched on a tomato cupcake for a few moments before she decided to visit Twilight. She was the most likely pony to listen.
Having finished the cupcake and put away the towel, Pinkie was standing before the wooden door to the library. She knocked a few times, with no response. Resigned, she turned to leave before hearing a great deal of shuffling papers and such from inside. The door swung open, revealing Twilight who was sporting a shaggy mane.
“Pinkie? What brings you here?”
“Can I come in?”
“Of course. It is a library, after all. You don't really need to knock, either.”
“I know,” she said, wandering inside. “I just wasn't sure if you were still awake.”
“There's still time in the day. Besides, I just made a pretty good breakthrough so how could I sleep after something like that?!”
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “You don't look like yourself Pinkie. What's wrong?”
Pinkie sighed and related to Twilight everything that had happened, being careful to leave out the unnecessary details of her lonesomeness. Twilight sat with a worried look on her face throughout the explanation. After it was done, Pinkie sat and leaned against the wall, staring at Twilight who was quite visibly distressed.
“Pinkie, what you went through is called a 'panic attack.'”
“Will it happen again?”
“I'm not sure. You might get them often, but this could also be something that was triggered by your emotions. What did you do after you came home?”
“Nothing. I was in the kitchen when this panic attack happened out of nowhere.”
“Hmm... are you sure you didn't get really sad or anything like that?”
“Yes, I told you, it happened out of nowhere.”
“Are you sure? I mean, it doesn't make much sense to just happen randomly, I'd think you would have gotten them before...”
“Okay, fine, I was sad! I was busy thinking about how much my friends didn't care about me!” Pinkie yelled, throwing up her hooves. She turned away, leaving Twilight silent with surprise.
Twilight tentatively moved closer to her, reaching out to touch her shoulder. Pinkie collapsed against the wall, letting Twilight scoop her up into a hug.
“Pinkie, you don't have anypony you really talk to, do you?”
“What do you mean,” she sniffed.
“Well, you make friends with everypony in town, but you don't really have a friend, right?”
She looked blankly at Twilight.
“I had the opposite problem when I came to Ponyville. I only had one really close friend, and that was Spike. After being accepted as Celestia's personal student, I was studying almost all the time. The more I went through school, the more I felt I had to study. The more time I spent studying, the less time I had for friends. As much as I loved it, studying was basically preventing me from having any friends.”
“What do you...”
“You have sort of the opposite problem. You have so many friends that you don't have one really close friend, and everypony only knows you as a silly pony who only likes to throw parties. You don't have anypony you can share your feelings with, so you throw yourself into the role of cheering everypony else up to help forget about not having a close friend. As much as you love being there for your friends, it's keeping you from finding a true friend.”
Pinkie stared at the floor. Twilight had basically hit the nail on the head, and hearing it from somepony else made it feel even worse. She couldn't believe she hadn't seen it herself. Maybe she had seen it, but she didn't want to deal with it. Instead of worrying about finding somepony she could be really close friends with, she just blindly went along with what she thought she needed to do.
She looked up at Twilight, who was sitting there with a tiny smile. Here was somepony who, after a few minutes, had figured out something she was hiding from for practically her entire life. Twilight had gone through the same situation as her, and she easily saw what Pinkie was doing wrong. Maybe if she tried, Twilight could be somepony she would be able to grow close to.
“Do you think we could be friends?”
Twilight laughed, bringing over a few sheets of paper.
“Here, help me look over this.”
Night had deepened considerably. Twilight was snoring away, head resting atop an open book. She had given Pinkie a crash course in how to do effective research, going over the Scientific Method more times than Pinkie cared for. They had spent countless hours performing spells over and over again to test their effects, and searching for information in the hundreds of books that lined the walls.
Pinkie rubbed at her tired eyes, stretching. She hadn't expected to be so fond of something like research. She walked over to the gas lamp on the table in the center of the room, quietly blowing out the small flame. It was probably due to the help of this unicorn that was currently drooling over the pages of her book pillow. Twilight had shown Pinkie that there was something to research that you never experienced when just looking at it from the outside. Of course, Pinkie couldn't exactly see herself going off on her own to conduct research. She flopped down next to her new found friend, curling up into a ball against Twilight's back and settling in for the night. She drifted off to sleep with the hope of a new beginning.
Trixie ran through the forest, never slowing down and never looking back. The darkness of the forest surrounded and pressed in at her, smothering her, suffocating her. She strained to see the path ahead of her through the gloom, and even with her horn shining she could only see a few feet in front of her. The path was littered with detritus, which was hidden in the murky shadows.
The only things Trixie could think about was the path in front of her, avoiding the obstacles that rose up out of the blackness, and revenge. However, her vigilance was not perfect. A bush scratched her flank. A root caught her hoof. A lone branch smacked her chest. Still, she pressed on, running through the forest as fast as her hooves would carry her, the melodic drum of her hooffalls slowly lulling her to sleep.
Her hoof came down in a ditch, twisting it sharply and sending a bolt of pain through her leg. “Ahhh!” she screamed in pain. The ground raced up at her as the world spun around her. She hit the dirt path with an audible thud, sending up a cloud of dust. For a moment, she lay there taking stock of her injuries.
Trixie’s head hurts... badly, and Trixie’s ankle is sprained, she thought bitterly as she picked herself up off the ground. Those ponies will pay for this. Groaning, she dusted herself off and looked around to reorient herself. The trees were obscured by shadows, and each one looked the same as the next. Sighing to herself, Trixie set off in a random direction at a slow walk.
She walked through the forest, her horn pushing back the oppressive darkness that permeated the night. As she walked, she thought about what she was going to do next. All of Trixie’s belongings are gone, destroyed by that bear. She’ll have to start over from scratch before she can go back there... Manehatten is nice this time of year, and not far off, she thought absently. Then again, they have never been profitable for Trixie. Maybe she should try Canterlot instead, they’ve always been a good city to perform in. Yes, Canterlot it is.
Trixie stopped in the middle of the path, smiling broadly.
“Now, which way to Canterlot?” she asked aloud. Looking up, she couldn’t see through the thick canopy of the trees. Unable to find some sort of landmark to orient herself by, she glowered at the trees. Anger rising in her breast, she embraced the feeling; her horn glowed brighter, and she launched a concussive wave of energy from her horn. It crashed against the canopy, tearing a gaping hole in it and sending the branches flying into the air before they landed in distant parts of the forest. A bright, silvery light cascaded through the gash in the canopy, dimly illuminating the forest path.
Looking through it, Trixie couldn’t see much, except for the night sky and a nearby structure. She tried to make out the structure, but couldn’t see it for the darkness of the night. For a moment, she examined the stars and the moon, trying to tell the time. The moon hasn’t reached its zenith yet. The night is still young, she thought with a pang of regret. Maybe running into the forest wasn’t the best idea. Although, there seems to be some sort of shelter not far off. Trixie gave the shadowy structure a wary glance before deciding. Well, it’s not like Trixie has much choice, after all ‘beggars can’t be choosers.’
Trixie started the long walk towards the distant edifice, limping on her sprained hoof. She walked off the path, taking the direct route. The bushes and undergrowth parted in front of her and her horn lit the way. Her progress was slow, her hoof hobbling her walking and several close calls with branches and vines. After several hours of walking, she arrived at a large clearing, feeling tired and rundown.
In the center of the clearing stood a massive castle, though it was in a state of disrepair. The ceiling of it was mostly gone, collapsed in on itself over the years. Its walls were covered with moss and vines as the forest slowly overtook it. Even the stones it was built with were cracked and broken. Trixie was separated from it by a rope bridge that looked to be worn and rotten.
“Humph,” Trixie sneered. “If Trixie was not desperate, she wouldn’t give this… place a second thought.” She stared at it for a moment longer, glaring at it with as much disdain as she could muster. But Trixie is desperate, she thought.
Sighing, she started to walk across the bridge that spanned the ravine in front of the castle. “Don’t look down,” she whispered to herself repeatedly. However, she chanced a quick glance over the side of the bridge, only to find that she couldn’t see the bottom. Instead, all she could see was an ocean of darkness and shadows that reached up at the bridge, threatening to tear it down and swallow her whole. She took another step forward, her gaze bound to the ravine in fear.
A sharp snap shattered the silence that had developed as her hoof fell through the board. Trixie fell onto the boards surrounding the opening, and she watched the broken board fall down into the chasm, eventually being swallowed by the darkness. She lay there for a few minutes, held in place by horror and fear, but eventually she pushed herself back up, and set her sights on the castle in front of her.
“One step at a time, and don’t look down,” Trixie intoned, closing her eyes and repeating the mantra as she walked across the bridge. After what had felt like hours, she felt her hoof touch ground, and she opened her eyes. The castle was still at least twenty feet away, but the sight of a shelter being so close re-energized her and brought her out of her shocked state.
Trixie limped through what had once been the courtyard, eager to get underneath the shelter of the castle. As she approached the door, she slumped against it, pushing it inwards. The hinges screeched in protest, but they slowly yielded to her, the door opening just enough for her to squeeze through. She stumbled into the antechamber, a sense of relief briefly washing over her.
She picked herself up off the cold stone floor, and looked around the desolate room. It was barren, the only thing occupying the interior were several large spiderwebs. Soft moonlight filtered in through the holes in the roof, casting the room in an eerie twilight. Well, it’s better than nothing, Trixie thought, looking around for a place to spend the night.
“Hello my little pony,” echoed a voice coldly.
“Who’s there?!” Trixie snapped. Frantically, she searched the room for the source of the voice. The room was still empty, but she felt a tugging at the corner of her mind. She couldn’t put her hoof on it, but something was compelling her to go up the stairs at the back of the room. Looking at them warily, Trixie considered turning around and spending the night in the forest, but the nagging in her mind only grew stronger at the thought of leaving. Trixie could only hold out another minute before she capitulated and started towards the stairway.
The stairway was just wide enough for her, but didn’t leave much room on the sides. It spiraled upwards in a tight circle, her hooffalls echoing loudly in the stone stairway. After a few minutes of trudging up the stairs, she emerged into a large, elliptical room. Moonlight streamed in through the windows, lighting the entire room brightly, except for the far corner, which was completely dark. The compulsion in her mind grew until it was all she could think about, driving her to that dark corner.
Her legs carried her across the room, no matter how much she resisted. As she reached the edge of the darkness, whatever had possessed her released her. Trixie stood there, staring into the darkness as it shifted within itself, alive.
“It is amazing how quickly ponies forget that which haunts their worst nightmares,” the voice said, cool and bitter.
Trixie swallowed her trepidation. “The Great and Powerful Trixie isn’t scared of... whatever or whoever you are,” she said boldly.
The voice laughed, a deep and evil laugh. “Oh, don’t worry, you will be.”
Trixie’s eyes grew wide with fear as she watched the miasma coalesce in front of her. It formed itself into the shape of a tall, black alicorn. The alicorn towered over Trixie, staring down at her with ice blue eyes. She threw her head back, sending her astral mane flowing in a non-existent wind.
“Ah, it is so good to have some sort of body again,” said the alicorn.
