A deadline threatens Twilight Sparkle's sanity. Again. Only one pink pony can save Twilight's brain!
Rainy weather and a looming deadline drive Twilight Sparkle up the walls and Spike out of the tree. Only Pinkie Pie can save the day, by introducing the reluctant librarian to an unexpected new hobby. Astoundingly, sex does not ensue.
Twilight Sparkle quite liked a rainy day, now and then. Wet weather did away with the tiny, nagging feeling that staying indoors all day with her books might be unduly self-indulgent, and the rumble of rain could be strangely more peaceful than silence. So long as she had no plans to be spoiled, and the weather pegasi didn’t stack too many of them in a row, then yes, Twilight was usually just fine with a good rainstorm.
But usually, she wasn’t trapped inside with... it. The mind-destroying monster, the scourge of all scholars, the silent beast that watched her every move and made each moment a misery. This wretched, miserable blank sheet of paper.
It taunted her. The only way to defeat the blasted thing was to cover its thought-sucking surface with words, but so far she had written only enough to give the creature a name: “On Magic, Friendship and the Elements of Harmony”.
Adding “by Twilight Sparkle” did no more than bind the nemesis personally to her soul. Below that was the culmination of her efforts thus far:
After countless false starts she was reasonably sure that “The” was the right way to kick off. After “The”, surely, the remaining nine hundred and ninety-nine words would be a piece of cake.
She just didn't have anything to say. Everything she had learned of friendship, and its relation to magic, she'd already poured out in weekly letters. Even her personal experiences wielding the Elements of Harmony had been documented in as much detail as her meticulous mind could assemble. She didn't want to repeat things Celestia had already read.
It wasn't as though she could pop out and find some new magical threat to all of Equestria to defeat for the sake of fresh material, even if she hadn't learned well not to go looking for trouble just to complete an assignment. The prospect of awakening yet another ancient evil was looking more appealing by the minute, though. What terror could Discord's brother, or a volcano goddess, or any other monstrosity hold, compared to facing a thousand words! due tomorrow! with nothing to show but a lousy blasted hoof-rotted “THE”!
The paper after “The” was worn white and thin with multiple magical erasures, and that sheet was only the latest in a pile already crumpled and tossed aside after reaching their own limits of durability. With a sigh, she lifted her quill again with the power of her horn and took another slash at the enemy.
The study of magic is
The study of magic has been
The study of magic has always been
The study of magic is a field which has always been
“RRRRGH!” she screamed through her teeth, dropping her forehead to the desk and gouging a little divot through the paper with her horn. She glared at the woodgrain of the floor, daring it to say anything.
“Umm... Twilight?” came a soft, hesitant voice from across the desk.
“WHAT?” Twilight barked, snapping her head up. Spike, the baby dragon, recoiled, tangling his fingers together and ducking his head. The sudden fright in his eyes cut through her annoyance and dug a guilty little claw into her heart. She closed her own eyes for a moment, summoning forth her most gentle tone of voice, with extra sugar. “I’m sorry... I mean, what is it, Spike, dear?”
The unaccustomed endearment made little impact. Still more subdued than his usual confident, cheery self, Spike said, “I... I was gonna make some lunch, but we’re out of bread and really low on veggies and stuff.”
Twilight put on what she hoped would resemble a genuine smile. “Oh. Well, I guess we can go shopping when the rain lets up, if it’s not too late...” she began, but Spike immediately perked up.
“Nah, I don’t mind the rain. I don't have all that hair to soak it up like you do.” Seeing the excited gleam in his eyes — is he that eager just to get away from me for awhile? — Twilight gave a dubious nod.
“Okay, if you really want to, go ahead and take some bits from the box.” she said. Spike was in motion by the fourth word. Hearing the jingle of coins from the lockbox in the kitchen, she called out, “Hey, Spike?”
“Take some extra and get yourself a treat too, okay?”
“Will do, Twilight! Thanks!”
The cheerful bounce in his step as he left helped raise Twilight's mood as well, but the warm feeling subsided when the door shut behind him, leaving her alone once more with her papery arch-nemesis.
Chapter One: Salon of Doom!
Twilight assumed that Spike would swing by Sugarcube Corner and come back with something like cupcakes or cookies. She didn't expect him to bring back an extra pony.
While Spike was gone, Twilight managed to arrange her desk to the physical limits of tidiness, and write almost but not quite one complete sentence. When the door banged open, letting in a burst of rain and some sort of pink explosion, Twilight gave a strangled cry and leapt up nearly to the ceiling. Her quill whickered through the air, propelled by a reflexive burst of magic, to lodge quivering in the wall.
“TWILIGHT!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, in a tone more appropriate to finding the unicorn lying in a pool of blood than quietly struggling over an essay. Before Twilight could react in any sensible way — before she had even landed from her startled leap — Pinkie was upon her, grasping her cheeks in both hooves and examining her eyes.
“Pinkie — what — I’m FINE, what’s gotten into you?”
“Oh, yes, this is serious, Spike, you were right to call me.”
“What's serious?” Twilight sputtered, pushing Pinkie’s hooves aside and backing away irritably. “The worst affliction I’ve got is an attack of the Pinks!”
Pinkie shook her head and tsked. “Oh, Twilight. Yoooooouuuu —“, she pointed accusingly, “— are ALL COOPED UP!”
Twilight scowled and ran a hoof through her mane to straighten it. “Pinkie, I’m too busy to deal with nonsense right now...”
“Nonsense, huh?” Pinkie shot Spike a grave, knowing look.
“Yup. Worst case I’ve ever seen.” the dragon replied, just as somber.
“Ugh! For crying out loud, what are you two going on about?”
“Ob-serruv!” Pinkie barked. In unison, with identical solemn expressions, she and Spike held up two lengths of soft white rope. “Two identical ropes.”
Precise as soldiers in drill, Pinkie and Spike looped their ropes into loose knots. “And here we have a pair of simple overhoof knots.”
Twilight rolled her eyes and opened her mouth to speak again, but Pinkie cut her off.
“Now watch! As Spike attempts to undo his knot using Method 1: working harder and harder.”
Theatrically, Spike grabbed the ends of his rope and yanked, drawing the knot tighter. Looking for all the world as though he were surprised by this result, he tugged the ends with ever more determination, claws shredding the fibers while the knot was pulled into a taut, inextricable knob. He scowled at it and continued wrestling the rope while Pinkie proceeded.
“And now see as I address my knot by relaxing...” she said, drawing the last word out into a soft purr as she brought the ends of her rope closer together, letting the knot droop between them. The loosely-tied knot growing slacker, she raised one end of the rope and let the loop slide of its own accord toward her lower hoof. “I just let off the tension, let things flow... and voila!”
Giving the rope a little shake, she had the knot wide and loose enough to drape over her hoof, and by letting go of the end, she was able to simply wiggle the rope straight again.
“Behold, the knot is gone! Spike, any luck with yours?”
Spike shook his head sadly and held up his rope, displaying its firmly locked-up knot and torn ends. He bobbed it and delivered the punchline in perfect deadpan.
“Nope. I’m a frayed knot.”
Twilight snorted. “Okay, I get it. But really, Pinkie, I just haven’t got time to waste —“
“Will a couple of hours be less wasted if you spend them grinding and grinding and erasing and crumpling papers and snapping at Spike, than if you spend them doing something light and fun and letting your talky-talk brain relax while your thinky-think brain works things out?”
Twilight stopped short, a different kind of frown settling onto her features as she finally stopped to think about what Pinkie was saying, instead of how to get her to go away. She darted a quick guilty look at Spike, who wore a mild poker face.
Pinkie bounced closer and put her hoof on Twilight’s shoulder.
“For reals, I know you need to get your homework done, but right now you’re just tugging and tugging at your knot and it’s not helping. I bet you can even feel the knot, right here, can’t’cha?” She tapped lightly on Twilight’s forehead, just below the base of her horn, and Twilight couldn't deny a feeling like something solid and stressed right under the bone, just where Pinkie indicated.
“Pinkie Sense tells you that?” Twilight asked dubiously.
“Nope! Common sense!” Pinkie giggled and leaned forward to look Twilight straight in the eyes, indifferent as ever to personal space. “You need some fun, and that’s totally my department!”
Twilight pondered carefully the odds of successfully arguing with Pinkie, and after a long, thoughtful pause, conceded to the inevitable. “Okay, fine. I do need a break, and I am pushing too hard without getting anywhere.” she admitted, setting the pink pony bouncing in delight.
“Allllll right!” Pinkie squealed, bounding over to her saddlebags and flipping them open. "You're gonna love this!"
Twilight knew Pinkie well enough to realize that quite literally anything could come out of her big magenta saddlebags, but she was still mystified when it turned out to be a series of miniature buildings. Blinking in puzzlement, Twilight leaned in to inspect one, and saw that it was a very detailed, hoof-painted replica of Sugarcube Corner.
Pinkie set about creating a little panorama of Ponyville landmarks on a book-free patch of floor, each carefully recreated on a tiny scale: the bakery, the Carousel Boutique, the town square's ornamental fountain, a Sweet Apple Acres barn. Wonder dawned in a broad grin across Twilight's features.
"Pinkie, these are amazing — and you've even got a little Library!" She couldn't help but give a little squeal when Pinkie set out the miniature Library tree, bedecked with tiny silk leaves. "Did you make these yourself?"
"Sort of. Not from scratch." Pinkie said modestly, though her smile was wide and proud. "Mostly they're just ordinary dollhouses I decorated to look like my favorite places! I was gonna make Sugarcube Corner out of real gingerbread, but that, um, didn't get very far."
Twilight knelt down on her belly to peer closer at the little buildings, tentatively plucking at the Library's door and giggling again when she found that it did open on tiny hinges. "This must have taken you so long!"
"A little bit here, a little bit there," Pinkie said airily. "I've been working on 'em for years now. It's my rainy-day-nopony-around-to-party-with thing, and now I'm making it your rainy-day-can't-stand-to-work-anymore thing!"
Twilight raised her head to give Pinkie a warm smile. "I'm really impressed, Pinkie. Thanks for sharing!"
Pinkie grinned back and pulled one last box from the saddlebags. Leaning closer, she waggled her eyebrows and said, "Oh, but they're not just for looking at, Twilight! I brought this stuff over to play!"
She turned the box over and dumped a pile of tiny ponies in the middle of the impromptu Ponyville. Twilight's grin froze slightly.
"You want to play with dolls?" she asked, very nearly succeeding at keeping scorn from her tone.
"I sure do!" Pinkie chirped, and poked Twilight's shoulder. "And you're gonna play with me! Dr. Pinkie insists."
"Well... if you say so..." With a polite smile pasted on, she poked at the pile of dolls. One particularly bright-colored pony caught her eye, and her expression swerved again to genuine, pleased surprise as she lifted the little rainbow-maned pegasus for a closer look. The carefully painted lightning-flash cutie mark on the doll's flank was unmistakable.
"They make Rainbow Dash dolls?" She asked, disbelieving. Now that she knew what to look for, she found other familiar color combinations in the pile and picked them up. "And... Fluttershy? Rarity? Hunh! And me!"
"Nope! 'They' don't make 'em, I do!" Pinkie bounced gleefully. "Just plain generic filly dolls, paint and patience! Well, except for these two of course..." She drew out a pair of ponies larger than the others: two regal alicorns, one evening blue, the other...
"Uh, Pinkie, why is your Celestia all... pink?"
Pinkie rolled her eyes and gave a little growl of frustration. "Ugh! I don't know, but those are the only ones they sell! You'd think they could get that right, but nooo..." She set the Princesses up on a high bookshelf overlooking the miniature town, and with a self-satisfied little hum, found a book with a picture of Canterlot Castle on its cover to put behind them.
"Huh. Weird." Twilight shrugged and looked back at the lovingly detailed figures of her friends. "This is just bizarrely sweet, Pinkie. Have you shown these to any of the others?"
"Just Fluttershy. It's not really AJ or Dashie's kind of thing."
"Not exactly, no." Twilight put down the rest, but continued to turn the Rainbow Dash doll over in the air, wondering how Pinkie managed to get such perfect stripes in its hair. "Um, so, okay... how do you play with them?"
Pinkie let out a little snort. "Oh come on! I know you've always been the booky type but you must know how to play with dolls. There's no trick to it, you just... y'know... play with 'em." She picked up a little mint-green unicorn, whom Twilight recognized by appearance if not by name, and demonstrated making the doll walk around, lightly humming, "La-la-la... you know, just like that!"
Twilight nodded slowly and, humoring Pinkie, resolved to give it an honest try. She put the pegasus doll on the floor and self-consciously trotted it around, looking up toward Pinkie to see if she was doing it right.
Pinkie gave her a strange look. “Twiiiii-light... that’s Rainbow Dash.”
“Well yeah...?" Twilight looked blankly at Pinkie, to be met only with a mildly exasperated stare, until suddenly she got it. "Oh! Right!”
Twilight raised the doll with her hornlight, stretched its legs out, and made it swoop in long curves through the air instead of walking. Pinkie nodded approval and mimed applause.
Giggling, Twilight lowered her voice and tried to imitate Dash's raspy tones. “Zzzhhhooomm... I’m Rainbow Dash! I’m the fastest flier around! I’ve gotta practice for the Wonderbolts!”
Pinkie grinned madly and put aside the green unicorn to pick up Rarity instead, posing her in the doorway of the miniature Carousel Boutique. “Oh Rainbow Daaaaaaash!” she trilled. Her imitation of the elegant unicorn’s lilting inflection was quite close, though it sounded odd in Pinkie’s higher pitch.
Rainbow Dash hovered down near Rarity. “Hey Rarity! What’s up?”
“Your mane is a mess! You should let me style it!”
“No way! I like being messy! And I’m way too busy practicing.” The brash flier started to soar away, but Rarity gave a mighty leap and tangled her legs around the protesting pegasus.
“Oh no you don’t! You’re coming with me!” Practicing the aerial combat manoeuvre of repeatedly bashing into the target with her hooves, Rarity managed to drag Rainbow Dash kicking and yelling down toward the boutique.
“Nuh uh! Lemme go!”
“Not this time! You’re going to look pretty if it kills you!” The unicorn was implacable, and moments later Rainbow Dash found herself perched on a chair inside the boutique.
Rarity gave an evil yet elegant laugh and paced around her captive, who struggled weakly against the invisible ropes binding her. "For too long you've run around with the messiest mane in Equestria!" she declaimed. Her horn emitted a mysterious Bwoooeeeoooeeeooo! sound, and an oversized hairbrush floated toward Rainbow Dash with sinister intent. "Today your wild rainbow tresses shall be tamed!"
Rainbow Dash cried out in terror, but for naught, as the crazed fashionista and her horrible hairbrush closed in. Rarity’s makeover technique was much the same as her combat moves, consisting largely of bumping her hooves and muzzle against Rainbow Dash while the brush flailed at the captive’s mane and tail. Struck numb with tonsorial anguish, Dash was helpless to resist, but she could certainly yell.
“Help! Help! I’m being...FROU-FROU’D!” she cried.
“Not on MAH watch!” came another voice, deeper, with a broad country accent, yet still curiously similar to the voice of Rainbow Dash. With a triumphant trumpet blare, Applejack burst into the boutique, propelled by a glowing violet aura of unicorn magic.
“Rarity!” she declared sternly. “You know better than to go gussyin’ up ponies without their permission!”
“Ahaha! But you cannot stop ME, silly filly!” Rarity’s horn went wooeeeoooeeeoop again and a large hair dryer flew up to menace Applejack. “NOPONY can stop RARITY! Soon all of Equestria will be... FABULOUS!”
But Applejack was fearless, even when the hair dryer started going voooooooosh and assaulting her with birdlike swoops.
“No way, sugarcube!” she sneered. “Your reign of terrific is over!”
Applejack launched herself at Rarity, and the battle was on. The combatants were more evenly matched than anyone would suspect, both well-versed in the martial art of randomly smacking against each other and going "Kssh! Kah! Bshh! Arg nonono ahh ahh ahh!"
But after a few rounds of epic battle, Rarity backed away and wooeeeoooped with her horn again, bringing in a sinister new weapon: a gigantic tube of lipstick in vivid bubblegum pink. Leaping forward to pin Applejack to the ground, the white unicorn mercilessly smeared the orange earth pony’s mouth area with girly color, and forced the frilliest tulle skirt in the boutique’s giant cardboard wardrobe around Applejack’s waist.
“Ha ha ha!” Rarity crowed, wickedly, allowing her victim to stand and look at herself in a full length mirror. Applejack was frozen in horror for a moment, then reared up on her back legs to give voice to a cry of purest soul’s anguish.
“Oh NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO —“
In a barn at Sweet Apple Acres, the real flesh and blood Applejack dunked her muzzle into a trough of cool, clear water, taking a break from the indoor work she’d been doing to keep busy despite the weather.
Her ears flicked and she raised her head with a mildly puzzled frown. She turned her head back and forth, thoughtfully staring into space while her ears swiveled slowly and carefully around.
She didn’t hear anything but the susurrus of rain on the roof. Eventually, she shrugged and lowered her head again to take a bite from a nearby bale of hay.
“— OOOOOoooooooooooooohhh...” Applejack’s despairing cry trailed off to a woeful croak.
“Ahaha, but yes!” Rarity cackled in triumph.
Applejack staggered painfully, listing one way and then the other, before falling weakly on her side. “Aggh! Too... girly... pink lace... ungh!”
“AJ! No!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. Rarity let loose an evil villain laugh and advanced toward Dash with the menacing pink lipstick.
“Only one hope left...” Applejack gasped, raising her head painfully from the floor. “Fluttershy... you got to... help us...”
“Fluttershy?” Rarity laughed scornfully.
“How’s she gonna help?” Pinkie looked up from the toys and gave Twilight a mystified head-tilt. Twilight replied with a broad impish grin, the gleam of inspiration in her eyes.
“She’s got a secret weapon. Hang on just a sec!” Twilight leapt up and trotted quickly upstairs, grabbing the Fluttershy doll with her magic as she went. Pinkie rubbed her chin thoughtfully, pondering what the unicorn might be up to, before turning a wicked grin on Rarity's tiny victims.
With Rainbow Dash and Applejack both rendered silent and still by the assault and beautify, Rarity giggled madly to herself and smeared lipstick all over Dash’s face, before bringing forth a giant soft brush to powder both victims liberally with magenta blush.
“So pretty — so pretty!” she singsonged, but then gasped and jumped in surprise as a shadow suddenly loomed over the boutique.
Fluttershy was perched on the rim of a gigantic, floating wicker basket, and she called down in a voice so tiny and squeaky it verged on insulting.
“Um, hey, did somepony call for a rescue?” she asked, cautiously.
“Fluttershy — thank apples you’re here!” Applejack said. “Rarity’s givin’ us unwarranted makeovers!”
“Oh, that’s not very nice is it?”
“Not at all! But you can’t stop me!” Rarity declared. “Come any closer and I’ll fancy you up just like the others! Ahahaha!”
“Um, no, I don’t think you will...” Fluttershy replied, then took a deep breath and shouted, “GET HER, MY BUNNIES!”
Fluttershy made a courageous, graceful leap from her floating basket to the ground, though she cleverly made it seem like she just fell out of the basket as it tipped over, showering the boutique with her minions: hundreds of white bunnies, so furry they didn’t even seem to have ears or any other features, just puffs of cottony fuzz.
“OH NO, BUNNIES!” Rarity had time to scream before she was buried in the puffy horde. “Curses, my only weakness! Too cute! Too fluffy!”
With the evil makeoverlord vanquished, or at least temporarily stunned, Fluttershy hovered above the bunny pile and called out for Rainbow Dash and Applejack.
“Are you okay?” she asked nervously. Applejack was first to recover and pop up from under the cotton balls, muttering apple-filled curses.
“I’m okay, but I got to get this makeup off!” She grabbed a bunny and wiped her face with it.
Rainbow Dash emerged also, and spoke in a voice that for some reason sounded more like Pinkie Pie than she had before.
“That was a great rescue, Fluttershy! You’re my awesome hero!”
“Oh, it was nothing...” Fluttershy began modestly, but Rainbow Dash cut her off.
“Let’s make smoochies!” the blue pegasus exclaimed, bopping her lips up against Fluttershy’s and tilting back and forth. “Mwaah! Mwaah! Mwaah!”
“PINKIE!” Twilight laughed and gave Pinkie Pie a startled, scandalized open-mouthed grin, reflexively pulling the Fluttershy doll back. Pinkie stuck out her tongue.
“Oh, relax! These are make-believe ponies, they do smoochies a lot more than real ponies. Well, more than most real ponies, anyway. See?”
Spurned by Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash flew back down to Applejack and said “You looked real good with that skirt on AJ!”
“Thanks Dashie!” Applejack answered. “Now for kissies! Mwah mwah!”
Twilight smacked a hoof against her own face and dragged it slowly downward, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter at Pinkie's enthusiastic Appledashing. “Pinkie Pie, you... you are something else.”
“I am? Ooh, what am I?” Pinkie dropped the dolls and bounced on her hooves in excitement. “Am I a coconut cream pie? Oh please say I’m a coconut cream pie!”
