Multiversal Harmony

by RK_Striker_JK_5

First published

Discord pulls six Elements from different realities to help with a problem of his own doing.

The story is generally the same. A group of ponies go on a quest to stop an insane alicorn who had escaped banishment, learning about friendship along the way and mastering the Elements of Harmony. But the details...

It can be Trixie Lulamoon leading the Elements of Harmony against Corona.
Rainbow Dash could be Celestia's student and go to Ponyville.
Equestria could have a deep connection to three young people in its distant past.
The Elements of Harmony could have been moved to Manehattan for the ponies to quest for.
Princess Cadance might rule over an Equestria of music, with Octavia as her prized protege.
Or Spike and Twilight might have their roles reversed, the former a stallion and the Element of Magic.

And each one has been chosen by Discord, an Element removed to a seventh Equestria for purposes as yet unknown. Can they survive? Can they get home? Read and find out!

The Lunaverse was created by RainbowDoubleDash and is used with permission. Opening segment was written by Talon and Thorn.
The Hasbroverse was created by RK_Striker_JK_5 and is used with permission.
The Manehattanverse was created by Little Jackie Papercut and used with permission.
The Cadanceverse was created by GrassAndClouds2 and used with permission.
The Flipverse was created by Bed Head and used with permission.
The Dashverse was created by Trinary and used with permission.

And special thanks to dramatic_spoon for getting this all together.

Chapter One

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The Dashverse
Midmorning in Ponyville was beautiful. One might have argued that sunrise was even more beautiful, but that would’ve meant getting up at the crack of dawn to see it. But Rainbow Dash hadn’t done that since leaving Canterlot. As much as she missed Princess Celestia sometimes, she didn’t miss getting up every morning for the Princess to raise the sun before starting on their lessons.

Since moving to Ponyville, Rainbow had reveled in the ability to sleep in. True, she was the weather manager and still couldn’t sleep as late as she liked, but it was better than nothing.

And frankly, Rainbow Dash was so fast and skilled that she could start late and still have the weather done before anypony else could. So while she worked, Rainbow let her thoughts drift onto more important things: mysteries of life, the universe, and theme songs (because every awesome pony who saved the world should have a theme song).

“Rainbow Daaash! She'll fly in and make the day all awesome and cooool!” Dash hummed as she pushed a stubborn cumulous cloud into position, trying out the latest version of her song. “And then she'll go and pick up Dinky from schooool!”

It was a kind of weird path to life: from foalhood flying prodigy, to personal protégé of Princess Celestia, to savior of the world, to weather manager and godmom to the cutest filly ever.

Still, Rainbow Dash wouldn’t trade it for anything. Her grumbling stomach interrupted her musing. Looking at the sun, she realized she had about half an hour before she had to go over to Twilight’s. She groaned. A whole afternoon wasted learning about philosophy and literature and what Starswirl the Bearded used to comb that mange growth on his face.

Fantastic.

Just as Rainbow Dash finished up moving the clouds into place, she heard a strange, ominous voice. "Hmm, can't say I particularly saw THIS reality coming--how wonderfully chaotic!"

"Huh?" Rainbow looked around, but there was nopony around. "The hay?"

There was a sigh. "Well, might as well make this quick. Got other places to be, other realities to visit and all that." There was a sudden snap, a bright flash and then--Rainbow Dash was gone.


The Manehattanverse
As the Oranges arrived in front of the museum, an extra-large smile attached to a tawny pegasus swooped into view and landed right in front of them.

"Hey, glad you guys showed up! I'd have hated to get started without you!" Honey Do, archaeologist extraordinaire and secretly curator of the Equestrian Museum of Supernatural History, blustered excitedly. She was outfitted in her pith helmet and vest, looking perfectly ready for an expedition. She only dressed like this in public for appearances under the "Daring" identity created for her by her editors; this day must have been really important to her. Despite her normally focused, serious demeanor, she tended to get worked up easily when something big happened at the museum.

Orange Sherbet smiled back, her own excitement more contained. "Of course, and I wouldn't have missed it," she said. "Is everypony else ready?"

"Almost," the pegasus replied, turning to head inside. "Blossomforth stopped to feed the birds, but she still got here early."

They trotted down the short corridor that led from the entrance to the courtyard. Near the center of the area stood a large shape covered by a cloth. Octavia had a cello set up on the stage, playing music for a group of enrapt foals. Twilight Sparkle was discussing the previous week's adventures with Spike, while Blossomforth's attention was occupied by a bed of flowers that seemed to have been grown in blue-yellow pairs.

At Sherbet's side, her daughter Tangerine looked around. "Where is Miss Trixie?" she asked, looking almost a shade disappointed.

"Did someone say The Great and Powerful Trrrrrrrrrixie?" a voice boomed around the area, causing Twilight to jump, Spike to flinch, Blossomforth to spin one hundred eighty degrees in a millisecond, and Octavia to play a sour note. There was a huge puff of smoke and the showmare herself appeared. She received several odd stares, though the foals cheered. Sherbet herself only barely resisted the urge to follow suit.

A second later, Daring's nose was pressed to Trixie's, and the newcomer drew back slightly in alarm. "Great!" Daring exclaimed, halfway hugging the unicorn. "Now we can get started! You're gonna love this!"

She zipped over to the mysterious shape and cleared her throat. "Fillies and gentlecolts!" she announced. "Princess Celestia has personally requested that I perform the unveiling of this statue, which she commissioned to commemorate a moment that will define our history for centuries to come! I present..." She grabbed the cloth in her teeth and gave it a sharp pull. "The Restoration of Harmony!"

The statue depicted six mares, all in calm, confident poses, in a circle around a larger figure, slightly bowed under the weight of a sudden revelation. Sherbet was indeed impressed. The expressions of the carved ponies perfectly captured the sense of peace and understanding that resulted when the friends united, and the mere posture of that seventh said more than any written record could. Twilight's eye twitched—this hadn't been how they were positioned at the time, it was technically inaccurate, somepony had better restrain her—but the other ponies present all stomped their hooves in applause.

The noise gave way to surprised gasps as the central figure raised its head. Now Twilight was the one applauding. She didn't notice that everybody else in the room had fallen silent until Spike tapped on her shoulder. She turned to look at him. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"It's not supposed to do that," Honey hissed.

A second later, an intense light emanated from the statue. When it faded, everypony collectively checked themselves for transmogrifications, and looked around in confusion.

"Well, that was bizarre," Mosely Orange commented. "Wasn't it, dear...?" When silence answered him, he turned to the now-empty space beside him, probing it with a hoof. The surrounding ponies had now begun murmuring among themselves, concerned. A red maned filly approached the Oranges, summing up the discussion with her question.

"Where'd Auntie go?"


The Lunaverse
Ditzy Doo admired herself in the mirror, she had to admit the outfit made her look... different. She really wasn’t sure that the glittery unitard did her any favours although the fishnet tights encasing her hind legs were certainly eye catching. Trixie had insisted that it was a traditional outfit for an assistant and the element of kindness hadn’t had the heart to argue. In addition Dinky had been so excited that her mother would be taking part in Trixie’s big magic show that Cheerilee had had to shush the excited filly several times at school to stop her constantly nattering about it.

There was a knock on the door followed by Trixie’s voice, “Are you ready in there?”

“Just finished,” called Ditzy opening the door.

The blue unicorn stood there wearing her traditional star covered cloak and hat, she was nervously picking at the hem. “Ah good. Now are you sure you can remember what you need to do?”

“Yes, when you close door to the cabinet I fly up to the top and shut the secret door. We’ve gone over this a dozen times. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“And you have to make sure you can do it in less than five seconds, the fireworks will only distract the crowd for that long.”

“Look there’s no need to be nervous, I’m sure everything will go perfectly.”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie is not nervous, I’ve told you I don’t get stage fright. No matter how important the performance is.” She shuffled her hooves a little as the two of them made their way from the dressing room to the stage area.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie is speaking in the third person again,” grinned Ditzy. “This is that important to you?”

“This chance at getting into the magic dodecahedron is probably the most important day of my life,” admitted Trixie, “Well maybe the day Luna took me on as her student was more important...” she thought for a second, “No this is more important, only the very best get in, even my grand-père the great Quartermoon the magnificent didn’t make the cut.”

“Trixie you’re the element of magic, there’s no way you can fail.”

“That’s just it I’m not allowed to use any magic in my magic show, they check. One little illusion and I’m out. It has to be all pure trickery and if just one of the panel can work out how I did my trick I won’t get in.”

“I’m sure the element covers all sorts of magic and not just magic magic,” said Ditzy trying to calm the frazzled unicorn.

Trixie took a deep breath, “Thanks. Thanks for helping me out here, I know I’m not always the easiest ponies to work with.”

“It’s the least I can do after all the help you’ve given Dinky with her magic. Anyway you’ve been working really hard trying to be a good friend. You’re a better pony than you think you are.”

The two of them had almost reached the stage when they were intercepted by a yellow pegasus with a blue mane and a near permanent scowl on her face.

“Hi, Raindrop’s,” said Ditzy, “Shouldn't you be in the audience?”

“Uh, yeah, um,” started the pegasus gruffly, “You see Snails asked me to ask Trixie if he could be part of the performance today,” she said awkwardly rubbing the back of her head.

“I hadn’t planned anything like that, but I can try to work something in after my big trick for your brother, he is my number two fan, after Dinky of course.”

“Thanks,” said Raindrops with relief, “Um, just don’t mess anything up or you’ll have me to answer to, ok?” She floated away back towards the stage.

“No pressure then,” mumbled Trixie to herself.

“That’s just her way of motivating you,” said Ditzy soothingly.

Trixie stuck her head around the curtains then pulled it back, “Looks crowded out there,” she commented. “Well its show time!” She tapped her hoof on a button on the floor and set off the smoke bomb then rushed forwards to ensure she seemed appear out of nowhere.

The crowd burst into applause, all the seats set up in front of the temporary stage were full and many ponies were standing as well. The sound was almost overwhelming, Trixie closed her eyes and drunk in the attention for a second before scanning the crowd. There in the front row were Trixie’s fellow element bearers, Cheerilee and Raindrops sat with Dinky and Snails between them. Both of the foals were jumping up and down in excitement. Lyra looked almost as jubilant while her mare friend Bon Bon was more restrained as was the last element bearer Carrot Top. Even Trixie’s assistant Pokey Pierce was present. Off to one side, sitting in front of a small desk with a magic detector placed on it, was the magic dodecahedron delegation, the three ponies did not look amused.

Trying not to be intimidated Trixie started her spiel, “Greetings mares and stallions, fillies and colts. Tonight the Great and Powerful Trixie exists only to entertain and amuse but I will not be alone, tonight I have an assistant, the Devious and Dextrous Ditzy Doo.” Trixie gave a flourish and Ditzy rushed onto stage under cover of another smoke bomb. The crowd stomped their approval again with Dinky screaming so loudly it looked like she might injure herself.

Gesturing for silence Trixie strode across the stage cape billowing behind her before stopping in front of a tall wheeled cabinet. “Now for her first trick Trixie will make her assistant disappear, because Trixie does not want to share a stage with anypony who gets more applause than her.”

A ripple of laughter spread through the audience, even one of the testers giggled.

Grasping the cabinet in her hooves Trixie rolled it across the stage and spun it around. “As you can see there are no false sides or backs to the cabinet,” she stomped hard on the stage, “And no trap doors. Now if my assistant would kindly enter the box..”

Ditzy gave a bow to the audience, which to her surprise attracted a wolf whistles from a few of the stallions, and one mare, in the audience, causing her to redden. Remembering her part the grey pegasus strolled over to the cabinet and stepped inside. For a second her claustrophobia gripped her, but she took a deep breath and the panic passed. Trixie gave her a reassuring smile before closing the door.

“And now using her great powers Trixie will make Ditzy disappear before your very eyes, before making her re-appear again of course,” said Trixie winking at Dinky as a look of panic passed over the filly’s face. She turned to the cabinet again and gently nudged the button set in the floor to set off the next pyrotechnic.

To her surprise rather than the standard burst of light the cabinet began to hover a meter off the ground and spin while glowing with an eerie red light. From all around chanting could be heard in an unrecognisable language. Trixie staggered back in shock while the audience gasped. One of the magic dodecahedron observers leaned forwards and tapped the magic detector set in their desk but the needle remained stubbornly on zero.

As quickly as it had started the chanting ceased and the cabinet fell back to the ground with a loud crash. The door swung open of its own accord to reveal that it now stood empty. Trixie gaped.

Silence reigned for a few seconds before one of the magic dodecahedron inspectors leaned forwards, “That was very impressive misdirection Miss Lulamoon,” Trixie winced at the use of her hated second name, “But I’m afraid your little trick is practically transparent, it is clear that your assistant merely hid in the top half of the box, we really were expecting more from a magician of your apparent skill.”

As if it had heard the inspector the top of the cabinet swung open to reveal, instead of the grey pegasus Trixie had been expecting, a large mass of cloud which spewed out to cover most of the audience before chocolate rain began to fall from it to most of the adults present annoyance but the foals delight.

“Errr.. ta-da?” cried Trixie as the brown liquid started to drip off of her hat.


The Cadanceverse
Octavia Philharmonica was used to a certain kind of performance environment. A big, quiet room, with plenty of room for audience members to sit in respectful silence so they could hear every note the musicians played. A stage, usually wooden, with musicians arrayed in neat, orderly rows. Ushers, attendants, concertmaster and conductor. She had been to so many concerts of this kind that, for a time, she had thought all venues were like this.

And then Vinyl Scratch had introduced her to wubstep.

"A little to the left!" called the DJ from her perch atop a speaker that was three times as large as a pony. "Just a smidgen!"

"What is a smidgen?" asked Octavia as she strained to muscle the boxy object (which Vinyl called an amplifier) to where Vinyl wanted. "One foot? Six inches?"

"A hair more than six inches, and a bit less than a foot."

Octavia bit back a retort--the stage was very messy with cables, wires, and sound gear, and Vinyl's instructions weren't helping-- and glared up at the DJ, who gave her a cheeky, disarming smile. "Right there's fine, Tavi. I'll be down in a sec," she called. And then she began to climb down the massive speaker as if it was a jungle-gym.

Then again, Octavia thought, She literally lives in a jungle-gym with a roof over it. I shouldn't be surprised.

"How's it going?" Octavia turned to see Lyra hopping up, Fluttershy flying right behind her. The town veterinarian was wearing a pink headband and had braided her mane back into two pigtails; Octavia recalled that she had been participating in a charity fly-a-thon earlier that day. Lyra, though, looked just like usual--still green, still lithe, and still bouncing like a foal who had gotten locked in Bonbon's Bon-Bons after dark.

"It is going alright." Octavia took a moment to wipe sweat from her brow. "I admit I have never seen a concert venue quite like this, but helping Vinyl to set it up is proving to be an educational experience. I had no idea that wubstep required so many components."

"You're doing fine," called Vinyl from the side of the speaker. "And thanks for the help. Real life-saver, since Del Trot bailed."

Octavia suppressed a shudder at the thought of Vinyl's annoying cousin. "It is nothing," she said. "Princess Cadance has assigned me the task of learning about all of the kinds of music in Ponyville. What better opportunity to learn than by assisting with concerts like this? And, as for Vinyl--"

She turned and frowned. Vinyl seemed to have vanished. "Um. Where did she go?"

And then Vinyl's upside-down face suddenly poked out of a hole in the side of the speaker. The unicorn--who had to be holding on to something higher up in the speaker with her hind legs, Octavia guessed--smiled brilliantly as Octavia stared at her. "Hi, Tavi! I'm right here!"

"...hi?"

Vinyl laughed. "Anyways, like I say--you learn a lot more from rocking out than reading, so if you want to learn wubstep, this is the best way to do it." Vinyl flipped down so she landed on her hooves. "And you've been a great help so far, Tavi. Again, thanks a million."

Fluttershy looked at the speakers with a little trepidation. "Um, Vinyl? I've never heard wubstep before. Does it... hurt?"

Vinyl laughed. "Not unless twenty drums looped to sound like four hundred of the loudest cannons you've ever heard huts! Not unless pure concentrated awesome hurts! Not unless massive blasts of music, accentuated by the very latest and greatest magitech that Equestria's own Element of Magic whipped up for the express purpose of cramming as much sound as possible into your ears, hurt!" She grinned. "Does that sound like it would hurt?"

"Um. Maybe a little," whimpered Fluttershy.

Lyra gathered her into a hug. "Hey, come on now. You said you'd try new things! You'll love it, I promise. And afterwards we can all go over to my dear Bonnie's shop for celebratory CANDY!" She grinned. "The best possible way to finish off a concert!"

Octavia grinned when she saw Fluttershy relax and nuzzle against Lyra. The unicorn was the Element of Kindness, and she demonstrated that very quality on an almost daily basis. Turning to Vinyl, Octavia said, "Is there anything else that you need me to do?"

"Dunno. I'll do a quick sound test and we'll see if everything's ship-shape."

Octavia winced to herself--she had done a sound-test with Vinyl two days ago, just in the DJ's house, and it had been almost deafening. But she had given her word to help Vinyl, and as the Element of Honesty, she would not break it. "Ready when you are."

Vinyl disappeared back into the speaker, moved a few cables around--Octavia could hear her levitating them with magic--and then appeared on the top. She jumped to another big piece of equipment and flicked a few switches. "Alright. Wub test one," she called ."Beginning... now!"

A massive blast of sound--so loud and powerful it could almost be touched--blasted from the speakers.

At the same time, a bright white flash stunned all four Elements.

And when the flash faded, Octavia was gone.

For a moment, the three Elements could only stare.

And then Vinyl gasped. "She was converted to wubs!"


The Hasbroverse
It was a relatively quiet day for Megan Richards, former visitor to Dream Valley, current unofficial ambassador to Equestria and author of the 'My Little Horsey' book series. She sat in her bedroom, eyes looking over the current iteration of her latest novel as she typed it up. She picked up a cup of coffee, took a sip and then set it down on a mass of pink hair right at armrest level. “Hello, Pinkie Pie,” she said, eyes never leaving the screen.

Pinkie Pie's muzzle twitched. “Aww, how'd you know it was me?” she asked, bouncing up to all fours but still keeping the cup perched on her head perfectly level.

Megan tried stifling a laugh, but her cheeks puffed out slightly and her abdomen shook. “Just a wild guess,” she said, taking the cup off of Pinkie's head and sipping from it once more. “You're not going to– “

“Do anything to mess up your writing?” Pinkie Pie interjected, ears wiggling back and forth. “Of course I won't silly!” She arched up on the tips of her hooves, peering at the computer monitor and what Megan had typed. “Ooh, what's going on here?” Her ears suddenly flattened and her hair lost a bit of poofiness. “Or is this a bad time?”

There was a pause before Megan shook her head. “Nah. I was gonna take a bit of a break anyway.” She looked back to the screen and rubbed her chin. “Besides, I might need a bit of a sounding board for this next bit.” She glanced to Pinkie Pie out of the corner of her eye, smirking slightly. “Know of anyone who'd volunteer?”

Pinkie Pie's foreleg shot into the air. “Ooh, ooh! Me me mememe!” She leaned in close to Megan, batting her eyes at her while still somehow keeping the coffee cup level.

Megan rolled her eyes before scooting back a bit. “Okay, Pinkie Pie,” she said, waving at the monitor. “The scene is–“

A sudden flash of light caught both their attention as a misshapen amalgamation of animal limbs appeared before them. Pinkie's jaw dropped and Megan's hands clenched at the sight of the draconequess floating before them. “Discord!” Megan shouted.

Discord wiped his brow, panting slightly. “In the flesh, I think.” He looked himself over. “That took a lot more out of me than I thought it would.” His eyes focused on Megan and Pinkie and he grinned, rubbing his lion's paw and eagle's claw together. “Ah, excellent! I've still got it! Now then, Miss Pie. If you would be so–“

Megan pushed Pinkie back towards the wall and a gun safe there. “Pinkie, get out of here!” she shouted, hands reaching for the safe's handle and keypad. She quickly unlocked it and pulled out her Marlin 1894 lever-action rifle and several .44 caliber shells, sliding them in while willing her hands to stop shaking. “I'll hold him off! Get Twilight, the others and the Elements NOW!”

Discord's mouth drooped. “Oh, now there's no need for this! All I'm asking is for a little time. Is that so wrong?”

Megan raised her rifle, double-checking her earplugs. She glanced to Pinkie, who somehow had a large cannon pointed at Discord, fuse lit. “Pinkie, I said get out of here!”

Pinkie shook her head. “No way!” Her ears folded against her skull. “Fire when ready, captain!”

Discord's eyes shifted between the two. He tossed his head back, laughing. “Oh, please! Do you really think mere firearms can hurt me?!” he sneered out.

Megan's face twisted in rage as she squeezed the trigger.

Discord's sneer was replaced with an expression of pain. He rocketed back, clutching his nose. “That... that hurt!” He wobbled in place, eyes screwed shut. “Why does it hurt?”

Megan pumped the lever, ejecting the spent shell. “Don't know. Don't care.” She took aim once more, but a snap of Discord's talons sent her stumbling back, crashing against the wall and groaning slightly.

Discord sighed. “Well, this was a lot harder than I thought it'd be. I don't know what sort of mischief this reality's version of myself was up to, but he must've been quite the naughty boy.” He focused on Pinkie Pie and snapped his claws, turning her party cannon into a potted fern. One more snap and he and Pinkie vanished, leaving Megan alone.

Megan scrambled to her feet, wincing and rubbing her back at the point of impact with the wall. She grabbed her cell phone off of her desk and thumbed it on, speed-dialing a special number. “This is Megan Richards,” she barked into it. “Discord broke out of his prison and kidnapped Pinkie Pie!”


The Flipverse
"Alright, you're on!"

Spike swallowed hard. No easy feat seeing as his heart was hammering away in his throat. Still, the voice had urged, and one purple limb was rising to obey. Slowly reaching for the door of the building before him. Only a few inches of open-air separated the two.

"W-what if she's not home?"

He knew it was his voice that had asked the question. That didn't stop his hoof from dropping back to join its trembling fellows.

Suddenly the unicorn stallion felt like he'd run a marathon. Small beads of sweat broke over his purple coat, joining the feeling of his green mane starting to spike up again underneath his fedora. The bowtie clinched around his neck was tightening as he struggled to breathe. His horn sparked instinctively, allowing a rush of air to flood his burning chest as the tie loosened.

"Oh Spike..." the encouraging voice from earlier spoke with a sigh.

Spike "Purple Prose" Flail's head turned to the sound of rustling leaves as a short, purple-scaled figure emerged from the bushed nearby. He winced, recognizing the disapproving shake of the baby dragon's head as she approached.

"Don't tell me you're still nervous?" the young dragoness said, carefully setting down the bouquet of flowers she was carrying.

"Me? Nervous? Come on, Twilight, heh heh..." Spike said, trying to force a smile to match his unenthused laugh. "Heh... okay, maybe a little."

His green eyes wandered up to the building before him. The stallion could feel his pulse quicken as he looked to the fanciful pony on the signboard above the door. Or maybe it was due to the glimpse of white he could see in the window. The silhouette of the owner of Carousel Boutique, waiting for him. Rarity smiling as their eyes met, as she leaned in closer—

Spike let out a strangled cough, his daydream cutting out as he felt a pair of claws redo his bowtie.

"Spike, you're just asking Rarity out for lunch," Twilight encouraged as she lifted his hat to smooth his mane. "What's the worst that could happen?"

"... Nightmare Moon?" Spike responded.

Pain shot through the inside of his mouth. The unicorn barely contained a yelp as he unclenched his teeth from the inside of his cheek. Twilight's contemplative silence, however, wasn't doing much to stop images of the black alicorn from flitting through his mind.

"That probably won't happen this time," Twilight finally said, leaping down from his back.

Spike let out a groan in response, one hoof rubbing at the side of his head.

"Come on, Spike, you're a hero! Remember?" Twilight reminded him, pointing the bouquet right at him. "Who helped stop Nightmare Moon?"

"Me, I know, but—" Spike tried to counter.

"And who does everypony in Ponvyille love?" Twilight cut him off, tapping the flowers against one palm.

"Me..." Spike said, rolling his eyes slightly at his assistant's pep talk.

"And who has been at this for almost an hour now?" Twilight finished, crossing her arms.

"Me-wait, an hour?" Spike asked, tilting his head. "Really?"

"I'm kind of surprised Rarity hasn't noticed us already," Twilight said, rolling her eyes. "Now, ready to do this?"

Spike let out a shaky chuckle as Twilight stepped aside. Despite the jab he could see the encouraging smile on her face. His chuckle quieted as he nodded, one hoof raising to the door again—

"Why are you carrying the flowers?" he asked before he could stop himself.

"Because you were afraid you'd eat them," Twilight answered quickly. "Remember, Mr. Nervous Snacker?"

Spike wheezed out another laugh as he nodded. His hoof began to reach for the door once more—

"Y-you know, I'll bet Rarity is busy," he stammered, his hoof lowering again. "I mean, she's been up there all morn—"

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK

Spike's eyes widened in horror as a purple fist rapped against the door. He couldn't even acknowledge the cheerful "Coming!” that sounded from inside. All he could do was stare at the smirking dragon next to him.

"Twilight what are you doing!?" he reprimanded in a harsh whisper.

"Catch!" was Twilight's only response as she tossed the bouquet into the air.

Spike's horn lit before he could think, grabbing the flowers mid-fall. His head snapped around,
following the dragon as she darted back into the bushes. Any and all thoughts of chasing after her quickly died as he heard the unmistakable sound of a door opening.

The stallion closed his eyes tight, willing the flowers forward.

As such, he never noticed the sudden flash of light. Even when all it left in front of Carousel Boutique was his shallow hoofprints.


Spike shoved the flowers forward. “Hello I was wondering if you're free for lunch but if you're not that's fine!” he blurted out, not even taking the time to breathe. He waited a heartbeat, then two, then three before the silence finally became too much. He opened an eye, then both eyes. “The hay?”

He no longer stood in front of Carousel Boutique, nor was he even in Ponyville itself, for that matter. He stood in a small field with five other ponies, all mares. To his left was a large, foreboding forest that set his mane on edge just looking at it. The sky was overcast, thick clouds covering the all the way to the horizon. His gaze drifted across the others, all but two at least somewhat familiar to him. He blushed slightly as his gaze lingered on Ditzy and the... outfit she was wearing.

One of the two he had never seen before stood right in front of him, smiling warmly. She was an earth pony, with a pale-yellow coat, orange mane and matching tail that were expertly coiffed. She wore an unsettlingly familiar-looking gold necklace, with a centerpiece that Spike would bet a year's pay that it matched her cutie mark. A quick glance all around confirmed three of the others wearing similar necklaces, and there was a certain shine to the cello slung over the fourth’s back that stuck out to him. He tapped his forehead, feeling the golden circlet that represented the Element of Magic and confirming what he had begun to suspect..

The mare at his immediate fore smiled warmly at Spike and he smiled back. “Lunch would sound lovely, but I think the invitation was meant for somepony else,” she said. “Thank you, though. I'm sure whoever this was meant for would love to go on that luncheon.”

Spike scratched his poll with a hoof. “Thanks.” He looked around. “So... who are you?”

“Sorry, where are my manners?” She extended a hoof. “My name is Orange Sherbet, of Manehattan.” She looked to her right. “Although this looks more like the edge of the Everfree Forest to me.”

Both looked to the other four, but before they could do or say anything, all four spoke at once.

“I believe this is not what the inside of a speaker system looks like.”

“Oh my gosh, where did he go?! Where did I go? Is this even anyplace at all?”

“I think this isn't how the act's supposed to go...”

“This was so not in Celestia's lesson plan.”

The gray mare piped up. “‘Celestia’s lesson plan’?” She suddenly gasped. “You’re working for Corona, Rainbow Dash?!”

The blue pegasus, Rainbow Dash, blinked. “Who’s Corona, Ditzy?” She scratched her head. “Wait, Celestia? I guess I could see that…”

The wall-eyed pegasus flew over and landed right in front of Rainbow Dash. “After everything Corona’s done to Ponyville, to Dinky… how could you betray Princess Luna like that?” she cried out, jabbing a foreleg menacingly.

The cello-wearing earth pony blinked. “Wait, Celestia and Luna? Princesses?!” She trotted over and interjected herself between the two. “I am afraid you’re both mistaken or… well, you’re not lying. That much I can tell. But how could they gain students already? We just freed them from Nemesis’ control a short time ago!”

The pegasi stared blankly at her. “What…” they both said.

The pink pony looked at the three. “Wait, none of you are lying, right?”

They all looked to her. “You know I’m not, Pinkie!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.

“Neither am I,” Ditzy said. Her eyes split between the others. “Wait a second…” She hopped up and floated over to Pinkie pie. “Listen, this is gonna sound insane, but --”

“This is obviously the work of some spirit trying to take control of my mind, like last time,” the earth pony interjected. Her brow suddenly furrowed. “Except last time it was much simpler… and it showed me my greatest desire at the time.” She rubbed her chin and her eyes darted back and forth. “This is far too complex, and quite frankly strange for it to be any sort of mental manipulation by the same party as before.”

Spike's eyes darted among them all. His horn lit up and he shot a bright beam of light into the sky, catching everypony’s attention. “Who!” he shouted.

Orange Sherbet quirked an eyebrow. “'Who'?” She placed a hoof on her chin. “That is a good question, actually.”

Spike nodded. “Okay, I have... no idea what in Tartarus is going on, but from everypony's expression here I'd bet a month's pay you all are confused, too. Maybe not as much as I am, since I have no idea where this is and no idea who any of you could be and what the hay is going on here and why I’m here…” He trailed off, his eyes screwing shut and panting slightly. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

His eyes slowly opened as he felt a hoof on his shoulder. He looked over at Orange Sherbet standing there. “Don’t be sorry, young stallion,” she said, reassuring him. “I bet we’re all quite nervous.” She looked at the others. “Right?” At their affirmations she turned to Spike once more. “Now just take a deep breath, count to ten and say what you mean to say.”

Spike swallowed. “Thank you,” he said. He bobbed his head up and down for a bit before speaking with a measured cadence to his words.“I'm a reporter, and my mentor taught me the six basic questions of reporting; who, what, when, where, why and how. Some of you might think you know the answers to these questions, but more often than not it's a little trickier than you think.”

Orange Sherbet nodded. “It might be a good idea for us all to clear the air here and declare ourselves to each other. Some of you look like you know each other, but it wouldn't do to make assumptions.” She looked to Spike. “Please go first, good sir.”

“And no interruptions, either,” the cello-carrying earth pony declared, staring hard at two of the six.

“I'll try,”Rainbow Dash said.

“Do or do not; there is no try,” the pink pony responded, drawing stares. “What? It's great advice!”

Spike nodded and let out a breath. “I'm Purple Prose, but my friends call me Spike. I’m the Element of Magic and reporter for the Canterlot Sun.” he noticed stares and shrugged. “I noticed the necklaces, and possibly the cello. It’s what reporters do!”

The earth pony nodded and smiled.

“I am Orange Sherbet, Element of Generosity. A pleasure to meet you all.” She looked to Octavia. “I thought one of you was among my closest friends… but I don’t think that’s the case here.”

“I'm Ditzy Doo, Element of Kindness.” Her eyes went in two directions before snapping into place, causing her and Spike to wince.

“Rainbow Dash, fastest flier in all of Equestria, Princess Celestia's student and the Element of Loyalty!” Rainbow Dash proclaimed, hopping into the air. She turned to Pinkie. “And I have no idea what's going on, Pinkie.” She floated down and leaned in close to her ear. “And what in Equestria is Ditzy wearing?!”

Ditzy blushed. “It was for an act,” she mumbled.

Pinkie Pie snorted. “For Doctor Whooves’ birthday?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Well, Miss Dash, you're definitely not the Element of Humility,” the cello-toting earth pony said, smirking. “As for me, I am Octavia Philharmonica. I am the Element of Honesty, personal protege of Princess Cadance... and I am beginning to see the pattern that Mister Prose saw.”

The pink pony piped up, hopping up and down on all four hooves. “I'm Pinkie Pie, Element of Laughter, but I don't see anything to laugh at! And I think I know what's going on, or part of it!” Her ears flopped down and her right hind leg beat against the ground, sending up a dust cloud.

Rainbow Dash floated down. “Wait, how would you know?”

“I go through dimension-jumping daily!” Pinkie Pie said. She paused. “Wait, that came out a lot weirder-sounding than I meant it.” She waved her hooves in the air. “We're all from different alternate-quantum realities!”

Silence permeated the group for a moment. “I’m not familiar with that term, but I think I know what you mean,” Ditzy said, her right eye on Pinkie Pie. “We’re from different Equestria’s, right?”

Pinkie Pie nodded, grinning. “Got it, Ditzy!” She motioned to the others to come closer.” Okay, ask yourselves this question. What about everypony else's stories do not line up?” She looked up to Dash. “Dash, you're pretty smart, but you're not Princess Celestia's student where I come from. Twilight Sparkle is.”

Spike's right eye twitched. “My assistant?!”

Dash's brow wrinkled. “Where you... come from? Aren't you from Ponyville?”

Octavia spoke up. “I believe I am beginning to see what Pinkie Pie is saying.” She focused on Dash. “As I said, I am Princess Cadance's student, and I never saw you in Canterlot while there. As for being Celestia's student... unlikely, since she was only recently released from the sun and freed from Nemesis' control.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Celestia... in the sun?!”

Ditzy suddenly gasped. “Oh, I get it! It’s like the Equestria I visited before, where instead of Luna sealing up Celestia, it was the other way around!”

Rainbow Dash, Spike and Orange Sherbet all turned to her. “I believe you've got that backwards,” Spike said.

“Only half-right, actually,” Octavia piped up. “Both Celestia and Luna fell to darkness, as Burning Sun and Nightmare Moon.”

Ditzy blinked. “No... she was Corona.” She suddenly rubbed her forehead. “And now I'm getting a migraine trying to keep track of who was banished where. Where's Carrot Top when I need her?”

Orange Sherbet broke from Spike's side and walked over to Octavia. “Octavia, that's wrong. We fought Nightmare Moon, remember? In Manehattan?” She shook her head. “No, you’re not the Octavia I know, are you?”

Octavia's eyes narrowed. “No, I am sorry, but I do not know you. And no, we did not. I am beginning to think this is either a huge prank by Vinyl Scratch, I am going mad, I am being mentally controlled... or what Pinkie Pie said about 'alternate quantum realities' and Ditzy Doo said about ‘different Equestria’s’ is true. Because the Equestria I come from, the Element of Generosity is Fluttershy.”

“No, she's the Element of Kindness!” both Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash blurted out. The two turned and pointed to each other. “Jinx!” they shouted, giggling.

Spike whinnied and snorted. “Hey, focus, alright? So... yeah. I really think Pinkie Pie and Ditzy might be onto something here. I think. Possibly.” He looked to Pinkie and Ditzy. “So?”

Pinkie Pie let out a breath. She reached into her mane, pulled out a bandanna from somewhere and tied it around her forehead. “Okay, think of it like a story. Each of us, we're all living a variation of that story. We're all from an Equestria, right?”

At their nods, Ditzy spoke up. “We're all an Element of Harmony that we gained by going on a perilous quest to fight off a power-mad alicorn or two and save our Equestria, right? Right. But it seems the Tirac's in the details.” She placed a hoof on her chest. “I went to a different Equestria a short while ago. Where I come from, Princess Luna ruled for a thousand years before Celestia freed herself from the sun. But my fellow Elements visited an Equestria where the opposite happened. The basic story’s the same, but there’s variations to all our tales.”

Octavia groaned. “I was almost hoping I was being mentally controlled. it would’ve been far easier that way.”

Pinkie Pie let out a breath. “I know who's writing this part of the story.” Her mouth formed into an unnatural-looking grim line. “Discord.”

Orange Sherbet gasped. “Of course!” she exclaimed. “I was at an exhibit celebrating his resealing when all of this happened! His picture moved and then I was here!”

Rainbow Dash landed. “Discord?” Her right wing flapped a bit. “The mischievous god of chaos that Celestia and Luna sealed up before taking the reins of Equestria?” Everypony stared at her. “Hey, sometimes I paid attention in class,” she said, shrugging.

Pinkie Pie nodded. “He kidnapped me from Megan's house.” She held up a foreleg and waved it. “Long story, no time for it.”

Rainbow Dash suddenly groaned. “Oh, so that's who spoke to me before I ended up here!”

A seventh voice suddenly echoed throughout the clearing. “Well, about time, Dashie. I guess you didn't pay attention to all of Celly's lessons, then.”

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. A high wind kicked up, kicking debris. The six moved close together. “So, how did you stop him?” Octavia asked.

“We used the Elements of Harmony on him,” Orange Sherbet replied. “But it was close, and we nearly failed.”

“And no offense, but I don't think we're close enough for it to work on him,” Pinkie Pie said.

“None taken,” Octavia said.

There was a sudden flash of light and a mismatched conglomeration of animal parts appeared before them. Discord floated, one leg crossed over the other. He reared back, laughing as the lightning ans thunder continued. After a minute, the entire storm ceased to exist. Discord floated down and coughed into his eagle's claw. “Sorry about that. Old habits die hard.” He clasped the claw and a bear's paw together. “Now that I have your attention, could you please help me with a teeny, tiny problem that's surfaced through barely indirect fault of my own?”

Chapter Two

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Discord looked at the six ponies, eyes shifting back and forth. He held out his forelimbs. “Well?” he said, scowling. “Are any of you going to show the ‘magic of friendship’ and help out someone in need?”

Rainbow Dash looked Discord over for a moment. “Wait a minute…” She suddenly trotted up to him. “Any specific reason you’re only six inches tall?” she asked, holding a hoof over his head. She looked to Pinkie Pie and Orange Sherbet. “Was he taller where you came from?”

Pinkie Pie and Orange Sherbet exchanged a glance. The two earth ponies slowly approached Discord and Rainbow Dash, standing opposite of her. Pinkie Pie rubbed her chin. “Now that you mention it, he is quite a bit smaller than where I come from.” She chuckled. “Almost cute, too.”

Discord’s head bobbed back and forth. “Now, wait just a moment there! I am not cute!” He crossed his forelimbs in front of his serpentine chest. “I’m adorable.” He looked to the other three. “Now don’t you want to know why it is I summoned you six here?”

Octavia spoke up. “That had crossed my mind So explain yourself, Discord. Why is it that you summoned a different Element of Harmony from six different realities to this place, wherever it is?” She glanced to her back and the cello strapped there. “And why or even how did you retrieve our Elements?”

Discord’s lips peeled back. “Oh, what a tale to tell, my dear Octavia." He waggled his talons at her. “It’s full of twists and turns and bends and reaches far back into the past, when I was--”

“Oh, just spill it!” Spike snarled, his horn lighting up.

Discord blinked. “Very well. Be prepared for quite a shock, though.” He snapped his talons and the entire cloud bank covering the sky disappeared, leaving a sky split right down the middle between day and night. The sun hung in one corner of a white expanse, while the moon hung in total blackness.

The six ponies there stared up at the sky, jaws hung open in surprise and fear at the insane expanse that hung overhead. Octavia was the first to speak. “That is… by Cadance. Just as before!” She looked to Discord. “Have the Princesses gone mad with power here?! Are they waging war in the heavens?” Her breath hitched in her throat. “Oh, no…”

Orange Sherbet galloped over to Octavia’s side, Ditzy quickly joining her. “Octavia, breathe!” she said. “In through the muzzle, out through the mouth. Focus on the sound of my voice.” Orange Sherbet’s nostrils flared as she proceeded to breathe in such a manner. “See? Just keep on doing that.”

Ditzy draped a wing over Octavia’s loin and hip in a hug. “It’s alright, Octavia. Just listen to Orange Sherbet. It’s gonna be okay.”

Octavia imitated Orange Sherbet’s breathing. She dropped to her haunches and hung her head. “I am… very sorry about that,” she muttered. “Where I come from, in ‘my’ Equestria, when Celestia and Luna broke free of their prisons they waged war.” She held up a foreleg and motioned to the sky. “This just hit me rather suddenly.”

Rainbow Dash snorted. She raised a hoof and planted it on Discord’s head, right between his horns. “Okay, Discord. Spill or be spilled! Where are we and what do you want with us?”

Discord squirmed slightly under their six glares, but finally shrugged. “Okay, okay!” He motioned for them to come closer. “One thing your Equestria’s all have in common is that about a thousand years ago an alicorn or two went mad and tried to take over. Right? Right. Nightmare Moon, Corona… One or both of them went mad. The thing is here? Neither did.”


“Luna, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing! Nothing is wrong. Why should anything be wrong. I’m just… going to go and raise the moon. Alone. Again.”

“No.”

“No?”

“Something’s wrong, Luna. And I’m not leaving here until you tell me. I’m your sister, and I love you!”

“I… love you too, Celestia. I just feel so alone. All the ponies love you and your day. You’re so perfect…”

“Me? Perfect? Far from it, Luna. All our little ponies look to us for guidance and protection, but it just feels too much for me sometimes. The burden of leading Equestria… sometimes I want to pull my mane out!”

“Why… why didn’t you tell me that before? Celly, I am here for you! As much as you’re my sister, I am yours as well. Never feel as if you can’t open up to me!”

“Like you were feeling?”

“Oh, stop that… it is a bit funny, now that I step back and look at it.”

“Would you like me to stay up as you raise the moon?”

“Only if you wish for me to be there when you raise the sun.”


“So the two sisters talked things out. Neither of them went insane, and so they led Equestria together.”

Rainbow Dash tilted her head in confusion. “But that sounds… really awesome! Celestia and Luna together ruling?” She thrust a foreleg into the sky, hovering above the ground for a moment. “What could be better than that?”

Spike spoke up. “Yeah. I’m not seeing a downside here, Discord.”

Octavia bit her lip. “I am admittedly a little… uneasy with the idea of them ruling together, but that’s due to the experiences I had were I come from. This is an entirely different reality, after all.”

Ditzy rubbed a hoof against her other foreleg. “Well, Corona kidnapped my Dinky when she escaped, so…” She suddenly gasped. “Oh, no!”

“What is it?” Octavia asked.

Ditzy swallowed, her eyes snapping straight ahead. “Well, I was h-helping out Trixie with a magic act, like I said. And D-Dinky was in the audience. She saw me vanish but she’s waiting for me to come back and…” Her entire body heaved as she cried. “My muffin…”

Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash both glared daggers at Discord. The chaos god swallowed, his throat bobbing up and down. “I didn’t have time! For what it’s worth, after all this is over I’ll make sure you get back only a few minutes after you left. Dinky will hardly know you’re gone.” He paused for a moment. “But.. I still need your help, Ditzy. This Equestria needs your help. That’s why I grabbed you and the others.” He waved his paw from her back to him. “Help us and I’ll make it better for you two, okay?”

Spike and Octavia trotted over to Discord, surrounding him along with Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. Spike’s horn glowed and the miniature draconequus floated up. “I know I can panic a bit, but I am dead serious when I say you’d better treat Ditzy right. I don’t know about the others, but she’s a good friend of mine where I come from. Get me?”

Discord held up his front limbs. “I get you, I get you! Now could you please gently lower me so I can get on with my tale?” He waited for Spike to let go of him before patting himself down. “Now, then. Where was I? Ah, yes!” He looked to Pinkie Pie. “Now, my dear. As I was about to say, your Equestria faced challenges after Nightmare Moon was banished. A Griffin Empire, states to the south making trouble, that sort of thing?”

Pinkie Pie’s brow furrowed. “Well, yeah.” She rubbed her chin and leaned over him. “Wait… how do you know of that? Are you my Discord?”

Discord shrugged. “Yes and no. We’re all fragments of the whole, but independent of each other. And it’s how I know that thanks to the challenges your Equestria faced, you are now the dominant nation of your planet. Celestia wasn’t able to be everywhere at once or do everything, so you struggled, you strived, you adapted and then you thrived.” He looked to the other five. “It’s the same with your Equestria’s, at least on the continental level. You’ve all bettered yourselves.”

“But not this one,” Octavia observed. “Here, with both Celestia and Luna able to thwart any threat… they became complacent?”

Discord leaned back, chuckling. “I’m not sure if ‘ironic’ is the proper word for it, Octavia. But it is true. After I was sealed in stone and Sombra dealt with, there were no major or even minor problems. I know you don’t like to believe it, but a little chaos now and then results in a stronger Equestria all around. It forces you to make yourselves better than you were before.”

The six ponies glanced amongst themselves, expressions ranging from disbelief to grudging acceptance. Finally, Spike spoke up. “So, what happened to the Celestia and Luna here?”

“And is there a Princess Cadance?” Octavia asked.

“To the second question, she exists but not as you know it in this reality. The first, though, requires a bit of showing.” Discord held out his claw and snapped his talons while motioning with his paw.. A patch of formerly-bare ground suddenly wavered, disappearing to reveal spike-covered vines writhing about. “I was hiding this from you,” he said. “I didn’t want to cause any bit of panic. Well, any more panic than necessary.”

The six all gasped, then looked to Discord. Rainbow Dash dropped to the ground and held a hoof above his head once more. “Okay, you wanna fill us in on what those are?”

“And not the obvious,” Octavia interjected.

Discord hesitated for a moment before speaking. “Well, when Celestia and Luna sealed me up, I was having a bit of a snack. Rather rude of them, but anyway, while I was eating I might have… accidentally spilled some on the ground.” He waved at the vines. “And I guess they took root and sprouted some lovely plunder vines!”

Orange Sherbet let out a gasp. “And these ghastly things captured both Celestia and Luna?!”

Discord nodded. “They proved most resilient to their magic, and they didn’t have time to get the Elements when they were ensnared.”

Ditzy shuddered, wrapping her wings around her body in a hug. “How awful!”

Discord scowled. “Yes, yes. How terrible,” he deadpanned. He cried out as Rainbow Dash’s hoof twisted a bit on his head. He snapped his claws and telekinetically pushed it off. “Well, with them gone and chaos run amuck, the chains binding me shattered. And I was free, free again!” He tossed his head back in laughter and wiped a tear from his eye. “Oh, how…” He swallowed as the six ponies gathered around him. “How utterly dreadful it was, yes.”

Pinkie Pie snorted. “I don’t need to be the Element of Honesty to know you’re lying!” She suddenly looked over at Octavia. “Sorry if I stepped on your line, there.”

Octavia waved her off. “Quite alright, and I quite agree.” She stared down at Discord. “From what little I’ve seen of you, there’s little chance you felt anything other than joy or glee at their imprisonment.”

The draconequus shrugged. “Oh, alright. Yes, I was glad to be out and causing chaos. Well, I was for the first few months or so.”

Octavia blinked. “‘First few months’?” She looked to the vines. “How long has it been since the Princesses were captured?”

Discord glanced at his talons, flexing them. “It’s probably been about three years or so.”

Orange Sherbet gasped. “And what have the ponies done here to combat them?” She paused. “No, wait. What have you done here?”

Discord chuckled lightly. “They tried at first, but the Princesses taking care of everything for them left them rather unable to cope. The vines also interfered with their magic. And the first few months, I must admit I was a rather naughty boy. Oh, the mischief I got up to!” He tossed his head back in laughter, which quickly died down as he felt the glares directed at him. “Well, eventually things became a bit… staid?”


Discord sat upon his floating throne, wearing a top hat and monocle. He sipped a tea cup, sighing. A pair of ponies stumbled along his checkerboard landscape, their eyes down at the ground.

Discord continued sipping. “Behold my chaos,” he droned. “All before me shall bow to my omnipotent power over reality. All hail Discord.” He finished his tea cup and tossed away the tea. His eyes shifted back and forth, focusing on the ponies still walking down the path. “They don’t even care.”


Pinkie Pie rolled on the ground, forelegs clutched around her barrel as she laughed until she cried, then laughed some more. She rolled to her hooves and jabbed a foreleg at Discord. “T-t-t-they d-d-d-d-didn’t care!” she howled out before dissolving back to laughter.

Spike leaned forward, looking the still-laughing Pinkie Pie over. “Are you alright?”

Pinkie heaved, sucking in air. She wiped her eyes, her pink cheeks a burning crimson. “Yeah! Sorry!” she gasped out. She released one more big breath. “Okay, sorry everypony. It just hit me a bit hard.” She leaned over him, smirking. “I guess there’s such a thing as too much chaos too, right?”

Discord rolled his eyes. “Alright, alright! Yes, Pinkie Pie. There is such a thing. So, I needed to get rid of the plunder vines. But I’m afraid they’ve slipped beyond even my control.” He snapped his claws. The vines shrank back a bit before writhing forward once more. “The only things that can stop them are returning the Elements of Harmony to what’s known as the Tree of Harmony.”

Pinkie Pie’s right eyebrow arched. “The what?”

“They’re where the Elements of Harmony came from in this reality,” Discord replied. “But the Princesses are indisposed at the moment.”

Rainbow Dash kicked at the ground. She brushed a foreleg against her necklace. “So what do you want us to do about it? I want to help here, but there’s no way I’m leaving my own Equestria hanging!”

The others slowly nodded. “I’m afraid even as the Element of Generosity, this is one thing I cannot give up,” Orange Sherbet said, hanging her head.

Discord waved her off. “Oh, don’t worry. Well, don’t worry now. That might have been one of my plans at the beginning--” “Rainbow Dash’s hoof returned to his forehead, “--but it’s not now! No, now I want you to find new Bearers of the Elements of Harmony located in the castle. See? No need to give up yours!” He rolled his eyes up. “Are you usually this violent or just when you’re around me?”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Only when I feel like I’m being played for a foal. But if you don’t like it, why aren’t you stopping me?”

“I’m not as powerful as I usually am.” He groaned as she let up. “Thank you. Who knew pain was so painful?”

Pinkie Pie gasped. “So that’s why you’re not doing your usual magical shenanigans!”

“His what?”

The pink pony looked to Octavia. “Oh, when we met him he was twisting about, making stuff disappear, talking with two heads and other horse apples.” A sneaky grin crossed her mouth and she rubbed her hooves together.

Discord floated away from Pinkie Pie, eyes never leaving her. “Crossing realities proved draining for me, especially yours. Retrieving your Elements was extra-bad. And when Megan shot me in the face that was almost the last straw for me!” He held a paw to his forehead. “Of all the nerve!”

“Yeah, you did have a lot of nerve.”

Spike cleared his throat. “Okay, focus!” he half-shouted. He trotted around to Discord and stood in front of him. “Okay, to sum up. This is an alternate Equestria where both Princesses have been captured by magic-draining vines you ‘accidentally’ sowed when they captured you. You’re free, but it’s too chaotically boring for you so you found six other Bearers of Elements in other realities in the hopes of finding new Bearers here to stop the vines and restore some semblance of harmony and balance here. If we do this, you’ll return us home. Am I right?”

Discord grinned. He floated over behind Spike and slapped him on his back. “Good job, Spike! I knew you were the right pony for the job!” He spread his forelimbs out. “What do you all say, folks? Ready to save another Equestria? Quite a feather in your cap!”

The sextet looked at each other. Octavia finally spoke up. “Well, I can’t speak for anypony else here, but I’m in. I don’t feel we have much of a choice in the matter anyway,” she said, glaring at Discord.

Ditzy focused both eyes on Discord. “Right back to Dinky? Your word?”

Discord held his limbs out and splayed the digits. “Not even gonna cross any fingers or toes, my dear Ditzy,” he said, folding into a bow.

Ditzy smiled. “Then I’m in, too.”

Orange Sherbet spoke up. “I believe my current calendar is clear. I’ve devoted my life to helping out Manehattan. I can’t turn my back on these ponies when I can help them.”

Spike smiled at her. “Well, I owe you one, so I’ll help, too.”

Rainbow Dash hopped into the air, flying over to land near Spike. “Well, no way I’m leaving any of my new friends out to dry.” She slapped him on the back. “Count me in!”

Spike winced. “Thanks, I think.”

Pinkie Pie’s eyes narrowed as she glared at Discord. “I won’t lie. My own Equestria dealt with Discord. And by the end, there wasn’t anything to laugh at. My friends were hurt. One friend was really hurt. And it’s not the kind of hurt a bandage could heal.” She trotted over to him, her mane and tail losing some of its bounce and color. “But I can’t ignore what’s happening here, a land with no smiles or laughter at all. So I can’t just ignore it.” She stopped right in front of him and glared down, eyes popping. “I’ve got my eyes on you, Discord. One slip and you’ll be taking the ultimate dirt nap. I’ll get the Matrix of Leadership, even!”

Discord’s mouth drooped. “Yes, I believe you would.” He waved everyone in close to him. A map appeared in a flash of light. “I chose each of you because I’ve already scouted out potential Bearers for the Elements already. Each one is related to you in some way, by blood or some other bond.” He waved a talon and six dots glowed on the map. “Each one’s fallen into despair, but you can help them regain that certain something that will help them regain their ability to summon the rainbow so the bad guys can taste it.”

Spike looked the map over. “We know each of them?”

Discord leaned from side to side. “After a fashion, yes. I have enough power to transport us to their locations, one at a time.”

Rainbow Dash groaned. “Can’t we all go after them separately?”

Octavia barked a laugh. “Separated in a strange Equestria with magic-draining vines all about? I think not!”

The pegasus shrugged. “Just a thought.”

Discord motioned to his serpentine neck. “Your Elements will provide some protection against the vines, as well as help you awaken the inner harmony within those you speak to.” He held up his talons, claws together. “So, anything else?”

Pinkie Pie held up a foreleg, waving it around. “How are we arriving?”

Everyone looked to her. “Didn’t he mention a spell?” Ditzy said.

Pinkie Pie shook her head. “I mean we’re not gonna show up fifty feet in the air and plummet, are we? Or in jail, or under attack or anything like that?”

Discord swallowed, but quickly pasted a shaky grin on his face. “W-why of course not! Why would I even…” He trailed off under her glare. “Okay! Anything else?” At the shaking of their heads, he grinned. “Then off we go!” He snapped his talons and all seven vanished in a flash of light.

Chapter Three, Part One. (Written by Little Jackie Papercut)

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A bright flash lit up the heart of the city. The ponies all stumbled slightly, disoriented by their sudden translocation. Ditzy was the first to recover, already familiar with the feeling of being off-balance.

Her eyes went wide as she took in the scene. “Whoa…”

Beside her, Spike shook his head to clear it. “What do you mean, whoa? Did something… whoa.”

Around them rose towers of glass and metal, which the ponies wandering the city seemed to deliberately ignore. In several places, a black vine with thorns large enough to impale a pony poked out of a building. Many of these sites were festooned in brilliant colors, as if they were attractions at some sort of grim amusement park.

Orange Sherbet took a step forward, feeling her heart sink at the sight before her.

“What is this place?” Octavia asked, incredulous.

The businessmare looked back at her. “You don’t recognize it?”

The musician tilted her head slightly. “No, should I? I never had time for sightseeing when I resided in Canterlot. Practice consumed all my attention.”

A few moments of silence passed. At length, Sherbet lowered her head. “I suppose you wouldn’t. You’re not my old friend, after all,” she murmured under her breath. She waved a hoof, and, louder, she stated, “It would seem our first stop is the largest city in Equestria. This is—was—should be Manehattan.”

“Very good,” Discord said, clapping. “Nicely exposited, and you beat my predicted time, too. The question is, what are you going to do now?”

Rainbow Dash towered menacingly over the miniature draconequus. “I think a good place to start would be you telling us who it is we’re supposed to be looking for,” she snapped. “Otherwise we can’t really do anything, can we?”

He took a few steps back. “Now, now, let’s not get carried away here,” he beseeched her. “I’d like to help you, really, I would. I already told you, this situation is not looking good for me. But I’m afraid my claws are tied. All this dimensional travel, chaos and harmony stuff, there are rules, you know.”

“You mean to say that suddenly matters to you now?” Sherbet raised an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t care about rules.”

“The situation has changed,” Discord replied in an exasperated tone. “The multiverse is in a state of flux. And you all know what that means.”

The ponies looked around at one another, then back to Discord with blank expressions.

“Well,” their captor/host continued with a shrug, “you see, the world is constantly changing. For all I can say, the very act of describing something could change it. I can’t do much more than give you hints. So you’re on your own until you’ve managed to restore enough order to keep things relatively stable.”

Pinkie eyed him warily. “I don’t buy it,” she growled. “What if all he really wants is us out of the picture so the other Discords can do something or someTHINGS to our worlds? What if there are no lost Elements?”

“It’s conceivable,” Sherbet agreed. “Discord is a consummate liar and we have little information to challenge him with. But even if that’s the case, I don’t see any way out of this without doing as he asks. If that means starting from nothing, then I’m afraid that’s where we stand.”

“Well, great,” Rainbow grumbled. “So he gets to just sit and watch us, and make jokes about how we’re doing? Like he knows better but can’t tell us?”

Octavia sighed. “It seems that way. I still can’t find a reason to distrust him apart from the simple fact that he is who he is.”

Their unicorn companion seemed deep in thought about something. He paced back and forth a bit, mumbling something to himself. It wasn’t until everypony else’s eyes were on him that he stopped and looked to the group.

“Is something wrong, Spike?” Ditzy asked, training an eye on him. “You’re acting antsy.”

“It’s just,” he explained hesitantly, “something Discord said earlier. He said each of the missing Elements is connected to one of us. Shouldn’t that tell us who it is? After all…”

“...only one of us lives here,” Sherbet finished. “Yes… that tells us a great deal. He must have meant that the first Element is somepony I know. Let me see.” She looked around, contemplating, humming something to herself.

Discord looked increasingly annoyed as they spoke. “You know, it’s very rude of you to talk about me like I’m not here,” he remarked. “What do I look like, your night cook? I suppose I might as well play the part.” He struck a menacing pose, which was somewhat offset by his stature, and began to change color. Gradually, his body was metamorphosing to stone, from the tail up. When it reached his waist, it stopped for a moment. He relaxed his posture and added, “Do try not to disturb me. I need my beauty sleep, after all.” Then he resumed the stance and the rest of him transformed all at once.

“I guess I’ll hold onto this,” Dash commented, picking up the statue. “So, you come up with anything?”

“Ah… I don’t know,” Sherbet admitted. “I help out so many businesses, have so many partners and contacts and old friends, that I can’t think of any of them as being the best candidate. Of course... my husband does come to mind. Perhaps we should try him?”

“Well, that’s as good a place to start as any,” Spike agreed.

“Better than most,” Ditzy added. “So where can we find him?”

“Hm, perhaps ten minutes from here,” Sherbet started forward, gesturing toward an adjacent street. “We’ve actually recently relocated to a place close by Central Park after the—” She stopped as she reached the turn, staring at the mess in front of her.

A huge fissure broke the cobblestone, and out of it rose a veritable wall of thorns. It would be impassible by hoof, and it rose high above the streets, woven around the surrounding buildings like some huge web.

“There must be some way around,” she said, looking down the neighboring roads. “Perhaps over there?”

Before she could check the next street, Octavia cleared her throat. “Are you certain the hotel has moved in this reality? It may be in its older location,” she pointed out. “The vines will have disrupted commerce, after all.”

Sherbet paused, thinking. “That’s true,” she agreed. “In that case, we may be better off. The original location is nearer. This way,” she declared, starting off in the opposite direction.

They followed quietly, with the exception of Pinkie Pie. She was still grumbling something to herself about Discord. Ditzy cast a concerned glance at her.

“Hey, are you okay?” she asked, drawing closer.

Pinkie sighed wearily. “It’s just… do you know what he does to ponies? It’s sick. He shouldn’t even exist.”

The pegasus shook her head. “Is it like what you’re doing to yourself now?” She draped a wing over the party pony’s back. “C’mon, I know my world’s Pinkie never lets anything get her down, and she’s not even an Element. You can smile at anything, can’t you?”

The look the pink mare gave her was almost pleading, begging Ditzy not to take away her anger. Ditzy stayed close, offering what comfort she had.

After a minute, Pinkie relaxed slightly. “Alright, fine. If you insist…” Almost instantaneously, her expression brightened. “I guess I shouldn’t let him spoil my mood when he’s not even doing anything. You know what? Forget about him! I can’t let him make me a sour Pinkie! I’ll just have to laugh harder!”

Ahead of them, Spike had moved closer to Sherbet’s left, a concerned look on his face. “Hey, you’d know better than I would, but… I think something’s wrong here,” he ventured.

“Yes,” Octavia added from the right, “unless Manehattan always looks so… festive.”

Sherbet had to admit that this was a valid observation. Brightly-colored tents lined the streets in places, and run-down buildings were festooned with cloth and oddly colored lights. Even the chatter of the ponies around them, not unusual for a busy day in the city, had a peculiar, sinister quality to it.

“I’m not sure what’s going on,” the Manehattanite replied, shaking her head. “If I hadn’t been down this street so many times, I’d be certain this was an entirely different city.”

“Well, whatever it is,” Spike said, “it’s giving me the heebie jeebies.”

“I know.”

“But you’ve gotta admit,” Pinkie interjected, bounding forward with a sudden burst of enthusiasm, almost knocking Octavia out of the way, “these ponies look like they’re ready for the biggest party ever!”

The “biggest party ever” was not the scenario that seemed likely to Sherbet. If anything, it looked as if the whole city was about to fall apart from neglect—ponies, buildings, and all. Just how could things ever progress this far?

“This city means a lot to you, doesn’t it?”

She hung her head as she thought about how to respond to the unicorn. Taking a few deep breaths, she found the air was stale, somehow. Had there been no air currents since the vines came? Was there not one single pegasus in the sky?

“It’s my home,” she answered at length. “Of course it means a lot to me, as I’m sure yours does to you. It’s worse this time.”

“This time?” Spike blinked. “What do you mean, this time?”

Sherbet waved a hoof at the tiny Discord sculpture in Rainbow Dash’s grasp. “I told you he escaped once before in my world. Well, he showed up in Manehattan, and gleefully turned the city into… oh, I get headaches just thinking about it. It wasn’t pleasant, but at the same time, though he turned the city inside out, he never did truly touch its soul.” She glanced at the dingy-looking ponies gathered around a tent, edging away from them just slightly as they stared back menacingly. “Until just now, I didn’t believe he could.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it!” Pinkie nudged her lightly. “We’ll get this place fixed in no time, and it’ll be like none of this ever happened!”

“I hope so,” Sherbet replied. She thought for a moment, then gave Pinkie a hesitant smile. “Yes… I suppose we will. We must.”

Speaking the words helped. Upon having said it, she visibly relaxed. The spirit of Manehattan wasn’t dead, it was just sleeping. All the same, the looks they received from the ponies around them felt unnatural, frightening.

“It might help to know what is happening here,” she added. “Those tents, first. After a disaster like this world has suffered, I would expect to see homeless ponies living in tents, but these are different. Shape, size, color, location… they’re too bright, too big, and too spread out. They’re being used for something else, but what?”

“I bet she knows,” Pinkie said, bouncing forward a bit and pointing to a tent ahead of them.

A pink mare with a purple mane stood there, in front of a crowd of murmuring ponies. She was making huge gestures, drawing attention to the vines, and then to some large devices set up just beside the tent. Sherbet thought she recognized her, but she wasn’t sure where from.

“I can see you’re all curious,” she was saying, when the rumble of the crowd died down a bit and her voice reached Sherbet. “I’ve made some big claims. But just pay attention now, and I’ll prove it. I know why all this happened, and if you follow my advice, you can have everything back the way it was before!”

The six looked at each other. “So… there’s that, I guess,” Spike stated. “Maybe we should ask some questions here.”

“I’m not sure,” Sherbet replied hesitantly. “I don’t know if I trust this situation. Not with Discord’s mark on it.”

“Yeah,” Pinkie agreed, “he can even make Fluttershy into a bully, and have you met Fluttershy?”

Above, Rainbow Dash laughed. “Leave it to me,” she snorted. “They haven’t made the pony yet that can catch me, so if I have to I’ll just lose ‘em and come right back.” Before the others could protest, she zipped away toward the tent. “Hey!” she called. “Maybe you should start at the beginning. I wanna know what’s happening here. How’d the vines mess up the city this badly?”

The crowd parted in her wake, allowing Sherbet to get a good look at the ponies for the first time. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she caught a glimpse of somepony moving away from the newly-formed clearing. Beside her, Spike and Pinkie exchanged a glance. With a nod, the pink one bounced into the mass of ponies.

“Aren’t you a little slow to be asking that?” the earth pony in the tent poked, prompting a visible twitch from Rainbow. “Well, it’s simple. Neigh York is one of the biggest cities in Equestria, and one of the most advanced. But a city like that needs a lot more movement than some little village, and the vines took that away. Ponies couldn’t do their jobs, or get to anyplace important. Even pegasi had trouble getting around.”

The businessmare nodded quietly to herself. That much was simple and straightforward. It was strange that the mare was taking the time to explain all this before getting to the important part; it must have been obvious to Rainbow Dash as well.

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash. “Yeah, I mean… I knew that.”

Or perhaps not.

“Well, from there it all went downhill. Ponies tried to figure out ways to clear out the vines, or to get around them, but the process was difficult and expensive, and eventually they had to give up. But here,” said the mare, tapping on a tube-shaped object beside her, “is the best bet at finally finishing the job. This chemical sprayer will cause the vines to wither away, and within a few weeks your home will be completely clear. So who wants a can?”