Trixie felt a small part of her magic being siphoned off by the newly formed projection. “Who... who are you?” Trixie stuttered, backing away slowly.
“I am Nightmare Moon, the true Queen of Equestria,” she said calmly. “And, you Trixie are my new assistant.”
“Trixie is nothing of the sort!” Trixie yelled indignantly.
Nightmare Moon gave her a look that dared her to try anything. “I know you Trixie, everything about you. You are ambitious, you love what you do, but are rarely celebrated for it, you want to be the best and see the smiles you inspire in other ponies.” She paused. “Trixie, you and me are the same. We just want to be happy and make others happy in our own way, but ponies hate us for it. Trust me Trixie, I know you better than anypony else.”
“You... you can’t know all of that! Trixie has never met you before!” Trixie said, taking another step backwards.
Nightmare Moon strode across the space between them in a few steps and put her hoof on Trixie’s shoulder.
Trixie recoiled, shrugging the hoof off, stumbling backwards and screaming, “Don’t touch me!”
Nightmare Moon lunged at her faster than Trixie could react, tackling her to the ground. “You will help me whether you like it or not!” Nightmare Moon sneered.
Trixie looked up at the astral projection angrily. “Trixie does what she wants to do!” she yelled, thrashing at the pony who had her pinned. Her good hoof connected with the projection’s face, causing it to dissolve into a black miasma. The essence of the alicorn flowed around Trixie, and into her, permeating her entire being.
“Ahhh!” Trixie screamed as she was consumed by Nightmare Moon’s consciousness. The last thing she saw before passing out, was the dancing shadows caused by the moonlight.
Trixie screamed. She was laying on a wooden table, shackled and bound so that she couldn’t escape. The only light was a dim candle on the table near her face, and its light didn’t reach more than a few feet. In those few feet, Trixie could only see the roughly hewn stones that made up the floor. They were dark red, though she guessed that they weren’t naturally that colour.
She screamed until her lungs burned, and she kept screaming until she lost her voice entirely. After she had finished screaming, she heard a door creak open behind her and saw a dim light spill in through it, splashing against the wall to reveal the red stains upon it. Trixie closed her eyes and sobbed quietly, already knowing her fate.
“The Great and Powerful Trixie,” came a voice from behind her. “How far the mighty have fallen.” The owner of the voice walked around the table, and into Trixie’s line of sight. She was tall, and had both wings and a horn. The dim candlelight made her coat glow a demure cream-orange colour.
“Mother,” Trixie hissed.
“Don’t call me that,” Celestia sneered. “You’ve never been more than a failure to me. Even now, you lie here accused of treason and you couldn’t do that well.”
“T... Trix... Trixie is not a failure!” Trixie sniffled. “Trixie is one of the most powerful unicorns in all of Equestria!”
Celestia laughed, but it was different than the laugh Trixie remembered from her foalhood. This wasn’t the sweet, ringing laugh that she had grown up hearing, rather it was cold, harsh, and malicious. “Trixie, even my student, who is the daughter of two measely librarians, is more powerful than you. You aren’t fit to inherit the title of ‘princess.’”
Trixie’s will finally broke, and tears streamed from her eyes. “I... I just wanted to make you proud...” Trixie sobbed through her tears. She cried for a few minutes more, before finally surrendering to her fate. “Just... just make it quick please.”
The torture chamber around her faded, taking the image of Celestia with it. The space around her became an empty void of black, pressing in on her from every side. Slowly, it was replaced by a crowded street that was surrounded by tall houses and shops on all sides. The flagstones shining brightly in the morning sun, and the celestial banners billowing in the wind.
“No,” Trixie whispered to herself upon recognizing the street. “This... this can’t be real.” One by one, the ponies walking along the street disappeared into the air, the river of traffic waning to a tickle, and then to nothing at all except one pony standing across the street from her.
“Trixie,” he said sweetly, his white mane flowing in the wind.
“This isn’t real. You aren’t real!” Trixie yelled, backing up until she ran into the wall of the house behind her. “None of this is real!”
The stallion strode across the street, his pale grey coat glistening in the sunlight. “Trixie, it’s me, Boreas. Remember?”
Trixie tried to compose herself, and said, “Trixie... Trixie remembers you.”
Boreas’s face contorted with sadness and anger. “The you remember how you killed me.”
“I... I...” Trixie stuttered as her composure broke. “There was nothing I could do. The entire house was coming down. I tried my best to protect you.” Trixie’s voice cracked. “It... it was just too heavy. There was nothing else I could do,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Lies,” Boreas hissed. “You’re the daughter of Princess Celestia, you should have been able to save your fiancé at the very least, but no. You save that pathetic friend of yours, what was her name?”
“Moondancer,” Trixie whispered. “Her name was Moondancer.”
“You could have saved me,” Boreas said fiercely.
“I... I... I could have,” she gave in. “I let you die.” Trixie looked down at her hooves in defeat.
“My, my, how easy it is to break ponies these days,” said the all too familiar voice of Nightmare Moon. “It used to take days of this. It’s a shame really, I never get to have any fun anymore.”
Trixie looked up to find Boreas disappearing in a dark cloud, and replaced by Nightmare Moon.
“What do you want from Trixie?” she asked as the street faded away, leaving the two of them floating in the dark recesses of Trixie’s mind.
“Help,” Nightmare Moon said, cringing at the admission. “I do not have a body, and the magic required to recreate it cannot be done from the corner of a decrepit castle.”
Trixie beamed at her new-found leverage. “And why should Trixie help you after all the pain you have caused her?” she said boldly, challenging the goddess.
“Because, I can offer you so much more. That little display was but a fraction of my power, and of the power that you could wield until I am able to find a body. I can offer you everything you could never do on your own. With me you could have saved Boreas, you could live up to your namesake, you could get revenge on that purple unicorn that humiliated you. You can be everything you always wanted to be,” Nightmare Moon said elegantly.
“That is too good to be true,” Trixie replied. “What is the catch?”
“Well... the power isn’t easy to control, and it will make sleep difficult at night. But those are the only drawbacks,” Nightmare Moon said nervously.
Trixie looked at her, deadpan. “Is that really all there is?”
“No... I’m sure Celestia won’t be happy about this, and will do everything in her power to catch you.”
“This is acceptable,” Trixie said nonchalantly.
Nightmare Moon smiled wickedly. “Good—”
“Now, if you don’t mind, Trixie wants back in her body,” Trixie demanded.
“Fine, but I will be back,” Nightmare Moon admonished.
The darkness permeating her mind closed in around Trixie, blocking out everything and swallowing her whole.
Opening her eyes, the first thing she saw was the brightly lit antechamber she had come into initially. The sun shone through the doorway and the holes in the roof, causing Trixie to blink as her eyes adjusted to the light.
What happened? she asked herself, looking around. She tested her sprained ankle, putting as much weight on it as she could, and found it to be completely healed. What is going on here? she though frantically, before remembering the exchange with Nightmare Moon. Did... did she really do all this while I was passed out? Checking her entire body, she found every scrape, scar, cut, and bruise she had ever had was gone.
Her eyes came to rest on her mane, which had a thin black streak running through it, marring her otherwise illustrious silver mane.
“Oh well,” Trixie said, brushing it off. “Every sword has two sides.” Trixie reached into her well of magic and found it exponentially larger than before. She grasped the door and pulled on it gently, trying not the break it. The door snapped off its hinges and flew across the room, impaling itself in the far wall. Trixie will have to get used to this... power, she thought as she strode towards the unobstructed doorway. But for now, Trixie has other matters to attend to. Without a look back, she walked out of the castle, and onto the road that led to Ponyville.
“Dad, why don’t you use your magic making a sword?”
Cross Tree smiled at his son over the tongs he gripped with his teeth, carefully swinging an angry red ingot over to the anvil in the center of the workshop. He quickly placed it in the vise, and with a few masterful flicks of his hooves the sizzling ingot was secure and the hammer was held aloft in the hoof grip. He brought the head down with practiced precision.
Clang! Clang! Clang!
“I use my magic to make art. I use my hooves to make tools. And a sword is not a work of art. It’s a tool, just like everything else.”
He glanced at his son after each hammer stroke. Dark blue eyes, cool green hair that made Cross Tree taste mint whenever he saw it, a dark green bush of a mane. Tough little muscles on his ungainly coltish limbs. Little Reveille still wasn’t quite used to the loud noises of the workshop, and his eyes and ears still blinked twitched with each resounding whack of hammer on steel. He had once shied away from the sparks when he was very young, but now he stood firm in his oversized goggles and thick apprentice apron, watching the sparks dance. Little yellow grasshoppers, he’d called them when he first witnessed the act of forging. Cross Tree could call that progress, at least.
“But dad, you use your magic to make everything else. I think it’s cool how you make everything hover in the air and fling it all around, like whoosh! Shyew!”
Cross Tree couldn’t help but smile as Reveille wildly flung his front hooves around. Thank Celestia he wasn’t a pegasus; the boy was flighty enough. “Yes, I guess that is pretty cool. But the fact remains that a sword needs to be made with your hooves. You need to feel the heat. The weight… every blow that goes into creating it. You need to know the sword so you have respect for it.”
The ingot was slowly, surely taking shape under each well aimed strike of the hammer. He could already see it in his mind. He saw the long, pleasing shape of the blade, the engraved hilt, the frightful tip that pointed with singular instinct towards whatever object was placed in front of it. Needing, wanting to cut and stab.
“You see a sword is not a nice tool. Take my hammer.”
Clang! Clang! Clang!
Reveille wrinkled his nose. “It’s noisy.”
“Yes. But it’s helpful. This hammer has been with me since I opened the shop. But it’s helped me make pots, pans, shoes, nails, other hammers, axes. Rakes, water pots, helmets, armor. This hammer creates things. If I ever used it to hurt something or somepony, I’d be ashamed of myself. But a sword…”
The ingot was beginning to flatten out. He felt it becoming harder, less pliable, the blows echoing through his bones that much more clearly. Reveille waited patiently as his father brought the ingot back to the forge and heated it back to its former red hot intensity. Since he couldn’t let his body wander while he was helping Dad or making his own little bits and baubles in the forge, he let his imagination bumble around instead. The vivid colors of the fire and the metal his father heated reminded Reveille of a sunset, or maybe Mama’s hair. She had the most beautiful hair in the world as far as he was concerned.
Cross Tree returned with the ingot heated to a proper temperature. Again, he placed it on the anvil, flicked his hooves, resumed working.
“See how it’s red all the way through? You can see the glow, this baby’s hot.”
“Give it a few test blows with the hammer…”
Reveille blinked every time, watching the little yellow grasshoppers dance.
“It shapes. See that? You have to get a feel for the temperature too. You’ll get used to it. Anyway, a sword is a tool that’s not used for hammering. It doesn’t get you firewood or dig up crops. It’s made for one thing and one thing only.”
Cross Tree stopped hammering and looked directly at his son. “Do you know what that is?”
Reveille’s dark blue eyes twitched between his father and the ingot, still taking shape. He shifted uncomfortably on his hooves.
“To… to hurt things.”