Twilight opened one eye and saw nothing on Pinkie’s face but wide-eyed anticipation, eager to be declared a dessert. Twilight tried to hold back, but the laugh built up too much pressure, escaping first as a snort, then a sputter through pursed lips, and then she gave up, fell to the floor laughing heartily, rolling onto her back holding her belly. Pinkie bounced even higher, wearing a big toothy grin and glowing with pride.
When Twilight managed to catch her breath again, Pinkie settled onto the ground nearby and asked indulgently, “There, see? Feeling better now?”
“I really am, Pinkie.” Twilight wiped away tears before rolling her eyes up toward the pink pony. “I’m glad you came over.”
“Me too! This is loads better than sitting around the bakery all day with no customers because of the rain.”
“Yeah, I bet....” The suggestion of work drew Twilight’s gaze reluctantly over toward her writing desk. “But I probably should get back to that essay...”
“NOT SO FAST!” boomed a new voice, echoing menacingly across the miniature Ponyville...
High amid the grumbling clouds that showered Ponyville, Rainbow Dash stood on a tuffet of mist, eyeing the lower-hanging rainclouds. They were nicely spaced but not, she thought, well deployed. Too many were raining on buildings and pavement that didn't need watering.
Raising her head defiantly into the gale, she spread her wings wide and flexed them to test the wind, then leaped from her perch in a graceful arc. From the peak she let herself drop in a smooth curve, swooping under a particular bed-sized cloud, then up again to loop around and land atop it.
She waved to get the attention of Cloudchaser and Flitter, who were trimming the edges of a nearby cloudbank, and hoof-signed what she wanted done with the misplaced clouds. When they'd signaled agreement and set about the new task, Dash dug her hooves into the cloud she stood upon. With big steady power-sweeps of her wings, she began pushing it away from the town center, toward greener areas beyond the Library tree.
She glanced down as she passed over the Library. Twilight Sparkle was probably inside reading her precious books and drinking tea, while good old Rainbow Dash was out shoving clouds in the lightning and rain.
She grinned. Poor egghead unicorn just didn't know what she was missing.
A flash of cheerful color caught her eye against the the Library's dark brown bark. Frowning, she pushed the cloud to a suitable position, then glided back to the tree. As she dropped lower, her suspicion proved right: the color was that of three familiar fillies in bright yellow rain slickers, clustered at a window staring in.
Dash scowled and hovered up behind them.
"Hey! What's the big idea, spying on Twilight?"
The Cutie Mark Crusaders jumped and whirled around. Scootaloo gave a shush before fully realizing who the noisemaker was. Quickly, she put up an angelically innocent smile and said, "Oh hi, Rainbow Dash!"
"Oh hi, yourself! What are you three up to?" Rainbow demanded, hooves on hips.
"We, um, we're just..." Sweetie Belle said, but couldn't decide what they were just.
"When the rain got heavy, we got stuck under the tree." Apple Bloom gestured up to the leafy canopy.
"So go knock on the door! Twilight's not gonna leave you out in the rain."
"We were busy playing in the mud," said Sweetie Belle, as though it were the most obvious thing.
"Oh. Right. Of course." Dash mocked. "But still! You shouldn't be peeking through windows." she added sternly, like she never did it herself.
"Well, we wouldn't —" Apple Bloom began.
"We weren't planning on it, but we heard Pinkie Pie laughing in there, and we sort of looked in, a little, and..." continued Sweetie Belle.
"And... what?" Dash leaned forward and glanced at the window. "Are they doing some kind of cool magic in there?" she whispered, then added, "Which is not an excuse!"
"No, that's not it, they're... well, you just have to see this for yourself." Scootaloo concluded.
Dash bit her lip and fought her conscience for a moment, but inevitably her eyes crept toward the window, followed by a turn of her head, followed by a quick flap over to nudge the fillies aside and have a look for herself.
Blank-faced, she looked for a long while.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
Chapter Two: Genuine Rarity
"I'm very disappointed in all of you!"
Shining Armor, Captain of the Royal Guard, stood tall in judgement above Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. "That her own best friends would treat Lady Rarity so shamefully!"
"And you, Fluttershy!" added Princess Cadance, stepping up alongside him. "How could you just air-drop all those poor bunnies like that?"
"It's a good thing we came along when we did! Who knows what you might dump on her next!"
The three chastised ponies were silent and still, struck dumb by guilt or astonishment at the sudden appearance of the royal pair in Ponyville.
"Oh, um... I mean, can I play too?" asked Spike, rather more politely, hunching his head under the blank stares he was getting from Pinkie Pie and Twilight. In his hands were a pair of toy ponies, quite different in design from Pinkie's.
"Sure thing, Spike-a-ding!" Pinkie chirped. She leaned over to examine the figurines he held, ignoring the weird look he gave her about 'Spike-a-ding'. "Oh hey, Shining Armor and Cadance! I haven't done them yet!"
"Spike! Did you take those from the wedding cake?" Twilight asked, her tone more amused than sharp, by the slightest of margin.
"Nuh-uh, honest!" protested Spike. "These are souvenirs — I bought 'em!" Something in his expression suggested to Twilight that it wasn't for lack of effort that he didn't have the original cake figures, but she saw no reason to pursue it further.
"Ooh look, he's got us too!" squealed Pinkie, peering into the small basket by Spike's side.
Spike nodded. "Yep! They had a whole 'Royal Wedding Party' set, bridlemaids and all. With a castle!"
Pinkie reached in and held up a Twilight Sparkle figurine, dressed in her wedding-party gown. She looked toward her own collection with a faint frown. "Huh. I guess they do make dolls of us."
Spike caught her expression and hastened to say, "Sure, but yours are way better. I mean, look how cheaply these are painted!"
Pinkie took a closer look at the Twilight figure, with its features uneven and tail stripes slapdash. She picked up her own hoofmade Twilight and held them side-by-side. Even from where Twilight — the real one — sat, she could see there was no comparison of quality. The souvenir figure was just an ornament, smaller than Pinkie's doll and simplistically detailed, with mere dots for eyes and a paper dress.
"Yeah, you're right. I win!" Pinkie concluded with a sunny grin. She hunkered down again on the floor near the toy Carousel Boutique, and advanced her Twilight doll toward Spike.
In imitation of Twilight's precise diction, she told Shining Armor, "You're not being fair, Big-Brother-who-I-should-have-invited-to-a-party-or-something-so-my-friends-could-meet-him-before-he-got-married!"
"Hey!" said Twilight. In retaliation, she picked up the Pinkie doll.
"After all, Rarity was trying to make over the world." Twilight Sparkle said reasonably.
"Even so," Shining Armor replied to his sister, "they should know better than to bury a bridlemaid in bunnies."
"But bunnies are FUN!" squealed Pinkie Pie, approaching the group and bouncing around in random directions.
Shining Armor and Twilight stared at Pinkie in silence, until her frantic bouncing slowed, then stopped, sheepishly. Armor turned again to Twilight. "Besides, didn't you realize that fair Rarity would never turn to evil?"
Twilight stammered, "Wait, you mean — ?"
Pinkie muttered "Oh no..." and pitched forward to bonk her forehead on the ground.
"Yes!" declared Cadance dramatically, "The real Rarity has been with us all along!"
From a nearby basket-shaped chamber stepped Rarity, resplendent in a casual reproduction of her bridlemaid's gown. "That's right, and I just can't believe you mistook that horrid creature for fabulous me!"
Pinkie bopped her head again and said, "Really?"
Twilight gasped and declared, "Then the Rarity under all those bunnies must be..."
All spoke in unison. "A changeling!"
"Except I think we should switch them, 'cause mine is obviously the real one." Pinkie said, reaching into the pile of cotton balls and extracting her Rarity. Spike nodded and hummed agreement, as though he'd already decided the same, and passed his souvenir Rarity over to be stuffed under the bunnies in replacement.
Shining Armor nodded grimly. "And of course, everypony knows you should never cover a changeling in bunnies —"
"— because bunnies are full of love!" groaned Twilight in despair.
"We have to stop her before it's too late!" said Princess Cadance.
"It's already too late!" crowed the false Rarity, buzzing up out of the bunny pile. "With the love I've taken from these bunnies, I'll spread my glamour all across Equestria! Ponies everywhere will adore the fabulous Rarity! And I shall be the most powerful changeling that ever lived!"
"You'll never get away with it!" challenged Shining Armor.
"You're not even the Queen, impudent hiveling! My royal aunts will make short work of you." added Cadance with confidence.
"Where are the Princesses?" asked Pinkie.
All the ponies paused and looked up toward Canterlot Castle, high on the side of the bookshelf mountain. Celestia and Luna had fallen on their sides, knocked senseless by the collapse of their picture-book palace. The ponies looked back at each other.
"Oh... kay." said Twilight. "Up to us, then."
"What should we do?" asked Shining Armor.
"Oh, maybe something like... casting your shield spell that worked just fine last time?" suggested Pinkie.
Twilight shook her head gravely. "As a scholar of advanced magic, I have to advise that it would be far too boring if that worked again. We'll have to find another way."
"Drat! She's right." said Armor.
"What? That's just — there's all kinds of boring magic, trust me! What does that even —"
"Piiinkie..." Armor nudged the pink pony.
Pinkie sighed and started bouncing again. "I like balloons!"
"Balloons are great!" squealed Twilight, then cleared her throat and said seriously, "But we need a better plan."
A bell rang from the kitchen and Spike jumped up, exclaiming, "Oh! Sandwiches!"
"Sandwiches? That's a weird plan." said Pinkie.
"It's not a plan, it's lunch," Spike said with a roll of his eyes. He hurried to the kitchen to prevent anything from burning. In his absence, Pinkie shrugged and moved over closer to the toy Carousel Boutique.
"Okay, you work on a plan for the good side, I'm gonna be the villain for now..." she said, picking up the smaller, lower-quality Rarity doll.
While the heroic ponies pondered their options, the faux Rarity retreated to her evil lair, deep in the dungeons of the Carousel Boutique. Chuckling, she drew forth from a large pink casket an assortment of ominous brushes, ribbons and makeup, laying them out with sinister tidiness.
"So, they've found me out! Too bad it won't help them!" she gloated. "When I steal all the love of Ponyville, no power in Equestria will be greater than mine! And you will be my first magnificent minions!"
She turned upon her captives, three unicorns — blue, green, and white — randomly abducted from the town square. They shuddered in apprehension at the light of crazed aestheticism in her eyes.
"Never fear, darlings. Rarity is going to make you all... beautiful!"
She began to laugh, a sinister rising cackle of evil triumphant, as she advanced on the first of her victims with a huge tube of lipstick.
Twilight stared at Pinkie's back as she loomed over her villainous scheme. Spike, returning from the kitchen with a little wheeled cart bearing baked open-face cheese sandwiches and bowls of soup, froze in place and matched Twilight's look of concern.
Gradually Pinkie became aware of their hesitation and turned to look at them. "What?"
"You... do spooky evil pretty well, Pinkie." said Spike, dubiously.
"Thanks! I practice." Pinkie said cheerfully. She held her gaze on Spike with eyes wide and manic, smile just a little too broad, and stayed that way until he broke the silence.
"Eat your sandwich, Pinkie," he said, thrusting a plate at her.
After taking a break to dine on something less satisfying than bunny-love but probably healthier, the false Rarity emerged from her Boutique onto the streets of Ponyville. Marching by her side were the three unicorn mares, who had been made over not only on the outside, with makeup and gigantic barrettes, but in spirit as well. Overpowered by the changeling's sinister sense of style, they followed her as dazed and loyal servants.
The citizens of Ponyville were sprawled in random piles around the town square, minding their own business. At first only a few took notice when the faux Rarity stood up atop a giant book and reared onto her hindlegs to address them in grandiose display.
"My dear little ponies!" she declaimed. "Rejoice! For today is the day that the great and fashionable Rarity has come to enliven your dull little lives with the power of beauty and fashion! Come forth and experience the Rarity difference!"
Curious about the spectacle, an orange-maned volunteer stepped from the crowd. The changeling and her minions surrounded the earth pony and bustled about her, snapping a lovely pink skirt around her waist and daubing her face with brilliant color.
"Behold!" said the beauty queen, displaying her work to the crowd.
"Rarity is woooooonderful..." crooned the newly-styled pony in a hypnotic stupor.
More ponies came forth eagerly, not seeing the danger. Laughing, the false Rarity and her lackeys spread out through the crowd, beautifying everypony they could get their hooves on, enslaving them with manestylings and fancy clothes. Each convert in turn began working the sinister influence on others, starting an ominous chant that grew ever louder as their numbers swelled.
Princess Cadance watched the bizarre spectacle unfolding and gasped. "She's driving the whole town fashion-mad!"
"I didn't know she could do that!" Pinkie said, aghast.
The real Rarity gave a haughty "Humph!" and leaped forward to stride toward the swarming thralls.
"Well, I for one have had quite enough of this uncivilized behavior! That cheaply-painted horsie can't steal my spotlight and get away with it!"
She reared up before the chanting crowd and declared, "Stop, all of you! For it is I, the true fair and beautiful Rarity, who have come to save you from that tacky impostor!"
"Pay her no heed!" shouted the changeling. "She's just jealous because she hasn't got a pretty dress like mine! And she's huge!"
Rarity drew a sharp shocked breath at the low blow, and lowered her head in determination. "Oh, now it is ON."
She gave a mighty leap toward the duplicate, who met her in midair. For a long while it seemed that it could be anypony's victory, the two opponents bopping against each other with all their might, but then the impostor resorted to a dastardly cheat. Raising a gigantic powder-puff, she slammed the real Rarity down into the crowd of her lackeys, who swarmed over the unicorn in a chaotic heap.
When the ponypile cleared away again, Rarity stood remade, her face painted in vivid pink lipstick and magenta eyeshadow, rainbow-striped legwarmers bunched above all four hooves, a bright yellow scrunchie binding her tail. For a moment there was silence, Rarity's friends waiting for her to explode in fury at the application of such outmoded style.
But to their horror, Rarity instead went to the changeling's side, mesmerized, chanting her own name in praise of her foul doppelganger.
The changeling laughed heartlessly. "Silly ponies, you see now that I am unstoppable! None of you will escape my wrath for daring to defy me! This inferior Rarity will spend her days locked away in a fat camp! Applejack will go from bucking apples to bucking fabulous! And I'll see to it personally that Rainbow Dash always dresses in style! A-HAHAHAHAHA!"
"This is terrible!" Cadance wailed. "If even Rarity herself can fall for... herself... what chance do the rest of us have?"
Together all the ponies turned toward the only one with the genius to save the day: Pinkie Pie.
Twilight furrowed her brow in thought. She was mildly miffed that her earlier practical suggestion had been dismissed as boring, but she could see Pinkie's (for lack of a better word) logic; this was one of those 'fun' things, not a case for practicality. She needed to come up with something more exciting...
Something Pinkie had said just now caught her attention and set a little tingle of an idea ringing in her mind. She frowned deeper, pursuing that thought, and was hit suddenly with a flash of inspiration so bright it brought a literal light to her horn.
"Aha! I've got it!" she exclaimed, loud and abrupt enough to make Pinkie and Spike jump.
"What'cha got?" Pinkie asked.
"You'll see!" Twilight grinned brilliantly and picked up the Pinkie doll again.
"Everypony relax! I've got a plan!" Pinkie announced joyfully.
"A Pinkie Pie plan?" Shining Armor asked critically.
"Uh...yes! It's a super-duper Pinkie plan, I promise! It makes no sense and it's not boring! That changeling doesn't know we've got a Secret Weapon even better than bunnies!"
"Terrific! What is it?"
"It's a secret, silly-billy! You just need to clear out all those other ponies and get her out in the open, and Auntie Pinkie will take care of the rest."
"I'm like twenty years older than you," Shining Armor grumbled. He approached the closer end of the pony crowd, the ones not yet conquered by the army of beautician thralls, and adopted a confident, no-nonsense attitude of authority.
"All of you need to take cover!" he declared. "Don't panic, just head inside and stay there, please."
A light brown stallion stepped out of the crowd and asked calmly, "Who?"
"All of you! Can't you see there's a dangerous changeling on the loose?" Armor politely began clearing the area by pushing piles of confused civilians aside with his shoulder. For the most part they seemed okay with this, but the earth pony had another question.
Armor paused to stare at him. "That fake Rarity! She's bedazzling everypony in sight with her fabulosity!"
"I said everypony! She's out to get everypony!"
"The — the changeling! I just TOLD you!"
"Wait a minute..." growled Spike.
Owloysius blinked his large, luminous eyes at the dragon. At some point, the owl had flown down in curiosity to perch on the miniature town hall, and plucked up the brown doll in hopes it might be some type of mouse.
"Who?" he repeated, causing Spike to give a strangled noise of frustration and a shoo-shoo flap of his arms. Owloysius, dignity thus affronted, snapped up a grey pegasus doll as well, and bore the two mouse-colored ponies back to his perch on the library's upper deck.
"It's no use." Shining Armor sighed. "Half the ponies are mind-controlled, the other half just won't listen to reason."
"Um, excuse me, I think I have an idea," said Fluttershy in a reedy, lilting singsong, afflicted with a curious lisp.
Spike gave a sudden puff of laughter, quickly silencing himself. Pinkie gave him a suspicious look.
"What's so funny?" she demanded.
"I'm sorry, Pinkie," Spike said sincerely, though his voice was laced with incipient giggles. "It's just... no, really I'm sorry, but your Fluttershy voice is... it's just terrible!"
Pinkie gave a scornful cluck of her tongue and glared at the dragon, who couldn't restrain the giggling any longer.
"Spike, that's so wrong." Twilight said primly, turning her face away and covering her mouth with her hoof.
Pinkie glanced off to the side to give you a long-suffering, see-what-I-put-up-with look, then turned her nose up and sniffed at Spike and Twilight. "Well! I'm sure it's not a competition." she said with stately disdain.
"We're sorry, Pinkie. Truly. You can go on, we won't laugh." said Twilight.
"Yeah, honest, I really didn't mean to make fun of you." Spike agreed earnestly.
Pinkie rolled her eyes. "Oh all right. Maybe I was being a little too squinky."
She cleared her throat, said 'Lalalala" a few times, and gave the other two a warning look before starting. "But did you even hear Twilight's Fluttershy? Seriously." she muttered.
"Anyway! I know how to round up the other ponies." said Fluttershy, sounding much more plausibly like herself.
"The same way I gather up all my dear bunnies." said Fluttershy. "With my floating basket and a giant net."
"Makes perfect sense." said Shining Armor.
Fluttershy flew off somewhere momentarily and returned with her basket and a huge blue string-net bag.
"Well, why didn't you list those among our assets in the first place?" grumbled Pinkie Pie. "Okay! You get the ponies out of the way, and I'll go prepare our Secret Weapon!"
Pinkie Pie commandeered Rainbow Dash to help, and the two of them went off to discuss Pinkie's mysterious plan. Grim and determined, the others set out to take back the streets: Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle hovering above in the basket, with the net dangling below like a fishing trawl; Applejack, Shining Armor and Princess Cadance marching forth on the ground toward the chanting swarm.
And so was joined the fourth or fifth mightiest battle in Equestrian history. The heroes on the ground ran forth and smacked into the changeling's army, who piled up and washed toward them in a living wave. Buried momentarily in the sheer mass of pony, Shining Armor burst up from beneath his attackers, sending them flying in all directions. Warier, Applejack skirted the edge of the oncoming attackers and kicked one after another with expert aim into the waiting net. Cadance, never given to violence, took the no less effective approach of hugging four or five ponies at once until they were subdued with love, then tossing them unceremoniously into the net.
Rarity emerged from the pile and confronted Applejack face-to-face, determined with zombie implacability to defend her new mistress. Applejack gave a hearty, menacing laugh.
"Oh now, this I've been waitin' on for a loooong time." she said, whirling about to bring good old Bucky McGillicuddy and Kicks McGee to bear. Rarity had time only to squeal in alarm before she was bucked high into the air, to fall neatly into the net along with all the rest.
Despite the overwhelming numbers, the mind-controlled drones were no match in the long run for the clever and resourceful starring characters. The net bulged with helpless, struggling ponies, and Fluttershy drew the string neck closed, hovering away to stash the captives where they could do no further harm.
"Foals!" the changeling shouted in defiance, with the barest hint of unease. "Surely you don't think I need those idiots to handle the likes of you!" She flew up in front of the heroes, hovering just out their reach.
"Pinkie! She's out in the open!" Armor called.
"What?" the changeling looked around, realizing that she was indeed alone in a wide-open space. She whipped back and forth in suspicion. "What's going on now?"
"Perfect!" said Pinkie. She turned to Dash and bowed a salute. "It's all up to you now, Best Young Flier."
Dash nodded smartly, lowered her flight goggles, and rocketed into the air.
To the momentary consternation of her beleaguered comrades, the pegasus first flew directly away from the battlefield. But it soon became clear that she was going to curve around in a high, wide arc. With only a quick joggle in her smooth parabola, to avoid the snapping beak of a startled giant owl, Rainbow Dash came zooming back down toward Ponyville, accelerating in a bullet line toward the false Rarity.
"Hah, I've dealt with you before!" the changeling scoffed. She braced herself in Dash's path, ready to fend her off, but the rainbow bomb was not aiming directly for her. Instead, Dash circled around her opponent, flying in tighter and tighter loops, easily evading the changeling's efforts to strike her down.
"Caught me by surprise last time, cheaty-cheaty-changeling!" she crowed. "But let's face it — I'm Rainbow Dash, and nopony beats me in a fair fight!"