“How much?” Spike called out. Sherbet glanced at him and noticed he was shooting a fierce glare toward the speaker.

“Well, it’s free, of course,” she responded calmly. “Why would I charge for something like this? That would just be downright greedy.”

“Yeah, I guess it would,” he agreed, with a note of anger. “And it’s not like you need more money. I guess you’ll have all you want by the time your accomplice is finished.”

The mare’s face paled several shades as he spoke, and her eyes bulged at the implication. “What… what are you talking about?” she choked out.

“Oh, come on,” he scoffed. “Who did you think you were going to fool with this?”

“Found her!” Pinkie called out, rising out of the crowd with a light, rosy mare held squirming in her forehooves. She caught a wallet that had fallen from the mare’s hoof in her mouth, and turned her head to give it to a pony beside her. “I think that’s yours.”

Sherbet did a double take at the sight of the thief. She knew the pony in the tent looked familiar! These were Suri Polomare and Coco Pommel, two local clothiers! When last the elder mare had encountered them, the two had parted ways in a manner not particularly amicable. It seemed, though, that they were still working together in this universe.

“While you distracted everypony,” Spike continued, “she was going around looting whatever she could get her hooves on. They wouldn’t have realized until you were long gone that whatever’s in those cans—I’m guessing some untested prototype you scavenged up or garden-variety weedkiller, unless it’s just beet juice—cost them everything they had on them.”

A wave of murmurs rose from the crowd.

“Highly unbecoming,” Octavia commented.

“Just plain rude,” Ditzy added.

Sherbet stepped forward. “Heavens,” she called out, “it’s one thing to see an everyday con artist take advantage of ponies, but this sort of thing should really be beneath you, Coco. You should show some dignity.”

“I can’t afford dignity!” Coco growled, finally dislodging herself from Pinkie’s grip, and accidentally flinging several stolen purses to the ground. “Nopony can!”

The Orange mare strode calmly through the crowd that was now parting for her, fixing her gaze on the young mare. “Everypony can afford dignity,” she answered evenly. “Even if you have nothing else, you can still have that. Believe me, I know. It’s how I was born. I can see that things are difficult, but if you lose yourself to the troubles of the time, you’ll never have anything of value. If you don’t have what you need, stand up and work harder. Help somepony else, and they’ll help you in return. What you’re doing here is not the way. Not now or ever.”

The apprentice looked shaken as Sherbet approached her, and backed away a step, only to bump into Pinkie. “Well,” she started fumblingly, “I guess… I mean, that’s kind of…” She shrank back further under the wiser mare’s scrutiny. “Okay, you’re right,” she said. “This isn’t who I am. I’m sorry.” She bowed. “I swear, I’ll stop, and I’ll make this right.”

The businessmare nodded, then looked to Suri. “And you?”

Suri, who appeared to have composed herself by now, scoffed. “You really think I was working with her? So there was a thief in the crowd. That doesn’t mean I had anything to do with it.”

“Oh, you can bet she did,” Coco retorted. “In fact, she has a lot more scams that I’d just love to tell you all about.”

Bit by bit, each word brought back Suri’s look of worry. A few of the onlookers were raising their voices now to shout indistinct jeers. “Well… that’s… you see…”

Octavia sighed and shook her head. “So you can’t even admit to your guilt when it’s been plainly exposed? You really don’t have any class at all, do you?”

“And you’d let your partner take all the blame for you,” Dash added, sneering. “You’re just all around not a very good pony.” The crowd as a whole seemed to give a shudder now, starting to move toward Suri. “Looks like everypony else agrees. Sure you don’t wanna change your story?”

The purple mare edged away from the advancing ponies, but found herself cornered in the tent. “Okay,” she proclaimed, a tinge of fear invading her voice. “it’s true, we were trying to rob you. It… it was Coco’s idea!” She waved a hoof defensively in Coco’s direction. “She was just using me all along, to cover for her thefts!”

This only seemed to agitate what could now be called a mob. They inched closer, shouting over one another in their steadily building rage.

“I mean,” Suri corrected herself, “we were in it together, we were going to split everything, I knew it was a bad idea but—”

“But nothing!” a stallion at the front retorted. “You’re wasting our time! We don’t want excuses!”

“Alright,” she shouted desperately, “alright, I admit it! I was trying to rob you, I made Coco help me—please, have mercy!” She fell to the ground, covering her head protectively with her hooves.

The sound of hooves was deafening as the rush began, but just before a pony could lay hooves on Suri, a gray blur whipped forward from behind. Moving faster than Sherbet had thought she would be able to, Ditzy set herself between the lone pony and her attackers.

“Wait!” she yelled out. “Look, she’s confessed. I think we all need to calm down now. Ponies make mistakes. She apologized. What she did was pretty rotten, but you should still give her a chance to prove she means it.”

“P-prove…?” Suri began, looking up at the pegasus.

“You are going to prove it,” Ditzy added, looking back at her. “Right?”

“Oh… er… yes, of course I am,” she answered, and stood up. “Thank you… I’ll do whatever I have to. I… don’t have much to offer, but… I do still retain my home and shop. I know some of them are homeless. I can’t support them for long, but I could give them a place to stay for a while.”

The crowd whispered among themselves, and the stallion from before nodded. “It’s a start,” he said.

“Good. Then I think we should be on our way.” Ditzy nodded to Rainbow Dash, and they fluttered back to rejoin their earthbound companions.

“You really intend to just forgive her?” Octavia asked as the six started off down the street.

“Well, it’s not like she stole anything from me, anyway,” Ditzy replied, “but, yeah, even if she had, I kinda have to.”

“No, ya really don’t,” Rainbow interjected. “You coulda just let those ponies do whatever they were going to.”

For a moment, the gray pegasus fixed the cyan one with a glare that sent chills down everypony’s spines. “We all do things we regret sometimes,” she stated. “If she realized she was wrong, then I wouldn’t want her getting hurt because of it. And it’s always important to give ponies a second chance, or you might find they won’t be as kind to you.”

“Yes, that’s exactly right,” Sherbet said. “I’ve seen the importance of goodwill often in my life, and if you can’t offer somepony else mercy, how can you expect it yourself? If I could fly, I’d have been standing beside you in front of that crowd.” She cast a glance sideways at Octavia. “After all, what goes around comes around,” she remarked with a smile.

A moment passed, and Spike inclined his head toward Sherbet. “You knew those two, didn’t you?”

The Orange shook her head. “They’re acquaintances,” she clarified. “I know of their character, I’ve helped Coco in the past, but I can’t say either could possibly be the connection Discord mentioned.”

The search was still on. The hotel wasn’t far away. Sherbet could only hope they would find what they needed there.

~#~#~#~

The doors to the Orange Hotel swung open, and six ponies stepped inside, letting them close again with an uncomfortable creak that complained of two years of neglect to anypony familiar with them.

“Mosely!” Sherbet called. “Honey, are you here? Come quickly, we need to discuss something!”

The interior of the hotel looked no less troubling than the exterior. The once-luxurious furniture was cracked and ripped, the walls dented and the carpet threadbare. All the colors seemed faded, and were it not for the sound of hooves approaching, anypony might have assumed the building was abandoned.

The hooves faltered, uncertain, and the six exchanged a nervous glance. When a stallion, yellow, green-maned, and looking as though he hadn’t bathed in a year, stepped slowly into the lobby, Sherbet gasped.

His eyes narrowed suspiciously at them. “Who are you,” he asked, an edge in his voice, “and why are you here?”

Auntie backed away a step. “Mosely, it’s… it’s me, Sherbet! Your wife!”

“My wife is upstairs,” he replied angrily. “She hasn’t left the building since the last thief who came by stole her hairpin. What have you come to steal?”

“Nothing! I…” She paused, trembling a little. “Her… hairpin?”

“Yes,” Mosely growled, “her hairpin. It was very important to her, but I suppose all anypony else saw was a valuable little gem. But of course you wouldn’t know about—”

Before he could say any more, her hoof had reached her mane. A glint of gold silenced him as she produced her hairpin.

“This hairpin?” She edged closer now. “It’s identical, isn’t it?”

It was a straight, golden pin of modest size. His eyes fixed on the glittering red-orange jewel set into it at the top.

“It was the first gift you ever gave me,” she reminded him. “It cost more than you could afford at the time… but that didn’t matter…”

He reached out for it with a hoof. “Where did you…”

“I think I have a lot to explain.”

~#~#~#~

Seated around a room on the first floor, the ponies listened as Orange Sherbet began to tell her story. She spoke of her youth, of meeting Mosely in Ponyville, when she was a poor young farmer and he a simple grocer’s assistant, the challenges they had overcome together with their skills, and the surprise of his inheritance suddenly catapulting them into Manehattan society. How since that day, they had sworn to help as many ponies from similarly humble beginnings see the success they deserved.

She went on to explain what had happened in her own universe, almost two years ago now. The return of Nightmare Moon, the quest for the Elements, and how she had sacrificed this very pin to bring back the light when the situation was hopeless. And in the end, the magic of the Elements had restored the irreplaceable treasure she thought forever lost.

Mosely closed his eyes pensively as he listened to her describe the visit to the museum not an hour ago, and the mission they had been tasked with in this new world. As she finished, he sighed. “I’m not sure what to make of your story,” he said. “You know too much of our life to be lying, and yet… some things aren’t quite right. That part about my inheritance, for instance. My parents were as poor as I was. I built my business, with my wife’s help. And we never once thought of sharing our money. It was ours, after all. Why would we give it away?”

Sherbet bowed her head. “I see. Then you aren’t the pony we’re looking for after all.”

“Somepony generous, who has faltered, you mean? No… you can’t really fail at something you never tried in the first place.”

She sighed. “I hoped it would be you, but I suppose that would be too simple. It’s good to know that at least you are well.” With a glance to the door, she added, “Where is Tangerine? I had hoped to see her while we were here.”

“Tangerine,” he said, a little tensely, “is busy, and I’d rather not explain you to her.”

“But I want to know how she’s doing. A crisis such as this must have been difficult for her to see.”

He waved her off. “There’s no need for you to worry about her.”

“There certainly is!” Sherbet protested. “I couldn’t just forget my own—”

“In any case,” he continued, raising his voice slightly but noticeably, “as you said, I’m not the pony you’re looking for, and I don’t know who is. I suggest you leave now. Before my wife or daughter sees you.”

“So that’s it, then?” Octavia cut in, sounding a bit annoyed. “You’re just going to be rid of us so quickly?”

“Yes, I think so,” he said, standing. “I doubt it’s in any of our interests to continue this, least of all mine. I can’t get you out of this world any faster, but I can certainly get you out of this hotel.”

“That’s absurd!” The musician now stood herself, glaring at him. “This is the closest place we have to a safe haven, nevermind a clue to what’s going on, and you expect us to leave with nothing?”

They remained there for a minute, glowering at each other. Octavia’s hoof twitched slightly upon her cello. Mosely inhaled deeply, the irritation in his scowl growing by the moment. He stepped forward, raising a hoof to shoo them away.

He paused mid-step as Sherbet climbed to her feet. “He’s right,” she announced, approaching him. “There’s nothing more to do here. We shouldn’t be wasting time like this. This entire world is at stake, along with our chances of seeing our own worlds again.” She took his hoof in her own and nodded. “I am sorry that our meeting could not be more… pleasant.”

With that, she turned and gestured to the others, ushering them out despite a grumble of dissent. The last to leave, she paused in the door and looked back over her shoulder. “Oh, and Mosely… I’ll get it back for you. Don’t worry.”

The door closed quietly behind her.

“So what now?” Rainbow Dash looked annoyed. “We’re no closer than we were before.”

“I don’t know.” Sherbet closed her eyes. “I know too many ponies in Manehattan. I can’t say for sure who it could be. But there must be something to point us there.”

“Actually.” All eyes turned to Spike. The unicorn stood, deep in thought, not quite looking at anything in particular. “Well. Think of it this way. We know one of the Elements is here. It stands to reason that somepony like that would stand out in a crisis. If there’s one pony in this entire city who, if only for a little while, was doing everything they could to fight the vines, ponies must have noticed it, right? Maybe we can find some old newspapers or something that will point us in the right direction.”

“Well, that’s easy!” Pinkie exclaimed, bouncing up and down. “Lots of places have newspapers, don’t they? We could just go to the nearest library and get one!”

Easy, indeed. Sherbet smiled. Once they knew where to look, it would be simple, wouldn’t it? Just find the pony they were looking for and use a little Element power on them. Soon everything would be normal again.

As they stepped outside again, Ditzy nudged her. “Hey, ma’am…”

“Call me Auntie,” the earth pony responded. She turned her face to the pegasus. “I do prefer it.”

“Oh, okay then… Auntie,” the blonde said, raising a curious eyebrow. “You were talking about a Tangerine. Is she your daughter?”

Auntie nodded in reply. “Yes. It’s uncomfortable to think of her amid this wreckage. Another reason we should hurry to correct it.”

“Well… what about the Tangerine back in your own world?” Ditzy frowned. “Aren’t you worried about her, too? You haven’t mentioned her at all.”

With a soft sigh, the older mare adjusted her mane slightly. “Of course I’m worried about her,” she answered. “I can only imagine what she must be thinking to see her mother disappear into thin air. It must frighten her. Even if Discord keeps his promise, that image will remain with me. But my mind needs to be on getting back to her, rather than fearing for her. She’ll be alright. She is with her father, and some trusted friends.”

“Oh.” The pegasus paused to process that. “Lucky you, then.”

“Hm?” Sherbet blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing… don’t worry about it.”

~#~#~#~

The Manehattan Public Library was almost a sacred place. Sherbet had been here merely two days prior to speak with a cherished friend.

It had looked so different then. It had been beautifully kept, inviting all who saw it into a world filled with ancient knowledge and arts. The bronze statues in front had promised to stand watch forevermore. Now those same statues looked as though they might eat anypony who dared approach. The columns seemed crumbled and crushed in places, and the pristine exterior was broken by more of those awful vines.

The sound of their hooves on the cracked floor rang uncomfortably in her ears. The only reassurance they had been given was Discord’s word that after all this was done, Equestria would be safe and whole again. It was hardly comforting, and every facet of this place showed a decay that made Sherbet uncertain whether or not it was possible.

The newspaper racks were in a room near the back. The papers spilled off the racks and onto the floor, and Sherbet wondered whether it was due to negligence. Perhaps every news item had seemed vital at the time. There was a crisis to document, after all.

Spike picked up one of the fallen papers and began scanning through it. “Sherbet, you should take it from the beginning, everypony else should start with the most recent stories and see what turns up… man, I wish my assistant was here. She’s way better at this kind of thing than me.”

Sherbet leafed through the newspaper racks until she found one dated two years prior. The paper contained the sort of articles she would expect to be archived, including the obituary of a renowned local artist. There was nothing about the vines, though, so she set it aside and tried another one. The next yielded similar results.

The fourth paper, after an article on a mayoral election that the businessmare found particularly surprising, contained the first hint of the seeds sprouting. There was a report of an unidentified invasive plant species in Central Park, which had resisted attempts to remove it. She was closer, but the only pony named in the article was Merry Garden, the botanist from Vanhoover, who had been in town at the time and dismissed it as a hoax.

“Ooh, here’s something,” Pinkie chirped, pointing to an article in her own paper. “‘Robbing Hoof Strikes Again, Authorities Helpless’! This could be it, right?”

Spike leaned over the paper and shrugged. “Maybe. It could be anypony under that cloak. Better look for other stories about this pony.”

The pink mare inspected it closer. “Hm, you’re right,” she said. “It could be anypony. It could be the mayor, or it could be Sherbet. It could even be me! Wait, what if it is me?” She gasped. “What if I meet myself? What if all our other selves are secretly evil? Or stallions! Or evil stallions!”

While the newscolt fumbled for an answer, Sherbet took a glance at the photo Pinkie had been looking at. They were right, the dark green cloak hid a lot. The stature gave away that it was a mare, but nothing else could identify her. She was aiming a longbow at some police, who were scrambling for cover.

Uncertain, Sherbet continued searching through the older papers. They documented, day by day, the development of the vines from a minor public nuisance to a genuine menace. It had taken less than a week for the vines to emerge, and this was at the far end of Equestria from their point of origin. But the damage they had caused was multiplied over time by the size of the city, and its dependence on major economic centers and transportation. “City In Shambles,” one paper reported. “Railroads Wrecked,” claimed another. “Supply Lines Cut,” a third warned. And then, out of nowhere, “Anonymous Benefactor Steps In”.

The article detailed an initiative undertaken by an anonymous pony to restore function and order to the city using a stockpile of resources that should have lasted several years. The plan was intricate and well-laid. The process called for aid tents to be established throughout the city. They all had to look similar, brightly colored in a certain pattern, so that a leyline symbol connection could be established between them. Sherbet only half understood what that meant, but the idea was that the mysterious pony and her allies could use the connection to deliver supplies wherever they were needed. The money required to maintain these routes would come first from the benefactor’s own purse, then from donations.

It was clever. But clearly, it had failed. The individual pieces Sherbet had been given were beginning to fit together, symbols and meanings, methods and results, but the full picture still wasn’t clear. There was still something missing. She just needed a little more.

“Pinkie,” she asked, beckoning to the pink mare, “do you have any more articles on that thief?”

“Oh, yeah, lots!” Pinkie pushed a pile of papers toward the older mare. ”Why, whatcha lookin’ for?”

Sherbet began leafing through the papers quickly, scanning each one. “I want to know where she was active,” she explained.

“Ooooh.” Pinkie nodded. “So you know who it is?”

“I have a few ideas.”

Pinkie somehow managed to completely bury herself in newspapers in the time it took the businessmare to say that.

“It kinda looks like she was all over the place, though,” she reported. “A little here, a little there, north, south, east, west… well, hold on, a couple of these say she’s at large in east Saddlin’ Island. But then most of the others say she’s around Coneigh Island. I guess she likes islands?”

Sherbet dropped the paper she had been examining. “Oh… yes, that’s definitely it,” she said.

“Yeah, I know, right? She probably goes swimming all the time. If I lived on an island, I’d swim to work every day and—”

“Coneigh Island is an amusement park,” Spike interrupted.

“Oh.” Pinkie took a moment to be extremely excited at the prospect, then raised an eyebrow. “Well then whatchoo talkin’ about, Sherbet?”

Sherbet started for the door. “I mean I know who we’re looking for. And I think I know where to find her. Come on, let’s go.”

Chapter Three, Part Two (Written by Little Jackie Papercut)

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Getting to Coneigh Island on hoof could be a bit of a trip, but it could usually be managed within an hour.

Usually, however, the city was not overgrown with hazardous vines. The six found themselves repeatedly forced to detour and backtrack. For some time the journey was layered with silence, everybody just taking in the sights around them.

“Hey, Auntie,” Ditzy spoke up, “what’s a cinema?”

The group slowed to a stop, and Pinkie did a dizzyingly fast about-face. “You’ve never been to the movies before?” she asked, wide-eyed.

“Uh... no, should I have?” The cross-eyed mare looked a little uncomfortable. “I’ve never even heard that word before.”

Taking a step toward Ditzy, Sherbet shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a little surprising. Cinema has become popular in Manehattan lately. Is it only a local trend?”

“It’s not,” Pinkie clarified. “We’ve got movie theaters in Ponyville, too.”

“It’s probably Ditzy’s Equestria that doesn’t have them,” Spike ventured.

Pinkie’s expression slowly transitioned down from the look of somepony who had just heard an unbelievable story to that of one who had just been told her entire life was a lie. “What! An entire world without movies? That’s crazy!”

Auntie brushed this reaction aside without comment and smiled at the pegasus. “Well, essentially,” she began, “a cinema is a place that displays films for an audience, and a film is a series of pictures taken and shown rapidly to look like a single image moving on a screen.” She studied the building for a moment. “I believe this one is showing a comedy starring Eric Bridle. But why did you want to know?”

Ditzy turned and gestured to a building with a line outside of it. More lights were on outside this building than anywhere else on the street, including a giant sign that read “CINEMA”. “It’s this,” she said. “Seeing this was weird enough… they’re just wasting electricity with all those lights… but it’s just something to watch? Some silly moving pictures? I thought the ponies here were broke. What are they doing spending all their money here?”

Those words caught Pinkie’s attention, and she recovered from her shock. “Oh, Ditzy, don’t you get it?” She patted the blonde on the back. “Times like this are exactly when ponies need a good laugh. If they lost that, they might just give up!”

Octavia gave a nod of assent. “It’s true, performing to lift the spirits of those in need is something my classmates did quite often in Canterlot,” she added. “I… can’t say I have much experience myself, but I’ve been taught this is always the way in the hardest times.”

“Oh, I see,” Ditzy replied. She stepped forward again, motioning for the rest to continue. “We’d better hurry, then. The sooner we fix it, the less they’ll need the distraction, right?”

There were fewer ponies in the street the farther they went. There were also fewer businesses open. If the remaining storefronts had looked run-down and foreboding at the center of Manehattan, the ones they passed now were simply desolate. Even those still in operation had broken windows and nervous clerks who gave them looks of outright terror. Most were simply empty, nearly destroyed by looting. Seeing the city in this state was the eeriest experience Sherbet could place in recent memory. And thanks in part to Discord, that bar had been set pretty high.

As they traveled, she thought about what they were walking toward. “Now might be a good time to tell you who we’re looking for,” she offered. “There’s an old friend of mine, a unicorn named Lovestruck, who runs a shooting gallery at Coneigh Island. She’s the first friend I made when I moved to Manehattan. It’s strange to think of her like this, robbing and looting.”

“So… what does a high society mare like you have in common with a carny?” Spike asked, curious.

The mare considered this for a minute. “Honestly? I think the main reason we became friends is that we both… well, we used to enjoy playing matchmaker.”

“Seriously?” Pinkie broke into giggles at the idea. “That sounds like fun! I’ve always wanted to know how you make matches! How do you put the fire into the little sticks and wrap it up?”

Behind her, Octavia sighed loudly.

“And you think she’s an Element,” Ditzy cut in. “Which one? Why?”

“Well,” Sherbet replied, thinking carefully, “I would say most likely Loyalty, Kindness, or Generosity. The mare I know is a trusted confidant to her friends, and always handles visitors gently. But the evidence in this world suggests that at one time, she was using her life savings to maintain an aid network throughout the city. I suppose my old friend is generous herself, in a more personal way.” She chuckled softly. “She loves to give away prizes, even to ponies who don’t play her game. She tells me she just likes the smiles on foals’ faces.”

The pegasus mulled that over. “She sounds pretty nice. Now I’m a little worried...”

It was natural to worry in this situation. Sherbet was well aware that Lovestruck was not only a virtuous mare, but also an especially clever and skilled one. And now they were meant to find her, whether she wanted them to or not. Could they even manage it?

It would likely have been nightfall when they reached the amusement park, had day and night still been meaningful concepts in this universe.

“I’ve never seen this place empty before,” Sherbet noted.

“I wish I weren’t seeing it now,” Spike replied. Like the rest of the city, Coneigh Island had suffered the ravages of time, and looked more like something out of a horror story than a place ponies would ever have gone to have fun. There were no lights, no smell of popcorn or cotton candy or funnel cake or the world-famous Coneigh Island carrot dogs, no sounds except their own hooves, and the colors were all faded. Many of the big attractions looked like they had pieces of them chipped away. Oddly, the area seemed mostly free of vines, though it was unlikely to stay that way.

“I want to file a complaint with my travel agent,” Pinkie quipped halfheartedly.

That was the last of the talking as they moved through the dilapidated park. They were all a little too uneasy to speak up. Once in a long while, a sound from somewhere would catch Sherbet’s attention, and she would stop to look, but when she spotted nothing, she would assume it was her imagination.

The businessmare considered carefully. The easiest way to find the thief would be to find her cache of stolen goods. If she wasn’t there, she would come. But where would they be? Perhaps a hall of mirrors? It seemed a bit cliché. No, she had to think about this carefully.

Again she heard the sound, and looked around. What was making that noise? It sounded like water splashing.

Nothing presented itself, so she considered the objects around her. A rollercoaster that looked unsafe, but not necessarily inoperable. Could the loot be hidden somewhere on the track? A carousel that was more nightmarish than anything she had ever encountered. She certainly hoped it wasn’t there, because she wasn’t sure she dared approach. Empty food stands, containing long-rotted popcorn. These were unpleasant, but not particularly viable as hiding places.

A shooting gallery drew her eye. Some crossbows, looking slightly rusted but otherwise workable, lay on the counter. Of course, anything involving archery could contain the answer. She beckoned for the others to follow and approached. Nothing happened when she took the bow in her hoof and reached under the counter for the suction-tipped bolts. She fired a few experimental shots at the targets, but the only response was the sound of the ammunition hitting. Even a perfect bullseye failed to reveal anything.

Pinkie Pie bounced energetically forward to try it herself. She took the crossbow and loaded it—with all of the bolts at once, which would almost certainly cause it to fail spectacularly—and, before anypony could say anything, she fired in the general direction of the targets. To Sherbet’s amazement, every single bolt struck a bullseye, and…

Nothing happened.

“I thought this would be the place,” Sherbet sighed, turning around to review what was left.

There was another splashing sound now. This time, when she looked, she found the source; Pinkie Pie had entered the shooting gallery, where she was peering into a tub of water that contained some floating targets. Her hoof splashed against the surface rhythmically.

“Pinkie,” Octavia wearily asked, “what are you doing?”

“Well, I thought there might be something hidden in the water,” the pink one explained. “It doesn’t look like there is, though.”

“Then why are you still doing it?” Spike pressed. “It’s kind of distracting.”

The sound was actually helping Sherbet. Something was coming together in her mind. “I think I know where to go,” she announced.

“Really?” Pinkie stopped and turned around, curious.

The businessmare nodded. “Almost certainly. So the first thing to do is… partner up, everypony.”

Pinkie saluted and grabbed Rainbow Dash around the waist to draw her close, somehow producing a squeak like a rubber ball. Spike edged toward Ditzy, and Octavia, nodding, approached Sherbet.

At Sherbet’s guidance, the group advanced through the carnival, through twisting rows of tents and rides. The sound of running water grew louder as they pressed forward. Sherbet sighted the destination and walked ahead, up a set of smooth stone stairs, halting at the top and looking down.

A canal had been built here, the water still flowing through it. Somepony had taken care to maintain the equipment that kept it running in a circle. That was it, then. She’d found the place.

“Everypony,” Auntie announced, turning to those following her, “we’re close to the end of this.” She gestured to a line of small boats, waiting for any passengers. “Be careful. This world is strange, and I’m not entirely sure what to—”

“Ooh, me first!” Pinkie shouted, dragging her pegasus partner toward the first boat with lightning speed. Dash made a feeble “awp” of protest, but settled in as the boat started moving.

The elder mare raised an eyebrow as she watched them go. “...expect,” she finished. “Well, that’s one group.”

“I’m up next,” Spike volunteered. “I can try to stop any traps with my magic, so hopefully you won’t have to deal with them.” He and Ditzy trotted to the second boat, leaving Octavia and Sherbet to take the third. One by one, the boats all floated into the heart-shaped passage.

The tunnel was nearly pitch-black inside. This wasn’t an electrical failure, but rather part of the design. To her right, Sherbet could just barely make out the shape of her companion.

“You know me, don’t you?”

Sherbet hadn’t quite been expecting the musician to speak up so suddenly. “I’m sorry?” she replied, uncertain.

“Your own universe’s Octavia,” the gray pony clarified. “You seem very familiar with her. And I must confess I’m curious.”

“Oh!” Sherbet nodded, though she doubted the motion would even register in the dark tunnel. “Yes, I count her among my close friends. She’s an admirable mare, really.”

“Is that so?” Octavia shifted slightly, causing the boat to creak a little. “She’s advanced far in her career, then?”

For a moment, Auntie nearly laughed. “Well, certainly, I would say she’s one of the finest neoclassical musicians in Equestria. She’s even a favorite of the Princess… although the popular venues seem to be losing interest in the genre. But that wasn’t what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“I was referring to her kindness,” Sherbet clarified. “She’s always made every effort to comfort and inspire those who need it. That passion absolutely carries through her music.”

“Oh. I see.” Octavia’s voice sounded a little uncertain. “So she’s always been kind, never made any mistakes?”

“I didn’t say that.” The older mare stared off into the dark. “We all make mistakes. I shouldn’t say too much about it—I wasn’t there at the time, after all—and these are private matters, but, well, you are the same pony, so I doubt it would hurt if you knew—she was once something of a bully. Apparently, a friend of hers helped her to become a better mare. It’s in the past, and so nobody really dwells on it.”

“A friend?” Octavia lowered her voice. “It wasn’t Trixie, was it?”

Now Sherbet did laugh. “Oh, no, no. Trixie has helped her in other ways, surely, but it was a childhood friend, one Vinyl Scratch, many years before we met her.”

“Vinyl, really?” The musician sounded surprised. The businessmare could feel her eyes asking for more. “I didn’t think she was the sort of pony I would have known back then. How is their friendship now?”

“She had a bit of trouble to work out with Vinyl, but they’re still excellent friends.”

“That’s a relief. What about Pageturner?”

“Who?” Sherbet gave the darkness an inquiring look. “I can’t say I’ve ever heard the name.”

“No?” There was a moment of heavy silence. “Well, what about Fluttershy, then?”

That name was easier. “Oh, we met Fluttershy once. She’s actually an old friend of Blossomforth’s, but an admirable mare all the same.”

“And what of Lyra Heartstrings?”

“Hm, Heartstrings… I believe she was the mare who—”

Everypony hit the deck!” Pinkie interrupted from somewhere in front of them.

A tug at Sherbet’s leg confirmed the urgency of the order, and she dropped to the bottom of the boat, covering her head with her forehooves. A moment later, she could feel a light breeze on her back as dozens of objects whizzed by over her head.

“An arrow trap,” she gasped. “It’s hard to believe that she would resort to such a thing.”

Octavia gave Sherbet a hoof up. “It seems like something out of a Daring Do novel,” the musician noted, her voice shaking a little.

“She would be mortified if she heard you say that,” the older mare muttered. Her own tension was as restrained and focused as she could manage at the moment. She scanned the walls for any more lurking dangers, as futile as the gesture was.

“Wait, who said what about Daring Do?” Rainbow Dash called from in front of them.

Auntie shook her head. “Didn’t I tell you? She’s the Element of Honesty in my world.”

After a moment of silence, there came the sound of creaking and splashing, which was almost certainly caused by the pegasus climbing up onto the back of her boat to try and see the others behind her.

“Are you serious?” she shouted back. The creaking increased, along with surprised protests from the other mare sharing a boat with her. “I’m, like, her biggest fan! But what’s she doing in Manehattan? That’s a little unbelievable, if you ask—what is it, Pinkie?”

A light flared up ahead in the darkness. The pale glow left an uncomfortable feeling in Sherbet’s gut. Distant music drifted into the tunnel, barely carrying over the sound of the water below them. Any other sound fell away into silence. Steadily, the music grew louder. As the boats drifted into the brightened space, a gasp rose from the group.

In a space off to the right, a treasure trove had been amassed that rivaled any dragon’s hoard. It must have been more than half of the city’s wealth.

And there, atop the mountain of glittering gold, a cloaked pony stood, aiming a longbow at Sherbet.

“I figured somebody would find me eventually,” the mare called down to them before any of the six could speak. “But you’d better keep going and just forget you saw anything, because right now, this isn’t a tunnel of love, it’s a shooting gallery.”

“Wait,” Sherbet responded. “Lovestruck, do you remember me? Your friend Sherbet? I’m here to—”

“You’re here to take back what’s yours, right?” Lovestruck laughed. “Not one of you high-and-mighty businessponies could ever be my friend. You could have saved the city, but you tried to hold onto what you had. Well, guess what! When the city sank, you went down with it!”

As she finished speaking, she drew three arrows from her cloak with a faint green magical aura. She unleashed all three of them in quick succession as she spun around and leapt for an opening in the wall behind her.

Several voices shouted in alarm as the arrows found their marks. Each pierced the bottom of a boat, allowing water to pool under their hooves. In seconds, all three boats had sunk to the bottom, only the large heart-shaped backs still visible. Pinkie flailed about dramatically, head barely above the surface. The other earthbound ponies stood blinking in the now thigh-deep water, while the pegasi hovered, bemused, overhead.

“Okay, see, all of this is officially not cool,” Rainbow Dash commented, picking Pinkie up and setting her down on dry land. Ditzy did likewise for Spike, while Octavia and Sherbet pulled themselves out of the river.

Rallying themselves, the ponies looked around the brightly-lit space. In the short time they’d been distracted, the entire roomful of treasure had vanished.

~#~#~#~

The hooded figure ducked around a corner. It had been a simple matter to lose her pursuers. Keeping to the shadows, she glanced behind her. She’d have a few more surprises ready when they caught up. She faced forward again, and immediately, her vision was filled with pink.

“Hi! You know, Sherbet told me a little about you—oh, um, I mean Auntie, that’s what she told us to call her, but you know, I just really like the sound of Sherbet, don’t you? Sherbet, Sherbet, Sherbet! Ooh, just talking about it makes me really crave something cold and sweet!” Pinkie Pie chattered excitedly.

Lovestruck reeled back a few steps. Above, there was a shout of “There she is!” A moment later, Rainbow Dash was in a full dive. Hearing her call, the others rallied together, and the chase was on.

The thief was well-prepared for this, taking hidden paths one after another, but she couldn’t lose them for long. One way, she’d find her path blocked by Pinkie again. Another, the pegasi would spot her. The shadows offered precious little protection from Spike’s light spells, and she couldn’t move quietly enough to escape Octavia’s well-trained ear. And all the while, Sherbet barely broke a trot as she worked to predict her friend’s moves.

They chased her through the gate to the Coneigh Island Wonderbolt ride. “Please wait,” Auntie called out. “We just want to talk. This is all so horribly wrong…”

The mare spat as she turned. “Look at you all, so self-righteous,” she growled, backing away from them and flaring her magic. “You won’t change my mind. I’m done giving this city what it needs, now it gets what it deserves.”

“The city can be better,” Sherbet replied. “It can be fixed, but first you have to—”

Before she could finish that thought, the ride’s cars passed by in a flash. Lovestruck was no longer anywhere to be seen.

“What? We’ve got to chase her around an abandoned roller coaster that’s probably falling apart?” Rainbow Dash shouted. “That’s… that’s just… awesome!”

As the next set of cars rolled up and stopped, it occurred to Sherbet that she had no idea whether or not the pegasus was being sarcastic.

They scrambled into the cars, and Spike remotely activated them. The ride began with a few small hills that they rolled over easily, gaining momentum on the dips. When they reached the top of the first big climb, they could just barely spot Lovestruck’s car atop a hill at the other end of the ride. This gave them a perfect view when she leapt out, landing on the wooden tracks.

Impulsively, Rainbow Dash left her seat, dragging Pinkie along with her. The two stared down the thief, while the rest scrambled to get free of their own seats. Together, they began their charge, the pegasus flying straight while her companion hopped along the tracks beside her.

Halfway to their destination, the pink one halted in midair for a moment, seemingly held aloft by her tail as it twitched uncontrollably. When it concluded and she landed, the boards under her immediately gave way. Pinkie fell through the hole with a surprised yelp, reaching back for the edge. “Fly, you foals,” she urged the rest of the group, before that, too, splintered under her weight.

The remaining four crowded around the hole. Inspecting, they saw that Pinkie had landed on a lower track. “Are you okay?” Ditzy called out. “Need help?”

The unflappable partymare sprung to her feet, shaking herself off. “Oh, I’m just fine,” she replied. “In fact, here comes Lovestruck.”

Cyan hooves had just snatched at thin air. The cloaked pony now charged down the lower track, leaping over Pinkie in a quick motion. Auntie barely had time to react to the flash of green crossing her vision. She hopped down beside Pinkie, her hooves just brushing the hem of the cloak as she fell. She took chase, but she could see that neither herself nor Ditzy beside her was fast enough to overtake Lovestruck.

It looked certain that the fleeing pony would get away, until a magic barrier sprung up in her path. Spike hopped into view in front of her, having prepared to block her escape route. This was only a momentary deterrent, however. The mare turned to her left, and hopped onto the track’s supports. Nimbly, she made her way through this artificial forest.

Rainbow Dash had come back around now, and lunged, but missed by inches as the target abruptly changed direction, using the pegasus as a stepping stone to continue. The other ponies fanned out to try to surround the unicorn.

Octavia dropped down from above. She ended up straddling two supports, her quarry narrowly escaping. At about the same moment, Ditzy swooped in, and accidentally ended up tackling Octavia, landing them both on a different track.

The businessmare observed all this, but did little. She wasn’t going to catch Lovestruck, and she knew it. The others were clearly all faster than she was, and while she could guess where her old friend might run to, this was a melee, hardly something she could predict. As such, she didn’t feel particularly obligated to keep her focus strictly on the fight. When she heard the rumbling sound behind her, it instantly got her attention.

With due haste, Sherbet grabbed the two other ponies who hadn’t left the track yet and leapt blindly, landing on a support beam that she was relieved to find could hold their combined weight. Spike and Pinkie both grunted at the impact as behind them, the coaster screamed by.

The yellow mare took a moment to catch her breath. This was unbelievable. One of them could be killed in this mess, struggling against a pony she normally trusted implicitly. It had to end immediately.

So how could she end it? She needed to work through this from the beginning. The goal was to get Lovestruck to join them. They couldn’t get her to stand still without shooting arrows at them. Thinking about it, she realized that was irrelevant. What they came for had nothing to do with capture, it had just sort of become that way when they actually met her.

Auntie turned her attention to the mare again. Rainbow Dash was, at least, fast enough to prevent her from leaving the ride, but she was still far from being caught. Spike attempted to throw up a magical shield, but it backfired, as Lovestruck slipped over it easily while the pegasus behind her careened straight into it.

The coasters were still screaming about. Sherbet ducked her head and covered her ears as one rolled by over her head. When she looked up again, she froze in horror. The track above was bulging downward from the weight of the cars. Meanwhile, Lovestruck was headed straight toward her. The unicorn’s jump took her across the track directly under the hole Pinkie had fallen through. And as she landed, the wood above her began to fail spectacularly.

Sherbet had experienced very few moments in her life when time seemed to slow down. Once when her hotel was being flooded. Twilight Sparkle falling off the Equine’s Gait Building. A particularly painful moment some years back that had left her a bit lighter. Those all played in her mind at double speed in this particular instance. She wasn’t sure anything had moved at all in the last hour, but she knew it would, and she knew more or less where everything would be at the end of it.

She only hoped that she would be intact at that point.

Her body lurched forward, a hoof outstretched as her friend stared in wide-eyed shock. One beam, then another, passed under her. She launched herself from the final support with a twisting motion, spinning in midair to alter her course just enough. She impacted the carny, pulling her from her spot and away.

They touched down hard, Sherbet on her back, the breath knocked from her lungs, and the stunned Lovestruck on top of her. The entire track shook beneath them as the cars plummeted to the ground.

For all she knew, the ringing in her ears would be permanent. On the other hoof, she had half expected to be dead right now. Her hearing loss seemed to have bought her own life and her friend’s.

The weight on top of her disappeared as the cloaked pony scrambled up, and immediately pulled her off the ground. That was helpful of her. Auntie wasn’t sure if she could have stood on her own at that moment. Her back felt like it had been scraped by a runaway train.

With that thought, she blacked out.

~#~#~#~

“How’s she doing?”

The words floated to her as through a foot of water.

“Well, she’s better than she was. She actually looks happy. Maybe she doesn’t even know anything happened.”

“She’s lucky. At her age, something like that could have killed her instantly.”

The voices… every moment they seemed clearer, and more familiar. After a few seconds, she became aware of more ponies in the background. One seemed to be sobbing. Another yawned, loud and drawn out.

“She should be waking up soon. I don’t think there’ll be any permanent damage, but be careful. She’ll probably have trouble walking for a while.”

It felt odd to be listening to this conversation after abruptly becoming aware that it was about her. Sherbet decided this was the most convenient moment to let them know that she was, in fact, waking up. She turned her head and stretched her legs, slowly blinking her eyes open.

The first thing she saw was Mosely’s face.

“Is it over?” she asked. “Did I make it back...?”

With a sigh of relief, he patted her hoof. “Yes, you certainly did. Do you need help to get up? I don’t think anypony would blame you if you would rather stay in bed.” He bowed his head and fell silent.

This was her first clue that she was in a room. She realized that she could feel the thin bedsheet draped over her, and see the pallid walls that were meant to make ponies feel comfortable, but at the moment just made her think of sickness. She shook head, twisting awkwardly as she tried her hooves. “I’ll be alright,” she said, taking a quivering step forward.

A hoof caught her as she stumbled. Glancing to her left, she saw Rainbow Dash supporting her.

“Hey, uh, you okay, Auntie?” the pegasus asked.

Sherbet took a deep breath, then nodded. “Yes, I do believe I am.” She took a moment to get used to standing again. “What about you? Are you certain you’re alright?” she asked, noting the darkening around the prismatic mare’s eyes.

“Eh, I’ve had worse than a few blasts in the face. You’re the one who nearly got herself cut in half.”

With strict tact, Auntie nodded. “I should be able to walk on my own in a minute. Where are the others?”

Rainbow gestured to the door. “Waiting outside. The hotel was the only place we could think to bring you after the crash. I don’t think any of them dared to leave you alone.”

With Dash’s help, the older mare made her way out to the hallway. as soon as they had cleared the doorway, the pegasus held out a hoof and blocked a pink blur hurtling toward them.

“Not now, Pinkie,” she scolded. “Take it easy. She needs a little time.”

Pinkie nodded sheepishly. “Right. But she’s okay! This is great! I should throw her a congratulations-on-getting-better-after-being-hit-by-a-runaway-roller-coaster party before we have to get back to saving the world!”

Dash and Sherbet looked to each other, then back at the party pony, incredulous. Behind her, Octavia massaged her own temple.

On their other side, Ditzy shifted nervously. She was attempting to comfort another pony, a light pink unicorn, only a shade or two from being milky white.

Lovestruck looked just like the one from Sherbet’s world, but perhaps a bit more time-worn. The fatigue of over a year on the run had added a wrinkle or two. Her cloak was nowhere to be seen. Just beyond, Spike stood at attention, keeping a careful eye on her. Lovestruck trembled slightly as she stepped around Ditzy to meet the older mare.

“I think... now would be a good time to fill you in on what’s been going on,” she offered haltingly. “You figured out that I was the thief. But before that… when the vines first appeared, and choked the city, I was ready. I was probably the only pony in all of Neigh York who stayed prepared for disasters with all kinds of resources. Clean water, food, medicine, the essentials, and a few important tools. So it was up to me to come up with a plan.”

“But distribution is expensive,” Sherbet observed. She noted that the necklace she wore had begun to emit a faint glow.

“Yeah. I started out small, helping out the neighbors when they needed it, but when things got worse I had to step it up. I spent my life savings keeping the whole city running, but it wasn’t enough. I needed help. I asked friends and family, but they didn’t have enough to make a difference. So I turned to ponies with deeper pockets, over on Fence Street. But they refused. Said they didn’t want to pour money into an unprofitable venture.” Lovestruck’s expression soured as she recounted that.

“All of them?” Sherbet frowned. It sounded so improbable, so wrong. Had every last pony in the city been so blind that they assumed they wouldn’t be touched by this?

“All of them,” Lovestruck confirmed. She gestured back toward Mosely. “Even him. And that, well, that tore it. I tried, I put everything on the line, but in the end, there I was, watching it all crumble slowly. I couldn’t afford the maintenance on the teleporters, or equipment, or even enough supplies to go around. So… I decided to strike back. I stole everything I could from the ponies that had failed me, starting with the Oranges, and I just… hid it.” She hung her head. “And now I guess that leaves me here at your mercy.”

“We’re not here to hurt you,” Auntie reassured her. “Nor to apprehend you.”

“Not that we shouldn’t,” Octavia observed evenly. “But your role in this is more important.” To Sherbet, she added, “It’s been several days. We’ve been waiting here for you to wake up, eating some… moderately stale food from the hotel’s stores. The time has allowed us to give her a few of the details.”

“Yeah. I went and got the rest of my supplies for you,” Lovestruck added. She pushed five pairs of saddlebags toward Sherbet. The Element of Generosity shone a little brighter. “It sounds like you’re going to need them more than I am.”

“Oh, I see.” Sherbet hadn’t actually considered how long it might have been, but that would explain the sense of numbness when she tried to move, and the intense hunger gnawing at her. She was going to have to get something to eat as soon as she was finished talking to Lovestruck. “You know we’re here to save the world, then. And we need your help,” she continued.

The unicorn shook her head, backing away slightly. “Look, I’ll draw a map to the stolen goods, but I couldn’t save one city, what do you expect me to do for the world?”

Ditzy placed a hoof on Lovestruck’s back. The touch seemed to calm her a little.

“No pony alone could have saved this city,” Sherbet answered gently. “You did what you could. But you are an Element of Harmony, and when you stand alongside the others, you’ll be able to change—”

“No,” Lovestruck insisted. “Listen. This world refuses to change. I can’t help a single, solitary pony.”

The businessmare gave her an appraising look, then glanced back over her shoulder. “She’s wrong, isn’t she?”

In the room behind her, Mosely looked up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said evenly.

“You let us back in even though it could only cause trouble for you.”

“Are you saying I shouldn’t have?”

“Why did you?”

He hesitated. “Well… it’s…”

She smiled and gestured to her friend again. “You see? Things are getting better already. He changed his mind because of you, didn’t he?”

Mosely said nothing.

“I gave back what I stole,” Lovestruck clarified. “As soon as he saw it, he opened the doors for us.”

“That’s how it has to be,” the older mare commented. “One other thing. Where are Gedion and Halcyon?”

“Safe,” Lovestruck replied quickly. “At home. I’ve made extra sure they don’t get caught up in any of this.”

“By not going home.”

“I… yes,” she admitted. Her voice dropped a few decibels, a glimmer of moisture reaching her eyes. “I’ve watched, made sure they’re doing well, but I... “

Auntie lightly embraced her. “When this is all over, they’ll be perfectly fine,” she assured her. “For their sake… please, help us.”

Slowly, Lovestruck nodded.

Sherbet moved away and stood unaided now. “Then, I suppose it’s time we took our leave.” She gestured for the others to get into the elevator, then turned around. “Thank you for your help, Mosely.”

As the rest walked away, Mosely raised an eyebrow. “Your mane hasn’t moved in three days.”

“Lots of hairspray,” she explained.

“Yes, well.” He shook her hoof. “I assume you won’t need so much in the future.”

She chuckled to herself as she reinserted the pin into her mane. “I like to be prepared.”

“Would you like to see Tangerine before you go?”

Sherbet smiled back at him. “You know, I—”

~#~#~#~

“—would… love…” The group, minus Mosely, was standing in front of the Horsepower Park reservoir. The businessmare looked around, confused.

“Uh, guys, I’m all for fast, but even I think that was a little too fast,” Rainbow Dash remarked.

A splashing sound caught their attention, and their eyes were drawn to a pile of soap suds on the surface of the stagnant water. A small, not-quite-equine head poked out of the colorful bubbles.

“Oh, you’re here.” Discord waved a claw at them, then disappeared and reappeared on the shore with a tiny towel wrapped around him. “I was expecting to wait another three days. Well, now we can finally get on with it.”

“What?” Dash gaped, having apparently only just now realized that she hadn’t held the statue in quite some time. “But… when did…”

Growling, Sherbet was now the one who placed a hoof on the draconequus’s head. “You wretched little creature… you really are just toying with us, aren’t you?”

He thrashed helplessly in response. “No, no, I realize it wasn’t the best timing, but we really do have a schedule to keep and your little nap nearly threw it off! Please, just…”

Sighing, she relented. “Then I assume it’s time to move on to the next location,” she stated, putting on a businesslike affect so rapidly that everypony else took a step back. “What do you need Lovestruck to do now?”

“First, a question,” Discord replied. “Lovestruck, I could just send you to the mountains or something where your family will be safe. Or you could go through with this Harmony thing, and you won’t see your husband or son again for quite a while. Is that okay with you?”

The carny nodded resolutely. “Yes. I won’t hide anymore while the world is dying around me. I know the price I’m paying. I’m ready.”

At that instant, Sherbet’s Element ignited in a bright flash. A bolt of light erupted from the gem. Lovestruck turned, shocked, and as she did, the blast hit her square in the chest. The world around them was suffused with white light as she collapsed to the ground.

When the light faded, Auntie offered her a hoof up. The dazed unicorn accepted. It took a moment for her to register the smile on the older mare’s face. Following her eyes, Lovestruck found that a gold necklace had appeared around her own neck, identical to Sherbet’s, except that the gem set into it was a pink bow and arrow.

The chaos spirit gave them a bored look. He snapped his talons, and Lovestruck disappeared into thin air.

“You’d better not have sent her anywhere weird,” Pinkie warned him.

“She’ll be perfectly safe,” he promised. “She’s got some preparation to do. And meanwhile, you have a ride to catch.”

The soap suds in the reservoir began to roil violently. As the ponies watched, one giant bubble emerged from the pile. It floated overhead, and slowly descended.

As it engulfed them, Discord was half-singing, half-humming something about springtime.

Spike gave a cry of protest. “Bubbles are not a reliable mode of transportation! Ugh, this didn’t end well last time.”

“This one is,” their host insisted. “It goes upways and downways and—”

“You stole that line from a movie. And the song,” Pinkie pointed out.

“Spoilsport.” He stuck out his tongue at her as the bubble began to float off with them inside. “Anyway, you have nothing to worry about. I’m not some amateur. As long as you’re in this bubble, you’ll be perfectly fine.”

Chapter Four, Part One. (Written by Bed Head)

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“WHOOOOOOOOAAAA--”

“Oh would you stop yelling?” Discord’s shout filled the bubble. “Honestly! Flying is one of the safest forms of travel, you know.”

Under most circumstances, Spike might have just ignored that sort of order. Every muscle in his body was tensed, remembering all too well his last trip by magic sphere. More specifically the sudden, painful stop at the end. Two things, however, inspired obedience from the unicorn.

Firstly, as much as he didn’t want to admit it, Discord did seem to be a better pilot. Despite the supposed drain on his magical power, the miniature draconequus seemed to control the magical bubble like it was a part of his own body. Soaring high above Equestria, dipping easily around the strange, thorny clouds that dotted the sky, narrowly avoiding the overgrown Plunder Vines with acrobatics that would have put a Wonderbolt to shame.

Which led to the second reason Spike clamped his mouth shut: The fact that his stomach had finally caught up to him from Manehattan. He could feel his face changing to match his mane as Discord pulled a particularly loopy maneuver. Everything outside the bubble was just a blur of sky, ground, clouds, vines, more sky, ground again…

“Spike?” Something soft, feathery, and (more importantly) familiar fell over his back. “Hey, are you feeling alright?”

Spike swallowed hard before looking to the pony next to him. The worried, cross-eyed gaze of a gray pegasus pony waited there. A sight that was certainly better than the green and black blur the ground below had become.

Even if she’s not the Ditzy I know.

Spike flinched as the thought put another weird clench to his stomach.

“Uh… I think I’ll…” he grunted, putting one hoof over his mouth.

Ditzy was giving him a reassuring smile, even as one of her eyes drifted strangely to the side. The eye, the way she patted his back with her wing, even the smile, all just like he remembered them. If Spike hadn’t known better he’d almost swear he hadn’t left home.

Of course, it just took a quick look around to remind him that wasn’t true. Part of his mind wanted to recognize how lucky he probably was travelling with five mares. The other, more significant part, was just glad to be looking at anything other than the speeding landscape.

That part was also wondering how anypony could be standing upright at that moment. Rainbow Dash, however, was doing just that. In fact, she was near the front of their bubble-ship, wings spread almost like she was pretending to glide. Pinkie Pie was up near the front too, looking like she was doing her best not to enjoy the ride. Not an easy task judging from her occasional gasp and tremble of her tail.

At the very least Octavia made Spike feel less alone in his queasiness. The musician had leaned herself against the wall of their transport, her eyes resolutely glued to her cello. On the surface she almost looked like she was taking the ride well. It didn’t take much effort to notice her face was a shade paler. Or the way her hooves visibly tightened around the instrument with every dip or sudden bank Discord put them through.

In truth, Orange Sherbet was the one the drew most of his attention. Just looking at her, she didn’t look too bad off. Especially given her fall, how long she’d been laid-up back in Manehattan, how long it’d been since she (or any of them, really) had a chance to really freshen up. Just the fact she was still fit enough to be travelling with them was impressive enough. Almost shockingly like another Element of Generosity Spike could think of.

Maybe it’s got something to do with that element?

Whatever the secret behind the high-society mare’s apparently indestructibility, it did not seem to extend to her stomach. Sherbet didn’t look like she was feeling much better than he did. Her eyes were squeezed shut, mouth drawn in a tight line.

As one hoof moved over her stomach, Spike could feel his own worries suddenly fly out the window.

“Hey, how about you Missus Sherbet?” Spike cleared his throat, forcing himself to sit up a bit straighter. “After everything back in Manehattan-”

“Hang on, everypony!”

Spike’s own stomach gave a lurch as Discord’s voice called out. One loop-de-loop later and the unicorn was back to covering his own muzzle. Suddenly the amount of stale bread he’d eaten was catching up to him. Thankfully, Sherbet managed to open her eyes, and actually gave him a slight smile.

“Oh I’ll be fine, Spike. Just not used to travelling quite so fast.” The Manehattanite rubbed her stomach again, wincing as she did so. “Also I… well I-”

Grrowl...

This time it wasn’t Discord’s voice that cut off the conversation. Spike’s eyes went wide as Orange Sherbet held her stomach again, a blush coming to her cheeks. Ditzy seemed to be stifling a giggle, her wing covering her mouth, while Octavia’s eyes finally peeled from her instrument.

“Was that your stomach?” she asked, raising one eyebrow. “No offense meant but… are you really that hungry right now?”

“... Well, I didn’t have much of a chance to eat before we left.” As Sherbet answered, Spike couldn’t help but notice the irritated glance she gave Discord.

“Oh my dear Orange, you should be thanking me!” Discord retorted as hovered overhead. “It’s not like your current diet was doing much for you.”

The inside of the bubble fell silent. Spike knew that he wasn’t the only one staring at Discord. However he was pretty sure he was the only one that noticed a lock of hair twang loose from Sherbet’s hairdo. The stallion took a few nervous steps back, eager to have as much distance between himself and the draconequus as possible.

“Aww, don’t listen to that shrimp,” somepony else spoke up.

Spike never thought he’d breathe a sigh of relief at the sound of Rainbow Dash. There he was, however, doing just that as the last two of their group shuffled into the conversation.

“Yeah! Discord’s just being a grumpy-head ‘cause we’re not paying attention to him.” Pinkie bounced a bit on the floor bubble as she spoke, before giving Discord a disapproving look of her own. “Besides, you’re not the only one getting hungry.”

“Oh I’m sorry! I should have conjured up the First-Class bubble,” Discord answered with a sneer. “Really, if you knew how much magic I needed to lug the six of you around-”

“Whatever,” Rainbow Dash cut in with a roll of her eyes. “We’ll just grab a bite once we get to… uh… to…”

There wasn’t any need to look around. Spike could already feel the other four mares were just as confused as Dash suddenly was. One eyebrow raised as he looked up at Discord, voicing the question that they were all thinking.

“Hey Discord, where are we going?” he asked.

There was something about the way the chaos spirit’s shoulders shook that Spike found oddly foreboding. Like he was barely holding back a bout of evil laughter.

“Why not take a look for yourselves?” Discord gestured with one paw as the bubble arched over another cluster of vines. “We should be just getting in sight of our destination.”

Better judgement usually wouldn’t let anypony take their eyes off Discord. At least, Spike assumed so. His curiosity, however, already had the better of him. He joined the other five as they turned to see what waited ahead.

The second he did, his jaw dropped.

“Is… is that Canterlot?” Octavia gasped out.

Spike rubbed his eyes and checked again.

Octavia’s shock was easy to understand. For a second, Spike was almost relieved. The city ahead didn’t look nearly as ravaged as Manehattan had. Even from a distance, he could still pick out all the familiar towers and spires of the castle city. It all almost looked as white and pristine as the Canterlot from his own homeworld.

Or it would, if he could ignore the massive tangle of thorny vines twisting their way up the mountainside. Spike couldn’t even gasp in shock with how dry his mouth was. All he could do was stare at the trail of Plunder Vines that had snaked their way up to the base of the city. All of them wreathed around the base of a massive sphere of magenta light that surrounded Canterlot.

… Wait a second.

Spike finally managed to shut his mouth as he took in the sight again.

The entirety of Canterlot, enclosed in a huge bubble of light.

“Hey gu-”

That was as far as he got before their own bubble began to pick up speed. With a startled yelp, Spike rolled onto his back. Most of the other kidnapped elements quickly joined him, only Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie managing to keep their balance.

“What are you doing?!” Dash’s voice could barely be heard over the whine of wind speeding past them. “I like going fast, but do you not see the huge forcefield?!”

“A little faith, Dashy my dear!” Discord retorted. “I know exactly what I’m doing!”

Spike grunted as he managed to disentangle himself from the ponypile he’d been flung into. Spitting out a mouthful of gray feathers, he had just enough time to see how close the shield around Canterlot was getting. His eyes went wide, along with his mouth, as his heart froze in terror.

“OH-”


CRASH

Rainbow Dash didn’t have time to cover her ears against the sound of breaking glass. In fact, she barely had time to notice the sound.

In an instant, gravity seemed to shift sideways. The pegasus mare twisted her body as she was flung forward. Her wings flapped frantically as she tried to reorient herself. Thankfully, her athleticism paid off in spades. She was flying straight almost as soon as she hit open air.

Which left her ample time to notice the other five, non-flying blurs that had come plummeting from the bubble with her.

“Hang on, guys!” Dash shouted, quickly pitching her body down.

It was almost too familiar as she went to into a steep dive. Five ponies plummeting helplessly to the ground. Even Ditzy Doo seemed too stunned from her earlier tumble to use her wings. Dash bit down on her lip as her eyes darted from one pony to another, her mind whirring as it tried to find someway to catch them all.

Then something fluttered in the corner of her vision. Her head snapped up, and for once a sense of relief hit her.

Without wasting a breath on words, she tucked her wings in. Gravity and aerodynamics did their job, sending her screaming past the others. In an instant, her wings snapped open again, sending her banking hard to the side. Her mouth opened wide for a brief second-

Then snapped shut around the edge of a large banner. With a triumphant grunt, she flipped in midair, soaring back the other way. She could feel the tension in the banner as she stretched it, closing her eyes in a silent prayer that it would go far enough.

She breathed a sigh of relief as five solid whumphs of ponies hitting cloth reached her. The banner nearly vibrated out of her grip, but she set her jaw tight, slowly easing it in as each pony landed. With a few final flaps, Rainbow Dash slowly moved in, watching as the heavy payload in the center of the cloth lowered until finally, she let go.

Rather unceremoniously, five ponies tumbled from the banner and rolled the last foot or so to the ground. Dash allowed herself a smile as she landed next to them.

“Everypony alright?” she asked, watching as the others tottered back to their hooves.

“By certain definitions,” Octavia answered, clutching her cello close.

“That. Was. AWESOME!”

Nopony else had a chance to say anything before a bundle of pink curls sprang into view. Most ponies might have jumped back at the sight. Rainbow Dash just chuckled at the all-too-familiar sight of Pinkie Pie bouncing excitedly in place. It took a second to realize the earth mare was already half-way through retelling what had just happened.

“--Then when you swooped down and caught everypony and… We gotta try that again but faster next time and--wait!” Pinkie suddenly stopped jumping and began glancing in every direction she could. “Where’s Discord?”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow as she looked around herself. Octavia and Pinkie were easy to spot. Spike had his head stuck in some bushes and was making rather… unpleasant gagging sounds as Ditzy and Orange Sherbet stayed close to him. But (somewhat worryingly) there was no sign of the miniature draconequus anywhere she looked.

“Hey yeah, where’d that half-pint--” Rainbow Dash was cut off by a strained grunt from above.

“Up… here!”

Dash’s head snapped up at the sound of the voice. Discord was indeed still overhead. The chaos deity was visibly sweating as he shoved against a wall of glittering magic. It took a second for Rainbow Dash to realize it was the same shield the rest of them had smashed through. A shield which was letting out a worrying creak as Discord continued pushing against it.

“Just… just hold on a moment, my little ponies!” Discord managed to smile through the visible sweat on his face. “I’ll be right--”

SNAP

His eyes went wide as the magical bubble suddenly shoved him back a fraction of an inch.

“Oh…” he muttered, prodding it with one claw. “That’s not--”

SPROING!

Dash’s ears fell flat as she winced in pain. The noise would have been comical if it hadn’t been so loud. There wasn’t much she or anypony else could do about that, though. Six pairs of eyes watched as the bubble suddenly bounced back to its rightful shape, sending a small brown speck sailing into the distance.

“YAAAAAA-Hoo-hoo-hoo-hooey...”

All six ponies visibly winced as a distant plume of dust rose up.

“Well… so much for our ride,” Spike commented.

“Eh, he’ll be fine,” Rainbow Dash said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “Besides, this way none of us have to lug him around this time!”

“How can you say that, Dashy?!”

Any relief Dash had felt at not having a repeat of Manehattan immediately fled as a pair of pink hooves grabbed her shoulders and started shaking.

“This is Discord we’re talking about!” Pinkie Pie’s face was blurring in and out of focus with the continued shaking. “And now he’s out there! Unsupervised!”

It took a moment for Rainbow Dash to force Pinkie’s hooves away. It took several more for her to convince herself that she wasn’t going to be sick. The whole time she could only half-listen as the others’ voices continued talking.

“Pinkie, maybe you should calm down,” Orange Sherbet suggested.

“Yeah!” Ditzy Doo chimed in. “Discord said he brought us here to help Equestria-”

“But what about when we aren’t watching him?!” Pinkie’s hooves clattered, indicating she was likely on her hind legs with her forelegs in the air. “Discord’s not just bad! He’s like, the Grandmaster-of-all-things-bad! Who knows what sort of evil he’s getting up to now!”

“Uh, Pinkie?” Rainbow Dash swallowed the last of her nausea as she raised her head. “He’s the size of a rabbit.”

Pinkie just twisted awkwardly, having indeed been up on her hindlegs.

“Tiiiiiny evil....” she intoned, waving her hooves to add to the ‘eerie’ tone in her voice.

… Are we sure Discord didn’t grab my Pinkie Pie?

Surprisingly, as she looked at the others, Rainbow Dash got the distinct feeling some of them were wondering the same thing. It was Orange Sherbet clearing her throat that drew everypony out of their own thoughts.

“I hate to say it but… well, it’s not like we can worry about Discord right now.” The socialite patted down a stray lock of hair before nodding to the others. “We were brought here to look for one of the Elements of Harmony after all.”

A general murmur of consent moved over the group. Dash couldn’t help but notice how Pinkie Pie seemed to deflate slightly at the sound of it. Turning up her best, most confident grin, the cyan pegasus stepped up to Pinkie’s side.

“She’s got a point,” Rainbow Dash agreed, giving Pinkie a pat on the shoulder. “Besides, the sooner we find that Element, the faster we can get back to keeping an eye on Discord.”

Those words seemed to do the trick. Pinkie immediately bounced back, a smile of her own lighting her entire face.

“Right, then let’s get cooking everypony!” A blur of pink immediately sprang away from the group, and in the span of a heartbeat Pinkie Pie was eagerly bouncing next to a sidestreet. “Ooooh, I can’t wait! Who do you think it’s gonna be this time?”

“I think I already know…”

Turning around, Dash found herself looking right at Spike. Despite his stomach issues from earlier, the lone stallion of the group wore a broad smile. One that Dash felt grew considerably more smug under the gaze of the others.

For some reason, it send a twinge of annoyance through the blue pegasus. Fortunately, Orange Sherbet stepped forward before she could say act on it.

“Spike… let’s not be too hasty,” Orange Sherbet cautioned. “Remember back in Manehattan? I thought the same thing--”

“But this time’s different! There’s nopony else it could be!” Spike cut in, pointing straight up as he did so. “Remember what my Element is? Well just take a look at that!”

Rainbow Dash looked up, blowing her forelock from her eyes as she did so. For a moment, she wondered just what she was looking for. There was nothing but the buildings around them and the sky above, with a glittering shell of--

“Oh my gosh.”

Dash’s jaw dropped as the realization hit. The dome of reddish-purple magic covering the entire city seemed to twinkle back in confirmation. Her eyes immediately darted back to Spike; who was still smiling as a spark of his own magic tilted his hat to an odd angle.

“Yeah… yeah!” Rainbow Dash cleared her throat, struggling to curb her enthusiasm. “I mean… yeah. I think I know who he means!”

“That makes one of us, at least.” Octavia didn’t sound anywhere near as excited as she tapped her hoof against the ground. “I’m afraid you have the rest of us at a disadvantage. And I’ve lived most of my life in Canterlot.”