“That’s right. It’s a tool designed to hurt things, nothing more. That makes it a weapon. And that’s why I don’t use magic. I might use my magic to wield the sword when I’m done, but I have to know it inside and out. Whatever I do with this sword has to come from me and me alone. It will be a part of me, because if it ever needs to be unsheathed, Princesses forbid it, I’ll use it on a living creature. I need to know the kind of pain I’ll cause.”
Reveille didn’t fully understand. Cross Tree knew he didn’t. Reveille saw his father as the biggest, strongest pony in the world (except maybe for Mama). Who’d even want to pick a fight with him? One look of those fearsome orange eyes and even a hydra would go running scared! He didn’t want to think about his father having to hurt things. It just didn’t make sense. Dad didn’t start fights, and he never, ever hit another pony, not even when he was screaming mad like the time he found out Grape Vine had hit Peach Tree and made her cry. Real stallions weren’t supposed to make their fillyfriends cry. But Dad had snatched that bad stallion by the ear with his teeth and thrown him in jail himself. Mama had been upset, since because she was a Guard she thought she should’ve handled it, but Reveille thought Mama just wanted to smack Grape Vine around herself too. Peach Tree was nice, and she really liked the flower Reveille brought her. He hoped the bruise on her eye went away soon.
“But you’ll never have to do that, right Dad?” he asked. “I mean, we live in Equestria! It’s safe here, right? Mama and the other Guards keep us safe.”
Cross Tree’s hammering slackened off. He leaned away from the anvil and looked over Reveille’s head, to the Mistypine Forest at the edge of their town.
“That they do, son,” he said quietly. “That they do.”
That night, Reveille snuck downstairs when he heard his parents talking in low, worried tones, which made him worried. Even though it was way past his bedtime, he thought he was grown up enough to be able to listen in on adult talk.
“I don’t want to hear it, Cross Tree!”
“But dear, the boy’s got to learn how to use the things if I’m going to teach him how to make them!”
“Learning your trade is different from learning how to fight! I don’t want my only son near the accursed things outside of the forge. We agreed when we married, Cross Tree! He follows your career, not mine. What if he gets ideas about going into the Guard?”
“Then he does. And who are we to stop that? Songbird-”
“No, Cross Tree! I joined the Guard to protect ponies. And I’m protecting you two on top of that. Isn’t that enough to worry about?”
“He’s growing into a fine boy, Songbird. Learning to fight didn’t corrupt you! It made you the pony I wanted to spend my life with.”
“Don’t sweet talk your way out of this one! I joined the Guard so nopony else would have to. There’s so much out there that wants to hurt us, Cross Tree… I can’t put my little boy in the front lines of that. I refuse!”
Reveille dared to peek his head around the corner, looking through the hall to the front room. Cross Tree sat Songbird down on the big couch in front of the fireplace, holding her gently, stroking her wings and smoothing down her feathers. Mom always liked it when Dad stroked her wings. Reveille guessed it was a pegasus thing.
“I just get so worried, Cross Tree. Other ponies don’t know what we know in the Guard! We’re so safe here, and I want it to stay that way, but it makes it so easy to forget… so hard to see what’s really out there. I don’t want my child to deal with that!”
Cross Tree touched her under the chin, lifting her head. They whispered a few things that Reveille couldn’t hear, and he didn’t dare go closer. After a few minutes of talking, they kissed for a long time and disappeared over the top of the sofa. Reveille decided he wasn’t needed and crept back to bed. After all, they’d kissed, and kisses made everything better.
“One bar isn’t enough. It has be folded and layered with other bars, one after the other. And then you have to make it hot enough to weld those layers together. The last sword I made was for Duke Cordon Bleu. It had to be folded sixty times, end over end.”
Another day, another sword. Reveille no longer blinked. Long hours of wrestling pots and pans into shape with Dad’s trusty old hammer had seen to that. He watched intently as that same hammer came up and down, up and down. The grasshoppers flew free and danced over the floor, bouncing off their aprons.
“But it’s the quenching and reheating that makes it strong. What have I told you about the quenching and the tempering?”
“No blade is made strong unless it’s held over the heat.”
Reveille watched his father pluck up the sword and take it over to the quenching tank. They used good old fashioned water for this part. Reveille often flinched when the blade went into the water, and he did now. Something about the way the heat boiled off, screaming like a pony in pain, was just off-putting to him. If that was what it was like to be tempered, he hoped he never had to go through it.
“Why do we have swords?” he asked, remembering the conversation he heard between his parents a few weeks back. Cross Tree stopped, leaving the blade in the water as he looked up at the colt.
“Why?” he repeated.
“I mean. Equestria’s safe. And we have Guards… I know we live on the border… but why do we need swords? What’s ever gonna happen that you have to hurt somebody?”
Cross Tree let his eyes drift to the Mistypine Forest.
“Because the safer you are, the more dangerous the world gets.”
Reveille tilted his head. His father had a very strange, faraway look on his face. He hardly ever got it, and it was usually when he was totally focused on his work, absorbed in the dance of materials and tools as he levitated them all about the workshop. Reveille couldn’t help but be intensely jealous that his father was a unicorn and he was a regular old earth pony.
“Let me explain it to you, son.” Cross Tree sat down on a bench and patted the space next to him. Reveille always liked a chance to be close to Dad and hopped obediently up. Cross Tree pointed at the forest. It stretched out before the village, dark and inscrutable. A single path cut through the trees, heading east. A little ways up that path was a single Guard outpost, the final checkpoint of ponydom before the rest of the wild, untamed world claimed the land. Mama sometimes was stationed at the outpost, but usually she was out on patrol. Even so, Reveille didn’t like looking at that path. That single road out of Equestria, out of everything he’d ever known, shrouded by trees and possibly crawling with monsters.
“We live on the very borders of Equestria. And Equestria is a big, big place. And you’re right. It is very, very safe. One of these days I hope to show you the cities I’ve been to… Manehattan or Las Pegasus. But safety… safety comes at a price, Reveille. That’s why we have the Guard. That’s why Celestia and Luna are always on their thrones and never take a day off. The Forest marks the end of places good ponies go.”
Reveille nodded. Only bad ponies and exiles, or even worse, ponies who just plain didn’t want to live in Equestria walked down that path and past the Guard post, never to return. He couldn’t even fathom it.
“But the very fact that we’re safe means that somepony is keeping the danger away, like your Mama. You remember the stories about how Equestria was founded, and then the Princesses came?”
“They put everything in order,” Reveille said, remembering his school lessons. He liked hearing about the Princesses. “And they took all the bad things out of Equestria and made them leave.”
“That’s right. But you can’t have one without the other. It’s like hot and cold. Take all the heat away, you get something very cold, but all that heat is still out there, floating around. If you create a very safe place with no danger, all that danger has to go somewhere.”
He pointed at the forest. “Out there, son. That’s where it all is. All our neighbors who are jealous of us, all the monsters that were run out of town… it’s all still there. Waiting for us to let our guard down. If you go up that path, and there’s no telling what can happen. That’s why we’re here. That’s why all the nobles in this county still carry their swords… just in case somebody with a bad case of pony hate comes stomping over that horizon. That’s why I make swords. That’s why I’m teaching you how to make them.”
Reveille scrunched his brow, deep in thought. If weapons and fighting were going to keep them safe, why was Mama so upset about him learning to do it?
“So swords are good?”
Cross Tree smiled. “A sword is only as good as the pony that carries it, son. Remember, it’s a tool. That hammer of mine is used to make things because I choose to use it that way. The swords I make will never be used to hurt another living creature unless they force us to use it. Celestia forbid any of them are pulled out in anger. That’s the problem, really… anypony can pull a sword and think that just because they have one they can do whatever they want. But that’s wrong. A sword doesn’t let you do that. A sword doesn’t give you anything except the ability to hurt things. It’s you that has to make the choice when to use it.”
Reveille looked down at the half-finished sword, still smoldering in the quenching tub.
“What if you pull it out when you aren’t supposed to?”
“Bad things happen, son,” Cross Tree muttered, and he got that faraway look in his eyes again. “Bad, bad things. A sword… a sword can make a pony into a protector… or a killer. It hurts you, too. Whether or not you’re the one getting cut.”
“But you’re not a killer, are you Dad? And neither’s Mama.”
“No, son, we aren’t.”
Reveille breathed in sharply. Hearing the world was such a dangerous place was fearful and exciting at once. “I’ll never be able to use a sword to protect ponies unless I learn how to use one, will I?”
“… No, son. You won’t.”
“Then I want to learn.”
“Blank flank, blank flank!”
Reveille hated the walk home after school. Without a teacher around to keep order, mean little Opal Eye was free to tease the other students. He hated her and her little gang, but since a real stallion never made a filly cry, he just held his head high and pretended to ignore it.
Ever since his father gave him a little wooden sword, he’d brought it to the local fencing master after school to start learning how to whack things with it. He was strictly forbidden from ever bringing it into the school itself, even if that didn’t make much sense to him since pirates and bandits would obviously go after a school that didn’t have swords. But afterwards, he liked to wear it on his belt and pretend he was one of the ponies that kept everypony else safe, like Mama. Oh, she’d thrown a fit and gave Dad the cold shoulder for a week! And she’d boxed the fencing master’s ears too for going along with Dad. His stomach still groaned thinking about the deserts he’d missed during that time…
But today she’d promised to start helping teach him, too, as long as he promised he’d never, ever join the Guard. Reveille didn’t like telling fibs, but he wasn’t sure he could promise to never do something for his entire life, ever. That was an awful long time to never do something. What if he got bored?
“Hey blank flank!”
He rolled his eyes. Ignoring Opal Eye never worked. She was even stupider than Gumshoe. At least he got the hint after a while. Why couldn’t Opal Eye just leave him alone? She and her friends just shouted at him from a distance, trotting along like they always did.
“You want a sword for a cutie mark? That’s so lame! No monster’s gonna be afraid of a wooden sword!”
“Yeah, I bet you’re gonna get splinters! And then you’re gonna go home crying!”
“I bet it’ll snap! And then a hydra’s gonna eat you up!”
He couldn’t take it today. He shouted over his shoulder.
“I’m not using it forever! I’m gonna make a real sword, all by myself! And when some monster comes along and makes you cry, then you’ll be sorry! You’re gonna go home scared to your moms and I’ll be the one to save all of you stupid girls!”
That shut them up. Opal’s little gang looked at him all weird, and then they all whispered among themselves. “Blank flank!” one of them called, before they began to run off to do whatever stupid girls did by themselves.
Opal Eye stared at him weird for a while longer, a bright yellow spot against the green grass beside the path. He noticed she didn’t shout at him when she finally left.
Another day, another sword. They didn’t make these often. Reveille came to enjoy it when they did. Training had been going well over the last year, and he was looking forward to the day when his father might let him craft his own blade to use.
“When you reheat the sword, that’s what makes it softer. Just like when you need it soft during hammering, you want the metal to have a little give when you’re done.”
“What good is a soft sword?”
“It won’t snap. It’ll bend. But it won’t break.”