"Then hold still and fight me, you feathery foal!" shouted the changeling, exasperated, trying to follow the ever-speedier circling of her enemy.
Rainbow Dash snorted disdainfully. Faster and faster she whirled, creating a shimmering violet cone around the faux Rarity, who found herself caught up by the winds in the center of the vortex.
"You can't keep this up forever, pesky pegasus!" taunted the impostor, voice faltering. Rainbow Dash only laughed, glowing brighter as she accelerated, a bright cyan streak flashing through the magenta swirl of her localized tornado.
"I don't have to do it forever —" she said, teeth tight with effort as she pushed herself ever faster.
"... just long enough..."
The wind of her spiraling passage washed across Ponyville, stirring the leaves of the Library and picking up stray papers. The light around Rainbow Dash's hurtling form grew ever brighter, became a filmy cone of white against which she strained yet harder.
"... to do..."
The changeling Rarity cried out in terror as the zooming pegasus was swathed in light too intense to look upon.
A bright flash and a concussive burst of wind shook the shelves of the Library, knocking Pinkie Pie and Spike onto their tails with nearly identical gape-jawed expressions of shock. A shimmering ring of brilliant spectral colors burst from the center of the explosion, flowering across the room in a gorgeous chromatic display. The Rarity doll was hurled by the blast into the distant reaches of the Forests and Wildlife shelf.
Twilight sat back and let the magic of her horn fade, flushed with triumph and effort. Pinkie and Spike stared at her, awestruck, as the rainbow ring dissipated and the Rainbow Dash doll hit the floor, then as one they broke into startled whoops and applause.
"A sonic rainboom! She did it! She did it! Wait, I mean — you did it, Twilight!" Pinkie hopped from hoof to hoof in excitement. "How'd you do it?"
"Oh, just a simple color illusion, actually. And some fancy high-speed levitation." Twilight said. "The doll is magically related to Rainbow Dash because it represents her, so that made it easier to imitate something she can do."
"That is so cool!" Pinkie gushed. She shot forward and squeezed Twilight in a hug hard enough to make her squeak.
"It was pretty awesome, Twilight." said Spike, suave as though expecting nothing less.
"Thanks — guys —" Twilight managed to say. Pinkie relented and let her go.
"Ooh ooh ooh, what're you gonna do next?" she asked, clapping her hooves in anticipation.
Twilight raised her eyebrows and looked around at the dolls. Despite her intention not to think about work while playing Pinkie's game, she had been considering some other spells she could use to enhance the make-believe — strictly for practice, of course, certainly not to show off.
But as she paused for thought, her ears perked up in the momentary silence, alerted to a sound that chilled her bones. Pinkie and Spike looked up as well, the three of them turning to look toward the window near the Library's front door.
The rain had gradually fallen from a steady roar to a soft whispering sprinkle. In the relative quiet, they could make out all too clearly the high-pitched sounds outside: filly voices, several of them, raised in laughter; with them, an older and deeper voice, husky but with a distinctive squeak on the end of each guffaw.
"Oh, horsefeathers —" Twilight growled, jumping up to cross the room and fling the door open.
Just as she suspected, rolling about in amusement near the entrance were three fillies she recognized, despite the mud, as Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. Rainbow Dash hovered above the trio, holding her belly and barely managing to stay in the air. When the door opened, she zoomed over and grabbed Twilight's shoulder in enthusiastic admiration.
"Twilight! That was the most awesome thing EVER! Well, next to a real Rainbow Dash Rainboom, of course!"
The fillies gathered around to add a chorus of "Yeah! Cool! Do it again!"
After a moment, Twilight's stony expression and the reality of the situation sank in. The four of them fell silent and found intense focuses of interest in the ground, the sky, their own hooves; anything but Twilight's eyes.
"Oh... uh... yeah... so hi there..." mumbled Dash, looking around in hope of a sudden massive distraction.
"Rainbow Dash! Girls! Were you spying on us?" Twilight snapped.
"No!" said Dash and Scootaloo in unison, with perfect virtue.
"Yeah..." said Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom in the same instant, with downcast guilty eyes.
Each pair shot the other a dirty look. Twilight tutted and heaved a weary sigh.
"Well, you'd better come inside." she said. Looking at the mud that covered more of the fillies than their slickers did, she added, "Hey Spike, would you mind getting some —"
"Way ahead of ya," said Spike, appearing near the door with an armload of towels, which he proceeded to lay out in a path to the washroom. With varying degrees of ability to meet Twilight's gaze, the Crusaders trudged through the door, while she tapped her hoof and took notes from every schoolteacher she'd ever known to give them a glare with just the right blend of disapproval and tolerance.
Up the stairs they headed, making a hot-lava game of the journey, waiting for Spike to take the last towel in the line and move it to the front so they wouldn't step directly on the floor. Dash, soaking wet but unmuddied, accepted a single large towel from Twilight and dried herself with an abashed but not terribly guilty expression.
"Well?" Twilight demanded.
"Aw gee, I'm sorry Twilight. I didn't think you'd find out!" Dash said, then gave a little grimace. "Wait, that's not what I meant. I mean, we were just — I was gonna — no, okay, no excuses. It was wrong, and I'm the grown-up who should've known better."
"Yes, you should have! I hope you don't make a habit of this?"
"Nah, you know me — I don't usually sneak around, I just barge right in."
"True. Whether the window is open or not, in fact."
"Heh! Yeah..." Dash hurried on to keep the topic of broken windows past from coming up. "Anyway, this time I just didn't want to interrupt you and Pinkie and Spike — it was so darn cute how you were all playing dollies!"
She did her best not to sound like she was poking fun, but the ridicule was kind of right out there where Twilight could hardly miss it.
"We weren't 'playing dollies'! It was — it was magical research!" Twilight said, with sudden defensive inspiration.
"It was?" asked Pinkie, earning a swift shut-up glare from the unicorn.
"Yes, that's right, research." Twilight said firmly. "I was... giving a demonstration! Of a practical application of Ad Astra's Second Principle of Similarity, in conjunction with basic photogenesis and levitation, as shown with the aid of common household toys!"
She gave a convincing smile, rather pleased with her swift technical summary. Rainbow Dash raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"Oh really? Pinkie, do you even know any of those words?"
"I know 'conjunction'!" Pinkie said brightly. "And 'toys'."
"Well, if she already knew it all, there wouldn't be any point in showing her, right?" Twilight asked, feeling the story crumble beneath her.
"Uh-huh. So what kind of magic laws did the part with all the ponies fighting and shoving each other into bags demonstrate?"
"How long have you been watching?" Twilight groaned.
"Well —" Dash rubbed the back of her head. "I guess since just before Spike came in with the food." She glanced toward the platter of sandwiches, with a hungry little lick of her lips, but looking back to Twilight's expression she decided not to press her luck.
Twilight gave another exasperated tut. "All right, fine, we were playing dollies. It was Pinkie's idea!"
"That much I guessed."
The Crusaders came back downstairs, fresh-scrubbed and adorably fluffy. They lined up before Twilight with gazes of industrial-strength remorse.
Sweetie Belle spoke for the group. "We're sorry for peeking on you, Miss Twilight."
"Well, it wasn't very nice, but your apology is accepted." Twilight said in a motherly tone. "Anyway, you may as well wait here until the rain lets up."
"Should be wrapped up right around sunset." Rainbow Dash said, glancing at the wall clock. "Two more hours or so."
"Oh, do you need to get back to work?" Twilight asked.
"Nah, my team can handle things for now. I'll head out when it's time to clear the sky."
"All right then... is anypony hungry?" That got a chorus of enthusiastic approval. "Spike, are there enough sandwiches for everypony?"
"I can make more, they're easy." Spike answered, unconcerned. "There's plenty of soup to start with."
"Excellent! You're the best, Spike." Dash fluttered over to give the dragon hoof-noogies, which he tolerated with affable poise.
"Okay, just one more thing." Twilight speared Dash and the fillies with a serious eye. "Can I ask you please not to go telling everypony in town about... all this?" She gestured across the toy town.
"Aww, is oo embawwassed?" Pinkie asked, smooshing Twilight's cheeks and earning a glare of pure venom from the unicorn.
"No! Well, I mean, yes. A little. I just don't want something so... silly to be the talk of Ponyville all month!"
"We've learned our lesson about spreading gossip, Miss Twilight," Sweetie Belle said, without much certainty.
"Yeah, we won't tell..." Scootaloo tried to add, but dropped off to a mumble in mid-sentence.
"You promise?" Twilight asked, not remotely convinced.
"We promise," chorused the Crusaders and Dash, trying really hard to make it sound true.
Twilight looked across the open, innocent faces of the three big-eyed fillies, and scruffy, guileless Rainbow Dash; they looked back with every intention of sincerity. For a moment, it was possible to believe that none of them would deliberately spread an embarrassing secret.
"But yeah, you might as well paint it on a banner," said Apple Bloom finally, echoing everypony's thoughts. The others nodded and murmured immediate agreement.
"We are pretty much gonna tell everypony, sooner or later." said Scootaloo.
"We can promise not to mean to!" Sweetie Belle offered optimistically.
"Just sayin', I kinda have to tell Applejack. And Rarity. And those guys in Cloudsdale that I hate..." Rainbow Dash contributed.
Twilight rolled her eyes and said loudly, "Well all right, you're forcing my hoof. If I can't stop you from blabbing, I'll just have to take... other measures."
"Wh-what kind of... other measures?" Dash asked, wary of the ominous pause. Not for the first time, she wondered just how far up the crazy tree Twilight Sparkle could really climb.
"Pinkie! Spike!" Twilight barked instead of answering.
Quick as if practiced, Pinkie slammed the front door, leaning against it in a cool gangster slouch. She gave the captive guests a dangerous look over the sunglasses she suddenly wore, and put curious menace into the act of chewing a toothpick. Spike stepped up alongside Twilight, holding the net bag full of toy ponies.
Twilight gave her best villainous grin, not quite as creepy as Pinkie's, but effective nonetheless.
"If the story is going to get around, I just have to make sure you four don't get the last laugh. No, this little anecdote will be just as embarrassing for everypony!"
"Except for the ones who don't ca-are!" Pinkie singsonged, blissfully free of dignity.
Twilight advanced in challenge on Rainbow Dash and the Crusaders. who cringed beneath the eerie cheer in her eyes. Spike held the bag open toward them, solemn as one offering duelists their choice of weapon.
"Pick your ponies, girls." said Twilight. "We're having the most adorable tea party ever!"
A rainy day, Rarity reflected, was just what the little bell over her boutique door needed. The rush of new custom following from her designs for the Royal Wedding had been quite working the poor bell to exhaustion, and fraying its silver nerves. With the rain keeping ponies at home, the bell could take a well-deserved break; in its silence, Rarity herself could find time to finish taking care of business and accomplish some work.
With the sky outside dark and the lamps inside lit, the day passed in a timeless trance of full-steam creativity. It wasn't until her stomach began to complain of missing both lunch and dinner that she looked up and realized it wasn't only the door bell being silent, but Sweetie Belle as well.
Rarity frowned. Sweetie was supposed to be staying with her tonight, yes? The wall calendar confirmed it; their parents were to be out of town for another two days. So her little sister should have been filling the Boutique with noise and calamity for hours now.
"Sweetie Belle?" she called twice, moving up the staircase toward the guest bedroom. Sweetie could have come in quietly, uncharacteristic as that would be, but Rarity knew already that it wasn't so; the Boutique felt empty. There was no sign of her sister anywhere.
She returned downstairs and looked out the window at the clouds hanging low and ominous outside, though the rain itself had subsided to a moderate sprinkle. Her dramatic side helpfully presented a half-baked array of dreadful misfortunes that could befall a lone filly out in foul weather, and she decided that positive action would be the best way to avert panic.
"I'll just have to brave the elements and go looking for her!" she declared aloud, squaring her shoulders courageously. A snap of thunder replied, making her jump and give a high-pitched whinny of surprise.
Her shoulders and courage slumped a bit. "I do wish she could have chosen a day when the elements didn't need quite so much braving."
While she was looking through her rainwear wardrobe, trying to decide which coat best complemented the hues of the evening, there came a sudden noise as of a tambourine slapping a harp. A globe of vivid magenta light popped into being above the dais at the center of her work floor. Again she jumped, but only slightly, recognizing at once the color and feel of Twilight Sparkle's magic.
The light winked out, leaving in its place a scroll, which bounced off the back of the half-dressed ponnequin on the dais and rolled toward Rarity's hooves. With a soft hum of curiosity, she picked it up and untied the ribbon.
Sweetie Belle and her friends were caught out in the rain after school and ended up here in the Library. They're safe, dry, and welcome to wait out the rain with us. If it gets dark before the storm clears, I'll walk her home — it's no trouble at all.
As Ever, Your Friend,
P.S., Sweetie wants to be sure I tell you that she's sorry if you were worried. P.P.S., Pinkie Pie also wants to add a P.S.
Rarity let out a deep breath of tension relieved, feeling suddenly much lighter, and blinked away a little tingle of tears.
"Oh, Twilight Sparkle! Such a sweet and thoughtful pony! When you're not lost in a book or going absolutely mad in pursuit of a theory, at least. And such perfect timing, too!"
Again she faced the window and dared the stormy heavens to stand in her way. "Well! I'm certainly not going to make Twilight go out of her way to bring Sweetie Belle home. I must go out and fetch her myself before they leave the Library!" Another rumble of thunder put a pensive frown on her face. "Surely they won't go until the rain dies down just a teensy bit more, though..."
A moment later, her eyes lit up with a fine idea. "Aha-ha! I can use the time to whip up a thank-you gift for Twilight! Now... what can I put together on such short notice...?"
She pursed her lips and sought inspiration among the tools and scraps littering the workshop.
Chapter Three: The Most Adorable Tea Party Ever
Twilight Sparkle smiled across the table, feeling more relaxed than she had for days. Much to her own surprise, the tea party was turning out quite a success.
"Oh, I simply adore the Royal Fillyharmonic!" Princess Cadance declared, dipping forward to take a dainty sip from the gigantic teacup in front of her. "Major Key truly is one of the most brilliant conductors ever to grace Canterlot."
"I agree absolutely," replied Rarity, bouncing slightly in excitement. "I haven't yet had the pleasure of personally attending a performance, but I do have so many of their records."
"You haven't? My word, you simply must join us when next they play at the Palace!"
Spike and Sweetie Belle were both enjoying the game on its own merits. Spike had donned his tuxedo jacket and top hat for the occasion, and was happy for a chance to show off the refined manners learned in his Canterlot upbringing. Sweetie had chosen, from the array of dress-up clothes Pinkie Pie had inexplicably produced, a lovely dress of pale raspberry that complemented both hues of her mane, and did a fine job imitating her sister's elegant mannerisms. She seemed delighted to be doing something so decorous and basically non-threatening to life and limb with her rambunctious friends.
"That would be positively marvelous, Your Highness!" Rarity exclaimed. "Music is one of the finer pleasures in life — even life on the farm, wouldn't you say, Big Macintosh?"
Big Mac shrugged complacently. "Eeyup," he said, before plunging back into a cinnamon bun nearly as tall as himself.
Apple Bloom visibly couldn't care less about the tea party itself, but it suited her fine as a venue for Spike's cooking. Choosing her brother as her party 'companion' let her get away with not talking much, and she'd been amiable enough about donning a yellow dress and letting Pinkie replace her customary hairbow with a big lacy confection decked in feathers and silk flowers. Twilight frankly thought it made the filly look like she'd backed into a wedding cake, but at least it wasn't as silly as the hat Pinkie had foisted on Rainbow Dash.
"More tea, Miss Finish?" asked Fancy Pants, hovering a teapot the size of a carriage over the giant cup in front of the photographer.
"Hoh jess, zat vood be most excellent," replied Photo Finish in a tar-thick but scrupulously polite accent.
Dash... well, Dash was playing along, with a certain grim determination. She had accepted the lacy white frock and ludicrously fruited sunhat as a rightful, if slightly sadistic, payback for spying. Told that she had to pick a doll companion, with her obvious first choice taken already by Scootaloo and Pinkie apologetically explaining that she hadn't got any Wonderbolts yet, Dash had drawn Photo Finish at random from the sack, and proceeded to mangle her Germaneic accent so badly it had to be criminally actionable somehow.
With honor allowing her no escape, Dash had evidently decided to take the tea party as a challenge. If anypony was going to disrupt the decorum of the affair, it wouldn't be her.
Twilight chuckled to herself. She'd never seen anypony play make-believe to win.
"And may I say that you look positively smashing today, my dear," Fancy Pants continued as he poured the tea. "Whoever made your dress is quite talented, even if she's no Rarity."
"Err... jess, jess, she iss... a mare of many surprises," Photo Finish answered, with a certain caution in her voice.
"And your dinner companion is just stunning in that frock, as well."
"... ah, jess, I'm sure she is." Photo Finish seemed somehow put off by the compliment. "But zen, she makes anysing look goot, naturally."
Pinkie, of course, could find entertainment in a visit to the National Museum of Boring Things, and was just as enthusiastic about a tea party as any other kind. She'd chosen Fancy Pants with a passing remark about ponies other than the 'Mane Six' deserving attention — evidently that was what she privately called their little clique of friends, and Twilight kind of liked the sound of it. Not as formal as 'Bearers of the Elements' and much better than the only other group name she'd heard proposed, 'The Dash Commandos'.
Pinkie was either entirely oblivious to Dash's barely-concealed discomfort with the lace-and-manners atmosphere of the party, or else taking a very subtle delight in tormenting her. Twilight wasn't sure which, but that hardly bothered her; having a clear idea of Pinkie Pie's motivations would strike her more as a symptom than an insight.
"I'm sure Miss Rarity has dozens of designs she'd be glad to have your friend model," Fancy went on with limitless cheer.
Photo Finish gave him a long, motionless stare. "Of ziss, I am certain, vissout un shadow off a doubt. Unfortunately she iss far too busy doink anysink else in ze vorld."
Rainbow Dash sat on a plate of assorted baked goods nearby and glared at the rest of the party in truculent silence.
The final member of the party didn't have much to say and neither did the Dash doll on the table in front of her. Scootaloo looked as merry as a wet cat in the rose-pink sundress and bonnet into which she'd been coerced, and her participation had been limited to a few terse comments from 'Dashie' and sullen attention to the refreshments, while watching the proceedings with a look of surly disgust worthy of a full-blown adolescent. It was entirely clear that she was bothering with the motions only under the example of her personal hero, but she wasn't making an active fuss.
Idly considering small rewards she might be able to offer Scootaloo if the filly continued to behave herself until the ordeal was over, Twilight drew a deep, gentle sigh and relaxed back on her cushion. Dress-up games like this still weren't her... well, cup of tea, but anything that could get Dash, Pinkie and all three Crusaders to stay quiet and undestructive for so long had to be a sort of magic in itself.
Rarity stepped out into the crisp evening, the rain fallen to no more than a drift of mist. The sky, gradually being cleared by diligent pegasi, had darkened to a teal-fringed blue, perfectly matching her choice of raincoat and parasol. Satisfied, she trotted smartly toward the center of town, a round violet box floating at her side.
On the stone bridge ahead, she saw a familiar orange-and-yellow color combination. Increasing her pace, stepping high to minimize contact with the muddy road, she called musically, "Oh, Appleja~ack!"
The orange pony turned her head. In her teeth she held a bow of twine, from which dangled a flat pink bakery box.
"Oh heyya, Rar'ty." she mumbled amiably, slowing her steps to let the unicorn catch up. Ribbons of steam furling from Applejack's cargo, thick and white in the cool air, teased Rarity's nose with delightful warm cinnamon-spice aroma.
"Mmm... let me guess, would that be a fresh-baked apple pie you're taking to Twilight Sparkle?"
"Eeyuph! How'd'ja know?" Applejack quirked her brow in puzzlement, then got it and nodded. "Oh, righk. Shveetie Velle."
Rarity suppressed a smirk at the twine-induced speech impediment. She knew better than to offer proud Applejack help with carrying things, and taunting an earth pony about holding items in her mouth would simply be vulgar. She did, perhaps, enunciate her own words with a certain playful precision. "Indeed, Sweetie Belle ended up at the Library too. I don't know about you, but Twilight's letter came just in time to spare me a full-blown panic attack over my wayward little sister!"
Applejack spoke volumes about Rarity and panic with a silent roll of her eyes. Rarity replied with a petulant little hoof-bop to her shoulder.
"Oh, you were worried sick too, admit it," she said waspishly. Applejack's smug twitch of a smile agreed, but only with the notation that she hadn't been panicking about it.
"Fine, have your self-control," Rarity sniffed. She swung her hatbox around in front of Applejack. "Anyway, I've also got a little gift for Twilight, would you like to see it?"
Applejack shrugged, enough of a cue for Rarity to flip open the box and lift out her newest creation. It was a soft, floppy Reinaissance cap of dark purple velvet, with a clever furl in its brim to accommodate a horn. Placed to frame the wearer's horn-tip was a pouf of pink lace studded with small star-shaped gems, trailing an elegantly curled comet-tail of pink and lavender ribbon.
The farmer's eyebrows rose in appreciation. "'Ell thack's righk nishe, Rar'ty. Sh'nock all... fancksy." She waved her hoof vaguely, trying to convey the understatement of the cap's design, in contrast to the unicorn's typical extravagance. Rarity favored her with an indulgent smile.
