The Heart of an Author

by Oroboro

First published

Mystery. Love. Magic. Murder. Truth. These are all important elements in the murder mystery Fluttershy has written, and is now asking Twilight to read. But she struggles to solve the mystery in which it turns out she's the protagonist.

Mystery. Love. Magic. Murder. Truth. These are all important elements in the murder mystery Fluttershy has written, and is now asking Twilight to read. But the novel stars 'Twilight Sparkle', and she wrestles with the metafictional dissonance involved in reading a novel about herself and her friends. Twilight must do her best to solve the mystery, reconcile her own feelings about this ordeal, and figure out just what Fluttershy is trying to say by writing all of this in the first place as the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur.

This is a thematic crossover with the visual novel 'Umineko No Naku Koro Ni.' No prior knowledge of Umineko should be necessary.
Cover art commission done by SynCalio


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Lightning flashed, and the thunder soon followed, rattling all the windows in Ponyville. In her cottage on the outskirts of town, Fluttershy whimpered, clenching her teeth so hard around the pen in her mouth that it nearly broke.

Normally when it was time for a storm like this, she would be wrapped up in blankets under her bed, shaking and shivering until it all passed. But this was too important. She was so close.

“This is…” she muttered, staring at the prose filled page before her. “Do you really think something like this will work? I’m worried it’s just not going to make any sense…”

The only response she received was the continued howling of the storm. Fluttershy pressed on, furiously scribbling word after word.


Princess Twilight Sparkle stood in the center of the library, admiring her handiwork and looking pleased with herself.

Today was a rare day for her. Spike was gone, off helping Rarity with some project or another. Nothing princessly required her attention. And what’s more, none of her friends seemed to be having any friendship related catastrophes at the moment, so after a few minor chores, she finally had a chance to relax.

Smiling, Twilight levitated a book down from the shelves and curled up on a nearby cushion. It was going to be a good day.

There was a soft knocking on her door, and she groaned loudly. It was always something, wasn’t it? If it wasn’t some horrible beast escaped from Tartarus, it was probably Applejack and Rainbow Dash in another silly competition. Or maybe Rarity was freaking out over something trivial again.

Oh well. As she made her way to the door, she made sure to put on a sincere smile. Relaxing days were nice and all, but it wasn’t like she would ever turn away somepony in need.

“Fluttershy!” Twilight said as she opened the door to find the nervous looking pegasus standing on her doorstep. “What brings you here? I haven’t seen you in awhile.”

Fluttershy immediately jumped back when Twilight opened the door, crouching slightly and looking from side to side. “Oh, um, h-hey Twilight. Is now a bad time? I kind of have a favor to ask you, if that’s okay, but if you’re busy or anything I don’t want to be a bother."

Twilight smirked slightly, noting the satchel draped across Fluttershy’s flanks. She looked like she was ready to bolt at the slightest hint of negativity. “Not at all, Fluttershy. My day is totally open, and I’d be glad to help you with whatever you need. Come on in!”

“If you insist,” Fluttershy mumbled, following Twilight inside as she closed the door behind them.

“Would you like some tea or a snack?” Twilight asked. “Spike made some wonderful cookies the other day, and I’d be happy to share.”

“That would be lovely, Twilight,” Fluttershy said, watching Twilight as she made her way to the kitchen. She was left to stand alone, glancing around at the books on the shelves and awkwardly pawing at the ground until Twilight returned and the two sat down at the table.

“Do you like it?” asked Twilight as she sipped at her tea. “This a fancy brand I picked up in Canterlot the last time I was there. The shopkeeper tried to give it to me for free on account of, well, you know,” she said, stretching her wings for emphasis. “In the end I had to practically order him to let me pay.”

“I see,” Fluttershy said, glancing at her own wings and then Twilight’s. “That must be difficult to get used to. Oh, and, um, the tea is very nice. Thank you.”

Twilight grinned, glad that the small talk and refreshments seemed to be doing their job of getting Fluttershy to relax. “So, what sort of favor were you looking for?”

Fluttershy’s face fell, and she looked away, glancing at the satchel she had set next to the table. “Well, um, it’s, you see…” she stopped, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath before starting again. “Do you remember that mystery novel you lent me a while back?”

Twilight blinked, thinking back. “That was the first volume of ‘The Hardly Colts’, right? Did you enjoy it?”

Fluttershy nodded emphatically. “Oh yes. In fact, I read the entire series. I mean, in comparison it’s really more of a beginner series for foals, but it was still a lot of fun, and then I branched out into some similar series, and then I read a bunch of the great classics by Crystal and Knocks, and I really really liked the genre, and then I eventually got an idea, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but then I had an inspirational dream, and I was certain I could pull it off, so I’ve been working really really hard and um, well…”

Twilight stared at Fluttershy with her mouth hanging open. Fluttershy took a deep breath before reaching down into her satchel and pulling out a small book. She placed it on the table and pushed it towards Twilight.

“Could you, um, read this and tell me what you think?”

“Fluttershy…” Twilight mumbled, her brain still trying to process that stream of information. “Wait, are you saying that you wrote this!?”

Fluttershy nodded, whimpering slightly as she ducked behind her mane.

“That’s incredible!” Twilight said, beaming. “I’ll absolutely help you out, especially for something like this. I assume you want me to go through and proofread everything?”

Fluttershy pawed at the ground, keeping her eyes downcast. “Well, I mean, that stuff is nice too, but I was mostly kind of hoping that you would read it and try and solve the mystery…”

Twilight frowned, raising an eyebrow. This certainly was not the kind of visit she was expecting, but any of her friends showing an increased interest in literature was always a win in her book. “I guess I can give it a shot, if that’s how you want me to approach this. I’ll warn you though, I’m pretty good at solving mysteries!”

“Oh, I hope so,” Fluttershy said, smiling. “And, um, thank you, Twilight. You’re a good friend.”

“No problem! I’m glad to help out.”

The two sat there in silence for a long moment before Twilight realized that Fluttershy seemed to be expecting more. “Oh, did you want me to read this now?”

Fluttershy nodded, and Twilight glanced over to her previously abandoned reading cushion, smirking. “If that’s what you want, then sure! I suppose I can set some time aside for reading today.”

As Twilight moved over to her cushion and began to get comfortable, a thought occurred to her, and she used her magic to pull over another cushion for Fluttershy. “How about I read it out loud? Hearing something read back to you can be a useful tool for evaluating your own writing."

“I guess, if it’s not too much of a bother,” Fluttershy said as she lay down.

Grinning, Twilight opened the book to the first page, cleared her throat, and began. “Princess Twilight Sparkle…”

She immediately did a double-take, checking to make sure she had read the first sentence right, then skimmed the rest of the page to confirm her fears. “Um, Fluttershy? Am I the protagonist of your novel?”

Fluttershy winced, flinching back. “Um, well, yes. I mean, sort of. It’s you, but its not you. I mean, she looks like you and has the same name as you, and I tried to make her act like you, but you’re you, and that Twilight is just fictional.” Taking a deep breath, Fluttershy shrunk back even further as she mumbled, “They say you’re supposed to write what you know…”

Twilight shook her head, her eyes wide as she skimmed through the rest of the book, seeing familiar names jump out at her. “And... the rest of our friends are characters in here too?”

“I’m sorry, it’s weird. It’s definitely weird. This was a silly idea, I’m sorry for wasting your time, Twilight, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll just be going now.” Fluttershy leapt forward, trying to snatch the book away from Twilight and run away, but Twilight floated it out of her reach, holding the pegasus back with a hoof.

“Ah-ah. You’re not going anywhere, Fluttershy. I mean, yes, you’re right. It is weird. But that doesn’t mean I won’t read it anyway. I’ve certainly never read a book starring me before. This could be fun!”

Fluttershy backed off and began to pace back and forth, biting her lip and looking like she still wanted to grab the book and run away. After a few moments, she finally settled down and climbed back onto her cushion. “If you say so, Twilight. As long as you’re sure it’s not a problem…”

Letting herself get comfortable again, Twilight opened back to the first page. A thought occurred to her, and she turned the novel around, checking both the front and the back. “Fluttershy, does this story have a title?”

Fluttershy gasped, looking ashamed. "Wow, I can't believe I missed something so obvious. I'm sorry, Twilight." She leaned in, Twilight letting her take the book back this time, and pulled a pen from her satchel to begin carefully writing on the cover of the book. After she was finished, she pushed the book back to Twilight, the title clearly visible.

“The Legend of Dragon-Mare Manor”

Chapter 1 - Reunions

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Princess Twilight Sparkle stared into the small mirror she held before her and was not particularly pleased with what she saw. It had been five years now since her coronation and the deep bags under her eyes were a testament to the toils and responsibilities of being a princess. Any day now she feared she would have to start plucking gray hairs out of her mane.

Her musing was interrupted when a large jolt sent her flying upwards, her head bouncing off the roof of the carriage. The shock nearly caused her to drop the small mirror, but she managed to grab it again with magic before the fragile glass hit the floor. Grumbling as she held a hoof to her smarting head, she opened up the window, poking her head out into the freezing air.

“Sorry about that, your highness!” one of the transport ponies called out through the rushing wind. “Expect a bit more turbulence up ahead! There are some nasty storms in the area! We’re ahead of them, but don’t expect us to take off again anytime soon once we get there!”

Twilight frowned, closing the window and cutting off the blast of chilled air. Not ‘Transport ponies’. They had names. She had promised herself she would try to remember them more often. “Steel Wind”, and… “Razor Wind”. That was right; she had worked with them before. They were brothers, dependable as you can get when it came to long distance transport, but had a knack for causing trouble off the clock. It was getting so hard to keep track of it all…

Twilight let out a deep sigh and stared out the window, slipping her mirror back into one of her bags. The silhouettes of the approaching mountain range seemed almost ominous as they slowly grew closer, like the waiting maw of a gigantic beast. An unnecessarily dark setting for the Princess Conference she was about to attend.

Disregarding how important it was for the four princesses to meet at least once a year and discuss all manners of politics and plans for Equestria’s future, she was looking forward to this trip for another reason. These gatherings were also a reunion for her and all of her friends.

Made an official tradition by Pinkie Pie three years earlier, it served as a chance for all of them to get together. Ambitions, dreams, and responsibilities had unfortunately scattered the six friends across Equestria. Twilight made sure to keep in touch of course, but only on a yearly basis like this could everypony’s schedules all match up at the same time. Her heart fluttered with the anticipation of seeing them all after what felt like far too long.

Twilight braced herself as the carriage shook again, before steadying into a gradual decline as it passed under the cloud cover. Her destination slowly came to view below her. She could see a large mansion nestled in a valley between the peaks of three of the largest mountains. The grounds were blanketed with snow, but even from here she could see that behind the mansion there was a large patch of green, perhaps a garden of some sort.

After a smooth landing on a shoveled out runway, Twilight exited the carriage, wobbling slightly after having been being cooped up for so long. Grabbing her bags from inside with magic, she turned to see Razor and Steel already unhooking each other from the carriage, glancing up uneasily at the storm.

Twilight pulled herself up into her regal demeanor, and nodded her head slightly to the two brothers. “Thank you very much for your service, Steel and Razor Wind. You’ve done an excellent job, especially with the weather the way it is. You are both dismissed, and can leave at your will. I do however ask that you use your best judgment as to whether or not it’s still safe to fly back.”

Both brothers blushed, pawing at the ground and turning away slightly. “Thank’ya very much, Yer Highness. We were just doing our jobs, that’s all. But by the looks of things we might be stuck here for the duration. Sorry if we’re intruding on your conference and all,” said the slightly larger, grayish stallion who Twilight was mostly sure was Steel Wind.

“Here, lemme get that for you!” a voice called out from somewhere up above, echoing across the valley. After a slight pause and rushing of wind, there was a massive explosion of rainbow colored light and a thundering boom, blasting away the clouds and revealing the sun framing Rainbow Dash as she raced back towards the ground.

Even as the sonic rainboom began to fade away, Twilight could already see the storm clouds creeping back in. “Well, there’s your chance. Better take it while you can,” Twilight said. Bowing one more time, the two brothers took off into the clear sky, leaving the carriage behind. Weather permitting, they would return in a few days when the conference was over.

“I’m telling you Twi, these storms have a mind of their own. I’ve been out here for a week now busting them up, to keep this place from being drowned in snow, but they just keep coming back. I think this blizzard is the big one they’ve all been building up to, and it's practically chomping at the bit,” Rainbow Dash said, coming to a graceful landing next to Twilight and pulling up the goggles on her flight suit.

“I hope it can last a little bit longer,” Twilight said. “My brother and sister aren’t supposed to arrive till tomorrow. Whose idea was it to hold the conference here anyway?”

“Fluttershy’s, I think,” Rainbow Dash said. “Something about the garden and the history. She really loves it here; she’s been working as caretaker for months now. This place is pretty cool, even if the location leaves a bit to be desired.”

“I see,” Twilight said.

The two friends stared at each other for a moment in awkward silence before they both burst out laughing.

“It’s good to see you, Dash,” Twilight said, wrapping her forehooves around her in a tight hug.

“You too, Twi,” Rainbow Dash said as she returned the hug with an ear splitting grin.

After a few more moments, Rainbow Dash pulled away from the embrace, glancing back up at the sky. “I’ve got some more clouds to go bust. We can catch up more later on. Just go on inside, the others are all here already. Later!” she shouted before she took off again.

Twilight made her way to the front porch, pausing for a moment to admire the intricate woodwork on the set of wide double doors. As she pushed them open, she was greeted by a blast of warm air and a flood of soft lights inviting her inside.

“Welcome to Dragon-Mare manor. I hope you enjoy your stay,” a soft voice greeted Twilight as she stepped inside, and she almost shifted her mannerisms back into ‘Princess Mode’ when she realized the formal greeting had come from Fluttershy.

“Fluttershy!” Twlight said, caught somewhat off guard. “Um… that dress looks lovely on you.”

“Oh, thank you very much. Rarity made this for me. I really like it,” Fluttershy said, preening slightly at the complement. Her gown resembled something you’d expect to see on a palace servant, but it was far more elaborate and well designed, along with a purple and gold trim similar to that which adorned the mansion.

“Would you like me to take your scarf?” Fluttershy asked, bowing her head slightly and extending a forehoof.

“Thank you, but come on. What are you doing Fluttershy? You don’t have to serve me,” Twilight said, letting her bags float down to the floor and taking off her scarf.

“Oh. But I’m um, working as the caretaker here right now. And I’ve been taking my job very seriously, and that includes looking after all of the guests and making sure they’re comfortable,” Fluttershy said.

Twilight chuckled, smiling and shaking her head at the earnest sincerity in her friends tone. “Alright, if you insist.” Twilight floated her scarf up for Fluttershy to take, but as soon as she had a decent grip on it, Twilight yanked back, granting her a startled “Eep!” as Twilight pulled Fluttershy into a surprise hug.

“It’s good to see you, seriously. And don’t you dare play servant during this entire trip! All of us deserve some time to relax, you hear me?” Twilight scolded. She pulled back from the hug and bopped Fluttershy on the nose playfully. Fluttershy began to blush and turn away, her mouth working soundlessly.

“Are Princess Celestia and Luna here already?” Twilight asked, her question snapping Fluttershy out of her stupor.

“Oh, um, yes. They got here this morning, but they’re both pretty tired from the journey, so they don’t want be disturbed until tomorrow.”

Twilight nodded, frowning. It would’ve been nice to get some personal time with the two, but oh well. “So, where’s my room?”

“It’s upstairs and to the left,” Fluttershy said, pointing up the set of wide stairs in the middle of the entrance hall. “Third door on the right. It’s marked as yours, so, um... Just let me hang this up, I’ll show—“

Fluttershy was interrupted by the sound of two sets of hooves from above, followed by harsh voices.

“Dangit! Y’just don’t get it, do ya? Yer completely missing the point, as always!” Applejack skidded into view at the top of the stairs, looking frazzled as she wheeled around to face her pursuer.

“Applejack, sweetie,” Rarity said as she trotted into view, drawing out her words as if she was admonishing a child. “Come on now. Be reasonable! I love your apples – I do! But just because I love them doesn’t mean I want them all the time. A girl needs a little variety!”

Applejack snorted, stomping her hoof down so hard the chandeliers shook slightly. “Of course y’do,” Applejack snarled through gritted teeth. “And just what the hay am I supposed to do when you up and decide that you’re bored of—“

“Twilight, darling!” Rarity squealed as she noticed Twilight, immediately breaking off from her fight to dash down the stairs and hug her friend. “Oh, I don’t mean to be rude but are you getting enough sleep? You look positively dreadful. But not to worry. Even if you do have that big meeting tomorrow, make sure you get plenty of rest and relaxation, okay?”

“Uh, thanks, Rarity. I’ll do my best,” Twilight said with a note of concern in her voice as she pulled away from the hug. “Are you two fighting about something? Is everything okay?

“Nah, it’s nothing to worry about, Twi. We were just having a bit of a disagreement,” Applejack said as she made her way down the stairs, her earlier anger seemingly evaporated. “If y’really wanna know, we can talk about it later. But Rarity’s right, you should really be taking better care of yourself.”

Twilight frowned, but shrugged and decided to let it go, giving Applejack a quick hug. “I’ll hold you to that, Applejack. But it’s good to see you too.”

“Right, well. Fluttershy, can y’help me in the kitchen with some things? There’s still some stuff I wanna get ready for dinner.”

“Um, sure. But I have to show Twilight to her room first,” Fluttershy said, glancing between the two of them.

“No, that’s fine, go with her. I should be able to find it myself pretty easily,” Twilight said.

Nodding, Applejack and Fluttershy trotted off, presumably towards the kitchens, leaving Twilight and Rarity alone in the entrance hall. Rarity looked over at Twilight and nodded her head in the direction of the stairs, and two ascended together.

“What on earth is that?" Twilight asked, stopping once she reached the last step and looking up.

“Oh, that ghastly thing? That is the… namesake of this manor. Or at least an artist’s interpretation of her. I don’t really like it, but Dash seems to think it’s the coolest thing she’s ever seen, and Fluttershy practically worships her for some reason,” Rarity said, scrunching her face up.

Adorning the wall at the top of the stairs, looking down at all who entered the mansion was a massive portrait of what, at first glance appeared to be a magnificent golden alicorn with a short purple mane. Except for the scaled, leather wings, the line of spikes running down her back all the way into a coiled dragon’s tail, and her somewhat bestial features, she could be easily confused for a relative of Princess Celestia.

“So she’s why they call it 'Dragon-Mare' manor, huh? I didn’t think it was such a literal title,” Twilight mused, conjuring a ball of light to illuminate the painting a little better. “Why does she look so sad?”

Rarity frowned, looking at the painting a little closer herself. “I’m not really sure darling. There’s a big legend associated with it and all, but I can’t say I’ve really paid much attention. There’s a plaque here, but it doesn’t really explain anything, per se.”

Twilight moved the ball of light lower and inspected the plaque Rarity had pointed out before beginning to read out loud.

“From a wish sprouts a seed of power
To grant your heart's deepest desire
Bless this seed with your greatest love
But this love must be born in blood
In death lies truth – the heart laid bare
No sacrifice too great
Abandon self
Rend asunder, and begin anew.”

Twilight blinked, quickly reading over the passage again. “Well that… certainly is morbid.”

“That it most certainly is. I swear, I can feel her eyes following me every time I walk past this staircase,” Rarity said, shuddering visibly. “Anyway, Twilight, our rooms are in opposite directions. Third door on your right, I believe. I’ve got some things I’m working on at the moment, so I’ll probably see you at dinner. Ciao!”

Twilight nodded and waved as Rarity trotted off down the right hallway. Instead of leaving immediately, she stayed to inspect the painting a bit more. Just who was this Dragon-Mare? She was familiar with many old pony-tales, but this one had apparently slipped past her. In any case, it was clear that she’d have to ask Fluttershy or Rainbow Dash about it later. She also had a hunch that there was a library somewhere in the mansion where she might be able to find out even more.

Filing that riddle away to tackle later, Twilight made her way down the left hallway, quickly coming to a door emblazoned with her own cutie mark. This was obviously it. As she reached out to open the door, Twilight hesitated. There was one friend she hadn’t run into yet…

Grinning mischievously, Twilight backed against the wall to side of the door, and swung it open with magic.

“Surprise!" Pinkie Pie screamed as she burst from the room in a corona of confetti and streamers, fired straight from her party cannon and crashed directly into the wall.

“Huh? Twlight? Where’d you go?” Pinkie Pie asked, wobbling as she tried to stand while distracted by the stars circling her head. “Wait! Oh no, I knew I shouldn’t have set my party cannon on maximum! I must’ve hit her so hard that she’s all partied out!”

Unable to suppress her giggles, Twilight leapt forward, tackling Pinkie Pie and calling out “Surprise!” before she could fully regain her bearings. Both mares collapsed onto the ground, rolling around in gales of laughter.

Pinkie Pie began bouncing around Twilight as she regained her breath. “Wow, you sure got me there! I had a big surprise planned for you and everything; I was going yell surprise and then fire myself out of the party cannon to give you a surprise party hug but then you gave me the surprise party hug!”

“How about just a regular hug to finish it off then?” Twilight asked as she embraced Pinkie Pie again.

“Ooh, those are nice too!”

Twilight stood up as she reached the chapter break, stretching her legs and wings. Her throat was starting to get a bit sore from reading out loud. A glass of water would help, but she also remembered there was a spell to strengthen vocal cords for long bouts of oratory.

“This is very interesting, Fluttershy! I’m enjoying it a lot. I tend to get pretty immersed in books when I read anyway, but this feels like I’m really there as part of the story,” Twilight said.

Fluttershy had a glazed look in her eyes, completely lost in the telling of her own writing. At Twilight’s address, she snapped back to attention. “Oh. I’m glad you’re enjoying it so far.”

“Well, we’ve got a cast, a location, a closed circle, and a dark legend. Seems ripe for a mystery to me! I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out,” Twilight said, giving an earnest smile. Although quite frankly, Fluttershy’s vision of the future was a little off-putting.

“Just one question, though,” Twilight said, tapping the book with a hoof. “I know it’s in a hypothetical future and all, but how come Spike isn’t with me?”


Fluttershy froze. Her eyes widened and her mouth hung open as the color drained from her face.

“Uh, Fluttershy? Are you okay?”

“Ohmygosh,” Fluttershy blurted out as she dove forward, grabbing her book and flipping through it rapidly. “No no no, oh no I’m so sorry, Twlight. I can’t believe I would do something like this!”

“Do what, exactly?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow.

Fluttershy drooped, sinking low onto the floor and covered her face with her hooves. “I, um. I guess I must’ve gotten so caught up in the story I wanted to tell about the six of us that I… forgot to put Spike in the story entirely.”

Twilight blinked a few times, staring down at her friend before bursting into laughter.

“Please please please don’t ever tell Spike, he would be so hurt. Oh, how could I do something like this? I’ll um, go back and add a line near the beginning about how he’s sick with the flu and couldn’t make the trip,” Fluttershy wailed, trying to hide her head under a nearby pillow.

Twilight lent a hoof to Fluttershy to help her up. “Hey, it’s fine. We won’t tell Spike. Although really?” Twilight raised an eyebrow. “You forgot about him even with all this stuff about ‘Dragon-Mares’?”

Fluttershy nodded meekly and Twilight took the book and found her place again. “Give me a few minutes to get some water and cast a spell and we’ll keep going, okay?"

Twilight Sparkle rolled over in her bed, yawning and blinking her tired eyes. Frowning as she tried to remember where exactly she was, she got up slowly and made her way over to a nearby window. Only pitch blackness and a howling blizzard greeted her from the outside world.

“I guess I dozed off earlier… I’m sure someone would’ve woken me up if it was time for dinner, so I probably haven’t missed anything yet,” Twilight said, talking to herself as she let out another yawn. Even though she hadn’t planned on napping, she felt a lot more refreshed and comfortable and was glad she had.

After taking a few more moments to stretch and finish waking up, Twilight poked her head out into the hallway. Now that the world outside was covered in the deep dark of winter, the hallways were illuminated by soft and flickering lamplight, casting every corner with eerie shadows.

As Twilight made her way back towards the entrance hall, past the painting and down the stairs, she remembered Rarity’s words from earlier. A chill ran up Twilight’s spine and she quickened her pace slightly to escape that strange feeling of being watched.

When she was standing at the base of the stairs in the entrance hall again, Twilight paused, looking around at the various hallways and doors that all extended from this central hub. “Where did everypony go, I wonder…”

Before she could make a decision on which direction to start exploring, Twilight jumped as the front doors burst open with a resounding bang when a pony sized snowball crashed through them, the blizzard outside taking the opportunity to enter uninvited.

After realizing what was happening, Twilight smiled wryly at the snowball, which had a rainbow colored mane poking out the top of it. As Twilight made to close the doors with her magic, Rainbow Dash burst from the snowball, scattering snow everywhere as she shook herself off violently.

“I give up. You win this time, blizzard,” Rainbow Dash said through her chattering teeth.

“Is it really that bad out there?” Twilight asked, giggling slightly at the state of her friend.

“Oh! Hey again. Yeah, it’s pretty rough. There’s nothing more I can do out there,” Rainbow Dash said as she shook more snow out of her ears.

Frowning, Twilight glanced at the door. “Do you think my brother and sister will be able to make it tomorrow?” It wouldn’t be the end of the world if the conference was delayed by a day or two, but everypony did have their own schedules to worry about.

“I don’t think even a dragon could fly for long in this weather,” Rainbow Dash said, grinning. “But hey, that just means a longer vacation for us before all that important junk happens, right?”

“Well, that’s certainly one way of looking at it,” Twilight said, returning Rainbow’s grin.

“Man, I’m starving. Is dinner ready yet?” Rainbow Dash asked, changing the subject.

Twilight frowned, looking back around at the various doors. “Dunno. I just woke up from a nap. I’m not even sure where the kitchen is, to be honest.”

Rainbow Dash laughed as she clapped Twilight on the shoulder playfully. “Geez Twilight, I’ve been outside busting my feathers and you’re in here napping? Sure sounds great being a princess. Come on, the kitchen’s this way.”

Twilight crouched playfully, spreading her wings and lighting her horn with a quick burst of magic. “Better be careful, Rainbow, I’m pretty sure an Alicorn Princess could do your job with little effort!”

“You? A weatherpony? Pleaase. You wouldn’t last a day out there. I bet I could do your job way easier than you could do mine.” Rainbow Dash paused, looking back as she opened a door to the lower left of the stairs. “You coming or what?”

“Princess Rainbow Dash. I’d like to see that!” Twilight giggled as she teleported into the hallway Rainbow Dash was making her way down, coming out in a gallop as she wordlessly challenged her friend to a race.

Rainbow Dash was faster of course, in addition to actually knowing where she was going, and quickly zoomed through the hallways trying to leave Twilight behind. She was able to keep up however, mostly by cheating teleporting ahead whenever she had the chance.

Fluttershy squeaked as the two mares burst into the kitchen at the same time, collapsing to the floor as they rolled around with laughter.

“Hey, come on Twi, that’s against the rules!” Rainbow Dash said in between breaths.

“Who said there were any rules?” countered Twilight, standing up and wiping a tear from her eye.

Turning to Fluttershy, she said “Hey. Sorry if we’re intruding Fluttershy. Maybe we got a little carried away there.”

“Oh no, it’s okay. Um, dinner’s not quite ready yet if that’s what you were wondering. But it should be soon.”

Nodding as she glanced over the kitchen, Twilight was struck by a sudden twinge of melancholy. If only fun like this wasn’t such a rare occasion nowadays.

“Argh! I’m sooooo hungry, Fluttershy. Come on, give me a little taste! Pleaaase?” Rainbow Dash begged, hovering over to the food Fluttershy was preparing like a persistent fly.

Fluttershy huffed up, and waggled a spoon at Rainbow Dash threateningly. “No. You’ll have to wait for it just like everypony else. It tastes much better that way.”

Grumbling, Rainbow Dash flew out of the room and around the corner, mild curses echoing down the hallway. “It does smell really good, Fluttershy. You must have worked hard,” Twilight said.

“You don’t get any either, Twilight. Even if it is you,” Fluttershy said before turning back to the pot she was stirring. “But um... Thank you.”

Smiling, Twilight stood in the kitchen in silence for a few moments, watching Fluttershy cook. She seemed so at home in this kitchen already.

“Um, Twilight… I hope you don’t mind me asking or anything, but you seem a little down and I was just wondering if everything is okay?“

Twilight sighed and shook her head, smiling at the fact Fluttershy was able to pick up on her mood. “It’s nothing, really. I just… miss you guys a lot. It’s so great to see you all like this… but I miss the times when this kind of a thing happened every day, you know?”

Fluttershy made a quiet sound of acknowledgement as Twilight shared her feelings, but stayed focused on her work for awhile before she put her spoon down and turned around to face Twilight. “Do you remember the conference last year?”

Twilight frowned, raising a hoof to her chin. “Down on the rainbow beaches of Mareami? That sure was a great party. Why do you ask?”

“It was such a beautiful place, and I’d love to visit again. But Pinkie insisted we try somewhere new every year so it would leave a lasting impression each time,” Fluttershy said, her eyes focused with uncharacteristic determination.

“Pinkie Pie certainly knows her parties,” Twilight said, thinking back. “That’s right… you drew the short straw, so you got to pick and plan the next event. So you chose here then?”

“Yes. I mean, um, well…” Fluttershy faltered, looking down and fidgeting slightly. “I m-miss you too, Twilight, but um. I’m working as hard as I can because… I want us all to create memories we can cherish forever. Even when we can’t be together.”

Twilight stared at Fluttershy, considering the blushing mare’s situation. Dreams and ambition had pulled them all further apart than any of them truly wished. Rainbow Dash had become a champion flier and fulfilled her dream of joining the Wonderbolts. Rarity was a world renowned fashion designer and had exclusive contracts in major cities all over Equestria. Applejack had found herself the manager of dozens of farms after Flim and Flam had returned one year, promising increased production, storage, bottling, and distribution for a much more reasonable price. And Pinkie Pie was well… Pinkie Pie. But Fluttershy?

For all Twilight knew, Fluttershy’s dreams were never lofty or ambitious. She still lived in her cottage, tending to her animals, her closest friends only stopping by to visit when they could make the time. So if she had been here for several months already, working hard to make everything perfect…

Twilight’s heart leapt for her friend, and she trotted over to place a hoof on her shoulder. “I’m sure this will be the best conference ever. But as long as we’re all together, it’s all worth it in the end.”

Fluttershy turned a deep crimson and crouched behind her mane, her mouth working soundlessly. “Th-thanks. I’ll um, do my best,” she managed to squeak after a long pause.

Twilight grinned wryly as she decided to snap Fluttershy out of her embarrassment with a simple observation. “Your pot is boiling over.”

With an adorable yelp, Fluttershy spun around, nearly tripping over her own hooves as she clamored for the spoon. Laughing, Twilight levitated another spoon down from the shelf and helped get the pot under control.

“Here, let me help out a bit.”

Chapter 2 - A Seed of Love

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The feast laid out before Twilight could really only be described as a work of art. Fancy salads, elaborate soup dishes, beautiful floral arrangements, all manner of apple related dishes, and topped off with a giant cake in the center of the table. It was all meticulously crafted and arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner, complete with elaborate doilies, coasters, and tablecloth which Twilight could only assume was hand crafted by the beaming unicorn across the table.

“Let's get this party started!” Pinkie Pie screamed as the room around them exploded in a shower of confetti and streamers. Twilight flinched instinctively, and almost fired up her horn in an attempt to protect her meal but quickly noticed that none of the paper bits were falling over the table.

Even that is carefully designed, Twilight thought before she began to laugh when Pinkie immediately devoured half the cake. While she was used to such elaborate care and extravagant meals by now, nothing could beat a meal shared with friends, whether fancy or humble.

As everypony began to dig in around the table, various conversations and bits of small talk sprung up. Distracted by a particularly delicious apple salad, Twilight decided to just listen for awhile instead of joining in.

“Um. Your mane looks really pretty Applejack. You should get it done up more often,” Fluttershy said.

“Oh.. Uh, y’think so? Er, I mean, thanks sugarcube,” Applejack said, blushing and glancing over at Rarity who nodded reassuringly before continuing. “It’s uh, y’know. A special occasion and all. Do you think the princesses will be joining us?”

Fluttershy shook her head. “No, they asked to have dinner delivered to their room.”

Frowning, Twilight ran a hoof through her own mane, considering the state of it and feeling slightly confused. Everypony seemed to be taking this way more seriously than she was. Dressing up, making food, elaborate decorations... she just wasn’t sure what warranted all this effort and formality.

“Oooh, Twilight!” Pinkie pie said, waving her arms frantically as Twilight snapped to attention. “Do you remember a couple months ago when I was throwing that party in Canterlot and you were there too attending a royal ball of some kind? I don’t remember what for but I do remember that it was super boring. Then you stopped by my party for a bit but couldn’t stay long and it was kind of sad. Anyway after you left there were bunches of reaaally hilarious coincidences, with those two noble-ponies who got into the wrong party and then when that drink accidentally got spilled on Vinyl Scratch’s equipment and then somepony used somepony else’s wig to put out the fire! And then it got even funnier when…”

As Pinkie rambled on with her story, Twilight continued to smile and nod. Well, not everypony is taking this too seriously…

As the dinner wound on, Twilight indulged herself in another salad, a couple of apple fritters and dumplings, and a slice of (what was left of the) cake before she was finally stuffed. As she poured herself another glass of water, she noticed Applejack and Rarity were leaning in next to each other, and seemed to be having a hushed conversation. Feeling nosy, Twilight decided to get a little closer and listen in.

“… C’mon now Rar, I thought we discussed this already. Yer the one who’s good at flowery speeches and declarations of love. I seen you practicin’ in the mirror already,” Applejack said.

“Oh but that’s just it… although I loathe to admit it, quite frankly I talk too much. What I have written sounds like an acceptance speech. Everypony will be asleep before I get to the important part!” Rarity said as she reached over to hold Applejack’s hooves with her own. “When you say it, it’s always so… straight from the heart, and well, honest. And that’s what I want.”

Applejack’s eyes darted nervously around the table, and Twilight quickly pretended to be interested in the floral arrangements, rather than eavesdropping on what was apparently an even more private conversation than she thought. “I just… I don’t know how to say it,” Applejack whispered fearfully.

“Just tell them the truth,” Rarity said with a wink and smile, before she stood up and banged on the side of her glass with a spoon. “Attention everypony… Applejack and I have an announcement to make.”

The room quieted down as Applejack stood up and looked around the room nervously and cleared her throat. Her hoof, Twilight noted, was still cupping Rarity’s.

“Uh. Hey ya’ll. It uh, sure is good to be here with all you again. It’s, erm…” Applejacked paused, swallowing and fidgeting with her hat slightly. She turned to Rarity, who gave her an encouraging smile, and Applejack turned back to the table, a more determined look on her face.

“Ah, I’m no good at these. Look. Th’four of you are the greatest friends anypony could ask for. We’ve been through everything together, and now I wanna share this happiness with y’all too.”

Applejack closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. “I… love Rarity. I have for a long time. Last year fate gave us a chance to discover those feelings were mutual. And I’m telling you this now because we’ve decided to spend the rest of our lives together.”

The table was silent for a long moment, Rarity positively beaming at her fiancé.

“You two are getting married!?” Rainbow Dash sputtered, spitting cider all over the table and quickly going into a coughing—

“Wait. What!?” Twilight cried out as the implications of what she had just read hit her.

Fluttershy snapped out of her listener’s stupor, looking up at Twilight with concern. “Um... Is everything okay Twilight?”

Twilight stared at the words on the page in disbelief, then glanced over at Fluttershy, then back to the page again before putting the book down. “Um, Fluttershy? Is there something about Rarity and Applejack you know that I don’t?”

“What? Oh no, of course not. I mean, not that I know of anyway,” Fluttershy said, blushing slightly. “This is all just fictional, Twilight.”

Twilight worked her mouth soundlessly as she tried to figure out a way to voice her objections without hurting Fluttershy’s feelings. “Uh, Fluttershy, this is…” she stopped, raising a hoof and scratching her head in bewilderment.

Fluttershy picked up the book, and began flipping through some of the earlier pages. “Oh. Um, was the announcement too sudden? Maybe there should be more foreshadowing. I tried to slip some in the argument they had earlier, but it must have been too subtle to notice.”

“That’s… not really the problem here,” Twilight said, covering her face with her hoof in exasperation.

“Oh,” said Fluttershy, looking down at her book thoughtfully. “Well than maybe it’s—“

Twilight cut her off with a raised hoof. “Look, Fluttershy. How do you think Applejack and Rarity would feel if they knew you were writing a story about them being in a relationship? What about if this ends up getting published?”

Fluttershy’s eyes went wide, and she shook her head vigorously. “Oh no, I never want that to happen. I don’t want anypony reading this. Except, um, you…”

Twilight closed her eyes, bringing her hoof down on the table softly. “Okay, so you don’t want this published and I won’t tell them if you don’t want me to… but why? Why Applejack and Rarity?”

“Oh,” Fluttershy blushed, smiling from behind her bangs. “I needed a romance subplot in order to properly tell the story. And, well…” Fluttershy ducked low, her blush growing even deeper. “I’ve always thought those two would make a pretty cute couple.”

Twilight bit her lower lip, glancing back at the book. This was… weird. Downright uncomfortable, even. Although it really was all just fictional (Or possibly not, she supposed), it somehow felt like an egregious invasion of her friends privacy.

Looking down at Fluttershy, who seemed lost in dreamland again, Twilight weighed her options. Whatever oddities she had written… and whatever surprises were still yet to come, it was clear that Fluttershy had poured her heart into her writing. It took a lot just to open up to her about it, and the fragile pegasus was as delicate as ever. Surely she could get over an uncomfortable topic for the sake of her friend?

Nodding to herself, Twilight levitated the book back in front of her. “Alright. Sorry about the interruption. I just wanted to clear some things up before continuing. “

As she searched for her place in the book, Twilight chuckled inwardly, composing a mental note.

“Dear Princess Celestia,

I know I don’t write you these letters anymore, but if I did, something tells me by the end of this you would have to read a particularly long one...

“You two are getting married!?” Rainbow Dash sputtered, spitting cider all over the table and quickly going into a coughing fit. “That’s… that’s just…”

“Awesome!” Fluttershy squealed, just a hair louder than was typical for her as she clapped her hooves together. “Congratulations. Oh, I’m so happy for you.”

Twilight caught Fluttershy winking at Rarity out of the corner of her eye. If anypony knew about this in advance, it probably would’ve been her.

Across from the table, Pinkie Pie’s eyes had gone as wide as saucers, and she began vibrating at a rapidly increasing frequency. As she began to let out a high pitched squeal and inch closer to the couple, Applejack rolled her eyes.

“Pinkie Pie, would you be so kind as to plan our wedding reception?”

“Yeeeeeeeessssss!!!” Pinkie Pie screamed as she shot off like a bottle rocket, bouncing off the ceiling and around the room like a super bouncy ball.

Even as she found herself chuckling at Pinkie’s antics, Twilight tried to pull all her thoughts together quickly. Honestly, she wasn’t quite sure how to feel about two of her best friends suddenly announcing their engagement to each other. Especially since she didn’t even know they were a couple until now. But whatever her own feelings about the matter, being a good friend was the most important thing she could do at the moment.

“Congratulations you two. This was sudden, but I’m really happy for you.” Twilight stood up, making her way over to the couple and placing a hoof on theirs. “I’d like to give you my blessings as both a royal princess of Equestria,” Twilight paused, giving them a warm smile, “and as your friend.”

“Oh Twilight, thank you…” Rarity said, sniffling as her eyes beginning to mist over. “Ugh, you promised yourself you wouldn’t cry. Get it together Rarity!”

Rainbow Dash flew over the table and up to Applejack, casually slinging a forehoof over her shoulder. “Geez. Congratulations! That’s pretty great and all, but did you really have to keep it a secret for so long?”

Applejack blushed, turning away and looking slightly ashamed. “Aw hay. It’s not like we were particularly tryin’ to keep it a secret or anything. There was just… never really a good time to bring it up. And it was only last month when I proposed and she said yes that we felt like… we had something strong enough together to show off to th’rest of you and be proud of.”

“Oooh, and such a gallant proposal it was,” Rarity said with a dramatic flourish, causing Applejack to roll her eyes. “I’ll have to tell you all about it later.”

“Group hug!” Pinkie shouted, pulling the other five ponies into a stranglehold of an embrace.

“It’s um, right through here,” Fluttershy said, fumbling with the keys to what was apparently the back door to the mansion.

“Alright, let’s move this party to somewhere more fitting!” Rainbow Dash said.

As soon as Fluttershy pulled the door open a hair, the door banged open, hurling the dainty pegasus into Rainbow Dash with a blast of frozen air and whipping snow.

“How is this supposed to be better than inside? Where it’s all warm and toasty?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow skeptically as she tried to shield her face from the wind. The pitch blackness outside wasn’t helping matters either.

“Oh it’s really quite nice out there darling, but I’m afraid we’ll need your help to make it more… hospitable,” Rarity said as she and Applejack helped the downed pegasi to their hooves. “Could you give us a little light out there for starters?”

Shivering from the cold, Twilight focused her horn, conjuring a large ball of light which she sent to float up and out the door. She was surprised to see so much green illuminated under the soft magic. It was easily garden worthy of the royal palace. The trees were in full bloom, the grass was a luscious shade of green and flowers wreathed the several pools of water scattered about. Such carefully sculpted natural beauty was starkly contrasted by the snow still whirling about.

With a tentative step forward, Twilight was surprised to find that the ground underneath her hooves was radiating warmth.

“Cannonball!” Pinkie yelled as she bolted outside and immediately made a big splash in one of the pools. Twilight’s worries about her friend freezing to death in the water were quickly squashed when she took a closer look and saw the steam rising from the pools.

“So there’s hot springs here. That’s pretty nice – but even with that it won’t be very nice out here with all this wind,” Twilight said, squinting as a particularly large gust blew more snow into her eyes.

“Kinda hoping you could take care of that too, Twi. Y’know, make a big shield or something,” Rainbow Dash said.

Twilight thought about it for a moment, and figured it should probably work. Channeling a more powerful spell, she felt a bead of sweat drip down her face as large pink bubble began to descend over the entire mansion. After a few more moments of focus, Twilight felt the wind stop and everything suddenly became quiet around them.

As she let the spell go, Twilight wiped the sweat off her brow and paused to admire her handiwork. She wasn’t her brother, but the shield would do its job keeping the storm out of the mansion. As well as anypony who wanted in or out. Although it was only strong to the point where anypony could probably break through if they tried hard enough, bringing the whole spell down with them.

With the wind cut off, Twilight could already feel the warmth of the garden starting to fill the area and she took a deep breath, enjoying the sweet smells of the flora and the dampness of the air.

“Hey Applejack, bet you can’t beat me in underwater wrestling!” Rainbow Dash said with a grin, flying towards one of the nearby hot springs.

Applejack immediately jumped at the challenge, and Rarity rolled her eyes. “Really now. Hot springs are not swimming pools. They are for relaxing.” With a sigh, she turned to Fluttershy and Twilight. “Care to join me?”

“Gladly,” Twilight said with a smile, and the three of them moved to one of the unoccupied pools while the other three splashed and played.

“Oh sweet Celestia that feels good,” Twilight moaned as she sunk into the hot water. Immediately she felt her tired muscles begin to loosen. She had forgotten that her shoulders and joints weren’t supposed to feel that stiff in the first place.

After lounging in silence for a few minutes, listening to the sounds of laughter coming from nearby, Twilight turned to Rarity and spoke up. “So… you and Applejack, huh?”

Rarity smiled, leaning her head back as she stared skywards. “Life sure has a way of taking you by surprise, doesn’t it?”

“Since you mentioned surprises, I take it you knew in advance, Fluttershy?” Twilight asked.

“Well, I still go to the spa with Rarity occasionally, and I knew they were dating,” Fluttershy mumbled, sinking into the water until her head was barely above it. “But I didn’t know there was going to be a wedding.”

Rarity laughed gaily, turning to face the others. “Speaking of that… would you two do me the honors of being my best mares? Applejack will ask Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie to do the same for her.” Rarity paused, glancing over as her fiancé held onto Rainbow Dash with her forehooves as she struggled to fly out of the water. “Well, I’m sure she’ll bring it up eventually.”

“Oh yes! Oh, I’d love to,” Fluttershy said excitedly, nearly jumping up out of the water.

“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Twilight said teasingly. “But I’d be honored to, Rarity.”

“Great! Oh, I’ve already got the perfect dresses for you thought up. It’s going to be so magical!” After beaming with excitement, Rarity frowned, tapping a hoof on the water in thought. "Well actually... I imagined you officiating the wedding as well, but it just occurred to me you might not be able to do both."

Twilight felt herself heat up with embarrassment at the idea. “Well, I mean I technically could, but Princess Celestia might be a better choice. I’m not sure you want somepony officiating your wedding while crying the whole time.”

“Oh Twilight,” Rarity giggled as she moved over to give the unicorn a quick embrace. “You’re a good friend, you know?”

“I practically majored in friendship, so I’d certainly hope so,” Twilight said, grinning. “But this is a big step. No matter what, we’ll do our best to help you out.” Fluttershy nodded in agreement as Rarity sat back down.

“A big step… you got that right.” Rarity’s smile waned somewhat as she peered into the water blankly. “We have to be apart from each other so much because of business, but we still both want to start a life together. It’ll have to work somehow…” Glancing up, Rarity stared at the still frolicking Applejack with a strange look in her eye.

Twilight glanced over at Fluttershy, both of them frowning at the sudden change in mood. “Um, Rarity? Is everything okay?” Twilight asked.

“Hmm? Oh, no, it’s nothing dear…” Rarity said, her expression a stiff mask.

“Does this have something to do with the fight you two were having when I arrived?” Twilight asked.

“What, that? Oh, that was nothing to worry about. Just a simple little spat about the food we plan to have at the wedding. Nothing to worry about,” Rarity said, the strain in her voice becoming more evident.

“Rarity…” Twilight chided as she moved in closer.

Rarity’s lips began to tremble, and she glanced up at her fiancé, who was still occupied and well out of earshot. “I just…” With a loud sniffle, tears began to fall from her eyes, barely noticeable with all the surrounding steam and water.

“I just love her so much!” Rarity cried out, burying her head in Fluttershy’s shoulder. “I do! And I’m willing to give anything, my whole self, mind body and soul to her! But even though she’s the one who started this… and she’s the one who proposed…” Rarity sniffled again, wiping at her eyes with her hoof.

“She’s holding something back… I can feel it. There’s something in her heart she absolutely refuses to share, and refuses to even acknowledge it’s there. Whatever is eating her up… it’s gotten noticeable in other ways too.”

“There there…” Fluttershy cooed as she lightly rubbed Rarity’s shoulder with a hoof. “Have you tried talking to her about this? Surely with a pony as straightforward and dependable as Applejack you can just skip to the heart of the matter, can’t you?”

“But that’s just it!” Rarity wailed. “I’ve tried. She refuses to trust me enough even to admit there’s a problem, and always tries to turn it back on me somehow whenever I bring it up.”

Twilight frowned, considering her words carefully. This was going to take a delicate hoof, but she was unsure of her own ability to give the correct advice in matters of the heart.

“This secret...” Twilight paused, choosing her words carefully as she tried to gage Rarity’s reaction. “Whatever it is, are you sure that it has to do with you? Everypony is entitled to keep a few things to themselves.”

Sniffling one more time, Rarity took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “I’m sorry. Maybe you’re right, Twilight. I can get a little wrapped up in myself sometimes. Perhaps I’m worrying over nothing." Glancing back over at the pony that was the source of her woe, she wiped at her eyes some more. “But I don’t know. I feel like it’s important. I can just sense something is off sometimes, you know? There’s a pained glance, or a vacant look in her eyes. Maybe a hostile reaction to an innocuous question. It’s always so faint, but I know it’s real.”

Rarity sighed, shaking her head. “Oh well. Relationships aren’t supposed to be easy, after all. I’m sure we'll be able to work this out eventually.” Turning to the others, she put on a smile again. “Thanks for listening, you two. I’ve been holding that in for awhile now and it feels good to get that off my chest."

“If you ever need to talk, we’re here for you Rarity. Don’t bottle it all up,” Twilight said, leaning back and allowing herself to relax. As she looked up at the sky from this angle, she found the snow making elaborate patterns as it fell on her shield and slid down. They really were quite pretty.

Eager to change the mood, Rarity struck up a conversation regarding some of the recent fashion lines she had been working on in Manehatten, and while Fluttershy seemed interested, Twilight quickly tuned them out. Two of her best friends were getting married. Everything was going to change.

Or was it? With a sinking feeling in her gut, Twilight realized that their group dynamic would barely be shaken up at all. After all, if everypony only gets together once a year, the difference becomes pretty negligible.

So nothing was going to change after all. Well, maybe a little. There was still the wedding to look forward too. And they’d still write each other letters, and Twilight was sure she’d be hearing from either Applejack or Rarity in the future when they hit low points in their relationship. Maybe they will even have babies in the future. So this was a good thing.

Or was it a bad thing? What if Rarity’s worries were serious? Serious enough that they end up breaking up? Would we have to pick and choose between friends? Would one of them refuse to come to the conferences because the other would be there? What if—

“Hey there silly-filly!” Pinkie Pie said, her face suddenly appearing inches from Twilight’s, looking down on her. “You know from this angle it looks like you’re smiling!”

Twilight jumped slightly at the sudden appearance of her friend, but quickly regained her composure. Staring up into that impossibly wide grin, Twilight couldn’t help but start smiling again herself.

“Oh no! Now it looks like you’re frowning! Oh wait, I’m upside down. So now you have to frown so you can smile? Hey, that’s not right!” With some impressive contortions, Pinkie managed to trip over herself, flipping into the pool and splashing all of them.

Twilight shared a glance with Fluttershy and Rarity before all three burst out laughing, Pinkie Pie flailing around in the water as she tried to right herself. Like nothing had even happened, her pink curly mane shot back up out of the water. “Hey, you girls ready for ghost stories?”

“Ghost stories?” Rarity asked, raising an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware that was on the agenda.”

“Accordin’ to RD this here mansion’s supposed to be haunted,” Applejack said as she trotted up to join the others alongside Rainbow Dash.

“Hey, if you girls knew the history of this place, you’d never sleep a wink. So that’s why I’m going to tell you every detail!” Rainbow Dash said, grinning wickedly.

“Since when were you such a history buff?” Twilight asked, getting up out of the hot spring and shaking herself off.

“Well, I mean Fluttershy’s the one who found it all. I just read all the cool parts,” Rainbow Dash said as she offered a hoof to the yellow pegasus to help her out of the water.

Everypony’s attention turned to Fluttershy, who blushed and began fidgeting with her mane, squeezing water out of it. “Oh. Um, it’s nothing really. I just read some of the books here in the library. And well, I kind of heard about the legends before coming here. But it’s not all scary. There’s a love story too...”

Rarity perked up at that while Fluttershy spaced out for a few seconds, a goofy smile on her face. Twilight found herself chuckling. She couldn’t deny she was still pretty curious about this mansion herself, if for no other reason than because she didn’t already know about it, which was a rare thing these days.

“’Y’all reckon we should take this party back inside then? These springs are nice and all, but there’s only so much soaking a pony can take,” Applejack said.

“I agree… any longer and I’ll start to get pruney,” Rarity said as she climbed out of the pool. Walking over to Applejack, she leaned in and fussed with her mane slightly, brushing some of the wet hair out of her fiancé’s eyes. “And it looked so nice done up too… oh well. I knew it wouldn’t last long.”

“Yeah, well. Y’know I always say you look real pretty when you let your mane get all wet like that,” Applejack said, grinning as she leaned over and gave Rarity a peck on the cheek.”

“Heeeeeee!” Pinkie Pie squealed, bursting out of the water to land next to the blushing Rarity. “You two are so adorable together! Ooh, I bet when we’re telling ghost stories later there’s gonna be a really scary moment, and Rarity’s going to be all ‘Eek!’ and Applejack’s going to hold onto her to comfort her, but then later on there’s going to be a reaally scary moment and then Applejack’s going to go “Eeek!” and then they’ll both have to hold each other!”|

The group’s laughter echoed throughout the garden as they made their way inside.

Chapter 3 - The Legend of a Golden Wish

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“Once upon a time, in ages long forgotten, there was a kingdom whose name nopony remembers…”

Rainbow Dash was standing on the table in the center of the room, delivering her narration with wild gesticulation. Her frame was cast with the flickering shadows from the roaring fireplace. After drying off, the six had retreated to the comfort of the parlor, where comfy pillows and refreshments awaited.

“The ruler of this kingdom was known as ‘Princess Wishlight’. She was a kind, but strict ruler, and had many enemies. For you see, the princess had a power nopony else did. She could grant wishes, give anypony what their heart desired most. As long as their wish was true, no boon was too great.

“But the power came with a terrible curse.”

Rainbow Dash punctuated her story by stomping her hooves, causing Fluttershy to gasp slightly and Pinkie Pie to squeal with anticipation. Applejack and Rarity simply smiled, sharing a look as they snuggled closer under a blanket.

Twilight frowned, her mind already racing with questions. Something about this whole thing felt off, but she just couldn’t put her hoof on it. Pulling out a quill and parchment, she started scribbling down notes, prompting Rainbow Dash to roll her eyes.

“Geez Professor, I hope I get a good grade on my speech!” Rainbow Dash said in a mocking tone before she cleared her throat to continue. “Anyway, terrible curse. The princess had the ability to grant wishes, but the power did not come from the princess’ magic. Instead, one’s heart’s desire could only be granted by enacting an equal and opposite amount of suffering on somepony else. Usually just some poor random schmuck you’ve never met before. Other times, somepony close.

“In her youth, the princess abused her power with reckless abandon, ignorant to its backlash. She sought to make as many ponies happy as possible, and her kingdom flourished, even as tragedy continued to strike seemingly at random. But when she finally discovered the great cost her magic has wrought, she was heartbroken. She swore never to use her powers again.”

Twilight quickly scribbled down a new set of notes. Rainbow Dash is using vocabulary way above her. She must have practiced this with somepony else’s guidance. Could it be Fluttershy? There weren’t exactly a lot of options. With a sinking feeling in her gut, another thought occurred to her. Maybe Rainbow Dash has simply become more well read, and I didn’t realize because we never see each other.

“But her powers were not so easily forgotten,” Rainbow Dash continued. “When the wishes dried up, other ponies demanded to know why, but she dared not say, for she could not admit to inadvertently causing as much suffering as she already had.

“Having long coveted her power with jealous greed, the other nations banded together, invading her kingdom and inciting a revolt in her populace in order to gain her power and grant wishes for themselves.” With a mock sigh, Rainbow added a quick aside. “I guess the magic of friendship wasn’t a big deal back then, y’know?”

Twilight focused on the story, still taking as many notes as she could. The details in this legend were incredibly vague. Was it left like that was on purpose because the details would be superfluous to the meat of the narrative, or because they were actually lost to time?

“Betrayed by her people, surrounded by enemies from all sides, the princess fought until the end. While her magic was still formidable in its own right, without using her ability to grant wishes she stood no chance. Wounded, she barely escaped her castle with her life. Running away and leaving everything she loved and cared about behind, she flew and flew until she couldn’t go any farther and dropped from the sky, ready to lie down and sleep forever.”

With a dramatic pause, Rainbow Dash added, “The spot where she fell was this very valley.”

Pinkie Pie shot up from her seat, interrupting and waving her arms around. “And she still haunts this mansion to this very day! Oooooooooh”

Rainbow Dash buried her face in a hoof before stepping down from the table. “No, Pinkie. The story isn’t over yet. Anyway, I’m going to let Fluttershy take over this next bit.”

After a few awkward moments where Rainbow Dash stood still, waiting for Fluttershy to take her place on the makeshift dais, Fluttershy squeaked, realizing everypony’s attention was on her and hesitantly spoke up. “Um, if it’s okay, I’d like to just tell the story from here…”

“Suit yourself,” Rainbow Dash said with a shrug, moving to an empty cushion and getting comfortable.

“Okay. Um, let’s see. Well, uh, the princess didn’t know how long she was out for, but she eventually awoke in darkness. She was in pain, but still alive,” Fluttershy said, continuing the story.

Twilight had to strain her ears a bit to hear, especially compared to Dash’s enthusiastic narration. She started to scoot closer to hear a little better, but thought of a more practical idea and instead cast a quick spell to modify the acoustics in the room.

“The princess quickly realized she was not alone. The sound of heavy breathing reverberated around her along with gusts of hot air. Struggling to stand up, the princess tried to cast a simple illumination spell, but could only produce a few sparks before she felt a terrible backlash, a sharp pain in her horn that nearly caused her to pass out again.

“A deep voice rumbled from nearby, the very ground seeming to shake with its magnitude. ‘Your magic will not work here, Pony Princess. On a strange whim I, Xzorak the Mighty have saved your life. The forkroot I have treated you with is a very powerful regenerative, but has rather strong anti-magic properties that should wear off in a few days.’”

Twilight had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing. Fluttershy’s ‘monster voice’ was simply too adorable. The contrast in storytelling styles between the two pegasi was certainly quite stark, but it was hard to say if either was really better than the other. Rainbow Dash had a good sense of action, adventure and dramatic timing, while Fluttershy reminded her of a mother reading bedtime stories to her foals.

“Groaning slightly, the princess turned to face her foe, trying to command as much presence as she could muster even as her knees buckled underneath her. ‘Do not toy with me, beast! If you have truly saved my life, then I am grateful, but I will be no prisoner of yours, and I shall grant you no wishes. Show me the exit and stand aside.’

“‘My my. Such fire, such passion. You are no prisoner of mine, pony. You are free to go whenever you please. However, you must find the exit on your own. And be careful –’ Xzorak let out a huge yawn, the blast of hot, rancid air nearly knocking the princess off of her feet. ‘You might just wander into my open mouth, and I’d hate to swallow you by accident. Never been a fan of pony.’

“The princess sat down on her haunches, already exhausted from standing, and considered her options. As her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, she could barely make out the silhouette of her captor. She wasn’t sure, but her gut told her she was face to face with a dragon, and a large one at that. She could wish herself out of here easily enough, but that was what had caused this whole mess in the first place. She would never use her power so again.

“Cautiously extending her wings so she didn’t walk face first into a wall, the princess made her way towards what appeared to be a mound of something. When it turned out be a mound of hay, she collapsed on top of it, the itchy straw somehow beating out the most comfortable down she had always slept on. After a moment’s pause, she spoke up. ‘Dragon – if that’s what you are, anyway. Tell me why you have brought me here? Do you know of who I am?’

“‘Truly?’ replied the dragon. ‘I do not know. It’s not every day an alicorn lands on your doorstep. I suppose it was a strange fancy of mine that brought me to save you. Perhaps I will change my mind, and gobble you up in the morning.’”

Twilight glanced up from her note taking, looking around to see how her friends were taking in the story. Pinkie was still vibrating in her seat, barely able to contain her excitement. The new couple was still snuggled close together, Rarity resting peacefully on Applejack’s shoulder with her eyes closed. Far from enjoying herself though, Applejack seemed nervous, her ears laid back and her attention focused intently on Fluttershy’s story.

Applejack happened to catch Twilight staring at her and quickly looked away, then back and put on a fake smile. Well, that was certainly convincing, thought Twilight as she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. It was clear she was going to have to talk to Applejack later, and find out just what had her so – with a mild start, Twilight realized she had lost track of what Fluttershy was saying.

“…and after 4 days of food and rest, the princess finally felt her magic returning. ‘Beware, Princess,’ the dragon warned. ‘For my visage is a fearsome one. You may not like what you see.’

“The princess laughed, feeling her magic flow through her body again as she focused it to her horn. ‘You sure make an awful lot of empty threats, Dragon. But I will not hide down here in the dark forever. It’s not like you’re the first dragon I’ve ever – Oh my.’

“The princess’ breath caught in her throat as her eyes adjusted to the newly conjured light. The topaz dragon before her was indeed massive, but broken. His eyes appeared to be nailed shut. His teeth were removed; and only scarred stumps marked where his wings should have been. His legs and tail were twisted and hobbled.

“’What could have possibly done this to you?’ asked the princess, her voice tinged with shock and pity. With a low, pained laugh, the dragon responded. ‘This is how dragons deal with their traitors.’

“Tenderly, the princess reached up and put her hoof on the dragon’s scarred snout, thinking about her power. ‘How much would you give to be whole again? To fly, walk, eat massive gemstones? To see the glorious light of this world?’ When he simply regarded her silently, she added ‘Would you accept such a gift if it meant somepony else would get hurt in your place? Probably a being you’ve never met before and likely never will.’

“‘No,’ the dragon said after a slight pause. ‘There has been enough suffering at my claws.’ And with that, the princess made up her mind and decided to stay after all.”

Twilight smiled, noticing that Fluttershy seemed really into her storytelling by now. She had gotten up from her cushion and was pacing around as she talked, now oblivious and uncaring about all the attention. The illusion would pop like a soap bubble if her current state was pointed out, so Twilight decided to keep those observations to herself.

“So the princess stayed with the dragon, partly because she had nowhere else to go, partly because in him she had found a friend and an intellectual equal. As the years went by, friendship turned to affection, and affection into love. It was a strange sort of romance, two exiles brought together in misery. And they lived happily… for a while.”

Fluttershy let out a sigh, her eyes drooping slightly as she looked down. Twilight supposed this must be the part where everything went wrong.

“Eventually, the odd couple turned their thoughts to the future, and towards children. They had built quite a nice life for themselves. The princess even arranged to have this very mansion built in secret, so she didn’t have to live in a dragon cave. Children would normally be impossible, but her power had no limits. Such selfishness however, even to create the miracle of life, was an abuse she could not allow.

“But her heart betrayed her mind, and made the wish for her. The princess was with child.”

Twilight scrunched her face slightly at the idea. She supposed with the portrait she saw in the manor hall the story was bound to go in this direction eventually. But was this really supposed to be a true story, as opposed to some silly legend?

With a low voice, Fluttershy continued. “It’s unsure exactly who the curse targeted with its backlash. The princess herself perhaps, when she died giving birth? The dragon, having known a brief happiness and had it snatched away? Or the young filly, who would never know her mother, and who had a father that could not give her the love and care she deserved?

“Devastated by his loss, and unable to properly raise his daughter given his crippled state, the dragon arranged for servants to come to this mansion to bring her up properly. But the measured hand of a servant is no substitute for a loving family. The young filly grew up isolated and alone, with no real friends. Her heart soon became cold, and later cruel. The servants began to resent their charge, and the negative feelings only multiplied from there.”

At this point, Rainbow Dash jumped back up on the table spreading her forehooves and wings as she cast a shadow over the gathered ponies, speaking ominously. “When she came of age and gained her cutie mark, her talent turned out to be very similar to her mother’s. And that’s when the servants began to disappear, one by one. Some began to recognize the pattern and tried to flee, but was too late. Soon, she alone remained in this mansion, as isolated and alone as her heart had always been.

“Months later, when a lone pegasus stopped by to deliver supplies, he found the mansion completely deserted. Everything was in exactly the same place as the last time he’d visited, except for one small detail. The lifelike portrait of the dragon mare in the entry hall!”

Rainbow Dash finished the story off with a maniacal laugh, and Twilight shuddered involuntarily at the thought of that creepy portrait. The story wasn’t even as remotely terrifying as it had been hyped up to be, (And had some plot holes besides) but it was entertaining regardless.

Of course, she was certainly glad that the painting was out in a hallway as compared to say, her room.

Fluttershy let out a long sigh and visibly deflated as she switched from storyteller mode back to her regular self. “Thanks for listening. I hope you girls liked it, and that it wasn’t too long or anything.”

Twilight smiled, and stomped her hooves appreciatively. “You two did a great job. It was very entertaining!”

Leaning in, Rainbow Dash suddenly spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “Just so you girls are aware. I mean, a story’s a story and all, but I’ve seen some spooooky stuff the few days I’ve been staying here already. Windows open when they were bolted shut before. Strange shadows. A hoofstep echoing down the corridor, out of step with your own… Shy’s seen it all too, I’m not just messing with you.”

“OOOOOOOOOOOOOH,” interrupted Pinkie, actually on cue this time.

“Well um. I mean, I may have seen a few things, but I’m sure it’s just a coincidence really… the mind can play tricks on you if you let it, and I can be pretty careless when it comes to locking things properly and…” Fluttershy trailed off.

Rarity tensed up, wrapping her forehooves around Applejack’s neck. “Oh I am not walking back to my room alone tonight.”

“Mmmhmm. Sure thing, darlin’,” Applejack mumbled. For some reason she still seemed pretty nervous, and Twilight suspected it wasn’t the story that had her spooked. At least, not for the obvious reasons.

“Uh, hey, sugarcube. Y’all never said exactly what the name of that there dragon filly was. I mean, y’all were pretty vague on the names anyway but,” Applejack said as she fidgeted with her hat.

“Hmm? Oh, sorry Applejack. Her name is Golden Wish.”

“Er, right. Thanks Shy.”

Twilight could swear she heard Applejack swallow at that. Just what was going on with her?

“Man, I’m beat. I mean, this is great and all, but I was busy doing all that cloud stuff earlier, so I’m gonna hit the hay,” Rainbow Dash announced, yawning loudly for effect. “Although you girls should be careful. I mean it. Just keep an eye out, okay?”

“It is about that time I guess. I should really go check on the princesses, to see if they want a midnight snack or something,” Fluttershy said.

“Oooh, I have such a fun party planned tomorrow for your brother and sister when they get here Twilight! I mean I know it’s all official business and everything, but there’s no reason you have to be serious when being serious!” With a wide grin, Pinkie bounced out of the room, humming the first few notes of a song Twilight had yet to hear, but suspected she soon would.

“A lady does need her beauty sleep,” Rarity yawned as she glanced up at the large grandfather clock in the parlor. “Are you coming, dear?”

“Uh, yeah. Just gimme a sec, I wanna ask Twi something.” Applejack moved over and slung her forehoof around Twilight’s shoulder, whispering softly. “Listen. All that stuff about that wish grantin’ alicorn princess is just some crazy legend right? Nopony could really do anything like that.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, surprised by Applejack's interest in the subject. “Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve certainly never heard of such a legend until coming here, but I can’t rule out the possibility. Something about the story feels off to me though, and I was planning on checking out some of the books here in the library. Oh, would you care to join me?”

“Eh, no thanks. Rar’ is all spooked so I better be there, and I ain’t no good with books anyhow.” Applejack backed off, and moved over to Rarity’s side. “Alright hon’, let’s get back to our room.”

Twilight let out a small sigh as Rarity lit her horn up and the two left the room. It’s not like it was anything new, but nopony else ever seemed to appreciate the joy of research.

Twilight groaned, slamming her head into the desk before her. These books were worthless! Well, fascinating really. But nothing matched the story Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy had just told her. She had found some vague historical footnotes about a princess rumored to grant wishes. Some accounts of dragon history detailing ancient methods of dealing with traitors. There was even a short story about a unicorn and a dragon falling in love. Nothing about a child though, and nothing that really matched.

Her eyelids drooping, Twilight pulled another book off the shelf and began to read. Why was she so interested in this in the first place? As the night waned on, the darkness of sleep began to call.

Princess Luna stood at the study window, looking out into the blackness of the storm below. With a deep sigh, she closed her eyes and spoke. “Sister… It is time. But must things really be this way? She is no longer your student.”

“Everypony is my student, and I am theirs, dear Luna. We should always do our best to continue to learn and improve, day by day. And there are many lessons that even Twilight Sparkle has yet to learn.”

“But… must it be like this? These methods, this plan? I do not agree with this, Sister. It is… wrong.”

With a patient sigh, Celestia arose from her cushion, walking over to her sister and laying her head over Luna’s neck, nuzzling her affectionately. “Her path ahead will be fraught with obstacles the likes of which she has never faced before. But I believe in the end she will be able to reach out and find the truth. What she does with that knowledge afterwards is up to her and her alone. We cannot guide her anymore, but I have faith in Twilight.”

Luna bit her lip in frustration, but said nothing.

Twilight stood up, putting the book down in front of her. “Just need to get up and walk for a bit, and grab some more water while I’m at it.” With an acknowledging nod from Fluttershy, she made her way to the kitchen, stretching her legs out.

This certainly was… something. Being inside her own head like this… Fluttershy captured her voice well enough. Maybe sometimes the fictional Twilight would think of something in a way she herself might not have, but overall it meshed up well. She even found her own thoughts conforming to match those on the page, rather than wallowing in the dissonance.

She wondered about the state of Fluttershy’s mystery as it had been presented so far. Mystery novels were said to be like a game between the author and the reader. In many novels, there’s always a point right before the end, before they announce the culprit or whomever, where the detective might as well stop, turn to the audience and say “All the clues have been presented so far – can you solve it before turning to the next page and seeing what the answer is?”

At least, if it was a fair mystery it did so. Twilight had read her fair share of mysteries that obfuscated all the clues from the reader, or pulled a solution so far out of left field nopony could see it coming. Or ones that go too far in the other direction, where the clues are so blindingly obvious that when they turn out to be correct, it’s just a huge letdown. She wasn’t a huge mystery buff by any means, but she was proud of her ability to solve a good mystery just in time, right before the author pulls back the curtain.

So how would Fluttershy stack up?

Shaking her head to clear away that thought, Twilight started back. She’s a friend who wants you to critique her novel, not play the grand game.

Fluttershy perked up when Twilight re-entered the room, but her doubts still remained. And something about the direction of the novel was setting off vague feelings of dread in the back of Twilight's mind.

Just where was Fluttershy going with this?

Chapter 4 - Golden Slaughterer

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“Hey. Hey! Twi, are you in there!?”


There was an incessant pounding coming from… somewhere. Was sleeping in a bit longer really that much to ask for?

“Twilight. Twilight, helloooo. Can’t sleep in forever.”

When Twilight slowly opened her eyes, her senses were immediately assaulted by a sharp pain in her neck. Groaning as she stood up, she realized she had fallen asleep in the library, and with a mild sense of horror, that she had drooled all over the book she was reading.

“NnnRainbow Dash? Izzat you?” Twilight asked in the middle of a long yawn. “You don’t have to keep knocking like that, just come in.”

There was a slight pause, and then a sigh of relief from behind the door before the handle began to jiggle fruitlessly. “It’s locked Twi, I can’t get in. Not without busting it down.”

Twilight frowned, still trying to parse her way through the cobwebs in her sleep addled mind. “Locked…? This is the library, why would I lock the door?”

When Rainbow Dash continued to jiggle the door handle to emphasize the point, Twilight rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and began walking over to the door on unsteady legs. When she got there, Twilight stopped, her eyes going wide. Not only was the door locked, but the chain lock and bolt were set too.

That shouldn’t be possible, right? Thinking back, she definitely didn’t remember locking anything herself. And she was pretty sure this was the only entrance to the library.

“Any day now, Twi.” Rainbow Dash said impatiently.

Filing that thought away for later, Twilight undid all the locks on the library door and swung it open to confront Rainbow Dash. Just what was so important that –

Twilight’s breath caught in her throat and her eyeballs threatened to burst out of her sockets as she saw what was adorning the outside of the door and on one of Rainbow Dash’s fronthooves.
Was that… blood?

“Is that… yours?” asked Twilight, unsure of what else to say as she gestured towards the red marks streaked all across the library door. Her brain seemed to have short circuited for a second, and she couldn’t properly process the scene in front of her.

“Huh? No, of course not,” Rainbow Dash said, scratching her head. “Wait, are you saying you didn’t put this here?”

“That’s…” Twilight closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but this wasn’t the time to panic. Gingerly, she reached out and touched the door with one of her hooves. It was still wet, and –

Ah. This was red paint. Of course.

Rolling her eyes as hard as she could, Twilight leaned over, elbowing Rainbow Dash in the ribs. “Geez. That was a good one, RD. You suuure got me! Now if you don’t mind, I think I’m going to –“

“Why would I scribble red paint all over the library door? That’d be a pretty lame prank if you ask me. Plus, Fluttershy would get all mad and make me clean it up,” Rainbow Dash said, waving a forehoof dismissively. “Speaking of Fluttershy, have you seen her around? It’s breakfast time and I’m starving, but I can’t seem to find her anywhere.”

“...Okay,” Twilight said after a few moments of contemplation. “If it’s not some kind of practical joke, then why is there…” Twilight took another look at the door, to see exactly what was drawn there. Three intersecting lines, a couple of smudges around the outside… “A crude drawing of my cutie mark on the library door in red paint?”

Rainbow Dash simply shrugged in response, and Twilight let out a sigh. “Last time I saw Fluttershy was last night after the story. I think she said something about checking up on the princesses?”

Rainbow Dash frowned, bringing a hoof up to her chin. “Hmm. Weird. She’s not in her room, already checked. Neither were you, I guess, and you were here, so whatever. I’ll go look around some more.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, giving Rainbow Dash an exasperated look. “You could just go make your own breakfast you know. Just because Fluttershy is acting like a servant here for whatever reason doesn’t mean you have to treat her like one.”

“Aww come on, Twi. It’s not like that. Her food’s just really good, you know?” Rainbow Dash said, grinning sheepishly. “Whatever. Maybe I can convince Applejack to whip something up.”

“Rainbow, you should really let those two… be.” Twilight let out a sigh as Rainbow Dash sped around the corner and out of sight before she could stop her.

After taking the time to stretch and fully wake herself now that Rainbow Dash wasn’t demanding her attention, Twilight realized she was actually pretty hungry herself. She made her way towards the kitchen, trying to work out the stiffness in her neck along the way. It hurt, but in some ways it was oddly nostalgic. She hadn’t fallen asleep doing research in a long time.

Twilight made it to the kitchen easily enough and didn’t have any problem gathering what she needed. She was by no means a star cook, but making a few sandwiches for herself and her friends wasn’t exactly a monumental undertaking either. It would pale in comparison to last night’s feast, but it was the thought that counted. Poor Fluttershy must just be exhausted from working so hard.


Five minutes later Twilight found herself coughing up a storm as Rarity levitated the burning remains of ‘breakfast’ into the sink, dousing them with water.

“How did this even happen?” Twilight wondered incredulously.

“Don’t worry about it, dear. I deal with it all the time whenever I forget to lock the kitchen up whenever Sweetie Bell’s around,” Rarity said, brushing some ash off her coat.

“Hey!” I’m not that terrible of a cook!”

Fluttershy blushed, clearly trying to stop herself from giggling. “Sorry.”

“It’s fimh,” Applejack said, talking through a mouth full of apple before swallowing. “I mean, this’ll do for a morning snack and all. Storm’s still blowing, so not like any official business is going on today.”

Twilight let out a light sigh. “I was really looking forward to seeing Shining and Cadence. How long do you think it will last?”

“My best bet is tomorrow,” Rainbow Dash said as she entered the kitchen with a rush of wind. “But yeah, I still can’t find Fluttershy anywhere. Or Pinkie Pie, for that matter.”

“Just what do you mean by ‘anywhere’?” Rarity asked, frowning.

“I mean I’ve searched every single room in this mansion, including the attic and the basement. Everything except the princesses’ room. I knocked a bunch to see if they knew anything, but I didn’t get a response,” Rainbow Dash said as she paced back and forth.

“Couldn’t they just be hidin’ somewhere? Under a bed or in a closet or somethin’? Or maybe they’re just moving from room to room as yer looking around,” Applejack said.

“I guess,” Rainbow Dash said, shrugging. “But why would they?”

“You have a point,” Twilight said, trotting over to the kitchen window. “Do you think they’re outside then?” She could see from here that her shield was still intact, even as the storm raged on outside, drifts of snow piled up against the barrier.

“I could check again, I guess.” With a sigh, Rainbow Dash sped off. Twilight watched her fly past the window and around the mansion grounds.

“So uh, Twi,” Applejack said, moving in close to stand by the window. “You find anything about that legend in those books last night?”

“Huh? Oh right, that. No, I didn’t find anything substantial. Just vague bits and pieces here and there. I really have no idea where Fluttershy and Rainbow even got the story from.” Twilight paused, turning to raise an eyebrow at Applejack. “Just what about all this has you so bothered anyway?”

“Oh, well,” Applejack said, looking away. “Not much really. Kind of embarrassing if I think about it. Just uh, kind of reminded me about some old Apple family legends and was wondering if there was some connection.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes suspiciously, but before she could dig deeper Rainbow Dash popped up outside the window, tapping on the glass.

“Uh, guys. You’re going to want to come see this.”

“This is…” Twilight said, trailing off.

“Just like at the library, yeah,” Rainbow Dash said.

The four were gathered around a shed located in the back corner of the garden. While normally just an unremarkable (if sturdy) shack meant for holding tools, it was currently decorated with swatches of red paint similar to what was on the door to the library. If one squinted, they somewhat resembled the shape of a balloon with a butterfly on the inside of it.

“Are you suggesting that those two are… in there? Hellooo? Fluttershy, Pinkie, it’s okay if you say something now, we’ll just pretend to be surprised!” Rarity said. She was twirling her mane in her hooves, looking agitated.

“Can you open it?” Twilight asked, her voice collected and calm.

Rainbow Dash shook her head. “It’s locked, and I don’t know where the key is. Plus I think it’s chained from the inside as well. Just blast it open Twi. Better safe than sorry.”

“Who the hay puts a chain lock on a garden shed?” Applejack asked as Twilight lowered her horn.

Twilight focused her magic, bringing it to bear against the comparatively flimsy shed door. Rather than blowing it to smithereens, she used the force to snap the hinges loose, catching the door with her telekinesis and laying it down gently.

What lay inside the shed burned a stark image into Twilight that would haunt her nightmares for the rest of her life. The world she knew and loved was gone forever.

Twilight’s eyes were locked to the pink form on the floor of the shed, lying in a pool of what she desperately hoped was red paint.

“P-Pinkie Pie…?” she heard her own voice say, soft and weak.

Moving over to Pinkie’s side, she rolled her over cautiously. Her eyes were closed with a soft smile on her face, like she was sleeping.

Her flesh was cold beneath Twilight’s hooves.

“H-hey… come on, this is a joke right? Something like this couldn’t actually happen, right? I mean, you’ve had some pretty poor tastes in jokes before, Pinkie, but this really takes the cake. Hah! Get it? Takes the cake…” Twilight’s voice cracked as her whole body began to shake.

“C-come on, Pinkie.”

Pinkie’s form remained still and limp, a cold reminder of the harsh reality she had suddenly found herself in.

This couldn’t actually be real, right? It was just some horrible nightmare. A vision brought on by all the scary stories. A prank by Discord, or just a changeling impersonating Pinkie, or…

“Oh sweet Celestia, that can’t be…”

Twilight heard a soft voice behind her, seemingly miles away. Trying to blink through the tears, she looked up, and her heart froze again.

No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no!

In the back of the shed there was what could only be described as a ‘mess’, some sort of macabre work of art that few would believe could have originally been a pony.

But the red stained yellow feathers and tufts of fur scattered around told a far worse story.


Twilight’s words caught in her throat, unable to even face the truth that was in front of her. She closed her eyes, placed her hooves over her ears and screamed as loud as she could, trying to make everything go away.