Despite the confused looks most of the others were giving him, Spike’s smile didn’t waver. Rainbow Dash could feel her heart going a mile a minute. Even as excited as she was, part of her wasn’t sure she wanted to be right about this. That didn’t keep her ears from pricking up as Spike turned to the cellist.

“Seriously?” He raised one eyebrow, still while smiling. “If you’re from Canterlot, then you’ve gotta know him!”

Dash’s ears flicked down, then back up again just as quickly. Right before Spike said the same name that had popped into her head.

“Shining Armor!”

Octavia’s muzzle repeated the name silently, right before her own eyes bulged in realization. The same sort of recognition hadn’t seemed to catch the others, though. At least judging by the way Ditzy Doo rubbed her chin.

“You mean the Captain of the Royal Guards, right?” Ditzy asked, tilting her head. “I heard he protected Canterlot from Corona when she came back… with a forcefi--Oh!”

Dash had to stifle a laugh at the look on Ditzy’s face. The others all had finally caught on as Spike began bouncing on his hooves.

“That just proves it even more!” Spike insisted, pointing to the shield again. “I lived in Canterlot too, and everypony knows that there’s no unicorn around with more magic than Shining Armor!”

The smile faded a little from Rainbow Dash’s muzzle at those words.

She didn’t frown, but for some reason something about what Spike had said didn’t sit right. It was hard to think of what, however, as Pinkie Pie began springing in circles around him. Dash could hardly focus on anything other than the pink pony and the stallion turning in place to watch her.

“Ooooh! I get it, I get it! Spikey said he’s the Element of Magic for his Equestria.” Pinkie sprang higher and higher with each leap before coming to a sudden halt. “Huh, I’d have thought we’d find the new Element of Magic last!”

“Considering it was Discord that brought us here…” Orange Sherbet trailed off before shaking her head and giving Spike a smile. “I suppose the important thing is we definitely have a strong candidate to start looking for. Well done, Spike!”

Spike’s cheeks flushed a dark purple. Without Pinkie leaping around, however, the uneasy feeling was returning. Dash’s smile was gone now as she raised one eyebrow to Spike. Something was finally coming back to her, mixing with the worry growing in her stomach.

“Hang on a sec. Discord said something else about the ponies we’re looking for,” she recalled. “Something about the Elements here being connected to each of us?”

“That’s a good point,” Octavia spoke up with a nod. “Not that I’m doubting you, Spike, but just how do you know such an important pony?”

Spike just chuckled a bit as he trotted forward. Dash stepped aside, letting the stallion pass as he started for a nearby side street. Right as he reached it, he cast a smile back at the five mares.

“Guess I never got the chance to tell you,” he realized, his voice swelling with pride. “Shining Armor is my big brother!”

Nopony else seemed to notice Rainbow Dash frowning at that.

That’s not right…

Glancing to the others, she once again had the feeling she wasn’t the only one thinking the same thing.

“Uh… Spike?”

The weather mare didn’t have a chance to speak up. Ditzy Doo’s voice had beat her too it. What was worrying, however, was the slight tremble in it.

“Shining Armor is a unicorn like you then, right?” Ditzy asked, swallowing hard before she continued. “With a white coat and a blue mane?”

“Yeah, that’s him!” Spike’s enthusiastic nod slowed as he gave Ditzy a confused look. “Wait, why are you asking?”

One light-grey hoof lifted, pointing over Spike’s shoulder. Dash raised an eyebrow, following Ditzy’s gesture. Her jaw dropped as she saw what waited.

Spike’s words had made her nervous. This put a sudden, nauseous twist in her stomach.

“I’ve got a feeling meeting him won’t be that easy…” Ditzy finished.

Nopony said anything in response to that. Spike looked just as shocked as Rainbow Dash felt. Understandable as they stared at where Ditzy was pointing. The banner Dash had used hung there. Now that it wasn’t being twisted into an impromptu safety net, Dash could see the picture on it.

A white unicorn stallion, one that she’d seen practically every day of her apprenticeship under Princess Celestia. Only he lacked his usual caring eyes. Instead, he was glaring at the street below. Almost as though he were daring anypony to cause trouble. Somehow tearing her eyes from the sight, Dash could see a solitary word was etched underneath the portrait.

OBEY


“This… this could be even worse than it looks.” Octavia wasn’t even trying to hide the worry in her voice.

“M-maybe it’s some kind of misunderstanding?”

Spike wasn’t entirely sure who he was trying to convince. In fact, he wasn’t sure about much of anything he was doing as he walked along. All he could picture was the banner, with his brother’s stern glare focused down on him. That alone was enough to send more thoughts than he could process boiling through his mind.

Along with Octavia’s voice.

“We made a rather loud entrance. Splitting up to gather information might be prudent this time.” Her eyes glanced up to Shining Armor’s. “Especially--”

“I mean-there’s just no way…”

He didn’t even particularly care who was listening. He just wanted the mare to be quiet.

Unfortunately his own voice was doing little to drown out hers.

“Shining’s a great guy… no, he’s the best!” Spike’s hoof struck the ground a bit harder than necessary as he protested. “That banner-there’s no way it’s as bad as it looks--”

“Spike?”

The unicorn snapped his head up from his hooves to whomever had just spoken. For a moment he was confused to find Orange Sherbet at his side. She seemed nearly as surprised, jumping a bit at his sudden movement. Still, she managed to keep a small smile, albeit an awkward (and somewhat worried-looking) one.

“I… er, uh…” Spike’s cheeks flushed a dark purple as an uncomfortable sense of self-awareness suddenly came to him. “I was saying all that out loud, wasn’t I?”

“Not that I meant to embarrass you, but…” Orange Sherbet answered, nodding her head to the side.

Spike bit his lower lip as he followed the gesture. Much to his chagrin, he and the Manehattanite weren’t the only ponies around. The paved streets they were walking still had a few other small groups of ponies milling about. Most of them had likely been absorbed in whatever errands they were running.

Up until recently, that was. Now practically everypony was looking right at Spike. The young stallion cleared his throat again, much louder this time, as he tried to force a smile back onto his face.

“Heh… uh, don’t mind me?” he suggested, giving a small wave to the other ponies around.

For a second, he could see one small filly return the wave. The child’s hoof was quickly forced back down by the mare next to her, and the two hurried off. Almost immediately, every other pony followed suit, either trotting away or reabsorbing into the conversations they’d been having. Spike simply let out a sigh as they did so.

At least only one of the others saw that…

Spike grimaced slightly at the thought. Still, it did bring a vague sense of relief, along with some feeling of gratitude to Octavia for her plan. A feeling drew a low grumble from Spike as he began to move again.

“Sorry about that,” he muttered, glancing back to Sherbet as he walked. “It’s just…”

His muzzle scrunched up, unsure if it should say what he thought. Orange Sherbet just resumed trotting at his side, obviously doing her best to give the stallion a patient smile.

“You’re a little upset about how this looks.” It wasn’t a question. If Spike hadn’t known better, he’d have guessed the socialite had read his mind.

“Octavia’s wrong about this. She has to be,” Spike insisted as he raised his head again. “I know Shining Armor. Even if everything was going crazy, he wouldn’t. And we haven’t even seen any proof he has!”

Even as those words left his mouth, they rang hollow to Spike. Another look around the street was enough to raise doubts anew.

For as many times as he’d walked through Canterlot, he could never remember the streets seeming so lifeless. There would always be herds of ponies trotting this way and that, browsing the shops, gossiping about nobles at the numerous cafes…

This time, however, the paved road was practically empty. Other than the half-dozen or so they’d just passed, there was no sign of anypony around. Many of the buildings Spike recalled as brightly-colored shops or restaurants had abandoned their awnings, or now sported barred or boarded-up windows. Worst of all, every few yards brought sight of another poster featuring Shining Armor. Everyone of him sporting the same, withering glare.

“I think if anypony would agree with you on that, Spike, it would be me.”

Spike blinked, tearing his eyes from the latest poster. Orange Sherbet was giving the Shining Armor pictured on it a worried look of her own. That combined with her words sent a rock tumbling into the unicorn’s stomach.

“But you thought the same thing about Mosley,” Spike realized as he came to a halt. “And look how that turned out.”

“Indeed.” Orange’s hooves came to a stop, one of them hooking under his chin and forcing his gaze back up. “Just look how that turned out.”

Much to his surprise, Orange Sherbet didn’t seem as worried this time. She was actually smiling as she moved her leg to pat him on the shoulder.

“It’s true, Mosley wasn’t the stallion I remembered at first. But once we’d found Lovestruck and started to fix things, he started to come back to himself,” she said, the smiling never leaving her face. “And if Shining Armor has gotten a little lost, I’m sure he’ll get back to how he was once we’ve helped him. Don’t you think so?”

In spite of himself, Spike could feel a smile on his own muzzle. A little, warm spark finally lit in his chest as he nodded his head.

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed with a slow sigh. “Sorry, it was all just kind of a shock, I guess.”

“It’s perfectly fine, Spike,” Orange said moving back to his side. “Now then, does any of this still look familiar?”

Slowly, Spike looked around. Looking over the drab buildings, he could imagine just which shops they were supposed to contain. With a confident nod, he pointed toward a crossroad up ahead.

“Yup. The office of the Canterlot Sun should be right up that way.” His determined smile grew as he began to hurry toward it. “If anyplace has a record of what happened since the princesses vanished, it’ll be there!”

Chapter Four, Part Two. (Written by Bed Head)

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“Dashy! Wait for me!”

It wasn’t easy, but somehow Rainbow Dash managed to ignore Pinkie Pie. Instead, she forced herself to focus on her flying. The feel of the wind in her mane, the way her feathers dipped as she took a hair-pin turn, the familiar blur of the streets of Canterlot passing below…

It’s almost like home.

Her uplifting thought soured quickly as she whipped passed another banner. One that, like all the others before it, featured her former crush glaring at the viewer.

Almost.

With a hard pump of her wings, Rainbow Dash banked upward. In a second she was flying over the rooftops. Her rosy eyes narrowed on her goal as she raced toward it.

“Hey-”

Her gut twisted with guilt as she ignored Pinkie’s voice again.

“-Wait a second--”

Dash’s wings pumped harder as she skimmed over the buildings.

“-Rainbow--”

“Wait. What?” Rainbow Dash muttered to herself.

She could almost hear a skreech as she braked in mid-air. A glance back turned into a confused stare at the three different rooftops she’d flown over. She was positive it hadn’t just been her imagination. Pinkie Pie had shouted from each roof as she’d flown over it, she was sure. But now there was no sign--

“-Dash!” Suddenly a massive poof of pink sprang up in front of her vision.

“GAH!” Rainbow Dash’s wings immediately snapped to a halt.

Fortunately, she was only a short hop above the department store (or what she remembered as a department store). The blue mare still winced as she landed on the roof with a painful thud.

“Oh hey, you stopped!” Pinkie Pie was already at Dash’s side the second she hit the ground, helping her back up. “You were going so fast I thought you couldn’t hear me for a second!”

“Well… I kinda did and… wait.” Dash took a deep breath, struggling to get her words in order before opening her mouth again. “How did you get up here so fast?”

“I took the stairs, of course!” Pinkie answered with a bubbly giggle.

Rainbow Dash just stared at the pink earth pony in front of her for a few seconds. Finally, she looked back over her shoulder again. She could, indeed, see the access stairs Pinkie had probably used. Along with the ones on the other three, multi-story buildings.

“But how did you get between them so…” Rainbow Dash let her voice fade out before finally shaking her head. “You know what? Never mind.”

“Okey-dokey-lokey!” Pinkie chirped as she bounced in place a bit. “In that case, can I ask you something now?”

Rainbow Dash had to stifle a pained sigh. Her head was already starting to ache from trying to contemplate “Pinkie Pie Physics” even for just a few seconds. Rubbing at her temples, the pegasus pony just waved for Pinkie to talk.

“Why haven’t we stopped to talk to any of the guards yet?” Pinkie asked.

“Guards?” For some reason, the word made Dash arch an eyebrow.

“Don’t you remember? We’re supposed to be asking them about Shining Armor!” The pink mare giggled as she ruffled Rainbow Dash’s mane. “Guess you can be just as silly as my Dashy, huh?”

The pegasus let out a half-hearted chuckle in response. It wasn’t as though she could forget the task she and Pinkie had been assigned. Dash’s mind, and her eyes, however, both just kept drifting away from her partner. Not too far in the distance, she could make out her real goal--

“Lucky thing those two were able to keep up!” Pinkie’s voice suddenly cracked through Dash’s thoughts.

“Those two?” Dash asked, turning to find Pinkie Pie had somehow moved behind her. “Who are you talking about?”

“Those guards that have been trying to follow us, of course!” Pinkie explained, pointing back the way they had come from. “Man, they must train really hard to keep up with you!”

Rainbow’s eyes widened. Following Pinkie’s hoof, she could indeed see a pair of pegasus ponies flying toward them. Both with stark-white coats, golden armor…

And some all-too-familiar glares in their eyes. Dash swallowed hard, suddenly recalling some moments from her own life in Canterlot Castle. Specifically the frustrated looks of the guards whenever she’d felt like causing them some grief. That, combined with the rather intimidating posters plastered everywhere, had her springing to her hooves in an instant.

“Hang tight!” Dash ordered as she grabbed Pinkie’s tail in her mouth.

Pinkie didn’t have time to response. In less than a second, Dash was hurtling over the side of the building.


“WHEEEEEEEEEEE!”

The sound of the pink mare nearly made Steelwing pause in mid-flap. He had to admit, it was the first time he’d ever heard somepony cheering as they ran away.

The royal guard quickly forced the observation to the back of his mind and pumped his wings harder. The armor he wore had never felt as heavy as it did at that moment. Then again, he’d never been after a target that was so fast. Practically before he could blink, the cyan pegasus and her partner were gone, leaving nothing but a rapidly fading rainbow contrail.

Still, he smirked as he noticed a glint of armor out of the corner of his eye. His partner, Silver Lining, was already heading for one end of the alley below. Banking to the right, he headed for the other. As he dove to follow the rainbow pony over the edge he already knew the plan. A standard approach from either side, trapping the perpetrator in between them.

“What the--”

Steelwing’s eyes went wide as he began to frantically back-flap. He and his armor clanked to a halt just in time to avoid colliding with Silver Lining. The other pegasus pony’s face was a mirror of his own, staring at the empty air-space around them in shock.

“I… what?!” Steelwing gasped a bit for breath as the words left his mouth. “Where’d she go?”

“She didn’t slip by on your end?” Silver Lining responded.

Steelwing shot his partner a withering glare before looking around the alley again. Nothing but shuttered windows on one building; another massive tapestry with Shining Armor’s face on the other. His mouth twisted into a sneer as he looked back and forth between the streets at either end of the alley, searching for any sign of the rainbow mare.

“I can’t believe this. We pulled that maneuver off perfectly!”

Steelwing growled a bit, his ears flattening against his helmet as he tried to shut out Silver Lining’s voice. Unfortunately, the other guard was flying in a tight orbit around him, frantically staring up and down the alley.

“There’s no way we should have missed her!” Silver continued, removing his helmet to rub his head in confusion. “But… well I’ve never seen anypony move so fast…”

“I get it, really,” Steelwing grumbled, silently willing for his partner to shut-up.

“Ugh, with that speed she could be anywhere in the city by now!” Silver Lining rolled his helmet between his hooves, a fine sweat appearing on his brow. “And when the commander finds out about this--”

CLANG

In one swift motion, Steelwing had snatched the helmet away and shoved it back over his partner’s head.

“Well the commander doesn’t need to find out as long as we find her first, got it?!” Steelwing snorted as the other pegasus simply gave a mute nod. “Good, then let’s move! She may be fast, but somepony would have to notice a mane that gaudy!”

In a glint of polished armor, Steelwing shot off out of the alley. After taking a moment to readjust his helmet, Silver Lining followed.

As such, neither of them noticed as the banner of Shining Armor rippled slightly. A rainbow-maned head carefully poking out from behind it and looking around.

“Hmmph, who’s he calling gaudy?” Dash grumbled as she emerged from her hiding spot.

“Mm thkk mm mmmk kmml!” Pinkie’s muffled voice responded.

“Uh… thanks, Pinkie,” Dash said, looking down to her passenger.

Even awkwardly hooked in the pegasus pony’s forelegs with a blue hoof over her muzzle, Pinkie Pie still had a huge smile on her face. Somehow, Rainbow Dash couldn’t help smiling back as she swiftly lowered the both of them back to the ground.

“Well, at least the guards around here are easy to trick,” Dash said, releasing Pinkie as she looked off in the direction the soldiers had flown. “Heh, guess some things don’t change.”

“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie cheered from behind her. “But, uh…”

Rainbow Dash’s smile faded as the bubbly… Pinkie-ness faded from Pinkie’s voice. Turning back around revealed the earth pony’s ever-present smile was gone, replaced with a confused frown.

“Why aren’t we asking them about Shining Armor?” she asked, tilting her head quizzically. “I thought we were supposed to be helping Spike and the others--”

“We are!” Rainbow Dash winced at the volume of her own voice. After a hasty glance around, she began speaking much quieter. “We’re going to. I just kinda thought…”

Dash glanced up to the image hanging overhead. It was a struggle not to flinch as the eyes of her former fillyhood crush continued to watch her. But at the same time, something was bubbling inside her. A question boiling away at the surface of her thoughts.

Just what the hay happened to him?

“Whatever happened, I’m gonna find out,” she resolved, her voice growing stronger as she returned the glare. “And the best way to do that is at the source.”

Dash scraped one hoof against the ground. Suddenly the banner seemed far less intimidating. It almost felt like a challenge, one she wouldn’t back down from.

Just as her vision was starting to narrow, though, something else caught her eye. Pinkie Pie’s gaze, moving from her to the Shining Armor above and back again. After a few seconds, the earth pony’s eyes widened in understanding.

“Oh… OH! I get it! No… wait a minute!” Pinkie exclaimed as she leapt in front of Rainbow Dash. “What about Spike? If he’s right and Shining is supposed to get his element, shouldn’t we go get him first?”

That got a wince out of Rainbow Dash. Slowly, the pegasus mare drew in a deep breath.

Knew this’d have to come up sooner or later.

“Um… about that… I’m not so sure...” Dash sighed, awkwardly rubbing one leg against the other. “I don’t think Spike should meet up with Shining just yet…”

“Why? Cuz you don’t think he’s Shining’s brother in this Equestria either?”

“I--” Dash cut herself off as she realized what Pinkie had said. “Wait, what?!”


The idea of Canterlot had always carried a certain image. Immaculately clean streets watched over by the castle’s ivory towers. Shops filled with exotic goods from lands far beyond Equestria’s borders. And, most importantly, the sheer variety of ponies from nobles and foreign dignitaries to common workers that would be bustling in and out of those same stores; as well as the museums, libraries, and homes. In her own Equestria, Orange Sherbet could only imagine that the offices of the Canterlot Sun wouldn’t have been any less crowded.

Unfortunately, the sight before her was just another reminder of how far removed she was from “her” Equestria.

“Oh man…” Spike muttered from next to her.

The disappointment on the stallion’s face was all too understandable. Like most of the other businesses they’d passed, the office building before them looked like it hadn’t been used in ages. Sherbet could see only one window that wasn’t boarded up, and what was probably a beautiful paint job was now chipped and fading. The only thing that differentiated this building from the dozens of other places Sherbet and Spike had passed was a faded sign above the door.

The Canterlot Sun

“Oh dear,” Sherbet said, checking the sign for the third time to make sure she was reading it right. “I suppose it might not be as bad as it looks…”

The unicorn next to her let out a soft sigh. Before she could turn to begin reassurances, however, Spike was already starting to walk up to the front door.

“Even if it is, we still have to try don’t we?” Spike looked back to her, a determined smile on his face. “I mean, it’s not like we can give up at the first hurdle.”

Sherbet smiled back at him and nodded. Inwardly, she breathed a sigh of relief. After the shocked state Spike had been in earlier, it was comforting to see him more confident. As he lifted one hoof to knock on the door, the earth mare began trotting up behind him.

WHAM!

The smile immediately jumped off Sherbet’s face as the door flew open. Right into the unfortunate purple unicorn standing in front of it. Sherbet winced at the impact, and by the time she looked again Spike was a purple heap lying next to the open door.

“Spike!” Instinct took over as Sherbet ran to her partner’s side.

“Oh fer… Get outta the way, kid, I’m in a hurry!”

Sherbet grunted as another stallion hurried out from the Canterlot Sun’s office. A gray earth pony with a messy black mane and carrying what looked like a trumpet on his back. One who was hurriedly locking up the door and starting to run out into the street.

Orange could feel her eyes narrow. With a frustrated snort, she quickly jumped in front of the stallion, causing him to rear back in shock.

“Hey! What’s your problem, lady?!” The stallion protested.

“You just ran into somepony,” Sherbet answered, taking a deep breath to keep her voice calm. “Aren’t you even going to apologize?”

The stallion’s own glare met hers. With a frustrated snort, he pushed forward. Sherbet’s eyes went wide at the sudden charge, stumbling backward. Apparently, that was the opening he’d been waiting for. The grey earth pony shifted to the right, shoving by Sherbet and breaking into a gallop.

“Look, I already said I’m busy.” The stallion said as he passed her. “If he’s hurt, you can send me the hospital bill, alright?!”

For a moment, all Orange Sherbet could do was stare after him, getting the briefest glimpse of a newspaper on his flank. As he rounded the corner, she lowered her head and took a long, deep breath.

Not completely unexpected… unfortunately.

She had to wince at how true the thought was. A low groan from behind her, however, quickly drew Sherbet’s mind elsewhere.

“Spike!” She hurried back to the unicorn’s side, leaning down to help him back up. “Oh my goodness, are you alright?”

“Where did that guy go?” Spike grunted as he found his hooves again.

With a surprising amount of energy, Spike dashed into the street. Sherbet just shook her head as she followed, putting a restraining hoof on his withers. Even as a small part of her couldn’t blame the agitation in his voice.

“Spike, I know that stallion was quite rude,” Sherbet said in a voice so calm it nearly surprised her. “But if Canterlot is anything like Manehatten was--”

“That’s not it!” Spike protested, pulling away. “I know that guy! I mean, I know my version of that guy so… not that guy specifically but… Ugh.”

Spike rubbed his head, probably nursing a headache from the look on his face. Sherbet, meanwhile, had covered her mouth as she realized just what Spike was trying to say.

“Oh!” she gasped out, pointing down the street. “That way, he took the third left--”

The words were barely out of her mouth before Spike took off. Sherbet took a deep breath before darting after him. Silently, she was thankful as the unicorn’s sprint quickly began to flag. Her own legs were already trying to remind her she was no race horse.

“Spike, just who was that stallion?” Sherbet asked as they ran. “Does he work for The Sun?”

“Work for it? That was Ink Blot!” Spike panted, looking back to her with a broad grin on his face. “He’s the editor-in-chief! At least he is in my world!”

Orange Sherbet nearly stumbled at that. Spike, however, seemed to be redoubling his efforts to catch up to the gray-coated pony. She could swear, there was even a spring in his step as he ran.

“If anypony… knows what’s been going on… here…” Spike gasped out between breaths. “It’d be him! This is better than we could have--”

BrrUrrrr! BrrrUrrrrrrrrrr!

Both of them stumbled as the ear-piercing, brassy cry of a trumpet echoed through the street. Looking to Spike, Orange Sherbet found her own confusion mirrored on the unicorn’s face. For some reason, that gave her an uneasy feeling.

“I take it that’s not normal for Canterlot?” she guessed.

“Only if there’s a parade or something.” Spike had a confused frown as he resumed trotting. “And I can’t think of what they’d be celebrat--.”

As he started to turn the corner, Spike came to a halt. Sherbet raised one eyebrow, cantering up to his side. She couldn’t ignore the growing worry she felt as she noticed the stallion’s eyes growing wider. Cautiously, she followed his gaze.

“Oh my,” she muttered.

The street before her looked much more like what she’d expected. Ponies were milling about, almost shoulder to shoulder, quite a few still emerging from the surrounding buildings. Glancing back over her shoulder, Orange noticed several more coming down the street she and Spike had just walked.

BrrUrrrr! BrrrUrrrrrr!

Another blast of the trumpet kept her from asking just what was happening. The noise, however, drew the crowd’s attention to what looked like a raised platform at the end of the street.

On that platform, with the trumpet he’d been carrying pressed to his muzzle, was Ink Blot. Flanked by two armored unicorns that Orange could only assume were royal guards. Before she could take in any more of the scene, a hoof nudged against her side. Glancing toward its owner, she found Spike jerking his head toward the crowd in front of them. As well as the sight of several ponies moving past them to join that same crowd.

“Oh!” Orange snapped her muzzle shut and nodded in understanding.

Without another word between them (just as well as Ink Blot let out a third blast from his trumpet), Spike and Orange quickly joined the rest of the ponies hurrying to the stage. Moving through the back of the crowd, she could almost feel a tension in the air. Quite a few of the gathered ponies looked some mixture of confused, annoyed… and nervous.

Her attention was drawn back to Ink Blot, however, as the earth pony cleared his throat.

“Hear ye, hear ye, oh Citizens of Canterlot.” Orange Sherbet had to raise an eyebrow at Ink Blot’s voice. Contrary to the skittish citizenry listening, he almost sounded bored. “I bring important word from our Great Protector and leader, Sir Shining Armor… oh, you all know the schpiel-”

A slight, nervous giggle rippled through the crowd. Orange covered her mouth, but couldn’t help noticing the amused grin Spike had. Looking back to the stage, however, Ink Blot seemed less jovial. He was wincing under a glare one of the guards was giving him, muttering something to the armored pony before clearing his throat and turning back to the crowd.

Hmm-hem… It is my duty to report that, approximately thirty minutes ago, a disturbance was detected in the Northern Quadrant of the Great Shield--”

Ink Blot visibly rolled his eyes and fell silent as several alarmed gasps sounded. Orange Sherbet pursed her lips as the ponies around her began muttering various concerns to one another. A quick glance to Spike confirmed the same nervous look on his face as Ink Blot rapped a hoof against the ground.

“Hey! Listen up, I’m not done here yet!” The gray pony seemed to be muttering something as the crowd quieted themselves. “Now then, Sir Shining Armor has looked into the matter, and says that there is no reason to panic. The barrier itself is unharmed. However…”

Orange swallowed hard, trying her best not to glance to the rest of the audience. Somehow, she had a feeling she knew what words were coming. Even Ink Blot fidgeted a bit before continuing.

“There is reason to believe some… thing, might have managed to get through--”

“AAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!”

He was cut off by a scream from the audience. The whisper campaign before was nothing compared to the bevy of questions coming from the frightened ponies. Orange gasped as the crowd surged forward, somepony shoving against her and sending her stumbling to the side. Thankfully, a purple hoof helped to steady her before she fell.

“You alright?” Spike asked, his voice barely audible over the ponies around them.

“Yes, only--” Sherbet bit her lip as she looked around.

BrrrrrURRRRRRRRRRR

Several pairs of ears flattened at another blast of the trumpet. Up near the stage, the two unicorn guards stepped back, giving warning glares to the ponies below. Ink Blot was leaning against his trumpet, rubbing his head with one hoof as he muttered to himself again.

“As I was about to say…” The earth pony was casting a rather dark glare at the audience. “While something might have breached the shield, Sir Shining Armor urges everypony to remain calm.”

The questions were starting to fly again, too loud and too many for Orange to pick out any words in particular. They were quickly silenced anyway as Ink Blot lifted his instrument again with an incredulous glare.

“Our Great Leader has doubled the Royal Guard patrols across the city to protect everypony,” he continued, slowly lowering the trumpet. “If citizens should happen to notice anypony acting suspiciously, immediately notify the closest soldier.”

Oh dear...

There were still murmurs coming from every side. Nopony seemed at ease. Not that Orange Sherbet was paying them much attention as she looked back to Spike. As their worried eyes met, she could tell they were thinking the same thing as Ink Blot’s voice continued on.

“Thank you for your time, everypony. Enjoy the rest of your day.”


“Um, Octavia?”

“Shhhhh!”

The sight of Ditzy Doo folding her wings over her muzzle sent a pang of guilt through Octavia. Still, she did her best to ignore the feeling as she carefully leaned out from the alleyway the two shared.

Carefully, her eyes scanned the streets, her ears twitching eagerly. Not a single sound came down the empty, cobblestone path. Slowly letting out the breath she’d been holding, the earth mare motioned to her companion.

“Alright, I believe the coast is clear,” she said as she stepped out into the road.

“Oh!” Ditzy answered, her hoofsteps falling in behind Octavia’s own. “Uh, good?”

Octavia simply nodded silently as the two started down the street. Even with her heartbeat slowing once again, the musician still had a deep frown carved on her muzzle. And each tap of her hooves echoing around her only made her discomfort grow.

I’ve never seen Canterlot so… quiet.

“So, Octavia?” The musician stifled her sigh as Ditzy’s voice spoke up again. “Not to be mean or anything but… are you sure this is the right way to the library?”

“Relatively sure. I have lived most of my life here,” Octavia flinched a bit as she tried to pretend she hadn’t been dreading that very question. “Admittedly, I’m not used to this particular route.”

She suppressed a worried groan as she looked around the street. In her mind’s eye, Octavia could almost see the shop fronts and street musicians. There was even a faint hint of music in the air as she briefly closed her eyes.

Opening them again just renewed her disappointment. Another bland, rundown street lined with more Shining Armor posters. Just like the last half-dozen or so she and Ditzy had cut across.

“So, do you… um, know your Shining Armor?”

Octavia’s earlier frown turned into a full-on grimace. Her hooves slowed as she looked back to Ditzy Doo. Who, judging from her rapidly fading smile, seemed to be regretting the question.

“We’re acquainted, yes. He’s the captain of the guards in my Canterlot,” Octavia admitted as she turned back around. “Much like he seems to be in yours, Spike’s, and this one. Why do you ask?”

“No reason!” Ditzy’s denial was spoken just a little too quickly (and loudly) for Octavia’s tastes. “Just making small talk, that’s all.”

The pegasus fell silent again as the two kept walking. In her head, octavia counted off the seconds. As she reached ten, she began to quietly hope that the other mare simply was going to drop the subject.

“But… you didn’t really seem happy about the idea of looking for him,” Ditzy said.

Octavia cleared her throat and rolled her shoulders at that. Suddenly the weight of the cello sitting on her back seemed uncomfortably heavy. Which was nothing compared to the strain of calming her voice to answer the other question she’d been dreading.

“I’m not exactly on the best terms with my Shining Armor,” Octavia explained, letting out a long sigh as she ended the sentence. “The idea that he’s in charge around here is…”

She barely managed to suppress a shudder as the duo walked through the shadow of another banner.

“Somewhat disquieting.” Octavia pursed her lips before continuing. “I’m personally hoping we can figure out just what happened to Canterlot without finding out how serious those posters are.”

“Hey! Back off you jerks!”

Both mares stumbled to a halt at the shout that had echoed from back down the street. Octavia’s ears went flat and she bit the inside of her cheek to avoid cursing.

It’s like they wait for moments like this.

“Oh my gosh,” Ditzy Doo had a terrified look on her face as she turned in the exact opposite direction the two had been moving. “That voice…”

Despite her sardonic thought, Octavia felt the same rush of worry. A feeling that only increased as the voice sounded again.

“Help!”

“Lyra!” Octavia and Ditzy both gasped out.

The two looked to one another in confusion for a split second. A scream from down the street forced them to shake it off. Without another word, both mares took off at top speed.


The street had been deserted rather quickly after Ink Blot’s announcement. Not exactly a surprise given how scared so many of the ponies had looked. Only Ink Blot and the pair of guards were left. All three were up on stage, having some kind of discussion, the unarmored earth pony looking more and more agitated the longer they spoke. Despite their hushed tones, it was almost possible to make out what they were saying.

“Spike? I’ve been giving your plan some thought.”

The unicorn jerked his head up. It was hard enough paying attention to the stage from the alley he’d duck into. Sherbet’s whisper had been more than enough to break his concentration. Spike barely stifled a frustrated sigh as he turned to look at her.

“Something wrong?” Spike asked, doing his best to ignore the nervous way his partner shuffled her hooves.

“It’s just…” Orange Sherbet let out a sigh before speaking again. “I think I’m going to agree with what you said before about it.”

I have an idea… but I’m not sure you’ll like it.

The stallion flinched at his own words. He barely managed to force out a shaky chuckle in response.

“Alright, yeah. I’ll admit it’s not the best plan I’ve ever come up with,” Spike said, scraping one hoof along the ground. “But we don’t really have a lot to work with.”

“Still, pretending to be yourself?” Sherbet had a strange look on her face, like she could barely understand what she’d said. “Or, uh… the Spike from this Canterlot, I mean? Oh dear…”

He really couldn’t blame Sherbet as she rubbed her head. Just the idea of a second… him somewhere in the city was giving Spike a headache too. He did his best to ignore it as he glanced back to the stage.

Ink Blot was still there. Though judging by the way he was gathering his trumpet he likely wouldn’t be for long. The guards were already marching off as well.

“Looks like now’s our chance,” Spike whispered, glancing back over his shoulder. “Just stay out of sight. Ink will know you’re not from around--”

He stopped talking as he noticed Sherbet nervously pawing at the ground.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m just…” Sherbet took a deep breath and raised her eyes to meet his. “Spike, can we even be sure this Ink Blot knows you?”

Spike raised an eyebrow in response. Between his confusion and his own racing pulse, he couldn’t answer right away. Plus, there was something in Sherbet’s question. Something more than just the doubt and nerves he was feeling.

He shook his head, forcing the concerns out. Spike could already hear Ink Blot’s hoofsteps passing the alley. The unicorn quickly put on the biggest smile he could muster.

“Trust me, okay? Ink Blot knows everypony in this city.” With a deep breath, Spike could almost feel his own frets ease a bit. “And if something does go wrong…”

He took a step away from Sherbet as she suddenly looked very worried. Spike quickly winked before starting to turn around.

“Well, at least one of us can go find the others then,” he finished.

Before the mare could protest again, Spike darted out from the alley. Ink Blot was already almost around the corner. Spike paused for an instant, wondering how the earth stallion could move so fast with his head bowing so low.

“Hey, Ink!” Spike called out, cantering after his target.

He began to seriously reconsider his plan as Ink Blot suddenly spun around to face him.

“NOW WHADDYA WANT!?”

Spike’s ears were ringing, but that was the least of his concerns. Every other time he could recall, Ink Blot had greeted him with a smile. Certainly not the withering glare he was now giving.

"Wh-whoa, easy Ink..." Spike cleared his throat, trying to get his voice to come out as something other than a squeak. "I-it's just me. You know? Spike?"

The other stallion arched an eyebrow. At the very least, he looked less angry.

"Spike?" Ink Blot parroted.

Spike could feel himself starting to sweat. He quickly forced his smile back. No easy task as his hooves began to quake.

"Yeah, you remember! From the Canterlot Sun?" The unicorn was sure his voice was coming out just a bit too high-pitched. "Guess it's been... like, a lot longer than I thought?"

Please, please, please…

Spike’s heart was pounding in his throat. He could hear the faint sounds of armored hoofsteps, possibly the two unicorn guards. Orange Sherbet’s concern was ringing in his ears, almost drowning out his own thoughts as he tried to believe his plan wasn’t already coming to a crashing failure. All the while, Ink Blot's brow was furrowed. It almost felt like his eyes were burrowing through Spike as he continued to glare.

"Oh, right... Spike," Ink Blot finally said with a shake of his head.

Inwardly, the purple pony breathed a sigh of relief.

"So what do you want?" Ink Blot's harsh tone tugged at Spike's nerves again, reminding him of his mission.

"Want? Oh, uh..." Spike quickly cleared his throat as he finally steadied his legs. "Actually, I... needed to get into The Sun. I left something important there and—"

He stopped himself as he noticed Ink's eyebrow arch again. Suddenly, Spike found himself seriously hoping he was just imagining things. Maybe the suspicion Ink Blot was looking at him with was all in his mind.

He also hoped that applied to the sound of Orange Sherbet face-hoofing.

"You left something at The Sun." Ink Blot's voice was a disbelieving monotone as he looked Spike up and down. "Kiddo, The Sun shut down a loooong time ago."

Crud!

"I know tha-knew! Knew that!" Spike nearly bit his tongue as he fumbled for words. "But I... heh heh, this is gonna sound so stupid—"

"Try me," Ink Blot said, tapping one hoof impatiently.

Spike swallowed hard as he tried to collect his wits. His eyes were darting uncontrollably though, casting about for something to use as a convincing story.

"I lost..." He took a deep breath as his gaze finally settled on one of the several boarded up doors that lined the streets. "I lost my apartment keys."

A long silence hung between the two stallions. Spike did his best to smile as Ink Blot held his gaze. Almost as though the earth pony were trying to read his thoughts.

Your keys?! That's the best cover story you could come up with?!

Spike sincerely hoped Ink Blot could not hear his thoughts.

"Alright, Spike, you're gonna have to explain that," Ink Blot finally said. "Just what would your keys be doing at my place?"

"They're my spares!" Spike winced at his own volume. He cleared his dry throat before trying to talk again. "I always kept a spare key in my desk. You know, before we got shut down."

The gray pony's brow furrowed. Spike could almost swear he seemed to be considering what he'd heard.

"So yeah, I lost my regular keys just today and remembered I never took that spare out," he continued, hoping the story still sounded convincing. "But The Sun was all locked up, and then I heard your trumpet and—"

"Alright, alright, I get the picture!" Ink Blot finally said, waving one hoof. "Fine, yeesh, I'll let you in to grab it."

Spike finally smiled for real as Ink Blot started to walk away. Glancing back toward Sherbet, he flashed a wink and a nod before falling into step behind his employer. Inwardly, though, he could barely contain his excitement.

It worked! This is great!

"Hey, it's been awhile since we talked," Spike said as they neared the corner. "Maybe we could catch up? Or talk about the good old days or some—"

"It's not that long a walk, sport," Ink Blot grumbled.

... Almost great...


For once, Ditzy wished her lazy-eye didn’t make flying so difficult. She couldn’t help but think how much faster it would likely be than running.

“I said, leave me alone!”

She forced herself to shake off the worry as she pushed her hooves faster. Through her drifting eye she could see Octavia doing the same. Even though she could hardly catch her breath, Ditzy redoubled her efforts. There wasn’t much further to go. The alley the voice had shouted from was just a few strides away. Ditzy almost toppled over as she rounded the corner.

“What in Equestria--” Octavia gasped out from somewhere to her left.

Ditzy thought she saw the earth pony skid to a halt. She didn’t really take the time to notice or care. All her attention was on the pale-green unicorn ahead of her.

“Lyra!” Ditzy shouted.

The unicorn turned to her, gold eyes wide. In an instant, Ditzy had closed the distance between them. She couldn’t contain herself, both forelegs shooting out and pulling Lyra into a tight hug as she came to a full stop.

“You’re alright! At least, you look alright-” Ditzy was gushing, her brain barely able to keep up with her mouth. “You are alright, right? We heard you shouting for help!”

“I-yeah, bu- wait a second!” Ditzy stumbled back at Lyra’s words as the unicorn squirmed and shoved her way from the embrace. “Just who the hay are you?!”

Ditzy started to open her mouth, only for it to snap shut. Lyra was staring at her, a mix of confusion and shock on her face and no sign of recognition in her eyes. A harsh reminder to Ditzy of just what she’d forgotten. That despite all of her senses recognizing the pony before her, this was not the Lyra Heartstrings she knew so well.

“Oh… uh, well…” Ditzy stammered a bit before finally falling silent.

Suddenly, the mailmare could feel her cheeks turning red. She chanced a look over her shoulder, expecting to see the same embarrassment from Octavia.

Instead, the musician suddenly seemed extremely worried. Confused, Ditzy looked back toward Lyra.

It was then that she noticed the other two ponies standing nearby. A pair of stallions, one unicorn and one pegasus, wearing suits of guard armor. Both of whom were also giving her rather annoyed glares.

“Oops,” Ditzy muttered as she took a step back.

The unicorn guard merely grumbled something in response. Ditzy could barely make out the words “Darn civilians” before the armored pegasus had shoved his way in front of her.

“Alright ladies, move it along,” the guard ordered, his wings spreading and blocking Ditzy’s view of the alley behind him. “Nothing to see here--”

“I beg your pardon,” Octavia interrupted, quickly moving up to Ditzy’s side. “But we distinctly heard that mare calling for help!”

Ditzy shrank back a bit as the guard let out a frustrated snort. She didn’t want to admit to feeling slightly thankful as his glare moved to Octavia. As the two locked eyes, sizing each other up, she closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.

Then, likely surprising everypony else almost as much as herself, Ditzy stepped forward and shoved her hoof between the two glaring ponies.

“Please,” she said, her eyes pleading with the armored pegasus. “We didn’t mean to cause trouble. We just wanted to make sure everything was alright, really!”

Ditzy glanced to her partner, smiling as she saw Octavia take a step back. The guard also seemed much calmer. Even if he did still have the usual “no-nonsense” look one expected from a soldier. At the very least he’d lowered his wings, allowing Ditzy to see the unicorn guard and Lyra again. Both of whom were watching the scene play out with wide eyes.

“Fine.” Ditzy could hear the pegasus guard let out a small sigh as he spoke. “Your concern is noted and… somewhat appreciated, citizen.”

Octavia’s jaw had dropped in shock. Ditzy just smiled back at the guard, letting the sense of relief wash through her.

“Appreciated, but misplaced, seeing as there’s nothing to concern yourselves with here,” the guard continued as he jerked his head toward Lyra. “That shouting was just this criminal waiving her right to remain silent--”

“CRIMINAL?!” Octavia’s voice exclaimed alongside Ditzy’s own.

“Hey now, that’s a little harsh isn’t it?”

It took Ditzy a moment to place the voice. Still, through the shock she managed to remember. Even if she hadn’t all eyes were going back to the green unicorn that was the centerpoint of the ruckus.

“Ma’am, I remind you that you do have the right to remain silent,” the pegasus guard said, his tone sounding more like a threat than a reminder.

“Oh come on!” Lyra protested, even as she took a trembling step back. “All I was doing was playing my lyre! I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“... What?”

Ditzy’s ear twitched fearfully at the sound of Octavia’s voice. Swallowing hard, she looked over to her partner. She almost immediately wished she hadn’t. Octavia had a worrying twitch in one eye as the guard they’d been speaking to turned all his attention on Lyra.

“Didn’t do anything wrong, eh?” He almost seemed to be enjoying the moment. “Steel, read the charges.”

“Busking without a license.” Before Ditzy could blink, the unicorn guard had pulled out a notepad and was reading from it. “Performing outside designated music zone. Performing five decibels over legal noise limit--”

“That’ll do,” the first guard interrupted.

A slight breeze passing over her tongue made Ditzy aware that her mouth was hanging open. Suddenly, Octavia’s apparent anger wasn’t as worrying. If anything, she could sympathize. Especially as the armored pegasus fixed Lyra with a smug grin. Something was just boiling inside the grey mare’s chest as she watched her friend begin to tremble…

And she couldn’t help thinking just what would happen if the situation were reversed.

“So, unless you’d like to add resisting arrest to the list--” he started to say.

“And why shouldn’t she?” Octavia spoke up.

The guard was immediately silenced, spinning around to face the other mare. Ditzy didn’t bother worrying about her teammate. There was an opening between the guard’s wing and alley wall. That was all she cared about. With a surprising burst of speed, she managed to slip past the soldier.

Not a hard task, as she noticed he and his partner seemed rather occupied with Octavia.

“So you corner her because what? She played some music? Tried to bring a little happiness to those around her?” Octavia’s tone was almost deceptively calm. The way she was biting off her sentences, however,was giving Ditzy chills. “Heavens forbid that anypony recall how beautiful this city is supposed to be!”

It was clear the Octavia was getting into her stride. Yet somehow, the Element of Kindness couldn’t bring herself to stop her. Especially as she turned her focus to Lyra. The unicorn mare was still visibly shaken, simply staring wide-eyed past Ditzy.

“Wha… I…” Lyra stuttered out, tearing her gaze away from Octavia. “Who are you guys? Really?”

Ditzy just smiled, gently putting a hoof on the other mare’s shoulder.

“Well, it’s kinda complicated…” Ditzy was trying to speak as gently as she could. No easy task as she strained to be heard over Octavia. “The important thing is, we’re here to help.”

Lyra’s jaw stopped flapping. Something that should have relieved Ditzy, but didn’t. Likely do to the confused stare the unicorn was giving her. If it weren’t for Octavia’s continued ranting, Ditzy knew she’d have felt uncomfortably in the silence.

“Why?” Lyra finally asked.

Ditzy glanced back over her shoulder. Octavia still had the guards’ attention. There was really only one answer to Lyra’s question she could think of. And somehow, the mailmare had a feeling Octavia would say the same thing.

“Let’s just say you remind us of a friend of ours,” Ditzy answered.

“--Well? Anything to say for yourselves?” Octavia finally wrapped up her tirade.

Both the guards were still in a stunned silence. Octavia was panting slightly, still fixing both of them with a hard glare. Ditzy cleared her own throat, turning fully around, already planning her own piece to wrap the whole situation up.

“Wow. That’s just… wow…” Lyra suddenly spoke up again from behind her. “That almost makes me feel really bad about this.”

A clatter of hooves echoed through the alley. Ditzy’s eyes went wide as she spun back around.

Just in time to see the tip of Lyra’s tail vanish around the corner.

“Hey!”

The pegasus guard shoved Ditzy as he charged past, knocking the mare to the ground. Ditzy grunted, the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding coming out in a pained whoosh. Octavia was calling her name, but a gray light blazed into being. Before either mare could move, strands of cold, gray magic were binding the both of them. Numbly, Ditzy glanced up to the unicorn guard responsible for the spell.

“Well, I guess obstructing justice goes on the list today too,” he said.

Glowing bindings wrapped over her muzzle next. Not that it mattered. Ditzy was too stunned to say anything.


Much as he hated to admit it, Spike was running low on ideas.

Ink Blot had been proven right. The walk back to the office had been much, much shorter than he realized. Worse, the few attempts he had made to start a conversation had only been met with noncommittal grunts and sighs. Now the faded sign of The Canterlot Sun was hanging over his head, and Ink Blot had busied himself with the lock.

Least I’ll be able to get to the archives.

The thought cheered Spike a little, but not nearly as much as he would have liked. Somehow the lack of any further plan disturbed him far less than the pony in front of him. Even with Orange Sherbet’s pep-talk from before, it was impossible for him to relate the talkative, good-natured editor he’d known with the dour grump in front of him. Part of him was almost wishing that the door wouldn’t open.

Spike shook his head, trying to force the thought out. As he did, though, he couldn’t help catching a glimpse of more of the Shining Armor posters. Another hard glare coming from a normally familiar face. More evidence that if Ink Blot was this bad, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the rest of the story...

Click

“There we go! Stupid lock…” Ink Blot finally grunted, shaking Spike from his thoughts. “Alright, get in and get whatcha need already.”

“Uh, right,” Spike said, barely remembering to smile as he spoke.

Of course, the gray stallion didn’t return the grin. He simply shook his head and headed through the door. Spike chanced a quick glance to the side, barely catching sight of a lock of Sherbet’s mane before she ducked around the corner again. With a deep breath, he marched through the door.

“Ah… ahh… AAAH-CHOOO!

In that same breath, he let out the most tremendous sneeze of his life. He sniffled, wiping at his nose as his eyes slowly adjusted to the dimmer light inside.

“Guh, sorry about that!” Spike sniffled again as something tickled at his muzzle. “I uh… whoa…”

Despite how the building had looked from the outside, the inside wasn’t as bad as Spike had expected.

It was worse.

Not that he’d thought he’d see ponies running from desk to desk or hear the sounds of typewriters or printing presses. If it hadn’t been for Ink Blot going in and out twice however, Spike would have guessed the entire building had been abandoned. A thick coating of dust covered almost every surface, from the window sills to the desks shoved against the walls and into corners, to the very floor he walked on. It even covered the lamps, washing the room in a dingy gray light. Only a single patch of the place seemed clean: A lone trail of hoofprints leading away from the door, which Ink Blot was following as he led the way inside.

“Soooo… been a while since you had anypony over?” Spike guessed, as he trotted after his boss.

“Not a lot of call for visitors,” Ink Blot answered as he kept walking. “‘Course, you already knew that.”

“Yeah, yeah! Of course!” Spike answered as his heart skipped a bit.

As much as the answer should have depressed him, Spike couldn’t help but feel an excited rush. It was, after all, the most Ink Blot had said to him so far.

“You still live here though, right?” Spike did his best to follow the other stallion’s tracks, so as not to kick up more dust. “I woulda thought--”

“Don’t really care whatcha thought, Sport.” Ink Blot interrupted again, causing Spike to let out a frustrated grumble. “Now are you gonna find that key or what?”

The unicorn looked to the side of the room. Even under so much grime, he was certain he could pick out his desk to make his story convincing. That, however, hardly mattered anymore. Instead, he looked back to the earth pony he’d been following. The one whose flank was about to vanish into the room with faded letters that still read “Editor-in-Chief.”

“What happened to you, Ink?” He blurted out.

The other pony stopped, and backed out of the door. Inside, Spike knew his cover story was about to be shredded.

Looking from the office he’d been so proud to work in, to the pony he’d been so proud to work for, however, made him forget why he cared about that.

“What did you--” Ink Blot started to ask.

“You heard me. I don’t care if things are different, I know this isn’t like you!” Spike’s insides were boiling with both anger and worry. He couldn’t stop as the words kept coming out. “You wouldn’t just give up on The Sun like this! Even if--”

“Even if it was the end of the freakin’ world?!” Ink Blot shouted back, stamping his hoof.

Spike’s voice fell short as the earth stallion stomped up to him. A scowl was on the gray pony’s face as he send sprays of dust into the air. In a second, he was eye-to-eye with Spike, and the unicorn trembled at the cold glare burning into his own.

The Sun shut down, because nopony needs it! What good is news when nothing ever changes, huh?” Ink Blot’s hot breath was blasting Spike in the face as he yelled. “Why else would I work for his great-stuck-up-protectorness if there was any other choice?!”

“I--” Spike started to answer.

He didn’t get the chance to as Ink Blot shoved past him. The earth pony was marching to the front door, not even bothering to look back at Spike.

“So now I’ve gotta question for you,” Ink said as he walked. “Just how can you act so familiar with me and not know about all that, I wonder?”

Spike squared his shoulders. The truth was basically already out. His mouth started to open, ready to say it, right as Ink Blot opened the door.

At that point, the purple stallion’s mouth fell open, but no sound came out.

Because on the other side of the door was Orange Sherbet, looking perfectly miserable as she stood flanked by a pair of armored pegasus ponies. Neither of whom were giving Spike very friendly looks. Ink Blot simply turned around, a smug grin on his muzzle.

“Guess what, Champ? I think we’re all about to find out the answer to that,” he said, stepping aside to let the guards in. “In fact, how about we all take a little trip up to Shining’s place and let him know while we’re at it?"

Chapter Four, Part Three. (Written by Bed head)

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Granite walls. Torches flickering from sconces. Iron-barred cells waiting hungrily for a pony to imprison.

And for some reason, one thought was going through Spike’s head.

It’s not quite as bad as I thought…

The optimism was somewhat uplifting, but not enough to make him forget where he was: The dungeons of Canterlot Castle. Even if the halls were cleaner and better lit than expected and the bars of the cell lacked rust, it didn’t change the fact that this was a prison. One that he’d heard stories about, but never expected to actually see beneath the gleaming-white spires of the palace.

And certainly not while facing into one of those open jail cells with a magic-restraining ring placed over his horn.

“Alright, get in there!”

Spike didn’t have much of a choice. Somepony, likely the guard that had spoken, shoved him hard before he could take a step on his own. He stumbled right into the small cell.

“Wait!” Spike protested, spinning around to face his captors. “If you’d just let me explain--”

CLANK

CLANK

His voice was silenced by the bars of the cell slamming shut. Across the hall, he could see Orange Sherbet suffering the same fate.

“You can explain everything to the captain,” spoke the sneering guard who had closed Spike’s cell. “Until then, just wait here quietly. Like a good little pony.”

Without another word, both of the armored ponies marched off. Spike couldn’t even begin to guess where. His mind was spinning with far too many worries and curses to think. He lowered his head with a frustrated groan, his forehead pressing against the cold metal bars as he struggled to focus.

“Well, this is far from ideal,” a familiar voice spoke from outside Spike’s cell.

“You can say that again, Octavia,” Spike grumbled.

He blinked, suddenly realizing what he’d just said.

“Wait, Octavia?!” Spike raised his head with a start, eyes wide as saucers.

Judging from what he saw and Orange Sherbet’s shocked gasp, Spike’s ears hadn’t lied. Octavia sat, just barely in view, in the cell next to Sherbet’s own. The earth mare looked almost as dejected as Spike felt. Though he could only guess seeing as she sat with her back against the bars.

“Oh Ditzy, you too?” Orange Sherbet fretted.

“Yeah…” Ditzy Doo’s voice came from the cell next to Spike’s, significantly more subdued and downtrodden than the stallion had ever heard it before. “Sorry guys.”

“Well what happened?” Spike asked, shoving his own personal worries aside as he simply stared at Octavia.

The look she gave over her shoulder almost made Spike shudder. There was fear and sorrow in her eyes, to be sure. But at the same time, not a hint of surprise. A look disturbingly like the “I told you so” glares his assistant seemed so fond of giving him.

“Miss Doo and I suffered a… slight lapse in judgement,” Octavia admitted with a heavy sigh. “We found a mutual friend of ours in danger and tried to help her.”

Spike’s ear twitched as he heard Ditzy give a mumble of confirmation from her cell. Octavia seemed to be biting back on something, her eyes drifting down to her hooves.

“Regrettably, she was nothing like the pony either of us was familiar with.” Octavia’s eyes were back up before Spike could ask anything. Her worry gone, and replaced with a piercing curiosity. “What about yourselves?”

“Uh… pretty much the same.” Spike winced at the truth. Even if it was the most accurate way to sum up his talk with Ink Blot.

The dungeon went quiet. No sound but the occasional sigh from one of the others. Spike closed his eyes, one hoof rubbing his forehead as he tried to think. The sound of somepony clearing their throat and a repeated clang of hoof against metal quickly broke the silence, however, and drew his eyes back to cell across from his.

“Alright, let’s not get down on ourselves,” Orange Sherbet spoke up, lowering her hoof from the bars. “Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie are still out there, and when we fail to meet up with them I’m sure that… they’ll…”

The Manehattenite trailed off, and Spike could tell why. He could only imagine Ditzy was probably fidgeting and looking as nervously awkward as Octavia. The musician noticed him staring at her, and her own gaze darted to the side--

“They’re both already locked up in here, aren’t they?” Spike guessed.

The cells were silent for another moment.

“Wow, he’s good!” Pinkie’s voice echoed from further down the hall.

A frustrated sigh, undoubtedly belonging to Rainbow Dash, answered the pink pony’s voice. Ignoring the chill of the metal, Spike pressed his face against the bars and strained to look towards the voice. His eyes narrowed, just able to make out a blue hoof reaching from beyond Octavia’s cell.

“Uh, heh heh.” Rainbow Dash’s nervous chuckle accompanied the waving forelimb. “Hey there, everypony!”

“I guess questioning the guards didn’t go so well then,” Orange Sherbet sighed, rubbing at her own forehead now.

“Turns out they’re not the most talkative bunch,” Rainbow Dash’s voice answered.

“Aww, I thought they had plenty to say Dashy!” Pinkie sounded so bubbly Spike wondered if she understood where she was. “Stuff like ‘Halt!’ and ‘Get back here!’ and ‘No trespassing in the castle!’”

“Wait, what?!” Spike cut in.

“Thanks for that, Pinks…” Dash grumbled, her hoof disappearing into her cage again.

“Pardon me, but didn’t we all agree charging straight to the castle was a bad idea?” Octavia exclaimed as she pressed against the bars of her own cell. “We were trying to avoid another misunderstanding like in Manehatten!”

“Yeah? How’s that working out for you?” Rainbow Dash answered sarcastically.

If looks could kill, Spike was certain that Octavia's glare would have drilled a hole through the wall between her and Dash. Despite the sting of truth Rainbow Dash's point had, he (wisely) chose to keep his mouth shut.

"Come on, Dashy," Pinkie's cheerful voice chimed in again. "No need to be such a grouch!"

"Pinkie has a good point." Spike could see Orange Sherbet mouthing the words again, silently to herself before shaking her head. Almost like she couldn't believe she'd just said them. "Fighting amongst ourselves isn't going to improve things."

Octavia's glare relaxed at that. She let out a heavy sigh, her shoulders slumping as she turned her back to the cell bars once more.

"I suppose you're right," she admitted. "Not that things could get much worse."

Spike couldn’t help but nod in agreement as he looked around his own cell. It felt surprisingly cramped, despite the fact that the only furnishing was a bare cot bolted to the wall. The only other decoration was a small, barred window high up on the wall. Squinting, he could just make out a shimmer of familiar, magenta light filtering through it…

Shining...

"We're not done yet," he said, his heart almost skipping a beat.

Spike knew what he’d see when he turned around, but he did so anyway. Just as he expected, Octavia and Orange Sherbet were giving him some rather confused looks. He could feel the other mares doing the same, even through the stone walls. Even in the face of all that, Spike began to smile.

“Okay. Things didn’t go like we planned,” Spike explained as he straightened his hat. “But we still got this far! Didn’t you hear what that guard said?”

Nopony else responded. Octavia, if anything, looked more confused with the way she tilted her head. Spike’s smile broadened as he pointed in the direction the guards had went.

‘You can explain everything to the captain.’ Guys, they’re going to let us see Shining Armor!” Spike couldn’t help bouncing on his hooves a bit as he spoke, a chuckle even slipping out as he shared his revelation. “We can explain everything and be outta here in no time!”

Now his smile was catching on. Even as Orange Sherbet gasped and covered her muzzle, he could see the grin starting to form. The loud whoop and burst of confetti that fluttered into view could only have been Pinkie Pie joining in. Eagerly, Spike turned his eyes to Octavia.

“You’ll forgive me if I withhold my enthusiasm,” Octavia’s grumbling voice broke in.

Spike’s smile faltered a bit as he looked to the musician. Octavia still had her gaze locked on him, with nothing but a dry, humorless expression on her face. She even rolled her eyes a bit as she turned her back to the cell bars once more.

“Uh, Octavia?” Spike tried not to wince, forcing himself to keep his voice cheerful. “I just said we’ll be getting out of here--”

“And I have no doubt you believe that. I’m somewhat unconvinced,” Octavia answered without looking back. “I might not have seen much of this Canterlot, but I’m familiar with Shining Armor. You’ll forgive me, but I sincerely doubt he’ll listen to--”

“He has to!”

CRACK

Spike inhaled sharply through clenched teeth. His shout, and the echo of his hoof slamming against the floor, thoroughly ended the brief feelings of elation that had filled the dungeon. Now there was silence again, and Octavia’s shocked eyes staring at him as he tried to control his ragged breathing.

“I-I mean… look, I’m sorry. I get that Shining’s probably different. Here and in your Equestria,” Spike admitted, as much to himself and the knot forming in his stomach as anypony else. “But I know I can get through to him! No matter what’s changed, he’s still--”

“ATTEEEN-SHUN!”

Spike’s ears fell flat. Both from the booming shout and sounds of metal clattering. He didn’t even have the chance to ask what was happening before one of the guards that had thrown him into his cell came racing up. He skittered to a halt, pulling himself into a stern salute before freezing in place like a statue.

Then a familiar voice floated down the hall.

“Steel Hoof, report.”

Spike’s heart skipped a beat for real this time as the steady clank of armored ponies marching began. He pressed himself against the bars, craning his neck to try and get a look at the approaching speakers.

“Ah, y-yes sir! Well…” There was a bit of coughing from a pony Spike could only guess was Steel Hoof, and the sound of him fumbling with a clipboard. “First off, we have these two caught trying to break into the castle.”

Trying? I thought we did a pretty good job!” Pinkie Pie spoke up. “I mean, we got all the way to--”

A flare of magenta light nearly blinded Spike, causing him to stumble backward. Pinkie Pie’s voice suddenly cut out, replaced with unsettling silence.

“You’ll get your chance to talk, prisoner.” The familiar voice sent a chill down Spike’s spine this time. His ears fell flat, almost unable to believe how detached it sounded as the hoofsteps started again. “What about these two?”

“Er, interfering with a guard in the pursuit of his duties.” Steel Hoof cleared his throat. “Also aiding and abetting a convicted criminal. We’re still searching for Miss Heartstrings--”

Octavia had a scowl on her face, but said nothing. Likely because whatever magic that had silenced Pinkie was still glowing slightly. Spike’s heart was thundering in his chest, almost drowning out the hooves as they marched towards him and Orange Sherbet. He opened his mouth, trying to think of something to say.

"Finally, there's the pair that Chief Herald Ink Blot helped bring in—"

Spike didn't hear any words after that. His own voice also vanished at the sight of the stallion that marched in front of his cell.

For a moment, he almost couldn't believe this was the same pony as his brother. Even reminding himself that technically he wasn't didn't help. The Shining Armor he remembered always had a warm smile. Always looked so proud and brave in his decorative purple armor.

There was no sign of either on the unicorn Spike was looking at. Only a cold glare being focused from under a helmet of hard, gray steel. Somehow it looked even worse than the one on the posters. Possibly due to the numerous bags and faint scar Spike could see gathered under those icy-blue eyes...

But despite the differences, he couldn't deny it. The white-coated, steel covered unicorn before him was undoubtedly his brother.

"This is the pony that attacked the shield?" Shining Armor asked, his voice jarring Spike back to reality.

"Attacked-wait, what!?" Spike sputtered out, shaking his head in an attempt to re-rail his thoughts.

"Well, that's what Ink Blot suspects." Steel Hoof was referring to his notes, seemingly trying to ignore Spike's outburst. "Let's see... strange pony he'd never met before, tried to act ‘real chummy' with him shortly after the attack was announced—"

"Hang on a second!" Spike almost regretted interrupting as his brother's glare turned back on him. He tried to ignore the feeling of his throat tightening. "We didn't do anything to... uh, I mean it's not like..."

... Darn it, Discord.

Spike stopped stammering and bit his lip as his rather harrowing arrival in the city burned at the front of his mind. He fought back the urge to shudder as Shining Armor's eyes bored into his own. The older unicorn took a step closer to the cell, and Spike felt his own hoof instinctively move back.

“Alright, I know this looks bad,” Spike said, trying (in vain) to keep his legs from shaking. “But I can explain--”

A sudden flare of light cut him off. Spike froze as a beam of magenta magic shot from his brother’s horn, connecting to his own. The younger unicorn grit his teeth as the iron ring over his horn seemed to tighten.

“I have my own ways of getting the truth,” Shining Armor’s voice spoke over the crackle of magic. “Let’s see just what sort of spells you’ve been casting, shall we?”

Spike wasn’t sure what the bigger shock was. The dismissive, frustrated tone Shining had used, or the spell that was surging through him. He was certain, at least, that the spell was to blame for the sudden rush of heat to his head, and the familiar feeling of magic gathering in his horn.

“Just hold still and this will be over faster.” Shining’s order was the only thing Spike could hear over the static that filled his ears. “Now, what do we have… here?”

Spike tried to lift his head as his brother’s question trailed off. Even if he couldn’t see Shining’s face through the magenta aura around him, he could feel something was wrong. Sweat was starting to pour down his face as the room kept growing hotter and hotter, all as a shower of multicolored sparks began to pour down from somewhere over his head.

Or on top of it

“What in Equestria--”

The realization must have hit Shining Armor at the same moment. A second too late for either unicorn to do anything. The Element of Magic, already so hot Spike was surprised his mane hadn’t caught fire, gave one last flash.

BZAAP!

Spike’s head snapped backward as the magic connecting him and Shining Armor suddenly broke.

He thought he heard somepony cry out, somewhere in the distance. His senses were swimming, however, far too dulled to tell who or where. His entire body tingled with pins-and-needles, the worlding pitching and spinning dizzyingly around him as his legs tangled. It was only the smallest of reliefs as he felt himself smack into the wall, and he leaned against it for support as the flood of magical energy slowly began to clear from his senses.

“Spike!” Orange Sherbet’s horrified voice drifted into his buzzing ears. “Spike, are you okay?!”

Spike tried to speak, to say something to reassure the mare. All that he managed to get out was a groan followed by a half-choked cough. Judging by the sound of clattering armor and hooves, however, he wasn’t the only one reeling.

“C-Captain Shining Armor?” Steel Hoof was stammering. Spike could make out the blurry shape of the guard moving towards somepony leaning against the cell bars. “S-sir?”

“What was… I’ve never seen...” Shining Armor coughed, the figure pulling himself away from Spike’s spell. “That isn’t possible…”

The pins-and-needles sensation was nearly gone, letting Spike feel a dull ache all along one side. The cause likely being that the wall he thought was supporting him was actually the floor of his cell. He groaned again as he rolled himself onto his stomach, his vision slowly clearing as he looked up to the door. Shining Armor was still there, glaring down at him as he panted for breath. Spike was almost hurt over how little he was surprised.