"Oh yes, I know you and Twilight share a taste for... less complicated styles. I'm glad you like it!" She allowed herself a prideful giggle as she repackaged the hat. "I had the basic hat already made, actually, because I saw that velvet and just had to find a way to display it alongside Twilight's natural violet shades, so really, I'm happy for the excuse to finish it."
Applejack nodded again, just as if any part of that were interesting to her, and plodded along complacently letting Rarity's tales of haberdashery roll past her ears.
Spike lifted the teapot to refill Pinkie's cup, but only a thin dribble came out.
"Whup, out of tea. Anypony still want some more?"
"Yes, please, if you wouldn't mind," Twilight said.
"Not at all. Back in just a minute..." Spike rose from his cushion and took the teapot toward the kitchen.
"Oo-ooh, could you make some more of these little cucumber sandwiches too, please? These things are soooo good!" Pinkie called, voice muffled by the last of said sandwiches in her mouth.
"I'll help!" Sweetie Belle piped, hopping up to follow the dragon.
Apple Bloom's eyes widened as she watched Sweetie go. She looked uneasily toward the grown-ups, who didn't seem at all concerned about the conjunction of Sweetie Belle and a kitchen, then got to her hooves.
"Uh, reckon I'll go help..." she said, carefully, giving Scootaloo a significant look. "You wanna come too, Scootaloo?"
Scootaloo looked back as though Bloom had asked whether she'd like some extra homework. "Uh, no... you go right ahead."
"You sure you don't want to help Sweetie Belle with the cooking?" Apple Bloom's head jerked urgently toward the kitchen, like she had a flea in her ear.
Scootaloo's level gaze in response indicated that she'd got the message, but hadn't yet forgiven anypony for the bonnet. She folded her forelegs and sat up straight with great dignity. "Nope. I'm havin' a crumpet." She grabbed a pastry that she probably thought was a crumpet, and took a slow deliberate bite.
Apple Bloom tcha'd in annoyance and hurried off.
"I do hope the girls aren't giving Twilight too much trouble. They can be such a hoof-full."
"Ahh, they'll be fine. Probly playin' with Spike, he's got a level head about him," said Applejack. One tiny hint of a giggle from Rarity had led her to rearrange the twine bow of the pie box so she could talk more clearly. "An' her letter said Pinkie was there too, so Twi's not the only grown-up."
Rarity's hoofsteps slowed and a thoughtful frown settled onto her features. "Yes, she did mention Pinkie."
"Yeah." Applejack's own gaze grew distant, her voice slow and careful, as though reasoning her way out across a thinly iced lake. "So it's not just Twilight tryin' to handle the fillies all... by..."
"... herself, no. She has..."
"... Pinkie Pie with her..."
"... along with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, stuck inside on a rainy day..."
"... in a library, full of wood and paper..."
"... and a wide array of magical and scientific paraphernalia."
Without any overt signal, both began to walk a little faster. A few steps later they were trotting. By the time they passed Sugarcube Corner, both were galloping as fast as they could.
With half the party out of the room, Pinkie leaned over toward Twilight and nudged her side.
"Sooooo..." she said in a leading voice, wiggling her eyebrows. Twilight blinked at her.
"So, you got any more cool magic tricks to show us?" Pinkie grinned like a sunbeam.
Rainbow Dash let out a soft triumphant, "Hah!", convinced that she had just won the tea party, and leaned in on Twilight from the other side. "Yeah, you must have something up your sleeve we haven't seen before, right?"
Scootaloo perked up and looked eagerly across the table. Enormous filly eyes were difficult to resist.
"I don't do tricks," Twilight said with a shade of professional indignation. She made a half-conscious gesture as of adjusting a broad-brimmed hat on her head, making it clear what sort of unicorn she associated with 'tricks'.
"Oh, well, you know what I mean..." Pinkie answered, mildly apologetic. "I guess I should say, would you demonstrate a spell for us?"
"Pleeeeeeeze?" chimed the other two.
"Well... I'm not sure," Twilight said. "It's a new spell, and I don't think it would really be responsible to —"
"So there is a new spell!" Dash interjected.
"Well, yeah. I haven't practiced it yet, though."
"Is it dangerous?" asked Dash, even more interested.
Twilight paused to consider. Was it? She'd never actually performed the spell before, but it wasn't complicated. She understood the general class of magic it belonged to well enough to avoid any fundamental errors. And the targets would be inanimate, so even if she had completely misunderstood the documentation — which, with no false modesty, was highly unlikely — no living thing would be at risk.
What's the worst that could happen? she asked herself, not as a dismissal, but as a question to address seriously. She riffled through the mental cardfile labeled 'Potential Hazards of Spell Failure'. None of the serious ones seemed likely with this particular procedure. The structure of the spell was such that nearly every mistake she could imagine making would just cause it not to go off at all, risking no more than a waste of energy.
"Nnnooo... it shouldn't be dangerous..." she said thoughtfully. "It's just a general principle that if you're sure nothing can go wrong with a new spell, you need to think again. There is a reason why I normally try things out the first time with only an armored, fireproof assistant present, after all."
"Ooh, is it a fire spell?" Dash's eyes positively twinkled.
"Well, no, there's no fire involved..." Again she ran through her catalog of hazards. No fire, no corrosive or explosive materials, no electrical discharges... it didn't bend the fabric of space and time, nor invoke entities... and it really was a simple spell, useful primarily for entertainment, at least in the basic first-level form she'd been studying. Overall, the only reason she could think of not to try it out was that it went against her standard practice protocol.
"Oh, what the hay," she finally concluded. "Just keep in mind that there's a chance nothing interesting will happen. I might not get it right the first time."
"Ahh, come on! You're only, like, the best wizard ever!" Dash gave Twilight a cheery shoulder-punch. Twilight couldn't help but giggle.
"Okay, let's see..." She looked down to the floor and picked up the dolls of herself and Pinkie, then plucked the Dash doll from the table. Carefully moving all the plates and cups aside, she lined up the three toys and crouched down to bring her eyes level with them, horn softly glowing as she charged up. "Everypony stand back a bit."
Pinkie, Dash and Scootaloo got up and moved a short distance from the table, exchanging excited grins and bouncing with anticipation.
"I'm sure they're doing just fine," Rarity remarked casually, slightly winded, still at a full gallop.
Applejack nodded confidently. "Yeah, they're gettin' along like apples and cinnamon, no doubt." She wasn't slowing down in the slightest either.
"Nothing's on fire, certainly."
"Nahh. 'Course not."
They rounded the last corner and had a clear view of the Library.
"See? It's still there."
"Yup, everything's just —"
( ( ( WHUD ) ) )
It was a massive, flat wall of a sound, as of the world's largest book being slammed down onto the world's second or third largest table. The Library shuddered, throwing off a tidy sphere of leaves that expanded toward Applejack and Rarity. Before they were even able to jump in surprise at the noise, the shockwave of air and foliage slapped past them, lifting them briefly off their hooves; a thin-shaved instant later, they were forced to leap aside as a disembuildinged wooden door flew toward them with lethal speed.
Farmer and fashionista turned their heads to watch the door keep on flying, still upright, with a certain regal dignity in its passage. Their eyes met.
"EVERYTHING'S FINE!" they shouted at each other, and sped toward the Library.
The door being out on sabbatical saved them a couple of seconds, at least. Applejack burst in first, Rarity close on her heels, so worried as to be heedless of the mud she tracked in. They got only a couple of steps in before halting and staring in horrified confusion.
The interior of the Library was a madhouse on its way to becoming a shambles.
Furniture was tossed hither and yon, books scattered across the floor, sheets of paper blowing about in the wind through the absent door. A mass of monstrous black tentacles flailed and squirmed through the doorway that led to the kitchen, barely constrained by Twilight's magical shield bubble. Pinkie Pie was rolling about the floor braying laughter and kicking her hooves, apparently being tickled without mercy by some unseen force.
All around the room, a horde of tiny ponies, no more than three inches high, charged back and forth in panic, and the air was filled with similarly wild miniature pegasi. Rainbow Dash was spinning and rolling furiously in midair, tormented by the looping blue streak of her own diminutive duplicate. Just to top off the weirdness, all the normal-sized ponies were wearing fancy party dresses and hats.
"What in tarnation!?" Rarity burst out, leaving Applejack speechless.
For a moment, everything paused. Ponies big and small stopped in their tracks and stared at the interruption. Even the black tentacles paused, curling up away from Twilight as though waiting also to see what would happen next.
Then Applejack's pie box dropped from her gawping mouth, landing flat on the floor with a slapping sound, and the madness resumed.
"Applejack! Over here!" Twilight called. The urgency in her voice had Applejack across the room in a couple of long strides.
Sweat gleamed on Twilight’s forehead as she maintained a steady beam of energy to the shield, while at the same time using her glow to reach beyond it and grab up bundles of writhing tentacles. Through gritted teeth, she said, “If I let one through, think you can stomp it without getting snared?”
“I’ll give it somethin’ to think about, all right,” Applejack replied, with a curious blend of determination and anticipation. She turned to face away from the door and braced her forehooves, watching back over her shoulder.
Twilight separated one tentacle from the squirming bundle in her magical grasp and pulled it down toward the corner of the door. Her eyes flickered white as she stretched her power further to created a small glowing aperture in the shield, through which the tentacle surged, released from her grip.
Applejack hiked her hindquarters up high and slammed her hooves down onto the loathsome appendage. The muscular squishing texture of it twisted her lip in a grimace, but the metallic roar of pain from within the kitchen and the rapid slick retreat of the tentacle was a fine payoff. Applejack grinned.
“Hah! These suckers ain’t so tough, nor so fast! Reckon you can send a few more at a time, see how many I have to squash before whatever’s attached to ‘em in there gets the message.”
Twilight gave a tight nod. The nearly solid stream of energy from her horn to the shield seemed to be restricting the movement of her head. The opening widened and a thicker bunch of tentacles were tugged down to shoot through it, meeting with sledgehammer pounding from Applejack's hooves.
"What about me, what can I do?" Rarity fluttered helplessly behind Twilight. Through the crashing and roars, she could hear a familiar voice shrieking inside the kitchen, and it wasn't helping her composure at all. "Oh my goodness, Sweetie Belle!"
"She's all right! She's stuck in the corner with Spike and Apple Bloom but I've got a barrier between them and the monster." Twilight's voice, terse and certain, seized hold of Rarity's rising panic and forced it down. "You can help Dash and Pinkie corral all these toy ponies."
"Oh, right, yes!" Rarity looked around in perplexity. Of course she'd seen them upon entering, but it began to truly dawn on her that there really was a herd of animate toy ponies running around the Library. A certain glassiness in her eyes indicated difficulty reconciling this with the realm of things she'd ever expected to happen. "Twilight, why are there —"
“No time! Can you copy my shield spell?”
“I — not really, I've never done any better than the last time you tried to show me.” Rarity lacked Twilight’s talent for fine shaping of magic, and was no better at forming the high-precision geometry of a shield spell than Twilight would be at assembling a chic summer line.
She was quite adept in handling several things at once with her normal, blobby magic glow, however, and she hardly needed an impermeable sphere just to seize hold of the tiny ponies. Though they struggled with greater strength than she expected, she was swiftly able to gather a dozen or so from the floor around her, and floated them up to Twilight’s view.
“I can do this,” she said, a little defensive. However they kicked and squirmed, the living dolls were no harder to keep hold of than a bushel of frogs, a comparison Rarity dearly wished she'd never had the experience to make.
“Great, round up as many as you can!” said Twilight.
"Bloom's in there?" Applejack asked sharply. Twilight didn't answer in words, but the quick sidelong look she gave the earth pony was clear enough.
Applejack rocked her head back and forth, crackling her neck. Her expression hardened, grim as a tombstone. "Gimme more of them tentacles."
Rarity trotted toward the center of the main room, where Scootaloo was running back and forth swinging a canvas bookbag like a butterfly net, climbing up furniture and making wing-fluttering long hops, trying to catch flitting toy pegasi.
Up near the ceiling, Rainbow Dash's biggest problem was Rainbow Dash, in a manner more literal than usual. Her toy doppelganger had a lot more room to maneuver in the Library atrium than she did, and made good use of it, zipping in dizzying loops around the full-sized pegasus and flicking in to deliver small but sharply-targeted kicks and headbutts every few seconds. The little creature was obviously convinced that Dash was some kind of giant monster, and wasn't inclined to listen to reason, which would have mattered more if the real Dash were inclined to use any.
The flesh-and-blood pegasus was getting woozy from trying to keep track of her antagonist's mad swirling motion, and it didn't help that her eyes were watering from too many stinging kicks to the nose. Swinging her forehooves wildly, she managed to catch the toy with a solid swat, sending it zipping toward Scootaloo, who had climbed one of the bookshelf ladders and was ready with the bag.
The next few moments were complicated.
Scootaloo, perched on the very top step of the ladder — the step labeled clearly not to stand on — swung the canvas sack out in a wide sweep and, to her own surprise, successfully netted the miniature Dash. The toy pegasus was disproportionately powerful, however, and instead of going down, the sack yanked upward, pulling Scootaloo's hooves from the ladder, which tipped over and fell clattering down, coming to rest against an overturned chair.
Squealing, Scootaloo was dragged out into the air, hanging from the sack like a very poorly designed hot air baloon and swinging crazily as the flying toy zigged and spun. One flailing hind hoof clipped the real Dash a smart blow right behind the ear, knocking loose the last fragment of wits. Eyes swirling and a wiggly lopsided grin on her lips, Dash stopped flapping and dropped, landing sprawled across the foot of the fallen ladder.
The toy Dash put on a final burst of speed and the filly's grip broke. Little wings buzzing fruitlessly, Scootaloo tumbled in an arc which ended, inevitably, on the longer end of the ladder that jutted upward over the chair.
Rarity closed her eyes. Scootaloo couldn't weigh more than a third as much as Dash, if that, but Rarity didn't need to see to know — just know — that the ladder would of course be balanced with just enough lever length on its upward end to combine with the filly's partial forward momentum and Dash's lingering aura of mass-countering flight magic, and...
Sure enough, she heard, in quick succession, the thud and groan of Scootaloo hitting the ladder, the clack of the ladder's top hitting the floor, the shocked half-vocal whuff from Dash, the flutter of a feather-winged body being launched at high speed, and the wince-inducing splat of that same body smacking against the ceiling.
Rarity drew a deep breath and let it out, then opened her eyes with a flat, exasperated expression. The absurd hat Dash had been wearing drifted serenely down in front of her like an oversized, fruit-bearing snowflake. Overhead, the canvas sack still circling around randomly with mini Dash caught inside, and Rarity grabbed it with a swift petulant snap of her magic. She was less annoyed with the toy pegasus than with the universe itself, which sometimes seemed to be run by beings more similar in mentality to Pinkie Pie than anypony else; but of the two, only one was small and localized enough to take it out on. Impatiently, she jammed the bundle of toy ponies she was already holding into the sack and twisted its mouth shut, then went over to check on Scootaloo.
Dash bounced off the ceiling and fell in a spin, twirling like a windblown leaf as she stuck her wings out in a punch-drunk effort to catch herself. She tumbled more sideways than down, and finally crashed to a landing in Twilight's astronomy loft, quickly discovering how heavy and unpillowlike a telescope could be.
Dazed, she lay beneath a tumble of Twilight's books and apparati for a moment, groaning softly and listening to the happy chirping birdies in her head. Gradually the fog lifted from her thoughts and she pushed herself up on her forelegs, clutter tumbling off her back.
Halfway to standing, she froze, suddenly aware of eyes upon her.
Owloysius and the hatchling phoenix Pee-Wee, steadfastly ignoring the fuss downstairs, were playing their own little game with the toy ponies the owl had stolen earlier, flying them around in a blue box making whooshy flight noises. They stopped to give Dash the same kind of blank, awkward stare that she would give if somepony crashed into her bedroom.
She rose all the way to her hooves, shook her head to blow off the remaining dizziness, and flexed her wings. The birds were still staring at her.
She cleared her throat. “Uh, yeah, so... carry on.”
They just kept staring. “Who?” suggested the owl.
“You guys could be trying to help or something, you know,” Dash snapped, before leaping from the balcony and letting herself fall in a reasonably controlled glide to the floor. She really was glad to have chosen Tank as a pet. Honestly, sometimes birds just creeped her out.
Her landing was a little wobbly, but her chin was high, her eyes bright and confident.
"Omigosh, omigosh, Rainbow Dash, I'm soooo sorry!" Scootaloo hopped anxiously around Dash. "Are you okay?"
The filly looked so miserable over the accident that Dash was moved to reach over and scruff her mane affectionately. "Don't sweat it, squirt. You know me, I crash into solid objects for breakfast! And anyway, I blame these little creeps, not you."
Rarity gave a little laugh. "Well then, you can help me get the rest of the 'little creeps'."
"On it!" Not quite ready to take to the air again, Dash set about prowling the room, pouncing catlike on each toy pony she saw, and knocking them toward Rarity's magical grasp like hockey pucks.
"Scootaloo dear, this bookbag won't hold much more. Could you find something more appropriate to keep these ruffians in?"
Scootaloo hopped up and snapped a salute. "You betcha!"
She returned soon with an owl-sized birdcage of brass wire that had fallen from the loft after Dash's tumble. Rarity gave the cage a close inspection. The bars looked sturdy, and spaced close enough to prevent the toys from escaping, possibly. If they had been real live ponies of the same size, she'd suspect they might be able to squeeze through, but she could feel with her magical grip that the toys were made of more solid material than flesh, not at all squishy. She doubted they could even fold back their ears like real ponies.
"It should do," she concluded, flipping open the door and carefully funneling the toys from sack to cage.
The Princesses of Equestria peered out from beneath the lid of a giant box, surveying the lunatic scene playing out before them with expressions of stoic calm, despite the inner turmoil both felt.
Moments prior, they had found themselves suddenly awakening inside the box, lying on their sides, nestled in form-fitting indentations of a soft spongy material. Pulling free of the peculiar padding had been an awkward struggle, and even for ponies of their natural grace and poise, walking on the squishy stuff was a challenge, but they managed to explore the bleak confines of their cell without too much damage to the royal dignity. There were no windows or doors, no furnishings, nothing at all but themselves and the sponge. Before long, though, they discovered that the roof itself was loose and could be lifted without much effort.
The view that greeted them outside was without parallel in the long, long memories of either Princess. They appeared to be tucked under a coffee table the size of a desert plateau, and beyond that was a room Celestia recognized as the Golden Oaks Library, recreated on the scale of titans. What little they could see of the Library was in complete turmoil; ponies that appeared normal-sized to the Princesses running around in pell-mell panic, and thundering among them, the hooves of ponies taller than mountains. Thuds and screams and deep, earth-shaking bellows filled the air.
Celestia kept her rising alarm in check by telling herself firmly that there were many possible explanations, and that it was only a matter of seeking more information, to eliminate possibilities until only the truth remained.
"What madness now has overcome our land?" Luna demanded. Her plans for dealing with the situation were more simple: find out who was responsible and deal them a quick, sharp lesson.
"I wish I had a ready answer for that, but I fear it may be we, not the land, who are affected. I fear, also, that I might already know who we'll find at the bottom of this."
"Your student, Twilight Sparkle, do you mean?" Luna stomped her hoof, to little effect on the soft flooring, and gave a warrior snort. "Fond as I am of Twilight and her band, too often does she overreach, it seems. If this is some experiment gone wrong, I'm sorry, but she's gone too far this time."
Celestia shook her head, lips pressed to a tight line. "You're not wrong there. I can't say yet what she's done, but pulling us into it is unacceptable." Her frown deepened as she gazed into empty air, a crease of worry appearing between her brows. "Hmm. I really can't say... whatever has happened, it's put a damper on my senses — I can't read the magic. And I'm finding distressing gaps in my knowledge, as well. I've — I! — have been robbed of memories!"
Luna gave her a look of shock. "No accidental spell could be so strong! Not even... she could ever breach your mind!" Her eyes dipped in a shadow of pain, making it clear that the name she wouldn't speak was not that of Twilight Sparkle.
"To affect me in such a way, without a trace and without a fight... no, I just don't believe that could be an accident. I could almost believe Twilight might somehow, accidentally or by some peculiar chain of reasoning, shrink us and maybe even stick us in a box, but that theory can only stretch so far. We've been too hasty blaming her, even if it does appear we've been hidden in her home. Some greater danger is at hoof."
"Then what should we do next, do you suppose?" Luna sidled almost unconsciously closer to Celestia, who recognized what most would miss, the well-controlled traces of fear in her younger sister's carriage and voice. Protectively she spread her wing across Luna's back.
"We should teleport back to Canterlot, assess the scope of this situation, and act from there," she said decisively. "Much as I'd like to find Twilight and see what she knows about all this, I think it would be more prudent to stay out of sight. Don't forget to adjust your 'port for scale, dear."
Even in the gravity of the circumstances, Luna chuckled and bumped Celestia's side in soft, playful reproach. "Perhaps you'd also like to wipe my nose?"
Celestia laughed. "Sorry, Lu. Old teacher's habits die hard."
The two of them closed their eyes and brought forth spheres of light that enveloped their bodies, Celestia in brilliant golden-white and Luna in gentle evening blue.