“What in Tartarus is this!?” Twilight yelled, throwing the book to the floor and whirling around to face Fluttershy.

Fluttershy shrieked at Twilight’s outburst, her ears lying back and shrinking beneath the presence of the suddenly livid mare. “It’s, uh, I told you already, it’s a m-murder mystery, Twilight…”

Shaken by what she had just read, Twilight tried to blink back her tears and fumbled with her words. “Mystery! You said it was a mystery! There was nothing about me having to read, in graphic detail, about the horrible deaths my friends suffered!”

Fluttershy tried to become even smaller as Twilight snorted and stomped her hooves, bearing down on the shivering pegasus.

“Why would even you write something like that? Why would you ask me to read something like that!? It’s just…”

Twilight took a step back, shuddering. She was already so immersed in the story, to even consider something like that happening… she suddenly had the strong desire to track down Pinkie Pie and give her long hug.

“I… I was just trying to…” Fluttershy burst into tears, her sobs wrenching another wound into Twilight’s recently battered heart.

Twilight closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm her frayed nerves. It didn’t work very well – she could still feel her hooves shaking and her teeth grinding themselves to points as her heart wrestled with all sorts of conflicting emotions.

“Fluttershy…” Twilight said with gritted teeth, her eyes still closed as she tried to shake her head clear.

“I-I’m sorry, T-Twilight!” Fluttershy said, choking out the words in-between wracking sobs. “P-please don’t hate me…”

Twilight took another deep breath, counting to ten this time. She could deal with this. She was the ‘Princess of Friendship’ after all. And this was all just fictional anyway, right? She shouldn’t let a book shake her up so much. She’d read on through the deaths of her favorite characters before, and it’s not like any of her friends were really hurt, right?

In her mind’s eye she could still picture Pinkie Pie lying there, cold and limp but still smiling.

“Fluttershy…” Twilight started up again, putting on a forced smile. “I don’t hate you. But surely you understand that reading about… that is something that is significantly emotionally distressing?”

Fluttershy nodded weakly before mumbling, “It’s important…”

“Good! In that case, I’m sure you understand that it’d probably best if we don’t continue this from here on out. I’ve just got too much bias to look at something like this objectively. But no worries! I’ve got a number of friends in the Equestrian Writers Society that would be more than happy to do some pre-reading and editing for you, and without all those pesky –”

“No!” Fluttershy ‘shouted’, her voice rising ever so slightly. Her eyes were wide with fear and her lip was quivering, but she locked eyes with Twilight, her expression pleading. “Please… Um, I mean, I’d really really really appreciate it if you could, um, see it through to the end. I know it’s a lot to ask.”

Twilight stared at Fluttershy, a blank look on her face. Was she seriously still asking this?

Fluttershy closed her eyes and took a deep breath, looking away. “I… this is very important to me Twilight. And it can’t be anypony else. It has to be you.”

Twilight continued staring for a few moments before sighing and covering her face with a hoof. “No. Well, maybe. I mean, I don’t know!”

Grimacing, Twilight turned towards the door. “Look, I need some fresh air. I’ll take a walk and think about this. Sorry, Fluttershy, but this is asking a lot… maybe too much. Just help yourself to whatever you want while I’m gone.”

Not wanting to see Fluttershy’s reaction, Twilight teleported away, leaving her all alone in the library.

The door to Sugarcube Corner opened with a merry jingling, and Twilight heard Pinkie call out from the back of the shop.

“I’ll be out in a second!”

Twilight took a moment to take in the familiar smells and warmth of the bakery. Coming here was a good idea.

“Welcome to Sugarcube Corner, what can I get you – Woaah!” Pinkie jumped up into the air as soon as she saw Twilight, her hair standing on end. “We’ve got a baked goods emergency here! I’m going to need 50 CCs of frosting, stat!”

“Uh, hey Pinkie. What are – Mmff!” Twilight’s greeting was interrupted when Pinkie Pie rushed over and shoved a cupcake into her mouth.

“Tmfs rmmry imhmt nemessmmry,” Twilight tried to say, but was unable to overcome the frosted goodness. Despite her objections, the confectionary was absolutely delicious, and she found herself savoring every moment.

After finally managing to swallow, Twilight turned to Pinkie Pie, who had on her widest grin. Unable to resist smiling herself, she reached over and embraced her friend in a tight hug. “Thank you, Pinkie. I needed that.”

“No problem Twilight, that’s what I’m here for! You look like you’ve seen something scary. Like a nightmare! Everypony gets them occasionally, even me! I’m pretty good at dealing with them though, and it’s pretty easy. Lemme show you!”

Pinkie Pie began bouncing around Twilight excitedly, and Twilight could feel that she was about to burst into song. Laughing, she pulled Pinkie Pie back to the floor. “It’s a bit more complicated than that, Pinkie.”

“Hmm…” Pinkie Pie pondered for a short time, then smacked her hooves together as a light flashed in her eyes. Disappearing for a second, she came back with a couch, pushed Twilight onto it, and sat next to her in a comfy armchair of her own while wearing a pair of glasses and blowing bubbles out of a pipe.

“Tell ze Doctor Pinkie about your problems,” Pinkie Pie said in some sort of faux accent.

After recovering from her own laughter and wiping the tears from eyes, Twilight laid back, allowing herself to relax somewhat.

“Well… can you keep all of this a secret? Not necessarily for my sake, but for Fluttershy’s?” Twilight asked, resting her forehooves behind her head and looking up at the ceiling.

“Absolutely,” Pinkie Pie said, already going through her usual promise motions. “I take doctor-patient confidentiality very seriously!”

“Well, Fluttershy came to me with this book…”


“… And then I just kind of blew up at her. Even then, she still wants me to keep reading, so I figured I’d cool off a bit and then came here.”

Pinkie Pie gave a curt “Mmmhmm” and scribbled on her notepad, the same response she’d given to everything for the past half hour.

There was an uncomfortable silence for a few moments before Pinkie Pie looked up and said, “Well, continue.”

“Seriously?” Twilight asked, rolling her eyes. “And then you fed me a cupcake and then we hugged and I felt better and then we decided to do this pretend therapy thing and now it’s right now.”

“I see…” Pinkie Pie said, tapping the rim of her notebook with her pencil thoughtfully.

“Are you even actually writing anything down?” Twilight asked.

Smiling so hard her glasses flew off of her face, Pinkie Pie flipped the notebook over to show Twilight. “Look, I drew a picture of me skiing down a mountain made entirely of cake!”

Twilight let out a sigh, covering her face with a hoof. “Were you even listening to anything I said?”

“Of course I was, silly!” Pinkie Pie said, looking somewhat offended.

After a few more moments of silence, Twilight gave an exasperated, “Well?”

“Well what? A story's just a story, Twilight! Did you stop and think that maybe Fluttershy isn't doing this for the shock value or to make you angry? She doesn't seem like the type to not have a reason."

Twilight frowned, unable to form a concrete objection. “Yeah, but…”

“And just think! You’re the book expert, Twi, you should’ve seen this already! When a story really puts a heroine through the wringer, when she loses a lot and has to try her very hardest to succeed, what happens at the end?”

Twilight’s eyes widened, the light at the end of the tunnel shining in her face. How could she have missed something so obvious? “A happy ending. Of course!”

Beaming, Pinkie Pie nodded enthusiastically. “Maybe it’s dark now, but I’m sure it won’t stay that way forever. You just gotta believe in Fluttershy and do your best!”

“Thanks, Pinkie Pie,” Twilight said, pulling Pinkie into another hug. Stepping away, she smiled and turned towards the door. “I should probably be getting back. Fluttershy must be an absolute wreck by now. I hope she’s still there.”

“Give her some of these; it’ll make her feel better!” Pinkie Pie quickly shoved a box of baked goods into Twilight’s hooves. “Oh, and I know she seems adamant about only you reading the book, but if you can get her to change her mind that would be awesome; I wanna know how it ends! Ooh, and then she could write one starring me next. That would be fun!”

Twilight levitated the pastries behind her as she left Sugarcube Corner, stopping to wave one last time before the doors closed. Pinkie Pie continued waving until Twilight was completely out of sight, then turned to get back to her neglected work, smiling.

She stopped halfway there, a frown crossing her face as a thought occurred to her. “Unless Fluttershy’s story is actually a tragedy. Yeesh. That would be rough!”

Twilight opened the door to the library to find Fluttershy hovering in place with a feather duster in her mouth, dusting off some of the higher bookshelves. The room in general seemed a little bit cleaner than she had left it.

“Oh. Um, hey Twilight,” Fluttershy said as she landed and placed the duster on a nearby table. “I just figured I’d help clean up a bit while I was waiting for you to get back.”

Fluttershy looked up at Twilight with an expectant, hopeful expression, her eyes still somewhat puffy from crying earlier.

Smiling, Twilight handed her the box of pastries. “Here, have some of these. Pinkie made them special.” Taking a bite of a cupcake herself and swallowing, Twilight continued, “And I’m sorry for yelling at you like that, Fluttershy. I let my anger get the better of me. I’ll keep reading.”

“Yaay!” Fluttershy threw her forehooves around Twilight, her wings carrying her up and down excitedly. “Oh thank you, Twilight! I was so worried you were going to say no.”

Twilight gently extracted herself from the pegasus’ grip, helping Fluttershy back to the ground. “I can’t promise I’ll… enjoy reading about stuff like that happening to my friends, but I should be able to handle it.”

Fluttershy nodded, sinking backwards slightly. “I understand, Twilight. And, um, I’m sorry I didn’t properly warn you about what was coming.”

Frowning, Twilight turned to the book resting on the table, her throat tightening slightly at the thought. “Is there… more stuff like this? Later on?”

Fluttershy’s face fell, and she was silent for a long while before finally answering, “Yes,” in a tiny voice.

Twilight closed her eyes, sighing. She could handle this. Happy ending. “Well, Fluttershy, I’m trusting you. You said this was important after all.”

Fluttershy nodded emphatically and Twilight made her way to get comfortable again.

“Did you, um, talk to Pinkie about this?” Fluttershy asked once the two had settled down.

“I did,” Twilight said, nodding. “Don’t worry though; I made her promise to keep it a secret.”

Picking up the book again, Twilight took a deep breath, turning to the page she had left it at.
Those horrible words were still there, staring her right in the face. She almost thought about skipping ahead, but a scene like this in a mystery was probably one of the most important, and contained all sorts of valuable clues.

She could handle this.

Chapter 5 - Challenge

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Twilight wasn’t quite sure how long she stayed there, curled up into a ball. Her perception of time was dimmed, and she shuddered while trying to deny this horror as hard as she could. She wanted nothing more than to wake up from this nightmare.

A strong grip wrapped around her midsection and Twilight felt herself being lifted up into the air. With a start, she opened her eyes to find Rainbow Dash carrying her. She yelped and began to flail in her grasp, however, when her gaze fell upon the red mess in the shed once more.

A stray hoof caught Rainbow Dash in the jaw and she dropped Twilight with a grunt. Slightly dazed and sprawled on the ground, the sounds of the world came rushing back to Twilight. Rarity was wailing fiercely from somewhere behind her.

Twilight’s eyes were still locked to the horror inside until her view was suddenly blocked by a cyan flank. Rainbow Dash’s wavering voice spoke from above her. “Just… don’t look, Twi. I’m sorry….”

For some reason, Twilight found herself craning her neck to try and look at the scene she desperately did not want to see, and Rainbow kept shifting her body to block her vision. I have to get to her…

Twilight’s mind suddenly exploded with thoughts, unbidden and dark. I can save them somehow. I can time travel, stop this whole thing from happening in the first place. Or just put them back together. There are ancient rites, rumored forbidden magics that can bring back a pony from death. Maybe I can track down that sun-blighted, so called ‘dragon mare’ and force her to wish them back to life. I don’t care who gets harmed in the process.

Twilight found herself laughing, tears running down her face as she pounded her hoof into Rainbow Dash weakly. Useless. It’s all useless.

“Rar, I… I just…” Applejack was doing her best to comfort her sobbing fiancé, but it was clear she was barely keeping it together herself.

Twilight took a deep breath and tried to stand up, her legs wobbling unsteadily beneath her. She had to pull herself together. She was supposed to be the leader, the one who her friends could count on in a crisis. The friends I still have left, anyway.

She was supposed to do… something. But what? Her mind was sluggish, and couldn’t focus on any one particular idea enough to fully articulate it. She should… check for evidence. Yes, that’s a thing that ponies do in situations like this.

Rainbow tried to block her again as she trotted back towards the shed, but Twilight brushed her aside, calmly approaching the bodies once more. Even as the back of her mind screamed at her to just turn and run away while the contents her gut fought to escape from her stomach, she felt herself move forward dispassionately.

Kneeling down at Pinkie’s side, she examined the corpse again, this time with scientific rigor. No pulse… obviously. Judging by the temperature and state of the corpse, estimated time of death is between six and eight hours ago. She appears to have been killed via a cutting implement to the jugular, and died of blood loss. There are no signs of a struggle, and the expression on her face suggests she may have been sleeping peacefully. The amount of blood in the shed suggests she was killed here. Perhaps she was drugged before being brought here, but I can’t tell with the tools I have available.

Standing back up, Twilight wiped the sweat off of her brow. One down, one to go. She started towards the back of the shed, but stopped, unable to force herself to look at anything but the ground. Suddenly she found herself unusually interested in almost anything else, like the patterns on the tile floor or the broken pieces of chain lock from when she had broken the door open.

Taking a deep breath and swallowing nervously, she forced herself to look into the back of the shed again. Fluttershy…

She had to examine her properly. There was bound to be some crucial evidence or something like that, right? Nevermind that there wasn’t anything that could even truly be considered a recognizable body part. Nevermind that something had done this to the kindest, sweetest, most innocent pony she had ever known.

A memory of words last spoken slipped into her mind.

Goodnight Twilight. Sleep well.

Twilight turned around and walked away, firing up her horn and dropping a small, opaque shield to cover up the shed.

“Huh? Twi, what’re you…” Applejack trailed off.

“We should… go inside. Standing out here any longer won’t do us any good,” Twilight said as tears ran down her face.

“B-but… you… we can’t just leave them there,” Rarity said, looking at Twilight horrified. “We have to… do something with…”

Rarity let out a choking sob, and Applejack held on to her tighter. Twilight shook her head, closing her eyes. “This is a crime scene. We have to preserve it so that when professionals get here everything will be intact.”

“What professionals?” Rainbow Dash asked. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s just us here, and nopony is getting through that storm any time soon.”

“Aren’t… aren’t you a professional, Twi? Surely you can figure somethin’ out, or use your magic to…” Applejack trailed off, looking away.

Twilight bit her lip and shook her head as a tear ran down her cheek. “I’m sorry.”

The silence following her apology spoke enough for everyone, and the four headed back inside.

Twilight paced around and around the table in the lounge, wearing grooves into the hardwood floor. Rarity and Applejack were huddled together on a nearby duvet, Rarity still sobbing softly, while Rainbow Dash stared blankly out the window.

The grief and emptiness in Twilight’s heart was slowly starting to harden into a simmering anger. Two of her best friends were dead, on what was supposed to be a happy reunion for all of them. But they weren’t just dead. They were murdered. Somepony deliberately killed them in a brutally horrific fashion.

Such a vile act was the antithesis to everything she, her friends, and Equestria as a whole stood for, and yet there existed some monster out there capable of committing such violence.

Twilight stopped in her tracks and looked around as the gears in her head slowly began to turn once more. There wasn’t some monster ‘out there’…

“Still here,” Twilight mumbled, breaking the spell of silence in the room.

“Uh, what was that sugarcube?” Applejack asked, her voice still raw.

“Whatever… monster did this… killed them,” Twilight said, choking on the words slightly as her voice wavered. “They’re still here.”

Rarity’s eyes darted around the room, glancing at the various entrances and windows fearfully. “Are… are you sure, Twilight?”

Nodding, Twilight began pacing around the center of the table again. “My shield. I put that up last night, and it’s still going. Nopony can get in or out. Not without breaking it anyway.”

“So what yer saying is that they…” Applejack looked around the room herself, swallowing as her eyes widened.

“That whoever did this was hiding somewhere here in the mansion. At the absolute latest right before I put up the shield, but probably for longer than that,” Twilight said, increasing her pace as she began to pick up steam.

“Could a unicorn not simply teleport in and out?” Rarity asked.

Twilight shook her head. “The shield blocks teleportation as well. I mean, a strong enough unicorn could do it, but it would still break the shield.”

“Uh, just a note, Fluttershy. Shield spells don’t actually work like that. Unicorns can teleport in and out without difficulty, and they don’t necessarily shatter completely when penetrated,” Twilight said, breaking away from the novel as she slipped into lecture mode.

“Oh. Um, well. I tried to do as much research as I could on magic, but I really don’t know a lot. It’s um, though... For the sake of the story, is it okay if we just assume that this particular spell works like this?” Fluttershy asked, blushing sheepishly.

Twilight bit her lip and frowned. Even on top of everything else, inaccuracies like this would bug her continuously, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched. Still, she could kind of already see the scenario Fluttershy was trying to create with this restriction. Even if it was rather arbitrary.

“I guess that’s fine… as long as it stays internally consistent, anyway,” Twilight said, letting out a small sigh.

“So while there should have only been eight ponies in this mansion yesterday, there were really nine,” Twilight said. “Me, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Celestia, Luna, and…” Twilight let out a breath, closing her eyes. “Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy. Followed by Culprit X.”

“Did any of you see anything last night that might indicate something like that? Anything at all?” Twilight asked, looking to each of her friends individually as they glanced at each other apprehensively.

“Uh, sorry, Twilight. Can’t say I noticed anypony skulking about, or anything off sorts,” Applejack said as she hung her head.

“I mean…” Rarity said, trailing off for a moment before snapping back to attention. “There is that creepy legend. And that grisly epigraph… there’s no way they aren’t related.”

“Yes, I’ve considered that already,” Twilight said, waving a hoof dismissively. “Maybe the culprit is a crazy wish granting alicorn-dragon ghost from an old legend. Or maybe the culprit just wants us to think that. I don’t really care what they are. I’m going to find out who did this, and make them pay,” Twilight growled, a somewhat manic glint in her eye.

“Hang on now, sugarcube. I wanna find who’s responsible for this just as much as you do, but don’t go flyin’ off the handle just yet,” Applejack said as she looked up to meet Twilight’s eyes.

Twilight hung her head, shuddering as another wave of revulsion at what had happened passed through her. “I’m sorry, Applejack. But I have to do something, or I really will lose it.”

Applejack nodded solemnly and Twilight resumed her pacing. “So the question comes down to who did it, how they did it, and why,” Twilight said.

“Why does any of that even matter?” Rarity asked sharply as she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “You already established that the culprit is trapped in here with us. We just need to search the mansion, find them, and deal with them.”

“It might not be that simple,” Twilight said. “Whoever this pony is, they’re dangerous. So we can’t split up and search alone. But even if we move as a group, carefully searching each room from top to bottom, the culprit might be able to stay one step ahead of us the entire time. Or they could be hiding in some secret room we wouldn’t be able to find on our own.”

“So are we just supposed to, what, wait here in this room until help arrives?” Rarity asked, her tone acidic.

“Careful now Rar. You’re hurtin’. We all are, but we can’t afford to be getting snippy with each other in a time like this.”

Rarity bit her lip and lowered her eyes for a few moments before leaning back into Applejack. “I love you, you know that right?”

Applejack closed her eyes and nuzzled her fiancé before turning her attention back to Twilight.

“To defeat thy enemy thou must know thy enemy,” Twilight said, her obscure quote eliciting only blank faces.

After a long pause Twilight planted her face in her hoof, sighing. “It’s a quote from the legendary tactician… you know what, nevermind. Have any of you ever played chess?”

After a few more moments of awkward silence Rarity offered up a weak “I… know the rules?”

Twilight let out a long groan. “Well, it’s like this. Lots of strategy, positioning, moves to memorize, yada yada. But one of the most important goals in chess is to put yourself in your opponent’s position, to think like them, and see things from their angle so you can predict their moves and ultimately win. Of course, a good opponent will be doing the same with you.”

“So what do we know about the culprit then?” Applejack asked.

Twilight raised a hoof to launch into a longer explanation but froze. What did she know?

Everything about this was strange, and there was so much all going on at once. She needed to pick something to focus on as a starting point.

Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, Twilight glanced around, suddenly remembering when she had woken up this morning. Why the marks on their doors? I was found in a locked room with my cutie mark painted on the door, alive and well. Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were in the shed, marked by their cutie marks and… dead. But why call attention to that? If you want to murder somepony and get away with it, isn’t it better to hide the body and hope it’s not found? Without those marks, we probably never would’ve thought to look in the shed.

“Uh, hey, Twi?” Rainbow Dash interrupted, speaking up for the first time since they’d all come inside. “I think we might be forgetting to do something here.”

“Rainbow, I’m trying to think here, give me a minute,” Twilight said, frowning in concentration.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “You said it yourself earlier. Eight ponies here that we know of…”

Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash blankly for an uncomfortably long moment, as the large clock in the room continued its ticking.

“Oh!” Twilight cried out, immediately crouching and firing up her horn. “Princess Celestia!”

With a pop, Twilight disappeared from the parlor and into a hallway on the second floor, crashing into a table with a potted plant on it. She didn’t know this mansion well enough for precision.

Groaning and extracting herself from the mess, she quickly galloped to the end of the hallway, where a large ornate door emblazoned with a sun and moon waited.

“Princess Celestia! Princess Luna! It’s me, Twilight! This is an emergency!” Twilight banged on the door repeatedly, trying the handle and finding it locked.

She continued knocking, but after a minute with no answer whatsoever, the icy grip of fear began to take ahold of her heart once more.

“Come on, Princess Celestia, please answer. We need you!”

Backing away from the door with a grimace, Twilight lowered her horn, prepared to use brute force. “I’m sorry, Princess, but I’m coming in!”

With a hum and a zap, Twilight fired a bolt of energy at the door, only to yelp and dive for cover when the bolt reflected, bouncing around the hallway before vaporizing an ornate vase.

“Okay…” Twilight groaned, standing back up. “Maybe this then.”

Teleporting to into an area you’ve never seen before was risky, but if it was just on the other side of the door it should be okay. Focusing her magic yet again, Twilight made the precise calculations and disappeared with a pop.

A strange vibration ran through her body and Twilight found herself thrown backwards, tumbling away from the door and bouncing down the hallway.

“Ow. I guess they have the whole thing shielded,” Twilight muttered with a pained groan.

She unsteadily stood back up, wincing slightly as she did so. Nothing seemed to be broken, but she had certainly bruised something in the fall.

Before she could try something even more dangerous, she heard the sound of galloping hooves echoing down the hallway. She wheeled in a alarm for a moment, but relaxed as Rainbow Dash came skidding around the corner.

“Applejack, she’s over here!” Rainbow Dash called out as she sped over towards Twilight.

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight called out excitedly. “Good, you’re here. Look, the princesses aren’t answering, and I can’t break down the door. It’s too strongly warded.”

Applejack and Rarity came galloping over a few seconds later, both of them panting slightly.

Taking a deep breath, Rarity smiled sweetly at Twilight. “Twilight, darling. I know you’re under a lot of pressure here, but in the future, if you’re going to be teleporting off on your own –“

“And don’t, because that’s a darn stupid thing to be doing at a time like this,” Applejack growled, cutting Rarity off.

“Please at least warn us before doing so. You nearly gave me a heart attack vanishing like that!” Rarity finished, looking disapprovingly at Twilight.

Twilight grimaced. Was this really the time for this? “Look, I’m sorry, maybe I got a little ahead of myself there, but every second might count. The princesses aren’t answering the door. Rainbow, Applejack, do you think you could buck the door down together?”

Applejack approached the door, looking it up and down. “I dunno. Looks pretty dang sturdy to me. Especially if it’s reinforced by magic as well.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Or we could just –“

“True, I can’t break it down with my magic either. In that case, Rainbow Dash, come with me. We can fly outside and try to break through the windows. They might be less enchanted than the door,” Twilight said, already moving to open one of the hallway windows.

Rainbow Dash planted her face in a hoof and growled under her breath. “I’m trying to tell you that –“

“If that doesn’t work, maybe we could try to blast through from the room below? You’d be surprised at where you can find structural weak points sometimes,” Rarity suggested helpfully.

“I have the keys right here!” Rainbow Dash shouted, her face red as she pulled out a ring with several iron keys attached to it.

“Oh. Sorry,” Twilight said sheepishly. She levitated the keyring from Rainbow’s grasp and started trying to unlock the door. “Which one of these is it? And where exactly did you get these anyway?”

“Should be one of them,” Rainbow Dash said, shrugging. “And there’s a servant’s room near the kitchen which has the keys to everything.”

After a trying a few of the keys, Twilight finally found one that clicked, and she pushed the heavy door open with more than a little effort.

“Princess Celestia? Princess Luna?” Twilight called out as she entered the large study, her voice fearful. Despite the nervous atmosphere, the study itself was warm and inviting. Flickering shadows danced across the walls as the roaring fireplace left everything nice and toasty.

Rather than a single room, it was more like a small apartment, with adjoining doors leading to private bathrooms, a bedroom and a dining area.

The four ponies entered the study cautiously, looking around. The doors to the adjoining rooms were open, and none of them saw any sign of the princesses.

“They’re not here…” Twilight said, her heart sinking to her hooves.

“They must have been recently,” Rarity said, inspecting the couches around the fireplace. “This place looks lived in.”

“Princess? If y’all are hidin’ in here, we’d really appreciate it if the jokes stopped. Ponies’re dead, and we need your help,” Applejack said, peeking underneath the bed in the nearby room.

“But why wouldn’t they be here?” Twilight asked, her voice weak. “Where would they even go? At a time like this… not them. They have to be okay…”

There was suddenly a loud bang and a clicking sound as the door to the study slammed shut behind Rainbow Dash, who had moved inside instead of holding it open. “Huh,” Rainbow said, looking back. “Guess the door auto locks.”

“Let me know if you girls find anything, okay? Maybe a note or some evidence as to where they might have gone?” Twilight asked as she began rifling through a nearby bookshelf.

“Well, there is ‘something’ here,” Rarity called out from the dining hall.

Twilight pushed ahead of the others to go see exactly what Rarity was talking about.

“There’s really no accounting for taste, is there?” Rarity said as she scrunched her face up.

Adorning the far wall of the lounge was the same portrait that was in the entry hall, of the purple maned alicorn with draconic features. The portrait of the dragon-mare (draconequus? It might be a more technical term, but she certainly didn’t remind her of Discord) was identical in every respect, including the inclusion of the plaque with the grisly epigraph at the bottom.

Twilight frowned, looking the painting up and down. “I can see it being in the entrance hall, but why here of all places?”

When nopony answered her rhetorical question, Twilight turned to address Rainbow Dash, who was hanging back in the study area. “Rainbow, you have to know more about this, don’t you? ‘Golden Wish’ or whatever her name is. You and…” Twilight hesitated, still unable to think of her friend without a fresh pang of agony. “Fluttershy were the ones who told that story after all.”

Rainbow Dash froze in the face of the sudden attention, casting her eyes downward and pawing at the ground. “I really don’t know all that much. Sorry, Twi. It was mostly all Shy’s thing, y’know? Maybe take a closer look at that riddle?”

Twilight blinked in confusion. “But Rainbow, you were all over that story last night. Surely you know something that might be helpful?”

Rainbow Dash bit her lip and looked away. “Look I… don’t really want to think about that right now. I’m sorry.”

Twilight watched as Rainbow Dash moved over to sit on some of the cushions by the fireplace. I guess Rainbow is taking this harder than I thought… she definitely seems out of it.

Shaking her head, Twilight approached the portrait, examining the epigraph beneath.

“From a wish sprouts a seed of power

To grant your heart's deepest desire

Bless this seed with your greatest love

But this love must be born in blood

In death lies truth – the heart laid bare

No sacrifice too great

Abandon self

Rend asunder, and begin anew.”

“Do you really think it’s related to all this?” Rarity asked, peering over Twilight’s shoulder. “Is it some kind of high level magic?”

“Love born in blood… no sacrifice too great… rend asunder…” Twilight muttered, thinking out loud. “It sounds like it could be a ritual, or well, a sacrifice. Perhaps it alludes to sacrificing something or someone in order to gain what you want?”

“Like the legend then, where there weren’t no wishes unless you were willin’ t’hurt somepony else in the process,” Applejack said.

“So you’re saying some sick pony planned to kill our friends and probably us, just for what? To get a wish?” Rarity asked, practically spitting her words out, her hooves shaking.

Twilight sighed, lowering her head. “It’s possible, but all we have is vague speculation at this point. It’s so hard to see how this is all supposed to fit together. And just where are the princesses?”

“I… I just,” Rarity said, still shaking.

Applejack moved over and put a hoof on her shoulder. “Come on, hon, let’s go sit down for a bit.”

Rarity nodded, sniffling slightly, and moved with Applejack back to the main room, Twilight following after them.

As Twilight walked over towards where Rainbow Dash was lying down, a glint of gold caught her attention from the corner of her eye. When she turned to see what it was, she was surprised to see a letter with gold trim lying on the center of an end table.

“Was… this here before?” Twilight asked, confusion in her voice.

“Was what here before?” Rainbow Dash asked, looking up.

“This letter. Hey, did any of you see this letter sitting here when we came in earlier?” Twilight was sure the table had been empty.

“Can’t say I saw anything like that, and a letter that fancy certainly stands out,” Applejack said as she came through the doorway.

Rarity shook her head. “What does it say?”

Twilight carefully opened the letter and pulled out a sheath of nice stationary covered in neat, nearly perfect calligraphy. Swallowing nervously, she began to read.

“Dear Princess Twilight Sparkle,

Welcome to my mansion. How are you enjoying your stay so far? Have the accommodations been to your liking?

By now it has likely come to pass that some of your friends are dead. Terribly unfortunate, that. You have my condolences.

I can empathize, really. I have problems of my own. You see, I’m stuck here in this mansion, unable to leave and experience the joys of life beyond these walls. But there is a way, and for that I need you, Twilight Sparkle.

Because I am ever the benevolent pony, I have three options for you.

1: Surrender yourself wholly to me, mind body and soul, and we shall walk away from here together. Nopony else has to get hurt.

2: I finish what I’ve started, and use the power of the ritual to take what I want anyway.

3: You, Twilight Sparkle manage to stop me by finding out the truth. Hey, there’s gotta be a chance for me to lose, right?

I am eager to see the results of your decision. Of course, if you dally around too long, I’ll make the choice for you.

Best wishes and all my love,

-Golden Wish”

Chapter 6 - Missing

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Twilight stared down at the letter, her hooves shaking as her blood boiled in her veins.

This was real. Somepony had actually written this. They had taken a pen to this piece of paper, and written these words on it. Words that bragged about the murders of her closest friends. Words that taunted her. Words that expected her to play along in some kind of sick, twisted game.

She suddenly had a very strong desire to set something on fire.

Taking a deep breath, Twilight closed her eyes and slowly began counting backwards from ten as she clenched her teeth as hard as she could. In a way, this made things easier. Now she had a clear antagonist against whom she could focus her efforts. All she had to do was find this so called ‘Golden Wish’, stop her, and avenge Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie.

“Is that for real?” Rarity asked, her voice faint.

“As real as anything else in this mansion,” Twilight growled, handing the letter over so the others could take a look at it.

Twilight began pacing back and forth, her heart fluttering with… excitement? She had a target. Now she just needed a plan.

“And you found this letter right here on this table?” Applejack asked, gesturing towards the furniture in question.

Twilight stopped, frowning. How had the letter gotten there? “Rainbow Dash… I know for a fact that this letter wasn’t here when we came in. Did you see anything at all? Maybe a flash as it was teleported in?” No, this room is shielded, remember? “Or did you see some movement out of the corner of your eye?”

Rainbow Dash shook her head. “Sorry, Twi. I didn’t notice anything until you pointed it out.”

A thought occurred to her and with a flap of her wings, Twilight flew up to the top of the room, inspecting the ceiling in the area above the table. To her dismay, she didn’t find anything out of the ordinary.

“Uh, Twi? Mind telling us what’s up?” Applejack asked as Twilight returned to the ground, looking ornery.

“That letter can’t exist,” Twilight snapped, jabbing a hoof at the offending paper.

“I’m pretty sure it does,” Applejack said, raising an eyebrow.

“But it can’t! There’s no way it could’ve gotten in here! This room is practically a fortress. Even if she was strong enough to force her way in, there’s no way she could’ve done it stealthily. Even if she had a key of her own, and, I dunno, turned invisible or something, we would’ve heard the door open and the loud click of the lock, and Rainbow surely would’ve noticed something. And there’s no crazy trick involved here either, no timed hidden compartment in the ceiling for a letter to mysteriously fall from,” Twilight said, taking a deep breath after her rant.

“Is it really that important, Twilight?” Rarity asked. “If this fiend is who she claims she is, than can’t she just wish the letter up here?”

Twilight snorted in response. “A power like that only belongs in old pony tales. There’s no way something so unrestricted and freely able to ignore the rules of magic could exist in real life. And if she did have this kind of power, why are any of us still alive at all? Why not finish us and be done with it? Nope. This letter being here is impossible.”

A heavy silence fell over the room as nopony really wanted to object to Twilight’s assertion, despite how ridiculous her conclusion was.

After a minute Rarity finally cleared her throat and spoke up. “So, Twilight? What are you going to do about this letter? She seems to be directly challenging you, after all.”

“I’m going to…” Twilight paused, considering. “Do nothing.”

“Nothing?!” all three ponies answered at once, looking to each other in confusion.

“Nothing,” Twilight repeated, feeling more confident. “At least, nothing that she suggests. I’m not going to play into the hooves of some sick murderer. We should be safe as long as we stick together. I don’t care how powerful she thinks she is – I won’t let her hurt any more of my friends. We’re going to find Princess Celestia and Luna, and together we’re going to stop her.”

Applejack came over and clopped Twilight on the shoulder, nodding. “Sounds like as good of a plan as any.”

“Will we really be safe out there?” Rarity asked, fidgeting slightly.

“Shoot, hon. If anypony tries to mess with us, we’ve got Twi’s magic, and then Rainbow and I will buck them into next week,” Applejack said, puffing her chest up.

“Right then. Rainbow Dash, you probably know this mansion better than the rest of us. Will you be able to make sure we search every room?” Twilight asked.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. I guess,” Rainbow Dash said, her voice distant.

After a few minutes of gathering themselves, the group of four exited the study. Before they began the search however, Twilight had a few more things she wanted to confirm.

“Rainbow, is that the only key to this door?”

“I think so? Well, no, I’m sure the princesses have their own set. But other than that, probably. I could be wrong though,” Rainbow Dash said with a shrug.

Nodding, Twilight turned to face the ornate door which had locked behind them. She fired up her horn, allowing her magic to flow gently against the door. She felt for the various spell matrices that protected it. They were too complex and powerful to destroy or alter on her own, but she could add a spell on top of them.

After a few more moments of focus, the spell was complete. Twilight wiped the sweat from her brow and stood back, admiring her handiwork. “There. I’ve set a simple alarm spell on the room so that if anypony enters it while I’m gone, I’ll know immediately.”

Travelling a short distance and opening the door to the nearest guest room, Twilight called out, her voice echoing down the halls. “Princess Celestia? Princess Luna? Are you in here?”

This particular room wasn’t occupied, so the four searched through it quickly, checking wardrobes, underneath beds and in bathrooms, but finding nothing out of the ordinary.

The trepidation and determination they felt at searching a mansion while an admitted murderer lurked somewhere just out of sight slowly gave way into boredom. Each room they searched turned up nothing out of the ordinary. No sign of the princesses and no clues to the location of their enemy.

After two hours, Twilight finally closed the door to the library, giving an exasperated sigh. “Well, that’s every room. This mansion is just so big; I can’t shake the nagging feeling that there are all these hidden doors everywhere we’re just missing.”

“I dunno,” Applejack said. “I think if there were secret doors like that all over the place, we probably would’ve stumbled across at least one of ‘em by now.”

“In any case, we should probably be getting back to the study. Just because we haven’t found anything so far doesn’t mean we should let our guard down,” Twilight said.

There was a loud gurgling sound, and Twilight turned to see Rainbow Dash blushing slightly as she patted her stomach. “Actually Twi, can we swing by the kitchens first? None of us really ate breakfast this morning.”

“I’m not so sure about…” Twilight paused, realizing for the first time that she was pretty hungry herself. The events of the morning had certainly killed her appetite for a time, but whatever was to come, they shouldn’t be doing it on an empty stomach. “Actually yeah, that’s a good idea.”

“Are you sure that the food will be safe?” Rarity asked.

“Poisoning the food at this point seems like it might be a bit out of character, but better safe than sorry. I know a few spells that can detect both natural poisons and magical curses, so between those we should be safe,” Twilight said as they made their way down the hall.

The four of them quickly got to work at preparing a meal. Twilight inspected the food to make sure it was safe while the rest worked on preparation and cooking.

Eventually, Twilight found herself next to Rarity while they worked the stove, watching the pots boil in silence. She felt a fresh stab of agony as she remembered helping Fluttershy make last night’s dinner. It already seemed like a lifetime ago.

Eager to still the fears in heart by talking about something normal, Twilight spoke up. “So um, when we went through and searched your room earlier, I noticed some of the dresses you were working on. I didn’t know you brought them here, but they were really nice.”

“Oh, those…” Rarity said, a distant look in her eyes. “Thank you Twilight. I…”

Rarity choked sniffling as tears began to run down her cheeks.

Twilight winced at the sudden change in mood, and scrambled to offer a comforting hoof. “Rarity! Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s quite alright Twilight,” Rarity said with a pained laugh, wiping at her eyes. “I just… I hadn’t even started it yet, but I had such a wonderful dress in mind for Fluttershy to wear as a bridesmaid. She’s always had such a divine grace to her, don’t you think? And this really would’ve accented it perfectly… And I’m sure Pinkie Pie would have thrown us one of her best parties yet. But now… we’ll never get to see that, will we?”

Twilight tried to fight back the tears welling up in her own eyes. “Rarity...”

Rarity closed her eyes, weeping softly. “What are we supposed to do, Twilight? Even if we make it out of here, stop this villain and bring her to justice, how are we supposed to move on? They’re… dead. There’s going to be a giant hole in our lives that will never go away.”

Twilight found herself staring at her hooves. “I can’t shake the feeling that this is all just a terrible nightmare. That once this is over, I’ll wake up and everything will be back to normal, and we’ll see each others smiling faces again. I know that’s not true, and it never can be anymore. But my heart isn’t willing to let go of that delusion.”

Taking a deep breath, Twilight looked up, staring into Rarity’s eyes with determination. “But we are going to get through this. I’m going to stop her. And afterwards… it will be hard. Harder than anything we’ve ever had to do, but we’ll all be there for each other. Consider it a Pinkie Promise.”

Rarity smiled, laughing slightly as she wiped away her tears. “Oh Twilight. You really are amazing, you know that?”

Twilight reached over and pulled her friend into a close hug. She honestly had no idea what she was doing, and could barely even keep herself together. But she had to keep trying, for the sake of her friends as well as herself.

“Right then,” Rarity said. “I think those fritters are about done, can you get them out of the oven for me?”

The group ate their meal in relative silence. The food was good, but for all of them the recent tragedy had dulled the joys of a tasty meal.

When everyone was done, Twilight began levitating the plates from the table, ready to start cleaning up. As she moved towards the sink, she paused, noticing something odd. “Does… anyone else smell that?”

The others started sniffing at her prompt, looking around in confusion.

“There does seem to be a certain… unpleasant odor in the air,” Rarity said, wrinkling her nose. “It smells kind of like… something burning?”

“Ah hay,” Applejack cursed, jumping up from her seat. “You don’t think there’s a fire, do you?”

“Blech,” Rainbow Dash said, covering her nose with a hoof. “It smells like burning garbage.”

Twilight hesitantly poked her head out into the hallway, looking back and forth. There wasn’t an immediate conflagration or inferno waiting to greet her, so that was a plus, but the smell only seemed to get stronger.

“I think it’s coming from out here, you guys,” Twilight said in between coughs, her voice adopting a nasally tone as she tried to block the smell.

Motioning for the others to gather close around her, she cast a quick spell to create a bubble of clean air around them, and they set off down the hall.

Twilight had a faint inkling as to where the smell might be coming from. As she made her way there, her intuition was rewarded; faint strands of black smoke began to drift past her shield, becoming more noticeable as they got closer to the source.

“This is the door to the basement, right? Is the boiler broken or something?” Rarity asked, straining to see through the clouds of black smoke wafting up from the stairwell.

Twilight lit her horn, focusing it into a strong beam of light to at least pierce the cloud somewhat. “We were just down there earlier when searching the place, but I didn’t see anything weird.”

Worried about the structural integrity of the staircase, Twilight instead spread her wings, floating down into the basement below.

There was neither a wave of immense heat nor roar of flames, and once she got a clear view through the smoke it was as Rarity had guessed. The large boiler unit in the back was spewing clouds of smoke, a soft light emanating from within.

“It’s safe,” she called up the stairs, and the others quickly trotted down.

“I remember there being a back door to the garden in here,” Applejack said as she moved through the room. “I’ll go open that up, and Rainbow can give us a little wing power to blow the smoke outside instead.”

As the two set to clear out the room, Twilight moved to inspect the boiler itself. Would a machine like this just start randomly malfunctioning? Now of all times? Or was this more foul play?

Swallowing, Twilight gripped the handle with her telekinesis and pulled the boiler open, releasing a fresh wave of obscuring smoke.

As Rainbow’s wind power kicked into full gear, the contents of the boiler were revealed.


The inside of the boiler was littered with charred bones, ash, and scraps of what was most certainly once organic material.

No, this can’t be…

Twilight stood there with her mouth open, feeling numb. Was this really happening again? Even after everything she had promised herself and her friends, was some other pony dead? Was it…


Twilight blinked, taking a closer look at the scattering of bones inside. They were of all different shapes and sizes, ribs, femurs, flanges and hip bones. None of them really matched.

These are just animal bones.

Twilight felt a surge of relief wash through her body at her observation, followed by a pang of guilt at feeling relieved. These animals surely didn’t deserve their fate either.

“What’s in there, Twilight? I can’t see from here,” Rarity asked, trying to wave the smoke out of her face.

“Burned animal carcasses,” Twilight answered. “Mostly bones at this point.”

“You serious?” Applejack asked as she came back from the door. “Who the hay would stuff a bunch of poor critters into a boiler like that? That’s just sick.”

“I think we know who,” Rarity spat.

“I’m fairly certain that the animals were dead before they were incinerated. Whether our culprit killed them herself or not is up for question as well. But judging by this rather macabre display, and the fact that we didn’t notice anything when we first came through here… she wanted us to find this,” Twilight said.

Applejack growled, her eyes darting around the room. “This is gettin’ mighty ridiculous. First that darn letter tauntin’ you, and now a buncha dead animals. And fer what? She tryin’ to scare us or something?”

Taking a deep breath, Applejack called out loudly, “Why don’t you get yer golden behind out here and show yerself so we can all settle this mare to mare!”

Her words hung in the air, echoing faintly in the enclosed basement, and as expected, had no response. Rarity simply moved over and nuzzled her fiancé, her proximity causing Applejack to blush slightly and simmer down.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Twilight said, frowning. “She’s trying to play some sick game with me, but I don’t even know the rules, or what she’s after. Even when I-“

Twilight froze, her breath catching in her throat as she caught sight of a strange bone out of the corner of her eye. That couldn’t be... could it?

Gingerly, she reached out with her telekinesis and lifted the long, cylindrical, pointed object out of the ashes. Even though it was slightly melted, the ribs along its length and its dark color spoke volumes about where it came from.

It was a unicorn’s horn.

In a panic, Twilight began sifting through the rest of bones, looking for another horn of similar size. Her frantic telekinetic grabs kicked up dust and ash, which skimmed across her shield and around the room, prompting coughing fits from the ponies too far away to be protected by her shield.

“There’s only one…” Twilight said, letting out a sigh of relief as she finished searching through the bones, even as tears began to well up in her eyes again.

“Just what is it you found in there that’s got you kicking up all this dust, Twilight?” Applejack asked in between sneezes.

Wordlessly, Twilight turned around and levitated the horn up so everypony could see.

“Is that…” Applejack said, her mouth falling open in shock.”

“Princess Luna?” Rarity finished with a small voice.

“It certainly seems that way,” Twilight said, letting her head sink. Compared to the sheer terror and sorrow she had felt when discovering Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, this new discovery bruised a dull aching into her heart. She really had failed.

“They… she could still be alive… right?” Rarity asked, her eyes pleading for a tiny hope.

“It’s possible, I suppose,” Twilight said, shuddering involuntarily at the thought of her horn being chopped off. “And I checked. It’s just the horn; none of the other bones in there belong to ponies. And there was only the one horn.”

It was slim, but without knowing the true fate of both sisters, it was possible anything could still happen. As long as that tiny sliver of chance still existed, Twilight could hold out for a miracle.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Applejack asked, her voice wavering.

“First… we should clean this mess up. I don’t know what exactly happened to these animals, but the least we could do is give them a proper burial,” Twilight said.

The four of them quickly got to work, Twilight and Rarity used their magic to clean out the boiler while Rainbow Dash and Applejack dug some quick holes outside. While normal winter conditions would make the ground nearly impenetrable, the natural hot springs in the garden left the soil soft and pliable.

Thirty minutes later, the group stood around the hole as Twilight slowly began to levitate the dirt back into it.

“Should… somepony say something?” Rainbow Dash asked.

After a few moments where no one spoke up, Twilight nodded and stepped forward herself.
“I can’t say I knew these animals… but I’m willing to bet that Fluttershy did. For whatever reason, she loved it here in this mansion. She loved this garden, and I’m sure that these animals were a big part of that. I’m sure that Fluttershy showed them the love and kindness they never would have normally received in an isolated place like this, and I’m sure they were happy.”

The four hung their heads in silence as Twilight filled the last of the hole, marking the spot with a small cairn of stones.

“I… don’t mean to sound insensitive or anything, but does it seem off to anypony that we’re burying these animals when we haven’t even buried our friends yet?” Rarity asked, her eyes watering.

Twilight shook her head. “It’s fine, Rarity. Even beyond the need to keep the crime scene intact… I don’t want Pinkie Pie or Fluttershy to stay here. They deserve to be laid to rest in Ponyville.”

The shed was visible from where they all stood, still covered in the shield Twilight had put over it earlier. They were all doing their best to ignore it.

“We should… probably head back to the study for now,” Twilight said, her voice low.

She levitated Luna’s horn along with her. She couldn’t bring herself to bury it. There was the chance that Luna was still alive, and if so, she might want it back.

She had to hold on to that hope.

Twilight let out a sigh, sniffling slightly. This was certainly heavy stuff. It hadn’t taken her by surprise this time, but it still weighed deeply on her heart, fictional narrative or no.

When Twilight looked up from the book to glance at Fluttershy, the pegasus winced, ducking as if she expected another outburst.

Twilight found herself laughing slightly at her friend’s reaction. “It’s okay, Fluttershy. I’m not mad.”

“Oh. Um, that’s good,” Fluttershy said, blushing slightly and allowing a small smile to return to her face.

Glancing back at the book, Twilight found herself frowning. The more she read, the more puzzle pieces were introduced, but it was like she was trying to put together a puzzle without having the picture on the box. And there weren’t any edge pieces.

“Oh, just a note on something I noticed earlier,” Twilight said, turning her attention back to Fluttershy. “Bones don’t melt.”

“Huh?” Fluttershy asked, looking confused.

“There was a passage earlier that described Luna’s horn as ‘slightly melted’. But bones don’t melt, they just burn. Especially at the temperatures you’d find in a standard boiler unit,” Twilight said.

“O-oh…” Fluttershy stammered, her eyes going wide. “Is, um… that so?”

Twilight nodded, launching into explanation mode. “Right. Bones are actually quite durable, and the calcium and other inorganic materials make it so they don’t melt. They’ll turn to ash at a high enough temperature, otherwise just blacken and char.”

Fluttershy continued to stare at Twilight for a few moments, before forcing a smile. “Um, thank you for noticing?”

Twilight blushed slightly, looking away. “I mean, it’s a minor descriptive thing really. You can edit that out easily enough later.”

A silence fell in the air and Fluttershy continued to regard Twilight as if she were expecting something more. When nothing came, her forced smile disappeared and she nodded softly.
“That’s, uh, an interesting observation Twilight. I’ll keep that in mind.”

Twilight let out a sigh. Why was she being so nitpicky about something like this? She needed to focus on the things that mattered in the novel, scope out the clues, and solve the mystery.

But was it still a mystery? Sure, there were murders and mysterious happenings, but everything in the novel seemed to be shifting more into the slant of an adventure story where she would defeat the evil alicorn, Golden Wish. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it kind of pulled the rug out from under what the story had been building up to.

Twilight almost thought to ask Fluttershy for a hint, or maybe some clarification to set her on the right path, but that somehow felt like cheating. She should approach what was written with an open mind, and figure it out on her own terms.

Fluttershy would certainly appreciate it.

Chapter 7 - En Passant

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They were able to reach the study without incident, and Twilight found that her alarm spell was just as she’d left it. While it was a good thing the wards remained uncompromised, she slightly wished that somepony had been foolish enough to trigger it instead, so she could have caught them in the act.

Even with her magical precautions in place, Twilight still entered the room cautiously, her horn at the ready in case something was waiting for them in the shadows. When they confirmed that the study was empty and just as they had left it, she felt the tension drain out of her.

“Well, we made it back in one piece,” Twilight said, then immediately winced at her phrasing as she placed Luna’s horn up on a desk.

“I suppose that’s one thing we should be thankful for,” Rarity said, laughing bitterly.

“So just what are we supposed to be doin’ now?” Applejack asked as she moved through the study, tracking mud from her earlier exertions across the carpet.

Rarity flinched back, scrunching up her nose at her fiancé. “How about you take a bath?”

“What? Are you fer… This ain’t the time nor the place hon. We need a plan of action, not to be clean!” Applejack shouted, pulling back and angrily stomping a mud covered hoof for emphasis.

“Like what!?” Rarity shouted back, her eyes full of fire and tears. “Sit around and wait until some unstoppable alicorn witch chops off my horn and feeds it to you!? She’s already gotten to Celestia and Luna, what can we possibly do, hm? If we’re going to die horribly, we might as well look good doing it!”

Applejack stood there, her mouth hanging open at Rarity’s words.

“Enough!” Twilight shouted, flashing a bright light from her horn to get everypony’s attention. “I know how stressed you are – we all are – but we can’t afford to do this now.” Glaring at both of them until they blushed in shame, Twilight continued. “Besides, I have a plan.”

“Wait, seriously?” Rainbow Dash asked, perking up.

“Well,” Twilight began. “It’s pretty obvious no matter how hard we look, we’re probably not going to find her. And she doesn’t seem to be willing to face us head on, either, or she would have tried it by now. What does that tell you?”

After a brief pause, Applejack raised a hoof. “That uh, she’s scared of all of us together. Otherwise, she’d be done with it, right?”

Twilight nodded, smiling. “That’s correct. And, judging by her tactics so far, she wants to demoralize us; to keep us cowering in fear till the stress breaks us. It’s not like villains haven’t tried similar tactics on us in the past.”

With a pained grimace, Twilight walked over to the study window and looked out over the garden. “Though none of them have ever been so… effective.”

Shaking her head to clear out her malaise, she continued. “So if we can’t go to her, and she won’t come to us, then what can we do?”

“That would be the waiting to die part I mentioned earlier, darling,” Rarity said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“We set a trap!” Twilight said excitedly, ignoring Rarity’s snark.

“A trap? How the hay is that supposed to work? What could we possibly use as bait?” Applejack asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well…” Twilight faltered, looking away. “It would be really dangerous.”

“So one of us has to pretend to be alone and helpless, and when she shows up, the others all jump in quickly. Is that what you’re saying?” Rarity asked.

“In a sense,” Twilight said. “I have a few ideas on how to make sure the pony stays absolutely safe. Rarity, can you sense any gems in this room?”

“Gems?” Rarity asked, looking confused. “I suppose I can check.”

Rarity closed her eyes and lit up her horn, focusing. “It seems like there’s a decently sized cache of them in that lower drawer over there. I can only assume it belongs to the princesses.”

“Perfect!” Twilight said, as she trotted over to the drawer in question and began rifling through it. “These are exactly what I need. Thanks, Rarity!”

“Uh, I don’t really think this is a good idea, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash said, not meeting her eyes. “Do you really think something so… simple would really work?”

Twilight frowned, looking Rainbow Dash up and down. “What’s the matter with you, Rainbow? I would have figured you’d be chomping at the bit for something this.”

“I just…” Rainbow Dash bit her lip and looked away. “It’s nothing. Forget it. I’ll play bait if you want me too; I can get away the fastest after all.”

“Well, you weren’t my first suggestion, but I guess that works,” Twilight said, turning back to the others.

“Anyway, I’m going to need some time to prepare. Maybe an hour or two, so make yourselves comfortable.”

After Twilight levitated the gems over to a nearby table and had begun her work, Rarity turned to Applejack, blushing. “I’m sorry I snapped at you like that earlier. Everything just seems so… hopeless.”

Applejack smiled, bowing her head slightly before looking back up and giving Rarity a peck on the cheek. “It’s alright, hon. None of us are at our best right now, but we gotta keep trying.”

With a light smile, Rarity turned around and took a few steps before turning back and looking Applejack up and down. “Since we apparently have the time now, I don’t suppose I could convince you to take that bath after all? I could use one myself, if you don’t mind sharing.”

Blushing furiously, Applejack swallowed and began to stammer, but suddenly stood up straight as if struck by lightning, her face transforming into an unreadable mask. “I’d… like that, hon. There’s, uh, something I’ve been wanting to tell you for awhile now, anyway. Seems like a good opportunity,” she said stiffly.

Rarity frowned at the sudden change in mood, but decided to go along with it anyway. The two moved into the bathroom, closing the door behind them.

Twilight worked on her newest project in peace and quiet. She was glad for the lack of distractions, but the silence that hung over the room was heavy and unwelcome. Rainbow Dash just kept staring out the window, not saying a word as the sky darkened outside.

As she finished etching runes into the first of the gemstones she was working on, Twilight stepped away from the table, glancing over at her friend.

“Hey, Rainbow… You feeling alright?”

Rainbow Dash turned around slowly, fixing Twilight with a blank expression for several uncomfortably long moments before mumbling, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Putting her work aside, Twilight moved over to the window next to Dash and slung her wing over her shoulder. “It’s okay, you know. We’re all trying to be strong here, but there’s no shame in letting it out. Fluttershy wouldn’t want you to bottle everything up.”

Rainbow Dash snorted and barked out an angry laugh. “Yeah, right.” Pulling away from Twilight’s embrace, she moved over to the fireplace and sat down. “Just leave me alone, Twi. I don’t wanna talk about it.”

Twilight winced at the stinging words, but she doubted pushing would get her any farther. Rainbow Dash had always been so close to both Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy. Everypony deals with grief in their own way.

“Well, alright then,” Twilight said, turning back to the table. “In any case, since you volunteered to be the bait, let me explain how these things work.”

Rainbow Dash gave a nod of acknowledgement, so Twilight levitated one of the completed gems over to the two of them. “The simple version is this – smash this gem with your hoof and it will set off an alarm notifying me of the exact location, and I can teleport there to spring the trap.”

Grinning at her own genius, Twilight continued, “Of course, due to the nature of our opponent, something like that wouldn’t help if she gets the jump on you, so there are two failsafes as well. Once activated, the alarm will go off in five minutes, unless you tap on it two times with your hoof to reset the timer. And, on top of that, the alarm should go off if anypony uses magic within ten meters of the gem.”

“That’s… actually pretty well thought out, ”Rainbow Dash said, looking surprised. “Though I still don’t think this is going to work.”

“I…” Twilight faltered, looking away. “Look, this is still a definite long shot, so you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. I don’t want to put you in danger, and we really have no idea what our opponent is capable of.”

Rainbow Dash turned towards Twilight, grinning weakly. “Hey, come on, Twi. I’m Rainbow ‘Danger’ Dash, remember? I could probably handle this even without your fancy trinket.”

“Then how come you don’t think my plan will work?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, well,” Rainbow’s grin faded, her previously melancholic demeanor returning. “I just don’t think she’ll actually show up. That’s all.”

“Well, I’m open to suggestions if you’ve got any,” Twilight said, frowning.

“I…” Rainbow Dash paused, holding Twilight’s gaze for a silent minute, seemingly just on the verge of saying something. “It’s nothing, never mind.”

Twilight was about to press the issue further, but was interrupted by a crashing sound coming from the bathroom, followed by the sound of splashing water.

Readying her horn, Twilight prepared for the worst. “Are you two alright in there?”

There was the sound of scrambling hooves on a tile floor before the bathroom door was flung open and Rarity charged out, soaking wet.

“Rarity, wait!” Applejack called out, her voice desperate as she climbed out of the tub.

“STAY AWAY FROM ME!” Rarity screamed, her eyes full of tears as she grasped a nearby chair with her magic and threw it at the door. “I don’t even know who you are!”

Twilight could only stand there, mouth agape, as she watched the scene unfold before her.

“Please,” Applejack said, begging. “Can’t we just talk about this? I’m sorry, but there’s gotta be a way this can be right.”

“Right? Right!?” Rarity backed away frantically, moving towards the door. “How can you possibly expect me to forgive something like this? Our entire relationship was built on a lie from the start? What happened to being the element of honesty!?

“I…” Applejack hung her head in shame. “I still love you.”

“Well apparently,” Rarity paused, opening the door to the study and looking back. “I never did.” Sobbing, she ran out into the hallway.

Breaking out of her stupor, Twilight rushed forward. “Wait, what are you doing? You’ll die out there!”

Rarity was already around the corner and out of sight when Twilight heard her call back.

“So be it!”

“That stupid…” Twilight growled under her breath before preparing to teleport after her. Of all the things that had to go wrong…

With a painful crash, Twilight was thrown backwards from the wall into the table. She had forgotten about the wards on the room. Apparently they worked both ways.

As Twilight pulled herself free from the splintered wood, Applejack trotted up, pausing in the doorway. “Look, this is my mess. I better clean it up.”

Twilight sputtered as she stood back up. “But we had a plan!”

“Plans change, sugarcube. We’ll be the bait for now. I’m… I’m a terrible pony, Twi. Just, give me some time, alright?”

“I…” Twilight stared at Applejack incredulously. This was an incredibly bad idea. “Just take this, alright? Knock on it twice every five minutes, smash it if there’s any danger, and we’ll be right there.

Taking the gem from Twilight in her teeth and swinging the necklace up around her neck, Applejack galloped out into the hall, the heavy study door slowly closing on its own and locking behind her.

After a long pause, Rainbow Dash finally spoke up. “What just happened?”

“I have no idea,” Twilight said, her expression still bewildered.

“I mean, I know Rarity is the overreacting type, but what could Applejack have possibly done to get a reaction like that out of her?” Rainbow Dash asked as she picked up some of the broken pieces of the table.

“You don’t think it's… related to the murders, do you?” Twilight asked, dark thoughts suddenly entering her mind.

Rainbow Dash snorted dismissively. “No way. Sounds like this is something that goes way back. Anyway, what are we supposed to do now?”

Sighing, Twilight stared at the door, apprehension twisting her gut into knots. “I guess we wait.”

Applejack slowed her gallop to a trot as she raced down the halls. As much as she knew she needed to get to Rarity right away, she was afraid. Afraid to see that look of hurt and betrayal. Afraid to feel the brunt of the scorn that she utterly deserved.

“Applejack, you are one stupid pony,” she muttered under her breath. Right from the start, it was her mistake. Her original desperate bid for affection had grown from a tiny lie into a gaping wound in her heart. One she was reminded of every time she looked at the love of her life.

She had played her confession out a hundred times in her head. This was one of the worst possible outcomes, but one that she had always considered the most realistic. Of course, her timing had left a lot to be desired. To burden Rarity with a revelation like that, when two of their friends were dead, and a murderer stalked them in the shadows…

Coming to a complete stop, Applejack shook her head. The time for excuses was gone and past. There was no guarantee they’d even last the night. Telling her had been the right decision.

Looking up, she realized that she had come to a stop in front of the portrait of Golden Wish in the entrance hall. Feeling a fresh surge of anger, she growled under her breath, “Why can’t ya just stay in pony tales where you belong, huh?”

Wheeling around, Applejack leaned forward and bucked the wall as hard as she could. The wood splintered and cracked beneath her hooves and the painting rocked back and forth. The sound of the impact echoed around the entrance hall before quietly fading away, leaving an empty silence that matched the emptiness she felt after her pointless outburst.

“Be careful what you wish for…” she muttered, hanging her head. “Not exactly an uncommon sentiment when it comes to old folklore. Guess I never took that lesson to heart.”

She was about to continue on her way when she felt a strange twinge around her neck. Blinking in surprise, she realized it was the odd necklace Twilight had given her. Some sort of defensive charm?

Shrugging, she followed the instructions she was given and tapped the gem twice with a hoof, which seemed to calm the jewelry down. Easy enough.

Of course, Rarity didn’t have one…

Applejack quickened her pace down the halls. When she approached the room that they were both staying in, she could hear sobbing from within. It looked like she’d guessed right.

Reaching to open the door, she hesitated, her heart seizing in her gut. What right did she really have?

There was a pause in the sobbing. After a few moments, Rarity called out, her voice hoarse. “Is somepony out there? If you’re planning to murder me, could you at least make me look good?”

Applejack let out a sigh. “It’s just me, Rar.”

After another long pause, there was the sound of hoofsteps and the door unlocking. It glowed with the grasp of magic and opened, Rarity staring out with a dull expression.

“Well, come on in. If we’re going to be out here stupidly and get killed for it, we might as well do it together.”

Applejack bit her lip and followed Rarity inside, making sure to relock and set the chain on the door behind them.

As a heavy silence fell upon the room, Applejack continued to stare at the floor, unable to meet her gaze. “Look, I —” she began, but was cut off with a dismissive scoff from Rarity.

“You what? You’re sorry? Do platitudes like that even matter anymore? I’m really not even sure how I’m supposed to respond to this,” Rarity said as she began pacing about the room.

Applejack flinched at the cold anger in her words. She wasn’t sure if she preferred this or the dramatic outbursts instead.

“It’s just so hard to believe…” Rarity said, staring wistfully at nothing, “that the last year of my life… the best year of my life, was all based on a lie, an illusion. It certainly felt real.” Rarity turned to Applejack, her eyes glistening as she let out a sigh. “It still does.”

Swallowing, Applejack spoke up, trying to find the right words. “I reckon I don’t actually know whether it worked or not. Could’ve just been a crazy coincidence, and I lucked out that you felt the same. But the fact that I still tried… even though I didn’t think through the implications at the time… it’s still unforgivable.”

Rarity shook her head, smiling painfully. “I certainly remember how I felt back then. Perhaps my memories really were altered. But if such a power truly exists, we could just as easily question the reality of anything, could we not?”

Applejack snorted, a short laugh escaping from her in spite of it all. ”Hold on there now, hon. If we start to get into a philosophical debate on what’s real and what isn’t, Twilight will come bursting through the door waving books around that are thicker than my head.”

Unable to help themselves, they both burst out laughing, the joyful sound washing away some of the accumulated tension hanging in the air.

“I certainly...” Rarity started, but trailed off, her smile fading as she pursed her lips. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive you darling, but,” with a sigh, Rarity shook her head and smiled. “I still love you.”

Those words – those four wonderful words struck Applejack like a hammer blow to her heart, filling her with both boundless hope and immense shame. Just like they had when she’d first bared her heart to the mare she loved one year ago.

“I love you too,” Applejack said, her eyes beginning to mist over. “Even if I don’t deserve you.”

“You’re right,” Rarity scoffed, putting up false airs. “You don’t deserve me. I guess I’m just too generous for my own good.”

Applejack chuckled weakly, pawing at the ground. Even though she knew she was just being teased, the wounds were still too fresh and the words stung.

“I suppose the wedding is called off for now,” Applejack mumbled, trying to play her concern off as a joke.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Rarity said, a twinkle in her eye. “You know, they say intent is everything. When you propose, you promise to be with that pony for the rest of your life, through thick and thin. As long as you both feel the same, you might as well be married already, right? At that time, I was beyond happy. Even if we had both been struck dead a day after you proposed, our souls would still be joined as one.”

“I…” Applejack worked her mouth, her throat suddenly dry. “I reckon a promise made under false pretenses ain’t no promise at all.”

“In that case,” Rarity said, smiling coyly as she sunk to her knees. “Will you, Applejack, deign to marry me and do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

Applejack’s mouth dropped open in shock. She didn’t deserve this. After what she had done, the lie she had based it all on, here she was, this wonderful mare, still willing to have her. Tears rolling down her face, she managed to choke out “I do.”

“Good!” Rarity said curtly, as if she was simply closing up a business deal. “You may now kiss the bride.”

As their lips met, the dam broke in Applejack. Everything she’d been holding back came rushing out and she began sobbing like a filly.


A short time later the two rested on the bed, nuzzling against each other.

“It’s not fair,” Applejack mumbled, her face buried in her fiancé’s coat.

“Hmm? What’s that, darling?” Rarity asked, looking up.

“When I proposed to you, I did it all fancy like; had everything planned for months, and the five star dinner and…”

Laughing, Rarity elbowed her in the ribs. “Quiet you.”

Applejack pulled back slightly so she could look Rarity in the eyes and gave her a soft smile. “So this is it, huh? Together until the end?”

Rarity leaned in and kissed her on the lips lightly. “Together. Forever and always.”

Twilight paced back and forth around the study, her eyes frequently flicking to the clock on the wall.

“This is getting ridiculous. Something should’ve happened by now. Either Applejack forgets to activate the device or Rarity accidentally uses her magic and sets it off or…” Twilight trailed off, grimacing. “We should go check on them. Don’t you think we should go check on them? Ugh, this was a bad idea!”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes, flopping backwards onto the couch. “For the last time, Twi, I’m sure they’re fine. Applejack and Rarity are both capable ponies, they can handle themselves. And, if a trap is going to be a trap, we can’t just back out because we got cold hooves.”

“But it’s also true that you need to know what is and what isn’t an acceptable risk. If you can use your pawns as bait to lure out and capture an opponent’s queen, that’s all well and good, but if you have to sacrifice a bishop or a knight, then it might not always be in your best interests and,” Twilight stopped, her eyes going wide. “Okay wow, I REALLY shouldn’t think about my friends in terms like that.”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow, looking Twilight up and down. “Who are you trying to convince here, Twilight? If you want to call the whole thing off, just do it. It’s not like I’m going to stop you either way.” With a pause, she added, “Besides, you’re looking at it the wrong way. Nopony’s going to sacrifice a Queen just to take out a knight or a bishop. Not without either being a total newb or having a good combo set up, anyway.”

Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash, her mouth hanging open. “Just how do you know…?”

She froze, smacking her face with her hoof. Rainbow was right, of course. You can’t bait an action just by leaving a piece seemingly open with a counterattack prepared to strike. You have to threaten on multiple fronts and arrange things so any move your opponent takes has at least some negative outcome.

“We need to go get Applejack and Rarity and think this through a lot better,” Twilight said, turning towards the door.

“Alright, whatever you say,” Rainbow Dash said, yawning as she got up from the couch. “Where do you think they went?”

“I’m not sure. Where would Rarity go after running out like that?” Twilight levitated the paired gem up from the table. She was about to sling it around her neck when it suddenly flashed green and emitted a high pitched whine.

“That’s the timer alarm,” Twilight said, a sudden pang of fear lancing through her heart. She almost teleported right away, but remembered her mistake from earlier. “I think she’s in their shared room, let’s go!”

“I’m on it,” Rainbow said, already opening the door. “I’ll meet you there!”

“Wait, we should go together!” Twilight called out after Rainbow, but she was already gone. Growling under her breath, she quickly galloped out into the hallway outside of the study’s protections, and focused on the gem, preparing to teleport to the signature it gave off.

With a flash she disappeared and found herself face to face with Golden Wish herself.

Or the portrait of her, anyway. As soon as she recovered from the initial shock, Twilight looked around frantically and realized she was in the entrance hall. There was no sign of anypony else.

Had she overshot? Were the coordinates in the gem wrong? Or had she just been thinking too strongly about Golden Wish? With a lump in her throat, she wheeled to the right and galloped down the hall towards Rarity’s room.

As she rounded the corner, she could see the door was already open. Rainbow Dash would have beaten here there of course and –

Twilight skidded to a halt as she entered the room, her breath frozen in her throat.

The room was in total disarray. Pillows were thrown about, dresses were torn to shreds, and the dresser mirror was shattered, pieces of glass strewn across the floor.

The chaos of the room contrasted with the peace of the couple within. Applejack and Rarity lay together on the bed, their heads resting on each other’s shoulders, smiling softly. They looked for all the world, like the quintessential happy couple napping together.

Rainbow Dashed turned to look at Twilight, her eyes wide and lip quivering. “Twi… I got here as fast as I could, but…”

The blood dripped down from the soaked bedsheets, and was beginning to pool around Rainbow Dash’s hooves.

In an instant, Twilight was at the bedside, her hooves reaching down to examine the pair. They were still warm, but there was so much blood… it was already a foregone conclusion.

“There’s no pulse,” Twilight heard herself say in a strangely dry tone.

“So… they’re dead. For real. Rarity and Applejack are actually dead…” Rainbow Dash stared down at the two corpses, her mouth continuing to move soundlessly even after she finished speaking.

Twilight lowered her head, firing up her horn and inspecting the corpses closer. As she did so, there was a blue flash and a high pitched whine as Applejacks gem reacted to the nearby magic.

“Both of them have deep wounds severing their left and right brachial arteries. With a precise wound like that, a pony will bleed out in a matter of minutes without immediate medical intervention,” Twilight announced coldly.

She felt… strangely self aware. There was the odd disconnect in knowing that she should be utterly crushed by despair right now. Two more of her friends were dead. Only one remained. Neither of them would probably last much longer. She had failed, utterly and irrevocably.

But all she felt was a strange emptiness. The numbness inside was like a surrender to the hopeless inevitability of the near future.

“Rainbow Dash, was the door still locked when you got here? Did you have to bust in? And did you happen to see any weapons or cutting tools lying around?” Twilight asked as she finished her inspection of the corpses.

“Huh? I… Yes? Er, wait, no? I…” Rainbow Dash choked on her words, her eyes brimming with tears. She swallowed, and tried to focus her thoughts before speaking again. “I didn’t see any weapons.”

Closed room. A voice bubbled up from the depths of Twilight’s memories, noting a pattern. Both sets of murders, and even the strange incident with the library had taken place in a closed room, as if this were the plot in some mystery novel.

Of course, when the culprit is a psychopathic alicorn dragon-witch who can apparently skirt by the very laws of magic, the presence of locks on doors and magic detecting trinkets doesn’t matter much, does it?

Twilight looked over to Rainbow and jumped with a start, her stupor momentarily forgotten. “Rainbow, you’re…” A trickle of blood ran down the side of Rainbow’s mouth. Had she bitten her tongue that hard?

“I…” Rainbow Dash bowed her head, scrunching her eyes up tight. “Not like this. Not anymore.”

She slowly looked up at Twilight, a fierce growl boiling from within her. “I’m going to fix this, Twi. Somehow. I’m sorry. You might want to find some cover.”

“Rainbow, what are you talking about?” Twilight asked, reaching a forehoof out to her friend but catching only air as Rainbow sped off, out into the hallway and around the corner. “Wait!”

Twilight chased after her, pausing in the doorframe to look back at her recently departed friends. It felt bad to just leave them like this, but she couldn’t risk losing another.

Following the afterimages of rainbow contrails, Twilight quickly ascertained that Rainbow had gone outside and teleported out to the front steps in order to catch up.

Before she could even get her bearings, she felt her ears pop as the air suddenly spun around her. The magic of her shield began to shatter and dissipate and the storm suddenly rushed back into the mansion, no longer held at bay.

“Rainbow Dash…”

Rainbow Dash slammed into Twilight’s shield with all her might, straining for a moment before it shattered above her hooves and she shot into the waiting blizzard.

The sudden disruption in the atmosphere made her ascent even harder, but they didn’t call her the best flyer in Equestria for nothing.

Even as the cold winds battered her furiously, trying with all their might to knock her out of the sky, she continued climbing up and up. Just as icicles began to form on her wings, she burst through the top layer of cloud cover, exiting the storm and basking momentarily in the radiance of the stars and the moon.

Still she needed to fly higher. So she kept going up until the air was so thin she could barely breathe. She hovered there, the cold biting deep into her as she looked down on the world below.

While normally she would feel utterly free this high up in the air, like an escape from all earthly responsibilities, this time she could almost see the golden chains dragging her to the ground, forcing her to face reality.

“So much for loyalty,” she muttered, her voice absorbed by the howling winds of the upper atmosphere.

As she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, Rainbow Dash allowed herself to drop, swiftly shifting into a proper dive.

There wasn’t exactly an elegant solution to this. But elegance had never been her specialty, after all. She was stuck between a rock and a hard place. So why not solve it by doing what she was best at?

As she picked up speed, she could feel the traditional strain and pull of the air before she burst into a sonic rainboom. In the past, performing one took every ounce of strength she had, but now they were commonplace. Almost boring.

This next part would be new, though. She banked, twisting her downward dive into a rotating spiral, the wind slowly beginning to swirl around her. Right as she was about to hit the cloud cover below, she began to spin, blasting through the clouds and angling herself to use the whipping winds of the storm to her advantage.

The clouds were pulled towards the rainbow drill of contrails as Rainbow Dash crafted her tornado, directing the most powerful, destructive might the weather could offer on the mansion below.

What would this really accomplish? Was it just a futile act of rage against a hopeless fate? She wasn’t really even sure at this point, but it was already far too late to stop.

She knew Twilight would never forgive her, but annihilating the object of their sorrow might bring some form of peace to both ponies. And hey, there was still the chance everything would work out in the end.

Holding onto that bitter hope, Rainbow Dash continued to spin round and round, almost breaking through the storm cover below. The whipping winds and snow forced her to squint as hard as she could, barely able to see. With a pained laugh, she realized this would be a lot easier had she taken a few extra seconds to grab her goggles before flying up here.

Had she bothered to do so, she might have noticed the golden flash speeding towards her as she entered the sky above the mansion.

Red clouded her vision as a sharp pain lanced across her chest. She tumbled from her carefully controlled spin, the tornado dissipating in a flash of colors.

As the ground rushed towards her, she could just barely make out Twilight, a glowing purple speck in the distance.

I’m sorry.

Chapter 8 - Checkmate

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Twilight stared upwards; the whipping winds and darkening sky made it almost impossible to see. The cold wind bit deeply into her body, and her mind felt equally as numb. What was she doing? What was she supposed to do? Was there anything she could do anymore?

Focusing her magic, she called forth enough light to illuminate all the way up to the cloud cover, a veritable spotlight shining from her horn. She swung her head left and right, desperately scanning the clouds for any sign of where her last friend had gone.

A disturbance in the clouds caught her attention, a small section above the mansion beginning to swirl around unnaturally. As she focused her light and attention on the abnormality, it grew in intensity, speeding up and bulging downwards, streaks of colored light starting to flash along the edges.

That has to be Rainbow Dash, but what in Equestria is she…?

The clouds spun faster, the protrusion becoming more conical and more colorful. Then she could see it. The spinning cyan blur who pulled a tornado down from the clouds, directing all the fury of the storm to smite the mansion below.

“She must be crazy!” Twilight found herself screaming, her words completely swallowed by the torrent of wind. She wasn’t sure if she should try to stop this or just duck and cover.

As she focused her light to track Rainbow Dash, everything suddenly broke. The tornado fell apart as fast as it has appeared and in an instant, Rainbow was no longer flying downwards, but falling to the ground. Fast.

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight called out. She frantically launched herself into the air in an attempt to reach her friend, but was unable to make any headway against the storm. With a sickening dread, she watched Rainbow plunge into the fields of snow outside of the mansion.

Even after five years of being an alicorn flying still wasn’t her strong suite, but Twilight summoned every scrap of strength, skill, and speed she had in order to make it over to where Rainbow had landed as quickly as possible

“Where is she…?” Twilight muttered, frantically scanning the snow below her as she struggled to stay aloft. “Rainbow Dash! If you can hear me, please say something!”

There was no response but the howling wind. Her heart caught in her throat as she happened to catch a few flecks of rapidly vanishing red in the snow below.

Please, no...

Following the trail she spotted it: a pony sized mound of snow. Lifting the snow with her telekinesis, she found the battered and broken form of Rainbow Dash.

Rainbow Dash’s chest was streaked with red and her left wing was twisted at an unnatural angle, but a wave of relief washed over Twilight when she saw that her chest was still rising and falling.

She’s still alive… I’m not too late.

Of course, all that could change in a heartbeat if she didn’t act quickly. She had studied both healing magic and first aid, but had no practical experience with either. The latter was far safer to use untrained, and she had no choice but to try. There were a few tricks she had read about that she could use to stabilize a pony, even without any supplies.

Enveloping both herself and Rainbow Dash in a telekinetic field, she lifted the pegasus while pulling out a large number of her own wing feathers, biting her lip as her eyes teared up from the pain. Quickly weaving the feathers into a makeshift poultice, she pressed it hard against Rainbow Dash to staunch the bleeding.

Of course, she couldn’t fly like this now, so she focused her energy on her hooves. Her step lightened enough so that she could walk on the snow while floating Rainbow Dash steadily behind her.

It was easy going at first, but each step soon became laborious. The wind peeled at her coat like it was trying to strip it all away, and the snow in her eyes made sight nearly impossible. Her constant use of magic was beginning to take its toll as well. Even as an alicorn princess whose special talent was magic, she had her limits, and the stress of everything certainly wasn’t doing her any favors.

She had to keep moving. She had to get inside and treat Rainbow Dash’s wounds properly. The normally tough as steel pegasus that floated behind her felt as weak as a newborn foal in her grasp. She could feel Rainbow’s faint heartbeat as her own worked double time, covering for both exhaustion and panic.

The magical energy that linked them suddenly felt like so much more. It was a tenuous connection to Dash’s life, an anchor holding down the last vestiges of Twilight’s sanity. She had to keep moving. Just put one hoof in front of the other.

One hoof, in front of… With a yelp of surprise, Twilight’s next step found no footing underneath and she found herself tumbling forward. As fear raced through her heart, she pushed out with her magic even as she fell, attempting to keep Rainbow Dash from being pulled down with her.

Groaning, she slowly pushed herself back up, wincing as her body complained in protest. The ground under hooves was warm and soft. She must have tripped over the threshold where her shield had been previously holding back the storm.

Gingerly she pulled Rainbow Dash down from the sky, bringing her in close. Rainbow Dash whimpered softly, her body shivering underneath Twilight’s magic.

“It’s going to be okay Rainbow,” Twilight said, her teeth clenched as she struggled forward. “We’re almost there. I just need you to keep holding on, okay?”

She could finally see it up ahead now, the soft light of the mansion spilling out from the front door she had left open.