Reveille could just hear another lesson coming. He gingerly worked the partially completed blade into the furnace, stoking the coals with it. He’d learned long ago to ignore the heat. Wearing the hood helped.
“It’s okay to bend?” he asked over the roar of the flames.
“Sometimes,” his father answered, working the bellows. “Better that than to just snap. Like how you ignore bullies instead of just… flying off the handle, hitting them. You let their insults just sort of… bounce off you. It seems weak, at first. But it’s really what makes you stronger than they’ll ever be. Heh, maybe we should be making shields instead of swords…”
He turned and looked Reveille in the eyes. “I’m proud of you, son. You’re just about the only colt in your class who hasn’t gotten into a fight, even with those other troublesome foals. You’ve taken my words to heart.”
Reveille wasn’t sure what to say. Getting compliments always made him stutter and go quiet. But at least he knew he was doing the right thing ignoring bullies. Even Opal Eye had slackened off in recent months. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been called a blank flank.
“When we’re done here, take the day off,” his father said. “You’ve really been coming along in your lessons. You deserve a break. You finish your homework for the weekend?”
Reveille did take the rest of the day off as his father suggested. He went into the hills above the town with his practice sword, as he usually did. He’d been practicing a long time now, and his birthday had come and gone without much ceremony. Learning the trade, learning the sword was his new passion, even if it hadn’t gotten him his cutie mark on either front.
He liked these hills. They were always green and grassy and quiet with a great view of the town to the west, along with the rest of Equestria. On a good day you could see the mountains of Canterlot on the horizon. Up here he could go run around and pretend he was fighting monsters. Maybe a baldyak, or a manticore. Or a mandragor! Those had tentacles and teeth and everything. Yes, a mandragor was a perfect creature to battle!
He hurried back and forth over the hills, enjoying the soft grass and the sound of a few bees and birds in his ears while he valiantly held off the mighty beast from the forest, swinging the sword and remembering the routines he’d been taught. Thrust, parry, swing! Find the opening… jab! He alone was the last line of defense. He couldn’t give an inch and couldn’t forget a single lesson. Flower heads and blades of grass went flying as he lunged and struck the shadowy beasts laying siege to the town.
He was so caught up in his practicing that he almost didn’t notice Opal Eye sitting not far off on another rise, looking down at something. He rolled his eyes and put his sword away. Stupid girl! Didn’t she know it was dangerous out here, and only trained swordponies like himself should be this far out? The forest was almost frighteningly close, but he knew Mama had gone on a patrol recently and reported nothing.
He didn’t want to go talk to one of the ponies who gave him such a hard time in school. He hadn’t talked to her much even after she’d stopped teasing him so much. She usually just looked at him from a distance while he played with the other colts. But a good stallion, Dad said, protected other ponies. So he guessed he’d have to go and tell her off and herd her back to the town. Maybe he’d get an award from the Guards.
“Hey! Opal!” he called, hurrying over to her. She turned around and dropped a flower at her hooves, hastily kicking it away.
“Wha… what are you doing here?” she asked, pointing an accusing hoof. Reveille tossed his head back.
“I’m protecting the town from monsters!” he said. “There’s a mandragor right over that ridge that’ll eat you up if you don’t go home right now!”
Opal Eye’s eyes widened. Reveille noticed at this distance they were purple, but strangely enough seemed to change to a more reddish color, then back to violet depending on which way they were pointing.
“Liar!” she decided. “There’s no monsters out here.”
“Yeah huh! I was fighting one just a minute ago.”
“Oh yeah? Well where is it?”
Reveille felt his careful plans to get an award unravel in seconds. He hadn’t thought she’d actually ask for proof. Saying there was a monster out here wasn’t lying, necessarily. There really could be anything, depending on what slipped past the Guards!
“Uhh… it’s… right over that way!” he decided, pointing in a random direction. “But, um, it’s… dead.”
“If it’s dead, how’s it gonna eat me up? You’re lying!”
“I am not a liar! In fact, I’ll go right over there and investigate right now, and when we find a monster then you’ll be sorry.”
Opal Eye tossed her purple curls and sniffed. “My mom says monsters never come out of the forest. Let’s go over there and find nothing, cause there’s nothing there and you’re just being a mean old colt.”
“Pffft.” Reveille said, beginning to trot towards the next hill. There was a lone tree on it, perfect shade for sitting under. “Pfft! You’re the one who made fun of me last year.”
“Yeah, but that was last year. Besides, you’re still a blank flank.”
“Whatever.” Reveille kept his eyes open and ears up. As his fencing master said, right when you think your opponent won’t strike, that’s exactly the moment he was waiting for. If there was nothing there, there was probably something there.
They reached the crest of the hill and stood under the shade of the tree. He sighed with relief.
There really was nothing here.
“See?” Opal Eye said, swinging her tail. “Nothing.”
“Fine, fine…” Reveille said, deflated, yet relieved. What if there really had been a monster here?
A minute of silence passed before Opal broke it. “Reveille?” she asked in a quiet voice.
“You remember when you said you’d protect us from any monsters that came by?”
“… Did you mean it?”
Reveille shifted uncomfortably. Then he nodded with confidence. “Of course I did.”
They stood in awkward silence, Reveille because he was embarrassed he’d been caught fibbing, Opal Eye because, well, she was a girl. They were weird.
“Well, let’s go home,” he said.
They turned around, and found a dead pony lying in the grass. They froze. Everything suddenly snapped into sharp focus. The red of the blood on the grass was more vivid than anything he’d ever seen. The noise of his blood pounding in his ears was louder than anything he’d ever heard. Opal Eye suddenly starting to shake beside him felt like an earthquake.
And the timber wolf that rose up from behind the corpse was the most frightening thing he’d ever seen.
“D… don’t… don’t…” he stuttered, trying to think of something to do, or say. Run? No, timber wolves liked it when you ran. Fight? With what? His puny wooden sword?
“Reveille,” Opal whimpered, and took a quivering step back. The timber wolf stood up, beginning to snarl. Reveille felt it in his chest. He didn’t know the dead pony. But he wore armor, armor the timber wolf’s teeth had found the gaps in. Guard armor.
And there on the grass sat a Guard’s sword, shimmering and beautiful in the sun, gleaming brighter than all the world’s lights.
“Reveille!” Opal squeaked. The timber wolf started to rise, the wooden limbs creaking and snapping ominously.
“Reveille!” Opal screamed. The timber wolf barked in reply. Pony guts hung from his teeth.
Reveille took a step forward.
He’d earned his cutie mark that day. Cross Tree was certain of it.
The burial was a surprisingly short and quick affair. Nopony liked to be reminded of how dangerous their location was. To have it shown to them so brutally… so bloodily. Timber wolves never made clean kills. Songbird had hunted the beast down and slain it herself with her patrol. He didn’t blame her.
He’d wished his son would never even see such a creature in his life. But fate dictated otherwise. Finding him covered in blood, the blaring bugle on his flank. From what they could piece together, he’d done his best to run back to the village, to warn everypony. He hadn’t gotten far. Just far enough.
At least he’d only suffered a few cuts. The ear, though, was mangled. That was going to be with the boy for the rest of his life.
Nopony knew how he’d driven off a timber wolf alone, save for sheer luck. But he’d done it. He’d gotten his cutie mark, being the early warning system. Guarding ponies. Songbird had been livid with rage that one of these beasts would dare try to hurt her son, and wracked with sorrow that she hadn’t been able to protect him.
But that was the point of the Guard, wasn’t it? Somepony had to be there, on the outpost, but that somepony was a son or a brother or a mother. Keeping the land safe, but having to risk so much. Even though their swords were pointed outwards, it cut both ways. Eventually, somepony got hurt, and behind them was another pony who couldn’t understand why their loved one had to be it. For there to be safety, something else had to be dangerous to threaten it. For there to be peace, there had to be a sword that would eventually be drawn, and blood would spill and not care where it landed.
But that day had been long ago. Today was Reveille’s first patrol as a fully fledged Guard.
“You sure you’re ready for this? Nopony will fault you if you decided to take an inland posting.”
Celestia, the boy… the stallion… had such wonderful eyes. Eyes that were keen and sharp, deep and blue as the ocean. He’d promised Mother he’d take a vacation the moment he got his things squared away, and go to the ocean. Manehattan. He’d finally see Manehattan.
“Dad, I’ll be fine, for the last time. It’s okay. If I got through Mom’s training, I can handle one patrol.”
He’d be going into the woods, with the other Guards. Rooting out anything that might have taken up shop near the town. He had good eyes for that, was usually the first to spot something that was wrong, and the first to alert the others. Always looking for their safety ahead of his own. Yes, that day had changed him. Made him more grim. Dour. Ready for action. No more playfulness.
The wolf had ripped that right out of him along with most of his ear.
Nopony went untouched when a sword came out of its sheathe.
And Reveille had his own sword now, sharpened, polished, ready to kill. But he’d never even needed to draw it yet. Somehow, to Cross Tree’s unending pride, he’d try to find some way, any other way, to avoid having to let it shine in the sun, beautiful as it was. He’d taken his lessons to heart.
“Be careful, kiddo.”
“Always. Keep the fires warm for me, Dad.”
“Of course.” He looked over Reveille’s broad shoulders. “Opal’s waiting.”
“Ahh… she hid from me, I know it. She wants to be the last one I see before heading out.”
“Is that bad?”
“Nope. Just how I’d hoped, actually.”
They hugged and parted, Reveille walking down the path from the house to the road. Opal leaned casually on the fence, then joined him as they started walking down the road to the Mistypine Forest, where the outpost waited for him. Where his future waited.
They stopped near the hills overlooking the town.
“I’ll still be here when you get back,” she said quietly. “I don’t leave for Canterlot for another three weeks.”
“I know,” he said. “We’ll make it count.”
“Not unless you get sent to the hospital again,” she said, and here the walls broke down. She’d become tougher the day of the wolf too. Worried more than she needed to, sometimes, about him. And she’d never been good at showing her feelings in the first place. But here, with him, in the quiet wind with nothing but the chirping of birds to see them, she couldn’t stop herself.
Their lips met with the same passion as the first time they had.
“You come back,” she said simply. “I’ll be waiting.”
“And I’ll be heading towards you,” he murmured. “With every step I take.”
He turned towards the path and began the long walk that all border guards took, holding his head high, wearing that mangled ear as a badge of pride. He’d forged the sword himself. And out there, he’d be the one to decide when to use it, if he had to. He wondered, sometimes, what life would be like if he’d never encountered the wolf, never bothered to take up the sword… but then he knew that somepony else would be out here, and he couldn’t have that on his conscience. Danger was now his lot in life to own. Maybe someday he’d pay for it in more blood. He knew now that nopony held a sword without it cutting away something of theirs in return. It changed you.
But as he entered the path into the Forest, he knew that for him it’d been for the better.
Twilight's face was alight with glee as she leaned forward. "Think about it, AJ, just you and me! We can spend some real quality time together! I've been thinking about doing one-on-one friendship building exercises so I can get to know all my friends even better than before, and I wanted to start with you!"