“Just who are you?” Shining Armor growled out.

It took a second for Spike to realize the question was directed at him.

… What?

His heart came to a dead stop. Somehow his head managed to snap up, his eyes staring in disbelief. He couldn’t tell who or what he was looking at, however. Not with how fast the world was suddenly spinning.

“I-I-wha-y-you--” Spike’s voice cracked. Denial, questions, and explanations were all trying to fight their way out at once. None of them got the chance to as Shining’s magic flared once again.

“Don’t play games with me! Your spells are barely more than junior class!” Shining Armor was shouting as his spell pulled something from Spike’s head. “But this thing--”

Spike’s hat, complete with the Element of Magic attached to it, flew between the bars and landed on Shining Armor’s waiting hoof. A part of Spike held its breath, glued to the emerald feather, watching to see if it would react again.

A much more significant part, however, was stuck on his brother’s question.

Who are you?

“Whatever this is, it has more magic than anypony I’ve ever seen.” Shining had stopped shouting, but the threatening tone of his voice still forced its way into Spike’s ears. “And it just tried to blast me in the face with it! So what is it? A weapon to destroy the shield? Or me, perhaps?”

“NO!” Spike shouted, his voice finally coming back to him.

Shining Armor actually jumped back from the bars at the outburst. Spike was on his hooves without even realizing he’d moved, his breathing ragged as he stared wide-eyed at the white stallion. His hat, and the strange actions of his Element, suddenly didn’t matter in the slightest.

“Shining, why would I ever want to hurt you?!” Spike didn’t care how loud or desperate his voice sounded. Anything to get it past the lump in his throat. “Come on! It’s me! Spike! Don’t you recognize me?!”

The dungeon was deathly silent. Spike, however, wouldn’t have noticed if an earthquake suddenly broke out. He was too busy taking in the look on Shining Armor’s face.

There was confusion. Frustration. Suspicion.

But not a hint of familiarity in those blue eyes.

“You… you do recognize me…” Spike swallowed hard, his entire body suddenly feeling very cold. “Don’t you?”

“No.” Shining Armor’s answer felt like a blow to the stomach. Spike’s vision was blurring again as the other stallion’s eyes narrowed on him. “Should I?”

“B-but… I mean…” Spike’s mouth was so dry he could barely get the words out. “You’re my brother, why wouldn’t you--”

He couldn’t get the rest out. Magenta light covered his body and yanked him sharply forward. Spike’s gasp of fright stuttered out as he stopped just before hitting the bars of his cell. Shining Armor was right on the other side. The glare was back, but it was nowhere near as cold as it had been. This time his eyes were on fire.

“What. Did. You. Say?” Shining Armor growled out, biting off each word.

“I-I-I’m...” Spike couldn’t stop stammering, his mind going blank under the hateful gaze. “I’m your br-brother?”

Whumph

Orange Sherbet let out another worried shout as Spike found himself released from the magical grip. Despite the short drop, his rubbery legs gave out, dumping him back to the floor.

“I don’t know what kind of game you think you’re playing, but there’s two things you should have known.” Shining Armor was talking between deep breaths as Spike struggled to stand once again. “First off: Nopony mentions my family. Ever.”

Spike got his head up. Just in time to see his brother give a dismissive snort and turn his back.

“And secondly, if this was supposed to be a ploy to get close, you didn’t do your research.” Even as he walked away, Shining Armor’s words still slapped Spike in the face. “I never had a little brother.”

Armored hooves were clanking away. Steel Hoof had darted off, following his commander. Spike’s ears were flat against his head, as though trying to shut out what he’d just heard. But still, the voices carried down the hall.

“S-sir, what about the other--” Steel Hoof started to ask.

“Come get me when one of them feels like telling the truth!” Shining Armor shouted back. “There’s somepony else I need to have a word with…”

That was the last Spike heard before the distant slam of a door echoed through the dungeon.


Cautiously, Rainbow Dash lifted one ear.

Well, that went great…

She bit back on the urge to mutter the sarcasm. Instead, she pressed up against the bars, trying to peer as far down the halls as she could. The dungeon was quiet again but for the distant clank of guards marching away.

BZZT

The pegasus nearly banged her head on the ceiling as a harsh, electric crackle broke the silence. The wall of glowing energy that Shining Armor had placed across the hall from her flashed once and vanished, once again revealing Pinkie Pie’s cell. The pink mare inside was gesturing animatedly with three of her hooves, somehow managing to balance on just her right foreleg.

“-- So then he was like ‘Oh, but I prefer porridge’ So I--” Pinkie cut herself off as a sweeping gesture sent her toppling to the floor. The mare peeked out from under her fluffy mane, tilting her head curiously. “Hey, what’s with all the frowny faces? My story wasn’t that boring was it?”

Normally, Dash would have at least chuckled over the non-sequitur. Or just from Pinkie Pie being… well, Pinkie Pie in general and apparently not realizing Shining Armor’s spell had kept anypony from hearing her. This time she just cast a worried glare toward Spike’s cell. The lone stallion of their team remained completely silent, not so much as a whimper coming from behind the bars.

“Did I miss something here?” Pinkie Pie asked as she sprang back to her feet.

“Uh… we kinda need a new plan--” Rainbow Dash started to explain.

“HE DIDN’T RECOGNIZE ME?!?”

The cyan mare’s ears fell flat as Spike’s voice exploded from his cell.

Cuz this one just went from bad to worse.

“I just don’t-That doesn’t make any-How could he not recognize me?!” Spike sputtered out, frantic hoofbeats echoing as he likely paced around his cell. “Shining has known me literally all my life!”

“Spike…” Orange Sherbet was talking. More shouting, actually, to be heard over the continuous clack of Spike’s hooves. “Spike I understand you’re upset--”

“I think he’s well within his rights to be,” Octavia interrupted, her normally calm voice carrying so much spite Dash could almost taste it. “I knew Shining Armor could be harsh, but this…”

“Oh, is that what everypony is all upset about?” Pinkie Pie asked. “Aww, I wouldn’t be too hard on ol’ Shiny! This one just probably had a little sister instead!”

Rainbow Dash’s wings stiffened at those words. She gestured frantically, trying to get Pinkie’s attention. The damage was already done apparently. Spike’s pacing had stopped, and Ditzy Doo was staring at the wall between herself and Pinkie. Dash could already guess the others were also looking in the same direction.

“A little… what?” Spike was the first to speak up, much to Dash’s displeasure. “Pinkie, that doesn’t make any sense!”

“Sure it does! That’s how it is in my Equestria, and Dashy’s too!” Pinkie explained, her smile never fading. “Twilight Sparkle: Element of Magic and Shining Armor’s little sister!”

Dash’s wings slumped and she bit down on her lip.

Here it comes

“Twilight-You mean like my assistant Twilight?!” Spike was still shouting, and Rainbow Dash caught herself wondering just how far away the guards had gone. “B-but… Yeah, she’s our family but… I mean, she’s a dragon! I love her to pieces, but Shining never even met her until I brought her home from school!”

“Awww, and I bet she’s just the cutest little thing!” Pinkie Pie cooed, her eyes going wide. “Buuuut where I’m from, it’s the opposite! Twilight’s the unicorn and Spike is her adorable little dragon assistant!”

There was no sarcasm or taunting in Pinkie’s tone, but somehow Dash had a feeling that didn’t matter to the stallion. He had stopped shouting, at the very least. Judging from the stunned squeak that came from his cell, Rainbow Dash guessed that was because his mouth was hanging open. Taking a deep breath, the cyan pegasus cleared her throat and steeled herself for what was about to come.

“So, you guys were wondering why Pinkie and I raced here ahead of you?” She asked, not bothering to wait for a reply. “That’s why. Because I got worried that this world would be the same as both of ours and… well that if Spike met Shining--”

“Then we’d all get arrested and accused of treason.” It wasn’t a question, though from the sound of things Octavia was pressing her hoof against her face very hard. “And neither of you thought it prudent to mention this to the rest of us?”

“Oh right, that’d be easy to say!” Rainbow Dash shot back, glaring at the walls between her and the musician. “‘Hey, sorry Spike but your brother might not be, y’know, related to you in this universe!’”

“Girls, please!” Ditzy Doo’s voice broke in. “This isn’t helping!”

Rainbow Dash grumbled under her breath, her rump slumping to the cold stone floor. Even her angry sarcasm couldn’t cover up the guilty knot in her stomach as she warily looked out towards Spike’s cell…

“I guess I should mention that Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie aren’t the only ones that could have said something,” Orange Sherbet’s voice suddenly spoke up.

Rainbow Dash would have double-taked, if only she could see the socialite. All she could do instead was let her jaw hit the floor as the sound of scrambling hooves sounded from Spike’s cell.

“What?” He croaked out, his voice cracking slightly.

“I… I didn’t mean to hide it, Spike. I wasn’t even really sure if it mattered… but my world is the same as Pinkie’s.” Orange let out a sigh, a slow clack of her hooves indicating her turning to face the stallion. “I thought that since Mosley and I were still married in this version of Equestria that maybe things would be closer to what yours was like, too.”

“... That’s why you tried to warn me before I spoke to Ink Blot…” Spike’s voice was low, trailing off as Rainbow Dash looked down at her hooves.

“I’m sorry,” Orange Sherbet said simply, her voice heavy.

“What about you two?” Spike asked. “Ditzy? Octavia?”

Neither of the two named mares spoke up right away. Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but notice Ditzy was poking at the ground, her wings flicking out nervously before she let out a small sigh.

“I hadn’t really thought of it since I barely knew him but…” Ditzy said with a nod of her head. “Yeah, Spike is a little dragon in my Equestria.”

“The same is true in mine,” Octavia admitted, sounding far more subdued. “Like Ditzy I wasn’t particularly close to my world’s Spike… I suppose that’s why this never occurred to me before now.”

“Yeah… yeah I guess…” Spike wheezed out.

Rainbow Dash grimaced at the stallion’s voice. She glanced over to Pinkie Pie, who slowly seemed to be realizing the gravity of the situation. Enough so that she ceased bouncing, her usual smile starting to fade. Much like the others probably judging from the silence now reigning in the dungeon. The exact sort of guilt-laden, heavy silence that made Dash’s wings start to twitch.

“Alright, I get it already! We goofed big time on this one!” Rainbow Dash jumped back to her hooves marching up to the bars of her cell. “But c’mon! Spike, you were the one trying to make the best outta this earlier! Everypony think! There’s gotta be something we can do--”

“I… I dunno…”

Spike’s voice floated from his cell, a hoarse and tired sigh. Even with as soft as it was, Dash still found herself falling silent at the sound of it.

“I don’t know what to… ugh…” Spike said, his hoofsteps moving towards the back of his cell. “I’m sorry. I just… I think I need some time…”

“But-hey!” Rainbow Dash shouted, one hoof reaching futilely between her own bars towards the stallion’s. “Spike, wait--”

“Maybe we should just… leave him alone for a bit?” Ditzy Doo suggested.

Rainbow Dash nearly bit her tongue as she looked to the mailmare. A few sighs and a grumble that sounded suspiciously like Octavia seemed to agree with the idea, however. Even Pinkie Pie, looking a bit deflated as she leaned against a wall, just nodded her head slowly. Reluctantly, Dash drew her hoof back into her own cell.

“I think we could all use some time to… gather ourselves,” Orange Sherbet suggested, the clank of metal suggestion she was clambering onto her cot. “I’m certain one of us will come up with an idea once we’ve had a chance to clear our heads.”

Dash just had a deep frown on her face as she looked up to the small window overlooking her cell.

I hope so...


Ink Blot let out a long, uneasy sigh.

He’d lost track of just how long he’d been sitting around. Pacing the confines of what had once probably been a nice study or tea room could only fill the time for so long. After staring at the blank, white walls and the folding chair and table that decorated it, it was hard to believe, even for him, that he was inside Canterlot Castle.

There wasn’t much use denying it, however, with the guard standing just outside the closed door. Nor had there been much else to do since they’d taken his statement. Slowly, his gaze drifted back up to the ceiling, silently praying that the number of tiles had magically changed since his last counting.

Creak…

The sound of the door opening brought his attention back to ground level.

“It’s about time,” Ink Blot grumbled as he hopped out of his chair. “If I’m done with my ‘civic duties’ I’d like to be going--”

Home. He didn’t get the chance to say the word. His voice immediately froze when he saw the stallion walking into the room. The one whose short-cut blue mane was free from his helmet, but his stony-faced expression hadn’t relaxed in the slightest.

“Oh… Shining! Hey there, uh, Sir…” Ink Blot hurriedly jumped back into his chair, forcing a smile onto his face. “S-so, what brings you here?”

Shining Armor didn’t answer. Ink was doing his best not to sweat as the armored unicorn calmly trotted to the other side of the table. His horn gave off a brief spark, setting a white paper bag onto the center of the table. The earth pony’s eyes twitched to it on instinct.

His eyes flicked back up an instant later, just in time to find himself locked in a distressingly familiar glare.

“Ink Blot, how many ponies are upset with the way I run things?” Shining asked, pressing his forehooves together as he took a seat.

“I, huh, uh…” Ink Blot bit down on the inside of his cheek, forcing himself to stop stammering. “What makes you think I’d--”

“I’m not in the mood for games, Chief Herald. We both know that you can’t help picking up gossip,” Shining interrupted, gesturing for quiet with one hoof. “I’m looking for an honest answer: How many ponies are upset with the way I run things?”

Ink Blot swallowed a bit, doing his best to take a deep breath. Even with as calm as Shining’s voice sounded, he couldn’t help the strange feeling running through him. Like he was sitting at the very edge of a cliff.

“Heh… I ain’t exactly a census taker, you know?” Ink Blot said, putting his forehooves on the table for balance. “But everypony knows whose shield is keeping ‘em safe!”

“And?” Shining asked.

He was leaning in closer. A fact which wasn’t helping Ink Blot’s sense of vertigo. The gray stallion lowered his head for a second, taking a deep breath.

“What’d you want me to say, huh?” He managed to ask, lifting his gaze again. “Ponies complain about the guy in charge? That wasn’t exactly news even before everything went to Tartarus in a tumble-dryer.”

Shining let out a snort as he got up from the table. Ink found his eyes glued to the other stallion as he walked to the lone, barred window that was left in the room. The only other reason Ink had staved off boredom for as long as he had, gazing out over the empty city streets below, mentally mapping out the quickest route back home.

“They say that I’m harsh, but none of them even stop to think about why.”

Ink Blot shook his head as he realized Shining was talking again. The calm tone was slowly fading, and the earth stallion found himself glancing at the door again.

“My shield is the only thing keeping us all safe. Does anypony even appreciate how difficult it is keeping it powered?” Frustration was creeping in as Shining shoved one hoof against the bars. “All I ask for is a little order and stability to make that easier! And what do I get?”

Shining’s horn sparked, causing Ink to freeze up. Much to his relief, the only thing that began to glow was the white paper bag Shining had entered with. Ink Blot had to raise one eyebrow as it tilted over, spilling a brown fedora with a gold-and-emerald band onto the table.

“A gaudy fashion accessory?” Ink Blot asked, looking back towards the window.

Shining Armor still wasn’t laughing. He also wasn’t looking out the window anymore. His eyes were locked firmly on Ink Blot, causing the earth pony to freeze up.

“It doesn’t look just a bit familiar?” Shining asked, taking a step closer.

“I-lemme think--” Ink Blot looked to the hat again, biting his lip before the answer suddenly sprang to the front of his mind. “Oh, that Spike kid was wearing it, right? Hard to forget a flashy piece o’ headgear like that!”

“Well that ‘flashy piece of headgear’ just tried to blast me into next week.” The frustration was gone from Shining’s voice, but it certainly hadn’t become any calmer. “Now why would some random streetcolt have something like that do you think?”

Ink wasn’t sure how to answer that. He simply stared at the hat again, silently mouthing Shining’s words. The green crystal sticking from did little in response other than glitter slightly under his gaze.

“There’s only one reason: To try and destroy the shield and all of Canterlot. But he flubbed the job.” Shining’s hooves were moving again as he spoke, pacing back and forth in front of the window. “So what’s the next best thing? The pony who maintains the shield, of course. But how do you get him close enough to try?”

Ink Blot suddenly became very aware of how quiet Shining’s pacing had become. He tore his eyes away from the hat, and nearly toppled from his chair as he did. The white stallion was standing right in front of him, his eyes narrowed into terrifying points.

“How about by having him make some crazy claim about being related to me?” Shining said, taking a threatening step closer. “Oh, and just to make sure I notice him, why not turn him over to the guards yourself?”

It took a moment for Ink Blot to realize just what Shining had said.

“WHAT?!” He shouted.

WHAM

His protest ended with a low groan, the chair finally reaching its literally tipping point as he tried to jump back. Ink’s vision swam slightly as he lay on the floor.

Unfortunately, as his eyes refocused, the only thing he found himself looking at was Shining Armor glaring down at him.

“Do you seriously think…” Ink Blot trailed off as he stared into those cold eyes. Finally, he let out a slow sigh. “Oh who am I kidding? Of course you’re serious.”

Ink Blot rolled back to his hooves. Shining Armor just stepped back, silently watching as the earth pony stood back up. As much as his insides were twisting with horror, his legs shaking as the weight of the accusation settled on him, there was one thing that was far from his thoughts.

Surprise.

“We never got on even when things were good. You’re just gonna believe whatever you want no matter what I say,” Ink grumbled as he blew a lock of his black mane from his face. “So why bother with the whole song and dance, oh Great Protector?”

He could see Shining start to pull a sneer at those words. It gave Ink a small sense of satisfaction as the unicorn forced his mouth into a grim line and looked back to the hat still laying on the table.

“Where did the weapon come from?” He asked, turning his gaze back on Ink Blot.

“Like I would know?” Ink Blot scowled as he jerked his head toward the door. “Maybe little Twilight found it out in the thorns and sent that yahoo to bring it to ya?”

The earth pony knew he’d crossed a line before he’d even spoken.

“You’d. Dare…”

Even he couldn’t have predicted the anger that broke through Shining Armor’s stony mask. Ink Blot suddenly regretted his words as he drew back, the fallen chair, the table, and even the bars on the windows rattling threateningly. Almost as though they were barely restraining themselves against the magenta magic that clearly wanted to send them flying at the former news-stallion.

“I told her to stay where it was safe!” Shining shouted, stomping closer. “You do not get to joke--”

“I’m sorry!” Ink shouted, desperately. “Shinin’, c’mon, we know you wouldn’t actually--”

BAM

Ink Blot’s heart was hammering in this throat. The table was still trembling, its legs nearly buckling after being dropped from five feet up. Shining Armor was drawing in deep breaths, his teeth slowly unclenching as the magic faded from around his horn.

“I can’t prove that you have anything to do with this.” Shining Armor raised his head, his eyes hard and cold as ice once more. “But I am going to get the truth one way or another.”

Shining’s hoof rapped against the floor. The door opened, and two more guards entered. Before Ink could even blink, they were standing on either side of him.

“Escort the Chief Herald to the guest suites,” Shining Armor ordered as he turned back towards the window. “He’ll be staying here until this case has been settled.”

“Yes sir!” The guards chorused.

Ink Blot didn’t even try to argue. Both from the fact that his breathing was still slowing back to normal, and the simple question worming through his mind.

“What’s the point?

His hooves feeling like lead, he followed the two armored ponies towards the hall. He couldn’t help taking one last look back towards Shining Armor, though.

What he saw nearly brought him to a halt. The white stallion was staring out the window, but something was off. His eyes looked unfocused, one hoof pressed against his temple, a fine sweat gathering on his forehead.

For an instant, he wanted to speak up. Before he could, however, the door to the interrogation room was swung shut behind him.


Shining was breathing heavily as he tried to focus. The streets of Canterlot were rolling outside the window, blending together with the sparkling light of his own shield. All of it tangling with the countless, black vines he could see just on the other side of the barrier.

No...

It was getting harder to think. Shining’s head was pounding, almost as though those vines were wrapped around him. Squeezing tighter and tighter, just like what they were doing to his shield. Just waiting for a moment of weakness so they could slide through...

Gritting his teeth, he pointed his horn between the bars.

Focus! Don’t. Fail. Them.

His horn sparked, then flared to life. A bolt of energy shot forth, burning a small hole through the glass as it streaked into the sky like a firework. Shining panted for breath as he watched it rise and splash against the inside of his forcefield.

The entire construct shimmered, dimmed, then flared brighter. Shining breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the encroaching vines pull back, his building migraine lessening slightly now that spell was actually cast. Gingerly, he turned around and began to walk towards the door.

He stopped as he reached it. Almost as an afterthought, his magic reached out and grabbed the fedora still sitting on the table.

“Maybe I can put you to good use,” he grumbled at the hat.

Without another word, he made his way out into the hall. His hooves moved slowly, being careful not to stumble on his way back towards the central throne room.

Hundreds of feet overhead, a lone Plunder Vine gently touched down on the bubble of light once again. Just as slowly as Shining Armor himself, it began to snake its way over the surface.

Unlike the stallion, it came to a rather abrupt stop after just a few moments. Slowly, the tip of it lifted up. A single thorn sprouted from its end, and drove itself downwards.

Clink

The vine glanced off with the tiniest noise. Almost like a pebble hitting glass.

And from the spot where it had struck, a tiny web of hairline cracks began to spread.

Chapter Four, Part Four. (Written by Bed Head)

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Octavia let out a slow sigh as she folded one of her forelegs over her face. For several long seconds, she simply lay still. Her ears flattened, eyes shielded from the flickering light that had disturbed her. She desperately wanted to just drift back to sleep and to the pleasant concert that had been filling her dreams.

A task which was proving remarkably difficult as she rolled onto her side. An ache was running all down her back, and the unpleasant chill that accompanied it certainly wasn’t helping. With a rueful snort, the musician uncovered her eyes and allowed them to open.

… Oh. Right.

A wall of iron bars greeted her, with nothing beyond them but the torchlit dungeon hallway and Ditzy Doo’s cell. Loathe as she was to admit it, Octavia had lost track of just how long they’d been imprisoned. The lack of any change in the sky beyond their windows simply made time impossibly to track. It had certainly been long enough for each of them to take Orange Sherbet’s advice, and then some. She could see Ditzy laying on her own cot, her wings fluttering slightly as her hooves groped out, almost as if reaching for something.

“Wish I could rest so easy…” Octavia grumbled softly to herself.

She pushed the frustrated thoughts away with another sigh. None of the others had even heard her, judging by the sounds of deep breathing and the occasionally dozy mumble that filled the air. Despite her discomfort, Octavia could feel one ear beginning to slowly twitch, picking out a rhythm from her companion’s various sleeping noises.

The bars in front of her cell were starting to blur. The dark gray steel contrasted with the lighter colored stone that made up the walls. Octavia allowed herself a smile as she squinted, just able to make out the treble clef at the beginning of the music staff. One hoof lifted, softly drawing itself across invisible cello strings to join the ensemble--

“Uurrgh…”

Octavia let her hoof drop as the groan shook her from her musical meditation. Her brow furrowed as she focused her eyes past the bars again. Ditzy Doo’s wings still fluttered peacefully, and she could hear the light mix of giggling and snoring coming from Pinkie Pie’s cell. Slowly, she drifted her gaze to the other side as another short groan sounded. One a bit too deep to belong to a mare.

“Spike?” She asked softly, rolling from her cot and walking up to the bars. “Spike, was that you?”

Nopony answered for a moment. Then, a few slow hoofsteps sounded from the stallion’s cell. Octavia tilted her head, trying to get a better look at their source. She could just make out the start of a purple hoof before they stopped.

“S-sorry.” The stallion’s voice was a croak. Octavia did her best not to flatten her ears at the sound of it. “Didn’t mean to wake anypony up.”

“I was already awake,” Octavia said, waving her hoof dismissively before remembering Spike probably couldn’t see it. “So… er, how are you feeling?”

Octavia immediately wished she’d asked anything else. Spike let out a snort, followed by a low grumble. She didn’t need to see the stallion’s face to guess what look he was probably giving her. Gently, she bit down on her lip, silently hoping the question would just slip by.

“I… I don’t know.”

Octavia’s ears both twitched. That had not been the answer she expected. She simply stayed silent as Spike finally walked up to the bars.

In truth, he didn’t look as bad as she’d expected. Octavia still flinched in sympathy at the sight, however. His normally spiky mane was limp and matted, especially the spot his hat had covered. The baggy, slightly bloodshot eyes he turned to her suddenly made Octavia wonder just how long she’d been dozing.

“I just… It’s confusing is all!” Spike said, falling to his rump as he shook his head. “I thought no matter what this world was like, the important stuff would be the same, you know? Same Canterlot, same newspaper, same… same families...”

Octavia just nodded. Spike barely seemed to notice as he pressed his head between his forehooves. His eyes were squeezed shut as he took ragged breaths.

“B-but nothing here is like my home! And apparently none of those other worlds are either?” Spike was growing louder. Octavia couldn’t help glancing towards the others, wondering how they were still asleep. “Shining isn’t my brother? I’m not even a pony? I just…”

Clack

With surprisingly little noise, Spike let both his hooves fall to his side. His face pressed against the bars, his eyes still shut tight, and his voice so quiet Octavia couldn’t even tell if he was still speaking to her.

“I don’t know,” he repeated. “I can’t even imagine it… How am I supposed to feel about it?”

“... I… er…”

Octavia snapped her mouth close. Not fast enough, as Spike was already looking at her. The musician resisted the urge to curse, managing to let out a sigh instead as she met his gaze.

“I suppose I don’t know either,” she admitted. “When you put it that way, it does sound quite unnerving…”

Spike’s head drooped as he let out another groan.

And I’m not helping.

Octavia flinched over how hard she’d just kicked herself.

“For what it’s worth, I am sorry you found out this way,” she added, casting her eyes to the still dozing Pinkie Pie. “There were... preferable times this could have come to light.”

“It’s not your fault,” Spike grumbled in answer. “It’s not anypony’s fault, really. I guess… Urgh…”

The musician wasn’t sure she wanted to look back to Spike when she heard him grunt. She did anyway, biting down on her lip as she did. His back was to the bars now, but she could still imagine the forlorn look he probably had on his face.

“I guess that’s why Discord picked me for this team.” The stallion was grumbling as he ground one hoof against the ground. “I’m the odd Spike out.”

Octavia blinked slowly, tilting her head as Spike fell silent.

“Um… I’m afraid I don’t--” Octavia started.

CLACK

Her ears fell flat as Spike stamped his hoof.

“‘Oooh, you know what’ll be fun? Let’s have the guy who’s a sidekick in every other Equestria try and save this one!’” Octavia could almost see the heat rolling off of Spike as he continued with (what she assumed to be) his impersonation of Discord’s voice. “‘That’ll be hilarious! And the best part will be when he finds out the truth!’”

Octavia nearly jumped back as he struck the ground again. Spike was panting heavily, scraping at the ground as though preparing to charge…

The rush never came, however. The stallion let out one final, exhausted sigh and slumped onto his stomach, his short tail drooping almost to the floor.

“I’ll bet Discord is having a real good laugh right about now,” Spike grumbled, one of his forelegs folding over his eyes.

“I’d say, more the fool him, then. And you as well for even thinking like that!”

Spike lifted his head, his eyes wide. Octavia just snorted as she stood back up. She’d never quite felt the same mix of sympathy and frustration that she did now, but that didn’t change the rush of energy it gave her. The need to speak up.

And if the truth is all I can offer…

“I won’t pretend to know you as well as I should,” Octavia admitted, wishing she could step closer to emphasize her point. “But, and correct me if I’m wrong, didn’t you earn the Element of Magic and save your own Equestria?”

“Well… yeah, but--” Spike started to answer.

“Then what’s wrong? You’re a hero in your world!” Octavia interrupted, giving him a smile as she did. “I’d think that makes you plenty qualified to help save this one, whether every other Spike out there is a pony or not.”

The dungeon was quiet for a moment. Spike just stared at Octavia, and she found some solace in the fact that he wasn’t groaning again.

“... heh…”

Octavia’s own smile brightened a bit as Spike let out a small laugh. The stallion stood up, wearing a smirk of his own as he shook his head.

“Why is it always Honesty that kicks me in the flank when I need it?” He asked, trying and failing to fix his mane with one hoof.

“There’s an old saying I heard once,” Octavia said as she rubbed her chin. “Something like ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same?’”

That brought another laugh from the both of them. Octavia let out a satisfied sigh, sitting back down and closing her eyes as she felt the tension and anger slowly fade away.

“So, speaking of, what’s it like for… uh, the me that’s working with Twilight?” Spike’s voice broke in.

“Hmm?” Octavia shook herself back to attention, looking over to the reporter’s expectant smile.

“Well, I might as well know if he’s happy, right?” Spike said with a shrug. “I mean I love working with my Twilight so it’s gotta be the same with your versions of us, right?”

Octavia’s brow furrowed. Slowly, her eyes rolled up as she tried to recall. The picture quickly came together. One of the little purple dragon, accompanied by his caretaker--

“Oh!”

The musician put a hoof over mouth, but the exclamation had already slipped out. Spike was leaning closer, motioning for her to speak. Inwardly, she was doing her best not to bite her tongue.

“I’m not really sure it’s that important, Spike,” she said, forcing a smile and a short laugh out.

“Hey, not like it’s gonna hurt anything now right?” Spike pointed out. “Come on, I work with Twilight don’t I?”

… Somedays I truly despise my element

“You are acquainted with her… though that was more recent.” Octavia flattened her ears and let out a small sigh. She could already guess what was about to come. “I’m not sure you’ll like this but… well when I first met you…”


“I’M A WHAT FOR WHO!?!”

Rainbow Dash let out a short cry of alarm as the sudden noise sent her tumbling from her cot. Her wings flapped a second too late to keep her from hitting the floor with a thud. A groan of pain slipped out as she stumbled back to her hooves, struggling to blink the sleep from her eyes.

“Mornin’ Dashy!”

Even through the blurriness, she could tell the pink blob talking to her was Pinkie Pie. Though for a split-second Dash would swear the mare was inside the cell with her. Another blink pulled her vision back together, and Pinkie was smiling and waving from her own cell.

“Wha’s all the noise for?” Dash flinched a bit as she spoke, trying to work the stiffness out of her jaw.

“Oh it’s just Spike,” Pinkie explained with her usual cheerful smile. “I think he’s feeling better!”

“That is one way to put it…” Octavia chimed in.

Rainbow Dash looked towards the stallion’s cell and raised an eyebrow. Somehow the heavy, and rather angry-sounding, breathing coming from it didn’t bring the word “better” to mind.

“I did say you might not like it,” Octavia said after a brief clearing of her throat. “Though for what it’s worth, the Spike I know is quite happy.”

“That’s… I’m… he’s Trixie’s…” Spike’s voice faded in and out, before trailing into a long, deep breath. “You know what? That’s fine.”

Dash warily took a step forward. The stallion’s voice was certainly much more confident than she last heard it. Leaning against the bars, she could almost make out an edge of purple hoof, probably running over his mane as he took another deep breath.

“Well, it’s a relief to see you’re feeling okay,” Orange Sherbet said, the smile obvious even in her voice.

“I’m feeling better,” Spike corrected, tapping one hoof against his bars. “I’ll be feeling ‘okay’ once we get out of here and explain things to Shining Armor.”

Cyan wings shot straight out as Rainbow Dash froze mid-yawn.

“Um, wow, are you sure Spike?” Ditzy asked, staring in disbelief at the wall between her and the stallion. “‘Cuz, no offense, but you really sounded like you took the whole, uh, ‘not your brother’ thing kinda hard…”

Dash was trying very hard not to imagine the look Octavia was probably giving her. Though she had the odd feeling that the earth pony’s eyes were elsewhere as Spike let out a some strange mix of a sigh and chuckle.

“Yeah, let’s just say somepony helped me realize moping around about it isn’t gonna do a lot of good,” Spike answered. “So who’s with me?”

Rainbow Dash still wasn’t sure just what had happened while she was napping. That hardly mattered anymore as an eager smile crossed her face. Suddenly she was awake and alert as she shot into the air.

“Alright! That’s what I’ve been waiting to hear!” Dash cheered, taking a couple practice jabs with her forehooves. “In fact, what are we still talking for? Let’s bust outta here!”

“Um… how?” Ditzy Doo asked.

The gray pegasus had one of her hooves raised, waving it a bit for attention. Rainbow Dash started to scowl in response. Right before the weight behind the question hit.

“Spike’s magic is still sealed at the moment.” Octavia was doing a rather good job of voicing what Dash herself had just realized. “And while I’m not eager to stay imprisoned, I somehow doubt anypony here can break these bars.”

“Well… I mean we could…” Dash’s wings stopped, and she dropped back to the ground as she gave the door of her cell a long, hard look. “Uh…”

“... Right, guess I didn’t think that far ahead,” Spike’s sheepish voice admitted. “Ugh, if I could just get this ring off--”

“Maybe patience is the better option,” Orange Sherbet spoke up. “Shining Armor did seem pretty interested in us, I’m sure he’ll come down--”

“WHOOOOOOOOA!!

The suggestion was cut off by Pinkie’s scream. Rainbow Dash felt her heart jump to throat, her eyes shooting back to the party pony’s cell. Its occupant was gone, replaced by a pink tornado of flailing limbs and shocked expressions, producing enough wind that even the iron bars in front of Dash began to rattle.

“PINKIE!”

The whirlwind vanished in the same instant that Dash shouted. Pinkie stood stock-still in the center of her cell, just staring out at the pegasus as the last few curls of her mane stopped bouncing.

“Wowza…” Pinkie said as she rubbed her head. “Now that was a doozy of a doozy!”

“Are… are you alright, Miss Pie?” Octavia asked, even as her hoofsteps slowly moved towards the back of her cell.

“Oh yeah, that was just my Pinkie Sense!” Pinkie answered, her cheerful smile dropping to a confused frown. “No clue what it was trying to warn us about though.”

“Wait, what?” Spike asked, waving one hoof between his bars. “Pinkie sense? What the hay is a--”

CRACK

For a second, Rainbow Dash was sure she’d gone deaf. The massive noise that cut off Spike was almost like glass breaking. Every pane of glass in Canterlot Castle, all at once from what she could guess. And judging from the pained way Pinkie and Ditzy Doo were covering their ears, she knew she wasn’t the only one that had heard it.

“Oooh! I think I figured out what that doozy was for!” Pinkie cheered.

Dash wasn’t listening as a distant scream grabbed her attention. One that unmistakably had come from outside. Before any of the others could speak up, Dash shot into the air again. Her forehooves hooked through bars of the small window over her cot, her curious eyes peering through it...

“Oh my gosh.”

Her breath vanished with those three words. She almost fell, her wings barely restarting in time to keep her in the air.

“Dashy?” Pinkie’s voice floated from below.

“What’s going on?” Spike shouted.

“Uh…” Rainbow Dash swallowed hard, dearly wishing she didn’t have to answer. For a moment, all she could do was stare up at the barrier covering the city.

Staying silent wouldn’t do any good, however. She knew that much. Especially as a loud gasp sounded, indicating Ditzy Doo had probably just looked out her own window.

“I don’t think waiting is an option anymore!” Dash called down.


The entire world had exploded.

Nothing could be heard but screams and cacophonous crashing from all around. Blinding light and eye-searing color were everywhere. There was no way to shut any of it out. Trying to close his eyes or cover his ears just sent the ground spinning, flipping end over end over end--

CRACK

Shining Armor drew in a deep, shuddering breath as he dropped his hoof back to the floor. His muzzle hurt more than he ever thought possible, he could already feel the bruise forming, but he refused to shut the feeling out. The pain from smashing his own face was like a beacon. Something for his confused senses to focus on, forcing the world to piece itself back together around it.

“Wha--” He winced at the ache running through his mouth. At the very least nothing felt broken as he ran his tongue around his mouth. “What was that?!”

His surroundings were becoming clear. High ceilings. Banners displaying his own face and “OBEY” message placed between the windows that lined the walls. A golden seat meant for a pony at least twice his height.

The castle throne room, there was no mistaking it. He remembered being seated in the throne. Right before his senses had exploded into chaos after--

CRACK

Another burst of pain lanced through Shining Armor’s skull. He barely registered that, however, as he spun towards the window that the massive noise had come through. He ran, each hoof beat causing his head to throb anew, his eyes going wide as he saw what awaited outside.

“No…”

Suddenly the splitting headache and incredible noise had an explanation. One that didn’t care for his whispered protests.

The shield, his massive barrier spell, was crumbling. Massive cracks covered its surface, spreading and widening with each passing second under the pressure of countless Plunder Vines. With a final CRACK that Shining felt ring through his head, a large portion of the magenta bubble broke away and dissolved into a cloud of sparks.

As if waiting for that moment, the vines shifted. They dove through the opening like a mass of monstrous snakes. Screams rose across the city as the vines headed straight for the streets of Canterlot.

“NO!” Shining shouted, his horn blazing to life.

Agony threatened to burst from his head. He forced the feeling down as a glitter of gold flew from next to the throne. The white unicorn’s breath came in shallow, desperate gulps as he forced open the window and levitated the gold-banded fedora he’d been studying overhead.

“Come… Come on…” He panted, glaring at the bejeweled head gear.

His magic crackled harshly over it. Shining grit his teeth, his head pounding even harder as he forced more power onto it. Even as each rune, facet, and crease of the hat only seemed to repel every spark.

“All… that… power…” Shining growled, his own voice ringing in his ears. “You have to be good for something more than giving me a headache!”

Nothing.

Even as the barrier continued to creak and crack, more and more of it falling away, the hat simply hovered in place.

“AAARRGH!”

Shining roared, his head snapping to the side. The hat flew, landing somewhere behind him. He didn’t bother to follow it. His eyes narrowed instead on the largest breach he could see in the shield.

“Fine!” He spat out, magic gathering in his horn once more. “I’ll do it myself!”

Everything was starting to grow dark. Shining Armor tried to convince himself it was the blanket of thorns blocking out the sun and moon. Even as his legs quivered under the weight of another migraine, threatening to drop him to the floor.

It was something he tried not to picture as the burst of magic finally fired, sailing up into the sky.

“Th-there…” Shining slurred out as he struggled to breathe. “That should--AAAAAAAAH!”

His panting breaths cut out in a scream as the pain running through his head suddenly doubled. Even with his vision fading, he could see the cause. The shield spell flashed, temporarily growing brighter. The glow began to fade just as quickly, however. He could feel more vines pushing through, widening the cracks faster than his spell could close them. Each new opening sending a fresh shudder of agony through his body.

“I… w-won’t…”

Shining couldn’t even get the words out. All he could do was continue to stare up at the sky as his legs collapsed.


“Hey, Spike?” Rainbow Dash was shouting from her cell. “No pressure or anything, but do you think you could GET THE LEAD OUT?!”

“Thssn’t--”

Spike rolled his eyes and muttered a curse through his clenched teeth. The purple stallion pulled himself upright again, leaving Orange Sherbet’s golden hairpin hanging from the lock of his cell so he could glare in the pegasus pony’s direction.

“This isn’t as easy as it looks, you know!” Spike shouted, scraping one hoof in frustration. “Sheesh, it’s hard enough when I can use my magic!”

“... I’m almost afraid to ask,” Octavia spoke up, one hoof on her chin. “But why do you know how to pick locks?”

Spike winced at the question. As well as the suspicious stare that the musician was giving him as she crossed her forelegs.

“Uh… you remember how I’m a reporter?” Spike cleared his throat, trying to put on a sly smirk. “Let’s just say there’s certain nobles and business ponies around my Canterlot that learned to stop keeping their dirty documents in their office desks.”

He relaxed a bit as Octavia’s glare eased slightly. Orange Sherbet had also ceased her disapproving head shaking and now had one hoof to her chin, her eyes turned up in thought.

“Well… at least we can say you’re dedicated to your profession,” Orange finally commented.

“Hey! Guess who doesn’t care right now?” Rainbow Dash was shouting again, drawing Spike away from wondering whether the socialite was being sarcastic or not. “The Plunder Vines that are breaking in to eat the city! Will you quit chatting and get those doors open!?!”

Spike didn’t bother yelling anything back, mostly because he knew the impatient mare had an excellent point. He clenched the hairpin between his teeth once more, grunting as his neck began to ache from the strange angle. Ignoring the feeling, he carefully turned his head, ears straining at the gentle clicks coming from the lock. He could feel the vibrations in his jaw as the tiny mechanisms slid in and out of place…

“Uh oh!”

Pinkie’s voice caused his head to jerk upward. Spike gasped, his heart stopping for a second before managing to assure himself that he hadn’t bent his makeshift tool. He couldn’t return to the task, however, as a series of hoof clacks and… stranger sounds echoed from the pink pony’s cell.

“Knee bendy… tail flicky… tummy gurgle…” Pinkie gasped again, her hooves clanging against the bars. “Somepony’s coming!”

“Okay, seriously?” Spike asked, looking to Octavia. “Do you have any clue how this ‘Pinkie Sense’ thing works?”

“I’m afraid not,” Octavia responded, one of her ears twitching. “But… I think she’s right, listen…”

Spike held his breath as his own ears pricked up. The noises coming from outside were easy to make out, mostly the crashing of the shield breaking and distant screams. Something was starting to build under them though. The steady, rapid clack of hooves on stone drawing closer and closer.

“Uh oh... “ Ditzy piped up, her voice trembling. “Do you think it’s the guards?”

“I can’t imagine who else,” Octavia answered. “And given what we’ve seen, I don’t think they’d be amused with us attempting to break out. Even given the circumstances.”

Spike’s thoughts were a step ahead of the musician’s. The pin was already in his mouth, and with a soft ptoo it was flying back to its owner. Sherbert had a slight grimace as she caught the golden trinket on one hoof, before quickly tucking it back into her mane.

“GANG-WAAAAAAAY!”

Just in time, as a gray stallion ran screaming into view. Spike barely had time to jump back as the newly arrived earth pony skidded to a halt in front of his cell, panting for breath and wiping strands of his black mane from a face Spike knew quite well.

… Ink?!

The other stallion didn’t even seem to notice him. His hooves fumbled with something before jamming it into the lock and twisting. Spike’s eyes went wide as a soft click sounded, and the door swung open.

“Yes!” Ink Blot cheered, right before snatching up a ring of keys in his mouth.

Spike didn’t even have a chance to react. By the time he’d realized escape was possible, the earth pony had barrelled into the cell and pulled the door shut with a deafening CLANG. A manic grin spread across his face as Ink let out one final, relieved sigh, his rump slumping to the floor and his head drooping.

Spike blinked a few times before looking up towards the others. Judging by the way Octavia and Orange Sherbet were staring, they obviously saw his new cellmate too. Warily, the unicorn took a step closer to the exhausted stallion.

“Uh… Ink?” He asked, lowering his head a bit to try and catch his eye.

He didn’t have to bother. The second the name left Spike’s mouth, Ink Blot’s head jolted straight up, the key ring clattering to the ground.

“Huh?! What… Oh, are you kidding me?!” His smile vanished in an instant, replaced by an angry glare. “All the cells in this place, and I wind up in yours? Just my luck, I tell ya!”

“Nice seeing you again too.” Spike couldn’t bite down fast enough to stop the quip. He took a deep breath, trying to think of something else to say as Ink’s forelegs crossed, his glare sharpening. “What are you doing down here?”

“More importantly: Are those the keys to our cells?” Octavia cut in, one hoof pointing at the ring lying by Ink Blot’s hooves. “How in Equestria did--”

Octavia’s words did a much better job of getting the news-stallion’s attention. He hurriedly grabbed the ring between his forehooves, pulling it close to his chest as he shot an ugly sneer over his shoulder.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but the guards have a lot of other stuff to worry about right now.” Ink spun back to Spike, his glare locking the unicorn in place. “And in case you didn’t notice, it’s kinda the end of the world out there!”

Spike’s ears fell flat. Even with his boss’s yelling and his eyes locked on the literal keys to his freedom, it was impossible to ignore the din of terrified screams and shattering glass filtering down from his window. Ink, by contrast, seemed to be doing just that as he stomped forward, roughly shoving Spike aside as he made his way to the cot.

“So what? You just came down here to hide?” Spike asked as he spun to follow the earth pony.

“You make that sound like a bad thing,” Ink replied as he climbed onto the crude bed.

Spike’s jaw started to drop. It froze half-way before he eased it shut again. Somehow, even as his pulse quickened, the truth of the situation stung far less than he thought it should. Ink must have noticed the hesitation, given the smug grin he shot Spike.

“There, you see? You know I’ve got the right idea.” Ink Blot stretched out on the cot, tucking the keys firmly under his chest. “And trust me, if the rest of you saw what was going on out there you’d be glad you got the thickest walls in Canterlot around you!”

Somewhere behind him, Spike could hear Rainbow Dash shouting something. He couldn’t tell what, however, as his own admonishments died out before they could reach his mouth.

His heart was pounding harder than ever, especially as he looked up at the window again. He could just barely make out the barrier, a feeble wall of sparks straining to hold back a massive tide of thorns. The very sight of it was enough to freeze his breath, filling his body with a cold dread.

He has a poi--

The thought didn’t even have a chance to finish. Spike’s hoof came down, cracking off the stone and stomping it into silence. Eyes narrowing, the journalist turned his gaze back to the cot and the pony that looked like his longtime employer and friend.

“We already know what’s going on, Ink,” Spike declared, marching up to the cot. “That’s the whole reason we’re here! We want to help stop this!”

Ink Blot’s head snapped back up so fast, it was a wonder it stayed attached. Spike didn’t flinch, however. Not even as the gray stallion stared slack-jawed at him. For some reason, the sight caused Spike to smile. He didn’t even have to look to feel the same determined grin spread to his companions in the other cells.

“What-you wanna--You. Are. CRAZY!” Ink shouted, throwing his forehooves into the air. “News flash: Those vines ripped through Shining Armor’s magic like it was toilet paper! Canterlot is done for! What the hay do ya think you can do?!”

“I… have absolutely no idea,” Spike admitted, taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders. “But I’m not about to let that stop me!”

Ink Blot continued to stare, slowly shaking his head. Somewhere behind Spike, one (or possibly several) of the others let out a cheer. He didn’t pay attention to that, however. All his focus was on the other stallion as he knelt down so they were eye-to-eye.

“Ink, please. Those keys might be our only way out,” Spike pleaded, one hoof over his chest. “I might not understand why things are the way they are in this world, but could letting us try really make things any worse?”

This time, Ink’s jaw was the one snapping shut. Slowly, the earth stallion looked up towards the window.

“Fine,” he muttered. “You’ve made your point.”

Spike breathed out a sigh of relief as the earth pony looked back down, and pulled the keys out.

“But first…” Ink’s hoof hooked over Spike’s neck and pulled him closer. “Maybe explain what ya mean by ‘this world’?”


“I take it back. I take it all back! If anypony--” Ink Blot could barely talk as he gasped for breath, but somehow the words were still coming. “If anypony around here… is crazy… it’s gotta be me for listening to this!”

His chest burned as he finally stumbled to a halt. It was a slight relief to find the six prisoners he’d just released had stopped running also. Though his teeth did grind as he noticed only Spike was looking at him.

“Uh, which part were you having trouble with?” Spike asked, wiping some sweat from his forehead.

“Where do I even start? Maybe with the other Equestrias where none of this crud ever happened?” Ink snorted, though he wasn’t sure if it was due to frustration or barely restrained sarcastic laughter. “How about the fact that you guys are superheroes or something from those worlds? Oh no, I’ve got it: It’s that DISCORD of all things wants to help save us!”

“You know, nopony is making you follow us!” Rainbow Dash shouted from the front of the group. “And if you didn’t believe us, you could have just left us in the dungeon!”

Ink Blot quickly shut his mouth.

That’s gratitude for ya…

The thought was slightly more comforting than admitting the pegasus had a point. He didn’t even bother paying attention to Spike or his sympathetic flinch. At the very least, the marble hallways of the castle proper were a bit nicer to look at than the dungeon walls. Much better lit too, with all the large windows.

No guards either, he noticed. Likely still as scattered and panicky as he’d seen them before, and far too occupied to search for him or six escaped prisoners.

“Alright, now let me think.” Octavia’s voice forced his attention back to the group and the main reason they’d all stopped. The gray mare was trotting up a split in the hallway, giving a firm nod as she pointed down the left path. “I’m certain the guard quarters are this way, so--”

“Hey hey hey! Which of us actually lived in this castle?” Rainbow Dash interrupted, landing and jabbing a hoof down the other hall. “The guards bunk in the other wing!”

“Is now really a good time to argue?” Ditzy Doo cut in, pushing her way between the other two mares.

CRACK

All three of them fell silent as the entire hallway shook. Ink’s eyes went wide as a huge split suddenly formed in the marble wall next to him, running from floor to ceiling. Almost as though an entire section of the castle was about to pull away from the rest. Swallowing hard, he glanced out one of the windows he’d just been admiring.

Just in time to see a black vine rearing back for another swing.

“Watch out!” Spike shouted.

WHAM

Ink didn’t have a chance to respond. The other stallion tackled him to the ground, right before a thunderous crashing of stone filled the hallway. A dome of green light flared up around them as they hit the floor, flashing erratically as chunks of masonry bounced off it.

“Ink…” Spike’s voice was strained. His face was pulled into a grimace as his horn flickered, barely holding up the shield through the punishment. “Ink, are you okay?”

“Yeah, fine--” Ink’s voice caught in his throat as something moved in the cloud of dust that surrounded them. Something far larger than a pony. “B-but not for long!”

The vine was in the hallway. He could only guess that meant there was a hole in the wall now. That thought didn’t matter nearly as much as the Plunder Vine lashed down towards Spike’s flimsy bubble of magic.

“HEY!”

A prismatic streak cut through the air. The vine reared back, almost as though in pain, as Rainbow Dash bounced off of it with a flying kick. A shrill screech sounded from the plant, right before she looped back and delivered another blow.

“Yeah! How do you like that?” she challenged, darting aside as the vine launched itself at her. “Try and keep up!”

Ink Blot certainly couldn’t as the mare turned into a rainbow-colored contrail. The vine swung and thrashed in every direction, kicked up more dust and bits of debris to ricochet off Spike’s flickering shield.

Then, suddenly, it lurched to a halt. Rainbow Dash landed, a smug grin on her face as the dust began to clear. Ink wasn’t sure whether to join the others in cheering, or drop his jaw as he finally got a clear look at the vine and the multitude of tangled knots the chase had tied it into. The vine seemed to have made its decision, screeching one last time before withdrawing back through the hole.

“Awww yeah!” Rainbow Dash cheered, trotting over to the two stallion as the shield faded away. “Who’s the best?”

“I wouldn’t celebrate too soon!” Orange Sherbet shouted before either of them could answer. “Take a look at this!”

Spike was already moving by the time Ink rolled to his hooves. The other six were gathered silently at the hole the vine had smashed through. The herald hesitated for a second, before walking up behind them.

“Oh crud…” he muttered, eyes going wide.

He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but somehow the view outside was even worse.

The skies above Canterlot were completely covered with a blanket of Plunder Vines. A thin mesh of magenta sparkles barely held them back, though plenty were already poking through. Even through his fading senses, Ink Blot could still make out the endless screaming and the distant rumble of buildings being attacked floating from the distant streets.

“We’ve gotta do something.”

Everypony was looking at Spike. Ink mechanically followed their example. The unicorn didn’t seem to notice as he climbed up on the rubble, crouching as if to jump out into the gardens beyond.

“Spike, hang on! What about Shining Armor?” Dash darted in front of him, hooves spread to bar his path. “If the shield’s that bad, then he’s probably in even worse shape!”

“I-I know that!” Spike shouted back, jabbing one hoof. “But the rest of the city needs help--”

“What’s it matter?” Ink finally asked.

The others were all staring at him now. He didn’t care as he shook his head. A short bark of laughter escaped his throat, as more vines began to snake their way down from the sky…

“The shield is gone! Gone!” Ink pressed his hooves over his ears, trying to shut out the screaming as he fell to his rear. “The vines are through! We’re finished! There’s nothin’ that’ll stop this--”

WHAP

A stinging slap of blue feathers shocked him to silence. Ink just stared wide-eyed at Rainbow Dash as she scowled at him, before looking back over her shoulder at Spike.

“Leave helping the city to me!” She shouted, wings lifting her back into the air. “You gotta get to Shining! He’s still got your element after all!”

“I…” Spike took a deep breath before hopping down from the rubble. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“I’m coming with you, Dashy!” Pinkie Pie sprang up next to the flier, her tail quivering. “Those vines won’t see us coming! Because I’ll see them coming! Which means that maybe they will see us coming but--”

“I’ll go with you too,” Ditzy Doo interrupted as she stepped up. “I’m the only other pegasus here, so…”

Ink just stared as she trailed off. Rainbow Dash wasn’t paying him any attention as she smiled and nodded. Without another word, the three took off through the busted wall. Slowly, the former news-stallion turned to look at the three remaining ponies.

“Oh, I hope they’ll be okay,” Orange Sherbet muttered with one hoof over her mouth.

“They’re right, though,” Octavia said, pointing back to the fork. “We need to get to Shining Armor if we want to stop this.”

“So, which way were the barracks again?” Spike asked.

“He’s not in the barracks.”

Ink blinked a few times, before realizing it was his own voice that had spoken. The other three ponies turned to look at him, Orange and Octavia exchanging worried glances. Spike, however, trotted over to his side.

“I… I don’t get you guys…” the words kept coming out as Ink Blot slowly shook his head. “You’re seein’ the same stuff as me, ain’t ya? It’s like I said: It’s hopeless.”

A purple hoof fell onto his shoulder. His gaze stopped wavering, settling on Spike’s face.

“I don’t believe that. And I don’t think you really do either." Ink Blot wanted to cringe. To look away from the reassuring smile that the other stallion gave him. Something in those green eyes, however, kept pulling him back in. “Ink, you stuck it out at The Sun, you stayed with Shining all this time, you’re helping us right now… something in you hasn’t given up yet…”

Ink’s breath caught in his throat. For a second, something flashed in Spike’s eyes. He could almost feel it himself, something warm glowing in his chest…

Whatever it was, it helped him stand back up.

“Your friend’s right about the guard quarters, but if Shining is anywhere it’s the throne room,” Ink said, before pointing down the path to the right. “He never leaves the place unless it’s to interrogate prisoners.”

His breath flew out in a long whoosh as Spike grabbed him in a hug. Surprising even himself, Ink didn’t even attempt to struggle against it. He simply smiled a bit, letting the other stallion lead him back to the group.

“What’d I say?” Spike asked, flashing a grin to Orange Sherbet. “If anypony knows what’s going on here--”

“It’s Ink Blot,” Orange finished with a smile and a nod of her own.

“Wonderful, shall we get moving?” Octavia asked, already starting down the right hall.

Spike and Orange went after her. Ink Blot’s hooves started to follow, before he stumbled to halt after three steps. None of the other three seemed to noticed as they continued to race ahead.

Ink stood in place for a moment, taking a deep breath as he glanced outside again. The vines were still spreading. Ponies still crying out in terror. All without so much as a glimpse of even a single guard…

“Ink?” Spike’s voice was coming from somewhere behind him as he broke into a run. “Ink, where are you going?!”

“You guys just get to Shining!” Ink Blot shouted over his shoulder.

As he raced away from the others he added quietly, “Maybe there’s something I can do.”


“Just what do you suppose Ink Blot is planning?” Octavia shouted as she ran.

“N-no… clue…” Spike panted back.

Orange Sherbet just tried to focus on her own hooves, unsure whether she wanted to join the conversation. Or if she could, given how hard she was breathing.

They’d paused for barely two seconds when they noticed Ink Blot running away. Spike hadn’t even tried to question it further, he just immediately took off again at the earth stallion’s insistence leaving herself and Octavia to follow. Even knowing that Canterlot was being torn apart outside, however, her body still ached as though trying to remind her of the recent punishment she’d put it through.

“At least... he’s on our side... now,” Spike pointed out between gasps of air.

“I suppose--”

Whatever Octavia might have been trying to add was lost as they rounded a corner at the end of the hall. The musician instead pointed quickly with one hoof before she began to run even faster.

“There!” she shouted as she took the lead. “The throne chamber!”

Orange Sherbet didn’t need to be told to believe it. A huge set of double doors waited at the end of the hall. Though all the shaking and rampaging vines had apparently taken their toll. Fragments of what were once probably grand statues were strewn about the floor. Spike and Octavia were pulling further and further ahead, though, jumping and dipping around the mess with ease.

And youth…

The Manehattenite scowled a bit as the thought crossed her mind. Defiantly, she pushed herself harder, quickly closing the gap between her and the two younger ponies. Even as she kept her eyes locked on their goal, Orange felt a proud smirk cross her face.

Her joy vanished the second they burst through the swaying doors of the throne room, and her legs froze in shock.

“SHINING!”

One set of hooves didn’t stop. Spike was a purple blur as he continued to run toward the steel-armored lump on the floor. Orange’s hoof shot to her mouth as she realized just what that lump was.

“Shining!” Spike was shouting, shaking the fallen unicorn’s shoulders. “Come on, bro, get up!”

Her legs were moving without thought. The white stallion’s chest was rising and falling with feeble breaths as Spike pulled away. Cautiously, Orange kneeled next to him. One hoof reached out, pressing to Shining’s forehead.

She pulled it back almost instantly, inhaling sharply through her teeth.

“He’s burning up…” she gasped, shaking her hoof in an attempt to cool it. “What in the world happened to him?”

“I think I know,” Octavia said, pointing to the prone unicorn’s horn. “Look at that!”

Orange had to squint before she noticed it. A thin thread of magenta light, extending from Shining Armor’s horn out the window. Her eyes followed it as it disappeared into the sky above, where the remnants of the forcefield remained.

“He must be using everything he has on the shield.” Octavia’s voice was wavering slightly, and one hoof was pressed over her mouth. “And… and it doesn’t look like he can keep it up much longer…”

“Alright, stay calm and think.” Orange scrambled back to her hooves, straining to sound like she was following her own advice. “There must be something we can do to help!”

“There is something we can do,” Spike broke in, a soft green glow suddenly radiating from his horn. “Help.”

She didn’t get the chance to ask what he meant. By the time Orange had turned back toward him, a beam of green light had shot from Spike to Shining Armor.

The effect was immediate. The white stallion’s breathing eased a bit. Some of the sweat on his forehead began to dry. Neither Orange Sherbet or Octavia celebrated, however, as Spike’s legs buckled and nearly dumped him to the floor.

“Spike!” Orange was the first to move, leaning against the young stallion’s side to support him. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“T-trying to… b-back up the sh-shield…” Spike was gritting his teeth as the tether of light connecting him to his brother shone brighter. “I’m not as good as Shining, b-but if I give it… enough power… maybe he can do the rest!”

“Are you certain that’s a good idea?” Octavia asked, her eyes wide.

Another distant CRASH of vines breaking through magic served as the answer. Spike’s entire body shuddered as the green energy sparked wildly, his teeth clenching as he struggled to stay standing.

“It b-buys us time!” Spike managed to shout, his face a mask of concentration as the glow stabilized.

Orange’s breath caught in her throat, and her eyes shot back to the window. She could just make out a few flimsy bits of green mixing with the damaged shield. Her heartbeat eased a bit, trying to convince her some of the vines were moving a bit more sluggishly.

Then another one broke its way through, and Spike’s nearly collapsed into convulsions again.

“It’s not enough!” Orange shouted, shifting as she tried to better support Spike’s weight. “We need more unicorns!”

“I think we’re about to get them…” Octavia said nervously, one hoof pointing back towards the door.

Following the trembling limb, Orange Sherbet’s eyes went wide. She could see a trio of unicorns coming around the corner. Armored ones, unmistakably members of the guard. They stopped for a moment at the far end of the hall, their eyes locking on hers for a brief second.

Then one of them shouted and pointed straight at her.

“There they are!”


“INCOMING!”

KABOOM

Rainbow Dash twisted out of the way just time. She could feel the wind on her fetlocks as another Plunder Vine let out a horrific screech. Glancing back over her shoulder, she smiled as she saw it completely immobilized, tied to a lamppost with a mess of streamers and confetti. A sight so satisfying, she didn’t even question just when Pinkie Pie had recovered that pastel-blue cannon of hers.

“Nice shot, Pinkie!” Dash cheered as she banked into a hard u-turn.

If the party planner heard the compliment, she didn’t acknowledge it. All her attention as on rolling her “Party Cannon” further ahead, keeping it pointed at the sky. Dash’s enthusiasm was tempered somewhat as she looked back up, reminding her that hundreds more of the black vines still swarmed above Canterlot.

“Alright, this way!” Ditzy Doo’s voice pulled Dash’s attention back to where it needed to be. “Hurry!”

The cyan mare’s eyes shot back down the street. Ditzy was at the head of a small group of ponies chasing after Pinkie. Just some of the many citizens they’d found trying to escape the Plunder Vines. Dash felt her heart stop for a second as she noticed something clinging tight to Ditzy’s back. A small unicorn filly, holding on for dear life--

CRACK

She’d only just realized the filly’s coat was pink rather than purple when the noise hit, accompanied by glittering trails of broken magic showering from above. Screams rose from the group below as another vine lashed down from the sky, aiming right at them.

“Oh no you don’t!” Dash shouted.

The air itself trembled as she rocketed forward. With a furious cry, she rammed into the black tendril shoulder first.

“Stay! Out! Of! The! Way!” Dash punctuated each word with a sharp blow from her hooves, snarling as she felt the wicked plant pull back from her assault.

It stopped just outside her hoof reach, trembling. The tip of it lifted up, pointing straight at Dash. For a disturbing second, she almost felt like it was looking at her.

That feeling was quickly forgotten as two more vines suddenly descended next to it.

Uh oh

Three black blurs slammed into her, sending her sailing backwards. Dash was briefly thankful that none of them had sprouted their thorns.

WHAM

A low groan was all she could get as the last of the shock coursed through her body. Her vision swam, hearing fading in and out, her entire body aching from the cobblestone streets she’d just been roughly introduced to.

“Rainbow Dash!”

Somepony was shouting for her. Probably the one that had come running to her side. She could just make out something gray trying to help her back to her hooves. Fresh pain raced through her body as they did. Dash grit her teeth against it, trying not to cry out. Instead, she shook her head, forcing her vision back together. Her eyes narrowed on the vines that had struck her, already racing out into the streets, almost as if they were ignoring her.

Something blazed inside her at the thought.

“Lemme at ‘em,” she growled out, wings flaring. “Lemme at ‘em!”

“Dash, stop!” the gray shaped next to her yelled.

Soft hooves pressed against her chest, holding her back. It took Rainbow Dash a second to realize why they were so familiar. Her head turned, looking into the worried gaze of Ditzy Doo. Just past those yellow eyes, she could see the ponies they’d been leading huddling together, trembling in fear.

“It’s okay, they’re all fine,” Ditzy Doo assured her, gently patting her back. “Come on, we need to keep moving!”

“R-right.” Dash winced and drew in a deep breath, feeling her entire back throb. “The market square isn’t far.”

The other ponies must have heard them, seeing as they were already running. Rainbow Dash spread her wings, giving them a hard flap--

“Gah!” she screamed.

Her hooves barely rose an inch before clattering down again. Both her wing joints burned from the effort of moving. She forced in a deep breath, wincing as she slowly extended both feathery appendages.

“Are you alright?” Ditzy Doo was still at her side, worriedly looking from Dash’s face back to her wings.

“I don’t think anything’s broken,” Rainbow grumbled in response, still flinching at the pain as she folded her wings once more. “Ugh, looks like I’m hoofing it for now though.”

She didn’t give Ditzy Doo the chance to offer her a shoulder. The young racer broke into a gallop, doing her best to ignore the dull pulse running along her back with each hoofbeat. At the very least the pain didn’t last long, nearly fading as Ditzy caught up.

“Dash, I hate to say it, but this really doesn’t look good!” she fretted, her bad eye rolling slightly as she ran. “Those vines are everywhere, and we can’t keep fighting them forever!”

“Tell me about it!” Pinkie Pie was somehow right beside them, actually sweating a bit as she rolled her party cannon along. “I’m almost out of confetti here!”

“We just have to trust Spike and the others,” Dash said, her eyes darting back towards the castle. “I’m sure they can fix this once they reach Shining! Until then, we save as many ponies as we--”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

It wasn’t so much the horrified screams that gave her pause as the direction they’d come from. Dash’s face blanched as her ears pointed straight ahead. Right in the same direction the ponies they’d just rescued had run.

Now a chorus of voices was approaching from there, along with countless galloping hooves. She pulled to a halt as dozens of ponies suddenly charged from around a bend in the road up ahead.

“What the--” Dash didn’t even have a chance to finish her question as the herd reached them. Ponies shoved their way past her and her companions, nearly knocking her to the ground. “Hey! Wait, what’s--AARRGH!”

Dash’s hooves lashed out. Only somewhat to her satisfaction, she managed to grab a unicorn stallion by his shoulders as he ran past. He yelped in alarm, nearly pitching to the ground as he jerked to a halt.