When she made it inside her legs threatened to give way beneath her, but just to the entry hall wasn’t far enough. She needed to get back to the study. She was sure she would find medical supplies there.

Rainbow Dash let out another pained whimper as Twilight began to ascend the stairs. The accumulated snow on Twilight’s fur was beginning to melt, and the returning warmth to her skin underneath felt like tiny daggers piercing into her flesh.

She passed by Rarity and Applejack on the way there, steeling her stomach and daring to take a glance. The couple was just as she’d left them, sleeping peacefully in the embrace of death.

They would be together forever now, and Twilight was almost jealous. She wanted to go to them, to scream, to howl, to wail in rage at the cruelty of fate and the pony that had done this, but she had no tears left to shed.

She had to save Rainbow Dash.

Out of breath, she reached the door to the study and fumbled with the keys, pulling it open. The first thing she noticed was the gold trimmed letter sitting on the center desk. Fresh panic gripped her heart and her eyes swept the room frantically, looking for any hidden enemy waiting in the shadows.

When no threat presented itself, she carefully lowered Rainbow Dash to the floor by the fireplace, laying her on top of some cushions. Her chest rose and fell slowly, drawing ragged, pained breaths.

After carefully double checking the rest of the study for danger, Twilight gathered up the medical supplies she was hoping for and set to work in sterilizing and properly bandaging Rainbow Dash’s wounds. A ponyfeather poultice was really rather unsanitary, and should only be used in emergencies.

The cut in Rainbow’s side was long, but shallow. Twilight couldn’t tell exactly what had caused it. It might have been from an edged weapon of sorts, but it was hard to see how something like that would have struck her in the air. She could also have been caught on a particularly sharp ice crystal or rock during her landing.

It was grueling work, and her own exhaustion still called to her, but over the course of an hour she managed to stitch Rainbow’s wound rather crudely, and set her broken wing into a splint.

Any medical professional would have been disgusted at her handiwork. All Twilight knew was the theory, and she had never had a chance to put these skills into use. Even untrained, Rarity probably could’ve handled the needlework better, and Fluttershy was used to patching up wounded animals on a regular basis.

You did what you could… it’s up to Rainbow Dash now. Reaching out, Rainbow Dash was warm under her hoof. She must already be running a fever. Unfortunately, the basic medical supplies she had found had not included antibiotics.

Standing up even as her legs protested, she wondered if she could find the necessary components to synthesize some in here. That would probably be too much of a stretch, but it’s not like she had anything better to do. Before she could even begin the search, however, her eyes fell upon the new letter waiting on the table.

“I guess I’m supposed to read that,” Twilight muttered out loud. Was how this one got in here just as much of a mystery as the previous letter? As she reached for the letter, she realized her mistake. She had forgotten to reset her alarm spell when she last left. So, anypony with the key could’ve simply walked on in. And who knew how many copies of the key there were, or who all had them?

Unlike the arrogant taunting found in the first letter, this one was short and simple, printed on the same stationary with the same neat handwriting.

“Meet me in the entrance hall at midnight.”

So that was it, huh? She would finally get the confrontation she wanted. It had only cost her the lives of most of her friends to do so. She didn’t even have the energy to summon up the righteous rage or thirst for justice she knew would be appropriate right now. All she could do was laugh softly, her eyes glistening with tears she no longer had the strength to shed.

Twilight glanced over to the clock. It looked like she still had a few hours before midnight. Enough time to make sure Rainbow Dash would stay stable, at least. It was most certainly a trap, and the board was no longer in her favor. But what other options did she have at this point?

Twilight moved back over to Rainbow Dash’s side. The pegasus was shivering, despite her proximity to the fire. After taking the time to drape a blanket over her, Twilight settled down next to Rainbow Dash on a pair of cushions. As soon as she felt herself get comfortable, the exhaustion she’d been holding off crashed into her full force, threatening to pull her under.

Not yet… I have too…

Twilight opened her eyes, groaning slightly as the burning sensation in her exhausted muscles reasserted itself. Yawning, she reached up with a hoof and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. How long had she been asleep?

“Rainbow Dash!” she cried out, jumping into the air and looking around frantically. She stumbled slightly, the sudden movement causing the blood to rush to her head and a wave of dizziness washed over her.

As she struggled to regain her bearings, she felt movement by her side, and a faint groan. Rainbow Dash was still alive.

After taking a few moments to steady her breathing and calm her nerves, Twilight knelt down next to her friend, placing a hoof on her forehead. She was still burning up, and her skin looked pale under her fur.

Twilight went to the bathroom to get a cup of water, pausing to check the time as she did so. Half an hour till midnight. She hadn’t slept through her appointment after all.

“Here Rainbow Dash. You need to drink this. Easy now…” Twilight cradled Dash’s head with her telekinesis, slowly bringing the cup to her lips and coaxing the feverish pegasus to drink.

Rainbow coughed and sputtered slightly, but greedily swallowed the rest of the offered water. “Twilight…” Rainbow mumbled, her voice a croaking whisper. “Mmm’sorry.”

“Ssshh. It’ll be okay.” Twilight ran her hoof through Rainbow’s mane, stroking it in the same way her mother used to do for her when she was sick. “You just need to rest. I have to go do something real quick, okay? But I promise I’ll be back, and when I do, this will all be over.”

Twilight got up to leave, but paused when she heard Rainbow Dash call out again, her voice faint. “Be careful.”

Fifteen minutes to go. It wouldn’t hurt to arrive a little early, right? Exiting the study, and making sure to re-ward the door as strongly as she could, she teleported to the entrance hall.

The room was empty, the soft lamplight casting shadows across the portrait of her nemesis while the storm outside raged against the windows.

She had no idea what she was truly up against, and had to be ready for anything. But as she stared at the portrait on the wall, that offending face seemed to twist into a leering grin under the shadows, and her blood began to boil with an all too welcome rage.

Pinkie Pie. Fluttershy. Applejack. Rarity. Princess Celestia. Princess Luna. Rainbow Dash. She was here and ready to fight. For all of their sakes, and for her own. To get revenge. To get answers. To get justice.

Tears glistened in her eyes as she clenched her teeth, the adrenaline rushing through her veins erasing her earlier fatigue. “Well? I’m here now, Golden Wish! I don’t know why you’ve done this. Why you’ve killed my friends. What you want with me. But you’ve succeeded. You wanted me. Now come and get me!”

Her voice reverberated throughout the mansion, amplified by both her magic and her anger. With a snarl, she focused her magic on the painting before her, tearing it from its hangings with ease and pulling it down to float in front of her.

With a simple flick of her horn, the painting crumpled into a pretzel; splinters of wood and shreds of canvas raining down in front of her. Another change of focus and the mangled artwork burst into flame, burning blindingly hot for just a few seconds until only ash remained.

“Come out! Stop hiding and face me!” Twilight howled at the top of her lungs. Muttering a stronger incantation under her breath, a corona of arcane energy circled around her horn, eventually extending outwards and collapsing into a large purple orb.

The loud gong of a grandfather clock striking twelve echoed from somewhere in the distance, and Twilight fired. The orb exploded and sent a hundred lances of arcane light shooting out in every direction. The energy ripped through the mansion, through walls, ceilings, and support beams alike. As the light faded, the building groaned in protest as a chill draft seeped in through the new holes.

The clock chimed a second time, and the world around her seemed to shift. The ground itself seemed to shake, and the air seemed unbearably hot all of a sudden. Was this her counterattack?

She quickly cast a shield around herself, preparing to defend against a direct magical assault. Instead, the air only seemed to get hotter, and Twilight struggled to breathe as the air began to shimmer around her with heat. The clock chimed a third time.

This wasn’t directed at her, but the whole mansion? She had used an area of effect spell herself, but something on this scale…

Twilight fought to stay standing as she fell into a coughing fit. The walls and floors seemed to be glowing with an intense red, and her vision swam as she looked around for any sign of her attacker. Flickers of light began to fall from the shining walls, embers dancing through the room like thousands of tiny golden butterflies.

The clock chimed a fourth time.

Even with the roar of the earth below her, the air rushing around her, and fierce crackling of flames, she heard it. Hoofsteps. Somepony was coming after all. Twilight struggled to rise, but her knees buckled under the immense pressure of the firestorm engulfing the mansion.

The clock chimed for a fifth time, the note turning sour as it too was warped by the flames.

She could just barely see it. The shadow of somepony walking down the stairs. Smoke and pain and golden butterflies of fire obscured her vision, but she had her target. She heard a voice, but could not make out any words.

Summoning every last ounce of strength she had left, Twilight fired a blast of magical energy at the pony that stood before her. The clocked chimed a sixth and final time. Twilight felt fire, pain, and then nothing.

The storm passed, and the leaden clouds that had enshrouded the mountains for so long cleared away. Sun shone down on the valley and the snow began to melt, the harsh blizzard almost forgotten.

It would take some time yet for everything to fully thaw, but life would return to the valley soon, birds filling the air with song.

Princess Cadence and Shining armor arrived soon afterwards, and were horrified with what they found. Sifting through the burnt ruins, they discovered the remains of some of their closest friends and their dear sibling, although too much had burned away to make a positive identification for everypony.

In the end, they were forced to conclude that everypony who had been at the mansion during those two days was gone forever.

How gruesome had the game of Golden Wish been? Of those who knew of what transpired, only ash remained. Those who came after the story was over had no hope of understanding. They could only imagine what sort of nightmare had befallen the mansion’s visitors.

However, the mistress of the mansion was fickle, and a scrap of information remained that allowed for a glimmer of truth.

A year later, construction had begun on a memorial for the victims of what was then known as “The Princess Massacre”. While clearing the ruins, a worker dug up a small lockbox. Inside was stack of neatly written letters, the pages of which contained an account of the tragedy that had shaken Equestria to its foundation.

“By the time you read this, I will probably be dead. Whoever you are, you must find out the truth. That’s all I want.

-Rainbow Dash”

Twilight stared down at the final page of the book, her mouth hanging open in shock. Numbly, she lifted the book upside down and shook it as if she expected extra pages to fall out.

“Is… this it?” Twilight asked, turning to Fluttershy. She was biting her hooves and trembling, and she flinched from the intensity of Twilight’s gaze before nodding softly.

Twilight turned back to the book, reading the final page again. After everything she had been through this afternoon... This was how it all ended?

“So, um, whatdidyouthink?” Fluttershy squeaked, her voice cracking in a hoarse whisper.

Twilight turned back to Fluttershy and stared at her blankly. A thousand possible responses flickered through her mind. A voice in the back of her head screamed at her to lie, to keep lying until Applejack passed out from shock.

Twilight’s right eye twitched slightly, and she spoke. “You know, Fluttershy, traditionally mystery novels end with the detective solving the mystery and bringing the culprit to justice.”

Fluttershy swallowed, closing her eyes and wetting her throat before responding. “I know that…”

“So when a story doesn’t end like that, and in fact really doesn’t have much of a mystery to solve in the first place, it’s actually more of a slasher-horror where all of us get murdered horribly,” Twilight said, unable to keep the rising anger from her voice.

“That’s not…” Fluttershy paused, looking down and fidgeting before looking back up to Twilight with a pleading expression. “There’s still a mystery, and you can solve it… You-you, I mean. Not the you in the book.”

Twilight barked a short, harsh laugh. “Mystery? As if. The evil alicorn, Golden Wish, horribly murdered us all with a spectacular display of rule breaking magic. Case closed! Reaaal engaging villain you created there, by the way. A tragic back-story, a single taunting letter, and a shadowy appearance at the end? Character of the year!”

Fluttershy flinched back, her eyes starting to glisten with tears. “I didn’t… I thought you…” Sniffling slightly, she wiped her eyes with a hoof. “I thought you were really good at mysteries, Twilight.”

“Oh, am I now? Well, I guess you were wrong, Fluttershy! Why don’t you go ahead and enlighten me on the genius solution I’m missing here? Just go ahead and spoil it, I don’t mind,” Twilight said, her voice dripping with venom.

“No!” Fluttershy shouted, pulling herself up and looking Twilight in the eyes fiercely. “You have to figure it out on your own!”

Twilight’s mouth fell open at the sudden outburst, but quickly recovered from the shock and growled, leaning forward and bearing down on the pegasus before her.

“You want to know what I think? Fine! I think your subplot with Applejack and Rarity came out of nowhere, was missing a lot of buildup, and the conclusion for it was vague and unsatisfying. Also, it was creepy. Those are our friends, Fluttershy.”

Twilight pushed forward, Fluttershy shrinking away from the fire in her eyes. “I have absolutely no idea what you were trying to do with Celestia and Luna. They barely had any visible presence in the story, and the narrative practically forgot about them entirely in the last quarter.”

Pulling back as Fluttershy cowered before her, Twilight spun around and began to walk through the library. “And maybe if it wasn’t obvious enough already, as a reader I don’t particularly enjoy dark stories to begin with, but especially not when I have to read about my closest friends in all of Equestria getting murdered, and I have to read through the eyes of a me who’s absolutely devastated by it.

“But perhaps most importantly of all, I want to know…” Twilight stopped walking, her back to Fluttershy as she took a deep breath before whirling around.

“Where. Is. My. HAPPY. ENDING!?” Her eyes glistening with tears, Twilight punctuated each word with a stomp of her hooves, her voice thundering throughout the library as several books fell to the floor.

Her words hung in the air, the silence only broken up a soft sobbing.

“I’m sorry for wasting your time, Twilight,” Fluttershy mumbled, shakily rising to her hooves and moving towards the door.

A sharp pain stabbed through Twilight’s heart and she froze, the realization of how worked up she had gotten finally dawning on her. To make matters worse, she looked up to see Spike standing in the open doorway, his mouth hanging down to the floor.”

“Wait, Fluttershy, I didn’t mean…” Twilight reached out a hoof ineffectually at the retreating pegasus. After all that, what could she possibly say?

“H-hey, Spike,” Fluttershy mumbled weakly, wiping at her eyes. “Take good care of Twilight, okay? I think I hurt her pretty bad.”

With a choking sob, Fluttershy galloped out the door, tears trailing behind her as she ran away.

After a long moment of silence, Spike finally spoke up. “Wow, Twilight. Of all of our friends I’d ever expected you to blow up on like that, I never thought it would be Fluttershy.”

“I…” Twilight mumbled, her cheeks burning. What had she done? Even if her reasons were justified, that was way too excessive. Especially for Fluttershy. What kind of friend was she?

“So… are you going to go after her?” Spike asked, moving inside and setting his bags on the floor.

Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but no words came out. It would be the right thing to do. It was what a good friend would do. She should go apologize and make amends.

But she was still so angry. Reading that had honestly hurt, and the wound was still too fresh.

Twilight shook her head. “I’m sorry, Spike. I guess this is all a little out of context for you, but… I can’t. Not right now. I think both of us need some time to cool off before we can work this out.”

Spike raised an eyebrow, looking Twilight up and down before he shrugged and closed the door behind him. “If you say so. Just what was all that about anyway?”

Twilight glanced down at the book, discarded on the floor. Fluttershy hadn’t taken it with her. “It’s…. a long story. And one that should probably stay between the two of us.”

“Aww, come on Twilight! How come I never get to hear the juicy drama, huh?” Spike asked, pouting.

Twilight turned and fixed Spike with a fierce glare and he turned away, blushing. “Eheh, right. Sorry, Twilight. I guess this isn’t a joke to you. Hey, are you hungry?”

Her stomach growling on cue, Twilight nodded. Maybe a good meal would help her calm down a bit.

That evening, Twilight was well fed and had calmed down considerably. She had already begun mentally composing a complex apology, though it was difficult. She didn’t really understand where Fluttershy was coming from with all this, and she knew that until she did, it would be difficult to put everything behind them.

But something was bugging her.

Even as she filled herself with busy work to help clear her head and organize her thoughts in the same way she organized her books, there was a persistent nagging in the back of her mind that just wouldn’t go away.

She looked over her shoulder at Fluttershy’s book with a sigh. Why did Fluttershy write this? Why is she so invested in my opinion on it? And why did I get so angry when I was disappointed with the ending?

She knew the answer to the last question, at least. Had Fluttershy written a regular novel, no matter how crappy the ending had been, Twilight could have handled her critique with grace and tact.

Except Fluttershy’s narrative was personal. It was about her. And she had been pulled into the story, whether she liked it or not. Twilight’s struggles were her struggles, and when her struggle was left unresolved, it struck a nerve.

And there was something else, too.

It was in something that Fluttershy had said. That there was a mystery here, that it was solvable, and that she, not the Twilight in the book, was supposed to solve it.

She just couldn’t connect the threads, but… The idea that there was a puzzle here, staring her in the face and taunting her incompetence was slowly becoming maddening. Had she simply missed something? Some vital clue that pulls everything together?

“I’m going to bed,” Spike said, yawning. “G’night, Twilight. Try not to stay up too late.”

“Good night, Spike,” Twilight said absentmindedly. Her attention was still focused on the book. It just didn’t make any sense to her, but…

Cursing her insatiable curiosity, Twilight levitated the book over and opened up to the first page. “Princess Twilight Sparkle…”

Tea Party

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“Here you go, Twilight. I brought some more tea for you.”

Fluttershy leaned over, pouring tea into Twilight’s cup.


“Um, thanks Fluttershy. It smells really good,” Twilight said, smiling. Fluttershy beamed back at her, and began moving around the mansion’s lounge in order to fill the cups of everypony else.

“Aww, come on, tea? I mean it’s okay, I guess, but if you’ve got any cider could I have that instead?” Rainbow Dash asked, glaring at her teacup as if it might bite her.

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Oh come now, darling. There is a certain aesthetic synergy in having a tea party, you know, and the atmosphere would be completely ruined if you just sat there guzzling cider by the mug.”

Pinkie Pie sipped at her tea carefully and steadily before setting it down on the table in front of her and immediately bounced up into the air. “Yeah, come on Dashie! A tea party’s not a party-party! Although I guess it could be, but then it wouldn’t really be a tea party, but a party that happens to have tea. If you like we can throw a party that happens to have tea after the tea party? Or maybe just a party-party that has cider!”

Rainbow Dash growled, grabbing the teacup roughly and downing it in one gulp. “Fine, we’ll just do this!”

Applejack chuckled heartily, clapping Rainbow Dash on the back. “Aw come on, it ain’t so bad. Took me a while to get used to, and still ain’t really my scene besides, but after that adventure we all just went through, something like this sure is nice.”

“Mmmm. My thoughts exactly,” Rarity said, leaning over and nuzzling Applejack softly.

“Oh man, that was so much fun!” Pinkie Pie said, grinning from ear to ear. “I just wish I got to play a bigger part. You win some, you lose some, I guess.”

Applejack tipped her hat. “There’s always next time, Pinkie. So who do y’all think is the murderer?”

“Wait... what?” Twilight said, suddenly looking up from her tea. “What are you talking about?”

“Oooh! I know, I know! Pick me!” Pinkie Pie bounced around, shouting and waving her arms.

“Oh, this is going to be good,” Rainbow Dash said as she rolled her eyes. “Well, go on, Pinkie, who do you think is the murderer?”

“Drumroll, please!” Pinkie Pie called out, pulling out a drum from somewhere. “The murderer – Or should I say, murderers are…

“Those two pegasus guards that accompanied Twilight in the beginning!”

There was a brief pause before everypony except Twilight burst into laughter. “Are you kidding me, Pinkie Pie?” Rainbow Dash asked, snorting and trying to stay seated. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Really now, Pinkie, did those two even get names?” Applejack asked, wiping a tear from her eye.

“I dunno!” Pinkie Pie said cheerily, causing Applejack to cover her face with her hoof.

“Yeah, whatever. If those two mooks turned out to be the culprit it would be a totally lame solution,” Rainbow Dash said, waving a forehoof dismissively. “Besides, I’ve got a better answer.”

Twilight stared at her friends, completely dumbfounded. None of this made sense. Why did her head hurt? It was so hard to think straight…

“I bet the culprit was…” Rainbow Dash paused for dramatic effect.

“Fluttershy!” she yelled and leapt forward, tackling Fluttershy to the ground and grinning wickedly.

Fluttershy yelped and cowered underneath Rainbow Dash, sputtering. “W-what, I…”

“You fer real?” Applejack asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Come on, it totally makes sense! She’s always the cute, innocent, and shy one! I could totally picture her having a crazy psychotic side that goes around murdering everypony!”

“B-but, I don’t…” Fluttershy mumbled weakly, her protests ignored.

“Like yer one to talk,” Applejack snorted derisively. “You were actin’ mighty suspicious the whole time, Rainbow. How do we know you didn’t do it?”

“Me!?” Rainbow Dash yelled, choking on her words. She wheeled around and flew over to Applejack, butting heads with her. “YOU’RE the one who had some horrible, dark secret you were keeping from your fiancé which was enough to cause her to dump you!”

Applejack growled, pushing her weight against Rainbow Dash. “That’s between me and her, and ain’t none of your business besides.”

“How can you both…” Twilight muttered weakly, trying to fight through the heavy fog in her mind as the two glared daggers at each other.

Rarity cleared her throat loudly before puffing her hair up and posing. “Excuse me, but I think you two might be forgetting a certain somepony who was perfectly capable of murdering the rest of you?”

Applejack and Rainbow Dash looked over at her, then back at each other before they both burst out laughing, rolling around on the floor.

“You, the murderer?” Rainbow Dash said, barely able to speak through the fits of laughter.

“Sorry, hun, but that’s rich.” Applejack said, grinning widely.

Rarity puffed up, her cheeks turning red as she glowered at the two below her. “How dare you! I am just as capable as anypony here of committing such vile deeds! The methods of murder were, for the most part, pretty elegant, you know. And I’ve got a unique advantage! Magic makes committing such crimes so much easier, don’t you think? Especially with all those locked rooms. Who else but a unicorn could bypass a chain lock without breaking it?” Rarity tapped her horn for emphasis.

This was insane, right? This setting, what they were talking about… it was from Fluttershy’s novel. So why was she…?

“Orrrr maaaaaybe,” Pinkie Pie said in a slow drawl. “It was meeeeee.” They all turned to look at Pinkie Pie. Her mane had gone straight and her eyes shifted in different directions crazily as she brandished a paring knife.

Applejack rolled her eyes as she got up off the ground and took her seat again. “You died at the beginning, Pinkie.” Glancing over at Rainbow Dash, she added, “Fluttershy too, for that matter.”

“Oh yeah!” Pinkie Pie said, her mane immediately bouncing back to its normal curls. “Whoops!”

Rarity sighed, still feeling indignant that she was being dismissed but unable to maintain that attitude for long in front of Pinkie Pie. “Well, I suppose that we’ve got a lot of options. Speaking of Fluttershy, who do you think did it, darling?”

“Oh, me?” Fluttershy blushed, looking away. “I don’t know. I don’t really want to say. It would be, um, rude.”

“It’s okay, dear Fluttershy,” a regal voice said as the door to the lounge opened. “You can say what’s on your mind, I won’t be offended.”

“Princess Celestia! And Princess Luna,” they all called out as the two alicorns entered the room.

“Aw shucks,” Applejack said as she took her hat off. “Hadn’t really gotten a chance to see you two, so I’d almost forgotten you were here.”

“It is no worry, my little ponies,” Celestia said as she ducked into the room. “If you don’t mind, a cup of tea please?”

Twilight stared at Princess Celestia and Luna. Something felt off, even about them.

Luna jumped into the center of the room, spinning around and grinning as she spread her wings theatrically. “‘Tis not exactly an uncommon scenario. There are many stories out there that depict mine dearest sister as a murderous tyrant. I, the heroic and neglected younger sibling dare to stand up to her! But alas, I am slain and my horn is cast aside as a trophy in retaliation!”

Celestia sipped at her tea, smiling softly as she watched her sister gesticulate wildly.

“Or perhaps it was you, Twilight Sparkle!” Luna shouted, pointing a hoof accusingly. “This mayhaps be a story of your descent into madness, of a split personality or doppelganger!”

Well, she certainly felt pretty insane right now.

“Don’t be silly!” Pinkie Pie said, raising her forehooves above her head and making an ‘X’. “The detective isn’t allowed to be the culprit. That’s just cheating!”

Luna blushed slightly, pulling back. “Ah. My apologies. I was not fully aware of the rules.”

“Hmm, well maybe it was…”

“It’s possible, but I think a better option is…”

“I think you might be on to something with that one, but does it really…”

“The murderer could be…”

“The murderer…”

“ENOUGH!” Twilight screamed, grabbing everypony’s teacups with telekinesis and smashing them on the ground. “What is wrong with all of you!?”

Rarity stared down at her shattered teacup distastefully before sighing and kneading her temple with a hoof. “Twilight, darling, if you have a theory of your own, we’d be more than happy to hear it, but going around breaking things is just –”

“How…” Twilight flinched back, clutching her forehead with her hoof. It was so hard to think straight. “How can you all just sit around here casually talking about your murders? You’re dead! You’re all supposed to be dead. So am I. But you’re all just sitting here, accusing each other like its nothing.”

She was supposed to be dead? This... wasn’t right. That was the fictional Twilight. These were the fictional versions of her friends. So why was she…?

“Besides…” Twilight said, lowering her head and keeping her eyes closed. “We already know who the killer is. The pony named Golden Wish, whoever she is. She admitted as much herself. I… just wasn’t able to stop her. I’m sorry.”

Twilight stood there with her head down, waiting for a response. None came, and she realized an unnatural silence had fallen over the room

As Twilight raised her gaze a silent scream caught in her throat.

Everypony was dead. Just like they had been before. Just like she had read in the book. Pinkie Pie lay smiling, her throat cut. Applejack and Rarity snuggled close in a pool of blood. Luna’s horn lay discarded on the table. Princess Celestia and Rainbow Dash were simply gone. And Fluttershy…

She heard a wet dripping sound from behind her where Fluttershy had been sitting.

She couldn’t bring herself to turn around.

The world shifted around her, the room suddenly awash in flame. The choking smoke invaded her senses, and the oppressive heat made her muddled mind sink even deeper into confusion.

Tiny embers began to flake from the inferno, the motes of light swirling together in the center of the room and coalescing into the shape of a pony.

“Well then, Twilight Sparkle,” a voice rang out, reverberating around the room. “You wanted a confrontation with me so badly. So here I am.”

As the figure extended her wings, there was a pulse of energy and the room around her vanished, flames and all. She was merely floating in a dark void, her senses dimming further.

As she struggled to regain her balance, Twilight stared up at the alicorn towering over her. Golden Wish looked exactly like Twilight had pictured her. Her sleek golden fur, her short cropped lavender bob, and scales running down her back.

“You... killed my friends,” Twilight growled weakly. She tried to fire up her horn, but no magic came to her, her sense of clarity still slipping in and out.

Golden Wish merely threw back her head and laughed, cackling maniacally. “You don’t have what it takes to destroy me, Princess. You are too arrogant, too blind to the truths that surround you.”

“No,” Twilight whimpered, feebly trying to protest as her vision dimmed further. “This is all just a trick… I’ll never give up.”

Golden Wish smirked as Twilight’s mind slipped back into darkness.

“A trick without an explanation is no different than the truth.”


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“You there… yes, you. You certainly seem like an interesting one. Perhaps you will provide me with some entertainment after all.

“You seek the truth… but the truth is a fickle and dangerous thing. When you reach inside and tear out the guts, you see all there is to see, in all of its terrible and ugly glory.

“Can you prevail against all odds? Will you reach your desired happy ending? Truly, it would take a miracle. If you find the answers you seek, will you be happy with them? Or will it only cause you pain?

“I am Infinite Miracle. As long as the probability of something happening is greater than zero, I can make it happen without fail.

“I’ve decided to lend you my aid. It looks like your future will be very entertaining, and boredom is poison to someone like me. So try your best to weave a compelling narrative, okay? I can become quite cruel if you bore me.

“If you want to succeed, keep digging and digging. Dismantle this story to the very atom, tear out its insides and analyze them harshly. If you hold back for the sake of kindness, the pain endured will only magnify. Harsh truths should bathe in harsh sunlight.

“As a token of my good faith, I will lend you a fraction of my power. These formidable weapons will help you in what will come.

“PZ1.K775 Bd”

Chapter 9 - Reconciliation

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Twilight woke up, gasping for air. She struggled fervently as panic gripped her heart, her limbs getting tangled in the bedsheets and —

It was just a nightmare.

With a shuddering gasp Twilight fell still and allowed her racing heart to settle down. She was safe, in her bed. None of what she had witnessed was real.

After taking several deep breaths, she let out a long yawn and pushed her sweat soaked sheets aside as she got out of bed. It was certainly an effective nightmare. She felt exhausted, like she had barely gotten any rest at all. I suppose that’s what I get for reading until I fell asleep.

Reading about that stuff was one thing, but actually experiencing it, even in a dream… No. She shouldn’t dwell on it too much. The memory would probably pass in a few hours.

There had been something else though, at the end. A voice... and a string of numbers?

Pulling a parchment and quill from her bedside drawer, Twilight wrote down the letters and numbers still burned into her memory. They looked familiar somehow, but she couldn’t quite place it.

She yawned again and stretched before looking at her disheveled form in the mirror. The dark circles around her eyes and the unkempt state of her mane reflected exactly how she felt.

After making a few silly faces at herself, Twilight let out a sigh as the full memory of what all had transpired yesterday came back to her.

“This is going to be a long day,” she grumbled as she shuffled towards the bedroom door.

“Hey, Twilight. You feeling alright?”

Twilight groaned in response as she slumped over the kitchen table, watching Spike make breakfast out of the corner of her eye.

“Well, my mighty dragon breakfast special ought to give you some energy!” Spike said, turning and flashing Twilight a winning smile, before it fell to a more concerned expression. “But seriously… I know you’re not much for mornings, but this Fluttershy thing must be pretty bad.”

“It’s…” Twilight paused, closing her eyes and allowing the smell of breakfast to clear her head before continuing. “That smells really good, Spike. But this situation is pretty complicated. There’s probably a lesson about friendship in here somewhere, though I haven’t quite figured it out yet.”

“Do you need me to write up a letter?” Spike asked, smirking.

Twilight laughed, pushing herself up from the table and stretching her neck. “No, that won’t be necessary. At least not yet anyway.”

Glancing down at the paper on the table, she levitated it over to where Spike was cooking. “Hey, does this mean anything to you?”

Spike pulled away from the pot he was stirring and stared at the paper, scratching his chin. “Hmm… Isn’t this some kind of library thing?”

A library thing? It didn’t seem like…

Twilight pulled the paper back, reciting the string out loud. “PZ1.K775 Bd…”

Realization flashed in Twilight’s mind, and she smacked herself in the face over how obvious it was. “Of course! This is a book classification for the Library of Celestia! It’s a very particular sorting method meant for large collections of books, but it’s generally only used in academic libraries.”

Spike looked back at her, raising an eyebrow. “So you’re looking for a book we don’t have?”

“I’m not sure!” Twilight said excitedly. She got up and trotted over to the bookshelf and began scanning back and forth, her earlier lethargy forgotten. “I don’t know what this code refers to specifically, but we have a reference guide for that system here somewhere.”

“Is Fluttershy giving you really obscure books to look up or something?” Spike asked.

“Huh? No, nothing like that,” Twilight said, finding the guide she was looking for and beginning to page through it. “Actually, I was told to look up this book in a dream.”

Spike stared at her, blankly. “You’re receiving book recommendations in your dreams now? What’s next, sleep reading?”

Sleep reading? If only she could be that productive. Maybe she should have a chat with Luna.

Twilight matched the code to a book and, with delight, realized it was one they had here in the library. After a minute of searching, she found it and pulled the dusty tome off the shelves.

“’A Treatise on Mysteries,’ by Roan A. Knocks,” Twilight announced, holding the book up proudly.

“A mystery novel?” Spike asked. “Isn’t that one almost a century old?”

“It’s not so much a mystery novel as it is a collection of essays on the various facets of the mystery genre as a whole, including a somewhat famous set of ‘rules’ mystery authors should follow,” Twilight explained. This would be perfect for Fluttershy.

As glad as she was for this discovery, the circumstances surrounding it were weird. Was her subconscious trying to show her a way to make peace with her friend?

“Ooookay then,” Spike said, rolling his eyes. “Only you could get excited about something like that, Twilight. Anyway, breakfast is ready.”

Twilight’s heart fluttered as she ate. Not only had she found this book, but Spike was wrong. For once, she might not be the only pony who cared about something like this. Fluttershy had taken her first steps into the wide world of literature. Okay, maybe the attempt had ended in a total disaster, and that would usually be enough to scare Fluttershy away from something new, but if Twilight could handle it right, she might be able to coax her newfound interest into something greater.

All she had to do was go see Fluttershy, apologize profusely, and they could put the whole thing behind them.

Twilight’s face scrunched up as images of Fluttershy flickered through her mind. Her determination about the mystery, and her heartbreak as Twilight had vented her frustrations on her. Sure, it might be possible to forget about this whole thing and pretend it never happened. But Twilight had a feeling that Fluttershy was hoping for something more.

She had re-read the entire novel last night, but wasn’t any closer to solving the mystery. There were some things she hadn’t noticed at first that she caught the second time around, but nothing definitive. Still, she had to move forward and do the best she could. For Fluttershy’s sake.

“Uh, does it taste okay, Twilight?” Spike asked, a worried look on his face. “You look like something bit your tongue.”

Twilight swallowed her food, blushing slightly. “Sorry, Spike. It’s delicious. I just have a lot on my mind, that’s all.”

Spike frowned, nodding as he drummed his claws on the table. “If you say so, Twilight. So what are your plans then?”

“Well…” Twilight said as she levitated her empty plate to the sink. “I plan to stop by the market to pick up a few things first, but after that I need to go to Fluttershy’s and apologize. I just hope she’ll give me the chance.”

“Uhhuh,” Spike said, crossing his arms and looking Twilight up and down. “Well, good luck.”

Twilight let out a sigh. “Thanks. I’m probably going to need it.”

Twilight walked through the Ponyville market with a satchel slung over her shoulder, soaking in the warm sunlight and the thrum of the ponies around her. As ragged as she felt both physically and mentally, the life and energy of the quiet little village she called home always had a rejuvenating effect on her.

“Hey, you there! The purple one with the wings and the horn! Over here!”

Twilight frowned as the unfamiliar voice called out to her and snapped her out of her reverie. She glanced around the market, trying to find out who it belonged to. Eventually she saw a light pink unicorn mare with a blond mane waving at her frantically from behind a stall.

Twilight trotted over to the stall in question. “Um… can I help you?” It wasn’t a stall or a pony she recognized, and a sloppily written banner spelled out, “We’re Absolutely Certain you’ll be satisfied!”

“Hiya! You must be that new princess I’ve heard so much about. I’m Absolute Certainty. Welcome to my candy shop!” she said, bowing slightly and tipping her pink beret.

Twilight grimaced inwardly, keeping her face a smiling mask. “Hi there, nice to meet you! I’m Princess Twilight Sparkle. I don’t think we’ve met before, so if you’re new here, then welcome to Ponyville!” She took a quick glance at Certainty’s cutie mark. It appeared to be an image of a solar system, except the stars and the planets were made out of candy.

“My candies are perfect if you or someone you know is feeling down. All of them exquisitely crafted by yours truly,” Certainty said, beaming with pride. “I put my heart and soul into everything I create!”

Twilight nodded politely at the sales pitch, idly scanning the shelves. She supposed it would be best if she went ahead and bought something. It’s not like candy would be unwelcome.

Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes fell upon the grisly display on the bottom shelf. “What is…?”

“Do you like it?” Certainty asked, grinning widely. “Those are my specially made bone-marzipan, gummy brains, and cotton candy gore!”

“This is, uh…” Twilight paused, trying to find a tactful thing to say as she looked over the gruesome candies. “Um, I’m pretty sure Nightmare Night isn’t for another four months…”

“Ponies should be able to enjoy gruesomely mundane spectacles any day of the year, if you ask me! Kind of makes you contemplate you own mortality and the fragility of life, don’t you think?” Certainty leaned forward, getting uncomfortably close to Twilight as she grinned wildly, a manic glint in her eyes.

Twilight was reminded of Pinkie Pie somewhat, but this pony came off a bit creepy rather than warm and full of smiles. “Uh, that’s definitely an interesting way of looking at things.”

Certainty pulled back and lowered her head. Her beret slipped down and pushed her short blonde mane into her eyes as she looked up at Twilight, pouting. “Nobody else seems to think so. I never sell any of them. Do you have any idea how much work it is to get the texture right on the brains?”

Twilight fought to keep her expression neutral. She was being played, she could feel it. “I guess I’ll take a couple of them.”

“That’s wonderful,” Certainty said, bouncing up. She levitated a number of the candies into a bag and wrapped it up, closing it with a ribbon and a pumpkin sticker. “That’ll be seven bits. And remember. If you desire something with absolute certainty, than come to Absolute Certainty!”

Twilight paid for the candies and bowed, leaving quickly. Maybe Spike would get a kick out of these.

Applejack finished lifting the last of the boxes onto the cart, wiping the sweat from her brow. "That oughta do it.”

"I cannot thank you enough for lending me a hoof with this, darling," Rarity said, telekinetically attaching the cart's harness to Applejack. "I try not to order in bulk very often, but these materials came at a great bargain."

"Ain't no sweat, Rar," Applejack said, grunting as she began to pull the heavy cart down the road. "Anything fer a friend."

The two of them walked side by side in silence for awhile, until Applejack noticed a familiar purple princess meandering through the crowd.

"Hey, Twilight!" Applejack called out with a wave. "How're you doin’?"

"Oh, hey!" Twilight brightened as she saw who it was, and waved back enthusiastically before trotting over. "Hi Applejack! And hi... Rarity?"

Twilight stopped, her mouth working soundlessly as she glanced between the two of them. Her face slowly turned beet red. "W-what are you two doing here? Together?"

Rarity raised an eyebrow, glancing at Applejack. "She's just helping me move some goods to the boutique."

Twilight stared at them blankly, still blushing before the words finally reached her and she jumped up, forcing a smile that was way too wide. "Ehehe... Just delivering goods! Of course, what else would it be..."

Applejack and Rarity shared another glance before looking back to Twilight, concerned. "Uh, sugarcube? You feelin' alright? No offense, but you're looking a bit run down."

"Me? Nope! I'm fine! Definitely, totally fine. I just happened to bump into two of my best friends in the marketplace. Together. Not that there's anything wrong with that!" Twilight backed away, gesticulating wildly as she spoke.

"Twilight, darling," Rarity said, fixing Twilight with a stern glare. "We know you well enough by now that we can tell when something is up. If you can't talk about it for whatever reason that's understandable, but don't pretend that everything is 'fine' when it clearly isn't."

"I..." Twilight let out a sigh, lowering her head. "You're right. I'm sorry. I can't really give you the details, but I kind of got into a fight with Fluttershy. I'm on my way to apologize to her right now."

Rarity hissed sharply, pursing her lips while Applejack stared blankly, blinking several times before letting out a low whistle.

"Shoot. Never expected that answer. You need help with anything? We all know how delicate Fluttershy can be."

Twilight shook her head. “No… I think this is something I have to handle on my own.”

“This… ‘fight’ you had,” Rarity said, glancing about before leaning in close and speaking with a low whisper. “Just what was it about, exactly?”

“It’s… complicated,” Twilight said. “I really shouldn’t get into details, but let’s just say I rather explicitly disliked a book Fluttershy obviously cared a lot about. I may have gone a little overboard in expressing my opinion.”

Rarity blinked, taken aback. “A… book? I see. Well, uh, good luck, Twilight. Do let me know if you need any assistance with this matter, will you?”

“Thanks, Rarity. I’ll do my best.” Twilight smiled, nodding to both mares. “I’d better get going. You two, um…” Twilight looked away, her blush returning. “Uh, have fun… helping each other.”

Turning away, Twilight practically galloped down the road.

After watching Twilight disappear into the distance, Applejack took off her hat, scratching her head. “Just what in tarnation was that all about?”

Rarity shook her head and clicked her tongue. “I have a bad feeling about this. Whenever Twilight gets into one of her ‘odd’ moods, nopony can predict what’s going to happen. I do hope Fluttershy will be alright, but it’s not our place to interfere.”

Applejack turned to her and raised an eyebrow, causing Rarity to blush.

“Not yet, anyway.”

Twilight slowed down to a walk, safely outside of town on the road to Fluttershy’s cottage, her heart still pounding in her chest. It was all just fictional. There was no good reason for her to be acting so foalish.

She sighed, closing her eyes and rubbing her forehead. This was shaping up to be a pretty awful day so far. Terrible, yet weirdly informative nightmares, crazy ponies selling candy, and she just had to bump into Applejack and Rarity during one of the odd occasions when they decided to spend time together. If she was a more superstitious pony, she might have taken it as a sign to turn around, go home, and try working things out with Fluttershy another day.

It only took a few more minutes to reach the cottage, and Twilight paused, hesitating outside the front door. She hoped Fluttershy would at least be willing to talk to her. Running through her carefully prepared speech one last time, Twilight reached a hoof up and knocked on the door.

After a minute with no answer, Twilight tried again, her confidence slipping. “Fluttershy? Are you in there? It’s me, Twilight. Look, I just want to talk, okay?”

There was shuffling sound from behind the door, and Twilight let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Forcing a warm smile as the door opened, her face fell and she blinked in surprise when, instead of Fluttershy, Angel opened the door.

“Oh… Uh, hey, Angel. Is Fluttershy in?” Twilight asked, trying to peer past him.

Angel began gesticulating wildly, shaking his fist at Twilight and pointing inside, all while chattering incomprehensibly. He pulled the door all the way open and scampered off, glancing back over his shoulder to angrily motion for her to follow.

Angel led her up to Fluttershy’s room, stopping outside and turning back to Twilight, crossing his arms and tapping his foot impatiently.

Twilight peeked around the corner and saw Fluttershy sitting there, hunched over a table with a quill in her mouth, furiously writing. She immediately noticed that the place was an absolute wreck. Candy wrappers, discarded sheets of paper, empty ink bottles, and other various bits of trash were strewn about the floor.

“Fluttershy…” Twilight mumbled, her mouth hanging open.

Fluttershy lazily turned to look at Twilight, and smiled softly. “Oh, hey Twilight. Good to see you. Um, sorry about the mess.”

Twilight stared, her planned apology evaporating from her mind in an instant. Fluttershy’s eyes were bloodshot, and there were thick dark circles under them. Her mane was frazzled, with stray hairs sticking up all over the place, and it generally looked like she hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep.

“Are you… okay?” Twilight said weakly, licking her lips and swallowing. “I know I said some hurtful things last night…”

Fluttershy turned her head slightly, staring at Twilight in incomprehension. She blinked several times, before the spark of understanding finally lit up in her eyes and she gasped lightly, her face falling as she looked to the floor.

“Oh, right. I’m sorry, Twilight. It was really all my fault. I’m not a very good writer, please forgive me.”

Twilight let out a sigh, closing her eyes and rubbing her temple with a hoof. This wasn’t going at all like she had planned, and Fluttershy was barely conscious besides.

“That’s not true, Fluttershy,” Twilight said, moving over and placing a hoof on Fluttershy’s shoulder. “You’re a pretty good writer, especially considering it’s your first novel. I just… had some personal reservations about the direction of the plot. I’m sorry. I acted completely out of line, and said some mean things. I was lashing out because I was angry and hurt, but that’s no excuse to act like a jerk to a friend.”

Her words once again took time to reach the sleep deprived mind of Fluttershy, and she watched the delayed reaction as Fluttershy slowly turned a deep crimson, her eyes going wide.

“Y-you’re too kind, Twilight… I let myself get too wrapped up in the story I created, and in my idea on how everything would turn out, I didn’t really consider how it would make you feel.”

Twilight grinned, throwing her forelegs around Fluttershy in a hug. “Guess we can both go a little overboard sometimes, huh?”

“Thank you,” Fluttershy said, smiling. She pulled out of the hug, shaking her head and vigorously rubbing at her eyes.

“Seriously though, are you okay? You look absolutely exhausted,” Twilight said.

Fluttershy nodded, her eyelids drooping as she let out a yawn. “Nnn… I’m fine, Twilight, it’s okay. I’m almost finished anyways.”

“Finished with… what, exactly?” Twilight asked, a note of apprehension in her voice.

“The sequel, of course,” Fluttershy said as she moved back to her desk and picked up a quill.

Twilight stared blankly at the large stack of papers on the table. Had Fluttershy seriously written all of them in just one night? The idea of it was completely insane.

“How can there possibly be a sequel when everypony died at the end?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow.”

“You’ll just have to read it and find out,” Fluttershy said, nodding absentmindedly. She stopped, turned to look at Twilight, and then blushed, shaking her head. “No, that’s not right. I can’t ask you to read this again… I’m just writing this for me.”

The thought of diving back into that literary world of nightmare twisted Twilight’s stomach, but she also felt that burning spark of curiosity in the back of her mind. “Did you plan to have a sequel this whole time, or did you just expand on it when I couldn’t figure it out?”

Fluttershy frowned, raising a hoof to her chin. “I’m not quite sure… I think I always had the basic idea that there would be more. The way I imagined everything and what I ended up writing didn’t match up the way I hoped they would. I don’t think I did a very good job of making the mystery solvable. I’m sorry. But, um, I’m still trying my best.”

“I see…” Twilight said, taking a deep breath. “Why… what made you decide to do all of this in the first place, Fluttershy? What are you trying to accomplish here?”

“O-oh…” Fluttershy closed her eyes and hung her head to the floor, pawing at the ground. She remained silent for a full minute before finally speaking up in a weak voice, refusing to look at Twilight. “They say a mystery novel is basically a puzzle. A contest between the author and the reader.

“I…” Fluttershy swallowed, looking up to meet Twilight’s gaze, blushing. “I wanted to create a puzzle that you would enjoy solving.”

Twilight found herself smiling. It was certainly an interesting sentiment, even if the execution had left something to be desired. “I suppose I can see what you’re trying to get at. I feel the same way about mystery novels, really. But if your goal is to get me to solve a puzzle, why not just make the puzzle and leave out all the extraneous narrative involving murder?”

Fluttershy raised a hoof to her chin, her brow furrowing as she considered the point. Eventually, she closed her eyes and shook her head. “A narrative can be just as much of a puzzle. And both the author’s and the reader’s investment in the answer is much higher.”

That was definitely true. A bare bones puzzle could be stimulating on an intellectual level, but a good narrative meant that you would care about the answer for more than just the answer’s sake.

Twilight chuckled softly, shaking her head. “I didn’t realize you had such a high concept view on writing, Fluttershy. When you first came to me asking me to read what you wrote, I expected something totally different. Had you explained your perspective from the start, well, this whole mess might have turned out a bit differently.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m not very good at explaining things,” Fluttershy said, ducking her head again.

“And I think that’s enough apologies for the both of us, for now,” Twilight said, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, I tried reading your story again last night, to see if there was anything I missed, but I’m afraid I still couldn’t figure it out. In any case, I brought something that might interest you as an author.”

Fluttershy perked up as Twilight levitated the satchel off her back and opened it up. She reached for the book she had found, but a thought occurred to her at the last minute instead.

“Here, I uh, brought you some candy,” Twilight said, levitating over the bag she had purchased earlier.

Fluttershy blinked a few times before smiling and opening up the bag. “Oh, thank you very much, Twilight. That’s very sweet of you, and –“

She stopped mid sentence, holding up the brain shaped gummy, staring at it in utter confusion.

“Um….” Fluttershy mumbled, looking to Twilight, glancing at the rest of the candy in the bag, then back at Twilight.

“It’s a joke! Because, you know, you wrote a novel that involves gore and stuff, so I bought some gory candy…” Twilight rambled, baring her teeth in a forced smile.

“Oh. Oh! Ahaha, now um, I get it…” Fluttershy said, her smile equally forced.

Twilight smacked her face with her hoof, groaning. “I’m sorry. That was dumb, forget it. Anyway, I also brought a book for you.”

“What? No, it was funny, Twilight, really. I’m just tired, that’s all…” Fluttershy said, the lie plain on her face.

Sighing, Twilight offered her the book. “This is ‘A Treatise on Mysteries,’ by Roan A. Knocks. He was a prolific mystery writer about a century ago, and was part of the golden age that codified many of the tropes and conventions mystery is known for. This book is sort of a collection of essays about the genre as a whole, including a somewhat famous list of ten commandments for mystery writers to follow, ‘Knocks’ Decalogue.’”

Twilight beamed as Fluttershy skimmed the old tome.

“Actually, Twilight, I have this book already. I did a lot of research for this, and it’s hard to write a mystery without at least considering Knocks' perspective. But thank you.”

Twilight blinked, her smile fading. That couldn’t be right. “Your story, Fluttershy, it’s not exactly…”

Fluttershy interrupted her, shaking her head. “I followed the rules, Twilight.”

She thought back, about the Decalogue and Fluttershy’s novel. Surely it had broken a rule somewhere? “What about the sequel?”

“Yep. I made sure to stick to it,” Fluttershy said, nodding.

There it was again. That burning spark of curiosity. To say Twilight was unsatisfied with the ending would be an understatement. In part because it was all so needlessly horrific. But also because she wanted to know the truth of what had happened to her fictional counterpart. Even if she couldn’t see how it was possible, Fluttershy was saying that there was more to this story.

There was something she noticed in the way Fluttershy had apologized, before and now. She was sorry for hurting Twilight. She was sorry for failing to make the mystery clear enough, and sorry for being inconsiderate of Twilight’s perspective. But she never once apologized for writing what she did, and how she did it. For whatever reason, her conviction was absolute.

So here she was. The sequel was liable to be more of the same. Death. Suffering. Tragedy. It would be easy enough to walk away, here and now, and never step into that world again. Fluttershy would be disappointed, but she would understand. Twilight had no obligation to continue reading, especially after what had already happened. Like a cat trapped in a box, if she never bothered to read what was on those pages, she would never know the answer, but would also never have to experience whatever suffering they might contain.

Twilight chuckled softly, mumbling something under her breath.

“Um, what was that?” Fluttershy asked. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I said…” Twilight paused, looking up as a grin stretched across her face. “I’ll read it. Your sequel.”

Fluttershy’s eyes went wide and she dropped the book she was holding to the floor. “N-no, you don’t have to do that because of me, Twilight, I mean it. It’s more of the same. I’m sure you’d really hate going through all of that again.”

Twilight shook her head. “I’m serious, I want to read it. Does this one have a happy ending?”

Fluttershy pursed her lips, looking away. “That depends on you…”

A flare of excitement welled up in Twilight’s heart. Fluttershy had some unconventional ideas about storytelling and audience participation. But now that she had experienced loss once… she was the protagonist. She wanted to fight, to win, and to see justice done.

“That settles it, Fluttershy. I’m going to do my best to solve your mystery. That is, if you think it’s ready.”

Fluttershy’s expression changed slowly, her smile growing radiant and her eyes filling with a bright hope that seemed to wash away her exhaustion.

“Oh thank you thank you thank you!” Fluttershy leapt forward, throwing her forelegs around Twilight’s next and bouncing excitedly. “I worked oh so hard on this one! Now, the theme is a bit different, and I’ve tried to clarify some things better and the puzzles are a little more explicit and the conflict is –“

Smiling, Twilight put a hoof over Fluttershy’s mouth and then extracted herself from her grasp. “No need to spoil everything. Don’t worry, I’ll get to it.”

Fluttershy continued to bounce around the room as if she had been taking lessons from Pinkie Pie.

“So, when do you think it’ll be ready?” Twilight asked.

“Oh, right now should be fine. I only needed to put a few more things in at the end.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Really? Are you certain about that? You don’t want to maybe take a step back, get some sleep, do some editing…”

Fluttershy nodded. “Absolutely. I’m confident that I nailed it this time Twilight, so we can start whenever you’re ready.”

Twilight watched as Fluttershy started slowly leaning to one side. She nearly toppled over before Twilight reached out and caught her with her magic. “I think you should probably get some rest first. “

“Oh, no, I’ll be fine, really…” Fluttershy rubbed at her eyes, yawning. “And I still have to take care of my animals. I may have been a bit neglectful.”

Glancing over her shoulder, Twilight saw Angel Bunny still waiting in the door frame, rolling his eyes. “How about we head back to the library, then? I can send Spike over to watch the animals for a day, and then I’ll get started on the sequel, and you can take a nap in peace and quiet.”

Angel Bunny seemed to dislike this idea rather emphatically, but Fluttershy smiled and began packing up her things. “That sounds like a great idea, Twilight.”

Getting back to the library with Fluttershy was more of a chore than it should have been, since she kept nodding off mid stride. By the time Twilight reached her front door, she was practically carrying the pegasus with levitation to make sure she kept going in a straight line.

“Nnnn…” Fluttershy yawned, pawing at the ground. “Is this for me, Twilight? You really shouldn’t have…”

“Is what—“ Twilight began to ask, but saw that Fluttershy had noticed what appeared to be a present in the bushes outside her house.

“Sorry, but I’m not sure what this is. Maybe it’s something Spike ordered,” Twilight said, levitating the package along as she opened the door.

“Spike, I’m home! Come here, I’ve got something I need you to do!” Twilight called out as she entered the library.

“What do you need, Twilight?” Spike asked as he came down the stairs.

“Can you go watch over Fluttershy’s animals for the day? We’ve got some uh… stuff we need to work out.”

Spike raised an eyebrow, looking over the two of them. Fluttershy was very poignantly interested in a particular spot on the wall. “Is uh, everything okay?’

Twilight glanced over at Fluttershy and winced slightly. “Yeah… Don’t worry, I can handle everything. I’ll explain this all to you later, I promise.”

Spike sighed, sinking his face into his palm. “I guess I’ll go get my rabbit caretaking kit,” he said as he moved towards the cupboard where the pots and pans were kept.

Spike begrudgingly set off while Fluttershy collapsed onto the cushions, eyelids flickering as she slipped in and out of consciousness.

Shoot. She had forgotten to ask Spike about the package. It wasn’t labeled, though, so it wouldn’t really be a problem if she just went ahead and opened it.

Yellow eyes stared at her from within.


Her mouth hanging open, Twilight watched as a sleek black cat stretched inside the present-box then lazily stepped out, looking around the library with feline indifference.

“Awww… I didn’t know you were getting a cat, Twilight. You should have said something,” Fluttershy said, the presence of a cute animal apparently enough to rouse her from her stupor.

“I didn’t…” Twilight mumbled. Who in Equestria would send her a cat? This was a little off the wall, even for Pinkie Pie. And the punchline was missing, besides.

The cat walked across the table, jumped down, found a cushion, and settled in, yawning.

“Do you have a name, little one? Cats really shouldn’t be delivered in boxes like that, but you seem to be okay, so I’m glad,” Fluttershy said, continuing her adoration of the mysterious animal.

Twilight shook her head. “I have no idea why there was a cat at my doorstep, Fluttershy, and I’m not really in the market for another pet right now. If nopony shows up later to claim her, would you mind taking her in?”

“Aww, but I think she likes you, Twilight!”

The cat stared at Twilight with cold indifference, blinking once before turning to lick her paw.

Twilight pursed her lips, staring back at the animal. This was all really too out of the blue to deal with right now. It was just a cat, and she had more important things to worry about at the moment. She had a feeling this would work itself out later, anyway.

“Alright, I guess we’ll just have a bit of an audience, then. Is that okay?” Twilight asked.

Fluttershy continued to coo sweet nothings at the cat, so Twilight levitated the roughly written stack of papers before her and took a deep breath. Here I go again...

“This is a work of fiction. Names, characters…” Twilight started to read out loud, but stopped, turning to raise an eyebrow at Fluttershy. “Uh, I think it’s a little late for a disclaimer like this, don’t you think?”

Fluttershy blushed and looked away. “I just wanted to make it clear…”

Twilight smiled, shaking her head with a sigh. “If you say so.” She quickly skimmed down the rest of the page, noticing something odd.

“Uh, Fluttershy, is Applejack the protagonist now?”

Fluttershy blinked and then shook her head. “No. Well, I mean, she’s the protagonist for the prologue chapters, but you’re still the main protagonist.”

“Despite being dead?” Twilight asked incredulously.

“Like I said, you’ll see,” Fluttershy said, yawning.

“I think I’ll read to myself this time, if you don’t mind. You need to get some sleep.”

Fluttershy nodded, her eyes already drooping closed.

Twilight glanced up to the top of the page, noting that Fluttershy had bothered to put the title in this time.

“The Challenge of Golden Wish.”

TIPS - Knocks' Decalogue

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Excerpt from A ‘Treatise on Mysteries’, by Roan A. Knocks. Additional commentary by Naor A. Knocks.

I. It is forbidden for the culprit to be anyone not mentioned in the early part of the story. A mysterious stranger who is revealed at the last minute spoils the play altogether.

II.It is forbidden for an excessive use of magic to employed as a detective technique. Magic is a powerful tool, and a unicorn detective has many more options at his disposal. But should magic be used to solve the crime entirely - for instance, a lie detecting spell that finds the culprit, or a monitoring spell which catches him red handed, you should stop and consider what kind of story you really want to tell.

III. It is forbidden for hidden passages to exist. Without the proper clues and foreshadowing indicating such a passage exists and having the detective discover them, it is no more than a cheap trick that removes the readers ability to reason.

IV. It is forbidden for unknown powers or hard to understand scientific devices to be used. Any hack can imagine an insane type of magical plant or potion that conjures up strange effects and impossible scenarios. A mystery should be solved by the powers of pony deduction, not the authors magical fantasy. Likewise, if the solution to your mystery requires a long science lecture at the end, throw it in the trash.

V: It is forbidden for griffons or other monsters to figure into the story. ** While this certainly seems inappropriate from a modern perspective, my father’s view here should be considered in context. Tensions between Equestria and the Griffon Empire were high at the time, and many shoddy writers used cheap caricatures of Griffons, as well as various magical beasts as their culprit, denying the reader a true suspect.

VI. It is forbidden for accident or intuition to be employed as a detective technique. Clues should be found through genuine deduction and investigation. Your detective must not, for example, look for the lost will in the works of a grandfather clock because an unaccountable instinct tells him that it is the right place to search.

VII. It is forbidden for the detective to be the culprit. This is the ultimate deception to pull on the reader, and why it is forbidden should be fairly obvious. This only counts for intentional crime. If, in the course of the mystery, the detective triggers an accident that leads to a murder, it is still forgivable.

VIII. It is forbidden for the case to be resolved with clues that are not presented. Perhaps the simplest of all, yet the most important core to a good mystery. To solve the crime, present the clues. All clues must be foreshadowed earlier in the story.

IX. It is permitted for observers to let their own conclusions and interpretations be heard. Whether intentionally trying to deceive the detective, speculating on their own, or just plain misguided, any character is allowed to project their own interpretations on to the events of the story. It is the job of the detective and the reader to sift through all the information to decide what is reliable and what is merely a red herring.

X. It is forbidden for a character to disguise themselves as another without any clues. This is too easy of a dodge, and too much of a cliche to be taken seriously.

Chapter 10 - The Heart of an Apple

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or ponies, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

“Alright, let’s get this party started!”

Pinkie Pie pulled a cord and jumped up into the air as confetti and streamers fell from the ceiling, swirling around them. They received more than a few annoyed glances from the other museum goers.

“Seriously?” Rainbow Dash scoffed. “Out of everything there is to do here in Mareami, the first place we go is to a museum?”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Really now, Rainbow Dash, a little bit of culture isn’t going to kill you. And I just have to check out the early century pony fashions exhibit. I hear some of the dresses they have are originals!”

Twilight grinned. “I know how you feel about these sorts of things, Rainbow, so I kept that in mind when I designed today’s itinerary. We’ll only be here for an hour and a half before we head down to the beach, so I’m sure you can last till then. Besides, there’s an exhibit on ancient pegasus racing you might be interested in.”

Rainbow Dash perked up visibly at that, and everypony shared a good laugh.

Applejack wiped a tear from her eye, smiling as she followed behind the others. It felt so darn good for everypony to be together like this again, even if it wouldn’t last for long. She missed all the playful banter, the gentle ribbing, and the general company of her friends.

As Twilight led the group through the museum, teaching what was surely a fascinating lesson about history, Applejack fell into step besides Rarity.

There were some ponies she missed more than others.

“Hey, Rar. Yer looking good, as always. That, uh, scarf suits you.”

Rarity turned to Applejack, blushing slightly and smiling at the compliment. “Why thank you, darling. I’m glad somepony noticed. Mareami is such a vibrant city, and I really think these colors help capture that feeling, you know?”

Applejack's heart skipped a beat. Maybe she didn't know what colors went with what city, but Rarity's passion for her craft was infectious, and she found herself laughing along with her.

Perhaps to say she was 'in love with Rarity' would be a bit of an overstatement. A foalish infatuation would probably be a better way of phrasing it. Sure, she had always admired Rarity's beauty, grace, passion, and work ethic from afar. It's not like they were even the greatest of friends. Their personalities clashed in numerous ways, and their history attested to that.

But ever since Rarity had left Ponyville to pursue her dreams, there had been a noticeably unicorn shaped hole in Applejack's heart. Sure, she missed Twilight and Rainbow Dash too, but she had recently come to the revelation that her feelings towards the absence of one friend in particular were rather different.

Still, there's no way a relationship like that would ever actually work, right? It was just a silly crush. For now, she was content to just enjoy this vacation while she had the chance.

"So, uh, how's the Big Apple treatin ya?" Applejack asked, just barely avoiding choking on her words in the process. Getting her head and heart all twisted up in idle fantasies wasn't going to do her any favors.

Rarity’s smile grew fainter, and she let out a light sigh. “Oh, it’s okay, I suppose. It’s a wonderful place, but I’m so swamped with orders I rarely get the chance to get out and enjoy it. What about you? I heard Sweet Apple Acres is expanding.”

Applejack let out a sigh herself. “Ah, you know. Flim and Flam came up with a way to bottle cider and offered to help distribute it across Equestria. Those two are a nothing but a couple of two bit hucksters, but this time they weren’t just selling empty air. Had to hire a buncha help to keep up with demand, and I’m in charge of the lot. Feels weird having ponies that ain’t Apples out there applebuckin’, but they’re good workers.”

“Well,” Rarity said, her eyes somewhat distant. “I guess that’s just where life takes us, hm?”

The two walked side by side in silence for a while, barely registering Twilight’s ramblings about ancient pegasus racing chariots or somesuch.

Rarity shook her head, turning to smile at Applejack. “Oh, what are we getting mopey about anyway? I think we both know it. Work doesn’t always compare to friendship, no matter how glamorous. I miss you all so much, sometimes.”

Applejack’s breath caught in her throat, and she looked away. “I uh, miss…” she trailed off, swallowing and adjusting her hat before trying again. “Ponyville just ain’t the same without you, Rar.”

She felt tears beginning to well up in her eyes and she turned to the side, trying to rub them away. Consarnit, she was a grown mare! There was no reason she should be getting all weepy at the drop of a hat like a character in one of those romance novels Rarity loved so much.

"Applejack, is everything okay?" Rarity asked, her voice sounding concerned. The others had stopped as well and were looking back.

"I, uh..." Applejack felt the sweat dripping down her forehead, everypony’s eyes boring into her. Groaning, she clutched at her stomach. "Just need to go use the little fillies room, that's all."

"Oh. I think it's down that hallway there," Twilight said, pointing off to the right. "Don't be gone too long though, this next part is super interesting!"

It was a cliche, but the classics were classic for a reason. She bowed out of the group and headed down the nearby hallway alone. She just needed some time to get her emotions in check.


Applejack stared at herself in the mirror and splashed some water on her face. Maybe it would be better if she just avoided Rarity for the rest of this trip. As much as she loved her company, she was likely to make a complete fool of herself if she continued at this rate.

Or she could just saddle up and deal with it. She was an Apple, not some –

As Applejack exited the bathroom, her train of thought was interrupted when somepony crashed into her with a startled yelp. The pony fell to the floor, along with whatever they were carrying.

"What in the – Ah, shoot. You alright there, old-timer?"

Applejack reached out a hoof and helped the elderly earth pony stallion up. He had on a collar with a badge pinned to it that marked him as a member of the museum staff.

"I'm sorry about that, ma'am, I shoulda learned my lesson about walking too close to them bathroom doors a long time ago."

“You alright? Didn’t hurt or break nothing, did I?” Applejack asked, looking at the box that had fallen to the floor. The words ‘Princess Wishlight Exhibit’ were scrawled on the sides.

“I’m still spry, no need to worry about me. And what’s in the box is mostly junk anyway.” The earth pony crouched to pick up the box, but immediately flinched, clutching at his back. “Shoot. Musta pulled something.”

“Here, lemme help with that,” Applejack said, lifting the box up to her back. It wasn’t particularly heavy. “Name’s Applejack. Now, where do you need this thing?”

“Down the hall and up the stairs to the second floor storage closet. Thanks for the help. I’m Footnote, by the way,” he said, falling into step with Applejack as she began trotting off down the hall.

“Granny always taught me to help anypony in need. So what’s in the box, anyway?”

Footnote chuckled, shaking his head. “Eh, some nonsense about an ancient princess who could grant wishes. Exhibit spent most of its time gathering dust. If ya ask me it was probably some historian’s clever idea of a hoax.”

“It does sound a bit farfetched,” Applejack agreed, coming to a stop as she reached the stairs.

Frowning, Footnote tested the stairs with a hoof, wincing as soon as he put pressure on it. “Dangit. Musta been worse than I thought. Can barely handle stairs on a good day. Normally one of the younger workers’d be doing this job, but it’s that time of the year when all the ponies have to go out to party, and us old folk get stuck doing all the work.”

Applejack grinned, shifting the box slightly on her shoulders. “Can’t say I ain’t here to do the same, to be honest, but it seems like a museum trip was first on the agenda for me and my friends today. If you point me in the right direction, I’ll get the box there for ya.”

Footnote blinked, taken aback, before bursting into a hearty laugh. “I like you, Applejack. You seem like a good, honest pony that knows how to respect her elders. Should be the first door to the left up the stairs. Here are the keys, just bring them to the office when you’re done. I’m going to go find me some medicine to dull the pain. Thanks for everything!”

“Shucks, ain’t no problem at all,” Applejack said, blushing slightly as she tipped her hat to the old pony. She felt a warm sense of pride fill her heart as she carried the box up the stairs. Helping others always felt good, and this was exactly the kind of distraction she needed. A nice reminder of the kind of pony she wanted to be.

“Let’s see, should be in here, right?” Applejack unlocked the door marked “Storage” and pushed it open, the light from the corridor flooding into the dimly lit closet. Metal racks lined the walls filled with all sorts of barely recognizable things, and Applejack moved in slowly, looking for an empty place to put the box.

As she worked her way past the darkened shelves, she caught her hoof on something and stumbled. The box tumbled from her back, the battered cardboard splitting open at the seams. Applejack winced at the sound of metal clattering across the floor.

Applejack swore under her breath, waving away the cloud of dust that had been kicked up. Gingerly, she reached down and picked up the first object in reach, which appeared to be a plaque of some sort.

“With her power, a true desire of the heart can be made into reality,” Applejack said, reading out loud. “Huh.”

As she glanced around for a new box to pack everything back up in, a glint of light caught her eye from the spilled debris. Brushing some of it aside, Applejack saw a golden bracelet, inlaid with emeralds and rubies. It was polished to a mirror shine.

“This has to be worth a fortune! And they’re just tossing it aside in some cardboard box,” Applejack muttered, leaning in closer. She stared at her own reflection in the bracelet, distorted by the curve of the metal and the low light.

“True desire of my heart, huh? No way something like that could actually be real…”

Playing with an idle fancy, Applejack crystallized her wish in her mind and reached out with a hoof, touching the bracelet.

Color vanished from the world in an instant. Applejack found herself beside a black and white version of herself frozen in time.

“What in the hay…” Applejack mumbled. Her voice was absorbed by the suddenly oppressive silence around her.

She reached over and knocked lightly on the gray version of herself, her own hoof still its usual orange. The other her was completely still, hoof still touching the bracelet. “Did I break something?”

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to play with other pony' toys?”

A voice rang out across the room, and Applejack spun around. Before her stood a magnificent golden alicorn with a short purple mane, her radiance sharply contrasted by the bleak gray surrounding them both.

“Who are…” Applejack paused, swallowing nervously. “Er, you’re that Princess, right? Wishlight or somesuch? Just what is going on here?”

The alicorn snorted, shaking her head. “That would be my mother. I am known as Golden Wish. And that bracelet belongs to me.”

Applejack took her hat off, bowing slightly. “I didn’t mean no offense, yer highness, honest. Just trying to pick up the mess I made.”

Golden Wish brought a hoof to her mouth, smiling coyly. “Is that all? Is the wish you hold so dear to your heart just an illusion then?”

“I…” Applejack’s eyes widened and she clutched at her chest reflexively. “You can sense somethin’ like that?”

“It’s in my name, is it not?” Golden Wish said, laughing gaily. “Your heart is true, young Applejack, even if you do not yet believe it yourself. My power can twist fate like a thread, and bring two ponies together when otherwise they would remain forever apart.”

Applejack frowned, scratching her head with a hoof. “So you’re saying that if your power twists up fate, then… I wouldn’t ever stand a chance without it? She’s destined to end up with somepony else?”

Golden Wish grinned, baring a set of fangs. “You’re clever as well as honest. I like that in a pony. You are correct. If you were to partake of my gift, her fate would be altered, as well as the fate of somepony else down the line. The two of you would be blissfully happy together. Love is a powerful magic. The other pony? I cannot say. Destiny sometimes has a backup plan.”

Applejack swallowed, sweat dripping down her forehead. “I just… want a chance, that’s all.”

“A chance is a chance is a chance,” Golden Wish said, yawning slightly. “All love comes at a cost, Applejack. You must challenge each other. It requires risk, sacrifice, dedication, perseverance, and many other things that you could find in a thousand love songs. Even with my power, it will never be easy. What does your heart say?”

Applejack turned to herself, looking herself over and staring at the braclet. “I…”

Applejack picked up the bracelet. There was no flash of light, no thunderous boom of a genie. She chuckled nervously, and placed it aside. Now wasn’t the time for silly fantasies.

“Applejack? Hello?”

Applejack froze as she heard Rarity’s voice from the hallway outside. There was no possible way that…

“I’m in here, Rar, gimme a sec and I’ll be right out.”

It was obviously just a coincidence. She did her best to put the box back together and stuffed the exhibit under a nearby shelf before exiting the storage room and re-locking the door.

Rarity smiled as Applejack came into view. “There you are. You took a while, so I was starting to get worried. A museum worker pointed me in this direction.”

“Yeah. Just got caught up helping a pony, that’s all,” Applejack said, blushing slightly.

“Is that so?” Rarity said, grinning coyly as she reached over and brushed some of the dust out of Applejack’s mane. “I know this museum isn’t the most interesting activity, darling, but Twilight’s having the time of her life, so we should really do our best for her sake, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t, I mean…” Applejack stammered, her face growing even redder before she realized she was being teased and turned to glower at Rarity. “Har har.”

Rarity kept on smiling mischievously, even as she tried to feign innocence.

As the two made their way back through the museum, Applejack mulled over her feelings. Maybe there was no such thing as wish granting magic, but it wouldn’t hurt too much to just take a chance, would it?

“Hey, Rar…” Applejack said, turning away. “Do you know what the schedule for tonight is?”

Rarity frowned, raising a hoof to her chin. “Hmm. I know the beach is next, and then I’m sure Twilight has some other stuff planned afterwards. I think after six or so she’s left the schedule open for us to do what we please. Why do you ask?”

Swallowing, Applejack stopped in her tracks and turned to look Rarity in the eye. “You want to, uh, go stargazing later? I hear the view overlooking the Mareami beaches at night is simply to die for.”

Rarity blinked, looking Applejack up and down. “I suppose so. I’ll bring it up to the others, and see how they feel about it.”

Applejack winced, shaking her head. “No, uh. I mean, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie wouldn’t be all that interested, and Twilight would just spend all her time spitting out star factoids. And Fluttershy…” Applejack stopped, growling as she knocked a hoof on her head. “Dangit. What I’m trying to say is that I think it should be just me and you. We, uh, don’t really hang out enough, y’know?”

“I see…” Rarity said, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes. With a smile, she turned back to Applejack. “Well, I can’t say your logic is perfect, but you are correct on that account. Alright then, it sounds like a plan. I’m sure the others have things they want to do on their own or with each other, anyway.”

Applejack’s heart raced as they continued back down the hall. She’d done it! Now all she had to do was go out tonight with Rarity and… do what, exactly? Confess? What happened to just avoiding her so as to not get into embarrassing moments just like this one? Maybe she could fake a stomach ache and just back out now.

No. It was time to saddle up. Now was as good a time as ever to face the truth about her feelings head on.

Bitterly, she realized that even should the worst happen, the fallout wouldn't be so bad with Rarity gone most of the time.

Applejack stared into the night sky, listening to the waves lap against the shore below. Even though it was summer, a chill wind was blowing towards the ocean, and she shivered in her solitude.

She was early, of course. Probably too early. She paced back and forth, trying to plan out what she was going to say while simultaneously berating herself to just let it all come naturally.

After what seemed like an eternity of agonized internal struggling, she finally spotted the object of her frustrations on the road below. Rarity noticed her on top of the ridge and waved as she began to make her way up the slope.

“Hey Rar,” Applejack called down to her, her voice cracking slightly. She winced and hoped Rarity hadn’t noticed. She needed to get her act together, and fast.

“Lovely night, isn’t it?” Rarity said, smiling. She lifted a picnic basket from her flanks and set it on the ground. “I hope you don’t mind, but I brought a few things to make this a more proper outing. I’m sure we’re both stuffed from dinner, but a few drinks and a light snack or two never hurt anypony.”

“Uh, yeah, sure. That’s fine,” Applejack said, watching as Rarity pulled out an elaborately embroidered blanket from the basket and laid it down on the damp grass. Why hadn’t she thought of anything like that? Stupid.

“Now then,” Rarity said as she finished unpacking, “let’s see this gorgeous view in all its nocturnal glory, shall we?”

Winking at Applejack, Rarity moved past her up to the top of the ridge, her breath catching in her throat as she gazed onto the beach and the ocean below.

“Sure is somethin’...” Applejack muttered, moving to stand by her side. “Granny took me here once when I was just a filly. Ain’t never forgot the sight.”

The beach below them glittered in a dazzling rainbow of colors, the moonlight reflecting off of the multitude of tiny, crushed gemstones that the beach had instead of sand.

“I thought it was impressive in the daytime, but…”

While the radiance of the beach had been almost blinding under the afternoon sun, the subdued light of the moon and gentle lapping of waves caused multicolored illusions to dance across the shore, rainbow shadows flickering in and out of existence with each shift of the water.

“Oh Applejack,” Rarity said breathlessly. “Thank you for inviting me up here. This may be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever laid eyes on in all of Equestria.”

It pales in beauty next to you. Applejack mentally slapped herself for even thinking of a line that cheesy. “It ain’t nothin. I mean, you like gems and all, and you certainly seemed to like it earlier today when we were all swimming. Just figured I’d show you it in a different light.”

Rarity laughed gaily, turning to Applejack with a grin. “To tell you the truth, this place kind of makes my horn itch like crazy. This great horde of gems, and they’ve got it so enchanted nopony can walk away with even a single grain.”

Applejack nodded. “Sure felt bad for Spike, though. Poor fella musta drooled enough to raise the sea level a couple inches.”

The two of them shared a laugh before lying down on the blanket, leaning over the edge of the ridge to watch the light show below. They sat like that in silence for a while, listening to the sound of the waves and the cries of cicadas.

Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Applejack broke the silence. “Hey… Rar. Can I ask you an honest question?”

Rarity turned to Applejack, her eyes widening slightly with a hint of curiosity. “Go ahead, darling.”

“Are we…” Applejack stopped, swallowing nervously as she tried to suppress the shaking of her hooves. “Are we really friends?”

Rarity’s mouth fell open, and she flinched back, looking hurt. “Of course we are! Why would you even say something like that?”

Applejack shook her head. “I… I mean, we, we don’t always get along, you know? And we don’t really like the same things, or have much in common at all, really. I don’t generally care much for fashion, or appearances, or proper decorum, or any of that stuff you like, and I know you don’t care nothing for farm work or getting dirty or any of the stuff that I like to do.”

Rarity blinked a few times, then sighed. “Come now, I thought we were already past stuff like this. Yes, we’ve had our share of disagreements in the past. And our hobbies don’t mesh up very well together. But you really should know better.”

With a soft smile, Rarity reached over and placed a hoof on Applejack’s shoulder. “You may be a great farm pony, and you might not care when you get dirty, but is that all that defines you?” She moved her hoof down across Applejack’s chest, bringing it to rest over her heart. “You, Applejack, are an honest, hard working pony who finds joy in the work she does, cares deeply for her family, and would never hesitate when it comes to helping a friend.”

Rarity pulled her hoof back and placed it over her own heart. “On the surface level, sure, but here? Do you really think we have nothing in common?”

Applejack swallowed, tears welling up in her eyes. Rarity was right, of course. She knew that already. It was a big part of the reason she was up here. “Sorry, you’re right. I can be a mite fool sometimes.”

The two sat in silence again, Applejack occasionally sniffling and wiping at her eyes. She had already messed up, but there was no turning back now.

“Rarity…” Applejack said, her voice wavering as she looked away. “Do you… do you think that…” Squeezing her eyes shut, she forced herself to continue. “We could ever be… more than friends?”

Applejack kept her eyes closed, the silence stretching on for what seemed like an eternity until she felt Rarity’s hoof on her shoulder.

“Applejack,” Rarity said, her tone serious. “I’m as perceptive as anypony. I can read the situation. But miscommunication leads to ponies getting hurt. If there’s something you’re trying to say to me, please say it to me straight.”

“Shoot,” Applejack muttered under her breath. Summoning every scrap of willpower she had she stood up, she turned to face Rarity head on, her eyes full of tears. “I like you, Rar. I like you a lot. Maybe this is even what ponies call love, I dunno. But I just can’t get my mind off you. You’re so beautiful and graceful and talented. Your passion for your craft is infectious and makes me want to smile as sure as any musical number by Pinkie Pie. Ever since you left Ponyville, there ain’t nothing what feels right anymore. The world is a grayer place without you in it. It may have took me a while to realize what it was I was missing, but it was you, Rarity.”

"Oh my..." Rarity mumbled under her breath, her mouth hanging open as color crept into her cheeks.

“I… right then,” Applejack said, pulling her hat down over her face. “I’ve said my piece. Just go ahead and tell me off so I can go home, cry for a bit, then come back in the morning and pretend this never happened. Then I’ll move on with my life.”

Rarity pursed her lips, her eyes becoming downcast. “Is… that what you want me to do?”

Applejack turned away, and took one step down the hill. “Shoot. That’s probably for the best, right? What I want don’t matter. It’s just a silly fantasy.”

“What about what I want?”

Applejack froze in her tracks, and slowly turned back around to look at Rarity, her breath catching in her throat.

“Applejack…” Rarity said, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “I’m not going to say that… I’m secretly madly in love with you too, or anything like that…” she paused, pawing at the ground and blushing, turning her head and giving Applejack a coy smile. “But you are a pony close to my heart, Applejack. If I mean enough to you that you want to be more than friends and start a relationship, well, I’d be willing to give it a shot.”