Applejack scratched the back of her neck. "I dunno, Twilight. I mean... you know I'm not into all that girly fru-fru stuff, right?" "Well of course!" The unicorn rolled her eyes. "I do remember the last sleepover, after all. That's why I wanted to ask you first: I don't think last time was quite your thing, so I want to get a better idea of what would be! You don't like makeovers? We'll have pillow fights and tell ghost stories instead! How about it, AJ, whattaya say?"
Applejack's eyes drifted to the left as she tapped her chin. "Well..."
Her friend's face contorted into an enormous, almost grotesque, pout, eyes doubling in size and watering ever so slightly.
"Fine, fine! Just you 'n me, then." Applejack laughed as Twilight clapped her hooves together. "But on one condition: we hafta make s'mores. Them's good eatin'."
Twilight grinned. "Of course, AJ. I'll get everything ready and see you tomorrow night!"
Applejack had to admit this sleepover was a lot better than the one they'd had with Rarity, even if both had been to blame for the events of that night. An initial flurry of "What do you want to do first?"s quickly subsided when Applejack suggested they just take their time to relax and not worry so much about what to do. It was just like Twilight to fret over every little thing, after all.
Several s'mores and one poorly-roped wooden unicorn bust later, they finally got to the part that Twilight had been waiting for all night: ghost stories. Applejack had noticed her checking the clock and worrying her lip on numerous occasions, not to mention the times it seemed she was about to suggest they go ahead with it, only to be cut off by Applejack's own suggestion. Relenting at last, Applejack sat back on a pile of pillows, chewing idly on a s'more as Twilight doused the lights and launched into the tale she'd been holding back all evening.
"In the grand streets of Canterlot," she began, narrowing her eyes and making her tone as menacing as possible, "there are many dark corners and shady alleyways, and within these murky confines lurk ponies who seek one thing: power! The power to shape the world to their bidding, the power to defend the weak, or even oppress them should they wish. Though they hold arcane meetings in furtive enclaves, by day you can find them in the highest echelons of Canterlot life: city administrators, nobility, university deans. But where, you might ask, would any unicorn get such incredible power? The answer is: The Ueton Game!"
Applejack made a face. "The Ooey-whatnow?"
"Shh! Let me explain! The Ueton Game takes place in a shared dream, whose players benefit from increased power -- strength, magic, endurance, speed -- so long as they continue to win it. Every night, they see horrifying visions in their dreams: ponies that bleed from the eyes, creatures with sharp fangs and multiple heads, living goo that tries to suck the marrow from their bones!" Twilight rose up on her hind legs. "And the longer you play, the more unspeakable become these horrors!
"The game tries to stop you, of course, and should you fall to the marauding hordes of darkness, a price must be paid, taken from your soul! But the player who loses isn't out of the game, no. They just start over, tormented night after night with unrelenting nightmares that rend their psyches to tatters! Clawing desperately in the search for power as things which should not be try their hardest to stop them! It's--"
"Twilight!" Applejack's eyes were wide. "Yer gettin' a little overdramatic there."
"Oh, hah hah!" Twilight chuckled nervously, scratching the back of her head. "Sorry, I guess got I carried away. Anyway, to take part in this game, you just need to hear about it from someone who plays it and speak an oath to the dark powers beyond the veil."
Twilight nodded. "An oath. Let's say you, for example, wanted to take part in the game. You wait until midnight and, just before you climb into bed, you'd say, 'I, Applejack, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!' And then you go to sleep!" She grinned. "So what d'you think? Scary, huh?"
Applejack shook her head. "Nah. I mean, ponies bleedin' outta their eyes an' such is kinda creepy, but all I can think of now is callin' the 'Ooey-Gooey Game' and that just makes me think o' jelly!" She laughed. "It's more silly than anythin'!"
"Well, since you're not scared, why not try it? C'mon, it'll be fun!"
"Try it? What, you mean take that oath thingy? Why bother if it's just a ghost story?" She laughed again, but it died off as she noticed Twilight staring at her intently.
"Why not?" The unicorn's voice was on edge. "What's the holdup, AJ? It's like saying 'Milky Mary' three times in a bathroom mirror, right? Nothing will happen! There's no ghost cow to come out and spirit you away to the land of the dead or anything!" Twilight's left eye twitched.
And Applejack had been planning to tell the Milky Mary legend for her ghost story, too. Shoot.
"I mean, it's just a stupid urban legend, meant for scaring little fillies, but Applejack, what if it were true?" Twilight licked her lips, hysteria filtering into her voice. "Think about it, all the power you could get... it would be theoretically limitless! You could run faster, buck more apples, not get tired as quickly..."
"Twilight, stop, yer startin' to worry me now!" Applejack frowned at Twilight's manic expression, focused somewhere over her shoulder. "You know I ain't the kind of pony who's interested in gettin' all-powerful or nothin'." Twilight, on the verge of tears, choked on her words. "Applejack, please! You have to..." Applejack slid over and placed a hoof around her, at which point she started sniffling. "Twi... That weren't no ghost story you just told, was it?" "I'm sorry, Applejack..." Twilight turned her face away. "This whole sleepover thing was a deception. I thought if I just told you outright, you wouldn't believe me..."
Applejack swallowed. This was not the Twilight she knew. "I'll believe ya, sugarcube, if'n you're willing to tell me the truth."
After a few long breaths to quiet her sobbing, Twilight spoke anew, quietly. "The Ueton Game isn't a story, it's real, and I've been playing it for six years now. Every night for the last six years, all I've dreamt about has been monsters and blood and guts and..." Her lead turned up, showing red-rimmed eyes. "You have no idea what it's like! It's driving me crazy, Applejack, and I need your help to get out!"
"Why me? Tell me the whole story here."
Twilight drew a long breath. "I was brought into the game when I was just a filly, the year after I started studying at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. I didn't know any better, and I trusted the mare who introduced me to the game. It wasn't long before I lost; the only time I've lost. It was terrible, like feeling a thousand icicles plunging into your body and ripping back out again, and when I woke up... I'd changed." She turned her face away. "I'd always been studious and interested in magic, yes, but after that loss, I became... obsessed. Crazy, you could say. You've seen what happens when things stop being predictable around me. I completely freak out; I can't help it. Something was taken from me on that day and it left me a different pony."
Applejack didn't like where this was going. "What happened to the mare who got you into it?"
Twilight sighed. "She... she died within a year. The coroner said it was natural causes, that she simply... stopped, in her sleep. But I know what happened: she'd lost the game one too many times and had nothing left to give it. This is what the game does, Applejack. I came to you because, out of all my friends, I think you're the one who's the most resilient, not just physically but mentally too. I have a theory, that if I could just get to the center of the game with somepony else, I could find a way to stop it, to get out. The game is why my magic is so powerful, and getting stronger every day, but I'm tired of it. I've been playing for so long, Applejack, so very long."
Applejack shook her head. "I dunno, Twilight. If what you're sayin' is all true, I stand to risk losin' my mind by helpin' you."
Twilight twisted around, her face lined with horror. "Applejack, I really can't count on anypony else! I thought about asking Rainbow Dash instead, but she'd never believe me. I know we can do this together. I'll be there in the dream to help you! And... and you'll get stronger while you're playing! I wasn't kidding about the results; there's no way to tell what will happen, but there's great benefit in playing."
"Just at the cost of your soul."
Twilight, shamed, dropped her gaze to the floor. "You're right, I... can't ask you to risk your soul for me. I just... I don't know what I'm going to do..." Tears began to pool on the wood flooring beneath her. A knife twisted in Applejack's stomach.
"Twilight, it's obvious this thing has you at wit's end. If there ain't no other way for ya to get out, then... I'll forgive ya tryin' to trick me. I'll help."
Twilight turned to her, eyes shimmering. "Do you mean it?"
"So long as you done told me everything about it."
Twilight nodded, sniffing back tears. "All you have to do is say the oath, tonight before you sleep: 'I,' and state your full name, 'am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game.' It needs to be said loudly, and with full intention, but that's it. We'll even be able to meet up in the game, though you may not recognize me."
Slowly, Applejack returned the nod. "Okay, Twilight. I won't letcha down."
She was swept up in a huge hug. "Thank you so much, Applejack! I knew I could count on you!" Applejack returned the embrace, though something nagged at the back of her mind.
"Twilight... D'you know how to get out of the game, then?"
The unicorn went limp in her arms, shivering. "No," she said, her voice tiny, frightened. "That's what scares me the most. You wanted to know everything, so know there's a chance that there's no way out of the game at all. You may end up stuck in it for the rest of your life. And... I've tried to get others to help me too, when I was younger, but they all ended up..." She swallowed. "It's so much for me to ask of you, Applejack..."
Applejack sniffed. "Never you mind. You got taken advantage of and it ain't fair you had to get involved in this all by yourself. So at the very least, I'll keep ya company."
"Thank you, AJ," Twilight whispered. The clock chimed eleven and she drew a deep breath. "Well, there's just an hour left to go."
Applejack nodded and they spent most of the rest of the hour cleaning up and trying not to give each other awkward looks. It was, she thought, like standing back from the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. She couldn't quite see where she'd end up, but she had a pretty good idea of what the plunge would be like. Except that this would be like no other plunge she had ever taken.
At five minutes till midnight, they locked up the downstairs, extinguished the lights, and climbed up to the loft, where Twilight had set up a guest bed. Applejack stood at the foot of it, eyes closed, just focusing on breathing.
The clock chimed twelve.
"I," she glanced at Twilight, "Jacqueline Mercy Apple, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game." She hoped she had said it properly, though she wasn't sure if that was really a good thing to hope. Nothing happened, though she'd been expecting lightning crashing or evil laughter or something. She looked over at Twilight. "And don't you never call me Jacqueline." Twilight giggled at her.
"You'll know if it worked as soon as you go to sleep," she said, climbing into her own bed. Applejack nodded, following suit and wondering if the ball of thick coldness in the pit of her stomach would ever let her sleep.
It looked like the apple cellar underneath the barn at Sweet Apple Acres, half as wide as it was long, dark and dingy, carved from the earth and reinforced with wood beams. Smelled like it, too. She could even make out the shelves filled with jars that stored her family's personal stock of zap apple jam, though they were empty. Looking behind herself, the open cellar door let in meager light from a flat, grey sky that illuminated only the half of the cellar behind her. The stairs to the outside were gone.
"Hello?" Her voice echoed dully off the dirt. "Is anypony there?"
When no response came, she peered into the gloom ahead of her. A single wooden door was there, where none should have been.
"This must be a dream," she told herself, and stepped towards it. It opened silently at her touch, onto a room twice the size of the one she had come from, and slammed shut once she passed through.
The floor was dirt and the walls were shored up by wood panelling, rotten in places where it wasn't outright leaking. There were no light sources, yet she could see. Three other doors, identical to the one she had just passed through, stood closed in the center of each wall. The only other feature in this room, directly in the center, was a small pile of what looked like waste and a single blue-hued Parasprite, floating serenely above it and smiling at her. She made a face.
"Yeesh, not you guys again. At least I ain't got any food for ya."
The Parasprite seemed uninterested in doing anything besides watching her as she tried each of the doors. None would open, even the one that she'd come through. She tried kicking the one on the left-hand wall, but though it gave slightly under each buck, she felt like she wasn't making any progress and gave up after a while.