Unfortunately, in attempting the teleportation spells, the two toys expended entirely the stores of magical energy that had gone into their animation. Rather than going anywhere, the lights flickered and turned to glowing magenta, then simply winked out with soft, feeble popping sounds. The dolls fell, once again mere objects, to the sponge floor of their storage box.
In short order, Rarity, Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash had cleared the room of all the most visible dolls, and were scouting around carefully in bookshelves and under furniture for the more elusive ones. Fortunately, the animate toys didn't seem to be very bright, certainly nowhere near as difficult to catch as, say, mice or birds; a lot of the little beings were caught because they stopped to stare off blankly into space, or thought they could hide by covering their own eyes.
Of course, Rarity was pointedly aware that her impression of the toys as easy to catch was based, rather by definition, only on the segment that had, in fact, been caught. There could be any number of others successfully evading them.
She nudged the toy Fluttershy, who went along readily and squeaked an apology for all the trouble, into the cage and squatted down to examine the roundup thus far. The cage was slightly more than halfway full, with around forty to fifty of the mini-ponies, by Rarity's rough eyeball estimate.
"Do you have any idea how many there are?" she asked, more thinking out loud than really seeking an answer. "Hopefully this is at least half of them, or we'll need a bigger cage."
Dash shrugged. "Not sure. They belong to Pinkie — oh!"
She and Rarity locked startled glances. "Pinkie!" they shouted as one.
Now that she'd been brought to mind, they became aware of the ongoing squeals from the pink pony. She was laughing wildly, uncontrollably, and had been doing so for a long while now, with a rising hoarse note of distress in the sound. Dash and Rarity hurried over to where Pinkie had rolled, into an alcove near the foot of the stairs, where she was pinned on her back, legs flailing. "Make it stop! Make it sto-ha-ha-ha-hop!"
On closer approach, it became apparent that the thing tickling Pinkie was some kind of wiggly, sinuous being, resembling a short and very fast snake, slithering in rapid swirls around her body. Little clouds trailed up in the wake of the streaking creature, each puff solidifying and sprouting black legs to become part of a flock of tiny sheep that roamed all over Pinkie, grazing on her fur and making the tickling even worse. On the summit of her tummy, bouncing merrily in time to the rise and fall of her laughter, was the toy version of Pinkie herself, chanting, "Fun! Fun! Fun!"
Dash and Rarity exchanged glances of complete confusion, and then Rarity leaned in to snatch at the snake-thing with her magic. It deftly dodged her first attempt, leaving her holding only a clump of miniscule sheep, which she tossed hastily aside. On her second try she snagged the thing and pulled it away from Pinkie, whose helpless laughter subsided and allowed her to catch big, gulping breaths of relief. Dash seized the toy Pinkie with a fierce scowl, and gave it a rather harsh shaking, enraged by the edge of pain in the real Pinkie's gasping giggles.
Rarity held up the snake creature, and gave a cry of loathing as she recognized the misshapen serpentine form. She almost lost her grip on it, then tightened her magic firm enough to make the toy monster's eyes bug out.
"Eugh! Pinkie!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed, identifying the creature as well. "Why do you even have a Discord doll?"
Pinkie rolled onto her stomach, still breathing heavily, squishing miniature sheep which gave bleats of protest as they turned to puffs of mist and vanished. Between pants, she said, "Well duh... without the established existence of credible threats providing a tonal substrate of importance beyond the personal, even potentially poignant domestic and interpersonal conflicts would be reduced to mere anodyne sentimentality!"
Dash, Rarity, Scootaloo, and the Discord doll all froze and, in unison, blinked at her. Pinkie tutted irritably.
"You need bad guys for a good story, silly!" she clarified, before flopping down onto the floor again.
"Rrrright..." Rainbow Dash said.
Little Discord smirked at Rarity and snapped his leonine forepaw. Rarity jumped back in alarm as a pillow-sized cloud of tiny daisies pluffed into existence right in her face, hovering there however much she whipped her head about. Even flapping at them with her hooves only made the little flowers drift lazily away, giving the appearance that her head was stuck inside an invisible, spring-themed snow globe. With her magical hold faltering in the distraction, the Discord doll squiggled away through the air, slipping behind some books on a high shelf.
"Hey! Get him!" Dash shouted, following her own command and leaping up to clear the books from the shelf with one broad swing of her hoof. Discord was already gone, though. "Ahh, horsefeathers!"
"These actually smell quite pleasant," Rarity muttered distantly, dazed away from rationality for a moment as the flowers dissolved also into wisps of vapor. She blinked and shook her head, dispelling their traces. "Never mind, Dash, let's just catch all the ones we can find and worry about that horrid creature later."
"Right. C'mon, Scoots!" Dash dropped back down, and the four of them carried on the hunt for fugitive toys.
When Applejack had mashed around twenty of the slimy tentacles, the beast they belonged to had enough; its roars of outrage gave way to a more whimpery sound, to the extent that such a house-shaking bass thunder could be called a whimper. All the free tentacles slithered back, and the ones Twilight still held started trying to pull away rather than push against her. She let them retreat, keeping them lashed with her magic but giving them slack to withdraw, and began shrinking the shield-bubble around them.
The smaller the sphere grew, the more leverage Twilight had to force the tentacular horror down. Within the dwindling bubble, the individual tentacles seemed to be shrinking, forced not just physically away but retreating along dimensions beyond the comprehension of ponies. Finally she had it crushed down to a sphere the size of a tangerine, contained within the monstrosity's point of origin, a black cast-iron kettle sitting on the counter by the stove.
A bolt of lightning-bright energy from Twilight's eyes and horn crimped the kettle's lid firmly to its lip with a squeal of twisting metal, and branded its rim with sigils of containment.
Twilight's head dropped and she gave a deep, weary sigh.
"Whuff... well... that much is taken care of," she said. Exhaustion slumped every line in her body, and Applejack could see that all that magic had really taken the stuffing out of her. The hard-working farmer could sympathize with that, for sure. She patted Twilight on the back.
"You done good, Twi," she said heartily. Spike, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom rushed over to hug Twilight's legs, chorusing agreement.
"Thanks, everypony. You were amazing yourself, Applejack." Twilight managed a smile, though she still looked like a pony who hadn't slept for days.
"Ah, weren't nothin'. Uh... you maybe wanna tell me what in the hay that thing was?"
Twilight looked toward the pot, from which a few thin trailers of steam still rose. She shook her head. "I will as soon as I figure that out," she said vaguely, then turned toward the door. "Right now, there's still more mess to take care of."
She trudged out of the kitchen with the others trailing behind her.
Pinkie knew her collection as well as she knew the actual population of Ponyville, and she estimated that only ten or so remained at large — she wasn't entirely sure because she didn't have the heart to shake up the cage to see who might be in the center of the heap. To Rarity's dismay, the list of possible fugitives included some of the town's most intelligent, adventurous, or just plain devious ponies — Time Turner, Filthy Rich, Bella Notte, Cloud Kicker, and the Mayor among them — along with Ditzy Doo, whose well-known capacity for inadvertent disaster was matched in town legend only by the astounding coincidences that often rose to get her out of scrapes.
Rarity wasn't sure whether there was any relation between the abilities of the real ponies and their doubles, but there did seem to be. The toy Rainbow Dash had been a notably better flier than the other pegasi, and Little Applejack had given Big Dash a fully Apple-worthy buck in the nose when the pegasus bent down to make a joke about the three-inch orange pony giving her a sense of deja vu. The miniature Twilight Sparkle put up a genuinely intimidating magical resistance, which Rarity had overcome only by acting on the hope that the toy possessed some of Twilight's weaknesses as well, and applying her highest-grade pleading pout. Even so, Rarity got the sense that the toy hadn't been defeated, but deliberately aquiesced, and as she tossed her into the cage, she worried that Little Twilight might have some clever plan in mind.
They still hadn't found Little Rarity, which she thought was obscurely flattering, but that was no worry at all compared to the fact that they hadn't spotted hide, hair, scale nor feather of Little Discord either.
The search was interrupted when Twilight and the rest emerged from the kitchen. By silent consensus the toy-catchers all greeted them with big shiny grins of confidence.
Twilight spotted the cage. "Ah, good. Did you get them all?"
"Well..." Rainbow Dash began, scratching the back of her head uneasily. Her eyes, along with those of Pinkie, Rarity and Scootaloo, scanned all around the bookshelves. "Maybe?"
"There's some!" Sweetie Belle shouted. Rarity jumped and gave an involuntary yip, seeing that Belle was pointing at the floor right next to her, but when she looked down it was only a pair of... well, herself. Nothing draconequine at all. The two Rarity dolls pushed and squabbled with each other in squeaking voices as they approached the real Rarity in tiny fury.
"This humongous creature is a base impostor!" squealed the smaller one, pointing an accusing hoof. "I am the only true Rarity!"
"Liar! Changeling!" shrilled the other, knocking the little one aside. "You're just a cheap knockoff! I'm the real thing!"
They leapt upon one another and rolled about in an entirely unladylike display of hoofticuffs. Rarity looked down on them, in more ways than one. She couldn't quite make out what they were saying, in their high-pitched, fast-paced voices, but the gist seemed clear enough and she hardly approved of it.
"All right, you peculiar little things, that's quite enough," she declared. Without turning away from her tiny duplicates, she reached behind her with magic to lift the hat she'd brought for Twilight, and floated it a short distance above the dolls. "I can assure you that I am the real Rarity. And I have a giant hat."
She dropped the hat, ending the squeaky debate and imprisoning the toys with a very final plop. "Your argument is invalid."
Silence filled the Library like invisible lead, broken only by the occasional thud and tinkle of falling books and bits of ceiling. Slowly, but inexorably, every eye turned toward Twilight Sparkle, who hunched down her head.
"Twilight, my dear," said Rarity, turning a lethally sharp raise of her eyebrow toward the blushing scholar. "Why do I have the feeling that it's you, in particular, who have a lot of explaining to do?"
Rainy days didn't make Fluttershy's routine any less busy, just more damp. The outside animals still needed feeding; some of her wild friends who couldn't be brought into the house still needed checkup and therapy visits; and there were still all the daily chores indoors, where the rain made some animals huddled and lazy but others restless and troublesome.
The mud was inconvenient, but on the whole she barely noticed the weather as she went about her day. Fluttershy would be, and often had been, first to admit that she wasn't the most pegasus-ish of pegasi, but she had enough of the sky in her soul — and enough fat under her skin, which the pegasi wrote fewer poems about — not to be bothered by a little ordinary rain.
When she did notice the rain, it was in the evening, with all the work done and dinner warm in her belly, and it was with a sense of gratitude. Curling up under a quilt with a mug of cocoa was nice enough itself, but the gentle hiss of rain outside made it just perfect.
The hearth fire crackling, the soft continual chorus of small animals fidgeting and chirping throughout the house, the warm sweet steam of the cocoa all made Fluttershy's eyelids heavy and her mind foggy. With most of the critters settling in themselves, and the nocturnal ones polite enough to start up their routines quietly, only one point of agitated movement remained to draw her thoughts away from bed.
Angel Bunny was a bundle of nervous energy, scarcely odd in itself, but this time he didn't seem grouchy about anything, just unable to keep still. He had declined to snuggle with her and share dessert — which, despite his little... attitude issues, he usually did readily enough — and had instead spent most of the evening pacing and hopping around the cottage, as though he were looking for something but couldn't remember what.
After Fluttershy had settled down in her quilt without him, he took particular interest in the large window on the north wall of the living room, bouncing up onto the back of the sofa beneath it and skittering back and forth, staring out into the lowering dark. He didn't appear to be playing for attention with his antics. Something was genuinely bothering him.
With a sigh, she set down her mug and quietly joined him at the window, peering out into the drizzly sunset gloom. Movement outside caught her eye, small shapes hopping about on the grass between her cottage and the fringe of the forest. Her mild frown deepened as she got used to picking out the small blurs among the shadows, and realized how many of them there were; dozens of wild rabbits, all out and about despite the damp and the dark.
Rabbits foraging in the evening was normal enough, and even in the rain they needed to get out and eat, but... something wasn't right. Angel deigning to notice the doings of wild rabbits was out of the ordinary itself, but that wasn't it. That there were so many of them hopping around together was strange also — anywhere beyond the immediate radius of her cottage, the term for a large gathering of bunnies was 'buffet' — and that was part of it... yet still, she couldn't quite put her hoof on why the scene outside was raising a deep blossom of worry in her stomach.
A moment later, she realized that they were all trending in the same direction. It wasn't a stampede, they weren't running or panicked, and it didn't even look as though any of them were deciding to go that way. They just all happened to be heading eastward whenever they moved, seeming not to notice they were doing it.
The little alarm bells in the back of her mind rang a bit louder. Unnatural was the word that echoed through her thoughts.
"That's... odd. Um, Angel, is there some sort of bunny holiday going on?"
The white rabbit turned to her with a scowl, different from the usual surly one He looked as puzzled as she felt. Slowly, he shook his head and spread his little paws in a baffled shrug, before pressing his nose to the window, shuffling his feet restlessly.
"Do you want to go with them?"
Angel turned again and grimaced, his eyebrows wrinkling and his lip caught in his teeth. He bobbed his head in a conflicted gesture, unable to decide between nodding and shaking. Fluttershy could read him well enough to get the basic idea; he did feel an urge to follow the other rabbits, but having rather more brainpower than most of his kin, was also wary about following such an inexplicable compulsion.
Angel's uncertainty, such a sharp contrast to his usual grumpy confidence, only made her own worries worse. After a lifetime of being basically Fluttershy, she was a connoisseur of many different shades and flavors of anxiety. This one wasn't the sort of nervous that made her want to squeeze into a small space and squeak, but rather the sort that called on her to move forward and take action.
Something was wrong with the bunnies. Once she grasped that, the notion that whatever it was might not be safe for ponies didn't enter her mind. She raised her chin bravely and moved from the window toward the front door. "I don't like the looks of this at all. I'm going to find out what's going on."
Determined, she grabbed her rainhat and flopped it onto her head as a token nod to the weather before opening the door. On the threshold she looked over to Angel, tipping her head in a silent question. After considering for a long moment, he nodded and bounced over to take up a perch between her wings.
She trotted out along the path, Angel holding a couple strands of her mane and peering out around her cheek like a ship's captain at the prow, following the trail of rabbits as more and more of them emerged from thicket and grove, all hopping toward central Ponyville.
Chapter Four: Rarity Parody Similarity
"So. Let me see if I understand correctly." Rarity paced in front of Twilight Sparkle like a drill sergeant. She tapped out points on the floor with her forehoof. "To help you with an essay, Pinkie brought over her collection of dolls made to look like us and the rest of Ponyville. While you were playing make-believe, Rainbow Dash and the fillies turned up, and you all ended up having a tea party. But then you got bored and decided to bring the dolls to life with magic. Have I got all that right?"
Twilight mumbled a vague non-denial. Rarity nodded sagely.
"My dear, there is quite simply not a single part of that which is not insane."
Applejack boiled over. "Consarn it Twilight, usin' fancy magic for a silly game? I thought you had more sense than that!"
Rainbow Dash landed to put a supportive hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "Ahh, lay off her, AJ. We talked her into it."
"Yeah, but you I didn't think had more sense!"
Dash scowled and thrust her muzzle into Applejack's space. "Why you low-down, tree-kickin' —"
She stopped short as a perfectly groomed white hoof shot between the snarling rivals. "Tut! Later!" Rarity commanded. She pointed toward the birdcage full of squirming mini-ponies. "First things first, perhaps you should do something about these little... fellows?" she asked of Twilight.
"I don't understand what happened," Twilight muttered as she approached the cage. "I only targeted the spell at three of the dolls, and even those three shouldn't have been as energetic as they all were. Let alone so independent. It was like something pushed me, just as I was casting the spell... like swimming in the sea and having a big wave come up behind me..."
"Want me to dig out Polytrot's Aspects of Animation?" Spike asked.
"Later, but definitely. I'm sure I had the spell itself down pat, but there must be some other factor at work..." She shook her head and put the matter aside for the moment, leaning down to inspect the trapped toys. "Is this all of them?" she asked, not having gotten a proper answer previously.
Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Scootaloo exchanged furtive glances and shuffled their hooves.
"Oh yes!" Rarity said. Twilight looked up at her, puzzled at the excess certainty in her voice. Rarity gave her a bright brittle grin. "Er, I think so. Some of them, uh, might still be hiding."
The other three chewed on their lips, praying silently that Twilight wouldn't ask who they hadn't caught.
Twilight took a quick look around the room and shrugged. "Well, it doesn't really matter, I only wanted you to round them up to keep them out of trouble. When I close the spell it'll deactivate them all anyway."
"Oh good!" chorused all four, more enthusiastically than intended. Twilight missed the reaction, focused on unweaving her enchantment.
A silent distortion rippled through the air. As it passed over the birdcage, the toy ponies inside began to glow with the magenta aura of Twilight's magic. The energy rose from them in glittering streamers and flowed toward the unicorn, spiraling into her horn like colored water swirling into a drain.
Pinkie nudged Dash's side and bobbed her head toward the bookshelves, where a few extra wisps of magic were seeping out from between the books and joining the vortex whirling toward Twilight. Evidently Discord wasn't the only one they'd missed, but as Twilight said, they were all giving up their magical energy anyway. The toy-catching crew all sagged in relief and traded sheepish smiles. Applejack narrowed her eyes at them in suspicion, but didn't say anything.
Had Twilight's nerves been less frayed, and had she not closed her eyes in concentration, she might have noticed a flare of brighter light shining from deep within the pile of toys as the energy boiled off of them. As it was, none of the others who saw it had any reason to suspect that it wasn't her doing.
When the last of the magic had twirled down into her horn, Twilight raised her head and drew a deep breath, letting it out in a surprisingly loud and cheerful "Hoo!" She shook her head and gave a bright, energetic smile. Her eyes didn't actually glow, as they often did when she channeled power, but they somehow gave an impression of light nonetheless. She chuckled at the confused looks everypony was giving her.
"Head rush," she explained. "Imagine you'd been working all day and then all at once, you got back all the energy you spent."
"Hunh, that does sound nice," Applejack allowed. "Well okay then, I guess that takes care of them little ponies. But what's up with that... thing in the kitchen?"
"That's a good question," Twilight said sharply. "There's no way something like that could be the side effect of an overinflated animation spell, unless Pinkie had a life-sized slime monster doll hidden in her bag."
A moment later, when she realized that everypony was looking at her in stern silence, Pinkie said, "What? Oh, come on. No."
The scorn in her voice was convincing to Twilight, not least because it sounded as though Pinkie wished she had thought of making such a toy. She turned toward the kitchen door.
"Well... nothing to do but check it out."
As the ponies and dragon filed out of the main room toward the kitchen, the bright glow faded from beneath the toy ponies in the cage. The pile of toys settled somewhat, as though a bowl shape beneath them had collapsed, and a chorus of high-pitched grunts and complaints rose from the bottom of the pile.
The tiny head of Rainbow Dash was first to push its way out. Keeping her voice reasonably low, she called down, "Hey! Looks like the coast is clear!"
Twilight Sparkle shoved her way up through the dolls. "Great. Okay, Applejack, can you bend these bars enough for us to squeeze out?"
"Sure thing," came a muffled voice. More shifting and tumbling of toys ensued, and eventually orange hindquarters emerged from the pile at the edge of the cage. "Lemme just get lined up here..."
Applejack put her rear hooves against two of the brass bars and gave a soft grunt as she put all her power into pushing. It wasn't so easy as delivering all the force at once in a good strong buck, but she didn't want to make too much noise. The slender bars, made to resist gnawing bird beaks, were no match for a determined if miniature earth pony's legs, and gave thin whines of protest as they bent outward. Somewhat awkwardly, Applejack spread her legs wide as she pushed, forcing the bars apart as well as outward, until finally one snapped and she lost her balance, cursing as the broken metal bit into her leg.
"That good enough?" she asked, trying to shuffle around under all the toys so she could see out.
Pinkie Pie burst out of the pile and popped readily through the new opening. "You did great, Applejack!" she said, her voice at the miniature scale impossibly shrill. "Come on girls, let's get out of here!"
Dash was second through the hole, followed by Twilight. Another round of grunts and grumbles told that Applejack was clearing a path out for Fluttershy, and finally the rest helped tug Applejack out to freedom.
"That was right smart of ya, Twi, gettin' us all to the bottom of the pile so's you could shield us." Applejack looked around their little group. "Where's Rarity?"
Twilight shook her head, and cast her eyes over toward the giant hat on the other side of the room. "She was stuck under there. I couldn't reach her."
Eyes wide, worried, and watery, Fluttershy tried to ask. "Is she..." She faltered, then pointed cautiously toward all the inanimate ponies in the cage. "Are... are they — ?"
Twilight put a comforting hoof on her shoulder. "No, they're — well, they're not 'all right', but they're not dead either." She drew a deep breath and looked solemnly around at the others. "I think I know what's going on. I don't know how to tell you this, but —"
"Oh no! We're all just a bunch of dolls Big Twilight brought to life with magic and our brains are made of her thoughts about us!" Pinkie exclaimed.
Twilight gave her the sort of stare Pinkie got a lot of.
"Oh right, you wanted to tell them."
"Well... um, yeah, she's right," Twilight said, a little deflated.