Applejack stared, her mouth hanging open. All the conflicting thoughts and desires in her mind collapsed into a black hole of fantasy made reality, leaving her both overcome with joy and terrified at the prospect of it all. For all of her idle dreams, she had never put much thought into the idea of actually being in a relationship with Rarity. It had simply seemed too outlandish to actually consider. But here she was, staring her in the face.

“Applejack… come on now, don’t leave me out in the cold here,” Rarity said, her blush growing deeper. “I’m opening myself up here too, you know.”

“Ah, shoot, I,” Applejack stammered, trying to force the right words out of her mouth. “I’m sorry, Rar, I just, I mean, would something like that really be okay with you? I wouldn’t even know where to start… I ain’t exactly a prince come to sweep you off your hooves.”

Rarity giggled slightly. “Oh, I don’t know about that. You’ve got your fair share of princely qualities, even if you won’t admit it. And a date like this,” she said, pausing to turn and gesture towards the ocean lights, “would sweep any mare off her hooves.”

Applejack felt her face burning even hotter, and when Rarity leaned in and kissed her on the cheek, her heart threatened to tear itself out of her chest.

“Is that enough to let you know I’m serious?” Rarity asked, backing away. “Tell you what. This is all pretty scary and new to me too. How about we just lie down here and enjoy the date some more, and we can work out the details in the morning, hm?”

Applejack swallowed and took a deep breath before nodding silently. She moved back up to the top of the ridge where she laid down. Rarity joined her, her warm body pressing against her side.

As the symphony of lights continued to play below, the new couple held hooves, their hearts fluttering with the excitement and anticipation of the moment and what was yet to come.

Applejack rested a hoof on the railing, staring at the bustling lights and sounds of the city streets a thousand feet below her.

Eight months. That’s how long ago she had summoned up the courage to turn her mental fiction into reality, and her life was all the brighter because of it. That’s not to say it was easy going. Like any couple new to love, they made their fair share of mistakes. Their differing attitudes on life often drove them to argue. Their work and passions often pulled them far apart.

But through it all, in both high times and low, Applejack had felt Rarity’s affection for her grow, eventually blossoming into love of its own accord, and her own feelings for the unicorn of her dreams simply doubled in response.

Which was why she was here, on the tallest building in all of Manehatten, ready to seal her feelings with an eternal promise.

“Sweetheart?” Rarity called out from the door of the observatory platform. “Why don’t you come back inside, it’s freezing out here.”

The gusts of winter wind this high up bit into her flanks, but Applejack gritted her teeth and ignored the pain. “I’ll be in shortly, Rar. Just gimme a few more minutes, okay?”

The inside of the observatory platform, while warm and toasty, was filled with tourists. And while the chill wind left the outside area with privacy, it was more than a little distracting when it came to romance. She really should have thought this through better.

“Applejack, what’s the matter?” Rarity asked, placing a hoof on her shoulder and causing her to jump slightly in surprise.

“I… I’m just thinking, that’s all.”

Rarity pulled her cloak in tighter around herself, and moved in closer to Applejack, sharing her warmth. “Today really was lovely, you know. The dinner, the play… all this time I’ve been living in Manehatten, and yet I’ve never once come up here. Thank you for reminding me of the beauty of this city, as opposed to the view of the carriage in front of me when I’m stuck in traffic.”

Applejack chuckled nervously, furiously trying to run through her prepared speech in her mind. She had wanted everything to be perfect. Rarity liked perfect. She deserved perfect. Applejack was anything but, but being around Rarity made her want to strive for that ideal. Unfortunately, as much as she tried, her efforts tended to fall short.

But for some strange reason, Rarity had always shown an otherworldly amount of patience and understanding for Applejack’s flaws and always forgave her imperfections in the end. There was no turning back now. This would just have to be another notch in her legacy of ‘Almost, but not quite.’

“Rarity…” Applejack said, steeling her nerves and turning to face her. The blood in her veins heated up with adrenaline, and suddenly the cold seemed almost non existent.

“Yes, dear?” Rarity asked, shivering slightly.

This was it. “You know I’m not the best with words… I spent days trying to figure the right words for what I’m about to say, and musta wrote it and rewrote it a dozen times. None of it worked, and no amount of flowery speeches ever felt like they were truly coming from me. So I’ll just keep this short and simple, like I always do.”

Rarity’s mouth fell open, and her eyes began to glisten. “You’re…”

Bending down to her knees, Applejack reached into the pocket of her suitcoat and pulled out a small box. “Rarity, I love you more than anything. These past eight months were the happiest I’ve ever been, and even when things got rough, I couldn’t imagine a future where you’re not there by my side. Will you marry me?”

The tears in Rarity’s eyes began to spill over, and she lept forward, locking lips with Applejack in a tight kiss before pulling back. “Absolutely YES.”

All at once it was like the weight of the world was lifted off of Applejack’s shoulders. Not that she had really expected to be rejected, but her own eyes were wet with tears as her heart threatened to burst with joy.

Gingerly, she picked up the ring in her teeth. It was a band of intertwining white and red gold, and a diamond with the image of an apple magically engraved into the center. It had taken a lot of saving, but was more than worth it, in her mind.

Rarity bowed down and Applejack leaned forward, slipping the ring onto her horn and lightly kissing the top of her head.

“Er, Applejack?” Rarity asked, after Applejack stayed in that position for more than a few seconds.

Burning with embarrassment, Applejack mumbled, “Mah lips’re stuffk to tha ring…”

Rarity burst out laughing, causing Applejack to yelp in pain as her head jerked around with the movement. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Here, let me fix that.”

With a tingle of magic, Rarity heated the band of metal slightly and Applejack was able to pull free without tearing any skin.

“Dangit. I’ve just gone and made a big mess of this, haven’t I?” Applejack said, rubbing at her lips.

Rarity moved closer and threw her forehooves around Applejack’s neck, burying her face in close. “Perfection belongs in romance novels, Applejack, not real life. Real love is stupid and silly, and full of all the little mistakes and moments like this that make ponies ponies. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and what happened here tonight really has no bearing on my decision to do so.”

Pulling back and kissing her on the cheek, Rarity smiled coyly. “Although, don’t get me wrong, the effort is certainly appreciated.”

Unable to help herself, Applejack burst into laughter at the absurdity of it all.

“I love you, Rar,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye.

“I love you too, Applejack,” Rarity said, moving close to stand next to her. “You know, I was really hoping this was what today was all about. I guess some wishes do come true after all, you know?”

Applejack chuckled, throwing a foreleg around Rarity’s shoulder. “They sure do.”

A memory came back to her, a fleeting wisp of a half-forgotten fantasy, and Applejack’s heart froze solid.

“Congratulations! You two make a cute couple.” The voice of Golden Wish carried across the silent rooftop, frozen in time.

Applejack pulled away from herself, turning to face the alicorn behind her. “What do you want?”

Golden Wish winced, putting on a hurt expression. “Ouch! What, not even a thank you? Is that any way to treat the pony that made all this possible?”

“I didn’t…” Applejack growled, stomping a hoof. “My relationship was built out of mutual trust and hard work. I don’t remember you having anything to do with it.”

“Is that so…” Golden Wish said, letting out a sigh. “You made the wish, didn’t you? From your heart's greatest desire sprung forth a seed of love. Perhaps your tender care and gardening has caused it to grow into a beautiful flower, but were it not for my intervention, you would still surely be wallowing in self pity all by your lonesome.”

Applejack pawed at the ground in frustration, looking away. “Rarity is a grown mare. She made the decision to give me a chance of her own free will. You had nothing to do with it.”

“Did she, now?” Golden Wish asked, a smirk playing at her face. “Just what do you think a wish is, Applejack? You called on my power, and I was generous enough to grant it to you. You have what you wanted, yes? Take your beautiful flower, pluck her from the ground, and place her in a vase on your bedside table. She is yours.”

Applejack’s eyes widened, the color draining from her face as what the horror of what she may have wrought slowly dawned on her. “No…”

Golden Wish threw back her head and laughed as Applejack sunk to the floor, covering her ears with her hooves.

“Oooh. We get to have a wedding! Oh, this is going to be so wonderful… Oh, and I guess we should really tell all our friends at some point, don’t you think? Maybe we can make a big announcement of it at the next conference!”

Applejack didn’t respond, her mind racing with all sorts of troubling implications. There was no possible way things had actually turned out the way they did because of that, was there? It was all just a silly legend, and it was all just a coincidence.


Applejack let out a sigh as she sat on the entranceway to the “Dragon-Mare Manor.” She had gotten into yet another fight with Rarity. It was all her own fault, of course. The stress and guilt was weighing heavily on her heart. Worse yet, this mansion seemed to have some sort of connection to that stupid legend from the Mareami museum, and it was getting harder and harder to deny the thought that she may have committed the ultimate sin.

Wallowing in her own misery, Applejack watched from a distance as a sky carriage slowly descended to the runway. Twilight stepped out, stumbling awkwardly as she pulled her bags from inside. At least it would be good to see her again.

After sending the pegasus guards on their way, Twilight trotted briskly towards the mansion, waving cheerfully.

“Hey, Applejack! It’s good to see you!” Twilight said, beaming as she threw her forelegs around Applejack in a tight hug.

“Hey, Twi,” Applejack said, returning the hug before pulling away and sitting back down.

Twilight frowned, looking Applejack over. “You look a little down. Is something wrong?”

Applejack sighed, burying her face in her hooves. “I just got into yet another fight with Rarity, that’s all.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Another fight? Just how often are you two together that this is a reoccuring problem?”

“Oh, right. Yeah, Rar and I have been dating since the last conference. Got engaged actually, few months back.”

Twilight’s mouth fell open and her wings extended in shock. “Buwaaaaaaahhhh,” she exclaimed elegantly.

Applejack chuckled bitterly, shaking her head. “Right, shoot. Rarity wanted it to be a big announcement at dinner. Pretend like you’re surprised, okay?”

Twilight shook her head rapidly. “I’m sorry, wow! Congratulations? I’m happy for you! I mean, that is, if you’re happy…”

“I should be, Twi. I’m the luckiest mare alive. Or possibly the worst. It’s complicated.”

Glancing at Twilight’s confused expression, she added, “Don’t worry, it’s something I have to deal with on my own. How come Spike’s not with you?”

Twilight looked Applejack over worryingly, but decided to let the topic go for now. “He’s sick, I’m afraid. Nasty case of the dragon flu. He sends his love, and he wishes he could be a part of this.”

Applejack nodded as Twilight continued talking and they entered the mansion together.

This was going to be a difficult vacation.

In another world, in a building fabricated from nothing and located somewhere in the border between fiction and reality, two mares watched the scenes unfold before them.

On one side of an elaborately furnished lounge, Twilight Sparkle glared daggers at the other occupant.

Looking to the windows, which showed a scene of Applejack and Twilight entering the mansion, Golden Wish turned to Twilight, gesturing at the chessboard laid out on the table in the center of the room. The chess pieces in back rows on either side were elaborately carved to resemble Twilight and her friends.

“Well then, Twilight Sparkle. All the pieces are in place now.

“Are you ready to start the game?”

Chapter 11 - Meta

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Twilight awoke in darkness, her body seemingly floating in a formless void.

So this is death, huh? The last thing she remembered was pain as the flames had surrounded her. Not exactly what she was expecting, but who really knew what came after the end?

Reflexively she tried to move and found all of her appendages responding normally, although they flailed uselessly as she floated with no gravity to orient to.

When she tried to channel some magic, she was greeted with a sharp stab of pain. She tried to cry out, but no sound escaped from her lips. She reached up to rub her aching horn with a hoof.

So it caused ponies pain to try and cast magic in the afterlife? This was getting a little weird.

Twilight craned her neck around, tumbling slowly through the void as she desperately searched for any point she could fixate on. There, in the distance, she finally spotted a tiny glimmer of golden light.

She flapped her wings to try and maneuver through the darkness, but it was no use. There was no air for her wings to take purchase on, and her efforts just sent her into a nauseating spin. Oddly enough, she was still able to breathe.

Thankful for the additional balance her wings provided her, she eventually managed to stabilize herself out, and through some brief experimentation, figured out the mechanics of zero gravity movement.

While she couldn’t necessarily fly, with powerful wing thrusts she was able to use the momentum to propel herself through the void. The glint of golden light in the distance slowly grew larger.

As she began to pick up speed, she wondered if maybe this was a mistake, and she had just sent herself hurtling towards her doom. Well, more doomed than her current predicament, anyway.

Drawing closer, the light revealed itself to be… just a formless light. Which was certainly odd, but better than a burning ball of plasma, she supposed. The light seemed to possess a gravity of its own, and she felt herself being pulled towards it, faster and faster.

She closed her eyes and covered them with her hooves as the light became blinding. Warmth enveloped her before she suddenly crashed into something solid, her legs splaying out across the ground.

She groaned, and realizing she had her voice back, pulled herself up and looked around. She seemed to be in a dark room of some sort; shadows of furniture silhouetted themselves against a large window that looked out into the void.

“Glad you could make it, Twilight. Sorry about the landing. This isn’t exactly the most accessible of places.”

Light filled the room, and Twilight spun about to face the unfamiliar voice. A large golden alicorn with a short purple mane loomed over her.

“You!” Twilight snarled, lowering her head and attempting to fire up her magic. Once again, she was met with a sharp pain lancing through her horn and she cried out, knees buckling.

“Now, now. Is that any way to treat a host who has graciously invited you into her home?” Golden Wish asked, an arrogant smirk playing at her lips as she looked down at Twilight.

With a roar, Twilight leapt to the side, diving for the nearby furniture. She grabbed a chair with her hooves and lifted it above her head. “You killed all my friends!” she shouted as she hurled the chair towards Golden Wish.

As it sailed through the air, the chair flickered and vanished, re-appearing exactly where it had been before.

Golden Wish shook her head, clicking her tongue. “This isn’t exactly a place that fits the descriptor of “real”. Certainly not in the sense that you can go throwing things around or breaking them left and right.”

“You. Murdered. My. FRIENDS!” Twilight screamed, lowering her horn and charging as bloodlust filled her veins.

As Twilight grew near, Golden Wish teleported to the other side of the room, and Twilight skidded to a halt.

“Did I, now?” Golden Wish asked, looking at one of her hooves as if she was bored. “That’s an awfully poignant accusation to be throwing around so casually. Do you have any proof?”

Twilight stared, her mouth hanging open. After everything that had happened, she had the gall to play dumb? “Are you seriously trying to deny that you did it?”

Golden Wish grinned, gesturing around the room. “Where do you think we are, Twilight?”

Twilight blinked, looking around. The room was pretty similar to the mansion’s lounge in style, the center of the room dominated by a pair of chairs and a small round table. Other than the gaping maw of darkness just outside the window, it was completely normal.

“Am I… dead?” Twilight asked, apprehension creeping into her voice.

“Yes and no. Perhaps. Depends on how you look at it. There are a lot of answers to a question like that Twilight, and this world is not a place of absolutes.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “You’re not making sense.”

Golden Wish threw back her head and laughed, her arrogant cackle echoing across the room. “This is a world of in betweens. Right now you exist on the border of life and death. In between fiction and reality. Balanced on the edge of possibility and uncertainty.”

“Are you just making this up?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow. “Okay, how about this, then? Why am I here?”

“That one’s much easier,” Golden Wish said as she moved towards the table. “You’re here to play a game with me.”

With a golden glow of her horn, a chess set materialized on the table before them.

Twilight stared blankly. “So you killed all my friends and brought me to this existential nightmare… to play a game of chess?”

Golden Wish rolled her eyes. “The chess set is just a metaphor. The actual game is far grander than that.” With a flick of her horn, the outside of the window changed to show an image of the mansion. With each flash of her horn, the image changed again, showing Twilight arriving at the mansion, eating dinner with her friends, finding the bodies of Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, and many other horrible reminders of the recent past in rapid succession.

“Tell me, Twilight. Do you know what happened to you during those two days? What happened to your friends? How they were killed? Why? By whom?”

Growling, Twilight stomped a hoof. “You killed them all to enact some sort of horrible ritual or whatever, which is probably why I’m here. This is getting ridiculous. Why are we even having this conversation?”

Golden Wish let out a sigh, shaking her head and looking disappointed. “Do you KNOW that that’s the case? Can you state that with absolute certainty and conviction, and be willing to bet your life and the lives of your friends on that judgement?

Twilight balked, her face scrunching up in confusion. “I… I don’t understand. What are you trying to get at? What other answer could there be?”

“That’s what I’m asking you,” Golden Wish said, smiling. “Let’s try something a little more specific, shall we?”

With another flash of her horn, the image outside the window changed back to the scene right before Twilight opened up the shed to find the nightmare within.

“Now then. Do you remember anything odd about the construction of this crime? Maybe of the shed?”

Twilight frowned. There was something odd about it all, but she had been preoccupied at the time and hadn’t really devoted any time to thinking about it. “I never understood why there was the cutie mark in red paint on the door… or why there was a similar one on the library door.”

The scene continued to play, and Twilight watched as she used her telekinesis to tear the door off of its hinges. “That’s right… the door was locked, and we didn’t have the key. And I guess there was a chain lock on the inside too…”

Golden Wish threw back her head and laughed, grinning wickedly. “So tell me. How does a pony commit a murder behind a door that can only be locked from the inside?”

Twilight blinked, raising an eyebrow. “It’s not as if a chain lock is some impenetrable barrier. Any unicorn could easily lock or unlock it from the outside, or teleport in and out.”

“What if I told you that neither telekinesis nor teleportation were used to construct this closed room?”

“Then I’d call you a liar,” Twilight deadpanned.

“Humor me,” Golden Wish said with a yawn. “Really now, is one of Equestria’s greatest scholars unable to come up with any other solution?”

Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but couldn’t find the words. There were surely any number of ways to create a scenario like this. Just because she wasn’t aware of them off the top of her head didn’t mean they didn’t exist.

“There could be a secret panel in the back or in the floor or something,” Twilight offered up weakly.

Golden Wish snorted with contempt. “A hidden panel? Really? Did you see anything like that, hmm? Who would build a hidden panel like that in a garden shed?”

“Who would put a chain lock on a garden shed?” Twilight countered. “Something like that is no more ridiculous than anything else. Besides, there are probably ways a pony could set a chain lock from the outside using a wire, or maybe using a powerful magnet. Or just other spells besides telekinesis or teleportation. Just because it’s not something I’ve studied extensively doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

“Tch,’ Golden Wish muttered. She held an odd expression for awhile, like she wanted to say something more but was holding herself back. “Whatever. It’s not like I planned to dwell on past tricks and puzzles. Not when I’ve created such a deviously delightful new gameboard for us to play with.”

“A new gameboard?” Twilight asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. “Just what is that supposed to mean?”

Golden Wish bowed theatrically. “Another episode in the exciting adventures of Twilight and her friends in the murder mansion! When the bodies start to pile up, will Twilight be able to solve the mystery and save herself in time? Or will the cruel hands of fate crush her when the clock strikes midnight? The answer, Twilight, is up to you.”

Twilight snarled, fervently wishing she had access to her magic. “Is this all just some kind of sick joke? Just what kind of monster are you, anyway?”

Golden Wish’s expression darkened and she pursed her lips, staring down at Twilight in silence. After a long moment she turned away, moving towards the window.

“I’m getting tired of explaining things to you, so I’m just going to go ahead and start the game. If you succumb to despair and give in now, I suppose I’ll be the winner, but I was rather hoping to crush you at your best,” Golden Wish said, turning back to sneer at Twilight.

“And if I refuse to play?” Twilight asked.

"Then you give up on your only chance to find the truth and to, perhaps, change your fate."

Twilight stared, sizing up the alicorn before her. None of this made any sense whatsoever. But then again, common sense seemed to have flown out the window when she first touched down on the grounds of the mansion.

She had gone ballistic when Golden Wish called her out at midnight, and been engulfed by the flames that had sprung up out of nowhere. With a pang of grief, Twilight realized that Rainbow Dash had likely been caught in the inferno as well.

"What's in this for you?" Twilight asked, keeping her voice steady.

Golden Wish frowned, bringing a hoof to her chin. "What's in this for me? Why, the enjoyment of playing the game, of course! Boredom is poison to a being like me "

Twilight narrowed her eyes. It was a pretty obvious half-truth, but she somehow doubted she would get any more information out of the cackling alicorn in front of her.

"Fine. I'll play your game," Twilight said. Her stomach curled with the revulsion of accepting the terms of this... creature, but if there was any chance she could reverse this tragedy, she had to play along. At least for now.

Golden Wish smiled, perking up at Twilight's acquiescence. "Wonderful! I have quite the devious tale planned for you."

With a wave of her horn, the scene changed to show the inside of a familiar museum. “This time, our story starts a little earlier."

Twilight set the papers down, staring blankly as her mind reeled in confusion.

"So, let me get this straight. There's Twilight Sparkle, trapped in a mansion of horrors. Then there's Twilight Sparkle, trapped in some sort of meta-plane of existence, watching over herself and her friends. And then there's me, sitting here reading about both of them. Is that all? Is there another Twilight out there somewhere reading about me?"

The only response she received was a long yawn from the cat and an adorably quiet snore from Fluttershy as she continued sleeping.

Of all the possibilities she had imagined for a sequel, this was pretty far off the mark, and she had a feeling it was only going to get weirder.

At least it had already made some things clearer. Applejack and Rarity's romance, while it still made her feel a bit uncomfortable, had fleshed out some of her unanswered questions and explained Applejack's behavior in the previous novel.

She wasn’t quite grasping the overall purpose to the narrative to the mystery, though. Or, for that matter, the nature of a mystery that involved meta-characters in a mystery arguing over the mystery. She supposed it didn't technically violate the rules of Knocks, but she doubted the old author would have particularly approved. Then again, it was still too early to really say.

Speaking of Knocks, Golden Wish had raised an interesting point about the scene of the first murder. Closed room tricks weren't exactly uncommon in the mystery genre, but unicorn magic tended to invalidate all but the most elaborate of rooms, so authors had to be careful when using them. She had noticed the closed room tricks before, but they hadn't been particularly emphasized by the narrative, and she hadn't given them much thought.

Would constructing such a room without magic really be possible? While Meta-Twilight had speculated on the possibility of a hidden panel, she had Fluttershy's admission that both novels followed Knocks, which meant that secret doors shouldn't be a factor.

"I don't know," Twilight said with a sigh. "What do you think?"

The cat stared at her, blinking slowly before idly licking its paw.

Chuckling softly, Twilight turned to regard Fluttershy instead. The pegasus was curled up in a deep sleep, her chest rising and falling slowly, her smile content and peaceful.

Twilight was unable to stop herself from smiling at the sight. Whatever her misgivings about the content, Fluttershy had certainly created something unique. She felt strangely proud. This was a story she would likely never forget.

She had a strong desire to wake her up and discuss these twists, but she resisted. Fluttershy had somehow gotten this all done in a single night and deserved her rest. For now, anyway.

"What do you think is going to happen next?" Twilight asked.


"You're right. There's only one way to find out."

“Wow, congratulations, you two! I’m really happy for you!”

Having said her part, Twilight watched as the newly announced couple were showered in the congratulations and adoration of their friends.

Applejack had ruined the surprise earlier, but it had given Twilight a chance to think things over before the announcement. Two of her best friends were getting married out of the blue when she hadn’t even known they were dating. A lot of things were going to change, and it would take some time getting used to.

“I just don’t know what to do, Twilight. I love her so much, but something is eating her up inside, I can feel it. She keeps lashing out and won’t let me in. She’s the one who asked me, but I wonder if she’s really ready to get married after all…”

Twilight leaned her head back and sunk deeper into the hot springs, listening to Rarity’s side of things. She found herself fascinated by the shimmering radiance cast by her shield as the storm raged outside as she worked on piecing together her thoughts. Applejack had hinted at trouble in the relationship earlier, and that it was stemming from her side.

“That’s um, the end. I hope you all enjoyed it,” Fluttershy said, blushing.

Well, for a so-called ghost story, it wasn’t exactly what Twilight had been expecting. Still, she’d have to give an A for effort, even if it was rather summarized and with more than a few inconsistencies, besides. Something about the whole legend of Golden Wish was bothering her, though, and she wanted to take a chance to do some more research later.

Twilight let out a sigh and slumped her head against the table. She just wasn’t finding anything in these books about the legend Fluttershy had told. Maybe a few scraps here and there that might indicate at least some glimmer of truth, but nothing concrete and a lot of dead ends.

She was about to give it up and call it a night when she was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Hey, Twi, you got a minute?” Applejack asked, poking her head in the door.

“Sure! Did you need a book or something?” Twilight asked, perking up visibly. The distraction of a friend was just what she needed.

“Er, not exactly. I mean, you were looking up stuff on that story Shy told earlier, yeah? Did you find anything out?”

Twilight bit her lip. “I’m afraid not. And believe me, I’ve been looking.”

When relief washed over Applejack’s face, Twilight frowned, studying her closely. “Applejack, why are you so interested in this, anyway? I mean, my curiosity is purely academic, but you’ve been on edge ever since I got here. What’s the matter?”

Applejack lowered her head and pawed at the ground. “It’s… complicated, alright?”

Twilight closed her book, reaching out with her magic and setting it aside. “Sounds to me like you could really use a friend to talk this over with.”

With a sigh, Applejack took off her hat and set it on the table before burying her head under her hooves. “You’ve gotta promise never to tell anypony.”

“Cupcake, eyes, yada yada, you know the drill,” Twilight said, waving a hoof dismissively.

Applejack drummed her hoof on the table and traced idle circles along the grain in silence for a long while before she finally took a deep breath and shook her head. “You remember last year’s conference? Well, I was a little fixated on Rarity at the time, so I…”


“... I just can’t help but think I did it. That I forced Rarity t’love me because I’m a selfish fool. It was easy enough to dismiss as impossible, but with Fluttershy telling that story I’m going nuts. I just can’t think straight anymore. Please, Twi, you gotta help me.”

Twilight stared at Applejack, her mouth hanging open. This was a far more serious problem than she had expected, and dealing with this would require some very careful handling.

“Wow, Applejack, I’m so sorry. This must be destroying you inside. But even if something like this were true, I wouldn’t think you’re a bad pony. Even in the absolute worst case scenario, it’s nothing more than a tragic accident,” Twilight said, reaching out to rest a hoof on her shoulder.

“That ain’t no excuse,” Applejack spat bitterly. “I shoulda known better, and I shoulda – ”

Twilight cut her off by placing a hoof over her mouth. “You’ve had your chance to wallow in self pity for far too long. Let me tell you what I know about magic like this.”

Pulling her hoof away, Applejack nodded glumly and Twilight continued. “First off: compulsion magic powerful enough to force a pony to love another pony against their will doesn’t leave them much in the way of normal behavior. You remember that mess with your brother all those years ago. And I don’t know about you, but it seemed to me that Rarity still had plenty going on besides a mindless obsession with you.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Second: there are weaker types of compulsion magic that can give suggestions, plant ideas, or strengthen already existing feelings. Their influence tends to be a lot more subtle and more difficult to detect.”

“So you’re saying that I really did –”

“BUT ultimately the way magic works, going by what you described to me, there’s no way simply touching a bracelet could forcibly alter a pony’s will like that. At least, under the laws of any sort of magic I know of. It’s technically possible that a power like that could exist without me knowing, but what do you honestly think is more likely? That by touching a bracelet in a museum storeroom while happening to think of a particular pony it magically read your heart’s desire and forced that pony to be your love slave? Or that it’s just a coincidence, Rarity’s feelings for you are genuine, and you’re acting like a complete fool?”

Applejack flinched at Twilight’s verbal onslaught. “Wow, Twi. I like it simple and to the point, but when you use a lot of words, you really know how to overwhelm a pony, don’t ya?”

Twilight grinned, clapping Applejack on the shoulder. “And here’s something you won’t hear me say very often. You’re overthinking this. Look, no matter what really happened, you need to go talk to Rarity and tell her the truth. That’s your specialty. And disregarding a fantasy about wishes, your actions are hurting her right here and now. Do you love her?”

Applejack nodded and sighed as she put her hat back on. “I do. More than anything. Thanks, Twi. I reckon I needed a good kick to the rear.”

“Telling the truth isn’t always easy, but you know that,” Twilight said, nodding.

She watched as Applejack left the library and practically galloped down the hall.

Once she was out of sight, Twilight let out a long sigh, allowing the tension to drain away. To think, beyond having just gotten into a serious relationship, Applejack had been carrying a mental burden like that for months now. Twilight was beginning to feel like she barely knew her friends anymore.

A nagging uncertainty tugged at her heart. For all her encouragement, Twilight wasn’t completely sold on the idea of the legend being total rubbish. With Applejack’s confirmation that the Mareami museum had once had an exhibit there, she might be able to find a few more clues by narrowing down her search a bit.

Looks like she wouldn’t be getting much sleep after all.

“Time is growing short, sister.”

Celestia kept her eyes closed, setting her teacup on the table gently. “I am well aware, Luna. This is not a tale that is likely to have a happy ending, no matter what we do.”

Luna let out a sigh, idly running a hoof around the edge of her teacup. “The game is rigged,” she muttered, pouting.

“Doesn’t that just make victory all the sweeter?” Celestia asked, grinning. “Besides. Our host has been ever so gracious to invite us all here. The least we can do is respect her wishes.”

“Oh Celestia. You always did have such a way with manners.”

As a new voice echoed across the study, the air began to shimmer and swirl, golden streaks of light twisting and coalescing into the shape of a third alicorn.

“Look who decided to join us,” Luna said dryly, scooting over so Golden Wish could join them at the table.

Golden Wish beamed, smiling innocently at Luna. “I know we’re not technically related, but I really do feel like we’re a family, don’t you?”

Celestia chuckled. “Come now, Goldy. Stop teasing Luna. Your game is ready, is it not? Tell us about it.”

“It’s all about that ever surprising student of yours, of course,” Golden Wish said, pouring herself a cup of tea. “So energetic, such a passion for learning, and the bonds she shares with her friends are to die for. You picked a real winner.”

“So then why not let her be?” Luna spat bitterly. “Twilight has proven herself again and again. There’s no need for her to face your particular brand of barbarism.”

“Oh come now. It’s not that bad, is it? Besides, I get visitors so rarely this far out in the middle of nothingness. Can’t a princess let it go and live a little?”

As Luna continued to glower, their tea party was interrupted by a soft knocking. “Um, Princess Celestia? Princess Luna? Are you awake? I just wanted to see if you needed anything…”

“And that, ladies, is my cue to leave,” Golden Wish said, gulping down the rest of her tea and standing up. “That would be the yellow one, Fluttershy, yes? Pass this on for me, would you?”

As Golden Wish disappeared in a flash of golden light, a letter embossed with gold filigree fell down to the table with a clunk.

Fluttershy poked her head in the door. “Oh, um, you are awake. I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“Not at all, dear Fluttershy,” Celestia said warmly. “Come in and join us for some tea. What keeps you up at this hour?”

Fluttershy entered and sat down. “Oh, um. I was having trouble sleeping, so I decided I’d stretch my legs a bit, and made the rounds about the mansion.” With a whimsical giggle, she added, “I um, passed by the library and caught Twilight asleep on top of a book.”

Celestia giggled, holding a hoof over her mouth. “My my. Five years a princess and sometimes she still acts just like the little filly I first met. She’d spend so many hours doing research and I often ended up carrying her to bed.”

Fluttershy smiled a distant look in her eyes. “It’s hard to imagine Twilight being that young. She’s changed so much over the years I’ve known her… but I guess at least some things stay the same…”

“You seemed troubled,” Luna said, staring at Fluttershy intently. “Does something ail you?”

“Oh, um,” Fluttershy mumbled, flinching slightly at the intensity of her gaze. “As much as I like it here, being in this mansion gives me bad dreams sometimes. And, well, I guess I just miss the way things used to be.”

“Ah, of course,” Celestia said, nodding. “Change. Sometimes it’s slow and calm, like a gentle stream, others times it’s disrupting fast, like a raging river. Whether you fight it or go with the flow. it will eventually overtake us all.”

Fluttershy nodded, her brow furrowed in thought. “How do think Twilight deals with it? She’s so… wise, now.”

"She is strong, but the mantle of leadership is heavy indeed. Her heart is just as vulnerable as anypony else's."

"I see..." Fluttershy said, nodding. "Thank you for the advice. I should really try and get some sleep myself."

"Before you go Fluttershy, take this." Celestia levitated the letter off of the table and offered it to her. "Give it to Twilight tomorrow morning. She’ll know what to do with it when the time comes.”

Fluttershy took the letter in her mouth, finding it surprisingly heavy. With a bow, she left, closing the door behind her.

Luna turned to glare daggers at her sister. "Really? You're involving her, now?"

"We are all involved, whether we like it or not. None of us will be able to escape this cruel fate."

"Um, hey, Twilight..."

A soft whisper cut through the abyss of darkness, followed by a gentle prodding.

"I, um, don't want to bother you or anything, but that looks pretty uncomfortable."

Twilight's eyes snapped open, and she found herself face to face with Fluttershy.

“Eep!” Fluttershy squeaked and yanked her face back, stumbling over herself as she bumped into a nearby table. “I-I’m sorry, Twilight, I didn’t mean to wake you! Er, I did, but you looked really uncomfortable, so I thought it would be better if you went to bed…”

“What time is it?” Twilight mumbled, letting out a long yawn as she wiped the drool from her face.

“It’s about two o’clock in the morning,” Fluttershy said, glancing up at the clock.

“Then how come you’re awake?” Twilight asked as she stood up and stretched her wings.

Fluttershy blushed, looking away. “I was having trouble sleeping. It really is great to see you all again.”

Twilight nodded and allowed Fluttershy to lead her out of the Library. “You know, I was really interested in that story you told earlier. I’ve never heard anything like it, which is kind of rare for me. Just where did you hear it, anyway? I could barely find anything in the library.”

“You really liked it? Oh, thank you, Twilight,” Fluttershy said, beaming. “But, um, I guess you could say I read about it in a book? I mean, kinda… I have it in my room.”

If only she had bothered to ask first, she could have saved herself hours. Still, research for the sake of research was never truly wasted. “That’s perfect! Can I borrow it?”

Fluttershy stopped in place, causing Twilight to turn back to her. “Um… I’m sorry Twilight, but no.”

Flinching from Twilight’s hurt expression she quickly added, “I mean, you need to get some sleep, Twilight. It’s much too late. I’ll lend it to you in the morning.”

Twilight chuckled, shaking her head. “I guess you’re right, but I’ll hold you to that. On another note, which room is Princess Celestia staying in, anyway? It’s a shame she missed dinner; there’s a lot I want to discuss with her.”

“Oh, it’s—” Fluttershy paused, holding a hoof up and straining her ears. After a few moments, Twilight could make out a muffled shouting.

Curious, Twilight followed the noise, ascending the stairs and moving past the ever looming portrait of Golden Wish. The shouting grew louder, and she could make out the angry voices of Applejack and Rarity, though she couldn’t quite catch what they were saying.

“Oh my…” Fluttershy mumbled, her face growing downcast.

They were fighting. Was it her fault? Had telling Applejack to be honest been the wrong thing to do? Should she do something? Stop them? For all the lessons on friendship she had learned, this situation didn’t appear to have an easy answer.

“Twilight…” Fluttershy said, pained empathy clear on her face. “What do we do?”

“I think…” Whether Applejack’s worries were groundless or based in truth, Twilight had really hoped that the pair would’ve been able to come to an understanding. But love was a different beast than friendship altogether. “I think we should let them work this out on their own. I don’t think barging in there would help either of them right now. We just have to be ready to offer our support when they need it later, okay?”

Fluttershy swallowed and wiped a tear from her eye, but nodded in agreement.

The two of them continued down the hall to their rooms, muffled shouting still echoing down the hall after them.

Chapter 12 - Mirage Coordinator

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Twilight yawned, setting the papers down before her. Now was as good of a time as any to get up and stretch for a bit.

Despite her conviction, she was still a bit apprehensive about continuing. If Fluttershy's narrative was sticking to the same pattern, which it mostly had so far, then the first murder would likely be discovered shortly.

Who would it be this time? Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy again? Applejack? Rarity? Rainbow Dash? Maybe the princesses would be the first to go.

And of course, the whole issue with the existence of Golden Wish in the first place. From a vague legend and threat hinted at in the first book to an explicitly cackling villain popping up everywhere and spouting all sorts of ominous nonsense in the second. She had no idea how she was supposed to be taking her role in the narrative anymore. Were all these scenes really supposed to be accepted at face value?

Twilight let out a sigh as she finished preparing a light snack, remembering to make a little extra in case Fluttershy woke up.

Golden Wish frowned in concentration, her hoof slowly making circles over the game board.

"You know, Twilight, when you keep glaring at me like that I can't really think straight. Why not smile a little? I thought you loved a good intellectual challenge."

Twilight sucked in a sharp breath, her nostrils flaring. Whatever this fight was going to entail, she couldn't afford to let herself get worked up anymore. If she was going to win, it would be through cold calculation and level headed logic.

Given the subject matter, that was easier said than done.

"Just what... are you trying to show me here?" Twilight asked, trying to stop her hooves from shaking. "Do you really expect me to believe that Princess Celestia would be complicit in some sort of horrible game that puts us all in mortal danger?"

"Is your precious princess really as benevolent as you think she is?" Golden Wish asked, sneering down at her. "A thousand years alone is an awfully long time. Everypony has to find ways to cure the poison of boredom."

Twilight stomped a hoof and shook her head. "No. I know for a fact than she's better than that." As she moved to sit down, she turned back to Golden Wish with a sneer of her own. "Better than you."

Twilight awoke with a start as her bedroom window clattered open, a cold wind raging through the room, pushed inside by the howling storm.

Groaning as she pulled herself deeper into her blankets, she reached out with her magic and forced the shutters closed. She could feel that the lock must have snapped, and with a bit of extra concentration fastened the window closed with a small bar of magical energy.

"I guess I overslept," Twilight muttered, her teeth chattering. The clock on the wall indicated if was almost noon. She supposed that's what happened when you stayed up all night doing research.

In an odd way it almost felt nostalgic. The duties of princess-hood left little time for life's simple pleasures. At least Fluttershy had saved her from sleeping all night in the library. Nostalgic or not, dealing with the fallout would have been a literal pain in the neck.

After taking a few minutes to run a brush through her mane, she opened her door and stepped out into the hall, almost immediately stumbling on something warm and soft. There was a low groan from below her, and Twilight looked down to see Applejack sprawled across the floor, empty cider bottles next to her.

“Too early…” Applejack muttered, grabbing her nearby hat and pulling it over her face.

Twilight’s heart sank at the state of her friend. Her face was streaked with weariness, exhaustion, and sorrow. Wordlessly, she reached out with her magic and levitated Applejack into the air. Her limbs flailed wildly, but Twilight waited until she calmed down and gently set her on her hooves, making sure she could stand up on her own before releasing the spell.

“Twilight, I…” Applejack choked. She looked like she wanted to cry, but didn’t have any tears left.

Twilight pulled her into a tight hug, and she felt Applejack go limp against her, shuddering with dry heaving sobs.

“I’m a bad pony, Twi. An’ now Rarity knows it too. I suppose it’s all for the best, right? She deserves somepony far better than me.”

“There there,” Twilight muttered soothingly. She’d had less than twenty-four hours to get used to the idea of her friends getting married, and now it seemed like that would no longer be coming to pass. Was it her fault?

After a few more minutes, Applejack finally pulled away, taking deep, shuddering breaths before she finally got herself under control. “I’m sorry, Twi. Thanks. You’re a good friend. My head is spinning and I just can’t think straight.”

Twilight glanced at the bottles on the floor with a sour look. “How much did you drink?”

Applejack shook her head, wincing slightly. “I reckon I don’t quite remember. I went to tell her the truth like you said, and she didn’t take it well. Then I got all stupidly defensive and we both said some nasty things and then… well, she kicked me out. After that everything’s kind of a blur.”

“Why were you sleeping outside my door? There are plenty of unoccupied guest rooms, not to mention couches in the lounge.”

Applejack chuckled lightly, a bitter smile on her face as she picked up one of the empty bottles and spat into it, wiping at her tongue. “I vaguely remember just wanting to be near somepony. Anypony. Wanted help or advice or something. Probably got stuck at the door.”

“Did she actually…” Twilight paused. It didn’t feel right to address it so directly, but she didn’t want to move forward on a misunderstanding. “Did she actually leave you?”

Her eyes downcast, Applejack bit her lip, looking away. “Does it really matter? Even if she were stupid enough to forgive me, I ain’t willing to forgive myself.”

Twilight let out a sigh, shaking her head. “That’s what I thought you’d say. Look, you’re in no state to be thinking of anything so serious right now. How about we go downstairs to the kitchen, get some food and water in you, and maybe after lunch I’ll go have a nice long talk with Rarity while you calm down. The two of you are both grown mares. No matter what happened, and what the end result will be, I’m sure you can come to better resolution than this.”

“I ain’t really even hungry,” Applejack muttered, her eyes still glued to the floor.

Rolling her eyes, Twilight grit her teeth. With a stomp of her hoof, she fired up her horn, casting an ominous glow across the hallway. “Applejack…” she cooed sweetly. “You’re coming to the kitchen with me. Do you want to walk, or would you prefer to be carried?”

Applejack’s eyes went wide, and she swallowed nervously as Twilight bore down on her. “I uh, which way was the kitchen again?”

Twilight led Applejack into the kitchen and was pleased to find three of her friends there already enjoying lunch.

“Hey you two,” Rainbow Dash called out with her mouth full. “Glad you finally decided to join us.” Rainbow swallowed her food, her grin slowly fading. “Geez, Applejack, you look like you just got bucked in the face. What’s up?”

“I, uh,” Applejack stammered, pawing at the ground. “It’s nothing. Well, it’s not, but I’ll tell y’all later. Right now I need some grub.”

“One fresh serving of grub, coming right up!” Pinkie Pie shouted, immediately tearing into the cabinets and throwing pans and food items all over the place.

“Um, Pinkie Pie, that’s not really necessary, there are still plenty of leftovers,” Fluttershy mumbled, watching as Pinkie worked on turning the kitchen into a disaster zone.

Twilight chuckled as she made her way across the room. She dodged a box of what appeared to be spaghetti as she moved next to Fluttershy to lean and whisper, “Hey, have you seen Rarity at all? I want to talk to her.”

Fluttershy’s expression fell as her gaze flickered over to Applejack, currently being pulled in two directions by both Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. “Oh. It really was bad, huh?”

“I’m afraid so,” Twilight said, grimacing. “I just want to get to the bottom of this.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I haven’t seen her since last night, sorry.”

“Alright. I’ll be right back then, save some for me!” Twilight waved cheerfully at everypony else before teleporting away in a flash.

As she re-oriented, she was pleased to find that she had landed right outside of Rarity’s bedroom door. Perfect!

After taking a few moments to compose herself, Twilight reached up a hoof to knock loudly on the door. She froze, her eyes widening as her gaze fell upon what appeared to be three diamonds painted on the door in red.

What in Equestria? Was this some kind of prank? She didn’t remember seeing anything like this before, but it’s not like she had gotten close enough to thoroughly inspect this particular door.

A sudden pang of uncertain dread gripping at her heart, Twilight reached up and knocked on the door, perhaps a bit more urgently than she meant to. “Rarity? It’s me, Twilight. Are you okay in there? Can we talk for a bit?”

Twilight braced herself for the expected over the top theatrics Rarity was famous for, but no response came. Could Rarity have stepped out already? But where would she go? This was getting weird.

Twilight tried again, knocking on the door a little louder and trying the door handle. It was locked. “Rarity? Are you in there?”

There was still no response, and her worry deepened. This was strange, but probably nothing serious, right? Barging in there with her magic would definitely be an overreaction.

Firing up her horn, she teleported again, arriving just outside of the kitchen. “Hey, Fluttershy, could you come here for a minute?” Twilight asked, poking her head in the doorway.

Fluttershy blinked, drying her hooves with a washcloth and stepping away from the sink. “Um, okay, just give me a second.”

When Fluttershy moved closer, Twilight pulled her out into the hallway, checking to make sure the others weren’t paying attention. “Hey. This is probably nothing, but Rarity’s door had a strange mark on it and she’s not responding. Do you know if there’s an extra key or something I can use, just to check on her?”

Fluttershy blanched, glancing around nervously. “S-strange mark…? There should be an extra key for her room, I can show you where it’s normally kept.”

Sensing Twilight’s urgency, Fluttershy quickly led her through the halls to a large pantry somewhere on the first floor.

“There’s a cabinet in here that contains all the extra keys for the mansion,” Fluttershy said, pulling open the cabinet doors and gesturing towards the rows of keys hanging on hooks. “Most of them are unlabeled, but I’m pretty sure this one is Rarity’s.”

“Um, Fluttershy? There’s nothing there,” Twilight said, eying the empty hook.

Fluttershy blinked, doing a double-take. “B-but I’m positive this is the right one…”

“Could somepony else have taken it?”

Fluttershy frowned, shaking her head. “I guess it’s technically possible. Nopony besides me really knows this is here though, and unless they grabbed it at random, I don’t see how they could have known it was Rarity’s. “

Twilight cursed under her breath. “I guess I’ll just go invite myself in with magic. Thanks, Fluttershy!”

As Twilight prepared to teleport away, Fluttershy put a hoof on her shoulder, stopping her. “Um, I kind of forgot until now, but I was given this letter last night when I was visiting the Princess’ study, and I was supposed to give it to you this morning...”

A letter? Twilight took the offered envelope from Fluttershy, finding it strangely heavy and lumpy. Wait, there’s no way it could be…

Twilight quickly tore open the wax seal on the envelope and turned it upside-down. A folded letter and a small metallic object fell out, clattering to the ground.

"That's the right key," Fluttershy said, her eyes wide. "But...?"

Wasting no time, Twilight levitated the key beside her and teleported away, leaving the letter and a confused Fluttershy behind.

"Rarity?" Twilight called out, banging on the door loudly. "If you're in there please say something! I've got a key, and I’m letting myself in!"

Turning the key, Twilight slowly pushed the door open. A cold wind greeted her as the light from the hallway flooded into the room.

Twilight took a hesitant step inside, finding the room to be near freezing. It was filled with ghostly figures; ponykins stood all about covered in unfinished dresses, the scraps of fabric dancing slowly in the breeze.

"Rarity? Hello?" Twilight's voice felt small, and she could clearly make out the wailing of the storm outside. Did Rarity leave her window open?

Thick, dark curtains covered the windows, and none of the lamps were lit. Twilight illuminated her horn and slowly made her way through the sea of cloth. She could see that one of the curtains was moving more than the others, likely the source of the draft.

One of the dresses brushed against her flank and she shivered, the cloth like ice against her fur. Just how long had the window been open?

"Rarity? Come on, please say something. This isn't funny..." Her voice felt small and weak, the oppressive atmosphere pressing down on her as she lifted the wayward curtain aside to inspect the window behind.

The glass was cracked, as if it had been struck by something heavy. A large shard of glass about two inches wide had fallen out of the frame, and the wind was whistling through the gap. Well, that answered one question, but what had caused the break? Judging by the pattern, it probably came from the inside.

With a flash of magic, Twilight gathered up the glass and fixed the window with a quick mending spell. She shivered in relief as the cold wind abated, before turning back around.

The mass of ponykins loomed in around her, and she could barely make out which way she had come from. Grumbling, she pushed forward, roughly shoving them out of her way. Just what had possessed Rarity to bring so many —

Her hoof slipped on something wet and slick.

"Stop, just stop! I get the point, alright? There's no need to go any further. I get the point! You can skip the details!” Twilight growled, clenching her teeth together so hard they hurt.

“Buuut Twiiiiiliiiiiight….” Golden Wish said, drawing out her words in a whining, childlike drawl. “This is a myyyyyyssssterrry! You want to solve it, don’t you, Twilight? You want to wiiin, don’t you, Twilight? Then look! See everything there is to see! Leave no body part unturned, find every clue, find the truth, and utterly annihilate me! If. You. Caaaaaaaan!”

“This is sick, you’re sick!” Twilight screamed, tears stinging her eyes. “The lives of my friends are not just pieces on a chessboard!”

Twilight knocked the board to the floor, but it merely re-materialized on the table a few seconds later. Golden Wish’s harsh laughter reverberated around the small room, assaulting Twilight from every possible angle as she tried to deny this reality.

Twilight froze, her eyes locked straight ahead, unwilling to bring her gaze downwards. It had to be something else, right? It was just something silly she had gotten all worked up over, and later everypony would be laughing about what a crazy misunderstanding this all was.

The metallic scent of blood filled her nostrils. Twilight looked down to the floor, and her scream echoed across the mansion.

“Come on, it’s right up here!”

Applejack sprinted up the stairs and around the corner, everypony else close behind her. They had all heard Twilight’s scream from the kitchen, and when Fluttershy had mentioned that she went to Rarity’s room…

As Applejack rounded the corner, she began to make out Twi’s voice, high pitched and torn between wracking sobs and incoherent babbling.

“Twilight, we’re coming!” Rainbow Dash cried out.

The sobbing stopped all of a sudden, and as Applejack skidded to make the turn into the room, Twilight appeared in a flash, planting herself between them and the entrance, spreading her wings to block it off.

“No, you can’t go in there!” Twilight was trembling, her face streaked with tears, and her eyes were filled with a horror that spoke volumes.

An iron vice clamped around Applejack’s heart.

“T-Twi… Where’s Rarity? She’s okay, right?” Her voice felt hollow, like it was coming from a different place. Her body moved forward, trying to shove its way past Twilight, but there was flash of light, and she found herself pushed back against the wall.

“Come on, Twi, what’s going on? Say something!” Rainbow Dash shouted. She tried to fly over Twilight, but she too was thrown against the wall with telekinesis, before a magical barrier was erected over the doorway entirely.

“Please… just don’t… you don’t want to see…” Twilight mumbled as she stood there, legs shaking.

Don’t want to see… don’t want to see what? Twilight didn’t want her to see…


Twilight didn’t want her to see Rarity. Why didn’t she want her to see Rarity?


She was…

With a primal scream, Applejack lunged forward, barreling past Twilight and spun around, bucking the barrier harder than she’d bucked anything in her life.

To the considerable surprise of Twilight, the shield shattered, and Applejack rushed to the side of the bed. She would be there.

Rarity. The love of her life. The mare she’d give anything for. How had she always described her?

Beautiful. Broken.

Pristine. Beaten.

Flawless. Shattered.

Elegant. Bloody.

Energetic. Dead.

Dead. Dead. Dead. Rarity was dead. Right in front of her. The dead body of the mare she had loved, laughed with, with whom she had shared her meals, her bed, her future. It was all gone now, gone forever.

And what remained in front of her was so broken, so bloody. What was left of her was twisted in unnatural ways, shattered in places that were meant to be whole. And her face. Sweet Celestia, her face. She couldn’t recognize it anymore. She’d never be able to see her again. Every happy memory in her life was being replaced by the image of this twisted red and white lump before her.

Dimly, the rest of the world slowly filtered its way back into Applejack’s senses. She heard Rainbow Dash retching in the corner and turned to see Fluttershy bawling into the chest of Pinkie Pie, the normally chipper party pony looking sadder than she’d ever seen her. Twilight stood in the doorway. Her eyes were wide, and she seemed to be saying something.

“I’m sorry.”

"So," Twilight spat. "This is your game, then. Showing me my friends, dead and broken, their abject grief and suffering. To what end? Do you think I'm going to break just like that? Do you think you'll be able to win if you just throw tasteless nightmares at me over and over again?"

Twilight met Golden Wish's sneer with a defiant gaze of her own. Watching that had hurt. A lot. But it hadn't been all that long ago she'd been living through that horror herself. Somehow she'd survived, if you could call this living, and was here to face it all again from a higher perspective. The Twilight down there was just like the her from only a few days ago, suddenly thrust into a nightmare with no hope of a way out.

But from above, she stood a chance.

"Your first move," Twilight said levelly as she studied the chessboard. "Is it over? Can we begin?"

Golden Wish blinked, looking somewhat surprised by her abruptness. "Er, well, there are a few important scenes left. I guess if you're that eager to get started, I can summarize a bit."

Twilight picked up the metal key from the dresser next to Rarity's bed. There was a small tag on the end, marked with the room number.

"This is...?" Twilight asked, and Fluttershy nodded solemnly.

"Um, Twilight, I don't think you're going to like this, but this was a part of that letter you dropped earlier," Fluttershy said, pulling a folded piece of paper from her mane.

Twilight took the letter, looking it over. That’s right, there had been a paper with the key too. Just why had Celestia given her these, anyway? It didn’t make any sense. When she unfolded and read the letter, she found the words to be familiar.

“From a wish sprouts a seed of power
To grant your heart's deepest desire
Bless this seed with your greatest love
But this love must be born in blood
In death lies truth – the heart laid bare“

"Do you like it, Twilight?" Golden Wish asked, practically giddy with delight. “This is all just for you, you know. The elegance, the superb craftsmanship; there's an awful lot of work that goes into creating the perfect closed room!"

Twilight snorted, rolling her eyes. "I'm flattered," she said dryly, "but if you think this closed room is ‘perfect’, you're sadly mistaken."

Golden Wish's smile faltered, and she narrowed her eyes. "Oh? What does the Great and Powerful Twilight Sparkle have to say about it?"

"Well, one, don't call me that," Twilight said curtly. "Two, there's no such thing as a perfect closed room to begin with. Every question has an answer, whether we know it or not."

"Oh? Do you actually have an answer then, or are you going to be arguing from a position of ignorance?"

"Have you ever heard of the concept used in formal logic known as a Nightmare's Proof?” Twilight asked. She received a bored looking wave of a hoof in response and decided to continue. "While the name has become somewhat outdated in recent years, it originally stated that the existence of Nightmare Moon is easy to prove. All she would have to do is appear and shout ‘The night will last forever!’ and ponies would accept that as proof of her existence.

"But the inverse is not as simple. You can't offer proof that Nightmare Moon doesn't exist, because you can always make the claim that she's hiding somewhere where ponies can't detect her. Like say, the moon."

Twilight finished her lecture, feeling rather pleased at the scowl she was receiving in return. Maybe it wasn't right to inwardly gloat over small victories, but given the nature of her situation, it seemed appropriate. The time for 'being the better mare' was long past. This was personal.

"Is that all?" Golden Wish asked, looking annoyed. "The crux of your argument is going to be 'you can't prove a negative'?"

"What other angle is there?" Twilight countered, motioning towards the board. "We have Rarity, savagely beaten to death in her own room, likely bare-hooved. One key is locked inside the room, the other is placed inside a letter, passed on to Princess Celestia, then Fluttershy, and then it finally ends up in my hooves."

Twilight reached down and moved one of the pawns forward. "But that's it. Even completely disregarding the use of magic, there could easily be a duplicate key nopony knows about. Or a hidden door. Or maybe the windows. Or somepony was able to pick the lock. Whatever unknown method X was used to get in, it's not that hard to get past a locked door. It's a Nightmare's Proof. You can't prove that this room is 'closed' to begin with."

Golden Wish stared at Twilight levelly, holding her gaze for a long moment, before she slowly cracked a smile. Unable to hold it back anymore, a small giggle escaped from her lips, which quickly grew into a chuckle, then a guffaw, then she finally threw her head back in a full blown villainous cackle.

"Oh Twilight. Poor, naive Twilight," she said when she was done, wiping a tear from her eye. She suddenly lurched forward, slamming her hooves on the table and leaning in uncomfortably close as her face twisted into a disgusting mockery of joy. "This is going to be fun!"

Chapter 13 - Chains of Red

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"I'm almost disappointed, really," Golden Wish said as she idly inspected a hoof. "You don't have enough information for proper reasoning? That's a stalling tactic if I've ever heard one. But if you want to get into a threefold repetition, I suppose we can both sit here until we die of old age."

With a glance to her horn, she added, "That might be a bit."

Twilight ground her teeth, taking a deep breath. Her mannerisms were so needlessly infuriating that it became hard to think straight. Which, she supposed, was probably the point.

"Just what else are you suggesting?" Twilight asked. "This game of yours is so poorly defined, and it's not like I have a rulebook to work with here. With what you've given me so far, an endless draw seems like the only logical outcome."

"You could always surrender now!" Golden Wish suggested cheerfully. At Twilight's flat expression, she added, "Oh lighten up. You are right, though. I think it's about time I introduced some new rules that will make this interesting."

"New rules?" Twilight scowled, glancing down at the board. "This is your domain, after all. Let me guess: You'll be telling me that your ace and a two is a winning hand that beats my three of a kind because of some arbitrary reason and that I'm just a naive newbie who's supposed to accept that."

"Twilight!" Golden Wish gasped, looking offended. "I have nothing but the utmost respect for the spirit of fair competition. Also, can we stick to chess metaphors? I've kind of got a motif going on here and I don't want it to get too confusing."

Twilight ground her teeth even harder, idly anticipating a stern lecture from her dentist. If she would ever even have the chance to face such mundane difficulties again, that is. "Just get on with it."

“Very well.” Golden Wish waved her hoof, and the arrangement on the board reverted back to an earlier configuration. “Since your primary argument is that there isn’t enough information to work with and that I cannot prove that this is really a closed room, I will now do so.”

Golden Wish closed her eyes, taking a deep breath before opening them as a brilliant red flash emanated from her horn. “Everything I speak in red is the truth! There’s absolutely no need to doubt it!”

The room pulsed, and Twilight flinched backwards from the force of the magic. She could feel the weight of the spell being used, at the inherent value of truth in those words. “Are you saying you want me to just accept that?” Twilight asked, her voice a low growl.

“This is a game between the two of us, isn’t it? In a game, the rules are sacred! If you can’t even accept that basic premise, then you’re not qualified to be my opponent.”

“Fine, I accept your rule,” Twilight said, already running through the possibilities in her mind. “I think I can see what you’re getting at here, anyway. I’ll start with something simple. The culprit used magic to enter the room, commit the crime, and leave the room, bypassing the locked door entirely. The type of magic is irrelevant.”

“A good start, but useless!” Golden Wish said, grinning wickedly. “Unicorn magic in no way factored into the commission of this crime or the construction of this closed room."

“Can you offer any proof to that claim?” Twilight asked, immediately countering.

Golden Wish held up a hoof, shaking her head. “Stop there. Let me give an addendum to this rule. When I speak the truth, I will use the red, but I do not bear the responsibility of establishing that by showing proof. It is simply an undeniable fact.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes, but nodded in acquiescence. “Something like that allows you to make some pretty outlandish claims, but don’t think that’ll be enough to stop me. Since you specified unicorn magic, I assume alicorn magic is free game then?”

“Ohoho, perhaps it is. Tell me Twilight, what Alicorn-only magic do you know of that could accomplish something like this, but be completely out of the reach of mere unicorns? Do you know of some magnificent spell that you could only cast after becoming a princess that you couldn’t before?”

“I…” Twilight faltered, wracking her brain and combing through her vast repertoire of magic. The distinction between the lower and higher levels of magic was a fine one, and any spell capable of creating a locked room tended to be on the lower end of the spectrum. “What about, say, the ability to grant wishes? There’s no end to the amount of tricks you could pull with something like that.”

“What about it?” Golden wish asked with a yawn. “I won’t even bother to acknowledge such a lazy accusation. I’m not obligated to say any particular statement in red, after all.”

Twilight stomped a hoof and opened her mouth to retort, but stopped herself, considering. This probably wasn’t the right angle of attack to be pursuing right now. “Fine then. The culprit entered through a hidden door.”

“Hidden doors? Pffft. Knocks would be rolling in his grave if he could hear you now. There is only one door to Rarity’s room.”

Twilight nodded, drumming her hoof on the table. “What about things that aren’t doors? Somepony could have used the windows, or maybe somepony took the door off its hinges without unlocking it.”

Golden Wish threw back her head and laughed. “Everypony that entered or exited Rarity’s bedroom in the past forty-eight hours did so via the door and used it like doors are normally used. Come on, Twilight, are you even trying here?”

“Hold it. Define pony,” Twilight said, raising a hoof. “What about a dragon, or a griffin?”

“Oh, you’re right. A bit of an oversight on my part,” Golden Wish said, blushing slightly. “For the purposes of this game, ‘pony’ refers to any sapient creature capable of free will.”

Twilight grinned. “That’s just what I wanted to hear. I’m just getting started, Goldy, and I hope you’re prepared to lose. Let’s talk about the keys, shall we?”

Golden Wish sputtered, her mouth working itself in silent rage. “G-Goldy!?” she finally spat out, her composure totally lost. “What makes you think you have any right to call me that?”

"Golden Wish is a bit of a mouthful, don't you think?" Twilight asked, feigning sweetness. "It suits you much better, I think." As much as this was a game of twisted logic, psychological warfare seemed to be a key component as well.

"What about the keys? Can you guarantee that there are only two, and no duplicates?"

Golden Wish glared at her, her mouth twisted in a indignant pout before shaking her head fiercely. "You seem awfully sure of yourself, Twilight, but I'm just going to cut down every position you have to stand on! There are only two keys that can lock or unlock the door to Rarity's bedroom. Furthermore, the door can only be locked or unlocked with one of the two keys."

Twilight frowned. No extra keys, no hidden doors, no magic, no lockpicking. While some of the restrictions given by the red truth were arbitrary and untenable in reality, for now they were the rules of the games she had to abide by.

In a basic scenario, Culprit X enters the room, kills Rarity, leaves, and locks the door. Rarity's key was locked inside the room, so that couldn't be it. The other key was placed into an envelope, given to Fluttershy, and eventually made it to her hooves. Perhaps the loophole was there.

Twilight bit her lip, frantically studying the board. With every move she was getting closer and closer to a losing checkmate. Every blade of red sliced away another possible answer. In theory, that should eventually leave her with the right answer. There was a right answer, wasn’t there? But this test wasn’t multiple choice, and if she wasn’t able to deduce the solution…

“Come on Twilight, what’s wrong?” Golden Wish said, leaning forward and cackling gleefully. “Don’t you have an answer for me? Maybe I just wished everypony through the door with my alicorn magic! Would you be satisfied with that? Maybe if you kneel and kiss my hoof I’ll give you a hint!”

Twilight planted her face on the table, pulling at her mane with her hooves. There had to be something she was missing. The chess pieces all seemed to blur together as her mind went into overdrive.

That’s right. She needed to change perspective. Observe the board not from where she was sitting, but from her opponent’s angle. Turn the chessboard around. Asking how this could possibly be a closed room was meaningless. The question to be asked is how could something be made to look like a closed room.

"Why even bother with the envelope in the first place? Seems like an an awfully convoluted way to get me in possession of the necessary key."

"What can I say?" Golden Wish asked, bowing theatrically. "Ridiculously complicated is sort of my style."

"I've noticed," Twilight said, rolling her eyes. "But can you repeat this in red? From the time she received the letter to the time I received it, the letter remained under Fluttershy's supervision.”

Golden Wish opened her mouth and her horn began to light up, but she stopped, frowning. “No… I can’t, actually. I refuse.”

“You refuse? Isn’t that the same as admitting I’m right?”

“Not at all,” Golden Wish said, shaking her head. “It’s just that the term ‘under Fluttershy’s supervision’ is too vague. She was sleeping last night, right? How could she possibly have kept an eye on it the entire time?”

“So there is a window, then.” Twilight said with a grin. “It’s like this, then. We saw you giving Celestia a letter which was then given to Fluttershy. It appeared to contain the key to Rarity’s bedroom. At the time, Fluttershy must have realized there was at least something similar to a key inside of it. But there’s no way she could have known it was this key.”

“Hoh? Just what are you getting at, here?”

“The key Fluttershy received and the key I received… were they the same?” Glancing over her opponent, Twilight felt her grin grow wider. “What’s the matter, Goldy? You look like something bit you in an uncomfortable place.”

Golden Wish grimaced, clenching her teeth. “You think the envelope contained a fake, and somepony switched it later, do you? Very well… The key to Rarity’s bedroom was in the envelope Fluttershy received."

The red light from the spell glinted off of Twilight's eyes, and she pressed forward. “Just go ahead and repeat this, then. The envelope Fluttershy received and the envelope given to me were the same!"

"Don't think you have any reason to be gloating!" Golden Wish said with a snarl. "The envelope Fluttershy received and the envelope you received were the same."

There it was. The gap she was looking for.

"I'm, sorry, Goldy, but this is checkmate."


"Repeat this in red! From the time Fluttershy received the envelope till the time I opened it, nopony else had a chance to handle it!"

Golden Wish hissed sharply. "You..."

Twilight slammed her hooves down on the table, the pieces on the chessboard rattling slightly. "It's like this, isn't it? Fluttershy recieved the letter, I spoke with her, and then she probably went straight to bed. It's not like she would sleep with it on her, so it's likely she would have put it on her bedside table. At any point then, somepony could have crept in, taken the key from the envelope, used it to commit the crime, and returned it, with Fluttershy none the wiser!"

"Hold on!" Golden Wish shouted, her face betraying a sense of desperate panic. "The letter was sealed with wax, as you saw!"

Twilight snorted, shaking her head. "Pathetic. A seal of wax is hardly an unbreakable barrier. With a little bit of know-how, anypony can unseal and reseal a letter, even without magic! While not bad, this closed room trick is pretty far from perfect!"

"Twiiiiliiiight!" Golden Wish snarled, stomping a hoof. "Fine! Just who are you suggesting crept in and swapped the keys, then? Was it your precious Princess Celestia? Or poor heartbroken Applejack? Or maybe it was dear little Fluttershy herself!"

"Nope," Twilight said, shaking her head. “As barely tolerant as I am of playing this game about the lives of my friends in the first place, I won't allow you to slander the friendship we all share! I'll tear your closed rooms apart, but the exact identity of "Culprit X" is irrelevant at this time."

Golden Wish closed her eyes and stood there shaking, and Twilight could practically see the rage pouring off of her. After a long minute she finally let out a deep sigh and shook her head, her right hoof still twitching slightly.

"... Very well. I resign. This is your win, Twilight Sparkle. But don't think this is over! That was just round one! Practically just a tutorial! I'm glad to see you're an opponent worthy of my best!"

"Whatever you throw at me," Twilight said, her level state burning with determination. "I won't lose. I don't know what you stand to get from all of this, Gold, but if you seriously think that you'll win when my friends are on the line, you failed to do your research."

Twilight took a deep breath, closing her eyes before exhaling slowly. Every new page seemed to bring even crazier twists and turns into this warped narrative. The page below her, filled with scattered words of red ink like the overzealous efforts of a vindictive grader, spoke volumes about how far off the rails this train had gotten. Was this the product of a depressed and sleep addled Fluttershy’s mindset? Or a sincere attempt at communicating an explicit puzzle in a unique fashion? Should she expect to see later chapters lit up with the entire spectrum of the rainbow?

Still, the concept of an absolute truth spell being used to define limits and set boundaries was definitely an intriguing one. Each red word was like a personal message from the author herself, as if it were saying “This isn’t the solution, try something else.” Although for a more realistic analogue, she was certain she’d read something about a spell that allowed only absolute truth to be spoken, and –

Twilight’s train of thought was interrupted by a thundering boom from overhead, almost immediately followed by the sound of shattering glass and a spectacular crash coming from her kitchen, pots and pans bursting from her shelves to clatter all over her floor. Wind rushed out from the kitchen door, and she strengthened her telekinesis on the papers so that none were blown out of place. The cat leapt to her feet, hissing loudly and arching its back before dashing off and diving for cover under some furniture.

She heard a familiar groan coming from her kitchen, and Twilight let out a sigh, shaking her head. “Rainbow Dash, are you alright in there?” she called out, neatly setting the story aside and standing up.

“Wh-wha…?”” Fluttershy mumbled, her dreary eyes half lidded and looking around in confusion. “What’s going on?”

Twilight poked her head into the kitchen and saw Rainbow Dash slowly extracting herself from the remains of her cupboard, occasionally picking splinters out of her wings.

“Oh, hey, Twi. Sorry about that. Trick gone bad, you know?” Rainbow Dash said, a sheepish grin across her face.

“It’s been ages since you’ve messed up a trick so badly you ended up destroying a part of my house,” Twilight said, trying to keep her expression neutral. “Probably not the best thing to go around getting nostalgic for.”

Rainbow Dash stood up, wincing slightly and shaking the rest of the dust and debris from her. “Aww, come on, Twi, it’s not that bad, is it?” With a glance around the kitchen, she quickly added, “I mean, I’ll help clean it up and everything, eheh…”

Twilight let out another sigh, stepping forward and firing up her horn. "I appreciate the offer, but most of these pans belong in very specific spots, and Spike would throw a fit if they got messed up."

As she expanded her field of magic and turned the kitchen into a whirlwind of iron, ceramic, and wood, an image flashed into her mind of a heartbroken Twilight carrying a wounded Rainbow Dash through the snow. "I'm glad you're not hurt, though," she said, her voice soft.

Rainbow Dash blushed slightly. "This is me we're talking about here, Twilight. Takes a lot more than a measly crash to stop the amazing Rainbow Dash!"

Ducking under the last frying pan as it was levitated neatly onto its shelf, Rainbow Dash stared at the now pristine kitchen with awe. "Wow, when you go all out, you really go all out, huh?"

Twilight smiled, admiring her handiwork. "Magic has its perks. Anyway, you wanna stay for a while? I've got snacks out already for –"

"Oh, hey Fluttershy!" Rainbow Dash said, interrupting Twilight. "What're you doing here?"

"Napping, I guess?" Fluttershy said, yawning softly and rubbing at her eyes before leaning forward in a long stretch, her bones popping audibly.

"Napping?" Rainbow Dash asked, raising an eyebrow. "You know, I'm all for napping, but I prefer clouds over, say, Twilight's floor."

Fluttershy smiled, her eyes somewhat unfocused as she yawned again. "Oh, it's quite nice here. Very quiet. My house can get pretty noisy when the animals are awake, and, um, I don't feel comfortable sleeping outside. Oh, but what brings you here, Rainbow Dash?"

Rainbow Dash grinned widely and she flexed her wings. "I was out hanging with Applejack, discussing some crazy dares, and she told me 'I ain't never heard of nopony who ever managed to go faster than light.' I wasn't about to take a challenge like that lying down! But uh, it didn't work too well. This time, anyway."

"Um, Rainbow Dash..." Fluttershy mumbled glancing over at Twilight.

"The reason she'd never heard of anypony going faster than light," Twilight said, reaching up to massage her temple with a hoof, "is because it's literally impossible. Under our current understanding of physics, the amount of energy required to break light speed is practically infinite. Certainly not attainable under wing power, no matter how good of a flier you are." With a shake of her head, she added, "Pretty sure even Applejack understands that, at least to some extent. Sorry, Rainbow, but you got tricked."

"Are you kidding me! You're saying Applejack lied to me?"

"No, she told you the truth, Rainbow," Fluttershy said, shaking her head. "But, um, some truths are more truthful than others? If that makes any sense."

Rainbow Dash frowned, her brow furrowing in thought. "I guess I see what you mean. Whatever, I'll find a way to prank her back. Sorry about the kitchen, Twilight. Later!”

Twilight smiled ruefully, watching Rainbow Dash speed out an open window. "Well, that was a fun distraction. How're you feeling, Fluttershy?"

Fluttershy blushed slightly, a smile on her face. "Oh, I'm feeling much better now, thanks for asking. It was a good nap. Um, how's the story coming along?"

"Well, I just finished the part where 'truth in red' is introduced as a mechanic," Twilight said as the two of them left the kitchen. "This multiple layers of stories thing is getting hard to fully wrap my head around, I'm still torn up when it comes to reading about my friends getting hurt, and the logic used is practically dizzying."

Fluttershy's face fell. "Oh..."

Twilight grinned, nudging Fluttershy playfully. "And for some reason, I want nothing more than to know what happens next. It's weird, but very unique. I really had no idea that you were capable of something like this. It's always a surprise when you find a side of a close friend that you never knew existed, right?"

"I see..." Fluttershy said, her face neutral. "It's, um, hard to explain, but there's a lot going into all of this."

"No kidding," Twilight said, nodding emphatically. "Speaking of, what Rainbow Dash said earlier made me think about the nature of truth, and I wanted to try something."

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow, watching as Twilight began scanning the bookshelves back and forth before pulling out a well used tome.

"Let's see here..." Twilight mumbled, flipping through the pages. "Ah, here we are. A truth spell. Hmm, can only be cast as a personal spell, though."

"W-wow. I didn't think anything like that actually existed," Fluttershy said, her eyes wide.

"I mean, it's not going to make me speak in red or anything," Twilight said with a grin. "Although I could mimic the special effects with other spells. Anyway, let me give this a shot."

Twilight ran through the spell in her mind, focusing her magic as energy began to swirl around her. She felt it pull inwards, settling around her throat with a light pressure before dissipating. A strange tingling crept up her horn.

"My name is Rainbow Dash," Twilight lied, testing the spell. So far so good. Channeling her magic again, she focused her energy on the strange sensation in her horn and decided to add in a small special effect for good measure.

"My name is Twilight Sparkle!"There was an odd sense of force to her words when the spell took effect, and the room lit up from the brilliant red flash from her horn. Fluttershy gasped, staring with awe.

Emboldened, Twilight tried again. "My name is Rain—" Her throat seized up, her eyes bugging out as she was forced into a coughing fit.

"Twilight, are you okay!?" Fluttershy immediately rushed to her side and offered a glass of water.

Twilight drank greedily, polishing off the glass and wiping her mouth with a sigh. "Wow... That was unpleasant," Twilight mumbled, her voice raspy.

"Um, are you sure this spell is safe to use?" Fluttershy asked, glancing about nervously.

Twilight shook her head. "No idea. I have to actively focus my magic through it to say something truthful, but there's backlash if I try to combine it with a lie. Though I suppose it has to be a lie known to me. Let's try again.

"My name is Twilight Sparkle.

"My coat is purple.

"My coat is lavender.

"My coat is not purple, but lavender.

"My coat is not lavender, but p—"

Once again her throat seized up, but this time she was ready.

Fluttershy stroked Twilight's back soothingly as she continued her coughing fit. "Your logic here… just because something is a property of one thing doesn’t mean it applies in reverse, right?”

"It's just as I thought," Twilight said, grinning triumphantly as her breathing steadied. "The truth, even when it's magically enforced, can still be a tool of deception."

Fluttershy's eyes began to sparkle, and a smile made its way up her face. "Do you have any other examples, Twilight?"

"Sure! Let's try this." Twilight turned around, grabbing a sandwich from the nearby snack tray and began to dismantle it with her magic, making sure Fluttershy couldn't see what she was doing.

When she was finished, Twilight spun around and presented the sandwich to Fluttershy with a flourish. "Here you go! This is a lettuce and daisy sandwich!"

Fluttershy blinked, taking the sandwich and staring at it dully. "Um, thank you?" She pulled it close to take a bite, but stopped, frowning and pulling the sandwich open. Several clumps of lavender fur were scattered amongst the greens.

“Do you get it?” Twilight asked as she paced back and forth, practically bouncing with excitement. “I told you the truth about what kind of sandwich it was. But that wasn’t the whole truth.”

“Yay!” Fluttershy whispered. She leapt up into the air, doing a small loop before flitting about the room, her smile splitting her face ear to ear. “Oh, I’m so glad. I didn’t think you would grasp the core concept here so easily, Twilight. Um, can you cast that spell on me?”

Twilight frowned, glancing back over the spellbook. “I’m afraid not. It only works on unicorns. I could at least give you the effect, though.”

Twilight lit up her horn, and conjured a small floating ball of red light, pushing it towards Fluttershy. “Touch that, and it’ll flash red. I’ll trust whatever you say while doing so.”

"I see," Fluttershy said, nodding. "That works." Landing, Fluttershy made her way over to one of Twilight's desks and began scribbling on a piece of paper with a quill. After a few minutes she finished, shaking the paper dry before giving it to Twilight.

"Here you go. Can you tell me what this is?"

Twilight looked over the paper. It appeared to be a hastily drawn doodle of a smoking pipe. She already knew where this was headed, but decided to play along. "This is a pipe, right? For smoking?"

Fluttershy shook her head, a coy smile playing at her lips. "This is not a pipe. I mean, it's just paper with ink on it, Twilight, don't be silly."

Twilight chuckled. "The treachery of images is a concept I'm familiar with. Though it's been a while since I've seen it given any practical use. So you're saying this is all stuff I should keep in mind moving forward, right?"

Fluttershy nodded, beaming. After a few moments, she stopped as a thought occurred to her, then blushed slightly. "Um, that trick with the sandwich was funny and all, but are there more? I am actually a little hungry."

"Hmm... Ah, here you go." Twilight levitated a small brown bag over to Fluttershy. "It’s those gruesome sweets I bought earlier. Not really sure what I was thinking at the time, but I’m sure they’ll taste fine. Anyway, should we get back to the main event?

Fluttershy nodded and took the bag and the two of them moved back towards their reading area.

Twilight found the cat waiting there for them, sitting calmly next to the stack of papers and affixing Twilight with a bored yet unsettling gaze. A chill ran up her spine as an odd sense of guilt overtook her. Here she was, laughing and enjoying herself with Fluttershy while the fictional Twilights were in there fighting for their lives and suffering utter heartbreak at the loss of their friends.

Such thinking was completely illogical of course, but it wasn’t hard to emphasize with the plight of a fictional character when said character was a literal extension of yourself, twice over.

“Fluttershy,” Twilight asked, the cheerful mood in the room beginning to ebb away. “What’s that cat’s name, anyway? Can you ask her?”

Fluttershy leaned in and spoke to the cat in a low voice for a few moments, and it responded with only a single meow.

“She says her name is Mira. She’s, um, not very talkative though.”

Twilight nodded, frowning. Mira? It sounded familiar for some reason. “Well, Mira, I’m afraid I can’t keep you as a pet, but you’re welcome to stay in my home for the rest of the day, at least. If you want to stay and watch while we finish this story, be my guest.”

Mira meowed, slowly sauntering off to the side and curling up on an empty cushion. I guess that means yes.

“Um, can you switch back to reading out loud again, now that I’m awake?” Fluttershy asked, her cheeks coloring. “You’re pretty good at it, Twilight, and I like listening to you.”

“No problem.” Twilight sat down, floating the stack of papers up as she found her place again. Back into the world of this literary nightmare. She had some new concepts to keep in mind while reading, and now that Fluttershy was awake, she could discuss them readily as new challenges arose.

What was lying in wait at the end of this road?

Chapter 14 - Shattered Hopes

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The incessant ticking of the clock echoed through Twilight's ears as she sat in the lounge, her gaze distant.

Her heart was numb; it felt like a block of ice weighing down her chest. The world seemed to blur around her, as if she were viewing everything through a fishbowl. It all felt unreal. Any minute now, Rarity would appear out of nowhere, ready to explain how this was all just a cruel joke. They'd all scold her of course, something like that would be in poor taste, and in the end, all walk away having learned a valuable lesson about friendship.

But that was never going to happen, was it?

Rarity was dead. There was no denying it. She had seen her battered form with her own eyes, felt her cold and lifeless flesh beneath her hooves. Somepony had savagely beaten her to death, and if her medical knowledge was up to snuff, likely kept going after the fact, to the point where she was a barely recognizable mess.

Who could do such a thing? Who would do such a thing? Equestria was meant to be better than this...