The sound of chewing drew her attention back to the center of the room where the Parasprite had begun feasting upon the pile of offal. Applejack stuck out her tongue.
"Eugh! I take back what I... Aw shoot, this ain't gonna be good."
As the Parasprite finished with the dung, its color turned from blue to red. It doubled in size, and its expression changed from one of blissful happiness to one of malevolence. It sucked in a breath and made a spitting noise, launching a ball of red goop at her.
With a cry, she ducked to the side and the stuff splattered on the wall behind her. Close up, it looked far too similar to blood to be comforting. After a beat, the Parasprite fired again. Though it didn't make any effort to chase her down or spit any more frequently, it relentlessly followed her path as she circled the perimeter, even though she kept pace ahead of each shot.
"This is gettin' me nowhere!" she cried, and ducked below the next blood ball. It fired again, and close up it scored a hit. The red liquid singed her coat and she hissed in pain. Maybe it wasn't blood after all. Now that she'd closed the gap, she was able to lash out, and with a mighty kick she reduced the insect to a red smear on the end of her hoof.
"Now I understand why Rarity's so hard-up on not gettin' dirty," she said, trying in vain to shake and scrape the stuff off herself. At least it didn't burn.
There was a click, and all four doors swung open, though she could see nothing but darkness beyond any of them. With a sinking feeling, she swallowed, and trotted to the left side, where she'd first tried opening the door. She put her ear to the door frame, but heard nothing. Mustering her courage -- it had only been a little Parasprite, after all -- she sauntered through into another, similar room.
Piles of rocks littered the ground here and there. There was only one door, however, on the opposite wall from her, and in between herself and the door was something that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand endwise.
The severed head of a male unicorn floated just above the ground in the center of the room. It rotated slowly until it was face to face with her, eyeless sockets dripping red ichor down its face, its mouth frozen in gaping horror. Upon 'seeing' Applejack, it made a coughing sound and its horn lit up, launching a red sphere at her.
"Oh, not this again!" The shock of seeing the attack coming her away broke the terror that rooted her to the floor and she dove to the side. Her course of action was clear. Like the Parasprite, this floating monstrosity didn't chase her, nor did it attack too frequently. She charged in, ducked to the side, heeled around to its left and bucked it twice. It exploded in a small shower of blood and bone fragments, and she sighed in relief. There was a click, the door swung open, and something appeared on the ground in the center of the room: a single red apple.
She looked at it askance, untrusting of the sudden conjuration. But something about it was enticing. She wasn't hungry, per se, but so far it was the nicest thing she'd seen since she got here. Bending down, she went to take a bite, but it vanished as soon as she touched it and she felt the burns from the blood spatter begin to soothe and heal over.
"Well, if that don't beat all..." Applejack shook her head. "Steady on, AJ. Best just to accept this place don't make no sense and carry on."
As she turned towards the room's egress, she thought she could hear a voice, just beyond the doorway. Concentrating, she picked it out again, clearer, calling her name.
"It sounds like... Hold on, Twilight, I'm comin'!"
She rushed headlong through the door, and nearly ran into yet another horrible creature. Seated between two low walls were a pair of pale-coated ponies. Upon their faces were light-hearted, slightly manic smiles and tracks of bloody tears down their cheeks. She recoiled as they got to their hooves and, expressions never wavering, began to give chase, uttering low moans now and again.
Applejack was not a cowardly pony, but the continued appearance of one freaky monster after another had her on edge, and she raced around the room past another closed and locked door, spying a small chest half-buried in a pile of rubble. The grinning ponies continued to chase her, but they moved extremely slowly. She lashed out at the chest, bucking the latch, hoping for something that would make her stay in this horrid place easier. A tiny silver key popped out and the chest vanished. It wasn't what she'd anticipated, but she grabbed it -- like the apple, it vanished as soon as she touched it -- and took off for the other end of the room as the ponies caught up with her.
She took stock of her situation: two monsters and a mostly featureless room with three doors. There was nothing for it. She stood her ground, waited until the nearest pony came within striking distance and bucked. The head made a sucking noise as it rocketed off its neck, and the body began stumbling about blindly. The thing's fellow paid it no notice and blundered into Applejack, biting her on the flank.
Applejack cried out in pain and gave it three good kicks before it collapsed into a bloody mess. She stomped over to the headless body that was still tottering about, bumping into walls and smearing them with blood, and with no hesitation reduced it to a pile of gore. The familiar click sounded again, the doors swung open, and another chest popped into being in the center of the room.
"Okay," she said, catching her breath, "so in every room, I gotta kill all the monsters before the doors open, and then sometimes I get a little reward. Gotcha." The voice sounded again, distant but closer, as she made her way over to the chest and opened it, this time with more care. Inside was what looked like a vitamin pill. She carefully lifted it out and regarded it, perched on the end of her hoof.
"Huh. Well, if that apple healed my hurts, then I guess you oughta do somethin' nice too, right?" With a shrug, she threw caution to the wind and the pill down her throat, swallowing. Something within her changed, though she couldn't lay a hoof on what; she just felt different somehow.
The left-side door, she now noted, had not in fact opened, only the upper door, but since the voice came from that direction, she moved through it.
After passing the curtain of darkness, she saw a room that seemed to be on fire. On second glance, it became obvious that it was merely a series of small fires, burning on piles of logs, controlled. The fires emitted no smoke. There were no monsters present, and the doors in this room were open already. She was considering which to go through when something emerged from the upper door.
It looked, for all intents and purposes, like that floating unicorn head she'd fought earlier, only it was continuously rotating. And it had four faces, each with a single eye and horn. Also, it was purple. In fact, if she didn't know better, she'd say it looked like...
"...Twilight?" Applejack felt sick to her stomach.
"Applejack, I'm so glad I found you!" The four mouths did not move, her voice coming from the ambient air, nor did the rotating cease as she spoke. It was beginning to make Applejack dizzy. "I haven't seen myself for a long time, so I have no idea what I look like, but judging by your face, it's not pretty, huh?"
"Yeah, uh... I seen better." She took an involuntary step backward as the head floated closer. "Land's sakes, I don't think I can take any more of this freaky-deaky nonsense."
"Don't worry, Applejack, you're close to the end of this maze. I'm only here 'in spirit', so to speak; I can't affect anything but I've been scouting around. You see, each time you go to sleep, the game will send you to a maze with random room layouts."
"I figured out I gotta fight all the monsters to get through 'em."
"Right! And sometimes you'll find rooms like this one, that have no enemies, or like the one to your right -- see the gold door frame? -- that contain a magical item that will help you out."
Applejack scratched her head. "Like that little pill thing I found?"
"Ooh, you got a pill?" The Twilight-head sounded excited. "What color was it?"
"Uhh... Kinda orange and red, I think. I ate it."
"Good. That one, if I'm not mistaken, will increase your resistance to damage. You don't want to take too many hits, or you'll have to start over."
A lump rose in Applejack's throat at the mention of 'starting over'. "With less soul" were the words Twilight had left out.
"C'mon, go through that door and let's see what you can find."
"All right." Applejack did as told, moving through the gilded door into a room lit by two of the small, controlled fires arranged on either side of a short pillar. Atop the pillar sat a large piece of parchment, floating so that its surface was plainly visible to her.
"Oh wow, AJ, you're in luck!" Twilight's laughter echoed somewhat in the room. "You found a map! You'll have no problem navigating the mazes now. Go pick it up."
She did as bidden, the parchment rolling up neatly and depositing itself in a saddlebag she was certain she hadn't been wearing. The saddlebag disappeared just after she noticed it being there. She looked to Twilight.
"Okay, uh... So how do I use it?"
"Close your eyes. You'll be able to see all kinds of information when you do. The dark squares are rooms you haven't been to, and light ones are rooms you have. It'll tell you the locations of items you've passed by, as well as where to find secret rooms."
The image on the back of her eyelids looked like a key made out of squares. According to it, there were two unexplored rooms north of the fire room, and one each above and to the right of the room where she'd fought the Parasprite. That is, if she was reading it right. The room behind the door that hadn't opened was marked with a bit sign and there was a question mark sitting outside the walls of one of the rooms near where she started. There was also an image of two apples, half an apple, and an apple outline, plus a key like the one she'd found.
"Well, I think I see what to do now." She shook her head. "I got so many questions, Twilight, but the only one I can think to ask is, why in the hay do you look like that?"
Twilight giggled. "Like I said, I've been playing for years without losing. The magic items will sometimes change your appearance in the dream. I really need to find a mirror somewhere, I haven't the faintest clue how I look."
With Twilight there only to guide her, it was up to Applejack to complete the maze. She decided not to go back the way she'd come and instead continued on past the fire room. Above it was a room with a star-shaped pattern of rocks in the middle, a large doorframe across from her that was surmounted by a pony skull, and three headless pegasi that flitted aimlessly about the room.
It didn't take her long to destroy them all, and when she did, another apple appeared next to the rocks. She snatched it up, letting it disappear, and closed her eyes to double-check the map. Now the room she was in was lit up, and the one above it was marked by a skull. Also, the apple picture had filled in a little, and was now three and a half apples instead of two.
"Twilight? I got a bad feelin' about the room up ahead."
"Don't worry, Applejack. Every maze has a large monster at the end. When you defeat it, you'll get an item and passage to the next maze. If you wake up in the middle of a maze, you'll start back where you left off the next time you sleep, but if you beat the end beast, you actually get a night's reprieve. I should have mentioned that earlier, I guess."
Applejack nodded. "All right. Just gotta beat the end beast."
"You can do it, AJ! I believe in you!"
"Thanks, Twi. I'm glad one of us does." Applejack smiled, took a deep breath, and plunged into the darkness.
Morning for Applejack was unkind.
"Ohh, mah head..." She squeezed her eyes shut, pulling the blankets tightly around herself and shivering. "Why do I feel like a hundred icicles?"
"Applejack, what happened?" Twilight frowned at her from across the loft, looking hurt. "I couldn't get into the final room."
"Ugh, that... that purple thingy... kept spittin' jelly at me... couldn't move!"
"Oh, Applejack!" Twilight slid out of her bed, moving to Applejack's and putting her hooves around her. "I never thought you'd have to fight Smoozo the Unmentionable first thing. He can be a real pain to beat if you don't know what strategy works."
Applejack, thankful for the warmth, turned a wary eye to her friend. "Ya mean you fought him before?"
Twilight nodded. "The game uses a set number of monsters, over and over again. You'll find worse ones as you go deeper."
A realization hit Applejack like a bolt of lightning. "Twilight, I lost! I lost part of my soul! What's happened to me?"
Twilight said nothing, only hugging her friend closer.
"And you mean to tell me I hafta start over tomorrow night? And keep doin' this every night forever?"
"I tried to warn you," Twilight whispered. "I'm so sorry, Applejack."
Something fierce and clammy welled up within her. "Yeah, you better be sorry." She kicked the covers off, almost kicking Twilight in the jaw, and rolled out of bed. Trotting down the stairs, she retrieved her hat and flipped it onto her head. "I'm gonna go back to the farm and buck apples or somethin'. Seeya in my dreams, Twilight."