“What’s going on?!” Dash yelled, almost regretting her volume as the unicorn cringed in response.

“Th-those vines…” he stammered, pointing back the way he’d come from. “They’re everywhere! They started attacking the market square--”

“WHAT?!?”

The stallion had started running again before Dash even realized she’d let him go. Her breath caught in her throat as his story was confirmed. At least a half-dozen vines were coming from around the corner, slamming into buildings as they turned to chase after their prey.

“I got ‘em!” Pinkie Pie shouted, taking aim and yanking on the firing cord of her cannon.

A pathetic whine emitted from the device, followed by a weak puff of air and small dusting of glitter.

“Uh oh…” Pinkie muttered.

The party pony’s eyes darted from her cannon back to the vines. Her face was suddenly a perfect mirror of the same horror Dash felt. The pegasus was doing her best to ignore that feeling as she turned around, legs racing after the rest of the ponies.

“Keep moving!” she shouted ahead to the herd. “Head for the castle!”

More screams from up ahead confirmed what she had already started to fear, however. The ponies were crowding together, backing towards Rainbow Dash and her friends as more vines crawled slowly towards them. The cyan mare’s wings tried to flare out as her eyes darted up, freezing both in shock and pain as she saw even more of the black things knitting into a web overhead.

“They’ve boxed us in!” Ditzy Doo shouted, giving voice to what Dash herself had just realized.

Come on, Dash! Think!

Ponies were crowding all around them. Rainbow Dash’s chest was burning as she struggled to breathe. The vines reared up on every side, preparing to to strike--

BRRRRR-URRRRRRRRRRRRRR

The loud, long blast of a trumpet suddenly rose above everything else. Dash didn’t even have a chance to figure out where it came from before the vines suddenly began to writhe and screech. The mass of plant life suddenly lifted away, and Rainbow Dash felt her jaw hit the ground.

At least a half-dozen pegasus ponies in full armor were darting after the fleeing Plunder Vines. Flecks of the wicked plants were still trailing from the blades on their wings. One remained however, motioning frantically the formerly-trapped group.

“Hurry!” he shouted. “Everypony, this way!”

BRRRRRRURRRRRRRRR

Another call from the trumpet accompanied the order, one that nopony seemed willing to refuse. Before she was even sure what was happening, her hooves were pounding against the streets once again. A smile came to her face as she looked up, however. More pegasus ponies were darting across the skies, fighting off the encroaching vines, and she could see more sparkling colors starting to paint themselves across the broken barrier.

“Alright!” Dash couldn’t hold back the cheer. Her wings snapped out as she leapt, her pain forgotten as she started soaring once more. “We are back in action!”

“And I think I see why!” Ditzy Doo responded, a huge smile on her face. “Look up ahead!”

Doing as she was asked, Dash’s eyes went wide with shock one last time.

“No-ho-ho waay…” she chuckled out.

With a hard flap, she was soaring ahead of the rest of the crowd. Straight towards what looked like a stage with at least a dozen guards around it. None of whom moved to stop her as she landed at the edge of it, staring in disbelief at the figure standing in the center.

BRRRRUUUUUUUUUUUURR

Her ears fell flat against a third trumpet cry. Which did nothing to wipe the smile from her face.

“Ink Blot!” She shouted, waving one hoof for attention.

Finally, the gray earth pony lowered his trumpet and turned towards her. A smirk of his own appeared as he set the instrument down and trotted over.

“Well, figures I’d find you guys sooner or later,” he said as Pinkie Pie and Ditzy Doo managed to get up to Dash’s side.

“Did you bring all these guards?” Ditzy Doo asked, her eyes drifting in every direction as she spoke. “Where were they?”

“Most of these chuckleheads? Arguing in the barracks over what to do since ol’ Shiney-hiney wasn’t bossin’ ‘em around.” Ink cleared his throat and glanced back over his shoulder. “Now if you’ll excuse me, ladies, it’s looking like we got a fair crowd and I have an important announcement to make.”

Rainbow Dash glanced to the other two mares. Although they were smiling, she could tell from their eyes that they didn’t quite understand the stallion’s statement either. All together, the three of them followed behind Ink as he walked to the front of the stage.

He wasn’t kidding

Dash needed a moment just to take in the size of the gathering crowd. If she hadn’t known better, she would have guessed all of Canterlot was present. She could still see more ponies being escorted to the crowd by guards. Ink didn’t seem fazed, however, as he looked out over the massive herd.

“Alright, Steel. Hit me,” he said, drawing in a deep breath.

“Yes, Chief Herald!” The armored unicorn next to him snapped a quick salute, before a beam of silver magic shot from his horn to the earth pony’s throat.

“ATTENTION, CITIZENS OF CANTERLOT!!

Ink Blot’s voice, magnified to almost painful levels, drowned out every other sound in the city. Rainbow Dash had to brace her hooves to avoid being thrown back by the force of it.

“EVERYPONY WHO CAN HEAR MY VOICE, LOOK UP!”

Most of the gathered crowd was already doing so. Something Ink Blot didn’t seem to mind as he began pacing back and forth in front of them.

“YOU ALL KNOW HOW LONG SHINING’S BEEN KEEPING US SAFE! AND YEAH, WE AIN’T ALWAYS ENJOYED IT! BUT NOW, WE HIT ONE LITTLE SNAG WITH THE SHIELD AND SUDDENLY IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD!”

BAM

Even Ink Blot’s stomping hoof was magnified. Rainbow Dash was just staring in stunned silence. Somehow, she couldn’t connect the stallion before her to the one she’d slapped back in the castle.

“EVERYPONY HERE THINKS WE’VE BEEN HIDING ALL THIS TIME! BUT WE’VE BEEN SURVIVING! WE ALL HOPED THINGS WOULD GET BETTER, DIDN’T WE?”

Ponies in the crowd were mumbling to each other. Quite a few were nodding, only to go quiet again as Ink jabbed his hoof at them.

“WELL SHINING’S DOWN, AND IT’S UP TO US TO DO SOMETHING NOW! AND I DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE REST OF YOU, BUT I AIN’T GONNA JUST GONNA ROLL OVER AND GET MULCHED! NOW WHO’S WITH ME!?!”

Not even Ink Blot’s magically amplified voice could drown out the collective cheers from the crowd. Rainbow Dash even caught herself joining in, along with Pinkie Pie and Ditzy Doo, as a massive smile spread across the herald’s face.

“THAT’S WHAT I WANNA HEAR! NOW, ALL YOU EARTH PONIES! START SPREADING OUT AND CLEARING SOME OF THAT RUBBLE! PEGASI? I WANNA SEE YOU SKYWARD LOOKING FOR PONIES THAT NEED HELP GETTING TO SAFETY. THE GUARDS WILL TAKE CARE OF THE VINES!”

There were no arguments. Ponies were flying and running out of the crowd in droves. Rainbow Dash’s wings snapped out as she kicked into the air. Even with her wings already starting to ache again, she pushed her way upwards towards a nearby flock of pegasi.

But there was no way she could miss Ink Blot’s last order.

“AND EVERY UNICORN OUT THERE! DISH OUT AS MUCH MAGIC AS YOU CAN AND AIM IT STRAIGHT! UP!”

Dash paused for a second in her ascent, just staring out at the city as countless lights of every color imaginable began to spread across it.


Shining Armor let out a low groan, his foreleg feebly twitching a bit. Something damp and cool was pressed against his forehead, matting down his forelock, and he wanted to wipe it away. His body could barely obey the order though. All he could do was let his eyes slowly drift open.

“He’s waking up!” a distant, but surprisingly loud, voice shouted.

The damp thing was pulled away, and Shining blinked a few times. Everything around him was too bright, forcing him to squint as his eyes adjusted. He could just make out something getting closer though. A fuzzy blob of purple with a green light flickering on top of it.

His vision finally sharpened as the thing knelt down next to him. A purple unicorn with a green mane. The same one he’d left in the dungeon.

“Y-you!” Shining Armor started to jump to his hooves.

A wave of dizziness overcame him. Before he could topple back over, the younger stallion had darted to his side.

“Easy there! Magic exhaustion like that is rough,” Spike said as he leaned against Shining’s side. “Trust me. I’ve been there.”

“I-thanks-No! Wait!” Shining tried to pull away, but his legs refused to move. “What are you even doing here?”

“He’s been trying to help sir.”

Shining shook his head as the new voice spoke up. Turning, he found three guard unicorns standing nearby. Each of their horns was sparking with magic, as was Spike’s he finally noticed. Something which only added to the flurry of questions blowing around in his head.

“Helping…” Shining cleared his throat and drew his eyes into a glare as he pointed at the closest guard. “Scale Mail, report!”

“Of course, sir!” The indicated unicorn snapped a quick salute before his eyes darted to the side nervously. “Well, uh, the shield broke and you apparently passed out trying to repair it…”

That explains the headache

Shining flinched as the memories of the moment flooded back. Including his rather painful spill to the floor of the throne room. Pushing the thought aside, he motioned for Scale Mail to continue.

“The prison-eeeer… Spike here, escaped during the confusion,” Scale Mail explained. “He wanted to try and help you fix the shield.”

It was just as well that the guard had stopped talking. No further words could reach Shining Armor. His eyes slowly moved to the other two armored ponies, both of whom were nodding in confirmation. Two of the mares that had been in the dungeons were there as well, the orange one wringing out a damp washcloth while the gray just smiled and gestured to Shining’s side. Reluctantly, his eyes followed her advice.

They landed right on Spike, who was smiling up at him.

“Why… why would you help me?” The shock was too much. He couldn’t even begin to fit suspicion into anything he was thinking. “I threw you in the dungeon, in case you forgot.”

“It’s because… well, ‘cuz we’re family,” Spike answered, giving the older stallion a gentle, playful shove. “It’s a long, weird story, but that’s how it is to me. Even if you don’t think the same.”

Shining Armor just stared in silence. For the briefest instance, somehow, Spike’s words rang true. Something in the smile he was fixing him with, or the sympathetic look in his eyes, or perhaps even just the warmth of his body as he supported the Captain of the Royal Guards without trembling away or flinching…

“As much as I hate to break up the moment.” The sound of a throat clearing drew his eyes back to the gray mare, whose face had suddenly gone serious. “Things aren’t fixed just yet.”

Once more, his gaze followed her hoof, this time as she pointed out the window. Shining’s jaw finally loosened, dropping slack to his chest when he saw the outside.

The vines were still there, but far fewer than before. The ones that remained were straining against webs of multicolored light, as darting specks that must have been pegasus ponies harried them. The sky itself was still blanketed with vines, but thick ropes of the rainbow magic now held them at bay, despite the severe thrashing of the plants.

“The shield’s almost good as new,” Spike said, tapping his own horn for emphasis. “But… well, nopony knows this spell like you do.”

Shining Armor just gave the purple unicorn one last look, before turning his attention outside again.

“I think…” he drew in a deep breath as magic slowly gathered in his horn. “I think we’re going to need to have a long talk so you can explain things, Spike.”


Looking out the window, Spike almost couldn’t believe the same city was stretching out below him.

A few thin columns of smoke still rose to the sky here and there. Likely the huge portions of severed Plunder Vine being burned by the guards. Down each street he could see familiar buildings from his own Canterlot, most in various states of demolition thanks to the attack.

And yet, the unicorn still had a smile on his face as he took a sip from his coffee. The atmosphere coming from the city had undergone the most change. The once empty streets were now swarmed with ponies; And the sounds of them laughing, singing, and generally celebrating carried loud and clear up to the castle. Letting out a satisfied sigh, he looked up at the renewed, now multicolored barrier, taking in the odd split of day and night in the sky one last time before he turned away from the window.

“So… which part were you having trouble with?” he asked, finally breaking the silence that had let him enjoy the view. “The Discord thing, or the ‘from another universe’ one?”

He almost wanted to laugh at the look on Shining Armor’s face. His older brother’s jaw was practically resting on the table between them, his own coffee sitting untouched by his side. He didn’t even seem to notice the amused looks of the five mares also gathered in the throne chamber, though Spike caught the particularly smug grin Octavia wore.

“Uh… a little of both, I think…” Shining finally managed to answer as he shook his head. “I mean… I’m not sure I really believe any of it--”

“Well, there’s a shocker.”

Spike snorted a bit into his own coffee as Ink Blot spoke up. The gray stallion seemed far more vibrant somehow, a satisfied grin on his face as he drained the last of his own drink and banged the mug back down on the table.

“Face facts, Shining! Whatever ya think of their story, it’s pretty clear they’re here to help,” Ink said, sweeping a hoof to all six of the dimensional travellers. “And we’re darn lucky they showed up when they did!”

“I guess I can’t deny that,” Shining Armor admitted with a shrug before nodding to the others. “I owe all of you an apology, and then some, for the way you were treated.”

More smiles were going around the table. Pinkie Pie in particular looked as though she was about to bounce clear to the ceiling. Though Spike wasn’t sure whether that was due to what Shining Armor had said or the twice-emptied mug sitting in front of her. Either way, he felt a profound relief as Orange Sherbet pinned the mare down with a restraining hoof on her shoulder.

“I think we can all agree to let bygones be bygones,” Orange said with a patient smile.

“Besides, we don’t deserve all the credit.” Spike glanced to the others, and each nodded in agreement before he spoke again. “Ink Blot did the most to save the city after all.”

If Ink had had more coffee, Spike was sure he would have spat it out. Instead, the earth stallion put one hoof against his chest, his mouth silently repeating Spike’s words.

“I… what, me?” he shook his head and let out a nervous chuckle. “Aww, get outta town. I didn’t do that much.”

“Of course not, you only rallied the entirety of the royal guards whilst their leadership was indisposed,” Octavia said, pausing for a second to sip her own coffee. “Oh, and let’s not forget the rest of Canterlot as well. We could all hear your announcement, even up here.”

“Gotta say, that was pretty awesome,” Rainbow Dash added.

Spike chuckled a bit as Ink Blot lowered his head. It was a sight he’d never thought he’d ever see: The editor-in-chief of The Canterlot Sun blushing.

“Hey, I just did my job,” Ink said as he shoved his empty mug between his forehooves. “Tell everypony around town what somepony else said. They pretty much did the rest on their own--”

“Nevertheless, we might need to discuss your duties a bit, Chief Herald.” Shining Armor actually had a proud grin on his face, aimed squarely at the blushing stallion. “Something like a promotion might be in order, don’t you agree?”

“YEAH I DO!” Pinkie’s voice suddenly rattled every eardrum at the table as she sprang out from under Orange’s grip. “This’ll be great! I haven’t thrown a promotion party in ages!”

As the pink mare started rambling about… whatever sort of things Pinkie rambled about, Spike let out a chuckle. Letting out one last happy sigh, he levitated his coffee mug for one more gulp.

As the drink hit his lips however, his eyes went wide. Something was squirming on the surface of the brown liquid.

“GAAAAH!”

The mug went flying, Shining’s magic barely catching it before it landed on Pinkie’s head. Not fast enough to catch the liquid inside, however, as the party mare’s mane was suddenly soaked in the fresh-roasted brew.

“Eeeek! Hot!” Pinkie shouted as she leapt down from the table before smacking her lips. “Ooooh, but so aromatic

“S-sorry!” Spike quickly apologized. “There was something weird in it--”

“How rude! I was just starting to enjoy myself!”

Spike’s apology was quickly forgotten as a familiarly snide voice echoed around them. With a loud SNAP, a rabbit-sized draconequus wrapped in a coffee-stained towel appeared in the center of the table.

“DISCORD?!” Almost everypony in the room chorused.

“Wait, that was you swimming in my coffee?!” Spike shouted, his stomach clenching.

“Oh don’t be ridiculous, Spike,” Discord said as he whipped the towel away and it vanished into thin air. “I was taking a bath! I prefer tea, to be honest, but coffee works in a pinch to keep my coat’s natural color…”

Spike didn’t hear the rest. He was too busy trying not to be violently ill. Ditzy Doo was gently patting his back again when all the remaining mugs on the table suddenly jumped. Shining Armor had slammed both his forehooves against the table, and was glaring daggers at the miniaturized Discord.

“How did you get in here!” he shouted, his magic grabbing Discord and pulling the tiny prankster up to his face. “My shield was supposed to keep out you along with your vines!”

“And we both know what a great job it was doing!” Discord said with a snicker.

Before anypony could react, Discord’s eagle talon lashed out and flicked Shining’s horn. The magic flickered for a brief second, and in that second the miniature draconequus vanished. With another snap, he was floating by the window, jerking a thumb claw to the shield beyond it.

“Of course, it was a bit of a nuisance to get past,” he said, crossing his arms and pouting a bit. “I wasn’t sure the vines could do it even with the help I gave them--”

“You did WHAT!”

Spike’s queasiness had vanished in a second. Unsurprisingly, he hadn’t been the only one shouting at Discord. Though he was one of the few that remained seated, as Rainbow Dash and Pinkie darted over and flanked the chaos spirit.

“You let those vines in?!” Rainbow Dash shouted, spreading her wings between the window and Discord.

“I knew it!” Pinkie’s usual smile was gone, replaced with an accusatory glare. “I knew we couldn’t trust you!”

Despite the angry ponies to either side of him, as well as the others starting to move away from the table, Discord didn’t seemed worried. In fact, and Spike did a double-take to be sure, he seemed oddly at ease as he steepled his claws together.

“I’m sensing a bit of hostility here,” he said, giving everypony a calm smile. “I don’t suppose anypony would care to let me explain before jumping to conclusions?”

“I don’t see a lot of room for interpretation here,” Orange Sherbet said, her eyes narrowing on Discord.

“Oh come now, Orange my dear! If destroying Canterlot was my goal, don’t you think I could have popped Shining’s bubble anytime I wanted?” Discord countered as he pulled a nail file from nowhere and set to work on his claws. “Really, why would I wait until I had the lot of you inside?”

As if in answer, a sphere of magenta light suddenly popped into existence around Discord. Spike barely ducked in time as it sailed over his head, stopping right in front of Shining Armor.

“Discord, you’d better start explaining yourself!” he ordered, the bubble contracting slightly around its prisoner. “And I mean now!”

“Gladly! I’m the one that brought these six to look for an Element of Harmony in the first place after all.” If his prison bothered him, Discord didn’t show it. Spike had never seen a more relaxed creature in all his life. “I had to make sure they weren’t just goofing off, but unfortunately your bubble is just as good as you think it is against my weakened state.”

Discord blew on his lion claws before buffing them on his chest. He smiled as he held his paw out, admiring his work. Almost like he’d forgotten that Shining Armor was less than two inches away, his breath fogging up the prison shield.

“So… why the vines?” Spike asked, clearing his throat a bit.

“Well since I couldn’t slip through the shield, I had to brute force it instead,” Discord explained as he spun the nail file around one claw. “So I gave the vines a little pick me up and--”

Pop!

The prison shield vanished as Discord jabbed it with his nail file. Before Shining could react, he’d flown back over to Spike’s side with a taunting chuckle.

“Of course, chaos is as chaos does! I couldn’t control anything the vines did after that,” Discord explained, snapping his claws again. “But you’re lucky that I got through when I did, or else nopony would have been around to catch this before Shiney-boy threw it out!”

Spike’s eyes went wide as something suddenly appeared right in front of him. A brown fedora with a golden band and emerald feather adorning it.

“My element!” he shouted.

“You can have it back.” Discord shuddered as he snapped his claws, the old hat flipping onto Spike’s head and tilting itself to his favorite angle. “Ugh, I feel tacky just touching that thing!”

The rest of the room had gone silent. Spike couldn’t blame them, his own ears falling flat as he just glared at Discord. It was suddenly so easy to understand all of Pinkie’s warnings. Especially as she rolled her party cannon out from under the table.

“You really think we’re gonna buy that?” Ink Blot shouted as he scraped one hoof against the ground. “Tha-that you nearly turned Canterlot into the world’s worst garden party by accident!?”

“And I’m apologizing for it, aren’t I? Yet I get the feeling none of you are taking me seriously,” Discord asked as he crossed his arms with a frown. “Well fine. If that’s the case you can go ahead and lock me up.”

Spike had been crouching, ready to pounce and pin Discord to the table. Now, he almost slipped and banged his chin against it instead. The same look of shock on his face was spreading to the others as they all just stared at the draconequus.

“Wait… you’re serious?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Yup! Clap me in irons, toss me behind an unbreakable shield, seal me in stone if it makes you feel safer!” Discord’s face was twisted into the ugliest grin Spike had ever seen as he held his arms out. “I’m sure you six will do just fine finding the rest of the Elements of Harmony on your own!”

Spike could swear he felt something in his jaw crack as he clenched his teeth.

“I am… loathe to admit it,” Octavia said, drawing in a deep breath as her voice strained to remain calm. “But Discord raises something of a point…”

“I don’t like this,” Shining said with a snarl. “Are you sure there’s no other way for you guys to get around?”

“Even if we could, we don’t even know where to start searching…” Ditzy Doo admitted, her wings slumping a bit.

“So that’s settled then? ‘Let bygones be bygones’ as Orange Sherbet put it?” Discord was grinning like mad as Spike joined the chorus of reluctant head nodding. “Goody! Just one last thing to take care of before we get going!”

With another snap, the table floated to the side. Discord floated down in front of Spike, pointing one claw down the now clear path between him and Shining Armor.

“I’m afraid you’ll be saying goodbye to Canterlot for a while, Shiney my boy,” Discord explained as his paws began to glow. “The Elements of Harmony need somepony to represent Magic--”

“But I don’t think Shining is the one,” Spike said.

He smirked as Discord spun to face him. Now it was the chaos spirit’s turn to look surprised as Spike pointed a hoof of his own. Right at the only other stallion in the room. Ink Blot blinked, looking from Spike, down to himself, and then back up to Spike again as his jaw dropped.

“For the I-don’t-even-know-how-many-ith time: WHAAAAAAAAT?!?” Ink shouted, the remaining windows rattling.

“Um… yeah,” Discord said with a nod. “Pretty much that.”

“Whoa, didn’t see that coming…” Pinkie Pie’s voice whispered.

Neither had anypony else, judging from the looks on their faces. Spike was just smiling, however, as he walked over Shining Armor and Ink Blot. The white unicorn looked more confused than anyone else, just tilting his head as Spike looked at him.

“Shining, don’t get me wrong. You’re a great guy, and I know Canterlot will be fine with you around… long as you lighten up a bit.” Spike chuckled a bit, clearing his throat as he realized nopony was joining in. “But I just don’t think you’re ready for the Element of Magic.”

“Oh, and I am?!” Ink was taking a step back as Spike turned to him, sweat dripping down his face. “Spike, I don’t if you missed it, but I ain’t even a unicorn!”

“I don’t think that matters, Ink!” Spike insisted, one hoof reaching up and brushing against the golden band in his hat. “The Element of Magic came to me when I realized what my friends and I could accomplish by working together. You did the same thing today with an entire city! It can’t just be a coincidence!”

Ink Blot stopped in midstep. Slowly, his hoof lowered back to the floor. Spike just continued to smile, his magic sparking and lifting the old fedora from his head. Slowly, he sent it drifting forward to hover in front of his longtime friend.

“I… It’s been a long time… since I had anything to believe in…” Ink swallowed hard, reaching one hoof towards the Element of Magic. “You showed me there’s still some hope even in this tired old stallion. If you’re gonna believe in me now…”

Ink drew in a deep breath and nodded his head.

“Then I won’t be the one to let ya down,” he said.

A nearly blinding green light filled the room. Even so, Spike somehow didn’t need to shield his eyes. He could see perfectly well as something rattled against the wall before soaring towards them. Both his and Ink’s eyes went wide when they saw what it was.

Ink Blot’s trumpet.

The Element of Magic shimmered, green and golden runes floating from it to wrap around the instrument. The entire length of the trumpet shone, changing from brass to silver as the strange letters etched themselves along it. The two elements both sparked one last time before separating, Spike’s hat settling back atop his head while Ink Blot’s trumpet laid itself across his back.

“Well… that’s certainly interesting!” Discord said, hovering down between the two stallions. “And kudos, Spike. You even managed to surprise me.”

Spike wasn’t sure if Discord’s approval added or detracted from the moment. It didn’t do anything to change the smile on his face though. Especially when the other six charged up, cheering and slapping both him and Ink Blot on the back. The entire room was becoming a blur of smiles, Octavia making odd looks between Ink’s instrument and her own cello, Shining Armor snapping a salute to them both--

A loud clearing of throat broke in over the celebration, however.

“Alright, we’ve wasted enough time as it is,” Discord said, his paws starting to glow. “Say your goodbyes, everypony, because we have to get back on the road!”

Spike felt his throat tighten up. He quickly turned toward Shining Armor, a sad little smile on his face.

“Shining,” he said, “I--”

SNAP

Whatever Spike wanted to say, he didn’t get to finish.

With a final snap of claws and a blinding flash of light, Shining Armor found himself alone in the throne room once more.

END

Chapter Five, Part One. (Written by Talon and Thorn)

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There was a flash of light and suddenly a mismatched group of ponies and something else appeared where previously there had been only empty space. Around them, several locals looked up in interest for a moment before slumping back into lethargy despite the unusual sight.

“Ta-da!” exclaimed Discord, turning around on the spot. “Well don’t all cheer at once, I only bent the laws of reality so you wouldn’t have to walk.”

“Where are we?” asked Spike, he glanced around his companions. “Where’s Ink Blot?”

“Oh I put Blotchy in storage for the moment,” explained Discord, “No need to have him cluttering up the place until we need him.”

“This isn’t Canterlot,” said Spike looking around. They had been moved outside and the buildings were no longer the classical architecture of the capital, the buildings around them had a more modern, and much less cared for style. The only similarity were the thick vines that lay scattered around the scene, and rubble remaining from buildings destroyed by their progress. The young unicorn shuddered thinking of their previous adventure.

“What city is this?” asked Dash rising into the air for a better look. “Is it another part of Manehatten?”

“I don’t think so,” said Auntie Orange, looking around, it certainly didn’t seem like her home town, none of the buildings were over two stories.

Octavia turned to Discord. “Well? Where have you brought us?”

“Why are you asking me?” he asked, shrugging his mismatched shoulders.

“Well you brought us here, you should know where ‘here’ is.”

“Oh you ponies and your quaint habit of naming things. All I know is that one of the potential element bearers is nearby. When in doubt wander about randomly I say. You might not find what you’re looking for but at least you’ll find something interesting.”

“How do we know we can trust you anyway?” asked Dash suspiciously, “You might turn all those vines against us at any moment.”

“My dear Rainbow,” said Discord looking up at the pegasus, “As I said that was a mere coincidence, and,” he yawned widely, showing far more and sharper teeth than anything even remotely equine should possess. “It took more out of me than I thought it would,” he smacked his lips together, “Maybe another nap would be in order? So Dashie, keen to get your hooves on my rock hard form again?” he teased.

The blue pegasus stuck out her tongue in disgust. “As if!”

“Oh, no,” cried Pinkie pushing Rainbow aside and glaring at Discord, “You’re not going to get near Dashie! I’m not going to give you a chance to use your personality switching, friendship destroying tricks on her. This time I’m going to be keeping an eye on you,” she said seriously, “Not just one eye but two, maybe even three. So no funny business!”

“But Dash is a sporty number,” complained the Dracoequis, “Just the right method of travel for something of my position.” Rainbow looked like she wasn’t sure if she should be flattered or not. “You...” he gestured at Pinkie, “Well you’re more of a clown cart, I’d expect to see dozens of brightly coloured ponies coming out of you.”

“Yup,” said Pinkie nodding with such force her head seemed to blur. Then she suddenly became serious again. “But it’s either me or you can walk, or even better we can just leave you here.”

“Fine,” muttered the tatterdamon, “But at least I’ll get into character first.” As he spoke his skin turned rubbery and he folded in upon himself collapsing bonelessly to the ground. Pinkie trotted over to where he stood and poked his form curiously with her muzzle. Where once stood the spirit of chaos now there was a slightly Discord-shaped rubber chicken. She prodded it again with her hoof this time, it gave out a mooing sound, a second prod resulted in the sound of thunder. Shrugging, Pinkie flipped the Discord chicken onto her back and twisted her head through almost one hundred-eighty degrees to gaze unblinkingly at it.

Ditzy launched herself into the air alongside Dash hoping to get a better idea of where they were. She flew round in a tight circle with only a slight wobble to get a panoramic view, there was something that was very familiar about this city. They had apparently arrived in the outer part of the city which seemed most affected by the vines. The center of the city seemed less affected but many of the neighbourhoods were surrounded by walls and gates, some even looked guarded, apparently the inhabitants were trying to keep something out. Then she spotted it, a statue set in the middle of a park. Both were choked with vines but the statue’s shape could just about be made out. Four letters, two on top, L O with the O at an angle, below were two others, V E. For a moment she felt sick, she knew where they were, and the state of the dreary city around her became so much more personal. She dropped back to the ground, landing heavily and staggering to one side before righting herself.

“We’re in Fillydelphia, my home town,” she gasped.

“Are you sure?” asked Spike. He’d only ever seen pictures of the city and they hadn’t looked like this.

“Yes, I saw a landmark I recognised. Now that I know what to look for I think I know this area as well.” She looked around, really taking in the detail this time. In her universe this was one of the better parts of the city, rather more high class than the one where she had grown up in. Not that her childhood home had been substandard, she and her parents had lived in a rather nice cloud house her father had built, which they usually tethered up in the suburbs. It was just that this district was more exclusive. Only in this world it wasn’t, the vines were nowhere near as dense as they had been in Manehattan but they had still overwhelmed several buildings which now stood abandoned. Other buildings were locked up like fortresses with bars over their windows and large locks visible on their doors. However, the biggest difference between the city before her and her childhood home were the street ponies. Everywhere she looked there seemed to be rough, malnourished looking ponies, there a group was gathered around a makeshift fire, here one was huddled under a sheet of cardboard to keep out the cold as she tried to sleep. Most kept their gazes down avoiding eye contact but a few looked up at the arrivals looks of either hope or malice in their eyes.

“Oh,” cried Ditzy stepping back towards her friends and almost tripping, “This is terrible!”

“Now you know how I felt seeing my own home in such a poor state,” said Orange Sherbet. “It really does seem that the whole of this world is like this.”

“This must be very upsetting for you, to see your home like this,” said Octavia letting the distressed pegasus lean on her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so off balance, you normally have excellent poise.”

“Really?” said Ditzy in surprise, trying to focus both eyes on the grey mare. “The version of me in your universe must really be different, I’ve always been so clumsy.”

Octavia coloured slightly. “I am sorry, in my universe you are trying to join the Wonderbolts. You are a very acrobatic flyer.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Dash. “Ditzy in the Wonderbolts? No offence but either your universe has a far lower bar or your Ditzy is a much better flyer than the one I know.”

“The latter I believe.”

“Oh, that’s where I’ve seen you before dear,” said Auntie tapping her head with a hoof, “It has been bothering me all day. I saw you at the young flyers competition, your um, unique, flying style caused rather a stir.”

“Oooh yes,” said Pinkie not turning away from staring at Discords immobile form on her back. “My Ditzy went to the flying competition as well, and she was all whoosh and zoom and ‘for the love of Celestia get out of my way!’ The Doc even managed to grow some wings to go with her. He never did totally explain it to me how he did it, something about partial regeneration via possible alternative universe twin.”

“Um, I’ve never been in any flying competitions, it’s not really my thing. I’m busy enough just raising Dinky.” She felt a little overwhelmed, all of her other universe duplicates seemed more adventurous than her.

“I’m sure you’ve done a wonderful job of raising your daughter,” reassured Auntie.

“If you’re even the slightest like the Ditzy in my world, you’re an amazing mom,” said Dash.

“Mine too,” said Spike. “We better find out what happened here.” He scanned the area. “There are enough ponies around that someone should be willing to talk to us.”

“Hey look Ditzy,” called Pinkie. “There’s somepony with the same outfit as you had, maybe you’re fashionable here, we should talk to them.”

Ditzy turned to look in the direction Pinkie was gesturing, there was a small group of mares clustered at the side of a road and indeed they were wearing outfits as outlandish as the one Trixie had had her wear before she’d been summoned to this world, socks or tights covered their legs and tight colourful outfits just about covered the rest of them. Many had their tails cut scandalously short. As she watched a stallion sidled nervously over and the mares gathered around looking attentive and brushing up against him. Ditzy’s eyes widened as she realised what was going on. She was very glad she’d gotten rid of the outfit during the time they’d spent waiting for Auntie to recover. “I don’t think we should interrupt them Pinkie, I think they’re, um working.”

Spike looked about and saw a unicorn stallion in his late middle age lying by himself wrapped in a filthy blanket. His coat, by nature or lack of cleanliness, was a dirty grey and his mane a rapidly greying pale red. He looked harmless enough so the green maned-stallion trotted over. “Hey, old timer. We’re, um, new in town what can you tell us about Fillydelphia?”

The pony slowly looked up blinking his bleary eyes, “Well ‘sonny’, talk, like everything else isn’t cheap. I know a lot about this city, but it’s gonna cost you.”

Thinking for a moment Spike gestured for the rest of the team to come over, they knelt by the old pony. “I think I have a source,” he whispered to his companions, “but he want’s something in exchange for information.”

Octavia brought out a small coin pouch and tipped out a few bits before passing them to the destitute pony. “Will this be enough?” she asked.

The stallion’s eyes widened and he snatched the coins away glancing at a group of tough looking ponies loitering nearby. “You should be careful,” he hissed, “there’s some who would kill you for these.” He glanced down at the coins turning them over. “Hey! What gives, these are fakes!”

“I assure you they are not!” said Octavia, sounding offended. “What do you take me for, a criminal?”

“Princess Cadence,” he read from the coin. “Who’s she? Real money has the two princesses on it, Luna and Celestia. I’ve never heard of a ‘Cadence’.”

“This could be a problem,” noted Spike. “I don’t think any of our money will be good here. Anypony got anything else we can give him?”

“Oh, I know!” said Pinkie reaching into her mane. She rummaged around for a second before withdrawing a multicoloured cupcake. The homeless stallion’s eyes grew wide as she offered him the confection. He grabbed it from her hoof and swallowed it down in two bites.

“Yummm!” he moaned. “It’s been so long since I tasted anything like that,” he sighed. “So sweet, and a bit spicy too.”

Pinkie moved her head closer to him. “The secret,” she whispered, “Is just a dash of rainbow.” Her eyes flickered towards her blue pegasus friend for a second.

“Anyway, we’ve fed you, now you can tell us about the city, mister...” said Spike wishing he had his notepad or Twilight with him, he was out of practice at having to remember what people actually told him. He briefly wondered if that made him a bad journalist or not.

“Name’s Nails, Iron Nails. Well no doubt you heard that Fillydelphia’s been affected by these vines less than other cities, probably why you’re here in the first place.” He gestured at a nearby spiky shoot. “Well that’s right as far as these things go, problem is that everypony else heard the same thing. Not long after the Day of Disharmony everypony and his dog, me included, fled here where it’s ‘safe’. Most of us gave up everything we had to get get passage. It wasn’t too bad at the start, the locals were good folks, gave us what help they could. They built some camps out on the suburbs, not much but the tents were warm and they provided us with food. But the vines started to overrun them and everyday there were more and more refugees and less and less space. Soon enough there weren't enough room, or homes, or jobs, or food.” His eyes glazed over in remembrance. “Some of the locals kept trying to help us but there were few enough of them and even they’ve given up by now, barricaded themselves into the heart of the city. We’ve been abandoned, left to try and fend for ourselves and it gets harder and harder each day. Parts of the city, like this one are no go areas, the guard don’t even come here in groups. Many of us have turned to crime to make ends meet, some make their way into the better parts of the city when they can and steal whatever they can find. Others prey on each other, or whatever locals can’t afford to move. The rest of us, well we do what we can to survive but it’s rarely enough. Now you seem nice enough folks, if you still got money I suggest you try to get lodgings in a better area, or even better go back to where ever you came from while you still can. There ain’t room for any more in Fillydephia.” He lead back seemingly exhausted by his rant.

“Wow,” mumbled Dash sounding shocked, “ I thought Manehattan and Canterlot had it bad.”

“We’ve got to do something to help these poor ponies,” said Ditzy, looking around.

“I agree, but we can’t help the whole city. The best we can do is to stop these vines, that should allow things to go back to normal, then the refugees can go home” said Auntie. Inside she knew that the solution wouldn’t be so easy, in most cases the homes wouldn’t exist any more. This probably would last for generations, still they had to do what they could. “We will need to find which pony is destined to be the Element of Kindness and ensure they take their rightful position. Do you have any idea who it could be, Ditzy? Discord said it would be somepony close to you.”

Ditzy say back and tried to think. “Well there are my family and friends, I suppose. They’re all nice ponies but I can’t think of anyone who really stands out as the bearer of kindness, but then I still don’t know why I was chosen in my world. Oh! Carrot Top used to live here as well, although I didn’t meet her until we both moved to Ponyville. She’s the Element of Generosity in my universe. Maybe she could be Kindness in this universe?”

“Do you know where in the city Carrot Top lived?” asked Spike, he’d not heard that the orange maned pony had ever lived outside of Ponyville in his universe.

“Not exactly.”

“Then it might be a good idea to start in your home neighbourhood then,” suggested Spike. “Presumably that’s where most of the ponies you know would live and we might be able to find out about Carrot Top while we’re there.”

“A good suggestion,” said Octavia, picking herself up from the ground and dusting herself down. “Maybe Ditzy’s element will react in some way if we get close to the rightful element bearer?”

“It’s a plan I suppose,” said Dash leaping into the air eager to be doing something, sitting around planning didn’t suit her temperament.

“This is your city, so you better lead on,” said Spike.

The grey pegasus looked around and tried to orientate herself, but it had been several years since she had lived in the city and this was a different universe. Still, she had a good idea of where her parents home could normally be found. “This way,” she, said pointing down the street before floating in that direction bobbing up and down gently. The rest of the group followed her.

“Ouch!”

Dash spun around to see Pinkie rubbing a large bump on her head. Next to her was a rather dented lamp post. “Pinkie, maybe you should only keep one eye on Discord, so you can see where you’re going?” she suggested.

“Oh, good plan Dashie,” said Pinkie with a smile as the rest of the group moved off again. “Don’t get any ideas,” she muttered to Discord’s boneless form as she followed the rest of the element bearers.


“Can you at least show the common decency to tune your instrument?” asked Octavia staring daggers at a street performer.

The busker looked up at her with an angry expression. “Look lady, if you keep harassing me I’ll show you where you can stick that cello, you’d probably enjoy it,” he snarled.

The group had been wandering the streets of Fillydelphia for over an hour without any sign of anypony who could be the missing element and their tempers were starting to wear thin. Ditzy wondered if it was some side effect of the vines, or just the situation they were in. She was sorry for the homeless ponies around them, but there were just so many of them. She felt overloaded and helpless. What could she, just one mare, do to relieve such misery?

Auntie Orange gently pulled Octavia away from the busker before things could escalate. “I don’t think we want to cause any more trouble,” she said.

“If he didn’t want criticism he should not be playing in public,” said Octavia, sticking her snout in the air.

Auntie stared for a moment.

“What?”

“Sorry, it’s just that you look the same as my Octavia but you’re not like her, she’s Kindness and you’re Honesty. It’s a bit of a shock.”

Octavia didn’t seem to know if she should be offended at this comparison or not.

“Which way now Ditzy?” asked Spike.

“I’m not sure, the city’s a bit different to the one I knew,” said Ditzy, partially truthly. She had been deliberately delaying their progress through the city. Although it had seemed a good idea to visit her home she was worried what she would find there, if it even existed in this world. Would her parents be there? Would she? Who would she be in this universe, what decisions would she have made? What was this universe’s Dinky like? At that thought her heart ached, when would she see her muffin again? Discord had promised her that her daughter would not even notice she was gone, but could she trust him? What if Dinky tried to follow her like the elements had followed Trixie when she had been transported to another universe, what would happen to her daughter if she found her way to such a dark world?

“Help!” came a mare’s cry, breaking into Ditzy’s thoughts. She spun around to try and pinpoint the source of the scream; it was an alley further down the street. Several street ponies were hurrying away from it, apparently attempting to avoid whatever was going on.

“We better...” started Spike, addressing the rest of the team. But before he could get any further Rainbow Dash was already away.

Moving so fast she left a glowing trail behind her, Dash flashed around the corner just in time to see a tough looking red coated pegasus mare, her face a mass of scars and one eye a milky white, drive her hoof into the muzzle of a young unicorn stallion. Blood splattered on his blue coat and white mane and he collapsed to the ground. “Pokey!” cried a young pink mare with a purple and pink mane as she rushed to the fallen stallion’s side.

“You better give us all you got unless you want the same treatment,” snarled the mare raising her hoof again. Around her a dozen or so tough-looking mares and stallions chuckled menacingly. The stunned blue stallion weakly struggled to push the pink mare behind him, but instead she interposed herself between him and his attacker.

“Take what you want, just don’t hurt him any more,” she cried

“How sweet!” jeered the thug, reaching towards a pair of bulging saddlebags lying on the floor, they were open and various jars and packages could be seen within.

“You aren’t taking anything,” cried Dash. She barreled down the alley and knocked several gang members aside before landing heavily between the scarred mare and her victim, three hooves on the pavement and the fourth raised ready to fight back. To her surprise her opponent wasn’t any older than she was, possibly even younger. Her intimidating presence was somewhat countered by her cutie mark, a smiley face stamped on some kind of biscuit.

“Who in Tartarus are you?” cried the thug, stepping back in surprise.

“I’m the mare who’s going to kick all of your flanks,” said Dash, looking at the gang members. There were a few street ponies still in the alley but they were all keeping their eyes down. It didn’t look like she was going to get any help from them.

“You alone against all of us?” sneered the lead mare as she recovered her bravado.

“Yeah, you better go get some more friends, to make it a fair fight,” boasted Rainbow taking a step towards her.

“She is not alone,” came a cultured voice. The whole gang turned to see the element bearers gallop into the alley. “I suggest you ruffians leave, now!” continued Octavia stamping a foreleg on the ground.

“Yeah! No big meanies allowed!” cried Pinkie.

Behind them Ditzy and Auntie looked less enthused. Spike lit his horn and stepped forwards, trying to look intimidating. “I think you should do as the lady suggests,” he said gruffly, trying to stop his fear showing through; he really missed Big Mac or Thunderlane, they were far better at this sort of thing than he was.

For a moment the scarred mare wavered, looking between her own forces and the elements. It looked like she might retreat, but then, with a snort and a cry of “Get them!”, she charged towards Rainbow and the melee began. The one eyed mare spun around and struck out with her hind legs again and again, while Dash threw herself from side to side to avoid the blows before countering with several more-accurate jabs from her front hooves which forced her opponent back grunting in pain.

Two earth pony stallions tried to gang up on Octavia driving her back with a series of blows. “Hit them with your instrument thingy!” cried Dash, rising into the air to avoid another series of kicks.

“My cello is a work of art, not a weapon, and besides, I would not sully it on such as these. Certainly not when there are other options.” Octavia reared up and brought a hoof down on the head of one of her attackers, who staggered back, stunned. His partner tried to attack the grey mare while she was distracted but found himself body checked by Sherbet.

“Oh, no you don’t!” she cried, her cultured Manehattan accent momentarily breaking to reveal her Ponyville roots, “You no good sidewinder!”

Meanwhile, Pinkie was bounding around, slapping the gang members around the face with the rubber form of Discord. Each time her makeshift weapon landed a blow it produced a different sound. A pegasus mare tried to grapple the rapidly moving pink blur but to her surprise Pinkie literally bounced off the walls, making pinball noises as she cartwheeled over her attackers. She lashed out with her chicken and struck her attacker with a sound like a bathtub being pushed down some stairs.

Lights flashed this way and that as Spike dueled with three attacking unicorns. Grunting with the effort the Element of Magic managed to deflect one of the incoming spells into the face of another of his attackers causing the unicorn to fly back against a wall. “Ha, Shining taught me that one!”

Amongst the confusion the pink mare tried to heft the still-stunned stallion to his hooves while reaching out with her aura to retrieve her bags. The bags began to inch closer until they were stopped by the hoof of a large purple earth pony stallion. “You’re not going anywhere,” he rumbled. He grinned nastily and started to advance on the young mare.

Suddenly there was a grey blur and an angry pegasus was hovering between the stallion and the mare. “Stop right there!” cried Ditzy. “What ever would your mother think of you, terrorising an innocent filly?” she asked.

“My mother?” mumbled the stallion, blinking as he tried to follow his opponent’s mismatched gaze.

“Yes, you do have one, everypony does. Would she want you to spend your time picking on those weaker than yourself?”

“Umm, er. No Ma’am, no,” he stuttered.

“Well than I think you should go away and think about what you’re doing, don’t you?”

“Err, yeah. Ok,” said the stallion, wandering away in a daze.

Ditzy wiped her brow. That had been close, she knew that that tone of voice worked on Dinky the few times she was naughty but she didn’t think it would also work on a grown stallion.

“Oh, thank you!” cried the pink filly. “Thank you for helping me.”

“That’s alright...” said Ditzy turning around. She blinked her eyes trying to focus on the mare in front of her, “Sparkler!” she gasped.


The scarred pegasus was forced to back away again as Dash launched into another series of lightning quick blows. Retaliating, she swung a wild blow with her forehoof, catching Dash on the head and sending her tumbling to the ground. However, within seconds the blue pony recovered and was flying back towards her opponent. The gang leader looked around, things were not looking good for her troops, despite outnumbering their opponents two to one several were now lying in dazed heaps on the floor. “Let’s get out of here!” she cried, taking advantage of Dash’s stunned state to fly away down the alley. The remainder of the gang disengaged from the element bearers and retreated, taking their wounded with them.

“And don’t come back!” yelled Dash, shaking a hoof at their retreating backs. She turned back to Sparkler, “Are you alright kid?” she asked. Then she recognised the mare she had been protecting for the first time. She looked near identical to the Sparkler she knew from her own universe, maybe a touch older. Still, it was nice to see Ditzy’s adopted child and she was glad that she had managed to protect her. She wasn’t as close to her world’s Sparkler as she was to Dinky, her goddaughter, but she certainly wouldn’t want to see her hurt.

“Thank you! Thank you all!” cried Sparkler as she looked around at her saviours.

The blue stallion she had been protecting also got to his hooves and wiped away the blood that was still trickling down his face. “Yeah thanks, that was some sharp fighting. I’m sure I could have dealt with them all but they caught me by surprise,” he awkwardly said.

“Of course you could Pokey,” said Sparkler, hugging the stallion and giving him a quick kiss.

“I really could...” he muttered, nuzzling her back.

“Pokey Pierce?” exclaimed Ditzy. She remembered that the Pokey in her universe had gone to college in Fillydelphia but she hadn’t expected to see him here now. Maybe it was how he styled his mane but he looked a little younger than the Pokey she knew, was that possible in this universe? Sparkler also looked younger than the one living in her Ponyville although only by a few years at most.

“I’m sorry, do I know you Miss?” asked Pokey still gripping Sparkler tightly.

“And you know my name as well,” said Sparkler. “Do you go to college here?”

“Of course she knows you!” exclaimed Pinkie. “She’s your mommy!”

“What!” exclaimed both Sparkler and Ditzy. The grey pegasus looked at the pink mare who couldn’t be more than half a dozen years younger than her.

“She’s not...” said Sparkler.

“I’m not...” said Ditzy.

“You’re not...” said Pinkie looking confused, “Ooooh! Right Ixnay on the nlternativeway universeway.” She tapped her snout with her hoof. “Of course she is in no way your mother in another universe, I was just being a silly Pinkie. Ignore me,” she continued woodenly.

“Maybe we should move somewhere a bit safer,” said Ditzy, turning away from the eccentric mare. “We don’t know if those brutes might some back.”

Sparkler nodded and led the group out into the main street and then across the road into a small overgrown park.

“I’m Ditzy Doo,” continued Ditzy, “And these are my friends, Spike, Octavia, Orange Sherbet, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. We were just passing when we heard you. I’m just glad we could help. What were the two of you doing in this part of town? It doesn’t seem safe to be by yourself.”

“She wasn’t alone,” pointed out Pokey, nuzzling Sparkler again. “She had me. I warn her about this type of thing, but she doesn’t listen to me.”

“Where the streets are most dangerous is just where the homeless ponies need the most help,” said Sparkler, opening her saddlebag and bringing out a sandwich. “I’ve got so much and they’ve got so little.” She handed the snack to a one of the street ponies who were now gathering around them. The thin mare grabbed it and muttered a quick ‘thank you’ before scuttling away to enjoy her meal. “It’s only right I do what I can to help them, no matter how little it might be.” As she spoke a line of needy ponies started to form up.

“She’s a regular mare of mercy Miss,” said an old stallion as Sparkler poured a mug of soup from a flask and passed it to him. “Comes here most days giving out food and help. There’s some who wouldn’t be alive but for her.”

Smiling, Sparkler passed out packs of food to the element bearers and bade them to give them to the homeless. Ditzy took her pack and began to do what she could to help, soon she found herself allowing a giggling purple earth pony colt to grip onto her mane and she gently flew through the air as his mother looked on with a smile. Her small passenger loved the flight as much as Ditzy did. Looking around she saw that Dash was also allowing a pair of fillies to ride on her while she looped the loop, for all the blue pegasus’s talk of being so awesome she seemed such a softy around the foals. Beneath them Pinkie was surrounded by a herd of giggling foals as she bounded around tossing cupcakes here and there. To one side Spike was playing some game with a group of other unicorns, their horns sparking as they tossed a battered ball between each other while Sherbet Orange passed out more sandwiches. From an impromptu stage made from a partially collapsed building a group of street ponies looked on in silent awe as Octavia played for them, bringing at least temporary beauty to their dull lives. The busker she had lambasted earlier played at her side and she occasionally stopped to give him instructions. Elsewhere Sparkler and Pokey were helping to provide medical aid, fitting and changing bandages on injured ponies.

“I think we may have found our target,” muttered Auntie Orange as Ditzy returned the foal to its mother.

“What do you mean?”

“Look at her,” she said, gesturing at Sparkler as she bound a mare’s wound. “Do you really doubt she’s kindness?”

Ditzy sighed. “I don’t know. She is awfully young, and it’s a big responsibility. Shouldn’t my element react in some way to her presence?”

The orange mare frowned for a moment. “Mine didn’t but I could just sort of sense who the bearer of my element was, but who else could it be? Maybe we just need to stay near her for longer, so you get a better feel for her? Once we know she’s definitely the bearer of kindness we call tell her about her destiny.”

That seemed reasonable to Ditzy. Sparkler certainly seemed a better potential element bearer that she had thought she would be. All she’d ever done was to raise her daughter as well as she could, and any mother would do that. Sparkler seemed to be trying to care for an entire city full of homeless ponies almost single hoofed. Something Pinkie had said to her earlier suddenly caught in her mind. She turned to the pink pony who had let her pursuers capture her and was lying at the bottom of a pile of wiggling foals.

“Pinkie?”

“Uh huh,” she said as she squirmed out from the pile of little pony flesh.

“I’m Sparkler’s mother in your universe? Really her mother, she’s not adopted or anything?”

“Nope, she’s your very own bouncing foal, you even showed me the video of her birth, all four hours of it and boy did you say some nasty things about the Doc. The whole thing was icky, I couldn’t eat for minutes after watching it.”

Ditzy briefly wondered what a video was, then something more important came to mind, “How old am I in your universe?”

“I don’t know, older than Mr and Mrs Cake, maybe as old as the Mayor, not as old as Mr Zippy.”

“And you still recognise me?” Ditzy tried to imagine herself in twenty years time, lined and bent by age, at least one of the advantages of a grey coat was that the years didn’t show as much. Still, her father’s mane was almost white by now, so would she look any better when she was his age?

“Of course I did, you don’t look any different in my world.”

“Not even a little?”

“Nope just the same!”

Ditzy shook her head. At least I have that to look forward to, she thought..

“I really must be going now, it’s getting late,” said Sparkler, checking her watch after finishing with her last patient. The element bearers started to gather around. “I’ll be back to help more tomorrow,” she announced.

Ditzy wasn’t sure what time it was or even if time still existed in the strange perpetual twilight that blanketed this world. None of the element bearers had a watch despite them seeming to be standard equipment in this world, but it did seem to be getting later to her. The thought then hit her, where were they going to spend the night? They didn’t have any local currency, it looked like they to would be spending the night sleeping rough. The thought did not appeal to her.

“I’ll walk you to your place,” offered Pokey.

“It might be better if we all help you,” said Spike. “These streets don’t seem safe.”

“Well as long as it’s not a problem,” said Sparkler

“Course not,” said Dash, “Where do you live?”

“Not that far away, maybe half an hour’s canter.”

“Then lead on and we will follow you,” said Octavia falling into step behind the younger mare along with the rest of the element bearers.


Ditzy felt a growing feeling of dread as the group made its way through the city. The streets continued to throng with the homeless, but none of them seemed to seriously wish harm on them, so it wasn’t that. If anything the area seemed to become nicer, it was even familiar for some reason but she couldn’t quite put her hoof on it.

“Well this is it,” Sparkler said, indicating a large house. It had obviously been a mansion when it was first constructed, built in an older style and probably quite attractive when first completed. Now, however, it looked like it had been crudely rebuilt into a fortress, or a prison. Many of the windows had been bricked up and those that hadn’t were covered with iron bars. The front door was clad in metal and half a dozen locks could clearly be seen on its surface.

Somewhat nervously Sparkler trotted up to the door and hammered on it, resulting in a hollow boom.

The team looked on in shock. “Wow!” gasped Rainbow.

“Your house is...” muttered Auntie.

“It certainly is a unique style,” said Octavia.

“Dad! It’s me!” cried Sparkler knocking on the door again.

Dad! The word flashed into Ditzy’s mind. Of course, Sparkler’s father, Castor Cut! She started to back away in shock as the door was flung open and a short, handsome, unicorn stallion with a light purple coat and a somewhat messy dark purple mane rushed out. He looked just like she remembered, like she had seen him that last day, just as upset.

“Sparkler!” he cried. “What are you doing here? You should be in your room!”

“I had to go out Daddy, I did leave you a note, me and Pokey...”

“POKEY!” roared the stallion swinging around to face the unfortunate stallion. “I told you to have nothing to do with that colt.” His blazing blue eyes alit on the object of his wrath, who nervously shuffled his hooves. “What have you been doing with my daughter?” he snarled.

“He protected me, Dad. We were helping the homeless when this gang attacked us...”

Quick as a shot the short stallion had barged past Pinkie and Dash and used his magic to lift the younger stallion into the air by his neck. “If you’ve gotten my daughter hurt!” he threatened.

“...” gasped the struggling stallion.

Sparkler grabbed onto her father and tried to pull him away from her choking coltfriend. “Stop it Daddy! You’re hurting him! Please!”

With visible effort, Castor controlled himself and let Pokey drop back to the ground. “What happened?” he asked.

“A gang tried to mug us, Pokey tried to protect me, then we were saved by these ponies.” She gestured at the bearers.

Castor’s shoulders slumped and he hugged his daughter, tears falling from his eyes. “Oh thank goodness, I... I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you. With your mother... away, you’re all I’ve got.”

“Don’t worry Daddy. I’ll always be here,” mumbled Sparkler into her father’s mane.

To Ditzy’s surprise she felt an electric tingle around her neck. It felt like the Element of Kindness bound around it was gently tugging her forwards. What did it mean, that Sparkler was the element bearer? If so, why hadn’t it reacted earlier? Or could it even mean Castor was the element? It seemed bizarre but he clearly loved his daughter, even if he didn’t show it well. She couldn’t just confront them now, she’d have to wait.

Castor’s voice hardened again. “Now go back to your room.”

“But...”

“No buts, you know you’re not supposed to leave without my permission. I need to talk to these ponies.”

“Dad, I’m not a foal any more,” complainted the younger mare.

“You’ll always be my little filly Sparkler, and as long as you live in my house you’ll follow my rules. Do you understand?”

Sparkler slumped. “Yes Daddy,” she slouched towards the door.

“Hey, you can’t talk to her like that!” protested Dash.

“I am her father, I can talk to her however I want,” snarled Castor

“It’s alright,” said Sparkler, “I’ll be ok.” She gave Pokey a small wave before entering the house.

Castor turned back to the rest of the group and put on a slightly false smile. Ditzy staggered aside and hid behind Octavia, for if this universe’s Castor and her own twin had the same history then he wouldn’t want to see her. “I am sorry for that, family business,” he explained. “Now, let me introduce myself, I am Castor Cut. I understand I have you to thank for my daughter’s safety,” he said sincerely.

“It was our pleasure,” said Octavia, shaking herself out of the shock at seeing the stallion’s angry behaviour and recent mood swings.

“Please take this as a reward.” Castor brought out a bag of bits and levitated it to them.

“No reward is...” began the grey mare.

“Thanks!” said Spike, picking the purse out of the air in his own aura. “You never know when having some money might be useful,” he hissed at the musician, “such as having somewhere to sleep.”

“Oh, yes,” said Octavia blushing slightly, “We accept your kindness,” she continued with a bow.

“Good.” He turned away apparently considering his business done and stared coldly at Pokey. “Now how much for you to never see my daughter again?”

“What!” exclaimed Pokey, looking shocked.

“I know you only want one thing, with a thousand bits you could buy it on any street corner,” sneered Castor.

The blue unicorn’s face darkened, and for a moment it looked like he was going to slap the older stallion. “Sir,” she said pointedly. “I love your daughter, she is smart, beautiful and kind, she is worth more to me than the world. And if you think I could buy somepony like her on the street, what does that say about what you think of her?”

“Don’t you dare question my love for my daughter!” roared Castor. He advanced on Pokey again, who stood his ground. “She is everything to me, everything I do is for her own good. To protect her from blue coated scum like you!”

“Hey, buddy!” yelled Dash putting herself between Pokey and Caster. “You got a problem with ponies with blue coats?”

“Only those who are bad news for my family,” he hissed, continuing to stare at Pokey. “I don’t want to see you near my daughter ever again.” With that he turned and entered his house again, there was the sound of several locks being engaged.

“What a brute!” exclaimed Auntie Orange.

“Such a meanie meanie pants,” commented Pinkie.

“He really doesn’t like you kid,” said Dash to Pokey. “What’s the story there?”

Pokey sighed and winced a bit. Now that his fillyfriend was gone he’d stopped trying to hide the ache in his injured muzzle. “We’ve never been good friends. I’m dating his daughter, so it sort of goes with the territory, but he used to tolerate me for Sparkler’s sake. Then about a year ago he suddenly turned super paranoid, he pulled Sparkler out of college, and hardly ever even lets her out of the house any more. It's like he hates me now, like he thinks I’m going to hurt her or something. But I’d never do anything like that. I really do love her,” he said sincerely.

“You and she went to college?” asked Spike.

“Still do, I live on campus. We were both doing administration studies, it was how we met. She was late for one of her lessons and she sort of ran over me on the way there. She helped me up and apologised and I suggested we could study together and things sort of grew from there.” He smiled at the recollection. “On that note I better get back to my dorm before curfew. Thanks for saving me and Sparkler earlier.”

“Sure you’ll be ok?”

“I’m sure, it’s not that far and it’s a fairly safe area, the guards patrol quite frequently,” said Pokey as he started to gallop off.

“Maybe we should find somewhere to stay as well,” said Spike, hefting the purse Castor had given them. He looked up at the sky, the sun and moon were both visible as always in this strange dimension. “I have no idea what time it is, but I’m bushed.”

“I am somewhat fatigued as well,” noted Octavia.

“Ok, Ditzy have you any idea where we can stay?” asked Auntie.

“Huh, what?” asked Ditzy, shaking herself from her thoughts she turned away from Castor’s house.

“Are you all right dear?” asked Orange Sherbet, noting Ditzy still looked shocked. “You look like you’ve see a ghost.”

Indeed the pegasus’s coat was a paler grey than usual. “I’m fine. I think my element reacted just then.”

“That must mean that Sparkler is the element,” said Orange with nod, “like I said you’ll just know who the new bearer is.”

Ditzy bit her lip. “I’m not sure, could... could Castor be the element bearer?”

“That beast? Surely you jest?”

“I... I don’t know, he did seem to care for his daughter.”

“If so, he does have a strange way of showing it.”

“Humm,” said Spike. “Well I was certain that Shining was going to be the Element of Magic, but it turned out I was wrong. The Element reacted to him as well, but not in a good way.” He shuddered a little, thinking back to yesterday's events. “Let's see if we can find a place to stay first, then we can discuss who the element could be and what we’ll do next. Can you think of anywhere we could go, Ditzy?”

“‘Scuse me,” came a familiar voice. hey all turned to see the old stallion they had talked to earlier.

“Hey, are you following us?” asked Dash suspiciously.

“A bit,” he said, looking embarrassed. “I saw you help that Sparkler girl, regular flutterpony of mercy she is, and I thought you might need some help.”

“I didn’t see you.”

“Ah, that’s the thing about this city. All us homeless ponies just become scenery after a bit, and regular folks don’t see us any more. Now I might know a few places you could stay, and good places at that, for a small fee.”

“That seems reasonable,” said Spike.

“Course, there was a time you could stay right here if you needed to,” he said gesturing, at the fortress-like building. “Everypony used to be welcome at Castor’s place.”

“Really! He doesn’t seem welcoming now,” said Auntie.

“He used to be a great friend of this city and everypony who lived in it, did Castor Cut. After the Day of Disharmony he was one of the few that tried to help the refugees, he might even be part of the reason why so many came to Fillydelphia in the first place. He made shelters for the homeless, even opened up his own house to them, formed soup kitchens, even gave some of us jobs. Oh it was a drop in the ocean compared to what was needed, but others copied him, and well it gave ponies hope that things could get better, and when you ain’t got nothing hope’s important to you.” The old pony sighed, thinking back. “But then, ‘bout a year ago he just changed overnight. He shut down the shelters, threw everypony out of his home, locked and bolted the doors. Turned it into a fortress he did, almost never leaves and he don’t let anyone in. Sparkler escapes every so often but no pony’s seen his missus. There’s some say that he killed her.”

“Killed her!” gasped Ditzy. “He’d never do that!”

Auntie Orange looked at Ditzy in interest, “Do you know him in your universe?”

“You might say that,” Ditzy mumbled nervously, “It was a long time ago. He and his wife had their problems but I don’t think it would go that far.”

“But this world is not yours,” pointed out Auntie.

Iron looked confused at the talk of other universes, but seemed to ignore it for the moment. “Now I don’t believe a word of it,” he said making reconciliatory gestures with his hooves, “but it’s what ponies say. What ever caused Castor to change, well it was the nail in the city’s coffin. The other shelters closed down and the homeless problem just got worse and worse, more and more ponies are turning to crime just to survive, like that gang that tried to rob Sparkler. It’s hardly safe to walk the streets of even the better parts of the city any more.”

“Another reason we should try to find somewhere to stay,” pointed out Spike. The others nodded in agreement. “So lead on Iron.”

The grey stallion took the group through the streets and true to his word led them to a rather shabby looking motel in a better part of town. Even so it looked almost as fortified as Castor’s house. A stern looking guard stood at the door and stared at them as they approached. Spike gave their guide a few coins. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay here with us?” he asked.

“No, I’ve got a nice enough space to sleep and these’ll last longer,” he indicated the money, “If I don’t waste them on luxuries like a bed.” He turned and hobbled away. Ditzy watched him go, wishing the old stallion would reconsider.

The party approached the hotel and after giving them a quick glance the guard seemed to decide they looked like paying customers and stood aside to let them by. Orange Sherbet looked around in distaste at the interior, She would never let her hotel get so shabby. Once inside they approached the desk.

“We’d like a room please,” asked Spike.

The stallion behind the desk looked dubiously over the five mares and one stallion in front of him. “This isn’t that kind of hotel,” he scowled. “We don’t want any funny business here.”

“Oh, rooms! I mean rooms!” stuttered the purple stallion blushing furiously. “One for each of us to sleep in. Alone. Food as well.”

“Very well, six rooms. The kitchen is closed for the night but you can have breakfast tomorrow. That will be three hundred bits.”

Spike blanched at the price but he guessed beggars couldn’t be choosers and counted out the money. There were only a few coins left when he was finished. “Ok, everybody get a good night's sleep,” he suggested while handing out the keys. “We’ll have a hard day saving the world tomorrow.”

Ditzy took her key, and along with the rest of the elements, walked off into the hotel to find her room.

“Are you all right, dear?” asked Orange Sherbet as Ditzy came to a stop outside her room. “Are you still worried about your daughter?”

“A little. I know it’s silly, she’s probably in less danger than I am, but I always worry about her. I guess I always will.”

“Oh, I feel the same about my Tangerine. I suppose she’d always have Mosley to look after her if something happened to me.”

“I don’t have anyone to look after Dinky if something happened to me, well my parent’s I suppose.”

“Let's not think about that sort of thing, raising a child is difficult as it is without worrying unduly.”

“I suppose so, it just that it must be much easier for you than me.”

Orange looked at Ditzy a little strangely. “Why do you say that?”

“Well you have so much more, you have a husband, money, everything. I can’t choose to spend a day playing with Dinky because that would mean I wouldn’t be able to make the rent. I can’t afford to buy her all the toys and things she needs either. If you wanted you could probably hire somepony to help you with her.”