"Shucks, I think we mostly figured that out already," said Applejack.
"What, we're what with the who now?" Dash asked, perplexed.
"Mostly." Applejack lifted her hindleg, looking pointedly toward the long and deep, yet bloodless gouge she'd gotten from the broken bar. "This here not bein' an ugly tragedy was my big clue, I reckon."
Twilight nodded. "I don't think she realized we'd be as conscious as we are. I'm pretty sure the ponies she doesn't know as well didn't really have much in the way of private thoughts."
"Okay, so... what do we do?" Applejack asked.
Twilight tilted her head and frowned thoughtfully. "Honestly, I don't think there's much to do. I mean, normally we're all pretty well practiced at fixing magical mishaps, but this time we are the mishap."
She looked around the book-strewn, chair-tumbled mess of the Library. A short while ago, when they'd all been brought suddenly into existence, she'd been in as much of a panic as everypony else. For a few short moments they'd only stared at the giant ponies, too befuddled to even begin to guess what was going on, but then Big Dash had grabbed Little Dash, who kicked her sharply on the snoot and began yelling about giant monsters, and the whole town's worth of miniature ponies had burst into an uncontrolled riot.
Only when they'd been herded into the birdcage had Twilight, at the bottom of the heap, found a moment to gather her thoughts and decipher the situation. Instinctively, she had thrown a protective ward around her closest friends when Big Twilight ended the spell, but now she wasn't sure that had been the right thing to do.
"I've never been a side effect before," she said in a soft, distant tone. "I feel kind of bad about trashing the Library."
"Eh, we do that all the time," Dash said, which wasn't readily deniable. "Look at it this way, it's awesome how much damage we can do even when we're just three inches high!"
Twilight snorted and broke into a grin. A moment later they were all laughing, with hooves over their mouths and nervous glances toward the kitchen.
After letting some of the tension out, Twilight rubbed her face and heaved another sigh. "Anyway... I think the best thing we can do is just hide somewhere and wait for the last of our magical energy to run out."
"What happens to us then?" Applejack's voice had just a hint of tremor in it, and her question was exactly what Twilight was hoping not to hear.
"Well —" she began, and stopped. In one sense, when the energy was gone they'd cease to exist. Along with all the deanimated ponies in the cage, their bodies would return to lifeless toyhood. That probably wasn't something the others would be happy to hear.
But in another sense, their current existence was just a projection of Big Twilight's mental image of herself and her friends. After the spell ceased, they would still 'live', in a way, along with the rest of her internal model of the world, dwelling as they always had in her thoughts about Ponyville.
"— everything goes back to normal and this will all just be a weird dream." She delivered it slick and glib. Applejack leaned toward her, suspicious about that long pause. Twilight returned her gaze with what she hoped was an honest, forthright smile, bracing herself against Applejack's searchlight stare by keeping in mind that what she'd said was true, from a certain point of view.
"... well, all right, Twilight, if you say so," Applejack eventually concluded. "How long you figure that's gonna take, then?"
Twilight shrugged. "It depends on how much energy we each expended in all the fracas, and that's without knowing how much we each got to start with. Probably more than five minutes, probably less than two hours."
"An' when we run out, we just kinda... fall asleep, right?"
"I think it'll feel like that, yeah."
They all fell silent for a moment. However well they trusted Twilight, sitting around and waiting to 'fall asleep' still felt a lot like giving up. Surprisingly, it was Fluttershy who spoke up first.
"I think we need some Pinkie Pie style," she said, nudging up against Pinkie's side. "If you wouldn't mind."
"Hey, yeah!" Pinkie began hopping in place. "No need to be all doomy and gloomy! If we're toys, we shouldn't mope, we should play!"
Twilight broke into a bright smile, and saw it reflected on everypony else's face as well. "You're right. There's no reason not to have a good time before this whole mess clears itself up!"
"Yahoo!" Pinkie squealed, only to find her mouth swiftly covered by Fluttershy's hoof.
"But we need to be quiet," the pegasus said gently, and tipped her head toward the nearest bookshelf. "And we should find a hiding place first. Um, right?"
Pinkie nodded energetically and stage-whispered, "Right. I know some great quiet games. Come on girls!"
She bounced toward the shelf, where one book leaning on another created a triangular cave easily big enough for them all to stay comfortably. The others trooped after her, making a point of keeping their chins up and their spirits high.
None of them noticed a shimmer of green light fading away, up in the loft near the telescope nook. The fledgling phoenix Pee-Wee had curled up in his little fireproof nest and fallen asleep, and Owloysius sat with his back to the main room, calmly reading a historical drama. Unseen, a slinking serpentine form wiggled out from beneath the shadow of a low table and slipped inside the blue metal box where the birds had stored their purloined pony dolls.
Owloysius blinked and turned his head, in the disturbing manner of an owl, alerted by a curious wheezy whooshing noise. By the time his sharp eyes swept across the spot where the blue box had been, it was gone and the noise faded.
Owloysius looked back and forth a moment, incapable of frowning suspiciously but giving the air of one who would be. Eventually he just went back to reading. If he got worked up over every strange thing that happened in The Purple One's household, he'd be crazier than The Pink One.
The kitchen wasn't too bad. The floor was littered with shattered bits of crockery and scatterings of herbs, a splatter of creamy cucumber spread dripped down a bank of cabinets, and there was a crack in the pantry door, but the tentacles hadn't spent a lot of time flailing in the kitchen before seeking out the bright-shining source of magical goodness that was Twilight Sparkle.
Twilight crunched across the floor and looked at the cast-iron cauldron that had become a prison for the extradimensional menace. She sighed. "Whatever happened, I guess I'll have to send this to the vault at Canterlot and get a new pot..."
"I'll pay for it!" Sweetie Belle said hastily, then froze and grimaced, rolling her eyes around desperately at the stares that swept in her direction.
"And why... my dear little sister... do you feel a need to make such a generous offer?" Rarity asked in a low, dangerous voice.
"Sweetie Belle... what did you do?" added Twilight.
Sweetie quivered, beads of sweat rolling down her forehead. She raised a trembling hoof and pointed at an enormous, aged book lying open on the counter near the pot. "I — I was just f-f-following the recipe for maté tea... it's in some kind of foreign language, but there's pictures of the ingredients and I could sound out the words..."
Twilight felt a dreadful apprehension of the cosmos focusing its sense of humor on her as she turned, reluctantly, and scanned the pages. A wordless groan of horror escaped her lips.
"That's not a recipe! It doesn't say maté, it says Tiamat!" She slammed the book shut and stared at the cover in revulsion. "Auggh! This is the Equinomicon! Spike, WHY do these forbidden tomes keep ending up in the kitchen?"
"I dunno, maybe you should find a pony who browses through eldritch grimoires while she's looking for a snack and ask her? I bet I can guess what color her mane is."
"Fine! Not important!" Twilight whirled and held the book out toward Sweetie Belle. "How could you mistake this for a cookbook?"
Sweetie looked at the thick, gnarled black wood of the dread tome's binding, carved with ominous runes and twisted shapes that could almost be taken for screaming pony faces.
"... I thought maybe it was one of those Nightmare Night party books?" she said, in a very small voice.
Twilight was spared any further excursion into the filly's mental workings when Applejack and Rarity both burst out in exasperated groans.
"You left some book of evil magic just sittin' around in the kitchen?"
"You let Sweetie Belle cook?"
Everypony decided that was the shouting cue.
"All I did was put stuff in the pot! I didn't even touch the stove!" squealed Sweetie Belle.
"I told ya not to mess with anythin' that had ingredients!" countered Apple Bloom.
"It's a library! Having books around is the whole point!" Twilight snapped.
"An' the necromancy part of the catalog gets shelved on the kitchen counter?" Applejack retorted.
"Sweetie, why couldn't you just stick with a nice simple bowl of toast?" interjected Rarity.
"I said we should have gone kayaking in the first place!" insisted Scootaloo.
"I CAN SHOUT LOUDER THAN ANY OF YOU!" Rainbow Dash contributed.
The party pony — of whom, thanks to countless hours of practice singing and announcing, Dash's assertion was simply not true — swept a glare across all of them as their mouths snapped shut.
"Honestly. It's like babysitting but I'm not getting paid," she sighed, earning a full roster of eight disgruntled stares. She rolled her eyes and crossed her forelegs. "Fine, I'll go first this time. Twilight, I'm sorry that I talked you into trying out an unpracticed spell just for play-time. Having fun is no excuse, I shouldn't have poked you into breaking the rules about your real work."
She shot a meaningful look toward Rainbow Dash, who hovered down a little lower and dipped her eyes humbly.
"Yeah, I'm sorry for the same thing. Also it was me who started the actual fighting with the toys, so sorry for that too."
With her eyes, Dash tossed the apology ball toward the Crusaders.
“We’re sorry we summoned forth horrors of the outer darkness,” recited the fillies by rote.
“And I’m sorry for messing up your kitchen.” added Sweetie Belle.
“Oh, yeah, and the bathroom.” said Scootaloo. Without a word, Twilight Sparkle pivoted on her rear hoof and galloped for the stairs.
Pinkie turned her gaze on Rarity, who blinked and shook her head slightly, baffled.
"Me? But I didn't —" She turned away as a cry of shock and outrage came from the upstairs bathroom. Pinkie wouldn't allow the distraction, and kept giving Rarity the nanny glare. "Well then, um, I suppose that... I'm sorry for not picking up Sweetie Belle from school myself...? And... aha, yes. I'm sorry I yelled. You and Rainbow Dash and Twilight are all adults, strictly speaking, and even if you're doing something foalish, I should at least address you as equals."
"Where did they even get this much mud? Did they bring in a hose?" came Twilight's voice.
"All right, I'll play along. Reckon I'm sorry for —" Applejack paused, and turned to shout in Twilight's general direction. "SORRY I YELLED AT YA, SUGARCUBE."
"There are hoofprints on the ceiling! How is that possible? How is that remotely possible?!"
"I better go help her out," Spike said, heading for the door. Pinkie cleared her throat at him, and he looked back and forth, considering. "Okay, well, I guess I'm sorry that I didn't keep a closer eye on what Sweetie Belle was doing." he said, rather dismissively, and walked out.
"There!" Pinkie said with a big shiny smile. "When she's done upstairs, we can get Twilight to apologize for how this is all mostly her fault anyway."
"I'm gonna clean up the kitchen." Sweetie Belle said firmly, and gave the other fillies a reasonable copy of the look she'd just seen from Pinkie.
Scootaloo held up her forehooves in protest. "Hey, I wasn't even in here, remember?" She gave Apple Bloom a withering glare when the earth pony shoved a dustpan into her grip, but growled in resignation and set about doing as little as she could get away with.
"I'll help too," said Pinkie cheerfully. "Better this than the bathroom, sounds like."
Rarity, Applejack and Rainbow Dash shrugged to each other as the fillies and Pinkie took on the kitchen. None of them felt particularly compelled to assist, two because they really hadn't been involved with any of the fuss except to help stop it, the third because she was Rainbow Dash. When Pinkie drew a deep breath and began to sing a cleaning song, they all backed quietly out of the kitchen.
Rarity picked up her raincoat and parasol where she had dropped them on her way in, and hung them carefully on the hooks by the door. Applejack flipped open the pie-box to check that the pie inside was undamaged, and satisfied that it was still in edible condition, set the box on the big wooden table in the center of the room. Rainbow Dash self-consciously began to pick up scattered books and stack them neatly beside the shelves for later sorting, and the three of them spent a few moments righting overturned chairs, moving Pinkie's dollhouses out of the way, and setting the ladder back up against the wall.
After tidying in desultory silence for awhile, Rarity made a spritely effort at conversation. "Well... it looks like you've had rather an exciting evening."
"Ugh. Yeah, guess you could say that." Dash's voice was dull and weary. Rarity turned to look the pegasus over, brow crinkling in concern.
"Oh, Rainbow Dash..." she said, in a tone of honeyed sympathy. "Did they make you wear that?"
Dash looked down at the torn wreck of a dress she was, at this point, more entangled in than wearing. She sighed. "Yeah... it was all a big dress-up thing..." She picked at a hanging flap of white fabric. "This is Pinkie's. Looks like I kinda ruined it."
"You poor dear. You look like you've been in a brawl."
"I kinda was."
"Oh, come over here. I think we can salvage this dress with just a little work..." Rarity coaxed Dash closer, and began tugging at sections of the torn garment. "Yes, I can see it. Just a few little adjustments and we can make these rips look deliberate, sort of a toga effect... you've always looked best in classic Pegasopolitan styles, I do believe."
Dash was too exhausted from the earlier tussle with the toys to put up much resistance, giving a feeble, "Aw, Rarity, c'mon," as the fashionista set about humming and fussing over her. "I just want to take the stupid thing off."
"Let me put you in front of a mirror when I'm done, and see if you still feel that way," Rarity said equitably. From an inside pocket of her raincoat she floated a silver hairbrush.
"A little brushing will get your mane back to looking daringly windblown instead of just ragged, too..." she purred, carefully running the brush through Dash's bangs with her magic, while her hooves worked at the tatters of the dress, tugging off some torn parts and tying others in a careful lacework around the winged pony's frame.
Dash turned a pleading puppy-dog look toward Applejack. The farmer snorted a chuckle and came over to put her hoof on Rarity's shoulder.
"Now Rare, she's had enough prettification for one day, don't ya think?"
Rarity frowned. "I'm just trying to restore her a little dignity."
Applejack looked over Rarity's shoulder at Dash. In truth, she did look not half bad in the reconstructed dress. As Rarity had said, it now seemed more like an ancient pegasus toga, though skimpier and with a certain bold warrior roughness, than just a ripped-up modern frock. Whether it looked good wasn't the issue, though; the worn-out shadowing around Dash's eyes was.
"I don't think she can stand much more dignity right now, either."
"Oh, fine." Rarity pulled the brush away from Dash and gave her a little nudge of implicit freedom to go. She turned a speculative gaze on Applejack, who backed away. "What about you, then? You know if you don't brush out that damp mane now, it will dry into a complete rat's nest later."
"That's my worry, ain't it?" Applejack said in a warning voice. "I'll take care of it when I get home."
"Even a tough customer like you can't enjoy brushing out tangles. And you can't seriously expect me to believe that your mane and tail stay so glossy and full-bodied without some pampering."
"Well, sure yeah, I take care of my hair. I do it at home. Alone. On my own," she emphasized.
"Oh, come now, Applejack, I only want to help," Rarity said, her tone slightly wounded. "They started out with dolls and make-believe, and a tea party — couldn't we just declare today the day for, well, more 'girly' activities?"
"You know that ain't my sort of thing, Rare."
"But we've been doing so much more of 'your sort of thing', and Dash's, lately!" Rarity put her lower lip out. "Rock climbing just for the sake of climbing rocks is hardly my sort of thing, but I went along without complaint, didn't I?"
Applejack scoffed. Rarity's definition of 'without complaint' seemed to include a lot of complaining. Even the unicorn herself gave a little eye-dip of acknowledgement that she wasn't the best of sports when it came to sports.
"But I did go along, and I did participate."
"Yeah... yeah ya did, but still..."
"It's not like I'm trying to drag you into a complete spa treatment." Rarity pounced on the slight hint of give in Applejack's voice. "Just a brushing, and re-tying your hairbands, and then you can just put your hat over it before going out. Nopony will see who hasn't already seen Rainbow Dash in a bonnet."
"Hay, yeah!" Dash added. "I got frou-frou'd, now it's your turn!"
"Bah..." Applejack groaned, flapping her hoof at the both of them, but she could tell her own surrender when she heard it, and she didn't knock Rarity's hoof away when the fashionista reached to remove her precious hat. "I ain't promisin' not to complain, mind you."
"Wouldn't expect any less, darling," Rarity trilled, bringing the hairbrush to bear on Applejack's hay-straw mane.
In the cavern of the bookshelf, Little Twilight had turned away from the games her friends were playing to watch the living ponies. On the surface, it seemed as though everything was taken care of, and the real ponies had nothing more to do than clean up, but there was something nagging at the edges of her attention. Something wasn't quite right...
When she heard the weirdly deep, booming voice of Big Dash say the uncommon (and strictly speaking nonexistent) word "frou-frou'd", the bit finally dropped for her, and with it went the pit of her stomach.
"Sympathetic resonance!" she exclaimed, aghast.
"Parasitic spirochetes!" Pinkie chirped, right in her ear, making her jump and snap the pink pony a ferociously startled glare.
"Sorry, I thought we were playing 'Science Words'."
"I'm not playing science words, just using them. Sympathetic resonance is the factor she's been overlooking!"
She turned, and found that the others had taken notice of her swing to the serious, looking to her with puzzled concern.
"Girls, I'm afraid Big Twilight is an idiot," she said, shaking her head in resignation.
The others gave a round of awkward, noncommittal noises, expressing that they didn't really want to agree, as such, but.
"Ugh! She even brought it up herself — Ad Astra's second principle. How could I — she — be so smart and so stupid?"
"Aw now sugarcube, don't beat yourselves up. We've all made some big mistakes, even in our own specialties." Applejack gave her a friendly hoof-tap on the shoulder. "Important thing is, how bad a problem is this pathetic residence gonna be?"
Twilight bit her lip. "Could be pretty bad, if she doesn't catch on soon." Pacing back and forth in rapid ovals, she began to lecture at full speed. "Ad Astra's Second Principle of Similarity, colloquially stated as 'like affects like', defines an intrinsic connection between symbols — or in this case effigies — and their referents, leading in instances like this to a standing amplification of ambient ethereal harmonics, boosting the effective force of applied magical energy. Amplified further by inadvertent invocation of Pterry's Laws of Narrative Impetus, and combined with an unanticipated influx of raw potential through a temporary paraspatial aperture in the kitchen, the result was a veritable explosion of virtual energy, which, crystallized by an act of applied energy, not only led to a massive amplification of the intended effect, but to a self-sustaining zeta spline bursting with active, initiatory harmonics — which was not countered by a careless caster who didn't follow the checklist!"
She stopped, breathing heavily, eyes frantic and furious.
The others were blinking at her in silence, displaying a crystal-clear understanding that indeed, she had said many words.
Twilight groaned and put a hoof over her eyes, trying to think of a way to explain more simply. It wasn't coming easily. As her own ego projection, her tendency to circumlocution was unusually pronounced. Even her internal monologue was needlessly verbose and polysyllabic. Her friends probably weren't as sharp as they could be, either. To begin with, her mental model of anypony else would have to be less complex and detailed than her own self-image, just because she couldn't read minds. And to be perfectly honest with herself, her concepts of them likely were at least a little dumber than the real mares deserved. Except...
"Pinkie, I don't suppose you feel like having a burst of inexplicable clarity right now, do you?"
From wherever it was she kept things, Pinkie produced a whiteboard on an easel and a set of colored markers.
"Okay, so. A doll that looks like a real pony is kinda like a magic egg..." She drew a quick stick figure of a pony, an equals sign, and an oblong. "And a story is like magic flour." She added a talking mouth, another equals, and a sort of cloud-shape, presumably representing flour. "Telling a story with the doll is like mixing them up to make magic batter."
She drew a bowl, and a line of red inside it to indicate that it was partially filled. "Then Twilight went and made the Dashie egg double-sized by putting magic into it to copy a kind of magic the real Dash does." She scribbled in more red, filling the bowl all the way up, and adding some drips overflowing each side. Beside it, she drew three more little stick-ponies.
"So when Twilight went to cast a spell on dolls of me, Dash and herself, she was making up a whole new batch of fresh batter, which was extra-bigger than she expected because the eggs —" She thickened the oval bodies of the stick-ponies, making them bigger. "— were of real ponies who were right there paying attention, which made the connection stronger, and the Dash one was already super-sized from the Rainboom."
She erased one stick-pony and re-drew it much larger, then took time carefully filling it in with rainbow stripes while Twilight stamped impatiently. Pinkie surrounded the doll shapes with a blob of red, and connected that with an arrow pointing to the bowl. "But she already had an overflowing bowl, except she didn't know it, because magic batter is invisible unless a magician specifically goes looking for it. So she dumped all that into the too-full bowl at the same time Sweetie Belle just happened to poke a hole in reality where a whole flood of batter from beyond squirted through — and BOOM! One big, huge, gigunda batter mess splattered everywhere!"
She scribbled red swirls across the whole board, then drew a small blue circle around the stick-figure dolls. "But the only part Big Twilight noticed is the little cake she was trying to make, and that's the only part she wrapped up and stored away properly. The rest of it is all still there, dripping off the ceiling and getting invisible story-flavored smears all over everypony!"
The other ponies nodded slowly in dawning comprehension.
"Did you just call me fat?" asked Rainbow Dash, but she was ignored as Applejack spoke up.
"So... all the extra batter — I mean, magic — is sorta... sloshin' around loose now, makin' ponies act out whatever story it was that her an' Pinkie were tellin' with the dolls before?"
"That explanation you get?" Twilight burst out. "Fine, whatever works... yeah, that's pretty much the size of it. If she doesn't do something to counter the harmonics, the story will just reiterate itself over and over, amplifying each time and spreading wider. It could encompass all of Equestria in just a few hours! And it's such a stupid story!"
Big Twilight's voice echoed again from upstairs. "No, seriously, how could they even get up there? Only one of them can fly, and she can't fly!"
Little Twilight shook her head. "She's pretty distracted. I don't think we can count on her to figure this out in time."