Twilight shook her head to attempt to clear her thoughts, and then glanced up at the other occupants of the room. Pinkie Pie was curled up on the couch, not saying a word, and Rainbow Dash paced back and forth, her teeth clenched as she tried to hold back her tears.

Applejack and Fluttershy were in the next room over. Applejack had needed to be alone for a while, but Fluttershy was unassuming enough to keep an eye on her just in case while still giving her space. Sweet Celestia, Twilight couldn't even begin to imagine how Applejack must feel right now.

"Why..." Rainbow Dash muttered, her voice tinged with both anger and sorrow.

That was the question they were all wondering, right? But there was nopony around who could offer an answer.

"Twilight... you know something, right? You have to…"

Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash, the pegasus's eyes brimming with tears. Of course. She was a princess, after all. She was the beacon in the darkness that everypony could count on when things were at their worst.

“Somepony murdered Rarity,” Twilight said flatly. Her own bluntness surprised her, but the part of her that could give empathy and understanding to a grieving friend seemed to be temporarily broken.

“Of course somepony murdered her!” Rainbow Dash snarled, wheeling on Twilight. “I don’t know what you saw in there, but it certainly wasn’t like she tripped and fell down the stairs! Why? How? Who!?”

Twilight lowered her gaze to the floor, shaking her head. “I don’t… I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t fight,” Pinkie Pie mumbled softly, her voice absent its usual volume.

Rainbow Dash deflated, sinking back into a chair. “You’re like, a detective, Twilight. A good one. Isn’t there anything? Even if it’s just a hunch? Point me in the direction of the pony I’m supposed to clobber.”

“I think Applejack gets first dibs on that,” Twilight muttered. A gnawing dread began to worm its way into her heart. She did have a hunch, of course, but the idea of even considering it was just preposterous.

The pony she had just seen go into a near catatonic shock when she discovered the corpse of her lover. The most honest and dependable pony she knew. One of her best friends.

The pony that had been fighting with Rarity just last night. The pony who got drunk and claimed to have a hazy memories of last nights proceedings. The pony who was more than strong enough to do something like that in a fit of rage. The pony who was most likely to be able to get into her lover’s room without a key.


The very idea of suspecting that one of her friends was capable of doing something so horrible made her sick to her stomach. But the possibility was still there, and it seemed like both a simple and rational explanation for it all.

But not everything added up. While the scene certainly resembled a crime of passion, the envelope switcheroo with the keys and the red paint on the door suggested some degree of premeditation. Indeed, why draw such explicit attention to the crime in the first place? The usual method would be to hide the body and cover it up, not flamboyantly announce it to the world. Was somepony trying to frame Applejack?

"The shield I put up last night..." Twilight said, breaking the long silence. "It's still intact, so that means nopony from the outside should have been able to enter the mansion."

"What if they were here before you put up the shield?" Rainbow Dash asked, raising an eyebrow.

Twilight nodded. "Technically possible. Though the idea that a strange pony has been hiding out here this whole time..."

"Can we confirm that real quick?" Twilight asked as she studied the board. "I'm confident in my own magic, but with the game you've set up I'd like to see that made official."

"That I can grant easily enough. You are quite talented after all, it's a reasonable assumption." Golden Wish leaned forward, once again casting her colorful brand of truth magic. "Nopony can pass through a magical barrier created by Twilight Sparkle without breaking it."

Twilight continued to stare at the board. "Hmm..."

Of course, there was that strange legend Fluttershy had told. And the letter she had received with the key had quoted a part of that grisly epitaph. Was there really a murderous alicorn spirit haunting the place? Or was that just what somepony wanted her to think?

There was of course, somepony else that seemed to play a large role in this, and Twilight needed to have a long talk with her once she could fully get her head on straight.

"Um, excuse me..." Fluttershy interrupted, poking her head in the door. "I'm going to take Applejack to see Princess Celestia. She really needs somepony to talk to."

Twilight frowned. The fact that Princess Celestia wasn't already down here with the rest of them was already rather strange. But she knew all too well that being a princess wasn't the same as being omnipotent. If nopony had told Celestia what had happened...

Twilight didn't have the heart to face her mentor just yet. "That should be fine, Fluttershy. Please ask that she come down once you guys are done, there's a lot we need to discuss."

Fluttershy nodded and turned to go, but Pinkie Pie stood up suddenly, moving towards the door on unsteady legs.

"Mind if I come too?" Pinkie Pie asked, trying to force a pained smile.

Fluttershy nodded and she pushed the door open further. Twilight could see Applejack standing behind it, looking like she was already dead. Her heart tore open anew as she watched the three of them head off down the hallway.

"What now?" Rainbow Dash asked once they were all out of sight. "Does anything even matter at this point?"

Such a defeatist question was certainly unhealthy, but Twilight found herself echoing that sentiment. What was even left at this point? Revenge? Justice? Closure? Whatever path still lied ahead of them, their happy lives had been irrevocably shattered by an act of wanton cruelty, and nothing she could do would put all the pieces back together again.

But still, she had to do something.

"Rainbow Dash, what do you know about the legend of Golden Wish?"

Rainbow Dash blinked, raising an eyebrow. "That story Fluttershy told last night? I heard what you heard, so that's about it. Do you really think it has something to do with...?"

Twilight shook her head. A strange legend, a creepy portrait, a grisly epitaph, and what Applejack had confessed last night. It all seemed to add up to something... But just what sort of nightmarish fantasy had they all found themselves a part of?

Fluttershy stood outside of the door to Celestia and Luna's room. Compared to the last time she had visited, the engraved wood exuded a far more intimidating aura, and she felt herself shiver involuntarily.

"Fluttershy..." Applejack mumbled, pulling her hat down over her eyes. "I know what we talked about and all, but I just don't think I can go through with this right now."

"Come on, now, Applejack!" Pinkie Pie said, perking up visibly. "It's just Princess Celestia and Luna. We both know they aren't that scary!"

Applejack shook her head, glancing at Fluttershy as an odd expression crossed her face. "It just doesn’t make any sense…”

"Dealing with this... for all of us..." Fluttershy trailed off, swallowing and squeezing her eyes shut. She scrunched her face as if she was trying to avoid losing her breakfast. "Princess Celestia will have an answer. She has to."

Pinkie Pie nodded vigorously. "She always does! Except for all those times she doesn't, I guess."

Applejack let out a sigh. “Fine.”

Taking a deep breath, Fluttershy reached up and knocked on the door. "Um, Princess Celestia? Can we come in? It's an emergency."

A long silence passed without a response and Fluttershy had begun to reach for her spare key when she finally heard a voice call out from inside.

"The three of you may enter."

The voiced sounded muffled and unfamiliar. Fluttershy glanced back towards the others and frowned. With a shrug, she turned, opened the door, and entered the large study.

None of the lamps in the room were lit, and the room felt still. Fluttershy stepped forward hesitantly towards two dark shapes in the corner. "Um, Princess? Is that you?"

The shapes moved forward, and Celestia and Luna stepped out of the shadows. The two sisters stared forward with blank, uncomprehending eyes, their movements were slow and jerky.

Pinkie Pie shivered violently, her hair standing on end. "Uh, girls? We should probably go."

"Now now, why are you all in such hurry to leave? You only just got here.”

A voice filled with a sweet poison echoed across the room, causing the three mares to take a step back. Golden lights began to fall like snow from the ceiling; only a few at first, but the room was quickly ablaze with a flurry of glimmering motes which coalesced into the shape of an alicorn that stood in between them and the doorway.

“It’s… you’re…” Applejack stared up at the figure looming over them, her body trembling.

“Applejack!” Golden Wish exclaimed cheerfully. “It’s been ages, how have you been? Have you been enjoying my gift?”

Applejack closed her eyes, shaking her head and muttering to herself. “This isn’t real. I didn’t… It can’t be.”

Pinkie Pie leaned in uncomfortably close to Golden Wish, staring her down. “And just who are you supposed to be, hmm?”

Golden Wish threw back her head and chuckled jovially. “You’re right, I suppose introductions are in order. I am known as Golden Wish. Master of this mansion and the arbiter of your fates.”

“You’re not… Rarity… I didn’t…” Applejack sunk down to the floor, covering her head with her hooves.

“You. What did you do to the princesses?” Fluttershy asked, her voice quiet but firm.

Golden Wish looked down to regard Fluttershy, her smile turning sour. “Ohoh. You should really mind your manners when addressing one such as me, little mare. As for the princesses, I’ve decided that the roles they were playing in this story weren't suiting me, so I’ll be re-purposing them soon enough.”

“Hey! Nopony talks to Fluttershy that way!” Pinkie Pie said, growling as she stepped in front of Fluttershy. “Why I oughta go get Twilight and—”

“Twilight?” Golden Wish snorted derisively. “Don’t make me laugh. Just what could your precious princess do to stop me even if she were here? Isn’t that right, Twilight?”

Golden Wish turned her head towards the ceiling, as if she were addressing something none of them were aware of.

Pinkie Pie narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like you.”

“Rarity.” Applejack said, standing up slowly. “My wish, for Rarity, a chance, a happy life. Now that’s gone.”

Golden Wish turned to Applejack, her smile returning. “And I’m very sorry for your loss. Tragic, that. I’m afraid my gifts don’t come with a ‘nothing bad will happen’ guarantee.”

Applejack shook her head, tears beginning to stream down her face. “Right now… I don’t even care if you’re the one who did it. I just… want her back. Give me my Rarity back. I’ll give anything.”

“Applejack…” Fluttershy said softly, turning to her friend with wide eyes.

Golden Wish’s smile turned cruel as her eyes began to sparkle. “Well well. Such a thing would be within my power. But if love must be born in blood, what do you think life costs?”

Applejack went pale and averted her eyes.

"Of course, I'm generous to loyal customers, so I'll give you a two for one special. I'll leave the choice up to you."

Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie glanced to each other, back towards Celestia and Luna, the two still staring forward aimlessly, then back to Applejack, who looked as if she were about to throw up.

"So what you're trying to tell me..." Applejack shuddered, swallowing involuntarily. "If I want Rar back, I have to sacrifice two of my friends."

Fluttershy shook her head, tears brimming in her eyes. "If it would bring Rarity back, I would gladly... But Applejack, how do you think she would feel about it?"

Applejack bit her lip, cursing under her breath. "Why would you even ask something like that of me... What kind of monster are you?"

The surrounding air grew icy as Golden Wish narrowed her eyes. "You should choose your next words carefully. My gifts are only available to those who offer the proper respect."

With a pained glance, Applejack turned to her friends, offering up a weak smile. "Sorry, you girls."

Pinkie Pie returned a large grin, her eyes wet with tears. "It's okay, Applejack! We understand."

Applejack spun to face Golden Wish, lowering her head to the floor. "Sorry for any disrespect. I want what you have to offer. Nothing would make me happier to see her smile again. But I can't pay your price. The lives of my friends aren't mine to give."

Raising her head, Applejack met her gaze, eyes burning with determination. "But I'll offer you all I have. My body, my friendship, my love. Erase every scrap of me from this world if you must."

Golden Wish stared at Applejack in silence for a long moment, her expression flat. "You offer not your life, but memories of you as well. Rarity would come back, not to you, but to an empty hole in her heart and no knowledge of how it got there."

"It's the fairest trade I can rightly offer, and is probably what I deserve, besides."

With a long sigh, Golden Wish raised a hoof to her forehead. "That... would be equivalent. You surprise me, Applejack. I was expecting another decision made selfishly. This puts me in a tight spot."

"We'll miss you," Fluttershy said softly, placing a hoof on Applejack's shoulder. "But I trust that you know the right thing to do."

Golden Wish sighed again, shaking her head. "You've really sucked the fun out of all this, and I hate to say it, but I'll have to refuse your offer."

Applejack blinked, taking a step back. "What do you mean you refuse? You said it’s an equivalent trade, right?"

Closing her eyes, Golden Wish lit up her horn, a golden glow shimmering across the room. "It's more than a reasonable offer. In another circumstance, I would probably accept it. But I'm afraid that's just not how this story is written."

"You're not making any sense!" Pinkie Pie said, her voice a low growl.

"A tragic heroine, sacrificing herself to bring a loved one back from the dead. It's got a certain poignant resonance to it."

Golden Wish looked up, her eyes ablaze as her face contorted into a twisted sneer and her magic pulsed across the room. "But this story is about selfish fools and the poor choices they've made, and those who suffer because of it. If you refuse to stick to the script, that's fine, but..."

The light from her horn began to shift and discolor, coalescing into twisted shadows that vaguely resembled the shape of ponies.

"The ending won't change!"

"You rotten snake!" Applejack snarled as she backed away from the shadows closing in around them. "You never planned on granting me anything from the start, did you!?"

Golden Wish threw back her head and laughed, her cackle echoing off the walls. "Guilty as charged. Oh, but watching you squirm is so much fun!"

Fluttershy stared, face to face with the shadow before her, the burning embers of its eyes reflecting off her own. "You're nothing more than a bully," she said, addressing the alicorn without taking her eyes from the predator before her. "About as sophisticated as a little filly on the playground who offers something in mock friendship only to snatch it away and laugh at their own cleverness."

"Maybe you're right!" Golden Wish said, her twisted grin seeming to grow impossibly wide as the shadows shifted around her. "We all play the parts written out for us. You should know that all too well, my dear, sweet, timid little Fluttershy!"

The shadows pressed in ever closer, and the girls backed into each other, nowhere left to go.

Applejack's eyes darted fiercely across the room, trying to take in every minute detail. "I don't know about you girls, but if this is what we're dealing with, I don't think I'll be throwing my life away after all."

"That's right!" Pinkie Pie said, crouching low. "Let's show this meanie just who she's messing with!"

Golden Wish raised a hoof. "Kill them. And make it messy. Twilight will have quite the sight when she discovers this crime scene!”

The shadows pounced, and the three ponies sprang into action. With a terrified shriek, Fluttershy sprang up into the air to hover at the top of the ceiling. Applejack and Pinkie Pie planted themselves and twisted to buck their hooves out in opposite directions.

With a sickening crunch, their hooves met the bodies of the leaping shadows and sent them sprawling across the room. The pair of earth ponies were able to dash through the holes created by their counter-offensive to opposite sides of the room to avoid being surrounded.

"Fluttershy, the curtains!" Applejack cried out as she rolled away from the swipe of what seemed to be a shadowy claw. One wrong move and that thing would tear her open, spilling herself all across the floor.

Fluttershy dashed over to the windows, hoping fervently she had correctly interpreted Applejack's meaning. She used her teeth to pull loose the long braided cord that served as a drawstring for the curtains.

One of the creatures took notice, sprouting wings and charging upwards at Fluttershy with a whistling howl. Its fangs glinted in the golden light cast by the shimmering motes. Fluttershy screamed and dropped to the ground, wings clamping tightly to her sides. The impact was hard, but she managed to roll over in time to see the creature diving straight for her.

“Fluttershy!” Pinkie Pie cried out as she leaped forward to tackle the winged shadow in midair. Her momentum slammed the beast into the ground, and after standing, brought her hooves and her full body weight down on its prone form before leaping back to a safe distance.

“You okay?” Pinkie Pie asked, smiling weakly.

“PInkie Pie, you’re…” Fluttershy trailed off, her eyes drawn to the streak of red across Pinkie’s flank.

“A little help over here!” Applejack barked through clenched teeth. Pushed back into a corner by two of the shadows, she seemed to be fighting a losing battle. Swinging a long hat-rack at the advancing creatures, she desperately tried to keep them at bay.

Summoning what scraps of courage she still had left, Fluttershy quickly gathered the rope she had dropped and took to the air. She made a pass over Applejack’s position and tossed the coil of rope to her. “Here, catch!”

Applejack threw the hat-rack at the shadows and leapt over them, catching the rope in her teeth. She charged across to the other side of the room, working on fashioning a makeshift lasso as quickly as she could. When she finished, she spun around to take stock of the situation. Three shadows were still standing, and they were advancing on her friends.

Pinkie Pie stumbled, her back hoof wet with blood. The shadows sensed their chance and prepared to pounce on the retreating pony, but Fluttershy swooped down to land in between them and unleashed her fiercest stare.

“I won’t let you hurt her!”

The beasts balked under her intimidating gaze, but their killing intent was true, and they snarled and began to advance again.

"Ain't gonna be no more of that!" Applejack cried as she took advantage of the brief distraction to throw her lasso. It caught around all three of the shadows, and she pulled it tight. The entrapped creatures howled in protest, but Applejack grabbed the rope and dragged them out into the hallway. The sounds of a well placed buck and of a bundle of shadows tumbling down the stairs were like music to her ears.

“Phew. Your pets ain’t so tough,” Applejack said, wiping the sweat from her brow. With a fierce scowl she turned from the hallway and addressed the room. “Now listen here, missy. You and I are going to have a long discussion on what happened to Rarity and what you’re going to do about it, but this time it’s going to be on my—”

The door slammed in Applejack’s face, enveloped in a golden glow. She heard the key turn in the lock with a loud thunk.

“Whoops,” Golden Wish said, pulling the key back out and floating it in front of her. “You can stay out there for a while. In truth, I only wanted to deal with these two, anyway.”

“Hey! Open this door!” Loud, repeated thumps came from the outside of the door as Applejack tried to buck it open, but the sturdy wood didn’t want to budge.

“Oh, this belongs to you. I hope you don’t mind if I borrowed it,” Golden Wish said sweetly, reaching out with her magic and tucking the key into Fluttershy’s mane.

Fluttershy swallowed and backed away. If the danger before had been an adrenaline filled fight for her life, the danger that surrounded her now now felt like an icy, cruel inevitability that was closing slowly around her heart. “Applejack,” she muttered weakly through the door, “go get Twilight. Quickly!”

“But I can’t leave you two! Not like this!”

Golden Wish threw back her head and cackled wildly. “Yes, Applejack! Go get your precious Twilight Sparkle. Maybe she’ll be able to stop me in time! Better hurry though, I work fast!”

With a curse that was halfway a choking sob, Applejack galloped off down the hallway, leaving the others to their fate.

“Now then, she was right. Those pets were pretty useless. Fortunately, I have the perfect replacements in mind,” Golden Wish said, her gaze falling on the two princesses, still standing motionless in the corner.

Pinkie Pie stood up tall, her legs wobbling but her eyes defiant. “I’m not scared of you.”

Golden Wish snorted, then closed her eyes and focused her magic, her horn glowing blindingly bright. “You may wish to reconsider that in a moment. There’s still room for this dance to get even crazier, so lets introduce some new characters!”

Dark smoke began to twist and rise around the two princesses, obscuring them from view. Golden Wish’s horn grew even brighter as she scrunched up her face in concentration, sweat dripping down her brow.

With a deafening boom, a corona of magic exploded across the room, knocking both Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie to the ground.

As the smoke cleared, Fluttershy stood back up, her mouth falling open as her eyes fell upon the princesses.

No. The ponies that stood there were not the princesses. In their place were two white unicorns, one whose mane and tail seemed to be ablaze, the other's radiating an aura of ice and snow.

“We live to serve you, master,” the two said in unison, bowing low.

“It’s perfect!” Golden Wish said, giggling. “What do you think, everypony? I’ve replaced those boring, useless sisters with creations of my very own. Why don’t you introduce yourselves? You should get to know the ponies that are about to kill you, right?”

“I’m Flauros! It’s nice to meet you two!”

“... Cryos”

The two unicorns fired up their horns, their auras flaring up and bathing the room in a chaotic mix of heat and cold.

“Well, then,” Golden Wish said, turning to face her victims once more. “Do you have anything else you’d like to add before we finish this?”

Pinkie Pie giggled, shaking her head as she leaned on a nearby table for support. “I feel sorry for you.”

Golden Wish narrowed her eyes. “What.”

“You sure like to laugh a lot, but that’s not how it’s supposed to work! Laughter is something to be shared with friends, with family, with the ponies you love. A cruel laugh at another’s expense might feel good for a while, but it’s just a hollow, fleeting thing. True laughter stays in your heart, and will keep you warm no matter how dark and cold things get.”

Golden Wish snorted, her nostrils flaring. “You’re just trying to stall until Twilight gets here, aren’t you? For your insolence, you get to die second! Flauros!”

“Yippie!” Flauros cried out, jumping into the air. With a wicked glint in her eyes, a spiraling flame shot up her horn and she reared back, firing a massive cone of flames straight towards Fluttershy.

Fluttershy screamed, and Pinkie sprung into action, far quicker than her wounded state should have allowed. She kicked the wooden table up into the air, grabbing it and throwing it and herself in front of Fluttershy, using the table as a shield.

Wood was a poor defense against the might of fire, and the heat licked around at both ponies. Fluttershy crouched low, coughing as the smoke began to pour around them, and Pinkie Pie stood firm, braced against the infernal onslaught.

“Does it matter?” Pinkie Pie asked, shouting loud enough to be heard over the roaring flames. “Even if you get what you want, do you think you’ll be happy, if you do it like this? Does your future hold real laughter? True laughter? Or will your heart be as empty as this room will be once you’re done with us? I know I can’t stop you. And even if Twilight figures things out afterwards… what do you think the result would be?”

“Pinkie…” Fluttershy said, her eyes wide as she looked up at the pony defending her. The flames slowly died down to a trickle before stopping, and Pinkie Pie sagged, the table falling outward and cracking in two as it continued to burn.

Pinkie Pie sunk to her knees, panting heavily. “It’s okay, Fluttershy. It won’t be that big of a deal in the end, right? Even if it has to be like this, can I at least get one last smile before I go?”

Fluttershy nodded, her eyes brimming with tears, and she forced herself to smile for her friend.

A blast of icy magic struck Pinkie Pie from across the room, and Pinkie’s final expression was made eternal.

“Not so funny now, is it!” Golden Wish sneered, her face an ugly mask of glee. “And now for you, you self-pitying little twit. It sure was brave, how your friend stepped up to save you like that. Isn’t that always how it goes? Poor, weak little Fluttershy. Everypony is always there to step up and give you a hoof, because you can’t stand up for yourself.”

Fluttershy shook her head, backing away slowly. “I can’t stand up to you. Nopony can, you’ve made that perfectly clear. But just because I don’t have the power to stop you doesn’t mean my heart is weak.”

Standing up as tall as she could Fluttershy spread her wings and looked Golden Wish directly in the eyes. “Do your worst.”

“Tch.” Golden Wish spat on the ground. “You ponies make it awfully hard to get in good one liners. Very well. Maybe your ever vaunted ‘kindness’ will bring you truth in death.”

Golden Wish raised her hoof. “Flauros.”

There was the hum of magic, the roar of fire, a scream, and then silence.

Twilight stared forward, her eyes distant, and her heart an empty void.

“Well! That was quite a show, don’t you agree? Your friends certainly are a feisty bunch. Oh, but doesn’t that throw a wrench into this mystery, hmm? What could you have possibly just witnessed? How can this all be explained? Go on, Twilight, give it a shot!”

Twilight bit her lip and looked away.

Golden Wish frowned, the annoyance plain on her face. “Hey… I’m talking to you. Your friends just got murdered horribly. Pretty good fight scene though, right? Don’t you have anything to say? Maybe more threats, or swearing revenge?”

Twilight shook her head, and kept her gaze low.


The door burst open with a loud bang, and Applejack rushed into the lounge, panting heavily. “Twilight, you gotta…”

“Applejack? What’s going on? Where are the others?” Twilight asked, leaping up from her seat. Applejack looked even more ragged than before, and her eyes and voice both seemed hollow and devoid of life and hope.

Applejack shook her head, clearing her throat. “Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. They’re…” Applejack paused to swallow, closing her eyes. “They’re in danger.”


“Where!?” Twilight and Rainbow Dash both called out at the same time.

Applejack took a deep breath, shuddering slightly. “Princess Celestia’s study. Ain’t much time before…”

Twilight teleported immediately, wasting no time. Her friends were in danger. Still reeling from the loss of one, was this tragedy about to multiply? But what could possibly be…

Trying the door, Twilight found it locked, and she banged on it loudly. “Fluttershy! Pinkie Pie! Are you okay? Say something!”

Just a few hours ago she had been doing the same thing with Rarity. The nightmare that had awaited her then… did she even want to open this door?

There was no response, and Twilight fired up her horn. She wasn’t going to waste her time with keys. She could feel the door resisting her power, it must have been enchanted. But she was an alicorn princess, and she wasn’t about to let a bit of wood stop her. She doubled her strength, and as the mansion groaned in protest, she tore the entire door frame from the wall, dust and splinters showering the area.

The smell of smoke assaulted her and Twilight paused, coughing as dust blew up around her before she leapt inside, ready to face whatever was waiting for her.

Which turned out to be nothing. At least, she didn’t see any ponies. The carpet squished under her hooves as she walked forward, bewildered. The wall and the floor were scorched with flame, and a burnt table lay in pieces. She could smell the ash and char, but everything was damp, as if somepony had extinguished the fire with a lot of water. Small piles of ash were scattered about, as well as some bits of melted metal.

“Princess Celestia? Princess Luna?” Twilight called out. The study was otherwise pretty sparse. Twilight poked her head into the adjoining bedrooms and bathroom, but saw no sign of any ponies, nor any sign of the destruction that had wrecked the main study.

“Is this even the right place…?” Twilight wondered out loud.

“Twilight!” Rainbow Dash called out, zooming in through the door. She skidded to a halt as she noticed the burnt room. “What in Equestria? Where are the others?”

Twilight shook her head. “I don’t know. This was all I found when I got here.”

“There,” Golden Wish said, tapping her hoof on the table. “All the pieces are set up. Are you ready for round two?”

Twilight lowered her head, staying silent.

After a minute Golden Wish let out a sigh. “If you’re going to just give up, that’s fine, but there can’t be a game unless both players play.”

“You…” Twilight muttered softly.

“Oh? What about me?”

“Who are you, really? What’s the real purpose of this game? Why are you doing this? Why are you showing me this? Why am I here? Do you even know? Can you even tell me?

“Who are you?”

Chapter 15 - Reflections of Blue

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"You're asking this now, of all times?" Golden Wish asked, her expression flat. "Isn't it obvious? Do we really have to retread old ground?"

Twilight shook her head. "You're deflecting again. From the very start, none of this has made any sense. Is Fluttershy's story about you true? Are you just some privileged little filly who felt ignored and is taking it out on others? Do you even understand the weight of what you're doing here? Or are you just a child who has no concept of right or wrong playing with dolls?"

Golden Wish flinched, taking a step back. "They are just dolls, Twilight. With a flick of my horn, I could bring them all back and then break them again. That's the nature of my power. A wish sure is something magical, isn't it? The possibilities are endless, infinite. I can kill, I can revive. I can command the very fabric of reality itself."

With a sneer, she added, "Maybe somepony will have to pay the price, but it doesn't have to be me."

Twilight stomped a hoof. "My friends are not your toys. And neither am I."

"Then defeat me, Twilight Sparkle. Maybe then you'll find all the answers you so desperately seek."

"There's just no reasonable solution, here," Twilight said, muttering under her breath. "You know, I've dealt with a lot of villains in my time. For some, they were able to understand the magic of friendship, one way or another. Others required a more... direct approach. But you?"

Twilight snarled and reached out with her mind. Whatever force had blocked her magic before was gone and she felt that sweet taste of power flowing through her horn, like water to a dying pony in the desert.

"I won't show you any mercy!"

"Good!" Golden Wish cried out, her eyes wild with glee. "That's the response I was looking for!"

Twilight charged forward, locking horns with Golden Wish. "So. Are you going to try and claim that this farce is a closed room as well?"

"Of course I am!" Golden Wish said, pushing down on Twilight, their foreheads butting. "It wouldn't be a game without it, after all."

Twilight leapt backwards, spreading her wings and pulling herself up to her fullest height. "Go on then. Lay out the basics. I'll cut your narrative to shreds!"

"Something like this should be obvious, right?" Golden Wish stomped a hoof and threw her head back, a corona of red light surging forth from her horn.

"No tricks accomplishable solely by unicorn magic factored into the construction of this closed room."

The room shattered around them and fell away, leaving the two alicorns flapping their wings underneath a starry sky, a vaguely defined landscape visible below.

"That's different than last time," Twilight said as she quickly adjusted to her new position. "Why the change in phrasing?"

Golden Wish giggled, holding a hoof over her mouth. "I like it better this way. Magic can do a lot of unique things, but if one pony takes something down from a shelf with her teeth while another uses magic, is the end result any different?"

Twilight narrowed her eyes. Nothing to be had but lies and misdirections. "Get on with it."

"There are no hidden doors in this room. A hidden door is defined as anything a pony could use as an entrance or exit that is not discovered by the detective." With a glance Twilight's way, Golden Wish added, "That would be the Twilight down there, for the record."

"If I can't find it then it doesn't exist, huh?" Twilight asked, snorting with contempt. "How appropriately solipsistic of you."

"All the windows are locked from the inside. Why, that just leaves the door, right? How could anypony possibly escape?"

The three orbs of red truth circled around Twilight, taunting her. The core of each reflected a cruel reality, one where ponies were being hurt and killed while higher beings fought over trivial details.

"Is this the foundation of your argument?" Twilight asked, pulling forward into a banking curve. The orbs followed her. "There's still some rather obvious holes unaccounted for."

Golden Wish smirked. "Why, of course. This really is just a foundation. All of these truths go without saying. In fact, saying them over and over again would get rather tedious. From now on, the three preceding truths will define a 'Golden Closed Room'."

With a triumphant smirk, Twilight called forth magic of her own. A bright blue lance of energy crackled at her side as she rounded on her opponent. The rules of this game were too lopsided. It was time she evened the odds a bit.

“Did you really think I’d overlook something so simple!?” Twilight roared, the winds rushing past her as she charged forward. “There’s no closed room in the first place! The door to Celestia and Luna’s study has an auto-lock on it.”

WIth a shrill buzz, Twilight’s spell shot forward, embedding itself deep in Golden Wish’s side.

“Gyaak! What, what is this…” Golden Wish said, staring with wide eyes at the sight of the gleaming spear protruding from her.

Twilight threw back her head and let out a laugh, the cruelty in her tone surprising her. “This is MY truth. It can’t supercede the red, but until you address it, it will hold the same status as the red until proven otherwise! I’m not going to allow you to dodge or deflect by refusing to answer my questions anymore!”

Golden Wish howled as she reared back, her eyes ablaze. “Who do you think you are, changing the rules of my game!?”

“I’m Twilight Sparkle. Princess of Friendship and Magic. Did you forget? You seem to remind me of it often enough. It’s not really that much of a change, is it? All it means is that if I propose a theory in blue, it stands as the truth unless you can offer a truth of your own,” Twilight cooed, her voice dripping with venom.

“You’re going to regret this.” Golden Wish turned her head, grasping the blue barb with her teeth. She screamed through clenched teeth as she slowly pulled it from her side. Her horn surged with red energy as the spear shattered and dissipated in her mouth.

In this game the study has no auto-lock! The only way to lock or unlock the door is with the key.

There is only one key that is capable of opening the study!”

The spheres that were already orbiting Twilight suddenly slammed into her, causing her to cry out as they sent energy surging through her body. Her wings seized up, and she fell.

The scenery shifted around her as she fell, eventually coalescing into a snow covered plain which she promptly crashed into. Groaning, she slowly pulled herself out of the snow.

Golden Wish touched down on the snow across from Twilight. “What’s the matter? If you’d like, we could switch back to conceptualizing this argument as a simple chess game instead. It might be a little less painful!”

Twilight spat, a coppery taste heavy on her tongue. “You’re using the red to lie somehow. I remember the auto-lock, as clear as day.”

Everything I say in red is the truth! I thought we trusted each other?” Golden Wish said, laughing shrilly. “What holds true in one game may not hold true in another. The number of keys, the presence of an auto lock or not. I mean, even the most obvious one. Ponies are dying in a different order, right? Why should the little details stay consistent?”

Twilight shook her head, trying to pull her thoughts together. “Obnoxiously arbitrary. But I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything more from you.”

“So come on then, Twilight. You have your little blue weapon of your own there, but do you really have what it takes to make it count? Tell me, how did the crime happen? How did the killer leave the room? Where did the bodies go? Who did it?” With a pause, Golden Wish added, “Well, some of those answers might be a little more obvious than others.”

Twilight crouched low, readying her next move. A cautious attack, just to test her opponents defenses.

The culprit took the key from Fluttershy, and used it to lock the door behind them.”

Twilight lashed out, an arc of blue energy sweeping low at Golden Wish, but it was blocked with a counter thrust of her own.

"Fluttershy’s key was destroyed, and can no longer be used to lock or unlock a door!Weren't you paying attention? Just a poor little pile of ash and a bit of melted slag is all that remains!”

So that melted pile of metal was… she had thought as much, but to have it confirmed still stung deeply. “You said there’s only one key, right? How come Celestia and Luna didn’t have their own set?”

Golden Wish raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe they just didn’t care enough to keep their doors locked.”

The blizzard whipped around the two of them, the snow forcing Twilight to squint as she strained her mind to find the answers she sought. Her best friends, murdered in cold blood by this cackling witch and her summoned familiars. In this game of nightmares she was forced to watch their final moments of suffering. But now, with a combination of magical words and evidence after the fact she was expected to provide a solution to a puzzle that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Presuming a basic scenario, Golden Wish and her cronies have hid in the mansion somewhere and then holed up in the study and ambushed her friends when they arrived. While the whole idea was incredulous, what was even more so was that they were able to somehow escape after the fact without leaving any evidence of their presence behind. And then there was that red truth, saying that regardless of how flashy everything might have appeared, it was all technically possible for an earth pony or a pegasus pony to accomplish as well.

There were still a few possibilities that came to mind.

Twilight smirked, readying her next attack. “The culprit was still hiding in the study when I tore open the door!”

Golden Wish braced herself and caught the blue bolt, not with the red truth, but with her own magic. The strain from holding it back was visible on her face. “That’s a little far-fetched, isn’t it, Twilight? You inspected the room yourself, didn’t you? Where would the culprit be hiding?”

“Because I did inspect, you can’t arbitrarily claim it’s different this time,” Twilight said as she focused, pushing the spear closer to her target. “The study has three different parts to it, remember? The main room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. I can’t check everywhere at once. When I was inspecting one of the rooms in the study, the culprit snuck out behind me!”

Golden Wish grunted, stopping the second bolt as her aura flared up, the snow around her beginning to melt. “That’s an awfully big gamble… what if you had checked the other room first?”

Twilight laughed, the blue light from her horn reflecting off the moonlit snow. “Does it matter? In a game like this, the culprit would always be in the room I didn’t check.”

“Good! You’re getting better at this! Too bad it doesn’t mean much.”

With a lash of red Golden Wish cut through the blue spears like a scythe felling wheat. “At the time Twilight Sparkle entered the study, there were no living ponies inside the study. This applies to all three interior rooms.”

The curved blade of red arced towards Twilight, but she couldn’t afford to get tangled up. She teleported with a flash, coming down from above Golden Wish with a renewed assault of her own.

Fluttershy entered the room, locked the door behind her for some reason, and then fell victim to unknown trap X! The details of the type of trap that would produce a result like this are irrelevant. There are all sorts of devices that could remotely kill somepony, even with fire or ice.”

“Ridiculous!” Golden Wish scoffed, blocking Twilight’s blade with her own and pushing back. “You really think you can still rely on the Nightmare’s Proof? Especially with such a lazy theory as that. Nopony in the study was killed by a trap!”

As Twilight continued to push forward, Golden Wish faltered, her hoof slipping in the mud. Twilight took the advantage, teleporting again and striking from behind.

"The death was a suicide! Fluttershy was threatened or coerced into taking her own life after locking herself inside, probably to spare somepony else. Some method of self incineration was used, or something capable of disposing of the body after the fact."

Golden Wish howled as the blue energy passed through her form before leaping into the air, flying straight up. Twilight followed after, already prepared for the counterstrike.

“You're awfully tenacious, Twilight! Just what kind of closed room do you think this is? What about what you saw makes you think Fluttershy would just kill herself all of a sudden, even if she was coerced?"

Twilight pulled in behind Golden Wish as she chased her through the skies. "You keep going on about trust and mutual respect, but you've done nothing but lie through your teeth from the start! How can I believe anything you've shown me? There's already several blatant contradictions between the events of this room and the red truths you've given me."

Golden Wish flipped backwards and dropped her altitude, gliding upside down as Twilight flew over her. "Well go on then. Resolve the discrepancies, if you think you can. The onus is on you, Twilight. Don't come crying to me just because you can't make any sense of it! Wallow in despair and sink into oblivion!"

Twilight roared, looping in midair and diving straight down, already readying her next strike.

"Fluttershy did not commit suicide, assisted or otherwise."

The red energy burst forth and struck Twilight in the chest, but she rolled with the impact and slammed directly into Golden Wish with her remaining momentum. "Fluttershy isn't dead! Somepony faked her death, using the ashes of something else to make it look like she has been burned alive."

Golden Wish screamed as the blue spear pierced clean through her, but Twilight continued her dive, slamming the alicorn into the ground below. As the dust settled, Twilight stepped back, panting as she gazed upon Golden Wish’s prone form.

"Y-you..." Golden Wish coughed, blood trickling from her mouth as she reached a hoof towards the spear pinning her to the earth.

Twilight looked down on the now pitiful sight of her opponent, her expression flat. Was it really that easy? "That's it then, isn't it? Two for zero. Your closed rooms are pretty good, but once again not impossible."

Golden Wish shuddered, scrunching her eyes up as she turned away.

Twilight shook her head. "Just give it up. I don't really know what you're after, but isn't this far enough? You've had your fun. The psychological torture you’ve inflicted on me will likely require years of therapy to recover from. Let's just end this here. I'll go back to my friends, and you can go your own separate way."

Golden Wish chuckled weakly, her laugh full of bitterness and pain. ”Go my own separate way? Where would that be, exactly? Outside of this fragment of reality in which we play our game, what hold do you really think I have?”

Twilight bit her lip. She hadn’t dared to let herself extend any empathy to the monster that lay struck down before her. Even as she considered adopting an open mind to her opponents point of view, a wave of bile leapt up her throat. After everything she had been through, after everything Golden Wish had done… the time for love and tolerance was long past.

Golden Wish coughed again, blood splattering across the snow as she looked up to meet Twilight’s gaze with her own. “Well, you’re the victor, right? Feast in your spoils. Take that mighty blue axe of yours and cut me open. Expose my ugly guts for the world to see, and bask in the golden radiance of the truth!”

Twilight grit her teeth, and conjured forth a large blade of blue, ready to end it all here and now. No hesitation. For Rarity. For Pinkie Pie. For Fluttershy.

“What’s the matter, Twilight? In your love of violence, did you forget that this was a game of words? I've given you oh-so-many devious riddles to solve. Just because you've stumbled on a solution or two doesn't mean you really understand. Can you pull everything together with a grand, unifying theory? Have you grasped that underlying golden light that binds everything together?"

That was right. She wasn’t using a real weapon. It was one thing to figure out the solution to any given closed room, but what did they really mean on a larger scale? Everything she'd seen, that she had been through had operated on the kind of twisted logic that ponies never encountered in their daily lives. At what point was a pony able to apply the scientific method to her nightmares?

Twilight shook her head, looking away. "I could piece together a few guesses based on what I know, but... no. I don't."

Golden Wish snarled, her face twisted with pain as she reached up with her hooves and began to pull on the blue spear. "In that case... We’re. Not. Done here!"

With a primal scream, Golden Wish tore the truth from her body, a corona of red energy pulsing across the field. "Those ashes belong to Fluttershy! It'd be a cute trick, but I'm afraid hoping for a solution without any deaths won't get you anywhere!"

Twilight fell backwards, the weight of the red truth pushing her into the ground. She had been so close, but... No. Fluttershy had called her on it herself; Golden Wish was a bully who would offer something then snatch her hoof back at the last minute. Which meant...

"That's right, Twilight!" Golden Wish shouted as she loomed over her, her expression twisted with sadistic glee. "I was lying when I forfeited the first round. I just thought a little victory for you might be fun for awhile! But it's even better when I crush all your expectations now!"

"In regards to the first closed room, the envelope remained sealed from the time Fluttershy received it till the time you opened it. Whoops! That really leaves you without any options, doesn't it? Not even the smallest bit of driftwood to keep you afloat, to give your theories purchase."

The world fell away into the endless void, and red snakes snapped around Twilight, coiling around her and pulling her hindlegs together while pulling her forelegs apart at an awkward angle. The cords snapped tight, pressing her against an invisible wall. The binding weight of all the unshakable truths dug into her sides, making it difficult to breathe.

Golden Wish floated forwards, cackling wildly. "Is that really all you have, Twilight? Surely you have some surprises left, right?"

Twilight bit back a curse, her vision beginning to dim as oxygen struggled to reach her blood. Maybe she did have a bit of fight left in her at this point. But what difference did it make? There would just be another arbitrary justification ready to block any victory of hers. This wasn't a game. It was just torture. An elaborate excuse to watch and laugh as she danced to somepony else's puppeteering.

"For a game like this... The only way to win is not to play, right?" Twilight asked, her voice a croaking whisper.

Golden Wish stopped laughing. "It's more the opposite of that. Giving up is the main lose condition."

Twilight lowered her head, her vision going dark. "So tell me... Be honest. Would you prefer it if I gave up now, or if we just stayed here and played this game for all eternity?"

Golden Wish's eyes widened and her mouth fell open. "I..."

Twilight snorted, her chuckle more of a rasping cough. "That's what I thought. I'm sorry, everyone..."

"Hey, where's the fun in that? We have a game to play here! Don't you care what happens to your friends? Fighting me is the only way you can save them! I thought you were supposed to be better than this, Twilight!

"... Twilight?"

Twilight closed her eyes, taking a deep breath as she set the story down. There were still pages left, so it wasn't over yet, but… This would be a lot to process.

Twilight opened her eyes to look up at Fluttershy. The pegasus's expression was somewhat distant, and she held a pained smile on her face. As well as...

"Um, Fluttershy, you have a little something there..." Twilight said as she reached up with her hoof and mimed wiping at her face.

"Huh...? I have... Oh!" Fluttershy's eyes widened and she blushed. She stuck her tongue out and awkwardly tried to clean up the "blood" on the side of her mouth. "Did I get it?"

Twilight couldn't help herself and she burst out laughing. "Here," she said, wiping a tear from her eye, "let me get that for you."

Twilight levitated a handkerchief over and gently wiped off the remains of Fluttershy's gory snack.

"Thanks," Fluttershy mumbled, her face bright red.

The two sat there in an awkward silence for a bit before Twilight finally spoke up.

"So... Blue Truth, huh? Are there any more colors I should be worried about here?"

Fluttershy shook her head. "No, that's it. I promise."

Twilight let out a sigh. Before, she might have used "twisted" as a way to describe this narrative. Now, her vast vocabulary was failing her. It was window into the soul of madness, a screaming descent into dark places where few ponies returned from.

Yet the author, Fluttershy, was right in front of her. And, aside from looking a little tired, she seemed completely normal. Despite the sudden genre shifts, the inexplicably over the top action scenes, and the unflinching brutality, there was a method to it all. A pattern was slowly starting to take shape in Twilight's mind, but she still didn't have even the foggiest idea of what this picture would look like in the end.

"I'm afraid I won't be able to replicate the blue truth with actual magic. As far as I know, anyway."

Fluttershy giggled, covering her mouth with a hoof. "I never expected any magic out of you anyway, Twilight. It's okay."

Twilight grinned, then let out a huge yawn. She stretched her arms above her head before flopping onto her side, rolling over to her back and staring up at the ceiling. "I have so many questions, Fluttershy, but I don't even know where to start."

Fluttershy turned away, pawing at the ground. "Oh, I don't know. I may have gotten a little carried away with all of this. It was all so clear to me last night. My pen was flying. The words practically wrote themselves! But hearing it all back like this... suddenly I'm not so sure."

"Hey now." Twilight rolled over to face Fluttershy and propped her head up with a hoof. "The reason I'm investing so much of myself into this is because of your conviction. Now's not the time for second thoughts."

Fluttershy nodded, smiling. "You're right. I'm sorry, Twilight."

"Right then," Twilight said, rolling over and springing up. "At this point in the story, Meta-Twilight is against the ropes, ready to give up because she sees this whole ordeal as unwinnable. Honestly, if I in her position, I might be thinking the same way. I do not envy her."

Twilight began pacing, her mind picking up speed. "But as the reader, I have an even higher perspective to offer."

Twilight whirled, recasting her magic from earlier and summoning the red orb of light. "Let's just get one thing clear. I trust you and everything, but can you say it in red for me anyway? Is this mystery solvable?"

Fluttershy nodded, placing her hoof on the orb. "I wrote this mystery to be solvable. Um, to the best of my ability, anyway."

"Perfect! Now, we have two main closed rooms so far. Both have been sealed with a seemingly impenetrable web of red, but there’s more to it than that. If we take what we saw happen in the study at complete face value, the idea of this being a mystery kind of falls apart, doesn’t it?”

Fluttershy sat on her haunches, watching Twilight with a patient interest.

Twilight lit up her horn, once again calling upon the magic of truth. “Knocks’ 1st. It is forbidden for the culprit to be anyone not mentioned in the early part of the story. That alone should be enough to discount the entire scene, right? Maybe you could make an argument that Golden Wish was sufficiently foreshadowed in the first book, even if we never saw her, but the introduction of Flauros and Cryos? Completely out of the blue.”

Fluttershy frowned, holding a hoof up to her chin. “Well, I’m not entirely sure about that, Twilight. In a murder mystery, if someone hires an assassin to carry out a murder, is the identity of the assassin or the person who hires them more important? Also, speaking of ‘out of the blue’…” Fluttershy said as she waved her hoof at Twilight.

Twilight stared uncomprehendingly for a moment before the meaning in Fluttershy’s words clicked and she conjured a blue orb of light to sit next to the first. “Are you trying to suggest that this mystery has a professional assassin creeping about even on top of everything else?’

Fluttershy giggled. “Oh no, of course not. I’m just talking in hypotheticals here. But, um, if a character’s purpose is to be used as a mere tool or as a weapon for others, their presence in the narrative need not be foreshadowed. Thus, it would not contradict Knocks."

Twilight opened her mouth to object, but frowned, considering Fluttershy’s theory. It skirted a loophole in the rules, which weren’t exactly hard coded to begin with, and it wasn’t like she could go ask Knocks himself for a ruling. Mystery buffs could spend an eternity arguing over what exactly counted as fair play or not and never reach a true consensus.

“The closed room doesn’t make a lot of sense then, does it?” Twilight asked as she resumed her pacing. “Neither do any of the restrictions for that matter. Why would an all powerful alicorn, capable of defeating Princess Celestia and Princess Luna refrain from using magic in such a way to create each closed room in the first place?”

Fluttershy shrugged. “I mean, it wouldn’t really be a puzzle if you could just teleport in and out, would it?”

“That’s…” Twilight sighed, shaking her head. “And what the heck happened to Pinkie Pie? If Fluttershy, er, you, were burned to death, it makes sense that ashes would be left behind, but if Pinkie was frozen it’s not like she’d just turn into a puddle. So her body has to be somewhere.”

Twilight stopped, shuddering, “Ugh. I’m not sure if I should more disturbed at what I’m saying, or the fact that I’m saying this all so casually.”

Fluttershy flinched, pulling back. “I’m sorry…”

Twilight smiled painfully. “It’s okay. We’ve come this far, I’m used to it now. But that can’t have been easy to write.”

Fluttershy nodded, her eyes distant. “I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t real and all of you were safe and sound in your own beds.”

Twilight smiled, a strange wave of relief washing over her. She cared deeply about Fluttershy, and in truth, had started to worry a little bit about the mental state of her friend. A small confession like that was a comforting gesture.

"Moving on," Twilight said as she let her heart harden back into a analytical state once more. "I'm still not entirely sure how to reconcile the closed room with the facts that have been given."

Fluttershy furrowed her brow in thought as she idly tapped her hoof the ground. "Hmm... Twilight, are you familiar with the cat in a box paradox?"

Mira meowed softly, opening one eye.

Twilight blinked. "Yes, I'm familiar with it. It was used as a somewhat satirical critique of quantum mechanics. Take two cats. Place both of them in separate boxes, each with a magical crystal. Over the course of an hour, there's a fifty percent chance the crystals will activate and swap the two cats. So when you open the box, no matter which box you open, there’s a fifty percent chance of it containing either cat. Or, it could be considered that until you check, the box contains both cats simultaneously."

Fluttershy giggled. "Yes, that's it exactly. You explain it a lot better than I could, Twilight. But, um, anyway, it's kind of like that."

Twilight rolled her eyes. "The paradox was originally designed to make fun of how ridiculous certain interpretations of quantum theory can get when applied to a macro level. It's been widely misused by armchair philosophers ever since to make vague points about the duality of truth and such. And can you believe some versions of the paradox have the cat dying instead? Bleh. No thanks."

"Oh. I see." Fluttershy bit her lip, looking down at the floor and tracing the lines with her hoof. "Um, I’d like to keep using that metaphor anyway, if that's okay."

Twilight started to grind her teeth, but said nothing.

Fluttershy shrank under Twilight’s disapproving stare. “Well, um, since you don’t know which cat is in the box, or what state it’s in, you can speculate as much as you want about it, but until you actually open it up and look, you’ll never know. Right?”

Twilight let out a long sigh. “Yeah, I think I see what you’re getting at, here. As for how something like that would apply to the mystery…”

Mira stood up, stretching languidly. With a graceful saunter she moved over to the edge of the room, and casually leapt up on top of a small bookshelf. Looking disinterested, she raised up a paw and began licking it while staring at Twilight.

Twilight watched the cat with confusion. “Well, er, anyway. If a closed room is like a catbox, you can make up all sorts of speculations on what happened inside, but when you open it up, only the evidence and the bodies will be left behind.”

With seemingly purposeful indifference, Mira walked along the length of the shelf. She stopped behind a small vase, turned to stare at Twilight once more, then moved forward, brushing the vase as she walked which fell off the shelf and shattered.

“Oh no, that’s not a nice thing to do, kitty! You shouldn’t break other ponies’ things, you know. I want to hear an apology from you, missy!” Fluttershy said, quickly flittering over to scold the cat.

Twilight stared at the broken vase. She could’ve caught it easily with her magic. Instead, she walked over and began scooping up the pieces and the dirt.

“What’s this…?” Twilight asked, staring at what appeared to be a rolled up slip of paper in the wreckage.

Unrolling it revealed it to be filled with small, flowery handwriting, and a short poem.

Do you know where fate will take you?

It’s like the cat inside the box.

How can you know where fate will take you?

You don’t know if the cat in the box is dead or alive.

I know where will fate will take you.

The cat in the box is dead.

Chapter 16 - Trust

View Online

Twilight tore apart the study as she searched through it again and again. There had to be a clue here somewhere. Something, anything to shed light on what had happened in this room. What had happened to Celestia, and Luna, and Pinkie Pie, and...

Her eyes kept being drawn to the pile of ashes in the center of the room, and she shuddered, trying her hardest to deny that possibility.

"Twilight..." Rainbow Dash mumbled as she watched from the corner. "Tell me what I need to do, and I'll do it. Just, anything, I need to..."

"Don't touch anything!" Twilight snapped as she pulled her head out from under a dresser. "I don't want you contaminating any evidence. Not to mention...”

Twilight trailed off, frowning as she raised a hoof to her mouth. "Wait, where's Applejack? She saw what happened, right? Wasn't she right behind you?"

Rainbow Dash started, spinning around. "I... no. I flew up here as fast as I could, and Applejack isn't as fast as me, so..."

Twilight cursed under her breath. "It might not be safe for us to split up. Especially if something was already after her."

"Ain't no need to go running about on my account."

"Applejack!" Twilight cried out, turning to find her friend standing in the doorway. "Are you okay!?"

Applejack barked a short laugh, her voice bitter and hollow. "Twilight, I ain't never been less okay."

Twilight stared at Applejack, looking over the state of her friend. Her eyes were baggy and glazed over with the sheen of a pony who had already given themselves up for death. "Applejack, please. Tell us what happened here. Where are Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie?"

"It's hard to say," Applejack said flatly, turning away to stare at the burned table. "Everything happened so fast."

"What are you talking about?!" Rainbow Dash yelled, stomping her hooves. "You were just telling us about how the others were in danger! Well, where are they? What happened here? Who did this?"

Applejack lowered her head and bit her lip. "I..."

Twilight stepped in between the two of them and spread her wings. "Rainbow, please calm down. Applejack is going through a lot right now."

When Rainbow Dash backed off with a huff, Twilight turned to speak with a soothing voice, "Now, Applejack, I know this is hard, but it's really important that I know what happened here."

Applejack closed her eyes and nodded. Her mouth worked silently, mimicking the words she was going to say before she finally spoke. "When... When the three of us got here, something was wrong with Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. Before we could do anything about it, that mare from the portrait, Golden Wish, appeared and started talking all kinds of nonsense. Then she summoned a bunch of shadows, which attacked us. I was able to round them up into the hall, but I got locked out of the room. That's when I came to get you."

Twilight blinked, her mouth falling open. "You're serious? She's actually real? I never thought..." She paused to look over the charred remains of the furniture. "What about all this, then?"

"No idea," Applejack said, shaking her head. "Just the shadows, and then I came to get you."

Rainbow Dash sank to her knees and let out a strangled cry. "This can't be real. Pinkie... Flutters... there's a chance they're okay, right? Maybe they're just being held hostage or something. Twilight, please..."

Twilight closed her eyes and swallowed. She could feel the oppressive weight of despair crushing her to the floor, piled on along with the expectations of her friends that she could somehow still save the day.

There was still a tiny glimmer of hope that they were alive somewhere. Unless she saw their bodies with her own eyes, she could continue to hold onto that possibility, no matter how remote it might be.

"Applejack, you said you lured the shadows into the hall, right? Can I see them?"

Applejack took her hat off and wiped at her forehead. "I can show you, yeah. Dunno if they stuck around, though."

"What do you mean by shadows, anyway?" Rainbow Dash asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Uh, well," Applejack stammered as she led them out of the study, "like shadow ponies, I guess? Kinda hard to describe. I guess I could say they looked a bit like changelings, but more shadowy."

Twilight pushed ahead to take the lead, her horn at the ready. "And what did you mean about the Princesses acting 'strange'? Can you elaborate on that?"

Applejack let out a sigh. "I said it all happened pretty fast, so I'm not super clear on the details. They looked like puppets, or something."

So this 'Golden Wish' was able to disable both of them in some way. The idea that such a powerful and malicious alicorn could actually exist was still hard to process.

Rainbow Dash stopped at the bottom of the stairs, then flew up to the top of the entrance hall to get a better look. "I'm not seeing any shadows, AJ. At least, not the kind that move around on their own."

Applejack shrugged. "This was where I left them."

Twilight looked for signs of a struggle but didn't see any. But when it came to magical shadow beasts, who knew? She flew up to join Rainbow in the air, then landed next to that ominous portrait overlooking the entrance to the mansion.

"Are you real, then?" Twilight asked, her voice soft. "Should I expect you to come to life right now to finish what you've started? Or are you just an illusion, skulking in the shadows?"

The portrait gave no response, and Twilight let out a sigh. She needed more information; who was doing this, why, and how? But the books she had stayed up all night researching were useless, and there wasn't anything else to...

"Fluttershy!" Twilight cried out, smacking her head with a hoof. "How could I have forgotten?"

Rainbow Dash dropped down next to her in an instant. "What is it, do you know where she is?!"

Twilight shook her head. "I'm afraid not. But I did have a conversation with her late last night, and I remembered that she said she had a book about Golden Wish in her room. I would've borrowed it, but it was way too late at night."

Rainbow Dash's face fell. "Oh. You really think this is the time to be reading books? Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie could still be in danger, we need to find them!"

"By doing what, just checking every room one by one? This mansion is huge, and there's probably some secret room somewhere we wouldn't be able to find. The book could lead us to where we need to go. Plus, if we have to start looking somewhere, Fluttershy's room is as good of a place to start as any."

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. "How about you go do that, then. I'm going to go save them."

She tensed up to immediately speed away, but Twilight grabbed her firmly with her magic. "No way, Dash. It's too dangerous to go out there alone. We need to stick together.”

"Let me go!" Rainbow Dash growled, struggling against the magical bonds.

In a soft voice, Twilight added, "Please? I can't stand to lose any more friends today."

Rainbow Dash wilted and let herself be lowered to the ground. "I'm scared, Twi, I just..."

Twilight nodded, her eyes alight with determination. "I know. I'm scared too, but we'll get through this together, I promise."

Applejack mumbled something in agreement as she joined them at the top of the stairs.

"Right then. Everypony stick close to me and keep your eyes and ears open. We really have no idea what our opponent is capable of," Twilight said.

Twilight lifted a hoof to start leading the way but paused and turned to look at the others. "Er, do either of you actually know where Fluttershy's room is?"

Rainbow Dash shrugged, and they both turned to look at Applejack.

Applejack blinked, slowly raising her head. "Er, sorry, what was the question again?"

Rainbow Dash scowled, dashing over and butting her forehead against Applejack's. "Fluttershy! You know, the friend of ours who's missing right now? The one who you left to die! You could at least pretend to care about the rest of us, but no. Rarity's the only thing that matters to you, isn't she!?"

"Rainbow Dash!" Twilight cried out, pulling her away with magic once again. "That's completely uncalled for! We can't afford to be fighting each other at a time like this."

"But she...!”

Twilight continued struggling with the pegasus, but stopped suddenly when she heard the sound of Applejack laughing.

"It's alright, Twi. She's right; Rarity was my everything. I love you girls, but compared to her, y'all aren't even on the scale. And now she's gone."

"Applejack..." Twilight stared at her in disbelief.

Applejack took a few steps down the hall, then turned back. "Fluttershy's room is this way. You coming or what?"

As they made their way to Fluttershy's room, Twilight had time to imagine up all sorts of horrible nightmares that could be waiting for her. Fortunately, as she shakily pushed the door open, her fears, for once, were unfounded.

"Fluttershy? Pinkie Pie? Hello?" Twilight called out, her eyes darting about and her horn at the ready. There was no sign of any other ponies inside, though the room did look well lived in.

"She's not here," Rainbow Dash muttered as she lowered her head. "There's gotta be a better place to look."

"Well, help me find what I'm looking for and we might have a place to start," Twilight said as she began levitating Fluttershy's personal belongings into the air. "Should be a book. No idea what it looks like or what it's called."

Rainbow Dash let out a long groan as she pointed towards a small bookshelf in the corner. "I think Fluttershy's been catching up on her reading. This is a waste of time!"

Twilight shook her head. "Please, Rainbow. I need to focus on doing this right now. We can't just run around scared hoping we stumble onto the answer."

Rainbow Dash continued to grumble under her breath, but said nothing more as she began searching the closet.

Twilight pulled all the books off the shelves with her magic, quickly scanning the titles. There were romances, mysteries, and horror-novels, and some others she didn’t recognize immediately, but nothing about vengeful alicorn spirits. "Applejack, I know you told me a bunch last night, but now that you've actually seen her, is there anything more you can tell me about Golden Wish?"

Applejack kicked at the desk lightly as she lowered her head. "I, uh, well, she looks exactly like that portrait out in the hall, and she talked a bunch of nonsense about stories I didn't really understand."

Twilight frowned as she continued her search. "And what did you mean exactly about Celestia and Luna being puppets?"

"I don't reckon I know. Might not’ve really even been them, just fakes or something."

"I see." Something was off. None of this felt right at all, but she just couldn't wrap her head around it.

“Uh, I think I found something.”

Applejack turned around, holding what appeared to be a envelope in her teeth. Twilight took it gingerly and noted that it was addressed to her, but was otherwise relatively unadorned, a plain envelope with no seal.

Applejack shrugged, looking away. “Was on her desk in the back there.”

Twilight carefully opened the envelope and pulled out the letter. The script was small and cute. It definitely looked like it belonged to Fluttershy.

Dear Twilight,

Don’t let the others see this. I think you’re in grave danger.

Um, I’m sorry. I’m not very good at explaining things. By the time you read this, I’ll already be dead. Um, I think so, anyway. I’m not very good at predicting the future, either. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Golden Wish is real, Twilight. Everything that’s happened so far is about you somehow. This sick game that’s being played with our lives. There’s something out there on a higher level than us, pulling our strings like puppets. I wish I understood it, and I wish I could have told you sooner. But that’s not the way this story is written.

You’re the only pony that can stop this, Twilight.

I believe in you.


P.S. HONESTY is not always the best policy.

Twilight stared at the letter in front of her, quickly reading it a second, then a third time.

“Well? What’s it say?” Rainbow Dash asked, flying up to peek over her shoulder.

Twilight jumped slightly, quickly pulling the letter away and folding it up. “It’s, um, nothing relevant I’m afraid. Any luck with that book yet?”

Rainbow Dash narrowed her eyes, but turned back to continue searching the closet.

Fluttershy… So she really was dead. And she had somehow seen it coming. Why hadn’t she told her earlier? If she had known something, Twilight might have been able to stop all of this from happening in the first place.

Twilight shook her head, trying to hold back tears. None of this made any sense. What was Fluttershy trying to tell her with all this? And that last line…

“Keep looking for me, would you?” Twilight asked, raising her voice. “I just need a moment to think.”

Not bothering to watch the reactions of the others, Twilight stepped out into the hall, partially closing the door behind her.

Twilight unfolded and smoothed out the letter, holding it up to the light and reading it over again. What did it all mean? Was that bit about honesty trying to suggest something about Applejack? Or was this letter even written by Fluttershy in the first place? The writing looked like it might belong to her, but she wasn’t an expert.

Dark shapes from the other side of the paper caught her eye as the light bled through, and she flipped it over to find that the message wasn’t quite done.

There are no more than eight ponies in this mansion.

Fluttershy is dead.

Pinkie Pie is dead.

Rarity is dead.

At midnight, everypony in this mansion will be dead.

I will kill you.

Who am I?

Twilight turned the page and blinked, staring at the empty sheet in front of her. Had a blank piece of paper gotten mixed in?

The next page was blank as well, as was the one after that. She quickly pulled apart the remaining stack of paper with her magic, spreading them out in the air individually and found no more words awaiting her.

“Fluttershy… where’s the rest of the story?”

“What? It’s right there, isn’t it, Twilight?”

Twilight shook her head, flipping the pages around to check both sides. “There’s nothing here.”

Fluttershy stood up, sifting through the stack of papers herself. “That can’t be right… I finished the story, didn’t I? I know I was tired, but I can’t have gotten that far ahead of myself…”

Twilight pursed her lips. “Could you have left it back at the cottage? You were still working on it when I arrived, weren't you? Maybe we just forgot the grab the last bits.”

Fluttershy sunk low, burying her head under her hooves. “I don’t know, maybe? But if we had left part of it behind, why would we have taken blank pages?”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” Was this really going to be it? It was one thing to have an unsatisfying ending, but to just cut off without any resolution whatsoever? “Well, what do you want to do about it, then?”

Fluttershy whimpered softly. “I think I really didn’t write the end. I must have gotten all twisted up inside my own head and thought I had already put the ending down. I’m sorry, Twilight.”

“Well, how much was really left?”

Fluttershy shook her head. “A chapter or two? It’s hard to say, I guess.”

Twilight walked away, moving to stare outside her window. The bright sunlight and peaceful weather outside served as a stark contrast to the literary world she had become so engrossed in. “What’s the ending, then? Does Twilight win and solve the mystery? Er, either of them?”

Fluttershy opened her mouth to respond, but stopped, lowering her head. “I… don’t want to say.”

“I see…” Twilight chuckled, an odd smile spreading across her face. “So, unless you go back and write it, or tell me the ending, I won’t be able to tell if the cat is alive or dead, right?” Twilight glanced over at Mira. After knocking the vase over, the cat had curled up and gone back to sleep without a care in the world.

It wasn’t as if she was expecting a happy ending, anyway.

“I guess we could stop and I could write it… but I feel so lost now. I was so sure of myself when I was writing it; everything just flowed onto the page. But now, after being here with you, I’m just not sure if I can get into the right state of mind again. Or if this was ever really a good idea in the first place.”

“Well, it’s natural for a writer to doubt herself, and inspiration doesn’t always come easy. But…” Twilight frowned, tapping a hoof against her chin. “The mystery itself. Are there any absolutely vital clues that are revealed in the missing chapters?”

“Hmm…” Fluttershy scrunched her face up as she scratched at her head. “No, I don’t think so. I mean, I haven’t written it yet, but I’m pretty sure everything’s there that needs to be. It’s really just the narrative that’s inconclusive.”

Twilight grinned and lit up her horn. “Well, how about I solve the mystery right here and now? I’ll find the truth, open up that catbox, and we’ll give Twilight and everypony the happy ending they deserve.”

Fluttershy covered her mouth with her hooves, her smile peeking out from either side. “If you really think you can do it, Twilight… I believe you have what it takes.”

"That's what this is all about, right? Me-me solving the mystery. Well, 'Great Detective Twilight Sparkle' is on the case!"

Twilight took a few steps backwards and cast a spell. A soft light began to play across the floor, lines growing to form several boxes in an illusory diagram.

"So, across both books we have four closed rooms total, right? In book one, the shed where you and Pinkie were found. Rarity's room where Applejack and Rarity were found. Then in book two, we have Rarity's room again, and the Princesses’ study. All in all, we've got similar locations both times, as well as a similar grouping of deaths."

Fluttershy leaned in, looking over the diagram with clear interest. “These look good, Twilight. And yeah, those are all the main ones, anyway. I guess there’s some minor stuff you could consider as well, but those are all the closed rooms with bodies in them.”

“Let’s start by working backwards then, with the final closed room.” Twilight pulled the fourth diagram into the air, causing it to float between her and Fluttershy. “A closed room where Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie were murdered. A key was used to lock the door, but the key was then destroyed inside. Somehow the culprit was able to escape the room without using magic, along with the body of Pinkie Pie. Fluttershy is dead, but it wasn’t suicide, nor trap assisted homicide.”

Twilight glanced over at Fluttershy. “I at least assume we can consider the red in that letter to be equally valid? Even if crossing layers doesn’t make any sense.”

Fluttershy nodded, and she continued.

“For the third closed room, we have Rarity murdered inside. Two keys, one locked inside the room, the other sealed in an envelope that was never opened. Once again, no magic, no windows.”

Twilight looked up from the diagrams, catching Fluttershy’s attention. “We don’t have any red truths yet for the first game. I figured it’s already the case, but can I at least get confirmation?”

Fluttershy nodded, placing her hoof on the red orb. “Every closed room is a ‘Golden Closed Room’.”

Well, she had expected that the definition was meant to apply to everything. Both of the first two were relatively similar. Instead of shenanigans involving keys, both were sealed from the inside with a chain lock. Since they were simple enough to unset from the outside with levitation, it wasn’t a particularly popular style of lock in communities with a significant number of unicorns.

Of course, a dexterous earth pony or a pegasus with a wire could accomplish the same feat.

“It seems a bit too simple, but I guess I should check anyway. The culprit was able to set the chain lock from outside the door by using a tool or device such as a wire.

“Well, you’re right on the simple part,” Fluttershy said, grinning. “For the purposes of this game, no tool or device capable of setting a chain lock from the outside exists.

“Hmm.” Twilight stood up and began to pace around the room, levitating a cloth off the table and wiping the sweat from her brow. There was a thread running through each one, a trick explaining how the culprit had managed to commit the crime and escape a seemingly closed room without using magic. Each red truth closes off a possible answer, eventually leaving only one out of a limited number of paths as the ‘truth’. But try as she might, it seemed like the only way to properly deduce how to reach the correct path was by guessing until all other options were exhausted. She couldn’t make the clues add up into a solution. Was it the fault of Fluttershy, or herself?

No… maybe she was looking at this the wrong way. Well, she was almost certainly looking at this the wrong way. Rather than a bunch of individually unique and interesting tricks for each room, perhaps each one was thematically and mechanically linked. A central, ‘Golden Trick’, pulling them all together.

Magic, hidden doors and windows had all been denied across the board. But something each crime could easily hold in common based on the clues left behind… maybe there was something after all. Although in one case it would be a bit of a stretch.

“Fluttershy, I think I have something,” Twilight said, opening her eyes. She hadn’t realized it, but while she was engrossed with her thoughts she had unconsciously set each diagram spinning about her horn. “Are you ready?”

Fluttershy bit her lip and ducked behind her mane, nodding softly.

Twilight took a deep breath, then fired up her spell. “For every closed room, the culprit was still inside the room hiding at the time Twilight opened it!

It was one of the oldest tricks in the book. Why hadn’t she seen it sooner?

“Twilight, I’m…” Fluttershy looked up, blinking several times in rapid succession. “Oh.”

“In each of the closed rooms, there’s more than enough room for it. The layout of the shed was vague, but it’s not unreasonable to assume there were some boxes or crates that would work as a decent hiding spot. For Rarity’s bedroom, under the bed or behind a dresser, or in the third case, disguised as one of the ponykins.” Twilight paused, shuddering. “A creepy thought.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “Golden Wish already explicitly denied the possibility of a pony hiding out in the fourth closed room, don’t you remember?”

Twilight grinned. “If I remember correctly, the exact words were, ‘At the time Twilight Sparkle entered the study, there were no living ponies inside the study. This applies to all three interior rooms'. But there’s a slight gap there, in the first sentence.”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

Right after Twilight Sparkle opened the study but before she entered it she paused, coughing on the dust kicked up by tearing the door open. The culprit was hiding nearby, and slipped out of the room right before Twilight actually entered it!

Fluttershy fell back on her haunches and raised a hoof to her forehead, chuckling lightly. “Wow. Um, that’s quite a theory, Twilight.”

Twilight found herself beaming as she continued to pace back and forth. “I know, right? It’s a neat trick, but I think it cleanly explains how Golden Wish can run around undetected while still pulling off these murders. To think that Twilight was so close to catching her in the act each time… but unless she checks, she can’t know she’s there, right? It’s your catbox metaphor all over again.”

Fluttershy’s face fell, and she stared at Twilight for a long time, her gaze distant. “For each of the closed rooms, the culprit was not present inside the room at the time the door was opened.

Twilight reeled backwards as if she’d been struck in the face. It was that easy, huh? Her theory, cut to ribbons in an instant. She was so sure…

“Come on, Twilight,” Fluttershy said, her voice soft, “is that really all you’ve got? The truth is right in front of you, I’m sure you can see if it you really look.”

Twilight grit her teeth. Fine, then. It was silly to get attached to any particular theory in the first place. She would just have to keep attacking until she hit the weak spot.

Before the key to Rarity’s room was sealed in an envelope, it was used to create a mold! Afterwards, the mold was used to create a key, which was used to commit the crime before the culprit destroyed it. At the time Twilight received the key, there were only two keys total.”

Fluttershy pawed at the ground, not looking up. “For the purposes of this game, no devices exist capable of forging a new key out of a mold.”

Twilight bit back a curse. “This is getting a little arbitrary, right? In any other mystery, all of these will be perfectly viable solutions and closed room tricks.”

“But this isn’t any other mystery, Twilight. This is mine.”

She was definitely beginning to see why Meta-Twilight had been so frustrated.

“Fine then. After committing the crime in the study, the culprit hid themselves somewhere like a dresser drawer before killing themself. Pinkie Pie’s corpse was hidden in the same manner. This bypasses both red truths, as a dead body is no longer ‘the culprit!’

Fluttershy let out a long sigh and sunk to the floor. “Knocks’ 8th: It is forbidden for the case to be resolved with clues that are not presented. Can you provide any foreshadowing or evidence that would lead you to this conclusion?”

“What?” Twilight asked, stomping a hoof. “Why are you bringing this up now? Since when have any of these colored truths required evidence or backing?”

“I know I made everything get a little crazy, but this is still a mystery, Twilight. Whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit all factor into the truth. Maybe the bodies were hiding in the dresser. What kind of author would I be if there weren't any clues pointing to that, and you were just expected to guess the right answer?” Fluttershy stood up back up, and moved to go stare out the window. “I know I’m not perfect, but…”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “Why not actually answer the question in red, then? Is it because you can’t?”

Fluttershy shook her head. “Fine, if it’ll really help, the culprit did not die in the study.”

Blocked at every turn. This whole mystery was a vague, confusing mess with twisted logic and unrestrained cruelty. Yet Fluttershy had written the whole sun-blasted story, all so Twilight could solve it. It hadn’t made the slightest lick of sense from the beginning.

Rarity and Applejack committed suicide in the second closed room! After Applejack confessed the truth about her relationship, Rarity freaked out, and after they reconciled they agreed that the only resolution was a lovers suicide!

“It’s more plausible than your last try, but Rarity and Applejack did not commit suicide.And since I already know what you’ll try next, Rarity and Applejack did not kill each other.

For the first closed room, the culprit dismantled the shed in some fashion and then rebuilt it around the bodies!

The shed has remained intact for the entire duration of the game.

The culprit killed Pinkie Pie and put her in the shed, then fed or strapped some kind of small bomb to Fluttershy! After forcing Fluttershy to lock herself in, the culprit detonated it, killing her!

Fluttershy stared at her blankly. “Twilight, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Twilight growled, stomping a hoof. “I’m just getting started! For the fourth closed room, the culprit—

“Stop, just stop! That’s enough, okay?” Fluttershy wiped at her eye with a hoof as she continued to stare out the window. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this anymore.”

“What are you talking about?” Twilight stared at Fluttershy, her blood still boiling with energy. “This whole thing was your idea. You told me I had to solve this mystery. So I’m trying to solve it!”

Fluttershy hung her head. “I made the mystery solvable… at least, I thought I did. But this will never work. I’m not sure why I ever thought it would. It could be your fault, I guess, but it’s probably mine. I’m sorry for wasting your time, Twilight.”

Fluttershy turned away and started walking to the door, but Twilight teleported in front of her, spreading her wings to block her path. “I won’t let you give up that easily, Fluttershy! Maybe these closed rooms are stumping me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t solve this! I just need a hint, or maybe the actual end of the novel after all.”

“Twilight…” Fluttershy smiled, a pained look on her face. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t think there’s anything more I can give you other than outright telling you the answer. It’s all there. At least, it should be. If you can’t see it… well, it’s probably for the best.”

Fluttershy pushed her way past a stunned Twilight, standing with a disbelieving expression on her face.

“Argh! Then just tell me! If we’ve passed the point of no return, just spoil the thing and tell me why you went through all this trouble in the first place!”

Twilight teleported again, bearing directly down on Fluttershy with a fierce gaze.

Fluttershy flinched back, but continued to make eye contact. “If I just told you the truth, I’m pretty sure you’d hate me. If you figured it out on your own… well, you probably still would, but at least then I tried.”

Twilight blinked, pulling away from her stare. “I could never hate you, Fluttershy. Maybe I’m a little frustrated right now, but we’re friends, remember? Nothing will ever change that.”

“I appreciate that Twilight, but...” Fluttershy continued to stare at Twilight, her eyes beginning to mist over slightly.

Twilight nodded, pulling her wings in and letting Fluttershy have her space. “Just let me know the truth, Fluttershy. I’ll accept it.”

Fluttershy took a deep breath, then shook her head, chuckling softly to herself as she stared at the floor. “Okay then, here’s a truth for you. It was an experiment, Twilight. I just wanted to field test a bunch of unique ideas for a murder mystery. One I’d actually publish. I just wanted you personally invested in everything because you’re the smartest pony I know and you could tear holes in all of my ideas.”

“I… what?”

Fluttershy nodded, her eyes distant. “Yeah. I mean, I guess if you look at it that way, it wasn’t perfect, but I’m sure there’s enough to work with here.”

This couldn’t be true. Fluttershy had put her through all that… just to get ideas on a novel? No. Twilight took a good long look at the pony before her: a strained expression, eyes avoiding contact with her own and ready to tear up. She saw the cracks in the facade and saw her heart peeking through.

“You’re lying.”

Fluttershy bit her lip in a grimace. “Am I? Prove it.”

“Prove it? How do you expect me to do that?”

Fluttershy pushed past her and opened the door. “A lie that everypony accepts becomes the truth. So unless you’ve got a truth of your own that can supercede mine…”

Did she want another blue truth from her? What answer could she possibly give?

“Goodbye, Twilight. Thanks for putting up with somepony like me. Don’t worry, I’ll probably stick to my cottage for a week or two, but after that we can go back to being friends and pretend this never happened. And no, I won’t be writing a third novel.”


Twilight stood in her doorway watching Fluttershy walk away, and didn’t go back inside until long after she was out of sight.

“Twilight, I thought those books were your precious memories. You really shouldn’t treat them like that.”

Spike watched, eyebrow raised, as Twilight threw yet another book across the room, stomping her way through a temper tantrum.

“Who does she think she is, anyway? Getting me all invested in a mystery, in her story. In MY story. Just to deny me an ending, twice, then yank the rug out from under me like that? She makes her villain look downright benevolent!”

Spike let out a sigh. “Come on, Twilight. I still don’t really understand what’s going on here, but Fluttershy was definitely super bummed out when she came to relieve me from animal-care. Do you really think she’s that malicious?”

Twilight wheeled on Spike, her aura flaring up as more books flew into the air. “Of course not! And that’s what makes me so angry! Fluttershy’s still Fluttershy, through and through. How can I possibly be angry at her? It’d be easier if she was a cackling villain!”

Twilight whipped the rest of the books she was holding at the wall, then fell to her haunches, letting some of her anger drain away. She couldn’t stay angry at her, not really. Even if for the moment she was furious.

Just as the second novel had repeated the same setting with similar, but different situations, Twilight found herself in almost the same position she had been last night. Fluttershy had left the incomplete novel here once again, so she could always try re-reading it. There could still be something she overlooked entirely, even if it hadn’t helped the first time.

Or maybe she really should just give it up, let bygones be bygones, and pretend it never happened.

Would that make Fluttershy happy?

Would that make her happy?

“I’m going to bed,” Twilight announced loudly as she began to stomp off towards the stairs.

If she was going to have weird dreams again tonight too, maybe they would help her make sense of things.

Spike watched as Twilight made her way up the stairs. Shrugging, he turned to start working on the mess she had made that he had known he would have to clean up anyway.

He failed to notice the lithe black form creeping up after her.

~Tea Party~

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Twilight raised the tea cup to her lips. Rather than the soothing sweetness of tea, she was greeted instead by a mouthful of dust. She coughed, sputtering as she tried to wipe it off her tongue.

“Rarity, is this some kind of joke?”

She looked over to the chair where Rarity had been, but she wasn’t there. Where could she have possibly…

No. Was she even supposed to be here? Turning around, she saw that the room was completely devoid of ponies, a thin layer of dust having settled over the furniture. Just an empty room left uncared for. Why would she be having tea with her friends in a place like this?

Why did she feel like that they should all be here with her despite that?

“Hello?” Twilight croaked, her throat ragged from the dust she had swallowed. She spat, working her mouth again before calling out again, louder, “Is there anypony here?”

A whistle of wind answered in response, the faint howling of a distant draft. And on it, she could hear… voices? It was too faint to tell if it was real or just her imagination.

She took a step forward and the room swam around her, her perspective twisting and minor details flickering in and out of focus.

Wait, this was from Fluttershy’s novel, right? Another dream, just like before…

She continued forward, each step feeling like she was slogging through molasses. The way the world shifted around made her feel like she should be feeling nauseous, but there was no real weight to it.