“I would never expect somepony else to raise my child,” said Auntie sharply. “And I think you will find that just having money doesn’t make raising after a foal any easier.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t quite mean it like that. There’s just so much I think Dinky’s missing out on and I’m worried about her.”

“Of course, dear,” said Auntie, somewhat dubiously. “I’m sure things will look better in the light of day, of whatever they have in this world. Good night.” She turned and walked off, somewhat stiffly.

With a sigh, for she really shouldn’t have snapped at Orange like that, Ditzy opened the door to her room to reveal a space only slightly larger than her bedroom at home. Still it was certainly better than the cell she’d spent the last night in. Heavy curtains covered the windows to block out the ever present, if dull, sunlight. Thoughts of her cosy little house on top of the post office brought back further memories of Dinky, and she hoped she wouldn’t have to spend many more nights away from her little muffin. She flopped back onto the hard bed with its starchy sheets and tried to deal with the events of the day. Seeing Castor again had brought back a lot of memories she didn’t think she’d have to deal with, particularly not here. He seemed so different, had he met her in this universe? Did she exist in this universe? If she did and they had met then things had apparently worked out differently here, Sparkler was still with her father, but how differently? Should she tell the rest of the team about what happened between her and Castor? What would they think of her if she did? She leaned her head back on the pillows and tried to escape into sleep, but it did not come for quite some time.


“What were you thinking?” yelled Tough Cookie at the purple stallion cowering in front of her.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, looking down, “I got confused.”

“Confused! You need a brain to be confused, you cretin. You had the perfect chance to grab the bags and you run off because some grey featherhead asks you what your mommy would think of you.” Brick was usually one of the more reliable members of her crew, she thought. He didn’t have the imagination to do anything but follow her plans, but he had a soft streak which could get him in trouble, like now.

“Well it did seem a bit mean...”

“Mean? Mean? I’m sorry, I thought we were a gang, not a play school. Snowdrops and rainbows don’t keep you warm at night, or put food in your belly. In this gang we do what we have to. Everypony understand that?” She turned to the rest of the team and, with some effort, glared at them with her bad eye. She knew the white orb made her more intimidating, even if it stung like anything to open it. Unsurprisingly none of the ponies met her gaze. Amateurs, the lot of them, most had just joined Gambit for the scraps he threw them. She had to constantly stay on their tails or they’d just fall back in with the rest of the herd on the streets. Still, they were her responsibility, almost her family now. “Get out of here, all of you, I’ve got to explain to the boss how we managed to get beaten by half a dozen strangers and you won't want to be around me after that.”

The crew scattered before her wrath. With an angry sigh, Cookie made her way through their hideout towards the boss’s room. They were currently holed up in an abandoned hotel. The vines had demolished part of it, and most of the street ponies had been too scared to come near it. Bad luck to live near the vines they said, but Gambit had loved the somewhat faded luxury of the place.

For a moment she leaned against the double doors to the suite the boss had appropriated and tried to calm herself. She didn’t want to seem unprofessional in front of him. Taking a breath she pushed the doors open and entered. The boss had spread himself over a chaise longue surrounded by several of the working girls, one of whom was feeding him grapes. The blue stallion looked up and smiled as she approached. His coat was perfectly groomed and not a hair was out of place in his white and blue mane and mustache. “Ah mon chérie, good to see you,“ he said, taking a sip from a glass of wine held in his aura. As always the mere sound of his voice set a whole flock of butterflies loose in her stomach and made her legs feel rubbery. She’d been grateful when he had rescued her, but those feelings had long since grown into something much more. “You are looking as beautiful as always.” Several of the mare’s around him giggled. Cookie glared at them, the bitches were just jealous that she was Gambit’s favourite. “I was expecting you earlier.” He checked the mare’s watch he habitually wore, “Did you manage to carry out the petite task I asked of you?”

The butterflies suddenly turned to lead and her mouth went dry. “Um... there was a problem, Handsome.”

For a moment a look of annoyance passed over his face. “That is regrettable and you know that no matter how apt my first name is.” He preened for a moment. “I prefer my ‘employees’ to use my second name.” There was more steel in his voice now.

She flinched. “Sorry, Gambit.”

“Bon, now what went wrong?”

“Some strangers turned up and saved the girl, they were decent fighters.” She briefly considered blaming her minions but she had been in charge, so it was her responsibility, “I ordered a retreat.”

étrange, spread the world, I’d like to know more about them. Still I expected more from you mon chérie. You know how I feel about you, but if you keep making mistakes like this, I will have to punish you.”

Cookie shuffled nervously from hoof to hoof. The other mares were loving this, she thought, they were always trying to find a way to get between me and Handsome, the harpies! Everyone else only saw her scars, but Gambit had seen the beauty within her. It had been her parent's last wish for him to look after her and he took that vow seriously. He’d told her that once they’d sucked the city dry they could retire somewhere far away from Equestria, just the two of them, but until then he had to keep his feelings for her hidden to avoid breaking up the gang.

“Still let's put all that caractère désagréable behind us for the moment and look towards the future. We do need to do something about that little pink catin, too many of our possible recruits are turning away from me because she’s given them hope. I think we need to make an example of her, and maybe turn a profit as well. Bring her to me.”

“But how are we going to get to her? You know what her house is like and she’s got a lot of friends on the street. We were lucky to get the drop on her this time.”

“Ah, Cookie, that is why I am le cerveau and you are the brawn, for the answer is simple her petit ami. Follow him and sooner or later she will come to him.”

“But he lives at the college, and that place is guarded.”

“I’m sure you can work out something, I have faith in you. There is nopony else I would trust to carry out this mission.” He gave another of his leg-weakening smiles and Cookie struggled to keep her tail from flagging. “Now off with you, there is no time like the present.”

Feeling buoyed, Tough Cookie marched off with a spring in her step.

“Why do you keep her around?” hissed one of Gambit’s companions as the scarred pegasus left.

“I find her amusant and she does good work, most of the time.” He leant over and kissed the mare. “Her little crush on me is so obvious. Maybe one day I’ll even give her what she wants, if she wears a bag over her ugly face.” He laughed.

Chapter Five, Part Two.(Written by Talon and Thorn)

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“Muffins!” squealed Ditzy as she looked over the breakfast the hotel had provided. After half a night's sleep and some time under the lukewarm shower in her room, she at least felt partially equine, and the presence of her favourite food helped improve her disposition even more. Despite being used to early mornings she had found herself the last of the party to arrive to eat. Even the nap happy Dash was here.

“It’s nice to see that some things are the same in all universes,” said Spike with a grin. ”My Ditzy loves muffins as well.”

“As does mine,” said Octavia with a smile. “Although she tries to resist their siren call to stay in best flying shape.”

“The Ditzy I know loves them as well,” said Pinkie, inhaling a plate of sweet treats. “For her last birthday I baked her a really big muffin that Dinky could jump out of as a surprise. But she was worried that her momma would eat her, so I jumped out instead. She did take a few bites out of my tail though.”

Dash gave a chuckle, “Yeah, that sounds like Ditzy. I found she even keeps an emergency muffin stash in her bedroom, in case she gets peckish at night.”

“How do you know what's in Ditzy’s bedroom Dash?” asked Spike. “Is there something we should know?”

“Oh, I live with her, she’s one of my oldest friends,” said Dash casually

“Only friends?” said Spike, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, only friends.” She blushed slightly. “Geez what are you, your universe’s version of Cloud Kicker? She even made me Dinky’s godmom,” she continued with pride.

Ditzy blinked. She couldn’t think of trusting somepony like Dash with her daughter if something happened to her, but maybe this Dash was more reliable than the one she knew. Although, thinking about it her Dash had been caring for Fluttershy for several years. Maybe she should consider asking some pony to be Dinky’s godmother in case something happened to her, since being an element was a dangerous life. Still, who could she pick? Most of her closest friends were elements as well, her parents would make sense she supposed, maybe Silver Script?

“We’ve been talking about what to do today,” said Auntie, shaking Ditzy from her thoughts. “We think our best lead to the Element of Kindness is Sparkler, she certainly seems to fit the bill. We just need to get her away from that ogre of a father of her’s long enough to talk to her and for your element to empower her.”

“Yeah, I’m sure I can get in there and out in a few moments,” said Dash. “Castor won’t even know I’m there.”

“Is there something wrong dear?” asked Auntie turning to Ditzy. “You seemed a little on edge last night.” She narrowed her eyes a little, obviously not having forgotten Ditzy’s words outside of her room. “Everytime someone mentions that stallion’s name you twitch a little.”

“Well, I know Castor,” said Ditzy, shifting uncomfortably in her seat, breakfast forgotten, “well the Castor in my world very well, at least I thought I did.”

“And this one doesn’t match? I certainly don’t see you being friends with anypony like that.”

“It was more than friends, you see.” Ditzy closed her eyes and tried to will away the ice in her stomach, this was every bit as hard as she’d expected. This was very private to her and she’d only recently told even her closest friends, let alone total strangers, even if some of them wore familiar faces. However, if it affected their mission and got her one step closer to getting back to her daughter she’d do anything. “Well you see Castor... C-Castor’s Dinky’s father,” she stuttered, looking down at the ground. “At least in my world he is.”

“You mean Doctor Whooves isn’t Dinky’s daddy in your universe?” gasped Pinkie. “She doesn’t have two hearts?”

Ditzy looked at Pinkie in utter confusion, “Two hearts? No just one really big one.” She couldn’t help but smile at the thought.

“Wow, you must live in bizarro world then, I can’t imagine you and the Doc not being together.”

“I do not know who Dinky’s father is in my universe,” said Octavia. “Your duplicate has not ventured that information and I have not pried into her affairs, but I don’t know of anypony called Doctor Whooves.”

“Yeah, sort of the same thing here,” said Spike, rubbing his head nervously. He’d always meant to find out who Dinky’s dad was but it seemed a rather personal question to ask his friend.

“That Castor creep,” said Dash. “Definitely not Dinky’s dad in my universe. He might be Sparkler’s, though. You adopted her where I come from.”

In a way the fact that Dinky seemed to exist in all universes more or less the same regardless of who her father was make Ditzy feel better. When she’d previously visited a different universe the Dinky there had been similar to her daughter and had been the daughter of Castor Cut as well. The version of her in that universe had been dating a stallion called Time Turner, but she’d never heard of a Doctor Whooves. It seemed like her daughter was special, appearing in the whole of creation regardless of her parentage.

“So Castor Cut lives with you and Dinky in your universe then?” asked Auntie. “I can understand how it could be a shock to see him like this, then.”

Dinky flinched, her happy thoughts suddenly forgotten. “No. We... We’re not together anymore, I’m not sure if we ever were really.”

“What ever do you mean?”

“Well when I met him I was young, almost too young. I was angry with my parents about something, I don’t remember what, not letting me go to a concert, something trivial like that. So I went to a bar and I met him there. He... He’d be fighting with his wife and I... I was in heat.”

“Oh,” said Auntie, looking grim.

“We danced and when the clubs closed we went, umm, dancing together. He seemed so mature and attractive at the time, and well I liked how he made me feel. We were together for a few months, then... then I found out about Dinky and he... he didn’t want anything to do with me.” Her gaze dropped again.

“What!” exclaimed Auntie, “How could he! Abandoning his own child like that!”

“The cad!” agreed Octavia.

“Scumbag!” snarled Dash.

“It wasn’t all his fault, I hadn’t thought of the consequences either,” said Ditzy. “And he had a family to think of.”

“Which he should have considered before picking up barely legal fillies in bars, no offence dear,” said Auntie.

“But I didn’t think of them either. I knew he had a wife and a daughter, and he never even said he was going to leave them. I just wanted to have fun.”

“No, don’t blame yourself. You were the victim. He obviously wasn’t thinking... not with his head anyway,” snorted Auntie.

“Stallions!” commented Dash.

“They’re all the same,” complained Octavia.

For a moment Spike considered protesting the other element bearers’ slander of his gender, then looked around at the circle of angry mares and decided that in this situation discretion would be the better part of valour, and kept his mouth shut.

“Anyway, my parents tried to make him take responsibility. His wife, May Bell, found out what had been going on and she divorced him.”

“Serves him right,” said Orange Sherbet angrily. “If I found out that Mosley, not that he would...” she trailed off.

“But that ruined his daughter's life, ruined Sparkler’s life, her parents split up and it was all my fault. If I’d just been a better pony, thought about something other that my own selfish needs. I ruined her life.”

“Well Castor didn’t seem to recognise you in this world so it would seem that this universe's you didn’t have an affair with him. If there even is a you in this universe,” said Octavia, frowning a little. “This multiverse thing is very confusing.”

“Still it does seem that no version of Castor is any good,” said Sherbet. “It's a wonder his daughter turned out so well, she must take after her mother. I think we can all agree that she is most likely to be the Element of Kindness and the sooner we get her out of that gulag and saving the world the better for everypony.”

“But remember what Iron Nails said,” said Ditzy, an idea striking her. “This world’s Castor was a good pony without me about, until he changed recently. We were told this world’s elements had become corrupted, so it could be him rather than Sparkler.”

“Dear, I think you might be putting your relationship with Castor ahead of your common sense. You are not to blame for what has happened in this universe, nor in your own. He might have done some good in the past but he seems quite far gone now, whereas Sparkler seems a saint.”

“Yeah, Sparkler’s a sweet kid and Castor doesn’t seem anything but trouble in this world or your own,” said Dash.

Ditzy tried to consider her emotions. Despite how he’d acted towards her she’s never really blamed Castor for anything, how could she? He’d given her her most precious treasure, for without him there would be no Dinky. But was she taking it too far, seeing kindness where there was none? He seemed to be motivated by a desire to protect his daughter, and she could understand that, love could drive you to do some questionable things. She remembered hefting a gangster far into the air and let him drop without knowing if she could catch him again so she could find out what his companions had done with Dinky. She had to find out more.

“I think I at least need to talk to him to try and find out what happened to make him change. Maybe if we talk to him and Sparkler about why we’re here...”

“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” said Spike. “You remember what Iron said about his wife, you could be in danger.”

Ditzy looked agast. She knew Caster and May Bell had been fighting even in her universe but she couldn’t imagine it going that far. Even when she’d been with him he’d mentioned he’d loved his wife. It was just that sometimes love didn’t last, or just wasn’t enough. “I really don’t think he’d do that.”

“But even if there’s a chance I think we should all go.”

“Oh, come off it,” growled Dash. “Maybe you had a thing with your world’s Castor, but this one’s locked up his own daughter. We need to break in there and get her out before he does something worse to her.”

“Dash, I think that’s a bit extreme. We don’t have any evidence that he’s done anything wrong. We should go with Ditzy’s plan and investigate a bit first,” said Spike.

“Who made you the boss?” snorted Dash, rising into the air.

“I agree with Spike,” said Octavia.

“I don’t like this Castor,” admitted Auntie. “But it’s probably best to try to talk before we go in hooves flying.”

“Fine,” said Dash, crossing her forelegs and scowling.

“Right so once we’ve finished eating we can go and interview Castor, and Sparkler if we can,” said Spike.

“No, you saw how he was, he might let one or two ponies into his house but not six,” pointed out Ditzy.

“How about just you and me?” suggested Sherbet. “We hardly look threatening. The rest of you can stay here for the moment.”

“Hey, no offence but if this guy does turn out to be some sort of psycho pony you’re gonna to need some backup,” said Dash.

“Oh, I think I can take care of myself dear. I’m not as helpless as I look, earth pony strength and all that,” said Orange, looking Dash in the eye.

“Yeah, ok,” said Dash, lowering her gaze, “but I don’t see why you need to talk to him. We could just get Sparkler out of there and be done. The sooner this world’s saved the sooner we can all get back home.”

The argument was very seductive to Ditzy, but she couldn’t agree. “I’m not just going to take Castor’s daughter away from him, even if she wants to go. I wouldn’t wish that on anypony. We need to talk to them both before we do anything else.”

“Fine,” said Dash sulkily. “But my way’s quicker.”

“So it’s agreed,” said Spike, “Auntie and Ditzy will try to talk to Sparkler and Castor and the rest of us will stay here?”

The rest of the group nodded.

“I’ll get a ‘we found the third of the elements’ party ready,” said Pinkie.

The group stood up from their breakfast. Orange and Ditzy made their way to the door while the rest milled around in the lobby area. Octavia took out her cello and started to run through some scales on it. Meanwhile Spike started to read an old magazine he’d found on a table and Pinkie produced fabric and paints from somewhere and started to make a banner. Dash paced impatiently around the room. “I’m going out to stretch my wings,” she announced after a few minutes.

“Don’t go far,” warned Spike.

“Don’t worry,” said Dash with a grin. “I’ll be back before you know it.” With that she ran to the door and leaped into the air. Circling the hotel a few times before flashing away in the direction of Castor’s house.


“This can’t be the right way,” said Orange, looking at the tangle of vines which blocked their route to Castor’s house.

“I think you might be right,” admitted Ditzy. It wasn’t as easy finding her way back without a guide as she thought it would be. She knew the Fillydelphia of her universe but it had been several years since she had lived there, plus in this universe several roads were blocked by vines.

“Maybe you could fly us over this blockage, dear,” suggested Auntie, looking dubiously at the long thorns sticking out of the greenery, “I don’t fancy trying to chamber over that.”

Ditzy scanned the sky. There were several stickly looking clouds hovering above, and she didn’t like the look of them. She was about to suggest they take a different route when she saw a multicoloured blur whizz across the sky. “Dash!” she gasped.

“What?” said Auntie shielding her eyes from the sun and looking up. “What’s she doing?”

“Going to get Sparkler no doubt! After we told her not to!”

“Well you’ll have to stop her, then. There’s no way I can get there in time.”

Ditzy was torn for a moment, “Are you sure you’ll be all right by yourself?”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll be able to meet you at Castor’s... eventually,” she said, looking dubiously at the vines.

“If you’re sure...”

“Yes, go!” she insisted.

Giving a last look back, Ditzy lept into the air, and giving the yellowy clouds a wide berth she followed Dash’s trail as quickly as her wings would carry her.


It had only taken a matter of minutes for Dash to reach Castor’s house. She circled it a few times, looking for a way in. She had to admit that the unicorn had done a good job of fortifying his dwelling, even the chimney was blocked off. Most of the mansion’s windows and been bricked up and those that weren’t were barred. Thinking she might be able to pry out some of the blocks, Dash hovered in front of a window, only to freeze as she noticed several small gems glittering in the mortar. That triggered a faded memory of her lessons about magical security. She suspected that the gems were enchanted, if disturbed they could trigger an alarm or even a harmful spell of some type. Celestia had demonstrated the range of spells that could be stored in such gems using a paralysing spell, and by the time Dash had been able to move again the castle seamstresses had finished sewing her into a dress for that night's gala. Dash shuddered at the recollection, if these gems were anything like that then Castor had certainly not skimped on his security system.

Sighing, Dash swooped lower looking for any further entrances to the house.

“Rainbow Dash!” came a cry from behind her. Dash jumped so suddenly she was sure her wings would fall off and then spun around. Hovering there, looking annoyed was Ditzy Doo. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

Dash looked down, sweating nervously, “Errr, Um...” she tried. It seemed that this Ditzy had the same power as the one in her universe, the disapproving look of doom. One glance and she was a little filly again and she knew she’d been naughty. It made Fluttershy’s stare seem like a sideways glance. “I was just stretching my wings and found myself in the area so I thought I might as well have a look around.”

“Rainbow Dash!”

“Fine, I was trying to find Sparkler.”

“We agreed to talk to Castor first.”

“Yeah but he locked her up Ditzy, he could have done anything to her. Now we’re here we can at least make sure she’s all right.”

Ditzy sighed. It would be a while until Orange got here and now that Dash mentioned it she was a bit worried about Sparkler’s safety. She was sure Castor wouldn’t do anything to her, but just in case. “Fine, let's see if we can find her room and make sure she’s ok.”

“Thanks,” said Dash with a grin as she zipped towards the nearest barred window. To her surprise she immediately caught a glance of Sparkler sitting at a desk apparently working some sort of magic on a large gem.

“Hey kid!” hissed Dash, causing Sparkler to jump and drop the gem.

Looking around in surprise Sparkler spotted the source of the noise and cautiously approached the pegasus’s crowding at the window. “Rainbow isn’t it? And Ditzy?” she asked, sounding surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to make sure you were all right after how your dad was acting last night. He didn’t hit you or anything did he?” asked Dash with a scowl. “If he did I’ll...”

“No! Dad would never hurt me. He was just angry that I left without telling him and, well scared as well. He worries about me you see.” She wrung her hooves.

“I can understand that,” said Ditzy. “This wor... city doesn’t seem very safe.”

“Yeah, you can see he really cares,” said Rainbow sarcastically. “He’s given you such nice curtains.” She tapped one of the bars with her hooves.

“He just wants me to be safe,” she said regretfully. ”He doesn’t like it when I go out.”

“Yeah most jailors don’t like it when their prisoners escape.”

“Dash!” said Ditzy sharply, although the evidence didn’t seem to be with her. The bars looked very sturdy.

“Hey, I just tell it like it is,”

“It’s really not like that,” said Sparkler, “I could leave if I wanted to.”

“Sure! The locks and bars are all just decoration.”

“No really, I can leave whenever I want,” said Sparkler, looking sure of herself.

That surprised Dash. “Come off it, there are bars and I can see at least a dozen spell gems.”

Ditzy frowned. She wasn’t sure what the blue pegasus was talking about, then she squinted at the wall and noticed several twinkling lights.

“Twenty-two actually, Daddy’s very good at them. But,” she turned slightly giving them a view of her flank and the gem symbols on it, “I have the same cutie mark as him, and the same talent.” Her horn glowed for a moment and Dash saw the spell gem’s slight glimmer go out. “As for the bars, well I loosened them a long time ago.” Her aura encompassed one of them and, with a yank, it separated from the wall. She repeated the process again and again until there was enough room for Dash to squeeze herself through, which she did. Ditzy started to follow her, but being less athletic, didn’t find it as easy.

“Hey, not bad. ‘course I could have broken in myself but it would have taken a bit longer.” Dash looked around the room. “Eerr, nice place, it’s very pink.” She was not exaggerating, every surface of the large room was covered in various shades of the colour as was the carpet, the furniture, and even the bed clothes. There was a large pile of plush toys in one corner and apart from a small work bench covered in gems, everything else was lacey or flowery. It made Rarity’s bedroom look practically butch. Rainbow could feel some of her awesomeness being leached away just by being in the room.

Sparkler blushed, blending into the room even better. “Dad decorated it. I don’t think he always remembers I’m not a little filly any more.”

“Those are very nice,” commented Ditzy pointing at the toys. Her head and forelegs were now in the room, but she was having difficulty getting her wings through the gap between the bars. “I’m sure Dinky would like them.”

Sparkler sighed, “Yes, I used to really love them. When I was a foal!”

There was a knocking at the door. “Sparkler?” came Castor’s voice. “Can I come in?”

“Hide!” hissed Sparker, snapping her head around to Dash before rushing over to the window and gently pushing Ditzy back out the window before slotting the bars back into place. Dash looked around for somewhere to go, but there wasn’t space under the bed and she couldn’t see any cupboards large enough to hold her. The ceiling was low enough that anypony entering the room would notice her straight away.

“Sparkler?” came Castor’s voice again.

“Just a second, Dad!”

Dash’s eyes alighted on the pile of toys in the corner. She gulped but couldn’t see any other options, she just hoped that nopony she knew would see her. She dived into the pile of plush animals and tried to bury herself as best as she could. Sparkler, having finished securing her window, ran back to her desk and picked up the gem again.

“You can come in now!” she yelled.

The door opened and Castor came in levitating a tray. “I brought you a snack,” he said.

“Thanks,” muttered Sparkler as Castor rested the food on a pink side table. Ditzy poked her head up over the lip of the window for a second before ducking back down again. She was still a little stunned to see her old lover again. Unlike last night he seemed much more composed, almost like she remembered him.

“I’m... I’m sorry how I acted last night,” said Castor, sitting on the bed. “But you shouldn't go out like that, it’s too dangerous. Something could happen to you.”

“I was fine,” said Sparkler, “I was just helping some of the homeless.”

“You said you were attacked!” cried Castor, raising his hooves in distress.

“But it turned out fine, those new ponies saved me.”

“But what if they hadn’t? Since your mother... I can’t... I can’t lose you Sparkler, I can’t.” He lowered his head.

Sparkler ran over to her distressed father and gave him a gentle nuzzle. “Dad, don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen to me.”

“Thanks sweetie,” he said as he threw an arm over his daughter's back, “I know I’m being silly, but I get so worried.” They remained there for a while locked together. Trapped under the pile of toys, Dash felt rather awkward while Ditzy felt her heart soar. She was glad in this universe Sparkler and her father still seemed to get along.

Sparkler eventually broke the silence. “Dad, I talked to Pokey yesterday and him and some of my friends from college are going down to the river today to have a picnic, I’d like to go as well.”

Castor broke their embrace “No!” he commanded. “It’s dangerous, you could fall in, or be attacked by one of the street ponies, or anything. And I’ve told you before you’re not to have anything to do with that colt. He’s only going to hurt you!”

“But I like Pokey! He’s smart and funny,” said Sparkler, stomping her hooves on the plush pink carpet.

“My word is final! You can not go out today, and you will have nothing more to do with that colt! He is nothing but trouble.”

“You can’t make me!” cried Sparkler. Ditzy winced, she hoped Dinky never yelled at her like that, but she remembered being Sparkler's age and knew how unfair this must seem to her. If only she could get the two of them to really talk to each other, not just yell.

“As long as you live under my roof you will follow my rules,” snorted Castor.

“Then maybe I won’t live under your roof any more!”

“And where would you go!”

“I could stay with Pokey!”

Castor’s face turned even more purple than normal. “You are not living with a colt!” he yelled.

“I’m an adult now! I can live with whoever I want, and we can do whatever we want, we can even have sex! Sexy, sexy, sex! With each other!” she added.

Castor staggered back as if he had been slapped, and even Sparkler seemed to realise she had gone too far.

“Well,” roared Castor, for a moment Dash thought he might even strike his daughter and tensed ready to stop him, then he relaxed slightly. “You say you’re an adult but you’re acting like a foal. You can stay in your room until you grow up. No matter how long that takes.” He turned and stamped towards the door.

“Dad!” cried Sparkler, rushing towards him, but he did not stop or turn back and slammed the door behind him. There was the sound of several locks being engaged and the door glowed slightly as it was sealed magically for good measure.

Sparkler pounded her hoof again the door, “Daddy!” she cried again before slumping against it and letting out a long sigh of frustration.

Dash broke free from her plush prison, scattering toys in all directions. “‘Sexy, sexy, sex’?” she chuckled. “Smooth.” Then she noticed how upset Sparkler was.

To her surprise Ditzy flashed past her and enveloped Sparkler in a hug, having apparently pushed the bars from the window by herself and passed through them in only a few seconds.

“You ok kid?” asked Dash, hunkering down by the younger mare as Ditzy loosened her grip.

“That was foalish, I know,” Sparkler sobbed, burying her face in Ditzy’s shoulder, “I don’t mean to hurt him. It’s just he gets me so angry treating me like a foal all the time,”

“I’m sure he doesn’t mean to be like that, he’s just worried,” murmured Ditzy.

Sparkler turned to Dash. “Do you know what it feels like, to have your life being controlled by another?” she asked.

Dash gave a small grin. “I might have an idea. My... teacher kept trying to make me something I wasn’t. It's not like you can improve on perfection anyway. Then I found it was all for some secret purpose. She could have told me, I lo... l would have done anything for her, but she didn’t trust me enough to tell me.”

“What did you do?”

“I guess I sort of ran away, found a place I could be myself without her about for a bit. But then it looked like she might be gone forever... Well things got complicated. We’ve talked a bit but I don’t think we’re really cool yet.” She sighed, she wasn’t normally big on introspection but she could see a few similarities between herself and Sparkler. Maybe it was a sort of rule that at least one element bearer had to have a problem with their parent like figure.

“Do you think I should do that, run away?”

“I think you should get out of here now. Your dad’s a psycho, he’s worse than Cele... my teacher ever was, at least she didn’t lock me up.”

“No Sparkler,” Ditzy glared at Dash. “That’s not a solution, you’ll just hurt your father more. You need to sort things out with him.”

“I know, Dad’s not that bad, he just gets worried about me. The city’s not what it used to be and since Mom’s gone..”

“What happened to your Mom?” asked Dash.

Sparkler turned away. “Dad says she’s away on a business trip, she’ll be back soon.”

“You believe him?” asked Dash cautiously.

“I’m sure she’ll be back soon,” she repeated dully.

“I’ve, um, heard some rumours that your Dad might have done something to your Mom.”

Sparkler turned angrily to Dash. “He would never hurt her, he loves her, like she was supposed to love him. She’ll be back soon and we can all be a family again, Dad was never like this before she went! He wasn’t worried all the time, he even got on with Pokey.”

Ditzy hugged Sparkler again. She’d seen what breaking up a family had done to the Sparkler of her world, and it had been her fault. She couldn’t stand the same thing happening here. “I’m sure your father only has your best interests at heart, he’s just gone a bit far.”

Deciding to avoid difficult subjects for a while, Dash tried a different line of conversation. “So you and Pokey. He told me how you met, when you ran into him.”

Sparkler grinned despite herself. “Yeah, it took a few tries before I actually managed to hit him.”

Dash chuckled and revalued the cunning of the mare next to her. “You planned that? That’s sneaky.” She had smashed into Shining Armour a few times, although never on purpose. At least she didn’t think it had ever been on purpose.

“Well he was always walking around with his horn in the clouds. I’d tried to talk to him before but he didn’t notice me so I had to be less subtle.”

“Well he’s not really my type, I prefer my stallions to be a bit more... well more.” She thought of Shining Armour and Big Mac, and they were certainly hunks of stallion. Pokey, well she could see how some mares might like him, he certainly had a big horn thing going on and his mane was sort of cool, but not to her tastes. “But he’s cute, I suppose. I like a stallion who’s dependable, you know that whatever happens he’ll be there for you will always have your back.”

“He does seem a nice stallion,” said Ditzy. Her own taste has proved to be poor, but the Pokey in her universe was an honorable stallion, if a little changeable in his tastes.

“Oh, Pokie’s sweet and kind, you saw how he was with the homeless and he’s so funny and smart. I wouldn’t have done half as well in class if it wasn’t for him. And he’s surprisingly muscular.” Her eyes sparkled and her face coloured a little.

“And your Dad doesn’t approve,” noted Dash.

“I just wish he and Pokey would get along, they both mean so much to me. I don’t want to have to choose between them.”

“So you’re not going to be moving in with him, then?”

“His dorm doesn’t allow mares, and his room’s too small anyway. You can barely fit two in the bed,” Sparkler agreed, before realising what she had said and blushing. “Not that we’ve.... you know the bed...”

“Of course I know,” said Dash with a grin, elbowing the pink mare in the ribs and causing her face to glow like the sun. “So no sexy, sexy, sex going on there, then?”

“Errr, no we’ve, um, done some things,” her face rivalled the sun in warmth for a moment, “but nothing that far. A lot of the girls at college say they’ve gone all the way but I want to wait for the right time. The thing is, the way the world is you never know if there will be a right time, the vines could destroy everything tomorrow, but I don’t know if I’m ready. What do you think?”

“You really shouldn’t do anything you’re not ready for,” said Ditzy, sounding almost panicked. “You’ve got to remember there are consequences to that sort of thing. You have to understand what could happen.”

“Yeah,” agreed Dash. “Don’t let anypony else tell you when you’re ready, that’s not cool at all. If Pokey ever tries to force you to do anything you’re not comfortable with just leave, you’re better than that.”

“Pokey would never tell me what to do, we’ve talked about it and I’ve been tempted. There was this time at the dance last year, he’s very good on his hooves and he was in a tux and well I was very very tempted to just...”

“Seize the day?” suggested Dash. She liked talking to Sparkler like this, as if she were her big sister. Would Dinky come to her with this sort of problem in many many years? It just seemed wrong thinking of the cute filly having questions about colts. Maybe she should arrange to be out of town for the whole of Dinky’s puberty.

“As I said I’ve been tempted, but in a way that’s giving up. You’ve got to have hope that things will get better, than somepony will do something about the vines that the princesses will come back. Otherwise you might as well just give up and die.”

“You got guts kid,” said Dash, standing back from Sparkler as she stood up. “And you’ve got me standing around in your very pink room talking about colts. If you try to start braiding my mane I might have to hand in my awsome card.”

Sparkler pouted, “Awww! I thought we could do each other’s makeup.”

Dash make a vomiting gesture for a moment and Sparker giggled. Ditzy smiled, she’d never seen her Dash act like this, maybe she could see why her other self had made her Dinky’s godmother. She’d heard that her Dash had looked after one of Dinky’s friends during the longest day when her father had been taken by Corona, so maybe she wasn’t that different.

“But seriously,” said Dash, “that’s a good philosophy. I think you’re the only pony I’ve seen here who has hope, everypony else just seems to have given up. How would you like to really be able to make a difference? Not just wait for the princesses to return but actually make it happen?”

“I don’t know about that but I do what I can to help the homeless. It’s not half as much as Dad used to do, but it's something. I wish he’d never given up.”

“Why did he?”

“He never told me. He said that one of the homeless robbed him of something very precious and that he was afraid that they’d hurt me, but they’ve never done anything like that, well apart from those thugs last night. I don’t get it, it’s like he wants me to stay a filly my whole life and never go out and grow up.”

“Well,” said Ditzy. “It can be hard for a parent to do that, he’s been protecting your all your life and now he can’t. I’m not saying it’s right. I know someday I’ll have to let Dinky go, but I don’t think it’ll be easy. He really does love you it’s just not easy, he might just need time.”

“I suppose so,” said Sparkler sulkily. “I don’t understand why it can’t be now.”

“Yeah, everypony needs to leave the nest sooner or later. You can’t live in a cage,” said Dash.

“Dash, it’s not our place to interfere. This is between Sparkler and her father.”

“I suppose,” she said, not sounding convinced. “Look, won’t Orange be here soon? You better go and meet her. I’ll be fine staying here with Sparkler while you talk to Castor and try and sort things out.”

“Ok, just don’t go anywhere.”

“Not a problem,” said Dash, looking a little shifty.

“Nice talking to you Sparkler,” said Ditzy as she made her way to the window and, with a little bit of wiggling, and some help from Dash, made her way out into the street again.

Dash watched the grey mare bob away around to the front of the building. “So you ready to get out of here?” she asked. “Your friends and Pokey will be waiting.”

“Didn’t you just tell your friend you wouldn’t go anywhere?” said Sparkler, sounding shocked.

“Yeah, well she doesn’t have to know everything,” mumbled Dash, looking down. “She’ll be talking to your Dad for hours, so they won’t even know you’re gone. I’m just glad she didn’t make me Pinkie promise, maybe they don’t have that in her world.”

Sparkler seemed conflicted, “No, I couldn’t. You heard what Dad said.”

“Yes, I heard. I just thought you’d ignore him, he’s locked you up!”

“Not really, it’s just for show, he knows I can get out if I want.” She stood and turned towards the door, her horn glowed and the aura surrounding the portal faded away. Then she opened a small casket on her dressing table and brought out a crystal key and turned it in the lock. “Daddy made sure I could get out in case of a fire.”

Dash’s mouth dropped, “Why lock it then?”

“That’s just his way of showing me he’s angry,” she pushed at the door and to her surprise it suddenly glowed again and gently but irresistibly she was forced away. Looking confused, Sparker lit her horn again. The glow continued to emanate from the door. “I don’t believe it,” she gasped. “He’s really locked me in! He’s never done that before,” she said, sounding outraged. “How dare he! I’m am not a little filly!” She stomped a hoof on the ground and tried to counter the spell holding the door shut again, but it remained stubbornly closed. “That is it! Come on Dash, I’m going to the river whether Dad lets me or not.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Dash with a grin as Sparkler yanked out the bars from her window and tossed them onto her bed. Dash swooped out through the window while the younger mare quickly packed a bag.

“This’ll show him,” muttered Sparkler. She stopped for a moment and considered leaving a note for her father, then glancing at the door again she decided not to. He deserved to worry after treating her like this. She clambered through the window and let Dash ease her down to the ground before the two of them headed towards the college.


Ditzy quickly circled the house and was glad to find Auntie Orange standing near the front door. “You made it!”

“Yes, it wasn’t to hard once I got my bearings. Did you find Dash?”

“Yes, she’s in Sparkler’s room.”

“How is the filly?” asked the older mare with concern.

“She’s fine, although a little upset with her father. He’s rather overprotective, but I know the feeling.”

“I really don’t understand why you’re standing up for him after what his alternative self did to you. You’d have every reason to hate him.” She sighed, “I guess that’s why you’re kindness.”

“Well that was his other self, a different stallion, your friend back in Manehattan wasn’t the same as she was in your world was she?”

Still looking unsure, Sherbet nodded. “Lovestruck is different in this world, but at her heart was was the same pony. If Castor could abandon his own child in your world, can this one really be much better?”

“I can’t even hate him. Without him there would be no Dinky, and I’ll forever be thankful for her. I can’t hate anything that is part of my little muffin.”

“I... I think I can understand that. I don’t think I could ever hate part of Tangerine either. But that’s just why I can’t believe this Castor Cut can be any sort of element bearer, the way he treats his own flesh and blood.”

“I guess we’re about to find out,” said Ditzy, flapping up to the door and knocking loudly. It glowed an alarming red colour and both mares stepped back in alarm. When nothing further happened for a minute Ditzy stepped forwards again and raised a hoof just as a slot in the door slid open to reveal a pair of light blue eyes.

“Who is it?” asked Castor sharply.

“Umm, I’m Ditzy Doo, and this is Orange Sherbet,” said Ditzy. “We brought your daughter home last night.”

“Oh yes, thank you for that. I gave you a reward, you don’t want more do you?” he asked suspiciously.

“Oh, no, you were very generous. We want to talk to you... about your daughter and the work she’s doing for the homeless.”

“She shouldn’t be doing that, they’re dangerous, thieves the lot of them. I’ve made sure my daughter will be safe from them now.”

“But she’s doing a lot of good,” protested Ditzy. “Somepony has to do something.”

“I used to think that way...” he paused for a moment, “but not any more, it's a lost cause, I need to protect my own now, not a bunch of homeless strangers.”

“Your daughter doesn’t seem to think so.”

“She’s too young to really understand it all. She needs me to protect her.”

“Does she understand that? She seemed quite angry with you last night.”

“How I raise my daughter is my own business!” said Caster angrily. His head moved back and the cover started to close back over the slot.

“I’m not saying it isn’t,” said Ditzy quickly, and the spy hole opened again. “But we understand how difficult it can be to raise a child. We’re both mothers. I know how hard it can be to do it alone.”

“And even with help and money it’s not easy to raise a child,” said Orange, butting in.

“Maybe we can talk about it,” continued Ditzy, glaring at her companion, “Give you some advice on talking to her. Get a mare’s perspective?”

“Maybe,” muttered Castor. “She’s been so disobedient recently and there hasn’t really been a mare in her life since my wife... went on her trip.”

Auntie’s eyes narrowed a little at that.

“Look, can we talk face to face,” asked Ditzy, widening her eyes and fluffing up her wings. She knew that her Castor found that look adorable, although she had been younger when she’d last used it on him, and the situation had been entirely different, but it was worth a try. “Talking through this door is rather off putting.”

“I... I suppose so,” said Castor. “Stand back.”

The two mares complied, the red glow on the door faded, and it opened. Castor looked around nervously for a second before gesturing to his guests. “Come in,” he said, “but if this is some sort of trick I am very well protected.”

Somewhat nervously Ditzy and Auntie stepped forwards into the hall as the door slammed shut behind them.


The college campus wasn’t far from Castor’s house, and it took Dash and Sparkler less than half an hour to get there. The site was dominated by a tall clock tower at one end and was mostly open grassy fields surrounding various buildings, a few of which were abandoned by the staff and students, overwhelmed by the ever present vines. The campus seemed mostly deserted, it was one of the few places Dash had seen in the city which didn’t contain a homeless population and she assumed it was too early for many of the students to have crawled from their beds. She yawned. She wished she could join them, since the hotel’s bed hadn’t been anywhere near as comfortable as her own at Ditzy’s house, and the constant twilight of this universe hadn’t helped her sleep.

“So which way to lover colt’s pad?” asked Dash.

Sparkler blushed a little and pointed at a nearby building. “That’s Pokey’s dorm,” she said, then looked around nervously. “Something’s wrong, there should be at least a few campus guards around.”

“Unless somepony was messing around at the clock tower, then they’d all be protecting their precious time piece,” came a female voice.

Dash looked up to see the scarred mare from the gang they had fought yesterday perched on the top of Pokey’s building. “What are you doing here?” she cried.

“I’ve got an invitation from Gambit, he wants to have a talk with you.”

“Who?” asked Dash.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” said the mare, leaping off the building and hovering above them.

“And what if we don’t what to go?”

“Gambit doesn’t take no for an answer.” A dozen or so ponies appeared from the shadows of various buildings and formed into a rough circle around the two mares. They were quickly trapped.

Dash looked around, chewing at her lip. She was good, but despite her bravado yesterday, she didn’t think even she could deal with a dozen gang members by herself without backup. Sparkler looked scared out of her wits, but had lit her horn ready to make a fight of it. “Dash,” she whispered, “what are we going to do?”

The blue pegasus’s eyes flickered around the scene as the gang members closed in towards them. She looked up at the red mare above them and grinned. “Hang on kid, we’re going for a ride.” She grabbed Sparkler, causing the younger mare to squeak in surprise and threw her over her back before, with a grunt of effort, she leapt into the air and streaked away from the circle of ponies below them.

“After them!” cried Cookie as Dash shot past her.

“Catch me if you can!” taunted Dash as the pegasus gang members rose into the air. Cookie swooped towards the fleeing mares, but even burdened by a passenger, Dash avoided her clumsy attack. “Ha, I’ve seen earth ponies who can fly better.”

Snarling, Cookie banked and tried to lunge at Dash again, but the blue pegasus ducked between two buildings. To her surprise further pegasus gang members launched themselves from the roof of the dorms and plunged down towards them. Almost dislodging her passenger, Dash banked quickly to avoid the new arrivals and flew back towards Cookie.

“Urghhh,” moaned Sparkler from Dash’s back.

“Hey you ok back there?” asked Dash as she rolled past her increasingly angry pursuer. “Don’t spew over me or anything.”

“Clock tower. Guards,” Sparkler managed, pointing one hoof towards the landmark while using another to cover her mouth while her hind legs wrapped themselves around Dash’s waist to keep her attached.

“Good thinking,” grinned Dash. If the guards were at the tower then it was the safest place to be. The tall building was visible between two dorm blocks above which few a few more gang pegasus. Dash shot up towards her enemies. They grinned, preparing to tackle the blue mare, but at the last moment she dived before leveling out just above the grass, out maneuvering her attackers.

“Got you!” sneered Cookie from behind.

Dash looked back for a moment in surprise. The reason for the red pony's glee then became obvious as two unicorns appeared from the buildings on either side of her, their horns glowing. A green net appeared, stretching between then and blocking Dash’s flightpath. She desperately tried to pull up, but Sparkler’s added weight slowed her enough for the net to wrap itself around her. Her wings pinned, Dash slammed into the ground with enough force to knock the air from her lungs. Sparkler was thrown from her back and went tumbling across the ground. Dash bounced a few times before coming to rest next to one of the buildings. She struggled weakly and tried to get to her hooves but the net was still wrapped around her. Suddenly, she found herself surrounded by ponies and was hauled into the air by the unicorns.

“Not so cocky now are you?” taunted Cookie.

“Lemme out and I’ll show you,” slurred Dash, still dazed by the impact.

Cookie looked about. Sparkler has also been secured by her crew, the stunned unicorn was being dragged along by Brick. The guards still seemed to be occupied, but they should get out of here as quickly as they could before they came back.

“Come on, we got to get back to base, Gambit is waiting,” she ordered, gesturing for her ponies to move out.

Unseen a blue stallion was hidden in the shadows. Pokey had seen Sparkler approach and had come down to greet her, just in time to see the trap sprung. He wanted desperately to help his marefriend and her ally, but he knew he didn’t have a chance against so many. He knew he should go and get the guards but they only cared about the campus and by the time they got here the gang would have reached safety in the slum areas. Instead he tried to keep back and follow them, hoping to have a chance to help Sparkler later.

Chapter Five, Part Three. (Written by Talon and Thorn)

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The inside of Castor’s home was full of contrasts. The parts of the house that Ditzy and Orange Sherbet were led through were well cared for, but there were signs that the majority of the residence was abandoned, doors were barricaded or boarded off. Some corridors were thick with dust while others were freshly cleaned. Here and there gemstones were placed, almost haphazardly, on the floor and on tables and shelves. Everywhere there were pictures, mostly of Sparkler and her father, but others had been turned to face the wall or covered by curtains. The house almost seemed to be in mourning.

Castor led his guests into a grand sitting room, although most of it was empty of furniture with just a few chairs positioned around the fire in one corner. “Would either of your ladies like a drink?” asked Castor somewhat awkwardly as if he was going through the motions without quite remembering why.

“Tea, if you have any,” said Auntie politely.

“Me too,” said Ditzy, her misaligned eyes taking in the room and its contents.

“Very well, I’ll be back in a minute,” said Castor heading for a door. “Don’t go anywhere,” he added, a hint of threat in his voice.

Ditzy shivered slightly. Now she was inside Castor’s house she wasn’t sure what to do, the walls seems to be constricting her. She struggled to fight off her claustrophobia. “For such a paranoid pony he seems quite trusting, we could rob him while he was away.”

“Not so, dear,” said Auntie Orange. She pointed at a small ruby sitting on a table near the door. “That’s a spell gem, part of a very effective security system. If any unauthorised Pony gets near them they activate a spell, possibly a harmful one. I bought a few for my hotel but only for the very best rooms, since they are very expensive. I saw over a dozen like it on the way in here, this house is very well protected indeed.”

“I have spared no expense in protecting me and my daughter,” said Castor, returning with three cups and a pot of tea. He poured out the steaming beverage and passed the cups to his visitors.

“What is it you do, Mr Cut?” asked Auntie, accepting her drink.

“He’s a jeweler,” said Ditzy.

“What makes you say that?” asked Castor, looking at her strangely.

Ditzy blushed. ‘Her’ Castor had been a jeweler as was his daughter and she had assumed it was the same here, but there was no reason her universe had to be the same as this one. “I... I saw at the gems and assumed...”

“Ah. Well my mother was a jeweler, and I have some gem cutting skills, but I’m hardly an expert. For example I don’t recognise the gems in those necklaces you are wearing, although they are certainly exquisite.” Castor paused for a moment staring at the Element of Kindness around Ditzy’s neck. He leaned forwards slightly, eyes locked on the magic item.

Ditzy began to feel a little uncomfortable. “Um, they’re very special, unique really,” she explained.

Castor shook himself and looked back up to her eyes. “Sorry, no I’m not a jeweler. I have a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. I work in security, the making for spell gems for protection specifically.”

“So you made all of these?” said Auntie, gesturing around the house.

“Yes. I put a lot of effort into making sure my daughter and I are very well protected from anything the world might throw at us. My talent has made me wealthy, particularly since the Day of Disharmony. Everypony needs protection these days.” He took a sip from his drink.

“I’ve heard that you used to use your wealth to help the homeless of the city,” said Ditzy.

The cup held in Castor’s aura shattered, causing the stallion to flinch away from the scalding liquid. “I... I am sorry, sometimes I squeeze too tightly.” He started to try to tidy up the mess. “I was a fool then. To think that I could do anything about the blight that is overrunning this city,” he continued coldly. “The street ponies are nothing but criminals and thieves, I have no more pity for them.”

“But you used to,” insist Ditzy, “you tried to help them.”

“I used to feel sorry for them. The streets were dangerous, some even died. I felt I had to do whatever I could to protect them, they are still ponies after all,” he gave a small smile, “May used to tell me I was putting too much of myself into helping them.” His face darkened again. “She was right of course.”

“Where is your wife?” asked Auntie.

Castor looked away away his ears drooping. “She is on a trip to another city, she should return soon.”

“What made you give up on helping the homeless?” asked Ditzy.

“The problem was overwhelming. There were always more to house, more to feed, and they never stopped. Then they betrayed me, one of them I trusted stole something from me, something so very precious, after I’d helped him. The ungrateful wretch!” He snarled. “I vowed I’d never lose anypony... anything again. I threw out all the parasites and made this place safe, safe for Sparkler. You understand don’t you?” An edge of pleading made its way into his voice. “You said you had foals.”

“I’d do anything for my Dinky,” agreed Ditzy.

“As would I, for Tangerine, it’s not like having money means you care less for your children, isn’t that right, Mister Cut,” said Auntie rather pointedly, “but don’t you think you’ve gone too far, locking her away?”

“I don’t know what else to do, she doesn’t understand how dangerous the city can be, she keeps wanting to help the wretched masses, she doesn’t understand what they could do to her. If you hadn’t saved her last night...” He shuddered. “Thank you again. I don’t know how to talk to her any more, how to get her to understand. It was so much easier when she was younger, an ice cream would solve any problem. I remember when I first saw her a tiny little thing, with a nub of a horn, she seemed so delicate, so fragile. I knew I had to do everything I could to protect her.”

Ditzy and Orange Sherbet nodded, remembering similar situations when their own foals had been born. “I remember thinking that I could never, ever, leave Dinky, regardless of what it cost me.” said Ditzy.

“I don’t know where the time went, it seems like just yesterday she needed her daddy to chase away the monster under the bed. Now she’s almost a mare.”

Ditzy nodded. Dinky wasn’t nearly as old as Sparkler, but she was still worried about how quickly her little muffin seemed to be growing. How soon would it be that her daughter wouldn’t need her mother any more? Would she deal with it any better than Castor?

“I do understand,” said Auntie, leaning forward. “Tangerine seems to want to do everything by herself these days, her and her little friends. I do so worry about them sometimes.”

“Once Dinky got caught in a storm. I overslept and didn’t pick her up after school and she went playing with some friends. When I found out I... I thought about about the things that could happen to her, she could be lost, have gotten hurt, drowned.” Ditzy’s voice began to crack as she recalled her fears. Auntie turned to comfort her, but to her surprise found that Castor already had an arm around the the distraught pegasus. “She was all right in the end. She stayed at a friend’s house, but afterwards I wanted to do anything to stop her getting hurt.”

“Then you know how I feel” he said, “All the time. Sparkler has no friends who could protect her in this city, there’s only me.”

Ditzy shook her head. “But I let my fear control me, I lied to my daughter, tried to make her do something I wanted her to do that wasn’t in her best interests because I was scared of what might happen. I realised in time that I couldn’t protect her from everything. I had to let her go so she could grow.”

“But Sparkler could get hurt!” cried Castor

“Then be there to soothe her wounds,” said Ditzy placing her hoof on Castors, “but she still needs to get hurt to grow. You have to let her live.”

“I... I know, but I can’t let go of my little filly.”

“She’s not a filly any more, she’s a grown mare. She has a colt friend.”

Castor scowled. “That is one more thing to protect her from, I know what colts are like at that age. She shouldn’t trust him, he’ll break her heart. He’ll take her away from me.”

“Not all colts are like that,” said Auntie, “My Mosely was the perfect gentlestallion, except when I didn’t want him to be,” she coloured slightly as Castor’s, and one of Ditzy’s, eyes locked onto her.

“Pokey seems to be a nice colt,” agreed Ditzy.

“Seems, oh yes his sort seems nice, pretend to be harmless until they betray you, until they take what’s most precious from you,” snarled Castor.

Ditzy had a sudden realisation. “What did happen to your wife?” she asked quietly.

“I told you she’s away on business. I’ll see her again soon.”

“You don’t hide the pictures of somepony who’s just on a business trip. What really happened Castor?” she insisted.

He looked around wildly. “She’s away, she’ll be back, it’s all business.. it’s... she’s...” he started to sob. “She left me! She left for some wanderer! Why? Why did she do that?”

Ditzy rushed forwards and wrapped the distraught stallion in a hug. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m so sorry.”


Dash struggled against her bonds, but they held firm. She hated, hated, hated being restrained. Not being able to move felt so wrong to her, not that she was panicking or anything, that would be totally uncool. No she just really didn’t like getting tied up. And she wanted to get away right now!

“Grahhhh!” cried Dash in frustration. She and Sparkler had been carried a short distance through the streets and into what seemed to be an abandoned hotel. The scarred mare had had her minions tie them to each other and a chair and then left them alone, saying she was going to get her boss, whoever that might be. The younger mare was trying to put on a brave face, but Dash could tell that Sparkler was terrified. Apparently the gang didn’t have a horn lock to prevent the unicorn using her powers so instead had used a more primitive method, a thick wire ran from Sparklers horn and was wrapped around Rainbow’s barrel. Any attempt to channel magic would cause the power to painfully surge through the Pegasus.

“I wish Daddy were here,” muttered Sparkler, “or Pokey, or well anypony.”

“Hey! I’m here. I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you,” said Dash.

“But what’s going to happen to us?”

“Well in my experience some totally lame villain will come in through that door, tell us all about her secret master plan which has enough flaws in it that a filly could tell you it wouldn’t work. Then my friends will turn up and royally kick her flank with me being particularly awesome. Then we can go have ice cream.” She spoke jovially, trying to keep her fellow captive’s spirits up. In her own world she was sure she could depend on her friends to get her out of this jam, but here, she didn’t really know her fellow elements as well, she could only trust they would find and save her, somehow. She just hated not being able to do anything.

“Ice cream?” Sparkler’s ears pricked up. “Dad used to buy me that when anything bad happened to me. I used to pretend to skin my knees just so we could go out together. What flavour?”

“Any flavour! Rainbow, chocolate, Bourbon, chili, apple, snozberry. Yumm! I could really go for some snozberry ice cream with rainbow sauce now.”

Sparkler giggled a little, “Now you’re being silly! You’re trying to make me feel better.”

“Is it working?”

“A little.”

“Good.” smiled Dash. “Don’t worry, everything’s going to turn out fine.”

“I’m sure it will,” said an accented voice. Dash turned to see that a blue stallion had entered the room without being noticed. “Your father only has to be a reasonable stallion.”

“Who are you?” asked Dash, struggling at her bonds again.

“Ah, let me introduce myself. I’m a stallion of wealth and taste, I am known as Handsome Gambit, but call me Gambit s'il vous plaît.” Dash recognised the accent, he must have come from Neigh Orleans, or somewhere close.

“What are you going to do with me?” asked Sparkler.

“Nothing, hopefully. My ponies found you wandering the streets, anything could have happened to you. I’m just going to ask your father for a little finders fee for you, as long as he pays up nothing will happen. If he doesn’t,” he smiled nastily, “well this city can be a dangerous place.” Sparkler tried to back away from the Stallion despite being restrained. “As for you,” he turned to Dash, “you and your friends resisted Cookie’s crew, and that made me look weak. I need to make quite a public spectacle of you. I haven't quite decided what yet, maybe I should do something about those wings of yours?”

Dash’s mouth went dry at the thought. “How do you know her father will pay up?” she asked, trying not to sound scared and to distract Gambit’s attention from the younger mare.

“Oh, I know her father quite well, at least I know how to hurt him. You see, when I first arrived in this town I saw so many opportunities. I had expected the situation to breed desperate ponies willing to do anything to survive. And when I found just what I needed, I could install myself at the top of the largest gang in the city. Just a little organisation and I could become very wealthy indeed. But to my surprise the criminal element of the city was surprisingly thin. Despite the large number of refugees flocking to the city, few of them were willing to turn to crime. They actually seemed to believe that things would get better if they played by the rules.” Gambit snorted, “As if anyone got ahead playing fair! If I wanted to make a name for myself in Fillydelphia I knew I would have to do something to convince the homeless population that they didn’t have a hope, and to do that I would have to do something about your father. I had to hurt him. Do you know how to hurt a stallion? How to truly break him? You do not attack him directly, instead you take that which he cares for the most. That’s my talent you see,” he turned to show the broken heart symbol on his toned flank, “to see what a pony cares for most and in your father's case that was you and your mother.”


Gambit looked around the house, it had been a long time since he had spent time in such an elegant environment. The room he was in had apparently been a ballroom, but it was now converted into a dorm. Simple cots were lined up, separated from each other by cloth partitions to allow the occupants at least a modicum of privacy. Getting in had been ludicrously easy, the place had an open door policy so anypony could just walk in from the street and find a place to sleep, as a result it was packed. To his surprise rather than chaos ruling, the population had organised themselves in neat groups, there was no fighting between ponies, they all worked together to get their own space, no matter how humble. Off to one side a young pink mare was ladeling out soup to the ‘guests’ who lined up and waited patiently, chatting amongst themselves.

This would not do at all.

Peering across the room, he saw a purple stallion making his way around the room talking to a red maned stallion and nodding to the various ponies currently residing in his house as he passed. As Castor approached Gambit stood forwards, “Mister Cut?” he asked, putting a little waver in his voice. “I just want to say thank you for all the help you’ve given me.”

The purple unicorn stopped for a moment and grinned. “Thank you,” he said. “I just do the best I can, everybody deserves food and shelter.”

“If there is anything I can do to help? Anything at all.”

“Well there’s always a need for another pair of hooves. Just help out where you can, pass it on as they say.” Castor turned back to his red headed companion and they continued their discussion.

“Thank you, sir.” Now that he was close to Castor, Gambit concentrated and let his mark do its work. Who or what was this stallion’s heart linked to? To his surprise, rather than the usual few solid chains linking his target to his loved ones, Castor seemed to be covered in thousands of thin threads binding him to the entire population of the hall and beyond. Blinking, Gambit tried to focus to find any particularly strong threads, there was one, leading across the hall to the filly at the food counter. There was a certain resemblance, a daughter? He considered her for a moment, she was just starting to fill out from her gangly teenaged phase, and it was clear she would be a beauty in a few years. No, she was still too young, even he had some standards.

He turned back to Castor and looked for further connections. Ah, there was one. A web of connections could be made out, running from his heart to a mare following several steps behind him. She was in her early middle age, still attractive despite the touches of grey in her pink mane and coat, excellent, this would be fun. He focused on the mare and noticed a link between her and her husband. It was somewhat faded, and she kept trying to attract her stallion’s attention as he talked to the homeless but he didn’t seem to notice. Perfect.

“Excusez-moi madame,” he began as he put himself between the mare and her husband. The stallion did not notice and continued on his way. “I have to thank you for all the good you and your husband have done.” Smiling his most winning smile he took one of her hooves in his and gently kissed it, keeping his eyes locked with hers. She blushed but did not turn away.

“Thank you, but most of this has been my husbands idea. Mr..?”

“My name is Handsome Gambit, but call me Gambit. I am sure you are too modest, behind every great stallion is a greater mare.” He turned to watch Castor as he continued around the room. “I am sure that your husband understands that.”

“Maybe,” she said with a trace of bitterness, “He always seems so busy nowadays, I get so little time with him.”

“I find that incroyable, if you were my mare I would be unable to keep my eyes off of you for even a second.” He turned his head aside feigning embarrassment before turning back and locking his gaze on the mare, “Forgive me, I have said too much, Mrs Cut.”

The mare blushed again but did not move away. “Call me May Bell,” she said.

Gambit’s grin widened. He had her!


“You bastard!” swore Dash, once again trying to tear herself from her bindings. Sparkler had slumped in her chair and was quietly sobbing.

“Such language!” teased Gambit. “And from such a pretty mouth.”

“What did you do to her?”

“May? Nothing she didn’t want me to do, repeatedly. Her and her husband had been drifting apart for some time. She was lonely, I only provided the company.” He turned back to Sparkler. “What did your father tell you happened to your mother?”

“He... He said she was on a business trip.”

“Ah, then the truth must come as un petit surprise to you.”

“No,” mumbled Sparkler.

“No?” said Gambit, sounding surprised.

“No, I know Dad is lying to me, trying to protect me.” She straightened, her eyes hard behind the tears. “Because she came to me the night she disappeared.”


The sudden brightness awoke Sparkler from her slumber. She moaned quietly and tried to burrow deeper into her duvet.

“Sparkler?” came her mother's voice.

The pink mare sat up in bed and blinked at the mare silhouetted in the doorway, “Mom? What is it?” she asked. She looked at the clock by her bed, it was three in the morning.

The older mare seemed to be seized with nervous energy as she strode into the room and grabbed a suitcase from on top of wardrobe before opening it and filling it with items of clothing seemingly at random. “We’re going to have to go on a little trip, dear.”

“What? Why?” stuttered Sparkler, getting out of bed. “It’s not the vines, is it?” She looked around nervously. When she was younger she had been plagued by a number of nightmares of the terrible vegetation breaking into her home and carrying her away.

“No dear nothing like that,” said May Bell with a smile that didn’t quite cover her face. “We just have to go, just you and me and... somepony else.”

“Go? Go where? I don’t understand. Is Dad coming with us?”

“No, your... your father won’t be coming. You see, you see I’m leaving, I’m leaving him.”

“Leaving him? What do you mean?”

“I’m sorry, but me and your father it’s... it’s just not working any more. He spends all of his time with the homeless and none with me, I’m tired of coming second in his life. I’ve found somepony, somepony who treats me like I’m actually important to him.” Tears started to glimmer at the corner of her eyes. “It’s hard but we have to go now.” She grabbed her daughter in her aura and started to gently pull her towards the door, levitating the bag alongside them.

“No!” cried Sparkler, digging her heels in. “I’m not going. You’re not going. Please you have to to do something else, talk to Daddy. Please Mom.” She started to sob.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve tried, I’ve tried so hard but I can’t do this any more. I have to go now, I don’t have much time before your father finds out. Please, please come with me,” pleaded May Bell.

“No!”

With a soft whine the older mare looked back and forth between her daughter and the door.

“Mom! Don’t, please!”

“I’m sorry, I love you so much,” she hugged her daughter tears rolling down her face, “but I can’t, I can’t. I’ll... I’ll write when I can.” She disengaged herself from Sparkler and trotted to the door, turning to face her daughter again. “Please, come with me, please.”

Sparkler swayed on her hooves for a moment seeming to almost be pulled towards the door against her will. “I can’t, I can’t leave Dad. Please don’t do this, come back, please!” she sobbed.

May Bell turned again and staggered out the door. Sparkler paused for a second before rushing forward to see the silhouettes of a mare and stallion disappearing down the stairs. “Mommy!” she wailed.

Her mother did not look back.


Fresh tears flooded from Sparkler’s eyes as she remembered that fateful night.

“How very sad,” noted Gambit with a smirk.

“Shut up you slime!” cried Dash. “Don’t you feel the least bit guilty, you ruined her and her father’s life and for what?”

“Money and power, what other reason is there? With Castor’s heart broken he stopped helping the homeless and they became very open to my suggestions. I run a good chunk of the crime in the city, burglary, prostitution, cons, muggings, I get a cut of them all.”

“What... What happened to my mother?” asked Sparker still crying.

“As far as I know she’s fine, although it’s been some time since I last saw her.”


Gambit sneered at the mare sprawled over the bed. The last month had really aged her and she hadn’t been a spring chicken to start with. The slight peppering of grey that used highlight her hair had spread, her face was more lined and her eyes sunken and reddened. He was just glad he wouldn’t have to look at her any more.

Carefully he made his way across the room and started to fill his bag with the scant contents of the room. The few items of jewelry May Bell had brought with her quickly disappeared as did her remaining bits. He hesitated as he took her watch, it was of exquisite quality, he flipped it over and examined the back, there was an inscription ‘True love never dies’, it appeared its owner had been wrong. With a grin he strapped it onto his own leg. Fully packed he started to pad towards the door.

“Gambit?” came a sleepy voice from behind him, “Where are you going?”

He considered lying for a moment but there didn’t seem to be much point. “I’m leaving,” he said, turning to face her.

“Leaving? What do you mean?” she asked sitting up.

“Leaving as in going and not coming back.”

“But... but what about us?” She tried to stagger to her hooves.

“There was never any us, I just needed a way to hurt your husband, by now I’m sure he’s in quite a state. I’d say our time together was fun, but really you were never that good, quite boring really.”

“What... What are you talking about? What do you mean?” She stood there, uncomprehending.

He sighed she really was dense. “I. Used. You. To. Get. At. Your. Husband.”

“What! How dare you,” she cried, ”I’ll...”

“You’ll what? Tell your husband? We’re several cities away and you’re the one who left him, who abandoned your daughter.”

“No! No! It wasn’t like that,” cried May Bell, backing away, her eyes streaming with tears.

Non? All it took was a pair of muscular flanks,” he wiggled the aforementioned organs, “and you were panting like a filly in heat, you forgot all about him and your child.” He smirked.

“No!” she fell back onto the bed. “I didn’t! I.. I... I... Oh Sparkler, what have I done!” she wailed.

His talent let him know the exact moment her heart broke. “Well I’ll leave you to think over your behaviour, au revoir.” He gave a wave as he turned from the sobbing mare and trotted towards the hotel’s reception with his bag.