Dash reared up in the air and pointed a determined hoof. "Then it's up to us! What's the plan?"
Twilight frowned and rubbed her chin in thought. "Okay, let me think... we need to expend all our remaining energy as quickly as possible, and break up the story at the same time... none of you have the ability to throw off magic energy directly, and I can't draw it from you without extensive preparation, not to mention the research I'd have to do to modify the ritual for non-living toy bodies... it'd take too long to just exercise it out, so... Aha!"
She bounced on her hooves Pinkie-style in the delight of solving a puzzle. Pinkie helpfully drew a yellow lightbulb on the board behind and above her. "I've got it! Okay Dash, AJ, you two get over to that hat and bring back one of the Rarities. Don't let the big ponies see you." She pointed over toward the purple hat, which lay on the floor a short distance from the front door.
"Pinkie, Fluttershy, you come with me. We'll all meet up..." She looked across the room, and saw the toy Library sitting in the shadow of the central table. "In there. That should be a good place to get ready without being spotted."
"Roger!" Dash and Applejack hopped down from the lip of the shelf and galloped off, sticking to the edge of the room to stay out of sight of the live mares. Pinkie gave Twilight a big excited grin.
"What are we gonna do, Twilight?"
"We're going on a treasure hunt."
Applejack felt there was more going on behind her than simple brushing and tried, despite the basic impossibility of turning to see the back of her own head, to turn anyway. Her mane was held firm, however — not tugged, just gripped with a certain iron implacability.
"Rarity... you ain't braidin' things back there are ya?"
"Oh, just a little experiment," Rarity hummed.
"Experiment? Ho nelly!" Applejack scowled and made to escape. This time her mane was tugged, a careful solid yank on a hank of hair too large for it to hurt at all, but enough to pull her head back around to face front.
"Calm down, it's not the technique that's experimental. I only meant that I want to see how it will look on you."
"You wanna see. Maybe I don't, didja think of that?"
"If you don't like it, it won't take but thirty seconds to undo, I promise," Rarity said with great confidence. "Now sit."
Something in the shiny cheer of Rarity's voice made Applejack's hackles rise with a faint trace of alarm, but at the same time kept her from getting mad and pulling away at whatever cost to her mane it took. Knowing the way ponies could get when their cutie-mark talent was thwarted — or when it just took too strong a hold — and knowing that Rarity considered her talent to reach beyond fashion to any sort of finding and bringing out inner beauty, she thought the situation called for maybe some diplomacy.
"Uh, Rare, you, uh... you been workin' pretty hard lately..." she began, carefully.
The live mares distracted with hair dressage, it was simple enough for Little Dash and Applejack to get to the big purple hat without being noticed. Instead of pulling out one of the Rarity dolls and dragging it across the floor where they'd all be visible, they elected to crawl under the hat and push it from inside, scooching along a few inches and peeking out under the soft brim to make sure they weren't seen before making another move, the back of the hat dragging the dolls along with them.
It only took about two minutes to get the hat all the way under the table and up to the door of the toy Library. After a moment's debate they decided to take the bigger of the two Rarity dolls and dragged it inside, setting it down with exaggerated sighs and forehead-wipes of relief at the completion of the hazardous mission.
Just a few seconds later they were joined by Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Twilight, who was bearing in triumph a jewelry box of blue and gold, adorned around its edges with multicolored gems.
"Success! I just knew Big Pinkie would have made a set of these!" she declared.
"Well, duh. You need a way to beat the bad guys for a good story," said Pinkie.
Twilight turned her attention to the inanimate model of Rarity. Up close the doll, well detailed though it was, looked obviously fake, but there was still something indefinably creepy about the (comparatively) life sized effigy of her friend. "Aha, terrific, you got her!"
"Of course! Hat-stealin' ninjas, that's us." Rainbow Dash puffed her chest out and grinned.
"Just in time, too. The real Rarity is starting to get maniacal out there. Any minute now she'll start cackling and making atrocious puns. We'd better get started on step two right away." Twilight took a stance above the toy and braced herself. This was going to drain away a lot of her magic, and she could only hope that she had enough to keep going afterward. She closed her eyes, dipped her horn to point down at Rarity, and went through the weaving of the animation spell.
Her magenta glow surrounded Rarity's body, sparks of white flickering in swift orbits throughout the aura. Twilight felt like she'd been juggling boulders, but at least she had enough energy to stay upright and conscious.
"I'm not sure how long it needs to take effect —" she began.
Rarity's eyes snapped open. In an instant she went from inanimate to frantic.
"What... where... why am I lying on the floor? I feel so peculiar... did I hit my head? Oh! Am I bleeding?" Her voice was rising perilously toward a shriek. Twilight quickly pressed her lips shut with a hoof and made a soothing shushing sound.
"Rarity, there's no time to explain the whole situation. You're not injured, you just... um... you were put to sleep by a spell. Can I please ask you to keep calm and trust me? We need your help."
Rarity's eyes flicked back and forth between the ponies surrounding her. Her mouth opened as though to begin squealing again, but she caught the desperate concern in Twilight's eyes and let her breath out quietly instead. Her chin firmed with purpose.
Calmly, she said, "Well of course I trust you, Twilight. What do you need me to do?"
"First, put this on." Twilight opened the jewelry box, and from it drew forth a golden — or at least a gold-colored — necklace, bearing a glass duplicate of the diamond-shaped gem of Generosity.
"Oh dear. One of those days is it?"
"Don't you worry about a thing, Applejack. This hairstyle will be the mane attraction," Rarity bubbled, baring her teeth in a most worrisome grin as she twined the several braids she'd made of the earth pony's mane into a complex arrangement of loops. "Aheh, hehe, ahahaha... mwahahaha!"
"Uhh... uh yeah, that's um right funny an' all..." Applejack said, trying to draw away without making any sudden moves. Something was definitely off here. She was beginning to worry that she wouldn't be able to escape by any means short of a buck in the face, and beginning also to ponder the pros and cons of that approach.
Rainbow Dash rose from her cushion and flapped an impatient hoof at them, staring toward the empty doorway. "Hey, shut up a second," she recommended, taking a step toward the door. "Do you two hear that?"
The curious fizzing feeling in Rarity's head faded somewhat as she turned to look, frowning. Her magical grip on Applejack's mane loosened and the farmer took the opportunity to move hastily away, coming up alongside Dash with her ears perked forward. After a moment's silence she could make out a dim rumbling sound, something like a distant rockslide. "Yeah, I do. Is that... thunder?" She sounded doubtful. "I thought the storm was mostly cleared away already."
"It should be," Dash said. Her lip curled in annoyance, reminded that she still had weather work left to do, with no more than ten minutes left before her squad would be certain she was absent and not just out at the fringes or something. "Anyway, thunder doesn't keep on going like that..."
"It's getting louder," Rarity observed nervously.
"It's getting closer," Dash added, taking another hesitant step forward. Out on the street, not a pony was in sight, and no more rain was falling. Without even a breeze, Ponyville was as quiet as it got... except for that ominous, rising rumble.
"There's somethin' familiar about that sound," Applejack said softly. "I heard it before, somewhere..."
Dash stuck her head out through the doorway and peered with suspicion out into the night. "It sounds like something that needs checking out," she said, then headed out and up.
Applejack watched her fly into the gloom, then poked her own head out, staring down the road. She squinted and tipped her head. There was some hint of motion just at the edge of what she could see, a line of lighter grey moving against the dark dirt road, rippling as it approached. Her eyes grew slowly wider as the shape came more clearly into view, and she realized that it was not 'a' shape but many of them, a line of some kind of living creatures, getting steadily closer.
"Holy horseapples, it's a stampede!" she shouted, backing away fast. Even as she did, Rainbow Dash came zooming back in, stopping just a hair short of collision with the earth pony.
"Shut the door! SHUT THE DOOR!" she yelled.
"I can't, it's out there!" Applejack bellowed back.
"Is it the cows? The sheep?" Rarity said, retreating all the way to the back wall of the room.
"No, it's BU —" Dash started to shout, just as a tidal wave of rabbits crashed through the doorway.
Dash was thrown against Applejack and both of them tumbled about helplessly under the fuzzy tsunami, shouting things unprintable as they were tossed against the walls and buffeted with countless small and heedless kicking feet. The rabbits only ran past and over them, though, and as more and more of them poured in it became clear that they were all, with beady-eyed singularity of purpose, bearing down on a specific target: Rarity.
The white unicorn had only time to raise her hooves and let out a piercing wail before they were on her, driving her to the floor and piling on top of her in a massive heap.
"Oh my stars and planets, it's the bunnies!" Little Twilight had time to shout before the flood of white, brown and grey bodies swept the room, shaking the floor and bouncing the toy Library around, knocking all the ponies inside off their hooves. Fortunately the only furniture and books in the dollhouse were painted on to the walls, so the ponies had nothing to crash into but each other, but the thundrous shaking was a primal terror in itself, and under the roar of hopping feet none of them felt reserved about screaming. At this point it wasn't as though the full-sized ponies were going to notice.
Once the wave had crashed there came relative silence. The bunnies filled most of the room in a thick wiggly carpet, snuffling and hopping about aimlessly. It was evident their plans had gone no further than bunnypiling on Rarity. As far as Twilight was concerned, bunnies always looked somewhat baffled whenever they weren't outright terrified, but now they seemed even more confused than usual, as though the whole crowd of them had simultaneously forgotten where they left their keys.
"Look at that! Hundreds of them! The resonance must already be strong enough to draw them in from miles around!" Twilight declared. "Can't wait here any longer. We've got to head out there and be ready to take our shot the second she gets clear of those rabbits."
She trotted out of the Library, into the Library. Most of the bunnies were huddled in a pile on top of Big Rarity and the other two live mares, and the table had served as a sort of breakwater; behind the table's thick pedestal, on the side opposite the door, was a swath of floor mostly clear of the giant fuzzballs, giving her a clear run to the edge of the room. She jumped up atop a dictionary lying near the wall, where she had a decent view of the squirming, squalling lump that was Rarity, in the middle of the highest mound of the bunnypile.
She heard the others come running up behind her, in particular hearing Little Rarity, who had begun to whine out desperate questions the moment she got out of the toy Library and realized that it wasn't exactly Ponyville outside.
"Where did all these giant bunnies come from? Why is the Library so huge? Is this a Discord thing? What's going on?"
Twilight's heart went out to Rarity's honest, if unpleasantly shrill, bewilderment. She wasn't quite the same Twilight who cast the first spell, so she didn't think Rarity had any memories of being animated earlier. This version of Rarity's personality was probably rather a ragged thing, really, made from the mental image of Rarity held by Twilight's mental image of herself, which was just all sorts of complicated, metaphysically. In her situation, Twilight was sure she'd be doing worse than just whining. She'd probably be bursting into flames by now.
But there just wasn't time to offer more than token gestures of comfort. As gently as she could, she told Rarity, "I'm sorry, I really, really am, but we're in a lot of trouble right now, with only one slim chance to get out of it, and the whole world could be at risk if we fail!"
She wrapped her hoof around Rarity's shoulder and pressed close to her side, pointing out across the landscape of rabbit fur. "Any second now, our target is going to come rising out of there, and we have to be ready with the Elements when she does."
Rarity's lower lip trembled, and her eyes seemed shiny, though Twilight was reasonably certain that as toys they couldn't actually cry. "I — I'm so confused..." she said in a lost, watery voice. "But I won't let you down."
"That's my fashion star." Twilight squeezed her again, nuzzled her cheek, and thanked the heavens that the gem on her tiara wasn't in the shape of an apple as she went on, "Once this is over, I promise I'll explain everything."
Rarity took a deep breath, and cleared her throat roughly. In a firmer voice she looked outward and asked, "All right then, who is this target?"
Twilight winced. Rarity's courage and trust felt like a kick to her gut. "It's — well, it's a giant pony. Just follow my lead, okay?"
Saving the world. If we fail, the resonance could well be too strong for Twilight or even Celestia to fix by the time they figure out what's happening. The real Rarity could actually be turned into a new Changeling Queen! I don't have any choice but to mislead her, she told herself, swallowing heavily as the other Holders of the Elements lined up alongside her at the edge of the dictionary.
I'm still such a horrible pony.
The noise brought all three fillies and Pinkie to the kitchen door, where they stopped with dropped jaws. Sweetie Belle clapped her forehooves and gave out a squeal of delight at the sight of all the bustling bunnies, but stopped abruptly under the disbelieving looks she got from the other Crusaders. Pinkie Pie was so stunned she actually said nothing, which, although nopony noticed it, was statistically far less common than bunny stampedes.
Twilight Sparkle and Spike were also alerted by the sound and rushed down the stairs, halting a few steps up as though slamming into an invisible barrier made of surprise. Both of them let out cries of dismay at the fresh chaos filling the room in cute and fuzzy form.
"What now? Why is my library filled with RABBITS?!" Twilight shouted to the universe itself, existentially exasperated. Strands of her mane and tail popped in wild curls from the sleek precision of her grooming, and Spike caught a definite scent of smoke from her direction. He could only file that away as something to be dealt with very soon, however. Right at that moment he had too much groaning and staring to do.
Twilight's dangerously rising crazy meter was interrupted, for a moment at least, by a soft voice from the front door. "Oh my goodness, is everypony... oh... kay?"
Fluttershy peeked through the doorway. Like everypony else, she stopped dead in startlement, but unlike everypony else, the bunnies struck her as the least confusing thing in the room. Her jaw bobbed up and down a few times before sound gradually emerged. "Wh. Wha. What? What, what?"
Too many questions argued in Fluttershy's mind over which one ought to come after 'what'. The aspect of her that should make such decisions was too busy slapping the eyeball monitors and demanding the truth. The strange behavior of the bunnies had already made her evening surreal enough; now, everywhere she looked — from the tiny Ponyville on the floor, to all her friends and the three fillies being in the Library after dark, to Twilight Sparkle standing there in her party dress smeared with mud, to the empty doorway with its hinges hanging twisted on the frame, which on the plus side seemed logically related to the door she'd passed lying in the road — was madness.
It really didn't help that Spike was wearing a tuxedo jacket and holding a bucket of soapy water. It just so happened that when Spike turned up in her actual dreams, he was often dressed formally and carrying cleaning supplies, though at least in this instance he wasn't also singing showtunes.
It certainly felt like she was awake, but the evidence was really stacking up against it. "What? Um... what?"
While Fluttershy tried to gather her wits enough to be merely confused, Angel hopped down from her back. He ran over and gave Scootaloo a swift kick on the shin, just because she was closest to the door. Unhurt but indignant, she squawked at him to no avail. Angel had already turned his wrath toward his wild cousins, giving them a sharp tongue-lashing in sniffly, squeaky bunny language, quite literally hopping mad.
Fluttershy met Twilight's eyes and added a second word to her repertoire. "Twilight... what?"
"It's a little complicated," Twilight croaked.
As Big Fluttershy came through the doorway, Little Pinkie gave a deep, wailing inhalation of horror, and leapt into the air, clapping her forehooves over her mouth. Her mane and tail frizzed out in starburst shapes, electrified by fear. It was the most terror ever shown by any living thing at the appearance of Fluttershy, at least when she wasn't angry.
"No more time, Twilight!" Pinkie screamed. "We have to stop the story RIGHT NOW!"
"Stay with me, Pinkie, this is no time to panic."
"Don't you remember? Rarity comes out from under the bunnies last! We can't wait for a clear shot — if we don't act right this second, they're gonna — well, Fluttershy'll get over it, probably — but AJ and Dash are gonna totally kill me! Real me, I mean!"
"Why are you so —" Twilight's mind ground to a halt as Pinkie's point sank in. She could feel things snapping and and fizzling inside her thoughts as the imagination sector slammed on the emergency brake.
"Gurk," she remarked.
"What're you two on about?" Applejack demanded.
"Never mind — Pinkie's right! Go time is now!"
Twilight jumped forward off the dictionary, and without further discussion, the others galloped after her toward the sea of bunnies.
* * * * * * * * * *
Fluttershy hovered above the bunnypile and called out for her friends.
"Oh my... are you okay?" she asked nervously. Applejack was first to recover and pop up from under the bunnies, muttering apple-filled curses.
"I'm okay, I just got to..." She trailed off, and realized that without thinking, she had reached out and picked up a rabbit. She had no idea why. "Uh... what do I got to?"
The rabbit dangling from her hoof looked back at her and shrugged.
* * * * * * * * *
Little Twilight found her mind strangely calm. There was no more time to think, to analyze, only to act. It was liberating, in a way.
The toy ponies came to the edge of the bunny crowd and Applejack turned to Twilight. "How're we gonna do this? We can't hit Rarity with all these varmints in the way."
"Wait, that's the target? Why me?" Rarity looked hurt.
"She's the antagonist," Twilight said, which didn't make the other unicorn feel any better. "It's okay, the Elements aren't just a blind weapon — they know where there's evil in the heart. And we're not carrying the real Elements anyway. There's a better than even chance that they'll produce nothing more than a light show, but that should still be dramatic enough to disrupt the story. Either way I'm pretty sure she won't be harmed."
"That's the kind of sentence I really don't want to hear 'pretty' in."
* * * * * * * *
Rainbow Dash emerged also, and looked up toward Fluttershy. She broke into a broad grin and started laughing.
"Fluttershy? What a totally awesome prank!" she crowed.
* * * * * * *
Last second. Big Rarity was still fumbling around under the furry bodies. Little Twilight, still in her eye-of-the-storm zen balance, reached out with her magic and pushed, shoving rabbits heedlessly aside and clearing an aisle that led straight from where she stood to where Rarity sat, blinking in astonishment.
The telekinetic burst drained her remaining energy to the very dregs, leaving her feeling more worn and weak than ever, but she forced herself to keep her heavy hooves in motion. She could only hope that what she had left would be enough, that the resonance of her Element would amplify her remaining reserves sufficiently to carry off the rest of the plan.
But, to her own surprise, she wasn't worried. The question really was, would the magic of friendship come through for her when she needed it — when the whole world needed it?
Put that way, she didn't have to think it would, or hope it would. She knew.
Little Twilight charged forward between the befuddled bunnies.
* * * * * *
Big Dash flew up out of the bunnies, ignoring the wave of magic tossing them around beneath her. A strange, glossy blankness clouded her eyes as she hovered toward Fluttershy, not knowing why, but feeling somehow right about it. Fluttershy drew back, giving Dash a quizzical look.
* * * * *
Little Twilight drew to a halt a few hooves away from Big Rarity and squared her stance as the others took places by her sides. She lowered her head and lit her horn one more time.
"Sure hope these things work without a lecture on friendship first..." she said under her breath, then called, "All right, girls! Ready..."
* * * *
"Fluttershy... you... you're my..." Big Dash droned in a weird faraway voice, closing in on the butter-yellow pegasus, who backed toward the wall, growing more alarmed by the millisecond. "... you're my awesome hero..."
"Oh, it was nothing," Fluttershy mumbled, meaning it very sincerely.
* * *
With Fluttershy hunched up into the juncture of wall and ceiling, Dash was able to close in and grab her shoulders, trapping her. Fluttershy let out a pathetic whimper and drew her head back, terrified by the uncanny emptiness of Dash's eyes, almost certain that the fastest zombie in Equestria was leaning in to bite her face off.
On the floor below, Applejack whipped her head back and forth, trying to find anything that made a lick of sense. Over there was a flare of magic that looked like Twilight's color, tossing bunnies around, over there were more of those dadgummed toy ponies, still running around after she thought they'd been shut down, and up there, Rainbow Dash had Fluttershy cornered and was — what the hay was she doing? At a time like this?
The Elements of Harmony fired. At one-fourteenth scale.
Time clotted. In the frozen now, Spike found himself preternaturally alert, aware of everything at once.
He saw the six fugitive toy ponies, lining up with grim determination. He saw the lane cleared of bunnies, leading like a lethal arrow toward Rarity, who was staring blankly, mouth agape, not yet recovered from the chaos of the last few moments.
Somehow he could see Twilight behind him, her horn beginning to glow, attempting who knew what sort of emergency magic. He could see that it wasn't going to work, there was no more time.
He could see himself as though from outside, fighting to get his body moving, straining muscles that felt like frozen taffy.
He saw bright points of light shining from the toy ponies, each a different color. Deep in his core, he could feel forces of magic coiling up around the glass gems each of the miniatures wore, ready to burst forth. With frightful clarity he was aware of ghostly, shimmering light blooming at the throats of the full-sized mares in the room, some sort of echoed apparition of their Element necklaces flickering into view in sympathetic response to their toy versions.
He saw Rarity's eyes find the toys that were threatening her, saw her pupils dilate in fright, saw her forehooves rising — slowly, oh so slowly — to protect her face. He heard her begin to scream.
He could see the polychromatic energy bursting from the miniature Elements of Harmony. In the face of all logic regarding the speed of light, he was able to watch the beam growing toward her, inescapable.
And then he was in motion. He was in the air, leaping forward in a long desperate arc. He had his arms and legs stretched out wide, he had his chest fully bared to the oncoming ray. His own voice echoed in his ears as if from some far distant place, crying out a prolonged protest.
And then time came back. In a dizzy blurred instant he felt something like a full-grown dragon's breath blowing on him, hard; he felt himself changing direction in the air to fly back over Rarity's head, felt himself slammed against a bookshelf, felt his breath rush out and abandon him.