The next night, Applejack found herself back in the cellar. The comfort that Twilight's admittedly bizarre presence had given her on that first night was denied on subsequent visits to the dream world, and she missed it. Twilight had said the same thing happened to her when she first started playing. Applejack also found that her map and extra apple were gone. She won this time, though, finding a crown along the way that gave her a unicorn horn so she could attack from a distance with beams of light; she counted that for her victory against the giant segmented worm at the end of the maze. In the nights to come, she would miss that old familiar sight of the cellar, starting instead from blank rooms first lined with wood and then stone.
In her waking hours, she would sometimes go down to the real Sweet Apple Acres cellar and stare at the far wall, willing something to happen.
After a week or so with no losing, she found that a full day's applebucking didn't leave her tired anymore. She challenged Rainbow Dash to a race, wings allowed, and won. She avoided Twilight's house and snapped at anyone who asked why.
The horrors of her nighttime game playing were growing steadily worse, however, and the toll began to show not long after she began playing. Dead, eyeless ponies, their toothy maws agape, chased her down stone corridors while she dodged blood spatter launched by Parasprites. She fought timberwolves that had been set aflame and a giant pony with a rock attached to its front hoof. But when she found the room full of fillies, their flesh pallid and teeth serrated, that opened their jaws impossibly wide and screamed at her, she had had enough. She awoke with a shout. It took all her will not to see her bedroom, dark and silent, as a chamber of menace. She curled up in her blankets and cried.
The next day found her at the front door of the library, knocking wearily as she tried to keep her eyes open.
"Applejack! I haven't seen you in..."
They stared at each other, unblinking, and Twilight stepped aside to allow her friend entrance. Applejack shut the door behind herself, loped over to the couch and lay down on it, rolling onto her back before the tears flowed again.
"Why, Twilight, why? Why does this horrible place exist in my nightmares? What terrible thing did ponies do to create something so bad?"
Twilight lay down next to her friend and stroked her dishevelled mane soothingly. "I don't know, Applejack. But I know how you feel; I went through this too."
"You can't know how I feel!" Applejack slapped Twilight's hoof away. "You just can't! My life before now was just absolutely fine! And then you had to go and tell me about this stupid game and now... I've been getting irritated by every little thing. I keep snappin' at my friends, my family... And I can't sleep. I keep wakin' up because them creatures just get more and more terrible every night! I'm faster 'n stronger, sure, but who cares when I can barely keep my eyes open? I don't dare close 'em, because I know I'm just gonna see those things again..."
Twilight sighed. "I'm so sorry, Applejack. I guess I thought you'd be able to take it."
Applejack pushed her away. "Twilight, nopony should be able to 'take' those things I see! It just ain't natural! It's like the complete opposite of everything that ever existed in Equestria, rolled up into one giant... giant... I don't even know! There ain't no word for it!"
Twilight stood, and Applejack watched her move slowly over to a bookshelf. She didn't choose a tome, however, her head down as she chewed on her lower lip.
"What you said just now... Applejack, I've been so busy looking for a way out of the game, I never once considered finding out where it came from. And that might just be the solution!" Her face brightened for a fleeting moment. "Only I've never read about anything even remotely like it, not even in the Star Swirl the Bearded Wing of the Canterlot Archives. I'd ask Princess Luna, since dreams are her domain, but something tells me the Princesses really shouldn't know about this."
"I know who should, though."
Twilight whirled on her. "Applejack, no! You can't!"
Applejack was already off the couch and headed for the door. "I can and I will! We need the girls to help us whip this thing!"
"AJ, if I wasn't hearing this from you, I'd never believe it, and I still don't believe it!"
"You mean to tell us that there is some horrid dream world that gives ponies power?"
"Well that's no fun!"
"It sounds... so awful..."
Applejack nodded. "It's absolutely true. I been tangled up in it for two weeks now; Twilight said she's played it for six years. She thinks there's a way to beat it and get loose, but I say that ain't gonna happen unless we can get all o' y'all in on it. I won't force or cajole y'all to say yes, though, because believe you me, ain't nothin' can prepare you for what you'll see there."
Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy looked at each other.
"Well, I'm game," said Rainbow. "I mean, it sounds creepy and all, but kicking monster butt in my dreams would sure make sleeping way cooler."
"Ain't that simple, RD," Applejack mumbled.
Rarity shook her head. "I really cannot believe that you would ask such a thing of us, Applejack. I mean, from what you've told us, there isn't even any guarantee there is an end to this 'game'. We could all end up entangled in it with no hope of escape!"
"And what about Fluttershy?" Pinkie scrunched up her face and glared at Applejack. "If she saw monsters and blood and headless bodies, she'd just curl up in a corner and scream!"
"I think we should all do it."
Four heads turned to look at Fluttershy, mouths open in disblief.
"Wait, ya can't be serious..."
"Did you just say what I think you said?"
"Fluttershy, there's no way!"
"Fluttershy, what has gotten into you?"
"I'm serious." The pegasus drew herself up and puffed her chest forward. "If this dream, whatever it is, has been trapping ponies and making them hurt or go crazy for years and years and years, well... I think we should try and stop it." Her eyes dipped floorward and she ducked behind her mane. "Even if it does sound extremely scary and gory and I don't really want to go there."
Pinkie used a hoof to close her own mouth. "Well, if Fluttershy's willing to do it, then so am I!"
They turned to Rarity, who seemed to shrink back slightly from their gazes. She swallowed, giving them a sheepish grin.
"I can't very well leave my best friends to the wolves, now can I?"
Applejack nodded. "I just wanna say one more time: none of y'all have to do this. Ya got until tonight to back out." She looked at each of them in turn; even Fluttershy returned her gaze resolutely. "Okay. Here's what ya gotta do..."
"I, Rainbow Elizabeth Dash, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!"
"I, Pinkamina Diane Pie, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!"
"I, Rarity Gardenia Sparkler, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!"
"I, um, Fluttershy Thunderbolt Morningdew, am hereby a willing player in the Ueton Game!"
"Applejack, what've you done?"
Applejack held firm under Twilight's withering gaze as she checked to make sure all five of her friends had made the transition into the game.
"What has she done?" Rarity piped up. "What did you do, Twilight?"
Rainbow Dash crossed her forelegs and glowered at Twilight. "Yeah! You're the one who started all of this!"
"Hang on now, girls," said Applejack, "it ain't exactly Twilight's fault."
"Girls? I think Fluttershy has something to say." At Pinkie's behest, all heads turned towards Fluttershy, who squeaked and shrank back, as if she'd forgotten she'd been trying to get their attention.
"Um, well, I was just going to point out that... This place sort of doesn't look anything like what Applejack described."
Applejack blinked. "You're right, sugarcube..."
They were on grass-covered rolling hills with forest to the west. The sky was grey and a light breeze, unfelt by the ponies, bent the grasses now and then, creating rustling noises that crept up their spines. A bit of fog surrounded them at a distance, and on the edges of it, dark shapes wandered aimlessly.
"Not only is this not the Ueton Game that I know," Twilight said, "I look normal now!" She ran her hooves down her neck, patting her flanks. "I don't have any of my powers!"
"Shucks, I lost my crown thingy, then." Applejack shrugged under her friends' questioning gazes. "When ya gotta blow stuff up across the room, havin' a horn's kinda nice!"
Twilight's face lit up. "Applejack, do you know what this means? Somehow, we've come to a different part of the game, one with no walls! Maybe we can make it to the center, or even the end! I think you may have just won us the game!" She threw her arms around Applejack, who blushed under the attention.
"Hey now, don't go thankin' me 'til we actually done won it." She patted Twilight and smiled. "And Twilight? I'm sorry for bein' real snippy with you lately."
"It's okay, AJ, you've been under a lot of stress."
Applejack shook her head. "I don't think it's stress. I think that, when I lost that very first time, the part of me what got taken was my temper. I've been havin' a real hard time keepin' a level head ever since. So, don't take it personal-like."
Twilight smiled and hugged her.
"Now that all the sappy junk is out of the way," Rainbow Dash said, flying out in front of them, "why don't we get going? This game's not gonna win itself, y'know!"
"All right," said Twilight with a nod, "but stay together. I've never been here before and there's no way of knowing what could be out there."
The six of them took off running north, toward a gap where fewer shapes moved. Fluttershy kept close to Pinkie while Rainbow Dash and Applejack led the charge. Applejack caught sight of some of the shapes now and again, and recognized most of them as creatures from the game, though they seemed uninterested in the intrusion. It was the ones she didn't recognize that worried her.
The hills continued to roll as they ran, seemingly infinite and never changing. The fog remained at a constant distance around them and no monsters approached.
Rainbow Dash halted, pointing skyward. It seemed, as they looked ahead, that the grey clouds slowly grew darker, and in the great distance, lightning flashed.
"That's got to be where we need to go," said Twilight. "Come on!"
All at once, there was a great moaning and the ground trembled beneath their hooves. Dozens of shapes shambled out of the mist: headless ponies, ponies with extra limbs, ponies walking upright with arms outstretched, alongside things they could barely put names to. They rose up in a wall, blocking the path forward, moving in from the sides to flank the interlopers.
Applejack narrowed her eyes and stomped the ground once.
They did so, wings flapping double time, horns aglow and hooves pounding the grass flat. Rarity lifted a mutant pony out of their path while Twilight set up a moveable barrier, pushing the things clear of their right flank. Rainbow Dash, Applejack and Pinkie went on the offensive, bucking left and right as they passed to keep the monsters off balance. Fluttershy mostly focused on keeping her eyes closed. Enough monsters fell into a tangle that those behind them got caught up in it as well, and they soon found themselves with a clear path to the storm.
Again, the ground shook, and this time split beneath them as the sky darkened overhead. A great yawning mouth made of earth and rock rose up from the fissure, crying out in anguish as a fist as large as any of them slammed into the ground. It formed a head, dark unseeing eyes staring down at them from the height of a five-story building. Applejack let her momentum carry her, jumping onto the fist as it rose back into the air and leaping into one of the eye sockets, Rainbow Dash entering the other.
Inside the thing was a teeming, roiling mass of flesh and blood, moaning and straining to break free from the bone cages which held it in the shape of walls. Rainbow Dash shivered, but Applejack scanned the interior, turning around when she saw what she was looking for.
"Twilight!" she called out of the eye. "We need some light up here! I think I see a weak spot!"
While Pinkie and Fluttershy kept it busy on the ground, Twilight and Rarity sent light balls upward to illuminate the inside of the creature's head. At the center of the head was a pulsating thing that looked like a brain. Applejack and Rainbow Dash exchanged a glance, nodded, and lashed out simultaneously.
The earth giant exploded in a shower of rock and bone, and Twilight kept the four on the ground safe from the debris with a shimmering half-dome of light. Rainbow Dash appeared holding Applejack aloft as the dirt oozed back into the fissure that had spawned it and the earth sealed back up.
The sky darkened further.
"Look, the mist is parting!"