Each passing moment brought her closer to her destination. Through the entrance hall and down the hallways to… Rarity’s room? Was this where she had been trying to go? She could hear the whistling of the wind more clearly now, the faint whisper of the voices still tantalizingly out of reach.

The door opened, and the light faded from around her. Shadows of ponies were silhouetted in the periphery of her vision, and she found herself stepping forward regardless of her desire to flee.

She couldn’t. This was a trap, she had to—!

The room closed in on her like the maw of a great beast, and she was enveloped in complete darkness.

Before she could fire up her horn to conjure a light, she heard the click of a spotlight and spun around. The ponykins had surrounded her, but one stood at the forefront in the center of the light, its eyes burning with a light blue flame.

“What does it mean to be in love, Twilight?”

The ponykin spoke with Rarity’s voice, but it was a harsh, distorted noise that came from where its mouth should be. The sound was echoed by the forms surrounding her.

“Rarity, you…”

The spotlight clicked off and back on again, highlighting a different rari-kin. “It’s like being generous, is it not? You give all of yourself to another pony. But what if you give too much and don’t ask for anything in return? What if they don’t like what they received, and they find your heart ugly and worthy of scorn?”

Twilight shook her head, taking a step back and bumping into one of the ponykins. “Rarity, how should I know? You’ve got a lot more experience with something like that than somepony like me.”

The ponykin behind her shuddered violently, and let out a shrill, weeping sound, like that of hooves on a chalkboard. “It hurts, Twilight. I don’t know what I did wrong. What did I do to deserve this? I thought I had everything figured out; my life was going to be perfect.

“It turns out you can’t ignore your heart after all.”

Twilight shrieked as an ice cold muzzle pressed into her side, and she jumped away, crashing into more ponykins. There wasn’t anywhere to go. They were everywhere, pressing in from all sides.

Suddenly, the mass of shapes wobbled and fell over. Red began to seep out of them, pooling on the floor and lapping against Twilight’s hooves.

“I’m sorry, Twilight.”

Twilight screamed and teleported away in a flash.

This was insane. It was just a nightmare. She needed to wake up, to escape, to—

Icy winds buffeted against her, and she realized she was outside in the howling blizzard.

Snow whipped around and obscured her vision, but she could still see the faint light of the mansion in the distance. Each step brought her the tiniest bit closer to the poisoned promise of warmth and safety, but it required the effort of swimming upstream in a raging river. It was like the storm had a mind of its own, and it wanted nothing more than to force her down into the snow and keep her there until she froze to death.

With a sudden jolt, she tripped over something hard and tumbled over herself.

As she tried to pull herself back up, she found her hooves caught in a curly pink mane. Glassy eyes stared out at nothing from beneath her under a layer of snow.

Before Twilight could scream again, she sensed movement behind her and spun, horn at the ready. A snowpony with a familiar shape stood before her.

“Hi Twilight!”


The snowpony began bouncing around the corpse of Pinkie Pie. “You know, I’ve always heard that when you die everything gets cold. But it turns out when you freeze to death, you feel warm before the end! Weird, huh?”

Twilight blinked. “That’s called hypothermia.”

“Yeah, hypo-whatever! Hey, what do you think it means to make another pony smile?”

The snow-pinkie leaned forward, staring Twilight directly in the face with its empty eyes.

“Isn’t that your specialty?”

“It is! And I’m really really really good at it, too. But what if the thing that makes one pony smile makes another pony sad? I love smiling a whole lot, but I’d give it up in a heartbeat if it could make somepony REALLY happy! But maybe some ponies will have brighter smiles if I do nothing at all.”

Twilight bit her lip, trying to avoid looking at the corpse at her feet. “I don’t understand, Pinkie.”

“Neither do I! That’s the problem, isn’t it? Smiles are supposed to be easy, but this is complicated and confusing. It doesn’t make any sense to me, Twilight. I’ll just keep doing what I do best. I can’t really see the future, so I can’t really know if my actions will end up hurting the ponies I care about. No matter how much I want the opposite. But I’ve got to believe in myself anyway.”

The snow-Pinkie took a step back, and Twilight lunged forward, throwing her arms around it, ignoring the cold. “Pinkie, wait! Don’t go, we can still stop this somehow! I can save you, I…” Could she? How?

“Aww, Twilight, that’s really sweet of you, but too much warmth like this and I’ll just melt like a popsicle!”

Pinkie began to fall away through Twilight’s arms, melting back into the snow below.

“I’m sorry, Twilight.”

Before she could even let out a strangled sob, a torrential gust of wind whipped the snow around her into a whirlwind, blinding her.

Twilight closed her eyes tight and called upon her magic to create a shield that would push away the elements. Nothing made any sense. Holding on to her thoughts was like trying to sift oil from water using only her teeth. This was just a novel. No, a nightmare, and she needed to—

Everything became still, and Twilight peeked out of one eye. She stood in the middle of an unfamiliar grassy plain, a vast moonlit sky streaming above her.

Was this something in the novel? She couldn’t remember.

“Twili---, --- --- --- ----- ---ger! --- ---- -- --ke up!”

A strange voice whispered softly to her, unintelligible.

“Who’s there?” Twilight called out. Her voice felt strangely hollow, and her tongue was numb.

“-------- --- ---, do not ----- ----! They ---- --- ------- --- ----!”

Just as suddenly as the storm had lulled, it returned in full force, the wind flinging Twilight into the nearby wall.

Pain lanced through her right forehoof, and she jerked it back to find a sizzling doorknob steaming in the frozen air.

There, from the side of the mansion, a door loomed over her. Smoke curled from its edges, the handle glowing like a blacksmith’s iron.

In accordance with the lack of judgement afforded to her by the dreamlike haze she was in, Twilight reached out with her magic, pulling the door open.

A wave of stinging heat washed over her, the thermal energy rapidly reducing the snow covered grounds around her to a muddy mess. A stairwell leading down beckoned her forward; the shimmering air and the smoke offered her a warm welcome to step into the pits of Tartarus itself.

The staircase groaned as she made her way down, threatening to give way under every footstep. Down and down she went, far deeper than the basement of the mansion had any right to be.

What morose specter of her friends would she discover this time?

The stairwell opened up into a twisted maze of jagged metal. Pipes and towering mechanical monstrosities crisscrossed every which way, shuddering with grumbling roars as they spat out harsh gouts of smoke and steam.

She had a destination in sight, though any pony in her right mind would have turned and left long ago: the great boiler in the center of the room. Every few seconds, a sharp scraping would resonate from the inside, like that of metal against metal.

While ordinarily she would have dismissed it as the usual clanging and settling of a boiler system, Twilight had seen enough of this dreamscape to know it wouldn’t be something that mundane.

She reached up with her magic and twisted the handle of the door, the worn out hinges creating an awful shriek as she slowly pulled it open.

The door tore open with a great gout of fire and ash. Twilight raised a hoof to her eyes to shield herself from the wave of heat that washed over her. Sweat rolled down her sides as she tried to swallow, her mouth completely dry.

From the shadows cast by the flickering fires inside the boiler, Twilight could make out the shape of a skeleton. A glinting steel dagger was embedded in the inside of the door.

The ash began swirling around her, clumping together, and slowly taking the shape of an all too familiar pegasus.

“Twilight… what does it mean to be kind to another pony?”

Twilight pressed a hoof against her forehead, hoping the pressure would alleviate even the tiniest bit of haze from her mind as the sweltering heat pressed down on her. “Fluttershy, please. Enough of these cryptic metaphors and ridiculous riddles. I don’t want to see anypony else get hurt. There has to be a real answer here, doesn’t there?”

The flutter-ash lowered her head, peeking up at her through shimmering bangs of fire. “Twilight, please. This is important. I… need to know. It’s one thing to be nice to others, but does true kindness require that you be kind to yourself as well? If you make yourself happy, will that make others happy? I don’t know the difference between too far and not far enough. It’s easy to just curl up and hide away."

Twilight shook her head. "Fluttershy, you can’t give up like that. We've been through so much already. We've learned so much about the world, ourselves, and each other. Why would this be any different? We can overcome it, together.”

A lick of fire lapped at Fluttershy’s cheek as if it were a single tear. “I’m sorry, Twilight.”

Fire roared up from inside of her, and Twilight was forced to back away, choking on the updraft of ash and smoke. In just a flash of light and heat, Fluttershy was gone.

There was no time to mourn; the towering machines around her began to groan and snap, massive steel piles smashing into the ground and threatening to turn her into nothing more than a pony shaped stain.

Twilight leapt into the air, spreading her wings and flying straight up. She twisted and rolled from side to side while dodging the falling debris, the ceiling approaching fast. Calling forth her power, Twilight unleashed the full destructive force of an alicorn princess, obliterating anything that was unfortunate enough to be directly in front of her. Molten slag dripped past her, and she pulled her limbs in tight, shooting up through the makeshift escape tunnel.

Just as suddenly as it had begun, it was all over. Twilight burst from the hole in the ground right as she reached the ascent of her climb, twisting as she hit the ground and rolled over the wooden floorboards.

Groaning, Twilight righted herself and shakily stood up. There was a faint orange light coming from the hole, but in a few flickering heartbeats it vanished as if it had never been there in the first place.

She was in the mansion again. She had managed to see that much before the light had faded. It was pitch black, now.

Twilight reached for her magic to call forth light, but the loud chime of a grandfather clock rang forth, interrupting her spellcasting. It shook the ground around her as if it had been a massive thunderclap, rather than a simple chime.

Following in the wake of the chime, a soft white light filled the room, and Twilight could see that she was in the entrance hall, the stairs looming over her. That meant that looking down on her was the portrait of her most hated enemy.

No... the antagonist of Fluttershy's novel.

Shaking her head, Twilight looked up to see the portrait for herself. Only it wasn't. Instead, the wall was adorned with a massive stained glass window, depicting a stylized motif of somepony who she could only assume was Golden Wish. Moonlight poured through the glass, bright shafts of it like silver bars piercing the window and soaring through the air, all converging at a single point somewhere behind her.

The clock chimed for a second time, and Twilight slowly turned around.

Applejack stood there in the moonlight, scratched up and bloody. Her hat was missing, and her breath came in short ragged gasps as her eyes darted frantically about the room.

When her gaze fell upon Twilight, she pulled back in shock. Her brow narrowed in rage, but her expression quickly shifted to one of fear. In a manner of seconds, however, the fear was replaced with hurt and guilt.”

"Twilight, you... This ain't what it looks like!"

The broken form of Rainbow Dash lay at her hooves, freshly spilled blood seeping across the floor.

Twilight took a step back. "It was... you? That can't be right. I... I don't understand."

"I didn't... Golden Wish, I mean, she... no. There ain’t no more point in lying anymore. Just a bunch of excuses. Tired of being dishonest.”

"No... this isn't real!"

With the third chime of the clock, the silver light that had been filling the room turned to a radiant gold, as if it were cast by an unseen fire. A shrill, cackling laughter echoed across the room, a chorus of decadent glee that bounced from every direction.

Twilight turned back to the window. The shadow she cast, the winged and horned shadow of an alicorn, began to flicker and dance. It crawled outwards, spreading across the surrounding walls. The wings began to distort, becoming leathery, clawed, and batlike, and the horn gave way to a massive head, razor-sharp teeth casting their own shadows. Yellow slits opened where its eyes should be and stared into her own.

The clock chimed again, and there was a roar, fire, pain, and death.

Through the haze, Applejack smiled a smile that couldn’t reach her eyes and shook her head. When she spoke, her voice was joined by the echoes of those that spoke before her.

"I'm sorry, Twilight."

Her screams weren't enough to drown them out.


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Twilight's scream pierced through the midnight air as her eyes snapped open.

She was soaked with sweat, the stale air helping little as she lay there taking short, ragged breaths.

So it was all just a dream. She had known it was, on some level, but the pain, the fear, and the exhaustion all felt so real. Even now her body still trembled from the phantom memories of death.

Well, dream or not, it wouldn't do her much good to dwell on it. It was still dark, and sleeping anytime soon would be a tall order, so a midnight snack would be an appropriate way to calm her nerves.

Twilight moved to throw the covers off of her and then froze.

There weren't any covers. Or pillows. Now that she actually looked around, and her eyes had started to adjust, she realized she wasn't in her room at all.

This was impossible, wasn’t it? It had to be another dream. It wasn't exactly uncommon, after all, to wake from a nightmare just to be catapulted into another.

Her mind was completely alert though, and the fear fueled adrenaline that coursed through her veins told a different story.

Twilight hesitantly stood up, looking every which way. She was greeted by the sight of nothing but an empty black void, stretching out in every direction. Even the solid ground she stood on seemed to continue on indefinitely.

Despite the lack of light, however, Twilight knew it was not a lack of vision that isolated her. This void was a literal one; it was an expanse of nothingness covering all of eternity..

She rubbed at her eyes and tried to find even the slightest hint that she wasn’t alone here. Her efforts were rewarded when she began to make out the soft glimmer of stars; tiny pinpricks that represented so much more slowly painted a canvas across the sky.

Not that sky was truly an appropriate descriptor. Twilight gingerly tested the ground before her and, finding it solid, began walking slowly. "Hello? Is anypony there?"

Her voice carried through the void, eventually being swallowed up without a trace.

This had to be a dream, right? Ponies just didn't randomly wake up in the middle of space. Well, she supposed there was that one time with Princess Celestia when she became a princess, but that was different. That had been warm and comforting. She largely suspected it had been a personally constructed mindscape of Celestia's. If only she had actually bothered to ask her about it.

Not that she would have likely received a straight answer even if she had.

But just what was this strange reality then, and what did it represent? She certainly wasn't in Equestria anymore. She could still feel her magic, its power a comforting pulse in the back of her mind. She wasn't defenseless, then, but she was still hesitant to start casting spells. Who knew what could happen if she did so carelessly?

Lost in thought, Twilight stopped as she realized that she had been walking forward for quite some time. The stars were even clearer now, though it still appeared as if she were walking on nothing at all.

"Princess Twilight Sparkle."

A voice rang out, cold and unfamiliar. Twilight spun, immediately readying her magic. "Who's there? Show yourself!"

“Of course. That’s why I brought you here, after all.”

Twilight watched as a low shadow crept across the ground, slowly coming closer before it stopped and looked up at her with a pair of slitted, purple eyes that shone in the darkness.

“Wait, you’re…”

The cat’s lips twitched slightly in what might have been a grin, before she was engulfed by a bright blue flame.

Twilight stepped back, instinctively shielding herself from the heatless inferno. In a flash it was over, and a unicorn stood before her instead.

“You may call me Infinite Miracle.”

Twilight stared blankly at the gray mare. “You’re a cat,” she said flatly.

Infinite Miracle smirked, running a hoof through her long blue mane. “I am one yet many. All I wish is within my grasp. I am a traveller, a gambler, a reader, and a player.”

“I don’t understand,” Twilight said, biting her lip. “Is this supposed to be a dream?”

“You still slumber in your bed at home, but your heart and soul lie here with me, in this world between worlds.”

Twilight raised a hoof then frowned, a million questions dashing through her mind. “This is fascinating, and as utterly confused as I am, I could stand here asking questions all day. But I think it might be best if we just skip to the point.”

Infinite Miracle nodded slowly, then walked past her, tail swishing back and forth as if she were still feline in nature. Twilight saw her cutie mark, a broken crystal flanked on either side by a pair of cat’s eyes.

“I’ll make it simple then, Twilight. I wish to invite you to play a game for me.”

Twilight turned to face her. “A game? What do you mean?”

Infinite Miracle’s horn glowed a soft blue, and two spinning crystals appeared in the air in between the two them of her. “This is a realm of infinite possibilities, of endless fragments, of fleeting thoughts and memories, chances taken and never taken. Each light you see out there represents a reality, a story, an idea, a life. Here is the place where the borders between fiction and reality become thin.”

Twilight lowered her head to stare at the crystals, leaning in close. “This is…” In their reflections, she could see familiar images. Herself in a mansion. Spending time with her friends. Discovering their bodies. Facing off against Golden Wish. Losing.

“These are the stories your friend Fluttershy has written. Truly, they are quite intriguing pieces of art, are they not? Such a unique mindset on her. I wonder where such creativity and ingenuity could have come from? But sadly, they are incomplete.”

Twilight reached up a hoof, lightly touching the crystal as she stared into its depths.

“Do you want to know the truth, Twilight Sparkle?”

Twilight blinked, looking up. “What do you mean?”

“Fluttershy will write no more novels. She has dropped out of this race, but the mystery remains unsolved. Is that acceptable to you?”

“I…” Twilight shook her head. She did want to know. It bugged her more than any unsolved problem she’d ever faced in her life, and she wasn’t entirely sure why. “I’m sure I can figure it out, if I just try…”

There was a flash of light, and the two crystals slammed into each other, becoming one. “I’m offering you a third and final chance to tackle this tale of treachery and woe. One last story, crafted from the hearts of those previous to it. This time it would not star Twilight, nor Twilight. But you.”

Twilight swallowed as the implications hit her. “You want me to… live through one of her novels? Like, for real?”

“A chance to pit your wits against the mare known as Golden Wish yourself. With the added perspective of a reader, it shouldn’t be too hard, right?”

One last chance to solve the mystery. The clues were all scattered about, and she was so close, but everything just kept slipping tantalizingly out of her grasp. Would just one more novel do the trick? But to live through that sort of nightmare herself... Could she handle it? And perhaps more importantly…

“Why?” Twilight asked, narrowing her eyes. “Who are you, exactly? What could you possibly have to gain from something like this, and why would you be interested in me and a novel written by my friend?”

Infinite Miracle chuckled, a slow laugh bereft of warmth. “I am merely a traveler. I seek out interesting things and engaging stories; this one has caught my eye. Will Twilight Sparkle solve the mystery and learn the truth? Or will both she and Fluttershy give up and return home, their friendship shattered? You could even say I’ve got a substantial wager riding on the outcome.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “So, what, you disguise yourself as a cat, spy on me, then place bets on the outcomes of our lives?”


Twilight grit her teeth. “Forgive me if I don’t find that to be a particularly trustworthy sentiment. What about you, then? Do you already know the truth?”

“I have my suspicions, but I’d prefer it if you were able to confirm them. The best stories tell themselves as we live them, after all. That is the chance I offer: to write the story as you see fit, to be the Twilight Sparkle who takes victory for herself, rather than being the Twilight Sparkle written to fail.”

That much at least was true. In both novels, Fluttershy seemed to have written it so that Twilight lost in the end. But despite Fluttershy’s hopes that she would prevail where her fictional counterparts had not, the truth continued to elude her. Would exploring the world Fluttershy had so lovingly crafted from every angle finally reveal what she was missing?

“If I accepted your offer, to play this game… would it be safe?”


Well, points for brutal honesty. Risking her life, all for a game, just to fully explore the truth of Fluttershy’s stupid novel. Such an idea would be totally insane, right?

“I… I’ll do it.“

She had to know. For her sake. For Fluttershy’s sake.

Infinite Miracle smiled, her horn glowing blue once more. An empty chessboard materialized in front of her, and she reached down and placed a small figurine shaped like Twilight Sparkle onto the board.

“Well. Let’s tear this catbox open, shall we?”

Chapter 17 - Fiction

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“Well well well. It looks like little Twilight has finally come back to the world of the ‘living’. You managed to pull yourself up from oblivion all on your own, did you? The game kept going without you, I’m afraid. Shame you missed it. It was really quite the event.”

Cackling laughter rang out, and Twilight slowly opened her eyes, blinking her blurred vision away. She was in a well furnished sitting room with large windows looking out into nothing.

Just like it had been described in Fluttershy’s novel.

Yawning, Twilight stood up, stretching out her wings and cracking her neck. Well, this was what she agreed to, after all. It was one thing to visit these locales in her dreams, but now she was here for a given definition of real and could take in every detail with extreme clarity.

Including, of course, the golden alicorn at the other side of the room.

“You’re a little shorter than I expected,” Twilight blurted out as she tried to suppress another yawn. It was weird; here she was, standing in front of a fictional character. It was like meeting Daring Do in real life or something. Except even when that had actually happened, it hadn’t really been comparable to this.

“I… what?” Golden Wish blinked, turning her head slightly and staring at Twilight.

What was the proper response? Golden Wish was the villain of Fluttershy’s story, sure, and she was by no means someone Twilight could get along with, but everything villainous she had done had been done to another Twilight, not her. Should she hate her for it? Or should she, at the very least, play along and pretend like she did?

“I’m, uh, going to defeat you, Golden Wish! For the sake of my friends, I’ll solve your last game, no matter what!”

Golden Wish stared at her blankly. It looked like her acting skills weren’t exactly up to par.

“You’re… the ‘real’ Twilight, aren’t you?” Golden Wish asked, her voice soft and tinged with awe.

Twilight stared back. Well, that was unexpected. “Um… yes?”

Golden Wish turned around, facing away from Twilight and muttering to herself. “So you really came all this way just to play a game with a fictional character like me. Guess I must be doing something right after all.”

Twilight frowned. Something was missing here, but she couldn’t place it. “I’m not exactly sure how this is supposed to work, but don’t get me wrong; I’m not here for you. I’m doing this to find out the truth. For my sake, and for hers.”

“Is that so? Well, I’ll take what I can get. If I can beat one Twilight, I can beat another.”

Twilight smacked herself in the face with a hoof as what was missing suddenly dawned on her. “You don’t have a cutie mark!”

Golden Wish whipped around, positioning her rear behind the table as her face turned red. “I m-must have left it on my other flank!”

That didn’t make any sense. She should have one, right? It had been described in the novel, she was sure. What was it again…?

To her surprise, two books materialized in the air in front of her with a flash of energy. Well, that was convenient. Twilight quickly pulled them open and began skimming for relevant descriptive passages.

After a minute of searching, Twilight closed both books. How had she not noticed the omission before?

“Did Fluttershy just forget to give you one or something?”

Golden Wish snorted, glaring daggers at her. “How should I know? Maybe it’s a metaphor about the infinite and shapeless nature of my power, hmm?”

Twilight shook her head, her mind reeling. She was standing here, arguing with a fictional character about aspects of her own visual design. Could things possibly get any crazier than this?

“Let’s focus on the game. The meta-particulars aren’t really that important.

A soft voice whispered in Twilight’s mind. It seemed that whatever sort of stake in this her mysterious ‘benefactor’ had, she was focused on getting to the point.

“Well, Golden Wish, it’s an honor to meet you, but I think the time for pleasantries is past. Fictional or not, you’re determined to hurt me and my friends. So, we have a game to get to, don’t we?”

Golden Wish closed her eyes and took a deep breath, a slight smile creeping onto her face. “Very well. I do have another game prepared for you, but do you really think you can handle it, Twilight? Let’s make no mistake here. You will be watching your friends die horribly; there’s no stopping it. Only a crime to solve after the fact. This doesn’t have to be your fight. Turn around now, go home to your warm and cozy bed, go play with your real, living friends in the sunlight. Leave this realm of fiction and death to those who belong in it.

Twilight bit her lip. Well, if she was going to have second thoughts, now would probably be the last chance to make them count. She had agreed to this insane proposition perhaps a bit too hastily. Reading about it was one thing, but to stare these horrors directly in the face… Would she be able to handle it?

Those nightmares she had gave her a small taste of this world, even if they were as muddy and disjointed as dreams usually are. But with her full mental capabilities behind her, would she be able to divorce herself from her emotions in order to search for clues in a crime scene when the glassy eyes of one of her friends was staring at her from the world of the dead?

For that matter, could it even be considered right to start such a game knowing full well what will happen to those who participate in it?

No. Whether or not she opened the box, the cat would still be either alive or dead. Refusing to check wouldn’t change the truth. Only obfuscate it.

“I’m ready,” she said. Fluttershy had been so adamant that it was all there already. If only she was competent enough to see it herself without bothering with all of this in the first place. Just what new truths would this final tale lead her to uncover? “Where will the story be starting this time? Another flashback?”

Golden Wish let out the breath she was holding. “Very well. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. No flashbacks this time. Today, we’ll simply jump straight into the narrative.

The image beyond the window shifted, and Twilight saw herself walking up to the front door of the mansion. Just a few hours before the storm would blow in, trapping them all in the nightmare yet to come.

“Right at the beginning, huh? I remember last time a few bits were glossed over, stuff that happened in the same way, but would be redundant to cover again.”

Golden Wish shrugged. “Who knows? Perhaps those slice of life bits have all sorts of juicy, important clues you’ve totally overlooked. Or maybe they just add a sort of happy atmosphere to the setting to starkly contrast with the part where everypony dies.

Twilight grimaced, but a retort didn’t come to her quickly enough, so she let the statement hang in the air and watched herself open the doors to the mansion.

“You have the ability to explore this story from every perspective.”

Did that mean...? Closing her eyes, Twilight concentrated on the image in front of her, and felt the world slip away.

“Twilight, darling, it’s so good to see you!”

Twilight’s senses were suddenly assaulted by Rarity grabbing her in a tight hug. So she was able to see the board from the perspective of the pieces as well. This was going to be a very different game.

“Rarity, I, uh, oh wow, you really do look older.” Twilight winced as soon as the words left her mouth.

Rarity’s eyes softened and she drew back, her gaze dropping to the floor apologetically. “Well, I guess time makes fools of us all, although I try to maintain a healthy diet and exercise. Still, neither of us are that old yet, Twilight. You’re getting a few lines yourself.”

Twilight smacked herself in the face with a hoof. “I’m sorry, Rarity, I didn’t mean to say that. If anything, age has only added to your beauty. I’m, uh, just a little out of sorts at the moment. Mind is shooting in all sorts of different directions.”

Rarity held a hoof to her chin, frowning, but then nodded and turned it into a smile instead. “I guess I’ll take what I can get. I know how it goes sometimes. You must have had a long journey. Set your bags down, we’ll get some tea, and you can relax a bit, okay?”

Twilight nodded, lowering the bags she hadn’t realized she was carrying. It was as good of a start as any. She needed some time to process everything.

Here she was, playing the part of a Twilight Sparkle an alleged five years into the future. Five years wasn’t too long of a time, but the fact that there were subtle differences in the appearances of her friends impressed her.

Or at least, the fictional characters who looked and acted like her friends. How was she just supposed to stand around and pretend to be oblivious, knowing that most, if not all of them would be dead within twenty-four hours?

What would happen if she told them? Warned them of the danger, or just flew everypony away before the storm hit? Locked them all in a room and stayed up all night watching to make sure nopony killed them?

I imagine it would look like this.” An image came into her mind of a pony flipping a chessboard off of a table and storming away in a huff.

Of course. She would have to play by the rules if she was going to play at all. Still, actually doing so while being powerless to do anything to stop it… Maybe she could find ways to gain an advantage without blatantly destroying the core premise.

“Now then,” Rarity said, pouring Twilight a cup of tea before sitting down and raising her own to her lips. “Just take in a deep breath and relax. We all have our problems, and stress is never healthy.”

Twilight watched as Rarity sipped on her tea. Even if she couldn’t confront it directly, there were still other things she knew about this version of Rarity from reading both novels.

“So, you’re getting married, huh?”

Rarity choked on her tea, sputtering and nearly dropping the glass. “I, how did you… Applejack didn’t tell you, did she?”

Twilight grinned, levitating a nearby cloth for Rarity to clean herself with. “I have my ways,” she said with a wink. “But seriously, congratulations. And don’t worry, I'm the only one who knows. That I know of, anyway.”

Rarity’s and Applejack’s romance had been featured so prominently in Fluttershy’s stories, but its importance had always been lost on her. There was the whole backstory with Golden Wish and Applejack’s wish, but whatever it led to was lost with the missing ending. That dream she had seemed to imply more, but whether that was some sort of hidden truth or merely the product of a diseased nightmare she had no idea.

Rarity coughed a few more times and dabbed at her lips before she sat up straight, regaining her composure. “Well, I guess the cat is out of the box. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. It was just Fluttershy I let it slip to. We were planning on making a big announcement tonight, but, well, it’s all rather silly anyway.”

Twilight nodded and sipped at her own tea as she watched her friend closely. The emotions reflected in Rarity’s eyes - love for her partner, joy at spending time with a friend, and a subtle pain from the secret Applejack was keeping from her. It was all captured magnificently in a way not even the greatest painter could hope to replicate. For all intents and purposes, she was staring into the soul of a real pony.

“Twilight, what’s wrong? You look a little pale.”

Twilight kept sipping at her tea, refusing to make eye contact. It was all real. Too real.

Twilight shifted above, back into a significantly less friendly tea room.

Golden Wish snorted. “And here I thought you had more resolve than that.”

“Shut up,” Twilight muttered, taking deep breaths to steady her pounding heart. “Seriously, would you do any better in my situation?”

Golden Wish opened her mouth to say something, but paused, raising a hoof and frowning. “No, I suppose not.”

“I just need a minute, that’s all.”

She held a hoof to her forehead, squeezing her eyes shut and muttering under her breath. Immersion. It was something she had always felt when reading a good book. When Fluttershy had approached her with a book starring herself and her friends, she was pulled into that world more thoroughly than any before. Now, however, her immersion was entirely literal at the behest of some higher being she didn’t fully understand.

But the real world and fiction were two entirely different things; in stories everything was always convenient, held together with a single theme, and stuff happened for a reason. In reality, stuff just happened.

But how many protagonists went into their stories knowing that they were the protagonists and already knowing the plot? She had a golden opportunity here, if she could just pull it off.

Twilight focused her magic, shifting the scene in the window to highlight different parts of the mansion. “Running around this mansion until a crime happens… maybe it would be against the rules to stop it entirely, but I’m going to arrange the pieces on this board the way I want whether you like it or not.”

“It’s only fair, right? From now until midnight, the board is yours. Feel free to arrange things the way you like, but when the clock strikes twelve, the mansion will become my domain.”

“I see.“ Twilight frowned, then conjured the previous books again to quickly check something. “If I remember correctly, in both novels Twilight was still awake and active well past midnight, to some extent.”

Golden Wish nodded. “That’s true. But since you’ll be taking so much more of an active role, it’s not exactly an unfair change of rules.”

Midnight, then. As Twilight stared down at the image of the mansion, a plan began to come together in her mind. There were pieces she could use, angles she could attack, and mysteries she could uncover long before blood was shed.

This game was going to be hers.


Fluttershy squeaked in alarm as Twilight threw her arms around her, having snuck up on her from behind. “Hey Fluttershy! Long time no see!”

“O-oh, it’s you… You startled me Twilight, I didn’t see you there. But, um, it’s good to see you too.”

Twilight pulled out of the hug, stepping back and grinning. “Sorry. I just couldn’t resist.”

She had already gone around and greeted everypony else by now, along with picking up a few tools she might need later. Her acting was starting to feel more natural, even if there was still a thrum of worry gnawing at her conscience.

Everypony else with some noted exceptions, anyway.

“Hey, Fluttershy, do you have a minute? I’ve got some questions for you.”

Fluttershy blinked, slowly looking around. “You do? Um, okay, Twilight. I don’t know if I can answer them or not, but you’re welcome to go ahead and ask.”

Twilight grimaced inwardly while keeping her face a smiling mask. If you wanted something from Fluttershy, it didn’t take much leaning on her to get it, but doing so deliberately wasn’t exactly nice, and the thought of it left a sour taste in her mouth. Still, she had to start tugging at threads if this was ever going to get unraveled.

“What can you tell me about the Legend of Golden Wish and this mansion?”

Fluttershy’s mouth dropped and she stared at Twilight for a few moments before she shook her head rapidly. “Um, I could tell you some things, I guess. What exactly do you want to know? I kind of had a story prepared I was going to tell everyone later, but I didn’t think you already knew something about it…”

Twilight waved a hoof dismissively. “I’m a history buff, remember? I did all sorts of research on this mansion before coming here. Princess Wishlight, something about a dragon, yada yada. The source has to have all sorts of interesting clues and treasures. Do you have anything like that? Like, say, I dunno, a book?”

There was a flash of recognition in Fluttershy’s eyes, and Twilight pressed forward before she could respond. “Yeah, a book! That’s perfect, thanks! Lemme guess, it’s up in your room? Is it okay if I take a look at it? I’m interested in the historic value of the book as much as I am anything else.”

Fluttershy shrunk back, clearly looking corned by Twilight’s onslaught, but she worked her mouth slowly as she managed to catch back up with the conversation. “I… have a book, yes. I worked really hard on the story, though, I wouldn’t want to spoil everything for later.”

Twilight put on a wounded look. “Aww, come on, Fluttershy. I really want to see it! Just a quick look should be fine, right? I won’t read the whole thing, and I promise I won’t spoil it for the others either.”

Fictional Fluttershy or not, Twilight definitely felt like a jerk.

“I, um, I guess, but…” Fluttershy stammered, trailing off. “Oh! Um, that’s right. I lent the book to, uh, Princess Celestia because she was interested in reading it. So you’d have to ask her.”

Twilight frowned, scratching her chin with a hoof. That was an unexpected dodge, but it led her to part two of her plan anyway. “Well, can you take me to see her, then?”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I’m sorry, but the princess told me under no circumstances was she to be disturbed until tomorrow.”

“Oh come on, Fluttershy,” Twilight said, rolling her eyes. “She obviously didn’t mean to include me with that. We’re all princesses here, and she’s my mentor besides. Whether she’s busy or not, I can at least ask for a book, if not a spot of tea.”

“Even you, Twilight. She was very specific.”

It was odd. In both previous games, Twilight never once got a chance to sit down and talk with Celestia or Luna. The narrative seemed to indicate that they knew something else. If she tried to force that confrontation, would the game push back at her?

“Ask her again, for me. Please? If she gets mad I promise I’ll take the blame.”

Without waiting for a response, Twilight grabbed ahold of Fluttershy and teleported the both of them to directly outside of the princesses’ study.

Fluttershy stumbled around, disoriented by the sudden movement. When she finally regained her balance, she shuddered, quietly mumbling, “Okay, Twilight. I’ll try. But don’t expect much.”

Twilight watched carefully as Fluttershy pulled out a key from her mane, unlocking the door and quickly slipping inside before Twilight could so much as take a peek. A few seconds later there was the loud clunk of the auto-lock going off.

So they were back to that set up, were they? In the last game, the auto lock was removed, presumably to allow the fourth closed room to exist in the first place. If it was here now, she supposed that meant that the study wasn’t going to be featured as a closed room this time around.

Golden Wish snorted, an odd look on her face. “Is that how it is? You can’t figure it out on your own, so you just run crying to dear old Celestia. Do you really think you’re going to accomplish anything, pushing your friends around like this?”

Twilight barked a short laugh, rolling her eyes. “I’m here to play a game, not hear lectures about friendship from somepony like you. If there wasn’t anything in this study to hide, then it wouldn’t be a problem for me to just go in and talk to her, would it?”

“Fine,” Golden Wish said with a grimace. “Have it your way.” With a golden flash the scene changed to the interior of the study, as Fluttershy walked through.

Fluttershy let out a long sigh, then did her best to stop her hooves from shaking. She knew Princess Celestia was a kind pony and wasn’t likely to banish her, or even raise her voice for a minor transgression like this, but to disobey her authority, even at the behest of another, sent chills down her spine. Twilight was acting weird, and she wasn’t quite sure what was going on.

Raising a hoof, Fluttershy knocked softly on the interior bedroom door. “Um, hello? It’s Fluttershy. I know you didn’t want to be disturbed, but…”

Even though her squeak of a request was barely audible even to herself, the door glowed with a soft magic and slowly opened. Fluttershy peeked her head in to see Celestia curled up on her bed, wearing a pair of reading glasses with the book she had lent her in front of her. A warm fire in the hearth cast a comforting glow about the room, and Fluttershy could feel her tension draining away already.

Smiling slyly, Celestia raised a hoof to her mouth and whispered “Sssshh. My sister is sleeping. What can I do for you, Fluttershy?”

“Oh. Um, I’m sorry for disturbing you, Princess, but Twilight really wants to see you,” Fluttershy mumbled, keeping her head low.

Celestia clicked her tongue, shaking her head with a sigh. “Five years a princess, and my former student can still be as impatient and impulsive as ever. How come you haven’t had a more tempering effect on her?”

Fluttershy’s cheeks turned scarlet, and she found herself stammering. “I didn’t, I mean, it’s not really my place to--”

Fluttershy’s protestations were cut off by Celestia’s laughter. “I’m sorry, I’m just teasing! It’s one of the many qualities that makes Twilight so special, even if she can get a little out of hand sometimes.”

“O-oh.” Fluttershy kept staring at the floor. “She, um, was also really interested in the book I lent you.”

Celestia levitated the book into the air, looking over it. “This old thing? Fascinating, really. Twilight never could leave a stone unturned when it came to history.

With a mischievous grin, Celestia set the book down on the bed and looked back up to regard Fluttershy. “But, as I said before, I prefer not to be disturbed. If Twilight wants to talk to me so badly, she can wait until later. Not to mention, I’m still reading this book myself. She can have it when I’m done.”

“I see.” Fluttershy turned away, that knot of tension already beginning to build itself back up in her mind. “I’m sorry for disturbing you, Princess.”

Fluttershy turned to go, her heart weighing heavily in her chest. Twilight would be upset, but she had tried her best. Would it be enough? She needed some more time to compose herself.

“Um, Princess? Is it okay if I use your washroom?” Fluttershy called back into the bedroom.

Celestia nodded, and Fluttershy slipped into the small room, closing the door behind her.

“We don’t really need to watch this part, do we?” Golden Wish said, flicking the image off with her magic. “See? Nothing objectionable going on here at all. I don’t know what’s got you so worked up, Twilight, but you’re going to have to try harder than that if you want to win.”

Twilight threw back her head and laughed. “Maybe you’re right, but, quite frankly, I’m just getting started.”

Twilight’s laughter hung in the air, leaving a silence between the two until Twilight frowned, raising a hoof to her chin instead. “Is there something else I should call you? Golden Wish is a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Gold? Goldy? Wish? Miss Wish? Princess? Dragon-Mare? Although you’re not really as draconic looking as I thought you’d be.”

“Hmph.” Golden Wish turned her nose up, looking away from Twilight. “My name is my name. Call me whatever you like. It doesn’t matter to me.” With a slight grin, she caught Twilight’s eye and hissed, baring fangs that weren’t there before.

Twilight found herself laughing again, her mirth genuine this time. The absurdity of this whole situation wasn’t lost on her. “I still can’t wrap my head around this whole thing, Goldy. Just how real are you, anyway? You said you’re a fictional character. What does that even mean?”

Golden Wish’s smile fell. “How real are you, Twilight? I know my place and purpose in this world, yet your origins are a mystery. Beyond that, however, what’s the difference?”

Twilight nodded, frowning. Pony philosophers more talented than her had pondered such questions for generations. What must it feel like to know you were merely the product of a wandering pen and an idle fancy?

A worthy question, but one, perhaps, for another time. She had a game to play and a move to make.

Fluttershy slipped out the door, closing it behind her as quickly as she had entered.

“Um, Twilight…” Fluttershy began, keeping her eyes on the floor.

Twilight raised a hoof and put it on her shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. Celestia’s just being difficult, right? It’s not like I’m not used to her mischief myself. It’s not your fault, Fluttershy. I understand.”

“Oh.” Fluttershy glanced up, smiling and looking relieved. “Thanks, Twilight.”

“Sorry for dragging you around so roughly, I get a little carried away sometimes,” Twilight said, rubbing the back of her head with a hoof and doing her best to look sheepish. “You were working on dinner, right? I’ll let you get back to that.”

Fluttershy nodded, turning and walking a few steps down the hall before stopping. She turned back to look at Twilight. “Um, are you coming?”

Twilight shook her head. “Nah. I wanna explore the mansion a little bit more. I’ll catch up with you in a little bit, I promise.”

Fluttershy looked worried, but didn’t protest any further as she rounded the corner, leaving Twilight to her devices.

Twilight turned back towards the study door, readying her magic with a grin. “Alright, Princess. Let’s push at the boundaries a little bit, shall we?

With both raw power and considerable skill, Twilight split the spell she was about to cast, forming half of it into a contingency. Short ranged teleportation was normally pretty simple, but if, like in the stories, the study was warded…

Her guess was accurate, and her teleportation attempt rebounded violently, hurling her through the air. Her contingency kicked in at that point, teleporting her just a few feet, arresting her momentum and setting her right side up, hooves touching down solidly on the ground.

“Well. I can’t say I expected anything else,” Twilight said, wobbling slightly due to the disorienting experience. So the room was just as impenetrable as she had thought. She could probably tear the door open if she really tried, but she was trying to bend the scenario, not break it entirely.

Twilight grinned, looking the door over one last time before she started pulling out some of the ‘tools’ she had obtained earlier. It was time to enact phase two of her cunning plan. Golden Wish was going to have no idea what hit her.

“Twilight, I really don’t see what the big deal is,” Applejack said, her protests falling on deaf ears as Twilight dragged her through the halls.

It was evening now, and Twilight had allowed the usual events of the book to play their course. The dinner, the engagement, the hot springs, and Fluttershy’s story. But now it was time for another change.

Twilight stopped in front of the door, opened it, then roughly pushed Applejack inside.

“Just what in the hay is… oh. Hey, Rar. She got you too, huh?”

Rarity sat on the bed, raising an eyebrow in mild amusement. “Twilight asked me to wait here, yes, though she didn’t have to literally drag me through the halls. So. What is it you wanted?”

Twilight grinned, closing the door behind her and locking it. “You two are going to sit down and have a nice, long talk about your relationship. I want you to be entirely honest. I’ll be watching over you to make sure things don’t get out of hand.”

Applejack glanced back at Twilight, swallowing nervously.

“Uh, listen, Rar, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you...”

Chapter 18 - Princess's Gambit

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Rarity smiled and lightly patted the bed, motioning for Applejack to join her. “I knew you were hiding something from me. I’m quite pleased, however, that you’re finally trusting me enough to share it, even though I’m sure I won’t like what I hear.” Rarity shared a withering look with Twilight. “Even if you had to be convinced.”

Applejack let out a long sigh and settled into the bed, taking her hat off and holding it over her heart. “I’m really not even sure where to begin. It’s all messed up in my head.”

“Start as far back as you need to, dear. I’m all ears.”

Twilight plopped into a nearby sitting chair and tented her hooves in front of her face, watching the couple intently.

Rarity bit her lip and glanced back over at Twilight. “Darling, I thank you for pushing her into this, but I’m sure we can handle this on our own. You don’t need to hover.”

“Nope,” Twilight said, shaking her head. “Like you said, you might not like what Applejack has to say. Let’s just say I have feeling something bad would happen if I don’t stick around.” She was going to give these two a happy ending if she had to tie them up and drag them to the altar herself. Which might not be such a bad idea…

Applejack narrowed her eyes. “I ain’t told you none of this, Twi. Just what are you getting on about?”

Twilight winced. She was probably pushing a little too hard. “I’m a princess now, Applejack. We know all sorts of things,” she said, waggling her hooves for effect.

“You’ve been a princess for five years now, Twi. That line don’t work no more. But whatever. It’s fine. I don’t mind.”

Applejack closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly let it out. “Do you remember when I first asked you out, during the Mareami vacation?”

Rarity smiled, her eyes growing distant in the haze of nostalgia. “Of course I do. It was such a beautiful evening. So romantic. You were hardly the most dashing of suitors, but you managed to win my heart regardless.”

“Uh, yeah, well,” Applejack said, blushing furiously, “there’s a little more to that story that I never told you. Or anyone, really. Can’t say I right believe it myself, but ever since I got here… I’m not so sure I was the one who won your heart after all.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow, glancing from Applejack to Twilight. “I’m not sure I understand.”

Applejack cursed under her breath. “This is stupid. I don’t even have any proof that this is really an issue. But if it is, how can I possibly just come out and say it? I just…”

Twilight began to open her mouth to just spit everything out and save Applejack the trouble, but stopped herself. It would better to let things play themselves out.

“It’s okay,” Rarity said, lightly running a hoof across Applejack’s cheek. “I love you, Applejack. Nothing will ever change that.”

Applejack bit her lip as tears began to well up in her eyes. “That’s just it. What if you don’t? What if I told you that you didn’t love me, that it was all a lie?”

“Then I would seriously consider that you were lacking in both perception and judgement,” Rarity said curtly.

Applejack sniffed, a short laugh escaping her despite her frustrations. “Dangit, Rar. I’m trying to… I wished for it, alright?”

The room fell silent, and Twilight could feel the tension hanging in the air, broken only by light sniffling from Applejack.

“You… wished for it? Wished for what?” Rarity asked, her voice even.

“You. I wished for you. For the chance I was too much of a coward to take, for the courage to be honest with my feelings, and for the affections of a pony who could never love somepony like me.”

“I…” Rarity frowned, her mouth working soundlessly. “That’s… ridiculous, Applejack. I don’t love you just because you wished for it. My feelings are my own. I know that better than anyone, and you should too.”

Applejack shook her head. “I ain’t talking just a heartfelt sentiment or desire here, Rar. I mean I bumped into a literal wish granting artifact and I literally wished for you to love me.”

That wasn’t true. At least, not according to the story Twilight had read. But Applejack could be forgiven for twisting the event in her memory until she came out looking worse than King Sombra.

“That’s…I can’t believe that.” Rarity shook her head, holding a hoof to her brow and squeezing her eyes shut.

Denial. Easy and obvious for step one. In the novels, both times when Applejack had tried to confess the truth, Rarity had reacted pretty badly. Both times her death had followed shortly after. In the context of the story, Twilight really had no idea if Applejack had literally manipulated Rarity with a wish or not, but she was going to err on the side of ‘not’ and try to head this off before it could get any worse.

“Hold it!” Twilight called out, raising a hoof. “Sorry, I know you two are having a moment and all, but this sounds a little far fetched to me. Since I’m the resident expert on mysterious wish granting artifacts here, could you be a little more specific, Applejack?”

Applejack blinked, looking up from where she had buried her face in a pillow. “I, uh, huh?”

Rarity nodded, her lips pursed. “Twilight’s right. Sorry, sweetheart, but that’s a little bit crazy of an idea to just accept outright.”

“Princess Wishlight,” Applejack said, growling softly. “I’m trying to confess here, do the details matter that much?”

“Yes,” Twilight and Rarity intoned in unison.

Applejack let out a sigh, sinking her head deeper into the bed. “When we were visiting that museum, due to various circumstances, I found myself putting away an exhibit in the storeroom. I knocked some stuff over, and there it was: a gleaming gold bracelet surrounded by bland junk, looking like it was standing in the center of a spotlight, just like you read about in stories. I was drawn to it. There was an inscription, or something. ‘With her power, a true desire of the heart can be made into reality.’ I reached down, felt some kind of power, and thought of you.”

“I do remember finding you in that storeroom,” Rarity said, trying her best to conceal the shaking in her voice. “You’re trying to say you were really in there wishing for me to fall in love with you, and that that wish was granted?”

“What makes you so sure that this artifact from ‘Princess Wishlight’ was even the real deal?” Twilight asked.

“I don’t!” Applejack shouted, standing up and jumping to the floor. “But how could I not? I completely forgot about it at the time, asked Rarity out, and confessed my feelings to her. Everything was perfect; I proposed, and you said something to me like ‘I guess some wishes do come true’. That’s when I remembered what happened. And it began to nag at me with worry. What if I had somehow committed the ultimate sin? I couldn’t accept that, it was impossible, but the more I tried to ignore it, the worse it got. And now we get here, and Fluttershy tells her stupid story, and what else am I supposed to think? Some creepy legend is easy to ignore if it’s just mentioned in passing, but when it’s confirmed like that by a completely unrelated source? It ain’t just a coincidence. I done wrong, I know it in my heart.”

“Applejack…” Rarity muttered. “You really…”

Here it was. Rarity was an understanding friend and lover, but even Twilight could see that Rarity had her limits. If she accepted the idea that Applejack had forced her to love her, it would break her heart and do irreparable damage to their relationship.

Had she? In the context of reality, such a coincidence would be incredibly far fetched, and could easily be dismissed as paranoia, the problem created entirely in Applejack’s head.

But this wasn’t reality. It was a story. Fluttershy had written about these two and set the parameters of their relationship herself. So the question was: did Fluttershy write about Applejack forcing Rarity to love her with a wish, or had she written it so that Applejack was only under the mistaken impression that she did? What meaning did it all have to the story as a whole?

Twilight wanted to believe in her friends. She wanted to believe that Applejack was a good, honest pony who was just a little confused and unsure of herself. She wanted to believe that Rarity’s feelings were genuine, that this was just a misunderstanding, and that the two really could find happiness with each other.

And she wanted to believe that Fluttershy believed in her friends, that she had written them to reflect the special qualities that made each one of them unique, both their virtues and their flaws.

“I’m sorry, Applejack,” Twilight said, looking up. “I believe that you believe you wronged her, but a wish like that just isn’t actually possible.”

Her words cut through the tension in the air like a knife and both mares turned to look at her, their expressions both expectant and hopeful.

“I mean it. Completely impossible. The whole thing is in your head.”

Applejack’s legs wobbled and she started to topple.

Rarity caught her with her magic before jumping over to support her physically. “Hey, it’s okay, sweetheart. It’s going to be okay.”

“So this was all…” Applejack stared past Rarity, her eyes glazed over with a sort of dead ache.

Rarity let out a long sigh, wiping at her brow. “If you’re absolutely certain about this, Twilight, then thank you. I should never have even let myself consider, even for a second, that something like that was actually possible.”

Twilight nodded, glancing Applejack up and down. “I know you’ve been holding on to this for a long time, Applejack, but you have nothing to worry about. I promise.”

Applejack snorted. “I should be… happy about that, right? But all I can think about is how much time I wasted hurting myself, and hurting her.”

“I love you.” Rarity leaned over and brushed her lips lightly against Applejack’s forehead. “See? I’ve laid open my heart, my feelings to you. Can’t you see the truth inside?”

“Of course I can,” Applejack mumbled. “I still never understood why. What could you possibly want with a pathetic wreck like me?”

Twilight felt her face starting to burn up. These were her friends, and the fact that they were able to find love with each other was something she should support and celebrate. It felt oddly voyeuristic, however, and she had a sinking feeling she’d never be able to look the real Applejack or Rarity in the eye ever again.

An odd image of Fluttershy playing with dolls shaped like Rarity and Applejack and making kissing noises with them snuck into her head, and she had to stifle her giggles. She still had a role to play here, after all.

Rarity pulled Applejack close, wrapping her in a soft field of magic as Applejack began to sob into her shoulder.

Twilight pulled herself away to give the couple some privacy.

Golden Wish watched the lover’s reconciliation, an odd expression on her face. “Well done, Twilight. I’m impressed. Really.”

“Thanks, I guess.” Twilight couldn’t help but feel a small twinge of pride. “Their relationship is a major source of conflict throughout the story. With that resolved, what else will you be able to feed on to create the atmosphere of fear and paranoia needed to drive us apart?”

“Hmph.” Golden Wish turned away, raising her nose into the air. “It’s not like that was my entire arsenal, Twilight. And who knows? They might seem to have everything together now, but that could always change in a heartbeat.”

“You’re right,” Twilight said, grinning. “Good thing I’m not done yet.”

“Applejack. You love Rarity, don’t you?”

Applejack looked up at her, raising a hoof to wipe at her eyes and sniffling softly. “I do. More than anything. Though by Celestia’s hide I don’t deserve what I got.”

“And you, Rarity. You love Applejack, yes?”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “While her self deprecation is beginning to get on my nerves a bit, yes, I do believe I love her very much.”

Applejack laughed weakly. “Sorry, sug.”

“Good. Then prove it. Get married.”

“Twilight,” Rarity said, letting out a small sigh. “I do appreciate your help in this matter, but I have absolutely no intentions of cancelling the engagement.”

Twilight shook her head. “I mean now. Get married here, in this mansion, tonight. Swear your eternal love to each other before me and our friends, and under the guidance of both Celestia and Luna.

They both stared at her, jaws hanging to the floor.

“T-Twilight…” Rarity stuttered as she held a hoof up to her horn. “You can’t be serious. I mean, I can see the appeal, but I’m really more of a big ceremony kind of girl.”

Applejack nodded. “You know me; it’s not my style, but I’m willing to throw Rarity the biggest wedding Equestria has ever seen. It’s the least I owe her. And even then, it would be downright criminal to go and get married without my family.”

“So do it twice,” Twilight said, taking a step forward. “You two need this, I can feel it. We can have a small ceremony here, and a bigger ceremony later, where everyone gets invited. You’ve got to seize love when it happens. You never know what could happen tomorrow.”

“But…” Rarity faltered, working her mouth soundlessly as she searched for objections that didn’t come.

Applejack stared into Rarity’s eyes, and something passed between the two of them that Twilight couldn’t see, but once again found herself blushing for intruding upon. Her pushiness was necessary, if somewhat regrettable. There was probably a lesson about friendship and love to be learned from all of this. If she ever got a chance to relay this story to the real Celestia, she would love to see the look on her face.

“Hon… Rarity. Do you, uh, wanna get married? Tonight?” Applejack asked, her voice barely a whisper.

Rarity bit her lip, her eyes shimmering in the soft candlelight. “…Yeah. I kind of do.”

Twilight bit back an internal squeal of her own.

The two continued staring into each others eyes, the soft smiles of mares in love playing across their faces. She watched as they broke into smirks, then grins, then burst out into full on fits of laughter.

“Oh my,” Rarity said, her laughter subsided. “I’m getting married.”

Applejack leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

Rarity’s eyes widened, her pupils dilating. “I’m going to get married. Oh no. I brought my dresses with me, but my wedding dress isn’t done yet, and neither is yours, dear, and we need to find a suitable location, and…”

Twilight started laughing herself this time. “Hey, before you two go into panic mode, why don’t we tell the others first? I’m sure they’ll be glad to help.”

“Deep breaths, hon,” Applejack said, lightly stroking Rarity’s back. “She’s right.”

“Yes, of course,” Rarity gasped, her eyes still wide. “Fluttershy will know what to do. And Twilight, I apologize in advance, but I’m going to be asking you for a lot.”

“Anything for the two of you. I just want to see you both happy.” A bitter barb dug into her heart as she considered what was yet to come. This was the least she could do for them. The only real gift she could give.

“Guess we’ll have to go wake Princess Celestia and Luna up too, huh?” Applejack said, standing up and putting her hat back on. “I know they didn’t want to be disturbed, but this is a little too important to ignore.”

“You’re right,” Twilight said. “I think Fluttershy has the key. Let’s all go pay them a visit.”

She felt a chill run down her spine, and she didn’t have to shift back up and see for herself to know that Golden Wish had just gone very, very pale.

"Ugh, you have got to be kidding me! I'm happy for you guys and all, but first you drop this engagement thing on us all, and now you want to get married tonight?" Rainbow Dash said, rolling her eyes as she glided down the hall. "This isn't something you'll hear from me often, but you need to do the opposite of what I do and slow way the heck down."

"Heeeeeeeeeeeee!" Pinkie Pie squealed as she bounced up and down next to Rainbow Dash. "This is going to be super-spectacularicous! I know you might think I won't be able to throw you guys the best after wedding party ever because it's such short notice, and maybe it won't be the best-best, but I totally saw this coming and I have an amazing emergency wedding party plan already!"

Rarity tossed her mane back, her crystalline laughter echoing off of the walls. "I do appreciate it, Pinkie Pie. I'm sure whatever you can manage to pull off will be wonderful."

"And, uh, Rainbow. Maybe you can help us out with something?" Applejack leaned in to whisper something in Rainbow Dash's ear.

After Applejack pulled back Rainbow Dash puffed out her chest as a wide grin spread across her face. "Are you kidding me? I could have pulled a trick like that off when I was a filly. For your wedding, you'll get way better than that!"

Applejack let out a hearty chuckle, her malaise from earlier that night seemingly forgotten.

Twilight closed her eyes as she walked, unable to avoid smiling herself. This warmth, this friendship was all too familiar. Although...

She glanced back to see Fluttershy trailing behind them, her head hung low.

Fluttershy, as written by Fluttershy. It was normally considered poor form to write yourself into a story, but because this narrative was so twisted in the first place she supposed it could be forgiven.

Indeed, everypony around her had to be viewed through a pale-yellow colored lense. They looked, acted, and even smelled like her friends, but every so often something felt just the slightest bit off, maybe an odd phrasing or somepony saying something she normally wouldn’t. They acted like how Fluttershy expected them to, like how she wanted them to for the sake of the story, and how she had written them.

It followed then, that the Fluttershy here was how she imagined herself, although whether it was a direct reflection of her low self esteem or a deliberate and conscious characterization for the sake of the narrative, it was hard to say. In the stories, Fluttershy was certainly involved in some rather suspicious circumstances, all things considered, but she was hardly the only pony here who deserved scrutiny.

And now it was hopefully time to either confirm some of her suspicions, or, at the very least, scrap her ideas and start over.

They all came to a stop, the door to the Celestia’s study looming over them.

“Y’know, I feel a little unwelcome here,” Applejack mumbled, rubbing the back of her head with a hoof. “You wanna knock, or should I?”

Rarity sniffed, then raised her hoof up and knocked lightly on the door. “Princess Celestia? Princess Luna? I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but there’s something rather important we need to discuss. May we come in?”

Her words hung in the air and only silence greeted them in response.

“Maybe they went out?” Rainbow Dash asked, frowning.

Twilight glanced over the door, then turned her head back. “Fluttershy, when we went up to see Princess Celestia earlier today and you talked to her, did she say she was going anywhere?”

Fluttershy squeaked and flinched back slightly before shaking her head. “Um, no. Not that I know of, anyway. But um, I guess it’s possible.”

Rarity knocked again, louder this time, but there was still no answer. “Hmm. I don’t suppose they would be sleeping, would they? It seems a bit early for that, yet, but who am I to judge?”

“Fluttershy, could you let us in? I’ll take the blame if Celestia gets angry, but I wanna check on them just in case,” Twilight said.

Fluttershy let out a small sigh, then moved over to the door with the key. With a soft tearing sound, the door swung open, the low light from within casting shadows across the room.

Twilight stood in the doorway as the others entered the study, creeping softly across the floor in case either princess was asleep.

She took a moment to look over the study. All of the interior doors were closed, and the windows leading outside appeared to be locked from the inside. Everything was set up just as she expected it to be.

“She ain’t in here,” Applejack called softly, poking her head out from one of the bedrooms.

“Nopony is in here either,” Rarity said from the adjoining bedroom.

“And they’re not taking a bathroom break either!” Pinkie Pie called out.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “We really came all this way to share the good news and they just split on us? What the hay?”

Applejack let out a sigh. “Well, those two can be pretty strange, as far as princesses go.” She looked up to Twilight and added, “Er, no offense.”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Pinkie Pie shouted, raising a hoof up into the air. “I bet you they’re planning a secret surprise party!”

“Oh my,” Rarity said, her eyes glazing over slightly. “I hadn’t even thought of that.”

Applejack chuckled, leaning over to nuzzle Rarity slightly. “Let’s just get on with the preparations then. I’m sure we’ll see them soon enough. Probably got one heck of an entrance planned.”

The five gathered up and prepared to leave the room as it was, but Twilight stood in the doorway, wings spread with a strange glint in her eyes.

“How do you think they left the room, exactly?” Twilight asked, her voice full of barely restrained excitement.

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “Uh, Twilight, you feeling okay? They left through the door. You know, the one you’re standing in?”

A wicked smile crept across her lips. “I’m afraid, Rainbow Dash, that’s impossible.”

Five faces stared at her, full of incredulity and a touch of concern. “Uh, sugarcube, maybe you need to go sit down.”

Twilight took a deep breath, fired up her horn, and spoke with an authority beyond her own. “Princess Celestia and Princess Luna did not leave the study by using the door.”

“W-what!? How can you possibly say something like that? You have no right!” Golden Wish reared back, slamming her front hooves on the ground. Her eyes burned with a fierce flame and Twilight could practically see the veins bulging out of her forehead.

It was exactly the kind of reaction she was hoping for. If Twilight could have saved the expression on her face right then, she would’ve framed it on her wall.

“What’s the matter, Goldy?” Twilight asked, her voice sickly sweet. “You said I had free reign to make my move, didn’t you? Well, this is it. Check.”

Golden Wish sputtered, her face an angry scarlet. After trying several times to get words out and failing, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Twilight…” she said through gritted teeth. “I thought you had at least some respect for the rules of the game. Only the game master can make statements in red without proof.”

Twilight bared her teeth in an unrepentant grin. “Proof, you say?”

“And how exactly do you figure that, Twi?” Applejack asked, raising an eyebrow.

Twilight’s horn began to glow, and with a tearing sound she floated two objects from the hallway and held them up for display.

“Celestia and Luna can’t have left this room because of… tape?” Rainbow Dash asked, planting a hoof on her forehead.

“Not just any tape!” Twilight said, trying her best to keep herself from prancing about with glee. “Super sticky, magically enchanted and easily tearable tape that I put my signature on three times!”

All five ponies responded to her declaration with dead silence, broken only by the soft ticking of the clock.

Pinkie Pie suddenly burst out into a fit of giggles and jumped up into the air. “Oh, I get it now! You put the tape on the door after you came here, and it was still intact on the door when we all showed up! So the princesses couldn’t have left through the door or else they would have broken the seal!”

Twilight’s explanation caught in her throat and she coughed, grumbling under her breath. “Uh, yeah, Pinkie, that’s it exactly.”

“Twilight, darling,” Rarity said, taking a few steps forward and placing a hoof on her shoulder. “This is Princess Celestia and Luna we’re talking about. Do you really think a piece of tape could stop them from leaving if they wanted to?”

“It’s not just a piece of tape,” Twilight said, rolling her eyes and brushing Rarity’s hoof off of her shoulder. “The study is warded, so nopony can teleport in and out. The windows are locked from the inside. If the door had been opened even a crack, the tape would have torn. If the tape had been removed from the outside, it would have torn and left a mark, of which there were none. Because I signed it, it couldn’t have been replaced with a new piece of tape, so, how do you suppose they left the room?"

"Well? Twilight asked. "It looks like we have a closed room here. Do you think you can solve it?"

"That's supposed to be my question to you," Golden Wish growled under her breath. Her tail flicked about with irritation as she locked eyes with Twilight. "You can't just try and shift away the burden of proof. If you want to trap yourself in a closed room so badly, then it's up to you to figure out how Celestia escaped."

"If you want my theory, then try this on for size." Twilight lowered her head, firing up her horn. "The writing is incompetent, and you care more about me not talking to Princess Celestia than you do about maintaining a logically consistent narrative. It's funny how I never got to talk to her, isn't it? So much so that even if I force my way in here, she's just plain gone for 'some reason'. I'll play along with your closed rooms later, but for now you have to prove you can construct the mysteries in good faith. There are a lot of ways to lie, even with the truth. Why should I believe anything from you at this point?"

Golden Wish glared back at her, the hatred blazing in her eyes masked what Twilight was sure was pain. Maybe she had been a little harsh, but the trap was sprung and there was no taking the words back.

“Do you really think you can stop me with just a flimsy piece of paper?” Golden Wish asked, muttering under her breath. “Fine, have it your way.”

“Twilight, this is Princess Celestia we’re talking about,” Rainbow Dash said, landing on the floor and gesturing around the room. “You really think she couldn’t get out of a room in some other way besides teleportation? Maybe she turned into mist and floated through the cracks, or just flew out the window and locked it behind her with magic.”

Twilight shook her head. “First, magic isn’t quite that simple. Second, no tricks accomplishable solely by unicorn magic factored into the construction of this closed room.”

Twilight felt her power wash out from her and over her friends, the truth backed not only by precedence but by the higher authority on her side. She could almost feel the smirk that mirrored her own.

Rainbow Dash shook her head, rubbing at her forehead with her hoof and looking confused. “Huh. If you say so, Twi?”

Rarity raised a hoof. “What about a hidden door of some kind? It wouldn’t exactly be out of sorts in a place like this.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “A hidden door? Please. If there was one, I would have found it already. Knocks’ Third: It is forbidden for hidden passages to exist.”

“Why even bother with this foals game?” Twilight asked. “This is basic stuff we shouldn’t even have to bother going over again. Don’t you have any real theories?”

Golden Wish bit her lip, pawing at the ground. “I…”

Twilight took a deep breath, letting herself calm down a bit. “Look, just accept this checkmate and surrender now. We’ll stop the game before we get to any of the gruesome parts. What are you even fighting for?”

Golden Wish shook her head. “Is that really the answer you want to walk away from all this with? That Fluttershy is just a bad author?”

“Well…” Twilight mumbled, frowning. She wanted to doubt the integrity of Golden Wish, not Fluttershy. But one had written the other. Just how far was the separation? She was tempted to believe that Fluttershy had truly crafted something so puzzling that she couldn’t figure it out, to the point where she had been willing to traverse the boundaries of reality itself for another chance. Or was it far more likely that Fluttershy had just made a ton of mistakes, and the failure to communicate was on her end?

The stage magician puts on a flashy show, but pull back the curtain and you’ll see nothing but a sad and hollow lie.

“Do you have an answer or not?” Twilight asked, her voice cold.

Golden Wish hung her head, opening her mouth to respond but then something seemed to click in her, and a renewed determination alit in her eyes.

“Hang on a minute, I got it!” Pinkie Pie said. She bounced into the air a few times, then turned to Fluttershy. “Fluttershy, you met with Princess Celestia alone earlier, while Twilight waited outside, correct? Mind telling us exactly how that went? And don’t leave out any details, missy!”

Fluttershy flinched back, looking over the assembled ponies now all staring at her. “Um. Yes, that’s right. I went in, asked if Twilight could come in to see her, she said no. Then, um, I stopped to use the washroom, and then I went back out to tell Twilight.”

“I see. Hmm.” Pinkie produced a magnifying glass from somewhere, and looked Fluttershy up and down. “And when you exited the washroom, did you happen to see Princess Celestia?”

Twilight bit her lip and tried not to intervene. She was the detective here, but she might as well let Pinkie have her fun.

Fluttershy held a hoof up to her chin, her eyes distant in thought. “Um, I can’t really remember, but I don’t think so?”

Pinkie Pie continued to nod and making ‘thinking’ noises. After finishing her inspection of Fluttershy she began to pace around the room, looking each of them over in turn before stopping at the window.

“I think I’ve got it!” Pinkie Pie shouted. “Princess Celestia and Luna left through the window!”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “The window is locked from the inside and we already established that it can’t be locked with magic.”

Pinkie Pie bounced over to Twilight, her eyes sparkling. “That’s right! But if the window can only be locked from the inside, that means someone from the inside must have locked it! Isn’t that right, Fluttershy?”

Pinkie whirled and pointed a hoof at Fluttershy, who shrank back and glanced around nervously. “M-me? I’m not sure what you’re…”

“Pinkie, are you trying to say Fluttershy is lying to us?” Applejack asked, sounding skeptical.

“What? No, of course not.” Pinkie Pie said, giggling and jumping over to throw her arms around Fluttershy in a tight hug. “It’s like this. When Fluttershy goes into the washroom, Princess Celestia and Luna decide they’re going to play a prank. So they both sneak out and fly out the window, leaving it open. When Fluttershy came out, she saw it and thought the storm blew it open so she closed it, and then entirely forgot about it until now.”

Twilight stared, her jaw dropping to the floor. A theory like that was completely ridiculous. There’s no way the answer could be something that convoluted, but it existed in a blind spot, and the red provided to her by her seal and her observational skills wouldn’t cover it.

“Is that true, Fluttershy?” Rarity asked.

Fluttershy slowly blinked several times, looking from Pinkie Pie, to the others, and then back again. “Um… now that I think about it, maybe something like that did happen. I’m sorry, everyone.”

Applejack shrugged, pulling her hat off her brow and wiping the sweat off her forehead. “Well, sounds plausible enough to me. A little silly, maybe, but I can totally picture the princesses doing that. Interesting mystery, Twi, but I’m not really sure what the point of this was. They’ll turn up sooner or later, don’t you worry.”

“Another case solved by the Great Detective Pinkie Pie!”

The others began laughing and preparing to leave, while Twilight continued to stare. “But, an answer like that… this closed room is…”

“I knew I should have taped the window too,” Twilight said, spitting on the ground.

Golden Wish regarded her levelly, her eyes full of an icy calm. “It was a good move, Twilight, but it will take more than that if you want to prove me incompetent and cause the logic of this game to fall apart.”

Twilight grit her teeth. This was still just an opening move, after all. Even if she hadn’t gotten the answer she wanted, she had come close and was beginning to work through a few new suspicions of her own. Some of them nagged at her, leaving disconcerting feelings she wasn’t ready to address yet. There was still time to make a few more moves before midnight.

She did, after all, have a wedding to look forward to.

Chapter 19 - Fool's Mate

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Twilight Sparkle was not an artist.

She had the technical knowledge; of form, of composition, of history. Her studies had included the basics of any number of art forms, and if she were so inclined, she could probably put together a passable imitation of somepony else’s work.

But she did not have a creative soul. No muse whispered to her at night, her eyes never flashed with the sort of brilliant explosion of inspiration that drove so many to create. She envied Rarity at times for her drive, determination, and her ability to sew her heart into fabric. And more recently, Fluttershy had shown a creative side of her she had never expected.

The wedding preparations had exploded into a flurry of activity, everypony busy trying to make the best out of the few hours they had. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash assisted Rarity and Applejack respectively, while Pinkie Pie had disappeared to Celestia knows where faster than she could say party.

Twilight was left to provide the couple with a suitable wedding hall. The mansion was spacious, but most of that space was used for bedrooms. There wasn’t even a grand auditorium or ballroom that could be converted on short notice.

So she stood outside in the freezing blizzard, staring at the banks of snow which would be her canvas.

In theory, it should be pretty simple; she knew spells that would allow her to easily shape and mold snow. She knew enchantments that would hold it in shape while keeping the interior warm.

But even if managing the technical aspect was easy, did she really know enough about the elements and principles of design and aesthetics? She had some ideas in her head on how she wanted this to turn out, but they were just reflections of the creations of others. She didn’t have what it took to imprint a portion of herself into this ice palace, nor to tailor the design to match the aesthetics of the brides.

Still, she had to try. As the clock ticked ever closer to midnight, she felt a burning need in her growing ever hotter. She was going to give Rarity and Applejack the wedding they deserved.

A storybook wedding for a couple in a storybook.

“It’s beautiful, Twilight,” Rarity said, her eyes sparkling with reflections of the carefully sculpted ice.

Twilight took in several short, ragged breaths, reaching up to wipe the sweat from her brow as she leaned against the wall for support. “You… really think so? I know you probably had a million different ideas and perfect pictures of how exactly your dream wedding would go, but I tried the best with what I had and—”

Rarity cut her off with a light touch to her nose. She wrapped a forehoof over Twilight's shoulder and pulled her into a tight hug. She spoke in a soft and gentle voice, “It’s beautiful, Twilight. As much as I’d love to get wrapped up in the intricacies of planning every last detail the way I want, for here, for now, and for her, it’s perfect the way it is. You did a wonderful job. Thank you.”

Twilight felt herself sag as Rarity supported her weight. Even with her vast magical talent and reserves of energy, the work had been exhausting. As unsure as the future was, she probably should have been more cautious about exhausting so much of her power, but she had no doubts that this was absolutely worth it.

“Thanks. I’m glad you like it,” Twilight said, smiling as she pulled away from the hug. “But right now, this moment is about you. I think the others are already inside.”

Rarity nodded, turning to the entrance. She held herself perfectly still, her expression wavering. “Do… do I look alright, Twilight?”

Twilight chuckled and glanced Rarity up and down. “Since when do you ask me for fashion advice?” Her dress glittered and glistened in the soft lights from above, but it looked very light, the fabric sheer and translucent. “It, um, accentuates your form well,” she said, doing her best to sound reassuring. “I was kind of expecting you to go for something a little more extravagant, like you usually do.”

Rarity titterered softly, bunching up some of the gossamer fabric with her hoof and shifting her weight from side to side. "I know where my designs usually take me, but this occasion calls for something different; Applejack is getting married to me, not my dress. So I wanted something that accentuates my best features without being too distracting."

Twilight nodded. It made a certain amount of sense. “Better watch out. If you’re not careful, your soon-to-be wife might mistake your dress for an ancient wish granting artifact and do something stupid.”

Rarity snorted in a very unladylike fashion and her eyes widened to stare back at her. “Twilight!” she exclaimed, raising a hoof to her mouth to try and hold in her giggling. “That was a very serious discussion and it happened literally hours ago. It is too soon.

Twilight smirked and raised an eyebrow, watching Rarity hold her breath as she shook with silent laughter, tears welling up in her eyes with the effort of it.

After a minute or so, Rarity finally calmed down, taking a few deep breaths and dabbing at her eyes. “Thank you, Twilight. I needed that.”

“Any time.”

Rarity gave another hesitant glance towards the door. “Twilight… am I doing the right thing?”

Twilight shook her head. “You’re the only pony who can answer that at this point.”

Rarity nodded, closing her eyes. After a few moments, a soft smiled played at her lips. “I’m ready.”

Twilight pulled aside the curtain, and the two entered into the chamber beyond.

Calling it an ice palace was really a bit over-extravagant. All in all, it was a single-roomed construct smaller than her living room.

The light in the room was cut off as the curtain closed behind them, leaving them in near darkness. Twilight slowly led Rarity down the steps to the small dais in the center where Applejack waited on the opposite side.

Drawing on her already taxed strength, Twilight fired up her horn, conjuring six balls of multicolored light. Each floated down to hover in front of the mare whose color it matched. The soft light cast a muted rainbow across the room, reflecting from the many sharp angles of the domed interior.

Applejack squinted at the light, raising a hoof to shield her eyes as she glanced around the room. “Kind of reminds me of the beaches where I first told you I love you.”

Twilight let out a small breath. That had been the effect she was hoping for, even if she’d never actually seen them with her own eyes.

Rainbow Dash started to snicker from her position across from Twilight, but Fluttershy leaned over and elbowed her in the side.

“Well then.” Twilight cleared her throat and glanced between the couple before her. “We are gathered here today, to celebrate the union of Applejack and Rarity, who…”

Twilight stared down at the dais before her, dumbfounded. She had spent the entire time while she was carving the ice working out what she was going to say when she officiated, and suddenly it was all gone. Of all the times she could possibly choke…

Rarity reached over and placed a hoof on her shoulder. “Twilight, darling, it’s okay. I’m sure whatever speech you had planned was rubbish anyway. Just speak from the heart. Even if you flub it up a bit, it’s okay.”

Applejack nodded, adding her hoof to Twilight’s other shoulder. “Ain’t that the truth. Look, Twi, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about love, it’s that it ain't just a bunch of perfect romantic moments. Ponies are ponies, and we ain’t ever gonna be nothing but ponies. That includes all the boring, mundane, occasionally gross and stupid things we all do on a regular basis. Love is about accepting all them parts of another pony and agreeing to make the best of it no matter what. I just wish I hadn’t taken so long to see it myself.”

Rarity giggled. “Did I ever tell you about how Applejack messed up her proposal? She did it in the middle of winter, and her lips got stuck on the ring!”

Rainbow Dash burst out laughing. “Wow, are you kidding me, AJ? Real smooth!”

Pinkie Pie started giggling herself. “You’re one to talk, Dashie. I still remember the time you—“

Rainbow Dash slammed her hooves over Pinkie’s mouth with a low growl. “I thought we agreed to never speak of that again!”

Even with half of them blushing in embarrassment, all six ponies burst out laughing in spite of it all.

Applejack shook her head, the edge of laughter still in her voice. “Shucks. Twi, it’s just the six of us here, together. Just like it’s been from the beginning. Me and Rar, we’re going to change things up a bit, but it’ll always be the six of us, ya hear me?”

“You guys…” Twilight closed her eyes. Fictional or not, these were her friends. This warmth, this magic, it mattered just as much as the real thing.

And at midnight it would all be over.

She could feel tears beginning to well up at her eyes and she brought her hoof up to wipe them away, trying desperately to push those feelings away. She had to be strong. As cruel as it might seem, she had a goal to see through til the end. There was a point to all of this.

There had to be.

She looked up to see Fluttershy across the table, wiping at her own eyes. It was a wedding after all. Getting a little weepy was to be expected, even if her own conflict was dissonant.

Twilight took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Right then. Applejack, Rarity, you two are some of the best ponies I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. That extends to all of you, really, but, for various reasons, the two of you have managed to find a happiness with each other that none of us could even dream of. I may not have much context or experience with your relationship as a couple, but it’s clear to anypony who looks that your feelings for each other are genuine, and that you’ll stick with each other through thick and thin. Even if you might need a friendly nudge in the right direction now and then.”

Applejack grunted under her breath, her face coloring slightly.

With a light touch of magic Twilight levitated both Rarity’s and Applejack’s hooves together across the table until they were touching. “I asked you girls this earlier, but do you swear, by the power of the friendship we all share, that you’ll love each other, be faithful, support each other, til the day you both… er, for all eternity?”

Their eyes didn’t leave one another as they spoke in unison. “I do.”

“Wonderful! Then by the power vested in me as a Princess of Equestria, and by the legal documents ordaining me as fit to perform a marriage ceremony that I registered for long before I became a princess because it turns out that pretty much all you have to do is ask, I pronounce Rarity and Applejack to be married. Now kiss.”

Their lips met under the soft rainbow of light, and the tearful cheers from their friends drowned out anything else.


Twilight watched as Pinkie Pie slid down the large bannister, popping at least half a dozen balloons on her way.

The entrance hall had been decorated rather extravagantly in Pinkie Pie’s usual style, complete with a large banner of a crudely drawn Rarity and Applejack with the words ‘Congratulations! :heart:’ painted on it. Twilight noted that it conveniently covered up the portrait of her nemesis.

Rarity and Applejack danced together at the bottom of the stairs, slowly and sensually; a series of clouds were kept in motion above them by Rainbow Dash, who circled around them in time with the music.

While Pinkie Pie’s parties were always something special, this one held a weight to it that few others had matched.

Of course, not everypony was enjoying the festivities so enthusiastically.

Twilight plopped herself down next to Fluttershy, who was sitting off in a corner sipping at a glass of punch. “Hey.”

Fluttershy glanced over at her, giving a faint smile. “Hi, Twilight.”

Twilight sat with Fluttershy in silence for a few minutes, grabbing some punch for herself and watching their friends enjoy themselves.

“You’ve been out of it all day, Fluttershy. Is something wrong?”

“Um, no, not really. I’m fine.”

Twilight turned to her and raised an eyebrow, fixing her with a level stare.

Fluttershy blushed, looking away. “Um, well, maybe. I dunno. But um, today isn’t supposed to be about me, right?”

If only she knew the truth. In some way or another, Twilight was doing all of this for Fluttershy. Just not the one in front of her. “Look, you might have a point, in that this is Rarity and Applejack’s special day, and that you don’t want to be a burden. I get that. But I’m free and ready to lend an open ear. It won’t be the first time tonight, and I really don’t want for it to end up being the last.”

Twilight winced. She really had to stop making such morbid remarks. She was only going to psyche herself out. “Besides, it’s what friends are for, right?”

Another minute passed, Fluttershy continuing to fidget and stare at her hooves. Finally, she spoke up in a quiet voice. “It’s hard to believe that after everything we’ve all been through together, that two of us could end up in love like that.”