“Are you leaving sir?” asked the receptionist looking suspicious.

“Just a quick trip, my wife will deal with the bill,” he said with a smile, that should keep May busy for a while in case she did work up the courage to return home.

He had one more stop before he caught his train. There was a family of bakers who had apparently gotten separated from their daughter, they thought she might have ended up in Fillydelphia and were willing to pay for somepony to bring her back. He had no intention to carry out the deal but every few bits helped, plus from what they told him of her she might be useful to him if he did bump into her.

Yes, things were certainly looking up, he thought as he walked through the streets whistling a cheery tune.


Pokey had followed the gang of ponies carrying Sparkler and Dash through the streets of Fillydelphia as carefully as he could. They were heading into the worst part of the city, where the guard didn’t go, even in groups. Fortunately they seemed to be so sure of themselves that they didn’t try to hide their passage, and he had no problem tracking them to an abandoned hotel. However, the building itself was crawling with ponies. He couldn’t think of a way to get in without being spotted. He tried to fight down his fears of what they could be doing to his marefriend in that place, and instead think. He needed help but who? His friends from college would be no use. Those strangers from last night? He didn’t know where they might be. No, he would have to rely on himself for this.

Trying to keep his distance and act casual, he circled the building. It was in poor repair but most entrances were either blocked by the creeping vines or barricaded. The only clear entrance was at the front where there was a steady stream of scruffy looking ponies going in and out. Maybe he could blend in with them?

Thinking quickly, he rolled around in the dirt for a few minutes, getting strange looks from the homeless around him before using his aura to mess up his mane. He hoped it was enough of a disguise and made his way falteringly towards the entrance. To his surprise it was easy to join the back of the queue of battered ponies making their way into the building. Trying to keep his head down he shuffled forwards with the line of broken and silent mares and stallions. To his surprise as he entered the building he found the queue ended at a table with a large pot of stew on it. Each pony would step forwards and drop whatever they had, bits, jewelry, other valuables into the table and were rewarded with a bowl of the gruel. Here and there stood tough looking thugs to keep the line in order.

All too soon Pokey found himself at the front of the line. “What you got?” asked the pony behind the table.

“Err.. Nothing, I’m new... I saw the line and just joined,” Pokey blathered.

“No money, no food,” announced the mare, then her face softened a little. “New blood eh? Fillydelphia, not what you expected? We’ve all been there. Look I’m sure there’s something you can do.”

“Um.. Well... I suppose,” he stammered.

“Well, you’re no con-stallion then, but we can probably find something for you to do, a burglar maybe? You’ll probably clean up well, you can sneak into the nicer parts of town and steal what you need. Certainly better than having to sell your plot on some street corner. Go through there,” she pointed at a side door, “and ask for Lock Pick. He should be able to show you the ropes.”

Pokey mutely nodded his thanks and wandered, slightly dazed, towards the door in question. Nopony stopped him and he found himself in a more secluded part of the building. He couldn’t believe his luck! Now all he had to do was find where they were holding Sparkler, rescue her and get her out of here. Visions of how grateful she and her father would be flashed in front of his eyes, maybe the old stallion would finally recognise that he was good enough for his daughter. He just had to hope that he didn’t meet anyone who recognised him. He pushed open a door in front of him.

“Oh!”


Tough Cookie hummed to herself quietly as she made her way towards her gangs quarters, a tray of freshly baked biscuits on her back. She had managed to get some time in one of the hotel’s better kitchens and it had felt good to get a chance to use her mark. Her parents had both been earth ponies, and her mother claimed they could trace their lineage back to Smart Cookie herself. Although they had never said anything, Cookie had always been afraid she might get a weather control mark or something. And it had been her proudest moment when she had gotten her baking mark after helping her parents complete an order. As always a stabbing pain made its way through her chest as she remembered her family. They were gone now, but she was just lucky they had sent Handsome to look after her in their place.

Putting aside her pain for a moment, she turned back to the job at hand. Her crew had done well in capturing that pink filly and her polychromatic friend, so they deserved a treat. Plus she knew Handsome loved her cooking, she would definitely make sure she had enough left over for him as well.

She trotted up to a door, only to have to open in her face, causing her to jump back in surprise and drop her tray. “Hey, watch where you’re...” she growled. There in front of her was the surprised face of the blue stallion who’d tried to protect Sparkler last night.

He looked at her, recognition in his eyes, “Oh!” he gasped.

They stared at each other stupidly for a moment, then Cookie reacted. Treats forgotten she discarded the plate as she leapt forwards to tackle the stallion. She shouldn’t have any trouble subduing a single soft student. To her surprise, he managed to leap aside at the last second and she flashed past, almost colliding with the wall. By the time she had oriented herself again he, to her further surprise, lashed out at her with a hoof. “Hey!” she cried as she ducked back so his leg harmlessly flew past her.

“Where is she?” he demanded, lining up for another punch.

Quick as a shot, Cookie lashed out with a wing, slapping her attacker across the face. She followed up with a body tackle which knocked him from his hooves. “We’ve got her under lock and key for the moment, you can join her,” she grunted.

Not giving up, the stallion staggered to his hooves again and grabbed at her with his telekinesis. “No! I’ll save her.”

She easily broke out of his grasp and slammed her hoof into his already injured nose, causing him to cry out and fall back. “Course you will,” she mocked. “You’re a regular hero.”

Eyes watering, Pokey stood again, and blinking spun and tried to kick at Cookie, missing by a mile. “Look there’s being brave and there’s being stupid,” she said, driving a pair of blows into his chest winding him and knocking him to the ground again. “And you’re definitely the second, now just stay down.”

Pokey lay there, struggling to breathe, “Good,” said Cookie, “Now...”

To her surprise Pokey once again leapt to his feet and charged her. Rearing up onto his hind legs, he slammed her against the wall and pinned her there. “Where is Sparkler?!” he cried hoarsely. He raised his horn to Cookie’s neck. She rolled her eyes down, and for the first time noticed just how long and sharp it was, she gulped.

“She’s with Gambit,” she gasped.

“Who?” he asked.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Cookie, kicking out him her hind hooves, catching Pokey between the legs with a wicked blow, her hoof smashing into the organs dangling there. He stood for a moment, swaying slightly before collapsing to the ground with a gurgling scream and curling into a small ball of pain.

Cookie fell back onto four legs again and looked down at injured stallion in front of her. She almost felt impressed, he’d fought better than she thought he would. Still it would be up to Gambit to decide what to do with him. With a yell she summoned other gang members to help her take him to the boss.


“You just abandoned her?” cried Dash. “She gave up everything for you!”

“She wasn’t of any more use to me,” said Gambit matter of factly.

“You’re a monster!” shouted Sparkler. “I hate you! I hate you!” she screamed.

“What you think of me isn’t very important. It’s your father who’s going to make me very rich indeed. Now all I need is somepony to deliver him a message.”

The door behind him opened and a small group of ponies entered, led by Cookie. “I’ve got something for you boss,” she called, throwing Pokey onto the floor. The injured stallion tried to struggle to his hooves.

“Who is this?” asked Gambit, examining the new comer.

“Pokey!” cried Sparkler, “are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he mumbled, trying again to stand with a little more success. “I’m here to rescue you.”

Gambit laughed, “Plus impressionnant, I am shaking! Such a great hero comes to visit me. And so handsome too.” He used his magic to turn the younger stallion’s head from side to side, noting his blue coat and white mane. “Do you know your father, colt?” he asked, “because I’d swear you’re one of my bastards. Well done Cookie.” She glowed at the praise. “This more than makes up for your earlier failure.”

Her face turned sour again at being reminded of that.

Gambit looked back and forth between Pokey and Sparkler, his horn glowing slightly “You’re close, I can see the chains binding you. If you want your petite amie to stay healthy, I have a little message for you to carry...”

“I won’t help you!” cried Pokey. “I’d rather die!” He spat in Gambit’s face.

The older stallion’s expression quickly changed and he turned purple with anger. A hoof lashed out, clubbing Pokey to the ground before kicking him in the ribs several times. “That can be arranged.” he growled, hitting the prone stallion again. Even Cookie flinched.

“Stop! Please stop!” pleaded Sparkler. “I’ll do anything, just don’t hurt him any more.”

“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” growled Dash.

Gambit ignored them and lifted Pokey’s head from the ground. “Now I have a little message I want you to deliver to Castor Cut. Tell him I have his daughter and if he ever wants to see all of her again he needs to bring ten thousand bits here by,” he checked the watch on his wrist, ”two pm. And not to tell the guard, I’ll know if he does. He might want some proof that I actually hold his daughter,” he mused. “I’m sure I can arrange something.” He drew a knife from somewhere and advanced on Sparkler, grinning at the helpless mare.


Castor had calmed down from his original outburst, and Ditzy had released him from her grasp. He sat gripping his tea in his aura and looking into the middle distance. Words seemed to tumble from his mouth, now he had started his confession he didn’t seem to be able to stop. “She said I spent too much time helping them and not enough on her and she was right! I tried to help them all, and how did they repay me, they took my wife from me. She didn’t even tell me to my face, she just left a note. Twenty years together and she left a note.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Orange, suddenly understanding Castor’s behaviour.

“I can’t let them get Sparkler. I can’t take losing somepony else, not again. I’m not strong enough to take that.”

“You can’t blame the whole city for what just one pony did.”

“Why not? What did this city ever do for me?” snarled Castor. Ditzy just hugged him again and the anger seemed to drain out of him. “I know it’s wrong, but it hurts so much,” he sobbed again.

Ditzy kept holding the stallion until he calmed and slumped back into his chair. Auntie poured him another cup of tea.

“Thank you,” he mumbled, trying to calm himself. “I think I needed this, to have somepony to talk to.”

“I know it hurts, but you have to let Sparkler go. You can’t hurt her to stop your pain.”

“I know, but it’s so hard, I’m so afraid. I’ve had nightmares about waking up and finding she’s not there anymore, that her rooms just empty and I’m all alone.”

“Nothing right is easy, but you still have to do it, for her.”

“Sparkler may have a very important destiny,” said Auntie, leaning forward.

“What do you mean?” asked Castor.

“What would you say if I told you there might be a way to clear out all these dreadful vines? To return the princesses and make things how they were and that your daughter might be part of that solution?”

“I...” began Castor, suddenly there was a hammering sound from the front door which caused everypony present to jump.

“Who could that be?” asked Castor. He picked up a gem from a side table. It glowed and projected a grainy image of two ponies knocking on the door. One, the elder, was holding the other up. He appeared injured and could just about be made out as Pokey Pierce.

Castor blinked for a few seconds, then was up and out of the door as quickly as his hooves would carry him. Ditzy and Auntie took a little longer to react and got to the door in time to see the unicorn throw it open. Pokey was badly bruised with one eye swollen shut, he slumped forwards as the door opened, barely supported by Iron Nails.

“What? What happened?” gasped Castor, helping to drag the injured stallion inside, momentarily forgetting his feud with Pokey.

“I found him on the street,” said Nails. “Someone’s worked him over but he was trying to crawl here. I offered to get him some help but he was insistent he had to get here.”

“What have you done to yourself?” wondered Castor.

“Sparkler,” gasped Pokey.

“What? What about my daughter?”

“Sparkler kidnapped.”

The colour drained out of the purple unicorn’s face. “No that’s not possible, she’s safe. I locked her in, she has to be safe,” he muttered.

“Gambit, crime lord. Has Sparkler, wants to exchange her for ten thousand bits, two this afternoon,” continued Pokey as he tried vainly to stand.

“No! No that’s not possible, you’re lying,” gasped Castor.

Pokey weakly gestured at his neck. Wrapped around it like a tie was a thick wad of pink and purple hair, recognisably a portion of Sparklers tail.

Castor backed away in horror, making choking sounds before turning and rushing into the house barging straight past Ditzy and Orange knocking them aside. A few moments later there was a cry of distress from Castor. “She’s gone!” he wailed.

Leaving Sherbet to look after the injured unicorn, Ditzy followed the cries and found the stallion kneeling on the floor of a very pink bedroom. The window was open and unbarred, allowing a cold breeze to blow in. He turned to her as she entered, tears running down his cheeks, “She’s gone!” he mumbled again. “My little filly is gone.” Without thinking Ditzy threw her wings around the stallion and hugged him tightly , as if to draw some of his pain into herself. He weakly tried to push her away before collapsing into her. “My nightmare,” he cried.

“There, there.” She soothed the distraught Stallion. “We’ll get her back, she’ll be just fine.” The situation uncomfortably reminded Ditzy of the times that Dinky had been taken, first by Corona and then by a group of gangsters trying to gain leverage on an Element of Harmony. She shuddered, remembering how helpless she had felt, the way her mind had been drawn to all the dark fates that could befall her daughter. Now Castor was living that nightmare too. It wasn’t fair, he had done all he could to protect her.

“It’s happening again! Gambit, he... he was the one that took May from me. First my wife and now my daughter. I’ve got nothing, nothing left. I’m all alone.”

“No, you’re never alone, you have me. I’ll help you get your daughter back, as will all my friends. I’m sure Pokey will help too.”

Suddenly Castor pulled away his streaming eyes blazing. “Pokey, it’s his fault! He made her leave!” He roughly shoved Ditzy aside and galloped back towards the front door.

“No, wait!” cried Ditzy, picking herself up. But the time she got up and ran to the hall Castor was at the door. Orange was desperately trying to hold the crazed stallion away from Pokey who was swaying on his hooves.

“You did this!” bellowed Castor, swinging his hooves wildly at Pokey while Orange tried to push him back, his rage gave him the strength to overcome her earth pony strength and he shoved her off her hooves.

“Stop this now!” cried Auntie, trying to stand again.

“I’ll kill him! It’s his fault Sparkler left, his fault she’s been foalnapped.”

To Orange Sherbet’s surprise, Pokey did not flee. Instead he stood as best he could and held his position in front of angry stallion. “He’s right,” he admitted quietly. “It is my fault, she was captured coming to see me and I wasn’t strong enough to rescue her. Do what you want, I deserve it.” He bared his neck and closed his eyes, waiting to be struck.

Castor backed away in surprise. “What? You... “ he muttered.

“Please stop this,” said Ditzy, placing a hoof on Castor’s shoulder. “Can’t you see he’s sorry?”

“I would rather die myself than let your daughter come to harm,” said Pokey. “I love her, sir.”

Castor looked dumbly at Pokey and then his own raised hoof, “I... I... I know. I didn’t want it to be true but I think she loves you too. We... We have to get her back.”

“I’ll do all I can to help,” said Pokey, swaying slightly on his hooves.

“Yes, we must get Sparkler back. I’ll get the money, we need to get to her as soon as possible.”

“Do you think this Gambit will actually give her back?” asked Ditzy. “It might be a trap.”

“I don’t know but I have to try. I can’t just abandon my little filly.”

“My friends will be able to help. they’re not far away, I can get them here.”

“One of your friends was captured as well,” said Pokey, “Dash.”

Dash, thought Ditzy, she must have gotten Sparkler to leave the house. Why did she have to be so headstrong?

Castor checked his watch. “We have less than an hour to deliver the ransom.”

“Then I’ll go get my friends now!” said Ditzy, making for the door. “We need to save Sparkler and Dash.” When the gangsters had taken Dinky she’d tried to go after them alone, but it had been Big Mac and Cheerilee who had finally located her muffin. Her daughter might have been spared some of her grief if only she’d worked with them. She couldn’t let Castor make the same mistake.

“I can get some help too,” said Iron, standing unnoticed by the door. “There are those on the street who still remember what you did for us.”

Castor blinked. “Would they really help?”

“Well it won’t hurt to ask. Plus I know some who can help the boy here.” He gestured at Pokey.

“Then it’s settled,” said Ditzy, “We’ll go get our friends, and Iron can get what help he can.”

“Good, but hurry. I won’t wait. I’m leaving as soon as I get packed. I’m going to do what I need to to make sure my filly’s safe.” Castor turned and stalked off into the house. Iron helped Pokey limp out of the house.

Ditzy turned to the door but was stopped by Auntie. “I’ll get the rest of the elements, you need to stay here.”

“Why?” asked Ditzy in surprise.

“The way Castor is he’s not going to wait. He’ll probably do something stupid.”

“He’s just worried about his daughter.”

“I know, and if this was Tangerine getting foalnapped then I would do something stupid too. You have to keep him here until we can get back and come up with a plan.”

“I understand.”

“Good, now make sure you keep him here. I’ll be back as soon as I can,” said Orange as she turned and galloped out the door. Ditzy in turn followed the path Castor had taken into the house.


Ditzy found Castor in a large room near the back of the house, it seemed to be a combined showroom and workshop. Half of the room was given over to a number of display cases containing gems of various sizes as well as a few less decorative looking security devices, mostly locks and bolts. The rest of the room contained a large work bench with more gems held in vices as well as some carving tools. Next to the desk Castor was busy prying open a wall safe. It seemed hugely complicated and Ditzy sat back to watch the stallion dispel magic, undo locks, and enter combinations. Eventually the door opened to reveal a surprisingly small space behind packed with bits, more than she’d ever seen in her life. She couldn’t help but think what she could do with such wealth, the reward she had received for her part in stopping Corona had been nice but this would probably be enough to buy a larger house, all sorts of treats and toys for Dinky, even hire a professional magic tutor for her daughter, not that Trixie and Twilight weren’t doing a good job. That must be the kind of thing that Auntie Orange could afford for her child. With some effort Ditzy pulled her mind back to the matter at hoof as Castor started to pour the bits into a large sack. Once finished he rushed around the room opening the cases and gently taking out several of the crystals stored in them. He placed them in a bandana which he placed over his shoulder before covering himself with a cloak. Finally he took a yellow gem as big as his hoof from a large box labeled ‘Pie Farm’ and placed it in a vice. He sat in front of it for several minutes, his horn glowing brightly, concentrating hard. Sweat started to roll down his face. Eventually the gem began to glow, at first faintly but then with increased vibrancy until it became painful to look at and Ditzy had to shade her face with a wing. Then the light died away.

“What was that?” she asked as Castor placed the gem in the bag with the bits and loaded them both into a pair of saddlebags.

“Some extra protection in case Gambit decides to betray us. My magic may not be that powerful but these gems amplify the spells within them, and I am very good at enchanting them. I think Sparkler’s going to be even better through. I remember when she first powered up a gem, she was so proud, it took forever to get the oatmeal off the walls though.” He smiled happily, then shook himself, drawing his mind back to the present. “I have to go now,” he said urgently. “I can’t risk being late.”

“Not yet, my friends aren't here yet,” protested Ditzy, putting herself between Castor and the door.

“I don’t have the time to waste.” Castor looked between his watch and a wall clock and back again.

“Please just a few more minutes,” she begged. “You won’t be able to help Sparkler all by yourself, look what happened to Pokey.”

“But every minute she’s with him, he could... anything could happen to her.”

“I know, I really do. The same thing happened to Dinky, I know just what you’re thinking of, how much you want to go to her right now, but you have to wait, you won't help Sparkler if you go off half cocked.”

“Your daughter was foalnapped?”

“Twice so far,” she looked down. “It doesn’t get any easier.”

“How do you still let her go out of your sight? How do you sleep?”

“I get by with a little help from my friends, I know they’ll protect Dinky even if I can’t. Plus if I locked her up the kidnappers have won, they’ve stopped my daughter having a normal life. I couldn’t do that to her no matter how much I might want to.”

“I lost touch with most of my friends after May... went with Gambit.”

“Who is this Gambit pony?”

“I don’t know much about him. He was one of the homeless, and he helped me to organise things for a while. I was so blind to what he was doing,” Castor snarled, slamming a hoof on the ground. Then the anger drained out of him, “But I can’t just blame him, the cracks were already there. Me and May, I... I could have done more for her. I was so caught up in my mission I lost sight of what was most precious to me.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t entirely your fault.”

“Maybe, but...”

A loud persistent knocking could be heard from the front door.

“That must be my friends,” said Ditzy.

“At last!” exclaimed Castor, rushing towards the door. Ditzy followed as best she could, bumping into a door in her haste. The stallion swung open the door to reveal Spike, the purple stallion panting slightly.

“We made it here as quickly as we could, Orange told us what happened. I never should have let Rainbow out of my sight! I should have guessed she’d try to get Sparkler out.”

“Wait, your friend was the one who persuaded Sparkler to run off? This is her fault?” growled Castor.

“We don’t know that for certain,” interjected Ditzy quickly. “We can sort it all out once we’ve saved your daugher and Dash.”

Worry and anger struggled across Castor’s face for a moment, “Fine, but we have to leave now, we can’t be late. I can’t bear to think what Gambit could do to my daughter.”

“What do you plan to do?” asked Spike.

“Hand over the ransom. I don’t want to risk Sparkler, but if Gambit betrays me I’ll do what I have to to keep her safe.” He rebalanced the bandana under his coat.

Spike nodded. “We’ll help as much as we can.”

Ditzy looked around at her fellow elements, the party pony, the journalist, the musician and the hotel owner, and she had to admit they didn’t look very intimidating now that Dash was missing. For some reason Pinkie Pie had strapped a broom to her head and the Discord rubber chicken now hung limply from the end. Ditzy thought it made her a little more intimidating, but more in a ‘don’t make eye contact’ way rather than looking like she would be useful in a fight. Auntie Orange was panting hard and leaning heavily against Octavia. “She galloped all the way to the hotel and back again,” explained the grey mare.

“I’ve been sampling too much of the hotel’s food,” gasped Auntie. “I just need to do a few more laps of the stairs each day.”

“Come on!” insisted Castor, trotting away from group.

“Wait! We need a plan in case something goes wrong,” said Spike. “We don’t know how many Ponies Gambit could have with him. There’s only six of us.”

“There’s many more than that, if you’ll have us,” came Iron Nails’ voice.

Castor turned and his mouth dropped in surprise. There stood the old stallion, but he was not alone. With him stood a group of homeless ponies, and not a small group at that. Forty maybe fifty ponies stood there, mares and stallions, young and old.

“I told them you needed help and they volunteered, these are just the ones that I could round up in half an hour.”

“But... I threw you all out.”

“True and many are still sore about that, but you also helped us as much as you could before that. We owe you, you treated us better than most. Also, Sparkler’s done us a lot of good as well. We don’t want anything to happen to her.”

“She’s special to so many, not just you,” noted Pokey. The stallion was covered in a number of less than clean bandages but looked better than he had been.

“I.. I.. don’t know what to say,” stuttered Castor.

“Thank you would be appropriate,” said Ditzy, smiling.

“Thank you! Thank you so much!” The purple stallion seemed overwhelmed. “I don’t deserve this,” he eventually managed, “after how I treated you all. After what Gambit did, I thought you were all the same. What can I ever do to make it up to you?”

“You don’t need to do anything. We’re not all bad and it’s good we can show that, not all of us want to turn to crime to survive, we’ve got our self respect. You helped us keep that respect.”

“No, I have to do something. I’ll open the house up again, do what I can to help you. Once we have Sparkler back.”

There was a heartfelt cheer from the crowd. “That’s very kind of you,” said Iron. “Now let's go save your daughter.”

“Yes, of course. We’ll need to hurry.”

“Actually, I have some ideas about that,” said Pokey, limping forwards. Castor frowned for a second, obviously torn between rushing off to save his daughter or to stay and listen, then he stepped forwards as did the elements.

“What do you have in mind?” he asked.

Chapter Five, Part Four. (Written by Talon and Thorn)

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Ditzy looked around nervously. The herd of homeless ponies had led them to the decaying remains of a hotel which was apparently where Handsome Gambit had his base, the mostly intact sign above the door stated it was called The Rising Sun. The number of gang members guarding the front door proved that Pokey’s plan was a good one. They hadn’t been worried by her, Castor and Orange but they would certainly have reacted if all the elements and their allies had arrived. She looked around, Gambit had apparently decided to make a spectacle of the hostage exchange and several hundred refugee ponies were squeezed into the area with more still arriving, pegasi even hovering above their fellows. She noticed one or two familiar faces in the crowd, including Iron. she was glad that at least some of their friends had managed to sneak in.

A handsome blue unicorn stallion was standing in a space at the centre of the lobby, flanked by several gang members. Next to him Sparkler and Dash were suspended in the air held by a number of unicorn auras. Thankfully, they didn’t look harmed. Sparkler looked scared while Dash looked angry. Ditzy assumed the blue pony must be Gambit, and he looked very familiar. She frowned for a second, then gasped as realisation hit her.

“You see it, too?” whispered Orange leaning close, “Could he be some relative of Trixie?”

“I suppose. I know she has an uncle in my universe, but he’s a pegasus.”

“Well, this is a different universe. That could even be Trixie I suppose.” Auntie shuddered, trying to wrap her head around the concept.

“So glad you could finally join us,” announced Gambit, his accent making his similarity to Trixie even stronger. “I was beginning to think you might not care as much about your daughter as I’d been led to believe.”

“Daddy!” cried Sparkler, struggling against the grip of the unicorn who had her restrained. Dash likewise tried to shake off the magic holding her tight.

For a moment, Castor looked like he was going to charge straight towards his daughter, then Ditzy rested a restraining hoof on his back and he managed to hold himself back. “You’re all right?” he asked, worry and fear deeply etched on his face.

“I’m scared,” she admitted, “But I’m ok. He beat Pokey, is he...?”

“Pokey’s safe for the moment.”

“As is your daughter, and she will stay that way as long as you keep up your end of the bargain,” added Gambit. He eyed the purple stallion, the bond between Castor and his daughter was still strong. To his surprise there were also weak bonds to several other ponies in the room, he thought that any attachment to the homeless population would have been broken long ago. Still it didn’t matter as long as he got paid and Castor kept out of his business.

“Who are your guests?” asked Gambit.

“They’re some of the strangers who helped the girl,” said Cookie, stepping to Gambit’s side.

“They’re protection. I hired them to guard me and my daughter,” explained Castor, sweating slightly.

Ditzy wished they’d had more time to work on their story, she didn’t think she looked much like a bodyguard. She tried to look as tough as she could, but didn’t think it would make much of a difference.

“Then I would think you may be due a refund,” said Gambit with a smile. “Still the streets are so dangerous these days.”

“Dash are you all right as well?” asked Ditzy, stepping up along side Castor to get a better look at her fellow element bearer.

“I’m fine,” said Dash. “I’m going to kick some flank once I get free.” She struggled again. “His in particular,” she gestured at Gambit.

“What were you thinking, getting Sparkler to leave her room?” Why did Dash have to be so headstrong in all universes?

Dash’s ears drooped. “I screwed up ok? It seemed a good idea at the time, but, well not one of my better plans. There’s no need to go all middle name on me,” she said hurriedly.

“Middle name?” asked Ditzy sounding puzzled

“Uh, never mind. Wrong Ditzy.”

“Anyway,” said Gambit loudly. “Do you have my monnaie?”

Castor lifted the large bag and started to walk forwards.

Arrêt,” cried Gambit. “Not too close, drop it here.”

With a loud chink Castor dropped the bag to the ground. Some of the coins spilled out and several of the crowd took a step forwards, eyes locked on the bits. Gambit hurriedly took the bag in his aura and levitated it towards himself. He opened it and began to sift through the bits. “This is all of it?” he asked.

“Ten thousand, like you asked. Now give me back my daughter,” Castor demanded.

“Ah! Did I say ten thousand? I’m afraid my errand boy must have misunderstood. Ten thousand was the holding fee on your ‘property’. To get her back will be a further ten thousand.” A gasp went around the room and the various ponies filling the area started to chatter to each other. “You managed to get this much in only a few hours, no doubt you can get more given a little more time.” continued Gambit.

“This isn’t right!” announced a purple earth pony stallion standing near Gambit, “You said you’d give her back.”

“Shut up Brick!” hissed Cookie, turning on the stallion who withered a little under her, and every other pony in the room’s, gaze.

“I’m sorry Cookie, but it’s not. She,” he pointed at Ditzy who looked a little confused. “asked me if my mum would be happy with what I’m doing and she wouldn’t. Robbing ponies, kidnapping fillies, it's not right. Now this! Mr Cut helped me once and Gambit’s... urck.” His rant was halted as Gambit clutched at his throat with his aura.

“Be quiet,” demanded the blue unicorn, his eyes burning.

“Stop that!” said Ditzy, flying towards the distressed Pony only to be stopped by Cookie, her head shooting back and forth between Ditzy, Gambit and Brick. “Why are you helping him?” Ditzy asked.

“He... he looked after me after I lost my parents,” stuttered Cookie, surprised at the question. “They sent him to look after me.”

“And does he do that? How does he help you.”

“He makes sure we’ve all got food to eat, maybe somewhere to sleep.”

“And what does he ask for in return for these favours?” asked Ditzy with a raised eyebrow.

“Whatever we can find or steal. Food costs you know,” she said a little sulkily.

“And I bet it costs less than you provide. And what if you can’t get anything, you go hungry I suppose?”

Mumbles of discontent could be heard around the room.

“You don’t have to try and survive on your own, you can work together for the good of all of you, not just him.” She pointed to Gambit, who released his grip on Brick. The purple earth pony staggered aside gasping for breath. “You can be a family. I’ve known hard times, maybe not as hard as you, but I’ve always made sure I can feed my daughter, even if it meant going hungry myself. Has he ever done anything like that for you?”

“Don’t listen to her. What does she know about your life? Losing your homes, your livelihoods. She hangs about with one of the richest ponies in town, and what does he do to help you?” shouted Gambit, pointing sharply at Caster as he tried to regain control of the situation. The ponies around the room were starting to glance around in confusion.

“It’s true,” admitted Castor, stepping forwards. “I have abandoned you. I put my own pain ahead of yours, and for that I am truly sorry. For a long time I blamed that pony,” he pointed at Gambit, “and all of you for my problems, when ultimately they were my own and my wife’s. I don’t think I will ever be able to make up for it entirely, but I swear I will do all that I can to help you, to protect you from now on. But you need to stop preying on the rest of the city. I need you to help each other to be able to help you.”

“I need you to stop preying on the city”, mocked Gambit. “He wants you to give up your self respect, live beholden to his charity.”

“How is that different from living under you?” asked Iron, pushing through the crowds. “You take all we’ve got and give us just enough to live.”

“Yeah,” cried a mare. “How much self respect do you think I’ve got after selling myself on street corners? I remember Mister Cut got me a temporary job helping out at one of his friend’s shops. It wasn’t much, but it was something.”

A general rumbling of agreement started to make its way through the crowd. Cookie and most of her gang started to back nervously towards Gambit and the hostages.

“Listen! Listen, mes amis! I was going to share all this with you,” said Gambit, holding up the sack of bits. “There’s enough here for all of you. He would never give you this.” He telekinetically lifted a number of coins and let them trickle to the ground. To his surprise he found a large yellow gem amongst them. He stared at it as it started to glow.

“Oatmeal sweetie,” cried Castor drawing a smaller green gem from his cloak, it burst into flames in his hoof. He, Ditzy, Orange and many of the other ponies shut their eyes and held hooves or wings over their ears.

Sparklers eyes widened for a moment. “Dash, close your eyes,” she called struggling against the force holding her to allow her to cover her ears.

“Huh?” said Dash.

Realising the danger, Gambit threw the gem away from himself just as it exploded with a flash brighter than the sun and a thunderous cracking sound. Blinded and deafened, he staggered back, tripping over one of his gang members and sprawling on the floor. Likewise affected, the gang and many other ponies staggered around in pain and confusion. The unicorns restraining Dash and Sparkler lost concentration and their prisoners dropped to the ground.

Before any of the stunned ponies could react, one of the walls to the room, already weakened by vines, collapsed inwards and a blue unicorn stallion with a long pointy horn barrelled through it head first. Blue magical flames seemed to wreath him for a moment before they burned out and he dropped to his knees. “I did it!” exclaimed Pokey in jubilation before his legs gave out entirely and he collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. Behind him a wave of ponies, led by the remaining elements, started to flood in.

Pinkie hopped over the fallen stallion, “Surprise!” she yelled, shaking the rubber Discord attached to her head about vigorously before leaping into the crowd ahead. There was a mooing sound as the plastic toy slapped a stunned gang member in the face.

Octavia followed her more gracefully, stopped to gently help Pokey back to his hooves. Spike galloped past the two of them, his horn glowing as he deflected a spell from one of the few unicorns unaffected by the explosion.

“You took your time,” said Auntie, weaving through crowds of stunned ponies.

“Pokey did his thing as soon as Castor sent his signal,” said Spike.

“I think most of the crowd are on our side, or at least don’t want to help Gambit any more.”

“That's good,” said Spike, ducking as a Pegasus swooped past legs flailing. “It doesn’t look like they all know that though.”


As soon as the gem had done its job Castor rushed forwards, barging stumbling ponies aside as he made a beeline for his daughter. Nothing else was on his mind. He found her struggling to her hooves and blinking rapidly. She’d been close enough to be gem to be partially blinded even with her eyes closed. “Sparkler!” he called.

“Daddy!” She grabbed hold of him and he drew her into a fierce hug.

“I was so worried! Please never do this to me again,” he sobbed.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I just wanted to get out and have some fun,” she cried into his mane.

“We can talk later, I need to get you out of here...” he began.

Sparkler saw a figure rising up behind her father, “Look out” she gasped.

Castor spun to see Gambit, a knife grasped in his aura, “Die!” screamed the blue unicorn, hatred glittering in his eyes as he plunged the steel towards his opponent's side. Suddenly a grey blur was between the two stallions blocking the blow. The knife went flying, its blade stained red. The blur solidified into the form of Ditzy. She stood there for a second, blood dripping from a shallow cut in the foreleg she had used to block the blade.

“No!” she said, wincing at her wound. “Nopony dies here!”

Gambit stood for a second, mouth open in surprise, before he gave another snarl of rage and rushed at Ditzy, who gave a squeak of distress and tried to back off. She cried out as she put weight on her injured leg and staggered. The blue stallion swung a hoof to strike her just as a small green gem bounced off of the pegasus’ barrel. Immediately she was encased in a green sphere of energy and his blow bounced off. He turned in time to see Castor throw another gem at Sparkler, encasing her too in a protective bubble. She cried out silently from within, beating her hooves on the material.

“That should keep them safe,” said Castor, turning to face the larger stallion. “Now let's settle this stallion to stallion.”

Gambit smiled nastily. “Oh from what your wife told me you’re not much of a stallion are you?” He held out his forehooves an inch or so apart. “She doesn’t like petite things, that’s why she came to me. Well she did like the petit morts I gave her.”

With a growl of rage, Castor threw himself forward, horn sparking.


Dash blinked away the stars from her eyes, even as her ears still rang. Around her ponies were fighting each other in apparently random groups. Near the centre of the room she saw Castor and Gambit brawling, the taller blue stallion was flailing at the shorter with powerful kicks of his front legs while Castor held a chunk of wood in his aura like a shield, deflecting the blows.

“Hang on!” she called, flapping her wings to get airborne. Suddenly something heavy struck her on the back and she was driven back to the earth with a grunt. She rolled just in time to avoid a second blow from Cookie’s front hooves as she slammed them into the ground, cracking the flooring.

“No, you don’t!” cried the red coated pegasus.

“Oh come off it,” muttered Dash as she sprung to her hooves again. “Have I got to beat you again? How dumb are you?”

“Shut up! Shut up!” Cookie flew into the air again and lashed out at where the blue pegasus had stood, but she was already moving, streaking through the enclosed area almost quicker than Cookie could follow. “This was all perfect before you turned up!”

“Perfect?” said Dash, swooping behind the slower pegasus and landing an almost playful blow on the back of her head. “Yeah for Gambit maybe. What did you get out of it? You just like hurting other ponies?”

“No, of course not!” exclaimed Cookie, genuinely shocked. “It had to be done,” she shouted. “Its just the way things are, we just need enough to be able to survive. We’re going to be together, just the two of us!” She lashed out again, missing her opponent by a mile.

“Oh come off it! A crush? Yeah, been there, done that, and Shining was a hundred times the stallion that creep is. But you can’t honestly think he feels the same? Everything he says is a lie.”

“Shut up!” screamed Cookie, lashing out with her tail. She caught Dash in the face as she flew past. The element bearer, blinded, went into a drive and crashed into the ground, momentarily stunned.

Cookie landed and stood over Dash, ready to smash her hoof down onto her foes face.


Castor jabbed with his hooves, forcing Gambit to back away and twist to avoid the blows. For a moment Gambit thought getting the other stallion angry might have been a mistake, but the shorter stallion was not a skilled fighter. Each wild swing left him open, allowing the taller stallion to pound his opponent's ribs with his return blows.

Gambit lashed out with a punch to the purple unicorn’s head and to his surprise his target's eyes locked onto the limb and the watch that encircled it. “Ah, you recognise this do you?” he asked, grinning. “A little something to remember your wife by.”

“I gave her that for our engagement!” roared Castor, grabbing it in his aura and tearing it from Gambit’s wrist before rearing up and thrashing at his opponent. Gambit rose to meet his opponent and the two of them wrestled, both trying to throw the other to the ground. Slowly, Gambit’s greater size and strength began to win out against his advisory until, to his surprise, Castor drew back his head and slammed it forward into his muzzle.

Gambit was thrown back and tumbled to the floor, eyes watering, bleeding from his nose. He tried to stagger to his hooves but a wave of dizziness dropped him to the ground again.

Shaking his head Castor loomed over Gambit. “No more!” cried the blue unicorn. “Have, mercy, s'il vous plaît!”

Castor wobbled in place, undecided, for a moment, “You never showed me mercy!” he panted. “Now you ask for it? I thought you would be made of sterner stuff.” His hoof slowly lowered. Then quick as a flash Gambit struck out with his rear legs, catching Castor in the gut and knocking him to the ground.

Gambit shook off his weakness and stood over the prone form of Castor, lying curled up on the floor. “Foolish!” he announced, he picked his knife up from the floor in his aura. “And that will cost you, mon ami.”


Ditzy screamed out in horror as the blue unicorn raised his knife above the prone form of her ex-lover, or somepony who looked just like him. She battered her hooves against the inside of the magical prison she was held in, causing the globe to rock back and forth.

What had Castor been thinking, imprisoning her and Sparkler in these things? She knew what it was like to want to protect somepony but locking them away was just forcing them to watch impotently as Gambit killed him. Why couldn’t he trust them to help him? She battered once again against the inside of the globe and staggered as the thing started to roll forwards almost causing her to tumble head over tail.

Her eyes widened as she was struck with inspiration!


“It’s over!” crowed Gambit as he loomed over Castors fallen form. “Did you really think that the ponies of this city would really fall for your talk of working together, of looking after each other? There is only one law on the streets, that the strong take what they want, and the weak lose out!” His knife glittered in his aura as he played with it for a moment. “You lose!” he announced, bringing the blade down.

Suddenly something large slammed into his back, knocking him to the ground. The large green ball containing Ditzy rolled past him as the pegasus pushed against the inside with all her might.

Quoi?” gasped Gambit, staring at ball as it rolled on by, He caught a glance of movement off to one side and rolled away as the second ball rumbled by, Sparkler running around inside it. He rolled to his hooves and then leapt aside to avoid Ditzy again. Looking over he saw Castor getting back to his hooves and panting heavily. He’d lost his chance to deal with that pest. Glancing around Gambit noted that most of his guards had been defeated by the strangers and their allies. He knew when a situation looked hopeless, and when to make a quick exit. Stamping his hoof in frustration he turned and ran deeper into the hotel. It looked like it was time to leave, still it wouldn’t be a complete loss.


With a snarl Cooke tried to swing her hoof down onto Dash’s head, but to her surprise another larger hoof held her back, it was Brick.

“Stop,” he commanded. “It’s all over.”

She looked up. The fighting had died down and most of her gang were being restrained by the victorious ponies. Castor was staggering to his hooves and of Gambit there was no sign. “Where?” she asked.

“Gambit hoofed it when he saw the way things were going.”

Below her Dash started to stir. Thinking quickly Cookie shrugged off Brick and took off after her leader.

The black maned stallion helped Dash up. “There you go ma'am,” he said politely.


Cookie flew through the hotel as quickly as her wings could carry her. She crashed through the doors to Gambit’s room to find him shoving several large bags into a hole in the wall. Of course he’d waited for her, he loved her and nothing that rainbow haired skank had told her would make her feel any different. Then a yellow maned mare stuck her head out of the hole. Who the tartarus was she?

“Ah Cookie,” said Gambit, apparently not noticing her surprise. “Looks like we’ve overstayed our welcome here. Help me with this will you?”

She grabbed a large bag, it was full of bits and other valuables. “I didn’t know we had so much.”

“Well it’s been a very profitable half year. I knew I’d have to leave sooner or later, the good folk of this city wouldn’t tolerate me forever. Still, I hoped it would be a bit longer.” He shrugged.

“This should be more than enough for the two of us it retire,” said Cookie, glaring at the blond mare dragging another bag through the wall.

Gambit narrowed his eyes, “Yes the two of us.” He drew her close, bringing a flush to her cheeks. “Don’t worry about Prench, three can carry more than two, and we can get rid of her later.” He gave a smile. “Now hurry, barricade the door, that should give us enough time to get away.

“Right away boss,” said Cookie, a trace of worry in her voice. After a pause she started to drag the bed over to the doors while Gambit and the mare moved more bags into the tunnel. “I think that will hold them for a while.” She could hear hooves approaching from the other side of the door. She turned to see that a metal grill was now blocking the escape tunnel with Gambit on the other side. “Hey! What gives?” she cried.

“Ah, poor loyal, stupid Cookie,” mocked Gambit. “I’m throwing you to the wolves. I’m sure they will put a little less effort into finding me if they have you.”

“But... You don’t... You said we would be together!” she stood paralyzed in shock.

“You actually believed that?” he said, sounding amazed. “Wow, I’m even better than I think I am. As if I could ever be with somepony like you.” Next to him the blond maned mare gave a high pitched titter. Gambit winced slightly.

“You don’t mean that!” cried Cookie, tears falling from her good and ruined eye. The bottom had dropped out of her entire world, and she felt sick.

“Of course I do, do you think I would really ever feel anything for you? You’re ugly, hideous! You were nothing but a tool, one that has outlived it usefulness, and I far prefer beautiful things.” He leaned over and pulled Prench in a deep kiss.

“But you promised my parents, when they died,” said Cookie, feeling sick. This had to be some sort of joke.

“You’re parents are fine, as far as I know, just poorer than they were when they hired me to find you.”

She collapsed to the ground sobbing and trying to wrap her wings around herself.

“Oh well, au revoir,” he said, giving a cheery wave as he turned and, burdened by their ill gotten gains, he and Prench made their way down the escape tunnel.


In the main room Castor had managed to pick himself up and recovered the watch he had torn from Gambit’s wrist. Around him crowds of ponies were celebrating Gambit’s defeat. Somepony had managed to find a food store and was passing out bread to the assembled masses.

Next to him the magical bubbles holding Ditzy and his daughter burst freeing them. “Daddy,” cried Sparkler, “are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he said, rubbing one of the bruises he’d gotten in his fight. He leaned forwards to hug his daughter.

“Sparkler!” came another cry as a blue stallion limped across the room towards them, partially supported by Octavia.

“Pokey!” screamed Sparkler, rushing over and planting kisses all over his face, stopping only to glare slightly at Octavia who stepped aside looking confused. “Oh, by the princesses are you all right?” Both Pokey and Castor tensed a little at her actions.

“I’m fine,” said Pokey, breaking away from her, “just a little banged up.”

“It was a good idea of yours to ambush them through the wall,” said Castor, somewhat unwillingly. “And that spell, I’ve not seen anything like it before, good job, er... son.”

Both Pokey and Sparkler seemed stunned. “Thank... thank you, sir. It’s just my special talent, breaking through things.”

“Then I guess you’ll have a good future in demolitions. I hear it pays well.”

“Err... Actually I want to get into administration.”

“I’m sure he’ll be just as good at breaking through paperwork barriers as well as physical ones,” suggested Ditzy.

“Anyway,” said Sparkler, trying to change the subject, “I’m so glad my two favourite stallions are getting along.”

“Sparkler, this... this... whole thing has gotten me thinking and, the world’s so very dangerous.” He paused, this was so very hard to say, “But maybe it’s not as dangerous as I thought it was and you... you’re not a little filly any more so... so...” He stopped as Ditzy rested a comforting hoof on his shoulder. “If you want to go somewhere, maybe even live somewhere else then I’ll understand. You’re a grown mare now.” He panted slightly.

“Daddy,” said Sparkler, stepping forwards, “I’ll always be your little girl, I’ll always need you, but thank you.” She hugged him. “Thank you.”

“As I’ll be opening up my shelters again I’ll need somepony to help run them and I thought you might want to? Pokey as well. You can go back to college, those courses should help you organise them.”

Sparkler hugged her father even tighter, tears starting to fall down her face. “Thank you, thank you,” she mumbled.

“Also I have to be truthful with you...” He looked down as if gathering his strength. “Your mother isn’t away on a trip, she’s... she’s...” He started to cry.

“Oh, Daddy, I know,” said Sparkler, hugging her father again.

“You know?”

“Yes. she asked me to go with her, but I couldn’t leave you.”

“Oh, Sparkler. We’ll find her again some day.”

“I know we will, Daddy. I love you, I love you both.”

Ditzy grinned. She was so happy to see the family reunited, maybe it paid back some of the problems she’d created for them in her universe. She looked around, her fellow element bearers were all making their way towards her. “You know, I may have underestimated that stallion,” whispered Orange Sherbet. “Maybe he could be the Element of Kindness after all.” Ditzy looked down at the element itself. It was glowing slightly but it didn’t seem to be doing anything to latch onto a new owner, maybe they had all been wrong and the element was some other pony entirely. “Did you mean what you said about going hungry for your daughter?” asked Auntie.

“Yes, it’s not often but sometimes it came down to me or her eating, and that’s no choice at all. Besides, I could do with losing a few pounds,” she joked.

“I’ve never had to make that choice with Tangerine. Back on the farm, well there were some hard times. I know Granny Smith may have missed a few meals to make sure Apple Cake and I ate, but it’s not a choice I’ve had to make. Your life has been harder than mine.”

“Granny Smith?” asked Ditzy. “Are you an Apple?”

Their conversation was interrupted by Castor “Oh, look what they did to your pretty tail,” he exclaimed, examining the damage done to his daughter.

“Oh, don’t worry Dad,” she said, nuzzling her father. “I was thinking of getting it docked anyway. Lots of the girls at college have had it done, and it’s quite fashionable.”

Castor turned even more purple than normal. “NO DAUGHTER OF MINE IS...” he roared before closing his eyes and letting out a calming breath. “I mean, if you want to, it’s your decision,” he continued weakly.

Sparkler smiled at her father. “Don’t worry, I was just seeing how you’d react. I’ll just wait for it to grow back, maybe get extensions in the meantime.”

Castor winced a bit again but leaned into his daughter again and gave her a hug, “Whatever you want, sweetie.”

Dash sidled over to Ditzy as they watched the reunion. “Look I’m sorry I lied to you about not going anywhere. It, you know, seemed a good idea at the time.”

Ditzy sighed. “I know you meant well, but things could have turned out really badly.”

“Yeah, I know, all this is my fault. It’s just I really didn’t want to see her locked up and never really getting to live, you know. She seemed so unhappy.”

“I do understand but sometimes if you do love somepony you have to do things that don’t make them happy.”

“Like not letting Dinky eat too much so she doesn’t gets sick?”

“Yes just like that. Wait, when did you do that?” asked Ditzy, turning on her companion and looking angry.

“Umm,” said Dash, looking sheepish. “It’s not like it was your Dinky.”

“It was a Dinky!”

“Sorry to interrupt,” said Iron. “It looks like Gambit got away, but I’ve got some ponies out scouring the city for him. We got Cookie and most of the gang though. What are we going to do with them now?” he asked.

“Show me,” said Castor.


“What should we do with her?” asked one of the street ponies. A small group of them were standing in the room that Gambit had taken as his own. The escape tunnel was clearly visible but still barred. Cookie laid in front of it still curled up in a sobbing ball, unaware of what was going on around her.

“I know what I’d like to do,” said another, raising a hoof threateningly. “She was one of Gambit’s chief enforcers. She certainly gave me a few bruises, time to repay the favour.”

“Stop!” cried Castor, entering the room with the element bearers, Pokey and Sparkler. He pushing past the crowd of watchers. “Don’t!”

“Why not? She was the one who took your daughter!”

Anger flashed over Castor’s face for a moment, but he forced it back down. “I know, but she’s also a hurt filly, and she was as much a victim in this as you.” He trotted forwards and knelt by Cookie’s curled up form.

She looked up, tears flowing down her face. “He... He... left me, abandoned me. Said I was ugly! I loved him! It hurts so much!” She sniffed.

Gently, Castor turned Cookie’s scarred face towards him before enfolding the young mare in a hug. “No, never ugly,” he said. “No one should call a filly ugly. You’re beautiful, he was the ugly one.”

“That’s it? You’re just going to let her go? After what she’s done?” asked the street pony.

“No, she does need to pay for what she did, everypony does. But I think I can arrange for the courts to be lenient. I’ll need staff to work the shelters when I reopen them, she could be security, that would be a fitting community service.”

There was a sudden gasp from behind him as Ditzy’s necklace burst into pink bubbles of light. Her eyes glowed a blank white as she rose into the air, her wings still folded. Cookie backed away from Castor, gasping in shock. The purple stallion turned to see what was happening. For some reason he didn’t feel the least bit frightened at this occurrence, it just felt, right, to him.

A flash forced all present to avert their gaze. And when they could look back Castor sat there looking a little unsteady on his hooves with a golden necklace around his neck, a pink crystal in the shape of a diamond set in it. Ditzy gently floated to the ground before collapsing with a soft sigh. Before anypony else could react, and putting his own weakness aside, Castor rushed forwards the fallen pegasus. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Ditzy’s mismatched eyes flipped open and one of them stared into Castor’s as he leaned over her. “It’s all right, that always takes it out of me.”

“As long as you’re all right,” he said, running a hoof gently through her mane.

Ditzy flashed back to similar situations so many years ago now, in another world. It had been a long time, but she still remembered how he happy she’d been at the time. She blushed, “I’m fine.” She gently pushed away Castor with some regret. “I guess you have a few questions about that?” she said pointing a his new decoration.


Handsome Gambit awoke. He felt cold and his head ached, where was he? He remembered him and Prench Hotel making their way through the tunnel to the river where he had a small but swift boat to take them and their ill gotten gains far away. His mind felt foggy, they had gotten outside of the cities limit and he had opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Then he’d felt very tired all of a sudden. His eyes widened and he sat up, he’d been drugged... the little putain had drugged him!

He staggered to his feet. The river flowed past a short distance away, but the rest of the land was clogged with vines, a few lazily twitching as if sniffing the air. Of Prench and his money, there was no sign. He was alone, bitless and lost.

“PRENCH!” he roared, but there was no one around to hear.


“So I’m a member of some kind of universe saving super team?” asked Castor, clutching a cup of tea in his hooves like it was a lifejacket. It was several hours later and they had returned to his own house. Outside there was the sound of building as the long abandoned parts of the house were opened up again to give shelter to the street ponies. Iron Nails was helping to organise the work.

“Sort of,” said Spike. “We’re not quite the Power Ponies, but we think if we can get all of this universe’s elements together we should be able to destroy the vines and even return the princesses.”

“It’s all so big,” mumbled the stallion. “Why me? I’ve done what I can for this city, but the whole world?”

“None of us expected to be chosen either,” said Ditzy, resting her newly bandaged hoof on Castor’s. She’d decided not to tell Castor of their relationship in her world. It would only be even more confusing, not to mention awkward.

“I knew I was an exceptional musician,” said Octavia, “but I didn’t expect to be singled out as the Element of Honesty.”

“I always knew I was awesome,” boasted Dash.

“Anyway,” said Spike. “We need your help”

“But what about all of the homeless. Who will help them while I’m gone?”

“I think you already know the answer to that,” said Ditzy, looking at Sparkler.

“But it’s too much, she’s just a...” He sighed. “Of course, I’m sure she’ll be fantastic at it.”

“Thanks Dad.” She smiled and nuzzled her father.

“I’ll give her a hoof,” offered Pokey.

Castor’s eye’s narrowed a bit. “I don’t think I entirely trust you with my daughter. No funny business while I’m away.”

Sparkler pouted, “Awww! And we were going to have lots of sexy, sexy, sex!” Pokey turned purple as a blush spread over his own body and Castor’s eyes bulged. She laughed. “I’m joking Dad. Nothing’s going to happen.” She leaned over and hugged him again. “Come back soon, and be careful.”

“That’s my line,” noted Castor, getting to his hooves and wrapping a newly filled bandana of spell gems around himself. “No time like the present I suppose. How do I get to wherever I’m going?”

Suddenly the rubber form Pinkie still wore attached to her head started to swell and twist as Discord returned to his normal mismatched form. Castor stared at the small creature as it walked across the table. “That would be down to me,” said Discord. The Dracoequis contorted his form, bending his back into a U so his head almost touched the ground. “My chaosness, what did you do while I was asleep? Use me to beat up a group of ponies?”

Pinkie looked a little ashamed before she realised who she was dealing with. Then a frown returned to her features.

“Whatever it was, it’s done me a world of good. I haven't felt this limber in millennium. Now I assume you’ve found the next element bearer. Who is it? This delightful young mare?” He bowed at Sparkler.

“No, guess again,” said Pinkie.

“This rather battered stallion?” He turned to Pokey, but Pinkie shook her head. “No? Then who could it be.” He leaned against the tea pot for a moment. “I know! It’s this piece of crockery isn’t it. I always knew tea was a vital ingredient in friendship.”

“Um, it’s me,” said Castor, eyes locked on the strange creature in front of him.

“You! You!” gasped Discord examining the stallion. “Well, beggars can’t be choosers I suppose. Anyway, are you ready to go to Ponyville like that generous pony and the magical one?”

Castor stood up and gave Sparkler one last hug. “Stay safe,” he said.

“You too,” she replied before standing back. Pokey put a hoof over her back.

Castor turned and embraced each of the element bearers. “Thank you for your help, for showing my path again and for saving my daughter.” The last in line was Ditzy, who may have held on to him for a little longer than was acceptable. She still had some good memories of her time with the Castor from her universe and it had been a long time since she had a stallion in her life.

Discord made a gagging motion, “Are we done now?” he asked. “Good.” He clicked his talons and there was a loud explosion as Castor vanished. “Oops,” he said, looking at his claw.

“What did you do?” cried Pinkie, turning on the spirit.

“Daddy!” cried Sparkler.

“Oh don’t get your knickers in a twist,” said Discord. “Not that you wear them, you naughty mares. It’s just a side effect of the teleport. He’ll be fine, well maybe a little singed but mostly fine.”

Pinkie gave Discord another glare.

“I suppose the rest of us should be off as well,” said Spike, looking around. “The other element bearers aren't going to find themselves.” He turned to Sparkler and Pokey. “I hope everything works out well for you guys, with any luck the vines will be gone soon.”

“I hope so,” said Pokey. “But it’s not like the homeless will just disappear. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

“Stay awesome kid,” said Dash to Sparkler. “And like I said don’t let lover colt push you into anything you don’t want to.”

“Thanks Dash,” said Sparkler. “Don’t worry.” She hugged Pokey, who winced a little. “You’re going to fix the world, so I’ll have all the time I need.”

“Good luck dear,” said Orange.

“We’ll have an ultra special super save the world party when we’ve finished,” said Pinkie, hugging Sparkler. “And you’re all invited.”

“I hope your endeavours are all successful,” intoned Octavia, bowing stiffly.

“I’m so glad you and your father see eye to eye again,” said Ditzy. “Nothing should ever get between a parent and their child.”

“Thank you all,” said Sparkler.

“Can we go now?” asked Discord, looking bored.

Spike nodded.

“Good, next stop somewhere which isn’t here,” he intoned, snapping his fingers.

There was a thunderous explosion as the element bearers disappeared, already on their way to their next destination.

Chapter Six, Part One. (Written by RK_Striker_JK_5)

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A squirrel ran through the grass, carrying pinecones and dodging the occasional plunder vine that poked through the ground. As it scampered along the floor of a long, wide valley, birds flew through the air and other animals ran about the grass and scrub.

A loud bang and flash of light disrupted the peaceful scene. One by one, the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony tumbled out of the light. Ditzy and Rainbow Dash took to the air, the former flying in a slow curve while the latter did several loops in the air. Both turned back to their point of emergence even as Spike, Octavia and Auntie tumbled out.

The three managed to get their hooves underneath them. Spike glanced from side to side. “Okay, everyone all right?”

Octavia used her cello to steady herself. She let out a breath. “I think so.” Her head shot up. “Wait, where’s -- ”

Pinkie Pie shot out of the light, forelegs held out in front of her. She barreled through Spike, Auntie and Octavia, bowling all three over before landing and tucking into a ball. She rolled along until she hit a rock, bounced into the air and landed on all four hooves. “I knew it!” She stood up on her hind legs and tossed her head back. “You can explode twice!”

Octavia stared at her. “That was a question you had?”

Discord suddenly appeared next to Octavia, arms crossed. “Oh, you have no idea.” A green glow enveloped him and he floated up and over to Spike. “Why yes, of course I’ll come over and talk to you! No, no need to trouble yourself with telekinesis. Thank you for the consideration!”

Spike plopped him down on the dirt and stared down at the draconequus. “Okay, where are we and who are we looking for?”

Discord snorted. The snorts quickly grew into full-blown laughter. His serpentine body doubled over on itself, twisting around in midair and flying around the six. He finally landed on Pinkie Pie’s back. “Well, my pink pony, my persistent pestering prison warden, who do you ponder we’re in pursuit of?”

Pinkie Pie’s ears folded back against her skull. “Well, you’re focusing on me, and you were just laughing rather loudly. Element of Laughter, I presume?” At his nod, she let loose some forced laughter. “Hah, hah, Discord.” Her head twisted around several times, eventually corkscrewing back. “Wait, where the hay are we?”

Octavia walked up to Pinkie Pie. “You don’t know, Pinkie?” She narrowed her eyes at Discord. “Well, where did you send us? Come on, out with it.”

Discord placed a forearm on his forehead and swooned. “Oh, my dear Octy! Half the fun is figuring out things like this! I mean, isn’t that what you do at school? I know that’s what I did at school. An old-school, you might say. A… first-generation school, even!”

Pinkie Pie snorted and spun about, but Discord had already vanished, only to reappear in front of Auntie, this time a jointed metal statue of himself. Auntie sighed, picked him up and stuffed him into a saddlebag. “I’ll play foalsitter for this cretin.”

Ditzy and Rainbow Dash landed next to Pinkie Pie. “Are you all right?” Ditzy asked, concern laced through her voice.

Pinkie Pie suddenly spun around, eyes going everywhere. She ran up to a bare patch of dirt, stuck her muzzle into it and sniffed. After a minute, she scraped up a bit of dirt onto her hoof, brought it up to her mouth and licked it. She spat it out and grimaced. “Okay, no. This is definitely not the kind of soil composition around my family’s rock farm. It’s similar to Ponyville, but not nearly as weathered. It’s… younger? Not as worn down by the passage of time, basically.” She galloped down the valley for a few dozen meters, turned and then galloped back. “There’s some valleys like this around Ponyville, but none of them are this long or deep. The only one that is, is Ghastly Gorge. And that was formed due to tectonic activity, not erosion like this one.” She held up a hoof. “And the area around my family’s rock farm is flatland for miles around, to cut off the next question.”

Octavia’s mouth opened for a moment, but no sound came out. She finally smiled and nodded to Pinkie. “I am most impressed, Pinkie. That’s rather thorough and, quite honestly, surprising geological knowledge from you.”

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Yeah. My Pinkie Pie’s shown some cool knowledge about crystals, but nothing like what you just said!”

Pinkie Pie shrank down slightly and blushed. “Aww, that was nothing. If Maud was here she’d be able to tell you the exact mineral composition of the hillside with a glance!” She abruptly hopped into the air, hanging there for a few seconds and gasping. “Oh my gosh! What if the Element of Laughter here is Maud? Of course, that makes all the sense!” She landed and bit her upper lip. “Or… it could be my dear Cheesy--” She suddenly slammed both forelegs over her muzzle.

Rainbow Dash smirked and flew right over to Pinkie Pie’s side. “‘Dear Cheesy’? Ooh, does Pinkie have a coltfriend?”

Spike, Auntie, and Octavia all rolled their eyes, while Ditzy interposed herself between Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. “Now leave her alone, Dash. There’s no need to get her all embarrassed.”

Pinkie Pie suddenly spoke up. “His name’s Cheese Sandwich and he’s a party pony like me and he’s so dreamy and nice and considerate and he’s got a Cheesy Sense, like my Pinkie Sense! We met during Michelle Richards’ tenth birthday party. I was planning it but then -- ” She suddenly stopped and shook her head. “Wait, that can wait for until after we’ve figured out where the hay we are.” She looked around and sighed. “Oh, by the Herd, this is ridiculous! I can’t even figure out which direction to go!”

Auntie drew her into a hug. “Now, it’s all right, Pinkie. This is a lot different than Canterlot, Fillydelphia or Manehattan.”

Ditzy flew about, her eyes going in opposite directions with each wingbeat. “Hey, is it just me, or do the plunder vines just not seem quite as numerous here?” She went back and forth, eyes scanning along two sides of one of the valley’s walls. “And I swear, one end doesn’t seem to have as many of these darned things.”

Rainbow Dash flew up to her. “Think we should split up and each group go to one end of this valley?”

Pinkie Pie slithered out of Auntie’s hug and waved Rainbow Dash off. “No way, Dashie! I’ve seen way too many horror movies to know splitting up in a location like this would only lead to one of us getting a machete to the head by the local Jason Vorhees!”

Rainbow Dash blinked twice at Pinkie Pie’s words. She looked down at the others. “I got nothing. I understood the words, but in that order and context it just whizzed past me. Anyone else got anything?”

Spike scratched his head. “I think… just don’t split up, Pinkie?” At her rapid-fire nod, he shrugged. “Honestly, it’s good advice here. We’re not in a city with familiar landmarks. Best to stay grouped together for now.” He looked up to Rainbow Dash. “Hey, Dash? Could you do me a favor? Fly from one end of the valley to the other and see if the plunder vines are less thick at one end compared to the other?” He held up a hoof. “Just stay in eyesight! I don’t want something to swoop down and gobble you up.”

Rainbow Dash barked a laugh, but saluted Spike and flew off, zipping from one end of the valley to the other so fast she doubled back on her contrail before it faded.

As Rainbow Dash flew about, Pinkie Pie scratched her forehead. “Hmm, I wonder. Maybe we’re not even in Equestria at all!” She paced back and forth, digging up a small trough in the ground and the others following her movements. “I mean, far as I can tell this isn’t Ponyville or my family’s rock farm. And really, in Equestria that’s it for me. But there’s another place I go to a lot. Maybe we’re in Kentucky!”

Octavia blinked and tilted her head. “Ken… tucky? Is that Griffon territory?” She looked around. “Does that sound familiar to anyone else?”

Pinkie Pie jumped out of the trough and bounded over to Octavia. “No, it’s on Earth. It’s the other end of the Rainbow Bridge. Well, my reality’s Rainbow Bridge.”

Ditzy landed next to her. “Wait, this Kentucky place, is this what you meant when you said you do dimension-hopping daily when we first arrived here? Is that where you go, and over that Rainbow Bridge?”

Pinkie Pie sighed and smiled. “You’re right, Ditzy. About six months ago, through circumstances I could regale you with, but will leave out for now, my Rainbow Dash hit a sonic rainboom at the exact same time my Twilight was doing some super-duper teleport to avoid being incinerated by an angry outcast dragon that lives in the Everfree. They tunneled through space and ended up not only on another planet, but another universe altogether. They landed on Earth in a region called Kentucky and met up with none other than Megan Richards, the motherbucking Mag’ne herself!” She sucked in a breath. “Can you believe it?”

Octavia shook her head. “Most of that does sound impressive, Pinkie, except the last bit about meeting that… whoever it is. If that name’s any indication, I’m guessing this Kentucky isn’t inhabited by ponies?”

Pinkie Pie’s jaw dropped and her eyes bulged out. “Y-you don’t know who the Mag’ne is? The Mag’ne? The Giver of Gifts? Defender of the Stable?” She looked to the others. “What about you? No? Okay… Megan Richards? Megan Williams?!” She dropped back onto her haunches and slapped the side of her head. “This is unreal! She’s one of the biggest heroes in my Equestria’s history!”

Auntie swallowed. “I… I’m sorry, Pinkie. History admittedly wasn’t my best subject in school. Please remember, things might not be the same in every version of Equestria.”

Spike walked over to Pinkie and patted her on the shoulder. “Yeah, sorry, but I’ve never heard that name mentioned before.”

Pinkie looked to Spike, then to Auntie, up to Ditzy, and finally to Octavia. “Okay, sorry. Just took me out of things.” She sucked in several breaths and hopped back to all fours. “Okay, I think I’m better now.”