High on the side of Mount Equinox, on the lip of the tallest spire of Canterlot Castle, was a balcony from which, on a clear day, one could see all of Equestria. In a literal sense, that is, not merely poetic; with no neighboring civilizations of comparable size and sophistication to hem the land with treatied borders, the legal definition of Equestria's territory was in fact everything Celestia surveyed, by naked eye, from her lofty palace — aside from a few divots of land ceded to lesser but respectable thrones, such as Minotauros, Flutter Valley, and France.
The actual balcony from which the law was defined was three stories down, in truth, but the principle remained. The only notable difference between the views was a glen on the far side of the aptly-named Quibble Hills, anyway.
It was not a clear day. As much to the contrary as possible, it was a heavily overcast night. While the local clouds had been cleared over Ponyville, far below, the wise and aloof pegasi of the upper reaches were keeping a thick sheet of cover high above the mountaintops, in accordance with long-term weather plans.
Celestia, Princess of the Sun, didn't care much for cloudy weather. Partially pegasus (and even less inclined to discuss the whole fat-layer thing), she wasn't bothered by rain and mist in themselves, but her solar regimen was always more difficult when she couldn't actually see the Sun. Like a foal whose mother was out of sight, the mischievous orb would take the opportunity to play, dawdling as long as it could before setting to bed, or pretending to sink down while in fact sidling north.
Unlike a foal, it was made of pure elemental fire and weighed about seven hundred billion tons. 'Playing' with it was no way to relax. After finally wrestling down the restive Sun and dimming out the last raspberry traces of sunset, Celestia drooped, letting her wingtips sag to brush the floor and giving a deep, weary sigh.
Behind her a shadow of night separated from the dark skies, and came into view as dusk-coated Luna, gliding to a graceful landing on the balcony. Hearing the soft tap of silver-shod hooves, Celestia turned with a smile and stepped down from her tiled platform. Rather than greeting her sister as intended, though, to her embarrassment she found herself yawning cavernously right in the younger Princess's face.
"Oh goodness, do excuse me, sister..." Celestia said, sheepish. "I'm just so much more tired than usual tonight."
Luna's lips twitched around a smirk, and then she too burst into a yawn, covering her mouth and giving Celestia a dirty look as she finished.
"I too feel rested less than I would like. I blame this heavy air, it fosters sloth." Luna looked up to the dull canvas of the sky and sniffed. Fond of flying far and wide over the kingdom by night, she took even less delight in low-visibility wet weather than did Celestia. "At least the stars need no great art tonight."
"No, I suppose not... I didn't put on the most elegant sunset, either. A copy from yesterday, to be honest," Celestia admitted. She fought back another yawn, but it powered through her defenses. "Oh, my, I really am exhausted."
"You filly, get to bed before you drop — so does the throne of Canterlot decree!" Luna swept her hoof imperiously toward the tower's door, the impish bright crescent of her grin robbing the gesture of offense.
Celestia rolled her eyes and bowed her head, with a slight quiet smile. "Well, as my liege commands."
Before she could walk away, however, Luna paused at the platform's edge and called, "Oh, sister, wait — if I could trouble you..."
"Trouble away, my sweet, so long as you don't need any great feats of wakefulness."
Luna gave a hasty nod. "Of course. I only ask, if you should see a kitchen steward as you're passing through, to have a coffee service sent up here?"
"Poor tired Lulu. Shall I have them bring up some of those chocolate-drizzled cream puffs as well?"
Luna tossed a narrow glare toward Celestia's overly innocent smile, recognizing another move in the long-running debate concerning who ate how much, of what, and when; and whose cutie mark region was of greater disproportion in consequence. In tones of great and costly concession, she said, "... why yes, that would be lovely, sister dear."
"My pleasure," Celestia said, not quite chuckling.
With their backs to one another, the royal sisters both paused at the same moment for another deep yawn, with identical curves of their necks and the same soft squeak on the exhale, before Celestia descended into the tower and Luna took a stance on the platform, raising her head to breathe deep the chilly air as she extended her senses out toward the sleeping Moon.
Neither were strongly enough affected to find anything suspicious in their mysterious urge to fall over and do nothing useful.
Princess Cadance and Shining Armor had found the time, somehow, to share a quiet evening, a roaring fire, and a summer-sweet sparkling strawberry cordial. It was almost a disappointment when the rain let up, so perfectly had it framed the atmosphere of their cozy chamber.
Neither said much as grey light from the windows faded and gave way to flickering amber from the hearth. Slumped side to side, they conversed as much as needed by the rhythms of their breath. Armor had a book of magic-improvement exercises he was theoretically reading, while Cadance was quite deliberately doing nothing but watch the fire dance. Both were trying not to think about work, and largely succeeding.
At close to the same moment, both frowned thoughtfully and raised their heads. Armor caught Cadance's expression mirroring his own, and waved a hoof in the general direction of his desk.
"Did we have some sort of appointment this evening?" he asked cautiously.
"Nnnooo..." Cadance's eyes swept back and forth as she considered, eventually shaking her head with a shade more confidence. "No, I really can't think of anything. There shouldn't be, I moved mountains to clear out this evening for both of us. But I know what you mean... I have the strangest feeling that we were supposed to be somewhere."
"Yeah, like we should be making some kind of token appearance, at a party or something...?"
After musing a moment longer they shrugged, mutually baffled.
"Well, I hope it's nothing important," Cadance said, in a tone untouched by concern.
"Eh, if somepony thinks it is, we'll hear about it in the morning. I don't hear any explosions and I don't think your aunt has dropped the Moon, so..." Shining Armor slipped his hoof around Cadance's shoulders and drew her closer, nuzzling the sunrise-pink curls of mane around her ears. "... it can't be more important than this."
"You big softie," purred the Princess.
Down in Ponyville, in a darkened bedroom, Lyra Heartstrings opened her eyes wide, though she remained fast asleep. Staring blindly into the shadows, she gave a soft moan, and then another, lips gradually forming the sound into repetitive words. With each recitation her voice grew louder and more insistent, until she was all but shouting in a droning, hollow voice.
The earth pony sleeping beside her woke, fuzzily, and blinked with the grumpy uncertainty of the newly awakened, turning rapidly to concern at Lyra's eerie somnolent chanting.
"Humm? Lyra? Wha's... wha's goin' on?"
Lyra's eyes gazed at nothing, unblinking, still calling out hypnotically into the night.
"Are you talking in your sleep? Hey, c'mon, you're creeping me out."
Poking Lyra's shoulder did nothing to stop the strange chant, but a more energetic, frankly frightened shaking finally produced some response. Lyra's head turned, slowly and mechanically, and an uncanny smile spread on her lips. She fell quiet for a heartbeat, then spoke again, softer but still in a weird toneless croak.
"Rarity is soooo wooooonderful..." she crooned.
A couple of seconds passed in silence.
Lyra awoke at last, with a startled squawk, as she was kicked from the bed and hit the floor.
Chapter Five: All's Well That Ends Eventually
The strange fog cleared from Rainbow Dash's eyes with a nearly audible snap, and she twitched in surprise to find herself right up in Fluttershy's face, lips just a shadow's width away from Fluttershy's muzzle.
"Whoa!" She backed off hastily, shaking her head. "What's goin' on? I was just... uh, sorry about that, 'Shy. Whatever it was. I don't know what just happened."
"It's okay." Fluttershy flew forward and squeezed Dash in a quick hug. "I'm just glad you're not a zombie."
"Um, sure? It's one of my many awesome qualities," Dash said, uncertainly, then gaped downward. "Hey, what happened to Spike?"
Fluttershy covered her hooves with her mouth. "Oh no, he's hurt!"
"SPIKEY-WIKEY!" Rarity screamed. In a flash, she was kneeling by the dragon, who lay partially buried in books at the foot of the shelf against which he'd been thrown by the blast. She flung aside the books with an impatient flash of magic and lifted his head, careful not to jostle or squeeze, cradling him to her chest. "Oh, my little hero!"
Twilight jumped off the stairs and pelted across the room, heedlessly scattering bunnies. Midway there, though, she staggered, legs suddenly rubbery beneath her and head swimming, and when she reached Spike it was by tumbling heavily to her knees beside him.
To the others it probably looked like pure emotional collapse, and that was indeed the major part of it, but the dizziness and physical faltering was caused by the sudden arrival, inside her mind, of a complete additional set of memories for the previous hour. Even stranger was the crawling feeling that some of her internal models of her friends now had an extra hour of memories of their own, a bizarre mental sensation for which there was no proper word, despite the fact that a fair number of other unicorns before her had felt it.
The disorientation was nothing, though, beside the sheer weight of guilt. The whole mess, from one end of this strange day to the other, was entirely and inescapably the responsibility of Twilight Sparkle, but it was Spike, her little baby dragon, who had paid the price for it.
It was her, only her, who had cast an untried spell without following procedure. She had failed to check for unwanted influences and failed to clear the ambient etherium. She had left a dangerous book lying around, and even though it shouldn't have been possible for an untrained filly to summon anything just by sounding out words without intention and throwing together only those components that were available in the kitchen, there was still no evading the blame. She should have been aware that Sweetie Belle was actually that bad at cooking.
On top of all that came piled the burden of guilt her duplicate felt over her treatment of Rarity, both the toy and the real one. The boulder of remorse crushed her to the floor and squeezed burning tears from her eyes. She pressed her face to Spike's, weeping.
"It's my fault, all my fault," she moaned. "Oh Spike... my number one... how can I ever forgive myself?"
She dissolved in helpless choking sobs. Rarity had been tempted to channel her own worry into anger at the scholar, but the hopeless sorrow in Twilight's voice tore at her heart, and she reached her forehoof over Spike's chest to stroke Twilight's mane. The gesture only made Twilight feel worse, reminded that she — some version of herself, at any rate — had intended the blow for Rarity, and been willing to lie to a scared and confused echo of the white unicorn to accomplish it.
Shaking with grief, she whispered, "Please be all right... please..."
The others gathered in a loose circle around them, not wanting to crowd too close, biting their lips, shuffling uncomfortably, chins trembling and eyes shimmering in sympathy.
There are those in the surroundings of Equestria — among the griffins, among the dragons, and especially among the diamond dogs — who look on the ponies with spiteful jealousy. The ponies live the good life, some would say, in so many words, while every other being that doesn't kiss up to them gets the short end of the stick.
Blessed with magic to command the elements, graced with rulers of uncanny power and unparallelled benevolence, even given clear signs by forces beyond mortal kenning of their personal purposes in life, the ponies go through their days happy and well-fed, without nearly as much effort as many other beings must go through. They're so well off they burst into spontaneous city-wide musical numbers on a daily basis, and it's not like they ever did anything to earn their luxury except to be born with big eyes and pastel hides.
What these envious souls don't realize — and really, there's no way they could — is that, while it is true the ponies are unusually well-favored by fortune, all the creatures of their world are still, among all possible universes in the grand cosmic panoply, residents in one of the most merciful.
Twilight Sparkle's tears flowed down her cheeks and onto Spike's.
Spike's eyes opened.
"Wh... what happened?" he rasped. A glassy, sozzled smile dawned across his features.
"Oh Spikey!" Rarity squealed, joyfully peppering the dragon's face with rapid-fire kisses, which didn't really help him get any less dazed. "My dear, brave protector, how do you feel?"
"I feel... I feel so... friendly," he muttered. Twilight let out a sound something like a watery laugh and hugged him close, barely restraining herself from squeezing with all her might. Spike gave her a glowing, somewhat perplexed smile, and gently pushed aside her embrace, not in rejection, just wanting to get off the floor. His little claw held her hoof reassuringly as he got to his feet. The roomful of ponies burst out in cheers and laughter, stomping their hooves and dancing in delight, much to the consternation of the bunnies.
Spike's eyes gleamed with a fresh brightness, as though the world were a wonderful new thing, and he wavered slightly as he stood. Whether it was the Harmony blast, or all the books to the head, or Rarity's kisses, he looked like he'd gotten into the secret supply of aged cider in the Apple family's cellar.
Twilight and Rarity together helped him stand, neither willing to move an inch from his side. Spike gave them a saintly look of good cheer and clasped his hands over his heart. With the dignified sincerity of a happy drunk, he declared, "I... love you guys."
He pointed at them, then reached up and clasped their shoulders, carrying on. "I love all you guys. And I love Pinkie... wow... real friendship..."
Humoring him with gentle agreements as he continued to expound on the topic, and grinning themselves at the sheer radiant joy in his eyes, they turned him around and walked him toward a place to sit.
"He's never going to wash his face again," Twilight remarked, and Rarity laughed, assuming it was a joke.
A little more than an hour later, the Library was still alight and alive with bustling ponies.
Neither Applejack nor Rarity had been in any hurry to get home. Both seemed to feel they'd missed out on the fun part of the evening, and Applejack couldn't bring herself to leave the front door lying in the road while it was in her power to fix it. Rainbow Dash had needed to hurry off to finish up with her weather crew, but with that taken care of, she'd seen Applejack still at work on the door and flown back down to help. Rarity, not to be outdone in the department of generous gestures, stayed with the excuse of repairing Pinkie's mangled dresses.
Scootaloo had been picked up by her parents, a fine upstanding pegasus couple with respectable jobs and no major personality disorders. Twilight rather liked them; they rarely got caught up in the periodic mass hysteria that characterized life in Ponyville. She wouldn't mind seeing more of them.
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle stayed along with their sisters, thrilled at the opportunity to stay up past bedtime. After cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, both had promptly passed out atop a large square cushion, curled up back-to-back with their tails draped over their noses, as though posing for the dictionary illustration of 'adorable'.
Spike had recovered swiftly from the grogginess, still unusually chipper and energetic, but no worse than he sometimes got after too much sugar. Ignoring his protests of feeling fine, Twilight had subjected him to every magical scan she could think of, with some help from Rarity, who lacked formal education but at least possessed certain fundamental magical senses. Between the two of them and all the resources of the Library, as far as they could tell the only effect of the Harmony blast had been to sweep clean any dark and evil side he might have had. Once the initial euphoria died down, he seemed entirely the same as ever, which when she thought about it gave Twilight a certain warmth of pride for the little guy.
After the magic examination, Fluttershy had given him a thorough physical inspection as well, with a determined attitude that brooked no objection. As firm as her fear of dragons remained, she had been outraged after Spike's birthday to learn how indifferent Ponyville's medical professionals were about their own inability to help an entire sentient species, and taken it on herself to study every resource on dragon physiology Twilight could dig up. Given the distressingly slim state of Equestrian research in that area, combined with her extensive knowledge of veterinary care she probably qualified, ironically, as one of the country's top dragon health experts.
Of course, the top expert would likely be somepony able to actually approach an adult specimen, though Twilight had a strong suspicion that nothing would stop the yellow pegasus if she ever came across a grown dragon who was sick or wounded.
Fluttershy's bemused conclusion was that, contrary to injury, the Elements had left Spike in a state of uncommonly perfect health, without so much as a split scale or a strained muscle. Nonetheless, she had chided Twilight for carelessness, in a soft gentle way that stung like lashes of fire. Every now and then, Twilight thought that if Fluttershy had been any more comfortable by nature around other ponies, her cutie mark might have been that of a school principal, or possibly a prison warden.
With Angel Bunny having taken over herding the other rabbits away, or more precisely scaring the grass out of them until they fled into the night, Fluttershy stayed behind complaining that now she was wide awake and restless. Hearing the full ridiculous story behind all the fuss hadn't improved her mood, nor her estimate of anypony's sanity. Grumpy 'Shy was a little unnerving, like a pillow with a hissing fuse, but Pinkie had, with greater than typical diplomacy, cajoled her into cheering up. The two of them were now off to one side quietly playing with Pinkie's dolls, or at least, Fluttershy was quiet. Twilight couldn't make out what sort of stories they were spinning, but she did notice the others occasionally wandering into earshot and backing away quickly, disconcerted and blushing.
For her own part, Twilight sat in an undeclared but firm bubble of peace, buzzing away at her long-delayed essay. Being left alone to work without actually being alone made the previously onerous task feel a lot more agreeable, and with a genuine new experience of the Elements of Harmony in action — however peculiar the circumstance — she had more than enough inspiration to fill a thousand words, and then another thousand. Realizing that she had zipped past the three thousand word mark, she brought the essay around to a tidy conclusion and reviewed it with a glow of satisfaction. She could have gone on quite a bit longer, but decided that it couldn't hurt to save some observations on the nuances of Similarity and Narrative, to draw on for future assignments.
Assured that every dot and comma was in place, she rolled up the long essay scroll and lifted a separate sheet to add a letter for her teacher.
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today I learned that sometimes you get more done by taking a break to have fun with friends than by working too hard all alone. I also learned that being in a good mood doesn't mean you can ignore workplace safety rules... which isn't a friendship lesson, but it's something I won't forget in a hurry!
On a related note, I'm afraid I have another item for the Dangerous Artifacts Vault. It's safely contained for now, though, and I wouldn't rate it more than a Category 3, so it can wait till tomorrow at least. If you could send somepony to collect it who is also qualified in magical medicine and willing to examine a dragon, I would greatly appreciate it. We think everything's okay but I would really like a second (or, technically, a fourth) opinion.
The attached essay should explain the connection between these requests and the lessons above better than I have space for here.
Up the slope of a brightly sunlit green hill crept a small purple figure, trying despite the contrast of color to remain inconspicuous. Popping his head periodically above the tall grass to scan the surrounding countryside, Spike made his stealthy way to the verge of a small copse of trees. After one more careful look around, he drew a checkered picnic blanket from his knapsack and spread it with a crisp snap across the grass in a shady spot.
Leaning nonchalantly against one of the trees, he whispered from the corner of his mouth to a pony who lurked in the shadowy underbrush. "All clear. Nopony following." he said. "Did you bring the goods?"
The hidden pony nodded, and held forth a large wicker picnic basket. Spike set it on the cloth and lifted the lid, taking a deep, appreciative whiff of the fragrant steam rising from within. "Oh boy! Now that's what I'm talking about!"
Cheerily he set about unloading the basket and spreading the magnificent afternoon feast across the blanket, while his secretive companion emerged from the shadows and looked around warily, just in case.
Epilogue: The Following Tuesday
"... and then, she went so fast it made a real sonic rainboom!" Princess Cadance emphasized the point with a dramatic leap and a booming noise. "Blew that nasty changeling right out of Ponyville!"
She sat back with a satisfied sigh, smiling at her companion across the landscape of emptied, crumb-strewn plates and decimated pies.
"Sounds mighty exciting." replied her guest.
"Oh my yes... and really, I haven't even gotten to the most exciting parts yet!" said Cadance. "But before I go on, would you care for a spot more of tea?"
Miss Smarty Pants nodded and raised her dainty teacup.
Deep in the caverns beneath Canterlot, in a grotto where the hoof of pony had never trodden, sharp spars of gleaming crystal stood silent watch over a pool of glass-clear water. The phosphorescent blue glow of the pond sent shimmering ripples of light twinkling around the gem-lined walls as another droplet of water, gathered with geologic patience at the tip of a stalactite above the pool, burgeoned and fell, leaving behind one more tiny cluster of stone molecules on the ancient growth.
For hundreds of thousands of years the silence of the cave had been broken only by the occasional tectonic rumble and the steady, hourly drip of the water.
Until there came a day, late in the second year of Luna's return, that would forever be remembered in the slow, silent thoughtlike patterns of the crystal mountain as the one time anything ever happened in this chamber.
At first it sounded like a distant breeze, echoed from some dark connected tunnel. But it repeated, again and again, growing louder each time; a noise like some giant creature having trouble breathing, wheezing in strained exhalations, but never breathing in, just a steady voosh-voosh-VOOSH.
As the sound got louder, an object began to be present. It faded slowly into view, transparent at first but growing more opaque with each heaving whoosh, until the sound faded away and a rectangular blue box stood on the pearlescent sand beside the pool as though it had always been there. It was about eight inches tall, three or four inches on each side. Square shapes like windows had been drawn crudely with marker on each of its faces, and written across the top as an identifier was the only word the box's previous owner knew.
With a metallic click, the front of the box popped open and swung outward, tracing a quarter circle in the sand.
A grey-furred head poked out from within the box. Mad red-and-yellow eyes looked around cautiously. Nopony in sight. Not even the faintest whiff of any living creature. Perfect.
The Discord doll didn't so much walk as flow, body trailing like a serpentine decoration out onto the sand. With a bright grin he snapped his fingers, surrounding the two pony dolls inside the box with a green aura as he spent a fraction of his precious power reserve towards something completely frivolous. It wasn't tactically sound, but really, sometimes one just has to be oneself, even if one technically wasn't.
The brown earth pony and the grey pegasus stepped out of the box, giving the crystalline chamber and their patchwork master curious stares. The replica Draconequus cracked the knuckles of his mismatched forepaws and chuckled.
"Welcome aboard, my little ponies," he said in a voice smooth and charming as a radio announcer made of butter. "I suppose you're wondering why I've called you into existence today. It's simple; I've got a lot of work to do, and it's just not the same without minions to exposit for. If you'd like to continue existing, all you need to do is whatever I say. Got it?"
The ponies nodded. Neither of them felt entirely up to speed, but the gist was clear enough.
"Goooood. Now then, our first order of business is to find a nice reliable wellspring of natural magic..."