Twilight followed her gaze to the couple on the dance floor, who had moved into a fast paced and complicated tango routine. She let her attention to Fluttershy drop for a second as she allowed herself to be impressed. They had some impressive moves. Rarity must have been making Applejack practice.

“Yeah,” Twilight muttered. “Hard to believe.” It would have been hard to believe in reality, anyway. With ink on a page, it didn’t stretch her suspension of disbelief very far. “Of course, as easy as they make it look right now, they had a pretty rough go of it.”

Fluttershy frowned, tilting her head in confusion, but then shrugged, dispelling her thoughts with the shake of her head. “Will our friendship really be able to survive such a drastic change? I mean, what happens if they break up? It would tear us all apart, wouldn't it?”

Twilight bit her lip. It wasn’t like Applejack and Rarity hadn’t skirted pretty close to that outcome already, without her intervention. “Honestly,” she said with a sigh, “I have no idea. I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” Fluttershy said, her face falling back to the floor.

“But,” Twilight said, reaching out one of her wings and pulling Fluttershy into a hug. “I believe in them. They’ve proven time and time again what capable, dependable, and downright good ponies they are, and I’m sure they’ll be able to handle anything that comes at them, especially together. And if not, they’ve got four other great friends who will be able to help to get things going again.”

Fluttershy looked up at her and smiled. “You’re right. Thank you, Twilight.”

Twilight closed her eyes. She should write these speeches down. She might have to use them in the real world some day.

“I still don’t really understand how you do it, Twilight,” Fluttershy said, her voice soft. “You’ve become so… wise. I still remember the day we first met. You were, um, really grumpy and unsociable. No offense. But now it’s like you’re a whole different pony.”

Twilight chuckled, her thoughts drifting back to those early days. “Well, the wisdom was a package deal with the wings. But seriously, back then you were terrified of your own shadow. We’ve all learned a lot of lessons, grown up, and changed in some way or another.”

Fluttershy nodded, settling down again in her corner.

Glancing over the four other ponies partying, Twilight frowned. “Hey, do you really think that Princess Celestia and Luna just randomly flew out the window while you were in the bathroom?”

Fluttershy blinked. “Um. I really don’t know. What other explanation could there be, Twilight?”

Twilight shook her head. Her own accusation of poor authorship didn’t exactly fly as an explanation on this level. There was at least one other option she could consider, but pushing at it right now didn’t really seem appropriate.

“Eh, don’t worry about it,” Twilight said. She raised her glass, drained the remainder of the punch, and then stood up, stretching her legs and wings. “I’m sure we’ll find out what the Princesses are up to eventually, but for now, how about we forget the heartfelt talks about friendship for now and hit the dance floor instead?”

Fluttershy giggled, standing up and dusting herself off. “Yeah, that sounds like fun. But, um, I’m not very good at dancing.”

Twilight grinned. “Neither am I.”

Twilight shifted back to the world above to give herself a break from it all.

To her surprise, the small tea room had been replaced by a large ballroom, and it was no longer just her and Golden Wish in attendance. Shadowy figures made their way about the room, sipping at punch and talking to each other in the low murmur of a crowd.

Golden Wish lowered a glass and raised a hoof to wave at Twilight from across the room. “So nice of you to join us, Twilight! Come on over and enjoy the party!”

So much for peace and quiet. As she made her way across the dance floor, a pair of unicorns spun past her, whirling together in a complex routine. A wave of intense heat followed by bitter cold swept past her, and it took her a second to realize the pair were the supposed familiars Golden Wish had summoned in the last book.

Golden Wish poured a rich looking purple liquid from a fancy looking bottle into a glass and floated it over to Twilight. "Here, you could probably stand to relax a little anyway."

Twilight grabbed the glass with her own magic and swirled it around, eying it suspiciously. "Do you just want me to dull my senses or what?"

Golden Wish rolled her eyes, then poured a second glass. "It's a wedding, Twilight! Let loose and live a little. Even up here it's okay to celebrate."

Twilight grunted in response, glancing out the large bay windows still adorning the wall at the party below. The clock was frozen, but there wasn't much time left for her turn. She'd played her hand already, and unless she could fish for more information now, it would be midnight, and time for ponies to start dying.

Golden Wish raised her glass to Twilight. "A toast, then. To love."

Letting out a long sigh, Twilight clinked the glasses together, then downed the whole thing in one gulp. "To love."

The fruity and slightly bitter taste washed through her, and she felt herself grinning in spite of it all. “So I see the unicorn twins, but other than a bunch of shadow ponies, is it really just you and me?”

Golden Wish frowned, reaching out for the bottle and beginning to refill her glass. “Well…”

“I suppose that’s my cue, isn’t it?”

Both alicorns turned to see Infinite Miracle walking up to the table. She stopped, nodded to both of them, and her horn started to glow as she poured a glass herself.

“I didn’t expect to see you down here,” Twilight said, raising an eyebrow.

Infinite Miracle glanced between the two of them, a soft smirk playing at her lips. “Even someone like me can stop to enjoy a party every now and then. Oh, you’ve been doing a wonderful job by the way, Twilight. It was an awful lot of effort to set up this whole scenario for you to play with. I’m glad to see it’s not going to waste.”

Twilight glanced over at Golden Wish, who seemed suddenly very interested in the contents of her glass, and refused to make eye contact. “Uh, thanks, I guess? I was half expecting to be criticized for trying to derail everything.”

“Fiction is a malleable construct, and while the word of the author is law, it is a law one can just as easily ignore. You’ve modified the original to suit your own tastes. Whether it’s better or not is irrelevant, but each story is filled with infinite potential.”

“But,” Twilight said, narrowing her eyes, “I can’t modify the story too much, or else it would defeat the point of this all, right? I can’t save anypony from dying.”

Infinite Miracle chuckled softly, her laughter as hollow as her eyes. “Conflict is the soul of a story. If you remove the murder, then you remove the need to detect, and thus the detective falls to the wayside as well.”

"Cake!" Golden Wish cried out shrilly, shoving her way in between the two of them. "I'm sure both of you would love to have some cake!"

Twilight bit back her words, the anger that had begun to boil in her throat subsiding. "That... sure, whatever. Cake."

Golden Wish waved a hoof frantically, and one of the shadows pushed over a cart with a large, multi-tiered wedding cake on top of it.

Twilight paused to look at the shadow pony more closely, and found that it didn't really do her much good. The thing was about as vaguely defined as she had remembered it being described in the novel, and it was starting to give her a headache just trying to wrap her brain around it.

In any case, she found that she was actually quite hungry, and that the cake looked positively divine.

Levitating a knife and a plate up from the cart, she began to carve herself up a slice. As she bit into it with the knife, however, a red, sticky liquid oozed out, reminding Twilight of blood. Despite her momentary shock at seeing it, however, she was positive that it was just strawberry syrup or something similar.

That was, at least, until the cake started screaming.

Before she even had time to cobble together a properly horrified reaction, the cake exploded, showering spurts of red and fleshy looking lumps all over the room.


A unicorn stood there in the center of the carnage, her pink coat stained a much darker red. She reached down and fished a soggy looking beret out of the mess, plopping it on her head with a wet squelch.

“Man, I bet you were wondering when I was going to show up again. Am I good at entrances or what?”

“You…” Twilight mumbled, her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. At the very least, it turned out that the red slurry currently sloughing down her face really was strawberry syrup, or at least something that tasted the same.

There was a pink flash of magic, and all of the candied gore vanished in an instant, leaving not a single trace or stain behind. With an ear splitting grin that reminded Twilight all too much of a far more wholesome practical joker, Absolute Certainty looked between the three of them expectantly.

The seconds passed by with blank stares and silence, and Absolute Certainty’s smile began to falter. “Aww, come on, guys. Not even a chuckle? Sheesh, is this a wedding or a funeral?”

Infinite Miracle grunted softly, and raised a hoof to brush her mane back over her shoulder. “I swear. Your sense of humor is about as elegant as your fashion sense.”

“Mirraaaaaaa,” Absolute Certainty whined, puffing her cheeks out and tugging on her beret. “Come on, we’re playing a game here, you don’t have to be mean about it.”

“What,” Twilight said flatly. She glanced over at Golden Wish, hoping for a smidgen of sanity. Golden Wish caught her eye, blushed, and lowered her head.

“Uh, Twilight, this is Absolute Certainty. She’s my… well, the best word to use would be ‘patron’. Just like Infinite Miracle is playing this game with you as her emissary, so it goes the other way around.”

Twilight pressed her hoof to the bridge of her nose as hard as she could. “We’ve met.”

Absolute Certainty slithered across the floor and threw a hoof around Twilight’s shoulder, pulling herself in uncomfortably close. “Hey, I’m always glad when I make a good impression on a customer! I had a feeling you were something special. Better watch out, though. When Mira sinks her claws into something she wants, she doesn’t let go easy!”

There was a hum of magic and Absolute Certainty was engulfed in a blue aura and lifted into the air off of Twilight and set down on the floor nearby. “When Twilight beats this silly game and tears this pathetic child’s mystery to shreds,” Infinite Miracle said, idly staring at one of her hooves. “I’m going to sink my claws deep into you, and only let go when it will tear out the parts of your insides you need the most.”

Absolute Certainty grinned, showing her teeth. “It’s a date!”

Twilight shook her head, taking a few steps back. “Is this all some kind of really tasteless joke?”

Golden Wish let out a long sigh. "Sorry. This wasn't exactly what I had in mind."

Absolutely Certainty turned to them and sucked in a deep breath but whatever she was about to shout was cut off by the blue aura of Infinite Miracle's magic.

"The two of you do have a game to continue, so I'll take this troublemaker back to where she belongs," Infinite Miracle said, locking her eyes with Twilight. "We'll be watching. Make sure you put on a good show. No matter what the outcome, it's no good if the story is boring."

There was a flash of light and the party was gone. Twilight and Golden Wish once again stood alone in the tea room.

Twilight closed her eyes, gritting her teeth. She felt so lost all of a sudden. It was one thing for her cat to turn out to be some weird sort of inter-dimensional being, but a random candy merchant she had happened to meet in the market? And what did it mean that she was the 'patron' of a fictional character?

Just what had she gotten herself into?

Twilight escorted everypony back to their rooms.

Under normal circumstances, it would have been seen as an odd gesture, but they were all drunk on the adrenaline of the night, love, and perhaps a few other things. So, promising to clean up the remains of the party herself, Twilight saw each of them to bed, and once the door was shut, sealed their doors with tape for good measure. She was no longer confident it would give her an advantage, but it might provide some ponies with an alibi and make her reasoning easier.

So she stood alone in the entrance of the mansion, the banner covering Golden Wish’s portrait beginning to slump off as the fastenings failed. The clock began to ring the chimes of midnight, and the game board was no longer in her hooves.

It was time for the nightmare to make its move, for this story to grow dark, desperate, and bloody.

Her friends were going to be the one who paid that price, while she could do nothing more than watch.

She wasn’t going to cry.

Golden Wish stood before the doors of the mansion, her teeth bared in an expression of wicked glee.

“I wonder what scenario I should go with this time; I have so many delicious choices. I could split apart the seed of love that I was able to help sow so long ago, or perhaps just one of them. We’ve never gotten to see Rarity react to her lover’s death, after all. It could be a nice change of pace.

“Ah, but there’s a lot of fun to be had with the others too. Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Applejack. Maybe even Twilight! Ah, perhaps I should leave it to chance, up to the roll of the dice.”

Golden Wish threw back her head, cackling madly as the storm howled battered the shield around the mansion.


Princess Celestia stepped out from behind a nearby pillar, moving to block the door to the mansion and spreading her wings. “I’m sorry, Goldy, but this has gone on long enough.”

Golden Wish raised an eyebrow. “How nice of you to join us, so late in the game! They were all very upset that you didn’t make it to the festivities. Not even a letter. Talk about a major faux pas.”

Luna’s voice rang out from behind her, filled with undisguised venom. “Our wedding gift to them will be their lives. We won’t let you play your game any further.”

Celestia took a step forward. “Please, Goldy. Pursue this madness no more. It won’t get you the results you seek, and if you continue, we’ll be forced to deal with you ourselves.”

“And if I refuse?”

Celestia’s horn began to glow a brilliant yellow. “So be it.”

Chapter 20 - Lunar Apocrypha

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Twilight watched the princesses square off against Golden Wish below. “Is this supposed to be new? Or did a grand battle like this happen off-screen in the previous novels?”

Golden Wish glanced her way, her eyes dancing with delight. “Hmm, I wonder. The mentor willing to risk everything to protect her student and her friends. It’s a pretty compelling image, don’t you think?”

"Compelling image." Twilight spat on the ground, and had to fight to keep herself from grinding her teeth to dust. "Is that really all you care about? Telling a good story? Do you have any empathy at all for those forced to participate, or read it?"

Golden Wish snorted and rolled her eyes. "Just shut up and watch. This is the best part."

The air hummed with power as Celestia and Luna began to slowly circle their foe.

Golden Wish shifted to the side, positioning herself so she could watch both alicorns out of the corners of her eyes. Her own horn began to glow with a soft golden light. "You know, if we go all out here, there might not be a mansion left for them to wake up in."

Luna snorted and flicked her tail. “Power like yours does not belong in the hooves of someone who is so clearly still a child. I learned the lesson of over-indulgence once, and it cost me and my sister dearly.”

“Blah blah blah,” Golden Wish said, waving a hoof in circles. “Nopony cares if your experiences are relevant, moonbutt. This story isn’t about you. All in all, I think the narrative would be much richer if you two weren't in it.”

“Enough!” Celestia’s words were undercut by the crack of thunder, and arcs of blue and gold lightning surged forth from the sisters, cascading around Golden Wish and forming a crackling prison of electricity.

Golden Wish gingerly reached out a hoof before flinching back as the lightning violently rebuffed her. “Neat trick,” she mumbled through gritted teeth, “but you’re going to have to strike more decisively than that!”

With a golden flash of her horn, two circles inlaid with overlapping runic patterns began to glow on the nearby walls. “Flauros! Cryos!”

There was a howling gust and a roar of fire as two streaks of light shot towards the sisters. Celestia and Luna met them head on, locking their horns with the elemental unicorns, a savage fury burning in their eyes.

“You think these pathetic doppelgangers can stand against us?” Luna growled, forming a silver spear of magical energy and bringing it down hard on Flauros. She twisted to one side to dodge, but Luna still scored a glancing blow that struck with a satisfying crunch and elicited a yelp of pain.

“It’s still a distraction, isn’t it?” Golden Wish lashed out with her power, pulling apart the cage of lightning and taking off into the air.

Celestia looked up, eyes cold, as she wrapped her telekinesis around the neck of Cryos and casually tossed her to the side. Cryos hit Twilight’s shield full force, breaking through it with the sudden rush of storm and crashing into the snow banks beyond.

“Luna, take care of the clouds for me.”

Luna nodded, bracing herself as she began to channel energy. The ground started to shake around them as a small sphere of black energy formed above her horn, air rushing towards it. With a grunt, she fired it into the sky, the small mote of darkness disappearing into the clouds. After a few seconds, there was a deafening boom that rattled the mansion to its very foundation. Then suddenly, all the clouds for at least a mile in every direction vanished, absorbed into the void. Golden Wish had to anchor herself to the roof with telekinesis to keep from being blown away by the backlash of the vacuum.

With the storm dispersed, the soft silver light of the moon shone down upon them, and Luna basked in the source of her power. She began to call forth the ancient magic that would allow her to end this in one swift stroke, but her sister stopped her with a hoof on her shoulder and shook her head.

“Allow me, Luna. It’s my fault for letting things go on for so long in the first place.” Celestia’s magic crackled through the air, and the moon shrank below the horizon, the bright light of day taking its place.

Golden Wish shielded her eyes from the sudden light, glancing up as she shakily took back to the air. “Oh mighty smiter of the sun!” she called out, her voice echoing down below. “You’d better watch where you aim that thing. You wouldn’t want to barbeque poor little Twilight, would you?”

Celestia smirked and lowered the sun to to where it was just peeking over the horizon. As it leveled with the horizon, there was the faintest flash of light from the sun, then a roar as a lance of solar energy streaked directly towards Golden Wish.

She barely managed to throw herself out of its path in time, the heat searing her flank and setting some of her wing feathers alight. Wide-eyed, she bit off a curse as she rolled down the roof and dropped down behind it, putting the mansion in between herself and the sun.

Her relief was short lived when she found the sun to have shifted its position to find her.. Light and energy began to rain down on her once more with simply ludicrous precision.

Golden Wish lunged forward, taking the offensive and charging straight for Celestia. She twisted her body in flight and used short range teleports to dodge the attacks pouring down on her. As the waves of heat washed over her and the ground torn up below, she felt like a mouse somepony was trying to kill with a sledgehammer.

She fired up her horn to cast a spell, then positioned herself directly over Celestia and dived straight down. The princess would be defenseless while aiming the orbital bombardment, and she could—

Luna cut off her charge with the presence of a particularly deadly spear, and Golden Wish had to twist back once more, a shallow cut landing on her side. She teleported away just as quickly as another horizontal beam of energy threatened to turn her into a pile of ash.

She reappeared on the ground, making eye contact with Celestia as she panted heavily. “Hey now, can’t we slow down a bit? We’re not even getting in the requisite banter.”

Luna touched down behind her. “Of all the crimes you’re guilty of, the constant running of your mouth ranks abnormally high on my list.”

“Okay, time out,” Twilight said, slamming a hoof down on the table.

Golden Wish bit her lip. “Kind of an important part, you’re really killing the momentum.”

“What is this?”

“It’s a fight scene,” Golden Wish said, raising an eyebrow. “I thought that was obvious.”

Twilight began to grind her teeth again. “I’m not sure how much you actually know about Princess Celestia or Princess Luna, but whipping the sun around the sky and using it to rain pinpoint death upon her enemies isn’t actually something she’s capable of. And I doubt she would even if she could, for that matter.”

Golden Wish threw back her head, laughing jovially. “Come on, Twilight! It’s a story! Suspend your disbelief a little.”

“Call me crazy,” Twilight said, letting out a long sigh, “but with the current situation, that’s just not really high on my priorities.”

“But Twilight,” Golden Wish said, twisting her face into a pout and her voice dripping with false sincerity, “I worked really hard on this presentation! You’ll love it, I’m sure!”

“Not to mention that destructive power like that would wake me up, along with everypony else sleeping in the mansion.”

“Psh. Details.”

Golden Wish swallowed and licked her lips as she glanced between the two sisters, her throat dry. The air shimmered with the oppressive heat of the sun, and she could see steam rising from the snow banks.

Celestia continued to regard her with cold eyes. “The path you’ve embarked upon leads only to self destruction.”

“I’ve come this far, haven’t I? Why stop now?”

There was a flash of light, the roar of fire, and then only a crater remained where Golden Wish once stood.

Luna let out a sigh, shaking her head. “It is done. Truly, I have heard of poor decision making, but she really took it to a whole new level.”

Celestia lowered her head. “The actions we take to get the results we dream of are not always rational ones, whether the intentions are noble or self serving. It is merely something to pity.”

A chill, damp wind began to blow from the north, the distant storm unwilling to relent despite its earlier magical obliteration. Luna glanced up into the sky, shielding her eyes. “Sister, can you turn that thing down? It is getting a little warm over here.”

Celestia cracked a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Of course, dear sister. How clumsy of me. I’ll — Look out!”

Luna turned to see a golden flash of light streaking towards her. She threw herself to the side, avoiding what would have most assuredly been a fatal blow, but she still felt a hot flash of pain across her flank.

Biting off a curse, Luna spun, twirling her spear through the air and cleaving straight through her would-be attacker. It cut through Golden Wish like paper, the cackling sneer of the alicorn fading into dust.

There was another rush of movement from behind and Luna jumped back to see Golden Wish coming down at her again, a long dagger in her teeth. She caught the blade with her spear, grunting as she braced herself against the force.

Before she could conjure up an effective counterattack of her own, there was a flash of fire, and a blast from Celestia’s horn reduced Golden Wish into nothing once more.

A high pitched cackle rang out from somewhere up above, which was quickly joined by a second, a third, a fourth, and dozens more voices. Golden alicorns littered the mansion and the grounds around the sisters, howling discordantly like a pack of hyenas.

“Isn’t this fun?” they all called out in unison.

“Sister, leave it to me!” Luna yelled, diving into the air as the horde began to converge upon them. She swatted two of them out of her way and blasted a third, emerging past the crowd into the skies above. Calling forth on her special talent, darkness fell as the sun sank beneath the horizon, replaced by her own silver radiance.

The moon’s power filled her, and she conjured a dozen small orbs of white light which began to spin around her, humming as they began building energy.

There was a roar and Twilight’s vision was suddenly full of a blinding silver light where the table in front of her had been. A wave of concussive force hit her and she was thrown across the room, slamming into a piece of furniture.

Her ears rung, and as she blinked tears out of her eyes, she could see that table was gone, completely obliterated. There was a sizzling trench in the ground where it had stood mere seconds before. Golden Wish was picking herself up from the shattered remains of her chair on the other side of the room, her eyes unfocused as she shook her head.


She heard a voice call out to her, the sound muffled and distant. Her vision spun, and as she slowly managed to focus, the world and sound came rushing back to her.

“Twilight, quickly, we have to go!”

Twilight slowly stood up, taking a moment to make sure nothing was broken and turned to see Luna of all ponies standing in front of a hole in the wall leading to a formless void beyond.

“What?” Twilight stared at Luna. Her brain seemed to have short circuited. Maybe she had hit her head a little harder than she thought.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Golden Wish asked as she shakily stood back up.

Luna glanced over at Golden Wish, blinked a few times, then quickly galloped over to Twilight. “Are you hurt? I am sorry, I was aiming blind. Come now, we must leave immediately.”

Twilight reached up to run a hoof against the back of her head. “I think I’m fine, but…” She looked up into Luna’s eyes, then glanced over at the fight scene below, where Luna was frozen mid-scene. “What are you talking about? Go where? What are you doing here? Which Luna are you even supposed to be?”

“It is me, Twilight. The real Luna. You are in grave danger here. You have been asleep for nearly three days now.”

Twilight blinked, and she felt her heart speed up in her chest and her throat tighten. Three days? From her perspective she had only been here for a dozen hours at most. And sleeping? “That’s… if I’m asleep, where am I now?”

Luna glanced over her shoulder, looking back and forth. “You are in the hospital on life-supportive magic. Your friends have been taking turns watching over you. It has taken this long just for me to be able to reach you. Listen, the creatures that lured you here have nothing but ill intentions.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly think she was doing it out of the goodness of her heart,” Twilight muttered. She felt herself shiver at the thought. Life support? The idea that her body was slowly wasting away while she played this game was a chilling one. If it had taken three days already, how much longer would she be unconscious before she reached the conclusion?

Luna kept glancing back at the entrance she made, and motioned for Twilight to follow. She took a step forward, hesitant.

“Um, Twilight…” Golden Wish said, her voice low, “where are you going?”

Twilight bit her lip. Even with the risks… “I did come here for a reason, Luna. I want to find out the truth. For my sake, and for Fluttershy’s.”

Luna shook her head. “There is no need. Fluttershy told us absolutely everything. She is not a pony who easily bares her heart, but when she found out that your life was in danger because you went searching for the answers, it tore her apart.”

“I… I see.” Twilight swallowed, a thick lump in her chest. “So, uh, what is it then?”

Golden Wish drew in a deep breath, her eyes wide as she trembled in the corner.

Luna’s mouth twitched up into a grin. “It is actually quite simple, though there are some rather clever bits to it as well. You see, ********** ** ** **** **** ***, ********. ** *** **** *** **** **** *** ***** ****** **** *** ** ******* *** *******.

Twilight reached up to rub at her ears as Luna’s voice came out in a discordant jumble of nonsense.

“Now now. Those would be spoilers. You wouldn’t want to ruin all the fun, would you?”

“I see,” Luna mumbled, her face twisting into a grimace. “I suppose I should have expected as much. Show yourselves, demons!”

“Demons? That’s really a gross and ugly word, if you ask me. If you’re going to call us anything, I prefer ‘Ethically Challenged Narrative Aficionados.’”

Absolute Certainty dropped down from the ceiling, materializing out of thin air and landing with a quick sweep of her hat and a low bow. Her face lit up with a bright smile as Infinite Miracle walked in through the hole Luna had left in the wall.

Luna took a few steps back, positioning herself in front of Twilight and spreading her wings, her horn at the ready. “I am the Guardian of the Night, and I will not let you take Twilight Sparkle!”

Infinite Miracle walked over to stand only a few feet from Luna and turned her eyes up to meet her gaze. “We’re only borrowing her for a bit. I’m sure she’ll come out of it in more or less one piece. You have faith in your own abilities, don’t you, Twilight?”

Twilight shook her head. Everything was happening so fast, and her head was still spinning. “This situation is getting a little out of scope, but I came here for a reason. Luna, how dangerous will it be for my physical body if I stay here?”

Luna bit her lip. “It is not your physical body that I am worried about. Between the doctors and the efforts of my sister, you could theoretically sleep for years. It is your mind, and that is what I have come to rescue. These beings prey on the vulnerable, the needy, those who seek something they could never obtain on their own. Or at least those who believe as much.”

Absolute Certainty let out a high pitched giggle. “Aww, you know us so well!”

“This is a private function, you know,” Infinite Miracle said, narrowing her eyes. “Unwelcome guests, by their very definition, do not belong.”

“How very ominous,” Twilight said dryly. “Look, how about we clear the air about all of this, and skip past all the half-truths and mixed metaphors. If I were to change my mind and decide that playing this game was no longer worth it, and to just talk things out with Fluttershy instead, would you allow me to leave?”

Infinite Miracle turned to regard her with cold eyes and a stare that lingered uncomfortably long. When she finally spoke, it was with a sigh of resignation. “Authenticity emerges when the actors are free to make their own decisions, with maybe a little bit of guidance in the right direction. But, if you wish to cast aside your purpose and cast me as the villain of this piece… I will perform that role to the best of my abilities. Even if not ideal, it can still be a salvageable narrative.”

Twilight felt a shiver run down her spine at the casual indifference with which Infinite Miracle continued to treat her life. Just what sort of perspective did she really have? “I see. Luna, if we were going to force our way out, do you think we could do it?”

Light flickered in the room, and the shadows cast across the faces of Absolute Certainty and Infinite Miracle made their relatively passive expressions seem far more sinister than they actually were.

Luna shifted her weight from side to side. “I… do not know.”

Two options were presented before her. Both seemed to have their risks. However she actually felt at the moment, it might be better to fall back on a simple cost-benefit analysis.

“And what about me?” Golden Wish asked, her voice bitter. She walked over from the sidelines where she had been watching herself and put herself in the middle of the antagonists, facing Twilight and Luna. “You feel it just as much as I do. This game, this story, deserves to have a proper ending. Are you really going to run away with your tail tucked between your legs before that can happen?”

Luna twitched slightly, giving Golden Wish an odd, sort of pensive look as she worked to keep her mouth neutral.

Twilight closed her eyes. It wasn’t something she liked to admit, but Infinite Miracle and Absolute Certainty scared her. Although she had gotten into this mess herself, she was starting to have doubts about how freely she had really made the choices she did. Whatever they were, they had at least some sort of influence in the real world. Had they gotten to Fluttershy in some way, too? Maybe even before any of this had started.

The very thought caused a surge of white hot anger to boil up inside of her, and her hooves trembled as she tried to keep calm and continue her deliberation.

This story, however, wasn’t theirs. While Infinite Miracle may have given it shape and form, and in some sense, literal life, the heart of the story was still one written by Fluttershy. It wasn’t like she had it spelled out for her in red or anything, but she knew it to be true all the same. In turn, that included Golden Wish, the villain Fluttershy had penned in order to give a different Twilight something to face off with.

She felt a small smile playing at her lips, and had to try in order to stifle a laugh. It occurred to her that she had been asking herself the same questions at least half a dozen times over the past few days. Just how far was she willing to go to see everything through?

Her answer could only be more of the same.

“I’m going to finish this. No matter what.”

Luna let out a held breath. “I see. I cannot commend the wisdom of the path you have chosen, Twilight Sparkle, but I also cannot ignore the passion and determination that drives you. If anypony can pull out of this mess intact, it is you.”

Absolutely Certainty rolled her eyes and blew her bangs out of her eyes. “Yeesh. Enough with the heroic introspection and sappy declarations and yada yada. This is still a private party, and moonbutt over there doesn’t exactly match the décor.”

Infinite Miracle began to walk to the side, slowly circling around Luna. “You made it here, Princess, but the void is a vast and dangerous place. I wish you all the best of luck in finding your way back home. In one piece.”

Twilight thought she caught the glint of feline eyes somewhere far in the darkness through the hole Luna had made. “Luna is my friend,” she said, her voice a low growl. “If leaving would be so dangerous, then she’s welcome to stay here under my invitation. Detectives are supposed to have sidekicks anyway, aren’t they?”

“She already has been told the answers. Spoilers are never any fun.”

Twilight grit her teeth. “So keep her censored, or whatever it is that you did. General advice, moral support, and maybe a cryptic hint or two should still preserve the mystery, shouldn’t it?”

Absolute Certainty bounced over to Golden Wish and threw a foreleg over her shoulder. “What do you think, Goldie? If little Twi-Twi gets an assistant, especially one that knows all your precious secrets, will you be able to keep it together?”

Golden Wish snorted, her face a little pink. “I’m not so easily cowed. Besides, Twilight needs all the help she can get. It might behoove me a little to actually try.”

“Uh-huh. Sure,” Twilight muttered. She had spent enough time around Rainbow Dash to recognize empty bravado when she saw it.

“Very well,” Infinite Miracle said, turning around, “just try not to be disappointing. You kids play nice now.”

And with that, the two were gone.

Twilight let out a sigh of relief and fell back onto her haunches. She ached in numerous places and she would be feeling the effects of that explosion for days.

Or, maybe not. Since her real body was in a hospital somewhere, it would likely be a different problem she would have to deal with when she woke up.

“Are we going to get on with this or not?” Golden Wish asked.

Twilight glanced up at Luna and shook her head. “If it’s okay with you, can we take a break? The momentum’s kind of lost at this point anyway, and there are some things I need to discuss and think through.”

Golden Wish pursed her lips. “Very well. I’ll leave you to it.”

There was a flash of light, and Golden Wish vanished, leaving Twilight and Luna alone.

“How is everyone?” Twilight asked softly.

Luna sat down next to her and then extended a wing to pull Twilight into a quick hug. “They are all very worried about you. They take shifts to watch over you at the hospital. Applejack and Rarity have been studiously avoiding each other.”

Twilight blinked, then burst out laughing. “Fluttershy really explained everything, huh? Wow, I am really never going to be able to look those two in the eye ever again. I just married their fictional counterparts to each other in a dream, after all.” Biting her lip, she added, “What exactly happened to me, anyway?”

Luna shook her head. “The details come from others, as I did not learn until later, but as I understand it, Fluttershy came over to apologize the next morning, and she and Spike were unable to wake you. After some brief panicking, they got the rest of your friends involved, and eventually you were moved to a hospital. After which my sister and I were contacted.”

“I see,” Twilight said, nodding. “And me, trapped in this crazy dream world. Is that something you’ve dealt with before?”

“Not directly, but I have heard rumors. Every story written leaves an imprint on the minds of those who read it. Each dream is a story, a little world of its own, in a sense. Sometimes the denizens, fragments of stories given life in dream, find themselves passing from one dream to another, floating thoughts on the wind. Most simply fade into background noise, but very rarely some will continue to wander, each story leaving its mark. They might grow in form, shape, in sentience, until they can seek out further power with intent, whether malicious or benign.”

Twilight frowned. “That’s what you’re saying those two are? Fragments of fiction grown into sentience and maliciously enabled to wander around and cause trouble?” She glanced over at the table. “Could something like that happen to Golden Wish?”

Luna shrugged. “Perhaps. Like I said, it is only rumor. There could be an entirely different explanation, for all I know.”

Well, it was better than nothing. “How is Fluttershy?”

Luna made an odd face, and it looked like she was choosing her words carefully. “Distraught, to put it mildly. I don’t think she’ll ever forgive herself for putting you through this.”

Twilight winced. “That’s not really fair… I could have stopped this at any time if I wanted to, but I decided to keep going, for her sake and my own.”

“Perhaps,” Luna said, her expression distant. “I am not one to judge the actions of either of you. It is something you will need to work out with each other when you get back.”

Twilight grinned. “When I get back, huh? You think I’ve got a good shot at winning?”

A wry smile played at Luna’s lips. “I think you are in for a challenge unlike any other you have dealt with in your lifetime. And it will likely be a major turning point for the rest of it.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “More vague and ominous musings. Is it too much to ask that anypony anywhere just tells it to me like it is? Where’s Spike when you need him?”

“****. *** ****** ** ****, ********.

“Oh, right. Sorry.” Twilight stood up and made her way over to the table. “Wait, didn’t this blow up?”

They glanced over to the hole where Luna had entered only to find it gone, as if it had never been made in the first place.

“The world of dreams cannot be altered permanently, no matter how strong I might be. Given time, it will return to the form it remembers.”

Twilight shrugged. “Whatever. Looks like the chessboard is exactly how we left it. I suppose it’s time I get back to the story.”

Golden Wish reappeared in a flash of light, a brush floating in the air beside her working its way through her mane. “That was a shorter break than I expected, Twilight. Are you sure you’re ready?”

“Just get on with it already.”

The horde of Golden Wishes crashed towards Luna like a wave. She dove in response as the orbs of light surrounding her began pulsing out short bursts of moonlit power. The attacking alicorns were speared through by the dozens, but for every copy that fell, two more seemed to take its place. It took every scrap of agility Luna had just to avoid the flashing knives of the oncoming sea of gold.

Luna called forth even more of the moon’s power into her, until she felt like she was bursting at the seams. The orbs around her shifted to her front, where they began to spin faster and faster, forming into a giant silver drill that—


“W-What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Twilight turned to face Luna, her eyebrow raised as high as it could possibly go. “Princess Luna, are you capable of powering up using the full moon and then forming a giant energy drill to defeat a horde of evil alicorns?”

“I’m afraid not,” Luna said, her voice full of mirth. “I could maybe pull something off on a smaller scale, but it wouldn’t be very practical.”

Golden Wish stomped a hoof and flicked her tail around, her face bright red. “I am trying to tell a story here!”

Twilight leaned on the table, resting her face against one of her hooves. “Look, I appreciate a superpowered fight scene as much as the next pony, but are we even in the same genre anymore? What could you possibly be expecting me to get from this tawdry display?”

Golden Wish started to grind her teeth together, and Twilight was almost sure she could see steam coming from her ears. “Maybe if you’d shut up and keep watching, you’d find it out…”

“What do you think I’m supposed to take from this scene, Luna?”

Luna raised a hoof to her chin. “Hmm. When the night is over and morning is come, do you think you will be able to find evidence of a titanic battle that took place outside while everypony slept soundly?”

“It certainly scars the earth a bunch. Although I’m expecting some cheap excuse about resetting everything back to normal with wishing magic, or something to that effect.” When she looked up, Golden Wish refused to meet her eyes.

“Precisely. And even if what she is showing you is really what happened, without physical evidence you would be safe in dismissing that reality. Do you remember the last time a crazy fight scene featured prominently in the narrative?”

Twilight frowned. “That would be the closed room where she summoned those goons to kill Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, but I found evidence there.”

Luna shook her head. “You found evidence that matched the story you were told.”

“Are you saying it was faked?”

“I am saying it could have been.”

“Fine!” Golden Wish stood up, her expression livid. “If neither of you care about what's going on, then we’ll just skip to the end! After a long fought battle I win, killing Princess Celestia and Luna. Guess it’s morning now. Oh no! I wonder which pony died horribly!”

Twilight’s eyes snapped open, the ceiling of the mansion in front of her.

With a frown, she sat up and looked around. It was definitely her room in the manor. The storm raged outside, but there was a faint light that indicated it was morning.

Gritting her teeth, she prepared to shift back above. That conversation wasn’t over.

Only to find that she couldn’t.

“Ah, ponyfeathers.”

Chapter 21 - Ouroboros

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Twilight got up and moved over to stare out the window. Just like the fight scene had shown, the shield she had placed last night was gone, and the storm was free to rage as it pleased. Although it was a bit of a pointless gesture at this point in the game; Knocks’ 1st already neatly prevented any outside interference.

She sat down in front of the dresser and levitated a nearby brush up to begin running it through her mane. In a cruel twist of fate, taking the place of a fictional version of herself in a strange reality woven by story-born demigods did not prevent split ends or tangling.

Twilight kept up the grooming for several minutes until her mane practically shone from the effort. It was good as she could get it without taking a shower, and the repetitive motions were comforting and gave her time to think.

“If I’m going to do this, I might as well look my best, right?” Twilight mumbled, her voice laced with a bitter sadness. She was just stalling, and she knew it.

It was the moment everypony had been waiting for. The one she had been dreading. Her friends, murdered, in what was likely to be a gruesome fashion, and trapped in a deadly closed room.

How long could she afford to put this off?

Her hooves shaking, Twilight reached out with her magic and pushed the door open, hard enough for it to slam against the wall.

Only dim lights and an empty hallway awaited her.

Twilight opened her mouth to call out, to ask if any of her friends were still there, still alive, but the sound caught in her throat, coming out as a strangled gasp.

Shaking her head to try and clear her thoughts, Twilight started down the hall. Her eyes darted to every shifting shadow. Maybe she could get in a healthy dose of stalling if she went to the kitchen and ate breakfast first.

Of course with things as they were, any breakfast she bothered with would likely come right back up.

Her hoof steps echoed as she made her way into the entrance hall, only adding to her sense of isolation. The remnants of the previous night’s party still littered the room in places, and the banner that had covered the portrait of Golden Wish had slipped. It looked as if her opponent was peeking out from behind it at her.

A prickle ran down her spine, and she felt an odd, childish sense of worry that while she was stuck on this level of the game, Golden Wish and Luna were talking about her behind her back.

Twilight opened her mouth but found that she still didn't have it in her to call out to her friends; the prospect of receiving no answer paralyzed her heart.

Fear, however, can be conquered by technicalities. Twilight used her magic to form a large, ephemeral purple bell. She shook it about and its ringing boomed throughout the hall. She winced from the volume. Maybe she had gone a little overboard.

It had been quite the party last night, and her friends wouldn't appreciate the rude awakening, but it didn't matter much in the long run.

Not to those who still had the capability to wake up and complain about it, anyway.

The ringing lingered in her ears for several moments after Twilight dispelled the magic, and she waited for her friends to come investigate.

While some ponies were almost certainly dead at this point, the others probably didn’t know yet. She expected Applejack to poke her head out from the kitchen and ask what was up, or Rainbow Dash to blearily stumble out of her room, her eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, and angrily demand that she shut up.

Seconds passed. Then minutes. The storm continued to howl, and the mansion offered an occasional groan in protest, but there were no muffled creaks of opening doors. No light eddies of wind reached her, stirred up from a pegasus flying through the halls. No soft hoofsteps tapped against hardwood floors, no telltale hums of magic at work pulsed through the air.

There was no answer.

Twilight stared down at her hooves. She felt the eyes of the portrait behind her bore into her, like hot needles in her spine. If they weren’t going to come to her, she’d just have to go to them. There was probably a perfectly mundane explanation.

Her hooves felt like they were covered in lead, but she managed to take a tentative step forward, then another, and then started down the hall back towards her room. She could at least put off the denial stage of grief until she had actually discovered the horrors that were doubtless awaiting her.

She continued past her room until she reached where she was going, and found what she was expecting to find.

A door with Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark crudely scrawled on it with red paint.

Twilight stared at the door, her mouth dry. The seal she had placed on the door with tape was broken. Looks like it wouldn’t do her much good anymore. Or Rainbow Dash for that matter.

Was it still even a closed room? She reached for the handle, and found it locked. She should just blow the door open, and get it over with. Better to jump straight into the water, or just rip off a bandage, right?

Reducing the lives of her friends to such easily digestible metaphors somehow made her feel even sicker.

Still… there was something she should check on, first. The concept of keys and their locations had been a sticking point in both games, and she should take the chance to verify what she could about them before she started using her magic to increase the number of entrances to a room.

Focusing on her relative position in the mansion, she teleported to the hall just outside the servants storage closet.

It didn't take her long to find what she was looking for. The novels had described all the keys to the various rooms being kept in a small cabinet in the corner.

As she opened the cabinet, Twilight bit back a curse. It wasn't full of a large jumble of unlabeled keys like she was expecting. There were only six hooks where keys would normally hang, each marked with an easily matchable cutie mark. All of the actual keys were missing.

She had the key to her own room already, so that left five. Her gut reaction was to shift back up and complain to Golden Wish, but the way was still blocked to her. She had a feeling that it wasn’t a permanent change, but that she wouldn’t be able to consult Luna or argue her point until after she had done her investigation.

With the keys gone, force looked like it would be the only option once again. Whatever significance this had, it wouldn’t be made clear until later.

Twilight teleported back to the hall outside Rainbow Dash’s room. It was just as she left it. Closed, locked, covered in red paint. This really wasn’t such a big deal. Sure, reading about the deaths of her friends had been pretty disturbing, but she had gotten used to it pretty quickly. This was... just more of the same...


Twilight focused her magic, and brought her telekinesis to bear on the lock. She reached inside of it carefully, feeling around until she found what she was looking for. With a grunt, she hardened her will and twisted, wrenching the tumblers out of position and sliding the bolt back into the door.

A good lock was no match for a talented unicorn. Of course, she wasn’t exactly a master locksmith, and she didn’t have the delicate control required to pull it off without rendering the lock unusable.

The door creaked open slowly, and her breath caught in her throat. Rainbow Dash was in here. And she would be… alive, and waiting for her, out there, to beat this game and return home. She could at least hold on to that.

The lights in the room were out, and Twilight couldn’t make out much of the room through the dim sunlight that filtered in through the curtains. A lump on the bed was clearly visible, however, and the rainbow colored tail that stuck out from underneath the sheets was unmistakable, even in the darkness.

The dark stain on the sheets told her everything she needed to know.

Twilight’s vision began to blur, and she turned around, squeezing her eyes shut. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks. It was enough to just look, right? Rainbow Dash was dead, and in a closed room.

A direct examination by the detective is functionally equivalent to the red truth, when it comes time to make your case.

Twilight let out a snarl, blinking away her tears. Of course that was how it was going to be. She couldn’t hope to get anywhere with half measures.

She turned around to face the horror once more, letting her anger grow and harden into a shield to block out the pain and fear. Storming in with momentum behind her, Twilight cast a quick spell to light up the room, then stomped over to the bed and tore off the covers without ceremony.

Discounting all the blood, Rainbow Dash looked like she was sleeping peacefully. It was a small mercy, she supposed, even if it didn’t make seeing it any easier. A thin line was drawn across Rainbow’s throat.

It seemed silly to even entertain the thought at this point, but Twilight rested her hoof on Rainbow Dash to check anyway. There was no pulse, but she still felt slightly warm to the touch. It must have only happened a couple hours ago.

Twilight let out a sigh and turned away, only to notice an envelope resting on the night stand. There was always a letter, wasn't there? They tended to be full of cryptic messages that had little to do with the reality of the situation.

She picked it up with little hesitation, and felt the slight heft of weight to it. Presumably it was the key to the room, making this a closed room in earnest.

Tearing open the wax seal and pulling out the contents,Twilight found a sheet of paper with a single sentence on it. “Love is loyalty, easily misled,” she said, reading it out loud. “That doesn’t give me a lot to work with here.”

The key that fell out with the letter had a small tag tied to it, marked with a familiar balloon cutie mark. If this was the key to Pinkie’s door, then…

She could already see where this chain would lead, and the implications tore at her heart with a renewed sense of dread. Golden Wish had really gone all out this time.

Since she had so expertly broken the lock, she would have to test the key in several other doors, just to see if the label was correct and it wasn’t just a master key in disguise.

She expected that there would be red truths to clarify and bar such possibilities later, but it wasn’t something she could count on at present, and it was best that she was thorough. She searched through the entire room, kept an eye out for anything resembling a hidden passage, and checked all the windows. They were locked from the inside, of course. She double checked the locking mechanism on the door for good measure. It had been the kind that couldn’t be locked without the key, even from the inside.

When she was satisfied with her analysis, Twilight turned to go, pausing in the doorway. She quickly prepared a new strip of tape to re-seal the door with. If there was somepony out there still skulking about, it wouldn’t do to have them return to mess with the crime scene. At least this way she would know if there was any tampering.

The shadows returned to the room once more as Twilight dismissed the magical light, leaving Rainbow Dash behind in cold darkness.

“I’m sorry,” Twilight muttered, and closed the door behind her.

She took a few steps down the hallway before stumbling, having to lean against the wall the remain standing. Her breathing came in short, ragged breaths. She was going to have to go through this up to four more times.

Pinkie Pie’s room held a near identical tragedy to Rainbow Dash’s. She lay under the covers, throat slit, dead for at least a few hours. The envelope on the table held the key to Fluttershy’s room, and the words, ‘Love without laughter? How is this funny?’ From a red truth standpoint, the room was equally secure.

When she pushed open the door to Fluttershy’s room however, the differences were immediately apparent. Rather than lying in her bed, taken by the peaceful embrace of eternity while sleeping, Fluttershy lay sprawled out on the floor near to the window, covered in blood.

Twilight rushed to her side, immediately lighting the room with magic. There was no need to rush, of course; Fluttershy’s eyes were open and glassy with the empty stare of death.

She stared at the corpse before her, bile rising up in the back of her throat. From her perspective, it had only been an hour or two since she last saw Fluttershy, laughing, smiling, dancing, opening up about the doubts that plagued her in this fictional world.

They hardly seemed to matter now.

Twilight reached out a hoof and closed Fluttershy’s eyes. It seemed like the right thing to do, but that empty stare had seemed almost accusatory, and she couldn’t stand to look at it any longer.

Rather than a clean line across her neck, there was a vicious looking stab wound in Fluttershy’s side. By her best guess, it looked like it might have punctured the lung.

Twilight started to grind her teeth to dust as hot tears ran down her face. How terrified must Fluttershy have been, her lungs filling with blood as her life faded away? Did she even know what was happening? Did she see her killer?

It wasn’t fair. This whole thing wasn’t fair. Why did Fluttershy, the real Fluttershy, have to write a murder mystery of all things to get her point across? If it had just been some pulpy adventure novel, or a science fiction epic, or some sort of low key fantasy, would things have ever gotten this bad? Even if everything had continued to escalate, at least it wouldn’t have been this.

Twilight tore herself away from the corpse of her friend and savagely tore open the waiting envelope. The key was marked as Rarity’s, and the letter held the words “Love, kindness? Silence would be kinder. An end.”

Anger wrestled with cold logic for control. The gears in her head had been turning for a while, and she was beginning to piece things together one by one. But she was left struggling with an aimless rage.

Should it be directed at Golden Wish, the apparent villain of the tale? Infinite Miracle, for dragging her into this? Absolute Certainty, whose role was unclear, but seemed to be on yet another level of manipulative puppeteering? Or should she save some of her ire for Fluttershy herself?

Twilight bit her tongue until she could taste blood. All she had to do was suck it up and solve the mystery. Then everything would be clear, she could go home safely, and everypony would live happily ever after.

She thought back to her early protestations back when she had first started reading. It seemed like ages ago, but she had been rather upset over the lack of a happy ending.

She let out a short, pained laugh. Maybe this experience was turning her cynical, but her sense of narrative foresight was telling her that things were going to be a lot more bitter and a lot less sweet.

Twilight took a step back and shivered slightly. The room seemed colder than it should have been. Was there a draft somewhere?

Searching the rest of the room didn’t turn up any other evidence of note, despite the difference in the arrangement of the murder. The window was whole, and locked from the inside, like the others had been.

Before she left, Twilight turned to address the body. “Fluttershy… I’m sorry you, this version of you, got caught up in all this. I wish I could have done something to stop it, but to properly play this game I couldn't interfere any more than I did. As one of the 'higher beings', I feel responsible for even choosing to play this game in the first place. Somepony could get a long and interesting philosophical debate on the nature of free will in a narrative, and whether the moral implications of the fate of the characters within rests on the writers who put them there, or the readers who give the story life with their eyes and in their hearts.”

Twilight closed her eyes and sniffled, the snort loud and uncomposed. “But none of that matters to you... and I’m not sure how much longer I can continue justifying it to myself.”

The light winked out, and Twilight closed the door behind her, sealing it again. “I’m off to see the newlyweds, Fluttershy. Lend me some of your strength, okay?”

Rarity and Applejack were together, of course. Technically, the two had been given separate rooms, but in each game they had just used Rarity’s. Maybe they used Applejack’s to store some extra luggage or something. It probably didn’t matter.

Where would the couple have gone on a honeymoon, given the chance? Prance? Maybe back to the place in Mareami that started it all? Or at the very least, somewhere with significantly warmer weather than here.

Rarity liked things elaborate and fancy, Applejack liked things down to earth and simple. At least, that’s what Twilight would say if she was asked to give a shallow, one sentence analysis of those two. In all the time she’d known them, they had shown themselves to be so much more.

But for as strongly as she knew the real versions of her friends, with the added context of a romantic relationship, Rarity and Applejack seemed almost like entirely different ponies, especially when compared to everypony else. Changed because of love, but also changed because they were written that way.

It’s not like it was completely implausible. Twilight was by no means an expert in the matters of the heart, but she knew well enough about friendship. It would be a reasonable bet to say that if Applejack approached Rarity with a one sided crush and confessed her feelings, Rarity would be generous enough to give it a shot and see where it led. Whether true love blossomed following that would be up to the amount of hard work both of them put into the relationship; given their often clashing dispositions, Celestia knows it would take a lot.

Applejack having that one sided crush in the first place, however, stretched her suspension of disbelief a bit. When confronted with the mare of her dreams, the normally strong and dependable Applejack had acted like an awkward filly, with absolutely no self confidence. She had even gone so far as to lie about the whole wishing thing to both herself, and Rarity.

Would the real Applejack have acted in such a way? Twilight’s gut said no, but, in truth, she didn’t know for sure. She had never seen Applejack in a situation like that, and it could really proceed either way.

Yet Fluttershy had written it as such. It was possible she knew a side of her friends that Twilight wasn’t privy to, or that she was just twisting the personalities of her characters, her friends, in order to fit the narrative she had planned out; carving a square peg just enough to squeeze it into a round hole.

Or maybe Fluttershy was just projecting her own personality, fears, and insecurities onto such a hypothetical.

Twilight’s eyes snapped back open. Her lengthy inner monologue had briefly distracted her from the room’s carnage, but she couldn’t hide in her thoughts forever.

There were signs of a struggle, though that was putting it mildly; furniture was overturned in places, a lamp had broken. There were small splatters of blood scattered about the room, and it looked like two ponies had been in an all out slugfest.

There wasn’t a swarm of ponykins, at least. Just a pair in the corner, holding the couple’s wedding dresses from the night before. That dream earlier had been creepy enough, and Twilight was glad not to have to relive that sea of dolls.

Applejack still lay in the bed, blood soaked sheets kicked away. Her eyes were wide, filled with a snapshot of confusion and incomprehension in death. The line on her throat was cut deep, deeper than the others’.

Rarity’s face was a mask of blood, her form bruised and battered; numerous small cuts and a few nasty gouges made from a knife decorated her sides. In her final moments, Twilight supposed she must have crawled back up onto the bed and died with her head on Applejack’s chest, their hooves intertwined.

At this point, it was all gone. The grief, the urge to be sick, the rage; it had all been replaced by a quiet, throbbing numbness.

The final letter held the key to Rainbow Dash’s room, and a sheet of paper with the words “Love, honest and pure. Love, generously giving of yourself to another. What a farce.”

With that final piece, it all became a closed room in earnest. Four rooms, each with a key pointing to the next. The windows were barred, magic was presumably out as a matter of course, and there were no hidden doors. It was technically possible there were more keys for each room, but she knew enough by now to guess that these keys would be confirmed as the only ones with the red truth soon enough. And finally, everypony was one hundred percent dead. She had made sure to inspect every corpse, no matter how painful.

A perfect closed room, looping in on itself like an ouroboros made from the despair and suffering of her friends.

In a twisted sort of way, it was almost beautiful.

Twilight stood atop the mansion, the buffeting winds whipping her mane back and forth. It would have been easy enough to conjure up a spell to protect herself from the elements, but she didn’t have the heart to even bother.

Over the past hour she had scoured the mansion from head to toe. Every room, every nook and cranny. The lack of evidence she found was almost as damning as anything she might have picked up. Celestia and Luna were missing. Other than the destruction of the shield, there wasn’t the tiniest indicator that the battle she had been shown had actually taken place.

Suspicious didn’t even begin to cover it. She was already beginning to work through several possible theories, although just thinking about the possibilities made her slightly nauseous.

She had felt a slight pressure lift from her some time ago, and she was pretty sure she could shift back to the metaworld and say her piece, if she so chose, but there was one last thing she wanted to check. Something that had never really fit right, and was never really elaborated on.

Twilight closed her eyes and began to reach out with her magic, sending gentle tendrils of energy into the earth below. Beyond the obvious uses, Rarity’s gem finding spell could be astoundingly helpful for getting the lay of the land.

Gems began to pop up in her head like small lights. This area wasn’t exactly a natural gem deposit, but there were still enough here and there to find what she was looking for.

It took about fifteen minutes until she was ready to move again. While unevenly distributed throughout the stone, there were enough lights that they highlighted a large, gemless hollow directly beneath the mansion. Likely a cavern of some sort.

Of course, blindly teleporting into a cavern she only had a vague idea of the existence of was an exceptionally stupid thing to do, and it would have an uncomfortably high chance of going horribly wrong.

She exited the teleport in both midair and total darkness. She dropped for what felt like several, panicked seconds before she managed to flap her wings and steady out to a hover. The air was damp and stale, and it didn’t feel like it got a lot of airflow from the surface.

Twilight cast a light spell, and the illumination revealed exactly what she was expecting to find: a dragon.

“Hello, I…” Twilight blinked, frowning and rubbing at her eyes. The beast was just lying there, unresponsive to the sudden intrusion. More importantly, however, she could barely seem to focus on the the thing. It was ephemeral and strangely flat.

She touched down on the cavern floor, but the new perspective didn’t seem to change anything. Rather than a dragon actually being there, it was more like it was merely an image of a dragon, one that oriented to her perspective like a piece of paper that kept turning to face her.

The story of the Princess and the Dragon had seemed of notable importance early on in the first novel, but it hadn’t been brought up much in the texts following, and had never quite gone anywhere. Was this the metaphysical equivalent of an unfinished idea?

Even so, if there was a literal dragon under the mansion, it would explain why everything went up in flames at the end.

The dragon had no reaction to her presence, and the strange perspective was beginning to give her a headache. Well, it was an answer of sorts, even if it wasn’t what she wanted. It was time for the finale.

Twilight shifted upwards, and found herself standing in darkness, the tea room nowhere in sight.

Before she could react, a pair of golden flames lit up on either side of her, followed by another pair a few feet ahead.

The sudden conflagrations continued away to form what was apparently a path, so Twilight began to follow where they led.

In the distance she could make out what appeared to be an absolutely massive set of double doors, and she could swear that she could make out faint organ music coming from within.

Twilight rolled her eyes, muttering under her breath, “Isn’t this overdoing it a little bit?”

As she made her long, ominous walk towards the final confrontation, the puzzle pieces were slowly snapping into place. It had been a long time coming, but she was finally certain that she could solve this mystery, put this nightmare to rest, and go home.

That, and deal with the fallout.

With a grunt of effort, Twilight pushed the doors open with her magic. An absolutely massive courtroom waited inside, adorned with large stained glass windows of abstract shapes and patterns. Crowds of shadow ponies filled the gallery, while in either far upper corner, Infinite Miracle and Absolutely Certainty lounged in box seats, looking disinterested and bored as they looked down on everypony.

Luna was waiting for her on the left side of the room, and gave her a nod and a reassuring smile.

Golden Wish stood in the center of the room, baring her fangs at her in a toothy grin. “Welcome back, Twilight. I hope you had fun down there. Are you ready to finish this game?”

A brief image of every crime scene and corpse flashed through her head once again.

“Bring it on.”

Chapter 22 - Celestial Apocrypha

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Twilight held eye contact with Golden Wish until she felt she had conferred the appropriate amount of challenge. She then turned up her nose at Golden Wish and trotted over to sit with Luna. She had to suppress a grin at the annoyed glare she could feel behind her.

“Are you alright?” Twilight asked, sliding into the seat beside Luna and leaning in close to whisper.

Luna nodded, smiling softly. “You do not have to expend any energy worrying about me, Twilight Sparkle. Focus on your fight.” With a glance to the peanut gallery, she added, “Your performance down there was quite admirable, by the way.”

Twilight let out a long, shuddering sigh. When this was over, she was going to take a nice, long bath, relax, and never touch a mystery novel again.

“Still,” Luna said, rolling her shoulders, “a series of linked closed rooms. That is quite the devious trick.”

“Do you have much experience with mystery novels and locked rooms?”

Luna chuckled ruefully, her eyes growing somewhat distant. “Fiction has changed much in the past one thousand years. The collection of tropes and tricks that codify what you know as the mystery genre are at best a century old. However, the core of good storytelling remains essentially the same, and I would like to think I still have a good grasp on what makes a pony a pony.”

Twilight nodded, giving the thought some consideration. “You don’t know the answer to this one then, do you?”

Luna shook her head. “Fluttershy told me the solutions to the mysteries in her novels, but this particular puzzle is new. I suspect the heart remains the same, and I could make a reasonable guess based on what she spoke of to me, but it is not my place to say.”

“I see.” Twilight let her head sink into her hooves and pressed at her temples. A chained room loop. Round and round the murder goes, where it stops, what pony could know? There had to be both a start point and an end point somewhere. The trick was to find it.

A chill ran down her spine as it occurred to her that the nature of the twisted logic duels in the first place was pretty much designed to allow quick thinking and passion to rule the day, rather than careful deliberation and problem solving. It was a stacked deck in favor of the one who held all the cards, and obfuscation and deception seemed to reign queen.

“There’s no time like the present,” Twilight mumbled. With a glance towards Infinite Miracle and Absolute Certainty, Twilight turned to Luna and asked, “I trust you’ll have my back out there if things get weird?”

Luna snorted and met Twilight’s eyes. “I’ll do my best. Although I’m not sure if things can really get weirder at this point.”

Twilight threw her forelegs around Luna in a quick hug. Even though it hadn’t been all that long from her perspective, the mere warmth of another pony was a welcome boon. While she was confident in her ability to handle this alone, it was nice to know that she didn’t have to.

Not to mention that with the judging eyes of a pony she respected watching over her, she was less likely to do something alone in the dark that she would end up regretting.

With another wary look towards Infinite Miracle, Twilight exited the booth and made her way to the center of the room. She took her time, taking slow steps, and making sure to crack her neck in both directions and roll her shoulders while maintaining eye contact with Golden Wish.

“Took you long enough,” Golden Wish said, annoyance flickering across her face and infiltrating her tone. “Are you sure you’ve rested enough? Perhaps we can stop for some nice tea and biscuits. I wouldn’t want to face you at anything but your finest, after all.”

Thrust. Parry. Riposte. “This is all a little overblown and theatrical, isn’t it? The only way I could roll my eyes any harder is if you decided to hold this joke of an argument in an actual theater.”

Golden Wish’s eyes narrowed and her cheeks puffed out. “I thought the setting quite fits the gravitas of the situation. There’s an awful lot at stake here, after all, Twilight Sparkle. Besides, it allows for a proper audience reception.”

Golden Wish gestured towards the gallery, and Twilight turned and sucked in a sharp breath through her teeth.

Her friends were there. Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Princess Celestia, and, oddly enough, another Princess Luna. They sat in the front row, stiff as boards and entirely unmoving, their eyes locked straight ahead in an unseeing gaze. They looked more like wax statues than living, breathing ponies.

“You’ve got a pretty sick sense of humor, you know that?” Twilight growled under her breath. “Every time I start to forget, just a little, or maybe even start to have a little fun, you always turn it back around and remind me of what an evil bitch you are.”

Golden Wish stared down at her and spoke, her voice ice cold. “Good. I’m the villain, after all.”

There was resounding crash, and Twilight spun to find a large stone tablet embedded in the floor and a cloud of dust flying out across the courtroom. The tablet was quickly followed by a matching pair which materialized from the ceiling and dropped down as Twilight shielded herself, coughing quietly.

The two tablets framed the center of the room nicely, and the one on the right started to burn with a bright red flame. Words took form upon it, glowing and looking as though each letter was a window into some sort of molten core. After she stopped coughing and stopped to examine it more closely, Twilight recognized the words as the red truths already spoken, or written, as it were.

“The terms of our game,” Golden Wish announced, gesturing to the tablets, “as already established. If you want to beat me, Twilight, you’ll have to tear open each and every closed room and expose its ugly guts to the world at large. Including, of course, our newest four.”

Twilight’s eyes flicked over the assembled truths. It was a handy reference, though it lacked the full context each was given in. She would have to remember to consider each one with even more caution than normal. “Fine. Let’s tackle this little ‘closed room loop’ of yours you seem proud of. Give me some red truths so we have a place to get started.”

Golden Wish clucked her tongue and shook her head. “Now now. Just demanding that I give you the answers. How delightfully ostentatious of you.”

Twilight idly tapped a hoof on the ground, saying nothing.

“Very well,” Golden Wish said, letting out an overblown sigh. “I suppose I can start with that much, since we’re such good friends and all. The bedrooms of Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie are all individually Golden Closed Rooms. Furthermore, the ‘Closed Room Loop’ will be defined as all four rooms together.”

No magic. No hidden doors. Windows locked from the inside. Those were the basic premises of the game, and she had confirmed most of those truths during her own investigation anyway. If this were a real murder scene, she could never be one hundred percent certain that magic wasn’t used, or that there wasn’t a hidden door hidden so cleverly that she’d never find it, but in a world of fiction backed by Knocks’ laws, if she couldn’t find it, it might as well not exist.

“That was already a given,” Twilight said, checking to see that the new truth was inscribed on the stone tablet below the others. “What about the keys?”

“What about them? Do you have some kind of theory that involves the keys in some way?”

Twilight fixed Golden Wish with a level stare. “Are you seriously going to make me do this? If such a lame answer was actually the solution I’d just leave now and eat the book.”

Golden Wish threw her head back in a high pitched giggle. “Wouldn’t that be a sight to see? Come on, Twilight! Think of it as a warm up exercise, get that blood pumping!”

Twilight rolled her eyes and fired up her horn. The magic that came to her felt different than the facsimile of a truth spell she had acted out with Fluttershy. Here in the realm of fiction it became real, became law. The aura of her horn glowed a fierce blue instead of its usual violet, and the energy that flowed through it felt strange and almost alien.

Rather than lashing out with violence, Twilight conjured a giant, glowing blue fountain pen, which slowly began to inscribe words on the empty tablet to the left of her, in time with her speech. “There are multiple copies of each key, or a single master key that can open all rooms. With either of these, the Closed Room Loop falls apart instantly.”

A faint tension settled around her awareness as she finished speaking, and the glowing blue letters she had written down pulsed with power. “Happy now?”

Golden Wish smiled bright, and actually pranced around a bit. “See! That wasn’t so hard, was it? I mean, you’re totally wrong, of course, but we can’t just bring out the big guns right away. Dance with me, Twilight! In the Closed Room Loop, there is only a single key in existence that can open each door, and all four keys are currently in your possession.”

There was a resounding crack that rang out through her mind, and she flinched as her blue inscription was struck from the tablet. The backlash of the disrupted energy didn’t necessarily hurt her, but uncomfortable would be an overly mild way of describing the sensation.

Golden Wish’s eyes glittered at Twilight’s reaction. “What’s the matter Twilight, too intense? I could turn it down a bit for you if you like. Or maybe you’re ready to ratchet it up to hyper violence instead?”

Twilight placed a hoof against her brow and took a deep breath, counting in her head. All of it, from the fluid and unpredictable manifestations of the logic battle, to Golden Wish’s consistent needling; it was all designed to make her angry, to distract her from finding the truth. Golden Wish had a pretty decent poker face, but Twilight was beginning to sense a strong undercurrent of desperation in the alicorn. Whatever she was hiding, she was absolutely terrified of Twilight uncovering it.

She felt eyes boring into her skull and turned up to see Infinite Miracle watching her implacably. When their eyes met, her lips curled into an almost imperceptible smile and she nodded faintly.

It was time for Twilight to make her move.

Simply throwing out random blue truths wasn’t going to do her any good. If she was going to break this wide open, she would have to construct a theory from the ground up; a theory that wove itself into a narrative that answered whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit.

Easier said than done, of course, but it had been long enough since the initial drama with Fluttershy, and she had seen the story from so many perspectives that she should finally be able to pull it off.

“Alright, Goldy. I’m going to start from the beginning. First, a very simple premise that I probably should have clarified a long time ago. The Culprit is the same for every story and every closed room.

Golden Wish bit her lip, her brow furrowed in thought.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “That’s the truth, isn’t it? Surely you can’t just ignore a basic truth like that, can you?”

“No, it’s not that,” Golden Wish said, shaking her head. “But how are you defining ‘Culprit?’”

That was a fair point, actually. She couldn’t afford to get hung up on definitions this late in the game. “A Culprit is… somepony who deliberately commits an act of murder.” A definition like that technically allowed for multiple culprits, as well as accomplices, whether they were willing or not.

Golden Wish let out a short breath. “Very well. I acknowledge it.”

Twilight watched as her blue truth slowly changed color and became a fierce red. No worries there, then. The same culprit featured in every game.

As for the pony she was going to pin down as the culprit…

“One last thing,” Twilight said, quickly sweeping her gaze over the statuettes of her friends. “There was a red truth right at the end of the second game, but it was given under somewhat dubious circumstances. Can I hear it from you, more clearly? Specifically, the one about the number of ponies in the mansion.”

There are no more than eight ponies in this mansion.

There it was. Knocks 1st already pretty much guaranteed it, but with a hard limit of eight, there was no room for the culprit to be some sort of mystery killer.

The culprit was one of the seven facsimiles watching the proceedings with empty eyes.

It was a pretty obvious conclusion, after all. That was just how mystery novels worked. But to think that one of her friends was capable of committing such atrocities, even in fiction… she hadn’t wanted to even consider it. The very idea made her feel sick and was against everything she stood for.

If she hadn’t been so hopelessly naive, she probably could have solved things the first time around. Since Golden Wish had been kind enough to provide the setting, she might as well play this like a courtroom drama.

The Culprit, is none other than…” Her breath caught in her throat, and she lowered her head, her voice coming out as a bare whisper. “Princess Celestia.

There was no audible gasp from the onlookers, no dramatic sting, no ‘To be continued in the next issue!’. Just silence, and the weight of all eyes upon her.

After an uncomfortably long pause Golden Wish spoke up, her voice carefully neutral. “Can you prove it?”

“I can,” Twilight said, raising her head. “I can provide an all encompassing theory that explains every closed room and provides motive as well.”

“Your own mentor, huh?” Golden Wish asked, her mouth twisting into a grin. “The pony you idolize most in the entire world. That’s gotta sting.”

Twilight didn’t respond, and instead glanced towards Luna, trying to look apologetic for accusing her sister. It wasn’t like she enjoyed the concept, but if that was how the story was written…

Luna’s face was a mask. Literally. Shadows swirled around her head, obscuring her expression. The rest of her body language didn’t seem to convey a sense of panic, and after a momentary start, Twilight realized it must just be another part of Infinite Miracle’s censorship. If Luna knew the truth, then she would have a reaction, one way or another, to the naming of Celestia as the culprit. Just seeing that much could constitute a spoiler.

Another catbox, however minor. Once this was over, she was going to have to add that stupid metaphor onto the growing list of ‘Never Again’s’. Either way, she had to keep pushing forward.

“The first closed room; the shed containing the corpses of Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy. Can we see it?”

Golden Wish waved her horn, and the image of the scene appeared before them, as clear in Twilight’s mind as if it was plucked straight from her memory.

When she had previously tried to conquer the shed in twisted logic battles, the closed room had proven seemingly impenetrable. But there was something she missed, and in her refusal to suspect any of her friends, had probably cost her.

As the scene played out in front of her, Twilight wracked her brain, matching it up with the passages in Fluttershy’s novel.

Breakfast was interrupted, Rainbow Dash pulling her to the crime scene.

The shed was marked with the cutie marks of both corpses inside.

The door was locked, so Twilight was forced to break the door with magic.

The corpses were discovered: Pinkie Pie with her throat slit, Fluttershy mutilated beyond recognition.

Denial, investigation, grief.

“Wait, that’s not right,” Twilight muttered under her breath. She had gotten one of those facts wrong, a simple, basic assumption that was easily overlooked.

Rainbow Dash had told her that the shed door was locked. She had never actually checked for herself. The answer was so blindingly obvious she should have realized it immediately. If only she had been willing to doubt her friends from the start.

The shed door was never locked in the first place! I almost can’t believe it was that easy, but here we are!”

Twilight swung the truth down as if it were a massive hammer, a great blow that shattered the image of the shed before them.

Golden Wish lunged forward, a slender rapier of truth lashing out and deflecting the blow with surprising elegance and power. “Evidence in the shed pointed to the existence of the door being locked!” The image of the shed flickered back, fainter than before, and showed the shattered links of a chain lock scattered across the blood covered floor. “Care to explain that?”

Twilight shook her head. It was just a deflection, not an outright denial. “It’s possible that the culprit or someone else left broken chain links inside in order to provide the illusion of a locked door! Besides, who the hay puts a chain lock on the inside of a garden shed, anyway? I really should have clued in on that earlier.”

“In that case,” Golden Wish said, her voice a low growl. “You’re willing to call Rainbow Dash a liar? I thought you were pinning Celestia as the culprit here, what does this theory have to do with her, anyway?”

From the stands, the puppet of Rainbow Dash turned towards them, her motion unsettlingly stiff. With glistening eyes, she spoke, her voice a strange and distant echo. “Twilight, you really think I…?”

Don’t you dare!” Twilight snarled, her eyes burning with a cold blue flame as she met Golden Wish’s gaze. “Knock’s 9th: It is permitted for observers to let their own conclusions and observations be heard. It’s entirely possible that Rainbow Dash was mistaken or confused about the status of the door being locked. Or that she was a willing accomplice, and deliberately lied. Either way, the lock on that door only exists as the ephemeral truth of blind trust. Easy enough for the culprit to get in and out without any impediment whatsoever.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes and added, “Unless you have anything else you’d like to say?”

Golden Wish bit her lip and her eyes flicked down to the floor. “You still haven’t said how your precious mentor plays into your theory.”

“I’ll get to that,” Twilight said, waving a hoof. “For now, I’ll just focus on the how. But my theory stands.”

There was a hissing sound, and a blue snake darted from the ground, striking from behind Golden Wish as if to hamstring her. The truth settled into an azure manacle and chain, marking the first battle as won.

Peals of laughter erupted from above, and Absolute Certainty pranced around in her box seat. “She’s got you on the ropes already, Goldy, and it’s only the first round! Oh me, oh my, whatever will you do? Do you have any attacks left, or can you only sit there and defend pathetically as Twilight chips away at your pathetic facade? Perhaps if you kneel now and beg for forgiveness, somepony might take pity on you!”

More giggles followed, and Infinite Miracle shot her counterpart a knowing smile that seemed to suggest that, yes, that was exactly what was going to happen.

Twilight was unable to hold back the annoyance that flickered across her face. “I get what brought me here, but just what is it with you and these bozos, anyway?”

Golden Wish grimaced. “Those two… make this all possible. They’ve provided the medium, and maybe a push or two in the direction they prefer. The rest is up to us.”

“Tch.” Twilight spat on the ground, then rolled her shoulders. “Moving on then. The second closed room, with Rarity and Applejack.”

The scene flickered into life once more, and Twilight immediately felt herself grinning. It was pretty much the exact same trick! The closed room was held in place by a lie. By the same alleged accomplice, nonetheless.

Flicking her thoughts forward, it suddenly seemed like every closed room could be solved by taking that into account. That there was a lie holding the construction of each room in place, whether it was one explicit, a misunderstanding, or a false assumption about how each room was put together.

That was the thread of truth she had been missing.

Rainbow Dash lied, or was wrong about the state of the door of the second closed room! It was never locked in the first place!” Twilight howled, and the wave of blue energy swept across the ground, crashing towards Golden Wish like a tsunami of luminescent force.

Golden Wish took a few steps back, but was held in place by the blue chain still around her leg. Gritting her teeth, she slammed a red shield in front of her, and the wave smashed into it and around her. “When Rainbow Dash arrived at Rarity and Applejack’s room, the room was locked!

That couldn’t be right. Twilight quickly glanced over the tablet of inscribed reds, trying to remember what had been denied for this particular room. No windows, no hidden doors, nor magic, obviously. Additionally, no suicide or double murder, and the culprit wasn’t hiding inside the room when it was opened.

Which only left… nothing? No. There was a gaping hole in what Golden Wish had just said, and Twilight was only getting better at noticing such gaps, now that she had turned the chessboard around, so to speak.

“You said that the door was locked, but you left a part out! The door was locked with a key, but the interior chain lock was not set! The culprit just locked and left it, and Rainbow Dash had to bust the door down to get in after all.”

The crimson shield protecting Golden WIsh began to crack, but she held firm, her knees beginning to buckle under the onslaught. “Don’t you remember the scene prior to that one, where Rarity and Applejack reconciled with each other? They specifically locked the door and set the chain behind them!”

Twilight let out a contemptuous snort. “A scene like that, that plays out outside of the eyes of the detective… It might as well just be a complete fabrication, right? Even then, the scene after that was just a fade to black. Anything could have happened. For instance, they could have undone the chain and let a pony in that they thought they knew. Such as say, Princess Celestia. Unless you can provide a specific red saying the chain lock was set when Rainbow Dash arrived, my theory stands!”

The shield of red shattered, and another blue chain snaked out and clamped itself around Golden Wish, leaving both of her rear legs shackled. More raucous giggles erupted from above, and she lowered her head in defeat.

“I’m quite intrigued,” Infinite Miracle said. Her voice was low, but it carried down to Twilight with perfect clarity. “This narrative involving Princess Celestia as the culprit. I’m looking forward to hearing the full breakdown once you’ve torn open every closed room.”

Twilight scrunched her face up as if she had just bitten into a lemon, but swallowed her pride and nodded. “I’m sure it’ll be quite entertaining.”

She paused to glance back at Luna. The censor blocking her face had faded, and Luna gave her a reassuring smile.

“Just follow your heart, Twilight, and I am sure everything will work out in the end.”

Twilight blinked. Follow her heart? With advice as cliche as that, she’d be practically unstoppable! Dry snark aside, the sentiment was still appreciated, and she made sure to smile back.

“That’s two out of five,” Twilight said, facing Golden Wish once more, “do you really think what you have left is going to hold up?”

Golden Wish stood back up, her legs wobbling beneath her. Despite the strain the battle seemed to be placing on her, her eyes remained fierce. “If you think your pathetic theory will hold up til the end, bring it on. I’ll be happy to disabuse you of your fantasy.”

The third closed room. Rarity, savagely beaten to death. Two sets of keys, one locked inside the room, the other sealed into the envelope given to Fluttershy. Under the current theory, the lie was pretty easy to spot.

The murder of the third closed room was committed before the envelope was sealed and passed down to Fluttershy!"

“That doesn’t add up, and you know it!” Golden Wish said, her voice rough. “After Fluttershy received the letter, she went to wake you up, and you heard Applejack and Rarity fighting, still alive.”

“Another fantasy. Outside of my direct observation, there’s no guarantee that the scene happened at the exact time it was shown, if it even happened that way at all.” Twilight punctuated her statement by teleporting across the room, behind Golden Wish, and focusing her will for another strike.

Golden Wish spun to meet her, the chains clattering against each other and twisting painfully. “The key that was placed in the envelope was not used for at least 24 hours before being placed in the envelope, and was not used up until it was removed from the envelope by you!

Twilight’s eyes widened in surprise, and she teleported away just before the blast could strike her, the force of it singing her nostrils. She reoriented to her original position and gathered her power together once more. The truth had stopped her theory cold, but it had given away far too much. If the key in the envelope was never used at all, that just meant the lie was with the other key.

Fluttershy lied or was mistaken about the key locked inside Rarity’s room! It was actually a decoy, and the real key was safely with the culprit! After all, I never bothered to check it.”

Golden Wish’s counterstroke fell apart before it could swing back around, and another blue chain snapped around her right foreleg. She stared down at it, her expression unreadable.

Twilight pushed forward. She had the momentum, and just needed to keep the ball rolling.

The fourth closed room is just another fantasy! No murder actually took place inside, and Applejack lied or was mistaken about what happened. I suspect she was coerced into it, personally, but it’s a little hard to say.”

Golden Wish raised her only free leg in front of her. “There is evidence inside the fourth closed room that points towards a struggle. Even if you want to argue that it was faked, somepony still would have had to place the evidence there with the closed room intact, therefore it still stands!”

With each red truth given, Golden Wish’s position became more and more tenuous, pushing Twilight towards the answer. She could stall, but as long as the gears in Twilight’s head kept turning, her victory was all but inevitable.

Still, that was a tricky dodge. Even if the evidence was faked, the key had been melted inside the room. Unless…

The key was destroyed after the room was sealed up, with a fake melted key left in its place!

The final chain snapped around Golden Wish’s left foreleg, and she stood there, pinned and unable to move.

Twilight walked forward, stopping when her face was a few inches from her opponents. “All that’s left is your closed room loop. Are you ready for this?”

Golden Wish let out a long sigh. “Just get it over with, Twilight. Maybe this is for the best after all.”

Twilight began to pace, walking circles around the pinned alicorn. Four rooms, a chain of keys linking them together. A possible solution might present itself if she figured the loop was ended internally, but it didn’t quite mesh with her theory with Princess Celestia as the culprit, since she wasn’t a victim.

She stopped, sweeping her gaze over the rest of the courtroom. The statuettes of her friends continued to stare forward blankly. Luna gave her another smile, but Twilight looked past her, at the great stained glass windows adorning the courtroom walls. Behind them was just an endless void, devoid of anything resembling substance, yet an ephemeral light shone through them regardless.

The windows...

“That’s it!” Twilight cried out. Just because the windows were locked from the inside didn’t mean nothing could be affected through them, even without magic! Especially with a culprit who could fly.

Twilight leaned forward and placed her hoof on Golden Wish’s shoulder, practically whispering the truth into her ear. “Princess Celestia, through the window, coerced or threatened somepony into taking their own life, closing the chain. Judging by how each of the rooms was set up, my guess would be Fluttershy, but it could technically be anypony.”

Golden Wish turned to face her, her eyes hollow. “Nopony committed suicide. Everypony was killed by the hooves of another pony.

Twilight took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Princess Celestia wounded somepony fatally, threw them in through their bedroom window, and convinced them to lock it behind them. Afterwards, they bled out. Again, Fluttershy seems the likely candidate.”

“So close, yet so far…” Golden Wish muttered. Her eyes fell, and the final chain snapped around her neck. There was a grinding sound, and she was slowly lifted into the air, the chains becoming taut and leaving her hanging in the air, spread eagled.