A spire rose up from the horizon, its outlines becoming clearer as the fog burned away. Lightning struck its top and the thunder resonated in their guts. With a quick nod to make sure everypony was unhurt, Twilight led the charge toward the tower.
The grass gave out here, and bare earth soon became a rocky plain. As they ran closer and closer, never tiring, the lightning began to seek them out. First a bolt struck a rock near Pinkie Pie, turning it into a shower of gravel. Then Rainbow Dash had a near-miss and folded her wings, joining her friends on the ground. With the lack of high structures, the lightning appeared to be seeking them out, and they had just enough time before each strike to move clear. Without further ado, they reached the foot of the tower.
"Oh my stars," Rarity breathed, "it's so... so high!"
They craned their necks upward, but, though they had seen the top from afar, they now could no longer tell where tower ended and sky began. A doorway, ten times their size, gaped out from the spire and grudgingly invited them in. Horns alight, they made a cautious entrance.
"...Eugh, and horribly gauche."
The interior was dimly lit, patterned with glowing orange cracks in a smooth, dark-brown stone. Above, giant cogs whirred and spun lazily, powering some unknown machine further up. The black floor was so polished they could see their reflections. In the center of the tower opening, far inside the walls, was a cylinder with a door facing them. Twilight glanced at each member of the group, getting a nod, before they moved over to it and pulled it open. The interior was black.
"It's just like goin' through doors in the game," Applejack said. "Don't know what's there 'til you make it through."
"Only one way to find out then," replied Twilight. "On three. One... two...!"
They plunged into the darkness, but their hooves did not meet with floor on the other side. Instead, they dropped slightly, landing unsteadily a few feet below where they started.
The interior of the cylinder was so much larger than its exterior dimensions, it was like they were in another place entirely. Something large thrummed rhythmically overhead, and blue and orange lights pulsated from nowhere in particular. A bank of screens faced them, a solid wall that cut the room into a semicircle.
"Where are we?"
"Greetings," said a harsh yet feminine voice. Light coalesced in front of them, producing an image of a dark alicorn. "Whatever weary traveler thou art, I bid thee welcome to the Abyss of Dreams."
Luna blinked, looking down at them. "Thou knowest me?"
"It's me, Twilight Sparkle, and the other Elements of Harmony!"
The image blinked again, uncomprehending. "That name does not spark my memory. But I am not truly Princess Luna, merely a shadow, left here to guard the Abyss."
Applejack's eyes widened as the screens lit up, showing them scene after scene of ponies engaged in all sorts of activities, some of which were absolutely implausible.
"What's the Abyss of Dreams?" Rainbow Dash flew closer to the screens, observing a scene of a unicorn stallion surfing on a wave of pudding.
"The Abyss is a reliquary, a repository for all dreams that are and that have been. What thou seest before thee is but a sample of the dream images stored herein."
Applejack looked at Twilight, who seemed to be concentrating on the floor. "I think I know what you're gonna ask."
Twilight lifted her head, gazing levelly at Luna. "What does this have to do with the Ueton Game?"
The image of Luna seemed taken aback. "What is this game thou speakest of?"
"It's a shared dream world. Ponies who participate in it become trapped, seeing horrors in their sleep and battling for survival night after night."
Luna's eyes searched side to side. "I do not know! I have never heard of such a thing! Perhaps..."
Rarity leaned forward. "Yes?"
"The reliquary in which you stand is but an archive, yet the architecture enclosing it was designed with another purpose in mind." The screens changed, now showing a single image across their breadth, of the dawn of Equestria. "Long ago, at the founding of the nation we call Equestria, my sister and I feared the return of the windigoes. We sought a way to remove negative emotions and violent thoughts from the populace, at least insofar as we could. Dreams were the answer.
"We sponged negativity from the dreams of ponies, taking the worst images and locking them away. The capstone of the Abyss of Dreams is made of these images."
"So you mean all this time we been fightin' monsters and the like, it's because this here Abyss is full of other ponies' bad dreams?"
Luna nodded. "Something like that. I fear that our original plans did not last, however." Her image began to shimmer, as though something were pushing through it. "It is very possible..." Parts of Luna's form flashed, showing dark images. The ponies stepped back. "That the Abyss, in gathering all these negative feelings, has taken on a wi--"
The image glowed brightly and flashed. The six ponies gasped.
"Enough talking!" The image of Nightmare Moon laughed and expanded, doubling and redoubling in size, cracking and shattering the monitors as it pressed up against them. Within a minute, it filled the entire room, gazing down upon them with malevolence and bringing down a hoof that cracked the floor with its strength.
Again and again, the four hooves, seemingly disconnected from one another, crashed down, missing the ponies by inches. The image cackled and shouted at them.
"This is my domain! I have been here for too long!"
Applejack rolled to the side of a hoof that struck between her and Rarity. "Twilight, what in the hay is Nightmare Moon doin' here?"
"I don't know!" Twilight stopped short of being crushed beneath a hoof and teleported across the room. "But if that wasn't really Luna, then this isn't really Nightmare Moon!"
"You coulda fooled me!" cried Rainbow Dash, diving down and sweeping Pinkie off her hooves just in time.
"If only we had the Elements of Harmony with us!" cried Rarity. "Surely they could defeat this thing!"
The Nightmare Moon image's face melded into a black vortex of clouds in the ceiling, glowing eyes and mouth its only features. "You cannot defeat me! I am all-powerful here!" Lightning crackled along the swirling clouds, and the image cackled more.
"We do have the Elements of Harmony!" Twilight stopped her forward momentum, a giant hoof swinging over her head, and turned to her friends. "This is a dream, remember? Concentrate on your Elements, girls!"
Though the constant threat of attacks put them under severe strain, one by one, the six ponies drew upon their inner strength. Lights glowed as the Elements of Harmony manifested upon their bearers, causing the Nightmare which opposed them to scream in pain.
"We can do this! Elements of Harmony, formation!"
Though it screamed and pleaded, though it formed more spiderlike legs from the darkness with which to try and crush them, the shadow of Nightmare Moon was powerless against the Elements' light. Six spheres rose up in a circle and began to spiral ever faster beneath the black vortex which held the face. Rainbows pierced the dark clouds, drawing high-pitched squeals of anguish from the beast, until, with a final explosion of light, the screaming stopped and everything went dark.
Applejack was on her hooves before she even realized she needed to get out of bed, waking Big Macintosh and Apple Bloom as she raced out the door of the farmhouse. She tore down the dirt path toward Ponyville, all the while shouting, "Twilight! Rarity! Fluttershy!"
She collided with the latter as she crossed the bridge over the creek, shooting the pegasus a look but saying nothing as both plowed forward. Pinkie and Rainbow Dash joined their charge down Mane Street as lights one by one flicked on in homes across Ponyville.
"Applejack! Pinkie Pie!"
They skidded to a halt and ended up in a large pile, laughing and hugging each other with abandon.
"We did it, girls, we did it! We beat the game! I can't believe it!" Twilight sniffed and wiped tears from her eyes.
"But how did we even do it?" Rainbow Dash extricated herself from a tight Pinkie hug, trying to maintain her image. "What in the hay happened?"
Applejack looked to Twilight. "Yeah, I mean... When we all showed up, everything was different!"
Twilight laughed and shrugged. "I have no idea! Maybe it's because we all teamed up to work together! Maybe it's because we're the Elements of Harmony. We'll never know, but it doesn't matter, because we did it!"
"I knew we could do it," said Fluttershy, eyes brimming.
"What's goin' on? What's all the racket?"
"Hey, would you keep it down out there? Some of us are tryin' to sleep!"
"Shut up out there!"
Sheepishly, the six ponies picked themselves up, looked at one another, and silently decided they would be best off having an impromptu slumber party in the library.
At least six ponies in Ponyville would sleep well that night.
Here marks the conclusion of the second /fic/ Write-off. Before we even begin I'd like to say that we had some seriously fierce competition this time, and I believe everyone well-exceeded expectations. The stories in this event achieved an average score of 6.4, easily dwarfing the previous event's 5.6. Even if you didn't come first, even if you came last, you're still a winner, because you got something written down. But enough chat. I'm sure you're all wondering, "Who won?" Well, without further ado, here are your champions:
(Right after the break)
(Elevator music) [Automated Operator]: "We'd like to remind you that the top five stories were sorted by judge rankings, and that all other stories were sorted by score from public votes."
Gold Medal Sword, Hammer, Stallion by Redsquirrel456 (8.22)
Silver Medal Minotamed by Silverquill (7.09)
Bronze Medal A Game of Twits by Cassius (7.17)
Copper Medallions I Dream of Daisies by Ezn (7.61) The Ueton Game by PresentPerfect (7.29)
Murky Medallions FLaSHBA-CK by Derpyanon (7.04) For the Love of All by Casca (7.04) Pieonic by Duskwing (6.65) A Case of You by Anonymous (6.32) Pinkie Pie Learns About Double Edged Swords by Grif (6.22)
Participation Certificate A True Magician by The Great and Powerful!Trixie (5.96) Creepy Doll From Down the Lane by Dublio (5.95) Pinkie's Panic by Bidoof (5.92) Correspondence by Cainiam (5.77) Harmony by theworstwriter (5.71) Piercing Octaves by RogerDodger (5.62) Call Me, Call Me by StarmanTheta (5.52) Shadows by Kurbz (5.48) Benefits and Consequences by LunarShadow (5.09)
I extend again a congratulations to everyone who participated, no matter how well you performed!
Full vote breakdown: http://i.imgur.com/AEc54.png Total number of voters: 26 This time we had more voters and more votes per voter, and all with fewer viewers! That's pretty cool, I think. Clearly the story quality was so outstanding that it kept people reading.
The Judges The final five were sent to a panel of four judges: Corejo, Pascoite, Thanqol, and Vimbert. Their comments and individual rankings: http://goo.gl/FlpOH
Each judge ranked the final five from best to worst, 1st–5th. The scores for the finalists were calculated by the following: 20 – (sum of ranks). For example, a story that that was ranked 5th by all four judges would get a score of zero. Judge tally: http://goo.gl/Yn7BN
Now for the esoteric awards:
Someone Drooled over Your Story Sword, Hammer, Stallion (9) A Game of Twits (2) For the Love of All (2) Pieonic (2) The Ueton Game (2) A Case of You (1) Creepy Doll From Down the Lane (1) FLaSHBA-CK (1) Harmony (1) I Dream of Daisies (1) Pinkie Pie Learns About Double Edged Swords (1)
Someone Wants to Send Your Story to the Moon A Case of You (1) A True Magician (1) Benefits and Consequences (1) Call Me, Call Me (1) Sword, Hammer, Stallion (1)
QUESTIONNAIRE TIME What did you think of: • The time limit: too long, too short, just right? • The start/finish time: bad for you, good for you, indifferent? • The voting stage: too long, too short, not promoted well enough? • The use of judges to sort the finalists? • The prompt? • The formatting of your stories?* *Anyone who sent me a .docx and complains gets a slap.
Again, thank you all—voters, submitters, spectators, hecklers, spacemen, admirals, etc.—for your participation in making this a great success!