Dash flew back overhead. “Okay, Ditzy, you’re right.” She jabbed a foreleg to her right. “That end of the valley has almost no plunder vines poking through.” She swept to her left. “While the opposite end’s got a lot more of the danged things poking out.” She pointed back to the end of the valley with almost no plunder vines. “I also noticed the start of a well-maintained path leading off into the distance.”

Pinkie Pie bounced up and down “Thanks, Dashie!” She continued hopping down along the valley. “I think we’ve got--“ She suddenly stopped in midair. Her left ear folded down and her left hind leg twitched. “Ho, boy!” She spun about, kicked off and tackled Octavia.

The pair rolled around on the ground, coming to a stop. Octavia extricated herself from Pinkie Pie’s grasp. “What in Tartarus is the matter with you?” she shouted, her entire face beet-red.

Two seconds later, the ground Octavia was standing on burst open. Plunder vines shot forth into the air, writhing around and snapping. Other plunder vines shot forth towards the ponies from the ground.

Octavia swallowed. “What I meant to say was, thank you.” She slung her Element of Harmony over her back and cantered back and forth, doing her best to avoid plunder vines.

Spike’s horn flared to life. Several of the menacing plants around Auntie, Pinkie Pie and Octavia stopped in mid-writhe. “Let’s get out of here!” he shouted. A plunder vine shot forth not a foot from him. He sidestepped it, stomping on it as it tried to wrap itself around his legs. “Oh, no you don’t!”

Rainbow Dash and Ditzy dove at the plunder vines, kicking and biting at them. Rainbow Dash dove and weaved around them. “You’re so slow, you’re trying to grab my afterimage!” She stopped in midair, stuck her tongue out and waggled her forelegs at the vines. “Nah nah!” She suddenly dropped down as vines stretched out into the sky. “Still too slow!”

Ditzy flew up to her. Both eyes focused on Rainbow Dash. “For the record, my Dinky is more mature than you are.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Eh, to be fair, my Dinky is more mature than I am.” She looked down. “Okay, less showboating, more helping!”

The four ground-bound ponies continued dodging the plunder vines and making their way as best they could to the far end of the valley. Rainbow Dash and Ditzy dove and distracted the plunder vines as best they could, keeping them off their friends’ backs. Rainbow Dash dove deeply, then pulled up at the last minute. The plunder vines stretched as far as they could to try and grab her, letting Spike, Pinkie Pie, Auntie and Octavia slip through the last of them.

As Rainbow Dash pulled out of her dive, she looked back at the plunder vines. “So sad, too bad!” She looked ahead, and gasped as three pegasi mares flew into view.

Backlit by the sun, they were little more than silhouettes as they flew in. Details filled in as they approached. The pegasus in the center was light-blue with two pink and two blue whistles for a cutie mark. The mare to her left was bright-pink and had two lightning bolts for a cutie mark, while the one to her right had a white coat and three purple balloons for a cutie mark. “I believe we have arrived at the quarantine zone at best possible speed,” the leader said. She glanced to her left. “Firefly, prepare aerial countermeasures and get set to lead the other pegasi.” She looked to her right. “Surprise, fly low for distraction and rescue operations.” She looked ahead at Rainbow Dash, hovering in front of the three. “Greetings, fellow Equestrian! I am Wind Whistler. I apologize for the delay in arriving, but it has been some time since anyone has been able to penetrate the plunder vine infestation and cross the valley.”

Rainbow Dash swallowed. Her eyes drifted to Firefly. “Y-yeah, we… penetrated the… v-vines all right!”

Firefly leaned back slightly at Rainbow Dash’s stare. “Are you okay?” She glided over and closed Rainbow Dash’s mouth. “No, seriously, are you okay? You’re staring off into space and that’s not good here.”

Rainbow Dash blinked and shook her head. “Yeah, yeah! Sorry about that.” She swallowed. “I… I don’t look familiar to you, do I?”

Firefly arched an eyebrow. “I… don’t think so?” She squinted at Rainbow Dash. “You’re not a cousin I never met from Cloudsdale, are you?” A noise down below snagged her attention. “Sorry, gotta fly!”

Rainbow Dash blinked, and Firefly was gone.

Down below, Pinkie Pie stared up at the three new arrivals. Her jaw was slack and eyes wider than saucers. Octavia, parrying several vines with her bow, sidled up to Pinkie Pie. “Pinkie, what in Equestria is wrong with you? We have to keep moving!”

Pinkie Pie turned to Octavia, her expression one devoid of any mirth or merriment. “By the Herd of Key’Tuck itself, Octavia!” She wrapped her foreleg around Octavia’s neck and drew her in close. “Do you have any idea who they are?” She gasped. “Oh, now I think I know what happened to us!”

Octavia squirmed in Pinkie Pie’s grip. “Well, I heard Wind Whistler, Firefly, and Surprise. I presume they’re friends of yours where you come from? And wait, ‘what happened to us’? Pinkie, you’re not making any sense!”

Pinkie Pie blinked and her jaw went completely slack. She twirled Octavia around, consequently spinning her away from several plunder vines, until the two were face to face. “You’re kidding, right?” She pushed Octavia, sending them both out of reach of several more vines. “Come on, Octy. I’m the prankster of the group, not you! You have to know who they are, right?”

Spike and Auntie ran past, the former firing blasts from his horn at plunder vines over his shoulder. “Less talking, more running!” he shouted.

Pinkie Pie and Octavia joined them in running as fast as they could. Rainbow Dash, Ditzy and Firefly dove down at the plunder vines, kicking and biting at them as best they could. Rainbow Dash let out a slow whistle as Firefly managed to spin about through a maze of vines near the ground, dodging and weaving through them and not even ruffling a feather. “Not bad,” she said, grinning.

Firefly flew up to Rainbow Dash’s level. The two bobbed and weaved about. “You’re pretty good, yourself,” Firefly replied. They dove down slightly and flanked Ditzy, all three flying off just above the plunder vines.

Surprise dropped down right behind the running ponies. Her saddlebags popped open and bombs shot up and out of them, exploding right behind her and spewing out noxious green smoke. She flew up alongside Pinkie Pie and Octavia. “Hi, there! I’ll have to schedule your welcome party in between Twilight Wish’s birthday and the four-month anniversary of the new bakery’s opening.”

Pinkie Pie looked over to Surprise. “Y-you’ll throw us a welcome party?” She hopped up and down. “Oh by the Herd it’s gonna be the best party EVER! Gonna be our last party ever, but still the best party ever! Can I help plan it, oh please oh please?”

Surprise hesitated for a moment. “Well... I’m not used to collaborating on party planning. Especially with the pony I’m throwing it for!” She looked ahead as they neared the end of the valley. “Good, more guests!”

Pinkie Pie followed Surprise’s gaze. She skidded to a halt, digging up a trough in the dirt as about thirty ponies galloped down the path towards them. There were a few stallions, but most were mares. All had saddlebags almost filled to bursting. They slowed to a trot, then finally stopped at the mouth of the valley. “Looks like we got here just in time,” one orange-coated earth pony said. She stumbled a bit as one hoof hit a clod of dirt. “Whoops!”

Auntie sucked in a sharp gasp at the sight of the mare. She leaned her head over as far as she could to spy at her cutie mark. “Is that…”

Pinkie Pie bounced up and over to Auntie’s side and leaned in as close as she could. “She might be ‘an’ Applejack, but she’s not ‘our’ Applejack.” She looked around as the others came in closer. “I got some good news, some great news, but also some bad news.”

As Pinkie Pie talked, Wind Whistler, Firefly, and Surprise flew to the group of ponies at the mouth of the valley. “Good, you’ve all made excellent time progressing down to this locale,” Wind Whistler said, smiling slightly. “I see all of you have also managed to acquire as many tools and weapons as possible for the upcoming skirmish.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Did she swallow a dictionary when she was a foal?”

Spike cleared his throat. He glanced over his shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief as they were now mostly out of reach of the plunder vines. He and the others made their way to one side as the large group of ponies galloped and flew into the valley proper. “Okay, Pinkie. I think we’ve got some time for a little explanation. What’s your news?”

Pinkie Pie looked to her right at the ponies in the valley. They unloaded their saddlebags, dumping explosives, makeshift weapons, and even gardening tools out. They attacked the plunder vines not only with what they brought, but with their magic. Horns lit up and fired off blasts of magic, pegasi dove at the vines and kicked, and earth ponies stomped and tore as best they could. “Well, the good news is, I know where we are. The better news is, unless there’s some odd connection I don’t know of, I know who this reality’s Element of Laughter is. The bad news is, I think the explosion that sent us here killed us and we’re in the afterlife. Or as we call it where I come from, we’re running with the Herd in the Holy Lands of Key’Tuck.”

Octavia’s ears pricked up. “Wait, you think we’re dead? You think--” She trotted over to stand in front of Pinkie Pie and jabbed her in the chest hard with a hoof. “What in the name of Cadance are you jabbering on about?! Have you gone madder than usual?!”

Spike galloped over and physically separated the pair. “Okay, okay, that’s enough! Octavia, please calm down. And Pinkie… I don’t think we’re dead.”

Pinkie Pie waved her forelegs in the air. “Well, how else could you explain those ponies being here? I mean look at them! Wind Whistler the Wise, Firefly the Fearless and Surprise the Stupendous, among others!”

Rainbow Dash flew over to her. “Explain what, them being here? What does that even mean? And ‘Firefly the Fearless’?” She tilted her head back and forth. “Actually, that’s kinda awesome!”

Pinkie Pie rubbed her chin. “Wait… “ She looked around, finally locking her sight on a pink unicorn mare with a cutie mark of five stars. “Hey, Twilight Wish, got a minute?”

Twilight Wish looked up and over at the sound of her name. She half-closed her eyes. “I wish, I wish…” She faded out, mere seconds before two plunder vines shot out at her. Instead of ensnaring Twilight Wish, they wrapped around each other and became hopelessly entangled.

Twilight Wish reappeared in front of the group. “Hi, there. Do I know you?”

Auntie’s jaw dropped. “Oh, my!”

Pinkie Pie stepped forward. “Hi there. Quick question for you. Do the names Celestia or Luna ring any bells?”

Twilight Wish gasped. “The Princesses? Have they been rescued from the plunder vines?”

Pinkie Pie slumped over, seeming to shrink in on herself. “No, not yet. Sorry. But you did help me out!” She reached out and hugged Twilight Wish. “Thanks! I’ll make sure the party Surprise is throwing you is the best ever!”

Twilight Wish rolled her eyes. “Yeah, good luck with that.” She waited for Pinkie Pie to let go. “I wish, I wish…” She faded out once more, reappearing amongst the chaos of the fight against the plunder vines.

Pinkie Pie turned around. “Okay, no bad news. Never mind the bad news. We’re not dead.” her eyes drifted to Auntie’s saddlebags. “Now that I think about it, no way he’d get into Key’Tuck. But anyway, I just good and better news. The Element of Laughter here? It’s Surprise. She’s the only one here I’ve got any connection to, barring some really weird family tree possibilities.” She paused and glanced down. “However, I do have some weird news, and it’s got to do with where we are.”

Octavia leaned her head forward slightly. “Wait, what?”

Rainbow Dash blew a strand of her mane out of her hair. “Oh, this ought to be interesting.”

Pinkie paid them no mind and continued. “As for where we are, as insane as this is gonna sound, there’s no other place it could be.” She spun about on her hooves and stared straight ahead. “We’re back, back at the beginning, where it all started. We’re in Dream Valley!”

Chapter Six, Part Two. (Written by RK_Striker_JK_5)

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The other five ponies looked at each other, their expressions ones of confusion. Octavia rolled her eyes. “All right, I’ll ask.” She stepped up to Pinkie Pie’s flank. “Pinkie, could you please explain to us what you’re talking about?”

Pinkie Pie’s head spun around. “So, just to make sure, none of you really know who Wind Whistler is, or what Dream Valley is?”

Rainbow Dash flew over, landed next to Pinkie Pie and leaned in close. “Well, I’m a bit… familiar with Firefly where I come from. Although considering how other relationships have turned out here in this wacky upside-down Equestria, I’m not sure it’s the same here. Or where you come from.” She paused. “Is it?”

Octavia chuckled lowly. “It depends on what your relationship is to Firefly.”

While the three talked, the fighting in the valley proper had begun to die off as most of the plunder vines at the near end of the valley were uprooted, torn up or stomped on. The ponies gathered up any salvageable weapons and tools and made their way back to the mouth of the valley and the path. Wind Whistler stopped at Pinkie Pie and the others. “Are any of you in need of medical attention, or are otherwise incapacitated? Plunder vines can have side effects not fully knowable until time has passed and symptoms become visible or debilitating.”

Rainbow Dash stared at Wind Whistler, while Pinkie Pie scratched the side of her head, and Octavia’s brow wrinkled.. Spike walked up to them. “I think we’re fine. Thanks for the rescue.” He leaned to his right and stared at the valley, letting out a slow whistle. “Now that is impressive work.”

Wind Whistler followed his gaze. “Thank you, but I am afraid it takes all of our effort to keep the plunder vines from exploiting this entry vector.” She looked up and motioned to the walls of the valley with her wings. “For reasons unknown, they have concentrated their avenue of advancement through this valley. Stray vines have been known to poke up here or there on the outskirts of our village, but they are easy to deal with. I can guarantee that, within forty-eight hours, they will be advancing once more.” She looked back. “You are all welcome there. We do not have much to spare, but it is yours if you need it.”

Rainbow Dash turned away and groaned. “I can hear my version of Celestia chuckling right now,” she mumbled.

Spike bowed his head. “Thanks. We’ll be along shortly, Wind Whistler. We’ve just got some things to hash out.” He smiled at her as she flew off, then turned to Pinkie Pie. “Okay, Pinkie Pie. You said this was the beginning, where it all started. What does that mean? Who are these ponies where you come from?”

Pinkie Pie turned around and around in a circle. “Well, okay. You see, these ponies? Without them, I wouldn’t be here. As in I probably wouldn’t exist.” She stopped and looked at each of the other five. “I mean Surprise, the Element of Laughter, here, she’s been my inspiration since I got my cutie mark!”

Ditzy let out a gasp. “Oh, is she your sister? Has she inspired you to spread laughter and smiles throughout Equestria?”

Pinkie Pie shook her head. “Well, no and yes. She’s related to me, but she’s not my sister. She’s been inspiring me, yes, but not directly. We’ve never even met.”

Ditzy’s eyes locked onto Pinkie Pie. “Oh, then... is she a distant cousin of yours in your Equestria?”

“Not anymore. She’s been dead for a little over fifteen-hundred years.” Pinkie Pie looked around. “What, you didn’t know? She’s my grandmother with about fifty ‘greats’ in front of that.”

There was silence for a moment. Finally, Octavia spoke. “That… explains most all of your surprise and reactions to those ponies.”

Spike slowly looked over his shoulder. “So those ponies, Wind Whistler, Firefly, Surprise, they’re from your Equestria’s past? They helped found it?”

Rainbow Dash crossed her forelegs and shook her head. “Wait, no way! That’s impossible! Fire-these ponies can’t be from your Equestria’s past!”

Everyone turned to look at Rainbow Dash. Spike spoke up. “Okay, Dash, I noticed you acting a bit odd when Firefly showed up.” He waved her off as she opened her mouth. “Reporter’s instincts,” he said, winking. His expression turned serious again. “Is it something bad in your reality? Is it a problem?’

Rainbow Dash dropped to the ground and kicked at the dirt. “It’s not a problem, Spike. It’s just weird!” She flapped her wings. “In my reality, Firefly is my mother.”

Pinkie Pie gasped and bounced into the air. “Oh, that makes sense!” Her smile fell away. “Dashie, in my reality, she’s your grandmother with about fifty ‘greats’ in front of it. Same generation as Surprise, Wind Whistler and the others.”

Spike glanced up at the sky, the sun and moon hanging motionless overhead. “Well, I still don’t know if it’s night or day here, but we’d better get moving to Wind Whistler’s village. Pinkie Pie, you can keep up a running answer session as we get there.” His stomach suddenly growled. “And we can eat breakfast, lunch or dinner, too.”

The six started walking, flying, and bouncing their way down the path. Ditzy looked down at Pinkie Pie. “Hey, I can’t believe I’m about to ask this, but is it possible we’re in this Equestria’s past? And that’s how all these ponies are still alive?”

Octavia shook her head. “A reasonable theory, Ditzy, but does that mean the plunder vines traveled into the past as well? Twilight Wish mentioned the princesses being captured, so I’m afraid we are definitely in the present.”

Ditzy’s ears drooped. “Oh, sorry.”

Rainbow Dash slid to her left and patted Ditzy on the shoulder. “Hey, it’s a good idea. It’d make more sense than half the stuff that’s been going on since we got here.” She floated over to hover right above Pinkie Pie. “So… in your Equestria, did Firefly marry a stallion by the name of Cyclone Bolt back in the distant past? That’s my dad’s name.”

Pinkie Pie shook her head. “Nope! I got a picture of them. Gimme a second.” She tilted her head back and her mane coiled in on itself. She stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth. “Let me see, where is it?”

Octavia arched an eyebrow. “Pinkie Pie, I highly doubt you have a whole photo album in there.”

Up ahead, a small village could be seen. A few-dozen buildings were scattered about, a wooden wall surrounding half of it. A river ran nearby, with a waterwheel and mill set up next to it. Ponies darted about on the streets and in the air. Their talk and occasional songs could be heard, carried by the wind.

Pinkie’s head shot forward and her mane poofed out. A strand of hair extended out in front of her muzzle, a slim, shiny box entangled in it. “Nope, but I’ve got my smart phone. And that’s got all my pictures saved on it!” She tapped the screen with her nose. “Megan was there at the wedding. She sent them to me through email.”

Auntie leaned over and stared at Pinkie Pie’s phone. “That… is your Equestria’s telephone? It’s so small!” She waved a hoof around it. “And no wires, either! This is remarkable! Is it magic?”

Pinkie Pie nodded, then shook her head. “Yup! It’s a telephone, but it’s not magic. Well, in some respects it is. It feels like magic!”

Ditzy tilted her head down and looked at Pinkie Pie and Auntie. Confusion crossed her face. “Tele… phone? Is that like some super-duper telegraph?” She looked to Rainbow Dash. “My own Equestria has telegraphs, but right now they’re more toys for the nobility. You know, something fun to do while lounging about?”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Oh, yeah. I know all about those kind of horse apples.”

Pinkie Pie looked up. “Ditzy, a phone is a device that allows two-way voice communication. You don’t have phones? Oh, and Dash? Wanna see your multi-great grandfather, Bloodwing of the Sky Clans of the Peaks?”

Rainbow Dash halted in midair. “B-Bloodwing? His name is Bloodwing?” She and Ditzy dropped to the ground. Rainbow Dash flanked her opposite Auntie, with the others crowding around. She let out a gasp as she saw Firefly standing next to a large, heavily-built stallion with deep-red wings and slender legs. “Holy Celestia!” She jabbed her hoof at the screen and two other similarly-built stallions. “Who are they?!”

Pinkie Pie giggled. “His brothers Deathmane and Killhoof Red. they led the Sky Clans of the Peak after Commander Hurricane. All four of them founded Cloudsdale a few years later.” She tilted her head back and the phone slid back into her mane. “I’ll show you more pictures later!”

The six resumed their journey. After a few minutes, they entered the village. Pinkie Pie’s head shot around, her body soon following. She bounced back and forth. “Okay, where’s Surprise? Where is she?” She stopped in mid-bounce and her entire body turned around. “Anyone else see a bakery, or Twilight Wish? Surprise mentioned getting parties ready for them.”

The others looked around. Spike spotted Wind Whistler flying towards them. “If there’s anyone who would know, it’s probably her.”

Rainbow Dash bit her lip, but a small giggle still escaped. “That, and probably the answers to fifty-million trivia questions.”

Wind Whistler landed and bowed her head. “I am most pleased to see you six here.” She waved at a large, two-story building with her left wing. “We have an inn for travelers, although with our isolation, it did not see much use even before the plunder vines.” Her brow furrowed. “I hesitate to ask this, but what is your purpose coming here?”

Pinkie Pie opened her mouth, but stopped short of speaking. Instead, she waved the other five into a circle. “Okay, I know we were kinda coy about telling them the previous three times until the whole Element reveal, but I think Wind Whistler can take it. If she’s anything like the Wind Whistler in my reality, and she really does seem like it, she won’t be confused or frightened and we can skip a lot of hassle.” She batted her eyes and pouted her lips. “Please, oh please?”

Octavia eyed her. “I’m not sure you’d know how much she’d match up to your version of Wind Whistler. Yours has been dead for fifteen-hundred years. Still, I think this mare has more than enough intelligence to be able to understand and help us out.”

Spike nodded. “It’s your call, Pinkie.”

Pinkie broke from the others and turned to face Wind Whistler. “Okay, this is gonna sound really weird, but it’s the truth.” She sucked in a big gulp of air before continuing. “Each one of us is from a different version of Equestria. We were brought here by a being named Discord to find this Equestria’s version of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony. See the shiny necklaces, cello and circlet? Good! We’re being sent to various parts of this Equestria to find ponies that we’re close to in our Equestria, except they’re in this Equestria. If we find all six, they can stop the plunder vines, free the princesses and stop this crazy mess. Right now we’re searching for my counterpart, the Element of Laughter, and I’m near dead-certain who she is.” She panted a bit. “So… this is where you ask us what the real story is, right?”

Wind Whistler tapped the ground and bobbed her head. “Actually, Pinkie Pie, what you say is not out of the realm of possibility. Neigh Ton, Star Swirl the Bearded, Clover the Clever and even our own Twilight Wish have done extensive research into the ‘many worlds’ hypothesis. And considering my life experiences, it would be folly to dismiss your claims out of hoof. Pinkie, who is the mare you’re searching for?”

There was silence among the six for a moment. Octavia finally let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank Cadance! This one should be…” Her voice trailed off before she shook her head. “No, better not to tempt fate.”

Pinkie Pie jumped into the air and bounced around. “Oh, this is great!” She stopped in midair and looked to Wind Whistler. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Surprise is, would you? Where I come from, she’s… a relative of mine.”

Wind Whistler’s head darted about, her body following. “I believe the last time I saw her, she was at the bakery. There is some confusion about whether she is trying to throw a party for it opening, Twilight Wish’s birthday, or some odd combination of the two. I shall lead you there.”

Spike took a step forward. “Thanks, Wind Whistler. Just--” He stopped in mid-gait as his legs wobbled and stomach growled. He blushed and looked to the inn. “Maybe it’s all right if I go get something for us to eat and get us some rooms at the inn?’

Auntie’s stomach also growled. She blushed and bowed her head slightly. “Perhaps it would be best for some of us to go to the inn. Crowding around Surprise might spook her a bit.” She looked back at her saddlebags. “Now, we do have some of the local currency for payment. Hopefully it should be enough.”

Wind Whistler waved her off. “Renumeration is not necessary. Although would you be willing to do some small tasks around the village? It would not be anything dangerous.”

Rainbow Dash jumped into the air. She spun around until she spotted some clouds hanging over fields of crops. “Hey, you need help with weather-control? I’m one of the best in all Equestria! Well, my Equestria.”

Spike piped up. “My Equestria too, Dash!”

The others all spoke affirmations. Rainbow Dash scratched the back of her head and blushed. “Hey, thanks. I guess along with Dinky and Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash being awesome is a multiversal constant!”

Wind Whistler cocked an eyebrow. “I suppose. Anyway, if you are so inclined, several of the pegasi are over in the fields, performing climate-control. Please report to Firefly when you arrive.” She looked to Pinkie Pie, then the others. “Will anyone else be accompanying Pinkie and myself to the bakery?”

Octavia walked up to Pinkie Pie’s flank. “I will.” She looked to Pinkie Pie. “If you’ll have me.”

Pinkie Pie wrapped her forelegs around Octavia’s neck and squeezed, turning her face from gray to dark-purple. “Oh, thank you thank you! This’ll be super-great!”

Octavia gagged and squirmed. “Pinkie… air… Pageturner?”

Pinkie Pie let go. She spun around and leaned her head back. Her phone emerged from her hair. “Spike, here’s my phone. I’ve got a lot of movies and songs and other stuff saved on it.”

Spike’s horn lit up and the phone gently floated over to hover in front of his face. He looked past it at Pinkie Pie. “Wait, you’ve got movies and songs on this thing?” He squinted his eyes and looked at the screen. “What are these icons?” He looked to his right and Pinkie was suddenly there, startling Spike and sending him cantering to the side. “Pinkie, don’t do that!”

Pinkie blushed slightly. “Sorry, Spike. I just wanted to show you how to use my phone. The screen’s touch-sensitive, and they made it so it’ll detect a unicorn’s magic or the pressure of a hoof.” She rubbed her chin. “Hmm, how’s about you push the round circle? That turns on the camera.”

Spike looked back to the screen. He focused on it with his telekinesis, and the screen changed from an image of Pinkie Pie and some stallion with a sandwich cutie mark to an image of Auntie, standing right in front of him. He let out a small gasp. “This thing’s actually a camera, too! A phone and a camera!”

Pinkie Pie rolled her eyes. “Well, duh! I told you that!”

Spike chuckled. “Yeah, sorry about that. It’s just insane. Hay, we don’t even have ‘phones’ in my Equestria.” He clicked on another icon. “Hmm, contrast, bright levels, auto-focus, and it saves the pictures? My version of Twilight Sparkle would kill for something like this!” He looked up. “Auntie, smile!”

Auntie brushed her mane back, then crossed one foreleg in front of the other. She smiled at Spike. “I’m ready for my close-up, Spike.”

It took a second, but Spike managed to snap a few pictures of Auntie. After some experimenting, he flipped the phone around and showed them to Auntie. “What do you think?”

Auntie leaned forward and narrowed her eyes. “Quite nice, Spike!” She looked to her left at Pinkie Pie, but she was gone. “Pinkie?”

Spike pointed a hoof past Auntie. She turned around and spotted Pinkie Pie and Octavia following Wind Whistler. “I think she’ll be all right.” He turned in the direction of the inn and started walking towards it, Ditzy and Auntie following.

Rainbow Dash flew over to them. “I’ll be back in an an hour or so. Just gonna go help Mo-Firefly out for a bit.” She groaned and slapped her forehead. “Dang it, why is this so hard?”

Auntie spoke up. “Dash, will you be all right there? Celestia knows I can empathize with you on how strange it can be interacting with someone who’s close to you, but isn’t the same person.” She looked at the other two standing around her. “We all know that feeling.”

Rainbow Dash slowly lowered herself to the ground. “Thanks, Auntie. It’s just… I mean in my reality she’s my mother who married Cyclone Bolt and lives in Cloudsdale. But in Pinkie Pie’s reality she’s my distant ancestor, has been dead for fifteen centuries, founded Cloudsdale itself and she married some stallion who looks like he ingested a whole keg of performance-enhancing drugs!”

Spike bit his lip, but laughter still escaped. “So glad I’m not the only one who saw that.” He focused on Pinkie Pie’s phone once more. His tongue stuck out of the edge of his mouth for a moment before he flipped the phone around and showed the screen to Rainbow Dash. On it was a static image of Firefly. His magic reached out, pressed the ‘play’ icon on the screen, and the image came to life.

“This on, Megan? Okay, thanks! Hi, I’m Firefly! I’m the fastest and most-daring flier in all of Ponyland! No one’s got speed on me, or moves! The Sky Clans of the Peak think they’re the best fliers? They haven’t seen me!” The small piece of video ended, showing Firefly in the air and punching the sky with a wing.

Rainbow Dash slowly smiled at the small image. “I guess some things really do stay the same. Thanks, Spike.” She leaped into the air and flew off, wind whipping behind her.

Spike turned back and resumed walking to the inn. Most of his focus was on Pinkie Pie’s smart phone as he experimented with various other icons. He let out a small gasp. “If I’m reading this right, Pinkie’s got over ten thousand songs on this thing!”

They entered the inn. Inside was an earth pony stallion at a desk with the cutie mark of a steam train. He looked up as they entered. “Howdy! Name’s Steamer. Good to see you folks again.”

Spike half-smiled. “Right, I remember seeing you swatting plunder vines with a shovel at the valley. Thanks for the rescue.” He looked around. “Wind Whistler told us we could stay here in exchange for chores or help around the village.”

Steamer nodded. “That’d be mighty helpful of you.” he pointed down a hallway, at a set of double-doors at the end. “If you three set one of the tables in the dining room, I’ll whip us up a nice dinner. May not be the fanciest thing ever, but it’ll fill your bellies.”

Auntie curtsied to him. “We’re quite grateful, Mister Steamer.” She led the others down the hall and into the dining room. Inside were several dozen tables, all with their chairs placed upside-down on top of them. Although not dusty, the room nevertheless had an air of disuse about it. Auntie’s nose wrinkled. “I guess they really don’t get much visitors.”

Ditzy fluttered over to one of the tables and started placing the chairs back on the ground. She looked over to Spike, his head down as he stared at the phone. “Spike? Equestria to Spike?”

Spike’s head shot up. “Sorry, Ditzy. Sorry, Auntie. Got distracted by something I noticed on the list of songs.” He turned the phone around so the two could see the screen. “Each song has either an ‘H’ or ‘E’ next to it. I’m not sure what those mean.”

Auntie ducked through a side door, emerging a minute later and pushing a cart stacked with dishes, cups and silverware. “Well, I’m certain you could pick any one of them, and at least it’d be energetic.” She looked to the dishes, then the table. “Spike?”

Spike blushed slightly. The plates, floated up and over to the table, followed by the cups, and finally the silverware. “Sorry about that.” He shrugged. “Okay, there’s a ‘random’ icon here. I’ll just tap that and we’ll listen to the songs.” He floated the phone over to a stand, gently placed it on it and leaned it against the wall. He set the volume to ‘maximum’ and hit ‘play’.

An infectious beat started up, sending everyone's hooves tapping. Ditzy’s head bobbed up and down, along with the rest of her body. “Okay, this is definitely a song my Pinkie or any Pinkie would listen to!”

Auntie and Spike also bobbed along to the beat. “I’ll give this to Pinkie, she knows how to pick music!” Auntie said, twirling about on her hooves. “Oh, if only Mosley was here to join in!”

Spike half-smiled as his own thoughts turned to a certain purple-maned unicorn. “I know what you mean, Auntie.”


Pinkie Pie and Octavia followed Wind Whistler down a street and up to a two-story building near the center of the village. A muffin-shaped sign swung from an awning, and a small crowd had gathered outside the front door. Pinkie Pie sniffed the air, and a small bit of drool escaped from her mouth. “Ooh, that’s some good baking they got going on inside there.”

Octavia lightly sniffed the air. “Oh, my!” She patted her stomach and looked over to Pinkie. “Well, I suppose my diet could permit me some… slight indulgence.”

Wind Whistler led them to the storefront and all three peered through it. Inside, Surprise flew about, hanging banners up in one place, then pulling them down in another. As she went about, her expression grew darker and darker. Twilight Wish cantered about on the floor, her head back as she looked up at Surprise.

Pinkie Pie’s expression fell, along with her mane. “That’s not how you do a store opening and birthday party!” she tested the door handle. “Locked!”

Octavia nodded. “I am in full agreement, Pinkie. We must--” She suddenly looked to her right as Pinkie was gone. Movement inside caught Octavia’s attention. She groaned as she spotted Pinkie Pie inside. “Of course.”

Wind Whistler arched an eyebrow. “Fascinating. I was under the impression only Surprise was capable of such circumstance-based reality warping.”

Octavia slapped her forehead and dragged the hoof down her muzzle. “By Cadance, there’s two of them?”


Surprise growled as she flew about the ceiling. “No no no! Why can’t I get this right? The banner’s not hanging at the correct angle!” She suddenly dove down to a table with a three-tiered cake on it. “Oh, horse apples! The frosting is supposed to be ivory-white, not light-white!” She threw her hooves into the air and spun about. “Can anything actually go right for this?”

“Oh, I don’t know. The banners look fine where they are, and everyone will be too busy eating the cake to notice the slightly off-color frosting.”

Surprise dropped down to Pinkie Pie’s level and stared at her. “But they might, and probably will! This has to be perfect, or else the others won’t enjoy themselves!”

Twilight Wish blinked. “Hey, how’d you get inside? I thought the front door was locked!”

Pinkie Pie turned to her and nodded. “Yes, it was.” She then looked up at Surprise. “Okay, I think you’re focusing a bit too much on details and not enough on everyone having a super-stupendous time with all their friends and family.”

Surprise threw her forelegs into the air. “No, everything has to be perfect, and I know perfect parties! If I don’t get it perfect, then all those teeny-tiny details and wrongs will add up, and the guests will get mad, and everything I’ve done will be for nothing! No one will be happy, no one will be dancing or singing or making cute small talk. And there won’t be any laughter or happiness, and then we’ll all get depressed and the plunder vines will get through!” She flew forward, pushing Pinkie Pie back until her backside was up against a wall. Her expression flashed from anger to sorrow before going back to rage. “And it’ll be all my fault, because the cake frosting was the wrong color!”

Pinkie Pie’s darted back and forth. She swallowed and let out a nervous chuckle. “Hehe, I see… kinda. Well, sorta.” She suddenly blinked and gasped. “Oh, by the Herd, this is how others--”

Surprise pushed off towards the door. “I need to clear my head!” She burst out of the bakery and flew off, shouting, “party’s cancelled!” over her shoulder.

Twilight Wish slowly approached Pinkie Pie. “Are you all right?”

Octavia and Wind Whistler entered the bakery and trotted right over to Pinkie Pie. Octavia began to speak, but stopped as she saw her friend’s expression and posture. She dropped down to her belly and, slowly, gently, nuzzled Pinkie Pie’s cheeks. “Pinkie, what is it? We heard some shouting inside, then Surprise burst out.”

Pinkie Pie let out a breath. “I’m okay, I think. Thanks, Octavia.” She slowly rose to her hooves and dusted herself off. “Can we go to the inn, please? I’ve got some stuff to think about with my substitute thinking cap, and I might need some advice.”

Octavia half-smiled and wrapped a foreleg around Pinkie Pie’s shoulder. “We’ll get to thinking on this, Pinkie. And we’ll get to making it right.”

Chapter Six, Part Three. (Written by RK_Striker_JK_5)

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Rainbow Dash quickly reached the outlying fields of crops. Earth ponies and unicorns toiled in the fields, while pegasi flew about, pushing clouds and flapping their wings to create winds. She quickly spotted Firefly, hovering near the center of the fields. She jabbed her forelegs in different directions, shouting orders all the while.

Rainbow Dash swallowed. “Okay, that’s not my mother. Except it is my mother. Well, in my reality she is. But in Pinkie’s reality and this one she isn’t. She’s just a mare. A mare who looks exactly like the mare who raised me and inspired me and what the Tartarus was I thinking coming here?”

Just then, Firefly spun about and locked eyes with Rainbow Dash. Her face was expressionless for a moment, then she smiled and waved her over. “Hey, what’s up, other than us?”

A bark of laughter escaped Rainbow Dash’s muzzle. “Well, Wind Whistler asked us if we’d mind helping out a bit around here, so I volunteered to help with weather-control, Mo… marvelous mare.” A burst of nervous laughter escaped her before she flew up to Firefly, straightened up and tossed her a quick salute. “Rainbow Dash, reporting for duty!”

Firefly eyed her, but returned the salute. “Thanks, you mo...mover and shaker. How much experience do you have with this?”

Rainbow Dash swallowed and straightened up. She flexed her forelegs and kicked her hind legs out several times. “I run my local town’s weather department and have some… special training from Canterlot. I can get everything done in ten minutes flat!” She held up a hoof. “But since this is your team and your fields and I l… learn from doing rather than being told, I’ll try and reign my ego in a bit.”

A smile slowly formed on Firefly’s muzzle. “Gee, thanks,” she deadpanned, winking. She whistled and waved over a pink-coated pegasus mare with five beanie caps as a cutie mark. Whizzer, this is Rainbow Dash. Rainbow Dash, Whizzer. Dash, follow Whizzer around as she makes her rounds and help out, okay?”

Whizzer flew from one side of Rainbow Dash to the other, wings a blur. “Hey, how you doing? I’m doing best as I can with these vines all around. Thanks for helping us out! Where do you come from? I bet it’s far from here. I like it in this village. It’s fun! I’ve got a lot of great friends and family. Do you have any other friends? You should! I really like you!” She suddenly buzzed off towards a group of clouds.

Rainbow Dash’s eyes spun about. She blinked rapidly and shook her head. “Yeesh, get her off coffee!”

“That’s her on decaf,” Firefly replied, smirking. She turned and flew off. “Better get going!”

Rainbow Dash’s eyes narrowed and her lips peeled back. She turned and shot off, crossing the distance to Whizzer in a little longer than an eyeblink. “Okay, Whizzer, standard grid pattern, or full saturation?”

The next two hours passed by relatively quickly for Rainbow Dash as she sank herself into the work. Thoughts of alternate Bearers of the Elements of Harmony sank into her mind as she pushed clouds, kicked them to release their water on crops, and even spun up more for later use. Whizzer managed to keep up with her, talking up a metaphorical storm.

Firefly eventually flew over to Rainbow Dash as the latter was finishing up cloud-herding to one spot above a forest. “Okay, Dash. We’ve got our morning routines done for the day. We’re knocking off and heading back for lunch.” She extended a hoof. “Thanks for the help.”

Rainbow Dash reached out and bumped Firefly’s hoof with her own. “Hey, I never leave my friends or family hanging, Firefly… not that you’re family. Just… a friend!”

The two flew back to the village. Firefly occasionally glanced over at Rainbow Dash, finally speaking. “Sorry, but I gotta ask. Do we know each other? Or at least, do you know me? It’s just, no offense but the way you act around me makes it seem like it.”

A fine sheen of sweat suddenly spread over Rainbow Dash’s brow, absent during her work over the field. She bobbed her head back and forth. “Well, it’s kinda… complicated, to be honest.” A hoof brushed over her Element of Loyalty. “Dang it, where’s Pinkie Pie when you need her?”

The pair touched down near the village’s inn. Firefly eyed Rainbow Dash, but held up a foreleg. “Okay, how’s this? I’ll drop it for now, if you promise you’ll at least try to explain it later. Deal?”

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Deal, Firefly.” She sighed and hung her head as Firefly took off and flew away. “I just gotta figure it out myself.” She looked down at her Element of Loyalty. “Lots of things to figure out.” And with that, she entered the inn.


Pinkie Pie and Octavia slowly made their way back to the inn. Pinkie Pie’s foreleg darted back and forth as she pointed to the various ponies. “That’s Shady, and that’s Heartthrob, and that’s Galaxy and North Star and Lancer and Slugger and Tex!”

Octavia slowly nodded. “And these ponies are all the founders of your Equestria.”

Pinkie Pie nodded, her smile gone and a thoughtful expression on her face. “Tirac the Abomination killed the last Queen of Ponyland, Majesty, and for about twenty years there were only scattered tribes about. When Firefly flew over the Rainbow Bridge to get help, she, Megan and others defeated him and started the slow process of rebuilding. My Equestria is the end result of that.”

“I can definitely see why you and your Equestria hold them in such reverence, then. Now this Megan, she’s a ‘human’, as you call it?” Octavia shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I’ve never met or even heard of such a species.”

Pinkie Pie nodded. “Up until about six months ago they were, at best, legend and semi-mythical in my own Equestria.” Her head tilted back and a small photo album emerged, a lock of hair wrapped around it. Pinkie Pie’s head darted back and forth and the pages flipped. “I’ve got a lot more pictures and videos on my phone, but this is my emergency stash.”

The pages finally settled on a picture. To Octavia’s eyes, she resembled a clothed minotaur, hairless save for the top of her head.

Pinkie Pie looked to Octavia and grinned. “Lemme guess, your first thought was minotaur, right?”

Octavia blushed, but nodded.

“This is Megan Williams, now Megan Richards. Her species are known as humans. They’re from Earth, the planet the Rainbow Bridge is connected to. When the old Rainbow Bridge collapsed, twenty years passed for her, but fifteen-hundred years for ponies.”

Octavia studied the picture. “From a mortal…. woman?” At Pinkie Pie’s nod, she continued. “A mortal woman who helped her friends to a demigod almost worshipped by your Equestria. Megan to the Mag’ne, a tale worthy of song” She glanced back at her cello, slung across her back.

Pinkie Pie followed her gaze. She put her photo album back into her mane and extracted a small book, its cover worn by time and use. The title read ‘the Scriptures of the Mag’ne’ in rather elaborate font. Pinkie Pie stood up on her hind legs, cleared her throat and began speaking. “And lo, the Mag’ne came upon Tirac in his Castle of Darkness. She held her Spear of Fire aloft, the shaft glowing with energy. “Bring forth Eternal Night no more,” she intoned, her voice still young but carrying authority.”

Octavia quickly unslung her cello, placed it on the ground, drew her bow and played. She sank into Pinkie Pie’s words, letting them direct her movements. Her playing sped up and slowed down, instinct helping her along.

Residents of the village stopped and gathered around the pair as they continued. Pinkie Pie’s coat was suddenly black and red, with her mane twisted into a pair of horns. “Tirac laughed and waved the Mag’ne off. “Foolish whelp! You come here, into my domain, where not even the bravest of the Herd dare to tread? I shall consume your soul and bring an end to these ponies!”

Her coat changed back to its original color, but Pinkie Pie was quickly wrapped up hoof to head in a brown robe. She reared back on her hind legs and balanced a long, red stick in her hooves. “The Mag’ne shook her head and stepped forward. “No, Tirac. You are the fool. The others of the Herd do not fear you. They know I am more than enough to end your reign of terror.” And with that, for seven days and seven nights, they fought. Tirac was powerful, yes, but so was the Mag’ne. And the Mag’ne was not alone, for the Firefly, Applejack, Twilight Wish and all the ponies were with her. And with friends by her side, she was more than a match for the Harbinger of Darkness.”

Pinkie Pie dropped back to all four hooves, once more herself. “And thus in the end Tirac was slain, the Rainbow of Light consuming him and banishing his soul to Tartarus! Thus, the First Labor of the Mag’ne had been completed, but it would not be the last!”

The ponies gathered around stomped their hooves in applause and cheered. Pinkie Pie and Octavia both bowed to them. “Thank you, thank you!” Pinkie Pie said, grinning. She looked to Octavia. “That was super-duper awesome playing, Octavia! How did you manage to keep up with everything I said and match it?”

Octavia slid her cello once more onto her back. “Practice, my dear Pinkie.” The pair once more resumed their somewhat slow journey to the inn. “So, Surprise. We have to figure out how to get her to embody the Element of Laughter. To spread joy among everyone. Or something along those lines.”

Pinkie Pie’s head bobbed up and down. “Yeah, yeah. She was pretty bossy back there at the bakery.” She sighed and her mane flattened slightly. “I kinda hate to say it, but I learned the hard way during Michelle Richards’ birthday party, that not every party needs to be all balloons and confetti and streamers. Think about what the guest of honor wants, not what you want.”

Octavia slowly smiled. “Now all we have to do is convince your alternate-reality ancestor the same thing.” She paused. “And to get off that before I get a headache, how did Michelle’s birthday party go?”

“Well, kind of a blur up until the police arrived…”

The two continued talking as they wound their way up and down streets. Finally, they arrived at the inn. Octavia groaned and tapped her hooves against the ground. “Lost track of time. I think we covered just about every square inch of this village!”

Pinkie Pie hung her head. “I’m so sorry, Octavia! I just got caught up in seeing all these heroes of my Equestria and talking about my Equestria and your Equestria and Earth and the humans.”

Octavia waved her off. “I should’ve thought more about the time.” Her ears twitched as she heard voices and other sounds coming from inside the inn. “Sounds like a bit of a party’s going on inside.”

Pinkie Pie leaned her head forward. Her neck stretched out and her ears elongated slightly. “Oh, that’s one of my jams!” She bounded into the air and hopped along. “Come on inside, Octavia!”

The pair entered the inn and made their way to the dining room. Inside, Spike, Rainbow Dash, Auntie, Ditzy and Steamer were sitting at several of the tables, eating. Pinkie Pie’s phone was still on top of the stand. Bouncy, cheery music was playing on it at half-volume.

Spike looked up as they entered and waved. He started to smile, but stopped as he saw Pinkie Pie’s expression. “I hate to be blunt, but I’m gonna guess it didn’t go well?”

Pinkie Pie nodded and half-smiled. “Reporter’s instinct, Spike?” She slid into a chair and hung her head. “Surprise tried to run a combination anniversary of the bakery opening/birthday party, but she didn’t listen at all to the guest of honor, focused on insane details and then flew out in a total huff.”

Auntie took a plate of food over to Octavia, then another one to Pinkie Pie. She gently rubbed Pinkie Pie’s back. “How are you holding up?”

Pinkie Pie opened her mouth. Her head shot forward and she inhaled the daisy sandwich and hay fries, gulping them down in three swallows. “Not much of an appetite, sorry.”

Steamer slid out of his chair. “I’ll leave you to chat about what you need to. Thanks for the company and helping out.” He nodded to them and left the dining room.

Spike reached out with his magic, turned off Pinkie Pie’s smart phone and floated it over to her. “Pinkie, if I could, I’d buy two of these, one for me and one for my assistant, Twilight.”

Pinkie Pie’s mane reached out, curled around the phone and placed it on the table. “That would be awesome! If you did, I could call you up and we could talk and talk and plan picnics and parties, but then I couldn’t go and we’d be sad.” She suddenly gasped. “Ooh, but I could get Doctor Whooves’ TARDIS and fly around all the realities until I found you two. And then I could fly around until I found the rest of you and we could go on more adventures together!”

Spike blinked. “Then again she’s been fine with her camera so far…”

Rainbow Dash spoke up. “So, what’s our plan concerning Surprise? How do we get her to plan this combo party without peeving anyone off?”

Ditzy gasped. “Rainbow Dash, such language!”

Octavia cleared her throat. “Let’s focus on the important things, Ditzy. We have to figure out how to persuade Surprise that not everyone has fun the same way, and that not every party fits all.” She looked to Pinkie Pie. “I somewhat hesitate to bring this up, but from what you and I talked about while walking around the village, you have first-hoof experience with that.”

Pinkie Pie let out a bark of laughter. “Oh, yeah.” She held up a hoof as she spotted some of the others begin to speak. “That birthday party I met Cheesy at that we both tried to plan? Went way out of control and involved calls to the police.” She reached into her mane with one hoof, rummaged around a bit, and pulled out a small beanie cap, complete with a propellor on it. She stuck onto her head, the small cap somehow sucking in her entire mane. “Ah, much better!” Her expression turned serious.

Octavia spoke up. “I suppose the best thing to do would be to track down Surprise tomorrow, get her together with Twilight Wish at the bakery and help her to see that not everything has to be perfect, and that their own vision is not always the right one when it comes to fun.”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Just that simple, Octavia?”

Octavia chuckled and took a sip of cider. “Compared to our previous encounters? Quite.”

Auntie spoke up. “Octavia, I think you’ll be the best to help convince Surprise of that, along with Pinkie.”

Pinkie’s head bobbed up and down. “OOh, ooh, that’s a great idea, Auntie!” She reached out and wrapped a foreleg around Octavia’s shoulders. “I can be good cop, and Octavia can be bad cop!”

Octavia eyed her, but slowly smiled. “I’d be delighted to assist you in this, Pinkie.”

Ditzy spoke up, her eyes going in opposite directions. “Of course, the question is, besides what good cop and bad cop are, is when is tomorrow?”

The others all chuckled. “Well, perhaps we should all just stay in for a few hours and get some rest and sleep?” Auntie suggested.

Pinkie Pie held her phone up. “Ooh, ooh! You all wanna watch a movie?”

The others glanced at each other, their expressions falling. Auntie finally spoke up. “Pinkie, although we do appreciate the gesture, I don’t think it would work out.” At Pinkie’s confusion, she shrugged. “Well, having us all crowd around that small screen?”

Pinkie Pie laughed and waved her off. “Oh, silly filly!” She slid off her chair, walked over to a bare patch of wall and held her phone up. She pressed the screen a few times, then held it out towards the wall. The screen lit up and projected the image of Daring Do swinging across a river onto the wall. “It’s got the new theater option. I… don’t know what you folks have for movies, but my Equestria’s film industry’s still pretty new. Most of it’s newsreels, documentaries and test footage for new techniques. They started adapting the Daring Do novels to the big screen only two years ago. This one’s the first.” She turned her head all the way around. “Wanna watch?”

Rainbow Dash hopped up, flew over and landed right next to Pinkie Pie. She reached out, slid her forelegs into Pinkie’s mane and rummaged about a bit, finally pulling out a tub of popcorn.

The other four walked over. Spike’s horn lit up and he floated the phone over to a table and gently leaned it against a vase. “I’ll hit play when we’re all ready,” he said as he sat down.

Ditzy cocked an eyebrow at Rainbow Dash. “How did you know she had a tub of popcorn in there?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged as she munched. “It’s Pinkie Pie.”

Spike started the movie, and they all settled in.

Chapter Six, Part Four. (Written by RK_Striker_JK_5)

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Pinkie Pie and Octavia led the others out of the inn and down the street. Rainbow Dash and Ditzy flew up and down and all about. Ditzy’s head swung from side to side, her eyes going every which way. “Okay, Pinkie. Any real idea where Surprise would be?”

Pinkie Pie slapped her beanie hat onto her head and spun the propellor. “Hmm, she’s got way too much energy to stay cooped up in her house, wherever that is. No, she’ll be out and about.”

Spike looked around. “I think the best bet would be to go to the bakery. It’s the only place I can think of to start.” He stepped to the side and motioned to Pinkie Pie and Octavia. “Lead the way.”

Pinkie Pie and Octavia sped up for a moment to take the lead among their group. Octavia clamped her lips shut, but her cheeks bulged out from a massive yawn. She forced her mouth up in a grin, but her cheeks still turned scarlet.

Rainbow Dash flew down to right over Octavia’s head. “Stayed up a bit late last night?” she asked, smirking slightly.

Octavia scowled at her, but slowly nodded. “I will admit, the lure of so many songs of so many genres from so many different species so readily accessible proved to be more tempting than sleep. I regret it, but only a little.”

They made their way to the bakery and found Surprise outside. She flew back and forth, going from the door to the storefront window. Her motions were sluggish, devoid of almost any real energy.

Pinkie Pie slipped her beanie hat off and back into her mane. She sucked in a breath, then marched right up to Surprise. She rose up on her hind legs as Surprise flew around, blocking her path. “Surprise, Surprise! We need to talk!”

Surprise looked down at her. “Talk about what? The fact that I’m a failure as a Party Pony? That I can’t throw a party anymore and make my friends happy? That I make all these stupid mistakes and it all falls apart at the end?! By the end of my parties everyone is miserable and unhappy and it’s all my fault!” She turned and flew off, only to run into Octavia.

Octavia jabbed her bow at Surprise’s muzzle, tapping her nose with every thrust. “Tell me, Surprise, how much have you been listening to those around you? How much of their input have you taken into consideration? Have you been planning parties for them, or for you?”

Surprise backed up with every jab, butting into Pinkie Pie. Her head shot back and forth between the pair. “B-b-b-but I’m trying my best! I’m doing it all for--”

“For them, or for you?” Pinkie Pie said, ears flattening. “Listen, I know how you feel. Believe me, I’ve so been there. You put everything you’ve got into a party, or a cake or something or anything for your friends. But you forget something super-duper important; that what you want, may not be what they want. And you try and force what you consider to be fun onto them, and it makes them miserable and the party’s no fun for anyone.”

Surprise hung her head and drifted down to the ground. “That’s… kinda been the unintentional theme of my last few parties,” she admitted, her cheeks turning a bright crimson.

Octavia looked up. “Dash, could you please find Twilight Wish and bring her here?”

Rainbow Dash saluted and sped off. Five seconds later, she sped back. “Okay, anyone got any idea where this Twilight Wish is?”

Auntie rubbed her chin, then waved at a passing Wind Whistler. “Excuse me, my dear, but could you please direct Rainbow Dash to Twilight Wish?”

Rainbow Dash’s face scrunched up as Wind Whistler flew over. “Gee, thanks, Auntie,” she said through gritted teeth.

Wind Whistler flew over to Dash’s side. “I would be more than happy to lead you to Twilight Wish’s domicile. I believe her place of employment does not commence operations until later on in the day. Follow me, please.” With that, she flew off, Rainbow Dash following behind her.

Octavia spoke up once more. “Surprise, like Pinkie, I too understand how forcing your own vision on an event can have disastrous consequences.” She looked down and her gaze lost focus. “I was… assigned perform and help out at a public celebration, but I grossly overstepped the boundaries of my duties and nearly ruined everything. In all fact, some things I did ruin. I completely destroyed a friendship I had with a friend named Pageturner. I drove her away by being a complete mule.” She looked up and locked eyes with Surprise. “Don’t ruin your friendships over this, Surprise. Listen to them.”

There was silence amongst everyone gathered there. After a few minutes, Rainbow Dash and Wind Whistler returned, carrying Twilight Wish between them. They gently set her down in front of Surprise. “Okay, I’m here,” she said. She looked around. “Why am I here, precisely?”

Surprise slowly dropped to the ground. She hung her head and kicked at the dirt. “Twilight, I’m… I’m sorry I ruined your birthday party yesterday. I’m sorry I got all caught up in what I wanted, and not what you wanted. I screwed up, and I was wrong to mess up like that.” She swallowed and looked up, her eyes not quite meeting Twilight Wish’s. “Can you forgive me?”

Twilight Wish reached out and wrapped both forelegs around Surprise’s neck in a hug. “Oh, don’t be silly! Of course I do!”

The six Bearers all let out sighs of relief, stamped their hooves, or let out cheers. Surprise looked to Pinkie Pie, then to Octavia. “Hey, thanks, you two. I owe you, but… could I ask you two, and your friends, two questions?”

Pinkie Pie ‘s right foreleg shot into the air, and she waved it about. “Ooh, ooh! Go ahead!”

Surprise turned and looked up at the bakery. “Could you help me with getting a party together for Twilight Wish’s birthday-plus-one and for the four-month anniversary of the bakery opening?”

Rainbow Dash pumped a foreleg into the air. “You can count on us, Surprise!” She looked around. “Right?

“Right!”

Surprise bounced into the air and her wings flapped. “All right!” She slowly landed. “Another thing I’ve been wondering… who are you six?”

Spike blinked and leaned forward. “Wait, what?” He looked to Pinkie Pie, then Octavia. “You two didn’t even introduce yourselves to her?” He looked at Surprise. “And you... didn’t ask them?”

Surprise shrugged. “Was I supposed to?”

Pinkie Pie waved Spike off. “Come on, Spike. Family knows family!” She looked to Surprise. “Each one of us is from a different alternate-quantum reality. In mine, you’re my multi-great grandmother from about fifteen-hundred years ago, and the Party Pony all Party Ponies aspire to be!”

Surprise hopped into the air and gasped. “Oh, my Celestia! I have got to throw a ‘Meeting my alternate-reality granddaughter’ party!” She turned to Twilight Wish. “After I throw your birthday party the way you want it done, of course.”

Twilight Wish smiled. “Thank you for remembering.”

The two Party Ponies reached out with their forelegs, wrapped them around Twilight Wish’s shoulders, and pulled her into the bakery, along with themselves. The other five moved towards the door, but it slammed shut right behind the first three.

Silence descended upon them. They looked at each other, then back at the door. Spike slowly walked up to it. He glanced behind his right shoulder. “Should I?” At their nods, he turned back and raised a foreleg…

The door swung back open. Pinkie Pie’s head shot out and she waved at them. “Sorry, sorry! Used to being either a solo act or duo. Come on in!”


The next few hours passed relatively quickly. The seven ponies transformed the bakery into a fun, if somewhat understated, party place. Twilight Wish was the center of attention, consulted on her preferences for her birthday party and even helped out for the bakery’s anniversary.

Ditzy and Rainbow Dash hung a banner above the storefront, attracting some onlookers. Pinkie Pie and Surprise galloped and flew out, respectively, giving invitations to everyone they met. Auntie and Octavia put out tables and stacked them with snacks and other food.

As the townsponies gathered, Surprise and Pinkie Pie made their way back to the bakery. Any talking or eating slowed to a halt as Surprise flew into the air and spread her forelegs wide. “Attention, townsponies! Welcome to the four-month anniversary of the bakery opening, but even more importantly,” she dropped down and landed next to Twilight Wish, “the birthday of our resident sorceress supreme, the magically mighty and perennially patient Twilight Wish!”

Everyone gathered stomped their hooves in applause and let out cheers. Surprise waited for them to stop before speaking again. This time her voice was more subdued, less bubbly. “And… I’m sorry.” Her wings folded up against her body. “I’ve been a real pain in the flank these past few attempted celebrations. I’ve been so focused on what I want for a party, and what I think is fun, I kinda forgot that others don’t feel the same way.”

After a moment or two of silence, Wind Whistler flew over to Surprise and landed right in front of her. “Your apology and contrition are most accepted, Surprise. We understand the plunder vines have placed quite a large amount of stress on all Equestrians, yourself included. Myself included as well.” She let out a small chuckle. “I mean, I think we have all noticed my vocabulary truncated down to the bare necessity to convey my thoughts and meanings.”

Rainbow Dash held up a foreleg and opened her mouth, but Ditzy flew over, placed a hoof over her mouth and shook her head.

The front door of the bakery opened and an earth pony mare with a cutie mark of six gumdrops emerged, towing a triple-tiered cake with chocolate frosting. “Well, gosh, everyone! Here’s my latest masterpiece!”

Surprise leaned in close to Twilight Wish. “I am so sorry I forgot you like chocolate frosting more than vanilla.”

Twilight Wish leaned in close and nuzzled Surprise. “Apology more than accepted.”

Pinkie Pie hopped up onto her hind legs and spread her forelegs wide. Confetti fired off behind her. “Okay, everyone. Let’s have some fun. However you want to!”


Rainbow Dash flew above the party, eyes scanning all around her. She finally slowed to a stop as she saw Firefly standing in front of a table with a bowl of punch. She screwed up her courage before diving down and landing next to her.

Firefly glanced up as Rainbow Dash touched down. “Nice party,” she commented, taking a sip.

Rainbow Dash sucked in a breath. “Okay, this is gonna sound a little weird.” She tilted her head back and forth as she continued. “I’m not from ‘this’ Equestria. I’m from a different Equestria, a different reality entirely. A really freaky guy named Discord snatched me from my Equestria, along with the rest of us.” She motioned to her Element of Loyalty. “We’re going from place to place, looking for this Equestria’s Elements of Harmony, so they can stop the plunder vines.”

Firefly nodded. “Oh, yeah! Wind Whistler told me about that yesterday.” She waved Rainbow Dash off. “Was that all? It’s a little weird…” She trailed off and leaned in close. “That’s not all, is it.”

“No. In my Equestria, we’re related.” Rainbow Dash swallowed. “In for a jangle, in for a bit… in my Equestria, you’re my mother.”

Firefly’s eyes widened. “You’re serious? Holy Celestia, you’re serious! That’s… how? I mean I think we’re the same age, right?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Here, yeah. Where I come from, no. And where Pinkie Pie comes from, no either. Trust me when I say just how weird our relationship in her reality is.”

Firefly started to speak, stopped, then waved a wing. “I’ll take your word for it. And I think I’ll need some cider after this conversation.” She paused, then half-smiled. “Although I am kind of curious who the father is.”

“Firefly, there you are!”

“Firefly, my love! We have returned!”

Rainbow Dash slowly turned to the direction of the two voices, one of them achingly familiar. Two pegasi stallions flew down from the sky, one the spitting image of her father, the other looking exactly like Bloodwing from Pinkie Pie’s photos.

Firefly sighed. She cantered around Rainbow Dash and over to the pair. “Okay, let’s stable that for a moment. Rainbow Dash, these are my friends Cyclone Bolt and Bloodwing.” She spun around, but her expression fell. “Dash? What is it?”

Rainbow Dash stared at the three, mouth wide open, eyes larger than saucers and a low “eeeee,” coming from her. She suddenly glanced to the side and groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”


“... Happy birthday to you!”

Twilight Wish smiled softly as the closing strains of the song echoed, followed by everyone stomping the ground in applause. Surprise flew around Twilight Wish’s birthday cake, lighting all the candles on all three tiers. She finally landed next to Twilight Wish. “Well, go ahead! Make a wish and blow out the candles!”

Pinkie Pie and her friends stood off to the side, away from the center of attention. Rainbow Dash tilted her head at Twilight Wish and her cake. “Okay, I’m not an expert at this, but how’s she gonna blow out all the candles, there? That cake’s twice her height!”

Pinkie Pie leaned back and fished her phone out of her mane. She clicked it to record mode and grinned. “Give it time, Dashie. Give it time.”

Twilight Wish’s horn lit up. “I wish, I wish…”

Ditzy suddenly shivered. Her wings rustled and the feathers stood on end. “Hey, you feel that?”

A low wind sprang up, at first gently ruffling manes and tails. It picked up, sending several ponies ducking down. The gusts flowed around the area, gathering around the cake and whipping about it. One by one, the candles were blown out, the cake itself not even moving an inch. The very second the last candle was snuffed out, the wind died down and Twilight Wish’s horn shut off. Twilight Wish hopped around in a circle. “Yes, yes, yes! I got my wish!”

Pinkie Pie shut her smart phone off. She turned to the others. “In my Equestria, she’s the direct ancestor of Twilight Sparkle, and Clover the Clever’s student. My Twilight is gonna love seeing this.”

Auntie eyed Twilight Wish. “That… actually explains a lot, concerning her.”

Surprise flew over, landed in front of Pinkie Pie and wrapped her up in a hug. “Oh, thank you thank you thank you!” She broke the embrace, stepped over to Octavia, and bowed at the waist. “Thank you very much, Octavia.”

Octavia stood up and returned the bow. “More than welcome, Surprise.” She leaned over and looked at Twilight Wish, cutting the cake up and getting slices for everyone there. “And it looks like your party is a success.”

Surprise turned around. She slowly smiled as she regarded her friends. “I’m glad. I’m glad they’re happy. I’m glad you reminded me how to cheer them up and not get sidetracked by what I wanted and projecting it onto everyone else and acting like the fun police. I should make them happy, not try and cheer myself up through them. It’s not fun for anyone.”

Pinkie’s Element of Laughter suddenly exploded with light. Her eyes turned white and she floated up, Surprise joining her. Everyone turned and looked up at the pair as they floated towards one another. Both were enveloped by the light coming from the Element. When it faded, both were once more on the ground.

Rainbow Dash let out a small sigh. “Kinda hoping it was gonna be Firefly for shock value,” she muttered.

The other five slowly walked forward and flanked Pinkie Pie, while the other ponies of the village checked on Surprise. “Are you all right?” Auntie asked, looking her over.

Pinkie Pie nodded. She motioned to Surprise, who was blinking rapidly. “All right?” She hopped up and over to Surprise, wrapped one foreleg around Surprise’s neck to pull her close and motioned with her other foreleg. “I’m better than all right!”

Everyone followed Pinkie Pie’s motions, quickly spotting the shiny gold necklace now hanging around Surprise’s neck. Three violet crystals in the shape of balloons were set in it, sparkling with an inner fire.

Auntie’s saddlebag suddenly bulged out. She gasped and bucked slightly as the flap popped open and Discord floated up. His metallic form twisted and turned, a five-toned buzz-crunch echoing out. Finally, Discord floated in midair, flesh once more. “Well, it’s about time!” He stretched his arms out and cricked his neck from side to side. “I toss you an easy one and it still takes you this long to get it done?” Glasses flashed into existence on the end of his snout, and he pulled a pad of paper and quill from the air. “I’ll have to mark you down for that, class.”

Pinkie Pie snarled and bared her teeth. “Discord!”

Discord looked up and adjusted his glasses. “Oh, very well!” He tossed the paper and quill away, then floated over to Surprise and around her. “Hmm, excellent work!”

Surprise twisted her head around as she followed Discord’s movements, her body following slightly behind. “Ooh, who are you?”

Wind Whistler flew over. “I do believe this is Discord, the chaotic being Celestia and Luna sealed away, and the one who transported you six from your alternate-quantum realities in order to find the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony!”

Discord paused and looked over to the other Bearers. “You told her beforehand? Hmm, interesting choice. Breaks a bit from the usual script, but no matter!” he rubbed his paws together. “Four down, two to go.” he snapped his talons and Surprise vanished, sending the villagers rearing back.

Spike’s horn lit up and he shot a beam of magic into the sky, getting everyone’s attention. “Hold on, everypony! It’s okay. Surprise is perfectly safe.” He glared at Discord. “Right?” he said through a clenched jaw.

Discord waved him off. “Of course, of course. Just a little prep to do.” He floated over to Pinkie Pie’s side. “So, we ready to roll out?”

Pinkie Pie looked to the villagers, smiling while her eyes watered. “Before we go, I wanna say to all of you, thank you for your hospitality. And overall, just… thank you. Thank you for everything.”

Wind Whistler smiled back at her. “Pinkie Pie, you’re welcome.”

Discord rolled his eyes, the orbs spinning around in his head. “Oh, please…” He snapped his talons. All flash of light enveloped the ponies and himself. When it faded, they were gone.