Applause suddenly rumbled through the courtroom from the assembled shadows, feeling somewhat stiff and unnatural. In a flash, Infinite Miracle was at her side.

“Beautifully done, Twilight. I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me. Although I must admit, they were rather clever in their deception, even if the design was simple.”

Twilight took a step back out of sheer reflex, then mentally chided herself for being so skittish. “It took me a long time to see the underlying pattern, but here we are now.”

Infinite Miracle held her gaze on the trussed up Alicorn before her for what seemed like several minutes. “It’s time, then. Weave your final story tying this all together and E X E C U T E Golden Wish.”

Twilight closed her eyes and felt the world shift around her briefly. When she opened them again, she was no longer facing her opponent as an equal, but looking down on her from the perspective of a judge.

The way Infinite Miracle had phrased it was certainly distasteful, but… it was what she came here to do, after all, wasn’t it?

“Fillies and Gentlecolts!” Twilight called out. There were only four real ponies to hear her speech, but she might as well go through the motions. “As the instigator of this challenge, I have dismantled each and every closed room placed before me! How each murder was committed is now clear. But we still must examine the culprit, the motive, and the story behind the story."

With a quick apologetic glance towards Luna, Twilight began. “The crux of this story is thus; Princess Celestia, and the pony of legend known as Princess Wishlight are one and the same.

“Whether or not the details of the legend are exactly as described, or perhaps a carefully constructed fiction on Celestia’s part, I believe the core premise of a power that grants wishes, a meeting with the dragon, a romance, and a child are all true. At least, in the context of this story.

“However, rather than dying in childbirth, it was their child who was lost. Driven mad with grief, Princess Celestia devised a plan to bring her daughter back. But even the power of a wish was not enough; to defy this reality, she would have to perform a deliberate sacrifice of far greater value than what she was to receive in return.”

Twilight took a deep breath, pausing, before conjuring a series of lights into the air that formed the words of the poem that had haunted her since the very first game.

“From a wish sprouts a seed of power

To grant your heart's deepest desire

Bless this seed with your greatest love

But this love must be born in blood

In death lies truth – the heart laid bare

No sacrifice too great

Abandon self

Rend asunder, and begin anew.”

“Princess Celestia cultivated her sacrifices with love and blood: me and my friends. The Elements of Harmony, everything we went through together? It was all for this. It was a long con, but she had time.

“The ritual required her to abandon herself, and perform the sacrifices as if she had none of her normal abilities. By creating the image of Golden Wish as the killer that we all believed in, our fear, our hate, and our power could all be directed to that goal of bringing her into this world. As an alicorn myself, personally groomed by Princess Celestia as if I were to be her successor, I was to be be the vessel that hosted the spirit of her daughter reborn.”

Twilight felt sick to her stomach; Princess Celestia was like a second mother to her, and she loved her dearly. Even thinking her way through a theory like this, let alone speaking it in judgment, made her want to scrub her brain clean with steel wool, do some sort of penance, and beg forgiveness from her mentor.

But this was just fiction, and with the stroke of a pen, the kindest pony alive could be transformed into an unrepentant monster.

“In the first game, Princess Celestia approached Rainbow Dash in order to include her as an accomplice. Rainbow Dash is a loyal pony who would never agree to hurt her friends like that, but she can be a bit naive. She was brought in believing that it was a mere prank, that nopony was actually going to get hurt.

“Celestia painted the symbols on the doors as part of the ritual, murdered Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy, and stuffed them in the shed. She hid herself in the library while I slept, and instructed Rainbow Dash to lie about the shed being locked. Following that, she and Luna had a rather strong disagreement over what was happening, so Celestia had her incinerated and left her horn in the boiler as a warning to all of us. She wasn’t technically a part of the ritual, so the usual restrictions of closed rooms did not apply.

“Later, after they had separated from the rest of us, she murdered Rarity and Applejack, probably after getting invited into their room and helping them through their relationship issues to get their guard down. Rainbow Dash caught her right as she was locking the door and flew off. When Rainbow Dash was confronted with the undeniable truth that her friends were actually dying, she attempted to destroy the mansion, so Princess Celestia struck her from the sky.

“At the final confrontation, the mansion was engulfed in dragonfire from below. Either as a final part of the ritual, or perhaps an attempt to stop it. I cannot say.”

Twilight watched as Golden Wish hung limply, no longer reacting to anything she was saying.

“The second game proceeded much like the first. Princess Celestia swapped the labels on the keys when she murdered Rarity, and convinced Applejack to lie by letting her believe that Rarity could be brought back to life. The novel was unfinished, but I suspect it would have ended in the same cleansing fire as the first.”

A cold shudder ran down her spine, and Twilight wiped the sweat from her brow. “I think the picture is pretty clear at this point. Princess Celestia is the culprit, she used lies and deception to create the illusions of closed rooms, and she murdered us all in order to bring back her daughter, Golden Wish. What do you think, everypony?”

Her judgement was met with a long, stunned silence from everyone but Infinite Miracle, who was giving her a slow, approving clap. “Excellent. Most excellent. You’ve uncovered truths I never even thought possible, and to think that they’re even narratively succinct!”

Twilight glanced over at Absolute Certainty, who seemed to be eying Golden Wish with a cold stare. Luna had turned away, a pained and distant look in her eyes. And Golden Wish…

“Well? Do you have anything to say for yourself, Goldie? This is the story as it's written, isn’t it?”

Golden Wish looked up to meet Twilight’s gaze, and her eyes were wild with what almost seemed like madness. She threw back her head and laughed, cackling wildly.

It wasn’t the arrogant cackle of victory, but the bitter laugh of someone who has lost absolutely everything.

“Yes, that’s right! You wanted to try your hand at shaping this story, too, Twilight! Your fiction is far more grander than anything I could have come up with. Do it! Finish me! You win, this victory is yours!”

Golden Wish continued howling with mad laughter, and Twilight bit her lip, looking away. This was the right path, wasn’t it?

Twilight called forth a massive blue axe. She spread her wings and jumped down from the platform to hover in front of Golden Wish. It didn’t feel right, but… “Do you have anything else you’d like to say for yourself?”

Golden Wish choked, trying to catch her breath from laughter, before she wheezed, “I’d love to see Fluttershy’s face when you so ruthlessly dismantle her story.”

Twilight grimaced, the raised the axe high above her head. Before she could even begin to bring it down, there was a blur of motion, and Absolute Certainty was behind Golden Wish. Her face was twisted into a snarl, and Golden Wish howled sudden pain as tiny threads of pink energy pierced her flesh in a thousand different places.

Absolute Certainty brought her face right next to Golden Wish’s, lightly nibbling on the trussed up alicorn's ear as manic glee danced through her eyes. “I know for a fact you have at least one more trump card left, Goldie dearest. You’re not going to give up without giving it everything you have, are you? That just wouldn’t. Be. Very. Fun!” She punctuated her last few words by twisting and wrenching the magic that pierced Golden Wish’s flesh.

Golden Wish let out a sound that was halfway between a giggle and a sob. “Go to hell.”

The shadows began to darken around Absolute Certainty until only her eyes and her twisted grin were visible. “Not even death can save you from me.” She jerked the strings upwards, manipulating her limbs like a living puppet, and Golden Wish cried out in renewed agony.

Twilight felt a low growl escape from her own lips. “Stop it! This is between me and her, I don’t need you interfering!”

Absolute Certainty flashed her a insanely normal smile, as if she were just greeting her on the street while she tortured her vassal. “I’m just motivating her, Twilight! She was about to give up and let you go on with your mistaken assumptions! You wanted to face her at her best, and find out absolutely everything about the truth, didn’t you?”

With a flash, Absolute Certainty vanished back to her seat, slouching as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

Golden Wish let out a low groan, then met Twilight’s eyes. Tears ran down her cheeks, but her eyes burned with a raging inferno. “Useless. It's all useless. There’s one question you didn’t answer, Twilight.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure I covered everything, but if you think there’s an area that's sorely lacking, I’ll be happy to explain that as well.”




Twilight shook her head. “I already answered that, and I laid out the motive pretty clearly.”

“Not your stupid motive,” Golden Wish growled, “the real question: Why?” She darted her eyes around the room and gestured with her hooves in an all encompassing way, though her movement was restricted. “What did you come here in order to really find?”

Fluttershy. She had come here to find the culprit, sure, but the ultimate purpose was to find out why Fluttershy had written this whole story in the first place. Her theory made plenty of logical sense, it fit together as a full narrative, but when she looked at it from Fluttershy’s perspective… why?

“I don’t know… but when I approach her with the theory, I’m sure she’ll tell me.”

Golden Wish snorted. She flexed at her bonds somewhat, and her voice was dripping with utter contempt and deadly venom. “You don’t deserve her.”

Princess Celestia and Luna never arrived at the mansion, and in no way had any physical effect on the events that took place there! This applies to all games.

Twilight’s vision turned red, and she felt the strangling cords around her own body, her neck in an instant. They were never there? Than that meant…

“The number of ponies at the mansion was up to eight,” Twilight choked out. “That just leaves room for you as a culprit!”

Golden Wish’s bitter laughter rang through her ears. “There are no more than six ponies in the mansion!

Well, there went that theory. Unless one of her friends was secretly playing double duty with another… no, that would just be silly. She had put so much into it. It was a disgusting theory, all and all, but she had wanted it to be true. She hadn’t really wanted to consider the alternative.

She heard a voice calling her name, Luna, probably. She was a bit worried, but Luna was capable enough. She’d be able to find her way back on her own.

She suddenly felt Golden Wish’s breath, hot on her ear, whispering harshly. “You’ve got one last chance, Twilight. Take a nap, sort yourself out, and face the truth, or succumb to oblivion.”

Darkness took her.

Chapter 23 - The Heart of an Author

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It was all way too obvious. The clues were everywhere, and they had been staring her straight in the face since book one. She should have put the dots together a subjective eternity ago.

And, on some level, she thought she had done just that, at least unconsciously. But rather than fully examine the implications of what a truth like that might bring into the light, she had constructed a theory that threw Princess Celestia of all ponies under the bus in an effort to divert the story in a direction she preferred.

And even now, she thought that she might prefer the comfort of her version of the story that had been so savagely denied.

“And the last pony crosses the finish line! Give her a round of applause, everypony!”

A familiar voice interrupted Twilight’s inner monologue, and she groaned, straining to return to full consciousness. As her eyes fluttered and her vision cleared, she came to the realization that she was in the void. A soft red light reflected off the mirror in front of her.

She could see that she was trussed up in thick red chains, hanging in a position that would have been absurdly uncomfortable had gravity been doing its job. She was bruised and battered, and her eyes showed her a soul deep weariness.

That is, until her mirror self scoffed and rolled her eyes.

Twilight blinked in confusion, and as her depth perception kicked in, she realized that it wasn’t a mirror she was staring into at all. Her doppelganger was trussed up directly in front of her, in a manner reminiscent of...

“You’re Twilight! The one from Fluttershy’s second novel. The Meta-Twilight that was beaten down by Golden Wish. Since the novel never ended, we never learned what happened to you.”

“Call me Sparkle,” she said, letting out a light sigh, “it’ll be less confusing that way.”

Twilight frowned. “But what are you doing here? It’s not like anything that happens in the world between worlds makes much sense in the first place, but this is pushing it a little bit, isn’t it?”

Sparkle’s face lit up with a pained grin. “Maybe I’m not really here after all,” she said, coughing. “I could just be an aspect of your subconscious here to guide you on your final path to the truth. A metaphor for your internal struggles.”

It was Twilight’s turn to roll her eyes. “I know for a fact I’m not this obnoxious.”

“Maybe not,” Sparkle said, shrugging. “Fluttershy was the one who wrote me, after all.”

That reminder was a sobering weight on her chest. “Fluttershy, she…“

Sparkle fixed her with a hard stare. “Spell it out, Twi. You’ve got nothing to hide from anymore. Not even yourself. We’ll work through the whole thing together.”

Twilight bit her lip and looked away.

“Start from the red truth you got. Celestia and Luna were never a part of the story to begin with. What does that mean?”

“That every scene featuring Celestia and Luna was a complete and utter fabrication,” Twilight said. She tested the bonds holding her own legs taut, and found them nearly immoveable.

“But even if those scenes were fantasy, we were still told of their existence, weren’t we?”

Twilight swallowed. “It means that anything Fluttershy, or on at least one occasion, Applejack, said in regards to interacting with them was a deliberate lie.” A bit too hastily, perhaps, she added, “But that doesn’t mean that Fluttershy is the culprit!”

“Maybe,” Sparkle said, waving a hoof dismissively. “But it’s about as suspicious as you can get. And come on, this is end game. How many other options do you have? Six ponies total. We didn’t murder anyone, so that leaves five suspects. And it can’t be Rarity and Applejack, so that leaves us with three.”

“Wait, hold on,” Twilight said. “What do you mean it can’t be Rarity and Applejack? I mean, I don’t really think it is, but we can’t just rule them out as a matter of course.”

Sparkle took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Second closed room. Applejack and Rarity didn’t commit suicide, nor did they kill each other. Somepony else murdered them. The culprit is the same in every game, and is a pony who deliberately commits an act of murder. Therefore, neither Applejack or Rarity can be be the culprit.”

Twilight let out a low whistle. “Wow, I didn’t even catch that. You’re pretty good.”

“I’d like to think it comes from judiciously applied study habits.”

“Seriously! It’s something everypony takes for granted, but it really takes a lot of work to get to where I am.”

Twilight felt herself smile, even if the situation wasn’t one that warranted levity. It quickly faded.

“But still… Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, or Rainbow Dash? Are those really our options?”

Sparkle let her head sag a bit. “Simple process of elimination, really. But… you know as well as I do where it all really leads.”

“But Fluttershy died in every story! How can she be the the culprit if she’s dead, huh?”

Sparkle rolled her eyes. “When the detective investigates something, it’s as good as the red truth. But in the first game, I never looked closely at her body. In the second, I never saw it at all. The third is on you, but I’m sure you can figure out that puzzle if you think about it.”

Twilight’s stomach began to twist itself into knots. “There’s a still a chance that it could be…”

Sparkle just shook her head.

She could feel the tears beginning to form in her eyes. “But that just can’t be the answer. It can’t!”

“Do you really believe that, Twilight? Or do you just not want it to be true!"

"You don't understand what that would mean!" Twilight screamed, her voice breaking. Days of pent up frustration and unease at what she was now forced to confront were taking their toll. "If Fluttershy really is the culprit, if she wrote herself in as the culprit..."

Twilight paled and felt like she wanted to empty the contents of her stomach. "Anypony else, I could begrudgingly accept as the murderer. I wouldn't like it, but I could at least accept that as being fiction."

Sparkle continued to watch her in silence, her eyes filled with pain and understanding.

"But are you really trying to tell me that Fluttershy spent Celestia knows how long agonizing over a story, begging me to solve it, pleading for me to give it a chance and find the answer, driving herself half mad; only for the answer to be that Fluttershy callously murdered all of her friends? How am I supposed to take that? How should anypony possibly respond to something like that?"

"That's part two, isn't? We're finally forced to accept that the culprit was Fluttershy. Now, like Golden Wish asked, we have to figure out why."

Twilight grunted, the sound strangely hollow. "Does it even matter? Would I even really want to know the answer to that?”

Sparkle shook her head. "You're missing something here, Twi. Those books; my story. There's more to them than ponies getting murdered, isn't there?"

Twilight frowned. That was true, and yet...

"You're talking about stuff like the love story between Rarity and Applejack, the weird stuff about Princess Wishlight and the dragon, and the meta-narrative between you and Golden Wish, right? I could just be a cynic and assume it's all just there to give flavor to the tragedy."

Sparkle nodded slowly. "You could do that, yes, but even as down as you are right now, I know that isn't how you want to approach the world."

Twilight bit her lip and said nothing.

"Look, the way I see it, there are three possibilities. One: Fluttershy is absolutely bonkers, and she wrote this in order to hurt you, or as a cry for help to stop her for doing something terrible, or as a warning, etc. Whether or not it's true, do you want to believe it?"

Twilight found herself unable to meet her own eyes. "Even though I can't think of the alternatives... I still don't want something like that to be true. Fluttershy is one of the sweetest ponies I know. At least, that I thought I knew."

"Right," Sparkle said. She moved one of her hooves as if she were checking off an item on a list. "I don't want to believe that, either. "Option two: Fluttershy is a victim in this too. You've gotten involved with some pretty shady characters in all of this, and it's possible that Absolute Certainty roped her into this from the beginning, that Fluttershy was just another pawn in their game."

Twilight frowned. "It would certainly make a good deal of sense. The extent of their involvement is pretty vague, and Fluttershy has definitely been acting strange since the very beginning. But at the same time... Free will isn't subsumed so easily, and above anything else, Fluttershy was so utterly sincere in her desire for me to find the truth. Even if she was only pushed into it a little, there would have to be something there to start from."

Sparkle grinned, her eyes glinting in the soft red light. "And that brings us to option three: You're missing something here, and there's something that Fluttershy was trying to convey to you that extends beyond a mere murder mystery, the ultimate theme and point of the story as a whole. Maybe a little bit of ‘all of the above’ thrown in for good measure."

Twilight almost started to grind her teeth, but stopped herself. "And what, might I ask, could that possibly be?"

Sparkle's insufferable grin morphed into something even more insufferable. "Figure it out for yourself. You’ve come this far, haven’t you? It’s just a little bit further.”

“If I remember correctly,” Twilight said, rolling her eyes, “you’re the protagonist of the novel, here. Why don’t you tell me what it looks like from your perspective?”

“But that’s just it, Twilight. We’re all the protagonists of our own story. But this one in particular is all meant for you. The setting, the themes, the murders, the love story, the legends. The mystery of who lies behind the mask of Golden Wish. It all leads to one singular truth. An insanely complicated, insanely stupid, insanely desperate, simply insane truth. One of the simplest of them all, really.”


Twilight froze. Her heart thundered in her chest, and her body began to heat up. She opened her mouth to speak, but her mouth was suddenly dry, and it took her several tries to get started. “It… it can’t really be that simple, can it?”

Sparkle let out a soft giggle. “I’m pretty adorable when I’m flustered.”

“Why couldn’t she have just said something?”

“Beats me,” Sparkle said, shrugging. “Who am I, to know the heart of an author?”

“What am I supposed to do, with a conclusion like that? I don’t know if I can even… it’s just too much.”

“Talk to her, obviously. Use your words like an adult. Would have been great if that’s what happened from the start, but we’re already here, and now all we can do is move forward.”

A giggle erupted from Twilight’s chest unbidden. It sounded almost mad to her ears. “I’d have to get back first, I’m a little tied up at the moment.”

“You know the truth now. You should be able to focus and break your bonds at any time. But while whatever happens in reality is up to you, you still have a story out there that needs an ending.”

Twilight nodded, lifting her head up and staring into the void. Somewhere, her body slept in a hospital bed. Her friends were there, worried for her and waiting for her to come back. And Fluttershy… she would have to burn that bridge when she came to it.

“Golden Wish,” Twilight said. “She’s out there too. The battle you started and lost; I need to finish it. But how am I supposed to approach her, knowing that she’s really…”

Sparkle flashed her teeth. “Regardless of how you actually feel, wouldn’t it be a lot grander if you faithfully play the role of the hero for this one?”

Twilight could already picture it in her head. “Yeah… that sounds about right. Thank you for everything. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“No problem, kid.”


“I’m written to be five years older than you, remember?”

There was a golden flash of light, and the chains around both of them disappeared, leaving them floating in the void unrestrained. “You… can’t come with me to help, can you?’

Sparkle shook her head. “My story has already ended. I don’t have the freedom to go beyond that.”

Twilight took a few tentative steps forward, finding solid ground underneath her hooves and then threw her forelegs around her fictional self in a tight hug. “Anything you want me to say to Golden Wish for you?”

Sparkle squeezed her back. “Just make it flashy.”

Twilight stepped back and took a deep breath. She wiped at her eyes, stretched, cracked the bones in her neck, and took another deep breath for good measure.

It was time.


Absolute Certainty paced back and forth in front of the stands, eying each pony sitting there one by one. She stopped in front of the Celestia simulacrum and poked it with her hoof. It went straight through, and the image flickered slightly before disappearing entirely.

“Say, Goldie, now that we’ve won, I bet there’s all sorts of different games we could play with these five. I’m sure I can convince Mira to do a few more, and I’m sure she can dig up some other pony willing to play with us for a while. Might even be more competent than poor little Twi-Twi.” She punctuated her final statement by purposefully glancing towards the solid red ball of truth that sealed Twilight inside.

“I don’t know,” Infinite Miracle said, idly pushing her mane back over her shoulder. “This was fairly entertaining, but it might get boring if we let it drag on too long.”

“Aww, come on!” Absolute Certainty teleported, her eyes wide and pleading. “Miraaaaa, we just didn’t get enough mileage out of these two!”

Infinite Miracle leaned over and bit down on Absolute Certainty’s ear, hard enough to draw blood, eliciting a cry that probably had nothing to do with pain. “You shouldn’t underestimate me so, dearest Abby. We still have to close this gameboard up with an epilogue, don’t we?”

Golden Wish stirred from where she sat in the corner, looking over at the mismatched pair with hollow eyes.

Absolute Certainty squirmed, bursting out into a fit of giggles. “If you’ve got a last trump card left to play, then play it! I absolutely cannot accept it if everyone doesn’t go all out!”

Infinite Miracle snorted, releasing her grip. “If that piece of mine was truly beaten by such a weak counter, then she didn’t deserve my blessing in the first place.”

A thunderous crack split the air, resonating from the sphere that held Twilight Sparkle. A torrent of wind whipped across the courtroom, kicking up dust and debris in every direction. A glorious golden light shimmered from the crack that appeared in the sphere, which was quickly followed by more, like the hatching of a giant egg.

“You really do have good timing, Mira.”

“Hmph. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

There was a blinding flash, and Twilight Sparkle returned from oblivion. Power radiated from her, and her eyes glowed with a solid golden light. When she spoke, her voice echoed with a radiant energy. “Golden Wish. It’s time to face your judgement.”

Absolute Certainty teleported over to Golden Wish, giggling hysterically. “You see that light, don’t you? You know what that means, don’t you? It’s game over, sweetheart. She’s got your number, and there’s nothing left for you to do except face the firing squad. It’s checkmate!”

Golden Wish rose to her feet, her legs wobbling slightly. She slowly walked over until she was standing in front of time, raising a hoof to shield her eyes from Twilight’s brilliance. “Do it.”

Twilight stared at her impassively, the thrum of her power an audible buzz in the air.

Infinite Miracle floated down behind her, to the point where she was hovering over her shoulder. “I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me. I task you as judge, jury and executioner. Tear out her ugly soul for the whole world to see. Than pronounce her fate. I’ll leave the exact punishment up to you.”

Twilight’s horn flared, and a golden longsword materialized as pure energy in front of her. “I’m going to start from the beginning, and cut the truth from the fiction. Do you have anything you’d like to say for yourself?”

Golden Wish shook her head.

“First Game, First Closed Room:

A golden lie of peace buys misguided loyalty.

A rainbow lie locks an illusion.

A bloody lie hides the culprit with a discarded feather.”

Twilight shot forward, her sword cleaving through Golden Wish in time with her words. Each stroke cut her very essence, scattering motes of gold like thousands of burning embers across the room in wide arcs.

Golden Wish howled in pain, but remained standing.

“First Game, Second Closed Room:

A bitter fight is hidden behind the lie of a happy couple.

A familiar face begets a trojan horse.

A culprit with bloody hooves leaves Loyalty conflicted.”

Her assault was relentless, each word striking to the core of the truth. There wasn’t any need for reds or blues. It simply was.

“First Game, Requiem:

A prop consumed in fire creates the illusion of sisterhood.

A flash of golden steel in the darkness interrupts the coming of the storm.

The cleansing flame wipes the slate clean, sealing events forever to fiction.”

The motes of light now filled the entire room, floating like flower petals dancing in the breeze. There was a sort of haunting, destructive beauty to it all.

Golden Wish coughed, falling to her knees. She took a deep breath, preparing for the next onslaught, but it didn’t come as expected. “What are you waiting for?” she growled.

Twilight took a deep breath, closing her eyes. The radiant light in the room dimmed for a brief moment.

“Second Game, First Closed Room:

Surrounded by red herrings, a friend beats a friend bloody.

An envelope full of lies handed out by a liar.

The mis-identification of the true key leads eyes to false truths.”

“Second Game, Second Closed Room:

Golden lies corrupt Honesty with promises of love returned.

An illusion of battle, a lie of ambush.

A scene shows what it is meant to show, no more, no less.

A truth given in the future hides a gap in the past.”

“Second Game, Requiem:

A golden conflict brings truth to light.

Colorful truths dance like couples at a ball.

An ending lost in the oblivion of memory.

Conjured in part by nightmare, only tragedy remains.”

“Endgame, Closed Room Loop:

A circle, infinite, can only end where it begins.

Defense of self and of loved ones can strike a powerful blow.

A sealed window behind, a deep wound, and all that’s left is to bleed until life fades away.”

After each strike and truth revealed, Golden Wish had faded, and only a transparent flicker now remained. Twilight held the sword at her side, walking forward until she was face to face with her opponent.

Golden Wish smiled, and closed her eyes.

Twilight raised the sword far above her head.

“Endgame: Requiem.”

Twilight shot forward, letting the sword dissipate into nothing and locking her lips with Golden Wish.

Her eyes widened in utter shock as she faded completely, flickering into a final mote as she vanished.

Her own radiance gone, Twilight watched as the thousands of scattered lights across the room suddenly flared, coalescing into the shape of a pony in front of her, one far smaller and significantly less menacing than Golden Wish.

Her own cheeks still burning, Twilight met Fluttershy’s eyes as the illusion covering her was finally dispelled.

“I don’t understand,” Fluttershy mumbled, looking away. “You should just finish me. I’m guilty, Twilight. I killed all of them with my own hooves.”

Twilight fidgeted back and forth on her hooves. “I know that, Fluttershy. It’s not even that I’m okay with it or forgive you or anything, but what kind of story would this be if I just executed you on the spot? In the end, the heroine is supposed to save the day, and the guy. Or girl, in this case.”

Fluttershy’s eyes narrowed, and she let out a snort. “You’ve made a mistake. I’m not Fluttershy, Twilight. I’m just a fictional character, written in her image. Whatever her own feelings are, I don’t love you. I’m just a poorly thought out tool of the narrative meant to guide you towards reaching the truth about the real Fluttershy. And I even failed to do that much.”

“O-oh.” Well, it wasn’t quite the answer she was expecting, but it would have to do. “I told you from the beginning, didn’t I? That I was going to take this story on myself, and achieve the ending I wanted. Even if everything has changed since then, I won’t give up on that dream.”

“Twilight…” Fluttershy stopped, shaking her head. “I don’t understand. Your place is with the real Fluttershy. Go to her. You deserve a lot better than her, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter what you do after this. I’m not a part of it anymore. You should just finish me off and let me rest in oblivion.”

Twilight shook her head and took a step back. “I have every intention of having a nice long talk with Fluttershy when I get back, but to do that, I’m going to need your help.”

The eyes on her back felt like cold daggers digging into her spine, and Twilight spun to face Infinite Miracle.

“Where’s Luna?”

“She left as soon you went under the last time. Guess she didn’t care enough to stick around. Some friend she is.”

Good. Luna was more than competent enough to find her way back on her own.

“In that case, I found out the truth; Fluttershy was the culprit, she wrote the novels because… because she’s in love with me. It’s as messed up as messed up can be, but I’ll deal with that myself. I’d like to wake up now.”

Infinite Miracle narrowed her eyes. “I wanted you to entertain me, Twilight Sparkle, and while this twisted tale certainly wins in concept, I find it somewhat lacking in… execution.” The way her eyes flickered towards Golden Wish as she spoke told her all that she needed to know.

Twilight moved to block her gaze. “I wanted a happy ending. That’s all I’ve really ever wanted since the beginning. I’m going to get one, and I’m going to do it without becoming your pet monster.”

Absolute Certainty let out a high pitched squeal from somewhere in the bleachers. “She’s on to you, Mira! Your motivations really are quite transparent, you know.”

Twilight turned to face Absolute Certainty, a wordless challenge in her eyes.

“Ooh, so scary!” With a wave of her horn, a small bucket of popcorn appeared in front of her and she began shoveling some into her mouth. “Don’t mind me!”

A small smirk played at the corner of Infinite Miracle’s lips. “Are you really sure you want to play it this way? You won’t like the results.”

Fluttershy placed a hoof on her shoulder. “Twilight, please, don’t. I’m not worth it.”

Twilight lifted a hoof of her own to cup Fluttershy’s and turned to meet her gaze. “There’s been enough bloodshed here for a thousand lifetimes.”

Infinite Miracle’s eyes flashed. “So be it. Something like this is pretty fun, too.”

The room began to shake, and with a flick of her horn, the shadows in the room coalesced into an empty scythe that floated above Infinite Miracle. With a callous swing, reality itself began to tear open like the pages of a book, and the void yawned beyond. Hungry eyes stared out at them from the darkness, and her horn began to glow a fierce scarlet as her voice shook with fury and thunder.

“As the Arbiter of Miracles, I do solemnly declare…”

~*Tea Party*~

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With a roar of sound and a rush of wind, the courtroom was gone, and only the void remained. There was a low growl, and hungry eyes stared out at her from the darkness. There were hundreds, thousands, millions of them, as vast and numerous as the infinite stars in the sky.

“Okay…” Twilight said, her voice cracking. She took a hesitant step backwards and found herself pressing even closer to Fluttershy. “I suddenly feel less defiant than I did ten seconds ago. Thoughts?”

Fluttershy’s eyes darted back and forth, trying to take in every threat at once. While Twilight would have expected a much stronger terror response from the real Fluttershy, this one was apparently made of sterner stuff.

“You know,” Twilight muttered under her breath, “it would be awfully silly if I spent all this time going through this big journey of discovery and self reflection only to get torn apart by a swarm of hungry cats at the end.”

Fluttershy nodded, a slight smile playing at her lips. “It would kind of wreck my entire raison d'être.”

Twilight suppressed a chuckle. They were back to back now, watching the horde from every angle. They hadn’t pounced yet, simply waiting for them out in the darkness. “You know, you really are different from the Fluttershy I know.”

Fluttershy snorted haughtily, a familiar arrogant tone entering her voice that sounded almost alien coming from the shy pegasus. “I am an Alicorn Princess in my own right, after all. More than capable of standing with you as an equal.”

“Standing with me as my equal…? Fluttershy, you didn't really think I would care about something as trivial as that, did you?”

She hadn’t been talking to the Fluttershy next to her, but she looked away all the same.

Shaking her head, Twilight began to channel magic into her horn. The surge of energy she had experienced upon the realization of the truth was gone, and had likely been limited to that singular purpose, regardless. “Fluttershy... The mantle of Golden Wish was just an illusion you crafted through lies, deception, and misdirection. Just another story, but stories have power to the ponies who believe in them.”

Fluttershy nodded and closed her eyes. She began to shimmer, and in a twisting vortex of golden light, Golden Wish stood in her place once more.

“To me, at least, this form is far more comforting. Now then, oh Great and Powerful Twilight Sparkle, what do you suppose we do about this predicament?”

“I told you not to call me that,” Twilight snapped reflexively. The banter was a welcome change, and the power of two alicorns, especially one with a toolkit as varied as Golden Wish's, was nothing to scoff at, but that final red truth still rang in her ears.

This story will not have a happy ending.”

The cruelest of taunts or threats from any of the villains she’d faced in the past hadn’t even come close to filling her with even half as much dread as the weight of that truth did. Her mouth had gone completely dry, and she wanted nothing more than to just curl up underneath her bed back home and never come back out again.

What hope was there against despair so absolute?

Golden Wish nudged her in the side roughly. “You’re not really going to give up now, are you, Twilight?”

Twilight shook her head and swallowed deeply. “Of course not. I suppose we’ll finally get to see what sort of special powers you truly possess, outside of the bounds of fantasy.”

Their levity was cut off by a sudden glint of light from up above. A voice rang out from every direction, cold and merciless.

“Do you know the definition of a Miracle, Twilight Sparkle?”

“An effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known pony or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause,” Twilight said, quoting the sixth edition of the Canterlot Equestrian Dictionary. “Do we really have to play the rhetorical questions game?”

“An extraordinary event. Something incredibly unlikely. A pony wins the lottery. A pony trips on a rock and breaks their neck. A terminally ill patient wakes up cured the next morning. A unknown power manifests itself on the eve of a battle that will decide the fate of nations. When it comes down to it, a miracle is either a statistical unlikelihood assigned greater meaning by those who witness it, or the direct intervention of some greater power.”

There was a blur of motion, and Infinite Miracle was before them. Her feline eyes shone as hungrily as the rest. “True miracles can only be written in storybooks, and no author is going to save you now.”

Her scythe swung in a great vertical arc towards them. The blade rent the very fabric of reality as it passed, promising an unfathomable oblivion to any caught in its wake.

Twilight shot off like a rocket, veering towards the left. She could sense Golden Wish doing the opposite, the two fanning out in a V shape as the scythe split the air between them.

The cats pounced, converging down on the pair like a swarm of angry hornets.

“I’m really not much of a cat pony,” Twilight growled. She flared her power, conjuring a shield in front of her, tapering it into a fine point as she continued to plow forward at top speed. Shrieks and yowls bounced off her shield only to be immediately silenced, like thousands of bugs splattering against the windshield of a train.

Working a defensive spell into an offensive one like this necessitated that some parts of her body remained vulnerable for the sake of maneuverability, and even as she kept the bulk of them from tearing her apart, she felt hot flashes of pain streak across her flank and against her wings.

“Goldie!” Twilight screamed out and she to spin to her right. She could just barely see Golden Wish mimicking her maneuver in the opposite direction out of the corner of her eye. As she continued her barrel roll, they spun around each other like a pair of orbiting stars.

She let her magic flow out of of her horn unrestrained and undirected and felt it resonate as she twisted through the air. The two continued their elegant dance through the void, spinning around each other in a dizzying double helix. Power radiated in all directions, and they began to pick up more and more speed. Any of the beasts that were foolish enough to get in their way were obliterated in a shower of fur, fangs, and gore.

They were moving faster and faster. Had this place had a true sense of gravity or physics, they probably would have been torn apart, but such rules had been checked at the door. Even so, something was pushing back against them, stretching as they pushed against it, resisting the will to break.

“Just, a little, bit, more!” Twilight screamed, and she redoubled her efforts. The barrier broke and they shot forward even faster in a thunderous explosion. Colors, radiant golds and purples blazed forth from her mane, and the ambient starlight seemed to shift in color.

The wave of energy ripped through the horde like a tsunami crashing down on a sand castle. With that much power, not a single set of eyes remained.

Twilight leveled out of the spin, laughing madly as she flew even with Golden Wish. “Rainbow Dash is going to flip when I tell her about this!”

Golden Wish shot her a radiant smile, her own mane trailing contrails of power. “What are you going to call it, a Twilight Wishboom?”

“Yeah, no. That would just be dumb.” Twilight craned her neck as the stars, fragments of other worlds, sped past them in a blur. “Uh, you don’t happen to know which one of these is home, do you?”

Golden Wish frowned and began to slow down. The two soon came to a stop, glancing around the endless infinity. “We can’t exactly check all of these…”

Twilight swallowed. Even if she wasn’t being hunted by a vindictive monster, her hopes were beyond “needle in a haystack” and far closer to “atom on a planet.”

There had to be something she could do; it was her home. Her friends were there waiting for her, worrying. She should be able to sense something like that. She closed her eyes and focused.


It was faint, but she heard a familiar whisper in her mind. Fluttershy.


Again, this time from Rarity. It was followed by faint echoes, all of her friends voices, calling her home. Where was it coming from?

Out of the corner of her eye she caught a star that seemed to be a much deeper shade of silver than the others. In way, it reminded her of…

“Moonlight! Oh, Luna, you clever pony, you.”

She quickly pointed out the star, then began to channel her magic again once more. She was already starting to feel the fatigue, but it wouldn’t be much longer now. “Let’s g—”

Something huge and fast shot down from above and swallowed Golden Wish in an instant.

“NO!” Twilight screamed, and shot down after what appeared to be a great serpent. She began to gather together energy for a strike, but the great creature suddenly roared in pain, and with a blast of light, Golden Wish burst forth from its insides.

“Go!” she screamed at Twilight, one of her wings looking ragged and bloodied. With impossible agility, the Leviathan twisted back on itself and crashed into her from the side, its great mouth threatening to to swallow her once more.

Golden Wish held on as they plunged downwards, hooves stretched out at awkward angles to prevent the great jaws from clamping down on her.

Twilight pulled into a dive, trying to catch up and get level with the beast, but its speed was incredible. “I’m going to get you out of there, hang on!”

“Just go, Twilight! Don’t worry about me, I’ll catch up with you later!”


“Do it!”

It didn’t feel right to leave her, but she could see another pair of massive eyes staring at her from the darkness, a second great serpent ready to devour her soul.

“You’d better not die!” Twilight roared and shot straight up towards the fragment that was her home.

There was a deafening bellow from behind her and the second serpent gave chase, its howl rattling her to the bone.

It was gaining on her, and fast. The thing was just too damned big to outrun. Even as she poured on every bit of speed she could possibly manage, it gained on her.

The leviathan’s jaws stretched wide, and they were bigger than all of Equestria’s oceans combined. Wider still, and they could swallow an entire planet, an entire cosmos. The void loomed up beneath her, somehow even deeper than the one she already raced through, threatening to engulf her very soul.

It was hopeless. She needed to be faster, but even here, where physics meant naught and distance was more of an abstraction, she had limits. That trick she had pulled moments before had been a fluke, a resonance of their powers and wills combined. She was alone now, and only Rainbow Dash would have even stood a chance of escaping.

A titanic fang shot past her as the mouth began to close around her, the bulk of it encompassing nearly her entire field of vision. She could barely even comprehend the existence of a being so unimaginably massive.

A strange memory flickered in her mind as she was pulled deeper and deeper, the distant moonlight of home becoming a bare whisper.

Rainbow Dash had wanted to go faster than the speed of light. She hadn’t known that it was impossible, and Applejack had tricked her without technically telling a lie. Just another harmless joke between friends, but Twilight wryly wished that it hadn’t been. Going faster than the speed of light would be the only thing that could save her right now.

The jaws closed, her guiding star went dark, and Twilight smacked herself in the forehead with her hoof.

She was a complete idiot. When it came to travel, she had been able to outrun light for years.

Twilight teleported out of the leviathan’s grasp with a quick pop. The near aeonic distance she covered by that simple lateral movement would have normally taken the energy of an entire sun, but the wonky laws of physics here were back to working in her favor.

The serpent whipped around, its size manageable again but still impossibly fast, and the chase was on once more.

The stars loomed closer, and Twilight leapt towards them in jarring jumps, teleporting every time her pursuer began to nip at her hooves.

With another flash, a great crystal was before her, blocking her path. Each facet of the gem reflected an image deep within, and she found her movement arrested, mesmerized by what she saw.

It was her own reflection, and that of her friends. Not just scenes from the novella, but of her life too. Images of possible futures, possible pasts. Herself as a stallion, a dragon, a griffon, a breezie, and dozens of other twisted configurations. Strange creatures, alternate realities, things that could be, and perhaps, in this world between worlds, were.

A voice whispered in her mind, deep and insidious as the leviathan closed in. “Fiction is a vast and endless expanse of possibilities, Twilight. True narratives. Fulfilling ones. Action, adventure, love, truths. Didn’t you use to curl up under your blankets as a filly, reading by the light of your horn, daring to dream about what life would be like if you lived in a storybook?

Twilight faltered, her heart pounding in her chest.

What awaits you at home, truly? A sad, narrative-less reality. A friend, who in a mad obsession betrayed your trust and sought to hurt you deeply. Love? Love is something meant to be pure and honest. Not something so ugly and twisted, clearly broken. The Fluttershy you believe in is reflected there. One who, while shy and insecure, is honest and pure in her emotions.

A lifetime played out before her in seconds. Like so many days before, Fluttershy showed up on her doorstep. Instead of a book, she just had something she wanted to say, awkward, unable to spit it out, blushing furiously. Finally, she squeaked out an unintelligible confession, kissed her straight on the lips, and ran away as fast as she could, leaving a stunned Twilight behind.

After a bit of soul searching, Twilight tracked her down. She sat on Fluttershy’s bed while Fluttershy hid underneath, and they talked it out and agreed to start a relationship together.

Awkward dates and foalish mistakes followed; Twilight was no expert at love herself. But, they truly cared for one another, and their love grew from a tiny seed of infatuation into an unshakable foundation.

Love. Marriage. Kids. Old age. Grandkids. Peace. A thousand moments, glimmers of an existence, each moment full of a wholesome love and happiness that Twilight had never even considered for herself. She was floored by the sheer bliss of it all.

It was a trick, obviously, and yet…

You will never have such a life at home. Not with her.

“I’ll…” Twilight mumbled. It was all too much. She didn’t want to face this now. She didn’t even know if she wanted a life like that, let alone with Fluttershy. The Fluttershy she knew had turned out not to be so sweet and innocent, she…

With a yelp, Twilight teleported to the opposite side of the crystal as the Leviathan crashed into it, shattering it into a million pieces. She sped forward, dodging the shrapnel, and from the corner of her eye she saw the serpent melt into the form of Infinite Miracle. The broken fragments gathered around her and began to spin, orbiting her like a ring of asteroids.

“Where are you running to, Twilight? I know in your heart you want to be running away instead. You know what you’re going to see when you confront her. It isn’t worth it. You can do far better than that worthless lump of trash.”

An almost irrational anger pulled at her briefly, and Twilight flared her magic, firing blindly behind her. “Nopony has the right to talk about my friends like that!”

Laughter followed her as she continued to flee, cold and cruel. “Your loyalties are so fickle, Princess. Perhaps you need a reminder of what awaits you at home.

There was a whizzing hiss, and crystal fragment flew past her ear at an impossible speed. She yelped and threw up a quick shield behind her. Had her head been just a little to the left, it would have taken her ear off.

The second projectile tore through her shield like it was paper and ripped through one of the feathers on her right wing. She wasn’t going to be able to dodge or protect herself like this. She prepared to teleport, but there was a sudden sharp pain in her back, and—

The stench was unbearable, but no amount of physical sensation could dwarf the horror and loss of hope deep inside her.

She had held strong when Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie had gone missing. It was just a harmless prank, a misunderstanding, an error in communication. She had remained calm and directed the search efforts when they had found the bloodstains. Her friends might have been hurt, and she was definitely worried, but everything would turn out alright in the end.

The sight of their corpses, throats cut and casually tossed into a ditch in the Everfree Forest, picked at by scavengers, extinguished that light for good.

She cried out in pain and tumbled through the void as she came out of the teleport, struggling to right herself. It hadn’t pierced straight through her, at least, but she could feel the jagged shard sticking out of her back and hot blood trickling down her side.

She was close now. Her home fragment pulsed with a warm, silver light, calling to her, inviting her in. Everything would be alright if she could just make it there.

Another shard bit deep into her cutie mark, and she screamed.

Rarity and Applejack were the next victims. Their burgeoning relationship was cut short, and they lay twisted together in a bathtub filled with their own blood.

She was going to have to tell their families, she realized. She would have to explain to them how, as the lead investigator for this case with the full resources of the crown at her disposal, she had no solid leads, no justice, no comfort.

A strange, cruel joke came to her, as they often did as of late, and she had to suppress a giggle. Maybe that erstwhile trio would finally get their cutie marks if they helped catch their sisters’ murderer.

No! Not like that. It was all just a lie. Something like that could never actually happen. She would—

She caught her in the act, blood still dripping from her hooves.

“Oh. Um, hi Twilight. I didn’t expect you to come home so early.”

She didn’t look crazy. Her eyes weren’t wild, she wasn’t ranting or raving. Fluttershy looked and sounded like she always did. Sweet, kind, a light blush on her cheeks, hesitant on how to proceed.

If Spike’s mangled body hadn’t rested beneath her hooves, Twilight almost could have believed this was normal.

Fluttershy took several steps forward until she was standing directly before Twilight. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Twilight could practically feel the heat radiating from her friend’s blush.

“Um, Twilight, listen. There’s, um, something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time, but I’ve always been too scared. I’ve thought about how I was going to say it, but I guess you’re just supposed to let these things come from the heart. Well, here goes.”

Twilight stared, unable to move or react in any way.

Fluttershy peeked out at her from behind her bangs, a shy smile barely visible. “I’m in love with you, Twilight. I have been for a while. And, um, if you’ll take me, I’d love nothing more than to be together with you forever.”

Twilight slowed, coming to a stop. The crystals piercing her flesh were an incredible weight, and it was just too much effort to keep on moving. What was the point? She had figured out the truth. Why was she trying to delude herself into thinking that it was even remotely forgivable?

Nothing but ruin was waiting for her when she returned. Even if this grim prophecy didn’t come true, she wouldn’t be able to accept the truth, and it would shatter her friendships. Why even bother?

Another shard whizzed past her, but this one stopped, right in front of her face. Even lifting her eyes up to track its movements felt like trying to raise the sun.

In the reflected facet, Twilight could see a bright pink unicorn with a mop of blonde hair mostly hidden under a garish beret.

The image of Absolute Certainty met her eyes, and then winked.

With a sickening tug of motion, Twilight suddenly rocketed forward as if launched by an invisible spring. Before she could even register what was going on, she slammed into something solid at an incredible speed. She bounced off of it as every bone in her body protested in agony.

Twilight groaned and shook her head, trying to regain her senses. With a start, she realized that the crystals had fallen out of her, and that the malaise they had brought with them was gone. It wasn’t hopeless; she was doing this for a reason, and she was going to see her friends again, no matter what.

A soft light pulsed from behind her, and she turned around to see the reflection she most wanted.


She saw herself there, lying in a hospital bed. Her friends watched over her in shifts. Reality was just an arms length away.

Infinite Miracle was there in front of her, her eyes glinting with manic delight as they locked with her own.

“Why are you going through all this trouble just to stop me?” Twilight asked, jumping backwards.

Infinite Miracle clicked her tongue, shaking her head. “Tragedy, Twilight. The genre is Tragedy. Somebody is going to walk away from this heartbroken and alone. To struggle on and on until the end, until hope is just within your grasp, only to fail. Is there anything sweeter? Tragedy is the forge that makes the strongest steel, and I was hoping to leave this game with a new weapon.”

Twilight snorted, her eyes shifting about warily. The cats were returning, slowly creeping in from the surrounding darkness. She was so close. “And what? You think you can dissuade me with images of my friends being murdered? As if. I’ve been dealing with that for days now. A little scenario change isn’t going to break me.”

“Just a scenario change? What you saw is the truth. Fluttershy is a murderer, or will soon become one.

Those words struck like an iron barb around her heart, but she wasn’t going to fall for a trick that easy. “We’re talking about alternate realities, here. Just because it’s ‘true’ for any given story doesn’t mean it’ll happen at home.”

Infinite Miracle growled, her eyes narrowing to slits. “Last chance, Princess. It would still be a tragedy if you never woke up. Join me or die.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Can you get any more cliche? Bring it on.”

That terrible scythe formed once more, and Twilight readied her own magic.

It would have been nice if she had been able to say goodbye, at least.

I killed you, in this room. The door is locked and the chain is set. The room is a golden closed room.

There was a brilliant flash of gold, and a translucent red cube coalesced into existence around Infinite Miracle.

Golden Wish flapped down from above, her eyes wild with challenge. “Can you escape?”

Infinite Miracle raised a hoof to brush back her mane, her eyes cold. Her scythe began to glow a radiant blue. “Do you really think your mundane puzzles can hold a candle to someone like me?”

“Long enough for Twilight to escape.”

“Goldie, your leg…”

Golden Wish turned to look at Twilight, her eyes were filled with pain, but her face twisted into a smile anyway. “Ah, you know. I think I lost it during the chase. It’d be a pain to go back and find it now.”

Blood dripped from the stump where her right foreleg had been.

Infinite Miracle turned to regard Twilight. “And you’re really just going to let her sacrifice herself? I’m going to get out of this cage; there’s absolutely no denying it. And when I do, there will be no escape. Is that the kind of happy ending you’re looking for?”

Twilight shook her head. “Goldie, you don’t have to do this for me.”

Golden Wish rolled her eyes. “Please, Twilight, I’m a fictional character. I was written for the explicit purpose of killing all of my friends, just so you could figure out a puzzle. I don’t deserve anything better. Let me have this.”

Twilight bit her lip. She could feel both sets of eyes on her, one pleading, the other judging. Why were these choices never easy?

Golden Wish looked away, her voice soft. “Twilight… When you get back. Tell Fluttershy… tell my mother, that I forgive her for making me do what I did.”

Golden Wish turned back to face Infinite Miracle, fierce determination burning in her eyes.

“I will,” Twilight mumbled. She dived forward, past the cage of red as blue truths began to tear at it, and touched home base.

Darkness took her. This time, at least, it was warm.

Chapter 24 - A Happy Ending?

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Twilight awoke to a steady beeping and the soft luminescence of a hospital at night.

You know, it would have been nicer if I could actually wake up at home,” is what she tried to say, but all she managed to get out was a choking gasp. It made a certain amount of sense. She was waking up from a coma, after all; she needed water.

A glass of water surrounded by a deep blue aura floated towards her, and she snapped it up, taking a few careful sips and wincing at the pain in her throat. She knew enough to know that drinking greedily wasn’t good for her, and it was better to take things slow. The light pinch from the IV in her arm let her know she wasn’t in any danger of dehydration either.

Forcing the sips of cool water down a painfully dry throat, Twilight blinked her eyes several times and tried to get a better grasp of her surroundings. She was lying in a hospital bed, of course. There was a soft glow and quiet hum from the magical devices by the table, all of them working in various ways to monitor her condition and help to keep her alive.

Other than the light from the devices, the room was dark. The curtains were drawn, and Twilight could just barely hear the cries of summer insects outside her window.

“How long has it been?” Twilight croaked. She took another sip of water. This was going to be annoying.

“A full week has passed now. All things considered, it could have been much worse,” Luna said as she stepped out of the shadows.

Twilight shook her head, unable to keep a smile from her lips. “Thanks… I couldn’t have made it out without your help. Er, I did make it back, didn’t I? This isn’t just another dream within a dream, is it?”

Luna threw back her head and laughed, the rich sound almost painful to her ears. “That is a question we dreamwalkers ask ourselves often. Sometimes, I think, the answer does not truly matter. Reality is what we make of it. Regardless, I promise you that you are home, safe and sound in the waking world.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “That’s exactly what I’d expect to hear if this was still a dream. Is there any way you can prove it?”

“Could you ever prove it, even before this adventure began?”

“I guess not,” Twilight said, chuckling softly. It sounded more like coughing. “But let’s not let this devolve into Philosophy 101. I did it. I won. I solved the mystery, exposed the truth for what it was, and escaped with my life.”

Luna smiled warmly. “Congratulations, Twilight. You have proven your capabilities time and time again, but this darkness you faced was greater than most. There was an external foe, for certain, but it was also a darkness in yourself and a darkness in your friend.”

Twilight raised up a hoof and pressed it against her forehead. “So how come I don’t feel like a winner?”

“Conflict scars the soul, but it will heal, in time. However, you still have one final matter left unresolved.”

“That’s…” Twilight let her head fall, and she felt her cheeks heat up. “I still don’t really know what I’m supposed to do about that.”

Luna raised a hoof up to her lips and winked, a sly smile peeking through. “I told you earlier, did I not? Just follow your heart.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and levitated one of her bedside pillows into the air. “If you try and throw any more cliches at me, I’ll throw this at you.”

“I mean it, Twilight. This is something you will have to discover within yourself, and within her. Talk it out. It may be painful, and a bit scary, but you are a grown mare. I am sure you can handle it.”

She frowned, trying to figure out if that counted as another cliche. She decided to whip the pillow at Luna anyway, sending the both of them into a fit of giggles.

“So,” Twilight said, wiping a tear from her eye, “those two. I’m not in any more danger, am I?”

Luna shook her head. “Powerful beings they might be, but their influence here is limited. And now that my sister and I are aware of their interests here, they will not be able to escape our notice any longer. Such creatures tend to be fickle, and I suspect they will quickly move on in search of easier prey.”

Twilight sighed, sinking back into her bed. That was a relief. She had been a fool, so eagerly accepting an offer from a higher power she didn’t understand. It wasn’t that she hadn’t recognized the danger, just… perhaps she simply thought too highly of herself. Rainbow Dash must have been rubbing off on her or something.

Facing immensity like that was humbling, but, at the same time, she could see how somepony like Infinite Miracle was limited. Powerful, but by no means omnipotent.

“And… Golden Wish? What will become of her?”

Luna’s eyes drooped slightly, a sad, distant look to them. “What happens to any character once you close the book on them, I wonder? One final catbox for you to contemplate.”

“I see.” It wasn’t like Golden Wish could have followed her, and, in the context of her own world, she was a still a murderer. Still, there had to be something she could do for her.

Twilight stretched her forelegs behind her head, careful not to pull her IV out. Her bones popped painfully, but the burn in her weakened muscles felt almost invigorating. “So… where’s everypony else? I kind of expected to have been mobbed already.”

Luna’s face lit up into a wicked grin. “Oh, I sent them a message as soon as you woke up. I expect they will be arriving any—”


There was a pink blur and then Twilight grunted under the weight of a full power Pinkie Pie tackle hug.

“You’re awake! Oh, I’ve missed you so much! I have so many things to tell you! I baked you a welcome back cake, and there’s going to be a ‘Twilight waking up from a coma’ party, and I discovered a new species of butterfly a few days ago, which doesn’t have much to do with you, but I think it’s pretty cool anyway, and I know that’s the kind of thing you want to catalogue and write down. Oh, and you’re going to have to tell me the details later so I can throw a ‘Twilight defeated a bunch of bad guys and solved a mystery’ party too, since everything has been pretty vague on my end, but—”

“Pinkie!” Twilight wheezed and, failing to push Pinkie Pie off of her with physical force, resorted to her magic instead. “I’ve got atrophied coma muscles here. I’m glad to see you too, and I’m sure the parties will be wonderful, but get off.”

“Come on Pinkie, that’s enough,” Rainbow Dash said, pulling her off of Twilight with a grunt of effort. “Now then, Twilight. Hoofbump!”

Twilight raised her hoof in acquiescence while raising her eyebrow.

“You’re totally awesome, Twi! I mean, you’ll have to tell us the whole story later, but fighting off the bad guys, going deep into the dream world in order to find out ‘the truth’, and whatever else you did! Even Daring Do hasn’t done anything that awesome. I just wish you had taken me with you. We could have been a team, you know?"

Twilight forced herself to smile. “I don’t think you would have liked it as much as you think, Rainbow, but the support would have been nice.”

“Hey there, Sugarcube. Good t’... Oh. Er, sorry.”

Twilight watched, her smile turning to genuine amusement as she watched Applejack and Rarity try to walk through the door at the same time, then get equally flustered and dance around a bit trying to let the other go first. It was downright adorable.

“Uh, Hey Twi,” Applejack said, taking off her hat as she finally maneuvered her way to the bedside. “Glad to see you’re alright, though that was mite foolish of you.”

“Honestly, darling, what were you thinking? There had to have been a better solution than to put yourself in such danger, especially alone. Why didn’t you come to us for help?”

“Sorry,” Twilight said. She paused, then grinned evilly. “But it really isn’t fair for me, getting ganged up on by a married couple like this.”

The way their faces turned equally crimson, and how they began to sputter incoherently without looking at each other was strangely symmetrical.

“Where’s Spike?” Twilight asked, glancing around the room.

“Still sleeping, I guess,” Rainbow Dash said, touching down on the ground. “He’s still just a kid after all, and he’s been running himself ragged hoping to find a way to save you himself.”

“Ahem,” Rarity coughed, moving up to Twilight’s opposite side and leaning in close. “Disregarding that, I’m really very sorry, Twilight,” she said with a whisper. “It’s my fault. Fluttershy told me about this a long time ago. I knew she was crushing on you, hard, that is. I didn’t know about the books, or that it would turn into something this crazy, but I still feel like there’s something I could have done.”

Twilight smiled and rested her hoof on Rarity’s shoulder, sparing a quick glance towards Pinkie Pie. “It’s alright, Rarity. I’m sure you promised to keep it a secret, and that’s pretty important too. Besides, I came out of it all okay, so no harm done, right?”

Rarity glanced towards the door. “Maybe you did, but…”

Twilight caught a flash of movement, a pink mane ducking out of sight. The room went silent.

“Fluttershy, darling? Rarity said, her voice soft. “It’s alright. We’re not judging you. We’ve already said our piece to you about this matter. It’s time you confront Twilight.”

There was a squeak and a hesitant hoofstep from outside the door. Rainbow Dash suddenly zipped out the room and, with a startled yelp, reappeared, dragging Fluttershy in by her tail. She had her hooves planted, and they scratched against the tile floor as her eyes darted back and forth, looking for an escape.

“Ain’t no more running away from this, sugarcube,” Applejack said. “Gonna have to face your fears, just like Twilight did for you.”

“It’s okay!” Pinkie Pie said, pouncing over to Fluttershy and throwing a foreleg around her shoulder. “No matter what, just remember that Twilight is still your friend! I mean, she’s the Princess of Friendship, isn’t she?”

Rainbow Dash turned towards Twilight, grinning. “You’re going to tell us the whole story later, but for now, I think it’s time we gave you lovebirds some privacy.”

The five of them exited the room, talking amongst themselves. Luna caught Twilight’s eye one last time and winked. The door shut behind them and locked audibly.

Fluttershy stood still as a statue, eyes glued to the floor.

“Looks like we’re stuck in another closed room,” Twilight said, breaking the silence.

Fluttershy snorted, looking up and meeting her eyes briefly before quickly looking away.

Twilight took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Fluttershy, look, this is going to be a long conversation. There’s a lot to be said, but, to start with, how about we get the crying and apologies out of the way first?”

“I…” Fluttershy sniffed, trembling as she shifted back and forth.

“I’m sorry!” Fluttershy cried out, diving forward and landing on the bed roughly, eliciting a groan from Twilight. She buried her face in Twilight’s chest, hot tears already streaming down her face.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean for it to be like this! I thought it was… I thought I could… I’m sorry! I’m a coward, I’m worthless, I’m sorry!”

“Hey now. It’s okay. It’s going to be alright, Fluttershy.” Twilight reached her hoof down and idly stroked Fluttershy’s hair, muttering soothing platitudes as Fluttershy continued to bawl. It was an inelegant and messy type of crying, but it was the sort of catharsis they both needed.

Twilight held her there for quite some time. There was a clock somewhere in the room, but Twilight couldn’t quite see it from where she was sitting. Instead, she just focused on the pegasus in front of her, letting Fluttershy cry herself out as she brought her own thoughts into line.

Eventually the sobbing stopped and Fluttershy lay still, her arms still wrapped around Twilight’s midsection. It was somewhat uncomfortable in the cramped confines of the hospital bed, but she didn’t try to move her. Fluttershy’s breathing slowed to a steady rhythm, and Twilight could faintly feel her heartbeat, out of step with the monitor that still tracked her own.

Twilight reached a hoof down and brushed Fluttershy’s mane to the side. She looked up and met her eyes for a brief instant before she scrunched them shut again and buried them deeper into Twilight’s fur.

“Can I just… stay like this? For a little bit longer?” Fluttershy mumbled. Her voice sounded drained. It must have been quite the ordeal back here, as well. “After that, I’ll go, and you’ll never have to deal with me ever again.”

“Fluttershy...“ Twilight said, letting out a light sigh. She cupped a hoof under Fluttershy’s chin and pulled her face up, forcing her to meet her gaze. “Let’s get one thing clear here, I don’t really know how I feel or what I’m going to do, but can we save the proclamations of worthlessness and drastic actions until after we talk?”

Fluttershy sniffed loudly, then pulled her head up, adjusting her position so she was sitting on her haunches at the foot of the bed. She wiped at her eyes and runny nose with a hoof, nodding. “Um, okay. I can try to do that. I’m sorry, Twilight.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “And no more gratuitous apologies either.”

“Oh. Okay. I’m...“ Fluttershy trailed off, looking down at her hooves and sniffling again.

“Alright then.” Twilight took the extra space offered and pulled herself up into a sitting position as well. “Let’s get everything straight; the culprit in the novels was you, Fluttershy.”


“Her motivation wasn’t based on anything concrete. Instead, her motivation was meta-fictional, to get me to solve the puzzle in the novels leading me to the realization that you’re in love with me.”

Fluttershy blushed, looking away. “I… yes, that’s correct.”

Twilight smiled, leaning back slightly and staring up at the ceiling. “It’s… not very intuitive, you know. Downright cheating, really. Your puzzles were devious, but it really all came down to the metaphors and themes present in the narrative. If you wanted me to figure this out so badly, why wouldn’t you have made it easier, or just told me outright?”

“Because I’m a coward,” Fluttershy said, sinking down into the bed and burying her face in the sheets. “But, um… I wanted to challenge you, Twilight. You’re so smart, and brave, and beautiful, and regal, and wise. I just thought, if I could create something that tested even you, and you could figure out what I was trying to say, understand my heart, know me better than I know myself, then we could… I never meant to hurt you.”

“In that case, why a murder mystery? I can understand what you’re trying to say, and what you wanted to accomplish, but the way you went about it…” She let the statement hang in the air, and Fluttershy flinched, pulling the bedsheets further up her face.

“Because it...“ Fluttershy looked up, suddenly frowning and glancing around. “I um… don’t really know.”

“Did Absolute Certainty push you towards it?”

Fluttershy blinked, looking confused. “Who?”

It was Twilight’s turn to look confused. “Pink Unicorn, blonde mane, candy based cutie mark, wears a stupid hat and acts like an evil Pinkie Pie?”

“It doesn't sound familiar,” Fluttershy said, scratching at her head, her frown deepening. “Or maybe it does… What exactly are you talking about, Twilight?”

She was sure that it had been relevant. “Absolute Certainty was one of the goons who pulled me into that nightmare. She was acting as the Patron for Golden Wish, representing her side of the fight just as Infinite Miracle was representing me, moral failings notwithstanding. Once I figured out you and Golden Wish were one and the same, I figured that she had gotten to you in the real world somehow, in at least a small manner.

Fluttershy grew silent, looking somewhat disturbed as she took in the new information. After a minute, she shook her head, her eyes growing resolute. “No… Maybe I was manipulated somehow, making this worse than it should have been, but I’m still my own mare. My feelings and my purpose for doing what I did are all mine and mine alone. I take full responsibility for what happened.”

Twilight couldn’t help but smile at the sight of Fluttershy, a tearstained, nervous wreck, but still burning with an inner fire of determination. Maybe the genre had been pushed towards something far darker than either of them truly enjoyed, but the core truths remained the same.

“So you really…” Fluttershy began, looking up. Her eyes sparkled with a strange curiosity. “You really were in my story? You met and interacted with me, with everyone else, and Golden Wish?”

“Yep!” Twilight said with a giggle. “Which reminds me. Right before we escaped, Golden Wish wanted to tell you that she forgives you for writing her the way you did.”

Fluttershy bit her lip and looked away. “If authors are supposed to consider the will and feelings of their characters in addition to everything else, I don’t think anypony should write again.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think it’s nearly as cut and dry as that. Besides, all we have to do is write a new story giving her and everypony else closure and a happy ending, right?”

Fluttershy blinked, then blushed and looked away, staying silent for a long time before finally asking, “We?”

Twilight took a deep breath. Even now, she had been dancing around the issue, but it wasn’t something she could put off forever.

“Fluttershy,” Twilight said carefully. She could feel her heartbeat speed up, and her mouth wanted to go somewhere else entirely, but she pushed forward regardless. “I don’t really know much about romance. Well, I mean, I do. In the academic sense. I’ve read books all my life, I’ve seen how media handles love, I’ve watched ponies: my parents, other couples. I’ve come to learn a whole lot about friendship. I’m well versed with the four classical loves: Agape, Philia, Eros, Storge. The differences between them can often be blurred, but they remain distinct. Yet…”

Twilight let out a sigh, and it was her turn to blush and look away. “But I have a really hard time comprehending romance as it personally relates to me. I never really gave it much thought growing up. It was something other ponies did, not Twilight Sparkle. Not to say I didn’t care or feel anything at all, but there was always something else going on. I was busy, and it’s never something I’ve put time aside for in the schedule that is my life.”

“Twilight…” Fluttershy started, but Twilight cut her off with a raised hoof.

“Let me finish. It’s just… I don’t know. I never really developed a proper framework to deal with feelings like that. It feels so strange and alien and scary, and from an objective standpoint, the two of us together would be a pretty terrible idea.”

Fluttershy wilted visibly, but Twilight pressed on. “We have some things in common, sure, but it could break up our friend group, do weird things to our dynamic, and on top of that this whole ordeal is, well, not that I’m an expert or anything, but it seems like an incredibly unhealthy base on which to start a long lasting and stable, loving relationship. We’re both a little messed up, I think.”

Twilight took another deep breath, her hooves shaking beneath her. “But in spite of all that… I don’t know. Maybe I’m crazy or numb from the shock of it all, or everything that’s happened these past few days has severely screwed up my sense of risk versus reward, but…

“I think that maybe… I’d like to give it a shot anyways.”

Twilight heard muffled voices and movement from somewhere outside the window and realized, with a flicker of annoyance, that their private conversation was probably anything but. The bulk of her attention, however, remained focused on Fluttershy as the pegasus clasped her hooves over her mouth, her eyes growing wide and full of tears.

Her hope was short lived, however, and Fluttershy’s expression soon darkened to one of despair. “I…”

“Hold it,” Twilight said, putting her hoof on Fluttershy’s shoulder and moving in close, looking directly into her eyes. “I know what you’re thinking. This is the part where you pull away and convince yourself that you don’t deserve this because of what you’ve done, because of who you are, because you think I deserve better than you.”

Fluttershy blinked in confusion, then nodded faintly.

“Well, I’m not having that. You wanted to challenge me, you wanted to elevate yourself to be my equal. Then you’re going to have to convince yourself you do deserve this, that you deserve me, and that I deserve you. Anything else is doomed to failure.”

Fluttershy took in a deep, shuddering breath. “That would be a lie, Twilight.”

Twilight grinned. “A lie everypony believes becomes the truth, remember?”

She closed her eyes, leaned forward, and softly kissed Fluttershy on the lips.

After a few moments Twilight pulled back, unable to keep the smile from her face even as her blush threatened to set her alight. “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Fluttershy threw herself forward, wrapping her forelegs around Twilight and burying her face into her neck. “I was so scared, Twilight! I thought that we had lost you… I thought that my carelessness, my selfishness had hurt you. And now you’re here, and you’re still so perfect and regal and beautiful, and you don’t hate me.”

“I’m not perfect, Fluttershy. I’m the idiot who couldn’t figure this out early on, who yelled at you and insulted you out of my own ignorance, and who made a bargain with an obviously evil supernatural being just so I could get closer to your heart. Neither of us is going to be winning any ‘Best Decision’ awards any time soon.”

Fluttershy burst into a fit of silent giggles, shaking quietly in Twilight’s grasp. “We are pretty messed up, aren’t we?”

Twilight nodded, staring down at her… marefriend. It was an odd thought. When Fluttershy had walked through her door a week ago with a novel to read… this wasn’t the happy ending she had been expecting, but it was one she was happy to have made for herself.

“Just to be clear… you aren’t actually crazy enough to going around murdering everypony because you love me, right?”

Fluttershy sat up, looking down at her with innocent confusion on her face. The shadows in the room fell across her face in a fashion that made it look far more sinister. “Of course not, Twilight. I would never do something like that.”

The two of them shared a laugh that carried out into the night.

“But like, seriously.”


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“Hey, Twilight. You sleep okay?”

Twilight groaned loudly and slumped her head against the crystal table, leaning with most of her weight. “What do you think?”

Spike pursed his lips as he lifted up a plate from the counter and set breakfast in front of her. “I thought you said the nightmares were getting better. It’s been three months and all.”

“I did,” Twilight said, turning her head so her eyes were level with the table. The eggs on the plate rose in her vision like great mountains, and the smell was almost good enough to make her sit up and eat. But... a few more moments of languishing wouldn’t hurt. “Just because things are getting better doesn’t mean they’re solved entirely. It’s just less frequent.”

“Yeah, but…” Spike mumbled, drumming his claws on countertop. “Are you really sure it’s okay? That you’re not, y’know, being messed with again?”

Twilight nodded, finally pushing herself upright and levitating over a fork. “I trust that Princess Luna is keeping me safe, Spike. She’s confident that these nightmares are merely a product of what I went through and that I’ll get over them eventually.

Spike looked like he wanted to say more, but he kept his mouth shut and just looked on with a worried expression as Twilight proceeded to stuff her face. It was just as well.

As Twilight set down her fork and began to wipe at her mouth with a napkin, the door chime began to ring.

Spike perked up almost instantly. “I’ll get it!” he cried out, jumping down from the chair and dashing across the floor, almost losing his footing several times on the slick stone.

She heard the door open out in the hall and then heard Spike say a dull, “Oh. It’s you.”

Twilight rolled her eyes, standing up and walking over.

“H-hey Spike. Um, you look like you’ve gotten stronger since the last time I saw you. Have you, um, been working out?” Fluttershy asked. Her face lit up briefly when Twilight came into view, but her gaze soon shot nervously back down to Spike.

Spike raised an eyebrow, his face a tight mask. “Yeah, I have, actually. I do it because I’m interested in protecting the ponies I care about.”

Fluttershy flinched, shying back a step. “Oh, yes. Of course, that makes sense.”

“Spike!” Twilight snapped. She could practically feel her anger heating up the air around her. “That is enough. How many times do we have to have this discussion?”

Spike whipped his head around to meet Twilight’s gaze, his eyes burning with defiance. “I’m going out,” he growled, then stomped outside and slammed the door behind him, causing Fluttershy to jump with a quiet peep.

Twilight let herself simmer for a few more moments before she let out a long sigh, allowing the tension to drain away. “I’m sorry about that, Fluttershy,” she said, walking over to give her a quick peck on the cheek. “He’s been getting better, but I had another nightmare last night and that tends to get him riled up again.”

Fluttershy blushed, looking away. “Um, It’s okay. And I’m sorry, it’s my fault anyway.”

“Fluttershy, we’ve been over this one already too. How many times am I going to have to repeat myself today?”

“No,” Fluttershy said, shaking her head. “It’s a miracle that everypony else forgave me at all, especially you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy, but I can’t go around expecting that from everypony.”

Twilight rubbed at her eyes and then forced herself to smile. She’d just gotten off to a bad start today. “Enough of that, I guess. What brings you over today?”

Fluttershy brightened immediately and began digging through her saddlebags until she finally pulled out a loose stack of papers. “I know we lost a lot of what we were working on when, um, you lost the library, but here’s all the notes and some of the early drafts we did that were scattered around my place.”

“Fluttershy, that’s wonderful!” Twilight cried out, her lethargy truly forgotten this time. “I was so worried that we’d have to start all over, and, oh I could just kiss you!”

Fluttershy blushed a deep scarlet. “Um…”

Twilight blinked, back tracked on her words, and grinned. “Right. And, in fact, I will.” She leaned forward, locking lips with her marefriend and throwing her forelegs around her neck, pulling her in close.

“Eep,” Fluttershy squeaked when Twilight pulled back for air, somehow even redder than before.

Twilight released the embrace, giggling. “You are so easily flustered. Come on, let’s go sort through what we have.”

It was a short walk through her new palace to get to the study which, in a strong contrast to the sharp angles and unyielding crystal that made up most of the decor, was lavishly furnished with plush pillows and blankets and the scattered remains of what books she had been able to salvage from the library’s destruction.

“Let’s see here,” Twilight said as she began pulling out various papers, quills, and inks. “Honestly, losing what we did is probably a good thing; it allows us to start over from a fresh perspective. I wasn’t really buying the garden of paradise angle anyway.”

Fluttershy frowned as she pulled out the blackboard, setting it up near the fireplace. “Writing doesn’t have to be so analytical, Twilight. Sometimes it’s best to just put the pen to the page and let everything flow out.”

Twilight shook her head. “It might work like that for you, Fluttershy, but I’m not so lucky. Besides, I want to do this right.”

With a contented sigh, Fluttershy snuggled into the cushions. “It’s okay, Twilight, we can do this your way.”

“Good,” Twilight said with a grin. She snuggled into the cushions herself, pulling herself close to Fluttershy and draping a wing across her. Once she was comfortable she levitated a piece of chalk into the air and began writing on the board in front of them. “Let’s go back to some basics, shall we?”

Twilight finished her writing, turned and gave Fluttershy a quick peck on the cheek, and read what she had written out loud.

“How to: Give Golden Wish an unrealistically happy ending. Any ideas?"


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Big Macintosh walked through the market square, carefully watching every step. He was angry, but that would be no excuse if he let that stop him from being careful, and he ended up accidentally hurting somepony. It wasn’t anypony else’s fault that the Cutie Mark Crusaders had not only used up all his nails again, but broken one of his best hammers as well.

Normally Applejack would have been around and, between the two of them, they could have probably kept a better reign on the disastrous trio, but his sister was tied up in some important business involving Rarity today. He wasn’t really sure on the details, and it wasn’t any of his business besides.

He came to a stop and let out a long sigh. The hardware store was closed. This was going to turn out just like the Summer Wrap Up festival again.

“Psst. Hey, you!?”

Big Mac’s ears twitched, and he glanced around without really turning his head.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you! Big, red, and handsome! I’ve got what you’re looking for right here.”

Big Mac turned towards the voice and saw a shadowed figure standing in an alley between two buildings. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously but stood his ground.

“You’re looking for tools, right? I’ve got all the tools you could possibly want and even more. Better than regular tools!”

Big Mac grimaced. He glanced towards the hardware store. Maybe the owner had just gone out for a lunch break. If he waited, he might get lucky.

In the distance, he thought he overheard the shrill calling card of his little sister and her friends. He was going to need tools, and probably soon.

With a sigh and against his better judgement, he plodded into the alley, keeping a wary eye on his surroundings.

The shadowy figure pulled back into what appeared to be a small shop stall, and once he got closer, he could see that it was a pink unicorn mare with a blonde mop of hair sticking out from underneath a beret.

“Welcome to Absolute Certainty’s hardware emporium! We’re Absolutely Certain that you’ll be satisfied! It’s my guarantee!”

The shopkeeper flashed him a wide, almost predatory grin, and he had to suppress a shudder. It would be best if he got this over quickly. He pulled a hammer, some nails, and a few other miscellaneous tools from the shelves, placing them into a small pile. With an internal groan, he noticed that none of the items had price tags. He hated haggling.

“Ooh…” Absolute Certainty said, looking over the assorted tools closely. “Yes, yes. You’ve made some good choices. This hammer in particular.” She levitated it into the air, spinning it around slowly to show it off from all sides. “There’s a history to this particular hammer, you know. It’s quite the tale.”

Big Mac stared at the hammer for a few moments. “Enope.”

Without even the flash of a teleport, Absolute Certainty was behind him, leaning up to his ear. “When this hammer is used to build something… it will never break. I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s absolutely true. Of course, I can’t let something like this go for mere money… I’d prefer payment that was a little more ephemeral. But I’m sure someone like you could arrange something…”

The shadows in the alley seemed to darken, leaving only Absolute Certainty’s wicked grin and glinting eyes visible.

“Enope,” Big Mac said. He put the hammer back down on the shelf and walked out of the alleyway. He turned back to look but, of course, the stall was gone.

Maybe it would be better if he took the day off instead.

Absolute Certainty bounced through the market, giggling manically.

“Every time! I love the ‘mysterious disappearing shopkeeper’ act!”

Even though she didn’t make a conscious effort towards it, other ponies seemed to give her a wide berth as she walked among them. They probably didn’t even realize it, but their senses were more finely tuned than most. It was a part of what made messing with them so much fun.

Out of the corner of her eye, she finally spotted what she was looking for.

“Hey there, grumpy pants! You look like you just got thoroughly trounced by your own piece and then significantly hindered by mine! A whole three months, really?”

Infinite Miracle spun to face her as she stomped through the market, her eyes livid. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she growled.

“I guess the only one who isn’t getting a happy ending here is you. What a bummer, huh?”

Mira sniffed, flicking her mane back. “It will end in tragedy regardless.”

Absolute Certainty rolled her eyes. Mira would go pretty far to deny her own failings. Everyone would die eventually, even Twilight and Fluttershy, but it would be nice if she could just graciously accept her loss for once.

“Besides,” Mira said, turning to her with sparkling eyes, “it’s not like you won either.”

“Didn’t I?” she said with a grin. “I just wanted to have fun. And you have to admit, we got a pretty good story out of this one, even if it wasn’t what you were looking for. Now look at us, the villains, here having fun, facing no significant consequences for our actions whatsoever!”

Mira let out a long sigh.

Absolute Certainty waved a hoof, and reality parted in front of them. They walked through the small vertical slit in the air into what served as her bedroom. Everything from the carpet to the curtains to the giant bed in the center was a garishly bright pink and covered in lace, just as she liked it.

Mira threw herself onto the bed, rolling onto her back and staring up at the ceiling. “Are we done here, yet?”

“Oh, I dunno,” Absolute Certainty said, jumping onto the bed herself and curling up next to Mira. “Ponies are super adorable! I’m sure there’s a lot more fun we could have if we stick around.”

“Perhaps.” Mira’s horn began to glow, and the bedside drawer opened. She levitated out a pair of crude looking dolls.

Absolute Certainty immediately snatched them up and made them start kissing each other. “All we really ended up doing was bringing those two together. Oh well!”

Infinite Miracle rolled her eyes and grabbed the Twilight doll back from her. “Twilight would have made an excellent piece. She has a wonderfully intuitive mind.”

“Did you have other stories in mind you wanted to tell using her?”

“There’s always another story, dear Abby, but, without the real thing…”

Absolute Certainty lunged forward, biting her girlfriend on the ear. “I love it when you get pouty like that, you know.”

“Pouty?” Mira asked, her traditional aloofness betraying her. “Just because I can’t use the real Twilight… we still know them well enough to tell our own stories, don’t we? Anyone can write a story using a character they know well enough, or at least just rudely cross them over into someone else’s problem.”

“Ooh!” Absolute Certainty raised the Fluttershy doll up, making it dance across the bed. “What’s next then? More mystery? Pirates? Sci-fi? Fantasy? We can tell a lot of stories with these two, if we want. Make them suffer. Give them hope, a happy life. It’s almost intoxicating!”

“Who knows? We’ll get bored of them eventually and discard them like all the others, but then, and only then, do I think we’ll be leaving for greener pastures.”

“There’s one thing that’s clear. Given enough time, all stories eventually end in darkness. You can close the book where you want, but that doesn’t change what happens after, just obscures it.” Absolute Certainty giggled, then rolled onto her back, raising her hand to the ceiling.

“As the Witch of Certainty, I do declare…”

“As the Witch of Miracles, I do declare…”

“There’s no such thing as a happy ending.”